Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Nether

In these days of #MeToo and horror stories of sexual misconduct, Capital Stage’s choice of Jennifer Haley’s “The Nether” is either perfect, or the worst choice ever, depending on your reaction to the play.

Literary manager Cathy Hardin warns that during the first three days of rehearsal, the most prominent words and phrases used by the cast were “wildly uncomfortable,” “rough” and “worried.”

The winner of seven Los Angeles Ovation Awards and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, “The Nether” is described by The Huffington Post as “dark, disturbing and extraordinary … a cold, hard look at human behavior.”

Reaction from two patrons after the show: “I hated it” and “I don’t know what I just saw, but I loved it.”

This is a show about which you can’t be neutral.

It would do a disservice to patrons to give too much away, since “discovery” is part of the experience, but the premise is that an admitted pedophile has created a virtual realm called The Hideaway, a Victorian setting where people with deviant sexual urges can satisfy them with virtual children, without injury to anyone in the real world.

Sims (Tim Kniffin), who runs The Hideaway, admits that he has “always been sick and there is no cure.” He then explains that “I have taken responsibility for my sickness. … The only way I can do this is because I’ve created a place where I can be myself.” He is being questioned by Morris, a female detective (Imani Mitchell) who is trying to find the location of Sims’ server so she can shut it down.

“Are you accusing me of creating pedophiles? If anything, I’m giving them a place to blow off steam,” Sims says.

“You foster a culture of legitimization, telling them their desires are not only acceptable, but commendable,” Morris replies.

That this production works so well is due to an exceptional cast. In addition to Kniffin and Mitchell, Graham Scott Green is Doyle, an older man who is a frequent visitor to The Hideaway (who is considering leaving the real world and moving permanently), and Jeb Burris, as Woodnut, a new guest.

Outstanding is Kylie Standley as Iris, the girl whose function is to interact with the guests. Standley’s Iris is a beautiful, vivacious 9-year-old android with a smile that lights up room, who longs for a birthday cake and loves to dance. She is also, we discover, in charge of what happens in her frilly pink-decorated bedroom.

Timothy McNamara is the scenic/lighting designer who has created two decidedly different worlds. In the “real” world, everyone dresses in grays and whites, the walls are gray, the furniture is gray, the lighting is muted. The only color is on the faces of the people living there.

When one crosses over into the Nether, there is a psychedelic multi-colored design on movable panels opening to reveal the brightly lit, colorful world of The Hideaway. We know immediately we aren’t in Kansas any more!

(Kudos also to the technicians who change the sets. They are as crisp as a dance troupe.)

“The Nether” is certain to provoke conversations. Is modern technology the answer? Can you excuse the criminal activity if no real person is hurt? Are the characters we would find abhorrent in this life sufficiently sympathetic that we can understand their attraction to The Hideaway as a way to keep from hurting people in the real world?

This is a provocative, powerful and deeply disturbing play, directed by Kirk Blackinton (new to Capital Stage), which explores the consequences of living out one’s private dreams.

Hardin suggests approaching the play with an open mind: “Instead of us deciding that something is right or wrong, why don’t we look at the motivations for why people do things, instead of just judging their actions,” she says.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The White Rose

Young activist Sophie Scholl (Michelle Monheit) is accused of distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets
and is interrogated by Anton Mahler (Grey Turner),
Bauer (Skye McIlraith) and police chief Robert Mohr (Gracelyn Watkins).
Courtesy photo
The White Rose was an organization of German students founded in Munich in 1942, with the goal of exposing Nazi crimes and injustices. They wrote and circulated some 15,000 leaflets over the next year and then in 1943, some of the students were arrested for distributing treasonous material. The students were held and interrogated for five days, and then executed.

“The White Rose” is a play by Lillian Garrett-Groag, directed by Emily Henderson and performed by a talented cast of Acme Theatre Company actors at the Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre.

The play covers the arrest and interrogation of the students, mixed with flashbacks to the formation of the group, its growing passion, and increasing boldness in the name of nationalism.

When it debuted in New York in 1991, it was highly criticized by critics who felt it was overly dramatic and questioned its veracity. (“Fake news” as theater?) However, seen in the light of 2018, it perhaps takes on a bit more importance as we pay attention to the warnings it gives.

Acme has never shied away from asking difficult questions and giving the audience something to think about.

The program, for example, includes a helpful list of five early signs of fascism, which includes such things “Destruction of human rights,” “Controlled media” and “Corporate power being protected — when the rich or elite are voted into positions of power and then use the power granted to them to protect their assets.”

Director Henderson asks, “What do we do when each day brings a new erosion of democracy? What are we supposed to do now?”

She also asks, “What does it mean to be immersed in historical injustice and current inhumanity? To come of age under the reign of a delusional leader? How do personal faith, truth and honor operate when law and morality are in direct conflict? How do you proceed if your country becomes unrecognizable?”

She has a talented cast to try to answer such questions. There are eight characters in the play and two of the roles are double-cast, so 10 actors altogether bring the story of these students to life.
In the production I saw, Eleanor Richter played Sophie Scholl of the White Rose and Gracelyn Watkins was Robert Mohr, the police investigator who spends days trying to get her to confess to her crimes. These two are the heart of this play, Mohr wanting to save this young girl who is the age of his daughter, and Scholl, willing to give up her life to help save her country. Both actors are excellent and their final emotional interrogation scene is riveting.

Grey Turner is mesmerizing as Anton Mahler, the office Nazi intent on punishing the students in the extreme. The blond Turner is the perfect Aryan, with a growing sneer throughout the play and a “Heil Hitler” salute that is crisp every time. (It was nice seeing Turner in the talk-back at the end of the show as a normal, appealing young man and not the unlikable Nazi!)

Others in the show include Cory McCutcheon as Sophie’s brother Hans, Dezla Dawkins, Kieran Cubbage and Sophie Nachmanoff as the rest of the White Rose cohorts arrested, and Skye McIlraith as the guard who sits outside Mohr’s office and escorts the prisoners to and from their cells.
Michelle Monheit shares the role of Sophie with Richter and Garnet Phinney shares the role of Mohr with Watkins.

This is a play that should be seen by more people than I fear it will be. It has a message that is delivered powerfully and it leaves the audience with many things to think about as they watch what patriotic students would sacrifice to save the soul of their country.

Be sure to check out the lobby before or after the show to see the photos and read the bios of the real students whose story this play tells.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Musical of Musicals

David Taylor Gomes, Michael RJ Campbell, Kelly Ann Dunn
and Brad Bong perform in Sacramento Theatre Company’s
“The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!”
Charr Crail Photography/Courtesy photo
Anyone who has ever written song parodies knows how difficult it can be. To write lyric parodies and melody parodies is downright brilliant, so Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart may be real musical geniuses.

“The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)” is making a return appearance on Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock Stage and is every bit as amusing and entertaining as it was when it first played here in 2011.

David Taylor Gomes acts as narrator and accompanist and explains to the audience that their beloved theater is about to be torn down because the actors can’t pay the rent. He begs the mean landlord (an offstage voice) to let them produce one more show and he’s certain they can pay the rent. Reluctantly, the landlord agrees and Gomes promises they can write a blockbuster.

The group then presents five possibilities: one in the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Corn”), one in the style of Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Aspects of Junita”), one in the style of Jerry Herman (“Dear Abby”), one in the style of Stephen Sondheim (“A Little Complex” — “nobody understands Sondheim”) and one in the style of Kander and Ebb (“Speakeasy”).

All five musicals have the same plot, a heroine (Kelly Ann Dunn) named either June, Junita, Junie Faye or Juny, who can’t pay the rent, and a sinister landlord (Michael RJ Campbell), who will have his way with her if she can’t pay the rent.

Then there is the hero (Brad Bong) who will save her and the older diva (Martha Omiyo Kight), who will deliver the epic advice song to help the heroine make the right decision.

While all performers are excellent, Dunn is particularly noteworthy for her ability to sing several musical styles, from the corny Rodgers and Hammerstein to the more operatic Lloyd Webber — and sound authentic in each genre.

What makes it all work is that the writers of this show not only understand each of the styles they are parodying, but they obviously respect them and love poking fun at them.

“Corn,” for example takes “Oklahoma” as its base (“Oh What Beautiful Corn”) but then tosses in shows like “Carousel” (there’s even a salute to clam dip), “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and others.

“Big Willie” sings a salute to corn in which he tell us that a lark learning to pray needs to be carefully taught, and later on that milking cows will leave him with a pound and a half of cream upon his face. He also, when unsure about things, tells us that they’re a puzzlement. Mother Abby sings “Follow Your Dream,” to encourage June to make her own decision.

In “Aspects of Junita,” Junita repeatedly sings “I’ve heard this song before,” a reference to the repetitive nature of many of Lloyd Webber’s musicals. The villain also becomes Sir Phantom Jitter, an opera impresario who wants Junita to sing one of his operas (She: You wrote it yourself? He: Do you know opera? She: No. He: Yes, I wrote it myself.)

“Dear Abby” is a salute to all those Herman heroines, like Dolly, Mame or Albin from “La Cage aux Folles” (Jitter is told to put some more mascara on), while the pianist explains that the audience wildly applauds before they’ve done anything.

The section on Sondheim (“It’s Complex”) takes place in an apartment complex called “The Woods.” There is a lot of “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park with George” about this piece.

The show closes with a salute to Kander and Ebb, which not only includes their famous musicals (“Cabaret” and “Chicago”) but also “Liza with a Z,” written for Liza Minnelli, transformed into “Julia with a J.”

With direction by Michael Laun and choreography by Michael Jenkinson, this becomes an evening of sparkling entertainment sure to appeal to any musical theater fan.

Friday, January 12, 2018


“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” was a hit movie in 1975. In 2005, a musical was adapted for the stage by Eric Idle and was a Tony Award winner. Now it is entertaining Davis Musical Theatre Company audiences.

I will confess my deep, dark secret: I’m not a Monty Python fan, though I had seen the odd bits here and there and one or two of the movies. But I had not seen “Holy Grail” nor had I memorized lots of favorite skits from the 45 television episodes. So I missed a lot of the “in jokes” in this musical.
Still, even for someone like me, this production has enough cheap shots, fart jokes and low-brow humor in it to make it an enjoyable two hours of nonsense.

The Historian (Steven O’Shea) sets the scene, giving a brief overview of medieval England with the precision of a weatherman, recounting where in the country there was plague (“a 50 percent chance of pestilence and famine coming out of the northeast at 12 miles per hour.”)

Following his announcement that this is “England,” the stage is, of course, filled with brightly costumed dancers singing about Finland and hitting each other with fish in the delightful “Finland/Fisch Schlapping Dance,” until the Historian reminds them that it is England, whereupon they leave the stage, disappointed, followed by a somber line of monks chanting in Latin.

The real story begins with the entrance of Arthur (Scott Minor), who announces his search for knights for his Round Table, with the assistance of sidekick Patsy (Tomas Eredia) and sets off on his quest, encountering ridiculous setbacks along the way, riding nonexistent horses and using coconuts to make the noise of the clopping hoofbeats.

Minor and Eredia make a wonderful pair, with Minor ineptly regal while Eredia is irresistible with his facial asides to the audience.

The duo encounter Lancelot (Quintin Casl) and Sir Robin (Andy Hyun), who is collecting bodies of the dead. They encounter the sickly Fred (O’Shea) and attempt to add him to the heap of bodies. When he insists he’s “Not Dead Yet,” they help him die to get rid of him so the two men can join Arthur’s knights.

Marci Maxey is a lovely Lady of the Lake, who gave Arthur his sword Excalibur, and just gets more beautiful as the show moves forward.

Python fans will be happy to note that the show includes a lot of familiar Python gags, like the Knights of Ni (led by O’Shea — his third role in this show!), and the killer rabbit.

A show highlight is “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” sung by Arthur, Patsy and Robin, explaining that you need Jews for a successful Broadway musical, following which there is a wild production number filled with “Fiddler on the Roof” parodies, including a bottle dance with Grails instead of bottles.

All ends with a community sing of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” and chuckles continue as the audience shuffles out into the parking lot.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Something Rotten

It is fair to say that “Something Rotten,” currently at the Sacramento Community Center, is the funniest show you will see all year (and this includes a year in which “Book of Mormon” is also included).

This hilarious musical, written by brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, with John O’Farrell’s assistance on the book, is, at its heart, an homage not only to William Shakespeare, but also to just about every Broadway musical ever written.

I would also add, as an aside, that this may be the first musical I have attended at the Community Center where there was absolutely no difficulty understanding the actors on stage.

The story follows the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel (Rob McClure and Josh Grisetti), playwrights in Renaissance England (“Welcome to the Renaissance” is a wonderful opening number led by the Minstrel, Nick Rashad Burroughs).

The brothers are determined to make a name in show biz, but they keep being overshadowed by that rock star William Shakespeare (Adam Pascal), who sneaks looks at Nigel’s notebook and steals all his best ideas.

Nick is married to Bea (Maggie Lakis) a Renaissance feminist who is incensed about the inequality of women and determined to prove that a woman can do anything a man can do (“Right Hand Man”).
Frustrated by Shakespeare’s popularity (“I Hate Shakespeare”), Nick grumbles about how “a mediocre actor from a measly little town is suddenly the brightest jewel in England’s royal crown.”

He takes the family savings and hires a soothsayer (Blake Hammond) to learn what the next big thing in entertainment will be — and what Shakespeare’s next project will be.

Nostradamus, the soothsayer, tells him he should write a musical, where a character, for no reason whatsoever, will suddenly break into song, which audiences will love because it’s easier to understand than iambic pentameter. Musicals are unheard of at the time and will guarantee an audience lining up to get into the theater, Nostradamus predicts. “A Musical” is by far the hit number of the show and earns a lengthy standing ovation from the audience.

Nostradamus also struggles to understand what Shakespeare’s next play will be about but misunderstands it and only knows it is “something Danish,” so Nick and Nigel set out to write the first breakfast musical, “Omelette.”

Having lost their backer, who thinks they are crazy, they agree to accept help from the moneylender, Shylock (Jeff Brooks), a Jewish man whose dream is to be in theater, though it is forbidden for Jews to participate.

There has to be a love angle and Nigel falls in love with the poetry-loving Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), whose father, Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote), a puritan preacher, is determined to shut down all theater (but who seems to be inordinately interested in the men involved …). Portia encourages Nigel to be true to himself.

This is a comedy which is rife with bad puns, gay jokes and phallic humor, though on a much milder (and possibly funnier) level than “The Book of Mormon.”

It is a thoroughly delightful evening that left the audience laughing even after the curtain came down. A must-see for Shakespeare fans and musical comedy fans alike.