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.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" at SHN

This is an interesting show. My wife saw it last year in London, then read the book. Though she found it interesting, she didn't see the need to see it again, so I went to see the touring production in San Francisco with my daughter and my mother-in-law.

I won't go into great detail, because it's pretty well-known and not a local production. Still, it's theater....

The Play

Based on the novel of the same name by Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Simon Stephens is quite a show. The main character is a teenage boy who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, brilliant in some areas (particularly mathematics) and rather stunted in others (such as social awareness). Christopher is blessed with an amazing, eidetic memory, but struggles with a lot of the basic tasks of living. His parents struggle with him, and then he loses his mother to a problem with her heart (about which we learn much more later). His father struggles with keeping Christopher going while working to support them.

The show commences with Christopher examining the remains of a neighborhood dog that has been killed unexpectedly with a garden fork (or a pitchfork to us Yanks). Christopher becomes quite obsessed with figuring out who killed the dog, but being socially inept, he has difficulty going about it. That takes us through the first act.

After intermission, we have learned the answer to the question of the dog's murder, and the answer send Christopher off on a solo adventure to London. The portrayal of a smart-but-not-worldly kid with very little practical ability trying to make his way is well done, though it doesn't provide much in the way of new insights into his character.

Ultimately, the plot devices feel stretched a bit (though it's quite accurate to portray such a kid grabbing onto and obsessing over a task), and I felt like it was an interesting portrait of a kid with symptoms of autism-related issues, but the overall story line wasn't all that great.

The Production

The set should probably get a credit of its own. The stage is a box divided into squares, and the production makes great use of the lights and lines and drawing surfaces and such. It's quite elaborate, and manages to be both simple and complex, and overall quite elegant. On the other hand, as with any really elaborate set, it has a tendency to overshadow some of the items for which it is really meant to serve as a backdrop. Overall I thought it was intriguing and a plus, but then I'm a techno-junkie.

On the other hand, because the set was capable of being so overwhelming, it was an excellent vehicle for demonstrating the way Christopher perceives the sheer volume of sensory input, so in that sense it's quite successful.

On yet another hand, however, the character development really suffers. We get a pretty good view into Christopher, and some into his parents, but really, other than the one central character, everyone else is pretty one-dimensional, and we don't get a lot of insight into their motivations.

I should also mention that the part of Christopher, demanding as it is, is double-cast, and we saw the actor (Benjamin Wheelwright) who plays only selected shows. He was quite good, and I was impressed with the complexity of the role and its interactions with all the other actors. Having two actors play that central role has got to be challenging, but they handle it well.

Bottom Line

The stagecraft is clever and interesting, and the main character is good. The plot of the first act keeps it going pretty well, but the second seems a bit aimless. Still, it's a good show, well designed and performed. If you're inclined to see it, I'd say you should go ahead. It plays through Sunday, the 23rd, before moving briefly to Seattle and then on to Los Angeles for a month or more, then Costa Mesa and Las Vegas, briefly.

Check it out. It's pretty neat.

Monday, July 10, 2017

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

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
As soon as you see the name "Medea" in the name of a play, you know you're in for a rough ride. The classical tragedy of Medea by Euripides is such a well-known and tragic tale that it is both ripe for interpretation and yet still a story that I'm reluctant to watch because it's so gut-wrenching. The only real exception to that in my experience was Medea: The Musical, which was absolutely hilarious while still dealing with LGBT issues in a real and interesting way back in the 1990s.

So clearly I go into this with some trepidation, yet also having had several people I trust tell me it is the best thing they've seen at Ashland this summer.

The Play

The basic outline of Medea is that Medea, a foreign princess, marries Jason after his quest for the Golden Fleece. Because of Jason's ambitions, he marries another woman, though promising to love and support her and their children. Medea doesn't buy it, kills the other wife and the children, and flees to Athens. There is a lot more, but that's the nut of it.

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles keeps a lot of that basic plot and adapts it to the plight of contemporary Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles. In this variant, Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) and Jason (Lakin Valdez) have fled Michoacan, Mexico, with their son Acan (Jahnangel Jimenez) and Tita (VIVIS), her longtime family housekeeper. They cross illegally into the U.S. and settle in Los Angeles where Medea sews piecework and Jason works in construction. Jason has ambitions to rise up in the business, run by a very successful immigrant woman, Armida (Vilma Silva), and tries to assimilate, as does Acan. Medea, traumatized by the trip north, refuses to leave their home and yard. She eventually befriends Josefina (Nancy Rodriguez), a baker and street vendor Tita has met.

The first half or so of the play shows the struggles of the family trying to get by, move up, and get along in L.A. Medea shows that she is a whiz at sewing. Tita hints at abilities beyond mere housekeeping, tending an herb garden. Medea tries to keep Acan in touch with the culture they have left behind. Meanwhile, Jason and Armida have other ideas that don't so much include Medea. When Medea learns that they have married and plan to take Acan with them while sending Medea away, things turn ugly.

The Production

As I write this, about a week after seeing the show, the production has already closed. It was a first half of the season only production, which is unfortunate, because the penultimate performance we saw was tremendous. The cast was outstanding. VIVIS as Tita serves as the Greek (well, Mexican) chorus, Medea's conscience and cultural touchstone.  She manages to be both wonderfully comical and touchingly sad: a terrific performance throughout. Medea and Jason seem to have real chemistry and affection, but Jason's frustration with Medea's inability to assimilate or even associate is palpable, and you begin to see the fractures and the seeds of the eventual confrontation. And Ashland veteran Silva is utterly stunning as Armida. Her iron will and determination show exactly why (and how) she has been so successful. It's quite understandable why Jason would find her an appealing mentor and more.

Playwright Luis Alfaro does a wonderful job crafting believable dialogue that rings true. The mix of Spanish and English effectively at gives the sense of people from one culture feeling their way into another, and the change from a seemingly successful immigrant story turning quickly into a tragic betrayal and murder is handled credibly and almost seamlessly.

Perhaps best of all is that none of the characters come across as one-dimensional or archetypical. They all feel quite real and plausible, which makes the tragic turn all the more painful. You can totally see how the turn of events could drive an outcast, immigrant woman with no options to completely lose it.

Bottom Line

There is a reason these classic stories never go away. The immigrant in a strange land, the ambition, the betrayal: all of these are themes that can easily translate into almost any cultural setting. The application of the plight of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is a timely and poignant example of just such a setting. This story, unfortunately, makes perfect sense in that context.

It's brilliantly written and performed, and I wish it were still playing so I could recommend seeing it. But I suspect it will reappear somewhere. This production is very, very strong.

I have to agree that at least so far, of the six plays I've seen at Ashland this summer, this one was the best. It is definitely the one that has been on my mind the most in the intervening week, and not just because we saw it last. The power of both the story and the performance really got under my skin, and has me thinking a lot about both the play and the cultural climate that makes it feel so relevant today. That's the power of really good theater.

Final Footnote

The counter on my Blogger account tells me this will be the 100th posting since I started this blog back in May of 2016. Not every post represents a play viewing (though most do), and not every play I saw turned into a posting (hello again, Hamlet!). But it's safe to say I saw something on the order of 100 plays in the last year or so. And I still don't think it constitutes "too much theater" for me. It is a strain a times (because I've already seen another play I need to blog about, so I'm behind again!), but I enjoy making these notes and I appreciate the feedback both here and on Facebook.

I look forward to more of these posts and discussions!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"The Merry Wives of Windsor" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
The Merry Wives of Windsor is not exactly one of Shakespeare's most meaningful pieces. I'm told he wrote it because after the Henry IV plays, his audiences wanted more of the clownish Falstaff. So he wrote a comedy with Falstaff front and center. It's not a play I've seen very often, but it can be amusing.

The Play

The lecherous knight, Sir John Falstaff (K.T. Vogt), is looking for a little action, with not one but two different married women, Mistress Page (Vilma Silva) and Mistress Ford (Amy Newman). Meanwhile, Page and her husband are looking to marry off their daughter Anne (Jamie Ann Romero) to two different suitors: Doctor Caius (Jeremy Peter Johnson, pictured above in red and black) and Slender (Cristofer Jean), but she wants to marry Fenton (William DeMerritt). Add a few servants, clergy, and a Justice, plus Falstaff's posse from the Henry plays (Bardolf, Nim, and Pistol), and you've got a huge crowd with plenty of confusion available.

But much of the play is about the ridiculousness of Falstaff. There's really not much substance else, so you either enjoy the pratfalls and absurd situations or it becomes a bit tedious. Falstaff is ultimately outwitted by the Pages and Fords, and love wins out in the end, because this is a comedy, after all.

The Production

The the first and most obvious choice made here was casting a woman (Vogt) as Falstaff. In a play that is about seduction and such, it seems a somewhat odd choice, but equipped with a comical beard and an enormous codpiece that doubles as a purse, Vogt looks and acts the part. There are times when her shrieks and cackles seem a bit out of place, but really, in this play, nothing can really stand out as odd.

The second major choice in the play is the music. Now and then a character or the whole cast will just break out in a 1980s pop tune. And many (but not all) of the costumes reflect that 80s pop look. At first it sort of seemed like they were going to literally turn the play into a musical, but instead it was just a few musical interludes where the lyrics were tangentially related to some plot element. And most of the songs are just short excerpts (probably to avoid licensing issues). It was fun, but I thought the digressions a bit pointless (I know, in a basically pointless play...), and with the show running about three hours long, it didn't seem really necessary. Much like the original musical OSF produced a couple of seasons back, Head Over Heels, the 80s soundtrack mostly seems to indicate that the generation that came of age to that music is now in the demographic that buys theater tickets and produces plays.

The director's notes in the playbill make it appear that she (Dawn Monique Williams) feels the music puts the emphasis on the young people, and that Anne Ford represents the romantic lead in the play. But frankly, Anne and Fenton have very few lines; their relationship is less substantive than that of the eponymous couple in Romeo and Juliet. So while they might be more appealing characters than Falstaff, there really isn't enough of their story to carry the play. For better or worse, this is Falstaff's play, but the character is not nearly as likable in this incarnation as he was in the Henry plays. It's just very hard to root for him at all, and that's needed to make a bad guy as the main character work.

Bottom Line

It's really a lot of mindless fluff. The 80s music is fun, with the dancing and all. It diverts from the endless inanity of the plot lines a bit. I suppose I would rather have seen the director try to make a more appealing version of Falstaff and some of the other characters. Vogt, Johnson, and Jean are all accomplished comic actors. I have seen them all carry scenes if not whole plays. But in this production, none of them has much going for them except laughs at their expense, and that seems a shame.

As usual with OSF, it's well done, but I definitely felt like more could be made out of this play that just endless slapstick and plaguing Falstaff. It's visually quite appealing and the music is fun. I'd like to think there's more to be made of a Shakespearean comedy than that. It's not a waste of time, but it does feel like a squandered opportunity. Funny, but disappointing.

Monday, July 3, 2017

"Shakespeare in Love" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
I love the movie Shakespeare in Love. It's a wonderful, fanciful tribute to love and language and theater. But I have to admit some trepidation when I learned that it was being adapted to the stage. I know it was staged at last year's Stratford Festival, which suggests some credibility, but this year was my first chance to see it staged, at Ashland.

The Play

The play is mostly quite true to the movie screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. And that's a good thing. You don't really want to mess with the wit and flow of a Stoppard script. Of necessity the story is a bit more constrained in locations and scene changes, but that is handled well, and some of the minor characters (such as Rosaline) are gone. And at least one of the lesser-but-popular movie characters, John Webster (Preston Mead) has a bigger role.

But the story still centers on young Will Shakespeare (William DeMerritt) and his writer's block, and Viola de Lesseps (Jamie Ann Romero) and her obsession with love, poetry, and Shakespeare. Christopher Marlowe (Ted Deasy) still shows up to give writing advice, among other things. And there are tons of cute references to various lines and themes of Shakespeare's other plays. They have cut back a bit on the racier scenes from the movie to make it all friendlier to a general audience. But in all, it's largely the same story line.

The Production

As one expects from an OSF production (particularly one of the almost year-long main indoor shows), the production values are high: pretty fancy set, lots of actors, great costumes, and so on. The quality of the acting is quite excellent all around. OSF regular Kate Mulligan gets a turn as Queen Elizabeth, and quite holds her own in the role Judi Dench originated on film.

There are a couple of ways I think the play, or at least this production of the play, manages to surpass the movie. First, the intimacy of the stage (and the set that mimics a cozy Elizabethan theater) brings home both the sort of wild-and-woolly atmosphere of a theater company of the period, and also manages to emphasize the difference between the quite amateurish efforts of some of the common players and the exaggerated polish of the stars such as Alleyn (James Ryen) and Burbage (Kevin Kennerly). Second, by being a self-consciously staged production, they can play with some theater conventions and have, for example, Burbage hamming it up, playing to the house, calling for an anachronistic spotlight, and so on. As such, the tribute to theatrical art seems more genuine when presented on stage.

And finally, by having the staged scenes from Romeo and Juliet acted out in front of us, instead of on film, there is a extra poignancy to them, particularly the suicides in Act V. We are seeing Will and Viola, not just some actors playing Romeo and Juliet. We have a lot more invested in them, and it makes it much more powerful, which I hadn't expected.

Bottom Line

The play is a lot of fun, and worth seeing just for that. If you're a fan of the movie, you shouldn't be disappointed. And if you're a fan of Shakespeare, there are lots and lots of little items you can pick up in the staging and the script that will delight you. And finally, like its movie predecessor, the show stands as a tribute to the value of art and inspiration, both for the artist and the audience, and does so both eloquently and humorously. The sense of community among the actors is palpable, both as the rival companies join forces, and particularly when the actors learn of the death of Marlowe.

There is a lot to like here, and I recommend it highly. It is one of those rare productions that greatly exceeds both my expectations and my hopes.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

"UniSon" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

After two really long plays, it was something of a relief that our Friday evening play was a more modest 90 minutes long. We didn't really know what to expect of this piece, called UniSon,  being a world premiere written by the group UNIVERSES, which created the extremely interesting Party People that we saw here a few years ago, and afterward at Berkeley Rep.

The Play

UniSon is "inspired by" the poetry of playwright August Wilson. Wilson is best known for his series of plays about the African American experience across the decades of the 20th century, but apparently he wrote poetry, too.

The play focuses on a Poet (Steven Sapp) and his apprentice (Asia Mark) and an ensemble of seven Terrors, representing seven people from the Poet's life that have, well, terrified him in one way or another. The Poet leaves a trunk full of unseen poetry when he dies, instructing his apprentice to burn it all. As she reads through the poems, the seven Terrors kind of take turns interacting with with the Poet.

The Production

The stage is backed with a wall of ten video monitors that largely show pictures of seemingly random objects. And center stage is a big trunk and a chair and a small bar for the Poet.

The screens also show lines of poetry and the names of all the poems as they come up in the play. Unfortunately, the first lines that come up are a quote from Wilson saying basically that there is public art and private art, and poems are private. As a result, it feels really uncomfortably intrusive that we are reading and hearing this poetry that he clearly didn't want anyone to read.

The play itself wanders through a bunch of plays and scenes, with some themes kind of showing up, and lots of Terrors, of course. But it never really crystalizes into a coherent message. The individual performances are fine, the music is good, individual scenes work reasonably well. Indeed, some are quite strong. But the lack of a unifying thread makes it all seem like rather a jumble. And the overarching feeling of transgression, that we're prying into a portion of someone's life that he didn't want to share, is more palpable as the show goes on.

Bottom Line

We all left the theater feeling like what we saw was well done and fairly interesting, but not very satisfying. And the discussion as we headed back to our house was not much about the substance of any of the Terrors and such, but mostly about the ethics of appropriating material from a writer who clearly would not have wanted this show to be made.

In the grand scheme of the festival, I'd say this isn't one of their better efforts. Again, the quality of the production is high (setting aside that one of the TV monitors went blank midway though the show, and its blackness was oddly distracting, particularly when the rest of the wall was a uniform pattern). I had hoped to gain some insight into Wilson as a dramatist through the lens of his poetry, but that was not an element here. And given that there wasn't any other clear message, it just kind of feels like a theatrical exercise without a real purpose. Full of sound and Terrors, as it were, but signifying nothing.

Friday, June 30, 2017

"Julius Caesar" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

After last night's late night odyssey, we were ready for the first of two double-header days at the Shakespeare festival. First up was Julius Caesar. This seems particularly timely, since the news has been full of attention to the protests against the Public Theater in New York's "Shakespeare in the Park" production of Julius Caesar the last couple of weeks.

This is the second time we've seen this play at Ashland, and is a deep contrast to the previous version, where Caesar was portrayed by a woman.

The Play

Once again, it's kind of pointless to try to summarize the play in a meaningful way if you don't already know it. Caesar is a populist demagogue whose rise to power troubles large factions of the establishment in the Roman Senate. This leads to a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar on the floor of the Senate, with each of the conspirators stabbing Caesar. The end result is essentially a civil war, with Octavius Caesar (Julius's adopted son) joining with Marc Antony against the remaining conspirators.

The Production

The setting for this play is relatively modern, with the walls surrounding the stage literally falling apart. We see Caesar's supporters as masked, almost rioting demonstrators, causing much consternation to the senators who represent the prevailing authority. Cassius (masterfully portrayed by Rodney Gardiner) and Caska (Stephen Michael Spencer) have a growing group quietly conspiring to get rid of Caesar (Armando Duran), but they really need to recruit Brutus (Danforth Comins) to join them. Brutus waffles, but eventually joins up.

So we have a bloodbath, followed by the famous funeral where Caesar loyalist Antony (Jordan Barbour) eloquently indicts the assassins while insisting on the honorable nature of Brutus in particular (the "friends, Romans, countrymen" speech).

The ensuing war is presented in a highly stylized fashion, intricately choreographed, which makes the individual deaths highly emotionally impactful. Between the eloquence of the actors and the design of the production, it's quite engrossing and really had all of our group talking about it for the rest of the afternoon. Some compared it stylistically with last year's NYC production of "A View from the Bridge," which I did not see, but which was apparently very influential.

Bottom Line

I was impressed at what a different production this was from the last one we'd seen. Where the other was much more personal, much more about the relationships of the characters, this version put the focus more on group action and the individual contributions to them. There are still good scenes between individual characters. Caesar's scene with Calpurnia (Amy Kim Waschke), with her imploring him not to go to the Senate, is terrific, for example. Some of the designs don't work out as well, such as the wall covered with big rolls of paper that Antony writes the names of the conspirators on. But mostly the production is about people, not tricks and decorations, and as such it's quite powerful.

In a time when we all need to pay attention to the motivations of leaders and of the groups backing and opposing them, this production seemed spot on. This is a Julius Caesar for today.

"The Odyssey" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

This is the first of a whole bunch of posts about plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year. Over the course of three visits, we plan to see all eleven shows on offer. This first trip is the biggest, with six plays, so I guess it's only appropriate to start with the longest, Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey.

Of personal interest, this was the first time anyone in our party had sat in the balcony of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. We were in the front row, just to one side, and the sight lines were excellent. I think I might seek out seats like that in the future. It gives a really good view of all the levels of the stage superstructure, though our view of the voms were somewhat occluded. But overall we thought it was an excellent place to see the play--especially for those shorter members of the group, as there was no one blocking any part of their view.

The Play

No, I'm not going to summarize either the whole epic or the whole play here. Suffice it to say Odysseus is delayed about 20 years coming home from the Trojan War. His wife, Penelope and son Telemachus are besieged by suitors who want to marry Penelope, believing Odysseus to be dead. For years, they essentially occupy their home in Ithaca, consuming and carousing.

The story is essentially the retelling of all the things that delayed his return. Gods and monsters are involved. Really, read it if you haven't. The play is based on the Robert Fitzgerald translation, but there is also a newer, more poetic translation by Robert Fagles. They are both good.

The Adaptation

It's always challenging adapting works that are a) long and b) well known. Mary Zimmerman doesn't shy away from those projects, however. She has a knack for taking mythical tales and transforming them into something that works well onstage.

This effort was perhaps the most straightforward of her adaptations I've seen. Much of it, particularly toward the end of the first act and all of the second, where it's pretty much Odysseus telling his story, works really well. I thought some of the earlier bits felt repetitive, but in retrospect I think that was more a muddling of the frame story with the tall tales within. It's much clearer later.

The Production

First point, Zimmerman in her role as director made some good choices with the designers. By keeping the staging relatively simple, it adds to the storytelling aspect, relying on the imagination rather than fancy stagecraft. So Odysseus builds a raft from just a few poles laid out on the stage to suggest the shape. Those poles are later used as oars by his crew, and for various purposes by the suitors.

Second, the outdoor setting is quite marvelous for a show of this scope. The large, open stage and the moonlight from above add to the "tales around the campfire" aspect of the production. The actors are amplified. That's just a reality in the outdoor theater these days. I find it unfortunate, but I understand that a lot of the patrons have difficulty hearing otherwise.

Third, I quite liked the opening scene, where Christiana Clark starts out trying to read the book of the Odyssey and finds it daunting until the Muse awakens and brings the story to life for her. I thought it was very well done (Clark is terrific throughout, mostly as Athena), and an effective transition into the ficton of the play.

Discussing the play at intermission, a couple of us felt like it had been a little slow, and a little lacking in anything other than just kind of outlining the story. The latter is kind of intrinsic to adapting an entire epic to a single play (albeit almost 3.5 hours of play!) . The pacing could probably be tightened up a bit, too, but ultimately...it's an epic. It will take a while. But I kind of felt that telling the story is good, but I felt like I ought to have some notion of where this was going by then, other than just being halfway through the story.

There is more of a payoff in the second act. The reunion scenes are very well handled: Odysseus and Penelope have a very touching scene, very effectively made intimate by lighting. And Penelope's red velvet dress is simple and beautifully elegant. Ultimately the payoff doesn't really seem to be any great new insight into The Odyssey, but it does an effective job of getting the key points of Homer's endings across. After twenty years, Odysseus and Penelope have to get past some trust issues, and they do in in classical form.

The Bottom Line

This is a production on a scale that only a theater like Ashland can pull off: big cast, long run time, lots of costumes, etc. But they have the budget, the staff, and the facilities to do it and do it well. Needless to say the acting is excellent, and many of the costumes are excellent (though Zeus's is somewhat wasted, as he is rarely on stage where we can really appreciate it).

Ultimately there is a reason why stories like the Odyssey stand up to centuries of retelling and translation: they are fundamentally strong tales. And OSF does a good job of putting this one on stage. Though the first act felt a bit long, the second seemed to fly by and really engaged us.

Friday, June 23, 2017

"You Mean to Do Me Harm" at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse photo by Ken Levin
Hard to follow a performance such as Grandeur,  but there we were the very next night, trying out several new things: the tiny Reuff Theater atop ACT's Strand Theater, SF Playhouse's "Sandbox Series," and a brand new, world premiere play by Christopher Chen, whose Caught we enjoyed last fall at Shotgun. Chen does not write simple plays, so we expected a lot.

The Reuff provides an intimate space for a play. It's really just a black box, which I gather can have seats added in various ways. For this production it had three rows of chairs set up on short risers around three sides, with the fourth the lighted backdrop you see in the photo above. It worked well for this play. In fact, the play would work in the round, too.

The Play

Two married, mixed-race couples meet up for drinks, and everybody has some kind of connection to at least one member of the other couple. Ben and Lindsey dated briefly in college a decade ago. Ben is about to start a new job at Daniel's startup company. Daniel and Samantha are both first-generation Chinese American. Some kind of offhand comments in the chit-chat that might have been a little flirtatious start a series of reactions and overreactions that cascade through the rest of the play.

As with Caught, I don't want to say too much about the plot because the revelation is all, and misunderstanding and reaction out of proportion is key to the action. Chen plays once again with both the tensions of cultural assimilation and racism and the difficulties of couples in relationships. The lines of communication go every which way in the course of the play, and the manipulations are terrific to follow.

I found it particularly fun the way Chen plays with the notions that run through everyone's heads in a conversation: "Did he really mean that? No, of course not!" And we just move on. But Chen lets his characters jump right in with their subconscious reactions, verbalizing trivial hurts and upsets that should just slide right off, and then lets the rest of the group react accordingly. It's really very clever, and fun to consider how much we really stifle in the course of everyday talk.

The Production

The whole play happens inside a paved square. Sometimes we have a table and chairs for our couples to have their drinks, but it can also be a cafe, a restaurant, an office, and so on. And the characters who are not in the scene are just off, on a little path, so you get to watch characters thinking about those who aren't in the scene while they look right at them. It's really quite a nice staging there: kudos to director Bill English and scenic designer Zoe Rosenfeld for pulling that off so well. In fact, it works so well that late in the play when first one, then another of the characters leaves the room, it's quite jarring (and not effective to my thinking). The continuous interactions of the characters, regardless of whether they are actually present in the scene, is a big part of what makes the play work.

The four actors are all very good, though I frankly found it a little hard to picture them as being in their early 30s. They seemed a bit too mature in their dress and mannerisms. But the dialogue flows smoothly and precisely for the most part, which is important given the precision of Chen's writing.

Bottom Line

It's a good new play, and obviously still evolving. We thought it was about 90 percent of the way to being terrific, mostly held back by the ending. Endings are always the hardest part, seemingly. Although I have to say we came up with what seemed like a more satisfying ending over dinner afterward.

All that said, I thought the piece was  well written and shows a lot of promise. I will be interested to see where it goes from here. The current run goes through July 2nd, and it's definitely worth seeing.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"Grandeur" at Magic Theatre

I have mentioned before that Carl Lumbly is one of my favorite Bay Area actors. I first noticed his work on television back in the 80s or 90s, and I was quite thrilled when he started appearing more frequently on local stages a few years ago. Now having seen him a couple of times at SF Playhouse, plus at ACT and a reading to benefit TheatreFIRST, I really look forward to every opportunity to see his work. When friends recommended that we catch the performance of Grandeur at the Magic Theatre, I hadn't realized that Lumbly was featured in it. Buying tickets only a few days before the show, we ended up with separate single tickets in the front row, and I have to say, that was a tremendous bonus.

The show only runs through this coming weekend, but before I get to all the other comments, just let me say: Go see this show, if only to watch Carl Lumbly.

The play is a world premiere of a work by Han Ong, a writer whose work I did not know before, though he has worked at the Magic previously, some 25 years ago.

The Play

Grandeur is set in 2010, in the dark, cave-like apartment of Gil Scott-Heron in New York City. Scott-Heron has just released his first album in 16 years, causing quite a stir, and he is suddenly the subject of much interest in the musical press, being known as the "godfather of hip-hop" in some circles. He is also addicted to crack cocaine. A public fixture in both music and letters at one time, he is now reclusive and withdrawn into his own little world. But with the release of an album, he is suddenly recapturing attention, wanted or not.

The play centers on the visit of a young writer, a fan of Scott-Heron, who wants to interview him for a piece to be submitted to the New York Review of Books. The writer, Steve Barron, finds the whole process quite daunting, and struggles a bit getting started with the curmudgeonly Scott-Heron. But he persists, getting past the gatekeeper, "Miss Julie," who may or may not be Scott-Heron's niece. Over the course of an afternoon, Barron manages to establish some rapport with his subject, and the two converse on a variety of topics that might eventually produce an article or an interview or a blog posting.

Ultimately what we learn is that the real interviews of this period were all pretty much of a piece, and Ong speculates in this play how an interview might have played out with a different sort of interviewer and a different sort of interview. The point is made clearly that all the stock interviews were done by pretty much interchangeable, white reporters. One of the things that intrigues Scott-Heron here is that Barron is also a person of color, though he pokes some fun at Barron's choices of shoes and clothes.

Even when not the focus of the dialogue, the topics of race, class, generational differences, and privilege are never far from the surface.

The Production

The set effectively captures the image of a man withdrawn from normal life, living isolated, largely in the dark, with his memories, his words, and his crack pipe. As Gil Scott-Heron, Carl Lumbly is completely captivating and convincing. He manages to portray a wizened, road-weary, and thoughtful wordsmith who has largely chosen not to share his work with others. From my vantage point at the end of the front row, I was literally the closest person to Lumbly for much of the evening, and the opportunity to watch the nuanced details of his performance was priceless. For the entire duration of the show, even when he was not in the focus of the action, he was never still, never relaxed or taking it easy: he was always working his character.

Rafael Jordan portrays Barron, the in-over-his-head writer who desperately wants to get this interview, but at some level also wants something else, something personal. Miss Julie (Safiya Fredericks) has her own opinions of what is going on here, expressing the belief that Barron's arrival portends ill for Scott-Heron.

As the play runs, we learn much more about Barron, though he remains somewhat enigmatic, and his motivations are ultimately unsure to us. Scott-Heron, on the other hand, is largely what we know him to be at the outset, talented and aging, reluctant to provide anything but stock answers, deflecting questions he doesn't really want to ask.

The Reaction

This is a really good piece of work. The writing feels very smooth, with the dialogue flowing quite naturally among the characters. Miss Julie, though she has the least stage time, is a truly interesting character, filling various roles as "niece," caretaker, roommate, and protector, stepping in as Scott-Heron's alter ego when necessary. The dance between their characters is obviously ongoing, though we have no idea when it started, where it came from, and so on. Then Barron drops in as kind of a fish-out-of-water, and for a while no one is quite sure what to make of anyone else.

So it's utterly absorbing. Lumbly dominates, both as the central figure in the drama, but also as the most convincing actor throughout. During one exchange about his addition, I could swear he was about to tear a chunk out of the arm of the upholstered chair he was sitting in. His tension was visible and palpable, but not allowed to vent through action or words. And without going into too much detail, I'll just say that he returns to the set before the intermission ends, and is already fully in character throughout, though you might not expect it in context. From beginning to end, Lumbly gives one of the finest performances I've seen on a Bay Area stage, ever.

The play is quite clever and effective in focusing on one imagined day, alluding to real events and people in Scott-Heron's life without having to portray them. He gets to react to things related through interview questions or off-handed comments by Miss Julie, and we can read about them in the program or online. By staying within itself and not trying to incorporate things outside, the play feels much more true and powerful.

The Aftermath

As is becoming more common these days, the Magic hosted a conversation after the performance. Most of the audience chose not to stay, and in retrospect, they were wise. When done well, these talk-back sessions can be enlightening. This was not one of those.

The Magic staffer who ran the session spoke very softly, even when multiple audience members asked her to speak up. She started with a couple of pretty generic questions ("What stuck with you about the play?") without much reaction or followup. When the actors came back out, they sat off on the side, behind a post from the remaining audience, so it was essentially impossible to see or hear them or address them directly.

All in all, quite frustrating, because a well-prepared, well directed talk-back can be enlightening for both the company and the audience. I got the feeling that both sides here felt it was just a waste of time. Too bad.

And also too bad because it rather detracted from what was otherwise an extremely effective and powerful play, with a dynamic and discussion-worthy ending. Had they chosen to take off from there, it might have been a more effective part of the evening and made the overall production more effective, not less.

Bottom Line

But any criticisms notwithstanding, this is an outstanding play and cast. If you can see it this weekend, you should. It closes on June 25th.