Monday, January 29, 2018

Unlikely meeting of the minds in 'Insignficance'

The premise of Terry Johnson’s “Insignificance,” presented by Dragon Theatre, sounds like the start of a joke:

What happens when Albert Einstein, Joseph McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio get together?

Well, except for Monroe and DiMaggio, who once were married, it’s unlikely that the four ever got together, but they do in the New York hotel room of The Professor (Jim Johnson) in about 1953.

He’s first visited by The Senator (Gary Mosher), who barges in with two bottles of whiskey. Apparently The Professor is to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee the next morning. The Senator is trying to rehearse The Professor’s answers and strike a deal with him.

He leaves after The Professor quietly refuses. Shortly thereafter, The Actress (Jessica Lea Risco) bangs on his door. She’s trying to escape fans pursuing her after shooting the iconic scene of Monroe standing on a subway grate while her skirt billows up.

They subsequently have a long discussion about the theory of relativity.

Next to arrive is The Ballplayer (Nick Mandracchia), who angrily demands that The Actress return home. What follow are a marital spat and discussion about the relationship.

Characters come and go throughout the night. It’s all quite talky, but there’s not enough back story for those who aren’t familiar with what was going in the early ’50s, especially the Red Scare and McCarthy’s efforts to root out perceived communists and communist sympathizers.

It’s also puzzling why the playwright makes The Senator from Louisiana when McCarthy was from Wisconsin.

Still, direction by Laura Jane Bailey keeps things going rather smoothly, thanks in large part to Johnson’s mild demeanor as The Professor and Risco’s nuanced performance at The Actress. Mosher as The Senator and Mandracchia as The Ballplayer tend to bluster.

Eric Johnson’s hotel room set is serviceable, as is Jonathan Covey’s sound, but Edward Liptzin’s lighting changes are sometimes abrupt. Kathleen Qiu’s costumes help to define the characters. Her dress for The Actress looks a lot like Monroe’s.

Running about an hour and 40 minutes with one intermission, “Insignificance” has some interesting moments, but not enough to elevate it to significant theater, nor is it appropriate for the younger set.

It will continue through Feb. 18 at Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City. For tickets and information, call (650) 493-2006, Ext. 2, or visit www.dragonproductions.net.




Monday, January 22, 2018

Palo Alto Players stages moving 'Laramie Project'

The cast opens Act 1 of '"The Laramie Project.'" (Joyce Goldschmid photo)
Openly gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was killed by two young men of Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998.

During the year after his death, playwright Mois├ęs Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project visited Laramie six times, conducting more than 200 interviews. They then compiled and edited these interviews to create “The Laramie Project,” being staged by Palo Alto Players.

Although Shepard’s murder garnered worldwide attention at the time and although attitudes toward homosexuality have softened in the ensuing 20 years, homophobia and other prejudices haven’t disappeared.

Hence this play remains relevant as well as extremely moving. As artistic director Patrick Klein says in his program notes, “… our current administration has drawn out the undercurrent of bigotry that still festers in parts of our great nation …”

However, as managing director Elizabeth Santana said on opening night, “This is a story of hope.” That’s why the program includes a note card for viewers to write something they can do to show kindness and compassion. The cards are posted in the lobby.

Sensitively directed by Lee Ann Payne, eight actors portray dozens of characters, most of them Laramie residents. As Act 1 begins, they talk about how much they like their town with its population of about 27,200.

As that act ends, the hospital CEO reads a statement from Shepard’s family requesting privacy while he clings to life in the intensive care unit. Act 2 revolves around his death and the trials of his assailants.

The assailants left a bar with Shepard and drove out of town, where they savagely beat him, tied him to fence and left him. Fifteen hours later, Aaron Kreifels, a university freshman bicycling along that remote road found him and summoned help. Several times during his interview he wonders why God chose him to find Shepard.

First to respond was Sheriff’s Deputy Reggie Fluty. She cut the unconscious Shepard loose and says that the only place on his face not caked with blood was where tears had fallen. It’s a startling revelation.

Others who speak are the bartender who was the last to see Shepard before he left, Shepard’s college counselor, his friends, various clergymen, a lesbian professor and a doctor.

A theater major talks about how he won a scholarship to the university by doing a scene from “Angels in America,” but his parents refused to watch him because of the play’s gay theme. There’s even a Muslim student who proudly wears a hijab.

A lesbian student and her friends don angel outfits and surround hate-preaching minister Fred Phelps with their wings, essentially hiding him from view.

It’s a marvelous work by an ensemble cast featuring Jeff Clarke, Josiah Frampton, Kelly Hudson, Judith Miller, Dana Cordelia Morgan, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, Brad Satterwhite and Todd Wright.

The spare set by Nikolaj Sorensen (with lighting by Patrick Mahoney) comprises mainly a few chairs and a backdrop of three windows showing his projections of various scenes in the city and, touchingly, the fence where Shepard was found.

The subtle sound is by Jeff Grafton. Melissa Sanchez designed costumes that facilitate quick character changes.

Everything adds up to a provocative, memorable theatrical experience, a must-see.

Running about two and half hours with one intermission, “The Laramie Project” will continue through Feb. 4 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.










Hillbarn stages 'Peter and the Starcatcher' with mixed results

Adrienne Kaori Walters as Molly tells her dreams to Sean Okuniewicz  as Peter. (Mark and Tracy Photography)
“Peter and the Starcatcher” by Rick Elice is regarded as a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” This winner of five Tony Awards in 2012 is being staged by Hillbarn Theatre and directed by Jeffrey Lo. According to program notes by artistic director Dan Demers, Lo’s concept is of “a gypsy troupe mixing fun and silliness” in showing what led up to Peter Pan’s story.

That concept starts before the show begins with actors’antics in the lobby and then in the theater itself, playing on the stage and running into the audience. This beginning sets the tone for what’s to come as 13 actors energetically portray an array of characters.

The action is set in 1885, when two ships leave London on their way to Rundoon. Both have an identical chest. The one on the Wasp is guarded by Lord Aster (Scott Solomon). Pirates, led by Black Stache (Will Springhorn Jr.) and his sidekick, Smee (Demers), take over the Wasp.

Lord Aster entrusts the other one to his 13-year-old daughter, Molly (Adrienne Kaori Walters), on the Neverland.

Also on the Neverland are three mistreated orphans, including Boy (Sean Okuniewicz), who takes the name Peter after many harrowing adventures.

Although the show is filled with clever staging and humorous dialogue, some of the humor is lost because several characters overact. Because some also shout, their lines are hard to understand. Director Lo should have instructed them to pull back.

Other actors do just that. Hence, there’s Demers as Smee. He has acute comic timing. One of his more humorous lines comes after someone calls him a ruffian. He replies something like, “I’m not a ruffian. I’ve never been to Ruffia.”

Also noteworthy in the cast are Okuniewicz as Boy, Walters as Molly and Solomon as Lord Aster.

Musical director Amanda Ku on piano and Lane Sanders on percussion, provide accompaniment (music by Wayne Barker). The choreography is by Lee Ann Payne. 

The often zany costumes are by Y. Sharon Peng. The set is by Christopher Fitzer with lighting by Michael Palumbo and sound by Matt Vandercook.

Despite the production’s shortcomings, notably the shouting and overacting, most in the opening night audience seemed to enjoy it.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Peter and the Starcatcher” will continue through Feb. 4 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.



Friday, January 19, 2018

ACT stages mysterious, fascinating 'The Birthday Party'

Stanley (Firdous Bamji) plays the drum given to him by Meg (Judith Ivey).
Seeming tranquility evolves into menace and more in Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party,” presented by American Conservatory Theater.

It ends with uncertainty, leaving a trail of questions in its wake, yet it’s fascinating, especially as directed by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff.

In the beginning, a long-married couple, Meg (Judith Ivey) and Petey (Dan Hiatt), are beginning the day in their English seaside boarding house. Theirs is a humdrum routine with Meg serving Petey his breakfast of tea, cornflakes and fried bread and asking, “Is it nice?”

Their only boarder is Stanley (Firdous Bamji), a slovenly, unshaven former piano player who apparently has no current means of support. The simple-minded Meg flirts with him, but he ignores or rebuffs her.

However, when he learns that two men had approached Petey the night before asking if there was a room for them, he becomes agitated and wants to know what they want. When they arrive, he sneaks out of the house.

The men are the well dressed, smooth talking Goldberg (Scott Wentworth) and the thuggish, taciturn McCann (Marco Barricelli). McCann seems eager to do what they came to do as quickly as possible, but Goldberg is in no hurry.

Believing it’s Stanley’s birthday (he says it isn’t), Meg insists on having a party, which includes her two new guests and Lulu (Julie Adamo), a young neighbor woman. Petey misses it for his weekly chess game.

Before the party, though, McCann and Goldberg subject Stanley to a grueling interrogation with rapid-fire nonsensical questions. The party itself involves lots of alcohol, game playing and other activities that lead to no good.

The next morning, McCann and Goldberg take away the now clean-shaven, neat but broken Stanley. Petey and Meg resume their routine.

Although this is a brief summary of the action, it’s all of the undertones, pauses, discrepancies and changing balances of power that drive the drama. One can’t be sure of the characters’ motivations, but the quality of acting is unquestioned.

Goldberg (Scott Wentworth) and Meg (Judith Ivey) play blind man's bluff at the party.
There also are some laughs, many of them created by Ivey’s Meg. For example, her flouncing around in her party dress (costumes Candice Donnelly) is amusing because she believes she looks lovely while to everyone else she looks silly.

Barricelli as McCann projects menace from the start, while Wentworth subtly conveys the menace that lurks beneath his smooth surface. Hiatt’s unflappable Petey and Adamo’s not-too-innocent Lulu complete the cast.

The set is designed by Nina Ball with lighting by Robert Hand and sound by Darron L. West.

This is Perloff’s last directing stint with ACT. She plans to leave her post at the end of this season, her 25th with the company.

She will be missed, but she’s leaving an indelible mark with this production.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “The Birthday Party” will continue through Feb. 4 in ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne




Wednesday, January 17, 2018

'Our Great Tchaikovsky' comes to Mountain View

Hershey Felder portrays Tchaikovsky. (Hershey Felder Presents photo)
Piotr (Peter) Ilyich Tchaikovsky gave the world a treasure trove of memorable music.

Hershey Felder brings that music and its inspiration to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in his “Our Great Tchaikovsky.” Felder is known in the Bay Area for writing and performing his one-man shows about such musical luminaries as Bernstein, Beethoven, Berlin, Gershwin and Chopin.

This one is slightly different from the others in that it begins with Felder speaking to the audience as himself. He reads a letter from the Russian government inviting him to perform his Tchaikovsky piece in Russia.

He returns to that invitation at the end of the show and explains why he has some trepidation about accepting it. Russia still has little tolerance for homosexuals and the promotion of homosexuality. 
“Our Great Tchaikovsky” makes no secret about Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, his efforts to hide it and its effect on his music.
His “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, was inspired by his fixation on a 15-year-old boy.

This information emerges during Felder’s recounting of Tchaikovsky’s early life, his strict upbringing and his musical genius, which became apparent when he was just 6 years old.

In an effort to hide his homosexuality, which he called his “proclivity,” Tchaikovsky entered into a marriage of convenience. He and his wife soon separated and lived apart for the rest of his life, but they never divorced.

An accomplished pianist, Felder plays much of the music, sometimes singing the orchestral part, sometimes using recorded music.

Directed by Trevor Hay, he says Tchaikovsky disliked “Overture 1812,” which ironically became his best known and most popular work. It’s presented complete with fireworks, cannons and church bells in its finale.

Felder also designed the set, which comprises a drawing room in the foreground and trees in the background. It’s augmented by ever-changing lighting and projections by Christopher Ash. For example, projections for “Swan Lake” feature an abstract pas de deux.

Another musical highlight is excerpts from “The Nutcracker.” Also heard are passages from his 
symphonies and other works.

Felder is an engaging performer who presents interesting musical and biographical information. The latter is researched by Meghan Maiya.

Running about an hour and 40 minutes without intermission, “Our Great Tchaikovsky” will continue through Feb. 11 at the Mountain Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.