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.