Friday, December 18, 2009

Sister's Christmas Catechism

People with little or no Catholic school education will have a much easier time getting into 'Sister's Christmas Catechism,' the newest offering at Sacramento's Cosmopolitan Cabaret, than its previous production of 'Sister's Late Night Catechism.'

That first show included many hilarious bits, most of which assumed that the people in the room were familiar with how things were done in Catholic grammar schools back in the day.

'Sister's Christmas Catechism' is the third in a series of very funny shows written by Maripat Donovan, all of which revolve around a no-nonsense nun pressed into teaching the basics of the Catholic faith to adults. This Christmas version, which continues through Jan. 3, includes a living nativity; preparation for this sequence comprises most of the second act, and must be seen to be appreciated.

Sister (Nonie Newton-Breen) plucks various willing - and not entirely willing - souls from the audience for this scene. She then costumes them in makeshift outfits cobbled from donations to the poor.

It should be noted that while almost all theatrical productions caution audiences against the taking of photographs, here everybody is encouraged to take pictures. Be sure to bring your camera; you'll be sorry if you leave it at home, especially if members of your group become part of the living nativity.

On the evening we attended, the ox was played by a well-known Davis police officer, which made things much more fun for us. (Following the show, he told me that he was glad not to have been picked to play the ass.)

The Christmas tableau doesn't merely tell the tale of the birth of Baby Jesus; that would be too ordinary. Instead, Sister has decided to solve a mystery that has long plagued her. This will be a sort of 'CSI: Bethlehem,' she explains, as she attempts to discover who stole the Maji's gold.

She points out that Mary and Joseph surely used up the myrrh and frankincense, but the gold must have been stolen because otherwise Joseph could have paid for a room in the inn, and gotten them out of the stable.

Newton-Breen, who has traveled the country in 'Catechism plays' for the past seven years, is well equipped for this role, having been born into a large Irish-Catholic family in Chicago. Since these plays rely heavily on audience interaction, her improv work - beginning with Chicago's famed Second City Theater - has served her well.

She also won the 2006 Ovation Award for her performance in this particular show.

While she makes an excellent nun, she's far less strict than Maripat Donovan - who starred in 'Sister's Late Night Catechism' - and isn't nearly as insistent as Donovan, at making us respond 'Yes, Sister' to every question. Newton-Breen isn't nearly as scary.

Each performance of 'Sister's Christmas Catechism' includes the assistance of a local church choir. The opening night performance featured the Holy Family Catholic Church in Citrus Heights, one of whose priests also participated in the nativity tableau, and definitely knew how to chew up the scenery!

This show is a lot of fun. If you were put off by the esoteric parts of 'Late Night Catechism,' don't let that leave any second thoughts about attending this one.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Second Generation of "Nutcracker" kids (feature article)

When Greg Wershing watched his 12-year-old son Brycen, playing Herr Drosselmeyer in this year's production of the 'Davis Children's Nutcracker,' climb inside the big grandfather clock, he had a flashback to 1985. That's the year the elder Wershing built that clock, and many of the other pieces of 'The Nutcracker' set.

It also struck him that his son Logan, 10, was the third generation of Wershings to be working at the Veterans' Memorial Theater (Greg's mother Susan Wershing worked tech for more than 20 shows, before she moved from Davis), and the second-generation Wershing to be involved with Davis' holiday tradition.

Both sons Brycen and Logan have been involved with 'The Nutcracker' for years. First, they were performers, and then Logan decided to follow in his father's footsteps and now works on the tech crew.

By 1985, a small group of young people - Chris Wong, Jon Lee, Phil Sequeira, Ned and Jeri Sykes, Derrick Wydick and Wershing, some of whom had come through the performing ranks of the 'Davis Children's Nutcracker' - had grown up and graduated to the tech crew. They had new ideas and were able to see many of them become reality.

'We built a Christmas tree that grows, an oversized fireplace, a big chair, and big and small grandfather clocks,' Wershing remembers. 'I built an oversized fireplace based on an existing fireplace prop and a giant chair based on a regular chair we acquired.'

Nearly 25 years later, most of those pieces have been replaced, but some still remain. Some of the adults who were once young people are still involved with the show, now watching their own children performing.

'I'm one of the bonafide dinosaurs of the show,' laughs Wydick, who, other than a couple of years when he and wife Laura lived in Fremont, has worked on every show since 1978, when he played Fritz.

'When I was 25, I had no idea this would happen,' says city of Davis Public Relations Manager Bob Bowen, who dreamed up the idea of the 'Davis Children's Nutcracker' and directed it for 10 years. 'I just thought we'd put on a show and 75 people showed up, put on burlap tunics and (we had) cardboard for sets. It's grown from there.'

The Bowen family is the obvious first instance of 'generational involvement.' Bob's wife Kate directed the show for three years. Three of his four children have been involved. Stacey Bowen was a bear, pennywhistle, treat (California raisin and Hershey kiss), Chinese dancer and snowflake. She was a leader for the little party guests, mice and bakers and also did sound for a couple of years and helped out backstage.

Tyler Bowen was the Mouse King, Fritz, a soldier and a gnome. He also worked on the sound and stage crew.

Heather Bowen was a pennywhistle, dancing bear, snowflake and treat. She was a leader for the snowflakes, leads and gumdrops and did stage crew. (Heather now has two children, but does not live in Davis. However, she is moving back to the area and who knows? Perhaps her children will start a third generation of 'Nutcracker' kids!)

Abby Verosub (now Abira Laurie) was a Chinese dancer in her one performance with the show, but she, too, graduated to the tech crew, though her brothers performed for several years. Laurie has returned to Davis after an absence of 23 years and is looking forward to watching her daughter perform in 'The Nutcracker.'

'She's going to be a clown,' Laurie says. 'In my day, we called them the 'rubber chicken brigade.' She's excited.'

Kelly Carlson's sister and brothers danced in 'The Nutcracker' 20 years ago, this year her three children - Kasey, Carter and Grace - will be on the stage.

Marianne Moore coordinated the show for many years as a city of Davis staff member, her younger sister performed, and now her own daughters, Samantha and Ella, are in it.

Wydick began taking daughter Katie to rehearsals when she was 15 months old.

'She was a squirmy little baby, but when the dancing started she would stop moving and focus her eyes on the stage and not move for 45 minutes,' he says.

Wydick brought her every year and the little girl desperately wanted to get on the stage. Now she's finally old enough and will be a snowflake in this year's production. Her plan is to be a flower when she becomes old enough.

Many Davis residents say the 'Davis Children's Nutcracker' is one of the gems of life in this community. It has become a Christmas tradition for many families.

'I'm glad it has been such a big part of my life,' Wershing says. 'I'm glad my kids have the opportunity to experience it before it's gone for good.'

'This has become a crazy institution that is part of growing up in Davis,' Bob Bowen says, laughing. 'It has become a shared experience between parents who once performed in the show and kids who are in it now.

'Maybe that's my enduring legacy,' he adds. 'That's pretty cool.'

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Santaland Diaries

At a time of the year when the world seems full of sugarplum fairies, Tiny Tim, sappy TV Christmas shows and those ubiquitous ho-ho-hos, it's refreshing to stumble on a holiday program that shows the dark side of Christmas.

The Capital Stage production of 'The Santaland Diaries,' directed by Janice Stevens, is a one-act satire written by National Public Radio storyteller David Sedaris, and adapted by Joe Mantello (of 'Love! Valor! Compassion!'). This show is wickedly funny and guaranteed not to send you from the building whistling 'Jingle Bells,' but you may - somewhere - find the true meaning of Christmas.

Whether you like it or not.

David, played by Gary Alan Wright, is an aspiring actor who has moved to New York and expects to be working on 'One Life to Live' within weeks. He fantasizes about his introduction to the cast, and practices acting humble when told he has to get used to being the center of attention.

Instead, rejected by the soap opera and desperate for money - and not wanting to stand on the sidewalks, handing out leaflets while dressed as a taco or a digital camera - he answers an ad to be a full-time elf at Macy's Santaland.

The verbal diary follows David through his interview and hiring, his training - during which he is given a copy of 'The Elfin Guide' - and his work in Santa's House, as the elf 'Crumpet.' We learn about motivational cheers - 'Come on you elves, feel good about yourselves!' - and that 'it hurts the mouth to talk with such merriment.'

We get a tour of Santa's Village, including its 'vomit corner,' and learn about high-tech parents who force their kids to sit on Santa's lap to be photographed, even if the tots are screaming in fright. (Anyone who ever has stood in line to see Santa, whether as a parent or as a child, will find someone with whom they can identify here.)

'It's not about the child or Santa or Christmas or anything, but the parents' idea of a world they cannot make work for them.'

Sedaris made his comic debut with 'The Santaland Diaries' on National Public Radio, and was named humorist of the year in 2001 by Time Magazine. Wright is perfectly suited to bring Sedaris' words to the local stage. He's a man of many talents and many faces, and has a natural boyish charm that endears him to the audience. He can be at once sardonic, bitter and even cute.

Gail Russell has designed a great elf costume for Wright.

'I wear red and white striped tights, a yellow turtleneck, a forest-green velvet smock, and a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles,' he explains. 'This is my work uniform.'

