Review: ‘Norma’ by Vincenzo Bellini at San Francisco Opera (**1/2)

September 17, 2014 1 comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: **1/2)

Christian Van Horn as Druid leader Oroveso, with the San Francisco Opera Chorus, in "Norma". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Christian Van Horn as Druid leader Oroveso, with the San Francisco Opera Chorus, in “Norma”. 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)

(“Norma” plays at the War Memorial Opera House on 9/19/14, 9/23/14, 9/27/14, and 9/30/14.)

This new production of “Norma”, directed by Kevin Newbury, reminded me of the mythical pushmi-pulyu of Dr. Dolittle fame, in that it appears to be an animal with two heads, struggling against each other to take matters in opposite directions. The musical production is magnificent, offering a spectacular rendition of Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, pulling us towards opera heaven. Alas, the unfortunate staging pulls in quite the opposite direction.

The lengthy overture offers ample opportunity to introduce us to the action of the drama, but it is an opportunity missed. Norma stands and gazes at the moon. And stands. And stands. And stands. She turns, strikes a new pose, and stands some more. She seems more like a mannequin in a window display then a priestess about to prepare her people for war. As she stands and poses, two oddly costumed stage hands (surely we are not expected to believe they are druid priests) adjust pulleys and ropes to fly in a presumably sacred artifact of a tree with all the religious solemnity typical of working a fork lift. The stage director’s primary directive — to tell the story — seems to have been completely ignored. The opening chorus, Ite sul colle, o Druidi, does not fare well dramatically as the Druid singers, presumably preparing for war against the Roman occupation, move and emote with such languidity and lack of purpose that they appear to be refugees from an Esther Williams movie, dancing under water.

But, when Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma launches into the prayerful Casta Diva, the singing blessedly takes over. It is not enough, however, to make the production work as well as it ought.

And so it goes for three long hours, with passages of sublime singing interspersed with dull and pedestrian staging which fails to engage. The music is inspiring, but the narrative is unnecessarily muddy and dull. Some of the staging gaffes are downright laughable. The chorus repeatedly enters on one side of the stage, clumped together like bits of curdled milk, looking confused and disoriented, anything but battle ready. On one occasion, they respond as a group with vague muttering in such an obvious bit of fakery that my companion (a playwright of some distinction, whom I won’t embarrass by identifying) had to stifle a fit of giggles before returning to his nap. I was grateful that he does not snore.

Jamie Barton as Adalgisa and Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma together scale the heights of bel canto artistry. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Jamie Barton as Adalgisa and Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma together scale the heights of bel canto artistry. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

In addition to Radvanovsky’s singing, there are two elements of this “Norma” that are quite wonderful. Firstly, and emphatically, Jamie Barton makes a stunning SF Opera debut as Adalgisa, the young priestess who is Norma’s rival for the love of a Roman occupier. When Barton and Radvanovky sing the famous duet, Sola, furtiva al tempio, the production springs to life. The rendition is musically perfect, the two voices gorgeously blending, every detail of supple melody delineated with care, no harmony lost. The two divas communicate passion and joy in the music that is the emotional highlight of the entire production. It is lovely in every way. Secondly, Jacqueline Piccolino, a first year Adler Fellow, sings well and demonstrates notable acting skills in the role of Clotilde.

A full production of a grand opera should be as thrilling for its narrative and stagecraft as it is for its singing. As a concert performance, this “Norma” would have been grand indeed, but as a fully staged theatrical event, it is rather disappointing.

For further information click here.

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“Norma,” by Vincenzo Bellini, text by Felice Romani, based on a play by Alexandre Soumet, co-produced by San Francisco Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Canidan Opera Company, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Director: Kevin Newbury. Set: David Korins. Costumes: Jessica Jahn. Lighting: D. M. Wood. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. 

Oroveso: Christian Van Horn. Pollione: Marco Berti. Flavio: A. J. Glueckert. Norma: Sondra Radvanovsky. Adalgisa: Jamie Barton. Clotilde: Jacqueline Piccolino. Norma’s Chidlren: Oliver Kuntz and Miles Sperske. 

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Review: ‘Susannah’ by Carlisle Floyd at San Francisco Opera (*****)

September 14, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(*****)

A beatifully staged church square dance opens SF Opera's production of "Susannah". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

A beatifully staged church square dance opens SF Opera’s production of “Susannah”. 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)

(‘Susannah’ plays at the War Memorial Opera House through September 21, 2014. There are two remaining performances on 09/16/14 and 9/21/14.)

Carlisle Floyd‘s ‘Susannah’ is one of the most successful American operas in the repertoire, having had nearly 800 performances since its debut in 1956, including productions at The Metropolitan Opera and other major houses around the world.

For its debut at San Francisco Opera House, the creative team headed by Director Michael Cavanagh and conductor Karen Kamansek have achieved greatness. This stunning production is a deeply moving theatrical and musical experience.

Floyd’s tight libretto tells the story (based on bible apocrypha) with force and sympathy: Young Susannah Polk is beautiful and charming, and the elders of the Appalachian church in the mountain hollow where she lives cannot resist flirting with her, much to the chagrin of their wives, a situation which creates much resentment and tension in the community. The tension comes to a head with the arrival of revival preacher Reverend Blitch. When the elders go searching for a suitable watering hole for revival baptisms, they spy upon Susannah bathing in the nude. Shaken by their own lust, and pushed by their jealous wives, they immediately turn on Susannah,  and intimidate her feeble-minded admirer, Little Bat, to falsely confess an illicit love affair. Pressured by the Reverend Blitch to publicly confess and repent, she refuses to admit to any wrongdoing, and is ostracized by the community. The charming young woman sinks into depression. In a gorgeous moment, she expresses her sorrow with the lovely and insightful line: “I can’t wait till pretty things look pretty again.” Susannah’s stubborn and dignified refusal to compromise the truth, and an unfortunate encounter with the confused Reverend Blitch, leads inevitably to tragedy.

Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk  and James Kryshak as Little Bat McClean. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk and James Kryshak as Little Bat McClean. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Along the way, Floyd gives us wonderfully expressive and accessible music, rooted in the folk traditions of Appalachia. He offers original hymns for the congregation and two superb arias for Susannah: The innocent “Ain’t It A Pretty Night”, sung before her troubles begin, and later, the sad and haunting “The Trees on the Mountain Are Cold and Bare” which she sings after being falsely accused. The great Patricia Racette brings a stunning degree of vocal and acting artistry to the role of Susannah. Her singing is supported by excellent acting as her character moves from happy innocence through painful depression to angry pride. Her physical expression is superb. In one memorable moment, as the congregation begins singing hymns, she wraps her arms about herself in a plaintive gesture of protection that is perfectly honest and pure.

As the Reverend Olin Blitch, baritone Raymond Aceto creates a subtly layered character, both good and evil, and sings with a rich and forceful lyricism. James Kryshak‘s Little Bat McLean is a perfectly realized physical charactization as he runs about and sulks and struggles with complex feelings he cannot quite comprehend. And Brandon Jovanovich is powerful as Susannah’s sympathetic but alcoholic brother Sam Polk. His rendition of the aria “It’s About The Way People Is Made, I Reckon” and a light hearted folk song duet with Ms. Racette are musical highlights.

Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk and Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk and Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The rest of the company is working to the same high standard. As church women, Erin Johnson, Jacqueline Piccolino, Catherine Cook, and Suzanne Hendrix convey bitterness and harsh judgment without ever resorting to caricature. The same is true of the elders as played by Dale Travis, Joel Sorenson and A.J. Glueckert.

Erhard Rom‘s gorgeous set, that combines video with scrims and and wooden structures, is cinematic in impact, supported beautifully by Gary Marder‘s lighting.

The theatrical gods shine brightly on this production; it flirts with perfection.

For further information click here.

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“Susannah” , music and text by Carlisle Floyd. Produced by the San Francisco Opera; costumes from a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera. Conductor: Karen Kamensek. Director: Michael Cavanagh. Set: Erhard Rom. Costumes: Michael Yeargan. Lighting: Gary Marder. Chrous Director: Ian Robertson. Choreographer: Lawrence Pech. Fight Director: Dave Maier. 

Mrs. Gleaton: Erin Johnson. Mrs. Hayes: Jacqueline Piccolino. Mrs. McLean: Catherine Cook. Mrs. Ott: Suzanne Hendrix. Elder McLean: Dale Travis. Reverend Olin Blitch: Raymond Aceto. Elder Hayes: Joel Sorenson. Elder Gleaton: A.J. Glueckert. Elder Ott: Timothy Mix. Susannah Polk: Patricia Racette. Little Bat McLean: James Kryshak. Sam Polk: Brandon Jovanovich. Two Men: Jere Torkelsen. 

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Review: ‘King Fool’ presented by We Players (****1/2)

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(****1/2)

Ava Roy and John Hadden in "King Fool", performing on a hillside in San Anselmo, one of several locations for this production. Photo Credit: We Players.

Ava Roy and John Hadden in “King Fool”, performing on a hillside in San Anselmo, one of several locations for this production. Photo Credit: We Players.

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)

(King Fool is presented by We Players at various locations through September 28, 2014. Refer to the website for locations and details.)

We Players pursues a mission to present what they describe as “site-integrated performance events that transform public spaces into realms of participatory theatre.” Trust me, this is not as dull or pedantic as it might sound. In fact, this company presents some of the most exciting theatre you are likely to see. Ever. Anywhere.

They have retold the story of Odysseus on Angel Island and presented Macbeth at Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge where the fog rolled over the fort walls to nearly consume audience and actors, making Castle Dunsinane as real as a roast beef sandwich with sound effects provided by the mighty Pacific colliding with the waters of the San Francisco Bay.

The Three Weird Sisters in We Players production of Macbeth staged in Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo Credit: We Players.

The Three Weird Sisters in the We Players production of Macbeth staged in Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo Credit: We Players.

Earlier this year they hosted a concert performance of original Canciones del Mar (Chants of the Sea) staged aboard the tall ship Balclutha, docked at Hyde Street Pier by Fisherman’s Wharf.

Currently, they are presenting  “King Fool”— an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” for two actors. The two actors speak lines from various persons in the play, occasionally out of sequence, in the characters of the unhappy King and his daughter Cordelia. Although it is possible for informed audiences to discern the story of King Lear as written by Shakespeare, that is not the primary point of this adaptation. Removed from the context of the mythic story of the foolish king who divided up his kingdom, it becomes a perfectly modern story of a daughter trying to care for a dying father whom she is losing to old age and dementia.

Ava Roy and John Hadden are both excellent as daughter and father. They deliver the Shakespearean text with grace, conviction and clarity. They do not shy away from harsh details, as when the old man soils himself or cannot recognize his own child. But gentle love and lyrical poetry are also in evidence, and the overall experience is a joyful celebration of a touching relationship.

The performance I saw took place one late afternoon, high on a hill in a rural corner of San Anselmo in Marin County. The audience trekked to this high point as the sun began to lower in the sky. We were seated on low stools or knelt on the ground. The actors were accompanied by bird song and quiet. In a moment of awesome serendipity, a strong breeze rose unexpectedly just as King Lear began to intone the famous speech that begins “blow winds blow/and crack your cheeks with rage”. It was thrilling.

Such happy accidents are courted successfully by We Players in their various interesting locales. Their details cannot be predicted, but their occurrence is to be expected.

“King Fool” does not end with the hour long performance.  Following each show, the audience is invited to remain and participate in an intimate and gently led discussion about the issues the play raises on the experience of children and their aging parents, death and dying, love and loss.

“King Fool” will be given nine more performances between September 11th and September 28th, in a variety of locations ranging from San Francisco’s Mission District to the Marin Headlands to a private home in Marin County to Mission Bay.

For further information click here.

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“King Fool”, adapted by John Hadden from King Lear by William Shakespeare, performed by Ava Roy and John Hadden, with the creative participation of Jamie Lyons and Lauren D. Chavez.

 

Review: ‘The New Electric Ballroom’ at Shotgun Players (***1/2)

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(***1/2)

Boyish playwright Enda Walsh looks innocent enough, but his scripts pack quite a wallop. Photo Credit: Broadway World.

Boyish playwright Enda Walsh looks innocent enough, but his scripts pack quite a wallop. Photo Credit: Broadway World.

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 New Electric Ballroom” plays at The Ashby Stage in Berkeley from September 3, 2014 through October 5, 2014.)

Irish playwright Enda Walsh is about as hot a theatrical commodity as can be. He has won multiple Edinburgh Fringe Awards, as well as a Tony, and, as a screenwriter,  he won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for “Hunger“. He is smart, prolific and wild.

The Beckett-influenced “The New Electric Ballroom” is a fine example of theatre of the absurd. It is about as plot driven as anything Beckett wrote, which is to say, not very. Two sisters living small in a tiny Irish fishing village engage over and over in a ritualistic re-enactment of a shattering moment from their youth, when romance flickered and died one night at “The New Electric Ballroom”. A third sister, too young to remember the original story, acts as audience and confused participant.

The entire lives of the sisters are given over to the compulsive retelling of the past along with a refusal to engage in the present.

(from l to r) Trish Mulholland as Clara, Anne Darragh as Breda and Beth Wilmurt as Ada in "The New Electric Ballroom".  Photo Credit: Pak Han.

(from l to r) Trish Mulholland as Clara, Anne Darragh as Breda and Beth Wilmurt as Ada in “The New Electric Ballroom”. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

The play opens with a long, rambling monologue that begins: “By their nature people are talkers….” delivered to a door jamb by one of the older sisters in a manner both monotonous and haunting. When the conversation flags, the sisters reach into a jar containing conversational prompts: they read the prompt and launch into speeches which clearly have been repeated endless times over the years. They argue over tea and cake. A fishmonger knocks on the door and they abuse him. They relive their adolescence, dressing one another in girlish clothes and makeup, evoking memories of Bette Davis’ simpering old lady reliving her moments as a child vaudevillian in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”. Also weirdly invoked is Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”, aristocrats, dreaming of a never-to-happen return to the mythical Moscow of their youth.

But these old biddies are neither aristocrats nor stars, but rather pathetic losers caught in a meaningless existential loop.

The thing is, all this is wildly funny to hear and see.  The monologues gradually reveal a tawdry story of a travelling musical womanizer who treated the women badly, a humiliation they have never got over.

There is an outrageous and unforgettable showpiece of a monologue about a dead dog. The abused fish monger reveals unexpected talents and a surprising past. The younger sister struggles to escape the metaphorical cage they all inhabit.

Breda (Anne Darragh) chases Patsy the Fishmonger off with a broom. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

Breda (Anne Darragh) chases Patsy the Fishmonger off with a broom. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

In true absurdist style, it is difficult to make sense of it all, but Walsh’s torrent of language is irresistibly and deliciously engaging, if allowed to do its work. Walsh has truly absorbed the lessons to be learned from his master Becket, and “The New Electric Ballroom” is the work of a truly insightful disciple.

Barbara Damashek’s excellent direction is supported by fine design elements throughout, and all four of the actors are masters in the style required.

If you like Samuel Beckett, you’re going to like Enda Walsh. Highly recommended.

For further information, click here.

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“The New Electric Ballroom” by Enda Walsh,  produced by Shotgun Players. Director: Barbara Damashek. Costume Designer: Valera Cable. Set Designer: Erik Flatmo. Light Designer: Jim French. Technical Director: Anne Kendall.

Ada: Beth Wilmurt. Breda: Anne Darragh. Clara: Trish Mulholland. Patsy: Kevin Clarke.

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Review: ‘Fetch Clay, Make Man’ at Marin Theatre Company (***1/2)

August 22, 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)

(“Fetch Clay, Make Man” plays for a limited run at the Marin Theatre Company from August 14 through September 7, 2012).

1965 was a historically significant year in Afro-American history. Martin Luther King was organizing for voters’ rights in Alabama. Malcolm X had been assassinated after leaving the Black Muslims and forming his own Organization for Afro-American Unity. Many believed he was killed by Muslim loyalists who felt he had betrayed them. Not long after, King and his peaceful followers marching in Selma, Alabama were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers and local police with tear gas and billy clubs. Later would come the Watts riots and the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

It was in this context that young Cassius Clay had become a Black Muslim, changing his name to Cassius X. Later, when he beat champion fighter Sonny Liston in a fight in Miami Beach in 1964, he declared himself “the greatest” and the Muslims honored him with the name Mohammad Ali. Months later, in February of 1965, Ali and Liston were scheduled for a rematch in Lewiston, Maine.

Mohammed Ali in 1964

Mohammed Ali in 1964

The out of the way location was selected because organizers feared that followers of Malcolm X, believing the Muslims were responsible for his death, would attempt to take vengeance by assassinating Ali in turn. It was thought that a rural location would be safer.

Film actor Lincoln Perry in character as "Stepin Fetchit".

Film actor Lincoln Perry in character as “Stepin Fetchit”.

Will Power’s fascinating play is set in the training gym in Lewiston, in February of 1965, where Ali is preparing for the rematch, trying to keep his focus on the fight, while his Muslim handlers worry about keeping him safe. Ali is nervous: he knows Liston is training hard, and he has the added pressure of surrounding events to keep him on edge. He then does something unexpected: he invites, of all people, the movie actor Stepin Fetchit to visit him at the gym. He wants to meet Stepin Fetchit because the actor had been a close friend of a previous Black boxer, Jack Johnson, and Ali wants to pump Stepin Fetchit for memories of the great man. He particularly hopes to learn about Johnson’s legendary “anchor punch”, and to glean inspiration and advice that will him him defend the championship.

Eddie Ray Jackson as Mohammed Ali and Katherine Renee Turner as Sonji Clay in Marin Theatre Company's production of "Fetch Clay, Make Man". Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Eddie Ray Jackson as Mohammed Ali and Katherine Renee Turner as Sonji Clay in Marin Theatre Company’s production of “Fetch Clay, Make Man”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

The public image of the two men could not be more different: Ali is the epitome of Black power; Stepin Fetchit’s movie persona as “the laziest man in the world” is the essence of Black humiliation and shame. Stepin Fetchit, once the most successful Black actor of his day, the first to receive screen credit at a time when Black movie actors were all anonymous, had become a despised figure of ridicule.

Playwright Power uses the conversation of these two men to effectively explore themes of identity and self-knowledge, power and weakness, ambition and despair, pride and prejudice. Power is a fine writer, and he presents two fascinating and articulate characters whose stories intrigue and engage us.

Eddie Ray Jackson as Mohammed Ali and Roscoe Orman as Stepin Fetchit in Marin Theatre Company's production of "Fetch Clay, Make Man". Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Eddie Ray Jackson as Mohammed Ali and Roscoe Orman as Stepin Fetchit in Marin Theatre Company’s production of “Fetch Clay, Make Man”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Director Derick Sanders and his design team present the setting of the training gym as a small space hemmed in by a massive brick wall, upon which is projected video of historic events, as well as some of Stepin Fetchit’s movie performances. The effect is to make us feel the way in which the weight of history is pressuring the two men. Kudos to the excellent design work of Courtney O’Neill (set), Colin Bills (lights), and Caite Hevner Kemp (video).

Eddie Ray Jackson is truly charismatic as the great Ali, and does a fine job of capturing some of Ali’s idiosyncratic physicality, moving in ways that remind us of the boxer in his prime. Fans should be pleased. As Stepin Fetchit, Roscoe Orman does a dead-on perfect impersonation, especially when demonstrating the actor’s film persona. Orman has performed in a one man show about Stepin Fetchit for many years, and he clearly has mastered the character to a tee. As Brother Rashid, the Black Muslim assigned to protect Ali, Jefferson A. Russell is particular good. He beautifully captures the manner of a true believer, while still showing the complexities, doubts and rich inner life of a man who would give unhesitant loyalty to a cult. Katherine Renee Turner is lovely as Sonji Clay, and Robert Sicular is consistently interesting as movie mogul William Fox.

“Fetch Clay, Make Man” is an enteratining and thought provoking play that sticks with the viewer

For further information, click here.

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Fetch Clay, Make Man” by Will Power. Co-produced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre, Maryland. Director: Derick Sanders. Scenic Designer: Courtney O’Neill. Lighting Designer; Colin Bills. Costume Designer: Heidi Leigh Hanson. Sound Designer: Christopher Baine. Video Designer: Caite Hevner Kemp.

Stepin Fetchit: Roscoe Orman. Muhammad Ali: Eddie Ray Johnson. Brother Rashid: Jefferson A. Russell. William Fox: Robert Sicular. Sonji Clay: Katherine Renee Turner.

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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.

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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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