Tuesday, March 10, 2020

'They Promised Her the Moon' tells little-known story

Jerrie Cobb (Sarah Mitchell, left) listens to Jackie Cochran (Stacy Ross) as she expounds on her accomplishments.

In “They Promised Her the Moon,” playwright Laurel Ollstein highlights a little-known but true story from the nation’s space program.

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, the play focuses on Jerrie Cobb (Sarah Mitchell), who was among 13 topnotch women pilots selected for a NASA program to become astronauts.

It begins in 1960 in Albuquerque, N.M., where she was being tested by Dr. Randy Lovelace (Anthony Fusco) to see how long she could remain in an isolation tank. While there, she reflects back on her life, starting when she was 6 years old in Oklahoma and even then dreamed of flying.

She was inspired and encouraged by her father, Harvey (Dan Hiatt), who was a pilot, but her religious mother, Helena (Luisa Sermol), wanted her to get married and be a housewife.

Eventually she did become a pilot, barnstorming at age 16 and later ferrying planes for Jack Ford (Craig Marker), with whom she had a love affair before he callously dumped her.

One of the chief proponents of the women in space program was Jackie Cochran (Stacy Ross), a record-setting pilot as well as the owner of a successful cosmetics company.

Even though Jerrie outperformed all candidates, both male and female, she was sorely disappointed when NASA abruptly canceled the program. Hence, her dream of becoming the first woman in space was dashed.

One of the more compelling scenes is a congressional committee hearing about women in space. Jerrie was a witness.

Even though one of the congressmen, played by Hiatt, seemed sympathetic, he was drowned out by the sexist remarks of his colleague, played by Fusco. That sexism was echoed by the testimony of John Glenn, played with machismo by Marker.

Harvey Cobb (Dan Hiatt) encourages his daughter, Jerrie (Sarah Mitchell).
Even Jackie turned against her. In the end, her only ally was her father as she became a pilot for missionaries in the Amazon jungle.

This play was one of the hits in TheatreWorks’ 2018 New Works Festival, where new plays get professionally staged readings to aid in their development.

Now it has come to full fruition under the direction of Giovanna Sardelli, the festival’s director and a TheatreWorks artistic associate.

She oversees an outstanding six-person cast with four of them playing multiple roles. Only Mitchell as Jerrie and Ross as Jackie play just one character.

Mitchell captures Jerrie’s singlemindedness and determination, while Ross embodies Jackie’s self-assuredness. The other four fully inhabit each of the characters they play.  

The production is enhanced by Christopher Fitzer’s set, Cathleen Edwards’ costumes, Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “They Promised Her the Moon” will continue through March 29 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 Kevin Berne  

'Baltimore Waltz' proves timely at Dragon Theatre

Carl (Asher Krohn, left) ignores Anna's (Ellen Dunphy) concerns about the strange man (Filip Hofman) following them.

When the leaders of Redwood City’s Dragon Theatre slated Paula Vogel’s “The Baltimore Waltz” for this season, little did they know how timely it would be.

Vogel wrote her 1992 play, which she sets in a Baltimore hospital, as a tribute to her brother, Carl, who died of AIDS before they could take a hoped-for trip to Europe.

In this three-person play, Anna (Ellen Dunphy), a first-grade teacher, and her gay brother, Carl (Asher Krohn), a San Francisco librarian, likewise have planned a trip to Europe.

However, just before they’re supposed to leave, she’s diagnosed with a strange new illness, acquired toilet disease, or ATD. Apparently she contracted it from sitting on the toilet seat used by her students.

It’s fatal, but she has no outward symptoms. Therefore, she and Carl embark on their trip. His main goal is to see all the sights, while hers is to bed as many men as possible, since ATD can’t be sexually transmitted.

Those men, plus all of the other male characters, are played by Filip Hofman, here called Third Man. Like several other fun parts of the play, which is often quite humorous, it’s a classic film reference.

Another humorous scene with a film reference involves an 80-year-old urologist in Vienna who has what might be a highly unorthodox cure for ATD. He constantly fights with one of his hands, on which he wears a black glove, a la Dr. Strangelove.

Then there’s the mysterious man who follows the siblings. He carries a stuffed rabbit, as does Carl, who has had one since childhood. His parents allowed him to play with it because he wasn’t supposed to play with his sister’s dolls.

As he clings to it, the mysterious man tries to take it away from him.

Finally, it becomes evident that the trip to Europe is taking place only in Anna’s imagination. It’s Carl who’s ill. Therefore, the rabbit might represent life, while the mysterious man might symbolize death.

Today, with coronavirus raging throughout the world with no known cure or vaccine, “The Baltimore Waltz” strikes some all-too-familiar chords.

Sensitively directed by Troy Johnson, this production features an outstanding cast. Dunphy as Anna has an appealing vulnerability, while Krohn as Carl displays a range of emotions and brotherly love.

Hofman is versatile to the nth degree, portraying men of different nationalities and personalities.

Projections by set designer Bora “Max” Koknar, sound by Jonathan Covey, costumes by Pati Bristow, lighting by Jeff Swan and choreography by Sarah Haas add greatly to the enjoyment of this production in Dragon’s intimate theater.

Running about an hour and 25 minutes without intermission, “The Baltimore Waltz” will continue through April 4 at Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City.

It’s running in rotating repertory with another AIDS-related play, “Confession” by Barry Slater.

For tickets and information, call 650) 493-2006 or visit www.dragonproductions.net.

Photo courtesy of Dragon Theatre

Monday, March 2, 2020

Foothill Music Theatre has fun with 'Mystery of Edwin Drood'

The "Edwin Drood" cast takes its curtain call.

Foothill Music Theatre takes its audience back to the 1890s when music halls were a major source of entertainment in England.

The result is an entertaining evening of theater with FMT’s production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

Rupert Holmes, who wrote the music, lyrics and book, based this musical on a novel by Charles Dickens, who died before completing it. Instead, Holmes asks  the audience to decide some key questions.

Under the astute direction of Milissa Carey, this excellent cast of students and seasoned performers creates a mix of characters from the ingénue to a gravedigger, opium den operator and some seemingly more respectable people whose actions come under suspicion.

Before the show starts, the costumed actors mingle with and chat with the audience. All of them implore the audience to boo John Jasper (Benjamin Ball), whenever he appears.

Scenes and characters are introduced by the Chairman (John Mannion).

Edwin Drood (Chloë Angst, left) and Rosa Bud (Brenna Sammon) are engaged.
Jasper is the uncle of the title character, played by a woman, Chloë Angst, as called for in Holmes’ script. Jasper also is the music teacher secretly in love with the lovely Rosa Bud (Brenna Sammon), who’s engaged to Edwin.

Rosa, an orphan, is under the care of the Rev. Mr. Crisparkle (Aaron Hurley). Soon he welcomes an exotic brother and sister from Ceylon, Helena (Rachelle Abbey) and Neville (David Murphy) Landless. The volatile Neville is immediately smitten by Rosa.

Completing the cast of principals is Heather Orth as Princess Puffer, a fallen woman who runs the opium den frequented by Jasper; and Linda Piccone as Durdles, a drunken gravedigger.

When Edwin disappears while on a Christmas Eve walk, suspicion falls on Neville, who was with Edwin. However, when Edwin hasn’t turned up after six months, others are suspected.

In the meantime, several people investigate his disappearance. They include the mysterious Dick Datchery, whose real identity is apparently unknown.

It’s up to the audience to vote on who among seven suspects is the culprit in Drood’s disappearance, as well as the identity of Datchery and the ideal romantic couple.

The ending varies according to the votes, so the actors must be prepared for several contingencies, but not as many as one might think at first.

All of the principals sing well, especially Angst as Edwin, Sammon as Rosa and Orth as Princess Puffer.

The entire large cast is energetic and engaging, seeming to enjoy everything as much as the audience does.

Aiding in the production’s success is the small orchestra led by music director Amanda Ku and the choreography by Kayvon Kordestani.

Julie Engelbrecht’s period costumes are especially impressive. The set is by Carlos Aceves, who also did the projections. Lighting is by Pamila Gray and sound by Andrew Heller.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” isn’t great theater, but this production sure is great fun.

It will continue through March 15 in Foothill College’s Lohman Theatre, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills.

For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit www.foothill.edu/theatre.

Photos by David Allen