Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Henry IV" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
OK, last shows of the year at Ashland. This year we managed to see all 11 productions, and the last two were parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV. Although the two parts have different directors, they have largely the same cast, with many holding over from last season's Richard II, which is the "prequel" in the history series. And I believe many will carry over to next season's production of Henry V. And let me just say this is a good thing. The plays are much easier to follow when you have some character continuity.

I'm going to go against my usual protocol and cover both parts of Henry IV in one post. Partly that's because I'm a week late writing about them, and partly it's that I'm doing so via bad hotel wifi in Ecuador. So we'll see what we've got.

The Plays

As noted, we pick up the history from the end of  Richard II, where Henry Bollingbrook deposes Richard and becomes the fourth King Henry (Jeffrey King). We now pick up with a lot of dissent in the kingdom. Many of those who supported and assisted Henry in his return, notably the Duke of Northumberland and his daughter (normally a son, but OSF cast a woman in the role, so changed all the pronouns and such) Henry Percy (Alejandra Escalante), known as "Hotspur." Hotspur is a hot-headed hotshot who feels quite put out about Henry and his behavior. And there is a particular rivalry with Henry's dissolute eldest son, Hal (Daniel Jose Molina), who spends most of his time hanging around with the clownish knight Sir Jack Falstaff (normally C. Valmont Thomas, but we saw his understudy, Tyrone Wilson, who is normally Northumberland--got all that?) and a band of, let's say, underachievers.

When push comes to shove and Northumberland and Hotspur join forces with the Scots and some Welsh, we essentially have a little civil war in which Hal proves himself to be quite worthy and Hotspur quite dead. (Sorry...I don't worry about spoilers in a history play!) That's the end of part 1.

Part 2 picks up a bit later, with Henry unwell, and still quite a bit of unrest. Hal is backsliding a bit on his promises of better behavior. Falstaff is skimming funds while supposedly helping raise an army. Stuff gets real. Eventually Henry dies, and Hal is crowned the fifth King Henry, but disavows Falstaff and his cronies.

The Productions

Two things to note: First, we saw the understudy play the major role of Falstaff. I thought he was excellent, and fit into the play very well. But I can't say how it works when the regular Falstaff is present (although C. Valmont Thomas is an excellent, experienced OSF regular company member, so I assume he's terrific). So if you go see these plays, they will be different, probably.

Second, Hotspur and a number of other nominally male roles were cast as women this season. Some people find this distasteful, and it does mess with the language a little, as Ashland changes pronouns and such. But I thought it worked really well, in part because it makes it so much easier to keep track of who is who in a rather large and shifting cast of characters.

But there is a lot to like in these productions. First, there is Daniel Jose Molina. We saw him first a number of years ago as Romeo, and he was tremendous. He has an uncanny ability to speak Shakespearean language and make it sound extremely natural. Also, it helps that he is young enough to be a convincing Prince Hal. And the excellent Alejandra Escalante (who was Juliet opposite his Romeo) makes a terrific foil as Hotspur, again young and impulsive, very convincingly so.

Similarly, Jeffrey King cuts an impressive figure as Henry. He's a physically imposing actor, and with the play being staged in the tiny Thomas theater with seating on all sides, you get right up there and feel the impact he has. Similarly, Falstaff's clowning is wonderful from up close. The last time I saw this produced at Ashland, it was in the Elizabethan theater, so everything had to be bigger. Very different portrayal here, much more nuanced.

Bottom Line

It's just riveting. The plays run close to three hours each, but it's never dull. The action is crisp, the scene changes are smooth, and the entire acting cast is effective. Some people might not care for the relatively contemporary styling of the designs--it looks and feels like a late-20th century scenario, but it works for me. The roles are pretty timeless (and timely).

I strongly urge people to go see these productions. The quality is terrific, and will be a great basis for next season's better-known play, Henry V.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"Hannah and the Dread Gazebo" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
One last trip to Ashland (for this season) last weekend, and we started off with a world premiere that I'd been kind of looking forward to, if only for the cool name: Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, by Jiehae Park. This was one of those cases where I barely knew anything about the play going in, but I have great faith in the crewe up in Ashland to produce shows that are worth seeing.

I have to say that overall, even though this play was pretty enjoyable and interesting, even a day or two later I didn't remember a whole lot about it. And the memories that I do have are more about aspects of the production than about the play, which is kind of unusual. Let's see where this goes....

