Theater Reviews

Recycled CrazyCrazy

L-R: Adam Saucedo, Celestina Ripley, Lara Fern and R.J. Livingston in Crazy for You. Photo by Richard Green.

By Philip Pearce

Crazy for You, now playing at The Western Stage, is billed as “The New Gershwin Musical,” but it’s new (as of 1992) only in that Ken Ludwig took the 1930 hit Girl Crazy, recycled its city boy meets country girl story and added a whole lot of George and Ira songs from other shows and movies.

The script stays firmly fixed in that innocent pre-World War II world where a musical’s so-called “book” was just a nice flimsy framework on which to hang a few sentimental situations, a handful of jokes and as many hummable music and dance numbers as you could cram into two and a half hours of playing time.

The new TWS version, (they did it first back in 1997) is a brisk, glitzy, naive goldmine of gorgeous Gershwin music and inspired dancing. From the original Girl Crazy score there’s still that laconic chorus of Nevada layabouts draped around the saloon steps singing “Bidin’ my time” in close barbershop harmony. There’s the delectable soprano of Lara Devlin as frontier heroine Polly Baker urging R. J. Livingston as her city-bred dancing man swain Bobby Child to “Embrace me, my sweet Embraceable You” and there’s that perennial show-stopper “I got rhythm.”

But Ken Ludwig and Miles Ockwant add a load of other gems at points where they more or less (who cares how neatly?) fit into the flimsy plot line. There’s the wistfully hopeful Someone to watch over me,first sung by Gertrude Lawrence in O Kay!; there‘s“Nice work if you can get it,” which has far outlasted its lackluster premiere in Fred Astaire’s less than memorable A Damsel in Distress. Finest of all, to this viewer, was the pairing of what must surely be two of the greatest musical expressions of disappointed love ever penned, “But not for me” (Girl Crazy again) and the wonderful “They can’t take that away from me” from an Astaire movie called Shall We Dance that worked triumphantly because he sang and danced it with Ginger.

It’s a good cast, with Livingston a nimble, amiable and often funny Bobby, notably with the hilarious Adam J. Saucedo, who looks just like him for purposes of a story too complicated to explain, in some mirror image lunacy that’s an homage to a classic Groucho-Chico routine. Lara Devlin sings wonderfully and is delightfully feisty as the Far West girl he loves and they have a roster of pretty chorines, eccentric theatre producers, domineering moms and galumphing Western males to support them.

But it’s really all about the song and dance stuff and this production is a great example of Don Dally’s mastery of the voices in the cast and the instruments of a fine orchestra. As to the dancing, I was assured by a TWS staffer during intermission that some of the chorus girls had a willingness to learn but no previous tap experience when they checked in at the opening rehearsal. If so, Susan Cable, helped by Joelle McGrath, has miraculously transformed them into a chorus line with the verve, precision and ease of seasoned professionals. They had me grinning like a 1930s sugar daddy watching a Busby Berkeley production number.

Jeff McGrath keeps the action moving adroitly and says in his director’s notes that his goal was “to mine the show for laughs, sentimentality and eye candy.” He succeeds admirably, my one quibble being in the eye candy department. In old time westerns, you could tell the good guys from the bad because the good wore white Stetsons while the bad wore black. McGrath and costume designer Suzanne Mann seem to have adopted a similar dress code for Crazy for You. The nice girls all look delectable. But do the un-nice ones, like Rose A. Blackford as Bobby’s slinky “other woman,” and Pat Horsley as his overbearing mom, need to be done up in such a relentless succession of unattractive black and gray outfits and only change into something appealing when they have finally seen the light and succumbed to the general good will at the end of Act Two?

The show continues, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays through December 14th.

The laugh’s on us1456562_644256988930506_1728070714_nBy Philip Pearce

PacRep has just revived its wildly popular production of Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Golden Bough in Carmel. I missed it the first time around, but heard local fans pronounce it a smash hoot. They were right. I laughed for most of the show and even smiled pleasantly during intermission.

The lunacy starts with an opening number which I won’t spoil by describing except to say it’s the most extended, elaborate, lavish, all-singing, all dancing joke I’ve ever seen played on an unsuspecting audience.

Still gasping for breath from that indignity, we moved swiftly on to a King named Arthur struggling to gather a Very Round Table full of knights to find the Holy Grail, explained more or less in the Act Two Finale “Find your Grail.” As Arthur, the charming and ever hopeful D. Scott McQuiston battles confusion and frustration from the get-go. Knight recruitment yields appealing dimwits like Sir Bedevere, rangy, dark and kind of gloomy, in the person of Dale Thompson. Then there’s the irrepressible and sprightly Mike Baker as Sir Robin, a flaxen haired troubadour with a show-biz background, a gift for tricky piano magic, a tendency to run when threatened and an incontinence problem. A disgruntled peasant named Dennis, played with great zip and enthusiasm by J.T. Holmstrom, is skyrocketed to fame and derring-do when Arthur dubs him down-stage center as Sir Dennis Galahad. The resourceful and confident Christopher Scott Sullinger has a busy evening. As Sir Lancelot he emerges in Act Two as a gay pride icon when the victim he goes to rescue from a tower turns out to be not a fair maiden but a campy blond guy named Prince Herbert, played with over-the-top relish by Mark Englehorn. Undaunted by a quick costume and dialect change, Sullinger also turns himself briefly into a scornful Gallic king with a gutter vocabulary and an accent that would floor Inspector Clouseau.

Like Pinocchio, Arthur needs a Jiminy Cricket and has him right from the start in a patient, relentlessly upbeat cockney hanger-on named Patsy, acted with tremendous charm by Tim Hart. Patsy is especially wistful when the King, lost in a dark and “Very expensive Forest,” sings a pompous self-pitying ballad called “I’m all alone”, ignoring the presence of the ever-faithful Patsy and a full male backup chorus. Patsy counters with the show’s most famous ironic number, “Always look on the Bright Side of life.”

No musical is complete without its love interest and this show has a spectacular one in the person of the effervescent Jill Miller, who arrives, as the Lady of the Lake, on a glittery barge, surrounded by a troupe of toothsome Laker Girls and singing “Come with me.” Arthur complies, but only briefly. Miller has the voice and looks of a very young Ethel Merman, only funnier, nowhere more so than in her Second Act “Diva’s Lament,” the trouble being that her part has disappeared from the story and she’s fed up with cooling her heels backstage. The script makes it up to her in the final moments when she emerges, as triumphant as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, from her wedding to King Arthur.

It was fun from beginning to end, but I especially liked the dark humor of Arthur’s challenges in battle, chief among them the stubborn refusal of some enemy knights, like the sprightly, stubborn Tara Marie Lucido, to fully die (Act One “I am not dead yet”) and of John Radley as The Black Knight to surrender his sword, even when he has lost both arms. Lynette Graves as an accommodating nun clears up the mess by loading the severed limbs into her wheelbarrow and piping, “Arms for the poor! Arms for the poor!”

The show even sets out to spoil other musicals for you by sending up some memorable favorites like those seemingly endless Lloyd Webber operatic duets (“The song that goes like this”) and all those guys in black wearing bottles on their heads in Fiddler on the Roof (“You won’t succeed on Broadway…without a Jew.”)

Director Stephen Moorer maneuvers his big cast of zanies with speed and lots of chutzpa, maintaining a tone that is irreverent, but ultimately on the Bright Side of Life. There are even some instrumental jokes from the music crew, ably led by Stephen Tosh.

Catch it if you haven’t, or catch it again even if you have, 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays, or 2pm Sundays through December 22, with an extra performance at 7:30 Wednesday, November 27.

Perfectly tailored to local talent

Social-Security-PR4By Philip Pearce

There’s a pleasant, light, 1980-something comedy playing at Carmel Valley’s Magic Circle Theatre these weekends. Social Securityabounds in nice one-liners and recognizable upper middle class character conflicts—with emphasis always on the light. Screen and television writer Andrew Bergman weaves his plot, such as it is, around matters as potentially explosive as inter-generational warfare, the eruption of 20th century teen-aged sexual freedom and the collapse of traditional marriage, but not so as you would feel much of the pain. What matters is that the dialogue is clever, the situations funny if familiar and the script tailored to the talents of six gifted local actors.

We’re in the glitzy Upper East Side home of art dealer David Kahn and his wife Barbara, when suburbanite in-laws Trudy and Martin Heyman, bent on pursuing an elusive and sexually obsessed daughter, bust in and dump Trudy’s and Barbara’s gorgon mother willy-nilly on the Kahns.

Generational battles ensue, till an artist client of David’s enters the fray and changes the situation in ways I won’t spoil for you by revealing.

Suzanne Sturn moves the action adroitly without succumbing to the farce director’s temptation to move it so fast you miss dialogue or the real, if superficial, character development and contrasts. The cast do a wonderful job.

As the embattled David, James Brady has the appropriate social ease of an art dealer who once housed Picasso in the same guest room being commandeered by his terrifying mother in law. It’s a joy to see his smooth veneer crack in a funny second act debacle concerning a clothes closet. As his wife, Mary Spence weathers even more violent domestic disasters and does so with an unfailing comic skill. Her shifts from screaming frustration to determined self control are a delight to watch.

Sherry Kefalas is hilarious as the corny out-of-town sister caught in the middle of a two way struggle, one with a once demure daughter now turned nymphomaniac, the other with a permanent parental houseguest from hell she is determined to offload. Kefalas’s face is a study in comic action and, even more important, reaction. Some of her funniest moments are her silent responses, sometimes to the needs of her own make up and appearance, sometimes to the slings and arrows of unwelcome opinion people keep hurling at her. Joe Donofrio, hampered only by occasional dialect lapses, is a perfect foil for Kefalas as a seemingly respectable suburban hubby with a guilty secret.

The source of all the upheaval is Sophie Greengrass, who wields her geriatric walker like a blunderbuss and does a discreet semi-striptease at an inconvenient moment. Virginia Bell manages to trump even the sound and fury of her frantic extended family in what starts off looking like a one-note comic strip characterization and blossoms out into some delightful and artfully played surprises.

Helped, as who wouldn’t be, by Michael Robbins as the sly and dapper Maurice Koenig. Robbins performs with an effortless comic grace that enables him to face the most threatening of plot crises with an ease based on years of satisfying experience: Keonig’s as a 99-year-old best-selling painter, Robbins’ as a longtime and well-loved Monterey Peninsula actor.

Social Security continues, Fridays and Saturdays at 7, Sundays at 2, through December 15.

Posted Nov 18, 2013. Photo: Virginia Bell, Mary Spence, James Brady and Michael Robbins

Huck Finn, quick and lively

By Philip Pearce

Remember when the broadcast media linked you to the stage and the novel? Television did adaptations of writers ranging from Shakespeare and Ibsen to Edward Albee. Earlier on, in my school days, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater offered sixty minute radio adaptations which actually led me to read books like Jane Eyre, The Magnificent Ambersons and Rebecca. Gone are the days, but MPC offers something nearly equivalent with its Storybook Theatre performances of stories worth reading in adaptations worth watching on stage.

HUCK_3663 -The latest is Huck Finn’s Story in which adapter Aurand Harris and director Susanne Burns skillfully cover the high points of Mark Twain’s classic novel in just under sixty minutes. The show moves fast, is pleasingly cast and attractively mounted and sold out for a lot of its remaining performances.

The story is sometimes acted out, other times, as in Twain’s text, narrated by Huck himself, and at still others summarized by an attractive ensemble of supporting players who cover plot transitions and jump in and out of character cameos along the way. All this plus creating the rolling river, the bouncing canoe and the drifting raft which figure so prominently in Huck’s adventures on the Mississippi. At appropriate moments they also sing folk songs, form a square dance troupe and make background riverside critter noises. They are lively, energetic and fun to watch.

Alex Thibeau is sensitive, assured and believable as Huck, and in the story’s other lead role, Greg Sims offers a strongly expressive face and an appropriate pathos to the role of Jim.

I knew Alisha Gay as an able serious actress but was delighted to discover her deft comedic skill in the dual roles of a prim, well-meaning Widow Douglas and then as the vinegary schoolmarm Miss Watson. Lane Olson is effective as a gullible riverside resident taken in by Huck’s ludicrous efforts to pretend he’s a girl. Inevitably, any abridgment of a familiar story will cut some favorite segment. So I did miss the way this riverside matron in the novel eventually caught on to Huck’s cross-dressing ruse by noting how he caught something thrown into his lap in a way no long-skirted nineteenth century woman ever would. It would have been a nice piece of comic stage business, but I guess you can’t have everything

Amanda Schemmel charmed me as a perky, long-winded and attractive Aunt Sally, and, like the entire cast, she speaks in a convincing Louisiana dialect.

Daniel Levy is wonderfully sinister and menacing as Huck’s drunkard father, and David Naar and Melissa Kamnikar play two unscrupulous con men claiming to be European nobility and royalty with big dollops of energy and style.

A special note of praise should go to Danielle Maupin’s scene design, with its convincing wooden pier that transforms in seconds to the moonlit raft carrying two brave friends on an exciting and funny Mississippi River adventure.

There were empty seats at the first Saturday matinee, but the box office told me most of the tickets for this weekend are sold. But it’s worth a try. Performances are at 7 pm Fridays and Saturdays and 3 pm Saturdays and Sundays until November 24th.

Photo by Sky Rappoport, MPC Theatre Company

HARD TO WATCH, BUT “SUPERB”

By Philip Pearce

Skot Davis and William J. Wolak in A Song For My Father. Photography by Richard Green

Entering the Western Stage Studio Theater for A Song For My Father you face a driveway leading to a garage door. When the action starts, a man named Randy Wolf opens the door and you face that most telling symbol of America’s hoarder mentality, the garage too stuffed with junk to house an automobile.

But this is not to be a play about American greed. The dark open space upstage center, as the play progresses, will yield up the flotsam and jetsam—furniture, phones and clothing, walkers, wheelchairs, hospital beds and medicine tables—that are significant equipment in the lives of poet Randy and his cantankerous Cleveland working class dad Frank. A Song For My Father probes, dissects and analyzes their fraught relationship with a realism I can only call relentless. “That was cheery,” one spectator cracked after the curtain call. “Powerful, but I tuned out fifteen minutes ago. It was too much,” commented another. Playwright David Budbill’s answer is, “If you never get the blues, this play is not for you.” Western Stage offers it with power and distinction.

Act I is provocative and interactive: Randy challenges, sometimes negotiates his way into a backward look at his stormy relationship with Frank. But Frank and Randy’s mother Ruth stand by and keep interrupting, correcting, protesting in a sometimes funny, sometimes fiery three-way debate. Randy even coerces the other two into staging an improvised sequence in which Frank will play his own drunken and abusive father, Ruth will become Frank’s battered and victimized mother, while Randy plays his own father as a small boy. It’s a warning to both fathers and sons that, too often, we end up recycling the very things we hated most about our parents. The probing and dissection never let up.

There were moments early on when I reacted. “Enough, already!” I thought as the members of this troubled tribe repeated their lone argumentative mantras. “You’re a mess! You’re a mess!” Frank keeps shouting at his son. “She’s not my mother! She’s not my mother!” Randy intones like the boring refrain of some tiresome folk song when Ruth dies and Frank remarries. In a typically well-made play, the playwright would gauge how much we spectators need to be told something, and once the point has sunk in would move on to the next revelation. But I gradually realized that Budbill isn’t feeding us dramatic information, he is forcing us to experience the reality of family conflicts in which the combatants do indeed say the same damned thing over and over again till you want to scream. It’s part of the anguish. It’s central to the experience.

Budbill’s script points up ugly truths about family dysfunction we‘d probably rather not look at. It reminds us, for one thing, that not all conflicts have a resolution. The central issue of the plot, Randy’s desire to understand himself in relationship to his strident, opinionated father, ends only in the chaos of Frank’s slow decline into diabetes and dementia and death. It’s a raw, unpleasant process that occupies much of Act Two, and it’s what caused some spectators to tune out.

The play also offers problems without a list of answers at the back of the book. In his early lucid moments of Act One, Frank is righteously adamant that, though early in his working life he “traveled,” he was never “a traveling man”—the name given to a guy whose travels included seedy assignations in rural hotel rooms at the end of his work day. Yet in his Second Act dementia, Frank suddenly boasts lasciviously of repeated one-night stands when he was on the road as a young salesman. We can hope this is just a demented delusion, but the issue is never settled. Whatever happens in stage plays, this script says that life offers few clear and easy answers. Not even how to understand three poignant moments when Frank, for no obvious reason, says, “I love you, Randy,” and we hope he means it.

It’s strong stuff and calls for good acting and inventive staging. Director Lorenzo Aragon moves the action skillfully around the playing area with subtle light changes that help to mark transitions and to spotlight key moments and characters.

The acting is superb. Skot Davis is able to shade and distinguish Randy Wolf’s varied sufferings, from comic frustrations over his old man‘s illogic, to towering rages worthy of a Greek tragic hero. Emotionally, it ends in a crushing sense of guilt as Randy watches his father die with the lines of communication all blocked. It is an explosive and demanding role which Davis plays with force and assurance..

William J. Wolak is nothing short of brilliant in the even more passionate and complicated role of Frank Wolf. This is a deeply conflicted man, as desperately committed to getting his only son through college and as he is to pouring contempt on him as an erudite yuppie too forgetful of his working class roots to dirty his hands in an honest trade. Wolak’s performance is masterly. His presentation of the horror of Frank’s physical and emotional pain, his slow terrible decline into dementia and death will indeed be strong meat for the casual playgoer.

The wonderful Jill Jackson plays the two women Frank marries. As first wife Ruth she adds an element of patient tenderness sadly lacking in any of the interplay between her son and her husband. Frank admits that marriage to Ruth moved him up a rung of the social ladder, but Jackson never allows her to seem smug or patronizing. We can share Randy’s sincere grief when this sane center of gravity is removed with her death. Enter Frank’s second wife, the perky, shrill Ivy, a nervous Evangelical Christian as well meaning as she is unbearable, especially to Randy. Jackson plays her with a brisk and sympathetic energy that rightfully earned an ovation after the trills and shrieks of one of Ivy’s lengthy phone conversations.

The fourth member of this fine cast, scrubbed and lovely and competent, is Reina Cruz Vazquez. As Frank’s patient and adaptable nursing home care giver Betty, she is a lungful of fresh air in a Second Act thick with the conflict and confusion of Frank’s plummeting health. She is there to offer Frank her quiet humor and healing hands, but even that explodes unexpectedly as Vazquez, in a moment of finely tuned acting, drops the calm and sweet veneer and turns her bottled up exhausted rage on a Frank who is really just another in a working day full of ugly, pawing insatiable geriatric nuisances.

A Song For My Father is not a nice uplifting evening out, but it is challenging and beautiful theater. It continues, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm until November 24th.

Posted Nov 4, 2013

ANGRY NORMAL HEART AT UCSC

By Philip Pearce

From its parking lot, U.C. Santa Cruz’s Theater Arts complex was for me a puzzling maze of stairs, archways and concrete architecture with no visible evidence of a box office. The undergraduate who kindly led me through the maze to the opening night of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart turned out to be the play’s personable young director, Adam Odsess-Rubin. By the end of the evening, I decided he and an all student cast and crew had done a creditable job with a challenging piece of theater still eloquent and disturbing 28 years after its Broadway premiere.  

Kramer’s play is, of course, an angry and ground-breaking attack on the attitude of national, state and big city officials of the 1980s toward the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. Angry because that response was one of dangerous apathy and irresponsible denial by almost everyone except actual victims of the disease. Ground-breaking because Kramer, eschewing the glib camp of works like The Boys in the Band, lashes out in a drama about a group of believable, eloquent and honorable homosexual men.

The central figure is a relentless gay leader and political organizer named Ned Weeks. Sean Draper invests the role with the authentic fire and rage of a committed pioneer activist but manages also to mine some of the nuance and humor without which Weeks could easily become a tiresomely ranting Johnny-one-note. His circle of cohorts covers a wide range of attitudes and aspirations. At one extreme there’s Brandon Barnes’ stolid masculinity as Bruce, a gay rights leader so paradoxically unwilling to come out publicly that the enraged Ned at one point accuses him of being a closet straight. The play follows others, some gay, some straight, as they are drawn into battle, some eager others unwilling, with threats to their jobs in media, the law and even the office of New York Mayor Ed Koch. They are ably portrayed by a cast that includes Joshua Orlando, Marc Williams, Alex Lasser-Gold, Judyan Gonzalez, Tanner Oertel, Marc Williams and Devon Yaffe. Especially notable, I thought, was Tommy Boatwright, played with vigor and intelligence by Quest Zuidler, as a man too squeaky voiced and limp wristed to get many dates but an increasingly strong mainstay of sanity, peace making and compassion in the stormy world of this gay activist fellowship.

Neiry Rojo is hampered only by occasional problems with audibility. As the only female in a cast of ten and the only character who, in her committed medical outreach to HIV positive males, she matches Ned’s relentless fury at the pig-headed political and medical establishment of the time.

In general, the cast are best where Kramer’s script does best—in the emotional ups and downs and poignant personal conflicts of this group of emotionally differing individuals. They are less successful where, in my view, Kramer’s script falters, in a Second Act with too many two-way ideological face-offs. These confrontations are well crafted and persuasive, but they come in such a close, lock-step succession that you lose touch with the issue being argued and tune out, a victim of eloquence overload.

The production continues on Friday and Saturday at 7 and Sunday at 3 through November 10.

Posted Nov 4, 2013

At MPC, you can take it with you

Phil Hopfner, Rollie Dick and Cliff Berry. Photo by Veronica Ripley/MPC Theatre Company

By Philip Pearce

A staple of 1930s screwball comedy was the socialite heroine with a heart of gold and a lunatic family. Movie heroines like Carole Lombard and Irene Dunne were rescued from their silly snobbish kinfolk by leading men like William Powell and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who restored them to the safety of middle class life and values. In You Can’t Take It With You, playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart stuck to the crazy family formula all right, but they turned it on its head in two important ways. They moved the heroine from the social register down into the middle class, while pairing her with a suitor from the New York banking world. And her cuckoo family then charmed the guy out of his Wall Street vice presidency and into their endearing do-your-own-thing neverland, thirty years before anybody ever heard of a hippie.

You Can’t Take It With You was a comforting anodyne to the ugly realities of the great depression. It ran for 838 performances, garnered a Pulitzer Prize, and spawned a movie adaptation that won the 1937 Best Picture Oscar.

In MPC’s current revival director Peter DeBono wisely keeps the story firmly in its historic setting with a set, props and costumes that reflect pre-war middle class America and nice 1930s pop music piped in before and after every scene.

As the only level head and regular paycheck in the free-wheeling Sycamore family, daughter Alice in some productions gets overshadowed by all the surrounding goofiness. The attractive and spirited Taylor Thorngate never lets that happen. Her clear voice and comic timing make Alice a match for any of the members of her tribe. As her weekday boss and new fiancé, Tony Kirby, Jay Kliewer skillfully manages the important change from suave Wall Street executive to anti-establishment idealist.

This all happens in what is probably the gentlest and least sardonic comedy Kaufman and Hart ever wrote, and the keynote figure for the whole amiable Sycamore circus is Grandpa Martin Vanderhof. Rollie Dick is absolutely marvelous as this patriarch who years ago walked into an elevator and out of a high salaried Wall Street job to take up a blissful life of stamp collecting, snake keeping, a passion for laughing his way through Ivy League commencement speeches and an ability to speak to God as if He were the corner grocer. If there is a local actor who can better exude an enthusiastic joy or point a comedy line with sharper skill than Dick, I don’t know who that is.

The ensemble cast supports him well. As his daughter  Penny, Judie Swartz is a daffy delight who writes plays with titles like “Poison Gas” and “Sex Takes a Holiday” because somebody delivered a typewriter to the house by mistake eight years ago. As her husband Paul, Phil Hopfner shifts convincingly from a frantic commitment to his miniature basement fireworks factory to occasional befuddled reflections on the family’s strange lifestyle. Alice’s sister Essie’s ambition is to be a ballerina. Tatum Tollner is hilariously inept in her pliés and pirouettes, usually accompanied by the lilting xylophone music of husband Ed, who showed up for a visit some time ago and just stayed around to marry the wannabe dancer. Bob Lindall is a double-threat in the role, negotiating the xylophone interludes with effortless skill and playing Ed’s manic enthusiasm for his printing press and scary confrontation with the FBI with comic brio and conviction.

An exuberant Russian refugee named Boris Kolenkhov, acted with tremendous vigor and wit by the wonderful and resourceful Mark Shilstone-Laurent, has tutored Essie for eight years, obviously mainly because lessons involve regular meals at the Sycamore dinner table and in spite of the fact that he knows that as a dancer “Confidentially, she stinks.” I was somewhat puzzled by Shilstone-Laurent’s repeated but unsuccessful efforts to throw his hat across a hallway onto a distant coat hook in the manner of 1930s comedian Bobby Hall. But even his failures were funny as was his startlingly convincing wrestling throw of a man half again bigger than himself at a high point of Act Two.

His manhandled wrestling victim is Anthony Kirby, father of the hero, who arrives in full evening dress with his socialite wife while a full-scale circus of lurching ballet, bubbling xylophone, enthusiastic oil painting and squirming pet snakes are going full throttle in the Sycamore living room. James Brady and Connie Erickson play down the usual stuffed-shirt bluster of the senior Kirbys. The result is that their comic moments, like the ill-conceived truth-telling parlor game, lose a bit of their bite. But the more rational and realistic approach to the parts make it easier to accept the speedy and somewhat unbelievable change of heart Kaufman and Hart have given Kirby in the final moments of the story.

An underlying element in the Sycamore lunacy is its power to attract visitors who, like Kolenkhov, keep on visiting or, like Ed, arrive for an evening and stay for the rest of their lives. Notable in this group of inspired hangers-on is Mr. De Pinna, recruited decades back as Paul’s fireworks assistant. The elfin and gasping Cliff Berry scurries back and forth from basement to living room with fresh and frantic pyrotechnic problems to be solved in time for a big July 4th display. But his biggest moment comes as Penny decides to abandon play writing for at least one evening and return to her long ago work of oil painting while De Pinna dons a toga—clad to pose as a discus thrower—and just in time for the unexpected arrival of the Kirbys.

Don’t ask how they can afford it, but the Sycamores also keep a full-time live-in African-American maid named Rheba, played by the charming and cheerful Asia Smith. Rheba nightly entertains boyfriend Donald, who is “on relief,” runs lickety split errands to the A & P grocery and is a devotee of the popular thirties evangelist Father Divine. The black couple’s philosophic reflections on the puzzling excesses of the Sycamores provide some welcome peace and quiet after a truly explosive second act climax.

It’s a big cast with even the smallest roles played with conviction, but special praise needs to go to L.J. Thomas, who provides a memorable Act One cameo in the role of an increasingly frustrated Internal Revenue agent.

Jokes about Father Divine and Mrs Roosevelt will be a stretch for most 2013 audiences. But if the play often shows its age, it also provides a nice nostalgic look not at how people actually behaved but at the kind of theatrical fare they found irresistible seventy years ago.

The production continues Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2, until November 3rd.

 

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S NIGHTMAREBy Philip Pearce

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has always seemed to me to be 75 percent of a wonderful comedy. Theseus and Hippolyta don’t get many laughs but they say some beautiful words. Those loony lovers going increasingly manic in the woods are a lot of fun. And the fairy royals and their supernatural retinue keep the plot whirling along delightfully. It’s when those Rude Mechanicals lumber in that I wince, and when they stage Pyramus and Thisbe I squirm. Their shenanigans always come across to me as a patronizing upper crust wink at those quaint people who have to dirty their hands with honest work. Was Shakespeare really such a snob?

Apart from one sublime Stratford version that made everybody in the play a real person, most productions I’ve seen go along with the received wisdom that belittles those funny working folk. But the new Dream being staged in broad sixties style by PacRep at the Forest Theater is an equal opportunity production. It doesn’t just look down on the clumsy acting troupe. It looks down on almost everybody, high born or proletarian. .

So, the usually stuffy Duke is a take-off on John Wayne (get it?) in cowboy attire, who joins his whip-wielding cowgirl fiancée in interrupting all that tiresome poetry with noisy parlor games. The quartet of lovers are, if anything, more boisterous than the mechanicals. They shriek, scream, weep, kick butt (and crotch) from the get-go. Not much build. Just one loud note. The only characters to rise above the screaming and mayhem are the fairies. They at least are attractive looking, speak clearly, fly gracefully from time to time above the set and, paradoxically enough, show some recognizable signs of humanity.

Granted, a version in a big outdoor setting like Carmel’s Forest Theater has got to be played broad. But I have seen that done at comparable open-air venues with plenty of wild comedy but a clear projection of the other performance styles which make for variety and which this four-plot work seems to call for.

It may be possible to stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream like one long combination of Hellzapoppin and an animated cartoon. But it seems to me such an approach would require slapstick and shtick of a machine-like clarity and precision that just aren’t evident in this production. And even if that did happen, all of that fancy 16th century dialogue would still keep getting in the way.

A wise man of the theater once said to me that if you don’t trust the script, you probably ought to be doing a different play.

Weekend performances continue through October 20.

Posted Oct 8, 2013. Photo by Stephen Moorer

Style always trumps sincerity

By Philip Pearce

With the comedies of Oscar Wilde it’s always about the words. Like tasteful British fireworks, they’re written to soar and sparkle. Stumble, mumble, slur or punch them and they drop like lead pellets. Give a cheer: The Western Stage’s new mounting of The Importance of Being Earnest flows trippingly upon the tongue, crackling along in a way that seems almost un-American.

All that arch and artificial talk demands some adroit stage blocking as well, and Director William J. Wolak’s cast moves with the coordinated discipline of a crack marching team. The play’s spirited co-heroes Jack Worthing, (the versatile and funny Jesse Huston) and Algernon Moncrieff (Kerel Rennacker, all pompous pride and wounded vanity) set the pace minutes into Act I and it doesn’t flag for the next two and a half hours. That there wasn’t more audience response on the Friday I went was no fault of the well drilled cast. More likely some end-of-the-work-week blahs and a script that demands a lot of careful attention.

Earnest is a comic staple which pops up again and again in any self-respecting community theater’s repertoire, producing longtime fans who anticipate the arrival of pet sequences the way opera buffs lie in wait for favorite arias. There is always Lady Bracknell’s famous third degree interrogation of Jack as a prospective son-in-law, an ordeal he survives well enough till she learns he started life not in an aristocratic family nursery but in the folds of a handbag in the cloakroom of the Victoria Railway Station. All of that went just fine, thanks to a cowed Jack and a fiercely determined Lady Bracknell played by Donna Federico less as a ruthless gorgon than a busy little aristocrat of such overweening social confidence that she can smilingly patronize the rest of us poor social misfits with sure-fire rules of correct behavior.

As her daughter Gwendolyn, Rose A. Blackford is delightful, brisk and formidable, torn by her maidenly passion for suitor Jack but never losing her grip on social correctness. Her conflict with her mother over being banished to “The carriage, Gwendolyn!” is a high noon shootout between two iron wills. It’s pretty clear Jack is justified in wondering whether, once married, Gwendolyn will evolve into a certified copy of her mother. In the role of Algernon’s beloved Cecily, all done up in flowing pink, Amanda J. Salmon creates an artful Edwardian flirt and tease who contrasts neatly with the more corseted and mannered Gwendolyn.

Another favorite sequence for Earnest fans is Algernon and Jack conducting a major dramatic confrontation while they stuff their faces with muffins, done here with hilarious brio by Rennacker and Huston. Less successful, I felt, was Gwendolyn and Cecily’s famous discovery that they both seem to have got themselves engaged to the same man at the same time. Their cat fight is scripted in the most unctuous of Edwardian courtesies, with the fury hidden and surfacing only when Gwendolyn finally explodes over being served sugar in her tea and a cake instead of bread and butter. Blackford and Salmon mouth the pleasantries clearly enough, but they show the underlying irritation almost from the start so the joke falls flat. They would have done better to take to heart Lady B’s earlier insistence that style always trumps sincerity (at least in any Oscar Wilde play).

Cecily’s tiresomely moralizing tutor Miss Prism is usually costumed and acted either as a grimly garbed spinster or a wispy woolgathering frump. Not so with the wonderful and well-groomed Betsy Andrade and the TWS costume room which fitted her out as a kind of willowy pre-Raphaelite on a country weekend. It’s an attractive innovation that works well enough, though it clashes with Lady Bracknell’s description of Prism as a person of “repellant” appearance. Nevertheless, the hope is raised that the grand dame will be mellowed by the more forgiving Reverend Dr. Chasuble once the young couple has tied the nuptial knot. Larry Welch plays Chasuble with plenty of countrified theological bounce, but his name gave other cast members a few pronunciation problems. Just as Wilde gives Jack and Lady Bracknell the jokey last names of English country towns, he names his clerical comic after an Anglican Eucharistic vestment, whose first syllable should rhyme with “jazz” not “jaws.” (Trust me on this; I have one hanging in my hall closet.)

Moving down the cast list, Michael Nickerson deserves a double bouquet for playing Algie’s impeccable and sardonic Mayfair butler with such finesse and then turning up, hardly recognizable, as a rural debt collector with a convincingly raspy British country bumpkin accent. I had more trouble with Nathan Brown and Pasi Eltit who make pleasing appearances as a couple of country estate servants but whose dialects (Central Europe? Ireland? English Midlands?) I was at a loss to identify.

A final word on another innovation: characters in this production sometimes direct their barbs of wit and private ruminations not at other characters but straight into the audience. Was this an appeal for a more engaged reaction to the comedy itself than was evident at last Friday’s performance?

The Importance of Being Earnest continues through Oct 6. Photo by Richard Green. Posted Sep 22, 2013

Science gone hilariously awry

Jeff Garrett, William J. Brown III, Adam Stanton, Julie James. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

I only learned week before last that Arcadia was being done by the Jewel Theatre Company of Santa Cruz and by the time I’d negotiated a ticket it was to be squeezed into a midweek performance added to accommodate those who were being turned away from all the other sold out performances. Like The Winter’s Tale and Guys and Dolls, Arcadia’s a play I would travel many miles farther than Santa Cruz to see.

A full house, yes, but when we returned for Act II, a few seats had been vacated by occupants I suspect were scared off by all the early 19th and late 20th century philosophical, literary and scientific references liberally scattered through the script. Arcadia has enough themes to fill out five or six plays and much of its brilliance stems from the way Tom Stoppard manages to package them artfully together.

His structure is a diptych of members of the same family occupying the same room nearly two centuries apart. We watch the aristocratic Coverlys and their educational and literary adherents in 1809 dealing with big social changes that were sweeping across Britain as Romanticism washed over The Age of Reason. Then we watch three 20th century Coverly descendants and two academic hangers-on interpreting fragments of data we have watched in the making and getting it all hilariously wrong. All that plus plenty of 1809 sex and violence, the sex offstage but frequent, the violence repeatedly averted through ridiculous, aborted dueling challenges worthy of Congreve.

Nothing so difficult about that, really; no pop quiz at the final curtain. All the talk about Newtonian physics, gothic Romantic architecture, chaos theory and thermodynamics is just provocative evidence of what is exercising the minds of all those delightful characters. Director Susan Myer Silton’s chief aims seem to have been clarity and energy and those qualities are both the strength and the occasional weakness of this consistently entertaining production. Energy—that goal every director so fervently sets for every actor—was very high. To a person this cast displayed a confidence and a coherent understanding of the people and ideas they were portraying. This made the play as accessible as any of the four versions I’ve seen. In the 1809 sequences, for instance, the female head of the Coverly clan, Lady Croom, had always struck me as a slightly disappointing watered-down Lady Bracknell, full of trenchant epigrams but not much humanity. Shannon Warrick of Jewel transforms her into someone who can find her way around an early 19th century wisecrack with the best of them but holds onto the outward social correctness and sub rosa sexual freedom of the departing Age of Reason. In the twentieth century sections, William J. Brown III as the mathematician Valentine, helped me better than earlier Valentines to grasp something about thermodynamics and chaos theory. Or am I maybe just getting closer to it through repeated exposure?

All the stage energy sometimes, however, seemed to get out of hand this time around. In the 19th century sequences, the sprightly Hannah Mary J. Keller played the teenage genius Thomasina Coverly with such relentless pyrotechnic bounce that it was hard to believe she ever took enough time out to anticipate twentieth-century chaos theory. And in the 20th century sections, Jeff Garrett used his obvious talent and resourcefulness so broadly that his performance as the excitedly deceived academic Bernard Nightingale sometimes spilled over into ranting caricature.

But the show never dragged and Silton’s Director’s Notes are “bang on,” as the Brits would put it, when she writes that in this play Stoppard is telling us that  “…no matter how we think and probe and discover and invent, no matter how much knowledge we attain, there will always be the human heart. It is the variable, the symbol for something we have yet to discover. . .”

By the time you read this, Jewel’s run of Arcadia is history. But try and seek out any future chance to experience one of the stage treasures of the 20th century.

Posted Sep 23, 2013

PILLS AND POPCORN

By Philip Pearce

If “classical” suggests to you that Molière (née Jean Baptiste De Poquelin) wrote seventeenth century drawing room comedies full of French champagne and sparkling Gallic mots, think again. Molière characters interact with all the subtlety of opposing fans at a pre-game hatchback party and PacRep pulls out all the stops in a rowdy modern adaptation of The Imaginary Invalid

Using an updated script by Constance Congdon, director Kenneth Kellaher sets the story in a flashy late 20th or early 21st century Paris apartment with a commanding view of the Eiffel Tower. Just outside the picture window is a ledge which the characters later threaten to avail when the plot pushes them to suicidal heights, which happens quite a lot.

We are catapulted into the action with an opening musical number called Quack! in which the actors make like ducks and alert us to the fact that tonight’s laughs are going to be aimed mainly at phony doctors and the hypochondriacs who patronize them. If this seems a bit over-the-top, bear in mind that Molière’s theater regularly halted the action with songs and dances of the day. The Congdon script continues the tradition with disco dance interludes, songs and lyrics that establish characters and underline jokes that point ahead to what’s about to happen.

Central to the whole scuffle is Argan, an aging hypochondriac, his shelves lined with pills, his pockets crammed with prescriptions. Gary S. Martinez is a wonder to watch in the role, eyes rolling heavenward, knees squeezing together in spasms of improvised pain. His obsession with his bodily functions includes a lot of extended on-stage flatulence, which he assesses with the sniffy hauteur of a sommelier describing the contrasting bouquets of various rare vintages.

The rest of the cast keeps right up with him. Blonde and slinky Jennifer LeBlanc instantly negotiates her emotional shifts, from overt blandishment to covert avarice, in an energetic portrayal of Argan’s glossy token second wife Beline. Director Kelleher neatly underscores their relationship by LeBlanc’s split-second evasions each time Martinez lunges lustfully at her across a couch.

The lord and master’s medical idée fixe soon sabotages a budding romance between his daughter Angelique, acted with bubble-headed intensity by Katie Rose Krueger, and her guitar-wielding suitor Cléante, played by the bright and resourceful Sam Fife. Forget the guitar, Argan won’t for one moment consider any son-in-law who isn’t a doctor, or at very least a medical student, and that means the family Doctor Pergeon’s doltish nephew Claude de Aria (whose name does indeed, as we soon discover, sound very much like “diarrhea.”)

This portion of the Congdon adaptation skims over the improbability of a determined contemporary female having to fret, unlike her more restricted seventeenth century counterpart, over a parent’s permission to marry. Anachronism? Who cares when we can watch the desperate pre-nuptial strategies of Steve Slack as Pergeon and hilarious Todd Pivetti as the ludicrously inept de Aria? (Pivetti returns later to do a second creditably funny turn in the role of a German pharmacist.)

All that said, the central pleasure of this production is what has happens to the key role of the household servant Toinette. Contemptuous of her whiny boss, staunchly loyal to the young lovers, she is the one character with brains and judgment enough to untangle all those messy plot strands and bring the play to an end. In other versions I’ve seen, she is portrayed as a busty, spike-heeled “French maid,” swinging her frilly apron and winking beneath her frilly servant’s cap. However, frilly French parlor maids moved quietly off into the wings in about 1935, so PacRep (do I credit Congdon or Kelleher or both?) dresses the superb and sardonic Julie Hughett in the dowdy working gear of a floor mopping drudge, her unkempt nest of wispy gray hair perched above the fastest brain and sharpest tongue in Paris. It’s a brilliant concept, with perfect casting, that reaches its high point when this quick-witted char lady is forced to play two different characters of opposite genders conversing with each other at the same time in full view of the audience. How it‘s done has to be seen to be believed.

Start to finish, The Imaginary Invalid is loud and funny and brief enough to avoid possible noise and other sensory overloads. You’re headed home in just over two hours, including a fifteen minute intermission.

The farce continues at the Circle Theater of the Golden Bough Theatre weekends till September 29th.

Posted Sep 16, 2013

Luis Valdez channels Bertolt Brecht

By Philip Pearce

A switchblade stabs through a huge blown-up front page of the Los Angeles Examiner headlining teen gang violence. A head pops through the slit in the paper, then the body of a man in balloon trousers with a key chain the size of a jump-rope swinging from one pocket. Languorously he combs his hair into a ducksass coif. From the slit in the newspaper, a hand begins to feed him the pointy black shoes, the sagging jacket and black fedora of a trendy 1940s Chicano zoot suiter. This is El Pachuco, the disturbing central figure of Luis Valdez’ Zoot Suit, currently playing at the Western Stage at Hartnell College.

In something not unlike the harsh “Living Newspaper” stage presentations of the Great Depression, Valdez has written a searing political satire. It’s based on a 1942 trial that falsely convicted 17 young members of the 38th Street Gang in Los Angeles to life imprisonment for a murder they did not commit at a gang hangout called the Sleepy Lagoon. The opening spotlight on costume is significant. These accused young men were condemned as much for their anti-establishment zoot suits as for any evidence of homicidal intent. Focusing on gang leader Henry Reyna and three other defendants, one an Anglo, the script presents their false arrest, ruthless prosecution and wrongful conviction in a format where actors step abruptly out of character, breaking the stage-audience fourth wall to challenge us with public opinion sound bites based on news headlines, World War II battle statistics and Latino wartime pop music and dancing.

When I saw Zoot Suit some years ago at El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, I felt excited by the first act, but let down by the second. The story had reached the end of a detailed and bitterly unjust trial scene covering the conviction and sentencing of the gang members, and the promise by their defense lawyer George Shearer—played with spirited conviction at TWS by Alfred Seccombe—that they’d win on appeal. Act II opened with the clear expectation that we’d see Shearer’s promise fulfilled in a second trial scene. But it never happened. Only another passing newsflash affirmed that the accused boys had been exonerated. Valdez seemed to me back then to have promised an important climax that he never delivered. I felt cheated, and some sardonic words about “happy endings” from the zoot suited Pachuco didn’t help one bit.  

My second look at the show last week at TWS helps me see that the problem was not with Valdez’ play, but with the misdirected expectations I brought to it—expectations I suspect a lot of audiences, even regular theater-going ones, will share.

The truth is, Valdez is not concerned with neat dramatic climaxes or characters we are asked to sympathize or identify with. These actors and singers and dancers are Brechtian illustrations, sometimes funny, sometimes starkly unpleasant, of ideas Valdez wants to thrust at us. The people on stage lay down an ugly challenge to a complacently liberal California which harbored its own civil rights abuses even as it geared up to fight fascism overseas. Valdez cares a lot less how much we sympathize with or reject these stage figures than how we react to the viewpoints they represent. Actors involved in a scene are abruptly isolated in solitary glaring spotlights that emphasize not their humanity but their viewpoint on whatever is happening. The play is a shifting, often uneasy and inconclusive debate, a kind of dramatized all-singing, all-dancing op-ed page. My mistake at San Juan Bautista was expecting to leave the theater with some kind of satisfying answer to an ugly incident of racial prejudice. But all the while El Pachuco was telling me that real life doesn‘t supply a lot of conclusive answers or encouraging climaxes, even if stage life usually does.

As El Pachuco, Michael Uribes is, as he must be, riveting. He pervades everything that happens, sometimes lurking in shadow on the fringes of the story, sometimes strutting insolently into the spotlight, backed up from time to time by the sardonic voices of a Pachuca Trio played by Carmela Rebancos, Roxana Sanchez and Reina Cruz Vasquez. Their task is to judge, comment trenchantly on characters and events and decisions, undermine platitudes and easy solutions, push dark alternatives onto hero Henry, played with style and passion by David Zubiria.

Zoot Suit has vivid if inconclusive dramatic conflicts and vibrant music and dancing, but it’s not an easy option. I salute directors Jon Selover, Lorenzo Aragon and Don Dally, the cast and TWS for mounting this revival and for serving it up with such brio and conviction.

If you’re looking for a nice relaxing evening out, this may not be your show, but you‘ll be missing an important reminder of a landmark in California history and a powerful, troubling experience of theater with an important difference.

Zoot Suit plays weekends through Sep 28. Photo: Luna Ezekiel as Della Barrios and Michael Uribes as El Pachuco; The Western Stage.

Posted Sep 10, 2013

Parks breaks a leg twice

By Philip Pearce

Play writing teacher Lee Brady tells local budding dramatists they’ll stand a better chance of getting produced if they write juicy parts that rep company actors just can’t resist. That’s essentially what Tom Parks, local veteran of a quarter century in TV and movies, has done with Break a Leg, a brace of one act duets playing this month at the Carl Cherry Center. Parks and his two scripts are stylishly served by the versatile Carol Daly and the spirited Garland Thompson, a pair of skilled local performers who obviously revel in not one but two juicy roles apiece.

The subject is live theater. Parks underlines the common theme with lots of Broadway chit chat and name dropping and by setting the two contrasted stories 63 years apart but in the same Broadway dressing room. 

Return Engagement happens in 1950, with an opening monologue that draws us into the anguish of a nearly sixty-year-old actress named Ruth Reddington. A couple of decades after she’s boozed, drugged and philandered her way from Broadway stardom into Broadway oblivion, she’s due back on stage tonight in a key supporting role that poses every has-been’s perennial question: Can I Still Pull It Off? Into Ruth’s chaotic dressing room strides a glib and jaunty younger man in a tuxedo who turns out to be the third of her husbands, a former bit player she homed in on back in her golden years. His name is Steve and he’s become a kind of Joe Gillis to Ruth’s Norma Desmond. Together, they clash, sometimes with the desperate forced dependence of two drowning swimmers, sometimes in an ugly rehash of highlights from their rocky marriage.

The second play of the evening, Autobiography, pits an amiable and rumpled semi-successful journalist named Johnny Richards against an irrepressible former movie sex goddess and horror film queen named Shirley Davos. Very much between engagements, Shirley has been unexpectedly handed a plum offer. She’s to spend some weeks substituting for the ailing leading lady of a play Shirley freely admits she doesn’t understand. Never fazed, she arranges to meet Richards in her newly claimed Broadway dressing room for a final Q and A session for the autobiography he is ghosting for her. Money problems rear their ugly heads and are only made worse when the play’s sick star stages an unwelcome recovery.

The acting is a pleasure to watch. In the first play, Daly’s Ruth Reddington is a harrowing figure, messing with her hair, squinting dispiritedly at her reflection, belting down suppressed gulps of pills and liquor, at times pleading like a pathetic child, at other times screeching like a harridan straight out of Albee. Thompson matches her. His Steve is a man whose slick optimism and well-tailored glitz cover the ugly truth his wife ultimately throws in his face: if he’s not a loser, he is at best an “underachiever.”

Autobiography features two characters as endearing in their emotional ups and downs as Ruth and Steve are downbeat and discouraged. I loved Daly’s playful feet and legs. Along with her sudden radiant grins, her whole body signals a woman who remains childlike and hopeful, never mind a hotchpotch of past social, sexual and professional crises that would have floored the self-absorbed Ruth. It’s not always easy to write a play about two nice people who remain nice to the final curtain, but Autobiography does just that. Shirley and her accommodating scribe Johnny are a mutual admiration society, as different from one another as their contrasting cell phone ring tunes, a fact Parks cleverly exploits in a couple of fugues of concurrent, interacting phone chatter. This second play is the real gem of the evening.

For all its intensity, Return Engagement seems more of a work in progress. Both scripts offer their author the enviable opportunity of assessing his written work by seeing it fleshed out by living actors. Return Engagement begins well enough and ends with considerable power, as Thompson drives home the important final moments and message without delivering a single line of dialogue. What I would hope Tom Parks will do is to look at the long two-character sequence between Ruth’s opening monologue and Steve’s final and satisfying emergence as something more than a shallow playboy. The fact is Return Engagement offers only two real-time, in-the-moment dramatic happenings. The first is Steve’s decision to stay at the theater supporting his anguished spouse instead of going out on the town with a young man who has recently caught his bisexual eye. The second is the decision Ruth makes about her daunting first night. Everything else is events and relationships stuck back in or springing directly from the past, and this gives rise, in my view, to too many verbal repetitions of material we have already taken on board. Ruth’s message of “I’m desperate! Help me!” and Steve’s response of “Don’t worry, it’s all going to be fine!” are offered once or twice too often in words that echo each other and slow down the action. The play would benefit, I think, from being pared down by at least ten minutes, with perhaps also a look at one or two events that seem forced and illogical. Would the wounded and status-obsessed Ruth, for example, have waited through eight long weeks of rehearsal and only now, on opening night, checked the quality of her dressing room against those of the two higher-paid stars she envies and resents so deeply?

A final if minor quibble: it seems surprising that the entire decor and all the equipment of the dressing room remain unchanged between 1950 and 2013. Or maybe it’s symbolic of the dogged persistence of Broadway theater which has refused to give up the ghost however many pundits have been predicting its demise for half a century.

 The double bill continues weekends at the Carl Cherry until September 29th.

 Photo: Tom Parks by Ken Doo. Posted Sep 9, 2013

The boy who refused to grow up

By Philip Pearce

My Labor Day weekend got off to a flying start with PacRep’s delightful new production of Peter Pan.

I’d seen Barrie’s story staged three times before, but never in the 1954 Mary Martin/Cyril Richard version, now on the boards and in the air at Carmel’s Outdoor Forest Theater. It’s an evening of tuneful magic, with songs by Moose Charlap, Jule Styne, Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Not to mention lead characters flying through the skies, a determinedly evil pirate villain too stupid to be scary, a canine nursemaid, a crocodile who has swallowed a clock and ticks like a time bomb, and a hero who refuses to grow up.

As Peter, the boy who crows like a rooster and flies like a swallow, Katie O’Bryan Champlin is absolutely wonderful. All swagger and bounce, she is a totally convincing rebellious boy. I loved her deft athletic antics on and above stage, the smug assurance of her laugh and the brilliant flexibility of her singing voice. Through most of the action this small dynamic brunette growls the gritty tones of a cheerful street urchin. Then, in the funniest number of the evening, she dons a makeshift veil and sidles seductively around the stage, in a riotous duet called Mysterious Lady, teasing the gullible Captain Hook with the trills and cadenzas of a grand opera diva. And she does it, somehow, in a way that convinces you that this really is a boy imitating a woman. It’s a totally winning performance.

Michael Jacobs is also a joy in the standard double roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. Suitably blustery and confused as the papa of Wendy, John and Michael, he hits his full stride as the pompous, blundering Hook, hoofing it hilariously, first in a funny sinister tango, then twirling with a stage full of pirate dance couples caught up in a wild number called Hook’s Waltz.

The night I saw the show, the doubly cast roles of the junior Darlings were played by Cameron Ritchie, artfully imitating his old man in the role of brother John; Lyle Yeatman as a young Michael always ready for candy or anything else edible and, as their sister Wendy, the charming and resourceful Claire Moorer, who deserves special praise for meeting the challenge of changing from a feisty pre-teen to a dignified grown woman in the final moments of the story.

The Outdoor Theater stage is possibly a tad too vast for the intimacy and warmth of an Edwardian British nursery. But you use the space you’ve got and can’t expect everything.

In the Second Act scenes on the island, the lost boys are lively enough but need to belt out their individual lines a lot louder to reach patrons seated, as I was, at the back of the open-air theatre. The pirate gang skulks and sings effectively, with a special nod to Jack Yeatman as the Captain’s ever hopeful and charmingly dense Cockney sidekick Smee.

Steve Costanza twice represents the animal kingdom, first as the floppy and wistful Nana in Act One and then as Hook’s slithering crocodile nemesis, tick-tocking his way across the stage to a well deserved round of applause in Act Two.

The Indian tribe is ably led by the animated and funny Gracie Poletti, who doubles as Tiger Lily and Mrs. Darling in this handsomely designed production. Driving home after the performance I asked myself why, even in productions far less satisfying than this one, I‘ve still never been able to resist Peter Pan. And I think it may be because in this script Barrie takes the ingredients of a sentimental family comedy and flatly refuses to let them get sentimental. Director Walt deFaria and Music Director Stephen Tosh have added to the 1954 score with an opening duet in which Mr. and Mrs. Darling extol their Perfect Life. I hope Tosh and deFaria are being ironic. Later popular movie and TV families like the Hardys and Bradys may always have had their catch-in-the-throat moments amid the laughs, but it’s hard to find a lot of teardrops in Peter Pan. This “perfect life” couple are, for one thing, a pair of respectable Kensington loonies who head off for a full-dress dinner leaving their three children in the care of their usual nursemaid-in-the-form-of-a-dog named Nana, who is then banished at the last minute from the nursery for leaving dog hair on Mr. Darling’s tail coat. The three children themselves are delightful and appealing, but they are no sugar plums. Wendy is a resourceful bossy-boots who could in a few years sign on as a Mary Poppins intern; John is a bookish and spectacled didact who corrects everyone’s grammar and goes to bed in a top hat; dear little Michael is a dimple-cheeked glutton. Not so surprising then that these under-supervised siblings fall easy prey to the blandishments of a cheeky, airborne anarchist who thumbs his nose at middle class values and flies them off to fight pirates and supervise a crew of young male outcasts. Even the twinky-blinky Tinker Bell we all applaud back to life is a possessive and spiteful sprite with a vinegar tongue in her little fairy head. Behind all its pretty trappings, it seems, Peter Pan is almost as revolutionary and iconoclastic as a social drama by George Bernard Shaw.

The show continues until September 29th on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2:00. Check in early for an entertaining pre-performance intro by Christopher Sullinger and his rowdy crew of stage pirates. Together they offer some rousing songs and a brief history of memorable past U.S. Peter Pan productions and stars, including Carmel’s own Jean Arthur.

Photo by Stephen Moorer.

Posted Sept. 3, 2013

Rollie Dick ages better than the script

By Philip Pearce

Herb Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport won a Tony Award as New York’s best play of 1985. I wonder if, instead, it shouldn’t have won as that year’s best ‘vehicle.’ That’s the old fashioned theater term applied to a script that lives and moves and has its being solely to showcase the talents of a leading actor or pair of actors.

Gardner has a way with slick dialogue and cute characters. In Nat Moyer, he’s created an over-the-top, heart-warming, big talking octogenarian Jewish laugh-getter. Every Costello, of course, needs his Abbott, so Gardner supplies Nat and the script with a reluctant, put-upon black sidekick named Midge Carter. From their favorite bench in Central Park, Nat jolts and amazes Midge, repeatedly worming in and out of tough situations, by turning himself into a succession of funny, improvised stereotype alter egos. Without a heavy helping of shared bravado and deft timing from this central pair, the play would fall flat. Magic Circle’s new production of this pleasant old chestnut is blessed with winning lead performances by Rollie Dick and Avondina Wills.

As Nat, Dick presents us with a man who’s a master of bilge, balderdash and a farmyard product with that same initial. To keep Midge from being fired from his job as an apartment house super, Nat becomes a ruthless left wing lawyer straight out of a 1930s Clifford Odets melodrama. To rid Central Park of a thug in cowboy boots, he changes into Don Corleone in The Godfather. Dick’s clowning and Wills’ eye-rolling reactions to all of this had the Friday night Magic Circle audience howling with laughter, and it mattered little that most of Act One consisted simply of funny dialogue with very little forward plot action. True, Midge’s job was temporarily saved and, then, shortly before the intermission, Nat got stabbed. Yet, when the new characters and actual dramatic action started up in Act 2, they weren’t really as interesting as those two funny men just trading wisecracks on their park bench.

Enjoyable as it all was, there were, for me, two problems. One was highlighted in a TalkinBroadway theater review by Matthew Murray of the 2002 Broadway revival with Judd Hirsch reprising his role as Nat. Murray noted that with the passing of time, the play “(now) suggests a New York of a very different era, one that has changed dramatically since the show was first presented. Nat’s Communist tendencies and the terrors to be found lurking in Central Park are less relevant to the world of today than the world of 1985”

The second drawback is structural. The dialogue suggests that Nat has depths of wisdom and a witty slant on social problems ranging from the challenges of old age to the deadening effects of consumerism and gated suburbia. But his attacks on these wrongs consist of doing the same thing over and over again: he bamboozles the bad guys by acting out another new comic character. It’s kind of like an evening of brilliant standup comedy with only one basic routine.

One result is that subsidiary characters have a hard row to hoe. Flip Baldwin and Kalyn Shubnell come off best as, respectively, Midge’s oily apartment house boss and Nat’s well-meaning daughter with plans for reining in her Pop’s uninhibited antics. We care enough about these two for their struggles with Nat to engage us. But three other characters, a protection artist named Gilley, spookily played by Daniel Ruacho, plus a seedy cowboy crook and his pretty victim, both well acted by Brandon Burns and Amanda Schemmel, are extraneous added ingredients. Their performances are fine but it’s obvious these three people have been trotted on simply to supply Nat with a new set-up for his central routine.

The play is briskly directed by Elsa Con and fun to watch as a 20th century period piece.

I’m Not Rappaport runs Friday through Sunday, through Sept. 15. Photo by Bucky Johnson.

Posted, August 25, 2013

Do you hear the people sing?

By Peter Tuff

MPC Theatre Company concluded its four-week run of Les Misérables last Sunday at Monterey Peninsula College’s newly renovated Morgan Stock Stage, and the answer to the above question must be a unanimous and resounding “Yes!” Fine singing it was, too, by all—but many other factors contributed to this show’s success (about which much has already been said). Director Gary Bolen’s effective staging, John Anderson’s steady command of a solid 15-piece orchestra featuring concertmaster David Dally, Dan Beck’s efficient-but-impressive sets (especially the barricade, which drew applause from the audience) and Constance Gamiere’s abundant and beautiful costumes all contributed to the synergy of this show. Bolen and choreographer Susan Cable were also able to use the theater’s new revolving stage very effectively. Carey Crockett’s scenic art and Charles Houghton’s lighting, despite a couple of technical glitches in execution, only reinforced the production’s success. 

Sean Boulware, in a tour-de-force performance as redeemed convict Jean Valjean, delivered everything. With a heroic voice to match the force and depth of Valjean’s character, his powerful tenor, thrilling high notes and dramatic instincts were right on the money. Michelle Boulware gave a beautiful performance as Fantine, with lovely singing in I Dreamed a Dream and a persistent dignity that shone through her character’s suffering. That’s a lot of talent in one family, but wait—there’s more: the cast also included the Boulwares’ son, Isaiah, as Gavroche, the savvy street urchin who dies on the barricade while helping the revolutionaries.

Soprano Lori Schulman delivered an ideal Cosette—youthful and lovely—and she sang with a voice to match. Dale Thompson’s Marius was also outstanding—well sung and acted from beginning to end. Rob Devlin as Inspector Javert, who pursues Valjean relentlessly in spite of his obvious transformation, displayed a fine voice and controlled manner. As Javert and his letter-of-the-law ideology succumbed to the power of grace and redemption manifest in Valjean, Devlin poured out his torment passionately in his suicide soliloquy.

Megan Root gave a powerful and poignant portrayal of the complex Eponine, who loves Marius and helps him in spite of his love for Cosette. Root’s compelling rendition of On My Own showed off a lovely voice and focused presence.

The dynamic duo of Jennifer Newman and Chris Beem as the brutal, slimy and pathetic Madame and Monsieur Thénardier provided much dark comic relief. Beem’s Master of the House was splendidly over the top, and Jennifer Newman was a dynamic and delightful scene-stealer, as she usually is.

More noteworthy performances—too many to mention here—included John Daniel as a fine Enjolras, Mitch Davis as the Bishop, Hadley Sprague as Young Cosette and Lynette Graves as the Old Woman. The ABC Students, the men’s and women’s ensemble, and all the children and youth in the cast were excellent. When the entire company raised its collective voice in the Act II reprise of The People’s Song (Do You Hear the People Sing?) in this final performance, well…we really heard it. There were many tears of joy, as well—on stage and in the audience. Here’s to more fine productions on this “new” Morgan Stock Stage.

Posted August 20, 2013 


The Duty of Farce, and vice versa

By Philip Pearce

It’s singing pirates versus barbershop quartet police on Fisherman’s Wharf these weekends. The Wharf Theater’s rowdy, winning and melodic production of The Pirates of Penzance plays until September 1, and it’s worth a visit.

Gilbert and Sullivan were even bigger names in British theater of the 19th century than Rodgers and Hammerstein were in the American theater of the 20th. Sir Arthur Sullivan sought fame as a composer of grand operas and oratorios but only made it into the big time when teamed up with satirist W. S. Gilbert. Together they created a succession of classic British musical farces like H.M.S. Pinfore, The Mikado and, yes, The Pirates of Penzance.

G and S understood that good farce, like good classical tragedy, is all about obsession. Your lead character takes relentless hold of some admittedly worthy human value and, not unlike some current members of Congress, rides it roughshod through any and all competing values with illogical and disastrous results. Pirates hero Frederic’s obsession is DO YOUR DUTY! That is why, apprenticed by mistake since boyhood to a gang of pirates plying the waters around Penzance, Fred boldly supports their criminal derring-do till the hour he turns 21 and his apprenticeship expires. He then fights just as valiantly to thwart his former cutthroat pals with the help of some pre-Hollywood Keystone Cop types. Sound silly? You get the idea, and it’s all served up with delicious show tunes that have been pleasing crowds since 1879.

Let’s face it, much of the humor (humour?) is (a) outdated and (b) British, so this production, as part of the Fisherman’s Wharf vacation scene, has to work hard to make all that punning and verbal foolery at least minimally accessible to a 21st century audience. A good initial choice is some pre-show indoctrination from C. Kelly Pohl, who plays the amiable pirate Samuel, (actually, they’re all amiable wimps, which is part of the joke). Pohl’s essential message is (a) Penzance is a vacation spot in the extreme southwestern end of England and (b) proper audience behavior at a live not a TV show is to strangle your cell phones but feel free to hiss or applaud what happens on stage. Then, to be safe, and for intermission reading for the now-befuddled, the program carries a full two-page glossary of puzzling Britishisms, most of them from Ken Cussen’s rapid fire show-stopping “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.”

Director Gin Welch-Hagen has the cast play it brisk and accessible, acting out whatever jokes can take it and playing it for broad belly laughs. It works much of the time, though I got a little weary of the relentless repetition of an initially funny group hand salute every time anyone said Frederic’s favorite mantra “duty.”

The main treasure of this fast and furious production is the voices, and the orchestral wonders worked at a single synthesizer by musical director George Peterson. Keith Wolhart has a pleasing tenor voice and an innocent deer-in-the-headlights gape that is perfect for the noble and essentially stupid Frederic. As his lively dumb blonde sweetheart Mabel, Suzanne Wood looks delicious, sings her ballads beautifully and does coloratura gymnastics worthy of a Met soprano. The real cause of the troubles that plague everybody in the goofy plot is Ruth, Frederic’s former nursemaid, who dumped him into piracy by misunderstanding in order to apprentice him to an English Channel pilot. Get it? Well, for some unaccountable reason the guilty lady is now an indispensable female Penzance pirate and played, at last Friday’s performance, with tremendous comic and vocal skill by Rebel Harrell-Von Yerzy, who apparently backs into the chorus and turns over the role to Alyca Tanner at some performances. Jared Warren Hussey, a leering and energetic Pirate King, and Ken Cusson, the pompous but sneaky Major General Stanley, both maneuver the musical depths and shoals of everything from baritone bravado to lighting fast patter—the 19th century equivalent of modern rap. The police are led by a basso sergeant artfully sung by Chris Harrell. And the chorus seems to be filled with attractive people any of whom could step effortlessly into a lead role if one or more principals actually did break a leg.

If I have a quibble, it’s the 8:30 starting hour, which sends you home just this side of 11 p.m. Probably convenient for seven o’clock wharf dinner customers, but, as the Brits say, “what you win on the swings you lose on the roundabouts.” What may attract a tourist may discourage a local. A family group seated next to me responded enthusiastically to all of Act I, but were among those who didn’t return after the intermission.

That’s all from me for a while. I’m off for some really intense theatergoing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. See you in a week or two.

 Photo credit: Richard Barnard

 Posted August 5, 2013

Cabrillo Stage’s not-to-miss Oklahoma!

By Philip Pearce

Cabrillo Stage’s Oklahoma! deserves that exclamation point. It’s alive, it’s wonderfully staged and acted, it’s beautifully danced and it’s full of all that gorgeous music.

Having last seen Oklahoma! on stage back in the late 1940s, I’d forgotten what a stark blend of light and dark this twentieth century classic is. The engaging spirit of upbeat numbers like the title song, Oh, What a beautiful mornin’ or People will say we’re in love is what tends to linger. That, and the raucous comedy and ebullient dancing. But, face it, the central plot is simply about whether a cowboy named Curly or a ranch hand named Jud will take a local girl named Laurey to a box social. Bland and sugary? Look closer.

Jud the farmhand, who wins the first round and actually squires Laurey to the event, is a psychotic loner whom the cowboy Curly spends a central scene of Act I trying to unseat by persuading his rival to hang himself. Poor Jud is daid may be darkly funny but its basic message is, “I want you dead and I’ll do pretty much anything I can to help that happen.” The scene ends with the solitary Jud’s haunting and scary Lonely room, a number bleak and sinister enough for Sondheim or Bernstein at their darkest. Laurey then has a drug-induced dream which starts with her starry-eyed vision of marriage to Curly to the lyrical waltz-beat of Rodgers’s Out of my dreams, but descends into a nightmare when Jud threatens to rape her. Not your standard parish hall operetta! The box social question safely settled with Laurey and Curly’s marriage, the crazed Jud is then stabbed to death in a knife fight, a good fourteen years before West Side Story, and Curly is charged with his murder.

Rodgers and Hammerstein not only revolutionized the mechanics of American musical theater (no more splashy opening chorus, no more un-plot-related songs or dances) but drastically expanded the range of what popular composers, lyricists and playwrights dare to imagine in words and music. .

Cabrillo Stage gets the blend just right. Unstinting praise for everybody down to the youngest nine-year-old member (Gavin Mazzia) of a skilled ensemble. Among the principals, Will, Ado Annie and Ali Hakim, played respectively by Jordan Sidfield, Vanessa Vazquez and Andrew Ceglio, belt out their show stoppers nicely and cavort ably through all the fancy comedy stuff. Alice Hughes is all heart and brio as Aunt Eller. Kevin Johnston is a tormented and vicious Jud with a strong baritone voice. Matt Taylor and Emile Marsilia act their central ‘Benedick-Beatrice’ courtship with energy and wit, and, together with Johnston, make a significant improvement on one element in the original Broadway performance. Back then, Alfred Drake, Joan Roberts and Howard DaSilva were replaced by look-alike dancers for the central dream ballet. Cabrillo’s Curly and Laurey and Jud not only sing gorgeously but dance their roles effectively, in both the world of dreams and on the solid soil of Oklahoma.

That the same individual named Kikau Alvaro both directed and choreographed this slick, big, bouncy production boggles the critical mind, all the more because his picture in the program makes him look about seventeen. Exclamation point!

Fifteen performances of Oklahoma! at Cabrillo Stage remain, through August 18. Photo by Jana Marcus

Posted July 29, 2013

Patrick Golden’s vivid Macbeth at Paper Wing

By Philip Pearce

The First Commandment for any Shakespeare production is “Thou shalt not be boring.” Grainy, dark, violent and sometimes flawed, Paper Wing Theatre’s Macbeth is not boring.

Before the play begins, clouds of stage smoke waft through the theater, signaling that we are not going to watch so much as participate in the prevailing “fog and filthy air.” And participate we do. Director Jourdain Barton never lets us distance ourselves from the gross violence and dark ambition that are at the heart of the story. In three major instances, she even shows us bloody and terrifying events which, in the text and most productions, happen off stage. So it is that, before Jody Gilmore’s wounded sergeant describes Macbeth’s prowess on the battlefield, Patrick Golden and two other cast members I couldn’t identify enact it for us in a heart-stopping opening blood bath of swordplay. Later, during Macbeth’s extended inner struggle over whether or not to murder King Duncan (Jay DeVine), the old king lies asleep in plain view of the audience. Macbeth then enters the room and stabs Duncan in a bloody, flailing, grunting struggle to the death. Like that opening battle, it’s a departure, but it works.

I was less happy about Barton’s third innovation. The famous sleepwalking scene isn’t a walk at all. Penelope Morgan’s Lady Macbeth stays firmly seated while she mutters through nightmare visions and dark memories that shift and weave from reflectiveness to stark horror. Conveying all of that while stuck in a chair center stage would thwart actresses far more experienced than Morgan and for me the scene is a static letdown. As if to compensate, Barton then adds three or four gratuitous, spot-lit vignettes of Lady Macbeth looping and lurching around the battlements in her nightgown. Interesting idea, and Morgan does the crazy choreography well enough, but all it does is illustrate what she has already described, though not effectively acted, and it slows things down at the point late in the action when all we want is to get on with the story,

I was challenged, provoked, sometimes irritated and yet strongly impressed by Patrick Golden in the title role. With all that initial blood and death, I was afraid that, like some actors, he was going to play Macbeth as a ranting thug. What is impressive about this sturdy young man is that he understands, or at any rate intuits, that Macbeth is no Mafia dummkopf, but a sensitive and perceptive thinker, a ruthless soldier who nevertheless knows the moral implications of his actions, their dark, eternal dangers to his immortal soul.  Hamlet may waver and hesitate until persuaded at long last to destroy evil in an act of violence. Macbeth is seduced, almost from the opening moments, into creating a spiral of evils, knowing every bloodstained step of the way, exactly what he is doing. Golden is in control of almost everything he decides to do in playing the role. The decisions he makes may sometimes be questionable, but it is impressive to see him make them.

Skilled as he is in embodying all that combat choreography and stage movement (he has wonderful hands), he is at his best in the soliloquies. These are not private ruminations or hair-tearing tirades; he looks us in the eye and shares his tormented moral reflections, as though he were an accused man defending himself in court, and we the jury.

He has able support from the two other chief male performers. Timothy Samaniego is more forceful than many Banquos, every inch the soldier and a surprisingly sharp disciplinarian of his doomed son Fleance. Jesse Juarez III plays Macduff’s early moments for restraint and quiet humor so that his explosion of horror at the discovery of the king’s corpse is the right kind of shock. Similarly, his hearing of the massacre of his wife and children starts in a stunned silence that allows him to build effectively to a bellowing vow of vengeance against the murdering Macbeth.

Staging a masterpiece, you can‘t ever have everything. Almost all of the cast rush headlong through the poetry which often might as well be comic book dialogue balloons. Even Golden, clear and effective as he usually is when on stage alone, frequently gabbles his lines in the group scenes, not because he is floundering with the meaning but because he seems so caught up in it that his intensity runs away with him and we miss the message. That doesn’t matter too much when it’s clear what is going on anyway. Where it seriously mars this production is in sections like the visually impressive but very confused banquet scene which climaxes Part I. Banquo’s ghost is not shown, but is seen only by the crazed Macbeth. Fair enough. But that means Macbeth needs to indicate, moment by moment, exactly what it is that’s freaking him out. Golden races so relentlessly through it all that… Well, sure, a lot of us know by now what it’s all about, but I’d be surprised if a total newcomer to the story could understand clearly what is happening.

That said, I would hope this young actor continues to steep himself in this and other Shakespeare roles. His debut Macbeth shows a promise that it would be great to see fully realized in the future.

Paper Wing’s Macbeth continues Fridays and Saturdays through August 17

Posted July 21, 2013

Bashed by the 2 X 4 Bash

By Philip Pearce

I’m a fan of The Western Stage’s 2 x 4 Bash. Its stated mission is to provide “an opportunity for the next generation of theatre artists to collaborate, innovate and educate through provocative contemporary works.” Each summer TWS management turns over the Studio Theatre to directors, actors, designers and house managers aged 18 to 35, who select and produce four plays in repertory over a period of about six weeks.

In a busy 2011 theater season, the first 2 x 4 Bash included one production I thought was better than anything else being done at that moment on the Monterey Peninsula and another that was well worth the trip to Salinas. I was excited to be in an audience, most of them a third to a quarter my age. It was heartening to realize that, far from being stereotypically drugged by electronics, these young patrons responded enthusiastically to live theater. So I went to this year’s 2 x 4 first night with high hopes.

Kelly McAllister’s long and noisy Burning the Old Man starts off well enough. Brothers Marty (Jesse Huston) and Bobby (Tim Thomson), like the brothers in Arthur Miller’s The Price, seem destined to learn about themselves and their relationship with their dead father by having to deal with material remnants of the old man’s legacy. In this case, up-tight Marty and free-wheeling Bobby are charged with delivering their father’s ashes and scattering them during a New Age rave-up somewhere in the Southwestern desert. Their opening encounter with a gushily conventional motel manager, adroitly played by Katie Garner, offers some nice ironic social comment. But from that point on things start to unravel. Taking on at least one too many unrelated sub-plots, the script lurches into an ever more complicated melee of confused motives, sketchy characterizations and relentless shouting matches. The sarcasm and tantrums subside a bit with the arrival of two dippy but quiet-voiced hippies, well played by Heather Osteraa and Andre Dodd, but the relief is all too brief and temporary. With the entrance of the motel lady’s drunken, foul-mouthed and abusive husband, played full throttle by Alex Bush, cacophony takes over and even the previously confused but ingratiating motel lady learns to holler like a fishwife.

The result is a dramatic letdown when Burning the Old Man finally arrives at its climax. Faced by the last of many plot complications, Jesse Huston, one of the best of the regular company of 2 x 4 actors, is forced to perform a wild and embarrassing cat-on-hot-bricks fury dance while he bellows out his lines like an injured bull. This happens not because it’s an inevitable or even logical response to what has just illogically taken place. It happens because the production has, up to this point, keyed every major scene to such a screaming intensity that all the frenzied hopping and howls seemed to be the only hope of topping any of that earlier bedlam. But it’s too late. Been there, done that, Marty. We wait for the final curtain, stony and indifferent victims of steady noise pollution and relentless emotional overkill.

There are still two other scripts plus an ad hoc ten minute play evening to come. I’m hoping for better things.

Posted, July 15, 2013

Indispensable Sondheim

By Philip Pearce

When the golden pioneer years of the likes of Berlin, Kern, Porter and Rodgers had passed, Stephen Sondheim was one of a number of new composers and lyricists to emerge as major Broadway talents. He couldn’t have been more different from the others. Unlike fans of Lloyd-Webber or Lerner and Lowe, you don’t leave a Sondheim show humming Sondheim tunes. You’re challenged by complex melodies you’ve just heard sung by often conflicted, even psychotic, stage characters. The words and music demand reflection and repeated listening. The new revue at The Western Stage provides an enchanting opportunity to recall music from hits like Company and A Little Night Music and to encounter other numbers that never saw an opening on Broadway, let alone in Salinas, till Side by Side by Sondheim came long.

It began way back in the 1970s as a British provincial theater benefit show, moved to London’s West End and then on to Broadway, collecting big audiences, rave reviews, theater awards and revivals along the way. The original script calls for three singers, one of whom also serves as an MC to introduce and comment on the songs, all with lyrics by Sondheim, most but not all with his music. TWS expands the original trio into three male and four female singer/actors, with Chris Graham singing as well as narrating, occasionally spelled in the latter function by other members of this gifted ensemble. Three of the group, along with Graham, have impressive track records in local theatre. There’s feisty and fast-moving Reina Cruz Vasquez, who becomes increasingly desperate in her efforts to clear the church and back out of marriage on her wedding day in “Getting Married Today.” Pat Horsley can be brisk, raunchy and hilarious as one of a trio of strippers in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” (hers is a trumpet) and then subtly break your heart in the show’s final solo “I’m Still Here.” In “Broadway Baby” Susanne Burns offers the portrait of a hopeful New York dame who’s never made it on the Gay White Way and never will however hard she tries, and she also pairs up nicely with the urbane Otis Goodwin Jr. for “The Little Things You Do Together,” all sugar on the surface, all acid at the core.

