Friday, September 30, 2016

Tom Burmester (feature)

“This ‘Gospel’ is chapter and verse one of the finest war plays in recent memory.”

That’s what the Los Angeles Times wrote about Tom Burmester’s “Gospel According to First Squad,” currently on stage at UC Davis.

It’s high praise for Burmester, who grew up in Davis, and is now making a name for himself in theater in Los Angeles and other places where his works are presented.

“Gospel” is the third in what ultimately will be a four-play “War Cycle.” Burmester is working on the script for the fourth play, while considering the current show still a “work in progress.”

I asked how a kid raised in a nuclear-free town, a city of all things right and relevant, developed such an interest in writing about war. While he would not pinpoint his interest on his upbringing, he explained that “a lot of it came from my dad,” Dave Burmester, now retired and a beloved former English teacher at Davis High School.

“I took as many of his classes as I could when I was in high school and I remember a fascinating unit on war literature,” Tom Burmester said. “Some of that probably rubbed off on me.”

The Gulf War was being waged when Tom was a senior in high school and he saved every article he could find from the San Francisco Chronicle “just because I had a sense that there was something significant happening and I was going to want to look back on that time and remember.”

In 2004, after graduating from UCLA, he and other out-of-work professional and non-professional actors founded the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, which formed partly with funds raised during a Ghostlight Theatre Festival here in Davis.

The Ensemble ultimately became “The Powerhouse” after the group took over an old Southern California Edison building in Santa Monica. They performed there for several years until the lease expired and the landlord hiked the rent so high that even with box-office income and grants from Santa Monica, the young company couldn’t make it.

The first thing the Ensemble did was a production of Burmester’s thesis project from UCLA, but it was a two-person play and, realizing that it’s hard to build a group around two people, they decided to “create something.” A socially conscious group, they wanted something relevant and decided to focus on the war in Iraq.

He explained, “We were at war, but none of us felt like we were at war.” He was working for a group called Rock the Vote, and doing research for a paper on the issue of bringing back the military draft.
“When you have a universal draft, you can’t ignore the war,” he said.

The bill didn’t pass, but the members of the ensemble took this issue on, and decided to have a season that examined the overlooked.

“The news was into this idea of the counter of how many had been killed. It was ticking up to 2,000,” Burmester said. “That’s not really overlooked, but what is overlooked is the wounded. When you are wounded it not only changes your life, but the lives of everyone around you.”

They started doing research into that, but since no members of the group had been to war and none of them had been wounded, they knew they had to go to the source. Burmester tried to connect with people in the Army. He wanted to go to Walter Reed Hospital, but was not able to get past the bureaucratic barriers.

Then help came from an unlikely source. Through Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon, Burmester learned of a nonprofit organization, Fisher House, that serves the military. It maintains homes on military campuses that are specifically for severely wounded veterans and their families. The philosophy is that healing takes place more holistically and faster when the patient is surrounded by loved ones.

“I flew out there and spent a couple of days and they were happy to have me there,” he said. “Once Fisher House had me as a guest, I was able to get into Walter Reed.”

Burmester then talked with a lot of veterans, but concentrated on three — a combat medic named Joda whose eyes had been blown out in an explosion, Bill Pepper (on whom a Doonesbury character is based), and Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs, and is currently the congresswoman from Illinois’ 8th District.

“They were generous with their stories,” Burmester said. “For me it was definitely a transformative experience. I interviewed them and they gave their permission to use their stories.”

He explained that this would be a fictional story, but their stories would lend verisimilitude to the project.

“We felt accountable to these people whose stories we were borrowing. The script is grounded in reality so that there is an honoring of their stories. We’re not trivializing anything.”

The first play was “Wounded,” which had one performance in Los Angeles and then was performed here in Davis.

” ’Wounded’ cuts much deeper than I expected,” wrote Don Shirley of LA City Beat. “It’s not a pity-the-poor-cripples, curse-the-Bushie-bureaucrats play. It looks unsparingly at the choices that face the soldiers in Iraq, the wounded who return, their families and friends — and, by extension, the American public and their elected representatives.

“Conceived by the ensemble, it has been shaped by writer-director Tom Burmester into a gripping edge-of-the-seat experience.”

“Wounded” was performed in Los Angeles and it did so well that the group staged it again the next year. The 2007 production also was successful but they thought “We can’t keep doing it over and over again.” Yet they still felt the responsibility to tell stories about the war, to hold themselves responsible and culpable for the lack of awareness.

