Saturday, September 28, 2019

ACT stages Churchill's 'Top Girls'

Marlene (Michelle Beck, center) with her dinner guests, from left, Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), Dull Gret (Summer Brown), Lady Nijo (Monica Lin) and Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal).

It’s hard to ferret out details in American Conservatory Theater’s season-opening production of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls.”

The (mostly) English accents, rapid delivery and overlapping conversations often muddied comprehension where I sat.

The overlapping conversations are dictated by the playwright and are natural during a dinner party of six women. However, the other two issues, accents and rapid speech, should have been more carefully monitored by director Tamilla Woodard.

In Act 1, Marlene (Michelle Beck) is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls Employment Agency by throwing a dinner party. Her guests, though, are women from throughout history who have overcome male oppression.

They include Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), a German who reigned as Pope John VII from 855 to 857; Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), a 13th century courtesan in the court of Japan who later spent 20 years wandering through Japan as a Buddhist nun; and Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal), a Scottish woman who traveled the world from age 40 until her death at age 70 in 1904.

Completing the guest list are Dull Gret (Summer Brown), the subject of Bruegel’s 16th century painting, “Mad Meg,” in which she leads a group of housewives in battle against devils in hell; and Patient Griselda (Monique Hafen Adams), the obedient wife in “The Canterbury Tales” and “Decameron.”

Unless one reads “Words on Plays,” sold for $5 in the lobby, or had previously knowledge of the characters, the problems cited above make their stories elusive.

The next scene starts with teenage Angie (Gabriella Momah) and her friend Kit (Lily D. Harris) in the back yard of Angie’s home and avoiding the calls of Angie’s mostly unseen mother, Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe).

Angie (Gabriella Momah) shows up at Marlene's office.
Act 2, which is somewhat more successful, starts at the employment agency where Marlene and her colleagues, Win (Hallett) and Nell (Brown), separately interview hapless job seekers.

That’s when Angie shows up for a visit, much to Marlene’s surprise.

Marlene, right, visits her sister, Joyce, Nafeesa Monroe.
The final scene takes place a year earlier (again no information in the program) when upwardly mobile Marlene and her sister, stuck-at-home Joyce, whose husband has left, clash in Joyce’s cluttered home. Numerous family issues are aired.

Despite the problems with Woodard’s direction, this production features spot-on characterizations by everyone. Momah is especially effective as the na├»ve, immature Angie.

Beck is razor sharp as Marlene, who has sometimes ruthlessly overcome sexism and other obstacles in her professional and personal life.

Costumes by Sarita Fellows are terrific, especially for the banquet guests. The set by Nina Ball and lighting by Barbara Samuels complement the production, but Jake Rodriguez’s sound design might contribute to the problem of speech clarity.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Top Girls” will continue through Oct. 13 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

5 stars for PA Players’ ‘Bright Star’

Elizabeth Santana as Alice Murphy starts the show with "If You Knew My Story."

Palo Alto Players’ production of “Bright Star” gets off to an exhilarating start when managing director Elizabeth Santana, playing Alice Murphy, the principal female character, belts out “If You Knew My Story.”
That story is revealed over two acts that shift between the 1920s and the 1940s in North Carolina.
This musical was created by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell with both contributing the music and story, while Martin did the book and Brickell the lyrics.
In the 1920s, Alice is a spirited, smart, book-loving teenager whose fundamentalist father (Michael Mendelsohn) disapproves of her behavior and interests. Nor does he want her to go to college.
Alice (Elizabeth Santana) and Jimmy (Frankie Mulcahy) begin their relationship.
She falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Frankie Mulcahy). Like her, he loves to read and wants to go to college, but his domineering father, Mayor Dobbs (Todd Wright), wants him to stay home and take over the family business.
When she becomes pregnant, she’s sent away to give birth to a son. Much to her dismay, he’s torn from her arms by his two grandfathers and sent off for adoption.
In the intervening years, she goes to college and becomes editor of The Asheville Southern Journal. She never stops hoping she’ll learn who adopted her son.
Gary Giurbino (left) is Daddy Cane, Brad Satterwhite is Billy Cane.
She also meets Billy Cane (Brad Satterwhite), an aspiring writer recently returned from the Army after serving during World War II. He submits manuscripts to the brittle Alice, who rejects them at first but offers tips.
There’s much more to the intriguing story, but suffice it to say that all works out well, thanks to its inherent optimism and changes of heart.
This production is sensitively directed by PAP artistic director Patrick Klein, who also designed the set.
He has assembled a dynamite cast. Besides those already mentioned, actors deserving special mention include Michelle Skinner as Margo Crawford, Billy’s friend and bookstore owner; Nick Kenrick and Samantha Arden as Alice’s employees; and Juliet Green as Alice’s supportive mother.
Overseen by music director Daniel Hughes, a bluegrass band sits on an onstage porch. Much of the music is bluegrass and country, well sung by all. (Helping to set the tone, a bluegrass group plays in front of the theater before the show.)
Meredith Joelle Charlson’s choreography is well executed by the principals and ensemble.
The period costumes are by Patricia Tyler with lighting by Chris Lundahl and sound by Jeff Grafton.
Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Bright Star” will continue through Sept. 29 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit
Photos by Scott Lasky

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Rundown school faces closure in 'Exit Strategy' at Aurora

Margo Hall as Pam confronts Michael J. Asberry as Arnold in the teachers lunchroom.
In a scenario that’s becoming all too familiar in underfunded school districts across the county, a crumbling high school in a rundown Chicago neighborhood is slated for closure and demolition immediately after the last day of the current school year.

