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  




'Baltimore Waltz' proves timely at Dragon Theatre

Carl (Asher Krohn, left) ignores Anna's (Ellen Dunphy) concerns about the strange man (Filip Hofman) following them.

When the leaders of Redwood City’s Dragon Theatre slated Paula Vogel’s “The Baltimore Waltz” for this season, little did they know how timely it would be.

Vogel wrote her 1992 play, which she sets in a Baltimore hospital, as a tribute to her brother, Carl, who died of AIDS before they could take a hoped-for trip to Europe.

In this three-person play, Anna (Ellen Dunphy), a first-grade teacher, and her gay brother, Carl (Asher Krohn), a San Francisco librarian, likewise have planned a trip to Europe.

However, just before they’re supposed to leave, she’s diagnosed with a strange new illness, acquired toilet disease, or ATD. Apparently she contracted it from sitting on the toilet seat used by her students.

It’s fatal, but she has no outward symptoms. Therefore, she and Carl embark on their trip. His main goal is to see all the sights, while hers is to bed as many men as possible, since ATD can’t be sexually transmitted.

Those men, plus all of the other male characters, are played by Filip Hofman, here called Third Man. Like several other fun parts of the play, which is often quite humorous, it’s a classic film reference.

Another humorous scene with a film reference involves an 80-year-old urologist in Vienna who has what might be a highly unorthodox cure for ATD. He constantly fights with one of his hands, on which he wears a black glove, a la Dr. Strangelove.

Then there’s the mysterious man who follows the siblings. He carries a stuffed rabbit, as does Carl, who has had one since childhood. His parents allowed him to play with it because he wasn’t supposed to play with his sister’s dolls.

As he clings to it, the mysterious man tries to take it away from him.

Finally, it becomes evident that the trip to Europe is taking place only in Anna’s imagination. It’s Carl who’s ill. Therefore, the rabbit might represent life, while the mysterious man might symbolize death.

Today, with coronavirus raging throughout the world with no known cure or vaccine, “The Baltimore Waltz” strikes some all-too-familiar chords.

Sensitively directed by Troy Johnson, this production features an outstanding cast. Dunphy as Anna has an appealing vulnerability, while Krohn as Carl displays a range of emotions and brotherly love.

Hofman is versatile to the nth degree, portraying men of different nationalities and personalities.

Projections by set designer Bora “Max” Koknar, sound by Jonathan Covey, costumes by Pati Bristow, lighting by Jeff Swan and choreography by Sarah Haas add greatly to the enjoyment of this production in Dragon’s intimate theater.

Running about an hour and 25 minutes without intermission, “The Baltimore Waltz” will continue through April 4 at Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City.

It’s running in rotating repertory with another AIDS-related play, “Confession” by Barry Slater.

For tickets and information, call 650) 493-2006 or visit www.dragonproductions.net.

Photo courtesy of Dragon Theatre




Monday, March 2, 2020

Foothill Music Theatre has fun with 'Mystery of Edwin Drood'

The "Edwin Drood" cast takes its curtain call.

Foothill Music Theatre takes its audience back to the 1890s when music halls were a major source of entertainment in England.

The result is an entertaining evening of theater with FMT’s production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

Rupert Holmes, who wrote the music, lyrics and book, based this musical on a novel by Charles Dickens, who died before completing it. Instead, Holmes asks  the audience to decide some key questions.

Under the astute direction of Milissa Carey, this excellent cast of students and seasoned performers creates a mix of characters from the ingénue to a gravedigger, opium den operator and some seemingly more respectable people whose actions come under suspicion.

Before the show starts, the costumed actors mingle with and chat with the audience. All of them implore the audience to boo John Jasper (Benjamin Ball), whenever he appears.

Scenes and characters are introduced by the Chairman (John Mannion).

Edwin Drood (Chloë Angst, left) and Rosa Bud (Brenna Sammon) are engaged.
Jasper is the uncle of the title character, played by a woman, Chloë Angst, as called for in Holmes’ script. Jasper also is the music teacher secretly in love with the lovely Rosa Bud (Brenna Sammon), who’s engaged to Edwin.

Rosa, an orphan, is under the care of the Rev. Mr. Crisparkle (Aaron Hurley). Soon he welcomes an exotic brother and sister from Ceylon, Helena (Rachelle Abbey) and Neville (David Murphy) Landless. The volatile Neville is immediately smitten by Rosa.

Completing the cast of principals is Heather Orth as Princess Puffer, a fallen woman who runs the opium den frequented by Jasper; and Linda Piccone as Durdles, a drunken gravedigger.

When Edwin disappears while on a Christmas Eve walk, suspicion falls on Neville, who was with Edwin. However, when Edwin hasn’t turned up after six months, others are suspected.

In the meantime, several people investigate his disappearance. They include the mysterious Dick Datchery, whose real identity is apparently unknown.

It’s up to the audience to vote on who among seven suspects is the culprit in Drood’s disappearance, as well as the identity of Datchery and the ideal romantic couple.

The ending varies according to the votes, so the actors must be prepared for several contingencies, but not as many as one might think at first.

All of the principals sing well, especially Angst as Edwin, Sammon as Rosa and Orth as Princess Puffer.

The entire large cast is energetic and engaging, seeming to enjoy everything as much as the audience does.

Aiding in the production’s success is the small orchestra led by music director Amanda Ku and the choreography by Kayvon Kordestani.

Julie Engelbrecht’s period costumes are especially impressive. The set is by Carlos Aceves, who also did the projections. Lighting is by Pamila Gray and sound by Andrew Heller.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” isn’t great theater, but this production sure is great fun.

It will continue through March 15 in Foothill College’s Lohman Theatre, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills.

For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit www.foothill.edu/theatre.

Photos by David Allen




Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Terrific 'Chicago' moves into San Jose

Allison F. Rich as Velma Kelly leads the ensemble in "All That Jazz."
From the very first song to the last, San Jose Stage Company’s production of “Chicago” is absolutely terrific.

It’s a great show to start with, thanks to the catchy music by John Kander, the clever lyrics by Fred Ebb and the quirky characters in the book by Ebb and Bob Fosse.

And then director Randall King has assembled a top-notch cast and design team to create a great theatrical experience.

As the title implies, the story is set in the Windy City in the 1920's, when lurid headlines dominated local newspapers.

Roxie Hart (Monique Hafen Adams) celebrates her new fame.
When a married chorus girl, Roxie Hart (Monique Hafen Adams), kills her lover, she’s arrested and sent to jail to await trial.

There she gets advice from the matron, “Mama” Morton (Branden Noel Thomas), who sings “When You’re Good to Mama.” Roxie also encounters a potential rival, Velma Kelly (Allison F. Rich).

After that, she hires a slick defense attorney, Billy Flynn (Keith Pinto), who helps her deal with the horde of reporters and photographers eager to hear her story. Among them is sob sister Mary Sunshine (Kyle Bielfield).

Lost in the shuffle is her clueless but loving husband, Amos Hart (Sean Doughty), an auto mechanic.
He has one of the show’s most poignant songs, “Mister Cellophane.” He laments that no one notices him. Even when he moves about the stage, the spotlight doesn’t follow him.

The show opens with the rousing “All That Jazz,” sung by Velma and the ensemble.

Some other show-stoppers are “Cell Block Tango,” sung by Velma and the women’s ensemble; “Razzle Dazzle,” sung by Billy and the company; and “Class,” sung by Velma and “Mama.”

These are just a few, but virtually every song is enjoyable.

Something that distinguishes this production from others that have been seen in the Bay Area, starting with the Broadway touring production in San Francisco in 1978, is that it has few of the elaborate scenic elements that are possible in larger theaters.

No matter. King, along with set designer Robert Pickering and lighting designer Michael Palumbo, keeps things simple, relying on the music and talented cast to carry the show.

Likewise, Tracey Freeman Shaw’s choreography has the signature movements from Fosse’s original despite the small stage.

Although every principal and cast member deserves accolades, special mention must be made of Rich when her Velma sings, “I Can’t Do It Alone.” Trying to convince Roxie to join her in the act that she and her sister once did, Velma demonstrates athletic, limber moves while singing – quite a feat.

Rich does double duty as the show’s vocal director.

Also noteworthy is the small onstage band led by music director Benjamin Belew from the piano.

In short, this is one great show.

“Chicago” will continue through March 15 at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose. 

For tickets and information, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org.

Photos by Dave Lepori


Monday, February 10, 2020

Characters confront mortality in 'The Children'


James Carpenter as Robin, Julie Eccles (center) as Hazel and Anne Darragh as Rose enjoy a dance from their past.
Combine three veteran Bay Area actors with a brilliant director and an intriguing play, and what you have is Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children.”

It opens with the unexpected arrival of Rose (Anne Darragh), a friend and former colleague whom Hazel (Julie Eccles) hasn’t seen in more than 30 years.

Robin and Hazel have a serious talk.
Hazel and her husband, Robin (James Carpenter), live in a relative’s cottage in an English seaside village.

They’ve been there since being forced to retreat from their farm near the nuclear power plant that suffered a meltdown after a powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Because the plant has been crippled, they have no electricity until 10 p.m. and must drink bottled rather than tap water.

Playwright Kirkwood says she bases this part of her plot on the disaster that struck the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011.

Rose, Robin and Hazel are retired nuclear physicists in their 60s who had worked at the (fictional) English plant.

The play’s title refers not only to Hazel and Robin’s four adult children but also to the relatively young scientists trying to contain the damage and shut the plant down.

The never-married Rose is visiting to see if she can convince her hosts to join her and other older scientists to replace those workers and give them a chance to live longer, for the danger is deadly.

Thus Hazel and Robin must confront their own mortality, as does Rose, who has already had breast cancer. All three deal with their concerns in their own way.

Other issues concern the personal relationships among the characters. For example, it soon becomes clear that Robin and Rose have been intimate within the recent past.

There also are frequent references to one of Hazel and Robin’s children, Lauren, who’s in her 30s but who apparently has problems that aren’t made clear.

Director Barbara Damashek skillfully and sensitively guides these fine actors through the play’s emotional ups and downs. She mines both its humor, especially in the earlier moments, and the strong feelings evoked by the situation and the characters’ relationships.

She’s aided in her efforts by intimacy and movement choreographer Natalie Greene, along with set designer Mikiko Uesugi, costume designer Cassandra Carpenter, lighting designer Ray Oppenheimer and sound designer Jeff Mockus.

Altogether this production has staying power and provokes much thought.

Running about an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, it will continue through March 1 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.

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

Photos by Kevin Berne


Saturday, February 1, 2020

ACT presents Will Eno's 'Wakey, Wakey'

Lisa (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) listens to Guy (Tony Hale).

The protagonist in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” is Guy (Tony Hale), a man in a wheelchair ruminating on what’s important in life.

In this American Conservatory Theater production directed by Anne Kauffman, it gradually becomes apparent that Guy probably doesn’t have long to live and that he’s in what might be a hospice (the set by costume designer Kimie Nishikawa with lighting by Russell H. Champa).

The play is essentially a stream-of-consciousness monologue lasting an hour or so until Lisa (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) arrives. A caregiver, she mostly listens as he continues to weaken.

That’s about it. There’s no plot per se.

Although it can become tiresome, one of Guy’s points resonated. He told audience members to recall a person in their lives who made a difference, who set off a chain of events that led to where they are today.

Various projections such as animals or a child delighting in an ice cream cone add some visual interest. They’re by sound designer Leah Gelpe.

This 75-minute play is preceded by Eno’s “The Substitution,” a 15-minute play featuring four students from ACT’s MFA program and Smith-McGlynn as a community college substitute teacher, Ms. Forester.

Ms. Forester starts by teaching one subject until the students tell her that this is a drivers ed class.

Because it’s in a boxy classroom (curtained off for “Wakey, Wakey”), the sound doesn’t travel well, making the lines hard to hear.

The total production lasts about 90 minutes with no intermission.

“Wakey, Wakey” will continue through Feb. 16 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