Tuesday, August 27, 2019

TheatreWorks stages hilarious 'The 39 Steps'

Cassidy Brown (left) and Ron Campbell play a Scottish innkeeper and his wife as Annie Abrams as Pamela and Lance Gardner as Richard Hannay sign in for a room.

What starts as a bored man’s night at the theater turns into a murder followed by a frantic chase that leads him from London to Scotland in 1935.

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, this is the crux of the madcap “The 39 Steps,” Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of a John Buchan novel and an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

In this version, four actors play dozens of characters, but only Lance Gardner as Richard Hannay, the theater-goer, plays just one role. Annie Abrams plays three of the principal women.

It’s up to Cassidy Brown and Ron Campbell to portray an array of other people of both sexes.

Cassidy Brown (left) and Ron Campbell are vaudeville players in the show seen by Richard.
While at the theater, Richard is joined by a mysterious woman, Annabella Schmidt (Abrams), who says she’s being chased by two men who want to kill her. At her request, she goes home with Richard but winds up with a knife in her back.

Before dying, though, she tells him that an enemy spy ring led by a man in Scotland is planning to steal state secrets, the 39 Steps, that could endanger England.

Suspected of killing her, Richard flees, pursued by a succession of bumbling cops. Once in Scotland, he meets Professor Jordan (Campbell), the sinister ringleader. It’s time to run again, this time handcuffed to Pamela (Abrams).

Eventually all is resolved and the repository of the 39 Steps discovered.

Although the plot itself is interesting, even more entertaining are the quick changes by Campbell and Brown, sometimes just by donning a different hat.

Another fun part of this play is the subtle references to other Hitchcock films, such as “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “The Birds” and others. There’s also a trademark of Hitchcock films, a quick appearance by the director himself, this time in profile.

In her program notes, director Martinson says that the actors are portraying four members of a traveling theatrical troupe who arrive at the theater only to find that no one else is there, and the stage hasn’t been set up, but 500 people are in the audience to see the show.

They gamely go on, using whatever costumes, props and set pieces are handy.
While they’re supposedly improvising, these versatile actors actually are performing a tightly choreographed work that requires precision timing, stamina and physical flexibility.

The first act sometimes veers into slapstick, but the second works better, leading to a hilarious farce.

The actors’ performance also requires the designers’ careful work: Cathleen Edwards for costumes, David Lee Cuthbert for the set, Steven B. Mannshardt for lighting and Cliff Caruthers for sound.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “The 39 Steps” will continue through Sept. 15 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

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

Photos by Kevin Berne

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Singer saves self, church in 'Sister Act'

Deloris (Leslie Ivy-Louthaman, left) leads the chorus of nuns in a joyful, upbeat song.

A woman fleeing her married, murderous lover saves not only herself but also the church where she takes refuge in the musical comedy “Sister Act,” presented by Broadway By the Bay.

Deloris Van Cartier (Leslie Ivy-Louthaman) inadvertently sees her boyfriend, nightclub owner Curtis Jackson (Montel Anthony Nord), shoot and kill one of his henchmen.

Deloris (Leslie Ivy-Louthaman) goes to Eddie (David Blackburn) for help.
She goes to a police officer friend from high school, Eddie Souther (David Blackburn), who takes her to a nearby Catholic church. He persuades its leaders, including Mother Superior (Heather Orth), to disguise her as one of its nuns, calling her Sister Mary Clarence.

It’s culture shock for this black disco singer to blend in with a group of white nuns, but they accept her. She’s asked to attend their choir practice and is appalled to hear how bad they are.

Before long she transforms them into a harmonious, swinging, singing group that proves popular with the congregation, which had been dwindling along with its finances. Thus both attendance and donations grow enough to save the church from being closed and sold to two antique dealers.

Soon the choir gains media attention in Philadelphia, allowing Curtis and his buddies to track her down.

Directed by Erica Wyman-Abrahamson, the acting is terrific from the leads through the ensemble.

Mother Superior (Heather Orth, right) mistakenly confesses to Deloris (Leslie Ivy-Louthaman).
There also are some terrific singers, especially Ivy-Louthaman as Deloris and Orth as Mother Superior. Both are powerhouses who bring down the house several times, such as in their duet “Here Within These Walls.”

Music and vocal director Nicolas Perez leads 11 other orchestra members from the keyboard. The choreography is by Riette Burdick.

The right-on ’70s costumes are by Bethany Deal with sets by Mark Mendelson, lighting by Michael Oesch, and sound by Jon Hayward and Gino Vellandi.

The story might seem familiar because “Sister Act” was a popular movie starring Whoopi Goldberg. This stage version features music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner.

It’s all quite humorous and entertaining.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Sister Act” will continue through Aug. 25 at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.

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

Photos by Mark Kitaoka, Mark & Tracy Photography

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Superb acting in 'Anna Considers Mars' at Stanford

Anna (Melissa Ortiz, left) shows Shelly (Katie Rubin) and Malcolm (Christian Haines) one of the species (Aaron Wilton) she hopes to preserve with the help of their funding. 

Ever since she was a kid, Anna Aguirre (Melissa Ortiz) has wanted to go to Mars.

She gets her chance in Ruben Grijalva’s “Anna Considers Mars,” presented by Stanford Repertory Theater.

However, she has obligations on Earth, mainly her mother, Renata (Wilma Bonet), who has lung cancer and expects Anna to take care of her.

Anna also has founded the Center for the Preservation of Noncharismatic Species, endangered but ugly, disgusting creatures that nevertheless are important links in the food chain.

In the meantime, she yearns to be one of the people being sent to Mars to colonize it and preserve the human species as global warming destroys more and more habitable land.

Going there also would continue her relationship with Malcolm Phillips (Christian Haines), whom she meets when trying to raise money for the center.

Directed by Susi Damilano, the six-person cast in this futuristic, absurdist comedy-drama is superb. Besides Ortiz, Bonet and Haines, the only other actor playing one role is Søren Oliver. He appears as formally attired Carson, Anna’s virtual assistant.

The other two actors, Katie Rubin and Aaron Wilton, play a variety of roles.
Rubin plays Shelly Lawrence, a strait-laced corporate funder who has already been to Mars. She also shows up as the weird, dowdy, religious Dorothy from Minnesota. She excels in both contrasting roles as well as several others.

Wilton appears as the grotesque creatures that Anna seeks to preserve; as Darryl, her ex-husband; as Ishmael, an apish, near-naked fellow; as a greedy doctor; and as others. Like Rubin, he’s terrific all around.

Renata (Wilma Bonet, foreground) and Darryl (Aaron Wilton) watch as Malcolm (Christian Haines) and Anna (Melissa Ortiz) await liftoff to Mars.
As Renata, Anna’s mother, Bonet is wonderfully amusing and manipulative. In some ways, she’s symbolic of what’s happening to Earth. She knows that smoking has caused her illness and continuing to smoke would hasten her death, yet she can’t resists cigarettes.

Likewise, most people realize what climate change is doing to Earth, yet they continue to pursue the activities and substances that cause it.

The production is enhanced by Brooke Jennings’ character-specific costumes. Also contributing are the lighting by Brittany Mellerson, sound by Ian Walker and scenic design consultation by Sarah Phykitt.

 “Anna Considers Mars” was commissioned by Planet Earth Arts and co-produced by PlayGround, both based in the Bay Area. It comes directly to Stanford Rep after its premiere at Potrero Stage in San Francisco with the same director and professional cast. Stanford Rep is presenting it as part of its annual summer festival, whose theme this year is The Environment & Social Justice.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, it will continue only through Aug. 11 at the Nitery Theater, Old Union, 514 Lasuen Mall, Building 590, Stanford.

For tickets and information, call (650) 725-5838 or visit http://stanfordreptheater.com.

Photos by Mellophoto.com