Friday, October 19, 2018

Pain follows tragedy in 'The Resting Place'

James Carpenter as Mitch challenges daughter Annie (Martha Brigham, right) as Angela (Emilie Talbot, second fron left) and Macy (Emily Radosevich) listen. (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

A family’s pain is raw and visceral in Ashlin Halfnight’s “The Resting Place,” being given its world premiere by Magic Theatre.

Mitch (James Carpenter) and Angela (Emilie Talbot) have been joined in Detroit by their adult daughters, Annie (Martha Brigham), who works for an environmental group in San Francisco, and Macy (Emily Radosevich), who works on political campaigns in New York City.

Their reunion is not happy. Travis, oldest of the siblings, has just committed suicide. 
He was a gay man, teacher and longtime pedophile who victimized local boys.

Annie wants him to have a funeral and burial in the family plot in the Catholic cemetery next to his beloved paternal grandfather. The rest of the family, concerned about the angry uprising over his actions, wants to cremate him and quietly scatter his ashes.

As the play continues, the issues go much deeper, leading to angry shouting matches, blame and feelings of guilt on top of profound grief. Nevertheless, familial love is palpable.

Also involved are Travis’s former partner, Liam (Wiley Naman Strasser), and one of Travis’s victims, Charles (Andrew LeBuhn), now a recent high school graduate.

The final scene is especially wrenching as Annie delivers an eloquent eulogy and reveals her own reason for feeling guilty.

Sensitively directed by Jessica Holt, the six actors carefully navigate the play’s ups and downs.

Carpenter’s Mitch is the voice of reason as conflicts arise, but he has moments of extreme emotion. Talbot’s Angela drinks too much, but she, too, can be both reasonable and highly upset.

The sisters, Brigham as Annie and Radosevich as Macy, sometimes clash, especially when Macy calls the take-charge Annie self-righteous.

Both Strasser as Liam and LeBuhn as Charles are believable in their pain.

Design elements are outstanding with the set by Edward T. Morris, costumes by Shelby-Lio Feeney, lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and sound by Sara Huddleston.

According to artistic director Loretta Greco, the play “investigates what happens to those who are left behind in the wake of unimaginable tragedy.”

Despite the difficult subject matter, it’s a brilliant, absorbing, utterly human play that doesn’t skirt the issues. This profound work of art is worth seeing.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “The Resting Place” will continue through Nov. 4 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, third floor, San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.









Sunday, October 14, 2018

Hillbarn Theatre stages Frayn farce, 'Noises Off'


Luisa Sermol (left) is Dotty, Max Tachis is Garry and Michelle Skinner is Brooke. (Mark and Tracy Photography)
As things get worse in the play within a play of Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” Hillbarn Theatre’s production gets better.

This farce is set in England, where a third-rate theatrical troupe is rehearsing and then staging the world premiere of “Nothing On.”

As the action begins, Lloyd (David Crane), the director of “Nothing On,” is trying to get Dotty (Luisa Sermol), housekeeper for a country home, to go through a scene answering the phone and returning to the kitchen. She forgets the receiver, the sardines (which figure prominently in the play) and the newspaper.

Subsequent scenes involve the arrival of Garry (Max Tachis) and Brooke (Michelle Skinner), who are there for an affair. As they tour the house, its owners, played by Ross Neuenfeldt and Heather Orth, return unexpectedly.

Also involved in the action are the stage manager, Tim (David Blackburn); assistant stage manager, Poppy (Brigitte Losey); and another actor, the drunken Selsdon (Lawrence-Michael Arias).

During this act, most of the actual actors try too hard, blunting much of the humor.

In Act 2, after the set has rotated to back stage of “Nothing On,” the actors refine their timing, resulting in some frantically funny moments. By this time in the troupe’s tour, it’s a month after the rehearsal, and nerves are frayed.

Finally, in Act 3, after the set has rotated again to become the set for “Nothing On,” everything has unraveled. Nothing goes right, in part because of sabotage by some jealous actors, resulting in more laughs.

Directed by Jeffrey Lo, most of the actors do well, especially in the latter two acts. Sermol’s Dotty is aptly named, while Skinner’s Brooke is blithely dense. So too is Neunenfeldt as one of the home’s owners.

Orth as the other owner is the one who tries to keep everyone under control. Tachis is amazingly athletic as his Garry becomes the victim of most of the sabotage.

Losey and Blackburn as the harried stage managers also do well.

Christopher Fitzer’s two-level set not only rotates but also features multiple doors – a must for farce with its split-second exits and entrances.

The character-specific costumes are by Mae Heagerty-Matos with lighting by Meghan Souther and sound by Jon Covey.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission and a pause, “Noises Off” will continue through Oct. 28 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, visit www.hillbarntheatre.org or call (650) 349-6411, Ext. 2.



Friday, October 12, 2018

'Sweat' shows human cost of lost jobs

Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon, left), Tracey (Lise Bruneau) and Cynthia (Tonye Patano) are friends and co-workers.

It’s one thing to read or hear about the loss of blue collar jobs when a factory closes. It’s quite another to actually see how a closing can devastate lives.

That’s the lesson made clear in “Sweat,” the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama written by Lynn Nottage and presented by American Conservatory Theater.

Nottage switches the action between 2000 and 2008 in Reading, Pa., a once-thriving factory town. It opens in 2008 as a parole officer, Evan (Adrian Roberts), separately questions two young men, the white Jason (David Darrow) and the black Chris (Kadeem Ali Harris).

He asks what they plan to do now that they’re out of prison. Why they went to prison doesn’t become clear until much later in the play.

After that, most of the action takes place in 2000 in a bar managed by Stan (Rod Gnapp) and frequented by workers from a nearby factory.

Besides Jason and Chris, the regulars are Tracey (Lise Bruneau), Jason’s mother; and Cynthia (Tonye Patano), Chris’s mother; along with the women’s friend Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon).

They’ve heard rumors that the plant’s new owners might close it and move to Mexico, but they believe their union will protect them.

However, when Cynthia is promoted into management and the owners want to negotiate a new contract with major concessions, her friends accuse her of betraying them. She counters that she’s doing everything she can to help them.

Tracey (Lise Bruneau) holds up
 the Spanish language flyer
 she got from Oscar (Jed Parsario).
A strike ensues. Oscar (Jed Parsario), Stan’s Hispanic helper in the bar, turns scab and crosses the picket line. Tensions reach a boiling point until the brawl that sent Chris and Jason to prison.

Subsequent scenes in 2008 show just how hard life has become for nearly everyone. Their fate was previewed in 2000 by Brucie (Chiké Johnson), Cynthia’s ex-husband. He became strung out on drugs after losing his job at another factory.

Directed by Loretta Greco, artistic director of Magic Theatre, the ensemble cast is terrific at building the tension, its climax and the aftermath. 

Stan (Rod Gnapp) pours another drink for Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon).
Gnapp is especially effective as Stan, the bartender who offers sage advice, mostly keeps the peace and truly cares about his customers.

Greco is aided by Andrew Boyce’s set design augmented by Hana S. Kim’s projections. Costumes are by Ulises Alcala, sound by Jake Rodriguez and lighting by Allen Lee Hughes.

“Sweat” is painfully relevant to what’s happening today. Although it premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, before the 2016 presidential election, it shows how Donald Trump’s rhetoric and his “Make America Great Again” slogan could resonate so deeply among some voters.

It’s a powerful, theatrical work that is must viewing for those who seek insight into some Americans’ malaise.

Running about two and a half hours with an intermission, it will continue through Oct. 21 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, October 9, 2018

Two generations grapple with sexuality in 'Fun Home'

Erin Kommor (left) as Medium Alison, Lila Gold as Small Alison and Moira Stone as Alison.

How a young woman comes to terms with her sexuality in the 1970s is the theme of the 2015 Tony-winning musical, “Fun Home.”

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, this memory play also explores her complex relationship with her father, who, she eventually learned, was gay, too, but deeply closeted.

It shifts back in forth in time as the protagonist, Alison Bechdel (Moira Stone), a successful cartoonist, recalls her experiences as Small Alison (Lila Gold), about 10 years old; and Medium Alison (Erin Kommor), a college freshman.

Alison’s father, Bruce (James Lloyd Reynolds), was a high school English teacher, meticulous restorer of the funeral home where they lived (set by Andrea Bechert), and funeral director in Beech Creek, Pa.

She had an older brother, Christian (Jack Barrett), and a younger brother, John (Billy Hutton). They had fun together, but their father could be alternately kindly and demanding.


Joan (Ayelet Firstenberg, left)  and Medium Alison (Erin Kommor) meet in college.
Although there were hints that Alison could be gay – she hated wearing dresses as a youngster and was enthralled when she saw a butch UPS driver – it wasn’t until she was a freshman at Oberlin College that she came out to herself and had her first lover, Joan (Ayelet Firstenberg).

In the flashbacks, Bruce’s own sexuality becomes apparent when he initiates contacts with former students (all played by Michael Doppe). There also is the time he took his three young kids to New York City and left them alone for a few hours at night, apparently to go cruising.

His story ends tragically. Apparently unable to continue living a double life, he commits suicide by stepping in front of a truck.

Much of the story unfolds in music written by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics and the book by Lisa Kron, who adapted it from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name.
TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley directs the excellent cast, eliciting strong performances all around. Kudos especially go to the three actors playing the Bechdel children.

Under the guidance of musical director William Liberatore, who conducts six instrumentalists from the keyboard, the singing is quite good. However, some of the lyrics aren’t always clear.

Small Alison (Lila Gold, foreground) imagines a favorite TV show coming to life in her living room with (from left) Ayelet Firstenberg, Michael Doppe and Erin Kommor.
Dottie Lester-White, associate director, choreographed numbers like “Come to the Fun Home,” the kids’ attempt at a funeral home commercial with a coffin as the centerpiece; and “Raincoat of Love,” the family disco number imagined by Small Alison as a favorite TV show.

The lighting is by Steven B. Mannshardt, costumes by B. Modern and sound by Cliff Caruthers.

This autobiographical show rings true and reveals just how much social attitudes have changed between Alison’s generation and her father’s. It’s well worth seeing.

Running about 100 minutes without intermission, “Fun Home” will continue through Oct. 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

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

Photos by Kevin Berne




Thursday, October 4, 2018

'Oslo' tells story behind historic Middle East accord

Norwegian mediator Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips, left) discusses the possibility of back channel peace negotiations with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (Aaron Davidman). Photo by Kevin Berne

Hopes for Middle East peace brightened considerably in 1993 when the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were signed.

“Oslo,” the 2017 Tony-winning drama by J.T. Rogers, tells how this historic agreement came about. It’s being given its West Coast premiere by Marin Theatre Company.

It focuses on the top-secret negotiations brokered by Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips), founder of a research organization that studies international politics; and his wife, Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan), a Norwegian diplomat.

They brought together two representatives each from Israel and the PLO in a Norwegian country mansion and sent them into a private room to talk.

Although the two sides were openly hostile at first, they gradually established some rapport and began agreeing on points of contention.

As these talks continued in fits and starts over several months, others from each side became involved.

MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis skillfully guides his superb 14-member cast through the play’s changing moods, character clashes and character development.

Among the actors, Phillips and Sullivan are especially noteworthy as the persistent brokers. Most of the other actors play only one character, while Marcia Pizzo, Charles Shaw Robinson and Ryan Tasker display their versatility in several roles.

The cast also includes Ashkon Davaran, Aaron Davidman, Joe Estlack, Corey Fischer, Brian Herndon, Peter James Meyers, J. Paul Nicholas, Adam Niemann and Paris Hunter Paul.

The spare, flexible set is by Sean Fanning with dramatic lighting by York Kennedy and projections by Mike Post.

The costumes are by Fumiko Bielefeldt with sound by Sara Huddleston and music by Chris Houston.

Although the Oslo Accords raised hopes for an end to hostilities, the play’s epilogue makes clear that peace quickly became elusive and still is today, 25 years later.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission, “Oslo” is a powerful, riveting drama. It will continue through Oct. 21 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley.

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

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Blood flows freely in 'Lieutenant of Inishmore'


Never was so much blood spilled on account of one cat until “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” penned by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh and presented by San Jose Stage Company.

Set on the Irish island of Inishmore in 1993, this absurdist drama begins when young Davey (Trevor March) finds a dead black cat in the road and takes it to Donny’s (Randall King) home.

The cat, named Wee Thomas, is the only friend of Donny’s son, Mad Padraic (Rob August), who has been kicked out of the IRA because he’s too violent.

Donny calls his son and says the cat is doing poorly, so Padraic heads for home. In the meantime, Davey finds a light-colored cat and covers it with black shoe polish in hopes of passing it off as Wee Thomas.

Padraic discovers the deception and plans to kill both Davey and Donny, but he’s interrupted when three men involved with an IRA splinter group arrive with plans to kill him. They’re foiled by Davey’s 16-year-old sister, Mairead (Carley Herlihy), who wants to join up with Padraic.

There are few survivors by the end, which follows some ironic twists and one of the most gruesome scenes ever staged.

As directed by Joshua Marx, the eight-member cast does well, especially the principals.

The set is by Christopher Fitzer with costumes by Abra Berman, lighting by John Bernard and sound by Steve Schoenbeck. Tunuviel Luv deserves credit for the props and blood designs.

The play is billed as “satirical comedy (that) jabs at the absurdity of terrorist mentality,” according to press materials. While that may be, it’s not for the squeamish.

Running about 95 minutes without intermission, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” will continue through Oct. 21 at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose.

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




Wednesday, September 19, 2018

'Doll's House, Part 2' picks up where Ibsen left off 15 years ago

John Judd as Torvald and Mary Beth Fisher as Nora square off in 'A Doll's House, Part 2.'

It has been 15 years since Nora Helmer famously slammed the door and scandalously abandoned her home, husband and children in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 “A Doll’s House.”

Now she’s knocking on that same door in Lucas Hnath’s 2017 “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a co-production with Huntington Theatre Company.

Nora (Mary Beth Fisher) returns home.
Elegantly dressed, Nora (Mary Beth Fisher) has become a successful writer of pro-feminist, anti-marriage books though she uses a pseudonym.

She has returned because she has recently learned, contrary to her assumption, that her husband, Torvald (John Judd), hasn’t filed for divorce.

Without a divorce, she faces legal trouble. However, if Torvald does file for divorce, he faces his own problems because he had allowed people to assume she had died.

Caught in the middle is Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll), who served as nanny to Nora and then to her three children. She still lives in the Torvald home even though the children have grown up and left.

Finally, the Torvalds’ daughter, Emmy (Nikki Massoud), is a foil to Nora because she is eagerly looking forward to being married.

None of those left behind can understand why Nora left and why she never contacted them afterward.

Except for Massoud as Emmy, who talks too fast, director Les Waters guides the actors through finely nuanced performances covering a range of emotions.

Playwright Hnath never tips his hand on where everything will lead until the very end, keeping the audience enthralled.

All of this is accomplished on a spare set by Andrew Boyce with handsome period costumes by Annie Smart. The lighting is by Yi Zhao with sound by James Ballen. 
One of his subtle touches is Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” heard just before the play begins.

Running about an hour and a half without intermission, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” will continue through Oct. 21 in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley.
For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne