Friday, April 21, 2006

Spring Concert 2006

Choreographer’s Hilary Bryan’s “Sacred Space” is performed in front of the U.C.D. Main Theater as part of the Main Stage Dance/Theater Festival, running through April 23. This is a production which attempts to break down spatial borders between performance and everyday life.

In “Sacred Space,” five icosahedrons (a polyhedron having 20 faces) consist of pipes which each contain a complete diatonic scale (twelve tones). The 7 dancers each stepped inside one of the figures, which surround the draped egghead statues, and they began to dance, tapping the pipes to produce a lovely ethereal sound...which unfortunately competed with the drum group that was rehearsing somewhere on campus. 5 minutes into the 12-minute piece, the drums finally stopped and one could finally get the full effect of the lovely tones that were being played.

Eric Kupers’ “Catch Cradle” actually opened the evening at 7:30 at the Davis Commons (in front of Borders) and then moved to the theater for the second half of the “structured improvisational” piece, which by its very nature will change somewhat each night.

“Baú” followed, a lovely piece choreographed by Jennie Amaral. The visual for the piece was stunning. Sheer cloth panels, illustrated the “personal boxes” and experiences that we go through as we deal with our “entrapment.”

“Imagination: love”, choreographed by Whitney Peterson, is described as “coming from a place of imagination.” Peterson may have channeled Tim Burton because it had that quirky Burton look to it. The music by Claude Challe provided a great strident rhythm.

“Point Zero,” by Hector D. Martin-Rodas is loosely based the book “Woman at Point Zero,” by Nawal El-Saadawi, based on an interview with a woman on the eve of her execution. The story of her tragic life is beautifully portrayed in this number, where the dancers were coverings over their faces.

“Captured Movement,” choreographed by Rebecca Abdenour, is inspired by the paintings of Joan Miró, whose style is represented in the costumes by Molly LeGoy and in the abstract lines and angles created by the dancers.

“Sense (it’s an experience)” choreographed by Keith Hennessy is high-flying fun with the rap beat by Miss Elliot. An all-male cast, these are mostly inexperienced dancers, but accomplished athletes, showing that the line between sport and the arts is not that wide.

“Tour,” by Hilary Bryan was an interesting number, described by Bryan as “based on the Space Harmony work of Rudolf Laban together with his theories of Effort and Shape Qualities.” To this viewer, it looked like a group of people going on vacation to a foreign country and pointing out the sights.

Brian Runstrom’s “Cacaphony Undisclosed,” set to original music by Portia Njoku, “encompasses an exploration of humanity and truth and asks if truths can ever really be unmasked. Costume designer Jenny Foldenaur has created black costumes, each with its own decoration, but all faces covered.

Finally, “Pondering Tongue-tied Green Fragrances,” by William Anthony Munkacsy III sports a charming backdrop of a child’s drawing of home, by Lysandra Nelson. The dance expresses deep-seated loneliness and longing blended with a sense of hope and comedy.

Excerpts from the Main Stage Dance/Theatre Festival will be shown at the Davis Farmers’ Market from 10 to noon on Saturday, April 15, and at locations around the UC Davis campus on Picnic Day, Saturday, April 22

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Midway through Act 1 of Studio 301's production of Cabaret, running at the Wyatt Pavilion through April 16, the Jewish grocer Herr. Schultz (Yahya Rouhani) hands his landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Melanie Levy) a pineapple, which is the impetus for “The Pineapple Song.” During the song, actress Levy kind of bobbles the pineapple accidentally and some fronds fly off of the top of it. I kept waiting for someone to pick up the pineapple fronds, but at the end of the show they were still there. Even when the chorus girls from the Kit Kat club were crawling around on the floor picking up currency during “The Money Song,” they left the pineapple fronds there. Nor did anybody pick them up during intermission.

In Act 2, in another scene between Schultz and Schneider, a broom and an orange are left on the floor. It took 3 scenes before anyone picked them up (they danced on top of the broom and over the orange during the song “If You Could See her”) and toward the end of Act 2, Sally Bowles (Jennifer Nelson) drops what looks like a pitch pipe as she makes her entrance. It didn’t get kicked off stage until the curtain call, though scenery was moved around it.

I mention these serious oversights because I’m having a difficult time knowing what to say about this show. Who can’t like “Cabaret,” right? It’s downright unAmerican.

In fact, I had high hopes for the show when I entered Wyatt Pavilion, which had been turned into the Kit Kat Club, a seedy nightclub in Berlin in the days when the Nazis were coming to power. I was impressed that the atmosphere was perfect, down to the missing and mismatched lightbulbs around the second floor platform where the orchestra sat. Matt Welch and Katie Baad are credited with “original set conception” and deserve high marks for their vision.

The chorus girls, in wonderfully decadent costumes designed by Alexandra Bergere were wandering around on stage prior to the start of the show and it added to the ambience before the lights ever went down.

(Someone should tell whoever printed the programs, however, that while purple is a nice paper color, when you try to read black letters on purple in a dimly lit theater, it just doesn’t work!)

The show’s real problems started with the overture.

I tried to decide how to handle this, and decided not to point fingers because, in truth, with the exception of Rouhani there was not ONE principal who managed to make it through a song without hitting at least a few sour notes, some tried several different keys before settling on one which matched the orchestra, and there was at least one song which was so bad that I don’t think the singer hit one note right throughout. The last two notes of the show caused me to visibly wince.

I am puzzled by why this is because it is obvious that each of the performers has strong vocal talent. I don’t know if having the orchestra seated above them was the reason, or if the fact that the orchestra was out of tune as often as the singers was to blame. But for whatever reason, this is a show with very strong music and vocal problems.

Alas, vocal problems are not the only ones. The decision to cast a woman (Jacquie Pospisil) as the Emcee was a curious one. Pospisil is a good actress and has a good voice, but the role is written for a man and the lines were not changed to indicate that the character was female, yet Pospisil was costumed decidedly feminine, which made the number “Two Ladies,” with Pospisil as the “man” and one of the chorus men as one of the “ladies” distinctly odd.

But the show’s choreography (for actors who aren’t primarily dancers) by Tori Terrell-Carazo was fine.

Jennifer Nelson was Sally Bowles and is obviously a fine actress, but can’t quite carry off the degree of decadence that makes us understand Sally’s Bohemian lifestyle.

Drew Phillips is Cliff Bradshaw. Phillips is another fine actor whom I have seen in other productions, but in this production, we don’t get believability in his sexual orientation. Is he gay? Is he straight? Is he bisexual? Is he sexual at all? There’s not a lot of chemistry between Cliff and Sally.

Another directing oversight has Cliff packing Sally’s clothes into a suitcase, which he then takes with him as he leaves Berlin.

Studio 301 is a student run and funded club, independent from the university’s Theater and Dance Department. Last year’s “Into the Woods” was a promising entree into the world of musicals for the fledgling group. Unfortunately, its second attempt is less so.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Costume Guild Calls it Quits

Who will ever forget the image of Scarlet O’Hara taking the curtains down from the windows of Tara in order to make herself a fancy dress (or Carol Burnett’s parody of that same scene, complete with curtain rods)?

It was hard not to think of Scarlet O’Hara as I sat talking with Barbara Jackson, one of the few surviving members of the once very active Davis Theatrical Costumers Guild, now in the process of folding up its sewing machines, closing the door to its closet, and fading into the performing arts history of Davis. As Jackson and Charlotte French, the two remaining active members of the Costume Guild face decisions about what to do with the costumes which remain in storage, I met with each one of them to get their memories about 40 years of costuming history in Davis.

“In the early days, all the costumes were made out of people’s old draperies and tablecloths,” Jackson remembered. “We didn’t go buy fabric. The company didn’t have any money. So we really used everything we could get our hands on. We dyed things, used old sheets. There are still some petticoats and bloomers that we made for one of the Gilbert & Sullivan shows that were made out of my dining room curtains. They’ve gotten increasingly faded, but they are still there.” There are even a couple of men’s suits, from “The Gondoliers,” made from the old upholstery of Jackson’s couches, when she recovered the furniture.

Nobody set out to establish an official costume guild back in the 1950s, somebody just found a barn and decided to put on a show and it set the stage for several Davis institutions to be formed.

“The barn” was the school gym, when what is now City Hall was the high school. A group of people, headed by Dr. Robert Cello, then head of the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, decided to put on a production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” Cello played the Major General, Joe Pence, DDS was the Captain of Police, and Marinka Phaff made the costumes. (All three, sadly, are no longer with us.)

Marinka Phaff had costume making experience in Europe prior to settling in Davis with her husband Hermann, professor of Food Science and Technology. (“I think she may have worked with the Ballet Russe,” speculated Charlotte French, adding that Phaff had been a very private person who did not like to discuss her life outside of the work she did with the other costumers. “‘Eccentric’ is a word that is just perfect for her. She never talked about herself. She would never talk about her past.”).

At the time of the “Pirates of Penzance” production, Phaff was working in the costume department at UC Davis. “Marinka was dedicated to costuming more than to anything else,” remembers Jackson.

Phaff and Jackson began to make costumes for Davis Art Center productions in the 1950s. The Art Center had no building at that time, but had office space behind McNeil’s Rugs and Draperies. Classes were held in various locations around town. Cello, who was on the Board of Directors of the Art Center with Jackson, was the inspiration for productions sponsored by the Art Center.

Jackson’s first show was “Brigadoon.” Eleanor Barnes was in charge of costumes, which were rented, but which came missing some integral pieces. Barnes called Jackson, to ask if she would be willing to make four dancers’ costumes for the show. “I said I’d be glad to do it if she would just bring me the fabric and measurements and patterns.” Barnes arrived with a stack of fabric and a playbill that had a 2x3 picture of a Scottish dancer on it. “I asked ‘where’s the pattern?’ She said ‘Bill Barbe (the director) said you don’t need a pattern.’”

Always up for a challenge, Jackson, who had never sewn without a pattern before, decided that if her mother could do it, she could do it. “I knew how a sleeve was shaped and a how a skirt was shaped, so it really wasn’t that complicated.” She learned about things like the “dancer’s gusset,” which allows a dancer to raise her arms while dancing without distorting the fabric. “I learned a lot of things,” she added.

When the Art Center stopped doing shows, Bob Cello wanted to form a company to do comic opera. (“They started with Gilbert & Sullivan because it’s cheap--no royalties,” Jackson pointed out) and the Davis Comic Opera Company (DCOC) was formed. Phaff was in charge of costumes. Jackson was working full time at the University for English, Dramatic Art and Speech. She continued to work on costumes in the evenings, picking up material from Phaff and bringing it home with her at night. This arrangement continued for many years.

When Jackson left the University, and the knit shop she later owned downtown, the Guild began making costumes in her home, which was more conducive to a large number of women with sewing machines going for hours on end. “In the early days we had a lot of people who helped. We put four sewing machines at my table and we put up card tables. They put a couple of machines on one table and then I had a sewing table that had two sewing machines on it and we sewed. I think that among all of the people who worked on costumes, the only real ‘professional’ among us was Marinka, so she took things home and did fancy things.”

In 1975, Charlotte French moved to Davis and got involved with “The Bad Actors,” which performed such memorable pieces as “I’m Sorry the Bridge Is Out, You’ll Have to Spend the Night” at the old Palms Playhouse. Phaff built costumes for this group as well.

French began making costumes because her mother ran a dance studio. “I made my own clothes from the time I was 12. It just seemed a natural thing to make costumes,” she explained.

French pointed out that though the Costume Guild has come to be associated primarily with the Davis Comic Opera Company, in the early years, when there were several theatrical groups performing in town, the Costume Guild worked with them all--the Art Center, the Davis Players, The Bad Actors, and even the high school. (The high school costumes for “Brigadoon” still hang in the costume shop.) Jackson also became the costumer for the Sacramento Opera.

The companies for which the costumes would be built paid for the fabric, the seamstresses donated their time. The costumes were also rented to companies outside of Davis--to Sacramento or to Stockton or to several companies in Solano county, and the proceeds of those rentals went for the upkeep of the costumes, and later for the necessary maintenance of the Costume Guild building.

French recalled some of the wonderful women who were part of the Costume Guild in its heyday.

“Toshi Jestes did the most beautiful work. Fabulous tiny stitches and very very persnickity. Barb McKinney and Grace Noda had both sewed with Marinka, so they were all part of that group. Molly Ann Lipelt did sewing for years, but her kids were little-ish at the time and so she preferred to take stuff home and work on it. Amy Patten never sewed, but Amy would come and cheer,” she laughed.

Jackson remembers Anne Ough, who suffered from emphysema which was so bad that she was forced to spend most of her time living over on the coast, where she could breathe more easily. But she continued to sew for the Costume Guild, taking specific pieces along with her, and was noted for her intricate detail work.

“Anne Ough was one of my best friends,” said Jackson, sadly. “She was so young when she died. She had a very creative mind.”

Jackson also complimented Charlotte French. “Charlotte does gorgeous hats. I think she prefers to do hats to doing any of the rest of it.”

“I like the craft side of it,” says French “I still love hat making. I really like the period hats, which are wonderfully fun to make, but nobody wears them now.”

French, a costume designer, returned the compliment. “I got real picky about who built my costumes. Barbara, of course, was wonderful. If Barbara would sew for me I was in heaven.”

At some point the Costume Guild, realizing that they could not continue to store costumes in people’s attics or basements, where they risked damage by the elements, and could get misplaced, decided they needed a building. The group incorporated and began holding fund-raising events to raise the money to build a real storage shed for costumes. “We did all manner of things to raise money,” said Jackson. They held dinners which the guild members cooked, in the Veterans Memorial building before DCOC shows, for example, and they made a special quilt.

Each square was the depiction of one of the characters in one of the shows, and it as made from the same fabric that the costume was made of. “There were several of us that did blocks for it and then I put it together,” said Jackson, noting that Ellie Glassburner won it. “We made quite a bit of money doing it. It was really a beautiful quilt.”

With enough money collected, and land behind the Veterans Memorial Theater loaned by the city of Davis, with the proviso that the land and building would revert to the city when the Costume Guild no longer needed it, a building was designed by Gale Sosnick, a cement floor was laid, Costume Guild husbands built the building, and the Guild members painted it. Jackson’s husband Turpie (historian W.Turrentine Jackson) and a cousin of his put together the racks for the costumes. It was dedicated in 1979 as the Marinka Phaff Costume Library.

Barbara Jackson and I met Enterprise photographer Alison Portello at the costume shop for a photo shoot for this article. It was a trip down memory lane for Jackson, as she remembered the circumstances of the building of so many costumes. She pulled out a can can dancer’s costume from “The Merry Widow,” displaying the multicolored ruffles on the inside of the skirt. “There are 90 yards of ruffles on each skirt,” she said. “Everybody hated me!”

She also showed me the size 12 white patent leather ladies shoes which had been donated by someone and which Malcolm MacKenzie wore as the Duke of Plaza Toro in “The Gondoliers.”

She pulled one of the Beefeater costumes off the rack. The Beefeater costumes present a special dilemma for her--they were so intricate and took hours of construction to make, authentic and durable.

“Somebody gave Marinka a bolt of white interior tape, just old white cotton tape, which Barbara McKinney took and dyed black and ironed. She ironed tape until she just could have thrown it at Marinka.,” laughed Jackson. “That’s what the Beefeater costumes are trimmed with. Barbara dyed and ironed every piece of it.”

Jackson wants to see them go to a good home, but who needs Beefeater costumes these days?

Portello asked Jackson to stand beside a Costume Guild banner which hung on the back wall. Jackson fingered the trim on the skirt of the figure on the banner, then looked closely. “Oh!” she said, “I think that was one of my scarfs.”

It is unlikely that we will ever see the likes of the Davis Theatrical Costumers Guild again. It is an organization of a different time. “Most people don’t value live theater today,” said French. “And the spirit of volunteerism isn’t there. Everybody wants to be paid. People who have the time, like the people who were involved in the costume guild, came from an era where the husband went off to work and the wife stayed home. They had the time to do it; now they don’t.”

The Davis Theatrical Costumers Guild is, perhaps, like the costumes they built--a period piece. But the unseen women who labored so long and so lovingly behind the scenes for so many years made it possible for theater to live and thrive in Davis. Without their expertise, the cultural life of this town would have been significantly different.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Cul de Sac

Two things we know about Leonard are that he is gay and that he is dead.

We know Leonard is dead because he tells us. We know he is gay because he shows us (by pointing out his mannerisms and suggesting that life might have been different if he had learned to appreciate football.)

Leonard is the central figure of “Cul de Sac,” a remarkable 90 minute one-man show, presented without intermission at the Mondavi Center Studio Theater for three more performances, ending with a matinee on Sunday.

The creation of Canadian writer/actor/director Daniel MacIvor (who performs the work) and Daniel Brooks, “Cul de Sac” examines our place in the world and how that place changes with other people’s perceptions of us, or how we interact with each other.

(Think of the block on which you live. How well do you know your neighbors? Really know your neighbors? How well do they know you?)

Leonard lets us know that his death was sudden and unanticipated and then he introduces us to each of his neighbors, as they learn of his death. In “meeting” these neighbors (all of whom are played, brilliantly, by MacIvor), we learn their view of Leonard, and we watch as they distance themselves from his death.

As he steps into block-shaped pools of light which indicate the home of each of his neighbors, McIvor also steps into the bodies of his neighbors. So complete is the instant transformation, so rich the characterizations, that we have no difficulty picturing the residents of each house, even when they engage in rapid-fire dialogue with each other. (An unbelievable Christmas party takes place, where in MacIvor is all of the guests at once, jumping in and out of identities in the blink of an eye.)

We meet Joy, love-starved housewife from Minnesota who is constantly bickering with her husband Eddie.

Next door is Virginia, the haughty Gilbert & Sullivan diva who dabbles in nudism and was very close to Leonard’s former partner Robert, a social climber, but who, like the rest of his neighbors, didn’t really know Leonard very well.

Mr. Bickerson (or “Bick” as he was known when he played college football) is the crusty, toothless, old retired veterinarian who yells at kids to get off his lawn and who kills the neighborhood cats in his basement so he won’t forget how to do it.

Finally, there is 13 year old Madison, an anorexic budding author, who thinks oral sex isn’t really sex because President Clinton said so and “isn’t it in the Constitution or something?” Madison has been Leonard’s closest friend, who ultimately, unwittingly sets in motion the events leading up to his death.

One by one we watch them discussing Leonard’s death, there in the privacy of their own homes. We learn that none of them felt they knew Leonard well, so they don’t let his tragic death touch them too deeply.

As the reactions to Leonard’s death unfold, so, too do the lives and personalities of these inhabitants of the cul de sac which is really a “dead end” for all of them, in one way or another, as much as it was literally for Leonard.

The final person we meet is Eric, a prostitute Leonard picks up at a gay bar. Eric, who has a woman of his own, will do anything for money to feed his drug habit.

“Cul de Sac” mixes black humor and hard-hitting reality. In the Q&A following the performance, MacIvor described it as “Our Town” meets “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

With assistance of the powerful lighting design of Kimberly Purtell, effectively using harsh flashes of lightning, temporarily blinding the audience, and the sound and music design of Richard Feren (who was replaced by Michael Laird for this United States tour because Feren will not enter the U.S. while George W.Bush is in office), this becomes an unforgettable work which will have its impact on the audience.

This work may not be to the tastes of the more mainstream theater goer, but for those willing to step out of the box and try something a little different, the evening will have great rewards.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Taming of the Shrew

“Rip-roaring” and “rootin’ tootin’” are not usually adjectives one hears to describe a Shakespearean production, but that certainly fits the Sacramento Theater Company’s latest production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” under the direction of Peggy Shannon.

This tight, energetic, sprightly paced production is set in the Old West, with lots of boots, cowboy hats, whoops, hollers, and impeccable “Wild West accents.” And actually, therein lies its problem. The combination of rapid fire dialog and broad John Wayne western accents assume that the audience is already well-versed in the story and the dialog.

“It’s fun, but I can’t really understand most of what they say,” I overheard someone laughing at intermission.

It is a shame that so many marvelous lines get lost on those unfamiliar with the text, no matter how much they are enjoying the production as a whole. In spots some may have longed for supertitles. I saw children in the opening night audience. They were obviously enjoying the on-stage hijinks, but I really wondered how much “Shakespeare” they were getting.

That said, for those already familiar with the story and the dialog, this snappy production is a delight.

There are those who question the political correctness of performing this comedy in this day and age, since it seems so blatantly mysogenistic, the message being that harmony will only occur when wives accept the domination of their husbands. But there are various shades of interpretation that can be presented without compromising either the original script--or the sensibilities of feminists. Director Shannon has achieved this delicate balance.

At the helm of this production are two of STC’s most familiar faces. Saffron Henke is the feisty Katherina is a gun-toting tomboy who will take no guff from anyone. Matt K. Miller is her fortune-hunting suitor, Petruchio, who vows to tame this hellcat. The two actors have always had great on stage chemistry together and it is at its best here.

Philip Charles Sneed (who also does the pre-show lecture) is Katherina’s domineering father, Baptista, who refuses to allow his youngest daughter, the blonde, flirtatious Bianca (Michele Hillen) to marry until a groom is found for her bad-tempered older sister. Hillen plays the sweet little lady role to the hilt (think of a somewhat less endowed Dolly Parton).

While Petruchio has his hands full with his “Kate,” the young rich Lucentio (Kurt Johnson) finds himself smitten with Bianca. He trades places with his servant, Tranio (Michael Stevenson), and disguises himself as a poor teacher to gain an excuse to be in Bianca’s company, while Tranio, posing as Lucentio attempts to convince Baptista to let him marry his younger daughter. Johnson and Stevenson make a great pair and play off each other beautifully, and Johnson gentle, romantic lover for Bianca.

As Bianca’s older would-be suitors, Mark Standriff as Hortensio and Allen Pontes as Gremio are wonderfully silly. Kyle Hayden as Petruchio’s manservant Grumio is outstanding.

Marion Williams has created the Wild West in the sparest possible manner, using a bare stage with platforms, a couple of swinging barroom doors on the sides of the stage, and hanging interchangeable signs overhead to indicate change in location, setting all against a wide open sky with colorful clouds as one might find in a Montana sunset. It proves that with a good cast, you don’t need a fancy set to put you in the location.

Shannon makes the most use of the entire stage, frequently sending her actors out into the audience to exit out the back of the theater, which adds yet another element to the energy.

Petruchio puts Kate through the tortures of the damned, first being late for the wedding, arriving in a ridiculous outfit, forcing the bride to leave before the wedding feast, depriving her of food or sleep for several days. Ultimately his new bride will admit that the sun is really the moon...or is it the moon which is really the sun. She agrees that an old man is really a beautiful young woman, and she gives a long speech about the need for wives to obey their husband in all things.

However, at the hands of the talented Henke, is Kate really subjugating herself to her husband, or does that sly gleam in her eye indicate that she has just found a better way to keep peace and manipulate her husband? I’m betting on the latter.

For those who intend to see this delightful production, I would suggest you brush up your Shakespeare, if you are unfamiliar with the script, in order to get the most out of the production, but do go to see it. It will be time well spent.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Kite Runner

When Lynn and I went searching for a copy of Quality of Care, she picked up this book and asked me if I'd read it. I'd never heard of it. She told me a friend had given it to her and that I needed to read it, so she bought it for me.

I took it to the theatre with me the night we saw Taming of the Shrew and one of the other reviewers came up to me at intermission and said, "You're reading that now, not last year, like you were supposed to."

Guess I was out of the loop when this book appeared on the scene. Even then, I'm not sure it was a book that I would have chosen to read. That would have been my loss.

This is the story of Amir, a young boy growing up in an affluent family in Kabul, playing with his best friend Hassan, the servant's son. The two have a very special bond and the story of their life together in pre-Taliban Afghanistan gives the reader a look at what life was like before the Russians invaded the country, and then the continuing destruction of the country under the Taliban.

A tragic incident changes the relationship between Amir and Hassan forever, which is not resolved for decades. Even then, the ultimate resolution takes twists and turns that are tragic and unexpected.

This is a gripping tale that will keep you turning pages, even while trying to watch Desperate Housewives (LOL)