Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me

'An American, an Irishman and a Brit get locked in a prison...'

No, it's not the start of some corny joke, but the premise of director Stephanie Gularte's production of Frank McGuinness' gripping play, 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me,' which continues through April 25 at Old Sacramento's Capital Stage theater.

In the late 1980s, Brian Keenan, John McCarthy and Terry Waite were taken hostage in Beirut. They were held, together or separately, for more than four years. 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me' is McGuinness' fictionalized version of these events, based on interviews with Keenan after his release.

While McGuinness might have been tempted to get maudlin, or to deliver some message about relations with the Middle East, none of that is present in this play. Instead, it simply shows what happens when three men are locked together in a windowless cell, their legs chained to the wall, with nothing to do, day in and day out.

How do they survive the sheer boredom of incarceration? ('The boredom, the boredom, the bloody boredom!')

And how does the playwright keep the audience from being bored, as well?

Given the powerful cast in this Capital Stage production, boredom isn't an issue.

Bay Area actor Michael Wiles plays Adam, the American doctor, who was captured first and spent his first few months alone. He's determined to stay strong, to keep his mind alert. He reads the Bible and the Koran, the only books permitted in the cell.

Wiles must lose a pound or two with each performance, with his often frantic exercise routines, pulling himself up on an overhead bar and doing sit-ups.

K. Scott Coopwood plays Edward, the Irishman who joins Adam. As the play opens, the two men have been in the cell together for two months, and have formed a friendship. They try to never give their captors the satisfaction of knowing they're being broken by their confinement, and they support each another at times of despair.

'You mustn't let them hear you cry. They're listening to you, as you speak. They want you to weep. Don't ever do that in here. I'm warning you, don't weep. That's what they want. So don't cry. Laugh. Do you hear me? Laugh.'

Coopwood, who went on a starvation diet and lost a lot of weight for this play, has an infectious electricity to his performance. He has the Irish personality down to a 'T,' and he keeps the audience engaged with his flashing eyes and impish grin. He's loud, larger than life, reacts emotionally and is as quick with his temper as he is with a charade, to pass the time.

Both men are afraid, but exhibit bravado to keep this concealed.

The mix is augmented by Michael - Matt K. Miller, making his Capital Stage debut - a British scholar who was abducted while going to the market to buy pears, for a flan he wanted to prepare for some dinner guests. Michael is mild-mannered, highly repressed and terrified, as he begins to understand the gravity of his situation.

He's afraid of his unseen captors, and he's afraid of his cellmates. He worries about his mother, at home in England.

Michael undergoes the greatest metamorphosis, as he gradually settles into life in the prison. He doesn't understand the rough humor. He wants to belong, but doesn't know how. Under Miller's skillful hands, Michael begins to adapt to his environment, to shed some of his inhibitions and join in with the antics of the other two.

It's a brilliant performance.

To keep despair and insanity at bay, the men imagine and enact wild movies they might make, lethal cocktails they might drink to excess, provocative letters they might write. They fly away - mentally, at least - by singing 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.' In a standout sequence, they re-enact Virginia Wade's 1977 victory at Wimbledon.

If any criticism can be levied at this production, it concerns the projection used in the second act, to enhance a fantasy scene. Up to that moment, we've been living with these three men, in their fantasy world; the projection is an unnecessary and distracting intrusion. We don't need a 'crutch' to show where the men are, and what they are pretending to be doing.

'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me' is a powerful production, both tragic and often hilarious. McGuinness' drama gives audiences a chance to explore the shared humanity of men from diverse backgrounds, who struggle against tremendous adversity.

And are determined to triumph over it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Arranged Marriage

In 2004, Sacramento Theatre Company's Peggy Shannon adapted a short story by Indian author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, into a stage drama titled 'Arranged Marriage.'

The play was presented on the smaller of STC's two stages, with a cast of two talented actresses and four dancers.

For STC's current season, Shannon has revisited and expanded her original production to include classical Indian mythology. She also has added works by one of India's greatest poets, Rabindranath Tagore, to provide the literary voice for the Hindu deity Shiva and the Hindu goddess Parvati.

Shannon has blended the writings of Tagore and Divakaruni with three distinct styles of choreography - classical Indian, Bollywood and American modern dance - by Tyler Russell Warren. Some of the resulting story is told through movement, some through language, and some through movement and text.

Shannon dramatized one story, 'Clothes,' from Divakaruni's collection; it concerns Sumita, a young woman from Calcutta who is about to be married to Somesh, currently living in the United States and part owner of a 7-11 store. We never see Somesh, but Roshni Shukla - who made her STC debut in the earlier production of this play - is adorable: always on the verge of giggles of repressed delight, at the thought of the marriage that awaits her.

She and Somesh exchange letters, and though Sumita won't see him until their wedding day, she's a young girl in love; she can't wait to meet her husband.

Shukla's Sumita is at once shy, flirtatious and nervous during the ceremonials surrounding her nuptials, straddling the lives of a young girl and a newly married woman. She moves effortlessly into her role as wife and new American, as she becomes excited about the fresh sights, sounds and values of her new country.

The stark contrast between the United States and India is apparent in Sumita's assessment of clothing. The full, rich life she led in Calcutta centers on fabric and flowers, the scent and feel of things.

'I love the color: the same pale blue as the nayantara flowers that grow in my parents' garden,' she says, while trying on her first pair of American jeans.

She speaks of the orange T-shirt that - to her - is a color of joy, symbolizing her new American life.

When life takes an unexpected turn for the happy young bride, she's faced with a choice between her native culture and her new life in the United States. This is symbolized by the choice between a sari or 'a blouse and skirt the color of almonds.'

Katherine Cristina Miller, last seen as Brooke in 'Noises Off,' portrays the goddess Parvati, Sumita's mother and other supporting characters, and does so competently.

Warren's choreography makes this production a giant step up from its 2004 predecessor. Patrons who might not have heard of 'Bollywood' even a few years ago, prior to the attention granted the film 'Slumdog Millionaire,' now are quite familiar with this style of dancing ... and the dance sequences in 'Arranged Marriage' are a delight.

Many of the 14 dancers come from STC's Young Professionals Company, and they're good examples of this program's quality.

Gail Russell's costumes are stunning, and they deftly help bring audience members into this lush Indian life.

At its core, though, 'Arranged Marriage' is the story of a young girl falling in love and marrying, and then learning that dreams - no matter how strongly we hold them - can be shattered.

It's a very affecting tale, well re-told in this Sacramento Theatre Company production.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Way

A dozen years after his death, Frank Sinatra still tugs at America's heart strings.

Famed choreographer Twyla Tharp is set to open her “Come Fly with Me,” featuring Sinatra's music, on Broadway later this year. The Sacramento Ballet recently performed “Nine Sinatra Songs,” one of Tharp's earlier works.

The 2009 Citizens Who Care concert, right here in Davis, focused on Sinatra's work.

And through May 9, California Musical Theatre's Continental Cabaret has mounted its own tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes, with a show called “My Way” (of course).

Sinatra always was — and continues to be — comfort food for the masses. Anybody who has ever quietly hummed “doo-be-doo-be-doo” will enjoy watching the four talented singers who trip through 58 selections from the Sinatra songbook. You may not know every song throughout the evening, but you'll certainly recognize most of them.

And you'll be invited to sing along with several, as well.

The setting is a high-class saloon, with blue lights, a grand piano — at which sits musical director Chris Schlagel — and a bar from which drinks are poured endlessly. The performers glide around the stage, moving from song to song: sometimes only bits and pieces of a song.

Some information is provided about Sinatra's career, but anyone who heard Steve Peithman's narration for last year's Citizens Who Care show will be disappointed by the lack of depth.

But the focus is on the music; in that respect, this cabaret performance does not disappoint.

Michael G. Hawkins, a veteran Music Circus performer, is the silver fox: the savvy crooner with a wink for the ladies, an ever-so-slightly off-color remark, a tilt of the martini and a smooth rendition of a Sinatra tune.

(To their credit, the singers do not use Sinatra arrangements, instead making each song his or her own.)

Young Jeffrey Christopher Todd, fresh from roles in shows such as “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Grease” and “Altar Boyz,” bears an uncanny resemblance to the very young Sinatra, with the tumbling curls and chiseled cheek bones. Todd has all the enthusiasm that Sinatra himself must have felt, as his star was beginning to rise.

The gentlemen are complemented by two more than competent females. Karole Foreman — who made her Sacramento debut last year, in the Music Circus production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” — is effervescent and has a permanent twinkle in her eye. She's also a treat for the ears.

Laura Dickinson gives a sultry, smoky voice to songs such as “Where or When,” and seems to fit quite nicely into the slot of Sinatra “dames.”

The section of quotes about the “dames” in Sinatra's life may be somewhat offensive to 21st century women, but is explained with a quick “That's how it was in Sinatra's day.” He was a “guy,” and “dames” never could break into the inner circle ... although they might visit for entertainment purposes.

“You only live once,” Sinatra said, “and the way I live, once is enough.”

Apparently Americans aren't yet ready to take him at his word. Sinatra is alive and well, and still entertaining audiences at Sacramento's Cosmopolitan Cabaret.

Moon Over Buffalo

The Winters Theater Company production of Ken Ludwig's 'Moon Over Buffalo' has one problem.


Four doors are present in this play's set. The presence of so many doors suggests a farce involving doors, but in this production people go out one door and come in via another door, on the opposite side of the stage. Characters exit, saying they're going outside, but they don't use the door that leads outside, because someone else is entering through that door.

A character sees somebody depart through one door, and then tells somebody else that said character left through a different door. What should be very funny just becomes confusing.

As for the plot, 'Moon Over Buffalo' is kind of a 1930s-era 'Noises Off' meets 'Waiting for Guffman.' A second-rate theater company - 'The House of Usher Repertory Theater,' jokes one character - has been forced to reduce its ranks to only five actors, who are stuck playing the Erlanger Theater in Buffalo, N.Y. ('Scranton, without the charm.')

Just in passing, the set looks more like a living room than a theater green room ... but at least it's painted green.

The company's stars, Charlotte (Christine Schiesart) and George (Phil Pittman), are over-the-hill actors who feel they just need the right show to revitalize their sagging careers.

The company has two productions in repertory: the swash-buckling 'Cyrano de Bergerac' and the Noel Coward comedy, 'Private Lives.' Both are being mounted with a very small cast: one at the matinee and the other in the evening.

The company gets word that director Frank Capra is filming a version of 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' nearby, starring Greer Garson and Ronald Coleman. When Coleman falls and breaks his leg, George receives a telephone call - from a telephone that has an ear-shattering ring - and learns that Capra is coming to check out their productions, to see if George and Charlotte might be good replacements for Coleman and Garson.

This announcement sets off a frenetic series of events: getting ready to perform, the discovery of an affair or two, Rosalind's confusion regarding the man she used to love and the man she plans to marry, George's drinking and several repairs to Cyrano's costume. The tighter, faster-paced second act rests heavily on Pittman's ability to remain drunk throughout. He delivers like a champ, nicely handling the physical comedy of a sword fight and a wrestling match, in addition to being falling-down blotto.

Schiesart does a good job in a role that was originated by Carol Burnett. Schiesart is given considerable help by costumers Germain Hupe, Ann Rost and Joanie Bryant; a red dress complements her color beautifully, and she does great things with a dramatic hat that she frequently takes off and puts back on.

Ann Rost, who always tackles wonderful droll roles, plays Charlotte's mother here: a woman who is hard of hearing and a little forgetful, who performs with the group and takes care of costumes ... and people's lives. The part is right up Rost's alley.

Joanie Bryant is earnest as Charlotte and George's daughter, Rosalind, who is tired of all the drama and just wants to settle down and raise a family. Jim Hewlett is perfect as nerdy Howard, Rosalind's boyfriend and the local TV weatherman, who is star-struck at the idea of meeting her somewhat famous parents.

JoAnn May plays Eileen, an ingenue who is pregnant with George's child. Her solution to this 'condition' nicely wraps up a rather frazzled situation, and smooths the way for the show's finale.

Trent Beeby plays Rosalind's former boyfriend, Paul, the troupe's stage manager, who has been pressed into service as one of its actors. Beeby always gives a solid performance, and this one's no exception. He and Bryant are quite funny as a couple who've broken up, but somehow can't keep their hands off each other.

The cast is rounded out by Greg Lanzaro as Richard, the Hays' attorney, who also is in love with Charlotte, and hopes to convince her to leave George and run away with him.

The clearly delighted audience chuckled wholeheartedly during the performance.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery have come to Sacramento.

It all takes place across the street from the Capitol, and has nothing to do with the California Legislature.

John Kander and Fred Ebb's Tony Award-winning 'Chicago,' which razzled and dazzled last week's opening night audience, has returned to the Sacramento Community Theater for a limited engagement that concludes Sunday.

'Chicago' points the finger at this country's perennial fascination with bad boys (and girls), and our tendency to raise them to near cult status as we salivate over every gory detail. Think Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, O.J. Simpson.

This musical is based on actual events from the 1920s, when journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins reported on the trial of a young woman - Beaulah Annan, 'the prettiest murderess' - who killed her boyfriend and then called her husband to announce this news, while a popular fox trot record played in the background.

Years later, William Wellman turned the story into a satirical 1942 film called 'Roxie Hart,' starring Ginger Rogers, in which the heroine confesses to a Chicago murder in order to kick-start her show business career.

This movie inspired choreographer Bob Fosse's collaboration with Kander and Ebb, and the result was 'Chicago, the Musical,' which opened on Broadway in 1975. Stars Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera played two jailbirds who competed for publicity for their respective crimes.

It was revived in 1996, directed by Walter Bobbie and with choreography by Ann Reinking (in the style of Bob Fosse). That production won six Tony Awards and many, many other accolades.

The 2003 film adaptation took the Best Picture Academy Award.

The latter honor notwithstanding, this show's appeal can't be captured on film with quite the same energy or excitement. Watching large clumps of people execute complex dance steps - while making it look effortless - is a live stage experience not to be missed.

Bianca Marroquin is outstanding as Roxie Hart, a housewife with stars in her eyes, who shoots her lover and then tries to use her crime to manufacture a show-biz career. Roxie's crime steals the headlines from Velma Kelly (Brenda Braxton), a once popular singer/dancer, who hopes to do the very same thing.

John O'Hurley is marvelous as the smooth and charming Billy Flynn, a slick lawyer who knows how to work the press and - for a price - make his clients such sympathetic figures that no jury would convict them. One of the show's funnier moments is the song, 'We Both Reached for the Gun,' with Billy acting as ventriloquist to Roxie's dummy.

Carol Woods is a strong presence, as Matron 'Mama' Morton, particularly when she sings 'When You're Good to Mama.'

Roxie's long-suffering husband, Amos Hart - a man who loves his wife no matter what - is given an appropriately downtrodden characterization by Tom Riis Farrell. We can't help falling in love with Amos when he sings 'Mr. Cellophane,' and everyone wants to give him a hug.

The play is filled with fabulous ensemble numbers that rely as much on choreography as on lyrics. The 'Cell Block Tango,' where each woman explains how she happened to kill her husband/lover, is marvelous.

Scenic designer John Lee Beatty places the orchestra center stage, with character entrances and exits over, under, around and through the orchestra box. Ken Billington provides the dramatic lighting, and the elegant yet decadent costumes are by William Ivey Long.

'Chicago' will make you clap enthusiastically, and then depart the theater while humming 'All that Jazz.' What more could be asked of an evening's entertainment?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Noises Off

If Michael Frayne's 'Noises Off' isn't the funniest play ever written, it's definitely in the top five.

And the production at the Woodland Opera House, directed by Bob Cooner, may be one of the funniest versions of an already hilarious comedy.

This very physical farce traces the actions of a hapless British touring theater company, in three acts: from final dress rehearsal of a play called 'Nothing On,' to a performance a month later and then another two months after that.

A lot of sardines are involved.

The play requires impeccable, split-second timing, incredible agility, a breakneck pace and - even for an American cast - a proper British accent.

The Opera House production gets high marks on all points. This particular cast is a cut above most others, thanks to the degree of intensity and electricity from everyone: energy that practically leaps off the stage, from start to finish.

The production begins with the dress rehearsal for a play, 'Noises On,' which is opening the next day. Bob Roe is perfect as this show's director, Lloyd Dallas, who sits in the audience and despairs of ever getting things right in 24 hours.

Martha Omiyo Kight plays Dotty Otley, an aging actress who has invested heavily in this show: not only because she wants one last hurrah, but also because there seems to be something between her and a fellow actor.

Kight is delightful as the appropriately named Dotty. She has huge, expressive eyes that serve her character well, especially when she looks around, somewhat lost, trying to remember where she should be, what she should be doing ... and what her lines are.

Craig Howard is brilliant as actor Garry Lejune, who never seems to finish a sentence, but gets his meaning across with body language in hilarious fashion.

Amelia Van Brunt plays the ditzy blonde, Brooke Ashton. Her performance is worthy of Suzanne Somers, both as Brooke and as her character, Vicki. She spends much of the time wandering around in a pink bustier, which complements her nicely.

Jim Lane is the equally ditzy Selsdon Mowbray, and it should be noted that this character's ditziness is augmented by the spirits he secrets around the stage. I've seen Selsdon played many ways, and Lane's rather vague 'not quite there' interpretation is spot-on.

Patricia Glass is Belinda Blair, the company's peacemaker. She knows everybody's secrets, and works tirelessly (against all odds) to keep things calm and organized.

Matthew Abergel is the mild-mannered Frederick Fellowes, susceptible to nosebleeds at the mere mention of violence. Despite this, he manages to experience several pratfalls throughout the evening.

Andrea Guidry's stage manager, Poppy, shines in Act 2, which is almost more mime than recited lines. This middle act takes place during a matinee performance one month later, as seen from backstage, when the cast has been together long enough that interpersonal relationships are starting to interfere with their work. Guidry is suitably harried by the actors' antics, while struggling with her own personal problems.

We also see more of Tim (Matthew Dan Sattel), the company's 'Lord High Everything Else,' who builds (and repairs) the set, runs errands, serves as the bookkeeper, works backstage with Poppy, and in his spare time understudies all the male roles. Tim's Scottish burr adds to his character's appeal.

By Act 3, the tour has fallen apart and everyone just tries to survive the final performance ... which they barely do. It's hard to know whether Act 2 or Act 3 is funnier.

In both cases, a lot of sardines are involved.

Congratulations are due set designer Jeff Kean, for creating a beautiful, rock-solid set that looks huge, but can rotate from the Act 1 living room scene to the Act 2 backstage scene - and back again - even on the tiny Opera House stage. It's a marvel.

This performance, definitely one of Woodland's better shows, isn't to be missed.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

In God's Country (feature article)

Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.
- Voltaire

Since 2002, at least nine recorded hate crimes have been committed in Davis, from vandalism with swastika symbols and satanic language, to the painting of a racial slur on the street in front of the house of an African-American family - which later moved out of the city - and the vandalism of the UC Davis LGBT center, with derogatory and hateful words targeting the gay community.

This doesn't even count events such as the 1983 murder of Vietnamese student Thong Hy Huynh on the Davis High School campus, or the 1978 incident where seven students appeared at a football game wearing genuine KKK robes and carrying ropes, to protest an African-American player on the other team.

(It was felt, by the administration at the time, that punishment would be 'counter-productive' and that surely the students 'didn't understand the implication of their actions.')

On the surface, Davis seems like a nice, peaceful, accepting, enlightened town, but hate is present. Hate speech appears to be escalating at the high school this academic year, with students heard proclaiming things like 'Jews are stingy' and 'Hitler was really smart; he had the right idea.' Other students wonder why the school needs a Black Student Union, but not a White Student Union.

DHS drama teacher Gwyneth Bruch wants to jolt her students and us townsfolk out of our complacency, and get in our faces with the reality of what hate speech can spawn.

'California has more hate groups than any other state,' she said. 'We have 84; one count says 87. Tracy is the white supremacy capital of California. I have friends of color who won't drive to Chico.'

She points to names of groups such as the American Nazi Party, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Confederate Strikeforce Skinheads, the Covenant Sword and Arm of the Lord, Guardians of Justice, Teenage Commandos, White Knights of Liberty ... and on and on and on.

What do the groups want?

'They want a homeland; they want a white place,' Bruch said. 'They're so absurd, they might just be funny ... if they didn't kill people.'

Last summer, Bruch decided to produce Steven Dietz's controversial play, 'In God's Country,' which follows the true story of The Order, a white supremacist, neo-Nazi group that operated in the Western United States in the early 1980s. Its members, led by Robert Jay Mathews, staged armed robberies, netting more than $4 million; declared the establishment of a new, all-white nation; and murdered Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg in 1984, because he ridiculed them.

And because he was Jewish.

The play opens Friday and continues through March 13 at the Brunelle Performance Hall, 315 W. 14th St., Davis. Curtain times are 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday and March 11-13, and 2 p.m. Sunday.

The play's cast will lead a discussion after each performance.

Tickets - $12 general, $8 students - are available at (831) 224-0005 or

Original court transcripts of the trial of Berg's killers - indicted for 'violating Berg's civil rights' when they killed him - provide the base for this play. Other elements are interwoven: images of neo-Nazi rituals and rhetoric; a training camp; intensely, intimately powerful monologues; and Berg's liberal and often in-your-face talk show.

'I'm grateful for the courage of our principal, Winfred Roberson, in agreeing to let me put on this show,' Bruch said. 'I showed him the script in August, and he read it. That's awesome.'

She then set about re-working the play so that 55 actors could participate in a play that actually calls for only nine or 10 (each of whom usually handles several roles).

'The students are excited to be doing this, because they see it as an important message,' Bruch said. 'Hate crimes happen in Davis; anti-Semitism is alive and well.

'What can we do about it?'

Bruch discussed the 'violence continuum,' with a casual racial slur at one end of the spectrum - a seemingly harmless thing - that can lead to murder at the other end of the spectrum.

'This reflects what happened to Matthew Shepard. If we ignore the anti-Semitic or racist comment - and there are lots around here - then somewhere it could end up with writing graffiti on the sidewalk to chase a family out of town, wearing sheets to a football game, or stabbing someone on school grounds.

'It's really important that people leave at the end of our play with the image that something very wrong is going on. And given the way I'm going to do this play, they will.'

Bruch has worked on this project since the summer, not only re-structuring the play to fit her large cast, but also recruiting to get specific actors in key roles.

'I have 10 guys playing white supremacists, and they're the sweetest people in the whole universe. Just beautiful, beautiful, beautiful people.'

Parents have been, for the most part, very supportive. One family agreed to let their child participate, but only if the role weren't as one of the white supremacists. Bruch accommodated that request.

'We're having a good time, but it's meaty. Theater is a powerful venue for a message. These kids have something to say, and I want to help them by choosing a piece where they can feel that they've made some growth as a person, and also helped their friends. My kids actually are excited about just talking about the experience of being in this play, and engaging their friends in conversations about the fact that hatred and hate speech are a real thing.

The Show Must Go On

In the early 1980s, the Sunshine Children’s Theater was presenting an original musical called “Go-Go the Blue Gorilla.”  My 12 year old son Paul had the role of Rapper, the Parrot, the interlocutor of the piece.  It was Rapper who kept the plot of the story rolling along.. At one point he was supposed to deliver his lines from the branch of a “tree.”  Budgets being what they were for children’s theater, they had no tree, but they placed him in one of the doors that opens out over the stage of the Veterans Memorial Theater, some 10-15 feet above the stage.

Paul came down with the stomach flu the day of the performance and had no understudy. If he didn’t go on, they would have had to cancel the show.  Paul thought he could do the show, despite his illness. People stood in the wings in case he had to make a quick exit and all the young actors knew they might have to cover for him -- but we worried most about his perch so high above the stage, when he was already feeling queasy. One of the dads (who happened to be a doctor) climbed up the ladder behind him, to watch closely and grab him if he looked unsteady.

Paul got through the show, except for having to rush off stage right before the final scene. His sister delivered his final line for him.

This was our first experience with the theater tradition of “the show must go on” (a phrase coined by Noel Coward in 1950 when he was writing a song by the same name).

Paul would have to go on again several years later, when he was the lead singer for the band Lawsuit, a 10 piece band which also included his brother Ned, sister Jeri and sister-in-law Marta.  To this day I don’t know how they got through the first show, at Sudwerk, after the death of our son David, who had died a couple of weeks before.  During the song “Funny,” which contained the lyric “there’s a broken soldier who’s going home...,” there was an instrumental break during which Paul leaped off the stage and came to sob on my shoulder, and then climb back up on stage again and finish the song.

Theater people cope in the most horrendous of situations because the show must go on.  There is an audience which has paid good money to be entertained and doesn’t care what is going on in your personal life. 

William S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) addressed that very issue in the operetta, “Yeomen of the Guard.”

Though your wife ran away with a soldier that day,
took with her your trifle of money;
Bless your heart, they don't mind - they're exceedingly kind -
They don't blame you - as long as you're funny!

In the fall of 1984, the late Amy Patten was playing an important role in the Davis Comic Opera Company’s (DCOC) production of "Man With a Load of Mischief."  Her husband, Gordon, who suffered from Parkinsons, had been in steady decline for some time. At the Champagne Gala performance, as Amy circulated among the crowd, serving hors d’oeuvres from a tray, people asked her how Gordon was doing.  "About the same," she replied.  It was only later that everyone learned that Gordon had died that weekend.  Only Jim Hutchinson, with whom she shared most of her scenes, knew of Gordon’s death.  She trusted him to help her if she suddenly got lost in the script. She explained later, “I didn’t want to bring the show down.  I didn’t want the show to suffer because of me.”

Director Ray Tatar recalls an actress who was doing a production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” at California Stage.  Just before opening night, her 26 year old brother died.  The actress made the decision to do the performance anyway.  She had the final lines of the play, the “all the world’s a stage” piece, enumerating the 7 stages of man.  “When she got to that speech something came over her and she just started staring off into space,” said Tatar. “The audience waited for a couple of minutes– that’s a long time in a show that moves at a pretty steadfast clip.  It was quiet in the theater.  The audience was reading the reality of her expression.  She finally just fired her way through it to the end.  The audience roared approval as the other actors carried her off.” She finished the run of the play without further problem.

Actor Stephen Peithman’s sister, Ann, died the week before the opening of "Man of La Mancha," produced at UCD in the mid-1970s.  Peithman  played the villain, Dr. Carrasco ("The Knight of the Mirrors") and there were no understudies for any of the parts.

“When my mother called me to tell me that my sister had died after a sudden and virulent recurrence of cancer, she told me not to worry about leaving the show.  In fact, the first words she said, after ‘Your sister died this afternoon’ was ‘And you know she would have wanted you to stay in the show.’

“Actor David de Berry, playing Cervantes, gave me a hug before the show on opening night, and I remember thinking as the opening music began, ‘This is so unreal.’ 

“The show went beautifully, and to this day, I can't listen to the overture from ‘Man of La Mancha’ without thinking first of Ann,” says Peithman.

Sometimes incidents happen on stage and actors have to cope.  Actress Deborah Hammond knows this very well. 

As Patty in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” Hammond and another actor were fighting over a pencil in a scene.  The pencil was oversized, made from a large dowel.  Hammond’s blocking was to snatch the pencil from the other actor’s hand, the other actor still had quite a grip on it and when he released it the pencil  jabbed her in the eyebrow and caused a gash.  She finished the show before heading to the hospital.

In another situation, while in the role of Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” Hammond flung herself backwards, as directed, and experienced stabbing pain in her abdomen.  She completed the final act and went straight from the theater into emergency surgery to have her gallbladder removed.  (Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to finish the run.)

While playing Muzzy Van Hossmere in Runaway Stage’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Hammond left the stage to complete a quick costume change.  She ended up falling down a small flight of stairs, head first, to the dressing room.  Other actors tried to sit her down and examine her; but she made her change and returned to the stage.  When the other actress entered the scene she was thrown a bit by the blood trickling down the side of Hammond’s face.  She managed to complete the performance and the run of the show

Patrick Van was set to appear in Davis Musical Theater Company’s recent “Kiss Me Kate,” when the week before the show opened he was hospitalized with suspected H1N1 (it turned out just to be the regular flu).  Van was released from the hospital in the late afternoon of opening night, went home to shower, and went to the theater. “I asked the director if any of my blocking had changed and asked my fellow cast members to nudge me if I looked confused. I knew that I just needed to pull things together for three hours and then I could sleep all the next day.”

Jennifer Teal remembers tearing her anterior cruciate ligament during ski camp a week before Acme’s “Time and the Conways.” “As long as I didn’t straighten my leg, I could still walk on it,” she says. Patrick Van remembers that “she would walk around the stage and stand behind a couch so she could support herself.  Her knee would pop out every once in awhile.” Teal adds, “We postponed surgery until the week after the show.  It was a valuable experience in terms of keeping commitments.”

Local singer/actress Lenore Heinson (in the days when she was Lenore Turner) didn’t let a little thing like pregnancy keep her from performing the title role in “Countess Maritza,” with San Francisco’s Lamplighters.  She was in her first trimester of pregnancy during rehearsals and was sleepy most of the time.  Someone drove her from Davis to San Francisco each night so she could sleep in the car, get out, sparkle during rehearsal and then sleep all the way back to Davis again.

By the time the show opened, the pregnancy started to show and the costumers had to find ways to expand her costume to keep up with her expanding girth.  She was double-cast in the role, and eventually had to leave the last two weekends to the other Maritza when it became impossible to hide the pregnancy any longer.

Sometimes an actor simply can’t perform and others are grabbed at the last minute to fill in, with little or no rehearsal.  Jason Hammond recalls, “One year, at Christmas time, I got a call to fill in for an actor who had been cast in a movie and had to go into production immediately.  The director asked me to learn the role of Tom Jenkins in “Scrooge the Musical,” to be performed the next evening…so I began memorizing.  Several hours later, the director called again and informed me that he had been mistaken -- it wasn’t the actor playing Tom Jenkins who was leaving the cast, but his twin brother who played the role of Harry, Scrooge’s nephew.  Needless to say, I had no sleep that night!”

In 1993, Adam Wright, playing Orlando, in Acme Theater Company’s production of  “As You Like It” came down with pneumonia during tech week. The Stage Manager, Andrew Hendrix, stepped in and played the role for three of the four performances. Andrew was off book by the second night.

In 1997, Qasim Shah, cast in Acme’s “Emma's Child,” took his own life only weeks before the show was to open. Evan Drane stepped in and did a remarkable job, as did the entire cast, considering the circumstances. “It was one of the most difficult moments of my life,” remembers director Dave Burmester.

During the Davis Comic Opera Company’s first production of “A Little Night Music,” Myrna Woodhead missed the second act because she went to the ER with food poisoning. Myrna was part of the quintet. "Sandra Silva sang Myrna's lyrics, and everyone else just did what was needed to make the new configuration workable," says Stephen Peithman.

Theater people pull together during times of crisis and accomplish amazing things.

California Stage was doing an out of town production of “Real Women have Curves.”  The set consisted of a number of flats but when the tech crew went to put the set together, they discovered they had left the crucial piece that holds it all together back in Sacramento.  One technician told another to hold the set upright while he went to find something to make it all work.  It turns out he drove an hour back to Sacramento to get the missing piece, leaving the original technician holding the set upright for 40 minutes while the first act went on.  (At intermission they found something backstage that would support the set.)

During the run of the Davis Comic Opera Company’s 10th anniversary show, the tech crew arrived at the Veterans Memorial Theater at 2:30 in order to get ready for the 4:00 matinee, only to find an inch of water on the stage and two inches in the pit. (The drain outside had backed up causing the water to come in under the door, across the stage and into the pit) “The pit water was not only messy; it was dangerous because of the electrical necessities there,” recalls Nancianne Pfister.  “Our gallant technical crew spent the next hours quite literally bailing us out.  The show opened only 12 minutes late.”

Directors aren’t immune either. “I had emergency heart surgery on the eve of tech week of ‘The Water Children,’” explains Burmester.  “Tom (Burmester) and Emily (Henderson) shepherded the show through dress rehearsals. I remember telling the doctor that I couldn't have surgery. ‘I have a show opening in nine days.’ His response: ‘That's okay. You'll be able to see the show.’ And I did. Before that, though, on opening night after the show, the whole cast came over to our house to give us a blow-by-blow of a great first night. I had just gotten out of the hospital, and it was one of the best nights of my whole life.”

Bob Bowen remembers “When I was producing and directing Nutcracker somewhere about 1981 or 1982, I got the flu. I was really ill and also lost my voice. Instead of staying home and resting, I strapped on a portable P.A. speaker and dragged myself down to the theater to make sure the show went on.”

Theater people are strange creatures, but they are very aware of their commitment to the audience, to give them the best possible performance–no matter what. “Even if you’re injured, once you’re in that zone of being in a show when the lights are on, you get such an adrenalin rush Your body forgets that your head hurts or you have a sore throat,” says Patrick Van.

The show must go on because there are no other options.  Theater folks are masters at improvisation and last-minuteness, They dream the impossible dream, so the show goes on.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Kiss Me Kate

Marguerite Morris has a role to really sink her teeth into.

Her Lilli Vanessi/Katharine in the Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of 'Kiss Me Kate,' directed by Rand Martin, may be one of the best roles I've seen her embrace.

This is another strong showing by DMTC, boasting an outstanding cast, good tones from the orchestra, fun period apparel by costumer Jean Henderson, and Martin's eye-catching choreography.

'Kiss Me Kate' is the story of a touring Shakespeare Company that's presenting Shakespeare's 'Taming of the Shrew.' Despite their acrimonious divorce, a spark obviously still flares between Lilli and ex-husband Fred (Martin Lehman), which erupts into a full-fledged on-stage conflagration in the middle of Act 1, and threatens to close the show.

Morris and Lehman are superb. Their feelings for each other, both positive and negative, sizzle on stage. Both Lilli and her character, Katharine, have fiery temperaments; the actress gives this full rein in her rendition of 'I Hate Men.'

Lehman is a take-charge guy with an ex-wife he obviously still loves, and a girl on the side he's trying to woo, yet his sensitivity spills out in his 'So in Love.' As Petruchio, his 'Where Is the Life that Once I led?' is outstanding.

Mariana Seda is irresistible as Lois Lane, playing the role of Bianca in the play within the play. She's in love with Bill (Chris Petersen), but is a gold-digger who can't keep away from other men; despite this, as she tells Bill, she's 'Always True to You (in My Fashion).'

Petersen, a man in love, also has a gambling problem. (This problem, merely a ruse to add two additional characters to the plot, never is taken all that seriously.)

Steve Isaacson plays Gen. Harrison Howell, Lilli's fiancé, a domineering military man who is more Petruchio than Petruchio himself. I sometimes forget what a really good singing voice Isaacson has, and this show is a good reminder.

Stealing the show, in roles designed to steal the show, are Kyle Hadley and Giorgio Selvaggio, known as 'Gangster 1' and 'Gangster 2': thugs trying to collect a debt. Both are hilarious and their 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare' stops the show for several well-deserved encores.

Patrick Van plays Paul, a role that has no function in either the story of Fred and Lilli or Katharine and Petruchio, but provides an excuse for a great dance number, 'Too Darn Hot.' This opens Act 2, and Van truly sizzles. Despite having spent the week before opening night in a hospital, Van showed no hint of any physical ailment and was a standout in all his scenes.

Mary Young, as Hattie, is paired with Van for both of his two big numbers. Young, whose performances span almost the complete history of DMTC, shows that she still has the energy to keep up with the company's younger members.

Martin's set design is simple and utilitarian, although some of the wagons could have been anchored a bit better, as one behaved like a snowboard when a character leaped up on it.

The lighting design is by Greg Wershing, who started designing here in Davis in his teens, went on to travel the world with the likes of Neil Diamond, Madonna and Garth Brooks, and now has returned to Davis; his children have joined DMTC's Young People's Theatre division. DMTC is fortunate to have the talented Wershing back in their ranks.

'Kiss Me Kate' has lots of references that date the piece, and no woman is ever happy when Katharine subjugates herself to Petruchio; all that said, this production offers patrons a rollicking good time.