Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Partition" at Indra's Net Theater

Indra's Net photo
Well, I thought I had written my last theater piece of the year, but last night we sneaked over to see Partition by Ira Hauptman at Indra's Net Theater. We always enjoy the shows that Indra's Net chooses, as they tend to sit at the intersection of science and philosophy and some of the bigger issues of life.

The play this time is about mathematics, but also about cultures and religions and where they all overlap at times.

The Play

The principal character in Partition is Srinivasa Ramanujan, a largely self-educated mathematical prodigy from India. He had been kicked out of college for basically refusing to study anything other than math, so as a result he had little formal training or even understanding of the standard academic approach to the subject. What he had was a deep and unique appreciation for numbers and number theory. Working alone in Madras, he produced volumes of theorems, but lacked the techniques to prove them in standard terms.

Thwarted in his attempts to study further in India, Ramanujan sent samples of his work to some of the great theorists of the day, and one, G.H. Hardy of Cambridge, invited him to come work with him. This play then largely deals with Ramanujan as a fish out of water in Cambridge, and the difficult Hardy's attempts to work with Ramanujan without destroying him.

In addition to the two mathematicians, there are three other characters in the show: Alfred Billington, a classicist at Cambridge and long-time friend of Hardy, the ghost of Pierre de Fermat, the great French number theorist,  and Namagiri of Namakkal, a Hindu Goddess. Billington serves as sort of a buffer between Hardy and Ramanujan, trying to temper Hardy's actions and appealing to his conscience. Namagiri is the inspiration for Ramanujan, the source of his theorems. And Fermat...well, Fermat is enigmatic and egotistical, even in death, but he and his theorems play an important role in the plot.

Overall it's quite an interesting script, delving into the sources of inspiration and validation, trying to reconcile Eastern and Western standards of both academics and ethical behavior.

The Production

There are elements of the production that are quite excellent. Namagiri (Aparna Krishnamoorthy in our performance) sings, chants, and dances wonderfully with the background of Indian music. She establishes the world of Ramanujan (Heren Patel) in Madras, and follows him to Cambridge via dreams. Hardy (Alan Coyne) and Billington (David Boyll) have an excellent rapport, albeit with a stylized formality. And Fermat (Marco Aponte) is a delightful figure, though a bit difficult to understand at times.

Unfortunately, this is one of the few times I felt Indra's Net failed to adapt adequately to the unique constraints of the theater at the Berkeley City Club. In particular, the space where Hardy and Billington sit and talk is set up in such a way that approximately half the audience will just see the  backs of both of their heads, always. Although there is some attempt made to adapt to this, it's really quite a glaring deficiency in the stage design and direction.

Similarly, there are times when Ramanujan is directly addressing Namagiri at her shrine where he will inexplicably spin around and talk in a different direction. It appears to be an attempt to let some of the rest of the room see the actor's face, but it comes across as just bizarre behavior. Director Bruce Coughran has generally come up with better solutions than this in previous productions in this space. I should note that it's also noticeably difficult for the actors to navigate around the set pieces in the small stage space. The pieces covered with mathematical notation are attractive, but seem unnecessarily bulky as placed. Audience members had some difficulty getting around them to get seated; same for some of the actors.

But on the whole, the actors managed to do a credible job of getting across the key bits of the script, sometimes in spite of their surroundings.

Bottom Line

I think the play itself has a lot of interesting stuff, and for the most part the actors did a pretty good job of cutting through distractions and portraying their characters. I don't think the staging and direction were nearly as successful, however.

On the whole, I'm glad I saw the show, and feel like there is enough there to make it worthwhile. It makes me wish I had seen the original production, at Aurora Theatre Company, some years back. I wasn't tuned into Aurora back then, apparently.

In any case, it's a good play with some good acting performances. I think you can get by the staging issues and get some value out of seeing the play.

Partition runs through January 14 at the Berkeley City Club.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

"The Black Rider" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players photo by Cheshire Isaacs
Somewhere at the intersection of patriarchy and gun culture ("at the crossroads," you might even say), there is an old German story about a star-crossed couple of young lovers, the need to shoot a gun (and the inability to do so), and the choice to make a deal with the devil to solve this problem. The Black Rider is a modern derivative of that story, filtered through some very interesting minds.

The Play

The play itself has a history that's actually more intriguing to me than the story itself. Avant-garde theater and opera director Robert Wilson approached musician Tom Waits about creating the piece, and somehow they both got the notion to ask Beat writer William S. Burroughs to write the book for the show, and for some reason, he agreed.

The story involves Wilhelm (Grace Ng), a young file clerk who has fallen in love with Kätchen (Noelle Viñas), the daughter of the legendary hunter Bertram (Steven Hess), who forbids the marriage because Wilhelm cannot shoot or hunt. He prefers her to marry Robert (El Beh), a manly man like him. As Wilhelm despairs, hope appears in the form of magic bullets, proffered by Pegleg (the spectacular Rotimi Agbabiaka). The bullets will always hit their target, though Pegleg reserves one of the bullets for his choice. Wilhelm accepts, becomes a successful hunter, wins the hand of his beloved, and all goes well until....

At the risk of the obvious spoiler, Pegleg's bullet doesn't hit the target, it kills Kätchen instead. Wilhelm goes mad and joins cosmic freak show that Pegleg oversees.

One of the punch lines is that William S. Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his second wife while apparently trying to shoot an apple off her head. Presumably, alcohol and/or other substances were involved. But it does seem odd that he would later agree to write a play about such a similar event. Or not. It's Burroughs, after all.

I have now seen two versions of this play, one at ACT many years ago, and now this Shotgun production (plus a mini version put on by RADIX Troupe a few years back). I still can't say that the play itself speaks to me, particularly. I get that we're responsible for our choices and we shouldn't make deals with the devil and all that. But really, I don't see the appeal of the story.

The Production

It's really quite spectacular. The sideshow/freak show motif mixed in with the dismal, barren woods is quite striking in a set designed by Sean Riley. The colors and the art by R. Black (who does all the Shotgun posters and murals) are really great. The sound design by Matt Stines and live direction by Anton Hedman are exceptional and the live band under the direction of David Möschler all combine to make a complete soundscape, intricately synchronized with the lights (by Allen Willner) and the actions devised by Director Mark Jackson. Wrap this all in the outrageous costumes by Christine Crook, and the whole thing is a sensory masterpiece. It's all really stunning, except the story.

Special attention should go to Grace Ng, whose wonderful physical skills combine clownish miming and acrobatic gymnastics to create a wonderfully bumbling, befuddled Wilhelm. And El Beh proves to be marvelously masculine as Wilhelm's rival, Robert, and thrills with her singing voice as well. Casting women in both of those roles is really quite brilliant, since Wilhelm is supposed to be the least manly man imaginable to this village, one who can't shoot. And Robert is clearly insecure in his manhood as well.

And I should add a mention of Kevin Clarke (Old Uncle), whose role as sideshow barker/narrator/chorus hands him a megaphone to go with his outrageous hair. Elizabeth Carter is the final cast member, playing Anne, Bertram's wife. As befits a patriarchal fairy tale, her role is probably the least memorable. She's fine, but Anne is just not very important to the story.

Anyway, it's all a rather overwhelming feast for the senses, but I walked away feeling pretty unsatisfied, dazzled but not convinced.

Bottom Line

This is a spectacular theater piece. And it obviously speaks to some people, because it's selling like crazy and has been extended multiple times. It's certainly worth seeing (and it runs through January 21) if you're inclined, or if you just want to see the freak show. I wouldn't go looking for enlightenment, but you never know. We all walk into the sideshow knowing we're not going to get what we're promised, but we go anyway. It's our choice.

On some level, I guess you can see it as a commentary on gun culture, and how toxic that is, but really, that's not it. And some people see it as Burroughs trying to talk about the dangers of addiction, but I don't really see that. Pressure, conformity, toxic masculinity, gun worship, hero worship, avoidance of responsibility...yeah, they're all in there. But really, if I have to work this hard to sift out the meaning in the play, it seems like something's amiss. The cast and crew and designers put all this work into making something spectacular, so I feel like I should be clearer on why.

But it is really spectacular.

"Shakespeare in Love" at Marin Theatre Company

Marin Theatre Company photo by Kevin Berne
OK, we already know I like Shakespeare in Love. I saw it last summer at Ashland, so I won't go into great detail about the play itself. But I was quite looking forward to seeing it again, both because I liked it the first time, and because several of my friends and favorite local actors were cast in this production. I was also interested to go back to Marin for the first time since all the fuss raised by their Thomas and Sally last fall.

The Play

Seeing the stage version again made me more conscious of some of the differences between the stage adaptation by Lee Hall and the movie. In the movie, for example, Shakespeare's writer's block is a huge issue throughout, but in the play it comes across less as an inability to write than as either unwillingness or lack of interest, a habitual juggling of creditors. It's just a difference in emphasis, but it sticks with me.

Otherwise, it's still Shakespeare in Love. It's still the witty riff on Shakespeare that reflects the influence of the original screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. What's not to like?

The Production

There is a lot to like in this production. One thing that delighted me was the casting. The actors in the lead roles are the right age, where I thought Ashland's were a bit too mature. This production finds plenty of meaty roles for veteran local actors, too, but the key roles such as Will Shakespeare (Adam Magill), Viola/Thomas (Megan Trout), and Marlowe (Kenny Toll) need to be younger actors.

I have to give particular praise for the casting of Megan Trout. In addition to being just a tremendously talented actor, her experience last year playing a full season in Shotgun's Hamlet "Roulette", meaning she had a ton of recent experience performing Shakespeare's words in both male and female characters, which seems like the ideal lead-in to playing Viola/Thomas. And as I anticipated, she was brilliant in the role.

The supporting cast was also very strong, ranging from Bay Area stalwarts such as Stacy Ross (as the Nurse and Queen Elizabeth), Robert Sicular (Henslowe and De Lesseps), and L. Peter Callender (Burbage and the Boatman) to a host of younger mainstays such as Lance Gardner, Ben Euphrat, and Thomas Gorrebeeck. And a bit with a (very cute) dog.

The overall chemistry among the cast seemed quite strong. Not only did Magill and Trout work well as the leading couple, but Magill and Toll worked well as a pair of young men getting into trouble and helping each other out.

I thought the notion of having the ensemble play musical instruments on the periphery might be a bit distracting, but it turned out to be fine, and the music was mostly very good, though occasionally someone would burst out in a rendition of a sonnet for no apparent reason. But overall I thought it fit in nicely with the general chaos of an Elizabethan theater production. And I quite liked the way the set design by Kat Conley managed to separate onstage and backstage, and Jasson Minadakis's direction let those switch back and forth quite seamlessly. Nicely done, that.

Bottom Line

This is a fine alternative to the usual, treacly holiday programming. I mean, someone's always going to be doing A Christmas Carol or some other sentimental holiday thing. I appreciate a theater just going all out and doing a good, solid production of a real play that works as a fun holiday outing without being trite.

Unfortunately, I saw the show about a week before it closed, and then managed not to write this up until it had already closed. So although I would love to recommend that you see it, it's too late. On the other hand, it was also sold out, so I doubt it made much difference. But it was a very good show.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"Annie" at Berkeley Playhouse

Berkeley Playhouse photo
We went to see Berkeley Playhouse's production of the musical Annie last week, in part because we like to support this theater, in part because our daughter was having a reunion there with much of the cast of last summer's Teen Stage production of Assassins, and in part because we know the actress who was scheduled to play the lead role that night. Unfortunately, cold-and-flu-season knocked out our preferred actor, but one of the other actors was on site and stepped right into the role.

The Play

Remarkably, though I remember when this show first came out in the 1980s, I never saw it. I certainly heard the big musical number ("Tomorrow") enough times to feel like I had. Based on the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip characters, the play follows the titular character from Miss Hannigan's orphanage to the home of wealthy Oliver Warbucks, with plenty of visits from the president and various low-lifes.

Unlike all the other orphans in the orphanage, Annie holds out hope that she's not actually an orphan, just a kid that was left by her parents (with a note saying how much they loved her) temporarily until they could come back to pick her up. And they left her with half of a broken pendant that she always wears, knowing her parents will return with the other half, thereby identifying themselves. Of course, she was left as an infant, and is now 11 years old. In the middle of the Great Depression.

But Annie has an unconquerable positive attitude. You know: "The sun will come out tomorrow," etc. So she keeps trying to escape the orphanage to find her parents. She does get out one night, and visits a Hooverville shanty town where she claims a stray dog who would otherwise be taken to the pound and put to sleep. But she's soon rounded up and returned to the orphanage, where she manages to sneak the dog in somehow.

So things aren't going so great, but we get some song and dance numbers out it anyway. Then unannounced, billionaire Warbucks' secretary arrives at the orphanage to sort of borrow an orphan for a couple of weeks at Christmastime. Because Annie happens to be in the room at the time, she charms her way into being selected, and off she goes to spend a couple of weeks in the lap of luxury, stopping off for new clothes at a fancy boutique to get new clothes on the way.

Next stop, Oliver Warbucks' home, with a large staff and all the trimmings. Warbucks seems oddly nonplussed by the presence of the orphan he apparently recruits every year. Or maybe this is just the first time he's done this. Anyway, it's no more implausible than the rest, so just go with it. Because you need to save some suspension of disbelief for our visit to the Oval Office where an incessantly positive outlook turns out to be just what the president and his cabinet were lacking in their efforts to tackle the depression.

By various twists, Annie ends up on a hugely popular national radio show, telling the story of how her parents are missing, and suddenly hundreds are lined up outside Warbucks' home to claim her (and the $50,000 reward he has offered). Unsurprisingly, none of them know about the locket thing, and are pretty quickly turned away. But of course Miss Hannigan's brother, the con man, senses a chance to snag the reward, so goes to claim her, armed with the inside info from Miss Hannigan.

I'll just stop before I spoil the mega-happy ending, OK?

Suffice it to say that I find the plot of this show, while rather fascinating, somewhat less plausible than most, and that's saying a lot. But it has some catchy tunes and is relentlessly upbeat, even when it seems like it shouldn't be. So how could it fail to be popular?

The Production

I appreciate the quality of the productions put on at Berkeley Playhouse. They always seem to have imaginative and appropriate sets and costumes. For example, the New York City scenes are pretty much cartoon skyscrapers. Similarly, Warbucks' house looks like it came right off the comics page, right down to the portrait of him over the mantel. The evocation of the show's comic-strip origins is quite effective.

Before I go farther, I also have to give full appreciation to Miranda Long, the actor who had to fill in as Annie at the last moment. For the lead role, Playhouse had cast three actors (Long, Josie Dooley, and Sophia Gilbert) who work in a scheduled rotation. So it's not as if they had an unprepared understudy step in. But still, finding out literally minutes before curtain that you're going on stage has to be a bit daunting, but Long was terrific. We were disappointed not to get to see Dooley, but we were not disappointed in the quality of the performance overall.

And I will add that in addition to rotating three Annies, they also have two sets of orphans who alternate as well. We saw the "Park Avenue" group, and were impressed with them all. They have a lot of stage time, songs, dances, and individual lines, and they were all well up to the task. And bonus points for not being phased when the dog playing Sandy (Gaston) decided"sing" along with one of their numbers. Quite impressive.

The adults did a good job, too. Michael RJ Campbell, the only union actor in the cast, carries Warbucks quite well, and Melinda Meeng as his secretary, Grace Farrell, is charming and warm. Billy Raphael as Drake, the butler, brought a lot of personality to what could be a quite dry role. My only qualm was with the framing narrative that takes the form of a radio show. The host, Bert Healy (Ted Zoldan), manages to be a bit over the top, even by the standards of this comic strip on stage.

But on the whole the production values are solid. I quite appreciated the livery costumes on the Warbucks house staff, and the singing Boylan Sisters (Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Megan McGrath, and Ashley Garlick) look and sound sharp.

Bottom Line

For a small, relatively new (ten years now) theater company, Berkeley Playhouse manages to put together really high-quality productions. The fact that they are able to integrate so many young members of the local community is a tribute both to the organization as a whole and to the conservatory program they run that trains children and teens, obviously producing actors who are quite capable of taking part in a professional production.

As you'll have gathered from my comments, I think the show is a bit silly, even by the standards of musical theater. On the other hand, it's fun to watch and it clearly appeals to a broad audience. There were lots of children in the mostly-full house for the night we saw the show, and that's a great thing.

Annie runs through January 23rd, so you still have a few chances to see it.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

"Watch on the Rhine" at Berkeley Rep

Berkeley Rep photo by Kevin Berne
Timely revivals of older plays are often even better than new plays, because it's often helpful to know that prior generations have stumbled on some of the same rocks we find in our path now, and their insights can help us navigate, or at least understand. One example of such a revival is Berkeley Rep's current offering of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, a 1941 play about resisting fascism. It's a play that is fundamentally about getting out of one's comfortable bubble and realizing that fascism can be right in the house, unsuspected.

The Play

Set in a wealthy home outside Washington, DC, in the spring of 1940, we first see members of the Farrelly family anticipating the arrival of a long-absent member. Daughter Sara married a German engineer and has been living abroad with him and their three children. Mother Fanny is quite distracted in anticipation. Her son, David, is rather hard to read, but he misses his sister. So Fanny antagonizes Anise, the live-in French secretary, and Joseph the butler. The long-term house guests, the De Brancovises (whose presence is never fully explained), are minor Romanian nobility, down on their luck (and their finances).

So Sara and her family arrive earlier than expected, looking a bit threadbare and scruffy. It's clear they've not been living high on the hog, and have in fact been missing a lot of meals and staying cheaply as they move around a lot. Soon we learn that Kurt (Sara's husband) is no longer working as an engineer, but working as an antifascist, opposing the rise and spread of fascism all over Europe. As the discussion turns to European politics, we find that De Brancovis has pro-fascist sympathies and many German connections, and a scheme evolves to turn in Kurt to the Germans in exchange for money.

But maybe he could be bought out of that option, with the Farrelly family helping to buy his silence.

So we have the tension of family loyalties, the awakening of the awareness of how world affairs affect all, including the isolated American family, and of course the pro- and antifascist agents. It all blows up at the end, of course. Amidst all the political intrigue, we see some quite tender and difficult bits as it becomes clear that Kurt has brought his family to stay with the Farrellys while he must return to Europe to continue his dangerous fight. Hellman does a terrific job of juxtaposing the personal and the global, as well as bringing out hidden depths in seemingly fairly superficial characters such as Fanny and David.

All in all, the play is a solid piece of writing, and holds up well, although the early pacing is a bit slow. Eventually all the pieces fall into place, and you realize it's a cleverly crafted work.

The Production

Terrific looking set, I have to say. One advantage to a play that all takes place in one room is that the designers can really go to town on the details. So the room looks really good, nicely lighted, etc. I had a few issues with the sound and with audibility of some of the dialogue, even though we were seated pretty close to the stage, though on the side. I've never encountered acoustical issues in the Roda Theater before, so I doubt that's the problem. But mostly it was fine.

The acting was solid, mostly unspectacular. The key standouts were Elijah Alexander as Kurt Muller and Sarah Agnew as Sara Muller. And both stood out for the subtlety of their non-spoken parts. When Sara first enters the home she hasn't visited in 20 years, there is a palpable tension in her nervous movements, between the joy and comfort of being home and the anticipation of the unknown reception they will receive when her family meets her husband and children for the first time.

But the real winner is Alexander's Kurt. Soft-spoken and serious throughout, he evinces a tremendous strength of character and restraint, with a tenderness for his family that belies his hatred of the Nazis and all they represent. I found him utterly convincing throughout the show.

Caitlin O'Connell showed flashes of brilliance as Fanny, though a bit overplayed at times. And James Detmar's Joseph, the butler, showed some good comic touches. All the child actors playing Kurt and Sara's children were exceptional, particularly given how much stage time they all had. I found their portrayals a bit too forthcoming for children who have supposedly been on the run for essentially their whole lives--a bit too naive and trusting for who they really ought to be. I'm not sure whether the fault there lies in the text or in the direction of it, but still the performances are impressive.

Bottom Line

There is nothing flashy about this play. It's meant to convey the conflict and turmoil that underlies the denial in a quiet, normal life in a world about to melt down. And director Lisa Peterson's approach captures that well. Indeed, the tizzy about the arrival of family members is, for most of the play, the biggest disruption of daily life. The incursion of outside conflict is quiet and almost goes without notice until it can't any longer.

All in all, it's a very good production of a truly good play. Berkeley Rep has resisted the temptation to sensationalize the material, making its message all the more powerful.

The play runs through January 14, so there is still plenty of time to catch this one, and it's worth doing so.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"Olga: A Farewell Concert" at Aurora Theatre Company

Aurora photo by Scot Goodman
This is another show that's kind of hard to categorize. It's not a play, really, though it's more of a play than the Hundred Days show we saw the previous weekend in New York. Olga was a special, limited-run production as the first commissioned piece through Aurora's "Originate + Generate" (O+G) program for developing new works.

The Show

Presented in cabaret style, the show actually begins when the doors open and patrons start to find their seats. Olga (Beth Wilmurt) is already seated at the piano, playing softly and singing to herself. Olga is based on the character Olga Sergeyevna Prozorova, the eldest of the eponymous three sisters in Chekhov's play. As we learn early in this performance, the other two sisters are gone (one dead, one moved), leaving Olga alone and feeling reflective.

The reflections take the form of rather anachronistic musical selections. Olga would have been singing about a hundred years ago, but the musical selections performed by Wilmurt and her band are all distinctly more modern, from opening with Harry Nilsson's "Wasting My Time" through Phil Ochs and Brian Wilson tunes into adaptations of songs by such diverse artists as Jimmy Cliff, Los Lobos, Kirsty McColl, Gloria Deluxe, and Johnny Cash, among others.

The mood shifts from wistful to mildly celebratory, ironic and reflective, but never gets morose. There is a minimum of chatter between tunes; just enough to provide a bit of flow from one to the next. So the overall effect is pretty much just continuous music, but a bit of a story line makes itself felt through the music and the interactions on stage.

The Performance

Wilmurt has a lovely voice, being as much a musician and music teacher as a theater performer. And she has an easy rapport with her band (Sam Barnum on guitar, Gabe Maxson on harmonica, and Olive Mitra on bass and percussion). The band rolls into the room after a few minutes, wearing their Russian army uniforms, but quickly make themselves at home on the chairs and couches on stage. Olga fetches them beers, and with a bit of wine for herself, continues the show.

The overall show therefore has the informal, playing and singing with old friends vibe that suggests familiarity and shared experience, but there is a definite order to the show, rather than the impromptu feel of a jam session. Olga definitely has a plan for the evening, a journey she wants us to share. And the little nods to Chekhov's play give a context, yet don't conflict with the apparently contemporary setting of the piece.

I was most impressed with the way Wilmurt has arranged such diverse musical pieces into a style that makes them all feel like they fit together, and some are rather dramatically different than the original performances (notably Wilson's "In My Room," which is much more sprightly here than the familiar Beach Boys recording). Unlike so many current musical assemblages, where story lines warp to fit the lyrics and tempos of existing songs, Olga manages to select and manipulate the songs to fit the narrative arc of her evening.

Bottom Line

Olga is a pleasant evening of music. I suspect it helps to be of a certain middle-ish age to recognize and appreciate the songs assembled, as well as to fully appreciate the reflective ambiance of the show. It's a really solid show, not in a knock-your-socks-off sort of way, but rather in a kind of sly, subtle way. Olga seems intent on holding back, not setting our expectations, and then manages to reveal lots of interesting bits with her choices of songs and styles.

Unfortunately, the show only ran for ten days, and closed last weekend, so there aren't any more options for seeing it just now. However, I suspect the show will reappear in some form down the road.

And the next O+G production will be next spring, with a show called Eureka Day by Jonathan Spector on the Aurora main stage. It's always interesting to see new works, so I hope the O+G program will be successful.

"Hundred Days" at New York Theatre Workshop

I don't have a lot to say about the third and last show we saw on our NYC trip. Hundred Days is not a play, per se, but more of a musical performance piece. We saw it in part because it had originated from the Bay Area, commissioned at Z Space in San Francisco, and it features at least one former Bay Area artist.

