Thursday, June 30, 2011


If you have been complaining lately that there is too much sex on TV and in the movies, that we have gone way too far with what is and is not acceptable when it comes to sex in our entertainment, and rolled your eyes about these kids today, then you probably have never heard of Aphra Behn.

Behn was the very first professional English female playwright, in the middle of the 17th century, the period of the Restoration. She was one of the most prolific dramatists of her time (she was also a spy for the court of Charles II).

And she was wonderfully scandalous, even by modern-day standards. She was famous not only for being a pioneer female writer in a male-dominated profession, but also for addressing issues of gender and sexuality. Her forte was comedy and she created strong, independent female characters who made their own choices.

Behn is the subject of a very funny play, “Or,” (the comma is part of the title), written by Liz Duffy Adams and directed by Peter Mohrmann, which is being presented at Capital Stage to close out the company’s life on the Delta King. (The new season will inaugurate Capital Stage’s new home in midtown Sacramento in October.)

Director Mohrmann could not have chosen a more fun way to say goodbye to the company’s riverboat home. It is a play rife with delicious wordplay, cross-dressing, amorous liaisons in many interesting combinations, and is a marvelous celebration of the birth of feminism.

There is a cast of three — Stephanie Gularte, who plays the ambitious, sensual Behn; Jonathan Rys Williams, playing the double role of Charles and Behn’s husband William; and, in her Capital Stage debut, the amazing Jessica Bates, who plays everybody else. Incredible quick costume changes take place throughout the 90 minute, one-act play.

The action begins in debtor’s prison, with Behn composing a letter to the king, who has not paid her for her services. She writes her note in rhyme:

Here in debtor’s prison I do lie
For lack of funds promised me as your spy.
To nag and scold my own adored king
Believe me, pains me more than anything.
But justice to myself demands no less
Than princely favor and full recompense.

Before she can finish her note, she is visited by a masked stranger with whom she apparently has had a previous intimate relationship. The visitor is revealed as the king, who informs her that her debts have been paid and she is free to leave. He wants her as his mistress, an idea about which she is less than enthusiastic. But she needs a place to write, so they strike a bargain, with Behn dictating the terms (which include intimacies that do not extend to the bed).

What follows takes place in a boarding house the king has found for Behn and the play becomes a regular bedroom farce, with two doors and an armoire to go in and out of as Williams and Bates change characters.

Bates first appears as the actress Nell Gwynne, England’s first leading lady of the stage. (Women had not been permitted to act before. In Shakespeare’s time, all female roles were played by men.) Gwynne is dressed as a man and is eager for a relationship with Behn, not only professionally but physically as well.

The fun is when Behn’s husband William returns, presumably from the dead, and the actors begin to switch back and forth as various characters, while Behn interacts with them, and then gets an idea and rushes to her desk to write it down.

Bates is particularly amazing as Lady Davenant, the widowed proprietor of an acting company, who rattles off a monologue that runs the better part of two solid pages of dialogue, sounding like Julia Child speaking a mile a minute. It’s a performance that stops the show with applause.

Virginia Woolf once wrote, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

In “Or,” Liz Adams has sprinkled the grave of Aphra Behn liberally with flowers and given us a wonderful, if not quite historically accurate, picture of a remarkable woman.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Peter Pan

The little boy in front of me looked to be about 4 years old and he was absolutely mesmerized by the antics of the pirates on stage at the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s sparkling new production of “Peter Pan,” directed by Steve Isaacson.

There is something for all ages in this funny, colorful production, which was fortunate because DMTC had a near sell-out house for the opening. There were patrons of all ages, every one of them enjoying the show.

The role of Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up, is traditionally played by a female and this was no exception. McKinley Carlisle is a high school junior but with a professional adult stage presence. She is a gymnast in school, which helped her make all of Peter’s flying sequences beautifully realistic.

She was endearing trying to attach her shadow with soap, wistful in her comments about wanting someone to read stories, and chivalrous in saving Tiger Lily and Wendy from the evil pirates.

The Darling children, while somewhat tall for the roles (especially John, Noah Papagni) were all wonderful. Wendy (Amanda Jane Melhuish) moved seamlessly into her mother role and Michael (William Chan) was just adorable, carrying his teddy bear around with him.

The Darling parents are played by Jenny Plasse and Michael Cross (who later appears as Captain Hook). Cross, in particular, was effective in his role. Plasse was very sweet.

Levi Fuentes was one of the more believable nursemaids, as Nana the dog.

There was some problem with Tinkerbell, who appears as a ball of light darting about the stage, thanks to the operation of Karay Himo, who seemed to have some problem operating the light. Rarely was Tinkerbell where a character was speaking to her.

Wendy would look in one place, but Tink was on the wall behind her. But it really didn’t matter. When Tink begins to “die,” it was very poignant and we all clapped enthusiastically to show that we did believe in fairies.

Michael Cross as Captain Hook was simply wonderful. His performance was strong and intimidating without being over the top, as he leads his bumbling band of pirates in an attempt to capture the Lost Boys in general, and Peter Pan in particlar. His sidekick Smee was appropriately deferential.

This is not a production that has been rendered politically correct by changing the portrayal of the Indians, and Emily Jo Seminoff is fun as Tiger Lily, doing several Indian dances with her cohorts — Danielle Debow, Isabel Machado, Monica Parisi, Jenny Plasse, Madelyn Robinson, Anissa Smith, Lydia Smith and Hannah Wallace.

Thomas Eredia is very funny as the crocodile who hungers for the rest of Captain Hook, having had a taste of one hand years before

Others in the cast include Monica Parisi as the maid Liza, Kimmi Kuanto as the grown-up Wendy’s daughter Jane, and a multitude of actors of all ages as Lost Boys, Pirates, Indians, Trees, Animals and Shadow Dancers.

Choreography is by Cyndi Mitterholzer and is lively and appropriate for the abilities of the dancers.

Costumes by Jean Henderson, are wonderful, as always, and in this case, very colorful as befits the cartoonesque story.

Steve Isaacson’s sets are better than many DMTC sets and deserve kudos.

This is a cast of dozens, combining adults and children, and it all comes together beautifully.

Before the show began, DMTC awarded its annual scholarship to Ashley Hickman and Rebecca Rudy, alumnae of DMTC’s youth program. This is one way DMTC gives back to the community and supports young people as they begin their college studies. The girls received engraved boxes and checks to go toward their tuition.

There is never a slow spot in this production. It is appropriate for children of all ages — by all means, do take your little ones. They, like the little boy in front of me, will be on the edge of their seats throughout the show.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Mary Poppins

It was no ill wind that blew in with the weekend rain. It was a very friendly wind that brought the world’s best nanny, Mary Poppins, to the Sacramento Convention Center.

The stage show, directed by Richard Eyre, is not a recreation of the movie, but takes bits of the movie and merges them with bits from the book series by P.L. Travers. (I wondered how they were going to get the penguins in … and they did, though subtly.)

In truth, I went to the show as a jaded critic — ho-hum, another Disney movie transferred over to the stage. I didn’t expect to be blown away … but I was.

Our seats happened to be next to the parents of Nicolas Dromard, who plays the role of Bert, the chimney sweep, in this production. The proud stage parents cheered and whooped and talked audibly to each other throughout the production, which at first was quite annoying but then didn’t matter because he was so good, the cheering was well earned.

Dromard, who has played the role on Broadway, is quite endearing, has a more convincing British accent than Dick Van Dyke, and is so continually active on stage that he has his own dresser whose primary task is to follow him around backstage with a water bottle.

Steffanie Leigh may be new to the cast but she’s a delightful Mary Poppins, with a winning smile and ability to command the stage, whether she’s riding up a banister or sailing out over the audience under her ubiquitous umbrella.

The obstreperous Banks children, who have driven away all former nannies, are double-cast. Camille Mancuso and Tyler Merna played Jane and Michael on opening night and were wonderful. Merna in particular has a face that you find it difficult not to watch.

Playing their parents, George and Winifred, are Laird Mackintosh and Blythe Wilson. Each has his or her moment to shine. George is the staid, stuffy banker through most of the story, but when he begins to let go in the “Spoonful of Sugar” reprise, he reveals a carefree father that we never thought possible.

Winifred steps into the spotlight with “Being Mrs. Banks,” which makes her more of a “person” than we had seen up to this point.

Q. Smith grabs the stage as the evil nanny, Miss Andrew. She does justice to just about every Disney villainess with a voice that fills the Community Center and probably several nearby buildings as well.

Choreography is by co-director Matthew Bourne and is outstanding. The frenetic “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is so complicated that the actors spend several hours per day during their first week of rehearsal to learn the complicated hand, foot and arm movements.

But it is “Step in Time,” the dance of the chimney sweeps, that steals the show and brings down the house, earning all those whoops and hollers from Mr. and Mrs. Dromard.

As wonderful as the acting, dancing and special effects are, it is the set that may be the biggest star in this show — and, at 11,000 pounds, I mean that literally. It’s a three-story house that opens like a child’s doll house, with a nursery that moves up to the top of the house, or down to the stage as a stand-alone scene.

In combination with some of the 250 different props, it performs surprising tricks, and when the lights dim, the mechanics behind the Disney magic is mostly invisible.

“Mary Poppins” is the winner of 25 major theater awards around the globe, including the Tony, Olivier and Evening Standard awards.

Every single one of them is well deserved.