Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rose Colored Glass

The Woodland Opera House's current production of 'Rose Colored Glass' by Janice Goldberg and Woodland-born playwright Susan Bigelow (directed by Jeff Kean) is a show that you want to take to your heart. It's the story of how the plight of an 11-year-old Jewish boy from Austria dissolves the long-time animosity of two women in Chicago in 1938 as they join together to work to find him safe passage from Europe and a home in the United States.

The play has heart, it has pathos, it has three excellent actors. What it lacks is, sadly, a better script. At times it seems overly long. It's not sure whether it's a history lesson or a soap opera. It's not a bad play. It's a play worth seeing. But its problems definitely lie primarily with the script.

Lady O'Riley (Cheri Douglas) runs an Irish pub in Chicago. She's a widow and has run the pub ever since her husband's death. She is also raising her 13-year-old granddaughter Peg (Emily Jo Seminoff), whose ne'er-do-well father abandoned the child on his mother's doorstep after the death of his wife.

Across the alley from the back of O'Riley's pub is the delicatessen of Rose Fleishman (Georgann Wallace). Rose is also a widow, originally from Austria, who left family behind when she and her husband came to the United States.

The two women have never spoken, and their animosity toward each other and their distrust of one another seems strange, but they are both firmly rooted in their own cultures and not willing to interact with someone who seems so 'foreign,' even though their circumstances are so similar.

Young Peg, who acts as the narrator of the piece, is the eternal cock-eyed optimist, determined to get the two women to make friends. She spends a lot of time in Fleishman's delicatessen and obviously has a warm, loving friendship with Rose.

The ultimate breaking down of the barriers between the two women comes, slowly, after Rose receives letters from her sister in Austria, hinting at the problems that Jews are beginning to have. It is a time in this country where there is great apathy on the part of Americans and articles hinting at persecution of Jews are relegated to the back pages of the newspapers.

When Rose receives a disturbing letter from her sister, Peg forces her grandmother to get involved. Slowly the two women strike up a friendship.

The play takes Rose through the maddening world of red tape and closed doors and the world of the bureaucratic 'no.' At one point she gives up completely and has to be convinced by her new friend that miracles still happen. Just when she has all but given up, help comes from a most unlikely source.

Between the brief vignettes over time, Peg steps into the alley to give the audience an explanation or an update. Often these discourses are backed by concentration camp photos or news clips running on the back wall.

I really wanted to like this play, but there were many problems. The parallel story of Lady's son, for example, while perhaps intended as a plot device to bring a degree of commonality to the situation of the two women, was merely distracting, especially since it went nowhere.

Rose's anger as she gives up on this nephew she has tried so hard to save seems unrealistic, when it is her neighbor who is adamant that the woman keep trying to bring the boy to safety.

Lady's refusal to allow Peg to skip school to accompany the women to New York when it seems that all their work is going to come to fruition is completely unbelievable.

There is no difficulty with the three talented actresses. Emily Jo Seminoff has blossomed into an accomplished actress and is enchanting as the ever-positive Peg.

Cheri Douglas is, according to her biography, 'making her debut in professional theater.' If this is her debut, it holds the promise of a wonderful career, as she beautifully walked that tightrope between stubborn Irish woman and warm-hearted friend.

Georgann Wallace, veteran of several Woodland Opera House productions, gives an emotional performance as Rose and makes the audience feel her anguish and her frustration over the plight of her family.

After World War II, the cry became 'never again!' Never again would the world sit back and do nothing while millions of people were being slaughtered. In an age where that is precisely what is happening in places like Darfur and Rwanda, 'Rose Colored Glass' is an important reminder of the human faces behind genocide. I just wish the script had been better crafted.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Beaux' Stratagem

What can you say about the unlikely trio George Farquhar (1677-1707), Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) and Ken Ludwig (1950- )? They are all responsible, along with director Emily Henderson, for bringing lots of fun and belly laughs to the Art Center stage at the Acme Theatre Company's annual (free) spring show.

Farquhar wrote the classic Restoration comedy, 'The Beaux' Stratagem' in 1707. In 1939, it was partially adapted by Thornton Wilder (an Acme favorite playwright), but abandoned with the outbreak of World War II. In 2000, Wilder's 57-page manuscript was rediscovered and, with the permission of the Wilder estate, Ken Ludwig ('Lend Me a Tenor,' 'Sullivan and Gilbert,' etc.) completed the work.

This very funny comedy tells the story of Jack Archer (Torin Lusebrink) and Tom Aimwell (Andrew Lampinen), two men who, having squandered their respective fortunes, are now out looking for rich women to marry. They move from town to town, playing nobleman and servant (switching roles when they switch towns).

When they reach the town of Lichfield, Tom finds himself falling in love with the lovely Dorinda (Kathleen Johnston), who lives with her brother Squire Sullen (Geoffrey Albrecht), who is always drunk and abusive toward his wife Kate (Vivian Breckenridge).

The three live in the home of Lady Bountiful (Lila Hunt), who fancies herself a healer and who ministers to the sick of the town, but doesn't have a clue what she's doing and so botches 'treatment' that nobody will come to her for treatment again.

Tom and Jack settle in at the inn run by Boniface (Kevin Deacon), whose own daughter Cherry (Hope Raymond) is much attracted to both Tom and Jack, but fears they are highwaymen, come to burglarize Lady Bountiful's house.

They share their fears with Gloss (Sean Olivares), a military captain, who is, in reality, the leader of a gang of highwaymen, who use the inn as a place to stash their goods.

Needless to say, with all these plot elements in play and the deft hand of director Henderson at work, many hijinks ensue in this fast-paced farce.

There are also some outstanding performances. It has been a pleasure watching the development of Lusebrink, who is at home on the stage as an actor and whose rubbery body works well for slapstick humor.

Raymond, likewise, continues to get better and better and she sparkles in this production.

Olivares is always a delight and does particularly well in roles like that of Gloss, where he can chew the scenery and make it work.

Breckenridge grows into her role as the play progresses and her interactions with Lusebrink are wonderful.

Lila Hunt is entertaining as the ditzy would-be doctor, whose solution for most ailments is amputation.

Albrecht does an outstanding job as the perennially drunk Squire Sullen.

In the smaller roles of Hounslow and Bagshot, Delany Pelz and Danielle Wogulis are very funny.

In her program notes, Henderson comments that 'somewhere during our design process, the 1980s crept into the staging of the show.' This would be in the interlude music (e.g., Madonna!) which inspires some marvelously funny dance numbers. I assume they are superfluous to the original script, but are traditionally Acme and work beautifully.

Costumes by Raymond are over the top Restoration Comedy, particularly the ladies' oversized hoop skirts. I don't know if Raymond also was responsible for makeup design or if it was a group decision, but the painted and decorated faces are marvelous.

Hanna May is credited with set design, which consists of three arches that are moved around in different ways to represent the inn or several rooms in Lady Bountiful's house. Though there is a certain sameness to them, the signs carried on by members of the ensemble (themselves short, funny vignettes) let us know immediately - well, almost immediately - where we are.

Ryan Lagerstrom is the sound designer and, with all those dance numbers, sound plays an important part and was executed flawlessly.

Acme has pulled off another delightful evening of entertainment. You'll laugh and you'll thoroughly enjoy yourselves ... and it's all for free, so you can't go wrong no matter what!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Midsummer Night's Dream

On the off chance that you might be tempted to leave the UC Davis Arboretum's Wyatt Deck before the final bow from the cast members of Studio 301's wonderful production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' don't do it ... or you'll miss one of the most delightful parts of the show.

And I won't spoil the surprise by telling you why.

Studio 301 is the only student-run theater group on the UCD campus that is dedicated to producing full-length plays.

This year's production is Shakespeare's charming fantasy, and choosing the Wyatt Deck - across the street from Wyatt Pavilion, smack dab in the middle of the redwood grove - as a venue was inspired. Who needs sets, when your audience already is surrounded by redwood trees?

In fact, the show's sole 'set' is two boxes on which characters sit at various times.

As the play opens, fairies climb onto the stage from the Arboretum below. Peaseblossom (Kellie Peake), Mustardseed (Ashley Bargenquast) and Cobweb (Fumni Alabi) emit somewhat annoying bird-like chirps and cackles as they communicate with each other throughout the show, but their interpretations are captivating.

The play tells several stories, each of which occurs during a single summer night in a magical forest outside Athens, where fairies play pranks on lovesick mortals, earnest youths endure comical romantic confusion, and some 'mechanics' attempt to rehearse a play in secret.

Director Steph Hankinson has updated her play to the forests of Appalachia in the 1910s. David Lutheran and Katie Walton, as Thesius (the Duke of Athens) and Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Thesius), direct the evening's events, with their request to Philostrate (Chrisy Moore) to arrange entertainment for their upcoming nuptials.

These three actors assume two roles each, with Lutheran and Walton also playing Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, and Moore also appearing as Puck. Moore is a particularly mischievous Puck, and wears an ingenious costume designed by Elizabeth Burciaga - who deserved better credit in the program, which merely lists her bio among those of the performers - which permits her to slip easily from one character to the other.

Plans are interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Egeus (Kris Ide), a nobleman requesting help in forcing his daughter, Hermia (Katelyn Hempstead), to marry Demetrius (Brendan Ward), the husband of his choosing; Hermia, alas, is in love with Lysander (Michael Lutheran).

To further complicate things, Hermia's friend Helena (Cody Messick) is in love with Demetrius. All this sets the stage for twists and turns that develop over the course of the story.

Hermia and Lysander flee Athens and head into the woods, intending to be married at the home of his aunt. They're followed by Demetrius, determined to win Hermia's hand, and Helena, determined to win the hand of Demetrius.

The mechanics are rehearsing in the woods, under the direction of Quince: a delightful interpretation by Alison Stevenson. Her four actors include Nick Bottom (Daniel Guttenberg), the weaver, who plays Pyramus in the troupe's production of 'Pyramus and Thisbe,' and who later is turned into a donkey by Puck.

Guttenberg is outstanding as Bottom, who is full of advice and self- confidence, but makes silly mistakes and misuses language. Instead of the traditional donkey's head, he merely sports donkey ears, which makes him a mere oddity rather than the bizarre half-man/half donkey one expects.

Heidi Kendrick is Flute, a young man who argues against appearing as the very feminine Thisbe. Kevin Ganger is Starveling, a stereotypical backwoodsman who'd rather whittle than perform; Kristina Stasi is Snout, the tinker, who also plays the Wall.

This group of mechanics is right out of 'O Brother, Where Art Thou,' with their stumbling backwoods manners. The scene at the Wall is decidedly unique ... and I'll leave it at that!

This 'Midsummer Night's Dream' is a delicious piece of merriment: a nice diversion on a warm summer's evening. Take the night off and go romping with a bunch of fairies in this actual and magical forest.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Saving One at a Time

(Feature article)

In 1939, Americans were watching "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind." They weren't paying much attention to the little articles at the back of the newspaper about some guy named Adolf Hitler, who was invading Poland.

"We had the Dust Bowl to deal with, and immigrant labor and other American issues, and somehow Europe was far away," explained Woodland playwright Susan Bigelow, as we discussed her play, "Rose Colored Glass," which opens Friday at the Woodland Opera House.

"Even though the newspapers printed bits and pieces about invading Poland, and putting Jews and gypsies in concentration camps, it was small pieces. We didn't notice until we started to win the war, and by that time 6 million were gone."

The play, co-written by Bigelow and Janice Goldberg, looks at the Holocaust from the point of view of two American women of very different backgrounds, who are drawn to the events happening in Europe the way many of us first become involved in a cause: because they care about one person affected by these events.

"We tell the Holocaust from one point of view, from this side of the ocean," Bigelow explained. " 'Rose Colored Glass' is the story of two women who lived on opposite ends of an alley: one Irish, one Jewish, each stereotypes of their individual heritages."

The two widows haven't spoken in years, but their disparate worlds in 1938 Chicago are about to collide. One woman's 13-year-old granddaughter, Peg, is determined that these two mistrustful widows will become friends.

"Suddenly they have something to fight for: to get a young Jewish boy to the United States, safe and sound."

In many ways, the friendship of Lady O'Reily, who runs an Irish pub, and Rose Fleischman, who owns a Jewish delicatessen, mirrors the friendship of Bigelow and Goldberg themselves.

Bigelow moved to Woodland when she was in the second grade, and she lived in Woodland through high school. She went away to college and subsequently ran a little theater in Eureka, which produces original works by American playwrights.

She submitted a play to a women's festival. ("I'd been a playwright for a long time," she said.) As a result of that submission, she met Goldberg, a native New Yorker, who ended up directing Bigelow's play in that city.

"I went to see the play," Bigelow recalled, "and we became pals."

Bigelow invited Goldberg to Eureka, to visit her theater. Goldberg liked what she saw, and expressed interest in directing a play there sometime. "Sometime" turned into a 12-year stint, as she returned to Eureka year after year, as a guest director.

But that came later. Bigelow still remembers her first trip to New York, to meet Goldberg.

"I was visiting New York, and she was taking me around. It was my first time in the city, and I was with a native New Yorker. She kept looking behind to make sure I didn't get lost!"

"Rose Colored Glass" arose out of that meeting, as both wondered if two women of quite different backgrounds could become best friends, if they had enough interests in common.

The play debuted in New York in 2007, where it ran for about six weeks and was picked up by the Samuel French Publishing Company. It then was performed by theater groups all over the country.

Bigelow explained that years of study about the Holocaust have put her on a soapbox, with respect to what happened to 6 million Jews during World War II.

"We don't do that in the play," she assured me.

"But," she added, "people to this day still believe the Holocaust was a hoax. I understand why denial is a great thing, if you don't want to believe it happened. But the sad thing is that we're repeating it. Genocide is genocide, and I can't believe we're ignoring the lessons of the past again and again in places like Rwanda and Darfur."

That said, she again hastened to insist that this play is not a "holocaust piece"; it doesn't try to hit people over the head with a message. Lady and Rose simply try to get a young man across the ocean, so he doesn't wind up in a concentration camp.

"It deals with the early American apathy toward what was happening in Europe. The little articles in the back of the newspaper need to be noticed. They often blossom into something bigger."

In the end, for the women in this play, it's about one boy: their boy.

"To them, probably, the other 6 million are an abstract concept.

"But when you come down to that one boy — a boy for whom you're making a jacket, and finding a job, and getting a visa — it becomes very personal.

"I don't know what 6 million means," Bigelow admitted.

"But people can grasp one person."

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


Saturday evening's Mondavi Center audience had the opportunity to witness a bit of Broadway.

No, it wasn't an actual traveling Broadway show, but a UC Davis production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Oklahoma!' that easily would have been at home on a New York stage.

The production's professional quality is due not only to a talented cast, but also to a host of behind-the-scenes contributors, starting with director/choreographer Mindy Cooper, a former Broadway dancer, choreographer and director. Cooper keeps the direction lively, entertaining and spirited, with nary a dead or a slow spot from start to finish.

The story is set in the Oklahoma territory - in 1906, the days just before statehood - and touches ever so lightly on the ongoing feud between farmers and cattlemen. This quarrel definitely takes a back seat to the story of cattleman Curly McLain, who is in love with Laurey Williams, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller and the hired man, Jud Fry. Jud has his eye on Laurey; she, in turn, is sweet on Curly.

Tristan Rumery is a perfect Curly. He's tall and lanky, and has the look of a young cowman. He's ill at ease around Laurey (Emma Goldin), but their camaraderie is easy and teasing, and their unspoken love is obvious. Rumery, one of the production's few nonstudents, has a beautiful voice; he sets the tone for the entire show with his opening number, 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.'

Goldin has a strong, melodic soprano, and she fills Laurey with the glow of an adolescent in the flush of her first love. She is flirtatious but vulnerable, and a little afraid of all these new sensations.

Allison Minick isn't afraid at all as the hormone-charged Ado Annie, who falls for anybody who will 'talk pretty' to her ('I Can't Say No!'). Minick is delightful.

Annie sets her sights on a traveling peddler, Ali Hakim (Timothy Orr), who makes the mistake of flirting with her and now is stuck with a girl who mistakes his sweet talk for a desire to marry. Orr is wonderful in this role, and he shines in one of the show's lesser-known songs ('It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!').

The heart of 'Oklahoma!' is Laurey's Aunt Eller (Hope Mirlis), around whom most of the farm activity centers. Mirlis is a feisty Eller, dancin' up a storm with the farmhands, but also present to deliver wise advice when anybody needs it.

The story's dark side comes from the farmhand Jud (Brett Duggan), a loner who lives in a shack down by the smokehouse, where his unrequited love for Laurey can fester. Duggan, a professional comedian in real life, becomes larger than life here: grim and menacing. In his 'Lonely Room,' we glimpse the depths of his anger at those who have kept him on the outside all his life.

Jon Shaffer is adorable as Will Parker, a wide-eyed kid just returned from Kansas City, where he has seen marvelous things that he's eager to share ('Kansas City'). He's not too bright: a man who rides bucking broncos in order to win $50 so he can marry the girl of his dreams ... and then spends all the money on gifts for her, instead of bringing home the cash.

The dance numbers, choreographed by Cooper and Joe Bowerman, are genuine high points. There's nothing quite like seeing an ensemble of cowboys dancing up a storm, or twirling a pretty gal around the big hole in the stage where the orchestra sits.

It's worth noting that traditional productions of 'Oklahoma!' employ substitute dancers for Laurey and Curley during a dream ballet sequence, but here Goldin and Rumery do their own dancing. This adds a special element to the show.

Special mention must be made of lighting designer Tony Shayne, whose Oklahoma skies are breathtaking in spots, and scenic designer Josh Steadman, who creates a perfect farmhouse, and whose seamless set changes are of professional quality.

Costume designer Nancy Pipkin gives a good sense of the era, and the shocking pink on Ado Annie enhances her character nicely.

This 'Oklahoma!' is an outstanding production, and seeing the year's 'big show' on the Mondavi stage is a particular treat.