Thursday, February 23, 2017

"This is Not Normal" at Shotgun Players

Here in California, we're just getting over a drought. I mean that both in the sense that after at least five years of below-average rainfall and water shortages, this winter we are getting a lot of rain (and snow in the mountains), and in the sense that people are having to adjust to living with normal or even above-normal precipitation.

I'm writing this a couple of weeks after seeing the show because after a kind of slow period for me, theater-wise, I have suddenly been going to a lot of shows, and I'm having to learn to keep up with my writing afterward.

And also, this is a really tough subject to write about.

The show in question is Mike Daisey's other new show, a part of Shotgun's Blast Festival. I wrote about Daisey's previous show, "The End of Journalism," when we saw it a week before. I also discussed the Blast Festival, so we'll skip that here, too. In many ways, although it continues some of the themes of "The End of Journalism," and said decline in journalism certain contributes to the not-normal matters in this show, it is really very much a follow-on to the show Daisey performed much of last year, "The Trump Card."

What's Not Normal?

Because indeed, the subject hanging over much of this latest effort is not just the recent American presidential election, but also the kind of behavior the outcome represents. Roy Cohn makes a return appearance in this new show, largely because he was such a huge influence on Donald Trump.

Daisey finds himself in something of a pickle with this effort. On the one hand, it's tempting to tell us "I told you so," because he did. He told us what Trump represented and where it all came from, and the country elected him anyway. But on a deep, fundamental level, he is also trying to tell us that the autocracy Trump represents is not normal, and can't be allowed to be seen as normal.

Some of the material kind of fills in holes in Daisey's life story. I've been following him since seeing "21 Dog Years" many years back at Berkeley Rep, so it was fun to hear some more stories of his early theater years in Seattle. His portrayal of a Czech director (and Czechs in general) is amusing, as is his description of auditioning for and performing in a play called "Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter," which sounds just awful, yet bizarrely amusing. And honeymooning in Rome with his now ex-wife. So there is definitely material in here that has promise: these things are not normal.

The Problem(s)

There are several difficulties with this show, however. One is that it's brand new, and after seeing two brand new monologues in a row, I have to say that I like them better when they've got a little more mileage on them. Daisey always speaks somewhat extemporaneously, just working from a few pages of hand-written notes. So there is always a bit of spontaneity to the show, which is good. On the other hand, spontaneity works better as part of a familiar act, and these new shows don't have that comfort level for him yet.

What's particularly missing from this show is a story arc. It's episodic, but doesn't have the same sense of flow that I consider the hallmark of a Mike Daisey monologue. It's probably just a matter of him not having found the right connection, and that will come. But in the meantime, it just feels a little awkward.

And frankly, I think there's a reason underlying the discomfort, beyond unfamiliarity with the particular show: I don't think Mike is comfortable with the message. He's fundamentally telling the audience about things they already know, things they are not comfortable with, and things they are already trying to come to grips with. So on some level it feels like therapy for the group, but instead of the patients coming to an understanding of what is wrong and what they need to do about it, it sort of feels like the therapist is kind of apologetically writing and rewriting the prescription as we tear them up and throw them away. In a room full of people who are already outraged, it's hard to incent them to act or change.

The Bottom Line

The show has some good bits and some promise. I wish I'd written it up when it was fresher in my mind so I could point to more specifics. But really, I came away thinking I hadn't really gotten that much out of it. I got a few phrases (and truly, I keep seeing and hearing "this is not normal" in way too many contexts lately). Maybe it's just because I've now heard Mike sounding the alarm three different times in the last six months, and I'm a bit numb.

But ultimately he is right: we can't let this absurd and awful situation become normalized. We have to resist that every bit as much as we resist specific actions and attitudes that offend us. So in a weird way, the phrase "this is not normal" is going to have to be a normal thing for a while. And that's not a comfortable place to be.

So it's definitely not my favorite Mike Daisey piece, by a long shot. I suppose it might ultimately be the most important one, but like many medicines and prescriptions, what's good for us isn't always something we like.

It's been interesting to see a couple of early-stage works from Mike Daisey this year, but on the whole, I think I'll let other people attend the early workshops and try to see more polished presentations.

Monday, February 20, 2017

"The Real Thing" at Aurora Theatre Company

Aurora photo by David Allen
If you've been following this blog or my other theater commentary at all, you probably know of my fondness for Tom Stoppard's work. "The Real Thing" was, I think, the second Stoppard play I ever saw, and I have seen something like four different productions of it. It's a popular play because it features lots of good, witty language and more emotional content that one often finds in Stoppard. I chose the photo above because it's of one of my favorite, most memorable scenes, where Henry, the playwright, uses the analogy of a cricket bat to explain why good writing is actually good, not just because someone says it is. I also picked it because you can see both Nina Ball's set and some of Kurt Landisman's lighting, which both add a lot to the show.

Anyway, it's always fun to revisit a familiar play, though this time in a rather different staging. The production has been popular, and is extended through March 5th, so you still have time to catch it. (And, spoiler: it's worth seeing!)

The Play

Tom Stoppard is well-known as a clever and intellectual writer, but gets criticism for being a bit emotionally distant. He's thought to be more comfortable writing about ideas than about feelings. And that's probably true. In "The Real Thing," however, he tackles that head-on with a play that is not only about love and marriage and infidelity (and writing and theater and...), but also cuts fairly close to Stoppard's own reality in several ways. Though you can still question the emotional content of the writing, there is no doubt there is reality impacting on it.

Through the course of the play we see Henry (Elijah Alexander, above with the cricket bat) and his first wife, Charlotte (Carrie Paff), then his second wife, Annie (Liz Sklar), who he leaves Charlotte for. It's much more complicated when you add Annie's first husband, Max (Seann Gallagher) and Henry and Charlotte's daughter, Debbie. Throw in a young political prisoner with literary aspirations and a randy young actor and you have plenty of possibilities.

Stoppard makes good use of the revolving doors of relationships, both real and theatrical, to keep the audience on their toes. Add a musical score of popular music from the 1950s and 1960s, and those toes keep tapping throughout. I remember vividly the first production I saw of this play, at Marin Theater Company, and thought how marvelously they had woven the music into it. Only later, when reading the script, did I learn that Stoppard includes the musical cues right in the script, down to specific songs and artists.

I have to say that sound designer Cliff Caruthers has gone beyond even that and woven the music even more deeply into the fabric of the play, as well as providing a complementary soundtrack before, between, and after the acts. It's kind of like living in an old jukebox, which I loved!

The Production

As noted earlier, the set, lights, and sound are all top-notch. Of particular interest to me is the fact that this is the first time I've seen the play staged in such an intimate setting. The three-quarter thrust stage that is Aurora's little home puts one right in the laps of the players, and also requires them to be a bit more active than in a traditional staging. The closeness to the characters is engrossing, though I have to admit it was sometimes a little distracting to see audience members behind the characters. But overall, I loved the staging.

The lead actors are also terrific. Alexander I'd seen at Ashland and CalShakes, Paff is a regular at SF Playhouse and other local thaters, and Sklar seems to be everywhere I turn locally this year, between "Anne Boleyn" at Marin and "Othello" at CalShakes. Tommy Gorrebeeck as Billy and Brodie is also locally familiar. Together, they keep the action moving and believable, which can be tricky amidst the complexity and wit of Stoppard's words.

I was also glad to see that neither the cast nor directory Timothy Near seemed tempted to try to bring the play to a clear conclusion. There are definitely some leanings, but Stoppard doesn't really have a clear closing message he insists you take away. If anything, he seems intent on presenting some moral and practical ambiguities and letting us play with the possibilities in our own heads. That's the fun of a play like this, anyway.


There are some elements of the play that are definitely showing their age. It is, after all, 35 years old. So it has to serve on some level as a period piece, and modern audiences might have some issues with some of Stoppard's (and Henry's) choices in the text. At the same time, there are some truly timeless issues of human emotion and attachment that it touches on, and it would be unfortunate to throw those out just because some of the rest is uncomfortable. [I'm put in mind here of Shotgun's production of Aphra Behn's "The Rover" last year, which is wildly uncomfortable in many ways, yet an important work because of how it portrayed relationships between men and women 400 years ago.] There are probably some artistic choices that future productions will choose to make, either edits or changes in emphasis, that will adjust parts of this play to make them more palatable to modern audiences. In the mean time, we get 1982 Tom Stoppard writing about a male writer's mid-life crises, and whatever else it is, the writing is fun.

I have to say this is a much better production of "The Real Thing" than the one I saw in New York a couple of years ago. That one had bigger names in the starring roles, but in a bigger theater, it didn't really matter who it was, and the staging was not nearly as engaging. This is definitely a unique opportunity to see a deeply personal Tom Stoppard play in a setting that brings out the human connections in a way that you can almost reach out and touch them. That alone is enough reason to go.

Check it out.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

"The End of Journalism" at Shotgun Players

Mike Daisey is back in town. I last saw him last fall, doing a monologue about Donald Trump and what a piece of work he is. And I've written about some of the other times I've seen him and the controversy around him, too. So I'll spare you the recap.

Apparently Mike enjoyed his appearance at Shotgun's Ashby Stage last September, so he's back with two brand new monologues as part of Shotgun's Blast Festival between seasons of their regular productions. Thursday night I caught the second night of his presentation of his first new work, "The End of Journalism." Next week he'll be doing a separate new work called "This is Not Normal."

Unlike Daisey's works I've seen in the past, these new shows are quite early in their development, and as such less polished and less complete than what I'm accustomed to. So in addition to enjoying the performance, I'm getting a view into a part of his development process I've not had before.

I will also note that reading other reviews of, for example, the opening night of the show made it clear to me just how different Daisey's shows are from one performance to the next, and probably even more so in the very early stages of development. So it's entirely possible that my comments are not applicable to shows that came before or after.

This Show

Journalism is in trouble. You don't have to be paying very close attention to know that. Newspapers are either shrinking or disappearing entirely as what remains of the industry consolidates into a relatively few hands. Relieved of their public-interest obligations, broadcasters have largely abandoned any pretense of doing more than sensationalism and ambulance chasing. Local and independent journalism is nearly non-existent. So how did we get here?

Daisey takes us through a cursory history of journalism from the invention of movable type through the heyday of 20th century journalism and mass media, through to today's shriveling landscape, examining some themes that contribute to the ongoing decline.

Primary among those is the notion of objectivity, that a journalist can somehow stand outside of events and evaluate what is true and what is not, and report on that. Daisey makes the fairly convincing case that true objectivity doesn't really exist, and that maintaining the pretense and appearance of objectivity is one of the key factors undermining the enterprise of journalism. With the rise of media who do not feel constrained by the pretense of objectivity, traditional journalism finds itself at a considerable disadvantage today. Daisey makes a good case that attempting to treat "objectively" that which in fact has no connection to any objective reality is inherently self-defeating. The only outcome is essentially validating that which it should be discounting.

The Frame Story

As anyone who has seen Daisey's previous works knows, his talks are generally structured with several layers of meaning, some explicit, and some only implied. The weaving of stories and exposition make for both entertainment and plenty of room for interpretation. In this case, the show starts and ends with Daisey sitting vigil in a hospital with an ailing friend who seems to be dying, though he doesn't say that explicitly. This leads to some interesting digressions on the health care system that never quite relate back to the main event, but they are fun and interesting.

Unlike most of the frame stories I'm accustomed to with his monologues, however, this one seems to be ambiguous as to its nature. We had considerable debate on the way home whether it was purely metaphorical, or whether there was an actual friend at death's door. Ultimately, that's probably not that important, but I think the ambiguity distracts from some of the more important items one should be thinking about at the end of the show.

A Couple of Other Notes

One aspect of journalism that gets hammered a bit in the course of the show is theatrical reviews (for reasons that should be obvious). The decline in journalism has resulted in few journalistic resources being devoted to the arts and theater, and Daisey talks about his own relationship to reviews and reviewers. Among other things, he insists that he reads all the reviews (Hi, Mike!), looking for "pull quotes," among other things.

As a local theater aficionado, I can see first-hand what an outsized impact the few professional reviewers with large circulations have on the success and failure of individual productions. On the one hand, because those reviewers cannot see every show, their selection of what to review must necessarily help to shape the local market. And then the impact of either a favorable or unfavorable review can have a make-or-break impact on a show. In a market with more reviewers and more outlets for their reviews, consumers might be able to make better-informed choices of what they want to see.

And of course, the same goes for other parts of the news as well. Fewer reporters covering fewer events or relying on remote sources and stringers for content means fewer viewpoints in general, and many issues left uncovered. The result is a poverty of real information and discussion, even in the flood of information that seems to engulf us.

