Review: ‘Late: A Cowboy Song’ at CustomMade Theatre Company (***)

January 16, 2015 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***)

Crick (Brian Martin) and Mary (Maria Leigh) do not see eye to eye when Crick spends the last of their savings on a painting in Sarah Ruhl's "Late: A Cowboy Song" at Custommade Theatre.  Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

Crick (Brian Martin) and Mary (Maria Leigh) do not see eye to eye when Crick spends the last of their savings on a painting in Sarah Ruhl’s “Late: A Cowboy Song” at Custommade Theatre. 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)

(“Late: A Cowboy Song” plays at The Gough Street Playhouse through February 1st, 2015).

Crick and Mary should probably not be husband and wife. They have been together since the second grade, when Crick noticed they shared a birthday. This was enough for the needy Crick to latch on to Mary with infantile need and hang on for dear life into adulthood.  He is cute, charming, bright, unemployed and likely to remain so. He loves art and he loves Mary to the best of his ability.

Mary, kind, agreeable, and unassertive has gone along with Crick’s program from childhood to adulthood and, now, to parenthood. She is simply an unawakened passenger along for Crick’s ride. These two have grown in years from childhood to parenthood, but as far as becoming adults, well, they are running late.

It is pretty clear that this marriage is headed for disaster, and equally clear that neither partner is prepared to recognize this fact.

But there are some refreshing and hopeful complications. One is the lovely Red, a childhood friend of Mary’s with whom she has recently reconnected. If Mary is a case of arrested development, unwilling to become herself, Red is the opposite, a woman of profound inner strength and core identity who has found herself in the occupation of cowboy. She is a lover of horses and wildness, outdoors and freedom. She is unbounded by convention or gender. And she is, clearly, in love with Mary, but too respectful of individuality to declare herself. She waits, patiently, for Mary to mature. A second complication is Mary and Crick’s child — born intersexed, the child is neither boy nor girl, a further example of confused identity. Although the hospital physicians arbitrarily created female genitals, Mary, at least, understands that the baby’s full gender identity will only be realized later in life. Crick, typically of this man who chose his life partner in second grade and clings on desperately, insists that the matter is settled.

Cowboy, Red (Laren Preston) introduces Mary to a horse and a dream of freedom. (Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.)

Cowboy, Red (Laren Preston) introduces Mary to a horse and a dream of freedom. (Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.)

This is a gentle story, told with humor and insight, and effective mostly as a character study. It is clear from the first scene that the marriage is unsustainable, that Red loves Mary, and that Mary will learn to return that love. The play, then, unfolds along predictable lines and its charm is in the characterizations of these three interesting and, on the whole, lovable and well meaning individuals.

As the cowboy, Red, Laren Preston is full of kindness, grace and sexual charisma. Her gentle leading of Mary to self-discovery puts one in mind of breaking a horse, a task which one imagines Red accomplishes with kindness and psychology rather than any sort of brutality. As Mary, Maria Leigh is lovable in her confusion, trying to please herself, and Red, and Crick, while gradually finding her way to adulthood and the discovery of what she truly wants. Most outstanding is Brian Martin’s performance as Crick. As he senses the certainties of his life, his passions, his marriage to Mary, even his child’s sex unraveling, he becomes increasingly desperate. Martin is wonderful to watch, as he shifts about like an emotional acrobat, trying to keep his ground in a world devestated by earthquakes. He performs Crick as a bundle of infantile need with a veneer of charm developed as a survival tool. It is an exceptionally insightful characterization, beautifully realized, and represents an artistic breakthrough for this interesting young actor who seems to be moving forward by leaps and bounds.

“Late: A Cowboy Song” is a quirky, and highly enjoyable night of theatre.

For further information, click here.

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“Late: A Cowboy Song” by  Sarah Ruhl. Produced by CustomMade Theatre Company. Director: Ariel Craft. Scenic Design: Eric LaDue. Costume Design: Brooke Jennings. Sound Design and Score: Liz Ryder. Lighting Design: Colin Johnson. Technical Director: Stewart Lyle.

Mary: Maria Leigh. Crick: Brian Martin. Red: Laren Preston.

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Review: ‘Landless’ at Alter Theater (***1/2)

January 14, 2015 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***1/2)

landless-03

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)

(“Landless” plays in a storefront  in San Rafael through February 1st, then continues at the A.C.T. Costume Shop Theater in San Francisco, February 12-22nd.)

Josia looks Latino and has a Mexican surname, but he knows he is an American Indian, even if the government considers his tribe to be landless. His identity is further complicated by being gay. He has found family, though, with Elise, a lonely woman who runs a general store on Main Street in their small rural community, a store which has been in her family for generations. She befriended him as a child, and he has lived in back of the store for several years, ever since his father rejected him.

As the play opens, we learn that Josia and Elise have fallen on hard times. The store is going to close and they are preparing to auction off the inventory and the fixtures. As they discuss the various items, they remember details of their life together and episodes leading up to their current predicament are acted out as the play shifts through time.

Love makes a family for Elise (Patricia Silver) and Josiah (Nick Garcia) in Larissa FastHorse's "Landless" by Alter Theater.

Love makes a family for Elise (Patricia Silver) and Josiah (Nick Garcia) in Larissa FastHorse’s “Landless” by Alter Theater.

Playwright Larissa FastHorse gives us a number of loosely connected scenes in the life of the town, Josia, and Elise, nicely observed and always well acted. Some of the memories hold more interest than others, and, occasionally, the play seems as lost as the characters. This sense of disconnect is not helped by the decision to mark the shifts in time with a repeated sound effect that seems mechanical, and interrupts the easy flow of the story, making it seem too episodic and skit-like.

Nevertheless, Ms. FastHorse has something important to say and is passionate about it, and this commitment, along with excellent ensemble work by the cast, makes up for a multitude of flaws. The relationship between Elise (Patricia Silver) and Josiah (Nick Garcia), the family they have formed, and the dreams which they share, is convincing and moving. As a townswoman whose fear of loss has undermined her sense of decency and fair play, Emilie Talbot offers a finely tuned characterization both villainous and sympathetic. Best of all is Michael J. Asberry, in multiple roles, each carefully differentiated. As Josiah’s puzzled father, he manages to reveal a wounded humanity in spite of his hateful behavior. As the homeless but dignified Mr. Harrison, he gradually reveals an impressive depth of character in a role that could easiliy be presented as a stereotype.

Michael J. Asberry shines as Mr. Harrison in "Landless".

Michael J. Asberry shines as Mr. Harrison in “Landless”.

The story involves numerous complications including a change in status for Josiah’s tribe, the proposal of an Indian casino, several reversals of fortune, and a completely unexpected ending that upturns many assumptions. It becomes a meditation on the meanings, variously, of  homelessness, family, loyalty, community and personal identity. It makes us think about what is truly important in unexpected and original ways.

In spite of some flaws in polish and execution, this unusual play clearly has something original to say and playwright Larissa FastHorse has a passionate voice that comes through loud and clear.

For further information, click here.

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“Landless” by Larissa FastHorse, produced by Alter Theater. Directors: Ann Brebner and Jeanette Harrison. Lighting: Jack Beuttler. Sound: Madeleine Oldham. Costumes: Janice Koprowski. Composer: Sky Road Webb. 

Natalie/Woman/Ensemble: Emilie Talbot. Elise: Patricia Silver. Josiah: Nick Garcia. Clinton/Mr. Gonzalez/Mr. Harrison/Ensemble: Michael J. Asberry.

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Review: ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ by Marin Theatre Company’s Series for Young Audiences (***1/2)

January 14, 2015 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***1/2)

(from l to r) Rami Margron as Passepartout struggles with David Abrams as Fix of the Yard in "Around the World in 80 Days". Photo Credit: Marin Theatre Company.

(from l to r) Rami Margron as Passepartout struggles with David Abrams as Fix of the Yard in “Around the World in 80 Days”. 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)

(“Around the World in Eighty Days” plays at Marin Theatre Company on Saturday and Sunday, January 17th and 18th, with performances at 10:30 am and 12:30 pm). 

It is always a pleasure to see professional theatre being produced for youngsters, and this production of “Around the World in Eighty Days” is an excellent example.

When I attended, the pre-teen audience was utterly enthralled and the adults pleasantly entertained by a fine professional cast.

Toby Hulce’s clever script requires only three actors, who transform themselves into multiple characters as they pull costume pieces and props from traveling trunks strategically placed around the stage. The stage is dominated by a large transparent clock, lit from behind, which allows for some very clever shadow play. Ample physical humor, puppetry, repeated jokes, mugging and disguise keep things moving.

The company features three excellent professional actors, with impressive physical theatre skills. As Fix of the Yard, “master of disguise”, MTC teaching artist David Abrams is a hoot, hiding behind a ridiculous phony moustache that fools nobody, to the delight of the children. As Mr. Phileas Fogg, Cassidy Brown displays the impressive comedic chops that have been previously seen throughout the bay area from the Marin Shakespeare Company (“The Tempest”) to TheatreWorks on the peninsula (“The 39 Steps”). Rami Margron’s Passepartout takes the cake for physical comedy.

Rami Margron as Passepartout, Cassidy Brown as Mr. Phileas Fogg, and David Abrams as Fix of the Yard. Photo Credit: Marin Theatre Company.

David Abrams as Fix of the Yard, Cassidy Brown as Mr. Phileas Fogg, and Rami Margron as Passepartout. Photo Credit: Marin Theatre Company.

I saw the play in the company of two insightful young ladies, Nadia (age 12) and Mila (age 9). Nadia liked “… that it was very original with just three actors [who] got to play multiple roles.” Mila reports that “the shadow puppets were my favorite”, and she also liked the “weird disguises” of Fix. Both girls give the play a thumbs up.

“Around the World in Eighty Days” is only slightly marred by some unfortunate stereotyping of native Indians. Conscientious parents may want to discuss this with their children.

Otherwise, this production is a delight and highly recommended. For further information, click here.

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“Around the World in Eighty Days” by Toby Hulse, produced by Marin Theatre Company. Director: Daunielle Rasmussen. Sound designer and compser: Liz Ryder. Scenic Designer: Andrew Kaufman. Lighting Designer: Danny Osburn. Costume Designer: Lisa Claybaugh. Props Artisan: Santina Moran-Seaborne.

Fix of the Yard: David Abrams. Passepartout: Rami Margron. Mr. Phileas Fogg: Cassidy Brown. 

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Review: ‘The Anarchist’ at Theatre Rhinoceros (**1/2)

January 9, 2015 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: **1/2)

(“The Anarchist” by David Mamet plays at the Eureka Theatre through January 17, 2015).

Pulitzer prize winner David Mamet is one of America's leading and most controversial playwrights. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacobe.

Pulitzer prize winner David Mamet is one of America’s leading and most controversial playwrights. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacobe.

Theatre Rhinoceros has given David Mamet‘s two-hander,  “The Anarchist”, a carefully considered, well acted west coast premiere. John Fisher’s direction is precise and intelligent, and the two actresses (Velina Brown and Tamar Cohn) have served the text well. But it is a damned difficult play to understand, let alone enjoy.

Two women: one serving a life sentence for a murder committed in the context of a political upheaval, the other her jailer who must recommend to a parole board whether or not the prisoner should be released. The play is set in an office where the jailer interviews the prisoner just before going before the Parole Board who wait in an adjoining room. There is limited time for the jailer to decide on her recommendation — the telephone rings repeatedly with messages from the Board that they are anxious to finish this business.

While the prisoner desperately tries to convince her jailer to recommend release, the jailer is determined to maintain a judicial indifference in an effort to make the wisest choice.

From l to r: Velina Brown as Ann and Tamar Cohn as Cathy in Theatre Rhinoceros' west premiere of David Mamet's "The Anarchist". Photo Credit: David Wilson.

From l to r: Velina Brown as Ann and Tamar Cohn as Cathy in Theatre Rhinoceros’ west premiere of David Mamet’s “The Anarchist”. Photo Credit: David Wilson.

As they spar with one another in language that is rich with implication, rhythm, repetition and intrigue (qualities typical of Mamet’s always skillful writing), various complications of emotion, history and political analysis come up for dissection. The result is about 80 minutes of theatre at times engaging (more intellectually than emotionally) and at times soporofic. I feel as if I’m reviewing two different plays: one of them exciting with intellectual and emotional fireworks; the other overly wordy, confusing and dull. In the end, it is hard to say which play won out, but I was glad  to have attended.

Tamar Cohn, as Cathy the prisoner, unabashed lesbian, and perhaps former anarchist, does her very considerable best with this material. She fills the stage with memories and passion, switching strategies in rapid succession, trying to find the vulnerabilities in her adversity (including, perhaps, an unacknowledged sexual attraction) that might win her release. Velina Brown is equally good in the role of her jailer, Ann, craftily setting a trap that surprises us when it is sprung near the end of the play. It is a testament to the actresses’ skill that throughout their debate, we remain in doubt as to what will be said at the hearing.

This west coast premiere of  a work by an important American playwright will be of interest to committed Mamet fans and those who particularly appreciate political content onstage. Others may find it rough going. For further information, click here.

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“The Anarchist” by David Mamet, a west coast premiere produced by Theatre Rhinoceros. Director: John Fisher. Scenic/Lighting Designer: Jon Wai-keung Lowe. Costume Designer: Christine U’Ren. 

Ann: Velina Brown. Cathy: Tamar Cohn. 

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TheatreStorm Achieves 21,000 Views in 2014 (an average of nearly 2,000 every month)

December 29, 2014 Leave a comment

TheatreStorm continues to grow! With over 21,000 views in 2014 (source: Word Press Analytics), we now average nearly 2,000 views every month.

TheatreStorm is proud of this accomplishment. Thank you to all those who pay attention, and we’ll see you on opening nights!

P.S., if you are a theatre marketing manager, or have another reason to reach the people who view this blog, please investigate becoming a sponsor. A very modest investment could pay a substantial dividend in buzz and ticket sales.

 

A highly subjective reflection on the best of 2014

December 27, 2014 1 comment

(Charles Kruger)

best

Here it is: TheatreStorm’s “ten best” list for 2014. First, some caveats: I can’t see everything I would like. There are time constraints, and tickets aren’t always available. So, there may be many productions that did not make this list simply because I didn’t see them. Second, there are many shows that were as good as those listed here — selecting only ten is somewhat arbitrary.

This year, I attended nearly 60 plays, produced by 27 different companies. Most of the shows were of high quality. In fact, 33% received a rating of four or five stars, reserved for exceptional or “must see” work. Only three shows received less than three stars, and none received only one star. I classify all shows receiving at least two stars as “worth seeing” — so this has been a very good year overall.

The following alphabetically ordered list represents my considered opinion of what might be among the best of the best in 2014. Each was awarded a four or five star rating (follow  the links for reviews):

Bauer by Lauren Gunderson. A world premiere produced by SF Playhouse. Up-and-coming playwright Gunderson’s piece about the little known German expressionist painter Rudolf Bauer was distinguished by delightful wordplay and fine performances.

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare. Produced by California Shakespeare Theatre. The company had a blast with the wonderful clowning in this production.

The Crazed by Sally Dawidoff. Produced by Central Works. This excellent adaptation of a celebrated novel by Ha Jin was full of poetry and political import.

Everybody Here Says Hello by Stuart Bousel. Produced by Wily West Productions. I wrote: “Playwright Stuart Bousel displays an impressive grasp of character, an ear for honest dialogue, and a wicked wit in this wonderful piece about a community of attractive young folk, gay, straight, and bi, struggling to achieve satisfying relationships over a period of a few years.”

I Am The Wind by Jon Fosse. Produced by Do It Live Productions. Will Hand and Do It Live Productions brought the work of celebrated Norwegian genius Jon Fosse to Bay Area audiences for the first time in a remarkable presentation.

Macbeth At Fort Point by William Shakespeare. Produced by We Players. I wrote: “Some theatre experiences are remembered for a lifetime: “Macbeth At Fort Point” is likely to be one of those. Those fortunate enough to attend this extraordinary event (it is more than a play) will be revisiting the memories for years to come.” Six months later, I haven’t changed my mind.

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Produced by California Shakespeare Theatre. Irene Lucio made a memorably brilliant debut as Eliza Doolittle in this extraordinarly well-staged and well-acted production, directed by Jonathan Moscone.

The Speakeasy, conceived, created and produced by Nick. A. Olivero. Head writer: Barry Eitel. I described this immersive threatre piece as “theatrical art of a high order” and “a marriage of lowbrow and highbrow that is unlike anything else.”

Susannah by Carlisle Floyd. Produced by San Francisco opera. Floyd’s operatic masterpiece has a libretto which is among the finest American dramas of the 20th century, and received a stunning production with brilliant singing and acting by the great Patricia Racette in the title role.

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, translation by Rob Melrose. Produced by Cutting Ball Theatre. With this highly original production, Cutting Ball again demonstrated their expertise in interpreting the most celebrated works of the 20th Century avante-garde.

There you have my top ten, although at least a dozen other productions could have made an equal claim to being among the best. Why not attend enough theatre this year so that you can select your own “top ten”? There is plenty of excellent theatre all around the Bay Area just waiting to enhance your life. Be there!

And Happy New Year to all!

Review: ‘Our Town’ at Shotgun Players (**1/2)

December 21, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: **1/2)

ourtown01

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)

(“Our Town” plays at the Ashby Stage through January 11, 2015.)

“Our Town” is one of the most familiar plays in the American canon. Wilder’s masterpiece is too often dismissed as old fashioned, sentimental and essentially shallow, presenting a warped and overly positive view of small town life. That’s nonsense.

With “Our Town”, Wilder stood with Bertold Brecht in the creation of a new approach to theatre, one in which narrative is undermined by the famous “alienation effect” to encourage audiences to analyze what they see, and not just wallow in sentimentality. The absence of set, the presence of an all-knowing narrator who speaks directly to the characters, acknowledging them as actors, the talking dead — there is a great deal here that is easily missed in the sentimental glow of nostalgia. Also, Wilder does not ignore the dark side of Grovers’ Corners, referencing the segregation of the  Catholic community, the absence of women’s rights and including an alcoholic character who may be a musical genius and a homosexual, and who commits suicide. Another character simply comments, “Not everyone is suited for small town life”.

All of this is not lost on director Susannah Martin, who discusses these matters in carefully considered program notes, and makes numerous decisions in staging to encourage the audience to think through some of the play’s implications and break away from stultifying sentimentality. The production is by no means a failure, but it does not fully succeed in realizing the depths of the play.

Some wise choices include the placing of characters in the audience, color- and gender-blind casting, and the incorporation of a well composed musical score.  The haunting design which nicely evokes passing seasons and night skies is beautifully effective.

On the other hand, the actors’ performances overall seem to be straight-jacketed by sentimentality and nostalgia, in spite of the best intentions. All of the actors have moments when they seem to escape the jacket, but these are few and far between. Josh Schell, as George Gibbs, seems the least constrained, especially in scenes courting the young Emily Webb. Molly Noble as Mrs. Gibbs offers some of the evening’s most affecting and authentic moments when speaking from the grave.

This is capable professional work which will please many who delight in this much beloved play, but others (myself included) might wish for less sentiment and more authentic life.

For futher information, click here.

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“Our Town” by Thornton Wilder. Director: Susannah Martin. Set: Nina Ball. Lights: Heather Basrab. Music Direction: Abigail Nessen Bengson & Shaun Bengson. Sound Design: Theodore J. H Hulsker. Wardrobe: Ashley Rogers.

Emily Webb: El Beh. Stage Manager: Madeline H. D. Brown. Mrs. Soames/Ensemble: Sam Jackson. Doc Gibbs: Tim Kniffin. Professor Willard/Ensemble: Christine Macomber. Howie Newsome/Ensemble: Wiley Naman Strasser. Mrs. Gibbs: Molly Noble. Rebecca Gibbs/Ensemble: Karen Offereins. Constable Warren/Ensemble: Valerie Fachman. George Gibbs: Josh Schell. Mrs. Webb:Michelle Talgarow. Simon/Ensemble: Christopher W. White. Joe/Si Crowell/Sam Craig: Eli Wirtschafter. Mr. Webb: Don Wood.

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