Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Tuna Christmas

Those quirky citizens of Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas, have returned to the Woodland Opera House, to share their Christmas Eve celebrations with us in a show appropriately titled 'Tuna Christmas.'

Thurston Wheelis and Arles Stuvie are back at the microphones at radio station OKKK, ready to dispense all the local and world news:

'In international news today, Christmas violence flares, leaving thousands dead in Mag ... Mada ... Madg ... I can't even pronounce the name of the place. They're foreigners, so never mind.'

There's DiDi Snavely, who manages Didi's Used Weapons Emporium ('If we can't kill it, it's immortal'), and who is running her annual holiday sale - 'Wouldn't you rather shoot somebody, than watch 'em run off with your new toaster oven?' - and has a rather unusual collection of decorations for her shop's Christmas tree.

Elmer Watkins is inviting everyone to the local Klan's annual Christmas party and skeet shoot: 'Our theme this year is The Whitest Christmas Ever.'

As always, Bertha Bumiller is at her wit's end about her children and threatening to 'put on that Andy Williams album' if they don't shape up.

Sullen daughter Charlene and son Stanley, the town delinquent, are both in the town's production of 'A Christmas Carol' ... by 'Charlie Dickens.' Charlene is taken with the director, Joe Bob Lipsey - who is a bit 'odd' - while Stanley is hoping the production will help him finally get off parole, so he can leave town.

All Stanley wants from Santa is 'a bus ticket out of this black hole.'

But the production may not take place at all, if penny-pinching Dixie Dewberry has her way. The theater hasn't paid the electric bill, and she's threatening to pull the plug on the power, so the show can't go on.

Meanwhile, a town phantom is running around vandalizing the decorations of the homes vying for best Christmas displays, such as putting Fruit of the Looms on the figures in the nativity display belonging to Vera Carp, the town snob.

Sweet Aunt Pearl may know more about the phantom than she's saying, but she's busy looking for a weapon to kill the birds in her front yard.

'I haven't had a gun in my house since I accidentally killed my second husband,' she admits.

The Smut Snatchers of the New Order are trying to get 'Silent Night' banned, because they aren't sure people should sing about 'round young virgins.'

And so it goes...

In addition to all the favorite characters from Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard's first play, 'Greater Tuna,' 'Tuna Christmas' adds new characters, such as Lipsey and waitresses Inita Goodwin and Helen Bedd, among others.

All 22 characters are played by two wonderfully talented actors, the Woodland Opera House's Jeff Kean and the Sacramento-based Runaway Stage Company's Bob Baxter. Both are reprising their roles from the Woodland Opera House's 2001 production of 'Greater Tuna.'

With the help of bouffant hair pieces, a variety of colorful costumes - designed by Laurie Everly Klassen - some interesting set pieces that hide half of the body here and there, and an incredible crew, the actors accomplish the transitions from one character to another so smoothly that the audience isn't aware of what certainly must be organized pandemonium backstage.

The entire crew deserves recognition: Chris Medina, Joseph Franklin, Charene Lauritzen, Ryan Mannie, Dana Smuda, Michael Smuda, Curtis Stupp and Chris Taloff.

Dave Hushbeck is the sound designer, a crucial job in this production.

Kean is credited with set design, which the program notes is based on the original show's production design.

It allows for characters to disappear in one door and emerge seconds later out another as a different character, for curtains to hide parts of the body that are moving into place behind a counter, and so forth.

While the play has a semblance of story from beginning to end, it's really more of a collection of vaguely related skits.

So, gather up your funny bone and head to the Woodland Opera house for a good chuckle and a few guffaws, to get you in the proper mood for the coming holiday season.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens would recognize some - but not all - of his 'A Christmas Carol,' were he to attend the production by the same name at the Winters Community Theater.

When director Howard Hupe put out the call for children to play the five Cratchitt children and the few other youthful roles, so many kids showed up that he decided to use them all. He and his wife, Germaine, 'borrowed' references from other Dickens works and included bits of dialogue that would allow them to add beggars, pickpockets and other children where possible, to give everybody at least a brief moment to shine on stage.

This feeling of inclusivity makes this production of 'A Christmas Carol' quite special: amateurs doing things for the love of it, and the love comes across very clearly on stage, down to the two children who continue in their roles although injured (a young girl in a cast and a boy in a wheelchair).

The entertainment starts with a few Christmas songs by carolers Eleanor Yeatman, Tessas Rawlingon, Richard Kleeber, Dominic Orlando, Mattielyn Long, Sierra Freckman, Jessicca Eldridge, Robert Fischer, David Springer and Hannah Long, with accompaniment by Lona Romagosa. The carolers are used effectively throughout the two-act show, as entertainment between scenes.

Following this introduction, Germaine Hupe takes the stage to give a bit of background about the story, and to tell something of Dickens' life. This helps explain the various themes in his writing, especially in 'A Christmas Carol.'

The play begins as she concludes her remarks, with Dickens himself (Howard Hupe) stepping onto the stage to set the scene for Ebenezer Scrooge's unexpected meeting with his former partner, now deceased, Jacob Marley.

Trent Beeby is a more fussbudgety, ill-mannered Scrooge than the foul-tempered curmudgeon one is accustomed to seeing, but the actor nonetheless sets the stage for the character whose eventual redemption will occur during the next 90 minutes.

The ghost of the chain-laden Marley (Phillip Pittman), whose first appearance is an apparition in a portrait - a great special effect! - initially was so menacing that a nearby father had to take his small child out of the theater whenever the apparition came on stage.

In this version of 'A Christmas Carol,' Marley has a larger role than usual, and remains on stage throughout the show: unseen by Scrooge, but acting as a kind of narrator for the audience. (His menacing persona softens considerably as the evening progresses.)

In due time, Scrooge meets the first of three ghosts: the Ghost of Christmas Past - Germaine Hupe, beautifully ethereal, looking much like Glinda the Good Witch - who takes him back to his own previous Christmases. Alec Romagosa (from his wheelchair) plays the young Scrooge, left at boarding school over the holidays, to be rescued by his sister Fan (Grace Ferguson).

(Romagosa later plays Peter Cratchitt and, in a bit of casting that seems odd for a show with so many children, appears again as Adam, the young boy Scrooge later sends to buy a turkey. Since Peter's scene and Adam's scene are virtually back to back, it would seem that casting a different child as Adam would have been less confusing.)

Robert Fischer is wonderful as the jolly Fezziwig, Ebenezer's first boss, who adores Christmas and loves to party with his staff. Eleanor Yeatman plays his wife, who shows she still can kick up her heels and dance. Dominic Oriando is the young adult Ebenezer, already looking ahead to the fortune he'll one day make, while Manny Lanzaro is his friend Dick.

Mattielyn Long plays Ebenezer's girlfriend, Isabelle (Fezziwig's daughter), and Hannah Long is her sister Mary.

Tom Rost makes a jocular Ghost of Christmas Present, taking Scrooge around the town. They visit the humble home of his clerk, Bob Cratchitt (Richard Kleeberg), and his wife (Anita Ahuja). Their children are played by Elaine Hupe, Grace Ferguson, Alec Romagosa, Brittany Welty and Emilia Orosco, the latter as the crippled Tiny Tim ... who's cute as a button, but couldn't be heard beyond the edge of the stage.

Not that anybody cared. We all knew the lines.

The ghost also takes Scrooge to see the home of his nephew, Fred (Ben Moroski), who had visited him earlier in the day, and Fred's wife, Elizabeth (Tesssa Rawlinson). Moroski gives a strong performance, and he and Rawlinson share good chemistry as they joke about the sour-tempered Scrooge.

Rodney Orosco plays the Ghost of Christmas Future, who shows Ebenezer the things that might come to pass unless he changes his ways ... notably the gleeful thieves who steal things from his house after his death. Old Joe (Larry Justice) is marvelous, and Germaine Hupe returns as Grandmother, accompanied by her real-life granddaughter, Lauren. Eleanor Yeatman makes up this unsavory quartet, as Mrs. Dilber.

The constraints of the Winters Community Center stage make it a challenge to present a large show like 'A Christmas Carol,' but Howard Hupe and scenic artist Jeff Hesemeyer make great use of all parts of the space. I wish the lighting had been a bit brighter, however, as the faces of the actors never are lit very well.

The painted scenic backdrops, however, are lovely.

The show continues through Dec. 6, with one more matinee at 1 p.m. this Sunday. If you find yourself in Winters, here's a good chance to get a bit of Christmas spirit: a beloved Christmas story, cute kids and familiar Christmas carols.

And you even can buy pumpkin pie at intermission!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tuna Christmas

Those quirky citizens of Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas, are back at the Woodland Opera House to share their Christmas Eve celebrations with you.

Thurston Wheelis and Arles Stuvie are back at the microphones at radio station OKKK ready to dispense all the local and international news (“In international news today, Christmas violence flares, leaving thousands dead in Mag... Mada... Madg... I can't even pronounce the name of the place. ...they’re foreigners, so never mind”)

There’s DiDi Snavely, who runs Didi’s Used Weapons Emporium (“If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal), and who is running her annual holiday sale (“wouldn't you rather shoot somebody than watch'em run off with your new toaster oven?”) has a very unusual collection of decorations for her shop’s Christmas tree.

Elmer Watkins is inviting everyone to the local klan’s annual Christmas party and skeet shoot. “Our theme this year is The Whitest Christmas Ever.”

Bertha Bumiller is once again at her wits end about her children and threatening to “put on that Andy Williams album” if they don’t shape up.

Sullen daughter Charlene and son Stanley, the town delinquent, are both in the town’s production of “A Christmas Carol” (by “Charlie Dickens”). Charlene is taken with the director, Joe Bob Lipsey (who is a bit “odd”), and Stanley is looking to the production to help him finally get off parole so he can leave town. (All he wants from Santa is “a bus ticket out of this black hole.”)

But the production may not take place at all, if penny-pinching Dixie Dewberry has her way. The theater hasn’t paid the electric bill and she’s threatening to pull the plug on the power so that show can’t go on.

In the meantime, there is a town phantom running around destroying the house decorations of the homes vying for best Christmas decorations, such as putting Fruit of the Looms on the figures in the nativity display of Vera Carp, the town snob.

Sweet Aunt Pearl may know more about the Phantom than she’s saying, but she’s busy looking for a weapon to kill the birds in her front yard. (“I haven't had a gun in my house since I accidentally killed my second husband.”)

The Smut Snatchers of the New Order are trying to get “Silent Night” banned because they aren’t sure people should sing about “round young virgins.”

In addition to all the favorite characters from Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard’s first play, “Greater Tuna,” “Tuna Christmas adds new characters, such as Lipsey and the waitresses Inita Goodwin and Helen Bedd, among others.

All twenty-two characters are played by two wonderfully talented actors, the Woodland Opera House’s Jeff Kean and Bob Baxter, from Runaway Stage Company, reprising their roles from the 2001 production of “Greater Tuna.”

With the help of bouffant hair pieces, a variety of colorful costumes (designed by Laurie Everly Klassen), some interesting set pieces which hide half of the body here and there, and an incredible crew (all of whom deserve recognition)–Chris Medina, Joseph Franklin, Charene Lauritzen, Ryan Mannie, Dana Smuda, Michael Smuda, Curtis Stupp and Chris Taloff--the actors accomplish the transition from one character to another so smoothly the audience is not aware of what must certainly be organized pandemonium backstage.

Dave Hushbeck is the sound designer, a job which is crucial in this production.

Jeff Kean is credited with set design, which the program says is based on the original production design. It allows for characters to disappear in one door and emerge seconds later out another as a different character, for curtains to hide parts of the body that are moving into place behind a counter, etc.

While there is a semblance of a story from beginning to end, it is more a collection of kinda sorta related skits.

Gather up your funny bone and head to the Woodland Opera house for a good chuckle and a few guffaws to get you in the proper mood for the coming holiday season.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Tuna Christmas (Feature article)

Some twenty-five years ago, some friends called me to tell me about a show they had just seen.

“You HAVE to see this show,” they started, giggling instantly at the memory.

They tried to tell me about the show, but each time, broke out into paroxysms of laughter. I still wasn’t sure what the show actually was, but I knew that it was so funny that my friends were rendered all but speechless ... and so I went to see the show.

It played at a little theater in San Francisco and it had the strange title, “Greater Tuna.” And it was, indeed, very funny.

Twenty-five years later, most theatrically aware people have heard about “Greater Tuna.” It has become a little theater phenomenon and, in fact, by 1985, it was the most produced play in the United States, with schools, colleges, community and professional theaters all anxious to add the hit comedy to their repertoire.

In 2001, Jeff Kean, Artistic Director of the Woodland Opera House and Bob Baxter, Producing Director of Runaway Stage Company, brought “Greater Tuna” to Woodland. The show became the most popular and best attended non-musical production the Opera House had done to that time.

Now the two men are returning with “A Tuna Christmas,” the second in the “Tuna” saga, as its holiday offering (there are two more shows, “Red, White and Tuna” and “Tuna Does Vegas”).

“I’m slapping myself in the head constantly, saying ‘what in the world are you doing?’” laughed Kean

“Greater Tuna” came into existence when creators Joe Sears and Jaston Williams were asked to provide entertainment for a friend’s party. Drawing on their mutual histories in little Western towns, they created a skit in which they delivered news reports from a reactionary radio station in a profoundly conservative market. When their little broadcast from station "OKKK" proved enormously popular, they decided to develop it into a play.

A friend, Ed Howard, collaborated on the script, directed the two actors, and drained his savings account for the $10,000 to mount the production which opened in Austin, Texas in the fall of 1981.

The response was immediate and strong: People loved the show, loved it enough to warrant a second run in December. That run extended into February, during which time it was seen by a critic from “Variety,” who raved about the show in the national press. Within a couple of months, “Greater Tuna” was booked for runs in Hartford, Conn., and in New York. Just over a year after it first opened in Austin, “Greater Tuna” was playing off-Broadway, where it ran a year.

Sears and Williams continue to tour the country with productions of one of the four plays and, in fact, the rights to “A Tuna Christmas” only became available in California and Texas a couple of years ago.

“Greater Tuna” is an hilarious comedy about Tuna, Texas' third smallest town, where radio station OKKK is the best place to get the news, the Lion's Club is too liberal, a local pastor wants to pull books such as “Roots” off the library shelf (“because it only tells one side of slavery”), and Patsy Cline never dies.

The eclectic band of over twenty citizens who live in this tiny town are portrayed by only two performers, making this satire on life in rural America even more delightful as they depict all of the inhabitants of Tuna -- men, women, children and animals.

“What does it say about us that when guys dress up as girls everyone loves it?” asked Kean “A hundred years ago it was funny for men to dress as women, and it’s still funny today” he said, adding, “I am one ugly woman. It’s a good thing I was born a man.”

Though Kean is known locally mostly for his work in set and lighting design, he started life as an actor. (“I started at age 15, as a mugger in a play.”) But he quickly realized that the real fun for him was in working behind the scenes.

“I realized what the life of a professional actor would be and it didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t like that the pinnacle of your career is doing the same role over and over again. Just imagine doing the same role year after year and when show closes you’re back on unemployment again.”

So he got his degree in design and has been much happier since. “You get a lot of variety. Every 4-5 weeks the show changes.”

But every now and then he gets the acting bug.

The 2001 production was not Kean’s first association with “Greater Tuna.” He had directed a production of it when he was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensborough. He knew what a funny play it was and when he ran into Bob Baxter at an Elly awards presentation in 2001 he had a crazy idea that he could bring the show to Woodland – and play the roles played by Jaston Williams.

Baxter remembers their discussion “He asked if I ever did anything outside my own theater,” he remembers. “I said ‘Of course – what did you have in mind?”

Kean told Baxter about the “Greater Tuna” script and asked if he would consider it. Baxter had never heard of the show, but there was, at the time, a production running at Garbeau’s Dinner Theater, which he went to see. He loved it and could easily see the prospects of the two men working together. He agreed to do the show with Kean.

Bob Baxter is one of the founders of Runaway Stage Company founded twelve years ago by five state workers who did theater at night. Their first production was an original melodrama, produced at the Eagle Theater in Old Sacramento. When the production was a success, the Railroad Museum, which owns the Eagle Theater, invited the group to continue to do the show on an ongoing basis.

“The five of us met at a Lyons Restaurant to think up a name for our company,” Baxter explained. They chose “Runaway Stage Productions” because of the association with the Railroad Museum. Though they have now moved into the 24th Street Theater, they kept the original name because of its brand value.

