Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Choreography, imaginative staging highlight 'Prince of Egypt'

After becoming pharaoh, Jason Gotay's Ramses confronts Diluckshan Jeyaratnam's Moses. (Kevin Berne photo)
“The Prince of Egypt,” the popular DreamWorks Animation musical film, has come to life thanks to a collaboration between TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Denmark’s Fredericia Teater.

This world premiere features additional songs by Stephen Schwartz of “Wicked,” “Godspell” and “Rags” fame and is directed by his son, Scott Schwartz.

It tells the epic biblical story of Moses and the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt as related mostly in the book of Exodus.

This version focuses on events leading up to the flight, especially the more human story of the complex relationship between Moses (Diluckshan Jeyaratnam) and his adoptive brother, Ramses (Jason Gotay), who became Egypt’s pharaoh.

As young men, they’re carefree hell-raisers, but the passage of time gives them new insights and responsibility.

With the death of his father, Pharaoh Seti (the regal Tom Nelis), Ramses becomes pharaoh. In the meantime, Moses meets his real brother and sister, Aaron (David Crane) and Miriam (Julia Motyka), learns he’s Hebrew and marries Tzipporah (Brennyn Lark).

Ramses, too, is married to Nefertari (Jamila Sabares-Klemm), mainly for political reasons.

Moses is torn between loyalty to his adoptive family and the pull of his Hebrew roots, especially since the Hebrews are longtime slaves to the Egyptians.

Director Schwartz employs imaginative staging on Kevin Depinet’s spare set with its movable sandstone blocks and Shawn Sagady’s projections. Also figuring into the staging is Sean Cheesman’s creative choreography, a strength of this production.

Musical director William Liberatore conducts eight other musicians from the keyboard.

Many of the 28 performers are in the ensemble, playing various ethnic groups, dancing and forming scenic elements.

The cast is solid, especially the featured women. However, Jeyaratnam doesn’t have the stage presence needed for Moses.

Although this musical springs from an animated film popular with youngsters, its mature themes aren’t suitable for them.

It’s also quasi-operatic, with much of Philip LaZebnik’s book propelled by Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics, requiring better diction than heard from some of the singers.

Two of the more memorable songs are the introductory “Deliver Us,” sung by the ensemble and others, and “When You Believe,” sung by Miriam, Tzipporah and the Hebrews.

At two and a half hours with one intermission, the show is still a work in progress that sags in spots. Presumably that issue will be resolved over time and through subsequent productions in Denmark next year and elsewhere.

“The Prince of Egypt” will continue through Nov. 5 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Ghost of dead rabbit haunts characters in Berkeley Rep premiere

First date doesn't work for Naomi (Marilee Talkington) and Clovis (Michael Goorjian). (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Disparate themes of grief, alcoholism, recovery and the importance of stories intertwine seamlessly in “Imaginary Comforts, or the Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit” by Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame.

Receiving its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, this comedy-drama starts with mistaken assumptions between two people who meet on an online dating site.
Naomi (Marilee Talkington), a rabbi, agrees to have coffee with Clovis (Michael Goorjian), because he checked Jewish as his religion. However, he meant to check none, which was the box next to Jewish.

For his part, he was intrigued because he thought she had said she was a rabbit, not a rabbi. They don’t expect to meet again.

Naomi is hired to officiate at the funeral of a stranger, Dr. Marcus Gold (Julian López-Morillas), an addiction therapist seen in flashbacks.

His wife, Mrs. Gold (Sharon Lockwood), is grief-stricken. His adult daughter, Sarah (Susan Lynskey), is skeptical as the hapless Naomi tries unsuccessfully to learn enough about Dr. Gold to deliver the eulogy. Sarah is recently married to Michael (Cassidy Brown).

Naomi similarly has no luck learning about Dr. Gold from his best friend and bookkeeper, Jack (Jarion Monroe). The funeral is a fiasco.

As for the ghost of the dead rabbit, it’s part of a bedtime story that Dr. Gold used to tell Sarah.

It also shows up in a playlet that Clovis, a recovering alcoholic, is developing with the help of the character called Ghost (the always irrepressible Danny Scheie). Various relationships develop.

The cast is uniformly fine, but the talents of Lockwood as Mrs. Gold and Brown as Michael are wasted because their characters aren’t developed. Mrs. Gold merely sobs with virtually no lines.

The same holds true for Michael, Sarah’s husband. He does little more than stand around although he does have one telling, nearly silent scene.

Director Tony Taccone keeps the action flowing smoothly with help from the turntable in Todd Rosenthal’s set. It’s complemented by Nick Solyom’s lighting and Jake Rodriguez’s sound. The character-specific costumes are by Meg Neville.

Though the show needs fine-tuning, it’s entertaining and absorbing.

Running about 90 minutes with no intermission, “Imaginary Comforts, or the Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit” will continue through Nov. 19 in Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Hillbarn stages laugh-filled 'Foreigner'

Charlie (Damien Seperi, left) gets an English lesson from Ellard (Ross Neuenfeldt). (Mark and Tracy Photography) 
Wrapped inside the laughter of Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner” at Hillbarn Theatre is an unsettling reminder of the bigotry that’s come to the fore recently.

But it doesn’t come until the second act. Before that, we see an English Army demolitions expert, Sgt. “Froggy” LeSueur (Gary Gerber), who is in Georgia to train U.S. troops.

Taking some time off, he visits a longtime friend, Betty Meeks (Laurie Strawn), who owns an old but comfy hunting lodge. With him is his friend Charlie Baker (Damien Seperi), who has been under stress.

Froggy thinks Charlie would benefit from the change of scene, but Charlie is so painfully shy that he dreads having to converse with others at the lodge.

Therefore, before returning to his post, Froggy tells Betty that Charlie is a foreigner who speaks no English. The upshot is that Charlie overhears intimate conversations between people who assume he doesn’t understand them.

Others at the lodge are the Rev. Dave Marshall Lee (Matt Waters); Catherine Simms (Lauren Rhodes), his soon-to-be wealthy fiancée; and Ellard Simms (Ross Neuenfeldt), her not-too-bright brother.

Everyone except Dave is fascinated by Charlie. Ellard takes it upon himself to teach Charlie English (with a rural Georgia drawl) in a hilarious scene at breakfast.

The obvious villain is Owen Musser (Robert Fairless), the loutish redneck property inspector who threatens to condemn the lodge. Behind that threat is a plan for Dave and Catherine to buy it at a reduced price and convert it to a Christian facility. Unknown to Catherine, though, Owen and Dave have a more sinister motive.

That motive becomes clear in the second act when Owen and his Ku Klux Klan buddies arrive to threaten the lodge’s occupants. They spew hateful words about non-white or foreign people and espouse the goal of a white Christian America. Thanks mainly to Charlie and Ellard, though, the dastards are repelled.

Along the way, Charlie overcomes his shyness and decides to stay, becoming a part of a friendly circle with Betty, Catherine and Ellard, who also undergo positive changes.

Because of the Klan angle, several theater companies around the country have canceled plans to produce this work. Hillbarn opted otherwise.

“In light of recent events around our nation, we believe our role as art makers is to not be silent or complicit,” Hillbarn artistic director Dan Demers said in his program notes. “It is hugely important that we celebrate not only our similarities but also our differences.”

This production is directed by Brian Herndon, who carefully balances the comedy and drama. He’s working with an excellent group of actors, all of whom seem perfectly suited to their roles.

Design elements enhance the production, especially the rustic but cozy looking set by Gary Keith Wong with lighting by John Bernard, sound by John DiLoreto and costumes, hair and makeup by Valerie Nishiguchi Bradshaw.

In short, everything adds up to a most enjoyable production.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “The Foreigner” will continue through Oct. 22 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Premiere of 'Thomas and Sally' casts Jefferson in new light

Sally (Tara Pacheco) listens to her brother James (William Hodgson) in "Thomas and Sally." (Photo by Kevin Berne)

“Thomas and Sally” is an intriguing look at Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the slave with whom he had six children after the death of his wife.

In the world premiere production by Marin Theatre Company, playwright Thomas Bradshaw starts this fictionalized but fact-based history as a conversation between two college roommates in modern times.

One of them, Karen (Rosie Hallett), is writing a paper about Jefferson. Her roommate, Simone (Ella Dershowitz), says she descended from one of Thomas and Sally’s children and relates his story as she knows it.

Much of the action takes place as the two women watch from the sidelines, but both assume roles in the action, too.

Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) is perhaps best known for writing the Declaration of Independence and serving as president, among other assignments in the country’s early days.

He wanted to abolish slavery, but he owned slaves. And though the Declaration of Independence says “all men are created equal,” he believed that full-blooded Negroes were intellectually inferior to people who were white or who had some white blood. 

This apparent hypocrisy is one of the interesting issues in the play.

There’s much exposition, but it works well in the context of the action, which takes place mostly at Jefferson’s Monticello home in Virginia and in France, where he served as American ambassador as the French Revolution was brewing.

France is where he became involved with 15-year-old Sally (Tara Pacheco), who was among the slaves who journeyed with him. Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha (Dershowitz).

Among the Founding Fathers in the play are Benjamin Franklin (Robert Sicular) and John Adams (Scott Coopwood).

Skillfully directed by Jasson Minadakis, all of the actors, many in several roles, are noteworthy, showing their versatility. Besides those already named, they include L. Peter Callender, William Hodgson, Cameron Matthews and Charlette Speigner.

One caveat: Some adult themes and unnecessary male nudity make this play unsuitable for the younger set.

Production values are generally high, especially the set by Sean Fanning and costumes by Ashley Holvick. The sound design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker features snippets of Mozart. However, some lighting by Mike Post is too dim.

Running about two and a half hours with two intermissions, the play humanizes the oft-idealized Thomas Jefferson and offers insight into his life and times.

It also offers comments relevant to current events. The ones that drew knowing laughter on opening night concerned the Electoral College and its potential effects.

“Thomas and Sally” continues through Oct. 22 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

ACT's Carey Perloff stages compelling 'Hamlet'

Polonius (Dan Hiatt, left) tries to discover if Hamlet (John Douglas Thompson) is truly mad. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Carey Perloff is beginning her 25th and final season at the helm of American Conservatory Theater with a compelling production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

It features a brilliant performance by John Douglas Thompson as the title character, a man beset by grief and anger and surrounded by treachery in the court of Denmark.

Hamlet’s grief comes from the recent death of his father, King Hamlet. His anger comes from the subsequently hasty marriage of his mother, Gertrude (Domenique Lozano), to his father’s brother, Claudius (Steven Anthony Jones). In Shakespeare’s time, such a marriage was viewed as incest.

Hamlet assumes that his father died of natural causes until his father’s ghost (also Jones) says that Claudius poisoned him. Hamlet must revenge his father’s death, but before doing so, he pretends that he’s mad.

By the time the play ends, several characters have died, and the stage is littered with bodies in the final act.

The cast features several longtime ACT favorites. In addition to Lozano as Gertrude and Jones as Claudius, they include Anthony Fusco as a low-key Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend; and Dan Hiatt as the loquacious Polonius (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”).

Rivka Borek plays Ophelia, and most of the other actors play several roles. Some of the more noteworthy are Teddy Spencer and Vincent J. Randazzo as the nerdy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively.

Among the others, Teagle F. Bougere is too manic as Laertes.

The set and costumes by David Israel Reynoso set the action in modern times. “This is a place where we’ve done something to destroy the environment in which we live,” Perloff says in a program interview.

Lighting by James F. Ingalls and sound by Jake Rodriguez add to the ominous atmosphere.

One of the pleasures of this production is the richness of Shakespeare’s language. Even though he wrote the play in the late 16th or early 17th century, it resonates clearly to the modern ear. It also contains lines and expressions that Shakespeare coined and that have become familiar in their own right.

Among many others, they include “to thine own self be true,” “the play’s the thing,” “the rest is silence” and “in my mind’s eye.” The program has an informative article about these contributions to the language.

Highlighted by Thompson’s performance in Shakespeare’s longest role, this is a memorable production worthy of ACT’s distinguished 50-year history.

Running more than three hours with one intermission, it will continue through Oct. 15 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through Oct. 15. For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.