Jonathan Williams' set is reminiscent of a child's pop-up book, beginning in a very spare, colorless office. The walls open later to the wonders of Santaland, with lights encircling all the posts of the theater itself, putting the entire audience in Santaland as well.

This isn't a show for tiny tots. But for a wonderfully adult, nonsaccharine Christmas show to take your mind off the sugarplums dancing in your head, 'The Santaland Diaries' is just the thing.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' has the feel of something you'd expect to see in the local school multipurpose room, rather than the Woodland Opera House, and - at only 90 minutes long, including a 15 minute intermission - that may reflect its anticipated audience.

But thanks to the deft hand of director Jeff Kean and a talented cast, the show is a fun addition to the annual line-up of holiday entertainment.

The scene is set by young Beth Bradley (Amy Miles), as she describes the new family in town: 'The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars - even the girls - and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse,'

The six Herdman kids are the school bullies. They beat up kids before school and steal their lunches, or take their money. Everybody is afraid of them.

The young actors playing the Herdmans are just great. Horace Gonzalez is appropriately sullen as the oldest son, Ralph. Elisa Marks is the bleached-blond Imogene, who has a surprising reaction at an emotional moment. Sam Kyser is Claude, and William Black is Ollie; Ani Carrera steals every scene as the youngest, Gladys, who has the greatest defiant pout you'd ever want to see.

The Herdmans decide to go to church because they hear that snacks are served at Sunday School. And then they discover the annual Christmas pageant.

Because of an injury, the longtime director, Mrs. Armstrong (Armida Wahl), is unable to direct the play. The task falls to Beth's mother, Grace Bradley (Julie Greene), with the reluctant assistance of her husband, Bob (Charley Cross), who really only wants to stay home in his bathrobe and watch TV.

Grace quickly discovers that she may be in over her head, although she's determined to make this the best Christmas pageant ever.

Imogene beats out Alice Wendleken (Ashley Vall) for the role of Mary, the role Alice usually plays. Vall is wonderfully whiny and petulant.

Nobody wants to be an angel because Gladys bites people, and thinks the proper salutation for the shepherds is 'Shazam!' Nobody else wants to be around her.

The predictable ending is strongly foreshadowed when Grace discovers that the Herdmans haven't heard the Christmas story, and so reads it for them out of her Bible.

We never see any actual rehearsal taking place for the pageant, although chaos and mayhem fills the stage, and the dress rehearsal never happens because nobody seems to have any costumes.

Despite all this, somehow things come together for a surprisingly poignant finale. The gifts of the Maji may bring a tear to the most cynical of hearts.

'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' is based on a 1972 book by Barbara Robinson, which was adapted into a television movie in 1983. The infamous Herdmans go on to appear in two subsequent books by Robinson.

Kean's set design is lovely, bathing the entire theater in lights, and including some beautiful stained glass window effects.

Laurie Everly-Klassen costumes includes an angel who wears a little ducky robe 'because her mother was out of white sheets,' and Gladys' grimy robe is held together by a man's tie.

Children will love this show, and it's short enough - and active enough - to hold the attention of even the youngest theatergoers.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fully Committed

Matt K. Miller is a wonderfully talented actor. After having watched him play Shakespeare (set in the old West!), Scrooge, Tartuffe and his hastily written retrospective of his own life - a last-minute substitute for 'Noises Off' last season, when finances prevented Sacramento Theater Company from presenting the larger work - I'm convinced the versatile Miller could do anything.

In Becky Mode's one-act play, 'Fully Committed,' which just opened at STC, he not only can do anything, he does everything.

In an era when TV shows such as 'Top Chef,' 'Iron Chef' and 'Restaurant Wars' have ignited an interest in haute cuisine and posh restaurants, this timely piece perhaps tells us more than we really want to know about what goes on behind the scenes at some of the country's top restaurants.

STC's small Pollock Theater provides the opportunity for a more intimate setting, and the lights come up on a bare stage. At one side is an intercom, which allows communication with the restaurant staff; the other side features a telephone with a direct line to the chef. The middle of the stage has a cluttered desk with a switchboard.

The walls are hung with bulletin boards, posters, notes and warnings. A file cabinet is close to a table littered with old coffee cups, paper plates and napkins. An opening at the back has steps that lead off stage.

Although the restaurant never is named, we know it must be one of the 'in' places, since reservations for dinner must be made months in advance.

(The play is based on playwright Mode's experiences while working at an upscale restaurant in the 1990s, though she assures her audience that these characters aren't based on real people.)

'Sam' arrives as all the machines are ringing. He's overwhelmed and waiting for his co-worker Bob to join him, then learns that Bob's car has broken down and is stuck pending the arrival of a tow truck. This leaves Sam to handle all the calls, complaints, demands and more, and we're off and running for the next 90 minutes.

Unlike shows such as 'Greater Tuna,' where characters are created by quick costume changes, Miller does it all with body language and tone of voice: from the acerbic chef to the hyperdramatic 'Mrs. Sebag'; to the French maitre d' who refuses to take a call from a customer because 'she's so ugly'; to the deliciously gay Brice, from Naomi Campbell's office, with a list of ridiculous demands for her party of 15.

Along the way, we also learn bits about Sam's own history through conversations with his brother and the lonely father who hopes Sam can get Christmas off and be home, so they can celebrate together. We also learn that Sam is a struggling, would-be actor waiting for a call-back from his agent's office, regarding a recent audition.

Every single personality change is accomplished flawlessly, sometimes in the blink of an eye, with never a noticeable glitch. Much of the time, Miller runs from one side of the stage to the other, answering the staff in the front of the house, and then the chef, and then back to the reservation phone.

Miller first performed this tour de force back in 2002, when it was directed by Glenn Casale. Much of Casale's direction remains for the 2009 production, with additional direction by Gary Alan Wright.

As the 90-minute show progresses, Sam begins to develop a spine, and to appreciate his own worth: a logical transition, given the kinds of things he has heaped upon him.

By the end of the show, the audience is breathless from the relentless pace. One can only imagine how Miller must feel.

This is should-not-be-missed theater.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Nutcracker (Feature article)

Ask most Davis folks about 'The Nutcracker,' and they'll probably assume you're discussing the 'Davis Children's Nutcracker': the city-run extravaganza that offers some 200 children an opportunity to rehearse and perform something that vaguely resembles Tchaikovsky's fairy-tale ballet.

Very few people will wonder if you're actually talking about the Mikhail Baryshnikov version of the classic ballet, presented by the students of Hanneke Lohse each year on the weekend following Thanksgiving, even though this also has been a Davis tradition for more than 20 years.

This year's production will take place Friday through Sunday at the Veterans' Memorial Theater, 203 E. 14th St., Davis. Curtain times are 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 12:30 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets, at $12, are available in advance at the Davis Art Center. For additional information, call (530) 756-4100.

'It's too bad people don't realize how high a level we have here,' Lohse said. 'The kids have so much pride in it.'

The kids aren't the only ones who have 'much pride.' Lohse glows as she talks about her ballet company and about her productions.

'They all become my kids,' she said, as she recalled dancers, current and past, who've been with her for years. Some return either to dance or to bring their children for lessons, or just to see how the company has grown over the years.

Lohse knows her dancers well, and has taken on the role of Mother Confessor to more than a few of them over the years, significantly altering the lives of many. ('She's Dr. Hanneke,' joked husband Gary Lohse.)

But Lohse's 'Nutcracker production,' featuring as many as 65 dancers, isn't limited to children, although she'll start them as young as age 4.

'She's had 80-year-old dancers in 'The Nutcracker,' ' Gary Lohse continued. He builds sets, schleps costumes, buys equipment and beams with pride when he watches his wife talk about her ballets.

'I have a guy who's an Italian or French professor at Sacramento State University, who dances in it,' Hanneke said.

'There's a professor of statistics at UC Davis. One guy used to be a professional dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. One guy drives in from Roseville to dance with us.'

She also teaches a class for adult women, some of whom used to be dancers.

'These women are so gung ho about ballet that they're on pointe shoes. Some of them had been on pointe when they were younger, but had bad experiences and now are having great experiences.'

This year, she's particularly excited about a former student, 29-year-old Tim Nutter ('He's awesome!'), who is returning to dance the lead role with Sarah Bolander ('She's getting quite a following.') and Kaitlin Coppinger.

In addition to the more professional dancers, Lohse involves the parents of her younger children on stage. She pointed them out as we watched a videotape of the production.

'See how little these guys are? But they know exactly what they're doing. The thing that's so neat is that these parents are actually guardians of the little kids. You can see how the parents are actively guarding the children, so these kids are getting the best experience.

'Some of them are only 4 years old, but they know exactly what they're doing. These are all people who aren't dancers. Some just want to be in it.'

Lohse is the ballet company. When she first began to teach ballet at the Davis Art Center, she asked parents to make costumes. The quality varied greatly; some parents, who couldn't sew, had to find someone else to make the costumes.

Lohse eventually decided that she could sew, and it would be easier and more convenient if she just made all the costumes herself, with the help of some parents also comfortable with needle and thread.

'We go to fabric discount store,' Lohse said, 'buy 60 yards of fabric and make all the costumes. They're all uniform. I design and cut the patterns, and some of the moms sit at sewing machines with sergers, so they're done in no time.

'The serger is the race car of sewing machines!'

Lohse has costumes for five different ballets. When I asked where she stores that many costumes, Gary chimed in: 'We have two shipping containers, 8 feet wide by 20 feet long. The costumes are double-hung.'

OK, but where do you store two huge shipping containers?

Gary explained that they lived on five acres in unincorporated Solano County, and have plenty of land on which to store the containers.

'She's a real factory,' he said.

'I sometimes say I'm going to retire tomorrow,' Hanneke said. 'That's when I'm tired. And then I'm away from it for 10 days, and I can't wait until I get back to the kids. We have a home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I'm tired, I disappear. I go to North Carolina and just sit in the woods and read.

'Sometimes I want to retire, because I learned how to spin and weave and I love to do things with my hands, but then I miss the kids: the little kids and the older kids.

'I even love the adults.'

It's clear that 'retirement' isn't in the foreseeable future for this human dynamo. It's also clear that Hanneke Lohse's 'Nutcracker' may be one of the best-kept secrets in Davis.

For those seeking a professional-quality 'Nutcracker' this season - and those who would prefer not to pay the higher prices found in San Francisco or Sacramento - it isn't necessary to look any farther than your own back yard.

That's where you'll find this first-rate, professional version of 'The Nutcracker.'

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


It's amazing how much really bad stuff happens in theater that nobody notices because of the pretty music.

Davis Musical Theatre Company opened Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'Carousel' on Friday, and I must have been listening more closely this time: I was appalled by the line, 'Can someone hit you really hard, but you hardly feel it at all?'

This from the daughter who has just been slapped by her ghost-dad, reminding her mother of the slap she had received from her husband, before his death. If the tunes are memorable and the clambake fun, we don't notice that the authors have just made spousal and child abuse somehow 'romantic.'

But that's neither here nor there in reviewing DMTC's delightful production, directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson.

Matt Provencal plays Billy Bigelow, a ne'er-do-well carnival barker who falls in love with Julie Jordan (Karina Summers), a local factory worker. Provencal is a newcomer to DMTC, and he's quite a find. He has a wonderful voice, and he partners well with Summers, a DMTC veteran.

Billy's soliloquy, pondering the monumental prospect of becoming a father, is particularly good.

Summers gives Julie a quiet, gentle, loving presence that carries her from infatuation with Billy, despite his abusive treatment of her, to raising his daughter as a single parent following his death.

The rapid development of the relationship between Billy and Julie shines a spotlight on how different things were in turn-of-the-20th century America, where girls were 'loose' if they even talked with a fella without a friend around to chaperone.

Both Billy and Julie lose their jobs over an innocent conversation, and end up getting married instead. Go figure!

Julie's friend, Carrie Pipperidge, is played by Eimi Stokes: just as adorable and endearing as she could be. Carrie has her cap set on Mr. Snow (Jason Hammond), and the two go on to marry and have seven little Snows. Stokes lights up the stage whenever she appears, and her energy is infectious.

Hammond's Mr. Snow is suitably pompous and quietly domineering in his relationship with Carrie, and he makes an absolutely perfect 19th century head of the household.

Deborah Douglas Hammond, whose character seemed somehow out of place in an earlier DMTC production of 'The Cat in the Hat,' comes into her own as the motherly Nettie, who takes Julie under her wing following Billy's death. Hammond sings the showstopping 'You'll Never Walk Alone,' and does so beautifully.

Lydia Smith is a lovely Louise, Billy's 15-year-old daughter, whom we first meet dancing on the beach in a beautiful ballet number choreographed by Isaacson. Louise is a combination of Julie's gentle soul and Billy's spunk, and Smith brings her to life quite convincingly.

Nathan Mack is more slimy than menacing as Jigger, the guy who convinces Billy to rob the mill owner, to get money for the baby Billy has just discovered he has fathered.

Marguerite Morris plays Mrs. Mullins, who owns the carousel for which Billy works. Isaacson has written additional dialogue for the character, which brings her relationship with Billy full circle, and is a nice addition to the script. Morris, without a song to sing in this show, embodies the crusty Mullins and does a nice job with her.

Jean Henderson has created a beautiful array of costumes, all nicely befitting the era. I particularly liked the soft, muted colors and textures she used for Julie, and the contrast with the bold, bright colors and crisp textures for Carrie, visually expressing the personalities of each.

Jen Berry's scenic design works well, and includes a working carousel for the opening scene. There's also a particularly nice dock scene, as everyone gets ready for the first clambake of the season.

At a bit over three hours, this is a long show, but it's filled with familiar tunes like 'If I Loved You' and 'June Is Busting Out All Over,' in addition to 'You'll Never Walk Alone.'

If you concentrate on the music, the dancing, the costumes and the clambake - and overlook the plot's negative parts - 'Carousel' makes for an enjoyable evening.

MacBeth (review)

It's one thing to put on an outdoor production on a mid-summer night's evening, surrounded by tall redwood trees and warm breezes, with the audience sitting on folding chairs.

It's quite another thing to put on an outdoor production as winter approaches, when the audience must sit on hard, cold, uncomfortable concrete steps. For three hours.

Under those circumstances, not even a performance by Lawrence Olivier could make the evening entirely pleasant.

Studio 301's production of 'Macbeth' opened last weekend at the 'Deathstar,' otherwise known as the courtyard of the Social Sciences and Humanities building, across the road from the ATMs at the Memorial Union. The company provided blankets for those who had not thought to bring them, but even that wasn't enough.

I don't know when I've been so uncomfortable at a theatrical production, although I was bundled up and had brought both a blanket and a pillow to sit on.

Despite the cold and discomfort, this 'Macbeth' is a good production, with some very good performances, some nice effects and a few bizarre things.

And, truth to tell, if we wanted to experience the ambiance of a 17th century Scottish castle, I suppose sitting and shivering in the Deathstar was the best way to do it!

Directors Gia Battista and Steph Hankinson describe their play, in the program notes, as 'a call for awareness. We are living in a post-modern time, but we do not know if we have already reached the beginning of the end, if evil has already corrupted our society. This play is a spectacle, warning of what we are possibly heading toward.

'The way we present this 'horrible imagining' is by offering a sickeningly beautiful aesthetic. The hard lines of the building are juxtaposed with soft fabric, flowing movements with staccato fights.'

The action begins with the meeting of the three witches, 'the embodiment of the play's theme.' These witches - Andrea Guidry, Lauren Cole Norton and Ashley Bargenquast - are unlike witches you may have seen in other productions of 'The Scottish Play.'

For one thing, they're on stage throughout the entire play: perched high above the courtyard, reacting to - perhaps guiding? - the actions below. But their spasmodic, jerky movements take a lot of getting used to. The directors explain that this was inspired by a Japanese movement style called butoh, a style created to express the trauma of war, taboo social topics and darkness within the human spirit.

The decision to present the play in ambiguous modern dress, giving no indication as to the era, leaves the viewer to decide whether this is today, some time in the recent past, or perhaps some time in the future.

Costume designer Kate Walton, assisted by Julie Asperger, pulled the costumes together beautifully. Black is the dominant color, with brilliant red accents for Macbeth, starting slowly with red stripes on his shoes, then a red shirt for battle. Lady Macbeth's striking red evening gown is a perfect contrast to the black of those around her.

Kevin Ganger plays Macbeth, the anguished general of the Scottish army, whose blind ambition - aided by his treacherous wife (Cody Messick) - drives him to murder the good queen (Sarah Cohen). This is a tough role to pull off, because of the intensity of Macbeth's anger, fear and sorrow. The role could easily be overly dramatized, but Ganger plays it with controlled intensity.

The sweetness of Messick's appearance is quickly revealed as a facade, as we watch her goad Macbeth into the murder of the queen, and then succumb to madness as guilt over their actions begin to haunt her.

Cohen gives the queen a genuine sense of nobility. We see instantly that she is beloved by her subjects, which makes her eventual murder all the more tragic. Cohen later appears as Hecate, and brings the same kind of nobility (albeit negative) to the character of the head witch.

Michael Lutheran gives an intense performance as Macduff, particularly when he learns of his family's murder. Brother David Lutheran brings a note of lightness to his outstanding physical comedic role as the porter. Although a small role, he owns it.

Kris Ide's performance as the noble Banquo is good, but perhaps even better as he joins the witches and creates the specter of his own ghost, seen only by Macbeth.

A lot of blood was spilled in the Deathstar, as everyone who dies does so with an impressive display of blood. That said, the character who got stabbed on the right side and bled on the left side stretched credulity a bit.

All told, though, this 'Macbeth' is very good. I just wish it hadn't been so darn cold!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

MacBeth (feature article)

In the normal course of events, a director decides on a show, then works with a set designer to bring this vision of the production to life.

For those who work on a university campus, things can be much easier.

Studio 301, a student-run drama organization, produced 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' last year. Rather than find and decorate a stage, the company mounted the production in the Arboretum: an actual forest for the play's forest setting.

Such decisions cut production costs considerably.

This year, directors Stephanie Hankinson and Gia Batista knew they wanted to direct 'a' play, but weren't sure which one. An idea began to form when they started looking around the UC Davis Social Sciences and Humanities Building. It's commonly known as the 'Death Star' because of its outwardly shiny metallic appearance, as well as the fact that architecturally it's such a maze.

The glassed-in catwalk between the two center wings just begs for a lightsaber duel.

Hankinson and Batista didn't see outer space; they saw a castle, and immediately decided that Studio 301's next production should be 'Macbeth.' They're using the entire building, placing the witches on a balcony overlooking the action throughout the play, and employing the tower for sword fights.

The tall concrete walls are excellent screens for special effects, and corridors that lead off the main 'stage' area are ideal for echo-y sounds of horror.

Curtain times are 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 6 p.m. Sunday; 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, Nov. 18-21; and 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22.

The suggested donation at the gate will be $10 general, $9 students. For additional information, call (818) 251-6654.

Michael Lutheran, who plays MacDuff, is delighted with the location. He feels that it both works beautifully as a castle, and also conveys Macbeth's descent into madness.

'This building is so confusing, people get lost in it all the time,' Lutheran said, 'so it kind of represents Macbeth's state of mind.'

Setting a play 'in' an outside venue that is part of a working university building presents interesting situations.

'We get people passing through all the time,' Lutheran laughed. 'We'll be in the middle of an intense scene or sword fight, and all of a sudden a class gets out and we have to hold.'

Cawing crows fly overhead at dusk, and the sound of campus bells must be dealt with. The directors don't feel these will be serious problems; they may, in fact, add to the ambiance.

The production also worked with instructors skilled in the Asian hakido style of combat, which should add an extra layer of excitement to the fight scenes.

Cody Messick is finding it a challenge to play Lady Macbeth.

'I've grown up with Shakespeare, because my dad has been the artistic director of the Kern County Shakespeare Festival for 25 years. But I'm usually cast as the sort of sweeter, straight character, so it's different and really challenging to play such an evil character.'

Even bad characters have their good side, though, Messick believes.

'I'm trying to find sympathy and the humanity in this woman, who really is hard to relate to, because she gives herself over to evil. She devotes herself to this murder and all this horrible stuff, but it's beautiful to try to find those places that actually come from pain, and a deep love for her husband.'

Sarah Cohen, who cut her teeth on Shakespeare back in 1994, when she played Antonio in Acme Theater's 'Twelfth Night,' is playing Duncan. The directors felt that making the ruler a woman adds another layer to the production.

'It actually makes it interesting, killing a queen, because it would be Lady Macbeth who would be the next queen,' Batista said.

'And Lady Macbeth actually incites the murder,' Hankinson added, 'so what does it mean to kill a queen, if she's going to be queen next?'

Cohen, who jokes that playing a queen fits her body type better than playing the role of a king, graduated from MIT in 2000 and returned to Davis to direct a Shakespeare play. She has remained on campus ever since, working in Disability Services.

Hankinson feels that this is one of the many good things about Studio 301: It welcomes alumni and faculty, as well as students.

'We have a really wide array: two majors, several minors in theater and people who have graduated from the theater department. It's a pretty good mix.'

Studio 301 has been around, in different forms, for about 15 years. It started in Sacramento as an independent theater company, with a couple of Davis students involved. More Davis folks got involved, and eventually the group moved to the UCD campus and was 'legitimized' by the powers that be.

These days, Studio 301 is a UC Davis club and is run completely by students.

'We do all our fundraising,' Hankinson said.

The group has been on campus for 12 years, with a few breaks here and there.

'Now we have a couple of really solid years under our belts, and I think it can be maintained,' Hankinson said.

While watching these actors rehearse, I note a high degree of energy and enthusiasm. This should bode well for a good production.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Spring Awakening

How many cliche bad adolescent things can you fit into two plus hours of “Spring Awakening,” this week’s Broadway Series offering at the Sacramento Community Center.

Fill a stage with hormone raging teenagers (and to make it even worse, set them in repressive Germany of the 1890s, where corporal punishment is the answer to every parental or educational problem and “communication” had not been invented yet). To this mix add:

* a mom who won’t explain the facts of life to her daughter (you can see where THAT is going to go, right?)
* failure
* masturbation
* sadism and masochism
* suicide
* homosexuality
* incest
* partial (or perhaps only questionable) nudity
* simulated premarital sex – live, on stage
* pregnancy (of course)
* abortion
* reform school
* a finale that could have been predicted at the end of Act 1

and, for ducks toss in a whole song, the title of which is a word that can’t be printed in a family newspaper, complete with the obscene gestures that go along with it.

This may give you a hint as to why the theater was not very full, and why so many people left at intermission.

HOWEVER, stick with me here.

Surprisingly, it was not as bad as I expected and on some level I actually kinda sorta liked it. Not a lot, but a little.

“Broadway’s most talked about musical,” with book and lyrics by Steven Sater (based on the play by Frank Wedekind) and music by Duncan Sheik won 8 Tony awards (out of eleven nominations) in 2007 and has acquired a cult following. It just may not be the right fit for Sacramento audiences.

There is a cast of 13 performers, with 4 more who sit on stage and add to the vocal ensemble pieces. Most are quite good in their roles, with special mention made of Jake Epstein as the handsome hero, Melchior, Taylor Trensch as the geeky Moritz (with an impossibly tall hair do that looked like a carefully manacured lawn), and Christy Altomare as the heroine, Wendla. I also particularly liked Kimiko Glenn as Thea, not because she did anything unusual, but just because she was so darn cute.

Angela Reed is “The adult woman,” playing several different characters and Jon Wojda is “The adult man,” similarly playing several different characters.

This is not a “book show,” but it does manage somehow to get from A to Z, making many, many stops along the way for different plot elements.

While it’s a bit of a jolt to watch, for example, a room full of 19th century German students reciting Latin, and then break into very modern rock type music, you make that mental adjustment quickly. While there is enough rock in the music to satisfy the young in the crowd, surprisingly most of the music, while unforgettable, is soft and melodic.

Some have an incredible intensity, like “The Dark I Know So Well,” wherein Ilsa (Steffid) describes the attentions of her father

I don’t scream, though I know it’s wrong
I just play along
I lie there and breathe
Lie there and breathe

The masturbation song (its real name is another word you can’t print in a family newspaper) was actually kind of funny, in an offensive sort of way:

She said, “Give me that hand, please, and the itch you can’t control.
Let me teach you how to handle all the sadness in your soul.
[insert lyrics here better not printed]
She said, “Love may make you blind, kid, but I wouldn’t mind at all.”

I wondered about the reaction of all those late middle aged subscribers in the audience...the couple next to me did not come back after intermission.

The set is open with seating along the sides of the stage, for members of the audience and along the back for the eight piece band. The walls hint at a gothic building which can be either a schoolroom, a church, or a cemetery–and is, at one time or another, each one of those settings.

Lighting by Kevin Adams is outstanding, with angry neon red lights for the most intense moments, and beautiful blue orbs for gentle, loving ones.

For anybody who has struggled to get through the sexual frustrations of adolescence...and perhaps for any adult who has to deal with a teenager struggling to get through adolescence...there will be lots of moments with which to identify. But this is not a show that is going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Clowning Around (feature article)

Paul Del Bene didn't dream of running away to join the circus, but - thanks to a convenient scholarship - that's what he eventually did.

And he has been clowning around now for nearly 30 years.

Through his generosity, local adults and children have an opportunity to see his talents on display, during a benefit performance for Davis Parent Nursery School Friday and Saturday evening at the Veterans' Memorial Theater, 203 E. 14th St., Davis. Refreshments will be served at 6 p.m., and the show will begin at about 7 p.m.

Tickets - $18 general, $15 students and seniors, $12 children - are available at The Naturalist, 605 Second St. For additional information, call (530) 410-0043.

Although he never was the class clown in school or at home, Del Bene always was physically active; he hoped to get into college on a soccer scholarship. But since he also had done theater for many years, starting with his first professional role in 'Brighton Beach Memoirs' at age 14, he also applied for a theater scholarship.

He was, in fact, offered a soccer scholarship ... but he also received a theater scholarship, which paid more. He therefore attended The Union Institute in Ohio, as a theater major.

Slowly, over time, Del Bene realized that comic roles were better for him, although he did a lot of character work as well.

He went to the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey's Clown College, and graduated at the top of his class, then worked for them for a year in Japan.

'That's when I knew that I really liked clowning,' he said.

The next step took him to Europe, to study and determine what fit best in terms of performing. Olaf, the character he created, comes out of the Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin/Jacques Tati school of clowning: an Everyman character to whom anyone can relate.

'The turning point was when I worked with a clown professor by the name of Pierre Byland, in Switzerland,' Del Bene said. 'That's when something clicked for me, in terms of the simplicity of the character. If you're kind of still and wait long enough, it'll become clear what you need to do, with the public and with your own character.

'My job, in a sense, is not to make you laugh; it's to understand the situation that I'm in. Then, at the moment that we all need to realize where it needs to go next, that will be funny.

'And that takes a lot of patience.'

He warmed to his subject.

'I don't like clowns or comedy that are aggressive or foul. My job as a clown is to be a story teller. It's my profession to continue that story in whatever way I can: in a way that invites people to share it, not that you've been hit over the head with an idea.'

Most Del Bene's work has been in theaters and variety shows: the type of modern vaudeville that's still alive in Germany. For three and a half years, he worked with a professional theater company in Switzerland. He left that job to return to the United States with his wife Gail and their children Matsue and Luca, to be closer to Gail's mother, Yoshi Khyos.

'Right now, I don't have full-time work as a performer or a physical comedian,' he said. 'But I supported my family for many years in Europe. There is a community called the 'Klein Kunst Community' (Small Arts Community), which is a collection of theaters that seat anywhere from 200 to about 550, but it's all professional theater.

'In Europe, you have community theater, you have the professional small theaters, then you have the universities and then you have the larger concert places. Here, there's this middle gap for people who are at the next level above community theater.

'The larger market for what I do, at least in the States, is private events and private parties.'

Del Bene works as a comic waiter, helping to lighten the mood.

'It's a very subtle form of engaging people as an ice breaker.'

To fill his days and support the family, Del Bene works part time as director of advancement for The Solving Diabetes Project, a medical foundation raising money for research regarding type I diabetes.

'People ask how I can do that, because they think it's so different from theater. But it's basically just storytelling. The foundation supports something I believe in. When I talk about it, I get excited about it.

'I'd love to be a full-time salaried clown again, but how is that going to happen, and how do you keep going without losing sight of who you are and what you do?

'That's hard right now, with all the financial stuff going down.'

Meanwhile, Del Bene will put his considerable talents to good use, raising money for an excellent cause.

And then, a week later, he'll be off to France for another three-week gig on the European vaudeville stage.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Elephant's Graveyard (review)

There's much to like about 'The Elephant's Graveyard,' written and directed by Jade McCutcheon, which continues through Sunday at the UC Davis Mondavi Center's Larry and Rosalie Vanderhoef Studio Theatre.

The play boasts a simple yet elegantly sweeping set by renowned designer John Iacovelli; lighting by internationally recognized designer Thomas Munn; an on-stage orchestra, under the baton of Garrett Ian Shatzer, to perform the music composed by Laurie San Martin; costumes by Maggie Morgan; and choreography by Kerry Mehling.

McCutcheon's sensitive script concerns an aging woman and her scientist daughter, who is trying to find a cure for death, yet can't take time to visit her dying mother.

Each of the seven professional and nonprofessional actors is wonderful; they're joined by six older women from the Davis community, with no acting experience whatsoever, whose powerful contribution just about steals the show.

And delivered more than a few in tears during the opening night performance.

Eve (Bella Merlin) is a career-driven scientist working for the Never Die Institute on synthetic alternatives to aging and death. She deals with inter-staff rivalry with her partner Steve (Matt Sullivan), who is involved with stem cell research. Eve is so immersed in her work - and excited about her discoveries - that she neglects her aging mother, Esme (Claudia Marie Maupin), whom she has placed in 'one of the more prestigious nursing homes.'

Eve visits every few weeks, when her busy schedule allows.

Esme is lonely and confused: more concerned about whether she's getting the right medication, and whether the staff has stolen one of her old sweaters, than about lengthening her life.

Emma (Anne Reeder) is the granddaughter Esme raised after the death of the girl's parents. She visits Esme regularly and tries to make Eve understand how precious her time is with her mother.

Merlin does a fine job as a harried, driven, stress-filled woman who tries to do too much while neglecting the one thing that should be most important to her. Reeder gives a lovely, sensitive portrayal of a young woman who successfully balances career - she's an architect - with love and concern for her grandmother.

But our attention is riveted on Esme, and Maupin gives her total heart and soul: We understand her bouts of depression, her moments of confusion and fear, and her delight over the time she spends with her daughter. Ultimately, we learn the most from Esme.

The voice of Esme's 'soul' is provided by the marvelous Australian singer Kim Deacon, who sings the words that reveal Esme's fears:

'Is it must my imagination,
Or am I finding it hard to breathe?
It seems each step I take these days
There's a wobble in my knees...'

Each of the other actors takes on several roles, from nursing home attendants and pedestrians to waiters. Each is excellent, but Jorge Morejon is head and shoulders above the rest: His principal character is a shaman who provides comfort to Eve at her most frenzied period, when he takes her pain from her and internalizes it.

Morejon gives an intensity to his performance, and his dances are breathtaking: particularly the 'spider dance,' done on a ladder that is lowered from the ceiling while Esme's soul expresses her feelings about death:

'The web might be a relief,
Just to give in and get caught.'

As for the 'elders,' for a group of women in their later years who never before appeared on stage, we couldn't ask for better.

They quite realistically portray conditions in a nursing home, and their final scene brought several audience members to tears.

This play needs to be seen by everyone with aging parents, and everyone who intends to grow old (which would be all of us). It deals sensitively but realistically with the experiences of aging in this country, and how our culture deals with it, and concludes with an uplifting message for everyone.

The production is everything that McCutcheon intended: 'a journey where it's a bit of magic, a bit of music, a bit of art, a bit of dance and the issues and a story that ties it together.'

Don't miss this one. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Taming of the Shrew

There may be gender disagreements about whether William Shakespeare’s most controversial play, “The Taming of the Shrew” is a comedy or a tragedy. Speaking for the feminine side, I tend to favor the latter option!

In this mysogenistic look at the battle of the sexes, one woman is sold off by her father to the highest bidder while her sister is forced into a troubled marriage where her husband deprives her of food and drink in order to break her spirit. There are plenty of lines on women knowing their place. Kate’s long, final speech protesting obedience to her husband is a notorious example.

Productions of this play often set the action in times other than Elizabethan and may twist plot elements so that in the end Katherine has the upper hand and we see that all of her subservience is her own way of manipulating her husband.

In the Woodland Opera House production, director Rodger McDonald has taken a more traditional approach, setting the play back in Elizabethan times (though a brief sequence at the beginning shows a company of actors preparing for the start of the play, which lets us know that the time is really today and the actors are actually doing a play, which may soften the ultimate conclusion)

It’s a sumptuous looking show, with cleverly designed sets, which turned and rotated to represent several different locations, designed by the multi-talented Jeff Kean (who also happens to play role of Petrucchio).

Laurie Everly-Klassen, the “Designing Haberdasher,” has created a beautiful assortment of period costumes.

Bevin Bell-Hall, in her Opera House debut gives a wonderful performance as Katherine. She has a fiery temper and a lot of physical stuff to, which she does beautifully.

Kean’s Petrucchio stands up to Kate with a steel resolve and detached emotions. He sets out to woo her, marry her and then tame her. He cares nothing for the warnings about her disposition. All he wants is the large dowery that accompanies the marriage. There were probably a lot of women in the audience who wanted to kick him in the shins, which only proves the effectiveness of his characterization.

Jeff Nauer is Kate’s domineering father, Baptista, who refuses to allow his youngest daughter, the blonde, flirtatious Bianca (Analise Langford-Clark) to marry until a groom is found for her bad-tempered older sister. Langford-Clark plays the sweet little lady role to the hilt, flirting with her many suitors and giving a hint to a spark within her too, though much more deeply hidden than it is in Kate.

The young rich Lucentio (Brent Randolph) finds himself smitten with Bianca. He trades places with his servant, Tranio (Dan Sattel), and disguises himself as a poor teacher to gain an excuse to be in Bianca’s company, while Tranio, posing as Lucentio attempts to convince Baptista to let him marry his younger daughter. Randolph is a tall, gentle Lucentio, who swoons in the company of Bianca and easily wins her love.

Sattel is outstanding as Tranio, full of energy and a focal point whenever he was on stage.

As Bianca’s older would-be suitors, Steve Mackay as Hortensio and David Buse as Gremio are wonderfully silly, though Buse seems a bit over the top at times.

Bobby Grainger as Petruchio’s manservant Grumio is an outstanding physical comedian, very funny and, with Sattel, give some of the best second banana performances in this production.

Others in the cast include Shanna Lyn Dickerson as the widow who ultimately marries Gremio, Genevieve Whitman as “Biondella” (a female version of the traditional Biondello, manservant to Lucentio), Michael Smuda as Vincentio, Andy Hyun as Curtis, Philip Pittman as Tailor, and Dan Beard as Pendant.

If you can set aside the obvious problems with Shakespeare’s thinking about the relationships between men and women, this is a fun production, though husbands will be well advised that it’s best not to try Petrucchio’s game plan at home!

The Elephant's Graveyard (feature article)

Elephants are amazing animals.

They're highly intelligent and live in wonderfully structured societies. They understand that it takes a village to raise a child. They support each other throughout their lives. They go into deep depressions, if isolated in zoos without companions.

And there's a reverence about them, when it comes to the end of life.

Elephants know when they're dying. They leave the herd and walk ceremoniously to the graveyard that contains all their ancestors, and they lie down in the bones of those who have gone before them.

When an elephant dies, the other members of the herd gather around it: They cover the elephant up, and they hang around it for days, just to be close.

This majestic creature's respect for age and dying was the inspiration for a play called 'The Elephant's Graveyard,' written and directed by Jade McCutcheon, which opens Friday and continues through Nov. 1 at the Mondavi Center's Larry and Rosalie Vanderhoef Studio Theatre.

The U.S. population age 65 and over is expected to double in size within the next 25 years. By 2030, almost one out of five Americans - some 72 million people - will be 65 years or older. The age group 85 and older is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population.

It's time to give some serious thought about the quality of life for older Americans.

McCutcheon actually has been working on this piece for a very long time. When I met with her in April, she had begun shaping the script and had started casting the show.

The story concerns Eve, a scientist working for the 'Never Die Institute,' who is developing technology designed to prolong life and ultimately allow us all to live forever. Eve's mother, Esme, a woman in her 80s, is integral to this narrative: Eve has placed Esme in a nursing home and never finds the time to visit.

McCutcheon sought her Esme among the older women of the Davis community. She was looking for 'someone who is able to move across the stage without feeling terrified.' She also needed 'someone the audience could care about.'

When we parted company that day back in April, McCutcheon was about to meet with Donna Sachs, who leads a discussion group for senior citizens. McCutcheon hoped to find her Esme among the women in Sachs' group.

Sachs, a career psychologist interested in personal development in the later years, started her group in 2003.

'I wanted to share some ideas and literature in a seminar,' she said, 'so I invited people to come for a few times and just talk together in a group.'

After the first few sessions, several people were eager to continue, and the group now has continued for more than five years. It has 11 participants; when they heard the plans for McCutcheon's play, eight women expressed interest.

McCutcheon ended up with more than she bargained for, when Claudia Marie became her Esme. Marie wasn't terrified to walk across the stage. She also was willing to learn lines, although she had no stage experience, beyond having watched her parents do some theater work when she was a young child.

McCutcheon then cast five other members of the group - Nancy Juingeman, Lois Grau, Ruth Hall, Doris Beresford and Sachs herself - to be Esme's friends in the nursing home. Each would have a line or two of dialogue, and all would participate in some of the dancing.

Stage manager Reed Martin was 'really concerned' about working with older women who had no stage experience, but he was pleasantly surprised.

'They're really a great group of people,' he said. 'And because of how involved they are, they're very willing to do things for the show. They're really enthusiastic about it.'

'It's great having members of the community involved,' added Bella Merlin, an acting professor who plays the part of Eve. 'It has been absolutely fantastic working with them. They're delightful. Claudia is so open and accessible, and she's so playful as an actress. They all have super energy.'

In September, I went to visit the 'elders' at work with their choreographer, Kerry Mehling. I entered a room to find a group of women, sitting in a semi-circle, looking old, tired and depressed. Mehling was giving them movements to do with their hands, and each movement seemed to be almost too much of an effort.

But when the exercise concluded, their heads came up and the years melted away. They sparkled with delight while talking about their backgrounds, and their excitement at being involved with this play.

This vibrant group of women was the visual representation of all that McCutcheon wished to convey in her play: how the quality of life can be affected by our ability to remain intellectually challenged, lively and active, rather than stuck in a nursing home, at the mercy of the staff, hoping that someone will visit.

Some day.

'I want this to be a journey where it's a bit of magic, a bit of music, a bit of art, a bit of dance and the issues, and a story that ties it together,' McCutcheon said. 'It's just a platform. This is a voyage of discovery for Eve. Actually, science might be able to create a bio-body, but what are we about life?

'We live and die; that's a given. But love can make a difference. This busy, busy life about career, career, career, when you have to cut off that aspect of self...

'It's worth asking everybody: Is that it?'

'This play throws up all sorts of issues,' Merlin said. 'We'll make people go away and think about lots of things. My character is basically a nanotechnologist, so she believes that we can live forever: that there's enough science out there, and enough investigation happening, that it's only a matter of years before we have the capacity to ensure that we never age. We'll be able to put tiny robots in our systems, which will constantly regenerate the degenerating.

'It's absolutely strange and exciting, and Eve is up against the fact that her mom is dying, and she doesn't want her mom to die. Can she come up with this discovery before her mom dies?'

But Eve misses the point: that her mother is at peace with the approaching end of her life, and is ready to die.

Merlin warmed to the subject.

'She says lines to the effect of 'What would I do for another 70 years in this body? Why would I want to?' My character can't understand that. Surely everybody wants to live forever. Then my character has an epiphany, and thinks maybe she's got it all wrong. Maybe there's a natural flow and order to things.'

Kim Deacon has flown in from Australia, to sing the role of Esme's 'soul.'

'I worked with Jade about 18 years ago, in a play that we devised called 'The Last Room,' ' the singer explained. 'It's a very beautiful piece that combined some text from Tennessee Williams and the surrealist playwright Arabella; I also sang in that play. We enjoyed the process of working together very much.

'We always had in our minds to work together again, so I've kept up with her over the years.'

When McCutcheon was in Australia at Christmas, visiting family, she talked with Deacon about flying to the States to perform in 'The Elephant's Graveyard.' Deacon, who had been discussing the possibility of such a project with McCutcheon for a long time, was happy to comply.

Garrett Ian Shatzer, who composed the songs for the production, happened to be in Australia this summer, while McCutcheon was at home again to see her own aging mother. They met with Deacon at that time, to go over the music.

'When I heard Garrett's music, I thought it was fantastic,' Deacon said. 'Every song is beautiful.'

'Different things in this play will appeal to different people,' Merlin said. 'Some will absolutely love the music, some will get involved in the science, and some will get very involved in the story about what to do when our parents get older.

'It has stirred up a lot of stuff for me, because my parents are in their 70s. They're in the UK; I'm here in the USA. They're fit at the moment. What happens when they're not?'

As I watched the relationship between Esme and her daughter during the two rehearsals I attended, and listened to Deacon give voice to Esme's soul, and watched the evolution in the lives of Esme's friends in the nursing home, I drove home certain that people seeing this play will leave the theater with a lot of things to think about.

And, if they still have living parents, a lot of them will feel like calling Mom or Dad.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Speech and Debate

Teenage angst has been fodder for authors for centuries, and geeky teenagers have been well served in films such as 'Rebel Without a Cause' and 'The Breakfast Club.'

Now comes playwright Stephen Karam and his unlikely protagonists - Diwata (Lindsay Carter), Howie (Benjamin T. Ismail) and Solomon (Matthew Rogozinski) - who meet through the Internet and are drawn together by a shameful secret.

And more than a bit of blackmail.

Karam's 'Speech and Debate' is being presented by Capital Stage, at the Old Sacramento venue on the Delta King.

The inspiration for this play was a 2004 sex scandal, in which the then-mayor of Spokane was caught trolling in an online gay chatroom with an 18-year-old male.

The play's fourth character is the multi-talented, under-utilized Katie Rubin, who appears as a teacher in the first act and a reporter in the second. This marks Rubin's first appearance with Capital Stage, and one hopes it isn't her last.

Director Stephanie Gularte has created an amazing piece, wherein the twentysomething actors adopt all the quirks of adolescents, with all of them nailing their respective performances. Diwata and Howie have more quirks than the more repressed Solomon, and each sets the proper mood during early scenes.

Ismail's Howie, an 18-year-old openly gay transfer student, chats on the telephone with Solomon, whom he has never met, but who has read an Internet chat between Howie and an older man. Ismail's body language - twisting and turning into uncomfortable positions, pacing nervously, twisting his hair, his face sporting that bored look so many teenagers get - is spot-on.

Diwata's first scene comes as she sits in front of her laptop, recording a video blog entry. She's obviously a quirky, star-struck, would-be actress who overestimates her talent; she still smarts over not having been chosen for the lead in a production of 'The Crucible.' She blogs a diatribe against her drama teacher.

Solomon is angry that his school newspaper won't let him write an article about abortion, because it's too controversial.

'Half of our class is having real-life, actual sex,' he rails, 'and they're talking to us about our 'bathing suit areas.' Why don't they talk about stuff we actually want to know about?'

The three are brought together in the speech and debate club, which Solomon and Howie join only because they're blackmailed into it by Diwata, who threatens to expose each boy's dark secret. Diwata uses the 'club' - these three are its only members - as an outlet for her longing for the spotlight.

But being involved in the speech and debate club also is a means of allowing each student to get what he or she wants.

For Solomon, who fancies himself an investigative reporter, this will grant him access to a paper that will print his story on the sex scandal involving Howie and a teacher. Howie expects to persuade the others to support his proposed gay/straight student alliance.

Diwata, for her part, gets the spotlight hitherto denied her, when she produces her own musical version of 'The Crucible' (an excerpt of which definitely is one of this play's high points).

The camaraderie all three find, during their offbeat interactions, changes their lives: They become more full.

Sadly, the question left unanswered concerns whether the trolling high school teacher ever gets exposed, or receives any sort of punishment. That would, of course, move this story out of the realm of comedy and more toward drama, but it's nonetheless a missing piece of the picture.

'Speech and Debate' is a fresh, edgy comedy, and it should appeal to audience members of all ages.

In Harmony

By her own account, Mindy Manville has taught music to 'thousands' of Davis school children.

Last year alone, combining her Davis Art Center classes, her Davis schools classes and her summer school program, she taught 1,200 children.

It's therefore fitting that she should be honored by the Davis School Arts Foundation, with this year's 'Harmony in Our Lives' award.

Manville is the 21st recipient of this award, joining familiar names such as Richard Brunelle, Rachel Kessler, Fredrick Lange, Bob Gonzales and Karen Gardias.

'It's really cool,' said Manville's daughter, Lindsay. 'I'm really proud of her.'

Lindsay is the whole reason Manville began working with children in the first place, back in 1997.

'There was a dearth of things for her to do,' Manville recalled. 'You could find 'kinder' music, but that ended when the children became 4 or so, and then there was nothing again until they could try out for Davis Musical Theatre Company, or something like that. That was the age group I was trying to fill, and that's what I still do.

'It bridges the gap between kindermusic and DMTC, although I start them at age 1.'

Lindsay was 4 when her mother set up the Davis Children's Choir.

'It just snowballed from there,' Manville said. 'People heard about me in the schools, and I started doing even more work.'

She started with perhaps 36 students, which grew to 50 and then 100.

Not content to work with only the youngest children, Manville began to expand her range. She now runs programs at the Davis Art Center for all ages, from toddlers up to 9-year-olds.

The Art Center classes grew serendipitously.

'Jackie Stevens, then director of the Art Center, happened to live at the end of my block. I said 'You know, I do this little choir at the city's alternative rec building, and it would be great if I could do it at the Art Center. I could get a piano for you!' '

Stevens enthusiastically agreed.

Manville presents 'Teenie Musicals' and 'Mini Musicals,' actual stage performances for children at the Art Center, as well as programs through the Davis Joint Unified School District.

'During the day I'm just running around from school to school, because I teach an entire music program for five grade levels at Marguerite Montgomery School. That includes rhythm, movement and music education, and then we put on a spring show.'

She also teaches one or two grade levels at four other schools.

Her programs can be presented in either English or Spanish.

'I sort of speak Spanish, and I can write in Spanish,' she said modestly, 'so I always write three or four songs every time we do our social studies show at César Chávez School.'

Wait ... writing her own music?

Indeed. When she first began to put on mini musicals, she did Disney shows such as 'The Lion King' or 'Mary Poppins': stories and music familiar to most children. But she quickly discovered that dealing with Disney's legal department was more of a hassle than it was worth.

'They said it was OK if I was doing a choir-type setting, but not in a musical theater-type setting. You don't want to get into legal turmoil with Disney.'

When Disney stopped returning her calls, Manville decided to just write her own music. (Of course!) She had studied piano from the age of 6, and went all the way up through the national audition process. This experience gave her a solid background in composing.

'I now compose almost everything I put on.'

She not only writes the music and the lyrics for her shows, but - mindful that most of her students are too young to read - she records cassette tapes to help them learn the music.

'Since repetition is the key to everything I do, I don't send my kids home without a tape of every song. They normally haven't heard them before, since I've written them!'

Every child receives a tape and a lyric script; parents are supposed to help if their children can't read yet.

'I have dads from my preschool and toddler choir classes who say 'I know every one of those silly little songs,' because it's the only thing their kids will listen to.'

Many of Manville's students stay with her for years. In fact, her current dance instructor - Caitlin Coppinger, now a UC Davis sophomore - was in Manville's very first music class at Patwin School.

Daughter Lindsay now is in the Davis High School Madrigals. When her mother recently visited the class, she discovered that half of this year's Madrigals once were her students.

'The Davis community is blessed to have Manville nurturing our young voices,' said Colleen Connolly, president of the board of directors for the Davis School Arts Foundation. 'I had the privilege of working with her on the Davis School Arts Foundation board of directors, and my son was lucky enough to sing in two of her choirs.

'I'm thrilled she's being recognized with this award. She's a treasure.'

This year's Harmony in Our Lives benefit concerts, at which Manville will be presented with her award, will take place at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Davis High School Brunelle Performance Hall, 315 W. 14th St.

The West Valley Barbershop Chorus will perform at both concerts. The 1:30 p.m. concert will feature the DHS Madrigals and Concert Choir, the Willett Elementary School Chorus, the Emerson Junior High School Beginning Chorus, and the Harper/Holmes Junior High School Chorus. The 4 p.m. concert will feature the DHS Jazz Choir and Advanced Treble Choir, the Birch Lane Elementary School Chorus, the St. James School Choir and the Emerson Junior High School Advanced Chorus.

Admission to each show is $10 general, $5 students; advanced tickets are available at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St., Davis. Tickets also will be available at the box office one hour before each performance.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Code of Whiskey King

When you visit a new community theater for the first time you never quite know what to expect, but you always hope to find something to excite you, something to write home about. The West Sacramento Community Theater was new to me, but according to its web site it was established in 2004 and has produced 9 other shows.

“The Code of Whiskey King” with book and lyrics by Leo McElroy and music by Ken Klingerman is only the group’s second musical production.

That it made it to the stage at all was a minor miracle.

Its Sacramento-area authors had waited eleven years since the initial concert performance of the show in 1998, suffering through a parade of setbacks, including cancellations of scheduled runs at three different theaters.

“Add in the time spent writing it,” said McElroy, who has had two other musicals produced, “and we’re looking at sixteen years of wondering if it ever would happen!”

The difficulties continued right up till the last minute, with one cast member suddenly quitting just ten days before opening, and one of the three vital nights of technical rehearsal cancelled because the auditorium had inadvertently been double-booked.

“Two nights before dress rehearsal, and the cast had never seen the stage or the set, and our crew had never worked with the sound or light systems,” McElroy said, wincing, “and at that point we were frankly terrified. I didn’’t want to even get out of bed, until my wife pointed out that the audience was coming to be told a story, and we knew we had one to tell.”

I caught the show in its second (of three) weekend. The setting was the the cavernous auditorium of Yolo High School, where the small audience barely made a dent in the available space.

As with many amateur theater productions, this is an uneven show, with some good performances, some not so good performances and a script that is sometimes well written and other times not. At its core, it’s an old-fashioned sounding musical, in the style of the 1930s, perhaps. You’re more likely to find the tunes in a show like “Anything Goes,” than in a more modern musical. And then suddenly you have an “anthem song” like “The Choice,” which could have been right out of Les Miserables.

It is also extremely unusual to have a show where one character is either the solo or the leading voice in twelve out of the show’s twenty-four songs. It would be unusual enough even if the singer was extraordinary, but Almis Udrys (Abel) is sometimes good, sometimes not so good. Sometimes he’s spot on, other times he can’t quite stay on pitch, so it’s odd that the show seems to be written for this one character to have so much to do.

The story takes place in the 1870s in the small California mining town of Whiskey King. The character Abel has just arrived ostensibly to set up the town’s first telegraph station. He befriends the Chinese laundryman George (Brandon Neal) and Charlie, a Native American who has been tossed out of his tribe (Fabian Jaime). Both Neal and Jaime give solid performances, with Jaime having the better of the voices, but Neal holding his own in the delightful novelty number, “Code of the West,” which is one of the show’s better songs.

Abel bonds with Nan (Erin Castleberry), who works in the local bordello. Castleberry is that “something to excite you” that I had hoped to find. She is simply wonderful, with a beautiful voice. Her duet with bordello owner Lovey (Savannah Knight) is a special moment, especially when Castleberry’s voice blends so beautifully with Knight’s deliciously rich tones.

Aly Sinitsin (Item) also adds much to the cast, though her role is much smaller.

Others in the cast include Victor Ramirez, who looks very noble in the show’s opening as the Indian Chief. David Valpreda is Jiggs, the bartender; Michael Hayner is Roger, a ladies’ man who spends a lot of time in the bar; Amanda Lee Schmidt and April Maylene are two of the other women in the bordello; Paul Johnson is Yoak, Cameron Johnson is Peter the piano player, and Bob Raymond is the sheriff, “Uncle Victor,” whose badge means absolutely nothing, since the town is really being run by the tough guy, Mike (Mark Fejta).

The sets (designed by Cindy Schmidt and Amanda Schmidt) reflect the shoestring budget that most community theatres run on, though the costumes by Cecile Freeman and Cindy Schmidt were very attractive.

While it had its enjoyable moments, the show suffered from an awkward plot, insufficient development of either the love between Nan and Abel, or their subsequent break-up two days later which apparently left both of them broken hearted and came about because of what appears to be a total personality change in Abel.

The thing that makes this all work is the obvious joy that everyone is having working on this show, whether it is on stage or back stage. And in the end, that’s what “amateur” (doing things for the love of it) theater is all about.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Noises Off

The audience at the opening night performance of the Sacramento Theatre Company production of Michael Frayn's 'Noises Off' could have been enjoying a 'Where's Waldo' book, as we all tried to spot the actual goofs among the scripted goofs.

'Noises Off' is perhaps the funniest show ever written. This very physical comedy traces the actions of a hapless British touring theater company in three acts: from final dress rehearsal for a play called 'Nothing On,' to a performance a month later, and another performance two months after that.

And a lot of sardines are involved.

Act 1 begins on the set of 'Nothing On,' hours before the opening performance, at a point when the actors still don't know their lines and cues are missed. It would appear that this show hasn't a hope of going anywhere near smoothly.

Act 2 reveals what takes place backstage, while a somewhat more stabilized performance is presented to an audience out front. There are romantic tensions, substance abuse, vindictive battles among the actors ... and a stage manager desperately trying to hold everything together, despite her own problems.

Act 3 returns to the 'foreground' set, at a point when all pretense of putting on a smooth performance has evaporated, and the task is merely to get through to the end.

Nothing goes right in this play - by design - and the hilarity builds until the audience laughs nonstop.

I've often said that 'Noises Off' probably is the only play that could suffer on-stage disasters with no consequences. This cast proved that beautifully on opening night: A plate of sardines wasn't where it should be; a box of spilled food sent an orange rolling across the stage; an actor tripped over the edge of the set's turntable, and pulled off a large piece of it; and a door fell off the hinges, necessitating spontaneous dialogue and stage business.

Those who knew the show laughed at these mistakes, but I'm sure first-timers assumed it was all part of the show. The talented cast handled all the disasters with aplomb, and incorporated them into the script: a true testament to their professionalism.

And a first-rate cast it is, starting with Jamie Jones as Dotty Otley, an aging star who has put her money into this production in order to perform. Dotty is appropriately named, as she can't remember anything - neither lines nor stage business - but she's just so happy to be on stage again, that she doesn't realize the problems she's causing for everyone else.

Dotty is only one bane of the existence of director Lloyd Dallas (Matt K. Miller), who uses sarcasm and cajolery while trying to pull performances from his cast, when all he really wants to do is leave this group and direct 'Richard III.' This role is well-suited to the talented Miller, who can do anything, from exploding at a cast member to being part of the physical comedy in Act 2.

Brett David Williams plays Garry Lejeune, an eager young actor whose role is the most physical. Williams must lose a few pounds during each performance. The inarticulate Garry - who has suggestions for everything, but never actually finishes a coherent sentence - is secretly in love with the older Dotty, which causes great problems as the run of the play continues.

Katherine C. Miller is the vacant Brooke Ashton, who appears to have come fresh from the casting couch to a role for which she is woefully unprepared. Miller, a brunette, is a break from the traditional blonde who plays this part, but she nonetheless captures this 'dumb blonde' beautifully.

Michael RJ Campbell is Frederick Fellowes, a method actor with an aversion to violence, whose squeamishness about blood is quite funny.

Michelle Hillen is Belinda Blair, perhaps the most competent of the troupe's actors. Alas, Belinda's role is primarily that of company peacemaker and caretaker for her friend, Selsdon Mowbray (Patrick Murphy), an actor well past his prime, whose problems with the bottle are apparently legendary.

The role of Tim Allgood - handyman, bookkeeper and understudy - is shared by John Ramos and Jake Murphy.

Ramos had the part on opening night, and he handled it adroitly.

The perpetually frazzled Poppy Norton-Taylor (Lynn Baker), who tries to keep things running smoothly, has her own secret that she desperately needs to tell someone.

Everything is overseen by (actual) director Michael Stevenson, who delivers a fast-paced and hilarious production that will delight even the most discerning theater-goers.

One final comment should be made about 7-year-old Jackson Margolis, who gave the welcoming speech to the audience prior to the performance, while also explaining that he had been in theater 'for one-third of his life.' His ease on stage was a great testament to the strength of STC's young people's program.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Legally Blonde: The Musical

If Gertrude Stein were alive today and had accompanied me to California Musical Theater's touring production of 'Legally Blonde,' she could have written her review quite succinctly: 'There's no there there.'

I genuinely like the 2001 film on which this musical has been based, and so was curious to see how the Reese Witherspoon vehicle would translate to the stage. Sadly, they got all the events of the movie, but none of its heart.

This play's fact sheet lists an entire paragraph of award nominations and minor awards won, and it was listed in the Top 10 for 'most requested Ticketmaster 'arts and theater events' for 2007.' But I suspect such interest came from people, like me, who liked the movie and were curious to see it on the stage.

This story concerns Elle Woods (Becky Gulsvig), a stereotypically vapid sorority girl whose signature color is pink. Her whole world revolves around her sorority sisters, clothes, hair, makeup, her Chihuahua Bruiser, and her boyfriend Warner (Jeff McLean), whom she expects to pop the question at any moment.

When Warner surprises her by confessing that it's time to move on to Harvard, get serious about becoming an attorney, and marry a woman who's also more serious, Elle sinks into a 10-day depression. This concludes when she decides that 'all' she needs to do is get into Harvard Law School and prove to Warner that she, too, has a brain.

And, as they say, hijinks and hilarity ensue. Sort of. I guess.

The show's music and lyrics are by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, and with very few exceptions everything sounds the same: not in an 'Andrew Lloyd Webber tuneful' sort of way, but more in a 'crank it up to 10 and wave your arms in the air' sort of way. The nearly six-minute opening number, 'Omigod You Guys' is a perfect example:

Omigod, this is happening;
Our own homecoming queen and king;
Finally she'll be trying on a huge engagement ring for size.
Omigod, you guys!

The two exceptions, however, are quite good. 'Blood in the Water' introduces Elle's Harvard teacher, Prof. Callahan (Ken Land), who dangles four internships in front of his hungry class. This is the first musical number that isn't sweetness and light, but instead a dark and sinister depiction of what it takes to be an attorney:

Blood in the water:
Dark and red and raw.
You're nothing until the thrill of the kill
Becomes your only law.

The second memorable number is 'Whipped into Shape,' which is set in a women's prison; it features some pretty fancy footwork with jump ropes in a dance number choreographed by director Jerry Mitchell, and featuring defendant Brooke Wyndham (Coleen Sexton).

The show also has a fabulous, stand-out chorus-line number, which I won't spoil by describing.

The cast also include D.B. Bonds as Emmett Forrest, a law student who takes Elle under his wing and helps her buckle down and actually study (and falls in love with her in the process).

Natalie Joy Johnson is a hairdresser, Paulette, whom Elle helps in many ways. Ven Daniel is outstanding as Kyle, a UPS guy who is the object of Paulette's affections.

A trial takes place as the story draws to a conclusion, during which some stereotypical gay sight gags continue far too long; I found them offensive, although the audience laughed uproariously.

On the whole, this isn't the best start for this season's Broadway Season. And there isn't nearly enough of Bruiser.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Late Night Catechism

It’s difficult to know quite how to review the improvisational comedy “Late Night Catechism: Till Death Do Us Part,” which has replaced “Forever Plaid” at California Musical Theater’s Cosmopolitan Cabaret at 1000 K Street in downtown Sacramento.

The one-woman show was written by Maripat Donovan, who will be playing the role of “Sister,” a nun teaching an adult catechism class, for the first two weeks of the 8-week run, before she is replaced by Nonie Newton-Breen, who has spent the last seven years touring the country in “Catechism” plays.

Donovan created the original "Late Night Catechism" with director Marc Silvia 17 years ago to perform in a little Chicago storefront theater. Then it was 50-minute one-act, which played at 11 p.m. Over the ensuing years, Donovan has continued to hone her material and the play is now a 2 hour 2-act play.

We were the perfect group to see this play. There were three of us. Two of us were Catholics, one (myself) had gone to 12 years of Catholic school. The third in our party was neither a Catholic, nor had much experience of Catholicism.

From the moment I entered the cabaret, I felt I was back in grammar school again, with the Palmer method alphabet posted on top of the blackboard, the pictures of presidents and holy figures on the walls, the “JMJ” (for “Jesus, Mary, Joseph”) written across the top of the blackboard itself, the statue of Mary on a little table and crucifix hanging on the wall, and all the trappings of a Catholic school classroom.

“Sister” was a familiar figure too, a generously proportioned woman with a no-nonsense swagger, her rosary swaying at her side as she walked, and the stern look in her eye as she glared over her glasses at the audience and commanded us all to be quiet. I wanted to say “Yes, Sister.” I felt as if I was back in fourth grade and Sister Mary Johnetta had just caught me whispering to another classmate.

The show itself is a mixture of prepared material and ad-lib material, based on responses she gets from the audience (this is a show which is heavy on audience participation). Of necessity, the feel of the show will change every night, depending on the response (or lack of same) that Sister receives. The opening night audience was receptive.

Asked questions directly from the old Baltimore Catechism that every Catholic school child had to memorize throughout his or her years in Catholic school, it was surprising the number of people in the audience who could pop up and recite the correct answer, word for word.

While the prepared material was funny, some of it, the ad lib material was much funnier, but could be deadly dull with an unresponsive audience.

But at intermission, our group compared notes. While we catholics had found the thing funny, the non-Catholic said that, having no experience with Catholic teaching, the humor was just not hitting him. He later spoke with a Jewish man who said the same thing.

There are lots of laughs to be had which don’t require a Catholic education, but some that fall really flat. The “class” is supposed to cover the two sacraments of Marriage and “Blessing of the Sick” (called, in my day, “Extreme Unction”). While the marriage segment was very funny, there were few laughs to be found in the segment on blessing of the sick, no audience participation and I felt the whole thing fell flat.

That part of the “class” started Act 2, which then, for some unexplainable reason, morphed into “The Compatibility Game” where two couples were brought on stage, to the theme music for “The Dating Game” and asked an overly long set of questions to determine their compatibility.

While the couples (especially the older couple, Walter and his wife Theresa) were great, the questions went on so long that even “Sister” seemed to get bored with them. My feeling was that the whole show would have been much funnier if it had remained a 50 minute show and cut out the whole game show idea entirely.

Trying to sum up my feelings about the show are difficult because I “got” all the Catholic humor and loved it, but I can see that if you have never heard of the Baltimore Catechism the humor would just not be there.

I also feel that this would be much better as a one-act show, and if the game show were to be kept in, tighten it up significantly.

Bottom line is that I enjoyed it more than I expected to, but I don’t think this is a show that is going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

(And speaking of tea, be prepared for astronomical prices for cabaret refreshment. My small bottle of water cost $4! Others at our table bought something called “waffle fries” for around $5, which was about 2 cups [if that] of fancy looking potato chips!)