Sunday, May 30, 2010

As You Like It

Competing with games at the Little League fields across the street, happy noise from the Bouncy House at the picnic area in Community Park, passing ambulances and other noise making vehicles, and the occasional cyclist tearing along the path in front of the Art Center Stage, Acme Theater Company celebrated its 30th season with its annual thank you to Davis, a free production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” under the direction of Artistic Director Emily Henderson.

The group decided to celebrate its 30th anniversary by engaging the community in recycling, and turning the recycled materials into art. Creating sets and costumes almost entirely from recycled materials was a real challenge, but the young actors and technicians proved up to the task.

Hannah May is credited with scenic design and the unique choices worked beautifully. The proscenium arch of the stage was decorated with cardboard boxes while large rotating panels on the stage were covered with newspaper–one side for the next, with graffiti painted on it in angry red, the other side all in pages from the comic section. (At the time the design was made, who knew we’d be having rain storms in May?)

Hope Raymond is credited with costume design, and the costumes were ingenious. The play takes place in “Elizabethan era Davis.” The ruffled collar around one character, for example, was a Slinky; on another character it was the silver exhaust hose from a clothes dryer. Absolutely inspired. Two women wore dresses accented with men’s ties, one in an intricate woven pattern, the other as almost an overskirt. The pattern on one of the ties indicated there may have been some ignoring of “Star Trek’s” prime directive back in Elizabethan time...but it was my favorite part of the costume.

The audience was given a program designed to look like the town newspaper (“The Herald”). The program was designed by house manager Sarah Douglas and the front page headline story gives the background of the play under a headline which reads “Duke Banished! Duchess says ‘Go Hug a Tree.’” The tongue in cheek articles were both entertaining and informative.

Music and dance are traditionally a large part of Acme’s spring show and this one is no exception. The production opens with a dance number, choreographed by Hope Raymond, which “recycles” its way through famous love songs of the ages, beginning in the 20th century, rewinding to the Renaissance, and then working its way back again. Midway through the show Raymond, Matt Gibson, and Jeremy Reinhard each have solo ballads to sing and display wonderfully warm and strong voices. A duet between Gibson and Reinhard has a lively kazoo accompaniment!

Reinhard is Orlando in this production, the youngest son of the recently deceased Sir Roland DeBoys, head over heels in love with Rosalind (Delany Pelz), daughter of Duke Senior (Andrew Lampinen), whose throne has been usurped by his sister, the evil Duchess Fredericka (Kristine Hager). Senior is living in exile in the forest.

Rosalind is banished from Fredericka's court and travels to the forest in the company of her cousin Celia (Gigi Gilbert-Iglesrud). Rosalind assumes a countryman's dress and takes the name Ganymede; Celia passes as Aliena, Ganymede's sister and they meet with Orlando who has joined the banished duke and is papering the forest with love letters to Rosalind. Ganymede becomes his firend and encourages Orlando to pretend to make love to her as though she were his Rosalind.

Pelz gives another delightful performance as the spunky heroine who somehow manages to completely disguise her appearance simply by donning a pair of men’s pants. Reinhard is wonderful as the lovestruck lad mooning for his lost love and so blinded by his pain that he doesn’t realize she’s right there in front of him.

Gilbert-Iglesrud’s Celia is a wonderful sidekick to Rosalind. The two of them giggled together naturally as would any young girls chatting about their boyfriends.

Matt Gimpelevich is Touchstone, the court jester who accompanies the girls into the woods. He grows into his role as the play progresses and is a delightful comic talent. Audrey, the country wench who wins his heart (Leah Julian) is a good match for him.

“As You Like It” is a play about love: physical and intellectual love, sentimental and cynical love, love at first sight, love between friends, love between relatives, imagined love, and deep, lasting love. It is the roles we are often forced to play, either by circumstance or by societal pressure.

Take the kids, pack a picnic, and enjoy a fun afternoon in the park with Acme Theater Company.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Chorus Line

The original production of “A Chorus Line” opened at the Public Theater’s Newman Theater on May 21, 1975, directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett with music by Marvin Hamlish, book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.

The show transferred to Broadway’s Shubert Theater later that year. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, nine Tony awards, including best musical, score and book, and the New York Drama critics Circle Award. It ran for nearly 15 years, closing on April 28, 1990 after 6,137 performances and became the longest running American musical in Broadway history (a title eventually claimed by “Cats,” “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera”).

There have been productions mounted in Puerto Rico, England, France, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Austria, Singapore, Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, South Africa, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

When the show was made into a movie in 1985 the cast included Davis’ own Tony Fields and Jan Gan Boyd in minor roles.

In its day it was cutting edge. We hadn’t yet seen “So You Think You Can Dance” or experienced the angst of young performers working their tails off and giving their all trying to achieve stardom on “American Idol.” Confessions of what it’s like to grow up gay, enduring the taunts of fellow students were new and perhaps shocking revelations to some. “A Chorus Line” richly deserved all of the accolades that it received.

In 2006, the musical was revived by Baayork Lee (who originated the role of Connie Wong) and Michael Bennett’s co-choreographer, Bob Avian and is presented as a 2 hr 10 minute one-act show.

Patrons are warned to be in their seats by 8 p.m. sharp because no one will be admitted during the first 5-10 minutes of the show. This is where we get our first glimpse of the large group of dancers who will eventually be whittled down to only eight through an intensive audition process that will ultimately include not only dance ability, but very personal in-depth interviews by the director Zach (Derek Hanson).

The initial number has a relentlessness to it as the dancers try to learn a complicated dance step and the first cut, of roughly half the group is made. It’s a scene designed to make non-performers wonder why people put themselves through such pain and suffering, but the end of the number, with all the semi-finalists lined up behind their 8x10 glossy headshots is a stunning tableau.

After Zach informs the dancers that he wants to know more about them, they begin with great reluctance to talk, revealing portions of their life stories. In order to get this job, they must put themselves on the line.

Mike (Andy Mills) recalls attending ballet classes with his sister as a pre-schooler and discovering a love of the dance.

In “Sing” Kristine (Hilary Michael Thompson) confesses to being tone-deaf.

“Nothing” tells of Diana’s (Kristin Tucker in this performance) frustration with her first acting class, while Val (Kristen Martin) explains how she came to reshape herself into a more appealing commodity, through the use of plastic surgery in “Dance 10, Looks 3.”

Nicky Venditti as Paul gives an emotional description of the pain of growing up gay and the rejection of his parents. His monologue earned him special audience applause.

Sacramento home town girl, Rebecca Riker, has the plum role of Cassie, former lover of Zach, whose aspirations are merely to be part of a chorus and whose relationship fell apart over her lack of desire to be a star. (“Well, it would be nice to be a star...but I’m not; I’m a dancer.”)

Zach’s question to the group “What would you do if you couldn’t dance?” gives the lead-in to one of the show’s most beautiful numbers, “What I Did for Love” sung by Diana (Selina Verastigui), and then the entire company.

The show ends with the stunning “One,” with all the chorus members resplendant in their gold costumes, moving together as one body.

All the familiar elements are there in this production yet somehow, except for a few outstanding moments, it seems a bit dated and maybe a bit tired. It was kind of “Dance 10, Relevance 3.”

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Show Always Goes On (feature article)

In the early 1980s, the local Sunshine Children's Theater was presenting an original musical called 'Go-Go the Blue Gorilla.'

My 12-year-old son Paul had the role of Rapper, the Parrot, the interlocutor of the piece. Rapper kept the story's plot rolling along. At one point, he was supposed to deliver his lines from the branch of a 'tree.' Budgets being what they were for children's theater, the company had no tree, so Paul was placed in one of the doors that opens out over the stage of the Veterans' Memorial Theater, some 10 to 15 feet above the stage.

Paul came down with the stomach flu the day of the performance, and had no understudy. Without him, the show would have been canceled. Paul thought he could soldier on, despite his illness. People stood in the wings, in case he had to make a quick exit; all the young actors knew they might have to cover for him.

We - his parents - worried most about that perch so high above the stage, when he already was feeling queasy.

One of the other theater fathers, who happened to be a doctor, climbed up the ladder behind Paul, to watch closely and grab him if he looked unsteady.

Paul got through the show, except for having to rush off stage right before the final scene.

His sister delivered his final line for him.

This was our first experience with the grand old theater tradition that 'the show must go on,' a phrase coined by Noel Coward in 1950, while writing a song by the same title.

Paul would have to go on again, several years later, while lead singer for Lawsuit, a 10-piece band that also included his brother Ned, sister Jeri and sister-in-law Marta. To this day, I don't know how they got through the first performance, at Sudwerk, after the death of our son David, a couple of weeks earlier.

The song 'Funny,' which contained the lyric 'there's a broken soldier who's going home,' included an instrumental break. During that vocal pause, Paul leaped off the stage and rushed over to sob on my shoulder. He then climbed back up on stage and finished the song.

Theater people - all performers - cope in the most horrendous of situations, because the show must go on. An audience has paid good money to be entertained, and the patrons don't care what's going on in your personal life.

William S. Gilbert, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, addressed that very issue in the operetta, 'Yeomen of the Guard':

Though your wife ran away with a soldier that day,
Took with her your trifle of money;
Bless your heart, they don't mind ... they're exceedingly kind...
They don't blame you ... as long as you're funny!

In the fall of 1984, the late Amy Patten was playing an important role in the Davis Comic Opera Company's production of 'Man with a Load of Mischief.' Her husband, Gordon, who was suffering from Parkinson's disease, had been in steady decline for some time.

At the champagne gala performance, as Amy circulated among the crowd, serving appetizers from a tray, people asked how Gordon was doing.

'About the same,' she replied.

Only later did everyone learn that Gordon had died that weekend. Jim Hutchinson, with whom she shared most of her scenes, was the only one she told prior to that performance; she trusted him to help her, if she suddenly got lost in the script.

'I didn't want to bring the show down,' she later explained. 'I didn't want the show to suffer because of me.'

Director Ray Tatar recalls an actress who was doing a production of 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare' at Sacramento's California Stage. Just before opening night, her 26-year-old brother died. The actress decided to do the performance anyway. She had the play's final lines: the 'all the world's a stage' piece that enumerates the seven stages of man.

'When she got to that speech, something came over her, and she just stared off into space,' Tatar said. 'The audience waited for a couple of minutes ... that's a long time, in a show that moves at a pretty steadfast clip. The theater was quiet. The audience was reading the reality of her expression.

'She finally just fired her way through it, to the end. The audience roared approval, as the other actors carried her off.'

She finished the run of the play without further problem.

Actor Stephen Peithman's sister, Ann, died the week before the opening of 'Man of La Mancha,' produced at UC Davis in the mid-1970s. Peithman played the villain, Dr. Carrasco ('The Knight of the Mirrors'), and none of the parts had understudies.

'When my mother called to tell me that my sister had died, after a sudden and virulent recurrence of cancer,' Peithman recalled, 'she told me not to worry about leaving the show. In fact, the first words she said, after 'Your sister died this afternoon,' were 'And you know she would have wanted you to stay in the show.'

'Actor David de Berry, playing Cervantes, gave me a hug before the show on opening night. I remember thinking, as the opening music began, 'This is so unreal.'

'The show went beautifully.

'And to this day, I can't listen to the overture from 'Man of La Mancha' without thinking first of Ann.'

Sometimes incidents happen on stage, forcing actors to cope then and there. Actress Deborah Hammond knows this very well.

As Patty in a production of 'You're a Good Man Charlie Brown,' Hammond and another actor were fighting over a pencil in a scene. The oversized pencil was made from a large dowel. As the scene was blocked, Hammond was to snatch the pencil from the other actor's hand. But on stage, the other actor held it too tight; when he released it, the pencil gashed Hammond in the eyebrow.

She finished the show before heading to the hospital.

While playing Muzzy Van Hossmere in a Runaway Stage production of 'Thoroughly Modern Millie,' Hammond left the stage for a quick costume change. She fell, head first, down a small flight of stairs to the dressing room. Other actors tried to sit her down and examine her, but - feeling the responsibility - she made her change and returned to the stage.

The other actress, upon entering the scene, was thrown a bit by the blood trickling down the side of Hammond's face.

Even so, she completed the performance and the run of the show.

In a third situation, while playing Madame Arcati in Noel Coward's 'Blithe Spirit,' Hammond flung herself backwards, as directed, and experienced stabbing pain in her abdomen. She completed the final act and then went straight from the theater into emergency surgery, to have her gallbladder removed.

That time, Hammond wasn't able to finish the run.

Patrick Van was set to appear in the Davis Musical Theatre Company's recent production of 'Kiss Me Kate.' The week before the show opened, he was hospitalized with suspected H1N1 (which turned out to be the regular flu). Van was released from the hospital late in the afternoon of opening night. He went home to shower, then reported to the theater.

'I asked the director if any of my blocking had changed,' Van said, 'and asked my fellow cast members to nudge me if I looked confused. I knew that I just needed to pull things together for three hours, and then I could sleep the next day.'

Jennifer Teal remembers tearing her anterior cruciate ligament during ski camp a week before the Acme Theatre Company production of 'Time and the Conways.'

'As long as I didn't straighten my leg, I still could walk on it,' she said.

Van, also in that show, remembers that 'she'd walk around the stage and stand behind a couch, so she could support herself. Her knee would pop out every once in awhile.'

'We postponed surgery until the week after the show,' Teal said. 'It was a valuable experience, in terms of keeping commitments.'

Local singer/actress Lenore Heinson - back in the days when she was Lenore Turner - didn't let a little thing like pregnancy keep her from performing the title role in 'Countess Maritza,' with San Francisco's Lamplighters. She was in her first trimester of pregnancy during rehearsals, and was sleepy most of the time.

Someone drove her from Davis to San Francisco each evening so she could sleep in the car, get out, sparkle during rehearsal and then sleep all the way back to Davis again.

By the time the show opened, the pregnancy had begun to show; the costumers had to find ways to expand her costume, to keep up with her expanding girth. Heinson was double-cast in the role, and eventually had to leave the final two weekends to the other Maritza, when it became impossible to hide the pregnancy any longer.

Sometimes an actor simply can't perform, and others are grabbed at the last minute to fill in ... with little or no rehearsal.

Jason Hammond knows this one from personal experience:

'One year, at Christmas time, I got a call to fill in for an actor who had been cast in a movie and had to go into production immediately. The director asked me to learn the role of Tom Jenkins in 'Scrooge the Musical,' to be performed the next evening ... so I began memorizing.

'Several hours later, the director called again and informed me that he had been mistaken: It wasn't the actor playing Tom Jenkins who was leaving the cast, but his twin brother who played the role of Harry, Scrooge's nephew.

'Needless to say, I got no sleep that night!'

In 1993, Adam Wright, playing Orlando in an Acme Theatre Company production of 'As You Like It' came down with pneumonia during tech week. Stage manager Andrew Hendrix stepped in and played the role for three of the four performances.

Andrew was off book by the second night.

In 1997, Qasim Shah, cast in Acme's 'Emma's Child,' took his own life only weeks before the show opened. Evan Drane stepped in and did a remarkable job ... as did the entire cast, considering the circumstances.

'It was one of the most difficult moments of my life,' remembers director Dave Burmester.

During the Davis Comic Opera Company's first production of 'A Little Night Music,' Myrna Woodhead missed the second act because she went to the emergency room with a case of food poisoning. Myrna was part of a quintet.

'Sandra Silva sang Myrna's lyrics,' Peithman recalls, 'and everyone else just did what was needed to make the new configuration workable.'

The story's the same, time and time again: Theater people pull together at moments of crisis, and accomplish amazing things.

California Stage was doing an out-of-town production of 'Real Women Have Curves.' The set consisted of a number of flats; when the tech crew started to put everything together, they discovered that a crucial piece - one that held everything together - had been left behind in Sacramento.

One technician told another to hold the set upright, while he went to find something to make it all work. He wound up driving all the way back to Sacramento - an hour's trip - to retrieve the missing piece, leaving the other technician to hold the set upright for 40 minutes ... while the first act went on!

At intermission, something was found backstage to support the set for the remainder of the performance.

During the run of the Davis Comic Opera Company's 10th anniversary show, the tech crew arrived at the Veterans' Memorial Theater at 2:30 p.m. in order to get ready for the 4 p.m. matinee ... only to find an inch of water on the stage, and two inches in the orchestra pit.

The drain outside the theater had backed up, causing the water to come in under the door, across the stage and into the pit.

'The pit water wasn't only messy; it was dangerous, because of the electrical necessities,' recalls Nancianne Pfister. 'Our gallant technical crew spent the nearly two hours quite literally bailing us out.

'The show opened only 12 minutes late.'

In case you're wondering, directors aren't immune to such things.

'I had emergency heart surgery on the eve of tech week of 'The Water Children,' ' Burmester said. 'My son Tom and Emily Henderson shepherded the show through dress rehearsals. I remember telling the doctor that I couldn't have surgery. 'I have a show opening in nine days,' I told him.

'His response: 'That's okay. You'll be able to see the show.'

'And I did. Before that, though, after the opening night performance, the entire cast came over to our house to give us a blow-by-blow of a great first night. I had just gotten out of the hospital, and it was one of the best nights of my whole life.'

'When I was producing and directing 'Nutcracker' somewhere about 1981 or '82,' Bob Bowen remembers, 'I got the flu. I was really ill and also lost my voice. Instead of staying home and resting, I strapped on a portable P.A. speaker and dragged myself down to the theater, to make sure the show went on.'

Theater people may be strange creatures, but they're very aware of their commitment to the audience: to give patrons the best possible performance, no matter what.

'Even if you're injured, once you're in that zone of being in a show - when the lights come up - you get such an adrenaline rush,' Van said. 'Your body forgets that your head hurts, or that you have a sore throat.'

The show must go on, because no other options exist. Theater folks are masters of improvisation and last-minuteness: They dream the impossible dream. All the time.

And so the show goes on.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Matter of Taste (feature article)

When Julia Child was inviting people to come into her kitchen, via television camera, nobody ever imagined that an industry ultimately would be created by people like Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, Ina Garten, Bobby Flay and the queen of butter, Paula Deen.

Nor did anyone who was part of the early days of The Food Network imagine that its nighttime offerings eventually would become contests: baking things, constructing things, decorating things, mystery ingredients and elimination challenges such as could be found on 'Survivor.'

The next step was inevitable: Our 'hunger' for food preparation - as both entertainment and sporting event - would break down the imaginary theatrical fourth wall, at which point the audience would become a part of the action.

It's happening this week at the UC Davis Wyatt Pavilion, when the university's theater and dance department presents 'A Matter of Taste.' The production is directed by Granada artist-in-residence Anna Fenemore, artistic director of the Manchester, UK-based Pigeon Theater, an experimental physical performance company.

Curtain times are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets - $18/$16 general, $13/$11 students and children - are available at the Mondavi Ticket Office (530-754-2787).

Working with food and cooking is nothing new for Fenemore. Her first Pigeon Theater project, 'The Housekeeper,' involved performers cooking for the audience.

'I lived with one of the performers at that point, who was from Italy and who was an incredible cook,' she said. 'We started making the show in our then-kitchen, and I thought 'Why don't we extend it, and do it in a slightly bigger kitchen. We'll feed them this wonderful Italian food that you can cook.' '

The idea blossomed.

'This act of 'doing something for' and 'giving something to' the audience initially was merely a strategy for attempting a certain kind of intimacy between performer and spectator,' Fenemore said. 'Sharing food with another human being is an extraordinarily intimate act.'

Fenemore quickly realized that the food was doing far more than just connecting all the different people in the room at that time; it also was connecting those people with other, absent, people: mothers, grandmothers, fathers, daughters, lovers and friends. She saw the act of sharing food not just as an act of intimacy, but also as a ritual charged at one time or another with obsession, seduction, memory, shame, joy and - perhaps most importantly - pleasure.

For the 16 member cast of 'A Matter of Taste,' this will be an entirely new way to perform on stage.

'I'm asking them not to play a character,' Fenemore said, 'but to be themselves, and bring their own stories and histories to the stage.'

Not surprisingly, preparation for this show began with a pot luck dinner: Each actor was asked to bring a dish that had a story connected with it.

'We talked through dinner.'

A kind of collaborative script emerged from these food stories.

'We sometimes play with that - we sometimes tell lies - but ostensibly it's about these people, and it's somewhat autobiographical.'

Consider Won Joon Yoon, who is from Korea.

'He's cooking birthday soup, which usually is cooked by the mother on the son's birthday. But Won has been in the United States for the past eight years, and hasn't been with her on his birthday, so he hasn't had birthday soup for eight years. But she's here now, and he's cooking it for her in the show. It's a lovely moment.'

Fenemore warmed further to the subject.

'Lots of significant things happen during the relatively banal act of eating: We fall in love; we understand moments of loss and grieving; we make friends; we have family arguments; things break down or are created. What's really interesting is the kind of difference between what we often think of as the everyday ordinary act of eating, and the extraordinary things that might be attached to it.

'I'm interested in ritual as well: the ways in which we behave at the table, the ways in which we cook for each other, the ways we might host a dinner party and the structures that surround that.'

And this show?

'I'm interested in this particular collection of people, asked to cook food with memories and family stories attached. I'm asking them to present themselves: perhaps to tell us things they should only really tell their friends, to bring their cultural and social individualities together.

'I want to squeeze all this into a theater, and see what happens when an audience with its own food memories and experiences also is thrown into the mix.'

And yes, audience members will be served food during the course of the performance. They'll get tiny little tastes throughout the show ... although, given this country's safety regulations regarding food preparation for public consumption - unlike the more relaxed regulations in the UK - the shared food will be prepared by the university's food service personnel.

But it'll be prepared according to the actors' recipes.

'We've been working with the Food and Technology Department,' Fenemore explained. 'The students have had a great time, because they've all had knife-training skills. We all learned to chop very quickly, and we learned about safety with knives. Six actors are doing the knife work in the show, and they're using huge knives.

'We've also had half a day of basic food handling safety training.'

The cast members will sell the food featured in the show, and the party will continue after each performance on the Wyatt Deck, which will feature even more food, music and possibly dancing.

Along with a chance for audience members to share their own food stories.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hughie & Krapp's Last Tape

Theater fans have a rare opportunity to see a couple of stage warhorses star in two venerable productions at Sacramento's California Stage, 1725 25th St.

Veteran Davis actor Mitch Agrus and Actors Workshop co-founder Ed Claudio, both longtime area favorites, are starring in a pair of one-act, (almost) one-man plays written by two of the world's most respected playwrights.

Eugene O'Neill's 'Hughie' and Samuel Beckett's 'Krapp's Last Tape' were presented together at the Goodman Theater in Chicago earlier this year, with Brian Dennehy starring in both. Both plays focus on a sixty-something man looking back over his life, and realizing he doesn't have a lot of years left (an uplifting evening for a 67-year-old critic!).

'Hughie' is set in a run-down New York hotel, where a new night clerk is meeting one of the regulars for the first time. Director Mark Heckman (also from Davis) plays the clerk, Charlie Hughes: nearly silent in his cut-away coat, not quite knowing what to make of the disheveled Erie Smith (Claudio).

Erie is a shabbily dressed hustler returning from a rough, multi-day bender, his shirt stained with wine. In a nearly nonstop monologue, he bemoans the loss of Hughie, the former night clerk, whose death precipitated Erie's recent adventures. We gradually realize that for all his bluff and bluster, Erie seems to have benefited from the admiration he received from Hughie ... although he feels that it was he, Erie, who brought excitement to the clerk's life.

The reality, though, is that Erie is lost without him. His luck seems to have disappeared with Hughie's death, and he desperately needs the new clerk to be the Hughie he has lost.

Hughes doesn't quite know how to act, as Erie strides about the stage soliloquizing, until a chance remark breaks through the stoicism and hints at a somewhat happy end for the play.

Claudio, a New York actor who moved to Sacramento more than 20 years ago, is the quintessential New York Everyman in this masterful performance.

Agrus, on the other hand, is a more quiet man. Indeed, the first eight to 10 minutes of 'Krapp's Last Tape' is silent: The spotlight gradually comes up on Krapp, who sits at a desk for a very long time. The audience may wonder if the old actor has forgotten his lines. He eventually sighs and laboriously gets up, eats a banana - bit of humor there - has a drink off stage (the first of several) and returns to slip on the banana peel left on the floor.

Krapp's dialogue, as opposed to Erie's steady stream, comes in fits, starts and half-thoughts, much like somebody speaking to himself. The role requires an expert physical actor, which Agrus is; he holds the audience's attention as much in his silent, unmoving moments as in his more active behavior. He demands our attention with his eyes ... and gets it.

Krapp rummages through his pockets, removing and replacing things, all with the difficulty of an old man with arthritic fingers that don't work as well as they used to. He brings an old ledger to the desk, on which sits an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. He checks the ledger and then hunts for a specific tape.

Each year, we discover, Krapp records a tape and talks about what he's doing at that point in his life (somewhat like an audio blogger, long before the notion of blogging was created). Krapp is about to turn 69, and he wants to hear the tape he recorded on his 39th birthday, where he speaks of bowel problems and of eating bananas.

The action here is a marked contrast to 'Hughie,' which concerns a man who, while not having achieved quite what he wants in life, still fights for that elusive 'thing' that will bring the spark back. Krapp, on the other hand, is an old man at the end of his life: He hasn't done much, seems depressed and is resigned to his ultimate demise, whenever that shall come.

The two plays are nice, contrasting character studies. With such experienced actors in the roles, it would be a shame to miss an opportunity to watch a bit of Sacramento theater history in the making.

During his curtain speech, Agrus credited '75 percent of my performance' to director Janis Stevens, who certainly has wrung memorable work from her star.

Sound designer Nick Heacock also deserves special mention for his outstanding job.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Some Things are Private

'I know art when I see it.'

'I know pornography when I see it.'

We often hear these statements. But do we really know? Is it art? Is it pornography?

Could it possibly be both?

This subject is explored by 'Some Things are Private,' created by Deborah Salem Smith and Laura Kepley, and presented by the UC Davis department of theater and dance. The play, directed by Granada artist-in-residence Candice M. Andrews, continues through Sunday.

The work concerns the firestorm that raged over images by renowned photographer Sally Mann, whose book and exhibition, 'Immediate Family,' contained pictures taken on her 400-acre farm in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, many of which include her three young children, often shown naked.

The photos depict very personal family moments and events, all taken well away from the prying eyes of the public. But when Mann put them on display, an intense controversy followed.

To give the play a greater air of authenticity, Andrews worked with scenic designer Gian Scarabino to create an on-stage art gallery. Patrons entering UCD's Main Theater are asked to wait until they can be 'guided into the gallery.' They're then led around the side of the theater and onto the stage, which has become a white-walled art gallery, displaying works by local photographer Jesse Velasquez.

As the play begins, we're thrust almost immediately into a discussion of artistic responsibility. Who decides what is proper to put on public display? Who decides what is 'art'?

Della Z. Duncan, playing Mann, talks about taking pictures of her children: capturing those special moments that are all too fleeting, and that all mothers see.

'Taking pictures is all about being reminded that in the loving of something, is the inevitability of loss,' she says. 'So the loving should be paramount.'

We then meet fictional character Thomas Kramer (played by Barry Hubbard), who first encounters Mann's work when his new wife decides to use her $20,000 bonus - with which Kramer had planned to pay off their mortgage - to purchase a $17,000 landscape photograph by Mann. Following his wife's death, now left to raise their young daughter alone, Kramer again encounters Mann's work at a museum exhibit.

As a father, he's both fascinated and repulsed by the photographs.

Much of the 90-minute one-act play involves discussions between Kramer and Mann, about the nature of the photographs.

Kramer argues that by framing the photographs, Mann has turned them into something erotic; Mann insists that she doesn't think of her children with any sexual thoughts ... nor should anyone else.

'There is no veracity in photographs,' she insists. 'They merely show something that happened in 1/30th of a second.'

Each of the remaining actors - Shayna Carp, Ryan Geraghty, Rosamund Grimshaw and Brendan Ward - portrays several minor characters: security guards, museum employees and interviewers.

Geraghty is particularly sharp in each of his roles, most notably as the Governor of Virginia.

I had the most trouble with Grimshaw, who lacked projection and was very difficult to hear, so most of her dialogue was lost.

Andrews includes a very nice touch: a photographer, uncredited in the program, who seems to be everywhere, taking photos of people arguing for or against the exhibit. The irony of this paparazzo's total lack respect for anybody's privacy, in a stage work that discusses whether a mother's photos of her children are exploitative, is wonderful.

Wednesday's opening-night performance was followed by a discussion with the audience - and this will be repeated for Saturday evening's patrons - which seemed an extension of the play itself. Both audience and cast members took both sides of the play's core issue and debated whether the photos projected during the play are pornographic.

Hubbard, a master of fine arts candidate, has been inspired by Andrews' deep passion for the play.

'Through Candice's direction, I'm discovering the many layers of artistic and aesthetic reasoning behind Sally Mann's photographs,' he said. 'I'm learning that art can have real danger in it: symbolic and literal.'

The audience won't come to any conclusions about Mann's photographs, or the debate about art vs. pornography, by watching 'Some Things Are Private.'

But the play certainly raises questions that we should ponder from time to time.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Always, Patsy Cline

As we're reminded by Tessie Tura, one of the strippers in 'Gypsy,' 'You gotta have a gimmick.'

During the past few decades, in order to revive the music of beloved singers and songwriters, lots of gimmicks have been employed. 'Mamma Mia' wove a thin plot around the music of ABBA; 'All Shook Up' did the same thing, less effectively, with songs made popular by Elvis Presley.

Additional productions have been concocted to showcase the music of The Four Seasons ('Jersey Boys') and Billy Joel ('Movin' Out'), among others.

The Sacramento Community Theatre has opened a production of Ted Swindley's 'Always, Patsy Cline,' directed here by Michael Luan, with musical direction by Erik Daniells.

The show highlights 23 of the country singer's most popular hits, including 'I Fall to Pieces,' 'Your Cheatin' Heart,' 'Crazy' and 'Walkin' After Midnight.'

The gimmick that propels this show involves a devoted fan, Louise (Michele Hillen), who is smitten the first time she hears Cline (Dyan McBride) on Arthur Godfrey's TV show.

The show follows Louise's fanaticism, starting with phone-in requests to a local radio station, attending a live concert, actually meeting Cline and then becoming her friend. The subsequent correspondence between the two, following that first meeting, continues until Cline's untimely death in an airplane crash, when she was only 30 years old.

This gimmick gets us from song to song, and Hillen's performance as a big-haired Texas housewife - with a personality as big as Texas itself - is a real crowd-pleaser. The actress elicited many whoops and hollers from the audience.

But as a jaded reviewer, I found her too much. I didn't need to see or hear any more about Louise's tight outfit, or see her slap her backside - repeatedly - as she sashayed across the stage to the beat of the band's drummer.

Still, it's a way to get McBride's Patsy Cline from one costume change to the next. (I counted eight.)

As for McBride herself, she brings Cline back to life beautifully.

Whether bemoaning lost love or belting out another toe-tapper - the seats in our row were bouncing up and down, from all those tapping toes - it's easy to see how a woman like Louise would be smitten by that voice.

McBride's interpretation of 'If I Could See the World Through the Eyes of a Child' is particularly moving.

Were it not for a visit to Facebook, I wouldn't have guessed that half of Daniells' band members were substitutes on opening night. That aside, the cohesion was tight under Daniells' expert direction, and the musicians worked well together.

With only two exceptions, Jessica Minnihan's costumes keep to Cline's down-home roots, with simple outfits.

The opening cowgirl number, complete with loud colors and fringes galore, brought back memories of the costumes Cline designed herself, which her mother then would sew.

The news of Cline's death comes abruptly in this play, and the subsequent performance of 'True Love' - Cline now dressed in brilliant white, with silver accents - is a bit overly dramatic.

All things considered, though, McBride's performance certainly makes this a show to see.

(And don't forget to try one of the 'Patsy Cline' cupcakes during intermission; they're delicious!)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


Attending any production by UC Davis' student-run Studio 301 company is always an adventure, whether patrons try to find a tiny room through a darkened passageway ('Fuddy Mears'); sit outdoors, on ice-cold cement in November, in someplace called 'The Death Star' ('MacBeth'); or lounge on the delightful Wyatt Pavilion deck on a warm midsummer night evening ('Midsummer Night's Dream').

The group always brings something fresh and unexpected to its productions, before a single actor walks onto the stage.

Studio 301's handling of 'Hair' - the 'American tribal love-rock musical' by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, with music by Galt MacDermot - is no exception.

This production is directed by Steph Hankinson, with musical direction by David Moschler.

The group has chosen UCD's Arboretum gazebo - on Garrod Drive, off La Rue - a bucolic location that works well for a production about flower children. As the cast mingled with the patrons, handing out flowers before the show started, I realized that this group of young people might have had grandparents who were part of the hippie movement.

That era, more than 40 years ago, was a time when we were engaged in a disastrous war ... and people protested that war with a passion. And yet, despite the horrors of that overseas conflict, Americans still believed they could make a difference: They cared enough to raise their voices in protest.

Sadly, I don't think we do that any more, as caught up as we are in the affairs of Tiger Woods, or whether Kate will leave Jon, and who will become the next American Idol.

All of which may make 'Hair' an historical piece, rather than something fresh and vibrant. The U.S. military no longer uses a draft, so nobody has a draft card to burn, and we're more concerned about people who can't get into the service, than we are about wondering how to get out of it.

Nevertheless, the cast of Studio 301's 'Hair' gets into the swing of things quite well, starting with dancing on the grass and through the audience to the outdoor stage, where the show opens with a rousing rendition of 'Aquarius,' sung by Linda C (Alyssa Parsons) and the rest of the cast.

The show has a plot of sorts: Claude Hooper Bukowski (Mark Ferrando) has received a draft notice, and he struggles with his conscience over whether to present himself for induction, or burn his draft card and remain with his friends, enjoying the free lifestyle and protesting the war. Ferrando brings poignancy to his role.

But while Claude's struggle may drive the plot, this show actually is about music: 'Hair' was this country's first rock musical, with minimal dialogue. Songs such as 'Aquarius' and 'Let the Sunshine In,' the closing anthem, have a permanent place in our musical history.

Many in the cast give good performances, including Esteban Daniel Pantoja Gonzalez as Claude's roommate, George: long-haired, barefoot, anti-establishment and rocking out to songs like 'Donna.'

Cody Messick - as Jeannie, hopelessly suffering an unrequited love of Claude - has a stand-out moment with 'Hippie Life.' Alison Sunderstrom, as Crissy, delivers a poignant 'Frank Mills.'

Mitchell VanLandingham adds comic relief as Margaret Mead.

The first act 'nude scene,' so shocking when 'Hair' first opened in 1967, seems a more natural part of the action than anything to raise an eyebrow over, in this modern era when nudity in the media has become more common. In this production, the sequence is brief and tastefully done.

The music is provided by the band Vaseface and the Optical Illusions, and they're outstanding.

Patrons planning to attend this production are advised to bring either blankets or chairs. Dress warmly, and then bring an extra blanket, just in case. (We didn't and were much colder than anticipated.)

A flashlight also would be wise: While the path from the street is signed well for arriving patrons, things are pitch-black - with no lights - once the show concludes.

A parking lot is close, but it lacks a machine for the necessary $6 ticket; if on-street parking isn't available, you'll need to visit another parking lot to purchase a ticket.

Back in the 1960s, we dreamed that a time would come when 'peace will guide the planet.' I don't know if that's possible any more, but it's nice to reminisce and remember those idealistic days, when we still held on to such promises.

Monday, May 03, 2010


For as long as theater has existed, the institution has endured stage parents: those well-meaning mothers and fathers certain that their little Johnny or Janey will become the next superstar, and who drive producers and directors batty with their interference.

The quintessential stage mother was “Mama Rose” — Rose Havick — the mother of the Queen of Burlesque, Gypsy Rose Lee, and her sister, actress June Havoc. “Gypsy,” the story of Havick's role in the careers of her two daughters, is the current offering from the Davis Musical Theatre Company.

The production is directed by John Ewing and choreographed by Jason Hammond, who also plays Herbie.

The original award-winning musical was suggested by Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (still at the start of his career).

Rose is a dangerously obsessed woman with dreams of seeing her somewhat talented daughters achieve the stardom for which she herself is so hungry. The role was written for Ethel Merman, and Broadway has seen a long list of big names follow in her footsteps: Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Rosalind Russell (who played the part in the movie), Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone.

(Lansbury, Daly and LuPone all won Tony Awards for their performances; Merman lost to Gwen Verdon, in “Redhead.”)

In this DMTC production, Deborah Hammond has the role of a lifetime as Rose, and she makes the most of it. Hammond is powerful and unrelenting, and she has the big voice required by the role. Each of her numbers is a clear stand-out.

Hammond's real-life husband has the role of Herbie, the theatrical agent-turned-candy salesman-turned-theatrical agent who falls in love with Rose and hangs around for years, finding gigs for the act while waiting for Rose to marry him. Although the two Hammonds have been together and worked in theaters together for 30 years, this is their first shared appearance on stage.

Jason's Herbie is reminiscent of John C. Reilly, the mild-mannered husband from the film version of “Chicago”: a good guy who puts up with years of emotional abuse before finally giving up. Herbie's affection for Rose's daughters is touching.

Camila Ortiz and Lizzy Carey are the young “Baby Louise” and “Baby June,” respectively: two girls who really don't want to be in show business, but who can't say no to their overbearing mother. Carey does an excellent high kick and has a shriek that annoys more than impresses.

The business of their growing up is beautifully handled by a clever bit of stagecraft and a strobe light.

The grown-up Louise and June are played by Amy Jacques-Jones and Danielle Hansen. June, the star of the show, runs away when she reaches adulthood and secretly marries Tulsa, one of the company dancers; he's played by Joshua James, who brings a likable earnestness to the role.

Jacques-Jones nicely portrays the innocence of a young woman, living in her talented sister's shadow, singing to a toy lamb on her birthday and wondering exactly how old she is. Jacques-Jones handles the bumbling attempts to be the kind of performer her sister was. She's persuasive during her sudden realization, as she dresses for her first “strip” number, that she really is pretty, after feeling like an ugly duckling for so long.

The actress hits each of the emotions spot-on.

“Gypsy” has several interesting minor characters, such as Uncle Jocko (Clocky McDowell), who runs a talent show for children, with all the frustrations that involves.

The various strippers are quite funny, as they try to explain to Louise that she needs to find her own gimmick. Monica Parisi is Tessie Tura, Christina Ray is Mazeppa (who does amazing things with a trumpet), and Karen Mo is Electra.

Steve Isaacson does triple duty in three minor roles, and makes each unique.

Jean Henderson's costumes hit the mark, whether for Uncle Jocko and his children, the outlandish costumes for the strippers, or the glamorous gowns for Louise.

Everything's coming up roses for DMTC, with this production.