Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Importance of Being Earnest

This review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 1/24/2007

It’s a world of polite society, cucumber sandwiches, and a world where “smoking” is considered a proper activity for a young man. “A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.”

It’s a world where “being Earnest” is very important.

In fact, that’s the name of the play, “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde, who can skewer high society pomposity better than most. It is currently delighting audiences at the Woodland Opera House.

Jack Lynn, who, in his 70 year career has taught such luminaries as Sir Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman and worked with the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Sir John Gielgud, is making this production his directorial swan song. The veteran director is going out with a bang, not with a whimper.

He has assembled a talented cast, with keen comic timing, and several are new to the Woodland Opera House.

Chris Quant is delicious as the n’er do well Algernon Montcrief whose life seems to consist of partying and heading off into the country for dalliances. For this purpose he has created an imaginary friend named Mr. Bunbury (whom Quant pronounces “Bombury,” for some inexplicable reason), who becomes conveniently ill when Algernon needs to get out of town. The young man is quite pleased with the effectiveness of his deception.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!”

Algernon’s friend is Earnest Worthing (Jerry Lee) who is absolutely perfect as the young man who is hiding the fact that his name is really Jack Worthing, and as a baby, he was abandoned in a handbag at Victoria Station and adopted by the wealthy Thomas Cardew, who, on his deathbed, made the young man the guardian for his granddaughter, Cecily (Janey Pintar). Jack has invented a wayward brother named Earnest who lives in the city and whose antics force Jack to have to leave the country and come to town.

Earnest (or Jack) is in love with Algernon’s cousin Gwendolyn Fairfax (Katherine C. Miller) whose mother is the formidable Lady Bracknell (Shelly Sandford), who has some of the most memorable lines in the play.

Miller is the perfect spoiled upper crust daughter, who fell in love with Jack because she has always dreamed of marrying someone named “Earnest.”

Sandford is prim and ultra proper as she questions Jack about his qualifications to marry her granddaughter. All seems to meet with her approval until he admits that he has lost both of his parents. “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Deciding that a handbag is not a proper mother, Lady Bracknell forbids the marriage and, when asked by Jack what he can do to change her mind replies, “I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.”

The action moves to Jack’s house in the country, where Algernon has traveled in order to meet Jack’s intriguing ward and introduces himself as Jack’s elder brother Earnest. Pintar is cute as Cecily, whose dream has been to meet a truly wicked man and can hardly wait to meet her guardian’s brother.

But wait, there's more. Cecily’s teacher, Miss Prism (Georgann Wallace), is hiding many things, including a love for the rector, Chasuble (Paul Fearn) and a shameful secret which sheds light on Jack’s parentage, after which everyone learns the real importance of being Earnest.

Mark Garbe and Chris Lamb have minor roles as the manservants Merriman and Lane, respectively.

Laurie Everly-Klassen has outdone herself in the elaborate costumes. The women’s hats alone are not to be believed.

Scenic and lighting design are by the reliable Jeff Kean, who can do more with a few flats than most. One never feels a lack of opulence in any of the scenes.

If you have never seen an Oscar Wilde play, this is the one not to miss. From the sparkling dialog to the keen comic timing of this cast, to the visual delight of the sets and costumes, “The Importance of Being Earnest” delights on all levels.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

THIRDeYE Theatre Festival

The annual THIRDeYE Theatre Festival [sic], presented by the UC Davis Department of Theater and Dance, features three new plays by three undergraduate playwrights: Rachel Skytt, Natasha Tavakoli, and Kellie Raines. All three plays will be performed on each night of the festival, which will continue January 25-28 in Wyatt Pavilion Theater.

The plays are created in the Playwriting and English courses at UC Davis and the actors, designers, stage managers, and crew are all undergraduates, many performing their role or task for the first time.

The evening opens with “Over the Line,” by Natasha Tavakoli, directed by Amy Kronzer. While all the actors throughout the evening were excellent and I would be hard pressed to find a weak link anywhere, this particular play had some of the strongest performances. It is unfortunate that the script itself had the most problems.

Tavakoli set out to create a political drama which dealt with issues of immigration, relationships between parents and children, and between lovers, and a myriad of topics which, crammed together into a short one-act piece became sensory overload. There was no time for development of relationships or completion of scenes. Meals are served, eaten (or not eaten) in one bite and dishes immediately removed from the table. Parents arrive from Mexico, after a harrowing trip across the border to the home of a daughter they have not seen for years and the mother has no time for pleasantries; she only wants to go to bed. The Mexican mother emotionally speaks to her husband, complaining that he refuses to answer her in English.

Despite the problems with the story itself, this play had wonderful performances, particularly from Alma Ruelas, as Maria, the heroine of the piece, who may have given the strongest performance of the night. Her boyfriend Eli was played by Mike Yost, who likewise turned in a solid performance.

Matthew Moore’s performance as Eli’s father, Hank, was good, but his character was less believable because he looked more like Eli’s renegade brother than his father, a danger when all members of the cast are roughly the same age.

Christina Moore gave a sympathetic performance as Maria’s mother, Esperanza.

The second play was “Saving Trophies,” by Kellie Y. Raines, directed by Orion Al-Shamma-Jones. As a person who saves “things” in excess, I found I could relate to this story about a Sofia (Melanie Levy) who has a passion for collecting, cleaning, and displaying old trophies. “It’s about the way we all give pieces of ourselves to each other in small moments. It's in the pieces that we try to find something whole, something worth saving,” explains the author.

Levy’s seemingly strong performance was marred by her lack of projection so that too many of her lines, and thus the plot points, were lost, which is a shame because I was most impressed with her involvement with the character, a woman with a broken heart filling the space left by her former boyfriend with these trophies that she incessantly polishes.

Carolyn Hodson had no projection problems as Lozzie, Sofia’s lesbian friend who tries to make Sofia understand that she needs to get out into the world and live her life. Lozzie is that very rare character, an incapable lesbian. When Ken (Daniel Reano-Koven [Derrick--your computer won’t pick it up in an e-mail but the “n” in Reano should have a tilde over it]), a street person who has come into the shop where Sofia is polishing her trophies, collapses, it is Lozzie who doesn’t know what to do and leaves Sofia to handle the situation.

Rounding out the evening was “Baetylus” by Rachel Skytt, directed by Travis Dukelow. The death of a classmate was Skytt’s inspiration for this play about Felix (Daniel Hakim) whose fiancee Annabelle (Rebecca Backer) is the victim of a drive-by shooting. Hakim skillfully handles the conflicting emotions of a man trying to find meaning in life and struggling with his desire to hang onto the past and his growing affection for Babette (Jessica Herman). “If you don’t have a ‘now,’ you will never have any more ‘pasts,’” Babette tells him.

Shea McWhorter is delightfully ditzy as Mrs. Allen, an old woman mourning the loss of her beloved dog. The believability of the character is due as much to the costume design of Jennifer McEwen as the acting ability of McWhorter.

Jade McCutcheon is Artistic Director for this year’s festival. Scenic designers are Sam Hardie (Baetylus), Chris Lee (Saving Trophies) and Cary Babka (Over the Line), each of whom creates a pleasant environment, with Babka’s apartment particularly lovely.

Friday, January 12, 2007


This review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 1/11/07

If you want a good looking musical theatrical experience, make certain that your show is directed by a choreographer, and costumed by an experienced costumer. The opening chorus of Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee’s “Mame,” Jerry Herman’s musical adaptation of Patrick Dennis’ delightful book, “Auntie Mame” is a visual delight, thanks to director/choreographer Ron Cisneros. From Jeannie Henderson’s colorful and opulent appearing costumes to the precision of the chorus, it is a sample of the kind of good things that can be done with community theater.

The production itself, however, is spotty and does not maintain the level set by the opening chorus throughout. There are both good things and bad things about the production.

It is nice to see Mary Young given something other than matronly roles for a change. She doesn’t quite pull off the “flamboyant” Auntie Mame, but does a credible job with a huge role as the free spirit who suddenly finds herself saddled with her brother’s child, following the death of the child’s parents.

Thirteen year old Andrew Lampinen was an unfortunate choice to play the young Patrick. He is nearly as tall as his aunt, making description of the games played at his progressive school sound less innocent than they were intended. As Andrew has performed in 19 musicals with DMTC, I am assuming that he had the great misfortune to go through a sudden voice change during rehearsal, as none of his songs were in his key and he had great difficulty with all of them. That said, however, he is a talented young actor and brings great depth and pathos to the part. His duet with Mame, “My Best Girl,” following a disastrous incident in play in which she had been cast, was very poignant and one of the sweeter moments of the evening.

As the grown up Patrick, Robert Coverdell is excellent. Coverdell also appears as part of the ensemble throughout the first act and displays, yet again, his talent for dance and the handsome figure that he presents on stage.

Making her DMTC debut, Peggy Schechter plays Mame’s best friend, the famous actress Vera Charles, who seems to spend her time either bored or drunk or both, but who obviously cares for Mame and comes to her aid when Mame has reached her lowest point.

William Hedge gives a solid performance in the role of Beauregard Picket Jackson Burnside, the southern gentleman who falls in love with Mame while she is giving him a manicure.

Dannette Vassar, who is getting larger roles these days, was a perfect choice for Mother Burnside. The diminutive actress becomes larger than life as the commanding matron of the Burnside clan.

Wendy Young is outstanding as Sally Cato. Her lifetime in theater shows in her stage presence and she is deliciously catty toward her former fiancee’s girlfriend when Mame visits the family plantation.

Agnes Gooch is everybody’s favorite nerdy female character and Monica Parisi does well with her. Her transformation into glamour girl was a bit less spectacular than it should have been (couldn’t a wig have been used to give her a more glamorous appearance?), but her return to Mame’s house, heavy with child, was very funny.

Rebekah Shepard was perfectly cast in the small role of Gloria Upson, Patrick’s snobbish society fiancee, an airhead who would rather discuss rinsing her hair with beer than anything more serious. Shepard had the upper crust New England accent down perfectly.

There was a strange set decision made by designer Steve Isaacson (who also plays Mr. Babcock, the trustee for young Patrick’s estate). Mame’s living room has one couch mid-stage, one easy chair on the far right and another easy chair on the far left. Had things been staged differently, it might not have been so noticeable, but with Mame sitting in one chair and Mr. Babcock sitting in the other, they had to practically yell at each other across the vast expanse of stage in order to have a conversation.

People in the audience, and in the lobby following the performance seemed to enjoy the show very much. I would not list this among the best the company has done, but this is a hard working group and their dedication to DMTC shows.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Women of Lockerbie

This appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 1/9/07

“The Women of Lockerbie,” one-act play by Deborah Brevoort, presented by Acme Theater Company at the Veterans Memorial Theater, will grab your attention immediately and hang on tenaciously until the very last scene. Except for a few humorous moments when the audience laughed, you could hear a pin drop throughout the entire 75 minute duration of the piece.

When director David Burmester first read the play, he knew that Acme had to perform it. “Never before have we found a play so timely,” he writes in his director’s notes. “It is not hyperbole, I feel, to hold that terrorism is the single most pervasive political reality of our time. Since September 11, 2001, no one human activity has occupied our political leaders, our media and our lives as has the threat of terrorism.”

Lockerbie is known internationally as the site where, on December 21, 1988, the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 landed on the town as a result of a terrorist bomb. Eleven townspeople were killed when the plane's wings and fuel tanks crashed to earth in a fiery explosion, leaving a huge crater.

Until the September 11, 2001 attacks, the bombing of Flight 103 was the worst act of terrorism against civilian citizens of the United States. The 270 victims (259 on the plane, 11 on the ground) were citizens of 21 nations. Of them, 189 were Americans.

“The Women of Lockerbie” opens in a pre-dawn setting in the hills around Lockerbie. Set design by Victoria Gimpelvich is effective, with a series of platforms arranged to approximate a hillside, and a long piece of cloth which represents a stream running through the hills, a shimmering light on it making it come alive.

John Ramos plays Bill Livingston, who has traveled to Lockerbie with his wife Madeline (Emily Tracy). It is seven years past the tragedy of flight 103 and the Livingstons are visiting the site for the first time. Madeline has been grieving openly for seven years and Bill felt that if she could actually see the place where their son lost his life it might help her to get past the grief.

Madeline abruptly left the memorial service taking place in the town and is roaming the hills looking for her son. Her husband has come to the hills to search for her.

He is joined by Olive Allison (Cami Beaumont) and two women, identified as First Woman (Julieanne Conard) and Second Woman (Kate McFarland), who aid in the search and who attempt to bring peace to Madeline when she finally appears. They share their own experiences of that terrible day when horror rained down on the town, killing some of their own. With Madeline they ask “what if?” questions. What if I hadn’t gone to get petrol that day? What if I had changed the date of my party? What if...? What if...? What if...? Could I have changed the ultimate outcome? Questions that will always remain unanswered in the face of the reality of what happened.

At the same time the United States representative, George Jones (Sean Olivares) has given orders for the warehouse holding all of the items recovered from the crash to be burned, now that the investigation into the incident has ended. The government feels this is the best way to bring closure to the tragedy and help people move on with their lives.

The women of Lockerbie are fighting Jones. The women want to take the clothing stored in the warehouse, wash them, and return them to the relatives of the victims of the tragedy, feeling that the way to combat hatred is not with more hatred, but with love.

Playwright Brevoort has created a gripping story which deals with ordinary people coping with extraordinary horror. As we deal with escalating violence in so many parts of our world, it is good to step back and ask whether fighting hatred with hatred is really the best policy. The gentle strength of the women of Lockerbie suggests that there may be another way.

As director Burmester puts it, “Until we look at the whole, complex set of conditions that result in terrorism, until we stop trying to react to incidents and begin to look at and understand the root causes of the dilemma, until we treat each other with love and respect instead of hate and disdain, terrorism will continue to haunt us at every turning of our lives.”

“The Women of Lockerbie” is a powerful play with a powerful message presented by an amazing group of young people. Everyone is encouraged to check out this play, which runs through November 13 at the Veterans Memorial theater. It will provide much food for thought and discussion.