Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Assassins" at Bay Area Musicals

Bay Area Musicals photo
Another day, another new theater for me. Not quite, but this was not only a new theater company for me, but also a theater I'd never been in and a play I'd never seen before. So lots of new material to absorb.

Bay Area Musicals is relatively new to the local theater scene, as this is only their second season. They have certainly not shied away from ambitious shows, as their inaugural season included "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and "La Cage Au Folles".  This being my first exposure to the company, I didn't know what to expect, quality-wise. One never knows, especially with musicals.

The Play

The immediate reason for going to see this play was that my daughter is going to be participating the youth stage production of "Assassins" this summer at Berkeley Playhouse, so the family thought it might be fun to see a production beforehand. I didn't see the show when Shotgun Players did it about five years ago, so really had no idea what it was about, beyond the fact that it portrays a number of individuals who share the connection that they have either assassinated or attempted to assassinate United States presidents. How cheerful and charming!

Truly, I have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea. It sounds rather like a scheme concocted over too many drinks, late at night. How it ever actually came to be, I can't really imagine. After seeing it, I realize I can't dismiss it out of hand, but I'm still not clear what the point of it all is. I recognize that to the extent there is a common thread, it has to do with thwarted ambitions and mental illness, and to some extent the desire to make a mark on the future.

But as the play itself discusses, it is the recognition and almost folkloric perpetuation of these stories that can inspire others to imitate the acts. We literally watch the spirit of John Wilkes Booth encouraging subsequent would-be assassins. What does it then say when a company puts these characters on stage and audiences applaud? Couple that with some live executions on stage, and we're in some pretty unsavory territory, which is troublesome in a work with pretty ambiguous moral stands.

It feels a bit like provocative spectacle for its own sake, or rather for the sake of attention and profit. Where is the moral line between the attention-seeking assassin and the theater that puts that assassin on stage and charges admission?

So yeah, I'm not all that keen on the material.

The Production

I was pleasantly surprised at the high quality of the production. That starts with the venue, the landmark Alcazar Theater. I'd been by the outside of the building many times, and wondered what lay within. It's quite lovely, and the auditorium itself is quite pleasant and comfortable.

The opening number was a little rocky, with the voices a bit overwhelmed by the orchestra. I was concerned that this would persist through the show, but the sound techs obviously made adjustments and there were no further issues of that sort. The set was fairly simple and abstract, enabling creative use of lighting instead of scenery changes. The costumes were quite good, though I never did comprehend why Samuel Byck was wearing a mangy Santa Claus costume.

But the overall quality of the acting and singing was remarkably high. For a musical, there is actually a fair amount of straight dialogue in "Assassins," so the acting is important. Several actors stood out (in a good way) to me. Zac Schuman as John Hinckley was wonderfully awkward and twitchy, and consistently so, which is difficult. DC Scarpelli as Leon Czolgosz had a consistent intensity, but with a definite humanity. And John Brown as Samuel Byck seemed to totter on the brink of madness with a strong dose of self-awareness. Derrick Silva as John Wilkes Booth was effective, though knowing that he was supposed to be young and fairly small made the casting seem a little odd. Casting historical figures can be difficult that way.

And finally, I thought Kelli Schultz stood out as a very straightforward and believable Lynette Fromme, playing the girlfriend and acolyte of Charles Manson as a disturbingly normal young woman. Unfortunately, that made for a truly odd pairing with Jessica Fisher as Sara Jane Moore, who was portrayed as an over-the-top, inept, and clownish figure, to the point that it felt like she was in a completely different play from everyone else. I have no clue what the director was trying for there, but it didn't work at all.

Indeed, the production was notable for not portraying any of the assassins as caricatures (with the exception of Moore). Troubled, unbalanced, egotistical? Sure. But all seemed like pretty believable people who at some point tipped over into mental territory where assassinating a president made sense to them.

Bottom Line

I'm impressed with the effort put forth by Bay Area Musicals in my first exposure. I can't say I'm thrilled with their choice of material this time, but truly, they did a good job of putting on the play. I will definitely check them out in the future.

