Review: ‘Jitney’ at the Gough Street Playhouse (***)

August 21, 2014 1 comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***)

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)

(“Jitney” will play at the Gough Street Playhouse through August 31, 2014.)

Most audiences by now are familiar with playwright August Wilson and his major life’s work, “The Pittsburgh Cycle”, a series of ten plays exploring the experience of African Americans in the 20th century, through a series of stories set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, one for each decade of the century. Critics agree that “The Pittsburgh Cycle” is one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth century theatre.

Multi Ethnic Theater founder Lewis Campbell has designed and directed a polished production, drawing fine performances from his skilled cast of amateur actors. This production of “Jitney” is part of a plan to produce the entire ten plays of “The Pittsburgh” cycle. So far, Campbell has directed four and plans to present the six remaining over the next six years, one each summer. It is a fine ambition.

For “Jitney”, Multi Ethnic Theater founder Lewis Campbell has designed and directed a polished production, drawing fine performances from his skilled cast of amateur actors.

jinteyThis fine company includes a retired fireman, a career muni employee, a mental health case manager, and a Ph.D. candidate in psychology. The point being that this is a true community theatre (although most of these actors have accumulated a few professional-level credits over the years).

It is clear from the first beat that this director and these actors have deeply considered the play and the characters. The result is quite lovely.

The company of Multi Ethnic Theatre's "Jitney" by August Wilson, playing at the Gough Street Playhouse through August 31. Photo Credit: wehavemet.org.

The company of Multi Ethnic Theatrer’s “Jitney” by August Wilson, playing at the Gough Street Playhouse through August 31. Photo Credit: wehavemet.org.

This gentle play explores the world of Black men working as underground cab drivers (jitney drivers) at a time when the Black community could not get regular cab service due to discrimination. They are working class folk with working class concerns, but they are also aware that they are providing an important service. Playwright Wilson has drawn a finely observed group of characters: among them a gambler, an alcoholic, a preacher, a hotel worker, an ambitious young husband with a new baby, a proud young wife and mother. In Wilson’s hands, none of these characters is reduced to stereotype.

The story revolves around the decision of the city to raze their offices and effectively shut the operation down. Each of the drivers has to deal with the crisis that ensues, along with various personal dramas.

While all of the cast is quite good, there are standout performances by Trevor Lawrence as Fielding, a jitney driver and former tailor with an alcohol problem, and, especially, Anthony Pride as Philmore, a hotel doorman and recurring jitney passenger. Making the most of a small part, Pride creates a memorable and eccentric character.

Director Campbell and a fine cast have thoroughly understood August Wilson’s work and achieved a style of performance that is perfectly appropriate to the play.

This production will please Wilson fans, and serve as a fine introduction for newcomers to “The Pittsburgh Cycle”.

For further information, click here.

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“Jitney” by August Wilson, presented by Multi Ethnic Theater in association with Custom Made Theatre Company. Directed and designed by Lewis Campbell.

Becker: Bennie Lewis. Turnbo: Vernon Medearis. Youngblood: Fabian Herd. Doub: Charles Johnson. Fielding: Trevor Lawrence. Shealy: Stuart Elwyn Hall. Rena: Robin Hughes. Philmore: Anthony Pride. Booster: David Stewart. 

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Review: ‘The Habit of Art’ at Theatre Rhino (****)

August 12, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

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 Habit of Art” plays for a limited run at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco from July 31 through August 23, 2014.)

Allan Bennett, one of England’s leading playwrights, is not as familiar to American audiences as he might be, although fans may recall that he was a founding member of the comedy troupe, Beyond The Fringe (along with Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore) and movie fans may recognize him as the screenwriter of the much-admired “Madness of King George”. It is a treat when any theatre company decides to produce a Bennett play. It is especially exciting to have a Bay area premiere of relatively new work such as “The Habit of Art.” Actually, Theatre Rhino presented this Bay area premiere last Spring, so the current production is a return engagement. We’re lucky to have it.

posterUtilizing a play within a play format, “The Habit of Art” is constructed like nesting dolls—masks within masks within masks —and the result is fascinating. It is set on the stage of the National Theatre in London, where a company is rehearsing a new play about the poet W. H. Auden, and the composer Benjamin Britten, narrated by their biographer, Humphrey Carpenter.

Donald Currie as the actor, Fitz, playing the role of poet W. H. Auden in "The Habit of Art" at Theatre Rhino. Photo Credit: Kent Taylor.

Donald Currie as the actor, Fitz, playing the role of poet W. H. Auden in Alan Benett’s “The Habit of Art” at Theatre Rhino. Photo Credit: Kent Taylor.

Subtle complications ensue. Auden and Britten were both homosexuals at a time when they could be sent to jail. Thus, in some sense they lived as actors playing a part. And we are watching actors playing them. Of course, we are a watching a “play within a play” so what we see are not Auden and Britten as they were, but only as the playwright imagines them. But which playwright? Bennett or the fictional playwright of the play within the play? And, then, again, we are not seeing direct representations of Auden and Britten but actors playing the actors playing Auden and Britten in rehearsal. Furthermore, the actor playing Auden has difficulty remembering his lines, so we have to question even more deeply the truth of the story being told. And whose story is it? The playwrights? The actors?The characters Auden and Britten who are not merely characters but actual historical figures? Whose history is at play here, anyway?

The intellectual challenges add up profusely, one atop the other, all reflecting on the theme of “The Habit of Art”. The script is an intellectual smorgasboard of the highest order. It is also superbly entertaining, thanks to careful, intelligent direction by John Fisher (who also plays the actor Henry who plays the character Benjamin Britten) and fine work by the entire cast.

John Fisher as actor Henry playing the role of composer Benjamin Britten in Alan Bennett's "The Habit of Art" at Theatre Rhino. Photo Credit: Kent Taylor.

John Fisher as actor Henry playing the role of composer Benjamin Britten in Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” at Theatre Rhino. Photo Credit: Kent Taylor.

Donald Currie is fascinating to watch as he creates the dual characters of the heterosexual, but poetry-loving actor Fitz (who struggles to remember his lines) and the homosexual, “let it all hang out” Auden, whose indifference to such matters as personal hygiene and good housekeeping confuse our understanding of his “role” as “famous poet”. There are those Russian dolls again: one character encased in another encased in another encased in another creating a seemingly endless hall of mirrors effect. As Henry (actor)/Benjamin Britten (character), John Fisher performs as well as he directs. Henry has his own secrets, implied but never revealed, as does Britten. All of this is managed with maximum clarity, so that the viewer is challenged and engaged but needn’t be frustrated or confused.

(from l to r) Michael DeMartini as Neil, the playwright, Justin Lucas as the actor Tim playing the role of prostitute Stuart, and Donald Currie as the actor Fitz, playing the role of poet W. H. Auden in Allan Bennett's "The Habit of Art" at Theatre Rhino. Photo Credit: Kent Taylor.

(from l to r) Michael DeMartini as Neil, the playwright, Justin Lucas as the actor Tim playing the role of prostitute Stuart, and Donald Currie as the actor Fitz, playing the role of poet W. H. Auden in Allan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” at Theatre Rhino. Photo Credit: Kent Taylor.

The remainder of the cast, playing the playwright of the play-within-the-play, the stage managers, and actors playing a young singer being tutored by Britten, a rent-boy visiting Auden and biographer Humphrey Carpenter are all equally good and each player has moments to shine.

This fascinating and subtle intellectual jaunt will be deeply satisfying for demanding audiences, who go to the theatre to think as well as to be entertained.

For further information, click here.

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“The Habit of Art” by Alan Bennett, presented by Theatre  Rhinoceros. Director: John Fisher. Scenic Designer: Gilbert Johnson. Costume Designer: Scarlett Kellum. Lighting Designer: Jon Wai-Keung Lowe. 

George, Assistant Stage Manager: Kathryn Wood. Donald/Humphrey Carpenter: Craig Souza. Kay, Stage Manager: Tamar Cohn. Fitz/W. H. Auden: Donald Currie. Tim/Stuart, a prostitute: Justin Lucas. Henry/Benjamin B ritten: John Fisher. Charlie/Boy, a singer: Seth Siegel. Neil, Playwright: Michael DeMartini.

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Review: “Pygmalion” at California Shakespeare Theater (****)

August 9, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

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)

(“Pygmalion” plays at Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda from July 30 through August 24, 2014).

From the opening moments, it is clear that Jonathan Moscone’s staging of Shaw’s masterpiece is extraordinary. The play famously begins in London’s Covent Garden outside the opera house, after a performance. Moscone has made a minor but telling adjustment. In his staging, the opera is not quite over. Eliza Doolittle, one of several street vendors and riff raff, stands outside the theatre listening to the closing aria. She is utterly transfixed. All of her longing for a better life, all of her soul, all of her humanity, plays across her face as she listens. Moscone gives this moment all the time it deserves, and Irene Lucio as Eliza plays it beautifully. It is as effective as a movie closeup. Then, in a rush, the opera ends and the wealthy attendees pour out onto the stage. But they are not living people. Instead, Moscone presents them as cardboard cutouts, each one backed by a bent over member of the lower classes holding them up and pushing them along. This short scene, a kind of prologue, beautifully and brilliantly sums up the argument of the entire drama. It is a directorial tour de force rendered with a fine attention to detail that continues throughout the play.

Eliza Doolittle (Irene Lucio), Colonel Pickering (L. Peter Callander), and Professor Henry Higgins (Anthony Fusco) in "Pygmalion" at CalShakes. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Eliza Doolittle (Irene Lucio), Colonel Pickering (L. Peter Callander), and Professor Henry Higgins (Anthony Fusco) in “Pygmalion” at CalShakes. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

This production is cast to perfection with some of the Bay Area’s leading talent. Professor Higgins is played by Anthony Fusco, whose credits include thirteen years as an A.C.T. resident artist. His Higgins is complex, seductive, irrascible, irritating, brilliant and charming. L. Peter Callender (Artistic Director of the African American Shakespeare Company and winner of multiple acting awards) is a perfect Colonel Pickering, the kind hearted foil to Higgins’ bluster, but equally befuddled by human relationships. As usual, Callender leaves one wondering if there is anything he can’t play with expertise.

James Carpenter as Alfred P. Doolittle. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

James Carpenter as Alfred P. Doolittle. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

As if that weren’t enough, Cal Shakes Associate Artist James Carpenter offers up a highly original Alfred P. Doolittle. This part is almost always cast by a character-type actor, but Carpenter, with his leading man profile and regal carriage brings something different to the role then is usually apparent. The relatively minor roles of Mrs. Eynsford Hill and her children Clara and Freddy are well played by Julie Eccles, Elyse Price and Nicholas Pelczar, respectively. Catherine Castellanos is dignified and compassionate as Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, and Sharon Lockwood brings her usual comic finesse to the role of Mrs. Higgins.

Irene Lucio. Photo ?Credit: Backstage.com.

Irene Lucio. Photo Credit: Backstage.com.

Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Eliza Doolittle, Irene Lucio makes a brilliant debut at Cal Shakes. From her first appearance, we see both the extent of her degradation from poverty and the depth of her sensitivity. Her gradual development from impoverished flower girl to educated lady  is beautifully calibrated by Ms. Lucio from scene to scene, with no sudden jumps. To watch this performance is akin to listening to a great opera singer with an enormous range who can move imperceptibly from register to register. It is a rare kind of precision.

This is truly a “Pygmalion” to relish and remember.

For further information,click here.

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“Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw, produced by California Shakespeare Theater, directed by Jonathan Moscone. Set: Annie Smart. Costumes: Anna Oliver. Lighting: Stephen Strawbridge. Sound: Jake Rodriguez.

Colonel Pickering: L. Peter Callender. Alfred Doolittle: James Carpenter. Mrs. Pearce/Ensemble: Catherine Castellanos. Mrs. Eynsford Hill: Julie Eccles. Professor Henry Higgins: Anthony Fusco. Mrs. Higgins/Ensemble: Sharon Lockwood. Eliza Doolittle: Irene Lucio. Freddy Eynsford Hill: Nicholas Pelczar. Clara Eynsford Hill: Elyse Price. Parlormade/Ensemble: Ponder Goddard. Ensemble: Liam Callister. Ensemble: Caitlin Evenson. Ensemble: Charles Lewis III. Ensemble: Catherine Luedtke.

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Review: ‘Superheroes’ by Wily West Productions (***)

August 7, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***)

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)

(“Superheros” continues at the Exit Theatre August 2, 7, 14 and 16, 2014). 

This summer, Wily West Productions, specialists in new work by local playwrights,  have achieved an impressive trifecta of excellence, first with “Sheherazade 14“, then “Everybody Here Says Hello“, and finally “Superheroes”.

“Superheroes” features the short work of eight playwrights on the titular theme. In workshop, they created a walloping 114 plays from which they made this final, interwoven selection. The results range from the level of very good sketch comedy to a piece so over-the-top funny (“Marvin’s Last Wish” by Bridgette Dutta Portman) that it produced what is certainly the longest sustained audience laugh I can remember. It just kept coming in waves, as the shocked, but no doubt delighted, actors stood frozen in tableau (well, their mouths DID twitch just a tiny bit).

Shelley Lynn Johnson as Kate in "Kate's Superpower" by Chelsey Little. Photo credit: Jim Norrena.

Shelley Lynn Johnson as Kate in “Kate’s Superpower” by Patricia Milton. Photo credit: Jim Norrena.

The plays are all clever, occasionally touching, and divergent enough to sustain interest. The ensemble is first rate and is more-than-ably supported by musician Kat Down who has composed several clever original songs and incidental music which she performs with panache. The acting ensemble includes Jenna May Cass, Barrett Courtney,  Brian Flegel, Shelley Lynn Johnson, Karen Offereins and Dan Wilson.

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 4.44.24 PMSome highlights include Dan Wilson mugging his way to comedic success as “Angry Fairy Boy”, Barrett Courtney (a recent high school grad making a sterling theatrical debut) as a flustered intern greeting the guests at a superhero convention and Shelly Lynn-Johnson as Kate, a put-upon wife who discovers her superpower. In Morgan Ludlow’s touching “Superman and Wonder Woman Have A Drink”, the two aging superheroes meet late one night at the superhero convention and speak gently of lost love and hope for the future.

If you like to laugh, you can’t go wrong with this one.

For further information, click here.

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“Superheroes”, world premier of short plays by Susan Jackson, Morgan Ludlow, Rod McFadden, Patricia Milton, Laylah Muran de Asserto, Bridgette Dutta Portman, Jennifer Lynne Roberts, and Karl Schackne. Directors: Alica Coombes and Chelsea Little. Original music by by Kat Downs

Performing Ensemble: Jenna May Cass, Barrett Courtney, Brian Flegel, Shelley Lynn Johnson, Karen Offereins, Dan Wilson, and Kat Downs.

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Review: ‘As You Like It’ by Marin Shakespeare Company (***1/2)

August 6, 2014 2 comments

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****1/2)

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)

(“As You Like It” plays at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University in San Rafael from July 12 through August 10, 2014).

Tired of the rat race? Dream of getting back to the land? Longing for the simplicity of the farm? Get ye posthaste to The Forest of Arden (aka Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University in San Rafael) and you will find things exactly “As You Like It”.

Director Robert Currier offers up a lovingly polished rendering of Shakespeare’s enchanting pastoral, clearly told, laced with laughter and studded with comedic gems, musical interludes, and philosophical fancy.

Duke Frederick has been usurped by his brother, the nasty Duke Senior, and has flown with his court to the Forest of Arden where they live among the shepherds in a charmed exile, relishing the country life. Young Orlando Rowland is also in exile and finds his way to the same Forest, as does Duke Frederick’s daughter Rosalind, following her father into the woods. What follows is a series of love affairs, comically and gently portrayed: Orlando and Rosalind (both as herself and disguised as a young man), the court fool Touchstone and Audrey, a goatherd, Jacques and the Spirit of Melancholy, the Duke and the Forest itself, the shepherd Silvius and the shepherdess Audrey. Cut off from civilization and its attendant worries, the characters are free to roam wistfully in the fields of love. As it is Shakespeare, all of this gentle comedy is suffused with whimsy, and an undertone of melancholy which makes the whole concoction indescribably sweet.

as Rosalind and as Orlando in Marin Shakespeare Company's productin of "As You Like It". Photo Credit: Steven Underwood.

Elena Wright as Rosalind and Teddy Spencer as Orlando in Marin Shakespeare Company’s production of “As You Like It”. Photo Credit: Steven Underwood.

Does all of this sound complex? In the hands of this expert cast, it is anything but. Director Currier has coached them to be light and airy, full of laughter, even slapstick, carefully balanced with a dose of reality. Who could resist  falling in love with Elena Wright’s Rosalind? She is the very essence of wit and grace, among Shakespeare’s most successful female characters. Certainly not Terry Spencer’s goofy but lovable Orlando, who wanders the forest carving her name into the bark of trees.

A particular treasure of this production is Glenn Havlan as Jacques. His persuasive declaration of his desire to be a fool in motley is followed up by his demonstration of his fooling skills in one of Shakespeare’s most famous set pieces (the “Ages of Man” speech that begins, “All the world’s a stage….). In Havlan’s hands, it is entirely fresh, deeply rooted in Jacques’ character and anything but stale. This is lovely work.

Elena Wright as Rosalind, Adam Roy as Touchstone and  Livia Demarchi as Celia in Marin Theatre Company's "As You Like It". Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin.

Elena Wright as Rosalind, Adam Roy as Touchstone and Livia Demarchi as Celia in Marin Theatre Company’s “As You Like It”. Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin.

The slapstick is provided by Luisa Frasconi as Phebe the heartless shepherdess and Alexander Lenarsky as Silvius, her spurned lover. Lenarsky is a pathetic riot of dismay as he keeps coming back for more when Phebe slaps him down again and again. Also quite funny is Adam Roy as the clown Touchstone (who inspires Jacques). Roy invests Touchstone with an eccentric personality, physical grace and a wicked wit that is altogether fun to watch.

At their best, the Marin Shakespeare Company offers some of the finest Shakespearean performance around. With “As You Like It”, they prove once again just how good they can be.

For further information, click here.

Special note: Thanks to a substantial anonymous donation, Marin Shakespeare Company is offering the entire run of this play on a pay “As You Like It” basis. If you want to go, but can’t justify the expense, grab some friends and some kids and a picnic and head on out, just give what you can. 

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“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare, presented by Marin Shakespeare Company. Director: Rubert Currier. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. Fight Director: Richard Pallaziol. Lighting: Maxx Zurzunski. Properties: Joel Eis. Set: Jackson Currier. Sound: Billie Cox. 

Duke Senior/Duke Frederick: Scott Coopwood. Celia: Livia Demarchi. Rosalind: Elena Wright. Jacques: Glenn Havlan. Amiens: Sean Mirkovich. Le Beau: Allen Darby. Touchstone: Adam Roy. Charles: Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly. Oliver: Davern Wright. Orlando: Teddy Spencer. The Second son of Old Sir Rowland: Allen Darby. Adam: Kit Grimm. Attendants: Nathan Levy, Javier Pritchard. Court Lady: Hannah Finn. Lords: Derek Apperson, Allen Darby, Sam Rubin, Gray Schierholt. Sir Oliver Martext: Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly. Corin: Julian Lopez-Morillas. Silvius: Alexander Lenarsky. William: Braedyn Youngberg. Phebe: Luisa Frasconi. Audrey: Val Garrahan. Forest Wenches: Hannah Finn, Rachel Newman, Rebecca Rudy.

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Review: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Marin Shakespeare Company (**1/2)

August 2, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: **1/2)

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)

(“Romeo and Juliet” plays at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University in San Rafael from July 26 through September 28, 2014.)

Americans’ love affair with the Bard of Avon dates back at least to the mid 1800s when Shakespeare’s plays were an essential part of the repertoire for traveling companies and visiting British Shakespeareans were lionized. In modern times, summer wouldn’t be summer without celebrating the genius of sweet William.

The San Francisco Bay Area alone features several admired summer Shakespeare companies, including Marin Shakespeare.

Summer Shakespeare is a complex cultural experience, something more than a typical evening in the theatre. Outdoors, often accompanied by a picnic, packed with family tradition and summer memories, its standards are not necessarily those of Broadway or regional companies. If the air is warm, the picnic delicious, the children content and the stars starry, that is enough to make the outing worthwhile. If the quality of the theatrical production is more than adequate, that is an added bonus.

Jake Murphy and Louisa Frasconi as Romeo & Juliet. Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin.

Jake Murphy and Louisa Frasconi as Romeo & Juliet. Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin.

Marin Shakespeare Company’s current staging of “Romeo and Juliet”, is a mixed affair. I will confess, at the start, that Romeo and Juliet is not one of my favorite Shakespearean plays. Although it has some of Shakespeare’s loveliest poetry, there is a certain predictability to some of the most famous details, such as the nurse’s bawdiness or Romeo’s fickle taste in women. From my perspective, for this play to work well, it requires a freshness of approach that is all too rare.

Marin Shakespeare’s version is adequate but stale. Lovers of the play will take pleasure in the retelling of the familiar story, but, for the most part, may not be deeply moved. Newcomers to Shakespeare may find it overlong at nearly three hours.

In spite of flaws, there are elements to admire, most especially Jackson Currier as Mercutio, whose physicality is very unusual and very impressive. Simultaneously clumsy and graceful, drunken and wise, sloppy and elegant, Currier’s delight in the character and the stage is an absolute joy to watch. He has been performing with Marin Shakespeare Festival since he was a child. He has the rare quality that suggests he was born for the stage, and should have a sterling professional future.

(from l to r) Mercutio (Jackson Currier) challenges Tybalt (Teddy Spencer). Photo Credit:

(from l to r) Mercutio (Jackson Currier) challenges Tybalt (Teddy Spencer). Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin.

Jake Murphy makes his Marin Shakespeare debut as Romeo. He moves with the grace of a dancer, and speaks verse exceptionally well, in a beautifully supple, wide ranging voice.

Fight direction by Richard Pallaziol is much more exciting than the usual fare, and well executed.

For further information, click here.

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“Romeo and Juliet”, by William Shakespeare, produced by Marin Shakespeare Company. Director: Lesley Schisgall Currier. Lighting: Maxx Kurzunski. Set: Joel Eis. Costumes: Abra Berman. Fight Director: Richard Pallaziot.

Lord Capulet: Robert Currier. Lady Capulet: Marcia PIzzo. Juliet: Luisa Frasconi. Tybalt: Teddy Spencer. Nurse: Debi Durst. Peter: Adam Roy. Gregory: Jai Sahai. Old Capulet: Steve Price. Tybalt’s page: Derek Apperson. Rosaline: Lucy Black. Party Guests: Rachel Newman, Emily Steck. Lord Montague: Steve Price. Lady Montague: Catherine Ostier Bearden. Romeo: Jake Murphy. Benvolio: Sam Mickel. Mercutio: Jackson Currier. Balthazar, Romeo’s page: Javier Pritchard. Abraham, a servant: Gray Schierholt. Benvolio’s page: Aaro Vanderbeek. Prince of Verona: Scott Coopwood. Paris: Skylar Collins. Paris’ page: Max Seijas. Friar Lawrence: Julian Lopez-Morillas. Friar John: Jai Sahai. An Apothecary: Jai Sahai. Watchmen: Derek Apperson, Gray Schierholt. 

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Review: world premier of ‘Dracula Inquest’ by Central Works (****)

July 30, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

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)

(“Dracula Inquest” plays at Central Works at The Berkeley City Club from July 12 through August 17, 2014).

Dracula. After countless reiterations, the name still has the power to chill a century after Bram Stoker penned his gothic occult masterpiece of terror.

Gary Graves’ “Dracula Inquest” is a highly entertaining, blood curdling fright fest. It is also exceptionally true to Bram Stoker’s original tale, while offering an intriguing new take on the old story.

Detective Sly (well-portrayed by John Flanagan) is investigating the disappearance and possible murder of Count Dracula, a Transylvanian nobleman. A manuscript in his possession consisting of letters and other documents (the audience recognizes that this is Stoker’s novel) has persuaded him that the Count may have been the victim of a mad cabal made up of a foreign professor, a questionable psychiatrist, a nobleman, and a solicitor who believed the Count to be some sort of unnatural monster. Sly has taken his investigation to Dr. Seward’s insane asylum, where the Doctor himself is now a straightjacketed patient, along with the solicitor, Jonathan Harker, Harker’s estranged wife Mina, and Professor Van Helsing.

Professor Van Helsing and his intrepid team of vampire hunters, now all inmates of the Whitby Asylum for the Criminally Insane —and underinvestigation regarding the disap-pearance of a mys-terious nobleman from Transylvania. (l to r): Kenny Toll, Joe Estlack, Joshua Schell & Megan Trout.) Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.

Professor Van Helsing and his intrepid team of vampire hunters, now all inmates of the
Whitby Asylum for the Criminally Insane — and under investigation regarding the disappearance of a mysterious nobleman from Transylvania. (l to r: Kenny Toll, Joe Estlack, Joshua Schell & Megan Trout.) Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.

A working class sort of guy, Sly is convinced that he is uncovering evidence of the decadence of the upper classes, whose foolish dabbling in the occult has led them to commit a horrible crime. He interviews Seward, the two Harkers, and Professor Van Helsing and gradually compels them to repeat the familiar tale.

Playwright Graves’ class-based reading of this Victorian gem is persuasive and provides a pointed intellectual panache to the proceedings. But the guts of the play is in the actors’ retelling of the tale which they deliver with gusto and the requisite vocal and physical pyrotechnics.

Joshua Schell as Jonathan Harker. (Photo Credit: Jim Norrena)

Joshua Schell as Jonathan Harker. Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.

Joshua Schell presents Jonathan Harker as a man suffering from post traumatic stress. Clearly he has undergone an experience of remarkable horror. His stuttering and choking paralysis as he tries to tell the tale while being overtaken with memory is powerfully convincing. As Dr. Seward, Kenny Toll drips with professional and class disdain for the cockney inspector and is seemingly mad one moment and rational the next. Joe Estlack convinces us that Professor Van Helsing is indeed brilliant, while making us wonder if he is also as mad as a hatter. The always exceptional Megan Trout brings a striking range of emotion to her creation of Mina Harker, seducing and terrifying in equal measure.

Gregory Scharpen’s original sound design effectively magnifies the thrills throughout.

This excellent production, with its emphasis on the communicative capacity of the actors’ voices and bodies, will please admirers of the great Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, who famously characterized this minimalist approach as “poor theatre”. I believe Grotowski would have been pleased with this work.

The question at the heart of the play is this: While the narrators are clearly mad, is their madness the result of having encountered a supernatural horror or is it the result of having given in to their own worst instincts to commit a terrible and unjustified crime? Inspector Sly, a rationalist, believes the latter.

There’ll be no spoilers here. To find out how the play answers this central question, you’ll have to attend. Do so at your own peril.

For further information, click here.

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“Dracula Inquest”, a world premiere by Gary Graves, presented by Central Works Theatre Company. Director: Jan Zvaifler. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. Lights: Gary Graves. Sound: Gregory Scharpen. 

Professor Van Helsing: Joe Estlack. Detective Sly: John Flanagan. Jonathan Harker: Joshua Schell. Kenny Toll: Dr. Seward. Mina Harker: Megan Trout. 

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