Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Reading: "Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties" at Shotgun Players

This is one of the stranger theater pieces I've seen in a while. As usual, Shotgun puts up a remarkable production of a staged reading in extremely short time (four days of rehearsals, then two readings). We caught the second of the two (sold out!) nights last night.

The Play

Written by Jen Silverman (who wrote The Roommate, which we saw last season at SF Playhouse), this is yet another exploration of queer gender roles, though this one is set in the somewhat likelier locale of New York City, rather than Iowa. And the level of familiarity and comfort that Silverman shows with the setting and the characters makes for a much livelier and more credible show. Where The Roommate struggled at the outset to seem plausible, Collective Rage grabs you from the opening lines and never lets go. All five Betties (yes, the five characters in the story are all named Betty).

In various groupings (and occasionally alone), the Betties explore their lives, their orientations, and their various insecurities. Although they are self-consciously caricatures of the archetypes they represent, all five Betties are well-developed and represent recognizable attributes.

It's really quite fun and funny, and in the course of the reading I heard consistent laughter from all over the audience. Not always at the same scenes or at the same lines, but there was something that tickled just about everyone, regardless of gender or orientation, etc.

I will just add that they play should perhaps carry a trigger warning for men named "Richard." Betty 1 is pretty harsh every time she mentions her husband by name, which is early and often.

One element of the story that really worked was the play-within-a-play inspired by Betty 3 going on a date to the "thea-tuh"  and seeing "Summer's Midnight Dream" and being inspired to become an actor, director, producer, etc. The little riffs on the cobbling together of a rough "Pyramus and Thisbe" is both hilarious and very effectively done.

The Production

Insert the usual disclaimer here that anything that is not pure disaster is quite a triumph for one of these readings, given the limited time and resources allotted to each. Still, this production exceeding whatever limited expectations I had by a huge margin. Aside from the slight distraction of the actors carrying scripts and a few minor blocking and prop-positioning issues, this felt like a production ready to roll. Director Brady Brophy-Hilton (assisted by Quinci Waller) deserves credit for pulling the cast together and making sure a few really key aspects of each character and some shared affectations of the whole crew came through, which is really tough for a reading such as this.

The cast was uniformly terrific. In addition to the fact that all five actors were clearly excellent choices for their particular Betties, each had a terrific persona and stage presence that evolved over the course of the reading and played well off the others. I think it's pleasantly telling that I don't feel the need to single out any of the actors--all were good, and each had at least a few really good moments where their particular characterization shone through. Again, really unexpected in a reading like this.

I guess I will call out the actors, because they all brought something to their roles. Elissa Beth Stebbins (Betty 1, and the only one of the cast I recall seeing at Shotgun before) managed to be remarkably sharp and consistent with her rage toward the aforementioned "Richard." I have to admit, hers was the only Betty from whom I felt real rage. Ayelet Firstenberg (Betty 2) managed to be both kind of ditzy and schizophrenic (complete with pantomimed hand puppet). Livia Gomes Demarchi (Betty 3) undergoes probably the most dramatic (pun slightly intended) change, though perhaps the one that makes the least sense. Rinabeth Apostol (Betty 4) achieves kind of a tough goofiness, which is a difficult combination, and still gets to be vulnerable. Lea Robinson (Betty 5) has a wonderfully understated presence, combining the self-assurance of a martial arts instructor with the shyness of a gender-queer person of color trying to get along in a complex world.

Probably the highest praise you can give for a staged reading is a great ovation at the end. I can't recall the last time I saw an audience keep up their applause so long and loud that the actors for a reading had to come back out for another bow, but our group demanded it. It was well deserved.

Bottom Line

Everyone I talked to after the show expressed delight at having seen it, and many mentioned that they would like to see it again. High praise, indeed, for a reading. Although several people mentioned that it would be fun to see it again as a full production, the more we talked about it, the more we thought it might in some ways work better as a less polished, rougher reading.

I suspect that a fully-developed production would be able to tease out even more ideas and laughs from the script, and the interactions of the characters might develop more depth. This is definitely a complex and rich script, and it would probably benefit from a fairly minimalist production. Somewhere between the staged reading with three chairs as props and a full-on staging, there might be a sweet spot for this.

It's a pretty rare combination to find a truly funny play that also has real, interesting messages worked through it. The combination of clever theatrical riffs and genuine insight into a group of characters should be a real winner.

I look forward to seeing this play produced somewhere before too long.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Best of 2017

I've been told that one of the requirements, now that I do a Theater Blog, is that I must commemorate the end of the year by doing a "Best Of" post to say what was best this year. Since 2017 was my first full year of Theater Blogging (Yep...we started in May of 2016!), this will be the first time I can really look back over a year of posts and opine on what really stuck with me, which is my criterion for "Best Of". Unless I decide it isn't. Stay tuned.

I will preface this with a side note that on the whole, 2017 was not a good year for me at all. Personally and professionally, this year has actually kind of sucked, and even my frequent respite at the ballpark was not its usual pick-me-up. But for the most part, theater--and particularly theater people--has truly kept me going. On the whole, the friends I have made through going to the theater and being involved with theater are some of the most positive, supportive people I have ever known. You know who you are, and thanks for being there for me.

Now then, theater stuff...

Best Plays/Productions

These are the plays that really stuck with me, for one reason or another. I'll list them in the order I saw them. No other ranking is implied unless I say so. I will include links to my original postings for each of them, in case you missed my musings the first time or just want to see if I lost my mind in between or something.

If I can find a theme to my "best" list, it's mostly that they almost all manage to tackle an issue that is pertinent to the day and explore it in a non-obvious way. 

"Hamlet" at Shotgun Players

Fortunately, the repertory portion of Shotgun's 2016-2017 season ended in January, and much of what I saw in January was more Hamlet. I believe I ended up seeing it about 18 times, with only one repeat casting. The shuffling of actors was amazing to watch and very educational. I learned a great deal about Hamlet and about theater from watching these shows, and my only regret is that I didn't manage to go more often. The seven actors plus one understudy deserve medals for performing in this show. And extra medals for the fact they were also performing in at least one additional repertory show each. It was just an extraordinary experience, the likes of which we are not likely to see on a Bay Area stage again any time soon.

"John" at ACT

This was the first show I felt really showed off the value of ACT's new second stage at the Strand Theater. The show was quirky, but it really kept me thinking about it for quite some time, and that's what good theater is about.

"Leni" at Aurora

Once again showing my fondness for the intimacy of small theater spaces, this little show in Aurora's second space really showcased the talents of actors Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham and brought some history to life in a thoughtful and timely way. It was an innovative and thought-provoking show, well directed by Jon Tracy.

"Sisters Matsumoto" at Center Rep

This was a very powerful and beautifully staged performance of a story that really resonated. Particularly having just seen TheaterFIRST's Beneath The Tall Tree, which also dealt with Japanese American internment, it was moving and thought-provoking and made me aware of aspects of that period and its aftermath that I hadn't been aware of.

"The Events" at Shotgun Players

My buddies at Shotgun really kind of went off the rails on some things these past couple of years. Staging The Events requires a different community choir on stage for each performance. As such, it was informative to see the play more than once (and I did). Not only did this help cement for me the value of seeing plays more than once (I also saw Hamilton for the second time around the same point), but it made me appreciate both the difficulty of incorporating different outside groups into a play and what that actually means to this particular show. This is a tough but important and certainly timely play about the resilience of both individuals and communities to sudden, shocking events.

 "As You Like It" at CalShakes

As the only comedy on the list, this seems a little odd (note that I have a separate section for comedies later). But I was moved and surprised by this CalShakes production. I usually don't expect much thought to ensue from a Shakespearean comedy, but Desdemona Chiang's interpretation of this play of mistaken identity broadened the issue to cover personal and gender identity, and did so smoothly in a fine production. This was also the start of a very strong season for CalShakes.

"Grandeur" at The Magic Theater

I went into this play knowing almost nothing about it, and left absolutely stupefied. Carl Lumbly exceeded even the lofty expectations I have of him, and the play was riveting. It's not earth-shakingly important, but it shows just how effective a small play can be. I was extremely fortunate to be sitting in the front row, in the seat closest to the chair where Lumbly sat for much of the play, so I got to watch him up close, and it was amazing.

"Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

I would normally expect at least a couple of plays from our summer jaunts to Ashland to land on the "Best Of" list for a year, but this year wasn't overall that impressive up there. But Mojada was a knockout. The adaptation of the well-worn story of Medea is almost obvious in retrospect. The portrayal of undocumented immigrants trying to assimilate (or not) and the consequences for them personally and socially is excruciating, but very effective.

"An Octoroon" at Berkeley Rep

Everybody's trying to push your buttons this year, but this time Berkeley Rep got it right. It's a super complex script, as you might expect from a hotshot playwright who has won just about every award imaginable. What I didn't expect was that Berkeley Rep would find the right director and cast, and that that director would be Eric Ting, who had previously disimpressed me with his direction of Othello at CalShakes. This production was pretty much spot-on. We're still talking about it, almost six months later.

"black odyssey" at CalShakes

I would never have guessed at the start of the year that Eric Ting would direct even one, let alone two, of my favorite productions. But here he was, coming right off the triumph that was An Octoroon, directing local playwright Marcus Gardley's wonderful adaptation of "The Odyssey" into a story of African American life. And it packed the Bruns Amphitheater every show, bringing in rafts of people who do not normally make the trek to Orinda to see a play. This was terrific storytelling.

"The Farm" at TheatreFIRST

Another artist making his second appearance on the list is Jon Tracy. Having directed Leni for Aurora earlier in the year, he also re-adapted his adaptation of Orwell's "Animal Farm" for TheatreFIRST, and the result was delightful and moving. This modest production reminded us that we don't have to be big and fancy to tell an important story. The reboot of TheatreFIRST is having sort of uneven results, but The Farm was definitely a sign of what a dedicated bunch of theater artists can do with limited resources.

Comic Relief

Most of the plays that really stuck with me this year were dramas. Maybe it fit the rhythm of my own life, which had way too much drama in it this year. But there were funny plays that made an impression on me, and they deserve some recognition, even if they weren't overall the "best" things I saw this year.

"Noises Off!" at SF Playhouse

This is one of those kind of classic plays that I had always heard of by never seen. I love the intricacy of the plotting and staging, and felt that for once, the rotating stage at SF Playhouse really was an asset. And the play is just screamingly funny, both because of all the theater in-jokes and because of some real character development. I liked both the play and the production here very well.

"The Play That Goes Wrong " at Lyceum Theatre (NYC)

This play isn't nearly as deep as Noises Off!, but the production we saw in New York this fall was absolutely the funniest thing I've seen on stage in a long, long time. The comedic timing and the convoluted set design were truly impressive. I needed a good laugh, and this provided it.

Spectacles

This is a category I just made up to salute the shows that just make you drop your jaw a bit at the stagecraft. There were some pretty over-the-top productions out there, even if they weren't among the shows that I deemed "best" overall.

"Needles and Opium" at ACT
"Monsoon Wedding" at Berkeley Rep
"A Thousand Splendid Suns" at ACT
"The Black Rider" at Shotgun Players

I won't go into them in detail again. Suffice it to say that in each case I was less than delighted with the play, the message, the storytelling, or something. But in each case the stagecraft, design, music, dancing, lights, and so on were dazzling and worth recognizing.

Musicals

I saw a fair number of musicals this year, but none that really rose to the level of "best"-ness required to make the big list. But I thought I should mention the ones that stood out, because musicals can be special in their own right, and if they are your thing, this is important.

"Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site" at Bay Area Children's Theater
"Hamilton" (touring) at SHN San Francisco
"La Cage Aux Folles" at SF Playhouse

Other

I can't think of a category it really fits into, but Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at the Curran was like nothing I have ever seen before. I realize now that I never got around to writing up the portions of the show that I saw (I saw only the first two 6-hour segments, so didn't feel I could really comment on the show as a whole). This mash-up of musical theater, cabaret, drag show, and history lesson amazed me on a bunch of different levels. The subversive way Taylor Mac gets into the heads and under the skins of the audience while knocking out a really impressive array of popular tunes in ways probably never seen or conceived before just boggles the mind.

I truly have no words to describe the whole experience, and in any strict definition, it's not really "theater" per se, but it is, too. And it probably stuck with me more than any other performance I saw this year, so it needed to be included here.

Personal Bests

If you'll allow me to conclude with a moment of self-indulgence, there were two other productions that were particularly meaningful to me personally this year, so I just get to put them in the "Best Of" post as kind of a footnote.

My Professional Stage Debut

Yes, those loons at the Shotgun Players not only allow me to sit on their board, they also offered me a tiny role in their staged reading of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead last January. And hey, we sold out and got extended, so I had three glorious nights on stage with a bunch of real, professional actors, and I have the check to prove it.

This makes the list not because I was any great revelation on stage or because it changed my life or anything like that. But there were two important takeaways from  the experience: One, I got to see firsthand, close-up, just how real theater artists work. Rehearsing, dressing, blocking, designing and redesigning--all of it. It was glorious. And it gives me all the more respect for the work these people do, day in and day out, to produce these plays that I enjoy so much. But just as important, two, after seeing me onstage, my daughter said, "Well if Dad can do that, I can do that." And promptly signed up for her first real staged play.

Which obviously leads me to...

"Assassins" at Berkeley Playhouse Teen Stage

About six months after my little dalliance on stage, there was my daughter, singing and dancing and trying (futilely) to shoot Gerald Ford on the stage in the Julia Morgan Theater. It's still not one of my favorite plays ever, but she got out of it exactly what I hoped: she found a wonderful community of like-minded, creative, accepting people who share a love of making theater and support each other while they do it. She's now working on her second show, already signed up for another, and planning one more for the summer.

Which just goes to show, we can always handle more theater, so we obviously haven't reached the mythical "Too Much Theater" yet, and the quest must continue.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Partition" at Indra's Net Theater

Indra's Net photo
Well, I thought I had written my last theater piece of the year, but last night we sneaked over to see Partition by Ira Hauptman at Indra's Net Theater. We always enjoy the shows that Indra's Net chooses, as they tend to sit at the intersection of science and philosophy and some of the bigger issues of life.

The play this time is about mathematics, but also about cultures and religions and where they all overlap at times.

The Play

The principal character in Partition is Srinivasa Ramanujan, a largely self-educated mathematical prodigy from India. He had been kicked out of college for basically refusing to study anything other than math, so as a result he had little formal training or even understanding of the standard academic approach to the subject. What he had was a deep and unique appreciation for numbers and number theory. Working alone in Madras, he produced volumes of theorems, but lacked the techniques to prove them in standard terms.

Thwarted in his attempts to study further in India, Ramanujan sent samples of his work to some of the great theorists of the day, and one, G.H. Hardy of Cambridge, invited him to come work with him. This play then largely deals with Ramanujan as a fish out of water in Cambridge, and the difficult Hardy's attempts to work with Ramanujan without destroying him.

In addition to the two mathematicians, there are three other characters in the show: Alfred Billington, a classicist at Cambridge and long-time friend of Hardy, the ghost of Pierre de Fermat, the great French number theorist,  and Namagiri of Namakkal, a Hindu Goddess. Billington serves as sort of a buffer between Hardy and Ramanujan, trying to temper Hardy's actions and appealing to his conscience. Namagiri is the inspiration for Ramanujan, the source of his theorems. And Fermat...well, Fermat is enigmatic and egotistical, even in death, but he and his theorems play an important role in the plot.

Overall it's quite an interesting script, delving into the sources of inspiration and validation, trying to reconcile Eastern and Western standards of both academics and ethical behavior.

The Production

There are elements of the production that are quite excellent. Namagiri (Aparna Krishnamoorthy in our performance) sings, chants, and dances wonderfully with the background of Indian music. She establishes the world of Ramanujan (Heren Patel) in Madras, and follows him to Cambridge via dreams. Hardy (Alan Coyne) and Billington (David Boyll) have an excellent rapport, albeit with a stylized formality. And Fermat (Marco Aponte) is a delightful figure, though a bit difficult to understand at times.

Unfortunately, this is one of the few times I felt Indra's Net failed to adapt adequately to the unique constraints of the theater at the Berkeley City Club. In particular, the space where Hardy and Billington sit and talk is set up in such a way that approximately half the audience will just see the  backs of both of their heads, always. Although there is some attempt made to adapt to this, it's really quite a glaring deficiency in the stage design and direction.

Similarly, there are times when Ramanujan is directly addressing Namagiri at her shrine where he will inexplicably spin around and talk in a different direction. It appears to be an attempt to let some of the rest of the room see the actor's face, but it comes across as just bizarre behavior. Director Bruce Coughran has generally come up with better solutions than this in previous productions in this space. I should note that it's also noticeably difficult for the actors to navigate around the set pieces in the small stage space. The pieces covered with mathematical notation are attractive, but seem unnecessarily bulky as placed. Audience members had some difficulty getting around them to get seated; same for some of the actors.

But on the whole, the actors managed to do a credible job of getting across the key bits of the script, sometimes in spite of their surroundings.

Bottom Line

I think the play itself has a lot of interesting stuff, and for the most part the actors did a pretty good job of cutting through distractions and portraying their characters. I don't think the staging and direction were nearly as successful, however.

On the whole, I'm glad I saw the show, and feel like there is enough there to make it worthwhile. It makes me wish I had seen the original production, at Aurora Theatre Company, some years back. I wasn't tuned into Aurora back then, apparently.

In any case, it's a good play with some good acting performances. I think you can get by the staging issues and get some value out of seeing the play.

Partition runs through January 14 at the Berkeley City Club.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

"The Black Rider" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players photo by Cheshire Isaacs
Somewhere at the intersection of patriarchy and gun culture ("at the crossroads," you might even say), there is an old German story about a star-crossed couple of young lovers, the need to shoot a gun (and the inability to do so), and the choice to make a deal with the devil to solve this problem. The Black Rider is a modern derivative of that story, filtered through some very interesting minds.

The Play

The play itself has a history that's actually more intriguing to me than the story itself. Avant-garde theater and opera director Robert Wilson approached musician Tom Waits about creating the piece, and somehow they both got the notion to ask Beat writer William S. Burroughs to write the book for the show, and for some reason, he agreed.

The story involves Wilhelm (Grace Ng), a young file clerk who has fallen in love with Kätchen (Noelle Viñas), the daughter of the legendary hunter Bertram (Steven Hess), who forbids the marriage because Wilhelm cannot shoot or hunt. He prefers her to marry Robert (El Beh), a manly man like him. As Wilhelm despairs, hope appears in the form of magic bullets, proffered by Pegleg (the spectacular Rotimi Agbabiaka). The bullets will always hit their target, though Pegleg reserves one of the bullets for his choice. Wilhelm accepts, becomes a successful hunter, wins the hand of his beloved, and all goes well until....

At the risk of the obvious spoiler, Pegleg's bullet doesn't hit the target, it kills Kätchen instead. Wilhelm goes mad and joins cosmic freak show that Pegleg oversees.

One of the punch lines is that William S. Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his second wife while apparently trying to shoot an apple off her head. Presumably, alcohol and/or other substances were involved. But it does seem odd that he would later agree to write a play about such a similar event. Or not. It's Burroughs, after all.

I have now seen two versions of this play, one at ACT many years ago, and now this Shotgun production (plus a mini version put on by RADIX Troupe a few years back). I still can't say that the play itself speaks to me, particularly. I get that we're responsible for our choices and we shouldn't make deals with the devil and all that. But really, I don't see the appeal of the story.

The Production

It's really quite spectacular. The sideshow/freak show motif mixed in with the dismal, barren woods is quite striking in a set designed by Sean Riley. The colors and the art by R. Black (who does all the Shotgun posters and murals) are really great. The sound design by Matt Stines and live direction by Anton Hedman are exceptional and the live band under the direction of David Möschler all combine to make a complete soundscape, intricately synchronized with the lights (by Allen Willner) and the actions devised by Director Mark Jackson. Wrap this all in the outrageous costumes by Christine Crook, and the whole thing is a sensory masterpiece. It's all really stunning, except the story.

Special attention should go to Grace Ng, whose wonderful physical skills combine clownish miming and acrobatic gymnastics to create a wonderfully bumbling, befuddled Wilhelm. And El Beh proves to be marvelously masculine as Wilhelm's rival, Robert, and thrills with her singing voice as well. Casting women in both of those roles is really quite brilliant, since Wilhelm is supposed to be the least manly man imaginable to this village, one who can't shoot. And Robert is clearly insecure in his manhood as well.

And I should add a mention of Kevin Clarke (Old Uncle), whose role as sideshow barker/narrator/chorus hands him a megaphone to go with his outrageous hair. Elizabeth Carter is the final cast member, playing Anne, Bertram's wife. As befits a patriarchal fairy tale, her role is probably the least memorable. She's fine, but Anne is just not very important to the story.

Anyway, it's all a rather overwhelming feast for the senses, but I walked away feeling pretty unsatisfied, dazzled but not convinced.

Bottom Line

This is a spectacular theater piece. And it obviously speaks to some people, because it's selling like crazy and has been extended multiple times. It's certainly worth seeing (and it runs through January 21) if you're inclined, or if you just want to see the freak show. I wouldn't go looking for enlightenment, but you never know. We all walk into the sideshow knowing we're not going to get what we're promised, but we go anyway. It's our choice.

On some level, I guess you can see it as a commentary on gun culture, and how toxic that is, but really, that's not it. And some people see it as Burroughs trying to talk about the dangers of addiction, but I don't really see that. Pressure, conformity, toxic masculinity, gun worship, hero worship, avoidance of responsibility...yeah, they're all in there. But really, if I have to work this hard to sift out the meaning in the play, it seems like something's amiss. The cast and crew and designers put all this work into making something spectacular, so I feel like I should be clearer on why.

But it is really spectacular.

"Shakespeare in Love" at Marin Theatre Company

Marin Theatre Company photo by Kevin Berne
OK, we already know I like Shakespeare in Love. I saw it last summer at Ashland, so I won't go into great detail about the play itself. But I was quite looking forward to seeing it again, both because I liked it the first time, and because several of my friends and favorite local actors were cast in this production. I was also interested to go back to Marin for the first time since all the fuss raised by their Thomas and Sally last fall.

The Play

Seeing the stage version again made me more conscious of some of the differences between the stage adaptation by Lee Hall and the movie. In the movie, for example, Shakespeare's writer's block is a huge issue throughout, but in the play it comes across less as an inability to write than as either unwillingness or lack of interest, a habitual juggling of creditors. It's just a difference in emphasis, but it sticks with me.

Otherwise, it's still Shakespeare in Love. It's still the witty riff on Shakespeare that reflects the influence of the original screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. What's not to like?

The Production

There is a lot to like in this production. One thing that delighted me was the casting. The actors in the lead roles are the right age, where I thought Ashland's were a bit too mature. This production finds plenty of meaty roles for veteran local actors, too, but the key roles such as Will Shakespeare (Adam Magill), Viola/Thomas (Megan Trout), and Marlowe (Kenny Toll) need to be younger actors.

I have to give particular praise for the casting of Megan Trout. In addition to being just a tremendously talented actor, her experience last year playing a full season in Shotgun's Hamlet "Roulette", meaning she had a ton of recent experience performing Shakespeare's words in both male and female characters, which seems like the ideal lead-in to playing Viola/Thomas. And as I anticipated, she was brilliant in the role.

The supporting cast was also very strong, ranging from Bay Area stalwarts such as Stacy Ross (as the Nurse and Queen Elizabeth), Robert Sicular (Henslowe and De Lesseps), and L. Peter Callender (Burbage and the Boatman) to a host of younger mainstays such as Lance Gardner, Ben Euphrat, and Thomas Gorrebeeck. And a bit with a (very cute) dog.

The overall chemistry among the cast seemed quite strong. Not only did Magill and Trout work well as the leading couple, but Magill and Toll worked well as a pair of young men getting into trouble and helping each other out.

I thought the notion of having the ensemble play musical instruments on the periphery might be a bit distracting, but it turned out to be fine, and the music was mostly very good, though occasionally someone would burst out in a rendition of a sonnet for no apparent reason. But overall I thought it fit in nicely with the general chaos of an Elizabethan theater production. And I quite liked the way the set design by Kat Conley managed to separate onstage and backstage, and Jasson Minadakis's direction let those switch back and forth quite seamlessly. Nicely done, that.

Bottom Line

This is a fine alternative to the usual, treacly holiday programming. I mean, someone's always going to be doing A Christmas Carol or some other sentimental holiday thing. I appreciate a theater just going all out and doing a good, solid production of a real play that works as a fun holiday outing without being trite.

Unfortunately, I saw the show about a week before it closed, and then managed not to write this up until it had already closed. So although I would love to recommend that you see it, it's too late. On the other hand, it was also sold out, so I doubt it made much difference. But it was a very good show.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"Annie" at Berkeley Playhouse

Berkeley Playhouse photo
We went to see Berkeley Playhouse's production of the musical Annie last week, in part because we like to support this theater, in part because our daughter was having a reunion there with much of the cast of last summer's Teen Stage production of Assassins, and in part because we know the actress who was scheduled to play the lead role that night. Unfortunately, cold-and-flu-season knocked out our preferred actor, but one of the other actors was on site and stepped right into the role.

The Play

Remarkably, though I remember when this show first came out in the 1980s, I never saw it. I certainly heard the big musical number ("Tomorrow") enough times to feel like I had. Based on the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip characters, the play follows the titular character from Miss Hannigan's orphanage to the home of wealthy Oliver Warbucks, with plenty of visits from the president and various low-lifes.

Unlike all the other orphans in the orphanage, Annie holds out hope that she's not actually an orphan, just a kid that was left by her parents (with a note saying how much they loved her) temporarily until they could come back to pick her up. And they left her with half of a broken pendant that she always wears, knowing her parents will return with the other half, thereby identifying themselves. Of course, she was left as an infant, and is now 11 years old. In the middle of the Great Depression.

But Annie has an unconquerable positive attitude. You know: "The sun will come out tomorrow," etc. So she keeps trying to escape the orphanage to find her parents. She does get out one night, and visits a Hooverville shanty town where she claims a stray dog who would otherwise be taken to the pound and put to sleep. But she's soon rounded up and returned to the orphanage, where she manages to sneak the dog in somehow.

So things aren't going so great, but we get some song and dance numbers out it anyway. Then unannounced, billionaire Warbucks' secretary arrives at the orphanage to sort of borrow an orphan for a couple of weeks at Christmastime. Because Annie happens to be in the room at the time, she charms her way into being selected, and off she goes to spend a couple of weeks in the lap of luxury, stopping off for new clothes at a fancy boutique to get new clothes on the way.

Next stop, Oliver Warbucks' home, with a large staff and all the trimmings. Warbucks seems oddly nonplussed by the presence of the orphan he apparently recruits every year. Or maybe this is just the first time he's done this. Anyway, it's no more implausible than the rest, so just go with it. Because you need to save some suspension of disbelief for our visit to the Oval Office where an incessantly positive outlook turns out to be just what the president and his cabinet were lacking in their efforts to tackle the depression.

By various twists, Annie ends up on a hugely popular national radio show, telling the story of how her parents are missing, and suddenly hundreds are lined up outside Warbucks' home to claim her (and the $50,000 reward he has offered). Unsurprisingly, none of them know about the locket thing, and are pretty quickly turned away. But of course Miss Hannigan's brother, the con man, senses a chance to snag the reward, so goes to claim her, armed with the inside info from Miss Hannigan.

I'll just stop before I spoil the mega-happy ending, OK?

Suffice it to say that I find the plot of this show, while rather fascinating, somewhat less plausible than most, and that's saying a lot. But it has some catchy tunes and is relentlessly upbeat, even when it seems like it shouldn't be. So how could it fail to be popular?

The Production

I appreciate the quality of the productions put on at Berkeley Playhouse. They always seem to have imaginative and appropriate sets and costumes. For example, the New York City scenes are pretty much cartoon skyscrapers. Similarly, Warbucks' house looks like it came right off the comics page, right down to the portrait of him over the mantel. The evocation of the show's comic-strip origins is quite effective.

Before I go farther, I also have to give full appreciation to Miranda Long, the actor who had to fill in as Annie at the last moment. For the lead role, Playhouse had cast three actors (Long, Josie Dooley, and Sophia Gilbert) who work in a scheduled rotation. So it's not as if they had an unprepared understudy step in. But still, finding out literally minutes before curtain that you're going on stage has to be a bit daunting, but Long was terrific. We were disappointed not to get to see Dooley, but we were not disappointed in the quality of the performance overall.

And I will add that in addition to rotating three Annies, they also have two sets of orphans who alternate as well. We saw the "Park Avenue" group, and were impressed with them all. They have a lot of stage time, songs, dances, and individual lines, and they were all well up to the task. And bonus points for not being phased when the dog playing Sandy (Gaston) decided to...er..."sing" along with one of their numbers. Quite impressive.

The adults did a good job, too. Michael RJ Campbell, the only union actor in the cast, carries Warbucks quite well, and Melinda Meeng as his secretary, Grace Farrell, is charming and warm. Billy Raphael as Drake, the butler, brought a lot of personality to what could be a quite dry role. My only qualm was with the framing narrative that takes the form of a radio show. The host, Bert Healy (Ted Zoldan), manages to be a bit over the top, even by the standards of this comic strip on stage.

But on the whole the production values are solid. I quite appreciated the livery costumes on the Warbucks house staff, and the singing Boylan Sisters (Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Megan McGrath, and Ashley Garlick) look and sound sharp.

Bottom Line

For a small, relatively new (ten years now) theater company, Berkeley Playhouse manages to put together really high-quality productions. The fact that they are able to integrate so many young members of the local community is a tribute both to the organization as a whole and to the conservatory program they run that trains children and teens, obviously producing actors who are quite capable of taking part in a professional production.

As you'll have gathered from my comments, I think the show is a bit silly, even by the standards of musical theater. On the other hand, it's fun to watch and it clearly appeals to a broad audience. There were lots of children in the mostly-full house for the night we saw the show, and that's a great thing.

Annie runs through January 23rd, so you still have a few chances to see it.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

"Watch on the Rhine" at Berkeley Rep

Berkeley Rep photo by Kevin Berne
Timely revivals of older plays are often even better than new plays, because it's often helpful to know that prior generations have stumbled on some of the same rocks we find in our path now, and their insights can help us navigate, or at least understand. One example of such a revival is Berkeley Rep's current offering of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, a 1941 play about resisting fascism. It's a play that is fundamentally about getting out of one's comfortable bubble and realizing that fascism can be right in the house, unsuspected.

The Play

Set in a wealthy home outside Washington, DC, in the spring of 1940, we first see members of the Farrelly family anticipating the arrival of a long-absent member. Daughter Sara married a German engineer and has been living abroad with him and their three children. Mother Fanny is quite distracted in anticipation. Her son, David, is rather hard to read, but he misses his sister. So Fanny antagonizes Anise, the live-in French secretary, and Joseph the butler. The long-term house guests, the De Brancovises (whose presence is never fully explained), are minor Romanian nobility, down on their luck (and their finances).

So Sara and her family arrive earlier than expected, looking a bit threadbare and scruffy. It's clear they've not been living high on the hog, and have in fact been missing a lot of meals and staying cheaply as they move around a lot. Soon we learn that Kurt (Sara's husband) is no longer working as an engineer, but working as an antifascist, opposing the rise and spread of fascism all over Europe. As the discussion turns to European politics, we find that De Brancovis has pro-fascist sympathies and many German connections, and a scheme evolves to turn in Kurt to the Germans in exchange for money.

But maybe he could be bought out of that option, with the Farrelly family helping to buy his silence.

So we have the tension of family loyalties, the awakening of the awareness of how world affairs affect all, including the isolated American family, and of course the pro- and antifascist agents. It all blows up at the end, of course. Amidst all the political intrigue, we see some quite tender and difficult bits as it becomes clear that Kurt has brought his family to stay with the Farrellys while he must return to Europe to continue his dangerous fight. Hellman does a terrific job of juxtaposing the personal and the global, as well as bringing out hidden depths in seemingly fairly superficial characters such as Fanny and David.

All in all, the play is a solid piece of writing, and holds up well, although the early pacing is a bit slow. Eventually all the pieces fall into place, and you realize it's a cleverly crafted work.

The Production

Terrific looking set, I have to say. One advantage to a play that all takes place in one room is that the designers can really go to town on the details. So the room looks really good, nicely lighted, etc. I had a few issues with the sound and with audibility of some of the dialogue, even though we were seated pretty close to the stage, though on the side. I've never encountered acoustical issues in the Roda Theater before, so I doubt that's the problem. But mostly it was fine.

The acting was solid, mostly unspectacular. The key standouts were Elijah Alexander as Kurt Muller and Sarah Agnew as Sara Muller. And both stood out for the subtlety of their non-spoken parts. When Sara first enters the home she hasn't visited in 20 years, there is a palpable tension in her nervous movements, between the joy and comfort of being home and the anticipation of the unknown reception they will receive when her family meets her husband and children for the first time.

But the real winner is Alexander's Kurt. Soft-spoken and serious throughout, he evinces a tremendous strength of character and restraint, with a tenderness for his family that belies his hatred of the Nazis and all they represent. I found him utterly convincing throughout the show.

Caitlin O'Connell showed flashes of brilliance as Fanny, though a bit overplayed at times. And James Detmar's Joseph, the butler, showed some good comic touches. All the child actors playing Kurt and Sara's children were exceptional, particularly given how much stage time they all had. I found their portrayals a bit too forthcoming for children who have supposedly been on the run for essentially their whole lives--a bit too naive and trusting for who they really ought to be. I'm not sure whether the fault there lies in the text or in the direction of it, but still the performances are impressive.

Bottom Line

There is nothing flashy about this play. It's meant to convey the conflict and turmoil that underlies the denial in a quiet, normal life in a world about to melt down. And director Lisa Peterson's approach captures that well. Indeed, the tizzy about the arrival of family members is, for most of the play, the biggest disruption of daily life. The incursion of outside conflict is quiet and almost goes without notice until it can't any longer.

All in all, it's a very good production of a truly good play. Berkeley Rep has resisted the temptation to sensationalize the material, making its message all the more powerful.

The play runs through January 14, so there is still plenty of time to catch this one, and it's worth doing so.