Wily West Productions* Is At It Again With Two New Plays for October

September 28, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

Wily West Productions, a Bay Area company specializing in new work, follows up recent successes with two new plays opening in October.

Morgan Ludlow’s “Drowning Kate” is a contemporary Frankenstein story with a love interest in which a young doctor tries to revive his recently drowned wife (the titular Kate) with disturbing results. “Unhinged” by Krista Knight tells the story of a house painter with a disturbing obsession.

drowningkate

unhinged

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both Ludlow and Knight are playwrights to be reckoned with.

Morgan Ludlow

Morgan Ludlow

 

Krista Knight

Krista Knight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morgan Ludlow, a founder of Wily West who also fills the role of Artistic Director, is the author of more than a dozen full length plays and numerous shorter pieces.  His work has been enthusiastically received in the Bay Area, and last season his script, “Gorgeous Hussy“, about movie star Joan Crawford, received a “best original play” award from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC).

Krista Knight is a playwright of note in the world of academia, having earned prestigious graduate level degrees from both NYU and UC San Diego. In recent years, she has taught playwriting at UC San Diego (where she received a Teaching Excellence Award), the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Cal State San Marcos and the State University of New York in Oswego. Her plays have been produced to acclaim across the United States.

Both plays are helmed by director Wesley Cayabayab, an actor himself, and the company’s technical director. And, in true classical repertory fashion, the acting companies will overlap.  Audiences will, therefore, have the rare opportunity (in San Francisco) to see the same actors in different productions over a single weekend.

Scott Cox and Genevieve Purdue will feature in both plays. Cox has been a significant contributor to the SF theatre scene for more than a decade, especially known for his work with the New Conservatory Theatre Center. He has performed with other local companies as well, including SF Playhouse, where he gave a particularly memorable performance in their 2012 production of “Bell, Book and Candle“. Purdue has been an enthusiastic participant as a reader of new work at the Playwrighting  Center of San Francisco, as well as performing at City College and with the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley.

Scott Cox

Scott Cox

 

Genevieve Purdue

Genevieve Purdue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While there are several companies in the San Francisco Bay Area that regularly produce new work, Wily West Productions is unique in that they produce work exclusively by local playwrights and rely on local talent for every aspect of production. As a result of these policies, they have presented professionally staged productions of plays by over two dozen local playwrights in a span of just five years.

This is an extraordinary accomplishment that has received wide attention, as evidenced by the company being recently featured in “The Dramatist”, the magazine of The Dramatists Guild of America.

All of this exciting new work has not gone unnoticed. For their last season, they have received no fewer than four Theatre Bay Area award nominations, and they are one of only a few smaller theatre companies to receive regular attention from the San Francisco Chronicle.

For further information, click here.

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*TheatreStorm Sponsor

Review: ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ at Custom Made Theatre Company (**1/2)

September 20, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(**1/2)

American prisoners of war are transported to Dresden by boxcar in "Slaughterhouse Five" at Custom Made Theatre. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

American prisoners of war are transported to Dresden by boxcar in “Slaughterhouse Five” at Custom Made 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)

(“Slaughterhouse Five” plays at the Gough Street Playhouse through October 12, 2014.)

Kurt Vonnegut’s post modern masterpiece, “Slaughterhouse Five”, appears on many lists along the lines of “100 Best Books” of the 20th century. In typically post modern fashion, it tells a story while simultaneously undermining the trustworthiness of the narrator, as indicated in its famous opening line: “All this happened, more or less.”

In the first chapter, Vonnegut himself appears to be the narrator (but is this the real Vonnegut?) who assures us that he was personally present at the bombing of Dresden during World War II, and thus can be considered an eye witness to the events of the story. But the events which follow are jumbled, out of sequence, bizarre and include such details as an interplanetary kidnapping, and an unlikely affair between the book’s antagonist and a porn star that takes place in a cage in a zoo on a planet called Tralfamador whose inhabitants resemble plumbers’ helpers. This nonsense is interspersed with descriptions of the bombing of Dresden and the behavior of American prisoners of war, as well as other more-or-less “normal” details of the protagonist’s life on earth. The implication seems to be that nothing makes sense: the horrific accidents of war are as absurd and meaningless as aliens who look like plumbers’ helpers or conventions of optometrists. Everything is equally horrifying and equally meaningless and, in Vonnegut’s brilliant treatment, equally funny. In his narrative, Vonnegut’s tone does not differentiate between realism and absurdity, thus making the absurd seem real and the real absurd until it is impossible to know which is which. He repeatedly punctuates his examples of the absurdity of life with the wry refrain “and so it goes”.

Billy Pilgrim has a vision. Photo credit: Jay Yamada.

Billy Pilgrim has a vision. Photo credit: Jay Yamada.

This complex material does not easily lend itself to adaptation. In my view, Eric Simonson’s effort, as interpreted by director Brian Katz, does not entirely succeed. I suspect it is not really possible to make narrative sense of the material. It is more like a series of absurdist images whose impact is primarily emotional. The intellectual and narrative content only begins to register upon reflection. This production failed to work for me, I think, because it is presented episodically and tries to make sense. For example, as Billy Pilgrim skips through time, each jump is indicated by an intrusive music cue, and a repeated physical motion that clearly marks the transition. This serves rather to blunt the impact of the story’s outrageously random movement and seems to be more stultifying than clarifying.

Another jarring element is the presence of Vonnegut as narrator. In the book the narrator “Vonnegut” is not a real person, but a character who has the same name as the author. This nuance is glossed over by an actor made up and costumed to look like the real Vonnegut and speaking in a logical way about the events.

The effect of these flaws is to translate Vonnegut’s abstract, aburdist, fantastic, outraged and outrageous comic and tragic poem of a novel into prose. The story remains intact, but the poetry is sacrificed for the sack of clarity.

Director Katz chooses to close the show with a recording of the song, “We’ll Meet Again”, a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly absurd anti-war film, “Dr. Strangelove”. It is clear that Katz intended this production to be equally funny and shocking, and that he truly loves this material. His desire to explain the unexplainable (or “ef the ineffable” in Robert Anton Wilson‘s happy phrase) has undermined his success.

This is not to say that the production is dull. It has many fine moments, and some excellent performances, especially in the work of Sam Tillis as a crazed soldier intent on vengeance. Tillis is a talented actor with an unusual and charismatic stage presence, making his Custom Made Theatre debut. Based on this performance and other recent success, he should be cutting quite a figure in the SF theatrical scene for some time to come.

For further information click here.

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“Slaughterhouse Five” by Eric Simonson, adapted from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut. Director: Brian Katz. Scenic Design: Sarah Phykitt. Lighting Design: Maxx Kurzunski.  Costume Design: Karina Chavarin. Video Design: Rebecca Longworth. Sound Design: Liz Ryder. Movement: Daunielle Rasmussden. 

Man: Davie Sikula. Billy Pilgrim: Ryan Hayes. Young Billy Pilgrim: Brian Martin. Boy Billy Pilgrim/Ensemble: Alun Anderman/Myles Cence (alternate performances). Valencia/Derby/Ensemble: Stephanie Ann Foster. Weary/Rosewater/Ensemble: Sal Mattos. Chetwynde/Campbell/Ensemble: Chris Morrell. Barbara/Tralfamadorian/Ensemble: Jessica Jade Rudholm. Montana/Dotty/Ensemble: Carina Lastimosa Salazar. Trout/Reggie/Ensemble: Paul Stout. Lazzaro/Rumfoord/Ensemble: Sam Tillis.

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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

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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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