Nitpicks: In the course of the monologue, I thought there would be some discussion of the definition of "journalism." I wasn't sure whether he intentionally avoided that to enable himself to be a little slippery on the subject, or whether it was just an oversight in the current incarnation of the show. The history portion of the talk seems a little scattered without having that definition to hold it up. The distinction between "journalism" and "news" seems key here, but it's not really discussed directly. For example, many people get their "news" from Facebook these days, but that "news" may not be based on anything I would recognize as "journalism" at all. The issue was sort of mentioned, but again not defined clearly.

Bottom Line

I always enjoy Mike Daisey's shows. They never fail to both entertain and make me think. This is no exception, and I look forward to picking up another new one next week.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" at ACT

ACT photo by Kevin Berne
Adapting a novel into a play is tricky business, because a novel contains so much more than can fit into a play of a length people will actually sit through. I have not read the novel "A Thousand Splendid Suns," but I gather it contains much more story and more characters than does the play currently running at ACT's Geary Theatre, adapted for the stage by Ursula Rani Sarma on commission by ACT.

I will say that it works as a play, although I found some of it a bit abrupt, as if the playwright had lifted scenes out of a larger structure that didn't quite fit together. But ultimately it works reasonably well.

The Play

The story focuses on the lives of two women forced together by circumstances beyond their control in the chaos that is modern Afghanistan. Starting with the civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, Kabul begins a descent from an enlightened, modern city into a war zone and a zone of strict religious patriarchy under the Taliban. It is through that arc that we follow young Laila (Nadine Malouf) and the older Mariam (Kate Rigg), both of whom end up married to the difficult Rasheed (Haysam Kadri).

Initially, Mariam resents and rejects the addition of Laila to the family, but she has no choice in the matter. This is truly a man's world. And teenaged Laila, newly orphaned by the war, rescued by Rasheed, has no options either. So the women are forced together, and eventually find themselves united in their efforts to survive life ruled by both their tempestuous husband and the ever-stricter rules of the ruling Taliban.

The narrative is intense, and frankly, unpleasant (as it's meant to be). My guess is that the narrative fullness of a novel would make this a more rounded story. Even at two-and-a-half hours, the play feels like it's been condensed, that there is too much story crammed into the available time, so it all feels kind of inevitable. There's really no room for a pleasant digression or a character who brings some relief for more than a moment. I'm sure life in Kabul is pretty unrelenting, especially for women in such a situation. But that doesn't mean the play has to be, too.

The Production

Once again, ACT shows what a lovely show you can put on with a big budget. The play is beautiful, visually stunning (just look at the production photos for a sample), and the music and soundscape produced by David Coulter is amazing and immersive. The costumes and the minimal set pieces allow the backdrop of Afghanistan to shine through. In that sense, the production is striking and effective in almost every way.

Unfortunately, particularly early on, the acting isn't quite so smooth. Some of the dialogue comes across as stilted and unnatural, particularly from Laila. I'd have to see it again to tell whether my issue was with the writing or the acting (or possibly some of each). But I just found it hard to get into the characters for at least the first half hour or so. Later I just kind of settled in and let it flow over me. Either the sense of awkwardness passed, or perhaps the mix of characters changed, but I definitely felt whole opening scene felt wrong.

There is some really terrific acting, however. Watching the women, in particular, aging and becoming more oppressed and downtrodden is quite impressive. A number of the supporting characters, particularly those played by Barzin Akhavan, are quite effective, but they are really small roles.

Bottom Line

I'm sort of torn about this play. As an example of stagecraft, it's stunning. The acting is good and sometimes terrific. As a piece of writing, it's just OK, and probably could use some more work. As a story that personalizes the larger issues of war and religion and patriarchy, it seems a bit blunt, perhaps because in San Francisco it feels like preaching to the choir. But it's not often we get to see such a lush, immersive production, so I have to say it's worth seeing the show. I wish I could give it a more ringing endorsement than that, but I just find the story doesn't live up to the standard of the production.

"Playtest" by the San Francisco Neo-Futurists

This isn't exactly a play. Indeed, it was thirty plays in one hour. So the definition of "play" here is a bit different than we're usually dealing with.

I caught the SF Neo-Futurists performance last year as part of the Shotgun Players' first Blast Festival. And they came back this year to participate again. The original Neo-Futurists are based out of Chicago, and pioneered a show they called "Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind." It's all quite creative and chaotic, but a whole lot of fun to watch (and certainly, to perform!). The SF troupe normally performs in San Francisco every Friday and Saturday nights, with a new show (or at least, a new variation on the same show) every week.

