Friday, January 29, 2010

THIRD eYE Festival

If a central theme runs through this year's THIRDeYE Theater Festival, taking place through this weekend at UC Davis' Wyatt Pavilion, it might be 'I see dead people.'

Isaac - all three of him - sees his dead mother. Jaime sees his dead grandfather. Paul sees Hemingway and Hitler in a bathing suit.

This annual festival showcases the work of three undergraduate playwrights and three undergraduate directors, and allows the students to apply to the stage what they have learned in class. This year's festival is under the artistic curatorship of Peter Lichtenfels, and the plays themselves were developed in Philip Kan Gotanda's playwriting class in the fall quarter of 2008.

'The Blue Jay's Song,' written by Daniel Jordan and directed by William MacInnis, came out of the former's own romantic crisis; the play illuminates the rebirth that comes with the death of loved ones and the loss of relationships.

The character of Isaac is shown as a split personality, with Mark Curtis Ferrando as the central figure; Micah Shyuh and Juan Gallardo represent different portions of his emotions. Gallardo (Isaac 2) is the more angry, while Shyuh (Isaac 1) is the more peaceful and loving of the emotions.

Isaac lost his mother early, and his search to understand that loss has affected his life, especially his current relationship with Elizabeth (Monica Ammerman). The two fight and make up in confusing ways, the underlying cause not always apparent to the audience.

The circus atmosphere of Isaac's emotional life is represented by a ringmaster ('circus conductor') played by Jordan himself, accompanied by a juggler (Alexander Weston) and contortionist (Megan Vaughan). They're accompanied by dancers Sasha Hao, Jenny Giles and Elizabeth Tremain.

Malia Abayon plays the ghost of Isaac's mother; she gives an exceptional performance that adds depth to the production.

A lighting designer once told me that the key to good lighting design is that it be so seamlessly integrated into the action that it remains unnoticed. If that is the case, designer Robert Quiggle has some 'splaining to do, because his lighting choices are often odd; they left me wondering why he did such-and-such, rather than concentrating on the flow of the play itself.

Kristopher Ide's 'Fools Afloat' is directed by Olufunmilayo Alabi. This play also derived from the playwright's personal experience: in this case, the death of his father.

Brendan Ward gives an impassioned performance as a man struggling to come to grips with his father's death. This struggle takes him on an imagined boat ride with Ernest Hemingway (Christopher Mantione) and a unique vision of Adolf Hitler (Ryan Geraghty), in an old-fashioned bathing suit. (Kudos to costume designer Diego Suazo-Vacarezza.)

The cast also includes Gillian Heitmen, as Paul's girlfriend Francesca, and Thomas Barrack, as Francesca's former boyfriend John.

As Paul takes his imagined trip with Hemingway and Hitler, he pulls the unraveled bits of his life back together again; he's able to return with a greater understanding of himself and an ability to move forward in his relationship with Francesca.

Fourth-year psychology and dramatic art double-major Jazz Trice wrote and gives a very strong performance in 'Empty All the Boxes,' directed by Natasha Cooke.

Trice's character, Jaime, has been having visions of his grandfather as a young man (Gordon Meacham), and can't quite understand what this means. Jaime's attempt to share his experience with his sister, Nicki (the effervescent Sophiana Carrell), underlines the difficulties in their sibling relationship.

When their parents (Stephanie Moore and Kristopher Ide) return home, it becomes obvious that this family has a lot of relationship problems. Communication doesn't happen in this house. Can Grandpa's ghostly visits help break down walls when a potential health crisis erupts?

'This play drives and asks questions that are uncomfortable,' Cooke explains. 'It reveals reality and truth, and sheds humanity amongst those searching.'

Thursday, January 14, 2010


The tragedy of the Greek god Orpheus has been told for as long as storytelling existed. The modern age has offered plays, operas and at least 30 films about Orpheus in many countries, from the United States and Japan to Czechoslovakia and Brazil.

It's the familiar story of love lost, found and lost again.

Orpheus' lover/wife Eurydice dies/is killed and goes the Underworld, where she's lost to Orpheus. He somehow finds a way to descend, to entreat the gods with his music and to achieve the release of Eurydice. But the permission includes a disclaimer and, of course, the rules are broken ... and Eurydice is lost forever.

Until playwright Sarah Ruhl came along, though, the story (probably) hadn't been told from Eurydice's point of view. Thanks to Acme Theater Company and director Emily Henderson, that omission has been corrected.

Ruhl's father's death in 1994 eventually inspired her one-act play, which was written in 2000.

By focusing on Eurydice's experience of her own death, and her journey into the underworld, we learn that she has been reunited with her father in Hades.

This father's love for his daughter is so strong that although the dead quickly forget their worldly attachments, he remembers his daughter; he seeks to get messages to her, during her lifetime. And, after her death, he reminds her of their relationship.

This Acme production has a strong cast. Hope Raymond and Torin Lusebrink, as Eurydice and Orpheus, have a warm and loving relationship. Their pre-marriage romps are full of joy, and are a delight to watch. Lusebrink is less effective later, in portraying Orpheus' anguish at the loss of his wife; he seems to focus more on his music than the emptiness with which he has been left.

Zach Salk's performance as Eurydice's father is more controlled than emotional, which may be fitting, given that he's dead. Sam Wheeler pulls out all the stops in his frenzied role as the Lord of the Underworld, played more as a petulant child with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. (Local bicycle maker Peter Wagner is given program thanks for the loan of his “awesome” bike!)

Rounding out the cast is a Greek chorus of “stones”: Hannah May as Big Stone; Gigi Gilbert-Igelsrud as Little Stone; and Amber Bianchi as Loud Stone.

Because of the nature of their characters, Bianchi and Wheeler are the easiest to understand. This intimate play, with its little cast, would work better in a smaller venue than Davis High School's Brunelle Performance Hall, where the audience area is so vast that many lines are lost.

The performances themselves are excellent, but I saw at least one audience member move closer to the stage after about 10 minutes.

Hannah May's set design is stark and rather bare, but the gray, rock-like curtains nicely delineate different parts of the set. And the method of arriving in the Underworld certainly is unique.

Delany Pelz's lighting design, integral to setting the various moods of the piece, works nicely.

In “Eurydice,” playwright Ruhl is working out her own conflicted emotions about death and the afterlife, based on her Catholic upbringing. That the piece seems confusing at times may indicate that she hasn't yet solidified all her feelings on the subject.

The Producers

If you want something to tickle your funny bone, do catch director Steve Isaacson's rollicking production of 'The Producers,' a first for the Davis Musical Theatre Company.

If you've just returned from a deserted island and have no idea that this delicious show was written by Mel Brooks, it wouldn't take more than a scene or two to figure it out. This is the show that Brooks has wanted to write his entire life: the musical that we've briefly glimpsed in several of his movies ... especially, of course, the 1968 comedy from which the plot of this show was taken.

'The Producers' is a fast-paced laugh from start to finish, with enough material to offend just about everyone: Jews, Nazis, old ladies, dumb blondes, corporate drones and just about anyone in between. And yet it's all done with such a sense of fun that you're amazed at the things that make you laugh.

It's burlesque all grown up.

For those few who may not have seen Brooks' original film, the story centers around Max Bialystock, a formerly successful producer who now can't get a hit to save his life, and who has become famous for his flops. DMTC's Martin Lehman doesn't quite have the bombast of Zero Mostel (but then who does?), but he's very funny in a role that seems perfect for him.

Into Max's office walks mild-mannered accountant Leo Bloom (Andy Hyun), who carries a strip of his baby blanket around in his pocket, to soothe himself in times of stress. Bloom discovers that it's possible for a producer to make more money with a flop show than with a hit ... if they plan it properly.

Hyun makes a perfect Bloom, with the wide-eyed innocence of a man who can be perfectly molded by the likes of Max.

And, thus, the team of Bialystock and Bloom is born.

They need the worst play in the world, the worst director in the world, and a bunch of gullible, horny old ladies as backers. When the show fails, as it is destined to do, Bialystock and Bloom will take off with their millions, to sun themselves on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro.

Let the fun begin.

And fun it is. It's difficult to pick any one scene as the best, but ranking right up at the top would be the chorus of horny little old ladies whom Bialystock will woo for their money, all tap-dancing with their walkers. It's one of the most inventive bits of choreography I've ever seen, and DMTC choreographer Ron Cisneros adapts it beautifully from the original Broadway production.

While 'The Producers' centers on Bialystock and Bloom, they're surrounded by a host of perfectly cast supporting players. First up is Kyle Hadley, as the pigeon-raising Nazi, Franz Liebkind, whose script - 'Springtime for Hitler' - is chosen for performance.

Then there's the fabulous director, Roger DeBris, played in beautifully campy style by Richard Spierto, along with his partner Carmen Ghia (Joseph Boyette), who gives new meaning to the term 'flamboyant.' Newcomer Boyette is a real find for DMTC, and easily steals his scenes.

Amy Jacques-Jones is Ulla, the Swedish bombshell who can run an office, paint a room during intermission, and star in a musical all without mussing a blond curl. Jacques-Jones, another newcomer to DMTC, is a real triple-threat; she not only acts, but dances and sings beautifully as well.

Everyone behind the scenes has pulled out all the stops for this production. Jean Henderson's costumes are outstanding, especially for the Busby Berkeley number. Dannette Vassar has concocted some pretty dramatic lighting, particularly for Roger DeBris and Carmen Ghia. Isaacson's set design, while merely utilitarian, serves the production quite well.

The only place where the show falters concerns the orchestra, with some downright painful passages by a few instruments, loud buzzing and then a booming electronic piano that nearly drowned out the singers in the finale.

Fortunately, the performers worked around the problems in the pit, and the audience still was treated to one of the most enjoyable shows ever to come out of DMTC.

Monday, January 04, 2010


Very good movie musicals have been adapted for the stage: 'Mary Poppins,' 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'The Lion King' come to mind.

And some equally fine stage musicals - such as 'My Fair Lady,' 'The Music Man' and 'Oklahoma!' - have been brought to the big screen.

But why would anybody want to take the 1980 Olivia Newton-John/Gene Kelly movie, 'Xanadu' - perhaps the very worst movie musical ever made (or if not the worst, definitely one of the worst) - and put it on the stage? One wonders what Douglas Carter Beane, Jeff Lynne and John Farrar ate the night before this crazy idea came into their heads, I assume in some strange dream.

What were producers Robert Ahrens, Dan Vickery, Mickey Liddel and Tara Smith drinking, when they agreed to put up the money to produce the show?

And what was California Musical Theatre thinking, when it booked the show into this year's season?

Somebody must be having the last laugh, though, because what at first glance would have seemed to be a train wreck waiting to happen managed to walk away with the 2008 Tony Awards for best musical, best book of a musical, best actress in a musical and best choreography ... not to mention the 2008 Drama Desk Award for outstanding musical, book of a musical, actor in a musical, featured actress in a musical, choreography and director of a musical.

Go figure.

The thin plot revolves around Sonny (Max Von Essen), a struggling artist, and Kira (Elizabeth Stanley), the muse who steps out of one of his graffiti drawings, determined to help him achieve the greatest artistic creation of all time: the world's first roller disco. (Hey, it is 1980.)

The secret of the stage show's success seems to be that it doesn't make any apologies for the abominable movie on which it's based. This production revels in it, and spoofs it constantly. (At the show's conclusion, for example, Kira is sent to live on Earth forever ... speaking with an Australian accent!)

Earlier on, Kira has stepped out of a brick wall along with several other muses. Two of them, Melpomene and Calliope, become jealous of Kira's deepening feelings for Sonny, and they stir up all sorts of trouble.

Melpomene was played on opening night by Amy Goldberger, a last-minute substitute for the ailing Natasha Yvette Williams. I don't know what Willliams' performance would have been like, but Goldberger was outstanding, giving one of the evening's most memorable performances.

Annie Golden is a very cute, if conniving, Calliope.

Larry Marshall plays Danny Maguire (later Zeus), owner of the theater Sonny wants to renovate; oddly, Danny seems to have his own memories of Kira.

This production, like so many others at Sacramento's Civic Center Theater, is plagued by sound problems. The decision to crank the sound up so loud distorts not only the songs - I don't think I understood a single lyric other than 'Xanadu' and 'Magic' the entire evening - but also the dialogue.

Fortunately, if you pick up a sentence here and there, the plot isn't that difficult to follow.

In addition to the overly loud amplification, the sound cut in and out periodically, sometimes leaving the actors reciting lines that couldn't be heard beyond the first few rows.

'Xanadu' seems to be a show that you'll either love or hate: no middle road. Fortunately, the Sacramento audience seemed to have a great time.

If you loved disco - and enjoy clapping along with bouncy tunes you can't understand - you'll probably love 'Xanadu.' It's a feel-good show, long on escapist entertainment and short on plot.

And even if you hate it, it runs a brief 90 minutes in a single act, so you'll be home early.