Sunday, June 30, 2019

"Between Two Knees": Day One, Play One, Theatre Eddys Goes to 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival


Between Two Knees
The 1491s (Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan Redcorn & Bobby Wilson)


Justin Gauthier
Multiple massacres of innocent men, women, and children; forced resettlements of native peoples to the country’s most undesirable locales; reeducation of children to forget their native heritage and to take on the beliefs of the Catholic Church and the ways of white men.  Subjects for a world premiere comedy at the revered Oregon Shakespeare Festival, co-commissioned by New Native Theatre?  Not likely, unless the playwrights are The 1491s (Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan Redcorn & Bobby Wilson).  After all, since the formation of this sketch comedy team in 2009, the five have used their own of Monty-Python-antics to achieve national notoriety as they challenge America’s prevailing images and knowledge of Natives, known to the majority invaders as Indians.  Taking their name from the last year this continent was void of the white man before Columbus’ arrival, the 1491s stretch their satirical version of history in Between Two Knees to the point of wild hysteria and in doing so, show how incredibly and tragically ridiculous the white version of that history has to-date been.

The title Between Two Knees refers to two events taking place at Wounded Knee, South Dakota: the merciless massacre in 1890 by the U.S. military of over three hundred Natives – mostly women and children –and the American Indian Movement’s (AIM) protest and takeover of the same area (the Pine Ridge Reservation) in 1973.  The play follows three generations of one Native family, whose patriarch was a surviving baby of that December 29, 1890 travesty. 

The background history is introduced by the evening’s narrator, Larry, who stands before us in pink-and-dotted underwear, telling us, “I smell white people” (i.e., the scents of sandelwood and privilege).  He also reminds us speaking into his ever-present mike, “Indians have been through some dark shit ... and all due to you guys ... Imagine how hard it was to cast this play.”  Warning us, “You will feel guilty,” he introduces a game show, “Wheel of Indian Massacre,” to take us through a comic skit of learning about various massacres of Native tribes, leading up to Wounded Knee.  And while he does, all we can do is laugh ... and laugh out loud.

Justin Gauthier
As Larry the narrator, Justin Gauthier will continue throughout the two-hour, thirty-minute evening suddenly to pop up (literally, out of the stage’s floor) to advance the narrative or just to tell a joke – the kind best described as guilty groaners.  All along, we mostly white people really do not mean or even want to laugh, but we cannot help it.  For example, a woman with baby in arms who is a victim of the Wounded Knee massacre provides us with a ton of chuckles as she loses her arm and then dies in an extended scene that rivals anything that Shakespeare ever created where a hero seems to take forever for that last breath.

Her son – who wears around his neck a pair of moccasins given by his mother – is found and raised by wolves (as illustrated in hilarious projections designed by Shawn Duan) before landing in one of the many, now-notorious Catholic boarding schools that were designed to turn red-skinned children into white-acting ones.  Young, shy, mostly mute Isaiah (Derek Garza) is spotted by a new, forced arrival at the boarding school, Irma, whose Native family was from Oklahoma. 

Shyla Lefner & Ensemble
Shyla Lefner’s Young Irma has no intention of becoming ‘whitenized’ by the lecherous head priest, and she thus boldly resists at every move.  She even convinces Isaiah to join her in a rebellion, leading to a wonderfully funny, slow-motion jiu-jitsu fight scene between them and a horde of Ninja Nuns.  To break free, Isaiah – still wearing the tiny moccasins – has next to fight one-on-one the head priest (Rachel Crowl), wrestling-ring-style with Jesus as a referee (Justin Gauthier).  He then has to battle a viciously monstrous Mother Superior (James Ryen) with Fight Director Rod Kinter pulling out all stops in each of these over-the-top, loopy scenes.

The Cast
Isaiah and Irma, having escaped the school, become action heroes, roaming the land while burning missionary schools and rescuing imprisoned Native kids.  Along the way, they fall in love and decide to get married, leading to a mock marriage where a white woman shaman (Rachel Crowl) performs her drugged-out, hippie-like version of a Native American marriage ceremony for the two – a wonderfully satiric dig at all the ways white do-gooders have tried through the years to take the traditions of Natives and make them their own, as if they were suddenly Native themselves.

The traditions and the stories that go with them parade in parody across the stage as the scenes spin by in lightning speeds.  There are so-cute, dancing stuffed animals that have left their totem pole in order to entertain us.  We hear of a grizzly ghost who died at the hands (or actually fins) of revengeful salmon and of a spirit, prophesizing horse who sounds suspiciously like Mr. Ed.  The newly wed’s baby, whom they name William, is baptized in the tears of white women named Becky in a ceremony that is so bizarre that one hardly knows how best to react other than with another somewhat puzzle-faced guffaw.

The contributions of Native Americans to America’s war efforts and their resulting personal sacrifices are illustrated in one instance as William (Shawn Taylor-Corbett) heads to fight Nazis when he turns eighteen, whereupon he meets a Native woman who is a nurse named Irene (Shyla Lefner).  Their resulting son, Eddie, ends up on the doorstep of his grandparents, the now Older Isaiah (Wotko Long) and Older Irma (Sheila Tousey) as twists and turns galore continue to unravel in this intergenerational story.  The story’s many unlikely corners turn often to involve over-blown caricatures of the majority race, such as white soldiers announcing as if in a Saturday Night Live skit a son’s death or such as goofball FBI agents telling jokes while raiding a Native household looking for protestors’ weapons.  But through it all, the wisdom of the elders begins to prevail as Older Isaiah and Older Irma both heroically and stoically face new traumas while keeping their grace, humor, and love for each other.

Justin Gauthier & Derek Garza
As now-eighteen Eddie (Derek Garza) heads to Vietnam, we watch jungle scenes of scary battles ensue (with a not-so-scary but altogether silly set of jungle leaves dancing about).  At the same time on another part of the stage, Shyla Lefner takes the open mike as her Irene gives us a stand-up comedy night version of more Native history that we have probably never heard, ending with a hauntingly sung “My boy, my boy, what have you done?” – one of several the night’s original songs by Ryan RedCorn.  She sings looking straight ahead with little expression as we watch the horrific fate of her son that has its own absurd angle in an explosion like none the killing fields of Vietnam actually ever saw.

Through it all, Eric Ting directs this multi-role ensemble of eight with clear attention to mess with our expectations and to rattle our white-America thinking to the point of making us pay full attention to the seriousness and tragedy of the history we are witnessing.  Regina Garcia’s slightly raised, circular stage includes multiple scenes that appear elevated through the floor or from behind the back-stage’s center doorway, all of which are often as if from a comic-strip’s page.  Lux Haac’s costumes are a full wardroom of our many stereotypes as well as tongue-in-cheek jokes about the majority race itself coupled with some costumes that show much respect to the Native elders who wear them.  Jake Rodriguez both composes an underlying score as well as a whole host of sound effects that rattle and shake while adding their own reasons once again to laugh aloud.  Finally, kudos goes to Elizabeth Harper for a lighting design that sharpens both the humor and the seriousness of the stories we witness while also adding airs of mystery and myth.

While much of the humor is effective in making points we in the audience need to understand, after a while the intended effects are somewhat dulled by the constant onslaught of the ridiculousness.  Things sometimes go so far over the top to lose their meaning and thus their humor; and some scenes seem to outlast their stay, especially in the second act.  But after all, this is a play created by a comedy sketch team; and in any series of such comedy sketches, some scenes work better than others, and some are meant as a trial to be tossed if they do not work.  Between Two Knees often feels like such an evening, making me wonder if I return tomorrow, will I actually see the same play or the latest version re-edited by another late-night session by the 1491s.

But for sure, that team has the last laugh.  After all, they have ensured implanting into all our mostly Caucasian selves an earworm not soon to leave us, one that rings with a catchy tune singing over and again, “So long, white people; some of you were cool, but most of you were not!”

Rating: 4 E

Between Two Knees continues through October 27, 2019 in the Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at www.osfashland.org.

Photos by Jenny Graham

Monday, June 24, 2019

"Passion"


Passion
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); James Lapine (Book)

Juliana Lustenader & John Melis
Two voices intertwine as their beautifully sung notes erotically embrace in an opening song that mirrors the locked eyes, the probing hands, and the lip-to-lip brushes of two lovers singing “Happiness” in duet:
“I’ve never known what love was ...
But now, and now, I do.
It’s what I feel with you, the happiness I feel with you.”

What love really is and what it is not is the exploratory subject of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine’s (book) 1994, one-act musical, Passion.  The journey to answer that question traverses a path laden with uncontrollable passion to the point of frightening obsession, questions of what is true beauty and what is absolute ugliness, when is illness to be pitied and when to be detested, and what is the boundary between attraction and manipulation when it comes to love.  When these difficult themes are so tightly meshed into the compellingly descriptive lyrics and the emotionally powerful music of Sondheim, Passion becomes a musical that can challenge even the most accomplished of theatrical companies.  Custom Made Theatre Company not only meets the demanding challenges of this chamber musical but once again proves – as it has in the past with such productions as Chess and Man of La Mancha – that on its tiny stage and in its intimate setting, the Company is totally capable of staging a musical that soars in its sheer musicality, emotional impact, and interpretive ingenuity.

In 1863 Italy amidst an afternoon of fervent lovemaking, a strikingly handsome Captain Giorgio Bachetti explains to his beautifully blonde lover, Clara, that he is being transferred to a remote outpost.  They end their opening duet singing erotically of their promised “endless happiness” even as they must now prepare to be separated and through letters, now confine themselves to “make love with our words.”

Juliana Lustenader & John Melis
As Giorgio tries to adjust to life among his crudely joking, drinking fellow officers, his thoughts turn to letters between him and his far-off Clara (a lyrically voiced, sensuously tempting Juliana Lustenader) – letters we hear in longing, lustful duets (“First Letter,” “Second Letter,” etc.) that he replays in his mind (and before our eyes) even as he sits at the mess table.  During one such letter, a blood-curling scream pierces the air, one which causes other soldiers to snicker and sneer while the ranking Colonel Ricci explains to the newcomer Giorgio that it is only his extremely ill cousin, Fosca.  When Giorgio hears that she likes to read, he offers to loan her some of his books – a generous move with consequences he cannot begin to imagine.

John Melis is incredibly magnificent in the role of Giorgio.  He brings richly expressive and evocative vocals that have the capability of displaying in song flaming desire as well as biting disgust, eruptive anger as well as penitent remorse, and vicious intent to hurt feelings as well as genuine desire to heal past hurts.  Equally impressive is the way he employs the most subtle movements– tightly pinched lips, a cocked head, a nervously twitching cheek – to convey an entire script of Giorgio’s inner thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears.  As the story enfolds before us, John Melis calls upon all these and many more avenues to help us to understand the dilemmas and transformations Giorgio will undergo.

John Melis & Heather Orth
The books he sends to the ailing Fosca lead to a meeting between the two that Giorgio totally does not expect but that Fosca orchestrates in order to assert feelings for him that she has had since first glimpsing his arrival from her bedroom window.  Fosca believes through her own and others’ decrees that she is homely and totally unattractive.  However, she senses in Giorgio a person akin to herself, telling him, “They [the other soldiers] hear drums, you hear music, as do I.”  The pale, shawled young woman goes on to assert to the virile man in uniform, “Don’t you see, we’re the same ... we are different [from them].”

As Fosca, Heather Orth gives a performance that is nothing short of stunning.  When she describes in “I Read” to Giorgio why she reads books, her voice hovers softly while trembling in sustained notes, pained and often full of acid bitterness as she describes a life with no dreams of ever being any better than her tortured, present state.  Her upset only increases during a second meeting when in “Garden Sequence” Giorgio sings to Fosca of his love for Clara, who is also seen by us singing snidely and disapprovingly of his continuing to give any time to this plain, sick woman named Fosca that he writes of in his letters.

John Melis & Heather Orth
While Giorgio agrees rather reluctantly to be a friend of Fosca’s, Fosca is unable to confine her own lust and desire for him to just being acquaintances.  Increasingly, Fosca becomes relentless in her oft-awkward, impulsive displays of her pent-up affection.  During scenes where she, Giorgio, and Clara are all on stage together though not in the same physical locations, their sung sequences take on mounting tensions, despairs, confrontations, and accusations.  Through it all and much more to come, Heather Orth’s Fosca is at times a collapsed invalid, an intriguing mystery, an attacking viper, or a ridiculously silly woman lost a dream of love that borders on being a nightmare for both her and for Giorgio.  She is often like an invisible puppet master who pulls strings that somehow compel Giorgio in directions surprising even to her, much less to him.  As the bizarre love triangle intensifies that she has constructed between herself, him, and the absent Clara, Giorgio gathers the inner fortitude to take new control of his own destiny, with effects on both Clara and Fosca and eventually on himself that are life-altering for all.

Micah Watterson, Roy Eikleberry, Max Seijas, Carl Lucania & Zaya Kolia
All these ups, downs, twists, and turns of the rollercoaster ride the three are on together are translated to us via short, sung sequences, amounting to thirty or so Sondheim-signature creations – songs that are sung in various real-time dialogue, written-letter form, and choral interludes.  The last occur often as various soldiers or household staff members emerge to act as a kind of Greek chorus to add to the story’s narration or to provide gossipy views, often ending in a dramatically harmonized “I’ll say” as they surmise, for example, that Giorgio is using the Colonel’s cousin as his ladder to promotion.

Zaya Kolia, Carl Lucania, Kelly Rubinsohn & Heather Orth
Along with Giorgio, Clara, and Fosca, other important players in the drama unfolding include the outpost’s leader and Fosca’s cousin, Colonel Ricci, and the resident physician, Dr. Tambourri.  Jake Gleason is the monocle-wearing, kind-hearted Dr. Tambourri whose caring for his patient, Fosca, leads him to persuade Giorgio to make a night-time, sickbed visit that has huge consequences.  Domonic Tracy plays a cousin who has great sympathy and a highly protective nature when it comes to poor Fosca, singing an impassioned, spirited “Flashback” in which he describes how a diabolical, so-called Austrian Count Ludovic once married Fosca and then drove her family to poverty through his gambling and multiple affairs.  As Colonel/Cousin Ricci sings, scenes are reenacted with Zaya Kolia playing the Count with full cad behaviors and cynical vocals while Carl Lucania and Kelly Rubinsohn are hilarious as the easily duped parents who let visions of Austrian castles cloud their better judgment.

Stuart Bousel astutely directs the one-hour, fifty minute (no intermission) musical with a seamless flow of many over-lapping and oft-parallel scenes.  Against a back wall of blended colors deep in purples and blues that is part of Bernadette Flynn’s flexible, movable set design, Tina Johnson has created an impressive lighting design that reflects a symphony of emotions – one often cacophonous in nature – that plays out on the small stage.  Anton Hedman’s sound design punctuates the air with military drums and announcing bugle blasts as well as the chilling screams of a sick woman.  Kathleen Qui’s costumes range from military formality to Clara’s beautiful gown of rippling folds to Fosca’s draping wraps of a woman ill of health and ill at ease.  Brian Allan Hobbs directs the music of this fine-singing ensemble as well as serves as pianist and conductor of cellist Ami Nashimoto and wind-instrumentalist Sheldon Brown – all three of whom do great justice to the Sondheim score with its swings from mesmerizing love melodies to those of fever-pitched madness.

Custom Made Theatre Company’s personal and up-close Passion is a collage of emotions laid bare for our examination and contemplation – infatuation, lust, jealousy, despair, vexation, ecstasy, to name a few.  Director, cast, and production team have triumphed in staging a musically enrapturing, visually compelling, and dramatically captivating Passion that is a summer-must for all theatregoers, but especially for the hordes of San Francisco’s Sondheim fanatics.

Rating: 5 E

Passion continues through July 20, 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

Thursday, June 20, 2019

"Once"


Once
Enda Walsh (Book); Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglov (Music & Lyrics)
(Based on the Movie by John Carney)


The Ensemble of Once
Even if the pre-show were the show, how could one not rush to pocket a ticket for 42nd Street Moon’s regional premiere of Once?  Thirteen hand-clapping, body-swaying, and foot-stomping singers – all also musicians – fill the intimate stage of the cozy Gateway Theatre with music of combined Celtic and Eastern European roots.  Soon, toes are tapping and heads are rhythmically nodding among the lucky, smiling audience members who have arrived early enough to enjoy the twenty-minute concert. 

