Wednesday, February 27, 2013


It is highly unlikely that when the Davis Musical Theatre Company was choosing its spring show for 2013, there was any reason to believe that at the same time the city of Davis would be embroiled in a discussion over water. Nor was there any reason to believe that — facing sequestration — the U.S. Department of the Interior would issue a statement threatening to lock all bathrooms in national parks if massive budget cuts take place.

But that is what is happening in the real world, while in the DMTC theater audiences are howling uproariously at Mark Hollmann’s and Greg Kotis’ musical “Urinetown,” a show that takes place in some dystopian society were water is at a premium, private bathrooms are outlawed and all citizens must pay to pee. The authors explain that this is “theater of the absurd, not absurd theater.”

Director Steve Isaacson calls it “the show with the worst title in Broadway history but one of the funniest shows.”

For a show with the worst title in Broadway history, this little musical has done well for itself. It was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, and won best book, score and direction. It also won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Best Musical. It ran 965 performances at the Henry Miller Theatre, closing only because the producers were notified that the theater was being torn down.

For Isaacson, it had long been a dream to bring “Urinetown” to the Davis Musical Theatre Company ever since he first saw it on Broadway. Now his dream has become reality and the decision was an excellent one. This is a fun show from start to finish, with a strong cast who are each perfect for their roles.

Starting the show is Tev Ditter as Officer Lockstock, whose partner is Officer Barrel (Steve Mo). Ditter is square-jawed and steely eyed, someone you expect to have just walked off the pages of a Dick Tracy cartoon. Lockstock is the narrator of the show, telling the story to Little Sally. The two make fun of both the show and of musical theater.

Little Sally (Cassie March), a street kid, wise beyond her years, warns people that this is not a happy musical, but Lockstock knows that, as narrator, nothing bad can happen to him.

Private toilets have been outlawed, and now the public must pay to use the restroom. These public amenities are run by corporate giant UGC (Urine Good Company), headed by the evil Caldwell B. Cladwell (Richard Spierto).

If citizens relieve themselves in public or refuse to pay the fee, they are sent off to the dreaded Urinetown, a secret place that Lockstock promises the audience will be revealed in Act 2.

Bobby Strong (an impressive performance by Joshua Smith), is the janitor at the poorest, dirtiest facility in the worst part of town, run by Penny Pennywise. Strong decides to start a revolution after his father, Old Man Strong (Adam Sartain), is arrested for urinating in the street when he has no money to pay to use the facilities.

Pennywise is played by Andrea Eve Thorpe, showing once again the breadth of her talent, playing a harsh, cruel penny-pincher who is hiding her own secret.

This show parodies such Broadway classics as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Les Miserables” and “West Side Story” (among others), a triumph for choreographer Pamela Lourentzos, who hits her peak with the “Cop Song” and the Act 1 finale, both of which are stunning (and hilarious).

Costume designer Jean Henderson, whose costume design is always wonderful, hits highest marks with the “Fiddler on the Roof” spoof.

(The problem with reviewing this show is that a big part of the fun are the surprises that pop up, and I don’t want to give anything away!)

Despite the title, this show is a gem with an excellent story and songs, performed beautifully by the DMTC cast under Isaacson’s direction.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Tis Pity She's a Whore

I find myself on the horns of a dilemma about Studio 301′s production of “Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” playing at the UC Davis Science and Lecture Hall on Hutchison Drive.

While the performers were — for the most part — quite good, it was perhaps the directorial decisions of Mitchell van Landingham and the rudeness of the audience — who are always prone in these student-run productions to laugh at their friends on stage — that turned this tragedy of incest, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, betrayal, depravity, murder and dismemberment into a rollicking comedy.

It’s not that the humor wasn’t fun, but I don’t think this is what playwright John Ford, who wrote this 17th century classic, had in mind.

There were several confusing things about this production. For one thing, it is set in “Parma, Oklahoma” though Shakespearean-type English is spoken throughout. The set consists of a long clothesline that spans the stage and is hung with sheets and underwear, though absolutely nothing is made of the clothesline and it appears only to separate the audience from “backstage,” and perhaps give the effect of a trailer trash-type environment, which makes the very proper English even more incongruous.

However, the settings are provided by photographs projected on the back wall, everything from a typical Midwestern home, to something looking more like a mansion one might find in Europe, to a brick-lined street that certainly would not be found in Oklahoma (especially since one of the businesses on the street has the word “Wharf” in its name). With the plethora of photographs available on the Internet, certainly something vaguely coherent could have been chosen.

I understand the challenges provided by a very small budget, and there is nothing wrong (nor innovative) about setting a classic piece in modern times, but nothing went together logically in this production and the total effect was jarring.

At the start of the play, Giovanni (Robert Hansen) is confessing his sexual feelings for his sister Annabella (Callie Heyer) with his tutor, Friar Bonaventura (Sarah Cohen), who tries to convince him that these are evil feelings that should be suppressed. Cohen does an excellent job in this pants role and is passionate as the moral voice of the piece … until the Friar himself succumbs to the temptations of the flesh.

Giovanni, unable to suppress his feelings, confesses them to his sister, who in turn confesses her own love for him and in short order, with the encouragement of the girl’s tutor Putana (Wendy Wyatt Mair) — “What though he be your brother? Your brother’s a man, I hope; and I say still, if a young wench feel the fit upon her, let her take any body, father or brother, all is one.” — they consummate their relationship.

Sadly, there is little to no chemistry between these two characters, and when Giovanni first kisses his sister it is with all the passion he might have given to his great-grandmother. In what should be a very erotic scene, we get nothing, and whatever true passion there might be all apparently occurs behind the clothesline.

When Annabella finds herself pregnant, she agrees to marry Soranzo, a nobleman (Skylar Collins). Soranzo is indeed noble, though turns abusive when he discovers he’s been duped.

His servant Vasquez, as performed by Marcos Sastre III, may be the strongest character in the show. Sastre is flamboyant and chews scenery deliciously.

The pregnancy and marriage set off a series of escalating bloodshed and tragedies which, as presented by Studio 301, continue to inspire giggles and guffaws from the audience. This is not really helped by the fact that the fatal knife work at the end of the play seems to have been accomplished by a number of Boy Scout knives.

Strong performances are given by Ting Jung Lee, as Hippolita, Sastre’s rejected lover, and Alyssa Parsons, as Florio, the siblings’ mother.

If director van Landingham intended to make light of Ford’s tragedy, he succeeded, and the result was enjoyed by the audience, though I suspect the playwright would not have approved.

Friday, February 01, 2013

The North Plan

I have watched, with great pleasure, the development of Katie Rubin as a performer, since I first saw her in "The Laramie Project" at UCD back in 2004. I have watched her grow as an actor, a very funny comedienne, and a master of physical comedy.

Her talents serve her well in the hilariously funny comedy, "The North Plan" now at Capital Stage in Sacramento. The show is directed by Peter Mohrmann, who obviously has a great sense of comic timing and a flare for creating tension.

The show starts with Rubin as Tanya Shepke, in a holding cell of a small town in So. Missouri. Tanya turned herself in for driving drunk and was immediately arrested on several outstanding warrants, and she is furious because she feels she should be applauded for doing the right thing and turning herself in in the first place.

In her opening monologue, and brief verbal interactions with jail attendant Shonda Cox (Alexandra Barthel), Rubin is at her best, her body language and facial features eloquently complementing her continuing rant against the officer who arrested her.

Barthel is perfectly cast as Shonda, giving her character the personna of the stereotypical underpaid, unappreciated civil servant, bored with her job, fed up with prisoners like Tanya and completely unsympathetic to anything Tanya might have to say. Barthel takes it to the next level in Act 2, where she battles her scruples beautifully and displays her own expertise at comedy.

Into this scene comes Chief Swenson (Harry Harris) with prisoner Carlton Berg (Cassidy Brown), a political dissident arrested on orders from Homeland Security. It is Carlton’s rants which set the stage for the meat of the show.

Harris gives us an Andy Griffith kind of sheriff, a good man at heart who wants to do the right thing, but doesn't quite know what the right thing is.

The program explains that "The North Plan" refers to a secret military contingency plan titled Readiness Exercise 1984, co-authored by Oliver North and designed to test the federal government’s ability to suspend the Constitution, declare martial law, and detain large numbers of American citizens deemed to be "national security threats."

Playwright Jason Wells says that he had been thinking about "the hyperbolic political climate of recent years"and the possibility for a military coup. The play is the result of his machinations, set in a time when all civil liberties have been suspended in the name of "homeland security."

Carlton, a State Department employee, has apparently stolen "the data base of data bases," which profiles the membership of every organization the provisional government doesn’t trust. He also has the Enemies list, the names of everyone who is going to start making those whom they think are a threat to their new government disappear.

"They’re arresting people. They’re re-censoring the media. The army is surrounding major cities."

Carlton hopes to enlist either Shonda’s help or Tanya’s help to get the information out of his computer in the evidence room and get it to his friend in Houston, who apparently will know what to do with it. This is the premise of this comedy and sets off a lot of very funny situations.

Brown as Carlton is very intense. He’s a man who knows his life is at risk, who feels he can save the country and who is desperate to find someone who will help him.

The Homeland Security team of Dale Pittman (William Elsman) and Bob Lee (Andrew Perez) could not have been better cast. The very tall Elsman has a sneer that is certain to chill the soul, and Perez is a fraction of his height and very intimidated, though determined to get credit for his part of the action.

Pittman is ready (and apparently eager) to torture and kill for the new government, as long as he has official permission to do so, so he can’t be faulted for it. His zeal matches Carlton’s, but his ambition is greater.

Capitol Stage has posted an word about gun violence in the play. "While ‘The North Plan’ is not a play about guns, the use of firearms in Act Two is central to the play’s story line. When this title was selected in the spring of 2012, none of us anticipated the tragic shootings that our nation, and more recently our city, would experience." The group invites interested audience members to attend the performances on February 3, 7, and 17 to discuss the play with the artists and other audience members.