Friday, March 23, 2018

Unlikely relationship blossoms in "Heisenberg" at ACT

James Carpenter as Alex and Sarah Grace Wilson as Georgie have dinner in "Heisenberg." (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Things aren’t always as they seem in Simon Stephens’ “Heisenberg,” presented by American Conservatory Theater.

In this two-person drama, a 42-year-old single woman, Georgie Burns (Sarah Grace Wilson), ingratiates herself with a 75-year-old single man, Alex Priest (Bay Area treasure James Carpenter), after kissing him on the back on the neck in a London train station.

She says she mistook him for her husband, who had died 18 months ago. 

However, when she unexpectedly visits him in his butcher shop a few days later, she admits that was a lie. In fact, much of what she tells him is a lie.

Nevertheless, he’s intrigued enough to ask her out on a date –- at her request. Before long, they’re in bed together.

It seems that her original intent was to get him to give her money to go to New Jersey to search for her estranged 19-year-old son, who probably isn’t a fabrication.

Despite that ulterior motive, the two of them grow to care about one another. In some ways, their relationship is an attraction of opposites. In addition to the obvious difference in their ages, she’s a nonstop talker, while he’s more taciturn, a solitary man given to thinking before he speaks.

Still, they appear to be good for each other. She helps him to become more spontaneous and open to possibilities, while he becomes a steadying influence for her.

The play’s title, “Heisenberg,” comes from a theory postulated by German physicist Werner Heisenberg in 1927. Although his theory relates to physics, it also relates to human behavior.

According to an article in the “Words on Plays” that accompanies this production, playwright Stephens said, “If you’re carefully watching where somebody is going or what someone is doing, the likelihood is –- you never properly see them.”

This uncertainty theory relates to Georgie and Alex because each is surprised by what the other does next despite watching closely.

As directed by Hal Brooks, Carpenter is superb as Alex undergoes his gradual transformation. Wilson doesn’t do quite as well, perhaps because Georgie is hard to like, especially at first, but she, too, changes gradually.

Alexander V. Nichols, who also designed the lighting, has created a minimalist set where some set pieces rise from below the stage or where two wooden chairs can be connected to form a bench.

Costumes are by Meg Neville with sound by Brendan Aanes.

Running about 90 minutes with no intermission, “Heisenberg” will continue through April 8 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Dragon stages Mamet's provocative 'Race'

Hannah Mary Keller is Susan and Pat Caulfield is Jack in "Race." (Photo by Lance Huntley)

Accused of raping a young black woman in a hotel room, a wealthy, middle-aged white man says he didn’t do it and seeks legal help.

That’s the premise for David Mamet’s “Race,” presented by Dragon Theatre Company.

The lawyers that Charles Strickland (Martin Gagen) consults are the low-key, white Jack Lawson (Pat Caulfield, the show’s producer) and the more volatile, black Henry Brown (Dorian Lockett).

After talking with him for a while, the two partners decide they don’t want to take the case because they don’t think they can win it. They’re not concerned with guilt or innocence.

However, their young black associate, Susan (Hannah Mary Keller), assuming she’s doing what they want, commits them to the case.

From then on, the two partners try to work the angles to defend him. They often answer his questions as well as Susan’s questions with questions of their own.

Much of the case hinges on the red sequined dress that the victim said Charles ripped off her. In the end, it’s not totally clear what a jury’s verdict would be, but Susan knows what hers is.

In less than two hours, Mamet evokes issues of racism, sexism, ageism and class privilege. The sexism is most apparent as the two law partners keep referring to Susan and the victim as girls.

Director Kimberly Ridgeway paces the action well, but she allows Henry to become so blustery that he seems to verge on violence.

Otherwise, this production is effective with a simple uncredited set, lighting by Jon Gourdine and sound by Lana Palmer.

Unlike earlier, 90-minute productions at American Conservatory Theater and San Jose Stage Company, this one has an intermission.

With its mature themes and language, “Race” is best suited for adults.

It continues through April 8 at Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City. For tickets and information, call (650) 493-2006, Ext. 2, or visit

'Music Man' marches onto Broadway by the Bay stage

Harold Hill (David Schiller) tries to romance Marian Paroo (Jennifer Mitchell). Photo by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin

Broadway by the Bay brings on the marching band with its production of a perennial favorite, Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.”

Set in the early 20th century, this is the story of a slick, traveling salesman, Harold Hill (David Schiller), who cons residents of little River City, Iowa,  into buying band instruments, lesson books and uniforms for their kids.

Harold doesn’t know the first thing about the instruments or music, but he does know how to charm people by flattering them and bringing out positive qualities. Therefore, even though he fleeces them, he leaves a lot of good in his wake.

For example, feuding school board members forget their differences when they become a barbershop quartet (Derrick Contreras, Jonathan Chan, Daniel Lloyd Pias and Mohammed Ismail) singing the likes of “Lida Rose.”

Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Amy Meyers), wife of the blustery, domineering Mayor Shinn (Scott Solomon), asserts herself as leader of a women’s dance troupe in a hilarious scene.

Then there’s Marian Paroo (Jennifer Mitchell), the town librarian. She’s slow to succumb to his charm, but eventually she does.

And her young brother, Winthrop Paroo (Liam Kimhi), blossoms, overcoming his lisp and belting out “Gary, Indiana.”

Directed and choreographed by Nicole Helfer with musical direction by Sean Kana, this is a highly entertaining production with fine performances throughout its large cast of kids and adults.

Mitchell as Marian is an outstanding singer, while Schiller as Harold embodies his charm and unflappability.

In addition to the others already named, Jenny Matteucci as Mrs. Paroo, mother of Marian and Winthrop; and Andrew Plaschke as Tommy, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, are noteworthy.

Production values are high, especially the smart period costumes by Leandra Watson. The fluid set is by Mark Mendelson with lighting by Eric “Precious” Johnson and sound by Jon Hayward.

The show is filled with memorable songs such as “(Ya Got) Trouble,”  “Goodnight My Someone,” “Till There Was You,” and, of course, “Seventy-six Trombones.”

In short, it’s great fun.

Running more than two and a half hours including one long intermission  (long lines for restrooms and concessions), “The Music Man” will continue through April 1 at the Fox Theater, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 369-7770 or visit

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

'Love Never Dies' sees Phantom 10 years later

Gardar Thor Cortes is the Phantom and
Meghan PIcerno is Christine in "Love Never Dies"

It had been 10 years since the chandelier crashed and the title character disappeared from the depths of the Paris Opera House in “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Now it’s 1907. He has moved to the United States and owns a Coney Island carnival show, Mr. Y’s Phantasma, in “Love Never Dies,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2011 sequel to his musical megahit.

While this North American touring production presented by Broadway San Jose lacks  some of the elements that made “Phantom” so popular, it still has many aspects to enjoy.

Chief among them are the spectacular scenic and design elements: gorgeous sets and costumes by Gabriela Tylesova, lighting by Nick Schlieper and sound by Mick Potter.

And then there is the singing. Gardar Thor Cortes as the Phantom has a strong operatic tenor that offsets his sometimes bombastic singing, as in the opening “’Til I Heard You Sing.”

Meghan Picerno as Christine DaaƩ, whom the Phantom loved and lost, has a bright, coloratura that easily reaches the stratospheric heights of her music.

In this show, she has become a celebrity singer in Europe who is to sing in New York City. 

When the Phantom hears the news, he anonymously invites her and her family to visit Mr. Y’s Phantasma.

Her family includes her young son, Gustave (the cherubic-voiced Jake Heston Miller, alternating with Casey Lyons), and her husband, Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Sean Thompson, another fine singer), whom she had chosen over the Phantom. However, the marriage is in trouble because of his drinking and gambling.

Other returning characters are Madame Giry (Karen Mason), who knew the Phantom’s background, and her daughter, Meg (Mary Michael Patterson). Madame Giry oversees his show while Meg is its star performer. Madame Giry sees Christine’s return as a threat.

The plot boils down to two conflicts. The first is between the Phantom and Raoul for Christine’s love. The second is between Christine’s faithfulness to her marriage and her still-strong attraction to the Phantom and his music. The outcome is surprising.

While Lloyd Webber’s music (with lyrics by Glenn Slater and Charles Hart) may not be as memorable as his “Phantom” output, it’s still quite tuneful. It even picks up an occasional motif from “Phantom” just to remind us where it all started. 

However, Ben Elton’s book is based on “The Phantom of Manhattan” by Frederick Forsyth rather than a novel by Gaston Leroux.

Richard Koons (left) as Squelch, Katrina Kemp
as Fleck and Stephen Petrovich as Gangle.
As directed by Simon Phillips, the acting is first-rate by both the principals and the lesser characters. Mainly they are Gangle (Stephen Petrovich), Squelch (Richard Koons) and Fleck (Katrina Kemp), a tiny woman with a big personality.

The large ensemble of singers and dancers also does well under musical director/conductor Dale Rieling and choreographer Graeme Murphy Ao.

Running about two and half hours with one intermission, “Love Never Dies” will continue only through March 18 at the Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. For tickets and information, call (800) 982-2787 or visit

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

Monday, March 12, 2018

Hillbarn stages story of 'The Elephant Man'

From left Joshua Marx as John Merrick and Michael Barrett Austin as Frederick Treves. (Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography)

The story of a horribly deformed young man in the late 19th century is dramatized in Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man,” presented by Hillbarn Theatre.

Though fictionalized, it’s based on a real man, John Merrick (Joshua Marx), who suffered from neurofibromatosis, a debilitating condition that didn’t have a name or cure then.

Mocked and mistreated, John was part of a freak show until he was discovered by Dr. Frederick Treves (Michael Barrett Austin), an anatomical lecturer and rising young surgeon at a London hospital.

The play begins with Treves showing photos of the actual John Merrick, who had bulging growths all over his body. His right hand was useless, one eye was almost closed and his head was so swollen and misshapen that he couldn’t lie flat to sleep.

Treves rescued him and took him to live at the hospital, where he was well treated and could exercise his considerable intellect. At one point, John says, “My head is so big because it’s full of dreams.”

He became the darling of London socialites and royals, who donated money for his lifetime care.

Religion became important to him as he designed and then built a model for St. Philip’s Church.

His life was brightened by the arrival of Mrs. Kendal (Stephanie Maysonave), with whom he discussed what he was reading, such as “Romeo and Juliet.”

As their friendship developed, he confessed that he had never seen a naked woman. She obliges by baring her breasts. However, this tender moment is interrupted by Treves, who orders her to leave and never return.

Pomerance’s script has shortcomings. For example, it doesn’t make clear why Treves was being swindled by Lord John (Rich Matli). It’s also episodic.

Direction by Jasen Jeffrey does nothing to eliminate that effect, and it doesn’t make some of the characters particularly involving despite some good performances.

Likewise, the barebones set by Ting Na Wang does little to advance the drama. In particular, the model of the church was an important symbol in previous productions, but here it’s like an afterthought.

Nevertheless, Marx does a good job of transforming himself into John without resorting to makeup to become convincing.

Austin’s performance as Treves works well for the most part except toward the end, when he seems to suffer a crisis of faith. Maysonave remains too actressy as Mrs. Kendal.

Several other members of the ensemble are noteworthy, especially John Musgrave as Carr Gomm, the hospital administrator, and Thomas Cokenias in contrasting roles as Ross, the heartless  freak show manager, and as the bishop who becomes John’s spiritual adviser.

Lighting by Pamila Gray enhances the drama, but a footlight in front of an aisle is a tripping hazard.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “The Elephant Man” will continue through March 25 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411, Ext. 2, or visit


'Skeleton Crew' improves in move to TheatreWorks

Tristan Cunningham (left) is Shanita and Margo Hall is Faye in "Skeleton Crew." (Photo by Kevin Berne)

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley audiences are the beneficiaries of its co-production of Dominque Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew.”

When it opened at Marin Theatre Company on Jan. 30, it had some problems, mainly that some lines were spoken too fast to be understood.

That issue has largely disappeared now that the cast has had a chance to iron things out. 

Thus the show has coalesced into a drama where characters and plot subtleties are more clearly drawn. It’s funnier and more touching.

Set in the break room of Detroit’s last auto stamping plant in 2008, the action focuses on how the plant’s possible closure affects four valuable black employees.

One of them is the pregnant, unmarried Shanita (Tristan Cunningham), who finds her work rewarding but worries about how she will care for her child if she loses her job.

The secretive, sullen Dez (Christian Thompson), whose flirtations she rejects, hopes to save enough money to open his own auto shop.

Their union steward, Faye (Margo Hall), is the eldest and wisest. With 29 years on the job, she wants to stay until she’s logged 30 years, entitling her to a better pension and 

Finally there’s their foreman, Reggie (Lance Gardner), who wants to continue supporting his wife and family and who’s torn between helping the workers and appeasing management.

Faye underpins all of them. As embodied by Hall, she’s resilient and wise with the ability to say the right thing, whether humorous or stern, to defuse situations.

She and Reggie have a longstanding connection that’s gradually revealed and that influences how they deal with increasingly challenging circumstances.

As so well directed by Jade King Carroll, the actors create characters that one comes to care about, even Dez, who’s not very likable at first.

The effective design elements are the same as in Marin with a set by Ed Haynes, costumes by Callie Floor, lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, sound by Karin Graybash and projections by Mike Post.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Skeleton Crew” is an affecting look at the toll that changes in the American manufacturing sector make on real people.

It will continue through April 1 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Vietnamese refugees adjust to U.S. in 'Vietgone' at ACT

Tong (Jenelle Chu, left) and her mother, Huong (Cindy Im), settle into their Fort Chaffee, Ark., room.

In Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” Vietnamese refugees find themselves in a camp in Fort Chaffee, Ark., after escaping with just their lives in 1975.

In this production by American Conservatory Theater, Quang (James Seol), a South Vietnamese military helicopter pilot who rescued numerous countrymen, wants nothing more than to return to his wife and two children in Vietnam.

Tong (Jenelle Chu), whose beloved younger brother refused to go because of his girlfriend, seems resolved to becoming Americanized. Her mother, Huong (Cindy Im), would rather be back in Vietnam.

Hoping to catch a Navy boat back to Vietnam, Quang and his buddy, Nhan (Stephen Hu), set off on a cross-country motorcycle trip to California.

Tong has an idea for Quang (James Seol). 
Before that, however, Quang and Tong become sexually involved despite his being married, much to her mother’s disapproval.

In the stronger second act, Quang’s friend Nhan becomes pivotal to the story when he convinces Quang that going back to Vietnam would be hopeless and that he should follow his heart by returning to Tong.

Likewise, Tong’s mother convinces her to follow her heart and give in to her love for Quang.

That’s the bare outline of this presentation of the story of the playwright’s parents, Quang and Tong.
Its action shifts back and forth as the characters undergo various experiences over several decades. 

During their motorcycle trip, Quang and Nhan encounter an assortment of characters played by Im as the other women and by Hu and Jomar Tagatac as the other men.

All of this would be just fine if it weren’t for the often unrelenting torrent of profanities and occasional loud raps, which some viewers might find offensive or offputting at worst and unnecessary at best.

Otherwise, it’s an interesting, human-focused look at some little known fallout from the country’s most unpopular war.

Directed by Jaime CastaƱeda and billed as a road-trip comedy, the play is well acted. The two-level set by Brian Sidney Bembridge with projections by Chris Lundahl is simple but flexible.

Also effective are the lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and costumes by Jessie Amoroso. However, the sound by Jake Rodriguez and music by Shammy Dee are sometimes too loud.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, “Vietgone” will continue through April 22 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco.
For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne

Friday, March 9, 2018

Multiple scary outcomes in 'Office Hour'

Dennis (Daniel Chung) arrives for his conference. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

In the wake of the recent school shooting in Florida, Julia Cho’s “Office Hour” couldn’t be more timely.

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, it focuses on a creative writing college student, Dennis (Daniel Chung), who could be the poster boy for mass murderers, and on a concerned instructor, Gina (Jackie Chung), desperately trying to break through his hostility.

We hear about him before we see him as two of his previous instructors, David (Jeremy Kahn) and Genevieve (Kerry Warren), describe his behavior and his frightening writing.

They’re trying to warn Gina, but she seems to think there’s some hope.

That hope seems misguided when Dennis arrives at her office (set by Matt Saunders) for a required 20-minute conference. Dressed all in black (costumes by Maggie Morgan) with dark sunglasses, baseball cap and hoodie hiding most of his face, he’s scary.

During their meeting, several scenes illustrate possible outcomes, all of them scary or even deadly, that take place in her imagination. After each one, their encounter resumes as if nothing had changed.

Although she gradually gets this loner to open up about how he was bullied and how much he hates, Gina also reveals much about herself. Perhaps there’s a rapport between them because they’re both first-generation Asian American.

In one of the more amusing scenes, she gets him to pretend she is his mother talking to him on the phone.

The ending, or rather series of possible endings with all four characters, is chaotic. Lighting by Scott Zielinski and music and sound by Robert Kaplowitz enhance the effects.

This co-production with Long Wharf Theatre of Connecticut is crisply directed by Lisa Peterson. 

Despite its tendency toward talkiness, it maintains one’s attention.

Running a taut 80 minutes with no intermission, it will continue through March 25 in Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Fed up with sexism, women take over in '9 to 5 The Musical"

 Allie Townsend as Doralee (left), Glenna Murillo as Violet and Rachelle Abbey as Judy commiserate. (David Allen photo)

If working women bucked the old-boy network and ran the office, they’d be a lot better off. That’s what happens in “9 to 5 The Musical,” presented by Foothill Music Theatre.

With music and lyrics by Dolly Parton and a book by Patricia Resnick, this timely, entertaining show premiered in 2008 and was based on the 1980 film starring Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda.

It takes place in 1979 at company led by Franklin Hart (Aaron Hurley). He treats female employees, especially the young, attractive ones, like sex objects, calls them girls and makes them fetch his coffee. A woman who discovers that she’s being paid less than a man doing the same job is fired.

Fed up with his behavior, three of the women conspire to hide him for a few weeks, fake memos from him and institute much-needed changes. Soon everyone is better off.

The women are led by Violet (Glenna Murillo in the Tomlin role), a widow with a teenage son.

Her cohorts are the young, newly hired Judy (Rachelle Abbey in the Fonda role), who’s recently divorced, and the sexy but happily married Doralee (Allie Townsend in the Parton role). Doralee has to fend off the boss the most.

All three of these women do well. Also noteworthy is Angela Cesena as Roz, the administrative assistant who’s Hart’s spy and who has a crush on him. She has a standout number, “Heart to Hart,” in which she tells how much she loves him.

The supporting characters and ensemble are strong, with kudos going to Kayvon Kordestani as Margaret, the office drunk who benefits from the new rehab benefit.

Parton’s songs have a distinctively country twang, and they’re performed well under the musical direction of Dolores Duran-Cefalu, who leads four instrumentalists from the keyboard.

The show is crisply directed by Milissa Carey with lively choreography by Claire Alexander. The flexible set is by Christopher Fitzer, the attractive costumes by Chiara Cola and sound by Andrew Heller. Keenan Molner’s lighting is sometimes too dim.

Although the show glosses over some plot lines like Hart’s cooking the books and makes light of his unwanted sexual advances – especially in this #MeToo era -- overall it’s timely and, most of all, lots of fun.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, it will continue through March 18 in the Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills.

For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit