Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Picture a stamp collector.

What do we see? Probably a nerdy sort of guy, with horn-rimmed glasses, sitting quietly in a corner while surrounded by books, magnifying glasses, tweezers and other tools of the trade.

Be prepared to have these stereotypes blown away by the Capital Stage production of Theresa Rebeck's dark comedy, 'Mauritius,' which continues through Nov. 7 in Old Sacramento.

The play is directed by Michael Stevenson, who delivers a beautifully crafted and swiftly paced production.

For starters, Stephen C. Jones has created the perfect setting for a hole-in-the wall stamp store.

As the play begins, Philip (John P. Lamb) stands hunched over the display case, reading a book; he's everything you'd expect from a stamp dealer. Dennis (Kurt Johnson), a large man, sits with his legs up on a table, also reading.

Kristine David so perfectly embodies Jackie, an innocent young girl, that one could almost believe she'd been touring the halls of the Delta King, and happened to accidentally open a door onto the stage, and stepped into this production.

Jackie is carrying a thin book: Her mother has recently died and left her a stamp album. (My only quibble with this production is that the book seems terribly thin to represent a lifetime's collection of stamps.) Jackie is in some financial difficulty, and has heard that some of the stamps might be worth a lot of money; she wonders if someone will appraise them for her.

Grouchy Philip wants nothing to do with her, but Dennis is curious; he takes pity on her and agrees to check out the stamps. He points out an 'inverted Jenny,' which he tells her may be worth as much as $3,000. He continues to turn the pages until he stops suddenly.

Obviously, he has seen something, and doesn't want to let her know about it. Dennis abruptly shuts the book and tells her to go home.

After she has left, we learn that he has seen the 1847 one-penny and two-penny 'Post Office' stamps, printed in very limited quantities on the island of Mauritius - off the east coast of Madagascar - and prized for the mistake that led them to be printed with the words 'post office' instead of 'post paid.'

The stamps could be worth millions ... if they're authentic.

'There are so many forgeries floating around out there, people are starting to use them to mail in their absentee ballots,' Dennis tells Philip. 'Besides which, how would you know the difference? You can't, because you don't know!'

And so the con is on.

Or is it?

Dennis meets Sterling (Jonathan Rhys Williams), an uber-rich international arms dealer and die-hard stamp lover, and together they scheme about how to get the stamps from the clueless Jackie.

But then a wrinkle erupts: Jackie's possession of the collection is questioned. Her estranged half-sister Mary (Lauren Bloom), who has returned to help clear out the family home after their mother's death, claims the album for her own.

Mary insists that her grandfather - no relation to Jackie - was the collector, and Mary has fond memories of spending time with him, while learning the history of the stamps.

She wants to keep the album, not sell it.

No love is lost between these two women, and possession of the stamp collection becomes more of a power struggle than a money thing.

After many twists, turns and deception, Rebeck uncorks an ingenious conclusion that should satisfy just about everyone.

This is an outstanding show with a strong cast, most of whom are new to Capital Stage. The sole company regular, Williams, is almost unrecognizable as the thug Sterling: certainly a far cry from his role in last spring's 'Hunter Gatherers.'

Philately rarely has been this much fun.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tilly No-Body

The magic begins the moment one enters the Mondavi Center's Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, where set designer John Iacovelli has created an old-style circus ring, with a tent suggested by hanging lights.

Composer/sound designer David Roesner's jazzy music fills the air, and the lid of a large trunk opens. A woman emerges, dressed from head to toe in fur, and so begins 'Tilly No-Body: Catastrophes of Love.'

This one-act play in 20 'attractions' (as each section is called) is devised by actor, writer and UC Davis acting professor Bella Merlin. She performs the role of Tilly, wife of Frank Wedekind, perhaps best known to today's audiences as the German dramatist who wrote the 1891 play 'Spring Awakening,' on which the Tony Award-winning musical was based.

'Tilly No-Body' is the culmination of 20 years of work.

In 1991, Merlin was cast as Lulu in Peter Quint's new translation of Wedekind's plays 'Earth Spirit' and 'Pandora's Box,' at London's Chelsea Theater. While preparing for the role, she came across the autobiography of Wedekind's wife, Tilly, titled 'Lulu: Die Rolle Meines Lebens (Lulu, the Role of My Life).'

While reading the book, Merlin expected to discover that the role of Lulu had ignited Tilly's acting career and propelled her to great professional heights. But Merlin discovered that within the Wedekinds' domestic relationship, Frank had turned Tilly into Lulu, one of the key roles in classic modern drama: part child, part whore, part gypsy, part muse ... a chameleon who changes her name and guise to become all things to all people.

In 'Tilly No-Body,' Merlin weaves together Tilly's autobiography, quotations from Frank's plays and letters between herself and Frank. The performance piece also includes five original songs Merlin composed - she sings them and accompanies herself - along with certain fictionalized suppositions.

Ultimately, Merlin regards herself a 'deviser' (as well as performer) rather than 'playwright,' because of the many different aspects to the composition of this work.

Watching the talented Merlin at work is a privilege. She's a consummate performer: Under Miles Anderson's direction, she thoroughly embodies the character of Tilly.

The play begins with Tilly's attempted suicide via poison. Then, as the poison gradually works its way out of her system, she relives various key points in her life, granting us a view of the symbiotic and abusive relationship she experienced with Frank, and the effect it had on her.

Merlin explains that the poison worked its way out of Tilly's body through her skin, and so the play uses the device of removing layers of clothing, to illustrate the parts of Tilly's life. She leaves these layers behind during her recovery from the poison, and from Frank's impact on her life.

Costumes play a huge role in this production, and costumer Maggie Moran has done a masterful job with the layers of Tilly's wardrobe. A voluminous fur coat, for example, is removed to reveal a stunning ringmaster's costume (including a jeweled cummerbund donated to the university many years ago, by costumer Marinka Pfaff).

Pieces of costume emerge from odd places, and one costume morphs into something completely different.

The mood is greatly enhanced by Thomas J. Munn's lighting design: long shadows and mood lighting that are as much a 'character' as Tilly herself.

And I cannot leave out the wonderful puppet creations of John Murphy, whose characters add so much to the whimsy of certain sequences.

More than merely telling Tilly Wedekind's story, 'Tilly No Body' explores the idea of who and what a jobless actor is.

During a recent episode of 'Theater Talk,' Robert Osborne discussed various films - notably 'All About Eve' - that show how roles are crucial to an actor's identity. Similarly, Merlin reveals how the loss of an acting persona affects Tilly's life.

'Without work, actors are lost souls,' Merlin writes, in the program notes. 'Without a play, we have no voice. Without a character to perform, we have no body.

Monday, October 04, 2010


As its title suggests - 'Suds: The Rocking '60s Musical Soap Opera' - the final show of the Cosmopolitan Cabaret's 2010 season is light, frothy and insubstantial.

And the audience loved it.

This jukebox musical has a paper-thin plot, but who cares about plot when you have more than 50 songs from the 1960s?

But for those who do care about such things, the story revolves around perky Cindy (Melissa Wolfklain), decked out in crinoline skirt and bobby socks, who runs the local Fluff and Fold Laundromat. The action begins on her birthday, and she is the happiest girl in the world: She's almost engaged to her long-distance boyfriend, whom she's never met, but with whom she has been a pen pal for four years.

She also loves her little cat.

But then tragedy hits: Said boyfriend breaks up with her, because he has found someone with better penmanship. Her cat dies, all her relatives are killed in an automobile accident, and she receives a $10,000 overdue notice from the IRS.

Cue appropriate song: 'The End of the World.'

Cindy decides to kill herself in a most ingenious way, which I won't reveal. Let's just say that much agitation is involved, and it's hilarious.

Enter her guardian angel. Two of them, in fact.

The perpetually perky Dee Dee (Eydie Alyson) is overly optimistic, and convinced they can pull Cindy out of the doldrums. DeeDee is joined by Marge (Nanci Zopp), a tough ol' broad who has been around the stratosphere a few times (if you know what I mean).

Alyson is given the lighter songs, but Zopp is the standout, especially in her show-stopping 'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me.'

The cast is rounded out by Michael Dotson, who plays 'Everyone Else': the postman; the nerd the angels set up as a date for Cindy; and even Johnny Angel, a surprise revelation to whom Dee Dee finds her heart drawn ('I Will Follow Him,' 'Johnny Angel'). Dotson provides several of twists and turns throughout the evening.

Like 'The Marvelous Wonderettes,' a Music Circus production this past summer, the appeal of 'Suds' rests on one's nostalgia for songs of a certain era. 'Suds' include more songs than some jukebox musicals, by using the device of humorously stopping a singer after just enough of a song is presented, to receive audience recognition and applause.

'Suds' was created by Melinda Gilb, Steve Gunderson and Bryan Scott, with musical and vocal arrangements by Steve Gunderson. The show has toured the country, receiving rave reviews from California to New York. It broke many box-office records, including at the prestigious Old Globe Theater, the Actors Theater of Louisville and the San Diego Repertory Theater.

The current production is directed by Glenn Casale and choreographed by Joann Lewis.

If your tastes tend toward meaty shows, this one probably isn't for you. But anybody wanting to take a break from all the heavy news of the day, in order to wallow in a bit of cotton candy for a couple of hours, may find this just the very thing.

Especially if you loved the music of the day.