Monday, October 31, 2016

"Major Barbara"

Major Barbara
George Bernard Shaw

Michael Saenz & Monica Cappuccini
For those who have never seen Shaw’s Major Barbara, Pear Street’s current rendering is certainly going to remind them why the Nobel prize winner for literature is in fact one of the past century’s greatest and most loved playwrights as well as introduce them to one his most loved stories and set of quirky characters.  For those who have seen other, more-memorable productions in the past, this may be a revisit that is OK to skip; but the production’s first act does make it a fairly worthwhile outing.

For my full review, please follow this link to Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 3 E

Major Barbara continues through November 20 at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Ray Renati

Thursday, October 27, 2016

"The Hard Problem"

The Hard Problem
Tom Stoppard

Dan Clegg as Spike & Brenda Meaney as Hilary
When a baby is born, does the human come into the world ready to put the welfare of others ahead of self; or is the infant already geared up to look out for self above all else?  Is the consciousness that the baby-turned-toddler-turned-child eventually acquires a result of its more objective, computer-like brain, or does that sense of self and unique awareness of the world around the child emanate from some other source?  And to complicate matters more, does a higher being (e.g., God) have a hand in any of this?

Questions like these have been asked all the way back to Aristotle and Plato and have intrigued and plagued scientists, philosophers, and scholars of religion ever since.  Determining the origin as well as the whys and wherefores of the human consciousness has been tagged “the hard problem.”  The prolific and famed playwright Tom Stoppard has jumped wholeheartedly into this age-old debate in his latest play by the same name.  The Hard Problem is a heady, wordy one hundred minutes that is populated not only with lots of facts, theories, and deep explanations but also with plenty of humor, romance, mystery, and surprises.    As presented by The American Conservatory Theatre and directed by Artistic Director Carey Perloff, Stoppard’s play is never slow or boring even with all its big words and rattling off of facts and figures.  Its characters are universally interesting and fascinating, and there is plenty of fodder provided for further questioning and discussion long after the last bow.

Through the characters he introduces, Tom Stoppard cleverly presents at least three possible ways of approaching “the hard problem.”  By placing the story in Great Britain, he also is able to construct word-filled arguments and individual stories with the sorted rhythms, variations of tones and pitches, and even different instrument sounds that the various British as well as Indian and Chinese accents afford.  The result is a musical cacophony of voices that at times wonderfully clash and at other times blend into collegial, friendship, and/or romantic harmony of differing perspectives and backgrounds.

Like a blaring trumpet, Dan Clegg as the handsome, cocky, but easily likeable Spike represents the position that consciousness has developed through evolution and is part of the survival of the fittest, being a by-product of the brain’s developing complexity through the millennia.  He is relentless and loud in his position and particularly disdains with outward cynicism any idea that there might be a God that intervenes into the natural order of things as established by Darwin.  Mr. Clegg is a mixture of serious, silly, and sexy in his efforts to convince others of his firm belief system, sometimes pulling out a cockney accent that sits in juxtaposition against his regular, fast-clip British tongue of the modern thirty-something, fast-paced Londoner.

Brenda Meaney (Hilary) & Vandit Bhatt (Amahl)
Pounding like a big bass drum is Amahl (Vanditt Bhatt) who charges into any scene with full voice and with the fury of a pit bull dog.  With angry-sounding vigor, he purports the idea that the brain is simply a beautiful computer and that human consciousness is somehow just the result of all the brain’s billions of electrical charges and connections.  He too has a big ego surrounding his bombastic blasts of opinions, including the idea that computers themselves are actually evolving to be much superior in every way to the human brain.  Mr. Bhatt, for all his blustery ways, provides one of the evening’s biggest guffaws when he flat out faints over a funny encounter with a man he tries too hard to impress.

Brenda Meaney
Not buying either the evolution theory of her lover Spike or the brain-as-computer theory of her job-seeking competitor, Amahl, is the quieter but equally intense Hilary.  She is a kind of woodwind voice that eases in with steady reasoning but also with nuanced tones that never dominate but that in the end, stand out with a unique delivery and message.  Brenda Meaney plays with great depth and skilled subtlety this principal protagonist of Stoppard’s story.  Hilary wants a job at the prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science and wins it over the brainy, aggressive Amahl by pointing out to the hiring manager (Anthony Fusco as Leo) that although computers may be able to think and to play brilliant chess, they do not have the consciousness to care if they win or lose (as do humans).  Hilary gets the job and begins a multi-year journey to find a way to prove that humans are more than what the neurons of the brain produce. 

And as he weaves the back-and-forths of these three opinions throughout the overall story of Hilary, Spike, and Amahl as well as of their colleagues, lovers, and bosses, Tom Stoppard explicitly leaves audience members to draw their own conclusions about ‘the hard problem.’  However, he does implicitly tip his hand through his treatment of Hilary.  To her, he awards the biggest dose of altruism -- of believing humans at the core are here to help others.  He does so by giving her humility, grace, and dignity to complement her fervent drive and evident smarts.  Through her demonstrated, deep integrity, he submits her as one who is more than willing to sacrifice herself in order to save a cherished colleague's career and to show little-to-no regret in doing so.  He also does nothing to ridicule the fact that she nightly kneels in prayer before going to bed (even right after making love with her non-believing lover), and he does not let us forget that she sincerely believes that maybe there are coincidences that cannot be explained and that in fact might be miracles. 