Baxter has been the Producing Director since the company began, but also acts on a regular basis as well. “I perform quite a bit, when a role comes up that I’m suited for and I can’t find anybody else to do it. I enjoy performing. I’m an equity actor and a Screen Actors Guild actor and have worked professionally over the years, but now it’s about performing for the love of it.”

Getting two very busy men, running theaters more than twenty miles apart, to rehearse a very demanding two-person show was quite a challenge, but they were up to the task. “We both have our own companies to run and trying to find time to work together is interesting,” said Baxter, though he admitted that “If you want to get something done, ask the busiest person.”

It has been seven years since that successful “Greater Tuna” production, but the rights to “Tuna Christmas” have only recently become available in California. Many of the characters from the original show, such as Didi Snavely (who owns the Didi’s Used Weapons Emporium), Vera Carp (acting leader of the Smut-Catchers of the New Order), and the DJs Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis reappear in “Tuna Christmas,” though there are some new characters as well.

In the interim there have been some physical changes to the acting duo. Baxter, who played the hefty roles originally created by Jaston Sears has dropped 60-65 pounds. (“I just decided that the feeling of being hungry is not a bad thing. It’s a new philosophy I adopted. My body changed with that and I guess the mental does focus on what the physical needs to do.”)

“He’s lost so much weight that the dynamics have changed and we’ve had to pad his costumes,” said Kean, who noted that the roles call for one character to be thin and the other to be heavy. “We’ve had to change one line of dialog,” he added.

“I have to wear a fat suit for one character now,” says Baxter, adding that “we have fake bosoms that we use for the female characters, but the bosoms are sewn into the costumes.” Both praise the expertise of costumer Laurie Everly-Klaussen for making it all possible.

Kean and Baxter have allotted two weeks just for rehearsing costume changes, which must be done sometimes in as little as 15-20 seconds. There will be two sets of three costume changers, one set for each actor, in addition to other backstage help. “It’s necessary for things to go smoothly,” said Baxter “You have to walk on stage confident what you’re doing as an actor. You throw on a costume, look down and see what character you’re doing and go on side and go out and perform.”

Kean feels that “A TunaChristmas” is a more interesting script than “Greater Tuna.” “There will be those moments when we walk out and look silly, but I think people will come to appreciate the characters more. There’s a bit of pathos in the whole thing. The writers really do love Texas. They’re from Texas and these are their people and they understand them. They’ve known these people and have developed these characters over many years.”

What’s next after “A Tuna Christmas”? Will the Kean-Baxter duo bring us “Red, White and Blue Tuna” next July? Kean is doubtful. “I’m getting a little long in the tooth,” he says.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It's About Time

I just love Pamela Trokanski's dance concerts. Where else can one hear Pink Floyd, Mozart and the soundtrack from 'Pajama Game' in the same evening?

The Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre's 2008 fall concert, called 'It's About Time,' examines the effects that time - and clocks - have on our lives, delves into the history of modern time, and explores the elasticity of time, depending on the circumstances under which we find ourselves.

The six dancers - Caitlin Barale, Nicole Bell, Katy Lundgren, Bekah Shepard, Nicole Smith and Trokanski - perform the Herculean task of dancing nonstop for nearly 75 minutes.

The evening starts with a section titled 'The Memoirs of Jesse James,' a reference to a work by Richard Brautigan, who 'remembers all those thousands of hours that I spent in grade school watching the clock ... my teachers could easily have ridden with Jesse James for all the time they stole from me.'

To a recording of 'Racing with the Clock' from 'The Pajama Game,' the dancers mimic the mechanism of a clock, from the hands to the inner workings. At one point, they twirl long sticks that mimic a clock's face.

Trokanski's stage design adds to the sensation of passing time, with several kinds of clocks displayed on panels, and a fractal-like projection on the back wall that runs throughout the performance. (Patrick Fitzgibbons gets credit for 'technology.')

'Jesse James' moves smoothly into 'NPR and Radiolab' ... which, I have to say, may have worked against the ultimate goal of a dance performance. The narration follows the history of 'time' and the degree to which U.S. railroads influenced the standardization of time. It also discusses the philosophy of time itself.

To wit: Why does time pass so slowly for children, yet so quickly for adults?

In truth, though, this history lesson was so fascinating that I wanted to return home to study up on the origins of time, rather than concentrating on the hard-working dancers in front of me.

This is not to denigrate the dancers, merely to explain that what should have been background material became so interesting that it briefly overshadowed the dancing.

The performance became more of a background to the lecture, rather than the other way around.

'Flight of the Bumblebee' provided an interesting example of the juxtaposition of time: a delightful bit of choreography accompanied by a podcast of the 'Ode to Joy' portion of Beethoven's ninth symphony, digitally stretched to last 24 hours. (Thankfully, only a brief portion of the 24-hour symphony was played.)

Two dancers - not singled out for identification in the program - performed in 'Nancy Grows Up,' against recordings made by Tony Schwartz of his daughter's vocalizations from birth to age 12.

Trokanski's goal in each of her concerts is to be both humorous and thought-provoking. 'It's About Time' succeeds perhaps better than most; it's an absolutely delightful pastiche.

Best of all, if you check your watches when the performance concludes, you'll have spent only 75 minutes in the theater, give or take a couple, and that time will have been spent very well indeed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Man of La Mancha

The Davis Musical Theatre Company has mounted another enjoyable production of 'Man of La Mancha,' continuing through Dec. 7 under the capable direction of Jan Isaacson, with musical direction by Jonathan Rothman,

Dale Wasserman's Broadway hit - with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion - is a musical drama: a play within a play within a play, which tells the story of Miguel de Cervantes (Tae Kim), who has been thrown into prison to await examination by the Holy Inquisition, for having the effrontery to foreclose on a church that did not pay its taxes.

As is their custom with new arrivals, Cervantes' fellow prisoners hold their own Inquisition - a mock trial - and accuse the writer of being, among other things, an idealist and a bad poet. If 'convicted,' he'll lose his belongings, which consist primarily of an unfinished manuscript and a trunk of theatrical costumes and props.

Cervantes mounts his defense in the form of a play, in which he takes the role of Alonso Quijana, an old gentleman who has become delusional and now believes himself to be a medieval knight errant.

Quijana renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha, and travels the countryside with his trusty squire, Sancho Panza (Jason Hammond), fighting beasts and rescuing damsels in distress: 'He ponders the problem of how to make better a world where evil brings profit and virtue none at all; where fraud and deceit are mingled with truth and sincerity.'

He promises not to allow wickedness to flourish.

At first sight, the diminutive Tae Kim seems an unlikely Cervantes; the character is more traditionally a taller, older and more commanding presence. But all doubts are erased once Kim begins to sing, and he steps comfortably into the playwright's shoes.

Kim did have a few difficulties opening night, trying to stay with the orchestra in a couple of places, but otherwise he was excellent.

Hammond is outstanding as Sancho Panza, a large but gentle man who is extremely protective of his master.

The two ride out from Quixote's home on trusty horses. The latter are prisoners in horse costume, and it's unfortunate that the actor playing Quixote's horse is so tall that he prevented the actor from being seen for most of this number.

En route, Quixote does battle with a 'monster' - actually a windmill - and decides to take refuge in a neighboring 'castle,' actuality a local tavern that only appears to be a castle in the faux knight's delusional mind.

The pair encounter Aldonza (Lauren Miller), the weary and bitter barmaid and town trollop, who appears to Quixote to be the lovely and virginal Dulcinea, the maid he pledges to serve, protect and defend with his life. Aldonza is confused by the gentle, courtly manner in which he treats her.

Lauren Miller has made quite an impact while playing roles such as Annie Oakley in 'Annie Get Your Gun,' the secretary Gladys in 'Pajama Game' and Audrey from 'Little Shop of Horrors.' All are brash, bold, colorful women, and Miller delivered them well.

Aldonza is a different type of a role, and Miller definitely has the singing voice for it - despite some harsh notes in her upper register - but her speaking voice occasionally echoes the brassy manner of all those other characters, which could be a bit grating on the ear. Despite that, Miller's Aldonza displays the proper balance of harshness and tenderness toward Quixote.

Steve Isaacson returns in the dual roles of the 'Governor' of the prisoners and the Innkeeper who is talked into knighting Quixote, and giving him the title of 'Knight of the Woeful Countenance.' As always, Isaacson's performance does not disappoint.

Mark Ettensohn is the 'Duke,' who takes an instant dislike to Cervantes; Ettensohn also plays Dr. Carrasco in the charade performance. He too, does a memorable job.

The delusional Quijana is an embarrassment to his respectable family, and the tuneful 'I'm only thinking of him' is sung by Quijana's niece Antonia (Jennifer Berry), his housekeeper (Emily Beal) and their priest (Michael Manley, who has the widest vibrato I've heard from a man in a very long time).

Isaacson's massive set is impressive, with a huge staircase that lowers whenever anyone enters the prison.

The six-piece orchestra is fine overall, although the horn section displays occasional weaknesses, particularly during the overture.

Overall, though, this is a very good production of 'Man of La Mancha,' and it's certain to satisfy audiences.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

THIRDeYE Festival

The UC Davis theater and dance department's annual THIRDeYE Theater Festival once again is showcasing the work of three talented student playwrights and three student directors.

'These three original plays not only provide entertainment,' said artistic director Jade McCutcheon, 'but a forum for debate and discussion.'

The works were created in UCD playwrighting and English courses, where playwrights are encouraged to explore issues that deeply concern them, whether about the environment, death, sexuality, relationships or love.

Solid performances are turned in by Shaya Carp, Desiree M. Doyle and Ashkon Royce Malmoudi in Joe Ferreira's 'The Readers,' directed by Kevin Ganger. Carp and Mahmoudi play Clara and Michael, who live in the poorest of the poor tenement apartments, are engaged to be married, and struggle to make ends meet.

Doyle plays June, their lesbian neighbor, who is attracted to Clara and fearful that Michael's erratic temper might cause him to hurt his fiancée.

The practical Clara is working to pay the bills, while the idealistic Michael is a struggling artist, trying to find a way to live the 'perfect life' in their small, shabby apartment, where the water gets turned off routinely. He is, however, unwilling to work at something that'll actually bring in some money. Arguments about finances are common.

When a large sum of money goes missing from their bank account, Michael confesses he has been seeing 'The Readers,' who are able to read his mind and tell him what his perfect life is, and where his path to success lies. Clara realizes that she doesn't really know this man with whom she is sharing her life, or what he is capable of.

The play explores whether it's possible to make every decision the right decision. And if others could see into our future, do we want them to make our decisions for us?

The incidental mood music by sound designer Reed Wagner is sometimes distracting, and often does not complement the play itself.

Carolyn Duncan's 'When Marcelli Met the Dream Maker,' directed by Jenna Templeton, concerns a 15-year-old writer and her family. The young creator of mythical stories lives with her anorexic sister and eccentric mother, and struggles with the fear of losing her father. Helped by dream-world creatures and characters, the teen makes life-changing discoveries.

Duncan explains that this is her story: 'The pain, the love, the magic are all real parts of me. It was most difficult to write about my own sister's illness.'

The play contains seven scenes, the first three of which occur in different (unnamed) war eras, while the final four take place in the present day.

The printed program is a little confusing: While all the characters have names, they're never referred to by those names in the play itself, so I may have the wrong actors playing the wrong roles. There are three Marcelli women, but only two have last names listed in the program.

I assume Amber Nolan is the young writer, Allissandra Marcelli; if so, she creates a very sympathetic character, as she tries to learn the truth about her father, and expresses concern for her sister's health.

I'm also guessing that Tianna Riva is Allissandra's mother - and also Muse Two, in a dream sequence - and does an excellent job at demonstrating the eccentricities of a parent who is unable to face what might be terrible news.

That leaves either Katie Walton (Danu) or Christina Moore (Morrigan) as Allissandra's sister, who spends her life lying on the couch, afraid to face the world. Whichever actress plays this part does a good job.

The other cast members - Kyle Robinson, William Wong and Steph Hankinson - also tackle several roles, all well.

At the age of 50, with 13 plays already under her belt, playwright Julie Friedrichson - the writer of 'A Piece of Water' - hardly is young. But she came to UC Davis to work with McCutcheon, and wrote her play in McCutcheon's class.

'A Piece of Water,' directed by Daniel A. Guttenberg, explores the roots of emotional crises that result from miscommunication. A cello, a romance and a photographer are central to this unique piece of theatrical poetry.

As Timea (Kristina Stasi) and Freide (Kathryn Hempstead) try to navigate the waters of love in Cold War Hungary, Paula (Kate McGrath) and her partner Rahim (Juan Gallardo) wend their way through a dusty apartment's history, and try to make sense of the present. The two stories intertwine and diverge, flowing in and out of each other toward a conclusion as inevitable as it is elusive.

The old woman, who knows more than she lets on, is played by Sarah Birdsall.

You have only one more chance to catch these new theatrical works, at 2 p.m. today at UCD's Wyatt Pavilion. You'll find this year's THIRDeYE Festival an enjoyable and thought-provoking afternoon of theater.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Color Purple

Standing outside the Sacramento Community Center Theater Wednesday evening, I heard many people commenting on the irony of seeing 'The Color Purple' - a musical with an African-American cast, which deals with subjects that include lesbianism - on the day after we elected the country's first African-American president ... and voted to ban gay marriage in California.

This first North American touring production of 'The Color Purple' is directed by Gary Griffin, with exuberant choreography by Donald Byrd.

This musical adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the 1985 film, which collected numerous Academy Award nominations, including those for stars Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey. (It won none.)

The stage production - adapted by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner Marsha Norman, with music and lyrics by Grammy Award winners Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray - was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including best musical, when it opened on Broadway in 2006.

The story highlights the resilience of Southern black women, as they deal with the harshest of circumstances and the power of sisterhood, to help them cope with the darkest of times.

The heroine of the story is Celie (Jeannette Bayardel), 14 years old as the show begins, whose suffering over the next several decades surely rivals Job's. Twice impregnated with her father's child and forced to watch her father 'get rid' of her babies, she subsequently is given to an abusive man (Rufus Bonds Jr.) who doesn't want her because she's ugly, but who needs someone to take care of him and his children.

Celie remains with him for years but calls him 'Mister,' because he never even tells her his name.

Bayardel, an actress with a powerful set of lungs, gives a memorable performance as the beaten but never broken Celie, whose innocence and goodness make her character so compelling. Her 'I'm Here' brought down the house Wednesday evening, and is worth the price of admission alone.

Celie's one tie to everything good in her life is her sister, Nettie (LaToya London), with whom she is seen at the start of the show, during a moment of innocent play. But after Nettie spurns his advances, Mister forbids communication between the two girls; as Celie goes through her life, she doesn't know whether her sister is alive or dead.

The show's large cast includes many memorable characters, notably Felicia P. Fields in a the show-stopping performance as Sophia, the feisty wife of Mister's son, Harpo (Stu James). Sophia has an indomitable spirit, unbroken despite a brutal beating that leaves her physically and mentally compromised.

Celie's ultimate path away from her abusive life with Mister comes in the form of Shug Avery (Angela Robinson), with whom he has been in love for years. Shug makes Celie believe that she's a beautiful person. Shug helps her re-connect with her beloved Nettie.

And Shug opens Celie's eyes to the beauty of physical love.

'The Color Purple' spans 40 years, and at times has the feel of a series of vignettes that rush by so quickly, we don't have the opportunity to place them in any sort of timeline. The play suffers from the loss of Walker's poignant prose, although the developers worked hard to preserve the book's essence.

The music is vibrant, but the Community Center Theater's horrible acoustics make it virtually impossible to understand most of the lyrics. No song is truly memorable, although all of them work together as part of the whole. Cute numbers like 'Push da Button' and 'Miss Celie's Pants' are made more memorable by the choreography.

A long African sequence in the second act is well done, even if it does smack a bit of 'The Lion King.'

Actually, the second act in general is tighter and more enjoyable. A woman sitting next to me expressed, at the end of the overly long first act, pretty much what I was feeling: 'This is really good, but I'm having a hard time staying awake.'

But by the end of 'The Color Purple,' the abused little girl has become a self-assured, self-sufficient matriarch who is comfortable in her own skin. Truly, the resilience of the human spirit is wonderful to behold.