Thursday, May 10, 2018

Memory plays key role in 'Marjorie Prime" at Marin Theatre Company

Joy Carlin (left) is Marjorie, and Julie Eccles is her daughter, Tess. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

An 85-year-old woman whose memory is fading has a new companion.

It’s a sophisticated hologram, or Prime, representing her late husband, Walter (Tommy Gorrebeeck), when he was 30 years old in Jordan Harrison’s “Marjorie Prime,” presented by Marin Theatre Company.

The woman, Marjorie (Joy Carlin), lives with her daughter, Tess (Julie Eccles), and son-in-law, Jon, (Anthony Fusco). The year is 2062.

The Prime can be programmed with her memories and remind her of them in hopes of retaining those she has and regaining some she may have lost.

But how accurate are those memories? It depends on who’s feeding them to Walter, who in turn feeds them back to her.

Some of them go back to the night Walter proposed and later to Tess’s childhood and the family’s dogs. One memory that goes unsaid is older brother’s suicide when he was 13.

Because of Marjorie’s grief over his death, Tess felt neglected, a feeling that has carried over as anger.

Tess keeps hoping that somehow Marjorie can express love for her, but not so. That is, not until after Marjorie’s death, when she’s seen as a Prime trying to help Tess overcome her grief. Later, Tess herself becomes a Prime.

Although everything currently is in the realm of science fiction, it’s not entirely far-fetched, given the role that artificial intelligence plays in everyday life for many people.

Harrison’s play doesn’t clearly spell everything out, requiring careful attention by the audience. Reading the program notes beforehand is helpful.

So, too, are Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction and a superb Bay Area cast led by Carlin, who seemingly embodies Marjorie’s failing faculties as well as her lively personality in her better moments.

In one scene, for example, Jon plays music for her. Formerly a classical violinist, she immediately recognizes it as “Winter” from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and describes what the music is saying.

Eccles captures Tess’s brittle qualities and neediness, while Fusco’s Jon serves as a balance and loving peacemaker. The smooth Gorrebeeck makes Walter pleasant and almost human.

The simple set is by Kimie Nishikawa, lighting by Michael Palumbo, sound by Brendan Aames and costumes by Jessie Amoroso.

Running about 80 minutes with no intermission, this intriguing drama will continue through May 27 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley.


For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Hillbarn Theatre goes 'The Full Monty'

Dave (Christopher Reber, left) and Jerry (Andy Cooperfauss, right) try to convince Malcolm (Brian Palac) to join them. 

Losing a good job with no prospect of comparable one can be demoralizing or worse.

In “The Full Monty,” the musical presented by Hillbarn Theatre, that’s the situation faced by some men in Buffalo, N.Y., after its steel plant closed.

One of them, the divorced Jerry Lukowski (Andy Cooperfauss), is behind on his child support payments and fears losing joint custody of his 12-year-old son, Nathan (Jack Barrett), to his ex-wife, Pam (Amy Meyers).

Others are worried about supporting their families and making mortgage payments.
After seeing women willingly pay $50 to see a hunky male stripper, Buddy “Keno” Walsh (Jepoy Ramos), Jerry decides to gather some pals and put on their own show.

His first recruit is his best friend, Dave Bukatinsky (Christopher Reber), whose depression has distanced him from his wife, Georgie (Glenna Murillo). Dave is reluctant to join in the scheme because he’s overweight.

Still, he agrees. They’re soon joined by their former boss, Harold Nichols (Gregory Lynch), who hasn’t told his spendthrift wife, Vicki (Adrienne Herro), that he’s lost his job.

Also coming on board are the suicidal Malcolm MacGregor (Brian Palac), who lives with his invalid mother; the well-endowed Ethan Girard (Bradley Satterwhite); and Noah “Horse” T. Simmons (James Creer), an arthritic black man who still has some good dance moves.

A pianist, Jeanette Burmeister (Linda Piccone), shows up as their accompanist.

Women aren’t interested in seeing amateurs strip until Jerry tells them that unlike Keno, who stripped to shiny briefs, they’ll go totally nude, or the full monty. That works.

