Sunday, November 18, 2018

WWII secrets revealed in 'Everything Is Illuminated'


Jonathan (Jeremy Kahn, right) shows an old photo to Alex  (Adam Burch) as Grandfather (Julian Lópex-Morillas) listens.
Hoping to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis during World War II, a young Jewish man travels from New York City to the Ukraine in “Everything Is Illuminated,” Simon Block’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

When Jonathan (Jeremy Kahn) arrives in the late 1990s, he is met by his guide and translator Alex (Adam Burch). They are to be driven by Alex’s semi-blind, curmudgeonly Grandfather (Julian López-Morillas).

The only information Jonathan has is that his grandfather lived in a now obliterated shtetl and that the woman’s name was Augustine. He has a snapshot that he believes shows her.

He never finds her, but along the way he imagines his ancestry going back to the 18th century.

Alex, however, learns much more about Grandfather’s experiences during the war.

Lura Dolas as Woman with Adam Burch.
Act 1 moves slowly with some crude humor from Alex, and it doesn’t get very far except at the very end. That’s when the three men meet the old Woman (Lura Dolas). 
Dressed all in white with long white hair, she’s a ghostly figure.

As Act 2 begins, she’s reluctant to help them, but then she shows them her collected artifacts that were buried in the area. She also leads them to the site of the former Jewish village.

This act is highlighted by two moving monologues. In the first, the Woman tells the gruesome story of how her sisters were brutally killed by Nazi soldiers.
In the second, Grandfather finally tells Alex his painful secret from World War II.

Completing the cast is Marissa Keltie, playing several female characters.

Sensitively and imaginatively directed by Aurora artistic director Tom Ross, the cast is uniformly excellent.

Production values are high, too, with the set by Kate Boyd, lighting by Kurt Landisman, costumes by Callie Floor and sound by Matt Stines.

Ross points out in the program that Foer’s novel is based on an actual trip he took at age 20 after his sophomore year at Princeton.

Although his book about the trip apparently was a success, it doesn’t adapt well to the stage, at least not in Block’s interpretation. It also was a 2005 film that lost money.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, “Everything Is Illuminated” will continue through Dec. 9 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Photos by David Allen



Wednesday, November 7, 2018

'Aida' takes the stage in Redwood City

 Amneris (Caitlin McGinty, left), sings with  Aida (Raquel Nicole Jeté) and Radames (Shaun Leslie Thomas).
Presented by Broadway By the Bay, the stage musical “Elton John + Tim Rice’s Aida” was inspired by Verdi’s operatic masterpiece of the same name.

In this case, though, John’s music, with lyrics by Rice, is mostly rock with some echoes of gospel.

Set in Egypt, it tells of the Nubian princess, Aida (Raquel Nicole Jeté), captured by Radames (Shaun Leslie Thomas), an Egyptian general.

He and his troops take her and her countrymen to Egypt to be slaves. The Egyptians don’t know she’s a princess.

Her spirit and her refusal to be intimidated lead him to spare her from the death that the others might face and to give her to his fiancée of nine years, Princess Amneris (Caitlin McGinty).

Despite the difference in their stations, their mutual attraction grows stronger. Soon circumstances demand that she must choose between him and her father. Tragedy ensues.

An interesting aspect of the book by Linda Wolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang is Amneris’s transformation from vanity (“My Strongest Suit”) to compassion (“I Know the Truth”).

The stately McGinty is terrific and believable in this role. She’s also the show’s best singer.

This is not to slight the singing or the regal bearing of Jeté as Aida. Thomas as Radames also does well.

Directed by Jasen Jeffrey, supporting characters are well played, especially by Montel Anthony Nord as Mereb, Radames’ Nubian slave, and Benjamin Ball as Zoser, Radames’ father.

The outstanding choreography, expertly danced by the 10-member ensemble, is by Nicole Helfer. Music director Alicia Jeffrey conducts the orchestra from the keyboard.

The colorful costumes are by Merissa Mann with the set by Mark Mendelson and lighting by Michael Oesch. Overly loud sound by Zak Stamps distorts lyrics.

Otherwise, it’s an enjoyable, well done production.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, it will continue through Nov. 18 at the Fox Theater, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.

Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography



'All the Way' with LBJ in his first year

President Lyndon B. Johnson (Michael Monagle, center) signs the Civil Rights Act on June 19,1964. 
Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” goes back 55 years to what happened after that awful day, Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

This docudrama, presented by Palo Alto Players, relates what his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, did in the year between becoming what he called “an accidental president” and seeking election in his own right in 1964.

Played by Michael Monagle, the folksy but wily Texan’s first goal was to see the landmark Civil Rights Act enacted. After succeeding in that endeavor, he then sought the Democratic nomination and election. The play’s title comes from his election slogan, “All the way with LBJ.”

Getting the Civil Rights Act through Congress was an enormous task, given the staunch opposition by Southern Democrats.

It once included a voting rights provision, but he was forced to compromise by dropping it and sticking with just equal rights to employment and public accommodations.

This compromise didn’t sit well with black leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Fred Pitts), the fiery Stokely Carmichael (William Bryant Jr.) and others. They agreed, though, after Johnson promised he would push for voting rights after the election. The amended bill passed in June 1964.

There were more obstacles along the way, but Johnson managed to succeed.
He did so through flattery, threats, promises and demands for loyalty from his backers as well as those who stood in his way.

The play ends with his landslide victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater.

It has a hint of the Vietnam War to come when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara reports a possible North Vietnamese attack against Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin and requests a military response.

It only touches on Johnson’s planned War on Poverty, a signature accomplishment after his election.

All of this history plays out in a fascinating way for those who lived through those times. It has some painfully familiar parallels to what’s happening today with demonization of immigrants, attempts at voter suppression in the South and some presidential tactics that have less noble goals than Johnson’s.


Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Tom Gough, left) talks with President Johnson (Michael Monagle).

Directed by Peter Allas, many in the 19-member cast play multiple roles. Some of the more memorable characters are Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Tom Gough), who became Johnson’s vice president; Walter Jenkins (Kevin Copps), Johnson’s valued aide who was disgraced after a sexual encounter with a man; and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Andrew Harris), who was himself outed later; among many others.

Although the acting isn’t as polished as in the 2012 world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this production is still well done and highly fascinating.

It’s facilitated by the sets and projections by Randy Wong-Westbrooke, costumes by R. Dutch Fritz, lighting by Rick Amerson and sound by James Goode.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “All the Way” will continue through Nov. 18 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


Friday, October 26, 2018

'Dancing Lessons' become life-changing for sufferers

Sharon Rietkerk as Senga tries to teach Craig Marker as Ever how to fast dance. (Photo by www.mellophoto.com)

Two suffering people find help in unexpected ways in Mark St. Germain’s humorous and touching “Dancing Lessons,” presented by Center Repertory Company.

This two-person romantic comedy features Sharon Rietkerk as Senga Quinn, a talented professional dancer who has a possibly career-ending knee injury; and Craig Marker as Ever Montgomery, a brilliant geosciences professor whose autism means, among other things, that he can’t stand to be touched.

However, he knows he must overcome this phobia because he’s the honoree at an awards dinner dance.

He and Senga hadn’t met, but they live in the same New York City apartment building. Thanks to its super, he knows she’s an injured dancer.

As the play opens, she’s on her couch with her right leg encased in a brace while she pops pills and washes them down with scotch. At first she won’t let him in when he knocks on her door, but he persists. He offers her more than $2,000 for an hour teaching him to dance.

His attempts at a fast dance are awkward but gradually improve. The lesson progresses to shaking hands. Later it goes beyond that.

During the lessons, which take place over several days, they learn more about each other and themselves, their strengths and weaknesses.

Other scenes show Ever characteristically shifting his weight while lecturing about the perils of global warming because of human actions. A pivotal moment comes when a student asks if people can change.

One lesson that both Ever and Senga learn is that change takes courage. That means they have to recognize their problems and try to overcome them.

Director Joy Carlin has fine-tuned this outstanding production and elicited believably human performances from both actors. She and they also mine the script’s ample humor along with facts about autism and global warming.

A video of Rietkerk’s Senga in a captivating dance (choreographed by Jennifer Perry) showcases her great talent.

Design elements enhance the production with set and lighting by Kent Dorsey, costumes by Brooke Jennings, and sound and projections by Teddy Hulsker.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “Dancing Lessons” will continue through Nov. 17 at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.

For tickets and information, call (925) 943-7469 or visit www.centerrep.org.  

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