Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Boy Gets Girl

This review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 10/17/2006

It’s becoming more popular these days: blind dates. You can meet a potential mate through a dating services like e-Harmony, or check out an ad on MySpace or Craig’s list. The embarrassment of meeting a total stranger for the purpose of possibly finding a soulmate seems to be dissipating. But you always run a risk when going through an uninvolved third party. How much safer it would be to meet someone through a friend.

Theresa Bedell (Stephanie Gularte), an overworked writer whose last date was 15 months ago when her boyfriend left to go to Kuala Lumpur (“he didn’t ask me to go with him”) agrees to meet Tony (David Campfield) for drinks, on the suggestion of a mutual friend, in a Capital Stage production of “Boy Gets Girl”by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Jonathan Williams and playing now on the Delta King.

While both graduated from the University of Michigan, the similarities end there. Theresa has a quick, dry wit, loves sports, and is well read, while Joe’s level of intelligence seems to stop with People magazine. As the two make awkward conversation, one begins to get the notion that this is a Neil Simon-esque comedy.

Though things don’t click instantly, Theresa likes Joe enough to agree to a second date, for dinner, “in a few days.”

Joe, however, is not one to wait. Flowers arrive at Theresa’s office at World Magazine the next day and he calls to set the date that night. The two meet again and the disconnect between them is more apparent than before. Theresa decides to be honest, to let Joe know that it just isn’t working for her, and she leaves the restaurant.

That’s when her personal hell begins.

At first it is just annoying--flowers each day, each with a note hoping for another chance, then constant phone calls. Joe shows up at her office to invite her to lunch, clearly not taking no for an answer. She stops taking phone calls and he fills her phone message box with messages, each more angry than the next. As the level of threats escalates, the police are called in and Theresa finds out how powerless she is against her stalker. Detective Madeleine Beck (Tamara Walters) explains that her best bet is to change to an unlisted phone number, move out of her apartment, and change her name. All the police can offer her is a restraining order, with no guarantees that (a) they can find Joe to deliver it, or (b) that he will actually follow it.

As the play progresses to a conclusion which may or may not be logical, Theresa becomes increasingly incapacitated by Joe’s threats and actions and so this play, which has very funny moments, becomes an examination of what constitutes sexual harassment, what effect it has on its victims, and on the relations between men and women in the workplace.

Theresa receives tremendous support from her boss Howard Siegel (Peter Mohrmann) and co-worker Mercer Stevens (Harry Harris), but as the play progresses we discover first, how lightly the men initially take her complaints. In a very funny, yet very telling scene between the two men, they discuss how they view women, and the happily married Mercer even admits to having lustful thoughts toward Theresa.

There is also little sympathy coming from Theresa’s young assistant, Harriet, Michelle Murphy, who feels Theresa is just playing hard to get and aids Joe in wooing her.

At the same time, Theresa is sent to interview legendary porn director, Les Kennkat (Patrick Murphy) whose lecherous views about women leave little to the imagination, though he and Theresa strike up an unlikely friendship.

The play draws no real conclusions about where one draws the line between the relations between men and women and when it steps over the line and seems to leave that decision up to the audience, but you can’t help but feel that whether or not there has been any actual physical contact, Theresa is raped by the system and society over and over again and the play should lead to discussions about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior.

It also shows how people who may have a close working relationship with one another really know very little about each other, and how that may contribute to the underlying strain between the sexes. Theresa, for example, who has worked with Mercer for many years, had no idea he was happily married.

Capitol Stage has another feather in its capand continues to do what it does best--bring thought-provoking entertainment to the Sacramento area with a provocative play, a first-rate cast, and excellent direction.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Myth, Propaganda and Disaster (feature article)

“Remember, it’s about sex...and a bit about art,” laughed Jade McCutcheon, directing a scene from the upcoming “Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America,” by Stephen Sewell, opening at the Mondavi Center Studio on October 27. The characters are at a reception at the Guggenheim Museum and the air is filled with intrigue and sexual tension.

Billed as a “political thriller from Down Under,” “Myth” presents a compelling and disturbing view of the creeping erosion of democratic rights under the current U.S. administration and draws parallels to Germany as Hitler came to power.

Others have had difficulty with Sewell’s controversial play. Despite a successful run at theatres in Melbourne and Adelaide, no theater in Sydney would touch it. “I am being blocked, have been for some time,” claimed Sewell, “because I don't fit into their agendas, which is to reinforce their audience's beliefs.”

“In Australia, Stephen Sewell is on the political edge,” said McCutcheon. “This play represents only one view – an extreme one perhaps – of the events of 9/11 and subsequent reactions, but it’s important for all of us to step outside our comfort zone sometimes and see how another culture views us.”

This production is only the second in the United States, the first being in Reno in March of this year.

Edward Snyder, playing the central character of Talbot Finch, an Australian expatriate living in the United States, first heard that UC Davis would be presenting the play in March, when he interviewed with McCutcheon for admission as an MFA acting student. He asked her to send him a script. “When I first read this play, I thought it was terrible,” he said. Snyder explained that based on Sewell’s introduction to the play (that it was a response to what he considered the evils of the Bush administration), he expected it to be an indictment of the administration and, by association, the British and Australian governments. “I expected it to tell people ‘this is what you’re supposed to do, to know, to think,’” Snyder said.

He was disappointed when he found the play seemed to do none of those things, but as he worked with McCutcheon he began to understand the play’s power and what Sewell hoped the audience reaction would be.

“Jade re-framed, for me, what the purpose and intention of the play really are. She talked about upholding ambiguities in the play. If we are successful, the audience won’t leave the theater knowing exactly what to think, whom to indict, or how to behave. They will leave asking a lot of questions about what is true and what is real and what their place in reality is in relationship to what is going on with the U.S., British, and Australian governments, what is going on in the world, and in the war on terror.”

To successfully present this play, the cast had a lot of work to do, beyond the memorization of lines. For starters, there was all that history to absorb.

“The joy of directing in a university compared to when I was professionally directing is the permission to educate,” explained McCutcheon. “It becomes a learning tool. The cast had to research information about the Nazi holocaust, and study all the speeches that all the great leaders made, because that’s what Sewell is trying to do in the play, present a comparison of one dictator to another and how madness begins. It’s richer than a history course because the actors are embodying the knowledge. They aren’t just memorizing facts. They have to play a character and be influenced by that information.”

Snyder took immersion in his character very seriously. Professor Talbot is particularly interested in Nazi Germany and contemporary America. Snyder read Noam Chomsky and “The Rise and fall of 3rd Reich.” He studied the 9/11 report and Patriot Act. “Finding out what these things are all about and has been incredibly eye-opening and has transformed me as a person,” he said. “It has allowed me not only to do a better job as an actor, but I now have a better knowledge of what is going on in the world.”

Mary Anderson, playing Talbot’s wife, even did research on the neurobiological effects of torture, so she could understand what might be the effect on a man following a brutal interrogation.

“If Talbot is being tortured, whether it’s real or imagined (because there is that ambiguity in the play), we can actually imagine physically and physiologically what is happening to him.”

Such in-depth analysis of a character is integral to the way McCutcheon approaches the direction of a play.

Jade McCutcheon is perhaps the most interesting person I have ever had the pleasure of interviewing. This Australian-born director has lived a number of lives, with careers which include social worker in the slums of Melbourne (“I was knifed, I was beat up, I was spat upon”), Olympic gymnastic teacher, musician, car mechanic, barmaid, award-winning slalom canoeist, factory worker, and disc jockey. But she found her life’s calling in a pub in Adelaide when she met a group of traveling actors from Holland.

“They looked like they were from another planet, but guess what? My home planet! I had never seen theater in my life. They gave me tickets to Salome and they were brilliant. I nearly fell off my seat.”

By serendipitous coincidence, the group had just lost its stage manager and the actors encouraged McCutcheon to apply for the job. With no theater experience whatsoever, she interviewed with the company manager and within two weeks was packing her bags for what would ultimately be a two-year stint traveling around the world with the International Theater Research Group, an experience she describes as “profound.”

When she left the group after two years, she assumed that was the end of her theater life, so she took up a new career. “I joined a women’s healing center and I got into crystals, aromatherapy, and sound healing.”

She worked at this for a year and a half, but something was still missing, so she enrolled in an arts program at Wollongong University, where she majored in poetry, creative writing and theater. It was there that a play she directed won several awards, toured Australia, and led to her invitation to join N.I.D.A. (The National Institute of Dramatic Arts, which has produced such names as Mel Gibson, Judy Davis, and Cate Blanchett).

She emerged from the program as a freelance director, but after a year and a half found she was still dissatisfied. She had a burning desire to make a difference in the world, and that wasn’t happening.

“I thought-- this is just regurgitating the same old wasn’t going to help change anything. All this was was climbing up the star ladder, playing games with people.”

Instead she took a year off and, as she describes it, “ went to a rain forest and stared at my navel for a long time. Then I started doing the kind of theater I really wanted to do.”

The theater she really wanted to do included an innovative approach to character development, based on her interest in the traditions of Shamanism. “I focused my doctorate on re-languaging the permission for actors go into those places where no one dares to tread to actually start to build their inner self.”

McCutcheon is, in fact, in the process of writing a book about her work. “I’m using a process which uses body energy centers based on chakras to actually discover the character,” she explained. “I want people to feel a shamanic permission to engage with the earth and its forces. To listen in other ways. To consider we are all part of the one.”

“It’s working with your root, working with your belly, with you solar, chest, mind and crown,”said actress Alice Vasquez, playing the wife of the head of Talbot’s department. “It’s focusing on that part of your body and what it looks like to deliver a line, for example, from your belly, which is something more sensual, than if you’re giving it from your mind which is something that’s very straightforward or from your solar, which is more honest and direct.”

Mary Anderson adds, “we spend at least an hour, sometimes more, warming up every day. In order to kind of maintain a physical connection to each of those body energy center areas it’s really important for me to keep reminding my body what that feels like.”

The attention to body energy explained the electricity I experienced when I attended a rehearsal for “Myth.” Never have I seen a cast so focused, whether they were rehearsing or waiting. Anderson was doing push-ups against a wall, shaking her arms, and touching the parts of her body from which her next lines would come. The actress feels a more emotional connection to her character because of the extra imaginative work.

She explains that the actors take 30-40 minutes a day to lie down in a relaxed state and take a meditative journey to meet their characters in their lives. “We’ll walk around their apartments, they’ll cook us food and so I feel that we have a more textured relationship with our characters.”

This approach to character development and the collaborative work that McCutcheon and her cast are doing allows each character to react to each situation from a real place of familiarity, rather than from a strict set of staging guidelines, but Synder is careful to add that this freedom to make choices is set up under a set of very specific tools for the actors to work with. “As the process goes further along, Jade lays in more and more structure within which all of that play and freedom can occur.”

“Jade really loves to see the organic part of the process,” explains Vasquez. “Instead of setting specific actions for specific lines, she likes to see how things can change from time to time. She gives us options, and from there we’re able to analyze and realize the different dimensions of the specific line.”

“I’m allowed a lot of freedom and a lot of fun,” Snyder says “It blasts wide open possibilities that I can have within a role but it’s also an incredible challenge because I’m responsible for holding all of those possibilities, not just choosing a very narrow set of physical and vocal and intentional choices, but really upholding the full complexity and full range of each of those choices.”

Based on my discussions with McCutcheon and attendance at rehearsals, I feel the audience is in for an extraordinary night of theater, one which will challenge some beliefs, which may be slightly offensive (“The language may be seen as offensive to some. It’s really for mature audiences. There’s no graphic sex but there is violence and language,” warns McCutcheon), but which should definitely accomplish the director’s goal of “feeding the audience a great meal” and leaving them with a lot of questions, the answers to which will undoubtedly differ from person to person.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

To Kill a Mockingbird

This review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 10/11/06.

