Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Granny Muffin or The Widow Chambers?

It's not quite 'Little House on the Prairie,' but Davis resident Ruth Chambers has penned a family-friendly book, 'The Weight of Gold,' an adventure that takes readers through the excitement of the California Gold Rush with the Widow Chambers.

It's not surprising that her first effort is steeped in history, since the former Granny Muffin of Davis Community Television fame volunteers in Old Sacramento, helping visitors relive what life was like around here 161 years ago.

Chambers arrived in Davis from Los Angeles in 1994, after the death of her father, for whom she had been the only caretaker - day and night - for more than two years following his stroke. Before her dad's setback, Chambers was in civic theater, producing shows while working as a newspaper photographer.

Following her father's death, she had to ask herself what she was going to do now...

'My friends were leaving Los Angeles. They were middle-aged people who were leaving for a better life somewhere else. So I started going to where they had gone.'

Her travels took her first to San Luis Obispo, which she decided was too upscale. Next, she pushed on to Davis.

"I got here at midnight and I looked around, like an L.A. person does. I cased the joint in 15 minutes. It had trees. It was quiet. I liked it. So I wrote down the name of a Realtor, went home, called her the next day and said 'Find me a place to live.' She did ... I put my stuff in a van and I moved."

Chambers lost no time in making a name for herself. The name was Granny Muffin.

A woman of indeterminate age, with bright red hair, Granny wandered around Davis in her bib overalls, put on puppet shows at the Farmers Market, drove a car covered with Astroturf (dozens of tiny figurines decorating the dashboard), and hosting 'Granny Muffin Reads' in the early days of Davis Community Television (DCTV).

'Ruth is a lively woman who puts her full heart into all that she does,' says Kari Peterson former executive director of DCTV.

'(Community television) was the perfect platform for her talents. She produced shows, she helped others with their shows, and she was out on the street with a camera to cover anything, any time. She had a ball. She's generous, funny, very multi-talented and has crazy, unbounded energy.'

Her unbounded energy led her to Old Sacramento and the Living History Program.

'I thought I could do a little street thing somewhere on a corner, a puppet show of some kind because I was already doing puppet shows here in Davis. I went to Old Sacramento because I knew they had street entertainers. But you have to wear something evocative of the period, so I had a dress made by someone who knew what she was doing and then I heard about the Living History program. I started going to the meetings and there were all these people dressed up like 1849 people and I just kind of got into it. It was wonderful.

'Sometimes there's a path for you and you don't know it until you're actually on it. It's just interesting that way. I now do a Gold Rush puppet show. I do it anywhere, but mostly out of the Sacramento History Museum (on I Street, adjacent the Sacramento River).

'I cover the Gold Rush period all the way through the Transcontinental Railroad, so it's not your usual puppet show - it's history.'

As she got into her role, she became even more authentic and made her own dress - by hand - without the use of a sewing machine.

'I started with an apron, no pattern (the women of that period had no patterns). It took me six hours. I thought well, that's not that bad. I can make a dress. I have time. It took me 32 hours to do the dress and the apron...'

Now she's working on her third dress - 'Because I'm an idiot,' she laughs - though she points out that most women of the era only had two dresses.

'Can you imagine only having two things to wear? That's smelly. But they were smelly people.'

Her work with the Living History Program has now led Chambers to write her first book, 'The Weight of Gold,' which is available at the Sacramento History Museum and locally at The Avid Reader.

The heroine of her story is the Widow Chambers, who travels to California from New York with her husband - only to endure his death en route. Cholera was the culprit: 'It was very typical of the time. (Cholera took) forty percent of the people who died on their way to California,' she explains.

'That leaves me a widow who (had) to support herself. When I get to Sacramento it's mostly young men between 18 and 24, very few women, and of course I'm too old to be marriageable.

'I already have grown children back east, so I start gathering berries in the foothills and making fruit pies and selling them on the street, which is one of the ways women could make a living back then."

Chambers explained that women could not own property during that period, so a woman couldn't buy a farm.

'If you were a widow you could be a housekeeper, you could be a cook, you could run a boarding house - but you couldn't own the boarding house.

'You'd have to get a man to own it and then you'd rent it from him. So then I come up with this pie thing because I didn't want to do the other things, and probably because I was kind of feisty because of my life with Mr. Chambers.

'The women back then were supposed to shrink back, but because Mr. Chambers and I supported ourselves together with the Chambers Street Theater, I was used to maneuvering a bit. So I started this pie business, building my own outdoor oven.'

As she discusses the book, the line between Ruth Chambers, author, and The Widow Chambers sometimes blurs. But her enthusiasm for bringing back stories about the Gold Rush folks who didn't go searching for the percious metal but supported the rush back in Sacramento, is strong and her book is replete with bits of homespun information rarely found elsewhere.

Unable to find a publisher for her book, Chambers self-published the effort and has been its one-woman marketing firm.

'I wanted my book to be a family book (like) all of my TV and radio stuff was,' Chambers says, adding she's distressed by what she sees when families fall apart. Her book is something parents and kids can read together.

'Everything I've been doing for the last 20 years is trying to get families together. Here's an opportunity to read together."

She is now working on a sequel, still excited about sharing tidbits with her audience.

'Ruth enters your life in a big way, and smiles and laughs all the way through. What's not to love?' Peterson says.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Twelfth Night

I questioned the wisdom of the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble scheduling its new production 'Twelfth Night' at the UCD Arboretum's gazebo, fearing the audience would freeze outdoors on these cold winter nights.

But the company has encased the gazebo in tarps, installed heaters and the resulting intimacy of the 'theater' was so warm, I even removed my jacket before the end of the evening.

The company's very first production, last summer's 'Romeo and Juliet' had only four members in the cast. They have now expanded to 11 actors and three musicians.

'Romeo and Juliet' had no sets and only the most minimal of costumes. This production has, while not exactly a 'set,' at least a hint of one and a couple of more complicated costumes.

And so the quality of the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble is growing, and the strong performances exhibited across all roles in 'Romeo and Juliet' continue in this joyous new production of one of Shakespeare's funniest comedies, which relies on gender-bending, mistaken identities, and love at first sight - over and over again. The production is again under the direction of Rob Salas, who has acquitted himself well.

The heroine of 'Twelfth Night' is Viola (Gia Battista), a shipwreck survivor mourning her brother Sebastian (Matthew Canty), whom she believes was lost at sea.

For some reason - which is not made clear - sight-unseen, she decides she loves Duke Orsino (Will Klundt). To get closer to him, Viola pulls her hair back, puts on men's clothing, declares she's a eunuch named Cesario and becomes the Duke's servant, in the hope of winning his love.

But Orsino is in love with the fair Olivia (Alison Sundstrom), also mourning a dead brother and father and rejecting all thoughts of love for seven years.

Orsino sends Viola/Cesario to woo her for him. Complications arise when Olivia decides instantly that Cesario is the man of her dreams and forgets all about her self-imposed period of mourning.

This sets up the scenario where Orsino loves Olivia, Olivia loves Cesario/Viola, and Viola loves Orsino.

And then there is the perpetually besotted Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Brendan Ward), also in love with Olivia, who seems to spend a lot of time drinking with his buddy, Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Robert Williamson) and the fool Feste (Esteban Gonzalez), who plot to play tricks on Olivia's steward Malvolio (Kristopher Ide).

Battista is a cute Viola (who could pass as a rather feminine boy) and, thanks to costumer Caitlin Cisek, she bears enough of a resemblance to her brother Sebastian (albeit a great height difference) that the confusion between the two at the end of the play is kinda-sorta plausible.

Sundstrom plays the sex-deprived Olivia to the hilt, and is very funny swooning over Cesario. She was a delight to watch when she sees what she perceives as two Cesarios, first shock and then delight as she contemplates the possibility of two lovers.

Stephanie Hankinson gives a solid performance as the earthy Maria, who conspires with the men against Malvolio and who herself is attracted to Sir Toby. She has a hearty, robust laugh and dominates any scene in which she appears.

As for the Malvolio of Kristopher Ide, it is just delicious. It is so much fun to watch his ramrod prim and proper demeanor melt as he believes Olivia loves him and he becomes willing to make a fool of himself to please her.

Gonzalez is a commanding Feste, taking liberties as the clown, and singing all of the original rock/blues/folk music written for the production by Richard Chowenhill. His is a very physical interpretation and he is literally all over the stage - including the rafters - in his performance.

Gabriel Rosa is Olivia's servant Valentine, and Mark Curtis Ferrando is Antonio, the captain of the ship and Sebastian's friend.

'Twelfth Night' continues through Jan. 23 at the Arboretum Gazebo and is a delightful way to pass an evening.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Musical of Musicals, the Musical

Any fan of Broadway musicals is going to love Sacramento Theater company’s new show, “The Musical of Musicals: the Musical!” by Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart, directed by Michael Luan.

In just a little more than an hour and a half, five musicals are presented. Each show follows the old melodrama plot, “I can’t play the rent” and shows how the problem would be solved following five very different styles – Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander and Ebb. The focus is on these men's best known shows, with others thrown into the mix.

It all works on so many levels that it’s like opening a Russian matriushka doll. You open one beautiful doll and inside is another one, and another one, and another one.

There is the fun of the scripts themselves, somewhat recognizable as a well-known show, the songs that sound familiar, but not quite, and then suddenly a familiar character, situation, or line from another show appears, like when in the opening send-up of “Oklahoma” (named “Corn”) the setting is described as “Kansas in August” (a line from “South Pacific”), and a character describing his physique refers to “belly high.”

There are countless delicious throw away lines like “don’t throw OKs at me” and “Specific Overtures,” and even musical interludes that pop up unexpectedly. Music director and accompanist Eric Daniels told me after the show that even after the weeks of rehearsal, he is still discovering little bits of musical humor in the score of the show.

The cast for this show could not be more perfect representations of the ubiquitous characters in most musicals.

There’s the ingenue, who can’t pay the rent and needs a hero to save her (Jessica Goldman). She becomes either June or Junie Faye, or Junita, or Juny, depending on the “show.”

The hero (Jerry Lee) is either Big Willy, Billy, William, or Bill.

The villain (Michael RJ Campbell) is Jitter, Mr. Jitters, Phantom Jitter or J├╝tter.

And the wise woman who will offer sage advice to everyone(Martha O. Kight) is Mother Abby, Abby, Auntie Abby, Abigail Von Schtarr of Fraulein Abby.

What makes it all work is that the writers of this show not only understand each of the genres they are parodying, but they obviously both respect them and love poking fun at them.

In addition to “Corn,” the cast takes us through the music of Sondheim in “A Little Complex,” in which the dark forest of “Into the Woods” becomes an apartment complex called “The Woods” and the vicious landlord bears a striking resemblance to Sweeny Todd.

Jerry Herman’s “Mame” gives the basic structure of “Dear Abby,” which includes all of the grand entrances and show-stopping numbers which are so much a part of Herman’s shows, including a wonderful “Sunset Boulevard”-ish number which gives Kight a chance to chew the scenery with great relish.

“Aspects of Junita” marries “Evita” with “Phantom of the Opera” and many other Lloyd Webber shows, hung together with “I’ve heard that song before.”

The show ends with a salute to Kander and Ebb by combining shows like “Cabaret” with “Chicago,” among others. Michael RJ Campbell does a wonderful send-up of Joel Grey’s MC and the song “Round and Round” has brilliant lyrics that give the whole story of Cabaret in less than 3 minutes.

Devotees of musicals will get the most enjoyment from this show, but even if you don’t get all the “in jokes” the show itself is very funny on its own and well worth checking out.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chess

The Davis Musical Theatre Company has hit one out of the ballpark with its wonderful new production of 'Chess,' directed by Steve Isaacson, with musical direction by Isaacson and Jonathan Rothman, and choreography by Pamela Lourentzos.

The cast is outstanding, the set, in places, breathtaking .. .and where in the world do they fit a 19-piece orchestra in that little understage pit?

The story may be a little confusing to follow, as much of the plot seems to take place between scenes and you gradually come to realize what is going on. Fortunately, unlike the last production of this show that I saw, the actors' diction was quite good, which made it easier to catch up.

But if the music occasionally sounds vaguely familiar, and you can't quite place it, it may be because it was written by ABBA musicians Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson (lyrics by Tim Rice and book by Richard Nelson).

The action begins in 1956 Budapest, where Gregor Vassy (Jason Markel), is hiding with other refugees, and teaching his young daughter Florence (the adorable Naomi Debello) to play chess. During the course of the lessons he tells 'The Story of Chess.'

Her father arranges for Florence to be sent to safety in America, but before they part, he breaks a chess piece in two, giving her half and keeping half for himself, as his promise that they will one day be reunited. His 'Father's Lullaby' was very touching.

Nearly 30 years later we discover that Florence is now playing 'second' to the petulant, overindulged (and overindulgent) American chess master, Freddie Trumper (David Holmes), who has come to Bangkok, Thailand, for an international competition against Russian master Anatoly Sergievsky (Tevye Ditter).

Holmes is marvelous as the boorish Trumper while Ditter, in addition to bringing a wonderful voice to the role, also adds a quiet dignity to the proceedings.

Repeating the role she played in 2000, Andrea Eve Thorpe is wonderful as the adult Florence Vassy. Her voice has the proper brassy tone to bring the right sound to the Ulvaeus/Anderson music. Her duet with Anatoly's wife Svetlana (Eimi Taormina), 'I Know Him So Well,' is a show-stopper. It's a painful acknowledgment by a wife and a lover that neither of them can give their man all he needs.

(It was nice to see the talented Taormina in such a meaty role.)

Other excellent performances are given by Roger Clark, as the perfect KGB agent, Ivan Molokov. Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly is Walter Anderson, the American opportunist who finds a way to manipulate both sides to his own advantage. Elio Gutierrez is memorable in the short role of the arbiter.

The story concerns Freddie's tantrum when he feels that somehow Anatoly is cheating at their chess game because he eats yogurt during the game, and Anatoly's ultimate decision to defect to the West, singing the beautiful and emotional 'Anthem.'

In Act 2 there is a rematch set in Budapest and we learn the repercussions for Anatoly's family following his decision to defect, and the painful decisions everyone will have to make.

John Ewing's scenic design was simple, but beautiful. The floor is painted a black-and-white checkerboard and the pattern is repeated on the back wall. The wall is occasionally lit in various shades of red (lighting design by Steve Isaacson), providing an effective mood change.

However, the most impressive effect was at the start of the scene in a Bangkok nightclub, which begins with a breathtaking figure standing tall with draped gold fabric. Definitely one of the most memorable moments of the evening.

This production of 'Chess' is a winner.

Don't miss it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Anon(ymous)

The rudeness of the Veterans' Memorial Theater audience at opening night's performance of Acme Theatre Company's 'Anon(ymous)' distracted from the quality of the production.

Many in the audience had obviously come to see their friends and laughed loudly in many parts of the drama. The students sitting in the row in front of me used their electronic gadgets to check e-mail, check Facebook statuses and write messages throughout the entire one-act performance. Shame on them.

But other than that, the performances of this rather odd play, directed by Emily Henderson and Maddy Ryen, were quite good. I was especially pleased to note that for the first time in a long time, I had no complaints about projection in any of the actors. Even from the back row, I could clearly hear every single word.

This contemporary production by award-winning California playwright Naomi Iizuka was inspired by Homer's 'Odyssey' and tells the story of Anon, separated from his mother while fleeing his war-torn homeland.

After a boat wreck, he is swept ashore on the margins of America and embarks on an epic journey to find a place he can call home.

It is a gritty, off-the-wall adaptation of 'The Odyssey,' which reframes 'the journey home' within the refugee experience and present-day immigration in the United States. This becomes quite clear in the striking opening scene where Anon, who calls himself 'Nobody' (Nick Mead) stands in a pool of light and begins to tell his story ('Where I come from there was a war that lasted so long people forgot what they were fighting for...')

Behind him, behind sheer curtains, we see silhouettes of other people telling their own stories.

'Where I come from is high up in the mountains and the sound of thunder is so loud it sounds like the end of the world.'

'Where I come from is the edge of an ocean so blue you can see straight to the bottom...'

'Where I come from giant birds circle overhead, so many you can't count them...'

Set designer Will Delacorte deserves high praise for the beautiful tableau.

From Dumpster diving, to talking with ghosts, to fighting a one-eyed butcher (reminiscent of the man-eating Cyclops in 'The Odyssey'), Anon ricochets from one chaotic adventure to the next. At the heart of his quest is his mother Nemasani (Gigi Gilbert-Iglesrud), the one person whom he loves. The two became separated attempting to escape the war in their country by leaving on a ship, which ultimately sank. Unbeknownst to each, both survived and Anon's search for 'home' has lasted for more than 20 years.

In the meantime, his mother has been working in the sweat shop of Mr. Mackus (Antonio deLoera-Brust) who is determined to marry her, against her wishes.

In his travels, Anon meets a variety of people like Calista (Sam Ramos), a rather empty-headed spoiled girl whose father owns the island on which Anon is washed up, so she feels she owns him and needs him to stay and be her personal plaything.

There is the lovely Pascal (Alix Miller), who disappears in a most distressful manner.

Jon Dycaico and Amber Bianchi are Senator Laius and his wife, who visit the sweat shop and have a rather condescending chat with Nemasani (with whom they have a surprising secret in common).

Dycaico also appears as the evil Mr. Zyclo while Roxanne McNally does a fine job of strutting about as Zyclo's pet bird.

Tomas Eredi is memorable for his short performance as Strygal, the truck driver.

Dashiell Menard is quite convincing as the blind man, Ali, while Margaret Starbuck and Kashmir Kravitz play his wife and daughter, respectively.

Others in the cast include Holly Buhlman as the goddess Naja, Katy Zaragoza-Smith, Emma Kurtz, Casey Marr and Neal Rock. Everyone gives a solid performance.

Although the story of Odysseus is the epic journey of a single hero, 'Anon(ymous)' incorporates stories of anonymous, marginalized people - the individuals Anon meets along the way who are unable tell their own stories.

Despite their voicelessness, the aptly named Anon becomes a mouthpiece for their anonymity through his remembrance of their experiences.