Monday, October 29, 2012

Macbeth: the Radio Play

It has been said that radio is the “theater of the mind,” and when a radio production is also a theatrical production, the audience gets double its money’s worth.

Davis audiences are getting a bargain this month as the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble presents “Macbeth: the Radio Play” at the UC Davis Arboretum Gazebo.

Book stands with microphones are set in a circle around the gazebo, and the seven actors sit at each of the posts that hold up the roof. When it’s their time to perform, they step to the mic and read from their scripts.
Directors Gia Battista and Rob Salas, who confesses they want the audience members to have more room for their own imaginations, invite the audience to get into the whole radio experience.

“Even though you can see the actors speaking and can watch some of the sounds being created, we hope that at some point you will ‘watch’ the show using only your ears and your minds. Yes, that means you can close your eyes …”

Crucial to the ambience and the success of this play are Battista, the sound designer, and Adam Smith, who creates live sound effects with a dazzling array of tubes, pipes, water, musical instruments and anything that can represent a specific sound.

Richard Chowenhill is the ensemble’s resident composer and is responsible for the music that becomes white noise under most of the production. I personally found it distracting, though my husband liked it.

With the exception of newcomer Evan Leiser in the title role, the rest of the seven-member cast each play several roles. (It also appears that though most of the cast have a Shakespearean or other acting background, all seem to be making their Davis Shakespeare Ensemble debut.)

Susanna Risser’s primary role is as Lady Macbeth, an understated performance that makes it all the more chilling for its detachment and cold-blooded ability to speak so dispassionately of the murder of King Duncan. She inhabits her characters so well that when she steps to the mic as a crazed witch, or the servant Seyton, you can almost forget that she was also Lady Macbeth.

Leiser is an amazingly strong Macbeth, less the foil of his wife and more the ambitious nobleman whose evil begins to destroy him. Leiser’s performance is excellent, but he has one serious flaw that I fear was a tremendous distraction. The man is a spitter. Everything he said was accompanied by sprays or droplets flying out into the air or onto the microphone, and drool running down his lips onto his chin. This was accentuated by the lighting which, from where I sat, showed me his profile brightly lit against the black background of the gazebo.

I fear that I reached a point where I simply could not look at him any more, though I was loving his performance, but was vaguely ill when the next person had to use his saliva-covered microphone.

Sarah Cohen played Banquo, Lady Macduff, General Siward and others. She gave the usual strong performance we have come to expect from her, after seeing several of her one-woman Shakespeare performances. Cohen has a unisex presence that is believable whether she is a male soldier or the grieving Lady Macduff, attempting to protect her children.

Paul DelBene started the show as the good King Duncan and went on to use his considerable acting talents as the drunken porter, the blustery doctor and others. DelBene is a great addition to the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble.

Jason Oler is a loyal friend in Macduff, surprised by the betrayal of his friend, and a menacing killer as well as other characters.

Camille Beaumont and Aileen Wen join with Risser as the witches, their dialog sometimes difficult to understand due to the excessive reverb, but their cackles were clear and unmistakable. When Wen steps to the mic to issue the first orders as King Malcolm, the audience knows she is going to be a wise and just king.

This was an interesting look at a familiar classic and another enjoyable evening by the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble.

Monday, October 08, 2012


Those wacky Enron guys are back again, singing and dancing their way into your hearts.

Enron, the granddaddy of all bankruptcy cases is remembered using music, dance and video in a clever play by Lucy Prebble, directed by Stephanie Gularte at Capital Stage in Sacramento. 

“I didn’t want to write a play about finance that’s boring,” said the playwright.  “Enron hired Cirque du Soleil to perform at their company parties, so I thought can we bring that flamboyance to the stage?”

And succeed they did.

Jonathan Rhys Williams has the role of a lifetime as the messianic Jeffrey Skilling, who believed he could change the world by creating a virtual economy. 

“If you have an idea, if you sign a deal, say that we’re gonna provide someone with a supply of champagne for the next few years at a set price, every month or whatever—Then that definite future income can be valued, at market prices today, and written down as earnings the moment the deal is signed. We don’t have to wait for the grapes to be grown and squashed.”

Williams is mesmerizing as the man for whom the lives of the people he was ruining was merely collateral damage.  “The only difference between me and the people judging me is they weren’t smart enough to do what we did.”

Aaron Wilton is Andrew Fastow, Skilling’s sidekick who achieves his dream of becoming Enron CEO.  Fastow provides comic relief, particularly when he interacts with velociraptors in suits, symbolizing the creative accounting practices used to hide irregularities in day to day business.

For those occasions when we need to...’offload,’ we create a company that exists purely to fulfill Enron’s needs.  We could push debt, we could push those losses into this other entity, sell it to this entity so we make money and move a loss off the books, wait for it to turn a profit...This is an area where we’re expected to be creative.  The regulations encourage it.

(And keeping with the fantasy metaphors, the Board of Directors are played by giant mice.)

While Kenneth Lay may be the name one first thinks of when one thinks of the Enron scandal, in Prebble’s script, as played by Gary Martinez, Lay assumes more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” role, preferring to step back and let his team handle things.  As long as the money keeps rolling in, he doesn’t really care how it’s being made and is more interested in redecorating the company jet and hosting lavish parties.

Shannon Maloney is the seductive Claudia Roe, screwed by Skilling (literally and figuratively) representing several women in Enron’s upper management who were the only ones to see what was going on and to work to expose the corruption within the company.

(Maloney also is listed as the choreographer and, though this is not, strictly speaking, a musical, there is definite choreography and even a chorus or two sung)

The scenic design by Stephen C. Jones, with assistance by the lighting design of Steve Decker and video designers Decker and Will Klundt is minimal, with a set piece or two rolling in here or there, but the projected videos keep the tension high and remind us of the decade in which the piece is set.

The small ensemble, particularly Lucinda Hitchcock Cone and Michael Stevenson, were excellent, partying like there was no tomorrow, until the bottom fell out and they all realized that they had lost everything.

Capitol stage has begun its second season in the new J Street location with a very strong, informative, and entertaining production.

The Miracle Worker

Executive producing director Michael Laun, in his opening remarks to the Sacramento Theatre Company audience, pointed out that the first time STC performed William Gibson’s classic “The Miracle Worker” was 50 years ago, in 1962.

Half a century later, the work still holds up as a powerful, inspiring theatrical work, especially in the capable hands of director Greg Alexander and his talented cast.

The success of this work depends on the actors who play the young Helen Keller, and her would-be teacher, Annie Sullivan.

Courtney Shannon, a ninth-grader at Natomas Charter’s Performing and Fine Arts Academy, has been acting in musicals for several years, but this is her first foray into dramatic acting (she alternates with Bella Bagatelos as Helen). She is 95 percent convincing as the blind/deaf girl (there were a few moments when she obviously “saw” what she was approaching — a step in one case, and her brother’s outstretched hand in another), but overall she did an outstanding job.

The intense battle scenes between Helen and Annie Sullivan, as the latter attempts to teach Helen manners and try to get her to understand the concept of “words,” were wonderful and must have left both actresses exhausted. The audience is taken on such a roller coaster of emotions that when Helen finally “gets it,” there was a lot of sniffling and wiping of eyes in the audience.

Sullivan’s character is in the more-than-capable hands of Brittni Barger. Though director Alexander has eschewed the usual Irish brogue, it is not necessary to get into the soul of Annie, and Barger is full of spunk and fire and, despite her inexperience, is willing to fight for her pupil. She is passionate about giving Helen every chance to fulfill her potential, despite her handicaps.

(I once had a friend who was blind and deaf and who insisted she was not “disabled,” but merely “handicapped.”)

Shannon and Barger are backed by an excellent cast. Gary Wright is a very strong Captain Keller, a role that does not often stand out, but in Wright’s case does. He loves his daughter, but, along with the rest of the family, makes too many allowances for her bad behavior, which undermines Annie’s work with the child.

Michele Hillen is Helen’s mother, who desperately wants to know how to communicate with her daughter, but who also finds it difficult to be strict with her.

Griffith Munn (who alternates with Garrick Sigl) is surprisingly strong as the wise-cracking brother, James Keller, afraid of his father, not willing to accept his stepmother, and the only person in the family who sees that Annie’s approach to the girl is vital to her progress.

Others in the cast include Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly in the dual role of the Doctor and Anagnos, the man who sends Annie to the Keller family; Georgann Wallace as Aunt Ev; and Tahlema Martin at the Kellers’ cook, Viney. Jordan Taylor and Jacob Navas played blind children Martha and Percy. They alternate in their roles with Carenna Thompson and Rion Romero.

The scenic design of Jarrod Bodensteiner is a multi-level set that includes an upstairs bedroom for Annie, the downstairs family dining room, the outside area that doubles as the cottage where Annie works alone with Helen for two weeks and the water pump area, which is vital to the closing scene.

Annie Sullivan went on to live with Helen Keller until Annie’s death in 1936. Helen’s list of accomplishments as an author, lecturer (she eventually learned how to speak) and political activist is impressive. She was one of the founders of the ACLU, and campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights and birth control. She died in 1968 and was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971.

One wonders what might have happened to that blind, deaf, out-of-control little girl if there had not been an Annie Sullivan in her life.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change

It would be difficult, if not impossible, not to find something to relate to in Sacramento’s Cosmopolitan Cabaret’s sparkling, delightful new production, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”

This musical, with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music by Jimmy Roberts, was the second-longest running off-Broadway musical comedy (“The Fantasticks” was No. 1). It is a celebration of the mating game. Act 1 explores the journey from dating and waiting to love and marriage, while Act 2 reveals the agonies and triumphs of in-laws, newborns, trips in the family car and pickup techniques of the geriatric set.

Who can’t relate to the angst before a first date?

Will my hopes be met? Will my fear dispel?
Will I captivate? Or will I repel?
Will I show him/her just how wonderful I am?
Or will I be a date from hell?

The show, directed by Glenn Casale, stars four talented artists — Michael Dotson, last seen as a member of the barbershop quartet in Music Circus’ “The Music Man”; Jerry Lee, memorable for his performance in the Cabaret’s recent “Forbidden Broadway”; Jennifer Malenke, new to the Cosmopolitan Cabaret, but recently seen on “The Voice,” singing with Florence and the Machine; and Melissa Wolfklain, also part of the “Forbidden Broadway” cast, and recently appearing as Jan in Music Circus’ “Grease.”

These four take on more than 20 roles throughout the evening, and it would be difficult to choose the funniest from among the vignettes, though “The Marriage Tango,” with a young married couple (Lee and Wolfklain) trying to find a way to have an intimate moment without the kids interrupting would be right up there. When Wolfklain asks her hubby how he pulled off the amazing feat of getting the kids to bed on time, he admits he promised to take the little ones to Disneyland.

“I figured we’d wait a few months and tell ‘em it burned down,” Lee says.

Dotson is also very funny in “Tear Jerk” as a macho man dragged to a chick flick by his girlfriend Wolfklain.

My movie satisfaction is mindless violent action,
Some muscle men to tussle with Stallone.
A thriller that would thrill us, with Arnold or Bruce Willis,
And lots of naked shots of Sharon Stone.

… and is then embarrassed to find himself sucked into the plot of the film, and fighting not to show the tears he is crying.

Malenke and Lee are perfect nerds in “A Stud and a Babe,” wishing they were more appealing, he longing for bulging biceps and she wishing for a larger bust (“my breasts would be rounder,” “my pecs would astound her”).

At the other end of the life span is “I can live with that,” featuring a widow and a widower meeting at the funeral of a mutual friend and the dance they do around the notion of dating each other, though they still both love and miss their departed spouses. It is a less funny and more poignant moment that will touch the heart of those of us “of a certain age” who have attended too many funerals lately.

This musical premiered in 1996 and so some of the material is a bit dated, but it is nonetheless very funny and a great way to spend an evening.