The Play

The eponymous Hannah (Cindy Im) is a Korean-American doctor, about to take the certification exam to become a neurologist. Her parents have returned to Korea to be with her grandmother. Out of the blue, Hannah receives a package from the grandmother, with a letter in Korean (that Hannah cannot read, and no one will tell her what it says) and a bottle containing a small rock. Obviously it means something. Hannah tries to call her parents, but can't get through, and when she finally reaches her father (Paul Juhn), he is evasive and makes and excuse to end the call.

So Hannah decides she needs to go to Korea. Arriving at her parents' home, she can hear the TV, but no one answers. Finally she gets her mother (Amy Kim Waschke) to answer the door. It's all kind of comic, but kind of weird. It turns out that Grandma, who had advanced Alzheimer's, has jumped off the top of her senior housing facility, and is presumed dead. Presumed, because she landed in the DMZ that separates North and South Korea, and no one can get permission to go in and find her. The DMZ is supposedly a wild place, crawling with wild animals. Which leads us to a creation myth about Korea, involving a Bear and a Tiger who want to become human, but only one of them can endure the ordeal. I'm unclear why this is the founding myth of Korea.

So we have a mystery to solve (or several, really). What has/will become of Grandma? What is the meaning of this rock? Why does Mom want a gazebo, when they live in an apartment?

Ultimately, the play is about family and home, but largely viewed through the lens of separation: family living on separate continents, living separated from their culture, living in a country separated from itself, family members unable to communicate their feelings, etc. The questions raised are fairly interesting, but I'm not sure beyond giving us a glimpse of the situation the play offers much in the way of answers or even directions toward answers. The writing and characters are nice, but in the end, not very satisfying.

The Production

As one expects at Ashland, the acting is terrific, and the designs are clever and well-executed. The staging is pretty minimal, so the burden is on the actors to set the scenes with the help of light and sound. That's all pretty effective: we enjoyed the show and appreciated the quality of the production.

I guess, as noted above, that what felt missing was a sense of purpose and direction. We expect that Grandma's missive to Hannah has great meaning, and that going to Korea will reveal that over the course of the play. But not so much. Even at the end, Hannah and her family are still wrangling with that question. And it's not clear to me that this sojourn through Korea ultimately has much impact on Hannah's life. But we do get a song at the end (pictured above), so there's that.

The production obviously aims to take the edge off what could be a fairly dreary family drama (hey, Grandma jumps off a building, and depressed Mom might not be far behind!) by playing up the comical situations. Which is fine: humor is a good way to help a serious message come through. But truly, I don't know what the message was supposed to be. It feels as if directory Chay Yew was so busy trying to make us feel good about the situation and distract us with zany character portrayals that he forgot to make sure there was a clear message at the end.

Bottom Line

It's a high-quality production, well designed, acted, and produced. I just wish the play had a bit more to offer in the way of actual story, as opposed to anecdotes and scenes. I'm sure Park had something in mind, but what it was, I really can't say.

So it's worth seeing, but falls a bit short of being anything really memorable.

"The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players photo by Jessica Palopoli
This is the one I've been waiting for. I first learned of the existence of Madeleine George's play The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence when I saw it announced as a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Just the title and a little blurb about the subject matter, combined with my having seen and liked Shotgun's production of her earlier work, Precious Little, convinced me this was something I needed to read and see. Reading the script, and then seeing it read at Shotgun in the summer of 2015 (back before I wrote this blog), I knew I wanted to see it on stage very much. This is a play that is very much to my taste!

So I will freely admit to not being very objective here. I've been advocating for this play for quite some time, and my wife and I are production sponsors, so take this with however much salt you need to.

The Play

The play starts with Eliza (Sarah Mitchell), a former IBM researcher and now artificial-intelligence entrepreneur, training her latest "project," (Brady Morales Woolery) a sort of descendant of IBM's Watson (complete with references to Watson's participation in "Jeopardy"). This Watson seems like the perfect companion, curious, helpful, and able to retrieve knowledge with ease. We learn that Eliza has grand plans for this technology as a personal assistant and agent of social change.

Eliza also has an ex-husband, Frank Merrick (Mick Mize), who is fairly obsessed with Eliza. He's running for local office on a platform of "fed-uppedness," but at the moment he's having computer troubles, and has summoned the Dweeb Team to save him. Luckily, his "dweeb" is Josh Watson: competent, trustworthy, and dedicated to solving the problem. Frank decides he can use Josh for mor than computer help, and enlists him to get info on Eliza's activities.

But never fear, we need to look through time a bit, so next we're in Victorian England, where Mrs. Eliza Merrick is looking to engage Mr. Sherlock Holmes to help her understand a series of odd incidents involving her husband, the inventor. Holmes being out when she arrives, she meets instead with Dr. John Watson, who is of course competent, trustworthy, and dedicated to helping her solve the mystery.

We also meet Mr. Thomas Watson, the able assistant of Alexander Graham Bell, discussing the invention of the telephone for a radio interview.

The play weaves an intricate web of characters and traits among the Watsons, Merricks, and Elizas through the ages. We get discussions of the nature of love and attraction, training and loyalty, assistance and obsession. We investigate throughout the nature of various human relationships: what do we need, what do we want, and what are the costs? It's telling that George has subtitled this "a play about others."

I quite enjoy the way the narratives weave through time, enabling us to see the parallels and themes, and sometimes providing rather humorous chances for us to compare situations. There are some wonderfully humorous bits, as well as some touching and even shocking ones. But it is altogether a very human play, with a knack for very realistic dialogue.

The Production

The first thing you see upon entering is Nina Ball's amazing set design. I had always pictured the play being set on a very minimal stage with locations defined by lighting and maybe some costuming, but this is quite different from that! It's at once kind of Victorian, with certain distinctly period touches, but surrounded by fancy LED lights that give a very modern, computer-age feel. And though the set is not large, it has multiple clever transformations that can make it serve as a number of locations. Quite brilliant.

And I also need to mention Ray Oppenheimer's lighting (because it's still important, even critical, with this set) and Cliff Caruthers's sound and music. They both do a great job of helping to place the actors in their ever-shifting environments. There are some lovely little touches like a little waft of Billy Joel music in the background at a coffee shop (Billy Joel is, oddly, a minor plot point later). And Valera Coble's costumes really work--the Victorian pieces are lovely, and Merrick literally transitions from one time to another with a relatively minor change of costume and accent. It's pretty seamless, but it reflects the skills of both the designers and the actors that it works so well. And there's this train....

But none of this would matter if the actors weren't up to the task, and they all prove they are. Mitchell and Mize particularly benefit from having participated in the 2015 reading, so they have had plenty of time to let the roles insinuate themselves into them. The comfort shows, and both of those actors have managed to find nuances in the script that I had missed, even with multiple readings. Mitchell's Eliza manages to be both driven and logical and yet also entirely subject to her heart's desires, try though she might to invalidate them logically. And Mize finds all kinds of corners in his Merricks: pugnacious, maniacal, and yet oddly self-reflective and even tender. Although Woolery doesn't have the depth of experience with the role that his castmates have, he also has a rather more difficult part, as all four of his Watsons are quite distinct characters, yet with an underlying Watson essence that he manages to carry through. It's a rich set of characters in George's script, and the cast does a terrific job of bringing them all home.

I've had the pleasure of getting to see a rehearsal run-through, then a preview performance, and then the opening night for this show, and it's been a treat to see how the designs have come together and the cast have found their comfort zones. I didn't want to write about the show until I'd seen a "real" performance, but it's fascinating to see how even small changes to the staging or the blocking or the pacing or emphasis of the dialogue can really boost a scene and perhaps change the perception of the whole play. It's the magic of theater, and it's fun to watch!

Bottom Line

Well, you know I'm going to say I like it. But in the midst of a very heavy, difficult season at Shotgun, this play provides a fairly light and enjoyable night out, while still providing a play that is thought-provoking and timely, but also very personal. In an age (today, or the Victorian) where modernism and technology can sometimes seem like tempting substitutes for human interaction, George illustrates the trade-offs and pitfalls that may ensue from following those temptations. What is the perfect partner like? And what if they turn out to be too perfect? Or maybe what seems perfect isn't really good for you at all.

Ultimately, the play really is about others: how we value them, how we choose the ones in various phases of our lives, and why that matters. It's a terrific exploration of who we are and who we might become, and fun, too.

The play runs through September 3, though I suspect that demand will generate an extension to September 10. So gather your friends and go see it!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

"Assassins" at Berkeley Playhouse Teen Stage

This will be kind of a quick item, but I felt I should write something. This was my first exposure to a Teen Stage production at Berkeley Playhouse, but I went because my daughter was in the cast. So I won't even pretend to write some kind of objective review of the show. But I would like to make some comments about the program itself.

