Monday, February 23, 2015

Dia de los Cuentos

There were a lot of happy, excited children at the opening performance of the new B Street Theater Family Series production, “Dia de los Cuentos.” I had a great view of one little guy, about 5 years old, who sat and watched intently, clapped enthusiastically, talked back to the performers and just about turned himself inside out with delight at the parts that he liked.

“Dia de los Cuentos” (a day of stories) is the 161st original play written by B Street (46 in the Family Series alone) and the first collaboration among B Street writers Buck Busfield, Jerry R. Montoya and David Pierini.

It celebrates Mexican-American folk tales, in celebration of California’s Latino influence. The four stories (a fifth was removed from the production due to union restrictions on length for theater for young audiences) dramatized the myths and fables that remain at the heart of Latino culture.

The multicultural ensemble cast — Nestor Campos Jr., Amy Kelly, Joel Ledbetter, Dena Martinez and Armando Rivera — worked well together and nicely engaged the children in the audience.
Scenic design by Samantha Reno consisted of a few pieces, mostly two large staircases, that were able to be moved around to represent several scenes and sites, with the addition of a table here, a bed there and a few other pieces.

Costumes by Paulette Sand-Gilbert were over the top and brightly colored, to appeal to children. Perhaps the most clever and most colorful was a parrot costume for Dena Martinez, giving her not only a very colorful costume, but gloves that resembled claws, so that when clutching a branch, she looked for all the world like a parrot on her perch.

The stories began with “Pepito the Mouse” (author credit to Montoya), which explains how the tradition of the tooth fairy came to be. Rivera took the lead as Pepito, a mouse who causes his father (Campos) to lose a tooth. His ingenious solution to help his father continue to eat food started the practice of taking teeth from under the pillows of sleeping children and replacing them with something else of value.

“The Legend of Popocatépetl and Itzaccihuatl” (written by Pierini) is a mouthful and even after hearing “Popocatépetl” many times throughout the play, I’m still not sure I can pronounce it as fluently as the cast.

This play explains something that many mountainous locations take for granted, that a beloved mountain peak (like Mount Tamalpais) is really the sleeping body of a princess or a prince. Popocatépetl (Ledbetter) is in love with Itzaccihuatl (Martinez), but goes off to war against the Aztecs, hoping to return victorious, to ask her father (Campos) for her hand in marriage.

But a jealous young man (Rivera) carries the message that Popocatépetl has been killed in battle, thinking that if he professes his own love to Itzaccihuatl she will marry him instead. His plan backfires and in a Romeo and Juliet-like finale, not only is Itzaccihuatl lost, but Popocatépetl as well.

Rivera becomes a B’rer Rabbit-like bunny in “Rabbit and Coyote” (by Busfield), a zany crowd-pleaser filled with slapstick comedy and chase scenes as the clever rabbit outwits both the wily coyote (Kelly) and the hunter (Campos) looking to have hassenpfeffer for dinner. It explains why coyotes howl at the moon.

The show closes with “The Parrot and the Firewood,” with Martinez as a wonderful parrot, owned by a mean old woman (Kelly) and her very sweet, hen-pecked husband (Campos). How the parrot makes life better for the husband offers an unexpected twist, that will have children cheering and  adults laughing.

These shows are designed for children 5 and older, and judging by my little 5-year-old friend in the front row and the two retired women sitting next to me, it is certain to delight all ages.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Flea in Her Ear

There’s a whole lot of laughing going on at the Woodland Opera House by an audience enjoying George Feydeau’s farce, “A Flea in Her Ear,” directed by Rodger McDonald.

This frenzied and hilarious comedy relies on the razor-sharp characterizations of a top-rate cast and the crisp direction of MacDonald (who also plays the libidinous doctor, Finache).
The play was written in 1907, at the height of La Belle Epoque, a period that ended with World War I, in which life was peaceful and the arts flourished. The current production was translated from the French by Barnett Shaw.

The story, told in three acts, is set in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, when Raymonde, wife of Victor Emmanuel (Analise Langford Clark) begins to suspect her husband may be getting a little romance on the side, since their previously active and apparently quite satisfying love life has suddenly come to a screeching halt. (This suspicion is the “flea in her ear.”)

(As an aside, I will mention that the printed program for this production is extremely frustrating. Actors aren’t listed in order of appearance, or alphabetically or, it seems, even in order of importance. Most characters are not called by name by the other characters, and when you have a character named “Raymonde” who turns out to be a girl, and a character named “Camille,” who is a boy, your head can go spinning. (They say you can’t tell the players without a program, but in this production, I had difficulty telling the players even with a program!)

But I digress. Back to the show. Raymonde confides in her best friend, Lucienne (Kirsten Myers), who suggests that her friend play a little trick on her husband to see if her fears are confirmed. She suggests that Raymonde send him an anonymous letter from a secret admirer, offering to meet him at the local seedy hotel, Le Coq D’or (“door,” not “di-or,” as some in the cast insist on calling it) for a little rendezvous.

Raymonde likes the idea, but knows that her husband will recognize her handwriting, so Lucienne writes the letter for her. As Lucienne is married to a hot-tempered and passionate Spaniard, Don Carlos Homenides de Histingua (Gabe Avila), we can see what is coming when all of the mixups occur in Act 2.

Standouts in this production include Steve McKay as Victor Emmanuel and, later, his doppelganger, the Coq D’Or bellhop Pochel. His transformations — which involve both quick costume changes and personality changes from the prim and proper Victor to the laconic and confused Poche and back again — are wonderful.

Another outstanding performance is by Brent Randolph as Camille Chandebise, Victor’s nephew who suffers from a speech impediment leaving him unable to pronounce consonants. I don’t know how long it took Randolph to perfect the impediment, but he does it eloquently, broadly and impeccably, giving long speeches that are all but unintelligible until he is given a little instrument to insert in his mouth to correct it. When he loses it later, in mid-harangue, and immediately switches back to his old impediment, it’s brilliant.

McDonald himself, always wonderful, does not disappoint in this role. The women, Clark and Myers, carry most of the first scene and are prim and proper and somewhat soft-spoken so one had to strain to understand them. There was none of that problem with MacDonald, who confidently strode in the door and took over the stage, and we could all heave a sigh of relief knowing we were in excellent hands.

Gil Sebastian plays Victor’s best friend Romain Tournel, smitten with Raymonde and delighted when she turns up at Le Coq D’or, thinking she is finally going to give in to his amorous advances.

Avila, costumed in the bright red and yellow of a Spanish soldier about to do battle and wielding a long sword, is in stark contrast, both visually and temperamentally, to the rest of the cast. He makes the most of the chance to be outrageous.

Tim Gaffaney is Ferallon, the manager of Le Coq D’or, who spends most of the second act kicking Victor/Poche in the backside.

The meat of the show occurs in Act 2, which is reminiscent of the second act of “Noises Off,” with so many coming and going, so many things going wrong, and so many misunderstandings, so many doors. It will leave the audience breathless with laughter, especially the diversion while the set crew changes back to the first-act set in the brief stay-in-your-seat second intermission.

So when all the world is a hopeless jumble and the raindrops tumble all around, leave your troubles outside and come to the Woodland Opera House for a good two hours of fun and laughter.