Review: Thornton Wilder’s ‘The Skin of our Teeth’ at Douglas Morrisson Theatre (**)

May 23, 2015 Leave a comment

by Mark Johnson
Rating: **
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

(from l to r) Dale Albright and Cynthia Lagodzinski in Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of our Teeth." Photo Credit: Douglas Morrisson Theater.

(from l to r) Dale Albright and Cynthia Lagodzinski in Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of our Teeth.” Photo Credit: Douglas Morrisson Theater.

Watching the opening night performance of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of our Teeth” at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward, I notice the small audience turn from laughter, to chuckles, to dead silence. And one could say that is how this well-meaning, but ultimately over-ambitious production of Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece turns out.

Yes, this play is a genuine masterpiece, and deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1942. It is an impressive allegory for the human race, its capacity for good and evil, and its insistence on continuing forward. The play consists of three one acts featuring the same family over the course of both six months and six thousand years. It is a play that, like the author’s previous and more famous “Our Town,” demonstrates the uniqueness and continued necessity of live theatre.

Director Susan E. Evans wisely chooses to present the material as written. With concept productions of classics seeming to be all that goes nowadays, it is a relief to see the director trust the material instead of twisting it to fit her own stamp. The original music by Don Tieck is atmospheric and melodic.

The play is not easy to pull off, requiring a tricky balance that demands almost instantaneous tonal shifts for the whole piece to work. In the present production, most of the humorous bits land well, which makes for a highly amusing first act. However, the second act requires the actors to balance between comedy and drama, and this company fails to find the seriousness in the work, replacing what should be genuine emotion with loud shouting. This causes the dramatic bits to be lost in a flurry of noise, while preventing the still persistent humor from shining through. These difficulties are made worse by problems with vocal projection. Some lines were lost to me, even though I was only three rows from the stage. Either microphones or improvements in diction should have been called for. The set design, too, is overly ambitious, with large set pieces that ultimately take away from the raw nature of the play and are none too appealing to boot.

The final act should be profoundly moving, but ends up stupefying instead. The actors try hard, but seem unable to rise to the level required. The words wash over the audience, who seem to just sit and wait for it to be over.

Although this company has made a great effort, this production is a case of their eyes being wider than their stomach. The company has not digested this material successfully enough to create a satisfying evening of theatre. I applaud the attempt, but, unfortunately, it just isn’t good enough.

“The Skin of Our Teeth” plays at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward through June 14th. For further information, click here.

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“The Skin of Our Teeth” by Thornton Wilder, produced by Douglas Morrisson Theatre. Director: Susan E. Evans. Assistant Director: Mariana Wolff. Scenic Designer: Martin Flynn. Lighting Designer: Christopher Booras. Original Music and Sound Design: Don Tieck. Costume Designer: Courtney Flores.

Sabina (aka Lily Sabina Fairweather), Miss Somerset: Lauren Hayes. Mr. George Antrobus: Dale Albright. Mrs. Antrobus: Cynthia Lagodzinski. Henry: Alan Coyne. Gladys: Wendy Wyatt-Mair. Fortune Teller: Eve McElheney Tieck. Announcer, Mr. Fitzpatrick, Ensemble: Reg Clay. Dinosaur, Broadcast Official, Ensemble: Caitlin Evenson. Mammoth, Miss T Muse, Ensemble; Radhika Rao. Telegraph Boy, Chair Pusher, Ensemble: Jon Wat. Miss M Muse, Ensemble: Laurie Gossett. Homer, Ensemble: Wayne Roadie.

Piano and Percussion: Donald Tieck. Glockenspiel, Percussion, and Sound Effects: Jim Patrick. Cello and Percussion: Eve Tieck.

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Review: World premiere of Richard Dresser’s ‘Trouble Cometh’ at SF Playhouse (***)

May 21, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger
(***)
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

L to R: Liz Sklar, Kyle Cameron, and Patrick Russell in SF Playhouse's world premiere production of Richard Dresser's

L to R: Liz Sklar, Kyle Cameron, and Patrick Russell in SF Playhouse’s world premiere production of Richard Dresser’s “Trouble Cometh.” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli.

