Sunday, November 18, 2018

WWII secrets revealed in 'Everything Is Illuminated'


Jonathan (Jeremy Kahn, right) shows an old photo to Alex  (Adam Burch) as Grandfather (Julian Lópex-Morillas) listens.
Hoping to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis during World War II, a young Jewish man travels from New York City to the Ukraine in “Everything Is Illuminated,” Simon Block’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

When Jonathan (Jeremy Kahn) arrives in the late 1990s, he is met by his guide and translator Alex (Adam Burch). They are to be driven by Alex’s semi-blind, curmudgeonly Grandfather (Julian López-Morillas).

The only information Jonathan has is that his grandfather lived in a now obliterated shtetl and that the woman’s name was Augustine. He has a snapshot that he believes shows her.

He never finds her, but along the way he imagines his ancestry going back to the 18th century.

Alex, however, learns much more about Grandfather’s experiences during the war.

Lura Dolas as Woman with Adam Burch.
Act 1 moves slowly with some crude humor from Alex, and it doesn’t get very far except at the very end. That’s when the three men meet the old Woman (Lura Dolas). 
Dressed all in white with long white hair, she’s a ghostly figure.

As Act 2 begins, she’s reluctant to help them, but then she shows them her collected artifacts that were buried in the area. She also leads them to the site of the former Jewish village.

This act is highlighted by two moving monologues. In the first, the Woman tells the gruesome story of how her sisters were brutally killed by Nazi soldiers.
In the second, Grandfather finally tells Alex his painful secret from World War II.

Completing the cast is Marissa Keltie, playing several female characters.

Sensitively and imaginatively directed by Aurora artistic director Tom Ross, the cast is uniformly excellent.

Production values are high, too, with the set by Kate Boyd, lighting by Kurt Landisman, costumes by Callie Floor and sound by Matt Stines.

Ross points out in the program that Foer’s novel is based on an actual trip he took at age 20 after his sophomore year at Princeton.

Although his book about the trip apparently was a success, it doesn’t adapt well to the stage, at least not in Block’s interpretation. It also was a 2005 film that lost money.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, “Everything Is Illuminated” will continue through Dec. 9 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Photos by David Allen



Wednesday, November 7, 2018

'Aida' takes the stage in Redwood City

 Amneris (Caitlin McGinty, left), sings with  Aida (Raquel Nicole Jeté) and Radames (Shaun Leslie Thomas).
Presented by Broadway By the Bay, the stage musical “Elton John + Tim Rice’s Aida” was inspired by Verdi’s operatic masterpiece of the same name.

In this case, though, John’s music, with lyrics by Rice, is mostly rock with some echoes of gospel.

Set in Egypt, it tells of the Nubian princess, Aida (Raquel Nicole Jeté), captured by Radames (Shaun Leslie Thomas), an Egyptian general.

He and his troops take her and her countrymen to Egypt to be slaves. The Egyptians don’t know she’s a princess.

Her spirit and her refusal to be intimidated lead him to spare her from the death that the others might face and to give her to his fiancée of nine years, Princess Amneris (Caitlin McGinty).

Despite the difference in their stations, their mutual attraction grows stronger. Soon circumstances demand that she must choose between him and her father. Tragedy ensues.

An interesting aspect of the book by Linda Wolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang is Amneris’s transformation from vanity (“My Strongest Suit”) to compassion (“I Know the Truth”).

The stately McGinty is terrific and believable in this role. She’s also the show’s best singer.

This is not to slight the singing or the regal bearing of Jeté as Aida. Thomas as Radames also does well.

Directed by Jasen Jeffrey, supporting characters are well played, especially by Montel Anthony Nord as Mereb, Radames’ Nubian slave, and Benjamin Ball as Zoser, Radames’ father.

The outstanding choreography, expertly danced by the 10-member ensemble, is by Nicole Helfer. Music director Alicia Jeffrey conducts the orchestra from the keyboard.

The colorful costumes are by Merissa Mann with the set by Mark Mendelson and lighting by Michael Oesch. Overly loud sound by Zak Stamps distorts lyrics.

Otherwise, it’s an enjoyable, well done production.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, it will continue through Nov. 18 at the Fox Theater, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.

Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography



'All the Way' with LBJ in his first year

President Lyndon B. Johnson (Michael Monagle, center) signs the Civil Rights Act on June 19,1964. 
Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” goes back 55 years to what happened after that awful day, Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

This docudrama, presented by Palo Alto Players, relates what his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, did in the year between becoming what he called “an accidental president” and seeking election in his own right in 1964.

Played by Michael Monagle, the folksy but wily Texan’s first goal was to see the landmark Civil Rights Act enacted. After succeeding in that endeavor, he then sought the Democratic nomination and election. The play’s title comes from his election slogan, “All the way with LBJ.”

Getting the Civil Rights Act through Congress was an enormous task, given the staunch opposition by Southern Democrats.

It once included a voting rights provision, but he was forced to compromise by dropping it and sticking with just equal rights to employment and public accommodations.

This compromise didn’t sit well with black leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Fred Pitts), the fiery Stokely Carmichael (William Bryant Jr.) and others. They agreed, though, after Johnson promised he would push for voting rights after the election. The amended bill passed in June 1964.

There were more obstacles along the way, but Johnson managed to succeed.
He did so through flattery, threats, promises and demands for loyalty from his backers as well as those who stood in his way.

The play ends with his landslide victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater.

It has a hint of the Vietnam War to come when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara reports a possible North Vietnamese attack against Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin and requests a military response.

It only touches on Johnson’s planned War on Poverty, a signature accomplishment after his election.

All of this history plays out in a fascinating way for those who lived through those times. It has some painfully familiar parallels to what’s happening today with demonization of immigrants, attempts at voter suppression in the South and some presidential tactics that have less noble goals than Johnson’s.


Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Tom Gough, left) talks with President Johnson (Michael Monagle).

Directed by Peter Allas, many in the 19-member cast play multiple roles. Some of the more memorable characters are Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Tom Gough), who became Johnson’s vice president; Walter Jenkins (Kevin Copps), Johnson’s valued aide who was disgraced after a sexual encounter with a man; and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Andrew Harris), who was himself outed later; among many others.

Although the acting isn’t as polished as in the 2012 world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this production is still well done and highly fascinating.

It’s facilitated by the sets and projections by Randy Wong-Westbrooke, costumes by R. Dutch Fritz, lighting by Rick Amerson and sound by James Goode.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “All the Way” will continue through Nov. 18 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.   

Photos by Joyce  Goldschmid