Review: ‘The Convert’ by Danai Gurira at Marin Theatre Company (Rating: *****)

February 27, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger

(Rating: *****)

(from l to r) L. Peter Callender as Uncle, JaBen Early as Tamba, and Elizabeth Carter as Mai Tamba in Danai Gurira's "The Convert". Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

(from l to r) L. Peter Callender as Uncle, JaBen Early as Tamba, and Elizabeth Carter as Mai Tamba in Danai Gurira’s “The Convert”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“The Convert” plays at Marin Theatre Company through March 15, 2015 at The Marin Theatre Company.)

The opening sequence, performed mostly in the Shona language, of Danai Gurira’s “The Convert” throws us rapidly and delightfully into the complex story to follow. A native woman, dressed in Western garb, is cleaning what is clearly the home of a Catholic missionary. Her ambivalence about the crucifix and the statue of the Virgin Mary are clear, as she apparently attempts to exorcise them. A somewhat confused young woman enters with a young man, both in native garb, everybody quite excited. When the missionary (also an Africa native) enters, the housekeeper pleads with him to take on the young woman as a servant to save her from a forced marriage to an old man. Moments later, the old Uncle himself arrives, laying claim to the girl. After some discussion, the missionary agrees to take on the young woman and educate her as a Catholic. Learning that she is to go to school, the girl is beside herself with joy. This girl, Jekesai, re-christened as Ester, is “The Convert”. Her story will provide the pretext for the playwright to brilliantly tell of the colonization of what is now Zimbabwe, and the subequent rebellions which began in 1897, and continued until independence was achieved in the 1960s.

Katherine Renee Turner as Esther, the convert, and Jabari Brisport as Chilford, the missionary. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Katherine Renee Turner as Esther, the convert, and Jabari Brisport as Chilford, the missionary. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Playwright Danai Gurira (who is also a distinguished actress) has stated that she is inspired by a desire to write the stories of Afircan women that are rarely depicted onstage. With “The Convert” she succeeds extraordinary well. The women of this play — the convert Ester, the servant Mai Tamba (whose son is drawn into the rebellion) and the Western educated intellectual Prudence — are remarkable, moving, and memorable creations. The male characters are not short changed, however. The true believer Chilford, westernized and dreaming of becoming a Jesuit priest and his best friend Chancellor, who takes advantage of opportunities but harbors no illusions about the colonists, are complex and engaging. Ester’s Uncle is both clownish and dignified as a proud native man trying to assert his rights and the rebellious but likable Tamba is a fully rounded character, complex and conflicted.

These people are richly detailed and multi-faceted, all of them revealing behaviors both cruel and wonderful. This playwright displays a depth of empathy which is only seen in truly exceptional artists. Clearly, Gurira is a major playwright whose career bears watching and whose impact on American theatre is destined to be enormous.

The intellectual Prudence (Omoze Idehenre) challenges Ester to think for herself.

The intellectual Prudence (Omoze Idehenre) challenges Ester (Katherine Renee Turner) to think for herself.

This remarkable work has been carefully and expertly directed by Jasson Minadakis and the cast is so fantastic that it is difficult to think of superlatives worthy of these performances. Each cast member can justifiably be called “brilliant”. Shining particularly bright are L. Peter Callender as Uncle, demonstrating yet again his remarkable range and skill, and Omoze Idehenre as Prudence. Ms. Idehenre gives a great performance of a great character.

“The Convert” offers tragedy, comedy, history and character at a level of excellence rarely encountered. The set, costumes and other technical support are equal to the play and the performances.

If there is anything that is a “must see” this season in the Bay area, “The Convert” surely qualifies.

Find further information here.

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“The Convert” by Danai Gurira, presented by Marin Theatre Company. Director: Jasson Minadakis. Scenic Designer: Nina Ball. Lighting Designer: Gabe Maxson. Costume Designer: Fumiko Bielefeldt. Composer & Sound Designer: Chris Houston. Dialect Coach: Lynne Soffer. Fight Director: Dave Maier. Cultural Consultant and Guest Vocal Artist: Julia Chigamba. Properties Artisan: Kirsten Royston.

Jekesai/Ester: Katherine Renee Turner. Tamba: JaBen Early. Mai Tamba: Elizabeth Carter. Chilford: Jabari Brisport. Uncle: L. Peter Callender. Chancellor: Jefferson A. Russell. Prudence: Omoze Idehenre. 

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Review: ‘Antigone’ by Sophocles in a new translation by Daniel Sullivan, by Cutting Ball Theater (****1/2)

February 26, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger

(Rating: ****1/2)

(l to r)  Paul Loper, Hannah Donovan, Madeline H.D. Brown, Wiley Naman Strasser, Emma Crane Jaster, Elissa Beth Stebbins, Tim Green for the Chorus in Cutting Ball's  "Antigone". Photo Credit: Chase Ramsey.

(l to r) Paul Loper, Hannah Donovan, Madeline H.D. Brown, Wiley Naman Strasser, Emma Crane Jaster, Elissa Beth Stebbins, and Tim Green in Cutting Ball’s “Antigone”. Photo Credit: Chase Ramsey.

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)

(Cutting Ball Theater’s production of “Antigone” will play at The EXIT Theater at 277 Taylor Street through March 22.)

Members of Cutting Ball’s company spent several weeks this past summer studying techniques of movement and music at Teatr ZAR in Poland, the leading training school for the techniques of famed Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. They return to apply what they learned in Daniel Sullivan’s outstanding new translation of Sophocles’ “Antigone”. This was time well spent. The resulting production, under the direction of Paige Rogers, is indeed impressive.

When the company opened the story with a moaning, mysterious chant based on what is known of ancient Greek musical practice, accompanied by a precise occult vocabulary of emotionally evocative movements, I literally felt a chill run up and down my spine. This sensation occurred repeatedly in the course of the play, an experience as rare and memorable as a full eclipse of the moon, a meteor shower seen from a rural mountaintop, or a great opera tenor singing bel canto.

Simply costumed in basic black designed for movement, and barefooted, the cast tells the tragic story of Oedipus’ headstrong daughter on an empty stage with a bright white floor. It feels as if the audience is examining fundamental human emotions under the lens of a microscope.

This highly stylized performance is saved from any hint of affectation by Daniel Sullivan’s striking contemporary translation, idiomatic and perfectly accessible, and performers that do an excellent job of interweaving dance, vocalization and a naturalistic, contemporary rendering of the lines. It all combines into something quite new and quite riveting.

No, it is not perfect. Some of the vocalizing was more wonderful in its ambition than its realization, and much of the movement lacked the perfect synchronicity that might have achieved a level of catharsis well beyond what is accomplished. Theatre at this level truly requires many, many months (even years) of training and rehearsal, a luxury which Cutting Ball has not afforded this work. Although the company worked together on this production for nearly a year, that probably isn’t enough for this level of ambition. Still, it is a thrilling beginning and if the company continues working along these lines, they will eventually achieve something world class.

The story of Antigone’s principled defiance (she wants to bury her disgraced brother with the proper and respectful ceremonies) and her Uncle Kreon’s (ruler of Thebes) sentence of death upon the young woman is told with perfect clarity. Madeline H. D. Brown’s outstanding performance as Antigone is full of depth and conflict, confusion and insight, love and remorse, bravery and foolishness.

Jason W. Wong is a fascinating Kreon, proud and petulant, insightful yet stubborn. Mr. Wong’s naturalistic, very relaxed performance makes a startling counterpoint to the stylized production and works very well indeed. In his hands, the language and movement is fresh and contemporary. His work is well matched by Wiley Naman Strasser playing Kreon’s son (and Antigone’s fiance) Haemon. Their scene together, in which Haemon pleads with his father to reconsider the death sentence, is masterful.

Kreon (Jason W. Wong, l) and son Haemon (Wiley Naman Strasser, r) argue voer the fate of Antigone. Photo Credit: Chase Ramsey.

Kreon (Jason W. Wong, l) and son Haemon (Wiley Naman Strasser, r) argue over the fate of Antigone. Photo Credit: Chase Ramsey.

The rest of the company is also outstanding, with particular compliments to Emma Crane Jaster who provides some delightful comic relief as a frightened but dutiful young soldier.

Jerzy Grotowski (whose theatrical vision inspired this company) once proudly described his most successful production as “an elephant walking a tightrope”. This “Antigone” may not be an elephant on a tightrope, but it aims high, and gives the audience glimpses of that promised land of perfection.

If such ambition excites you, go to The Exit and support Cutting Ball’s extraordinary vision. You won’t regret it.

For further information click here.

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“Antigone” by Sophocles in a new translation by Daniel Sullivan. Produced by Cutting Ball Theater. Director: Paige Rogers. Scenic Designer: Michael Locher. Lighting Designer: Heather Basarab. Sound Designer: Cliff Caruthers. Costume Designer: Jason W. Wong. Music Directors: Aleksandra Koecka and Tomasz Wierzbowski. 

Antigone: Madeline H. D. Brown. Ismene: Hanna Donovan. Sentry: Tim Green. Eurydice/Boy/Sentry: Emma Crane Jaster. Tiresias: Paul Loper. Haemon: Wiley Naman Strasser. Kreon: Jason W. Wong.

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Review: World premiere of Patricia Milton’s ‘Enemies: Foreign and Domestic’ at Central Works (****)

February 23, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger

(Rating: ****)

Enemies: Foreign and Domestic

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)

(“Enemies: Foreign and Domestic” plays at Central Works at the Berkeley City Club through March 29.)

Mary Mahoney was not a nice woman. When her daughter Margaret Mary (Jan Zvaifler) learns of her death, she immediately responds, “I thought nothing would kill that woman but a stake through the heart.” And that may be the kindest thing anyone has to say.

Before her death, she was cared for by the gentle but mysterious burka-wearing Siara Hashi (Desirée Rogers), a refugee from Somalia.

Margaret Mary has come to the mother’s home (before learning on arrival of the death) to confront her with the truth about her abusive parenting. Her sister Bridgett (Maura Halloran) has arrived in response to a call from Siara. Both sisters are clearly damaged. Margaret Mary is a walking fist of anger and hostility; Bridgett is a timid wisp of a woman, in terror of her abusive husband. They are clearly survivors of a horrendous upbringing.

The secretive Siara has her own survivor story. She barely escaped with her young husband from war-torn Somalia, only to have him shot to death in America by a crazed citizen who thought the vegetable he carried was a bomb.

A third sister, Kathleen (Danielle Thys), turns out to be working for the Department of Defense, placing Somalian refugees in jobs in America. That’s how Siara wound up working for minimum wage as a home health aide.

These various themes of abuse, escape and recovery weave together as the sisters and the refugee explore their various histories. The absent mother is represented by three pathetic looking dresses that hang by the fireplace, as the sisters argue about which one is to dress the corpse. Later, she is represented by a statue of the Virgin Mary that bears a striking resemblance to the young Siara in her burka. Motherhood — the two Mary’s (abusive old Mary Mahoney and the Holy Virgin), Siara’s invalid mother, and,  perhaps, America as abusive mother — comes in for some rough treatment.

This story of abuse and its consequences, foreign and domestic, is told in wickedly funny language. At one point, one daughter describes having been put to bed in a straight jacket every night for three years. The other daughter insists this was necessary to keep her from scratching herself bloody from eczema. “Yes,” comes the reply, “but did Mother have to sew it herself?” It is all very absurd, and Milton knows how to play it for laughs without sacrificing the serious implications.

Although difficult to summarize, ‘Enemies: Foreign and Domestic’ will keep you laughing, thinking, and completely engaged for its 90-minute running time. For its author, the prolific Patricia Milton, it marks a leap forward into the big leagues. Highly recommended.

For further information click here.

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“Enemies: Foreign and Domestic”, a world premire by Patricia Milton. Produced by Central Works Theater Company. Director: Gary Graves. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. Lights: Gary Graves. Sound: Gregory Scharpen. Properties: Debbie Shelley.

Bridgett O’Malley: Maura Halloran. Siara Hashi: Desirée Rogers. Margaret Mary Maloney:  Jan Zvaifler. Kathleen-Mahoney-Finch: Danielle Thys.

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Review: ‘How the World Began’ at Custom Made (****1/2)

February 19, 2015 Leave a comment

by Barry David Horwitz
(Rating: ****1/2)

Mary McGloin as Susan and Tim Garcia as Micah in "How the World Began" at Custom Made Theatre.

Mary McGloin as Susan and Tim Garcia as Micah in “How the World Began” at Custom Made Theatre.

(“How the World Began” plays at the Gough Street Playhouse through March 8, 2015).

Custom Made Theater, after 16 years of life, the last six at the charming Gough Street Playhouse, in the beautiful church there, is presenting the Bay Area premiere of “How the World Began” by Catherine Trieschmann, a highly awarded younger American playwright. Ms. Trieschmann, from Athens, Georgia, now lives in Hays, Kansas — a town much like the setting of her play. We really feel at home in the little school room freshly occupied by Susan, a newly arrived, and pregnant, high school Biology teacher from New York, clearly fleeing her past.

Susan (Mary McGloin) takes charge of her new job masterfully, ready to bring enlightenment and good deeds to the remote Kansas landscape, which we can see out the one big window facing the barren prairie. Susan gives us lots to laugh at, too, as she tries to deal with the cow stench coming through her window. McGloin gives us a powerful and fascinating multi-faceted Susan, strong, sensitive, and surprising at every moment. We cannot take our eyes off her, as she unwraps her own tangled motivations, while trying to make herself at home in the recently and horribly tornado-ravaged little town of Plainview. McGloin takes us with her every step of the way, brilliantly embodying a young woman who has taken her solitary pregnancy to the plains and is also trying to be helpful to the afflicted town. She has the teacher’s idealism and the scientist’s material knowledge to keep her going. But she is walking into a hornet’s nest. We could watch her wrestle with demons all night and never tire because McGloin embodies a Susan we want to know better, at each step. Her worried smile and long red hair alone could steal the show.

But no, we have two more big talents on board. First, Tim Garcia shows up, as Micah, one of Susan’s Biology students. Garcia’s Micah is charming as he nervously ruminates, twitches, wriggles, and worries. We wonder about his history and his struggles. We feel for the slight and driven boy with floppy dark hair and serious questions. He is trying to be “nice,” in a very Midwestern way, but something is bothering him, and Garcia makes us feel his passions. Susan has used a word which upset his Christian faith in class, and he cannot let it go.

He has recently lost family in the tornado. Uprooted, he is isolated and alienated, even living with a friend’s family. He, too, is fascinating to watch and listen to, as we try to understand. There’s tremendous power in Mr. Garcia’s performance and in Micah’s honesty, which puts him in direct conflict with the science that Susan is professing. Their dance of Bio versus Bible goes back to the Darwin debates, but playwright Treishmann is more interested in how hard they try to understand each other, and how they circle around accepting or rejecting each other’s good intentions. Together they are explosive, insightful, and frank, constantly upping the odds with forthrightness and intensity. McGloin and Garcia do superb justice and bring great passion to the tornado coming between them.

They could be mother and son, they could be Mary and Jesus, they could be Darrow & Bryan. Trieschmann and director Leah Abrams keep us guessing every step of the way. You will not be able to turn away from their elegant and eloquent dance of enlightenment and confusion. Director Leah Abrams gives them natural movements and natural rhythms that make the excitingly acted 80 minute drama fly by.

(from l to r) Mary McGloin, Tim Garcia, and Malcolm Rodgers.

(from l to r) Mary McGloin, Malcolm Rodgers, and Tim Garcia.

Into the garden of knowledge glides one more superbly talented actor, to complete a threesome: Malcolm Rodger plays Gene, complete with Kansan twang and truck driver’s baseball cap. He tries to make peace between the pregnant teacher from New York and Micah, his son’s friend. Gene has taken Micah into his home and is “looking out” for him. What goes on amongst these actors is music and magic to experience. The stakes slowly rise, and reasonable, rational surprises give us more and more understanding of what’s at stake here for each person.

They are each trying to be human, charitable, spiritual, and true to their beliefs. The play creates a beautiful and stirring pattern—that skeptics and believers and everyone else will enjoy. It doesn’t solve the problems, but makes them more human, and more humbling, and more haunting at each unexpected step. Don’t miss this tour-de-force.

For further information click here.

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“How the World Began” by Catherine Trieschmann. Produced by Custom Made Theatre Company. Director: Leah S. Abrams. Scenic Design: Erik LaDue. Lighting Design: Colin Johnson. Costumes: Brooke Jennings. Sound/Music: Liz Ryder. Technical Director: Stewart Lyle. Fight Choreographer: Jon Bailey. 

Susan: Mary McGloin. Micah: Tim Garcia. Gene: Malcolm Rodgers. 

