Monday, August 19, 2002

La Bete

Playwright David Kirson's "La Bete," this week's offering of the Ghostlight Theatre Festival, had its premier in 1991 and won numerous awards in New York and London, including the New York Newsday/Oppenheimer Award, the Lawrence Olivier Award for Comedy of the Year, six Drama Desk Awards (including Best Play of 1991), and also received five Tony award nominations. It appears to be the sort of play that you either love or hate.

Written in the style of French playwright Moliere, this is a play written in iambic rhymed couplets, containing some absolutely marvelous, if unlikely, rhymes (e.g., "Zanzibar" with "too far.") Its purpose is to examine who dictates the standards of popular culture.

One gets a good feeling about the evening ahead from the moment of entering the Veteran's Memorial Theatre. Scenic designer Robert Frye and lighting designer Greg Wershing have combined to create the estate of Prince Conti, with marble staircases on either side of the stage, a circular tile floor (scrupulously being scrubbed by serving maid Eleanor van Hest), and marble busts on pillars, each one bathed by a special spotlight. The stage curtain has been swept up into a luxurious soft drape and the visual effect of the whole is lovely.

Van Hest is charming as she tiptoes around the stage, tripping over her skirt, and unable to speak, unless she can rhyme with the word "blue."

As the play begins, two members of the court's acting troupe, the leader Elomire (an anagram of "Moliere") and his second in command Bejart are complaining that, by royal decree, they will be forced to accept what they feel is a bad actor (Valere) as part of the troupe because he has written a ridiculous play which the Prince wants the troupe to perform.

( "Naught could induce me, save a Holy Writ,
To share the stage with that dull hypocrite!" says Elomire.)

Valere is bright, clever, egotistical and hopelessly self-centered. His entrance in Act I is followed by a rhymed monologue which must go on for 20 minutes.

("God bless the critics, in no uncertain terms.
They have the apple, showing us our worms.")

Isaac Woofter gives an inspired performance in the role of Valere. He swoops, he minces, he postures and he appears oblivious to the disapproval of his fellow actors. He leaves little for Elomire (Joe Sheehey) and Bejart (Adam Sartain) to do but watch and seethe, while he chews the scenery. Listening to Woofter's Valere, we get a feel for his style of low brow humor, and we see the disapproval of Elomire and Bejart and their dedication to more high-brow art.

In Act 2, we meet the rest of the players--Madeline, sister to Bejart (Amy Takeuchi), DeBrie (Sam Tanng), Catherine, his wife (Jessica Kitchens), Rene DePare (Ryan Williams) Marquise-Terese, his wife (Dana Snyder).

The Prince (Jason Oler) arrives, apparently excited about the addition of Valere to the troupe. He describes him as an "idiot savant" (to which Elomire replies "I half agree.").

Valere is allowed to perform his play, "The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz" -- a play that charts the triumph of banality and bad taste over genuine wit and philosophy. Elomire is, not surprisingly, horrified.

Sheehey's Elomire shines in Act 2 as he rails against the corruption of an art he takes very seriously.

However, when the performing group is asked to choose between the high standards of Elomire and vulgar antics of Valere, the group goes for the cheap laughs and Valere has won.

Director Tom Burmester brings out strong performances from his cast, and has woven a tight knit production which moves at a fast pace, allowing for maximum enjoyment of the playwright's delicious use of language.

The lavish period costumes of Costume Designer Roxanne Femling create the feel of a 17th century French from head (with marvelous curled wigs) to toe (high heeled buckled shoes). The entire look is a visual delight.

La Bete may not be for younger audiences, as its humor may be a bit too sophisticated to hold their attention, but those who appreciate the humor of language will find this a very enjoyable evening.

Stars: 4

Friday, August 16, 2002


Imagine witnessing an auto accident. When the police begin questioning bystanders about what exactly happened, each eye witness has his or her own idea about the sequence of things, the reason why things happened the way they did, and who is to blame. The facts may, in fact all be true, but we each perceive the same situations or events in different ways, filtered through our own life experience.

This is basically the message of David Mamet's "Oleanna," the second presentation in the Ghost Light Theatre Festival, a month-long festival of dramatic art, which brings together the diverse work of many Yolo County artists.

This two person, 3-act play is directed by Tom Burmester and features Nino Mancuso as John, a professor and Jill Winternitz as Carol, his student. The play was written shortly after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual harassment trial and was thus a timely view of the escalation of a charge of sexual harassment.

It's a war of words and differing perceptions between a college student and her professor which snowballs into accusations of sexual harassment. At its conclusion, there is no resolution of the truth.

The setting of the play is John's office and in the opening scene, Carol has come to her professor because she is having difficulty understanding his lectures and is in danger of failing the course. Carol is a very timid girl, clutching her notebook to her chest, trying desperately to understand the words of her pedantic professor, who is too distracted to give her more than token notice. He is distracted by thoughts of his impending tenure and constantly interrupted by telephone calls about a house he is in the process of buying.

The dialog is rapid-fire, with the characters constantly interrupting each other. Carol tries desperately to get her message across. John, however, never really hears what she is saying and talks down to her and finally adopts an almost paternalistic, patronizing attitude toward her. Carol perceives this to be sexually provocative.

In Act 2 we see quite a different Carol. No longer shy and timid, she has filed a complaint with the tenure committee, has acquired a group of sympathetic supporters who have bolstered her confidence. No longer is John an intimidating figure. The act is dominated by Carol.

"You're vile, exploitative, sexist and elitist," she says.

John's self-confidence begins to shatter as he realizes that he is in danger of losing what he has worked for his whole life.

By Act 3, John has lost his job. The tables have turned and it is John who is now begging for help from Carol. She lays out some demands which, if met, will result in her retracting her charges of attempted rape.

As the play draws to a close, there have been no conclusions, but perhaps a lot of points for later discussion about sexual harassment, the purpose of education, and individual subjective viewpoints.

Jill Winternitz does a marvelous job of taking Carol through the three scenes, from timid, frightened student, to strong, self-confident woman. Her clothes change into progressively more "powerful" outfits, her long hair gets swept up off of her face and in the third act, she wears bold, bright colors. Costume designer Roxanne Femling obviously understands the need for the visual complement to Carol's growing self-confidence.

Nino Mancuso has mastered Mamet's rapid-fire dialog and handles the role of a distracted professor with aplomb.

Both actors, under Burmester's direction, have woven a tight piece of theatre that is well worth seeing.

Patrons should be advised that there is smoking of non-tobacco cigarettes in one act, and some brief physical violence. The show continues August 23, 24 & 30 at 8pm and August 17 & 31 at 2pm.

Sunday, August 04, 2002

Cyrano de Bergerac

A cast of thousands (or so it seemed), a monumental set, enough on-stage food to feed Davis Community Meals for at least one night, wonderfully directed swordplay, and one very long nose.

This pretty well sums up Acme Theatre's opening night performance of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac." "Acme's summer show is always a big production," writes director Dave Burmester. "It is a long-standing tradition that all those who audition for the summer production are cast."

Therein lies the strength--and the weakness--of this production. To dispose of the weaknesses quickly, with a cast this large (there are 50+ members in the cast and among them, they play120 different roles), the difference between the "seasoned performers" and the less experienced is quite apparent in a production where it seems everyone has lines to say.

This is a very wordy play, and it's a pity that far too many of the lines were rushed and/or spoken too softly to make it past the third row, if that far.

That said, let's concentrate on the strengths. For starters, Nick Herbert, in the title role, will leave you slack-jawed in amazement. It's not enough that this actor has a veritable encyclopedia of lines to memorize and delivers them flawlessly (at least to those without a script in hand--if he had any flubs, they were not apparent), but he acted the heck out of the part and brought tears by his death in the end. He well deserved the standing ovation he received.

The play is fictionalized account, based on a real 17th century French writer and playwright notorious for his many duels and escapades as well as a famous nose. There are duels aplenty in this production, and Burmester credits the expertise of one of Acme's newest members, Nick Bettencourt, for helping to choreograph the swordplay.

There is no opening curtain, so as the audience arrives, they are witness to characters wandering around on the enormous stage, designed by Steven Schmidt. "It is more impressive by the fact that six days before the show opened, the structure was a jumble of elements waiting on the scene dock for the stage to become available," says Burmester. A multi-level set, with the addition of tables or drapes or arches, it easily becomes a Paresian hotel, a pastry shop, a home, or even a convent. This is Schmidt's last year with Acme and he will be missed.

A play is about to begin at the Hotel de Borgone. The players are awaiting the arrival of the playwright, Cyrano. On the stage, pageboys are playing pranks, important people are looking important, musketeers play fight, while waiting for the entertainment to begin. We also meet the tavern-keeper, Ragueneau (a strong, sparkling performance to retiring Acme stalwart Chris Schmidt).

The lovely Roxanne is beautifully portrayed by Kathie German. Roxanne is the love interest of Christian (Brian Oglesby), a handsome young baron, come to Paris to join the army.

Unbeknownst to all save his confidante LeBret (Steven Schmidt), Cyrano is also hiding a secret love for Roxanne (his cousin), but his insecurities, and concern about his appearance, prevent him from speaking words of love to her.

When Roxanne confesses to Cyrano, her attraction for Christian and asks him to become the protector of the younger man, Cyrano agrees, out of his own unspoken love for Roxanne.

The meeting of the two prompts one of the more delightful moments of the script, where they trade quips about Cyrano's most prominent feature. However, Cyrano befriends the young man and, realizing that Christian is not gifted with words, agrees to help the young suitor court Roxanne.

In one of the most famous scenes from the play, Cyrano first whispers the words for Christian to speak to Roxanne, on her balcony, and then steps in and replaces the young man, standing in the shadows, to speak his own words of love for the girl, in Christian's name. The scene is both funny and touching, as Cyrano, having expressed with passion his own love and feelings, is left in the shadows while Christian, by force of Cyrano's words, wins the love of Roxanne. Cyrano then arranges for the couple to be married and in doing so annoys his other rival De Guiche (Jake Stoebel).

Immediately after the wedding, the regiment is sent to war against the Spaniards. Cyrano promises Roxanne that he will be certain that Christian writes to her from the front and, of course, he himself pens the letters, risking his life twice a day to post them to her.

When Christian is killed in battle, he dies with a farewell note to Roxanne in his pocket. The young widow enters a convent, where she spends the next two decades of her life, visited daily by Cyrano who never reveals to her the real author of the words she loved so much.

This is a monumental production, effectively staged by the ever-solid Acme Theatre Company. It is not without minor flaws, but the whole definitely outweighs any shortcomings.