Thursday, January 23, 2020

Nora returns in 'A Doll's House, Part 2'

Torvald (Michael Champlin), after a scuffle with the town clerk, holds a book by Nora (Gabriella Grier).

Fifteen years ago, Nora Helmer slammed the door to her home in Norway, leaving behind her husband and children in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”

Now she has returned in Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” presented by Palo Alto Players.

Using a  pseudonym, Nora (Gabriella Grier) has become the successful writer of pro-feminist, anti-marriage books. She faces major legal problems because it has been learned that, contrary to her belief, her husband, Torvald (Michael Champlin), hasn’t divorced her.

However, Torvald, a banker, has allowed people to think that she has died. If he files for divorce, his misrepresentation would be exposed, ruining his career.

Katherine Hamilton is Emmy.
Nora enlists their young adult daughter, Emmy (Katherine Hamilton), to try to convince Torvald to grant the divorce, but Emmy doesn’t want to jeopardize her engagement and future happiness because of the scandal.

Anne Marie (Judith Miller), the family’s longtime maid, is caught in the middle of this web of dilemmas.

Although the acting by all four cast members is noteworthy, Jeffrey Lo’s direction and some design elements have missteps.

Lo overdramatizes the arrival of each character with piano music, a projection of the person’s name and red lighting. It’s all too gimmicky.

Moreover, shortly after Nora arrives and is greeted by Anne Marie, she reaches into her purse for an aluminum soda can, pops the top and takes a drink. If for some reason the actor needed to drink something, a pitcher of water with a glass wouldn’t be a jarring anachronism.

And in Hnath’s script, Anne Marie sometimes uses four-letter words that are out of keeping with the times and the character.

In addition to the red lights for the arrival of characters, Carolyn A. Guggemos’s lighting sometimes leaves characters in shadows even as they’re speaking.

Christopher Fitzer’s set features white walls with huge, garish blue flowers along with a few clear plastic chairs and table (more anachronisms).

On the other hand, Melissa Sanchez’s costumes for the Helmers are elegant, befitting the late 19th century. The sound is by Jeff Grafton.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” will continue through Feb. 2 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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

Photos by Joyce Goldschmid



Tuesday, January 21, 2020

'The Pianist of Willesden Lane' illustrates the power of music

Pianist Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother, also a pianist. (Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)

In an engrossing blend of great music and sometimes harrowing narration presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, concert pianist Mona Golabek relates the story of a young woman’s journey through the perils of World War II in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.”

That woman was Lisa Jura, Golabek’s mother. Her story begins when Lisa was a 14-year-old, aspiring Jewish pianist in Vienna in 1938 as Nazi terrorism against Jews accelerated.

Her father managed to get her a ticket for the Kindertransport, which English people organized to take thousands of children from cities controlled by the Third Reich to the safety of homes in England.

After several places in England, Lisa wound up at the Willesden Lane hostel in London along with about two dozen other children. She worked in a sewing factory making military uniforms and entertained people at the hostel with her piano playing.

She didn’t know what had happened to her parents and two younger sisters in Vienna.

She survived the German bombing of London, including a direct hit on the hostel.

She eventually received a scholarship to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music and worked as a pianist entertaining soldiers on leave at a swank hotel, where she met her future husband.

While relating her mother’s story, Golabek intersperses it by playing piano works by such greats as Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, Chopin and others.

The story is unified by Jura’s love of Grieg’s challenging Piano Concerto in A minor. The first movement opens the story, the second comes in the middle and the third provides the dramatic climax.

Lee Cohen and Hershey Felder, the pianist whose one-man re-creations of composers like Bernstein, Chopin, Beethoven and others have been huge hits at TheatreWorks and elsewhere, adapted this work from Cohen and Golabek’s book, “The Children of Willesden Lane.”

Felder directs. Along with Trevor Hay, he also designed the set. Framed in gilt, it features a grand piano in front of four gilded picture frames where various photos and scenes are projected.

One of the most moving is newsreel footage of Nazi soldiers herding Jews toward the trains that would take them to concentration camps and likely death. The projections are by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal.

Lighting is by Jason Bieber, sound by Erik Carstensen. Golabek’s simple black dress is by Jaclyn Maduff.

The play has been seen throughout the country, including a well-received production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2013.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, it’s a truly memorable theatrical experience about the soul-lifting power of music as well as a cautionary tale about tyranny.

Ticket demand has been so great that TheatreWorks extended it one week, through Feb. 16, even before its Jan. 18 opening at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

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


Thursday, January 16, 2020

Bay Area premiere of Heather Raffo's 'Noura'

From left: Yazen (Valentino Herrera), Tareq (Mattico David), Noura (Denmo Ibrahim), Maryam (Maya Nazzal) and Rafa'a (Abraham Makany) sit down for their Christmas dinner.

The title character in Heather Raffo’s “Noura,” being given its Bay Area premiere by the Marin Theatre Company, is an Iraqi Christian who left the violence in her home country and has been in New York City for eight years.

It’s Christmas Eve. Noura (Denmo Ibrahim); Tareq (Mattico David), her husband of 20 years; and Yazen (Valentino Herrera), their grade school-age son; are celebrating the arrival of their American passports and preparing for a traditional Iraqi Christmas dinner.

When they were in Mosul, Noura was an architect and Tareq was a surgeon. Once in the United States, they could no longer practice their professions. Instead, Noura teaches in an inner city middle school, and Tareq works in a hospital emergency room. He had a job in a Subway shop when they first arrived.

At the dinner, they’re joined by Rafa’a (Abraham Makany), a Muslim who has been their friend ever since their days in Iraq.

The other guest is Maryam (Maya Nazzal). Noura and Tareq haven’t met her, but they have supported her ever since she was an orphan at a convent in Iraq, through college in the United States and now as she’s about to start a career in thermodynamics.

Tareq and Noura in a happier moment.
Her arrival sets off some unexpected reactions, especially from Tareq, leading to a major emotional crisis for him and Noura.

Throughout the play, Noura is haunted by memories of Iraq, especially the violence and the loss of friends and family wrought by ISIS. She continues to try to recover from those losses.

Thus she symbolizes the difficulties that many Iraqis and other people face after escaping from horrible circumstances. Rafa’a suggests that she’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

As the play reaches its ambiguous conclusion, the revelations pile up in almost melodramatic fashion.

At times the threads of Raffo’s plot are hard to follow, a problem heightened by the difficulty of understanding some of the accents.

Nevertheless, this production directed by Kate Bergstrom, in association with Golden Thread Productions, benefits from solid performances by all five cast members.

The barebones set, featuring a Christmas tree, dining table and little else, is by Adam Rigg with lighting by Kate Boyd. The costumes are by Anna Oliver with sound by Nihan Yesil.

Running about an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, “Noura” will continue through Feb. 9 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






Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Music puts bright new twist on 'Pride and Prejudice' at TheatreWorks

Mr. Darcy (Justin Mortelliti) and Elizabeth Bennet (Mary Mattison) converse while dancing.

Despite the limitations imposed by her social class and societal norms of the times, Elizabeth Bennet has an independent streak.

She makes that point early in Paul Gordon’s musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” when she sings “Headstrong.”

In its world premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, “Pride and Prejudice” features Mary Mattison as Elizabeth, or Lizzie, the second-oldest of five daughters.

Because of English inheritance laws in the early 19th century, she will have no claim to her father’s home and land after his death. Therefore, her best hope for a secure future is to marry a wealthy man.

But not just any man. That’s why she rejects the proposal of the obnoxious, self-important Mr. Collins (Brian Herndon), a distant cousin and closest male heir.

The heart of the story, though, is her seesaw relationship with the aloof Mr. Darcy (Justin Mortelliti).

Jane Bennet (Sharon Rietkerk) and Mr. Bingley (Travis Leland) also enjoy the dance.
A subplot involves another seesaw relationship, this one between her older sister, Jane (Sharon Rietkerk), and the tongue-tied Mr. Bingley (Travis Leland).

Gordon, who wrote the show’s music, lyrics and book, does a good job of conveying the characters’ emotions and propelling the plot through his tuneful songs in a variety of musical styles. Music director William Liberatore conducts the singers and six-piece band.

Director Robert Kelley, the company’s artistic director, has perfectly cast the large ensemble.

Mrs. Bennet (Heather Orth, center) reads a letter from Jane to her other daughters, from left: Mary (Melissa WolfKlain), Lizzie (Mary Mattison), Kitty (Chanel Tilghman) and Lydia (Tara Kostmayer).
Besides the principals already named, some of the standouts are Heather Orth as Mrs. Bennet, Lizzie and Jane’s doting, dithering mother; and Christopher Vettel as their droll, patient father, Mr. Bennet.

Lucinda Hitchcock Cone has some brief but memorable scenes as she commands the stage as the rich, imperious Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

Lady Catherine De Bourgh (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) demands "Her Ladyship's Praise."
The show also has numerous humorous moments, especially when Lizzie stands up to Lady De Bourgh late in the second act.

Joe Ragey’s bucolic set, with its scenic projections, immediately draws the audience into the action, which then flows seamlessly despite changes in locale.

Also establishing the time and place are Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes along with Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting, Brendan Aanes’ sound and Dottie Lester White’s choreography.

Even though it doesn’t have a holiday theme, “Pride and Prejudice” embodies the holiday spirit with its overall excellence.

TheatreWorks’ 70th world premiere in 50 years, this musical delight went through part of its development process during the company’s annual New Works Festival in 2018.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, it will continue through Jan. 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 Kevin Berne

Dancing makes 'Newsies' fun at Hillbarn Theatre

The newsies declare a strike to protest higher costs. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

Based on an actual situation in New York City in 1899, “Newsies,” as staged by Hillbarn Theatre, is a vehicle for almost nonstop, terrific dancing.

That’s the strongest, most enjoyable aspect of this musical directed by Doug Greer and choreographed by Zoe Swenson-Graham. Most of the singing is good, too, as is the acting.

Featuring music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, the book by Harvey Fierstein focuses on a strike by the boys and young men who sold the New York World newspaper on the street.

It came after they were told they had to pay 60 cents per 100 rather than 50 cents. This price increase meant less money for these poverty-stricken newsies, as they were called.

Hence, they went on strike. They were met with resistance by the authorities, but eventually they prevailed.

In this production, however, the plot line isn’t always easy to discern because the New York accents are sometimes hard to understand and because Grant Huberty’s sound design over-amplifies the actors and the recorded music.

Jack Kelly (Kamren Mahaney) meets Katherine Plumber (Melissa Momboisse). (Photo by Tracy Martin)
The central character and instigator of the strike is Jack Kelly (Kamren Mahaney), who winds up defying Joseph Pulitzer (Shaun Leslie Thomas), publisher of the New York World, and falling in love with Katherine Plumber (Melissa Momboisse), an aspiring reporter for the New York Sun.

Medda Larkin (Phaedra Tillery) is Jack's friend. (Photo by Tracy Martin)
He’s also a talented artist who has done scenic backdrops for a Bowery theater owned by his friend, Medda Larkin (Phaedra Tillery). She delights the audience with her saucy “That’s Rich.”

Other principals in this strong cast are Stephen Kanaski as Crutchie, the disabled newsie who’s Jack’s friend; James Jones as Davey, the well-spoken newcomer who becomes a newsie to help his parents after his injured father was fired; and Noah Itzkovitz as Les, Davey’s spunky younger brother.

Several actors in this 30-member cast play several characters. Most of the newsies are the highly athletic dancers.

Menken’s songs, several of which are reprised, are mostly lively. “Watch What Happens,” sung by Katherine and later reprised by her, Jack, Davey and Les, is highly reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s style with its fast-paced lyrics.

Costumes by Pam Lampkin, along with hair and makeup by Y. Sharon Peng, help to define class differences. The functional set is by Paulino Deleal. Jad Bernardo is the music director.

On the other hand, Matt Eisenmann’s lighting design sometimes projects lights directly at the audience.

Athletic dancing is a highlight of the show. (Photo by Tracy Martin)
But thanks to the outstanding dancing and excellent cast, “Newsies” is highly enjoyable.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, it will continue through Dec. 22 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.





Thursday, November 21, 2019

Maternal love persists in ‘Mother of the Maid’

Isabelle Arc (Sherman Fracher, left) visits her daughter, Joan (Rosie Hallett), in the court of the Dauphin.

The story of Joan of Arc, who was called the Maid of Orleans, is fairly well known, but what about her family?

That’s the question playwright Jane Anderson addresses in “Mother of the Maid,” presented by Marin Theatre Company.

Set in France in 1429, the story begins in the family home in the village of Domrémy. Isabelle Arc (Sherman Fracher) talks about herself in the third person, describing a woman who can’t read or write and whose clothes are modest, to say the least.

She’s the mother of 14-year-old Joan (Rosie Hallett), who says she hears and sees  St. Catherine. Naturally Isabelle is skeptical, but Joan insists she’s telling the truth. She says St. Catherine is telling her to command the French army to oust the occupying English.

Joan’s father, the even more skeptical and unyielding Jacques (Scott Coopwood), beats her to get her to disavow her visions, but he doesn’t succeed.

However, she’s believed by her brother, Pierre (Brennan Pickman-Thoon), and the village priest, Father Gilbert (Robert Sicular).

Joan (Rosie Hallett, left) readies for battle as her parents, Isabelle (Sherman Fracher) and Jacques (Scott Coopwood), look on.
His vouching for her sends her to the court of the Dauphin, where she’s outfitted in armor and successfully leads the French army against the English, who have laid siege to the city of Orléans.

Later, the English capture her, try her, find her guilty of heresy and sentence her to death by burning at the stake.

Isabelle prays for Joan.
Much of this history is related through Isabelle, who follows Joan to the court and then to prison in Rouen, where Joan is kept in deplorable conditions.

Near the end of Act 1, Isabelle has walked 300 miles to see Joan at the court. Before she’s allowed to see her, though, she’s greeted by the elegant Lady of the Court (Liz Sklar).

Although she does her best to try to make Isabelle welcome and to capitalize on their shared bond of motherhood, she winds up offending her guest because the class differences between them are too great. It’s a fascinating scene.

Another memorable scene occurs near the end of Act 2 when the gruff, rough Jacques movingly describes the spectacle of Joan’s death.

Sensitively directed by MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis, Fracher’s performance as Isabelle is gripping as her character experiences a range of sometimes wrenching emotions but never deviates from love for Joan.

Coopwood, Pickman-Thoon, Sklar and Sicular also are outstanding. Hallett as Joan is less successful, especially during much of the first act when Joan seems like a hysterical teenager. She’s better in the second act as she faces her fate.

Speaking on opening night, Minadakis said that a five-day power outage in October meant that the cast had to rehearse in the lobby during daylight hours because the rest of the theater was too dark.

Likewise, the artistic staff had to overcome obstacles in building the set and making other preparations.

These difficulties weren’t apparent in the finished product. Besides the polished acting, design elements complemented the production.

Credit goes to Sean Fanning for the set; Chris Lundahl, lighting; Sarah Smith, costumes; Sara Huddleston, sound, and their crews along with composer Chris Houston and vocalist-cellist Penina Biddle-Gottesman.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Mother of the Maid” has been extended through Dec. 15 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

Monday, November 18, 2019

'Bull in a China Shop' honors pioneering woman educator

Mary (Stacy Ross, left) articulates her vision for Mount Holyoke to her lover, Jeannette (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong).

When Mary Woolley became president of Mount Holyoke College in 1901, it was a women’s seminary designed to train women to become wives and homemakers.

Her efforts to change that emphasis to education for the wider world are chronicled in Bryna Turner’s “Bull in a China Shop,” presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

As portrayed by Stacy Ross, Mary declares, “I’m interested in revolution,” early in the play. However, she had to weigh her ideals against the need to keep the school financially viable by not upsetting big donors and alumnae too much.

Moreover, she had a committed relationship with a former student, Jeannette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), whom she named to a teaching post in the English department.

Hence, she had to navigate the inevitable differences that arise during what was to become a romance that lasted for more than 45 years until her death in 1947.

Dean Welsh (Mia Tagano, right) with Mary.
Standing in the way of her efforts was her nemesis, Dean Welsh (Mia Tagano), who often was the bearer of bad news about the loss of donors.

At first Jeannette lived in faculty housing, which she hated, but Mary promised that eventually they would live together in the president’s house, which took years to fund and construct.

In the meantime, Jeannette got a room in the home of another faculty member, Felicity (Rebecca Schweitzer), who was aware of and sympathetic to the relationship.

Besides living arrangements, an early source of conflict between Mary and Jeannette was the suffrage movement. Both Jeannette and Felicity were strong  supporters of the cause, but Mary was hesitant, afraid of moving too far too fast.

Eventually she joined the cause and became such an avid supporter that she spent six months with an official delegation to China to promote women’s rights there.

During her absence, Jeannette had a fling with a star-struck student, Pearl (Jasmine Milan Williams), but she assured both Pearl and Mary that she had never stopped loving Mary.

Playwright Turner, a Mount Holyoke graduate, bases much of the play on the eloquent letters between Mary and Jeannette.

Even though the script is laced with contemporary profanities, it nevertheless compactly conveys the arc of Mary’s professional and personal life over several decades.

The one scene that goes astray comes when Pearl tosses rocks at Jeannette’s window and launches into a diatribe about feeling betrayed. It goes on too long.

On the whole, though, this is a fascinating look at a brave woman who was willing to defy convention in order to advance her deeply held convictions.

Directed by Dawn Monique Williams, the acting is fine, but Ross as Mary and Mbele-Mbong as Jeannette deserve special mention.

Costumes by Ulises Alcala chronicle changes in fashion over the years. The simple but effective set is by Nina Ball with lighting by Kurt Landisman and sound by Lana Palmer.

Running about 85 minutes without intermission, “Bull in a China Shop” will continue through Dec. 8 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.

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

Photos by David Allen