Friday, June 30, 2017

"Julius Caesar" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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

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

The Play

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

The Production

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

"The Odyssey" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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

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

The Play

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

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

The Adaptation

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

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

The Production

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

"You Mean to Do Me Harm" at SF Playhouse

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

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

The Play

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

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

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

The Production

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"Grandeur" at Magic Theatre

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

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

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

The Play

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

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

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

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

The Production

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

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

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

The Reaction

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

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

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

The Aftermath

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

"Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site" at Bay Area Children's Theatre

Bay Area Children's Theatre photo
I admit this one is a little out of the ordinary for me, but there is a back story. Last December, my wife and I attended the Theatre Bay Area awards ceremony, and one of the big winners in the small-theater musical category was a play called "Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site," by Bay Area Children's Theatre. The cast even performed a number from the show, and it was cute and funny and very well done. We were curious about the rest of the show, since it was sweeping awards, but the show had closed by then.

But now it's back! Playing at the Osher Studio in the Berkeley Arts Center downtown, they've brought back the play for a limited time before next season starts. So we thought, "Why not?"

The Play

The play is written by Austin Zimbro, based on a very popular children's book of the same name. As such, it's not terribly big on plot. The five characters represent trucks (a crane, an excavator, a dement mixer, a dump truck, and a bulldozer), and they sing songs about how hard they work all day, and how they need to work as a team to get these big jobs done. They encounter some difficulties along the way as one or another of the group either acts up or melts down in various ways, and eventually they all go to sleep so they can rest up for the next day's work.

It's cute and charming, and the program says it's appropriate for ages 3 and up. There were definitely younger kids, too, and I would say the sweet spot is about 4-5 years old. The music and voices are amplified, but not too much. You can hear everything clearly, but not be overwhelmed. The language in the show is kept pretty simple for the kids, but it's definitely not baby talk. It really is kid-appropriate.

The Production

Judging from the pictures on the website, there has been a little turnover in the cast, but they do a fine job. Quite polished, following the choreography, and interacting smoothly. The singing is quite strong, especially since they are moving around most of the time, often dancing, sometimes rolling on their "wheelie" shoes, and sometimes carrying loads of "dirt," "rocks," or "beams." It's quite clever, and engrossing for the children in the audience, but it seemed like the adults were all having a good time, too. The songs manage to be age-appropriate without seeming insipid to adults, and they teach and model good behavior without being preachy, and deal with either misbehavior or shortcomings in a positive, reinforcing way.

It's all pretty cheerful and up-tempo (aside from nap time and bedtime), the set and costumes are simple but colorful, and the 45-minute run time goes by pretty quickly. After the show, kids can meet the characters and get pictures taken with them.

Bottom Line

This was a fun outing for little kids, and probably a good introduction to what theater is like. Unlike a lot of kid shows where the kids sit on the floor in a circle and/or move around, this one involves sitting in assigned seats with adults around them. All of the kids behaved very well. The show seems to be well within their attention span.

So, what can I say? It was a fun show, well, done, and was entertaining and probably a little bit "educational" for its intended audience. For me, I probably wouldn't go out of my way without having a young one to take along (my teenager accompanied us and was charmed, by the way), but I would certainly recommend it as an outing for families with kids of the right age.

It's quality stuff, and kind of makes me want to go see their upcoming season, which starts with "The Rainbow Fish," which used to be a very popular story in our house. Perhaps it's nostalgia for the days of reading picture books with my own kid, but they seem to do a good job.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Preview: "brownsville song (b-side for tray)" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players rehearsal photo by Jessica Palopoli
I don't often go to see previews of plays (I like to see them in their finished form), and I normally wouldn't write about one, but this one feels appropriate. We decided to go last night because a couple of friends of ours who also love theater were going, so we figured we could then discuss the play after, as we always do. And we have tickets to see the show later in the run, which means I can give it the full treatment later. And on top of all that, I had written about the staged reading of the play last year. So this gives me a chance to follow the development of this show from read to preview to full production in a way that is somewhat uncommon.

I will say that a lot of what I wrote about the play last year still holds. It's quite well-written, and now having seen both the entire length of the play (I missed the start of the reading!) and a more complete staging, I can appreciate some of the subtlety of playwright Kimber Lee's writing.

The Play

This is a family drama. Focused on grandmother Lena (Cathleen Riddley, reprising her role from the reading) and her two grandchildren, Tray (Davied Morales) and Devine (Mimia Ousilas), the plot line involves Tray's efforts to win a scholarship to college while trying to navigate the tough street life of Brownsville. In the course of the play we get to see both the fun, loving interactions of the characters and the hard, tough ones. Lena walks the line between encouraging the kids and laying down the law while dealing with her own fading memory and the emotions of her own experiences.

The wild card in the play is Merrell (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), who is Devine's mother, but who has been out of the picture for some years in rehab. A lot of the tough bits deal with the reality of Merrell trying to reclaim some part of her life with a family she had abandoned. Watching the differences between Lena's and Tray's interactions with Merrell is particularly poignant.

Something I appreciate much more on seeing the play again is the way Lee weaves past and present into the flow of the narrative. We know from the outset that things will not end well for Tray, and by taking us back and forth between scenes in Tray's life and scenes after he's gone, we avoid the unrelenting descent into tragedy. Perhaps best of all, it gives the playwright and her characters the ability to both tell and show us things about Tray in ways that a straight narrative could not. I appreciate the nuances of this much more on this second viewing.

The Production

This being a preview, I won't go into too much depth about the production elements that will surely be changing over the course of the run. However, there are some items I want to draw attention to.

First, I really like the set design by Randy Wong-Westbrooke. Combined with Allen Willner's lighting, the set manages to hold Lena's apartment, the streets of Brownsville, the gym where Tray works out, and sometimes a Starbuck's. Other than the Starbuck's going on and off, everything else manages to just be there, and characters can transition between spaces nicely, so that scene changes are very smooth.

Another thing that strikes me is the emotional content of the play. Like much of life in Brownsville, the interactions in the play could be explosive, but director Margo Hall has done a terrific job of keeping the lid on, so things tend to simmer instead of boiling over. That taste of what it takes to get through life in Brownsville day by day without going ballistic is gripping. Lena's character in particular has so many opportunities where she could just lose it, but she has obviously learned that her survival (and that of her family) depends on her keeping it together. Similarly, Tray navigates the joy of playing with his little sister, the sullen teenage jousting with his grandmother, and the complex and difficult interactions with Merrell with difficulty. I'm really impressed with Morales's portrayal of Tray, and his ability to flow among those different kinds of interactions. I imagine that will only get stronger as the run of the play continues.

And since I've talked about everyone else, I should mention the last member of the cast, William Hartfield, who plays Junior. Although it is a small role, it is important, and his scenes with Tray and especially with Lena are keys to the whole story. He does a good job.

Bottom Line

I liked this play a lot when I read it and when I saw the staged reading. There is a lot of power in it, and in the hands of director Hall and a very strong cast, I think it will blossom. Mostly, I'm impressed with the way the play tells a very sad, tragic story, yet instead of leaving the audience feeling depressed and perhaps helpless, it tells the other side (the B-side, if you will) of the story: the story of hope and effort and perseverance and of living even a challenging life on one's own terms. It would be easy to define Tray's life by his tragic, untimely death, but instead, we understand that he is defined by how he lived and played and worked and aspired.

It's a very human story, and one that manages to uplift where we expect to be beaten down. I'm looking forward to seeing it again, as the cast refines their work and settles into their roles even more. It would be very easy to be put off by the premise of a story about the untimely death of a promising young man in the ghetto, but that's not the takeaway. It may be bleak at times, but there is life and goodness in this story.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

"HeLa" at TheatreFIRST

There is almost too much to say about this play and this production. I saw it two days ago, and I still have a lot of thoughts bouncing around in my head about it, but I really want to get it written down because there are only three more performances of this play, coming up this weekend, and I suspect some of you might want to see it.

HeLa is the fourth and final production of the premiere season of the new incarnation of TheatreFIRST, so it provides a chance to look at where they've come as a company this year, as well as looking at a very interesting play.

The Play

Inspired by the story of Henrietta Lacks, Bay Area playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy have produced what they call "The PoeticScientific DreamFate of Henrietta Lacks," which goes a long way toward explaining the somewhat odd narrative structure of the piece. Time and reality are both quite fluid in this play, from the outset.