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Richard Dresser is a slick and prolific playwright and TV writer. He knows from writing comedy and constructing plots. He knows about the corporate world of Hollywood, and he knows theatre. All of this shows to good effect in “Trouble Cometh,” a smoothly constructed comedy machine given a suitably slick production by a crackerjack team at SF Playhouse.

The smooth professionalism on display here is a pleasure to enjoy, from May Adrales’s light handed, balanced direction to Nina Ball’s sharply observed set, to the performances of the actors, especially a very funny Kyle Cameron as the confused newcomer Joe, bounced around like a comic basketball by his boss, his fiance, and the executive assistant he wants to seduce. He makes his San Francisco debut in this production; here’s hoping he leaves his heart and has to come back again and again.

Joe is the new hire for Dennis, a senior writer for a TV production company, charged with creating the pitch for a new reality TV show. Dennis, to put it mildly, is a piece of work — a bully, a liar, a player, and likeable in spite of it all. Joe and Dennis work with the very capable, seductive, and extremely practical executive assistant, Kelly, a woman who is not afraid to eavesdrop for her bosses, and who prefers to sleep with the married Dennis because, as a married man, he demonstrates that he is capable of stability and commitment. She tells Joe that she might consider sleeping with him, too, if he would demonstrate similar qualities.

This sort of blunt truth telling is very funny, and playwright Dresser is very good at it. And these actors know how to squeeze out every laugh. A couple of examples: Planning his wedding ceremony, Joe tells his fiance, “Let’s leave out that business about forsaking all others — what we don’t want is laughter.” When Kelly advises Joe to show some respect for his fiance, he responds, “We don’t have that kind of relationship.”

With jokes like that delivered by this highly capable cast in this highly polished production, the laughs are sure. It all goes down with the ease and delight of a successful TV sitcom.

There are some plot complications suggesting the uncertainty of life, the ways we manipulate one another, and similar serious matters. To be honest, they didn’t engage me very much. I mostly enjoyed the laughs. If you’re looking for bigger fish to fry, cast your net elsewhere.

For a guaranteed good time, this’ll do nicely.

‘Trouble Cometh’ plays at SF Playhouse through June 27th. For further information click here.

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“Trouble Cometh” by Richard Dresser, world premiere produced by SF Playhouse. Director: May Adrales. Set Design: Nina Ball. Sound Design: Theodore J. H. Huylsker. Lighting Design: Seth Reiser. Costume Design: Tatjana Genser. Props Design: Jacquelyn Scott. 

Joe: Kyle Cameron. Susan: Marissa Keltie. Dennis: Patrick Russell. Vashti: Nandita Shenoy. Kelly: Liz Sklar. 

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Review: ‘Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper’ at Central Works (****1/2)

May 20, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger
(****1/2)
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

From l to r: Elena Wright and Cybèle D’Ambrosio perform in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s THE YELLOW WALLPAPER. Photo Credit: Central Works.

From l to r: Elena Wright and Cybèle D’Ambrosio perform in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s THE YELLOW WALLPAPER. Photo Credit: Central Works.

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Turn of the 20th century feminist writer and activist wrote only one work of fiction, the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It is a masterpiece. On one level, it is a superb example of the gothic horror genre, often compared favorably to the work of Edgar Allen Poe. But, more profundly, it is a scathing and moving indictment of the treatment of women in Victorian and Edwardian times.

Written in the first person, it purports to be the journal of a young wife and mother named Jane, whose well-meaning physician husband attempts to cure her of depression by removing her from all stimulation. He confines her to the attic nursery of a decaying Colonial mansion. At the start of the journal,  Jane is perfectly sane, and grateful for her husband’s care. Gradually, however, she begins to fear the room in which she is held. At first, it is just a mild distaste for the unpleasant yellow wallpaper. But gradually she becomes obsessed with its pattern, which she cannot quite make sense of. It begins to obsess her, and eventually she feels that it is haunted. She comes to believe there is a woman (later, multiple women) trapped behind the wallpaper, whom she must free. Increasingly obsessed, she is gradually reduced to madness, crawling about on the floor like the women of her fantasy, clawing at the wallpaper. The story, of course, has two levels: it is a straightforward horror story of a haunted house that drives a woman mad, while the haunted house is a metaphor for the maddening societal imprisonment and infantilization of women. It is a masterpiece because it works so well on both levels. Gilman wrote only one work of fiction, but it is a work of genius.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” has long been recognized for its theatrical potential. As early as the 1930s, the great actress Agnes Morehead performed it as a radio play. In the years since, it has been adapted as a Twilight Zone episode, several films, and numerous stage presentations.

