Sunday, October 20, 2019

"Othello"


Othello
William Shakespeare

Isabel Siragusa & L. Peter Callender
While there are no American flags flying and no “U.S. Army” or “U.S. Navy” stitching on the military uniforms worn, the intentions of Director Carl Jordan could hardly be clearer.  There is no way for him to camouflage that this opening production of the African-American Shakespeare Company’s twenty-fifth season of William Shakespeare’s Othello involves American troops stationed in yet another Middle Eastern country, this time Cyprus.  The director ensures from the opening scene that this oft-produced tragic tale takes on the immediate relevance of headlines we are reading every day.

A second, brilliant decision in terms of casting by the director also makes this Othello as current as this morning’s Huffpost headline.  While most productions of the classic only cast the Moor Othello himself as a man of color, Carl Jordan has somewhat removed race as the core difference between Othello and his compatriot soldiers.  In this production, blacks and whites abound working, living, and even coupled together (e.g., Iago’s wife, Emilia, is black).  In this director’s vision, when the most reviled of all Shakespeare’s villains, Iago, says point-blankly and unashamedly, “I hate the Moor,” we cannot help but draw comparisons to the online pictures and videos we see of everyday Americans (and even top leaders) showing their hate of those of not born in this country.  Apart from the themes of jealousy and misjudgment that center on Othello himself, this African-American Shakespeare Company’s Othello is a stark, unsettling reflection of the doubts and mistrusts that can quickly multiply when a respected source like Iago begins to spread rumors and outright lies about “the other” among us – about that person who is a different nationality (in this case, African), has foreign speech patterns (Othello has a distinctly different accent), and show mannerisms that make him stand out from those who look and act like ‘us.’

What makes this Othello particularly startling is that Iago could be any one of a hundred people most of us in the audience knows.  On the outside and at first meeting, he is nice-looking, wears a Zuckerberg-like hoodie, and is quick to buddy up to whomever he meets around the base  – the kind of guy who grew up next door to the majority of today’s Americans.  After all, everyone – and of course especially his superior officer, Othello -- refers to Iago as “honest,” “good,” a man of “trust.” 

MIchael Ray Wisely & L. Peter Callender
But what also makes this Iago unfortunately so currently familiar is that he is quick to talk and spread rumors about the foreigner among them, this Moor.  What sends chills down one’s spine is how time and again Michael Ray Wisely as Iago turns to address the audience directly in such a manner as if to say, “You understand ... You know how these foreigners are among us.”  He openly shares with us his ideas-in-the-making and finally explicitly tells us his demonic plan to take down Othello, not hiding any motive or detail of how he will convince Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio (the lieutenant who was promoted over Iago).  We can see that he thinks that naturally we too have the same dislike as he of this outsider Othello. 

The assumptions Iago makes with his tone and looks -- one almost expects him to wink at us to let us know he ‘knows’ we agree – rattles to the core and leads one to think of a certain president whose tweets and video clips make the same types of assumptions as he too often asserts criminals are infiltrating the U.S. through the Mexican border.  Michael Ray Wisely is a modern-day, American Everyman who is fed up with those foreigners who are invading our institutions, making decisions to take jobs away from us, and who are even marrying our women.  As such, he is scary and all too real.

And though there are frequent mentions of the script’s Venice and still plenty of early seventeenth century phrases and language amongst some updated phrases and four-letter epitaphs, peppering the story’s unveiling are also the sounds of overhead helicopters and jets, piped in snippets of a TV reporter, and the buzzers and bells of a modern military compound.  Together, director and creative team continue to reinforce that this Othello is happening right now, all around us.

Isabel Siragusa & L. Peter Callender
The military hero, Othello -- who in this case has evidently immigrated from somewhere in Muslim Africa to rise to hero-status in the military – is charming in his exacting accent and manner, is well-spoken and clearly of exceptional intelligence, and is full of amiable confidence when we first meet him.  L. Peter Callender provides few, if any, early hints of the emotional, mental, and psychological breakdown that is soon to occur.  With his new bride, Desdemona, he is passionately and unashamedly demonstrative of his love for her, picking her up while repeatedly kissing her in front of his gathered troops.  With his comrades, he is jovial and familiar as well as quick to joke and even to hug. 

His eventual metamorphosis into a full-fledge monster is all the more horrific because Mr. Callender is able at first to make us believe that maybe this particular Othello will not be taken in by Iago’s outlandish insinuations and will in fact continue to love his beautiful, young bride who so clearly adores him.  When he laughs off Iago’s initial insinuations of Desdemona’s infidelity, we hope that the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy will this time pass him by; but we have also just heard his Othello say with eerie prediction as his wife exits, “But I do love her, and when I am out of love, chaos will come again.”

When Othello does transform, rarely has there been any more violent outbursts by a physically scary Othello than the one on this stage.  Mr. Callendar’s increasing bouts of rage and fury are shattering to behold.  His rants become animal-like howls; his eyes almost pop out of his head; he beats his chest in one moment and collapses on the ground in the next –  sometimes screaming his anger, sometimes just freezing his mouth open and in a look shocked and horrid.  His entire being becomes so consumed with the jealous disease that Iago has infected within him that he shakes uncontrollably from head to toe; his voice shifts to that of a monster; and any sign of logical, rational thinking totally leaves him.  His body literally shrinks, twists, and molds into wrinkled forms different from that the noble man we met just barely an hour prior.  The performance is nothing short of magnificent and horrifying at the same time.

Isabel Siragusa
Surrounding these two who together march others towards a destiny of undeserved destruction are two wives and a comrade: Desdemona, Emilia, and Cassio.  Desdemona (Isabel Siragusa) appears barely past her teen years and obviously dedicated to her new groom and heads-over-heals in love with him as a girl who has found her first love. She exudes a sense of innocence and naivite.  She shows no hesitation to be open about her close friendship with Cassio and in fact does flirt a bit with him as any young woman might do with a friend who is much closer to her age than her graying husband.  She is not about to stop pestering her husband in a loving, playful, but ever-persistent mode to reconsider a demotion he gives to Cassio (after a drunken brawl orchestrated by Iago on the lightweight drinker, Cassio).  She also seems to miss all clues how much her childish bantering is upsetting her newly wed husband.  As Othello’s suspicions become more intense and his anger begins to take over, Ms. Siragusa’s performance proportionately intensifies in multiple dimensions to a climax where she succumbs in shocked disbelief while still purporting her love for a husband who is about to kill her.  The interpretation given to this Desdemona is somewhat disturbing in that she shows few signs of her own personhood and independence, but she also reminds us how easy it is for a young woman in our society to fall into the sway and obedience of an attractive, publicly renowned man who so dominates and powers over her.  In the MeToo era, her Desdemona is a warning signal of how this seductive dominance can happen to almost anyone.

As Iago’s wife, Emilia (also a member of the military troop), Champagne Hughes is often initially in the background, watching intently but rarely saying much.  She is, however, desperate to be noticed by her husband who seems to have a disdain for her, and she is most certainly one more person who is hugely naïve as she agrees to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief (a gift from Othello) in order to please her husband.  When the true nature of her husband and his motives finally become known to her, the rage against him and Othello (and husbands in general) and the despair she feels for Desdemona add up to an astoundingly powerful performance for Ms. Hughes, her final fifteen or so minutes being a memorable highlight in an evening already full of incredible performances by her fellow actors.

As Cassio, Ariel Sandino is convincing as a nice, somewhat shy, and incredibly handsome guy any one would immediately like.  That he is duped by Iago is easy to believe because Cassio is so good-natured and so clearly convinced that Iago is “my honest friend.”  

Gabriel Ross & Michael Ray Wisely
Contrasting in every way to him is Gabriel Ross as an emotionally wild, almost clownish, and completely impulsive Roderigo – a supposed friend of Iago’s who believes Desdemona should be his wife and who becomes a too-easy puppet to Iago’ fiendish schemes, believing he can still win her hand once Othello is out of the picture.  But like Cassio, Roderigo’s naivite runs rapid through the veins of his awkwardly jerky body; his too-easily-given trust leads to a demise that involves them both.

Helping round out this fine cast is Samira Mariama as a business-like, no b-s Duke who says as much with her non-verbal smirks as she does with the words the Bard provides her.   She returns later in the play as a gaudily dressed Bianca, the openly sexy, loud-mouthed, bedtime diversion of Cassio who becomes yet another instrument in Iago’s evil plan to undo Othello via Cassio. 

Gene Thompson is the very white, probably racist father of Desdemona, Brabantio, who scornfully opposes the marriage of his daughter to the foreign-born (and black) Othello.  When he goes to make his case to the black Duke who clearly sees right through his obvious prejudices, one cannot help but laugh at his stupidity.  Durand Garcia, Stephen Dietz, and Tyri Ballard complete the ensemble, each having their own singularly notable moments as Gratino, Lodovico, and Montano, respectively.

L. Peter Callender
Cayla Ray-Perry’s set design of skeletal wooden and metal buildings quickly tell us how unstable the relations are of those who reside inside while her background, brilliantly colored cutouts of a Cyprus village call upon us to remember how foreign the American troops themselves are in this far-off land of ancient customs.  Kevin Myrick’s lighting design highlights the brightness of a seashore country as well as the dark shadows of brewing, diabolical plans and events while he and sound designer Larry Tasse collaborate to bring the flashes and sounds of war into our presence.  Durand Garcia’s fight instructions prove to be excellent in the realism of pounding, physical altercations, especially leading to an abhorrent climax as Othello assaults his wife on her death bed.  Finally, costume designer Keri Fitch keeps us constantly aware that these are surely American military on foreign assignment while she also clothes Desdemona in rose-filtered innocence and Bianca in bold-striped sauciness.

Even if one has seen Othello a dozen times, the current production of the Shakespeare classic by African-American Shakespeare Company is one not to be missed.  Its timeliness, innovation of casting, and sheer acting prowess makes this Othello one to be long remembered and discussed by its audiences.

Rating: 5 E

Othello concludes its short run of only six performances next weekend, October 26 and 27, 2019 in production by the African-American Shakespeare Company at Marines’ Memorial Auditorium, 609 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA.  Tickets are available online at www.african-americanshakes.org.

Photo Credits: Joseph Giammarco

Saturday, October 19, 2019

"Nabucco"


Nabucco
Giuseppe Verdi, Composer
Temistocle Solera, Librettist

How relevant can a near one-hundred-eighty-year opera be to modern audiences when there is an autocratic, egotistic ruler who subjugates people of a different ethnicity and nationality to imprisonment and relocation from their homeland and who begins to act and think of himself as a god?  Unfortunately in 2019, a story that originates in biblical times and is the subject of Giuseppe Verdi’s first break-through opera, Nabucco, is perhaps more apropos than ever before, with examples of such leaders currently over-populating the globe, both near and far. 

But what sets this historical tale’s ruler apart from most modern day despots is that this king, Nabucco (known in English as Nebuchadnezzar II), actually comes to grips with his own ego-inflated wrong-doings and completely transforms, in the end restoring to those he harms their nation, their lives, and their dignity.  If only it were possible to sit a few of today’s presidents, premiers, and princes in the audience of West Bay Opera’s Nabucco – the company’s opening production of its sixty-fourth season – in order for them to be as inspired and emotionally moved as was the opening night audience.

Nabucco, partly based on the books of Jeremiah and Daniel from the Hebrew Haftorah, relates the destruction of the Israelite’s Temple in Jerusalem by the invading Babylonian army in 587 BCE and of the subsequent deportation of the Jews to the victors’ homeland.  There, they are threatened with certain annihilation by the jealous, power-hungry daughter of the king, Abigaile, who seizes power from her father after he suddenly goes mad, his having been struck into babbling hysteria when declaring himself to be not king, but God.  But Abigaile is actually a former slave raised by Nabucco as his daughter.  His real daughter, Fenena, is a captive of the Israelites and has both fallen in love with the King of Jerusalem’s nephew, Ismaele, and has converted to his Jewish faith. 

Abigaile herself has passion for Ismaele, who rejects her offer of his and his people’s release if he will now love her instead of Fenena.  Her resultant tantrum against him and her sister explodes, eventually to include her father and leading to her fiery decree for all of their demises.  Only a divine re-awakening by the fallen, shaken, former king and a plea by him for God’s forgiveness can save himself, his daughter, and his newly adopted people, the Israelites.

On the intimate Lucie Stern stage, West Bay Opera begins Verdi’s epic story with a stage-filling chorus of thirty-three who – with outstretched hands – sing the moving harmonies of a prayer to their God: “Do not let thy children fall prey to a madman who scorns your everlasting right.”  Especially when the women roll their voices in waves of supplication is this initial exposure impressively moving for a chorus that Verdi will give ample opportunities to be heard during the two-hour, forty minute (with two intermissions) evening.  While the chorus under direction of Bruce Olstad sometimes lacks a totally solid, male foundation, overall the efforts made as a total ensemble are impressive the entire evening.  That is especially true when the full group sings – first with subdued, then with harmonically moving and organ-like tones – Verdi’s most famous choral piece, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Fly, thought, on golden wings”).

After the Israelite’s initial prayer, Zaccaria, the High Priest of the Jews, rises forth to assure his gathered flock in a fatherly, soothing bass that “on the shores of Egypt, He saved the life of Moses” and thus will save them, too, from the approaching enemy.  As the arm-outreached High Priest, Benjamin Brady time and again uses a deep-welled voice teeming in impressive richness to comfort Zaccaria’s people, even when the worst seems imminent.  Each time they begin to panic, his resounding voice rises to engulf them with renewed belief in God’s care and promised protection.  Even in their direst moments, Benjamin Brady’s glorious voice rises in the confidence his Zaccaria has of God’s power to overcome the greatest of odds, inspiring as in Scene 2, Act 4 an unsure Israel to echo their own re-found faith in twirling harmonies that surround his deeply voiced surety.

As Nabucco’s daughter Fenena, Clauda Chapa’s mezzo-soprano voice beautifully resonates an inner strength, courage, and resolve that will continue to grow in the course of the story.  Fenena declares boldly her new faith and her love for a man who is called enemy by her own father.  She will particularly shine when Fenena believes she is about to die at the hands of her diabolical sister, with Ms. Chapa bringing radiant clarity in notes round and full as she sings with full conviction, “My soul escapes already and flies to heaven.”

As Fenena’s lover and her defender even in the face of his own people’s wrath, John Kun Park’s Ismaele sings with a tenor voice that floats its high notes with ease and emotional fervor.  His voice intertwines in love and reverence with Fenena’s equally adoring tones as they recall how they first fell in love.  A highlight of the entire evening is when the two of them join near the end of Act One with the jealous Abigaile in a trio that is the one time Verdi gives us a heart-pounding glimpse of the depths of emotions welling within each in this triangle of love.

When she enters Jerusalem disguised as a soldier, Abigaile immediately sends chills down one’s spine as she uplifts a fearful voice to sing, “The thunderbolt of my revenge already hangs suspended over your heads.”  Christina Major is nothing short of astounding in this extremely demanding soprano role – one in which she meteorically goes in a mere split second from a frightful-sounding low to a heaven-touching high, with a voice overflowing with Abigaile’s felt destiny to rule.  At times, notes fall in caressing waterfall fashion down a scale that seems to be octaves in length. 

Her Act Two aria begins with rolling torrents of sustained notes as she declares, “You will see my fury fall upon everyone.”  Her cries of purposeful revenge pierce the air in their soprano heights before suddenly collapsing to a depth most sopranos rarely travel.  But when she reflects of how she once spoke of “holy love” and “wept at others’ tears” – remembering her unfulfilled affection for Ismaele – Ms. Major transforms her vocals to a soft trembling as she holds note after note long enough for each to attach to the next in a loving embrace.  It is no wonder that at the end of this aria, Christina Major receives on opening night the loudest ‘bravas’ and the longest applause. 

If there were any other of her many brilliant moments that perhaps one-upped this extraordinary aria, it is as her Abigaile stumbles and falls near the opera’s end to a self-inflicted death of poison.  Singing crumpled on the ground with a lovely English horn accompaniment (Meave Cox), she sends a whispered prayer to God of “Let me not be damned.”  Clearly, if for no other reason, Christina Major’s performance of Abigaile is a sure reason (among many) to secure a ticket to WBO’s Nabucco.

Normally, a review of Nabucco would focus on the lead character himself, whose developmental and spiritual journey is in many ways Verdi’s raison d’être for the opera.  Unfortunately, the baritone who will star in this role the rest of the run, Jason Duika, was unavailable opening night due to an allergy attack.  With only one day’s notice, Roy Stevens stepped into the role; and he deserves not only the voiced appreciation Artistic Director José Luis Moscovich gave him at the evening’s close, but also the admiration of all of us who attended.  It was clear, however, from his opening notes and appearance that the accomplished performer was under some strain and insecurity, undertaking the last-minute stand-in.  To his well-deserved credit, his confidence and the projection of his baritone vocals progressively grew stronger over the course of the evening, with his Act Four, Scene One prayer of forgiveness to the Hebrew God touching our hearts as well as surely the Almighty’s.  When he then declares to all Israel his love of God and his intention to rebuild the destroyed Temple, his Nabucco triumphs in a final, reverberating magnificence that leads into one of the chorus’ most exultant moments as they sing in full, a cappella harmony, “Great Jehovah.”

Layna Chianakas directs with great skill the comings and goings of such a large cast (forty-plus) on a relatively compact stage, one built with various levels of steps and platforms along with a great, stone wall of Babylon protruding from stage right as part of JF Revon’s set design.  Projections by JF Revon and Frédéric O. Boulay are mixed in their success in portraying the ancient Temple, Babylonia, and natural surroundings (with a projected sandstorm of sorts becoming a distraction in the build-up to Nabucco’s first appearance in Jerusalem).  Much more wowing are the array of Israelite and Babylonian costumes created by perennially award-winning costume designer Abra Berman, with her royal designs for Abigaile being particularly impressive. 

Steve Mannshardt brings his normal genius to a lighting design that often trembles and dances in its shadow play over the steps of Temple, river shores, and a city’s famed hanging gardens.  Giselle Lee’s sound design assures proper balance among the wide assemblage of singers with the multi-level orchestra (located in the pit and on two levels of the stage’s both sides).  José Luis Moscovich conducts the twenty-five-plus orchestra with both exuberance and sensitivity, with the strings and winds especially time and again playing in manners guaranteed to impress and inspire.

To be able to enjoy an opera of as grand a scale as Nabucco by a company as accomplished as West Bay Opera in a setting as intimate as Lucie Stern Theatre is indeed a blessing for Silicon Valley.  Whether a regular attendee of operas on stages much larger and in halls much grander or a first-timer to opera altogether, one cannot go wrong securing a ticket to West Bay Opera’s wonderfully executed, beautifully resounding Nabucco – especially when given the gift of reveling in a Abigaile that surely rivals any that has ever played the role.

Rating: 4.5 E

Nabucco continues October 20, 26 and 27, 2019 in production by West Bay Opera at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets are available online at www.wbopera.org, by calling the box office at 650- 424-9999, or by stopping by the West Bay Opera box office, 221 Lambert Avenue, Palo Alto.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

"The Chinese Lady"


The Chinese Lady
Lloyd Suh

Will Dao & Rinabeth Apostol
“What is happening is a performance.  For my entire life is a performance.  These words that you hear are not my own.  These clothes I wear are not my own.  This body that I occupy is not my own.”

In 1834, two traders of Far East Oriental imports to New York arranged for a Chinese girl of fourteen and of the wealthy class to come to the United States for two years in order to promote their business, appearing at Peale’s Museum for the “education and entertainment” of audiences who had never seen an Asian woman before.  They had not seen such a person because Afong Moy was the first Chinese woman to set foot on American soil; and as such, she became quite a hit and a sensation.  But after a few years, she went from near royalty to a sideshow freak as her uniqueness wore off, leaving no accounting of how her life continued or ended nor whether it ended here or back in her homeland of China.

Will Dao & Rinabeth Apostol
Both the fascinating known and the mysterious unknown parts of Afong’s life and times in the U.S. become rich fodder for Lloyd Suh’s play, The Chinese Lady, now in its enticing, educating Bay Area premiere at Magic Theatre.  With the pull of a rope, a richly elaborate curtain glowing in Chinese artistry opens to reveal on a circular stage a young girl in a beautiful purple and orange wardrobe delicately decorated with flowers, her hair done in a bun with flowers red and white peeking out (costumes designed by Abra Berman).  She sits in a small room bedecked with Asian-Museum-worthy artifacts, prints, and tapestries (Jacquelyn Scott, scenic design), all lit with a brushed softness to give an exotic air (Wen-Ling Liao, lighting) and periodically peppered with tunes ancient and Chinese (Sara Huddleston, sound design).

Afong proceeds with a mixture of reserved eloquence and youthful enthusiasm to introduce herself, why she is here before us, and some history about herself.  With big smiles and twinkling eyes, she gives an excruciatingly detailed description of how – starting at the age of four – the arches in her feet were bent and bound and her bones repeatedly broken in order to follow the Chinese tradition of acquiring dainty-sized feet.  She then proudly walks around the room, raising a foot from time to time to display the final product to us as audience.  As part of her performance, she also eats rice and shrimp with chopsticks and drinks tea while telling us its history and significance in her country.

Rinabeth Apostol
Walking, eating, and drinking become the three pillars of Afong’s repeated appearances as we watch the years and her age advance.  Rinabeth Apostol is remarkable in her ability to begin as a teenager who already has the grace and charm of someone much older and slowly to age into a more seasoned performer and conversationalist who still carries much youthful passion and fascination about things like possible travel to places like Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia – the last about which she waxes on in eagerness to see the cracked Liberty Bell.

But all along the way, her interactions often have a perfunctory quality (“I will eat, and you will watch me”), reminding us that what we are seeing and who we are watching is totally made up for our entertainment as we represent those audiences long ago.  We are not here to get to know her or to see her as a person; we are here out of curiosity of the exotic, strange, and foreign. 

Afong tells us she hopes that her being before us will lead to “greater understanding and goodwill between China and America;” and yet we already know that this is a young girl’s naïve dream as she sits there showing us how to eat with chopsticks (which she describes as “elegant and poetic) while also commenting how she finds as a stabbing tool, American’s forks are “violent and easy.”  Yes, we are entertained; but as that audience of another century, we unfortunately not going to change our attitudes that will in any way make it easier for the increasing waves of immigrant Chinese coming to our shores.

Will Dao
One reason we realize that those audiences did not learn at the time much empathy or tolerance is they probably never heard nor saw the true Afong.  The girl on display is accompanied by an interpreter, Atung (Will Dao), whom she dismisses upfront to us as “irrelevant.” Sitting off the staged room in a darkened corner, Atung is largely invisible and ignored except when he abruptly and rather matter-of-factly announces his stage directions (“It is time for you to walk” ... “And now I will bring her food”). 

However, we come to realize is that Atung is at least partly responsible for what Afong fears most, that “these white people they think I am simple.”  All along the way, Atung takes metaphorically enriched phrases the young girl espouses – phrases like “the thought of seeing the whole of America roots in me like a jewel that has lodged inside my eyes and colors every part of my vision” – and translates as “She is excited.”  Fortunately for us in this performance that we have already been told is not real, we do hear the actual Afong and not Atung’s white-washed interpretations.

Eventually we learn that Atung himself carries secreted dreams and unrequited desires in his American life where he has learned “I cannot have anything.”  In a powerful soliloquy, Will Dao as Atung gives us a stirring, startling glimpse of what it means to be an immigrant that no one really sees or wants to see, including in this case the woman with whom he spends the bulk of his life.

As the years progress and the staged performances of Afong continue (eventually landing her in P.T. Barnum’s employment), changes occur in both characters and in their relationship; but the repetition of scenes also begins to wear on us as audience.  I found myself looking at my watch an hour into the ninety-minute (no intermission) evening, wondering how many more years were going to lapse and how more many times the curtain would again open, already knowing Lloyd Sun’s story goes far beyond the known, recorded history of the actual Afong Moy.  One of the key issues for me as the evening progressed became the outstanding dramaturgy of Sonia Fernandez that outlines in the printed program a highly informative timeline of “Chinese American History.”  However because I had taken time to read the program prior to the play’s beginning, revelations of that history in the climatic part of the play itself that I think are meant both to educate as well as to shock us on “How did I not know this before?” were for me much less impactful and felt repetitive, having already read the very same facts in the program itself. 

Further, while many touches of the director (Mina Morita) work well throughout of the evening, the staging goes on and on in what feels like a false ending (to the point some audience members start to weakly clap when they think the evening’s end has been reached while a few others respond with chuckles).  When Afong does once again appear, her final treatise to us becomes a bit preachy and anticlimactic while trying so much to be very dramatic (with lights coming up on us as audience with the instruction to “really look at each other,” which it appeared no one actually did).  The final lines the playwright gives Afong are in fact extremely powerful and sum up in a couple of questions the entire evening’s message.  However, the lighting and timing devices and the monologue preceding those questions make Afong’s departing words less meaningful (in my opinion) and left me feeling rather ho-hum about the entire outing, even though the performances of the two actors and the effects of the creative team were overall outstanding.

Rating: 3 E

The Chinese Lady continues through November 3, 2019, 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 Reiley

Monday, October 14, 2019

"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"


Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Alex Timbers (Book); Michael Friedman (Music & Lyrics)

James Grady & Cast Members
If there is anyone who is curious why President Trump has a picture of Andrew Jackson watching over him in the Oval Office, that person need only sit through a production of Alex Timbers’ (book) and Michael Friedman’s (music and lyrics) Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, now playing at Custom Made Theatre Company.  Lyrics like the following make that pretty clear, as Jackson at one point sings,
“So we’ll ruin the bank, and we’ll trample the courts,
And we’ll take on the world for America’s sake.
And we’ll take all the land, and we’ll take back the country,
And we’ll take, and we’ll take, and we’ll take, and we’ll take.”


Nick Mandracchia, Rachel Richman, Rae Coksky & James Grady
Much like Trump’s ascension to the White House, Andrew Jackson became the seventh president despite virtually all of Washington past and present working against him, with our hearing several times from the likes of John C. Calhoun (Nick Mandracchia), John Quincy Adams (Gabriel J. Thomas), and Henry Clay (Rachel Richman) as they rail against him (including in a silly but telling ditty entitled “The Corrupt Bargain”).  Trump’s idol won by taking his case to the common people whom Washington – both the first president himself and the politicos of the Capitol – had too long ignored those first few years
 of the new country, with the opening full ensemble singing in angry punk-style rock,
“Take a stand against the elite,
They don’t care for us
And we will eat sweet democracy
And let them eat our dust.”

Director Brian Katz emphasizes the populist revolt and deep-seeded anger/angst of those in the neglected frontiers of Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Alabama (Sound familiar?) by producing this 2010, Broadway, rock musical in hard-stomp, harshly sung punk.  These oft-tattooed politicians, soldiers, Native Americans, and citizenry are all bedecked in black from head to toe in their lipstick and eye make-up, hole-infested netting on legs and arms, and skin-tight leather (costume design by Rachael Helman).  Punk King among them is a tattooed, black-nailed, blood-smattered Andrew himself whose first words to us are a defiant declaration of “I’m wearing some tighty-tight pants ... I’m your president.”

While the choice of audaciously sung punk fits in so many ways the dark humor of a musical about a president nearly causing complete Native American genocide and that same president ignoring Supreme Court and Congress to rule autocratically, unfortunately too often this hard-working, rambunctious cast cannot deliver musically.  Too many voices – including that of James Grady as Jackson – go flat as they increase in volume and scale.  Harmonies of the ensemble are a mixed bag in terms of blend and effect; and songs are more often than not amplified through hand-held mikes to the point of distortion because voices often cannot match the demand of such miked power.

James Grady & Maya Michal Sherer
There are notable exceptions.  As Jackson’s wife, Rachel, Maya Michal Sherer brings a clear, piercing voice that has the ability to both shock and soothe.  When she meets Andrew, the two court each other during a love session of cutting and bleeding in order to heal the sickness of the love in their veins (the show’s punk motif fitting particularly well here), with Rachel singing in raw tones her attraction to Andrew with “Then why do I feel sick when I look at you?”  Later as the ignored, disillusioned wife of a newly elected president, her Rachel sings a beautifully pining “The Great Compromise” in which she lists all the dreams she has given up so that her husband can follow his own.

In general, the women of the cast fare better than the men in terms of their vocals.  Various ones of them enter to sing in solo and harmony the sadly truthful “Ten Little Indians” where a children’s song (“One little, two little ...”) is turned upside down to count-down the nations of Native Americans being eliminated one-by-one through bullets, white man’s diseases, and forced relocations.

James Grady & Salim Razawi
While sometimes lacking the vocal accuracy the part requires, James Grady does bring the haughty cockiness, the sheer-blooded and heartless meanness, and at times, the emotion-packed regret that make him a notable choice for this punk-rock version of Andrew Jackson.  At times he is like a spoiled brat as he throws tantrums when he is not getting his way (Again, sound familiar?).  At other times, he can make your blood curl as he laughs off or completely ignores the suffering he brings on the Native Americans, keeping one Creek leader as his bosom buddy to do all his dirty work with the other leaders of tribes and nations (Black Fox played with both heroic and betrayal-filled attributes by Salim Razawi).

Chris Morell & James Grady
The choice of a nerdy narrator whizzing around on a light-blinking scooter wearing a pink helmet (Teri Whipple) adds bizarre humor while also seeming a bit out of place and a distraction.  A much more successful move by the director is to cast Martin Van Buren as an obsequious, adoring fan and yes-man of Jackson’s, with Chris Morell giving one of the evening’s best performances with just enough swish and eye-blink to make his character truly interesting.

Sarah Phykitt’s scenic design has the appropriately dark tones of an American flag backdrop with its black-and-red stripes and its splatters of dried mud and blood.  Large black-and-silver boxes move and stack to become the bulk of the small, bare stage’s furnishings – all lit in oft-in-your-face spots and brightness by Aaron Curry.  Leslie Waggoner’s choreography has moments of its own dark satire and punk-rock stomp while the music direction of Armando Fox has its most success as he conducts and serves as a member of the three-piece, on-stage band.

While musically not consistently a triumph, there is much both to learn and to enjoy about Custom Made’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  The show is a perfect bookend to Marin Theatre’s current Sovereignty in which another historical and current view of Jackson’s assault on Native Americans and specifically on the Cherokee Nation’s lands and rights are given theatrical treatment. 

Rating: 3 E

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through October 27, 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



Sunday, October 13, 2019

"This Side of Crazy"


This Side of Crazy
Del Shores

Amy Meyers, Cheryl Smith, Alison Whismore & Christine Macomber
They were once known as “the little superstars for Jesus.”  Now the grown Blaylock Sisters are an atheist former stripper, a mental institution patient who once strangled her ex-lover, and a Vlogger who gives scripture-based advice on her “Good Christian Women” show after making love to her comatose husband upstairs.  How they each got from Point A to Point B has much to do with Gospel music legend, Ditty Blaylock, the mother of these three who could easily give Mama Rose or even Mommie Dearest a run for her money.  Welcome to Del Shores’ latest equally hilarious and heart-touching exploration of the Southern women of his youth in a world premiere This Side of Crazy that he both wrote and now directs for New Conservatory Theatre Center in a production that brings tons of howling laughs before turning on the faucet for a few sloppy tears (bless your heart). 

Rachel, known as “Big Sis,” lives in Ditty’s house where Rachel constantly hears her mom complain how loud and disgusting she is while having “carnal relations with that corpse upstairs.  Ditty also rails hourly how her life is now so unhappy because of how much her three children have disappointed her (while adding quickly to Rachel, as if a major complement,  “You are the least of my disappointments”).  In between the occasional hugs, the two spend much of their time together bickering, with Rachel particularly upset when her mom plays her thrice-weekly, Russian-Roulette game with a pistol without its cartridge inserted.  (“It helps me know I have an early exit if I need it,” she wryly says.)  Cheryl Smith plays Rachel, the devout Christian advisor to lonely women on the Internet who in a sweet, Kentucky drawl assures them that their Mommies and Daddies “push your buttons because they installed them.” 

Christine Macombe
Christine Macomber commands the stage and in many ways the entire evening as Ditty, gliding about her Southern-comfy household in her flowing, airy dresses decorated in motifs ranging from gaudy flowers to red, plump Mexican peppers.  Much of the time she moves with arms poised to point her direction forward – all as if she were in a 1920s silent movie and providing the camera her best profile and face.  But as much as she loves to live in the glory of her past, she also loves better to complain in a voice that lifts and swings with a melodic, scratchy tone – always trying to inflict a little more guilt on the one daughter who is there to listen.  And perpetually she sighs in variations of, “I am so tired ... I feel I have been sent for and am too tired to go.”

Neither Rachel or Ditty is all that happy with their lives together – something Ditty reminds her daughter several times a day as she reminisces about her “sweet” girls’ childhoods that she insists were full of happiness and that Rachel assures her definitely were not.  The uneasy equilibrium they and Rachel’s comatose husband, Jude, have created over the past twenty-five years comes to an explosive end when Ditty announces that the Gospel Music Television network wants to honor her with a star-studded nationally televised celebration of her “fifty years of creating and singing songs for Jesus.”  That in itself is fine with Rachel, but when Ditty goes on to say that the producer’s one condition is that the Blaylock Sisters must reunite for one last heavenly trio together – with Ditty adding she has already sent blank $5000 checks to the other two only to be signed if they show up at the house – good Christian Rachel erupts into a potty-mouth explosion.  Rachel has no desire to see sisters who have been absent for a quarter century and who each bring back memories she does not want to confront face-to-face.

Cheryl Smith, Amy Meyers, Christine Macomber & Alison Whismore
But $5000 speaks loudly; and both Bethany and Abigal arrive home, ready to claim their checks’ signatures and to sing one more time for momma.  The reunion is far from heavenly; and for us as an audience, that means the fun has just begun.

Amy Meyers is the slim, trim, and very fit Bethany who explains, “Pole dancing and running keep the ol’ body thin.”  She is quite open about her atheism – which Ditty wants to believe “she is just going through a phase” – but being a lesbian is the part of her she is keeping quiet.  Her Bethany is high energy, edgy, and more big city than the rest of her family; and she admits, “My mind leaps about like an Easter bunny ... just this side of crazy.”

Abigal, on the other hand, prefers sitting alone curled protectively in a chair on the front porch, nervously smoking a cigarette and mostly avoiding the family.  Alison Whismore quickly paints a woman who has in fact been institutionalized for many years and kept on calm-inducing medication; yet at the same time, her eyes and taut features indicate she carries within her pain and memories she needs to release in order to be healed.

Alison Whismore, Amy Meyers, Cheryl Smith & Christine Macomber
Del Shores has written and directs a show that for the first half is like a bizarre TV sitcom, with our laughter subbing very well for the missing laugh track.  However, there is a point in the second act of the two hour, forty minute evening (including one intermission) that comedy takes a back seat to a family drama that surprises us with its serious tones and heart-touching effects.  The playwright/director turns this satire about Southern life into a mirror that asks each of us to remember the tough times in our own family when the hard-to-say, even the impossible-to-say things needed to be said.  What we see and hear cannot help but jar some memories – both sad and happy – of dinner table confrontations that have happened in more than just a few of our lives with parents, siblings, and/or other family members.

Along with a fabulous cast of four, a creative team superb helps make the evening memorable in every respect.  Kate Boyd has designed a two-level, multi-room set with furniture and an old piano that probably were bought when the adult sisters were all “little superstars,” all lit with changing times of day and family moods by Patrick Toebe.  Tom O’Brien has populated the set with props from a pink, knitted afghan; grandma’s crocheted doilies; and pictures aplenty of both Jesus and the Blaylock family.  The sound design of Kalon Thibodeaux includes scene changes featuring stars like Dolly crooning country-church hymns with words like “If you’re trying to reach heaven, you talk to Jesus ... every day.”  Finally, for what they do for Ditty alone, Wes Crain and David Carver-Ford deserve many hurrahs for their costumes and wigs, respectively.

As with most world premieres, probably before the second production there will need to be a few edits, perhaps shortening a bit the initial time we spend with just Ditty and Rachel.  But overall, there is still hardly a moment to catch one’s breath between hee-haw laughter in the beginning and watchful attention as the sisters and mama come to the altar in the second act to confess some sins and seek forgiveness.

Rating: 4 E

This Side of Crazy continues through October 20, 2019 on the Decker Stage of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

Friday, October 11, 2019

"White Noise"


White Noise
Suzan-Lori Parks


Chris Herbie Holland
By his own admission, thirty-something Leo has done “everything right” his entire life: good grades, followed all the rules, established himself as a career artist, and has even won a ton of trophies as a bowling champion.  But then during one of his habitually sleepless nights when his mid-of-night walk takes him into an upper-class, white neighborhood, the young African American man suddenly finds himself thrown face-down on the sidewalk.  Leo harshly discovers what President Obama said in reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death by a white police officer: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”  Leo being good and doing it right meant little once he as a black man was on the street; and for him, this harsh realization and the bruises on his face lead him to decide, “I feel like doing something crazy.”

In Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise – now in its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre – Leo is one of four best friends who bonded in college over music and bowling and are now still intimately connected as two, mixed-race couples: Leo and Dawn, Ralph and Misha.  On the day of the same night of Leo’s horrific incident, Ralph has learned he was passed over for a tenured position he felt he had been promised (and had already picked out his new office’s furniture) – the position given to a colleague of color whom white Ralph believes is a lousy writer.  Ralph – who is also in the midst of a severe writer’s block – is himself thus down in the dumps and depressed when Leo suddenly proposes and Ralph accepts an outlandishly bizarre and rather sick-sounding forty-day contract between then\m – one that will alter their relationship and ultimately the relationships among all four of the friends/lovers. 

Throughout her thirty-five years as a professional playwright, Pulitzer Prize winning Suzan-Lori Parks has never shied away from tackling head-on what one of this play’s characters calls a “virus” – that is “racism.”  As Misha goes on to explain to us as audience – in one of several, powerful ‘solos’ where characters break the fourth wall to talk directly, eye-to-eye, with the audience – this is a virus “we’ve all got.”  She adds,
“Ok, some more than others, ok.  The works of the virus are getting more complicated and the rewards are getting more sophisticated.”

Chris Herbie Holland, Therese Barbato, Amié Donna Kelly & Nick Dillenburg
When we first meet this close-knit group of friends in their two, coupled relationships, that virus seems not to have infected them at all.  They are seemingly loving, happy, and accepting of each other.  But here and there we soon detect verbal slip-ups that occur among them where race is at the core of the faux pas, each followed by a quick “I’m sorry ... Do you accept my apology?”  Once the forty-day countdown begins for Leo and Ralph’s social contract experiment whose goal is supposedly to help the two both find a new peace within themselves, the slip-ups become for all four more and more purposeful and pointed as all their relationships are suddenly exposed to reveal a raw core that each has carefully kept hidden from the others – and maybe even from themselves.

Even before his surprise attack on the sidewalk, Leo was already fighting a life of sleep deprivation and a constant static in his ears of “white noise,” the latter brought on by a sleep machine Ralph once gave him to help induce a night’s rest.  So bad was his ailment that even his art had become affected, his having recently lost the patronage of a gallery that once showed his works.  Chris Herbie Holland is gripping in his emotion-packed, physically demanding, often frightening performance of Leo.  As the young man enters a new, forty-day life for himself that he hopes will free him from the bondage of being a target on the street because of the color of his skin, he also hopes to reawaken his artistic talents.  And his dream is that maybe with that security and that renewal, even the miracle of uninterrupted sleep will occur.

Nick Dillenburg & Chris Herbie Holland
Nick Dillenburg is Ralph, a student-favorite, but still-non-tenured English professor who also happens to be rich due to inheriting the country’s largest franchise of bowling alleys.  Called “Righteous Ralph” by his other three pals, the Ralph we initially meet displays a sense of boyish vulnerability and a desire to ensure everyone around him is happy and gets along.  The Ralph he becomes day-by-day after signing the half-inch-thick, legal contract with his best friend Leo is a Ralph who undergoes a Jekyll-Hyde-like transformation that sends chills down one’s spine as Nick Dillenburg’s Ralph coolly and without blinking does things that would seemingly be unthinkable by the Ralph we first meet.

Aimé Donna Kelly
That contract – whose true nature for full effect must be learned by attending the play and not from this review – also has major implications for the female halves of the two couples, themselves best friends with secrets that begin to expose themselves as relationships unwind.  Dawn (Therese Barbato) is a self-proclaimed “do-gooder” who has devoted as a white woman her still-young legal career to defending young, black men arrested and arraigned in a system with built-in prejudices against them.  Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly) hosts a weekly Vlog-cast entitled “Ask-a-Black” where she drops her privileged background of being raised by two caring, professional moms to become a near-caricature of a ‘soul sista’ who with wild animation and in exaggerated “black voice” answers inane, call-in questions like “Why are black women so upset when I want to touch their hair?” 

Both Dawn and Misha are out to help the world in her own way, but each also has her own issues and prejudices that have been largely ignored and/or hidden away until the Leo/Ralph contract opens a Pandora Box of feelings, doubts, and bitterness that were always there.  In each case, both actresses are superb as they each struggle to ascertain their character’s place in both the larger society around them and in this micro, black/white society of the four friends and two sets of lovers.

Jaki Bradley directs this near-three-hour (with one intermission) outing that never drags nor in the end feels nearly as long as it actually is.  Scenes often command hand-gripping-armrest attention while the solo interludes that each actor at one time or another uses to bring all action to a halt are directed in such a way to cause one to lean in and engage with the current speaker almost as if in a one-on-one conversation.  Adam Rigg has designed a set that doubles between a stylish, urban apartment and a neighborhood bowling alley.  The latter becomes totally realistic as the friends talk and send balls down an alley that ends somewhere under us as an audience with the sound of balls rolling on wood and pins being hit just one part of an outstanding sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman.  Shadows play a larger and larger role in the play’s disturbing progression, with Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting (as well as video) design making important contributions.  Finally, from delightfully fun, matching bowling outfits to clothes that help define each unique personality, Tilly Grimes’ costume designs are picture-perfect.

As brilliant as Suzan-Lori Parks’ script is along with the stunning performances and direction of this Berkeley Rep production, the playwright’s incredible conceit is a contract that is difficult to believe any two, almost lifelong friends would ever sign (or two other friends/lovers would allow them to sign).  The situations that unfold as the forty days progress are increasingly inconceivable and shockingly crude and cruel.

At the same time, those scenes are absolutely successful in making the point that in our own society outside this play’s fictional story, Misha is correct when she says, “The social contract has been broken.”  The play raises many more questions than it answers; its ending is ambiguous and unsettling; but its message is clear.  We in America must wake up fast and not be mesmerized by our own ‘white noise’ that day to day lures us too often to ignore the racial injustice that exists in too many aspects of our world – especially for the currently endangered species of young men of color like Leo.  Kudos goes to Artistic Director Johanna Pfaelzer for quickly grabbing this Spring 2019, Public Theater world premiere and giving it a
second showing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Rating: 4.5 E

White Noise continues through November 10, 2019 on the Peet’s Theatre stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/  or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Company