Saturday, November 23, 2002


Christmas is coming and the holiday productions are beginning roll out. The Winters Theatre Company may be the first to log in with its production of Dan Goggin's "Nuncrackers," (directed by Howard Hupe) running through December 7 for the general public, at the Winters Community Center, with a special production on December 8 as a fund raiser for Soroptomists.

It would be pointless to review the script for this silly pastiche, or to complain that the jokes are familiar and the bits predictable, or that the performances were not polished, nor the voices trained. All that may be true, but the fact is that despite everything, the show is a hoot. It's a wonderful piece for a small amateur theatre and it mixes script with ad lib so well that the line flubs are hardly noticeable--or are they scripted? Who can tell?

The premise is that the Little Sisters of Hoboken, first introduced to the theatre-going public in Goggins' hit, "Nunsense," have come into some money (Sister Mary Paul--"Amnesia"--won the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstake) and the sisters are going to have their annual Christmas pageant filmed for television. The idea of the cameras rolling and the actions being filmed seems to be forgotten about a quarter of the way into the first act, but who cared?

As the production begins, the nuns walk through the seating area, interacting with the patrons. If you have a Catholic school background, you want to sit up straight and say "yes, sister!"

The action moves to the stage and we meet The Little Sisters of Hoboken--Mother Superior (Sister Mary Regina), known in a previous life as Gloria Marion is the epitome of a mother superior--she's stern, but has a heart of gold, she's strict, but loose enough to don a pink tutu over her habit and dance the Sugarplum Fairy. She tries to keep things all together, but watches things unravel, bit by funny bit.

Sister Mary Hubert (Laurie Brown in secular life) is her second in command, comfortable whether supporting Mary Regina or singing the hysterical "In the Convent" with the rest of the cast a la The Village People.

The Brooklyn Born Sister Robert Anne (Diane Taylor to her family) is a wisecracking, tough exterior nun who shows her softer side when singing "When Jesus was born in Brooklyn," describing an emotional childhood Christmas.

And then there is dear, ditzy Sister Mary Paul, who used to be Gina Wingard, who seems to be in a perpetual daze and who can't quite get things right, but who is so loveable that everyone puts up with her, fondly.

Sister Mary Annette is not identified by former name in the program, but let's just say that she is the nun who is the most easily manipulated.

Sister Mary Ignatius, the convent musician, is only briefly seen peeking out from behind the piano, perhaps remembering her days when she was known as Lynne Secrist.

Every convent has a liaison with the local parish priest and Father Virgil Trott (Trent Beeby) fills the bill nicely, even when he needs to substitute for absent Sister Julia (Child of God), doing a demonstration of how to make a fruitcake. One of the funnier bits of the show.

What would a convent Christmas pageant be without the participation of some of the school kids? Austen Dahn, Olivia Wingard, Alec Bouwens, Catherine Wennig and irresistable Brandon Emery are perfectly cast. Professional enough to be disciplined performers, but still the stereotypical grammar school kids bumbling through musical numbers. Dahn does a lovely solo on "O Holy Night."

Set design is by Ken Grubaugh, Bob Taylor, Mark Dahn and Howard Hupe. It's the perfect Christmas setting which not only decorates the whole stage in holiday fashion, but makes clever use of turntables to make a Christmas tree become a nativity scene and a partition become a cooking demonstration table. The additional pieces for the children's "teapot" number are very clever.

Laura Bouwens, Heather Collins and Germaine Hupe have created the costumes. Not only are the nuns' habits authentic looking, but the additions, such antlers, halos, aprons, and the aforementioned tutus add to the fun.

This production of "Nuncrackers" is very definitely worth the drive to Winters. You'll leave with a big smile on your face and holly in your heart.

(And don't forget to read the whole program--it's almost as much fun as the show itself.)

Saturday, November 09, 2002


A cast of hundreds! Well...dozens. But when the curtain opened on the Davis Musical Theatre production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel," it seemed like hundreds. Director Jan Isaacson and set designer George Soffos put together a carnival atmosphere, complete with belly dancers and a real carousel. Combined with a lovely mix of costumes by Jean Henderson, and the beautiful Carousel Waltz played by the 9-piece backstage orchestra it was a visual delight.

"Carousel," first seen on Broadway in 1945, was the second collaboration of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein who had, two years before, given the world "Oaklahoma!" It was "Carousel" which solidified the colaboration and established the duo as an institution of American theatre.

With such familiar songs as "You'll Never Walk Alone," "If I loved you" and "June is bustin' out all over," the show is a sure-fire audience pleaser.

The DMTC production is filled with strong voices and marks the debut of some wonderful new performers to the DMTC family.

Heading the list is Frank Salamone as Billy Bigelow, the ne'er do well carnival barker who falls in love with Julie Jordan, a local factory worker. Salamone is a powerful presence on stage, though the apparent age disparity between himself and Amy Schoedel (Julie) affected the chemestry between them. He also had some difficulties staying on pitch in spots, which may have been a case of opening night jitters.

Schoedel, in her sixth season with DMTC, has a lovely clear soprano and was an endearing Julie, innocent in her infatulation with Billy, devoted even in the face of his abusive treatment of her, and steadfast in the raising of their daughter as a single mother, after Billy's death.

Andrea St. Clair as Julie's friend Carrie Pipperidge is a real DMTC find. She is making her debut with the company and was a delight to watch on stage, both as the love-struck young girl preparing to marry her Mr. Snow and, with the passage of time, as the older mother of 10.

Matt Dunn, as Mr. Snow, is returning to DMTC after a 3 year absence and was a welcome addition to the cast. He was also choreographer for "Carousel" and has created a number of complex dance numbers so skillfully, that it is difficult to distinguish the non-dancers from the trained dancers.

The ever dependable Ben Bruening played Jigger, who convinces Billy to rob the mill owner to get some money for his expected baby. Bruening was effective as the villain and deserved the good natured hisses he received at the curtain call.

Catherine Hagan returns to DMTC to play the maternal Nettie Fowler, who takes Julie under her wing after Billy's death. She handles her big moment, the emotional "You'll Never Walk Alone" quite nicely.

Julie & Billy's young daughter, Louise was competently played by Stephanie Skewes.

Sets for this production were minimal--sometimes almost non-existent (a very long scene with only a bench on stage), but one forgives such lapses in a company which is saving its pennies to build it's very own new theatre (set to open in time for next season).

At nearly three hours, this is a long show, somewhat extended by a fairly slow pace, which may pick up as the show contiues its run and the actors become more comfortable in their roles. But DMTC fans will not be disappointed. The faces of the small children singing out "You'll Never Walk Alone" with the adults in the final scene is a wonderful indication of how much love has gone into this production and how much effort everyone has put into it.

Friday, October 18, 2002

Harmony In Our Lives

Stephen Peithman is not a music teacher. He doesn't play a musical instrument or lead a band, so he is a little confused about why he is being given the "Harmony in Our Lives" award at this year's Davis Music Benefit show on November 3. "I'm delighted," he says, "but it never occurred to me that this would be something that I would win."

However, when one examines Steve's life, especially his life in Davis over the last thirty years, one can see that his whole life is "harmony"--musical experiences, musical interactions, musical contributions, musical colleagues, all blend together into the harmony that is Stephen Peithman's life.

The son of a physics professor and a university librarian, Steve grew up in Humboldt, surrounded by music, from the classical music and show music his parents enjoyed, to a grammar school that encouraged and nurtured students' interest in music. "Everyone was encouraged to be in the band. If you didn't have enough money for an instrument one was loaned to you. I think that's really important. You learn and appreciation of music and you learn about the fun of music."

Steve played the trumpet, but his strength was singing. "We sang all the time when I was in school." In the 8th grade, he played the Major General in a production of "Pirates of Penzance," (a role he reprised at Humboldt State), a foreshadowing of his involvement with the Davis Comic Opera Co. years later.

Armed with a degree in English and French, and backed by a promise by his father to pay for any graduate school he wanted to attend, if he would complete his undergraduate work at Humboldt State ("I was a faculty brat"), Stephen headed to France, where he spent his first graduate year in Aix en Province, after which he completed his graduate work in journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Through the influence of his high school music teacher, he interviewed with the editor of Sunset magazine and ended up on the staff of the garden department, where he spent his time "thinking of new ways of writing about worms and snails." (His experiment with snail races still stands out as one of his favorite projects!) But while he enjoyed the job, he did want to get a PhD in American Literature, so he gave up the position and came to UC Davis ("It seemed like a good place.")

He completed his degree in 3-1/2 years "...and it was a real joy." While at UCD he performed with the ASUCD musical theatre, where he first worked with Harry Johnson and Alan Stambusky. "Harry Johnson directed a production of "Sweet Charity" with Lenore Heinson (then Turner) as Charity and Alan Stambusky directed "Man of La Mancha"--I played the villain in that one."

It was the beginning of Stephen's thirty-year involvement in and influence on music in Davis. "In May or June of 1973 I saw an item in the Davis Enterprise that there was a new group starting up, and it didn't have a name yet. It was the Davis Comic Opera Co. and I did the first show that summer in Wyatt Pavillion." Steve would go on to perform in and direct many shows, as well as serve on DCOC's board.

By now he had finished his PhD and found a job with San Francisco Magazine, but it was music that drew him back to Davis. DCOC founder Bob Cello recommended him as editor of the now-defunct quasi-independent publication "The Spectator." "It's interesting that all these things have come through at various times rather miraculously, but oftentimes I think it's through the network and people you know."

Stephen has had his finger in a number of musical pies in and around Davis for the past twenty years. In addition to helping to found the Davis Comic Opera Company, he has directed musical comedies for over 25 years for other groups in the region, including the Woodland Opera House and the Davis Players. He is also editor of the national community theatre magazine, "Stage Directions" and hosts his own weekly musical program, "Musical Stages" on public radio KXPR. ("Musical Stages," highlighting one or more recordings of stage productions, the famous and the flops, is a natural for someone who has "well over 1,000 recordings" of musicals in his own personal collection.)

However, perhaps his most visible involvement for the past eleven years has been the Citizens Who Care benefit musical program, highlighting various American composers. "That's been one of the great joys of recent years. And the cause is so great. But just working with that group of people." Stephen has worked with former Harmony in Our Lives recipient Martha Dickman at organizing the program, and his narration and anecdotes about the spotlighted composer have been the glue that have held the show together.

"Davis really is a wonderful community and very collaborative, very cooperative," Stephen says. "I think that's one reason why I've enjoyed living here and don't really want to live anywhere else. It's that community that I've really appreciated. I guess if there is music in my life it's been for lots of reasons, but it's been mostly because of other people, beginning with my parents. Maybe I had a natural interest and maybe an aptitude, but you have to have encouragement, which goes back to music in the schools. I had such a good experience when I was growing up."

"The joy of making music--that's the key. People need to be exposed to it, even if they don't become singers or instrumentalists, they can understand the fun and I suppose the dedication of the people who do that stuff," he states.

Stephen has been making music all of his life, his voice and his talents blending together with those of others to make beautiful harmony.

There will be two benefit performances of the 14th Harmony in Our lives, with proceeds benefitting the Davis School Arts Foundation to support music education in all Davis Schools. Sunday November 3, 2002 at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. at the Veterans' Memorial Theatre. The 1 p.m. show will feature the North Davis Elementary school chorus, the Emerson Junior high chorus, the Davis high concert choir and treble chorus, and the West Valley chorale (barbershoppers). The 3:30 p.m. show will feature the Marguerite Montgomery elementary school kindergarten chorus, the St. James school choir, the Holmes Junior High chorus, the Davis high madrigals and jazz choir and the West Valley chorale. Tickets are $10 adults, $5 students (or both shows for $12 adults and $7 children). Tickets are available at Carousel Stationery, 2nd and F Standard score, and at the performance.

Thursday, October 03, 2002

Seussical, the Musical

Every one of our children liked Seuss books a lot
Then I heard of a musical--This would be hot!
Horton, the Grinch, silly Mayzie, the Cat
The Community Center was where it was at.

(apologies to Dr. Seuss and grammar buffs everywhere!)

Seussical the Musical, the Tony award nominee by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Eric Idle,  is one of those shows that you just wanna like.  It has the irrepressible Cathy Rigby in the title role, for starters.  It is running cute TV promos.  It has a high-energy cast, outstanding technical effects, and it's all a loving tribute to one of the most beloved of children's authors.

What's not to like?

Why did I come away with reservations?

I expected to find a lot more children in the audience.  There were children, but they didn't seem to be excited.  Many looked sleepy.  At intermission, I asked the little girl sitting next to me how she liked the show and she replied "It's all right." 

"It's all right" seems to describe the show to a T.  It's neither a children's show, nor an adult show, though it has elements of both.  There isn't enough "character appeal" and it may be too wordy for younger children to be enthusiastic about, though there is enough activity to hold their attention.

Still there is much to enjoy in this traveling production.  Starting with some 32 different musical numbers, in varying musical styles ("Cats" meets "The Lion King"), none of which is particularly memorable, with the exception of the opening "Oh the Thinks You Can Think."

Some of the special effects are pretty spectacular--lighting designer Howell Binkley gets star billing for this one, as does "director of flying," Paul Rubin.  A bathroom scene, which morphs into McElligot's Pool, is simply outstanding and will take your breath away.

Likewise the costumes of David Woolard perfectly capture the essence of Dr. Seuss, especially at the Circus McGurkus.  (One bird girl wears an amazing feathered jacket that was quite an eye-catcher.) 

Rigby, as The Cat in the Hat, is darling.  She has sparkle to burn and her interactions with the audience were wonderful, going into the house to interview children, conduct an auction, or spray the crowd with silly string.  She's at her best, however, in the flying stunts which are nothing short of spectacular, thanks to Zex Flying Illusions.  It helps to have a gymnast in this role and Rigby pulls out all the stops.

Richard Miron, as JoJo (he alternates with Drake English) was the perfect young boy to be both entertained by the story, and become a part of it as the son of the mayor of Whoville (Don Stitt) and his wife (Amy Griffin).

"The story didn't interfere with the plot," as there was no real plot per se, but the evening wove together several familiar Seuss stories, which blended quite well.  Mostly it centered around the noble Horton, the elephant (an earnest and steadfast portrayal by Eric Leviton), first in his discovery of the microscopic Whos on their dust-speck planet and his quest to save them, and then in his protection of the egg left in his care by the lazy Mayzie LaBird (Gaelen Gilliland).  Horton, the heart of the show,  is aided in his endeavors by the lovelorn Gertrude McFuzz (Garrett Long), who wants a spectacular tail--and gets it.

Natasha Yvette Williams was outstanding as the Sour Kangaroo (with an ingenious costume for her young offspring), though her character didn't add much to the story line and her musical numbers were quite a departure from the rest. 

Other familiar and beloved Seuss characters also make appearances such as the Grinch (Richard Rowan), Yertle the Tertle (Brian Mathis).

There's no denying that this is an entertaining evening of theatre, with moments of glitz and moments of charm.  But the whole is lacking a certain "something."    Several people around us  left at intermission, and the Sacramento audience, which generally leaps to its feet at the curtain call of just about anything, sat and politely clapped through all the bows until Ms. Rigby came on at the very end.  Everyone who stayed to the end had enjoyed the show--they just weren't wildly enthusiastic about it.

Stars:  3

Performances run through October 14 at  8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, at 2 p.m. on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sunday and at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 6

Thursday, September 12, 2002

The Vagina Monologues

Several hundred women and a handful of men rose to their feet to give a standing ovation at the conclusion of opening night of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," playing at The Crest Theatre in Sacramento for 7 shows only, through September 22.

This 90 minute cult classic celebration of womanhood has been performed in 40 countries and translated into 35 different languages. There are currently two professional companies touring around the United States.

The show is both a celebration of women's sexuality and a condemnation of its violation. It is a compilation of very empowering stories about women coming to terms with their sexuality. It frees the audience to say "the 'V' word" and brings sheer delight to feminism.

Ensler spoke with hundreds of women--old women, young women, married women, single women, lesbians, college professors, actors, corporate professionals, sex workers, African American women, Hispanic women, Asian American women, Native American women, Caucasian women, Jewish women. "At first, women were reluctant to talk," says Ensler. "They were a little shy. But once they got going, you couldn't stop them." The resulting script is funny, frank, poignant, and definitely contains "mature" material.

Performers read from index cards to remind the audience that these are real women's stories. Ensler believes the index cards provide a connection between the performers and those women.

This particular production, featuring Glynis Bell and Rhonda Ross is designed to feature a celebrity with ties to the local community joining the other two women, sitting on stage discussing the most intimate details of a woman's body. September 18-20, the third chair is occupied by The Zone's Monica Lowe. September 21-22 The View's Lisa Ling will join Bell and Ross.

There are 17 monologues ranging from interesting bits of information (e.g., there are twice as many nerve endings in a clitoris as in a penis) to the descriptive (a marvelous account of a gynecology exam. "WARM THE DUCK LIPS!") to a list of responses to questions like "if your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?" or "if your vagina could talk, what would it say?"

(Some set pieces from previous versions of the show, such as the dated "Under the Burqua," have been eliminated in this production.)

The actresses are at their best, however, when they tell the stories. Glynis Bell shines when reading "The Flood," an interview with a 72 year old woman who had never seen her vagina, never had an orgasm ("Down there? I haven't been down there since 1953."). Equally strong is her reading of "The Little Coochi Snorcher that Could," the story of a battered woman in a homeless shelter ("My Coochi Snorcher is a very bad place, a place of pain, nastiness, punching, invasion and blood. It's a site for mishaps. It's a bad-luck-zone.")

She is at her very best, however, in "The Women Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy," a piece which very definitely needs to be seen to be appreciated, and which generated the strongest reaction from the audience.

Rhonda Ross is very funny relating the R-rated "My Angry Vagina" which discusses feminine hygiene products, physical exams and underwear. She also reclaims some pejorative terms for female parts, leading the audience in a chant to remove the stigma.

As the guest performer, Monica Lowe was the weakest of the three, and the disparity was unfortunate. Though guest performers are not expected to have the script memorized (a deliberate instruction), the reading of her material was often hesitant, stumbling, and provided a contrast to the stronger actresses. She seemed much less comfortable on the stage.

This is a funny, moving, empowering play. Bring your teen age daughters, bring your elderly mother, bring your lesbian neighbor, and even bring your male friends, who will certainly learn a lot they never knew before. You will leave with a whole new appreciation of your body, your femininity, and your power as a woman.

A portion of the proceeds of this show will to directly to V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women and girls. V-Day will then pass the contribution on to Sacramento organizations: My Sister's House, a safe haven established for battered Asian and Pacific Islander women and children; WEAVE, established for women escaping a violent environment; and Citrus Heights Women's Center, which opened in 2000 to provide services for victims of domestic violence in the community.

Stars: 4

Remaining performances:
9/19 - 8 p.m. (Monica Lowe)
9/20 - 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. (Monica Lowe)
9/21 - 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. (Lisa Ling)
9/22 - 2 p.m. (Lisa Ling)

Monday, September 09, 2002

The Secret Garden

The Davis Musical Theatre Company has opened its 18th season with "The Secret Garden," based on the classic tale by Frances Hodgson Burnett, adapted by Marsha Norman, with music by Lucy Simon, and directed, in this production, by DMTC co-founder Steve Isaacson (who is also credited with vocal direction and light design).

"The Secret Garden" tells of Mary Lennox, orphaned in India, where her parents and everyone she knew died in a cholera epidemic. She is taken back to England to live with her only remaining relative, her uncle Archibald Craven, who lives in a lonely mansion on the Yorkshire Moors.

Archibald has been wallowing in deep grief over the loss of his wife (who died during childbirth), and has isolated himself from the world, and especially from his sickly son, Colin, who is bedridden and kept hidden in his room by his physician, Archibald's brother Neville.

The arrival of Mary, initially a spoiled, self-centered child who has been waited on all her life, causes disruption in the carefully ordered life that Archibald has built for himself.

In her loneliness, Mary begins to explore the grounds and finds secret garden, planted by Archibald's wife, Lily, and locked ever since her death. With the help of the gardner, Dickon (brother of the chambermaid, Martha), Mary works to revive the garden, and in so doing she is herself changed into a caring child who ultimately brings life back to the house, to Archibald and to Colin.

This is big show and a difficult show to do well. Within its limited resources, DMTC has done a credible job. There are very strong points in this production.

Heading these is Rodger McDonald, a very strong Archibald. McDonald allows the audience to feel the pain of his grief and his struggle with his feelings for his son. His duet ("Lily's Eyes") with his brother Neville (Jason Stevens) is one of the shows strongest moments.

13 year old Erin Carpenter, in her first DMTC adult show, is a better actress than singer, but her acting is so strong and she brings such earnestness to the role of Mary that one can overlook her vocal inconsistencies.

Pheonix Vaughn is a lovely Lily, whose spirit watches over the house and whose love for Archibald persists despite the separation that death has caused. Their duet, "How Could I Ever Know" was lovely.

A particularly strong performance is turned in by Megan O'Laughlin in the small role of the chambermaid, Martha.

Jeremiah Lowder, as Dickon is likewise a strong characterization, though his "Yorkshire" accent had more of a Dublin sound than Yorkshire (several characters seemed to have similar accent problems).

Kyle Cherry does well in the small role of Colin.

There are 18 different scenes in this show, each of which takes place in a different location--a sitting room, a ballroom, Archibald's library, Colin's room, a room in Paris, etc., and little was done to differentiate among the various scenes, except a piece of furniture here and there on an otherwise bare stage. The lack of funding to provide a more elaborate set could have been handled with a bit more imaginative lighting design. The transformation of the garden from an unkempt, neglected place to a beautiful garden with flowers everywhere was one that had to be imagined, as there was little to no change in the scenery itself.

However, where the scenery is lacking, there is no such lack in the costumes. Jean Henderson has designed some lovely costumes which appropriately convey the feeling of turn of the 20th century English aristocracy.

Likewise, the caliber of singing is, for the most part, quite good. This is a difficult show musically, with few "hum-able tunes," and most of the cast is equal to the task. Isaacson has chosen well for his "Greek chorus" of spirits from the past who keep the narration of the story moving.

While not exactly a "children's show," more mature children should enjoy the story. The production should also develop a bit more spark as the actors settle into the run.

This will be DMTC's last season at the Varsity Theatre, as the company is in the throes of building a new theatre in East Davis. There will be ample opportunity during the coming season for fans of DMTC to show their support and perhaps purchase a memorial to become a permanent part of the company's new home.

Monday, August 19, 2002

La Bete

Playwright David Kirson's "La Bete," this week's offering of the Ghostlight Theatre Festival, had its premier in 1991 and won numerous awards in New York and London, including the New York Newsday/Oppenheimer Award, the Lawrence Olivier Award for Comedy of the Year, six Drama Desk Awards (including Best Play of 1991), and also received five Tony award nominations. It appears to be the sort of play that you either love or hate.

Written in the style of French playwright Moliere, this is a play written in iambic rhymed couplets, containing some absolutely marvelous, if unlikely, rhymes (e.g., "Zanzibar" with "too far.") Its purpose is to examine who dictates the standards of popular culture.

One gets a good feeling about the evening ahead from the moment of entering the Veteran's Memorial Theatre. Scenic designer Robert Frye and lighting designer Greg Wershing have combined to create the estate of Prince Conti, with marble staircases on either side of the stage, a circular tile floor (scrupulously being scrubbed by serving maid Eleanor van Hest), and marble busts on pillars, each one bathed by a special spotlight. The stage curtain has been swept up into a luxurious soft drape and the visual effect of the whole is lovely.

Van Hest is charming as she tiptoes around the stage, tripping over her skirt, and unable to speak, unless she can rhyme with the word "blue."

As the play begins, two members of the court's acting troupe, the leader Elomire (an anagram of "Moliere") and his second in command Bejart are complaining that, by royal decree, they will be forced to accept what they feel is a bad actor (Valere) as part of the troupe because he has written a ridiculous play which the Prince wants the troupe to perform.

( "Naught could induce me, save a Holy Writ,
To share the stage with that dull hypocrite!" says Elomire.)

Valere is bright, clever, egotistical and hopelessly self-centered. His entrance in Act I is followed by a rhymed monologue which must go on for 20 minutes.

("God bless the critics, in no uncertain terms.
They have the apple, showing us our worms.")