The opening scene has the young mother Henrietta washing dishes while her 2-year-old daughter, Deborah, tries to avoid going to bed. It's a pretty simple domestic scene, except Deborah is narrating it from sometime in the future, looking back to an early event that she probably can't even remember. Henrietta is soon joined by her adoring husband, and they talk about things: their five children, their life. It's a simple image of a loving family life. But soon we are interrupted by Henrietta learning that she has advanced cervical cancer, and the doctor is not encouraging, rather mechanically telling her that she is going to die, though they will do what they can.

That's pretty much the last even remotely sympathetic interaction Henrietta will have with the medical establishment. Her treatment is ineffective, but painful (as is the cancer, of course). In the course of her dying in the hospital, researchers will routinely take samples of her cancerous tissues. It's routine (for them), but the cells are not. It turns out Henrietta has really special cancer cells that are, essentially, immortal. This is a great boon for researchers, for all kinds of reasons alluded to in the course of the play.

Henrietta dies, but her cancer cells live on in laboratories around the world, becoming the most popular cells for scientific research ever. The thing is, they are identified only as "HeLa," so soon no one remembers or knows who the cells came from.

Through the rest of the play, "Henrietta" follows those cells through various kinds of research projects, such as Jonas Salk developing his polio vaccine, early space flight, and much more. Some of the scenes are quite humorous, others touching, some irritating or inflammatory. And through it all we see and hear Henrietta's frustration that she is unknown and unacknowledged, and bitter that people are making loads and loads of money off her cells, while she (obviously) and her family get no payment or benefit at all.

So we have a number of themes here: identity and recognition through time; the rights of patients and (perhaps) their survivors vis-a-vis material taken from the body of the patient (with or without consent or, perhaps, knowledge); the attitudes of medical practitioners and researchers toward patients and subjects; consent and coercion in general. All important. But the "elephant in the room" here is race. Because Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman of modest means, and virtually everyone else involved (doctors, researchers, etc.) are white and mostly male.

The Production

The narrative is a bit difficult to comprehend, particularly early, as characters morph almost instantaneously, so one isn't quite sure whether the actor speaking is still the same character as last spoke. On some level, I suspect that is intentional, that the point is they are all in some ways the same, so we are feeling some of the discomfort and confusion that Henrietta and her family feel. On another hand, from a historical perspective it actually makes a difference whether everyone treats Henrietta badly, or only some people do. But that doesn't seem to be a concern of the play.

Anyway, the three core members of the Lacks family, Henrietta, her husband, and her daughter Deborah (played respectively by Jeunee Simon, Khary Moye, and Desiree Rogers) are all solid. The rest of the ensemble are also good. Sarah Mitchell has a couple of memorable turns, particularly as a canine cosmonaut. Richard Pallaziol drew the short straw and gets to portray all of the white, male medical personnel, so spends much of the play being smarmy, condescending, and/or dismissive. Akemi Okamura gets a couple of chances to be the conscience of the medical crew, but those bits are fleeting.

The staging is intentionally simple. It's all set on an empty, black stage, with occasional props brought in. Throughout, the back wall is illuminated by a sort of sculpture made up of translucent balls, illuminated in various effective ways (kudos to lighting designer Stephanie Anne Johnson), always looking like a bunch of cells, which is really the center of the story.

My main criticism of the production is that it's pretty single-note. Admittedly, the source material is pretty sparse, but instead of filling in with a variety of different kinds of scenes and reactions, we pretty much get Henrietta feeling forgotten and unacknowledged n every context. While it may be true that she was essentially instantly forgotten by all but her family, that doesn't leave much room for plot and character development. So by the time we've seen 20 or 30 minutes of the play, we've gotten pretty much the whole message. There's a little more toward the end when some of the family is drawn back in, but on the whole, we've got the story almost complete early on.

The TheaterFIRST Experiment

When TheatreFIRST re-formed last year, their stated mission was to use storytelling to amplify marginalized voices and give a larger community a larger voice. But they also talk about "telling the world’s stories through multiple, simultaneous viewpoints," and that seems to be missing in HeLa. We get Henrietta's viewpoint throughout, and no one could dispute that hers, as with so many of her contemporaries, was a marginalized voice. It's great to have her story told from her perspective.

Unfortunately, that telling doesn't feel like it's fair to some of the other actors in the story. Most of the medical professionals come across more as caricatures than as characters. The researcher who orders his assistant to obtain more samples, even though it will cause even more pain to the dying woman, flat out says he doesn't care, that he needs those cells for his research. He's not quite twisting his mustache and cackling, but it almost comes across that way. There is little sense that anyone gives more than lip service to balancing the question of the individual patient/subject and the possible good the research might provide to society as a whole. It would possible to portray Henrietta as being wronged without having to portray everyone who wrongs her as being greedy, egotistical, racist and heartless. A bit more subtlety to the message would make this a better and more broadly accessible play. At least two people in my party found this portrayal to be extremely off-putting, even offensive.

That said, the play clearly resonates with a big swath of the audience. And I have to say that the audience for the Sunday matinee we saw had far more people of color in it than I generally see at any theater, and judging superficially I'd say the audience was probably less affluent than is the norm. And during the play I saw many of them nodding in agreement and recognition of circumstances, some even vocalizing during the play. And that's all great: these are people who rarely get to see people like them portrayed on stage. I'm elated to see them coming to hear stories they can relate to. But there is also an opportunity to at least introduce other viewpoints as well, to create a dialogue, and that's what was missing.

At the discussion following the performance, nearly all of the "questions" from the audience were really just thanks and praise. Which is fine as far as it goes, but that's the prescription for an echo chamber. In part I attribute the lack of interaction to the fact that many in the audience are not accustomed to attending theater, much less discussing with the cast afterward. But telling a story that doesn't result in people wanting to dispute or question or add on or something suggests that the story is too finely tuned to a particular audience. Getting new people into the theater is a good first step. Really engaging them, though, is what really defines art, and HeLa isn't there yet.

One thing that struck me in the discussion after was a comment by one of the cast that there was a lot more material written than was included in the show. They picked and chose scenes that they felt worked best. It would be interesting to know whether some of the other scenes might have provided some contrast or variety of viewpoint, which would have made the show overall stronger. Hard to know without knowing what those scenes are, of course.

Bottom Line

The play tells an interesting, if limited, story, and the production is of remarkably high quality for a world premiere that is really still in development. And it's enlightening for a frequent theater attendee like me to get immersed in a very different sort of audience now and then. It's good to see how they react and what they react to. Every theater person I talk to is always talking about how to expand the base of people who go to theater. TheatreFIRST seems to have found at least one part of an answer. The next question is, how do you get them to come back for another story that might not be so finely tuned to them.

I'm glad to see that such a new and rather radically different theater company has been as successful as they have been in their inaugural season. I look forward to seeing both their productions and their audience develop.

Should you see HeLa? Probably. There are lots of good theatrical bits, even if I don't find the overall story that compelling. But it's good to see how it is reaching some people quite effectively. Seeing this has definitely got me thinking about some new things, and that's always good.

Monday, June 12, 2017

"Roman Holiday" at SHN

Roman Holiday is a classic movie of the 1950s. It's a light-hearted romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck from a screenplay originally written by Dalton Trumbo, so there's a lot of talent and star power involved. Now we have Roman Holiday: The New Musical, which as the name implies has been adapted into a musical. This is a pre-Broadway production, so much like the original appearance of Wicked in San Francisco, we're seeing a quite early iteration.

The Play

Like many romantic comedies, particularly in period of the early 50s, Roman Holiday isn't really deep. It's a fun story about a sheltered princess who gets bored and restless during a tour of Europe and slips away from her entourage in Rome to see some real life. While out, she falls for an American ex-pat journalist. They tour Rome. They have fun. Then (spoiler) she goes back to being a princess and he goes back to being a newspaperman.

Again, not a lot of substance there, but with the charisma of the stars and a clever script, you've got a nice movie.

So, what have they done to turn this into a (pre-)Broadway musical? First, they needed music. To their credit, they chose the music of Cole Porter, so at least we have quality and familiarity. The team putting together the show includes producers and directors who did Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. I'm getting a bit leery of shows that try to build a story onto a body of existing songs. It worked almost miraculously well with Mamma Mia, which managed to create a (reasonably) coherent story out of hit songs by ABBA. Subsequent efforts have tended more to kind of biographical/greatest-hits pieces featuring a particular artist or recording label. It's fun and nostalgic, but it's not particularly theatrical in most cases.

But what we have here is a true throwback to a classic movie musical, where the songs are not just a backdrop or a transition: the characters sing them right into the dialogue, and numbers like "Easy to Love" or "Night and Day" translate right into the story and also fit the period, so it feels like a 1950s musical romantic comedy. And that's cool.

The Production

First observation is that this is a really expensive production. Unlike most touring shows, this one has extensive, complicated scenery that seems a bit overwhelming on the stage of the Golden Gate Theater. There are pieces sliding in from all directions in quite elaborate scene changes. Except when they don't. Twice during the first act, they had to stop the show, drop the curtain, and bring up the house lights because some or all of a scene change didn't happen, and it was two different sets, so it wasn't just one malfunction. That's pretty embarrassing. Even in a pre-Broadway run, a set this extensive and complicated has to work. There were no further (visible) glitches, but this was quite remarkable for a show of this quality with such a large budget.

All that said, the show works pretty well. When the scenes actually change, they change pretty deftly, so the play flows along at a nice pace, and the songs (and the orchestra playing them) are very good. The singers are strong and the dancers are terrific, though I felt like for a real Broadway show there ought to be more dancers, bigger crowds, etc. Maybe when they get to a bigger stage they can expand the ensemble a bit.

The lead actors are fine, but kind of inevitably pale in comparison to their movie-star predecessors. Princess Ann starts the show with a rather stiff, affected accent that kind of disappears as she gets more involved with people outside her entourage. I'm not clear that that was intentional, though I can see where the weird, clipped princess accent would be a bit annoying for the whole show.

And I should mention the princess's aunt, the Countess, played by Georgia Engel, who we last saw locally earlier this year in John at ACT. Much as she was in that role, Engel is charming and funny, a little dotty but clever and hinting at depths not quite in evidence in the character. You could tell the audience was enjoying and anticipating her little digressions.

Bottom Line

This is old-school musical comedy, more in the vein of mindless fluff than messaging. But that's fine. It's done authentically and well, and if they can keep their scene changes moving, it's quite a fun show to watch. Don't go for intellectual stimulation, but if you want to see singing and dancing and romance and some cute fun, this is the show for you. You could do far worse than listen to Cole Porter tunes for a couple of hours while really good dancers perform, and you get singers and a little story, too.

This definitely proved to be a pleasant little diversion between two much heavier plays this weekend.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

"As You Like It" at Cal Shakes

Cal Shakes photo by Kevin Berne
I believe I might have mentioned in a recent post that I'm a sucker for weddings. Well, that makes As You Like It pretty much the ultimate trap for me, since it ends with a full set of four weddings. I had wanted to see this Cal Shakes production when I heard that Desdemona Chiang was directing it, as I really appreciate her insight and creativity. What I hadn't realized until I counted things up tonight: this was the only one of Shakespeare's comedies I hadn't yet seen on stage.

And that's odd, really. I'm unclear how I managed not to see it at least once. My wife remembers seeing it in Ashland in 2012, but for some reason, though I was there, I didn't see it with her. I'm guessing she saw it with our daughter while I saw something else that wasn't age-appropriate for the younger generation. Anyway, the Comedy portion of the Shakespeare canon is now complete for me. Cool!

The Play

Giving a summary of a Shakespearean comedy is pretty pointless. There is confusion of identity, cross-dressing, lost relatives, love triangles (or other shapes), and at least one wedding at the end. This is no different. Plus we get shepherds and a really great motley coat.

But in a bigger sense, this is a play about identity. Part of it deals with the superficial kind of identity, like "who is this person I don't recognize because he is now wearing a hat" that pervades these plays. That's fun and important to the plot, of course. But in a deeper sense, it's more about the self-identification of the characters. For example, a duke is banished by his brother, who usurps his dukedom and sends him off to live in the forest. Rather than sitting around, angrily plotting his revenge and reinstatement, the deposed duke makes peace with his new, rustic life. Similarly, his later-banished daughter escapes to the same forest in disguise and has some interesting explorations of gender identity while disguised as a man and still being wooed by her love interest. A courtier clown falls for a shepherd and the country life.

Much of the play centers around characters coming to grips with who they are, rather than who they thought they were, or who others expect them to be. In the hands of director Chiang a crew of able designers, and some choice music, this becomes a timely vehicle for examining class and gender roles.

The Production

Despite being nearly two-and-a-half hours long (with an intermission), the play feels snappy and engaging. This is in part because there are almost no discernible scene changes. Most are either extremely brief and fluid or just subsumed into the flow of the play. Nina Ball's lovely set transforms quite brilliantly from Duke Frederick's court to the Arden forest, which in this production is actually a dilapidated urban warehouse (really, it works). The transition is handled brilliantly both in the moment and as characters from court later arrive and find themselves in the "forest." Somehow we just accept that there are shepherds and deer here.

The use of some key double casting also facilitates the change of scene. The redoubtable James Carpenter starts the play as the usurper, Duke Frederick, but deftly transitions into his brother, the banished Duke Senior. And Warren David Keith jumps back and forth several times between the servant Adam and Touchstone the clown, to good effect. Jomar Tagatac provides a strong physical presence as both the wrestler, Charles, and Jaques, who slips from foreground to background as easily as he hops onto a platform.

The central characters (to the extent the play has a center, which is debatable) of Rosalind and Orlando are quite strong. Jessika D. Williams resists the temptation to ham up the cross-dressing role as Rosalind dresses as the male "Ganymede," and Patrick Russell, though love-struck, manages to remain remarkably controlled and seems to be understanding the scenario as it develops, rather than simply being smacked by a big reveal at the end. Indeed, the whole production, though humorous, mostly avoids playing for yucks, and instead opts for a more subtle, nuanced playing of the gender roles and relationships.

The ensemble is strong, and the whole production flows so smoothly that intermission feels almost like an interruption (though a necessary one).

Bottom Line

This is a really good rendition of the play, and quite thoughtful and respectful of both the audience and the sensibilities of the community. The courtyard outside the theater holds some materials about the roles of gender and love and such, with input from Oakland's Youth UpRising program. As contemporary society struggles with these matters, it's reassuring to know that a 400-year-old play can help bring out the dialogue. It's interesting to walk out of the theater and hear people speculating on the role of gender and cross-dressing and such in Shakespeare's day.

All in all, I came away impressed with both the stage production and the degree to which Cal Shakes has made the entire endeavor feel extremely relevant to a large swath of the community. This is what theater is about, and it's well worth seeing it.

Monday, June 5, 2017

"Monsoon Wedding" at Berkeley Rep

Berkeley Rep photo by Kevin Berne
I'm a sucker for weddings. I love them. They're so fun, so hopeful and forward-looking. I don't think I've ever been to a wedding I didn't enjoy. And I'm also a fan (not a huge or knowledgeable one, but a fan) of Bollywood musicals. The color and energy and spectacle of them is just incredibly fun, even if the story isn't always compelling. So of course I was going to go see Monsoon Wedding at Berkeley Rep. Director Mira Nair spearheaded the conversion of her romantic comedy movie into a stage musical, which is promising.

The Play

There is a lot to like in the story line of the play: You get the arranged-marriage, girl-meets-boy angle, the ex-pat and native angle, the wealthy/middle class/serving class conflict, religious issues, more marigolds than you can imagine, and a great many songs with dancing. It's all there. And there is plot, but I have to say that although there are the outlines of some decent stories here, the motivations of the characters are pretty thin, so you just have to kind of go along for the ride. Suspend your disbelief and wait for the next dance number.

It's a reasonably large cast, with 18 named roles and a couple of swing actors, plus a 7-member band/orchestra. So there's a lot going on. But ultimately it feels like it tries to do too much. When you have to make room for all the big musical numbers, some of the dialogue has to go, but it feels like Nair tried to keep all the plot lines from the movie, and it doesn't feel like it really does any of them justice (other than maybe the secondary romance of Alice and Dubey). Most just feel like you've gotten the Reader's Digest version of the story, which makes it sparse even by musical theater standards.

The Production

It's a big play. I mentioned the size of the cast and the number of musicians. And there are lots of colorful costumes (nice job there by designer Arjun Bhasin) and enjoyable songs by Vishal Bhardwaj and lyricist Susan Birkenhead. But interestingly, I felt particularly at the beginning, the show wasn't big enough to fill the stage. Obviously a stage show like this can't produce the overwhelming effects of the scores of extras in a Bollywood extravaganza, but I couldn't help feeling that different sets and maybe some projections could have made the set feel more full. Later on, with more set pieces on stage, it felt like it worked better.

