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, Bj√∂rn 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.