And if you can't afford the tickets to the blockbuster historical musical playing across town at the Orpheum, you could do worse than to bone up on a weird little corner of American history at the Alcazar.

"John" at ACT

ACT photo by Kevin Berne
I've probably mentioned a few times now how much I have been looking forward to the current season at ACT, ever since they announced it. It being their 50th anniversary season, they pulled out a lot of stops, and reading the descriptions of the plays last year got me pretty excited. One that piqued my interest was the one we saw Friday night at the Strand Theater, "John," by Annie Baker.

Baker is a pretty hot property these days, having won a Pulitzer Prize for drama a couple of years back. And the blurb teasing the content of the show sounded intriguing. So I've been looking forward to seeing it.

The Play

First off, the play is long. The current production is three hours, including two intermissions. I didn't feel it really needed two breaks, but there are definitely two logical places to put them, neither of which would really work as the only break (too early or too late), so OK, two intermissions. When one person behind me saw in the program that the show would be three hours, he said loudly that that is "fcking long." I spoke with him during the second break, and he commented that he would never have come had he known it was so long. On the other hand, he was rather enjoying it. Go figure.

Anyway, the play: A young-ish couple arrives to spend a few days at a B&B in Gettysburg, PA, on their way back to Brooklyn from visiting family in Ohio. Elias was a Civil War buff in his youth, so had always wanted to visit Gettysburg. Jenny is going along, despite having no apparent interest in the visit. The B&B is chockablock with tchotchkes, and the proprietor, Mertis (but you can call her "Kitty") is a bit unusual, too. The whole setting is a bit surreal from the get-go, and the more we learn about Mertis and her life and the house, the weirder it gets. What's also clear from the outset is that Jenny and Elias have issues in their relationship, having nearly broken up recently. So there are things to work through. In a strange old house, surrounded by lots of strange stuff.

And eventually we get to meet Mertis's friend, Genevieve, who is both eccentric and blind, which adds to the offbeat environment.

All that said, it's kind of a funny setup, and there are some funny lines, but it's not a comedy. And though there are dramatic situations, it's not really a drama, either. It's a quirky play about some odd people in a very strange situation.

The Production

This is exactly the kind of play that makes one glad ACT has a second, smaller theater, because this show really works well in the fairly intimate setting of the Strand. It would be quite lost in the large space of the Geary. There is just one set: the main room of the B&B, and the audience both needs to be physically close to the stage and also sense the close quarters of the setting to make the emotions work.

Elias (Joe Paulik) and Jenny (Stacey Yen) make it pretty clear throughout that the characters are really not comfortable together. Indeed, they are so convincing at it that it's rather hard to imagine what brought them together in the first place, or how they've stayed together for three years. There really isn't much in the script that helps in this regard, either, so we're left with some questions there. Georgia Engel is quite marvelous as Mertis. You spend a lot of the time trying to decide whether she's just kind of odd and dotty, or whether there is something more malign going on. Ultimately I concluded that she's really much more on the ball than it seemed early on, but there are some decidedly loose ends in the script that are never resolved, and I can't decide whether that matters. It probably doesn't change the outcome of the play one way or the other, but it does leave one wondering why introduce the questions at all.

The fourth member of the ensemble, Ann McDonough as Genevieve, is quite marvelous, and manages to steal several scenes (and even part of an intermission). And I strongly felt the best scenes in the play were the ones where Mertis and Genevieve just sit with either Jenny or Elias and talk. The facade of normality in the heart of the bizarre is quite effective.

All in all, very strong acting, and a really nice set that conveys the discomfort of finding oneself in a place that is trying way too hard to be comfortable and has tilted well over into kitsch. Every time one starts to feel comfortable, either a character or the set will tick just a little off kilter and keep one guessing. Strange bedroom arrangements, heating quirks, background music, and a player piano all add to the environment of disquiet.

Bottom Line

The play is very well done and mostly quite enjoyable. I have to say that though it is well done, even a day later I not sure what it has done. Ultimately I enjoyed the quirks and twists, even while being annoyed by the visiting couple most of the time. But I remain unsure just what I am supposed to get out of it. Yes, it's about relationships that are crumbling, probably past the point where they should have ended. But that story could have been told much more simply, so I remain wondering what else I might have missed in all the oddities. Is there a reason we have a bunch of story lines introduced that never go anywhere?