But we have only seen and heard a sample of the richly evocative, soul-searching, emotionally charged music that Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglov have written for this 2012, eight-Tony-Award-winning musical.  Even more, we have not yet become immersed in a story by Enda Walsh (based on the 2007 movie by John Carney) that overflows with life-driving, life-changing passions for music, for love, and for a sense of self-fulfillment.  42nd Street Moon takes the much-revered company to a new level of profound excellence with a production of Once that immediately grabs its audience’s rapt attention with the first note and never lets go with its unforgettable story and its hauntingly beautiful music until the last chord gently fades away.

Corbin Mayer
A street-performer only identified as “Guy” begins “Leave” in a soft voice, reaching deep into a troubled self plagued by a love lost before finally increasing in volume with vocals now sharpened to an edge that cut to the core of his loss. “Leave, leave, let go of my hand,” ends in a final “Leave, leave” sung as a plea, a cappella. 

As he walks away from a guitar now abandoned on the street, a young woman we will know only as “Girl” rushes over with resolute resolve to insist that he not give up his music even though he says, “There’s no point to it anymore.”  Her cheerful curiosity but also unrelenting interest in him and his obvious talent receives a breakthrough chance to get to know him better when she discovers that he is a Hoover fixer by trade – a miracle discovery since she just happens to have with her a vacuum that desperately needs repairing (explaining, “It doesn’t suck”). 

The Czech-immigrant Girl lures the Dublin-native Guy to a local music store owned by Spanish-born Billy, where she gets Guy to agree to fix her Hoover if she plays a song for him on the store’s piano.  Her Mendelsohn impresses him, but he is also clearly becoming more than just a bit intrigued by this persistent, serious-minded woman who sports a big, ever-present, and toothy grin.  She finally convinces Guy to sing one more of his own compositions, with the first, earthy notes of the 2012 Tony-Award-winning song “Falling Softly” soon convincing her that she needs to help Guy be discovered “by some fat man with a fat cigar” who can produce his music in a place like New York.

As Guy, Corbin Mayer brings an incredible ability to underplay the role in a manner that only enhances the believability of a young man whose emotions well deep within him.  As he strums so intimately yet fervently his guitar, his vocals cover such a wide range in pitch and scale as well as in timbre that in a number like “Falling Softly,” we experience emotional secrets suddenly laid bear for all to know.  His openness of inner thoughts seems so unconsciously accidental in songs like ‘Say It to Me Now” and “Sleeping” that as audience members, we almost feel as if we are invading a privacy where maybe we should not be as he longs for the love of a girl he just met on the street.  Corbin Mayer takes a role that won Steve Kazee a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical and provides his own signature interpretation that will long remain in the memories of his audiences.

Olivia Clari Nice
The power of his vocals only increases when Olivia Clari Nice joins him from the piano, singing with a voice that blends in a harmony full of haunting in their initial “Falling Softly.”  The sensuous, searching pulls and tugs of her voice rise and fall in “If You Want Me” as her Girl and an echoing Guy both now imagine in song a possible love relationship.  She seems to be searching for a sign that this is the man for her – she still being married to a husband now back in the Czech Republic and Guy still in deep hurt for an ex who is now in New York.  When Girl sings “The Hill,” the individual words of the song often glide and slide in a single syllable in a flow conveying her searching for the answer to “Where are you my angel now?”  Olivia Nice’s voice touches our hearts as her song takes on the tear-filled, voice-rippling sound one might expect to hear from a country-western singer’s love ballad.  Both in voice and in acting, her Girl is another key reason this Once is ever-compelling during its entire two-hours, twenty minutes.

During a number of the songs that Guy and Girl sing both individually and together, other cast members who sit on the stage watching and fully engaged with intense interest often begin one-by-one to pick up their instruments to accompany them – instruments like a violin, mandolin, guitar, accordion, or even just a hollow box.  They join to play and sing in ever-swelling harmonies that fill the air around us with magnificent and moving blends of instruments and voices.  Sometimes in a song like the Act One finale “Gold,” the cast members’ risings to their feet seem as is they are almost caught up in a religious revival, standing to testify through their music.  Their individual musical excellence is superb across-the-board as is the portrayals of their various characters – each of which as an audience member, one grows in desire to sit for a while and get to know better.

Rob Ready & Matt Dvis
There is Billy, the music store owner, whom Rob Ready exposes to us Billy’s many sides that range from a bashful guy in puppy love with Girl to a jokester who will use his over-sized stature as a ploy for a laugh to a brute quick-to-explode because he has no tolerance for bankers.  One of those bankers whom Billy thinks is ruining his struggling business is Bank Manager (Matt Davis), who turns out not only to have a big heart and love for good music, but can also play a mean bass guitar. 

In Girl’s home are also other fine musicians from the Old Country who include her pipsqueak daughter, Ivanka, played with a dynamic voice and a big personality by youngster Emma Berman.  Her mother, Baruška (Ariela Morgenstern), brother Andrej (Brady Morales-Woolery), and housemates Švec (Ben Euphrat) and Réza (Devin Renée Kelly) each take opportunities to introduce us to their individual personalities and touch upon aspects of their immigrant stories – including hilarious references of how they learned English via TV soap operas.  Collectively with the other cast members (including Guy’s big-hearted Da played by Colin Thomson), they leave behind at one point the many songs rooted in the Irish tradition for one rousing, high-kicking number that enthusiastically celebrates Czech and Eastern Europe traditions: “Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka.”

The ensemble as a whole provides one of the evening’s most gripping moments when in hushed harmonies they sing a cappella a reprise of “Gold.”  As one of many inspired choices by Music Director Eryn Allen, lyrical phrases are punctuated by brief moments of pause, offering us time for the meanings to soak in.  The stunning song offers a sense of healing for the hurts and losses that various members have experienced – both those we thus far know and those we can only surmise that they as immigrants or as an abandoned wife or as a widower may know.  As are so many of the lyrics of this musical, their sung words carry lessons for us all: “And if a door close, then a road for home start building; and tear your curtains down, for sunlight is like gold.”

Cindy Goldfield directs 42nd Street’s Once with a patient touch that allows many moments of deliberate silence to communicate clearly their own messages.  Scenic changes are a slow dance of moving cast members that never break but only enhance the introspective mood of the story’s unfolding.  Brian Watson’s scenic design has the overall feel of a local pub where everyone knows each other – a setting that also quickly transforms to a store, a hill overlooking Dublin, or a bedroom by just the addition of a couple of trunks or a lone table.  Much of that transformational magic is made possible through the beautiful spells created by the spots and shadows of Michael Palumbo’s lighting design.  Travis Rexroat’s sound design brings in surrounding effects like a city’s traffic and an ocean’s waves while also producing a flawless balance among the many singing and instrument-playing cast members.  Cindy Goldfield not only has designed an impressively wide spectrum of fun choreography, but has also clothed the full cast in outfits that tell us on the outside who they are on the inside.

Besides leaving the theatre with the notes and phrases ringing in our ears from memorable numbers like “Falling Slowly, ” “If You Want Me,” and “Gold,” we audience members also exit with hearts uplifted by a story where sadness and happiness unexpectedly meet and hold hands tightly in gratitude. Once is a not-to-be-missed summer-welcoming gift to San Francisco by 42nd Street Moon – the kind of season-ending show that cannot help but send us home anticipating more must-be-seen productions in the upcoming season.  And we are also left with a resounding message none of us should quickly ignore:

“You cannot walk through life leaving unfinished love behind you.”

Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”

Once continues through June 30 in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://www.42ndstmoon.org or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207.

Photos by Ben Krantz Studio

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"One Man, Two Guvnors"


One Man, Two Guvnors
Richard Bean
(Based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
With songs by Grant Olding)




The Cast
It only takes the stumbling entrance of Doug Santana onto the stage in the persona of Francis Henshall – the servant of two ‘guvnors’ – to ascertain immediately that Palo Alto Players has a rollicking, riotous hit on its stage – one that will surely take its rightful, tongue-in-cheek place among other, past productions of One Man, Two GuvnorsNo great morals, insights, or meanings emerge from Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors.  What does emerge from the Lucie Stern Auditorium after the Palo Alto Players production is an audience with aching jaws and sides that are exhausted from laughing.

Please proceed to Talkin' Broadway for my entire review:  https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/index.html.

Rating: 5 E

One Man, Two Guvnors continues through June 30, 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.paplayers.org or by calling 650-329-0891.

