Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Midsummer Night's Dream

Love is in the air at the Sacramento Theatre Company, as once again the company presents one of Shakespeare’s most beloved classics, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Director Christine Nicholson has given us a more modern version, set in the early 20th century, with colorful costumes by Jessica Minnihan. Nine actors play all 23 roles, several playing three different roles, which is occasionally confusing, especially keeping the queens straight.

The play tells several stories, each of which occurs during a single summer night in and around the forest and palace of an imagined Athens, in which fairies play pranks on lovesick mortals, earnest youths endure comical romantic confusion, and a group of mechanics attempts to rehearse a play in secret.

King Thesius (Troy Thomas) and Hippolyta (Carolyn Howarth) are discussing plans for their upcoming nuptials. But plans are interrupted by the arrival of Egeus (Michael RJ Campbell), a nobleman asking for help in forcing his daughter Hermia (Melanie Marshall) to marry Demetrius (Brent Bianchini), the husband of his choosing, though she is in love with Lysander (Anthony Person).

To further complicate things, Hermia’s friend Helena (Elizabeth Holzman) is in love with Demetrius — setting the stage for all of the twists and turns that develop over the course of the story.

Hermia and Lysander flee Athens into the woods, intending to be married at the home of his aunt. They are followed by Demetrius, determined to win Hermia’s hand, and Helena, determined to win the hand of Demetrius.

A group of mechanics are rehearsing in the woods, under the direction of Quince (Campbell). His four actors are Nick Bottom (Matt K. Miller), the weaver, who plays Pyramus in the troupe’s production of “Pyramus and Thisbe” to be presented later for Thesius’ wedding; Bianchini as Flute, the young man who argues against appearing as the very feminine Thisbe; Person as Starveling, a stereotypical backwoodsman who would rather whittle than perform; and Holzman as Snout, the tinker, who also plays the Wall.

The play within a play is wonderfully bad and the wall is handled beautifully with flowing garments and an interesting kind of “chink.”

This is an uneven production, but the good far outweighs the less good. In the less good category is the set by Anna Katherine Mantz. A large box sits in the middle of the stage and has no real discernible practical reason for being there, other than as a perch for Puck (Jason Oler) from time to time, and makes the rest of the stage seem crowded. It does open up to allow for action to take place inside, but it seems intrusive.

STC audience favorites Campbell and Miller raise any production a notch higher and this is no exception. Campbell is at his best as Quince, trying desperately to direct a production of “Pyramus and Thisbe” to be presented later to King Thesius (Thomas, who also plays Oberon, the king of the fairies).

Miller is Bottom, the egotistical would-be actor, who wants to play all the roles, because he knows that he can do each better than anybody else. (His instructions for how to play a lion are very funny.) When Puck turns him into a donkey, a simple cap-like piece is used rather than a full head mask, giving Titania the opportunity to have a lot of suggestive fun with the ears.

No program credit is given for incidental music, which occasionally blends nicely with the action on stage, but more often than not is intrusive and, during the intermission, downright annoying.

The fairies finally undo all the mischief they caused, and Puck offers amends to the other characters, and apologizes to the audience for anything that might have offended. This weak and idle theme was no more yielding than a dream.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


“Tribute” by Bernard Slade — perhaps better known for the play “Same Time Next Year” and his work in television productions such as “Bewitched,” “The Flying Nun” and “The Partridge Family” — is rarely performed, and it’s a shame. It’s a gem of a play, nicely balancing comedy with tragedy and leaving the audience feeling both good and sad at the end.

Director Dean Shellenberger has brought this play to the Woodland Opera House, and what a gift he has given to theatergoers of this area.

“Tribute” is a seven-person play that rises or falls on the character of Scottie Templeton, a man who is the person Murray of “A Thousand Clowns” would be if he were in his 50s. He has squandered his life and has ruined two marriages. He’s a Broadway press agent who can make anyone like him, but is so happy-go-lucky, he can’t take anything seriously.

But, we like Scottie for the same reason his friends like him — he’s totally charming, he loves life and he refuses to think of the negative. If the actor isn’t believably charming, the play would fall on its face.

Actor Bob Cooner is delightful, charming, lovable and frustrating all at once. Along with his ex-wife Maggie (Julie Bock) and best friend Lou (Walt Thompson), we roll our eyes at yet another dumb mistake Scottie has made.

The play begins at a tribute for Scottie, held in a theater because what other place would be large enough to hold all of his friends? Scottie, you see, was diagnosed with end-stage leukemia. The doctor (Georgann Wallace) says he has just a few months to live. The play follows his acceptance of the diagnosis and his attempt to establish a relationship with his adult son, Jud (Brent Randolph) with whom he has never been able to bond.

Randolph is suitably uptight and self-absorbed, a young man filled with anger who somehow — as the play progresses — begins to break down the walls he has been hiding behind for all of his life.

Maggie is the heart of the play, with her continuing love for Scottie (though apparently she is happily re-married), taking care of him as she would a child, with the overtones of a satisfactory sex life behind them.

Lou is the continuing thread through the play, who hosts the tribute and always seems to turn up when Scottie needs his friend. Walt Thompson is as likeable as Lou as Cooner is as Scottie.

Other characters who fill out the play include Leasa Talmadge as Salley, Scottie’s latest female acquaintance, whom he tries to set up with Jud, feeling the young man needs a woman in his life. Talmadge wears the most beautiful red costume of the play, designed by Denise Miles.

Jen Smuda-Cotter is Hilary, an ex-hooker and longtime friend of Scottie.

Wallace is that rare creature — a doctor who makes house calls. She is a gruff doctor, whose affection for Scottie can’t be denied and who desperately tries to get him to agree to take the treatment that could prolong his life.

Set design is by John Bowles, a two-level apartment big enough to hold a grand piano. The one thing I love about Woodland sets is they are all so solid. When someone slams a door in this play (which happens often), there isn’t a single tremor through the rest of the set … it’s as solid as your own house. The “tribute” portion of the play takes place in front of a curtain that is lowered in front of the apartment set.

This is a play with lots of chuckles throughout, though the audience is never far from thinking about the meaning of life and how one makes one’s mark in the world.

The Opera House was less than half full on opening night, which I felt was terribly sad because this is a good play and the performances are outstanding. I hope more people will turn out to see it during the remainder of its run.


“Flash: A New Choreography” is the latest work created and choreographed by Qudus Onikeku, UC Davis Granada Artist-in-Residence and preeminent performance artist known for his Yoruba culture-based choreography that fuses together movement philosophies of hip-hop, capoeira and Nigerian masquerade tradition.

Onikeku’s poetic and multidisciplinary attempt to present painful memories runs through Sunday at the Main Theatre in  Wright Hall at UCD.

“All my work as a creative artist has been a series of possibilities of responding to issues that affect me primarily, and those that affect the permanent human values which I defend,” Onikeku said. “I know that my audience is not particularly concerned with these matters before coming to the theater, so it then becomes my responsibility to find other interesting and spectacular ways of reaching out and communicating.”

Onikeku grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, where survival of the fittest was the rule, “the continual crushing of one another, killings and lust for power.”

“How can we live with love in our hearts, with laughter and joy, when there have been and continue to be inhuman cruelties and murders committed every second of every day?” he asked.

“Flash” is not an uplifting work, but it is one that will profoundly affect the audience. The stage is bare, covered with black soil and fabric panels running around the outside. There is a cast of one narrator (Lindsey Beamish) and 10 dancers: Cynthia Arellanes, Mary Ann Brooks, Nicole Casado, Zach Heinzer, Mariah Heller, Hien Huynh, Manami Ii, Maribel Lopez, Jake Parkhurst and David Shih.

The 10 work as an ensemble, within which each dancer is encouraged to create his or her own character that integrates into the whole. Onikeu’s approach is innovative since he integrates improvisational and choreographic techniques. He also works with character and draws out the unique genius of each performer.
Beginning with the “nothingness” that is the world and the “spark” that creates the flash that directs the play, the narrator sets emotional scenes, to which the dancers react. In the first scene, for example, the narrator is describing the murder of a mother and her child as witnessed and, in some sense directed, by her son. It is a tale that doubles you over in pain and the pain is elaborately expressed by the dancers.

There is one brief “happy dance,” where the dancers rejoice in their lives, only to have the horror of their situation brought home to then again.

Brooks is spotlighted as she expresses her own pain eloquently. “I have been challenged as a performer — dancing from the inside out and not controlling the dance but letting the dance have its own life,” she said. “As dancers, we’re taught to control our movements, yet Qudus is teaching us how to allow the dance to develop and become something larger than us and our habitual dancing patterns.”

A girl carrying cheeses home for her mother comes upon a group of refugees, obviously starving, and she tries to share her cheese with them, until threatened by soldiers to move on or join the group.

The final scene graphically represents carnage, as a machete-wielding soldier attacks the people of a village. Anyone who has seen “Hotel Rwanda,” or has followed the carnage taking place in many African countries, will find the story familiar. As the machete came down again and again and again, I was reminded of our friend Victor, a refugee from the carnage taking place in then-Zaire. One night a police car stopped in our driveway and Victor was terrified. Later, he told us “when the police come to your house in Zaire, it is to kill you.”

I pictured Victor and his family as I watched the finale of this powerful work. Onikeku had brought that very real scenario of my friend to life for me and I felt changed by it.

Following opening night, there was a question-and-answer session and one dancer summed up the experience very well, saying that it was “an interesting journey of self-discovery.”

Whether on stage or in the audience, I suspect everyone will leave Wright Hall having been on their own journey of self-discovery, with greater awareness of what is going on in the world around us.

Monday, March 11, 2013


Dan Goggin apparently enjoyed his Catholic school upbringing so much that he decided to honor those wacky nuns of whom he was so fond. He penned a cabaret show called “The Nunsense Story,” which opened for a four-day run and was so popular it was extended to 38 weeks.

Encouraged, he expanded his original concept into a full-length comedy called “Nunsense,” which opened off-Broadway and ran for an unbelievable 10 years, the second longest running off-Broadway show (second only to “The Fantasticks”). By the time it ended its run, it had been translated into 26 different languages and had seen more than 8,000 productions worldwide.

It spawned a whole industry for Goggin, with (so far) five sequels to the original production. The Winters Community Theatre presented the third of these, “Nuncrackers, the Nunsense Christmas Musical,” in 2002 and now it is bringing the original to the stage.

“Nunsense” is a great show for community theater. There are only five in the cast (six, if you count Sister Mary Melody — Debi Bowen, who plays the piano accompaniment), there are no costume changes, and the set can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it.

What it does require is five talented actresses who can sing, dance and deliver corny old jokes and get the audience to laugh (or audibly groan) every time. Winters has found these actresses.

The story involves the Little Sisters of Hoboken — who once worked in a leper colony in the south of France — who are now living in New Jersey, after having been ousted by Protestant missionaries

While several of the sisters were out playing bingo with a bunch of Maryknolls, their cook, Sister Julia, Child of God (that’s one of the groaners) accidentally poisons 52 of the nuns with her tainted vichyssoise. The remaining sisters managed to bury all but four of the departed when they ran out of money and discovered that the Mother Superior took some of the money raised to buy a flat-screen TV.  So the four remaining are being kept in the freezer (“blue nuns,” you might say) and the health department is beating at their door.

They have decided to put on a show to raise the rest of the money so they can finally bury their fellow sisters … and thus is the set-up for the rest of the show.

This may be one of the strongest shows I have seen at Winters in a long time, due in large part to the addition of Mary Young, a longtime favorite of Davis Musical Theatre Company audiences, making her Winters debut in this production as Mother Superior Mary Regina, a former circus performer who can’t resist the spotlight. She is a delight to watch.

If you have been raised in Catholic schools, you may find several of your old teachers in the cast, as I did. Sister Mary Hubert is a dead ringer for my old home economics teacher, and I enjoyed Christine Beamer’s performance very much. It doesn’t hurt that she also was a knockout in DMTC’s recent “Follies.” Hubert is the director of novices and aspires to be Superior. Her “Holier than Thou” is the show-stopper of the evening.

When Mother Superior is detained after an Act 1 incident (Young as you’ve never seen her before), Sister Robert Ann (Eleanor Yeatman), the show’s understudy, seizes the moment to reminisce about her childhood at St. Claire’s Catholic School, a beautiful, poignant song about the changes in the modern church. It is a stand-out moment for Yeatman.

Joanie Bryant is the novice, Sister Mary Leo. She is very sweet and wants to be the first ballerina nun. I’m not sure what the Little Sisters are doing with a Daughter of Charity cornette, but Mary Leo dons the headpiece and dances for all the world like The Flying Nun.

Rounding out the gang of five is Sister Amnesia (Linda Glick), who can’t remember who she is but who ultimately comes up with the solution for the burial of the blue nuns just in the nick of time.

The material is dated, some is mildly offensive (I didn’t like the song about the leper colony) and the jokes are corny, but the show is a delight, sure to please anyone, no matter what their religion.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Beauty and the Beast

There were a lot of sleepy little princesses leaving the Sacramento Community Center Theater on opening night of “Beauty and the Beast.”  This is a sure-fire kid pleaser and, given the number of people in the audience without children in tow, it is equally enjoyable for kids of all ages.

It’s a tale as old as time:  She’s the daughter of the crazy old town inventor, ridiculed by the townsfolk for her bookishness and her dreams of finding her prince charming.  He’s a prince with a curse on his head, hiding his hideous form away in a creepy old castle, feared by the townsfolk because he’s “different.”   The two outcasts find each other, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

The touring company of the Tony award-winning “Beauty and the Beast,” directed by Rob Roth, is a big, bold, opulent production that had everyone totally captivated.  The man behind me was a big, loud laugher and I wondered if he’d ever attended a theatrical production before.

Director Roth has managed to tell the simple love story with just enough glitz to keep it moving crisply and always entertaining, but never detracting from the message of seeing truth beneath physical appearance, or discovering the redemptive power of love.

“Beauty and the Beast” was last on the CMT stage in 2000, and was the first show I reviewed, so I have a soft spot in my heart for the show.  But there have been some changes over the years.  Primarily I missed the increasingly intricate costumes of the household staff as they come closer and closer to becoming permanent pieces of household furniture. Other than Cogsworth, the clock, acquiring a wind-up key, there was no change in any of the other costumes. 

I was also disappointed to note that if you didn’t know that “Babette” was supposed to be a feather duster, you would be hard pressed to figure that out, based on her costume.  But those are small complaints.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a technician’s dream, from the lavish sets by Stanley A. Meyer which flew in from above, rolled in from the wings, swivelled on turntables or just hung there looking every bit like the real thing..  And then there were the special effects--candles which ignited at a moment’s notice, sparkles, flashes, strobe lights, a headless kid who didn’t develop legs until the finale, and a transformation from Beast to Prince that would have done David Copperfield proud.

The lighting of Natalie Katz, however, was often too dark and made it difficult to see what was going on on stage. (If I didn’t know how Gaston met his end, I would not have been able to tell from what I could see on stage).  Likewise, the sound of John Petrafesa, Jr., needed serious tweaking.  Many of the conversations between Belle and the Beast were unable to be heard over the orchestra.

Hilary Maiberger is delicious as Belle, the spunky heroine, who, to save her father’s life, agrees to live in the castle of the Beast forever.  Maiberger is not only a beautiful singer, but no slouch in the dancing department either.

Darick Pead as the Beast is fierce and then endearingly tender as his love for Belle grows. His “If I can’t love her” was beautifully poignant.

 Joe Hager, as the town hunk, Gaston, the muscle-bound fool who is determined to marry Belle, swaggers onto the stage like a combination of Jethro Clampet and Li’l Abner.  He’s the villain you love to hate, and as male chauvinists go, none can hold a candle to this Gaston. 

His hapless foil, Maurice (Jimmy Larkin) was a delight, with a body made of rubber as he is routinely whacked about the stage by Gaston.

The supporting players are a marvelous collection of cartoonesque characters. Cogsworth (James May) the fussbudget clock and  Lumiere, the Candlestick holder (Hasan Nazari-Robati) nearly steal the show with their antics and groaners like “You’ve cut me to the wick...”  They are balanced nicely by Erin Edelle, as Mrs. Potts, the teapot, along with her son Chip (played on opening night by Gabriel L. Reis).  (There is a nice bit where Mrs. Potts carries her son on a tray across the stage.)

There are some gems in the smaller rolls, particularly Jessica Lorion as Babette, the feather duster, and Shani Hadhan as Madame de la Grande Bouche.  Taylor D. Colleton, Amanda Grace Holt and Stephanie Moskai as the three silly girls swooning for Gaston are likewise delightful.

The score by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, from a book by  Linda Woolverton, will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Disney animated feature that was the basis for this show.  There are six new songs added for the stage, with lyrics by Tim Rice, plus another song (“Human Again”) with lyrics by Ashman, which was cut from the movie.

Choreography by Matt West is a delight.  It’s not easy to design for dancing pieces of furniture, but West does well and the familiar “Be Our Guest” is a show-stopper.  Lesser known musically, “Gaston,” a drinking song with intricate moves involving beer steins, is absolutely fabulous, and perhaps my favorite number in the show.

This show will make anyone believe that miracles do happen, people can live happily ever after, and that inner beauty can tame the beast.