Sunday, October 22, 2017

"The Farm" at TheatreFIRST

I read George Orwell's "Animal Farm" in my freshman English class in high school. The book is a very accessible introduction to a number of different aspects of literature, including political satire and extended metaphor. By portraying the characters with different kinds of animals, Orwell provides a richness to his characterizations beyond the individual personas he creates. Not only do we understand some of the sub-groupings of individuals on the farm, but we impute characteristics to those groups based on our knowledge of the animals.

This works great on the page, but I wondered how it would translate to the stage. A few years before I hooked up with the Shotgun Players, they had produced Jon Tracy's adaptation of "Animal Farm" called The Farm, but I missed it. As luck would have it, the opening show of TheatreFIRST's current season is a revived and updated rendition of The Farm.

The Play

The script stays pretty close to the story thread of the book, at least as I recall it. The animals, tired of working for the farmer only to end up slaughtered, rise up and drive out the farmer, taking over the running of the farm for themselves. They set up an egalitarian collectivist structure with a set of seven precepts or commandments, which they paint on the wall for all to see (even those who can't read). The most important and memorable of these is the dictate that "All animals are equal," along with "Four legs good; two legs bad."

As the story progresses and the ideals of the revolutionary animals meets up with the reality of running a farm, behavior seems to diverge from the commandments of Animalism, but it turns out that the commandments themselves have been altered, too. And no one can quite recall when or how that happened, but somehow there are now conditions and modifiers on the very straightforward original laws.

The longer we go, the clearer it becomes that the pigs are running the farm for their benefit, much as the humans had, even to the point that they are making deals with the neighboring human farms. And by the end of the story, the pigs have become essentially indistinguishable from the humans, and have subjugated all the other animals. Indeed, some animals are more equal than others.

The Production

On a rather dark, stark stage with some nondescript structure to suggest fencing or pens, the animals arrive. Rather than creating elaborate costumes, each type of animal has a sort of uniform suggesting their species. The horses, for example, wear tan work coveralls and boots. The sheep have woolly sweaters, and so on. What I found particularly effective was the small behaviors that each animal affected, perhaps most notably Clover the horse (Anna Joham), who had a distinctive way of tossing her head and pawing the ground that was quite equine. The designers (particularly costume designer Miyuki Bierlein) and co-directors (Michael Torres and Elena Wright) have done a terrific job of making the visuals subtle, yet evocative. That's good, because the story is a pretty blunt instrument, and trying to accurately present animals or a farm would probably distract from the point of the play.

Adapter Jon Tracy has taken the ordinary prose of Orwell's story and converted it into something more like a poem, with snappy little rhymes and rhythms that keep it flowing and show a cleverness without overwhelming the flow of the story. It's only occasionally that the language draws attention to itself, but when it does it's generally to good effect. Similarly, the insertion of little songs, chants, and raps flow pretty seamlessly. Much as the pigs' conniving to distort the messages of Animalism to their own ends is done in such as way that the other animals either don't notice or are powerless to oppose it, Tracy's adaptations of the story fit so neatly that one almost doesn't notice that some dialogue has morphed into rhyme until it goes somewhere else, and you find yourself thinking "well, that was neat!"

There are other good touches, such as the use of the revolutionary hog, Old Major (Anthony Frederick Aranda). His imposing figure introduces the animals to the idea of rising up, but his early demise removes him from the immediate action, though he remains an inspiration and a touchpoint (either his memory or his physical skull). The production handles that by having Old Major linger in the background, beating a drum off and on, maintaining his presence throughout. And every time the wise donkey, Benjamin (Dean Koya), tries to point out that the pigs are violating the precepts of Animalism, someone points out that he is an ass.

The Bottom Line

I was really impressed with this production. The acting ensemble is very strong. I haven't called out many of the individuals, largely because they function so well as a collective. It's not that there aren't good performances, but more that no one really dominate the story or the audience's attention. The ringleader of the pigs, Napolean (Tierra Allen) is very good, but not in a way that outshines the rest of the pigs or the other animals, and indeed, that's kind of the message of the story.

TheatreFIRST has done a good job of creating a balanced, diverse cast and crew, in keeping with their mission. I have a little qualm about whether "The Farm" really fits their stated goal of "amplifying marginalized stories," given how well-known the source material is. And really, critiques of communism and socialism are hardly marginalized in Berkeley! That said, it is definitely a fresh, lively take on the story, and the creativity of both the adaptation and the staging are clear.

This is a show that deserves to be seen, not so much because people need to see "Animal Farm" on stage, but more because it shows how powerfully a creative group can take a familiar story and turn it into something fresh and relevant without having to produce a giant, flashy spectacle. Indeed, it's refreshing to see the story kind of stripped down to its essence, with the effort placed on character and nuance instead of realism and flash.

And for once, I saw a show early enough in its run that I can recommend that you go to see it. The show runs through November 11, and ticket prices are very reasonable. It's well worth a trip to the Live Oak Theater to see this one.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"Blasted" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players photo by Cheshire Isaacs
I've been anticipating this night for more than a year. Last September, when Shotgun announced that they were going to produce Sarah Kane's play Blasted this season, there was kind of a collective gasp from the audience from those who knew about the play. I wasn't one of those, because I didn't know about it. I have come to understand that this is kind of the third-rail of modern theater, a play so controversial because of its explicit onstage portrayal of truly awful human behavior that for the most part no theater will touch it.

Shotgun, however, is in the midst of a a couple of seasons of intentionally working to get patrons to actively react to their productions, hosting nightly talkbacks and choosing plays that really insist that the audience engage both in the auditorium and (at least intellectually) afterward. So producing Blasted is at a minimum going to invoke some strong reactions of "why are they doing this?"

And before I did too deeply into this production, I should add my usual disclaimer that I am a member of the board of the Shotgun Players, so I am involved with this theater, though not really in the artistic aspects, just on the business side. Although I often sponsor productions at Shotgun, Blasted was not one.

The Play

Sarah Kane was an extremely controversial and noteworthy playwright in the 1990s. She  was also deeply, clinically depressed, and only wrote five plays before she committed suicide in 1999. She apparently started by writing a play about an older man and younger woman meeting up in a hotel, but was distracted by the genocide going on in Bosnia at the time, and decided to tackle the issue of how people could attend theater as a distraction from the gross inhumanity taking place daily by bringing some of that inhumanity onto the stage.

And make no mistake, the play brings inhumanity in both large and small senses into an inescapable room in front of our eyes. There is no way to avoid the full range of bad human interactions from really small microaggressions in the conversation of the two lovers meeting up to the full on, physical and psychic attacks and other transgressions that follow later. There is really no way to escape the fact that our characters behave really, really badly to one another. And there are plenty of reasons that no one under 18 is admitted to the theater for this show.

It's ugly, it's cruel, and it's pretty relentless. But that is kind of the point. War is hell, and Kane wants us to know that you can't get away from that just because you're not directly in the war. It affects us all.

The play spends a considerable portion of its time allowing Ian and Cate to really descend into some bad places, tinged with some real humanity and affection, though not in a very appealing way. Only later does the larger aspect of war intrude in the person of the Soldier. And only then do we get truly blasted.

The characters are well-written and believable, though I'm not sure how relatable any of them are, perhaps with the exception of the soldier, who seems to have had a lot of this thrust upon him. The other two seem to be inexplicably drawn together in a mutually destructive relationship that can't possibly lead anywhere good for either.

The Production

If you're going to do this play at all, you have to do it well: No one wants to see an ugly unicorn. So Shotgun has recruited an excellent cast of actors, top-notch designers, and tasked company member Jon Tracy to direct. In my limited exposure, it's clear that Tracy does not shy away from a difficult challenge, so he seems an ideal candidate to tackle this play. Similarly, the three actors need to be convincing professionals, and Robert Parsons (Ian), Adrienne Kaori Walters (Cate), and Joe Estlack (Soldier) are all terrific in their portrayals. Parsons carries perhaps the heaviest load, since he is on stage virtually the whole play, and even when he is offstage, his presence dominates the mood.

The initial scene is an excellent setup for the remainder of the show. Ian and Cate come onstage separately, each silently reacting to the hotel-room set (stunningly designed, as usual, by Nina Ball) in dramatically different ways. So before anyone speaks, we know there will be some areas of conflict. The lighting by Heather Basarab and sound by Matt Stines make the whole thing work, as the hotel and its occupants get quite literally blasted along with all the emotional explosions.

Indeed, I don't really have issues with the way the show was presented. The hotel room looks quite authentic--I'd stay there. And the acting is really well done. All three actors have crawled into some very difficult characters and found a space that entirely works for them. And the intimacy of the small stage placed so close to the front row of seats makes it impossible to avoid the matters that confront the audience. It's right there, in your face.

So, What's the Big Deal?

The question, as noted earlier, is why one does this play. It's not enough to just make a big splash--the world is full of people behaving very, very badly. That's not news. The question is, why put this on stage?

And truthfully, I'm still grappling with that question. I don't question the importance of the issues. Indeed, we see those issues portrayed, albeit with less immediacy, fairly frequently. There are tons of movies that portray the horrors of war, both on the combatants and civilians, in even greater detail than this play does. There are lots of plays that portray a lot of these same issues, too, although more symbolically or metaphorically. And there are abundant sources of first-person accounts of these atrocities (Elie Weisel's Night comes to mind) and documentary films and historical documents that illustrate this behavior in real situations.

It's not like we don't know this stuff. So I'm of two minds when it comes to the question of why put this on stage. What jumps to mind is that, as with any live theater production, especially in a small house, there is an ineffable, tangible experience that is qualitatively different from other media. And that may be true for some. But for me, at least, reading accounts or seeing documentary footage is extremely visceral, and in ways that any artifice, even extremely well-done artifice, cannot duplicate.

There is probably an argument to be made that if theater wants to make a statement on this subject, this is the way it has to do it. We can't put actual holocaust survivors or historical footage on stage (although, now that I think of it, the Tracy-directed show Leni at Aurora last season did some of that quite effectively--using historical footage and artistic portrayals of historical figures, though in service of a quite different message). But there is a case to be made that this might be the closest live theater can come to the experience of a war documentary or memoir.

But another side of me ponders the notion that in fact Kane's premise is incorrect, that there is nothing per se wrong with escaping from the reality of the days news and atrocities to go to the theater. On some level, there is value in allowing oneself to remember that there is, in fact, something better out there. That one can aspire to remember and to strive to be the "better angels" that we know can inhabit us. Indeed there are many examples of people surviving periods of atrocity by engaging either in the practice or the memory of art, music, or even theater.

In short, it's not clear to me that the only way theater can address these issues is by dragging us all down into them in person. It is one way, and it is effective and thought-provoking, but it's definitely not the only way, and I'm not even sold that it's the most effective way.

Bottom Line

Regardless of whether the approach appeals to one, it is clear that the issues addressed are important and timely. And frankly, there's no reason necessarily to shy away from producing a play such as this. It will be controversial, but controversy is the key to discussion and thought. Far too many productions here in the bay area preach to a choir of the already converted, safely allowing us to land on the same side of what might be a controversial issue or presentation elsewhere. It's nice to see a theater taking on a subject and presentation that its own artistic company, staff, and audience disagree on the merits of.

In that sense, it's worth seeing to make up your own mind. I have to say that after a year of anticipation and warnings and such, I didn't find much in this play to be actually shocking, though much of it is quite disturbing, and it's hard to see it happening live in front of you on stage.

The show runs for one more week, through October 22nd.

Monday, October 9, 2017

"Hamlet" at ACT

ACT photo by Kevin Berne
I believe this is the fourth time I have blogged on the play Hamlet in just the last couple of years. The fact that I saw it well over a dozen times last year at Shotgun Players suggests that I like the play. It's a classic for a reason, and watching different stagings and castings and interpretations is always educational.

The Play

No, really, I'm not going to summarize the play. If you don't know, go read it. Or go see it. Or (better yet) both.

What I will say here, since there are many ways to cut or otherwise alter the play, that ACT largely kept the full text in place, meaning it was a 3-hour production. Since the vast majority of my recent viewings were of Shotgun's reduced version, I was looking forward to seeing the full show again. Truthfully, the wrapper story with Norway doesn't really add much to the play (except in the sort of academic sense that it gives us a third iteration of sons avenging slain fathers). I marveled at the fact that Jomar Tagatac as young Fortinbras really does only appear for about the last two minutes of the play, with no other roles, until I realized he is also the understudy for Hamlet, which is plenty to keep him busy.

That said, it's really nice to hear some of the less-famous speeches in all their Shakespearean fullness. Much of the joy of Hamlet is the beauty of the poetry, so although it doesn't necessarily enlarge on the story per se, it does increase the enjoyment of the telling.

The Production

As with most productions of Hamlet, the discussion starts with the casting of the title role. It's a huge role (in terms of the number of lines and time spent on stage). ACT went with a very experienced Shakespearean actor, John Douglas Thompson, last seen at ACT in Satchmo at the Waldorf. He's a bit old for "young Hamlet," but that's not an insurmountable obstacle. Indeed, by casting mature actors for the older generation [Gertrude (Domenique Lozano), Claudius/Ghost (Steven Anthony Jones), and Polonius (Dan Hiatt)], director Carey Perloff makes it at least plausible that Hamlet the son is at least pushing middle age, and his friend Horatio (Anthony Fusco) is of similar age.

Somewhat less plausible, however, are the castings of Hamlet's love interest, Ophelia (Rivka Borek), and his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Teddy Spencer and Vincent J. Randazzo, respectively). They all do terrific jobs, but there is no covering for the fact that their characters all seem much too young for the relationships they have with an older Hamlet. The friends aren't too worrisome, but the scenes between Hamlet and Ophelia just have a certain...uncomfortable aspect.

A few other notes on casting and performances. Hiatt as Polonius does a fine job. He's a really solid, reliable character actor who manages to make his character here credible without veering over into farce. All of the actors who are members of the ACT MFA program (Borek, Peter Fanone, Adrianna Mitchell, and Randazzo) blend extremely well into the cast, unlike some of their predecessors. I usually worry when I see MFA students in the cast, but this time I was very pleased with the results. On the downside, I had been looking forward to Jones' portrayal of Claudius, as he is one of the long-time stalwarts of the ACT company and I have many memories of him carrying shows over the years. Unfortunately, here he seemed a bit out of place, struggling for lines at times, and generally displaying little energy or fire in a role that really requires it. As a result, some of the energy that should exist between Hamlet and his uncle/stepfather is just missing, and though the words are there, it falls a little flat.

As for design, scenic designer David Israel Reynoso seems to have taken rather literally the lines about Denmark being a prison. It feels a bit like being in a really large, dreary Alcatraz prison. Within that setting, some of the choices seem a bit odd, such as the heavy plastic curtain behind which the ghost appears, or the various curtains and arrases the slide noisily in and out between scenes. One of the few fittings in the structure, a brass showerhead, seems oddly placed when we're in the throne room, though less so when the setting is one of the characters' bedrooms. It just seems an odd choice in such a sparse staging to have one very obvious object that is not itself important.

And my resident clothing historian tells me that the costumes (also by Reynoso) place the characters clearly in the late 1950s to early 1960s, which is fine for the setting, I guess, but there doesn't seem to be any actual reason to set the play then. Perhaps there is some large message to this timing that eludes me, but I get nothing from it.

Finally, there are the weapons. At times there are wooden "daggers" that seem like harmless sparring practice tools, and that's OK, I guess. But then later they pull out some "swords" that look like some weird cross between a metal pipe and a screwdriver. This seems rather inexplicable, as it doesn't seem in keeping with the period of the setting at all, unless I'm supposed to see them as improvised weapons like shivs that prisoners might construct. Otherwise, I don't quite get it.

The Bottom Line

All in all, it's a decent rendition of Hamlet. I expected a bit more from the experienced members of the cast. The chemistry between the characters is just not really there. Besides the aforementioned lack of fire between Claudius and Hamlet, I also don't see the friendship between Hamlet and Horatio. Both are so reserved around each other, they seem more like long-time coworkers than best friends. And similarly, I have trouble understanding the relationship between Hamlet and Laertes (Teagle F. Bougere), perhaps because they don't seem to understand it, either. Laertes' ire seems to ebb and flow very quickly, but it's hard to see him as being particularly incensed at Hamlet, versus just angry.

Producing such a well-known play sort of demands that you have a reason for doing it, a message that you're trying to get across. It's not really enough to just put on the play, say the words, and check it off on your bucket list. And that's what I feel like I'm seeing: an actor who always wanted to play Hamlet, and director who wanted to direct it, and yet neither seems to have a compelling message to put across with this production.

It's not bad, and parts are good. But I can't help feeling that it should have been much more.

The play runs for another week, through October 15th.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"Measure for Measure" at California Shakespeare Theatre

California Shakespeare Theatre photo by rr jones
Cal Shakes wraps up its season with a bit of Shakespeare, albeit one of the odder comedies, given that it sort of flaunts a lot of the conventions of the comedic genre: Measure for Measure. But on the heels of such strong productions earlier in the season, my expectations were quite high. I have to say this production was a bit of a let-down from the quality I've come to expect, but it was not without merit.

The Play

I call Measure odd for a comedy in part because it's quite dark, with characters condemned to death and relatively little of the lighthearted banter I associate with Shakespearean comedy. And even the "happy" ending with marriages is not quite the mega-happy outcome one might expect. Director Tyne Rafaelli's states in the program that she sees the play as being "essentially about a political regime change," which really is pushing it. Although the interim duke (Angelo) aspires to wield power, it reminds me more of when Mike Curb was California's Lieutenant Governor under Governor Jerry Brown (the first time around). Every time Brown would leave the state, Curb would issue orders as Acting Governor, which Brown would then countermand as soon as he returned.

This is much like the play, where Angelo rather runs amuck, though the actual Duke is disguised and watching the whole thing play out. Although Angelo is literally playing with matters of life and death, we know the Duke is going to unravel it all, so there is no real regime change here, just aspirations of power. The other themes she cites, though, justice versus mercy and love and (especially) forgiveness, are all quite clearly there, and (to me) much more important to the play.

Although the production makes some attempts to soften the edges of some of the more atavistic aspects of the play such as bartering a woman's chastity for the life of her brother, the choice of setting the action in a distinctly modern setting makes much of the action seem even less plausible than normal. This strikes me as a needless attempt to make a play feel more relevant and approachable to a modern audience. It's really quite clear how all of this pertains to contemporary life without the modern costumes and music and such.

The Production

I've already strayed into some of the aspects of the production, but now let's focus. The set design by Annie Smart is quite nice, though a little busy, requiring a fair amount of running up and down stairs that seemed gratuitous. And Cal Shakes seems to have a thing about sliding doors. It was better here than in some of their previous designs (I'm looking at you, Glass Menagerie), but still rather excessive.

But visually and audibly, the production clashes with its setting. In the absence of the Duke (Rowan Vickers), who wears a rather normal, modern suit, Angelo (David Graham Jones) and Escalus (Tristan Cunningham) and the Provost (Patty Gallagher) go quasi-Nazi drag in outfits that look like Scandinavian Airlines dressed its flight attendants at the Folsom Street Fair or something. It sort of works when we get to the various scenes of police brutality and such, but hardly in line with the strict piety that Angelo supposedly presents. Similarly, Isabella (Lindsay Rico) is dressed appropriately in a white shift, about to take her vows as a nun, but at the same time is searing black boots with clear heels that look most un-nunly, like she's about to hit the disco. And the music...even after reading sound designer Brandon Walcott's statement in the program, I can't fathom how the blasts of music were meant to advance my understanding. The early sounds were so jarring that I just forced myself to tune them out later.

And finally, the language. In this summer's OSF production of Off The Rails, an adaptation based on Measure for Measure, many of the best bits were the parts that were actually Shakespeare's language, the beauty of which was soothing and lovely, in spite of being set in the American west. But in this Cal Shakes rendition of the actual play, the poetry and majesty of the language seem to have been sacrificed to the modernization of the setting. I'm not clear whether it's the intention to deliver the lines this way, or whether the actors just aren't up to the challenge of the text, but most of the language comes across flat, almost stilted. And that's too bad, because one of the redeeming features of this rather troubling play is the beauty of the language behind much of it.

Bottom Line

As you can tell, I was disappointed. The strong, extremely professional productions of the first three plays of the season really set my expectations high, and this just didn't measure up to that. Although I liked the set and the lighting was effective, the rest of the design and direction just weren't of the same caliber, and the acting was OK, but not nearly at the level seen earlier in the year.

So it was definitely a disappointing end to the season. Overall, I thought the quality of the shows at Cal Shakes this year was terrific, much better than in past seasons. I hope the earlier shows are a better indication of what to expect in the upcoming year, because they have committed to some very challenging material. We'll have to wait until next summer to see how it turns out.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

"black odyssey" at California Shakespeare Theatre

Cal Shakes photo by Kevin Berne
I suppose it's pretty rare to see two wildly different productions, both based on the same story, so close together. On the other hand, the classic stories get retold and repurposed, so having seen The Odyssey at Ashland earlier in the summer, it was extra interesting to see Marcus Gardley's black odyssey this week at Cal Shakes.

I've been so impressed with the first two productions of the 2017 season at Cal Shakes, I was really looking forward to this one. And on top of that, I'd been quite disappointed in Eric Ting's direction of Othello last season, so I was intrigued to see what he would do this time.

The Play

Unlike the Ashland production, which was a pretty straight adaptation of the Homeric epic to the stage, Gardley takes a different path, adapting the well-known tale to tell a similar, but different, story of a man lost and found again. This time, Ulysses Lincoln (J. Alphonse Nicholson) is a contemporary U.S. soldier trying to find his way home from the wars in the Middle East, but he has angered the sea god, Paw Sidin (Aldo Billingslea), who is in turn in conflict with both his brother, Deus (Lamont Thompson), and Deus's daughter Aunt Tina (Margo Hall). Tina tries to protect her nephew Ulysses, while Paw Sidin wants to kill him, or at least keep him lost. But Ulysses wants to get home to Oakland, where he left his wife Nella P. (Omoze Idehenre) and unborn son Malachai (Michael Curry). Over the sixteen years it takes Ulysses to come home, Nella will lose some of her faith in him, tempted by a suitor who is really Paw Sidin.

Along the way, Ulysses faces the temptations you would expect, sirens, enchantresses, etc. But there is always another meaning. Because Ulysses is not just a soldier lost in the war, he is a black man who has lost his way, lost his faith in himself. So his odyssey is not just about coming home, but really the struggle to find himself and his place in history.

Adapted a bit for the local staging, the script is full of references to local landmarks and icons. This is very much a show about here. At times the local color seems a bit overdone, trying to be just a bit too cute. But overall it does a good job of grounding the play in the here and now, especially because the content, being an odyssey, is so unmoored from time and place. Gardley handles that part quite masterfully: it is remarkably clear what is happening, and though the connection to the original epic is a helpful reference for those who know it, the story as told stands on its own as well. It's a remarkable and powerful piece of writing.

The Production

In addition to some localization of the story to the east bay, Cal Shakes has provided two composer/directors, Linda Tillery and Molly Holm, who weave African-American spiritual songs into the tapestry of the play, providing a strong undercurrent of culture drawing Ulysses along his path. Along with the interventions of Aunt Tina, who drops her immortality to aid her nephew, Ulysses manages to eventually move along to his proper path, meeting important guides along the way.

I haven't even gotten to mention the rest of the ensemble players, Safiya Fredericks, Michael Gene Sullivan, and Dawn L. Troupe. The whole group is extremely strong, both as character actors and musicians. In fact, the entire cast is one of the most solid, balanced groups of its size I've seen locally in quite a while.

The design of the production is good, though not spectacular. Michael Locher's scenic design seems rather familiar, like I've seen it or things rather similar on this stage before. [Can I say I'm getting a little tired of the framed doors that move on and off stage? It was a useful idea, but is getting a bit overdone.] And the staging doesn't really take full advantage of the expanse of the stage. The action is largely focused in the middle of the stage, which makes the whole thing feel just a bit less, well, epic.

But truly, it's a high-quality production, masterfully acted by all. If I have to call out the truly outstanding performances, I would probably point to Hall, whose physical presence can dominate scenes in multiple ways, and Billingslea, who ranges from comical to threatening with almost no visible transition, really embodying the vagaries of a powerful but rather immature god.

Bottom Line

I liked this show a lot. I wish I'd been able to see it earlier in the run so that I could perhaps direct more people to see it. On the other hand, most of the run has been completely sold out, including the remaining shows this weekend before it closes. And that is well deserved. This is the third straight excellent production in the 2017 season for Cal Shakes. And I am pleased to say I thought Ting's direction of this one was spot-on.

In his role as Artistic Director, Ting has clearly made a commitment to improving the diversity on the Cal Shakes stage. This is the second consecutive show with a full cast of people of color. And this one (though Glass Menagerie, too, in a different way) really shows the power of adapting a classic tale to present the story of a different culture. One might initially think a Greek epic would be an odd vehicle for a story of a modern African-American in search of his personal and racial identity. But Gardley's adaptation of Homer is really strong here. It's clever, often funny, decidedly poignant, musical, and impactful. The crowd seemed almost reluctant to leave, and the discussions I overheard on the way out were varied but almost all focused on aspects of the play. And that's one mark of a successful production.

Good stuff. Good luck getting a ticket to one of the last two shows!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Reading: "The Niceties" at Shotgun Players

For a variety of personal reasons, I was not in the mood to go to the theater this week, but by the same token, it was a chance to see friends and be in the warm embrace of a show, so I decided to go to the latest installment of the Shotgun Champagne Reading Series.

As usual, the cast had very limited time to prepare. This time, three days of rehearsal instead of the usual four. Luckily, there are only two actors in the play, and it has only one set, so it's not too complex in that regard. The material, however, is complicated, so they had plenty to work on.

The Play

The reading this time around was The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess, whose work I was not familiar with. The scene is a professor's office, with an undergraduate student coming to office hours to discuss a draft of a History paper. Sounds thrilling, no?

We start with some nitpicking about punctuation and grammar and parallelism and some little cutesy bits about words we like and why, etc. But then the discussion turns to the substance of the paper, and things rather quickly unravel. The professor takes issue with the thesis of the paper and the types of evidence used to support it, and things spiral into a discussion of racism and privilege and micro-aggressions and the whole gamut of topics that, depending on your perspective, fall under either the category of Social Justice or Political Correctness.

Ultimately the topic under discussion, though, is power: who has it, why, and how do they exercise it? In the give and take of the struggle over the paper, the legitimacy of academia, the university, tenure, professorship, grading, and academic disciplines all come under the microscope. So do personal goals and security, ethics, and basic questions about the purposes of life, education, and career. It's a big grab.

So clearly this play is ambitious. In many ways it's up to the task. There are some very clever passages and exchanges on both sides of the dialogue. But it's also, particularly in the first act, rather long, repetitive, and more of a rant than a discussion. The student, particularly, seems to have a lot of awfully well-rehearsed responses to just about everything the professor says, making it all feel like kind of a set-up, which is quite at odds with the way the relationship presents at the outset. If the student is so tuned in to all the issues as we come to see, then it's rather implausible that she stumbled into the situation in the first place.

But these are matters that could be addressed with some solid editing.

The Reading

First off, terrific casting. Zoe, the student, is played by Leigh Rondon-Davis, who passes easily for an undergrad, though she kind of slipped out of her teenage naivete rather too soon and too rapidly. With more time to rehearse, I think Zoe could have modulated her tone a bit more at times, adding to the give-and-take of the dialogue. Veteran actor Anne Darragh portrayed Janine, the professor. with a mixture of studied disdain, genuine befuddlement, and exasperation. She also seemed a little unclear which character she ultimately wanted to play, as her early presentation is a little dotty, suggesting that either she is already uncomfortable about the encounter (which doesn't seem right for the script) or not quite the academic powerhouse she later claims to be. Again, that just seems to be a product of short rehearsal schedules, but it makes it a little tougher for the audience to get its bearings in the melee.

Under the direction of Lisa Marie Rollins, the overall play unfolds at a good clip. The small office on the mostly open stage feels constraining, forcing the characters to persist; there's nowhere else to go. So when they do get up to move, it's pretty effective. At over two hours in length (with an intermission), the play feels a little long, but again, that's more about the length of some of the rants, rather than the setting. The office just always seems plausible.

Bottom Line

I can't quite decide whether the play is just trying to do too much all at once, or whether a more practiced, nuanced production would be able to pick out the different threads and make them more discernible. The dialogue certainly hits on lots of timely issues, but in fact tries just a bit to hard to pin down the exact moment in time, which doesn't seem necessary. It really doesn't matter whether it's 2016 or 2017, for example, but a few bits of dialogue seem to rather gratuitously pin it on one side of the 2016 presidential election.

There are also just a few too many shortcuts taken in the script. Janine, particularly, seems to let several really questionable points just go by with assertions by Zoe that just seem entirely unfounded, and that doesn't do justice to either side. A play that is essentially a dialogue like this needs to be scrupulously fair to both parties, and it feels like this script needs a bit more work in that regard.

But ultimately it's a truly interesting effort, and probably merits more work and another look. I'm sure a lot of the elements of the play would be more clearly portrayed in a full production, and some work on the script could make it truly excellent, rather than merely provocative.

But as usual, a really interesting evening from a Shotgun staged reading.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Henry IV" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
OK, last shows of the year at Ashland. This year we managed to see all 11 productions, and the last two were parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV. Although the two parts have different directors, they have largely the same cast, with many holding over from last season's Richard II, which is the "prequel" in the history series. And I believe many will carry over to next season's production of Henry V. And let me just say this is a good thing. The plays are much easier to follow when you have some character continuity.

I'm going to go against my usual protocol and cover both parts of Henry IV in one post. Partly that's because I'm a week late writing about them, and partly it's that I'm doing so via bad hotel wifi in Ecuador. So we'll see what we've got.

The Plays

As noted, we pick up the history from the end of  Richard II, where Henry Bollingbrook deposes Richard and becomes the fourth King Henry (Jeffrey King). We now pick up with a lot of dissent in the kingdom. Many of those who supported and assisted Henry in his return, notably the Duke of Northumberland and his daughter (normally a son, but OSF cast a woman in the role, so changed all the pronouns and such) Henry Percy (Alejandra Escalante), known as "Hotspur." Hotspur is a hot-headed hotshot who feels quite put out about Henry and his behavior. And there is a particular rivalry with Henry's dissolute eldest son, Hal (Daniel Jose Molina), who spends most of his time hanging around with the clownish knight Sir Jack Falstaff (normally C. Valmont Thomas, but we saw his understudy, Tyrone Wilson, who is normally Northumberland--got all that?) and a band of, let's say, underachievers.

When push comes to shove and Northumberland and Hotspur join forces with the Scots and some Welsh, we essentially have a little civil war in which Hal proves himself to be quite worthy and Hotspur quite dead. (Sorry...I don't worry about spoilers in a history play!) That's the end of part 1.

Part 2 picks up a bit later, with Henry unwell, and still quite a bit of unrest. Hal is backsliding a bit on his promises of better behavior. Falstaff is skimming funds while supposedly helping raise an army. Stuff gets real. Eventually Henry dies, and Hal is crowned the fifth King Henry, but disavows Falstaff and his cronies.

The Productions

Two things to note: First, we saw the understudy play the major role of Falstaff. I thought he was excellent, and fit into the play very well. But I can't say how it works when the regular Falstaff is present (although C. Valmont Thomas is an excellent, experienced OSF regular company member, so I assume he's terrific). So if you go see these plays, they will be different, probably.

Second, Hotspur and a number of other nominally male roles were cast as women this season. Some people find this distasteful, and it does mess with the language a little, as Ashland changes pronouns and such. But I thought it worked really well, in part because it makes it so much easier to keep track of who is who in a rather large and shifting cast of characters.

But there is a lot to like in these productions. First, there is Daniel Jose Molina. We saw him first a number of years ago as Romeo, and he was tremendous. He has an uncanny ability to speak Shakespearean language and make it sound extremely natural. Also, it helps that he is young enough to be a convincing Prince Hal. And the excellent Alejandra Escalante (who was Juliet opposite his Romeo) makes a terrific foil as Hotspur, again young and impulsive, very convincingly so.

Similarly, Jeffrey King cuts an impressive figure as Henry. He's a physically imposing actor, and with the play being staged in the tiny Thomas theater with seating on all sides, you get right up there and feel the impact he has. Similarly, Falstaff's clowning is wonderful from up close. The last time I saw this produced at Ashland, it was in the Elizabethan theater, so everything had to be bigger. Very different portrayal here, much more nuanced.

Bottom Line

It's just riveting. The plays run close to three hours each, but it's never dull. The action is crisp, the scene changes are smooth, and the entire acting cast is effective. Some people might not care for the relatively contemporary styling of the designs--it looks and feels like a late-20th century scenario, but it works for me. The roles are pretty timeless (and timely).

I strongly urge people to go see these productions. The quality is terrific, and will be a great basis for next season's better-known play, Henry V.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"Hannah and the Dread Gazebo" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
One last trip to Ashland (for this season) last weekend, and we started off with a world premiere that I'd been kind of looking forward to, if only for the cool name: Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, by Jiehae Park. This was one of those cases where I barely knew anything about the play going in, but I have great faith in the crewe up in Ashland to produce shows that are worth seeing.

I have to say that overall, even though this play was pretty enjoyable and interesting, even a day or two later I didn't remember a whole lot about it. And the memories that I do have are more about aspects of the production than about the play, which is kind of unusual. Let's see where this goes....

The Play

The eponymous Hannah (Cindy Im) is a Korean-American doctor, about to take the certification exam to become a neurologist. Her parents have returned to Korea to be with her grandmother. Out of the blue, Hannah receives a package from the grandmother, with a letter in Korean (that Hannah cannot read, and no one will tell her what it says) and a bottle containing a small rock. Obviously it means something. Hannah tries to call her parents, but can't get through, and when she finally reaches her father (Paul Juhn), he is evasive and makes and excuse to end the call.

So Hannah decides she needs to go to Korea. Arriving at her parents' home, she can hear the TV, but no one answers. Finally she gets her mother (Amy Kim Waschke) to answer the door. It's all kind of comic, but kind of weird. It turns out that Grandma, who had advanced Alzheimer's, has jumped off the top of her senior housing facility, and is presumed dead. Presumed, because she landed in the DMZ that separates North and South Korea, and no one can get permission to go in and find her. The DMZ is supposedly a wild place, crawling with wild animals. Which leads us to a creation myth about Korea, involving a Bear and a Tiger who want to become human, but only one of them can endure the ordeal. I'm unclear why this is the founding myth of Korea.

So we have a mystery to solve (or several, really). What has/will become of Grandma? What is the meaning of this rock? Why does Mom want a gazebo, when they live in an apartment?

Ultimately, the play is about family and home, but largely viewed through the lens of separation: family living on separate continents, living separated from their culture, living in a country separated from itself, family members unable to communicate their feelings, etc. The questions raised are fairly interesting, but I'm not sure beyond giving us a glimpse of the situation the play offers much in the way of answers or even directions toward answers. The writing and characters are nice, but in the end, not very satisfying.

The Production

As one expects at Ashland, the acting is terrific, and the designs are clever and well-executed. The staging is pretty minimal, so the burden is on the actors to set the scenes with the help of light and sound. That's all pretty effective: we enjoyed the show and appreciated the quality of the production.

I guess, as noted above, that what felt missing was a sense of purpose and direction. We expect that Grandma's missive to Hannah has great meaning, and that going to Korea will reveal that over the course of the play. But not so much. Even at the end, Hannah and her family are still wrangling with that question. And it's not clear to me that this sojourn through Korea ultimately has much impact on Hannah's life. But we do get a song at the end (pictured above), so there's that.

The production obviously aims to take the edge off what could be a fairly dreary family drama (hey, Grandma jumps off a building, and depressed Mom might not be far behind!) by playing up the comical situations. Which is fine: humor is a good way to help a serious message come through. But truly, I don't know what the message was supposed to be. It feels as if directory Chay Yew was so busy trying to make us feel good about the situation and distract us with zany character portrayals that he forgot to make sure there was a clear message at the end.

Bottom Line

It's a high-quality production, well designed, acted, and produced. I just wish the play had a bit more to offer in the way of actual story, as opposed to anecdotes and scenes. I'm sure Park had something in mind, but what it was, I really can't say.

So it's worth seeing, but falls a bit short of being anything really memorable.

"The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players photo by Jessica Palopoli
This is the one I've been waiting for. I first learned of the existence of Madeleine George's play The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence when I saw it announced as a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Just the title and a little blurb about the subject matter, combined with my having seen and liked Shotgun's production of her earlier work, Precious Little, convinced me this was something I needed to read and see. Reading the script, and then seeing it read at Shotgun in the summer of 2015 (back before I wrote this blog), I knew I wanted to see it on stage very much. This is a play that is very much to my taste!

So I will freely admit to not being very objective here. I've been advocating for this play for quite some time, and my wife and I are production sponsors, so take this with however much salt you need to.

The Play

The play starts with Eliza (Sarah Mitchell), a former IBM researcher and now artificial-intelligence entrepreneur, training her latest "project," (Brady Morales Woolery) a sort of descendant of IBM's Watson (complete with references to Watson's participation in "Jeopardy"). This Watson seems like the perfect companion, curious, helpful, and able to retrieve knowledge with ease. We learn that Eliza has grand plans for this technology as a personal assistant and agent of social change.

Eliza also has an ex-husband, Frank Merrick (Mick Mize), who is fairly obsessed with Eliza. He's running for local office on a platform of "fed-uppedness," but at the moment he's having computer troubles, and has summoned the Dweeb Team to save him. Luckily, his "dweeb" is Josh Watson: competent, trustworthy, and dedicated to solving the problem. Frank decides he can use Josh for mor than computer help, and enlists him to get info on Eliza's activities.

But never fear, we need to look through time a bit, so next we're in Victorian England, where Mrs. Eliza Merrick is looking to engage Mr. Sherlock Holmes to help her understand a series of odd incidents involving her husband, the inventor. Holmes being out when she arrives, she meets instead with Dr. John Watson, who is of course competent, trustworthy, and dedicated to helping her solve the mystery.

We also meet Mr. Thomas Watson, the able assistant of Alexander Graham Bell, discussing the invention of the telephone for a radio interview.

The play weaves an intricate web of characters and traits among the Watsons, Merricks, and Elizas through the ages. We get discussions of the nature of love and attraction, training and loyalty, assistance and obsession. We investigate throughout the nature of various human relationships: what do we need, what do we want, and what are the costs? It's telling that George has subtitled this "a play about others."

I quite enjoy the way the narratives weave through time, enabling us to see the parallels and themes, and sometimes providing rather humorous chances for us to compare situations. There are some wonderfully humorous bits, as well as some touching and even shocking ones. But it is altogether a very human play, with a knack for very realistic dialogue.

The Production

The first thing you see upon entering is Nina Ball's amazing set design. I had always pictured the play being set on a very minimal stage with locations defined by lighting and maybe some costuming, but this is quite different from that! It's at once kind of Victorian, with certain distinctly period touches, but surrounded by fancy LED lights that give a very modern, computer-age feel. And though the set is not large, it has multiple clever transformations that can make it serve as a number of locations. Quite brilliant.

And I also need to mention Ray Oppenheimer's lighting (because it's still important, even critical, with this set) and Cliff Caruthers's sound and music. They both do a great job of helping to place the actors in their ever-shifting environments. There are some lovely little touches like a little waft of Billy Joel music in the background at a coffee shop (Billy Joel is, oddly, a minor plot point later). And Valera Coble's costumes really work--the Victorian pieces are lovely, and Merrick literally transitions from one time to another with a relatively minor change of costume and accent. It's pretty seamless, but it reflects the skills of both the designers and the actors that it works so well. And there's this train....

But none of this would matter if the actors weren't up to the task, and they all prove they are. Mitchell and Mize particularly benefit from having participated in the 2015 reading, so they have had plenty of time to let the roles insinuate themselves into them. The comfort shows, and both of those actors have managed to find nuances in the script that I had missed, even with multiple readings. Mitchell's Eliza manages to be both driven and logical and yet also entirely subject to her heart's desires, try though she might to invalidate them logically. And Mize finds all kinds of corners in his Merricks: pugnacious, maniacal, and yet oddly self-reflective and even tender. Although Woolery doesn't have the depth of experience with the role that his castmates have, he also has a rather more difficult part, as all four of his Watsons are quite distinct characters, yet with an underlying Watson essence that he manages to carry through. It's a rich set of characters in George's script, and the cast does a terrific job of bringing them all home.

I've had the pleasure of getting to see a rehearsal run-through, then a preview performance, and then the opening night for this show, and it's been a treat to see how the designs have come together and the cast have found their comfort zones. I didn't want to write about the show until I'd seen a "real" performance, but it's fascinating to see how even small changes to the staging or the blocking or the pacing or emphasis of the dialogue can really boost a scene and perhaps change the perception of the whole play. It's the magic of theater, and it's fun to watch!

Bottom Line

Well, you know I'm going to say I like it. But in the midst of a very heavy, difficult season at Shotgun, this play provides a fairly light and enjoyable night out, while still providing a play that is thought-provoking and timely, but also very personal. In an age (today, or the Victorian) where modernism and technology can sometimes seem like tempting substitutes for human interaction, George illustrates the trade-offs and pitfalls that may ensue from following those temptations. What is the perfect partner like? And what if they turn out to be too perfect? Or maybe what seems perfect isn't really good for you at all.

Ultimately, the play really is about others: how we value them, how we choose the ones in various phases of our lives, and why that matters. It's a terrific exploration of who we are and who we might become, and fun, too.

The play runs through September 3, though I suspect that demand will generate an extension to September 10. So gather your friends and go see it!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

"Assassins" at Berkeley Playhouse Teen Stage

This will be kind of a quick item, but I felt I should write something. This was my first exposure to a Teen Stage production at Berkeley Playhouse, but I went because my daughter was in the cast. So I won't even pretend to write some kind of objective review of the show. But I would like to make some comments about the program itself.

The Program

Berkeley Playhouse is rather unique in my experience, in that they have both a professional theater program that does a full season of musicals at the Julia Morgan Theater, but also do productions for kids and teens, where they perform at the same venue. So unlike classes where they finish with a little performance for friends and family, this is actually open to the public and sells tickets.

One of the benefits of that is that they also have a professional director and designers and crew, so they've got costumes, lights, and sound on a stage with a real set. It's definitely a real theatrical performance experience.

For this summer program, the kids jumped right in, and for about 5 weeks studied the songs and music, auditioned for parts, learned their parts and choreography, and generally had a genuine, if condensed, experience putting on a play.

I was also impressed at the way they cast the roles. Since they had about twice as many actors as they had major roles, they double cast everything. So each actor has a meaningful speaking and singing part in one of the casts, and then serves in the ensemble for the other cast. So the program ends with four performances, with each cast leading twice and backing the other twice. That's a great way to make sure every actor gets a "real" part, and they all get the full experience.

The Production

I had very little in the way of expectations. I've seen a fair number of youth theater productions, and you never quite know what you're going to get. It's highly dependent on who signs up, how the talent matches the given show, etc.

Overall I would say I was quite pleasantly surprised. The actors knew their parts and nearly all delivered them strongly. Also, they were all wearing microphones, so even the weaker singers and speakers were pretty audible, though the sound techs weren't always quite on time turning on the mics. But really, given the length of the rehearsal schedule and the range of experience represented, the opening show this afternoon was quite credible. We could follow the story, track the characters, and all that. And considering that Assassins is not the most comprehensible show to start with, any degree of coherence in this sort of production is pretty impressive.

I give full credit to director Matthew Hannon for putting together a solid program. It was clearly a fun process for the actors, and the end result is something they can all be proud of.

And, if you're interested, you can see the show tomorrow night, August 11th, at either 4:00 or 7:00. It's a fun way to support youth theater!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"La Cage Aux Folles" at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli
Here's a nice change of pace: we saw this show rather early in its run, so you have plenty of time to go see it!

The last show of the SF Playhouse season was the fabulous musical, La Cage Aux Folles, which I don't think I had ever seen on stage before. It's odd, because I definitely know some of the songs, and of course I'm old enough to remember when the subject matter was kind of titillating, if not downright scandalous. Now, I have to say that a musical about gay parents and drag queens is pretty mainstream, especially in San Francisco.

The Play

Georges (Ryan Drummond) and Albin (John Treacy Egan) are an old married couple in St. Tropez with a son, Jean-Michel (Nikita Burshteyn), who wants to marry Anne (Samantha Rose). Pretty typical stuff, but for the fact that George is the MC at the nightclub downstairs from their house (the eponymous "La Cage aux Folles"), where Albin is the star performer "ZaZa" in a drag show. And it's time for the families of the young lovers to meet, and Anne's father, Edouard Dindon (Christopher Reber), is one of the leading "traditional family values" politicians in the country. He's literally been campaigning to shut down clubs such as the one downstairs.

So now Jean-Michel must navigate the territory of having his future in-laws visit for a day without offending them and causing them to call off the wedding. What ensues is a pretty straightforward family drama, about matters like what really makes a family: biology or behavior, and just how far a parent will go to accommodate a child.

Throw in some big production numbers populated by drag queens, ballads by ZaZa, and some costume hi-jinks, and you've got La Cage.

The Production

I will say up front that I thought the production was good. The acting is quite good, and the singing is excellent (particularly Egan as Albin/ZaZa). I liked Abra Berman's costume designs quite well (particularly Georges' vest, pictured above). The dancing is pretty good, considering they are rather constrained by the set design--there isn't a lot of space, so they take advantage of some aisles in the audience, which has mixed results. I kind of expected a bit more polish in the drag show, since there is no shortage of strong drag performers in the city. But ultimately I decided they were OK, and it actually wasn't that important to the show.

They've added a little runway extension, partway up the center aisle (which is tricky, because the aisle isn't straight to start with). It's an appropriate addition for the club scenes, though people near the front have to turn around to see, which is difficult. This is definitely a show to see from farther back. That would also help with one other issue: The main set that represents the interior of Georges and Albin's home is a couple of feet above the stage (in part so they can rotate the stage and have the front steps right outside the door, which is nice). But we can see under the floor, where they have tried to put a few stage lights as decoration, but really, it's just a distracting, empty space, and again it really affects people in the front rows.

So in that sense, Jacquelyn Scott's set design really isn't up to the standards I expect from SF Playhouse. And probably the most obvious solution to the distracting void under the floor would be to play up the flamboyant decorations of the interior, which really seemed quite tame. This was not the time for minimal set decoration! Way too restrained, particularly when we have the vivid personalities of Albin and the butler/maid, Jacob (Brian Yates Sharber). They would not live in a house as sedate as the one here. The characters even talk about how over-the-top the place is, though visually it doesn't match up.

But ultimately, that doesn't detract from the fine performances. I have to give kudos particularly to Egan, who manages to handle brilliantly the awkwardness of an effeminate man trying to not look feminine. Throughout the show, really, both as ZaZa and as various renditions of Albin, it's terribly tempting for that character to just take flight and start chewing the scenery. But showing consistent restraint here, Egan manages to make Albin a relatable character instead of a caricature, which is really the point. SF Playhouse insists their shows are all about us developing our empathy, and by making Albin so real, it's possible for even this old, straight guy to find a lot of common ground. Kudos to Egan and to director Bill English for making that work.

One other aspect of the staging I have to mention, because it was a nice touch: Every time the stage rotates, you get a little peek into a small alcove between the two sets, and there is always some kind of little vignette for you there, so look for it.

Bottom Line

I was thinking at the intermission that the show hadn't held up in the nearly 35 years since it first appeared, that the things that made it so novel in the 1980s just weren't very timely anymore, at least in San Francisco. But the second act turned me around completely. The very human, universal story about parents and their children (and pious hypocrites, of course!) warmed my heart in ways that a musical rarely does.

So I'm willing to overlook some of the other little shortcomings and focus on the strong acting and messaging. This is a much better show than I was expecting, and it still has a month to go in its run (through September 16). So go and have a good time!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

"Disney's Beauty and the Beast" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
Up front: I actually quite like the animated Disney movie of Beauty and the Beast. It is probably my favorite of the "Disney princess" movies, largely because (spoiler alert...I just assume everybody knows this story) Belle falls in love with the beast's library before she falls in love with him. She's my kind of princess.

But I have to say I had some real reservations about seeing the stage musical version at Ashland, mostly because I don't think the material is really up to the standards they would normally uphold. There is nothing wrong with it per se, but there are certainly meatier musicals to choose from.

The Play

I've already mentioned that you know this story. Bookish Belle (Jennie Greenberry; a perennial favorite for her lovely singing voice) is a bit of a misfit in her town, the daughter of an eccentric inventor (Michael J. Hume). But she has caught the eye of the town narcissist, Gaston (James Ryen), though she wants nothing to do with him. Father gets lost in the woods, stumbles into the enchanted castle where a prince (Jordan Barbour) has been turned into a hideous beast as punishment for being a beastly person. Belle goes to find him, exchanges herself for her father's freedom, meaning she's a prisoner in the beast's castle forever.

Oh, yeah, there's an out. The beast's curse ends if he falls in love and someone falls in love with him, too. Not that I'm foreshadowing anything. There's a time limit, because of an enchanted rose that will eventually lose all its petals, and if the love thing hasn't been achieved, then the prince is a beast forever.

You know where all this is going, if only because I spoiled it for you earlier. It's a Disney princess story. Go with it.

The Production

Since I haven't seen this play on stage before, I don't know how much of it is specific to the OSF production and the direction of Eric Tucker. I guess it's safe to say that most productions of this play don't take place on an outdoor, Elizabethan stage, so there are distinct limits to what they can do with sets and decorations. There are definitely props and set pieces and lots of costumes, and they do a pretty good job with that.

There is also a sort of narrative frame that recurs several times, as Babette (Robin Goodrin Nordli) tells the back story, once quite thoroughly, and subsequently in quite abbreviated forms. That gives a bit more depth to the story and characters.

I also like that they didn't make the Beast a big, fuzzy, bear-like thing as in the movie (though they play with that image in the back story). This beast, as you can see in the photo, is pretty hideous, not at all cuddly, even when dressed up. He has a hump and nasty claws and horns and all that. Quite beastly. I like that better. Make your beasts beastly.

All the other Enchanted Objects in the castle are pretty much what you expect from the Disney story: a teapot and chipped cup, a candelabra, a clock, a mirror, and so on. Pretty much all the lines and songs you expect. Really, there are no surprises, because hey, this is Disney's Beauty and the Beast. I'm actually a little surprised they were able to deviate as much as they did at times.

Bottom Line

I probably would have skipped this show, but it fit with our overall schedule to see all the plays at the festival this year, and as I noted, I do like the movie. All told, I think I like it better as an animated film, but this rendition was fine.

But of course, I am not the target audience. I have to say the audience for the Saturday evening show we saw was full, and quite noticeably younger than the average OSF audience, even if you don't count the many small children. Clearly, OSF scheduled this show to appeal to families with young children, and it worked. The players got a huge ovation at the end. Although some of the children I saw did get a bit fidgety (it's a 2.5-hour show, with an intermission), none seemed clearly bored, and none seemed bothered by the fact that it's not Exactly Like the Movie they've seen countless times.

I'm generally not particularly in favor of pandering to a particular audience, but I'm also aware that attracting younger audiences (both the children and their parents) is an important goal of all theaters. If OSF can attract young families by including a Disney musical now and then, I guess that's OK. This was certainly more family-friendly than last year's Great Expectations, for example.

So, on that level, it worked, it was well-done and well-received, so it's hard to be critical. Bring on the youth!

Monday, August 7, 2017

"Off the Rails" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
One of the great things about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (and there are a lot of great things about it) is that they have a lot of resources. With their huge audience and wealthy patrons, they are able to not only produce 11 high-quality shows every year, but also develop a fair amount of new work as well. Some of it is commissioned, like their "American Revolutions" series of plays. And some is just that they are able to work with a lot of artists, provide some guidance, and maybe eventually produce one of their plays.

That's pretty much the story of Off the Rails, which started as an offshoot of some work on Indian boarding schools by a group called "Native Voices." This inspired Randy Reinholz (a leader of that group) to try setting a version of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in such a boarding school. Based on some feedback from OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch (who directs this production), Reinholz decided to "go for it" and make the play his own. Although it maintains some of the structure, dialogue, and language of the Shakespeare play, it has morphed into a truly original work with music, heart, and culture that is very much American and Native American.

The Play

The plot outline will seem familiar to any who know Measure for Measure. Our two main setting are a saloon in Genoa, Nebraska, and a nearby Indian boarding school in the late 1880s. The staff at the saloon is getting ready to audition for Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Meanwhile, the mayor of the town (David Kelly) has gone off "hunting" (actually negotiating  for the railroad to come through town), leaving Angelo (Barret O'Brien), the head of the boarding school in charge in his absence. The school master is extremely strict and pious, so when he learns that one of the students, Momaday (Shaun Taylor-Corbett), has gotten his local Irish orphan girlfriend Caitlin (Truett Felt) pregnant, he imprisons Momaday and orders that he be hanged.

So they send for Momaday's sister, Isabel (Lily Gladstone), to help solve the problem. Angelo agrees to free Momaday if Isabel will sleep with him. She refuses, but the gang at the saloon comes up with a clever, Shakespearean plot to substitute one of the dancers from the saloon, Mariana (Nancy Rodriguez), in the dark for Isabel. Because of course, Mariana was betrothed to Angelo before he abandoned her, etc. You can see where this is headed.

Add in subplots with the black Sheriff (Steven Sapp, and yes, this is a conscious nod to Mel Brooks and "Blazing Saddles") and the "close friendship" of the black cowboy (Cedric Lamar) and Alexie, the chief's son (Roman Zaragoza), and you've got plenty to think about.

The writing is really quite good, and manages to blend the bits of Shakespearean text quite seamlessly into the more modern setting. It works pleasantly well.

The Production

This is a world premiere, although it was presented in somewhat different form by Native Voices in 2014-2015. It definitely has a freshness to it, but seems much more polished than some of the new shows OSF has presented in recent years. That probably reflects the maturity of the work, at least in part. Although this is its first full production in this form it has clearly been in the works for a long time and has received much work and attention. It shows.

The production is also quite attractive: the costumes are bright and colorful, the music cheery, and the whole production remarkably upbeat, considering that one of the main characters is counting down his final hours under a death sentence. There is good humor, but it balances the great evil that we discern both in the cruelty of the boarding school itself and the hypocrisy of Angelo, who we learn has been lining his own pockets with funds from the school while literally starving the students. It might feel a little heavy-handed if it weren't all so plausible.

And I haven't even mentioned the comic relief supplied by the heavy-drinking bartender (Stephen Michael Spencer) or some of the other bits of subplot. It's quite complex for something so new, but it works. I should also mention the Grandfather (Brent Florendo), who visits Momaday and Isabel. The script indicates that this role should be cast with a local native American, providing some local flavor to the generalized production. So although the story is set in Pawnee land in Nebraska, Florendo brings a bit of Northwest native culture to the production. All told, I believe there were sever actors in the cast who are native American, including several from Native Voices.

Summing Up

Off the Rails was a worthy inclusion in the season. It picked up the second half of the season (we actually saw the final preview before official opening) where Mojada had the first half. Both are modern adaptations of classic, well-known stories that do a good job of breathing contemporary significance into an age-old story. Both also bring both humorous and tragic elements that elucidate the modern cultural conflicts that echo situations from history.

And probably most importantly, both shows provide some fresh, high-quality new material to the festival, which serves to remind festival goers that we can both enjoy and revere the classic material while also using the old as springboards to new and timely stories that can also include voices not traditionally associated with the American stage. It's really great that OSF is both willing and able to provide a share of the stage to some less-heard voices and their stories.

Off the Rails runs through the end of October, so it's a great excuse to take a trip up to Ashland this fall. Although the outdoor stage closes in mid-October, the indoor theaters run all the way to the end of that month, so there is plenty to see. This one is well worth the time.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

"An Octoroon" at Berkeley Rep

Berkeley Rep photo by Kevin Berne
The last show of the season for Berkeley Rep this year was the west coast premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play An Octoroon, which is a really interesting, very different sort of show. Jacobs-Jenkins is a hot property among young (he's only 32) playwrights, having won an Obie award for Best New Play, been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and winning a Macarthur Foundation "Genius" award. So clearly there are high expectations that accompany any of his plays.

The Play

On one level, An Octoroon is sort of an adaptation of a 19th-century melodrama by Dion Boucicault called The Octoroon, which was itself adapted from a novel by Thomas Mayne Reid called The Quadroon. All of these works are affirmatively anti-slavery pieces, with the titles referring to persons of mixed race, designating the proportion of their ancestry that was black. Melodrama was quite formulaic in its structure and style of performance, so some of this new play is an attempt to recreate that sense of theater.

At the same time, however, the play adds a layer of meta-theatrical analysis, as the characters "BJJ" (Lance Gardner) and "Playwright" (Ray Porter) both step into roles in the melodrama, with BJJ donning whiteface makeup to portray "George" in the story, and Playwright going bright red to portray an Indian. So we see early on that there will be nothing subtle about race in this production (although looks can be deceiving).

The play begins with a prologue in a dressing room, preparing for the melodrama. BJJ and the Playwright both prepare and trade jabs at one another, each both claiming and disclaiming the play we are about to see. It's a pretty interesting, if unsettling, beginning.

Next we launch into a couple of fairly straightforward renditions of the acts of the melodrama as it unfolds. By the fourth act, however, BJJ/George interrupts, quite thoroughly breaking down the fourth wall to make some points about slavery and lynching. After which the play resumes, but with a bit more self-awareness, and some winks and nods to the audience. By the fifth act, we are back in full immersion until we get some surprises.

The stage and casting directions specify that the male roles are to be played by certain races, but then performed in white-, red-, or blackface makeup. The female roles are all cast in accordance with the race of the characters portrayed. So all three slave women are played by black actors (though they behave in some wildly anachronistic ways at times).

In general, I would say the first part of the melodrama goes on a bit too long. The play as a whole ran well over three hours, with an intermission, but we'd gone almost two hours before the break. That could be cut down some without losing much of the play. It's hard to recommend cuts, because ultimately it's all interesting. But clearly some of the audience gets bored or restless in the long first act, and not all the seats were still filled after intermission. It's unfortunate to lose a chunk of the audience simple because the play is overly long.

The Production

With the exception of my earlier comments about the length of the show, I felt nearly everything was excellent. The casting was terrific. I have often enjoyed the work of Lance Gardner in recent years, but this was far and away his strongest overall effort. His is the focal character almost throughout, and he carried the role extremely well. But the supporting cast was strong as well. Porter's playwright and the almost silent Assistant (Amir Talai) really make the prologue sing. Talai really plays up the blackface roles later in the show. And the three slaves (Afi Bijou, Jasmine Bracey, and Afua Busia) had a particularly good chemistry and really aced their parts in the last act--totally convincing.

The set design by Arnulfo Maldonado was outstanding: minimal at times, but intricate and convincing (especially with the lighting from Jiyoun Chang). The "gotchas" of the last act could not have worked nearly as well without the work of the designers and techs.

Really, it all comes together and provides an extremely thought-provoking and yet entertaining show. Just about every time you find yourself getting caught up in the story, Jacobs-Jenkins pulls you back and makes you think about why it's working on you, even when he's told you what he's going to do and why. It's really quite remarkable.

Bottom Line

Sadly, this was yet another case of me seeing the show very late in the run, and then not getting around to blogging about it until after the show had closed. This was definitely the most intriguing and thought-provoking play I've seen in a while, and certainly the best overall production I've seen at Berkeley Rep in several years.

I should give credit to director Eric Ting, who holds together this most difficult assembly. It's easy to see lots of ways this play and production could go off the rails and become didactic or just offensive, and Ting keeps his crew well on the side of interesting and provocative without going for silly or inflammatory. Since I felt that was pretty much the opposite of what he did with last season's Othello at Cal Shakes, it seems only fair to give him credit here.

I quite enjoyed this production. Wished there were a bit less of it, but on the whole, I felt it was extremely well done.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"The Glass Menagerie" at Cal Shakes

Cal Shakes photo by Kevin Berne
So the night after seeing the rather disappointing Splendour at Aurora, we headed over the hill to see Cal Shakes' production of the Tennessee Williams classic, The Glass Menagerie. I'm sure I have expressed before how much I enjoy seeing plays outdoors in the Bruns Amphitheatre. It's a lovely spot with nice weather. And unlike the night before, I had expectations about the play, having seen it previously.

The Play

The Glass Menagerie is a family drama about (among other things) respectability and the facades people put up to appear respectable to others. It's also a remarkably prescient piece about children who "fail to launch." Set in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1943. Framed by narration by Tom (Sean San Jose), we get the story of Tom and his sister Laura (Phoebe Fico) who both live with their mother, Amanda (Karen Aldridge). Tom works a dead-end job to support the family. Painfully shy, "crippled" Laura sits home listening to records and playing with the eponymous collection of animal figurines. Amanda, who had hoped for more from her life, craves the respectability that she believes she had in her youth as a popular social butterfly. Tom takes refuge "at the movies," though he seems to come home very late and very drunk most nights, while Amanda frets that Laura does not receive any "gentleman callers."

Eventually Amanda convinces Tom to invite one of his coworkers (Rafael Jordan) to dinner, hoping that this gentleman caller will be the turning point for Laura and the family.

The Production

The first and most obvious production choice was the casting of all actors of color. The Wingfield family is normally portrayed as white, but other than some early, racially insensitive remarks by Amanda, the story works well with the casting of minorities. Indeed, it serves to remind the audience how universal many of the themes of the play are. Aldridge plays the former debutante to a T, blending the frustrated Southern gentry with the thwarted social climber largely without the histrionics that the role often seems to entail. And San Jose bring a flippant, insouciant air to Tom that masks much of the bitterness that can easily overcome that character. Indeed, all the cast manage to make their characters much more likable than I have previously encountered or envisioned, and that's a pleasant change. The fact that the interpersonal fireworks are kept at such a low level actually makes the story all the more powerful. Instead of shouts and tears we get real intensity and repressed emotion.

Although I ultimately came to feel the set was pretty effective, the start from a basically empty frame that was then filled in with furnishings and decoration was distracting. And then we had to make sure we opened and closed the sliding door/walls, because they were there. It could have been worse, but it felt overdone.

The production also made good use of the amphitheater space, with Tom especially covering a lot of ground as he left for work or the movies, still engaged with the action on stage.

But ultimately it was about the actors and the words, and those were very good. The actors treated the text with respect, letting a natural presentation of the dialogue and interactions focus our attention on the story and the situation, rather than drawing attention to themselves.

Bottom Line

I liked it, much more than I expected to. The cast were all excellent, really bringing Williams's words to life in a way that was both appropriate to the period but also accessible to the modern sensibility. The show was not about people in 1943, but just about people.

Sadly, this show has also run to its end before I could get around to writing about it, but combined with the strong effort of the season-opening As You Like It, this bodes well for the two remaining plays of the season. I'm feeling good about subscribing to Cal Shakes this year!

Monday, July 31, 2017

"Splendour" at Aurora Theatre Company

Aurora Theatre Company photo
I'm so behind on my show blogging that I will have to be a bit brief. Fortunately, I don't feel like I have a lot to say about this show.

Aurora's final production of the season was the Bay Area premiere of Splendour, by Abi Morgan. As usual with Aurora, I found the production to be of pretty high quality, but this time the play itself didn't impress me much.

The Play

Set in an unspecified country undergoing economic and political turmoil, Splendour showcases the wife of a powerful general (Lorri Holt) who lives in, well, splendour, while much of the rest of the country descends into chaos and poverty. A foreign photo journalist (Denmo Ibrahim) has come to do a feature on the general and his wife, but the general isn't home yet. The journalist has a local interpreter (Sam Jackson) who is largely uninterested in doing the interpreting job, though she wants the cash for the job and wouldn't mind pocketing some of the general's bounty. And the wife has summoned her neighbor and long-time friend (Mia Tagano) to help her pass the time while they wait for the general to return.

It's clear that everyone is scared and uncertain, but everyone is in a different situation and has different incentives and goals. So we watch the four women play off each other as the time passes and we wait for the general.

And then we do it again. And again. The play uses the trick of repeating the same basic scene, but with different emphasis, a slightly different viewpoint, and a bit more information trickling out each time. In theory, this layered presentation keeps the scene(s) interesting as we try to grasp the nuances of the changes, searching for revelations. In reality, I found it tedious, with the new "revelations" mostly things I had already either intuited or interpreted, but I found very little actually revealed in the repeating scenes. I had pretty much figured out all four characters' stories by the second or third time through, and the rest felt superfluous.

And really, there isn't much else to the play. If that one trick doesn't carry the show, there's not much to fall back on.

The Production

On the plus side, Michael Locher's set is nice, though not terribly imaginative. Again, it's all one scene, happening in the same room for the most part. It's well lighted under the designs of Kurt Landisman, and the sounds of the conflict outside are a steady presence, ably designed by Matt Stines.

And the actors all do a credible job. Ibrahim and Jackson, playing the outsiders, have the most range to work with since their characters come in with one set of expectations and find themselves in another situation entirely. Holt and Tagano are somewhat stuck with their characters, though we do get to see some development.

Unfortunately, all the actors are stuck with the fact that they are playing the same characters in variants on the same scene multiple times, which quite limits what they can introduce each time through. I don't fault them for the limitations of the script, but I do wish they or director Barbara Damashek could have found a little more room for range, or hidden a few more nuances from the earlier versions of the scenes so we'd have more revelations and development as the scene repeated.

Overall

I have to say I came away disappointed. It felt like the ensemble was capable of delivering more, but Morgan's script just doesn't have that much for them. There's just so far you can go with tension and denial when you can't do any kind of big reveal that would spoil the repetitions. So we get little increments, creeping through the play, and ultimately there isn't much satisfaction. It felt like kind of a waste of the talents of the performers and designers and crew.

And since I'm late writing this up, it's too late for you to choose to see it, anyway. What you missed was sort of an interesting exercise in theatrical writing that didn't turn out to be a particularly satisfying show to watch.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"In The Heights" at Contra Costa Civic Theatre

[I have no idea why Blogger isn't letting me put pictures in tonight. ]

In the wake of all the Hamilton popularity, a number of theaters are looking at some of Lin-Manuel Miranda's earlier work, notably his first hit musical, In The Heights, based on people and situations from Washington Heights, Manhattan, where he grew up. I admit that was my primary motivation, though I was really intrigued to see that although Miranda wrote the music and lyrics, the book for the show is by Quiara Allegria Hudes, who I only know through her dramatic works. Her Water By the Spoonful is a powerful piece, and its sequel, The Happiest Song Plays Last, is also quite good.

So that's a lot of artistic firepower behind a play, which should be a good thing.

And if that's not enough, Contra Costa Civic Theatre (CCCT) is kind of my old home stage. El Cerrito, where CCCT is located, is where I grew up, and I saw quite a few shows there as a kid. And then by high school, a number of my friends were in their productions and many local families were involved with the theater. I've been hearing that the company has made some real advances in the last several years, so I was looking forward to seeing for myself.

The Play

The show is largely an ensemble piece, though there are clearly a few key characters. The center is really Usnavi (Rajiv Vijayakumar) and his Abuela Claudia (Anita Viramontes). Claudia in many ways holds the neighborhood together. Usnavi has a crush on Vanessa (India Kawar). Meanwhile, Nina (Zinah Abraha) is trying to be the success story, going to college at Stanford on scholarship, though she's home for the summer and getting involved with Benny (Dave J. Abrams), who works for her parents' car service. It's complicated.

We have lots of slices of life at Usnavi's bodega, the car service, the salon that's closing, and of course, out in the street. Much music, lots of dance. And the Piragua Guy (Billy Raphael).

Oh yeah, it's the third of July, so we have to have fireworks and things.

The Production

With a community theater company, you never quite know what you're going to get, but I have to say the company here was quite competent, and much more even in their performances than I would have expected. The ensemble sang and danced very well, even though the street was pretty crowded at times, and the choreography by Allison Paraiso-Silicani was pretty intricate at times. The musicians were good, but not very balanced; the keyboard often drowned out the other instruments (and sometimes the voices, despite the microphones everyone was wearing). So the sound balance needed some work. And there were definitely issues with the lights. I couldn't tell whether those were deisgn problems or equipment problems, but it was bad enough to be distracting at some key moments, which is unfortunate.

But really, I was impressed with the performances of the actors as a whole. The solid ensemble work meshed well with the featured roles. Musically it worked pretty well, although at times Vijayakumar had a bit of difficulty enunciating his raps, particularly with the music overpowering him at times. But on the whole the acting was fine and the singing strong. I should call out Zinah Abraha for her strong, expressive singing, and Dave Abrams for the whole package: singing, dancing, acrobatics, and acting.

Bottom Line

Once again a community theater company has exceeded my expectations. Unfortunately, we were only able to get tickets to the closing performance, so I can't recommend that you run out and see it. On the plus side, I gather they sold out most of the run. Certainly it was had to get tickets the last few weeks. Good for them!

I'm impressed with the quality both of the play itself and of the production put on by CCCT. Director Ryan Mark Weible did a good job of pulling together a cast that was capable of doing justice to Miranda's and Hudes's work. This is not an easy show, but they did it well. I will be looking for excuses to check out more CCCT shows coming up. This was the last show of their current season, but they've announced some pretty ambitious shows for next year, including Cabaret and Ragtime.

Keep your eyes peeled.