Friday, April 28, 2017

"Urinetown, The Musical" at Berkeley Playhouse

Berkeley Playhouse photo
Let me just get this off my chest: I love Urinetown, the Musical. I have since I saw the touring production at ACT back in 2003. It appeals to my odd sense of humor. And since my daughter is going to be doing a summer teen program with Berkeley Playhouse, we thought she ought to see what their professional stage is up to. So off we go, to Urinetown!

The Play

I guess you would have to call this a dark, satirical musical. The songs are pretty upbeat, but the material is pretty grim. Set in a place suffering ongoing drought, leading to a water shortage, so private toilets are outlawed, forcing everyone to urinate (for a fee) at public toilets. But those amenities are all controlled by a gigantic corporation (Urine Good Company). Anyone who violates the laws requiring urination for a fee is sent to "Urinetown" as punishment. The nature of Urinetown is one of the topics of discussion in the show.

So the key characters in the show are the CEO of the company, Caldwell B. Cladwell (played by Paul Plain), the policemen who enforce the strict laws, Officers Lockstock and Barrel (Matt Davis and Zac Schuman, respectively), Little Sally (Brittney Monroe) who draws exposition from Lockstock, and the hot-headed idealist, Bobby Strong (Nikita Burshteyn). Also important are Miss Pennywise (Jessica Coker), who runs Public Amenity #9, and Hope Cladwell (Andrea J. Love), Caldwell's daughter and the love interest for Bobby.

Ultimately the play is a commentary on privatization, capitalist greed, class politics, law enforcement, and sustainability. There are plenty of fun songs, great puns, pokes at other Broadway shows (and musicals as a genre), and a general breaking of the fourth wall.

The Production

I thought the show was quite well done. Several of the performers really stood out for me. Jessica Coker's "Pennywise" can really belt out the songs. Matt Davis as "Officer Lockstock" (who narrates much of the show) managed to both sing the difficult songs and maintain a sort of snarky self-awareness that made it fun to watch. Monroe as "Little Sally" manages to be convincing as the precocious street urchin who is both foil and partner to Lockstock at times. And Nikita Burshteyn really holds his own in the lead role as Bobby Strong.

The set itself was fairly simple (and others in my party recognized parts of it as being reused from the recent production of Billy Elliot) but effective, lighted well and flexible enough to do quick scene changes. The cast as a whole danced quite well, and I thought the choreography was pretty ambitious for a local theater company. Most of the voices were good, although there were some issues with the audio system at the show we attended (but not enough to do serious harm to the play). And the orchestra was good, if a bit loud at times.

Overall, I thought the cast did a good job of maintaining the flow of the show. Being a bit quirky, it can be tough to keep it going and still maintain the storyline, but they did that well. Director Danny Cozart deserves credit for making the pace work for his cast.

Bottom Line

This is a really fun production, of high quality and good amusement value. My family members who had not seen or read the show previously were especially amused, and those of us who had seen it before enjoyed remembering how much fun it was. The clash between the privileged wealthy and the downtrodden poor is still all too timely, and the theme of resource shortages and sustainability running afoul of corporate interests is particularly pertinent today.

Frankly, I had been expecting one of the local theaters to revive this show during the last years of the recent California drought, and was surprised that only a few smaller, local houses took it on. It seems like this is both a high-quality show (it won Tony Awards for both best book and best score), but a fun and timely one, too.

It runs for one more weekend, so you should definitely go check it out. As Mr. Cladwell tells Hope, "Don't be the bunny!" (Go see the show: you'll get it.)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Needles and Opium" at ACT

ACT photo by Tristram Kenton
For some reason, our regular subscription tickets to see Needles and Opium at ACT's Geary Theater were for the Saturday afternoon of closing weekend, so I didn't get to see it in time to make meaningful (or at least, useful) recommendations to others. So I will just give my impressions, because the show has now closed.

ACT offered this show in collaboration with a number of Canadian artists, most critically, writer and director Robert LePage, with the staging produced by Ex Machina. And that, too, is important, because the staging is one of the stars of the show. Just about every review I saw of this production talked more about the stagecraft than about the play and acting, which is usually not a good sign at all. Luckily, in this case, the play itself is strong enough to at least hold its own with the flashy staging.

The Play

Here I would normally give a quick synopsis of the plot and characters and such, but truly, that's not very meaningful here. Needles and Opium isn't a narrative as much as a kind of dreamlike, stream of (sort of) consciousness depiction of some impressions of actual events. In short, it's hard to describe. The jazz artist Miles Davis (portrayed by Wellesley Robertson III) plays a large role, as do the French writer Jean Cocteau and other characters who may or may not be based on LePage (all played by Olivier Normand). But all the action, scenes, impressions, and so on, play out not on the stage per se, but rather in and on a cube suspended above the stage, full of trap doors and other openings, lighted with projections and sometimes populated with props. So it's all an elaborate performance, not quite a play, not quite dance, but all quite striking, visually and emotionally.

This brightly-lighted, ever-changing cube captures our focus and imagination, but now and then one can't help but realize it's just a small zone in the middle of an otherwise dark stage. The surreal and phantasmagorical scenes that play out in the cube are all the more potent in contrast to the void around them.


I'm not even going to try to convey my impressions of the action. I had favorite moments, such as one where a hotel room in Paris rotates and transforms itself into ... another, different view of the same room. It's just magical. And watching Miles Davis slowly descending into drugs and depression, literally sliding down the slope of the cube, one totally gets that he's on Skid Row in every sense. There are plenty of other terrific uses of the cube, the music, the lighting, and so on. But I don't think I can convey any real sense of what the show was.

Suffice it to say that it was one of the more striking and effective uses of stagecraft I've ever seen, in a way that will probably color my notions of what is possible to accomplish on stage going forward. And that's always worthwhile.

Sorry I didn't get to see it in time to recommend it to others; It was really quite good. But like all theater (and perhaps more than most), it was ephemeral. I'm sure it will be produced elsewhere, so keep your eyes open.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

"Sisters Matsumoto" at Center Repertory Company

Center Repertory Company photo by
Starting off a more normal weekend of theater-going for me: three plays to see this weekend, starting with one I've been looking forward to, Sisters Matsumoto at Center REP in Walnut Creek. I've been meaning to check out Center REP for a while, but they seem to do more mainstream musicals and fewer straight plays. But this one I knew I wanted to see. First, it fits thematically with a recent show, Beneath the Tall Tree, I saw recently at TheatreFIRST. So it's a chance to do a little comparison. And second, it is directed by a friend, Mina Morita, who always does a good job.

The Play

Much like Tall Tree, this show focuses on events following the return of Japanese-American citizens who returned from internment camps after World War II. Where the TheatreFIRST show was more of a personal story, Sisters Matsumoto deals with both the story of a family trying to return to their family home in Stockton and also some of the larger issues surrounding internment. I should also add that Tall Tree was a first effort by young playwrights, where Sisters Matsumoto is by a well-established writer, Philip Kan Gotanda, so it's not unreasonable that the latter is a more complex work.

The family matters seem relatively straightforward: the Matusumoto family had to sell off their family home in town when they were relocated, but kept a family farm outside town and leased it out. They return to find the farm neglected and defaced, the storehouse vandalized. But they resolve to restart the farm, even though two of the three daughters are now married, and the third is looking for a husband, having lost her fiancee in the war. In addition to the sort of expected difficulties of returning to a town after several years away, facing racism and extra hatred stirred by wartime animosity and propaganda, they also must deal with people they lost (including the family patriarch) and some unexpected twists that arise as they try to resettle.

In addition, they surface some long-simmering conflicts, including a marriage whose arranged underpinnings are called into question in the family's new circumstances, questions about loyalty (both to family and to country), and issues about the role of Japanese-American soldiers in the war, including the much-decorated 442nd. Indeed, it is ultimately these larger questions that create the more interesting conflicts in the play.