Recently the Neo-Futurist founders announced that after almost thirty years, "Too Much Light" was done, and they were going to try some new things. The San Francisco troupe is currently running "Playtest," where they not only change up some of the plays in their arsenal each week, they also change the structure of the show. The performance I saw last Thursday seemed much like their traditional "Too Much Light" approach, where the audience shouts out numbers from 1 to 30 from a printed menu, and the first one the cast hears is the next item they perform.

The individual items in the show vary a lot. One of my favorites (#4, "Resisting the Feminine Norm") is very short, but to the point (it's a single sentence). Others range from audience-participation quizzes to frantic group dancing to surreal slapstick to a voiceover "guided meditation." The group writes all their own material, and each week they dispense with some of the old and replace it. But the overall scheme of 30 plays in 60 minutes holds.

Within the frantic, antic action, it's easy to see this as kind of off-the-cuff and improvised, but it's all scripted, learned, and rehearsed: though it be madness, there is method in it. Each of the bits represents some kind of statement about life, culture, politics, or society. Some are more effective than others, obviously, but it's clear that they all come from a place of examining how we think and feel, but rather than delving deeply, they aim to push as many buttons as they can in the course of the hour. So it's unsettling, but in a good way.

I keep meaning to catch the regular SF Neo-Futurist show in their home turf, but haven't managed to do so yet. I like to encourage experimental artists to keep trying new things, as well as expanding my own horizons and vision of what art, theater, and performance is all about. These guys are definitely out on the fringe somewhere, and it's truly a treat to see what they are up to.

Check them out if you get a chance!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

"The Christians" at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli
Tonight the rains paused long enough for a group of us to get to SF Playhouse to see Lucas Hnath's play, "The Christians." Anchored by local mainstay Anthony Fusco and the newly-omnipresent Lance Gardner, a cast of five actors is surrounded by a full choir to fill the pulpit of a megachurch in the theater to examine what happens when the pastor (Fusco) has a change of heart about some fairly fundamental matters of faith.

The Play

We begin with the start of the service at a megachurch, with the pastor's sermon serving to teach us the history of the congregation and how it has grown from humble beginnings to build and fill a church with thousands of members every week. And they have just paid off the mortgage on the church, which seems like reason to rejoice until the pastor confesses that he's been rethinking some of the key tenets of the church's beliefs.

This leads to a schism with one of the associate pastors (Gardner) sent away with a remnant of the congregation to start his own church. The pastor's wife, the board of elders, and the rest of the congregation are initially supportive, but eventually all start to question both the substance and the timing of the pastor's announcement. Conflict ensues as the church and the individuals all have to come to grips with where they stand on the matter.

In truth, the play is a bit thin. It starts pretty slowly (really: a sermon isn't exactly what I was looking for this Wednesday evening), augmented by several full hymns from the choir. By the time we learn what the whole matter is about, it's actually a little hard to get worked up about it or sustain the interest in how it will work out.

In the end, when the crowd has moved on and most of the individuals have, too, all we're left with is the pastor musing on the epistemology of belief and whether he can salvage any of his personal relationships while he figures out the rest.

Frankly, the play drags a bit, even at only 90 minutes. Absent the hymns and the final musings, there is maybe an hour of play, and even that seems a bit stretched. It just doesn't feel like there is really a whole play here.

The Production

The star of the show, really, is the set. Director and Set Designer Bill English has done a terrific job of creating a very credible church on the stage, and there is no need to adjust it for any of the occasional scenes that take place in the pastor's office or home. That all just works. The lighting changes are effective, if a bit heavy-handed. And the music is well done, despite the fact that it doesn't really advance the plot at all. It would have been sufficient to sing smaller bits of hymns and perhaps bring it down to background behind some action and dialog, rather than just having little musical interludes.

As much as I can see Fusco as the intellectual pastor having arrived at a crisis of faith, where I never got on board was as his role as the charismatic preacher of a megachurch. He comes across not as the comet shining along with its long tail, but more as the intellectual scholar. I'm supposed to believe he's been preaching fire and brimstone, and he seems more likely to rap over a cup of nice tea. They talk about his star power, but we never get to see or feel it.

