Friday, October 18, 2019

Little known history chronicled in 'The Chinese Lady'

Atung (Will Dao) assists Afong (Rinabeth Apostol).
Little is known about Afong Moy, who became the first Chinese woman to enter the United States.

Playwright Lloyd Suh elaborated on what is known to create “The Chinese Lady,” presented by the Magic Theatre.

The Carne brothers, who were in the trading business, brought 14-year-old Afong to New York City in 1834 to promote their effort to sell Chinese goods.

In the play, Afong (Rinabeth Apostol) is first seen seated after her translator, Atung (Will Dao), raises the gorgeous Chinese-patterned curtain surrounding a raised platform in Peale’s Museum.

Speaking to spectators who paid 25 cents (10 cents for children) to see her, Afong introduces herself. She then describes how her feet were bound starting at age 4 and demonstrates walking.

Afong demonstrates the use of chopsticks.
Next come the use of chopsticks for eating and an explanation of tea’s importance in Chinese culture.

She concludes her appearance by saying how much she hopes “this may lead to greater understanding and goodwill between China and America, and between all the peoples of the world.”

Subsequent scenes show her at ages 16 and 17, the latter after a visit to Washington, D.C., where she met President Andrew Jackson, whom she calls Emperor Jackson. Atung translated, but not literally.

Scene 4 finds Atung alone in front of the closed curtain as he talks about, among other things, his dream that he is Afong’s lover. When he opens the curtain, it’s 1849, she’s 29 and wearing a new, more Americanized costume.

Next, in 1864, she’s 44. She says that P.T. Barnum has taken over and will replace her with a 14-year-old. She must go, but Atung will stay.

After that, Afong expresses regret that she didn’t do more to promote harmony and delivers a tour de force monologue covering the decades of mistreatment of Chinese people in the United States.

Finally, in 2019, she’s more optimistic, saying that if people “take the time to really look at each other … we might see … something true and real and wonderful.”

This play is almost endlessly fascinating thanks to Mina Morita’s sensitive direction of the two actors, who so skillfully create their characters.

The handsome set is by Jacquelyn Scott, while Abra Berman created the costumes, with special praise for Afong’s beautiful outfits.

Adding to the production are lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and sound by Sara Huddleston.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “The Chinese Lady” will continue through Nov. 3 at the Magic Theatre, third floor, Building D, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 441-8822 or visit

Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Hillbarn stages 'It's Only a Play'

Virginia (Luisa Sermol), Frank (Gary Schoenfeld, center) and James (Chris Reber) plan the next show.

Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only a Play” is billed as satire, but deep down it’s also a tribute to the eternal optimism of theater folks.

Presented by Hillbarn Theatre, it’s set in the master suite of a luxurious Manhattan townhouse where several people are awaiting the reviews after the opening of a play, “The Golden Egg.”

Playwright Peter (Ryan C. Cordero) gives a blessing to producer Julia (April Green).

Among them is the producer, Julia (April Green), their hostess. Also on hand are the playwright, Peter (Ryan C. Cordero); the kleptomaniac director, Frank (Gary Schoenfeld); and the drug-and alcohol-abusing star, Virginia (Luisa Sermol).

They’re joined by the playwright’s friend, James (Chris Reber). The male lead role was written for him, but he bowed out and went on to a successful TV series.

Also on hand are an acerbic critic, Ira (Jesse Caldwell); and an aspiring Broadway actor, Gus (Josiah Frampton), who’s checking coats for a party downstairs.

Early in the play, James is on a phone call in which he says the play is a total turkey, but otherwise he keeps his opinion to himself.

Later, it’s no surprise that James was right. Some of the reviews are downright scathing.

Nevertheless, by the end of the play, everyone wants to keep the show open and to start planning the next one.

Much more transpires before then, but most of it involves extreme overacting by everyone except Reber as James. He seems to be the only one who’s not too loud and excitable.

Hence, the show loses much of its satirical edge. Director Steve Muterspaugh must bear most of the responsibility for this flaw.

Nevertheless, the show has some amusing moments, especially when they involve the name-dropping of plays and celebrities. Gus, the coat checker, also produces some laughs when he hauls in coats belonging to the casts of shows like “The Lion King” and “Hamilton.”

Still, this is definitely a show for adults with its drug use, profane language and Gus’s bawdy, off-key rendition “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked.”

The applause-worthy set is by Kuo-Hao Lo. The costumes, hair and makeup are by Valerie Bradshaw, while Amber G. Watts did the lighting and James Goode did the sound.

Running about two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission, “It’s Only a Play” will continue through Oct. 27 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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

Photos by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin

Monday, October 7, 2019

'Mark Twain's River of Song' celebrates the Mississippi

Versatile Dan Wheetman (left), Tony Marcus and Chic Street Man play a variety of instruments in the show.
The mighty Mississippi is celebrated in words and song in “Mark Twain’s River of Song,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Created by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, this musical revue combines original songs by Wheetman along with traditional songs. They’re interspersed with the words of Mark Twain (Dan Hiatt), who serves as a sort of emcee, plus oral histories from lumbermen, farmers, dock workers and slaves who all worked along the river.

These passages are quite effective, describing these people’s relationship with the river.  The slaves’ words are most interesting because they describe the lives of several slaves and recount their efforts to escape to the north and freedom via the river.

Dan Hiatt personifies Mark Twain.
There’s not much of a story, although Twain does talk about his boyhood in Hannibal, Mo., on the banks of the river and his desire to become a river boat pilot. He ran away at age 14, got a river boat job and eventually did become a pilot before embarking on his literary career.

This six-person version of the play is a revision from a three-person show that premiered earlier this year. At times it feels like a work in progress, especially in the first act. Also indicative of a work in progress is that the order of songs performed doesn’t always match the program.

Jim (Rondrell McCormick, left) and Huck (Valisia LeKae ) guide their raft down the river.
The second act is more interesting, especially when it features long passages from Twain’s masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It’s set on a raft where Huck (Valisia LeKae) and Jim (Rondrell McCormick), an escaped slave, are making their way along the river.

The songs are performed well on a variety of instruments by LeKae, McCormick, composer Wheetman, Tony Marcus and Chic Street Man. Hiatt is engaging as Twain.

Besides serving as composer and performer, Wheetman is the show’s musical director, while co-creator Myler is the director.

Adding great interest to the show is the large map of the country before the Civil War plus the projected period photographs that create ambience for each scene. David Lee Cuthbert is responsible for these media designs along with the set.

Also contributing to the show are costumes by Jill C. Bowers, lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Jeff Mockus.

Overall, the show is competently performed.

Running under an hour and 40 minutes with one intermission, “Mark Twain’s River of Song” will continue through Oct. 27 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne
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Thursday, October 3, 2019

Little known history comes to light in 'Sovereignty' in Marin

Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) observes the signing of the Treaty of New Echota by her ancestors and others  played by (from left) Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa, and Robert I. Mesa.

A young attorney’s efforts to restore rights to her Cherokee Nation become personal in “Sovereignty.”

Presented by Marin Theatre Company, this play by Mary Kathryn Nagle is both a powerful drama and a look at American history usually ignored in schools and history books.

Although not autobiographical per se, it’s based on Nagle’s family history from the 1820s and ’30s to the present. Her principal character, Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances), is descended from Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) and his son, John Ridge (Robert I. Mesa).

The playbill, a treasure trove of historical information, helps to clarify their roles and the events that followed.

Major and John Ridge were the 19th century leaders of efforts to enforce the Cherokee Nation’s rights of sovereignty in Georgia. Those rights included a law that made the rape of a woman on Cherokee lands a crime that the Cherokee Nation could prosecute no matter what the assailant’s citizenship or race was.

That right was upheld in an 1832 Supreme Court decision that President Andrew Jackson (Craig Marker) and the Georgia governor refused to enforce. The upshot was that John Ridge and others, over the objections of John Ross (Jake Waid), signed a treaty agreeing to allow Cherokees to move to Oklahoma, where they would have their own land.

Those who refused to leave were forced to do so, resulting in the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

Sarah confers with her new boss, Jim Ross (Jake Waid).
In the play’s present scenes, Sarah is hired by the Cherokee Nation Attorney General’s Office, headed by Jim Ross (Waid). She doesn’t reveal her middle name, Ridge, because there’s still bad blood between the Ridges and the Rosses.

She has recently become engaged to a federal police officer, Ben O’Connor (Marker). While Ben was drinking with a buddy at an Indian casino in Oklahoma, a Cherokee Nation cop, Watie Polson (Kholan Studi), Sarah’s brother, was assaulted by a drunk (Scott Coopwood).

However, because of a Supreme Court decision in 1978, neither Ben nor Watie had authority to arrest the man because he was a non-Cherokee on Cherokee land.

Sarah and Jim, her boss, work on an appeal to the Supreme Court seeking to give Indian nations the right to prosecute anyone who assaults women, children or law enforcement officers or who commits other sexual crimes on Indian land.

Ben, jealous of the time Sarah is spending with Jim, beats her up in a drunken rage.

Under the outstanding direction of MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis, the action seamlessly shifts between past and present. Moreover, he has chosen an outstanding cast that includes several Native Americans. Except for Frances as Sarah, most of the actors play several roles.

Facilitating smooth transitions is the design team of Annie Smart, set; E.B. Brooks, costumes; Danny Osburn, lighting; and sound, Sara Huddleston. Brenda Toineeta Pipestem served as cultural consultant.

Running just over two hours with one intermission, “Sovereignty” will continue through Oct. 20 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley.

For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne

Saturday, September 28, 2019

ACT stages Churchill's 'Top Girls'

Marlene (Michelle Beck, center) with her dinner guests, from left, Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), Dull Gret (Summer Brown), Lady Nijo (Monica Lin) and Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal).

It’s hard to ferret out details in American Conservatory Theater’s season-opening production of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls.”

The (mostly) English accents, rapid delivery and overlapping conversations often muddied comprehension where I sat.

The overlapping conversations are dictated by the playwright and are natural during a dinner party of six women. However, the other two issues, accents and rapid speech, should have been more carefully monitored by director Tamilla Woodard.

In Act 1, Marlene (Michelle Beck) is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls Employment Agency by throwing a dinner party. Her guests, though, are women from throughout history who have overcome male oppression.

They include Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), a German who reigned as Pope John VII from 855 to 857; Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), a 13th century courtesan in the court of Japan who later spent 20 years wandering through Japan as a Buddhist nun; and Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal), a Scottish woman who traveled the world from age 40 until her death at age 70 in 1904.

Completing the guest list are Dull Gret (Summer Brown), the subject of Bruegel’s 16th century painting, “Mad Meg,” in which she leads a group of housewives in battle against devils in hell; and Patient Griselda (Monique Hafen Adams), the obedient wife in “The Canterbury Tales” and “Decameron.”

Unless one reads “Words on Plays,” sold for $5 in the lobby, or had previously knowledge of the characters, the problems cited above make their stories elusive.

The next scene starts with teenage Angie (Gabriella Momah) and her friend Kit (Lily D. Harris) in the back yard of Angie’s home and avoiding the calls of Angie’s mostly unseen mother, Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe).

Angie (Gabriella Momah) shows up at Marlene's office.
Act 2, which is somewhat more successful, starts at the employment agency where Marlene and her colleagues, Win (Hallett) and Nell (Brown), separately interview hapless job seekers.

That’s when Angie shows up for a visit, much to Marlene’s surprise.

Marlene, right, visits her sister, Joyce, Nafeesa Monroe.
The final scene takes place a year earlier (again no information in the program) when upwardly mobile Marlene and her sister, stuck-at-home Joyce, whose husband has left, clash in Joyce’s cluttered home. Numerous family issues are aired.

Despite the problems with Woodard’s direction, this production features spot-on characterizations by everyone. Momah is especially effective as the na├»ve, immature Angie.

Beck is razor sharp as Marlene, who has sometimes ruthlessly overcome sexism and other obstacles in her professional and personal life.

Costumes by Sarita Fellows are terrific, especially for the banquet guests. The set by Nina Ball and lighting by Barbara Samuels complement the production, but Jake Rodriguez’s sound design might contribute to the problem of speech clarity.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Top Girls” will continue through Oct. 13 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

5 stars for PA Players’ ‘Bright Star’

Elizabeth Santana as Alice Murphy starts the show with "If You Knew My Story."

Palo Alto Players’ production of “Bright Star” gets off to an exhilarating start when managing director Elizabeth Santana, playing Alice Murphy, the principal female character, belts out “If You Knew My Story.”
That story is revealed over two acts that shift between the 1920s and the 1940s in North Carolina.
This musical was created by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell with both contributing the music and story, while Martin did the book and Brickell the lyrics.
In the 1920s, Alice is a spirited, smart, book-loving teenager whose fundamentalist father (Michael Mendelsohn) disapproves of her behavior and interests. Nor does he want her to go to college.
Alice (Elizabeth Santana) and Jimmy (Frankie Mulcahy) begin their relationship.
She falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Frankie Mulcahy). Like her, he loves to read and wants to go to college, but his domineering father, Mayor Dobbs (Todd Wright), wants him to stay home and take over the family business.
When she becomes pregnant, she’s sent away to give birth to a son. Much to her dismay, he’s torn from her arms by his two grandfathers and sent off for adoption.
In the intervening years, she goes to college and becomes editor of The Asheville Southern Journal. She never stops hoping she’ll learn who adopted her son.
Gary Giurbino (left) is Daddy Cane, Brad Satterwhite is Billy Cane.
She also meets Billy Cane (Brad Satterwhite), an aspiring writer recently returned from the Army after serving during World War II. He submits manuscripts to the brittle Alice, who rejects them at first but offers tips.
There’s much more to the intriguing story, but suffice it to say that all works out well, thanks to its inherent optimism and changes of heart.
This production is sensitively directed by PAP artistic director Patrick Klein, who also designed the set.
He has assembled a dynamite cast. Besides those already mentioned, actors deserving special mention include Michelle Skinner as Margo Crawford, Billy’s friend and bookstore owner; Nick Kenrick and Samantha Arden as Alice’s employees; and Juliet Green as Alice’s supportive mother.
Overseen by music director Daniel Hughes, a bluegrass band sits on an onstage porch. Much of the music is bluegrass and country, well sung by all. (Helping to set the tone, a bluegrass group plays in front of the theater before the show.)
Meredith Joelle Charlson’s choreography is well executed by the principals and ensemble.
The period costumes are by Patricia Tyler with lighting by Chris Lundahl and sound by Jeff Grafton.
Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Bright Star” will continue through Sept. 29 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit
Photos by Scott Lasky

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Rundown school faces closure in 'Exit Strategy' at Aurora

Margo Hall as Pam confronts Michael J. Asberry as Arnold in the teachers lunchroom.
In a scenario that’s becoming all too familiar in underfunded school districts across the county, a crumbling high school in a rundown Chicago neighborhood is slated for closure and demolition immediately after the last day of the current school year.

That’s the premise of Ike Holter’s “Exit Strategy,” presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

In this fictional school, the teachers must buy their own supplies. Its only administrator, so it seems, is the vice principal, Ricky (Adam Niemann). Only 30 years old, he’s in over his head when dealing with the teachers.

They include the older, more experienced Pam (Margo Hall) and Arnold (Michael J. Asberry,) who’s also the union rep.

Closer to Ricky in age are Jania (Gabriella Fanuele), Sadie (Sam Jackson) and Luce (Ed Gonzalez Moreno), Ricky’s boyfriend.

They all seem resigned to the school’s fate until a savvy black senior, Donnie (Tre’Vonne Bell), galvanizes them and other students into action designed to resist the closure.

Although the situation is realistic, several factors undermine its effectiveness.

First is the play itself, in which some characters, such as Donnie, are stereotyped. Then there’s the direction by Aurora’s new artistic director, Josh Costello. He allows too much yelling and hyperactivity.

Gabriella Fanuele is Jania and Adam Niemann is Ricky.
This is especially true of Niemann’s Ricky, whose performance is often so high-pitched, even hysterical, that there’s no room for subtlety or introspection.

That’s in sharp contrast to the far more grounded characterizations by Hall as Pam and Asberry as Arnold. 

The flexible set is by Kate Boyd, with lighting by Stephanie Anne Johnson, sound by James Ard and costumes by Maggie Whitaker.

Running about an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, “Exit Strategy” will continue through Sept. 29 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St, Berkeley.

For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit

Photos by David Allen