The book by Terrence McNally, with pleasant music and lyrics by David Yazbek, keeps one’s interest with humor and likable characters. It’s adapted from a popular movie set in England.

As directed by Dennis Lickteig with choreography by Lee Ann Payne, there are capable performances all around. The singing is generally good except for Cooperfauss, who has trouble with his higher notes.

One standout performance comes from Piccone, whose comic timing makes the salty Jeanette an audience favorite, especially in “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number.”

In a different vein, when Malcolm sings the sweet “You Walk With Me” at his mother’s funeral, he becomes emotional but recovers when Ethan takes his hand. When Dave seems shocked that two men are holding hands, Jerry says, “Good for them.”

Offstage, music director Mark Dietrich directs nine other musicians from the keyboard. However, sound designer Danielle Kisner amplifies it too much.

The simple set is by Kuo-Hao Lo with lighting by Christian Mejia, and costumes, hair and makeup by Valerie Emmie.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “The Full Monty” makes for enjoyable entertainment.

It will continue through May 20 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.

Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography



Thursday, May 3, 2018

ACT stages powerful drama, 'Father Comes Home From the Wars'

Hero (James Udom, gray jacket) tells his fellow slaves he's going to follow his master to war. (Joan Marcus photo)
Love or freedom?

These are the choices faced by a Civil War slave in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts I, II, III,” presented by American Conservatory Theater.

But there’s far more to this powerful drama, which is loosely based on Homer’s “The Odyssey.”

The slave, Hero (James Udom), has been promised his freedom by his master, the Colonel (Dan Hiatt), if he will join the Colonel in fighting for the Confederacy. Hero is torn because he wants to stay home with his beloved Penny (Eboni Flowers), and he doesn’t want to support the wrong side.

As the play opens, four slaves -- played by Gregory Wallace, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Britney Frazier (filling in for Safiya Fredericks) and Chivas Michael -- along with two others, Steven Anthony Jones as the Oldest Old Man and Julian Elijah Martinez as Homer, are betting what Hero will decide.

Apparently the prospect of freedom is stronger than the pull of love, so Hero dons a castoff gray Confederate jacket and follows the Colonel.

In the next scene, the Colonel has captured and caged a wounded Yankee soldier, Smith (Tom Pecinka). The drunken Colonel tries to get Smith to guess how much Hero is worth, and then launches into a racist tirade about how glad he is to be white. Hiatt is brilliant as this despicable character.

Finally, Penny, Homer and three runaway slaves (Agbabiaka, Frazier and Michael), along with Hero’s dog, Odyssey (Wallace), await Hero’s return.

This time it’s Penny’s turn to make a choice. Should she stay with Hero, who has married while away, or should she join the runaways and Homer, who loves her, to seek freedom in the North?

Playwright Parks, aided by Liz Diamond’s meticulous direction, relates this tale compellingly and poetically while showing how difficult slaves’ lives could be.

She also brings humor into the picture, mainly with the dog Odyssey, so whimsically played by Wallace. She turns the three runaway slaves into a Greek chorus that becomes a seamless part of the action.

The main characters all are memorable thanks to humanizing performances. Completing the cast is the singing, guitar-playing Martin Luther McCoy as the Musician, who bookends each scene.

Riccardo Hernández designed the stark set with dramatic lighting by Yi Zhao. The patched costumes are by Sarah Nietfeld with sound and music direction by Frederick Kennedy. Parks wrote the music. Choreography is by Randy Duncan.

This co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre is a brilliant, lyrical drama that’s a must-see.

Running about three hours with one intermission, “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts I, II, III” will continue through May 20 at the Geary Theater. For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.








Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Brilliant 'Angels in America' opens at Berkeley Rep

The angel (Francesca Faridany) visits Prior Walter . (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Berkeley Repertory Theatre is staging Tony Kushner’s epic masterpiece, “Angels in America.”

Subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” this Tony-winning drama has two parts: “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” They’re presented separately, but it’s possible to see both in a marathon. That’s how it opened April 28.

It takes place in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. One of the central characters, Prior Walter (Randy Harrison), discovers the telltale lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, one of the first manifestations of the disease.

His live-in partner, Louis Ironson (Benjamin T. Ismail), can’t handle the situation and moves out, leaving Prior feeling abandoned.

Another central character is Joseph Porter Pitt (Danny Binstock), or Joe, a devout Mormon who’s married to another Mormon, the unhappy Harper Pitt (Bethany Jillard), who’s hooked on Valium.

Joe has been trying to repress his homosexual feelings for all of his life because they conflict with his religion. However, when he meets Louis, he finally admits that he’s gay.

Another central character is the real-life Roy Cohn (Stephen Spinella). He was an 
attorney notorious for his role in the McCarthy hearings and the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted and executed for espionage.

He’s a foul-mouthed bully who threatens people to get what he wants. He’s also a closet gay who contracts AIDS but refuses to acknowledge it. He says he has liver cancer.

Finally there are Belize (Caldwell Tidicue), the effeminate gay nurse who tends to Prior and Roy in the hospital, and Hannah Pitt (Carmen Roman), Joe’s mother. She sells her house in Salt Lake City and moves to New York after Joe tells her he’s gay.

The fantasia aspect of the subtitle comes from the visions that Harper, Prior and Roy have. She imagines a travel agent, Mr. Lies (Caldwell Tidicue), who pops out of her sofa and then greets her in Antarctica.

Prior imagines a long line of ancestors also named Prior Walter and an angel (Francesca Faridany), who descends from his ceiling and gives him a book of prophecies. He eventually returns the book and rejects its anti-migratory teachings of staying put. He wants to keep moving.

Roy imagines that Ethel Rosenberg (Roman again) quietly visits his hospital room.

Guilt plays a large role in the play. Louis feels guilty for leaving Prior. Joe feels guilty for being gay and leaving Harper. Roy may or may not feel guilty for Ethel Rosenberg’s execution.

Kushner relates all of these developments in beautifully poetic language interspersed with hilarious lines. And he doesn’t shy away from the ravages of AIDS, which at the time was a sure death sentence.

When the play originated in 1991 at the Eureka Theatre Company, in San Francisco, healthy young men became gaunt skeletons and soon died, especially in San Francisco, where the toll reached hundreds, even thousands.

The first hope was AZT. In the play, it’s still in clinical trials, but Roy uses his clout to get a large stash, but not enough to spare his life.

Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, who directs this current production, was Eureka’s co-artistic director and commissioned the play. It went on to ACT in San Francisco and elsewhere throughout the nation.

Despite being set in the 1980s, it has implications for today. In his program notes, Taccone stresses the nation’s need for balance between “giving voice to every opinion while maintaining civility and respect for the law.”

He continues, “Led by our president, who seems hell-bent on destroying that balance, expressions of generosity toward our political opponents seem to have all but evaporated.”

Elsewhere in the program, Madeleine Oldman writes, “Today’s press frequently notes that Donald Trump learned most of his bullying, hardball tactics from Cohn, who was his lawyer.”

Politics aside, Kushner weaves a compelling story of people dealing with extreme trials. This production humanizes those people with eight actors, most of whom play several roles.

Except for Faridany, who came late into the production and who has not yet fully realized the angel’s character, it’s a brilliant cast.

The first part, “Millennium Approaches,” has an awe-inspiring ending as Prior’s bedroom wall splits and the angel flies in.

“Perestroika” starts slowly in the first act, but coalesces in the next two, leading to an exceptional theatrical experience.

Although the two parts are supposedly separate, it’s advisable to see “Millennium Approaches” first because “Perestroika” picks up where it leaves off. That’s a big difference from the original Eureka production, when “Perestroika” seemed so unrelated. Kushner has revised it considerably since then.

Contributing to the success of this production are the design elements with sets by Takeshi Kata, costumes by Montana Blanco, lighting by Jennifer Schriever, sound by Jake Rodriguez and Bray Poor, projections by Alexander V. Nichols, music by Andre Pluess and Flying by Foy.

“Millennium Approaches” runs about three and a half hours.“Perestroika” is nearly four hours. Both have two intermissions. For those who opt to see them in one day, there’s a two-and-a-half-hour break for dinner in one of the many nearby restaurants.

“Angels in America” will continue through July 22 in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St. For tickets and information, including special events, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.