Friday, December 30, 2005

Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff

This book was introduced to me by someone who told me it was "the funniest book I've ever read."

As I started the book, the whole concept was hysterical. Jesus (called Joshua or Josh) in his adolescence, hanging with his best friend "Levi, who is called Biff" and trying to find meaning in his life.

There are very funny things which happen, but as the book progressed, it became not quite so funny and more...something else. I'm not sure how to express it. For all the possible cries of "blasphemy," Joshua becomes very human, very endearing, and it ends up being a more or less believable account of what might possibly have happened, especially toward the end of Joshua's life.

The actual story line takes Joshua and Biff to visit the three kings who visited the infant in the stable in Bethlehem. It becomes at the same time an adventure story and a spiritual study.

In the end, it was definitely not "the funniest book I ever read," but it was an entertaining read.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Kathmandu Kitchen

It was an accident that we ended up at the Kathmandu Kitchen last night. We were headed to the new bistro which they built on the site of the old police station, but it had a 35 minute wait time, so we went wandering around to other places nearby and ended up at Kathmandu.

There was a point at which we realized that we could have waited at the other place, since it took so long before the wait staff noticed us. I remembered this as being the situation most other times I've eaten here. This is not a place to come in a hurry, and you will never feel like you're being rushed to finish so they can clean up your table. We sat and looked around the place and remembered when it had been Shakey's Pizza and then Mountain Mike's pizza. We started remembering all the stores and restaurants in town now that used to be other things. The four of us (Walt and me, Jeri and Phil) have all lived in Davis over 30 years and have seen things come and go.

We each chose different things to eat, three of them various curry dishes and me the Kathmandu special, a "sizzling rack of lamb." While we were waiting, we had some garlic-basal naan bread, which was fabulous. Not too heavy or too greasy. Just right.

Unlike some restaurants Kathmandu apparently does not have the "every dish comes out at the same time" rule, since all the curries were delivered long before my sizzling rack of lamb arrived. I nibbled on Jeri's chicken curry a bit, which was quite tasty.

My lamb sizzled all across the restaurant as they finally brought it to the table. And it sizzled while I continued to munch on the plain naan that came with my order.

Finally it stopped sizzling and with a lot of "blowing" I could make it cool enough to put into my mouth. It was tastey, but a bit mealy, as if it had sat in a marinade a bit too long. But still very good. I think, however, that the next time we go there, I will opt for one of the curries.

Toward the end of the meal, the waiter noticed that he had forgotten to light the candles on our table, and in apology, he lit the candles and then brought us a complimentary dessert, kind of like donut balls drenched in a sweet sauce, which was also a nice little morcel to top off the meal.

All in all, this was a good night of dining. Good that we were after a leisurely meal and not a quick pick-up dinner en route to the theatre or something. We eat out so seldom in Davis, that I always forget how much I enjoy eating at this place.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed

Alan Alda is one of the good guys. He's always likeable when you see him perform (at least I've never seen him play the bad guy, which does not, I realize, mean that he has not done so). He always seems like the next door neighbor you'd like to hang out over the back fence and chat with.

It's delightful to read this book and discover that it reads the same way we've all known Alda from his performances and his guest show appearances.

This is not your typical Hollywood biography, written in chronological order and filled with tidbits about other celebrities. This is a very personal story which reads like memories that pop into his head and are written down as they come. The book grips you from it's opening sentence, "My mother didn't try to stab my father until I was six," and goes on to detail his extraordinary life growing up backstage in a bawdy vaudeville house.

Alda had a life-changing moment when he nearly died on a trip to Chile and it started the wheels turning to produce this delightful read, which he wrote without a ghost writer. Of all the books I read this year, I think I enjoyed this book the most.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Pope Joan

I had heard about this book by Donna Cross before, but it wasn't until I was in Minneapolis with three friends, browsing through a book store, that they began raving about this story and I was intrigued, so bought the book.

It is a gripping story, and presents an intriguing question -- was there ever a woman in the Catholic church who was able to fool everyone and rise to the position of Pope?

The story is believable and held my interest, but even more fascinating was doing research on the "legend." Author Cross has done extensive research on the story, and on what she says is the attempt by the Catholic church to cover the whole thing up.

In doing my own internet research, I could see the scorn with which the church holds the theory that a woman could ever be pope. Frankly, I found Cross's research more compelling.

My strong recommendation, however, is wait to do your own research after finishing the book. I did it about 2/3 of the way into the book, to find out how it all ended, and it definitely ruined my enjoyment of the ending of the book.

Highly recommended book.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Million Little Pieces

I only read 13 books (so far) in 2005, so I thought I would attempt to review them--and see if I can remember all the way back to January, when I read the first one ("The Magician's Assistant"). I'm going to start with the last one and work my way backwards.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey is a book I probably would never have bought or even thought of reading if Oprah hadn't raved and raved and raved about it. How can you not be intrigued by a book that everyone in the audience agreed kept them awake all night reading until they finished.

It didn't do that for me, but it did hold my interest. If you want to get a hard-hitting, ugly, brutal feel for what it's like to be addicted and to recover from drugs and alcohol, this is the book for you.

If you love someone who is trying to recover from drugs and alcohol, this is the book for you, because it will give you a much greater appreciation for what the road back is like and why when you've made it through the first days of coming off the drugs, the work is just beginning.

The positive thing about this book is that James Frey wrote it, so we know that he was successful. If it were written as a biography instead of an autobiography, I think I would have been far more riveted to find out whether or not the man had achieved his objectives.

There are shocking revelations, amazing characters, triumphant and very sad stories in this book. All are made more compelling because they really existed. They really succeeded, or not, as Frey presents them (though all identities are hidden, of course).

I have long said that Alcoholics Anonymous is our family "club," rather than the Kiwanis or Elks club or anything else, since I come from a long line of alcoholics. Fortunately, I don't think there were any hard core drug users that I knew (or know) well, though undoubtedly there are some. So I could relate to the book on a familial level.

In this day when methamphetamine addicts are born every day and that drug is ruining families and lives, I think this is an important book for everyone to read.

1/6/06 post script: even if the book is a work of mostly fiction (as is now alleged), it's still a good book to read to get a sense of what drug addiction and recovery is like.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol

“And now you know the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey would say.

Most people are familiar with the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the transformation which takes place in his life one Christmas Eve, following the visit by his former partner, Jacob Marley, who appears before Scrooge, wearing “the chains he forged in life,” to warn Scrooge that he will be wearing his own chains, if he doesn’t quickly do something to repent.

When you think about it, if Marley was as much of a curmudgeon as Ebenezer Scrooge, it’s a bit out of character for him to be compassionate enough to warn his former partner and to offer him the opportunity for reform and redemption, isn’t it?

Ten year old Hazel Flowers McCabe, the daughter of director Terry McCabe, thought so. After seeing a production of “A Christmas Carol,”starring Tom Mula as Scrooge, she commented to Mula that she thought Jacob “got a raw deal,” helping Scrooge reform his life, but remaining in chains himself.

Mula, also a playwright, agreed with her and found the concept of looking at the incident from Jacob’s perspective so compelling, that, with apologies to Charles Dickens, he took it upon himself to write such a story. The result is “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol,” now being presented by Capital Stage at the Delta King theater, through December 24.

Like the Dickens version, Mula’s story was originally a book, published in 1995. The book became a best seller. An award winning PBS radio broadcast was presented and the story eventually made it to the stage, where it has quickly become a holiday favorite in theaters across the country.

This outstanding production at the Delta King, under the direction of Stephanie Gularte, features an unparalleled ensemble, which is second to none. The quartet act as both narrators and performers, each moving seamlessly from narrator to character, often seeming to melt into character mid-narration, dropping American accent for British so skillfully that one hardly notices it has been done.

In the title role is Davis’ own Harry Harris who gives an unforgettable performance. Harris is adept at handling any number of emotions, from that of the ill-tempered businessman to a man suddenly possessed by the exuberance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, to a grief-stricken child, reliving a painful past. When his tears flow freely, dropping onto the stage, you sense they come from very real emotion.

Jamie Jones gives a sparkling performance as the sprightly Bogle, a “malicious little hell sprite” who offers Marley one last chance to save his own soul. Jones manages to be funny, bitchy, and engaging all at once. She begins her relationship with Marley as a torn in his side (or, more accurately, a flea in his ear) and her affection grows for him throughout the play, though she attempts to hide it.

The amazing Lucinda Hitchcock Cone plays any number of roles, beginning with Hell’s recordkeeper, who, on going over Marley’s accounts points out that due to a lifetime of selfishness, he can expect a very unpleasant eternity.

Rounding out the ensemble is Miles Miniaci as Ebenezer Scrooge, whose own story takes a back seat in this production. Miniaci’s angular facial features add to the effectiveness of the portrayal as the actor presents the qualities of the Scrooge we have all come to know -- the blustering curmudgeon, the simpering man discovering the reality of his life, and the joy of a born-again philanthropist. Miniaci handles all emotions with aplomb.

Jonathan Williams’ set design presents no actual set pieces, but several levels on which the actors play. In one scene, Marley and Scrooge climb to the highest point from which they move together to appear to “fly” over London. In another, the recordkeeper seems to grow before our very eyes, with the assistance not only of the set, but also the lighting design of Stephen Jones. Bogle perches on a tall platform to be visible to the audience, while really being a tiny thing hidden in Marley’s ear.

Like the story which sparked this spin-off, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol takes us on an emotional ride toward redemption, and for those who know the original inside and out, this first rate production of Tom Mula’s companion piece may be a wonderful change of pace way to usher in the holiday season.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Christmas Story

It was 25 years ago, in December of 1985, when a group of theater folk in Winters, with $37 to their name, decided to put on a show. This led to the founding of the Winters Community Theater, which, 25 years later, has 131 productions under its belt. More than 900 people have been involved in WCT shows, either on stage or behind the scenes, over the past 25 years. In many cases this may involve several generations of a family..

The Winters Community Theater is never going to make any splash in any big theatrical arena, but you couldn’t find more pride or more sincerity in a group anywhere. From the big smiles and hearty welcomes that patrons receive, to the cheesecake and champagne served on opening night, to the great support that the audiences give to the cast on stage. Opening night audiences seem to be comprised mostly of friends or relatives of the cast. It’s like the Davis Comic Opera Company in its early years, and it’s a real feel good night of theater.

I had never heard of the Winters Community Theater before I became a critic, but in the past five years I have seen many productions, some better than others. I had been warned that the current production, “A Christmas Story” was “a little rough still,” so I was prepared for anything.

To my delight, this production of Jean Shepherd’s delightful Christmas classic is one of the better productions I’ve seen from this company. With 19 characters, played by 12 actors, seven of whom are children, this may be one of the larger shows presented by this company. Director Howard Hupe has made some excellent casting choices.

Mark Dahn, in the role of the adult Ralph was a joy to watch as the play progresses. The adult Ralph acts as the narrator of this story about one special Christmas memory from his childhood, a child of the 1940s. Dahn was fine as the play began, but as his rapport with the audience grew, he relaxed in his part and was delightful to watch.

Brandon Emery was perfect as the 9 year old Ralphie, the boy whose one dream for Christmas was an official, Red Ryder, Carbine-action, 200-Shot, Range Model, Air Rifle. Brandon fantasizes meetings with Red Ryder himself and campaigns to convince his parents to get him the rifle for Christmas, though his mother (Gina Wingard) poo-poo’s the idea with every mother’s perennial excuse, “You’ll put your eye out.”

Wingard flawlessly portrays a wife and mother of the 40s, constantly putting on her apron, cooking dinner for her family, showing she’s really smarter than her husband, while at the same time making her husband feel the head of the household, though it is really she who runs the place.

Trent Beeby is Ralphie’s father. This “Old Man” is straight out of a 50s sitcom, in the best tradition of an Ozzie Nelson, a man who is head of the household, but who still can’t quite get it right most of the time, whether it’s the house furnace, or car problems, or the dogs next door who are out to get him.

Ralphie’s younger brother, Randy (Loren Tolley) is cute as a button, with terrific facial expressions. and a comfortable stage presence. When Mother wraps him up in many layers to go out and play in the snow, he looks like a character out of SouthPark.

Ralphie’s best friends, Flick (Tommy Halbach) and Schwartz (Andrew Gonzales) may have been a bit stilted in their line delivery, but it more came across as the way that a group of 9 year olds might have interacted with each other. Halbach is particularly funny in the tongue-on-the-light pole scene.

Lauren Hupe is Esther Jane, with a huge crush on Ralphie. Lauren and her sister (I assume), Elaina, are third generation Winters Theater actors, doing a good job of carrying on the family tradition.

Helen (Olivia Orosco) is another classmate, having the opportunity to perform on stage with her father, Rodney Orosco, a Big Elf in the Santa scene.

Cori Beeby’s height makes her an imposing bully to the shorter boys, though with her hair tucked under her hat, she easily passes for a boy.

Jim Hewlett plays several roles: Santa Claus, The Cowboy, the Tree Lot Owner, the Delivery Man and the Neighbor. He is best as the cowboy in the conversations with Ralphie.

Additional children in the cast are Elaina Hupe, William Halbach (another third-generation actor) and Trichelle Leslie. Ralphie’s teacher is Joann May.

Howard Hupe has directed this delightful Christmas pastiche. It’s a bright, witty script and the cast delivers it well. It’s worth the trip out to Winters to get your holiday season started with an classic story told lovingly by this dedicated group of thespians.

Friday, December 02, 2005

A Christmas Carol

What better way to usher in the Christmas season than with a production of “A Christmas Carol” or two? If you’re only going to see one version of “A Christmas Carol” this year, it should definitely be the production currently entertaining audiences at the Sacramento Theater Company, directed by Philip Charles Sneed, through December 24.

This musical adaption of the Charles Dickens’ classic was written by Richard Helleson and then-STC resident composer, David de Berry and orchestral “reconstruction” by Gregg Coffin. With a cast of 39, this is a holiday extravaganza certain to add a sprig of holly to the hardest of hearts.

This play is structured so that narration, straight out of the pages of the original, overlaps with the action, and the narration is delivered by actors who also move the set pieces around the stage as they verbally set up the next scene. The music is not intrusive, but adds just the right touch at just the right moment. The accompaniment is pre-recorded.

The utilitarian set designed by UCD graduate John Klonowski (with complementary lighting by designer Victor En Yu Tan) is gloomy, as befits a ghost story. There is just the right touch of fog to make it look spooky without engulfing the actors, which happened last year.

New to the Sacramento Theater Company is Richard Farrell in the role of everybody’s favorite curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge. Farrell is fresh from eight seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and gives Scrooge just the right touch--just enough grit and growl without being over the top. His transformation at the conclusion of the story is delightful.

As Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s long-dead partner, David Silberman is a marvelously ghastly ghost, rattling his chains and issuing dire warnings to his old friend, as he tells Ebenezer that he will be visited by three ghosts who will try to help him see the mistakes he has made throughout his life.

(Aside: Marley says they will come every night for 3 nights at 1 a.m....however, it appears that they all come in one night, since the action begins on Christmas Eve and ends Christmas morning. However, I quibble.)

Suzanne Irving, another member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, appears as the Ghost of Christmas Past, an ethereal looking wisp of a thing to guide Scrooge through the happier moments of his early life, as a child in boarding school (played by either Aubrey Harwell or Dylan Sneed). As Ebenezer watches his young sister Fan (Paige Silvester, repeating the role she played a year ago) singing “Home at Christmastide,” there is a brief softening of his heart as he remembers the young beggar child (Rebecca Scott) whom he shunned the day before. (Scott has a wonderfully strong voice as she opens the show with “Advent Carol.”)

Scrooge visits himself as a young apprentice (Matt Moore) to the ebullient Fezziwig (J.T. Holmstrom, who appears later as the Ghost of Christmas Present), and as the young man whose burgeoning love of money forces a break-up with his beloved Belle (Maggie Roesser, who later also plays Martha Cratchit).

Davis audiences will recognize Ebenezer, the young man, as Andrew Conard, who has delighted Acme Theater audiences for several years.

Holmstrom returns as the jovial Ghost of Christmas Present and accompanies Ebenezer to the home of his nephew (Michael Claudio), a man of modest means but whose heart seems full of love for every, even his miserly uncle.

At the home of his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit (Allen Pontes) and his wife (another role for Suzanne Irving) Ebenezer has another tug at his heartstrings as he watches the crippled Tiny Tim (Christian Salmon). Others in the Cratchit family are Corey Porter as Peter, Alena Rose as Belinda, Aubrey Harwell as Edward, and Roesser as Martha.

The funereal Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Thomas J. Engstrom) doesn’t say much, but makes a lasting impression.

Charles Dickens described the holidays as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

As we move forward through this holiday season may we, like Scrooge, take those words to heart and be a little more kind, a little more forgiving, and a little more loving toward those around us.

Sacramento Theater Company’s “Christmas Carol” should be on everyone’s list of things to do to enhance their holiday spirit.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Into the Woods

After all the hopes, the dreams and the plans. After years of stop and start progress and frustrating delays, Jan and Steve Isaacson finally welcomed Davis Musical Theater Company’s loyal audience to the first production in the new Hoblit Center for the Performing arts, at 607 Pena Street in Davis on Friday night.

There was the smell of fresh paint throughout the building, and places that still need to be painted or stained or carpeted. The curtains had only been hung the night before and the wrinkles were still falling out of the grand drape. The acoustic designer won’t get to work until everything is in place, but the show must go on, and go on it did.

“Into the Woods,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, was the opener. Sondheim shows are not necessarily easy under the best of circumstances and I fully expected there would be lots of glitches with this opening night performance and was prepared to be forgiving because of all the work that the company has been putting in trying to get the theater ready.

I was pleasantly surprised. If there were glitches, other than a couple of faulty light cues, I was unaware of them. The set, designed by Woodrow & IvyMoss, with its stark spiky trees for the forest and the traditional wagon sets for Cinderella’s home (later the palace), the home of Jack (of Beanstalk fame), and the bakery where the baker and his wife long for a child were perfect for the Hoblit stage. (And the scene change from houses to forest was great!)

The DMTC orchestra, under the direction of Erik Daniells, now has its own pit and the difference in sound was amazing. I’ve never heard them sound better.

There will be some adjustments that will have to be made as the performers learn how to project out over an orchestra rather than one which is backstage on a platform, as it has been for years. Some of the actors handled this change better than others. Most could use a bit more oomph in their delivery for spoken lines.

However, that said, this is a good production.

“Into The Woods” was Stephen Sondheim’s attempt to prove that not everything he wrote had to be heavy, loaded with gloom and doom and psychological undertones, and that he could also write light hearted material.

Act One weaves together the stories of many familiar tales from our childhood. Cinderella (Rosie Babich) sits at home with her stepmother (Monique McKisson) and two stepsisters (Dannette Vassar and Stacia Truesdale), longing to go to the Prince’s ball.

Next door, Jack (Steven Ross) and his mother (Jannette Kragen) are arguing over selling Jack’s beloved cow, Milky White (playing herself).

Rounding out the families is the Baker (Ryan Adame) and his wife (Kristen Wagner), who are disappointed that they have not yet conceived a child.

Into the mix comes Little Red (Jocelyn Price) on her way to bring goodies to Granny (Melissa Tolley). There are a couple of princes, Cinderella’s Prince (Bob Olson) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Ryan Favorite). And of course Rapunzel is there too (Jessica Hammon) along with the witch who is keeping her captive (Marguerite Morris). Binding it all together is Steve Isaacson, as the Narrator

It is an excellent cast with few weak performers. Those who rise above the rest are Price, whose Little Red is energetic and cute as a button. Babich as Cinderella gives an outstanding performance, as do Adame and Wagner, as the Baker and his wife. Both princes have strong voices and are quite regal on stage (well, perhaps except for that rolling around on the floor in an illicit encounter business).

Marguerite Morris gives her usual first-rate performance. She is at her best when singing, but needs to work more on projection in her spoken lines.

Melissa Tolley is the offstage voice of the wife of the Giant that Jack killed. It is unfortunate that some sort of amplification was not used for the voice. It should have sounded more scary.

Act 2 of “Into the Woods” shows us that there really is no “happily ever after,” and many characters meet horrible ends. However, for purposes of this production, they all died gloriously.

Director Jan Isaacson was beaming in the lobby after the show ended, saying “I just can’t believe we’re finally here.” After all this time, she must feel like she is living her own kind of fairy tale. It is this reviewer’s hope that, unlike most of the characters in “Into the Woods,” the Davis Musical Theater Company has finally found its “happily ever after” and that they, along with their loyal patrons, can enjoy it for years to come.