 Another oddity in the performance is the fact that the characters are always talking into hand-held microphones. It works when they are preaching or testifying in church, but they continue the practice when speaking individually, including a conversation between the preacher and his wife in bed. I get that it's supposed to represent that this isn't real, that either the characters are always talking to a larger audience, or that it represents the tale as told by the preacher (as he also fills in narration at times). But mostly it just makes everything seem oddly affected, as if I'm viewing all the action from the far reaches of the back of the church, rather than the fairly intimate setting of the theater. By the end, it's just annoying.

Bottom Lines

Ultimately the play isn't very satisfying. The crisis of faith doesn't feel very much like a crisis, more like a problem to be mulled over and solved by a committee of scholars. But neither do we get very deep into the intellectual side of things (which is probably why it feels stretched, even in an hour-and-a-half). It seems like Hnath had some interesting notions and started to write a play about them, then got bored and just kind of tied it up and called it done. It wasn't.

But as usual, SF Playhouse does a nice job: the play is well designed and well acted (within the limitations noted above). I would like to see some more emotional range and/or intellectual depth, but this is what we get. Unfortunately (and also as usual), SF Playhouse misses on some of the little details that would make this a much better show overall. Some more subtlety in the lighting and sound might help, or some more imaginative and varied costuming.

Also, really: not having the concession staff dump out the recycled bottles out in the lobby in the middle of a quiet speech of Fusco's. It's only a 90-minute show: you can clean up after we leave. Also, maybe a little caffeine for the ushers before they start work. English and the box office staff are always friendly and lively, but most of the other volunteers and staff just kind of suck the energy out of the room. It's that kind of stuff that keeps SF Playhouse from being one of my favorite theaters: so much to like, and so many rough edges that don't need to be there.

If the subject of this play appeals to you, you might enjoy it, but otherwise, I think you'd be wise to pass this one.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Fun Home" at The Curran Theatre

Curran photo by Joan Marcus
I had the chance to see "Fun Home" last year on Broadway, and enjoyed it very much. So I was delighted to see that it was going to be the show that reopened the Curran this year. The Curran and I go way back: my parents used to subscribe to the Civic Light Opera there, so I would sometimes get to go, and when it was one of the three theaters rotating shows for the Best of Broadway and SHN, I saw quite a few shows there as well. I did get to go to a couple of the shows on the stage while the Curran was under renovation recently, but I was eager to see the old theater in its new incarnation.

It doesn't disappoint: the old building looks nice and fresh, the seats are comfy and clean, and the bathrooms are larger and easier to access. This is all good.

The Play

"Fun Home" is based on the autobiographical graphic novel of the same name by Alison Bechdel, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. It won the Tony Awards for best musical, best book, and best score in 2015. Allison grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where her family had lived for generations. Her father not only taught high school English and restored old homes, but also ran the family business, a funeral home (which the kids called the "fun home"). He was also a closeted gay man, which caused all sorts of issues in the family and in town.

Alison and her siblings grow up amidst all the turmoil caused by her dad, as well as being in a funeral home and (in her case) coming to grips with being a lesbian. It's really a very charming coming-of-age story with good music, but with some dark and difficult bits, too. One clever aspect of the play is that there are three Alisons: one small, one medium, and one adult. The small one sings and plays, but also has some good, revelatory scenes. Medium Alison goes off to college and has some truly hilarious scenes as she discovers her sexuality. And adult Alison looks back and sees all of this, drawing and commenting. It's really quite remarkable.

The version we saw on Broadway was presented in the round, with audience on all sides of the stage, which I thought was effective. For the current tour, it has been adapted to a more traditional staging. Our seats weren't ideal to evaluate this (off to one side, and pretty close), but it seems to work quite well in its new configuration.

The Production

All of the performers are very strong: good singers as well as good actors. The musicians were unobtrusive, at least from my angle. Actually, my only complaints are minor and technical, and mostly have to do with the view from our seats: some of the lights from the side were quite glaring in our eyes, and also we could see back stage into the wings, where cast and crew would move distractingly. They really ought to cover that with a curtain.

But again, those are minor complaints. The show is quite excellent, and all of us (a group of 14) enjoyed it a lot, with lots to talk about on the way home, and good tunes running through our heads. I would probably have a lot more to write if this were the first time I had seen it. Instead, it seems sort of familiar and comfortable, so it's hard to know what to say about it.

This show definitely gets a thumbs up--go see it! I can't wait to see what else will follow at the Curran. The only show I know of so far is the next one, "Eclipsed." But I'm sure there is more in the works.

