Wednesday, August 31, 2016

"You Never Can Tell" at CalShakes

CalShakes photo by Kevin Berne
I think I'm going through theater withdrawal! I believe it's been almost two weeks since I saw a play before tonight. That's what I get for going out of town for a week.

Anyway, right back in the swing of it tonight with a trip out to CalShakes to see their production of George Bernard Shaw's "You Never Can Tell." I knew almost nothing about this play going in, which is often fun. I specifically went to see my friend Michael Torres (in the impressive top hat, above), but I do generally enjoy the productions at CalShakes, and the atmosphere at the Bruns Amphitheater can't be beat on a summer evening.

The Play

I've been a fan of Shaw's work ever since reading "Major Barbara" in high school (though I had not seen it staged until ACT did it a couple of years ago!). This play isn't particularly deep, though it is, as Shaw classified it, "pleasant." It's amusing and light, though I have to say the feminism of its 1896 setting seems a bit dated in the Bay Area.

On the plus side, director Lisa Peterson has set the play in a California coastal resort that pleasantly reminds me of Santa Cruz, and the open amphitheater suits the beach setting well. I tend to find plays of this period set in Victorian parlors kind of claustrophobic, and this setting really opened up the environment and let the characters, rather than their setting, carry the play.

Perhaps because I grew up immersed in Greater Berkeley, surrounded by ardent feminists (indeed, my grandmother who was born right around the time this play was written would have felt right at home with the Clandon clan), that aspect of the play doesn't really resonate. It feels to me much more about the clash of parenting styles between the estranged parents. Still interesting, but probably not with the layers of social complexity it would have had a hundred or more years ago. Still, fun language, funny lines--hey, it's Shaw!

The Production

I thought the play was very well presented. The set is decorated enough to give you the period feel, and the costumes are excellent. But the props and walls and such are sparse enough to suggest, rather than present, the setting. As a result, you know where this is without it being an imposition, and you can focus on the characters and what they are doing. Plus, there is lots of physical space for them to move around in, and they take advantage of it very well.

Khalia Davis and Lance Gardner are quite delightful as the younger Clandon children. Bay Area stalwarts Anthony Fusco and Danny Scheie are exactly who you expect them to be. And Michael Torres is quite unlike the real person I know, which means he must be a good actor!

Although I felt all the roles were well played, I have to admit there were a couple of bits and relationships that didn't quite work for me, such as Scheie with Liam Vincent's Bohun. Individually, they were compelling, but I didn't feel the chemistry that I thought should have underlain their relationship.

But this is a pleasant play, not one to think about too deeply. I laughed, I chuckled, I held hands with my wife on a beautiful summer evening. What's not to like?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Reading: "brownsville song (b-side for tray)" at Shotgun Players

I'll be brief. I feel a little guilty blogging about this at all, because I got caught up at work and was late to the reading. The staff was kind and let me in at an appropriate momentary break, but I missed probably the first 15-20 minutes. Luckily I had done at least part of my homework, and had read at least the start of the play.

And as always, I'm blown away with what these artists can do in only four days of preparation.

The Play

I guess you could sum it up as an inner-city family drama, focused on a grandmother raising her grandson (the Tray in the title) and granddaughter, Devine. Tray is trying to get a scholarship so he can go to college, based in part on his skill as a boxer. His coach hires a tutor to help him with his scholarship application, and the tutor turns out to be the stepmother who abandoned him (and his sister) some years back. So that's awkward.

The play jumps around in time a bit, but it does so quite effectively, revealing layers of the story, adding complexity to what initially appear to be fairly simple situations. That part is nicely done, and the language and characters are compelling.

Ultimately, I guess the message is that you can live a righteous life and try to do all the right things, but it doesn't mean things turn out the way you'd want. It's not all bleak, but it's not exactly a happy story, either.

The Players

Once again, Cathleen Riddley, this time as Lena, the grandmother, amazes. She gives a heartfelt, stirring performance, ranging from hard-as-nails protecting her grandchildren to a fun and loving grandma, and several other distinct emotional states. All the more amazing because she is also playing the lead role in Shotgun's current mainstage production, "Grand Concourse" (which I'm going to see tomorrow night) and part of the "roulette-style" casting of "Hamlet" running in repertory at the same time. Any of those is tough on its own. To do all of them is amazing, and to do all of them well, just incredible.

Lenard Jackson as Tray does a terrific job throughout, with a difficult, ranging part, both physically and verbally. And he had good chemistry with his little sister, played by Malia Lee.