And the producers make a big deal about having done a worldwide search for authentic Punjabi actors with proper accents and such to make the show just right. And that's great: the cast is quite good. The matched couple, Hemant (Michael Maliakel) and Aditi (Kuhoo Verma) have incredible voices, managing to sing strongly through a yoga class. Namit Das as PK Dubey really nails the comic acting I expect in an Indian comedy (and sings very well, too). There were a few moments where some of the actors fell a bit short of their notes or acted in a way that wasn't quite in sync with the rest of the cast, but for the most part, it was all good.

But it makes me wonder about the future of the play. If it takes a worldwide casting call to land just the right cast, what happens when they have to replace someone, or the show goes on tour, or it eventually gets produced in local theaters? When you're making a movie and doing it once, you write and cast for just the right stuff, and it lasts. But for the stage, you have to be a bit more forgiving, and I'm concerned that without the all-star cast, this show might not hold up quite so well.

Bottom Line

It's a big Punjabi wedding with colors and songs and dancing: What's not to like? It's an enjoyable show, and will likely never be better than in this world premiere production, so head on out to Berkeley. It's not a brilliant story, but it's quite a spectacle.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

"The Roommate" at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse photo
Friday night in San Francisco. We don't seem to hit theaters in The City on Friday that often; more likely to be in Berkeley on Friday for some reason. The bars and restaurants were definitely more crowded than we usually see them mid-week, but the crowd at SF Playhouse seemed rather sparse. Maybe people had switched their tickets so they could go do something else. I gather there was some big comedy thing going on at Civic Center.

But we were there to see The Roommate, a somewhat quirky play by Jen Silverman about a woman who rents out a room in her house to a stranger who is somewhat less than forthcoming about her past.

The Play

Sharon (played by SF Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano) is a woman living alone in a fairly large house in Iowa. To help make ends meet, she has taken in a roommate, Robyn. The play starts as Robyn (Julia Brothers) is moving in with her boxes of stuff. Robyn is reluctant to answer many questions from Sharon, abruptly changing the subject and making clear that she's got something to hide. She also won't let Sharon touch her boxes.

Frankly, the writing, particularly early on, is a bit rough. There is not much subtlety in the early portrayals of either character, though the actors do their best to paper over the rough patches in the script. Sharon is just a bit too pointedly, naively inquisitive, and Robyn a bit too furtive and evasive. In light of what we later learn about each of them, it's actually hard to justify either of those traits. We have to either believe that both characters are acting against their nature at the beginning, or that at least one of them changes almost instantly, which just suggests some weak writing.

On the whole, the story is a good one, and the characters pretty likable, but the early scenes are a bit hard to accept, and greatly increase the degree to which one has to suspend disbelief later on. On the whole, the plot seems pretty implausible, but still fun.

The Production

As usual at SF Playhouse, the production quality is high. Nina Ball's set is attractive (though I must say quite similar to several others I've seen recently, both by her and others), setting the house as a frame or outline, with only a few walls and features inside. This permits the lighting (by Robert Hand) and the wide open spaces of Iowa to engulf the play. Indeed, the two women seem quite alone in the middle of a vast, empty space.

Damilano manages to make Sharon a quite interesting character, though as written there is not a lot of interest there. She lives a very dull life, alone in her house since her son moved to New York and her husband "retired" from their marriage. Other than her reading club and weekly shopping, she is rather a shut-in, definitely sheltered. As her exposure to the more worldly Robyn gives her new experiences and shows her new possibilities, Sharon displays some depth that was previously hidden, and Damilano does a good job of making that feel plausible.

Brothers is good as Robyn, though somewhat less believable. Particularly early on, she seems a bit too much on edge, given what we learn about her later. And her set of expressions seems a little limited. Again, given what a chameleon her character is supposed to be, the facial and physical choices seem too limited.

Bottom Line

I thought it was a fun play, exploring the notions of what kinds of hidden depths people can discover when they allow themselves to step outside the limitations they and their society impose. And in a larger sense, we can see some of the roots of the political and social disaffection in the American Midwest, as exemplified in recent elections and the ongoing "opioid crisis."

It's not a brilliant play, but it's enjoyable, and it's certainly well done.