Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fuddy Meers

'Stability is a fragile figurine,' says Richard (Matt Kronzer), as he tries to help his amnesiac wife Claire (Sarah Stockdale) make sense of her life.

Claire suffers from a form of psychogenic amnesia, where she wakes each morning knowing nothing, and spends the day learning about her life. She's helped by a book Richard has put together, to let her know how to find her way around the house, and who she's likely to meet each day.

It sounds like a spin-off of the film '50 First Dates,' or perhaps a riff on 'Groundhog Day.'

David Lindsay-Abaire's play, with the odd title of 'Fuddy Meers,' has been mounted by Studio 301 Productions, under the direction of Gia Battista.

The play continues through Sunday in the Art Annex of UCD's Technocultural Studies Building. Curtain times are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission will be $10 general and $8 students at the door. For additional information, call (818) 251-6654.

The first challenge is to find the Art Annex. This can be a challenge for those not familiar with the UC Davis campus, especially since no helpful signs (or lights!) are present, at least not until you've just about arrived.

But this is a fun play, so do make the effort.

The nearby parking lot is well illuminated, and doors covered with black garbage bags have arrows that point to the correct door. The room is set up for 100 people, but only 15 of us were in attendance last week, on opening night; this is a shame, because the play is worth seeing.

Stockdale is a wonderful choice for Claire. Her face radiates innocence, first in the confusion of discovering that she doesn't have a clue who she is, and subsequently as she gradually learns things about her life from Richard, who may or may not be her husband.

But could she possibly have given birth to the sullen, stoned young woman named Kenny (Ashley Bargenquast)?

'How much did she weigh at birth?' Claire asks, as if trying to find some sort of maternal feeling for the girl.

David Lutheran plays the odd, deformed, lisping 'Limping Man,' who insists he is Claire's brother Zack, come to save her from 'Evil Richard.' Claire and Zack escape and go to the home of her mother, Gertie (Alison Stevenson), a stroke victim whose partial facial paralysis and impaired speech make it impossible for her to be understood. Despite this, she frantically tries to tell Claire things about her life.

Stevenson carries off the role brilliantly, and is very funny to boot.

Zack's crony is the mild-mannered Millet (Gordon Meacham), who comes with a foul-mouthed, alter-ego sock puppet dubbed 'Hinky Binky.' The puppet's stabbing, late in the play, is almost as touching as it is funny, given Millet's reaction to the assault on his long-time companion.

A policewoman (Steph Hankinson) adds another layer of confusion, as we realize that many in this cast aren't who they claim to be. The confused Claire slowly sorts them out, one by one, as her mother finds a way to make her message understood.

Claire knows one thing for certain: She likes to solve find-a-word puzzles, a hobby she embraces as a kind of grounding mechanism. She's delighted when she finds the word 'kiwi' on her own, without any assistance.

And this is what 'Fuddy Meers' is all about: finding words in a puzzle book, trying to decipher a mother's 'stroke speak,' looking for clues in a box of old photographs, registering random sparks of memory. Claire's life is a mystery, and she must try to sort it all out from the available clues.

But will she remember tomorrow?

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Five minutes or so into Steven Dietz's 'Fiction,' continuing through Feb. 28 at Old Sacramento's Delta King Theater, you'll likely check the program to make sure this isn't a David Mamet play.

Dietz's work is so wordy, literate and rapid-fire that it's easy to confuse the two playwrights.

Two characters - Michael (Eric Wheeler) and Linda (Janis Stevens) - open Dietz's play, as they sit at a Paris café and having a lively debate. They speak with the familiarity of long-time friends. They're so caught up in the rhetoric that they've lost sight of the point of the argument, which they eventually remember is a debate concerning the greatest rock 'n' roll performance ever.

Michael insists it was John Lennon's 'Twist and Shout,' while Linda holds out for Janis Joplin's 'Piece of My Heart.'

As the heated discussion continues, we learn that these two people actually are chance acquaintances, meeting for the first time: an encounter that has escalated into easy familiarity. And as easy familiarity may do, the friendship ultimately escalates into marriage.

Time passes.

Both are writers. Linda, who teaches literary fiction, is the author of one critically acclaimed novel, presumably based on her rape in South Africa. Michael is a more critically successful novelist. Both also are prolific journal writers, with boxes of old journals stored away. These journals begin to unravel their otherwise happy 20-year marriage.

Linda is diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and given a matter of weeks to live. She asks Michael to read her journals after her death, explaining 'It's ludicrous ... not to mention vain ... to think that they aren't real, that I'm not real unless someone reads them.'

But in exchange for allowing Michael to read her journals, she demands to read his as well.

The resultant chaos, as they explore each other's deepest thoughts, should make people stop and think about how much they really want to know about the significant people in their lives. Is keeping the boundaries of secret thoughts a better thing?

Michael wrote many of his journal entries while living in the same writer's colony where Linda wrote her own novel; he details an extramarital affair with Abby (Stephanie Gularte), a significant person in Linda's life as well, who runs the colony.

But are Michael's amorous adventures with Abby authentic ... or has he embellished them?

As the play - and the reading of the journals - progresses, the action moves forward and backward in time, between real and imagined events.

All three veteran Capital Stage actors contribute excellent performances. Wheeler's winning delivery gives his character charm; Stevens' vulnerability is balanced against her natural toughness; and Gularte superbly displays a languid sexuality.

Director Peter Mohrmann keeps the tone nicely balanced, playing off the awkward emotional tension and intellectual wit.

While listening to the contents of the journals, audience members must decide whether to believe these accounts of the past, as the narrators describe them. This tension between trust and suspicion - between fact and fiction - is the heart of the drama.

Sunday, February 07, 2010


From the ovation that went up from the Sacramento Community Center audience, as the actors took the stage for the opening performance of the Broadway tour of 'Rent,' and the tumultuous applause that greeted the first few notes of many songs, it was obvious that 'Rent-heads' had turned out in force for this production.

And were ecstatic to be there.

It's tragic that composer/lyricist Jonathan Larson never lived to see the phenomenon that 'Rent' has become. He died of aortic dissection caused by Marfan's syndrome on the morning of Jan. 25, 1996; the show opened for its off-Broadway run that night.

'Rent' played to sold-out houses, and its run was extended until April 1996, when it moved to the larger Nederlander Theater; it subsequently became the eighth-longest running show in Broadway history, and grossed more than $280 million.

It won every major best musical award, including the Tony, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Tours of 'Rent' have criss-crossed the country almost continuously since late 1996. It has been translated into every major language and performed on six continents. The show had such a loyal following in New York that the term 'Renthead' came to be used to describe fans who would line up for hours in advance, just to get the $20 rush tickets; they subsequently boasted of having seen the show dozens of times.

One obsessed fan claims to have seen it more than 1,100 times during its 12-year run.

'Rent' is an updated version of Puccini's opera, 'La Boheme,' the music from which is played in brief interludes throughout the show. It tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians who struggle to survive and create in New York's Lower East Side, under the shadow of AIDS, at a time when drugs are plentiful.

The building in which they've been living has been sold along with the lot next door, which is inhabited by a group of homeless people. The new owner plans to clear the homeless off the land and evict the tenants from the building, so he can erect a high-tech cyber arts studio.

The people stage a protest; a riot erupts.

How the tenants break back into the building, and then spend the rest of their year, is the substance of the story.

This touring Broadway production features a stellar cast, starting with Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, who created the roles of filmmaker Mark Cohen and songwriter Roger Davis, respectively, in the original 1996 production. Now, 13 years later, the actors have returned to the show, along with Gwen Stewart, the featured soloist in the haunting 'Seasons of Love.'

The actors may be 13 years older, but they still bring the necessary youthful, idealistic enthusiasm to their roles.

Justin Johnson, who performed in 'Rent's' final night on Broadway, is the heart and soul of this production. He plays Angel Schunard, a gay drag queen dying of AIDS. Johnson is tender during his love scenes with Tom Collins (Michael McElroy), and deliciously outrageous in his dance numbers.

As for McElroy, his tender ministrations to Angel, during his final days, will break your heart.

Lexi Lawson, one of the few cast members new to her role, plays Mimi, an exotic dancer and drug addict who contracts HIV.

Nicolette Hart, as Mark's former lover Maureen Johnson, does amazing things in tight, shiny, electric-blue pants.

Maureen is bisexual; her girlfriend, Joanne Jefferson (Trisha Jeffrey), is a powerhouse of a rabble-rousing attorney.

From the speed with which the cheering audience leaped to its feet, as the show concluded, it's safe to say that this production more than satisfied the Rentheads.

And it probably won over a lot more converts to the cult following, as well.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Tuesdays with Morrie

It is crucial for actors to be utterly believable when performing a show like “Tuesdays with Morrie,” Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom’s adaption of Albom’s best selling book, especially when performing in an intimate setting such as Sacramento Theater Company’s small Pollock Theater. Aaron Wilton (Mitch) and David Silberman (Morrie) succeed beautifully.

Aided by Matt K. Miller’s crisp direction, STC’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” is a show that will grab every heart and that should come with little packages of tissues on each seat. I didn’t see a dry eye in the house (including, in some spots, the actors themselves).

For those unfamiliar with the story, Morrie Schwartz was a sociology professor at Brandeis University, who came into national prominence when he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, in 1994. The charismatic, if irascible, Schwartz was interviewed several times by ABC’s Ted Koppel (“Nightline”). The broadcasts brought his former student, Mitch Albom, now a sports writer for the Detroit Free Press, back into his old professor’s life.

It was guilt that drew Albom to make a quick courtesy call on his old “Coach,” but the camaraderie between the two was rekindled, and Albom returned the following Tuesday and every Tuesday thereafter. He taped the conversations between himself and the dying man, recording his thoughts on life–and on death. The recordings eventually became the best selling book and spawned several other best selling books by Albom, examining life and the afterlife. The original book also became a made-for-television movie, with Jack Lemmon playing Morrie and Hank Azaria as Mitch.

The play is set in Morrie’s Waltham, Massachusetts living room, designed by Jarrod Bodensteiner and Morgan McCarthy. The room is a testament to Morrie’s minimalist lifestyle, with the walls painted a 1950s green and the furnishings kept to a bare minimum–a recliner and a few books on a shelf. He refers to an unseen television, the original black and white, purchased many years before. He speaks of the irrelevance of “things” and the importance of people.

Stage Manager Suzanne Tyler (who also gives the pre-show talk) helps move bits of scenery around and also acts as the nurse, ministering to the dying man (putting on slippers, moving him into a hospital bed, etc.)

Erik Daniells is credited with the piano recordings used throughout several scenes.

I will admit to having some problems with this play that should do nothing to take away from the actual production or the fine job done by two veteran actors. I loved Albom’s book, but I found that the play seems to concentrate more on Mitch than on Morrie and it is only in the last few scenes where Mitch does not come across as self-centered and a bit obnoxious, a feeling I did not get from the book itself.

Aaron Wilton handles the slow transformation of Mitch as he helplessly watches his dying friend beautifully.

As for David Silberman, he is a delight to watch and so fully embodied Morrie Schwartz that I was moved to come home and check out excerpts of the Koppel interviews on YouTube to see the real man for myself..

Schwartz lays out his five rules for living which include (among many other things) "keep an open heart. Open it up further and further and further until you encompass as much as you can with your love." He also advises people to "be alert and aware to the things that interest you and then go for it. Be involved."

Hopefully that will be the message that people will take away from this production, once they have dried their eyes and blown their noses.