In 1960, Harper Lee published a book called “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It was an instant hit and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961. In 1962, a film directed by Alan J. Pakula won an Academy award for Gregory Peck, in a role which has become legendary, that of Atticus Finch, the quiet attorney from the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, who defends Tom Robinson, a local Black man, who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman.

In 1970 Christopher Sergel turned the story of that memorable summer in Maycomb into a stage play, and it is the tremendous good fortune for local audiences that the Sacramento Theater Company has decided to present Sergel’s adaptation as the opening show of the company’s 65th season.

Directed by Philip Charles Sneed, this production is first class from the moment the audience enters the theater and sees the beautiful set, designed by Troy Hemmerling and artfully lit by lighting designer Pamila Z. Gray, who uses subtle sky/cloud effects to mark the passage of time. The effect of a sleepy Alabama street is perfected by the amazing tree, built by sculptor Mitchell J.P. Martinez

The world never seems as fresh and wonderful, comforting and terrifying, as good and evil as it does when seen through the eyes of a child, and through the memory of the adult Jean Louise Finch, the girl who used to be called “Scout” (Carolyn Howarth), we are transported back to 1935 and the events of that memorable summer, as seen through the eyes of the young Scout (Paige Silvester) and her older brother Jem (Brennan Villados).

Silvester and Villados are considerably older than the 6 year old Scout and 8 year old Jem of the book (Villados is actually in college, though his youthful appearance works for this role), yet the two seasoned young actors are able to bring all the innocence and wonder that is expected to the roles.

As their new friend, Dill, who arrives in Maycomb for the summer, Jake Murphy is outstanding.

(All three children’s roles are double cast)

Taking on the role of Atticus Finch, one of the more recognizable figures in movie history, is a difficult one, yet Mark Standriff handles it beautifully. He is the wise father, teaching his children through his gentleness, yet resolute in standing up for his principles. (It is unfortunate that the material costumer Clare Henkel chose for his suit wrinkles so badly that when giving his impassioned speech to the jury, his pants looked like they’d been wadded up in the laundry bag).

Matt K. Miller is deliciously sleazy as the white trash Bob Ewell, insisting on retribution for the violation of his daughter Mayella (Katie Rubin), when it is clear to everyone that Mayella’s violation has been at Ewell’s own hands. (Miller also appears briefly as Mr. Radley.)

Rubin herself has few lines, but is the central figure of the Act 2 trial and her sullen demeanor leaves no doubt about what this poor girl’s home life is like. Rubin is a talented actress and she makes the most of her smaller speaking role.

Jamal Kelly is the gentle Tom Robinson, the defendant in this infamous trial, finding himself in an impossible situation, with clearly little doubt about his future in this southern town where feelings against the black community run high.

George Schau plays the mysterious Arthur (Boo) Radley, the Finches’ next door neighbor who never leaves his house, and who is the “boogie man” in the lives of the children. (“He eats raw squirrels and all the cats he can catch. There's a long, jagged scar that runs all the way across his face. His teeth are yella and rotten. His eyes are popped. And he drools most of the time.”). Schau also appears earlier in the play as Walter Cunningham, a client of Atticus with his own apparent deep hatred for the black community.

Linda Goodrich is Calpurnia, the Finches’ maid, who fills the disciplining role of the children’s late mother.

Others in this superlative cast include Georgann Wallace as the grumpy neighbor, Mrs. DuBose, Dan Harlan as Judge Taylor, David Silberman as Heck Tate, Wayne Cook as the Reverend Sykes, and Miles Miniaci as Mr. Gilmer.

This is a professional production in every sense of the word. It is a visual delight, the cast is top notch and for anyone who loved the movie, or for those who are not familiar with the movie, this play is a must-see.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Beijing Opera

The following review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 10/5/06

For two more nights only there is the rare opportunity to see the first world tour of the Shanghai School of Chinese Opera at the Wyatt Pavilion.

The 13-person performing troupe is visiting the campus through an exchange program between the Department of Theater and Dance and the Shanghai Theater Academy and will perform “The Colorful Essence of Beijing Opera,” which features extracts from five famous operas, “Farewell, My Concubine,” “Golden Monkeys Welcoming the Arrival of Spring,” “Madam Mu Guiying Becomes a General,” and “Yang Yuhuan Gets Drunk.”

In the Western World, we have a good idea of what to expect when we attend an opera. Leave those expectations at home as you enter the theater. Chinese traditional opera is a comprehensive performing art which combines singing, music, dialogue, acrobatics, martial arts, and pantomime. It is one of the three oldest dramatic art forms in the world and dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It represents the culmination and distillation of two thousand years of Chinese civilization.

Though it evolved from folk songs, dances, talking, and distinctive dialectic music, it is unlikely that most people in the audience will be rushing to buy a copy of music from Chinese opera to relax to some evening, as the sound is quite harsh to a western ear and in places may resemble a catfight.

(For this performance, the group uses recorded music (unfortunate in a couple of pieces where the sound system was rather mushy), primarily because of the expense of traveling with a band. The performers mouth the recorded words, though the recordings are of the actual performers themselves.)

But the music is only a small part of what Beijing Opera has to offer. (The term “Beijing Opera,” by the way, does not necessarily mean that it comes from Beijing. There are several types of Chinese Opera, and Beijing Opera has come to be regarded as the national form.)

The appeal of this performance starts with the large posters which line the walls of the Wyatt Pavilion. Next are the colorful, ornate costumes and the detailed make-up. Exaggerated designs are painted on each person’s face to symbolize the character’s personality, role, and fate. Generally, a red face represents loyalty and bravery; a black face, valor; yellow and white faces, duplicity; and golden and silver faces, mystery.

Finally, the actual movement itself, which can be almost balletic in its grace and beauty, as in “Tian Nv Scattering the Flower,” where Buddha has arranged for Tiam Nv (Sun Li) to scatter flowers for an unnamed ceremony. The costume for this piece includes two very long multi colored pieces of cloth which trail behind the actress and which she spins and snaps and twirls to represent the scattering of the flowers. It was my personal favorite piece of the evening.

At the opposite end of the spectrum would be “The Crossroads,” set in an inn at night. Though performed in full light, supposedly the characters (Ji Yongxin as Ren Tanghui and Li Mingyang as Lin Lihua) are in the dark as they perform a very complicated martial arts dance as they grope their way around the room trying to find the enemy who is supposedly lurking there.

There are 9 numbers in all (no intermission), each introduced in Chinese by Shang Changrong, the Chairman of the Chinese Theater Artist Association, and translated by a woman who struggled so with English that she was almost as difficult to understand as Mr. Changrong.

Some highlights included “Yang Yuhuan Gets Drunk” with Shen Yilang in the title role wearing the most ornate costume of the evening; and “Reed Marsh,” with Kan Xin as Zhang Fei, wearing black makeup round his upper face and still managing to make the best expressions with his eyes. “He is very good at kicking,” the translator told the audience, upon which Fei proved her right with some amazing high kicks.

My companion liked the opening number, “Golden Monkeys Welcoming the Arrival of Spring,” with bright yellow costumes, snapping and waving flags, an impossibly long set of feathers on the headdress of Zhang Shanyuan as Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, and acrobatics that would rival that of any Olympic athlete.

Several of the performers were only 13 years old and their precision, athleticism, and professional demeanor is a great testament to the school’s teaching.

In a full-length opera there would be more scenery, more people on stage, and live music, but for most of us, this may be the closest we’ll get to a full-length performance. It’s well worth the experience and at only and hour and 45 minutes, it’s a short evening, but you definitely won’t feel shortchanged.

On Friday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., the community is invited to a free costume and make-up application demonstration at Wyatt Pavilion.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Fiddler on the Roof

The following review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 10/4/06

The world is changing for the milkman Tevye (Jeff Nauer). Social mores are changing. Daughters are now falling in love instead of waiting for a match to be made for them. Pogroms and expulsions of Jews are occurring in the surrounding towns and it’s only a matter of time until the Tsar’s iron fist descends on Tevye’s little community of Anatevka. Tevye equates life in these unsettled times with being like a "fiddler on a roof,” trying to scratch out a simple, pleasant tune without breaking his neck.

"Fiddler on the Roof," currently at the Woodland Opera House, is the perennial favorite based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, directed by Jeff Kean (who also designed the scenery). This is a story is about change ... the changing relationships between parents and children, the changing political scene, the change in ... tradition.

Director Kean is fortunate to have a group of principals with experience and excellent singing voices.

Outstanding among them are Tevye’s three daughters, Bethany Pedersen as Tzeitel (she also plays the spirit of Grandma Tzeitel), Julia Mosby as Hodel, and Monika Joyce Neal as Chava. Each give superb performances. Their trio “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” is a delight, and they have sensitive interactions with their father.

Nauer is an engaging Tevye with a big voice and a sincere characterization which was a real crowd pleaser. He accepts his lot in life, but constantly tries to convince God that it wouldn’t spoil him if he were to have just a bit less strife and a bit more wealth (“If I were a rich man”).

Nancy Agee is Tevye’s wife of 25 years, Golde, who knows the way to make a proper home, a quiet home, a kosher home, and who seems surprised, when asked the question (“Do you love me?”), to discover that yes, she really does love Tevye, a thought which had never occurred to her before.

At 20, Joelle Lorin Wirth is a bit young to be playing Yente, the matchmaker, but with the help of make up and black garb she seems to pull it off, though at times it seemed more of a caricature than a believable character.

Clocky McDowell is making his Woodland Opera House debut in the role of Motel the Tailor, but he is not new to either the show or to the role, having played it previously at Runaway Stage Productions. There is an earnestness and a sincerity in his portrayal of this poor young man asking for Tzeitel’s hand in marriage.

Scott Woodward’s fervor for political causes was palpable in his role as Perchick, the student from Kiev who offers to teach Tevye’s daughters and ends up marrying Hodel.

The character of Feydka is described as “a literate Russian,” and Kyle Hadley adds an element of sweetness which appeals to young Chava, who shares his love of literature and, ultimately, falls in love with the soldier as well, the one sin her father finds unforgivable.

Costumes for this production are by Laurie Everly-Klassen and suitably depict the life of poor peasants in a small shtetl in Russia, so it is surprising that Tzeitel’s wedding dress, with its lace trim and netting and jeweled veil seems so out of place. Is this really what a young bride from a poor family would wear on her wedding day?

Eva Sarry’s choreography was enjoyable and the traditional “bottle dance” at Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding was the expected knockout.

Erik Daniells is musical director for this production. The choral work was particularly lovely, especially for the Sabbath dinner, with the entire cast, holding lighted candles, distributed along the stage, and in the audience, including the balcony. This is always such a moving scene and does not disappoint.

Program bios are generally forgettable, but given the tenor of the times in which we live, the bio for Micail W. Buse (who plays the Rabbi in this production) sums up the production beautifully: “The oppression shown in this show still goes on: in Sudan, Palestine, and on virtually every continent on the Globe. I ...hope that all people will live in harmony, without regard to race, religion or ethnicity.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” continues at the Opera House through October 29 and patrons should be advised that evening performances now start at 7:30, instead of the usual 8 p.m.

Monday, October 02, 2006

This entry brought to you by....

I received a request from someone who read my Wizard of Oz review and wanted to know if I'd be willing to review his videos, Me, Eloise and Eloise Little Miss Christmas. Unfortunately, I don't do movie reviews--I have no choice in the kinds of things I review, as it is an assignment by the newspaper (and my boss is the movie reviewer!). But the video excerpt on the web site looked cute, so I thought I might be able to help the video by posting that video here. So enjoy, and if it looks good to you, check out the web site yourself!