Monday, January 25, 2016

i Gelosi

The talented actress Vittoria (Sarah Zaragoza-Smith) keeps a tight rein
on her patron, the Duke of Mantua (Garrison Koebere), right,
and her lovelorn ex-boyfriend Orazio (Cassidy Smith), left,
in "I Gelosi," which kicks off the Acme Theatre Company's
36th season on Friday, Jan. 22. Courtesy photo

 It is generally believed that I Gelosi (translated as “the jealous ones”) was one of the earliest Italian acting troupes. It was formed in Milan, Italy, in 1569, and performed throughout Europe. Some say the group was the inspiration for today’s slapstick comedy. They performed commedia dell’arte, noted for its quick pace and clever, dark humor.

The 2008 play “I Gelosi,” written by playwright David Bridel, is loosely based on the original I Gelosi and is now being presented by Acme Theatre Company at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater, under the direction of Acme alum Hope Raymond.

“These were the ‘rock stars’ of their time, creating theater loved by all classes of people,” Raymond writes in her program notes. In fact, I Gelosi was the first troupe to be patronized by nobility and even performed for the king of France.

The play begins in a graveyard — a clever device to introduce the audience to the characters by name, as they all arise from their prominently displayed engraved headstones.

The group’s leader, Francesco (Andr├ęs de Loera Brust) gives an introduction to the play before the actual play begins. He stood head-and-shoulder above the others in the cast, not only because of his height, but because of his command of the stage, and his unfailing projection, which made every word he spoke easy to understand.

My consistent complaint about Acme is the failure of many of its actors to project, especially in a venue as large as the Veterans’ Memorial Theater. This time I sat close to the stage and could hear almost everyone well, though there were a couple whose lines never made it over the apron.

Francesco and his two friends Giulio Pasquati (Ari Wilk) and Simone di Bologna (Benton Harshaw), are penniless performers, squabbling over which one must play the female part. In an unconventional move in an era when women were not permitted on stage, Francesco decides to hire Isabella Andreini (Avery Burstein), whom he marries — not for love, but more for convenience.

Isabella is not only an actress but a writer and if her performing on stage was scandalous, reading her works from the stage was even more so, though little is made of that fact in the plot of this show.

Though one of the newest, youngest members of Acme, at age 15, ninth-grader Burstein gave an experienced performance and held her own against the more seasoned actors.

The Orazio Padovano (Cassidy Smith), star-struck nephew of the Duke of Mantua (Garrison Koeberer), also comes a groupie and introduces Vittoria Piisimi (Sarah Zaragoza-Smith) into the company. The competition between Isabella and Vittoria forms much of the conflict in the story

More conflict arises after Francesco has an affair with the libidinous Sylvia (Julia Smart Truco), mistress of the Duke.

But thanks to the Duke’s reviews, I Gelosi are invited to perform in the court of Charles IX, King of France (Rocket Drew). With his thin build and oversized crown, Drew looks like he could have walked out of the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.

Charles is the son of Catherine de Medici (Chaitrika Budamagunta) and I fear that her projection was nonexistent and I missed just about all of her lines.

Riding a wave of popularity, Francesco makes a terrible mistake, thinking that he could use the stage as a platform to express his anger with Pope Gregory and the aristocracy, with the audience’s blessing (kind of like saying “I’m so popular I could walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and the people would still love me.”)  It backfires, however, and I Gelosi is driven from the court and find themselves penniless, right back where they started.

Undaunted, Francesco, Giulio and Simone decide to start all over again.

In real life, Isabella died in childbirth in 1604. Francesco was so overwrought that he disbanded the troupe and retired from the stage. The stock commedia dell’arte character Isabella is named in her honor.

In presenting this look at “I Gelosi,” Acme has done honor to the forerunner of much of what the young acting company has become famous for. And once again, dedicated Acme alum Dan Renkin deserves much credit for the sword-fighting skills of the actors.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Echo Location

“Echo Location” is the third play by Carter Lewis to premiere at the B Street Theatre, behind “Women Who Steal” and “While We Were Bowling.” This 90-minute one-act play is directed by Buck Busfield.

Billed as a hilarious comedy, it’s not quite that, though there are some very funny lines and situations and the actors make the most of them. But there are dark overtones and things that don’t quite make sense, if examined too closely.

Benjamin Rindell (Kurt Johnson) is a white English professor about to be married to African-American Emmy (Mary Lynne Robinson). As the play opens, they are sitting in the gorgeous back yard of their home (sets by Sam Reno). Emmy is decorating for their upcoming nuptials while Benjamin sits wracked with angst about past events and a recent indiscretion.

In attempting to enter the home of Emmy’s boyfriend, Bluetooth Atkinson (Oge Agulue), to remove all of Emmy’s things, Benjamin inadvertently caused the death of Bluetooth’s cat, who leaped at Benjamin and got caught in a ceiling fan and was decapitated. Benjamin has brought what’s left of the cat home in a paper bag.

(First puzzling thing … there is no back story to the romance of these two. Emmy was with Bluetooth for only three months and she is about to be married to Benjamin, before she has even removed her things from Bluetooth’s home. That has to be the quickest marriage decision in history.)

Onto the scene bounds 15-year-old Allison (Sarah Grodsky), with the announcement that she has been told by her recently deceased mother that she is Benjamin’s daughter and she wants a blood test to prove it. The last thing in the world Benjamin wants is a teenaged daughter, especially one who is as assertive as Allison.

Bluetooth arrives, angry about his cat (who has now been relegated to a red-stained plastic container in the freezer). He tries to ignite a spark with Emmy again, and he tells Benjamin that in exchange for his not going to the police about the burglary (and cat death), he will need to beat Benjamin up. Benjamin agrees and they settle on a time later the next day.

The beating bothered me a lot. First, who dresses up in their good clothes to beat someone up? I understand Bluetooth’s need to rid himself of the rage he feels for losing Emmy by hitting his rival, and I understand Benjamin’s need to rid himself of the guilt he feels about not only the burglary and the cat death, and other things that have weighed heavily on him, but the beating seemed unnecessarily brutal, while Emmy and Allison sit in the yard and hold on to each other.

It was a difficult scene to watch and the dramatic lighting added to the brutality of it. It seemed out of place in a comedy.

(I was not the only person commenting about the lighting emphasizing the black-on-white violence.)

Things resolve themselves by the ending and one hopes that Allison and her father actually will have a relationship. One of the sweetest moments in the play is a brief encounter between the two of them.

The performances of all four actors was outstanding. Johnson is a complex man who wants only a simple happily-ever-after and can’t seem to get it. Robinson’s Emmy is a delight as she takes charge and leaves no doubt about her feelings for this man. She is also simply gorgeous in her stylish wedding gown.

Allison is a unique young lady, who, at age 15, finding herself alone, has driven her mother’s truck to find her father. She seems to know what she wants in life but she hasn’t quite figured out the difficulties of an underage girl living on her own. Grodsky is a delight to watch bring this character to life.

Agulue is a tall, strong black man, who plays Bluetooth as a calm man, but who has a lot of anger within him. He is also barely hiding a lot of pain at the loss of the woman he loves. The beating he gives to Benjamin doesn’t come from a place of viciousness, but from a place of righteous indignation and the sense that justice must be administered.

This is still a work in progress and the playwright says he still may be rewriting scenes throughout the run of the play.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Romeo and Juliet

Emily Jo Seminoff and Colin Coate portray the star-crossed lovers.
Courtesy photo
“Romeo and Juliet” is Shakespeare’s most popular romance, and his most unnecessary tragedy. It is now moving audiences at the Woodland Opera House, under the direction of Rodger McDonald, who also gives a powerful performance as Friar Lawrence.

It’s a very odd set, designed by John Bowles, consisting of four gray-colored slanted platforms, placed one in front of the other across the entire stage to give different levels to the scenes in a sort of switchback effect (providing great opportunity for lively swordplay). But Denise Miles’ beautiful costumes place the cast right in the 16th century without need for more complicated set pieces.

Colin Coate is Romeo, in the throes of his first real love. He has the swagger and the bravado of a young man, when in the company of his friends, upholding the Montague family honor against the generations-long enemy, the Capulets, and yet is awkward and shy when in the presence of Juliet, who makes his hormones rage, though he does not quite know how to woo her.

As Juliet, Emily Jo Seminoff was demure and dazzling in a flowing virginal white gown. Nearly 14, and on the verge of puberty, she embraces this would-be suitor, swoons at thoughts of him and flirts shamelessly when in his presence. It is a gentle side of Seminoff I have not seen before and she carries it off beautifully. This Juliet is already defiant of her parents. She knows what she wants and she isn’t going to let family stand in her way.

Patricia Glass is superb as Juliet’s nurse and confidante. Hers was one of the strongest performances in the show.

Sara Wieringa is stunning in her role as Lady Capulet, portraying her as a strong woman yet distant as a mother and wife, while her husband (Steve Mackay) is determined that Juliet will wed the somewhat bland Paris (Gabe Avila) and will not hear any argument to the contrary.

Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio, is played by Luke Crabbe. He is a likeable fellow and loyal to his friend. It is Benvolio who helps Romeo hide after he murders Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Jay Patrick). Patrick seemed an odd choice for this role, as, in his Canadian Mountie red-colored coat and large black mustache, he seemed older than the rest of his friends.

Jason Oler, a familiar face to Sacramento audiences, makes his Woodland debut playing Mercutio. Neither Capulet nor Montague, it is Mercutio who sneaks Romeo into the Capulet masked ball, where he first sets eyes on Juliet. After Tybalt threatens Romeo’s life, Mercutio intends to engage him in a duel, but Romeo intervenes and inadvertently causes Mercutio’s death.

Others in the cast include Gil Sebastian and Jessica Woehler as Lord and Lady Montague and Sara Matsui-Colby as the Princess. Special mention also should be made of Mary and Melissa Dahlberg, whose job it was to be servants and stand around through endless scenes. They did it very well!

There is no program credit given for choreography of the fight scenes, but the swordplay was very well done, and probably would have pleased Errol Flynn himself.

The death scene is very touching … and painful … realizing what family feuds can cost. The arrangement of the stage allows for the entire cast to be on stage when the lovers die, which makes for a lovely tableau.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Realistic Joneses

Clockwise from left, John Lamb, Dana Friedman,
Dave Pierini and Elisabeth Nunziato
star in B Street Theatre's production of
“The Realistic Joneses.” Courtesy photo
“Variety” described “The Realistic Joneses” by Will Eno — currently running at the B Street Theatre — as “weird and wonderful.” In three little words, it completely describes this weirdly moving and wonderfully funny play that was nominated for both Outer Critics Circle and Drama League awards.

Director Buck Busfield pulled out the big guns from the B Street family to cast Dave Pierini and Elisabeth Nunziato as Bob and Jennifer Jones, with John Lamb and Dana Brooke as their new neighbors John and Pony Jones. These four have performed together for so many years that their chemistry was a given before the lights even came up.

As the play opens, Bob and Jennifer are enjoying the night air in their back yard. There is something “off” in this relationship. Conversation is strained. Jennifer struggles to find a topic of mutual interest and wonders if, after all these years, they have run out of words. Bob seems more distracted and grumpy. Jennifer keeps trying to find subjects that will please him, to no avail.

Into this scene stumble (literally, falling over garbage cans) John and Pony Jones, newly moved into the neighborhood, who have been eavesdropping on their conversation over the fence. They awkwardly intrude themselves into their neighbors’ lives. John is the more outgoing, and Pony is just a little “fey,” seemingly afraid of everything, especially bugs and germs and illness.

When Bob and John disappear into the house, Jennifer, feeling the need to “tell someone,” blurts out details of Bob’s rare degenerative neurological disease, which causes him spasms of pain, periodic vision loss and memory lapses.

(Those who have dealt with loved ones with dementia will find this play increasingly familiar, as Bob’s symptoms worsen.)

The deepening involvement of the two couples evolves over a series of short scenes, in which some further revelations are made, attractions are admitted, and the need for support from “someone” on the part of each of the four characters contributes to what seemed, originally, to be an unlikely friendship.

What drives this play and makes it such a success (it is, according to Busfield, “the most-performed play across the country in the last six months”) is the writing of playwright Eno, who poses questions of mortality, frustration, solitude, love, loss and coping so adroitly that he elevates the most pedestrian of human activities.

He explores the difficulty of communication, between husband and wife or among friends. He shows the difficulty of dealing with someone with a debilitating mental illness and how isolating that can be.
And yet, there are many light moments when you laugh as well as cry at the condition of the four characters as they struggle to find a foothold in normal world.

When John makes a surprising confession, the whole picture changes significantly and the closeness and comfort the two couples share with each other in the closing scene seems a logical progression of their friendship.

By the end of the evening you will wonder how much you really know about your friends and neighbors.

I heard a lot of comments along the line of “I’ll have to think about this one …” leaving the theater, and the play may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely worth giving this quirky show a try. It will definitely get you talking to each other, and perhaps examining the secrets in your own life.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Driving Miss Daisy

Janis Stevens as Daisy gives orders to
Michael J. Asberry as Hoke in Sacramento
Theatre Company’s production of "Driving Miss Daisy"

The Sacramento Theater Company has discovered the perfect recipe for a hit.  Start with a wonderful Pulitzer prize winning play like “Driving Miss Daisy” by Alfred Uhry, add amazing actors like Michael J. Asberry as Hoke, Scott Divine as Boolie, and the incomparable Janis Stevens as Miss Daisy.  Stir all with the brilliant young director Benjamin T. Ismail, pop into the lovely Pollock Theater, let simmer for 90 minutes and produce a gourmet delight.

The play, which was inspired by the playwright's own grandmother and her chauffeur tells the story of the evolving relationship of an elderly white widow and her black chauffeur across 25 years and subtly mirrors the changing times in this country in the bargain.

Though this play premiered off Broadway in 1987, we are probably most familiar with the 1989 movie, starring Jessica Tandy in the title role and Morgan Freeman as the driver, Hoke (Freeman also played the role in the original play).

This 72 year old critic was a bit miffed when Boolie tells his mother at the start of the play that she’s 72 years old and, following an accident, is too old to drive and that he is going to hire a chauffeur for her.  The amiable Hoke is hired and spends his first week trying to get Miss Daisy to let him drive her...anywhere, but the irascible woman refuses his offers to help, determined not to give up her independence.
                   
She does eventually relent and thus begins the long road that leads, through all the emotional twists, turns and bumps along the way, to her admitting after more than 25 years that he has been her best friend. In this world of CGI, action films, loud music and frenetic dancing, this is a simple story of friendship, family and love.

Miss Daisy is a wealthy retired school teacher (though terribly embarrassed to admit that she has money, and so concerned about it that she is fearful that Hoke is stealing from her when she discovers one can of salmon is missing from her pantry).

Hoke’s patience is admirable and he gradually wins her respect and even her affection.
                               
When the old woman discovers Hoke is illiterate, and she teaches him to read and shows pride in his accomplishment.  Later, Hoke, cleverly negotiating a raise with Boolie, lapses into an Ohio accent, which is very funny.

Taking us through the turbulent post World War II years and through the Jim Crow south, this is a show that tugs at your heart strings without being sappy, it gives a moral lesson in the most understated, yet powerful, way, and still brings a lot of laughs.  It is a reminder that friendship can make all the difference in troubled times.

After the bombing of her synagogue, when Miss Daisy talks about anti-Semitism in the south, Hoke shares his experience seeing his uncle hanged for being black and their friendship deepens by their shared experience with racism.  A particularly strong, moving scene concerns Hoke’s need to take a bathroom break on a long drive and Miss Daisy being reminded that blacks cannot use restrooms in gas stations in the south.

When Miss Daisy, now 91, develops dementia and has to be placed in a mental health facility, Hoke, now retired, visits her not as her chauffeur, but as her friend.

The success of any production of this play depends on the skill and sensitivity of the three actors and STC could not ask for better.  Particularly impressive is watching all three very subtly age 25 years over 90 minutes.  The performance of all three talented performers should not be missed.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

The Producers

Mike Mechanick as Max Bialystock, left, an the unscrupulous Broadway producer,
and Andy Hyun as Leo Bloom, his accountant and producing partner,
ogle their new secretary/receptionist, Ulla (Jessica Arena). Courtesy photo 

“The Producers,” now playing at Davis Musical Theater Company is a musical adapted by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan from Brooks' 1968 film of the same name, with lyrics written by Brooks and music composed by Brooks and arranged by Glen Kelly and Doug Besterman.

The original Broadway production opened on April 19, 2001, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and ran for 2,502 performances, winning a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards. It spawned a successful London production running for just over two years, national tours in the US and UK, many productions worldwide and a 2005 film version.

“The Producers” is a fast-paced laugh from start to finish, with enough material to offend just about everyone, from Jews, to Nazis, to old ladies, to gays, to dumb blondes, to corporate drones and just about anyone in between.  As with most Mel Brooks scripts, it’s all done with such a sense of fun that you’re amazed at the things that make you laugh.  The musical is much lighter than the darker comedy movie on which it is based.

The story centers around Max Bialystock, a formerly successful producer who now can’t get a hit to save his soul and who has become famous for his flops.  Michael Mechanick must have been channeling Nathan Lane in spots in this production.  His performance is very strong and not quite over the top, but just outrageous enough and oh so funny,

Into Max’s office walks mild-mannered accountant Leo Bloom (Andy Hyun), who carries a strip of his baby blanket around in his pocket to soothe himself in times of stress.  Bloom discovers that it’s possible for a producer to make more money with a flop show than with a hit, if they play it right.  Hyun, who played this role in DMTC’s 2010 production,  makes a perfect Bloom, with the wide eyed innocence of a man who can be perfectly molded by the likes of Max Bialystock.

The team of Bialystock and Bloom is born.

They need the worst play in the world, the worst director in the world, a bunch of gullible horny old ladies as backers, and when the show fails, as it is destined to do, Bialystock and Bloom will be off with their millions to sun themselves on the beach in Rio de Janeiro.

The first thing to do is to find the worst show every written and in Franz Leibkind’s “Springtime for Hitler,” they feel they have found a real loser.  Certain to offend everyone.  A visit to Leibkind (Travis Negler) involves the dance “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop,” but eventually the contract is signed.

Negler is a big, not too bright, Nazi leftover, whose passion is his carrier pigeons and whose love for “der Fuhrer” is still very strong.

Next they need to find the worst director on Broadway and Max knows just the person...the very gay Roger De Bris (T. Patrick Van), who appears dressed as the Chrysler Building, on his way to a costume party.  Van is perfectly campy, as is his “associate,” Carmen Ghia (Josh Smith), who can drag out an exit better than most.

Max’s rather unorthodox way of raising funds is to jolly little old ladies into giving him checks. Mary Young plays the aggressive “Hold-me, Touch-me” and is hilarious.  And perhaps my favorite number of the whole show is “Along Came Bialy,” a dance number performed by a host of little old ladies on walkers.  Local senior centers, take note at what may be possible with the assistance of a choreographer as wonderful as Ron Cisneros.

Jessica Arena plays Ulla, the hypersexual Swedish actress wannabe who works as a secretary for Bialystock and Bloom until she can go into rehearsals for the musical. Arena lays it on thick, the term “lay” perhaps the operative word here! She’s very funny.

One always wishes for a bigger budget for DMTC so that the quality of its sets can match the quality of the performances.  Steve Isaacson’s set design is fine and the tech crew and actors move the big set pieces around beautifully integrated into the action of the show, but I always think of how much better it would be with a bigger, splashier set.

Unlike the 2010 production, the DMTC orchestra worked well, easy to be heard from their underground cave yet not overpowering the singers on the stage.  DMTC has finally discovered the perfect marriage of instrumental music to vocal music.

“The Producers” is fun from start to finish.

Take note, after 30+ years of start times at 8:15, DMTC is now starting its shows at 8 p.m.  Don’t be like the critic, who showed up 7 minutes late.