The Show

This is not a play. It mostly takes the form of a musical performance, with a band on stage with their instruments. There is a kind of loose narrative as the lead singer leads the audience through a story that serves mostly to link the various songs together.

We begin with a vague description of something very traumatic that happened to the lead singer as a teenager. This event (which is never explicitly described) is followed by The Dream, which involves meeting the love of her life and then losing him after 100 days.

What happens eventually is that she does, indeed, meet the right guy, in much the way described in the dream (and he turns out to be the guitar player standing next to her on stage here). Together they face the uncertainty of dealing with the fear of the rest of the dream coming true, too.

In between we have a lot of reasonably related songs, though there are some fairly long bits of spoken words.

I guess the closest comparison I can come up with, stylistically, would be something like Stew's Passing Strange, where the artist tells a story about his own life, illustrated with songs. This show's narrative is not nearly as strong, however.

The book for this show is written by The Bengsons (Abigail and Shaun, who happen to be the lead singer and her husband, the guitar player) and Sarah Gancher. The Bengsons also wrote all the music and lyrics. The show seems to be based on real events that actually happened to the Bengsons. I'm told the original show at Z Space included more material that was a fictional story that takes off from the real background. So it's a bit unclear to be how much of Hundred Days is meant to be taken as real, and how much is made up.

The Performance

This is clearly a talented group of musicians. The Bengsons and their back-up band are terrific musicians. The music and the singing are quite good. I was particularly impressed with drummer Dani Markham (though as a former drummer, I may have a bias here). And the room in the theater was quite nice, though the building itself is unassuming. But the acoustics were very good, and the design with hanging lights was nice (though they moved in some odd and distracting ways during the show).

The show is fundamentally a love story between Abigail and Shaun, which is nice, and it seems to be quite genuine. I have to say that some of the talky material later in the show just seemed a bit self-indulgent, though. And there is a definite feeling of something missing. I'm not sure whether that reflects the changes made from the original version in San Francisco or whether the piece just doesn't quite end. But I distinctly felt unsatisfied at the end of the show. Not displeased, really, but I didn't feel like I'd gotten anything out of it beyond some entertainment and a sense that these folks felt the need to tell us all how much they loved each other.

Bottom Line

It was a pleasant evening, but not really what I go to New York to see on stage. I would have been happier had the show had a bit more to say to me about my world or my life, rather than just focusing on the one couple and their story.

But there is definite talent here, and good music. I'd just like to see a bit more or deeper story incorporated into the show.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

"The Play That Goes Wrong" at Lyceum Theatre

Production photo by Jeremy Daniel
We were looking for something new and fun on our recent trip to New York, and I saw references to The Play That Goes Wrong. Having recently seen Noises Off! at SF Playhouse, the notion of another play about a play going horribly off the tracks seemed amusing. It was.

The Play

Let's just get this out up front here: This is an extremely silly play. It has no great intellectual underpinning, hidden message, or anything like that. It is just a very, very silly play. The premise is that a college theater troupe ("The Cornley University Drama Society") is putting on a murder mystery called "The Murder at Haversham Manor." From the start of the curtain speech by the student director, it is clear that the society has ongoing issues with their play productions, but they have high hopes for this one.

But really, even before that, they've had some issues, as the stage crew keeps coming out on stage before the curtain, adjusting, fixing, etc. It's clear that there are issues and will continue to be.

So we have a "whodunit" staged by the inept, in a theater that seems to hate them. And we will send up every convention of the country house murder mystery, with lots of slapstick, malapropism, pratfalls, sight gags, and just general goofiness.

I should mention that the play won the Olivier Award a couple of years ago as Best New Play, so it has some credentials, and it's currently playing on Broadway, in London, and on at least one UK tour, with a US national tour coming next year. People like this play. And really, that's fine. It's not mean-spirited or anything. It's just very, very, very silly. And funny. And fun.

The Production

The Broadway production is quite slick. The set is elaborate (and needs to be, as it goes through a lot, with things falling all the time, entrances and exits happening in odd places, and so on. Also, the booth for the lighting and sound operator ("Trevor," played by Akron Watson) is located in one of the boxes on the mezzanine, so we can see what he's up to (because he's part of the play). He is also a huge fan of Duran Duran, and yes, that is a plot point.

Aside from the clever staging, I was most impressed with the physical comedy and timing of the cast. Despite having an understudy (Preston Boyd as "Dennis") in one of the important roles, things went brilliantly. I have not laughed this hard at a play in a long time. I thought they went a bit overboard on a few things, such as having Trevor climbing through the mezzanine before the show in search of a missing dog. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed several of the actors coming out to the lobby bar at intermission until the "student director" shooed them away, shouting that they would "spoil the illusion."

So all very over-the-top, melodramatic, and overdone. It was fun.

The Bottom Line

This is not great literature or brilliant drama, but it does not aspire to be. What it is, though, is clever and tightly designed and executed. I can't say that I'm a better person for having seen it, but I did have a rollicking good time, and I look forward to seeing it again when it comes through town on its national tour.

Check it out. You'll laugh.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Downtown Race Riot" at The New Group

So excited to be back in New York City to see a few shows. The trip is a quick one this time, so only three plays over the weekend.

We started off with Downtown Race Riot, by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld last night. It was not an auspicious start to the weekend.

The Play

Set in Greenwich Village in 1976, the play depicts a struggling family: Mary, a flower-child junkie, and her two children, Jimmy the high-school dropout with some rather questionable views on other people, and Joyce, a nominal lesbian who flirts incessantly with her brother's best friend. Said best friend, Marcel, is a black Haitian immigrant who seems to have a fair amount going on, although his life's goal seems to be graffiti artist.

The thing is, there is about to be a race riot in nearby Washington Square Park aimed at driving out the blacks and Puerto Ricans. Jimmy wants to participate, but his mother doesn't approve. Marcel wants to participate, too, which is more complicated, being as everyone views him as black, though he insists he is part of the neighborhood.

So there is some conflict set up. Personal and group loyalty come into conflict, of course. Marcel's story turns out to be perhaps the most interesting, his family not only having been chased out of Haiti, but also out of Harlem, since they weren't African American, so didn't fit in with the American blacks. So he's eager to join a riot to drive out blacks, essentially as retribution. But he can't see that he will be just as much a target.

There are other complications involving gangs/mobs and a coked-up lawyer Mary has hired to try to scam some money out of the city. So there seems to be a lot going on. Except there isn't. Jimmy keeps trying to make people hamburgers, but they get ruined. The dialog is heavy on exposition and short on any actual interest. It's just not a terribly interesting play. For one thing, it's all building up to the climax of the riot, but the play ends just as it's about to happen, so we never see that or its after effects.

The Production

The set was actually quite cool. It's a fixed set for three rooms in the apartment, all quite authentically decked out in mid-70s style. There was obviously a lot of detail work put into that. Similarly, the soundtrack feels authentic, and the lighting is used effectively to move the focus from one room to another (though there is sometimes interesting stuff going on in the rooms away from the focus). So that part is fine.

Then there is the acting. The big name in the cast is Chloe Sevigny, a movie and TV star who plays Mary. She's OK, but really not carrying the show. The biggest share of the lines go to Jimmy (David Levi), who has a rather limited range of sulks, punctuated by violent outbursts. More interesting is Marcel (Moise Morancy), who at least shows some range as he interacts with different characters. Joyce (Sadie Scott) made no sense to me. I mean, the character as written doesn't make sense, but as performed there is just no connection or appeal. Her big confrontation with Mary is delivered with kind of a flat, wooden affect that drains any emotion right out of the scene.

Of the other characters, Jay 114 (Daniel Sovich) provides kind of a menacing presence without a lot of lines. And Josh Pais as Bob Gilman, the lawyer, provides some humor to a pretty dismal scenario, but he only comes in late in the play and doesn't really resolve anything. But it's fun to watch a self-justifying coke-head from the 70s with a contemporary perspective.

I will add that this is the first time I'd been in this theater, the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. We sat in the mezzanine, which gave us a really nice overview of the apartment spread across the stage. I thought the acoustics were good, as were the sight lines.