My only criticism of the play per se is that it's a bit inconsistent in its flow. Some of the dialogue between the characters is really terrific, and that makes some of the scenes really realistic and powerful. And then sometimes one of the characters will just kind of go off on a little soliloquy, giving a whole exposition on how they feel and what they are wondering about, half directed to the audience while the other character(s) just sort of stand around. It's a tough call for the director, since it really wouldn't work to just freeze the action and focus on the speech as some kind of internal monologue, but at the same time, it doesn't really work in the flow of the play, either. Ultimately, it's more of a distraction than anything, but it feels as if Gotanda didn't quite finish writing some of the scenes, and just left some rather long, expository texts in that perhaps could have been worked into dialogue.

But overall, the play is a powerful piece of writing, the issues are good, meaty ones, and there are a number of different characters who are quirky and interesting.

The Production

The set (designed by Andrea Bechert) is visually impressive (and the photo above doesn't do it justice at all). The farmhouse is represented only in part, and the outlines of the roofline and some windows and doorways stand for the rest. It's really good looking, and Kurt Landisman's lighting design is really effective at moving emphasis around the stage, passing time, and enabling indoor and outdoor scenes without actual scenery changes. Altogether, it's visually wonderful.

The acting is a bit uneven at times, with some of the actors being a bit stiff, particularly early on. Everyone seemed to settle in later (or maybe I got used to the differences). Some of it might also be caused by the writing issues described above. Some of the actors seemed to handle the long, digressive speeches more effectively than others. And some of the characters are just more interesting. Chiz (Melissa Locsin) and her husband Bola (Tasi Alabastro) are probably the most interesting and fun characters. Henry Sakai (Alexander M. Lydon) brings a kind of calming influence as one of the only non-family members. And Hideo (Ogie Zulueta) counters that with a kind of suppressed, angry intensity.

As things unravel in the second act, the individual characters seem to both stand out and pull together, which in many ways is a good summary of the experience the play is trying to convey. The whole community has been torn apart, and now as they try to piece together what they can of their lives and their community, they find that they are both less cohesive than they used to be, but all the more in need of collective action. The debates about assimilation and racism are pointed and realistic, and certainly reflect attitudes I have seen transmitted through my contemporaries (who would be the children of the generation portrayed here).

I should make one comment about the casting, too. I had trouble believing the three sisters were really sisters initially. Their ages just seemed at odds with the actions and histories described. Eventually I just went with it, but the makeup, posture, and body language of the three sisters just didn't credibly convey that they were only a few years apart in age.


It's a powerful play, beautifully staged. It runs for one more week, and it's well worth the trip out to Walnut Creek to see and experience it. I would like to have seen a more cohesive acting performance, but even so, the play itself and the staging are quite good.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Reading: "Women Laughing Alone With Salad" at Shotgun Players

I had no idea what to think when I first heard about this play. The title makes no sense, of course. Eventually I Googled it, and found the explanation. Here is a pretty good summary at Know Your Meme. In essence, some years ago someone noted a trend in stock photography, that there was an inordinate number of stock pictures of women laughing while eating salad. It got written up at That spawned a Tumbler blog.

OK, you get it.

But then playwright Sheila Callaghan decided to morph it into a play.

The Play

The play opens with three women, alone, eating salad, and sometimes laughing. The only thing the three appear to have in common (besides an inordinate sense of humor about their salads) is a guy named Guy (played by Joe Estlack). The three women turn out to be Guy's mother (Gwen Loeb), his girlfriend (Aily Kei Roper), and a woman he meets dancing at a club (Jessica Kitchens).

What plays out in the ensuing scenes is a kind of master course in all the things wrong in male-female relationships and human relations to media. All the characters live in various states of unrealistic expectations.  Some of it's pretty funny, some is outrageous, and much is profane. It doesn't end well. And we have an intermission.

Truthfully, at intermission I was thinking I pretty much got it, it was OK, probably would be better as a fully-staged production, but I get the message. Not feeling terribly motivated to stay for the second act, but we did anyway. Good thing.