The Takeaway

You know from the outset that things aren't going to go well. And I'm really unhappy that I missed Riddley's performance of the opening scene. It's powerful to read, and I can only imagine what she put into it on stage.

The play hits on a lot of contemporary issues, including how to live a clean life under difficult circumstances, and how to (perhaps) redeem yourself after you make grave errors. There is much here about family, both biological and by choice, and about choices and redemption and forgiveness.

Definitely a worthwhile evening, and it strikes me as a play that would be worth seeing in a full staging, as I'm sure there are nuances and layers that could be probed with more time to prepare and present. Plus, I missed the start, and would like to see it whole. My bad.

Monday, August 8, 2016

"Hamlet" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

OSF photo by Jenny Graham
I suppose it's only appropriate that the last show we saw this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was "Hamlet." At the preface session before the show, the presenter asked for a show of hands as to whether anyone there was seeing "Hamlet" for the first time, and there were probably ten or a dozen hands. He then asked whether people had seen it multiple times, studied it, performed it, etc. And I sat wondering whether, having seen it eight times already this year, I might have the most recent experience with the play. Who knows?

I had been looking forward to this show, not only because I've been immersed in the play for some months, but also because I quite enjoy the work of this year's Hamlet, Danforth Comins. Having seen him in a number of roles at Ashland, both Shakespeare and others, I've really appreciated the depth and breadth of his work, so wanted to see how he handles this classic role.

The Play

I'll spare you the plot summary. Suffice it to say this was the whole play, though with some lines cut, but not entire scenes, characters, or plot lines. So that is one difference from the Shotgun Players version I have seen so much this year. On the other hand, it's a full, large cast with fixed roles, so that's different, too.

The staging is pretty sparse, as befits the Elizabethan stage, and the costumes are late Elizabethan, too, though the younger generation of characters have some slightly more modern styling to them. It works well. The Ghost, all in gray, drifts in an out of the fog very well, and I liked the way all the wrongfully-killed characters tended to come back to watch subsequent action from above, in the background. This Elsinore has lots of ghosts.

One rather jarring touch that I still don't quite understand is the electric guitars that Hamlet occasionally picks up and plays. I suppose if I analyzed it carefully, there would be some symbolic aspect to it. There is also a musician on the level above who plays guitar and sometimes drums. The program calls it a "soundscape" or some such, but mostly it seemed intrusive. A bit too loud, relative to the (amplified) actors, at least at times. And the part I really didn't get was that Hamlet is aware of this musician guy and interacting with him a bit. It seemed out of place.

The only way I can really rationalize that is that the musician represents the dark, brooding aspect of Hamlet. Indeed, he does sing some of Hamlet's more brooding lines. So I guess I can take him as an externalized element of Hamlet, though that makes it harder to explain his playing in scenes where Hamlet is not present, and I'm pretty sure there are such.


It's "Hamlet," and it's a very good "Hamlet." Comins is excellent. Even within our small group there is disagreement over whether/when/to what degree Hamlet is mad versus feigning. Michael Elich is a menacing Claudius, drifting apart from Robin Goodrin Nordli's Gertrude. Derrick Lee Weeden is a fine Polonius; he and his children are all African American, which had to be intentional, as it emphasizes the difference between the royal Danes and those who serve them.

Ultimately, this "Hamlet" is the story of three families, each of which sees a father killed and his son seeking revenge, albeit in very different ways. At least one person in our party, familiar with the Shotgun abridgement, felt that keeping Fortinbras in the story adds something. Although I agree, it's mostly from a kind of academic point of view. The story of Fortinbras (both of them) is barely told and even less shown. It's such a thin, sketchy telling that it barely merits comparison with the House of Hamlet or the House of Polonius.

Ultimately, I love the excellence of the overall production and cast, and it's a treat to see a full production and the polish that comes from the artists polishing their single roles over a run of many months. My experience with the shifting casting of Shotgun's production has opened my eyes to some of the many possibilities that the play offers. This provides a great basis for evaluating a single production and the choices the production team have made, which is great.


As noted above, we attended a fairly brief "preface" to this production of "Hamlet," where the presenter talked about a number of the ambiguities in the text and how those provide many valid options for interpretation and performance. I was pleased to realize that nearly all of those he mentioned, plus a number he did not, have all occurred to me because of the shifting cast of the "Hamlet" I've been watching all year. Tonight's preface and performance both validated that the time I have spent watching, thinking about, and discussing "Hamlet" have been time well spent. And I think it's safe to say I haven't achieved "too much Hamlet," for sure.

"Yeomen of the Guard" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

OSF photo by Jenny Graham
Several years ago, when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was just starting to add musicals to their repertory seasons, they undertook a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance." They did it well, and it was that show that convinced me that they could mount a serious musical in rep with all their other material. The next time I saw "Pirates" was last year's production at Berkeley Rep of an adaptation by a Chicago theater called The Hypocrites. Their style is unconventional, to say the least, adapting Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas to other musical styles and settings. It's a lot of fun, and involves part of the audience sitting on the stage, having to move around while the players do.

So I was a little surprised when OSF announced last year that they were doing an original G&S adaptation, directed by Hypocrites Artistic Director Sean Graney. That announcement came before I had seen the Berkeley "Pirates," and frankly, I was more surprised when I realized that OSF was going to attempt something of that ilk.

The Play

"Yeomen" is a lesser-known work by Gilbert and Sullivan, and is known for being a rather dark "comic opera," in that it deals on the fate of a condemned criminal on the eve of his scheduled beheading. It's pretty typical, other than that, with miscommunications and mistaken and hidden identities. The main difference is that instead of being in "The Tower," the action takes place in some town in the Old West, and all the music has been styled as Country & Western. But yeah, other than that, pretty much Gilbert and Sullivan.

The lyrics have been changed a little, and the whole piece is condensed a bit, but all in all, it's a relatively coherent story, the music is infectious, and the acting and singing are a high-quality and a lot of fun. It's always fun to see the serious actors from yesterday's tragedies and histories playing fun parts in a silly show like this. Also, between being staged in the intimate Thomas Theater and using the promenade on-stage seating, there is a lot of interaction between the players and the audience. Today's show was completely sold out, so it was much more crowded than in the picture above. It was fun to overhear the people in front of me making small talk with Anthony Heald (yesterday's Timon), talking about how much fun he was having playing Deputy Dick Chumlee, which involved playing a little guitar, the tambourine, the flute, and spoons.

So the whole play is fun and short and immersive, if somewhat lacking in substance.

So What?

I am, by nature, pretty analytical, and I tend to like plays that make me think. Especially plays that still have me thinking days or even weeks later. This is not that kind of show. But I did enjoy it. It's kind of theatrical candy, accessible to the whole family (and there were plenty of kids there) and a welcome relief amidst all the serious pieces.

I doubt that there will be much lasting takeaway from the show, other than a vague memory of an amusing diversion. But as Jeremy Peter Johnson was singing one of his songs and they got the whole audience waving their arms in unison, he broke character for a moment to say, "I dare you to do this at Hamlet tonight!" I appreciate the self-awareness that this is sort of an amuse-bouche for the larger festival, as well as a chance for actors to expand their horizons, blow off steam, and just have a bit of fun with us. And that's certainly a valid use of theater.

It Was Fun

Bottom line, it was a lot of fun, worth the time to see, and probably nothing I'll remember well or for long. But not every play can be a transcendent, intellectual journey. Sometimes you just need to go for a little joyride. Or maybe a hayride. Whatever...yee-haw!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

"Richard II" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Completing our day of "all Shakespeare, all the time," we followed the afternoon's performance of "Timon of Athens" with a history lesson, "Richard II." At three hours, it's a long play, but it definitely held my attention and interest.

The Play

Not much needs to be said about the play per se. It basically covers the reign of King Richard II, starting with the funeral of his father and ending when he steps aside and allows Henry Bullingbrook to ascend as Kind Henry IV.

This was my first time seeing "Richard II," but having seen the Henry plays relatively recently (both parts of Henry IV, plus Henry V), I have more than a passing understanding of the machinations involved. "Richard II" served to really put it all in context for me, however, when I realized that all these characters were already in place, and their roles largely developed, before Prince Hal enters the scene.

So that part was helpful to me. "Richard II" is really an important introduction/prequel to the saga of Henry. Extra fun for me, having seen the Henry plays at Ashland not long ago, was seeing some of the same actors, but this time in different roles. Most notably, Kevin Kenerly plays Northumberland in "Richard II," where not that long ago he played his son, Henry "Hotspur" Percy, in "Henry IV." Since the company is doing both parts of "Henry IV" next season, I look forward to seeing what kind of continuity they have, or if they choose to go in whole different ways. I see already that they two Henry plays will have different directors, so there is bound to be some difference.

Also, I like the way the play emphasizes the family relationships. You get a good feel for just how closely related all these characters really are, and how that affects their relationships.


I found the play quite riveting. The director's note in the program indicates that this is one of only two plays Shakespeare wrote entirely in verse, and truly the rhythm and flow of the language is impressive. Even though I didn't know the play, I did recognize some very famous passages, including the deathbed speech by John of Gaunt.

I really liked the casting choices for both Richard and Henry Bullingbrook. Christopher Liam Moore was a fine choice as Richard, as his slight build and higher-pitched voice already seem to put him at a disadvantage as he tries to rule his fractious family. Jeffrey King is much more physically imposing and has a bigger, booming voice, making him a natural foil to the weak Richard. But he often plays it down, obviously holding back at times, and particularly in later scenes where he is serving as king, his smiling, ironic detachment is a treat to watch.

All in all, I found the play pretty riveting. I made a point of not reading it in advance, preferring to let it unfold on stage, and I was glad I did. It was a good, if long, history lesson, and a reintroduction to some familiar characters I know I'll be spending more time with next year.

"Timon of Athens" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

"Timon of Athens" is among the least-produced plays of Shakespeare's canon, and now that I've seen it, I can understand why. It is a tragedy, to be sure, and unrelentingly so. There are some truly long speeches, few moments of hope or uplift, and just a lot of really dismal action.

On the plus side, I've now checked off another obscure play from the canon checklist. The other plus, I hasten to add, is that Timon was played by Anthony Heald, who is arguably my favorite actor here in Ashland, and the supporting cast was also strong. There was some speculation in our group that some of the actors might be working on acting in all of the plays in the canon, so being in Timon gets them closer to that.

The Play

Timon is a weathy nobleman of Athens. He loves nothing more than giving gifts to his friends and admirers and even strangers. He is generous to a fault. Specifically, he is living beyond his means, borrowing against his land and holdings to pay for his fabulous lifestyle, and indeed, borrowing from those same people in his circle of friends who are the beneficiaries of his generosity.

So inevitably, he has a cash crunch, where his creditors demand payment and he has no way to pay, and none of his friends will make him whole. This makes Timon angry, and he renounces all human contact and goes to live in a garbage dump with no human contact. He spends pretty much the whole of the play after intermission ranting in piles of garbage.

So it's not super complex, but there are some points to be made about about how people view money and wealth, and how money changes people. According to the Playbill, "Timon" was Karl Marx's favorite Shakespeare play.

The Production

The saving grace this afternoon was the production. Particularly in the first half, the director has added music which is often timely and even poignant (e.g., "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?"). If anything, I wish they'd been able to incorporate more music, because it breaks up the unrelenting speeches and downward spiral of the action.

Also, the acting was excellent. Though it's certainly not among Shakespeare's best stories, it does contain some good language and clever dialogue, and Heald and Vilma Silva in particular make you at least want to care about some of these characters and what they do. Though they never reconcile, they do at least come to sort of an understanding late in the play, and that's about as satisfying a moment as "Timon" affords.

And the desolation of the last act, that takes place on a trash-strewn bare stage with the tatters of fallen curtains and such, is quite effective. Not that you really need visual reinforcement of the plummeting fortunes of Timon and the others.

Bottom Line

I was already fairly sure this was not going to be one of my favorite plays, but it still felt worth seeing. I always enjoy the work of the terrific actors at Ashland, and the creative staff pretty much did all they could to make it worthwhile.

So, I check off another box on the scorecard and move on to the next play.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

"Vietgone" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

OSF photo by Jenny Graham
We started off our second weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with what's in many ways a very non-Shakespeare play, "Vietgone" by Qui Nguyen. It is, frankly, not what I expected, which is fine. I'm not sure it's what anyone expected, in that it's really hard to describe.

The Play

I guess the best way to describe this is as a mash-up. It covers many different styles, with members of the cast occasionally stepping into rap for a while. Stylistically, it's kind of a mashup of Stew's laid-back personal history with songs crossed with "Hamilton"'s edgy rap (only much edgier, and less melodic), crossed with the sort of group-history that UNIVERSES put into "Party People" a few years back, but all more meta, as my daughter gleefully pointed out to me at intermission.

Plot-wise, it is somewhat more Shakespearean, if you were to mash up "The Taming of the Shrew" with "Romeo and Juliet" and add a little hero journey a la "Pericles, Prince of Tyre."

Ultimately, as the title suggests, it is the story of Vietnamese refugees (specifically the playwright's parents) coming to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon and learning to settle and live here and come to grips with the fact that they can't go home because "home" as they think of it is gone.

The Performance

That's a lot to bite off, but it's quite deftly done. The play features the two main refugees, Quang and Tong, with a wide variety of other characters played by an ensemble of only three other actors. In that regard, it's really quite brilliant. The timeline, such as it is, seems like something out of Kurt Vonnegut, bouncing around between and within periods before and after the fall, but it's handled clearly.

There are a number of set and prop moves that are really well done, with a small platform that serves as bedroom, dining room, shrine, and several other spots really well, surrounded by a fairly simple set that could be the great American open road, the yellow brick road, or a desolate Arkansas field or New Mexican desert. The period music from the late 60s was a nice touch.

Having done no research or reading coming into the play, I was expecting something about Vietnam and the difficulty of refugees settling into American society. But what Nguyen delivers is a view into how the refugees themselves saw their situation, how they dealt with it, and how they view it and themselves today.

The last scene quite masterfully puts the whole production in perspective, and really cements the piece.


I don't have much here. I thought the play was well conceived, well designed, and well performed. If anything, I thought some of the multimedia was more distracting than helpful, though that might have been an artifact of my sitting in the back row, so it was hard to see both the projections and the actors at the same time from that angle.

And I guess I'll solidify my standing as an out-of-touch Old Man when I say I thought there was too much gratuitous profanity. I get why Nguyen felt it necessary, especially in the "gangsta" rapping, but it just felt excessive. I got it; you felt like badass mofos. Let's move on.

But that was really the only things I felt detracted from an otherwise extremely well done performance of a very good new play. It made me think about things I thought I understood in a different way, from a different perspective, and that's what theater is for.

Friday, August 5, 2016

"Hearts of Palm" at Central Works

Photo Credit: ACT OUT Photography by Jim Norrena
You never quite know what you're going to get at Central Works. It's all new plays, all world premieres, and tonight I found myself sitting right behind playwright Patricia Milton at a performance of her current play, "Hearts of Palm." The newness definitely shows: there are some really uneven bits, but they are balanced by some very clever material and earnest performances.

Quick Summary

Representatives from Empire Holdings (OK, some of this is a little heavy-handed) are in the small island nation of Marititu to negotiate a land deal so they can grow more palm trees to produce palm oil for consumer products. We get lectured a bit about conflict palm oil and the power of Girl Scouts writing letters and such, but once we get into the meat of the play, there is some promising material about negotiations, hidden agendas, loyalty, and treachery.

This being Berkeley, I would have liked to see a bit more subtlety about the theme of "corporate colonialism." It's no secret to anyone in the theater that corporations have done unspeakably horrible things to lots of "third world" countries in the name of profit, so we don't need quite so much spoon-feeding of it. In short, I wish Milton would leave a bit more room for us to read between the lines.

She does a better job with the interpersonal relationships. There is a bit too much exposition in the opening scene between Vi and Brittany, but otherwise, it's well done. And the clownish character Strap is kind unbelievably and unevenly clueless on a negotiating team. Again, I would have liked to see him afforded some of the subtlety that Vi and Brittany display. Both Strap and Helen provide comic relief, but could use a bit of smoothing to make them less farcical. The native negotiator, Ni-Bethu, played with evenhanded smoothness by Michelle Talgarow, is the one character who manages to surprise with her little twists at the end.

Stuff to Like

Overhearing some of the other audience members who had seen the play earlier in the run, I get the impression that the smoothness and cohesion has improved over the course of the run. A play with the level of complexity and quick dialogue that this one has is likely to have a rough launch, especially if there is still work happening on the script.

But again, that's one of the attractions of Central Works. If you're looking for the comfort of an old classic, you'll find it somewhere else. This theater is all about promoting and producing new works, and that necessarily entails some bumps and jolts. But the rewards come, too. Between the blunt agenda and some slips in the lines, there are some clever ideas and good thoughts. My wife summed it up well as we left, that this play shows a lot of promise.


We went to the show tonight because it was literally the only performance we could schedule on the original run. As it turns out, they have extended the run an additional week, so it now closes on August 21 instead of the original date of August 14. Since they perform Thursday-Sunday, that's four additional shows you can now attend!

And it's worth it if you are willing to accept that it's not going to have the same level of polish you might expect in other theater companies. Tonight's audience definitely enjoyed the show in the spirit of the Central Works company.

Now I'm off with the family for the second half of our Ashland summer, so lots more play postings coming soon!