Central Works artistic director Gary Graves remarks in his program notes that the company “recognized the piece as a perfect fit for our space in the City Club.” Indeed it is! Not only is the gothic architecture perfectly suited as a setting, but the history of the buildng (a former Women’s Club, designed by pioneering woman architect Julia Morgan, a contemporary of Gilman’s) is rich with resonant associations. Jan Zvaifler’s staging and Gary Graves extraordinary light design make full use of this gift. The light uncannily creates the feeling of an attic room, both beautiful and frightening. Moving repeatedly from sunrise to sunset to moonlight, it marks the passage of time in almost musical fashion. And the play of light against the walls helps to create the ominous wallpaper. The echoing of a baby’s distant cries (kudos to sound designer Gregory Scharpen) and the occasional knocking of Jane’s husband/keeper add to the overall sense of horror and sorrow. And speaking of design elements, Tammy Berlin’s period costumes are picture perfect.

Elena Wright, as Jane, is driven mad by her confinement. Photo Credit: Central Works.

Elena Wright, as Jane, is driven mad by her confinement. Photo Credit: Central Works.

A brilliant innovation in this production is the addition of a non-speaking second character, violinist Cybèle D’Ambrosio. D’Ambrosio remains on stage for the entire evening, accompanying the monologue on the violin, invisible to Jane. Initially, the score incorporates snippets of romantic music, charming and sensible, but gradually begins to reflect and anticipate Jane’s growing madness, with rumblings and screeches, insect-like buzzes, and frightful tappings. It is musically excellent and virtuosic in performance. Just as impressive, however, is D’Ambrosio’s acting. Although she never speaks, her unnerving, compassionate, and riveted attention on Jane adds immeasurably to the evening’s effect. It is as if she is a sympathetic goddess, guardian angel, or perhaps Jane’s own compassionate soul, who can see the truth. It is an excellent performance, musically and dramatically.

Elena Wright is everything she needs to be as Jane. Vibrant and vivacious, she fully embodies the young wife who loves her husband, but is increasingly plagued by doubts as to the wisdom of her confinement. Her gradual descent into psychosis is convincing emotionally, vocally, and physically. The monologue is a full seventy minutes in length, with no intermission, and the actress does not flag for a moment. It flies by. As with D’Ambrosio’s performance on the violin, Wright’s work is best described as virtuosic.

Central Works’ production of “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper” plays at The Berkeley City Club through June 21. For further information, click here.
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“Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper” adapted for the stage by Gary Graves, produced by Central Works. Director: Jan Zvaifler. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. Original Score & Arrangements: Cybèle D’Ambrosio. Lights: Gary Graves. 

Jane: Elena Wright. Musician: Cybèle D’Ambrosio.

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Review: ‘Ondine’ presented by We, Players at Sutro Baths & Environs (*****)

May 13, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger & Barry David Horwitz

Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
ondine

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The reviewers are voting members of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Charles Kruger writes:

Decades ago I was a student at UC Irvine during the tenure of the great and justly celebrated Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. I remember hearing Professor Grotowski speak of a particularly famous production of his, the one that established his reputation, as being like “an elephant on a tighrope.” The image stuck with me, and for decades since I have attended the theatre in the hope that I would see such a miraculous thing.

I can now announce, having witnessed We, Players fantastically beautiful rendition of “Ondine” presented at Sutro Baths: I have seen the elephant! It walked a tightrope! 

It may well be that I have experienced a production this wonderful, but I can’t think of any.

Standing in the Lands End parking lot in the approaching dusk, wrapping a coat around me against the wind and the mist, watching the scrotum-tightening sea, I knew I was in for something special. My expectations were met and surpassed. At the appointed time, our small but sturdy crew made its way down the steep pathway to the ruins of the Sutro baths, where we had been instructed to watch for a fisherman. The fisherman was there, rowing upon the lake created by the ocean sweeping into the ruins. The lone fisherman, sihouetted against the setting sun and the billowing Pacific, huge cargo ships visible in the distance, porpoises frolicking (YES, REALLY!!!), was as memorable an image as I have ever seen on stage, canvas or in the cinema. It was like a Winslow Homer masterpiece sprung to life.

We followed the Fiserhman around some rocks to his home — a beautiful little set, nestled in the hills with the sea for a backdrop. Musicians provided a suitable background score as mysterious figures danced in the periphery of the scene. He began to converse with his wife. And here I have to say something of the actors: in spite of the wind, the mist, the cold, and the music, every word spoken was as clear as a bell. This is astonishing. The technical work that must have gone in to achieving this clarity had to be akin to training for a marathon. I will mention here that this high level of accomplished acting presented with graceful movement and vocal virtuosity was evident for the entire evening, in every scene, regardless of the environmental challenges, for every participating actor.

The story that then unfolds up and down hills, meandering through the park, involves a love affair between a hapless knight and a spirit of the lake (the “ondine” of the title). The story involves kings and princes, courtiers and ladies, magicians, gods, demiurges, priests, judges, the supernatural, nature raw, and considerable intellectual heft. It is the work of a great poet. It is delivered with grace and magic.

Additional details follow in Barry David Horwitz’s excellent review. From me, let it suffice that I say: Go see the elephant! It walks a tightrope!

Barry David Horwitz writes:

“Ondine” is a wonder. At the edge of the City, overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Sutro Baths, at Land’s End, looking at clouds, sky, and sea, hiking over to Sutro Park, in a congenial group of 120, we marched from sea to field to sea, breathing salt air and undergoing the changes of Nature that Ondine, herself, inhales and exhales.

The tranquil beginning has us looking out at the little lake perched at the edge of the sea, at the bottom of Sutro Baths. The lake fills with the overflow of Pacific Ocean tides and is framed against the wide blue gleam of Pacific blue beyond. On the glassy lake we make out a lone little skiff with a single fisherman fishing there, and if we look closely, we can catch him hauling in a single trout. A fairyland setting for a fairy tale story, as Auguste (Jack Halton) rows his boat in, and trots around the lake to us, carrying his catch. He is full of joy, in harmony with Nature, rosy-cheeked, and bouncing along—a witty guy we are eager to follow.

We are in the story, and the story is in us. Soon, after a brief bracing outdoor hike, we gather at a stone platform overlooking the azure sea and blossomy white clouds—best backdrop for a play you’ll ever see! And Auguste and his wife are medieval peasants who argue over dinner, their poverty, and their adopted daughter, Ondine (Ava Roy) who came to them from the lake, long ago.

Here, we have the origins of a magical daughter, linked to water, whose emotional frankness presents problems for these simple folk. Soon, they are entertaining a wandering knight decked out in ridiculous, out-sized armour—he is handsome, clueless Hans von Wittenstein zu Wittenstein (Benjamin Stowe ), who of course immediately falls for Ondine, the beautiful blonde sea-nymph with flowing blonde curls and enticing, seductive manners. Or, rather, she lacks all mortal bourgeois manners. She is too much herself and indissolubly a part of the Nature she embodies—a mermaid without the tail and dancing Sirens who try to lure her back to the Sea.

This updated dramatic fairy tale by Jean Giraudoux unfolds slowly and deliberately, always in touch with the elements of sea, air, wind, and sky that flow through the players and the audience. At first, we think it will be just an old fairy tale outdoors, with hiking—but pretty quickly, the modern note of a politically and dramatically astute mid-20th Century French diplomat shines through. Giraudoux is out for bigger fish than that single trout. He is connecting us to an ideal vision of the Nature around us, and using Ondine to express our own frustration at being separated from The Sea God and our Mother, the Sea. Why can’t we go back to where we started? Why can’t we bring Nature’s values to the court where a silly King rules and manipulative fashionable lovers pursue each other, coquettishly?

By the end of the superbly constructed modern fable, we are left with primal questions in a primal setting.

In the second scene, we are plunged into comic satire of the King and court—played out in the midst of Ocean, Clouds, and Sky. In the hyper-civilized hypocritical court, we feel as cut off from real emotions as does Ondine, now ridiculously out of synch with its social rituals. Only the Court Poet, the tall and gangly, sensitive and sweet Bertram (Eli Wirtschafter, who also accomanies the action on the violin) adores Ondine for her truth, as a fellow worshipper of feelings and honesty. Even he cannot help her adapt to a “civilized” life, though he tries sweetly and charmingly. His scenes with Ondine, brief and transient, enchant us—as he tries to defend her from the Dark Side of Hans’s courtly entanglements. Bertram is her Hans Solo, trying to bridge the gap between Nature’s sensibilities and the World’s demands.

In this play, Nature has to win, ultimately—but in a most interesting and genre-bending way—Gods intervene, Judges impose their will, Berthe, a jealous mistress manipulates, and all levels of state and authority are comically rolled out to battle the inevitable, the Sea God, and the presumptuous, outrageous spirit of Ondine. You cannot win over a Force of Nature—you have to adapt, admire, and accept the sea, her dancing maidens, and her love. Yes, it’s a play about the demands of love—Ondine and Hans, Hans and Ondine. They pose twin poles of the Antipodes, and they take us far out to Sea and up into the Sky, by the end. When Nature asserts herself against mere Mortality, there is inspiration, transcendence, and immortality, all in play at a moment. The force of the Sea, the grinding of the City, and the flurries of Art contend for our allegiance. Giraudoux plays with our expectations and shows us an outcome we could not predict. The playwright of “The Madwoman of Chaillot” has once again pitted misfits against both Nature and Man, using the madness of art to ennoble the struggling, magical woman. Clearly, the female principle is closer to Nature and will survive.

By the end, the sky, sea, and clouds have become major players in the comic and tragic tale of the girl who brought magic and honesty into the world, and then has to leave us alone to figure out how to use it. Can Hans adopt her risky qualities, or is her love too much for mere silly mortals? Ondine by the sea will help you make up an answer.

Highly recommended for hikers, thinkers, poets, folklorists, magicians, and lovers. Also a wonderful, clear, and articulate performance for sea-nymphs and dashing knights.

“Ondine” plays at Sutro Baths through June 14 (extended run). For further information click here.

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“Ondine” by Jean Giraudoux, translated by Maurice Valency, produced by We, Players in collaboration with The National Park Service. Co-Director: Carly Cioffi & Ava Roy. Music Director: Charles Gurke. Movement Director: Lauren D. Chavez. Visual Arts Director: Patrick Gillespie. Costume Design: Brooke Jennings. 

Ondine chorus/Matho: Mikka Bonel. Eugenie/Judge: Jennie Brick. Ondine chorus/Bird: Briana Dickonson. Courtier/Scribner: Gabriel DeLeon. Ondine Ensemble/Salammbo: Julie Douglas. The Horse/Superintendent/Executioner: Dan Flapper. Ondine dancer: Mary Devi Hadsell. Ondine dancer: Claire Haider. Auguste/Judge: Jack Halton. Bertha: Elaine Ivy Harris. Ondine Dancer: Angie Heile. Lord Chamberlaine/Fisherman: Nathaniel Justiniano. The King/Walter: Nick Medina. The Old One/The Illusionist: Olive Mitra. Ondine chrous: The Dog. Ondine chorus/Venus/Viiolante: Libby Oberlin. Ondine chorus/Angelique: Becky Robinson-Leviton. Ondine: Ava Roy. Ondine dancer: Kaia Rose. Ritter Hans: Benjamin Stowe. Bertram: Eli Wirtschafter. 

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Review: ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ Presented by TheatreFIRST (*****)

May 1, 2015 Leave a comment

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Director Michael Storm Revives Mamet’s Monsters: Vampires Live!

The cast of T heatreFirst's revival of David Mamet's masterpiece,

The cast of TheatreFirst’s revival of David Mamet’s masterpiece, “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Photo Credit: TheatreFirst.

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

A brilliant direction of a masterpiece play, re-imagined for Our Time in Our Town — don’t miss it. There’s no rapid fire Mamet line deliveries here — Michael Storm has re-invented the pace and the deliveries, magisterially teasing out the nuances and the comedy. We feel and become the struggling, trapped fish in the swampy Florida land deal. We laugh at the faux-Scottish names for real-estate scams. In a re-invented role, Storm plays a version of Ricky Roma that will set your teeth on edge: he’s like a cobra, you cannot take your eyes off him — and still we laugh and love him at the same time! He is the world’s best BSer! How does he do that?

Michael Storm’s Ricky Roma is the Church, and the actor/director knows that the Church, corrupt as it is, still has a heart, even while he’s playing an Italian confidence man in 80s Boom Chicago. Roma ruminates, while Shelly “The Machine” Levene, the hapless Old Testament salesman, played by Warren David Keith, pompously pronounces prophetic and zealous revenge, “an eye for an eye.” And the Office Manager, John Williamson (Tim Redmond), he’s the New Man, who listens, waits, and pounces—the Protestant “Ethic,” running the show for the bosses. Redmond plays perfect Corporate Tool, working for the Koch Brothers, pitting one salesman against the other, coldly, humorously, callously. Catholic, Jewish, Protestant—all present and sucking the blood.

Each and every actor is spot on—drawing out the language and the torture and the ridiculousness of their creations. Even the Little Fish are glorious in their victimhood—James Lingk (Chris Hayes), following his wife’s orders; George Aaranow (Michael Torres) ordered around by the masterful and methodical Dave Moss (Kevin Karrick); and the always triumphant Ricky Roma (Storm) thundering down on the vanquished Levene (Keith). Williamson (Redmond) and Baylen (Robert Lundy-Paine) stand for authority in the shell game Ponzi scheme, and they are scary-real vampires, too.

When TheatreFIRST decided to bring back the 1986 Pulitzer Prize-Winning play, “Glengarry Glen Ross” by David Mamet, they must have been thinking that this play about real estate sharks certainly applies to our 21st Century America. Post-Crash, Post- Recesh, Post-Dot-Com Bust, the sharks are swimming again—did they ever stop in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco? This production asks us: When will the Bubbles Burst Again? And who always gets hurt?

But then the stakes go up and up: here comes Dave Moss (Kevin Karrick) and George Aaranow (Michael Torres) at the same blood red restaurant table, and they are also at each other’s throats—two fellow real estate salesmen, co-workers from Mitch & Murray’s corrupt sales shop. Here we have the essence of capitalist skullduggery—the road downward from Miller’s “Death of Salesman.” The working conditions and the outright lies have rotted and spread, decade by decade, corrupt sale by sale. When will it end?

Moss has set his sights on Aaronow, and Kevin Karrick, a seasoned genius performer, does not tip his hand, not yet. Moss is angling for Aaranow’s soul, and the poor fish is damned out of luck—the Devil becomes a fisherman, in the guise of a real estate salesman in Mamet’s play. Never has the Devil been so humble and appealing and effective as in Kevin Karrick’s skilled hands. At first Karrick lets us believe that his Moss is a bumbler, a phoney, a faker—but, slowly and hilariously, he sets the hook, yanking the line a few times to increase the pain in his fish, letting us enjoy his artful dodgering and creative torturing, until he reels in his catch, his buddy, his comrade. Each salesman has a prey, and the manager and the cop, too. Big fish eat Little Fish. Each one thinks he’s Too Big to Fail, or hopes…

The sharks are eating each other, right in front of our eyes—and it’s a Comedy, folks. Worthy of Greek comedy and Greek tragedy—exposing our Reagan/Bush Business Culture of lying and faking and flim-flamming right in little Live Oak Park Theatre, in lovely North Berkeley.

Each actor is at the top of his game. Every one. These are all pro’s, and they are here to work for us. Watch out for those fangs. Each element in the perfectly paced show unfolds so that we can savor it as it comes—we groan, we howl, we guffaw. We are with them up there in the real estate speculations that have come to dominate dinner tables in Berkeley, OakTown, and S.F., tonight. The ghouls have come to dinner with us in the 21st Century—and we better take careful note of who is who. TheatreFIRST lets us discover them for ourselves in the finest staging of “Glengarry” seen in many a year. Storm will take you by the throat. See real-life real-estate Vampires, hungrier and more blood-curdling than any Hunger Games! A play for the whole family.

“Glengarry Glen Ross” plays at Live Oak Theatre, through May 24. For further information, click here.

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“Glengarry Glen Ross” by David Mamet, produced by TheatreFirst & Bonnie Stiles. Director: Michael Storm.  Set Designer: Martin Flynn. Lighting Designer: Hamilton Guillen. Costume Designer: Kristyn Nolasco. Sound Designer: Ryan Short.

Shelly Levene: Warren David Keith. John Williamson: Timothy Redmond. Dave Moss: Kevin Karrick. George Aaronow: Michael Torres. James Lingk: Chris Hayes. Ricky Roma: Michael Storm. Baylen: Robert Lundy-Paine.

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Review: ‘The Way West’ at Marin Theatre Company (**1/2)

April 28, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger
Rating: **1/2

(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Anne Darragh, Kathryn Zdan, and Rosie Hallett as a family under stress in Marin Theatre Company's west coast premiere of "The Way West" by Mona Mansour. Photo Credit: Marin Theatre Company.

Anne Darragh, Kathryn Zdan, and Rosie Hallett as a family under stress in Marin Theatre Company’s west coast premiere of “The Way West” by Mona Mansour. Photo Credit: Marin Theatre Company.

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Mona Mansour definitely has something important to say about American culture with “The Way West.”

The family depicted in this western comedy is definitely headed into the sunset. Mom is facing bankruptcy, is a serial car-crasher, and is suffering from a mysterious paralysis. Daughter Manda has come to help out, but is herself hanging on to security by her fingernails. Younger daughter Meesh is surviving by running scams on E-Bay and playing fast and loose with Mom’s money. Neighbor Tress has persuaded Mom to invest thousands of dollars into her shady weight-loss business, which is being shut down by the authorities. Things don’t look good.

But Mom, the relentless optimist, can see no problems. Her confidence is perfectly awe inspiring, and she stubbornly refuses to recognize anything but good news. As disaster after disaster strikes, she gathers her children to regale them with inspiring stories from the days of the pioneers, each more ridiculous and less believable than the last.

It is not difficult to grasp the playwright’s point. Americans were able to conquer the West by virtue of  pioneer grit and optimism, but plenty of folks died along the way. It may have been “the way West” geographically, but, psycologically, foolish optimism in the face of decline may be “the way West” metaphorically as well, as the American century sinks below the world horizon.

The play is an excellent showcase for  four actresses, and Anne Darragh, Rosie Hallett, Stacy Ross, and Kathryn Zdan make a lot of it. Their performances are strong, true-to-life and full of depth and insight. The single male performer, Hugo E. Carbajal, in the dual rules of Luis and the Pizza Delivery Guy, is also quite good.

In spite of many fine details — interesting staging, excellent acting, a superb set by Geoffrey M. Curley — this production never quite reaches its comic potential. In material that calls for the sort of broad overplaying and ridiculous exaggeration suitable for sketch comedy, the director seems to have opted for a more realistic approach.  This has the advantage (not to be sneezed at) of emphasizing the serious political and cultural analysis that informs the play, but it also has the flatness of everday reality where it could be over-the-top funny.

This is a good production that features some fine acting and a thoughtful approach to the material, but it left this reviewer imagining what might have been.

“The Way West” plays at the Boyer Theatre through May 10. For further information click here.

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“The Way West” by Mona Mansour, produced by Marin Theatre Company. Director: Hayley Finn. Scenic Designer: Geoffrey M. Curley. Lighting Designer: Masha Tsimring. Costume Designer: Christine Crook. Sound Designer: Brendan Aanes. Composers/Music Directors: Sam Misner & Megan Pearl Smith.

Mom: Anne Darragh. Meesh: Rosie Hallett. Manda: Kathryn Zdan. Tress: Stacy Ross. Luis/Pizza delivery guy: Hugo E. Carbajal.

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Review: West coast premiere of ‘Blackademics’ by Idris Goodwin presented by Crowded Fire Theater (****)

April 17, 2015 Leave a comment

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Michele Leavy, Lauren Spencer, and Safiya Fredericks in the west coast premire of "Blackademics" at Crowded Fire Theatre. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

Michele Leavy, Lauren Spencer, and Safiya Fredericks in the west coast premiere of “Blackademics” at Crowded Fire Theatre. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

Striving Scholars Seek Middle Class Cuisine

In “Blackademics,” Idris Goodwin offers up both more and less than what’s on the menu for dinner. The award-winning playwright serves up a meal that makes us feel what it is like to be a black woman college professor in contemporary America, using one woman’s celebration of her tenure at an exclusive restaurant. Goodwin also shows us what it feels like to be an exploited worker and teacher, even at the college level. As a new UC Berkeley study shows, up to 25% of adjunct college professors may be forced to rely on federal welfare programs for their basic needs. They are paid that meagerly. Enter Ann and Rachelle.

Ann (Safiya Fredericks) and her girlfriend Rachelle (Lauren Spencer) show us what it’s like to compete with each other for jobs, accolades, wit, smarts, and even degrees of blackness. The play is forcefully and musically acted; it is well-staged and directed by Mina Morita, the new artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater; and it bubbles over with fun and fire with lots of laughter at the ridiculous and real situation, and at ourselves. The two brilliant black academics rant and roll with self-conscious and self-promoting hip-hop lists of popular culture icons and elegant literary references, from Marvin Gaye to Toni Morrison. At some point, the play gets a bit bogged down by its own learning and the insistent food metaphor, but shocking and bizarre plot turns redeem “Blackademics” for an audience eager to understand white America’s hunger to consume blackness.

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 3.49.40 PMWhile the two old friends, Ann and Rachelle, do love each other, in fact they parry and thrust, probing each other’s weaknesses. Separated and alienated, they have promised to get together for years and now here they are at a special occasion celebration in a café at the edge of town. They don’t yet know why.

Dressed according to their roles in life, Ann in up to date, wildly colorful gear and Rachelle in no-nonsense denim and vest, the two women eagerly enter into the metaphor of food as reward for a job well done. They both teach black culture and modern aesthetics but at two different kinds of schools. Ann teaches at a small private liberal arts college and she has just received tenure. Rachelle teaches at the local state university and she is beleaguered by demands to teach everything under the sun. Under the watchful eye of Georgia (Michele Aprina Leavy), the older white waitress who comes and goes like an attentive overseer, the two young black teachers play the old academic game of pseudo-polite and pretentious ‘gotcha.” They draw the funniest and wittiest attacks out of each other, while waiting for their sustenance.

Fredericks tears up the stage, brilliantly, giving us a full dose of a sardonic, sly, and successful African-American scholar who can play the tenure game superbly. This gal knows her stuff, she’s got the juice, and she manages to really show off the goods from the high-minded to the down and dirty.

Rachelle lives a more modest and subdued life: she writes poetry, which she recites for black students in elementary classrooms. She has her street cred, her hip-hop, and her Zora Neale Hurston well in hand — she is the more thoughtful worker. She has stayed close to her base community, reciting her simple but elegant poem about Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month, for the kids.

In a surprising and absurdist plot twist, their fate could lie in the symbolic meal they are being served by the zealous Georgia who comes and goes with cold, middle class authority. Georgia seems to be consuming their blackness, as we are doing in the audience. She won’t even give them a table, chair, or fork without a struggle, mimicking the withholding behavior of the white ruling class. The celebratory dinner turns into a battle royale. The two blackademics slowly figure out that they have been pitted one against the other. What is really on the menu at this out of the way elite café which seems to have no exit?

You would be well advised to be a fly on the wall of this Café Select, and smell the whiff of blood.

“Blackademics” plays at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco, through May 2, 2015.

For further information, click here.

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“Blackacademics” by Idris Goodwin, west coast premiere presented by Crowded Fire Theater. Director: Mina Morita. Assistant Director/Dramaturg: Lisa Marie Rollins. Scenic Design: Mikiko Uesugi. Lighting Design: Stephanie Buchner. Sound Design: Hannah Birch Carl. Costume Design: Maggie Yule.

Ann: Safiya Fredericks. Georgia: Michele Aprina Leavy. Rachelle: Lauren Spencer.

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