Saturday, September 06, 2003

A Chorus Line

Rockettes, eat yer heart out!

The sight of the Varsity stage filled with a kick line of gold-lamé clad men and women is not one anyone will soon forget.

The Davis Musical Theatre Company opened its production of "A Chorus Line," directed by Michael Miiller [sic] (who also plays the role of Director Zach) with choreography by Ron Cisneros on Friday night. It is "one singular sensation."

Not your stereotypical musical, "A Chorus Line" (book by James Kirwood and Nicholas Dante, music by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Edward Kleban) not only won nine Tony Awards, it also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It was the first musical in years to win that particular award. When it closed, in April of 1990, after 15 years, it was the longest running Broadway show in history (a title eventually taken over by "Cats").

This play about dancers takes the audience through an audition process of a cattle call of a group hoping to land one of the 8 chorus slots in a Broadway show. It offers a glimpse into the individual lives of the singers/dancers who are hoping to make the final cut. Together, the grouop sings and dances, telling of their hopes and fears about whether or not they will get the job, in the opening number, "I Hope I Get It." Then, after the initial cuts have been made, each of the remaining group, in turn tells a little about themselves, under casting director Zach's probing questions, as he make his final selection. He takes no prisoners and his questions occasionally border on cruel

Receiving much of the bite of Zach's tongue is Cassie (Heather Benner), once his love interest. In "The Music and the Mirror," Cassie talks of the failure of her solo career. Roles have stop coming and she finds difficulty getting cast. She merely wants to return to her roots as a member of the chorus.

We get to know the others in the group from which the final selection will be made--Bobby (Marc Valdez), who wants to be a movie star; Mike (Colby Salmon), who tagged along after his sister to dance class and came to realize that "I can do that"; and Al and Kristine (Isaac Dailey and the delightfully ditzy Courtney Bufkin), now married and clutching each other for support. (The role of Al was played in the 1985 movie by Davis' own Tony Fields)

Maggie (Melody Davi) and Bebe (Patricia Glass), have escaped unhappy home lives by looking for solace in the theatre.

The ascerbic Sheila (a strong performance by Pamela Lourentzos) is a theatre veteran with a tough, brittle exterior hiding her own insecurities.

Likewise, Paul (Matt Dunn) has a secret he's ashamed to share. Dunn's Paul is almost painful to watch, so skillfully is the character drawn. (Paul's shameful little secret is one which dates the 1975 script. One suspects it would not be quite so shameful in 2003.)

An unlikely looking dancer is barrel-chested Richie (Marcus Mitchell) who lets us know from the first step that there is a pro at work (Mitchell has danced professionally in Finland and with the Sacramento Theatre Company)

Val (DMTC veteran Wendy Young) worried all through high school about her figure and finally found a way to turn heads. She's got it and isn't too shy to flaunt it. Her delightful "Dance 10, Looks 3" is a salute to plastic surgery.

Diana (Dena Lozano) gets to sing one of Hamlisch's prettiest (and most recognizable) tunes, "What I Did For Love" and she sings it flawlessly.

DMTC has pulled out all the stops, with a full pit band which, surprisingly, does not overwhelm the singers. Steve Isaacson has done a good job of recreating the traditional mirrored panel rotating set, with nice lighting for augmentation.

The production is not perfect, with a bit of slowness in the pacing of Act 1, a bit of polishing needed for the dazzling finale (there was a bit of confusion with a couple of the dancers about which way to turn, something I suspect will be quickly corrected), but overall, this is one of the best shows I have seen at DMTC.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has his fans and his detractors, and while his more recent works have found their share of criticism, it may be that his most genuinely popular work remains his initial collaboration with Tim Rice back in 1968: Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

"Joseph" was originally penned as a 20 minute program for a public school. The success of that production was such that it was expanded into a 40 minute production for a "fringe fair," then an hour-long production for London's West End, and finally a two-hour hit that enjoyed a lengthy run at London's Palladium.

The show is this week's offering at Music Circus, directed by Leland Ball, with musical direction by Dennis Castellano and costumes by David R. Zyla.

From the moment one enters the theatre and sees the multi-colored kalaidoscopic stage, the mood is set for a rollicking good time.

In the opening sequence (set in modern times), "Little Joe" is getting ready for bed, with Mama there to tell him a story. As Little Joe, Aaron Friedman is delightful. The kid's a real pro, having first appeared on the Music Circus stage in 2001. This is his second production of "Joseph." While he doesn't have too much to do in Act 1, he comes into his own in the show's finale.

The dialog for this scene appears to have been written specially for this production. It is at the very least a recent addition, as Joe prays for "Harry, Hagrid, Ron and Hermione" (and the Harry Potter books weren't even a twinkle in J.K. Rowling's eye back in 1968). There are also references to Giants hitter Barry Bonds and to various superheroes.

The scene does an excellent job of setting up the entire story as a child's dream, much as the opening sequences in the Wizard of Oz do for explaining the actions and the characters that Dorothy encounters after she flies over the rainbow. (The Barry Bonds reference, for example, explains why the Biblical Joseph would be playing baseball with his father!)

As to the story, it is, of course, the whimsical tale of Joseph, favorite son of Jacob, who is singled out from his 11 brothers and given a colorful coat by his father. His jealous siblings gang up on him, rip off his coat and sell Joseph into slavery. The torn coat is dipped in sheep's blood and Jacob is brought the sad tale of his son's demise.

Joseph becomes the slave of Potiphar (Chris Weikel) until his wife (Megan Hart) seduces him and then he is thrown in jail. There he begins to interpret the dreams of the butler (Danny Bergold) and baker (Michael McGurk) to the Pharoah and his skill brings him to the attention of the Pharoah himself, who also suffers from confusing dreams, and who appoints Joseph as his #2 man to get Egypt through an approaching drought.

That this tale could be told in such an entertaining manner is surprising. But with lyrics like 'And when Joseph tried it on, he knew his sheepskin days were gone' how could it be anything but charming?

As Little Joe falls off to sleep, the Biblical Joseph arises from his bed and the Bible story begins. Max von Essen is a strong Joseph, a commanding presence with an overlay of mischief in everything he does.

As Joe's mother, who morphs into the story's narrator, Misty Cotton, who previously performed this role with both Donny Osmond and with Sam Harris, is perfect. She has a lovely voice and her diction is so clear that one can understand every word.

Joseph's brothers (Kyle Gonyea, Michael-Demby Cain, Richard Bulda, Danny Bergold, Michael McGurk, Cameron Henderson, Jonathan Stahl, Jacen R. Wilkerson, Jordan Bass, Don Alden and Joseph Medeiros) are each strong singers, dancers, and occasionally acrobats, but Bulda as Levi and Kyle Gonyea as Ruben stand out from the rest. Bulda takes the lead in the wild-west rendition of "One More Angel in Heaven," breaking the news to Jacob of his son's "death." Gonyea belts out "Those Canaan Days" (a dramatic French chanson) with sometimes breathtaking force. Michael-Demby Cain as Simeon leads the "Benjamin Calypso" (which includes some audience participation).

Robert Gallagher's Pharoah is a hoot. The confines of the Music Circus stage do not lend themselves for the traditional entrance via sphynx, but his entrance is memorable enough, and when he takes mic in hand to sing....well, he's a real "king" in every possible sense of the word.

Kudos must be given to the imaginative staging of the set changes, which also serve to advance the "dream" notion, as little Joe, in his Spiderman pajamas is carried off, sleeping in his bed, by techies dressed as some of his favorite superheroes.

Very limited seating is available for this popular production, which runs eight performances only. Matinees are given Thursday and Saturday at 2 p.m., but "Joseph" is a short show. Even with a late start, 25 minute intermission, and the traditional extended curtain calls, the evening performance is over by 10 p.m.. But no one will leave the theatre feeling short changed. And the kids should love it.

Saturday, June 21, 2003


In 1926, Edna Ferber wrote a story entitled "Show Boat." Rogers and Hammerstein brought the story to the stage as a musical in 1927 and since that time, like the "Old Man River" celebrated in one of the show's better known songs, the story has just kept rolling along. It was one of MGM's most beloved musicals when it was brought to the screen in 1951. In 1993, Hal Prince revived the show in Toronto and it made its way to Broadway in 1994, where it once again became a big hit.

Behind the fun and frivolity, Show Boat is a show with messages about such provocative dramatic subject matter as alcoholism, spousal abandonment, and miscegenation.

The success of this show begins with a strong cast. So many songs have become American classics that it is imperative that any production have the talent to present them. In this, Davis Musical Theatre, ending its current season with the Hal Prince production, has succeeded very well.

DMTC co-founder, co-producer, musical director, set designer and light designer Steve Isaacson is also at the boat's helm as Capt'n Andy. Isaacson is always a delight to watch on stage and he does not disappoint in this production.

As his long-suffering, but never silent, wife Parthy, Mary Young turns in another solid performance, doing the things that she has come to do so well.

Kelly Mustain, as their daughter Magnolia, in love with a ne'er-do-well riverboat gambler, is a delight. She looks every inch the innocent maiden, is a wonderful actress and has a beautiful, clear voice. She is one of the high points of the evening.

Newcomer Tevye Ditter plays the handsome Gaylord Ravenal, looking somewhat Abraham Lincoln-esque with his stovepipe hat atop his already tall frame. Ditter has a wonderful voice, which didn't quite hit its stride until the second act, but he is a lucky find for DMTC.

The tragic figure of the piece is the mulatto, Julie Laverne, the torch singer passing for white, whose secret is revealed to the local police by disgruntled suitor Pete (Marc Valdez). Julie has two of the show's most famous songs to sing--"Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" and "Bill" and Marguerite Morris gives both powerful performances. Morris, who is also credited with musical direction, is a wonderful Julie.

JD Diefenbacher is Joe, one of the most visible and memoriable characters in American theatre history. Diefenbacher (another newcomer and valuable find for DMTC) doesn't quite have the vocal range to give consistent strength to the lower ranges of "Old Man River," but one cannot fault his rendition. He has a booming basso and is a powerful presence.

As his wife, Queenie, Deborah Douglas, newcomer to Davis (and hopefully new regular for DMTC) is a delight--a multi talented woman who can act and sing up a storm.

In reviewing "Grease" recently, I mentioned that Amber Jean Moore was obviously a talented actress but we only got glimpses of her talent. The promise of "Grease" is fulfilled in "Show Boat." As the singer/dancer Ellie May, Moore is a knockout and the stage lit up whenever she appeared. Her dancing partner Frank (Laurent Lazard) was a nice complement and one wonders if the character came from New Orleans with that charming French accent!

With all this talent, it is unfortunate that the pace of the show lagged. With a delayed start and a nearly 2 hour first act, the ending time was 11:30 and that makes for a very long evening. Director Jan Isaacson has done some good work in presenting this show, but there definitely needs to be work done on timing to turn this "slow boat" into a "Show boat."

There are some inventive bits of scenery (I loved the revolving door in Act 2, which served as a vehicle to show the passage of time). Given DMTC's limited budget, set designer Isaacson has created a serviceable Show Boat, nicely complemented by Jean Henderson's beautiful costume design.

Stephanie Skewes gets kudos for choreography. I wish there had been program credit for the delightful male dancer, frequently partnered with Ellie when Frank wasn't around. He was terrific.

The DMTC 17 piece orchestra had a nice tone with all that brass, though quality was inconsistent throughout the show as, unfortunately, frequently happens with community theatre orchestras.

"Show Boat" is not perfect, but it has a lot going for it. I'm certain that as the company settles into the run, the pace will pick up and it will be a good, solid show. The talented cast makes it definitely worth checking out.

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Two Gentlemen of Varona

It's a fairly safe bet that William Shakespeare never heard of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby or the "road shows" of the 40s, so I'm sure he would be quite surprised at Acme Theatre Company's interpretation of his "Two Gentlemen of Verona," playing this weekend at the Pence Gallery (Acme's last performance on the soon-to-be-eliminated Pence stage).

Director Dave Burmester who, in collaboration with his young cast, is famous for doing innovative things with Shakespearean plays. "It's the thing I've enjoyed about directing Shakespeare," he admits. "There are no stage directions It challenges you to be creative."

From the moment Arabian dancers come undulating onto the stage in this slap-sticky version of the play, it's obvious that this is not your mother's Shakespeare. It's a movie they are making, the second in a series of "Road" pictures, and each of the scenes is introduced by two director's assistants (Betsy Raymond and Genny Moreno) and ended by director Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy yelling "Cut!" (The ploy begins to get a little repetitious especially in very short scenes, despite the heroic efforts of Raymond and Moreno to keep each introduction different.)

Burmester has created a show which is broad and highly visual--a fortunate thing, given the perennial audio problems at the Pence, competing with traffic noise, train noises, and the sounds coming from the businesses nearby. The comedy comes across even when the lines are overpowered by environmental factors.

Burmester has also done his share of gender-bending. Faced with a company which is heavily female, he has found a way to shape the plot to incorporate female characters instead of male--the Duke of Milan, for example, becomes the Sultana of Damascus (Stephanie Rickards) --this is, after all, a "Road" picture! The servant Speed is portrayed as a saucy wench (Jill Winternitz).

The Hope-Crosby of the piece are Valentine (Andrew Conard) and Proteus (Martin Dubcovsky), the former off to see the world while the latter choses to remain at home to pursue his love, Julia (Shakti Howeth).

In a lovely scene which makes full use of the Pence stage, including a balcony, Julia confers with her maid Lucetta (Krystal White) to decide which of the available men she should fall in love with, though she really has already given her heart to Proteus.

Things get complicated when Proteus' mother Antonia (Laurel Cohen--another gender switch) sends her son to Damascus, where he falls in love with the Sultana's daughter Sylvia (Katie German), with whom Valentine is already in love.

There follow the twists and turns in the plot that one would expect, including a kidnapping by outlaws (led by chieftan, Eric Delacorte), a third suitor for the hand of Silvia (Thurio, James Henderson), a few more dance numbers (one with bass accompaniment by Spencer Russell) and in the end all's well that ends well--or is that another story line?

Adding comic relief throughout the piece is the indomitable Nick Herbert as Lance, the servant to Proteus and Jean Marsh as his dog, Crab.

Choreographer Krystal White gets special kudos for the fun dance numbers (with able assistance by sound board operator Spencer Russell).

This will be Acme's last performance on the Pence stage and it's well worth a trip to enjoy the show. Bring a chair and warm clothes (even on a warm evening, the cold breezes took over by the second act).

Monday, April 14, 2003


Reduced to its lowest common denominator, Grease, the American favorite by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, which helped make a star out of John Travolta, is the story of a nice girl who meets a nice boy during summer vacation. When school starts, she learns he's really one of the punks of the school and in order to be his girl she needs to run with the "bad" girls, learn to smoke and drink, dress provocatively and make fun of anybody who's not part of the in-crowd. And everybody lives happily ever after. Well, everybody in the in-crowd, that is.

It's hard to know why this latest offering by the Davis Musical Theatre has survived for so long and been so popular. There's a very minimal story line. It holds all the things we try to teach our kids to avoid (smoking, drinking, premarital sex, abortion, failing classes, bullying, etc.) as something "cool" to do.

About the only thing it has going for it is toe-tapping music and vigorous dance routines. If you don't have those, along with strong acting, and good voices, you have nothing.

When the actors on stage who attract your attention as being the most solid performers are not the leads, you know you're in big trouble. Heading that list are David "Turtle" Akona as Doody, Lauren DeMitchell as Jan, Mary Young as Miss Lynch, and Marc Valdez as Eugene. All give good, solid performances and it's hard to keep your eyes off of them when they are on stage. Akona keeps his character going through the curtain call.

The leads give uneven performances and, having seen people like David Holmes (Danny) give such an outstanding performance in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," it's hard to know if his uneven performance comes from within the actor or from director Jan Isaacson.

Likewise Amber Jean Moore (Sandy) is obviously a talented actress, but we only got glimpses of that talent, and she also seemed unable to project to the back of the house.

Megan Garcia (Rizzo) worked so hard on her bored, sardonic personna throughout that we had no glimpse into the soul of Rizzo, which we need in order to have any feelings at all for her fears about being pregnant. Her solo, "There are worse things I could do" displayed a powerful set of lungs, but again, no modulation. She was either very loud or unable to be heard.

The DMTC production needs a strong attention to detail, which it did not have.

The program lists the cast of characters "in the order of their appearance," but the first three people to appear on stage are somewhere toward the bottom of the list. It's a list by importance of character, not by order of appearance--and on the off chance you may be unfamiliar with the show, this could be confusing.

The show is set in 1959, but during the pajama party scene, the girls are reading an old movie magazine from the late 1940s (it shows a cover of Judy Garland from her MGM years, which ended in 1950--there are people in the audience who do notice such things).

The car, Greased Lightning is plainly visible throughout the show, though pushed offstage. It could be argued that there is no wing space at the Varsity Theatre, but the car could easily have been covered with a black cloth to prevent the audience from seeing it.

Choreography by Lori Holmes was quite good, though the cast didn't seem to have quite perfected it yet.

Jean Henderson's costumes were fine representations of the period (even down to the traditional poodle skirt), but she did Garcia a disservice with her first act costume, which was too tight in the waist and too short in the bodice, artificially giving the actress rolls of flesh around her waist which she obviously does not have naturally.

I was seated in the front row for the first act and thought that my inability to hear dialog and lyrics over the band was because I was sitting too close. However, moving back farther in the house did not help.

My overall impression of "Grease" is that there's no "there" there to begin with, but clever direction, costuming, choreography and acting can camouflage this bit of fluff and make you forget that you're rooting for Sandy to give up all of her moral values in order to be a likeable punk. Unfortunately, DMTC has not achieved that goal.

Monday, February 24, 2003

How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

After watching the opening moments of Davis Musical Theatre's current production, "How to Succeed in Business without really trying," one might think a touring Broadway show had slipped into the Varsity theatre unannounced. David Holmes' performance as J. Pierrepont Finch, the ambitious window washer who climbs the corporate ladder to the top of the World Wide Wicket Company is that good. He is matched by an equally strong performance from Andrea St. Clair (who is also the show's choreographer) as Rosemary Pilkington, the woman who sets her cap for him.

It is only when the curtains part to reveal the modest set that one remembers that this is community theatre. Over the years, DMTC has given us some amazingly good productions and some not so good. "How to Succeed" is among the best.

Director Steve Isaacson and choreographer St. Clair have crafted a show which is sprightly and crisp and assembled a cast which does it justice. It would be untruthful to say that every performer delivers a professional quality performance--this is community theatre after all. But there are enough top notch performances that one forgives the less professional. The amazing thing is that Isaacson has wrung some of the best performances out of his less professional actors that I have seen since reviewing DMTC.

"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" is written by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, based on the Pulitzer prize winning self-help book of the same name by Shepherd Mead. This is not a musical with tunes you've heard all your life, but still songs like "I Believe in You" and "Brotherhood of Man" may be familiar to some.

The show is set in the 1960s, years before the phrase "sexual harassment" would enter the common vocabulary, and so it must be viewed in its historical context. "Leave your political correctness at the door," director Isaacson warns, but there is little offensive in this humorous look at big business of the day, other than a little leering at the secretaries, a situation which is handled nicely by a reminder that "A Secretary is not a toy."

As Finch begins to make use of his self-help manual, he finds ways of manipulating just about everyone. He convinces Human Relations director Ben Bruening that he has a personal relationship with the CEO, J.B. Biggley (Arthur Vassar), and Bruening agrees to give him a job in the mail room. (The reliable Bruening delivers a solid performance--and his diction is impeccable.)

In the mail room, Finch meets Bud Frump (Tony Kelly), the slimy nephew of Biggley and a firm believer in nepotism. Kelly is marvelously smarmy as the creep you love to hate, but he is no match for the clever Finch.

Finch finds a way to get on the good side of Miss Jones, Biggley's prim and proper secretary, who discovers that she really has a wild side. The indomitable jazz-singing, skat singing Lenore Sebastian is a knockout in a rare supporting role.

What would a big business story be without a femme fatale? Lauren Miller, as Hedy LaRue, fills the bill nicely. Miller, in her second performance with DMTC, is tall and beautiful and knows how to wear stilleto heels.

A wonderful find for the company is Megan Rose Garcia, as Smitty Rosemary's sidekick who is helping her win the hand of the oblivious Finch.

Gil Sebastian is deliciously funny in the dual roles of the retiring mailroom supervisor Twimble and the Chairman of the Board, Wally Womper.

Once again, the confines of the Varsity theatre leave little room for more than utilitarian sets, but Isaacson has made the most of what he has to work with. Of particular note is the on-stage elevator, through which just about every entrance is made, even into and out of the men's bathroom. ("If you have an elevator, use it," he says) The marvelous thing about the elevator is that it worked every's the sort of thing that is ripe for timing accidents, but there was nary a one.

Jean Henderson's costumes appropriately suggest office atmosphere, and she's had some fun with things like Smitty's opening act pink business suit and the vamp attire for Hedy.

St. Clair's snazzy choreography is irresistible. It will at the very least set your toes tapping, if you don't exit the theatre waving your arms in the air in the manner of a last act finale.

"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" is a real winner for Davis Musical Theatre Co.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

The Vagina Monologues

Imagine Meg Ryan multiplied by 15. That will give you a bit of the sense of 15 women simulating orgasm on the stage of the Varsity Theatre.

The event was Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," sponsored by the Women's Resources and Research Center, the Department of Theatre and Dance, and Campus Violence Prevention Program as a fund raiser for the upcoming "V-Day" (February 14). Funds raised during the run of this production will beneft the Family Protection Clinic of UCD Law School and the Hmong Women's Heritage Association.

This is the fifth time I've seen The Vagina Monologues in the past 12-15 months and the amazing thing to me is the wide variety in interpretation of the material. The piece, which grew out of interviews that Eve Ensler did with more than 200 women, recount the wide range of feelings that women have regarding that central portion of their anatomy.

Of the piece, 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."

Ensler performs it as a solo. Without Ensler, it has been usually done by three actresses sitting on the stage, each reading from the script. The UCD production, under the direction of John Lawton-Haehi (and assistant Shannon Davis) takes a different approach.

The curtain opens on fifteen women sitting in chairs or on the floor, dressed in shades of black accented by bright red feather boas (visually quite stunning). The material is then performed, sometimes by the group as a whole, each reciting a line or two, sometimes by individuals stepping out of the group to do a solo piece. The program does not list the names of the individual performers, which is a little frustrating for a reviewer.

This year's group consists of: Emily Grande, Jihna Ejan, Stephanie Sanchez, Marie Masson, sunny Nordmarken, Margaret McClellend, Antoinette Kohlmeister, Holly Rash, Keisha Sheffield, Jennifer Hoofard, Jaime Williams, Linda Rentner, Lauren Miller, Laura Gephart and Rebekah Piplo.

It's a more uneven assemblage than the previous cast. There are exceptional performances, and ordinary performances, and some who had difficulty with projection, so that their lines got lost in the vastness of the Varsity Theatre.

But, as the saying goes, "when they were good, they were very, very good."

Among the "very, very good" pieces was "The Flood," the story of a New York Jewish grandmother who is being asked about her "down there" for the first time in her life. The actress who brings this woman to life does so so skillfully that you forget she is a young college student and see, instead, the old woman she is portraying. The old woman is alternately appalled and delighted to be talking about her "down there," and in the end amazed that anybody would even be interested.

A piece I had not seen before, about the naming of vaginas was beautifully acted.

"My Angry Vagina" is very funny piece, given a bravura performance, about the indignities that vaginas are forced to suffer--everything from tampons to the "cold duck lips" of gynecological examinations. ("Why the rubber gloves? Why the flashlight all up there like Nancy Drew working against gravity, why the Nazi steel stirrups, the mean cold duck lips they shove inside you?")

Always a strong moment, "The Little Coochie Snorcher that Could" does not disappoint. A strong, striking actress recounts the story of a woman who grew up hating her vagina and how she learned to love it and herself.

The penultimate moment is a litany of types of orgasms, culminating in one gigantic triple orgasm for 15. The audience laughed and cheered.

The piece takes the audience to the depths of reality, with accounts of the rape of women in Bosnia and genital mutilation and then leads them out again with stories which are funny or just plain touching (such as the interview of a 6 year old girl. The actress playing the 6 year old is delightful).

While this year's offering does not have the impact of last year's, the sold-out house was on its feet cheering at the end and I don't think anybody went home unaffected. The cause is a good one. The play is a delight. And be sure to buy some of those chocolate truffles in the lobby before you go in!

Stars: 4

Friday, January 10, 2003

The Water Children

"The Water Children," by Wendy MacLeod, now running at the Veterans Memorial Theatre, is a controversial show which deals with the volatile subject of abortion.

To prepare for the show, the cast of Acme Theatre Company began meeting with Director Dave Burmester for weekly dinners several months before rehearsals began to discuss the play and the issue of abortion. The director told his cast that he didn't care where they stood on the issue, but he wanted each of them to have a position that his or her character supported, so that they could effectively portray that character.

Members from the Davis Crisis Pregnancy Center met with the cast. (Planned Parenthood was also invited to participate, but did not follow through.)

The preparatory work and the direction--and perhaps the sense of urgency which resulted from Burmester's untimely surgery--have blended together to produce a very strong production.

The plot concerns Megan (Shakti Howeth), an out of work actress who is offered a role in an anti-abortion commercial. Because she herself had an abortion at age 16 and is pro-choice, she initially refuses the job, until she discovers it will pay well, and she needs the money. Howeth gives a brilliant performance, and is on stage almost the entire show (save for some very quick costume changes).

As she begins to work on the commercial, Megan finds herself attracted to the head of the group, Randall (a solid performance by Nick Herbert) and enters into a relationship with him. She begins to question her teen-aged decision. In a series of fantasy scenes, she imagines what her son would have been like at various ages. James Henderson is perfect as Chance, a whiney young child, growing into a know-it-all college student, and acting as the voice of calm in Megan's ambivalence regarding her actions.

Megan's feminist roommate Liz (a powerful interpretation by Jill Winternitz) is vocal in her anger at Megan's involvement with the group and in her dislike of Randall.

"There are a lot of stereotypes in this show," says Burmester, "but the cast gives them depth." Indeed this is a marvelous ensemble show where each of the characters comes to life as believable human beings.

Martin Dubcovscky is Toni Dinardi, the rabid anti-abortion gun nut, undoubtedly modeled on murderer John Salvi. His performance gives just that uncomfortable sense that leaves the audience on edge, wondering if he will go over the brink or not.

Katie German is Crystal, who claims to have started life as an aborted fetus rescued from a garbage pail by a sympathetic nurse, and who is now staunchly pro-life. Crystal is militantly perky. German also plays a waitress and gives an extraordinary portrayal of a cat.

Krystal White is Megan's agent, Kit, and also a waitress. In addition, she gives a sympatetic performance as Megan's mother .

Andrew Conrad is wonderfully fey as Rodger, the hairdresser, and also plays a snooty TV director, Chance's father and a Buddhist priest.

Despite its serious theme there is a lot of humor in this play and at its conclusion, Megan is faced with blending her feelings and her experiences and attemtping to reconcile her past with her present in order to make life-altering decisions.

The play makes no final moral judgement, but leaves it up to each member of the audience to assess their own feelings on the subject.

The set design by Josh Nielsen is beautifully simple and works extraordinarily well, especially in the final scene.

Special kudos to Lighting Designer Tiffany Lynn Michael, who has created a design which beautifully separates fantasy from reality.

Stage Manager Karlee Finch is credited with sound design and has done a perfect job of selecting the background music for the various scenes.

After the curtain call, there is a q&a between the cast and the audience. The effect of the script on the young actors became blatantly obvious as they explained how their feelings about abortion, and about safe sexual practices had been strongly altered by becoming enmeshed in the actions of the characters and in the story itself.

In this day and age, if there is any more rewarding pay-off of presenting a play like "The Water Childen," I can't think of it.