That’s the premise of Ike Holter’s “Exit Strategy,” presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

In this fictional school, the teachers must buy their own supplies. Its only administrator, so it seems, is the vice principal, Ricky (Adam Niemann). Only 30 years old, he’s in over his head when dealing with the teachers.

They include the older, more experienced Pam (Margo Hall) and Arnold (Michael J. Asberry,) who’s also the union rep.

Closer to Ricky in age are Jania (Gabriella Fanuele), Sadie (Sam Jackson) and Luce (Ed Gonzalez Moreno), Ricky’s boyfriend.

They all seem resigned to the school’s fate until a savvy black senior, Donnie (Tre’Vonne Bell), galvanizes them and other students into action designed to resist the closure.

Although the situation is realistic, several factors undermine its effectiveness.

First is the play itself, in which some characters, such as Donnie, are stereotyped. Then there’s the direction by Aurora’s new artistic director, Josh Costello. He allows too much yelling and hyperactivity.

Gabriella Fanuele is Jania and Adam Niemann is Ricky.
This is especially true of Niemann’s Ricky, whose performance is often so high-pitched, even hysterical, that there’s no room for subtlety or introspection.

That’s in sharp contrast to the far more grounded characterizations by Hall as Pam and Asberry as Arnold. 

The flexible set is by Kate Boyd, with lighting by Stephanie Anne Johnson, sound by James Ard and costumes by Maggie Whitaker.

Running about an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, “Exit Strategy” will continue through Sept. 29 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St, Berkeley.

For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit

Photos by David Allen

Monday, September 2, 2019

It's delightful, it's de-lovely, it's 'Anything Goes' at Hillbarn

Jessica Maxey as Erma and the four sailors dance in "Buddie, Beware."
Hillbarn Theatre is staging a rousing “Anything Goes,” the evergreen musical with songs by Cole Porter.

Director Lee Ann Payne outdoes herself by also choreographing the show’s often spectacular choreography ranging from tap to ballet.

What really brings down the house is the title song. It features Caitlin McGinty as Reno Sweeney, the role made famous by Ethel Merman, along with the entire company to end Act 1.

Caitlin McGinty as Reno Sweeney, with her Angels, wears the second of several costumes in "Blow, Gabriel, Blow."
With her assured stage presence, McGinty also is a principal beneficiary of Yichuan Sharon Peng’s costumes, especially in “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” when she appears in a series of outfits, each more spectacular than the last.

Other women in the show have several costumes changes, too, courtesy of Peng, who also does the hair and makeup.

In the new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, the story is lots of fun. It’s mostly set on a luxury ocean liner heading from New York City to England in 1934.

Dan Demers' Elisha J. Whitney, with Barbara Heninger as Evangeline Harcourt, is a die-hard Yale fan.
Among the passengers is the blustery Elisha J. Whitney (Hillbarn artistic director Dan Demers), a Wall Street banker and inveterate fan of his alma mater, Yale University. Before leaving, he orders his assistant, Billy Crocker (Nathaniel Rothrock), who’s staying behind, to unload all of his shares of a company that’s about to tank.

But Billy has his mind on another passenger, Hope Harcourt (Melissa Momboisse), whom he loves.

But she’s engaged to an oblivious but well-meaning, rich Englishman, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Michael Rhone). Among his quirks is trying to understand American idioms, but he gets them wrong, saying, for example, “step in it,” instead of “step on it.”

Others on the voyage include gangster Moonface Martin (Christopher Reber), Public Enemy No. 13, along with his gal pal Erma (Jessica Maxey).

Reno is accompanied by her four Angels, who often are paired with four sailors.

Billy manages to stow away, but he’s mistaken for another gangster and spends much of his time evading detection via a series of disguises.

Of course everything turns out for the best with Hope paired with Billy, Evelyn with Reno, and Elisha with Hope’s mother, Evangeline Harcourt (Barbara Heninger).

In addition to the costumes and dancing, the show has some great songs, well sung by everyone accompanied by recorded music.

Those songs put the various characters in the spotlight, with Reno and Billy featured in “You’re the Top,” Reno and Moonface in “Friendship,” Hope and Billy in “Easy to Love” and several more.

The talented Maxey as Erma shines in “Buddie, Beware,” accompanied by the sailors.

Besides Payne, Peng and the entire cast, those responsible for the success of this show include music director Ben Belew, scenic designer Kuo-Hao Lo, lighting designer Pamila Z. Gray and sound designer Brandie Larkin.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Anything Goes” will continue through Sept. 15 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit

Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography