Thursday, June 29, 2017

Bad Jews

Over the years, I have seen actress Tara Sissom in many comedies and have long admired her talent for comedy. However, in Capital Stage’s production of “Bad Jews” by Joshua Harmon we see an entirely different side of Sissom. She is funny, yes, but also angry, poignant — and amazing. She dominates as Daphna, one of the grandchildren of “Poppy,” who has just died.

The four-actor play takes place in a cramped New York apartment where three grandchildren have gathered the day after the funeral of their grandfather, the lone family holocaust survivor. The stated plot concerns which of the three will get Poppy’s “chai,” a gold pendant signifying “life.”

It was given to him by his father, and while a prisoner in Auschwitz he hid it in his mouth for two years until liberation. When he had no money for an engagement ring, he gave it to his soon-to-be wife as a symbol of his love. After he was able to buy a ring, he wore it around his neck for the rest of his life, so this has tremendous meaning for his family.

Daphna is certain that he meant for her to have it after his death. Mild-mannered Jonah (Noah Thompson) doesn’t care and just doesn’t want to discuss it. But cousin Liam (Jeremy Kahn) — who missed the funeral because he was skiing in Aspen and whose mother fed-exed him the chai as his grandfather lay dying — feels it rightfully belongs to him.

There is longstanding enmity between Liam and Daphna and they can hardly stand to be in the same room together. Daphna feels that Liam is really a self-hating Jew who chooses “tapid little Bambi” creatures out of insecurity, since with them he can be arrogant and masculine.

As for Liam, “She is horrifying. Just listen to her. Every other word that comes out of her mouth is some unbelievably offensive insult that we’re supposed to pretend not to hear?”

Things explode when Liam (a self-described “bad Jew”) arrives with his Delaware-born girlfriend Melody (Chloe King). He intends to continue the family tradition and give the chai to her in lieu of an engagement ring.

Though the argument over ownership of the chai is volatile, it unearths a lot of long-held feelings about religion, family and tradition. For Daphna, the chai symbolizes the survival of the Jewish faith and to give it to a gentile is unthinkable.

But as this is basically a comedy, there are some very funny moments in it, like remembering when Poppy took them all to Benihana and everyone was struck with bowel problems. The memory brings the three cousins together literally rolling on the floor in laughter.

But then things that seem very innocent (Daphna asking Melody about her background, growing up in Delaware) suddenly turn ugly when she accuses Melody’s family of the genocide of the Native Americans.

Director Amy Resnick has kept the delicate balance between funny and serious so that you’re never quite sure which you are seeing.

But Sissom is a wonder and Kahn, a newcomer to Capital Stage, is a worthy match for her diatribes.
King’s Melody is innocent and totally ignorant of the seriousness and importance of Jewish history (“I don’t see why any of it matters, you know? Where people come from? People are just people.”) which further inflames Daphna, the rabbinical student and uber Jew whose dream is to go to Israel and join the army.

As Jonah, Thompson spends most of the play cringing, hiding and saying he does not want to be involved in the argument — though in the end it is he who has the biggest impact on everyone, on and off the stage.

This is a unique piece of theater, which ends Capital Stage’s “Love and War” season. It is perhaps my favorite of the six plays in the series of excellent pays. Capital Stage just keeps getting better and better.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

Jessica Grové as Belle and James Snyder as Beast perform in
“Beauty and the Beast,” produced by Music Circus
at the Wells Fargo Pavilion through July 2.
Charr Crail/Courtesy photo

 The folks at Music Circus would like to invite you to be their guest (for a fee) at the opulent production of Disney’s family classic musical, “Beauty and the Beast,” through July 2.

The near-capacity opening night audience had a lot of little princesses, tottering about on jeweled heels, in royal garb with rhinestone crowns.

This excellent production is directed by Glenn Casale and features several Broadway veterans in the lead roles and sumptuous costumes from Casale’s European tour of this show.

The production inaugurates California Musical Theatre’s new state-of-the-art projection system, a series of screens that circle the upper portion of the theater and project things like the rooftops of buildings, trees in a forest, and parts of a spooky castle, allowing for fewer on-stage set pieces and giving the audience a feeling of being in the action.

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Broadway veteran James Snyder as the prince who is under the spell of a sorceress to whom he was once rude. He must live life as a hideous beast until he can learn to love another person and have that person love him in return.

A red rose charts his progress and if the last petal of the rose falls without a love interest in the picture, he will remain a beast forever.

Not only is the prince enchanted, but his entire house staff is as well. The maitre d’ has been turned into the candelabra Lumiere (Michael Paternostro) and the major domo is Cogsworth, a clock (David Hibbard), while Courtney Iventosch is Babette, the flirty feather duster, and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan is Madame de la Grande Bouche, the opera singer who is now a dresser, complete with drawers that open.

Dear Mrs. Potts (Shannon Warne), the teapot, sings the title song. Her son Chip (Cooper Miller, alternating with Mia Fisher) was very cute.

I was pleased to see that as the story progresses, the changes in the staff become more and more pronounced. I have seen community theater productions where this does not happen, so it was appreciated that this professional company follows those directions.

Jessica GrovĂ© is specializing in princesses at Music Circus. She was last seen as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” and plays Belle in this production. Belle is a feisty loner and bookworm in the little town where she lives with her inventor father Maurice (Gordon Goodman). She dreams of finding an enchanted prince who will sweep her away.

After Maurice is set upon by wolves and saved by the Beast, who then imprisons him, Belle agrees to take his place if the Beast lets the old man go.

It’s a rocky start for this eventually happily-ever-after couple, but with help and lessons in being a gentleman from the house staff, the Beast is able to tame his temper and a friendship slowly develops between himself and the young woman. His anguished “If I Can’t Love Her,” which ends the first act, is a tour de force for the actor.

In the meantime, there is the town hunk, Gaston (Peter Saide), who is in love with himself, but determined to have Belle as his wife. His sidekick LeFou (Jared Gertner) thinks of this as a real bromance and puts up with a lot of abuse from this man he admires.

When Gaston leads a band to go and “kill the beast,” it is up to Belle to save this beast she has come to love and, in the process, break the spell.

This is a wonderful production and a great way to start Music Circus’ 67th season. If I have any complaint, it’s that the volume is much too high. I have hearing problems and it bothered me, so I can only imagine what a person with normal hearing would hear.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Legally Blonde, the Musical

Omigod, you guys! Elle Woods has finally come to the Davis Musical Theatre Company, under the direction of Jan Isaacson.

“Legally Blonde” (music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hach) is as light and frothy as cotton candy — and just as pink. It has all the story of the movie with Reese Witherspoon, but without the depth. The scenes are so short (nine in the first act, eight in the second) that there is little time to get a feeling for the characters.

The songs aren’t memorable (except for the opening and recurring “Omigod, you guys”), but the cast is so enthusiastic and the dancing so infectious that you find yourself enjoying it in spite of yourself.
The story follows sorority diva Elle Woods, who came to the university to catch her man and discovers that she was only a chapter in his life. He’s going to become a famous attorney and politician and she … well … she just doesn’t fit into his view of a politician’s wife.

As he goes off to Harvard, flighty Elle does the only logical thing … she studies hard, for the first time in her life, and gets into Harvard Law too, thinking that, given time, she can win him back.
Her parents (Steve Isaacson and Dannette Vassar) are aghast. “You could have a film career out here,” her father protests. “There’s no movie studio there and the girls all have different noses.”

It’s a silly plot, but we get to watch Elle begin to think about things seriously and ultimately have more respect for herself than to want someone like the guy who ditched her.

Ernestine Balisi is the bleach-blonde, pink-clad Elle, with Mac playing her constant companion Bruiser, the Chihuahua. Last seen as Peggy Sawyer in “42nd Street,” Balisi brings the same energy and sparkle to the role of Elle. She and Bruiser work well together and neither had a misstep throughout.

Boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Jonathan Kalinen) is a real loser (to quote a current political figure) and Kalinen brings out all the worst in him until we don’t want Elle to get her man anyway!
Adriel Cruz is Professor Callahan, the womanizing hot-shot instructor who sets his sights on Elle. Cruz gave a subdued performance throughout Act 1 and it was difficult not only to understand him, but to find him all that menacing until he sings the very dark “Blood in the Water.” His performance improved in Act 2.

Mitchell Worrell-Olson is Emmett, Callahan’s teaching assistant, who takes Elle under his wing with a friendship that may grow into something deeper, as he helps her with her studies along with a study group that includes Erynn Kinch as the dark and brooding brainiac Enid.

Ashley Marie Holm makes a wonderful impression as Paulette, the cosmetician who becomes Elle’s friend, as the two of them support each other. Paulette dreams of marrying an Irishman and settling down in the suburbs (she sings the beautiful song “Ireland”). Then along comes the UPS man Kyle (Matthew Evans) to set her heart a-flutter.

Longtime Davisites may know the story of UPS delivery man Tim Spencer, for whom a downtown Davis alley is named. Evans is the epitome of Tim Spencer, in his macho-ness and his short shorts.
A real scene-stealer is Paulette’s dog, Rufus (played by Savannah), a bulldog missing teeth on one side of her mouth, leaving her tongue hanging out all the time. She was definitely a crowd-pleaser.

Rachael Sherman-Shockley plays the bitchy Vivienne with venom. Because the character changes as the show progresses, Sherman-Shockley gave a multi-layered performance and displayed a beautiful voice on “Legally Blonde Remix.”

Morgan Bartoe is Brooke Wyndham, on trial for killing her husband, defended by Callahan and his students. Brooke is an exercise guru and her exercise routine “Whipped into Shape” done with a chorus of women, each with jump ropes, is a highlight of the show. How they sing and jump and still have breath left at the end of the number is a marvel. (Choreography is by Terri Taylor.)

There is a Greek chorus of sorts, made up of Elle’s sorority sisters — Serena (Joelle La Guerra), Margot (McKinley Carlisle) and Pilar (Julia Hixon) — who become Elle’s cheering section.

The message of this musical is to be yourself and that you can be better than you think you are. And along the way, don’t forget to dress in pink!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Hand to God

From left, Margery (Elisabeth Nunziato) leads a church puppet workshop as her son Jason (Ryan Borses)
works his demon-possessed puppet, Tyrone, in “Hand to God”
on stage through July 23 at the B Street Theatre.
Rudy Meyers Photography/Courtesy phototion

When a critic goes to see a show, he or she is usually given a packet of information about the show, the playwright and other pertinent information. When the B Street Box Office handed me a packet for “Hand to God” that included not only a “history of puppetry” but also a “brief history of demonic possession,” I knew we were in for something … unusual.

Unusual is putting it mildly.

This hilariously funny play from the demented mind of playwright Robert Askins is everything a normal person should hate (and some in the audience did leave at intermission). It is raunchy and irreverent, and yet, we in the audience laughed uproariously and gave the cast a standing ovation.
The story concerns a puppet, Tyrone (who resembles a Muppet from the wrong side of the tracks), who is possessed by the devil and is manipulating the life of teenager Jason (Ryan Borses), a young man depressed about his father’s recent death.

Borses gives an outstanding performance as both Jason and Tyrone, who seems permanently attached to Jason’s arm. Borses is able to create distinct personalities for the two characters and accurately displays a range of emotions, including the depth of Jason’s depression and Tyrone’s anger, often simultaneously, in one fast-paced dialog between the two. It has to be seen to truly be appreciated.
The action takes place in a church basement where Jason’s mother Margery (Elisabeth Nunziato) is leading a puppet workshop, as part of Pastor Greg’s (Dave Pierini) outreach to younger people.

Also part of the group are Timmy (Andrew Mazer), the perennial bad boy who is more interested in making moves on Margery than on making puppets. Jessica (Stephanie Altholz) is the polar opposite to Timmy, a goody-two-shoes who tries to keep the peace, despite her own puppet’s desires.

Margery isn’t really interested in the workshop, since she has just lost her husband, and is trying to work through her own grief and depression, which does not include Jason, who turns to Tyrone for comfort.

Tyrone becomes more and more demonic as the play progresses, growing teeth and pointy ears along the way. He and Jessica’s creation, a busty puppet named Jolene, find a mutual attraction and the resulting puppet-on-puppet action, while hilarious, would earn the play an X rating if the beings involved actually had genitalia.

Everyone in this workshop eventually succumbs to their baser instincts and under Tyrone’s delighted cheering, they all give in to temptation to express the hate, lust, violence and fear that exists in all of them. The professional skills of the puppeteers, who keep up a running in-depth conversation while their arms are engaged in unspeakable action with each other, is remarkable.

This wildly irreverent but very funny play also explores the more serious topics such as the nature of grief and the repression of human nature, and ultimately finds redemption and a way to defuse the out-of-control Tyrone.

All of the actors are wonderful, with Mazer as the greaser who appears just dumb and horny, but actually longs for the love that Jason seeks as well. Nunziato’s grief at the loss of her husband is always just below the surface as she is drawn to her baser instincts and ultimately her realization of her feelings for her son.

Altholz is not as prissy “goody two-shoes” as she seems and has her own moments of audaciousness.
Rounding out the cast, Perini is a well-meaning pastor who has the hots for Margery, but manages to keep himself in check.

Samantha Reno’s set is a fun puppet workshop until Act 2, when Tyrone takes over and the change is very striking.

This is a play you really want to dislike and feel somehow you should not be watching, but you can’t help being drawn into the story and laughing uncontrollably throughout.

Monday, June 05, 2017


“Lungs,” a play by the young playwright Duncan Macmillan (whose “Constellations” was produced by B Street recently), may have been written with millennials in mind, but it has appeal for all ages.
It follows the lives of M and W (no names are given) through the rocky eras of their lives, an odd love story, but fascinating, in its many twists and turns.

Directed by Lyndsay Burch, this two-person, 100-plus-minute piece features the talents of the amazing Jahi Kearse as M and Dana Brooke as W.

The set by Samantha Reno pictures an amorphous outdoor scene. While the script calls for no set at all, the designer wanted to create an environment that could represent both inside and outside and “the circle of life.” Also, as questions of threats to the environment loom large in this work, this seemed appropriate.

As the action begins, the couple are in line at IKEA when M decides to broach the subject of whether this might be the time to start thinking of having a family. This takes W by surprise and she starts one of her many diatribes about the ethical issues of raising a child in an age where there is political unrest, where climate change is a major issue, and if you really care about the planet, even if you are a “good” person, is it right to have a child? Particularly when the carbon footprint of that infant will be 10,000 tons of CO2?

“That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower,” W wails.
On the other hand, maybe this child will be the one who makes major contributions to all of these problems.

But what about the in-laws, who are none too happy with the whole relationship in the first place? The discussion goes back and forth, agonizing over wanting a baby and worrying about if this is the right time — or if there will ever be a right time.

Both very funny, and then very poignant, these issues are at the heart of this play. The characters are maddening and lovable by turns, each with his or her own flaws, but always, no matter what happens, deeply in love with each other.

W is the more high-strung of the pair, while M is more laid-back, a good man desperately trying to figure out what he can do to make things better for the woman he loves, but not really understanding what she is saying most of the time (a situation any woman can relate to!).

The dialog would put the wordy David Mamet to shame, as it is smart, rapid-fire with impeccable comic and dramatic timing, which works only because of the talent of the two actors. Sometimes the monologues of one or the other of them leaves the audience breathless trying to keep up.

This is a moving, funny, always engrossing play raised to new heights by the talents of two actors. When Macmillan wrote this he was only 30 years old. One wonders what a career he has ahead of him.