"Chicago" at Pinole Community Players

I don't get to a lot of community theater productions, but I usually enjoy them when I do. At the moment, my daughter is taking a theater class for teens, and they are working on scenes from "Chicago," so when I saw there was this production in the area, I figured it would be fun to take her to see a full production. And I was right: it was fun, and she enjoyed it.

The Play

I won't spend much time summarizing, since this show is so well known. It feels remarkably timely in many ways, though it is set in the 1920s. It appears that, since reality TV hadn't been invented yet, some young ladies might have found their path to fame and fortune through the celebrity of sensationalist newspaper coverage of criminal trials. The main chorus of characters in "Chicago" are all women who have killed their husbands, boyfriends, or lovers.

Roxie Hart (Annika Bergman) kills her lover and decides to hire celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn (Mackenszie Drae) to represent her, with the hope that the publicity will lead her to a career in Vaudeville. In jail, she meets Velma Kelly (Alison Peltz) a Vaudevillian who is in jail for killing her husband and her sister (who was both her stage partner and her husband's lover). With assistance from jail matron Mama Morton (Tammara Plankers), Roxie and her lawyer manipulate Roxie's smitten nebbish husband Amos (Terry Tracy) in efforts to make her trial more dramatic and boost their notoriety.

Needless to say, not all goes as planned, and things don't end well for everyone.

The Production

Community theater productions are generally a mixed bag, with some pretty talented people and some rough filler, leading to pretty uneven productions overall. Although you could say that about this "Chicago," it was a bit more even than most, and there were still some notably high-quality performances.

Probably the two who stood out to me the most on stage were Shay Oglesby-Smith as reporter Mary Sunshine and Terry Tracy as Amos. Oglesby-Smith has a strong voice and consistent stage presence that some of the less experienced actors could emulate. Even when her character was not the focus of the action, she was still acting, where some of the others tend to look like they are waiting for their turn to act again. Tracy, too, was consistently good, starting from an early scene where he has to freeze off to the side while Roxie sings a song. He chose a somewhat comical pose and expression, and held them throughout, foreshadowing what would be a consistently strong performance for him.

I should also mention that the women's dance ensemble was strikingly good. They can all dance. And despite having a range of ages, sizes, and experience, they managed to consistently hold together in some pretty complex choreography on a very cramped stage. I should add kudos to costume designer Janet O'Brien, who managed to create dance outfits for all that were variants on black with fishnet, mostly, but which suited each of the dancers well. I was a little less keen on the overall design, because it was a lot of black, which meant all the black costumes didn't really show up as well, and the lighting system didn't seem quite up to the task of making all the dark characters visible on the dark stage.

Having a six-person live orchestra is a great choice for a show like this, but they took up a lot of space on the stage, and that really constrained what the actors (and particularly the dancers) could do. And given that "Chicago" is largely a dance show, a bit more room for the dancers would have been helpful.


In addition to the performances noted above by Mary Sunshine and Amos Hart, I thought I'd particularly note that Alison Peltz's Velma was a terrific dancer, very confident and smooth. And Mackenszie Drae as Billy Flynn showcased a strong singing voice, though he seemed less confident when just speaking his lines, which surprised me.

All in all, it was a solid community theater production. We enjoyed our first visit to the Pinole Community Playhouse, and I'm sure we'll be back there again.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Reading: "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" at Shotgun Players

This is not going to be my usual reaction/review of a play or reading. Completely unexpected to me, a few weeks ago I got an email from my friends at the Shotgun Players, asking whether I'd like to participate in a very small role in the final play of their staged-reading series. Given that a big part of the just-ended repertory season was Shotgun's unique presentation of "Hamlet," it's only appropriate that they would follow that up with Tom Stoppard's riff, "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead".

As it turned out, the rehearsal and performance schedule meshed nicely with my calendar, so I decided to go for it! So my professional theatrical debut was a little role in this fun production. As such, I won't pretend to any sort of detachment: I had a blast, got to know the cast and crew much better, and felt like we all did a very credible job. So in lieu of any kind of "review," I thought I'd write up a few thoughts on my experience.

The Play

In modern parlance, you'd like of have to call "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern" a mashup. In many ways, it reflects Samuel Beckett's classic "Waiting for Godot," in that it primarily consists of two characters, rather befuddled, trying to figure out what they're doing, where they're going, and why. Stoppard chooses for his characters the two minor roles from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" who are childhood friends of Hamlet, sent for by the new king to try to elicit the cause of Hamlet's melancholy.

Amidst all their confusion, the title characters keep glimpsing scenes from Shakespeare's play, providing a framework for Stoppard's creative tapestry. He fills in the holes between R&G's brief on-stage appearances with new dialogue where the two muse on their purpose and destiny.

The other creative derivative from "Hamlet" is the troupe of players who eventually perform the play within a play ("The Murder of Gonzago") before the royals. Led by a player known as The Player, this ragtag band of struggling tragedians plays a recurring and clownish role in "R&G," with The Player serving as a connecting foil among all the other characters in the show.

Like "Hamlet," "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern" ends with much carnage, but it also contains some really good discussions of the role of art and artists, the meaning of life and death, and the laws of probability.

All told, it's a fun play, with lots of the clever dialogue one expects from Stoppard, but it's extra fun if you're really steeped in "Hamlet" as many in the Shotgun community are this year.

This Production

Taking advantage of the audience's familiarity with Shotgun's "Hamlet" allowed director Nick Medina (a cast member of that show) to pull some extra laughs out of the script by using or playing off of Shotgun's actual staging, costuming, and sound cues (and performing on the very set). Add a few more members of the cast (Kevin Clarke and Cathleen Riddley) to the ensemble, reprising and parodying some of their roles from the play, and it makes for much merriment.

Eli Wirtschafter and Caleb Cabrera (who was the understudy for "Hamlet") took on the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively, with Sarah Mitchell as The Player. Those three have the bulk of the lines in the play. The rest of us alternated between being the band of goofy tragedians who would eventually put on "The Murder of Gonzago" and reproducing bits of "Hamlet" as needed.

For example, in my role as Polonius, I had brief scenes trying to get some sense out of Hamlet (Jacinta Sutphin), fawned over and facilitated the king and queen (Clarke and Riddley), and transferred the king's irritation through to my daughter, Ophelia (Leigh Rondon-Davis). Or while The Player negotiated with R&G, the band of tragedians would clown on the sidelines.

The Experience

The other side of the curtain. That was one of my big impressions: standing behind the curtain while other players were performing in front of it, listening intently for my cue to go back in. I was a little surprised by how much mental energy went into just making sure I knew where I was, though I will say that by the third (and final) night of the reading, I felt like I had it down. Given that we had only a few days of rehearsal, I was glad to achieve even a little level of comfort.

Rehearsing was great. Everyone else in the cast was either a seasoned theater pro (either onstage on as crew) or at least reasonably experienced: way more than me, to be sure. So it was pretty easy to follow their routines, watch their approaches to the activity, and follow along as best I could. The whole group was extremely welcoming and supportive of having a rookie in their midst, and helped me find my feet pretty quickly. Given the limited amount of rehearsal time we had available, I was impressed with how focused and organized it all was.

My other great memory is of hanging around backstage with the cast and crew. Because of the demands of the just-finished repertory season, there were crates and cases and props for five plays everywhere, making things a bit snug. Some of the cases were cleared out between our performances, so by the end there was much more room available to us. But just hanging out with "my fellow actors" (ha!), getting to know them better, chatting about this and that, was by far the most fun: even more fun than the performing. I can certainly see how the cast of a real play, over the course of a run, would develop pretty tight bonds. Although I knew virtually everyone in the production at least casually, after these few days together I definitely feel like we're now friends, and I have a much greater appreciation for how hard it is to do what they do for a living.

Although I enjoyed the experience, and would happily do it again, I can't imagine trying to make a career of it. I've always respected actors and theater crews, but I have a much deeper understanding and respect now.

Finally, I feel a little bad that I didn't give more of my friends and family the chance to see my performance. I knew my part was very tiny, and I only found out about it shortly before the readings. Plus, all the shows were sold out before I even got in the cast. So for all those who upbraided me for not tipping you off, I apologize, and promise to do better should the occasion arise again.

Bottom Line

I never really had a desire to perform on stage, but having had a little taste of it, I can certainly understand why it appeals. People keep asking me whether this is the start of something new for me, and I can honestly say I don't think so. I wouldn't turn down the chance to do a little more, but I definitely don't see it becoming a big part of my life. It was very nice to have had the opportunity to see what it's like, even a little bit, though. I'm grateful to the folks at Shotgun for thinking of me and giving me the opportunity, and especially grateful to the pros in the cast and crew for letting me play along while they worked.