Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Glass Menagerie

David Crane as Tom and Janis Stevens as Amanda perform in Sacramento Theatre Company's
production of “The Glass Menagerie,” on stage through April 30.
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo

“The Glass Menagerie,” now at Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock Stage, was the play that made Tennessee Williams a name in modern theater. The play was loosely based on his own life, his melodramatic mother, his emotionally and physically fragile sister, and himself as the would-be poet brother.

Purists who love this play may not be happy with the vision of director Casey McClellan, who has played rather loosely with the original stage directions.

This is described as a “memory play,” meaning that the action takes place in brother Tom’s mind, so important pieces of furniture and props are used, such as a table on which to eat and a couch, as well as a small table with four or five glass ornaments.

But most of the set and props, things that would not have been foremost in Tom’s memory, are mimed (designers Jarrod Bodensteiner and Renee DeGarmo). Lighting cigarettes, for example, involves an exaggerated match-lighting movement and an accompanying lighting effect (design by Jessica Bertine).

The mixture of set and no set, props and no props is a bit off-putting, though Tom warns “it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”

When an actor takes on a role, it is understood that he or she makes that role his or her own, under the direction from the director, and so David Crane’s overpowering, somewhat brittle Tom seems at odds with the wanna be writer/poet that the playwright described. But there is no denying that the performance is riveting, even though he approaches the role of the narrator of the story with the charisma of a snake-oil salesman.

It is the story of the Wingfield family forever affected by the unseen father, “a telephone man who fell in love with long-distance.” His departure left behind a mother and two children, one of whom is crippled (a word not allowed to be spoken) following a bout of polio.

There can’t have been a better choice than Janis Stevens to play the faded Southern belle, Amanda Wingfield, a woman rooted in the days of the “gentleman caller,” a cross between a strong matriarch and a flighty debutante. There is no doubt that Stevens knows who she is and gives a memorable, beautiful performance. She shines in her belle-of-the-ball finery, dressing up to meet a real gentleman caller, exuding all of the Southern charm she remembers from her youth.

Amanda wants only the best for her children — though her ideas of what they need are based on her own life, not the reality of the children in front of her.

Tom’s older sister, Laura (Katherine Stroller) is painfully shy and insecure, made even more so by the slight limp, which is barely noticeable in this production, but which bothers her a lot. Stroller fades into the woodwork, until her “gentleman caller” Jim (Eric Craig) shows up and there is a sweet scene between the two of them that shows the potential for Laura.

Jim is the gentleman caller Amanda has browbeat Tom into bringing home to meet Laura. She is unaware that he was Laura’s high school crush and the thought of his showing up in her apartment terrifies Laura. Jim was the high school star, but life has not treated him well. Still, Craig provides the one note of normalcy in this odd family dynamic.

The real “glass menagerie” of glass equine figures in this production seems to take on a very small role, but at the end of the play, one realizes more that it is, instead, the Wingfield family who are the glass menagerie, with their fragile, easily damaged egos.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Guards at the Taj


Mohammad Shehata, left, and Rajesh Bose star in "Guards at the Taj,"

The year is 1648 and the location is the Taj Mahal, the night before it is unveiled by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to the public.

The play is “Guards at the Taj,” an award-winning script by Rajiv Joseph directed for Capital Stage by co-founder Jonathan Williams.

There is no indication at the outset as to whether this is a comedy or a drama … and the answer is “yes.” As the play starts, there is fear that it is going to drag because of long silences between the two characters. Then it becomes very funny and after nervous titters, there are deep guffaws, but then it becomes very serious and even shocking.

Rajesh Bose (Humayun) and Mohammad Shehata (Babur) are outstanding actors who make this play come alive. The two play imperial guards stationed at the gate of the Taj Mahal, tasked with the duty of making certain no one sneaks in and sees the edifice before its unveiling the next morning. They are to stand at attention all night and not speak or turn around to look at the building.

Humayun is the rules guy. He stands stoically, as his job description demands, and rebukes Babur, who wants to chat. Babur is the goofball of the two … they are a real Odd Couple. It is Babur who sees the ludicrousness of standing still all night when they are the only two people around.

Eventually, Babur wears down Humayun’s reserve and the two joke and chat together, though until they reach that point one does wonder if this play is going to drag because of the uncomfortable silences while Humayun refuses to talk.

About the time the audience has settled in to enjoy this comedy, suddenly things aren’t so funny anymore and turn terribly black. The two guards have been given an unspeakable job of horrific brutality. To follow orders will change their lives forever. Each man is shaken to his core and in the aftermath one suffers severe PTSD, and the other must make an even worse decision.

This is the story of a bromance that is tested to the extreme. Even in the brutality, there is a sweetness in the relationship between Humayun and Babur. In the testing, the idea of “beauty” is analyzed and we learn how friendship of the men both sustains and ultimately destroys them.

Even in the midst of the horror, Babur brings a note of lightness with his dreams of fantastical inventions and “flying to the stars.” Humayun wants to invent a “transportable hole” to carry around so that one can escape any unpleasant situation, and they discuss the problems with trying to carry a “hole.” Talk of their inventions keep the men’s minds off of their horrific task, at least for a while.
Stephen C. Jones’ scenic design is simple, but handsome, while Timothy McNamara’s lighting and Ed Lee’s sound design add much to the atmosphere.

Perhaps the heroes of this production are the unnamed tech crew who have some amazing jobs between scenes and who get a round of applause each time they exit the stage. Not sure who is responsible for the “props” in Scene 2 but they deserve a round of applause, too (an ironic idea, when you think of it!).

“Guards at the Taj” is not going to appeal to everyone … and if you can’t handle brutality, perhaps you should stay home. But that would be a shame because this is an excellent play that will hold your attention and make an impact. You will be thinking about it long after you have left the theater.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Rumors


Neil Simon wrote his comedy ”Rumors” at a time when he was at one of his lowest points. He was in the process of divorce from wife No. 3 (Joan Balm), and needed something funny to occupy his mind. Work was always cathartic for him and, having written many funny things, he decided to try his hand at farce, which is a different style of comedy.

Comedy is a work of art that is amusing and intended to be humorous. Farce, in contrast, is a type of comedy that is characterized by highly exaggerated and comic situations and crude and one-dimensional characterizations. It has no other aim than creating laughter. (Farce usually also involves a lot of doors!)

By its very nature, farce requires crispness of dialogue and a quick pace to the show. The funny lines (you can’t really call them “jokes’) should come fast and furious and flow one into the other.
The fine cast of the Winters Theatre Company production of “Rumors,” directed by Linda Glick, are probably presenting a comedy, but not really a farce. While the show is enjoyable, the spark that makes a farce pop is missing.

The situation involves a couple who have arrived at the home of friends, intending to celebrate their 10th anniversary with other friends. But nothing is ready, the wife Myra and the serving staff are nowhere to be found, and the husband, Charlie, is on the floor in the bedroom with a bullet wound in his earlobe.

Simon hits a bit of a sour note with the first scene in which a guest, Ken (Philip Pittman), is upstairs with the unconscious (and unseen) host and Ken’s wife Chris (Anita Ahuja) is downstairs waiting for a call from the doctor.

Ken, who is Charlie’s attorney, keeps asking if the doctor has called yet when he does, he tells Chris not to tell him anything and to get him off the phone. Both Ken and Chris are frantic, unsure what happened or what to do to protect Charlie.

In the meantime, the other guests keep arriving. Claire (Ana Kormos) and Lenny (Jim Hewlett) are in a state because someone just ran into their prized new BMW.

Ernie (Brad Haney) and Cookie (Laure Olson) are upset that there is no food available, so Cookie, who is a TV chef (and who wears the most amazing costume you’re likely to see) takes it upon herself to prepare something to eat.

The final couple are Glenn (Manny Lanzaro) and Cassie (Michelle Novello), who arrive feuding and who squabble throughout the play.

Each person has a secret he or she is hiding, which may involve themselves or a rumor they have heard about one of the other guests, and as the lies involved in keeping the others from learning their secret mount, so does the craziness.

All comes to a head when a police officer (Rodney Orosco) comes to investigate and is treated to a highly implausible but entertaining story by Lenny that brings the whole show to an end. Almost. The final minute is a surprise for all.

Excellent in this production are Kormer as Claire, who has a real natural presence on stage; Pittman as Philip, trying to find some normalcy in a situation that is anything but normal; and Novello as Cassie, who doesn’t really have much to do but be beautiful and angry, but does it very well.

The attractive set is designed by Gary Schroeder, Jesse Akers and Sally Alexander and yes, it has all those requisite doors.

The sound, however, is a shrill negative, as there is a telephone, a doorbell and a pager, and the sound crew never could seem to get which ring was which. Each ring was repeated endlessly and was very irritating, as everyone stood around talking about something ringing, but not doing anything about it. (And at some point, someone threatens to wrap the cord of the cordless phone around someone’s neck, which made no sense at all.)

Despite Simon’s stellar career, “Rumors” has moments when his writing is just sloppy. However, this production is still fun overall and the opening-night audience was very entertained by the zaniness on stage.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Tempest

Hope Luna as Miranda (also played by Monique Lonergan) and Matt K. Miller as Prospero |
perform in Sacramento Theatre Company’s “The Tempest.”
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo

 When you cast Sacramento Theatre Company favorites Michael RJ Campbell, Gary Martinez and especially Matt K. Miller in anything, you know you will have a hit on your hands.

Such is the situation with the current production of “The Tempest,” directed by Aaron Galligan-Stierle, his first as director. The production, however, showed no evidence of a newcomer.

Miller is wonderful as Prospero, former Duke of Milan, deposed by his brother Antonio (Ian Hopps) and left to die on a raft with daughter Miranda (Monique Ward Lonergan in the production I saw. She shares the role with Hope Luna). All he is given is a box of books from which he has studied magic. The raft lands on an island, where he and his daughter have been for 12 years.

Prospero has cast spells over the island’s inhabitants. The spirit Ariel (Emily Serdahl), previously imprisoned by the late witch Sycorax, becomes Prospero’s slave. Serdahl is lithe and fragile-looking, playing a guitar to indicate when she is casting a spell.

Caliban (Atim Udoffia), a monster half-human-half-fish, is also enslaved by Prospero and becomes his muscle man. He is a bitter slave whom Prospero describes as “got by the devil himself.”
(It is an interesting casting choice, with Miller the very-white Prospero and Udoffia the very-black Caliban, which may upset some.)

In the midst of a tremendous storm, a ship is wrecked on the shore of the island. The scene features great effects by scenic designer Eric Broadwater and lighting designer Jessica Bertine, though it’s interesting that all the shipwrecked passengers arrive in clothes, designed by Jessica Minnihan, which are neither wet nor torn. Maybe some of Prospero’s magic?

The storm is a marvel, with tremendous wind blowing stage-height panels, strobe lights making convincing lightning and the music accentuating the sound of the wind, all while the actors do their best to portray being shipwrecked.

By fortuitous circumstances, the passengers on the ship include Antonio, Alonso, the King of Naples (Gregg Koski), his son Ferdinand (Sam C. Jones), brother Sebastian (Kevin Gish), and his adviser Gonzalo (Gary S. Martinez). There are also the king’s jesters, Michael RJ Campbell and Jake Mahler, who provide comic relief throughout the play.

This gives Prospero a chance to use his magic and cunning wiles to get his revenge on his brother. Miller’s Prospero, above all else a loving father working to make a match for his daughter with Ferdinand, comes across as less a vengeful king, but more a brother getting back at brother.

As for Miranda, she has lived on the island her whole life and her father is the only male figure she has seen, so this handsome young man sets her pubescent genes pulsing instantly.

Though the inhabitants of the island now are actually in three different places, there is little to indicate that in the set design, and it was sometimes confusing to figure out where exactly the current scene was taking place.

All’s well that ends well, however, and Prospero regains his status as king, the brothers patch things up, Miranda and Ferdinand live happily ever after, Arial and Caliban get their freedom, and Prospero gives a moving epilogue to the audience asking them to forgive him for his wrongdoing.


Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Concussed: Four Days in the Dark


I love Jack Gallagher.

No, wait a minute. I like Jack Gallagher very much. I learned that he is very selective about the people whom he claims to love, saving that term for those in his most intimate circle. Still, I can’t help but think that I really do love Jack Gallagher.

The comedian is opening his seventh one-man show and sixth for the B Street Theatre, his last being 2015’s popular “5 Songs,” a show about which he talks in this current production, “Concussed: Four Days in the Dark,” directed by Jerry Montoya.

Anybody who likes to bike (and who in Davis does not?) will relate to this story, which talks about Gallagher’s biking habits. In fact, the stage is set with huge interacting gears and a bike and the paraphernalia related to his love of biking.

It was, in fact, his love of biking that changed his life, and that ultimately brought about this show. Three years ago, while riding his bike home, he was hit by a car and three days later was diagnosed as having a traumatic brain injury.

The doctor ordered him to bed immediately. He was to stay in a darkened room with no stimuli whatsoever. No TV, no iPad, no radio, no internet, no nothing. He needed to give his brain a chance to heal.

This play, which is both touching and very funny, is like a free association of all the things you think of when you are trying not to think. His biggest fear was that he had lost the ability to find words.
Words are his life, and knowing how to find them, manipulate them, and the ability to cut and paste in his mind while doing a show to match the response of the audience was something he had done all of his professional career. What if he couldn’t do it anymore?

He was 61 when the accident happened, so he talked a lot about getting older, and the predominantly gray-haired audience laughed and nodded in agreement as he recounted, for example, how one gets out of bed when one reaches a certain age.

He talked of parenting his two sons, Declan and Liam, and what he wished he had done differently as a father. In fact, as he began to recover he took trips across the country with each of the boys, the northern route with Liam and the southern route with Declan, just being a couple of guys enjoying being together.

The experience of having a concussion, he believes, was transformative, and he says he’s become a better person as a result. He has learned the importance of being in the moment, not always living for the future. He learned the importance of speaking your love to those for whom you really love, and he even learned a little humility, now that he needs a few notes on stage during his 90-minute shows, something he was proud of not needing before.

(He admits that he can’t remember much about “5 Songs,” though one would not have known there was anything wrong, watching that show at the time.)

Gallagher is a remarkable comedian in that he knows how to work an audience, especially one like B Street, where the audience sits on three sides of the stage. At no point did anyone feel that they were just watching the back of his head. He had a way of unobtrusively involving everyone without being overly obvious about it. It was as if we were guests in his living room and he wanted to include all of us in his conversation.

He also made you feel like he was baring his soul just for you, while telling you that he is a very private person who bares his soul only to his most trusted friends and family.

Most in the audience were middle-aged or older but I think Gallagher’s humor would appeal to just about anyone. Well, maybe not to the two 20-somethings sitting next to me, one of whom slept through the whole show while the other thumbed through the program for 90 minutes. They missed something very special.