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.