Wednesday, March 28, 2012

True West

Sam Shepard’s “True West” is not a comedy, but there is enough funny stuff in this dark and gritty play to relieve the unrelenting tension from time to time.

In Capital Stage’s brilliant new production of Shepard’s 1980 classic, director Stephanie Gularte creates a world where brothers Austin and Lee circle around each other, playing the antagonistic roles they have played all of their lives, engaging in a familiar, yet potentially deadly dance of sibling rivalry.

Cole Alexander Smith is Austin, a struggling Hollywood playwright who has come to house-sit for Mom, who is off in Alaska. Austin is the “good son,” we quickly realize. Mom knew he would keep her home tidy and her many house plants watered and Austin is looking to get away from his wife and family for the quiet of Mom’s house, where he can finish his screenplay in peace.

Lee (Jonathan Rhys Williams), who has not seen his brother in five years, is the ne’er-do-well, just off of three months out in the Mojave Desert, and determined to be the raspberry seed in Austin’s wisdom tooth, as he staggers around the kitchen in a beer-besotted haze, doing whatever he can to break his brother’s concentration, trying to minimize his dedication to his work.

“You probably think that I’m not fully able to comprehend somethin’ like that, huh? … that stuff you’re doin’, that art. You know. Whatever you call it. … I did some a’ that. I fooled around with it. No future in it.”

Lee’s “future” seems to be in the income he can get from breaking and entering and stealing things from the neighbors.

It is a brilliant performance by Williams, arrogant in his slovenly, laconic attitude, yet with perhaps a bit of wistfulness about what might have been in his life.

Smith’s Austin is more of an everyman, a buttoned-down, uptight man who doesn’t quite believe in his own talents and who is nervous about an upcoming script conference with Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer (Eric Baldwin). He waters his mother’s plants and worries about their alcoholic father, and tries to write despite Lee’s constant interruptions.

Yet it is Austin who undergoes the greatest transformation as the play progresses, revealing that while he disapproves of Lee’s lifestyle, he actually is as envious of Lee’s ability to step into any situation — no matter how inappropriate — and come up owning it, as Lee is of Austin’s success.

When the producer arrives, it is Lee who takes over the interview, insisting that he has an idea for a new Western, a modern Western, though he has not put a word to paper. It is Lee with whom Kimmer makes a golf date and who comes home with a contract to write his Western.

Baldwin does well as the superficial producer, interested only in the money he can make, and not in the value of the script he is buying.

As the play progresses, the tension between the two brothers reaches the breaking point and the inevitable confrontation is cataclysmic (and, one has to believe, a nightmare for stage hands!).

“True West” includes wonderful soliloquies for both characters, including Austin’s hilarious and heartbreaking account of how their father lost his teeth, twice.

Lee’s reflections on family life as seen by someone on the outside — ”Like a paradise,” he says. ”Kinda place that sorta kills ya inside. … Blonde people movin’ in and outta the rooms, talkin’ to each other. Kinda place you sort of wish you grew up in, ya know?” — give a bit of poignancy to his character.

Janis Stevens makes a brief appearance as the men’s mother. While this could have been a time for histrionics, her beaten-down, underplayed demeanor eloquently tells us all we need to know about what it was like to raise these two, and how many times she has had to referee their spats.

This is a play that is as compelling as the need to watch a train wreck as you see it coming. The characters will stay with you long after you leave the theater.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Mamma Mia

“Mamma Mia” may be the longest, fanciest paternity test on record.

This musical, celebrating the music of the 1970s Swedish group ABBA, is a collection of ABBA songs loosely hung on the story of young Sophie, on the eve of her wedding, trying to figure out which of her mother’s three old boyfriends might be her father, so that he can give her away.

Now you can find out who it is by going to the Sacramento Community Theater, through Sunday.

Though ABBA, which burst onto the scene when its song ‘Waterloo” won the Eurovision Song Festival in England in 1974, was “bigger than the Beatles” in Australia when it did its first world tour in 1977, it only had one song (“Dancing Queen”) that made it to the top of the charts in the United States.

The group enjoyed only modest success in this country until the release of its album “ABBA Gold” (after the group had broken up) in the 1990s, when everyone realized they actually knew most of the songs — they just hadn’t appreciated them before!

In 1999, Catherine Johnson decided to take 22 of the best-known ABBA songs (written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) and weave a story around the lyrics. “Mamma Mia” was born.

The show is now celebrating more than 4,000 performances in its 10th year at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater and it remains among Broadway’s top-selling musicals. The current North American tour has played more than 3,700 performances in 150-plus cities, with 145 repeat visits. (This is its third time in Sacramento.)

The Associated Press calls “Mamma Mia” “a phenomenon, and it has succeeded in the impossible — making bell-bottom pants cool again!”

At Tuesday’s opening performance, many of the touring principal roles were played by understudies, but you’d be hard-pressed to know that without checking the substitute board in the lobby.

The story centers around single mother Donna Sheridan (Kaye Tuckerman) raising her daughter Sophie (Chloe Tucker) on the Greek island where Sophie was conceived, the product of a liaison with one of three men. Donna has built herself a successful taverna and has no need of a man in her life.

But Sophie is about to be married to Sky (Travis Taber) and she wants her real father to give her away. Having snooped through Donna’s diary, she invites three men — Harry Bright (Jeff Applegate), Bill Austin (John Michael Zuerlein) and Sam Carmichael (Christian Whelan) to her wedding, unbeknownst to Donna. The men all arrive, thinking Donna has invited them.

Also attending the wedding are Donna’s two friends, her back-up singers when the three were Donna and the Dynamos. Tanya (Michelle Elizabeth Dawson) and Rosie (Kittra Wynn Coomer) are delightful comediennes. It’s hard to know which is funnier — watching the tall, distinguished, somewhat bored Tanya take a pratfall or the more robust Rosie trying to fit into her old costume.

Choreography by Anthony van Lasst is a delight, particularly the male chorus on the occasion of Sky’s bachelor party (you try tap dancing in those things!).

For ABBA fans, the fun is trying to figure out which of the ABBA songs (printed alphabetically in the program, not chronologically) is going to fit in with the current plot twist.

By the end of the show, you will be having the time of your life, and enthusiastically shouting “I do! I do! I do!” with the bride. Standing and waving your arms is OK, too!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

House of Bernarda Alba

Federico García Lorca, called by some “the most important Spanish poet and dramatist of the 20th century” died in 1936 (murdered by fascists during the Spanish Civil War), so he was unaware of the current war on women’s health being waged by some in governments across this country.

Yet his “The House of Bernarda Alba,” based on a new translation by Chay Yew and directed by UC Davis Granada Artist-in-Residence Juliette Carrillo, feels as fresh and modern as if it had been written this year (especially the hurling of the epithet “slut” several times).

The play was the last of a trilogy expressing what Lorca felt was “the tragic life of Spanish women” in their male-dominated society. It also is a play about expressing the costs of repressing the freedom of others.
The play opens on a stark stage (designed by Rose-Anne Raphael), a raised platform on which the principal characters stand, facing front when they are part of a scene, standing at the back edge, with their backs to the audience when they are not part of a scene.

On either side of the platform is a row of four chairs facing the platform, on which sit the chorus who drink from wine bottles, play African drums, clap rhythmically and occasionally sing.

(Composer Dan Wilson has created the background music and sound and says he “pulled out all the stops.”)

As the action begins, the housekeeper, La Poncia (Maria Candelaria), is speaking with the maid, Blanca (Hannah Victory), about the funeral of the second husband of matriarch Bernarda Alba (Susan-Jane Harrison).

The relationship between Poncia and Bernarda is reminiscent of “Upstairs Downstairs,” or “Downton Abbey,” where the servants have been ministering to the masters for so long that the class distinction disappears when they are in private. Candelaria’s Poncia is as much in charge of this house as is her mistress and she brings some much-needed humor to the proceedings.

Harrison gives a riveting performance as the matriarch, who has very strict (and old-fashioned) ideas about the role of women.

Aided by the angular costume of Maggie Chan, and the severe hair style, with just a hint of red picked up by the lights as she moves, she is a force to be reckoned with. Her mere appearance on stage, commanding the undivided attention not only of her daughters and house staff, but of the audience as well, is enough to make one feel just a little uneasy.

Out of respect for their deceased father, Bernarda has decreed an eight-year period of mourning for her five daughters (ages 20-39), during which “not a breath of air will get in this house from the street.”
The eldest daughter Angustias (Anna Kritikos) is engaged to be married to the area’s most eligible bachelor, Pepe el Romano (whom we never see), but he is attracted to the youngest daughter Adela (Malia Abayon), who defies her mother by wearing red instead of black and carrying on a clandestine affair with Pepe.

The story deals with the sexual and personal repression of the women, most of whom seem to be harboring a secret love for Pepe. There are many references to the temperature, with fans and cold drinks used as symbols of the heat, which is more than just the temperature, but also the rising sexual tensions among the young women.

Magdalena (Wendy Wyatt-Mair), devastated by her father’s death, tends to sleep a lot, while Amelia (Jaki Joanino) is the family gossip.

Martirio (Marit Wilkerson) is the trouble maker, who reports Adela’s affair and leads to the play’s shocking conclusion.

The drama of the play is heightened significantly by lighting designer Kourtney Lampedecchio, who creates stunning silhouettes and whose final special effect will have audience members gasping.
This classic story is dark and full of poetic language and symbolism, but it holds up surprisingly well after more than 70 years. The audience will find “The House of Bernarda Alba” a memorable evening of intense drama.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Leading Ladies

“Leading Ladies,” by Ken Ludwig, directed by Howard Hupe for the Winters Theatre Company, is comedy about two British Shakespearean actors — Jack Clark (Trent Beeby) and Leo Gable (Scott Taylor) — who find themselves so down on their luck that they are reduced to making a not-so-grand tour of rural Pennsylvania doing “Scenes from Shakespeare.”

After a disastrous performance at a Moose Lodge, Jack reads that an old lady in York, Pa., is about to die and leave her fortune to her two long-lost English nephews, whom she has not seen in a very long time. The actors resolve to pass themselves off as her beloved relatives and get the cash. The trouble is, when they get to York, they find out that the relatives aren’t nephews, but nieces!

With a suitcase full of costumes, the two men become women and the comedy is on.

Beeby and Taylor are likeable actors who try their best to use a British accent. Beeby succeeds more consistently, but Taylor gives up early into the play and only occasionally comes out with a word or a sentence that is said in a kinda/sorta British accent. But who really cares when the two are so much fun to watch on stage?

Beeby is also the more convincing of the two as a woman, while Taylor adopts such a twisted odd body language that it’s difficult to understand why anybody finds him attractive as a girl. I thought at first that his shoes hurt his feet, which would explain his odd gait, but observed later that he is able to walk upright without tripping all over himself, so the body language is just … strange.

The actors arrive at the home of Aunt Florence (Lauri Vaughn), after hearing the news of her demise. The reports of her death, however, have been greatly exaggerated and the old woman is still very much alive and unhesitatingly accepts Jack/Maxine and Leo/Stephanie as her long-lost nieces.

Vaughn is a suitably cranky old woman and spends most of the play irritated by her doctor (Jesse Akers), who seems eager to pronounce her dead.

Jack finds himself drawn to Florence’s stage-struck niece Meg (Joanie Bryant), who is not quite, but almost, engaged to the local minister, Duncan (Jim Hewlett), a strict suitor who quashes her love of theater because he feels theater people are “loud, flamboyant and too … theatrical.”

It is Duncan who feels that something is not quite right with these two fortune-hunting “nieces” and he’s determined to get to the bottom of things.

Bryant is delightful as Meg and Hewlett plays the dullard beautifully.

Jessica Eldrige plays Audrey, whom Jack and Leo meet on the train on their way to York. She herself is loosely connected to Doc’s son Butch (Jeremy Nelson), though has an eye for Jack as well. Eldrige simply sparkles in each of her scenes. She has an expressive face and an endearing manner and is a delight to watch.

The plot builds up to a hilarious production of “Twelfth Night,” which allows Jack to come in as himself to direct the show, while at the same time maintaining his alter ego as Maxine, requiring some quick costume changes.

The set is the same used for most of the plays at the Winters Community Theater, with the front door stage left instead of stage right this time, and an interesting cut-out for the entrance to the patio. The confines of the community center stage don’t allow for much variation from this set, and the company always finds interesting ways to make it look different.

“Leading Ladies” is a lightweight comedy, presented in the usual Winters Theatre Company way, which will leave the audience laughing.

Monday, March 12, 2012

South Pacific

Some enchanted evening, you may find yourself at the Woodland Opera House watching a wonderful production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” directed by Angela Baltezore, with musical direction by Dan Pool. But be quick, it closes April 1.

“South Pacific” is one of those marvelous, comfortable old chestnuts where you can probably hum along with every song (but please don’t!) and yet it’s best not to examine the plot too carefully, because it’s filled with a lot of not-very-nice stuff (like racism and child prostitution) all surrounded by beautiful and engaging music.

Baltezore’s production is a real gem, with strong characters, wonderful choreography and an orchestra that, after a sometimes wobbily overture, settled in to provide a lush background for the likes of “Younger than Springtime,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i” and a dozen or so other numbers.

The show centers around the expatriate French planter and widower Emile de Becque (Michael Maples) and his love for Ensign Nellie Forbush (Catherine Nickerson). DeBecque is looking for another wife to be not only his soulmate, but the mother to his two children Ngana (Jordan Hayakawa) and Jerome (James Hayakawa) by his Polynesian wife.

Nellie is an unsophisticated girl from Arkansas who has a “gee-whiz, gorsh” Southern hick simplicity about her and who doesn’t know if she can fit into Emile’s world. She is also unaware that he has been married before, or that he has children.

The role of Emile de Becque was played on Broadway initially by the Italian baritone Ezio Pinza and in the movie by the Italian actor Rossano Brazzi, so those familiar with the show are accustomed to hearing an Italian portraying a Frenchman (an accent is an accent is an accent). It is difficult to pinpoint Maples’ accent (Esperanto, perhaps?), but whatever it was, he was consistent throughout. And when you have a suave, debonnaire figure to swoon over, who cares about accent authenticity?

On the other hand, it would be difficult to believe that Nickerson were not a native Southerner, judging by her own accent. She sparkles in this role and is particularly winsome in “Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair.”

Deborah Hammond steals the show as Bloody Mary, the mysterious Polynesian woman who sells trinkets to the military and who isn’t above selling the body of her young daughter Liat to a handsome young U.S. Navy lieutenant, just arrived at the base, in the hope that he will marry her and take her to America.
(Liat was played the night I saw the show by Briahna Yee, but she alternates in the role with Allison Ruanto.)

Spenser Micetich is that young lieutenant (Joseph Cable). Micetich is a marvel. This young actor is only a senior in high school, yet he has a maturity far beyond his years and has already won an Elly for his portrayal of Jean Valjean in the Young People’s production of “Les Miserables.” But here he is playing against an adult cast, and he holds his own beautifully.

Cable is taken to Bali Ha’i by Bloody Mary and begins an affair with young Liat, yet when Mary assumes the two will marry, he realizes that the prejudices against a mixed marriage are too great and he leaves the young girl.

At the same time, Nellie has encountered de Becque’s children and while she can forgive his confession that he killed a man in France, the idea of his having been married to a Polynesian woman is just too much for her Southern upbringing to handle.

Cable sings the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” which is as timely today as it was when the musical premiered in 1949: “You have to be taught, before it’s too late / before you are six, or seven, or eight / to hate all the people your relatives hate / you have to be carefully taught.”

Outstanding is the performance of Alex Cesena as the scheming entrepreneurial Seabee Luther Billis, always looking to make a deal, desperate to find a woman. A highlight was his performance of “Honey Bun,” which he performs with Nellie at the camp’s Thanksgiving talent show.

The ensemble is excellent, particularly the Seabees, a group of men who each have small solos to sing and who each seem to have principal-quality voices. Worthy of special note are Eric Catalan as “Professor” and Jason Hammond as “Stewpot.”

Kudos to set designer John Bowles for his simple design, which worked beautifully for each scene. The projection of Bali Ha’i was a particularly lovely bit.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable production. Don’t miss it!

Monday, March 05, 2012

Dial M for Murder

When the lights go up on Sacramento Theatre Company’s wonderful production of Frederick Knott’s “Dial M for Murder,” the first thing the audience notices is not the actors on the stage, but the gorgeous set itself.

This is Mims Mattair’s second set design for STC and it is stunning. It is the living room of the affluent couple, Tony Wendice (Matt K. Miller) and his wife Margot (Jackie Vanderbeck) in 1950s London. The apartment’s lush red walls with various embellishments and tchotchkes on the shelves are just beautiful.

But that’s just the start of the delicious things to come in this three-act classic play. Many may remember the 1954 Hitchcock movie with Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings. It was a perfect vehicle for Hitchcock — a foolproof murder plot that somehow isn’t quite foolproof after all.

Mystery writer Max Halliday (Barry Hubbard) explains that there are five reasons why murders are committed: fear, jealousy, greed, vengeance and romance.

For former professional tennis player Tony Wendice, four out of five was enough to decide to hatch an elaborate plot to kill his wealthy wife, whom he has discovered has been cheating on him with Halliday. The wife would be out of the way and Tony would inherit her fortune.

After sending Margot and Halliday out for a night on the town, Tony makes arrangements to meet with Captain Lesgate, aka C.A. Swann (Scott Divine), an old classmate and petty criminal, whom Tony has been stalking for a long time, in order to get incriminating evidence with which he can blackmail the man into doing the murder.

It’s the perfect crime. Tony has thought of everything. Everything, in fact, except Margot surviving the attempted murder and, in the process, killing her attacker.

The investigation part of the story is right out of the 1970s detective series, “Columbo,” with Inspector Hubbard in a rumpled trench coat, always having “just one more question” to ask of Tony, who is forever offering possible answers for unanswered questions, unaware that he may be digging his own grave by doing so.

Matt Miller is at the top of his game (again) as the seemingly affable husband, with the sneering malevolence behind the friendly grin. There is a frenetic energy as he thinks on his feet when his plans go awry and an evil cackle when unexpected twists seem to be making his plan work more beautifully than even he imagined.

Jackie Vanderbeck plays the intimidated wife beautifully. Weighted down by guilt because of her earlier indiscretion, she unquestioningly follows Tony’s orders, even when they seem silly. She was somewhat sabotaged by an Act 1 dress that was just … silly, with a huge ruffle outlining the front of it (fortunately, her subsequent costumes were lovely). When the plot takes an unexpected turn, she is very flustered and displays her confused fragility well.

As for Max Halliday, Margot’s former lover, Hubbard plays him as an open, friendly American, who, at the start of the play, has accepted that his relationship with Margot is over and hopes they can now be friends. Max creates a scenario for Tony to save Margot that is closer to reality than he realizes.

Gary Alan Wright is just great as Inspector Hubbard, who never accepts the police version of who killed Captain Lesgate and keeps sleuthing even after the trial has concluded. He’s the investigator you’d like to have on your side.

Scott Divine as the luckless bungling would-be assassin has a small role, but he makes the most of it, as he slowly realizes how Tony has been playing him for months and how he has been backed into a corner from which he cannot escape.

Making his on-stage debut, Aaron Hitchcock is the policeman, Thompson, whose very brief appearances delight the audience.

“Dial M for Murder” is a great thriller. It’s not a mystery because we know exactly what happens, but watching how the story plays out is the fun of it all. Kudos to director Greg Alexander for commanding a tight ship and creating such an enjoyable evening — even if it does last three hours!

Sunday, March 04, 2012

My Spiritual Death (feature story)

Katie Rubin may just be one of the busiest performers you’re likely to meet.

She is just finishing a run in Capital Stage’s “In the Next Room, The Vibrator Play,” she recently brought her “Amazing & Sage, a Joke-o-so-theom,” to Capital Stage and other stages in Northern and Southern California, and now she is back with her newest one-woman show, “My Spiritual Death, a Comedy Show.”
Her solo show will be presented for two nights only, Friday and Saturday, at Capital Stage in Sacramento.

The UC Davis graduate, now Los Angeles-based actress, already has performed this work several times in Los Angeles and twice in Sacramento.

Can jokes about family trauma, addiction, self-loathing, affirmations, abundance consciousness, new thought-ism and energy healing actually make us laugh?

Rubin had been writing jokes for a long time.

“I had this idea to do a small hour of stand-up material on spirituality and recovery for five years or so,” she explains. “One day I was sick of having these jokes and not doing anything with them, so I contacted my friend Georgia at the Center for Spiritual Awareness and said ‘Let’s do a show in three months.’ In that three-month period of time I turned all of my jokes into a show.”

Unlike her previous shows, “Amazing and Sage” and “Insides Out,” this show is less personal.

“It has two characters who create a kind of narrative structure and the jokes happen at the end,” Rubin says.

“This was easier to do than the first two shows,” she adds. “In part, because I already had all the material, but also because it was not so personal to me, it wasn’t so gut-wrenching and painful and connected to my own inner journey, it was more about people I had observed outside of myself.

“It’s easier to create a character when it’s not your own story. The character who narrates the show is an amalgam of many people I met in 12-step rooms, but the narrator of the show is not me.”

Anyone who has watched the actress in any of her one-woman shows knows how frenetic she works, creating various characters and displaying conflicting emotions rapidly and seamlessly as she bounces about the stage.

“My Spiritual Death” runs “a nice tight hour,” she explains, adding that the show doesn’t have a formal director.

“It’s not a show that requires much direction,” Rubin says. “I have a couple of friends I trust in L.A. who are giving me feedback when I have performed it in L.A. a few times. They have given really useful feedback that has functioned as a directorial eye.”

Rubin is expanding her performing opportunities. She divides her time between Sacramento and Los Angeles, where she is involved with Rogue Machine Theater, which she describes as “The Capital Stage of Los Angeles — a really edgy, interesting, high-energy, smart company.”

She also has begun auditioning at large equity houses in Los Angeles and all of the equity principal auditions for Broadway touring shows and larger houses.

“I feel like I’m on a good track,” Rubin says. “People say good things, and often have me sing a second song, which means they are interested in you.”

I asked the actress how she deals with the inevitable rejection that comes with life in the theater, and she thanks her 12-step work for that.

“I have a very specific emotional and spiritual process that I use that helps me deal with the heartaches that come with all the rejection,” she explains. “When I was in New York, I met an actress who was working successfully on Broadway. She said to me, ‘the best advice I can give you is find a way to grieve all of your losses because you will get rejected more than you will get accepted so you have to accept it or you’re going to be bitter or go crazy or quit.’

“That has stayed with me. I knew that she was right. I was never very good at doing that until the last few years until I went to my healing school. where I learned how to meet the needs of my own heart and tend to myself.

“When I’m rejected. there is a way that it needs to be addressed so I don’t just suck it in and pull up my bootstraps. I don’t believe in that any more. I don’t agree with ‘tough it up’ mentality.

“Now I believe it is about softening and deepening and coming into contact with the part of ourselves that feels so hurt and sad and unloved and nurturing those parts of ourselves.”

Katie Rubin isn’t feeling hurt and sad and unloved these days, however. She is on fire and good things are happening for her.

“My Spiritual Death, a Comedy Show” is one of those good things, and should be a good thing for those in the audience fortunate enough to see it.