Monday, July 15, 2019

Ironic but positive outcomes in 'The Language Archive'

Much to the dismay of George (Jomar Tagatac) and Emma (Adrienne Kaori Walters), both standing, Resten (Francis Jue) and his wife, Alta (Emily Kuroda), refuse to talk to each other in any language.

The opening of TheatreWorks’ Silicon Valley’s 50th season on July13 was bookended by standing ovations.

The first was for founder and artistic director Robert Kelley, while the second was for Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive.”

TheatreWorks recently was honored with the 2019 Regional Theatre Tony Award, accepted by Kelley and others.

Kelley, who has directed more than 175 TheatreWorks productions, plans to retire at the end of this season. Thus the ovation saluted him for all of his achievements as he came out for his usual pre-curtain speech.

In the play, George (Jomar Tagatac) is a linguist who has mastered many languages and who seeks to preserve languages that could go extinct.

Mary (Elena Wright) tells George (Jomar Tagatac) she's had it and is leaving. 
For all his linguistic skills, however, George can’t communicate his feelings, especially with his wife, Mary (Elena Wright), who leaves him.

In the meantime, George brings to his lab an elderly couple, Resten (Francis Jue) and Alta (Emily Kuroda), who apparently come from a remote Eurasian area.

Rather than speaking their native tongue for him, though, they bicker so much in English that soon they aren’t speaking to each other. They have some of the play’s funniest scenes.

George is assisted by Emma (Adrienne Kaori Walters), who has secretly loved him for a long time, but she won’t tell him because he’s married.

Various encounters for the three main characters have positive but ironic outcomes.

For example, George couldn’t tell Mary how he felt. However when Emma tells him she’s leaving, he tells her how important she is to him and his work and how he can’t get along without her. For her, that’s enough.

Mary (Elena Wright) meets a depressed old man (Francis Jue) at a train station.
Mary talks an old man (Jue) out of jumping in front of a rushing train, thus giving him the gift of life. He in turn gives her the gift of a livelihood.

Resten and Alta, faced with his imminent death, choose to return home but not before reconciling. They also tell George that they will become intertwining trees after they die. It’s a moving moment.

Director Jeffrey Lo skillfully guides the characters through their emotional journeys. His one misstep comes when Emma goes to a German woman (Kuroda) to learn Esperanto, an international language, to please George. As emphasis, the teacher often slams her pointer on a table, but this noisy gimmick soon becomes annoying.

Overall, though, the acting by all five cast members is outstanding, leading to an enjoyable, rewarding experience and earning the ovation.

Andrea Bechert’s monochromatic set facilitates scene changes, but squares that change color between scenes don’t add much.

More effective are Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound, Mike Palumbo’s lighting and Noah Marin’s costumes.

Running about two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission, “The Language Archive” will continue through Aug. 4 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Photos by Alessandra Mello





Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Brilliant work by all in Cal Shakes' 'The Good Person of Szechwan'

Francesca Fernandez McKenzie (center) as Shen Te disguises herself as her male cousin, Shui Ta, who gets tough with characters played by Margo Hall (left) and Lily Tung Crystal. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

The central character in German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 “The Good Person of Szechwan” faces an apparently unsolvable dilemma: After the gods reward her for her goodness, others take advantage of her, thus negating her good intentions.

California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Eric Ting helms his company’s production using Tony Kushner’s adaptation.

In it, the kind-hearted Shen Te (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) disguises herself as her tough-minded male cousin, Shui Ta, to ward off the spongers.

One of them is Yang Sun (Armando McClain), who’s about to hang himself because he doesn’t have the money to pay for a promised job as an air mail pilot in Peking.

She not only gives him some money but also falls in love with him. However, in her male guise, she learns that he was mainly interested in her for the money and the sex.

Under Ting’s direction, McKenzie is the undisputed star of this production, but everyone in the 12-member cast works as a true ensemble. Most actors assume several roles, both male and female, yet every character is clearly etched.

For example, Anthony Fusco, Victor Talmadge, Phil Wong and Margo Hall all show their versatility. Lance Gardner plays Shen Te’s friend Wang, the Water-Seller, who opens the show, leads the gods to her, delivers the epilogue and takes part in other scenes.

Adding immeasurably to enjoyment of this production is Brendan Aanes’ sound design, which often punctuates various lines and actions.

Ulises Alcala’s costumes are a mix of traditional and contemporary, while the set by Michael Locher and lighting by Jiyoun Chang also augment the action.

Some movements, especially by McKenzie’s Shui Ta, are stylized thanks to movement choreographer Natalie Greene.

At times one or more characters will break into songs written by music director Min Kahng.

All of this is part of the Brechtian aim of trying to distance the audience, of showing that this is merely a play.

Nevertheless, the acting and direction are so brilliant that it’s almost impossible not to be swept up by what’s unfolding on the stage.

Running about three hours with one intermission, “The Good Person of Szechwan” will continue through July 28 at the scenic Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (off Hwy. 24), Orinda.

For tickets and information, call (510) 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.