Monday, August 28, 2017

'Constellations' shows many possibilities in a relationship

Marianne (Carie Kawa) and Roland (Robert Gilbert) flirt in "Constellations" (Photo by Kevin Berne)
It’s boy meets girl with many twists and possibilities in Nick Payne’s “Constellations,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

With its focus on theoretical physics, this 2012 drama seems well suited to TheatreWorks audiences.

The term “theoretical physics” might intimidate some people, but be assured that at its heart “Constellations” is a captivating romance between a beekeeper, Roland (Robert Gilbert), and a university professor, Marianne (Carie Kawa), in England.

Their initial meeting at a barbecue repeats several times, each with a different twist.  

From there it progresses to other meetings, each with more twists. Scenes don’t necessarily follow chronological order, but they’re easy to follow.

Director Robert Kelley says in his program notes, “I found myself seduced by Payne’s vision of many possible lives, by his idea that any interaction between two people can connect or disconnect with the slightest variance in tone, timing, a single word, even the brightness of a smile.”

The play also posits different outcomes. For example, Marianne begins to experience physical problems that could be relatively harmless or fatal.

Under Kelley’s skillful direction, Gilbert as Roland and Kawa as Marianne both navigate the changes easily, allowing the audience to hope for a positive outcome for both characters.

Production values are high with an intriguing set by Andrea Bechert with subtle lighting changes by Steven B. Mannshardt, complementary sound by composer Cliff Caruthers and costumes by Jill Bowers.

“Constellations” runs about 70 minutes without intermission. It will continue through Sept. 17 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit

Hillbarn gets ambitious with 'Hunchback of Notre Dame'

Dom Claude Frollo (Gary Giurbino) warns Quasimodo (Randy O’Hara) of the evils outside. (Mark & Tracy Photography)

Victor Hugo wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1831 and set it in Paris in 1482, but some of its issues resemble those troubling the United States today.

These resemblances are seen in the musical version staged by Hillbarn Theatre to open its 77th season.

There’s an autocratic church leader acting counter to Christianity’s teachings and his vow of chastity. There’s an oppressed minority group, gypsies, who are systematically excluded from the city. And there’s the bullying of someone who’s different.

The church leader is Dom Claude Frollo (Gary Giurbino), archbishop of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. He has been entrusted with the care of his deformed infant nephew after the death of the boy’s parents.

That boy grows up to be Quasimodo (Randy O’Hara), whom Frollo keeps as a virtual prisoner in the cathedral’s bell tower.

One day Quasimodo escapes and encounters a group of gypsies dancing in the streets. He happily joins them until they start taunting him and throwing things at him. Only the gypsy dancer, Esmeralda (Amandina Altomare), takes pity on him.

She becomes the love interest of Phoebus de Martin (Luke Hamilton), the soldier sent to find Quasimodo. She also catches Frollo’s lustful eye. Things don’t turn out well.

This musical is based on the Disney film and uses its songs along with new ones by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, with a book by Peter Parnell.

Directed by Riley Costello with musical direction by Matt Bourne, Hillbarn’s production is a massive undertaking with six named characters, 11-member ensemble, 14-member orchestra and 18-member choir.

The action takes place on a two-level Gothic set created by Robert Bo Golden with lighting by Pamila Gray and costumes by Y. Sharon Peng, who all make positive contributions. However, the sound design by Alan Chang is uneven, resulting in the loss of some lyrics and lines.

Choreography by Jeanne Batacan-Harper is fine. Choral director Joseph Murphy deserves recognition for the choir’s outstanding contributions.

Performances by the principals are generally good, especially by Altomare as Esmeralda and Hamilton as Phoebus, who act and sing well. O’Hara’s acting as Quasimodo is good, but he sometimes sings too loud.

Also noteworthy among the principals is Brian Palac as Clopin Trouillefou, the gypsy who serves as narrator.

Although the production is uneven, on the whole it works well.

Running more than two and a half hours with intermission, it will continue through Sept. 10 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411, Ext. 2, or visit

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Broadway By the Bay's 'Next to Normal' takes sensitive approach to mental illness

Sean Okuniewicz (left) as Gabe, Caitlin McGinty as Diana, Joe Hudelson as Dan (Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin photo)
Mental illness is a cruel affliction whose victims include both the patient and the family.
That point is stressed in “Next to Normal,” the musical being given an outstanding production by Broadway By the Bay.

Diana Goodman (Caitlin McGinty) has been suffering from apparent bipolar disorder for some 16 years. Her loving, supportive husband, Dan (Joe Hudelson), has stayed by her side throughout her ordeal, taking her to doctor after doctor in hopes of helping her.

Because so much attention goes to Diana, their teenage daughter, Natalie (Mackenzie Cala), tries to compensate by being perfect in everything she does, especially her studies and classical piano.

Consequently, she’s highly stressed until a stoner classmate, Henry (Joey Pisacane), befriends her and tries to get her to relax with pot. Instead she goes off the deep end by raiding Mom’s medicine cabinet and downing anything she can find. Henry remains supportive, just as Dan has been with Diana.

The fourth family member, teenager Gabe (Sean Okuniewicz), wields much influence on Diana and might have been the catalyst for her illness.

Completing the cast is Brendan Quirk. He’s first seen as Dr. Fine, who plies Diana with pills that make her feel worse. Next he’s Dr. Madden, a celebrity psychiatrist who tries talk therapy, but when that doesn’t help, he resorts to electroconvulsive therapy, which helps somewhat.

Astutely directed by Jasen Jeffrey, the acting is first-rate, especially by McGinty, who embodies Diana’s unpredictability and vulnerability.

The performers also sing well individually and together. The one exception is Pisacane as Henry. Some of his songs might be out of his range, or he might have been suffering a vocal indisposition in the reviewed Sunday matinee.

BBB artistic director Alicia Jeffrey (she and Jasen Jeffrey are married) is musical director and conducts five other musicians from the piano.

Design elements are noteworthy, especially Kelly James Tighe’s two-story set with modular display niches, and Michael Oesch’s dramatic lighting. Costumes are by Leandra Watson with sound by Jon Hayward.

The show features tuneful music by Tom Kitt with the book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. 

The book is so strong that it could stand alone as a play, as attested by the show’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as three 2009 Tony Awards.

Although mental illness is off the beaten path for a musical, “Next to Normal” takes a sensitive, respectful approach and -- after all the family’s difficulties  -- ends with a ray of hope.

Running about two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission, it will continue through Aug. 27 at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City. For tickets and information, call (650) FOX-7770 or visit

Monday, August 14, 2017

Good intentions but few laughs in Stanford's 'The Many Faces of Farce'

Farce isn’t easy. Stanford Repertory Theater proves that point with “The Many Faces of Farce.”

It opens with three short plays by Anton Chekhov: “The Bear,” “The Proposal” and “The Anniversary.” It concludes after intermission with Vsevolod Meyerhold’s “33 Swoons,” as adapted by nine cast members.

In “The Bear,” Lillian Bornstein plays Popova, a young widow. Her self-indulgent mourning is interrupted by Smirnov (Matthew Libby). He says her husband owes him money that he must have now. She says she will pay him, but she can’t get the money for another day or so.

Insistence on both sides leads to a shouting match witnessed by the hapless maid, Lyuba (Heather Connelly).

A different dispute and shouting match form the center of “The Proposal.” Lomov (Adi Chang) wants to marry his neighbor, Natalya (Lea Zawada), but they argue about ownership of some land. After resolving that issue, they wrangle about who has the better dog. The third party in this dispute is Chubukov (Thomas Freeland), Natalya’s father.

In “The Anniversary,” a bank president, Shipuchin (Peter Townley), looks forward to its 15th anniversary. As he rattles on, his beleaguered bookkeeper, Khirin (Vineet Gupta), tries to complete a report. Both are interrupted by Shipuchin’s talkative wife, Tatiana (Bella Wilcox), and a woman (Malaika Murphy-Sierra) complaining that her husband has been unjustly fired.

All three one-acts are directed by Alex Johnson, SRT associate artistic director. More aptly, they’re misdirected by Johnson, who allows the actors to overact. Often they needlessly shout in the small space with the audience seated on three sides.

Likewise, Johnson directs “33 Swoons,” which is what Meyerhold called his 1935 production of the Chekhov pieces. The title comes from the total number of swoons in them.

Billed as performance art, “33 Swoons” starts chaotically with the actors, barefoot and attired in street clothes, wandering around the stage and tossing building blocks on the floor.

Several threads emerge. The most interesting involves parallels between the present and the way that Meyerhold’s production eventually led to his execution by the Stalinist regime. Statistics about Santa Clara County wealth and homelessness, among others, are projected onto a screen that was assembled by the actors during intermission.

Despite good intentions, the overall result seems amateurish. Nevertheless, one must salute the young performers’ enthusiasm and talent. They have much potential.

The simple set is uncredited, but the sound and lighting are by Dan Holland and John Bernard, respectively. Costumes by Alina Bokovikova are outstanding.

Running about two hours, “The Many Faces of Farce” will continue through Aug. 27 at Stanford’s Nitery Theater, 514 Lasuen Mall, Old Union. For tickets and information, call (650) 725-5838 or visit

Monday, August 7, 2017

Wrongly institutionalized women form friendship in 'Airswimming'

Dorph (Annamarie MacLeod, left) ignores Porph (Katie Anderson) in her Doris Day wig. (Lance Huntley photo)
    In “Airswimming,” presented by Dragon Theatre, playwright Charlotte Jones personalizes a dark chapter in Irish history.

     For some two centuries, ending in 1996, both sexes, but especially women, were institutionalized because they were marginalized for various reasons. Having a baby out of wedlock was a sure path to an institution.

     A two-woman play, “Airswimming” takes place in the fictional St. Dymphna’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane between 1924 and 1972. Dora, also called Dorph (Annamarie MacLeod), got there first. Persephone, also called Porph (Katie Anderson), arrived two years later.

     She says she was labeled a moral imbecile, but she insists she doesn’t belong there and will be released soon. The more seasoned Dorph knows better.

     Although their early encounters can be contentious, they develop a friendship and reveal more about themselves. The emotional Porph is a huge fan of Doris Day, often donning a blond wig and singing some of her signature songs.

     In more enlightened times, Dorph, who liked to smoke cigars, might have been a butch lesbian or maybe even a transsexual. Instead she expresses her admiration for the military and sometimes behaves as if she were an officer.

     As the years wear on, the two women take on different roles for each other. Dorph, who had been the strong one, becomes more despondent. Thus it’s Porph who becomes strong and encourages her friend not to give up.

     Well directed by Meredith Hagedorn, Dragon’s founder and artistic director, the two actresses both embody their characters convincingly. Each one is always in the moment.

     However interesting the play is, it has weaknesses, perhaps because it was Jones’ first play. The most obvious is that during most of its more than 100 minutes without intermission, there’s little sense of where it’s going, but it finally does come to some resolution.

     It then opens the door to wondering what happens next to these two women after so many years of mutual dependency.

     The starkly simple set is by R. Dutch Fritz with lighting by Patrick Mahoney, utilitarian costumes by Brooke Jennings and sound by Lance Huntley.

     “Airswimming,” which refers to a coping mechanism for the women, will continue through Aug. 27 at Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City. For tickets and information, call (650) 493-2006, Ext. 2, or visit