Isaac Woofter gives an inspired performance in the role of Valere. He swoops, he minces, he postures and he appears oblivious to the disapproval of his fellow actors. He leaves little for Elomire (Joe Sheehey) and Bejart (Adam Sartain) to do but watch and seethe, while he chews the scenery. Listening to Woofter's Valere, we get a feel for his style of low brow humor, and we see the disapproval of Elomire and Bejart and their dedication to more high-brow art.

In Act 2, we meet the rest of the players--Madeline, sister to Bejart (Amy Takeuchi), DeBrie (Sam Tanng), Catherine, his wife (Jessica Kitchens), Rene DePare (Ryan Williams) Marquise-Terese, his wife (Dana Snyder).

The Prince (Jason Oler) arrives, apparently excited about the addition of Valere to the troupe. He describes him as an "idiot savant" (to which Elomire replies "I half agree.").

Valere is allowed to perform his play, "The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz" -- a play that charts the triumph of banality and bad taste over genuine wit and philosophy. Elomire is, not surprisingly, horrified.

Sheehey's Elomire shines in Act 2 as he rails against the corruption of an art he takes very seriously.

However, when the performing group is asked to choose between the high standards of Elomire and vulgar antics of Valere, the group goes for the cheap laughs and Valere has won.

Director Tom Burmester brings out strong performances from his cast, and has woven a tight knit production which moves at a fast pace, allowing for maximum enjoyment of the playwright's delicious use of language.

The lavish period costumes of Costume Designer Roxanne Femling create the feel of a 17th century French from head (with marvelous curled wigs) to toe (high heeled buckled shoes). The entire look is a visual delight.

La Bete may not be for younger audiences, as its humor may be a bit too sophisticated to hold their attention, but those who appreciate the humor of language will find this a very enjoyable evening.

Stars: 4

Friday, August 16, 2002


Imagine witnessing an auto accident. When the police begin questioning bystanders about what exactly happened, each eye witness has his or her own idea about the sequence of things, the reason why things happened the way they did, and who is to blame. The facts may, in fact all be true, but we each perceive the same situations or events in different ways, filtered through our own life experience.

This is basically the message of David Mamet's "Oleanna," the second presentation in the Ghost Light Theatre Festival, a month-long festival of dramatic art, which brings together the diverse work of many Yolo County artists.

This two person, 3-act play is directed by Tom Burmester and features Nino Mancuso as John, a professor and Jill Winternitz as Carol, his student. The play was written shortly after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual harassment trial and was thus a timely view of the escalation of a charge of sexual harassment.

It's a war of words and differing perceptions between a college student and her professor which snowballs into accusations of sexual harassment. At its conclusion, there is no resolution of the truth.

The setting of the play is John's office and in the opening scene, Carol has come to her professor because she is having difficulty understanding his lectures and is in danger of failing the course. Carol is a very timid girl, clutching her notebook to her chest, trying desperately to understand the words of her pedantic professor, who is too distracted to give her more than token notice. He is distracted by thoughts of his impending tenure and constantly interrupted by telephone calls about a house he is in the process of buying.

The dialog is rapid-fire, with the characters constantly interrupting each other. Carol tries desperately to get her message across. John, however, never really hears what she is saying and talks down to her and finally adopts an almost paternalistic, patronizing attitude toward her. Carol perceives this to be sexually provocative.

In Act 2 we see quite a different Carol. No longer shy and timid, she has filed a complaint with the tenure committee, has acquired a group of sympathetic supporters who have bolstered her confidence. No longer is John an intimidating figure. The act is dominated by Carol.

"You're vile, exploitative, sexist and elitist," she says.

John's self-confidence begins to shatter as he realizes that he is in danger of losing what he has worked for his whole life.

By Act 3, John has lost his job. The tables have turned and it is John who is now begging for help from Carol. She lays out some demands which, if met, will result in her retracting her charges of attempted rape.

As the play draws to a close, there have been no conclusions, but perhaps a lot of points for later discussion about sexual harassment, the purpose of education, and individual subjective viewpoints.

Jill Winternitz does a marvelous job of taking Carol through the three scenes, from timid, frightened student, to strong, self-confident woman. Her clothes change into progressively more "powerful" outfits, her long hair gets swept up off of her face and in the third act, she wears bold, bright colors. Costume designer Roxanne Femling obviously understands the need for the visual complement to Carol's growing self-confidence.

Nino Mancuso has mastered Mamet's rapid-fire dialog and handles the role of a distracted professor with aplomb.

Both actors, under Burmester's direction, have woven a tight piece of theatre that is well worth seeing.

Patrons should be advised that there is smoking of non-tobacco cigarettes in one act, and some brief physical violence. The show continues August 23, 24 & 30 at 8pm and August 17 & 31 at 2pm.

Sunday, August 04, 2002

Cyrano de Bergerac

A cast of thousands (or so it seemed), a monumental set, enough on-stage food to feed Davis Community Meals for at least one night, wonderfully directed swordplay, and one very long nose.

This pretty well sums up Acme Theatre's opening night performance of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac." "Acme's summer show is always a big production," writes director Dave Burmester. "It is a long-standing tradition that all those who audition for the summer production are cast."

Therein lies the strength--and the weakness--of this production. To dispose of the weaknesses quickly, with a cast this large (there are 50+ members in the cast and among them, they play120 different roles), the difference between the "seasoned performers" and the less experienced is quite apparent in a production where it seems everyone has lines to say.

This is a very wordy play, and it's a pity that far too many of the lines were rushed and/or spoken too softly to make it past the third row, if that far.

That said, let's concentrate on the strengths. For starters, Nick Herbert, in the title role, will leave you slack-jawed in amazement. It's not enough that this actor has a veritable encyclopedia of lines to memorize and delivers them flawlessly (at least to those without a script in hand--if he had any flubs, they were not apparent), but he acted the heck out of the part and brought tears by his death in the end. He well deserved the standing ovation he received.

The play is fictionalized account, based on a real 17th century French writer and playwright notorious for his many duels and escapades as well as a famous nose. There are duels aplenty in this production, and Burmester credits the expertise of one of Acme's newest members, Nick Bettencourt, for helping to choreograph the swordplay.

There is no opening curtain, so as the audience arrives, they are witness to characters wandering around on the enormous stage, designed by Steven Schmidt. "It is more impressive by the fact that six days before the show opened, the structure was a jumble of elements waiting on the scene dock for the stage to become available," says Burmester. A multi-level set, with the addition of tables or drapes or arches, it easily becomes a Paresian hotel, a pastry shop, a home, or even a convent. This is Schmidt's last year with Acme and he will be missed.

A play is about to begin at the Hotel de Borgone. The players are awaiting the arrival of the playwright, Cyrano. On the stage, pageboys are playing pranks, important people are looking important, musketeers play fight, while waiting for the entertainment to begin. We also meet the tavern-keeper, Ragueneau (a strong, sparkling performance to retiring Acme stalwart Chris Schmidt).

The lovely Roxanne is beautifully portrayed by Kathie German. Roxanne is the love interest of Christian (Brian Oglesby), a handsome young baron, come to Paris to join the army.

Unbeknownst to all save his confidante LeBret (Steven Schmidt), Cyrano is also hiding a secret love for Roxanne (his cousin), but his insecurities, and concern about his appearance, prevent him from speaking words of love to her.

When Roxanne confesses to Cyrano, her attraction for Christian and asks him to become the protector of the younger man, Cyrano agrees, out of his own unspoken love for Roxanne.

The meeting of the two prompts one of the more delightful moments of the script, where they trade quips about Cyrano's most prominent feature. However, Cyrano befriends the young man and, realizing that Christian is not gifted with words, agrees to help the young suitor court Roxanne.

In one of the most famous scenes from the play, Cyrano first whispers the words for Christian to speak to Roxanne, on her balcony, and then steps in and replaces the young man, standing in the shadows, to speak his own words of love for the girl, in Christian's name. The scene is both funny and touching, as Cyrano, having expressed with passion his own love and feelings, is left in the shadows while Christian, by force of Cyrano's words, wins the love of Roxanne. Cyrano then arranges for the couple to be married and in doing so annoys his other rival De Guiche (Jake Stoebel).

Immediately after the wedding, the regiment is sent to war against the Spaniards. Cyrano promises Roxanne that he will be certain that Christian writes to her from the front and, of course, he himself pens the letters, risking his life twice a day to post them to her.

When Christian is killed in battle, he dies with a farewell note to Roxanne in his pocket. The young widow enters a convent, where she spends the next two decades of her life, visited daily by Cyrano who never reveals to her the real author of the words she loved so much.

This is a monumental production, effectively staged by the ever-solid Acme Theatre Company. It is not without minor flaws, but the whole definitely outweighs any shortcomings.

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Sweeney Todd

Rape, kidnapping, murder, cannibalism.

Hardly the stuff of musical theatre.

And yet, out of these elements, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler have created the highly powerful, popular musical, "Sweeney Todd," currently running at Davis Musical Theatre Company.

Based on a Victorian melodrama, this is the story of Benjamin Barker, a young, newly married barber who has set up his home and business in London. His beautiful young wife catches the eye of a lecherous local Judge, who has Barker sent off to a penal colony in Australia on a trumped up charge. He rapes the wife, and adopts their year old daughter.

When Barker returns to London, fifteen years later, it is under the new name of Sweeney Todd and he is bent on revenge. With the help of Mrs. Lovett, a tavern owner who bakes "the worst pies in London," he re–establishes himself as a barber and sets out to destroy his foes, one by one.

But how does one dispose of the bodies? Well, if you live over a bakery with a nice big oven, run by a woman who is hard up for meat for her pies, the answer seems logical. Mrs. Lovett soon becomes the toast of the town for her wonderful meat pies, and Sweeney Todd continues to supply her with fresh meat.

A barrel of laughs, no? Well, this isn't exactly a comedy but there are enough laughs in it to keep the audience awake.

Unfortunately, this is a very verbal show and a lot of plot exposition and some of the humor is lost by articulation difficulty with the chorus in particular. While they do a decent job, one could wish for more precision in diction.

This production, directed by Steve Isaacson, has some very strong points and some weaker ones. Heading the list of strong points are Patrick Stratton, a wonderful Sweeney Todd. Stratton's pain, anger, and angst are palpable. Without a strong Sweeney Todd, this is a show that goes nowhere.

Equally important is a strong Mrs. Lovett, and Lenore Sebastian more than fills the bill. She is a strong comedic presence and her duet with Todd, "A Little Priest" is particularly delightful.

Jason Stevens also gives a sincere performance as Anthony Hope, the sailor who has befrended Todd and who later falls in love with his daughter, Johanna (a lovely, sweet soprano of Pheonix [sic] Vaughn).

Carl Dvorcek in the small role of the rival barber, Pirelli, is a bit over the top, but handles the role well. His sidekick, Tobias Ragg (Seth Arnopole), however, suffered from projection difficulties and was very difficult to hear.

Others in the cast included Richard Spierto as Judge Turpin, Michael Campbell as the Beadle, and Megan O'Laughlin, the beggar woman, earning her living as a whore, whose secret is crucial to the play.

Sarah Bray has designed a wonderfully versatile set which rotates in all sorts of directions, and Isaacson has cleverly stationed chorus members, as street people at various places around the stairs and walls to hold the piece in place. It works very well.

The barber chair, originally designed by Walt Sykes, has been refurbished by Ben Wormeli and still works very well--how it works is probably best left a surprise.

There is a new fog machine and it's difficult to know what to say. While the effect is fine, it distracts from action on stage because it makes a whooshing sound whenever a puff of fog is emitted. Distribution is also a problem, since it seemed to concentrate in one point on the stage and eventually the fog got so thick that it totally engulfed the performers, making it briefly impossible to see them at all.

(Actors might also take note of the fact that dead bodies do not reposition themselves inside trunks!)

Mark Allen's lighting design creates a gloomy London and effectively sets the tone for the choir narration.

There is a seventeen piece orchestra playing for this show, which is amazing, given the small backstage quarters, but they do a fine job.

The show is not without its problems. (The tempo seemed a bit slow on opening night, but hopefully this will pick up as everyone settles into their roles.) However, in spite of the problems, it's a worthwhile show, defintely not for younger children, but for those with sophisticated tastes, it should provide an entertaining evening.

(One last note--real meat pies are sold in the lobby at intermission--order them before you go in for act 1--Steve Isaacson assures me that no real people were used in the filling.)

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Midsummer Night's Dream

The Department of Theatre and Dance's production of Shakeseare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which opened May 22 on the university's main stage, is loud and raucous and energetic. Even before the action officially begins, fairies appear, frolicking on the open stage. They give a hint of the fun and wimsey which will follow in Shakespeare's dreamlike venture into the world of magic.

The play tells several stories, each of which occurs during a single summer night in a magical forest outside Athens, in which fairies play pranks on lovesick mortals, earnest youths endure comical romantic confusion, and a group of mechanics attempts to rehearse a play in secret.

Directed by Peter Lichtenfels, Granada Artist-in-Residence (whose last outing at UCD was the controversial "Romeo and Juliet"), this production seems to be set in no specific time or location, as modern dress mixes with more traditional garb, but all somehow blending together to produce the fabric of the magical world in which all the characters interact.

Ammar Mahmood and Christine Lowery, as Thesius (the Duke of Athens) and Hippolita direct the events of the evening, with their request to Philostrate (Simon Zenon) to arrange entertainment for their upcoming nuptials.

Plans are interrupted by the arrival of Egeus (Kevin B. Lee), a nobleman asking for help in forcing his daughter Hermia (Cooky Nguyen) to marry Demetrius (Drew Hirshfield), the husband of his choosing, though she is in love with Lysander (Ryan Perkins-Gangnes). To further complicate things, Hermia's friend Helena (Shahnaz Shroff) is in love with Demetrius--setting the stage for all of the twists and turns which develop over the course of the story.

Nguyen was last seen in in a minor role in last year's undergraduate festival and stood out for making the most of a small bit. The promise she showed in that production has more than been fulfilled in "Midsummer Night's Dream." She is a delight to watch, as is Perkins-Gangnes, who also was notable for his small role in the undergraduate festival.

Hirshfield turns in another bravura performance as Demetrius.

Hermia and Lysander flee Athens into the woods, intending to be married at the home of his aunt. They are followed by Demetrius, determined to win his bride's hand, and Helena, determined to win Demetrius'.

D. Martyn Bookwalter has designed an abstract sort of forest, with cloth-covered wood frames, painted to give the hint of leaves. They provide a good hiding place for fairies or would-be suitors. A large moon hangs in the sky and moves about during the various scenes, presumably to indicate various time periods, though it is so subtle that it is difficult to pick up what each moon position means. However, the lighting design by Darrell F. Wynn makes for lovely moon reflections.

The mechanics are rehearsing in the woods, under the direction of Peter Quince, a delightful interpretation by Chris Allison. His four actors are Nick Bottom (Phillip Tarver), Francis Flute (Joel Rentner), Robin Starvelling (Erica Filanc) and Tom Snout (Chelsea Kashin). Tarver is outstanding as Bottom, who is full of advice and self-confidence but frequently makes silly mistakes and misuses language. The humor of his role is accentuated by sound designers Leslie Rae Smith and Y.C. Sumnicht, who see to it that he clanks when he walks.

Sound is not always entirely pleasing in this production, and some seems to be unnecessarily ear-splitting. There is, for example, a thunder and tempest caused by an argument between Oberon, the king of the fairies (Mischa Random Pollack) and his queen Titania (Linda Noveroske Rentner).

No production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" would be effective without a solid Robin Goodfellow ("Puck"), Oberon's jester, a mischevious fairy who delights in playing pranks on mortals. Sam Tanng is just what the doctor ordered. He is lythe and impish and, clothed from head to toe in red (including body make up, it's difficult to take your eyes off of him when he is on stage.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a delicious piece of merriment, and a nice diversion on a warm summer's evening. Take the night off and go romping in a magical forest with a bunch of fairies.

Saturday, May 25, 2002

Taming of the Shrew

Overheard in the audience in the Pence Gallery amphitheater at the conclusion of Acme Theatre's opening night of William Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" -- "that was great fun--and I _hate_ Shakespeare."

It's hard to find anything to hate, or even mildly dislike about this lively production of one of Shakespeare's best known comedies. Director Dave Burmester explains that he has always had difficulty with this politically incorrect (though not for Shakespeare's time) story of a woman's spirit being tamed so that she can learn to become a good wife.

To get around the inevitable raised eyebrows from a more enlightened era, Burmester has taken his characters in a different direction. As he puts it, "It was important to show that Kate was not the only character to undergo a major change. To say more here, however, might spoil some of the fun."

Fun it definitely is. Taking inspiration from William Ball's staging of this comedy at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre in 1975, Burmester has created a version of "Taming of the Shrew" which is right out of commedia dell'arte, with supporting players watching the action on stage from scaffolding, wearing traditional masks and providing sound effects for the action on stage with drum, slide-whistle, and other noise makers.

Imagine The Three Stooges do Shakespeare.

This is an extremely physical--and highly choreographed production. Pratfalls, fanny paddles, head bonks, and other comic rhythms of slapstick, each with the accompanying sound effect make for non-stop entertainment.

What makes this production work are the talented actors. There aren't enough adjectives for the outstanding performance by Chris Schmidt as Petruchio, a "gentleman of Verona," who has come to Padua to "wive and thrive." He's looking for a wife with a big dowry and is not put off by the rumors of the quick temper of Katherine. Schmidt's performance is electric.

Jill Winternitz as Katherine is equally outstanding. She fights, she yells, she pouts and in the end she gives in (or does she?).

Rebecca Rukeyeser plays Baptista, Katherine's mother (the role is generally that of Katherine's father, but the gender of the parent seems to matter little). Rukeyeser has the most expressive face and did some of the best mugging of the night. She also gives a good solid performance to the role.

Shakti Howeth is "the lovely Bianca," Kate's younger, more desirable sister, with the face of an angel and a gentle disposition to match. Bianca is sought after by all the men in Padua, but cannot marry until a match is found for her older sister.

Steven Schmidt and Nick Herbert are Lucentio and Tranio, respectively. Lucentio is in love with Bianca and seeks assistance from his servant Tranio in his plan to win her hand. Schmidt and Herbert are very funny in their roles.

As Petrucio's servant, Grumio, Jake Stoebel handles falling forwards or backwards like a pro.

Other strong performances are turned in by James Henderson (Gremio), Eric Delacorte (Hortensio), and Martin Dubcovsky (Biondello). In smaller multi roles are Caleigh Drane, Eric Brattain-Morrin, Katherine Moreno, Bryna Dunnells and Katie German.

Special kudos to choreographer Crystal White for her delightful dances and dancers Laurel Cohen, Jean Marsh, Caleigh Drane, Katherine Moreno, Katie German, and White herself who bring them to life delightfully.

As always, the performance at The Pence Gallery suffers from uncomfortable seating (it is suggested that audience members bring their own chairs) and occasional difficulty in hearing dialog when an actor rushes his or her lines, as well as the unstaged background noises, but these are conditions which the Acme faithful have come to expect and accept as part of the fun of this free outdoor performance.

"The Taming of the Shrew" marks Acme's 20th performance on the Pence stage, a tradition which was begun as a thank you to the community for its financial support of the fledgling company. But a shadow hangs over the future of this Davis tradition. Current plans for a rebuilt Pence Gallery appear to compromise the tiny core area open space. Pence Gallery officials are unable to say exactly what form a new amphitheater might take other than to say it will be different.

However, plans suggest that the park area would be much smaller, too small, seemingly, to house a stage big enough and a seating area extensive enough to accommodate a full-scale theatrical production, even one as small in scope as Acme's annual Shakespeare offering.

It would be a tremendous loss to a community which has enthusiastically supported and enjoyed the performances of Acme and other theatre companies over the years. It is hoped that some sort of compromise can be worked out so that the Pence can have its expansion and the community will still be able to enjoy these free summer entertainments.

This may be the last chance to see Acme at the Pence Gallery amphitheater. There are performances remaining on the 25th, 26th and 27th. If you've never seen Acme in action, don't miss this gem of a production.

Saturday, April 13, 2002

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

There is one big thing wrong with Davis Musical Theatre's production of "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," which opened Friday night at the Varsity Theatre. It's full of so many delightful sight gags and surprises that to mention them in a review would spoil the fun for people intending to see the production (and one would hope that includes most people in Davis--it's that good).

The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical retells the biblical tale of the tenth and favorite son of Jacob. The father's favoritism is demonstrated by his gift of a coat of many colors. In one of the Bible's more famous tales of sibling rivalry, Joseph's jealous brothers gang up on him, rip his coat and dip it in goat's blood, sell Joseph into slavery, and tell the father that Joseph has been killed.

While this may not seem fodder for a fun musical evening, the Webber-Rice script is a delight from start to finish. Originally written as a 15 minute program for children, reception was so great, that the writers expanded it into a full length musical, with varied musical styles, incluing rock, country and western, and calypso.

Under the hands of director Bobby Gainger, DMTC's "Joseph" is a high energy show with very few weak spots. To get the bad out of the way first, the sound system needs a bit more oomph. It is a shame that so much of the story is missed because even with body mics, the sound just can't get over the accompaniment of the on-stage band. If there is anyone who is not already familiar with the Bible story, some of the plot might be a bit difficult to follow. However, there is such visual fun that, as my companion noted, "who cared?"

The sound system was particularly unfair to the Narrator, Marilou Ubaldo. Ms. Ubaldo sparkles on stage with terrific stage presence, a great voice (proven in "Little Shop of Horrors" earlier this year), and infectious smile. That most of her lyrics were undecipherable was not her fault, but the fault of insufficient amplification.

Despite some pretty impressive theatre credits, Jeremy Starr doesn't yet command center stage, but he held his own as Joseph and shows promise. He has a wonderful voice.

Other principals give solid performances, especially Carl Dvorcek as Pharoah (no, I will not spoil the surprise). Clocky McDowell is a good Potiphar, the Ishmaleite to whom Joseph is sold. Amy Friedman is his wife, who attempts to seduce Joseph, and, as a result, gets him thrown into jail. Evan Monheit is a lot of fun as Joseph's brother Levi, singing "Those Canaan Days."

All of the brothers--Marl Valdez (Ruben), Francisco Goes da Silva (Simeon), Turtle Akona (Napthali), Jouni Kirjola (Isaachar), Ian Rothman (Asher), Clocky McDowell (Dan), Kenneth Fischl (Zebulon), Carl Dvorcek (Gad), Alex Matias (Judah) and Edward Bianchi IV (Benjamin) do a wonderful job. Bianchi also appears as the child, reading the bible at the start of the show who morphs into Joseph in a really pretty impressive on-stage sleight of hand.

But the real stars of this show are the director (Grainger), choreographer (Lori Jones), musical director (Steve Isaacson), Costume designer (Jean Henderson), lighting designer (Arthur Vassar), and set designer (Mark Allen). With the possible exception of Ubaldi, no one performer stands out as exceptional, but all working together under the direction and design of the backstage crew create a whole that is simply outstanding.

Jones has choreographed several dance numbers which are far and away the best I've seen on the DMTC stage. With high energy imaginative staging and obvious hours of work to create cohesion, they are not to be missed.

Vassar's lights are spectacular, especially in the title song.

Henderson has had great fun with her costumes. Without giving anything away, the costumes for the girls in the Pharoah's number were inspired.

Allen's stage is fairly plain, but the elements he brings to it--like a sphynx and a pyramid or two, greatly added to the fun.

It was also fun to see the band on stage, though having a band on stage always presents projection problems for the performers, as in opening night. Still, the antics of Isaacson were fun to watch and the show would have suffered had the band been offstage, as they usually are.

"Joseph" is not perfect. But this production comes as close to perfect as I've seen at DMTC. It's a great show for kids and adults who accompany them will not be disappointed either.

Monday, March 25, 2002

London Suite

Theatre goers (or movie watchers) are probably familiar with Neil Simon's very popular and much performed hotel pieces--Plaza Suite and California Suite, each of which consists of a set of vignettes taking place in the same hotel room, following the lives of the current occupants of that room.

Less well known (and perhaps rightfully so) is the third in the trilogy, London Suite (written nearly 10 years after California Suite), currently running at the Winters Community Theatre. While filled with Simon's witty dialogue and comedic turns, London Suite does not seem to have the same sparkle as its predecessors.

Still, under the direction of Howard Hupe, the folks out in Winters have done a credible job of making this an enjoyable evening.

"London Suite" is a collection of four playlets set in the same suite of the Mayfair Hotel in London. Each story sets a different tone, from poignant to slapstick comedy.

The opening segment, "Settling Accounts" features Alex Selberth as Billy Fox, an agent, and Audrey Green as Briana, a writer who has just discovered that Fox has been taking advantage of her throughout her career. In the original version of this play, the author was a man. Giving the role to a woman is an interesting change of dynamic and Green carries it off well, though the piece itself is the weakest of the four.

"Going Home," casts Diane Taylor as Mrs. Semple, an attractive American widow shopping her way through London while her daughter Lauren (Kimberly Tuvfeson) attempts to play matchmaker. Semple is obviously an experienced actress who made the most of a role which is more a monologue for the mother than an actual dialog between mother and daughter. Taylor, last seen as the mother in last year's "Seeds," was balanced nicely by Tuvfeson.

"Diana and Sidney" brings back two characters from "California Suite." She's an aging Oscar-winning, yet insecure actress in London to promote her new hit television show, he's her ex-husband, a bisexual antique dealer, now living in Greece with his male partner. Germaine Hupe is marvelous as Diana, delivering some of the best lines of the evening, in her nervous pacing about the hotel room waiting for Sidney's arrival. Diana's travelling companion, Grace, is given a solid performance by Anita Ahuja. Michael Barbour's Sidney is likewise an excellent performance. He gives his character much depth as he relates his bittersweet tale. This segment is probably the most substantial of the four, as the couple remember old times and discuss the crisis which has brought Sidney to the hotel to speak with his former wife.

The final segment, "The Man on the Floor" features Ann Rost and Tom Rost as Annie and Mark, an American couple who have come to London to attend the games at Wimbeldon. Anita Ahuja makes a return appearance as Mrs. Sitgood, one of the hotel managers, Jim Hewlett is the Bellman, and Alex Selberth returns in the rols of Dr. McMerlin.

The segment is the evening's only slapstick segment about the events that occur when Mark's back goes out while frantically searching the room for the misplaced Wimbeldon tickets. It contains some of the evening's funniest lines and the performances by all of the actors is uniformly strong.

The set (quite reminiscent of last year's "Seeds," by this company) by Bob Taylor, Ken Brugaugh and Howard Hupe is a nice utilitarian hotel room.

"London Suite" is by no means the best of Neil Simon, but the evening has some funny moments that make it worth seeing. The members of the Winters Theatre Company are obviously dedicated to their craft and have a loyal following in the town. There are weak moments and strong moments, but overall, it is an enjoyable production and worth the trip out to Winters.

The show continues for one more weekend at the Winters Community Center, 201 Railroad Ave., Winters.

Sunday, March 03, 2002


The script for Carnival by Michael Stewart and Bob Merrill, the latest offering by Davis Musical Theatre Co., is never going to win any awards for great literature. (Movie buffs will recognize the story as the stage version of the MGM movie, Lili, starring Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer) The thin plot about a young orphan girl who joins a small touring circus needs an exceptionally strong cast to pull it off. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the current production.

The cast simply isn't strong enough to lift the thin story into the realm of believability, or to give it the sense of wonder and fantasy that makes this show work. From the opening circus parade, with a chorus almost, but not quite on pitch, to the earnest but over the top performances of many of the principals, the show disappoints on many levels.

There are some notable exceptions. Sixteen year old Jessica Crouch (opening night was her birthday) is simply outstanding. From the moment she steps on the stage you know she is a pro, and in fact her theatrical history is impressive--from her debut as Baby June in Gypsy through her Elly award wining performance as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. She beautifully portrays the innocent young girl, who is unable to see the tawdriness of this second class circus, but who is carried away by the wonder and the magic.

Lili has been left alone following the death of her grandfather. She travels many miles, on "two buses and a train," from her home town of Mira (a lovely song performed beautifully by Crouch) to meet an old friend of her grandfather's, who once promised to watch out for the girl. She discovers that the friend has died. With no plan and no resources, she manages to get a job working in the carnival's souvenir stand, where she catches the eye of magician Marco the Magnificent (Mark Heckman), who looks to add the young girl to his stable of female admirers, much to the consternation of his glamorous assistant, "The Incomparable Rosalie" (Gina Green).

When Lili is fired by Grobert, the souvenir stand owner (Carl Dvorcek), she is taken under the wing of Jacquot (Clocky McDowell), assistant to puppeteer Paul Berthalet (Troy Thomas).

Thomas, in his debut DMTC performance is also outstanding in his portrayal of the embittered ballet dancer, now grounded by a leg injury acquired during the war, and using his puppets' voices to say the things that he is unable to say himself.

Lili has a special relationship with the puppets and soon her interaction with them, reminiscent of the classic Kukla, Fan and Ollie, turns the languishing puppet show into a strong attraction and she becomes part of the act.

Berthalet finds himself falling in love with the young girl, but cannot bring himself to speak with her. Instead he rages and shouts, leading to the duet "I Hate Him/Her Face." Thomas has a rich, strong baritone voice, which blends beautifully with Crouch's lovely soprano. (Since this is musical comedy, we know that everyone eventually lives happily ever after.)

Director Warren Harrison has used some imaginative staging, which includes parading his cast through the audience, led by ringmaster and circus owner B.F. Schlegel (Ben Bruening), another aspect of the show which will appeal to children. It would be interesting to see the same staging with a stronger cast.

Jeannie and Michelle Pytel are credited with "Scenic Art." The stage is a colorful and effective depiction of a second rate circus, and the red striped tent tops let us know from the very beginning that this is a magical place.

Jean Henderson's costumes are colorful and fun, especially the black striped suit worn by Jacquot.

Children will love the puppets, designed by Melissa Brown. The sound of children's laughter filled the Varsity Theatre whenever the puppets performed. Thomas and McDowell need to take better care to make sure their arms are not seen during the operation of the puppets. While adults in the audience know that they are not real, the fantasy needs to be maintained for children.

The multi-talented Steve Isaacson provided musical direction as well as lighting design. The DMTC orchestra did a credible job.

Children will enjoy the fantasy of "Carnival," whether they are able to follow the romantic story or not. There is enjoyment to be had in the production, even with its weak spots. I'm willing to bet that many in the audience will leave the theatre humming the signature song, "Love Makes the World Go Round."'

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

The Vagina Monologues

Vagina, vagina, vagina, vagina.

If the words make you uncomfortable, "The Vagina Monologues" is probably not for you, though the producers feel that "everyone should see it, whether you have one or not."

Sponsored by the Women's Resources and Research Center, Department of Theatre and Dance and Campus Violence Prevention Program, "The Vagina Monologuse" is part of the V-Day 2002 College Campaign, a worldwide movement to stop violence against women and girls and proclaim Valentine's Day a time to celebrate women and demand the end to abuse.

Written by Eve Ensler, "The Vagina Monologues" is 90 minutes of women on stage, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups, reading the experiences of the more than 200 women Ensler interviewed and used as the basis for this show about women's most private of private parts. It is both a celebration of women's sexuality and a condemnation of its violation

Ensler explains, "I talked with hundreds of women. I talked to old women, young women, married women, single women, lesbians, college professors, actors, corporate professionals, sex workers, African American women, Hispanic women, Asian American women, Native American women, Caucasian women, Jewish women. At first, women were reluctant to talk. They were a little shy. But once they got going, you couldn't stop them."

The resulting script is funny, frank, poignant, and definitely contains "mature" material. The program explains that "performers read from the script to remind the audience that these are real women's stories."

The Wyatt Pavillion was filled with laughing and cheering women of all ages, from young college students to elderly women, all clapping enthusiastically. There was a sprinkling of men, but they were definitely in the minority. (Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, we arrived 30 minutes late, and missed the first 7 segments of the 17 presented.)

Director John Lawton-Haehl has assembled a cast of fourteen remarkable actors: Amy Avina, Sharon Braden, ShaDonna Chambers, Jessica Ehr, Chelsea Kashin, Christine Khoo, Sharon Porter McAllister, Sunny Nordmarken, Jennifer Owens, Rebekah Pipolo, Holly Rash, Linda Renter, Jill Schmitz and Ivanna Wood.

Individual actors are not identified for the specific segments in which they were featured, which is in part too bad because it would be nice to give kudos where they are deserved, but this is such an ensemble show with all performances so strong that perhaps it's for the best.

The play runs the gamut from two very moving pieces about women under Taliban rule and women raped in Bosnia to a simulated orgasmic experience. There is also a very moving description of the author's presence at the birth of her grandchild.

Particularly enjoyable was "My Angry Vagina," describing society's assault on vaginas (tampons, gynecology exams, thong underwear). Likewise "The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy" was outstanding, as much for the performance as for the material itself. And as for the depiction of orgasm--you just have to see it. Meg Ryan may have met her match.

But the play is not all fun and games. It makes a powerful statement about subjects such as genital mutilation, rape, and oppression. The material about Taliban rule and burkas is, of course, dated, but it is still important to be able to understand what it must have been like for woman living under Taliban rule.

"The Vagina Monologues" is an empowering play. If any woman came hesitantly to the theatre, I'm certain she left with a whole new appreciation of her body, her femininity, and her power as a woman.

Two more performances of "The Vagina Monologues" remain - February 13 at UC Davis Wyatt Theatre and February 15 at the Varsity Theatre. Both performances begin a 7 p.m.

Stars: 5

Monday, January 07, 2002

The Crucible

"It is truly sobering to realize that this play has never, in my lifetime, lost its relevance," writes director David Burmester in his program comments for Acme Theatre's production of "The Crucible," running through January 12 at the Veterans Memorial Theatre.

Arthur Miller's classic play concerns the Salem witch trials, which took place from June through September of 1692, during which time nineteen men and women were hanged at Gallows Hill near Salem. Another man was pressed to death by stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges. Hundreds of other persons faced accusations of witchcraft and dozens more languished in jail without trials. Miller, who wrote this play in the mid-1950s, intended for his play to be a metaphor for the "red scare" of the era of Senator Joe McCarthy, in which similar "witch hunts" occurred, but targeting citizens as Communists rather than disciples of Satan.

"The Crucible" is a work which still shows the mass hysteria which can evolve and destroy the lives of innocent people, whether witches or communists or Japanese interred without any proof of guilt during World War II, or Middle Easterners in 2001, detained for looking middle eastern, and therefore suspect.

It is unfortunate that some of the dialog in Acme's production is difficult to understand. Important information is rushed and the dialect occasionally makes it difficult to follow what is being said, however it is a small complaint in an otherwise powerful production.

The story begins in the bedroom of young Betty Parris (Genevieve Moreno). Betty lies comatose while her father, the Reverend Parris (Jake Stoebel) kneels at her side praying for her recovery. In the next few minutes we discover that on the previous night, Betty had been dancing in the forest with a group of girls, including Tituba, a slave from Barbados (Lusungu Mkandawire) and Abigail Williams, the Reverend's niece (Allese Thomson). Their frolic was discovered by the Reverend and when Betty cannot be awakened the next morning, rumors begin to fly that the girls had been practicing witchcraft and that Betty is bewitched.

Alarmed neighbors, Thomas and Ann Putnam (Brian Oglesby and Jill Winternitz) approach Parris with rumors that Betty was seen flying over a barn. Their daughter is also sick and they, too, feel witchcraft is the cause.

When John Proctor, a local farmer, arrives with his wife and is left alone with Abigail, we learn of their brief affair, his remorse, and the girl's intention to continue the relationship. When Proctor makes it clear that the affair is over,


In a theatrical experiment, Acme is including in this production a scene which had been written into the original script, but which was dropped many years ago and is now rarely performed. The scene, which comes at the start of Act 2, is a brief meeting of Proctor and Abigail in the forest prior to the trial. According to director Burmester, it somewhat shifts the culpability away from Abigail because in the scene she really seems to be somewhat deranged. She is so completely caught up in what she considers her love of John and her attempts to cleanse the world of all evil ("when this world is white again what a wife I'll make you"). Burmester feels the scene gives an interesting twist to the story. Abigail's apparent mental derangement illustrates more clearly that the men of Salem have been manipulating the girls.

The new scene will run on Thursday and Saturday, and the show without the additional scene will run Friday.

Sunday, January 06, 2002

Little Shop of Horrors

"Whatever you do, don't feed the plants," sings the cast.

Good advice that anyone will be sure to heed after seeing Davis Musical Theatre's latest production of "Little Shop of Horrors," opening last weekend at the Varsity Theatre.

With music by lyricist/librettist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken (whose more familiar credits include Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," and "Aladdin"), "Little Shop of Horror" is a musical adaptation of on the 1960's Roger Corman science fiction movie of the same name.

Directed and choreographed by Steve Isaacson (who also did light design), this is the story of a strange plant from outer space which finds its way into a skid row flowership, owned by the blustery Mr. Mushnik. The plant is nurtured by Seymour Krelborn, a nerdy shop clerk madly in love with the naive and somewhat ditzy shop girl, Audrey. In her honor, Seymour names his plant Audrey II.

Existence of the plant brings customers to Mushnik's shop and fame to Seymour, but it turns out that Audrey is no mere plant, but a blood-guzzling creature from outer space, weaving Seymour into a web of greed and deception which spirals out of control. The results are both hilarious and harrowing.

The show begins with a trio of high school drop-outs, who hang around Mushnik's shop and, acting as a kind of Greek chorus, narrate the story in song as the action progresses. The girls each get moments within their songs to shine. In particular, Marilou Ubaldo, as Crystal, a new addition to the Davis Musical Theatre, is terrific. The other girls, Kristi Tucker as Ronnette and Megan O'Laughlin are also excellent.

Costumer Jean Henderson has had great fun with the girls as the play progresses. At one point they all sport Marge Simpson-esque hair, and their red sparkly evening gowns at the conclusion of the show are terrific, particularly on Tucker.

Clocky McDowell is visually an excellent Seymour. He's clumsy and nerdy and moons wonderfully over Audrey. Unfortunately he was having some problems staying on pitch the evening I attended the show and two or three ensemble numbers had spots which were quite painful to listen to. There were also some articulation difficulties, especially when he was conversing with the plant, which required him to have his back to the audience. While microphones are not necessary in a house the size of the Varsity, having the plant amplified (the fabulous backstage voice of Brian McCann), while Seymour is not, created an imbalance.

Andrea Eve Thorpe totters around the stage on the spike heels of Audrey and is delightful to watch. She wears the mini-est of mini skirts, which she explains are her "good clothes." Her voice doesn't have the exaggerated accent of some Audreys, but her characterization works well. Audrey longs to leave skid row and live "somewhere that's green," but is trapped in an abusive relationship with the masochistic dentist, Orin Scrivello.

Troy Thomas proves himself a jack of all trades, listed in the program as playing no less than seven different roles (including Mrs. Luce), but it is his reprise of the dentist Scrivello where he shines. Thomas played the role in DMTC's 1996 production and his return for 2002 is a tribute to his comfort in the part. He gyrates around the stage, laughs maniacally while sniffing laughing gas, and becomes the man you love to hate. While we don't regret his ultimate fate, the depiction of it is quite gruesome and while funny, perhaps not for the squeamish.

Dan Shallock is making his DMTC debut as Mr. Mushnik and does a competent job as the gruff flower shop owner who rescued Seymour from a skid row orphanage and gave him a bed under the shop counter and allows him one Sunday off every two weeks.

The real star of the show, of course, is Audrey II. The plant, which increases in size with each scene, eventually takes over most of the stage. John Coyne deserves much praise for his ability not only to spend the entire second act inside the plant, but also to bring such personality to the huge puppet.

Kudos also to the construction crew of Audrey II: Doug Hicke, John Coyne, Kristin Gold, Audrey Green, Joe Green, Anna Johnson, Clocky McDowell, Megan O'Laughlin, Dan Schallock, Heather Sheridan, Troy Thomas and Ben Wormeli. The sheer number of people needed to bring Audrey II from the drawing board to the stage is a testament to the care lavished on this production.

The functional set designed by Ron Easley makes good use of the width of the Varsity stage, leaving space at the very edges for winos on one side and the drop outs on the other.

The members of the DMTC orchestra--Jonathan Rothman, Celeste Hammon, Ben Wormeli, Emma Fisher and Andy Sullivan do an excellent job of accompanying the cast

Little Shop of Horror is a fun night of theatre. There are a few rough spots, but nobody who attends this production will go away disappointed.

Stars: 3-1/2

Little Shop continues Friday, Saturday and Sunday through January 27. Friday and Saturday performances at 8:15 and Matinees Sundays at 2:15.