Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ideation

When Aaron Loeb’s “Ideation” premiered at the San Francisco Playhouse in 2013, critics called it everything from “a demonically dark comedy” to a “psychological thrill ride,” a “taut locked-room mystery,” a “gripping satire” and both a “corporate farce” and a “corporate thriller.”
Capital Stage’s production, adroitly directed by Michael Stevenson, proves that this very funny play is indeed all that.

Loeb, senior vice president of Kabam, a free-to-play video game company in San Francisco, writes plays as his second profession and has earned seven Emerging Playwright Awards. He explained that his video gaming experience, combined with his wife’s work as an international human-rights lawyer at San Francisco’s Center for Justice and Accountability, is the inspiration for this Glickman Award winner for Best New Play of 2014.

It is difficult to talk of the specifics of the plot, since they are better revealed in their own time, but the setting is a generic corporate office, with set design by Jonathan Williams, featuring a conference room table designed and built by Marc Foster.

As the show begins, Hannah (Carrie Paff) in her red power suit, is setting up for an important meeting that is about to take place. While it is obvious that Hannah is the brains of the group about to discuss a thorny corporate problem, she is “just” a woman and has to play her cards very carefully.

She first butts heads with Scooter (Russell Dow), an office boy hired because he is the son of one of the corporation’s board members. Scooter believes the work for which he was hired is beneath him and wants to be part of the serious discussion, leaving Hannah with the problem of how to handle this upstart who has no respect for her authority.

The trio of Brock (Jason Kuykendall), Ted (Peter Mohrmann) and Sandeep (Jimmy Sidhu) arrive, fresh from a trip to Crete, in high spirits, laughing and high-fiving about the complicated deal they have signed that will make the stockbrokers rich while causing financial difficulties for Greece. Laughter and good-ol’-boy hilarity ensues.

The dialogue comes fast and furious, and don’t try to figure out what is going on — it may be irrelevant at this point. The beauty of Loeb’s script is how he crafts the action to slowly build tension. Just when you are horrified at what you are hearing, a new element is added and the picture changes completely, and then the paranoia begins and the story evolves even more.

This play needs skillful hands to make it work, and in this cast, Stevenson has that in spades. Kuykendall’s Brock is a Don Draper-like alpha male, arrogant, sure of himself and a take-charge guy. His subtle body language changes throughout the play are brilliant.

Mohrmann is at his finest as the blustery Ted who is the numbers guy, who wants to get on with the discussion so he can get out of the room and make it to his daughter’s soccer game in time. By the same token, he realizes the enormity of the ethically ambiguous project they are tasked to design; his thoughts about it ultimately change everything.

Sidhu is the Indian Sandeep, here on a work visa, who is committed to seeing the project through to completion, though he is having second thoughts and realizing that to disagree with his colleagues risks his legal standing in the country.

Patrick Murphy is the disembodied voice of “J.D.,” the CEO who has demanded a completed project plan in 90 minutes and puts additional pressure on the committee members, all of whom are obviously terrified of incurring J.D.’s displeasure.

“Ideation” challenges the audience to weigh their moral values against global responsibility. Do the needs of the many outweigh the desires of the few — and whom can we really trust when we are making these decisions?

This is a top-notch production of a play that makes you laugh, cringe and question all at once.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Stop Kiss


Acme Theatre Company has never shied away from controversial material, and with its production of “Stop Kiss” by Diana Son, directed by Betsy Raymond, the company has done it again.

Raymond explains that the play is a 360-degree love story, “one that plops us down in the middle of the action and invites us to explore in all directions. This play jumps backward and forward in time within a period of months, pivoting around a kiss and an assault, both of which challenge Callie and Sara’s lives.”
We watch the relationship between Callie (Danielle Schlenker) and Sara (Eden Tomich) develop from acquaintance to friendship to something deeper. It is a story told with sensitivity and one that anyone who has ever fallen in love can identify with.

Schlenker and Tomich give polished, adult performances through which we understand their growing affection for one another and feel heartbreak at the gay bashing that changes the lives of both forever.
Callie is a traffic reporter for a New York TV news station. She rides around in a helicopter and confesses that she isn’t really a journalist. She lives in a spacious, if perpetually messy, apartment.

One of her good friends is George (William Forkin), a former boyfriend to whom she often turns for a meal, a date, words of comfort or for casual, friendly sex.

Into her life steps Sara, whose cat Callie has agreed to board. Sara is an elementary school teacher from St. Louis who is new to the city and eager to be shown around. She left her family and former boyfriend back in Missouri to take a job in the Bronx. She is focused and loves a challenge. She is Callie’s exact opposite.
The women quickly become friends, a friendship that gradually morphs into a different kind of attraction. Schlenker and Tomich handle the relationship adroitly as we watch the approach/avoidance as both are feeling attracted, but both afraid to voice (or act upon) their feelings. The sexual tension comes in the form of gestures started, but not completed, meaningful looks, statements started, but not finished.

The deepening rapport between these women is touchingly restrained. Their faces during a sleepover date when Sara asks Callie to share the couch bed with her in hopes of luring the cat out of hiding convey their feelings clearly.

Callie finally decides to confess her feelings while the women are walking alone in a park at 4 a.m. and gives Sara a kiss. Rather than being a “happily ever after” kiss, as it would have been in normal romance, the kiss turns into a nightmare for the women, and displays the ugliness of violence as well as the tenderness and joy of a first kiss.

This play was written in 1998, and while it has a fresh feeling that is sadly relevant to today, there are things that make it feel dated. As Callie is giving her statement to the police detective (Andres de Loera-Brust), the detective is looking for the salacious, and seems to be blaming the women for provoking the attack. I would hope that this insensitivity would not be the case in a city like New York today.

DeLoera-Brust gives a good performance as someone who is trying to be sympathetic while at the same time barely hiding his own prejudices about the situation.

(There is also a scene where Sara is taking vinyl records from a bag and discussing them, which is not relevant to the plot, but which is somewhat jarring in this digital music era.)

We watch Calllie’s feelings for Sara deepen during the latter’s hospitalization, when she comes to accept and admit publicly her feelings for Sara.

Forkin, as Callie’s casual boyfriend, and Ricky Houck, as Sara’s ex-boyfriend, give restrained performances as the confused men who are trying to wrap their heads around the relationship between their former girlfriends. (Forkin has some wonderful lines, i.e., when he hears that Sara won her two-year teaching job in the Bronx by placing first in a contest in St. Louis, he asks, “What did the loser get in this contest?”)

Also in the cast, giving fine performances, are Tina Simson as Mrs. Winsley, witness to the attack, and Eliza Buchanan as the sensitive nurse who cares for Sara. She is the only person who really understands the feelings between the women and gives Callie the opportunity to be more open about her emotions.

Before seeing this play, I wondered about its relevance to such a progressive community as Davis and whether it was as important to be performed here as, perhaps somewhere in the Midwest. However, during the question-and-answer session following the show (there is one after each performance), I realized that maybe we aren’t quite as enlightened a community as I thought we were.

While no one was judgmental of the two female characters, some of the questions seemed to rise out of an unawareness of the level of hatred against the gay community, and perhaps this play is one way of raising the awareness to different levels.

Congratulations to all involved in the presentation of this important work.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Anything Goes


A patron stopped me on my way out of the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center at the conclusion of Davis Musical Theatre Company’s new production of “Anything Goes.”

“If you weren’t having fun during this one,” she said, “you should check your pulse because you might be dead.”

I agreed. This sparkling, toe-tapping, high-kicking, silly musical by Cole Porter (with book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton), directed by John Haine and choreographed by Kaylin Scott, is a delight from start to finish.

And guess what? DMTC has an orchestra! They’ve been telling us for years that they did, but now they have put the musicians front and center at the top of the simple, but attractive ship deck designed by Steve Isaacson. Hearing them with no stage floor to muffle their sound was wonderful, and we found out what a really good band they are.

It’s a dream cast. Everyone is first-rate, even 15-year-old Anthony Swaminathan, a member of DMTC’s Young Performers’ Theater, who is one of the ship guests, but also comports himself well in the role of a reporter at the start of the show.

Adam Sartain is the blow-hard Wall Street banker Elisha Whitney, with an eye for the ladies and a taste for good spirits.

Billy Crocker (Andy Hyun) is Whitney’s best boy, who sneaks aboard the ship to woo his girl Hope (Katherine Tracy) away from her stuffy fiancĂ© Evelyn Oakleigh (Joel Porter). It’s nice seeing the talented Hyun in such a big part and he sings, acts and dances up a storm. He handles the rather difficult and odd song “All Through the Night” like a pro.

Tracy plays the dutiful debutante well, allowing her true feelings for Billy to slowly rise to the surface.
Her mother, the stuffy socialite Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt, is played by Cyndi Wall, who has the best disdainful glance ever.

As for Joel Porter, he’s just a delight as the pompous Brit, marrying American aristocracy, but gradually finding his taste turning to the dynamic Reno Sweeney (Chris Cay Stewart), who is more his age and who brings new life into his predictable routine. Their duet, “Let’s Misbehave,” is a highlight.

Stewart is a dynamite Sweeney, an evangelist-turned-nightclub singer. The role was originally written for Ethel Merman and, even if you didn’t know that, you would guess from just listening to the songs. Stewart makes the role her own and shines throughout, particularly when her religious roots come out for “Blow, Gabriel Blow.”

Mike Mechanick is con man Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #13, disguised as a minister, who has some of the best lines in the show and delivers them perfectly, to the delight of the audience. His “Be Like the Blue Bird” is not to be believed.

His girlfriend Bonnie is given a wonderful performance by Jessica Arena, who lit up the stage at every entrance. The character of Bonnie was a minor one in the original 1934 production but expanded for the 1962 revival and how lucky we are that Arena was given the expanded version to play. She is a real firecracker who is such fun to watch explode.

Costumer Jean Henderson has outdone herself for this production. From the various skimpy costumes for Sweeney’s “Angels” to Reno’s dazzling Act 2 gowns, everything was perfect, even the ingenious disguises for Billy, as he tries to keep from being picked up as a stowaway.

And for DMTC regular audience members, have a good time playing the DMTC version of “Where’s Waldo,” spotting favorite Mary Young among the passengers.

This is a wonderful way to start the 2015 theater year.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn

There is a moment in theater that I just love. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s magical. It’s that moment when the actor on stage has so engaged the audience and they are giving him or her such rapt attention that you can almost feel the silence.

Most of the time you hear people moving in their seats or other soft, unobtrusive noise. But in the magical moment, you can literally hear a pin drop.

I heard that moment several times at the opening-night performance of the world premiere of “Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn” by Rick Foster, now at the Sacramento Theatre Company, under the direction of Peter Sander.

Janis Stevens so embodies the character of Katharine, and gets more and more inside her as the play progresses, that by the last quarter, there is no longer any doubt about who is sitting on that stage talking to you.

It’s all Mitch Agruss’ fault.

The Grand Old Man of Sacramento Theater (whom some may remember from his television days as “Captain Mitch”) was watching a Katharine Hepburn interview a while back, when it hit him that Hepburn would make a great character for his friend Janis Stevens, who already had won critical acclaim for her one-woman shows such as “Vivien” (about Vivien Leigh) and “Master Class” (about Maria Callas).

So he contacted their friend, playwright Rick Foster (who had written “Vivien”), with his idea. Stevens was intrigued, Foster did some research on Hepburn, and now it has come to life on STC’s Pollock Stage.

The time is New Year’s Eve, 1999, and the setting is a bleak attic, where Katharine, age 92, sits in a wheelchair and begins speaking with the audience. She explains that she entered the “undiscovered country” of old age at age 90 and now, at 92, she’s trying to create a map for how the rest of her life should go.

Joining Stevens is Marty Parker in the small role of the long-suffering Mr. Rotterdam, a non-speaking role, but he is there to help Miss Hepburn and to be bossed around by her. Playwright Foster says we don’t know if he is a stage hand or a personal assistant or something else, but it is up to the audience to decide for themselves who he is.

As she begins her soliloquy, Katharine reflects on her family, who she assures us were perfect (though she also remarks sadly, several times, that she never made her mother proud and that her mother never saw any of her movies).

The Hepburns were the stiff-upper-lip New Englanders who were so detached from their feelings that after their oldest son Tom took his life when Katharine was 13 (she found the body), his name was never spoken in the family again, after his funeral. In fact, Katharine took Tom’s birthdate, Nov. 8 (coincidentally the date this play premiered, and the birthdate of Janis Stevens!) as her own for many years as a tribute to her brother, who still haunts her 92-year-old self.

She shares with the audiences her various romances with Howard Hughes (“yes, that one,” she says, coyly) and others, but saves her heartfelt feelings for Spencer Tracy, with whom she spent 27 years (and then would not attend his funeral out of respect for his wife). The ache of his loss is still visible on her face when she discusses him.

We get a picture of a surprisingly insecure Katharine, who pushed herself to step outside the box. She was the first artist to buy a property (“The Philadelphia Story”) for herself and go head-to-head with the studio bosses and not only win their battles, but an Oscar to boot.

The performance of Janis Stevens in this role is one you will long remember. She exudes Hepburn’s indomitable spirit without trying to become a caricature. She doesn’t just play Hepburn, she is Hepburn.

Treat yourself to this once-in-a-lifetime performance. You won’t be sorry.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

My Fair Lady


They could have danced all night. 

Under the capable hands of choreographer Ron Cisneros, the cast of Davis Musical Theater Company’s production of “My Fair Lady” danced around Covent Garden, the Ascot Races, and an Embassy ball, and they got Alfred P. Doolittle to the church on time.

Directed by Steve Isaacson, this production brought the DMTC faithful to their feet with a standing ovation at the end of the show.

This is a show that has a special place in Isaacson’s heart because it was his first memory of music.  He remembers the iconic album cover of Al Herschfeld’s drawing of George Bernard Shaw as God manipulating the puppet strings of Rex Harrison, manipulating the puppet strings of Julie Andrews.  “For years I thought God looked like George Bernard Shaw,” he says.

Isaacson’s love of this Lerner and Lowe musical is apparent in every scene.

It had been Jori Gonzales’ dream to play Eliza and her dream comes to life as she dons the rags of the flower girl Eliza, later struggling to learn her vowels, and finally making a triumphant appearance at an Embassy ball, ultimately finding her voice and pride in herself as a woman. Gonzales has a beautiful voice and one loves to float along on her high notes.

John Haine takes a little adjusting to as Henry Higgins, but once one realize he is only going to use a barely perceptible British accent and can concentrate just on his performance, he does a beautiful job. Better no accent than a bad accent.  This Higgins has little concern for the rules of social conduct, cares little for his appearance (rumpled, ill-fitting trousers), and treats everyone badly, but his fun side comes out in the classic “I could have danced all night” and his petulant confrontations with his mother (the always delightful Dannette Vassar).

Richard Kleeberg is Higgins’ sidekick, Col Hugh Pickering, without whom Eliza might never have consented to subject herself to Higgins’ relentless elocution lessons.  Kleeberg is a blustery Pickering, with Arthur Sullivan-like mutton chops.  But he is the eternal gentleman, who (almost) always treats Eliza with dignity and respect.

Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, the dustman who is not above selling his daughter to Higgins–but not for too much money, because too much would change his life, is given a royal treatment by the marvelous Brian McCann. McCann is always a delight to watch on stage and he does not disappoint in this production.

Scott Scholes is the lovesick Freddy Eynsford-Hill, so enamored of Eliza that he prefers to spend all of his time “on the street where she lives.” Scholes brings a clueless innocence to the role and a tenor voice that is outstanding.

Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce is given a fine performance by Catrina Ellis.  Mrs. Pearce is critical of much of what Higgins does, but she is a loyal employee and follows his directions to the letter.

“My Fair Lady” must be a costumer’s dream (and nightmare!), with all those elegant gowns for the ball, fun costumes for the dustmen of Covent Garden and the spectacular black and white costumes for the Ascot races.  Jean Henderson does a wonderful job with this show and Ascot, in particular, is memorable.  Eliza’s white gown and red coat for the Embassy ball are dazzling.

Isaacson also designed the sets, which are utilitarian, though not outstanding.  Higgins’ study, with its elevated “library” is quite nice and the steps entering the ball look steep enough that one is glad there is a bannister for the women in high heels to hold onto!

“My Fair Lady” is a classic piece of American musical theater and DMTC has served it up in good shape for the Davis audiences.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Miracle Worker

I will admit to having some concerns when I learned that Emily Jo Seminoff was going to be playing Helen Keller in the Woodland Opera House production of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker.”  I have watched Ms. Seminoff move from talented child actor into adult roles and I wondered if she could pull off the role of the young Keller child.

I need not have worried.  This talented young lady made the role her own and her age and height were irrelevant  She was Helen Keller.

Every bit her equal in the role of Annie Sullivan, the young woman hired to teach Helen, was Patricia Glass, whom Opera House faithful may remember as Miss Tweed in the recent “Something’s Afoot.” Glass’s Annie is full of spunk and fire and, despite her inexperience, is willing to fight for her pupil. She is passionate about giving Helen every chance to fulfill her potential, despite her handicaps.

(I once had a friend who was blind and deaf and who insisted she was not “disabled,” but merely “handicapped, like in golf.”)

The intense battle scenes between Helen and Annie, as the latter attempts to teach her pupil manners and to try to get her to understand the concept of “words” were wonderful and must have left both actresses exhausted.

A scene in the Keller dining room in particular, which ends act 1, owes much of its effectiveness to set designer John Bowles, who has created such a solid set that bodies falling against walls or doors or knocking over tables and chairs works so well that nobody so much as shakes and the furniture withstands the abuse it takes.

The whole set by Bowles is a marvel, on that small opera house stage, since it is designed on several levels, including an upstairs bedroom, and a downstairs area later used as a detached cottage where Annie and Helen spend 2 weeks alone together.  While things are cramped, they still all work wonderfully.

The supporting cast all handle themselves well.  Richard Lui as Captain Keller, who loves his daughter, but, along with the rest of the family, makes too many allowances for her bad behavior, which undermines Annie’s work with the child. He is frustrated that Annie doesn’t have her under control in a matter of an hour or two on her first day.

Sara Wieringa gives a lovely performance as Helen’s mother Kate, whose love for her daughter is palpable, even as she fears some guilt over Helen’s condition.  She vacillates between wanting to support Annie, but hating to see Helen suffer under Annie’s stern hand.

Anthony Raddigan makes a striking, sardonic James, the only person  in the family who sees that Annie’s approach to the girl is vital to her progress.

In smaller roles are Emily Delk as Aunt Ev, Melissa Dahlberg as the maid, Viney, and Belle, a specially trained and certified Assistance Dog from Canine Companions for Independence , who plays Helen’s dog Lacey, and handles herself very professionally on stage.

The audience is taken on such a roller coaster of emotions in this production, directed by Dean Shellenberger, that when Helen finally “gets” the notion that things have words and words have meaning, there was a lot of sniffling and wiping of eyes in the audience.

Annie Sullivan went on to live with Helen Keller until her (Annie’s) death in 1936.  Helen’s list of accomplishments as an author, lecturer (she eventually learned how to speak), and political activist is impressive.  She was one of the founders of the ACLU, campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, and birth control. She died in 1968 and was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971.

One wonders what might have happened to that blind, deaf, out of control little girl if there had not been an Annie Sullivan in her life.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grapes of Wrath


John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The Sacramento Theatre Company, the oldest professional theater company in Sacramento, has chosen the Steinbeck classic to open its 70th season, a season dedicated to “Legends, Epics and Icons.”

STC gives us a powerful production, with all of the emotion of the original book, thanks to a talented cast and the original period-style music of Sam Misner and Megan Pearl Smith of Davis, who also appear as several characters throughout the show.

The adaptation of Steinbeck’s story is by Frank Galati; it won a Tony Award for best play of 1990.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is an epic tale of one family’s enduring spirit in the face of incredible hardship. Set during the Great Depression, the play follows the Joads, a family of tenant farmers who are driven from their Oklahoma home to California due to drought, economic hardship and agricultural changes incited by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Was there ever a more perfect time for the revival of this story? The climatic change was the yearly dust storms that rolled across The Plains, killing off crops and making the soil uncultivatable; the migrant workers of the 1930s were “Okies,”coming from Oklahoma to California on the promise of farming work, as welcome then as are today’s Mexican migrant workers; and haven’t there always been heartless bankers ready to foreclose on a family’s mortgage in order to line their own pockets?

Kirk Blackinton is Tom Joad (the Henry Fonda role in the 1940 movie), recently released from prison after killing a man in self-defense, and returning home to find that his family homestead is abandoned. With the house slated for demolition by the mortgage holder, the family has packed up and decided to move to California, where they have hopes of jobs and better living conditions.

As the play progresses, Tom, a good man, who at first just wanted to reunite with his family and resume his life, becomes more and more filled with rage as he and his family are beaten down by a system that seems to target the poor for extra punishment. There are messages here for the revolutions we see around the world today.

En route home, Tom meets Jim Casy (Kurt Johnson), a preacher who has lost his faith and now is a wanderer, getting help where he can. Casy becomes the moral voice of the piece, Johnson giving a flawless and riveting performance.

Heading up the Joad family are Matt K. Miller as Pa Joad and Laura Kaya as Ma Joad. Miller’s character is stoic and subdued while Kaya’s character is the heart of the piece, fighting for her children and hanging on to the belief that if they just work hard enough, things will be better.

Granma Joad is played by Vada Russell as a crusty old woman, devoted to her ailing husband (Phillip Ryder). Ryder later appears as the mayor of Hooverville.

Alissa Doyle is “Rose of Sharon,” the newly married, newly pregnant young daughter, who endures more tragedy than most people many years older, with the desertion of her husband and the death of her baby. In the end it is she who brings a semblance of hope to everyone. It is a delicate and lovely performance.

Misner and Smith each take several roles, including adding music to the piece. Misner is particularly moving as the “Man going back,” giving up on the promises of a better life in California.

Smith gives a marvelous performance as a 1930s version of a born-again Christian. She also appears as other anonymous members of various groups that the Joads meet along their journey.

The young Joad children are from the STC Young People’s Company, each role double-cast. Opening-night performances were by Owen Larson (alternating with Elliott Thomas West) as Winfield Joad and AJ Welker (alternating with Haley Finerman) as Ruthie Joad.

Likewise, Arcadia German alternates with Sydney Christoffersen in three other roles.

We really want things to improve for the Joad family, for something promised to actually come to pass, but it never does. However, the important thing is the family love and loyalty that binds them and their indomitable pride and dignity, which appear unsquashable.