Photo Credit: Joyce Goldschmid

Monday, June 17, 2019

"Oedipus El Rey"


Oedipus El Rey
Luis Alfaro

Gendell Hing-Hernandez, Armando Rodriguez, Esteban Carmona & Juan Amador
“Do we lay down and take what the world has given us?
Or do we break down the cycle, the system, and tell new stories?
Can we live the story not yet told and the possibility not yet imagined?
Or are we fated?”

Ten years ago, Magic Theatre staged the world premiere of Luis Alfaro’s gripping, disturbing, and bone-chilling Oedipus El Rey – a modern retelling of Sophicles’ Oedipus Rex where these questions of what is destined and what is possible to change are posed.  Ten years later, the Magic revives the play that has since seen over twenty productions across the country; but since the initial run, Black Lives Matter, headlines about over-crowded prisons disproportionately filled with brown and black men, and a president who spouts almost daily disparaging remarks about non-white people now make these questions more relevant and more immediate than ever.  If a Latino man, for example, declares as does Luis Alfaro’s modern day Oedipus, “I want to write my own story,” how possible is it – especially if he has already spent much of his young life in prison for a mistake he made as a naïve youth?  If upon being freed he exudes new-found confidence, wants to assert his own kind of leadership among peers, and plans to use the knowledge he has gained from much study to lead a new life, will the society around him see him for who he really now is or only see him how that same society believes he has been fated by his heritage, ethnicity, and color to become? 

In a revised production that is as much if not even more arrestingly heart-pounding, emotionally moving, and profoundly thought-provoking than was the world premiere, Magic Theatre stages once again a Oedipus El Rey by Luis Alfaro and directed by Loretta Greco that is a must-see where these and many more questions are posed and begging us to consider and address them head-on.

The Coro
Luis Alfaro takes Sophicles’ storyline and brings it into the twenty-first century, retaining elements of mythical nature like prophecies from local oracles and a confrontation with the dreaded Sphinx.   Like in ancient Greek plays, ever-present is also a Chorus – in this case, a Chicano Coro of four men –narrate in over-lapping sentences of both Spanish and English while also making comments among themselves and stepping into a variety of roles to further the story’s telling.  The Coro are prisoners at a California State Prison in North Kern – all clad in orange – who have helped raise the boy, Oedipus, and who line up to tell us the story of a man they variously describe as one “living in prison, raised in the yard” and “feared by many” who also “wants to be something more,” “[is] with no limits,” “[is] destined to be.”  

Sean San José & Esteban Carmona
One Coro steps forward to become the local gangster-leader and his father, Laius, who hears a prediction that the baby in his wife’s pregnant body will one day grow up to kill him.  Laius instructs his loyal friend, Tiresias, to kill the baby boy after his wife, Jocasta, has given birth.  Tiresias cannot do so and instead raises the adoring boy as his own son, even behind the walls of a prison where they both reside for separate crimes of robberies.  Oedipus truly believes that the old man, now blind, is his father, with whom he has spent much sacred time in the prison’s library.  He emerges at the time of his release as a self-assured – bordering on cocky – young man, resolute to create his own path in the world but unaware that he has been born into a community and a heritage where the odds are totally stacked against him of succeeding.

Esteban Carmona
Physically, Esteban Carmona’s Oedipus immediately gives the impression of being admirably non-stoppable in his determination, repeatedly demonstrating what seem impossible exercises of incredibly fast and furious push-ups, high jumps, and squats.  His taut and muscular physique, his quick smirk of a smile, and his overall sure nature displayed in walk and posture shout of his eager readiness to take on the world. 

A dream where a multi-headed owl (the four Coros) predicts that Oedipus is accursed and that he will kill his father – who he is sure is Tiresias – is quickly rejected by Oedipus as ridiculous.  However, when leaving prison in a car the gentle, caring Tiresias (Sean San José, also a Coro) has provided for him, he becomes involved in a road rage incident where his own quickness to anger mirrors the equally hot-headed man in the other car, whose pulled knife leads to Oedipus killing him.  Only we know at this time that Oedipus has fulfilled the prediction of murdering his real father, Laius (an impulsive, wily, and callous Gendell Hing-Hernandez, also a Coro).

Esteban Carmona & Lorraine Velez
Oedipus lands in the home of a friend and current ‘king’ of his Latino neighborhood, Creon (a fierce, wiry, and soon suspicious Armando Rodrigues, playing also a Coro), who lives with his beautiful, sister, Jocasta (Lorriane Velez).  An agreed one-week’s stay by Oedipus extends into extra weeks and then to the marriage altar as he and Jocasta soon become passionately attracted, with the two actors engaged in a scene of bare, mutual passion and love-making that is as poetically sensuous as any I have ever seen on the live stage.  The powerful magnetism between the two is visceral, with neither realizing that part of that natural pull is because Jocasta is the mother Oedipus never knew.

As Oedipus asserts not only his manhood with the woman he loves but also his desire for leadership in challenging her brother’s old-guard way of doing things, fate begins to slip its pre-determined hand of cards into his life in ways he will not be able fully to control.  Esteban Carmona and Lorraine Velez’s performances are electrifying and heart-breaking as the events unfold with a fury that speaks of the violence that seems by unalterable definition to surround their lives and their fates. 

Loretta Greco’s direction of the ninety minutes never lets us forget the ancient play’s origins while all the time hitting us with the firm realities of today’s world in the cells and streets where these Latino men live out their lives.  The projections of Hana Kim combine incredibly beautifully shadowed scenes of trees and stars along with splashed patterns of murals and stark patterns that bring the more harsh worlds to full life.  Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting sends us somewhere into and between a dream world of ancient storytelling and a cold, stark world of a reality difficult to face and understand.  Jake Rodriguez’s sound design jars us with the clang of metal, prison doors that lock men in like animals while also reminding us and them that somewhere nearby a highway of rushing cars continue to pass by in everyday lives of freedom.  Jacqueline Scott’s designed tattoos and Dave Maier’s directed fight instruction bring realities further to bear in the intimate, Magic setting, reminding us that what we are seeing is much more an American reality than just an ancient tale of Greekdom.

If in ten years, Magic Theatre chooses to revise yet a third time this powerful play that will surely continue to reside firmly in each audience member’s memory as did the original of 2009 reside in mine, we can only hope that its timely relevance will be much less to the world of 2029 than it is to that of 2019.  That will perhaps depend on how much our current society responds to a Coro’s final, haunting messages:

“Oye Gente!
Look at Oedipus.
His story.  Our story.
Will we remember our stories?
Or are we doomed to repeat them?”

Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”

Oedipus El Rey continues through June 23, 2019 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://magictheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.

Photo Credits: Jennifer Reilly


Friday, June 14, 2019

"Present Laughter"


Present Laughter
Noël Coward
Pear Theatre



Jenni Chapman, Barbara Heninger, Akex Draa, Charles Woodson Parker & John Stephen King
Pear Theatre presents in its intimate setting Noël Coward's Present Laughter that bursts at the seams with riotous comedy propelled by a stage full of memorably quirky characters who get themselves and each other into a myriad of messes through adulteries, seductions, threats of blackmail, star-worshipping, and a star’s ego that knows no bounds.  In doing so, the Pear proves once again that this is the small-sized theatre that can take on big-stage ventures with full aplomb and total success.

For my full review, please proceed to Talkin' Broadwayhttps://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj170.html.

Rating: 4.5 E

Present Laughter continues through June 30, 2019 at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Michael Kruse Craig

 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

"Grease"


Grease
Warren Casey & Jim Jacobs (Book, Music & Lyrics)



Nick Quintell, Katharine Andrade & Cast
Why are over one thousand people inside the Fox on a sunny Sunday in order to see yet one more Grease, this time presented by Broadway by the Bay’s cast of twenty-two?  Probably it is because we just cannot get enough of songs like “Summer Nights,” “Greased Ligtnin’,” and “Beauty School Dropout” or that we just one more time have to see a stage full of teeny-bopping kids hand-jive with hands and feet moving so fast that even we are sweating in exhaustion!  While this particular production by the perennially outstanding Broadway by the Bay has some specific issues, there are so many elements that work and work well that anyone needing a Grease-fix should walk away humming a bunch of songs and smiling big-time with memories of a number of favorites performed exceptionally well.

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadwayhttps://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj169.html.

Rating: 3 E

Grease continues through June 23, 2019 in production by Broadway by the Bay at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City.  Tickets are available at https://broadwaybythebay.org.

Photo Credit: Mark & Tracy Photography