Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Derfs Cafe, Santa Barbara

Our previous experience at Derf's had been a good one, and we had no reason to believe that this would be any different.

Boy, were we wrong.

I suspect the main problem was the wait staff, who just didn't seem interested at all. The waitress took forever to even notice we had sat down, took forever to get us anything to drink, and then got the drink order wrong. She eventually took our food order and we waited a good 30-40 minutes for it to be delivered. Two of the six orders were also wrong.

It might, at one time, have been good food, but by the time our burgers arrived mine was barely warm, the meat had the consistency of cardboard, and the cheese, which had once been melted was now a congealed rubbery mass. The bun may have once tasted good, but because of sitting so long, it had dried out and even I, the bread maven of the world, didn't want to deal with it.

Santa Barbara is a town loaded with wonderful places to eat, so I think it's fair to say that we will look elsewhere the next time we are in town and looking for a place to have brunch.

Monday, February 27, 2006


The shake down cruise of “Titanic: the Musical,” with story and book by Peter Stone, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston set sail at the Davis Musical Theater’s Hoblit Performing Arts Center on Friday night, under direction and musical direction of Steve Isaacson. Like the great ship whose story it tells, the production is not without its flaws. It has some fixable problems and some non-fixable problems, but in those moments when it all comes together it is downright glorious.

It is evident from the moment one enters the theater and sees the size and complexity of the set (designed by Michael McElroy, who also designed the lights and plays (appropriately) Thomas Andrews, the builder of the Titanic, in the show itself) that this is a show which could never have been produced at the old Varsity Theater. Even without all the technical elements necessary to sink a giant ocean liner several nights a week, the size of the set alone would not have been possible at the Varsity. The ability to affix things semi-permanently to the walls provided for a rock-solid set.

The 14 piece orchestra, under the direction of Jonathan Rothman, got off to a shaky start in the overture but quickly warmed to the task at hand as the show progressed.

Jeannie Henderson’s costumes are, as always, exquisite.

This is not a plot show. Well, other than the obvious plot about the ship itself. There are no characters in whose lives we get deeply involved. Nobody stands at the bow of the ship proclaiming himself to be “king of the world.” If there is hanky panky going on below deck, we don’t see it. It is more an opportunity to get a glimpse into the lives of the first, second, and third class passengers of the great ship, the meet its crew and then to see how they all handle the terrible tragedy that is about to befall them.

A show this big requires a big cast and DMTC may have assembled its biggest to date. There are 47 actors, some of them doing double duty to fill out the sound of choruses.

Collectively, they are exquisite. When all the passengers are ready to set sail and then launch into “Godspeed Titanic” I literally had tears in my eyes. I think it was a combination of the fact that it was such a full, beautiful sound--and the fact that these were people who were about to meet their death.

However, among the cast there are 44 named characters and many of those characters have either short solos or long solos. Some are not quite up to solo quality voices.

Ben Bruening as J. Bruce Ismay, owner of the Titanic, has never sounded better vocally, though I would have liked a bit less intensity in his portrayal of the man whose only thought was getting the ship to port in the fastest possible time and damn the passengers’ safety.

Richard Spierto was a properly regal Captain E. J. Smith. He has a commanding presence and a good voice and was a perfect choice for the role.

Brian McCann is excellent as Henry Etches, the 1st Class Steward, perhaps at his best “Doing the Latest Rag” (with choreography by Ron Cisneros).

It was fun seeing Davis theater veteran Jill Wright back on stage again as Caroline Neville. She’s as lovely and as talented as she ever was.

Lauren Miller was outstanding as Alice Beane, the starstruck wife of Edgar (Marc Valdez). Alice knows all the facts about all the 1st class passengers and it is her dream to rub elbows with the wealthy while aboard the ship.

There are many technical aspects to this show which simply didn’t work. I am assuming the glitches will be ironed out during the run of the show. An inordinate number of lighting mistakes were made on opening night, from lighting the wrong side of the stage to plunging the whole house into darkness to leaving a soloist in the dark as he sang his solo. It’s a complicated light plot, and I’m sure that this is going to begin to run more smoothly.

There are also video projections which didn’t work at all. The time line projected onto the proscenium was crooked and up much too high to be noticed, much less read, though this already appeared better by the second act. Likewise, there were various newspaper headline articles about the sinking of the ship which were projected onto the curtain and which were much too dark to be read from the audience.

There was also the matter of a stubborn tea cart which is the focus at a crucial moment, and which did not behave as it should.

But when things worked as intended, it was wonderful, and the sight of McElroy standing on the tilted deck of the ship he built trying to decide, in his last remaining moments of life, where he had gone wrong, it was worth it all.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Fears of Your Life (the stage show)

“Fears of Your Life, Study 1,” based on a book by San Francisco author Michael Bernard Loggins, and directed and choreographed by MFA Candidate Kim Epifano, is a true interactive work of theater.

As the audience enters the Mondavi Center, they are free to enjoy a display of artwork by members of Creativity Explored, a San Francisco-based visual art community for people with developmental disabilities, or watch portions of a video, “Life Itself,” by Francis Kohler and Todd Herman, about the life of Michael Bernard Loggins.

From there, the audience passes into the Mondavi Studio Theater, where everyone is invited to “leave their fears at the door,” by writing them on the large wall of butcher paper. The fears range from the serious (“Fear that my daughter will die,” “Fear that I will never again experience love”) to the less serious (“Fear of oversleeping,” “Fear of Dick Cheney”).

Next everyone is invited to choose from among a number of cartoon characters made of thick foam board, with velcro backing, and to, in essence, become part of the set-design team by placing the figures on the walls of set itself. The stage is lined with white felt, on which are drawn cartoonesque figures--a large television, which is running movie clips; a tall house, at the top of which is window in which sits actor Lonnie Ford, as Loggins himself, scribbling fears on pieces of paper, reading them aloud and then tossing them down onto the audience.

The audience is free to wander around the stage, picking up the pieces of paper, and reading Michael’s fears; examining the shoes on which are printed more fears; or checking out the larger than life puppets (designed and constructed by Michael Stasiuk), which will later become part of the choreography.

As starting time approaches, the lights begin to dim, the audience is invited to take their seats, and the show gets underway.

Ford, as Loggins, comes onto the stage with the dancers, members of Oakland’s Axis Dance Company – Judith Smith, Stephanie Bastos, Katie Faulkner, SonsherĂ©e Gilese, Sean McMahon, and Renee Elisabeth Waters.

Inside the giant puppets, outside the giant puppets, on crutches, in wheelchair, running, dancing, leaping about, or rolling on the floor, the company energetically and effectively depicts the 138 fears listed in Loggins’ initial ‘zine. This is a work to which everyone can relate. Who hasn’t, at some time in their life, been afraid of a snake under the bed or going to the dentist?

“Fears of Your Life” is a multi-media event, incorporating movie projections (video design by Erich Bolton) and delightful animation by Todd Herman, bringing Loggins’ engaging drawings to life.

In spots there is definable music--songs written by Epifano and Katie Faulkner, and sung by Faulkner (accompanying herself on the guitar); in other spots there is what Epifano describes as “sound scape” or “vocal motion,” each type of music appropriate to the set of fears being examined. Sound designer Rick Scholwin does an exceptional job of handling the varied sounds.

Lighting plays an integral role in this production and Ron Reisner’s design beautifully portrays the mood, from the red color of traffic-related fears to the stark white fear of “panic attack,” or any of a number of moods in between, lighting only enhances the effect.

As for the performers themselves, they take us to familiar places, funny places, dark places, secret places. The combination of physically abled and disabled dancers, and of Michael Loggins, a developmentally disabled artist and writer, in such a seamless, beautiful manner erases the lines between our differences. We no longer see Michael, the disabled man. We see Michael the artist, the poet, the philosopher, the man. We don’t see physical disabilities of Judith and Stephanie, we see the beauty of dancers who move in a manner different from what we normally expect. We don’t see crutches, we see wings.

“Fears of Your Life, Study 1" is a unique theatrical piece which appeals to people on many different levels. It is a piece to which we can all relate and we leave the theater feeling a little less alone in our fears.

Which was, of course, why Michael Bernard Loggins wrote his little book in the first place.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Death and the Ploughman

When a person dies in the prime of life, the natural tendency of the survivors is to rant and rave and perhaps curse God and question why their loved one had to die too young. These days friends understand what’s going on. We have bereavement counselors and people like Kubler-Ross letting us know that anger is one of the stages of grief and that it’s OK to be angry and to question the logic of God’s allowing a young person to die.

Back in 1401, when Johannes von Saaz’s beloved wife died in childbirth, people just didn’t go around questioning the Almighty. People were supposed to hunker down in their huge cathedrals and accept the will of God.

So von Saaz’s 34 chapter, “Death and the Ploughman,” which presents a grief-stricken ploughman engaging in a bitter dialogue with Death over the loss of his wife, was not widely known in the author’s time, and not translated from the German and presented on the stage until 1977.

A new translation by Michael West opened Wednesday night on the Main Stage at UCD, under the direction of Anne Bogart and performed by members of the SITI Company.

As the audience entered the theater, the three characters were already on stage, moving in a painstakingly slow, stylized manner to the relentless music of Nine Sili Nebesniya, composed by Sheremetieve, a tune which is not likely to be found on my iPod any time soon.

Death, looking like Rene Magritte’s Man in a Bowler Hat, is played by Stephen Webber, with Will Bond as the Ploughman and Ellen Lauren as the Woman.

The Ploughman opens the dialog with a gut wrenching monologue in which all of his pain and anger comes spewing forth as he curses Death, despairs of ever finding happiness again in this life, and demands retribution from Heaven for the joy that was taken from him.

As the 90 minute play progresses, each of the actors, in turn, have lengthy monologues. There is rarely any actual conversation. The woman alternates as the Ploughman’s wife and as a supportive voice for Death.

Death seems to have an almost amused reaction to the depth of Ploughman’s grief. “You have not drunk from the fountain of wisdom. This much is clear from your words,” he says on one occasion, and on another counsels that “‘This too shall pass’ should be in the mouth of every man,” seeming to feel that it is only a matter of time before Ploughman recovers.

He also points out that Ploughman’s grief is so great because his love was so great and that to remove the grief would necessitate removing the love as well, and he gives a recitation of the kinds of positive things that cannot exist without their negative components. "Suffering is the end of love, the end of joy is sorrow. After pleasure comes the loss of pleasure." Death tells the grieving man that if he did not want to feel pain, he should not have allowed himself to love.

The Ploughman continues to harp on the injustice of mortality, while Death shows him the all the ills of the world that his wife has been spared. She died young and beautiful would never know what it was like to experience old age and watch her body begin to deteriorate.

Movement in this production is at times almost balletic, with graceful, precise moves and elaborate gestures. The choreography was a collaborative effort of the actors and the director and arose out of the “dense, articulate” language, explained the cast at a Q&A following the opening night performance. There are also moments of visual levity to break the mood when things get too heavy.

The action takes place on a black stage, bordered with white, a design by James Schuette, which is complemented by the geometric lighting design of Brian H. Scott. The only set pieces are two metal tables and a small suitcase which the woman carries.

The debate between Death and the Ploughman concludes with the arrival of God, who renders judgement as to who was the winner and why.

Director Bogart explains that Death and the Ploughman was written at a time when the theretofore accepted medieval sensibilities were suddenly called into question--faith, the meaning of life, religious hierarchy, authority--leading to the start of the Renaissance. She points out that today we are undergoing another paradigm shift where religion, values and meaning must be examined from fresh new angles.

When one watches this play, one is struck with the sense that history does indeed go in circles, and that everything old is new again, sooner or later. The issues raised in Death and the Ploughman are as fresh today as they were in 1401.

Monday, February 06, 2006


As the old joke goes, when Mozart was my age, he’d been dead 28 years. In a mere 35 years of life, he composed so many pieces of music that it was not until 1862 (70 years after his death) that Ludwig von Kochel finally catalogued them all into a 551 page book. It’s enough to give a person an inferiority complex.

The composer was a bundle of contradictions, at the same time a child prodigy who never really grew up and who was reportedly loud, obnoxious and vulgar, and a brilliant musician who produced some of the most beautiful, profound, and memorable music of his day.

There are also contradictions in reports of his life. The manner of his death is a matter of debate. His burial place is unknown.

In the story of this multi-faceted genius, Peter Shaffer saw a great theatrical piece and his “Amadeus” was written in 1977 and first performed in London in 1980. It won 5 Tony awards on Broadway and the 1984 movie won 8 Academy Awards. The original stage work has undergone six revisions and the Sacramento Theater Company is presenting the latest version.

The story tells of a questionable relationship between Mozart and a lesser court composer, Antonio Salieri. It focuses on Salieri’s seething jealousy and hatred of the young genius, and his decision to destroy him. In actual history there is question of whether the two ever met, but it is of little consequence because Shaffer has made it a heck of a story.

Salieri is at the center of the work, the play beginning on what he says is to be the final night of his life. The action is mostly done in flashback, with occasional returns to the present as Salieri ticks off the remaining hours of his life.

Matt K. Miller may be playing the role of his life. He is simply magnificent as the tormented Salieri, making deals with God and then, when he feels the deals go sour, turning his back on God and embarking on a campaign to drive his nemesis to ruin. Salieri is on stage throughout the entire play, frequently delivering lengthy rapid-fire discourses. It’s an actor’s Olympic event and Miller handles it like the pro that he is.

Derek Manson as Mozart is brilliant. He is very funny as the raucous, raunchy, spoiled wunderkind. But this is a man who spent his early years accompanying his father, being presented and performing for royalty, so he knows what is expected to succeed at court and he is able to change in an instant to a courtly gentleman, eager to please his emperor (Philip Charles Sneed).

As Constanze Weber, Saffon Henke nicely rounds out the trio of exceptional lead actors, as captivating as the innocent, giggily young girl being courted by “Wolfie” as she is effective as the life-weary wife, struggling to find enough money to feed her family.

Paul Richard Alary and former Acme member Andrew Conard have large roles as the two Venticelli (Salieri’s “ears,” -- the word “venticelli” means “little winds” -- who bring him all the latest gossip).

Others in this fine cast include Margie Roesser as soprano Katherine Cavalieri (mistress to both Mozart and Salieri), Greg Alexander as Count Johann Kilian von Strack, J.T. Holmstrom as Count Franz Orsini-Rosenberg, Thomas Engstrom as Baron Gottfried van Swieten.

The set, designed by Marion Williams, is perhaps more opulent than STC audiences are accustomed to, with its rich wood balconies and crystal chandeliers. Portions of the set move to partition off certain areas and it is hoped that the set crew can learn to do it a bit more quietly as the run progresses.

Clare Henkel is credited with costume design, working with costumes rented from the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. The look is luxurious and beautifully gives a feel for the period.

The recorded music (sound designer is Ned Jacobson) worked in some cases, not in others. During Katherine Cavalieri’s first act performance, she makes no attempt to lip synch to what is being played and, as her face is visible to the audience (though she is facing the emperor, who is seated upstage), the whole thing looks awkward and was distracting. By the same token, the choruses conducted by Mozart later in the play work quite well.

Lighting designer Pamila Z. Gray's design included (the pre-show talk informed the audience) over 300 light cues and nicely run the gamut from warm ambient lighting to spotlighted segments that set the actor off from the actual action on stage.

Director Peggy Shannon has created a gem of a production, opulent by STC standards, professional in every aspect, and certain to delight audiences. As the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart rolls around, the Sacramento Theater Company’s production of “Amadeus” is a beautiful gem to add to all of the other observances in honor of the composer which are taking place worldwide.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Fears of Your Life (the book)

Fears of your life is written by a developmentally disabled man named Michael Bernard Loggins. His work is being presented on stage in a couple of weeks and I will be reviewing it, but the choreographer gave me a copy of his book, so I could have an idea of what the show is about.

Michael has listed all of his many fears, along with cartoons which depict many of them. I can relate to a lot of them (like "monsters under the bed," my big fear all the years I was growing up).

I get the feeling that Michael has experienced much fear reaction on the part of other people. Several of his "fears" relate to how people perceive him. Fears 101 to 104 read:

101. What people think of when they see me coming up the streeet? What the first thing they can think of once they see a stranger like me coming in the direction I goes in? Nothing but fear!

102. Why do people when they see me coming what do they tell their friends? let's cross the street. I don't want to get hurt.

103. we better cross the street this man is following us and he wants to bother us whatwe ought to do is turn and go another direction Fear.

104. what does fear itself can do to make you afraid of a stranger and what does that fear tells you about that man and what fear cause you to think something may happen to you in just 5 seconds or 1 minute? does fear warns people to move away from ;him or is it that it's a warning system tells you that man is ready for an attack and harm you or what kind of danger your life is in when you or guys and girls think to do is it lot threatening or just a kind of situation you may face soon?

This book made me stop and think more often than not. It is available through Creativity Explored, a workshop for developmentally disabled people in San Francisco. I encourage people to check out their amazing web site.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Dancing on the Edge

How often do you get the chance to watch someone dance with a Sousaphone, while someone else roller blades around the stage? Not often, I suspect. If the notion intrigues you, get yourself to UCD’s Main Theater this weekend to see “Awake Now and Then,” the second half of a program called “Dancing on the Edge.”

“Dancing on the Edge” consists of two pieces by Granada Artists-in-Residence, Doug Varone and Joanna Haigood.

Varone’s piece, Fractured Lives, opens the 2 hour show. It is performed by Jennie Amaral, Mary Elizabeth Anderson, Kelsey Cassady, Robert Coverdell, Anna Feldman, Brennan Figari, Hector Marin-Rodas, Meghan Moyle, David Orzechowicz, Whitney Peterson, Brian Runstrom and Alice Vasquez and is described by Varone as being “loosely based on images from several films from the 1930s and 1940s film noir era.”

Costume and scenic designer Victoria Livingston-Hall and lighting Designer Javan Cayo Johnson played a big part in creating the film noir look. Costumes were all in black, white, or shades of grey. The set, an interior room, was all done in grey and white, and the lighting, most of it from the top straight down, cast shadows on the figures of the performers, which, again added to the film noir look.

There were two exceptionally moving points of this piece, one with a man and a woman on the floor, alternately tender and violent, painting a picture without words of the relationship between the two.

Later, there was a poignant moment when a man turns on a movie on the far wall of the room. The “movie” is a life figure of a woman he obviously loved, who has obviously died. The effect is beautifully haunting, as he approaches the “screen” and begins to interact with her, only to have to leave her there as he turns off the projector.

This was the outstanding moment of this piece for me.

The delightful “Awake Now and Then,” choreographed by Joanna Haigood in collaboration with dancers Rebecca Abdenour, Mary Elizabeth Anderson, Christina Fajardo, Anna Feldman, Meghan Moyle, Hector Marin-Rodas, Whitney Peterson, Mary Ann Reveles, Brian Runstrom, Derricka Smith and Alice Vasquez, opens on a half-bare stage, with pieces of the previous number and several ladders standing around. To the Ink Spots’ “My Shadow, My Echo and Me,” the set pieces begin to be moved off, the ladders moved around, and the dancing starts.

Haigood, director of San Francisco’s Zaccho Dance Theater, is known for her use of aerial flight and suspension and those elements are hinted at in her work.

The moving set, a play on ideas of states of consciousness, includes a series of ladders and doors that allows dancers to interact with the underlying mechanisms of the theater. As the music segues into “Begin the Beguine,” the light casts shadows of the dancers on the back wall.

It is at once a shadow puppet theater, a living M.C. Escher drawing, as the bodies climb stairs to nowhere, open doors that open on nothing, and climb down again, at odd angles, and a bit of a circus, with a Sousaphone player walking through the action while being circled by a woman on roller blades.

Somehow it just all works. It is original, quirky, beautifully executed, and a joy to watch.

“Dancing on the Edge” continues through February 5.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

3rd Degree

The thing I love about James Patterson books, other than that he spins a mean yarn, is that he isn't stuck in one particular rut. He has two different sets of story lines going, the Alex Cross series, which centers on a detective working out of the D.C. area, and the Women's Murder Club series, set in San Francisco (which, being a native, I like).

This is the third of the Women's Murder Club books, written in conjunction with Andrew Gross. (The previous two were "1st to Die" and "2nd Chance").

The unlikely collaboration of friends, homicide lieutenant Lindsay Boxer (our heroine), an assistant DA, a medical examiner, and a crime reporter.

In this story, one of them will meet with foul play and it will be up to the other three to find out who is responsible. This particular story deals with a terrorist group calling itself "August Spies," and the fast-paced plot shows the very real posibility of the planting of incendiary devices or introducing the poisonous ricin into the environment, and the kind of response one might expect from the Department of Homeland Security.

This is a page turner, a roller coaster ride from beginning to end. There are enough twists and turns to warrant a dramamine.

Oh yeah--and there's a hint of sex too.