Brenda Meaney excels in being a believable, sexy, highly intelligent Hilary who also convinces us that she is sincere and not sappy in her hope that there is a God who might be listening to her nightly solicitations.  Bringing into some form of her consciousness the whereabouts of a child she once gave up as a teenager for adoption is all she seeks.  Stoppard provides a path in keeping with her own theory where this might just be possible.

Each of the others in this staged orchestra assembled at ACT’s West Coast premiere of The Hard Problem brings a singular personality that leaves a lasting, unique impression.  Mike Ryan is the wildly successful hedge fund investor, Jerry Krohl, who has used some of the fortune he has won legally gambling in the marketplace with others’ moneys in order to establish the brain research center now carrying his name.  As such, he is an outward egotist with much bass horn bravado in his bigger-than-life speech and stance but also an egotist who does eventually show some altruistic heart.

Brenda Meaney (Hilary) and Narea Kang (Bo)
Narea Kang is the Chinese-born, Cambridge mathematical whiz, Bo, who joins Hilary’s team and constructs what seems as a break-through study to answer the chicken-egg question of which came first:  ego-drive or altruism.  Her Bo is complicated and not easily deciphered even though she is a strong scientific voice for formulaic explanations of psychological development.  She becomes the lover of Amahl but has a secret love that leads her down a path that defies all logic and professional ethics, hoping to enhance that person’s career and possibly her own interests of the heart.  Ms. Kang plays all sides of this complex puzzle with astute prowess.

Rounding out the key persona are the bassoon-voiced, mostly serious-faced researcher Ursula (Stacy Ross) and her piccolo-prancing, Pilates-instructing life partner, Julia (Safiya Fredericks) -- the lighter, more joyous, and fun half of their pairing.  Carmen Steele is Cathy Krohl, the thirteen-year-old daughter of Jerry and a key to the mounting question how much miracles may in fact play in a world dominated by the hard sciences.

Andrew Boyce has created an eye-popping scenic design where the numerous locales and their fixtures enter and exit with the ease of gigantic floating panels against the backdrop of a mammoth projection screen.  That a heavenly power is somehow a bias of Stoppard’s thinking is reinforced in Mr. Boyce’s overall design and in Russell H. Champa’s exquisite, masterfully timed lighting.  Angelic, fluffy clouds dominate the background screen that smack of some power greater than the human ones that created the scenes’ foreground fixtures of ultra-modern corporate offices and upscale apartments.  Two tree trunks touch and climb like a Jacob’s ladder through a hole in the ceiling, from which glowing light sometimes appears just when the story needs a bit of miraculous influence.  And the sound design and original music of Brendan Aanes (with Nick Perloff-Giles also contributing to the score) put the finishing touches on smooth transitions and appropriate mood-setting throughout.

So are we inherently altruistic or do we help others as a means of ultimately helping ourselves?  Hilary’s final act of integrity seems to give away the playwright’s bias toward the former.  However, when we walk out of the theatre having just seen how happy she is not only because of an unexpected personal miracle but also because she is about to venture into a new, highly desired next career step thanks to a personal sacrifice she made for another’s well-being, Tom Stoppard seems to be saying to us with a smirk that there are in fact no easy answers to hard problems.

Rating: 5 E

The Hard Problem continues through November 13, 2016, on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Monday, October 24, 2016

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee

David Sinaiko, Josh Schell, Megan Trout & Beth Wilmurt
Truth or illusion?  A marriage based on some sort of perverted but still very real love or one condemned to be a no-exit hell of gotcha games and daily battles? 

For over fifty years, audiences have returned time and again to see if the latest stage version of Edward Albee’s Martha and George comes any closer to resolving their hate/love/hate relationship or if this time, they actually kill each other.  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- the 1963 Tony winner for Best Play that continues to be revived time and again in New York and on stages across the entire globe – now brings the 25th anniversary season of Shotgun Players to an explosive, exciting, and fully engrossing close.  With superb direction, an intensely talented cast, and an unusual but creative production, Shotgun Players puts an exclamation point on a repertory season that already has had four winners preceding its finale.

That is not to say that the initial take on the bare, inlaid-wood stage with two back-wall, inset bars full of multi-colored booze bottles (separated by a set of wooden stairs) takes a bit of getting used to – say, like the entire first act of the play’s three.  That Martha as she initially comes into the supposed 1960’s living room has to hike up her skirt and step awkwardly onto the two-foot-high raised platform is at first weird and a bit ridiculous.  That both the hosts and their young-couple guests must sit on the floor or dangle off the side of the stage (where normally we would see them reclining on the kind of worn furniture expected in a middle-aged professor’s home) too often diverts our attention in the play’s beginning away from the sharply funny and darkly biting Albee script so well delivered by the foursome before us.  But as the play progresses, this set designed by Nina Ball becomes less jarring and attention-stealing and more a major asset in allowing Mark Jackson’s direction to have the unencumbered arena it needs to focus fully on the carefully choreographed solos, duets, trios, and full quartets of this grand opera that is spoken, not sung.

Time and again, Mark Jackson as Director squeezes out every possible drop from Albee’s juicy script by the way he blocks the principals, moves them apart for maximal distance and back together in close proximity, and orchestrates their rapid-fire bullets of dialogue interspersed with silences and stare-downs.  His artistry combined with the each actor’s prowess is particularly salient as host George and guest Nick have extended conversations in both the first and second acts.  At one point, the more senior, but shorter in height George stands before the handsome, twenty-eight-year-old Nick, who is sitting on the raised stage’s edge.  As George (David Sinaiko) espouses what it is like to be married to Martha, Nick (Josh Schell) responds with silence and a distinctly raised eyebrow, finally standing to be about eye-to-eye with George (even though he is on a level two feet lower), tolerating George’s remarks with a frozen smile that is half polite and half contempt (with a bit of disbelief showing on the edges).  Moments like this one are repeatedly co-sculptured by the director and his actors for images with lasting effects.

Josh Schell & David Sinaiko
Both Mr. Sinaiko and Mr. Schell give stellar performances in the roles of the two college professors in this 2-5 a.m. “party” Martha has orchestrated after a reception at her father’s (the institution’s president) house.  As they pump down the bourbons, each keeps an eye on the other, sizing up a possible opponent in one moment and bonding for at least a few minutes here and there amid their liquored stupors over their disappointments with their choice of wives.  As guest Nick, Josh Shell is cocky, cute, cynical, and courteous – sometimes all at the same time.  As the liquor accumulates, his stumbling, Adonis-like body becomes more rubber-like as he bounces down the house’s stairs or as he plops on the invisible furniture.  But even when clearly inebriated, he is still quite able to rise to battle’s call when too agitated by George or to arrouse himself to fall into Martha’s planned trap as she lures him from dance floor to her bedroom. 

David Sinaiko displays an incredibly wide range of voice inflections and volumes as well as physical moves and manipulations as he takes on the iconic role of George.  His calculations on the next game to propose (Is it time for “Hump the Hostess” yet?  How about “Get the Guests”?) are mapped clearly for us to see in his highly expressive face as he thinks them through in his head.  Whether pitted against Nick or especially against Martha, his piercing stares, his sudden shifts in mood, or his tone of voice that is edged with a life full of disappointment makes him a both foe and a friend/lover not to be ignored for long.

Megan Trout
Part of his evolving plan ultimately to win the night’s ultimate game against Martha involves discovering and exposing a secret about Honey – one that Nick tells in supposed confidence to him early on.  Megan Trout comes close to giving the performance of the evening as the sappy, vulnerable, and much-too-sweet-for-her-own-good Honey, young wife of Nick.  She arrives in pink shoes, baby blue coat, and white purse and seems immediately to have a natural knack of laughing much too loud and long at others’ jokes and remarks that are not really not all that funny.  Her getting-drunk-on-brandy performance is alone worth the ticket price as she slowly melts away into a boozy torpor.  Her various looks of hurt, of shock, of defiant indignation, and of final and total defeat are pictures to behold and to relish as the wee hours of this morning’s gathering proceeds.

Beth Wilmurt
And then there is Martha, the role that Edward Albee bestows some of the best of many great lines and the role made famous by the likes of Uta Hagan, Colleen Dewhurst, Kathleen Turner, and of course, Elizabeth Taylor (the last, on the big screen).  Beth Wilmurt brings a rather controlled, steady-going, and, at times, even low-keyed Martha.  While she is certainly calculating and caustic in her relentless attacks and maneuverings, Martha is not as bombastic, gravelly, or down-and-dirty as might be expected based on other performances previously witnessed of the same role.  For a Martha who is supposed to be older than her husband George, this Martha is actually younger looking.  For a woman who drinks for a living and has a personality from hell, this Martha is quite beautiful, slim, and even athletic.  Maybe those who have famously preceded her have too colored my expectations how Martha should look and sound, but I for one kept looking for someone that was almost but not quite the Martha I expected.

It would be remiss of me as a reviewer not to note the outstanding lighting design of Heather Basarab for this Shotgun production.  Particularly the way she plays shadows against the side walls is stunning, literally exposing the dark, under-sides of these characters that the play reveals bit by bit as they interact and spar during the evening’s course.  Sara Witsch uses subtle, tonal undertones in her sound design to increase the tension at critical moments without ever taking attention away from the action or the dialogue.  Ashley Holvick’s costumes aptly establish the 1960’s time period and the small-town college atmosphere that is purposely missing in Nina Ball’s set. 

When Nick at one point says, “I don’t know when you goddamned people are lying or not,” George matter-of-factly responds, “You’re not supposed to.”  In a play where characters’ tears are “put in trays in the freezer” in order to freeze them and then put the into their drinks, Edward Albee’s play can seem like a diatribe on the institution of marriage and on the lies couples create and keep alive in order to stay together to insure their unhappiness perseveres.  However, in this Shotgun Players’ production as in many before it, there is actually a small sliver of optimism dished to the audience at the play’s end that George and Martha may have turned a monumental corner as they conclude their penultimate game of the evening.  While Martha answers George’s final question of “Who’s of afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with “I am ... I am,” the two look at each other with a look that hints at the truth of an earlier remark Martha has made to the audience: “There’s only one man that ever made me happy ... George.” 

Congratulations to Shotgun Players for a magnificent, memory-making 25th season, ending with a noteworthy Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Rating: 4 E

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues in main production through November 20 and then will run in repertory with the other four plays of the season through January 20, 2017.  Shotgun Players productions are on the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"A Few Good Men"

A Few Good Men
Aaron Sorkin

Brad Satterwhite & Thomas Gorrebeeck
Many audience members probably arrive at Hillbarn Theatre's A Few Good Men with Tom Cruise, Jack Nicolson, and Demi Moore in their mind’s eyes in the roles of Kaffee, Jessup, and Galloway.  The wonderful aspect of live theatre and of a production so well cast, directed, and presented as Hillbarn’s is that it is almost a guarantee that no one walked away disappointed by this latest version of A Few Good Men.

Please follow the link to my full review at Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 4 

A Few Good Men continues through October 23, 2016 at 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard.  Tickets are available online at  or by calling 650-349-6411.

Photo Credit: Mark and Tracy Photography

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"Casa Valentina"

Casa Valentina
Harvey Fierstein

The Cast of "Ladies" of "Casa Valentina"
The tall, curly-headed twenty-something with boyish face is greeted at the door of the bungalow inn by hostess Rita, “Grab a dish towel, and make your dreams come true.”  Later her husband George adds, “Welcome to the best weekend of your life.”  With tentative eagerness instilled in his eyes, Jonathan steps into a 1962 magical haven in the heart of the Catskills where men escape from wives and children, classrooms and students, courtrooms and lawyers to find “the outward expression of the inner female” within them.  Based on a book by Michel Hurst and Robert Swope (Casa Susanna), Casa Valentina is Harvey Fierstein’s 2014, Tony-nominated play about mostly heterosexual men who gathered on weekends to dress and act in every way possible as normal, everyday women.  With an age-and-size diverse cast that transform from ordinary men into ordinary women right before our eyes, New Conservatory Theatre Center presents the regional premiere of this fascinating piece of American history.

Much of the delight of witnessing the fourteen hours represented in Casa Valentina is to watch a slice-of-life representation with only minimal sense of plot of these men who seek not just to let their hair down but to put their hair, face, lace, skirt and heels on in order to just relax with others like them.  This is not a sex-filled weekend but a weekend filled with cocktails, quips and gossip, stories about families back home, and a little cabaret of their own with no headliner but the record player.  As a judge near retirement says when he appears as the dignified, steady-voiced Amy (Tom Reilly), “At last I can breathe again ... Hello, Amy ... I’ve missed you.”

Paul Rodrigues as George/Valentina
The personality shifts are as dramatic as the outward appearances.  Muscular, darkly handsome George (Paul Rodrigues) is by all appearances a man’s man and woman’s dream.  As co-proprietor of the inn, he hustles about trying to help his wife Rita (Jennifer McGeorge) ready the inn for the weekend.  Already in his slip and beginning to put on make-up, he grabs his wife and erotically draws her into him.  But then he turns to the mirror requesting the wig she has readied for him.  “Right now, I need Valentina,” he whispers; and the transformation into a beautiful, shapely woman with hip sways, hand flips, and head tosses is soon complete.  Gone is George, that half to be forgotten until the new week’s dawn.

The mixture of women who appear from their bedrooms for the first evening’s drinks and meal is not unlike what one might remember from a mother’s weekly bridge party in small town America.  Besides sexy Valentina and matronly Amy, there is the dowdy, elderly Terry (aka Theodore, played by Michael Moerman) who sputters in her gravely voice but still shows sparks of devilishness when given a chance to cut a gentle rug in barefoot on the dance floor with one of the younger “ladies.”   Gloria, who arrived as Michael (and played by Tim Huls), brings a Spanish flair and sassiness to her hidden persona and a dimpled smile that works well for both halves. 

Max Hersey, Ready for Make-Over into Miranda
When Jonathan finally appears as Miranda, Max Hersey excels in creating a caterpillar emerging slowly as a wrinkled butterfly trying to stand on its wobbly, new legs.  With a wig that looks more like a mop and in a dress that hangs loosely with no shape or style to mention, he flops across the floor in his purple, glistening heels.  But all the other ‘girls’ rush to hold him up and to make him over, resulting in a butterfly with new breasts, new hips, new curls, and totally new confidence as a Miranda who has finally come home.

Jeffrey Hoffman as "Bessie"
In any group of friends, there is often that one standout who is the biggest tease, wit, and grabber of the group’s attention whenever the slightest opportunity avails herself.  Such is the oh-so-Southern Bessie, “short for Alberta and worlds away from Albert” -- the last name being the other world husband and father left far behind when Bessie comes to the Catskills.  Jeffrey Hoffman is the knockout star of the show, not only because of the totally funny and big-hearted persona he creates for Bessie, but also because Harvey Fierstein has provided him with the best lines time and again.  (One could totally imagine Harvey himself playing Bessie.)  Pleasingly plump Bessie announces her entrance to dinner with, “I’m so pretty, I should be set to music.”  When told by sweet Miranda/Jonathan how nice she is, Bessie retorts, “I’m not pretty, young, or rich ... Kind is all I got.”  In the midst of a conversation about sending something back in the mail, she quips, “I once had a male form ... I filled it out and sent it back.”  And voicing what probably everyone in the room (minus Rita, at least) feels deep down, Bessie sighs, “I am my own perfect spouse.”

Paul Rodrigues  & Jennifer McGeorge
Greeting each with hugs, aiding with hair fixes, and joining in as a fellow girlfriend is Rita, George’s wife.  At one point after helping in Jonathan’s make-over, she pleads, “Someone fetch me a drink ... I’m exhausted  ... I’ve made dinner and a woman.”  Jennifer McGeorge gives an award-worthy performance as she walks the tight-wire between being totally supportive of her husband’s cross-dressing and her own increasing doubts of “you’d be better off without me maybe.” 

Into this weekend of girlfriend time-out from the world of living as males enters the play’s drama.  The ingredients for disruption include an inn about to go bankrupt, a brown envelope of XXX-rated photos mailed to George and discovered by postal officials, and a nationally known transvestite who is willing to do whatever it takes to force this shadow group in the Catskills to step into the spotlight and join her newly certified, national nonprofit sorority of male cross-dressers.  Matt Weimer as Charlotte brings a body build often politely noted as “big boned” and a look where every hair is in sprayed stiffly in place.  She also brings a stuffy sophistication that both wants to be one of the girls but also is clear that she is probably better and smarter than the others.  “Not to toot me own horn, there is a Christ-like element to my journey,” she declares as she describes her movement to out transvestites as something not to be shunned but admired.  But in her world, transvestites in this so-called sorority must be heterosexuals only, not homosexuals who are “the back-ally vermin of society.”

Becca Wolff directs this group of cross-dressers with humor and heart, fully utilizing the compact nooks and crannies, doorways and corners of Kua-Hao Lo’s bungalow stage design.  Keri Fitch has stitched together an incredible array of personality-defining male and female outfits that speak to the era of Jackie Kennedy and to what one might have found at that time at the local Goodwill Center.  David Carver-Ford’s wigs and Ting Na Wang’s properties fill in all the right ways to make these girls come to full life.  And the background music designed by James Ard deserves its own soundtrack CD as a compilation of an entire array of the early 1960s easy listening, nightclub, and bachelor pad music.

Where the evening falters has little-to-nothing to do with NCTC’s cast or production.  Harvey Fierstein’s mostly brilliant script at times becomes too much like a lecture to the point of even being a bit preachy.  At those points when one character goes on and on making a case for or against tolerance of cross-dressing, of allowing/not allowing homosexuals into their company, or of offering a commentary of the movement that is in the making right before our eyes, the action slows, the energy decreases, and audience attention seems to wane.

That being said, there is so much to like in New Conservatory Theatre Center’s engrossing, entertaining, and enlightening production of Casa Valentina.  This is history that deserves to be told; and to be told well, it needs to be seen in the manner NCTC does so well. 

Rating: 4 E

Casa Valentina continues through November 6, 2017 on the Decker stage of New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photo by Lois Tema

Monday, October 10, 2016

"Outside Mullingar"

Outside Mullingar
John Patrick Shanley
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Jessica Wortham and Rod Brogan
Long-time paired relationships and one long time in the making are the heart and soul of John Patrick Shanley’s sweet, sentimental, and totally satisfying romantic comedy, Outside Mullingar.  Nominated for 2014 Tony Award Best Play, Outside Mullingar now receives its regional premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in a production directed with an Irish twinkle in his eye and a know-how for producing well-timed chuckles and well-deserved sighs by Artistic Director, Robert Kelley. 

For my full review, please follow this link to Talkin' Broadway: .

Rating: 5 E

Outside Mullingar continues through October 30, 2016 in production by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 6 p.m.

Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Friday, October 7, 2016

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
John Cameron Mitchell (Book); Stephen Trask (Music & Lyrics)

Darren Criss as Hedwig
As one of the most recently anticipated arrivals of a major touring musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch explodes in full fury on the SHN Golden Gate stage with two hometown stars reprising their celebrated roles from Broadway.  Darren Criss and Lena Hall play gender-fluid Hedwig and her back-up singing husband, Yitzhak, a former drag queen, as they each take John Cameron Mitchell’s book and Stephen Trask’s music/lyrics and bring their own electric, ecstatic, and erotic interpretations to this 1998 Off-Broadway, 2014 Broadway hit.  The result is a ninety-minute concert that mixes bawdily funny stand-up comedy, wildly athletic and sex-packed choreography, and super-charged rock numbers to tell a bizarre but beautiful story of two people seeking to find peace in who they are, individually and together.

Arriving in high-heeled boots and doubled-sided hair that falls to her waist, Hedwig pounds her way over the top of a parked car and blasts proudly her opening “Tear Me Down” in full rock style.  “I was born on the other side of a town ripped in two ... I made it over the great divide, now I’m coming for you,” she thunders.  Peppering her story with audience member flirting, with references to the Bay Area, and with risqué, rude, and racy one-liners galore, Hedwig tells how a boy named Hansel born in East Berlin in 1961eventually ends up as female Hedwig, now married to a U.S. soldier named Luther in Junction City, Kansas in 1989.  That Hansel had to have a botched sex change operation to escape the Iron Curtain (“Six inches forward and five inches back ... I got an angry inch”) and that Luther finds a boyfriend and leaves his bride trailer-park-poor on their first anniversary (the same day the Berlin wall came down) is only part of the sad tale Hedwig relates.

Still to come in her story is an awakening in the midst of her abandoned misery of the outrageously glamor insider her (“Wig in a Box”); a newfound soul-mate named Tommy who is seventeen, cute, and musically talented (“Wicked Little Town”); and a new drag-queen husband (Yitzhak) who has to give up with lingering resentment her own wig and gown to be Hedwig’s new life companion.  Oh, and she also forms a band called “The Angry Inch,” performing in coffee houses and cheap auditoria while trailing after that Tommy who is now a major rock star using the songs she wrote with him to secure his fame.

Darren Criss
Darren Criss brings a thousand ways to bend, stretch, pump, and bump his trim, muscled body while singing his way through Hedwig’s tale full of debauchery and disappointment.  Wearing the often outlandish, sometimes totally sexy outfits designed by Arianne Phillips and donning hair styles designed by Mike Potter that recall everything that was awful about the ‘80s and 90s, Mr. Criss knows how to arouse an audience to a titillating pitch.  What he does with a microphone – either on its erect stand or just tied to the rope of its cord – is enough to cause every gay man or straight woman to break into sweat.  He is at his best when singing in full rock star voice the songs Stephen Trask has written that recall sounds of the 1970s of glam rocker David Bowie, puck rockers Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and even the ballads of the Beatles. 

But rarely does Hedwig just stand at a mike and sing.  She prances and high kicks in massively heeled boots, slides and tumbles across the floor, and climbs up and down the side-stage speakers  – all the time selling her songs with power and pizzazz.  Lines like “I put on some make up, turn up the eight-track ... I’m pulling the wig down from the shelf” roll out of Hedwig’s entire being; and the crowd eats them and her up in near-frenzied response.

As Hedwig spills forth her life’s story, she often takes on the persona of other key characters as she interacts with them, starting with her East German mother who insisted then-son Hansel practice his singing with head in the oven in order not to disturb her. (This is accomplished hilariously on Julian Crouch’s designed stage by Hedwig putting her head under the hood of the center-stage, rusting wreck of a car.)  When the soldier Luther sees Hansel sunning himself in the nude, Hedwig recalls their first encounter in “Sugar Daddy,” singing in tempting, luring voice, “I’ve got a sweet tooth for licorice drops and jelly roll ... Hey, sugar daddy, Hansel needs some sugar in his bowl.”  Hedwig then becomes the deep-voiced, American Luther who wants Hansel to be his lady-boy, leading eventually to his mother and Luther convincing him to undergo the sex-altering operation as a ticket to marriage to Luther, freedom from the Communists, and a flight to the coveted U.S.

Darren Criss, Now as Tommy Gnosis
But the greatest character conversion accomplishment of Hedwig and Darrin Criss comes late in the show when Hedwig strips away all signs of his feminine self to appear in the birthday suit to which he was born, morphing into Tommy Gnosis, the now-stage name of the teenage boy he once taught to sing.  Throughout Hedwig’s show on this supposedly seedy stage, Tommy has been blasting forth his own rock concert in a near-by, sold-out AT&T Park.  Hedwig bitterly and forlornly believes Tommy has totally forgotten her.  As the stripped-down, sweat-dripping Tommy on stage, Darrin Criss delivers his most poignant, best song of the night as the singer finally acknowledges his debt to Hedwig -- a reprise of the song Hedwig earlier sings when she writes it with the seventeen-year-old Tommy, “Wicked Little Town.”

Lean Hall as the Transformed Yitzhak
Throughout the concert/staged story, Hedwig has been joined in back-up by her silent, morose-looking husband Yitzhak, the Jewish ex-drag queen whom Hedwig abuses with sarcastic comments but who renders beautifully clear notes of soprano to harmonize with Hedwig’s own male voice.  Lena Hall altogether proves why she won the 2014 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her Yitzhak, both in an initial brief, but beautifully breathy time at the microphone in “The Long Grift,” but particularly in the show’s finale.  Once Hedwig finds some peace after Tommy has acknowledged on stage her contribution to his fame, she gives back to Yitzhak his drag persona, leading the drag queen to emerge in a glorious take-over from Hedwig of the finale, “Midnight Radio.”  Lena Hall lets loose in a high soprano voice that literally shakes the rafters of the Golden Gate Theatre as she sings over and again to a now-standing audience, “Lift up your hands.”

The Full Cast of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
Also important to the entire evening’s energy and musical dynamism are the four members of the onstage band, The Angry Inch.  Each takes on an immigrant name and persona while playing, singing, and often interacting in song, dance, and bodily contact with Hedwig.  Musical Director, keyboardist, and guitarist Justin Craig is Skszp; bass and guitarist Matt Duncan, Jacek; guitarist Tim Mislock, Krzyzhtoff; and drummer Peter Yanowitz, Schlatko.

Michael Mayer has ensured as director that there is not much pause to catch one’s breath in the near-frantic sequences of comedy, song, electric music, and costume/wig changes that occur in Hedwig’s storytelling.  The animation of Phosphene and John Bair adds bigger-than-life, totally fantastical dimensions to Hedwig’s songs and story, especially the double-layered screening in “The Origin of Love.”  And throughout the evening from first notes to final frenzy, the lighting of Kevin Adams and the sound of Tim O’Heir provide phenomenal effects that dazzle and electrify.

Sometimes Hedwig’s interaction with audience does become a bit too cutsey and too much like a cheap, Reno casino show, causing some energy loss to the show in general.  And while Darrin Criss excels through 99% of his incredible rendering, there are a few times his vocals flatten with not quite the pitch to pull off the moment.  But in the end, these become minor points that are quickly forgotten and may be also due to opening night over-excitement.

As brassy and ballsy, crude and crass, and as over-the-top and outlandish that Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, Darrin Criss and Lena Hall ensure that the heart, the poignancy, and the uplifting message of the musical totally are the final memory.  Two people journey through many hard times trying to find a place in their own souls where acceptance of self and of each other can be found.  On the stage of SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, Hedwig and Yitzhak find their peace.

Rating: 5 E

Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through October 30, 2016, at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at

Photo Credits: Joan Marcus and Steven Underhill

Monday, October 3, 2016

"It Can't Happen Here"

It Can’t Happen Here
Adapted by Tony Taccone & Bennett S. Cohen
From the Novel by Sinclair Lewis

The Cast of It Can't Happen Here
On an immense wooden floor surrounded by tall brick walls, a group of Ft. Beulah, Vermont townspeople of all shapes, colors, and sizes gathers to set the 1936 scene in the U.S:  race riots in cities across the land, the gap bigger than ever between rich and poor, worst droughts ever, foreign wars creating local concern, and a right-wing fanatic running for president.  Needless to say, more than a few chuckles and heads shaking in sad recognition occur when the comparisons feel all too contemporarily familiar to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre audience. 

As the world premiere adaptation by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen of Sinclair Lewis’ novel, It Can’t Happen Here, got underway, the parallels of the first act to our current headlines become funnier and scarier at the same time.  Here before us is a reproduction of Sinclair Lewis’ warning to the world about the Fascism, nationalism, and xenophobia of the mid-1930s that was sweeping much of the world and was also cropping up all across America.  Here also before us are too many of the same sound-bites, angry talking heads, and normal-looking townspeople ready to rally for the far right that we in the audience are seeing and hearing all around us eighty years later.

Doremus Jessup (Tom Nelis) Listens with Friends & Family
As the play opens, the ’36 presidential election is well underway, and President Roosevelt’s popularity and support is barely at the one-third mark.  An angry sounding, fist-raising Mrs. Gimmitch (Sharon Lockwood) is getting both cheers and jeers as she sounds forth her message at a Ft. Beulah Rotary Club meeting, calling for “young Christians learning war-like skills to rid our country of unwelcome elements” (i.e., immigrants, commies, probably Jews, etc.).  She is an avid supporter of Buzz Windrip, the right-wing candidate supported by evangelicals (like the radio-popular voice of the religious right, Bishop Prang).  This southern-sounding blowhard (with hair flung across to the right side of his head) rails about the nasty things journalists are saying against him, makes up facts, and acts as his own publicity man; and he is described by others as having “a real feel for the people and a great business sense.”  The town’s respected newspaper editor of The Vermont Vigilance, Doremus Jessup, and his friend Buck Titus marvel that “he seems hell-bent in offending everyone” and that “he loves publicity.”  The editor later worries, “Six month ago, I would say there’s no way in God’s green earth he could be elected, but now ...”.

After a half hour or so, if there were any doubt that the Berkeley Rep adapters of Lewis’s novel did not have a certain, current candidate with a large mop of blonde hair and a big propensity for constant publicity of his radical statements in their minds as they penned this script, that doubt is totally erased.  It Can’t Happen Here takes the pre-election once-certainties that Brexit would not be approved, that the Philippines would not elect a dangerous loudmouth, or that Columbia would for sure ratify a peace accord with the rebels (all of which of course proved very wrong) and poses to its audience, how sure are you that the same cannot happen here in the U.S.?  The play goes a step further to show, at least in 1936 and the years following, what might have happened had the right-wing candidate won, with the specters of deputized citizen militias, declared marshal law, and even concentration camps rising up not just in Germany, but here in the U.S.

Lisa Peterson directs the large cast who are constantly on the move, in and out of rapidly changing scenes where they reset the props and often switch to other character roles.  The overall effect at times feels like Our Town and at other times, like we are in a park watching a San Francisco Mime Troupe protest play.  The decision to cast this 1936 play in Vermont with people of color and with women in roles that do not fit those times but more reflect our era increases the parallels to the similar political circumstances today of that yesteryear, lily-white period.

Throughout the story’s telling, the strolling folks offer parenthetical remarks and verbal scene setters before plunging into the next scene, with those scenes often marked in precisely bounded boundaries and appropriate moods by the excellent lighting design of Alexander V. Nichols.  Set pieces designed by Rachel Hauck appear and disappear with ease and almost without any interruption of action, given the choreographing of the cast and the use of the time to set up the next scene in their comments to the audience.  Meg Neville’s costumes beautifully establish the times and the positions in society and become darker and more menacing as the second act’s post-election, apocalyptic occurrences unfold.  Paul James Prendergast has both composed music and created the sounds of crowds, jails, and snow-packed back roads to enhance the many and varied scenes of the play.

Tom Nelis is the town’s editor, Doremus Jessup, bringing homespun, high integrity aspects that Jimmy Stewart often showed on the big screen.  Described by his daughter, Sissy (Carolina Sanchez), as “the man who’s favorite bedtime story was Thomas Jefferson,” Doremus is the advocate for justice and trusted friend to all who deeply espouses freedom and equality.  Mr. Nelis fully embodies a believable man of the local press who must make tough decisions when to acquiesce for the sake of his family’s safety and when to risk everything in order to say ‘enough is enough.’

David Nellis as Bizz Windrip
The cast is fully populated with wonderfully nuanced, peculiar, frightening, and heroic characters -- all skillfully portrayed by each member.  If there are particular stand-outs, among them would be David Kelly who takes on a Dr. Jeckyl/Mr. Hyde pair of roles by playing both the upstanding farmer Buck Titus and the paramount of evil himself, Buzz Windrip.  In each role, he brings the voice, the stance, and the demeanor to make us believe his words and his beliefs – both the good and the bad. 

Excellent also is Deidre Henry as the town’s saloon keeper, Lorinda Pike, who brings moxie, courage, and passion as well as compassion to a woman who becomes key to underground resistance in the ‘new order’ of the play’s second half.  Gerardo Rodriguez and Mark Kenneth Smaltz are auto mechanic friends who represent in fun and pointed manners the communist and socialist thinking of the times.  Scott Coopwood is a sleazy, sneaky, and altogether scary Shad Ledue, long-time employee of the Jessup family who ‘rises’ to high ranks in the Nazi-like Minutemen Militia.  Charles Shaw Robinson is equally detestable, as well he should be, as both the hateful man of God, Bishop Prang, and as an Ivy League lawyer-turned-citizen-judge-and-jury for the rampaging, murdering Militia.  The list goes on and on for a cast that delivers in all the parts portrayed in this panoramic collection of scenes that become more and more depressing and fatalistic by the passing minute of the play’s one hundred twenty.

If there is a fault of the script and the overall fine production, it is perhaps that as the play progresses, melodrama takes over; and the stage becomes a bit too similar to the propaganda films of the war-year 1940s or of the communist-fearing 1950s.  It also feels like this play is preaching to the choir as it plays to its Berkeley audiences.  No fear, doubt, or possible prediction that the play raises has probably not been felt or discussed by every single person there.  Perhaps if the play were presented in some red state where the Trump vote and win seems inevitable, the play might cause some needed discussion; but here in the Bay Area, it feels like, “Yeah, we already know all that.”

But in terms of production and acting quality overall, Berkeley Repertory Company certainly can be proud of this world premiere.  It Can’t Happen Here makes its points loud and clear, hopefully fully convincing every audience member to vote in November and to hit the phone banks for their candidates of choice between now and then.

Rating: 4 E

It Can’t Happen Here continues through November 6, 2016 (two days before Election Day) at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne