Monday, December 26, 2016

"Darwin in Malibu" at Indra's Net Theater

Indra's Net Theater photo by John Feld
And now for something completely different.

Being a scientist by training (among other things), I have a weak spot for play about science and scientists and the ideas that exploring the scientific world leads one to. As luck would have it, Berkeley has a theater company dedicated to just such plays, called Indra's Net Theater. They put on a science-y play or two each year, and although the productions themselves are not always at the same level as some of the other local companies, the plays are always about interesting topics.

I first stumbled across Indra's Net when they did their first show ever, a version of Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen." That being one of my favorite plays every, I obviously had to see it. And they did a credible job for a small theater with a small budget. Subsequent shows have included "Q.E.D.," a play about Richard Feynman and Physics, and "The Secret of Life," about the discovery of DNA.

The current play, still in previews (and running until January 15) is about Darwin and some of the ideas he fomented with his work on natural selection. It's definitely lighter on the science than some of their other shows, but about interesting material nonetheless.

The Play

The play is set in the present at a beach house in Malibu, California, where the late Charles Darwin (George Killingsworth) is hanging out, reading trashy novels and enjoying the scenery in the company of a young lady named Sarah (Leandra Ram), who makes banana shakes and thinks about a boy she met on the beach. They are soon visited by Thomas Huxley (Robert Ernst), one of Darwin's contemporaries and defenders, and later also by Samuel Wilberforce, an antagonist to Huxley (and by proxy, Darwin).

The three men waste little time in delving into long-fermenting disputations over the implications of Darwin's work, its meaning for religion and philosophy, and oh, by the way...why are we here (in Malibu), or anywhere at all (since we are dead)? The nature of heaven, purgatory, and hell all come up, naturally (and which of those, if any, is Malibu?).

I feel like the play has a lot of promise, and I hope more of it will come to fruition as the run continues. Since I saw a fairly early preview performance tonight, there were definitely some issues that need to get resolved.

The Production

Things start slowly, with just Sarah and Darwin in play. There isn't much action initially, and what there is doesn't make a lot of sense (negotiating over making a shake, banana or strawberry, etc.). Sarah, in particular seems rather stilted in her delivery, and doesn't really seem to get comfortable until after she sings later. She's there to be a contrast to the three old(er) men in the cast, but not, I think, in that way.

Indeed, the whole cast seems to still be getting their lines down, with lots of fluency errors and stammers that don't seem to be in character. In addition (or perhaps as a result), many of the lines are not delivered clearly, and Darwin in particular sometimes mumbles almost inaudibly (a pretty good trick in a room as small as the theater at the Berkeley City Club). The upshot of this is that the play feels sluggish throughout. My daughter described it as almost a dreamlike quality, but not in an effective way. Some of the dialogue needs to be snappy, especially some of the exchanges between Huxley and Wilberforce, who did, historically, dispute some of these matters. It seems implausible that after some hundred and fifty years, they have trouble putting their conflicting thoughts into words. So pacing needs to pick up to hold audience interest.

My whole family also had issues with the presence of Sarah: we're clearly supposed to wonder about her presence, but we all made up our minds early, and we all turned out to be right, so the big reveal about her late in the show kind of fizzles for us. Some of that is definitely a problem in the script, but if the delivery picks up the pace a bit, we won't have so much time to ponder her story. It just doesn't hold up to much examination.

Bottom Line

I don't want to spend too much time harping on production issues when I have only seen an early preview of the play. I can tell there is more to the script that we got tonight, and I can only assume that the production will mature as it goes on. There are plenty of interesting bits to the script and the material it touches on that should be really good, but it needs to be presented in a snappier fashion and with fewer pauses for us to fill in our own stories while its going on. The show needs to lead, but not let us have to much time to think about where it's leading us.

It's hard for me to know what my bottom line really is on this show, as I'm not accustomed to putting down my thoughts on a show that isn't fully baked yet. I think it has a lot of potential. It's not as funny as the blurb on the website and in the inviting emails made it sound. I hope it will get funnier as it goes on, and not get dragged down in ponderous debate instead of a grabbier cross-fire.

I'm also a little unsure about the role of Darwin. Although he is the title character, the sort of "final showdown" is really between Huxley and Wilberforce, with Darwin literally standing off to the side watching and listening. His passivity might be meant to suggest that he's come to his conclusion and is just waiting to see whether either or both of the disputants will join him there. But it's also fairly easy to conclude that he doesn't need to be there at all, and I don't think that's where playwright Crispin Whittell is trying to take us.

At the end of the night, I know where the play ended, but I'm still not sure where the playwright or the director want me to be. I hope that comes clear as the production unfolds.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

"Entanglement" at 3Girls Theatre Company

3Girls photo by Mario Parnell Photography
Yet another last-minute booking of a play that was closing (in this case, we were actually at the closing night show), so too late for me to make a meaningful recommendation. Sorry!

Anyway, it was a chance to try out a new company and see a few familiar faces (both on stage and in the audience!) and see a play I'd wanted to see, since the geeky side of me always likes a love story with science stuff thrown in. The play was "Entanglement," by AJ Baker, who is also the producing artistic director of 3Girls Theatre Company. She even happened to be sitting right in front of me, which was kind of fun. The production venue was Z Below, a small, basement stage in Potrero Hill where I've been before. It's simple, but it works. Sadly, it was only about half full for this show.

The Play

The play is a little convoluted to describe in brief. Emma (Madeline H.D. Brown) had an affair with her married instructor, Luke (Louis Parnell), almost 20 years ago. Now she's decided to ask him to direct a play she has written about that (sort of), where she will be playing the lead character, opposite her actual husband, Rob (Chad Deverman). Luke takes the job, and brings along his adult daughter, Jeri (Heather Gordon), to assist. This is all meant to be in rehearsal for the SF Fringe Festival, in a tiny theater in the Tenderloin. Sam, the stage manager (Julian Green) has eyes for Jeri. Emma and Rob are having issues.

Anyway, in this play-within-the-play they are rehearsing, the guy is meant to be a physicist, and he describes love as being like electrons that get entangled, affecting each other even over great distances. Clearly we are meant to relate this to the relationship between Emma and Luke, although they haven't seen each other in years. But they have unresolved issues.

I would have liked to have the science stuff get developed a bit more and followed through. It's just kind of thrown out there and then dropped in favor of the human drama. OK, fine, but if you're going to name the play for it, you might want to weave it in a bit more and maybe have a bit more detail than you'd find in the Wikipedia summary. Just saying.

Anyway, it's a decent enough play, though it still feels like it could use some work.

The Production

Strong acting from a good cast throughout, though I didn't really feel the connection between Emma and Luke, which is unfortunate, since that's really the central pull of the show. I have to say that Parnell, who also directed the play, seemed a bit flat throughout. At times I thought that might be an affect related to his character in the play (he's wearing a skull cap because he's getting chemotherapy for cancer), but really he seemed to be just not quite there. That's unfortunate, because Brown was certainly putting it out there, and frankly all three of the other actors were fully engaged. Julian Green in particular was really good at flipping between the energetic and somewhat eccentric Sam and a quiet background bartender at the dive bar.

And I have to give a shout out to the scenic design by Jeff Wincek and the folks who made that bar come to life. When they're in the theater, it's just a boxy cabinet in the background, but in a jiffy it swings open to be a small but entirely convincing bar. I totally want one of those in my house now!

Anyway, it was an enjoyable evening and a good show that could definitely get better with some more work, and mostly strong acting by a good cast.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Ages of the Moon" at Anton's Well Theater Company

Still playing catch-up on all the shows I've seen this month....

This will be fairly quick, both because it wasn't a big, long play, and because it has already closed its run.

I feel like I need to make a confession here, which is that I think this is the first Sam Shepard play I've ever seen. He's quite the Bay Area Theater icon, so it seems unlikely, but I actually don't think I've ever seen a Sam Shepard play on stage. That's a little weird.

Anyway, I had read a couple of articles and reviews of this production, and really wanted to see it, but being pretty much only on weekends and during the holiday season, it seemed I was not going to make it. Luckily, I ran into Don Wood, who is one of the two actors in the cast on a Monday night, and he mentioned that they had added a special Tuesday night show the next night (the 13th) specifically so that a lot of theater people who might otherwise miss it could come. OK! I'm in...

The Play

This is not, as noted above, a big play. It has a total of two characters, and sometimes they don't even talk much. And that's fine, because when old friends sit and don't talk, it can be informative to watch what they do instead. So Ames (David Cramer) is having a bit of a crisis, so he calls his old friend Byron (Don Wood) to come visit and talk. Byron comes, and when we join them, they are really busy, sitting on the porch and not talking.

In the course of the play we learn that they are truly old friends, who have known each other for something like fifty years, though they haven't talked in quite some time. And as they rehash parts of the past, it becomes clear that they don't really see eye-to-eye about a lot of things that have (or haven't) happened over that period.

It's a bit of a ramble, aided by whiskey, that ends up reflecting on life and loss and friendship and memory and perhaps ultimately, connection. Why are we here? Where are we, anyway? And why are we together, after all? All sorts of good questions in this play.

The Production

Anton's Well is a small, rather new company, that has only been around for a couple of years and has only a handful of productions under its belt. Their stated goal is to produce challenging plays that engage the audience, and if this is any indication, it could work.

The set is small, if only because we're in the little theater room at the Berkeley City Club, but the intimacy plays into the intention of the play here. Everyone in the house can see and hear everything, and the nuances of the physical performances are quite literally right in your face. Two guys, two chairs, a little table, and some glasses. Drink, contemplate, interact. That's about it. But the quality of the interactions, spoken or not, is the essence of the play.

It probably helps that Cramer and Wood have been friends in real life for many years, so their interactions feel pretty natural. Cramer's mercurial swings nicely offset Wood's stoic, almost detached responses. Each is a distinctive portrait, and each needs the other to make the relationship work. Nice work, all around.

I will definitely be on the lookout for more Shepard and more from Anton's Well.

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Sons of the Prophet" at New Conservatory Theatre Center

NCTC photo by Lois Tema
Stephen Karam is one of the hot names in American theater these days. He's been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama...twice, won the Tony Award for Best Play, and has a host of other awards an honors. I discovered his work quite by accident back in 2007, when I serendipitously stumbled across his play, "Speech and Debate" playing in New York City when my family was there. Given that my wife and my mother-in-law and I had all both competed in and coached high school speech and debate, it was clear we had to go see that.

What I like about his work is that it manages to be fun and playful with language while poking unsparingly at difficult subjects. His plays are far less about defining who is a good or bad character, and much more about portraying difficult and interesting situations that real people can find themselves in.

That brings me to...

The Play

I knew virtually nothing about this play before I saw it, other than it was one of Karam's, and it had won some awards. That's more than enough to make me want to see it. The main characters of the play are two brothers in Nazareth, PA, who lose their father as a result of a high school football hazing prank gone awry. Joseph, the elder brother, works for a rather bizarre book publisher to earn health benefits. His younger brother Charles helps to care for their aging uncle. We get views into the tough economics of eastern Pennsylvania--the very definition of the Rust Belt. Plus we get glimpses of family life, inter-generational struggles within immigrant families, celebrity privilege on a local level, and practical balancing of privacy and the need for funds.

There is a lot going on, but it never seems particularly forced: more like, "of course this would also have to go wrong right now." And there are some noticeably quirky characters, but none seems like a caricature. It's just a slice of life.

Oh, and the title refers to the fact that the Douaihy family is probably distantly related to Kahlil Gibran (known for writing "The Prophet"), and there are numerous plays on Gibran and his writing, as well as projected titles for the scenes, drawn from "The Prophet."

Overall, I like the play a lot. I think it's well-written, with pretty tight language that makes the characters believable. Good stuff.

The Theater

Just a quick side note here that this was my first play at the New Conservatory Theatre Company (NCTC), which is a little surprising, since their theater at 55 Van Ness Avenue is essentially around the corner from the office where I have worked for about a decade. Of course, they are in the basement of a rather large building, and I don't actually go by the building that often, so although I became aware of their existence a  while back, I had never ventured in or seen a production.

The facility is pretty nice. I gather they have recently renovated the lobby area, which has a small box office and a bar tucked away in a corner. There appear to be two different theater spaces down there, but we were in the smaller one. It's quite small, but it worked well for this production. I'll be interested to see what the larger space is like sometime.

My overall impression of the company was that they are small and friendly, and perhaps have a somewhat insular community. I'm not aware of them doing much advertising or outreach, but I am now curious to see what else they get up to.

The Production

I was impressed with the acting. The set itself is quite basic, but that works here. There isn't room for anything elaborate, and the simplicity makes it easy to transition scenes just by moving a chair or a table, maybe adding a phone or a microphone. The costumes as such are pretty much contemporary clothes, with a couple of nice, quirky exceptions.

I thought all the actors were solid, at least. Cheryl Smith as Gloria comes across from the start as something of a head case, but in the fullness of time we come to understand why. But she does make life challenging for her employee, Joseph (played really well by Eric Kerr). Joseph is the core character around which everything else pretty much flows, and Kerr handled that with aplomb, even in a hospital gown. The other real stand-out for me was Loralee Windsor as a series of secondary characters, each of which had a distinctive, fun personality, and in the closing scene, her Mrs. McAndrew was very touching.

On the whole, the cast manages to take a pretty tight, closely-timed script and execute it well, maintaining the humanity and vulnerability of all the characters.

Unfortunately, the run was virtually sold out by the time I went to get tickets. I was only able to buy in their "extension," which was a couple of added matinees on the last two weekends. So the show has already closed, but it obviously found an audience and filled the small house.

I was impressed by the company, and will definitely be watching to see what else they get up to, especially now that I know they are just around the corner!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"She Loves Me" at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli
Yes, it's the holidays, which means not only am I going to the theater again, but I'm too busy to remember to blog about it! I feel a little like the frantic shoppers in the parfumerie pictured above, but I'll try to catch up.

SF Playhouse ("the empathy gym") does a couple of musicals as part of their mainstage season every year. This one is a revival of a play written in the early sixties, though set in Hungary in 1937. The play has some serious writers behind it, with the book by Joe Masteroff (better known for "Cabaret") and music and lyrics, respectively, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (better known for "Fiddler on the Roof," written the very next year). And it had a successful revival on Broadway last year.

The Play

Top that off with a story line that seems terribly familiar, as the original Hungarian play by Miklos Laszlo has been adapted into at least three American movies (most recently, "You've Got Mail"), as well as this musical. It's a love story about a couple of coworkers who don't realize they are in love (or that they are correspondents through a "lonely hearts" club). Plenty of misunderstandings, but eventually it all works out (because this is Broadway in the 1960s).

It's a cute, if somewhat fluffy play. I like a lot of the supporting characters, and several of the tunes are pretty catchy. I ended up liking it pretty well, and it was well done (as I'll elaborate below), but there are a couple of issues I have with the play itself.

First is that there seems to be kind of an underlying bit of cruelty. The two main characters aren't equally clueless about their situation. Georg catches on sooner, but some of his treatment of Amalia before things settle down is just not very nice, and it really colors my view of the whole story. I guess my "empathy gym" lesson here is that some characters don't display much empathy.

Second is that I just don't get much "sizzle" between the lead characters. Maybe they were just a little low on energy the evening we saw the show (Wednesday, 12/7), but there just weren't any sparks when they were interacting; it was hard to see in person any of the attraction they were displaying in the letters they wrote and their reactions to them.

And third, the "happy ending" happens so fast, you could almost miss it. There's kind of a quick realization, a little kiss, and they walk off the stage and the lights dim. That's not much of a payoff at the end of the whole play. I blame this on the book: there's just no more play for the company to play with, but it definitely feels like a let-down.

The Production

First a note on the set, because I have occasionally been a little critical of Playhouse's use of their turntable on the stage. Artistic Director Bill English and set designer Jacquelyn Scott share the scenic design credit, and I have to say it's by far the best use of the rotating set I've seen in this theater. No gimmicks, just a handy way to switch between scenes on the street outside the shop and interiors. That was really well done. The scenery itself didn't seem quite as well executed as it was designed--some of its flimsiness was apparent from the back of the audience, but overall the scenery and props were nice.

Performances were all fine, with a couple standing out. Michael Gene Sullivan as Mr. Maraczek was a bit over the top at times, but then settled into a fine and nuanced rendition of his character after the intermission. His physical presence and facial work were a real highlight of the show in the second half. Nanci Zoppi as Ilona kept the energy high, but believable. And Joe Estlack stood out in both of his supporting roles. Katrina Lauren McGraw stood out from the rest of the ensemble, bringing a tangible personality to all her shop customers. Unfortunately, as noted earlier, Jeffrey Brian Adams as Georg and Monique Hafen as Amalia just didn't light it up that night. I've seen both of them in other productions, both have terrific voices and the ability to act, but I just didn't get much feel for either character, much less for the pairing. And in a love story, that's a bit of a problem.

Bottom Line

It was fine, it was fun, it just didn't grab me as much as I thought it should have. I mean, nice designs, good music, talented cast, etc. All the pieces seemed to be there, but somehow the end product wasn't as much fun as it seemed it might have been.

The show has a good long run yet, through January 14, so perhaps it will come together. In the meantime, it does provide a pleasant alternative to yet another Nutcracker or Christmas Carol, and as long as you're willing to overlook the weakness of the central plot device, there are lots of fun bits, lines, scenes, and performances to enjoy.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Safe House" at Aurora Theatre Company

Aurora Theatre Company photo by David Allen
It was a busy month of November. Lots of work, lots of commitments, and almost no trips to the theater for me! Between travel and holidays and work, I've barely had time to think about the blog, either. But even as holiday madness descends on us, several theater items have sneaked onto my calendar, so there will be postings!

This week we dipped our toes back into the theater with a trip to see "Safe House" at Aurora. As a first-year subscriber at Aurora, I've been looking forward to seeing what's on offer regularly. In the past I've only attended sporadically, and for plays I was pretty sure I would like. It's an interesting little theater, with rather intimate seating around a 3/4-thrust stage that isn't very large. So you get a really close view of the action.

I've been consistently impressed with the stagecraft at Aurora: considering how little space they have to work with, they get a lot out of set design and lighting. As you can see from the photo above, Kate Boyd's scenic design transformed the stage into an 1843 Kentucky house quite effectively, and Jon Tracy's lighting design nicely managed shifts between the house and its associated shed as well as some other adjustments.

But when you're up close, it's the players that matter. There is no place for them to hide on the little stage from an audience that is no more than 4-5 rows away. Well, OK, the play is important, too. Let's start there.

The Play

This production is the West Coast premiere of a historical play by Keith Josef Adkins. Set in Kentucky in 1843, it features a family of free-born African-Americans trying to move up in the world making and selling shoes. The setting, at least, is loosely based on some of Adkins' own family history. I found it interesting to follow as it examined the interactions of the free blacks with both the white majority and enslaved blacks. It's clear where they want to associate, but much less clear that they can fit in there.

This particularly struck me after some recent reading I'd done on the history of racism and "whiteness" in America, particularly how wealthy whites had (and have) used race to keep poor whites and blacks from uniting against them. In this play we see the free-born Pedigrew family, which is kind of on legal probation for having assisted escaped slaves, involved in an uneasy dance with the unseen (white) sheriff and his avatar, deputy Bracken (Cassidy Brown). It's complicated, because Bracken is actually friendly with the Pedigrews, having been a childhood playmate of Dorcas (Dawn L. Troupe).

So the play fairly neatly encapsulates the tensions along both race and class lines. Now add upwardly-aspiring shoemaker Addison (David Everett Moore) and his rebellious brother Frank (Lance Gardner) to the mix. Addison needs everyone to play along with the sheriff's restrictions in hopes that he can become a successful businessman, accepted by the whites. Frank chafes at the restrictions, and wants to exercise his rights as a free man. The fact that virtually all the other free blacks have been forced out of the county after the most recent fugitive slave incident is highlighted by the brothers' competition over the one remaining eligible free black woman, Clarissa (Dezi Soley). And finally, things come to a head when escaped slave Roxie (Jamella Cross) appears on the scene.

The Players

As noted, the Aurora stage really puts a premium on the actors, because you can see every nuance of their performance. Here I thought Troupe and Gardner excelled in particular. Troupe's Dorcas is very tightly controlled, and you can read all the strain on her face and in subtle body movements, all of which would probably be lost in a larger space. Gardner's frustrated young man is brought out in a number of ways, and I was much more impressed with him as an actor up close than I had been in the last several plays I saw him in (the whole last season at CalShakes, plus "Proof" at Theater Works Silicon Valley). Moore's Addison needs to carry a lot of the show, but in some ways he has the least to work with. He does a fine and powerful job with it, but his character as written is probably the thinnest.

But the performances overall are strong, with the four main characters all interacting well and establishing solid characters.

The Summation

I felt the play did a good job of setting out the "Catch-22" bind that free blacks found themselves in during (and after) slavery. The writing drags a bit in parts, with Addison's character in particular getting a bit repetitious on his one note. Perhaps some judicious editing would help. But for the most part director L. Peter Callender keeps things moving pretty well. The plot has enough twists and turns to keep things interesting most of the time.

Overall, I think the production was first-rate, probably better than the play itself (and the play isn't bad). This was probably one of the more evenly balanced productions I've seen at Aurora, with the acting quality up to the standards set by the designs.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

"weird sisters: macbeth" at Shotgun Players

Monday night: Theaters are (mostly) dark.

Halloween: People dress up and tell scary stories.

Halloween falls on a Monday? Best put together a theater workshop that's a little dark and scary!

And that's just what happened at the Ashby Stage this week, as Shotgun company member Nick Medina put on a workshop of an adaptation of Shakespeare's Scottish Play with only three actors (all of whom have worked quite a bit at Shotgun: Siobhan Doherty, Caitlyn Louchard, and Kenny Toll). It's a heavily condensed version of Macbeth, and the house was very nearly full.

The Adaptation

We start with the three "weird sisters," often known as witches. They chant and make their potion, and one drinks, convulses, passes out, and then recovers as...Macbeth. From here the characters are pretty fluid, though you can tell when it's Macbeth or Banquo speaking, though sometimes there is a chorus of witches, and sometimes an actor switches back and forth between character or witch. It's really quite compelling, as it emphasizes the "weirdness" of it all. Did we really see them? Do I believe what I think they said? What of all these prophecies? Or is it just the witches acting out a story for us? Lots of weird possibilities.

For the first 45 minutes or so, this works really well. We're invited into this sort of surreal world in which the players can't quite believe that things are happening, but they seem to be working out, so maybe it's OK. It's definitely kind of an immersive Macbeth experience for all of us, whether watching or participating.

A number of the scenes are memorized, which is nice, but for much of the play, the actors are holding scripts. That's fine, though they start tearing off pages and tossing them about, which seems to work for a while. Sometime they'll crumple and toss a particularly difficult speech or something, which serves to give a little depth to the characters' feelings, but the device gets a bit old (and the stage littered with paper becomes a bit treacherous to navigate).

Eventually we're all lost in the dark, but along come flashlights to hold under faces, which seems just a bit trite for this "weird" production. Not sure what else I would have done, but self-illumination by flashlight doesn't feel quite right here.

The Problem

For the most part we're all still on board with the whole process until about the time the porter comes in. At this point, we're mostly done with the "weird" intrusions, and we mostly have just three actors trying to juggle the somewhat larger cast of characters. We get Russian nesting dolls for dinner guests and plush toys for Macduff's family.  The whole staging becomes a lot less fluid and immersive and mostly becomes confusing. If you're not already fairly familiar with the text, it is probably pretty difficult to follow just who is saying what. Not so much in the way that earlier you might be hearing the character, or you might be hearing the voice of a witch, ping-ponging the lines such that you aren't sure whether it's dialogue, internal monologue, possession, or what. That's cool. But farther on it's more a case of "who is this talking, and why?" We catch up, but it's very different.

I haven't sorted out in my head whether this represents and intentional shift in the staging, or merely a point where the crew hasn't quite worked out yet how to continue in the original vein. We go from a very interesting, rather riveting sort of metatheatrical ride into something much more conventional, but confusing because of its necessary complexity.

Truth be told, the story itself is getting a little weird again, especially when we come back for a fresh round of prophecy. But by then we're no longer in the realm of spirits who might or might not be there. Now the sisters seem to be more like just some more characters for the cast to juggle. I'd like to see whether they could continue as the thread pulling the whole story along.

The Analysis

After such a long and varied week of theater (and a fairly stressful day at work), it's possible I wasn't in the best state of mind to evaluate this production. That said, at least the first half or so of the play really seemed promising. I was enjoying the interactions of the actors, their characters, and the witches. Talking to my friends and family, we seem to agree that midway things kind of changed course, and were definitely less clear and less compelling. We all managed to stick it out and sort through things to the conclusion, but somehow it didn't feel like the weird sisters who opened the show were still there at the end.

All in all, I thought it was a really interesting approach to the play. I really liked the way scene flowed into scene, as character flowed into character. It seemed totally plausible that a rather complete version of the play could just fit itself into 90 minutes, and perhaps with more work, this adaptation could get there. As it was, it felt like a lot of the audience fell off the bandwagon during the second half.

I thought the actors were terrific, particularly so in the scenes where they were able to work without scripts. I would have been happier if they hadn't ended up wading through a sea of discarded pages, though. I suppose there could be some kind of symbolic importance to the rising tide of chaos that is indeed enveloping the characters, but I think there might be a better way to get that message across.

By the end, I'm thinking there has to be a reason for all this. I'm unclear, though, what the position of the director/adapter is. Were the witches really running things? Were they just manifestations of the inner desires of the characters? I had hoped that somewhere in the late stages there would be some kind of clue as to what direction they wanted me to go, but all I was left with was a lot of questions. I suppose that might have been the point all along, that weird stories raise questions, not answer them.

In any case, it was a fun way to spend the evening. Certainly better than sitting at home waiting for some weird children to wander by. If it had been sold as a finished product, I would probably have been disappointed, but as a workshop of a work in progress (and early progress at that), I thought it quite fun, and it was nice to see so many people show up to share that.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"The Rocky Horror Show" at Ray of Light Theatre

OK, let's start with this: I'm not a huge fan of Rocky Horror. I've seen the movie twice. Once in high school, a midnight show at the UC Theater when it was still a wonderful repertory cinema. Once with some friends in a suburban Maryland mall. It was fun both times, but not so much fun that I wanted to do it regularly. I realize that for many of my friends, regular attendance was a big part of their lives.

