Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Pirates of Penzance

From left, Charlie Baad, Anthony Tavianini and Lisa Derthick perform in Light Opera Theatre of
Sacramento's production of “The Pirates of Penzance,”
running through Sunday, Oct. 23. Chris Baad/Courtesy photo

 Anyone who has attended the Citizens Who Care winter concerts may recognize Lisa Derthick, who has performed in them for several years, in the current production of “The Pirates of Penzance” at Light Opera Theatre of Sacramento. She plays Ruth, the nursemaid whose misunderstanding of her master’s request got her young charge Frederic (Anthony Tavianini) apprenticed to a pirate instead of a pilot.

This is a sparkling production, directed by Robert Vann, with an orchestra under the direction of Troy Turpen keeping a sprightly tempo that keeps the show moving at all times.

Though the sets are modest, the talent definitely is not. From the robust men’s chorus (unusual in a community theater) to the delightful women’s chorus (Rhonda L. Thomas also has performed in Citizens Who Care concerts). They skip onto the stage twirling pastel umbrellas and doing intricate choreography and never once got tangled up.

The first act finale, “Hail Poetry,” sung a cappella by the entire cast, sent a chill down the spine.
As Major General Stanley, Mike Baad (a Light Opera Theatre of Sacramento producer) displays the talent he has honed for more than 60 years of playing Gilbert & Sullivan patter roles, many with the Davis Comic Opera Company in the 1970s. Baad’s Major General is full of bluff and bluster and he sings his signature “Modern Major General” at a fast clip, and then the last verse in double time with crystal-clear diction.

Charlie Baad is the robust Pirate King, usually everyone’s favorite, the situation in this production as well. He was undeniably in charge of things, alternately stern and soft.

Derthick’s Ruth was a demure, middle-aged woman in Act 1 and by Act 2 was a brazen hussy resplendent in her leather pants, tight bodice and fly-away frizzy hair. The trio performance of “Away, away! My heart’s on fire!” with the Pirate King and Frederick was excellent.

Carley Neill’s Mabel was glorious, with a strong voice that fills the theater. Her interaction with Frederic was tender and loving.

Tavianini was a tall and stately Frederic, an innocent finally out of his indentures and able to take his revenge on the pirates who have been his “brothers” for most of his life, but whose profession he abhors.

The character of Samuel, second in command to the Pirate King, is usually an also-ran in most productions, but Kevin Branson makes the role his own and there is no ignoring him.

The only “off” part of this production was the addition of the character of the governess (Meredyth Rosenberg), who served no real purpose on the stage and stuck out like a sore thumb most of the time. If nothing else, she added to the richness of the chorus, but her dark costume clashed with the pastels of the girls and it just didn’t work.

This is an engaging production that belies its modest setting. It is sure to delight the most discerning of Gilbert & Sullivan aficionados.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Rikki Tikki Tavi

From left, Anastasia Bonaccorso as Darzee and Catherine Gloria as Rikki Tikki Tavi delight all ages with their performances in the B Street Theatre Family Series’ “The Garden of Rikki Tikki Tavi.” Rudy Meyers/Courtesy photo

One way to judge the quality of a production performed for children is to check the reaction of the children in the audience.

By that criterion, the B Street Family Series’ new “The Garden of Rikki Tikki Tavi” adapted from a Rudyard Kipling story by Y York is an unmitigated success.

Checking the children around me, I saw a boy of about 3 in his mother’s lap, riveted to the action. An older boy behind him jumped up and down in glee during a chase scene. Children sitting on the side of the stage sat in rapt attention and applauded enthusiastically.

What’s not to like? It starts with the sumptuous colorful set of an East Indian garden by Samantha Reno. It has multi levels, and interesting things everywhere — plants, rocks, etc. — to engage a child’s attention.

The one-act show also has a lot of good messages about sharing and cooperation, with some information about eating good food, endangered species and simple etiquette, all in a format that does not sound like teaching at all.

The weekend I saw the show, director Lyndsay Burch stepped into the role of Darzee, the tailor bird who claims the garden as her own. (The role is normally played by Anastasia Bonaccorso). Burch was vain and haughty and protective of things that she considered hers and sings a song “Mine, Mine, Mine.” She also established a nice rapport with the children in the audience before the show started.

Into Darzee’s own private paradise bounces Rikki Tikki (Catherine Gloria), a young mongoose who will earn his “Tavi” when he grows up. Gloria is absolutely adorable. Rikki is a bundle of exploding energy, oblivious to anything but joy and happiness in his world, and trying to find a home for himself. The children love his wide-eyed innocence, even as he continues to commit breaches of tailor bird etiquette and exasperate Darzee.

The young mongoose is adopted by Teddy, a young boy played by adult John Lamb. (Lamb later returns as a cobra and is able to create two such different characters, that children are probably hard-pressed to realize it is the same actor in both roles, especially when a very quick costume change is involved.) Teddy is delighted to have a pet, which, he explains, keeps him from being at the bottom of the family food chain.

Amy Kelly is also on hand as Chuchu, the muskrat (very particular that people remember the “musk” part of her name). Kelly is irresistible, with her muskrat overbite. She establishes a friendship with Rikki and teaches him about the dangers of Nag, the feared cobra.

Lamb’s cobra slithers onto the stage in a very believable snake-like fashion, first to hide her eggs and later to do battle with Rikki Tikki, who earns his ”Tavi” in his dealings with Nag.

This is a show that even young children will love, and yet there is enough sophistication that adults will find it enjoyable as well.

The B Street Theatre’s Family Series is California’s only fully professional, resident theater for children. It has made it its mission to introduce children to the wonder of professional theater through the production of original plays and original adaptations of works of literature. Since its first season in 2003, it has presented more than 50 plays for approximately 300,000 children and families.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Romeo and Juliet

The final production of the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s 2016 Shakespeare Festival is the beloved “Romeo and Juliet,” the show that launched the company in 2011. As with the two previous productions, “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Bells are Ringing,” this production continues the level of excellence that we have come to expect from this company.

Director Rob Salas explains that the company decided to look to the ancient practice of forming a story circle, and so there is a blank stage with chairs in a semi-circle with some random wooden pieces stacked in back and the one necessary set piece — a rough-hewn balcony off to the side. As each scene ends, the players take their seats again and the next players come up to do the next scene.

The device is surprisingly effective — and works especially well during the sword fights (choreographed by Sydney Schwindt), where the men have the entire stage at their disposal and look quite professional wielding their swords and daggers.

It’s a dream cast. Gabby Battista is a beautiful Juliet, whose face registers every emotion she feels, especially as she tries to balance her grief over the slaying of cousin Tybalt and the banishment of her secret husband, Romeo. She’s both delicate and strong at the same time.

Kyle Stoner’s Romeo is a bundle of pubertal energy, raging hormones first for the lovely Rosaline, and then instant switch to the lovelier Juliet. (It always amazes me that these two young teenagers meet, fall in love, marry and die within two days!) Stoner’s emotions are full out, whether expressing his love of Juliet or his despair at learning he has been banished from Verona.

Even if the rest of the cast weren’t excellent (and they are), this show would be worth seeing if only for the performance of Gail Dartez as Juliet’s nurse. Everyone should have a devoted servant like this. She can be very funny, or very emotional, first keeping Juliet’s secret, and then discovering her supposedly dead body. She is Juliet’s best friend and confidante and brings comic relief to the story with her often inappropriate and long-winded comments..

The Hatfield-McCoy-like warring families are led by Tim Gaffaney (Capulet) and Will Oberholtzer (Montague). Oberholtzer also plays Friar Laurence, a meatier role than that of Juliet’s father, as he hopes that by secretly marrying the two lovers, he can bring peace to the Capulet and Montague families.

Lisa Halko, a grandmother in real life, so the oldest in the cast, is a marvelous Lady Capulet. She doesn’t quite know how to be a mother to the daughter she entrusted to a wet-nurse at birth, but she is very interested in the match her husband has arranged with Paris, a kinsman of the prince.

Kevin Gish as Paris at first seems a good match for Juliet , but his imperious and demanding attitude quickly shows his true character and you can easily see that she will become an abused wife if the marriage takes place.

Costumes for this production are by Caitlin Cisek and Karly Goodwin. With all that black leather, it looks like they bounced right out of “West Side Story,” and it is both sinister and regal, sometimes simultaneously.

The plan for this play by Davis Shakespeare Ensemble is to make the production accessible to high school students, so they are making it a field trip destination for many schools all over Yolo and Sacramento counties.

The appeal to a younger audience is the only excuse I can find for the abominable background “music” you might call it. The pre-show “music” was so loud and ear-shattering that it gave me a headache, but the single-note fuzzy synthesizer background, sometimes with added ominous unintelligible voices, was so irritating it nearly spoiled this otherwise wonderful production.

It also seemed random. Sometimes it was unrelenting. Sometimes it stopped for certain soliloquies (thank goodness the balcony scene was unsullied!). Sometimes it kept going over the dialog of a special scene and stopped midway through. Sometimes it was louder than other times. It was always annoying.

I hoped for relief at intermission, but it continued all through intermission as well. I guess it was supposed to keep the gloomy mood going. I checked with people around me, all of whom were in my age range. One woman didn’t mind it, but everyone else hated it. I don’t know if the fault is with sound designer Adam Smith or if the decision was made by someone else and simply executed by Smith, but whatever, it is not something that is likely to appeal to the over-50 crowd.

Were it not for the music, or whatever it was, this production would receive an A-plus.

Gospel According to First Squad

“Gospel According to First Squad” is the latest play in Tom Burmeser’s “War Cycle,” a cycle that began with “Wounded” (about soldiers who were wounded in the Iraq war) and “Survived” (dealing with a family’s grief at the death of their soldier son).

“Gospel” gets closer to the action, as Burmester and his ensemble realized they had not investigated actual battle and what happens to those soldiers, in this case, at an outpost in the “Valley of Death,” the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.

A platoon of six soldiers and their Afghani interpreter await transfer back to the United States. The men are testosterone-infused, sex-starved and hungry to return home. They each have hair-trigger tempers and fights break out over many things. One particularly violent fight involves everyone, and the choreography by Chad Fisk makes it all look marvelously realistic.
But they also are a real band of brothers, and their concern for each other matches their anger at each other.

A new soldier, Gabriel, joins the platoon, filled with religious zeal, a determination to spread the word of God to the natives (which is strictly against rules), and eager to share his knowledge of God and the Bible with his fellow soldiers, none of whom have the slightest interest in listening to him.
If there is one problem with this production is that it is difficult to figure out who is who and which actor is playing which role (probably only important for a critic, not for the enjoyment of the audience). The men usually do not call each other by name, and they’re all dressed alike and have similar haircuts. Though their names are sewn to their shirts, they usually wear flak jackets that cover those names.

Rather than be wrong in identifying an actor, I will state that Jarrel Ramos is Lt. Dela Cruz, a photographer for a hearing that takes place at the start of the play. Caitlin Sales is Capt. McCasus, who is heading the investigation, Edward Gorman is Sgt. Taylor, David d’Olimpio is Capt. Raasch, Taylor Church is Pfc. Gehrman, Ryan Geberding is Pfc. Wright, Josh Hazeghazam is Pfc. Jackson and Monte Misa is Doc Brooks, the combat medic.

Borair Elyacy is the platoon interpreter, hoping to escape to America when the platoon leaves.
Act 1 of this two-act play takes place in camp where emotions run high and tempers clash. Wright receives bad news, which sends him into a tailspin that makes him fodder for the proselytizing of Gabriel.

There are a couple of spots in the action that border on preaching on topics about which we have heard preaching many times, but mostly the realism of the teasing, the flare-ups, the anger and the disappointments ring very true, and are an acknowledgment of the conversations Burmester and director Danika Sudik had with soldiers who had been in combat and shared their stories.

The dialog is not pretty, nor is it meant to be. Anyone offended by negative expressions or raw language will not be comfortable, but to pretty it up would be to do an injustice to the men this play honors.

In an interview, Burmester pointed out that “The guys are deployed in a very remote location. One of the things that stuck with me was that the farther away you are from the generals and the colonels, the more out in the field you are, there’s more of a sense of omnipotence. A gun gives you power. There’s more of a sense of not needing to adhere to rules, but being the ones that make the rules.”
Act 2 is a much shorter act, which takes place following an interaction with the enemy. It is brutal, bloody and shocking, but necessary to present the whole scope of the experience.

When Burmester set out to write his “War Cycle” his goal was to concentrate on the “overlooked,” the injured, the survivors and now the actual soldiers in combat. With “Gospel” he has given us very realistic glimpse of what it is like being out there in the trenches.z


“SEVEN,” directed by Anita Ahuja, is an odd choice for a show for the Winters Theatre Company, which is more accustomed to presenting lightweight, frothy comedies. “SEVEN” is a documentary play, first performed in 2008, written by seven female playwrights based on interviews with seven women around the world who have fought for the rights and well-being of women and girls.

The play is being staged to commemorate National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Each of the women’s stories is moving and inspiring.

Hafsat Abiola’s story was written by Anna Deavere Smith and was performed by Carla Fleming. After the assassination of both her father (briefly president of Nigeria) and her mother, Abiola fought a campaign for human rights in Nigeria and founded the Kudirat initiative, promoting democracy in Nigeria. She was named Global Leader of Tomorrow at the World Economic Forum in 2000.

Fleming brings a quiet dignity to her character. She carries herself as would the daughter of a noble family, and rather than rant and rave, she gets results by being cool and collected, her very demeanor demanding respect.

Playwright Ruth Margraff wrote the story of Farida Azizi from Afghanistan, played by Monica Arneja. Azizi has met with George Bush and Hillary Clinton on women’s roles in helping to rebuild Afghanistan. She was part of several international groups working for women’s rights. When she was imprisoned in her own house by her husband, she managed to escape to the United States with her two sons, where she continues to work for women’s rights.

Like Fleming, Arneja delivers her message with a quiet dignity. She also points out that a burqa can be a handy piece of clothing when trying to hide children from authorities.

Guatemala’s Anabella de León raised herself and her family out poverty by getting an education. She was the first vice president of the Guatemalan congress and has been a congresswoman since 1995. She has received death threats because of her fight against corruption and for the rights of the poor, particularly women and indigenous peoples. Her story was penned by Gail Kriegel.

Ana Kormos is a real firebrand as Anabella, with her wild hair and a passion for her work and for her people.

Mu Sochua is a tireless activist in Cambodia, focusing primarily on domestic violence. She helped create and pass the Prevention of Domestic Violence bill.

Meera Ekkanath Klein gives an impassioned performance exploring the depth of her character’s feelings and desire to do something meaningful in her country.

Paula Cizmar tells the story of Marina Pisklakova-Parker, played by Fran Wittman. Pisklakov is Russia’s leading women’s rights activist and has set up a series of hotlines for victims of domestic abuse.

Wittman is a force to be reckoned with. She ardently portrayed Pisklakov’s passion for saving women from domestic abuse when she realizes how rampant a problem it is.

Mukhtar Mai was the survivor of gang rape in Pakistan. She found the courage to speak up, to bring charges against her rapists and to win a court battle and a large sum of money, which she used to establish a school for other girls. Susan Yankowitz tells her story.

Shahzana Ali gives an emotional performance that will have you weeping. Watching her transform from a shamed girl who felt her life was over to a powerful, proud woman is wonderful to behold.

Inez McCormack’s story is written by Carol K. Mack and performed by Janene Whitesell. McCormack, who died in 2013, was a Northern Irish trade-union leader and human-rights activist and founded an organization supporting disadvantaged groups based in Belfast.

Whitesell is a real spitfire and her performance shows all the fire that one would expect from an Irish woman.

“SEVEN” is a roller-coaster ride that will open the audience’s eyes to problems facing women worldwide and leave everyone with admiration for those who are making a difference despite the challenges they have faced.

The show runs in Winters through Oct. 9 and there will be a special performance at the Davis Musical Theatre Company on Saturday, Oct. 8, at 8 p.m.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Tom Burmester (feature)

“This ‘Gospel’ is chapter and verse one of the finest war plays in recent memory.”

That’s what the Los Angeles Times wrote about Tom Burmester’s “Gospel According to First Squad,” currently on stage at UC Davis.

It’s high praise for Burmester, who grew up in Davis, and is now making a name for himself in theater in Los Angeles and other places where his works are presented.

“Gospel” is the third in what ultimately will be a four-play “War Cycle.” Burmester is working on the script for the fourth play, while considering the current show still a “work in progress.”

I asked how a kid raised in a nuclear-free town, a city of all things right and relevant, developed such an interest in writing about war. While he would not pinpoint his interest on his upbringing, he explained that “a lot of it came from my dad,” Dave Burmester, now retired and a beloved former English teacher at Davis High School.

“I took as many of his classes as I could when I was in high school and I remember a fascinating unit on war literature,” Tom Burmester said. “Some of that probably rubbed off on me.”

The Gulf War was being waged when Tom was a senior in high school and he saved every article he could find from the San Francisco Chronicle “just because I had a sense that there was something significant happening and I was going to want to look back on that time and remember.”

In 2004, after graduating from UCLA, he and other out-of-work professional and non-professional actors founded the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, which formed partly with funds raised during a Ghostlight Theatre Festival here in Davis.

The Ensemble ultimately became “The Powerhouse” after the group took over an old Southern California Edison building in Santa Monica. They performed there for several years until the lease expired and the landlord hiked the rent so high that even with box-office income and grants from Santa Monica, the young company couldn’t make it.

The first thing the Ensemble did was a production of Burmester’s thesis project from UCLA, but it was a two-person play and, realizing that it’s hard to build a group around two people, they decided to “create something.” A socially conscious group, they wanted something relevant and decided to focus on the war in Iraq.

He explained, “We were at war, but none of us felt like we were at war.” He was working for a group called Rock the Vote, and doing research for a paper on the issue of bringing back the military draft.
“When you have a universal draft, you can’t ignore the war,” he said.

The bill didn’t pass, but the members of the ensemble took this issue on, and decided to have a season that examined the overlooked.

“The news was into this idea of the counter of how many had been killed. It was ticking up to 2,000,” Burmester said. “That’s not really overlooked, but what is overlooked is the wounded. When you are wounded it not only changes your life, but the lives of everyone around you.”

They started doing research into that, but since no members of the group had been to war and none of them had been wounded, they knew they had to go to the source. Burmester tried to connect with people in the Army. He wanted to go to Walter Reed Hospital, but was not able to get past the bureaucratic barriers.

Then help came from an unlikely source. Through Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon, Burmester learned of a nonprofit organization, Fisher House, that serves the military. It maintains homes on military campuses that are specifically for severely wounded veterans and their families. The philosophy is that healing takes place more holistically and faster when the patient is surrounded by loved ones.

“I flew out there and spent a couple of days and they were happy to have me there,” he said. “Once Fisher House had me as a guest, I was able to get into Walter Reed.”

Burmester then talked with a lot of veterans, but concentrated on three — a combat medic named Joda whose eyes had been blown out in an explosion, Bill Pepper (on whom a Doonesbury character is based), and Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs, and is currently the congresswoman from Illinois’ 8th District.

“They were generous with their stories,” Burmester said. “For me it was definitely a transformative experience. I interviewed them and they gave their permission to use their stories.”

He explained that this would be a fictional story, but their stories would lend verisimilitude to the project.

“We felt accountable to these people whose stories we were borrowing. The script is grounded in reality so that there is an honoring of their stories. We’re not trivializing anything.”

The first play was “Wounded,” which had one performance in Los Angeles and then was performed here in Davis.

” ’Wounded’ cuts much deeper than I expected,” wrote Don Shirley of LA City Beat. “It’s not a pity-the-poor-cripples, curse-the-Bushie-bureaucrats play. It looks unsparingly at the choices that face the soldiers in Iraq, the wounded who return, their families and friends — and, by extension, the American public and their elected representatives.

“Conceived by the ensemble, it has been shaped by writer-director Tom Burmester into a gripping edge-of-the-seat experience.”

“Wounded” was performed in Los Angeles and it did so well that the group staged it again the next year. The 2007 production also was successful but they thought “We can’t keep doing it over and over again.” Yet they still felt the responsibility to tell stories about the war, to hold themselves responsible and culpable for the lack of awareness.

The second in the cycle, “Nation of Two,” which opened in 2010, focused attention on the grief of a family preparing to scatter the ashes of their son, killed in Iraq, one year after his death. The idea came from a Christopher Hitchins article in Vanity Fair about a man named Mark, who had joined the ROTC while a student at UCLA, became a lieutenant and was deployed to Iraq, where he was killed.
“I was particularly interested in the widow,” Burmester said. “She looked nothing like my idea of a war widow. She was in her early 20s, young and hip. We developed a relationship with her and the rest of Mark’s family.

“As they shared their stories, I learned that each deals with grief in a different way. There was a difference in the way they wanted to remember Mark. It’s the story of the family, but the central character is missing.”

Actor/director Danika Sudik, who later became Burmester’s wife, came onto the scene at this point. As a war widow herself, she had a special interest in this story, especially the conflicts that can erupt among the survivors.

“I understand things a lot better than I did in 2008,” Sudik said. “Working on the development of this play was a lovely way to look at things in a way that I probably never would have otherwise.”

The group started looking again for what to do and realized they had yet to deal with actual combat. There was a photo spread in Rolling Stone by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that featured portraits of soldiers in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, and Burmester was struck by the images.

“There was so much storytelling in the photos themselves that it became a launching point,” he said. “We managed to connect with a few folks who had served in combat in Afghanistan. It was important that they had been in combat, so they could explain that experience to us.”

Added Sudik, “The thing I remember most about them was how reticent they were to actually say the words. They were holding back and skirting around the topic, but it seemed like they really did want to talk about it all.

“Finally we told them they could say anything and we were not going to be offended or judgmental. They were relieved and the things that came out that are in the play — things that they were embarrassed to talk about, like sexual dysfunction and psychological issues that happened to them while they were there, and after they returned home — that really stuck with me, as a woman.
“They’re in this place where there are no women and how much that affected the way they were talking and acting with each other.”

“That’s a lot of what ‘Gospel’ is,” Burmester explained. “The guys are deployed in a very remote location. One of the things they talked about that stuck with me was that the farther away you are from the generals and the colonels, the more out in the field you are, there’s more of a sense of omnipotence. A gun gives you power. There’s more of a sense of not needing to adhere to rules, but being the ones that make the rules.

“We were also fortunate that one of the cast members in our original cast had served in Afghanistan in combat, so he was able to check us. When we were in our original run in L.A., occasionally a veteran would pull me aside and say, ‘You might want to look at this. … There’s a little detail here that’s not quite right.’ ”

One difference in this production is that since Sudik is pursuing a master of fine arts in directing, “Gospel” has an all-female production team.

““It has been awesome to get all these different perspectives and they’re so young, too, so they are going through their own interactions and everything is super-hypercharged,” Sudik said. “The things that they are noticing and are drawing out in the story are strengthening it so much.”

Burmester added, “It’s about this culture that we’re creating and that we are condoning. This is our American face as seen by part of the world. What does that mean? What are we creating for these men to come home to?

“So much of this play is about ideals and what we say is important to us. And then what actually happens to a person when the rubber hits the road? And how that changes, and how you justify your choices,” he continued.

“One thing I’m proud of — ‘Gospel’ is not glorifying the war. The media that we consume is about the hero story. We latch onto that and we have the American hero in our corner. But the issues are so much more complex than sound bites. We’re defining ourselves by our tweets. What does that mean?”

But that is a subject for another play.

“Gospel” is a reunion of old Acme Theatre Company alumni. In addition to Tom Burmester, Steven Schmidt, the tech director for the B Street Theatre in Sacramento, is doing tech direction for this show, and Chad Fisk, another Acme alum who went on to become an actor in the Bay Area, is doing fight preparation.

“This show has a lot of brutal hand-to-hand combat,” Fisk said. “There is one huge melee where there are six people fighting simultaneously — which involved lots of note-taking. Many in the cast are new to acting and new to fights, so I’m teaching them how to do it safely. When fights look too polished, I made them look more raw and ugly.

“It’s a great show with an amazing script,” Fisk promises.

Nearly 20 years ago, Tom Burmester realized he wanted to put a face to “the overlooked” — and with this war cycle, he certainly has done that.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Speed the Plow

I waited patiently throughout David Mamet’s 80-minute one-act “Speed-the-Plow” now at the B Street Theatre in Sacramento, certain that the show itself would give me a clue as to what the title meant. But it didn’t.

After the show, a circle of critics also each admitted that they did not know what it meant either. Aren’t we lucky to be living in the age of Google?

“God speed the plough” comes from a 15th-century work song and was a prayer for prosperity and productivity.

Mamet himself explained that he saw a saying on an old plate — “ ‘Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow.’ This, I knew, was a play about work and about the end of the world, so ‘Speed-the-Plow’ was perfect because not only did it mean work, it meant having to plow under and start over again.”

Mamet took his interpretation to the world of corporate Hollywood, specifically Bobby Gould (Dave Pierini), who has just been made head of production for a major movie studio and a down-on-his-luck colleague Charlie Fox (Kurt Johnson). This satire about the movie business gives the audience a glimpse of how things really work in the art of the Hollywood deal.

Charlie has just had the offer of a lifetime. A big Hollywood star has read one of his scripts and wants to star in the movie. Charlie is there to get Bobby to green-light the project. The two men are positively orgasmic at the bright future they see before them, with this big-name star and this violent prison/action movie. It will be the surefire blockbuster of the season and Bobby’s slump will be over.
There’s just one hitch: The paperwork needs to be finalized by 10 a.m the next day and the head of the studio will be out of town until then. Not to worry, Bobby assures his friend. The deal is as good as done.

Into the meeting comes Bobby’s temporary secretary, Karen (Stephanie Altholz), tall (in those 4-inch spike heels) and impossibly thin, but well proportioned. The men make all sorts of sexist comments about her after she leaves. Charlie bets Bobby $500 that he cannot seduce Karen.

To set the stage, Charlie engages Karen in discussion about plays he is considering and especially one very thick book called “The Bridge or, Radiation and the Half-Life of Society,” which he has been asked to read as a “courtesy,” though the studio has no intention of making it.

In the next scene, Karen comes to Bobby’s house with the thick book liberally marked with dozens of Post-It notes and she raves about the book and how it changed her life. She tries to convince Bobby that Charlie’s play is garbage and that he should produce this play. During the course of the discussion, she becomes the seductress.

In the final scene, a subdued Bobby admits to Charlie that he has changed his mind about which play he is going to green-light. Charles’ reaction and surprising revelations about Karen round out the action and bring the play to its surprising conclusion.

Mamet is known for wordy plays, and for a three-person play that is dialog-driven to work, the actors must be top-notch and the dialog needs to snap, crackle and pop. In this superb production directed by Jerry Montoya, it does just that.

Pierini and Johnson are excellent as the good-old-boy Hollywood mogul types. Pierini is particularly notable for the change from Scene 2 to 3, where his demeanor becomes slow and steady, in opposition to his high spirits of the first two scenes.

Altholz is just great as the not-so-dumb office temp who shows she is capable of doing more than just pouring coffee for the men. Her subtle shift from naive, submissive temp to take-charge seductress is masterful.

This is a first-rate production for the B Street Theatre.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Death of a Salesman

Ed Claudio
Fredric March, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman and Lee J. Cobb are some of the A-list actors who have played the iconic Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman,” now being presented by the Actors Workshop of Sacramento at the California Stage complex, under the direction of Eason Donner.

Now Sacramento’s grand old man of theater, Ed Claudio, has taken on the role of Willy Loman, a role that has been on his bucket list since he first played it for only two weeks 15 years ago. “It’s my favorite role. My favorite play,” says Claudio, who believes now is his time, before he gets “too old to do it.”

How fortunate we are that he made this decision. From the moment Willy shuffles through the front door, bent over with the weight of his grips, and wearily makes his way to the bedroom, Claudio is Willy Loman.

(No program credit is given for set design, but the cozy, if tired, two-story house of 1940s Brooklyn is perfect.)

This is not a happy play. It is the story of a man nearing the end of his life, beaten down by a profession that used to hold him in high regard, a son who failed to fulfill the promise his father had for him, and a life that just hasn’t turned out the way he expected it to.

Willy has been a salesman all of his life, and in his younger days was well respected by the buyers around the country, and was good friends with the owner of the company for which he worked.

But the world is changing.

New people don’t know him and don’t order from him, the boss’ son now runs the company and has kept Willy on because he has been there so long, but, at 65 he doesn’t have the physical stamina that he did years before. And so when Willy comes, asking to be assigned to the home office and taken off the road, he is fired.

Willy has a hair trigger and, as downtrodden and defeated as he can be, he can also explode in anger at a moment’s notice, and often does.

Claudio does well, bouncing back and forth between Willy’s present and his fantasy life with a brother he admired (now long dead), and son Biff’s (Matt Fairall) glory days as the high school football hero.

Willy’s brother Ben (Chris Amick) is the epitome of the American dream, having struck it rich in the diamond mines. “Why, boys, when I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out. And by God, I was rich.”

Lighting designer Alicia Thayer kind of dropped the ball here. In other productions I have seen, there is a definite change in light between the present and the dream world, but on the small California State stage, that change somehow got lost and it was not always immediately apparent in which world Willy was living.

Claudio is surrounded by a solid cast of characters from his theater workshop. Fairall gives a very strong performance as Biff, the kid on whose shoulders his father pinned all his hopes for success. But like too many high school athletic stars, Biff just doesn’t have the smarts for college or the drive to succeed. He handles the scenes where he is the virile young stud whose world was his oyster as well as the befuddled adult he has become, more interested in drink than in pursuing a career.

(Willy refuses to acknowledge that Biff’s discovery of his father’s affair on the road had a profound effect on the rest of his life.)

Younger son Hap (Kevin Frame) is a people pleaser, always trying to win his father’s approval, but lost in Willy’s obsession with Biff. Frame is not often the center of a scene, but he has a wonderful way of always being in the scene and never losing focus. Hap is a philanderer, going from one woman to the next with no desire to establish a permanent relationship.

Willy’s wife Linda is often seen as a world-weary woman, as beaten down by life as her husband, but Laura Luke is a life force, a fiercely loyal wife, protective of her husband, and ready to do battle with anyone not in his corner.

Darryl DeHart is Charley, the next-door neighbor, who likes Willy enough to lend him money to keep him afloat, though Willy never seems able to repay his loan. Bernard (Zach Coles) is Charley’s son. Though he will not admit it, Willy is jealous of the good father-son relationship they have and the success they have achieved in life.

The play moves toward its inevitable tragic conclusion and when the small group of four stand at Willy’s grave, one remembers his delight in imagining how people would come from all over his territory and there would be a huge crowd at his funeral.

For a “feel good” night of theater, this is not your cup of tea, but for an impeccable script and outstanding performances, this is one production that is well worth seeing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Beauty and the Beast

It was the lifelong ambition of Rachael Sherman-Shockley to play Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.” In this Davis Musical Theatre Company’s current production, she proves her ambition was a good one.

She is beautiful, warm, generous and loving, yet high-spirited and plucky. She sacrifices herself for her father and in the end falls in love with a hideous beast, for which she is rewarded with a handsome prince. She is a perfect Belle.

She sings well, too.

Celebrating its 32nd year of musicals, the DMTC production — directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson — is a fun, colorful, occasionally opulent one, with good talent, beautiful costumes by the remarkable Jean Henderson and a great-sounding orchestra, under the baton of Steve Isaacson (also credited with set design).

It should be noted that, with the addition of a new stage floor, which changes the opening for the under-stage orchestra DMTC, seems to finally have gotten the audio right and the orchestra has never sounded better — or sounded more a part of what is going on on stage.

Joining Sherman-Shockley is a strong cast, which help make this a very good production. Coury Murdock handles the Beast role beautifully, remote and querulous, brooding in his lonely castle, with only the companionship of his staff, who are, themselves, in the process of turning into inanimate objects, as part of the curse.

The most endearing scenes are those in which the staff attempts to instruct the Beast in how to woo a woman.

Murdock delivers wonderful songs, but none so moving as “If I Can’t Love Her,” the Act 1 finale.

Mike Mechanick heads the staff as Lumiere, the maitre d’, who is becoming a candelabra. He is assisted by Cogsworth (Hugo Figueroa), the butler who is turning into a clock, and the housekeeper Mrs. Potts (Marguerite Morris) with her son Chip (Sophia Farwell) as a tea set. All three are delightful.

Morgan Bartoe gets high marks for her flirty “Babette,” the maid becoming a feather duster.

As for Madame de la Grande Bouche (Cyndi Wall), becoming a wardrobe, I have to wonder — with that huge skirt and high wig and jewelry, exactly what part of the house staff she was, but she is a delight, and her “Carmen” aria was great.

And then there is the town bully, Gaston, a L’il Abner-looking buffoon who is so in love with his muscles that he likes to kiss them. Travis Nagler is marvelously over the top, singing such humble songs as “Me” while he attempts to get Belle to agree to marry him.

Gaston’s second in command is the weasely LeFou. Tomas Eredia gives one of the better performances in the show, just so sleazy that you almost like him because he’s so darn cute.

Steve Isaacson is also credited with set design and the sets are attractive, with the town background a huge piece that moves to bring in the castle. While not exactly opulent, they work well.

The trio of Silly Girls (Deia Farley, Kathleen Hornbacker and Lucinda Otto) are all vying for the love of Gaston and add a lot of fun to the town scenes.

Tracy Traum is credited as props designer. If that includes the famous “rose” whose petals fall slowly as the Beast comes closer to losing the chance to become human again, kudos. It’s perfect.

While the music of Alan Menken is less tuneful than others of his Disney repertoire, there are a few songs that you do remember.

This is a show that should appeal to both children and adults, though perhaps it’s more complicated for the very young kids.