All in all, I had a good time, and really appreciated the quality of the production. I enjoyed a lot of things about the writing as well, but I'm still left wondering what it is I missed, because I don't think Baker is really that sloppy of a writer.

On the other hand, a good friend of mine says the way to gauge whether a play is good has to do with whether one is still thinking and talking about it days or weeks later, and this one still has me pondering. I'm interested to know what others think. But I do feel the play is well worth seeing.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

"Beneath the Tall Tree" at TheatreFIRST

I'm really intrigued by a lot of things about TheatreFIRST. This was the first mainstage production I've been able to get to following their provocative reading of "The Island" last year. There are a lot of things appealing about TheatreFIRST, particularly their commitment to diversity at all levels (staff, board, actors, designers, etc.) and their commitment to new, local work.

The Company

There are several things that are different about going to TheatreFIRST. Although they're still in the old Live Oak Theater, they've spiffed it up a bit, and simplified the lobby. The box office and concession table is staffed by friendly people. And I was lucky enough when I stepped into the house to be greeted by both Artistic Directory Jon Tracy (who is a friend) and the production's directory, Joy Carlin, whose work I know, but we hadn't met previously.

And when Tracy welcomes the crowd before the show starts, it's not just the legally-required direction to the exits or the customary directive to turn off phones. He also talks a bit about TheatreFIRST and then picks a few people in the audience to ask why they have come, and share a little bit. It's unconventional, but it works, and it feeds into the ethic that this is not a unidirectional-message medium: we are all part of the show, and we will all get something different out of it, particularly as we all bring something different to it.

And at that point, the Live Oak Theater feels less like the old community theater in a local park, and more like a community center where people gather to share stories and experiences. That's a good vibe.

The Play

As with all plays in this new incarnation of TheatreFIRST, this play is new work, created through a collaborative residency with the artists. The goal is to help the community tell their stories and provide a venue where people can hear and share that. "Beneath the Tall Tree" is the third play of the first season of this new regime. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get to the first two, and word through the grapevine was that they had some rather rough patches. So I tried to keep an open mind.

The good news is, for a brand new play, this is pretty strong. I had a few issues with the writing, particularly some awkward dialogue, but on the whole, it's a good effort for a new play. The basic material is both interesting and timely. It springs from the personal and community displacement caused by the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II. So many aspects of that incident (the use of an executive order, the targeting of a specific ethnic group, and so on). And here we get a multigenerational story about family, ethnicity, assimilation, discrimination, and a whole lot more.

Briefly, a young woman of mixed ancestry from Palo Alto (Cass, played by Adrienne Walters, who also wrote the play along with Jeffrey Lo) goes off to join an archaeological dig in Pompeii. While there, she learns that her beloved grandfather (Tets, played by Sam Stark) has died, touching off a string of events that lead to her uncover lots of information about herself, the grandfather, and her family and community. In Pompeii she meets Tom (Lucas Brandt), another student on the dig, and  develops her relationship with Professor Fowler (Bonnie Akimoto, who also plays Cass' mother back home). Although the overall story is compelling, none of the characters besides Cass really gets much development, although we at least learn a fair amount of Tets's story and see snippets of different parts of his life.

Unfortunately, Tom is pretty much just a plot device, and Professor Fowler is rather unbelievable. The mother is more sympathetic, but also pretty much of a cypher most of the time. I'd like to see more development of those characters and their stories.

But all that said, there is a lot of power in the story of Tetsuo's journey from his idealistic, baseball-loving youth, through internment and enlistment, to returning home to a very different Palo Alto than the one he left. The changes in him and the subsequent impacts on his family deserve more development, but the message is clear enough.

The Production

A simple set design manages to serve as home in Palo Alto, San Francisco International Airport, an archaeological site in Pompeii, a baseball field, and an internment camp. The fact that all the elements are always there on stage is pretty powerful, though rather subtle. There are probably some more nuances that could be brought out of that with lighting and such, but overall it works.