But I had never seen the stage show. In fact, I didn't even realize that there was a stage show, on which the movie was based, until a friend mentioned at some point that she had been in a production of it while in college.

Now, fast-forward to 2016, and my daughter's teen musical theater class through Berkeley Rep School of Theatre is doing scene study from "The Rocky Horror Show." She's seen the movie. She's learning the songs. And now I suddenly realize that three different local theaters are putting on productions of the stage show, right around Halloween. And we were kind of looking for something to do after seeing the matinee of "The Hard Problem" at ACT on Saturday afternoon, so what makes more sense that "Rocky Horror" in the Mission?

The Play

Seriously? I'm not going to summarize, even a little bit. If you don't know the show already, I don't think I could possibly make sense of it. It's less of a show than a cultural phenomenon. On one hand, I don't think the shock value the show had when it came out 40 years ago carries over. The whole fluid, pan-sexual, cross-dressing, gender-bending thing is pretty mainstream, at least in the Bay Area. Indeed, the real challenge is kind of the same one faced when producing any familiar, (dare I say) classic play: everyone knows it, they have expectations. You have to meet those expectations on some level, and yet you also have to do something fresh or it gets tired. You end up with Yet Another Christmas Carol or something.

This Production

I gather this play is something of an annual event for Ray of Light Theatre, a company of which I was not aware until now. Of course, if you need drag performers, San Francisco is an excellent place to look. And indeed, from the top of the bill down, you find experienced drag performers. The lead role, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, is played by D'Arcy Drollinger, who is not only an experienced drag performer, but also the proprietor of  a cabaret nightclub, Oasis. Many of the other performers are regulars there. So not only is this not your average community theater putting on a show, but they do it every year, so there is experience and continuity.

Anyway, I didn't know any of this. I came in with my expectations pretty low. The venue is the Victoria Theatre, which appears to be a converted movie theater, but it's a pretty nice house with a good sized stage, though the proscenium arch is a bit intrusive to those sitting on the side and up front, as we were. On the other hand, we had an excellent view of the sign-language interpreters, who were hilarious. The visible props (and the scenery, once the curtain opened) were a little cheesy, but then, this is Rocky Horror: just go with it.

And then the show started. From the opening moment, I was stunned by the quality of the performance. Melinda Camparo as the Usherette sings the opening number ("Science Fiction Double Feature") extremely well. And when Magenta (Andrea Dennison-Laufter) and Columbia (Alexandra Feifers) join her, it's clear that this is not your average musical ensemble. They're expressive and making contact with the audience, singing and dancing strongly.

And frankly, that's the story of the show: there really are no weak spots in the cast. They all sing and dance well. They act their parts well, even when they are background "phantoms." The choreography is pretty intricate, but well executed. So color me surprised: I enjoyed the show, and eventually decided the initial impression of cheesiness was intentional, true to the 1950s B-movie sci-fi origins of the plot. It worked.

Bottom Line

It was terrific. I didn't expect much, and I was blown away by the quality of the show. Good acting, singing, dancing, choreography, costumes. And perhaps best of all, the focus is on the show. Sure, there are some bits where the audience gets a little involved, particularly when the narrator (Steven Hess) is working. But it's nothing like the movie with a whole side show and incessant interruption from the crowd. It might have been different at the later (11 pm) show, but at our 7 pm show, there were a few clever lines and a little bit of interjection from the audience, but mostly we could enjoy the show, do the Time Warp, and just enjoy.

So I guess I have to re-evaluate my position on "Rocky Horror" in general. I would say this stage show was much more fun than either of the times I saw the movie, and from the description, more fun than my family members had at a recent midnight viewing in Albany.

One last note that I appreciated: the cast is quite diverse, gender-balanced, etc. But what I really appreciated is that not everyone was a tall, skinny dancer. There were all sorts of body types represented in the cast, and I thought that was really refreshing.

The show runs through November 5th this year. Check it out! You could do much worse than an evening with dinner in the Mission and seeing this show.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

"The Hard Problem" at ACT

[I wanted to include a production photo, but at this date, ACT has none on their website. Go figure. Too bad: It's a nice looking production.]

Let's get this out of the way right up front: Tom Stoppard is probably my favorite playwright. Full stop. My wife and I are known to go to fairly extraordinary lengths to see his plays, including trips to London and New York City. And it was our love of Stoppard that got us involved with the Shotgun Players when they undertook to produce his trilogy, "The Coast of Utopia."

Stoppard's most recent play, "The Hard Problem," was in fact the reason for our trip to London last year, although I have to admit it ended up not being the highlight of the trip. This play is not, despite the press quote on the ACT website, "Stoppard at his best." It has many of the things I love and admire in a Stoppard play, including deep ideas, playful debate, clever word play, and a respect for both sides in an argument. His plays will make you think, about important matters, while laughing at the wit and humor. His best plays will also leave you with a memorable character or scene or line (or many, of course). But truthfully, that's not this play.

This Play

The eponymous "hard problem" in this play is consciousness: how does the physical mechanism of the brain produce the conscious phenomenon of the mind? Hilary is an undergraduate in Psychology, interested in the concept of altruism and where it comes from. Her tutor, "Spike," poo-poos such notions, claiming that everything can be explained by science and especially evolutionary biology, with arguments that draw heavily from works such as Richard Dawkins's "The Selfish Gene" and its ilk.

Hilary goes on to apply for a job at a neuroscience research lab funded by a hedge-fund billionaire. Here we get to see Hilary's humanistic research in contrast with both the "hard science" research at the rest of the lab, in addition to some potential conflicts of interest with the hedge fund company, which wants research as a means toward making more money (and needless to say, altruism has no place there). Egoism versus altruism is the theme throughout.

Ultimately, things come to a head when Hilary and her assistant, Bo, come up with some unexpectedly exciting research results that might save their department.

This Production

First impression: I quite like the set design. They manage to make the stage into a deceptively large, modern building, but by sliding in smaller rooms and projecting different backgrounds, they create smaller, more intimate spaces. This breaks down a little in one of the late, climactic scenes, but there are other problems there, too. Scenery and lights are just very good, and the music and sound is fine.

The acting is mostly pretty good. Vandit Bhatt as Amal the fast-talking quant is quite good, except at times he gets a bit hard to understand, which is too bad. And Anthony Fusco's Leo seems just a little too low-key most of the time to be the leader of a renegade department in a high-powered research institute. The dynamics between Stacy Ross as Ursula and Safiya Fredericks as Julia are quite enjoyable.

The kind of inexplicable casting choice is MFA student Narea Kang as Bo. Without giving too much away, let's just say that Bo's relationship with Hilary is extremely important to the meaning of the end of the play, and when the big reveal comes in the  aforementioned climactic scene, it comes completely out of the blue: we haven't seen any of the relationship between the two that would explain the scene. It's not in the script per se, but in the acting between the lines. It was done brilliantly in London, and here it's just not there at all. So either the actor can't handle the nuance of the role, or (unlikely) the director has made a conscious choice not to include it.

In any case, the emotional impact of the end of the play is severely dampened by that particular choice. There's supposed to be this emotional payoff after all the intellectual banter earlier, and it's just not there, which is unfortunate.

Bottom Line

It's not the best Stoppard play there is, but even so, it's a far more interesting play than you're likely to see most anywhere else. And by and large, this is an excellent production, but there are some real weaknesses that seem to be self-inflicted by ACT. So it's a tribute to the material that the play is as impactful as it is. But it could be much more.

"Chess" at Custom Made Theatre Company

Custom Made Theatre Co. photo by Jay Yamada
The 1980s were a different time, in many ways. And I didn't go to a lot of theater in the 80s, largely because I was either in college and working or just out of college, working, and cash-strapped. So when some of my theater friends got very excited about a local production of "Chess," I didn't really have any points of reference for it.

The key element of the play is a world chess championship, pitting an American master against a Soviet master. Obviously, this derives from the famous 1972 match between American Bobby Fischer and Russion Boris Spassky that caught world attention. The tension of a Cold War era match between the US and USSR through the proxy of a chess competition is a plausible setting for a play. But a musical?

In its day, "Chess" was fairly revolutionary, starting with a musical concept album with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame. The show was then staged in London, where it had a very successful, three-year run. A subsequent mounting on Broadway, considerably reimagined, was a tremendous flop, closing after two months. Where the London production was almost operatic, with almost no spoken words beyond the songs, the New York version added a lot of dialogue, rearranged the music, and was apparently nearly incomprehensible.

This Production

Fast-forward about 25-30 years, and the Custom Made Theatre Company decides to try their hand at a revival. The scale will necessarily be much smaller than the early productions, but Rice's introduction to the libretto give producers permission to cut, rearrange, and generally try out what works. So Artistic Director Brian Katz decided to try to make a production that is closer to the original concept album, and on a scale that fits his small theater.

