Tuesday, October 06, 2015

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche

The cast of B Street Theatre's “5 Lesbians Eating A Quiche”
includes, from left: top row, Elisabeth Nunziato and Stephanie Altholz,
bottom, Amy Resnick, Amy Kelly and Tara Sissom B Street Theatre/Courtesy photo

“5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood, now at the B Street Theatre, may be one of the funniest 60-plus minutes I’ve ever spent in the theater. I did talk with two people who didn’t like it at all, but judging by the others around me, they were definitely in the minority.

It is 1956, when Americans lived with the threat of communism and a nuclear attack, and when same-sex attraction was still the “love that dare not speak its name.” Somewhere in middle America it is the long-awaited day of the annual Quiche Breakfast of the Susan B. Anthony Sisters of Gertrude Stein, whose motto is “No men. No meat. All manners.”

The group’s board of directors, all self-described “widows” costumed and coiffed like the most extreme Stepford Wives (costumes by Paulette Sand-Gilbert), are there to get the festivities started.

By the end of the evening, you may never look at quiche in the same way again.

The audience, all of us (male and female) also “widows,” becomes part of things when name tags are slapped on us as we enter the theater (I was “Nora,” my husband was “Eula”).

The play is rife with innuendo, double entendres, metaphor and repressed sexual tension. We learn that the egg is the most perfect food, the closest food to Jesus, that quiche is the staff of life and that meat should never, ever taint the ingredients of a quiche.

Director Buck Busfield has assembled five of the funniest ladies in the Sacramento area — Elisabeth Nunziato, Amy Kelly, Amy Resnick, Stephanie Altholz and Tara Sissom — and each is in top form in this hilarious comedy.

Resnick is Vern, the mannish woman, who wears boots with her dress, walks with a swagger, and sits with legs spread apart. She is the chairman of the buildings and grounds committee and has turned their meeting room into a secure bomb shelter, since the Red Menace is a real threat. She made a couple of mistakes, though, that will greatly affect the others.

The threat becomes reality midway through the play when a nuclear bomb is dropped and the women realize they are safe, but have to remain in their shelter for up to four years. That’s when things get out of control and they realize that they are safe to express their true feelings. In short order, everyone in the audience is admitting that he or she is secretly a lesbian and Nunziato drops the biggest bomb of the night.

The quiche-eating scene is easily the funniest of the evening, though Sissom ultimately makes the biggest splash.

The plot is absurdly ridiculous, but also surprisingly emotional and in the end it demonstrates how far we have come in the past 50-plus years.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Circle Mirror Transformation

L to R: Heidi Masem, Trent Beeby, Woody Fridae, and Linda Glick
I’ve never heard such a quiet audience in my life.

Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” was quite a change from Winters Theatre Company’s usual wacky comedies, and the new young director, Andrew Fridae, had warned the audience there would be silences in the show that might seem uncomfortable and not to worry that the actors had forgotten their lines. Throughout the play, the audience was in rapt attention so that during the silences you could hear a pin drop.

The director has ignored the Community Center stage and built instead a platform along the back wall of the room on which he has created the look of a studio where an “acting class” is taking place, led by Marty (Linda Glick) a 55-year-old acting instructor who teaches by communication exercises rather than by actual acting scenes. Glick, an instructor of such courses in real life, I was informed, is obviously perfect in the role of instructor, mentor and participant in the activities.

There are four in her class. James (Woody Fridae, father of the director and former mayor of Winters) is her husband and their relationship will come under some scrutiny throughout the evening.

Schultz (Trent Beeby) is a 48-year-old divorcee, full of insecurities, newly single, and hoping the class will help his self-esteem.

Theresa (Ana Kormos) is a 35-year-old gorgeous but lonely woman, harboring her own relationship problems and doing a lot of sublimating.

Lauren (Heidi Masem) is only 19 and hopes the class will prepare her to audition for an upcoming high school production of “West Side Story.” She is the typical sullen teenager, but still serious about doing well in this class.

The play is divided into two acts and each consists of three weeks of the six-week class. Each “week” is a series of acting exercises, some of which may seem silly, but which, over the course of the six weeks, shows how the group has come together, and has grown and been changed by their experiences.