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Review: Mike Bartlett’s ‘Cock’ presented by Do It Live at the Firehouse Arts Collective in Berkeley (*****)

February 13, 2015 Leave a comment

(Barry David Horwitz)

(Rating: *****)

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 12.19.44 AM

(“Cock” runs through March 22, 2015 at the Firehouse Collective in Berkeley.)

You can find lots of reasons to attend Do It Live’s current showing of Mike Bartlett’s play, “Cock.” First of all, Bartlett won the Olivier New Play Award for 2009, for the Royal Court Theater premiere in London. Secondly, it’s the second time within a year that “Cock” has been produced in the Bay Area. Third, this young Do It Live group, formerly performing in the City, under the lively direction of Will Hand, is bringing us European plays of note with vigor, charm, and wit. And a nice dollop of sensuality, too.

If you have not yet discovered Do It Live, now is the time: Get thee to see “Cock” this weekend, Friday or Saturday for V-Day, or soon after — maybe more than once — it’s worth it. The storefront theater at Adeline, where it meets King, just south of the Ashby BART Station, is hard to recognize as a theater —there’s a grocery store on the corner — but worth the search — don’t give up. Settle in on chairs or cushions, and enjoy a production as good as anything you are likely to see Off Broadway in New York.

The play opens, bare stage, bare room, bare emotions, with rapid fire debate between John (Andrew Akraboff) and his boyfriend M (Carlos Mendoza). They are arguing about a misunderstanding, parrying swiftly and aggressively; with John, a tall blond boy, clearly playing the submissive role, to his partner, M’s more dominant and assertive, dark and bearded presence. But John tries to assert himself, as the younger and more “sensitive” and developing partner, through the first scenes of the play. They argue back and forth, swiftly rehearsing the stages of their several years together. We are not sure which to side with, the brief scenes start and stop abruptly and shockingly, demanding complete attention and concentration on the sharp dialogue in a no-holds barred developing crisis between them. It feels like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at times — but pared down, quintessential, and even more alarming for the miscommunication and familiar projection and misunderstanding they display so openly.

John, an appealing and confused young guy, claims he needs to escape the influence and dominance of M, which must stand for Man. He makes a convincing argument and we are drawn to his victimhood and his charm. He tries to charm his way back into M’s good graces with a Teddy Bear, which M dismisses as kitsch and John insists should be endearing.

Whom to believe here? They are both trading in the totems of love, neither entirely convincing.

As the play progresses, we also get scenes where M seems to be more forgiving, wiser, more forbearing than his protégé. Maybe John is manipulating or maybe he’s making a healthy revolt against his overbearing partner? Fascinating and hard to say — the scenes fly by with intimate sexual debate and desire filling the charged stage. Bartlett comments on our symbols of love, our attempts to seduce and deceive. It’s pure drama, no frills — dashing from one side of the room to the other, in a tennis match of wits, bodies, and unexpressed emotions. We can read into their every interruption and interrogation — they split, they return, they recriminate — with an economy of word and gesture nearly astounding.

“Cock” is more riveting than any soap opera.

Later, Bartlet introduces a young woman into the mix.  Serra Neiman plays her (the character is only called “F”) as a modern woman with credibility and gusto, smart, sophisticated, attractive. She and the young John seduce each other.

We are hooked by all these complications — Will Hand even introduces a volatile and briefly naked sex scene between John and F — see the details for yourself — and it works to shock and enliven what’s at stake here — honesty, sensuality, intimacy. Which couple has it, which does not? Can both be true?

Additional surprises in the second act lead to a grand climax without set, without props, but a slash of alarming contact amongst the actors, leading to a smashing and unexpected ending. It’s pure drama, no trimming, no wasted words or transitions. It’s bracing.

Bartlett’s terse, witty dialogue suggests a poetry of emotions, a code of love that is waiting to be broken. He argues for love between people, regardless of social codes and demands.

“Cock” is a black comedy for the ages. Bravos to playwright Bartlett, Director Hand, and Do It Live Productions.

For further information click here.

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“Cock” by Mike Bartlett, presented by Do It Live Productions. Director: Will Hand. Production Manager: Maggie Manzano.

M: Carlos Mendoza. W: Serra Naiman. F: Johnny Mercer. John: Andrew Akraboff.

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Review: Regional Premeire of Julie Hébert’s ‘Tree’ at SF Playhouse (****1/2)

February 6, 2015 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****1/2)

(l to r) Susie Damilano as Didi Marcantel, Cathleen Riddley as Mrs. Jessalyn Price, and Carl Lumbly as Leo Price in SF Playhouse's regional premiere of Julie Hebert's "Tree".

(l to r) Susie Damilano as Didi Marcantel, Cathleen Riddley as Mrs. Jessalyn Price, and Carl Lumbly as Leo Price in SF Playhouse’s regional premiere of Julie Hebert’s “Tree”.

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)

(“Tree” plays at the SF Playhouse through March 7th, 2015.)

Julie Hébert’s “Tree” was a 2010 recipient of a PEN Award for Drama, and is presently receiving its regional premiere at the SF Playhouse. It is easy to see why. Hébert is a writer of exceptional polish who has succeeded across the board on Broadway, television and film. Her expertise is evident in every detail of “Tree”.

“Tree” falls within the much-mined genre of the American family drama, and it is a great credit to Ms. Hébert that she manages to make this material new and fresh, creating a play that is richly personal in its depiction of family, yet firmly routed in complex social realities of race, region and economics. Her work reflects a nuanced sensitivity for what has come before in American drama, effectively incorporating influences of some of our finest dramatists on the American family, such as Eugene O’Neil, Samuel Shephard and (especially) Tennessee Williams.

Williams’ influence is evident in the use of images and ideas that might be described as “southern gothic”: there are deeply buried family mysteries, deaths, a home cluttered with boxes filled with secret papers and memoranda — literally, the baggage of a lifetime — and even a madwoman in the attic.

The madwoman is the very impressive Black family matriarch Mrs. Jessalyn Price, a retired middle school teacher suffering from dementia (wonderfully played by Cathleen Riddley) who is cared for by her son Leo, a soft-spoken, talented man (Carl Lumbly), the divorced father of teenager J. J. (Tristan Cunningham) who pays daily visits to care for her Grandma while Leo is working as a chef in an upscale restaurant.

The action of the play is initiated by an unannounced visit from a white woman from the deep rural south, Didi Marcantel (Susi Damilano). Didi claims to be a journalist writing a story about the experiences of Black families who left small towns in the South for the big city of Chicago, but it is soon revealed that she has a quite different agenda. She and Leo share the same father, a southern white man, who recently passed away. Didi and her father were estranged, and she seeks to know him better by bonding with her half brother. Leo wants none of it.

The rest of the play involves the developing relationship between these interesting characters, as family secrets and intimacies are uncovered and ultimately embraced. The story unfolds with many unexpected surprises, satisfying character growth, and moving emotional content.

“Tree” is a very good play, but not a great play. Its skillful use of metaphor (the madwoman in the attic, the baggage in the boxes) is more slick than profound and the result is excellent work that falls short of being superior. This has not prevented Director Jon Tracy and his team from creating a top notch production. The set (Nina Ball), costumes (Abra Berman), and lighting (Michael Oesch) are perfectly matched to the content, supportive but not intrusive. The actor’s performances are top notch.

As Mrs. Jessalyn Price, Cathleen Riddley captures the tragedy of dementia but manages to communicate the fullness of character that preceeded it. Her moments of lucidity are convincing and effective. Carl Lumbly, as Leo, is particularly outstanding (as he usually is). In Leo, he has created a character who is soft spoken and easy going, yet full of compexities which he keeps well hidden. Mr. Lumbly does a very impressive job of suggesting great depth and sensitivity in a character who is extremely buttoned down. Susi Damilano as Didi brings depth to a recognizable southern “type”; her accent and mannerisms capture the regionalisms to perfection and root her character deeply in geography and history. Kudos to Ms. Damilano and her dialect coach, Lynne Soffer, for some very impressive work. As granddaughter J. J., Tristan Cunningham has less to do than others in the ensemble, but carries it off with intelligence and grace.

“Tree” touches both heart and mind. It is quite lovely.

For further information click here.

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“Tree” by Julie Hébert, produced by San Francisco Playhouse. Director: Jon Tracy. Set Design: Nina Ball. Costume Design: Abra Berman. Sound Design: Theodore J. H. Hulsker. Lighting Design: Michael Oesch.

J. J. Price: Tristan Cunningham. Didi Marcantel: Susi Damilano. Leo Price: Carl Lumbly. Mrs. Jessalyn Price: Cathleen Riddley. 

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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.

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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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