Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Christmas Carol

Add cJohn Lamb, left, and Greg Alexander star in the
B Street Theatre production of "A Christmas Carol,"
running through Dec. 27. B Street Theatre
staff/Courtesy photoaption
If it’s November, it must be time to think about “A Christmas Carol.”

This Charles Dickens story has been with us since 1843, when it was first published. In the past 173 years, we have experienced the tale in just about every way possible. It’s been read aloud by the author himself, and there have been stage plays, movies, musicals, a soap opera and even a production performed entirely in Klingon (Scrooge is named SQuja’).

It has been performed by humans, puppets, cartoon characters, dogs and Muppets. Ebenezer Scrooge has been played by Lionel Barrymore, Stan Freberg, Vanessa Williams, Mr. Magoo and Scrooge McDuck, among a host of others.

What more can possibly be done to this beloved holiday classic?

Buck Busfield of the B Street Theatre has figured out a new twist, believe it or not. Busfield’s Christmas shows have become noted for their unusual twists and turns and this “Christmas Carol,” part of the B Street Family Series, is no different.

Sam Reno’s intricate scenic design gives no hint of what is to come, other than noticing that there are an awful lot of doors, many of them a considerable distance off the floor.

We find, as we expect, Ebenezer Scrooge sitting at his desk on Christmas Eve. But Greg Alexander’s Scrooge is complaining about the fact that for the past 173 years, he has to re-enact this story over and over again and he’s sick and tired of it. And the premise is set.

While this is predominately a one-man show, Alexander is joined by four incredibly talented actors listed as “ensemble.” Amy Kelly, Nestor Campos Jr., John Lamb and Megan Wicks play every character who is not Scrooge, which often involves very quick costume changes.

Scrooge decides to outwit the ghosts by drinking lots of tea to keep himself awake so he won’t have to have the same dream again this year. Thus the story becomes real, not a dream. Scrooge doesn’t want to go through the angst of redemption at his gravesite yet again, but redemption comes anyway and is accomplished instead by an intervention so fast-paced that it left the audience breathless with laughter.

The effectiveness of this story relies in no small part on the lighting design of Ron Madonia and the clever “easy on, easy off” costumes of Paulette Sand-Gilbert. There was more than one occasion when I wished they would do a “Noises Off” version of this show because I’m sure what was going on back stage was crazier than what we were seeing on stage.

I will admit that at the beginning I did not like Busfield’s premise, and the middle of the show didn’t seem to know exactly where it was going, but by the end, I decided that I did like it after all.

The little kids in the audience loved it — there is an awful lot of slapstick and other visual humor that appealed to them. But I hope that at some point their parents take them to see a real version of the Dickens classic! It would be a shame if they grew up thinking this was the real deal.

Monday, November 23, 2015

In-Laws, Outlaws and other people (who should be shot)

Audiences will enjoy spending some holiday time with this quirky
extended family in the Winters Theatre Company's production of
"In-Laws, Outlaws and Other People (Who Should Be Shot)." Courtesy photo

 “In-Laws, Outlaws and Other People (Who Should Be Shot)” by Steve Franco may never be considered great literature, or be performed on Broadway, but it’s a fun play that will get anyone in the mood for those big family holiday gatherings approaching.

Now entertaining Winters Theatre Company audiences at the Winters Community Center Theater, this production is directed by Jesse Akers and displays all the things that I love about the Winters Theatre Company.

Akers is also credited with set design and it is one of the better-looking Winters sets, entirely utilitarian, but just … charming.

The show starts and ends with a chorus of seven young children singing carols, but this is no professional choir. It’s just a bunch of kids holding music sheets and singing, mostly on key and looking adorable. Before the start of Act 2 they sing a rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” with drum accompaniment by Hannah Palchik.

As the show begins, Dad (Phil Pittman) and daughter Beth (Caitlin Richards) are getting the house ready for the quirky extended family to arrive for Christmas Eve dinner. Mom (Anita Ahuja) is flying home from a quick business trip.