Two young and wonderful newcomers complete the company. Pretty and witty and bright, Aimee Puentes can sing like an angel in A Little Night Music’s “Bring in the Clowns,” or belt out a raucous duet with  Vasquez about the blessings they’d enjoy “If Momma Was Married” from Gypsy, words by Sondheim, music by Jule Styne. Finally, there’s Darek Riley, who offers a strong tenor to “Buddy’s Blues” from Follies, along with the eager bespectacled look of a 1920s comedian like Harold Lloyd, and then bulges out into a muscle man for “Can That Boy Foxtrot.”

Some important post-1970s works like Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods are inevitably missing. And a fair share of what you do hear are either pieces you’re glad to be reminded of or, in a few cases, numbers like “Marry Me a Little” and “Love is in the Air” that were cut during their original tryouts, not because they aren’t terrific material, but because they didn’t fit a character or a theme. Side by Side by Sondheim owes much of its brio and cutting edge to its creators’ refusal to turn it into just a nice evening of familiar favorites.

And what a quick-paced and funny next-to-final number is “Conversation Piece,” stitched together from short sections of songs we’ve heard earlier in the show or sometimes not till now. I particularly liked the moment when Graham twittered unexpectedly into “I Feel Pretty” (from West Side Story, of course) and was countered by Vasquez and Puentes in a wry reprise of “A Boy Like That” with its stern warning, “Stick to your own kind.”

It works wonderfully, thanks to the all singing, all dancing principals, Jon Selover’s imaginative staging and Joe Niesen’s choreography, plus nice two-piano work from Stephen Tosh and Rebecca Nelson with musical director Don Dally on the violin.

(Side by Side by Sondheim continues Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm through July 27.)

Posted July 9, 2013

To be or not to be

By Philip Pearce

The Forest Theater Guild is staging Hamlet starring John Barrymore III at the Indoor Forest Theater until July 25th and I think it’s a mistake.

Any production of this best-known play in the English language is bound to be a risk. But it’s more like cruel and unnecessary punishment to load thirty Elizabethan speaking parts onto a cast many of whom have little or no acting experience and expect them to work their way through a brutally long script. Not surprisingly, too much of the action, at least at Friday’s opening night, came across as under-rehearsed, misunderstood, misinterpreted or inaudible.

The lead male actors were all three of them credited with directing, so it’s impossible to know who deserves praise or blame for any of the staging, too much of which simply stuck characters together in an unmoving clump while they went through their parts and then shuffled them back into the wings. Where there was some variety of movement, as in the opening sequence on the Elsinore battlements, people made puzzling choices. Why, I wondered, does John David Whalen as Horatio choose to play some of that scene stretched languorously on his back staring up into the Carmel sky?

It was an opening night struggle even for the more seasoned and professional company members. Larry Welch was appropriately bombastic as Polonius, but so seldom met with any real emotional response from the people he was talking to that he became a sort of solitary voice orating in the wilderness. Cristiana DiPietro seemed to have some idea of what emotions Ophelia was feeling at various times but she stumbled as she tried to fit Elizabethan dialogue into a Valley Girl voice and intonation.

Two overriding puzzles kept churning around in my brain as I watched. The first concerned John Barrymore III. Grandson of the most famous Hamlet of the 20th century, he seemed tentative and uneasy in the role. Facing the Ghost he showed little more than polite surprise at the news that his beloved father had been murdered by his much hated uncle. To make up for this, perhaps, he then threw an extra big shouting tantrum at “Unhand me, gentlemen—”. Significant lines liked “O cursed spite that ever I was born to put it right” or “The play‘s the thing wherein I‘ll catch the conscience of the king,” and “now could I drink hot blood” were all delivered as murmured afterthoughts. Barrymore seemed sort of embarrassed by all the well-worn words and familiar feelings some 16th century playwright had saddled him with and so he offered them to the audience almost like apologies. There were brief moments of passion and insight, but overall it was one of the most confusing and incomplete star performances I can remember seeing.

My other puzzle was Nick Hovick, who gave a clearly spoken, assured and convincing performance as Claudius. His prayer scene was so strong and moving and well staged that even the often bemused Hamlet caught some of the momentum and was at his best. But Claudius didn’t fit in. It was as if he had wandered in from some other production bringing with him this spot-on scene, which the audience recognized as authentic and rewarded with a round of applause.

In honesty and for the record, I left early and am open to correction about anything that happened after Polonius got stabbed behind the arras. And the last thing I want to do is discourage community theater on the Monterey Peninsula.

But more than half the opening night audience went home in the first intermission, nearly an hour before I did. And whatever I write here, I’m afraid word is going to get around anyway.

Forest Theater Guild’s Hamlet is schedule to run to July 25, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. www.foresttheaterguild.org

Posted June 30, 2013

Intimate Grapes of Wrath loses none of its epic power

By Philip Pearce

You can’t very easily distance yourself from the triumphs, struggles and catastrophes of the Joad family when they’re happening a yard or two away from your theater seat. This month’s Western Stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, written by Frank Galati, first for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and then for Broadway, is playing not in the epic reaches of the main auditorium but on the small adjoining Studio Theatre stage on the Hartnell College Campus.

Director Jeff McGrath has gathered a dedicated cast of thirty, some of them seasoned, others relatively inexperienced, but those differences don’t count for much. There’s little room for distinctions in status or name recognition. It’s a community and everybody in it seems deeply engaged in doing something everyone knows is profoundly worth doing.

The intimate staging is a challenge, but the director, cast, running crew, design team and musicians have met it impressively. Pieces of floor open up to produce temporary stools or campfires or storage spaces or watering holes as they are needed, then close again for the action of crowds and the movement of set pieces, like the Joads’ rickety truck. Don Dally has written music, sometimes haunting, sometimes ironic, for country singers and instrumentalists who set the mood, widen the focus and forward the story, nowhere more powerfully than in a pulsing roll call of towns and states and stopping points on the Joads’ troubled journey to a Promised Land that fails to keep its promises.

The intimate venue and the high quality of the show mean you may have trouble capturing a ticket, but it’s well worth the try, even if only as a hopeful standby.

Seventy five years after its publication, The Grapes of Wrath endures, and not just because it documents an important period of American history. Readers and viewers who may barely have heard of the Dust Bowl or Hoovervilles still respond to a moving story about people and feelings that are as basic and unchanging as Greek tragedy or the Book of Exodus.

Posted June 24

“Beautiful” Glass Menagerie

By Philip Pearce

As a goggle-eyed teen on his first trip to New York City, I bought a ticket to a show that starred an aging stage actress named Laurette Taylor; it would have closed in its Chicago tryout if critics there hadn’t mounted a campaign to push it on to Broadway. It was called The Glass Menagerie and since that distant day I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen various stage and screen versions of this early Tennessee Williams classic. And, discounting a disastrously terrible Warner Brothers movie version starring Gertrude Lawrence, there’s always been something worth watching in these mutations. The new one by PacRep at Carmel’s Golden Bough is no exception.

For starters, it is the most visually beautiful Glass Menagerie I’ve ever experienced. Stage directions in the original script call for occasional symbolic words and pictures to be flashed onto one of the walls of the set as comments on the action. It’s an arrangement almost all actual productions, including the Broadway original and a subsequent London version I saw starring Helen Hayes, have chosen to ignore in the interest of a more realistic presentation. PacRep director Kenneth Kelleher and stage designer Patrick McEvoy, however, have taken up Williams’s idea and expanded it excitingly. We don’t just see the faces of a long-departed father or some long dead adolescent swains. The story happens in a shifting panorama of projected skyscapes, news photos, city scenes and old movie clips, which set the struggles of the Wingfield family in their historic and social context of the 1930s. It’s a masterful piece of design, which also makes effective use of the theatre’s big central revolve to move portions of the action in and out of the spotlight. My only cavil with the set is the location of the fire escape. It’s  where Amanda calls Laura to come and wish on the new moon, the setting for that and a number of other key moments of hope, reflection and tenderness. McEvoy pushes it back against the upstage wall. That balances things nicely, but wistful hope, reflection and tenderness aren’t easy for any group of actors to project at long distance.

For all the social consciousness, it remains a play about an individual family struggling with dreams that shatter like the tiny animals in young Laura Wingfield’s glass collection. She and brother Tom are caught in the toils of their scheming, persuasive mother Amanda, beautifully played by Julie Hughett, who sees clearly that behind the fluttery exterior of this faded ex-Southern belle who once entertained “seventeen gentleman callers” in a single afternoon, there lurks the ruthless determination of a tigress. Hughett doesn’t allow us the luxury of much extended pity for Amanda. For all her false starts and domestic disasters, the woman’s mantra of “plans and provisions” means when one house of cards collapses, you quickly set up another. Some of Amanda’s comic and addled confusions get lost or underplayed in this incisive performance, but watching it is a pretty steady delight, nowhere more than in the skyrockets of frantic excitement set off by Tom’s announcement of the advent of an actual gentleman caller and possible fiancé for the crippled and repressed Laura, sensitively played by Nicolina Akraboff. That Gentleman Caller is the price Amanda has exacted for releasing Tom from her nagging domination, and a factory job he hates, into a world of adventure he has so far experienced only in endless trips to the movies.

It’s always good when a production offers something more than a retread of past successes and, like the sensational set, Aaron Wilton presents us with a believable if untypical Tom Wingfield. Less cynical, wistful and discouraged, less obviously the poet than previous Toms I’ve seen, he’s bright, coherent, energetic, and catches the underlying clown in the character beautifully. Here again, not a lot of room for pity. It’s perfectly logical to imagine this young man actually will find freedom and fulfillment if he can just wriggle out of the twin traps of a deadening family and a pointless job. What is lost is any strong significance in the famous closing speech, a kind of elegy which makes it clear the vaunted bolt for freedom that has not been a notable success. Perfectly possible, of course, that Tom Wingfield has been embittered by the cold realities of the outside world, but it might have helped if some of his wistful disappointment had been foreshadowed in the main action. 

That said, the ensemble chemistry of these three family members works wonderfully through all of Act I.

It was in Act Two that I began to feel uneasy. As the long awaited gentleman caller, Chris Deacon starts out well. He is obviously yet another disappointed dreamer. Once a high school jock and class dreamboat, he now finds himself stuck in the same turgid work routine as Tom’s. Where Amanda holds blindly to the threadbare materials of her past glories, O’Conner, like some trainee Willy Loman, pins his hopes on a regimen of self improvement and some glitzy sci-fi dreams of future success in a world of televised technology. His peppy go-getter approach works well when he first bursts onto the scene. Where it falters is in the long, important, beautifully written sequence between Laura and her White Knight which is the heart of the second act. As written, O’Conner sloughs off the glib Dale Carnegie veneer, reaches out to the terrified girl with genuine sensitivity and compassion, offering her a real, if only momentary, joy. But Deacon continues to play the scene with all the old go-getter mannerisms and self-improvement vocal effects. He seems less of a sensitive rescuer than a PR specialist making another sales pitch. The result, when he reveals that he’s engaged and can’t make future dates, may be some brief sympathy at Laura’s disappointment, but there’s probably a concurrent sense that, however pathetic, she has had a lucky escape from a well-meaning but shallow do-gooder.

This production is always clear, intermittently innovative and beautiful to look at. I recommend it.

Posted June 17, 2013

Love, Loss and What I Wore is also good for men

By Philip Pearce

Despite meager press coverage, the word of mouth had obviously buzzed excitedly around: Love, Loss and What I Wore was worth seeing—at least if you were a woman. From my seat in the packed auditorium, I wondered what the five other male ticket holders and I were going to make of it all: five women at music stands talking about the ups and downs of love and the vagaries of female fashion.

Well…monologue, for starters, is a genre I have never warmed to. It’s always seemed to me like a prose writer’s sneaky end run through the back door of theater, which I believe is still essentially about show not tell. What is often skillful narrative is served up as drama by shoving it and some actor onto a stage, which is supposed to be a space where it’s all happening here and now, not being recalled and reminisced about.

What I had underestimated if not really overlooked was that “LL & WIW” is the work of the late Nora Ephron, who, in tandem with her gifted sister Delia, was responsible for some of the wittiest and most touching films of the past 30 years. And what’s more, this production gets a quintet of knock-out readings that are as funny and perceptive as anything currently happening in Monterey theatre. The women at the music stands could have been talking to us about mahjong or Viennese pastry and that would have been okay. Ten minutes into the action, I was saying, “What’s not to like?”

A troubled and impulsive New Yorker named Gingy gives the piece its central spine and structure. Played with winning warmth and a sure sense of comic timing by Susan Keenan, Gingy is the one character who stays with us from beginning to end, as she moves through a series of clever blown-up fashion drawings that landmark her progress from quarrelsome pre-teen to doting grandma. Gingy’s story, adolescence, teen dating, chaotic affairs, marriage, divorce and more marriage, is interspersed with other stories, brief or detailed, from Anne Mitchell, Jill Jackson, Jovita Molina and Carol Marquart, in a kaleidoscope of women whose battles with romance and haute couture tend to comment on and deepen the impact of Gingy’s struggles—and vice versa.

There are the set pieces, like Mitchell’s refreshingly carefree gal who gladly admits she hasn’t the slightest bit of fashion sense and couldn’t care less. Later she tops even that high point with “I Hate My Purse,” a detailed expose of the horrors of the female handbag so ruthlessly accurate that you heard murmurs of agreement and giggles of recognition as she delivered it and a round of well deserved applause when she finished. Then there was Jackson in a funny and pathetic meditation on two successive proms, one with Mr. Wrong, the next with Mr. Right, and neither one a real success. Jackson has an ability to combine the most acidic of wisecracks with a sudden flick of pathos that I haven’t seen equaled since the days of Jean Arthur.

Jovita Molina offered a sexy and winning description of the erotic effect of high heeled shoes; and, in one of the evening’s unexpected topics of discussion, Carol Marquart perceptively considered what you ought to wear for surgery—first the reconstructive cosmetic kind, then, more chillingly, for cancer.

The Ephrons’ adaptation of Ilene Beckerman’s best-selling book is however not just a series of individual spoken arias. There are moments when family groups comment and squabble about dating and clothing choices—and group cadenzas on themes like the color black or the shock of expanding dress sizes. I was particularly impressed with a segment in which Jackson and Molina tell two seemingly unrelated stories that gradually intertwine like a fugue in a way that slowly but surely ties them one to the other. And the closing moment, with all five of these fine performers talking at once, in a warm and dotty symphony of comment, complaint and aspiration, was a fitting conclusion to an event I had approached with hesitation and had experienced with pleasure.

Posted June 17, 2013

Rama triumphant

By Philip Pearce

I was invited last weekend to Watsonville’s Mount Madonna School’s annual stage version of the 2600-year-old East Indian epic called Ramayana. In the interest of full disclosure, I wasn’t there because I write for this website but because my godson August Jonker, whose dad is American and whose mother is Indian, was dancing in the show.

Ramayana 2013 was not your typical end-of-year school play. For 35 years Mount Madonna, staff, parents and 200-something student body, have mounted increasingly elaborate and spectacular renditions of this classic tale—renditions so massive in fact that four years ago they moved hundreds of costumes, multitudes of wigs and masks, massive scenery units and collection of mechanical stage monsters, along with a full pit orchestra, from the school’s theatre spaces to the big Mexican Heritage Theatre on Alum Rock Road in San José.

A pre-performance backstage tour showed how well the new venue meets the needs of the dozens of staff and hundreds of parents who have designed and produced 80 per cent of the scenery and props and costumes and who work like a well-ordered backstage army, costuming and making up droves of Indian royalty, monkeys, demons, vultures, belly dancers and forest creatures, while parent and staff technicians prepare the machinery of creatures such as a pair of ten-to-twelve-foot high giants with jaws that chew and eyes that roll, and an automobile-operated dragon which will roll its own red eyeballs as it belches out clouds of stage smoke in one of the final big stage battles. By the time it all happened, Sunday’s audience was ecstatic, wild and noisy.

August‘s parents, Kevin and Geneffa Jonker, emphasized before the show that this is no specialty act by an elite school drama club or coterie of history buffs. Every student from preschool right up to grade twelve takes a role, providing everything from lead singing, dancing and dialogue to mass chorus work as variegated forest animals and uniformed demons, dancing girls and martial arts teams, all  to be blocked, choreographed and rehearsed by director Sampad Martin Kachuck starting in February and culminating in June. If you’re a Mount Madonna jock who’d rather be playing basketball, that’s just too bad. You climb into your wig or turban or animal skin along with your artsier classmates. It’s an all-in arrangement that might well produce awesome spectacle but wooden acting, but that didn’t happen, at least not this year. The cast was not just enthusiastic, they were, by and large, adept. As the hero Prince Rama, a convincingly heroic Rudy Hooven swashbuckled, sang and danced like a pro and, in battles with enemies of varying size and species, did backflips and forward rolls that would have been a credit to a professional acrobat. His is the  saga of a man who, like Homer’s Ulysses, finds himself banished from home and royal honor and must embark on a journey of retribution and self discovery, stalked by an assortment of eccentric enemies. In Rama’s case these include a wicked rival king with ten heads, played this year with bravura menace by Will Bryan in a daunting costume. Unlike Ulysses, Rama has his bride along for the big adventures. She was played here by Sanika Lakka, who sang beautifully and reminded my old eyes of a very young Dorothy Lamour. She and Rama also have the presence and support of Rama’s faithful brother Lakshmana, briskly enacted by Pedro Aquirre. The animal-loving bride Sita turns out to be a bit of a mixed blessing, since she messes things up along the route by falling for one of Rama’s enemies whose on-the-spot transformation from a sneaky sorcerer (Sage Buzzini) to an alluring golden deer (Renata Massion) happens on stage right in front of our eyes.

With all those hundreds on stage, it’s a shame not to name every member of a big and gifted young cast,  but I did warm especially to a couple of ham-fisted comic baddies called Bonehead and Hooknose, played with raucous brio by Aimee Hopskins and Roger Hooker, and to the slick and slyly comic narration by Jake Getz and Vyvyanne Mackey. All in all, something to see. And everything, of course, turns out just fine by the final curtain. .

As to Augie Jonker, well, he seemed to me to be the slickest and most energetic of his whole high-spirited dance team, but that’s probably because (a) his Mom choreographed that number, and (b) I am a doting and prejudiced godfather.

It’s all over in a single massive annual three-day weekend, but it will happen again next June.

Posted June 11, 2013

A great opportunity to join the Jenkins cult

By Philip Pearce

Soprano Florence Foster Jenkins was a cult sensation of the New York social scene in the 1940s – “cult” being that euphemism we tend to apply to any performer or work which attracts a persistent, fanatical fan base in spite of, maybe even because of, a lack of artistic merit.

With Jenkins, known in her lifetime as “the diva of din,” the lack was total. Yet she made musical history of a sort with big vinyl recording sales and a multitude of devoted fans that included Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen. The politer of concert goers stifled their laughter, while the less controlled guffawed openly at the quavery coloratura loops, gasping flourishes and piercing shrieks of Jenkins’s attacks on Mozart and Strauss plus a repertoire of home-made songs with titles like ”Like a Bird.” Her partner in performance was a pianist with the startling name of Cosme McMoon,. Their forays into twentieth century culture are the subject of Peter Quilter’s Glorious! now enjoying a brisk, funny production at Magic Circle Theatre in Carmel Valley Village.

Deliberately singing badly has been a challenge to stars of this and three earlier plays about Jenkins. Lyn Whiting meets the challenge head on, is vocally hilarious and gives full sway to the campy, over-the-top stuff, without losing the brief moments of underlying pathos in this extraordinary, puzzling character. It’s an assured and impressive piece of acting that might, with a less able supporting cast, have blown everyone else into the shadows. Not so here. Director Laura Cote and five other excellent local actors keep the focus on whoever is there to offer a new slant on the incredible central figure. Jon-Mark Hurley is a wry, eye-rolling McMoon and plays the accompanying piano trills and glissandos with skill. Richard Boynton is convincing and funny as Florence’s bibulous British actor boyfriend, and Virginia Bell serves play and main character admirably as a neighbor and arch supporter named Dorothy. For a time, there’s nobody around to challenge Florence’s claims to vocal brilliance, but then Faith Collins-Beety explodes out of the audience and into the action as a socialite so angry at all the cultural hype and pretension that she even out-hollers the redoubtable Whiting, until knocked for a loop by the arrival of an authentic offer for Jenkins to play Carnegie Hall. And, please, finally, can we have a special extra bow to the wonderful Sherry Kefalas who does amazing things with the role of Madame Jenkins’s glowering Mexican maid.

Quilter’s script makes the story accessible, sticking to its goofy surface, never probing the underlying question of who ultimately being tricked. The received wisdom here and elsewhere is that Jenkins remained convinced to the end (she died a few months after her sold-out Carnegie Hall debut) that she had a glorious voice. A less popular but more interesting play might have questioned whether she and Cosme contrived to offer a public hungry for novelty and merriment unsuspected proof that anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

Performances continue weekends through June 23.

Posted May 28, 2013

Light Up script, not the production, still needs work

By Philip Pearce

Way back in 1948, Moss Hart, detached from his longtime writing partner George S. Kaufman, wrote a comedy with serious overtones. At its Boston tryout the play was reckoned to “need work.” Hart beefed up the laughs, toned down the drama and produced what John Chapman described at the time as a “loud and well directed farce” which ran a respectable 216 performances on Broadway. The play, Light Up The Sky, prophetically enough, tells how a company of theatrical eccentrics open a tragi-comedy in Boston, where it is found to have possibilities but will “need work” before hitting Broadway.

After two years spent borrowing production venues, the MPC Theatre Company have chosen Hart’s backstage romp to mark their return to a renovated Morgan Stock Theatre, so the temptation might be to review the refurbished building. My third-row seat was comfortable, the acoustics and lighting were admirable; now let’s talk about the show.

Sixty five years on, Light Up The Sky is still fairly loud and was certainly well directed on Friday night. It‘s the kind of over-the-top offering that quickens the collective pulse of any self-respecting crew of comic actors and Gary Bolen‘s cast rises to the occasion. The characters are broad, they talk loud, emote ludicrously and the audience, by and large, has a good evening.

By and large? Well, the truth is, unless we’re talking Oscar Wilde, farce tends to show its age quicker than any other theatrical genre and this one isn‘t any exception. A considerable measure of the zip and glitter of this show’s original production, for example, depended on lines peppered with names of then-current celebrities, names which the audience was subtly flattered into recognizing. No hope of realizing these days that two of the main characters, Producer Sidney Black and Ice Skater wife Frances, played with a lot of gusto by James Brady and Teresa Del Piero, are based on producer Billy Rose and his synchronized swimming star wife Eleanor Holm. And what do you do with references to people like George Jean Nathan, Olsen and Johnson, or Mortimer Snerd? The MPC program offers a cheat sheet of celebrity identifications, but unless you’re my age, the immediate impact is lost.

Light Up The Sky has some good lines and a First Act curtain which is the comic high point of the show. Trouble is, nothing that funny really happens after that moment, however brisk the acting or fast the action. It becomes clear, when we get around to an ironic third act scene with a stagestruck Shriner, nicely performed by Terry Durney, that the opening night of the tryout has not been the catastrophe the director, cast and producer have assumed. That ought to end things. But we wait around for Chris Deacon’s disillusioned playwright to return (he makes it from the airport to central Boston in about five or six miraculous minutes) then watch him transform from naive idealist to tough-as-nails Broadway wordsmith, but all that just isn’t strong enough material to keep us interested up to the final curtain. I thought they were all great and that Gary Bolen did a fine job of keeping the circus moving. But, the sense of a gradual slowdown in interest level as the evening progressed suggests that the script, not this able production, still needs work. And I’m afraid it’s too late for that.

Posted May 21, 2013

AN ILIAD

By Philip Pearce

Pacific Repertory Theatre has launched its Summer/Fall season with an intense hundred-minute commentary on Homer’s classic song of Greeks and Trojans at war called An Iliad. “An” not “The” because authors Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare offer one particular and shrewd selection of the epic’s characters and events among other possible choices. And “commentary” rather than “retelling” because they home in on those moments of Homer’s work that confront us with the terrible blind futility of war, back then and right here and now.

Our guide is The Poet (Homer himself? a contemporary bard with an epic obsession?) daring us not to “Look, look” (his mantra) at the horrors he sometimes narrates, more often performs to demand our pity and horror. Director Kenneth Kelleher’s production notes remind us that the first word in Homer’s text is “rage” and this swift, terrifying production never lets you forget it.

As the play’s sole  figure, Jackson Davis moves through Patrick McEvoy’s compact and evocative set like a raging wolf and stares us down like an indignant eagle. His energy and focus are astounding as he shifts from then to now, from narration to performance, thence to blatant and bitter harangue. I’ve never seen the obscene blood lust of a  war hero presented as baldly on stage as in the climax of Davis’s victorious Achilles. Yet even more telling is his quiet, almost conversational roll call of wars and wars and more wars from the Crusades to Syria.

If you are looking for detached scholarly history or a perceptive bit of literary criticism, this is not your show. If you welcome theatre with an almost ruthless impact and immediacy, head for PacRep between now and June 2.

Posted May 7, 2013