Tuesday, October 12, 2021

TheatreWorks opens season with 'Lizard Boy'


Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland is Siren and Justin Huertas is Trevor in "Lizard Boy." (Photo by Kevin Berne) 

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has opened its 51st season with “Lizard Boy,” billed as an “indie folk-rock musical.”

One might also add the words “convoluted comic book fantasy.”

With music, lyrics and book by the lead actor, Justin Huertas, the gist of the plot is that a young man, Trevor (Huertas), looked like a lizard after the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the release of a dragon.

That means he’s mostly green, but his greenness is represented merely by green spangles placed randomly on his arms and neck.

Now he has decided to end his self-imposed isolation to meet a man to be a friend and perhaps lover. He winds up with Cary (William A. Williams).

They go to a Seattle nightclub where the lead singer is Siren (Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland), who has been lurking in Trevor’s dreams.

Things get weirder after that. It’s nearly impossible to sort everything out. Suffice it to say that there’s a happy, though entirely fantastical ending.

Directed by Brandon Ivie, the three-person cast is multi-talented, singing well and playing a variety of instruments. For example, Trevor accompanies himself on the cello in several songs.

Other instruments range from piano and guitar to ukulele and even kazoo. Many of the songs seem similar, though, and the lyrics aren’t always easy to comprehend.

The costumes by Erik Andor are mostly nondescript for the men, but Helland as Siren wears a skin-tight red outfit with 4-inch stiletto heels – appropriate for the character.

Andrea Bechert has adapted the original scenic design, while the lighting is by Robert J. Aguilar with sound by Jeff Mockus.

Running about 95 minutes without intermission, performances continue through Oct. 31 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. They’re also available for streaming.

Patrons for live performances must provide proof of COVID vaccination and an ID. Masks are required.

For tickets and more information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.






Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Musical 'Working' honors folks in everyday but essential jobs

Linda Piccone (center), with Mai Abe (left) and a bewigged Ray D'Ambrosio, makes an art of waitressing (Photo by Henry Wilen)

 Palo Alto Players has opened its 91st season with “Working,” a musical adaptation of Studs Terkel’s 1974 book of interviews with American workers from all walks of life.

As managing director Elizabeth Santana pointed out, it’s “a celebration of the essential worker.”

These are the people who wait on tables, clean houses, build buildings, teach children, deliver food, drive trucks, fight fires, rear children and perform other everyday but essential services.

Directed by Patrick Klein, the multi-talented cast of four women and three men tell their characters’ stories through songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz and James Taylor. Schwartz and Nina Faso did the original adaptation.

The characters talk about pride in doing their jobs well along with their hopes and dreams. Their pride is best expressed in the company’s final number, “Something to Point To.” This refers to the construction workers who can point to a building and say they helped build it.

The characters range in age from a Cal freshman (Mai Abe) to a retired man using a walker (Ray D’Ambrosio). Linda Piccone has two solo turns as a veteran teacher who doesn’t know how to deal with today’s kids and as a waitress who makes an art of her work.

Also featured in multiple roles are Izetta Fang Klein (alternating with Stacey Reed), Jomar Martinez, Jason Mooney and Eiko Yamamoto.

The two-level set is by Scott Ludwig with character-specific costumes by R. Dutch Fritz. Choreography is by Stacey Reed with musical direction by Dolores Duran-Cefalu.

The one flaw is Jeff Grafton’s sound design, which is so loud that it distorts most lyrics.

In-person performances continue through Oct. 3 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road. Masks, proof of vaccination or recent COVID test and ID are required.

In addition, a live performance will be streamed at 2 p.m. Sept. 26. A recorded performance will be streamed Sept. 30 to Oct. 3 at scheduled curtain times.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.



Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Black actor learns more than history in ‘Aren’t You…?’

Fred Pitts

 Calling himself a history geek, Fred Pitts undertook a weeklong   journey to see all 21 California missions in 2012.

 The San Francisco actor chronicles his experiences in his one-man   play, “Aren’t You…?” developed in collaboration with David Ford   and presented by Palo Alto Players to conclude its 90th season.

 He provides interesting tidbits about each stop, starting from Mission   San Francisco de Solano in Sonoma and continuing south to Mission   Basilica San Diego in San Diego.

 Built by Spain starting in 1769, each was about 30 miles apart, or a   day’s journey by horseback. 

 Part of the missions’ purpose was to convert Indians to Christianity.   However, as Pitts discovered, they also were places where the Indians  were enslaved and persecuted – a historic form of racism that is little known today.

As a Black man, Pitts encountered another form of racism in the way he was spoken to by people along the way.

In many cases, they mistook him for such Black men as Richard Roundtree, Will Smith, Rafer Johnson, Barry Bonds and even former president Barack Obama. Hence the title, “Aren’t You …?”

The personable actor gives voice to the people he talks about.

Directed by ShawnJ West, Pitts injects much humor as he relates his adventures and harks back to his own religious background.

It started with the Black churches he attended as a young boy and continued with a predominately white Catholic school where he was an object of interest because he was Black.

He performs on a barebones stage adorned only by a table and chair and backed by a large screen where photos of each mission are projected.

Running about 65 minutes without intermission, “Aren’t You …?” is both amusing and enlightening.

Live performances will continue through Aug. 29 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Patrons must provide proof of vaccination against the coronavirus or a negative test within 72 hours prior. Masks are required.

A recorded performance will be streamed on demand from 9 a.m. Aug. 27 through 11:59 p.m. Sept. 5.

For tickets and more information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Palo Alto Players goes live with 'Tea for Three'

From left: Gwendolyne Wagner as Lady Bird Johnson, Patricia Tyler as Betty Ford, Gabriella Goldstein as Pat Nixon. (Photo by Joyce Goldschmid) 

 Local theater lovers finally can see a fully staged play in person thanks to Palo Alto Players.

Celebrating its 90th season, the company is presenting “Tea for Three, Lady Bird, Pat and Betty” by Eric H. Weinberger and Elaine Bromka.

As the title implies, the play focuses on the first ladies who occupied the White House during the tumultuous period between 1963 and 1977.

It opens with the sound of President Lyndon Johnson announcing in 1968 that he will not seek a second elected term in office. Then his wife, Lady Bird Johnson (Gwendolyne Wagner), begins a 25-minute monologue talking about her life and her relationship with the president.

As vice president, LBJ became president on Nov. 22, 1963, after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. She talks about that terrible day and the actions of Jackie Kennedy, who nevertheless gave her a White House tour a few days later.

Now Lady Bird is preparing to give her successor, Pat Nixon (Gabriella Goldstein), a tour.

Pat’s monologue is preceded by Richard Nixon’s resignation speech on Aug. 9, 1974, during his second term following the Watergate scandal, which she thinks was a setup. Like Lady Bird, she discusses her life and relationship with her husband.

She does this while awaiting her successor, Betty Ford (Patricia Tyler), whose husband, Gerald, became vice president after the resignation of Spiro Agnew, and then president after Nixon’s resignation.

Unlike the two women before her, Betty is still in her dressing gown while waiting for Rosalynn Carter, whose husband, Jimmy, defeated Ford in the 1976 election.

And unlike the other two, she drinks and takes pills, which she said she uses for arthritis pain. Although the play doesn’t say so, she founded the Betty Ford Center for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

But like the two before her, she talks about her relationship with her husband and her own life, which included a divorce and a successful battle against breast cancer.

The 75-minute, intermission-less play is ably directed by Patrick Klein, the company’s artistic director with costumes by R. Dutch Fritz.

Although it’s a live performance, it’s far from usual. Because of the coronavirus pandemic that has halted live performances for 14 months, it involves numerous safety protocols.

It’s staged outdoors in the grassy patio of the Lucie Stern Community Center. Attendance is limited to about 50 with patrons seated 6 feet apart singly or in pairs. Masks are required.

Because it’s outdoors, early evenings can be chilly, so dressing in layers is advised.   Airplane noise and sounds from the neighboring Junior Museum & Zoo can be heard, but they don’t interfere with enjoyment of this interesting look at the nation’s recent past.

Live performances will continue through May 23 at 1305 Middlefield Road. Streaming performances will be available from May 19 through May 23.

For tickets and more information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.





Friday, October 9, 2020

TheatreWorks streams timely 'Hold These Truths'

Joel de la Fuente plays Gordon Hirabayashi in "Hold These Truths." (Photo by Kevin Berne)

 One man’s unshakeable belief in the Constitution underpins the timely “Hold These Truths,” being streamed by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley as part of its online initiative, “Voices of Democracy,” an effort to encourage voting and racial justice.

Jeanne Sakata based her play on the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi (Joel de la Fuente), a second-generation Japanese American who defied the curfew and subsequent internment of Japanese people during World War II. They were called security threats.

Because of his defiance, he was imprisoned. Even the Supreme Court upheld his internment conviction, but it was ultimately invalidated by a federal district court judge in Seattle in 1986.

The judge held that the U.S. government had withheld crucial information that a widespread roundup of Japanese people – both aliens and citizens – wasn’t a military necessity.

In May 2012, President Obama awarded Gordon the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously.

Besides believing in the freedoms outlined in the Constitution, Gordon also believed these words in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

His immigrant parents owned a farm in Washington, so Gordon worked there before going to the University of Washington in Seattle in 1937. While there he became a Quaker, or Friend. Thus he was a pacifist, too. 

Although he liked college and made friends, including his future wife, he was limited in where he could go because so many places had signs stating, “No Japs.”

This anti-Japanese racism intensified after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. As far as many Americans were concerned, “Our faces are the faces of the enemy,” Gordon says. Japanese people had to adhere to an 8 p.m. curfew, which he defied.

In May 1942, he also defied the internment over his parents’ strenuous objections. He was arrested for both violations and ultimately spent 90 days in jail.

Playing Gordon, de la Fuente voices other characters in a tour de force using only three chairs and some minimal props.

Directed by Lisa Rothe, this streamed version was filmed during an actual performance in 2018. Hence it feels more authentic than Zoom shows. The only drawback is that its occasional background radio broadcasts don’t carry over on film.

As Gordon says late in the play, the district court in Seattle found that “ancestry is not a crime.”

These words strike a chord today as the nation grapples with racism along with some leaders’ seeming defiance of the Constitution among other crises of 2020.

In addition to this play, “Voices of Democracy" offers digital theatrical experiences leading up to the election. They include poems read by local actors and other features.

In another highlight, TheatreWorks is teaming with Berkeley Repertory Theatre and other companies across the Bay Area and nation for a four-part  radio adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” starting at 5 p.m. Oct. 13 on YouTube.

This 1935 satire follows the ascent of a demagogue who becomes president by promising to return the country to greatness.

For information about all events, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

“Hold These Truths” continues on-demand streaming through Nov. 3. Access is available on a sliding scale ($10-$100). Closed captions are available in English and Japanese.







Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Palo Alto Players goes virtual to open season

Steve Schwartz (upper right) is Gabriel, Emily Scott is God and Brandon Silberstein is Michael. (Photo by Palo Alto Players)

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Palo Alto Players has turned to Zoom to open its 90th season with David Javerbaum’s “An Act of God.”

Instead of appearing on a stage, the actors speak in front of webcams. Thus they and the audience are deprived of real action.

The story goes something like this: God (Emily Scott) is issuing a new version of the Ten Commandments and trying to explain phenomena ranging from the creation as described in Genesis through Noah and his ark to the good and bad things that have happened over the millennia.

She’s aided by two archangels, Gabriel (Steve Schwartz) and Michael (Brandon Silberstein). Both wear a suit and tie adorned by wings (costumes by Melissa Sanchez). Behind each one is a blue sky with clouds (scenography by Scott Ludwig).

Gabriel, the older of the two, says little except when he intones each new commandment. Michael is more animated and often asks the questions supposedly submitted by viewers. In the meantime, viewer chats appear on the bottom of the screen.

This production is preceded by a warning that some content is adult in nature, most of it sexual.

Although the show produces an ample share of laughs, including from references to current events, it becomes monotonous. Moreover, Scott has a tendency to overact as God, trying to sound authoritative.

Some of the reason lies with the format itself, and some perhaps with director Debi Durst.

Jeff Grafton designed the effective sound, while the lighting design is by Matt Web.

Despite the show’s shortcomings, it’s most welcome to those who so acutely miss live theater.

Running about 90 minutes with no intermission, “An Act of God” will continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 20.

Streaming tickets are sold on a pay what you choose scale ranging from $15 to $40.

They’re available at www.paplayers.org or at (650) 329-0891.




Tuesday, March 10, 2020

'They Promised Her the Moon' tells little-known story

Jerrie Cobb (Sarah Mitchell, left) listens to Jackie Cochran (Stacy Ross) as she expounds on her accomplishments.

In “They Promised Her the Moon,” playwright Laurel Ollstein highlights a little-known but true story from the nation’s space program.

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, the play focuses on Jerrie Cobb (Sarah Mitchell), who was among 13 topnotch women pilots selected for a NASA program to become astronauts.

It begins in 1960 in Albuquerque, N.M., where she was being tested by Dr. Randy Lovelace (Anthony Fusco) to see how long she could remain in an isolation tank. While there, she reflects back on her life, starting when she was 6 years old in Oklahoma and even then dreamed of flying.

She was inspired and encouraged by her father, Harvey (Dan Hiatt), who was a pilot, but her religious mother, Helena (Luisa Sermol), wanted her to get married and be a housewife.

Eventually she did become a pilot, barnstorming at age 16 and later ferrying planes for Jack Ford (Craig Marker), with whom she had a love affair before he callously dumped her.

One of the chief proponents of the women in space program was Jackie Cochran (Stacy Ross), a record-setting pilot as well as the owner of a successful cosmetics company.

Even though Jerrie outperformed all candidates, both male and female, she was sorely disappointed when NASA abruptly canceled the program. Hence, her dream of becoming the first woman in space was dashed.

One of the more compelling scenes is a congressional committee hearing about women in space. Jerrie was a witness.

Even though one of the congressmen, played by Hiatt, seemed sympathetic, he was drowned out by the sexist remarks of his colleague, played by Fusco. That sexism was echoed by the testimony of John Glenn, played with machismo by Marker.

Harvey Cobb (Dan Hiatt) encourages his daughter, Jerrie (Sarah Mitchell).
Even Jackie turned against her. In the end, her only ally was her father as she became a pilot for missionaries in the Amazon jungle.

This play was one of the hits in TheatreWorks’ 2018 New Works Festival, where new plays get professionally staged readings to aid in their development.

Now it has come to full fruition under the direction of Giovanna Sardelli, the festival’s director and a TheatreWorks artistic associate.

She oversees an outstanding six-person cast with four of them playing multiple roles. Only Mitchell as Jerrie and Ross as Jackie play just one character.

Mitchell captures Jerrie’s singlemindedness and determination, while Ross embodies Jackie’s self-assuredness. The other four fully inhabit each of the characters they play.  

The production is enhanced by Christopher Fitzer’s set, Cathleen Edwards’ costumes, Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “They Promised Her the Moon” will continue through March 29 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.    

Photos by Kevin Berne