Wednesday, September 19, 2018

'Doll's House, Part 2' picks up where Ibsen left off 15 years ago

John Judd as Torvald and Mary Beth Fisher as Nora square off in 'A Doll's House, Part 2.'

It has been 15 years since Nora Helmer famously slammed the door and scandalously abandoned her home, husband and children in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 “A Doll’s House.”

Now she’s knocking on that same door in Lucas Hnath’s 2017 “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a co-production with Huntington Theatre Company.

Nora (Mary Beth Fisher) returns home.
Elegantly dressed, Nora (Mary Beth Fisher) has become a successful writer of pro-feminist, anti-marriage books though she uses a pseudonym.

She has returned because she has recently learned, contrary to her assumption, that her husband, Torvald (John Judd), hasn’t filed for divorce.

Without a divorce, she faces legal trouble. However, if Torvald does file for divorce, he faces his own problems because he had allowed people to assume she had died.

Caught in the middle is Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll), who served as nanny to Nora and then to her three children. She still lives in the Torvald home even though the children have grown up and left.

Finally, the Torvalds’ daughter, Emmy (Nikki Massoud), is a foil to Nora because she is eagerly looking forward to being married.

None of those left behind can understand why Nora left and why she never contacted them afterward.

Except for Massoud as Emmy, who talks too fast, director Les Waters guides the actors through finely nuanced performances covering a range of emotions.

Playwright Hnath never tips his hand on where everything will lead until the very end, keeping the audience enthralled.

All of this is accomplished on a spare set by Andrew Boyce with handsome period costumes by Annie Smart. The lighting is by Yi Zhao with sound by James Ballen. 
One of his subtle touches is Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” heard just before the play begins.

Running about an hour and a half without intermission, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” will continue through Oct. 21 in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley.
For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Dragon tackles 'The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence'

Stephanie Crowley as Eliza tries to program robot Watson, played by Tasi Alabastro. (Photo by Scott Ragle) 
Four characters named Watson find their way into Madeleine George’s “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence,” presented by Dragon Theatre.

All of them are played by the same actor, Tasi Alabastro.

The other characters are named Merrick and Eliza, also played by the same actors, 
Gary Mosher and Stephanie Crowley, respectively.

The first Watson is a man-like computer named after the IBM computer that bested human contestants on TV's "Jeopardy!” He’s a companion to the Eliza who’s programming him in 2011.

The second Watson is a computer geek hired to fix the computer of Merrick, a local political candidate and Eliza’s jealous ex-husband. He hires this Watson to spy on her, but they wind up falling in love.

Going back to March 1891, the third Watson is the fictional Dr. John H. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ associate. He encounters another Eliza, who wants Holmes to spy on her husband, Merrick.

Then in 1931, Thomas Augustus Watson, the associate of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, is being interviewed by yet another Eliza.

This Watson received the very first phone call in March 1876 with the message “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”

Times shift, but the focus is on the romance between the computer geek and Eliza, the computer programmer.

Despite the play’s intriguing concept, it doesn’t work well in part because it’s so talky and episodic. Direction by Doll Piccotto doesn’t help.

Another shortcoming of this production is that Alabastro is miscast. He does well as the robot Watson, but he doesn’t have the depth and versatility demanded by the other roles.

Crowley does the best in her varied roles, making all of them sympathetic. Mosher adequately handles the challenges of playing the unlikeable Merricks.

The versatile set is by Emilia Wysocka-Treder with costumes by Kathleen Qiu, lighting by John Bernard and sound by Ryan Lee Short.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence” will run through Oct. 7 at Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City. 

For tickets and information, call (650) 493-2006, Ext. 2, or visit

Friday, September 14, 2018

'Tarzan' takes to the stage at Palo Alto Players

Tarzan (Jimmy Mason) meets Jane (Jessica LaFever) for the first time. (Photo by Joyce Goldschmid)

Palo Alto Players transports its audience to the jungles of coastal West Africa many years ago with its production of “Tarzan.”

This stage musical is based on the Disney film and was adapted from “Tarzan of the Apes,” the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In the book by David Henry Hwang, an infant and his parents are washed ashore after a shipwreck, but a leopard kills the parents.

A gorilla, Kala (Phaedra Tillery), finds him, calls him Tarzan and takes him up as her own despite the objections of her mate, Kerchak (Michael D. Reed), leader of their family of gorillas.

Tarzan, played by Oliver Copaken Yellin as a boy and Jimmy Mason as a man, becomes a part of the family even though he knows he’s different from the others.

Things change for him with the arrival of a group of researchers, including Jane Porter (Jessica LaFever) and her father, Professor Porter (George Mauro).

Tarzan and Jane are increasingly attracted to each other. When it’s time for the expedition to leave, Tarzan is torn between going with her or staying with the only family he has known.

Much of the story is related through rock-flavored music and often repetitious lyrics by Phil Collins.

