Monday, July 15, 2019

Ironic but positive outcomes in 'The Language Archive'

Much to the dismay of George (Jomar Tagatac) and Emma (Adrienne Kaori Walters), both standing, Resten (Francis Jue) and his wife, Alta (Emily Kuroda), refuse to talk to each other in any language.

The opening of TheatreWorks’ Silicon Valley’s 50th season on July13 was bookended by standing ovations.

The first was for founder and artistic director Robert Kelley, while the second was for Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive.”

TheatreWorks recently was honored with the 2019 Regional Theatre Tony Award, accepted by Kelley and others.

Kelley, who has directed more than 175 TheatreWorks productions, plans to retire at the end of this season. Thus the ovation saluted him for all of his achievements as he came out for his usual pre-curtain speech.

In the play, George (Jomar Tagatac) is a linguist who has mastered many languages and who seeks to preserve languages that could go extinct.

Mary (Elena Wright) tells George (Jomar Tagatac) she's had it and is leaving. 
For all his linguistic skills, however, George can’t communicate his feelings, especially with his wife, Mary (Elena Wright), who leaves him.

In the meantime, George brings to his lab an elderly couple, Resten (Francis Jue) and Alta (Emily Kuroda), who apparently come from a remote Eurasian area.

Rather than speaking their native tongue for him, though, they bicker so much in English that soon they aren’t speaking to each other. They have some of the play’s funniest scenes.

George is assisted by Emma (Adrienne Kaori Walters), who has secretly loved him for a long time, but she won’t tell him because he’s married.

Various encounters for the three main characters have positive but ironic outcomes.

For example, George couldn’t tell Mary how he felt. However when Emma tells him she’s leaving, he tells her how important she is to him and his work and how he can’t get along without her. For her, that’s enough.

Mary (Elena Wright) meets a depressed old man (Francis Jue) at a train station.
Mary talks an old man (Jue) out of jumping in front of a rushing train, thus giving him the gift of life. He in turn gives her the gift of a livelihood.

Resten and Alta, faced with his imminent death, choose to return home but not before reconciling. They also tell George that they will become intertwining trees after they die. It’s a moving moment.

Director Jeffrey Lo skillfully guides the characters through their emotional journeys. His one misstep comes when Emma goes to a German woman (Kuroda) to learn Esperanto, an international language, to please George. As emphasis, the teacher often slams her pointer on a table, but this noisy gimmick soon becomes annoying.

Overall, though, the acting by all five cast members is outstanding, leading to an enjoyable, rewarding experience and earning the ovation.

Andrea Bechert’s monochromatic set facilitates scene changes, but squares that change color between scenes don’t add much.

More effective are Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound, Mike Palumbo’s lighting and Noah Marin’s costumes.

Running about two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission, “The Language Archive” will continue through Aug. 4 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 Alessandra Mello





Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Brilliant work by all in Cal Shakes' 'The Good Person of Szechwan'

Francesca Fernandez McKenzie (center) as Shen Te disguises herself as her male cousin, Shui Ta, who gets tough with characters played by Margo Hall (left) and Lily Tung Crystal. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

The central character in German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 “The Good Person of Szechwan” faces an apparently unsolvable dilemma: After the gods reward her for her goodness, others take advantage of her, thus negating her good intentions.

California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Eric Ting helms his company’s production using Tony Kushner’s adaptation.

In it, the kind-hearted Shen Te (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) disguises herself as her tough-minded male cousin, Shui Ta, to ward off the spongers.

One of them is Yang Sun (Armando McClain), who’s about to hang himself because he doesn’t have the money to pay for a promised job as an air mail pilot in Peking.

She not only gives him some money but also falls in love with him. However, in her male guise, she learns that he was mainly interested in her for the money and the sex.

Under Ting’s direction, McKenzie is the undisputed star of this production, but everyone in the 12-member cast works as a true ensemble. Most actors assume several roles, both male and female, yet every character is clearly etched.

For example, Anthony Fusco, Victor Talmadge, Phil Wong and Margo Hall all show their versatility. Lance Gardner plays Shen Te’s friend Wang, the Water-Seller, who opens the show, leads the gods to her, delivers the epilogue and takes part in other scenes.

Adding immeasurably to enjoyment of this production is Brendan Aanes’ sound design, which often punctuates various lines and actions.

Ulises Alcala’s costumes are a mix of traditional and contemporary, while the set by Michael Locher and lighting by Jiyoun Chang also augment the action.

Some movements, especially by McKenzie’s Shui Ta, are stylized thanks to movement choreographer Natalie Greene.

At times one or more characters will break into songs written by music director Min Kahng.