As the often petulant, distant, somewhat bored teenage daughter, Richards nails it. Even if her fellow actors weren’t so much fun to watch, her performance alone is a good reason to see this play.

Pittman is the level-headed Dad who tries to keep everyone calm despite the trauma that is about to envelop all of them.

Cranky neighbor Mrs. Draper (Germaine Hupe) pops in a few times to remind Dad to light the outside Christmas lights or the other neighbors will be upset.

In pairs, the guests begin to arrive. Bunny (Mom’s sister) and husband Bud arrive first. Donna Akers is wonderful as the aunt who loves to gossip and to run things, while Brad Haney as Bud seems to be most comfortable in an overstuffed chair, with a beer in his hand watching football on TV.

Aunt Rose (Laure Olson) and Uncle Leo (Scott Graff) are in their 80s, wobbly on their canes, and endearingly cantankerous. Rose is the aunt who pinches your cheek and questions you on your life. She’s 83 years old, she’s not afraid to tell you, and nobody is going to boss her around.

Leo and Bud are salty old geezers who derive great pleasure in arguing over just about everything. Graff is wonderfully blustery, trying to find the right words and tripping over his tongue.

Into this mix come Tony and Vinny, two petty thieves who have just robbed a store and don’t want to hurt anyone, but since their car broke down, they need a place to hide out until the coast is clear. Tony (Tyler Tufts) is the leader, a tough guy who isn’t quite comfortable with his role and doesn’t know what to make of this weird family he is holding captive.

Vinny (Manny Lanzaro) follows Tony’s lead, but is terribly inept and obviously new at this criminal business.

Others in the cast include Elizabeth Williams as cousin Tracy; William Haggerty as Beth’s boyfrend Paul, with electric blue hair, who has very little to say; Alex Harris as Paul’s sister Emily; Alison Hapworth Eldridge as their mother, Mrs. Wakowski; and Robert Williams as a police officer (Williams shares the role with Trent Beeby).

The “aw shucks” conclusion is predictable, but charming nonetheless. It will warm the cockles of your heart and get you in the mood for the holidays.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Kites and Kings

Benjamin Franklin (Ted Barton, left), Polly Stevenson (Katie Rubin),
and Temple (Riley Edwards) perform in Sacramento Theatre Company’s
“Of Kites and Kings.” Barry Wisdom Photography/Courtesy photo
I’m sure you remember Benjamin Franklin. You know — one of the fathers of our country? You’ve surely seen his picture on the money.
Ol’ Ben was a pretty impressive guy. He was a politician, a postmaster, a printer, a diplomat and so much more. As an inventor, he gave us the bifocals, and the Franklin stove; as a writer, he left us with wise sayings in “Poor Richard’s Almanac”; and as a scientist, he experimented with electricity.

But even larger-than-life heroes have their flaws. A wonderful world-premiere play, “Of Kites and Kings,” by Gary Wright, now at Sacramento Theatre Company, shows that in Franklin’s personal relationships there was much lacking.

The play is set in a boarding house run by a woman named Polly Stevenson (the always-funny Katie Rubin), where Franklin (Ted Barton, a convincing look-alike Franklin) seems to spend most of his time.

We learn that Franklin has an illegitimate son, William (Dan Fagan), with whom he has an uneasy relationship and the play centers mostly on that relationship — the good, the bad and, yes, the ugly. William has studied law and is a loyalist, which sets up all sorts of enmity between father and son. Both are fighting tyrants. Franklin is fighting King George while his son is fighting his father.

There are flashback scenes to Ben and William experimenting with electricity, which display a time when things were good between them — nice special effects by lighting and sound designer Les Solomon.

Costumes by Jessica Minnihan are handsome period pieces and work well for setting the feel of the play.

Rubin acts as a sort of narrator, as well as a part of the plot. She develops an instant crush on the handsome young William and her descriptions of events often include fantasy rendezvous with William. Rubin also briefly plays William’s fiancĂ©e, Elizabeth Downes, in Polly’s fantasy view of her, as an unlikable harridan with a shrill voice, in scenes that seem to play more for the humor (the kind Rubin does best) than for any important plot point in the story.

Toward the end of Act 1, we meet William Temple Franklin who, in a chip-off-the-old-block situation, is the illegitimate son of William. As the enmity between Ben and William intensifies, Ben’s relationship with Temple deepens.

Temple was played in the performance I saw by Adrian Anderson, but he shares the role with Riley Edwards. Anderson played William as a soft, spoiled young man who has affection for his grandfather and little or no relationship with his father.

As the play ends, we have perhaps a bit less of a feeling of awe about Benjamin Franklin because we have seen a serious personal flaw and it pains us.

This show has a lot of humor without being a comedy. It has a lot of serious situations without being a drama, and it discusses a bit of history without being a historical drama. What it is is a fun evening of theater by a top-notch cast.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Into the Woods

John Ewing as the Narrator/Mysterious Man is tormented by the Witch (Eimi Taormina)
in DMTC’s Into the Woods from Nov 13 to Dec 6. Courtesy photo
What a wonderful gift the Davis Musical Theater Company has given to Davis with its outstanding production of “Into the Woods.”  Ten years ago, DMTC moved into its new theater (now called the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center) and opened for business with a production of “Into the Woods.”  The progress the company has made over the past ten years shows clearly in this current production.

For those unfamiliar with the show, “Into the Woods,” by Stephen Sondheim with book by James Lapine, is Sondheim’s salute to familiar nursery tales, the first act being a lot of “happily after stories” of people like Cinderella, Jack in the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.  The second act is what happens after “happily ever after” and the consequences one pays for decisions made in life.  It is Sondheim’s opportunity to prove that he doesn’t always have to go into dark psychological places.

Director Steve Isaacson has assembled a top notch cast.  There isn’t a bad apple in the bunch.

The narrator (John Ewing, appearing later as the mystery man) explains that each of four characters have a wish.  Cinderella (Jori Gonzales) wishes to attend the King’s festival; Jack (Joshua Smith) wishes his beloved cow would give milk while his mother (Dannette Vassar) wants him to sell his pet.

The Baker (Tony Ruiz) and his wife (Ashley Holm), desperately want a baby, but are under a curse placed on the Baker’s father and his family years ago by the wicked witch next door (Eimi Taormina).   In order to break the spell, the Baker must gather four things – a cow as white as snow, a red cape, a golden shoe, and a lock of blonde hair.

How convenient, then, that their neighbors include Jack,  Little Red Riding Hood (Ernestine Balisi), Cinderella, and Rapunzel (Rachel Sherman-Shockley).

Each of these actors gives a memorable performance, Smith’s Jack a simple, devoted son who loves his pet cow, while Vasser just gets better and better as an actress.  Ruiz and Holm provide a solid anchor for the story, and Taormina gives a riveting performance. Her act two “Stay with Me,” a plea to her daughter, Rapunzel, is hauntingly beautiful. Gonzales displays her operatic training in a beautiful performance as Cinderella.

Balisi as Little Red Riding Hood is new to DMTC and what a find she is.  She sparkles and dominates every scene in which she appears. She is as matter of fact about swiping sweets from the Baker as she is about finding Granny (Nancy Streeter) in the belly of the wolf (F. James Raasch).

The two brother princes are particularly wonderful.  Rapunzel’s prince is played by Josh Endter and Cinderella’s prince by F. James Raasch.  They are dramatically over the top, self-centered and very funny in their “Agony” duet.  They swoop in and out perfectly.

There are not a lot of familiar tunes in this show, but it is filled with some beautiful moments, such as “No One is Alone,” sung by Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, the Baker and Jack when it seems that all is lost.  “Sometimes people leave you/ Halfway through the wood.” the characters sing, but the message that “no one is alone” gives hope.

Act 1 is upbeat and ends with happily ever after endings.  However, Act 2 is filled with betrayal, the death of beloved characters, sexual indiscretions, and the graphic sounds of the kinds of things that an angry giant on a rampage can do to puny human beings. The few survivors do, in fact, ultimately look like they will have a happily ever after but the whole act might be a bit too disturbing for younger children.

On the whole, DMTC has done a great job with this production and it is highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Steel Magnolias

Gossip and life-long friendships abound in Truvy's Beauty Salon in a scene from the Woodland Opera House production "Steel Magnolias" opening Friday, Oct. 16, and running through Nov. 8. From left, seated, are Emily Delk and Danielle Barnet and, standing, are Nancy Agee, Deborah Hammond and Lenore Sebastian. Karen Alexander/Courtesy photo   

The beauty shop in a small town is the perfect place for good friends to relax and spend an hour, or a day, or a lifetime. Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Chinquapin, Louisiana, is just such a place.

Truvy’s is the setting for Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias,” now gracing the stage of the Woodland Opera House, under the direction of Jason Hammond. The story, based on the life and death of Harling’s real-life sister who died in 1985 from early diabetes, opened off-Broadway in 1987 and closed in 1990, after 1,126 performances.

The all-star movie, with Dolly Parton as Truvy and Julia Roberts as the dying Shelby was a hit when released in 1989. The play then reopened on Broadway in 2005 for a short run, closing after only 136 performances.

It continues today as a popular play for community theaters, and its success depends greatly on the talent of the six women who populate the salon, all good friends who have seen each other through good times and bad times over the years, women who are “as delicate as magnolias but as tough as steel.”

The strength of the show is in the camaraderie of the women, and according to Deborah Hammond (Truvy), the cast came together much as the women they are playing. “The rehearsal process seemed less like work and more like having the opportunity to laugh and visit with good friends each night.”
The chemistry of this cast and their enjoyment of each other came through loud and clear to the audience throughout the play.

Hammond was outstanding as Truvy, big and bold with an open heart and an ear for all the town gossip. Hammond not only brought Truvy to life, with a spark that resonated with the audience, but she was impressive in her hair styling skills as well!

Patricia Glass is Annelle, a new employee at Truvy’s, who is hiding her own secrets and who is very timid at first, but gains self-confidence and eventually fits right in with everyone else.

Danielle Barnett is glowing as Shelby, who comes in on her wedding day to have the finishing touches put on her hair. The show really revolves around Shelby over two years — her wedding, her fragile health, her desire to have a baby, and the sad consequences of that decision, though she hides her condition so well it’s very difficult to believe she is sick.

Shelby’s mother M’Lynn is played by Emily Delk, who has a complicated yet loving relationship with her daughter. M’Lynn has the least to do for the first three scenes, but her raw emotional breakdown in scene four breaks your heart. She’s really the only one of the women who shows extreme emotion and she does it beautifully.

Lenore Sebastian is Clairee, former first lady of Chinquapin. She has a quick wit and a way of diffusing tension with humor. She has a love-hate relationship with the town curmudgeon, Ouiser.
Nancy Agee’s Ouiser, is loud, brash and inappropriate. She apparently dislikes everybody and says things like “The only reason people are nice to me is that I have more money than God.” Yet she is believable in those few instances when she lets her humanity show through the wall she has built around her.

The cast has the advantage of a beautiful set on which to work. Jason Hammond and John Bowles have created a beauty parlor so realistic that the only thing missing was the smell of hair spray and other chemicals. There was, however, one problem with the set, depending on where you sat. Our seats were in the fourth row, on the right, and the couches in the lounge area completely obliterated our view of the second hair-cutting seat. Since M’Lynn spent a good deal of the first scene in that chair, having her hair set, I rarely got a view of her.

This is a story of long-lasting friendship and the close bond among women who have been through so much together. In the right hands, this is a beautiful story that will resonate with anyone who has needed the support of her friends in joy and in sorrow. Fortunately, the Woodland Opera House has the right hands.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 05, 2015

Circle Mirror Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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