Thursday, December 20, 2007


It’s a very special actor who can bring a legendary figure to life and make it believable, without making it a caricature. Some examples are Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain, Jim Brochu’s Zero Mostel, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote, and Judy Davis’ Judy Garland. Now Janis Stevens has come along and provided us a magnificent Vivien Leigh, currently gracing the stage at Sacramento Theater Company, under the direction of Peter Sander.

It was while working together at Sierra Repertory Theater that Stevens and playwright Rick Foster developed the idea for “Vivien,” no doubt inspired at least in part by the actress’ remarkable resemblance to Vivien Leigh. But it is Foster’s delicately woven script, combined with Stevens’ resemblance and her ease at inhabiting the character which makes this play work so beautifully.

From the moment one enters the “Stage Two” theater, one is instantly “in” the theater. Scenic designer Myke Kunkel has created the feel of a backstage gone to seed – a ladder draped with red velvet, a chaise on which other material and props rest, bits of scenery tossed here and there, fading posters on the wall, and the ever present ghost light illuminating the dark.

A friend of mine, who knew Vivien Leigh years ago when she was appearing on Broadway, told me that at the end of every performance she floated out onto the stage for her bow and then suddenly turned and seemed shocked to discover that there were 2,000 people who had been watching her for the past two hours. The description aptly describes the ethereal persona which Stevens embodies, as she glides into the darkened theater, ostensibly to read for an upcoming production of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.”

The audience quickly realizes that things are not happening in real time. The play is set in 1967, just before Leigh’s death, at age 53, from tuberculosis. It begins as the infamous “actor’s nightmare,” finding onself on stage, in underwear, unsure of which play is being presented and what exactly are the lines.

But as the play progresses, the intricacies of Leigh’s life are revealed, including her tempestuous marriage to Lawrence Olivier (“Larry Boy,” she calls him), which brought her some of the greatest joys and deepest pain in her life. We learn her feelings about the movie roles which defined her – Blanche DuBois in “Streetcar Named Desire” and, of course, Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind,” roles of which she is proud and yet minimizes the performances, as her real love was acting on the stage.

She describes winning her first Oscar (for “Gone with the Wind”) and the problems that caused for her overlooked husband (who lost to Robert Donat’s “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”), so much so that she hid it away until he finally won his award years later.

The longer the 90 minute, one-act performance continues, the more blatant is the actress’ manic-depression evident. She has imaginary conversations with Noel Coward, Winston Churchill, John Gielgud, and Peter Finch, each of which peels back another layer of the veneer and gives us a deeper glimpse into the demons of the woman. Stevens floats effortlessly between the complex, overlapping emotions.

Stevens, like Leigh, is by turn coquettish, seductive, petulant, angry, seamlessly moving from mood to mood.

We get bits and pieces of her most famous roles, and marvel at her ability to create the role of Lady Macbeth, for example, while at the same time ranting against Olivier for never making the movie which would have given her the opportunity to play the role for a wider audience. Again, here is the beautiful marriage of actress and playwright, the scene magnificently written and deliciously presented. Over and over again one is aware of the way the two artists have brought out the best in each other.

The 90 minutes flew by and the audience rose in a body to give Janis Stevens a well deserved standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance, including, I noted, a seasoned reviewer in the front row who rarely stands for anything. High praise indeed, and well earned.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Starry Messenger

What if you could come back to life in, oh, say three or four hundred years and find out how things that were important in your life all turned out?

That’s the premise of “The Starry Messenger,” a 75 minute one-act play by Rick Foster now at Capital Stage for one more week prior to being made available for travel to schools for the 2007-2008 academic year.

“The Starry Messenger” is part of a series of touring plays by Duende Drama, a group out of Sonora, which has been touring these educational mini-plays to area schools since 1998 and which has recently teamed with California Stage to reach out to local county schools. Judging by the rapt attention from the audience, comprised of a sprinkling of adults among a crowd of young people, the program is wildly successful.

The setting is “a school assembly in California.” Sister Maria Celeste (played by Keri Fuller on the night we attended, but alternating with Bonnie Antonini) wheels in a draped figure in a wheelchair. She introduces herself as the daughter of Galileo Galilei and explains that he has been dead since 1642, and that since his death he has been so depressed he has refused to wake up again because he feels that his work was for naught. It is her plan to bring him back and show that the world ultimately accepted his concepts. She elicits the help of the audience to literally raise the dead by chanting “the earth moves around the sun” over and over again.

The draped figure stands, looking dazed at hearing what he feels are the voices of angels, and begins to speak. It is Galileo himself, played by 84 year old Mitch Agruss (whom some may remember from the years when he was the beloved “Captain Mitch” on the popular local TV program). Agruss is a robust man with a twinkle in his eye who grabs the audience instantly as he begins to interact with his daughter.

Over the next hour plus, an amazing amount of physics and world history is imparted in delightful, entertaining fashion so that learning the effect Copernicus had on Galileo’s life, or how the Catholic Church felt about his work was as easy to absorb as the plot of “High School Musical.”

Physics and astronomy concepts were reinforced with easy to understand visual aids, and there is even a bit of suspense leading to the scientist’s discovery that his theory of the movement of the tides was not accurate.

This production is part play, part classroom, but it is as enjoyable as any other play, and it’s worth the prices of admission if only to see an old veteran thespian like Agruss strut his stuff.

While Agruss is the heart and soul of this play, Fuller was the motor which kept it moving smoothly. Her irresistible wide-eyed enthusiasm kept the audience’s attention and if Agruss faltered slightly, her non-stop narration was able to get him back on track with slip hardly noticeable.

“The Starry Messenger,” in conjunction with two other plays, will be available for school productions after the first of the year, but this is equally enjoyable (and informative!) for adults and would be a fun one-act play to share with a young person during the holiday season, if one is looking for something fun to do with the kids during the vacation period.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Davis Children's Nutcracker

(Photo is of my son Paul,
in the first production in 1977)

Davis would be quite a different town if Bob Bowen didn’t like beer and girls.

Bowen was working with the Department of Parks and Recreation at the time of his graduation from Davis High School. He enrolled in UCD as a political science major along with his best friend Tom Eddy (whose father was the manager of one of the banks downtown and whose mother taught in the Davis schools for many years).

As the boys were signing up for classes, Eddy dared Bowen to take a ballet class. Bowen asked what he would get if he accepted the dare. “I seem to remember there was beer involved,” he laughs today.

Bowen enrolled in Jere Curry’s dance class. Curry was delighted to have a male enroll, especially one who seemed to be able to walk and talk at the same time. Bowen weighed the pros and cons of continuing with the class.

“There were 25 women in leotards and me. I could play intramural sports with a bunch of sweaty guys or hang out with some good looking gals.”

Fortunately for the town of Davis, Bowen continued dancing.

In 1972, Roger L. MacDonald contacted his friend Jere Curry to ask for help with a project he was undertaking to raise money for a Sacramento boys’ home (a project which grew into what is now “Best of Broadway”). MacDonald was looking for someone who could perform in a few numbers and act as the emcee for the show. By now Bowen was a regular in Curry’s classes and was even taking lessons Curry taught on the side at the Oddfellows’ Hall. Curry sent Bowen to MacDonald, who immediately cast him.

Over the next few years, Bowen watched MacDonald at work. “I saw the logistics of how you get massive numbers of people on stage and off stage. Doing a small show with a dozen people is one thing; doing a major cattle call with hundreds of people is another. I got a sense of the logistics of how to produce that.”

At the same time, Bowen continued to work part time for the Department of Parks and Recreation and perform with local theater groups. Then the Veterans Memorial theater opened in 1973.

It was like a serendipitous big bang. All the elements fell into place. Bowen been involved in the holiday recreation program for the elementary school kids, when they were out of school in December.

“We would do such things as cooking (which was mildly interesting to some kids, but mostly they were making a mess) or showing movies. (We borrowed 16 mm movies from everybody that we could for free). We also did some basketball, and occasionally took busloads of kids to Sacramento to see the ballet version of ‘The Nutcracker,’ but the program really wasn’t very creative and I was thinking maybe we could do better.”

Then Bowen happened to see an issue of “Women’s Day” magazine and an article about how to put on a production of The Nutcracker for pre-school or elementary school children. A lightbulb went off in his head. “It was a pared down version. It didn’t involve copyright so I could rewrite it (which I did a lot). It doesn’t take full orchestra. It’s just a little stage production.”

The other elements that played into the production of the very first Davis Children’s Nutcracker in 1977 were that since it would be a city production, there were no up front costs for rental of the theater and Bowen had a ready-made crew in the staff of the recreation department.

He was able to twist the arm of some friends Kate Boyce (now Bowen’s wife) and Dina Williams (now Dina Silver) to make simple costumes, burlap tunics over tights for most of the basic costumes. They borrowed a few costumes which had been made by costumers Ann Ough and Marinka Pfaff from the Davis Art Center. Since there was no children’s theater at the time, they were available.

Sets would also be very simple, a chair and a Christmas tree made out of cardboard boxes, with a green tree painted on one side for the party scene and a snow-covered tree on the backside for the fantasy portions of the show.

Bowen put a notice in The Davis Enterprise for children between the ages of 5 and 12 to audition at the Chestnut Park Roundhouse. He didn’t know if anybody would come, and he promised that everyone who auditioned would have some role in the production. In fact, about 50 children showed up.

Scott Cauchois was the prince in the first production (“I eleven years old and was one of the taller guys,” he says). Now a software salesman living in La Jolla with his wife, Scott’s fondest memory was just working with Bob Bowen. “I remember his enthusiasm. He made it a very fun and pleasant experience.”

I myself have a warm spot in my heart for The Davis Children’s Nutcracker because all five of our children performed in the first two productions. In fact my son Ned first met his now wife, Marta Wilson, when both were in the clown group. (To commemorate that meeting, I decorated their wedding cake with clowns and balloons.)

That first show took two weeks to rehearse and only one performance was scheduled. Bowen didn’t know if he could sell all 325 seats in the Vets theater, but he actually over-sold seats and had to turn Mayor Sandy Motley away at the door because she had no ticket and had no child in the production.

Unwittingly, Bowen had started a Davis tradition which is still going strong 30 years later. He continued to direct the shows for the first ten years, at which time his now-wife Kate directed some shows, while Bob continued to act as producer. Kate had graduated from UCD and had been teaching for two years, but needed money and when Bowen suggested she help direct The Nutcracker, the timing worked into her schedule.

“Barbara Wells, my principal at Pioneer School, knew that The Nutcracker was an important community event, so she arranged my schedule so that I could have every afternoon off leading into the show. She always supported any type of children’s theater,” said Kate, adding that “It has come full circle. Pioneer has just built a multipurpose room with a stage and dedicated it to Barbara Wells.”

Others knew the importance of The Nutcracker to the community too. Kids who had been in earlier productions came back to work as leaders for the various groups of children, or to work on the technical aspects of the show.

“It was ‘the thing’ to do on your Christmas vacation,” my daughter Jeri says. “It’s where all your friends were.”

"We were the crew that built The Nutcracker," Ned boasted. "Bob Bowen created the show, and then the tech part of it took off when we showed up." "We" was a group which included his siblings Jeri and Paul, Greg Wershing, Jon, Joel and Chris Lee, Paul Kagiwada, and Phil Sequeira, among others.

Ned is now 40 and is still working backstage at the show, having returned to work with his friend Wershing, who began working backstage when he was 15 and whose sons have now performed in the show for several years.

Jeri explained that “The tech crew was always looking for the ‘oooo’ factor -- how many times an audience said “oooo” during the course of the performance.”

“It was all about upping last year’s performance,” laughed Phil Sequeira, who remembered the “Vegas curtain” year, when Bowen found some glittery curtain and they found a way to use it in the show. “With Bob it was always, ‘we have this cool thing–how can we use it in the show,” explains Ned, remembering when they used a hot air balloon during the soldier/mouse fight scene because Bowen had found a hot air balloon.

Chris Wong (“the eternal Nutcracker guy,” Jeri says) was responsible for building most of the more spectacular effects, like the huge flower that rose up out of the floor with petals that slowly opened to reveal the Sugar Plum Fairy.

“We were insane,” laughed Jeri. “We had the run of the place and we had Bob Bowen who trusted us and was willing to go along with anything we wanted to try” (like drilling holes in the stage floor and filling tubes with flour that they could blast through the holes when a canon supposedly went off).

The popularity of The Nutcracker kept building and by the tenth year the city had to institute a lottery system to cast the show because they had reached the maximum number of kids (200) who could participate.

In 1977 there were 8 groups of clowns, mice, soldiers, Russian dancers, etc. In 2006 there were 18 groups, including some that Tchaikovsky never envisioned, like country line dancers, bees, birds and insects, and gnomes.

By 1997, Bob Bowen’s job duties took him away from what was now the Department of Parks & Community Services and Carrie Dyer took over as producer of The Nutcracker, a job she shared with Marianne Moore, even the year both were pregnant. Dyer continued to produce through 2006. “It’s a lot of work; it’s exhausting, and the rehearsals take a toll on your own family,” she said, “but it started as a work assignment and became something I really loved doing.”

In 2007, Dyer stepped down and turned production duties over to Shannon Clegg and Kristen Hilton. “They worked with me last year and are taking over this year,” she said.

For Sally Hosley, whose three boys have all performed, it is the highlight of her year. “My oldest son is now16 and he has been performing or working with The Nutcracker since he was in the first grade.” She adds that her sons found it a treat to move through the ranks of the show and end up as group leaders.

She credits Ann Smalley, who has directed the show for the past 17 years. “It wouldn’t be what it is without Ann.”

Smalley’s 28 year old daughter was a snowflake at the age of 6 and when the city asked her to help, she readily agreed. “I enjoy theatrical things, I love children and I love music. I love The Nutcracker and I am blessed to be able to do it. I was in right place at the right time. It wouldn’t be Christmas without this in my life. My children grew up with it.”

Ryan Kreidler, the Nutcracker in the current production, is a real pro, having worked his way up from Teddy Bear to Russian Dancer to now the lead in the show. “It’s a lot of stuff to learn, but the fun keeps me coming back,” he said.

“Ann is an incredible lady,” says Laurie Carpenter, whose children have been part of The Nutcracker since they moved from Benicia six year ago. “It’s a way for us to kick off the holidays. We cross our fingers each year. We’ve been fortunate even in the lottery system we’ve been called. I can’t imagine our holidays without it.”

“For anybody who has become a part of The Nutcracker, it remains a part of their lives forever,” said Carrie Dyer.

Bob Bowen still can’t quite believe how his little germ of an idea has blossomed. “Long after all of us are gone it will be quite a legacy to say you did something that takes on a life of its own. I had no idea.”

The city of Davis and hundreds of Davis children owe a debt of gratitude to that challenge that Tom Eddy tossed out to his friend Bob Bowen so many years ago.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Christmas Carol

It’s a foggy night in Sacramento town.

Sacramento Theater Company’s new fog apparatus is very effective in creating the proper atmosphere for the 20th anniversary production of “A Christmas Carol,” directed this year by first time STC director Michael Laun. Laun has a few new tricks up his sleeve, giving a fresh new look to the STC annual favorite.

The fun begins before the audience enters the theater, with a nicely decorated lobby, complete with Christmas tree, the “real” Santa for the little kids to visit, and a group of carolers on the small lobby stage, getting everyone in the mood.

And then, of course, there is STC’s 1987 specially commissioned adaptation of the Dickens classic, by Richard Hellesen (who was in the audience on opening night of this anniversary production). Music was written by STC’s then resident composer David de Berry.

“I was trying to turn a lot of narrative into a lot less stage dialogue,” said the playwright. “David was trying to write wonderful new music that would sound like wonderful old music you hadn’t heard before.”

In the end the collaboration succeeded in both goals, evidenced by its continued popularity 20 years later. Hellesen used the device of having the characters tell the story as they move sets and then move in to become the characters about whom they are speaking. DeBerry’s music does indeed sound like old Christmas music that you can’t quite place, but you’re sure you’ve heard somewhere before.

As always, STC has assembled a stellar cast. This the fourth year I’ve seen this show and I have to confess a special preference for Matt K. Miller in the role of the quintessential Scrooge, Ebenezer. Miller becomes a crusty curmudgeon who is able to express the anger of a man at the end of his life, the pain of loss, the pathos of man whose feelings are being reawakened, and the exuberance of a small child equally well. The “a-ha!” moments of Ebenezer’s life are skillfully handled.

Patrick Murphy steps into the chains of Jacob Marley, come to warn his old partner of the pain that will befall him if he does not change his ways. Marley sets up the visits of three spirits who will help him to look back over his life in the hope of helping him make some changes before it is too late.

Katie Rubin (whom audiences may remember for her emotional, riveting one-woman show last year) makes an unusual entrance as the Ghost of Christmas Past (later playing Mrs. Cratchitt), who takes Ebenezer on his 3-night journey of discovery. Rubin brings a real tenderness to the role which adds an extra layer to the ghost’s character.

Reprising her role from last year, Anna Miles is Ebenezer’s sister Fan, who comes to bring him home from school. She sings the beautiful “Home at Christmastide,” reminding Ebenezer of the young beggar child (Joelle Jacoby) he had spurned the day before. (Miles alternates in this role with Amanda Salmon.)

STC Managing Director Mark Standriff again tackles three roles in this show. He first appears as a “Subscription Gentleman,” come to ask Scrooge for a holiday donation for the poor. He is next seen as the ebullient Fezziwig, Ebenezer’s old boss (whose wife is played by the marvelous Lucinda Hitchcock Cone). Fezziwig celebrated Christmas as a grand holiday, meant to be celebrated with vigor (giving Ebenezer pause, as he remembers his refusal to give his clerk an extra lump of coal to warm his hands), and finally Standriff is the larger than life Ghost of Christmas Present, whose entrance is always the high point of the production.

The Ghost shows Ebenezer the party at the home of his nephew Fred (Brett Williams), who has never given up trying to establish a relationship with the brother of his late mother.

He is then shown the meager but loving celebration at the home of Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchitt (Gillen Morrison reprising the role he played so beautifully last year, as well as this). Ebenezer is moved by the ailing Tiny Tim (tiny Jackson Margolis, who alternates in the role with Campbell Salmon, who played the role last year).

Howard Gray is appropriately sepulchral as the mute Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

In the end, of course, Scrooge’s heart grew three sizes that day.
And the minute his heart didn't feel quite so tight, he bought food for the Cratchitt feast.
And we can assume that over at Nephew Fred’s, he himself carved the roast beast.

The STC Christmas Carol is a not-to-be-missed Christmas experience. It’s 20 years old and just gets better and better.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Christmas Story

There are certain elements of a show which are sure-fire crowd pleasers: a beloved story, preferably with a holiday theme, and a cast that includes cute kids.

Based on the loud applause, the audience filled with families, and the raves I heard expressed when leaving the Woodland Opera House following its current production of “A Christmas Story,” by Philip Grecian, based on the stories of Jean Shepherd, this show is indeed a real crowd pleaser.

Unfortunately, it’s possible to be a crowd pleaser in spite of problems with the production.

The problems begin at the beginning with the narration of William Powers as the adult Ralph, who is remembering a very special childhood Christmas. Powers had difficulty with his lines throughout the show, often stumbling over them, repeating, them, or seeming to forget them. He improved significantly as the show progressed, but even when he did remember his lines, his delivery seemed stilted.

As the adult Ralph narrates, we follow the young Ralphie Parker (Drew Thomsen), the boy whose one dream for Christmas was an official, Red Ryder, Carbine-action, 200-Shot, Range Model, Air Rifle. Ralphie fantasizes meetings with Red Ryder himself and campaigns to convince his parents to get him the rifle for Christmas, though his mother (Jeannie Pytel) poo-poo’s the idea with every mother’s perennial excuse, “You’ll put your eye out.”

Drew Thomsen certainly looks the part. With his big glasses and innocent expression, you feel the boy’s longing for the perfect Christmas present. Unfortunately much of his dialogue was unintelligible as he tended to rush his lines. I also blame director Bobby Grainger for the failure of what should have been one of the biggest scenes in the play. We have watched Ralphie go through hopes, prayers, and all sorts of tricks to convince his parents that he should be given the wonderful rifle. Yet, when he has given up all hope of receiving it, and then opens the box which contains the rifle he desires so strongly, he is expressionless. There is no surprise, no excitement, no joy, no nothing. One of the biggest anti-climactic moments you’re likely to see on a stage. Having seen what Thomsen can do in his Elly-nominated performance in “Boxcar Children,” I know he is capable of much better.

Most of the rest of the children in the cast are from one family. William Black plays Randy, Ralphie’s little brother who likes to hide under or behind furniture. When his mother dresses him up to go outside, he looks like a character out of South Park.

Emma Black is Schwartz, friend and classmate of Ralphie. Since Schwartz is never out of jacket and cap, it’s not obvious that the actor is actually a girl and she plays a convincing boy.

Sara Black is Esther Jane Alberry, who has a crush on Ralphie. She’s adorable and succeeds in communicating much without saying much.

Jordan Black is the bully Scut Farkas. Her height gives the perfect size differential to make her convincing as a bully, and I always thought the career path she follows (which we learn from the narrator) seems ideally suited to someone who grew up as a bully!

The last two children in the cast are Sam Kyser as Flick, who makes a memorable image getting his tongue stuck to the icy metal pole in the school yard, and Jocylyn Favors as Helen, another classmate.

Mark Fejta is “The Old Man,” Ralphie’s father, and is very funny. He has some nice physical shtik and does it well. Jeannie Pytel plays an typical 50s wife, who lets her husband take the limelight, but who is really the central figure in the family. The parents’ various scenes in Ralphie’s fantasy are particularly good.

Regina Stafford plays Ralphie’s teacher who does a fabulous Margaret Hamilton impression in one scene.

The Act 2 visit to Santa scene may have been one of the best in the show and the setting for it was very imaginative.

Jeff Kean and Doug Keowen have created a fun set with indoor and outdoor scenes ingeniously designed.

I wish that this had been a better production since so many elements were good, but when pulled together just didn’t work as well as it should have, though the improvement in Act 2 gives hope for a better Act 1 in future performances.