All of this is part of the Brechtian aim of trying to distance the audience, of showing that this is merely a play.

Nevertheless, the acting and direction are so brilliant that it’s almost impossible not to be swept up by what’s unfolding on the stage.

Running about three hours with one intermission, “The Good Person of Szechwan” will continue through July 28 at the scenic Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (off Hwy. 24), Orinda.

For tickets and information, call (510) 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.


Saturday, June 29, 2019

Didion's journey of grief portrayed in 'The Year of Magical Thinking'

Stacy Ross portrays Joan Didion. (Photo by David Allen)

Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” presented by Aurora Theatre Company, deals with the writer’s profound grief after the deaths of her husband and their daughter within less than two years of each other.

Sensitively directed by Nancy Carlin, this one-woman play features Stacy Ross as Didion, who speaks in the first person.

Didion describes the day in late December 2003 when her husband and frequent collaborator, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack while she was preparing dinner in their New York City home.

At the same time, their recently married adopted daughter, Quintana, was in a coma in a nearby hospital after suffering pneumonia that developed into septic shock.

She recovered enough to leave the hospital and speak at her father’s delayed funeral, but she suffered a brain injury in 2004 and died in 2005 of acute pancreatitis.

“Magical thinking,” as Didion interpreted it, meant that if she could maintain control and do things the right way, such as avoiding streets that she and John had driven, his death might be averted and he would return.

She gave away most of his clothes but kept his shoes, thinking he would need them when he came back.

She felt this self-delusional thinking would keep her from falling into the vortex of reality and perhaps going insane.

Over time, however, she began to come to grips with her grief and prepared to confront reality.

It’s a brilliant performance by Ross, who takes the audience through Didion’s difficult emotional journey.

To keep it from becoming merely a monologue, Carlin has Ross moving along the several playing levels on Kent Dorsey’s monochromatic set. Occasionally she goes upstage to sit and read something.

Kurt Landisman’s lighting is generally effective, but sometimes has Ross moving through a shadow on one side. The atmospheric sound by Cliff Caruthers is mostly unobtrusive. Ross’s simple costume is by Valera Coble.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “The Year of Magical Thinking” is entirely absorbing and fascinating.

It will continue through July 21 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. 

For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Oregon Shakespeare Festival in full swing


The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is staging eight plays in its three theaters with three more opening later in the season.

The outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre is showcasing Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “All’s Well That Ends Well” along with ”Alice in Wonderland,” adapted from the popular children’s story.

If necessary, they will move to the nearby indoor Mountain Avenue Theater July 13-29 because of the possibility of wildfire smoke. 

“From July 30-Sept. 8, … OSF is only selling enough advance tickets to fill the Mountain Avenue venue, which may also be used for some added matinees, if needed,” according to the Seattle Times.

Last year unhealthful air quality from smoke caused the cancellation of more than 20 outdoor performances and a loss of nearly $2 million.

The indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre is offering Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” the musical “Hairspray” and Octavio Solis’s “Mother Road.” Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” begins July 4.

The smaller, indoor Thomas Theatre is featuring Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” and "Between Two Knees” by the 1491s. “La Comedia of Errors,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” begins June 29, followed by Christina Anderson’s “How to Catch Creation” on July 23.

This is artistic director Bill Rauch’s final season after 12 years. He will take a similar post with the Perelman Center in New York City. His successor, Nataki Garrett, will begin her duties in August. Rauch has already planned next season.

Over the years he has made a concerted effort to make OSF more inclusive.
This season reflects that commitment with not only the plays but also the company with its mix of racial, ethnic, gender identities and disabilities.

The season runs through Oct. 27. For complete information and tickets call (800) 219-8161 or visit www.osfashland.org. Note that some casting changes during the season.

Following are capsule reviews of the productions seen during a recent visit.

Daniel T. Parker (center) plays Edna Turnblad, mother of Tracy Turnblad (Katy Geraghty, second from right).
“Hairspray: The Broadway Musical” – This story of a Baltimore teenager who wants to dance on a popular TV show goes beyond a girl’s dream. The book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan also tells of her efforts to integrate the show when segregation is still rampant. Blacks were allowed only on “Negro Day.”

The heroine is Tracy Turnblad (Katy Geraghty), a short but plus-size girl who can dance up a storm. Her rival, who’s already on the show, is the snide Amber Von Tussle (Leanne A. Smith), daughter of its producer, Velma Von Tussle (Kate Mulligan).

Also in the mix are Link Larkin (Jonathan Luke Stevens), claimed by Amber and idolized by Tracy; Penny Pingleton (Jenna Bainbridge), Tracy’s best friend; and Seaweed J. Stubbs (Christian Bufford), the black youth who becomes Penny and Tracy’s friend.

Then there are Tracy’s loving, supportive parents: her mother, Edna (Daniel T. Parker in the traditional drag role), and her sweet father, Wilbur (David Kelly).

The music by Marc Shaiman, with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, features mostly upbeat songs like “Good Morning Baltimore” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

This winning production is directed by Christopher Liam Moore with music direction by Gregg Coffin and choreography by Jaclyn Miller.

Rosalind (Jessica Ko), disguised as a man, gets Orlando (Román Zaragoza), to pretend he's wooing Rosalind.
“As You Like It” – Directed by Rosa Joshi, this is another winning production featuring Jessica Ko as Rosalind, who disguises herself as a man when retreating to the Forest of Arden to escape the wrath of her uncle, the usurping Duke Frederick (Kevin Kenerly).

She’s joined by her cousin, Celia (Nancy Rodriguez). Also retreating to the Forest of Arden is Orlando de Boys (Román Zaragoza), who’s despised by his elder brother, Oliver (Shaun Taylor-Corbett).

Rosalind and Orlando had fallen in love at first sight at court. Therefore, in the forest, Rosalind, in her male guise, has Orlando pretend that she’s Rosalind and woo her.

As if the play itself doesn’t do enough gender-bending, the casting does too with transgender Rachel Crowl as Duke Senior, the banished duke in the forest and Rosalind’s mother. Will Wilhelm plays Aubrey (Audrey in the original), a nonbinary goatherd.

It’s all quite enchanting from start to finish.

Tony Sancho (left) is Martin Jodes while Mark Murphey is his dying relative, William Joad.
“Mother Road” –This noteworthy world premiere by Octavio Solis can be seen as a sequel to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

It features Mark Murphey as the dying William Joad, cousin of the late Tom Joad. He’s searching for the family’s only other descendant to inherit his farm in Oklahoma.

He finds that descendant in California, but to his surprise, he’s a Mexican American, Martin Jodes (Tony Sancho).

On their drive back to Oklahoma, they pick up Martin’s friend Mo (Amy Lizardo), an upbeat lesbian who will be the farm’s forewoman; and James (Cedric Lamar), a black man.

Among their experiences, they encounter a motel clerk (Armando Durán), who at first refuses to accommodate them, citing the deportation of his people in the past. 

(According to the OSF publication “Illuminations,” between 500,000 and 2 million Mexicans, the majority of them U.S. citizens, were deported between 1929 and 1936 by President Herbert Hoover, who blamed them for the Great Depression.)

This production is brilliantly directed by Rauch and features an outstanding cast.

“Between Two Knees” – The premise of this world premiere by the five-member 1491s is commendable.

It recalls the slaughter of Lakota Indians by American troops at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1890 and the American Indian Movement uprising there in 1973.

It features a mostly Native American cast as it follows a family through several generations.

However, its power is diluted because of its silly humor and a too-long opening monologue by Larry (Justin Gauthier). It would be more effective were it more straightforward.

It’s directed by Eric Ting, artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda.

“Alice in Wonderland” – Sara Bruner directs this adaptation by Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus from Lewis Carroll’s story and his “Through the Looking-Glass.”

Perhaps the best thing about it is the whimsical costumes by Helen Q. Huang.

Otherwise, it’s a waste of acting talent as it speeds through a mostly confusing, chaotic story.

To its credit, however, youngsters seemed to enjoy it.

Photos by Jenny Graham





Thursday, June 20, 2019

Missing cat returns to wreck three lives in 'Wink'

Sofie (Liz Sklar) goes on a rampage, strewing toys before tackling perches and furniture.

A missing cat leads to the undoing of the three human characters in Jen Silverman’s “Wink,” a world premiere presented by Marin Theatre Company.

The cat, Wink, was loved by Sofie (Liz Sklar) and despised by her husband, Gregor (Seann Gallagher). Both are separately seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Frans (Kevin R. Free), about their troubled marriage.

Gregor (Seann Gallagher) fondles the dead
cat's skin.
Gregor tells Dr. Frans that, unbeknownst to Sofie, he killed the cat by skinning it and burying it in the garden. However, he saved the skin and keeps it in a box.

As advised by Dr. Frans, Sofie numbly does housework until one day, while vacuuming, she goes berserk.

She strews boxes of cat toys onto the floor and upends the cat perches and even the furniture. For the coup de grâce, she pounds holes in the walls.

When Gregor returns from work, she says an attacker made the mess. In her mind, she calls him Roland and attributes all sorts of disasters to him.

Next, Wink (John William Watkins), wearing nothing but a flesh-colored thong and smeared with dirt, vaults onto the wall.

Wink (John William Watkins) tries to ingratiate himself with Dr. Frans (Kevin R. Free).
Soon he moves in on Dr. Frans in a relationship that has homoerotic overtones.

By the play’s end, all three humans are in bad shape, but Wink has departed to go about his cat ways.

As directed by Mike Donahue, the four actors are superb, but special note needs to be made of Watkins’ ability to mimic a cat’s movements even though the character is weird.

The set, which doubles as Sofie and Gregor’s home and as Dr. Frans’ office, is by Dane Laffrey, who also designed the costumes.

Lighting is by Jen Schreiver, sound by Jake Rodriguez and fight choreography by Dave Maier. Daniel Kluger wrote the song that Sofie sings.

Laced with dark humor, “Wink” is preposterous but fascinating.

Running about 75 minutes with no intermission, it will continue through July 7 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley.

For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A lesson for our times in 'Rhinoceros' at ACT

Berenger (David Breitbarth) resists a rhino in "Rhinoceros."

Going to work, a man tells his colleagues that he and others saw a rhinoceros in the street.

“Fake news,” one of them snorts.

But it isn’t fake news in Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” staged by American Conservatory Theater.

What the man, Berenger (David Breitbarth), his friend Gene (Matt DeCaro), and others saw was indeed a rhino, and soon there are many more.

A colleague’s wife, Mrs. Boeuf (Trish Mulholland), arrives and says that her husband is ill and won’t be in to work. She doesn't realize that he has become a rhino.

Just then, that rhino rampages downstairs, leaving everyone wondering how to get out and her riding off on his back.

Before long, almost everyone in town has become a rhino, but Berenger resists such mindless conformity.

When Ionesco wrote the play in 1959, he was warning against the dangers of following the masses, as happened with the rise of fascism in Europe.

Skillfully directed by Frank Galati using a translation by Derek Prouse, this is a masterful, well-acted production led by Breitbarth as Berenger.

Gene (Matt DeCaro) begins to morph into a rhino during
visit by Berenger (David Breitbarth).
Especially noteworthy is DeCaro as he maneuvers through Gene’s transformation into a rhino. (Danyon Davis is the movement coach.)

Everyone else in the cast is terrific, too.

Special mention goes to scenic and costume designer Robert Perdziola, especially for the giant rhino ridden by Mrs. Boeuf and the one that Gene becomes.

Sound and music are by Joseph Cerqua and lighting by Chris Lundahl.

With its lessons for our times, “Rhinoceros” runs about 90 minutes with one intermission. 

It continues through June 23 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne


Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Hilarity reigns in 'One Man, Two Guvnors' at Palo Alto Players

Doug Santana plays Francis Henshall, who must serve two guvnors.

Richard Bean’s “One Man, Two Guvnors,” an updated version of Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters,” is a hilarious farce in the hands of Palo Alto Players.

It takes place in Brighton, England, in 1963. The one man is Francis Henshall (Doug Santana), who starts with one guvnor, Roscoe Crabbe, who was murdered.

That guvnor’s twin sister, Rachel (Katie O’Bryon Champlin), assumes her brother’s identity to claim the hand (and dowry) of his fiancée, Pauline Clench (Michelle Skinner), who’s about as dumb as they come.

However, Pauline is in love with aspiring actor Alan Dangle (Drew Benjamin Jones), who emotes most of the time.

Inadvertently Francis acquires another guvnor, Stanley Stubbers (Brad Satterwhite).

After that, things get crazier and crazier, especially when Stanley and Roscoe/Rachel have lunch in separate rooms at the same pub.

As Francis prepares to serve them, he must contend with both his own voracious appetite and an aging, tottering waiter, Alfie (Chris Mahle).

Dealing with his two guvnors requires all of Francis’s ingenuity and quick thinking. Santana is more than equal to the task, even when ad libbing.

All becomes clear as Francis (Doug Santana, center) explains everything.
Eventually everything works out. In the meantime, the audience is treated to almost nonstop hilarity thanks to the comic skills of Santana and the other 10 actors under the direction of Patrick Klein, PAP artistic director, and physical comedy director Carla Pantoja.

Adding to the fun in this British farce is the skiffle band, which sings and plays the music of Bean and songs of Grant Olding before each curtain and between scenes. It’s under the tutelage of music director Lauren Bevilacqua.

Director Klein also designed the set. Costumes are by Patricia Tyler, lighting by Ben Hemmen and sound by Grant Huberty.

Running about two hours and a half hours with one intermission, “One Man, Two Guvnors” will continue through June 30 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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

Photos by Joyce Goldschmid