Friday, November 16, 2018

"Everything Is Illuminated"

Everything Is Illuminated
Adapted by Simon Block, Based on the Novel by Jonathan Safran Foer

Julian López Morillas, Adam Burch & Jeremy Kahn
“No one arrives in this world from nowhere.”  The driving desire to know his own origins sends a young, aspiring writer in the late 1990s to the Ukraine in search of a woman in a picture identified as Augustine whom he believes saved his deceased grandfather as a boy from the Nazis during the Holocaust.  He has no more information except that his grandfather’s family lived in a shtetl called Trachimbrod – a town of mostly Jews literally wiped off the map by the Nazis. 

Based on a novel inspired by a similar but unsuccessful quest made by its author, Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated is a play with the same name as the novel and as a subsequent, 2005 movie.  The adapted play by Simon Block is now in its West Coast premiere at Aurora Theatre Company in a production both incredibly funny and heartbreakingly sad as well as fantastically unreal and starkly harsh in reality as the search for a family’s history becomes a mixture of created fiction and discovered fact.

After a grueling, twenty-six hour train ride, the twenty-something Jonathan arrives in the Ukrainian region where he believes his grandfather once lived.  He is met by his two guides who “take curious Jews where they want to go” as they search for information about families that are no more.  His guides are an animated, hyper-friendly contemporary-to-him named Alex -- whose command of English is hilariously barely past meager -- and  his sour-faced, gruff Grandfather, who speaks no English and poses as blind and deaf when he does not want to be disturbed by others.

Jeremy Kahn
Jeremy Kahn is the overly loud, rather dramatic, and habitually intense Jonathan  -- sometimes on the border of being too much so in Mr. Kahn’s quite zealous performance.  Jonathan has come to the Ukraine believing his online-selected guides are experts in the Jewish history of the area and will know exactly where to take him.  His crusade to know his origins have led him even to begin imagining in a journal the arrival of his great-great-great-great grandmother on the shores of a nearby river – a Moses-in-the-bulrushes-like story he is writing and that comes to life in his head and on our stage even as he is trying to find the mysterious Augustine.  His almost frenetic impatience and anxiety grow when he cannot understand the conversations – often heated with much shouting – between his two guides.  His nervousness of his guides’ credibility only increases when Alex says to him, “It doesn’t say that in our history books,” when Jonathan mentions how much the Ukrainians did not like Jews back during the time of the war.

Jeremy Kahn & Adam Burch
Adam Burch is extraordinarily exceptional in the role of Alex.  From our first glimpse of him as he sits in a café wearing shiny, work-out garb and bouncing his shoulders to the background music’s beat as if in a disco, his Alex commands the stage and much of the story.  He is often our narrator, always relating with a sparkle his amusement, sense of wonder, and sincere like for this Jonathan (whom he mispronounces with pride “Jonfen”) from the faraway States.  He brushes off as no big deal Jonathan’s concern about his black eye that his drunken father gave him or the repeated slaps across the face he receives from the old Grandfather who clearly does not want to be on this adventure.  But his Alex knows the importance to the family of earning the trust and the money of this wandering Jew from America and of the potential business he may bring or may destroy, depending on how successful they are in helping him.

Julian López-Morillas is the barking grandfather whose constantly growled references to “the fucking Jew” smacks of deep-seeded anti-Semitism. The Grandfather protests constantly about the American who does not eat meat (not even liver), who wants them to find a town no one claims to remember ever existing, and who is even hates his treasured dog, Sammy Davis, Jr. Jr. (The dog, by the way, provides us with bone-tickling scenes of a panicking Jonathan being licked by her invisible, in-heat self.) 

We begin to have hints that there is more to this elderly curmudgeon than his rough surface when we see something happen in the Grandfather’s eyes as he first sees Jonathan’s picture of Augustine and as he actually listens to why Jonathan wants to know about the history of a grandfather who lost the rest of his Ukrainian family.  For a few moments, there is a softening that suggests more empathy and understanding than his constant complaints and arguments would otherwise suggest.  And for all his acerbic remarks and dour persona, he defends himself to his grandson, “I am not a bad person; I am a good person who was born in a bad time.”

Adam Birch & Marissa Keltie
Marissa Keltie plays a variety of Ukrainian characters of the countryside, from a barmaid with no time for Alex’s flirting to a peasant in the field with threatening shovel, with no time for his inquisitions about a town called Trachimbrod.  The latter’s reaction to that town’s name is a mirror of each person in the play who first hears the name: A moment’s stunned silence and look of dread, followed by a quick denial of ever hearing of the place.

Adam Burch, Jeremy Kahn & Julian López Morillas
Tom Ross directs a first half of this two-hour, thirty-minute play often with light-hearted, comical touches that can border on cartoonish.  An all-day car ride through the countryside takes on laugh-out-loud dimensions when the auto -- consisting of two wooded chairs and a bench, all on rollers -- turns, twirls, and twists in all directions and combinations of position as the journey goes nowhere in finding the illusive Trachimbrod.  Kate Boyd’s scenic design makes big use of over-sized, yellow flowers from the Ukrainian countryside with lighting by Kurt Landisman adding patterned shadows of rotating suns and dappled canopies of trees.  Matt Stines creates the sounds of an old dog and older car, an idyllic countryside, a train-station café, and bone-shattering thunderstorms – all resulting in the story becoming ever the more vivid on a mostly bare stage where only suggestions of scenes are made.

In the second half, Jonathan’s quest becomes intermingled with an unexpected exploration by Alex of his own history.  Alex clearly knows little of his own past, wondering at one point to his Grandfather, “What did my great-grandparents do during the war?  ... Who did they save?”  The closer Jonathan comes to finding some of his own answers, the more questions begin to arise in Alex’s mind about his own heritage. 

Lura Dolas & Adam Burch
A chance meeting in the countryside with a meek, high-voiced, sweetly pleasant woman with long, white hair becomes a major discovery for Jonathan, the Grandfather, and ultimately Alex.  Her house that is a magical wall of shelved memories -- created through the masterful properties design of Eric Johnson -- becomes the foundation for multiple surprises.  As the old woman, Lura Dolas at one point provides one of the evening’s most spell-bounding, heart-wrenching sequences -- relating in carefully chosen, excruciatingly painful words a history that further unlocks memories and secrets of the Grandfather.  Subsequently, Mr. Lopez-Morillas also holds the audience in silent, stunned attention as the Grandfather’s heretofore-shuttered memories begin to pour forth.

The awarenesses that come to light in Everything Is Illuminated raise many questions as well as incite important truths.  Our histories are deep and are always with us whether we know the details or not – to the point we each probably sometimes do as Jonathan does in his journal and imagine in our minds from where our unknown histories long ago originated.  We are also reminded that our futures go beyond us and live on in legacies of the unborn, as is hinted by the Grandfather who emphatically says more than once, “A father is always responsible for his son.”  But what do we do when remembrance leads to incredible pain and guilt or when discovery ushers in scenes difficult to forgive even from those we love the most?  Are there times it is just better to imagine where we came from rather than actually find out?

The Aurora Theatre Company production of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (as adapted by Simon Block) lures us in with scenes silly yet intriguing, takes us on a journey where sunny skies darken as shadows grow, and lands us in discoveries difficult to accept but important to comprehend.  The play’s mixture of a writer’s real-time experience and his created fantasy results in an evening that cannot help but leave us with new regrets of never-conceived generations due to entire families lost as well as renewed appreciation of the generations saved and those who saved them.

Rating: 5 E

Everything Is Illuminated continues through December 9, 2018 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photo by David Allen

Monday, November 12, 2018

"In the Heights"

In the Heights
Lin Manuel Miranda (Music); Quiara Alegria Hudes (Book)

The Cast of In the Heights
In 2008, a musical that opened on Broadway and went on to win four Tonys that year (including Best Musical) quickly established itself as one that would influence a new generation of stage musicals.  Not only was the large cast all but one of Hispanic/Latino backgrounds who freely spoke much Spanish throughout, the music that In the Heights introduced to Broadway was the kind of freestyle rap and hip-hop beat that would one day be used to even a greater extent in the phenomenal, further ground-breaking Hamilton.  Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the music and starred in both shows, with Quiara Alegria Hudes (winner of 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her Water by the Spoonful) contributing the book.  In the Heights takes place in a largely Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York City, with its initial staging featuring an entire barrio of family owned businesses and a large cast of twenty-plus.

Custom Made Theatre Company has a reputation for taking big-stage, well-known musicals and daring to produce them on its rather miniscule stage in the intimate theatre barely seating fifty (e.g., Chess, Man of La Mancha, Next to Normal).  In each case, critics and audiences alike have applauded both the effort and the result.  To end its 2018 season, Custom Made Theatre Company tackles with much vim and vigor the rap, salsa, and captivating story of In the Heights, reducing the cast to an essential twelve and challenging scenic designer Mara Ishihara Zinky to create a variety of local businesses and homes using the interior of a local market and a versatile, rotating cart (which she does beautifully).  While the humor, heart, and heartache of the story of a neighborhood in transition is affecting in this Custom Made undertaking, the core of the musical – the music itself – too often falls short with a cast where some members cannot consistently deliver convincingly the score’s basic requirements.

Julio Chavez
Usnavi is a first-generation American owner of a small, neighborhood mercado (food and drink market) whose Dominican parents gave their newborn a name they had seen on a on a passing ship (U.S. Navy) as they arrived in this country.  His store is where neighbors tend to stop by each day for coffee, a bite, and the latest barrio news.  Julio Chavez commands the role of Usnavi with a personality magnetic and just enough blushing shyness (especially in regard the girl he likes, Vanessa) to make him especially likeable.  Usnavi opens the show with expressive hands and short-step, hip movements, rapping “In the Heights,” a delivery mode he continues in his own sung numbers throughout.  His quick clipping of the words is overall easy to understand (even for non-rap listeners) and full of emotional fervor.  (However, in the opening number and beyond, at times the sound system does not project his words as clearly or loudly as it should over the background, musical accompaniment -- a problem that persists off-and-on all evening for most of the performers.)

Usnavi’s love interest is Vanessa, who works at a local hair salon and who has ideas beyond just remaining in the Heights and marrying a local boy.  As Vanessa, Nora Fernandez Doane intensely stares into a future when “one day, I’m hopping that elevated train [the noisy one, outside her window] and I’m riding away.”  With one of the stronger voices of the cast, she sings “It Won’t Be Long Now.”  “I’m gonna fly, it want be long now, any day.”

Nina Rosario (Carla Gallardo) has already flown from the neighborhood as first from her collection of friends and family to go to college – something that leads all now to burst in pride.  But financial pressures at Stanford have led her to drop out after less than a year, and her return (and going four months without telling her parents she had already left the school) causes a major blow-up with her parents, Kevin (Sergio Lobito) and Camila (Bidalia E. Albanese). 

Bidalia E. Albanese, Sergio Lobito & Carla Gillardo
When her father decides to sell the family taxi company at a rock-bottom price to enable her to go back to school, more eruptions occur between him, his wife Camila, and Nina.  However, the biggest internal inferno is yet to come when the parents discover Nina and their long-time, trusted employee, Benny (Dedrick Weathersby) – a non-Spanish-speaking African American who has been heretofore treated largely like family – are romantically involved.  Ms. Albanese as mother and wife provides one of the evening’s most powerful moments when she repeated says “no” to all the scream-packed in-fighting of her family, singing a strong-willed, not-going-to-take-this-anymore “Enough.”

Mia Romero, Carla Gallardo, Elena Estér & Nora Fernandez Doane
La familia of this Heights neighborhood includes the hair salon’s gossipy owner who leans toward being overly dramatic with snap and style, Daniela (Mia Romero) and her employee, Carla, the spirited Elena Estér.  Graffiti Pete (Jepoy Ramos) is a street artist who upsets Usnavi with the latest creation he leaves on his store’s wall and who is seen as a local trouble-maker – more due to his low-riding pants and his proneness to slouch and desire for free Slurpies than anything he has actually done.  His pal and the cousin of Usnavi who helps out at the store (doing as little as he possibly can) is Sonny, a joking, street-savvy kid with a keen eye for fairness and justice.  As played with smooth-moving cool and a big smile for all, Edwin Jacobs’ Sonny is the young relative/pal that anyone would like to have.

Michelle Navarrete & Bidalia E. Albanese
The heartbeat of the barrio is the hunched-over and arthritic-suffering yet spry and twinkling woman who is everyone’s abuela, or grandmother, Claudia.  Michelle Navarrete is an inspiration and a delight as the old-in-age, young-in-spirit, and wise-in-all-respects woman who raised Usnavi after his parents died soon after he was born in the U.S.  The stories she relates of the struggles and sacrifices of her life where prejudice by the majority was a frequent visitor is perhaps the most touching, most impactful sequence of the evening.

All of these people’s lives intertwine during three, sultry days and sticky nights in July when a sudden blackout throws their world into discomfort and unease.  The issues of love and family as well as difficult decisions being made by several to close or transfer local businesses for personal or financial reasons occur as the world around them is on darkened edge – even as the fireworks of July 4 light the sky in attempts of celebration.  Tensions rise in all directions until Abuela Claudia reminds them all in one unexpected minute what life and family is really all about.

The story of these recent immigrant citizens is indeed an American one that needs to be told, now more ever.  As director, Nicole Meñez takes this big-stage tale and brings it into sharp focus on the small, close-up stage before us.  She also choreographs some rousing numbers that have a lot of spark and high energy even if they do not always work as well musically.  Mariely Cortes finds ways humorously and lovingly to portray each character’s personality and sometimes quirkiness through her costumes.  Stephanie Dittibern has excelled in designing properties that make us want to go shopping on stage for a treat or two.

Where the show falls and often falls flat is in too many of the romantic duets as well as in the some of the small group and even full-chorus numbers where one or maybe two voices go off key too far or simply over-sing in ways to mar the overall number’s effect.  Unfortunately, there are too many of these “like-fingernails-on-a-chalkboard” moments scattered throughout here and there to be ignored.  Coupled with the musical issues – at least on opening night – were problems with sound balance, missed lighting cues, and a collapsing, background wall that someone chose noisily to fix during one of the solos.  All of these latter issues certainly will be corrected during the run.

But in the end, Custom Made Theatre Company should be commended for stretching the boundaries of is stage to pursue a show other companies its size would probably never consider.  In this case, the result falls short musically; but the cast still finds a way to tell a moving, important piece of recent, American history.

Rating: 2.5 E

In the Heights continues through December 15, 2018 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits:  Jay Yamada

Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Crazy for You"

Crazy for You
George Gershwin (Music), Ira Gershwin (Lyrics); Ken Ludwig (Book)

The Cast of Crazy for You
Choreography that dares you not to tap your own toes.  Comedy full of corn that is impossible not to laugh out loud – and I do mean loud.  A love triangle where two of the three are the same person.  And the Gershwin Brothers’ songs plucked from the Great American Songbook scattered amongst all the hilarity and the tapping, twirling, twisting bodies – songs that tempt you time and again to hum along.

All this and more awaits the quickly enthralled and completely entranced audience at Bay Area Musicals’ season opener, Crazy for You, a seductive romantic comedy that was the 1992 Tony winner for Best Musical with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a book by Ken Ludwig.  Brimming with music repackaged from not only the songwriting team’s 1930 film musical, Girl Crazy, but also from several of their films and stage musicals like Oh, Kay!, Shall We Dance, and A Damsel in Distress, Crazy for You bursts at the seams with decades-old favorites like “Embraceable You,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “I Got Rhythm.”  And while these songs are a delight to rediscover in BAM’s contagiously fun production, it is the choreography and comedy that really reign supreme in the two hours, thirty minute high-kicking and high-jinxing affair of love’s wacky whims.

We immediately learn two things about Conor DeVoe and about the New York, rich guy he depicts as his Bobby Child tries to impress a nonplussed Bela Zangler to hire him for the Zangler Follies in the opening number, “K-ra-zy for You.”  Both the depicted and thus the real can tap up a storm, and both have a personality that fills the stage every time Bobby (and thus Conor) appears. 

Conor DeVoe & Follies Girls
In number after number, Conor DeVoe wows the audience with dance moves from every genre of the 1930s and ‘40s, but it is when he taps that he knocks the socks off the particular number.  But also along the way, he is a clown at heart in the mode of some of the great stage and screen comic actors of the era (think a young Cary Grant).  His ability to stumble, stretch, and fall like a floppy doll; to electrify his entire being from top to bottom when he conceives a sudden scheme, or to become a puppy dog when his true love appears before him are just some of the ways Mr. DeVoe’s Bobby wins our hearts and our applause.  Where he falls a bit short is when he sings the songs of the Gershwins, bringing a good voice but not one with power, depth, and nuance that the Brothers’ musical icons totally deserve.

After Bobby’s backstage tap-terrific audition ends with his landing on Mr. Zangler’s toe (and thus not getting the job), Bobby is confronted by his nagging mom, Lottie, who wants him finally to join the family’s bank, and his equally unrelenting socialite financé, Irene, who wants him to end their five-year engagement at the altar.  Bobby wants neither, dreaming still of being on stage in a tap and line-dance fantasy, “I Can’t Be Bothered Now,” with Follies Girls suddenly appearing in his vivid imagination as his back-ups.  

To escape the current reality of the two warring women of his life (who neither one like the other), he takes the lesser of two evils  -- his mom’s assignment of going to Deadrock, Nevada to foreclose a rundown theatre.  We soon see that the town’s name matches its no-action ambiance as we hear the snail-slow, note-sliding lament “Biding Our Time,” our first glance of the show’s outstanding male singers and dancers, the Cowboys. 

Danielle Altizio & Conor DeVoe
This is a town that only has one woman -- a pretty, full-of-spunk-and-spirit, Polly Baker.  While the town’s hotel/saloon owner, Lank Hawkins, insists with some pushiness and puffed-up pride that he is the man for her, she is not interested.  When Bobby arrives and collapses in the middle of town (having walked a mile in the high desert from the nearest train station), he awakens in spits and starts to a vision of his destiny, a somewhat concerned Polly, singing in his own dream world of love-sick-silly antics, “Things Are Looking Up.”  After he recovers, he step-by-step persuades the reluctant Polly to join him in a dance (“Shall We Dance”) that slowly picks up speed and style as he convinces her to “put on your dancing shoes” and “dance whenever you can,” ending in a grand-style swoop and a first kiss.

Danielle Altizio has her first real chance to test out her Gershwin as her Polly expresses her small-town loneliness in “Someone to Watch Over Me,” bringing vocals that are often spot-on attractive and solid but at other times, falter in key a bit in their sustained phrases.  But like Conor DeVoe and his Bobby, Ms. Altizio more than makes it up in her own dancing ability to be Ginger to his Gene.  She also is the perfect plot ploy as she righteously rejects Bobby when she realizes he is the person sent here to foreclose the old theatre where her deceased mom once performed.  He has already long given that up and actually wants to put on a show to raise money for the payment, having secured the help of the vacationing Zangler Follies Girls who somehow picked Deadrock as their ideal resort-of-choice.  (Only in a musical could we be asked to believe in such a coincidence ... and have no trouble doing so!) 

The Chorus of Crazy for You
Polly still does not trust him, leaving Bobby no choice but to disguise himself as Bella Zangler himself, now arriving once again in his new self in order to take up the cause and direct a show to save the theatre.  He transforms a bungling bunch of cowboys into a high-stepping set of partners for the Follies Girls in one of the night’s several blockbuster ensemble numbers, “Slap That Bass,” where ropes become the strings that tie the knock in forming a first-class, dance show.  In doing so, the Zangler-in-disguise wins Polly’s heart, leading the two to sing “Embraceable You,” with Polly believing she is now in love with Zangler while Bobby is now in heaven in her arms.

Being a musical, much more is to come in mix-ups, new love match-ups, and miracles with happy endings.  Along the way, we will be entertained by fabulous, stage-filling numbers of dancers, all co-choreographed with full flair and fling by Matthew McCoy and Danielle Cheiken.  A prime example is the Act-One ending, “I’ve Got Rhythm.” In an eye-popping symphony of cowboys playing instruments ranging from saws, hammers, and shovels to tire pumps, mining picks, and gold pans, the guys join the waiting chorus women in a head-spinning mixture of dances full of stomp, step, and sizzle.  

There are also many moments of total hilarity, all directed so by Matthew McCoy.  After the real Zangler (Tony Michaels) pointlessly pursues to Deadrock the leader of his Follies Girls who has no love interest in him, Tess (the fiery, strong-voiced Danielle Cheiken), he and Bobby (still dressed as Zangler) commiserate in a drunken state about their love’s woes.  As they drink and sing “What Causes That?,” neither understands that the duplicate image he is mirroring is in fact neither a dream nor a mirror.  The result for us is one of the funniest among many funny moments of the evening; and the two actors are masterful in their split-second mimicking of each other’s drunken states.

Into this now-crowded town also comes Bobby’s long-time fiancé, who somehow suddenly falls for the town’s saloon owner, Hawkins.  Always dressed in New York evening wear – no matter the time or place -- Irene (Morgan Peters) gives us another rib-tickler as she in slinky, erotic style pursues all up and down and around his melting, aroused body a surprised but increasingly pleased Hawkins in a joint crowd-pleasing number, “Naughty Baby.” 

Another star of the show is the set design of Kuo-Hao Lo, which itself literally dances in twirling action as three separate turntables transform a New York back stage to a desert town’s main street and then into the inside of the town’s hotel/saloon ... and all back again several times.  Brooke Jennings does her usual magic in creating a vast array of costumes that range from evening gowns and minks to dusty cowboy garb to dance-line spangles and sparkles.  The lighting of Eric Johnson superbly isolates the solo dance moves of Mr. DeVoe’s Bobby, paints shadow sculpted canvases for Ms. Altizio’s sung solos, and creates Broadway in Deadrock with glow and glisten.  Jon Gallo directs the well-balanced orchestra of seven that do more than fair justice to the famous music of George G.

Even though not every song is sung to its full potential, Bay Area Musical’s Crazy for You is an evening guaranteed to wow and woo even the most skeptical of audience member.  This is a smile-producer, especially given the fun every member of this cast of twenty is clearly having and given the dancing talent they bring to literally shake the rafters with their stepping and tapping.  Who could not be just a little and probably a lot crazy for Crazy for You?

Rating: 4 E

Crazy for You continues through December 16, 2018 in production by Bay Area Musicals at the Alcazar Theatre at 650 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at for performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m.

"Girls Kill Nazis"

Girls Kill Nazis
James Kopp

Jennifer Sorkin-Kopp, Heather Mae Steffen, 
Diane Tasca, Stephanie Crowley, and Jim Johnson
The Nancy Wake Book Club meets every Friday night in the oldest continually operating library in Arizona, the Copper Queen Library of Bisbee, Arizona.  Named after a famous, French resistance fighter of World War II, the club has just two stated purposes: 
1. Read famous things.
2. Kill Nazis.

Pear Theatre presents a funny, yet deadly serious world premiere by James Kopp set in some not-too-distant, future entitled Girls Kill Nazis.  In yet another close, presidential election decided (yet again) in the final count by Florida, the successors of the former alt-right movement, the American Nazi Party, has won.  And while every day there are now public, televised announcements (generously paid for by the Evangelical Nazi Church of America) urging citizens to blow the whistles around their necks if they see any Mexicans, Muslims, or Negros (especially when more than two of them and after dark), four women of Bisbee are not paying attention to such nonsense.  They remain steadily undeterred in their club’s mission.  

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway: 

Rating: 4

Girls Kill Nazis continues through December 2, 2018 at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Michael Craig & Pear Theatre

Friday, November 9, 2018

"Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?"

Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?
Irma Herrera

Irma Herrera
So how would you say her name: Irma Herrara?  If you are thinking the same as a few somewhat famous Irma’s you may know like Irma Rombauer (author, Joy of Cooking), Irma Thomas (“Soul Queen of New Orleans”), or Hurricane Irma (2017, Category 5), then you – like I -- evidently are not among the 47 million American citizens who are of Hispanic and Latino heritages.  They would automatically know to do what we in the audience are up front instructed to do by the author and performer of The Marsh’s Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?:
“First you need to smile.
Say “E.”
Then say EEErma.”
(And by the way while we are at it, the “h” is silent; and the two r’s have a slight roll to them.)

Public interest lawyer and Bay Area social justice activist, Irma Herrera, has spent much of her life educating friends, teachers, and colleagues how to pronounce correctly her name.  Along the way, she has learned first-hand how engrained social prejudice is against people of darker skin, even among people who would be shocked if told they had such prejudice.  Growing up in a small Texas town named Alice ninety miles from the Mexican border, Irma Herrera comes from a family that has been in this country far longer than almost all the people who often ask her at their first meeting with her, “Where (i.e., what other country) do you come from?” 

In Alice as she was growing up, all the Mexican Americans (70% of the town’s population) lived south of the train tracks in modest homes.  All the white citizens lived north where also were all the green lawns, nice parks, a library, and the town’s one public swimming pool.  Her early, mostly segregated life shifted drastically after she left her all-Mexican-American elementary school to enter at thirteen the town’s one, integrated middle school.  There, her first-ever Anglican teacher introduced her to the class in a twangy, Texas drawl as “Irma” (with an especially irritating, short ‘i’ sound).  At that moment she remembered that her favorite uncle, Tio Otilio, had worn every day to work as a gravel truck driver in Alice a shirt with “Tom” emblazoned on it because his fellow workers could not (or more correctly, would not) say his given name.  In that same moment, Irma decided that it was the last time she would ever respond to her name being mispronounced.

Standing before us comfortable in her sock feet, the ever-smiling, sparkly-eyed dynamo walks us through the years of her life using a map of ‘name’ incidents as her guideposts.  We cannot help but also smile and laugh a lot, even as we shake our heads in disbelief – and our own ignorance – of what she has witnessed and first-hand experienced during her near-seven decades of life as a born-and-bred U.S. citizen.  Her many observations and experiences are related with big heart, with some amusement, but also with an edge and a bite that grows sharper the closer we get to our current times of November 2018. 

We can all look back with her in the ‘60s and be righteously disgusted and even disbelieving that ‘way back then’ a hometown, WWII, Mexican-American veteran and hero, Felix Longoria, could not be interned because the mortuary would not serve non-whites.  We certainly cringe as she rattles off the names that she and her friends were called in high school where Hispanic and white students were “like oil and water.”  But then she reminds us that while they were daily addressed as “beanos,” “spics,” and “tacos,” they were never in the 1960s called “illegals.” 

While we know that the prejudice she experienced growing up has not gone away, did we know that a majority of states passed between 2010 and 2012 anti-immigration laws? How many of us came in knowing that a state like Alabama in 2012 directed police to conduct road stops near Mexican-American neighborhoods asking citizens for their papers and allowed utility companies to turn off power if Alabama renters/homeowners could not prove citizenship?  And this is all before we reach the point of a President who seems to revel in deprecating remarks about people of Hispanic/Latino heritage.

Intermingled among her many examples of ignorant remarks from friends who should know better (“Has anyone ever told you that you are a credit to your people?”) and outright moments of embarrassing and pointed public discrimination (like treatment she received from a court recorder at her first, important deposition as a young lawyer), Irma -- because we now feel like we are first-name friends of hers – delights us with the oft-tongue-in cheek ways she tells her stories.  Accents of Alabama, Texas, and even Vietnam roll out as easily as do her frequent Spanish phrases -- those always spoken with particular care and love.  Life transition moments are accompanied with the particular year’s popular music as she winds through her life, often leading her suddenly to break into a dance of the time.  And all along the way, she looks directly at each of us eye-to-eye in the intimate, Marsh arena, speaking with a genuine gratitude that we are there to hear and to learn.

The sixty-five minute performance -- directed by award-winning, solo performer Rebecca Fisher -- passes much too quickly. We have the feeling that Irma Herrera has only scraped the surface as she has skipped through the decades of incidents where a name so short, sweet, and simple has constantly been so difficult for the world around her to pronounce – or even want to pronounce – correctly. 

Irma Herrera
Her final question is one that gives us much fodder for further contemplation.  After a trip to Denmark, Irma discovered hers is the name of the largest grocery chain there; and that everyone pronounces I-R-M-A the same way her name is pronounced (ēr-ma).  The question she had while touring in Copenhagen:  “If people back home thought I was from Denmark, would they try harder to say my name?”

I think the answer is obvious.  I definitely know for certain that an hour with Irma Herrera at The Marsh is an evening not to be long forgotten as we explore with her, Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?

Rating: 4.5 E

Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? continues Thursdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 5 p.m. through December 8, 2018 at the San Francisco Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street.  Tickets are available online at  After each performance, invited speakers lead a thirty-minute related discussion on a variety of social justice issues.

Photo Credit: Chuck Revell

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

"Men on Boats"

Men on Boats
Jaclyn Backhaus

The Cast of Men on Boats
Every day as we travel through our city streets, down our highways, and across our bridges, we encounter names that we mostly have no idea who the person being honored actually was.  Most of the time, we do not even wonder.  But behind many of those nomenclatures are forgotten stories of invention or discovery; of artistry, ingenuity, or bravery; of incredible perseverance, risk, and often sacrifice. 

One such story lies behind the name of the U.S.’s largest manmade reservoir, Lake Powell, a mammoth body of water on the mighty Colorado River.  In her play Men on Boats, Jaclyn Backhaus seeks to entertain and enlighten us about the first government-sanctioned trip in 1869 down that river into the canyon soon to be named Grand by the leader of the ten-man expedition, John Wesley Powell.  But she has decided to tell the tale – one at times as tall as any piece of American folklore -- through the voices of ten women.  In the current American Conservatory Theatre production of Men on Boats, ten, highly diverse, female actors of the Bay Area step with gusto, grit, and grin into the real-life, white men of Powell’s historical expedition – proving that they can grunt, snarl, spar, and spit as good or better than any man ever did in the great, unexplored outdoors.

The Cast of Men on Boats
Amidst a dozen or more rising and often moving, cut-out cliffs that are marked with the early mappings of the Utah/Arizona river wilderness (thanks to the designs of Nina Ball), four wooden boats and their oaring crews set out on what is to be a hair-tingling, life-risking ride.  While we only see vessels defined by a chair with a life preserver under it, by a pointed bow with no rest of boat, or maybe by just a splash of light on the stage, there is little doubt that they are floating on a wild and mad river. 

The Cast of Men on Boats
The split-second, coordinated choreography that Movement Coach Danyon Davis and Director Tamilla Woodard orchestrate is phenomenal and well worth the price of the evening’s ticket as these explorers simulate a journey full of rapids, whirlpools, and even waterfalls.  Tight clumps of bodies in each boat lean hard to left, jerk back and forth, shudder almost uncontrollably, or suddenly rise – with all such movements accompanied with looks sometimes of thrill and wonder but more often with uneasy anticipation followed by sheer fear.  Eyes strain to see what unknown peril is around the next bend and open in wide-eyed, stunned shock when the realities of protruding rocks, turbulent water, and narrow canyon walls come into view.  As a boat gets into trouble, ropes (sometimes real, sometimes invisible) are tossed; and bodies strain to the vein-popping max to save a fellow boat from disaster.

Lauren Spencer, Arwen Anderson & Lisa Hori-Garcia
The realities of this simulated excursion are greatly enhanced by the sounds of rushing waters, flying eagles, and slivering snakes by designer Kate Marvin, who also adds snare drums and occasional harmonica chords to provide that feel of an expedition not unlike the grind and drudgery but also the stimulative excitement of a battlefield.   Robert Hand’s lighting helps define both vessels and river while creating a sense of awed grandeur of both day and night in the Grand Canyon.  The costumes of Christine Crook smack of some humor as she dons these women to be men and provides a portrait of their eclectic, rag-tag backgrounds.

Lisa Hori-Garcia, Rosie Hallett & Annemaria Rajala
As exciting as it is to witness this reenactment of a river exploration fraught with danger but also filled with exhilaration, the real joy of Men in Boats is to get to know these men – all either Civil War veterans or mountain men and none experienced river runners – and get to know them through the lens of women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds playing men.  Convincing as they are of their pumped-up testosterone tendencies to brag, brawl, and bully, these men also tell their story through a more feminine lens to magnify their innate shared teamwork, humanity, and caring.  By doing so, their story becomes all the more engaging, funny, sad and in the end, all the more admirable and believable.

A prime example of the feminine defining more acutely the masculine hero is Liz Sklar as the one-armed, always optimistic leader of the expedition, John Wesley Powell.  Her Powell is a combination of fearless persistence; ongoing inspiration; and almost goofy, kid-like excitement.  Through this Powell, we get a glimpse of how a leader might stand up to possible mutiny driven from starvation and exhaustion and do so without a gun’s loaded stock staring at the to-be traitors.  We see how a leader can not take self so seriously as he barely hangs onto a cliff to grab the shed pants of the guy above him, doing so certainly with some trepidation but also with almost a tongue-in-his-own cheek of the ridiculous situation he has gotten himself into. 

Sarita Ocón as Dunn Explains Fishing by Gunny Sack
The yin to Powell’s yang is William Dunn, a fur-capped woodsman played with spunk and spirit by Sarita Ocón.  The two share wonderful moments as Dunn looks for just the right jagged ridge or high cliff to leave his name attached and as Powell both encourages and celebrates that moment of discovery and decision.  But Dunn has a cautious side, too, and is not past challenging with pent-up frustration and some anger the leader he also clearly admires.  Sarita Ocón as Dunn is a wonderful contrast to Liz Sklar as Powell, with their relationship illustrating the emotional pushes and pulls that must have occurred in every such wilderness outing of the unknown in the early days of this country’s history.

The richness of this tale – sometimes a tale that takes on aspects of a epic movie and other times, of a animated cartoon – comes from an array of characters whose personalities the playwright and director team up to ensure we have a chance to meet in depth, one-by-one.  Amy Lizardo is the fire-plug-sized, big-hearted, cook Hawkins who massacres a rattlesnake with a coffee pot one minute and serves up grilled snake the next.  Lauren Spencer and Lisa Hori-Garcia are the Howland brothers, with the Ms. Spencer also playing one of two native Utes who like to use their proper English with a modern twist of phrase and their snide side remarks to prove (at least to themselves and us) that the natives know much more about the world around them than these white greenhorns.

Katherine Romans & Annemaria Rojala
Rosie Hallett is the red-faced, aristocratic Englishman, Hall, who is along for the ride of his life with these Yankees, including with Old Shady (Annemaria Rajala), a mostly silent, Civil War vet with some apparent PTSD and a prone habit of singing made-up songs that leave more puzzled looks than not.  Katherine Romans is the young whippersnapper, Bradley, a vet himself whose eyes swell to full-moon size more often than not on this adventure but who is equally loyal and brave to the end -- no matter the death-defying, food-depriving times the group must endure.  

Arwen Anderson and Libby King round out this crew of ten as Frank Goodman and John Colton Summer – a group some might call misfits; and some, fool-hearty.  However, after running the mighty Colorado with them in ACT’s and Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, all should call these men here represented by women as most worthy that their forgotten names and legacies are for at least ninety minutes remembered, honored, and celebrated.

Rating: 4 E

Men on Boats continues through December 16 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

Photos by Kevin Berne

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

"All the Way"

All the Way
Robert Schenkkan

The Cast of All the Way
In the Palo Alto Players’ magnificently produced, regional premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s 2014 Tony winning Best Play, All the Way, we as an audience are challenged to ask ourselves if questionable tactics of a nation’s leader are ever acceptable if the desired outcomes match our own sense of social and economic justice.  Is this in fact “the way things are done,” and it is in fact ‘the ends’ that truly matter and not so much ‘the means’?  If so, do many of us who detest the current president’s manners and tactics do so not because of what they are, but because we do not agree with his desired outcomes?  

For my full review of this fascinating, spell-bounding, live documentary of the events and personalities between November 22, 1963 when an assassin’s bullet elevated Johnson into the West Wing and November 3, 1964 when he won the office with 61.1% popular vote, please continue to Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 5-E, “MUST-SEE”

All the Way continues through November 18, 2018 in production by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets are available at or by calling 650-329-0891.

Photo Credit: Joyce Goldschmid