The second act turns the whole scenario upside down in outrageous and unexpected ways, and it works beautifully. The second act makes the whole first act feel worthwhile. I won't spoil it with details, but suffice it to say that if you leave at the intermission, you haven't seen the play.

The Reading

All the actors were quite good. Estlack is the only one I've really seen before, and he holds the play together nicely at the center, managing to be annoying without mostly being actively awful. He's just sort of passively misogynistic and selfish.

The women have all had to be fairly carefully cast, as the roles call for both specific ages and at least a degree of physical typing. For example, Tori, the girlfriend, is supposed to be 20-25 and bulimic. So that kind of limits the choices. Meredith, the club pick-up, needs to be older and more full-bodied. And Sandy, Guy's mother, needs to be old enough to be Guy's mother and have aging hands. (Just see the play, you'll understand.)

As usual, the Shotgun gang have pulled together a much better production than one would expect with so few hours of rehearsal. Director Trish Mulholland has managed to stage it effectively, using the narration of company member Leigh Rondon-Davis to cover the absence of certain key props and other elements with stage directions. All in all, a very effective staging that gives a pretty good impression of what a full version might be, though there would be some significant vegetable-related challenges at times.

Bottom Line

I came away quite impressed with the play. I think there is a risk that an audience might be put off by some aspects of the first act, which goes on much longer than the second. But the payoff in the second act is well worth the wait, and I suspect that the first act would be more fun with a full production than it was as a reading.

The play has timely messages about gender relations and media, and comes with a full helping of absurdity, thanks to the stock photos from the Internet. It definitely had us talking, both about the play itself and some of the subjects it raised, well into the next day and evening. So it passes the 24-hour test, at least.

Keep an eye out for your chance to see the play. And eat your greens.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"Leni" at Aurora Theatre Company

Aurora Theatre Company photo by David Allen
There was a lot to like about this production. This is the first show I've seen in Aurora's little second stage "Harry's Upstage," and I quite liked it: It's a tiny space with only three or four rows on each side of the small stage, so it's quite intimate. And that's perfect for a show such as this, where the two actors are right there, in your face.

It's short, it's beautiful, and it's thought-provoking. All really good things! And it's been extended more than once, so you can still see if through May 21st, and I recommend that you do so.

The Play

Leni Riefenstahl is a really complex character. She is acclaimed as one of the greatest film directors ever. The fact that she was a woman director at a time when that was extremely rare, and that she was quite young when she did her best-known works just speaks to the degree of her talent. All this is complicated by the fact that she did her great works with the backing of Adolf Hitler, and the films were used as Nazi propaganda. The play examines, among other things, just how complicit she was in that propaganda effort.

One of the ways playwright Sarah Greenman deals with the complexity of Leni's character is to literally split her in two. The two actors in the show are both Leni, one young and one old, and the two of them are enacting and filming scenes from Leni's life in an effort to create a work of beauty. The conflict between the beautiful and the political is a recurring theme. Leni insists that she is all about creating things that are beautiful; the fact that others use them for their own ends is not her business. But the recreation of scenes, the self-editing that accompanies, and the efforts to reconcile the memories of the two Lenis all call into question the true motivations of the artist.

So as a piece of writing, with the juxtaposition of projected scenes from Leni's actual films, this is quite a convoluted and controversial work. There is no question that some of it is stunningly beautiful. The scenes of divers from Olympia, her documentary of the 1936 Olympic Games in Munich, are breathtaking, in an entirely different way from her scenes of Nazi rallies from Triumph of the Will.

The vagaries of memory, self-justification, and ego all run together through the script in ways that keep one guessing as to what is real and what is just Leni trying to direct and edit her own life. It's really quite stunning.

The Production

Now take that stunning work and add terrific staging. In addition to director Jon Tracy's placement of projection screens behind both banks of audience seats, so everyone can see the movies and still see the whole set, Kurt Landisman's lighting is almost a character of its own. The vintage spotlights manipulated by the two Lenis on the stage give a great period feel,  but the whole lighting scheme molds the action, highlighting and backgrounding the actors and the very sparse set designed by Nina Ball. Truly, it's quite magical.

Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham, as the old and young Leni, respectively, do a marvelous job drawing each other out as well as flowing in and out of both their directorial roles and acting roles in the movie shooting inside the play. It's all quite seamless. Ross is perhaps a bit more impressive, as her version of Leni has move emotional ground to cover, and you can just watch the thoughts and emotions flowing across her face. That's not to take anything away from Brigham's performance--hers is not any easy role by any stretch. But seeing the mature Leni both coming to grips with her own story and trying to direct her younger self at the same time is really quite a masterpiece.

Anyway, I came at this not knowing all that much about Leni or her works, and found the treatment both in the text and on the stage to be fascinating. It's been driving conversation in the house now for a couple of days, which is always a good sign after a theater production.

Bottom Line

Go see it. It's really good. The play is an engrossing examination of a truly ground-breaking character. The fact that it's also an exquisite example of stagecraft is a happy bonus.

Monday, April 17, 2017

"Nora" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players photo by Pak Han
I'm definitely out of the habit of blogging! I guess that's what taking a vacation does.

The opening show of Shotgun Players' 26th season is Nora, an adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House by Ingmar Bergman. At under two hours, this is a greatly-reduced version of the original material, with far fewer characters (for example, none of Nora and Torvald's children appear, though they are mentioned). The point would be to focus on the critical elements, such as Nora's relationship with her society and the individual relationships of the five characters. Add to that the starkly minimal staging, and there is not much to distract from those elements.

The Play

I have to admit I'm not a huge fan of either version of the play. I mean, it's fine, and there are good themes and some interesting characterizations. But I find the translations rather dull, lacking much spark. I assume it's better in the original. And perhaps I've grown up in a unique and privileged environment where I perceive women as largely unencumbered by social and family constraints on their life choices. As such, it's hard for me to relate to the issues Nora faces in this play. I think that contributed to my feeling that Nora's really important speech at the end of the play didn't feel authentic. It was written in rather stilted language that didn't feel right coming from Nora at that point, so I found it less moving that it ought to be.

I don't really have a lot to add here: it's a well-known story, and there's not much I can say about it without spoiling it for those who don't already know it.

The Performance

I quite like the minimal set. It gives you both a sense of Nora's isolation from both her family and her society, but because it has no wall, it makes it so everyone else just kind of appears in her life. She has no control of her boundaries. That's pretty powerful imagery. And the wallpaper on the back wall is really great at setting a period mood.

That said, I didn't care for the choice to dress Nora (and only Nora) in relatively modern dress. Everyone else is dressed for the 1870s, and Nora looks like the 1970s. OK, I get that she's not really a woman of her time, but this seems rather heavy-handed, and frankly spoils some of the reveals in the text. One of the main points of Nora's character is that she has to hide some of her non-conforming behavior, and we only learn about it later, and it's supposed to be a surprise or even a shock. But we're all set up for it by her dress, and I think it detracts from the drama of the script.

That said, the acting is quite good. Jessma Evans is a fine Nora (with the caveat about the costuming), and all the other actors are fine. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart is a bit cold and distant as Mrs. Linde, and I'm not sure the script really supports that. It certainly makes it harder to understand her relationship with Nora. If she's really that cold and self-interested, then again it makes Nora less of a surprise with her transgressions.


I'm not a huge fan of the play itself, but I thought the performance was well done, with the exception of the choice of how to present Nora's character. I kind of kept expecting her to toss her beret in the air and jump like Mary Tyler Moore, which is not what I'm supposed to get out of this play. Our party was kind of divided on the subject, ranging from one who found the play unwatchable because of the cognitive dissonance of the costuming, to a couple who found it irritating but ultimately understandable, to one who just shrugged it off.

So it's good, but not terrific. I had hoped for more.

Nora runs through the rest of this week, until April 23rd.