Friday, March 16, 2018

Balm in Gilead

Thomas Dean as "Dopey"
Photo credit David Kamminga
If you’re a people watcher, especially the kind of person who goes to a bar or restaurant to watch the other patrons, “A Balm in Gilead” is the play for you.  Now presented by Resurrection Theatre Company at the California Stage Theater, directed by Margaret Morneau.

This is a difficult play to get into, as it has overlappping dialog, simultaneous scenes and mostly unlikable characters.  It takes place in a seedy bar populated by drug addicts and dealers, prostitutes (male and female), lesbians, transvestites, and thieves.

To complicate things, there are 30 in the cast, all of whom are listed by name and actor in the program, but only a handful are ever called by name in the script.  Trying to figure out who is who is pretty much impossible.

That said, it is an oddly entertaining play, the central characters of which are Darlene (Jennifer Berry), a good hearted prostitute freshly arrived from Chicago, and Joe (Vernon Lewis), a drug dealer with whom she becomes infatuated.  Berry delivers what may be the longest monologue I have heard when talking with Ann (Aviv Hannan), a world weary prostitute, about her past in Chicago.  It’s a tour de force but I was perhaps even more impressed with Hannan, whose expression of someone trapped listening to this monologue when she wants to be anywhere else, was perfect.

There is an electricity to this play that makes it oddly compelling.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


 Is the new form of entertainment to be as crude and disgusting as you can be? Is that what passes for art these days? I cannot deny that I disliked Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette, now at Big Idea Theater.  I disliked it a lot, though it was peopled with six talented actors who portrayed their highly unlikable characters very well -- its only redeeming quality!

It is set in a New York hotel suite, decorated for a wedding, with stacks of gifts and an offstage bathtub filled with bottles of champagne. Into the room burst Gena (Leah Daugherty) and Katie (Taylor Fleer), both very high and laughing. Every sentence contains the F word. They discover the champagne and each take a bottle and begin to drink, as they trash the apartment. Regan (Taylor Vaughan) arrives. She is the maid of honor but hates the bride (Shelby Vockel) and has invited the other two because she knows the bride does not like them. The word "fat" is used many times as an insult which I, as a fat person, found distasteful. I hurt for the bride. (The word "retarded" is also used a lot, which many will find offensive.)

Two men, Jeff (Russell Dow) and Joe (Jacob Garcia) that the girls picked up at the bar arrive. Simulated sex and possible rape is added to the drugs, and alcohol. There is vomiting on stage.

Maybe this is the wave of the future, but I don’t want to be entertained by watching the worst of people, especially women.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Book of Mormon

The very funny, very popular “The Book of Mormon” by those guys who also gave you “South Park” (Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone) has returned for another engagement for California Musical Theater’s Broadway series.

The ticket gives a parental advisory for “explicit language,” which may be putting it mildly. In fact some of the funniest things are things that you find yourself shocked to be laughing about.

Back in 2011 when word got out that someone was writing a musical comedy called “The Book of Mormon,” people in the Mormon church went berserk. There were angry protests about the denigration of their religion, pickets were going to be at the theater on opening night.

But then the producers invited some of the Mormon elite to see the show and they realized that it did not really make fun of their beliefs, though it did poke fun at things that arise out of those beliefs. In fact, as highly irreverent as this show is, in the end it is actually spiritually uplifting with the message that love is the answer.

The Mormon “imprimatur,” as it were, is the full-page ad in the program which shows just a photo of the Book of Mormon with a message that says “our version is sliiiightly different” and gives information about learning more about the religion.

The show starts with a bang with the crisp and catchy “Hello!” as each of the clean-cut graduating Mormon students practice their approach to door-to-door contacts. It is such an appealing tune that it may become an ear worm.

This is the day when the graduates will find out where they are to be sent on their mission, and who will be their partner for the next two years. These are young idealists, convinced they will change the world, and none more passionate than Elder Price (Kevin Clay), who may be the holiest, most dedicated (and definitely most vain) of them all. He has prayed to God that he will be sent on his mission to his favorite place in the world — Orlando.

It is a shock, then, when he is paired with Elder Cunningham (Connor Pierson), whom everyone considers a flake and nobody seems to like very much. The two of them will be setting off for the country of Uganda. Elder Price decides to make the best of things because he knows he was destined for greatness and knows that he can do great things in Africa.

Things do not go well from the start, when the missionaries’ luggage is stolen by the warlord known as “General” (because you cannot print his real name in a program or a review) and his henchmen. They also find a lackluster group of missionaries who have been there a while and have done essentially nothing because the natives don’t want to hear their message.

The natives are a happy bunch, if suffering from unspeakable conditions. Their happy tune, explaining how they can remain calm in the face of AIDS and other terrible conditions is “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” another translation that can’t be printed in a family newspaper, but also ear-worm worthy. They are resigned to their lives and want nothing to do with a new religion, which might anger the General (Corey Jones) and make their lives even worse.

Nabulungi (Kayla Pecchioni) is the virginal daughter of Mafala (Sterling Jarvis), who acts like a tour guide for the missionaries. Pecchioni is a force to be reckoned with.

There is a rift between Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, during which each learn much about themselves and their ambitions and Elder Cunningham finds a way to appeal to the natives after all.

The story and energetic music will set your toes tapping. The dance numbers (choreography by Casey Nicholaw) are amazing. Each number is a show-stopper, as are the more tender moments such as the haunting “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” sung by Nabulungi about “the most perfect place on earth.” Her “I Am Africa” is an anthem worthy of being featured on International Women’s Day!

If you have not yet seen “Book of Mormon,” this is an absolute must see. And if you have already seen it, you’ll enjoy it as much the second time around as you did at first.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Heaven Can Wait

“Heaven Can Wait” was a movie produced in 1978, starring Warren Beatty and James Mason, based on the 1941 movie “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” with Robert Montgomery and Claude Rains. Now the Winters Community Theatre Company has put it on stage, under the direction of Jesse Akers. It’s the kind of drama/comedy that Winters does so well.

As the show starts, Mr. Jordan (Tom Rost) is checking people off a list as they pass by him across the stage. With the arrival of Joe Pendleton (Tyler Tufts), things go wrong. We learn that this is heaven and Jordan is checking people off the list to enter the pearly gates. Joe argues that it’s not his time, that he shouldn’t be there and that he should go back.

As Mr. Jordan confers with Messenger 7013 (Michelle Novello), who accompanied Joe to Heaven, they discover he’s right. A terrible mistake has been made. In her compassion to spare him a painful death, she plucked him out of a plane seconds before it was to crash. Records, however, show that Joe, a boxer, had 60 more years left to him and that he was going to be the Heavyweight Champion of the World.

What to do? What to do? Since Joe’s manager had him cremated, they can’t return him to his body and so Mr. Jordan begins the search for the body of someone about to die that Joe can borrow.

Tufts is the perfect choice for Pendleton; a tall, lumbering, not terribly bright athlete fixated on keeping his body “in the pink” and wanting nothing more than what he was supposed to have. He has the perfect New Jersey accent and the street smarts of a Jersey athlete.

Tom Rost always gives a solid, low-key performance, often speaking softly. He embodied Jordan, though fortunately as the play progressed, his confidence and his projection improved. He brings a sensitivity to the role and truly wants to do right by Joe and rectify the mistake that has been made.
Novello, as the brand new Messenger 7013, is eager to help Joe, but unsure what to do. She’s very earnest and is a nice complement to Mr. Jordan.

After a lengthy search, they settle on a millionaire tycoon named Farnsworth who is about to be killed by his wife and her lover (his secretary). Joe is at first reluctant, but since it seems to be his last opportunity, he agrees to inhabit Farnsworth’s body, intent on getting it “in the pink” so the can continue his boxing career. Mr. Jordan promises it’s only temporary and that the search for the perfect body will continue.

Obviously Mrs. Farnsworth (Ana Kormos) and lover Tony Abbott (Loren Skinner) are confused by the very alive Mr. Farnsworth and his aberrant behavior. Kormos is quite good as the murderous wife, but sadly somewhat sabotaged by a voluminous skirt in Act 2 which looked like it had been dragged out of a laundry bag, it was so wrinkled. I hope someone irons it before the show progresses!

Joe/Farnsworth’s first act is to contact his manager, Max Corkle (Scott Graf). He must first convince him that yes, it really is Joe inside that unfamiliar body. Graf gives the outstanding performance of this production, as the grizzled Corkle. He is a delight whenever he is on stage and his final scene brings tears.

Lyra Domingues is Miss Bette Logan, the daughter of a man whom Farnsworth has framed and sent to jail. She comes to Farnsworth to plead for her father’s release. Joe/Farnsworth is taken with her sweet, sincere nature and falls in love with her, which makes his later opportunity to move to a perfect body somewhat problematic.

Germaine Hupe and Donna Akers add some nice comedic touches as Farnsworth’s house staff, while Robert Williams is the perpetually befuddled inspector.

“Heaven Can Wait” is a fun play full of fantasy, twists and comedic situations. It can be slow in parts, especially when the cast seems to be stumbling over dialog (for which they cover quite well); in the end this is a charming play that will amuse anyone.

Friday, March 02, 2018


Something wicked this way comes, and it comes with goddesses chanting, and lots of drums playing ominously.

The play is Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” (or “The Scottish Play” as superstitious thespians prefer to call it, fearing that speaking the actual name will bring bad luck), now at the Sacramento Theatre Company.

This version, set in 11th-century Scotland, is directed by Casey McClellan and is inspired by paganism and ancient ritual. The three witches, for example (Janet Motenko, Ruby Sketchley and Monique Lonergan), represent the Triple Goddess: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. They serve Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft and magic (Carissa Meagher).

This is a less-bloody-than-usual version of the classic, relying instead on the believability of the emotions of the characters than on the visual examples of the atrocities occurring, for the most part, off stage. (The “bloodiest” character wears red, but does not drip blood, as in some versions I have seen.)

With his tall stature and dark, searing eyes, William Elsman is unmistakably Macbeth, a man driven by ambition, who does terrible things to achieve his goals, but he is a man who is unable to bear the psychological consequences of his actions, and is constantly tormented with guilt. His later descent into madness as his power-hungry killing spree begins to weigh heavily on his soul was decidedly believable.

A worthy companion is Atim Udoffia as Lady Macbeth, who is smart, ambitious, brave and ruthless. Her passion for her husband is as strong as her passion for helping him become king. Her anguish over the murder of Duncan, a murder she precipitates, prevents her from sleeping soundly and her famous soliloquy while sleepwalking reveals how much their actions are weighing on her. Unlike her husband, she is eventually overwhelmed by her guilt and commits suicide.

Ian Hopps gives an intense performance as Macduff, the thane of Fife, who discovers the murder of the King, particularly when he learns of his family’s murder. It is he who ultimately kills Macbeth, yet acts not out of revenge, but to save Scotland from destruction.

Meagher returns as Lady Macduff, on stage just long enough to get murdered in a revenge killing.

Special note should be made of sixth-grader Sebi Fernandez, in his first year of STC’s Young Professionals Conservatory, for his performance as Fleance, son of Macduff, who suffers one of the best on-stage deaths I have seen in a long time. (Fernandez alternates in the role with Dakoda Jones.)

Macbeth’s buddy and companion is Banquo (Michael Jenkinson). When the witches prophesy that his children will one day be the kings of Scotland, it is enough to send Macbeth into a jealous rage and kill his friend, only to be haunted by his ghost as he begins his descent into madness.

As this play progresses, it is inevitable that comparisons will be made between the catastrophe that is the Macbeth reign and the current problems in our own country — in fact, situations are so similar in places that they evoked laughter in the audience. At least here (so far) the problems are not solved by murder.

Sacramento Theatre Company has given us a not-surprising excellent production, continuing its commitment to bringing Shakespeare to a new generation of theatergoers.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Midsummer Night's Dream

Rodger McDonald, the man who excels at everything, proves the point by directing the Woodland Opera House’s visually stunning production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He also gives a commanding performance as Oberon, king of the fairies.

McDonald has previously directed 11 main stage shows, and appeared in 19.

The play tells several stories, each of which occurs during a single summer night in a magical forest outside Athens, in which fairies play pranks on lovesick mortals, earnest youths endure comical romantic confusion, and a group of mechanics attempts to rehearse a play in secret.

Jordan Hayakawa is the mischievously irresistible Puck (with the wonderful Spock ears), who delights in playing pranks on mortals. Hayakawa is lithe and elfin and seems to be everywhere at once. She is a pleasure to watch from before the show begins while she and other fairies hide in and around the audience, playfully impish.

Theseus (Matt Franck), Duke of Athens, is about to be married to Hippolita, former queen of the Amazons, portrayed by Jessica Hanselman Grey, a steady, loving companion.

Then there are the lovers. Hermia (Rachel Foster) is in love with Lysander (Thomas Dean) but her father Egeus (Robert Payawal) wants her to marry Demetrius (Brent Randolph), who loves Hermia, but her friend Helena (Analise Langford-Clark) is in love with Demetrius. It’s enough to make your head spin, though the actors keep it all straight and give good performances.

Payawal may be the only one with problems. He speaks too fast and too low to be understood some of the time, and he seems to be reciting lines rather than embodying the role of a father trying get his daughter married off to a desirable suitor, particularly in Act 2.

Egeus asks for the help of Theseus to force his daughter to marry. Theseus gives the young girl the choice of marrying Demetrius, or entering a convent.

Hermia and Lysander decide to elope, but on the way, they stop to rest in a forest populated by fairies, led by Titania in a wonderful portrayal by Patricia Glass (her costume is also great).
The forest is absolutely beautiful and high marks go to scenic designers Joey and Craig Vincent, especially for the way those green trees and that beautiful blossom-bearing tree can be moved around to create different looks.

Erin Bruni gets recognition as the fairy Mustardseed, who sings a lovely, lyrical a cappella song.
We meet the”mechanics,” five workmen who are rehearsing a play and hope to present it at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolita. The group is led by Quince (Steve Mackay, in another strong performance) trying to rein in Bottom (Phil Stommel), a ham who thinks he’s the greatest actor of all time.

Stommel, in his first performance at the Opera House, is wonderful in the role, but when his head is turned into that of a donkey by Puck, the costume is absolutely marvelous looking but it muffles Stommel’s words so that it is difficult to decipher what he is saying, which is really a shame because it’s such a great look!

Puck also casts a spell on Hermia and Demetrius, which, of course, does not go as planned, but teaches Helena that you should be careful what you wish for.

In the end, as it must in a comedy, everything gets straightened out, the right couples join together and all prepare for the big wedding, where Bottom gets to prove what a truly awful actor he is.

Puck has the final words, apologizing to all for the tricks she has played throughout the evening. (“If these shadows have offended…”)

This is a fun production, worth seeing for the acting and for the set, both of which are outstanding.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

One Man, Two Guvnors

Peter Story, left, who stars as Francis Henshall, and Amy Kelly,
who juggles multiple roles, perform in the hilarious
“One Man, Two Guvnors” on stage now at the B Street Theatre.
Rudy Meyers Photography/Courtesy photo

 The folks at the B Street Theatre picked the perfect vehicle to introduce patrons to their beautiful new theater, The Sofia (the Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts), on Capitol Avenue (there is a huge parking garage next door).

The first thing to notice about the expanded, 380-seat main theater is the size of the stage. Now with wings and fly space, scenic designer Samantha Reno was able to build huge walls that slide to the side, large backdrops that roll down and back up again, and pieces that fly in from the top to create an impressive, often-changing scene.

For the first show, Buck Busfield, producing artistic director/director, chose Richard Bean’s “One Man, Two Guvnors,” the insanely funny modern adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century Italian farce, “The Servant of Two Masters.” The show was a runaway hit for James Cordon when it opened in England in 2011.

In the pre-show greeting, Busfield explained to the audience that after last season’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” the patrons complained that it made them think too much — and he promised they wouldn’t have to think at all to enjoy this comedy.

The show opens with music by a “Skiffle band” playing rockabilly songs composed by Grant Olding. The basic band is Jerry McGuire, Olivia Schaperjohn and Hunter Henrickson, with various members of the cast joining in as fillers during scene changes.

As for the cast, this is the perfect show to unite many of the old-time, familiar B Street regulars — Stephanie Altholz, Jason Kuykendall, Elisabeth Nunziato, Jahi Kearse, Kurt Johnson, Tara Sissom, Greg Alexander, John Lamb, Amy Kelly and Dave Pierini.

Leading them all is Peter Story as Francis Henshall, an out-of-work (and starving) skiffle player (musician) who finds himself employed by two different men, and must keep both from learning about the other.

Story is outstanding in a role that requires perfect comic timing, a flair for physical comedy, and a personality warm enough to make interaction with the audience a part of the show.

All of the others are at the top of their game, particularly Kuykendall, the nervous, not-overly-bright billionaire searching for his fiancée, Rachel, and Altholz, delightful as Rachel, pretending to be her murdered brother Roscoe.

Kelly plays several of the smaller roles, and also appears as part of the band. I am always impressed with the range of this actress’ talents, who, in this show, is particularly good at pratfalls. Lots of them.
As they say, hilarity ensues, including confusion with doors, food fights, dropped pants, police chases, mistaken identities and even bird poop.

The rapid-fire dialogue is crisp and comical, including the alliteration surrounding the letter “d”: “He was diagnosed with diarrhea but died of diabetes in Dagenham.”

Francis also delivers a very-funny monologue with himself about whether he is confused or not (“I don’t get confused that easily. Yes I do. I’m my own worst enemy. Stop being negative. I’m not being negative.”) that ends up with him fighting with himself. More pratfalls.

This splendidly silly modern masterpiece is two hours of non-stop laughing. I dare anyone to see it and not come out with a smile on their face.