Friday, September 24, 2010



The word immediately conjures up mental images of knights in shining armor, castle pageantry and magical happenings.

All those things can be found in the Woodland Opera House production of Lerner and Loewe's classic musical, adapted from T.H. White's 'The Once and Future King.'

Director Rodger McDonald has created a world that is long on talent, opulent in terms of costumes (by Laurie Everly-Klassen), spare on actual set pieces, but effective on suggested scenes (set and lighting design by Jeff Kean).

One cannot go wrong with Bob Cooner's Arthur. The precision that Cooner brought to WOH's recent 'Noises Off' - as director - beautifully translates into his performance as the reluctant king, who is afraid to meet his new bride. As the play progresses, Arthur grows into his role as king, as his love for Guenevere (Alexandra Ralph) deepens.

His pain at discovering her betrayal - and the anguish of sending her off with Lancelot (Ryan Favorite), as Arthur watches his dream of a world ruled by law crumble - are palpable.

Alexandra Ralph is a mesmerizing Guenevere, whose 'youth was sold' when she was given in marriage to this stranger, King Arthur. Guenevere isn't ready for maturity, since she hasn't yet had an opportunity to experience the 'simple joys of maidenhood':

Shall two knights never tilt for me
and let their blood be spilt for me?
Shall a feud not begin for me?
Shall kith not kill their kin for me?

Ralph sings beautifully, and her manner and bearing are so reminiscent of local actress Lenore Turner-Heinson, that I was surprised to discover that her previous performances have been in the Bay Area. Ralph is wonderfully sympathetic, warm and flirtatious all at once; it's obvious that while Guenevere has come to love Lancelot, she still has feelings for Arthur as well.

As for Lancelot, what can I say about Ryan Favorite?

He makes his entrance through the boxes on the side of the theater, and when he bursts out with the first lines of 'C'est moi,' he leaves the audience stunned at the force and tone of his voice. Favorite is a real treasure and perfect for the role: full of himself but later softening, as he becomes the king's friend and, later, the queen's lover.

My only complaint with his performance is that he speaks in a French accent, but inconsistently. Sometimes it's a thick accent, sometimes it's barely noticeable, and sometimes it's not there at all. When one can sing like this, it's a minor point ... but it does jar the suspension of disbelief.

McDonald, also taking an acting role, dominates the stage during his first scene as the eccentric Pellinore, who becomes Arthur's oft-befuddled aide. McDonald is delightful.

It's a wonder that Steve MacKay's Merlin has such a stout figure under his flowing robes, because with that unbelievably thick mustache, I can't imagine how he could eat anything at all. Still, his brief appearance - before being lured away by the spell of Nimue, the Lady of the Lake (Laura Wardrip) - adds just the right touch.

Dan Sattel also turns in an outstanding performance as Mordred, Arthur's deliciously bitchy illegitimate son, who is responsible for bringing down the king's dream of a world where disagreements are solved by rule of law, rather than by swordplay. Sattel enjoyed the loud round of boos that he received at the curtain call.

Young Liam Murdock, as Tom of Warwick, is earnest in his desire to become a knight of the round table; he gives an excellent performance.

In the opening scenes, Arthur tells Guenevere that 'there's not a happier spot for happily ever-aftering' than Camelot. Even though Arthur's dream ultimately falls apart, we're fortunate that this happy spot can be seen for a few more weeks at the Woodland Opera House.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Romeo and Juliet

Davis' newest theater company, the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble, selected a beautiful spot and a lovely night for the opening of its debut offering, 'Romeo and Juliet.'

The production, directed by Rob Salas, is presented in the gazebo at the UC Davis Arboretum; a circle of folding chairs is placed around the stage area, and twinkling lights add to the setting's magic. As the audience enters the seating area, the cast members stand at the posts surrounding the stage and ring chimes.

These chimes become part of the play itself, as the evening progresses.

This shoestring production doesn't have a 'set' per se, but the actors bring the story to life without really needing much.

Likewise, the play is done in modern dress.

This is a lusty, modern version of Shakespeare's classic tale. The opening sequence is a whirl of bodies, with actors coming dangerously close to the seated audience, although stepping agilely over patrons' toes.

The seven-member cast handles all the roles; only the actors playing the title characters do not take on multiple parts.

Ian Walters is a perfect Romeo: a curly headed lad in the throes of his first love. He has the swagger and bravado of a young man when in the company of his friends, upholding the family honor against their generations-long enemy, the Capulets.

And yet Walters is awkward and shy when Romeo is in the presence of Juliet, who makes his hormones rage.

He doesn't quite know how to woo her.

The structure of the gazebo calls for a rather ingenious 'balcony scene,' the likes of which you probably won't see again.

You'll wonder how they'll pull it off, as the play approaches that scene, but it works beautifully.

Gia Battista's Juliet, no shrinking violet, is a young woman who knows what she wants and what she doesn't, and won't let family enmities stand in her way.

The wedding night scene is both sensuous and innocent, and both actors make excellent use of a long piece of filmy cloth to suggest a bedroom.

All this said, the actor who impressed me most on opening night is Mark Curtis Ferrando, who played both Mercutio and Paris. Ferrando did his first Shakespeare ('The Winter's Tale') only a year ago, and at that time was unfamiliar with the style.

Ferrando certainly has blossomed in this production. He brings the necessary physicality to his fight scenes, and oozes sexuality as he instructs Romeo on the art of wooing.

Every young girl should have a nurse like Stephanie Hakinson (who also plays Sampson in this production). The nurse engages in almost conspiratorial chatter with her mistress, regarding her amorous adventures, and becomes a real friend to the girl.

Kristopher Ide's Friar Lawrence is a lone voice of reason amid pride, prejudice and persecution.

Matthew Canty plays both Romeo's cousin Benvolio and the servant Balthasar; Brendan Ward is Juliet's cousin Tybalt and her father.

This 'Romeo and Juliet' is an impressive start for the fledgling theater company, which promises even better things to come in the future.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The Tony Award-winning musical comedy, 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,' is based on 'C_R_E_P_U_S_C_U_L_E,' an original play by The Farm. The musical is conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with its book by Rachel Sheinkin, and music and lyrics by William Finn, perhaps best known for his 'Falsettos' trilogy, about a man dying of AIDS.

'Putnam County Spelling Bee' has no such heavy themes; it's peopled not only by a zany cast of characters, but also assisted by volunteers from the audience. The current UC Davis theater and dance department run featured UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi as one of opening night's three volunteers.

So, the question: Can a children's spelling bee be transformed into an interesting two-hour musical?


Each quirky character's authenticity is integral to the entertainment.

It all starts with Rona Lisa Peretti (played by Alison Sundstrom), a former spelling bee winner and real estate agent, who now runs the annual spelling bee. This is her opportunity to return to former glory, which appears to have been the high point of her life. Sundstrom wrings all she can from the role, and she beautifully sets the tone for the show.

Her cohort, and reader of the words and the delicious definitions and sentences, is vice principal Douglas Panch (Ryan Geraghty), returning to the competition after 'that unfortunate incident' five years earlier. He's much better now, he reassures the audience.

Mitch Mahoney (James Marchbanks) leads the pledge of allegiance, and he escorts each loser off the stage, while presenting a commemorative box of apple juice. He's doing community service after being released from prison.

Then there are the children themselves: each a perfect depiction of a certain type of child. Olive Ostrosky (Elizabeth Tremaine) is a latchkey kid whose mother has gone off to India to find herself, and whose father forgot to come to the spelling bee; Olive who doesn't have the money to enter, but is allowed to compete anyway.

She learned to spell because she grew up in a house with an oversized dictionary, which she liked to read while sitting on the toilet.

Chip Tolentino (Jazz Trice) won the previous year's contest and is confident that he'll easily repeat the victory, until an unfortunate hormonally induced incident spoils his chances. Chip has perhaps the most unusual song of the night: certainly a first for song lyrics!

Leaf Coneybear (Esteban Gonzalez), who looks like a Richard Simmons wannabe, got into the contest on a fluke, because both the previous spelling bee's 'real' winner and runner-up had to attend a bat mitzvah. He insists he's 'not that smart,' a notion that he seems to have picked up from his many siblings, and keeps surprising himself with correct answers.

Leaf's manner of honing in on the correct spelling is ... quite unusual.

Overachiever Marcy Park (Erica Kalingking) speaks six languages, and is good at music, sports and everything else she attempts. But she just wants to be normal, and eventually seeks advice from a surprisingly unlikely source.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Wendy Mumolo) is president of her school's Gay Straight Alliance, has two dads who dote on her, and is a budding feminist. Despite all this, she wonders: 'What about me?'

William Barfee - whose name rhymes with 'parfait,' but is continually mispronounced - has a 'magic foot' and an unusual technique for figuring out the correct way to spell a word. Matthew Dunivan is delightful in the role, and his character's growing friendship with Olive is quite special.

The engaging characters aside, the show lacks tuneful songs. The tune 'Pandemonium' is aptly named and, unfortunately, also reprised.

Ultimately, at two hours with no intermission, the sporadic entertainment value doesn't compensate for the feeling that it all runs on a bit too long.

Singing in the Rain

The finale of Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of “Singing in the Rain” — which opens the company's 26th season — is spectacular, with everyone on stage in yellow rain slickers and red umbrellas, tap dancing up a storm to the title song.

It's a sight to behold.

I wish that same energy had been evident through the rest of the show, which dragged on opening night: particularly during Act 1, and perhaps because of the time required for scene changes.

“Singing in the Rain” has an inherent problem, no matter who performs it. When adapting an iconic piece of American film, which almost everyone in the audience undoubtedly has seen many times, it's difficult to erase the memory of the original movie. And what stage show can live up to that 1952 classic, or to the performers with whom those roles are so intimately tied?

The story, set at the end of the silent film era, deals with the turmoil that faced Hollywood when it became clear that “talkies” were here to stay. Many of the top stars in silent films had terrible voices; movies with sound ruined many successful careers.

Don Lockwood (played by Rand Martin) and Lina Lamont (Wendy Young) have been longtime screen idols, but the latter has a classic, shrill “New Joisey” accent; she can't possibly transfer from silents to movies with sound. A chance encounter between Don and wannabe starlet Kathy Selden (Christina Rae) leads to this newcomer providing the voice for Lina, to save the studio from having to shut down production on its newest film.

Merriment and hijinks ensue.

Young gives one of this production's best performances. Lina isn't a sympathetic character and is easy to dislike, and Young does an excellent job of embodying the clueless movie diva, whose skreetchy voice is irritating on the ears, as it should be.

She sings one plaintive song, “What's Wrong With Me?,” and does it very well.

Rae is a lovely Kathy, with a warm voice and a warm demeanor to boot. Martin is OK as Don, although he had problems staying in key several times during the opening night performance.

Matthew Kohrt is fun as Cosmo Brown, Don's sidekick; he's a hoot in the dance number “Make 'em Laugh.” All three — Don, Cosmo and Kathy — are delightful in “Good Morning.”

The supporting cast includes Mary Young as the ubiquitous Dora Bailey, a one-woman National Enquirer; Gil Sebastian as R.F. Simpson, head of Monumental Pictures; and Steve Isaacson as Roscoe Dexter, director of the Lockwood-Lamont movies.

(Sebastian and Isaacson haven't appeared together on stage for many years, and it's fun to see these two local warhorses cavort together again.)

Devin DeGeyter and Jacob Navas, as the younger Don and Cosmo, are quite cute; they do a nice dancing job during their brief appearance.

The choreography is by Ron Cisneros, who never disappoints. Jeanne Henderson's costumes are beautiful, especially the white fringe dresses for four women in the chorus.

The minimal set design is by Isaacson and Mark Deamer. And yes, it does rain on stage.

Three movies are shown during the evening, including a “talking picture demonstration” by local TV celeb Mark S. Allen, and two “typical” films: “The Royal Rascal” and “The Dueling Cavalier.” Both are written and directed by Isaacson, and both are very well done.

DMTC's “Singin' in the Rain” is filled with familiar melodies and characters we've loved for a long time. It's a true “feel good show,” and you're guaranteed to leave the theater with a smile, and the title song still ringing in your ears.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Paper Chase

The meeting was underway before I finally made it to the Dos Pinos Community Room, buried deep in the middle of the Dos Pinos housing co-op on Sycamore Lane.

I was just in time to see a man make a heart-shaped box out of a dollar bill, into which he placed a quarter; he explained that he likes to give gifts to children in this fashion.

I had been invited to a meeting of the Davis Origami Group, in order to write this article. In truth, this was my first hint that Davis even has an origami group, and, my manual dexterity being limited to hitting the keys on a computer keyboard, it's unlikely that I ever would have found out, absent the invitation.

By the end of my time with this small group of dedicated folders, I had a tremendous appreciation for both the simplicity and the complexity of origami.

The small group attending this meeting, smaller than usual, I was told, covered the whole spectrum of origami. I met three experts, along with beginners ranging in age from 83-year-old grandmother Gene Manzo, attending her first folding meeting, to young Aaron Ecky, whose mother brought him and his sister. Aaron was thrilled, at the end of the session, to show everybody how to fold and fly a paper airplane.
After the meeting, I met with Andrew Hudson, who had just returned from an origami conference in Singapore. He told me more about origami than I knew there was to know.

Origami's origins are shrouded in mystery and conflicting ideas. Some say it began in China 2,000 years ago, but that theory is probably wrong. Others say it originated in Japan during the Heian period (794 to 1185), but experts feel that this, too, is wrong.

The oldest printed document referencing origami dates from a poem written in 17th century Japan. Other references to paper folding date from the same period in Europe.

But as an expressive, creative art form, origami is relatively new.

"People didn't start creating their own designs until the 1950s," Hudson told me, "and a lot of the really complex stuff didn't start happening until the 1980."

The artform's popularity is growing, thanks to folding groups around the world.

Hudson lived in Japan for a year, when he was 4, and learned to fold a few simple models (although he can't remember if he folded them while in Japan, or after his family's return to the United States).

"I had a background in the traditional Japanese repertoire. Then, in fifth grade, I got a Borders gift card; I couldn't think of anything else to spend it on, because all the books I wanted to read were at the library. So I wandered over to the origami section, and thought some of the books looked really cool.

"I bought one, started folding through it and got stuck. That's when I really got hooked, because I wanted to finish that."

Hudson, now 20, has gotten in on the ground floor of origami as art. It has become the ideal hobby for him.
"Origami has a hyper-focusing element. A lot of people with ADD, like me, have a hard time focusing on things. But certain kinds of tasks allow us to hyper-focus, and really concentrate on one thing for hours at a time; for me, it's things like reading, playing piano and doing origami."

Judy Ng, who co-founded the Davis Origami Group with Hudson and Glenn Sapaden, is the youngest of three daughters. She learned origami from a baby-sitter.

"I would fold off and on, collect books over the years," she said. "I received several origami books as gifts."

She also attended many origami conferences over the years.

"The last one held in San Francisco was in 2009, and I met Andrew in one of the classes. I gave him a ride back to Davis."

Ng had belonged to a short-lived folding group in Davis several years earlier.

"We called our group Valley Folds … but it folded. It never really got off the ground."

Which meant it was time to try again.

"Andrew spearheaded our group, and got it off the ground," she said.

Their first meeting was in December 2009, and the members have met monthly ever since.

"We've had as many as 17 people at our meetings," Ng added. "Some only come once; some have stayed. A man and his wife brought their three children and his mother to our first meeting, so we had three generations."

Ava Hess came to a recent meeting by chance. At the funeral of a friend, she met Andrew's father, Davis Enterprise reporter Jeff Hudson, who happened to mention the group.

"I've been doing origami since I was a child," Hess said. "We didn't have TV until I was 13. We saw a few programs on public television, and there was a Japanese brush-painting lesson and origami lesson for half an hour. I found them inspiring, and so I learned some very easy things: butterflies and cranes.

"My interest was sparked again in Holland, where one of my cousins was friend of a woman who does origami for graphics arts. That was 20 years ago."  Hess has been using origami in art projects ever since.

"I make greeting cards and earrings. I've been selling them in a gallery on the coast, but decided it's too far away and too cumbersome, and their demands are too much. Now I just make them for fun."

Hess demonstrated how to make a crane at the meeting I attended. My own attempt at said crane was pretty pathetic, but I received encouragement from Manzo, also attending her first meeting.

"I have 10 thumbs, not 10 fingers," she laughed with me.

"It was shocking how much they knew," she added, a bit later. "I was so far behind everybody; I felt lost."

But thanks to the patience with which the demonstrators worked with her, she intends to continue attending meetings.

"I've been looking for something like this for a long time. I used to take care of my grandchildren every once in awhile. We would make little animals from the origami books. But recently I've been trying to learn how to fold up a dollar bill so it makes a ring."

Mazzo will get great ideas on things to do with dollar bills from Glenn Sapaden. His favorite routine: He jokes that his mother wanted him to get into law, because that's where "the big money" is. Then he holds up a pad of oversize dollar bill-patterned paper, lifts one eyebrow and everyone gets the joke.

"A little origami humor," he laughed.

"Glenn is an avid collector of dollar origami designs," Hudson said. "He carries around a binder that has all his dollar bill designs. He teaches them a lot. Glenn does one design where you take the dollar bill, and the O and E on the back get folded over, and become the face of a jack-o-lantern. The bottom part of the O becomes the smile, and the E has the eyes and the nose.

"You can do all sorts of cool things with dollar bills."

Hudson's love for origami got him invited to an international conference in Singapore.

"I was talking in San Francisco with this lady named Patsy Wang-Iverson, who organized the Singapore convention. She encouraged me to submit a couple of abstracts, for publication in their book of the proceedings. I'd never done anything like that before. I'd never published that kind of paper, so I was kind of hesitant about doing it. But I figured it would be good experience, if nothing else, just to go through the process.

"And then both the abstracts were accepted to the conference."

Hudson liquidated most of his assets to pay for his plane fare, and arranged living accommodations with a friend from MIT who was in Singapore for the summer.

"I presented two lectures and taught a couple of classes. I did one lecture on the connections between origami design and music composition. I'm a music composition major; there are a lot of parallels between origami and music composition, because you're working within a limited system. You have to follow somewhat rigid rules when you're designing or creating, and the dynamics of how the creative process works, in both, are really similar."

Warming to his subject, Hudson continued.

"The other thing I presented was an origami design using polygons, and different polygons other than squares, and using properties of polygons to optimize, for example, a fish. It has a fin on top and a fin on the bottom, and two side fins and a back fin, and it's actually much easier to make certain arrangement of fins with 60-degree symmetry, than with square symmetry.

"Another thing I was doing was figuring out a way to construct an algorithm that you could apply to a different polygon."

By this point, my eyes had glazed over; he had lost me in the technicality of it all. But I had learned that origami is an art form that can appeal to small children and grandparents. It can be as simple or as complicated as one desires.

I asked Hudson if anybody actually makes a living doing origami. He cited five people in North America who do just that, with things like working with NASA on a folding telescope, and with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on folding air bags. Hudson hopes to find his niche in that field.

Based on his dedication and enthusiasm for the craft, it won't surprise me when he joins the ranks of the important figures in origami.

As for me, having neither the manual dexterity nor the patience, I'll probably never get past the level of folding young Aaron Ecky's paper airplane!

The Davis Origami Group's next meeting will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18, at the Dos Pinos Community Center, 2550 Sycamore Lane. For additional information, call (530) 753-6093 or e-mail