Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Trojan Women

Greek playwright Euripides wrote ‘Trojan Women’ in 415 B.C.; it has been updated several times, including a 1993 version by Irish playwright Brendan Kennelly.

The current UC Davis department of theater and dance production is directed by Kirsten Brandt, current Granada artist-in-residence. It is a good bet that none of these people anticipated the chaos that has gripped this country for the past year, especially where it concerns women’s issues.

Euripides’ women, following the end of the Peloponnesian War, have traditionally been seen as passive victims at the mercy of their Greek male conquerors. However, this version by Kennelly sees them as feminists who, despite the terrible conditions of their imprisonment, manage to support each other and keep their dignity. It examines the nature of women and their strength individually, and especially when supporting each other.

(You can almost hear William Wallace shouting, “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take … OUR FREEDOM!”)

Heading the marvelous cast of actors is Danika Sudik in an awesome portrayal of Hecuba, Queen of Troy. Sudik must lose a couple of pounds with each performance just from the intensity of her monologue deliveries. She is a force to be reckoned with, as is her character.

Rose Kim is her daughter, Cassandra, raped by Ajax, driven mad by her visions of the future and carted away to become the concubine of Agamemnon.

Andromache also was given an intense performance by Kelly Tappan. To Talthybius (Brandon Thomas) falls the task of warning Andromache that her son Astyanax will be killed so that he cannot grow up to avenge his father’s death.

Astyanax has a non-speaking role but 5-year-old Bodan Burmester, from the local Burmester theater dynasty, was amazing, especially lying “dead” on stage for a longer time than most of us could remain motionless. He was very professional.

The women share their collective grief and suffering through exchanging memories and song.
There is a duplicity in the agony of the women when it comes to Helen (Jennifer Vega), whom they blame for all of their sufferings; she is assaulted with hateful speech by all of the women. The feminist bond, it seems, does not extend to include every woman affected by the conditions.
Overseeing the proceedings are the gods Poseidon (Lucas Hatton) and Athena (Caitlin Sales).

“We may like to believe we have come a long way since Euripides’ time,” says director Brandt, “but the presidential election has unmasked deeply embedded misogyny, racism and xenophobia in this country.” She hopes that this production, set in “the not too distant future,” will be a cautionary tale.


The lyrics to “Anthem,” the signature song from “Chess” — written by Sir Tim Rice, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson — have been running through my head ever since opening night:

No man, no madness
Though their sad power may prevail
Can possess, conquer, my country’s heart
They rise to fail

Though the lyrics are sung by a Russian chess champion about love of his home country, somehow it seems appropriate to sing in this country right now.

In 1980, lyricist Rice developed the concept for this musical in a five-page synopsis, exploring how the Cold War affected the lives it touched, much the same way chess pieces are moved about on a chess board.

Rice’s synopsis was expanded and, with music written by Andersson and Ulvaeus (both of ABBA), was first recorded as a “concept album” in 1984. The first staged production did not occur until 1986. There have been several rewrites, including an ill-fated three-hour production that ran for only 68 performances on Broadway.

Now this powerful show returns to the Davis Musical Theatre Company stage for the third time (having been seen before in 2000 and 2011).

The first thing to notice on entering the theater is the striking black-and-white chessboard that covers the whole stage. Various scenes will take place on the board while other characters, dressed in subtle chess character costumes, walk back and forth as if moving in a game. Set and lighting design are by Steve Isaacson, who also directs the production.

The story was inspired by the games of Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer — two chess grandmasters meeting for two different matches, one in Bangkok and the other in Hungary, during the waning days of the Cold war. It is a show about games — the game of chess, of course, but also mind games, political games, war games and romantic games … and about the woman who manages one of them and falls in love with the other.

The Russian champion is Anatoly Sergievsky. Coury Murdock, who sadly had some vocal problems on opening night, gave a powerful performance as the tormented Russian who defects from the Soviet Union, taking with him his opponent’s manager, with whom he has fallen in love. It was a shame that he had to sing his big number, “Anthem” in a suit with pants too long for him. I didn’t want that to be a distraction, but it was.

The American champion is Freddie Trumper (Scott Scholes), a narcissist and an obnoxious jerk, who can’t seem to get along with anyone, and throws temper tantrums when things don’t go his way. Scholes has a nice swagger and presents the personality of a spoiled brat. It’s no wonder Florence, his manager, grows weary of him. Freddie’s big moment comes when he tells his life story (“Pity the Child”) and Scholes nails all of the emotion in the song.

Ashley Marie Holm is a sympathetic Florence, attempting to tame the untamable Freddie and finally growing weary of it. In Act 2 she has a heartbreaking duet with Anatoly’s wife Svetlana (Chris Cay Stewart), in which each women admits that no one woman can satisfy all of Anatoly’s needs, no matter how much she loves him (“I Know Him So Well”).

(It should be mentioned that the plot of this show sometimes seems a bit convoluted, as if major events happen between scenes and never quite make it into the scenes themselves.)

Don Draughon has a small role as Florence’s father (with the adorable Gillian Cubbage as the young Florence), explaining the game of chess to her before she is sent off to America for her own safety. His “History of Chess,” tells its story from the game’s birth in Persia, to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, to the modern-day game.

Also notable in this fine cast are Adriel Cruz as the Arbitrator, making certain that everything in the games run smoothly.

Freddie’s press agent Walter is portrayed by Joel Porter, while the KGB agent Molokov is Scott Minor.

The musical director is Jonathan Rothman, and choreography for this production is by Ron Cisneros, who does especially fine work in the fun “One Night in Bangkok.”

While none of the characters in this play are particularly sympathetic, all are pawns in this game of “Chess” … and the finale scene is a real tear-jerker.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

I Ought To Be in Pictures

Neil Simon has written more than 30 plays and has received more Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer.

“I Ought to Be in Pictures,” now on the Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock Stage, may not be one of Simon’s better plays, but in the right hands, it can be a funny, sweet story. Fortunately, STC has the right hands.

Start with Kate Brugger, who plays Libby, daughter of has-been Hollywood writer Herb Tucker (Eric Wheeler). Brugger alternates in this role with Fiona Ross. Both actresses are members of STC’s Young Professionals Company.

Libby arrives, unannounced, at Herb’s home. She’s 19 years old and has not seen or heard from her father in 16 years, since he left her, her mother and brother in New York. But she knows he’s a writer and expects him to introduce her to people who can get her into the movies, because she knows she is destined to become a star.

Brugger is mesmerizing. She has a self-confidence and a bravado from her first lines. She is in charge of the stage. Yet she can be naive and vulnerable, and as her relationship with her father progresses, she is able to let that vulnerability peek through, while not letting go of the brittle shield that is her protection.

What Libby finds on her arrival in Hollywood is not what she imagined. She pictured her father living in some luxury home surrounded by famous friends. Instead, he’s in a seedy rented bungalow, in the chaos of a life going disappointingly wrong, suffering from long-term writer’s block. After three failed marriages, he is afraid of commitment, though he seems to lavish all of his love on his two citrus trees, of which he is inordinately proud.

Wheeler, perhaps more familiar for his comedic roles, ultimately settles into the role of Herb and makes the chemistry between the two actors beautiful, though his early scenes were a bit too over the top. But the evolution from disinterested father to concerned father is beautiful to watch. He’s never been a father, but he wants to try, even if he sometimes screws up. He comfortably walks the fine line between comedy and drama.

The third character in this show is Natasha Hause, as Steffy, Herb’s kinda/sorta girlfriend, though she would like to make it a bit more permanent. Steffy becomes a buffer between Herb and Libby, calming him down and getting him to give the girl a chance, then supporting her when she becomes frustrated with her father’s lack of response and convincing her to give him a chance.

Hause is a lovely calming influence, not taking over the stage, but always there is a presence when needed.

“I Ought to be in Pictures” is the story of a dysfunctional family and the girl determined to fix things. There is anger, confusion, frustration, but also camaraderie, love … and ultimately redemption.

Life for none of the three characters is what they dreamed it would be, but they manage to make reality work for them.

Director Bill Zarriello keeps the action crisp, which is essential in this play and allows the comedy to come from the natural flow of dialog rather than hitting the audience over the head with lines that he wants them to know are funny.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Prime Time for the Holidays

The bowl of Halloween candy hasn’t even been emptied yet and I’ve already seen my first Christmas play.

The Woodland Opera House’s “Prime Time for the Holidays,” isn’t exactly a Christmas play, but it does have a Christmas theme and re-arranged Christmas carols. (The Family Series will be presenting “The Christmas Story” starting Dec. 2.)

The play is the first produced play for longtime Opera House actor and director Bob Cooner, who also directs with Matthew Abergel. The inspiration for the show was Cooner’s love of prime-time sitcoms of the 1960s and ’70s.

While it is mildly amusing, this comedy itself is not quite ready for prime time. The idea and the elements are all there, but lines often fall flat and there is little laughter from the audience. It is entertaining, but just not knee-slapping funny.

Cooner’s cast is just about unanimously excellent and it is a shame that they don’t have better material to work with.

Cookie Simms (Kristen Wagner) and Ray Gardner (Scott Martin) are America’s favorite TV couple and their variety show celebrates their seemingly perfect marriage, though in real life they have not lived together in months since Ray fell in love with his therapist Amanda Schoenfeld (Patricia Glass).

Cookie’s best friend Barbara (Deborah Hammond) is encouraging her to serve the divorce papers she has filled out on Ray, though she can’t quite bring herself to do that.

The TV show is in trouble because someone accidentally erased the tape of this week’s show and the producer (Jason Hammond) gets the idea to do a reality broadcast, a Christmas show from the couple’s home, which is going to be difficult since the two of them can barely speak to each other.

But it must be done, or their sponsor has threatened to remove not only sponsorship of their program, but of all the network programs.

There are lots of slapstick moments, some that work and some that don’t, and some that are just dumb — like nobody thinks to tell the sponsor, Mason Montgomery (Steve Cairns), that he shouldn’t flush the toilet or walk onto the set during filming? Nobody warns anybody that if they walk back and forth in back of the set (or conduct a fistfight there) it will be broadcast?

The character who perhaps is the funniest and gets the biggest laughs is Gil Sebastian as the washed-up comedian Bernie Marks. Marks is confused, but he’s a trouper who can toss out old jokes professionally, jokes that the audience (including the one in the Opera House) have known for years. Sebastian, in his befuddled-ness, does bring a spark of life to an otherwise bald and unconvincing plot.

There are funny opportunities missed, like Cookie’s desperate search for a cigarette, which seems to be forgotten when the sponsor, a tobacco company representative smoking a cigarette, comes onto the stage. There is no reaction from Cookie until much later.

But, as I said, the actors are excellent. Both Wagner and Martin are likeable and it’s easy to see how they became America’s sweethearts.

Deborah Hammond again gives a memorable performance, as Cookie’s friend, mistaken by Montgomery as the maid. Cairns gives one of the strongest performances in the show, though his character’s continual racist comments are more irritating than funny, but Deborah Hammond makes them funny by her reaction.

Jason Hammond is full of bluster and anger and a perfect producer, trying to make his stars do what he wants them to do.

Patricia Glass’ character as the “man-stealing psychoanalyst” is just annoying. Glass does well creating a stereotypical uptight analyst, but spends most of her time being pushed into another room or giving boring lectures analyzing behavior of one or the other characters. She, too, is completely unaware of when she is and is not on live camera.

Daniel Silva as Chip Gardner, Cookie and Ray’s college-age son, gives a laconic performance when he’s home from school and caught in the middle of his parents’ marital problems. He comes into his own when paired with guest star Lesley Lyle (Kristen Myers), a fiery singer/dancer apparently more interested in making out with Chip than in performing. Myers, tossing her Britney Spears-like hair around, is great fun to watch.

A small band — consisting of Chris Schlagel, Cassandra Brokken and Jim Nakayama — accompanies the cast in singing several Christmas songs, none of which is performed in any way that will sound familiar.

This is a mildly enjoyable, though not outstanding, first effort by Cooner. It probably will appeal more to older audiences than younger ones.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

August: Osage County

There is a family dinner. A casserole gets dropped. Chaos ensues until someone says “It’s not a party until someone spills something.”

A lot gets spilled in Capital Stage’s production of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” directed by Benjamin T. Ismail.

Someone spills a casserole, someone drops a luncheon plate, others spill the beans. Many times. This very dark comedy about a warring Oklahoma family makes George and Martha (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”) look like they just had a little spat

There is a reason why this play won every major theatrical award when it opened on Broadway — including the Pulitzer Prize for drama — and why the notoriously cantankerous Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called it “without qualification, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.”

Director Ismail has the cream of the crop for a cast, starting with the always wonderful Janis Stevens as Violet Weston, the pill-popping matriarch of a dysfunctional family who have gathered together because father Beverly Weston (Rich Hebert) has disappeared.

It is a shame that Hebert’s role as the grizzled, depressed, bourbon-guzzling former-professor-now-wannabe-poet is so small because his performance is stellar and makes you want more.

The Westons have three daughters: Barbara (Amy Resnick), Ivy (Taylor Burris) and Karen (Dena Martinez). Barbara and Karen have gone off and made a life for themselves, leaving the unmarried Ivy to stay home and take care of their aging parents. Her mother is particularly cruel to her, taunting her for her appearance and pushing her to put on make-up, dress up, get out and find herself a man.

Burris walks the line between wimp who has endured her mother’s verbal abuse all of her life, and a woman hiding a secret that may make her the strongest of all the Weston girls.

Barbara arrives with husband Bill (Rick Eldridge), from whom she is separated (one of the secrets spilled fairly early in the play) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Jessica Brooks). While Brooks seems older than 14, she is able to play the stereotypical ornery and hormone-driven teenager to perfection.

Martinez is Karen, the flighty daughter, who hasn’t been home in a very long time, not even when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She arrives in time for her father’s funeral, but is more excited about her life, her fiancé Steve (William Glasser) and their approaching nuptials as well as her dream honeymoon in Belize.

Jamie Jones is the perfect choice for Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, whose husband Charlie (Harvey T. Jordan) worshipped his brother-in-law and is having a difficult time adjusting to his new role as family patriarch.
Their son, Little Charles, as played by Justin D. Muñoz, seems to have limited intelligence and is painfully shy, but is hiding a secret that will change lives.

Chiitaanibah Johnson plays Johnna, a Native American whom Beverly hires before his death to help care for his wife. Sadly, Johnson is the only member of the cast who has projection problems. Her early scenes, played very close to where I was sitting, were impossible to understand because she spoke so softly. Since she has a major impact on the family, it is good that she has few actual lines.

The cast is rounded out by Tim Church as Sheriff Dean Gibeau, all grown up now, but formerly Barbara’s high school prom date. Will sparks fly at their reunion?

The set, designed by Jonathan Williams, is huge, complicated and mobile. Rooms move in and out, allowing stage hands to change one scene unobtrusively while another is played out on another part of the stage.

This play is full of drinking, pill-popping, dope-smoking, cursing, infidelity, incest, lechery, suicide and one good slugfest, yet you feel invested in these people and care about them. Ismail’s direction honors Letts’ script and this is a gem of a production.

Best of all, after spending three hours with the Westons, your own family won’t seem quite so irritating when gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Impromptu at Versailles

Before the performance began for Molière’s “The Impromptu at Versailles” at the Pence Gallery, Timothy Nutter, director of this Art Theater of Davis production, explained to the audience that in his youth he had performed with Acme Theatre Company on the Pence Gallery outdoor stage. And when the remodeling of the gallery made that space no longer usable for performances and Acme moved to the Davis Arts Center, it had been his dream to bring theater back to the Pence.

He has finally done that (and moved it indoors where it is warmer … and you can’t hear the passing trains!). It’s the perfect venue for this company.

While this 45-minute, one-act comedy is delightful, an immediate problem is that while the program lists the character names and actor names, the script (adapted by Nutter) gives little clue as to who is who. I spent a good deal of the time frantically trying to figure out which actor was playing which role.

For those still planning to see this play, let me make it easier for you:

It was obvious that Shane Osterhoudt was Molière and his wife (Mlle Molière) was played by Kate Bellock. I also was ahead of the game because I knew that the actress in the red beret was Scarlet O’Connor, playing Brecourt, because the gentleman sitting next to me was her next-door neighbor.
Molière finally called De La Grange by name and so I knew that he was played by Kevin Toole, which, by process of elimination meant that the tall character was Du Croisy, played by Adam Siegel. (The character La Thorilliere — played by Juan Miranda — entered late, so there was no question about who he was.)

That left three women unidentified until Mlle DeBrie was called to the stage by name and I could see that the slender actress who played her was Morgan Smith, the only woman not in black.

Eventually, I thought I heard Mlle Du Parc mentioned, and discovered that Jennifer McSpadden, the actress wearing pearls, played the role, which meant that Christina Schiesari must be Mlle Bejart, the character with the blue fan.

In the 17th century there was a battle between two competing theater companies in Paris, one led by Molière. Each company produced plays intended to glorify their own productions and actors while at the same time poking fun at the other company. (Think presidential debate!)

This play, Molière’s final act to the dispute, is a play commenting on the reviews of a play commenting on the criticism of the original play. The actors and playwright go through the process writing of a play, which they are to perform at the order of King Louis XIV, but the process of writing the play is the play.

In Molière’s original, he satirized three of his most famous plays. In this adaptation by Nutter, the plays being satirized are those performed by the Art Theater of Davis itself.

“In our version, the actors quote and satirize plays ATD has produced in the past three years and satirize the acting style of ATD,” Nutter says. “As Molière satirically turned his play back on himself and his actors, we are turning this play back on ourselves and our acting at the Art Theater.”

The strength of ATD has always been the quality of its actors, and “The Impromptu” is no exception. From Osterhoudt’s mercurial temperament as Molière to the sexuality of Bellock as his wife, to the arguments led by McSpadden and Schiesari as Mlles Du Parc and Bejart, everyone gives impassioned performances, though occasionally the cross talk and disagreements among the whole cast make it difficult to understand specific dialog. But the comedy is often slapstick and very funny.

A plain stage surrounded by the paintings of the Pence Gallery’s “Forgery Show” — featuring revised, updated versions of masterworks like “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “The Goldfinch” — created the appropriate atmosphere for all the behind-the-scenes squabbling

The Oct. 29 performance at 2 p.m. will feature music by the Sacramento Baroque Soloists, including dance music by Lully, with whom Molière collaborated on entertainment for the king.

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.