The acting is pretty good. Walters as Cass is pretty strong, and I suspect that's both because she wrote a lot of the script and because it is somewhat autobiographical (though I don't know to what degree). Stark's Tets is quite good in his younger incarnation, but less convincing as the older grandfather. Brandt is good as Tom, though some of his affectations early on seem to vanish later, inexplicably. I'm unclear what I'm supposed to make of Professor Fowler, who everyone seems to be afraid of except Cass. She seems to have an unexplained soft spot for the rather aggressive, even abrasive, Cass, even before she displays her preternatural skill at finding archaeological artifacts. I think that's more a problem with the text than the performance, though I imagine a clearer picture of the character could be constructed even from what's already there.

The character of the mother quite mystifies me. I'm not sure whether she's just repressing a lot of stuff, or whether she should be expressing more subtle nuances of her feelings. The common thread through Cass, her mother, and her grandfather seems to be an inability or unwillingness to express feelings (or even communicate much at all) until some threshold is passed and they explode. For all I know, that might be historically accurate, but it doesn't feel right on the stage, especially for all three characters. I'd like to see some gradations in the expressions there.

Bottom Line

Growing up in the bay area, I had a lot of friends whose families were directly affected by Executive Order 9066, and though my family wasn't one of those, they were aware of the neighbors and acquaintances who went away, some later returning. The internment and its aftermath are very real to many of my friends, family, and neighbors, so I'm pleased to see TheatreFIRST addressing it. And obviously the issues of racism, prejudice, interculturalism, and the injustices perpetrated when a group feels threatened are all very timely.

The production continues for another three weeks, through March 25th. I think it's well worth seeing, not only because it's interesting and pretty well done, but also because it's worth supporting TheatreFIRST and this effort to produce local stories for local audiences with diverse local talent.

I look forward to seeing more from TheatreFIRST.

"Mincing Words" at The Marsh

I think this will be fairly short. Some friends were going to see Tom Ammiano's solo show, "Mincing Words," at The Marsh, so we decided to tag along. The reviews I'd seen of the show weren't exactly glowing, but at 75 minutes, I figured it would at least be brief.

The Show

I can't really call this a play. It's somewhere between a retrospective monologue and a stand-up comedy routine. Tom Ammiano was a fixture in San Francisco politics for several decades, starting as a teacher who aligned himself with Harvey Milk when Milk first ran for office, and extending through his own terms on the school board, Board of Supervisors, and eventually the State Assembly. Unknown to me until recently, he also worked some as a stand-up comedian.

The show began (late) with Ammiano tossing off a few jokes about the current political scene. OK, it's fine to establish some rapport with the audience before diving into your story. But the initial presentation doesn't come across as very polished. The delivery is pretty sloppy, and the punch lines are often kind of swallowed. There is some polite laughter.

Eventually, the story veers into something that is roughly a chronology of Ammiano's life in San Francisco, the Castro, and local politics. Unfortunately, no clear story arc really appears to unify or guide the journey. It feels like a rambling reminiscence, which would be fine sitting in the living room, but this is meant to be a rehearsed presentation, and it just doesn't feel like one.

The meat of the presentation seems to be focused on his six years in Sacramento as an Assemblymember. He portrays himself as some kind of fish out of water, though by the time he gets there he's a very experienced politician. And he tries to make it seem as if his being gay and liberal somehow makes him an outsider. But again, in a state that is overwhelmingly Democratic politically, it's hard to see this as a great handicap.

He goes to great lengths to describe his interactions with more conservative members of the legislature, giving them cute nicknames like "Tammy Fae Bakersfield" and such. Some of the stories are pretty funny in themselves, but ultimately, there doesn't seem to be an overarching message.

And as such, the narrative just kind of rambles until he decides he's done. Occasionally he breaks into song, or a song just appears that is somehow related to something he said, but other than showing off that he likes music and dancing, it's hard to see the point. After over an hour and a half, he decided he was done, thanked us, and ended.

Bottom Line

Ammiano strikes me as kind of a fun guy who would be fun to talk to in a small group or at a bar. But as a speaker or stage performer, he seems uncomfortable and unfocused, shuffling around the stage, moving his hands distractingly, and sometimes muffling his words. Especially his punch lines. The overall effectiveness is not that great.

I was hoping for a bit more insight, rather than just some anecdotes. But this one seemed to just be kind of phoned in. There is one more performance this coming week, and then I believe it's done. And that's OK. Mild amusement is not really enough to justify a stage show.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

"Isaac's Eye" at Custom Made Theatre Company

Custom Made Theatre Company photo by Jay Yamada
No surprise: I like plays about science and scientists. So when I saw that Custom Made Theatre Company was producing a play about Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, I was all in. I was also intrigued because the play is by Lucas Hnath, apparently an up-and-coming playwright who also wrote "The Christians," currently at SF Playhouse.

The Play

I was expecting a play about science, about the rivalries and personal relationships that advance and/or hinder scientific advancement. This was not that play. I mean, it is about the rivalry between Newton and Hooke, although that is a bit one-sided. Established Hooke feels threatened by the coming of young, unknown Newton. So being some kind of evil genius, he decides to destroy the nascent career of his potential rival.

Newton, on the other hand, is a socially-inept savant, probably with Asperger's or something, but also with some kind of quasi-messianic notion that he speaks for God, or God speaks through him, or something. This strikes me as a terrible misreading of Newton's nature. But he's ambitious, and wants to join the Royal Society so he can become famous, which leads him to contact Hooke, at the time the curator of experiments for the Society. The overlap in their areas of inquiry leads to conflict.

There is a sort of narrator who writes facts about Newton and Hooke on the white boards that line the stage. He also speaks a lot of stage directions and occasionally becomes another character. And then there is Catherine, and old friend of Newton's who might or might not be his love interest. But she's an apothecary, which comes in handy later.

The title of the play comes from an experiment that Newton did, historically, perform on himself, inserting a darning needle into his tear duct to deform the shape of his eyeball in an attempt to determine the nature of light (which sort of makes sense, scientifically, other than the whole sticking a needle in one's eye part). Much of the second act focuses on Newton and Hooke and a random, dying stranger and needles and eyes. Prepare to squirm. They do.

The Production

The staging is stark, with a mostly bare stage surrounded by whiteboards, and a sort of desk atop a pair of file cabinets. The lighting is harsh, fluorescent industrial lighting, and all the costuming is pretty much a dull palette of grays and browns. Except Catherine. I guess she's in color to emphasize that she's the only one who isn't really part of the mess. So we have a very modern setting, and modern language and dress, but of course this is all happening in the 1660s.

The text is pretty sloppy about adhering to the historical timeline, so I suppose we can't really expect the production to follow it, either. But the whole thing is quite jarring, from the time the lights come glaringly up on the set initially, and continue through much of the initial dialogue. The portrayal of Newton as brilliant but with socially naive notions of fame and glory just don't seem plausible. And his clueless relationship with Catherine makes little sense from either side.

Ultimately, it becomes clear that Newton's guilelessness has to exist to enable the last twist of the plot in the second act, but by then I was well beyond caring. Neither Hooke nor Newton is a believable character by then, anyway.

I would have to read the script to get a better notion of what Hnath really intends with this play. I can't tell whether he has written something that is clearly off base, or whether this production has interpreted the text in such a way as to distort what the playwright intended. Either way, it seems a pretty flawed text that isn't really improved by this production.

That said, I thought the players mostly did a pretty credible job. Adam Niemann as the narrator/actor was quite good, and Jeunee Simon does a good job with the very limited role she's given to work with as Catherine. Robin Gabrielli and Gabriel A. Ross as Hooke and Newton, respectively, are far too one-dimensional for educated men of their time. Again, I don't know whether that's necessary for this text, or represents a choice by director Oren Stevens. But neither is ultimately credible, and both characters are just kind of obnoxious.

Bottom Line

Don't bother. The play runs through March 11, and I really hoped it was going to be something interesting and cool, but it's not. It's a difficult, awkward, and frankly unenjoyable play. It has interesting bits, but particularly as the second act proceeds, it descends into a kind of mad rivalry that is neither fun to watch nor informative.

It's a disappointing result from what I had hoped would be a really interesting endeavor.