Tuesday, May 31, 2016

"For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birhday"

For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday
Sarah Ruhl

Kathleen Chalfant
Maybe returning for the second time in one season to the hospital bed of a dying father or for the third time to a play involving pirates is pushing the envelope a bit too far.  But how could there be any risk when the producing company is the perennially consistent-in-high-quality Berkeley Repertory Theatre?  And what risk can there be when the chosen play is written by one of the nation’s and the Bay Area’s favorite playwrights, Sarah Ruhl (as witnessed recently in the highly touted Stage Kiss at San Francisco Playhouse and in past years on multiple other local stages, including Berkeley Rep’s, in such winners as Dead Man’s Cell Phone, The Oldest Boy, Eurydice, The Clean House, and In the Next Room (or a Vibrator Play))? 

As it turns out, there is of course always risk in producing any new play, and just because the premiere is by the Pulitzer-Prize finalist, Tony-nominated Sarah Ruhl, the risk does not go away.  Bottom line, the culprit for the lackluster, slow-moving, current Sarah Ruhl play on stage at Berkeley Rep is not the repetition of dying fathers/pirates subject matter, not a slip in the high production values the company always brings to bear, and certainly not the fine coast-to-coast cast assembled.  The fault lies in the script itself which rarely moves past pedestrian dialogue and offers little in terms of engendering conversation about its focal, important subjects of aging, coming to terms with one’s own mortality, and the role of fantasy and dream in helping us through the journey of life.

Sarah Ruhl’s play is divided into three distinct acts, each dealing with an aspect of death and together, taking the family members on stage and those of us in the audience through the phases of dealing with the death of a loved one.  In the first act, four siblings gather around the hospital bed of their comatose father, whose only sound is an occasional moan or cough.  Twenty-five or so minutes are spent waiting for the poor guy to kick the bucket.  Not much happens beyond a few shared memories (like the time a beloved dog died) or a group effort to complete the NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle.  A couple of false passings with everyone gathered around the bed; the real event followed by tears, a prayer, and a spontaneous song; and all of a sudden – well not quite all of a sudden – one third of the play is complete, and we know very little more than we did in the beginning.

Charles Shaw Robinson, Keith Reddin, Ron Crawford, Kathleen Chalfant & Ellen McLaughlin
Act Two is a family wake that evening around the kitchen table, with grief lessened and conversation enhanced by a bottle of Jamieson’s Irish whiskey.  More family stories and memories trickle out, especially focusing on oldest sister Ann’s early starring role as Peter Pan in their hometown of Davenport, Iowa (a nod in honor to a likened starring role of Sarah Ruhl’s own mother as a child).  That leads to a round-robin discussion of when did each person realize (or not) that “I am now a grown-up.” 

And, as often happens in the second acts of plays with families gathered in grief around the kitchen table (August Osage County being a prime example), topics the family has long known are not to be touched pop up as more toasts to departed members are drunk – topics like politics, religion, whom the parents loved most.  And of course, things then degenerate into arguments.  Unfortunately, it is all fairly ordinary sounding with predictable divides and disruptions (brothers are arch conservatives ... sisters, more liberal ... one Catholic still believes; someone is an Atheist; others, agnostic ... etc.).  Tempers flair, old wombs open, and feelings are hurt; but none of it is all that interesting, revealing, or insightful.   The dead father (David Chandler) does play a surprising role in the evening and engenders probably some of the best moments of the entire play; but not much is done in the script to make use of the device introduced, especially in aiding his children to have a more engaging, meaningful dialogue.

The third act begins with some hope.  Siblings are now sleeping in their childhood beds for the evening, and Ann has found in an old trunk her Pan costume from a lifetime ago.  That leads to a reenactment of the Peter Pan play, and there are moments when old farts with their aches and pains trying to be kids jumping on beds and fighting pirates is almost funny and endearing.  But no matter how much they march, jostle, and even fly, the magic in the script is just not there.  Frankly, it is still all rather ho-hum; and the message that on the stage of life, death and old age can disappear for a time when we allow our playful selves to take over in fun and fantasy, just is not all that clear or profound.

Kathleen Chalfant is Ann and former Peter Pan starlet who acts as our host and narrator of sorts.  She appears a couple of times in front of the curtains to give us some background and to talk about her own life.  She is charming with eyes and inner spirit that sparkle with some mixture of pixie-like mystery and mischievous spunk. 

She and her siblings (Keith Reddin as teddy-bear-holding Michael, Charles Shaw Robinson as top-hatted John, Ellen McLaughlin as mother-like Wendy, and Ron Crawford as someone called George) do all they can to bring life into the dead-on-arrival script; and kudos goes to all for admirable life-saving attempts.  Each brings glimpses of the accumulated skills their acting experiences have garnered them through many years of stage work in New York and beyond.  But there are just not enough moments offered them to show their brilliance in this play, even under the able direction of someone like Les Waters, who is so proven in directing the plays of Sarah Ruhl and dozens of other playwrights on stages all over the country.  Annie Smart’s excellent sets and Kristopher Castle’s costumes – both of which take particularly imaginative turns in Act Three – also cannot save the day.

In the end, not all experiments work, even when the best of the best are all involved.  But the wonderment of live theatre and the excellence of an institution like Berkeley Repertory Theatre ensure that it is still a privilege to experience even the failures.  If Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is not the success (at least in this initial staging) either she or Berkeley Artistic Director Tony Taccone had imagined, then we can only bet with not much risk that their next joint venture will return to the triumphs they have co-produced in the past.

Rating: 2 E

For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday will continue through July 3 on the Roda Theatre stage at Berkeley Repertory Company, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/ or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Monday, May 30, 2016

"Maggie's Riff"

Maggie’s Riff
Jon Lipsky

Paul Rodriguez as Jack Kerouac
In wrinkled, open trench coat and smoking like a fiend, he wanders up to the 1950s-era mike in a fog-filled room and starts to ramble a story in his Northeastern way of forming his words.  Some of what he says in the beginning is a bit cryptic (“Been doing a bit of babble since I had this flip”), but then he suddenly gets energized by some spark in his alcohol-wracked mind to tell a story about his teenage self rather than reading as planned from his famous travelogue, On the Road.  The coat comes off, another cigarette is lit, his erect nipples pop through the ribbed t-shirt, and he starts a five-part confession about his first love, Maggie. 

Thus begins a time-travel, dream-like exploration of famed author and Beat generation hero, Jack Kerouac, as related in Jon Lipsky’s jazz-infused play, Maggie’s Riff, now in a powerfully gripping production by Faultline Theater, staged at San Francisco’s PianoFight.  The play begins in some small nightclub of the early 1960s where Kerouac supposedly has been invited to do a reading of the book universally hailed as the era’s counterculture-defining tome.  Instead, he redirects the evening into an exploration of a past relationship that has continued as such a strong thread in his life that it appears difficult for him to separate what is real (i.e., a girlfriend back in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts named Mary Carney) and what is fiction (i.e., a recent book he has published with strong autobiographical elements about one Jack Dulouz falling for one Maggie Cassidy).  The play rips in, out, and between scenes of the author’s whisky-infused storytelling on this early 60s stage; his concurrent, desperate attempts to overcome a writer’s block in a Big Sur shack to begin his next novel; and fond, foggy memories from his senior year in Lowell, Massachusetts.  In the shadowed background, a sax and its player moans, scats, roars, be-bops, and riffs to tie the scenes together, to underline the storyline, and to help point Jack along the way on his memory journey.

JD Scalzo as Mouse, Paul Rodrigues as Jack & Nicole Odell as Maggie
With an uncanny resemblance to early, 1940s photographs of the real Jack Kerouac, dark-browed, solid-cheeked Paul Rodrigues dives into the role of the writer and performer with inspired insight, intensity, and ingenuity.  As the sixteen-year-old Jack, he brings both attractive bashful, ‘aw shucks’ boyishness as well as brass, bold, and ballsy flamboyance.  Rarely have I seen a more fiercely athletic performance as he runs in-place with spinning, sweat-inducing steps as the star of a track meet or as he throws his body to the ground or against a wall in teenage tumble and angst.  When palling around with his best bud, Mouse, he is a jumping jack of energy and crazy moves and a constant flow of wisecracks, friendly punches, and big bear hugs with his bro.  When trying to woo the older, seventeen-year-old Maggie, he is awkward and shy yet persistent and persuasive as he maneuvers toward that first kiss (something she actually makes happen to his total surprise and delight). 

But as the older Jack who is reminiscing in a hazy dream that even he does not seem to quite know if it ever happened or not, Paul Rodrigues is particularly stunning in his portrayal.  With head always cocked to one side and eyes that strain to see something in the past that can help him maneuver his present, the early 1960s Jack is clearly haunted by something his younger self and Mouse intone together: “Your only love is your first love, and your death is your last.”  That first love clearly is still with Jack, and getting beyond its haunting effects twenty years later is the nut he has to crack to get the silent typewriter clicking again.

Nicole Odell is Maggie, the hometown idol that Jack worships and makes into a goddess that she herself does not especially aspire to be.  Maggie is a flirty local gal who loves her Grammie, from whom she has learned how to kiss with passion and to whom she tells all her secrets.  She is clearly drawn to this boy younger than she with his cocky confidence mixed with cute clowning.  Ms. Odell brings subtle sexiness to Maggie that has a rich sense of rawness to it without ever seeming in any way slutty.  There is also a wonderful vulnerability that she exudes and she protects, especially as Jack eventually goes off to New York for college and begins his journey to stardom apart from Lowell, where she remains.  She is dreamy throughout Jack’s telling, fading in and out of the story, living out his own efforts to discern how real she was in life versus on his printed page.

Jack (Paul Rodrigues) & Mouse (JD Scalzo)
Zig to his Zag, Mouse is Jack’s loyal sidekick, constant fellow jokester, and biggest fan and supporter.  JD Scalzo is so much fun to watch as he careens all over the stage in constant swirls and swaggers, dips and ducks of his lean, ever-moving body.  Out of his mouth flows a river of rapid torrents of friendly and taunting, boy-to-boy banter.  His face is full of smile one moment and a feigned look of shock and surprise the next, all part of his ongoing teenage act of spontaneity.  Together with Jack, the two are a dance of exploding testosterones and sometimes a dance of two guys who clearly a are trying to discern what is this other magnetic, arousing attraction between them beyond just being best bros.

Jack Listens to Dr. Sax (Rich Lesnik)
While we never see more than just his shadow, Rick Lesnick as Dr. Sax is a pervasive, important part of Jack’s story.  His tender and trumpeting saxophone as well as his gravelly singing, chanting, and echoing voice provide color and context to the stories playing out on the other side of the screen. 

Cole Ferraiuolo directs with a feverish pace the ever-shifting timelines, locations, and moods of this story of part realism, part fantasy; and he does so in a manner always in his well-staged control.  The dream effects of a memory affected by years of alcohol are enhanced by the use of scenes of shadow designs by Alisa Javits and by acutely planned and executed lighting by Maxx Karzunski.  Brook Jennings leads us back and forth from the ‘40s and ‘60s and from blue-collar Lowell to uptown New York with her choice of period costumes.  Adam Lipsky’s music plays a major role in setting the scene and telling the story through 1940s bebop and 1950s/60s jazz.  Along with Brittany White’s well-chosen props and Evan Wardell’s sound design, this production team has stepped in to support in a big time manner the small, intimate stage of this PianoFight setting.

If there is some slippage in the story from time to time as fast dialogue, shifting scenes, and foggy boundaries between Jack’s story and Jack’s reality make it a bit difficult to follow what just happened, the faultline (pun intended) is ever-so slight and soon forgotten.  Overall, Faultline Theater has assembled is a stellar cast and production team to fill almost too quickly the extremely enjoyable, ninety minutes of Jon Lipsky’s Maggie’s Riff.

Rating: 4 E

Maggie’s Riff continues through June 11, 2016, produced by Faultline Theater at PianoFight, 144 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.faultlinetheater.com/.

Photos by Clive Walker

Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde"

Robert Louis Stevenson:  Jekyll and Hyde
Gary Graves

Brian Herndon as Lewis & Danielle Levin as Fanny
With labored breathing behind a black, leather mask and through thick, green-glassed goggles, a reclining, night-gowned man wrapped in knitted blanket writes furiously on his lap desk.  Stripping off the 19th-century respirator and goggles, in socked feet and gown he dons a top hat, black cape, and wooden cane and strikes a number of frozen poses in front of an unseen mirror, ending in a fury-filled attack on some unseen victim.  A coughing fit sends him to a desk whitened by an unknown powder where he mixes a packet of the white stuff with a glass of wine, drinking it in a mad gulp.  Could this be the same man who has made his fame writing children’s adventure tales like Treasure Island or Kidnapped or a collection of poetry entitled A Child’s Garden of Verses?  What is he writing with such crazed yet excited looks?  All is about to become clear as Central Works of Berkeley presents its 51st world premiere, Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde, written by company co-director, Gary Graves. 

The ailing Stevenson is feverish not just from his pulmonary issues but more so from the dark, devilish story building inside him and yearning to be told.  His wife, Fanny, also a writer, is near exhaustion worrying about him and their near-poverty status; and she is totally exasperated because he keeps throwing finished drafts of completed novels into the fireplace that he now feels are no good.  Louis rails that he wants to leave pirates and swashbucklers behind and instead to create “great art, the truth of it.”  Fanny just wants him to write a “good entertaining yarn” that will sell to his loyal public so that she can pay the rent and the butcher.  He wildly exclaims that “a different kind of story” has come to him in his dreams, through “me brownies ... little creatures in me that spin the stuff of me dreams ... like me loving slaves while I sleep.”  Fanny sees writing as a rationale process, not a dream; and as she listens to the outline of his Jekyll and Hyde story, she bemoans, “We’ll be ruined” while he counters, “We’ll be rich.”

Louis convinces Fanny to listen to the story emerging from somewhere deep inside him about the respected surgeon, Dr. Henry Jekyll, and the other side of his Janus-personality, Edward Hyde, who bursts forward to live the sordid, sex-and-death-filled life Jekyll dares not.  Brian Herndon is mesmerizing and frightening to watch as his paces in circles spilling his tale, hands manically grasping in the air, body jerking one direction and then the next, and eyes almost popping from their sockets.  As the horrid but engrossing tale progresses, he acts out the transformation, downing more and more of his own cocaine-Bordeaux concoction just as Jekyll gulps his catalytic chemicals.  Before a now frightened Fanny, he rolls on the floor, screaming as if in wracked pain, and then rising as Hyde in the making, snarling and grabbing his cane as a weapon for the next, invisible victim. 

Danielle Levin & Brian Herndon
With a wonderful combination of visible curiosity, skepticism, disgust, and fear, Danielle Levin as Fanny watches and listens with increased acuteness.  Her half-opened mouth, at times shaped in total wonder and then in complete worry, finally utters her fear and judgment, “He’s a monster ... I see it coming ... I don’t like it.”  The marital brawl that ensues becomes entangled in the story itself, and the alarm in Fanny’s eyes and her cowering in the corner prove that she, like us, is not sure at times if it is Louis or Hyde before her and if he recognizes her as Fanny or a random woman on some London street. 

The boundaries between reality and fiction are increasingly blurred by the narrating, now-thoroughly-drugged author.  Fanny becomes ever more delirious herself as Louis mentions his own hated father as one of the victims, as he claws a door with his humping body screaming “The fellows, the fellows, I can feel you in me, in you,” and as he introduces to his story a little girl alone in the street.  The latter child is too near in age to their own dead daughter for Fanny to bear.  With a look of sheer terror and total revulsion, she finally screams, “God, I want out ... Let me out” as Danielle Levin brings to near climax a stunning performance of someone at times as much in contrast to her husband as Jekyll is to Hyde.

The intensity of the fine acting is greatly enhanced in the small, drawing room setting of the theatre by outstanding direction, lighting, and sound.  Jan Zvaifler orchestrates a pace that alternates between frenetic chases full of craze and silent pauses of collapsed exhaustion.  Through her and the actors’ deft craft, they and we often lose sight of what is real and is what part of the related tale. 

Shadows against walls and changing moods of light play a big part in our anticipating something dire might happen at any minute of the play’s eighty, thanks to the lighting design of playwright Gary Graves.  And all around the small arena surrounded on three sides by the audience, Gregory Sharpen’s designed sound effects echo both from Louis’s tale in rainy, cobblestoned London and from the Stevenson’s current old, English house and south coast environs.  Tammy Berlin’s costumes and Debbie Shelley’s properties add the finishing touches to give this 1885 setting authentic feel.

Taking aspects of a story related how Stevenson wrote his first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in only three, fever-filled days and how he burned in rage the first draft after his wife hated it, Gary Graves has dug under the covers to imagine what really happened as Robert Louis Stevenson allowed his dream to come to life before his Fanny.  Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde is the fascinating result, so ably produced and performed by Central Works. 

Rating: 4 E

Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde continues through June 12, 2016, performed in world premiere by Central Works at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at http://centralworks.org or by calling the box office at (510) 558-1381.

Photo Credit: J. Norrena

Friday, May 27, 2016

"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever"

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
Burton Lane (Music); Alan Jay Lerner (Lyrics); Peter Parnell (Book)
Based on the Original Book by Alan Jay Lerner

Chris Morrell, Melissa O'Keefe & William Giammona
Despite its title, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is one musical that has had a stormy past.  The much-touted 1965 opening with music by Burton Lane (Finian’s Rainbow) and book/lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot, Paint Your Wagon, Brigadoon) was not well received by critics and lasted only a few months before closing with no more productions for a number of years.  A 1970 film version with Barbra Streisand and new music fared no better and maybe even worse.  In 2011, yet another version with some music from the original, some from the movie, and some from Burton Lane’s film, Royal Wedding, opened on Broadway.  With a revised book that replaces the starring female patient seeking help from a therapist with a gay florist, it unfortunately was universally panned and lasted only 29 previews and 57 performances. 

But sometimes, this kind of flop can be just the show for a non-New York company to grab; put it on a smaller, more intimate stage; and thus find a way to clear the clouds and let the hidden gems shine in new light.  And that is just what New Conservatory Theatre is doing its best to do under the able direction of Founder and Artistic Director, Ed Decker.  The show is still a bit whacky in its plot, and few of the mash-up of songs from several sources is memorable beyond the title number itself.  But this Director has found the heart and humor in it all, has ensured the many scenes move quickly and seamlessly, and has cast actors who are certainly to a person gung-ho in making sure the audience has a good time with it all.

Set in 1973 at the peak of bell-bottoms, left-over hippy wear, and glo-colored shirts full flowers and frills, this new version of On a Clear Day involves the era’s new age ideas like hypnotism, reincarnation, telepathy, and therapist/patient transference and counter-transference.  A handsome, bearded therapist (Dr. Mark Bruckner), who is still mourning the loss of a wife who died three years earlier, now suddenly falls in love with a gay patient (David Gamble) when David becomes a she under hypnotic spell to cure his bad smoking habit.  The ‘she’ inside the gay ‘he’ is a star-rising, dance-band singer named Melinda who herself died thirty years ago.  And the rather nerdy, gay David is having his own issues with a pushy boyfriend (Warren) who wants them to tie the knot (which in 1973, means moving in together).  David instead begins to have new hope for a new boyfriend when his therapist seems to want to see him daily for hypnotic treatments (but we know the doctor really only wants to see the ‘she’ inside of ‘him’).  Now, is that quacky and convoluted enough for you?  (There are reasons why On a Clear Day has had a rough go the past fifty years.)

Chris Morrell as David with Assorted Friends
Chris Morrell brings much energy and enthusiasm as David, with a portrayal of a gay man that comes close at times to being a bit over the top as he lives up to an early ‘70s stereotype of “homosexuals.”  As a florist who talks to his flowers, the pun is not hidden as he sings a Streisand number from the film version, “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here.”  “Life is rosy if you are a posy” draws laughs as he gives the audience a very knowing look.  Mr. Morrell’s happy, hyper spirits translate into his singing, which mostly works except when he over-sings on occasion as he perhaps tries too hard to be Babs.  But his bubbliness is contagious, and audience response to him is genuine in its liking him and pulling for him.  He is especially fun to watch him in his hypnotic state as he increasingly enjoys the close contact his inner self (Melinda) is having with Dr. Mark, as witnessed in his quirky smiles and swish movements of his slim body as he sits on the sideline with closed eyes.

Melissa O'Keefe as Melinda & William Giammona as Mark
As Dr. Mark Bruckner, William Giammona sings with solid, attractive tones and an impressive mixture of sad and happy in “She Isn’t You.”  As the good doctor becomes lovesick over his patient’s inner personality, his eyes speak volumes of the puppy love that is growing within him.  Their full moon stares become more and more intense as he watches and pines after every move of the Melinda who emerges from the hypnotized David.  Mr. Giammona overall low keys his role just enough to enhance how cute he is as the love-seeking doctor.  He also performs his vocals without pushing too much, allowing him to sell numbers like “Open Your Eyes, Mark” and “When I’m Being Born Again” in a range and volume that fits the intimate stage.

Melissa O'Keefe as Melinda on Stage
By far, the vocal star of the production is Melissa O’Keefe as Melinda, the 1943 aspiring singer who emerges from David’s inner psyche and becomes the dream loveboat of Mark.  In numbers like “Open Your Eyes,” she sings with an ease, lightness, and low volume manner that causes one to lean in and pay attention.  “You’ll see how this momentary, ordinary night can seem more unreal than a dream,” she croons softly.  Then when a song does call for her to raise the roof a bit more, she does so with confidence and clarity and no hint of distortion, as in “Ev’ry Night at Seven” in which she declares, “Ev’ry time the same thing happens, I fall once again in love, but only with you.”  Even though these are songs she is singing on a 1943 stage, the watching Mark of course is sure the dream’s words are only for him.

The musical’s highlight is a trio between Mark, Melinda, and David when Director Ed Decker and Choreographer Jayne Zaban have collaborated with the actors in “You’re All the World to Me” to stage a three-way song and dance that brings down the house.  The doctor, his imagined love, and his hypnotized client (now on his feet in a dazed state) dance body-to-body, changing positions for all possible, coupled combinations.  As they each alternatively sing to each other lines like “You’re moonlight on a night in Capri and Cape Cod looking out at the sea,” the cleverness and humor of it all just gets better and better.

Kevin Singer (Warren) & William Giammona (Mark) Using Some Telepathy
Another outstanding vocalist whom I wished we had got to hear more is Jessica Coker, who plays Mark’s colleague, Sharone -- herself in love with the doctor but something totally lost on him.  David’s friend, Muriel (Audrey Baker), also brings delightful sung chords and personality and shines particularly in a duet with her BFF in “Go to Sleep.”  Kevin Singer is the boyfriend (Warren) being left behind because David is hoping the heterosexual doctor maybe is not.  He is a mixture of bossiness and persistence and is particularly funny when he joins Mark in telepathically trying to find David and to win him back as he and the doctor sing “Come Back to Me.”

An ensemble of 1970s types plays multiple parts and joins in a number of total chorus numbers, bringing solid sounding vocals.  When they join together in dance numbers, the choreography is executed well enough but is usually not that memorable in its design.  The one number that stands out is a series of 60s-70s dances the troupe does (like twist, mashed potato, jerk, frug, etc.) in “Wait ‘til We’re 65.”

Real stars in this show are the four-person band that plays with perfection onstage the entire show.  Under the direction of keyboardist, Matthew Lee Cannon, the ensemble takes this overall average score and makes it shine in sound.  Particular kudos must go to Hal Richards on wind instruments whose saxophone really knows how to jazz things up.

A lot of credit for the fun and frolic of the show is directly due to the costumes created by Wes Crain.  Those checks, fringes, florals, and other vintage flairs were the talk of intermission.  Noteworthy in creating the feel of the 1970s is Kuo-Hao Lo’s stage bordered in ever-changing colors of lights.

Reviving a failed, already forgotten musical is something 42nd Street Moon usually does in San Francisco; but this time, New Conservatory Theatre and Ed Decker have taken that risk; and overall, it pays off for an enjoyable evening.

Rating: 3 E

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever continues through June 12, 2016 on the Ed Decker Stage of The New Conservatory Theatre, 25 Van Ness Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://www.nctcsf.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos Credit:  Lois Tema

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"Out of Darkness"

Out of Darkness
Jake Heggie (Music); Gene Scheer (Libretto)

The Cast of Out of Darkness
Single droplets of instrumental notes slowly meld into a haunting flow of melody that evokes a memory of another time, another place.  The stunning music alerts that what is to follow is intimate, intense, and important.  From such beginnings, two stories of survivors -- survivors of the most abhorrent tragedy humans have ever conceived and executed against other, innocent people – unfold in the soul-shattering music of Jake Heggie and in the poetic words of Gene Scheer in Music of Remembrance’s world premiere, Out of Darkness.

Two victims who somehow withstood the tortures of Holocaust death camps and who have done all they can to silence in their minds those horrors are revisited late in life by the ghosts of those friends and lovers who did not survive.  The apparitions bring the two a singular message: “Remember.”  Each resists returning to those horrible days and seeing the faces of those long lost; but both discover they can no longer ignore the memory of such pleas as “Do not forget us when you are older.”

Ava Pine, Caitlin Lynch, Michael Mayes & Catherine Cook
Krystyna Zywulska opens Act One, simply entitled “Krystyna,” sitting at a typewriter and staring at a reel-to-reel tape recorder, debating with herself whether to tell her story of her Auschwitz nightmare.  Imprisoned there as a Polish dissident and active member of the Resistance, she survived by becoming a song writer and using her much-loved lyrics set to tunes familiar to all around her in order to help herself and others face yet another day of hell on earth.  As she argues furiously to herself, “I don’t need to say nothing anymore ... It’s just words,” the memories she is trying to block begin to come to life all around her – herself as a teenager in the camp and two friends, Zosha and Manfred.  Their urging her not to forget them helps her slowly to have the courage to recall both their former, good moments together as well as the inexplicably horrible ones.

With a voice that floats effortlessly in soft remembrance and then expands to reveal depths of emotion as the reality of those memories become clearer, Caitlin Lynch as Krystyna is astonishing and arresting as both singer and actor.  She agonizes in a voice beautiful and in expressions so telling as she sings, “The words of a survivor are like stars in the sky ... There will always be more darkness than light.”  As she sings in anguished, moving tones in harmony with her younger self (Ava Pine as Krysia), pieces of that past begin once again to emerge for both of them.  “Amid the screams, the cries, and the stench, I could always find the words,” she tells the young Krysia. 

Zosha (Catherine Cook) & Krysia (Ava Pine) in Duet
With crystal clarity in her sweet and innocent soprano voice, Ava Pine sings the poetic lyrics Krysia once wrote, words that often tell of her search for anything that can remind her of the world outside her horrendous surroundings.  To her friend Zosha (Catherine Cook), she recalls, “Last night I heard a skylark song,” leading the two of them to sing longingly in a heart-touching duet of “a song of flight ... a song of love ... a song of freedom ... not of cages.”  Ms. Cook’s rich mezzo soprano time and again tells her own sad story with such depth of purpose and poise, and yet she also brings welcomed moments of teenage silliness and defiance as she plays forbidden solitaire with a smirk on her otherwise pain-filled face.

Manfred Lewin, another teen who dies at the hands of Auschwitz murderers, reminds Krstyna that “a survivor is not a hero ... a survivor is just a survivor.”  With his eyes closed in painful recalling, Michael Mayes voices Krystyna’s memories of him and what he and others like him suffered.  He does so in a majestic baritone that rises from tortuous depths to a volume that startles and then backs off effortlessly, leaving in the air a memory now silenced no more.

Michael Mayes as Manfred & Robert Orth as Gad
Manfred returns in “Gad,” Act Two of Out of Darkness, this time in a dream of Gad Beck, one of tens of thousand gay men sent to Hitler’s camps under a German 1874 law (Paragraph 175) that remained on the books until 1994, long after World War II and the Holocaust.  Sixty years prior, Gad and Manfred had been lovers until the Nazis shattered their world and sent Manfred and his family to Auschwitz.  Now as tired, old Gad retires to his bed, his sleep is interrupted by the still-nineteen, still-handsome-as-ever Manfred, who evocatively, plaintively sings, “Do you remember?  Do you remember when night was for more than sleep?  Oh my love, my love.”

But like Kyrstyna, Gad at first wants nothing of such memories.  Robert Orth is the stubborn Gad who will speak with his lingering German accent in response to the sung promptings of the returned Manfred.  “You want me to remember, Darling ...  I have done everything I can to forget,” he says with some impudence and annoyance, trying to whisk away with the flip of his hand the specter before him.  But a recalling of “those golden years,” when “with a look or a touch ... a wink or a nod or a glance” two men in a club would know, just know that there was a possible match – with that memory he gives in and begins a trip with Manfred through both happy and horrific recollections of their short life together and of what happened to each after Manfred’s disappearance.

Michael Mayes as Manfred
What we saw and heard in a glimpse in Act One of Michael Mayes as Manfred now becomes a tour de force performance in Act Two where he is the sole singer, bringing a range of vocals astounding to behold.  He playfully flirts in lilted notes full of tease the aged Gad (and even mounts Gad’s bed with chest bare and hips pumping).  But he also recalls in a powerful voice that strikes like a lightning bolt the screams of an eighteen-year-old’s death and of his own pain and terror being strung up on poles in “Der Singende Wald” (“the singing forest).  When he finally utters in shaking voice how the horrors were “beyond comprehension,” that final word is sung with such a vibration of feelings to send shutters through the audience.

Robert Orth, himself an accomplished baritone, never sings in “Gad,” but he is superb in his acting ability as he sensitively, sincerely portrays Gad Beck.  When he finally succumbs to the fonder part of his memories of Manfred and puts aside for a moment the guilt, pain, and even anger associated with losing him, his Gad is heartbreaking in his pleas for Manfred not to leave until they have had one more dance.

Michael Mayes
Erich Parce directs these two stories with much understanding of how to be respectful of the memories of these real people and yet fully representative of the horrors they and thousands of others faced.  He is greatly aided by the projections of David Murakami, who brings to full life the scenes recounted with pictures of Auschwitz then and now, of a prisoner line-up that slowly moves in to focus on one of the six million, and of raindrops that fall like heaven’s tears in hearing the pained memories.  Matthew Antaky’s simple scenic touches and his powerful lighting decisions zero in with much added meaning to the words and lyrics of the opera. 

Finally, like the principals themselves who bring such proven talent to bear in these portrayals, Joseph Mechavich conducts with mastery an orchestra of six, each of whom plays beautifully, emotionally Jake Heggie’s poignant score.  Each instrument has moments to speak its own truth and passion in recalling this important past; and together, they blend in a sound that sinks deep into one’s soul.

Founded in 1998, Music of Remembrance is fulfilling a unique role in recalling the Holocaust and so many of its stories through the power of music.  This shared world premiere of Out of Darkness being staged only one night in Seattle and two nights here at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music will hopefully make its way onto many more stages across the globe.  The stories of Kystyna and Gad, of Manfred, Krysia and Zosha must be told again and again and never forgotten.

Rating: 5 E

Out of Darkness finishes its world premiere tonight, May 25, 2016 at the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  Information about this performance and other offerings of the Conservatory is available online at https://sfcm.edu.  Information about this and other programs of Music of Remembrance is available at http://www.musicofremembrance.org/.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"Elect to Laugh"

Elect to Laugh
Will Durst

Will Durst
Soon after I first arrived in the Bay Area in late 1978, my newly wed spouse and I started checking out the bountiful comedy club scene that existed in San Francisco at venues like The Other Café, The Holy City Zoo, and Cobb’s Comedy Club.  One of our favorite stand-ups soon became Will Durst, and almost forty years later this outrageously funny comedian is still going strong.  Self-described as a “political comedian,” he adds, “I aspire to be a satirist; but if you say that, people think you have goat legs.” 

Will Durst now brings to The Marsh (San Francisco’s prime spot for original, solo acts) Elect to Laugh, a blend of scripted theater and ad-lib stand-up comedy.  The show is well-timed and well-named for this year’s increasingly bizarre presidential election.  So bizarre is this particular cycle that Mr. Durst gets to employ more than ever his signature phrase: “You can’t make this stuff up.”  And The Marsh is a perfect place for him to plop from now until Election Night 2016 (as is his plan, at least).  “You are my target audience,” he claims.  “You are people who read, or you know someone who reads.”

Dressed in a suit (Does anyone wear a suit anymore?) and armed with an overhead projector (“I like it ... It’s warm to touch and has the soft, reassuring hum of the fan”), Mr. Durst plunges with aplomb into both parties and all politicians, present and from the past forty years.  With a voice that is gravelly and eyes that sparkle with devilishness, he rattles off things we have all for the most part heard and read in the past few months of ongoing primaries; but when pitched in rapid succession with his looks of incredulity, they are fabulously funny.  And while he is certainly looking for laughs galore, he chuckles admitting, “I don’t care how you respond ... I just love writing this shit.”

HIs first order of business is to run through anecdotes and memories of presidents from Ford (whose appointment coincided with his debut as a comic in 1974) to Obama, slamming everyone along the way with glee.  He also cannot pass up one of the past VPs, Dan Quayle, whose “biggest fear was that Bush would die and the next president would not keep his as VP.”  His stories include some self-aggrandizement as he namedrops a number of politicians he has met along the way, including Bubba himself (aka Bill Clinton).

Once he begins going through all seventeen Republican and half dozen or so Democrat candidates who hoped in January 2016 to still be in play in May, the show, while still hilarious in many spots, bogs down a bit as pictures of each (mostly unattractive, of course) go up on the overhead screen.  His jabs hit a lot of marks that match the hissing and soft boo’s in the audience as certain pictures are shown, including when he says of Senator Cruz, “I doubt he wins the majority of voices in his head.”

Of the voting public, Will Durst has a few, choice words along the way, too.  Referring to one campaign with a slogan of sixteen syllables, he notes, “To the American public, that is not a slogan ... it is a pamphlet.”  And he gets a lot of audience nods in this San Francisco setting when he admits, “I don’t know which is scarier: One of the people who will be our president or the American people who will decide.”

As one might imagine, the most time is spent on one Donald Trump, given that there is so much material (and so much hair) for fodder.  But he confesses up front that focusing on Trump is not all that easy:  “How can you parody a parody?”

And in the end, who is Will Durst’s ideal president?  How about a combination of “Jimmy Carter’s policies on John Wayne’s horse and with Ronald Reagan’s hair”?

Overall, Elect to Laugh looks and feels much more like political, stand-up comedy than theatre since its script of sorts will likely change week to week as more unintended blunders and blistering accusations and counter-accusations are made by those still in the running (and those commenting on them).  Will Durst is a master comic and highly enjoyable; but with this this particular election, it is somewhat predictable what he is going to mimic and mock.  After all, daily feeds on Facebook and Twitter or five minutes on Fox News are actually almost as entertaining ... or as sad.

Rating: 3 E

Elect to Laugh is currently scheduled to run through July 26, Tuesdays at 8 p.m., at The Marsh, at The Marsh, San Francisco, main stage, 1062 Valencia Street.  Tickets are available at http://themarsh.org or by calling 415-282-3055 Monday – Friday, 1 – 4 p.m.

Photo by Junior Hansen Jr.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


Arthur Laurents (Book); Julie Styne (Music); Stephen Sondheim (Lyrics)

Molly Thornton as Gypsy Rose Lee
Whenever attending what NY Times critic Ben Brantley has referred as “what may be the greatest of all American musicals,” "Gypsy," I sit with both hope and skepticism until I hear Rose sing those first few notes of “Some People.”  Well, I am here to say that not only does South Bay Musical Theatre’s Molly Thornton join a long line of Roses, she takes her place with full acting gusto and vocal bravado. 

For a full review of this rousing production, please follow the link to Talkin' Broadway:  http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj44.html 

Rating: 4 E

South Bay Musical Theatre’s production of Gypsy continues through June 11, 2016, at the Saratoga Civic Theatre, 13777 Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga, CA.  Tickets are available online at http://www.southbaymt.com/contact/tickets.html  or by calling 24 hours a day 408-266-4734).

Photo by Katin Auch

Monday, May 23, 2016

"I and You"

I and You
Lauren Gunderson

Ivette Deltoro & Davied Morales
Once again, City Lights Theater Company has chosen a winning script, a superb production team, and an exciting duet of actors to present to its audience a gift that will continue to give for a long time.  Not only will I and You lead to both self-reflection and conversations about life, death, and relationships, my guess it will lead to a rush on Amazon to order a copy of Leaves of Grass.

Please follow the link to read my full review on Talkin' Broadway: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj43.html

Rating: 5 E

I and You will continue through June 19, 2016 at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at https://cltc.org/tickets/

Photo by Susan Mah Photography