Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Superior Donuts

Director and Capital Stage co-founder Stephanie Gularte received a standing ovation before her production of “Superior Donuts,” by Tracy Letts, had even begun. Not only was it opening night for the play, it was the inaugural production for Capital Stage’s brand-new theater in midtown Sacramento.

Leaving the Delta King, their home since 2005, the company has built a charming performing space that is both larger and more intimate than the Delta King, with a bigger stage that will accommodate larger casts (nine in “Superior Donuts”), and with on-street parking easier to find than in Old Sacramento.

The standing ovation was well-deserved, but just the prelude of the special evening to follow.

The Letts play is a perfect first production for Capital Stage. It’s a little bit of everything — a comedy that’s not a comedy, a tragedy that’s not a tragedy, a character study of several disparate people all coming together in a family-owned doughnut shop in Uptown Chicago, which was already on the way down in 1950, when Arthur Przybyszewski’s immigrant parents bought it.

Matt Miller creates yet another memorable character as Arthur, an aging hippie who looks as beaten down as his doughnut shop. Over the course of the evening, we discover that Arthur was an embarrassment to his father, a member of the Polish Army, who spent most of the war in a POW camp. Arthur fled to Canada during the Vietnam war and is still haunted by his father calling him a coward.

As the show opens, Arthur’s shop has been vandalized, an act that seems to bother everyone else in the neighborhood more than it does Arthur, who takes it all in stride. He has withdrawn from life and is existing rather than living.

Young Franco Wicks (Jammy K. Bulaya), bursts through the door, applying for the job Arthur has advertised in the window. Arthur is uninterested in hiring anybody, but Franco is so excited about the possibilities, and wins Arthur over. He is hired and sets about to bring life back into the doughnut shop … and to Arthur.

Bulaya gives an amazing performance. He is ebullient and engaging, excited about life, determined not to let anything get him down. He has plans for his future and he has written the Great American Novel. His face would light up a room and you can’t help but smile when you look at him.

In contrast, his final scene is one of the most emotional and so beautifully played. It was an unforgettable experience.

The rapport between Arthur and Franco carries this story, as the old man is slowly shaken from his numbness by the younger man’s unflagging enthusiasm. The friendship they form is essential as the story progresses and their roles are reversed.

Arthur’s neighbor, Max (Gary Pannullo) is a Russian immigrant who owns the video store next door and who desperately wants to buy Arthur’s doughnut shop so he can expand and find his own American dream. Pannullo is just great, a stereotypical Russian — bombastic, argumentative, but a longtime loyal friend of Arthur’s.

The stellar cast also includes Janis Stevens, almost unrecognizable in her multi-layered costume as “Lady,” an alcoholic street woman who begins each day with a doughnut and a cup of coffee. Stevens gives this old woman an air of regal dignity, and her sharp wit delivers some of the funniest lines. She can’t seem to maintain her sobriety, but she keeps starting anew every day.

Lori Russo is Officer Randy Osteen, who obviously is attracted to Arthur, who doesn’t even know she exists until Franco points out that she has been trying to get the old man’s attention.

Anthony D’Juan plays the beat cop, Officer Bailey, a “Star Trek” fan who cares about the people in his neighborhood.

Barry Hubbard and Shane Edward Turner are Luther Flynn and Kevin Magee, who come to collect on Franco’s gambling debt.

Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly is Max’s nephew, Kiril Ivakin, who has little to say, but makes his presence known very effectively.

The heart of this play is the unlikely friendship that develops between Arthur and Franco, a friendship that will bring both of them back to life after major setbacks.

The new Capital Stage theater is off to a very good start.

Monday, October 17, 2011


“Bingo, the Winning Musical,” by Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid, currently running at K Street’s Cosmopolitan Cabaret, fills a niche that nobody realized needed filling. It’s a musical about trailer trash women addicted to bingo, and the traumas and passions of their lives.

It’s also about a long-running feud over who interfered with whom in the purchase of what turned out to be a winning bingo card.

I was not able to see the show at its opening performance, when the audience is usually packed with critics and friends of the theater, so the audience I saw was the real deal, and the theater was nearly filled with enthusiastic people delighted to be playing bingo as part of the show itself.


Apparently bingo does find a niche with a certain segment of the population. One reviewer said this show had the possibility to be for the middle-aged woman what “Wicked” was for their teenage daughters. I wouldn’t go that far.

This is a show where the plot is so predictable that it really is almost irrelevant to the show itself, and though the second act has seven songs, five are reprises of what was already sung in Act 1.

But somehow, despite what are surely obvious shortcomings, the talented cast makes it so fun that it works. And you even get to play three games of bingo and win cash prizes!

Lisa Raggio (playing Vern) will be a familiar face to many. She has a long nightclub, stage and television résumé and is one of those people you know you’ve seen before, but can’t quite place where. Vern is the alpha of the group and it’s because of her that her two cohorts haven’t talked with Bernice (Bonnie Bailey-Reed), with whom Vern had a dust-up many years ago.

Vern had some great interplay with a table of patrons in the audience who had the fortune or misfortune to win one of the bingo games the audience plays.

Eydie Alyson is Patsy, who has been highly superstitious ever since that night the group turned its back on Bernice. She can’t play without her trolls and the other lucky charms she packs with her to all of her bingo games.

She’s a great comedic actress, in the style of Ann Morgan Guilbert, who played Millie Helper in the old Dick Van Dyke series. And while it doesn’t have any impact on her performance, it’s interesting to note that she is married to “the silently hilarious pianist” on “Glee.”

Nikki D’Amico is Honey, the trailer trash version of Blanche Devereaux (“Golden Girls”). She has her sights set on the bingo caller, Sam (Michael Stevenson), and gets in several great double entendres dripping with sexual innuendo. Their duet, “Gentleman Caller,” is one of the songs reprised in Act 2, only from Sam’s side of the story.

The newcomer, Alison (Jessica Crouch), hides (just barely) the secret that she is the shunned Bernice’s daughter. Her mother is dying and she has come to see if she can’t patch things up with her friends because Mom needs a transfusion of a rare blood type.

In addition to playing the spirit of Bernice, Bonnie Bailey Reed also plays Minnie, who runs the bingo parlor and circulates throughout the audience during the actual games to make sure people are playing correctly and to award prizes to the winners.

Stevenson, in addition to being the Sam of today’s bingo game, is also bingo caller Frank of that infamous game so many years ago.

As with most of the Cabaret sets, this one is utilitarian but fun, with the girls sitting at a table facing the audience, Sam at the table where he is choosing the new ball, an electronic board at the back, and lighted signs in the audience, which show the configuration of the next bingo game. (Who knew there were so many?)

This show is dumb on so many levels that I was surprised when I realized I was chortling over several bits and that the song “Girls Night Out” has become an ear worm for the rest of the evening. But at its heart, “Bingo, the Winning Musical” is about the importance of friendship, and that’s a good message for anybody to receive.

The show runs through Jan. 8, so grab your BFF and your bingo card dauber, head on over to the Cosmopolitan Cabaret and just immerse yourself in the inanity. You can even buy popcorn in the lobby

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Amazing and Sage

In 2006, I wrote a review of a one-woman show called “Insides OUT!” I opened that review by saying, “Stop what you’re doing right now, go to the telephone, call Sacramento Theater Company, and order tickets for the production of “Insides OUT!” the powerful one-woman show by Katie Rubin. It’s that good.”

Those who took my advice and were fortunate enough to see this extraordinary piece of theater will be overjoyed to know that at long last Rubin is ready to reveal her latest work, which she calls “Amazing & Sage, a Joke-O-So-Theom,” at Capital Stage’s brand-new theater, 2215 J St. in Sacramento, for three nights only, starting Sunday.

The unusual secondary title is because Rubin says her show is “one long joke/song/theatrical poem.” While her first work was a “no-holds-barred, emotional, funny, gut-wrenching look at the 29-year-old Rubin’s journey through alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction, food addiction and self-loathing,” the current work centers on Rubin’s relationship history.

“It is a story, my continuing story, of the evolution of a human, me, as she trudges the road of deep spiritual waking that emerges as the result of letting go of dysfunctional relationships and relationship patterns,” she said in a recent interview.

Described as a “recovery entertainer,” Rubin began writing her show in graduate school in 2004. She explained that this show took a long time to write because she hadn’t yet lived through the things that she was writing about and she needed to live through them and fully heal before she could write about them.

“The story is about the healing pattern of unhealthy relationships,” she said. “I was simultaneously experiencing a transformation around those issues. It was very difficult and painful and uncomfortable to write.

“By the time I got the first act down on paper, I was so out of the relationship that created the impetus to write the play (that) I didn’t want to write about it any more.”

However, she realized she had something important here and decided to try to finish it. Then she created yet another delay for herself.

“I thought wouldn’t it be cool to be narrated entirely in poetry,” she explained. “It took me a longer time to heal the issues than I thought it would, and it took much longer to write because of the form.

“The piece is narrated poetically so the whole thing is a poem, but the moments that are not rhyming and poetic are the dialog moments with the other characters.”

Unlike “Insides OUT!,” where the many characters were all aspects of Rubin’s self, the characters in “Amazing & Sage” are not necessarily simply aspects of her own psyche, but six or seven other characters she encounters on her spiritual journey.

This is a piece that is about going beyond mental and normal therapeutic means to heal an issue that, for Rubin, was not otherwise healable.

“I needed to delve into really deep space of consciousness and deep spiritual states. I needed to go to great lengths to bring about transformation,” she said.

“This piece seeks to articulate that process with language that in and of itself is otherworldly. My interest is in taking people on a journey into another realm, and it’s cool to have us be already in another realm by way of language.”

In making her own journal through this transformation, Rubin sought a lot outside help. “I went to a three-year energy healing school, delved very deeply into Sufism and the healing techniques in the Sufi tradition. It was profound, the most profound healing I’ve experienced.

“I’ve done a lot of different energy work, a lot of therapy, Name it, I’ve done it. This, for me, is the most potent and the most effective in terms of bringing about actual and lasting change.”

Rubin began her career as a comedic writer/performer at Amherst College with her first original piece, “PartyBoobyTrap.” Her second play was produced through the 2000 New York Fringe Festival. “Insides OUT!” was her third original piece and her first one-woman show.

She is a graduate of the theater and dance program at Amherst College. She has studied at the Wynn Handman Studios, at Annie Bogart’s SITI Company and has a master of fine arts degree from UC Davis.

In addition to performing and writing original material, Rubin also works as a stage, screen and voice-over actress, and as an acting and vocal coach. While teaching acting to undergraduate students at UCD, she appeared in “The Laramie Project” and the musical “Falsettos.”

In 2000, Rubin made her television debut as a law student on A&E’s “100 Center Street” with Alan Arkin. She has continued to tour “Insides OUT!” to venues across the United States for the past eight years.

She came to Capital Stage because she had seen its production of “American Buffalo” and found it “guttural, visceral and inspiring.” She approached Capital Stage co-founder Stephanie Gularte with the idea of writing a three-person play that would be as guttural and visceral, but written for women, instead of for men.

“You don’t see that,” Rubin said. “Where women are all laying it out there like men do.”

Gularte liked the idea but time passed without any official commitment. Then Capital Stage received an Irvine Foundation grant to support female playwrights writing plays for women and Gularte asked Rubin if she was still interested in developing the play they had discussed.

“What happened was that every time I tried to write it, I would find myself working on the one-woman piece that I had started previously. I couldn’t help myself, so I surrendered to the process,” Rubin said.

The end result was a play about a woman written by a woman. Thankfully, Gularte liked it and felt it satisfied the requirements of the grant.

“I was very happy and very grateful,” Rubin said.

“Amazing & Sage” is directed by Janis Stevens, an actress and director. And, if past experience is any indication, those who attend this production will be in for something very special.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Forget Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney or any of the Hollywood renderings of the Mary Shelley novel, “Frankenstein.” You will see no green tinted skin or neck bolts coming from “the creature” in the production, dramatized by Tim Kelly, now at Sacramento Theatre Company through Oct. 30.

This production, directed by Michael Laun, sticks more closely to the original book. We never see Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory, and the horror comes from dialog that will have you leaving the theater talking about the philosophical implications of the story and asking … who was the real “monster”?

“Frankenstein,” was written in 1818 as the result of a contest among Mary Shelley and other writers — including husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and John William Polidori — to see who could write the best horror story. (Polidori later would be known as the creator of the vampire genre with his novel “The Vampyre,” in 1819.)

The STC production includes a top-notch cast, almost all at the top of their game.

William Elsman, last seen as Sherlock Holmes and a perennial favorite as Mrs. Baddenrotten in STC’s frequent Christmas show, “Cinderella,” is definitely bad and rotten as the tortured scientist, who confesses to his wife, on their wedding night, of all of his terrible misdeeds as he warns her that he is about to be killed.

The story is a bit vague on how the creature (who is never called by any name, but only “the creature”) was constructed, other than to say that a lot of grave robbing and deals with shady persons in back alleys were involved. We do know that Victor’s life passion had been to discover the cause of life and, by using various human parts, he is able to bring his creation to life.

It is his refusal to take responsibility for his success in doing what he set out to do that forms the basis for the story. It is difficult to understand why, after creating this human-like lifeform, he would then be horrified and run away from it.

But one must suspend disbelief in order to become involved in the rest of the story, which is that the creature (Ed Gyles Jr.), who is remarkably eloquent, has tracked down his maker, demanding that Victor create a mate for him. The creature suffers incredible anguish because he is terribly lonely. He is ugly so people shun him.

”I am an outcast with no hope of redemption and no love,” he wails. All he wants is a companion and promises that if Victor creates a female partner for him, the two of them will go away and nobody will hear from them again.

There are lots and lots of holes in the plot but the real drama comes from the discussions between man and creature and between Victor and his best friend Henry (Jerry Lee), to whom the scientist has confessed his actions and who agrees to help in the creation of a second (female) creature.

The success of this production, which becomes a morality tale about the creation and destruction of life, rests on the brilliant interaction between Victor and the creature and between Victor and Henry.

Gyles makes the creature almost likable, and we definitely feel the pain of his isolation, but then we remember that for some unexplainable reason, he killed Victor’s young brother and we see that he is capable of flying into rages when frustrated. He is Lennie, in “Of Mice and Men.” but with more stitching.

With Elsman, we see the brilliance of Victor Frankenstein, but also his weakness which results in the destruction of everything he loves in life.

Henry, as played by Lee, is still full of the wonder of Victor’s accomplishments and eagerly agrees to assist in the creation of another life, which ultimately proves to be his undoing.

Others in the cast include Brittni Barger, as Victor’s fiancée Elizabeth. Her role is small, but she ably displays her love for Victor, though surprisingly not much disbelief as he tells her of his creation.

Linda Montalvo gives a solid performance as housekeeper Sophie and Jim Lane can always be relied upon to give a good performance, in this production as Ernst, the inspector-general of police.

Miriam Gilbert (double cast with Kristal Celik) shows great promise in her first main stage production as Justine, a gypsy girl.

Susan Andrews, as Frau Frankenstein, Victor’s mother, may be the weakest in the show as one was always aware of her “acting,” and not really involved with the character.

The set by Jarrod Bodensteiner is sumptuous and the lighting design of Jessica Bertine nicely helped create the “horror” mood, especially during scene changes. Jessica Minnihan’s costumes and makeup were fine, though the creature didn’t look all that scary from the back of the house.

If you’re looking for an old-fashioned, Hollywood-style Halloween horror experience, this may not be your cup of tea. But if you want to find your horror in the things that men can do without thinking their actions through to their ultimate conclusion — which may be even more horrifying, though easier to believe in this day and age — this is a perfect way to spend an evening.

One thing is certain. You will be discussing the various elements of this show as you leave the theater, and perhaps for days to come.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Shrek: The Musical

The crowd at Tuesday night’s opening of “Shrek, The Musical” (book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, music by Jeanine Tesori) may have been one of the biggest I’ve ever seen at the Community Theater.

The line of patrons waiting to spin the wheel to win a prize at the Mix 96 booth stretched almost around the block, little girls came dressed in sparkly princess costumes, adults and children of all ages entered the theater wearing Shrek horns on their heads, and everyone seemed on the edges of their seats, expecting something special.

They were not disappointed. Based on William Steig’s book “Shrek!” and the Dream Works animated film, the story of everybody’s favorite ogre — with the message that everyone is worthy of true love — is filled with fun characters, double entendres, great costumes, fun dance numbers and more belch and fart jokes than I’ve ever seen in one show before.

This is not an instant stage classic that we will be seeing again for decades, nor does it have memorable music (except for the closing number, Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer,” first recorded by the Monkees in 1966). But for what it is, it delivers.

One problem with taking a popular, well-known cartoon like “Shrek” and giving flesh-and-blood actors the job of bringing well-known cartoon characters to life on the stage is that a lot of the elements get lost in the cacophony of orchestra, sound system and characters talking together.

Much of the movie’s charm came from in-jokes and visual effects and being able to snicker at the lesser characters who each brought a funny part of a familiar fairy tale to the story.

That is there in the stage show, but somehow it lacks the charm of the movie.

That said, however, the stage show delivers some really spectacular effects, particularly the Tony Award-winning dragon, created by Tim Hatley, as impressive as some of the costumes from “The Lion King.” The dragon swoops and flies and turns in circles on stage and above the stage and is amazingly lifelike — if there had ever been such things as fire-breathing dragons!

Likewise, the characters that Shrek (Lukas Poost) and his sidekick Donkey (Andre Jordan) encounter on their way to free the Princess Fiona (Liz Shivener) from the dragon’s castle are just loads of fun, particularly the tongue-in-cheek nod to “Lion King” designer Julie Taymor.

Fiona also does a wonderful dance number helping the Pied Piper with his rats.

As for the performances, Poost makes a lovable Shrek, an ogre who had been sent out on his own at age 7 and who just wants to live quietly, alone, in his little shack. But he has a sense of duty and when he takes on the task of rescuing Fiona for the scheming Lord Farquaad, he takes the task very seriously. Poost has a strong and resonant voice and despite the padding and face mask, makes a sympathetic character out of Shrek.

Shivener is an enthusiastic Fiona, thrilled to be released from the prison where she has spent her entire childhood, confused about who Shrek really is, but eager to meet her husband to be … and also hoping to keep her own secret hidden.

Merritt David Janes is the diminutive Lord Farquaad. The actor does well playing the role on his knees, with fake legs dangling in front of him. He is even able to dance.

Several of the lesser characters make an impact, primarily the whiney Pinocchio (Luke Yellin), whose nose grows and shrinks on stage without any visible assistance from Yellin himself.

Some of the scenic backdrops by Tim Hatley are simply spectacular.

“Shrek” will enchant most, no matter what age. And don’t forget to take home a pair of Shrek horns!