Sunday, May 29, 2016

Scapino


If you’re in the mood for an hour and a half of zany, slapstick fun, there’s still time to catch the free performance of Acme Theatre Company’s “Scapino,” on the outdoor stage at the Davis Arts Center.

“Scapino,” adapted from the original Moliere play, was written by actor, clown and comedian Bill Irwin and humorist Mark O’Donnell. Originally a 16th-century Commedia dell’arte production, it is not surprising that this modern comedy is funny from start to finish.

With pirates, stolen babies, mistaken identities, overbearing mothers and conniving heroes, all this show is missing is music to place it right in the Gilbert & Sullivan vein!

As director Maddy Ryen comments, “ ‘Scapino’ is not a comedy with a lot of depth. It’s heavy on the commedia slapstick and our production … aims to evoke as much of an old-time vaudeville feeling as we can.”

The program explains that it’s set in San Francisco, though other than a backdrop of the Victorian “Painted Ladies,” you’d never know it.

With only 12 people in the cast, this may be the smallest of the annual Acme Memorial Day shows, but the small cast was able to devote more time to perfecting the roles.

Rocket Drew, in the title role, is perfect as the wily rapscallion who plays both ends against the middle, nearly seamlessly. When Octavio (Meili Monk) confesses that he has fallen in love with the lovely Hyacinth (Eleanor Richter), though his mother has already arranged a marriage for him, he turns to Scapino for help.

In the meantime, Scapino’s boss Leander (Isaiah Darshan) has fallen love with the pirate girl named Zerbinetta (Bella Houck, who may have been cast for her ability to laugh endlessly on cue!), and knows that his father is going to be furious. He, too, turns to Scapino for help.

Scapino is aided in all of his machinations by his pal Sylvester (Sarah Zaragoza-Smith). Throughout her history with Acme, Zaragoza-Smith has played a number of pint-sized spitfires and this works extremely well for her in this production.

Actress Maddie Olwert wrote in her bio that she is always cast as “fancy and opinionated elderly women.” Maybe it’s because she’s so good at it. She plays Octavio’s mother, Madam Argante, determined to make the right marriage for her son, partly because of a big secret that is revealed toward the end of the show.

Andres de Loera-Brust is Leander’s dad, Mr. Geronte, and Isa Sultan is Nerine, Zerbinetta’s traveling companion

Making the zany antics just that much more zany are the “Zanni,” a trio of music makers — Patrick Foraker, Mikaela Manzano and Maya Tripathi — who play slide whistles, tambourines, blocks and a host of other noise makers to accentuate the action on stage.

Little kids will love this show even if they can’t figure out what is happening, but there is so much visual comedy going on, one doesn’t need to understand the thin plot, which becomes much easier to follow by Act 2. Adults will love the comedy, the corny jokes and the subtle references to current pop culture.

With a barbecue outside the Arts Center starting at 5:30 p.m. and the free show beginning at 7, this is an early evening, but lots of fun for all. Bring your chairs and/or blankets to sit on the grass, and don’t forget a sweatshirt when the sun goes down.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Mr. Burns


Director Mindy Cooper, University of Granada artist-in-residence, explains that “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” now on stage at the UC Davis Wright Hall Main Theatre, is playwright Anne Washburn’s exploration of a post-apocalyptic society, questioning what survives and what doesn’t, and how things change.

Using the backdrop of the popular “Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare,” the play, sometimes clearly, sometimes muddily, takes us through a dystopian society that has undergone great destruction and shows how the survivors cope.

The play is structured into three scenes: shortly after the event (whatever it was) takes place, the second seven years later and the third 75 years later.

It’s difficult not to think of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″ when watching the first scene. In that classic work of science fiction, all the books in the world are burned, but a small group of dedicated readers survives and each has memorized his or her favorite book and is now teaching it to a younger person, so the story can continue.

In “Mr. Burns,” five survivors are gathered around a campfire (there is no electricity) and they begin to recreate their favorite Simpsons episode, “Cape Feare,” in which Sideshow Bob stalks Bart Simpson with threats to kill him (people who make lists place this 1989 episode as No. 2 in the top 10 “Simpsons” episodes). For the newly displaced and shell-shocked survivors, it’s a bit of normalcy that helps them push away their fears … for the moment.

Matt (Matt Skinner) and Jenny (Leah Daugherty) lead off, yelling lines at each other, as they try to get the show in sequence, with the nervous Maria (Rose Kim) reacting in delight.

Interrupting the fun of the group is a new arrival, Gibson (Ryan Gerberding), 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 the others in remembering a beloved television episode.

Others in this group include Delaney Leigh McCowan as Colleen and Zach Padio as Sam. These six actors will continue to take similar roles in the subsequent two scenes.

Over time, this “Simpsons” episode takes on almost cult status, first seven years later (in the most muddled of the three scenes) as performed by one of many groups of “Simpsons” episode re-enactors. Their performance 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 the “Simpsons” episode with other companies’ productions.

Gerberding takes on the role of a menacing Sideshow Bob in this scene while Padio becomes Bart, Skinner is Homer, Kim is Marge (carrying the blue Marge Simpson wig instead of wearing it), and Daugherty is Lisa. In this scene, the cast is also joined by Danika Burmester, in-law of the legendary Davis theater family, as Quincy/Wife (and Edna Crabapple in Scene 3).

After 75 years, “Cape Feare” has become a full-blown cult classic, with the menacing character now Mr. Burns, rather than Sideshow Bob (Gerberding again). This scene adds a host of new characters, the Nuclear Family Players, and music by Graham Sobelman (musical director) and Aaron Molho (for some reason, the music also includes excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan).

This is not a show for everyone. It has the feel of a cult classic and “Simpsons” fans will love it, while non-“Simpsons” fans may find parts of it funny, but perhaps not get all the “in” jokes and references to the original.

The script assumes that the audience is already familiar with not only the major characters but also the minor characters, like Itchy and Scratchy and Apu. This may be why there was so little laughter in the audience, though encouraged at the start of the play to laugh loudly.

If you can find a copy of the original “Cape Feare” episode, I suspect it would greatly enhance enjoyment of this play.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Motown the Musical


“Motown the Musical,” now at the Sacramento Community Center Theater, is the loud, flashy, audience-pleasing story of Berry Gordy, the man who gave the world Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, just to name a few. One wonders what the music world would be like today if not for Berry Gordy.

While Gordy’s musical vision was second to none, sadly, his talents as a scriptwriter are less acute. Gordy wrote the book for this musical, which is filled with 68 Motown songs by some of the best knock-off stars around, and the script serves — barely — as a hook on which to hang those famous songs. One wonders if Gordy should have been a bit more realistic about his shortcomings and left the writing of this show to others more experienced.

But then the happy crowd was not there for the story, but for the music, as each familiar tune brought cheers from the audience from the first familiar notes.

The device used to telling the Gordy story is the 25th anniversary of Motown, for which there is a show planned in Pasadena. Gordy (Chester Gregory) is refusing to attend because he believes all of the stars he helped to make “betrayed” him by going off and making it bigger on their own. (How dare they!)

This is a good jumping-off point for meeting the young Gordy and his dream to make records, and the growth from the original “Hitsville, USA” to the more familiar Motown, a name based on the location in Detroit, “Motor City.”

While covering the 25 years of the growth of African-American music, the show gives a backdrop of the tumultuous civil rights movement, the assassinations of both President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and so in a peripheral way, it becomes the history of black America of the 1960s.

With sensational dancing, dazzling costumes and often eerily accurate vocal imitations, the show does not disappoint.

Galen J. Williams, as Jackie Wilson (Gordy’s first find), starts things off with a rousing rendition of “Reet Petite.”

Allison Semmes makes a wonderful Diana Ross, as she goes from a giddy star-struck teenager to the icon that she becomes. Her interaction with the audience in Act 2 is particularly good and, on opening night, she pulled an amazing volunteer out of the audience to join her at the mic. (I think Semmes was as stunned as the audience.) Ross gets the most stage time because of her years-long personal relationship with Gordy.

Jesse Nager had the audience at “hello” in his first appearance as Smokey Robinson, though like most of the other big Motown names, he pretty much takes a back seat to Diana Ross throughout the show.
Leon Outlaw Jr. may have a small role as Michael Jackson but he steals the show and was decidedly an audience favorite. He had all of Jackson’s moves down and it was almost sad to see how much joy he brought to the role, thinking of Michael’s later life.

A bittersweet moment was when Jarran Muse, as Marvin Gaye, sang an a cappella version of “Mercy, Mercy Me,” trying to explain to Gordy why he was leaving Motown.

At 2 hours and 45 minutes, this is a longer-than-usual musical. If you are a big fan of very loud concerts, you will love this show, but if your sensitive ears hurt from the amplification, you might consider ear plugs. It will make the whole experience less painful and still allow you to enjoy the music and the dancing. (Ear plugs won’t fix the script, though!)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Not Medea


“Not Medea,” a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere by playwright Allison Gregory, has opened at the B Street Theatre’s B3 Stage and is a work that is both funny and painfully shocking.

The play was a 2015 O’Neill finalist and included on The Kilroy’s 2014 “The List,” an industry survey of “excellent new plays by female-identified playwrights.”

Directed by Gretchen Corbett, this is a tour de force for actress Lori Prince, who plays a pediatric oncologist newly divorced, with a young daughter. Today is her allotted day to have the child, but she is frazzled and just needs a couple of hours to get away.

“Usually I go straight home and nurse a fat drink,” she says, “but not tonight. Tonight is about theater!”

It is a dark and stormy night … really! Claps of thunder are heard outside. Before the lights go down in the theater, the woman (known as “Woman”) rushes in, laden with packages, frantic to find her seat before the show starts. It’s not the play she wants to see, but she needs to get away and this is where she ended up.

She speaks to the audience about what brought her here and begins to reveal something about herself. Her child is apparently at home with a baby-sitter, but calls often, concerned about when Mommy will be home, and also about her missing Cuddle Bunny.

“I’m kinda at my wits’ end. All the questions, it never stops. Wears you down, you know? I had to get away from her. That sounds awful doesn’t it?”

As she walks onto the stage, still looking for a seat, Woman notices the Medea set and encourages the audience to leave.

“It does not end well, my friend. No, do yourself a fat favor and go! All of you, go! I’m not kidding, forget the ridiculous amount of money you just paid and get out.”

As she continues to mutter, she talks about her similarity to Medea, including the fact that her husband, too, was named Jason (though no hero, she is quick to add). She is obviously hiding a big secret that sometimes doubles her over with emotional pain.

“Poor Medea wanted to end her personal pain. Yeah, don’t we all? So what? She was a monster.”
“Chorus” wanders in to speak the lines from the play, and Woman adroitly slips back and forth between 21st-century Woman and the ancient character of Medea.

(“Chorus” is one woman, Deonna Bouye, whose role is brief, but she holds the show together and helps weave it smoothly between mythology and reality.)

Ross Hellwig is the Green hero Jason — tall, strikingly handsome and passionate, but later cold and cruel.

Woman, like Medea, falls for Jason and her bitterness grows as Jason turns cold.
Throughout the play, Woman hints at her deep, dark secret and everything in the telling of the Medea story reveals more and more until at last, she confesses everything and is overcome with the pain of her grief.

The play has a lot of humor, but it also packs an emotional wallop. As Woman’s secret is told, the audience is moved to tears and feels her pain. This is an unusual show, but powerful, and very special.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Disgraced

(From L to R) Adam El-Sharkawi, Jennifer Le Blanc,
Michael Patrick Wiles, Atim Udoffia 
\
A powerful, thought-provoking night of theater awaits audience at Capital Stage.

“Disgraced” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony Award-nominated play by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Michael Stevenson. With its theme of cultural identity at its core, this is a timely play, the most-performed play across the country in the 2015 season.

Leading an exceptionally strong cast is Adam El-Shakawi as Amir, a Pakistani-American attorney, moving up the corporate ladder and on the way to becoming partner in his prestigious law firm. Amir has rejected his cultural roots, hidden his Pakistani origins, and considers himself a good American.
His wife Emily (Jennifer LeBlanc) is white and an artist who is inspired by Islamic imagery and who seems to have a closer relationship with the good parts of Islam than her husband, but who can’t understand the culture on the cell level like Amir, who grew up in it.

LeBlanc gives Emily a blissfully idealistic character, fiercely protective of her husband, and infused with the love of the good parts of Islam, without really seeing the negative parts that have turned her husband against his culture

When asked by his idealistic nephew Abe (Benjamin T. Ismail), Amir reluctantly agrees to attend a hearing of an Imam wrongly accused of collecting money for terrorists. (“Don’t think of him as a Muslim, if you don’t want to. Just think of him as a wise man, who so many people depend on.”)
Though he does not actually represent the Imam, a photo in the newspaper “outs” Amir and starts difficulties at work, as layers of his carefully constructed past begin to peel.

Amir and Emily host a dinner party for Abe (Michael Patrick Wiles), the Jewish curator of a museum interested in Emily’s paintings, and his African-American wife Jory (Atim Udoffia), who is a colleague of Amir’s. Things aren’t going well even before the guests arrive, as Amir’s past is coming unraveled … his birth in Pakistan, his name change, etc. He has had a difficult meeting with one of the law firm’s partners.

During the uncomfortable dinner, while wine freely flows, conversation turns those subjects that should not be discussed in polite company — religion, politics and sex. Personal insults from the culture of each of the four start to emerge (kind of like having your mother fly out of your mouth when you are angry, though you vowed you would never say the things she always said).
By the end of an evening ultimately defined by hatred and rage, revelations have been made that are life-changing and unalterable.

In the final scene, it is three months later, and life has changed significantly. Amir, who has lost his job, is packing up the apartment. Nephew Abe has become a vocal spokesperson for the plight of Muslims, and accuses Amir of turning his back on his own heritage. (“You’ll always turn on your own people. You think that makes these people like you more when you do that. They don’t. They just think you hate yourself. And they’re right! You do!”)

As the play draw to its conclusion, it should leave audience members examining their own cultural feelings. Am I really comfortable with the mixed-race couple next door? Am I automatically uncomfortable when a man in a turban is flying on my plane? If a Jewish person heads up the local bank, do I think, even briefly, about his heritage? Do I extend myself to a woman in a hijab, or do I avert my eyes and wonder if her family might be terrorists?

We live in an era where so many of us are fearful and where anybody who isn’t just like us is considered suspect, even though we are ashamed to think of ourselves as having these feelings.
Akhtar rips off the Band-Aid on these feelings and exposes them to all of us, forcing us to take a hard look at how we really are … and are we a greater part of the problem than we wish to admit? Are we all, on some level, “disgraced”?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mud Blue Sky


From left, Tara Sissom, Jamie Jones, Elisabeth Nunziato and Alexander Pannullo
deal with a 7-Up explosion in "Mud Blue Sky,"
on stage now at the B Street Theatre in Sacramento. Courtesy photo

 There was a time when many high school girls wanted to be stewardesses (in the era before men were allowed to serve airline passengers and they became “flight attendants.”)

There was something about the glamor of the life, flying all over the globe, serving famous passengers. The dress code was strict, there was a set weight limit and girls learned how to wear the proper amount of makeup so they always looked perfectly beautiful. The life was glamorized in the recent television series “Pan Am.”

Marisa Wegrzyn’s “Mud Blue Sky,” now on the B Street Theatre’s Main Stage, shows the reality behind the glitz and the glamor. The life of constant layovers leads to many nights in dingy hotels, absurdly early mornings and much time spent away from loved ones.

While this script is very funny, the work probably should be more properly considered a “dramedy” for the moments of pathos and sensitivity it displays. But mostly it’s just knee-slapping funny.

The setting is a dreary hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare airport and Beth (Jamie Jones) has just checked into her room, one of questionable cleanliness. She’s exhausted, her back hurts, and she just wants to be alone.

Sam (Elisabeth Nunziato), however, is ready to party and tries to entice Beth into a night of drinking and carousing. When not trying to play the party girl, Sam is on the phone dealing with her teenage son spending his first week at home alone, and feeling guilty that she isn’t there to help him with the problems he is encountering.

Beth seems desperate to get Sam out of her room, supposedly so she can get some sleep before their 5 a.m. wake-up call.

Nunziato and Jones have worked together so much over the years that watching the sparring between them in this play is like watching old friends bicker.

As it turns out, Beth isn’t planning on sleeping at all, but is meeting her teenage drug dealer, Jonathan (Alexander Pannullo), in the parking lot to buy some marijuana from him to help her get through the night. He has been her supplier for a couple of years and they have an odd friendly relationship.

It’s Jonathan’s prom night and his date has ditched him to go out with other friends. He looks rather lost in his tuxedo selling drugs to a middle-aged woman in a parking lot.

Pannullo is new to B Street and one might think he came from the young people’s program, so convincing is his teenage Jonathan. In fact, he is a UC San Diego graduate with a solid list of theatrical credentials behind him.

Jonathan ends up in Beth’s room to collect money from her, where he is discovered by Sam, who is later joined by Angie (Tara Sissom), a former flight attendant who lost her job because of her weight problems.

The dialog among these four souls, each at loose ends over what to do about their various concerns, is rapid-fire and funny, but there is an undercurrent of sadness for all of them. There is Sam’s guilt over being an absent mother, Beth’s decision about whether to take a severance package and leave the job before she is fired, Jonathan’s angst about what to do with his life and Angie’s apparent happy life, hiding how much she misses the camaraderie of the flying world.

There is no real plot to this show, and no real resolution at the end, but it’s more like sitting around with some old friends, having a few drinks, laughing and sharing memories. Like taking a brief flight, the passengers/audience can enjoy sharing the moments before the plane lands and the play ends.

Opening-night patrons are always treated to champagne and hors d’oeuvres at the end of the play. This night, we were greeted with Styrofoam containers of airplane-like dinners and bowls of peanuts. It was the perfect way to keep everyone in the mood for a while longer.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hound of the Baskervilles

Joe Higgins as Mr. Frankland, Michael RJ Campbell as Dr. John Watson
and Sean Patrick Nill as Jack Stapleton perform in
Sacramento Theatre Company’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
Barry Wisdom Photography/Courtesy photo
  
Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson are traipsing out onto the moors now to solve the crimes of the mysterious “Hound of the Baskervilles,” at Sacramento Theatre Company,

This adaptation is by playwrights R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette, who have kept the basic mystery intact while adding bits of humor between Holmes and Watson as well as some plot and character twists along the way.

Reprising their roles as Sherlock and Watson from STC’s 2011 production of “Sherlock Holmes: the Final Adventure” are William Elsman and Michael RJ Campbell, respectively, both of whom give impeccable performances. Elsman is tall and erudite and sees clues that no one else catches; Campbell is the blustery, sometimes sardonic, always-faithful Watson. He is the “human element” that the OCD Holmes relies on in order to connect with a case’s human side.

The play begins in Holmes’ drawing room, where he is complaining to Watson that life is boring and that his most recent crimes have offered him no challenge. Right on cue, a challenging case comes knocking at his door in the person of Dr. James Mortimer (Casey McClellan).

The wealthy Sir Charles Baskerville has been found dead in his home, seemingly of natural causes, but Mortimer is suspicious because Sir Charles died with an expression of horror on his face and he noticed “the footprints of a gigantic hound” nearby.

The Baskerville family supposedly has been under a curse since the era of the English Civil War, when Hugo Baskerville offered his soul to the devil for help in abducting a woman; he reportedly was killed by a giant spectral hound. Sir Charles believed in the curse and apparently was running away from something when he died.

Mortimer fears for the life of Charles’ heir, Sir Henry (“call me Hank”) Baskerville (Dan Fagan), a cowboy from Canada. Hank is unconcerned about the curse, despite a mysterious anonymous warning note he receives, and moves into Baskerville Hall anyway.

Holmes finds the mystery intriguing though he claims he has another matter to attend to. He sends Watson to observe the goings-on and meet the local characters — each of whom has his or her own reason to have wanted Sir Charles dead. (Holmes, in the meantime is doing his own investigation, unbeknownst to Watson.)

Others in the cast include Matthew Rives as the butler Barrymore, Cynthia Speakman as his wife, and Aviva Pressman and Sean Patrick Nill as the neighbors, Beryl and Jack Stapleton. Some have projection problems and their lines were lost.

What makes this production so much fun is the scenic design by Jarrod Bodensteiner and Renee Degarmo and the lighting design of Jessica Bertine. While the whole stage is a rocky section of the Devonshire moor, pools of light focus on smaller scenes while the setting is soundlessly changed on the other side of the stage, the technicians working in pitch darkness.

William Myers’ sound effects, particularly the creepy growls and attacks of the hound, add a particular creepy quality to the story.

You can never go wrong with a good Sherlock Holmes mystery, and with the likes of Elsman and Campbell at the helm under the direction of Michael Laun, this one is a winner.