Along one wall of the studio is a large mirror, donated by Sally Teaford, which allows the class to concentrate on the exercises, and not on always facing the audience, which can see them in the mirror when they are looking away.

Director Fridae explained to me that this is a “naturalistic play,” meaning that the action attempts to create the illusion of reality. Fridae (and playwright Baker) succeeds so brilliantly that the audience was totally into what was going on on stage.

This was the second-most-produced play in the United States after its 2009 premiere, perhaps because of the small cast and perhaps because of that “naturalistic” approach, but it’s not as simple as it may seem because it requires a team of top-notch actors who relate well to each other. Fortunately, just such a mix is featured in this show.

Throughout the evening, relationships among the participants form and dissolve. One particularly touching exercise involves one person getting up, introducing him or herself as another member of the group and then giving an introduction based on that person. Some of those introductions were quite touching, especially when the actor speaking addressed something within the person he or she was representing that that person had not realized.

“I am a real artist,” for example, was a real revelation to the person about whom the comment was spoken.

Another surprisingly effective exercise was a conversation between two people where they could each use only one nonsense word, “goulash” and “ak-mak,” for example. The exercise began awkwardly, but as the participants became comfortable with the exercise, an actual conversation began to be discerned.

Things work so organically that one wonders if the actors might be improvising, but it’s all scripted beautifully and directed so expertly that it ends up being a new theatrical experience for all. It’s not until the cast takes a rather unusual bow that you realize it has been a play and not a real-life experience all along.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sense and Sensibility

Teddy Spencer as Edward Ferrars and Laura Klingaman as Elinor Dashwood
Whatever did young women do to find a man in the days before online dating sites?

Jane Austen seems to have had her own 18th-century Match.com, based on the plot of her most popular novels. Her “Sense and Sensibility” is currently having a delicious run at Sacramento Theatre Company, opening its 71st season.

Austen wrote this work in the form of letters, in 1795, at the age of 19, which may explain why she writes so knowledgeably about the thoughts and emotions of young women. It was not published until 1811, by which time Austen had changed the form to a narrative and the title to “Sense and Sensibility.” Its author was the anonymous “A Lady.”

The story follows the fortunes and misfortunes, the loves and heartbreaks of the plucky Dashwood sisters and the wicked and wacky characters who surround them.

Lenne Klingaman is simply outstanding as Elinor Dashwood, the “sensible” sister. She is noble to a fault in controlling her feelings for Edward Ferrars (Teddy Spencer), and later her disappointment in him. (Ferrars also takes a brief hilarious turn, as his brother Robert.)

Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer is sister Marianne, the drama queen who feels love is a waste until she is swept off her feet (literally) by roué John Willoughby (Kevin Gish), who will later break her heart.
This is a superior cast, but outstanding among them are Matt K. Miller, playing the kind of role he does so well as John Middleton, the affable squire who offers lodging to the Dashwood women after they are forced out of their own home. Miller plays Middleton with all the ebullience of Dickens’ Fezziwig.

Adding wonderful comic moments is Laura Kaya as Mrs. Jennings, mother-in-law to John, a substantial woman with a voice that shatters glass, an effervescent personality, and a big heart to boot.

Also in the comic department is Tara Henry as Mrs. Palmer, the ditzy wife of dour Mr. Palmer (Ron Dailey). Mrs. Palmer always finds something to laugh at and when she gets together with Mrs. Jennings, they are as funny as Lucy and Ethel off on some wacky caper.

David Campfield gives a subdued but solid performance as Colonel Brandon, hopelessly in love with Marianne, yet constantly rebuffed by her.

Special mention must be given to the marvelous sets by Renee DeGarmo, which, assisted by tech crew and cast members, roll in and out, twist and turn, and create several beautiful settings without a break in the action of the actors.

Jessica Minnihan’s costumes were beautiful, but I did feel sorry that everyone wore the same clothes for the entire show.

In the end, one always wonders if sense or sensibility will win out, and happily for the Dashwood sisters, they learn to combine them both for a happy ending.

That old guy in the Match.com ads would be so pleased.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Three Sisters

left to right Nina Dramer (Masha), Samantha Hannum (Irina),
Megan Aldritch (Olga) photo by Bruce Clarke
“They'll forget us. Such is our fate, there is no help for it. What seems to us serious, significant, very important, will one day be forgotten or will seem unimportant,” says Lt. Col. Vershinin (Earl Victorine), in one of the many melancholic moments of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” now at Sacramento City College’s Art Court Theater, under the direction of Adrienne Sher.

Over four scenes, we watch the three sisters of the Prozorova family, and the others who inhabit the house run the gamut of emotions from the sheer joy of young Irina (Samantha Hannum) on the morning of her 20th birthday to the overwhelming depression of the whole household five years later.   

This is a powerful, moving, sometimes funny production with an excellent cast.  The sisters are played by Megan Aldrich (Olga), Nina Dramer (Masha) and Hannum.  Each has her own personality, from the stern Olga, forced to be the family leader following the death of their father; Masha, stuck in an unhappy marriage and secretly in love with Vershinin; and Irina, whose idealistic dreams slowly die with the passage of time.

Brother Andrey (Thomas Dean) is a talented young man with no drive whose best job seems to be head of the village council.  Wife Natasha (Devon LaBar), the subject of derision for her fashion choices, becomes the shew of the household.

Also outstanding are Tom Rhatigan as Dr. Chebutikin, an eccentric alcoholic doctor, Sean Thomas Olivares as Soleni, a social misfit in love with Irina and Paul Scott as Baron Tuzenbach, also in love with Irina.

With all of their problems, the emotional connection among the sisters remains strong and is the tie that holds this family together.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Uncle Vanya

Christina Schiesari as Elena and Baki Tezcan as Vanya
perform in the Art Theater of Davis production of
“Uncle Vanya,” running through Sunday. Courtesy photo
The sweltering heat of the valley summer should put anybody in the proper mood to see Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” now at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater, presented by the Art Theater of Davis. The final performance is Sunday at 2 p.m.

This is a new translation by award-winning translator Adam Siegel and Timothy Nutter and directed by Nutter, who explains that the script “follows a script based on the original, translated and adapted into American English. We do our best to preserve the spirit and meaning of the Russian text, while also creating a performance that is our own and will work theatrically for actor and audiences of today.”

Professor Alexander Serebryakov (Sean O’Brien) has moved from St. Petersburg, with his much-younger wife Yelena (Christina Schiesari) to the family country estate run by Ivan Petrovitch Voinitsky — Vanya (Baki Tezcan), his brother-in-law, and Sonya (Jenna Templeton), Serebryakov’s daughter from a previous marriage. He proposes to sell the land and live off the proceeds, a suggestion that upsets Vanya so much that ultimately things are left as they are.

Add to the mix Mixail Lvovich Astrov, a country doctor (Matt Urban), Illya Illyich Telyegin (Corey Shake), an impoverished landowner who lives on the estate as a dependent of the family. He is nicknamed “Waffles” because of his pockmarked skin.

And then there is Vanya’s elderly mother, Mariya Vasilyevna Voinitskya (Gail Finney), and Marina (Lisa Halko), an old nurse.

Vanya is infatuated with Yelena. Sonya is in love with Dr. Astrov. Both infatuations are unrequited, and even Yelena’s flirtation with Astrov ends abruptly due to her sense that security with the professor outweighs dangerous passion.

The weather is oppressively hot and everyone is bored, especially Yelena. But each of the characters is unhappy in his or her own way. Tempers flare and passions are briefly kindled, there are discourses on the absurdity of it all and it makes for an unsettling situation.

Chekhov plays are wordy and so they rely on a strong delivery by the actors. While it was easy to see that each of the actors in this production is excellent, there were projection problems. I missed most of the dialog by Serebryakov (O’Brien), for example, though his partner in many of the discussions, Vanya (Tezcan) was easily understood.

Jenna Templeton as Sofya gave perhaps the strongest performance of all, though Tezcan also was outstanding, as was Christina Schiesari as Yelena, around whom much of the action of the play revolves.

The set, designed by Nutter, begins modestly, with a table and a few chairs on an otherwise empty stage, but it grows in complexity with each of the four scenes as it acquires walls and additional furniture as well as homey touches such as floral arrangements by Donna Nevraumont.

Art Theater of Davis is the little engine that could. They are small, they are dedicated to performing theatrical works that one is not likely to see elsewhere, and they continue to present quality work, with increasing audiences each time.

One hopes that they will receive the audience support that will keep them around for a long time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Seussical the Musical

From left, the mischievous Cat in the hat (F. James Raasch), Gertrude McFuzz (Christie Paz),
Mayzie LaBird (Rachael Sherman-Shockley), accompanied by her Bird Girls (Sarah Green,
Cooper Johnson and Michele Guerrieri), are featured in the DMTC production of
“Seussical, the Musical,” running Sept. 11 through Oct. 4.
Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise photo
“Seussical, the Musical,” by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is a show certain to delight children...and it certainly did at the opening matinee at Davis Musical Theater Company.    But there is also enough grown up humor that adults will enjoy it as well.

Filled with familiar Seuss characters like the Whos in Whoville, the Sour Kangaroo, Mayzie LaBird and her flock of feathery friends, Sneeches and other animals from the Jungle of Nool, the show kept every child I watched spellbound, even the ones who looked to be 3 or 4 years old.

This enchanting production, directed and choreographed by Ron Cisneros with wildly colorful costumes by Jean Henderson and wonderful Seuss-ian set pieces by Steve Isaacson is the sort of show DMTC does best, showcasing both the talented adult cast, and also strong performances by members of the Young People’s Company.  And you can’t beat 30 people on stage dancing to the tune of the 20-piece under-stage orchestra.

While the show is filled with catchy tunes, the book itself is weak and it is thanks to a talented cast that it comes across as well as it does.

Heading the show is F. James Raasch as the Cat in the Hat, who directs the action and gets in a little mischief along the way.  Raasch, who has a beautiful voice, had a great time in the role and stuck in his own ad libs now and then, which were usually very funny, even the one aimed at this critic.

But the heart of this production is DMTC newcomer Nephi Speer as Horton the Elephant.  Speer imbued his character with such gentleness and genuine heart that everybody loved him.  And costumer Henderson had the good sense not to give him some sort of elephantine head gear.  He was dressed simply in grey and his “elephantness” came from his performance.

The Cat’s buddy is The Boy/Jojo, who gets into trouble for thinking.  Jenna Karoly came into the show late, but you’d never know it to watch her performance.  She’s as solid as can be and you could not ask for better.  She and Speer have a lovely duet, “Alone in the Universe,” as each realizes that together they aren’t really alone.

You called my name and you set me free
One small voice in the universe
One true friend in the universe
Who believes in me

While the show has a very thin plot, what plot it does have centers around Horton, first in his discovery of the Whos, a teeny community which lives on a speck of dust, whom Horton promises to protect, and the silly bird Mayzie (Rachael Sherman-Shockley) who, already tired of mothering, entrusts her egg to Horton “just for the afternoon.”  A year later, Horton is still caring for the egg because “an elephant’s faithful 100%.”

The Whos are led the Mayor (Adam Sartain) and his wife (Dannette Vassar).  When JoJo has morphed into a Who, he is the son of the Mayor, who doesn’t know what to do with a child who thinks, so he’s sent off to military school under the watchful eye of Gen. Genghis Kahn Schmitz (Scott Daugherty). Together the three sing the fun patter song, 'The Military.”

Christie Paz is Gertrude McFuzz, the one-feathered bird in love with Horton.  Though Paz throws a spectacular tantrum and can make herself heard when she is angry, she had some problems with projection throughout much of the performance.

Of particular note are 6 year old Gillian Cubbage as Thing 1 and Miller Traum as Thing 2.  Both displayed the stage discipline of older actors and both were absolutely adorable.  Cubbage is particularly impressive with her one-handed cartwheels across the stage.

Steve Isaacson’s set pieces are straight out of Dr. Seuss illustrations and add a touch of authenticity to the look, while his lighting design, particularly in the black light under sea scene with glowing fish was fun.

This is a good family show, but if you don’t have kids or grandkids, come by yourself and enjoy, perhaps with a kangaroo sour, which may be purchased at the lobby bar and consumed in the theater.   

Monday, September 07, 2015

Mr. Burns

(From L to R) Amanda Salazar, Katie Rubin, Jouni Kirjola,
Dena Martinez, John P. Lamb, Elizabeth Holzman
Remember “Fahrenheit 451,” when all the books had been destroyed and a little enclave of people, each of whom had memorized a specific book, were teaching that book to a young person so that the words could continue?

That’s kind of how Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns: a Post Electric Play,” now at Capital Stage,  begins. There has been a great apocalyptic event and much of the world has been destroyed. Survivors are finding each other in small groups.

The show, directed by new Artistic Director Michael Stevenson, opens around a fire where a group of survivors tries to remember “Cape Feare,” their favorite “Simpsons” episode, in which Sideshow Bob stalks Bart Simpson with threats to kill him. For the shell-shocked survivors, it’s a bit of normality that helps them push away their fears … for the moment.

Matt (John P. Lamb) and Jenny (Katie Rubin) lead off, yelling lines at each other, as they try to get the show in sequence, with the nervous Maria (Dena Martinez) reacting in delight.

In an interview, Washburn explained that in trying to brainstorm ideas for a script, “We tasked the writers with remembering ‘Simpsons’ episodes, and the dialogue around the remembering of the episode in the first act is largely verbatim from these sessions.”

Interrupting the delight of the group is a new arrival, Gibson (Kirk Blackinton) who has been traveling across the country assessing the damage. The action takes a very somber tone as they learn which cities he has visited and bring out their book of lists to ask if, maybe, somehow, he has come across one of their loved ones.

Eventually Gibson, too, joins in the delight of remembering a beloved television episode.

Joining Lamb, Rubin, Blackinton and Martinez in this top-notch cast are Jouni Kirjola as Sam, Tiffanie Mack as Colleen, Amanda Salazar as Quincy and Elizabeth Holzman as Mrs. Krabappel.

This is a show that will delight fans of “The Simpsons” and perhaps confuse those who don’t know the popular cartoon. It is riddled with references to the cartoon and to the movie “Cape Fear,” on which the episode is based. As someone who only watched the show in the first couple of seasons (there have been 28 seasons!), I know I missed a lot of the references at which many in the audience laughed.

The enigmatic second act, taking place seven years after Act 1, finds a post-apocalyptic theater company rehearsing a show, which includes reminiscing about food and drink they once had (“at this point all I care about my imaginary alcohol is that it is aged”), obsessing on where Diet Cokes have gone (“I know a guy in Wichita who has a stash of Diet Cokes and do you know what he’s selling them for? Lithium batteries, two a can”) and comparing their productions of “Simpsons” episodes with another company’s productions.

The high point in this act is the parody of “The Simpsons” theme song.

If Act 2 left many of us scratching our heads trying to figure out its meaning, Act 3 brought it all together in a fully staged all-musical version of “Cape Feare,” where Sideshow Bob has, for some unexplained reason, become Homer Simpson’s boss, Mr. Burns, a tour-de-force performance by Kirjola (with face makeup reminiscent of Batman’s Joker). Salazar, too, shines as Bart, with Martinez in a lovely Marge wig and Rubin showing all the spunk of Lisa.

Special mention should be made of Jonathan Williams’ set design which, particularly in Act 3, seems identical to the cartoon. Gail Russell must have had a great time designing all those marvelous costumes!

This is not a show for everyone. The script assumes that the audience is already familiar with not only the major “Simpsons” characters but also the minor ones, like Itchy and Scratchy and Apu.
Still, love it or not, there is no denying that the actors give outstanding performances. If “The Simpsons” is your cup of tea, you don’t want to miss this one.

Playwright Washburn perhaps rightly predicts that were we to find ourselves in a similar situation today what we would cling to is not the Bible or Shakespeare, but popular cartoon characters to anchor our memories to a previous, happier time.