My Mother’s Keeper

Mother's KeeperBy Philip Pearce

IN THE THIRD PRODUCED VERSION of her play My Mother’s Keeper, local actress/playwright Jane Press takes an intense and darkly comic look back across her life as a granddaughter, a daughter, a mother and a grandmother.

The production adroitly exploits the resources of the small Carl Cherry Center stage in Carmel. There are scenes of straightforward character conflict, there are spot-lit soliloquies directed straight into the audience, there’s even a table-load of Mah Jongg playing Jewish matrons who form a Greek chorus of wry comment on the ins and outs of a mother-daughter relationship.

It’s all about the way daughters conflict with their moms but adore their grandmothers. Robin McKee, who has seen the show through each of its local evolutions, makes the point in a powerful closing visual: Jane Press, her mother Thelma and her grandmother Ida stand in a motionless tableau, each directing a searching gaze at her own mother, each receiving the dark scrutiny of her own daughter.

Easily the most successful of these past memories involve the pre-teen Press (played with charm and insight by young Ryan Finfer) and her Grandma Ida (the ever glorious and surprising Teresa Del Piero). Ida may be little Jane’s idol, but she becomes an in-house monster to daughter Thelma (Jane Press in the role of her own actress mother) when, without consulting anyone, Ida yanks the family out of Brooklyn and Thelma out of Broadway walk-ons into a dream of Beverly Hills movie triumphs that falls flatter than an IHOP pancake.

The first act scene in which Ida steamrolls everybody into the move west is as wistfully funny as anything in the show. Del Piero gets her laughs because she is as unwaveringly cheerful about her new world of Hollywood limos and swimming pools as she is impervious to the pain she is causing everybody she’s talking to.

Once the family are precariously settled on the West Coast, the idealistic young Jane takes refuge from her mother’s toxic rages in a series of blissful sleep-overs with Grandma Ida.

This package of relationships works better than any of the others in this production for two reasons. Firstly, Ida’s conflict with her ambitious daughter and chicken soup support for her adoring granddaughter are both presented by specific characters acting and reacting in specific situations. By contrast, other equally traumatic struggles of Thelma with the grown-up Jane (Janice Rocke) are described and bemoaned, either through monologues or in descriptions of bad things that have happened off stage, but are never shown happening. Like it or not, stage action, the interplay between people caught in specific human situations, usually comes across more powerfully in the theater than even the most skillfully written and well acted speeches and descriptions.

And secondly, of course, the “grandma” sequences are played by Teresa Del Piero, who is a hard act to follow on any stage.

In the role of her own troubled Mother, writer Jane Press herself has an almost equally intense power and commitment. She employs flamboyant theatrical gestures which effectively project the pathetic pretensions of this frustrated thespian parent. But we’re still essentially hearing something described rather than seeing it happen.

The main victim of this arrangement of events is the character of the grown-up Jane Press. Janice Rocke is an actress who is effective at reflection and brooding thought but can’t begin to rival the explosions and chutzpah of either Del Piero or Press. The result is that someone who should be at the center of everything that is happening seems more like a weepy and depressed bystander.

The play continues at the Cherry through May 27th, with a special pair of Mother’s Day Performance on May 13 at 2 and 7:30pm.

Adventures of Robin Hood

Robin Hood MPC pic 001

By Philip Pearce

A NEW VERSION of the time-honored Robin Hood legend has just bounced into town. It’s the work of a Chicago based children and youth theater author named Michele L Vacca. I don’t know of her other scripts, but I’ll lay a shilling to a tanner Ms Vacca has at some point touched bases with the venerable British theatrical event known as the Holiday Pantomime.

“Panto” is the kind of theatrical treat Mary Poppins might have taken Jane and Michael Banks to see during their Christmas break from school, a popular family friendly stage event that harks back to eighteenth century London. Its producers take an old familiar story—Cinderella, Aladdin, Puss in Boots—cut the plot down to the bone and hire a cast of musical actors to use what’s left as a structure on which to hang bits of swoony romance, some familiar pop music hits, plenty of knockabout farce and a whole lot of comic overacting.

The Adventures of Robin Hood, which swashbuckled noisily onto the Morgan Stock Stage at MPC last weekend, is a pretty good example. Robin and his Merry Men are on hand to rob the rich and feed the poor; their benevolence is threatened by the dastardly and idiotic Sir Guy (pronounced “Gee” as in “Gee-orgeous“) Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin, Lady Marion and the Men get their bow-and-arrow revenge, Sir Guy gets his comeuppance and that’s about all the story anybody needs to know or care about.

What matters in any self-respecting panto is a lot of attractively costumed people racing all over the stage and auditorium at the slightest  or no apparent provocation, hiding from each other behind shrubbery or inside furniture, taking on blatantly obvious disguises and  battling one another with cardboard swords and cudgels. There have to be a succession of groaner jokes even your slow-witted cousin Claude from Peoria can understand. You need a leading couple  nearly as pretty as Errol and Olivia to fall in love and sing about it . . . and they have to be opposed by a flamboyantly comic baddie (sometimes a man in drag) who is as ham-fistedly stupid as he or she is relentlessly hateful. No mental effort or subtext required. Good time had by all.

It works well at MPC, thanks for starters to Islam Omer’s athletic, witty and forceful Robin, a pre-super hero who can strike predictable derring-do poses in a way that makes them look fresh, sing and dance with the best of a well-trained cast, play the audience for laughs and applause  and even manage to sound something like an actual Englishman.

Cast opposite him, full of grace and a lot of feminist grit, is the always endearing Gracie Balistreri, whose Maid Marion briefly evades the nasty Sheriff’s clutches by fleeing to Sherwood Forest in a leggy male disguise I don’t recall from any of the movie versions but recognize as Ms Vacca’s passing homage to Shakespeare’s Rosalind.

Born and reared to play Robin’s pompous, tax collecting nemesis the Sheriff,  D Scott McQuiston roars around snatching anything from your shoes to your grandchildren on behalf of a King Richard Lionheart, who’s left him in charge of royal taxes while he’s off torturing infidels in the Holy Land. True to panto tradition, McQuiston’s periwigged pomposity, bloodthirsty plotting  and evil hyena chortle are comic high points of the evening.

If the production has a weakness, it’s that it builds up a nice, warm cast/audience rapport when it’s acting out the story, and then weakens that link every time the music starts. Three dance sequences are executed with impressive zip and commitment, but they intervene suddenly with no connection to the send-up comedy and spoof dramatics we’ve been watching. With the exception of a fairly relevant county fair dance at the beginning of Act 2, the dance numbers look and sound so much alike they become indistinguishable. Everything just stops while everybody on stage dances to a bubbly but predictable music tape full of lyrics no one responds to, let alone lip-syncs.

Here in Monterey, as in a production of 42nd Street I’d just seen at the London theater that launched British pantomime more than three centuries ago, I was struck by the unity, commitment and discipline needed to keep this kind of show looking spontaneous. Director Laura Coté’s cast of about 25 young and supple players scarcely stop to catch a breath before the next far-fetched event confronts them with yet another strenuous plot crisis. They respond with the enthusiasm of an ensemble who know each other well and like performing together.

The Adventures of Robin Hood continues through May 6th.

Photo Credit: Eric Gruss