Small disclaimer here: I apparently had a senior moment, and misremembered the starting time for the play. As a result, I got there late, and missed the start. The staff kindly seated us during the third scene. I admit it took me a bit to get into the flow of the play after that, but I think my comments are still relevant.

Actual world championship matches stretch out over months, but the play wisely chooses to minimize the actual playing of chess onstage. The show is much more about the machinations of the players, countries, and chess officials than it is about the match itself. And of course you have to have a love triangle, because this is after all musical theater.

The Play I Saw

I give Custom Made full credit for even attempting this. I have a warm place in my heart for small theaters that undertake ambitious works. And there was definitely a group in the audience that was wildly enthusiastic for this production, either because of a nostalgic fondness for the original production(s), such as the couple to my left who kept talking about that throughout the performance, or perhaps some attachment to either the show or the company, as evidenced by the hooting crowd to my right. All told, the show was well received.

I have to say I wasn't quite as taken up with things as they were. Maybe that's because I came in a little late. Maybe it's because I wasn't already familiar with the material. Maybe it's because the first thing I saw was a fairly complex number with lots of moving, singing people that didn't quite come off. It got better as it went on, but my initial impression was not great.

Anyway, full marks to the company for even attempting this show. And some of the players (notably Leah Shesky as Florence, Heather Orth as Svetlana, and Chris Uzelac as Anatoly) really have the voices to handle the music. Unfortunately, the music is quite complex and often requires a considerable range that most of the singers didn't possess, so a lot of the singers were straining to hit notes well beyond their range, which takes away a lot of the power and appeal of the songs.

Also, the stage is very small (especially with a portion of it taken up by the band), so there is not much room for the 14-member cast to move around. Thus, the choreography is necessarily constrained and simplified. But still, that was probably the weakest part of the production overall.

Finally, the size of the house constrains the singers considerably. They were making an effort to keep their voices balanced and not overpower each other or the audience. This had two noticeable effects: One, singers pinching off their voices. Ms. Shesky, in particular spent a lot of the show singing through her nose, which is unfortunate, because she has a lovely voice, and when she let it loose (notably in "You and I" late in the show), it comes through quite nicely. Similarly, I found that members of the ensemble would be singing and then their voices would just tail off or disappear. It was quite odd sounding. Two, during several numbers, there are a lot of singers doing different parts simultaneously. Since they aren't amplified and mixed, it's up to the director and the singers to make sure we in the audience hear the important bits, and mostly what I got was a muddle.

Finally, the lighting was pretty ineffective. I couldn't tell if the lights were just inadequate, or if the players were missing their marks, but there were a lot of instances where key players were poorly lit, back-lit, and whatnot. This made it really hard, even from fairly close up, to see facial expressions and smaller interactions.

Bottom Line

I'm sure that those who know and love the play were delighted to see it again, in any form. And there are elements of the play that really appealed. The second act was definitely better than the first. I'm glad I got to see it, and disappointed (in myself) that I didn't get to see all of it, as I think that would have improved my impression of the overall show.

But I give full credit to Custom Made for undertaking such a difficult and complex show. It clearly has an audience, and the loved it.

Unfortunately, I don't think the substance of the show stands up nearly as well as the music. Outside the setting of the Cold War, the intrigues of US vs. USSR and who is-or-isn't a spy and such really don't hold up as plot devices. So it's kind of a weird little slice of a very different time: interesting and sometimes enjoyable, but ultimately not that fulfilling.

I'm glad my friends who are fans got to see the show at last, and I'm glad Custom Made undertook the project, in spite of its flaws and limitations.

Friday, October 28, 2016

"Nogales" at Magic Theatre

Timing is everything. In humor. In theater. And Magic Theatre had great timing with their turn in the rolling world premiere of Richard Montoya's "Nogales." I don't get to the Magic very often, so I often miss out on their good stuff. I'd been hearing about this one, and since I like Montoya's work, I made a point of getting to one of the shows at the start of the closing weekend.

And as coincidences go, seeing this right after seeing "Into the Beautiful North" the previous week at Central Works was excellent. One of my thoughts while seeing the earlier show was that I would kind of like to see it handled with just a little more sharpness and polish, which I've come to expect from Montoya and his sometime collaborator Sean San Jose (who directed "Nogales" as well as appearing in it). So I kind of got my wish, in that this is their take on some of the same kinds of issues.

The Play

Nogales is a border town in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Being on the border opposite Arizona, it is a frequent point of departure for immigrants trying to sneak over/under/through the border fence and across the Sonoran desert into the US. A key event, referenced throughout the play, is the shooting of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in Nogales, by a US Border Patrol agent on the other side of the fence. Fifteen times. Indeed, Rodriguez is a silent presence throughout the play.

The other major character in the play is Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, crusader against illegal immigration, currently being prosecuted in federal court for repeatedly violating court orders designed to stop his office's ongoing racial profiling.

The early part of the play is largely Arpaio (played brilliantly by Montoya) introducing himself, his office, and his work. Based on actual interviews with Arpaio, it's disarmingly funny, but disturbing all the same. Watching him dance around interview questions and dodge difficult questions is like watching a master at work: He's slippery and evasive, but so engaging that you almost feel bad for hating what he's saying.

So a lot of that part of the play is really about understanding Sheriff Joe and how he can hang on to his position for so long, despite clearly standing in opposition to federal law and court orders.

The rest of the play is less sharp, less focused. We meet various characters in and around Nogales and the Sonoran desert. One thing that becomes clear is that the border, the division between the countries, is not nearly as well defined as the wall would have you believe. And yet, there it is, turning a shooting into an international incident.

The Production

The literal center of the production is a room that serves mostly as Sheriff Joe's office, but surrounded by a diorama that is meant to be Nogales in miniature, backed by video screens that show scenes from Nogales and the desert. Unfortunately, the structure of the Magic, with four large pillars holding up the ceiling around the stage, blocks a lot of the sight lines, particularly from the side seats where we sat. So much of the video was either invisible or largely occluded. It didn't help that one of the projection screens (the one easiest for us to see) went mostly dark in the middle of the play. Ah, technology!

So I think (and indeed, know, from talking to friends who were sitting in front of the stage instead of to the side) being able to take in the video along with the acting would have been more powerful. The play is largely a collaboration between Montoya, San Jose, and video designer/photographer Joan Osato. I don't feel like I can really evaluate how much Osato's work contributed to the impact of the show.

The acting ensemble does a reasonable job, but the star of the show is definitely Montoya as the aw-shucks, have a beer, kindly but weird uncle Joe. They have clearly adapted the text to include digs from current events ("bad hombres," "nasty women," etc.), and of course the "build the wall" theme. So it's a terrific look at how the wall and the border and the whole southwestern desert shapes the dialogue not just locally, but nationwide.


I thought the play was worth seeing, if only to catch Montoya and San Jose working together. I love their work, and Montoya in particular shines in this role. Things go a little off the rails late, as Montoya narrates a kind of "Heart of Darkness"/"Apocalypse Now" gonzo travelogue through the desert, but the overall impact is still good. As a play, it's probably not quite as good as another Montoya/San Jose collaboration I saw a couple of years ago ("The River" at Campo Santo), but it's still worth seeing.

But I need to remember to buy tickets earlier so I can sit in a better part of the theater next time.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Into the Beautiful North" at Central Works

Central Works photo by J. Norrena
It's always interesting to see what Central Works offers. It's an ambitious undertaking, producing four world-premiere plays per year, and having to commit to those plays before they really exist. So you never know quite what you're going to get.

"Into the Beautiful North" is a bit different from the usual fare, in that it's not a local playwright or company member creating the script, but rather a local production of a "rolling world premiere" through the National New Play Network.

The Play

The core of the play is kind of a riff on the movies "The Seven Samurai" and "The Magnificent Seven." The small Mexican town of Tres Camarones is being besieged by "narcos," corrupt police officers selling drugs and generally terrorizing the citizenry. Nayeli, a plucky teenager, decides to steal off to the U.S. to recruit seven magnificent men to come back to Tres Camarones and save the town. She takes with her her best friend, Vampi, and her employer, Tacho, who runs the only Internet cafe in town, El Mano Caido.

The structure of the play is pretty familiar, with characters narrating among fairly quick scene changes. If you've seen some of the story plays by the likes of Campo Santo or Culture Clash, it will seem similar.

Nayeli, played by Samanta Yunuen Cubias, and Tacho (Rudy Guerrero) maintain their characters throughout, with the other six players in the ensemble playing about 40 other roles. For the most part it works well, though some of the scene changes are a bit clunky.

The Production

Realizing that this is a world premiere, a work in progress, and still relatively early in the current run (the play runs through November 13), one expects a few hiccups. There are some hesitations and fumbled lines, and a number of the (quite frequent) scene changes are distractingly slow. Some of the latter is due to the constraints of the little theater space in the Berkeley City Club. The plays I've seen there that work the best are those where either there are few scene changes at all, or where the play works with little or no scenery.

Somewhat surprisingly, the second act of the play comes out much smoother than the first. I'm not sure whether the ensemble just hit their stride after intermission or whether they have just honed the latter part of the play more completely. In any case, in the first half I was concerned that a lot of the dialog came out rather stilted, and some of the characters just didn't gel. But the show was better in virtually all aspects in the second half, which gives me hope that they will eventually get rid of some of the other wrinkles.

The writing is clever, with some quite witty dialogue, featuring fun puns and topical references. Clearly, the presence of "nasty women" and "bad hombres" was added just this week, as those references come directly from a presidential campaign debate just a few days before. In context, they work fine. Not all of the jokes flow quite as organically, but some bits work really well. The scenes with Rudy Guerrero and Ben Ortega in a bar in Tijuana and crossing the border are very funny and very well done. And Caleb Cabrera's "Atomiko" is consistently good.


I think the script has a lot of promise, and there are good bits to be found throughout. I was a bit disappointed with the cohesion of the cast, particularly in the first act. Some of the acting just felt rather amateurish, and not up to the standard I expect from Central Works. But it got much better in the second act, so I can hope that some of the bumps can be attributed to changes being made to the script and staging as the play is developed.

Overall, I thought it was a fun evening and certainly worth seeing. I really like what Central Works does, and fully expect that not every play they do will live up to expectations. But more power to them for promoting new works and opening doors to actors who might not have the resume to land a role this large in one of the bigger theaters in the area.

Friday, October 21, 2016

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players photo by Pak Han
Edward Albee is dead. Long live Edward Albee. Or at least, his plays. I haven't seen that many of them (yet), but the ones I have seen are (at the risk of a little redundancy) bitingly incisive. He had a knack for digging into the dark recesses of modern life and then exposing them, with some unkind twists thrown in. He could be cruelly humorous, laying bare the hypocrisies and little white lies that are so necessary to daily life.

This Play

This is the fifth of the five plays in Shotgun's season. For once, I'm reviewing one of their plays close to the opening, when you still have plenty of time to see it ("Woolf" runs through November 13, and then will join the other four plays from the season in repertory through January. So you have lots of chances to see it. And (spoiler!) you should.

The four characters in the play are two married couples: one middle-aged, the other younger. In each case the husband is a professor at the small New England college in town. After a faculty party, the couples meet up to continue the evening at the older couple's home. There is much drinking and games of various kinds are played. They are not fun games. It's more like extreme, do-it-yourself couples' therapy, while drunk.

It's long (3 hours; 2 intermissions), but so engaging it doesn't feel that long. It's intense, but often quite funny. It's dark, and not happy, but not tragic, either. Moral and emotional ambiguity and ambivalence abound. The themes are very adult, even if some of the behavior is quite childish. This is definitely a play for grown-ups.

The Performances

As with all the Shotgun plays this season, the staging is simple: a single room in the home of George and Martha. There is no furniture, just a bar. The actors sit either on the floor or on the edge of the stage, giving the audience a real feeling of being right on top of or inside the action (which is not a comfortable place to be!). The costumes and music give a good sense of the period (early 1960s), and indeed the soundtrack contributes to the sense of being trapped that permeates much of the play.

As the senior couple, George and Martha, David Sinaiko and Beth Wilmurt are wonderfully nasty to one another, sniping and snarking from the moment they enter. Nick and Honey, the younger couple, are quite nicely played by Josh Schell and Megan Trout. Megan in particular brings both comedy and real depth to Honey, who is probably the least intrinsically interesting of the characters as written. All of the actors manage to pull off the descent into drunkenness pretty effectively, though I think Martha could be a little more convincing at it.

But all of the characters come vividly to life: You know all of these people, somewhere, somehow. You've met them or worked with them. Or if you're very unlucky, you live with them. The little digs at the start of the evening are all too easy and familiar, and as the night wears on and the booze flows, the inhibitions and the facades fall away, unmasking some real, deep issues in all of the characters and their relationships. It's not a bad idea to freshen your drink at each intermission.


The play works really well for me on at least two levels. One, it's obviously a masterpiece of writing, and the minimalist staging doesn't put anything in the way of that. The terrific acting brings out the subtlety that underlies the plain language. This is a production that is only going to get better as it goes on and the actors get more comfortable in their characters and in the story. I look forward to seeing it again in a few weeks to see how it has matured.

Two, it is a wonderful follow-on to a couple of the earlier plays in the season, particularly "The Village Bike," which deals (in very different ways) with the relationships of married couples and how they deal with expectations, roles, and disappointments, and "Caught" which is largely about truth and honesty and how you define them, hide them, and find them. I think it will be very interesting to see how these plays work off each other as they move through the repertory season to come.

There's going to be a lot to think and talk about for the next few months at the Ashby Stage. Pull up a drink and let's have at it!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"The Brothers Size" at Theatre Rhinoceros

Theatre Rhinoceros photo by Steven Ho
Let me start out by saying that I really like this play. It's the middle portion of a trilogy called the Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney. [Apparently the writer prefers the term "triptych" instead of "trilogy." Whatever.] About six years ago, three local theaters (Marin Theatre Company, The Magic Theater, and ACT) coordinated a presentation of all three plays. The production of "The Brothers Size" at the Magic was just brilliant--very sparse and clean. So when I saw that it was playing again locally, I just had to go see it.

The Play

It's way too complicated to explain how the whole trilogy works. Luckily, each part stands alone quite well. This one concerns the eponymous brothers, Ogun and Oshoosi Size, along with Elegba, a friend Oshoosi met in prison. Now out of prison, Oshoosi is living with Ogun and working in his auto shop. It's a fairly simple play about adjusting to life "outside," being brothers, friends who might or might not be good for one, and much more.

Infused with bits of African Yoruba culture and mythos, the play takes some kind of mystical twists, and the characters, all named after Yoruba Orisha, or deities. Knowing a little about each of the deities adds a lot to the understanding of the characters in the plays, though it's not strictly necessary. The layers of complexity in the writing are impressive, though.

The Production

The set is pretty simple (not as stark at the one at the Magic, but simple), standing in for both Ogun's home and the auto shop, a car, and so on. A few simple tools and buckets and tires, along with a bench, a doorway, and a circle of chain on the floor fill in the rest.

 The incorporation of chanting, singing, and stomping is a mixed bag. Sometimes it's quite brilliant (as in the scene illustrated above, where two buckets serve as both instruments and props in an elaborate dance), but other parts seem forced and rather awkward (including, unfortunately, the opening dance). When integrated into the flow of the show, however, they really add to the mystical elements.

For the most part the cast of three have a fairly easy chemistry; particularly Oshoosi (Gabriel Christian)  and Elegba (Julian Green). LaKeidrick S. Wimberly as Ogun seems a bit less comfortable in his role. Though he's often focused and engaged, his gaze tends to wander off the other characters at inexplicable times, taking the viewer with him out of the moment. This gets better later in the show, however. There were several points where various characters had some issues with enunciating and diction, but not enough to cause me to lose the flow of the play, just a few words here and there.

The other kind of annoying element to me is the decision by director Darryl V. Jones to have the characters speak the stage directions. It's quite unnecessary, and takes away from the flow of the scenes. It's not necessary for a character to announce that he is leaving for work, when both the dialogue and the actions make that entirely clear. Perhaps a somewhat smoother cast could have pulled this off more effectively, but it seemed just weird for these very convincingly blue-collar guys to suddenly break character and speak with the playwright's voice in that way.


It was an enjoyable evening. The Eureka Theatre isn't very large, and it wasn't nearly full on a Wednesday night. Although the play isn't brilliantly performed, it's quite competent, and the material is well worth seeing and hearing. As long as you don't go in expecting a lot of polish, you'll appreciate the authentic blue collar production.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at SHN

Here is something a bit out of the usual path for me. The family has a subscription to the SHN series of touring musicals (mostly), and lately I've been sending other family members in my stead. I was sort of curious about this show, since I really knew nothing about it, so we caught the afternoon matinee today.

The Show

Fundamentally, we are seeing a sort of rock concert performance by the fictitious group, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig is the transgender lead singer, and the Angry Inch is the backup band. Musically, they're pretty good. I've seen this all categorized as "glam rock," which I guess covers it. It's a sort of moderately-hard rock with some punkish influences and lots of bright, flashing lights and a lead singer who wears large, outrageous wigs.

Some of the early songs are pretty good, notably "The Origin of Love" and "Sugar Daddy," but mostly it's a lot of show without too much substance.

The Reaction

Discussing the show afterward, neither my wife nor I felt like it had "grabbed" us. We both like rock musicals pretty well. We both love Stew's shows, particularly "Passing Strange," and she really liked "American Idiot." So it's not the genre per se that bothered us. Truthfully, from early on it kind of reminded me more of the Berkeley Rep show a couple of seasons back, "An Audience with Meow Meow." The conceit being that there is a rather egotistical performing star who kind of breaks the show in the middle and tells something of their life story, with more music. "Hedwig" reminded me of that a lot, although in Meow Meow's case, it was sort of up in the air whether we were watching a drag show, at least for a while.

The other parallel I would draw is with the excellent show "Boy" we saw in New York earlier this year. That also dealt with a transgender main character and a botched sex-change operation, but without the histrionics of trying to turn the character into some kind of rock star.

But back to the point: I didn't find Hedwig's story particularly interesting, or realistic, or more broadly applicable. The transgender story in "Boy" is much more interesting, both in terms of the motivations of the people involved and the reactions to the sex change. Hedwig just starts with a fairly bizarre premise and runs in weird directions with it. And adds a lot of music.

The Conclusion

Ultimately we concluded that the show isn't really much of a show in that sense. It seems mostly to be a highlight vehicle for the lead performer. In today's case, that meant Darren Criss, who achieved his fame on the TV series "Glee," so it was pretty clear that a lot of people had come to see him. Similarly, in its Broadway run, the role was generally filled by actors already well known for other work. So I suspect it's popularity is largely a matter of showcasing actors that have an audience.

So, it's a chance to go see Darren Criss, if that appeals to you. It's not the sort of musical that will have you leave the theater tapping your toes and humming tunes, feeling like you had a fun time. Kind of diverting, but you'd probably be better off watching reruns of "Glee."

Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Othello" at CalShakes

CalShakes photo by Alessandra Mello
Oh, my.

I am deeply conflicted about this production. The acting is top-notch. The staging is wonderfully minimal, which should enable the focus to be on the words and the characters. Unfortunately, director Eric Ting apparently doesn't trust us to understand the play, so he interrupts it, frequently, to have actors drop out of character and explain what's happening.

I'm not going to spend any time explaining Othello here. I had never read or seen the play, but I knew more than enough to understand how well it pertains to modern-day life. It's a great choice of plays right now. Race relations, xenophobia, domestic violence, Islamophobia, truth and trust issues--it's all there. Bring it on!

The Good

The acting ensemble is terrific. Particularly outstanding are James Carpenter as Iago, Aldo Billingslea in the title role, and Julie Eccles as Emilia. Liz Sklar is also very good as Desdemona, and Matthew Baldiga as Rodrigo manages to steal a few scenes. For the most part, they all gave consistent, nuanced, and (dare I say) dramatic performances. This is exactly what you want from Othello, an immersion into a world of high emotions and intricate plots.

The staging is quite brilliant. There are ten chairs placed in a rough square in the middle of the 3/4-thrust stage with no other set pieces. For the most part, actors "enter" and "exit" by standing up or sitting down, and it works wonderfully, with the action flowing seamlessly between scenes. The actors are all in plain, modern dress, with only an occasional scarf, hood, or hat to distinguish changes. It's all designed to not distract from the play itself, the words, the interactions, the ruminations of the characters. And in that sense, it works brilliantly.

I particularly liked the way characters were able to address characters who were not in the scene by looking at or walking around the seated, "absent" characters. There is a wonderful fullness to the performance when all the characters can be present or not, as needed. There is a little inconsistency with whether the actors stay in character when seated, but for the most part, it works great.

The Bad

I wish I could just leave it there, with a terrific cast on a simple stage that facilitates their work, bringing a brilliant piece of literature to life. Or perhaps I should say, I wish the director had left it there.

Apparently director Ting doesn't think his audience will understand how a powerful black man being manipulated and brought down by the connivance of his white subordinate applies to current affairs. Or that xenophobic fear and resentment of a Moor needs to be illustrated with the explanation that "Moor" means "Muslim" projected over the stage during intermission, and just in case that isn't clear, he adds some sound clips of Donald Trump denouncing Islamic extremism. Similarly, he seems to think we won't find a man strangling his wife in their bed horrific enough, so he provides narration of a description of the biological effects of strangulation on the body. There's more: I'll spare you.

Ultimately, Ting shows he doesn't respect his audience, his actors, or his script. I kept expecting subtitles to start flashing "AUTHOR'S MESSAGE" or something.

But no, that won't do. Let's interrupt the final, climactic scene to have a 10-minute audience talk-back session, and then finish the play, sucking virtually all of the intensity out of it.

The Talk-Back

I generally like talk-back sessions. The give and take between audience and cast/crew can be really enlightening and add to the understanding of the play, the production, and the context. But that's not what this was. This was a solicitation of audience feedback, slightly guided by questions from the stage (asked by the recently-deceased Desdemona). And a number of people said interesting and moving things. Mostly it gave an opportunity for sanctimony from the stage, and substantive questions were usually bounced back with "what did you think?" and such.

But that session could have been done after the play, and thus avoided deflating the ending. In a setting that seemed designed to let the play be the thing, the director seemed set on making sure we knew that the production was all-important, and that there were some really key points we needed to get.

It appeared to work for a number of people, but ultimately the machinations detracted from what seemed like it should have been the best play I saw in a long time, and instead turned it into a mediocrity. Instead of coming home enraptured by the performance, I find myself pissed off by the director spoiling his actors' work.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Seared" at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli
Food and fighting: what could be more fun? Set in the kitchen of a small restaurant in Brooklyn, "Seared" is the world premiere of a commissioned work by accomplished writer Theresa Rebeck. Add to this that Rebeck has worked quite a bit with both director Margaret Perry and lead actor Brian Dykstra, and you have the ingredients for a satisfying play.

I saw the opening night performance last night, and although there is promising material with solid performances, the result is ultimately not very satisfying.

The Play

Harry (played terrifically by Dykstra) is the chef of this little upstart restaurant, while his partner, Mike, and waiter Rodney wait tables and apparently do everything else. The restaurant is struggling, but seemingly out of the blue they get a great review of one of Harry's dishes in New York Magazine, and suddenly they are on the map. Great, right?

Maybe not. Harry refuses to cook the dish anymore, and Mike is not pleased. They argue. A lot. At length. Repeatedly. Now, seemingly out of the blue appears a consultant, and suddenly we have new equipment, more tables (and permits to use them), and more. And all for free! Naturally, this becomes grounds for more arguments.

The Production

There is a lot to like here. Dykstra is outstanding as Harry, in part (we learn from the program) because the part was actually written for him, and he is also an accomplished cook. And Rebeck writes some pretty good dialogue, some of it quite witty. Larry Powell as Rodney is a good, sympathetic character with a range of expression and emotion that presents well in the small theater. Consultant Emily does a creditable job of instigating and mediating a lot of the conflict. Rod Gnapp's Mike is probably the least developed character, and we get pretty much one emotional note from him (angry), modulated only by volume.

It's a nicely designed set for the kitchen, though somehow it never seems to reflect the changes in busy-ness that an overtasked kitchen should. They make a point early of hanging order tickets, but Harry never seems to look at them, and again, they don't reflect the amount of business going on. Lights and sound are used to good effect.

So we seem to have all the necessary ingredients for a winning production: good actors and good design. Unfortunately, the script isn't ready for prime time, and the direction doesn't manage to elicit much from what there is.

The Weakness

For about twenty or thirty minutes, I felt like the play was building into something promising. We had believable characters and some conflicts arising. And then the argued. And moved on. And argued. And moved on. And added new conflicts. And moved on.

Rebeck sets up some reasonably interesting scenarios, but never resolves them. That's disappointing, because I'd like to see these characters grow a bit and make some point about life or food or business or partnership or loyalty or something. The set-ups are all there, but we never get anywhere with them. It's really frustrating to see these seemingly clever, articulate characters just stuck and unable to deal with the curves thrown at them.

On another level, since the conflicts aren't getting resolved, I try just looking at them deeper, figuring maybe there is something there I'm supposed to get. Unfortunately, most of the situations just don't make much sense under close scrutiny. So I'm just not sure what it is I'm supposed to get out of this.

Bottom Line

I feel disappointed. There seems to be a lot of potential in this play, but it mostly remains unrealized. So if you go, you can appreciate some good stagecraft and some fine acting performances. Just don't expect to get much insight.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

"The Trump Card" at Shotgun Players

Photo of Mike Daisey from
I suppose it was inevitable, really. Monologist Mike Daisey has performed monologues about some of the greatest megalomaniacs in history (his series "Great Men of Genius" played at Berkeley Rep several years ago). And he's also been pilloried for stretching the truth (as story tellers are wont to do). So as he notes in "The Trump Card," it's kind of a miracle that he hasn't already done a monologue about Donald Trump.

But here he was, Tuesday night, at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, at the confluence of a bunch of events. The Shotgun Players are in the middle of a run of Christopher Chen's play "Caught," which was inspired at least in part by the kerfuffle with Daisey on NPR when his piece about Steve Jobs and Apple was adapted for "This American Life." And apparently Mr. Trump is running for president. And Daisey is doing a tour of his Trump monologue, so it's only fitting that he'd sweep into town for two quick shows.


I should note that I blogged several times about Daisey and the fuss with NPR back when it happened in early 2012. I think the most interesting piece is this one, because it both discusses the outcome of the show and links to several other commentaries. I won't go into detail here, since I've already written about it.

But Trump and Daisey is kind of an irresistible combination. Big, loud, guys from New York who don't just march to their own drummers, they are their own drummers.

I first became aware of Mike Daisey and his work when he came to Berkeley with his monologue (which was also published in book form), "21 Dog Years," about working in customer service for during the dot-com boom. We've since seen a number of his other pieces, including the controversial one about Apple. I like the fact that Daisey is always entertaining and thought-provoking, and because he has a very theatrical take on the ancient art of story telling.

The Art of the Story

Indeed, rereading my pieces from several years ago about the NPR controversy, what strikes me is that my favorite parts dealt with the role of story telling in general. Stories are the basis of culture, but also the basis of communication. We perhaps like to think we communicate with facts and ideas, but it is in fact stories that tie those together and enable human minds to absorb them.

Which (finally) brings me back to "The Trump Card." Daisey makes clear from the get-go that he is a story teller, a monologist, and a theater person, so he is, by his own admission, a professional liar. Now maybe that's just a clever disclaimer to ward off the hounds at NPR, but it also establishes his bona fides, because if it takes one to know one, he certainly recognized the professional liar and performer in Donald Trump.

He walks us through the history of the Trump family, most of which is probably familiar to anyone who has been paying attention for the last year or two. We get the stories of Trump's father, Fred, the slum lord and racist who was known for never paying people what they were owed. It becomes quite clear that the fruit didn't fall far from the tree. But always, Trump is telling his story, his version of "reality."

The Game

Among my favorite bits in the monologue is the description of Daisey hosting a big party, serving (fake) Trump Steaks to his friends while they play "Trump: The Game," which is, he says, like Monopoly for dogs. It sounds like a mind-numbingly awful game, but it also speaks volumes about the eponymous brand.

The Characters

In addition to the Trumps, of course, we also get to hear about Trump's longtime lawyer and advisor, Roy Cohn. That's pretty chilling stuff, but again, not so new.

I thought my favorite insight was when Daisey mentioned that as a monologist, he has spent much of his career developing and honing the character he plays on stage every night, "Mike Daisey." Because he says that's just what Trump has spent basically his entire career doing, too, at least since his businesses all pretty much tanked in the 1990s. It's all one long "reality" show, where Donald Trump plays the role of "Donald Trump."

And this might be the most useful insight: the fact that, no matter how much we think we know about Donald Trump, we really only know "Donald Trump." How much that distinction matters is left as an exercise for the reader, but Daisey makes it clear from the outset that we are all in deep trouble. And he also makes clear that even if "Donald Trump" is vanquished (or at least, defeated at the polls), we will eventually encounter someone who plays the role even better, and there the real trouble sets in.

The Script

I should note that if you can't get to see Daisey do the monologue, you can at least read it. You can download the whole thing here. In fact, you can read it out loud, if you like: It's open sourced. You, too, can play the role of "Mike Daisey" if you like. He has also released the script for "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" the same way.

If you're interested, a lot of his work is also recorded and available as a podcast, "All Stories are Fiction". It's all explained on his website.

The Evaluation

Obviously, this is a very timely work, which is why Daisey is on a whirlwind tour between now and the election. And it's clearly a work he cares a lot about. At over two hours, it's a bit long, and somewhat repetitive. It strikes me that this might be the first show I've seen since Daisey split with his wife, who used to direct and co-create a lot of his work. That might account for some of the difference. It's good, but not really his best work.

I'll drop a link here to a review of some earlier workshop performances of the piece in Washington, DC, last summer. It probably gives a better flavor of the actual content of the show.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"King Charles III" at ACT

ACT is the biggest fish in the Bay Area Theater pond, and since it's their 50th season, they've pulled out a lot of stops to make it a smash. One of the big "gets" for them this year was landing the rights to produce Mike Bartlett's play "King Charles III". I've been quite interested to see this play every since I first heard about it, but I didn't get the chance to see it either in London or New York.

So here it is in San Francisco. And it's an impressive piece: an elaborate (though not too complex) set, terrific lighting, a notable song to start things off. And good acting on the whole.

The Writing

I won't go into elaborate detail here, because much has already been written about this play in the local press. It's an impressive work, written in a style that is both reminiscent of Shakespeare and still quite modern. To call it a huge undertaking is perhaps an understatement: not only does it address issues of contemporary importance, but it does so using characters who are relatively well known. A contemporary audience will be more sensitive to the accurate portrayal of the current royal family than they might be to some nuance of a long-dead predecessor.

The play begins with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, meaning Prince Charles becomes King Charles. Nothing special there, until Charles unexpectedly starts to display some backbone and insists on asserting some royal perquisites long dismissed as ceremonial formalities. The resulting conflict ignites the long-simmering issue of the role of monarchy in a democratic society.

Indeed, this subject matter, rather than the writing style, is where this piece is most Shakespearean. Shakespeare's "history plays" show in dramatic form, how monarchy and succession and the machinations behind them shape the fate of nations and individuals. Although set in the historical past, the plays touch on issues relevant to Shakespeare's own time, allowing discussion of issues of immediate and personal significance with the supposed detachment of history.

The Conflict

The conflict in "King Charles" comes clearly to the fore: Charles objects to a bill passed by Parliament that regulates the press as regards privacy. Even though the press has not treated Charles and his family kindly or fairly, he feels that upholding the tradition of a free press is more important than protecting his own family's privacy. But ironically, in order to uphold that tradition, he has to break with another, that of ceremonially approving all bills passed by Parliament.

This puts the king squarely in conflict with Parliament (and particularly the Prime Minister). Should Parliament allow what is essentially a veto by the king, or should they go for what Americans might term "the nuclear option" and do away with the royal stamp of approval?

The Production

All of this comes with an overlay of Charles adjusting to the notion of assuming the throne. It's clear that on some level, though he has been preparing to be king all his life, he rather expected his mother to live (and rule) "forever," so his role was always more theoretical than real to him.

Really, it's here that I have my biggest issue with this production. Director David Muse has chosen to portray Charles as dithering and almost comically ineffectual, yet stubbornly set on this one issue to the point of alienating essentially the entire country. And here we come into conflict with both the text of the play (I don't think it really supports this interpretation) and with the popular perception of the real Prince Charles. One could easily portray Charles as being put off his game a bit by the death of his mother and all the changes that entails in his life without making him goofy.

That said, Robert Joy's portrayal of Charles is otherwise quite good, and his surrounding cast is quite strong. Ian Merrill Peakes as the Prime Minister is especially strong, along with Christopher McLinden and Allison Jean White as William and Kate.

The Subplot

There is a subplot running through the show that manages to highlight some excellent performances. Unfortunately, it's never really resolved in a meaningful way. Prince Harry doesn't want to be a prince anymore. He'd rather run around with a commoner, Jessica (played wonderfully by Michelle Beck). That part's not really news to anyone, really just the degree of his desire. Unfortunately, in the production I saw, Harry Smith as Prince Harry didn't seem particularly engaged in the role. His was probably the least convincing of the portrayals in the play. Indeed, most of the interactions between Harry and Jessica happen offstage, so we never really get to see why this relationship is so compelling.

This is a case where I feel like Bartlett has bitten off more than his play can chew. He relies on the audience knowing Harry's reputation as a playboy, but gives no reason why this one particular girl is the one who makes him want to toss it all. If we're going to go all "Prince Hal" with this, then we need a Falstaff and the rest of the crew. We need a reason for Harry to make a life choice, other than he was dissolute until he met Jess.

Ultimately, I felt like this needs to be more than one play. We need more backstory on several of the characters, and more development of some of the key characters (like Harry) in the story. Camilla is almost a non-entity, and that seems wrong. And it occurs to me that Prince Andrew (Charles's brother) really ought to be around at some point. Basically, so much has had to be trimmed to fit the whole story into one play, it feels like parts are just missing.

The Conclusion (mine)

I like the play. If this critique seems overly critical, it's probably because there is so much good there that it makes me want to correct the relatively small number of weak points. I admire the playwright for undertaking such a task, and for producing such an effective piece of theater. Similarly, the ACT production is so good on so many levels that I just want to smooth out a few bumpy bits.

All in all, it's nice to see a literate and ambitious take on a question as important as the roles of monarchy and democracy (and a free press and personal privacy) in modern society. How do we refashion our historical institutions to match the needs of a modern society? How much should the individual holder of a given office affect the boundaries of that office? All kinds of good questions, and it's great to see them being addressed at all. The fact that it's overall done well is an extra blessing.