None of the characters really creates much interest, except maybe Marcel. Instead of going offstage, characters often just go into other rooms, where you might or might not see them doing things in dimmed light, such as Mary shooting up while nominally watching her soap operas. Joyce wanders off to her room, partly disrobes, and then just lies on the bed. At least, that's all I noticed, as I was focused elsewhere. During another scene, Jimmy just sits at the table and mopes over one of his hamburgers, not eating or anything else I could discern. It's quite distracting to feel the need to look all around the stage to make sure you're not missing something. Perhaps this is some avant garde technique, but for me it just seemed like lazy direction.

Bottom Line

There just isn't much appeal in this play.I suspect that with stronger acting or some more clever direction, it could be better, but the script still doesn't provide much of interest. At best there is some mildly interesting character sketching, but none of the characters are actually very deep or compelling, and certainly not enough to atone for the lack of plot advancement.

Ultimately, the play just seems to give up. It leads us up to a big decision (will Jimmy and Marcel actually go to the riot?), but doesn't show us any of the repercussions of that. If the outcome is as cut-and-dried as the lead-up makes us believe, then are there actually any meaningful repercussions to the decision?

And the sad thing is, I find that I left not really caring. None of the characters seemed important enough to me, either as individuals or as symbols of some larger social faction, for me to derive any meaningful lesson about either the historical period or the current one. If there was some deeper meaning intended, it didn't make it across.

I had hoped for more, both in content and execution. I'd give this one a pass.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

"The Lion in Winter" at Custom Made Theatre Company

Custom Made Theatre photo by Jay Yamada
I really want to like this play. I truly appreciate the fact that Custom Made Theatre Company has the sense of humor and the guts to schedule The Lion in Winter as their holiday show because it is set at Christmas in the year 1183. And it's billed as “A Medieval Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?“-- that certainly seems like fun for the holidays!

It turned out that the most convenient time to see it was the weekend after Thanksgiving, at a matinee, and tickets were not exactly selling like hotcakes. But we decided to take the plunge and see what we got.

The Play

I think in the right hands, this could be a pretty interesting play. King Henry II has lost his favorite son (also named Henry) very young, and he's not terribly keen on any of his three remaining sons (Richard, Geoffrey, and John). Nor is he particularly fond anymore of his wife and queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who has been in prison for the last decade or so. He's quite fond of Alais, a French princess brought to his household by a treaty as a wife for Richard, though that hasn't happened yet. And Phillip, the young king of France, has come at Christmas to discuss that matter.

So Henry needs an heir, but hasn't named one. We get lots of political and family machinations around which of the sons should and will get the throne, along with a lot of verbal sparring between Henry and Eleanor, something they have clearly perfected over the years (and which draws the comparisons to Virginia Woolf).

There are plenty of twists and turns and such to keep one's interest, though the ending isn't all that satisfying (and isn't that what we want from a holiday show?).

The Production

The set is simple, which is good. It's clearly meant to be a medieval castle, or at least as muc of one as can fit on the small stage at Custom Made. But it's fine for the size of cast and amount of action. And the costumes, designed by Brooke Jennings, are excellent: not flashy, but evocative of royalty of the period. The sound, though, wasn't good. After intermission there is a small fire burning at center stage, and I heard pops and crackles coming from a speaker way off to the side, which was very distracting. And unfortunately, much of the sound design was overwhelmed by a buzzing from the lights or something overhead. So the production itself is kind of a mixed bag.

The acting covers quite a range, too. Eleanor (Catherine "Cat" Leudtke) is quite solid, and though he started our performance pretty flat, Henry (Steven Westdahl) managed to stay with her most of the way, though his range is more limited. Alais (Caitlin Evenson) started pretty strong, but kind of disappears later on. And the three competing sons don't seem to know they are in the same play. Richard (Elliot Lieberman) is stoic, yet angry. Geoffrey (Kalon Thibodeaux) is reserved and calculating. John (Luke Brady) is a whining, petulant child. Yet somehow I'm supposed to believe that they are fighting for the throne of the largest and most powerful empire in Europe.

Eleanor's favorite is Richard. Henry's (for inexplicable reasons) is John. There are valid political arguments complicating the case for either, but temperamentally, there is no question who ought to get the crown. (Hint: his nickname is "Lionheart".) In the hands of a different director, this might be an interesting struggle over geopolitics. But as staged by director Stuart Bousel, we see melodramatic arguments over important matters, but ultimately the question seems painfully obvious: Richard is suited to be a king, Geoffrey can be useful, and John is a ninny. Yet somehow we fight over whether to give John the crown, the princess, etc.

Bottom Line

This play ought to be more interesting than it is. Either a different cast or a different direction could probably take the script and turn it into something both fun and interesting. But this effort is only mildly fun or interesting. So I came away disappointed.

This isn't the holiday treat I was hoping for. It was a mildly diverting production marred by some inexplicable casting and directorial choices, plus some really bad tech in the sound department.

Still, there were a fair number of people in attendance today, and the show has been extended a week to December 9. So if you're looking for something a little different for the holidays, you have more chances to see The Lion in Winter. Just don't go in with your hopes too high.

"Small Mouth Sounds" at ACT

ACT photo by T Charles Erickson
ACT likes to use their newly-renovated Strand Theatre for smaller, more innovative productions that probably wouldn't work on the big stage in the cavernous Geary Theatre. Such is the case with Small Mouth Sounds, by Bess Wohl. As advertised (people meeting and interacting at a silent retreat), it doesn't sound like much of a play. But in fact, during much of the play there is the voice on an unseen teacher, so there is something of a narrative structure and words for the (mostly) silent characters to react to.

The Play

There's not a lot to say about the play itself beyond what I already said. A group of six people arrive at a silent retreat. Four are strangers, and two others are a couple, and we know really nothing about them except what we see. The unseen Teacher welcomes the guests and sets down some rules, at which point we really start to see various characters' personalities come out in their silent reactions. A key scene has everyone settling into their sleeping spaces, rolling out mats, undressing to one degree or another, etc. All along, little snippets of character come out.

And this goes on for five days. We get a few little interludes where people speak a bit, but that's about it. One character is permitted to ask a question, which is predictably lengthy and actually one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the play.

Ultimately, we don't learn all that much about any of the characters (though some more than others). We have essentially a character study with pretty strict limits on what the characters can reveal, and little or no plot for them to interact with. So in 100 minutes of uninterrupted performance, we get what we might get out of 15-20 minutes in a spoken play.

The difference being that you have to guess a lot more, and you end up filling in your own back stories and such. That's kind of interesting, but none of the reveals in the play are really enough to validate or invalidate much of one's speculations, so you're left with that. And I guess that's OK, but it's not really a play.

The Performance

The actors are all good, and expressive (as you might expect). Ned (Ben Beckley) ends up talking more than others (in part because of the aforementioned question scene), so we have a clearer picture of some of his issues and background. Joan (Socorro Santiago) and Judy (Cherene Snow) are the couple, so their interactions have more context, and we can interpret some of their back stories as well. Jan (Connor Barrett) has lost a child and is a magnet for mosquitoes.

Unfortunately, most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional. Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) is rather a show-off about his yoga and meditation practices,  but pretty self-absorbed. Alicia (Brenna Palughi) is a hot mess all around for no reason we ever discern. And the effort to insert a little personality into the unseen Teacher (Orville Mendoza) feel more like an effort to extend a scant "plot line" in the play, rather than a realistic effort to create a meaningful character of him or provide realistic prompts for the rest to react to.

In short, everyone does a good job with the material they are given. I thought Barrett and Snow and Chin-Lyn were particularly good and consistent with their portrayals. But really, there's not a lot of substance here. The "fill in your own story" aspect is kind of fun, but limited, and the one-dimensionality of the characters doesn't allow for very fulfilling stories at all.

Since it's kind of inevitable to make comparisons with other shows I've seen recently, it occurs to me that with a very similar-sized cast, Central Works' Strange Ladies managed to portray many more aspects of each character's life and personality. Admittedly, they used language, but that's kind of my point. If you're going to limit your characters to non-verbal communication, you (as writer or as director) had better provide them with more opportunities and tools for communicating. Otherwise you get flat, silent characters.

Bottom Line

It's an interesting exercise, but not a terribly fulfilling one. The actors are competent, and some manage to convey some really good, subtle emotions. I just wish there had been more to it. I'm not sure whether playwright Wohl and director Rachel Chavkin are concerned that audiences will be confused if the silent characters are more complex, or perhaps they just don't know how to do it. But for me, the main thing the show cried out (silently) for was more dimensions to the characters.

So I can't recommend it highly, but neither would I say to avoid it. The show runs through December 10 at the Strand Theatre, but there are probably better holiday shows out there.

Friday, November 17, 2017

"Strange Ladies" at Central Works

Central Works photo by J. Norrena
I hadn't been to Central Works for a while, so I was quite looking forward to seeing what this latest world premiere was all about. All I knew from reading blurbs on their website and in the paper was that Strange Ladies by Susan Sobeloff was about the American women who fought for women's suffrage, and that's a subject of great interest to me.

As always with these Central Works productions, they are world premieres, generally written by local playwrights, and they are often in somewhat raw form. In addition, the theater at the Berkeley City Club is really just a room with some seats around three sides, so the staging can't be too elaborate. On the other hand, they generally tackle issues of real interest, so even if the result isn't necessarily stellar, there is something worthwhile there.

And that's definitely the case here.

The Play

The play doesn't have a plot line per se, but rather follows a series of vignettes or episodes involving a group of six women joined together to fight for the right to vote. Some of the dialogue is a bit polemical, sounding more like they're giving each other their stump speeches than actually discussing issues or trying to persuade each other of tactics. But it's also a sort of shorthand that compresses our introductions to the characters and the issues.

So we first see the individuals, then send them off to recruit more, and then regroup together to plot a picket of the White House and President Wilson in the lead-up to the Great War. We get to see some splintering of the group over the war and how to advance (or not) their cause during it. And eventually we get to see some of the women arrested, imprisoned, and abused for demanding their rights.

Most effective in the script is the way it takes the six characters (although there are a few extras where someone fills a momentary role) with diverse backgrounds and priorities and manages to make them stand for the national coalition of women who came together over this particularly pressing matter.

Overall I thought the presentation was effective, and would probably be more so in a somewhat fancier theater with a bit fancier stage and light facilities. But on the whole, for a new work, it's quite effective.

The Production

Here again we have kind of a mixed bag. Of the six actors in the cast, three really stood out: Gwen Loeb as Rose, the New York union organizing veteran , Nicol Foster as Mary, the African American with a lot extra at stake, and Renee Rogoff as Alice, the organizer of the group. Each character has strong moments, but those actors really put something extra out there.

The costumes by Tammy Berlin are quite effective: Evocative of the era without being distractingly so. And the minimal props (by Debbie Shelley) and lights (by Gary Graves) manage to make the most out of the limited space. A "Votes for Women" banner held up represents the White House picket. A grid of dim light establishes that we are in prison. As a result, the production is pretty tight at just over an hour.

I should also call out the music, under the direction of Milissa Carey. The women frequently break into song, whether to break the monotony of picketing or to maintain their spirits in prison. It's one of the ways they bond, but also a way for the characters to establish themselves.

Again, they make the most of their limited space. The actors fairly frequently sat on the steps in the audience, making the setting all the more intimate.

Bottom Line

Strange Ladies is not, and need not, be a big play. Indeed, the small size of the cast and the stage effectively draws the audience into the already tight spaces and relationships of the characters. And we see in fair detail the efforts and the costs of the work these women undertook, the conflicts, the moments of doubt, and so on. It all seems very familiar to those who have worked on contemporary issues of social justice.

I appreciated getting some insight into the lives of the real women in the movement, although these particular women were fictionalized composites drawn from historical research. The result is quite moving as well as informative.

The play has been extended a week, and has three more performances this weekend. I'd say it's well worth going if you're in the area.

Friday, November 10, 2017

"Barbecue" at San Francisco Playhouse

SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli
This is a difficult play. I wish I had seen it a little earlier in its run, because there was a casting change for the last couple of weeks of the show, and it probably made a significant difference in the overall quality. But you go with what you got.

The play in question is Robert O'Hara's Barbecue, which takes place in a public park somewhere in Middle America around the present time. It's very clever in the way it does some things, but there are definitely some holes.

The Play

The play opens as a group of siblings begins to gather for a barbecue in the park, ostensibly as a celebration, but actually as a pretense to stage an intervention.  One of the siblings, Lillie Anne, has summoned the others (James T, Adlean, and Marie) to try to convince their sister Barbara to go into rehab. All of the siblings have issues, and many probably deserve to enter rehab themselves, but the opening scene establishes some of the background and relationships that have brought them to this stage.

As the first scene ends, the lights drop, and when they return we see exactly the same scenario, but all the actors have been replaced by doppelgangers. The obvious difference being that the first set of actors were all white, and the second all black.* The action continues as before, and we perhaps rethink some of our evaluations based on this change. Scenes alternate the two casts for the rest of the first act as we proceed into the actual intervention.

And then just as we get to the key moment at the end of the intervention (with the black family onstage), someone yells "Cut!" and everyone drops out of character, crew come onstage, and we realize that what we are seeing isn't what we thought we were seeing. We get to ponder that through intermission.

After intermission things change a bit, and we primarily see the two "Barbara" actresses interacting, starting with the white Barbara alone in the park, then joined by the black one. It becomes clear that the white Barbara is the "real" one, and the other is a famous actress who is evaluating whether to play Barbara in a film adaptation of Barbara's memoir, written in rehab.

[Spoilers here...look away if you must!] In the course of their discussion/negotiation, it becomes clear that Barbara's memoir is largely fictionalized, and was in fact inspired by reading a memoir while she was in rehab that inspired her recovery, but was also revealed to be fabricated. So we have layers on layers of fabrication and imitation and appropriation and ambition. Ultimately, everybody is trying to make a buck off of telling a story that might not be theirs, might not be true, and really, what does that matter?

I'd put this play in the trendy current genre of "gotcha" plays, where we are presented with a scenario that is ultimately revealed to be something entirely different, both within the play and to us. We've seen several plays like this over the last year or two, including Christopher Chen's Caught, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon. When done right, it can be brilliant, and really make the audience evaluate their thinking and prejudices. But timing and chemistry onstage are in many ways as important as the writing, as the audience really has to buy into the set-up in order for the "gotcha" to work.

The Production

Which brings us to the production. This casting is particularly tricky, as the play needs two complete, coherent families. For the most part, this works pretty well here. The characters of Adlean (Jennie Brick and Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) and James T (Clive Worsley and Adrian Roberts) slip back and forth pretty seamlessly. The Maries (Teri Whipple and Kehinde Koyejo) seem to have somewhat different approaches to their character. Lillie Anne (Anne Darragh and Halili Knox) is more of a problem; though both are good performances, they don't feel like the same character at all, really.

And then there is Barbara (Sally Dana and Margo Hall). The white Barbara was originally Susi Damilano, an SF Playhouse founder, producing director, and frequent performer. Damilano is a dynamic and accomplished actress who probably matched up well with the veteran Hall. Not taking anything away from Dana, but she doesn't have either the big stage presence of Damilano or the chemistry with Hall that comes from developing the roles over the course of the run. I found a lot of the post-intermission scenes just lacking in coherence and fire that seemed to be called for. It just felt off. So that's why I say I wish I'd seen the play a bit earlier, with the original casting. It's a tough call for an actor to come into the cast for the last two weeks of a run and try to maintain the quality of the production. It's not bad, but it doesn't feel like it's all it should be.

Other than that, I thought the production was quite good. Bill English's set design works well, evoking a public park that has probably seen some better days. And Hall directs as well as performing, which works pretty well because most of her scenes either don't have a lot of lines, or they have lines, but not many other characters.

Bottom Line

There is a lot going on in this play, but because each of the actors only plays about half of it, it's kind of hard to really get into any of them. And as noted above, when we do finally get two characters developing and working with each other the particular casting of this last couple of weeks has taken some of the air out of the balloon.

Still, there is plenty to think about in the play, even if the very nature of it makes it difficult to really settle in and evaluate it. We get to look at how we feel about characters of different races with exactly the same issues, for example. And we get some class consciousness as the big movie star confronts the rehabbed addict on her home turf, as well as the pretenses of the star who thinks she can just dictate who she is and what her background is; never mind what "facts" you might have read about her. Those are all pretty interesting, but all get a bit muddled. The concluding scene just adds a few more with some digs at Hollywood and the film-going public and their attitudes about race.

Ultimately I have a little trouble trying to decide which of these are actually important to the playwright and which are just incidental details that go into telling the story. And that's probably my biggest issue with these "gotcha" plays: by their nature, they are complex, and they also consciously undercut their own characters, plots, and messages. It's great to have plays that leave us asking questions, but it's also helpful to make sure we know which questions the playwright actually thinks are important.

Barbecue runs through this weekend (closes Saturday the 11th). It's worth seeing.

*I'm sure I could come up with better descriptions of the cast change than "white" and "black," but that is the essence of what we're looking at. We have the same family with essentially the same dynamics, just a different race. I will use the "black" and "white" shorthand because it's late and I'm tired.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Thomas and Sally" at Marin Theatre Company

Marin Theatre Company photo by Kevin Berne
Well, everybody else is talking about this play this week. Turns out this is the right time for me to have seen it! It is highly unusual to encounter protesters trying to talk you out of going into a theater to see a play. But that was our introduction to Thomas and Sally on Saturday night at Marin Theatre Company. I had initially been indifferent to seeing this show, but my wife wanted to see it, so we did. After we bought our tickets a friend went and left at the first intermission (yes, there are two) because he didn't care for the play, which he summed up in three uncomplimentary adjectives (about the writing, not about the production).

Then today I was skimming Twitter and learned that a group of local theater artists, mostly African American, had written an open letter to Marin Theatre Company expressing their belief that this production "is an irresponsible, deeply harmful project with no accountability to black women and girls." Since I am neither a black theater artist nor affiliated with MTC, I won't get in the middle of that. But it is worth reading. I know quite a number of the writers and signers of that letter, and I respect their views.

What follows is my own thinking, based on my experience of the play, though obviously at least somewhat informed by the dialogue going on around me. It's probably safe to say this isn't the same post I would have written had I done so immediately upon coming home (which is probably good, because it was very late!), but I think most of the ideas are pretty similar.

The Play

Thomas and Sally is a very ambitious undertaking. It's a world premiere play, commissioned by MTC and written by Thomas Bradshaw. Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis (who also directed the play) hails from Virginia and has a passion for American history and particularly Jefferson and his relationship with the Hemings family, and he was really taken with Bradshaw's writing, so collaborating on this play made sense.

If you've been living under a rock (and if Minadakis is to be believed, a fair portion of his audience has been), you might not know about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. The short version is that plantation owner Jefferson had a "relationship" with Hemings, who was one of his slaves. It's a fairly big topic in historical circles.

Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) was one of the "founding fathers" of the United States, primary author of the Declaration of  Independence, first Secretary of State, third president, provider of the initial stock for the Library of Congress, and so on. He was also a wealthy Virginia plantation owner, and among his possessions were over 600 slaves, including the Hemings family, including Sally. Nothing unusual there in colonial America, really. The kicker being that Jefferson had inherited the Hemings family on the death of his father-in-law, John Wayles (Robert Sicular). OK so far. But after the death of Wayles' third wife, he had taken a fancy to one of his slaves, Betty Hemings (Charlette Speigner), and fathered a number of children (eight, IIRC). Some of those children, including Sally Hemings (Tara Pacheco) survive and pass down to Jefferson. So Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha (Ella Dershowitz). So even by the standards of the day, to adopt modern parlance, it's complicated.

This means Jefferson has a group of "special" slaves that his father-in-law has told him to treat well, keep out of the fields, etc. But they're still slaves, and can't be freed because then they would have to leave Virginia, among other things (it's the law; that's complicated, too). Among other things, some of the new Hemings slaves displace other slaves, such as Jefferson's long-time valet, Jupiter (played brilliantly by L. Peter Callender). That act of casual cruelty is one of the more realistic scenes in the play. And the overseer (Scott Coopwood) foresees that it will be difficult having some slaves treated almost as free servants while others slave in the fields. There is a lot going on.

Keep in mind that we have to go through the entirety of Act I to get all this. From what Minadakis explained in the after-play Q&A session, the first draft of that act was about 80 pages long, or nearly what a full play often covers. Though it has been edited considerably, it has to move at a quick clip, but it does so rather awkwardly.

But the play has three acts, and we're just getting started. Heck, we haven't even met Sally yet. As Act I turns into Act II, the recently-widowed Jefferson has been named minister to France, so he and his daughter, Patsy (normally Rosie Hallett, but read by someone else on Saturday--sorry I missed the name), and James Hemings (William Hodgson) head for Paris, where James apprentices as a chef ('s complicated). Later they are joined by younger daughter Polly (Dershowitz), who is accompanied by Sally Hemings.

So now lonely, widowed Thomas, much like his late father-in-law, finds himself alone, but with "needs" that can be met of his slaves! So he slides into a sexual relationship with Sally, being at least somewhat discreet, at least at first. Needless to say, it's complicated. There is sex. There is seeming affection, and eventually, the inevitable pregnancy, right about the time the French Revolution breaks out, and the Jefferson/Hemings party needs to head back to Virginia. Somewhere in here we've had a super-awkward intermission break, because it happens while Thomas and Sally are in bed, and though the lights drop and the bed turns around, the actors are still visibly in it, so it doesn't really feel like one should leave. Stage hands eventually roll the bed off, but wow...uncomfortable moment.

Act III covers the (complicated, of course) decision about who goes home and when. James wants to stay in Paris where he can be free and a great chef. Thomas wants him to return to Virginia and "pay back" his apprenticeship. Sally really wants her child(ren) to be free, which pretty much means staying in France, but she also wants to be with her family, and maybe with Thomas. But with a few twists and turns, everybody ends up going home to Virginia, amidst promises of freedom for some, eventually, sort of.

The Frame Story

What I've left out here is the frame story. The play opens in a modern college dorm room, occupied by two young women, Simone and Karen (Dershowitz and Hallett-or-her-reader, respectively). Karenis writing a paper about slavery or Thomas Jefferson or something. It didn't seem that critical, so I forgot exactly what the topic was. Simone conveniently turns out to be a descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and proceeds to launch into a (three acts worth!) retelling of her family history, all the way back to the Wayles family refusing to sell Betty Hemings back to the captain (Coopwood) who fathered her on the voyage over from Africa (yes, really, three generations of these complications). All punctuated by several admonitions that "I'm not a historian." Because what this complicated story desperately needed was an unreliable narrator.

And to tie things up at the end, the two students have a little discussion about slaves and agency and love and such. Simone is quite adamant that slaves exercised all they agency they possibly could, all the time. Karen is non-committal about where she's going to come down on all this; she'll think it over. And she promises to do research to verify all the stories Simone has told her.

The Production

As with most MTC productions, the quality is high. The actors are capable, the sets well-designed and -built, good lighting, costumes, and so on. I don't have many complaints here. The bed, mentioned earlier, where Jefferson and Hemings ... er ... "sleep" is upright. As in they are standing up against an upright "bed" with bedding draped around them like a curtain. It looks really strange. It's especially awkward when Jefferson is lying in bed, having taken ill, and James comes in to talk to him, standing next to the bed. Combine that with the way Act II ends in the bed, and it's just way too weird. All the other beds (and there are a number of them, from the dorm room to Wayles' home to Monticello, to the rest of the time in Paris when Jefferson an Hemings aren't doing it) are horizontal, and we get along quite fine there.

And for some reason, the scene changes are done quite abruptly and loudly, with rumbling, sliding and squeaking and actors shove things relatively short distances. This seemed often unnecessary and quite distracting.

The play, and especially the first act, is too long. 2:45 with two intermissions. I think it actually ran long, in addition to starting late. I suspect the late start was due to whatever kept one of the actors from performing. The understudy/replacement sat in a chair off to one side of the stage and read the lines from a script. She did it pretty well, but it definitely detracted from the overall performance. I'm sure there was a good reason for all this, but it made the start of the long evening just that much odder.

And then there is the sex. Obviously, sex is an important part of the story, because if it weren't for the three generations of masters impregnating their slaves, we don't have a story at all. Fine, we get that. But the opening scene starts with a discussion of a missing/borrowed dildo and then we get a fair amount of rather juvenile taunting about penis size and then way too much detail about the highly implausible first encounter between Thomas and Sally. The last got a lot of feedback in the post-show discussion, but it was clear there was never any notion of cutting or changing that scene, though they thought of ending it a little bit sooner.

The Problems

Clearly, I have some issues with this play and production. And it's a bit hard to separate whether my issues are actually with the play as written or with the play as produced, because I haven't read it. And since this is the world premiere of a work that was commissioned and developed by this theater and this cast and creative team, it's hard to say that a problem lies on one side or the other. I take it as given that this crew knows and expresses the wishes of the playwright pretty closely.

Any writing about Jefferson and Hemings suffers from the tremendous imbalance of available information on the two subjects. Jefferson is extremely well-known and well-documented. About Hemings, very little is actually known directly. So virtually everything said or done by or about Jefferson we can weigh against what we know or believe. But with Hemings we don't have that luxury. Everything here is either an invention or an interpretation by Bradshaw, but we don't have a way to evaluate its validity.

In this story as related by Simone, we see and hear Jefferson do things that are clearly not correct. For example, there is a scene where Ben Franklin and John Adams essentially abdicate the job of writing the Declaration of Independence onto an unwilling Jefferson. But anyone who knows much about Jefferson knows that is completely out of character, and that he proudly drafted the Declaration. And in dialogue we hear him declare himself to be "the foremost abolitionist of his day." Is this Simone putting words in his mouth ironically? Or is this the family lore, that Jefferson desperately wanted abolition, but wasn't able to free his slaves because...take your pick of various reasons. Lots of signalling here that we can't take any of this at face value: Fine. But at no point does Bradshaw ever come down on any side at all. And indeed, he leaves us with Karen saying she'll think it all over before writing her college paper.

That's it? Three hours of play to leave us with "decide for yourselves"? Or, you can take Simone's strident defense of slaves acting with all they agency they could whenever they could, and take her Act III romantic scene at face value, that Sally and Thomas loved each other, that he couldn't free her because she would have to leave Virginia and basically go underground, or she would have to leave him (for example, staying in Paris during the revolution). Sure, it's complicated. But that's not a very effective message to express.

Furthermore, Jefferson was famously able to hold and profess at least two or three contrary positions on the question of slavery. So the fact that the play portrays those contradictions doesn't really do much to assist the audience is reaching any conclusion.

And then there is the language, particularly of Act I. I don't know if it's just the amount of editing that had to be done, or whether the playwright or the director really intend for all the historical characters in that act to come across as caricatures, but that is largely (yet not entirely) what happens. Are we supposed to take this as the playwright being ironic, signaling that he knows we know these are just simplistic expressions of complicated ideas? Or does the awkwardness and anachronism derive from the interpretations of the young college student (who is not, not, not a historian!). And if we don't believe the caricatures, does that mean we're supposed to believe the characters when they become more realistic in Act II?

Ultimately, the play tries to do too much, and ends up doing too little. By trying to condense the vast amount of information that is actually known about Jefferson, supplemented with all the cool research on The Wayles and Hemings families and the creative writing about Sally, and surrounding it with a fictitious frame story, Bradshaw seems to have lost track of what story he actually wanted to tell, and instead of telling a story just presents a lot of bits and pieces that never tie together. That's pretty unsatisfying.

The Q&A

I would be remiss not to talk about the Q&A session that followed the play. Director Jasson Minadakis came out on stage and took questions from the audience for a long time, and we learned a lot about the play, the development process, and some of the controversy that has surrounded the production. A lot of his stories were interesting and instructive, but ultimately not very satisfying. It doesn't feel like he's quite understanding what all the fuss is about. I was pleasantly surprised with the number of people who stayed to talk, and both the quantity and quality of questions they raised.

As with the curtain speech before the show (which was delivered by someone else), Minadakis was pretty dismissive of the protesters outside, saying they haven't seen the show, so their view is invalid. I was impressed when one African-American woman spoke up to say she had basically been deputized by her reading group to come and see what this was all about. And she had some pretty damning comments about the production that really hit home. I kind of wish she hadn't framed it as "fake news," since that term is pretty overloaded at the moment. But I think it's fair to summarize at least part of her point as being that the story as presented, whether you want to classify it as seduction or mutual attraction and affection or whatever, cannot be true. I haven't even talked about the vast age difference between Thomas and Sally when they first "hook up," never mind the vast difference in power and influence (an oh, yeah, the whole owner/property thing), but the essence of the message was that any portrayal of a relationship between a master and slave that suggests the two are even remotely in a consensual relationship is deluded. Again, my words here.

One question I asked related to the unreliable narrator, and why hand the story over to her if it's not going to result in a modern interpretation of the situation. The answer, such as it was, dealt with Bradshaw's musings over how to explain the situation to his own mixed-race children. Not very illuminating. Perhaps more disturbing was Minadakis' insistence that Bradshaw doesn't want to give us a conclusion, that he's presented us with enough clear examples to reach our own conclusions. Indeed, from the program notes from the dramaturg and an online interview with Bradshaw, the recurring message is that there is no message, that it's an exploration, that we can never really know the truth.

That feels like a serious cop out. Even if we can't reach absolute metaphysical certainty, we can certainly draw some meaningful conclusions. Or we can explore different avenues and see where they lead. But this play doesn't do that. It just presents, without comment or evaluation, a quite implausible scenario. And it has certainly irritated a lot of people, so I guess if that's what one means by "provocative," it has certainly provoked. But to what end?

The Inevitable Comparison

Here's the thing: I've already seen this "exploration" done much more provocatively, and much more effectively. Last season at Berkeley Rep, we saw An Octoroon, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. I won't rehash it here, since you can just click over to my earlier comments. But the point is that Jacobs-Jenkins masterfully manipulates his audience, doing things that are outlandishly offensive (and thus, "provocative"), and then stepping back and examining how that works. Time and again we got pulled into a point of view, only to have it invalidated. And the thing is, it deals with the love between a white slave owner and a woman he nominally owns. It's complicated, too, but Jacobs-Jenkins doesn't let that get in the way of really making his audience face up to the questions presented.

If I hadn't already seen An Octoroon, I might have been more impressed with Thomas and Sally. But having seen a production that not only "explores," but genuinely examines issues, taboos, and prejudices, I know that it's not enough to just present some (im)possible scenario and let people think about it. The playwright's job is to take us somewhere, and if the playwright doesn't have a point, he really doesn't have a play, he just has a bunch of people watching a show.

No wonder people get upset. There are some clear and obvious lessons one can learn from giving even cursory analysis to a situation like this. To simply ignore that and say "this isn't what I believe, it's just something to think about" is insulting to the audience and even more insulting to those whose views, agency, and very personhood are denied by the scenario presented.

The Bottom Line

It seems only reasonable to ask what the point of this endeavor really is. If the playwright and director don't want to have a point of view, why are they producing this play? I suppose the answer might lie in my initial statement about this being an ambitious undertaking. MTC saw an opportunity to raise its profile by commissioning a work from a hot New York writer, and everyone perhaps took their eyes off the finish line in the excitement of working together. There's plenty of interesting material here, but it seems irresponsible to merely stir things up if you have no actual reason for doing so, and no way to help resolve the inevitable frustrations of those who see the play and those who feel they are hurt by the presentation.

Talk-backs after the show help. Indeed, I don't know that I've ever seen a show that needed a talk-back afterward like this one did. But if you find that you have to talk people down after every show, perhaps that's a sign that you should have incorporated some of that into the show itself. And I do give Minadakis full credit for sitting up there on stage taking questions from all comers. He made it pretty clear that he was there as long as people wanted to ask. discuss, vent, or what have you. That's not easy, and he did it with equanimity. Still, I have to think that a bit of awareness earlier in the process could have saved a lot of the current angst.

Originally scheduled to end this past weekend, it appears MTC has extended the run another week, through October 29. I wish I could endorse going to see this show, as it has some good talent and some interesting bits. But on the whole, I didn't find the show itself particularly interesting. I admit that I'm glad I saw it, as it gives me better insight into the controversy. But as far as theatrical productions, I'd give it a pass. There are plenty of shows out there that are more worth your time.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

"The Farm" at TheatreFIRST

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

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

The Play

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

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

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

The Production

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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