Thursday, December 29, 2016

White Christmas

Comparisons are odious. But when there is a movie as beloved and iconic as “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” and it has been adapted for the stage by David Ives and Paul Blake, comparisons are inevitable. It’s obviously impossible to duplicate the familiar Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen combination.

Now at the Community Center Theater, this Broadway Sacramento production is flashy, colorful and a lot of fun. It’s also nowhere near on a par with the movie, so if you don’t expect that, you won’t be disappointed.

The story is familiar: The famous song-and-dance team of Wallace (Sean Montgomery in the Bing Crosby role), and Davis (Jeremy Benton) meet the aspiring sister act of Betty Haynes (Kerry Conte in the Rosemary Clooney role), and Judy Haynes (Kelly Sheehan), and head to a ski resort that turns out to be run by Wallace and Davis’ old World War II commanding general (Conrad John Shuck, a familiar face from countless Broadway and television roles), who has fallen on hard times and is looking at a bleak ski season, as Vermont is experiencing unseasonable warm temperatures.

The story turns into “find a barn and put on a show to save the general,” and it all ends predictably with beautiful snow on stage and in the audience.

However, there are plot differences from the movie, new characters and character twists, and additional Irving Berlin songs not found in the movie, such as the show-stopping tap number, “I Love a Piano” (which film buffs will recognize from “Easter Parade,” not “White Christmas”) and “Blue Skies,” to name but two.

One problem with the transition to the stage is that with the addition of songs, there is no time to develop characters or deepen relationships, so, for example, the “loathe him — love him” relationship between Betty and Bob requires a lot of suspension of disbelief.

My biggest disappointment, however, is that the finale of the movie, with Gen. Waverly being honored by his old platoon, packs a huge emotional wallop that cannot be achieved on stage without doubling the size of the cast. This production tries, and it kinda, sorta works, but it lacks a lot.

As for the performers, Montgomery is a pleasant Bob, but with a sharp edge to his voice that makes me long for a real crooner in the role. Benton, however, is a perfect Phil and pairs nicely with Sheehan as Judy, especially in the dance numbers.

Conte, whose bio says she has been playing Betty for 11 years, has certainly perfected the role by now. She’s a great chanteuse who gets a chance to display her vocal chops especially in the torch song “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”

The role of Martha Watson, the crusty but lovable dame who runs the general’s inn, is played by Lorna Luft. Martha was at one time known as “Motormouth Martha” in her old performing days. Luft belts out her songs and does credit to mama Judy Garland, especially with her “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”

The general’s granddaughter is played by twins Clancy and Samantha Penny. Clancy played opening night and was an audience favorite at the curtain call.

Making the most of a the tiny role of Ezekiel, the laconic stage hand, Frank Ridley was perfect.
The set design by Anna Louizos was spectacular with several very large set pieces to bring on or off throughout the show, though the pieces were so heavy it was impossible to keep the rumbling of the set change quiet during the filler scenes in front of the curtain.

Carrie Robbins’ costume designs were lush and wonderful, and worth the price of admission by themselves.

This is an enjoyable show that is a great break after all the busyness of the holidays.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Sacramento Theatre Company is bringing back its wildly popular “Cinderella” as a Christmas gift to audiences. Based on the British pantomime format, combining music, slapstick, cross-dressing and buffoonery, this version is written by Kate Hawley with music by local composer Gregg Coffin and direction by Michael Laun.

This particular production includes three students from Davis High School. In the title role is Emily O’Flaherty, who shares the role with Madeline Perez. Both are products of STC’s Young People’s program. O’Flaherty is lovely and everyone’s mental image of a Cinderella. Her transformation from scullery maid to princess is magical.

Another Davis High student is 10th-grader Jimin Moon, playing Knickers, best friend to Cinderella (with a big crush on her). Moon alternates in the role with Luke Crabbe.

Rounding out the DHS presence is James Hayakawa, a member of the show’s ensemble.

The cast is headed by the wonderful Michael RJ Campbell as the formidable stepmother Mrs. Baden-Rotten. In the days when STC also filled the roles of the evil stepsisters with cross-dressers,
Campbell was the whiny, pouty zaftig sister Goneril. He now fills his mother’s big shoes and is even more fearsome — the character you love to boo.

As Baden-Rotten’s daughters, Emily Serdahl as Goneril and Brandi Lacy as Regan are ugly, spiteful and utterly hilarious, especially the contortions they go through to try to convince the prince that theirs is the foot to fit that famous glass slipper.

Making his STC debut, Sam C. Jones is positively charming as the prince who would rather hunt than think about girls. He and O’Flaherty have a nice chemistry together, even if he can’t recognize her when she’s all dressed up at the ball.

His best friend is Brian Bohlender as Dandini, who enjoys a few hours wearing the princely crown so Charming can be just one of the guys.

Others in the cast are equally endearing, including Michael Coleman and Andrea St. Clair as the King and Queen, eager to find Charming a wife. St. Clair can be seen dusting the castle so well she forgets to take off her apron, and then is aghast that her guests might have seen her. Coleman is a laid-back king, with his crown sitting at a rakish angle on his head, more intent on letting Charming do his own thing.

Abigail Lambert (alternating with Jordan Taylor) was wonderful as the politically active anti-monarchy Little Bo Peep who wins the heart of Dandini. Her flock of sheep look more like Rockettes, as they sashay around the stage. They are a sight to behold, especially the black sheep, Leah Hassett.

Everyone’s favorite, though, may have been Jerald Bolden as the very-tall tap-dancing, picnic basket-stealing bear.

This show is certain to appeal to everyone. There is audience participation in the form of yelling out at certain times and waving hands in the air, and everyone loves the Prince’s search for the girl who will fit the glass slipper, as he goes through the audience trying it on several women and young girls.

With the opportunity to buy crowns in the lobby, everyone can feel part of the court, and after the show, the cast members line up for photos with people in the audience, particularly star-struck young children.

This is a fun way to share theater with children or grandchildren, with a show that has enough in-jokes and innuendo that adults enjoy it, too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Santaland Diaries

Crumpet would be the perfect elf for “Bad Santa.”
Crumpet is the name given to David Sedaris in his very funny “The Santaland Diaries,” now at Capital Stage, directed by Shannon Mahoney and starring Benjamin T. Ismail, who brings the proper blend of sardonic humor and outright sarcasm to the story.

Based on Sedaris’ experience working as an elf one Christmas at Macy’s Herald Square Santaland display, when he expected to be working on “One Life to Live” instead, Sedaris takes the audience through his interview process, “Elf Training” (using the very thick Elfin manual), and a tour of Santaland (“a real wonderland with ten thousand sparkling lights, false snow, train sets bridges, decorated trees, mechanical penguins and bears and really tall candy canes”).

He also learns about the “special areas” like the “Oh My God” corner, where parents can finally see Santa and realize how long it was going to take them to get to him, and the “Vomit Corner” where many kids throw up.

Next he is given his costume (designed by Mari Carson).

“My costume is green. I wear red-and-white striped tights, a yellow turtleneck, forest green velvet smock, and a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform,” he says wryly.
David realizes he’s not going to provide the bubbly enthusiasm of most other elves and that he probably will be a “low-key sort of elf.”

As Ismail progresses through this one-hour comedy, you appreciate his ability to make a special connection with the audience, his perfect comic timing and the agility that allows him to leap through the air with the grace of a ballet dancer.

Ismail may be better known as a director (most recently Capital Stage’s “August, Osage County”) but he also has an extensive acting résumé, everything from “Peter Pan” to “Tartuffe,” and is truly a jack of all trades.

This is not a show for children. Language and subject matter are inappropriate, to say nothing of revealing the whole Santa thing.

The show, written in 1992, was first read by Sedaris on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and nearly 25 years later parts of it seem as fresh as ever while, in these more politically correct days, description of disabled children and some minorities, while brief, will be offensive to some.

The set design by Justin D. Muñoz is indeed a real wonderland, which will cause gasps when revealed. It is complete with any toy a little one would want. (I watched Crumpet hugging a big floppy polar bear and wished for a cuddly Christmas bear myself!)

This is the third production of “The Santaland Diaries” I have seen in the past six years and I wondered how it would be on a third visit, but Ismail has made it as fresh and new was it was when I first saw it in 2009.

It’s a wonderful choice for anyone who wants to briefly get away from the militantly cheerful holiday shows to be found elsewhere.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A Christmas Story

There’s nothing better than a good story, beautifully written, except maybe that good story, beautifully written and perfectly narrated by the likes of the Woodland Opera House’s Rodger McDonald.

McDonald is the adult Ralph in Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story,” written with Leigh Brown and Bob Clark. It is a series of delightful Christmas vignettes from the life of Ralph Parker, looking back on the year when all he wanted was a “Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.”

The play itself was written by Philip Grecian and directed, in Woodland, by Steve Mackay. It is usually in everyone’s top five Christmas shows.

It takes us back to Hohman, Ind., in 1948, when life was simple, when kids didn’t have electronic gadgets to keep them occupied and actually played on the street (snow or no snow), when they still believed in Santa Claus, when Mom made meat loaf every night except for special occasions, and Dad was kind of inept, but loved his kids deeply. Ahh for the good old days!

Ralphie Parker (Jihan Moon) desperately wants his rifle and spends the entire play trying to give subtle and not-so-subtle hints that it’s the only thing he wants. Of course, everyone tells him he will shoot his eye out. Moon is great as that 10-year-old who lives in his own world, has his own gang of friends and a bully they finally manage to best.

(One of the most fun things about this play, I noticed this time and every time I have seen it, is how much fun the men in the audience have, obviously thinking back on their own childhoods and relating to Ralphie’s experiences.)

As Ralphie’s little brother Randy, Colton McClintock is cute as a button, with few lines to say, but says them repetitively. Randy spends most of his time hiding — in cupboards, behind clothes racks, etc. People just take it for granted that Randy is hiding somewhere and nobody thinks there is anything unusual about that.

Steve Cairns is “the Old Man,” Ralphie’s dad, who is nominally the head of the household, who never says anything profound and is a bumbling fixer of things, but obviously loves and is proud of his sons.

It really is Mother (Patricia Glass) who holds things together. She’s Beaver’s mother, Jim Anderson’s wife and Donna Reed all rolled into one. She runs the house quietly and efficiently, while all the time letting her husband think he’s in charge. She even supplies most of the answers to the quizzes the old man is forever entering, while letting him know how smart he is to have thought of the answer himself.

Ralphie’s friends are Flick (DJ Michel) and Schwartz (Brady Stephens) who act so natural you would think they didn’t realize they were on stage. Iris Harshaw made a big impact as Esther Jane Alberry, who has a crush on the embarrassed Ralphie.

Ryan Cristo has the unfortunate role of Scut Farkas, the town bully. Bigger than everyone, and not terribly bright, Scut lies in wait for Ralphie and his friends as they go to school. He finally gets his comeuppance at the hands of Esther Jane, cheered on by her friend Helen (Zoe Rosendale).

Nancy Farley plays the teacher Miss Shields who obviously can’t wait for Christmas vacation to start.

Set design is by Jason Hammond and is perfect for the Parker family home. The best effect of the evening is the “scene change” from inside the house to outside. It brought giggles every time.

The lighting design of John Bowles is key in this production and it is handled perfectly, along with the sound effects of barking dogs and other off-stage sounds.

But it is McDonald who holds it all together, his relaxed, homey style welcoming the audience into the story immediately, with the ease of Garrison Keillor taking us to Lake Wobegon.

This is a perfect family Christmas play and, based on how full the Opera House was on opening night, I suspect tickets will go quickly, so order yours as soon as possible.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Robin Hood

It was like walking into the real Sherwood forest to enter the small B Street Theatre. Not only was there a realistic forest on the stage, along with a quaint ivy-covered castle, but mylar leaves floated gently from the ceiling all over the theater. It was magical even before “Robin Hood” began.

The tales of Robin Hood have been with us since the 14th century, but they were oral tales, spoken or sung as ballads, played as games, or presented as plays to groups throughout the centuries. So we have no idea who originated the tales, or when they began.

In the 18th century, Joseph Ritson collected five centuries of stories and published them, putting them in some sequential order.

“The Tales of Robin Hood,” now part of B Street’s Family Series, was adapted by playwright Greg Banks from the 1956 book, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” by British author Roger Lancelyn Green. “Robin Hood” received its world premiere at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis in its 2010-2011 season and subsequent productions in other children’s theaters around the country have been sell-out hits.

The B Street play covers five of Green’s stories, woven together into one 45-minute act, directed by Jerry Montoya. It is performed by five talented actors, each of whom plays more than one role, except Darek Riley, who is Robin throughout, and a handsome hero he is.

Fiona Robberson is a winsome Maid Marian (and also, early in the play, her father Much). No shrinking violet, this Marian is a worthy consort of Robin.

Stephanie Althoz is a member of the ensemble, and also plays Friar Tuck. This Friar is not the roly poly Disney-esque Tuck, but more an active member of the merry men.

Winston Koone is the man you love to hate as the Sheriff of Nottingham. He didn’t get booed, but he should have been!

Sean Patrick Nill does quadruple duty as Prince John, Will Scarlet, a soldier, and Little John. He’s probably the smallest “Little John” I’ve seen, though he is not by any stretch of the imagination “little.”

This show is captivating for children of all ages, and fun for the adults too. There is lots of action, with men swinging from trees, big bows and arrows, great sword fights and a little bit of interaction with the children in the audience, who beamed when chosen to shoot one of the invisible arrows from a bow.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Christmas Carol

It’s hard to imagine what the dour-faced Charles Dickens would think of Buck Busfield’s adaptation of his beloved holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol,” but it’s clear that the audience loved it.

This might more appropriately be titled “Buck Busfield’s A Christmas Carol.” Busfield wrote this version last year for B Street’s little theater, but it has been expanded this year to the larger stage and I think it benefits from having greater space in which to work.

The premise, curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge (Greg Alexander) explains to the audience, is that it’s been 173 years since the story was first penned (as a short story) and he’s been redeemed by hundreds of theaters all over the world every Christmas season and he’s just tired of it. He pooh-poohs the various scenarios he knows so well — Jacob Marley, the spirits, Fezziwig’s shop, Cratchit’s family, yada yada yada.

This year he has a plan to resist it all. He’s going to drink lots and lots of tea and won’t fall asleep, so the spirits can’t come to wake him.

Alexander is assisted by four of B Street’s top actors — John Lamb, Amy Kelly, Kurt Johnson and Tara Sissom — who play all the other characters in the show, and you have to imagine that it looks like “Noises Off” backstage, with so many complicated, quick costume changes.

Director Dave Pierini starts off things off slowly and then the action begins to pick up with the fabulous arrival of Jacob Marley’s ghost and continues forward at an accelerated pace until the zany “intervention” by all of the characters, popping through the many doors at the back of the stage.
It kept the audience howling all through the 90-minute, two-act play.

It seems that though Scrooge does what he can to avoid the story, the characters come unbidden and tell the story anyway. And what gems these characterizations are. Lamb has a particularly difficult time as an accident-prone messenger. He also plays Tiny Tim, shocked at learning of his presumptive fate.

Johnson’s Marley is humorously frightening, and he steps into other roles as well.

Kelly and Sissom start out as two male almsmen, soliciting funds for the poor, and then play many other male and female characters throughout the show. It’s difficult to decide which was the funniest.
Both are top comediennes, though I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Kelly’s ability to transform herself into just about anything of any size, species or gender that she wants — a talent put to good use in this production.

Sissom is always wonderful, especially with the less-than-brilliant characters who are trying to figure life out.

But both are gems, as are their male counterparts.

The center of the action, however, is Alexander, who is bewitched, bothered and bemused as well as adamant as to his wishes, none of which is respected. Alexander is a comedian of the first order and Busfield’s Scrooge is a perfect fit.

Once again, Busfield has given the community something to laugh at (which we sorely need these days), and a loving, albeit twisted, reminder of a beloved holiday classic.

Friday, November 18, 2016

A Christmas Carol

There are so many actors in the Winters Theatre Company’s production of “A Christmas Carol” that it’s a wonder there are enough residents of Winters left to fill the theater.

Forty-two characters are listed in the program, though a few actors play more than one role. Still, at the final curtain, there are an awful lot of people crowded together on the stage for a bow.
This delightful multi-media production, directed by Jesse Akers, is an adaptation of the screenplay for Alistair Sim’s 1951 movie version of the Dickens classic.

The set for this show is designed by Akers and Gary Schroeder and is humongous, stretching from wall to wall in the Winters Community Center and taking up a spot in the middle of the audience as well. Walls move in and out and it’s really quite remarkable. It is, sadly, one of the weak spots of this show that so many scene changes move so slowly.

Costumes by Heather Collins are particularly attractive, and I was pleased to see that every piece was crisply ironed.

In the role of everyone’s favorite curmudgeon is Trent Beeby, a longtime Winters favorite, reprising his role from 2008. He bellows and blusters, yet quivers in the face of the ghosts who visit him. He’s particularly engaging after his “redemption.”

Robert Payawal is Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit, trying to support his large family (including the very well-behaved baby carried by wife Sarah Hinojosa through many of her scenes). Payawal gives a strong performance, as does Manny Lanzaro as Scrooge’s militantly cheerful nephew, trying to bring the spirit of the holiday to his grumpy uncle.

We all know the story. Scrooge is visited by his old dead partner Jacob Marley (Scott Graff) who comes to warn him about the path he is following and save him from the hell that Marley himself is enduring, a threat Scrooge believes is humbug.

First comes the ghost of Christmas Past, Germaine Hupe, looking celestial in her white gown and white hair. It’s a role made for Hupe and she performs it beautifully.

In the past, Scrooge meets his former self (Tyler Tufts) and his beloved sister Fan (who does not seem to have a program listing). He falls in love with Alice (Alexis Velasquez), the love of his life, a relationship that comes to an end due to his preoccupation with business, thanks to the mentorship of Mr. Jorkin (Brad Haney), whom he ruins on his way up. Haney gives one of the stronger performances among the minor players.

At intermission, a choral group sings a few a cappella Christmas carols, led off by 7-year-old Lilac Buckser, who has such a clear and clean voice. She also plays Belinda Cratchit and the young boy at the end of the show who runs an errand for Scrooge. Buckser is adorable and a real stage kid. She will be fun to watch as she gets older, if she continues with the company.

Other beautiful solos are given by Alexis Velasquez and Christian Duran (who also plays Peter Cratchit).

As Act 2 starts, Chris Thaiss makes an overpowering Ghost of Christmas Present, showing Scrooge the realities of the town in which he lives. I think there was a mixup in the action when the set for the miners of the town opened and showed a blank stage.

But Scrooge is moved by the plight of his clerk and the tug on his heartstrings begins when he watches young Tiny Tim (Kenneth Matheson).

The always-reliable Dona Akers plays Mrs. Dilber, servant for both Marley and Scrooge. Scenes are always in good hands when Akers performs.

Scott Graf is back as the faceless, voiceless Ghost of Christmas Future, draped all in black, who is the straw that broke the camel’s back for Scrooge’s scroogeness and makes him embrace the joy of the holiday and become a benefactor to the Cratchit family.

At the conclusion of the show, Buckser and Ava Back (Mary Cratchit) stand at the door with baskets for donations to help the poor of Winters through the holidays.

God bless us, every one!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Trojan Women

Greek playwright Euripides wrote ‘Trojan Women’ in 415 B.C.; it has been updated several times, including a 1993 version by Irish playwright Brendan Kennelly.

The current UC Davis department of theater and dance production is directed by Kirsten Brandt, current Granada artist-in-residence. It is a good bet that none of these people anticipated the chaos that has gripped this country for the past year, especially where it concerns women’s issues.

Euripides’ women, following the end of the Peloponnesian War, have traditionally been seen as passive victims at the mercy of their Greek male conquerors. However, this version by Kennelly sees them as feminists who, despite the terrible conditions of their imprisonment, manage to support each other and keep their dignity. It examines the nature of women and their strength individually, and especially when supporting each other.

(You can almost hear William Wallace shouting, “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take … OUR FREEDOM!”)

Heading the marvelous cast of actors is Danika Sudik in an awesome portrayal of Hecuba, Queen of Troy. Sudik must lose a couple of pounds with each performance just from the intensity of her monologue deliveries. She is a force to be reckoned with, as is her character.

Rose Kim is her daughter, Cassandra, raped by Ajax, driven mad by her visions of the future and carted away to become the concubine of Agamemnon.

Andromache also was given an intense performance by Kelly Tappan. To Talthybius (Brandon Thomas) falls the task of warning Andromache that her son Astyanax will be killed so that he cannot grow up to avenge his father’s death.

Astyanax has a non-speaking role but 5-year-old Bodan Burmester, from the local Burmester theater dynasty, was amazing, especially lying “dead” on stage for a longer time than most of us could remain motionless. He was very professional.

The women share their collective grief and suffering through exchanging memories and song.
There is a duplicity in the agony of the women when it comes to Helen (Jennifer Vega), whom they blame for all of their sufferings; she is assaulted with hateful speech by all of the women. The feminist bond, it seems, does not extend to include every woman affected by the conditions.
Overseeing the proceedings are the gods Poseidon (Lucas Hatton) and Athena (Caitlin Sales).

“We may like to believe we have come a long way since Euripides’ time,” says director Brandt, “but the presidential election has unmasked deeply embedded misogyny, racism and xenophobia in this country.” She hopes that this production, set in “the not too distant future,” will be a cautionary tale.


The lyrics to “Anthem,” the signature song from “Chess” — written by Sir Tim Rice, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson — have been running through my head ever since opening night:

No man, no madness
Though their sad power may prevail
Can possess, conquer, my country’s heart
They rise to fail

Though the lyrics are sung by a Russian chess champion about love of his home country, somehow it seems appropriate to sing in this country right now.

In 1980, lyricist Rice developed the concept for this musical in a five-page synopsis, exploring how the Cold War affected the lives it touched, much the same way chess pieces are moved about on a chess board.

Rice’s synopsis was expanded and, with music written by Andersson and Ulvaeus (both of ABBA), was first recorded as a “concept album” in 1984. The first staged production did not occur until 1986. There have been several rewrites, including an ill-fated three-hour production that ran for only 68 performances on Broadway.

Now this powerful show returns to the Davis Musical Theatre Company stage for the third time (having been seen before in 2000 and 2011).

The first thing to notice on entering the theater is the striking black-and-white chessboard that covers the whole stage. Various scenes will take place on the board while other characters, dressed in subtle chess character costumes, walk back and forth as if moving in a game. Set and lighting design are by Steve Isaacson, who also directs the production.

The story was inspired by the games of Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer — two chess grandmasters meeting for two different matches, one in Bangkok and the other in Hungary, during the waning days of the Cold war. It is a show about games — the game of chess, of course, but also mind games, political games, war games and romantic games … and about the woman who manages one of them and falls in love with the other.

The Russian champion is Anatoly Sergievsky. Coury Murdock, who sadly had some vocal problems on opening night, gave a powerful performance as the tormented Russian who defects from the Soviet Union, taking with him his opponent’s manager, with whom he has fallen in love. It was a shame that he had to sing his big number, “Anthem” in a suit with pants too long for him. I didn’t want that to be a distraction, but it was.

The American champion is Freddie Trumper (Scott Scholes), a narcissist and an obnoxious jerk, who can’t seem to get along with anyone, and throws temper tantrums when things don’t go his way. Scholes has a nice swagger and presents the personality of a spoiled brat. It’s no wonder Florence, his manager, grows weary of him. Freddie’s big moment comes when he tells his life story (“Pity the Child”) and Scholes nails all of the emotion in the song.

Ashley Marie Holm is a sympathetic Florence, attempting to tame the untamable Freddie and finally growing weary of it. In Act 2 she has a heartbreaking duet with Anatoly’s wife Svetlana (Chris Cay Stewart), in which each women admits that no one woman can satisfy all of Anatoly’s needs, no matter how much she loves him (“I Know Him So Well”).

(It should be mentioned that the plot of this show sometimes seems a bit convoluted, as if major events happen between scenes and never quite make it into the scenes themselves.)

Don Draughon has a small role as Florence’s father (with the adorable Gillian Cubbage as the young Florence), explaining the game of chess to her before she is sent off to America for her own safety. His “History of Chess,” tells its story from the game’s birth in Persia, to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, to the modern-day game.

Also notable in this fine cast are Adriel Cruz as the Arbitrator, making certain that everything in the games run smoothly.

Freddie’s press agent Walter is portrayed by Joel Porter, while the KGB agent Molokov is Scott Minor.

The musical director is Jonathan Rothman, and choreography for this production is by Ron Cisneros, who does especially fine work in the fun “One Night in Bangkok.”

While none of the characters in this play are particularly sympathetic, all are pawns in this game of “Chess” … and the finale scene is a real tear-jerker.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

I Ought To Be in Pictures

Neil Simon has written more than 30 plays and has received more Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer.

“I Ought to Be in Pictures,” now on the Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock Stage, may not be one of Simon’s better plays, but in the right hands, it can be a funny, sweet story. Fortunately, STC has the right hands.

Start with Kate Brugger, who plays Libby, daughter of has-been Hollywood writer Herb Tucker (Eric Wheeler). Brugger alternates in this role with Fiona Ross. Both actresses are members of STC’s Young Professionals Company.

Libby arrives, unannounced, at Herb’s home. She’s 19 years old and has not seen or heard from her father in 16 years, since he left her, her mother and brother in New York. But she knows he’s a writer and expects him to introduce her to people who can get her into the movies, because she knows she is destined to become a star.

Brugger is mesmerizing. She has a self-confidence and a bravado from her first lines. She is in charge of the stage. Yet she can be naive and vulnerable, and as her relationship with her father progresses, she is able to let that vulnerability peek through, while not letting go of the brittle shield that is her protection.

What Libby finds on her arrival in Hollywood is not what she imagined. She pictured her father living in some luxury home surrounded by famous friends. Instead, he’s in a seedy rented bungalow, in the chaos of a life going disappointingly wrong, suffering from long-term writer’s block. After three failed marriages, he is afraid of commitment, though he seems to lavish all of his love on his two citrus trees, of which he is inordinately proud.

Wheeler, perhaps more familiar for his comedic roles, ultimately settles into the role of Herb and makes the chemistry between the two actors beautiful, though his early scenes were a bit too over the top. But the evolution from disinterested father to concerned father is beautiful to watch. He’s never been a father, but he wants to try, even if he sometimes screws up. He comfortably walks the fine line between comedy and drama.

The third character in this show is Natasha Hause, as Steffy, Herb’s kinda/sorta girlfriend, though she would like to make it a bit more permanent. Steffy becomes a buffer between Herb and Libby, calming him down and getting him to give the girl a chance, then supporting her when she becomes frustrated with her father’s lack of response and convincing her to give him a chance.

Hause is a lovely calming influence, not taking over the stage, but always there is a presence when needed.

“I Ought to be in Pictures” is the story of a dysfunctional family and the girl determined to fix things. There is anger, confusion, frustration, but also camaraderie, love … and ultimately redemption.

Life for none of the three characters is what they dreamed it would be, but they manage to make reality work for them.

Director Bill Zarriello keeps the action crisp, which is essential in this play and allows the comedy to come from the natural flow of dialog rather than hitting the audience over the head with lines that he wants them to know are funny.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Prime Time for the Holidays

The bowl of Halloween candy hasn’t even been emptied yet and I’ve already seen my first Christmas play.

The Woodland Opera House’s “Prime Time for the Holidays,” isn’t exactly a Christmas play, but it does have a Christmas theme and re-arranged Christmas carols. (The Family Series will be presenting “The Christmas Story” starting Dec. 2.)

The play is the first produced play for longtime Opera House actor and director Bob Cooner, who also directs with Matthew Abergel. The inspiration for the show was Cooner’s love of prime-time sitcoms of the 1960s and ’70s.

While it is mildly amusing, this comedy itself is not quite ready for prime time. The idea and the elements are all there, but lines often fall flat and there is little laughter from the audience. It is entertaining, but just not knee-slapping funny.

Cooner’s cast is just about unanimously excellent and it is a shame that they don’t have better material to work with.

Cookie Simms (Kristen Wagner) and Ray Gardner (Scott Martin) are America’s favorite TV couple and their variety show celebrates their seemingly perfect marriage, though in real life they have not lived together in months since Ray fell in love with his therapist Amanda Schoenfeld (Patricia Glass).

Cookie’s best friend Barbara (Deborah Hammond) is encouraging her to serve the divorce papers she has filled out on Ray, though she can’t quite bring herself to do that.

The TV show is in trouble because someone accidentally erased the tape of this week’s show and the producer (Jason Hammond) gets the idea to do a reality broadcast, a Christmas show from the couple’s home, which is going to be difficult since the two of them can barely speak to each other.

But it must be done, or their sponsor has threatened to remove not only sponsorship of their program, but of all the network programs.

There are lots of slapstick moments, some that work and some that don’t, and some that are just dumb — like nobody thinks to tell the sponsor, Mason Montgomery (Steve Cairns), that he shouldn’t flush the toilet or walk onto the set during filming? Nobody warns anybody that if they walk back and forth in back of the set (or conduct a fistfight there) it will be broadcast?

The character who perhaps is the funniest and gets the biggest laughs is Gil Sebastian as the washed-up comedian Bernie Marks. Marks is confused, but he’s a trouper who can toss out old jokes professionally, jokes that the audience (including the one in the Opera House) have known for years. Sebastian, in his befuddled-ness, does bring a spark of life to an otherwise bald and unconvincing plot.

There are funny opportunities missed, like Cookie’s desperate search for a cigarette, which seems to be forgotten when the sponsor, a tobacco company representative smoking a cigarette, comes onto the stage. There is no reaction from Cookie until much later.

But, as I said, the actors are excellent. Both Wagner and Martin are likeable and it’s easy to see how they became America’s sweethearts.

Deborah Hammond again gives a memorable performance, as Cookie’s friend, mistaken by Montgomery as the maid. Cairns gives one of the strongest performances in the show, though his character’s continual racist comments are more irritating than funny, but Deborah Hammond makes them funny by her reaction.

Jason Hammond is full of bluster and anger and a perfect producer, trying to make his stars do what he wants them to do.

Patricia Glass’ character as the “man-stealing psychoanalyst” is just annoying. Glass does well creating a stereotypical uptight analyst, but spends most of her time being pushed into another room or giving boring lectures analyzing behavior of one or the other characters. She, too, is completely unaware of when she is and is not on live camera.

Daniel Silva as Chip Gardner, Cookie and Ray’s college-age son, gives a laconic performance when he’s home from school and caught in the middle of his parents’ marital problems. He comes into his own when paired with guest star Lesley Lyle (Kristen Myers), a fiery singer/dancer apparently more interested in making out with Chip than in performing. Myers, tossing her Britney Spears-like hair around, is great fun to watch.

A small band — consisting of Chris Schlagel, Cassandra Brokken and Jim Nakayama — accompanies the cast in singing several Christmas songs, none of which is performed in any way that will sound familiar.

This is a mildly enjoyable, though not outstanding, first effort by Cooner. It probably will appeal more to older audiences than younger ones.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

August: Osage County

There is a family dinner. A casserole gets dropped. Chaos ensues until someone says “It’s not a party until someone spills something.”

A lot gets spilled in Capital Stage’s production of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” directed by Benjamin T. Ismail.

Someone spills a casserole, someone drops a luncheon plate, others spill the beans. Many times. This very dark comedy about a warring Oklahoma family makes George and Martha (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”) look like they just had a little spat

There is a reason why this play won every major theatrical award when it opened on Broadway — including the Pulitzer Prize for drama — and why the notoriously cantankerous Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called it “without qualification, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.”

Director Ismail has the cream of the crop for a cast, starting with the always wonderful Janis Stevens as Violet Weston, the pill-popping matriarch of a dysfunctional family who have gathered together because father Beverly Weston (Rich Hebert) has disappeared.

It is a shame that Hebert’s role as the grizzled, depressed, bourbon-guzzling former-professor-now-wannabe-poet is so small because his performance is stellar and makes you want more.

The Westons have three daughters: Barbara (Amy Resnick), Ivy (Taylor Burris) and Karen (Dena Martinez). Barbara and Karen have gone off and made a life for themselves, leaving the unmarried Ivy to stay home and take care of their aging parents. Her mother is particularly cruel to her, taunting her for her appearance and pushing her to put on make-up, dress up, get out and find herself a man.

Burris walks the line between wimp who has endured her mother’s verbal abuse all of her life, and a woman hiding a secret that may make her the strongest of all the Weston girls.

Barbara arrives with husband Bill (Rick Eldridge), from whom she is separated (one of the secrets spilled fairly early in the play) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Jessica Brooks). While Brooks seems older than 14, she is able to play the stereotypical ornery and hormone-driven teenager to perfection.

Martinez is Karen, the flighty daughter, who hasn’t been home in a very long time, not even when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She arrives in time for her father’s funeral, but is more excited about her life, her fiancé Steve (William Glasser) and their approaching nuptials as well as her dream honeymoon in Belize.

Jamie Jones is the perfect choice for Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, whose husband Charlie (Harvey T. Jordan) worshipped his brother-in-law and is having a difficult time adjusting to his new role as family patriarch.
Their son, Little Charles, as played by Justin D. Muñoz, seems to have limited intelligence and is painfully shy, but is hiding a secret that will change lives.

Chiitaanibah Johnson plays Johnna, a Native American whom Beverly hires before his death to help care for his wife. Sadly, Johnson is the only member of the cast who has projection problems. Her early scenes, played very close to where I was sitting, were impossible to understand because she spoke so softly. Since she has a major impact on the family, it is good that she has few actual lines.

The cast is rounded out by Tim Church as Sheriff Dean Gibeau, all grown up now, but formerly Barbara’s high school prom date. Will sparks fly at their reunion?

The set, designed by Jonathan Williams, is huge, complicated and mobile. Rooms move in and out, allowing stage hands to change one scene unobtrusively while another is played out on another part of the stage.

This play is full of drinking, pill-popping, dope-smoking, cursing, infidelity, incest, lechery, suicide and one good slugfest, yet you feel invested in these people and care about them. Ismail’s direction honors Letts’ script and this is a gem of a production.

Best of all, after spending three hours with the Westons, your own family won’t seem quite so irritating when gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Impromptu at Versailles

Before the performance began for Molière’s “The Impromptu at Versailles” at the Pence Gallery, Timothy Nutter, director of this Art Theater of Davis production, explained to the audience that in his youth he had performed with Acme Theatre Company on the Pence Gallery outdoor stage. And when the remodeling of the gallery made that space no longer usable for performances and Acme moved to the Davis Arts Center, it had been his dream to bring theater back to the Pence.

He has finally done that (and moved it indoors where it is warmer … and you can’t hear the passing trains!). It’s the perfect venue for this company.

While this 45-minute, one-act comedy is delightful, an immediate problem is that while the program lists the character names and actor names, the script (adapted by Nutter) gives little clue as to who is who. I spent a good deal of the time frantically trying to figure out which actor was playing which role.

For those still planning to see this play, let me make it easier for you:

It was obvious that Shane Osterhoudt was Molière and his wife (Mlle Molière) was played by Kate Bellock. I also was ahead of the game because I knew that the actress in the red beret was Scarlet O’Connor, playing Brecourt, because the gentleman sitting next to me was her next-door neighbor.
Molière finally called De La Grange by name and so I knew that he was played by Kevin Toole, which, by process of elimination meant that the tall character was Du Croisy, played by Adam Siegel. (The character La Thorilliere — played by Juan Miranda — entered late, so there was no question about who he was.)

That left three women unidentified until Mlle DeBrie was called to the stage by name and I could see that the slender actress who played her was Morgan Smith, the only woman not in black.

Eventually, I thought I heard Mlle Du Parc mentioned, and discovered that Jennifer McSpadden, the actress wearing pearls, played the role, which meant that Christina Schiesari must be Mlle Bejart, the character with the blue fan.

In the 17th century there was a battle between two competing theater companies in Paris, one led by Molière. Each company produced plays intended to glorify their own productions and actors while at the same time poking fun at the other company. (Think presidential debate!)

This play, Molière’s final act to the dispute, is a play commenting on the reviews of a play commenting on the criticism of the original play. The actors and playwright go through the process writing of a play, which they are to perform at the order of King Louis XIV, but the process of writing the play is the play.

In Molière’s original, he satirized three of his most famous plays. In this adaptation by Nutter, the plays being satirized are those performed by the Art Theater of Davis itself.

“In our version, the actors quote and satirize plays ATD has produced in the past three years and satirize the acting style of ATD,” Nutter says. “As Molière satirically turned his play back on himself and his actors, we are turning this play back on ourselves and our acting at the Art Theater.”

The strength of ATD has always been the quality of its actors, and “The Impromptu” is no exception. From Osterhoudt’s mercurial temperament as Molière to the sexuality of Bellock as his wife, to the arguments led by McSpadden and Schiesari as Mlles Du Parc and Bejart, everyone gives impassioned performances, though occasionally the cross talk and disagreements among the whole cast make it difficult to understand specific dialog. But the comedy is often slapstick and very funny.

A plain stage surrounded by the paintings of the Pence Gallery’s “Forgery Show” — featuring revised, updated versions of masterworks like “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “The Goldfinch” — created the appropriate atmosphere for all the behind-the-scenes squabbling

The Oct. 29 performance at 2 p.m. will feature music by the Sacramento Baroque Soloists, including dance music by Lully, with whom Molière collaborated on entertainment for the king.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Pirates of Penzance

From left, Charlie Baad, Anthony Tavianini and Lisa Derthick perform in Light Opera Theatre of
Sacramento's production of “The Pirates of Penzance,”
running through Sunday, Oct. 23. Chris Baad/Courtesy photo

 Anyone who has attended the Citizens Who Care winter concerts may recognize Lisa Derthick, who has performed in them for several years, in the current production of “The Pirates of Penzance” at Light Opera Theatre of Sacramento. She plays Ruth, the nursemaid whose misunderstanding of her master’s request got her young charge Frederic (Anthony Tavianini) apprenticed to a pirate instead of a pilot.

This is a sparkling production, directed by Robert Vann, with an orchestra under the direction of Troy Turpen keeping a sprightly tempo that keeps the show moving at all times.

Though the sets are modest, the talent definitely is not. From the robust men’s chorus (unusual in a community theater) to the delightful women’s chorus (Rhonda L. Thomas also has performed in Citizens Who Care concerts). They skip onto the stage twirling pastel umbrellas and doing intricate choreography and never once got tangled up.

The first act finale, “Hail Poetry,” sung a cappella by the entire cast, sent a chill down the spine.
As Major General Stanley, Mike Baad (a Light Opera Theatre of Sacramento producer) displays the talent he has honed for more than 60 years of playing Gilbert & Sullivan patter roles, many with the Davis Comic Opera Company in the 1970s. Baad’s Major General is full of bluff and bluster and he sings his signature “Modern Major General” at a fast clip, and then the last verse in double time with crystal-clear diction.

Charlie Baad is the robust Pirate King, usually everyone’s favorite, the situation in this production as well. He was undeniably in charge of things, alternately stern and soft.

Derthick’s Ruth was a demure, middle-aged woman in Act 1 and by Act 2 was a brazen hussy resplendent in her leather pants, tight bodice and fly-away frizzy hair. The trio performance of “Away, away! My heart’s on fire!” with the Pirate King and Frederick was excellent.

Carley Neill’s Mabel was glorious, with a strong voice that fills the theater. Her interaction with Frederic was tender and loving.

Tavianini was a tall and stately Frederic, an innocent finally out of his indentures and able to take his revenge on the pirates who have been his “brothers” for most of his life, but whose profession he abhors.

The character of Samuel, second in command to the Pirate King, is usually an also-ran in most productions, but Kevin Branson makes the role his own and there is no ignoring him.

The only “off” part of this production was the addition of the character of the governess (Meredyth Rosenberg), who served no real purpose on the stage and stuck out like a sore thumb most of the time. If nothing else, she added to the richness of the chorus, but her dark costume clashed with the pastels of the girls and it just didn’t work.

This is an engaging production that belies its modest setting. It is sure to delight the most discerning of Gilbert & Sullivan aficionados.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Rikki Tikki Tavi

From left, Anastasia Bonaccorso as Darzee and Catherine Gloria as Rikki Tikki Tavi delight all ages with their performances in the B Street Theatre Family Series’ “The Garden of Rikki Tikki Tavi.” Rudy Meyers/Courtesy photo

One way to judge the quality of a production performed for children is to check the reaction of the children in the audience.

By that criterion, the B Street Family Series’ new “The Garden of Rikki Tikki Tavi” adapted from a Rudyard Kipling story by Y York is an unmitigated success.

Checking the children around me, I saw a boy of about 3 in his mother’s lap, riveted to the action. An older boy behind him jumped up and down in glee during a chase scene. Children sitting on the side of the stage sat in rapt attention and applauded enthusiastically.

What’s not to like? It starts with the sumptuous colorful set of an East Indian garden by Samantha Reno. It has multi levels, and interesting things everywhere — plants, rocks, etc. — to engage a child’s attention.

The one-act show also has a lot of good messages about sharing and cooperation, with some information about eating good food, endangered species and simple etiquette, all in a format that does not sound like teaching at all.

The weekend I saw the show, director Lyndsay Burch stepped into the role of Darzee, the tailor bird who claims the garden as her own. (The role is normally played by Anastasia Bonaccorso). Burch was vain and haughty and protective of things that she considered hers and sings a song “Mine, Mine, Mine.” She also established a nice rapport with the children in the audience before the show started.

Into Darzee’s own private paradise bounces Rikki Tikki (Catherine Gloria), a young mongoose who will earn his “Tavi” when he grows up. Gloria is absolutely adorable. Rikki is a bundle of exploding energy, oblivious to anything but joy and happiness in his world, and trying to find a home for himself. The children love his wide-eyed innocence, even as he continues to commit breaches of tailor bird etiquette and exasperate Darzee.

The young mongoose is adopted by Teddy, a young boy played by adult John Lamb. (Lamb later returns as a cobra and is able to create two such different characters, that children are probably hard-pressed to realize it is the same actor in both roles, especially when a very quick costume change is involved.) Teddy is delighted to have a pet, which, he explains, keeps him from being at the bottom of the family food chain.

Amy Kelly is also on hand as Chuchu, the muskrat (very particular that people remember the “musk” part of her name). Kelly is irresistible, with her muskrat overbite. She establishes a friendship with Rikki and teaches him about the dangers of Nag, the feared cobra.

Lamb’s cobra slithers onto the stage in a very believable snake-like fashion, first to hide her eggs and later to do battle with Rikki Tikki, who earns his ”Tavi” in his dealings with Nag.

This is a show that even young children will love, and yet there is enough sophistication that adults will find it enjoyable as well.

The B Street Theatre’s Family Series is California’s only fully professional, resident theater for children. It has made it its mission to introduce children to the wonder of professional theater through the production of original plays and original adaptations of works of literature. Since its first season in 2003, it has presented more than 50 plays for approximately 300,000 children and families.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Romeo and Juliet

The final production of the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s 2016 Shakespeare Festival is the beloved “Romeo and Juliet,” the show that launched the company in 2011. As with the two previous productions, “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Bells are Ringing,” this production continues the level of excellence that we have come to expect from this company.

Director Rob Salas explains that the company decided to look to the ancient practice of forming a story circle, and so there is a blank stage with chairs in a semi-circle with some random wooden pieces stacked in back and the one necessary set piece — a rough-hewn balcony off to the side. As each scene ends, the players take their seats again and the next players come up to do the next scene.

The device is surprisingly effective — and works especially well during the sword fights (choreographed by Sydney Schwindt), where the men have the entire stage at their disposal and look quite professional wielding their swords and daggers.

It’s a dream cast. Gabby Battista is a beautiful Juliet, whose face registers every emotion she feels, especially as she tries to balance her grief over the slaying of cousin Tybalt and the banishment of her secret husband, Romeo. She’s both delicate and strong at the same time.

Kyle Stoner’s Romeo is a bundle of pubertal energy, raging hormones first for the lovely Rosaline, and then instant switch to the lovelier Juliet. (It always amazes me that these two young teenagers meet, fall in love, marry and die within two days!) Stoner’s emotions are full out, whether expressing his love of Juliet or his despair at learning he has been banished from Verona.

Even if the rest of the cast weren’t excellent (and they are), this show would be worth seeing if only for the performance of Gail Dartez as Juliet’s nurse. Everyone should have a devoted servant like this. She can be very funny, or very emotional, first keeping Juliet’s secret, and then discovering her supposedly dead body. She is Juliet’s best friend and confidante and brings comic relief to the story with her often inappropriate and long-winded comments..

The Hatfield-McCoy-like warring families are led by Tim Gaffaney (Capulet) and Will Oberholtzer (Montague). Oberholtzer also plays Friar Laurence, a meatier role than that of Juliet’s father, as he hopes that by secretly marrying the two lovers, he can bring peace to the Capulet and Montague families.

Lisa Halko, a grandmother in real life, so the oldest in the cast, is a marvelous Lady Capulet. She doesn’t quite know how to be a mother to the daughter she entrusted to a wet-nurse at birth, but she is very interested in the match her husband has arranged with Paris, a kinsman of the prince.

Kevin Gish as Paris at first seems a good match for Juliet , but his imperious and demanding attitude quickly shows his true character and you can easily see that she will become an abused wife if the marriage takes place.

Costumes for this production are by Caitlin Cisek and Karly Goodwin. With all that black leather, it looks like they bounced right out of “West Side Story,” and it is both sinister and regal, sometimes simultaneously.

The plan for this play by Davis Shakespeare Ensemble is to make the production accessible to high school students, so they are making it a field trip destination for many schools all over Yolo and Sacramento counties.

The appeal to a younger audience is the only excuse I can find for the abominable background “music” you might call it. The pre-show “music” was so loud and ear-shattering that it gave me a headache, but the single-note fuzzy synthesizer background, sometimes with added ominous unintelligible voices, was so irritating it nearly spoiled this otherwise wonderful production.

It also seemed random. Sometimes it was unrelenting. Sometimes it stopped for certain soliloquies (thank goodness the balcony scene was unsullied!). Sometimes it kept going over the dialog of a special scene and stopped midway through. Sometimes it was louder than other times. It was always annoying.

I hoped for relief at intermission, but it continued all through intermission as well. I guess it was supposed to keep the gloomy mood going. I checked with people around me, all of whom were in my age range. One woman didn’t mind it, but everyone else hated it. I don’t know if the fault is with sound designer Adam Smith or if the decision was made by someone else and simply executed by Smith, but whatever, it is not something that is likely to appeal to the over-50 crowd.

Were it not for the music, or whatever it was, this production would receive an A-plus.

Gospel According to First Squad

“Gospel According to First Squad” is the latest play in Tom Burmeser’s “War Cycle,” a cycle that began with “Wounded” (about soldiers who were wounded in the Iraq war) and “Survived” (dealing with a family’s grief at the death of their soldier son).

“Gospel” gets closer to the action, as Burmester and his ensemble realized they had not investigated actual battle and what happens to those soldiers, in this case, at an outpost in the “Valley of Death,” the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.

A platoon of six soldiers and their Afghani interpreter await transfer back to the United States. The men are testosterone-infused, sex-starved and hungry to return home. They each have hair-trigger tempers and fights break out over many things. One particularly violent fight involves everyone, and the choreography by Chad Fisk makes it all look marvelously realistic.
But they also are a real band of brothers, and their concern for each other matches their anger at each other.

A new soldier, Gabriel, joins the platoon, filled with religious zeal, a determination to spread the word of God to the natives (which is strictly against rules), and eager to share his knowledge of God and the Bible with his fellow soldiers, none of whom have the slightest interest in listening to him.
If there is one problem with this production is that it is difficult to figure out who is who and which actor is playing which role (probably only important for a critic, not for the enjoyment of the audience). The men usually do not call each other by name, and they’re all dressed alike and have similar haircuts. Though their names are sewn to their shirts, they usually wear flak jackets that cover those names.

Rather than be wrong in identifying an actor, I will state that Jarrel Ramos is Lt. Dela Cruz, a photographer for a hearing that takes place at the start of the play. Caitlin Sales is Capt. McCasus, who is heading the investigation, Edward Gorman is Sgt. Taylor, David d’Olimpio is Capt. Raasch, Taylor Church is Pfc. Gehrman, Ryan Geberding is Pfc. Wright, Josh Hazeghazam is Pfc. Jackson and Monte Misa is Doc Brooks, the combat medic.

Borair Elyacy is the platoon interpreter, hoping to escape to America when the platoon leaves.
Act 1 of this two-act play takes place in camp where emotions run high and tempers clash. Wright receives bad news, which sends him into a tailspin that makes him fodder for the proselytizing of Gabriel.

There are a couple of spots in the action that border on preaching on topics about which we have heard preaching many times, but mostly the realism of the teasing, the flare-ups, the anger and the disappointments ring very true, and are an acknowledgment of the conversations Burmester and director Danika Sudik had with soldiers who had been in combat and shared their stories.

The dialog is not pretty, nor is it meant to be. Anyone offended by negative expressions or raw language will not be comfortable, but to pretty it up would be to do an injustice to the men this play honors.

In an interview, Burmester pointed out that “The guys are deployed in a very remote location. One of the things that stuck with me was that the farther away you are from the generals and the colonels, the more out in the field you are, there’s more of a sense of omnipotence. A gun gives you power. There’s more of a sense of not needing to adhere to rules, but being the ones that make the rules.”
Act 2 is a much shorter act, which takes place following an interaction with the enemy. It is brutal, bloody and shocking, but necessary to present the whole scope of the experience.

When Burmester set out to write his “War Cycle” his goal was to concentrate on the “overlooked,” the injured, the survivors and now the actual soldiers in combat. With “Gospel” he has given us very realistic glimpse of what it is like being out there in the trenches.z


“SEVEN,” directed by Anita Ahuja, is an odd choice for a show for the Winters Theatre Company, which is more accustomed to presenting lightweight, frothy comedies. “SEVEN” is a documentary play, first performed in 2008, written by seven female playwrights based on interviews with seven women around the world who have fought for the rights and well-being of women and girls.

The play is being staged to commemorate National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Each of the women’s stories is moving and inspiring.

Hafsat Abiola’s story was written by Anna Deavere Smith and was performed by Carla Fleming. After the assassination of both her father (briefly president of Nigeria) and her mother, Abiola fought a campaign for human rights in Nigeria and founded the Kudirat initiative, promoting democracy in Nigeria. She was named Global Leader of Tomorrow at the World Economic Forum in 2000.

Fleming brings a quiet dignity to her character. She carries herself as would the daughter of a noble family, and rather than rant and rave, she gets results by being cool and collected, her very demeanor demanding respect.

Playwright Ruth Margraff wrote the story of Farida Azizi from Afghanistan, played by Monica Arneja. Azizi has met with George Bush and Hillary Clinton on women’s roles in helping to rebuild Afghanistan. She was part of several international groups working for women’s rights. When she was imprisoned in her own house by her husband, she managed to escape to the United States with her two sons, where she continues to work for women’s rights.

Like Fleming, Arneja delivers her message with a quiet dignity. She also points out that a burqa can be a handy piece of clothing when trying to hide children from authorities.

Guatemala’s Anabella de León raised herself and her family out poverty by getting an education. She was the first vice president of the Guatemalan congress and has been a congresswoman since 1995. She has received death threats because of her fight against corruption and for the rights of the poor, particularly women and indigenous peoples. Her story was penned by Gail Kriegel.

Ana Kormos is a real firebrand as Anabella, with her wild hair and a passion for her work and for her people.

Mu Sochua is a tireless activist in Cambodia, focusing primarily on domestic violence. She helped create and pass the Prevention of Domestic Violence bill.

Meera Ekkanath Klein gives an impassioned performance exploring the depth of her character’s feelings and desire to do something meaningful in her country.

Paula Cizmar tells the story of Marina Pisklakova-Parker, played by Fran Wittman. Pisklakov is Russia’s leading women’s rights activist and has set up a series of hotlines for victims of domestic abuse.

Wittman is a force to be reckoned with. She ardently portrayed Pisklakov’s passion for saving women from domestic abuse when she realizes how rampant a problem it is.

Mukhtar Mai was the survivor of gang rape in Pakistan. She found the courage to speak up, to bring charges against her rapists and to win a court battle and a large sum of money, which she used to establish a school for other girls. Susan Yankowitz tells her story.

Shahzana Ali gives an emotional performance that will have you weeping. Watching her transform from a shamed girl who felt her life was over to a powerful, proud woman is wonderful to behold.

Inez McCormack’s story is written by Carol K. Mack and performed by Janene Whitesell. McCormack, who died in 2013, was a Northern Irish trade-union leader and human-rights activist and founded an organization supporting disadvantaged groups based in Belfast.

Whitesell is a real spitfire and her performance shows all the fire that one would expect from an Irish woman.

“SEVEN” is a roller-coaster ride that will open the audience’s eyes to problems facing women worldwide and leave everyone with admiration for those who are making a difference despite the challenges they have faced.

The show runs in Winters through Oct. 9 and there will be a special performance at the Davis Musical Theatre Company on Saturday, Oct. 8, at 8 p.m.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Tom Burmester (feature)

“This ‘Gospel’ is chapter and verse one of the finest war plays in recent memory.”

That’s what the Los Angeles Times wrote about Tom Burmester’s “Gospel According to First Squad,” currently on stage at UC Davis.

It’s high praise for Burmester, who grew up in Davis, and is now making a name for himself in theater in Los Angeles and other places where his works are presented.

“Gospel” is the third in what ultimately will be a four-play “War Cycle.” Burmester is working on the script for the fourth play, while considering the current show still a “work in progress.”

I asked how a kid raised in a nuclear-free town, a city of all things right and relevant, developed such an interest in writing about war. While he would not pinpoint his interest on his upbringing, he explained that “a lot of it came from my dad,” Dave Burmester, now retired and a beloved former English teacher at Davis High School.

“I took as many of his classes as I could when I was in high school and I remember a fascinating unit on war literature,” Tom Burmester said. “Some of that probably rubbed off on me.”

The Gulf War was being waged when Tom was a senior in high school and he saved every article he could find from the San Francisco Chronicle “just because I had a sense that there was something significant happening and I was going to want to look back on that time and remember.”

In 2004, after graduating from UCLA, he and other out-of-work professional and non-professional actors founded the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, which formed partly with funds raised during a Ghostlight Theatre Festival here in Davis.

The Ensemble ultimately became “The Powerhouse” after the group took over an old Southern California Edison building in Santa Monica. They performed there for several years until the lease expired and the landlord hiked the rent so high that even with box-office income and grants from Santa Monica, the young company couldn’t make it.

The first thing the Ensemble did was a production of Burmester’s thesis project from UCLA, but it was a two-person play and, realizing that it’s hard to build a group around two people, they decided to “create something.” A socially conscious group, they wanted something relevant and decided to focus on the war in Iraq.

He explained, “We were at war, but none of us felt like we were at war.” He was working for a group called Rock the Vote, and doing research for a paper on the issue of bringing back the military draft.
“When you have a universal draft, you can’t ignore the war,” he said.

The bill didn’t pass, but the members of the ensemble took this issue on, and decided to have a season that examined the overlooked.

“The news was into this idea of the counter of how many had been killed. It was ticking up to 2,000,” Burmester said. “That’s not really overlooked, but what is overlooked is the wounded. When you are wounded it not only changes your life, but the lives of everyone around you.”

They started doing research into that, but since no members of the group had been to war and none of them had been wounded, they knew they had to go to the source. Burmester tried to connect with people in the Army. He wanted to go to Walter Reed Hospital, but was not able to get past the bureaucratic barriers.

Then help came from an unlikely source. Through Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon, Burmester learned of a nonprofit organization, Fisher House, that serves the military. It maintains homes on military campuses that are specifically for severely wounded veterans and their families. The philosophy is that healing takes place more holistically and faster when the patient is surrounded by loved ones.

“I flew out there and spent a couple of days and they were happy to have me there,” he said. “Once Fisher House had me as a guest, I was able to get into Walter Reed.”

Burmester then talked with a lot of veterans, but concentrated on three — a combat medic named Joda whose eyes had been blown out in an explosion, Bill Pepper (on whom a Doonesbury character is based), and Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs, and is currently the congresswoman from Illinois’ 8th District.

“They were generous with their stories,” Burmester said. “For me it was definitely a transformative experience. I interviewed them and they gave their permission to use their stories.”

He explained that this would be a fictional story, but their stories would lend verisimilitude to the project.

“We felt accountable to these people whose stories we were borrowing. The script is grounded in reality so that there is an honoring of their stories. We’re not trivializing anything.”

The first play was “Wounded,” which had one performance in Los Angeles and then was performed here in Davis.

” ’Wounded’ cuts much deeper than I expected,” wrote Don Shirley of LA City Beat. “It’s not a pity-the-poor-cripples, curse-the-Bushie-bureaucrats play. It looks unsparingly at the choices that face the soldiers in Iraq, the wounded who return, their families and friends — and, by extension, the American public and their elected representatives.

“Conceived by the ensemble, it has been shaped by writer-director Tom Burmester into a gripping edge-of-the-seat experience.”

“Wounded” was performed in Los Angeles and it did so well that the group staged it again the next year. The 2007 production also was successful but they thought “We can’t keep doing it over and over again.” Yet they still felt the responsibility to tell stories about the war, to hold themselves responsible and culpable for the lack of awareness.

The second in the cycle, “Nation of Two,” which opened in 2010, focused attention on the grief of a family preparing to scatter the ashes of their son, killed in Iraq, one year after his death. The idea came from a Christopher Hitchins article in Vanity Fair about a man named Mark, who had joined the ROTC while a student at UCLA, became a lieutenant and was deployed to Iraq, where he was killed.
“I was particularly interested in the widow,” Burmester said. “She looked nothing like my idea of a war widow. She was in her early 20s, young and hip. We developed a relationship with her and the rest of Mark’s family.

“As they shared their stories, I learned that each deals with grief in a different way. There was a difference in the way they wanted to remember Mark. It’s the story of the family, but the central character is missing.”

Actor/director Danika Sudik, who later became Burmester’s wife, came onto the scene at this point. As a war widow herself, she had a special interest in this story, especially the conflicts that can erupt among the survivors.

“I understand things a lot better than I did in 2008,” Sudik said. “Working on the development of this play was a lovely way to look at things in a way that I probably never would have otherwise.”

The group started looking again for what to do and realized they had yet to deal with actual combat. There was a photo spread in Rolling Stone by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that featured portraits of soldiers in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, and Burmester was struck by the images.

“There was so much storytelling in the photos themselves that it became a launching point,” he said. “We managed to connect with a few folks who had served in combat in Afghanistan. It was important that they had been in combat, so they could explain that experience to us.”

Added Sudik, “The thing I remember most about them was how reticent they were to actually say the words. They were holding back and skirting around the topic, but it seemed like they really did want to talk about it all.

“Finally we told them they could say anything and we were not going to be offended or judgmental. They were relieved and the things that came out that are in the play — things that they were embarrassed to talk about, like sexual dysfunction and psychological issues that happened to them while they were there, and after they returned home — that really stuck with me, as a woman.
“They’re in this place where there are no women and how much that affected the way they were talking and acting with each other.”

“That’s a lot of what ‘Gospel’ is,” Burmester explained. “The guys are deployed in a very remote location. One of the things they talked about that stuck with me was that the farther away you are from the generals and the colonels, the more out in the field you are, there’s more of a sense of omnipotence. A gun gives you power. There’s more of a sense of not needing to adhere to rules, but being the ones that make the rules.

“We were also fortunate that one of the cast members in our original cast had served in Afghanistan in combat, so he was able to check us. When we were in our original run in L.A., occasionally a veteran would pull me aside and say, ‘You might want to look at this. … There’s a little detail here that’s not quite right.’ ”

One difference in this production is that since Sudik is pursuing a master of fine arts in directing, “Gospel” has an all-female production team.

““It has been awesome to get all these different perspectives and they’re so young, too, so they are going through their own interactions and everything is super-hypercharged,” Sudik said. “The things that they are noticing and are drawing out in the story are strengthening it so much.”

Burmester added, “It’s about this culture that we’re creating and that we are condoning. This is our American face as seen by part of the world. What does that mean? What are we creating for these men to come home to?

“So much of this play is about ideals and what we say is important to us. And then what actually happens to a person when the rubber hits the road? And how that changes, and how you justify your choices,” he continued.

“One thing I’m proud of — ‘Gospel’ is not glorifying the war. The media that we consume is about the hero story. We latch onto that and we have the American hero in our corner. But the issues are so much more complex than sound bites. We’re defining ourselves by our tweets. What does that mean?”

But that is a subject for another play.

“Gospel” is a reunion of old Acme Theatre Company alumni. In addition to Tom Burmester, Steven Schmidt, the tech director for the B Street Theatre in Sacramento, is doing tech direction for this show, and Chad Fisk, another Acme alum who went on to become an actor in the Bay Area, is doing fight preparation.

“This show has a lot of brutal hand-to-hand combat,” Fisk said. “There is one huge melee where there are six people fighting simultaneously — which involved lots of note-taking. Many in the cast are new to acting and new to fights, so I’m teaching them how to do it safely. When fights look too polished, I made them look more raw and ugly.

“It’s a great show with an amazing script,” Fisk promises.

Nearly 20 years ago, Tom Burmester realized he wanted to put a face to “the overlooked” — and with this war cycle, he certainly has done that.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Speed the Plow

I waited patiently throughout David Mamet’s 80-minute one-act “Speed-the-Plow” now at the B Street Theatre in Sacramento, certain that the show itself would give me a clue as to what the title meant. But it didn’t.

After the show, a circle of critics also each admitted that they did not know what it meant either. Aren’t we lucky to be living in the age of Google?

“God speed the plough” comes from a 15th-century work song and was a prayer for prosperity and productivity.

Mamet himself explained that he saw a saying on an old plate — “ ‘Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow.’ This, I knew, was a play about work and about the end of the world, so ‘Speed-the-Plow’ was perfect because not only did it mean work, it meant having to plow under and start over again.”

Mamet took his interpretation to the world of corporate Hollywood, specifically Bobby Gould (Dave Pierini), who has just been made head of production for a major movie studio and a down-on-his-luck colleague Charlie Fox (Kurt Johnson). This satire about the movie business gives the audience a glimpse of how things really work in the art of the Hollywood deal.

Charlie has just had the offer of a lifetime. A big Hollywood star has read one of his scripts and wants to star in the movie. Charlie is there to get Bobby to green-light the project. The two men are positively orgasmic at the bright future they see before them, with this big-name star and this violent prison/action movie. It will be the surefire blockbuster of the season and Bobby’s slump will be over.
There’s just one hitch: The paperwork needs to be finalized by 10 a.m the next day and the head of the studio will be out of town until then. Not to worry, Bobby assures his friend. The deal is as good as done.

Into the meeting comes Bobby’s temporary secretary, Karen (Stephanie Altholz), tall (in those 4-inch spike heels) and impossibly thin, but well proportioned. The men make all sorts of sexist comments about her after she leaves. Charlie bets Bobby $500 that he cannot seduce Karen.

To set the stage, Charlie engages Karen in discussion about plays he is considering and especially one very thick book called “The Bridge or, Radiation and the Half-Life of Society,” which he has been asked to read as a “courtesy,” though the studio has no intention of making it.

In the next scene, Karen comes to Bobby’s house with the thick book liberally marked with dozens of Post-It notes and she raves about the book and how it changed her life. She tries to convince Bobby that Charlie’s play is garbage and that he should produce this play. During the course of the discussion, she becomes the seductress.

In the final scene, a subdued Bobby admits to Charlie that he has changed his mind about which play he is going to green-light. Charles’ reaction and surprising revelations about Karen round out the action and bring the play to its surprising conclusion.

Mamet is known for wordy plays, and for a three-person play that is dialog-driven to work, the actors must be top-notch and the dialog needs to snap, crackle and pop. In this superb production directed by Jerry Montoya, it does just that.

Pierini and Johnson are excellent as the good-old-boy Hollywood mogul types. Pierini is particularly notable for the change from Scene 2 to 3, where his demeanor becomes slow and steady, in opposition to his high spirits of the first two scenes.

Altholz is just great as the not-so-dumb office temp who shows she is capable of doing more than just pouring coffee for the men. Her subtle shift from naive, submissive temp to take-charge seductress is masterful.

This is a first-rate production for the B Street Theatre.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Death of a Salesman

Ed Claudio
Fredric March, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman and Lee J. Cobb are some of the A-list actors who have played the iconic Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman,” now being presented by the Actors Workshop of Sacramento at the California Stage complex, under the direction of Eason Donner.

Now Sacramento’s grand old man of theater, Ed Claudio, has taken on the role of Willy Loman, a role that has been on his bucket list since he first played it for only two weeks 15 years ago. “It’s my favorite role. My favorite play,” says Claudio, who believes now is his time, before he gets “too old to do it.”

How fortunate we are that he made this decision. From the moment Willy shuffles through the front door, bent over with the weight of his grips, and wearily makes his way to the bedroom, Claudio is Willy Loman.

(No program credit is given for set design, but the cozy, if tired, two-story house of 1940s Brooklyn is perfect.)

This is not a happy play. It is the story of a man nearing the end of his life, beaten down by a profession that used to hold him in high regard, a son who failed to fulfill the promise his father had for him, and a life that just hasn’t turned out the way he expected it to.

Willy has been a salesman all of his life, and in his younger days was well respected by the buyers around the country, and was good friends with the owner of the company for which he worked.

But the world is changing.

New people don’t know him and don’t order from him, the boss’ son now runs the company and has kept Willy on because he has been there so long, but, at 65 he doesn’t have the physical stamina that he did years before. And so when Willy comes, asking to be assigned to the home office and taken off the road, he is fired.

Willy has a hair trigger and, as downtrodden and defeated as he can be, he can also explode in anger at a moment’s notice, and often does.

Claudio does well, bouncing back and forth between Willy’s present and his fantasy life with a brother he admired (now long dead), and son Biff’s (Matt Fairall) glory days as the high school football hero.

Willy’s brother Ben (Chris Amick) is the epitome of the American dream, having struck it rich in the diamond mines. “Why, boys, when I was 17 I walked into the jungle, and when I was 21 I walked out. And by God, I was rich.”

Lighting designer Alicia Thayer kind of dropped the ball here. In other productions I have seen, there is a definite change in light between the present and the dream world, but on the small California State stage, that change somehow got lost and it was not always immediately apparent in which world Willy was living.

Claudio is surrounded by a solid cast of characters from his theater workshop. Fairall gives a very strong performance as Biff, the kid on whose shoulders his father pinned all his hopes for success. But like too many high school athletic stars, Biff just doesn’t have the smarts for college or the drive to succeed. He handles the scenes where he is the virile young stud whose world was his oyster as well as the befuddled adult he has become, more interested in drink than in pursuing a career.

(Willy refuses to acknowledge that Biff’s discovery of his father’s affair on the road had a profound effect on the rest of his life.)

Younger son Hap (Kevin Frame) is a people pleaser, always trying to win his father’s approval, but lost in Willy’s obsession with Biff. Frame is not often the center of a scene, but he has a wonderful way of always being in the scene and never losing focus. Hap is a philanderer, going from one woman to the next with no desire to establish a permanent relationship.

Willy’s wife Linda is often seen as a world-weary woman, as beaten down by life as her husband, but Laura Luke is a life force, a fiercely loyal wife, protective of her husband, and ready to do battle with anyone not in his corner.

Darryl DeHart is Charley, the next-door neighbor, who likes Willy enough to lend him money to keep him afloat, though Willy never seems able to repay his loan. Bernard (Zach Coles) is Charley’s son. Though he will not admit it, Willy is jealous of the good father-son relationship they have and the success they have achieved in life.

The play moves toward its inevitable tragic conclusion and when the small group of four stand at Willy’s grave, one remembers his delight in imagining how people would come from all over his territory and there would be a huge crowd at his funeral.

For a “feel good” night of theater, this is not your cup of tea, but for an impeccable script and outstanding performances, this is one production that is well worth seeing.