Saturday, December 9, 2017

Set's the best thing about 'Santaland Diaries'

Max Tachis as an elf in David Sedaris's "The Santaland Diaries." (Kevin Berne photo)
Filing into the theater, the audience sees a delicious set that holds great promise for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of “The Santaland Diaries.”

Designer Christopher Fitzer’s confection is a virtual throne of candy canes and gingerbread beneath a sign declaring “Welcome to Santaland.” Behind it is an array of Christmas trees with little white lights.

It’s all quite inviting. In fact, a sign in the lobby says that because of new union rules regarding copyrights, audience members may take photos before and after the show, and quite a few did at the opening. No photography or recording is allowed during the show.

This one-man show, written by David Sedaris and adapted by Joe Mantello, details his experiences as a 33-year-old would-be actor who becomes a cynical Santa’s elf at Macy’s in New York City in the early ‘90s. TheatreWorks promotes it for mature audiences because it’s definitely not kiddie fare.

It features Max Tachis, whose takes the elf name Crumpet. Before being hired, however, he undergoes a lengthy interview process, even urine testing. Once he passes that hurdle, he goes through extensive training.

Finally, he dons his costume and joins the army of elves at stations along the way to Santaland and the bearded man in red himself.

Each day there are new trials and tribulations, many of them involving not the kids but their pushy parents. Each day is more exhausting than the one before.

At one point, Tachis expertly manipulates a handheld puppet (designed by Mark Stys) to tell his story.

All of this could be quite amusing. Indeed, many in the opening night audience found many places to laugh.

On the other hand, it seems that, under the direction of Jeffrey Lo, Tachis is trying too hard for laughs as he paces the stage. It also seems odd that his character is constantly swigging some kind of alcohol without explaining or showing its effects.

The show comes closest to the holiday spirit near the end when the Santa on duty Christmas Eve makes every child and parent feel attractive and special. However, that warm feeling is quickly dissipated by Crumpet’s encounter with a crabby supervisor.

Completing the design team are Jill C. Bowers for costumes, Mia Kumamoto for lighting and Howard Ho for sound.

This production marks TheatreWorks’ first foray to Foothill College’s Lohman Theatre, a comfortable venue for a one-man show.

Running about 75 minutes with no intermission, “The Santaland Diaries” will continue through Dec. 23 at the college, 12345 S. El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Family ties triumph in 'Watch on the Rhine'

Caitlin O'Connell (top) is Fanny, Sarah Agnew is Sara Muller and Elijah Alexander is her husband, Kurt. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Lillian Hellman finished writing “Watch on the Rhine” in early 1941, shortly after Germany had invaded Poland and shortly before the United States entered World War II.

It’s rarely produced, but it’s come to Berkeley Repertory Theatre as what Managing Director Susan Medak calls “utterly of its time even as it has something meaningful to say about our current moment in time.”

The action is set late May 1940 in the home of Fanny Farrelly (Caitlin O’Connell), a wealthy widow who lives near Washington, D.C., and her middle-aged son, David (Hugh Kennedy), an attorney.

She’s nervously awaiting the arrival of her daughter, Sara Muller (Sarah Agnew), whom she hasn’t seen during the 20 years that she has lived in Germany with her German husband, Kurt (Elijah Alexander). Nor has Fanny seen their three children.

She has two Romanian houseguests, the impoverished Count Teck De Brancovis (Jonathan Walker) and his American wife, Marthe (Kate Guentzel) a friend of the Farrellys. Marthe has never loved him, but she has fallen in love with David.

Kurt is an anti-fascist activist, while Teck is a German conspirator. Clashes are inevitable. In the end, family ties prevail.

In this co-production with the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis, director Lisa Peterson carefully orchestrates the action as the characters undergo transformations. Perhaps the most dramatic change occurs with Fanny. She starts sarcastic and autocratic but becomes empathic and loyal to family despite the risks.

The impressive living room set is by Neil Patel with lighting by Alexander V. Nichols and period costumes by Raquel Barreto. The sound and music are by Paul James Prendergast. Aaron Preusse is the fight director.

While the play is absorbing in its own right, it’s far more than a period piece. As Artistic Director Tony Taccone says in his program notes, it “is a testament to (Hellman’s) nuanced grasp of psychology and her understanding of American politics.”

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission and a short pause, “Watch on the Rhine” will continue through Jan. 14 in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit

Monday, December 4, 2017

TheatreWorks takes great trip 'Around the World in 80 Days'

Parsi (Michael Gene Sullivan, center) and his elephant give a lift to (from left) Phileas Fogg (Jason Kuykendall), Passepartout (Tristan Cunningham), and Sir Francis (Ron Campbell). (Photo by Kevin Berne)
Versatile acting is on full display in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of “Around the World in 80 Days.”

Directed by Robert Kelley, four of the cast’s five actors play an array of characters of varied ages, sexes and nationalities as Phileas Fogg (Jason Kuykendall) undertakes his epic journey in 1872.

In Mark Brown’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s’ novel, the journey starts with a bet at Fogg’s club in London. Newly opened links make the 80-day feasible, figures the cool, math-minded Fogg. He’s joined by his French valet, Passepartout (Tristan Cunningham).

They’re shadowed by Detective Fix (Michael Gene Sullivan), who believes that the free-spending Fogg is the notorious gentleman bank robber. In India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue a woman, Aouda (Ajna Jai), from execution by fire. She then joins them.

Beset by travails, they travel by boat, train, elephant and even sail-driven snow sledge (but not the hot air balloon seen in the film) on their way to a happy ending for all concerned.

Cunningham, Sullivan and Jai play many other characters, but the most roles go to Ron Campbell, a master of accents and quick changes.

These changes by him and his colleagues are aided by B. Modern’s attractive, often ingenious costumes. Campbell has the one drawing the biggest laughs when, portraying an official welcoming the travelers to Liverpool, England, he resembles John Lennon from the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover.

Adding to the fun are the inventive sets (the elephant is a work of whimsy in itself) by Joe Ragey, complemented by Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting and Cliff Caruthers’ sound.

Although the overall acting is impressive, one drawback is that some accents are hard to understand. Projection could be better at times, too.

Otherwise, this is a great way to get into the holiday spirit.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Around the World in 80 Days”  will continue through Dec. 31 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit

'Annie' retains power to charm

Annemarie Martin as Miss Hannigan sings "Little Girls." (Mark and Tracy Photography)
Whether it’s your first or your umpteenth go-round, Hillbarn Theatre’s production of “Annie” is sure to please.

The kids are cute, the adults dynamic and the dogs adorable.

Based on the long running “Little Orphan Annie” cartoon and adapted by Thomas Meehan, “Annie” is the story of 11-year-old Annie (Emily Mannion), whose parents left her at a New York City orphanage in 1922 when she was an infant.

Overseeing the orphanage is the child-hating, tippling Miss Hannigan (Annemarie Martin).

By chance, billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Ric Iverson) decides he wants an orphan to stay in his mansion for two weeks over Christmas. He’s all bluster at first, but Annie softens him and wins his heart.

From the plaintive “Maybe” to the upbeat “Tomorrow,” the music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin are memorable.

Some favorites includes “It’s a Hard-knock Life,” performed by the orphan girls as they scrub the floor; “Little Girls,” in which Miss Hannigan expresses her hate for the kids; “Easy Street,” sung by Miss Hannigan, her ne’er-do-well brother, Rooster (David Blackburn), and his floozy girlfriend, Lily St. Regis (Sarah Thermond) and “N.Y.C.,” sung by Warbucks, Annie and Grace Farrell (Sarah Armstrong), his secretary.

The latter song features the newly arrived Star-to-Be (Catherine Rieflin). Some trivia: Martin played that role in a 1999 production in San Jose, and Iverson was in the ensemble.

Directed by Virginia Musante, the large cast includes a versatile ensemble of adults who play such varied roles as Warbucks’ staff and the residents of a Hooverville, the Depression equivalent of a homeless encampment.

Some of them also play members of President Franklin Roosevelt’s (Gary Pugh-Newman) Cabinet.

Performances by all of the principals are outstanding, with special accolades to the poise of young Mannion as Annie and the comic timing of Martin as Miss Hannigan.

Opening night had a few technical glitches, but none were serious. However, there were times when music director Matthew Jon Mattei’s orchestra overpowered the actors, especially during dialogue.

Costumes, hair and makeup are by choreographer Gennine Harrington with lighting by Don Coluzzi. The set and sound design are uncredited in the program.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Annie” is enjoyable holiday entertainment from start to finish for all but the very young.

It will continue at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, through Dec. 17. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit