Saturday, February 16, 2019

San Jose troupe stages brilliant 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'

Brick (Rob August) tries to ignore his frustrated wife, Maggie (Allison F. Rich).

San Jose Stage Company proves the genius of Tennessee Williams with its brilliant production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

This interplay of family dysfunction shines thanks to the direction of Lee Sankowich and a pitch-perfect cast.

The action takes place in the gallery of a Mississippi Delta plantation home one summer evening in the early 1950s.

As it opens, the title character, Maggie “the cat” (Allison F. Rich), is expressing her frustration with her husband, Brick (Rob August). He drinks too much and no longer sleeps with her.

A former star football player whose career ended several years ago, he injured his ankle while drunkenly jumping hurdles at the high school the night before. Hence he’s using a crutch.

This opening scene belongs to Maggie. Rich is mesmerizing as Maggie primps  before a mirror and complains not only about Brick but also about his five rambunctious nieces and nephews, the “no-neck monsters.”

They’re the children of Brick’s older brother, Gooper (Will Springhorn Jr.), and his pregnant wife, Mae (Tanya Marie).

Big Daddy (Randall King) has a serious talk with his son, Brick.
Just as Maggie owned one scene, Brick’s father, Big Daddy (Randall King), the family patriarch, owns another as he berates Brick for excessive drinking and touches on a sore subject: Brick’s relationship with his late friend, Skipper.

He implies that it was homosexual and OK with him, but Brick vehemently denies any such inference.

In both scenes, Brick’s crutch is taken from him, prompting pleas of “give me my crutch,” just as he sometimes pleads for another drink. Hence the crutch is the symbol of Brick’s leaning on alcohol to escape reality.

Big Daddy and his wife of 40-some years, Big Mama (Judith Miller), are also celebrating the good news that he’s suffering from a spastic colon, not cancer. He feels as if he’s been given a new lease on life and sees no need to write a will just now.

However, the rest of the family knows the truth. Big Daddy has cancer that has spread throughout his body and will soon kill him. Hence Gooper and Mae try to curry his favor and gain control of his considerable estate after his death.

Despite Brick’s many problems, he recognizes one theme in his family: mendacity, the untruthfulness used by everyone for one reason for another.

It’s all quite intense thanks to the quality of Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play and the quality of the acting and direction.

Aiding in the process are the set by Giulio Cesare Perrone, lighting by Michael Johnson, costumes by Ashley Garlick and sound by Steve Schoenbeck.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” will continue through March 3 at The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose.

For tickets and information, call (408) 283-7142 or visit

Photos from San Jose Stage Company

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Aurora Theatre stages new version of 'Creditors'

Jonathan Rhys Williams (left) is Gustav, and Joseph Patrick O'Malley is Adolph.

What seems like friendliness becomes sinister in August Strindberg’s “Creditors,” presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

In this new version by David Greig, Adolph (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) is telling Gustav (Jonathan Rhys Williams), a stranger who befriended him, about his marriage. 

Adolph, a genial artist, is concerned that his wife, Tekla (Rebecca Dines), a novelist, often goes off without him.

Soon Adolph is revealing deeper feelings, encouraged by Gustav. He tells Gustav that Tekla calls him little brother and herself big sister. That seems a bit off, to say the least.

As their conversation continues, Gustav shows his misogyny. One suspects that he isn’t there just to be friendly.

He tells Adolph, who has some physical problems, that he might have epilepsy and that he should abstain from sex for a year. He eventually tears Adolph down before leaving.

Tekla (Rebecca Dines) gets playful with her husband, Adolph (Joseph Patrick O'Malley).
While Gustav eavesdrops, Tekla returns and senses something is amiss with Adoph. When Adolph leaves, Gustav comes back in. 

As one might have suspected, he's her ex-husband. Although coquettish at first, she resists his advances and his pleas to return to him. She says she loves Adolph.

As might be expected, there’s no happy ending.

Barbara Damashek directs this outstanding cast with great skill, gradually building the tension. Williams as Gustav becomes more sinister.

O’Malley as Adolph tries to put on a happy front, but he soon begins showing the effects of Gustav’s manipulations.

As Tekla, Dines is a complex mix as she holds her own against Gustav.

The play takes place in 1888 in the lounge of a seaside hotel, where Tekla and Adolph are on holiday. The set by Angrette McCloskey, with lighting by Jim Cave, helps to create the ambience.

So does Matt Stines’ sound design with its lapping waves, fog horns and ferry whistles. The handsome period costumes are by Christine Crook.

Running about an hour and 40 minutes without intermission, “Creditors” will continue through Feb. 24 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.

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

Photos by David Allen

Sunday, February 3, 2019

New ACT director makes debut with 'Seascape'

Charlie (James Carpenter) and Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) are frightened by the appearance of two big lizards, Sarah (Sarah Nina Hayon, center left) and Leslie (Seann Gallagher). (Photo by Kevin Berne)

American Conservatory Theater’s new artistic director, Pam MacKinnon, is making her directorial debut there with Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Seascape.”

It’s set on a beach where a retired married couple, Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) and Charlie (James Carpenter) have just had a picnic lunch.

Nancy says she’d like to spend the rest of their days going from beach to beach, while Charlie just wants to rest. These differing desires lead into talk about their relationship, which apparently has reached a turning point with their recent retirement.

Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of two human-size lizards, Leslie (Seann Gallagher), and his mate, Sarah (Sarah Nina Hayon). Nancy and Charlie are understandably frightened, but overcome their fear while remaining wary, especially on Charlie’s part.

Although Leslie and Sarah speak English, they don’t understand many concepts, especially abstract ones like love. They become frustrated with the humans’ inability to explain them.

Like Nancy and Charlie, though, Leslie and Sarah are on the verge of change. They no longer feel comfortable in the sea, yet they’re fearful of land. Nancy and Charlie offer to help them with the evolution.

Much of the first act is talky, a virtual monologue by Nancy. Hence it tends to drag until the lizards show up.

The second act is more interesting with interaction among the characters as they explore their differences.

A fifth character, so to speak, is the impressive set by David Zinn (with lighting by Isabella Byrd). The opening night audience applauded when the curtain rose to reveal a white sand beach in front of a high dune dotted with vegetation. Behind the dune are the unadorned stage walls, catwalks and light banks.

Zinn also designed the costumes, quite a feat for the lizards with their long tails and reptilian limbs. Movement coach Danyon Davis makes their actions realistic.

Also adding to the ambience is the sound design by Brendan Aanes, complete with lapping waves, seagulls and an occasional low-flying jet.

All four actors do well with their roles, which are more complex than they might seem on the surface.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Seascape” will continue through Feb. 17 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco.

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

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Hilarity, intrigue in 'Communicating Doors'

Charles Shaw Robinson as Reece tries to get Sharon Rietkerk as Poopay to witness his confession.

A woman trying to hide in what she believes to be a storage closet suddenly finds herself back in the same room 20 years earlier.

That’s one of the many surprises in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Communicating Doors,” presented by Center Repertory Company.

The woman, Phoebe, who goes by Poopay (Sharon Rietkerk), has been summoned to a London hotel suite occupied by the wealthy Reece (Charles Shaw Robinson) in 2023. A leather-clad dominatrix, she calls herself a specialist sexual consultant.

The doddering, dying Reece doesn’t want her professional services. Instead he wants her to sign as a witness to his handwritten confession of his misdeeds over the years.

Among them are that he was responsible for his two wives’ deaths at the hands of the villainous Julian (Robert Sicular), his business partner and friend.

Threatened by Julian, she hides in the closet, and the time travels begin. When she emerges 20 years earlier in 2003, she meets Ruella (Julie Eccles), Reece’s second wife.

Julie Eccles appears as Ruella.
Although naturally skeptical, Ruella begins to see validity in Phoebe’s warning that her life is in danger.

They decide Phoebe must go back yet another 20 years to warn Reece’s first wife, Jessica (Brittany Danielle), who’s honeymooning with him in the same suite in 1983.

Hilarity and intrigue ensue as the three scheme to alter their situations.

Compounding the humor is the hotel’s well-meaning but none too bright security man, Harold (Mark Anderson Phillips).

Artistic director Michael Butler guides his multi-talented cast through this combination of mystery, sci-fi and farce. Each actor has impeccable comic timing.

Perhaps this production is a time warp for Butler, too. He played Harold to his wife-to-be Timothy Near’s Ruella at the now defunct San Jose Repertory Theatre in 1999.

The tastefully elegant set is by Richard Olmsted with lighting by Kurt Landisman, costumes by Maggie Moran and sound by Cliff Caruthers.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Communicating Doors” will continue through Feb. 23 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.

For tickets and information, call (925) 943-7469 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne

Monday, January 28, 2019

Bloody good fun in Hillbarn's 'Sweeney Todd'

Heather Orth is Mrs. Lovett and Keith Pinto is Sweeney Todd.

Hillbarn Theatre has successfully and enjoyably met the challenges of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody good classic, “Sweeney Todd.”

Subtitled “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Hugh Wheeler’s book tells the tale of a wrongly convicted man who escapes from an Australian penal colony and returns to London to find his wife. When he hears how she was treated by a lascivious judge, who then adopted their daughter, he vows revenge.

Sondheim’s soaring music and his often clever lyrics aren’t easy to master, but Hillbarn has done so thanks to a topnotch cast of singer-actors.

They’re led by Keith Pinto as the haunted Sweeney. He’s aided by his comic foil, Heather Orth as Mrs. Lovett. She’s his former landlady and the maker of “The Worst Pies in London.”

She gives him the razors he had left behind so that he can ply his trade as a barber in the room above her pie shop.

Because the foppish, fraudulent Pirelli (Jesse Cortez) has recognized him from his past and wants to blackmail him, Sweeney slits his throat. Mrs. Lovett resourcefully decides what to do with the body when she notes that it’s hard to get meat.

This leads to one of the funniest, cleverest songs in the show, “A Little Priest,” sung by Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett as they gleefully ponder the possibilities that various professions provide her pies.

Jaron Vesely is Anthony Hope and Jennifer Mitchell is Johanna.
Two other major characters are Anthony Hope (Jaron Vesely), the sailor who befriended Sweeney on the voyage to London; and Johanna (Jennifer Mitchell), the now adult daughter of Sweeney and his wife.

They have some of the show’s more beautiful songs, such as “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” sung by Mitchell in a flawless coloratura; and “Johanna,” sung by Anthony.

Completing the stellar cast of principals are Ross Briscoe as the sweet, na├»ve Toby, who becomes Mrs. Lovett’s assistant; Juliet Green as the crazed Beggar Woman; Samuel Nachison as the officious Beadle; and Chris Vettel as the villainous Judge Turpin.

The ensemble is outstanding in both singing and acting.

By the end of the show, not many characters have survived, but the audience has been treated to a musical theater masterwork.

The show is skillfully directed by Joshua Marx. However, because of Hillbarn’s relatively small stage, he relies too much on the aisles for some scenes.

Musical director Rick Reynolds directs the fine orchestra, but it sometimes overpowers the singers.

One aspect of the show that differs from most other productions hereabouts is that it’s set in 1785. The Broadway production was set in the mid-19th century.
According to artistic director Dan Demers, the original story, which was a serialized penny dreadful in the mid-19th century, was set in the late 18th century.

Hence the costumes by Yichuan Sharon Peng are inspired by that time period. They’re especially elaborate for Pirelli and The Beadle.

The relatively simple but workable set is by Ting Na Wang with lighting by Pamila Z. Gray and sound by Brandie Larkin.

Although this is a first-rate production, Demers wisely stresses in his program notes that it’s not recommended for youngsters under 16.

Running just under three hours with one intermission, “Sweeney Todd” will continue through Feb. 10 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information call (650) 349-6411 or visit

Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Timeliness adds to pleasures of 'Frost/Nixon'

David Frost (Jeremy Webb, left) interviews ex-President Richard M. Nixon (Allen McCullough). (Photo by Kevin Berne)

When former President Richard M. Nixon agreed to a series of TV interviews by British TV celebrity David Frost in 1977, each man had his own motives.

Playwright Peter Morgan delves into those motives in his timely “Frost/Nixon,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

In the wake of the investigation into the Watergate scandal, Nixon (Allen McCullough) resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, rather than be impeached. He then returned to his home in San Clemente.

Although reluctant at first, he was hoping the interviews would give him a chance to polish his image and stress the accomplishments of his presidency.

For his part, Frost (Jeremy Webb) was hoping to revive his flagging career and show himself to be more than some lightweight entertainer.

The play takes place between 1974 and 1977 and in several major cities.
Each man had his own entourage. Nixon’s was led by his chief of staff, Col. “Jack” Brennan (Craig Marker).

Frost enlisted reporters Robert Zelnick (Stephen Muterspaugh) and James Reston Jr. (Kenny Toll), along with his producer, John Birt (Adam Shonkwiler).

From their point of view, the first interviews didn’t go well. Frost’s questions tended to be soft. Even when he tried to dig deeper into Nixon’s role in Watergate and thereafter, Nixon easily fended him off with long, self-serving responses that didn’t answer the questions.

Finally, though, Reston dug deeper into the written records and discovered irrefutable evidence of Nixon’s wrongdoing.

When confronted with the evidence, Nixon finally came clean and apologized to assuage his guilty conscience.

All of this unwinds under the brilliant direction of Leslie Martinson, who guides her talented cast through impeccable performances.

The set and visuals by scenic and media designer David Lee Cuthbert add greatly to the enjoyment, along with the authentic costumes by Cathleen Edwards, lighting by 
Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Gregory Robinson.

What makes this 2006 play even more enjoyable is its relevance to today’s politics and the controversies surrounding President Trump. One line by Nixon seems to have gone directly into the Trump playbook: “When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.”

Running about an absorbing hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, “Frost/Nixon” will continue through Feb. 10 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

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

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Palo Alto Players stages 'Shakespeare in Love'

Drew Benjamin Jones is Will Shakespeare and April Culver is Viola de Lesseps. (Photo by Joyce Goldschmid)

Fans of the Bard will have fun with the allusions to his plays and sonnets in “Shakespeare in Love,” presented by Palo Alto Players.

The screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, is liberally sprinkled with those snippets.

It starts as Will Shakespeare (Drew Benjamin Jones) is struggling with writer’s block in London in 1593 as he tries to write the sonnet beginning “Shall I compare thee to a.” 
His friend Marlowe (Brad Satterwhite) supplies the end of the line with “summer’s 

But it’s more than just the sonnet. Will also is trying to write a play called “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” while trying to cast the role of Romeo. He’s also being hounded by producers demanding a script and by people to whom he owes money.

He finds his Romeo, but the actor is a woman, Viola de Lesseps (April Culver), disguised as a man called Thomas Kent. She can’t play Juliet because women were barred from the stage. Thomas/Viola becomes his muse for “Romeo and Juliet” and, when her true identity is revealed, his lover.

However, her wealthy father (Todd Wright) wants her to marry Wessex (Jeff Clarke). Wessex just wants her dowry to support his tobacco farm in Virginia. He plans to take her there immediately after the wedding.

As directed by Lee Ann Payne, this first non-professional production of the play is a mixed bag. The first act is tough going because it’s not always clear which of the lesser characters is which and because the acting is uneven.

The second act goes more smoothly because the plot is more straightforward and the actors more settled, or at least they were at opening night.

Besides Jones as Will, Satterwhite as Marlowe and Culver as Viola, some of the stronger performances come from Doll Piccotto as the imperious Queen Elizabeth I, Melinda Marks as Viola’s nurse and David Blackburn as Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre.

Although it’s not a musical, the show includes music by Paddy Cunneen, directed by Lauren Bevilacqua.

The period costumes are by Patricia Tyler with the flexible set by Scott Ludwig, lighting by Edward Hunter and sound by Jeff Grafton.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, “Shakespeare in Love” will continue through Feb. 3 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit