Wednesday, October 22, 2008

No Parole

You get no parole from your family.

That's the theme of Peruvian writer-performer Carlo D'Amore's riveting one-man show, 'No Parole,' which continues through Nov. 9 at the Sacramento Theatre Company's newly named black box theater, The J. Arliss Pollock Stage.

In a line of several one-person shows that have graced the STC stage over the years, 'No Parole' ranks among the best.

The autobiographical work primarily explores the relationship between D'Amore and his mother, who has - shall we say - a 'loose' relationship with the law. From the time D'Amore was a small child in Peru, his mother was able to steal her way into better and better social positions, with the aid of her large purse that could hold many things, all of which could be sold later on the black market, to finance their way of life.

Her accomplice from a young age was her young son, who served as the lookout and became such an accomplished actor that when the family attempted to immigrate (illegally) to the United States, he so convincingly cried about having set fire to the passport page that held the visa stamp, that the border guards let the family into the country after all.

The roughly 90-minute theater piece (without intermission) traces D'Amore's life from birth to the present, and includes many characters, all of them played by the actor himself.

The most fully formed of these characters is, of course, D'Amore's mother, with whom he has a love/not love relationship. (He can't quite say 'hate.') At the start of the show, his estranged mother is being dumped on D'Amore by his brother, after she has a stroke. He takes her in, and then is stuck trying to find her something meaningful to do.

As they adjust to existence together in a tiny New York walk-up apartment, their lifelong relationship is explored in flashbacks.

D'Amore moves so seamlessly from character to character, that the audience gets fully immersed in each new person he becomes. Particularly moving is his mother, post-stroke: a woman still filled with pride, still working all the angles (legal and illegal), but slowed down by the effects of her infirmity.

The play, directed by Margaret Perry, is both funny and touching. It's also occasionally shocking, given the sorts of scams that D'Amore's mother pulls off.

Since he grew up under her influence and learned to be such an excellent actor - an excellent manipulator of people, and twister of the truth - one wonders if this piece is autobiographical ... or merely semi-autobiographical! But what's actually true, or shaped for the show, isn't important; everything hangs together as fact, and that's all the matters.

Myke Kunkel's scenic and lighting design, and Billy Atwell's sound design, are integral 'characters' in the show. Scene changes often are accompanied by sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic lighting changes, along with music or television sound cues, all of them spot-on.

'No Parole' is a wonderful first production in the newly named theater. This riches-to-rags immigration story will introduce you to a collection of interesting characters, provide a chance to explore the lives of a family of Peruvian grifters, and make you realize that no matter how eccentric your relatives are, family remains the tie that binds us all together.

Whether or not we like it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tasty Tunes

If you've been to the Davis Farmers' Market, attended a local political or charitable fundraiser, visited a nursing home, enjoyed the Woodland County Fair or had dinner at Ludy's Main Street BBQ during the past 30 to 40 years, chances are you're familiar with the Putah Creek Crawdads: our own purveyors of old-time acoustic folk music.

Even if you never realized the group had a name.

'You can't help but smile when you listen to the Putah Creek Crawdads,' said Crilly Butler, a longtime Davis resident. 'Their folksy and traditional tunes are always light and fun, and it's obvious that they love to play. I always enjoy catching the first strains of their music as I approach the Farmers' Market on Saturday morning.

'What a great way to start the day!'

I recently had the delightful experience of sitting in during a band rehearsal, at the home of psychiatrist Cap Thomson. When the group took a break, we sat around and discussed their long history.

It's easier said than done, digging through those dusty memories, to remember when the group began or how and when the name got chosen.

'This isn't a youthful rock band,' laughed Thomson, who plays banjo. The group spans an age range of 48 years, from 38 to 86.

Marc Faye, a farmer from Knights Landing, remembers that the four original members started playing together in the 1960s, when hootenanny music was popular and everybody seemed to play a guitar.

'Somebody asked us to be the opening act for a professional performer,' Faye said, 'and we had to have a name. We don't know when that was, but it was probably 1972.'

'Actually, that was after 1980, when we gave ourselves the name,' corrected attorney Oliver 'Chip' Northup, lead singer and guitarist. 'We were going to play for the Newman Club.'

Someone else insisted that 1972 was the closer date, and that it revolved around a talent show. Someone else was sure it was 1965; another member said no, earlier than 1965.


As for the name itself, someone remembered that it came from the fact that the Unitarian Church was located on Putah Creek, which contained crawdads. Someone else thought it came from the line in the song: 'You get a line and I'll get a pole, and I'll meet you down at the crawdad hole.'

(Over the years, the name changed with the location: They've been the Cache Creek Crawdads, the Knights Landing Crawdads and a few other Crawdads along the way.)

'You can write anything you want about us, as far as our history is concerned, because none of us older folks is sure,' laughed the group, as a whole.

'We'd be afraid to challenge you!'

All were pretty much in agreement that the original band's distant genesis was a yearly gathering held by members of the Unitarian Church over at Dillon Beach, when everyone would sit around in the evening and sing music.

'I'd pick up a guitar once in awhile at Dillon Beach, and fiddle around with it,' said Ray Coppock, who taught himself to play as a kid, but hadn't touched the instrument in decades. 'My wife finally bought me my own guitar. I've never been a really good guitar player in terms of fingering, but I do the chording.'

Coppock, who has a degree in journalism and worked as a farm reporter for the Sacramento Bee - until he moved to Davis, to work as an information specialist for the university Ag Extension, until his retirement - never considered himself a singer, either.

'I'd never sung until I got with the Crawdads, but it was fun. I'm a baritone, and you don't 'hear' the baritones; but if they're gone, you miss them. I love doing the harmony.

'I stand on Chip's right side, because my good ear is on the left. I'm guided by Chip's melody.'

Nobody was more surprised than Northup's children, when he became a singer.

'It was accepted in my family that I couldn't carry a tune,' he joked.

But he decided to take a guitar class through the Davis Art Center; he learned to strum the guitar and began to sing to his younger children at night.

'It was a terrible ordeal for my older children.'

But he stuck with it.

'The voice was always there, and I always loved to sing, but I needed to develop an ear for music. I eventually learned how to stay on key all through a song.'

Northup credits Coppock for inspiring him.

'Ray is very, very precise, and very careful to work out a harmony that's satisfying for him on each of our songs. It's fun to listen to him while we're singing.'

Coppock also relies on the steady presence of Thomson, singing and playing banjo on his right.

Thomson, former director of Yolo County Mental Health and former director of the Sutter Center for Psychiatry, learned to play ukulele in high school; while in college, he bought a $5 guitar. But it was an impulse purchase in 1948 that set the stage for the Crawdads.

'I was in Oakland, at a pawn shop,' Thomson said, 'and I saw this old banjo hanging on the wall, kind of broken down. They wanted $8.50 for it, and I couldn't talk them down in price, but I bought it anyway.

'I'm still playing that old banjo.'

Thomson wasn't the only one to get a bargain on the instrument that would serve him for decades. Bass player Marc Faye - who was born in Knights Landing, but grew up on Kauai - learned to play the ukulele at 15, and he made music on that instrument through high school. In college, someone suggested he graduate to guitar.

'I went to pawn shops in San Francisco,' Faye recalled, 'and found a Martin 0018 for $35. I played guitar until the '60s, when everyone else was playing guitars.'

A jazz-playing friend suggested that Faye try accompanying his group on bass. The friend owned three basses, and Faye borrowed one and began working with other groups, as well.

'I had so much fun doing it, I wouldn't give the bass back to him ... so the rascal charged me $150 to buy it. Any group was glad to have a bass, and I was the only bass in town.

'It was the best $150 I ever spent.'

Faye still plays that instrument today.

The Putah Creek Crawdads became more organized several years ago, when Wayne Ginsburg, a retired English and journalism teacher, joined the group.

'I met the group through Rotary, and through politics,' Ginsburg explained. 'I taught at least one of Marc's sons, and I kept running into Marc and Cap at various meetings. Chip was a member of the school board about the time I arrived, but I never met Ray until a Rotary function, when the group was playing and invited me to sit in.

'A month later, Marc invited me to be at another function.'

Ginsburg started playing violin in fourth grade in Fresno, and continued through seventh grade. But as he reached high school, violin was 'no longer cool'; he taught himself to play guitar and took some lessons. But he abandoned music about halfway through college.

'When my son was ready for me to force him to take Suzuki violin, I got out a couple of inherited violins and participated with him for a year or two.

'When he forced me to give that up, I didn't do much of anything again until about two years before I retired.'

Scared of having nothing to do in retirement, Ginsburg did something he'd always wanted to do: He bought a mandolin and started taking lessons. Two years later, he joined the Crawdads and took over arranging the group's gigs. Booking had been fairly haphazard up to that time, but with Ginsburg's many years in social organization, he knew how best to market the group.

About six months before Ginsburg joined, Kate Laddish also became a member of the Crawdads.

'Someone erroneously told these young fellows that I played fiddle,' said the 30-something geologist and educator.

'I didn't.

'I was mostly playing guitar at that point. I hadn't taken a violin lesson since eighth grade, but they invited me to a rehearsal. I arrived with my guitar, which I thought was the instrument I was actually playing, and I said 'I don't actually play fiddle.' I think it was Marc who said 'But you have one, right?' It was my violin.

'I had wished that I played fiddle ... and it turned out that I did. Sort of.'

'Kate has a sensitivity about the way a song should be presented and performed,' Faye said. 'We used to just hack away at it, but we've become more 'performers' now. We're working on getting the hang of this thing.'

'I was totally flattered by what Marc said. It was so much nicer than 'Kate's so bossy, she won't shut up,' ' laughed Laddish, who cannot remember a time when music wasn't a big part of her life.

'Music was always playing in our house, and some of my earliest memories involve music.'

She started taking violin lessons in second grade, in the Berkeley public school system.

'That was the instrument I chose, because a friend played violin. The second song I ever learned how to play was the main theme to 'Star Wars.'

'I think one strength I do have is being able to essentially step outside, and observe what we're playing, and how we sound as we're doing it: to be a participant and an observer, to hear when something really works, and be able to say, 'Oh, that was great; we need to remember to do that.'

'Or say, 'I know this is the way we've always done this, but we always seem to trip up on it.'

'That's one thing I bring to the group.'

Watching the Crawdads perform at Ludy's, it's easy to envision a group-think taking place, as Coppock leans into Northup on the harmonies, and Laddish conducts with her bow, her foot or a certain look in her eye. These musicians have a nonverbal communication that works well for them.

And even after all these years, they continue to work on improving each show.

'I won't say Ludy's inspires us to greatness, because that implies greatness is attainable,' Laddish laughed. 'But I think something gels whenever we play at Ludy's. We sound better.

'Although it could be the beer.'

Enterprise beer columnist Michael Lewis recently told Thomson, 'You're always fun, and the marvelous thing is that you haven't improved a bit.'

'It sounds like a mean comment,' Lewis said, when I requested clarification, 'but I guess I meant they've remained delightfully the same over the many years that I've enjoyed their music.'

'The Putah Creek Crawdads have been an integral part of innumerable special events all over Yolo County for years,' said longtime Davis public events fixture Bob Bowen. 'Their music always brings a smile to my face.'

The group performs some 40 to 50 times a year, often in retirement homes or Alzheimer's facilities.

'Our residents absolutely love the Crawdads,' said Karen Wright, activities director at St. John's Retirement Village, in Woodland. 'We usually have them for our monthly social hour. They're great.'

Joan Callaway and Nancy Keltner, co-founders of All Things Right & Relevant, have had many dealings with the Crawdads through the years.

'I don't know how many times I've called them for one cause or another, and they've always been willing to perform,' Callaway said.

'It's sure a two-way street,' Keltner said. 'The joy they give, and the joy they get. You can just see it: They have so much fun doing it.'

The Crawdads never have made money performing all these years.

'We've never taken any money at all,' Ginsburg said. 'One time just after I joined, I think, the budget account go so big, about $1,500, so we found a particular charity group that was important to somebody. But none of us has taken any personal money out of it.'

Northup reminded him that they once took some of the funds and took their wives out to dinner; another time they bought an amplification system. ('And matching shirts!' Laddish chipped in.)

A recording is in the works now: This project began a few years ago, and the editing is taking longer than anticipated. But the resulting CD will be available. Eventually.

The Putah Creek Crawdads are one of those little gems that make living in Davis so special. They've been making us smile for decades ... and with the love these guys have for what they do, I'm sure they'll continue to entertain for many years to come.

Lee Riggs, of the musical group Riggity Jig, sums it up perfectly: 'It's always a fun time when the Crawdads play. They make the kind of music that makes you smile.

'And that's the point, isn't it?'

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Treasure Island

Shiver me timbers! Thar be a new show in town, and it be a treasure chest full of fun.


The Sacramento Theatre Company production of Ken Ludwig's 'Treasure Island,' directed by Peggy Shannon, is one rollicking bit of action after another. The opening night audience - consisting of a large number of children, some dressed as pirates - just loved it, although this isn't a 'children's show' per se.

Based on Robert Louis Stevenson's book of the same name, 'Treasure Island' tells of young Jim Hawkins, who matches wits with Long John Silver and his mob of pirates, to obtain the legendary Captain Flint's secret treasure. The production is filled with heart-pounding sword fights, edge-of-your-seat rescues and adventures certain to please patrons young and old.

The play's setting is created from the moment one enters the theater, with a huge ship set on stage, and its creaking sounds heard throughout. Arthur Rotch gets credit for his set design, while John Gromada adds to the atmosphere with his sound design and incidental music throughout the show.

While the production boasts many outstanding performances, the most remarkable is that given by young Will Block, in the role of Jim Hawkins. (He alternates with Anna Miles.) Block's stage presence shows a maturity beyond his years, and a level of expertise not entirely commensurate with the limited performance background in his bio.

This is a young man with oodles of talent, who handles very large amounts of dialogue, and with a convincing accent to boot.

The very nature of a show about pirates gives the actors, some of Sacramento's finest, the chance to do a lot of scenery-chewing; this is particularly true of Michael RJ Campbell in the role of Billy Bones, who escaped execution and has stolen the treasure map. Billy arrives at the lodge owned by Hawkins and his mother (Lynn Baker), and forces the other customers to drink with him, sing with him and raise a glass of rum to keep him entertained.

Also chewing the scenery in exemplary fashion are the ruthless Black Dog (Matt K. Miller) and the feared Blind Pew (Brett David Williams), who has sworn to kill Billy.

Many actors assume dual roles. Miller returns as the very prim and properly bewigged Captain Smollet, who pilots the ship, the Hispanola, which will take Jim - bearing the map given to him by Billy Bones, on his death - on a search for the treasure.

Patrick Murphy plays Squire Trelawney, a local nobleman who arranges for the voyage and finds the ship. Barry Hubbard is Dr. Livesey, a father figure to Jim, and with whom the map is entrusted.

Jonathan Rys Williams also plays two roles. He starts as Jim's father, who dies early in the play, and with whom the young lad shares a love of Shakespeare. Williams later returns as the deranged castaway Ben Gunn, a former pirate left marooned on Treasure Island, who is overjoyed to find other people on the island ... and whose only request is for a bit of cheese.

Michael Stevenson turns in an excellent performance as the peg-legged Long John Silver, who befriends Jim and is kind to the boy. Although Silver signs on to the Hispanola as its cook, he does so under false pretenses; he's also a pirate who is out to get the treasure for himself.

Christopher Duval gets high marks for his fight choreography. The show features many opportunities for swordplay among the pirates, and all are carried out beautifully.

'Treasure Island' is fun for all ages. Younger children may have difficulty with the language, which is true to Stevenson's original prose, but they'll love the action.

Particularly the excitement of the first-act conclusion.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Damn Yankees

Rodger McDonald has a fiendishly good time in the Woodland Opera House production of 'Damn Yankees.'

McDonald plays Mr. Applegate, otherwise known as the Devil, who manipulates the action in this sparkling musical, directed by Bobby Granger.

Mr. Applegate is called to Earth by long-time Washington Senators fanatic Joe Boyd (Steven Read), who says he'd sell his soul to see his beloved baseball team win the pennant just once. Enter Mr. Applegate - a great entrance, by the way - who promises not only to give the Senators a winning season, but to allow Boyd to be the man who makes it all happen.

Joe suddenly is transformed into youthful heavy-hitter Joe Hardy (Tim Stewart).

McDonald does such a wonderful job in this role that one wants to check under all that hair, to see if maybe he's hiding a couple of little horns. His satanic persona is assisted by Laurie Everly Klassen's black-and-red costume design, and Jeff Kean's delicious lighting effects.

'Damn Yankees' has a number of familiar songs, such as 'Heart' and 'Whatever Lola Wants,' but opens with the misogynistic 'Six Months Out of Every Year.' This song implies that women have no interest in baseball, but simply sit around the kitchen in aprons, complaining, waiting for their husbands to emerge from baseball season and take notice of them again.

I know many women who would take offense at that portrayal.

But remember that this show - with book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, and music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross - was written in the 1950s, and so we can take it as a quaint historical perspective.

Read, emerging only recently after a 30-year absence from the stage, gives a credible performance as Joe Boyd. He's a little shaky in his portion of the lovely song, 'Goodbye Old Girl,' but delivers a moving and tender reprise during his reunion with his wife, Meg (Kathi Davi), at the play's conclusion.

Tim Stewart steps out of the shadows to become the transformed Joe Hardy. Stewart is sensational, with a voice that fills the Opera House and an eagerness that makes his Joe a fresh-faced, likable ball player. Yet he's also able to pull off the underlying sadness of the man who lives inside him, who still misses the relationship he had with his 'old girl.'

Laura Lothian is mesmerizing as Lola, whom Applegate calls from Hades to seduce his young protégé, after Joe starts to waver in his commitment to sell his soul for a winning season. The lithe and winsome Lothian looks great in all those slinky outfits, and she manages to be both evil and sympathetic.

Brian McCann, also listed as the show's vocal director, is outstanding as Van Buren, the team manager. Although familiar to Davis Musical Theatre Company patrons, McCann is making his debut appearance at the Woodland Opera House; he's a great addition to the company.

Jori Gonzales also is making her WOH debut as Gloria Thorpe, a sports reporter who suspects there's something not quite right about Joe Hardy, and is determined to uncover the truth about the Senators' newest star player.

Kathi Ichtertz is quite good in the small role of Miss Weston.

Other standouts in this uniformly strong cast include Jessica Larrick as 'Sister' and Kathleen Flint as 'Doris,' two women who go ga-ga over Joe Hardy; and baseball players Erik Catalan (Henry), Tyler Russell Warren (Sohovik), Dan Masden (Smoky), Andrew Leathers (Vernon) and Justin Kelly (Bouley).

Gino Platina's choreography is first-rate. The ball players, in particular, display a range of athletic abilities that draw applause from the audience.

The show is set in several different locations, and the confines of the Opera House stage do not lend themselves to the kind of spectacular effects one usually expects from Kean's set design. The ball park, the locker room and the manager's office are quite good; the Boyds' home and the wall outside the ball park are disappointing, but they still work well.

'Damn Yankees' is an outstanding show, with lots of good, wholesome fun. And the original script has been given some interesting enhancements that bring the story up to date in an entertaining manner.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Drowsy Chaperone

A touring production of 'The Drowsy Chaperone,' a completely original musical comedy that became the most celebrated musical of the 2006 Broadway season, opened last week at the Sacramento Community Theater.

The show is directed and choreographed by Tony Award nominee Casey Nicholaw ('Spamalot'), with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and Bob Martin and Don McKellar; all four won Tony Awards.

While not destined to achieve 'old chestnut' status, the show is a delight, revisiting a time before musicals had to have a hard-hitting message ... or be a stage version of a beloved Disney animated film. 'The Drowsy Chaperone' has no deep message, no memorable songs, no cute animals running around on stage.

It's just good, clean fun, with a lot of laughs, a lot of groans - as the lines are delivered - and a lot of madcap mayhem.

The central character, known only as 'Man in Chair' (Jonathan Crombie, who played the role on Broadway), is a music lover who misses the days of old-style musicals. He speaks to the audience throughout the show, as he pulls out one of his old records (remember records?) and plays the original cast recording of his favorite show, 'The Drowsy Chaperone,' which his mother introduced him to.

As the record plays, the show comes to life on stage; Man in Chair narrates throughout, giving the show's history, discussing the actors playing the roles, and commenting on the various musical numbers.

It's kind of like Stephen Peithman's KXPR show, 'Musical Stages' ... but on speed.

As for the show within the show, nothing could be sillier or more formulaic.

Therein lies the fun.

The opening number, 'Fancy Dress,' introduces the show's many characters and lets the audience know right away that this is a plot with tongue set firmly in cheek. A big, fancy wedding has been planned, you see, and all these characters have assembled to make it happen.

The bride is a young actress, Janet Van De Graaff (Andrea Chamberlain), who plans to leave the stage to marry the dashing Robert Martin (Mark Ledbetter). Her producer, Feldzieg (Cliff Bemis), plans to sabotage the wedding, with the help of two gangsters disguised as pastry chefs (the delightful Paul Riopelle and Peter Riopelle).

The gangsters represent some unseen big boss who'll do serious damage to the producer if Janet leaves her show.

Alicia Irving has the role of The Drowsy Chaperone, the bride's elegantly attired friend and confidante, who is tasked with preventing the bride and groom from seeing each other on their wedding day. She states at the outset that champagne makes her drowsy, and then proceeds to down a bottle of it - with a martini chaser - and hence becomes 'the drowsy chaperone.'

The wedding is hosted by Mrs. Tottendale (Georgia Engel, well remembered from TV's 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' and 'Everybody Loves Raymond'). Engel originated this role on Broadway, and is every bit as charmingly and endearingly dingy as we remember from her TV roles.

Mrs. Tottendale's Underling is played by Nobel Shropshire (which sounds more like a character from the play!). Mrs. Tottendale and her Underling have a very funny slapstick scene, which requires Man in Chair to take mop in hand to clean up afterwards.

Another key player is the Latin Lover Aldolpho (Dale Hensley), the self-proclaimed 'King of Romance' who is hired by the producer to seduce the bride, and thus thwart the marriage.

Additional characters include George (Richard Vida), Robert's best man who, along with Robert, does a mean tap dance; Kitty (Linda Griffin), Feldzieg's ditsy aspiring-actress girlfriend; and Trix (Natasha Yvette Williams), an aviatrix who flies in at an opportune moment.

David Gallo's set is ingenious, and it must be pandemonium backstage, given all that takes place in front of the audience.

In the end, everyone lives happily ever after and a wedding does take place, because this is an old-fashioned musical comedy and that's the way those things end. There are, however, a few twists and turns along the way, along with a memorable special effect at the conclusion.

'The Drowsy Chaperone' has received much praise and a lot of criticism, but it would be difficult to imagine anyone not entertained by this delightful pastiche.

Be sure to visit the restroom beforehand, though, because the show runs 100 minutes with no intermission.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Forever Plaid

There was an exciting happening on 10th and K Streets on Sunday night. California Musical Theater opened its sparkling new Cosmopolitan Cabaret with the musical production of “Forever Plaid,” and ushered in a new kind of entertainment that could go a long way to revitalizing the downtown area.

The beautifully redesigned building (once a Woolworth) is nothing but inviting. For one thing, parking is plentiful, with a big parking lot right next door. The space is shared by the “Cosmo Café,” a new Paragary restaurant, at which patrons can book a table for a couple of hours before the performance (the price of the dinner is not included in the price of the performance). Next month a nightclub is expected to open upstairs, rounding out the patrons’ evening’s entertainment, for those who wish to extend their partying beyond the two hour cabaret performance.

The decor is clean and open with a large bar at which you can purchase drinks to take into the cabaret (there are stands for menus on the tables inside and a press release stated that there would be “pre-performance cocktail service in the theater,” but no menus were displayed and there did not seem to be any hint of waitpersons around on opening night).

Inside the cabaret itself one has the choice of sitting at small tables for four, or in tiered seating, with chairs in front of a beverage rail. The dark walls and soft lighting made for a very lush feeling. One of the persons seated at our table exclaimed that she was a fan of old movies where cabaret scenes like this were popular and that she had long hoped for a venue such as this in Sacramento. She was very excited to see the project finally come to fruition.

The opening production for the Cosmopolitan Cabaret is the delightful “Forever Plaid,” which will have an open-ended run. It’s the perfect sort of production for this type of venue and if it can find its audience, the run could be a long one, especially given that ticket prices are more affordable than some other theaters in the area.

The 1990 off-Broadway musical comedy, written by Stuart Ross, is a salute to the boy bands of the 1950s–The Four Lads, The Four Freshmen, The Four Aces, etc. The Plaids are a fictitious band who never made it to the big time, and who were killed in a terrible auto accident, colliding with a busload of Catholic schoolgirls on their way to the Ed Sullivan Show to see the United States debut of The Beatles.

The group has been dead for 44 years and now through some cosmic twist of fate or hole in the ozone or some reason nobody quite understands, they have returned to earth to do that one big concert. Their entrance into the theater, reminiscent of the local popular group, The Edlos, is perfect.

The cast for this 2 hour (no intermission) show are all veterans of other productions of “Forever Plaid.” Chris Crouch is Sparky, the baritone; J.D. Daw is Jinx, the high tenor (with a penchant for nosebleeds); Sean Hopkins is Smudge, the bass; and Justin Packard is Frankie, the lead tenor. The show is directed and choreographed by Guy Stroman, Frankie in the original New York cast.

Though none of these guys is old enough to know the music they are singing, they are spot on. The close harmony singing is perfect, the choreography executed with military precision. This is the music that I grew up listening to and as they rattled off song after song I was transported back in time – “Three Coins in a Fountain,” “Love is a Many Splendoured Thing,” and “Moments to Remember,” which everyone danced to at their prom.

In between are some hokey comedy bits, some touching sentimental bits about each guy’s past life (a section on a reverence for records was particularly good), and a bit of audience participation.

A highlight was a tribute to the old Ed Sullivan show, which managed to cram everything you ever remember about Ed Sullivan into one brief segment, all performed to an accordion rendition of “Lady of Spain.”

Sets, props and costumes are from Pittsburgh Clo, with lighting by Steve Odehnal, and combined to give an almost magical touch of “plaid” on the stage at just the right moments.

The show was wildly popular with the audience and should do well for a long time if it can find its people. I don’t know how much it will appeal to a younger audience, raised on rock & roll, who never saw Ed Sullivan or Perry Como (who also gets a loving tribute in this show), but it would be hard to not to like the easy listening harmonies or to not to be taken in by the engaging quartet singing their hearts out for the one big shot they never got in life.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

First Person Shooter

People's actions have consequences, even if the consequences are far removed from the original intent of the behavior.

Or can we really make that assumption?

Capital Stage kicks off its fourth season with the Sacramento premiere of Aaron Loeb's highly praised new play, 'First Person Shooter,' helmed by Bay Area director Molly Aaronson-Gelb.

The play asks a relevant contemporary question: 'In a world where violence has become a game, who is responsible when the violence becomes all too real?' Loeb's drama received its world premiere in 2007 at the San Francisco Playhouse, and was named one of the season's top 10 plays by both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune; in April, the Bay Area Critics Circle named 'First Person Shooter' the best original script of the 2007-08 theater season.

The Capital Stage production stars Kerry Davis (Sam Misner), Tommy Damotta (Cole Alexander Smith) and Wilson Fong (Ed Lee) as Wunderkinder who've turned game-playing into a profitable business; they now run JetPack Games, a start-up video game company, where the hottest, most violent game on the market has brought instant success to the young tech geniuses.

Kerry is a loner, socially inept but a brilliant computer programmer, whose life revolves around the world he has created on his screen. As Loeb's play begins, Kerry is consumed with making the shootings in his game look ever more real:

'The objects now respond to force vectors with absolute physical accuracy,' he notes. 'It makes the death animations so much more life-like. Actually ... and this is the part that rules ... they aren't even animations ... the game is able to physically model where the body should fly, how all the limbs should flop around, all in real time.'

Real life intrudes on Kerry's fantasy world when two boys stage a Columbine-style attack on a school, gunning down a number of their classmates and then themselves. They leave behind a taped message thanking JetPack for its video game, and explaining that they rehearsed their massacre for months on the game's custom map, before carrying it out.

An ambulance-chasing lawyer (Lee, in a dual role) gathers the parents of the slain students, and files a lawsuit against JetPack for its role in the tragedy. All sides of the issue subsequently collide.

Strong performances control this powerful play. Misner's Kerry is a Bill Gates-like computer geek: a likable fellow dealing with his own personal tragedy, who is forced to confront a situation in which he may unwittingly have played a personal role.

Adrian Roberts gives a powerful, moving performance as Daniel Jamison, one of the slain boys' grieving father, who finds himself manipulated by the system. Both Kerry and Jamison come to see each other as the enemy, and Roberts' final scene with Misner is heartbreaking.

Karyn Casl gives a sensitive performance as Jamison's wife, the boy's stepmother.

Smith is a live wire, playing dual roles as the masked shooter and also Tommy, JetPack's mercurial public relations manager. Smith's energy builds throughout the play, and fuels an outstanding performance.

Megan Pearl Smith is reminiscent of Joan Cusack as Tamar, JetPack's wisecracking managing director.

The action takes place in several venues; set designer Jonathan Williams handles this nicely on the small stage, by using an abstract back and side wall that consist of various sizes of blocks, on which projections and flashing 'loading' messages indicate the passage of time.

Loeb takes no obvious stance on either side of the debate, but leaves audience members to examine their own feelings on what, if any, responsibility belongs to gamers, in the wake of such tragic situations.

'First Person Shooter' is a hard-hitting drama, and is certain to promote discussion among audience members long after they leave the theater.