Friday, March 30, 2007

Spring Concert 2007

Pamela Trokanski, who has been entertaining Davis Audiences for over twenty years, is examining life, love, sex, relationships -- and voice mail.

The Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre’s Spring Concert 2007 continues March 30, 31, and April 6 at 8 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center, 2720 Del Rio Place in Davis. The concert is performed by members of the theater (Caitlin Barale, Nicole Bell, Robin Carlson, Katy Lundgren, Bekah Shepard, Cindy Robinson and Trokanski herself) and members from “Third Stage,” Northern California’s only multi generational contemporary dance company. Maj Hapworth, Allegra Silberstein and Claire Finn join in on the second of three pieces.

The evening opens with a delightful (if overly long) look at voice mail hell and everyone in the audience will be able to relate to the relentless telephone sound (Hank Lawson is credited with “music,” though this isn’t exactly “music”) and with the recorded announcements from the disembodied operator, who wants to assure the dancers that their call is very important to her.

The piece is clever and funny and the robotic movements of the dancers match the mood perfectly, though it runs something like 16 minutes and the humor begins to wear thin at about 10 minutes.

The second piece is entitled “Singing Over Bones.” The original cast of dancers is joined by Claire Finn, with Hapworth and Silberstein playing the roles of old village women who gather wolf bones and sing over them, the legend being that as the songs build in intensity, the bones reconstitute, fill in with muscles skin and fur and the wolves run off in the direction of the forest. Those who make it to the trees are reborn into women, women who know where they come from and women who can laugh.

Lighting designer Myvanwy Morgan creates a mystical place for women to gather. The older women are circled by women in purple who dance in slow, sensuous movements, much like harem dancers. As the chorus and rhythm (music also by Hank Lawson) builds they are joined by the rest of the group, dressed in red, the lights become warmer and you feel as if you are watching a very special ritual, which is primitive, uniquely female, and reminiscent of drum circles.

After a brief intermission the original group is back with the premiere of “Come Naked, Bring Beer,” which examines the who, what, when, where and how of courtship, defined as “the process of selecting and attracting another for an intimate relationship such as love, sex, commitment, living together, marriage, and having children, or any combination of these. Courtship may last days, months, or even years, but some lovers skip courting altogether as in cases of (mutual) love at first sight, casual sex or arranged marriage.”

The sense of a “hunt” is depicted by the animal print added as sleeves to the original costume, sleeves which later extend to floor length and move as wings in describing courtship rituals and comparing them to bower birds.

The various little things that a woman is looking for a mate are described in intimate detail through music by Lawson, Crash Test Dummies, and They Might be Giants. Guest Dancer Bill Tuck joins the women as “Superman,” and the piece concludes with the realization that a man’s wants and desires are much less complex and much more basic.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Revenge! Passion! Lust! Greed!...and Love.

Shakespeare’s great tragedy “Othello” has it all, and the Sacramento Theater Company’s sparkling new production, under director Peggy Shannon serves it well, from the magnificent set designed by Marion Williams, to the powerful performances delivered by the members of the cast.

While the play centers around Othello (Marc Antonio Pritchett), the noble Moor and general in the defense forces, who has just eloped with the lovely Desdemona (Michele Hillen), Act 1 really belongs to Iago (Matt K. Miller), a 17th century Karl Rove who manipulates all action, convinces people to do terrible things and traps them in an intricate web of lies, while all the while feigning innocence and friendship with Othello himself.

Iago is angry because he feels he has been passed over for promotion in favor of young Cassio (Brett Williams) and so he sets in motion an elaborate plot to convince Othello that his young bride has been unfaithful, which ultimately results in the demise of just about everybody.

Miller’s Iago is more mischievous than villainous as he plots to bring down Othello. There is always a smirk on his face and a twinkle hidden somewhere in his eye even while he is doing the most dastardly deeds or expressing his hatred of Othello. It is easy to see why everyone believes him and is taken in by his manipulation. He’s a likeable bad guy.

Iago’s character resonates strongly in this day and age, where jumping to conclusions and acting on those misguided conclusion can have lasting negative effects.

Pritchett is subdued, almost an afterthought, in the first act. His Othello seems to be little more than a prop off of which Iago plays. His love of Desdemona is obvious, though gentle, without any foreshadowing of the rage he will develop in Act 2 at the suspicion that his wife has been dallying with another man.

He comes into his own, however, in Act 2, fulfilling the promise of passions only hinted at in Act 1. He displays genuine anguish at the thought of his wife’s unfaithfulness, and deep remorse following her murder. Pritchett doesn’t exactly take command of the stage so that you center on him, but he has flashes of smoldering intensity.

Desdemona is exquisitely played by Michele Hillen, who gives her a sweet and innocent persona. She exudes a gentle love for Othello. In this production, theirs is a quiet love, not a sizzling passionate love, and she feels true confusion at his later accusations of her infidelity with Cassio (Brett Williams).

Williams is the perfect hero, tall and handsome, intense, and exuding sexuality. His principles crumble when Iago gets him drunk, which results in Othello stripping him of his rank.

Marie Bain turns in a memorable performance as Iago’s wife Amelia, who unwittingly gets drawn into the plot to bring down Othello, yet displays a feisty personality unafraid to stand up to either her husband or to Othello himself.

Brian Rivera is the hapless Roderigo, in love with Desdemona and fooled into thinking Iago is helping him press his suit, while all the while being drawn into Iago’s plot to destroy Othello. Rivera gives his character an endearing gullibility which gives him deep pockets for Iago’s greed.

The atmosphere is aided by the lush costumes of Todd Roehrman and the somber lighting design of Arthur Rotch. Michele Hillen doubled as dance choreographer for the belly dancers, and Marc Antonio Pritchett also choreographed the fight scenes.

While not, perhaps, an “Othello for the ages,” this is a very accessible Othello which will keep one enthralled from start to finish.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Let's Murder Marsha

This review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on 3/13/07.

Monk Ferris may not exactly be a household name.

“Monk Ferris” is the nom de plume of a writer named Jack Sharkey, who started his career as a copy writer for Sears Roebuck, went on to write novels, science fiction, humor articles, and mysteries, and ultimately began writing stage plays. Prior to his death in 1992, Sharkey had written some 82 plays under his own name and four other names, one of which was Monk Ferris.
As “Mike Johnson” Sharkey wrote stage thrillers; as “Monk Ferris” he wrote comedies.

“Let’s Murder Marsha,” written in 1984 and currently running at the Winters Community Theater, under the direction of Trent Beeby, seems to be a blend of stage thriller and comedy which spoofs the world of campy murder mystery novels.

The script is never going to win any writing awards. There are lots of inconsistencies, lots of things that happen just because they need to get characters off stage for a few minutes (how many of you take your guests into the dining room “to show them where they are going to eat”?), and it seems to fizzle out in the overly long second act, but none of that mattered to the audience, which laughed appreciatively at the funny one-liners and the ludicrous situations and seemed to be having a great time.

Marsha Gilmore (Joanie Bryant) is the wife of wealthy stockbroker Tobias (Greg Lanzaro). Marsha’s secret passion is “sleazy slasher novels,” which she hides because her husband disapproves of their content. As the play opens, she is concerned because she has lost her current novel, “The Creeping Slasher,” which is overdue at the library. She enlists the aid of her maid, Bianca (Janette Dahn) and there follows a series of comings and goings and misheard conversations worthy of a French bedroom farce, which all lead to Marsha coming to the conclusion that her husband is plotting to kill her, with the assistance of his new girlfriend.

In truth, Tobias has purchased a sea plane as a birthday gift for his wife (though it is impossible to imagine the air-headed Marsha as the pilot of a plane. That is only one of the points where the audience is asked to suspend disbelief!). To assist him in the surprise, Tobias has hired interior decorator Persis Devore (Jenell Novello), to help with the design of the plane’s interior (we also aren’t sure how Tobias can be choosing upholstery the night before he is to give the plane to his wife...but let that pass too).

The cast seems unsure of whether Devore is pronounced with a silent e at the end or not and I was convinced that once she had been invited to stay for dinner, as a cover-up for the real reason why she was in the apartment, that she would be required to eat with her leather coat on, as nobody ever seemed to ask her to remove it.

The maid suggests that Marsha enlist the aid of a neighbor, Virgil Baxter (Jim Hewlett), a pharmacist who has his own secrets, with the murder of her husband, which she feels is her only defense against her own untimely demise. Baxter agrees to concoct some sort of odorless, tasteless poison which will leave no clues for police following the poisoning of Tobias and his assumed mistress.

Again there are more comings, goings, prop switches and the entrance of Marsha’s mother, Lynette Thoren (Germaine Hupe) to further confuse things.

Over the course of the evening, the cast attempts to eat dinner several times, never all at the same time (and all off stage). I lost track of whether the soup was supposed to be hot or cold, actually.

Conveniently, after Bianca accidentally drinks the poison (or so everyone thinks), her boyfriend shows up. Ben Quade (Ben Moroski) just happens to be driving a police ambulance in which he can carry whichever people need to be transported, whether for medical attention or arrest.

It’s all very silly, makes no sense whatsoever, and yet many in the audience were still chuckling as they filed out of the auditorium.

And isn’t that what theater is all about? Leaving them all entertained?

Kudos to the costume crew, which is listed as “the cast, JoAnn May, and Trent Beeby.” It was fun to see how all the colors blended with each other and with the walls and furniture of the apartment, without being obvious about it.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

12 Angry Men

There is something magical that happens, sometimes, in straight drama – when it’s good. During the course of a play, a dramatic moment will come and you suddenly become aware that there is total silence in the theater. You could literally hear a pin drop. It is as if the entire audience were holding its breath so as not to miss a single word coming from the stage. When the venue is a large arena, it’s even more impressive.

Such a moment happened more than once during the opening night performance of Roundabout Theater Company’s traveling production of “12 Angry Men,” directed by Scott Ellis, the current Broadway Series offering at the Sacramento Community Theater.

Reginald Rose’s screenplay for “12 Angry Men” was initially a 1954 CBS “Studio One” production, later made into a feature film with an all-star cast which included Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, and Jack Klugman, among others.

The 90 minute intermission-less play is set in a jury deliberation room, where 12 jurors are to decide the fate of a 16 year old boy accused of murdering his father.

Six time Emmy nominee George Wendt (Norm from “Cheers”) and Emmy winner Richard Thomas (who has had a long, successful Broadway career since he said his last “Good night” as John Boy on “The Waltons”) are the big name stars who will pull in audience dollars, but they head a stellar cast of lesser known names but no lesser talented co-stars, each of whom seems exactly right for the part.

Wendt is Juror #1 who, as foreman, seems to have the least to do, other than calling for the vote and trying to keep peace among his increasingly frustrated and angry co-jurors.

Thomas is Juror #8, the only one who is not quick to condemn a 16 year old to death, though all the facts presented during the trial seem conclusively to prove his guilt. #8 admits that he isn’t convinced one way or another, but he passionately believes that the mandatory death sentence demands the group at least spend a little time examining all the evidence.

His fellow jurors present a broad spectrum of backgrounds and personalities, each of whom has accepted the boy’s guilt, for a variety of personal reasons.

#3 (Randle Mell) has a bad relationship with his son and his anger toward the defendant is based on anger with his own son’s behavior.

#10 (Julian Gamble) is a bigot whose prejudices against those who are “different” reveal themselves very quickly. (“They're no good! There's not a one of 'em who is any good!”)

#7 (Mark Moretti) doesn’t really care. All he knows is he has tickets to a baseball game and he’s eager to get the whole thing settled before the first ball is tossed out.

#9 (Alan Mandell) is an elderly man with a failing body, but a keen mind who sees more than some of the other jurors see.

#11 (David Lively) is an immigrant who feels a strong sense of his civic duties and whose dedication to the rights of the defendant are more finely tied to his sense of privilege for being allowed to participate in the legal system of his chosen country.

Others in the cast include Todd Cerveris, Jeffrey Hayenga, Jim Saltouros, Charles Borland, T. Scott Cunningham and Patrick New.

“12 Angry Men” is an interesting and engrossing look at our judicial system, with all its strengths and weaknesses, and, though set in the 1950s, is as relevant today as it was when it was first presented.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Man of La Mancha

After seeing director Art Grueneberger’s delightful "Man of La Mancha," performed with life-size puppets, the only question one must ask is: why didn’t anybody think of this before?

"Man of La Mancha," written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, which opened Friday night at the University Main Theater, tells the story of author Miguel Cervantes (Mario Castro Martinez), imprisoned for crimes against the Catholic Church (he attempted to foreclose on a monestary for non-payment of taxes), who is awaiting interrogation by The Spanish Inquisition.

Darrell F. Winn’s set is magnificent, dark and mysterious, with a long staircase which can be lowered from an upper level to the dungeon. The orchestra, under the direction of Pete Nowlen, is set off to the side behind bars and almost invisible. The only jarring element on the otherwise perfect stage is the guitar of Taehun Lee. Lee opens the show by walking out, sitting on a box and beginning to play a tune. It is a shame that into this perfectly created dark and murky world, a shiny, light colored, modern electric guitar, with a spotlight on it, should stand out like a sore thumb.

Cervantes comes into the prison with his manservant (Richard Hess). The pair are set upon by the other prisoners, who insist that the newcomer must be judged by his fellow prisoners at a mock trial for the crime of being "an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man."

Cervantes demands that he be allowed to defend himself and does so by presenting "an entertainment." Traditionally, Cervantes now begins to apply make-up from his trunk while his manservant passes out costumes to the prisoners as they prepare to tell the tale of Alonso Quijana, an old man who fancies himself a dauntless knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha, determined to travel around the world and make it a better place.

In the current production, Cervantes is a puppeteer rather than simply an actor. Instead of costumes, the prisoners are given puppet figures to use in the presentation of the entertainment. The major character puppets are worked by two actors, Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, by three.

(Puppets were designed and built by Kristen Phillips)

Using puppets brings the musical into a different dimension. It allows for unusual casting, for example. Castro Martinez admits that he is entirely wrong for the role of Don Quixote. He is too young and too short, for starters. Yet with fellow puppeteers (Kate Cryan, torso, and Cary Babka, legs), you lose sight of the physical appearance of the actor and concentrate, instead, on that marvelous voice coming out of the body of the perfectly fashioned puppet. Castro Martinez thus becomes the perfect Quixote.

Babka deserves special praise because his operation of Quixote’s legs is so seamless that at intermission, my husband asked why there were 3 people listed in the program for that character, when he only noticed two.

Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza, being short and round, becomes more of a cartoonesque character, with Kelly Fleischmann operating the torso and Matthew Escarcega the legs. Unlike Quixote’s long, lanky, articulated legs, Sancho’s are short and stubby and his little run step adds greatly to the appeal of the character. Hess is also a delightful comedic actor and his voice for Sancho is perfect for the puppet he controls.

Laura Snell is Aldonza, the prison whore, in whom Quixote sees only goodness and purity as his "Dulcinea." (Allison Minick controls the torso). This is a demanding role, vocally, and Snell had some difficulty in spots, but there was no denying her ability to instill the character with all the emotion necessary.

Matthew Moore was suitably threatening as the "Governor," whose job it was to preside at the prisoners’ trial of Cervantes and his manservant. Moore later played the Innkeeper in the fantasy (torso by Spencer Tregilgas) as a sympathetic man who understands Quijana’s need to have him believe his Quixote persona.

Daniel Reano-Koven was a menacing Duke, and later Dr. Carrasco (torso by Lee Riggs), the cynical, self-centered fiancee of Quijana’s niece (Franchesca Jimenez with torso by Kelsey Yoro)

Lowell Abellon added comedic elements as the Barber in the fantasy (with Jocelyn Tripet-Diel as the torso).

Other major characters included Bryan Pham and Lowell Abellon as Padre, Kaitlin Shaw and Kristina Stasi as the housekeeper, and Melanie Levy and Kaitlin Shaw as Maria/Fermina.

This production may seem to be about special effects (the night of the mirrors, when Quixote is forced to face reality, is quite impressive), but despite the use of puppets – or perhaps because of the use of puppets – this is a memorable production which touches the heart.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

He's Got the World on a String

Any parent who has ever spent hours watching children hide behind a couch to put on a puppet show with sock puppets, or Sesame Street characters needs to get to the University Main Stage to watch “Man of La Mancha,” opening March 2, and see what a kiddie puppeteer can accomplish, if his love of puppetry is allowed to grow.

“My poor mom,” laughed Art Gruenberger, director of the upcoming production. “She had to sit through so many puppet shows of me just sitting behind the couch. I had a box full of puppets. I would just put on show after show after show for her.”

Despite his early love of puppets, Gruenberger didn’t get serious about becoming a puppeteer until his senior year at CSUS, when he enrolled in a puppetry class taught by famous puppeteer, Richard Bay. Gruenberger was headed for a career in teaching, but figured that, given his experience and love of puppets, the course would be an easy A.

He worked with Bay on a show called “A Thousand Cranes,” the poignant story of Sadako Sasaki, a young victim of the Hiroshima atomic bomb disaster, who believes that if a she folds a thousand paper origami cranes the gods will grant her wish and make her well again.”

“We used life-sized bunraku style puppets (a Japanese style of puppetry where a full-bodied puppet is manipulated by any number of visible puppeteers who may or may not be dressed in black), very Americanized,” said Gruenberger. “It was my first real experience with puppets for adults and I was just hooked from then on.”

“Richard saw some talent in me,” Gruenberger explains, saying that was hired by Bay to put on some children’s shows. When Gruenberger felt he wasn’t getting enough work, Bay challenged him to build his own show, and “Frankenswine” was born (“It’s Frankenstein with a bunch of pigs.”). The show opened at Fairytale Town in October of 1993 or 94 and “it just skyrocketed from there.”

Gruenberger formed his own group, Puppet Art Theater Company,” which is now the resident puppetry troop at Fairytale town and has been the catalyst for international recognition.

A show called “Perspectives,” eventually landed him at the Here Theater in New York. “It’s these little yellow guys operated by 3 puppeteers. They are a bit smaller than traditional bunraku but the puppeteers are hooded and gloved.” Gruenberger was invited to bring the show to an international puppet festival in So. Korea. It opened the doors.

“They invited us to bring the show into Seoul and one of the colleges, and then to Chuncheon for the actual festival itself. Then I toured with Wendy Morton and Shadowlight Theater to Huddersfield (England) to do a large screen shadow puppet show. We did “Coyote Stories,” an American Indian tale with a Balinese gamelan orchestra and shadow puppets. It was just such a wonderful mashing together of all sorts of cultures.”

He discovered that puppetry is its own international language when he met a master puppet builder from the Shanghai Theater Academy, who spoke “not a lick of English.” “He was obviously a brilliant builder, and there was this connection through movement and the study of how things move and how to make them move how we want them to move that was just an amazing thing to see span across language, which I think is what movement, especially puppetry is all about.”

The idea to do “Man of La Mancha” with puppets came when Gruenberger was studying for his MFA in Acting at U.C. Davis. A scaled down version of the show became his thesis project which was presented for 2 performances only last summer.

“I wanted to get these puppets on stage and see how they moved and see how ‘Man of La Mancha’ accepted the idea of puppetry.” There have been other productions which have used bits and pieces of puppetry, but this will be the first to use puppets in such a major way. “In our production all of the characters that you find during Cervantes’ story-telling where he’s talking about Quixote, are all represented by various levels of puppets.”

(While Gruenberger has made some of the “cruder” puppets himself, almost all of the heads were sculpted by his colleague, Kristen Phillips, who recently received her MFA from the University of Connecticut, the one place in the country where you can get an MFA in puppetry.)

Gruenberger was invited to direct a full scale production of the show this year, complete with full orchestra, under the direction of Pete Nolan, with whom he has presented the holiday treat, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” in Sacramento (“at the BIG Catholic church”) for the last two years, and which they will present at Memorial Auditorium in December of 2007.

For actor Mario Castro-Martinez, playing Don Quixote in this production, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “This is one of those roles I never thought I would do because I’m not tall, old, or skinny, which are all the things that Quixote is. So this is just an ideal situation where it’s my voice coming out through the body someone who fits the part perfectly and who is created just for this role.”

Castro-Martinez is only 1/3 of Don Quixote, though. He operates the character’s head and left arm. His right arm is manipulated by Kate Cryan and his legs by Cary Babka.

None of the actors had any previous puppetry experience. The cast attended what Gruenberger calls “puppet boot camp” for the first week and a half of rehearsal. “The thing that will make actors better puppeteers is just having puppets in their hands for as much of the rehearsal process as possible, and so I used the puppet boot camp to give them basic principles of puppetry.”

“We worked on group puppets,” says Lee Riggs, playing the torso of Dr. Carasco’s (Daniel Reano-Koven plays the actual character). “Some of the puppets take 3 handlers, some of them are single one person, one puppet, so we did a little of both and because the puppeteers will be visible the whole time, you and the puppet have to be one. If you have two different people doing the arms, usually arms are somewhat symmetrical in look, coloring and length, gesture.”

The groups spent a lot of time rehearsing in front of a mirror, getting to know the other puppeteer and the puppet.

Richard Hess, playing Sancho Panza (Kelly Fleischmann, torso; Matthew Escarcega , legs) is reprising the role he played in the workshop (as is Castro-Martinez). “We’ve spent so much time in the puppets that they’ve just kind of become second nature. It takes so much more concentration to, say, pick up anything or transfer something from one hand to the other to hand it to somebody else. In our case it takes 3 brains to make one.”

Giving his actors lots of time with the puppets is part of Gruenberger’s philosophy. “Over the course of the rehearsal I try to keep them in the puppets as much as possible, and playing with them in between rehearsals. I don’t tell them that I want them to do that, but they do it because they begin to get the hang of it and so they start doing wacky dances with puppets and they discover things that their puppet can do as a result of that. The rehearsal process can be kind of chaotic and I think it drives my stage manager up the wall because they have a toy on stage and actors with toys. But I want them to play as much as possible because they’ll discover subtleties that are necessary to enhance the character that they’re portraying.”

That extra time worked well for Melanie Levy, playing the innkeeper’s wife. Levy was not in the workshop production, but saw it, and thought it would be fun to learn something about puppetry. “I felt very insecure about doing it, so I have to take a lot of time to watch the other actors. I think I’ve started to come to a balance between the two.”

Gruenberger and his cast are definitely working together to create the final piece, trying to be true to the characters and the period. “We don’t know what their gestures were like in the 1700s. It’s impossible to know. There’s no video. We don’t know what they sounded like back there because there are no audio tapes, but we can use our imagination to the best of our ability and the magic of theater to make some decisions, to have some sort of unity on that. That’s what we did.”

Even the set pieces become characters in this production, explains Riggs. “There are lots of boxes and crates that are moved around the prison to create the different scenes. To help the actors remember which pieces they moved, things were given names. The small box is Tiny Tim, we have Darrel and Carol the Barrel, and Bob the Box and Dave the Box. Ropey is a crate with rope handles.”

The experience has been a voyage of discovery for Gruenberger. “It’s huge for me. The biggest cast I’ve worked with up to this point was 5 people. 60-70% of the shows that I do are either one or two people and self-directed, self-written, so this is incredibly different -- and amazing, too. The biggest problem with working with a huge group of people in any sort of professional setting is that you have to pay 22 people, which is why most puppeteers work with one or two people. It makes it more profitable. If I had to tour ‘Man of La Mancha’ with 22 people and a 16 piece orchestra and my crew of 10+ people, it would be insane. It would be ‘the impossible dream.’”

Gruenberger’s “impossible dream” will become “possible” when the show opens at the university’s Main Theater on March 2. I had the opportunity to watch a rough run-through of Act 1 and the audience is in for a real treat. There are moments in the show that are going to have people sitting up and saying “wow!”

It's the magic of puppetry.