Monday, July 31, 2017

"Splendour" at Aurora Theatre Company

Aurora Theatre Company photo
I'm so behind on my show blogging that I will have to be a bit brief. Fortunately, I don't feel like I have a lot to say about this show.

Aurora's final production of the season was the Bay Area premiere of Splendour, by Abi Morgan. As usual with Aurora, I found the production to be of pretty high quality, but this time the play itself didn't impress me much.

The Play

Set in an unspecified country undergoing economic and political turmoil, Splendour showcases the wife of a powerful general (Lorri Holt) who lives in, well, splendour, while much of the rest of the country descends into chaos and poverty. A foreign photo journalist (Denmo Ibrahim) has come to do a feature on the general and his wife, but the general isn't home yet. The journalist has a local interpreter (Sam Jackson) who is largely uninterested in doing the interpreting job, though she wants the cash for the job and wouldn't mind pocketing some of the general's bounty. And the wife has summoned her neighbor and long-time friend (Mia Tagano) to help her pass the time while they wait for the general to return.

It's clear that everyone is scared and uncertain, but everyone is in a different situation and has different incentives and goals. So we watch the four women play off each other as the time passes and we wait for the general.

And then we do it again. And again. The play uses the trick of repeating the same basic scene, but with different emphasis, a slightly different viewpoint, and a bit more information trickling out each time. In theory, this layered presentation keeps the scene(s) interesting as we try to grasp the nuances of the changes, searching for revelations. In reality, I found it tedious, with the new "revelations" mostly things I had already either intuited or interpreted, but I found very little actually revealed in the repeating scenes. I had pretty much figured out all four characters' stories by the second or third time through, and the rest felt superfluous.

And really, there isn't much else to the play. If that one trick doesn't carry the show, there's not much to fall back on.

The Production

On the plus side, Michael Locher's set is nice, though not terribly imaginative. Again, it's all one scene, happening in the same room for the most part. It's well lighted under the designs of Kurt Landisman, and the sounds of the conflict outside are a steady presence, ably designed by Matt Stines.

And the actors all do a credible job. Ibrahim and Jackson, playing the outsiders, have the most range to work with since their characters come in with one set of expectations and find themselves in another situation entirely. Holt and Tagano are somewhat stuck with their characters, though we do get to see some development.

Unfortunately, all the actors are stuck with the fact that they are playing the same characters in variants on the same scene multiple times, which quite limits what they can introduce each time through. I don't fault them for the limitations of the script, but I do wish they or director Barbara Damashek could have found a little more room for range, or hidden a few more nuances from the earlier versions of the scenes so we'd have more revelations and development as the scene repeated.


I have to say I came away disappointed. It felt like the ensemble was capable of delivering more, but Morgan's script just doesn't have that much for them. There's just so far you can go with tension and denial when you can't do any kind of big reveal that would spoil the repetitions. So we get little increments, creeping through the play, and ultimately there isn't much satisfaction. It felt like kind of a waste of the talents of the performers and designers and crew.

And since I'm late writing this up, it's too late for you to choose to see it, anyway. What you missed was sort of an interesting exercise in theatrical writing that didn't turn out to be a particularly satisfying show to watch.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"In The Heights" at Contra Costa Civic Theatre

[I have no idea why Blogger isn't letting me put pictures in tonight. ]

In the wake of all the Hamilton popularity, a number of theaters are looking at some of Lin-Manuel Miranda's earlier work, notably his first hit musical, In The Heights, based on people and situations from Washington Heights, Manhattan, where he grew up. I admit that was my primary motivation, though I was really intrigued to see that although Miranda wrote the music and lyrics, the book for the show is by Quiara Allegria Hudes, who I only know through her dramatic works. Her Water By the Spoonful is a powerful piece, and its sequel, The Happiest Song Plays Last, is also quite good.

So that's a lot of artistic firepower behind a play, which should be a good thing.

