Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hedda Gabler

I have to confess that despite my 71 years of living and 15 years as a theater critic, I had never seen Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” until we caught a performance at the Art Theater of Davis last weekend. It took a bit of research, both before and after seeing the play, to answer some questions I had.

While I like the new theater built in the Third Space building, there are a few complaints. First, there are approximately 30 folding metal chairs and four chair pads. The lucky first four to arrive spend a more comfortable couple of hours than the unlucky bunch who follow them. Patrons might like to think of bringing their own chair pads.

The second complaint is that on Thursday, the temperatures had gone up to 90 in the afternoon and the theater was beastly hot. This is only going to get worse as summer arrives, so people may want to plan accordingly with fans or whatever they have that will make things more comfortable for them.

This is a new translation of the Ibsen classic, translated by Adam Siegel and adapted by Timothy Nutter (who also plays Eilert Loevborg)

The play first opened in Munich in 1891 and was not well received. Germans liked their heroines to be docile and Hedda is anything but. This bride of only six months is already bored with married life, barely tolerates her bookish husband, and manipulates everything and everyone around her.

Art Theater’s Hedda (Tatiana Ray, an Acme alum) gives a beautiful, subdued performance, shrinking from her husband’s touch, yet sparkling in conversations with Judge Brack (John McLean), a family friend who is not so secretly in love with Hedda. Hedda has some of the most gorgeous costumes of the production, particularly her red velvet Act 3 number (costume design is by Nutter, who also designed the set and directed the show, in addition to adapting the script).

Husband Joergen Tesman (Tyler Shaffo) is a man who is head over heels in love with his wife, and lives in a fantasy world where she loves him, too. He is willing to put himself in debt to provide her with everything she wants. Shaffo’s Tesman is an affable guy. Sometimes you roll your eyes at his inability (or unwillingness) to see situations right under his own nose, but you still root for him.

The Tesman of this production tosses “ya” into his speech at odd times. He’s the only one who does and it makes one wonder why? Is this the nod to the Norwegian origins of the play? It sticks out like a sore thumb every time.

Judge Brack, though revealed to be unscrupulous, is a likeable rapscallion and McClean gives a strong performance as the third party in the marriage of Hedda and Tesman.

Tess Chism plays Hedda’s old school chum, Thea Elvsted, herself also in a loveless marriage, who has been working with Loevborg on his new book. Chism gives a fine performance despite being sabotaged by the most awful looking wig I have ever seen. Apparently someone decided that since the character is Norwegian, she should have a blond wig. This one shimmers unnaturally, comes undone, and shows her real dark hair in many places.
Lisa Halko gives a very strong performance as Aunt Julle, Tesman’s loving aunt, who has raised him from early childhood. Julle is thrilled that Tesman has found a wife, who is both beautiful and high-born, and anxiously awaits the news of an expected baby, though Tesman is too dense to understand her not-so-subtle hints.

Nutter is a powerful Loevborg, who was once Hedda’s lover and Tesman’s former colleague, now in competition with him for a teaching position. Loevborg is a recovering alcoholic and when he falls off the wagon at a party and confesses to Hedda that he has lost his priceless manuscript, instead of letting him know that, in fact, she is the one who lost the manuscript, she gives him a gun and encourages him to commit suicide.

The final character in this play is the butler/family retainer Berte (Dylan Wright). I liked his performance very much but there was just something “wrong” about it. His character seemed out of place in this drama and it was not until I did some research after the play that I realized the role was written to be a housekeeper, Bertha. Everything he did was wrong for a butler, but right for a housekeeper. I’m surprised that the role was given to a man.

This production sometimes lacks energy and on the night I attended it seemed like there were some difficulties remembering lines, though that may have been my imagination, as the cast covered well, if there were. But it is an ambitious project for the fledgling company and on the whole they carried it off well.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Tempest

Acme Theater Company is doing it again. This weekend the group is presenting its 31st Memorial Day program free to the city of Davis for its support throughout the company’s history.

This year’s gift is Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,”which can be seen at the Davis Arts Center’s outdoor amphitheater and is, as always, completely free. Bringing your own blankets or chairs is recommended.

(Barbeque items are also for sale starting at 6:30 p.m., before the show begins. But you have to pay for those!)

“The Tempest,” performed by Acme for the first time, is described by director Betsy Raymond (who is directing for the first time) as “full of romance, slapstick comedy and magic and is also a play woven with revenge, manipulation, and moral gray areas.” Whew. That’s a lot.

In fact, at the end of the play, I saw some Acme alums standing in a circle trying to explain pieces of the plot to each other, and a young woman was talking with people sitting next to me, saying “Well, I read this in 10th grade, but I got nothing.” A man was telling his wife that he didn’t have time to read the synopsis on his cell phone at intermission, so had missed a lot of the plot.

The company, at least in Act 1, was also battling for audience attention with the cars on Covell Boulevard, and the train whistles; both of which seemed to have died down by Act 2.

However, with all of that, the group put on an excellent performance in which some actors stood head and shoulders — sometimes literally — above the rest, though all did a fine job.

Colin French, is playing Ariel, a puckish spirit who is bound to the magician Prospero (Brian Stewart), who rescued him from a tree, where he was imprisoned by a witch. French, a sophomore (with two more years to mature in Acme) gave the standout performance of the evening. It was a thing of magic, as he runs hither and thither, popping in and out and just enjoying his role to the hilt.

No slouch, either is the Prospero of Brian Stewart. Prospero is the exiled Duke of Milan, secretly enjoying being imprisoned on an island with all his books and not having to run a country, but whose goal is to restore his daughter, Miranda (Danielle Schlenker) to her rightful place on the throne.

To help him achieve that goal, he manipulates a meeting of Miranda with Ferdinand (Matthew Fyhrie), son of Alonso, King of Naples (Andre Martinez), who believes his son perished in the shipwreck. Schlenker and Fyhrie make a beautiful young couple, who fall in love at first sight.

Also bound to Prospero is Caliban (Benton Harshaw) son of the witch who bewitched Ariel. Harshaw gives an intense performance, particularly effective when he uses a gravely voice to express his feelings toward Prospero.
Leo Goldstein gives a performance worthy of Ray Bolger as Trinculo, the king’s jester, with floppy limbs and seemingly very few bones in his body. He is friends with Stephani (Tina Simpson) and the two of them have many drunken revels together and they plot with Caliban to overthrow Prospero, a plan that is easily quashed.

Another excellent performance is turned in by Raphael Gorga, as Gonzalo, a Neopolitan courtier who was helpful to Prospero and Miranda when they were shipped off to sea, and is now an advisor to Alonso.

Set design for this show is by Brian Stewart and Aaron Hirst, who have created a blank canvas on which the action takes place, aided by the lighting design of Arina Ushakova and Wil Forkin. However, the set design takes in the specific qualities of the Arts Center, by using the trees and the many doors into the building as part of the action.

This is a high-energy show, which shows good promise for Betsy Raymond’s future directing career. The price is right and you won’t be disappointed if you stop by the Arts Center to see a performance.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Who knew that Chekhov could be so funny?

Well, not Chekhov, exactly, but playwright Christopher Durang who has penned the Tony award winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” now entertaining patrons at the B Street Theater, under the deft directorial hand of Buck Busfield.  Durang does a mashup of those 19th century Russian characters and themes and sets them down in 21st century Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

There is nothing subtle about this Chekhovian knock off, as Durang hits us over the head with blatant references to works such as “Uncle Vanya,” “The Seagull,”  “Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard.”  In fact, the small grove of unseen cherry trees in the backyard of the Pennsylvania home is mentioned so often as “the cherry orchard,” I felt like the old Thurber story about the unicorn (“I said there’s a unicorn in the garden...”) We’re gonna mention it until we’re sure you get it!

But the audience did get it and laughed approvingly (and often uproariously) throughout the delightful play.

Vanya (Greg Alexander) and his stepsister Sonia (Stephanie McVay) have lived their entire lives in their family’s farmhouse, caring for their ailing, now deceased, parents, while sister Masha (Jamie Jones) has been traveling around the world as a successful movie star. (“I can’t help it if I’m beautiful and intelligent and successful, can I?”)

Vanya and Sonia, in wonderful deadpan portrayals, remain trapped and regretful at how much of life has eluded them. Their lives are so routinized that Sonia is thrown for a loop when Vanya gets his own coffee one morning.  Together they wait for the birds each morning, wondering if their favorites will show up.

Cassandra, the new age-y clairvoyant cleaning woman (Tara Sissom, in an often over the top performance) warns them about terrible things coming in the immediate future. (“Beware of Hootie Pie!”)

One of those terrible things is an unexpected visit from Masha and her boy toy, the vacuous Spike (the muscular Jason Kuykendall, who removes his shirt a lot and does a wonderful reverse strip tease, putting his clothes on). Masha has come home to announce her decision to sell the family home (which, for some reason, she owns, her siblings being merely occupants).

Jones does a wonderful turn as the queen of the slasher film, who can’t understand when suddenly the world does NOT revolve around her.

Add to the mix the young star-struck, would-be actress next door neighbor, Nina (Mary Katherine Cobb), who idolizes Masha and is obviously very alluring eye candy to Spike.  Cobb, who has been a member of B Street’s internship program, is making her first appearance with the “big people” and turns in memorable performance.  Davis residents may remember seeing her mother, Mary Cobb, in local community theater performances many years ago.

Things get shaken up at a costume party, to which the reluctant Vanya and Sonia have been convinced to attend with Masha, as part of her entourage, elves to Masha's Snow White.  Sonia finds her gumption and creates her own costume, which outshines Masha.

The party turns out to be a life changing shift for all of them and leads to a memorable monologue for Vanya about the days of “Ozzie and Harriet,” and Bishop Sheen, the days when people still wrote letters and licked stamps, his disconnect from today’s world and despair for the future.  It’s a masterful performance by Alexander.

This is a laugh-out-loud funny production performed by a first rate cast which does the comic genius of Christopher Durang proud.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Good People

David Lindsay-Abaire may not be the name of a playwright on everybody’s lips.  Some may know him as the man who wrote the look and lyrics for “Shrek, the Musical,” a lightweight piece not likely to make much of an impression.

So expectations were not high going to Capital Stage to see his “Good People,” directed by Stephanie Gularte.  Just shows you how expectations can deceive.

This is a fabulous play, tightly directed, wickedly funny, painfully seriously, deeply moving, and ultimately decidedly memorable.

The play is set in South Boston, or “Southie,” which many of us probably came to know thanks to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s “Good Will Hunting,” an area known as a working-class, predominately Catholic neighborhood, and home to some of the oldest housing projects in the United States. (In fact, the playwright grew up in South Boston and lived there until he won a scholarship to a private school, which he credits with changing his life.)

The story centers on Margaret (called “Margie,” with a hard “g” sound), a feisty single woman who has lived all of her life in Southie, who struggles every day to keep herself and her handicapped adult daughter going.

Rebecca Dines gives an amazing performance as Margie, with a thick Southie accent, a chip on her shoulder, and a sense that life just keeps beating her down over and over again but she is determined to fight back. Dines’ performance is one of those that, years later, you will remember and say smugly that you were there to watch her.

As the play starts, Margie is being fired from her job by her boss Stevie (Brandon Lancaster), a lifelong friend and now manager of a Dollar Store.  She has been late one too many times, lateness the fault of the late arrival of her quirky landlady Dottie (Linda Montalvo), who takes care of Margie’s daughter while she works. Dottie makes silly rabbits out of flower pots as a way to supplement her income.

Suspecting what is coming in her meeting with Stevie, Margie plays the “I remember your mother” card, to no effect.  Stevie is a good guy, and well meaning, but he has to report to “corporate,” which has ordered him to fire Margie after many write-ups for tardiness.  He offers to help her get a new job at the Gillette factory, where his brother works, but she feels she is too old for the physical demands.

Margie faces the loss of her apartment and having to move to the streets with her daughter since Dottie is threatening to move her son into the apartment if Margie can’t come up with the rent.

Margie, along with Dottie and Jean (Lori Russo) play Bingo as their one night on the town and over the cards, Jean suggests Margie look up her old boyfriend, Mike (James Hiser).  Mike got out of Southie, got a good education and is now a successful fertility doctor, married, and living in the upper class Chestnut Hill. Maybe Mike can give Margie a job in his office.

After unsuccessfully avoiding her, Mike (James Hiser) finds himself confronted face to face, when Margie shows up at his office.  Things are awkward, then sad, then confrontational.  Margie finally wrangles an invitation to his birthday party the next night, where he implies she might meet someone who has a position open in his office.  When Mike later calls to explain the party was called off because his child was sick, Margie smells a rat.

She shows up at his house anyway, where his wife Kate (ZZ Moor), unaware of their past history, treats her with dignity and respect and a big platter of cheese.

The play does a 180 here, and the comedy we had been laughing at so heartily up to now turns serious, things are revealed that are better left unsaid, Hiser does an excellent job of holding in his anger until he must explode–and does.  Moor is wonderful as the clueless wife, just trying to be a good hostess, who gets a big dose of things she had no business knowing.

The play ends up back at the Bingo parlor with a lively discussion taking place and a surprising conclusion.

Capitol Stage’s production of “Good People” is marvelous and shouldn’t be missed.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Thoroughly Modern Millie

'Thoroughly Modern Millie' is silly.

But the play knows this, and doesn't pretend to be anything but silly.

The Woodland Opera House has a talented, energetic actors, dancers, and musicians who bring this silly tale to life, under the direction of Staci Arriaga, with musical direction by James C. Glica-Hernandez.

While there is no doubting the talent on the stage, this production has a couple of problems.  The first is that there is nowhere in the program where you can find out the name of the playwright, only the copyright holder.

In fact, the book is by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan, with a new score by Jeanine Tesori. The music is augmented by others like Gilbert & Sullivan, Jacques Offenbach, Walter Donaldson (“Mammy,” with lyrics in Cantonese, complete with supertitles), and Victor Herbert.

That this production reached the stage at all is somewhat of a miracle. It became Scanlon’s obsession.  He was an actor/writer/director recovering from an illness at a friend's summer house, who had only one videotape for entertainment: 1967's somewhat mediocre Julie Andrews/Mary Tyler Moore film musical of 'Thoroughly Modern Millie.'

As Scanlon watched the movie over and over, he began to think he could turn it into a much better stage show. Sticking to his guns during the next several years, he finally got a meeting with the film's screenwriter, Morris. The rest, as they say, is history.

The musical became 2002's most honored new show, winning six Tony Awards, including best musical, best choreography, best orchestrations and best costume design.

The second problem with the Opera House production is the pit band.  It’s wonderful to be able to have 8 musicians to provide an authentic band sound, but in a house like this, without a real orchestra pit, there is always the difficulty of the vocals on stage being heard over the music in the pit.  No matter how good each is, if one drowns out the other, it does not do a service to the performers.

In fact, audibility was a problem throughout the production, a rare problem for Woodland. Though the script seemed to be funny, we rarely heard audience laughter, and then it was for some physical comedy on stage.  Funny lines often went without laughter.  This may be due to the performance we saw being opening night, and perhaps things will even out during the run, but it was sad to miss so much of the show.

But that’s just the bad news.  The good news is that this is a strong, likeable cast, starting with Amy Jacques-Jones in the title role.  Millie has just arrived in New York after escaping from Salina, Kansas.  She’s ready to bob her hair, shorten her skirts, and find a job working for a rich man whom she will ultimately marry.  Jacques-Jones is just great, very charismatic on stage and she dances up a storm as well.

After a mugging, wherein she loses her purse and one shoe, she meets Jimmy Smith (Seth Rogers), an apparent ne’er do well to whom she is instantly attracted, despite her life plan to marry a millionaire.  Jimmy helps her find a home in a hotel for young women, run by Mrs. Meers (Eva Sarry), who has an evil gleam in her eye.  Meers, we discover, runs a white slave operation on the side and, assisted by Ching Ho (Tomas Eredia) and Bun Foo (Hugo Figueroa), who speak no English and whose “Chinese” is translated on supertitles, she kidnaps women and ships them off to Hong Kong where they will be  sold into prostitution.

Sarry is deliciously evil and switches in and out of a faux Chinese accent (really more of a faux Japanese accent, but let it pass...), depending on which face she is presenting at the time.

Eredia and Figueroa are believable Chinese characters, and really are the good guys in the melodrama part of this silly story, as they are only working for Meers in order to bring their mother over from Hong Kong.

Millie gets a job working for the very wealthy Mr. Trevor Graydon (Horacio Gonzales). One of the show's highlights is her job interview ('The Speed Test'), which borrows a patter song from Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Ruddygore,' with new lyrics by Scanlan.

Along the way, Millie falls in love with Jimmy; it's also love at first sight for Millie’s friend, Miss Dorothy Brown (Petra Favorite) and Trevor Graydon, who instantly break into Victor Herbert's 'Falling in Love with Someone' - from 'Naughty Marietta' - as they meet each other.

But all is not about to end happily ever after, because Mrs. Meers decides to kidnap Miss Dorothy. It's up to Millie, Jimmy and Mr. Graydon - with assistance from Muzzy Van Hossmere (the incomparable Deborah Douglas-Hammond), Manhattan's most celebrated chanteuse - to get her back.

The show includes lots of plot twists and identity mix-ups, but the plot is irrelevant; the show really is about Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan's music, Arriaga’s choreography and the talented cast's energetic performances.