Review: World Premiere of Marco Tutino’s ‘Two Women (La Ciociara)’ at SF Opera (***)

June 25, 2015 Leave a comment

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

Mother Cesira (Anna Caterina Antonacci) and daughter Rosetta (Sarah Shafer) suffer the ravages of war in "Two Women." Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Mother Cesira (Anna Caterina Antonacci) and daughter Rosetta (Sarah Shafer) suffer the ravages of war in “Two Women.” Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

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)

Composer Marco Tutino is known in Italy as a “neo-romanticist” and an admirer of “opera verismo” or realism in opera. Think the operatic equivalent of Cinéma verité or 19th century realism in the theatre. The problem is that what was realistic and down to earth a century ago may well seem cliched and melodramatic today. Puccini was once in the vanguard, but to compose in the style of Puccini today is to seem old fashioned, overwrought, and, well, pretty hammy.

And that is both the problem and the pleasure of ‘Two Women.’ Although clearly we are intended to take it very seriously as a deep and profound drama about war, the old fashioned score, that is almost slavishly imitative of “Tosca” and other Puccini masterworks, undermines that intent.

Still, if one accepts the highly questionable premise that this style remains appropriate for the material, the production has its pleasures. The score may be derivative, but it is rousing and has the pleasures of familiarity. Conductor Nicola Luisotti has treated this music with respect, as have the fine musicians of the SF Opera orchestra. If at times this score sounds not only like Puccini, but also a mid century movie score ala Max Steiner, well, that can be quite fun. But the themes of war time tragedies, culminating in a horrific rape, demand something more sophisticated. The effect of old fashioned melodramatic music undermines the seriousness of these themes.

Bass-baritone Mark Delavan is the melodramatic villain Giovanni in "Two Women." Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Bass-baritone Mark Delavan is the melodramatic villain Giovanni in “Two Women.” Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

The production does boast a remarkably realistic, almost cinematic set, by designers Peter J. Davison (set) and S. Katy Tucker (projections), intelligently fluid staging by director Francesca Zambello, and finely acted performances by a willing cast, especially Sarah Shafer as the young Rosetta, who delivers the opera’s best scene as she undergoes a striking personality change after experiencing a gang rape. Another treat in this production is the beautiful, soaring vocalization of Dimitri Pittas as her romantic interest, Michele. The incorpororation of some folk tunes (especially as performed by the charming Pasquale Esposito) are also a pleasure.

But, all of these fine production values are undermined by the essentially melodramatic indulgence of the piece as a whole. The Scarpia-like villain, Giovanni, as sung and acted by Mark Delavan, is practically a moustache-twirling cartoon. Indeed, when Delavan took his bow at the curtain call, he mugged in just that style, encouraging the audience to hiss and boo.

In conclusion, “Two Women,” is competent and satisfying in several ways — especially orchestral performance and production design — but seems to be essentially a minor work.

“Two Women (La Ciociara)” plays at the War Memorial Opera House through June 30, 2015 (two more performances). For further information, click here.

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“Two Women (La Ciociara)” by Marco Tutino, libertto by Marco Tutino + Fabio Ceresa. World premiere prodction co-comissioned by San Francisco Opera and Teatro Regio di Torino. Director: Francesca Zambello. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Set Designer: Peter J. Davison. Costume Designer: Jess Goldstein. Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough. Projection D esigner: S. Katy Tucker. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Choreographer: Val Caniparoli. Fight Director: David Maier. 

A Countray Woman: Znada Ṧvẽde. An Old Woman: Sally ouzon. Cesira: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Giovanni: Mark Deevan. Rosetta, Cesira’s daughter: Sarah Shafer. Michele, a young intellectual: Dimitri Pittas. Lena, a young mother: Znada Ṧvẽde. A distant voice: Christopher Jackson. Jon Buckley, lieutenant of the U.S. Air Force: Edward Nelson. Fedor von Bock, field marshal of the Wehrmact: Christian Van Horn. Pasquale Sciortino: Joel Sorensen. Maria, Sciortino’s mother: Buffy Baggott. Moroccan soldiers: Chester Pidduck + Torlef Borsting + William O’Neill. Italian singer: Pasquale Esposito.

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Review: ‘The Trojans’ at San Francisco Opera (*****)

June 23, 2015 1 comment

by Hugh and Mary Behm-Steinberg
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

The Trojan is an unforgettable image in San Francisco Opera's producction of Berlioz's masterpiece. Set design by Es Devlin. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

The Trojan horse is an unforgettable image in San Francisco Opera’s producction of Berlioz’s masterpiece. Set design by Es Devlin. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Although “The Trojans” is often referred to as Hector Berlioz’s masterpiece, it is seldom performed  because of its massive production demands. We are fortunate that San Francisco Opera has taken on this challenge: the current production is a profound, once-in-a-lifetime experience, one of the best operas this team of reviewers has ever seen.

“The Trojans” (a co-production of San Francisco Opera, Teatro alla Scala, Vienna State Opera and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden) is a five-hour long visual extravaganza that, in Leah Hausman’s staging, comments on the nature of imperialism, duty versus desire, and fate. Adapted from Virgil’s “The Aeneid,” and completed in 1858 (but not fully staged until midway through the 20th century), the energy of “The Trojans” is not rooted in surprising plot twists, but in how the different characters react against their tragic fates.

While the plot is predictable, the singing and staging more than make up for this weakness. Michaela Martens delivers a nuanced performance as Cassandra, and underscores the success of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola program in nurturing new talent (Martens is a Merola alum). Other notable performances by Merola program participants included Adler Fellows Nian Wang as Ascanius, and a longing aria by Chong Wang as Hylas, a homesick sailor. Brian Mulligan as Chorebe provided a strong counterpoint to Martens’ Cassandra, mansplaining the many reasons he could not take her advice and lovingly but firmly reiterating her curse to never be believed.

Towards the end of the first act, we see the Trojan Horse emerging from the smoke. Rocking back and forth, the horse more than anything resembles a colossal chess piece, seemingly constructed out of the debris of war machines (but actually made from cast fire-resistant fiberglass and taking over a year to construct). It would be perfectly at home at Burning Man, or as a gift from the Gods. Well-designed and executed, it set off the 19th Century European costumes and buildings well, and underscores the timelessness of the military and imperialist themes that are integral to the Aeneid.

Conducted by former S.F. Opera music director Donald Runnicles, the score feels timeless and exacting. Berlioz is noted for his choruses and under Ian Robertson’s direction the SF Opera chorus does not fail to deliver. Their constant presence gives strength and energy throughout “The Trojans” as both observers and participants in the action of the opera. Their performance is especially moving at the end of Act 2, as Cassandra and the women of Troy weigh choosing their own deaths against certain capture and enslavement at the hands of their Greek conquerors.

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

As Cassandra predicts, Troy falls, but Aeneas leads a band of refugees away from the burning city, setting off for Italy where the Gods have promised Aeneas a new empire and a glorious death. Before that happens, however, the Trojans visit Carthage for Act 3, where Queen Dido holds court. Carthage is depicted as a utopia in the making; the characters sport across a model of the city in progress. The Trojan refugees arrive just in the nick of time to save Carthage from invasion, and Aeneas and Dido fall in love. This being French opera, ballet serves as an integral component to the performance, and it is very satisfying.The color and flash during the couples’ extended dance scene is highlighted by the orientalist costuming. which in its own way further enhances the imperialist overtones of the opera.

There are several haunting moments of stagecraft (designed by Es Devlin) in the second half of the production. When Mercury appears to insist on Aeneas’ duty to his fate in Italy, he is lit from behind, producing a massive winged shadow on the walls of the city while his voice echoes through the set. The miniature city in Act 3 floats above the stage in Act 4, a heaven just out of reach. In Act 5 it is shattered in two. When Dido is shouting out her prophesies of destruction, a colossal Hannibal rises up as if from a nightmare.

Though the sets are magnificent, the most poignant moments in the opera occur with the curtain down. Susan Graham as Dido brings an emotional punch to her aching pleas for Aeneas to defy his fate and remain in Carthage. Graham makes us care about the character and what will happen to her. Bryan Hymel’s Aeneas brings home the emotional tear of wanting to stay and knowing he cannot, with the desire to spare Dido the heartbreak of his departure.

Most memorable about “The Trojans” is the juxtaposition of the destiny of nations versus the crushing emotional stakes borne by individuals caught up in the larger tides of fate and the will of the Gods. Troy falls, Carthage will fall, and one day Rome will fall, too. “The Trojans” implies that it is the nature of empires to engender their own destruction. Yet in Act 4, Dido’s sister Anna, played with great clarity by Sasha Cooke, claims there is no god more powerful than love. Whether or not one should believe this to be true is one of many questions “The Trojans” leaves unsettled.

Berlioz’s masterpiece deserves to be staged more than once every 45 years.

“The Trojans” plays at the War Memorial Opera House through July 1st. For further information, click here.

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“The Trojans” by Hector Berlioz,  co-produced by San Francisco Opera, Teatro alla Scala, Vienna State Opera and Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Director: Leah Hausman. Conductor: Donald Runnicles. Set: Es Devlin. Costumes: Moritz Junge. Lightning Deign: Wolfgang Göbbel and Piro Virolainen. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Choreographer: Lynne Page. Fight Director: Dave Maier.

Cassandra: Anna Caterina Antonacci or Michaela Martens. Dido: Susan Graham. Aeneas: Bryan Hymel. Ascanius: Nian Wang. Anna: Sasha Cooke. Coroebus + Ghost of Coroebus: Brian Mulligan. Narbal: Christian Van Horn. Pantheus: Philip Horst. Iopas: René Barbera. Helenus: Chang Wang. Hylas: Chang Wang. King Priam + Ghost of King Priam: Philip Skinner. Queen Hecuba + Ghost of Cassandra: Buffy Baggott. Ghost of Hector: Jordan Bisch. Greek Captain + Voice of Mercury + Sentry: Anthony Reed. Trojan Soldier + Sentry: Matthew Stump. Trojan Chief: Jere Torkelsen. Andromaque: Brook Broughton. Polyxena: Rachel Speidel Little.

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Review: ‘Choir Boy’ at Marin Theatre Company (*****)

June 19, 2015 Leave a comment

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

Members of the  choir ensemble in Marin Theatre Company's Bay area premiere production of Tarell Alvin McCraney's

Members of the choir ensemble in Marin Theatre Company’s Bay area premiere production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy.” Photo Credit: Ed Smith.

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)

Black experience, obviously, is human experience and, even in America, where Black lives are inevitably impacted by our nation’s complex racial history, that experience is infinitely varied. To a great extent, though, our public media — popular entertainment and mainstream journalism — present a stereotypical version of Black experience that either emphasizes such tropes as poverty, racism, ghettoization, hiphop subculture, crime, and so forth or offers a bland erasure of cultural distinctiveness where Blackness is reduced to a nebulous grey cultural pablum.

Sadly, our theatre as well is not as open to varieties of Black experience as it might and should be. However, in recent decades, there have been distinguished exceptions to this sad history, and the theatre world can be proud of that. Perhaps the most famous accomplishment in this regard has been the incredible life’s work of August Wilson, whose ten “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays have transformed the American theatre with a brilliant infusion of Black life and perspective.

Tarell Alvin McCraney is another playwright who has embarked upon a distinguished career exploring this too uncharted territory. His brillance has been widely recognized, most notably for his trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays.” McCraney is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and has been international playwright in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where ‘Choir Boy’ received its premiere.

Jaysen Wright,  Forest Van Dyke, and Jelani Alladin in

Jaysen Wright, Forest Van Dyke, and Jelani Alladin in “Choir Boy.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

His chosen setting for “Choir Boy” of a distinguished Black preparatory school for boys is a remarkably original one. These young men, deeply aware of their Black identities, are also children of privilege, attending school in an environment of academic, artistic, and athletic excellence, tradition and discipline. The characters play havoc with stereotypes: one young man is a legacy student, another a scholarship boy. The main character (the titular “Choir Boy”) is head of the boys choir, passionately dedicated to music, and struggling to maintain his pride and dignity as a brilliantly gifted young man who is both gay and Black and determined to command respect. It isn’t easy. He struggles to understand Black history and the music he loves, balance his complex relationships with his peers, and respect his school’s honor code.

The above description of the plot does not begin to do justice to the dramatic impact of this beautiful play. It is remarkable for the complex delineation of each boy’s distinctly individual struggle to become a man while dealing with the complexities of race and sexuality and privilege. The action is punctuated movingly and spectacularly by the performance of the boys in choir. The plot requires that the choir singing be of unparalleled excellence and the actors deliver that, superbly directed by Darius Smith.

It is difficult to describe this play because, like much of the best work of contemporary playwrights, it is not driven so much by plot as by very carefully observed real-time moments. The intimacy of these scenes is astonishing: two boys talking together in a dorm room at night; a group of boys showering; boys in a classroom meeting and challenging a new teacher; a boy defending himself before a strict headmaster. Each scene is observed with an emotional depth rarely encountered. The depth of personal exposure — of the wondrous theatrical accomplishment of being truly private in public — achieved by these actors is fantastic.

Every actor in the cast (with the exception of an excellent Charles Shaw Robinson, playing a white teacher) is making his Marin Theatre Company debut and each one is distinguished. Each man here could and should be nominated for a “best actor” award, and the entire cast should be recognized for its remarkable ensemble accomplishment. In almost any other production, each of these actors would stand out — but, here, they are truly a team — a choir — performing with a single exquisite voice.

After the performance I attended on a Wednesday night, given to a packed house, the entire cast was called back enthusiastically to take a second curtain call for an audience that would not stop applauding.

Most likely, you’ll keep applauding too.

“Choir Boy” continues an extended run at Marin Theatre Company through July 5. For further information, click here.

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“Choir Boy” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Bay area premire produced by Marin Theatre Company. Director: Kent Gash. Scenic Designer: Jason Sherwood. Lighting Designer: Kurt Landisman. Costume Designer: Callie Floor. Music Director: Darius Smith. 

Headmaster Marrow: Ken  Robinson. Pharus Jonathan Young: Jelani Alladin. Bobby Marrow: Dimitri Woods. Junior Davis: Rotimi Agbabiaka. Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James: Jaysen Wright. Davd Heard: Forest Van Dyke. Mr. Pendleton: Charles Shaw Robinson.

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Review: ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ at San Francisco Opera (***)

June 18, 2015 Leave a comment

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

Philippe Sly as Figaro and Lisette Oropesa as Susanna. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Philippe Sly as Figaro and Lisette Oropesa as Susanna. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

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)

“The Marriage of Figaro” is one of those operas popularly described as a “war horse.” Since its debut in 1786, it is one of the most-produced operas in the repertoire, and a soaring example of Mozart’s towering genius. On the surface, a light comedy of love, the original play was, at the time of its debut, a revolutionary attack on the morals and corruption of the courtly upper class. A play that made fun of the morals of a Count was by no means a matter of indifference in 18th century Europe.

So, “The Marriage of Figaro” is a work of genius and of significant historical import, but also, like many classics, a work that can suffer from over-familiarity and conventionality in performance. The present production is suitably entertaining, with some exceptional moments, especially in the staging and in the comic acting, but is not outstanding overall, with uneven orchestral work and adequate but undistinguished vocal performances.

The most striking strength of this production is the elegant movement and comic gesturing of the actors. Director Robin Guarino has staged everything with great fluidity, and with such close attention to the music that at times it seems almost like a dance, successfully so. Particularly delightful is the incorporation of percussive sounds, perfectly timed to the music, as the actors stomp feet, drop objects, bang doors and otherwise emote with comic gusto. Guarino makes wonderful use of the set, which incorporates various beds and closets, and the staging is often funny enough to provoke loud laughter. Fight master Dave Maier has staged fisticuffs that are both convincing and wonderfully laughable.

Three performances stand out for comic excellence: As Count Almaviva, Luca Pisaroni has just the right sort of preening physicality that befits restoration comedy and John Del Carlo demonstrates great expertise in  opera buffa in both his acting and singing as Dr. Bartolo. Best of all, though, is Catherine Cook’s hilarious Marcellina (a role in which she is justly celebrated). Her every movement, even a subtle nod of the head, is an occasion for laughter.

Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook is particularly hilarious as Marcellina. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook is particularly hilarious as Marcellina. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Nadine Sierra as Countess Almaviva achieves the musical high point of this production in her rendition of the lovely aria, Porgi amor, singing of her disappointment in the Count’s infidelities. It is unfortunate that the rest of the vocal performances do not match this high standard.

Opera fans will find plenty of pleasure in this “Marriage,” but will realize that it could be very much better.

“The Marriage of Figaro” plays at the War Memorial Opera House through July 5th. For further information, click here.

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“The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretty by Lorenzo Da Ponte, based on the play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Director: Robin Guarino. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Lighting Designer: Gary Marder. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Fight Director: Dave Maier. Assistant Conductor: Dennis Doubin. Costume Supervisor: Jai Altizer. Wig and Makeup Designer: Jeanna Parham.

Figaro: Philippe Sly. Susanna: Lisette Oropesa. Dr. Bartolo: John Del Carlo. Marcellina: Catherine Cook. Cherubino: Kate Lindsey/Angela Browser (on 6/29, 7/3 and 7/5). Count Almaviva: Luca Pisaroni. Dan Basilio: Greg Fedderly. Countess Almaviva: Nadine Sierra. Antonio: Bojan Knežević. Barbarina: Maria Valdes. Don Curzio: John Easterlin. First bridesmaid: Virginia Pluth. Second bridesmaid: Erin Neff. 

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Review: ‘Heart Shaped Nebula’ at Shotgun Players (**1/2)

June 4, 2015 Leave a comment

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

Hugo E. Arbajal as Miqueo and Marilet Martinez as Dalila in Shotgun Players' world premiere production of

Hugo E. Arbajal as Miqueo and Marilet Martinez as Dalila in Shotgun Players’ world premiere production of “Heart Shaped Nebula” by Marisela Treviño Orta. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

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)

The world premiere of “Heart Shaped Nebula” is the second production in Shotgun’s season of all women playwrights. Marisela Treviño is a poet and an emerging playwright.

It is easy to see why the team at Shotgun decided to produce “Heart Shaped Nebula.” It is a gentle, unpretentious love story, written in poetic language, full of interesting imagery, and a fascinating back story based on the characters’ love of astronomy. With the stars for inspiration, playwright Orta is able to provide space for her poetic gifts, incorporating Greek mythology and scientific metaphor to deepen the simple tale.

All of this is lovely, and includes some fine writing, but it also leads to a squishy sentimental core that does not generate a lot of dramatic tension. In a word, the story is predictable and while the images and metaphors are engaging, the plot is not. Even the emergence of a brandished gun does not generate excitement because the audience never even briefly believes it represents real danger. “Heart Shaped Nebula” is full of heart, but also nebulous. This is its first full length production, and it could benefit from further rewrites.

Miqueo (Hugo E. Carbajal) is staying overnight in a rural hotel (convincingly evoked by Maya Linke’s fine set), where he encounters a runaway adolescent intruder, Amara (Gisela Feied), who possesses mysterious knowledge of his past. As the mysterious Amara pokes at Miqueo’s grieving heart, we gradually learn the details of his love affair with the absent Dalila (Marilet Martinez), much of which is reenacted as his memories come to life. Neither of the ladies is quite what she seems, and the love story has qualities of myth and magic which go beyond the merely human, all of which is unveiled against the vast imagistic canopy of the starry night.

The three actors do well in bringing to life the emotions of their characters, and the story is quite touching. A recent (2013) graduate of Oakland School for the Arts and current UC Berkeley undergraduate, Gisela Feied as Amara more than holds her own with her professional colleagues.

While not fully satisfying as drama, “Heart Shaped Nebula” is not without magic, and pleases as poetry.

“Heart Shaped Nebula” plays at the Ashby Stage through June 21, 2015. For further information click here.

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“Heart Shaped Nebula” by Marisela Treviño Orta, world premiere produced by Shotgun Players. Director: Desdemona Chiang. Set Design: Maya Linke. Lighting Design: Stephanie Buchner. Costume Design: Antonia Gunnarson. Properties Design: Kirsten Royston. Soun Design: Matt Stines. Projection Design: Micah J. Stiegletz. Dramaturg: Nakissa Etemad.

Miqueo: Hugh E. Carbajal. Amara: Gisela Feied. Dalila: Marilet Martinez. 

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Review: ‘Twelfth Night’ at Cal Shakes (****)

June 3, 2015 Leave a comment

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

(from l to r) Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch, Domenique Lozano as Maria, and Margo Hall as Andrew Aguecheek in

(from l to r) Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch, Domenique Lozano as Maria, and Margo Hall as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in “Twelfth Night.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

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)

In the Elizabethan theatre, women were not allowed on stage. All of the characters were played by men and boys. In recent years, some directors have turned the tables on this tradition, offering all women productions of Shakespeare’s plays. In Cal Shakes current incarnation of “Twelfth Night” all the characters (male and female) are played by women, with only one exception. It works.

Shakespeare’s comedies range from shallow slapstick (“The Merry Wives of Windsor” or “Two Gentleman of Verona”) to richly textured poetry with tragic overtones (“The Tempest”). One of the Bard’s most wonderful and distinguishing characteristics at his best is his ability to combine comedy and pathos, laughter and tears, in exquisite balance. This astonishing and life-like depth of feeling and range of emotion in particular moments is what has endeared him to actors for generations. Nowhere is this genius more in evidence than the miraculously perfect “Twelfth Night.” It contains two parallel stories: a lighthearted love story of mistaken identities given gravity by one of the characters’ recent bereavement and the story of the stuck-up, judgmental, and fun-hating Malvolio who disrespects a Fool and is given a frightening comeuppance by said Fool and his merry, drunken friends. All ends happily, but not before deep themes of madness and death are weaved together with the love story into a wonderfully rich poetic tapestry.

Elizabethan theatre folk (audience and players) loved to amuse themselves with cross dressing. Not only were all of the female characters played by boys, but often the “girl” would be disguised as a “boy.” Indeed, Elizabethans loved masks of all sorts, and masking is a thematic element in every single one of Shakespeare’s plays. In “Twelfth Night,” the mask involves the decision of the shipwrecked Viola, alone in a strange country, to masquerade as a boy (Cesario) for her own safety. She becomes servant to Duke Orsino, who hires her to act as his emissary to the beautiful Olivia who has been refusing his advances. The situation becomes complicated when Viola (disguised as Cesario) falls in love with Duke Orsino, and Olivia falls in love with Viola (whom she thinks is a boy) when s/he pleads Orsino’s case. Yes, it’s a tangled mess. And that’s just one of the plots.

The second plot involves Olivia’s household, where her cousin, the drunkard Sir Toby Belch, is taking money (and endless rounds of drinks) from his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek with the silly promise that Augecheek will be able to win the lady for himself. This makes an enemy of the household steward, the puritan Malvolio, who cannot tolerate drunkenness. When Malvolio tries to put the kabosh on their revelries, their clever plot for revenge is enough to nearly drive him mad (and the audience into a frenzy of laughter).

That is enough to give those unaquainted with the play a sense of the twists and turns of the complex and evocative plot. Love unrequited, grief and recovery, love of life and bitter sorrow and disappointment, humor and madness are all richly combined with song and wit. If you have ever wondered about all the fuss over William Shakespeare, this is the play that can give you a clue.

As I said at the start, director Christopher Liam Moore takes this production a step beyond the traditional cross dressing by having women play all the characters (male and female and female disguised as male), except for Festes the fool, who stands outside of and comments upon the action, like a Greek chorus in motley. The result is a barrel of fun.

Overall, this is a very capable “Twelfth Night,” with all of the humor intact, and the complex plot delivered with clarity. What makes this production something special are the comic turns by the actresses in the male parts. Each of them is exceptional. As Viola masquerading as Cesario, Lisa Anne Porter is lovely as boy and girl. Later, when she plays Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, previously thought to be lost at sea, her rapid switches between the three characters (the girl Viola, the girl Viola pretending to be the boy Cesario, and the actual boy  Sebastian) are a wonder to behold. Indeed, all of the actresses are completely convincing as men — an uninformed audience member might well not realize the performers are playing the opposite sex. But we are not uninformed, and the humor is enriched by our knowledge. Rami Margron is a handsome and seductive Duke Orsino. Catherine Castellanos is a hoot as the drunken Sir Toby Belch and Stacy Ross is a deliciously snooty Malvolio.

The showstopper of the evening was Margo Hall’s achingly funny turn as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Almost every gesture she makes and every word she speaks is an occasion for laughing out loud. I laugh even as I write. This is a performance not to be missed.

Domenique Lozano as the servant Maria, who hatches the plot against Malvolio, and Julie Eccles as Olivia, do well in the two female parts. And Ted Deasy is superb as Feste, the Fool, who comments from outside the action, and acts as counterpoint to the uptight Malvolio. He also steps into the action, occasionally, to take on some supporting roles, such as a gay sea captain (another one of Shakespeare’s riffs on sexuality that are peppered throughout the play).

This is not a perfect  “Twelfth Night.” But it is a highly original one, with some very unusual performances and a special comical treat in Margo Hall’s Sir Andrew.

If you don’t usually like Shakespeare, you’ll probably like this. Who wouldn’t?

“Twelfth Night” plays through June 21st at Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda. For further information, click here.
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“Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare, produced by California Shakespeare Theatre. Direcgtor: Christopher Liam Moore. Scenic Designer: Nna Ball. Costume Designer: Meg Neville. Lighting Designer: Burke Brown. Sound Designer: Andre Soffer.

Olivia: Julie Eccles. Viola/Sebastian: Lisa Anne Porter. Malvolio: Stacy Ross. Duke Orsino: Rami Margron. Sor Toby Belch: Catherine Castellanos. Sir Andrew Aguecheek: Margo Hall. Maria: Dominique Lozano. Feste: Ted Deasy.

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Review: ‘Grey Gardens: The Musical’ at CustomMade Theatre Company (***1/2)

May 29, 2015 Leave a comment

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

(from l to r) Edith Bouvier Beale (Mary Gibboney) and her daughter, "Little" Edie Beale (Heather Orth) end their lives living in squalor in 'Grey Gardens: The Musical.' Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

(from l to r) Edith Bouvier Beale (Mary Gibboney) and her daughter, “Little” Edie Beale (Heather Orth) end their lives living in squalor in ‘Grey Gardens: The Musical.’ Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

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)

Enthusiastic fans of the cult classic documentary film, “Grey Gardens,” have eagerly awaited the San Francisco premiere of the Broadway musical it inspired. CustomMade’s production, under the capable direction of Stuart Bousel and musical director David Aaron Brown does not disappoint.

The tale of “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale is an American tragedy, or a celebration of flamboyant individualism, depending on how you look at it. Perhaps it is both. The daughter of “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier and a cousin of first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Little Edie grew up in the lap of luxury. But after her parents divorce, she and her mother gradually sank into poverty and ultimately squalor, perhaps partially as a result of mental illness manifested as hoarding. By the mid ’60s, the two women lived in isolation with more than a dozen cats in their 28-room East Hampton mansion, “Grey Gardens.” When their condition became public knowledge, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy intervened, spending the necessary money (over $30,000) to clean and restore the house. A thousand bags of garbage were removed. The story was given new life by an Academy Award winning documentary and later a feature film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. Little Edie, who, like her mother, always saw herself as a misunderstood artiste, attempted to capitalize on her celebrity by launching a cabaret career, but the NY Times critics described her act as “a public display of ineptitude.” It is not surprising that this story has found cult status.

It seems inevitable that someone would write a musical and someone did. ‘Grey Gardens: The Musical’ premiered Off Broadway at Playwrights’ Horizons in New York, in February of 2006. It made it to Broadway less than a year later, where it garnered 10 Tony nominations and ran for over 300 performances. And now, thanks to CustomMade Theatre Company, we can see it in San Francisco.

Stuart Bousel’s staging (his first musical, and, hopefully, not his last) benefits from his usual excellent stage pictures and psychological insight. Although the first act was a bit shaky on opening night, by the time the finale was reached, the cast had earned an enthusiastic and well-deserved ovation. In the first act, Heather Orth plays the mother (Big Edie), while Juliana Lustenader is the young Little Edie. Both do well. But the story really comes into its own in the second act, when Orth plays Little Edie in middle age, and the wonderful Mary Gibboney plays her mother. Both women are simultaneously heart breaking and funny, and the depiction of their gothic nightmare is chilling, bizarre and wildly entertaining.

"Big" Edie (Heather Orth) and "Little" Edie (Juliana Lustenader), happy before their decline, accompanied at the piano by George Gould Strong (David Aaron Brown). Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

“Big” Edie (Heather Orth) and “Little” Edie (Juliana Lustenader), happy before their decline, accompanied at the piano by George Gould Strong (David Aaron Brown). Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

The excellent score is directed well by David Aaron Brown, who is not only the musical director and sole instrumentalist, but appears onstage (at the piano) as Big Edie’s pet accompanist and paid companion.  He is excellent in both roles.

The sophisticated, complex and challenging score receives wonderful treatment, performed (thankfully) without the “benefit” of any electronic amplification.

David Sikula as the family patriarch is capable and funny, as is Nathan Brown in the dual roles of Joseph Patrick Kennedy (Edie’s one-time fiance) and Jerry, a kind and sympathetic neighborhood delivery boy. Daniel Solomon does well as a loyal household servant.

Two very young actresses give stand out performances as the Bouvier children in the first act; Nandi Drayton is Jacqueline Bouvier and Gabriella Jarvie is Lee Bouvier. Nandi Drayton has enough charm and grace to make her believable as the future first lady. Gabriella Jarvie is exceptional, creating the illusion that she is performing each song and dance for the first time and might at any moment get lost, but always coming through with precision. This kind of  freshness and vulnerability is unusual and indicates a remarkable degree of talent.

Grey Gardens: The Musical’ plays at the Gough Street Playhouse through June 21. For further information, click here.
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“Grey Gardens: The Musical” book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie. Produced by CustomMade Theatre Company. Director: Stuart Bousel. Musical Director: David Brown. Choregorapher: Kim Saunders. Scenic Designer/Technical Director: Stewart Lyle. Costume Design: Brooke Jenings. Lighting Design: William Campbell. Sound Design: Lyz Ryder/Maxx Kurzunski. 

Edith Bouvier Beale (1941)/”Little” Edie Beale (1973): Heather Orth. Edith Bouvier Beale (1973): Mary Gibboney. “Little” Edie Beale (1941)/Sister Marla: Juliana Lustenader. George Gould Strong: David Arron Brown. Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr./Jerry: Nathan Brown. Brooks Sr./Brooks Jr.: David Solomon. Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier: Nandi Drayton. Lee Bouvier: Gabriella Jarvie. 

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