And if that's not enough, Contra Costa Civic Theatre (CCCT) is kind of my old home stage. El Cerrito, where CCCT is located, is where I grew up, and I saw quite a few shows there as a kid. And then by high school, a number of my friends were in their productions and many local families were involved with the theater. I've been hearing that the company has made some real advances in the last several years, so I was looking forward to seeing for myself.

The Play

The show is largely an ensemble piece, though there are clearly a few key characters. The center is really Usnavi (Rajiv Vijayakumar) and his Abuela Claudia (Anita Viramontes). Claudia in many ways holds the neighborhood together. Usnavi has a crush on Vanessa (India Kawar). Meanwhile, Nina (Zinah Abraha) is trying to be the success story, going to college at Stanford on scholarship, though she's home for the summer and getting involved with Benny (Dave J. Abrams), who works for her parents' car service. It's complicated.

We have lots of slices of life at Usnavi's bodega, the car service, the salon that's closing, and of course, out in the street. Much music, lots of dance. And the Piragua Guy (Billy Raphael).

Oh yeah, it's the third of July, so we have to have fireworks and things.

The Production

With a community theater company, you never quite know what you're going to get, but I have to say the company here was quite competent, and much more even in their performances than I would have expected. The ensemble sang and danced very well, even though the street was pretty crowded at times, and the choreography by Allison Paraiso-Silicani was pretty intricate at times. The musicians were good, but not very balanced; the keyboard often drowned out the other instruments (and sometimes the voices, despite the microphones everyone was wearing). So the sound balance needed some work. And there were definitely issues with the lights. I couldn't tell whether those were deisgn problems or equipment problems, but it was bad enough to be distracting at some key moments, which is unfortunate.

But really, I was impressed with the performances of the actors as a whole. The solid ensemble work meshed well with the featured roles. Musically it worked pretty well, although at times Vijayakumar had a bit of difficulty enunciating his raps, particularly with the music overpowering him at times. But on the whole the acting was fine and the singing strong. I should call out Zinah Abraha for her strong, expressive singing, and Dave Abrams for the whole package: singing, dancing, acrobatics, and acting.

Bottom Line

Once again a community theater company has exceeded my expectations. Unfortunately, we were only able to get tickets to the closing performance, so I can't recommend that you run out and see it. On the plus side, I gather they sold out most of the run. Certainly it was had to get tickets the last few weeks. Good for them!

I'm impressed with the quality both of the play itself and of the production put on by CCCT. Director Ryan Mark Weible did a good job of pulling together a cast that was capable of doing justice to Miranda's and Hudes's work. This is not an easy show, but they did it well. I will be looking for excuses to check out more CCCT shows coming up. This was the last show of their current season, but they've announced some pretty ambitious shows for next year, including Cabaret and Ragtime.

Keep your eyes peeled.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" at SHN

This is an interesting show. My wife saw it last year in London, then read the book. Though she found it interesting, she didn't see the need to see it again, so I went to see the touring production in San Francisco with my daughter and my mother-in-law.

I won't go into great detail, because it's pretty well-known and not a local production. Still, it's theater....

The Play

Based on the novel of the same name by Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Simon Stephens is quite a show. The main character is a teenage boy who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, brilliant in some areas (particularly mathematics) and rather stunted in others (such as social awareness). Christopher is blessed with an amazing, eidetic memory, but struggles with a lot of the basic tasks of living. His parents struggle with him, and then he loses his mother to a problem with her heart (about which we learn much more later). His father struggles with keeping Christopher going while working to support them.

The show commences with Christopher examining the remains of a neighborhood dog that has been killed unexpectedly with a garden fork (or a pitchfork to us Yanks). Christopher becomes quite obsessed with figuring out who killed the dog, but being socially inept, he has difficulty going about it. That takes us through the first act.

After intermission, we have learned the answer to the question of the dog's murder, and the answer send Christopher off on a solo adventure to London. The portrayal of a smart-but-not-worldly kid with very little practical ability trying to make his way is well done, though it doesn't provide much in the way of new insights into his character.

Ultimately, the plot devices feel stretched a bit (though it's quite accurate to portray such a kid grabbing onto and obsessing over a task), and I felt like it was an interesting portrait of a kid with symptoms of autism-related issues, but the overall story line wasn't all that great.

The Production

The set should probably get a credit of its own. The stage is a box divided into squares, and the production makes great use of the lights and lines and drawing surfaces and such. It's quite elaborate, and manages to be both simple and complex, and overall quite elegant. On the other hand, as with any really elaborate set, it has a tendency to overshadow some of the items for which it is really meant to serve as a backdrop. Overall I thought it was intriguing and a plus, but then I'm a techno-junkie.

On the other hand, because the set was capable of being so overwhelming, it was an excellent vehicle for demonstrating the way Christopher perceives the sheer volume of sensory input, so in that sense it's quite successful.

On yet another hand, however, the character development really suffers. We get a pretty good view into Christopher, and some into his parents, but really, other than the one central character, everyone else is pretty one-dimensional, and we don't get a lot of insight into their motivations.

I should also mention that the part of Christopher, demanding as it is, is double-cast, and we saw the actor (Benjamin Wheelwright) who plays only selected shows. He was quite good, and I was impressed with the complexity of the role and its interactions with all the other actors. Having two actors play that central role has got to be challenging, but they handle it well.

Bottom Line

The stagecraft is clever and interesting, and the main character is good. The plot of the first act keeps it going pretty well, but the second seems a bit aimless. Still, it's a good show, well designed and performed. If you're inclined to see it, I'd say you should go ahead. It plays through Sunday, the 23rd, before moving briefly to Seattle and then on to Los Angeles for a month or more, then Costa Mesa and Las Vegas, briefly.

Check it out. It's pretty neat.

Monday, July 10, 2017

"Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
As soon as you see the name "Medea" in the name of a play, you know you're in for a rough ride. The classical tragedy of Medea by Euripides is such a well-known and tragic tale that it is both ripe for interpretation and yet still a story that I'm reluctant to watch because it's so gut-wrenching. The only real exception to that in my experience was Medea: The Musical, which was absolutely hilarious while still dealing with LGBT issues in a real and interesting way back in the 1990s.

So clearly I go into this with some trepidation, yet also having had several people I trust tell me it is the best thing they've seen at Ashland this summer.

The Play

The basic outline of Medea is that Medea, a foreign princess, marries Jason after his quest for the Golden Fleece. Because of Jason's ambitions, he marries another woman, though promising to love and support her and their children. Medea doesn't buy it, kills the other wife and the children, and flees to Athens. There is a lot more, but that's the nut of it.

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles keeps a lot of that basic plot and adapts it to the plight of contemporary Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles. In this variant, Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) and Jason (Lakin Valdez) have fled Michoacan, Mexico, with their son Acan (Jahnangel Jimenez) and Tita (VIVIS), her longtime family housekeeper. They cross illegally into the U.S. and settle in Los Angeles where Medea sews piecework and Jason works in construction. Jason has ambitions to rise up in the business, run by a very successful immigrant woman, Armida (Vilma Silva), and tries to assimilate, as does Acan. Medea, traumatized by the trip north, refuses to leave their home and yard. She eventually befriends Josefina (Nancy Rodriguez), a baker and street vendor Tita has met.

The first half or so of the play shows the struggles of the family trying to get by, move up, and get along in L.A. Medea shows that she is a whiz at sewing. Tita hints at abilities beyond mere housekeeping, tending an herb garden. Medea tries to keep Acan in touch with the culture they have left behind. Meanwhile, Jason and Armida have other ideas that don't so much include Medea. When Medea learns that they have married and plan to take Acan with them while sending Medea away, things turn ugly.

