Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Value of One

The Pamela Trokanski Dance Theater, now in its 29th season at its workshop on Del Rio Place, is presenting “The Value of One,” with two remaining performances this weekend.

The piece includes approximately 20 dancers with a mix of ages from 7 to 85. There are members of the Pamela Trokanski Dance Theater (Nicole Bell, Sara Delorena, Evelia Fernandez, Sharon Riddle, Irem Sogutlugil, Michele Tobias and Trokanski herself), the PTDT Apprentice Company (Annie Cui, Maddie English, Alison Luck, Kate Macauley and Lindsey Su) and The Third Stage, Northern California’s only multi-generational contemporary dance company (JoAnne Craig-Ferraz, Mia Mangney, Ece Midillioglu, Denise Odenwalder, Cindy Robinson, Marla Shauer, Allegra Silberstein and Adrienna Turner).

The work explores the ripples people leave behind their lives, often without their knowledge. It shows how individuals are affected by interactions with others.

It asks how people are defined at different stages in life, whether they are 7 or 83 or somewhere in between.
The show begins with a recorded message introducing the theme, and explaining that all actions have repercussions. The African proverb, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito” was used to remind people that one person using their cell phone could affect the entire audience. (It was one of the best “turn off your cell phone” messages I’ve ever heard.) “The needs of the one do not outweigh the needs of the others,” the audience was reminded.

The entire group assembled for the opening number, “Stand” by R.E.M., segueing into a number about individual uniqueness, with Michele Tobias talking about her grandfather’s comments that any day that he woke up “on the right side of the dirt was a good day.”

The whole piece was shaped by individual dancers who had recorded feelings about their lives. Ece Midillioglu, 7; Adrianna Turner, 10; and Mia Mangney, 12; described interactions with school friends, the problem of moving to a new school and the influence of a special teacher.

Ece and Adrianna danced to a song by Jewel (“All About Me”) which energetically showed the joy of being a young girl. As they danced in mirror image to their story, six dancers performed along the back wall of the stage, bringing smiles to the audience.

“The World,” by Matthew Ryan, danced by Nicole Bell, explored the “Butterfly Effect” postulated by Edward Lorenz, which says that a change as small as the beating of a butterfly’s wing in one part of the world can affect something else in another part of the world.

A group dance to music by Ane Brun showed sheer joy, “Love, Love, Love … Jump for Joy!”

Allegra Silberstein, the oldest dancer at 83, told of growing up on a farm and the life steps that brought her to becoming the poet laureate of Davis. Silberstein’s moving work sets a wonderful example for anyone who thinks that active life ends at any certain age.

“Hands,” with music by Jewel, asks the audience to find meaning in and connection to the world around us. “If the whole 13.8 billion-year history of the universe was laid out and scaled to the length of a football field … our part of that field, the entire history of human beings, takes up the span of one adult human hand.”

So, knowing this, one might question why would people ever even get out of bed? Although I think that the better question might be: What do we do with that hand?”

In a section that Bob Fosse would love, the dancers explore their hands, connection to each other and to the world and, indeed, “what we do with that hand.”

Tobias was back again, exploring her relationship with her twin sister and how that shaped her life. Evelia Fernandez danced about her father and hiding emotions; Sara Delorena danced about leaving her mother and alcoholic stepfather; Denise Odenwalder talked about a ring challenge; and a “Sand” solo, with music by Nathan Lanier, was danced by Irem Sogutlugil.

By the end of the show, the dancers had drawn the audience into their very personal worlds and let them see how their experiences have shaped — and are shaping — their lives.

The show runs a little over an hour and is a good way to spend an afternoon.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Visiting Mr. Green

It’s another one of those generational bonding plays that we have seen lately (witness “4000 Miles” at Capital Stage and last at Sacramento Theater Company’s own “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks”). STC is presenting “Visiting Mr. Green,” a two man show starring the always wonderful Gary S. Martinez as 86 year old Jewish widower, Mr. Green, and new-to-STC Ryan Blanning as the rising young executive, Ross Gardiner.

The play is a first by playwright Jeff Baron. It premiered in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1996, had a year-long run off Broadway. It has since had more than 300 productions in 37 countries and has been translated into 22 different languages. It has been nominated for 10 different awards around the world for “Best Play,” and won 7 of those awards.

Director Marie Bain explains that the play deals with “the universal concepts of family, friendship, rejection and forgiveness” and discusses the concept of which is more important, the individual or the community?”

Martinez gives a flawless performance as the elderly curmudgeon, grieving for his recently deceased wife, and too proud to admit that he is helpless without her. His life is spiraling out of control. The 60-something Martinez is perfect as the 86 year old Green. Every time he slowly walked across the stage or tried to get into or out of his recliner I saw many of the 80-somethings I see at the local Senior Living facility.

Blanning is initially not very likeable as the brash, smug, impatient young man, forced by a judge to perform community service for the next six months, visiting Mr. Green once a week, as punishment for driving recklessly and nearly hitting the old man.

Green wants nothing to do with any help from anyone, especially Ross, and Ross doesn’t want to be there, but the judge won’t let him off.

The play is two acts, with four scenes in the first act and five in the second. There are black-outs at the end of each scene, the following scene taking place a week later. In this manner, we see the slow growing of a relationship, if not exactly friendship, between the two men.

After two sparring rounds between the two, in Act 3 Ross has a breakthrough when he brings Green soup from his favorite kosher deli and Green discovers that Ross, too, is Jewish. The wall between them begins to crack a little bit.

Over the rest of the play there is a growing, if wary, friendship between the two men, both of whom are harboring deep hurts. Ross is gay and has been disowned by his family. Green’s daughter married a non-Jew and he has not spoken with her in years. Green insists that Ross just needs a good woman, Ross can’t understand Green’s disowning his daughter because of whom she loves.

With these revelations, the script develops problems. Anybody who has been in any discussion about race, religion, or sexual orientation in the last 20 years will find the dialog uninspired, cliche, and repetitive. Though the play is set in 1996, it is being performed in 2014, when it is no longer shocking in most circles to be gay, so that aspect of the plot seems old and tired, though Bain does what she can to make it seem fresh.

The conclusion is predictable, though there will be a few misty eyes before the finale.

It is difficult to understand the appeal of this play, though the awards it has won have mostly been in countries where to be gay, or orthodox Jewish may be less accepted than here in this country, so it may be an eye opener for audiences there.

Still, “Visiting Mr. Green” is worth seeing, if only for watching Gary Martinez at work, and seeing Ryan Blanning’s transformation from an unlikeable to sympathetic character.

Scenic designers Jarrod Bodensteiner and Renee Degarmo have created a nice apartment so homey you felt like you could sit down and read the newspaper on the couch at intermission.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Wrong for Each Other

When I think of David Mamet, I think of wordy plays. But the new-to-me Canadian playwright, Norm Foster, leaves Mamet in the dust as far as “wordy” goes!

Foster’s play, “Wrong for Each Other,” is playing at the B Street Theater through April 13, under the direction of Lyndsay Burch. Foster is a favorite for B Street, having previously presented several of his plays, such as “Mending Fences,” “Old Faces” and “The Foursome.”

“Wrong for Each Other” is about two characters, Norah (Melinda Parrett) and Rudy (Kurt Johnson), who have a chance meeting in a restaurant, where Rudy is dining with a bunch of co-workers and Norah is dining alone.

We learn that the pair divorced three years and nine months ago (but who’s counting?). The awkwardness of their meeting soon resolves into the old familiarity, as Rudy gradually decides to share his meal with Norah so the two can visit. Some have subtitled this play “The Anatomy of a Relationship,” and as it progresses, we quickly learn all about the relationship between Norah and Rudy.

The action moves from the present to the past and back again seamlessly. A memory that starts in the present ends up acted out in the past, as the pair change location on the set. Set designer Samantha Reno has created a deep set, where the present takes place toward the audience and the past more toward the back of the stage, with the separation between now and then indicated by something small like the addition or removal of a piece of costume (a scarf, a hat, etc.), or a slight change in lighting.

The set itself is warm and colorful, in blues and yellows with accents from flowers and here and there. A wonderful turntable enables the back of the set to change, while the front remains static.

As the play proceeds, we begin to wonder how these star-crossed lovers ever got together in the first place. She’s a high-class, city businesswoman, into jazz and classical music. Rudy’s father runs the market where she buys her fruit and vegetables. Rudy himself is a house painter who wants to own his own business and buy a house in the country some day. He likes sports; she knows nothing of baseball or any other sport.

Norah’s only requirements of their relationship, stated early on, is that Rudy always tell the truth, and that he not cheat on her, both of which he does, of course. But truth-stretching is part and parcel of their relationship, even now, nearly four years after the fact. (“Are you seeing anyone?” “No.” “What’s her name?” “Susan.”)

In the hands of Parrett and Johnson, under the direction of Burch, the verbal sparring of the two characters is a delight to behold. The actors are pros and have worked together often. They are so at ease with each other that one might forget that this is a stage production.

They are funny, poignant, dramatic and desperate, each in turn. The scene after their first intimate encounter is particularly funny, as both are so ill at ease and not sure what, if anything, they have started.

This is a play that will appeal to anybody who has ever loved anybody and been in a relationship that either worked … or didn’t.

Foster’s brilliance is that he seems to always have something unexpected upcoming. I won’t spoil the ending, but it was one I had not expected, and that’s always when a play is at its most entertaining.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Art Theater of Davis (feature)

Just like Mickey and Judy, Timothy Nutter found himself a stage and is putting on a show.

The Davis native, a student of Hanneke Lohse and Pamela Trokanski (among others) has been teaching dance at the Davis Art Center and the Davis Holistic Health Center. Nutter attended college at Purchase College (State University of New York) and at Antioch College in Ohio. He studied at the Conservatory of Dance, produced his own dance shows and ran an independent improv dance troupe.

But after his return to Davis, he decided he wanted to start a theater. Seeing a niche in this community that has a musical theater company (DMTC), a couple of groups devoted to Shakespeare (the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble and the university’s Shakespeare on a Shoestring) and a group that does both musicals and comedies (Woodland Opera House), he realized that nobody was really doing contemporary modern drama.

He started the fledgling Art Theater of Davis with some friends he knew from ballet. Ania Mieszkowska, for example, is a director, teacher and theater practitioner to more than 30 years experience in the United States and England. She moved to Davis with family nine years ago. Since her arrival, she has worked as a drama coach and taught ballet and Pilates at The Davis Art Center, Pamela Trokanski Dance Workshop and Applegate Studio.

Once they had the seed of an idea, the next step was finding a venue. Nutter first talked with various churches in Davis. His first thought was to produce something by Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Marie Rilke.

“I thought, people like Rilke so we’ll put something together that will be fun, different and interesting,” he said.
But he ran into rental problems.

“To have a one-day event in a church is plausible, but to put on a theater event that runs for a few weeks takes so much more time. You have to control lights, space, etc., people in and out, set pieces, noise, etc. And God forbid there might be some kind of content problem or ideological conflict. That was a dream that died on the vine,” he said.

Event insurance was also a problem, as the theater company would have to cover insurance at a church venue, which could run into thousands of dollars for the two-week run of a show.

And then he found Third Space, the multipurpose space housing shops, studios, workshops and the like on Olive Drive behind Redrum Burger. He talked with the owner to ask if he would allow a theater to start in his building. It was perfect, with affordable rental rate and no insurance problems.

They created a little gem of a theater that seats 40 to 50 people (on folding chairs, some of which have padded seats), but is just perfect for the kinds of plays Nutter wished to produce.
“It’s been pretty good,” he says. “They didn’t realize how serious we were about changing part of their building, and they didn’t realize how much furniture we were going to be storing here, but it’s been a positive all around because I personally cleaned up a lot of the space and took out shelving they didn’t want anyway. We’re using a room that was underutilized and now it’s a theater, so it’s been good for everyone.”

There has really only been one big problem, so far — where to store all the set pieces, especially when the flea market is being held once a month. “My biggest fear was that someone would buy one of our set pieces!” Nutter said.

For help in casting his show, he joined the Sacramento Area Regional Theater Alliance and advertised through that group, as well as an ad in The Enterprise and individual emails to people Nutter knew who were doing the same kinds of plays he was interesting in putting on.

A multi-talented guy, Nutter also did all the graphic design and printing, so he made up fliers that he put up all over Davis.

“I have no web design skills so couldn’t create a web page other than the Davis Wiki,” he said. “I hadn’t joined Facebook, but then the people I was working with said there is no way you can do this without joining Facebook, so I set up a page on that social media.”

Next came the problem of money. “We started in my garage with my bank account — and I’m a dance teacher,” he said with a laugh. “I just sold off some of my estate and we had lots of lucre to work with.

“That was part of the push for Facebook, but what we did was a funding campaign (like Kickstarter), and 29 or 30 people donated to help us get money to rent costumes and house money to work with for buying lumber, paint, etc.,” he added. “It has mostly been publicized by me, my friends and the 12-actor cast.”

When he first began this project, Nutter thought he would do one play and see what happens, but as he got into it, it seemed that the best way to get funding was to have a plan in mind, which involved not only his first production, but future productions as well.

“Now that the first has come together and we learned we could raise money for this one and people are happy and excited, I’m planning to do more,” he said. “The next play would be a Brecht in the spring and I’m hoping to do another production in the summer and fall.

“My plan is not to go away. I talked with UCD but they have no plans for summer. I was able to rent costumes from the theater department. They were very helpful.”

Nutter sees his new theater as giving more opportunity for people outside of university to perform.

“We need more people,” he said. In fact, he had to write two minor characters out of “Three Sisters” because he couldn’t find 14 actors.

With the success of “Three Sisters,” it is hoped that there will be more interest in future productions, both in actors and in audience. While this is not a conventional theater, it’s easy to find, parking is sufficient and you can stop at Redrum Burger for dinner on your way to the show.

And with good production values and talented actors, it should become a real asset for Davis.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

You Can't Take It With You

“You Can’t Take it With You” is the 1937 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It ran for nearly 900 performances on Broadway and was made into a movie in 1938, directed by Frank Capra.

Now on the Winters Community Theatre stage, under the direction of Anita Ahuja, this revival is a comedy guaranteed to keep the audience laughing through all three acts.

It is the story of the rather odd Sycamore family, with eccentric Grandpa Vanderhof at its head. This is one of Tom Rost’s better roles. He lives his life by the philosophy “don’t do anything that you’re not going to enjoy doing.” He goes to circuses, commencements, throws darts and collects stamps, and he hasn’t paid taxes in more than 35 years.

Daughter Penny Sycamore (Dona Akers) is a would-be playwright who has a file of half-finished scripts. When we first meet her, her plot is stuck in a monastery, and she can’t figure out how to get out, so she switches to work on the “war play” for a while.

Husband Paul Sycamore (Jesse Akers) is a man who doesn’t have a lot to say, but spends his time down in the basement with “Mr. DePinna” (Rodney Orosco), designing and building fireworks for the upcoming Fourth of July celebration.

Daughter Essie (Lori Vaughn) is a dancer who spends her entire life doing pirouettes and leaps about the house as she spends time inventing new candies (she was played in the movie by a very young Ann Miller). Is Essie any good? “She stinks!” says her teacher, Boris Kolenkov (Phillip Pittman, in a commanding, overpowering performance), who calls her “my Pavlova” and encourages her because she is having such a good time. The fee he gets for her lessons is also a great incentive.

Jim Hewlett plays Ed Carmichael, Essie’s husband, a xylophone player and printer who often accompanies Essie musically and who distributes her candies with the fliers he prints to accompany them. Hewlett is always such fun to watch on stage because of his exuberance. He is obviously having a great time with his characters.

Alice Sycamore (Kathleen Dodge), Penny and Paul’s other daughter, comes the closest to being a normal person. She loves her family to death, she frequently tells everyone, but when faced with introducing them to her boyfriend Tony (William Haggerty), the son of her boss, she sees their oddities and is embarrassed. Will the family’s eccentricities hurt their relationship?

Alexis Velasquez gives a solid performance as Rheba, the maid who somehow manages to keep the family in shape. Her boyfriend Donald (Manny Lanzaro) also gets drawn into the family dynamic and escapades.

If you have ever seen Germaine Hupe on stage, you will be blown away by her performance as Gay Wellington, an actress Penny brings home for a reading of one of her plays. Trust me, this is a side of Hupe that you have never seen before. She is a delight.

Tony’s parents, Mr. Kirby (Michael Barbour) and Mrs. Kirby (Ann Rost), show up for dinner a night too early and are thrust into the height of the craziness of the Sycamore household.

In the middle of the confusion, government agents (Mike McGraw, Lou Velasquez and Larry Justice) show up to take Ed to jail for plots against the government, and end up arresting the entire stage.

When all are released and back home again, Kolenkov brings the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Laure Olson), now defected from Russia and working as a waitress in a New York restaurant, home for dinner. I would like to have been a fly on the wall when Kauffman and Hart came up with that plot line from left field.

The production suffered from some opening-night jitters, with lots of lines missed, but the rest of the cast covered beautifully. The audience didn’t mind. They were too busy laughing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Second Best Bed

When the curtain goes up on a stage and you see three doors on the left side and three doors on the right, you are pretty certain that madness, mayhem and hilarity will ensue.

Woodland Opera House’s world premiere of “Second-Best Bed” by Sacramento playwright Matthew Abergel does not disappoint.

Once you stop trying to make any logic whatsoever out of the fact that five people — an American student, her gay best friend, a British professor, an over-the-hill British actress trying to make a comeback, and a Jewish woman — just happen to show up on the same day at some obscure rural British B&B, run by a creepy guy with an ax in his hand, all looking for a final play that it is rumored Shakespeare might have written and hidden before his death, then you can just enjoy the comedy on its own merits … and there is a lot to enjoy.

“Second-Best Bed” is Abergel’s first full-length play, though he has been working on it ever since he was in grad school. Appearing as the nervous Frederick in Woodland Opera House’s production of “Noises Off!” rekindled his desire to write his own play, and with the help and support of writers’ groups in Sacramento and San Francisco he was able to complete it and present it to former Opera House Executive Director Jeff Kean, who agreed to produce it.

The show is directed by Abergel’s husband, Robert Cooner, who also directed (among other plays), that infamous “Noises Off!” for Woodland, so he knows how to wring the most comedy out of a script.

The story begins when Judy Cobb (Analise Langford-Clark) and her BFF Jerry Jackson (Scott Martin) arrive at the Cock and Bull B&B. The guy in charge, Toby Fowler (Dan Sattel), is a little odd and gives them unpleasant thoughts of the Bates Motel.

Naturally, when things are at their creepiest, a storm begins to form and they realize they are trapped at the B&B for the night.

Enter Dr. Charles Kennington (the always hilarious Jason Hammond), a professor of English literature who arrives all full of bluff and bluster.

The cozy little group is rounded out by Penelope Brooks (Patricia Glass), an over-the-hill British actress, and Goldie Goldstein (Renee D. Mercer), who drips Jewishness as elaborately as Scott Martin swishes his way through the gay character of Jerry — both enough to be easily recognizable, but yet without making either character a caricature.

Though everyone is trying to keep it secret, it turns out they are all looking for the elusive manuscript and trying to find a way into Toby’s bedroom to check to see if it might be hidden in his bed (more suspension of disbelief that a manuscript hidden 400 years ago would still be there!).

Act 2 kept the audience laughing almost throughout the entire act, as there are suspected kidnappings, life threats with unlikely weapons, unbelievable costumes (kudos to costume designer Denise Miles), unexpected couple pairings and, always, the search for the elusive manuscript. To say more would spoil the fun.

If this is an example of what we can expect from Matthew Abergel in the future, I would say he has all the makings of a popular playwright, and I look forward to seeing his next work.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Blue Man Group

“I loved it. Brave, adventuresome, amusing, challenging and those drummers rock! The woofers and subwoofers they used blew my hair backwards!” was a comment on Facebook by someone attending The Blue Man Group’s performance this week at the Sacramento Community Center.

The Blue Man Group is unique. There is definitely nothing like it anywhere. The group’s website even says “Blue Man Group cannot be explained; it can only be experienced!” It describes itself as “an explosion of comedy, music and technology.”

The group was founded in 1987 by Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton and consists of three actor-musicians who wear bald caps, painted with electric blue latex paint. (There are four Blue Men listed in the program, so there is no way of knowing who is on stage for any performance.)

They do not speak, but interact silently with the audience. They play drums, sometimes with colored liquid poured onto them so that it splashes into the air. They play intricate PVC pipes, they are backed up by “Blue Man Swing,” a small combo group located on two platforms above the stage. And there is lots of technical stuff going on, with strobe lights, special game-type characters projected, and lights turned out into the audience.

Technical elements sometimes can be problematical, and the curtain on opening night was held for 45 minutes while they fixed a technical glitch (which I guess was fixed, because nothing seemed to go awry during the performance).

There is a cameraman to videotape certain portions of the show and project it on the back screen, especially when the group is interacting with the audience, not only the people in the “poncho section” (the first three rows, where people are almost guaranteed to get splashed and are given complimentary ponchos when they arrive), but also climbing on the seats of the back audience, creeping up the aisles and peering intently into the faces of unsuspecting audience members.

There is an electronic message crawl above the stage, sending notes out to the audience. On opening night the audience was invited to speak “Happy Birthday” to someone and someone else was called out, informing him that he had not updated his Facebook status in the past minute and a half.

The audience loves it and it begins a nice bond between the performers and the audience.

The finale is a many-minutes-long dance party, with the audience standing and batting huge multi-colored balls around while a cannon on stage shoots streamers of paper out into the audience.

As I read this, I realize that they are right — you can’t explain Blue Man Group, you can only experience it. Some members in the audience left long before the end, others were screaming wildly for an encore.

Critics were offered earplugs in case we wanted them. I wore mine and at one point removed them and quickly put them back in again. The noise level can be ear-shattering, but if you are used to rock concerts, I suspect this is part of the attraction.

It is definitely a not-to-be-missed experience, if only to say you’ve seen them. It’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, but if this rather stilted description sounds good to you, you’re gonna love it!

One thing is for certain … you’ll never think of Twinkies the same way again … or marshmallows either.