The Program

Berkeley Playhouse is rather unique in my experience, in that they have both a professional theater program that does a full season of musicals at the Julia Morgan Theater, but also do productions for kids and teens, where they perform at the same venue. So unlike classes where they finish with a little performance for friends and family, this is actually open to the public and sells tickets.

One of the benefits of that is that they also have a professional director and designers and crew, so they've got costumes, lights, and sound on a stage with a real set. It's definitely a real theatrical performance experience.

For this summer program, the kids jumped right in, and for about 5 weeks studied the songs and music, auditioned for parts, learned their parts and choreography, and generally had a genuine, if condensed, experience putting on a play.

I was also impressed at the way they cast the roles. Since they had about twice as many actors as they had major roles, they double cast everything. So each actor has a meaningful speaking and singing part in one of the casts, and then serves in the ensemble for the other cast. So the program ends with four performances, with each cast leading twice and backing the other twice. That's a great way to make sure every actor gets a "real" part, and they all get the full experience.

The Production

I had very little in the way of expectations. I've seen a fair number of youth theater productions, and you never quite know what you're going to get. It's highly dependent on who signs up, how the talent matches the given show, etc.

Overall I would say I was quite pleasantly surprised. The actors knew their parts and nearly all delivered them strongly. Also, they were all wearing microphones, so even the weaker singers and speakers were pretty audible, though the sound techs weren't always quite on time turning on the mics. But really, given the length of the rehearsal schedule and the range of experience represented, the opening show this afternoon was quite credible. We could follow the story, track the characters, and all that. And considering that Assassins is not the most comprehensible show to start with, any degree of coherence in this sort of production is pretty impressive.

I give full credit to director Matthew Hannon for putting together a solid program. It was clearly a fun process for the actors, and the end result is something they can all be proud of.

And, if you're interested, you can see the show tomorrow night, August 11th, at either 4:00 or 7:00. It's a fun way to support youth theater!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"La Cage Aux Folles" at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli
Here's a nice change of pace: we saw this show rather early in its run, so you have plenty of time to go see it!

The last show of the SF Playhouse season was the fabulous musical, La Cage Aux Folles, which I don't think I had ever seen on stage before. It's odd, because I definitely know some of the songs, and of course I'm old enough to remember when the subject matter was kind of titillating, if not downright scandalous. Now, I have to say that a musical about gay parents and drag queens is pretty mainstream, especially in San Francisco.

The Play

Georges (Ryan Drummond) and Albin (John Treacy Egan) are an old married couple in St. Tropez with a son, Jean-Michel (Nikita Burshteyn), who wants to marry Anne (Samantha Rose). Pretty typical stuff, but for the fact that George is the MC at the nightclub downstairs from their house (the eponymous "La Cage aux Folles"), where Albin is the star performer "ZaZa" in a drag show. And it's time for the families of the young lovers to meet, and Anne's father, Edouard Dindon (Christopher Reber), is one of the leading "traditional family values" politicians in the country. He's literally been campaigning to shut down clubs such as the one downstairs.

So now Jean-Michel must navigate the territory of having his future in-laws visit for a day without offending them and causing them to call off the wedding. What ensues is a pretty straightforward family drama, about matters like what really makes a family: biology or behavior, and just how far a parent will go to accommodate a child.

Throw in some big production numbers populated by drag queens, ballads by ZaZa, and some costume hi-jinks, and you've got La Cage.

The Production

I will say up front that I thought the production was good. The acting is quite good, and the singing is excellent (particularly Egan as Albin/ZaZa). I liked Abra Berman's costume designs quite well (particularly Georges' vest, pictured above). The dancing is pretty good, considering they are rather constrained by the set design--there isn't a lot of space, so they take advantage of some aisles in the audience, which has mixed results. I kind of expected a bit more polish in the drag show, since there is no shortage of strong drag performers in the city. But ultimately I decided they were OK, and it actually wasn't that important to the show.

They've added a little runway extension, partway up the center aisle (which is tricky, because the aisle isn't straight to start with). It's an appropriate addition for the club scenes, though people near the front have to turn around to see, which is difficult. This is definitely a show to see from farther back. That would also help with one other issue: The main set that represents the interior of Georges and Albin's home is a couple of feet above the stage (in part so they can rotate the stage and have the front steps right outside the door, which is nice). But we can see under the floor, where they have tried to put a few stage lights as decoration, but really, it's just a distracting, empty space, and again it really affects people in the front rows.

So in that sense, Jacquelyn Scott's set design really isn't up to the standards I expect from SF Playhouse. And probably the most obvious solution to the distracting void under the floor would be to play up the flamboyant decorations of the interior, which really seemed quite tame. This was not the time for minimal set decoration! Way too restrained, particularly when we have the vivid personalities of Albin and the butler/maid, Jacob (Brian Yates Sharber). They would not live in a house as sedate as the one here. The characters even talk about how over-the-top the place is, though visually it doesn't match up.

But ultimately, that doesn't detract from the fine performances. I have to give kudos particularly to Egan, who manages to handle brilliantly the awkwardness of an effeminate man trying to not look feminine. Throughout the show, really, both as ZaZa and as various renditions of Albin, it's terribly tempting for that character to just take flight and start chewing the scenery. But showing consistent restraint here, Egan manages to make Albin a relatable character instead of a caricature, which is really the point. SF Playhouse insists their shows are all about us developing our empathy, and by making Albin so real, it's possible for even this old, straight guy to find a lot of common ground. Kudos to Egan and to director Bill English for making that work.

One other aspect of the staging I have to mention, because it was a nice touch: Every time the stage rotates, you get a little peek into a small alcove between the two sets, and there is always some kind of little vignette for you there, so look for it.

Bottom Line

I was thinking at the intermission that the show hadn't held up in the nearly 35 years since it first appeared, that the things that made it so novel in the 1980s just weren't very timely anymore, at least in San Francisco. But the second act turned me around completely. The very human, universal story about parents and their children (and pious hypocrites, of course!) warmed my heart in ways that a musical rarely does.

So I'm willing to overlook some of the other little shortcomings and focus on the strong acting and messaging. This is a much better show than I was expecting, and it still has a month to go in its run (through September 16). So go and have a good time!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

"Disney's Beauty and the Beast" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
Up front: I actually quite like the animated Disney movie of Beauty and the Beast. It is probably my favorite of the "Disney princess" movies, largely because (spoiler alert...I just assume everybody knows this story) Belle falls in love with the beast's library before she falls in love with him. She's my kind of princess.

But I have to say I had some real reservations about seeing the stage musical version at Ashland, mostly because I don't think the material is really up to the standards they would normally uphold. There is nothing wrong with it per se, but there are certainly meatier musicals to choose from.

The Play

I've already mentioned that you know this story. Bookish Belle (Jennie Greenberry; a perennial favorite for her lovely singing voice) is a bit of a misfit in her town, the daughter of an eccentric inventor (Michael J. Hume). But she has caught the eye of the town narcissist, Gaston (James Ryen), though she wants nothing to do with him. Father gets lost in the woods, stumbles into the enchanted castle where a prince (Jordan Barbour) has been turned into a hideous beast as punishment for being a beastly person. Belle goes to find him, exchanges herself for her father's freedom, meaning she's a prisoner in the beast's castle forever.

Oh, yeah, there's an out. The beast's curse ends if he falls in love and someone falls in love with him, too. Not that I'm foreshadowing anything. There's a time limit, because of an enchanted rose that will eventually lose all its petals, and if the love thing hasn't been achieved, then the prince is a beast forever.

You know where all this is going, if only because I spoiled it for you earlier. It's a Disney princess story. Go with it.

The Production

Since I haven't seen this play on stage before, I don't know how much of it is specific to the OSF production and the direction of Eric Tucker. I guess it's safe to say that most productions of this play don't take place on an outdoor, Elizabethan stage, so there are distinct limits to what they can do with sets and decorations. There are definitely props and set pieces and lots of costumes, and they do a pretty good job with that.

There is also a sort of narrative frame that recurs several times, as Babette (Robin Goodrin Nordli) tells the back story, once quite thoroughly, and subsequently in quite abbreviated forms. That gives a bit more depth to the story and characters.

I also like that they didn't make the Beast a big, fuzzy, bear-like thing as in the movie (though they play with that image in the back story). This beast, as you can see in the photo, is pretty hideous, not at all cuddly, even when dressed up. He has a hump and nasty claws and horns and all that. Quite beastly. I like that better. Make your beasts beastly.

All the other Enchanted Objects in the castle are pretty much what you expect from the Disney story: a teapot and chipped cup, a candelabra, a clock, a mirror, and so on. Pretty much all the lines and songs you expect. Really, there are no surprises, because hey, this is Disney's Beauty and the Beast. I'm actually a little surprised they were able to deviate as much as they did at times.

Bottom Line

I probably would have skipped this show, but it fit with our overall schedule to see all the plays at the festival this year, and as I noted, I do like the movie. All told, I think I like it better as an animated film, but this rendition was fine.

But of course, I am not the target audience. I have to say the audience for the Saturday evening show we saw was full, and quite noticeably younger than the average OSF audience, even if you don't count the many small children. Clearly, OSF scheduled this show to appeal to families with young children, and it worked. The players got a huge ovation at the end. Although some of the children I saw did get a bit fidgety (it's a 2.5-hour show, with an intermission), none seemed clearly bored, and none seemed bothered by the fact that it's not Exactly Like the Movie they've seen countless times.

I'm generally not particularly in favor of pandering to a particular audience, but I'm also aware that attracting younger audiences (both the children and their parents) is an important goal of all theaters. If OSF can attract young families by including a Disney musical now and then, I guess that's OK. This was certainly more family-friendly than last year's Great Expectations, for example.

So, on that level, it worked, it was well-done and well-received, so it's hard to be critical. Bring on the youth!

Monday, August 7, 2017

"Off the Rails" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
One of the great things about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (and there are a lot of great things about it) is that they have a lot of resources. With their huge audience and wealthy patrons, they are able to not only produce 11 high-quality shows every year, but also develop a fair amount of new work as well. Some of it is commissioned, like their "American Revolutions" series of plays. And some is just that they are able to work with a lot of artists, provide some guidance, and maybe eventually produce one of their plays.

That's pretty much the story of Off the Rails, which started as an offshoot of some work on Indian boarding schools by a group called "Native Voices." This inspired Randy Reinholz (a leader of that group) to try setting a version of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in such a boarding school. Based on some feedback from OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch (who directs this production), Reinholz decided to "go for it" and make the play his own. Although it maintains some of the structure, dialogue, and language of the Shakespeare play, it has morphed into a truly original work with music, heart, and culture that is very much American and Native American.

The Play

The plot outline will seem familiar to any who know Measure for Measure. Our two main setting are a saloon in Genoa, Nebraska, and a nearby Indian boarding school in the late 1880s. The staff at the saloon is getting ready to audition for Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Meanwhile, the mayor of the town (David Kelly) has gone off "hunting" (actually negotiating  for the railroad to come through town), leaving Angelo (Barret O'Brien), the head of the boarding school in charge in his absence. The school master is extremely strict and pious, so when he learns that one of the students, Momaday (Shaun Taylor-Corbett), has gotten his local Irish orphan girlfriend Caitlin (Truett Felt) pregnant, he imprisons Momaday and orders that he be hanged.

So they send for Momaday's sister, Isabel (Lily Gladstone), to help solve the problem. Angelo agrees to free Momaday if Isabel will sleep with him. She refuses, but the gang at the saloon comes up with a clever, Shakespearean plot to substitute one of the dancers from the saloon, Mariana (Nancy Rodriguez), in the dark for Isabel. Because of course, Mariana was betrothed to Angelo before he abandoned her, etc. You can see where this is headed.

Add in subplots with the black Sheriff (Steven Sapp, and yes, this is a conscious nod to Mel Brooks and "Blazing Saddles") and the "close friendship" of the black cowboy (Cedric Lamar) and Alexie, the chief's son (Roman Zaragoza), and you've got plenty to think about.

The writing is really quite good, and manages to blend the bits of Shakespearean text quite seamlessly into the more modern setting. It works pleasantly well.

The Production

This is a world premiere, although it was presented in somewhat different form by Native Voices in 2014-2015. It definitely has a freshness to it, but seems much more polished than some of the new shows OSF has presented in recent years. That probably reflects the maturity of the work, at least in part. Although this is its first full production in this form it has clearly been in the works for a long time and has received much work and attention. It shows.

The production is also quite attractive: the costumes are bright and colorful, the music cheery, and the whole production remarkably upbeat, considering that one of the main characters is counting down his final hours under a death sentence. There is good humor, but it balances the great evil that we discern both in the cruelty of the boarding school itself and the hypocrisy of Angelo, who we learn has been lining his own pockets with funds from the school while literally starving the students. It might feel a little heavy-handed if it weren't all so plausible.

And I haven't even mentioned the comic relief supplied by the heavy-drinking bartender (Stephen Michael Spencer) or some of the other bits of subplot. It's quite complex for something so new, but it works. I should also mention the Grandfather (Brent Florendo), who visits Momaday and Isabel. The script indicates that this role should be cast with a local native American, providing some local flavor to the generalized production. So although the story is set in Pawnee land in Nebraska, Florendo brings a bit of Northwest native culture to the production. All told, I believe there were sever actors in the cast who are native American, including several from Native Voices.

Summing Up

Off the Rails was a worthy inclusion in the season. It picked up the second half of the season (we actually saw the final preview before official opening) where Mojada had the first half. Both are modern adaptations of classic, well-known stories that do a good job of breathing contemporary significance into an age-old story. Both also bring both humorous and tragic elements that elucidate the modern cultural conflicts that echo situations from history.

And probably most importantly, both shows provide some fresh, high-quality new material to the festival, which serves to remind festival goers that we can both enjoy and revere the classic material while also using the old as springboards to new and timely stories that can also include voices not traditionally associated with the American stage. It's really great that OSF is both willing and able to provide a share of the stage to some less-heard voices and their stories.

Off the Rails runs through the end of October, so it's a great excuse to take a trip up to Ashland this fall. Although the outdoor stage closes in mid-October, the indoor theaters run all the way to the end of that month, so there is plenty to see. This one is well worth the time.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

"An Octoroon" at Berkeley Rep

Berkeley Rep photo by Kevin Berne
The last show of the season for Berkeley Rep this year was the west coast premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play An Octoroon, which is a really interesting, very different sort of show. Jacobs-Jenkins is a hot property among young (he's only 32) playwrights, having won an Obie award for Best New Play, been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and winning a Macarthur Foundation "Genius" award. So clearly there are high expectations that accompany any of his plays.

The Play

On one level, An Octoroon is sort of an adaptation of a 19th-century melodrama by Dion Boucicault called The Octoroon, which was itself adapted from a novel by Thomas Mayne Reid called The Quadroon. All of these works are affirmatively anti-slavery pieces, with the titles referring to persons of mixed race, designating the proportion of their ancestry that was black. Melodrama was quite formulaic in its structure and style of performance, so some of this new play is an attempt to recreate that sense of theater.

At the same time, however, the play adds a layer of meta-theatrical analysis, as the characters "BJJ" (Lance Gardner) and "Playwright" (Ray Porter) both step into roles in the melodrama, with BJJ donning whiteface makeup to portray "George" in the story, and Playwright going bright red to portray an Indian. So we see early on that there will be nothing subtle about race in this production (although looks can be deceiving).

The play begins with a prologue in a dressing room, preparing for the melodrama. BJJ and the Playwright both prepare and trade jabs at one another, each both claiming and disclaiming the play we are about to see. It's a pretty interesting, if unsettling, beginning.

Next we launch into a couple of fairly straightforward renditions of the acts of the melodrama as it unfolds. By the fourth act, however, BJJ/George interrupts, quite thoroughly breaking down the fourth wall to make some points about slavery and lynching. After which the play resumes, but with a bit more self-awareness, and some winks and nods to the audience. By the fifth act, we are back in full immersion until we get some surprises.

The stage and casting directions specify that the male roles are to be played by certain races, but then performed in white-, red-, or blackface makeup. The female roles are all cast in accordance with the race of the characters portrayed. So all three slave women are played by black actors (though they behave in some wildly anachronistic ways at times).

In general, I would say the first part of the melodrama goes on a bit too long. The play as a whole ran well over three hours, with an intermission, but we'd gone almost two hours before the break. That could be cut down some without losing much of the play. It's hard to recommend cuts, because ultimately it's all interesting. But clearly some of the audience gets bored or restless in the long first act, and not all the seats were still filled after intermission. It's unfortunate to lose a chunk of the audience simple because the play is overly long.

The Production

With the exception of my earlier comments about the length of the show, I felt nearly everything was excellent. The casting was terrific. I have often enjoyed the work of Lance Gardner in recent years, but this was far and away his strongest overall effort. His is the focal character almost throughout, and he carried the role extremely well. But the supporting cast was strong as well. Porter's playwright and the almost silent Assistant (Amir Talai) really make the prologue sing. Talai really plays up the blackface roles later in the show. And the three slaves (Afi Bijou, Jasmine Bracey, and Afua Busia) had a particularly good chemistry and really aced their parts in the last act--totally convincing.

The set design by Arnulfo Maldonado was outstanding: minimal at times, but intricate and convincing (especially with the lighting from Jiyoun Chang). The "gotchas" of the last act could not have worked nearly as well without the work of the designers and techs.

Really, it all comes together and provides an extremely thought-provoking and yet entertaining show. Just about every time you find yourself getting caught up in the story, Jacobs-Jenkins pulls you back and makes you think about why it's working on you, even when he's told you what he's going to do and why. It's really quite remarkable.

Bottom Line

Sadly, this was yet another case of me seeing the show very late in the run, and then not getting around to blogging about it until after the show had closed. This was definitely the most intriguing and thought-provoking play I've seen in a while, and certainly the best overall production I've seen at Berkeley Rep in several years.

I should give credit to director Eric Ting, who holds together this most difficult assembly. It's easy to see lots of ways this play and production could go off the rails and become didactic or just offensive, and Ting keeps his crew well on the side of interesting and provocative without going for silly or inflammatory. Since I felt that was pretty much the opposite of what he did with last season's Othello at Cal Shakes, it seems only fair to give him credit here.

I quite enjoyed this production. Wished there were a bit less of it, but on the whole, I felt it was extremely well done.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"The Glass Menagerie" at Cal Shakes

Cal Shakes photo by Kevin Berne
So the night after seeing the rather disappointing Splendour at Aurora, we headed over the hill to see Cal Shakes' production of the Tennessee Williams classic, The Glass Menagerie. I'm sure I have expressed before how much I enjoy seeing plays outdoors in the Bruns Amphitheatre. It's a lovely spot with nice weather. And unlike the night before, I had expectations about the play, having seen it previously.

The Play

The Glass Menagerie is a family drama about (among other things) respectability and the facades people put up to appear respectable to others. It's also a remarkably prescient piece about children who "fail to launch." Set in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1943. Framed by narration by Tom (Sean San Jose), we get the story of Tom and his sister Laura (Phoebe Fico) who both live with their mother, Amanda (Karen Aldridge). Tom works a dead-end job to support the family. Painfully shy, "crippled" Laura sits home listening to records and playing with the eponymous collection of animal figurines. Amanda, who had hoped for more from her life, craves the respectability that she believes she had in her youth as a popular social butterfly. Tom takes refuge "at the movies," though he seems to come home very late and very drunk most nights, while Amanda frets that Laura does not receive any "gentleman callers."

Eventually Amanda convinces Tom to invite one of his coworkers (Rafael Jordan) to dinner, hoping that this gentleman caller will be the turning point for Laura and the family.

The Production

The first and most obvious production choice was the casting of all actors of color. The Wingfield family is normally portrayed as white, but other than some early, racially insensitive remarks by Amanda, the story works well with the casting of minorities. Indeed, it serves to remind the audience how universal many of the themes of the play are. Aldridge plays the former debutante to a T, blending the frustrated Southern gentry with the thwarted social climber largely without the histrionics that the role often seems to entail. And San Jose bring a flippant, insouciant air to Tom that masks much of the bitterness that can easily overcome that character. Indeed, all the cast manage to make their characters much more likable than I have previously encountered or envisioned, and that's a pleasant change. The fact that the interpersonal fireworks are kept at such a low level actually makes the story all the more powerful. Instead of shouts and tears we get real intensity and repressed emotion.

Although I ultimately came to feel the set was pretty effective, the start from a basically empty frame that was then filled in with furnishings and decoration was distracting. And then we had to make sure we opened and closed the sliding door/walls, because they were there. It could have been worse, but it felt overdone.

The production also made good use of the amphitheater space, with Tom especially covering a lot of ground as he left for work or the movies, still engaged with the action on stage.

But ultimately it was about the actors and the words, and those were very good. The actors treated the text with respect, letting a natural presentation of the dialogue and interactions focus our attention on the story and the situation, rather than drawing attention to themselves.

Bottom Line

I liked it, much more than I expected to. The cast were all excellent, really bringing Williams's words to life in a way that was both appropriate to the period but also accessible to the modern sensibility. The show was not about people in 1943, but just about people.

Sadly, this show has also run to its end before I could get around to writing about it, but combined with the strong effort of the season-opening As You Like It, this bodes well for the two remaining plays of the season. I'm feeling good about subscribing to Cal Shakes this year!