The Production

As I write this, about a week after seeing the show, the production has already closed. It was a first half of the season only production, which is unfortunate, because the penultimate performance we saw was tremendous. The cast was outstanding. VIVIS as Tita serves as the Greek (well, Mexican) chorus, Medea's conscience and cultural touchstone.  She manages to be both wonderfully comical and touchingly sad: a terrific performance throughout. Medea and Jason seem to have real chemistry and affection, but Jason's frustration with Medea's inability to assimilate or even associate is palpable, and you begin to see the fractures and the seeds of the eventual confrontation. And Ashland veteran Silva is utterly stunning as Armida. Her iron will and determination show exactly why (and how) she has been so successful. It's quite understandable why Jason would find her an appealing mentor and more.

Playwright Luis Alfaro does a wonderful job crafting believable dialogue that rings true. The mix of Spanish and English effectively at gives the sense of people from one culture feeling their way into another, and the change from a seemingly successful immigrant story turning quickly into a tragic betrayal and murder is handled credibly and almost seamlessly.

Perhaps best of all is that none of the characters come across as one-dimensional or archetypical. They all feel quite real and plausible, which makes the tragic turn all the more painful. You can totally see how the turn of events could drive an outcast, immigrant woman with no options to completely lose it.

Bottom Line

There is a reason these classic stories never go away. The immigrant in a strange land, the ambition, the betrayal: all of these are themes that can easily translate into almost any cultural setting. The application of the plight of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is a timely and poignant example of just such a setting. This story, unfortunately, makes perfect sense in that context.

It's brilliantly written and performed, and I wish it were still playing so I could recommend seeing it. But I suspect it will reappear somewhere. This production is very, very strong.

I have to agree that at least so far, of the six plays I've seen at Ashland this summer, this one was the best. It is definitely the one that has been on my mind the most in the intervening week, and not just because we saw it last. The power of both the story and the performance really got under my skin, and has me thinking a lot about both the play and the cultural climate that makes it feel so relevant today. That's the power of really good theater.

Final Footnote

The counter on my Blogger account tells me this will be the 100th posting since I started this blog back in May of 2016. Not every post represents a play viewing (though most do), and not every play I saw turned into a posting (hello again, Hamlet!). But it's safe to say I saw something on the order of 100 plays in the last year or so. And I still don't think it constitutes "too much theater" for me. It is a strain a times (because I've already seen another play I need to blog about, so I'm behind again!), but I enjoy making these notes and I appreciate the feedback both here and on Facebook.

I look forward to more of these posts and discussions!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"The Merry Wives of Windsor" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
The Merry Wives of Windsor is not exactly one of Shakespeare's most meaningful pieces. I'm told he wrote it because after the Henry IV plays, his audiences wanted more of the clownish Falstaff. So he wrote a comedy with Falstaff front and center. It's not a play I've seen very often, but it can be amusing.

The Play

The lecherous knight, Sir John Falstaff (K.T. Vogt), is looking for a little action, with not one but two different married women, Mistress Page (Vilma Silva) and Mistress Ford (Amy Newman). Meanwhile, Page and her husband are looking to marry off their daughter Anne (Jamie Ann Romero) to two different suitors: Doctor Caius (Jeremy Peter Johnson, pictured above in red and black) and Slender (Cristofer Jean), but she wants to marry Fenton (William DeMerritt). Add a few servants, clergy, and a Justice, plus Falstaff's posse from the Henry plays (Bardolf, Nim, and Pistol), and you've got a huge crowd with plenty of confusion available.

But much of the play is about the ridiculousness of Falstaff. There's really not much substance else, so you either enjoy the pratfalls and absurd situations or it becomes a bit tedious. Falstaff is ultimately outwitted by the Pages and Fords, and love wins out in the end, because this is a comedy, after all.

The Production

The the first and most obvious choice made here was casting a woman (Vogt) as Falstaff. In a play that is about seduction and such, it seems a somewhat odd choice, but equipped with a comical beard and an enormous codpiece that doubles as a purse, Vogt looks and acts the part. There are times when her shrieks and cackles seem a bit out of place, but really, in this play, nothing can really stand out as odd.

The second major choice in the play is the music. Now and then a character or the whole cast will just break out in a 1980s pop tune. And many (but not all) of the costumes reflect that 80s pop look. At first it sort of seemed like they were going to literally turn the play into a musical, but instead it was just a few musical interludes where the lyrics were tangentially related to some plot element. And most of the songs are just short excerpts (probably to avoid licensing issues). It was fun, but I thought the digressions a bit pointless (I know, in a basically pointless play...), and with the show running about three hours long, it didn't seem really necessary. Much like the original musical OSF produced a couple of seasons back, Head Over Heels, the 80s soundtrack mostly seems to indicate that the generation that came of age to that music is now in the demographic that buys theater tickets and produces plays.

The director's notes in the playbill make it appear that she (Dawn Monique Williams) feels the music puts the emphasis on the young people, and that Anne Ford represents the romantic lead in the play. But frankly, Anne and Fenton have very few lines; their relationship is less substantive than that of the eponymous couple in Romeo and Juliet. So while they might be more appealing characters than Falstaff, there really isn't enough of their story to carry the play. For better or worse, this is Falstaff's play, but the character is not nearly as likable in this incarnation as he was in the Henry plays. It's just very hard to root for him at all, and that's needed to make a bad guy as the main character work.

Bottom Line

It's really a lot of mindless fluff. The 80s music is fun, with the dancing and all. It diverts from the endless inanity of the plot lines a bit. I suppose I would rather have seen the director try to make a more appealing version of Falstaff and some of the other characters. Vogt, Johnson, and Jean are all accomplished comic actors. I have seen them all carry scenes if not whole plays. But in this production, none of them has much going for them except laughs at their expense, and that seems a shame.

As usual with OSF, it's well done, but I definitely felt like more could be made out of this play that just endless slapstick and plaguing Falstaff. It's visually quite appealing and the music is fun. I'd like to think there's more to be made of a Shakespearean comedy than that. It's not a waste of time, but it does feel like a squandered opportunity. Funny, but disappointing.

Monday, July 3, 2017

"Shakespeare in Love" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
I love the movie Shakespeare in Love. It's a wonderful, fanciful tribute to love and language and theater. But I have to admit some trepidation when I learned that it was being adapted to the stage. I know it was staged at last year's Stratford Festival, which suggests some credibility, but this year was my first chance to see it staged, at Ashland.

The Play

The play is mostly quite true to the movie screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. And that's a good thing. You don't really want to mess with the wit and flow of a Stoppard script. Of necessity the story is a bit more constrained in locations and scene changes, but that is handled well, and some of the minor characters (such as Rosaline) are gone. And at least one of the lesser-but-popular movie characters, John Webster (Preston Mead) has a bigger role.

But the story still centers on young Will Shakespeare (William DeMerritt) and his writer's block, and Viola de Lesseps (Jamie Ann Romero) and her obsession with love, poetry, and Shakespeare. Christopher Marlowe (Ted Deasy) still shows up to give writing advice, among other things. And there are tons of cute references to various lines and themes of Shakespeare's other plays. They have cut back a bit on the racier scenes from the movie to make it all friendlier to a general audience. But in all, it's largely the same story line.

The Production

As one expects from an OSF production (particularly one of the almost year-long main indoor shows), the production values are high: pretty fancy set, lots of actors, great costumes, and so on. The quality of the acting is quite excellent all around. OSF regular Kate Mulligan gets a turn as Queen Elizabeth, and quite holds her own in the role Judi Dench originated on film.

There are a couple of ways I think the play, or at least this production of the play, manages to surpass the movie. First, the intimacy of the stage (and the set that mimics a cozy Elizabethan theater) brings home both the sort of wild-and-woolly atmosphere of a theater company of the period, and also manages to emphasize the difference between the quite amateurish efforts of some of the common players and the exaggerated polish of the stars such as Alleyn (James Ryen) and Burbage (Kevin Kennerly). Second, by being a self-consciously staged production, they can play with some theater conventions and have, for example, Burbage hamming it up, playing to the house, calling for an anachronistic spotlight, and so on. As such, the tribute to theatrical art seems more genuine when presented on stage.

And finally, by having the staged scenes from Romeo and Juliet acted out in front of us, instead of on film, there is a extra poignancy to them, particularly the suicides in Act V. We are seeing Will and Viola, not just some actors playing Romeo and Juliet. We have a lot more invested in them, and it makes it much more powerful, which I hadn't expected.

Bottom Line

The play is a lot of fun, and worth seeing just for that. If you're a fan of the movie, you shouldn't be disappointed. And if you're a fan of Shakespeare, there are lots and lots of little items you can pick up in the staging and the script that will delight you. And finally, like its movie predecessor, the show stands as a tribute to the value of art and inspiration, both for the artist and the audience, and does so both eloquently and humorously. The sense of community among the actors is palpable, both as the rival companies join forces, and particularly when the actors learn of the death of Marlowe.

There is a lot to like here, and I recommend it highly. It is one of those rare productions that greatly exceeds both my expectations and my hopes.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

"UniSon" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

After two really long plays, it was something of a relief that our Friday evening play was a more modest 90 minutes long. We didn't really know what to expect of this piece, called UniSon,  being a world premiere written by the group UNIVERSES, which created the extremely interesting Party People that we saw here a few years ago, and afterward at Berkeley Rep.

The Play

UniSon is "inspired by" the poetry of playwright August Wilson. Wilson is best known for his series of plays about the African American experience across the decades of the 20th century, but apparently he wrote poetry, too.

The play focuses on a Poet (Steven Sapp) and his apprentice (Asia Mark) and an ensemble of seven Terrors, representing seven people from the Poet's life that have, well, terrified him in one way or another. The Poet leaves a trunk full of unseen poetry when he dies, instructing his apprentice to burn it all. As she reads through the poems, the seven Terrors kind of take turns interacting with with the Poet.

The Production

The stage is backed with a wall of ten video monitors that largely show pictures of seemingly random objects. And center stage is a big trunk and a chair and a small bar for the Poet.

The screens also show lines of poetry and the names of all the poems as they come up in the play. Unfortunately, the first lines that come up are a quote from Wilson saying basically that there is public art and private art, and poems are private. As a result, it feels really uncomfortably intrusive that we are reading and hearing this poetry that he clearly didn't want anyone to read.

The play itself wanders through a bunch of plays and scenes, with some themes kind of showing up, and lots of Terrors, of course. But it never really crystalizes into a coherent message. The individual performances are fine, the music is good, individual scenes work reasonably well. Indeed, some are quite strong. But the lack of a unifying thread makes it all seem like rather a jumble. And the overarching feeling of transgression, that we're prying into a portion of someone's life that he didn't want to share, is more palpable as the show goes on.

Bottom Line

We all left the theater feeling like what we saw was well done and fairly interesting, but not very satisfying. And the discussion as we headed back to our house was not much about the substance of any of the Terrors and such, but mostly about the ethics of appropriating material from a writer who clearly would not have wanted this show to be made.

In the grand scheme of the festival, I'd say this isn't one of their better efforts. Again, the quality of the production is high (setting aside that one of the TV monitors went blank midway though the show, and its blackness was oddly distracting, particularly when the rest of the wall was a uniform pattern). I had hoped to gain some insight into Wilson as a dramatist through the lens of his poetry, but that was not an element here. And given that there wasn't any other clear message, it just kind of feels like a theatrical exercise without a real purpose. Full of sound and Terrors, as it were, but signifying nothing.