PAP artistic director Patrick Klein directs the fine cast with musical direction by Nick Kenrick and energetic, athletic choreography by Claire Alexander.

The set, with its many ropes for swinging, is by Klein and Nikolaj Sorensen. Costumes are by Patricia Tyler.

Although Brandie Larkin’s too loud sound design distorts most of the lyrics, most of the singers excel, especially LaFever and Mason. They also are convincing in their roles.

Running about two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission, the show was enthusiastically received at the Sept. 13 performance.

“Tarzan” will continue through Sept. 23 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Everyone has a good time at Center Rep's 'Mamma Mia!'

Leanne Borghesi (left), Lynda DiVito as Donna and Alison Quin as Tanya recall their disco days.
Some of the bounciest music ever written and a terrific cast add up to one very good time at Center Repertory Company’s production of “Mamma Mia!”

Featuring songs mostly by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus made popular by the Swedish band ABBA in the ’70s, “Mamma Mia!” is set on a Greek island in 1999.

Sean Okuniewicz as Sky and Giana Gambardella as Sophie look forward to their wedding.
Sophie (Giana Gambardella) is to be married to Sky (Sean Okuniewicz) and wants her father to walk her down the aisle. 

There’s just one hitch: Three men might be her father. They are Harry (Mark Farrell), Bill (Keith Pinto) and Sam (Noel Anthony).  

Her single mother, Donna (Lynda DiVito), has had no contact with them since Sophie was conceived, and she doesn’t know who’s the father. Nor does she know beforehand that Sophie has invited them to Donna’s taverna.

Among the other wedding guests are Tanya (Alison Quin) and Rosie (Leanne Borghesi), who were part of a ’70s disco girl group with Donna. They have great fun reminiscing and reprising some of their songs, such as “Dancing Queen.”

As directed by Marc Jacobs, everything works out for the best at the end.

Before then, the audience is treated to more hits like “Honey, Honey,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” “One of Us,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Take a Chance on Me” and the title song.

All are sung well under the leadership of musical director Brandon Adams.

There’s some great dancing, too, thanks to choreography by Robyn Tribuzi.

Kurt Landisman’s lighting puts on its own show during the overture. Costumes by Maggi Yule are sometimes wildly imaginative, as in the nightmare scene that opens Act 2.

The flexible set is by Kelly James Tighe with sound by Jeff Mockus.

Even after the curtain call, some of the best-known songs are reprised, giving the audience a chance to join in and have as much fun as the 20-member cast seems to be having.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Mamma Mia!” will continue through Oct. 7 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.

For tickets and information, call (925) 943-7469 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Hillbarn stages the timeless 'West Side Story'

Ana Paula Malagón as Maria and Jeffrey Brian Adams as Tony fall in love in 'West Side Story." (Mark & Tracy photo)

Inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” four giants of 20th century musical theater created a timeless classic, “West Side Story,” being presented by Hillbarn Theatre.

The concept came from Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the 1957 original. He was joined by Arthur Laurents for the book, then-newcomer Stephen Sondheim for the lyrics and Leonard Bernstein for the memorable music.

Besides its own merits, Hillbarn’s production honors Bernstein’s centennial, which occurred only six days before the Aug. 31 opening.

Instead of the Bard’s feuding 16th-century Italian families, “West Side Story” focuses on feuding street gangs in New York City in the 1950s. One is the Sharks, who are recently arrived Puerto Ricans. The other is the Jets, who are mainland-born white Americans.

In his program note, artistic director Dan Demers writes of the show’s “unflinching engagement with contemporary concerns of racial unrest, urban gang violence, rape, immigration, and confrontations with the police.” He adds that the nation is still dealing with those divisive issues.

Caught between the gangs are star-crossed lovers Tony (Jeffrey Brian Adams), who founded the Jets but is pulling away, and Maria (Ana Paula Malagón), a Puerto Rican whose brother is a Shark. Their story doesn’t end happily.

Before it ends, though, the show offers some terrific dancing and one memorable song after another.

Music director Rick Reynolds adroitly leads the singers and 14-member orchestra through Bernstein’s intricate rhythms and soaring melodies.

Adams and Malagón have convincing chemistry and sing well alone and together. Malagón has an operatic voice she showcases in their touching duet, “One Hand, One Heart,” as well in ensembles like “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty.”

Other great songs include “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Somewhere” and more.

Director Erica Wyman Abrahamson, choreographer Kim Harvath and fight choreographer Zoë Swenson-Graham efficiently marshal the large cast on the small stage, overcoming the drab set by Ting Na Wang.

Costumes by Raven Winter and lighting by Pamila Gray complement the production, but the sound by Grant Huberty is spotty.

Eye- and throat-irritating theatrical haze (a lobby sign announces its use) unnecessarily permeates the stage and audience. 

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “West Side Story” will continue through Sept. 16 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.
For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit