Tuesday, October 31, 2017

"The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler"

The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler
Jeff Whitty

Caitlin Papp & Juanita Harris
In a wonderfully directed and acted production at Dragon Productions Theatre, The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler is a hilarious, Vaudevillian-like glimpse of the afterlife of fictional characters.  This is a first-class, must-see outing that will delight every lover of stage and film as the fictional stars of today and yesteryear parade before us in a wild, wiley, and sometimes totally whacky Hedda like none before her.

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway:  https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj101.html.

Rating: 5 E

The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler continues through November 19, 2017 at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City, CA.  Tickets are available online at dragonproductions.net or by calling 650-493-2006.
Photo Credit: Dragon Theatre Productions Company

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"The Eva Trilogy"

The Eva Trilogy
Barbara Hammond

Julia McNeal
With ocean waves crashing somewhere in an unseen nearby and invisible sea gulls noisily swooping overhead, she sits on the stage’s lone brick doorstep. Forehead furrowed deep for someone only in midlife, cheeks alternating between long and pooched but always with cheerful dimples, and red hair giving away her Irish heritage almost as quickly as her delightful but understandable brogue, she talks to no one in particular but maybe to us.  Words tumble out continuously like a dripping faucet that cannot be turned off, and her eyes glisten with excited almost frenetic energy as she lectures to the gulls on subjects from Jesus’s thirst for water while on the cross to the original woman with her own name and “the business with the snake the and apple.” She also moves about her life from her childhood to her first love-making with a kid named Jimmy.  But throughout, the common thread of her rambling is her returning to a long-ago memory or a moment’s ago experience with her Mam, who lies inside dying of Parkinson’s.

Julia McNeal
For nearly an hour, Julia McNeal holds the audience in rapt, almost breathless attention as she in nonstop monologue is Eva Malloy, a daughter who escaped Ireland and family to live for years with little abandon in Paris but who has returned to her home in Ireland to help care for Eileen, her suffering mother.  Eden is the first of three one-act plays in Barbara Hammond’s The Eva Trilogy, now receiving its world premiere at Magic Theatre.  The tour de force performance by Ms. McNeal in this one-woman first act is just a taste of a fascinating three hours that are at times hypnotic, at times startling, and at other times funny, touching, fanciful, and yes, confusing.  Each act can well stand alone as its own story and play; but together the package is wondrous in its exploration of the ravages and effects of personal loss and how to come to peace with that loss.

Lisa Anne Porter & Rod Gnapp
While Eden takes place at the very end of Eileen’s long journey toward death as narrated by her daughter Eva, Enter the Road occurs some time in the ensuing weeks or months as those close to Eileen share their reflections and biases concerning enduring one’s own or another’s sustained illness.  More specifically, Eva’s sister Teresa (Lisa Anne Porter), her husband Eamon (Rod Gnapp), Eileen’s hospice caregiver Roisin (Amy Nowak), and the local parish priest Father O’Leary (Justin Gillman) confront their own and each other’s views concerning the role Eva had in relieving her mother’s suffering, in “helping her cross over.”  Set in what is probably a courtroom during the sentencing stage but with aspects of talk-show television studio, the four approach stand-up mikes in somewhat random, non-associated manners – at times appearing to be aware and to hear each other and at other times, seemingly reflecting/debating in solitude.  Time and place also jumps around as each person speaks of what it was like to be day-in and day-out with the sick and dying Eileen.  All also give very pointed and/or poignant views of Eva’s appearance from Paris to care for her mother while Teresa and Eamon went away on a much-needed break. Their own conflicting views and the differences among them are accentuated by the powerfully timed movements orchestrated by Director Loretta Greco where their bodies pass and almost collide and yet with each person appearing as if pacing on a stage alone in thought and individual struggle of conscience. 

Rod Gnapp & Justin Gillman
Each of the four leaves a memorable impression of the local, small-town persona portrayed.  There’s the rather self-righteous, young priest who does not show much budge from strict scripture interpretation whose judging, uptight, and fastidious manners that Mr. Gillman provides him are seen in how he dresses without a wrinkle, looks with disdain on opinions different from his, or holds himself erect as an arrow.  Rod Gnapp’s Eamon is a gosh-darn nice guy who clearly loved and enjoyed his mother-in-law, suffered with her suffering, and totally believes his sister-in-law knew how best to help her Mam in her dying moments.  His wife Teresa teeters back-and-forth on how much sympathy she has or does not have for her sister and how much agreement or antipathy she has for the accusing priest, with Ms. Porter showing the exasperation of a woman who has lost one loved one and is not sure whether she can bear to lose a second or not.  Finally, as hospice nurse Rosin, Amy Novak powerfully provides in words and pained but understanding expressions what it is like to be with someone as death approaches and what a person like Eileen often is dying (literally) to have happen as the end approaches.  Together, the ensemble of four delivers a captivating, thought-provoking The Roar.

Caleb Cabrera & Julia McNeal
Just as Shakespeare often does, playwright Barbara Hammond takes Eva and a young, lost hiker named Tom in No Coast Road into the magical woods to find healing, resolution, and peace-of-soul from losses both have experienced.  Hana S. Kim provides both a set and projection design that establishes a remote wilderness clearing amidst trees and dancing nymphs (the latter whimsically portrayed in video by Megan Trout).  Combined with beautifully scripted lighting effects of Stephen Strawbridge and subtle sound effects and a low-humming musical composition both by David Van Tieghem, the third act is as much dream as outdoor reality.  Ms. Greco directs the two-to-three-dozen, short scenes that remind one of a night’s repose where dreams come and go as the body tosses and turns, finally falling into the deep, desired sleep as the night’s sequence reaches a much-sought resolution.

Julia McNeal & Caleb Cabrera
Eva returns in this third hour, now a much older woman -- a forested hermit with wildly flying hair of white and various raggedy garments covering her slumping, limping body (one now minus a leg).  A beautiful specimen of a young man collapses at her open-air homestead, lost on a hike that has a mission to become clear as their special relationship develops.  Along with another stellar performance by Ms. McNeal as an Eva who is still prone to spill forth non-stop her stories and observations, Caleb Cabrera is outstanding as he slowly unlocks who Tom really is and what his mission in this hike is.  Together, they find in the magic of this surreal setting answers and solace as well as rest of heart and soul.

Not every minute of the three hours of Ms. Hammond’s The Eva Trilogy is always understandable as to what is exactly happening and why, but never is there a minute that is not intriguing.  In the end, answers to lingering questions are not always answered for us, but there is a sighing sense of resolution that enduring a terrible loss (whether a loved one, one’s freedom, or something as fundamental as one’s own leg) is possible given time, help of a fellow human being, and maybe just a little magic.

Rating: 4 E

The Eva Trilogy continues through November 12, 2017 at The Magic Theatre at Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at 415-441-8822 or online at www.magictheatre.org

Photos by Jennifer Reilly

Friday, October 27, 2017

"Small Mouth Sounds"

Small Mouth Sounds
Bess Wohl

The Cast of Small Mouth Sounds
What happens if we allow silence to dominate our world – at least the silence of our own voices?  What might we hear if words no longer clutter our day-to-day lives?  In Bess Wohl’s 2016 Off-Broadway hit, Small Mouth Sounds, six seekers of needed solace arrive for a week of forested retreat, reflection, and possible resurrection from various personal traumas and tragedies – a week where they are to refrain from any talking except when directed by their Teacher. 

With talk being mostly absent during the one hour, forty-minute production now arriving on tour at American Conservatory Theatre’s Strand stage, what emerges is a brilliantly conceived, inventively directed, and superbly acted collage of silent interactions that are hilarious, touching, titillating, heartwarming, and often, tearfully sad.  The result is a one-act play that seems to fly by in no time, that takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions, and that entertains to the max during every passing minute – all accomplished by stripping away the words and leaving us with subtle (and not so subtle) gestures, grimaces, and Small Mouth Sounds.

The Cast of Small Mouth Sounds
One by one, six retreaters arrive to find six folding chairs lined in a row such that they do not look at each other but look at us and at a Teacher that we never see but only hear.  Jan (Connor Barrett) is a tall, middle-aged man who appears to be a combination of nervous, scared, and yet eager.  Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) immediately rolls up his tight jean grinning and assumes various yoga positions in his bare feet while “ohm-ing.”  With a tight-knit cap on his head, Ned (Ben Beckley) comes in quietly and non-assumedly whereas twenty-something Alicia (Brenna Palughi) arrives late and loud, bundled in enough coats for Alaska and with a bag full of what appears is likely contraband (no food, drinks, or cell phones allowed).  In between those latter two, Judy (Cherie Snow) and Joan (Socorro Santiago) enter clearly as a couple of at least friends if not more, with Joan’s face full of wondrous anticipation and Judy’s full of mixed horror and disbelief that she is actually there.  And from somewhere in front of them and behind us, a voice dripping in guru wisdom begins the week with “There was once a little green frog.”

Orville Mendoza is the supposedly well-known and celebrated Teacher whose voice is the predominant one heard during the entire play.  He gently spills forth in sing-song fashion platitudes and phrases right out of many a self-help book.  He also openly shares his own personal dreams of the previous night and current woes that have nothing to do with anything.  To a mixture of confused and amused faces, he recounts, “Last night I dreamed a lawn mower was mowing a lawn” while another time he is almost giddy about little blue pills he is taking for his cold.  And yet we and the six-in-silence soon begin to realize that any learning and insight gained from this week is not likely not to come from the Teacher’s lectures but from what they discover through relationships that begin to develop, build, and even blossom (or wilt away) with no words attached.

Each of the six in retreat has a number of moments of acting brilliance.  Some occur as they head to their humble nightly place of rest -- a bare, wooden floor that appears as Scenic Designer Laura Jellinek’s raised and boxed-in meeting room recedes silently into the background.  Finding their ways among invisible doors and walls, the six unroll their bamboo mats onto the floor in pairs of two roommates.  We soon get to watch through Rachel Chavkin’s deliciously delightful direction three sets of roommates settling in (or not) to their first night together.  Much fun ensues for us as an audience, if not always for the paired roomies. 

Roaming somewhere outside are the neighborhood’s bears, a threat that will eventually lead to the evening’s biggest round of guffaws from the audience.  And the moon in the wilderness sky is not the only moon these meditators (or we) are going to see shining as clear as daylight in the dark of night.

But for all the laughs we get to have at this group’s expense, there are increasingly almost as many stunning and serious moments where we and they learn why each has come to this retreat.  Past pain still very much present is common among the six for a variety of personal reasons – from lost loved ones to life-threatening illness to a series of personal tragedies that even a National Enquirer reporter would find hard to believe.  Confronting their own and each other’s pains and finding ways often tender and always unspoken to comfort are some of the most memorable moments of the evening for us as audience.

Cherene Snow
To a person, each actor is uniquely wonderful in the role cast.  Facial expressions speak volumes like Ms. Snow’s ways of turning Judy’s crunched up frown into a sudden smile that lights up her whole being.  Equally proficient at broadcasting many emotions with never a word spoken is Ms. Santiago’s Joan, who almost bursts at times with glee from a sudden ‘ah-ha’ and at other times, lays bare raw feelings kept deep inside.

Ben Beckley & Edward Chin-Lyn
The wild spin and whirl of all four, lanky limbs becomes tornadic as Connor Barrett’s Jan is constantly attacked by unseen mosquitoes (while no one else seems to be bothered) while the pantomimes used by Mr. Beckley as his Ned tries to negotiate personal space with his roomie Rodney are fabulously fun to watch.  Rodney himself, as portrayed by Mr. Chin-Lyn, is without an ounce of fat or a slither of modesty as he proudly pumps his muscles, stretches his every tendon, and prances around in yoga-like calm (while making sure everyone else is watching). 

Brenna Palughi
But among this cast of stars, Brenna Palughi particularly stands out in her portrayal of the oft-discombobulated, awkwardly out-of-place, and yet thoroughly intriguing Alicia.  Alicia is actually the only attendee whose intention for being there is never discovered by her cohorts or by us, but those swollen eyes that are nearly always on the verge of tears speak volumes for what must be going on deep inside.  The person who most defies all the rules (cell phone on under her blanket at night, bags of chips and Gold Fish snuck into the cabin, gum smacking during the group sessions – for just a few examples) is also the one who diligently writes down every word the Teacher says and who keeps looking with sad but hopeful gazes at the carefully folded piece of paper where she has written her goal for being on this retreat.  Ms. Palughi may be the one person we learn the least in “facts” but the one that definitely leaves a lasting impression of what it means to face one’s demons with gumption and courage.

Ms. Jellinek’s stark but beautiful set is put into forested context by three back panels of projections designed by Andrew Schneider that bring the beauty of the wilderness into our awareness.  In a play without words, other sounds play a big role, and Stowe Nelson’s sound design allows the even smallest of sounds to take their place on the stage and in the story.  Mike Inwood’s lighting compliments the overall staging while Tilly Grimes costumes provide character descriptions that we miss from no verbal introductions of each person.

So much occurs with so little said in this wonderfully fascinating production of Small Mouth Sounds.  This is a play I could easily see a second or third time because there are so many cues simultaneously coming from this superbly directed cast as they each discover in themselves and in each other what the Teacher describes as “your brilliance, your juiciness, your specialness ... your enlightenment.”  They and we learn, “All you have to do is listen.”

Rating: 5 E

Small Mouth Sounds continues through December 10, 2017 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street.  Tickets are available in person at the Geary Theatre Box Office, 405 Geary Street Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday or at the Strand Box Office Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (or curtain).  Tickets are also available at 415-749-2228 and online at www.act-sf.org.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson

Sunday, October 22, 2017

"An Enemy of the People"

An Enemy of the People
Henrik Ibsen, Adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

The Cast of An Enemy of the People
Rebecca Lenkiewicz has stripped Ibsen’s original play of some of its extraneous moralizing and sidetracks for a slimmer version of An Enemy of the People that brings the nineteenth century story right into 2017 relevance.  Pear Theatre is now staging this 2008 adaptation where costumes denote a yesteryear long past but where language, circumstances, reactions, and accusations/counter-accusations smack of today.

For my entire review, please click to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj100.html

Rating: 3.5 E

An Enemy of the People continues through November 12, 2017 at Pear Theatre at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Betsy Kruse Craig

Friday, October 20, 2017

"La Muerte Baila"

La Muerte Baila
Rebecca Martinez
Teatro Visíon

There is palpable excitement stirring as the curtain rises on a darkened underworld as all skeletal souls wait to hear the bells on earth begin to chime to announce el día de los muertos (the Day of the Dead).  Those bells are their invitation to cross over for one day and re-enact a favorite memory, to visit a missed loved one, or just to relish the heat of the sun on their bony faces. 

Rebecca Martinez (with help from the Milagro Ensemble) creates this scenario as the opening of her 2015 play, La Muerta Baila (The Death Dance), now in a rousing, high-energy production by Teatro Visíon of San Jose.  Staged in Spanish, supertitles are available for those in need of English translation. 

My full review can be read on Talkin' Broadway, San Jose/Silicon Valley region: 


Rating: 3 E

La Muerte Baila continues through October 22, 2017 by Teatro Visíon at the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Avenue, San Jose.  Tickets are available at http://www.teatrovision.org.

Thursday, October 19, 2017


Robert O’Hara

Teri Whipple, Clive Worsley, Anne Darragh & Jennie Brick
We are here “to encircle with truth and love today in the open air ... Today, we step in.”  So says a sister to three of her adult siblings gathered together in a city park setting where the main features are a chain-link fence, a picnic table next to the public bathrooms, and a rusty grill ready for a barbecue.  The “step in” she is proposing is “an intervention” with a fifth member of their brother/sister group on this, her birthday -- a sister they all call “Zippety-Boom” whose crack and alcohol habits have landed her too often on some street curb ranting at passers-by.  That the other siblings have their own excessive habits of popping pain pills like jelly beans, downing Jack Daniels like it was soda pop, or going through cans of beer like there is no tomorrow somehow fails to register with them as anything but normal.  And while the one sister named Lillie Anne is zealous to save poor Zippety-Boom, the other three seem more in line to agree with James T’s conclusion of “Why on God’s green earth do we still give a damn?” 

And so opens Barbecue, Robert O’Hara’s bitingly hilarious, incisively irreverent, and deliciously raunchy look at one family, its convoluted relationships, and the individual and collective excesses, prejudices, and self-destructive behaviors of its members.  San Francisco Playhouse opens the company’s fifteenth season with a production guaranteed to send waves of laughter, shock, and surprise while at the same time challenging its audiences’ assumptions concerning race, poverty, and the core family in today’s America. 

Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, Adrian Roberts, Kehinde Koyejo & Halili Knox
Two Midwestern families – one white and one African-American – alternate scenes populated with bags of chips, drugs, and booze, each family dealing with the same issue of a how to convince a sister to enter a rehabilitation center (one that happens to be faraway in Alaska). That each member of the two families also shares the same name and biases of a likened member of the other family as well as mirrors the person’s quirky behaviors, overuse of foul language, and a tendency to talk only in shouts and screams is just the first twist and turn of many to come in this brilliantly written, superbly directed production.  Every time it seems that we as audience finally figure out what is actually going on, another birthday balloon pops; and the story takes a 180-degree turn in a hilarious direction totally unforeseen.  This is a play where as audience we need seat belts to ensure we do not fall out of our seats; for the ninety-minute ride is full of swerves, bumps, and sudden stops and starts.  All we can do is hold on and laugh with eyes ever opening wider in disbelief of the newest revelation.

Margo Hall not only directs this fast-paced, two-act play with incredible ingenuity and insight (and a flamboyant penchant for the brazen and the bizarre), she also stars as one of the two Zippety-Booms (Z-B’s given name at birth being Barbara).  She and Susi Damilano are both exceptional in their parallel roles as the fallen sister who has such unpredictable tendencies for wild, explosive reactions that brother James T -- or should I say, both brothers James T – has brought along a Taser gun just for insurance.  For all the surprise their siblings are looking to spring on each of the two drug-addicted Barbaras (equine therapy, yoga, and a ropes course in Alaska, for example), both Barbaras have some shocks of their own that will leave family members and audience members equally reeling in stunned astonishment.

Clive Worsley and Adrian Roberts play the lighter and darker skinned versions of James T, and each comes hilariously close to embodying one of Lillie Anne’s descriptions of James T: “You are in your trailer-park, ass-hole time of life.”  Give each a beer (or two or six), and even the whiter will probably agree with the blacker’s response to a sister’s plea to help her corral Barbara onto an Alaskan-bound plane: “I ain’t gotta do nothing but be black and die.” 

Pills spill out of their hiding spot in her cleavage while ash falls from an ever-present cigarette.  That is true for each of the two Adeline’s (Jennie Brick and Edris Cooper-Aniforwoshe), and both have verbal venom ready to spill faster than vodka does from her glass whenever aroused by any of the other siblings, especially James T.  “I’ll beat you ‘til I see white meat” is just one of many threats that come from both of their foul-language-filled mouths.  Both actresses are a hoot as they sit on their folding chair thrones huffing and puffing their cynic-filled sentiments.

Terri Whipple, Clive Worsley & Jennie Brick
In fringed cut-offs barely covering what is supposed to be covered, each Marie (Teri Whipple and Kehinde Koyejo) is so tightly wound that the spring is just about to pop as they both bounce all around the park setting, chugging Jack Daniels and clutching a purse whose contents surely include powdered substances no police officer should see.  The f-word falls freely from their lips at a volume anyone within blocks must surely hear, and each actor draws constant audience heehaws for her crazy, twisted antics.

As do-gooder Lillie Anne, Anne Darragh and Halili Knox each has the near-impossible job of convincing her boozy, druggy, leave-me-alone siblings to help in saving Barbara.  But each has a few tricks up her sleeve and some convincing reasons for their cooperation – just more of the ongoing, unexpected revelations that keep this production sizzling and popping like a string of firecrackers.

Bill English has once again designed a superbly perfect set – this one so realistic that we can almost smell the foul scents coming from the park’s bathrooms that border much too closely to the snack-laden picnic table.  Brooke Jenning’s costumes are right off the shelves of some discount store in a strip mall and provide their own laughs even without any scripted lines.  Cliff Caruthers and Wen-Ling Llao’s designed sound and light respectively leave no doubt that we are somewhere deep in America’s southern middle where the sun shines hot, bright, and sticky and where the music is always loud and blaring.

For all that this review has said thus far, the details are only the tip of the iceberg for what really happens in the bulk of the play.  Using what is now an outdated Disney term, this is an “E-ride” that is not to be missed since it cannot be described without experiencing.  San Francisco Playhouse has a winner that sets the bar high for this fifteenth season, and my guess is that any one who sees Barbecue may still be laughing and shaking a disbelieving head all the way until the end of the six-play season.

Rating: 5 E

Barbecue continues through November 11, 2017 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

"The Prince of Egypt"

The Prince of Egypt
Stephen Schwartz (Music & Lyrics); Philip LaZebnik (Book)
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (in collaboration with Fredericia Teater, Denmark)

Diluckshan Jeyaratnam & Jason Gotay
Almost twenty years later, the creators of the 1998 animated film, The Prince of Egypt – Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Philip LaZebnik (book) – have penned a stage musical by the same name as the film.  The Prince of Egypt is truly a ‘world’ premiere as it first opens at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in collaboration with Fredericia Teater, Denmark, where it will next be staged in early 2018. So many aspects of the world premiere The Prince of Egypt are noteworthy, including the assembling of a racially diverse cast that sends a strong message about who really shaped the religions of today -- religions with many more common bonds than they are often afforded currently.  With some shoring up of the musical numbers, The Prince of Egypt should have a long life as it hopefully continues to travel the globe in the years to come.

For my full review, please follow the link to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj98.html.

Rating: 4 E

The Prince of Egypt continues through November 5, 2017 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org/box-office/ 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

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"This Bitter Earth"

This Bitter Earth
Harrison David Rivers

H. Adam Harris & Michael Hanna
Grief over a devastating loss unfolds as a series of sometimes disconnected memories whose recall follows no particular timeline in Harrison David Rivers’ riveting, moving This Bitter Earth, now in its world premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.  As one man’s mental videos play themselves out on the stage, parallel and important story lines emerge on a number of levels that grab audience heartstrings and pull at our emotions for a variety of reasons.  And as emotions rise to the point of near tears, questions -- difficult questions -- emerge that cannot be easily answered and must not be ignored.

What does it mean to be a black man – much less a gay, black man -- in America in the twenty-first century?  How much can a white man – even your white lover – really understand and empathize with you as a black man?  What does it mean if he turns activist in Black Lives Matter while you prefer to stay at home and write a play?  What if your budding relationship coincides with the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, the congregants of a black church in South Carolina, and Jamar Clark (the last only a few miles from the apartment the two of you share)?  What if he leaves yet again to march, to protest, and to raise his voice that your and every other black life matters ... all against your plea for him not to go?  What does it mean if you and he love each other so much but sometimes hurt each other even more? 

These are just a few of the many questions that the playwright forces Jesse Howard (and us as audience) to face as his memory flashes through a couple dozen scenes of his several-year, up-and-down relationship with Neil Finley-Darden.  Jesse is a young, African American student trying to finish a thesis that is taking the form of a play about Essex Hemphill, a gay, black poet who unabashedly embraced in his 1980s writings sensuality and sexuality, even in the midst of the AIDS crisis.  He meets Neil, a product of a lifetime of private schools and a wealthy household, who also loves and can quote Hemphill.  The more rotund, soft-spoken Jesse and the long-haired, petite, and totally out-spoken Neil find sparks flying between them over coffee.  Theirs becomes a relationship whose storyline is like so many others of any two lovers with its peaks and dips – except theirs is also interspersed with repeated police shootings of black men that turn their (and thousands of others’) individual and mutual lives upside down.

H. Adam Harris & Michael Hanna
As Jesse, H. Adam Harris gives a performance that increasingly tears at one’s heart as he shares more and more of his and Neil’s story.  His silky voice has just enough Southern ring to it almost to hypnotize the listener, sometimes quivering in its fervor and sometimes lingering a few extra beats onto the ending of the last word so we can relish in the latest detail of his story a bit longer.  His range of emotional displays is tremendously impressive with contagious laughter, coy teasing, angry outbursts, and tear-filled anguish all sharing star billing among his expressive repertoire.  But when he and the playwright combine forces to bring Jesse to a new level of understanding himself as a black man, as a gay man, and as someone who has suffered great loss, that is when H. Adam Harris particularly leaves a lasting impression among a spellbound audience.

Michael Hanna & H. Adam Harris
Contrasting Jesse is so many ways is his lover, Neil.  Michael Hanna captures the nervous agitation, the driving impatience, and the reluctance to compromise of a young man out to make the world more just for those he sees as being oppressed and worse – murdered – by those in the authority and majority.  Is he just another guilty, white liberal jumping on the bus when the news cameras arrive; or is his heart sincere to the core as he heads out yet to another long bus ride to a protest in some far off city?  Mr. Hanna’s Neil is certainly over-zealous, but his portrayal has to lead one to see him as the latter.  He also readily exposes Neil’s warts; and he allows Neil’s fun and sexy side to emerge as genuine and believable.  Together with Jesse, they are a couple that we have no doubt belongs together – if they can survive the angst and anger each sometimes brings out in the other.

While sometimes during the play it is difficult to establish just when the current scene is actually taking place along the timeline of Jesse’s and Neil’s relationship, the excellent dramaturgy of Ari Rice in the program provides useful milestones of the national events mentioned in the script that help keep us on track.  The direction of Ed Decker ensures that the dreamlike sequences flow smoothly and beautifully one after the other.  He and the playwright also understand how to use interspersed moments of giddiness and silliness as well as of tender and sensual lovemaking to help balance the overall serious topics and questions the play raises.

Devin Kasper has created a stunning set that accentuates both the here-and-now and the wispy nature of memories that come and go.  The lighting of Robert Hahn helps establish that what we are seeing is largely interactions as remembered.  Projections designed by Sarah Phykitt clarify settings in wonderful and creative ways while the sound designed by James Ard puts us smack dab in the middle of a gay nightclub or in the heart of a crowd’s protest. 

World premiere productions often have a lot of rough spots in them in their first outing.  As staged by New Conservatory Theatre Company, Harrison David Rivers’ This Bitter Earth – which is a commission at the invitation of NCTC’s Artistic Director Ed Decker – is already a well-polished, well-executed piece of compelling theatre.  While so many new works never get reproduced past the premiere, This Bitter Earth is a story of our time that deserves and needs to be seen by audiences across the country.

Rating: 4.5 E

This Bitter Earth continues through October 22, 2017 on the Decker Stage of of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

"Thomas and Sally"

Thomas and Sally
Thomas Bradshaw

Mark Anderson Phillips & Tara Pacheco
If Thomas Bradshaw were a writer of history books, then that subject might very well be THE favorite of school kids across America.  Instead, he is a playwright who has created a detailed, engaging, sometimes a bit shocking, and often quite funny timeline of our third president and the woman who was the love of his life for his final thirty-seven years.  That she also happened to be owned by him as his slave – although he preferred to call her and his the other of his one hundred thirty-plus slaves his “servants” – is now well known by most modern Americans.  However, few of us probably know the full story as so meticulously outlined in this three-plus-hour world premiere of Thomas and Sally now on the Marin Theatre Company stage.  The “n-word” spoken freely, a founding father prancing around in only his birthday suit, and statements like “Africans may not have the intelligence of the white race but you’ll not find people with bigger hearts” are all part of this telling that cannot help but make the audience squirm uncomfortably.  But after taking a few gulps of air and letting the story further unfold, audience members also cannot help but gain new insights about not only our collective history and one of the best-loved of our presidents, but also new insights into some of the messes we are in today that have their roots in yesteryears long past.

Sitting in their dorm room, two roomies struggle with the demands of college life.  Karen must finish a history paper due tomorrow, and Simone is seeking a private place to relieve tension via her dildo that Karen borrowed without asking (and did not clean).  When Karen (Rosie Hallett) discovers that Simone (Ella Dershowitz) is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson (the subject of her paper) and his slave Sally Heming, she is ecstatic and asks for more details of the family history.  Imagine her shock but soon fascination as closet doors open and that history begins to play out right in their dorm room. 

The time is suddenly 1735, and the owner of Sally’s grandma (Betty Hemings) – the white owner, Captain John Hemings, actually being Sally’s grandfather – is unsuccessfully trying to buy her from a plantation owner.  Time jumps ahead twenty-six years, and Betty is now caring for the motherless Martha Wayles (who will become Thomas Jefferson’s wife) while also becoming the mother of a number of children, several whose father is also Martha’s father, John.  The last of these is Sally, born at Monticello, having come there as part of the marriage bounty of over 100 slaves that Jefferson acquired when he married Martha Wayles.

Charlette Speigner, Ella Dershowitz & Rosie Hallett
That the bloodlines and relationships are all very intertwined in what could be a confusing mishmash is not an issue in the fast-paced parade of characters that continue to come out of closet doors of Karen’s and Simone’s dorm room.  Simone herself dons in front of us dresses of the eighteenth century and becomes Jefferson’s bride, Martha. Karen watches in full wide-eyed fascination from whatever perch on desk, shelf, or corner she can find to have a good view while also staying out of the way of her term paper being written right before her eyes.

Fifty-plus years of early American history continue to unfold before us as names familiar (Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams) and unknown (mostly slaves owned by Jefferson) appear in scene after scene where the story of Thomas and Sally slowly takes shape as a love story both sweet and sad.  Along the way, many ‘facts’ and lessons of both history and civics are pitched by the characters, making Mr. Bradshaw’s play at times feel like an experimental learning device aimed at normally bored high school students.  This is especially true during some of the conversations between the two college roomies where mini-lectures of Simone feel like footnotes to fill Karen (and us) in on some of the era’s details we may not know.  But, just when one feels maybe I should be taking notes in case there is a test, out of the closet doors come a whole new set of interesting characters who bring more intrigue to this mixture of families, relationships, and lovers who all somehow helped shape our country’s foundations.

Tara Pacheco
Tara Pacheco takes the Sally Hemings who most modern Americans know in name only and brings her to full life as a young woman torn between her genuine love for the man who owns her as property and her driving desire to be free to pursue her own unfettered life.  Ms. Pacheco is brilliant in portraying both halves of Sally’s internal battle with much credible nuance.  Small shifts in her countenance reveal the complex, strong character of Sally’s personality as she weighs the pull of soft caresses and erotic pleasure and the counter pull of assuming her place in society as the intelligent, strong-willed woman she is apart from Jefferson.  (That latter choice becomes a possible reality for her during their years in France while Jefferson serves as the U.S. minister to a country that is willing to award any slave on its soil complete freedom.)

Mark Anderson Phillips & Cameron Matthews
Equally stellar is Mark Anderson Phillips as Sally’s owner and lover, Thomas Jefferson.  With a new Mozart tune – Mozart being the current rave in American Revolutionary times – always only a hum away as he walks about, his Jefferson is slightly quirky and awkward with teenage boy mannerisms in a body of a thirty-something man.  Prone to bouts of silly laughter and sudden outbursts of enthusiastic declarations, this Jefferson is also clearly smitten with Sally Hemings in ways seen in his soft touches, kind voice, and starry eyes.  But Mr. Phillips’ Jefferson is also a troubling conundrum as he declares himself “the foremost abolitionist of the world” who sees slavery as a “moral blotch on our nature” but who cannot bring himself to free his own treasury of slaves, including the woman he most evidently loves.  In the end, Mark Anderson Phillips complicates in wonderful ways this American hero of heroes, leaving us questioning any tendencies toward our own blind admiration while also still finding ourselves liking this icon in new and different ways.

Tara Pacheco & William Hodgson
The cast of this premiere delivers excellence in all the many roles portrayed, with some members taking on as many as five persona.  William Hodgson is Sally’s brother, James Hemings, who gains the chance to be trained as a French chef and the opportunity to become schooled in the French Revolution concepts of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.  His James lights up with energetic zeal as he strives to please the man who keeps telling him, “Think of me as your father.”  But his eyes also show much skepticism of that same man’s true intentions since the supposed father is still his master. Those same eyes are also drawn longingly to a possible horizon where freedom exists in France to open his own restaurant.

Robert Sicular & Mark Anderson Phillips
Another Hemings sibling, Robert, is ably played by Cameron Matthews – a handsome and eager-to-please valet of Jefferson’s who replaces ol’ Jupiter, a sweet but less-educated butler (L. Peter Callender) who is literally put out to the pasture (or at least the stables) by a master who is more enthralled by the younger man.  Scott Coopwood and Robert Sicular each take on multiple roles, including respectively John Adams and Benjamin Franklin – roles that allow them to reenact a similarly funny scene from the musical 1776 where the two convince a reluctant Jefferson to pen single-handedly the Declaration of Independence.  Charlette Speigner provides a poignant picture of what it meant to be a slave woman, Betty Hemings, who sires child after child with her owner/lover, showing both the treachery and the tenderness of the situation Fate placed her.

As he has time and again on the Marin Theatre stage (Guards at the Taj, Anne Boleyn, The Whipping Man), Jasson Minadakis once again proves his skills as a master director as he orchestrates without a hitch two time periods separated by 250 years yet often played simultaneously.  He also ensures the fifty years of history flies by seemingly in a flash, even though the play itself is long enough to require two intermissions. 

Into all the serious and even troubling themes and threads of the play, he and his creative team have woven much humor, often tongue-in-cheek.  Sean Fanning’s scenic design is a big player in that accomplishment, with hot-breathing lovers being wheeled out in an upright bed or with members of a century long past using a dorm room’s desk as a cutting block (aided by a nearby, electric, gooseneck lamp) or pulling out a pitcher of ale from the dorm ‘frig. 

Ashley Holvick has performed miracles with costumes that bring authenticity of era but that also are often donned and de-clothed while characters are shifting both roles and centuries.  Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound design creates its own magic, with audience members having to look twice to be sure the still fingers of Jefferson are actually not playing the violin perched under his chin.  Finally, Mike Post’s lighting design helps change a dorm room’s stark atmosphere into the atmospheres of a number of other locations and time periods – from European parlors to Monticello bedrooms.

Fifty years is a lot of time to cover in one play -- especially with all the convoluted family trees, bedroom intricacies, moral dilemmas, and famed historical figures contained within Thomas Bradshaw’s Thomas and Sally.  However, as produced in world premiere by Marin Theatre Company, the years are literally a few minutes each in length while being full of depth, intrigue, and thought-provoking moments.

Rating: 5 E

Thomas and Sally continues in world premiere through October 22, 2017 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA.  Tickets are available online at http://www.marintheatre.org or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne