Monday, September 28, 2015

Three Sisters

left to right Nina Dramer (Masha), Samantha Hannum (Irina),
Megan Aldritch (Olga) photo by Bruce Clarke
“They'll forget us. Such is our fate, there is no help for it. What seems to us serious, significant, very important, will one day be forgotten or will seem unimportant,” says Lt. Col. Vershinin (Earl Victorine), in one of the many melancholic moments of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” now at Sacramento City College’s Art Court Theater, under the direction of Adrienne Sher.

Over four scenes, we watch the three sisters of the Prozorova family, and the others who inhabit the house run the gamut of emotions from the sheer joy of young Irina (Samantha Hannum) on the morning of her 20th birthday to the overwhelming depression of the whole household five years later.   

This is a powerful, moving, sometimes funny production with an excellent cast.  The sisters are played by Megan Aldrich (Olga), Nina Dramer (Masha) and Hannum.  Each has her own personality, from the stern Olga, forced to be the family leader following the death of their father; Masha, stuck in an unhappy marriage and secretly in love with Vershinin; and Irina, whose idealistic dreams slowly die with the passage of time.

Brother Andrey (Thomas Dean) is a talented young man with no drive whose best job seems to be head of the village council.  Wife Natasha (Devon LaBar), the subject of derision for her fashion choices, becomes the shew of the household.

Also outstanding are Tom Rhatigan as Dr. Chebutikin, an eccentric alcoholic doctor, Sean Thomas Olivares as Soleni, a social misfit in love with Irina and Paul Scott as Baron Tuzenbach, also in love with Irina.

With all of their problems, the emotional connection among the sisters remains strong and is the tie that holds this family together.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Uncle Vanya

Christina Schiesari as Elena and Baki Tezcan as Vanya
perform in the Art Theater of Davis production of
“Uncle Vanya,” running through Sunday. Courtesy photo
The sweltering heat of the valley summer should put anybody in the proper mood to see Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” now at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater, presented by the Art Theater of Davis. The final performance is Sunday at 2 p.m.

This is a new translation by award-winning translator Adam Siegel and Timothy Nutter and directed by Nutter, who explains that the script “follows a script based on the original, translated and adapted into American English. We do our best to preserve the spirit and meaning of the Russian text, while also creating a performance that is our own and will work theatrically for actor and audiences of today.”

Professor Alexander Serebryakov (Sean O’Brien) has moved from St. Petersburg, with his much-younger wife Yelena (Christina Schiesari) to the family country estate run by Ivan Petrovitch Voinitsky — Vanya (Baki Tezcan), his brother-in-law, and Sonya (Jenna Templeton), Serebryakov’s daughter from a previous marriage. He proposes to sell the land and live off the proceeds, a suggestion that upsets Vanya so much that ultimately things are left as they are.

Add to the mix Mixail Lvovich Astrov, a country doctor (Matt Urban), Illya Illyich Telyegin (Corey Shake), an impoverished landowner who lives on the estate as a dependent of the family. He is nicknamed “Waffles” because of his pockmarked skin.

And then there is Vanya’s elderly mother, Mariya Vasilyevna Voinitskya (Gail Finney), and Marina (Lisa Halko), an old nurse.

Vanya is infatuated with Yelena. Sonya is in love with Dr. Astrov. Both infatuations are unrequited, and even Yelena’s flirtation with Astrov ends abruptly due to her sense that security with the professor outweighs dangerous passion.

The weather is oppressively hot and everyone is bored, especially Yelena. But each of the characters is unhappy in his or her own way. Tempers flare and passions are briefly kindled, there are discourses on the absurdity of it all and it makes for an unsettling situation.

Chekhov plays are wordy and so they rely on a strong delivery by the actors. While it was easy to see that each of the actors in this production is excellent, there were projection problems. I missed most of the dialog by Serebryakov (O’Brien), for example, though his partner in many of the discussions, Vanya (Tezcan) was easily understood.

Jenna Templeton as Sofya gave perhaps the strongest performance of all, though Tezcan also was outstanding, as was Christina Schiesari as Yelena, around whom much of the action of the play revolves.

The set, designed by Nutter, begins modestly, with a table and a few chairs on an otherwise empty stage, but it grows in complexity with each of the four scenes as it acquires walls and additional furniture as well as homey touches such as floral arrangements by Donna Nevraumont.

Art Theater of Davis is the little engine that could. They are small, they are dedicated to performing theatrical works that one is not likely to see elsewhere, and they continue to present quality work, with increasing audiences each time.

One hopes that they will receive the audience support that will keep them around for a long time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Seussical the Musical

From left, the mischievous Cat in the hat (F. James Raasch), Gertrude McFuzz (Christie Paz),
Mayzie LaBird (Rachael Sherman-Shockley), accompanied by her Bird Girls (Sarah Green,
Cooper Johnson and Michele Guerrieri), are featured in the DMTC production of
“Seussical, the Musical,” running Sept. 11 through Oct. 4.
Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise photo
“Seussical, the Musical,” by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is a show certain to delight children...and it certainly did at the opening matinee at Davis Musical Theater Company.    But there is also enough grown up humor that adults will enjoy it as well.

Filled with familiar Seuss characters like the Whos in Whoville, the Sour Kangaroo, Mayzie LaBird and her flock of feathery friends, Sneeches and other animals from the Jungle of Nool, the show kept every child I watched spellbound, even the ones who looked to be 3 or 4 years old.

This enchanting production, directed and choreographed by Ron Cisneros with wildly colorful costumes by Jean Henderson and wonderful Seuss-ian set pieces by Steve Isaacson is the sort of show DMTC does best, showcasing both the talented adult cast, and also strong performances by members of the Young People’s Company.  And you can’t beat 30 people on stage dancing to the tune of the 20-piece under-stage orchestra.

While the show is filled with catchy tunes, the book itself is weak and it is thanks to a talented cast that it comes across as well as it does.

Heading the show is F. James Raasch as the Cat in the Hat, who directs the action and gets in a little mischief along the way.  Raasch, who has a beautiful voice, had a great time in the role and stuck in his own ad libs now and then, which were usually very funny, even the one aimed at this critic.

But the heart of this production is DMTC newcomer Nephi Speer as Horton the Elephant.  Speer imbued his character with such gentleness and genuine heart that everybody loved him.  And costumer Henderson had the good sense not to give him some sort of elephantine head gear.  He was dressed simply in grey and his “elephantness” came from his performance.

The Cat’s buddy is The Boy/Jojo, who gets into trouble for thinking.  Jenna Karoly came into the show late, but you’d never know it to watch her performance.  She’s as solid as can be and you could not ask for better.  She and Speer have a lovely duet, “Alone in the Universe,” as each realizes that together they aren’t really alone.

You called my name and you set me free
One small voice in the universe
One true friend in the universe
Who believes in me

While the show has a very thin plot, what plot it does have centers around Horton, first in his discovery of the Whos, a teeny community which lives on a speck of dust, whom Horton promises to protect, and the silly bird Mayzie (Rachael Sherman-Shockley) who, already tired of mothering, entrusts her egg to Horton “just for the afternoon.”  A year later, Horton is still caring for the egg because “an elephant’s faithful 100%.”

The Whos are led the Mayor (Adam Sartain) and his wife (Dannette Vassar).  When JoJo has morphed into a Who, he is the son of the Mayor, who doesn’t know what to do with a child who thinks, so he’s sent off to military school under the watchful eye of Gen. Genghis Kahn Schmitz (Scott Daugherty). Together the three sing the fun patter song, 'The Military.”

Christie Paz is Gertrude McFuzz, the one-feathered bird in love with Horton.  Though Paz throws a spectacular tantrum and can make herself heard when she is angry, she had some problems with projection throughout much of the performance.

Of particular note are 6 year old Gillian Cubbage as Thing 1 and Miller Traum as Thing 2.  Both displayed the stage discipline of older actors and both were absolutely adorable.  Cubbage is particularly impressive with her one-handed cartwheels across the stage.

Steve Isaacson’s set pieces are straight out of Dr. Seuss illustrations and add a touch of authenticity to the look, while his lighting design, particularly in the black light under sea scene with glowing fish was fun.

This is a good family show, but if you don’t have kids or grandkids, come by yourself and enjoy, perhaps with a kangaroo sour, which may be purchased at the lobby bar and consumed in the theater.   

Monday, September 07, 2015

Mr. Burns

(From L to R) Amanda Salazar, Katie Rubin, Jouni Kirjola,
Dena Martinez, John P. Lamb, Elizabeth Holzman
Remember “Fahrenheit 451,” when all the books had been destroyed and a little enclave of people, each of whom had memorized a specific book, were teaching that book to a young person so that the words could continue?

That’s kind of how Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns: a Post Electric Play,” now at Capital Stage,  begins. There has been a great apocalyptic event and much of the world has been destroyed. Survivors are finding each other in small groups.

The show, directed by new Artistic Director Michael Stevenson, opens around a fire where a group of survivors tries to remember “Cape Feare,” their favorite “Simpsons” episode, in which Sideshow Bob stalks Bart Simpson with threats to kill him. For the shell-shocked survivors, it’s a bit of normality that helps them push away their fears … for the moment.

Matt (John P. Lamb) and Jenny (Katie Rubin) lead off, yelling lines at each other, as they try to get the show in sequence, with the nervous Maria (Dena Martinez) reacting in delight.

In an interview, Washburn explained that in trying to brainstorm ideas for a script, “We tasked the writers with remembering ‘Simpsons’ episodes, and the dialogue around the remembering of the episode in the first act is largely verbatim from these sessions.”

Interrupting the delight of the group is a new arrival, Gibson (Kirk Blackinton) who has been traveling across the country assessing the damage. The action takes a very somber tone as they learn which cities he has visited and bring out their book of lists to ask if, maybe, somehow, he has come across one of their loved ones.

Eventually Gibson, too, joins in the delight of remembering a beloved television episode.

Joining Lamb, Rubin, Blackinton and Martinez in this top-notch cast are Jouni Kirjola as Sam, Tiffanie Mack as Colleen, Amanda Salazar as Quincy and Elizabeth Holzman as Mrs. Krabappel.

This is a show that will delight fans of “The Simpsons” and perhaps confuse those who don’t know the popular cartoon. It is riddled with references to the cartoon and to the movie “Cape Fear,” on which the episode is based. As someone who only watched the show in the first couple of seasons (there have been 28 seasons!), I know I missed a lot of the references at which many in the audience laughed.

The enigmatic second act, taking place seven years after Act 1, finds a post-apocalyptic theater company rehearsing a show, which includes reminiscing about food and drink they once had (“at this point all I care about my imaginary alcohol is that it is aged”), obsessing on where Diet Cokes have gone (“I know a guy in Wichita who has a stash of Diet Cokes and do you know what he’s selling them for? Lithium batteries, two a can”) and comparing their productions of “Simpsons” episodes with another company’s productions.

The high point in this act is the parody of “The Simpsons” theme song.

If Act 2 left many of us scratching our heads trying to figure out its meaning, Act 3 brought it all together in a fully staged all-musical version of “Cape Feare,” where Sideshow Bob has, for some unexplained reason, become Homer Simpson’s boss, Mr. Burns, a tour-de-force performance by Kirjola (with face makeup reminiscent of Batman’s Joker). Salazar, too, shines as Bart, with Martinez in a lovely Marge wig and Rubin showing all the spunk of Lisa.

Special mention should be made of Jonathan Williams’ set design which, particularly in Act 3, seems identical to the cartoon. Gail Russell must have had a great time designing all those marvelous costumes!

This is not a show for everyone. The script assumes that the audience is already familiar with not only the major “Simpsons” characters but also the minor ones, like Itchy and Scratchy and Apu.
Still, love it or not, there is no denying that the actors give outstanding performances. If “The Simpsons” is your cup of tea, you don’t want to miss this one.

Playwright Washburn perhaps rightly predicts that were we to find ourselves in a similar situation today what we would cling to is not the Bible or Shakespeare, but popular cartoon characters to anchor our memories to a previous, happier time.