The second in the cycle, “Nation of Two,” which opened in 2010, focused attention on the grief of a family preparing to scatter the ashes of their son, killed in Iraq, one year after his death. The idea came from a Christopher Hitchins article in Vanity Fair about a man named Mark, who had joined the ROTC while a student at UCLA, became a lieutenant and was deployed to Iraq, where he was killed.
“I was particularly interested in the widow,” Burmester said. “She looked nothing like my idea of a war widow. She was in her early 20s, young and hip. We developed a relationship with her and the rest of Mark’s family.

“As they shared their stories, I learned that each deals with grief in a different way. There was a difference in the way they wanted to remember Mark. It’s the story of the family, but the central character is missing.”

Actor/director Danika Sudik, who later became Burmester’s wife, came onto the scene at this point. As a war widow herself, she had a special interest in this story, especially the conflicts that can erupt among the survivors.

“I understand things a lot better than I did in 2008,” Sudik said. “Working on the development of this play was a lovely way to look at things in a way that I probably never would have otherwise.”

The group started looking again for what to do and realized they had yet to deal with actual combat. There was a photo spread in Rolling Stone by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that featured portraits of soldiers in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, and Burmester was struck by the images.

“There was so much storytelling in the photos themselves that it became a launching point,” he said. “We managed to connect with a few folks who had served in combat in Afghanistan. It was important that they had been in combat, so they could explain that experience to us.”

Added Sudik, “The thing I remember most about them was how reticent they were to actually say the words. They were holding back and skirting around the topic, but it seemed like they really did want to talk about it all.

“Finally we told them they could say anything and we were not going to be offended or judgmental. They were relieved and the things that came out that are in the play — things that they were embarrassed to talk about, like sexual dysfunction and psychological issues that happened to them while they were there, and after they returned home — that really stuck with me, as a woman.
“They’re in this place where there are no women and how much that affected the way they were talking and acting with each other.”

“That’s a lot of what ‘Gospel’ is,” Burmester explained. “The guys are deployed in a very remote location. One of the things they talked about that stuck with me was that the farther away you are from the generals and the colonels, the more out in the field you are, there’s more of a sense of omnipotence. A gun gives you power. There’s more of a sense of not needing to adhere to rules, but being the ones that make the rules.

“We were also fortunate that one of the cast members in our original cast had served in Afghanistan in combat, so he was able to check us. When we were in our original run in L.A., occasionally a veteran would pull me aside and say, ‘You might want to look at this. … There’s a little detail here that’s not quite right.’ ”

One difference in this production is that since Sudik is pursuing a master of fine arts in directing, “Gospel” has an all-female production team.

““It has been awesome to get all these different perspectives and they’re so young, too, so they are going through their own interactions and everything is super-hypercharged,” Sudik said. “The things that they are noticing and are drawing out in the story are strengthening it so much.”

Burmester added, “It’s about this culture that we’re creating and that we are condoning. This is our American face as seen by part of the world. What does that mean? What are we creating for these men to come home to?

“So much of this play is about ideals and what we say is important to us. And then what actually happens to a person when the rubber hits the road? And how that changes, and how you justify your choices,” he continued.

“One thing I’m proud of — ‘Gospel’ is not glorifying the war. The media that we consume is about the hero story. We latch onto that and we have the American hero in our corner. But the issues are so much more complex than sound bites. We’re defining ourselves by our tweets. What does that mean?”

But that is a subject for another play.

“Gospel” is a reunion of old Acme Theatre Company alumni. In addition to Tom Burmester, Steven Schmidt, the tech director for the B Street Theatre in Sacramento, is doing tech direction for this show, and Chad Fisk, another Acme alum who went on to become an actor in the Bay Area, is doing fight preparation.

“This show has a lot of brutal hand-to-hand combat,” Fisk said. “There is one huge melee where there are six people fighting simultaneously — which involved lots of note-taking. Many in the cast are new to acting and new to fights, so I’m teaching them how to do it safely. When fights look too polished, I made them look more raw and ugly.

“It’s a great show with an amazing script,” Fisk promises.

Nearly 20 years ago, Tom Burmester realized he wanted to put a face to “the overlooked” — and with this war cycle, he certainly has done that.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Speed the Plow

I waited patiently throughout David Mamet’s 80-minute one-act “Speed-the-Plow” now at the B Street Theatre in Sacramento, certain that the show itself would give me a clue as to what the title meant. But it didn’t.

After the show, a circle of critics also each admitted that they did not know what it meant either. Aren’t we lucky to be living in the age of Google?

“God speed the plough” comes from a 15th-century work song and was a prayer for prosperity and productivity.

Mamet himself explained that he saw a saying on an old plate — “ ‘Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow.’ This, I knew, was a play about work and about the end of the world, so ‘Speed-the-Plow’ was perfect because not only did it mean work, it meant having to plow under and start over again.”

Mamet took his interpretation to the world of corporate Hollywood, specifically Bobby Gould (Dave Pierini), who has just been made head of production for a major movie studio and a down-on-his-luck colleague Charlie Fox (Kurt Johnson). This satire about the movie business gives the audience a glimpse of how things really work in the art of the Hollywood deal.

Charlie has just had the offer of a lifetime. A big Hollywood star has read one of his scripts and wants to star in the movie. Charlie is there to get Bobby to green-light the project. The two men are positively orgasmic at the bright future they see before them, with this big-name star and this violent prison/action movie. It will be the surefire blockbuster of the season and Bobby’s slump will be over.
There’s just one hitch: The paperwork needs to be finalized by 10 a.m the next day and the head of the studio will be out of town until then. Not to worry, Bobby assures his friend. The deal is as good as done.

Into the meeting comes Bobby’s temporary secretary, Karen (Stephanie Altholz), tall (in those 4-inch spike heels) and impossibly thin, but well proportioned. The men make all sorts of sexist comments about her after she leaves. Charlie bets Bobby $500 that he cannot seduce Karen.

To set the stage, Charlie engages Karen in discussion about plays he is considering and especially one very thick book called “The Bridge or, Radiation and the Half-Life of Society,” which he has been asked to read as a “courtesy,” though the studio has no intention of making it.

In the next scene, Karen comes to Bobby’s house with the thick book liberally marked with dozens of Post-It notes and she raves about the book and how it changed her life. She tries to convince Bobby that Charlie’s play is garbage and that he should produce this play. During the course of the discussion, she becomes the seductress.

In the final scene, a subdued Bobby admits to Charlie that he has changed his mind about which play he is going to green-light. Charles’ reaction and surprising revelations about Karen round out the action and bring the play to its surprising conclusion.

Mamet is known for wordy plays, and for a three-person play that is dialog-driven to work, the actors must be top-notch and the dialog needs to snap, crackle and pop. In this superb production directed by Jerry Montoya, it does just that.

Pierini and Johnson are excellent as the good-old-boy Hollywood mogul types. Pierini is particularly notable for the change from Scene 2 to 3, where his demeanor becomes slow and steady, in opposition to his high spirits of the first two scenes.

Altholz is just great as the not-so-dumb office temp who shows she is capable of doing more than just pouring coffee for the men. Her subtle shift from naive, submissive temp to take-charge seductress is masterful.

This is a first-rate production for the B Street Theatre.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Death of a Salesman

Ed Claudio
Fredric March, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman and Lee J. Cobb are some of the A-list actors who have played the iconic Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman,” now being presented by the Actors Workshop of Sacramento at the California Stage complex, under the direction of Eason Donner.

Now Sacramento’s grand old man of theater, Ed Claudio, has taken on the role of Willy Loman, a role that has been on his bucket list since he first played it for only two weeks 15 years ago. “It’s my favorite role. My favorite play,” says Claudio, who believes now is his time, before he gets “too old to do it.”

How fortunate we are that he made this decision. From the moment Willy shuffles through the front door, bent over with the weight of his grips, and wearily makes his way to the bedroom, Claudio is Willy Loman.

(No program credit is given for set design, but the cozy, if tired, two-story house of 1940s Brooklyn is perfect.)

This is not a happy play. It is the story of a man nearing the end of his life, beaten down by a profession that used to hold him in high regard, a son who failed to fulfill the promise his father had for him, and a life that just hasn’t turned out the way he expected it to.

Willy has been a salesman all of his life, and in his younger days was well respected by the buyers around the country, and was good friends with the owner of the company for which he worked.

But the world is changing.

New people don’t know him and don’t order from him, the boss’ son now runs the company and has kept Willy on because he has been there so long, but, at 65 he doesn’t have the physical stamina that he did years before. And so when Willy comes, asking to be assigned to the home office and taken off the road, he is fired.

Willy has a hair trigger and, as downtrodden and defeated as he can be, he can also explode in anger at a moment’s notice, and often does.

Claudio does well, bouncing back and forth between Willy’s present and his fantasy life with a brother he admired (now long dead), and son Biff’s (Matt Fairall) glory days as the high school football hero.

Willy’s brother Ben (Chris Amick) is the epitome of the American dream, having struck it rich in the diamond mines. “Why, boys, when I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out. And by God, I was rich.”

Lighting designer Alicia Thayer kind of dropped the ball here. In other productions I have seen, there is a definite change in light between the present and the dream world, but on the small California State stage, that change somehow got lost and it was not always immediately apparent in which world Willy was living.

Claudio is surrounded by a solid cast of characters from his theater workshop. Fairall gives a very strong performance as Biff, the kid on whose shoulders his father pinned all his hopes for success. But like too many high school athletic stars, Biff just doesn’t have the smarts for college or the drive to succeed. He handles the scenes where he is the virile young stud whose world was his oyster as well as the befuddled adult he has become, more interested in drink than in pursuing a career.

(Willy refuses to acknowledge that Biff’s discovery of his father’s affair on the road had a profound effect on the rest of his life.)

Younger son Hap (Kevin Frame) is a people pleaser, always trying to win his father’s approval, but lost in Willy’s obsession with Biff. Frame is not often the center of a scene, but he has a wonderful way of always being in the scene and never losing focus. Hap is a philanderer, going from one woman to the next with no desire to establish a permanent relationship.

Willy’s wife Linda is often seen as a world-weary woman, as beaten down by life as her husband, but Laura Luke is a life force, a fiercely loyal wife, protective of her husband, and ready to do battle with anyone not in his corner.

Darryl DeHart is Charley, the next-door neighbor, who likes Willy enough to lend him money to keep him afloat, though Willy never seems able to repay his loan. Bernard (Zach Coles) is Charley’s son. Though he will not admit it, Willy is jealous of the good father-son relationship they have and the success they have achieved in life.

The play moves toward its inevitable tragic conclusion and when the small group of four stand at Willy’s grave, one remembers his delight in imagining how people would come from all over his territory and there would be a huge crowd at his funeral.

For a “feel good” night of theater, this is not your cup of tea, but for an impeccable script and outstanding performances, this is one production that is well worth seeing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Beauty and the Beast

It was the lifelong ambition of Rachael Sherman-Shockley to play Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.” In this Davis Musical Theatre Company’s current production, she proves her ambition was a good one.

She is beautiful, warm, generous and loving, yet high-spirited and plucky. She sacrifices herself for her father and in the end falls in love with a hideous beast, for which she is rewarded with a handsome prince. She is a perfect Belle.

She sings well, too.

Celebrating its 32nd year of musicals, the DMTC production — directed and choreographed by Jan Isaacson — is a fun, colorful, occasionally opulent one, with good talent, beautiful costumes by the remarkable Jean Henderson and a great-sounding orchestra, under the baton of Steve Isaacson (also credited with set design).

It should be noted that, with the addition of a new stage floor, which changes the opening for the under-stage orchestra DMTC, seems to finally have gotten the audio right and the orchestra has never sounded better — or sounded more a part of what is going on on stage.

Joining Sherman-Shockley is a strong cast, which help make this a very good production. Coury Murdock handles the Beast role beautifully, remote and querulous, brooding in his lonely castle, with only the companionship of his staff, who are, themselves, in the process of turning into inanimate objects, as part of the curse.

The most endearing scenes are those in which the staff attempts to instruct the Beast in how to woo a woman.

Murdock delivers wonderful songs, but none so moving as “If I Can’t Love Her,” the Act 1 finale.

Mike Mechanick heads the staff as Lumiere, the maitre d’, who is becoming a candelabra. He is assisted by Cogsworth (Hugo Figueroa), the butler who is turning into a clock, and the housekeeper Mrs. Potts (Marguerite Morris) with her son Chip (Sophia Farwell) as a tea set. All three are delightful.

Morgan Bartoe gets high marks for her flirty “Babette,” the maid becoming a feather duster.

As for Madame de la Grande Bouche (Cyndi Wall), becoming a wardrobe, I have to wonder — with that huge skirt and high wig and jewelry, exactly what part of the house staff she was, but she is a delight, and her “Carmen” aria was great.

And then there is the town bully, Gaston, a L’il Abner-looking buffoon who is so in love with his muscles that he likes to kiss them. Travis Nagler is marvelously over the top, singing such humble songs as “Me” while he attempts to get Belle to agree to marry him.

Gaston’s second in command is the weasely LeFou. Tomas Eredia gives one of the better performances in the show, just so sleazy that you almost like him because he’s so darn cute.

Steve Isaacson is also credited with set design and the sets are attractive, with the town background a huge piece that moves to bring in the castle. While not exactly opulent, they work well.

The trio of Silly Girls (Deia Farley, Kathleen Hornbacker and Lucinda Otto) are all vying for the love of Gaston and add a lot of fun to the town scenes.

Tracy Traum is credited as props designer. If that includes the famous “rose” whose petals fall slowly as the Beast comes closer to losing the chance to become human again, kudos. It’s perfect.

While the music of Alan Menken is less tuneful than others of his Disney repertoire, there are a few songs that you do remember.

This is a show that should appeal to both children and adults, though perhaps it’s more complicated for the very young kids.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

How to Use a Knife

Playwright Will Snider spent three years working in agricultural development in East Africa. He also was influenced by the book “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with our Families,” about the Rwanda conflict of 1994.

Out of his experiences in Africa, and his time working in a busy restaurant in New York, has come a powerful — and surprisingly very funny — one-act play called “How to Use a Knife,” now playing at Capital Stage, directed by Michael Stevenson, as part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.

The set by Brian Harrower looks like the set of any Food Network show, with a very real-looking stove, prep area and a sink with running water.

Heading the excellent seven-member cast is Harry Harris as the larger-than-life George, a former top chef, who has fallen on hard times and is given the job of kitchen manager by his former student Michael (Kirk Blackinton).

Harris is a marvel — big and bold and brash. He’s a take-no-prisoners disciplinarian who is determined to whip his staff into shape and maybe make it back into his old life again. He strides the kitchen like a colossus, his colorful language peppering the orders he gives.

Blackinton’s character has risen above the dirty world of kitchen work. He just wants someone to take over for him so he is free to sniff his wines, smooth the lapels of his designer suits, and see which beautiful woman he can seduce. He feels both grateful to and respectful of George, sorry for the bad times on which his old mentor has fallen.

Comic relief is provided by the two Latino cooks, Carlos (Willem Long), who speaks English, and Miguel (Eduardo A. Esqueda) who doesn’t. They are quick to point out that they are not Mexican, but from Guatemala, a fact of which Michael is totally unaware and couldn’t care less. He also doesn’t have a clue about the name of his dishwasher Steve (Adrian Roberts) and thinks perhaps he is not able to speak, since he has never heard him talk.

Rounding out the kitchen crew is Jack, the busboy (Cole Winslow). Jack is a white boy who George assumes comes from privilege, because of his attitude. He is caught pouring leftover wine into a cup so he can drink it during the day and has a very laissez-faire attitude toward his job. Winslow is a member of Capital Stage’s 2016-17 apprentice program and comports himself well in this, his professional acting debut.

Long’s Carlos is just wonderful as the wise-cracking cook who is amazed to learn, after all this time, that Steve actually speaks.

As for Esqueda, he is making his professional theater debut and is a great foil for Carlos, always making comments in Spanish about what is going on so the two of them can have their own private jokes. He understands more than he lets on.

Dishwasher Steve is a tall, articulate, dignified man who is above the commotion of the kitchen. It is only when he and George are alone in the kitchen after work that he confesses his desire to learn how to be a chef. The two men each are harboring deeply painful memories and as their friendship deepens, Steve shares his experiences in Rwanda during the conflict of 1994.

Roberts gives much a dignity and depth to his character. George, moved by his friend’s confession, reveals the reason for his own descent into alcohol and drugs and his fall from grace. Steve confesses that George is the first friend he has had in a long time.

It is when Kim (Kelly Ogden), from INS comes around, asking questions about East African workers, that George’s eyes were opened about exactly what his friend’s life was like in Rwanda and the guilt he carries around with him. Ogden is crisp and businesslike with a heart as hard as steel.

As with Snider’s previous play, “Death of a Driver,” “How to Use a Knife” explores “the limits of understanding another person, and what happens when personal and political obligations collide.”
It is one of those plays that may inspire the audience to learn more about the Rwandan conflict and ask themselves what they would do in George’s shoes.

This play is not recommended for those sensitive to the F-word, though they would be missing an otherwise excellent and meaningful play.