Thursday, January 31, 2019

"Seascape"


Seascape
Edward Albee

Sean Gallagher, Ellen McLaughlin & James Carpenter
Even before the grand, gold curtains of the Geary Theatre open, sounds of an ocean’s waves permeate around us, punctuated by the cries of sea gulls overhead.  A beach and its sea grass spills into the laps of the first row of audience members – a beach that grows into layers of high dunes once the curtain rises.  Yet as we watch a woman painting at her easel on a sandy path above a man reclining on the beach, how can we not notice that David Zinn’s beautiful seaside has no blue sky, but only the black and stone back walls of the Geary?  Where there should be sun and clouds, there are side-stage and overhead layers of glaring stage lights.  What is real and what is not is already raised as a question as an Edward Albee play returns to American Conservatory Theater after a ten-year hiatus, tonight directed by the new Artistic Director and Albee expert, Pam MacKinnon.  What is to follow is a fully funny, intriguingly beguiling, and in the end, surprisingly optimistic Seascape, Edward Albee’s 1975 play, second-of-three winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

James Carpenter & Ellen McLaughlin
Nancy grabs the picture she is painting (one that shows the blue sky and ocean’s waves that we do not see) and literally skips, jumps, and hops down to a statuesque husband who barely moves a muscle.  She babbles almost without taking a breath with kid-like enthusiasm about her love for beaches and proposes that they become “seaside nomads,” wandering the world, beach to beach.  The more Ellen McLaughlin’s Nancy conjures her proposal for their newly retired lives, the more her hands flail in spread-finger excitement, with her whole face glowing as scenes of sand and sea clearly form in her head.

But the more she waxes, the more Charlie wanes.  She walks with purpose and vision; he couches with mounting resistance.  His occasional response -- given in the kind of curmudgeon, guttural grunt that Bay Area favorite James Carpenter can do so well – is to repeatedly insert “No,” sometimes elaborating with something like “I just don’t like it” or “I don’t want to do anything ... I’m happy doing nothing.” 

For the next half hour or so, the two continue this dance where Nancy tries to lead Charlie in steps he shows no interest in taking.  She recalls stories he has told during their thirty years of marriage about his boyhood desire to live under the sea, and he wistfully remembers how he would once sink to water’s bottom (even 20-30 feet) with heavy rocks on his chest, waiting for initially frightened fish ready to nibble his toes. 

However, when Nancy bursts with encouraging suggestions that he get in touch with his youth and sink in the water again -- right here, right now – Charlie becomes embarrassed, agitated, and eventually darkly sullen.  Charlie is content to remember the past and to relax in the present, rewarding now a life well-lived with well-deserved rest.  Nancy, on the other hand, wants nothing of that, leading to a huge, shout-filled argument about the difference between their “having had” a good life together and their currently “having” a good like together. 

Occasionally interrupting their haggling conversations is an overhead roar and a beach-enveloping shadow as low-flying jets traverse the entire Geary Theatre, with each time Charlie warning some variation of “They’re going to crash into the dunes some day.”  The powerful interplay of sound and light created by Brendan Aanes (sound design) and Isabella Byrd (lighting design) is indeed a bit unsettling and is one way of symbolizing a central question of the play, to what extent is evolution and change progress or not.

Just as their up-and-down arguments come to a pause (arguments which include a testy -- but also funny, for us -- sidetrack into an admission by Nancy of one week many years prior when she thought of divorcing Charlie), visitors suddenly appear above on a high dune.  

But these are not folks in typical beachwear; they are not even folks at all.  Walking cautiously but ever steadily forward on two of their four legs are two, gigantic lizards – lizards in their green, scaly grandeur with fascinating, yellow faces and tremendously long, trailing tails (thanks to the creative costume designing of David Zinn). 

James Carpenter, Sarah Nina Hayon, Seann Gallagher & Ellen McLaughlin
And as we might now expect, Nancy is immediately intrigued and ready to approach them while Charlie is frightened to his most-cautious core.  With feet and hands frozen in the air as they lie on their backs, the two try ‘playing dead’ while smiling toothy grins (his terrified, hers more friendly and inviting).  In the meantime, the taller of the two lizards approaches and pokes cautiously each, taking time to grab a quick sniff.

And thus closes and opens Acts One and Two, with the audience howling its approval when they see Nancy and Charlie still on their backs with silly grins as the curtains rise after intermission.  What ensues is a step-by-step (often three forward, two back) process of two species totally foreign to each other sizing up the other two and slowly getting to feel slightly more comfortable interacting.  The English-speaking lizards – a couple named Leslie (Seann Gallagher) and Sarah (Sarah Nina Hayon) – in many ways mirror their human counterparts, especially in the ways both Nancy and Sarah immediately begin to bond and to show increasing fascination and empathy for each other and the ways Charlie and Leslie are much more standoffish, cautious, defensive, and even belligerent. 

What follows is a series of encounters where each pair is confronting “the other,” with bouts of impatience, misunderstanding, and flared anger (mostly coming from the males) intermingled with defining, sharing, and explaining words, physical objects, and experiences foreign to the other (mostly as led by the female halves).  From birds and planes to emotions to differing body parts, the topics to explore pour forth.  The more they interact, the more the lizards surprise with their human-like responses and reactions; but also the more the humans sometimes react in ways quite beastly and insensitive.  But as they continue their getting-to-know, they raise for us questions important to contemplate about our own projections of how we want to spend our futures, about what is progress and what is not, about how to approach moments of life’s true transitions, and about the very nature of what it means to love a partner for maybe a lifetime.

What is rare for many of Albee’s plays, in his Seascape there is an upward trend of the conversations toward outcome that shows hope for the future.  How he and Director Pam MacKinnon get there is fun to watch, with the total of two hours (with intermission) passing with nary a minute of wasted dialogue or wandering audience attention. 

Clearly the director knows her Albee well (this being her eleventh of his plays to direct), with her grasping how to make the script’s strange interactions between humans and lizards as natural, charming, and enlightening as any two couples who have obvious differences but also soon reveal many, hidden similarities.  The result for us as an audience is an unexpected adventure via Edward Albee by the seaside of Seascape at the American Conservatory Theater that is pleasantly enjoyable, surprisingly different, and intriguingly thought-provoking.

Rating: 4 E

Seascape continues through February 17, 2019 at American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/ or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne



Tuesday, January 29, 2019

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); Hugh Wheeler (Book)

Heather Orth & Keith Pinto
One lone, frozen figure stares blankly forward, singing with almost no emotion those words so well-known to Sondheim lovers everywhere:
“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again.
He trod a path that few have trod,
Did Sweeney Todd,
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

As those tale-summarzing words sink in, one by one others arrive on the London 1875 cobbled and darkened street until the voices of the twenty cast members rise in glorious harmonies at a volume that shakes the timbers of Hillbarn Theatre.  By the time they reach the screeching, hair-raising “Sweeney, Sweeney, Sweeeeeeney,” we in the audience know that we are about to enjoy a world-class production of Stephen Sondheim’s (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler’s (book) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. 

Since its 1979 premiere, both musical theatre and opera companies have been challenged with its ridiculously rapid lyrics; songs with ranges stretching several octaves; and a story that is gory, repulsive, and yet altogether compelling (and often funny).  But even against such demands, Hillbarn Theatre opens a Sweeney Todd that is nothing short of a must-see, no matter how many times one has seen the famous tale in the past.  For me, this was my seventh time; and the Hillbarn Sweeney ranks up there with the original on Broadway (with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou), with the 2005 Patti LuPone/Michael Cerveris revival, and with the SF Opera’s 2015 grand edition.

From the moment he begins to sing in ominously rich tones “No Place Like London,” Keith Pinto is a Sweeney Todd whose shadowed, hollow-looking eyes bore into our consciences, with his ever-foreboding voice leaving us immediately unsettled.  As his hands freeze in grasping, clawed positions by his side, his cavernous tones echo, pulsating in rapid succession,
“There’s a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And it’s filled with people
Who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it.”

And we are hooked.  We are putty in his hands.  We are ready to know exactly why this man who has just arrived off a boat into the seediest part of London is so pent up in rage.  Before we learn, he first must stumble into the worst of meat pie shops, that of Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth).  With red, unruly curls stacked high on her head, she sings in an opera-worthy voice about “The Worst Pies in London,” intermingling her richly beautiful notes with those that cut through the air with a shrieking edge.

In one of many inspired directorial decisions that spice up this production, Joshua Marx then sends a cast into the street to re-enact the events that have plagued Sweeney for the past fifteen years of his pent-up rage.  As Mrs. Lovett teases her lone customer with a song about “a barber and his wife,” she provides him details he already knows all too well how a barber named Benjamin Barker was banished by a crooked Judge Turpin who coveted Barker’s beautiful, blonde daughter, Johanna.  The rage in Sweeney visibly grows as all around we watch events culminate in a bizarre costume ball where masked dancers -- all in many shades of pink -- watch while the Judge escorts a young Johanna off to his home, where she becomes his imprisoned ward.

Keith Pinto & Heather Orth
Watching his reactions, Mrs. Lovett recognizes the true identity of this wayward visitor to her pie stand and gives him a set of barber tools she has kept all these years, hoping he would someday return.  In an hypnotically powerful voice that once again sends shivers, Sweeney sings of “My Friends,” a strangely alluring love song to the gleaming, silver, barber’s razor he holds above his head.  As he sings and plots how the razor will “soon drip precious rubies” as part of his long-sought revenge, Mrs. Lovett plots in an entwined duet how “all your days will be my days,” sweetly singing her own love song to the barber who does not hear. 

The climax comes as Todd raises his hand gripping the silver-glistening razor, declaring in voice triumphant and thankful, “My arm is complete again,” (all captured in dramatic lighting by designer Pamila Z. Gray as just one of dozens of inspired decisions she makes in illuminating the tale as it unfolds).  So struck is she with him, Mrs. Lovett offers Todd a room above her shop to re-open his barbershop where his plan to slit throats of those who have caused his and his family’s demise can take place.  Her one-sided love will only increase, leading to Heather Orth’s flowery rendition of a wish where the two can live forever, “Down by the Sea,” with her vocals coming in joyful waves of alternating hushed piccolo and booming trumpet.

In juxtaposition to this surreal love duet comes the love story that is at the heart of the tale.  From her bedroom window overlooking the street, Johanna (Jennifer Mitchell) sings with a lyrical, fluttering voice “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” hitting with her soprano notes the kind of stunning ease and clarity that would win any heart. 

Anthony Hope & Jennifer Mitchell
As the notes float into the foggy air, a young man who shared the journey to London with Sweeney Todd, Anthony Hope, is caught by their and her beauty.  Yet one more member of this brilliantly voiced cast (Jaron Vesely) comes close to out-performing the last.  As he sings “Johanna, I feel you, and one day, I’ll steal you” with such sweet reaches into high, sustained registers, it is difficult to hold back one’s own tears.

Jesse Cortez & Ross Biscoe
Sweeney Todd decides he needs to re-establish his own barbering practice in order to attract to his den for their execution, the evil Judge Turpin and his bumbling but equally bad sidekick, the police officer known as The Beadle.  He gets a chance to make his mark in a shaving challenge with an Italian street huckster, Pirelli.  With much flair and flitter, Pirelli (Jesse Cortez) struts into a gathered crowd who have been attracted by the jet-speed spitting of promises about “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” sung by his front-man, Toby (Ross Biscoe).  In a contest of who can shave the fastest and smoothest, Pirelli loses to the confident Todd because the Italian’s attention goes into a hilarious delivery of braggadocio sung in a voice high in teetering twitter.  Jesse Cortez leaves a lasting impression and an audience with sides aching from laughing in his short, stage stent as the foppish Pirelli.

In another of the funnier moments of the musical, Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney realize that the dead bodies that will soon begin mounting in the barber’s shop should not be wasted.  Their ‘ah-ha’ that the rat/cat meat she normally puts in her pies could be “priest,” “poet,” and finally “judge” leads to a gustily, raucously sung “A Little Priest.”  They tickle themselves as they sing about fried friars, too-salty marines, politicians so oily they run, and piccolo player pies that are piping hot.  Keith Pinto and Heather Orth increasingly combine into a Todd/Leavitt pairing that strikes its own path of merit with interpretations wickedly funny, horrifyingly stunning, and ever-more demonizing.

The rest of this twenty-person cast takes on both primary and ensemble parts that fulfill Director Joshua Marx’s vision of this sordid, troubling tale.  Aisles of the intimate theatre become streets of London where street passers-by provide Greek-like Chorus commentary, singing often inches from audience members with astounding fury, venom, and warning – startling folks in their seats with face-on strident yet magnificent harmonies in unsettling numbers like “City on Fire.”  At one point, inmates from an insane asylum escape into those aisled avenues, with anyone nearby finding it difficult not to lean away in some repulsion and maybe a little fear. 

Keith Pinto & Chris Vettel
Beyond those already mentioned, others in this cast are also stellar in their particular portrayals.  As Judge Turpin, Chris Vettel uses his rich and resonating bass voice to reach into the depths of pure evil as he sings his own nauseous version of “Johanna.”  When he joins Sweeney in a duet of “Pretty Women,” the effect sends shutters down one’s spine as Sweeney’s raised blade stands ready to make the duet a trio.  Interrupted and thwarted in his first attempt to realize his revenge, Sweeney’s blood-curling, raging “Epiphany” gives both director and lighting designer more opportunities to prove their merits as he collapses into a puddle of regret at song’s end.

Samuel Nachison is the judge’s clownish but black-hearted accomplice, The Beadle.  He employees a fabulous falsetto voice and a ridiculously attired aristocratic demeanor to match his overflowing head of curls and puffed-out chest of false importance. 

Keith Pinto & Juliet Green
There is nothing funny about the always lurking, roaming Beggar Woman.  Juliet Green slinks up and down the aisles and around the dark corners of the stage, singing in spine-chilling warnings while begging alms.  As the story’s Cassandra, she sees what others are ignoring, knows much more than others can imagine, and plays a key part in the tale’s climatic, tragic ending that would rival any Shakespearean tragedy with the number of dead bodies accumulated.  Juliet Green is nothing short of scary and stunning as the street woman in rags who carries secrets only Mrs. Lovett knows.

Also playing a big part in the tale’s turning ever into a even darker, sadder story is the role of Toby, the simple-minded but sweet boy (and once street barker for Pirelli) who helps out in the pie shop and believes no one is nicer than the Mrs. Lovett who knits him a scarf and treats him almost like a son.  When Ross Briscoe sings wide-eyed and with nervous intensity inches from Mrs. Lovett’s face, “Nothing’s going to harm you while I’m around,” he too clearly seems to sense pending disasters that the pie lady totally is ignoring in her blind adoration of the barbarous Todd.

To attend a Sondheim musical is to hope that one is able to grasp the vast majority of the oft-bullet-speed lyrics.  Between the outstanding musical direction of Rick Reynolds, the noteworthy dialect coaching of Nancy Carlin, and especially the evident success of Brandie Larkin’s sound design, I am here to say not one word escaped my understanding by either principal or ensemble member.  In addition, the balance between the singers and the highly impressive fourteen-member orchestra under Mr. Reynolds’ direction is sound-perfect throughout (the orchestra rivaling the sounds of any large touring musical’s orchestra I have heard recently).

But more stars abound in this production that is already asking to be on everyone’s 2019 “Best of the Bay” lists.  Yichuan Sharon Peng’s costumes, wigs, and make-up artistry are a show unto themselves, with the streets and societies – both ragged and rich -- of 1875 London parading before us, telling their own history and accounting their own portion of the plot. 

The scenic design of Ting Na Wang may be the best I have seen on the Hillbarn stage.  The multi-leveled street scene is grand but quickly focuses in to reveal Johanna’s petite bedroom, Mrs. Lovett’s flowery parlor, or Sweeney’s barbershop.  Into that shop arrives a purple-leathered throne on which many a male sits for his final shave, soon to be deposited down a chute to a waiting drawer below and a monstrous, fiery furnace whose smoke sinisterly snakes upward from its forbidding chimney.  (Watching live bodies plunge both down the chute and into the furnace leaves one wondering how actors are not injuring themselves, providing another feather into both the scenic designer’s and director’s caps.)

My dear reader, if you are not yet convinced to make your way immediately to buy a ticket to Hillbarn’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I am not sure what else this humble reviewer can say.  Just do so before the show too soon closes on February 10, 2019.

Rating: 5-E, “Must-See”

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continue through February 10, 2019 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard.  Tickets are available online at http://www.hillbarntheatre.org  or by calling 650-349-6411.

Photo Credit: Mark and Tracy Photography




Sunday, January 27, 2019

"King of the Yees"


King of the Yees
Lauren Yee
Krystle Piamonte & Francis Jue

“I am Lauren Yee, and this is a story, a true story, about my dad, about dying Chinatowns, about how things fall apart and how to say goodbye.”

But the “two-hander” play that Lauren Yee thinks she has written and is now in its opening minutes at San Francisco Playhouse (with one actor playing her and another her father, Larry) is not the play that is destined to be performed here tonight.  And while truth and truths may abound, the things that will fall apart will be some of the playwright’s own perceptions about Chinatown, her dad, and most of all, herself.

The play that has just begun quickly comes to a halt as a big smiling, slight-of-built man comes bounding down the theatre’s center aisle, carrying a large cardboard box.  As he bounds upon the stage, de drops the box and sends himself sprawling between the two stunned actors.  The real playwright, Lauren, comes running from backstage, crying “Daddy” with looks of both concern and consternation.  Larry Yee introduces himself to the actor who was to play him, proudly grinning while explaining, “I’m part of the Yee Fung Toy Family Association,” a 150-year-old club going back to the days when Chinese workers migrated to America.  Larry then proceeds to chatter with enthusiasm with the two actors, the audience, and sometimes even his daughter, who keeps trying to remind him in a calm but increasingly perplexed voice, “You weren’t even invited.”

And thus begins a wild and wooly two hours of Lauren Yee’s “true story” entitled King of the Yees, a rollercoaster-ride adventure now at San Francisco Playhouse where the fourth wall quickly collapses, where plot lines are few but not missed, where stories of San Francisco politics and personalities abound, and where reality gives way to fantastical forays into worlds that make Beach Blanket Babylon seem tame in comparison. 

Francis Jue
Beyond a script that pulls more surprises out of the hat than a Vaudeville magician with his suddenly appearing rabbit, a big reason that the San Francisco Playhouse production of King of the Yees is a bundle of laughs is the actor who is reprising his role of Larry Yee from three, other recent runs. As Larry Yee who is ready to celebrate this very evening his sixtieth birthday, San Francisco’s own Francis Jue is overflowing with spry and spit, full of funny asides that to him are serious-enough observations but always provided with twinkles in his eyes.  In one seemingly spontaneous response, he points matter-of-factly to “them, the Jews” in the audience when asked for whom his daughter has written her play (bringing howls from the audience).  Later, he names all of us as ‘honorary Yees,” starting a back-and-forth argument with his daughter (“They’re not Yees [she]... They’re all Yees [he] ... “They’re all white” [she]).  As Lauren (an impatiently patient Krystle Piamonte) keeps trying to push him off the stage, he sits in a chair mid-stage and says, “Don’t worry, boss, you won’t even see me ... it’ll be like I’m not here.”  But here he is, and we as audience could not be more delighted that we do see a lot of him.  Clearly, both Francis Jue and his “king of the Yees” reign supreme on this stage.

Rinabeth Apostol, Francis Jue, Kristie Piamonte & Jomar Tagatac
Even the two interrupted actors (Actor 1 and Actor 2) are fascinated as they continue to question the always-in-motion, old-but-really-young-acting Mr. Yee (“but just call me Larry”) about his life (FBI agent or telephone man?); his passions (being a “sign guy” for Senator Leland Yee’s latest campaign for Attorney General); and about “the model ancestor.”  That last reference is to the ancient Yee who is so important for all Yees to remember in order to understand what is true in life. 

As the female actor (who was playing Lauren before the real Lauren appeared) heads out to feed her parking meter (one of many San Francisco whims and woes that keep popping up in the popcorn-like script), another actor emerges from the audience at the invite of Larry.  Actor 3 in his big, round eyeglasses is all gaga over Larry’s stories, screaming with excitement like a kid full of awe and wonder, no matter what this chattering man happens to say next. 

As Actors 1, 2, and 3, Jomar Tagatac, Rinabeth Apostol, and Will Dao, respectively, rule the day time and again in the many roles and side scenes that they are called upon to populate.  An ongoing joke becomes how best to sound Chinese in one’s speech.  At one point Actor 1 (Jomar, himself three-quarters Chinese, one quarter Irish) goes through repeated, hilarious attempts to get Korean-American Actor 2 (Rinabeth) to put the proper accent on “CHInese” (or is it “chiNESE” or ...).  Their joint attempts to form their cave-sized mouths, bowlegged stances, and inflated torsos in just the right positions are even more outlandish when they attempt to mimic correctly, “Ko-re-an.”

Jomar Tagatac
As the evening continues to splinter into segments and stories galore, these three actors will return in the likes of a jolly, dancing Chinese lion; an acupuncture-practicing chiropractor with foot-long, white beard; and a notorious Chinatown criminal in a floor-length white mink named Shrimp Boy who is toting a big gun and a bigger mouth.  Shrimp Boy (Jomar Tagatac) will bring the house down as he mimics his mother yelling in a loud, froggy voice “RAYMOND” at him because he will not regularly come see her,  never mind he was in prison at the time (“with my good friend, Charles Mansion”).

The good times continue rock and roll on the stage until Larry suddenly disappears, drawn into some dark purgatory after entering the large red doors that have dominated the other wise vacant stage.  Designed by set designer Bill English, we are told upfront that the doors stand on “Waverly Place, wedged between Stockton and Grant, Clay and Sacramento” in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The stand-alone doors -- doors that can only be entered by a true Yee -- take on a life of their own, at one point literally moving around the stage, surreptitiously following an unsuspecting Lauren. 

When Lauren seeks to find her dad, she discovers no amount of “open sesame” or “alikazaam” will work for her to open these mammoth doors.  After careful to act as the ‘adult’ on the stage in the first half as she tries to steer her dad out of her play so the actor playing him can resume her script, Lauren in the second act heads out on an odyssey through Chinatown to find her dad, with Krystle Piamonte showing whole new sides of her Lauren that are often anything but ‘adult’ in nature.

Will Dao
Lauren is warned by three “Lum Elders” (Actors 1, 2 and 3 taking on quirky characters right off the streets of Chinatown) that she only has until sundown to find her father.  To do so, she must obtain Chinatown’s “strongest whiskey,” “sweetest orange,” and “loudest firecracker.”  Layer by layer, Ms. Piamonte’s Lauren loses all inhibitions as she buys the whiskey without having any money, line dances with a lion for his hidden orange, and solves a riddle under the threat of losing her own face to the Sichuan Face Changer (a remarkable character’s whose multi-colored countenances magically switch before our eyes -- all part of the incredibly creative, riotously designed costumes of Sarah Nietfeld).  She even meets a high-heeled, gender-fluid version of the “model ancestor” (Will Dao), clearly proving this is an “only in San Francisco” kind of story.

Director Joshua Kahan Brody pulls out all the stops to create a play that sometimes runs in fast-forward, cartoonish speeds and other times, in laughter-producing slow motion.  At all times, the pace never pauses too long in any one place, with surprises around every corner.

Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design plays major roles in both the mystery and the hilarity of the evening (doors that pound ominously from within, explosions that occur whenever a certain name is said) while the lighting of Wen-Ling Liao completes effects set up by the Mr. Fiksel’s sound design as well as brings the audience into the show, establishes back alley atmospheres, and helps guide Lauren on her chase to beat sundown’s demise of her dad.

Krystle Piamonte
A review can not begin to describe adequately the seemingly random but carefully orchestrated set of events that joyfully, hilariously make up Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees.  As our playwright on the stage discovers the parts of Chinese culture embedded within the Chinatown she had prior thought obsolete and irrelevant to her life, she also discovers the Yee within her -- the Yee that she needs to know in order truly to know her dad.  San Francisco Playhouse brings a love letter to the Chinese Community and to The City itself in this fabulously funny and eventually heartwarming tale where a play within a play becomes a daughter’s story about finding a door and a way to enter into who she really is, “deep down.”

Rating: 5 E

King of the Yees continues through March 2, 2019 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.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

"Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid"


Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid
Jeffrey Lo

Michelle Skinner and Tasi Alabastro
A modern day prophet for the last six months has been screaming his prediction that the world would end last night; and in fact, half the world’s population suddenly evaporated.  He now says that tonight at midnight, everyone else on earth will complete “The Vanishing.”

With that premise, there are merely a few hours of existence remaining as Jeffrey Lo’s play, Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid, opens, now in its second production at Pear Theatre after being commissioned in 2016 by Ohlone College’s Theatre and Dance Department.

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway:  https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj150.html


Rating: 3 E

Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid continues through February 17, 2019 at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Michael Craig

"Shakespeare in Love"


Shakespeare in Love
Based on the Screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman
Adapted for the Stage by Lee Hall,

 
Drew Benjamin Jones
Lee Hall’s adaptation of the Norman/Stoppard screenplay, Shakespeare in Love, emphasizes even more than the original film the determination of one woman to forge a place on the world’s stage — or at least on London’s — for talented actors of her sex.  We as audience cannot help but be thrilled by the stand this fictional feminist of sorts takes in the stead of all the women who did dare to make their historic ways onto the forbidden stage.  Brava and bravo to Viola and to Lee Hall as well as to Palo Alto Players for this entertaining, educating Shakespeare in Love.


For my full review, please proceed to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj149.html.

Rating: 3.5 E

Shakespeare in Love continues through February 3, 2019 by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets for the Palo Alto Players production are available at www.paplayer.org or by calling 650-329-0891.

Photo Credit: Joyce Goldschmid
 

Monday, January 21, 2019

"When We Were Young and Unafraid


When We Were Young and Unafraid
Sarah Treem

Zoë Foulks & Stacy Ross
It’s 1972; and the U.S. Senate has finally followed the House’s lead and passed the Equal Rights Amendment, sending it to state legislatures with the hopes of millions of women that the constitutional amendment first introduced in 1921 will soon finally become law.  But not all women are totally on board with the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. 

In a captivating play that often seems more like a page-turner novel, Sarah Treem places on an isolated island off the coast of Seattle, Washington an entire range of opinions concerning women’s rights and roles, from ultra-liberated to those bordering on totally traditional; and she does so with only four females and one lone male.  Custom Made Theatre Company presents her 2014 Off-Broadway When We Were Young and Unafraid in a production that has the audience leaning in for the entire two hours, careful to grasp every word, grin, and grimace of a cast that to a person creates characters unique and memorable.  As they tell a slice-of-life story, hellacious pasts, remarkable revelations and changes, and found redemptions all play a major part in the telling.

The play opens with a scene familiar to almost any mother with a teen-age daughter, with bed-and-breakfast owner Agnes trying to convince her sixteen-year-old daughter Penny to ask a particular boy to the upcoming high school prom, a suggestion to which replies the brainy kid in jeans who has her sights more set on Yale than on dating boys, “I can’t think of anything more bourgeois.”  As the two continue to have a typical parent/teen battle where no winner can possibly emerge, there comes the sound of a gate click and a bell, with both looking at each other in a knowing and urgent glance. 

Stacy Ross & Liz Frederick
From a trap door in the modest B&B’s kitchen (designed meticulously by Bernadette Flynn with rustic touches from the 50s left over in the 70s) emerges like a fragile butterfly from a cocoon Mary Ann – only this butterfly is marked by a huge facial cut and wound eclipsing half her face.  Surprise Number One of the play (to be followed by many more) is that Agnes secretly houses in her B&B desperate women who are escaping their abusive husbands, something she hides from her renting guests.  With Mary Ann’s arrival, both she and now fully cooperating Penny move into an evidently much-practiced sequence to console and aid the wounded, scared, trembling victim.

As the next few days proceed, Mary Ann (only a few years older than Penny) strikes up a friendship with the teen and interacts with her in ways Agnes as the mother could never hope to do so.  What emerges from Mary Ann -- who has clearly suffered much at the hands of her drunken, soldier husband -- is a view of how to win a boy’s attention that is counter to everything the liberation-leaning, firebrand teenager Penny has thus far espoused to her skeptical mom.  To her new friend, Penny now embarrassedly but also excitedly confesses that she has had for some time her eyes on the captain of the football team and would in fact love to go to the prom with him.  To that, Mary Ann rattles off a Betty Crocker worthy recipe of how to win him over, emphasizing, “You want to get the guy, you have to act like the girl ... Right now you are acting like the guy.”

Stacy Ross & Renee Rogoff
As they plot Penny’s newfound approach (resulting in jeans and calculus book gone with short skirt, make-up, painted nails, and girly flirting in replacement), into the household falls another lost soul, this time in the form of a gruff, burly woman looking like she might spit on the floor any minute.  Hannah is looking for work while also looking for a radically feminist group on the island called the Gorgons.  She immediately begins spouting in loud, bombastic blasts that “feminism is the theory and lesbianism is the practice.”  She eyes Mary Ann with great disdain and little initial sympathy while challenging Agnes to join “the great battle that is coming.”  “You need to choose a side, Agnes ... We need to know, are you with us or against us.”

Matt Hammons & Liz Frederick
Yet one more searcher for a different life lands on the island’s shores as a paying guest at Agnes’ B&B, an escapee from the hippy-infested San Francisco in the form of a squeaky clean, all-around nice guy named Paul.  The lanky, big smiling man who still looks like a boy arrives wounded in ways not immediately obvious and looking for someone for whom he can write a love song and sing while strumming his guitar.

For each of these characters, back stories still to be revealed will emerge, bringing revelations that lead to their and others’ changes and growth.  Liz Frederick is a frightened Mary Ann who has had a dream shattered while still holding on to the fact she loves the man who destroyed that dream while hurting her.  Her Mary Ann is an amalgam of conflicting desires, confusing drives, and alternating timidity and boldness – providing us a heart-breaking yet ultimately inspiring portrait of one abused woman among the many Agnes has helped through the years.

Playing Penny, Zoë Foulks is absolutely convincing and altogether believable as a girl who teeters between a excitable, quick-to-pout girl and a young woman with beliefs firm and intentions idealistic.  Matt Hammons has a little of Mr. Rogers and some of Barney Fife wrapped into a persona of his Paul that comes close at times to caricature but never crosses that line, leaving us with a guy who exudes trustworthiness amidst a sea of women who eye him – at least in the beginning -- with varying degrees of incredulity, disdain, and fascination.

Particularly strong in her portrayal of Hannah is Renee Rogoff.  Whether finding herself sitting in the kitchen sink or on the floor with a screwdriver, her Hannah never ceases to be several degrees past graceful and genteel.  She moves with a proneness toward bowlegged swagger and asks incessant questions with an approach much like a hammer.  But her Hannah has a hiding heart the size of the entire Northwest; and her search for someone with whom to share that heart somehow leads her to return to this B&B, even if it is through the kitchen window.

At the center of this story of highly diverse and diverting personas is the overall reserved Agnes, underplayed with incredibly powerful effects by a Bay Area favorite, Stacy Ross.  Her Agnes is full of subtleties that define her strong sense of presence.  Her upper lip barely lifts in visible reaction to another’s comments.  Eyes often focus mostly downward when she speaks only to surprise with a direct, upward glance.  Her voice tends rarely to modulate beyond monotone; but when it does, everyone notices.  Emotions are controlled – until they are not.  In the final scene, Stacy Ross leaves the audience limp and tearful watching her arresting collapse of all the self-control and carefully managed emotions that we have come to expect.

The Set of When We Were Young and Unafraid
Tracy Ward directs the Custom Made production with edge, heart, and intuitive magic.  She knows how to elicit at just the right moments our laughter, curiosity, surprise (even shock), outrage, sympathy, and admiration as she milks this brilliant script for all this talented cast can give.  Along with Bernadette Flynn’s aforementioned scenic design, Stephanie Dittbern’s memory-lane properties and Sound Designer Jerry Girand’s choice of former 70s hit tunes (mostly women artists) establish the time period quite well.  Haley Miller’s well-placed lighting decisions and Coeli Polansky’s costumes round out a wonderfully executed production team whose combined work ensure the story is authentically presented.

When We Were Young and Unafraid is a story that ends on an ellipsis, not a period.  We exit the theatre with a glimpse of where each character is heading but also with questions for each that hang in the air.  There is another gate sound and a bell just as the lights are about to come down for a final time.  Abuse of women will unfortunately continue; thankfully, people like Agnes will continue to be there to help.  But one thing we know in the end of this particular story, her life and the lives of the other four have been forever altered by their joint association in the few days that we have shared with them.  Overall, we leave this outstanding Custom Made Theatre production with the feeling the changes are ones that will be somehow for the good.

Rating: 5 E

When We Were Young and Unafraid continues through February 9, 2019 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits:  Jay Yamada


"Frost/Nixon"


Frost/Nixon
Peter Morgan
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley



Jeremy Webb, Allen McCullough & Cast
A sweaty upper lip that many believe helped sink his first presidential bid.  A resignation announced in his West Wing office in order to avoid sure impeachment.  Raised, waving arms with fingers of both hands in a “V” – in the past given in both victory and as an act of defiance and one last time, given as a defeated farewell.  A long-overdue, surprise confession to a foreign, late-night TV host. 



Perhaps no president’s legacy has been more emblazoned through the lens of a television camera into the collective memory of a nation than that of Richard Milhous Nixon.  In his 2006 play and 2008 movie, Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan (with a generous dose of literary license) creates with cameras rolling an incredulous string of events that leads in the play's version of history to Richard Nixon’s admitting in almost a whisper to British TV star David Frost, “I was involved in a cover-up.”  TheatreWorks Silicon Valley now stages its own Frost/Nixon in a version where many in the audience probably have at least seen the Oscar nominated movie if not the play, where most if not all know the play’s outcome, and where everyone will still find themselves breathless and on the edge of their seats as the tension in the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts meteorically rises just as those same words are finally said.

For my full review, please proceed to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj148.html.

Rating: 4 E

Frost/Nixon continues through February 10, 2019 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org/  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