Review: ‘Promises, Promises’ at San Francisco Playhouse (***)

November 25, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***)

Monique Hafen as Fran Kurbelik and Jeffrey Brian Adams as Chuck Baxter in "Promises, Promises". Photo Credit:

Monique Hafen as Fran Kurbelik and Jeffrey Brian Adams as Chuck Baxter in “Promises, Promises”. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli.

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)

(“Promises, Promises” plays at San Francisco Playhouse through January 10, 2014.) 

San Francisco Playhouse has made something of a tradition of alternative Christmas plays (Tennessee Williams’ rarely-seen “Period of Adjustment” in 2011, the charming and frivolous “Bell, Book and Candle” in 2012, and “Storefront Church” from John Patrick Shanley’s church and state trilogy in 2013). In 2014, they bring us a revival of “Promises, Promises”, the Burt Bacharach/Hal David musical with a book by Neil Simon based on the academy-award winning film, “The Apartment”, co-written and directed by comic genius, Billy Wilder. With talent like that, you can bet this is going to be fun, and it is.

Admittedly, “Promises, Promises” is no classic: the score is not memorable (except for the megahit that was covered by Dionne Warwick, “What Do You Get When You Fall In Love”), and the book dated and shallow. But the polished professional craftsmanship of Bacharach, David, Simon and the SF Playhouse ensures that it works. The production is what it’s intended to be: a light hearted evening out for the holiday season, a colorful and charming christmas card from the SF Playhouse to its audience. A good time is had by all.

The story involves an unfortunate junior executive who possesses a convenient apartment that is much in demand from married senior executives to conduct illicit affairs. The junior obliges and predictably funny mayhem ensues.

Jeffrey Brian Adams is befuddled and charming as the put upon Chuck Baxter, and Monique Hafen does well as his love interest, Fran Kubelik. Even without benefit of a song, Corinne Proctor as Marge (in her first equity role) darn near steals the show as a goofy barfly in the play’s funniest scene.

Corinne Proctor as Marge in "Promises, Promises". Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli.

Corinne Proctor as Marge in “Promises, Promises”. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli.

Reliable Ray Reinhardt as an irascible old codger of a doctor demonstrates polished expertise in Neil Simon’s brand of comedy.

Ray Reinhardt as Dr. Dreyfuss in "Promises, Promises". Photo Credit: Jessica Palipoli.

Ray Reinhardt as Dr. Dreyfuss in “Promises, Promises”. Photo Credit: Jessica Palipoli.

The play’s famous hit, “What Do You Get When You Fall In Love”, isn’t sung until the finale, but delightfully lives up to its reputation.

Nothing in this brisk two hour producion will stick to the ribs, but “Applause, Applause” is a sweet holiday confection that goes down fine.

For further information, click here.

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“Promises, Promises” by Neil Simon with music and lyrics by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, based on the screenplay “The Apartment” by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond. Produced by the San Francisco Playhouse. Director: Bill English. Musical Direction: David Möschler and Kevin Roland. Choreography: Kimberly Lyrics. Set Design: Bill English. Lighting Design: Jon Restsky. Sound Design: Theodore Hulsker. Orchestration: Jonathan Tunick.

Chuck Baxter: Jeffrey Brian Adams. Vivien: Morgan Dayley. Rudy  Guerrero: Eichelberger/Bartender/Watchman. Fran Kubelik: Monique Hafen. J. D. Sheldrake: Johnny Moreno. Marge: Corinne Proctor. Dr. Dreyfuss: Ray Reinhardt. Dobitch: Stephen Shear.

The Orchestra:

Keyboard/Conductor: Kevin Roland. Piccolo, Flute, Clarinet, Alto Sax: Hal Richards. Nick Discala: Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Tenor Sax. David Campbell: Trumpet. John Doing: Drum Set, Percussion. Travis Kindred: Guitar, Electric Bass, Double Bass. 

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Review: ‘La Bohème’ at SF Opera (***1/2)

November 18, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***1/2)

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo and Alexia Voulgaridou as Mimi in Sf Opera's "La Bohème". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo and Alexia Voulgaridou as Mimi in Sf Opera’s “La Bohème”. 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)

(‘La Bohème’ plays at the War Memorial Opera House through December 7. The cast reviewed here performs on Nov. 14, 19, 22, 25 and 29 and Dec. 2 and 5. An alternate cast performs on Nov 15, 20, 23, and 30; Dec. 3 and 7.)

Puccini’s “La Bohème” is perhaps the most popular opera of all time, a so-called “war-horse” for its reliability in attracting audiences. Although some literary types have called it silly and shallow and manipulative and some musicologists have called it second rate and derivative, it keeps on keeping on like nobody’s business.

As well it should.

The bohemian household of the poet Rodolfo, the painter Marcello, the musician Schaunard and the philosopher, Colline and the story of their loves offer some of the sweetest enchantment in the history of theatre. Puccini himself lived a flambouyantly bohemian life, and his love and understanding for these characters is evident in every note. No other work of art has more charmingly captured our image of the romantic young artist. Whatever its flaws might be, to profess no love for “La Bohème” is to declare oneself to be a stick-in-the-mud philistine.

From L to R:  Hadleigh Adams as Schaunard, Christian Van Horn as Colline, Alexey Markov as Marcello, and Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo. Photo Credit: Corey Weaver.

From L to R: Hadleigh Adams as Schaunard, Christian Van Horn as Colline, Alexey Markov as Marcello, and Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo. Photo Credit: Corey Weaver.

The enchantment blooms nicely in the present production. The four young men are beautifully sung and acted by the impressive quartet of Alexey Markov (Marcello), Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo), Christian Van Horn (Colline) and Hadleigh Adams (Schaunard). Their boho comaraderie is convincing, they each create fully realized individual characters, and they are superbly cast.

In this production, the acting is as distinguished as the singing. Acting highlights include Marcello’s complex interactions with the lovely and flirtatious Musetta (an extraordinary Nadine Sierra),  and Hadleigh Adams’ elegantly eloquent physical humor as Schaunard.

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Alexia Voulgaridou as Mimi. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Alexia Voulgaridou as Mimi. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the heart of the opera, for both music and acting, is the love story between Rodolfo and Mimi. Musically, Michael Fabiano’s Rodolfo owns this production. His soaring, viscerally thrilling tenor is flawless in aria after aria with singing that seems almost inhumanly perfect in execution. And his acting is on a par with his singing. Fabiano is an operatic superstar, and nothing in his performance disappoints. As Mimi, Alexia Voulgaridou, making her SF Opera debut, matches him well as an actress, but seems to be unhappy in her vocal performance with some of her higher notes sounding breathy and tentative and an occasional uncertainty regarding tempos. These problems were most evident in Act I, and much improved by Act II. In any case, they did not diminish the emotional impact of her final aria, which succeeded — as it must — in evoking tears for Mimi’s sad denoument.

Nadine Seirra’s fiery and sexy Musetta suffered no such difficulties. Her rendition of the famous waltz aria, “Quando me’n vo“, received an abundance of enthusiastic and well deserved bravas.

musetta

John Caird’s staging is always both picturesque and realistic, whether in the garret appartment, outdoors in the Latin Quarter, or by a city gate.

The minor characters and supporting chorus do excellent work, as does the orchestra under conductor Giuseppe Finze’s assured baton. Dale Travis, as both the landlord, Benoît, and Musetta’s sugar daddy, Alcindoro, finds comic gold.

Audiences will be pleased with this version of  “La Bohème”.

For further information, click here.

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“La Bohème” by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on a novel by Henri Mürger, a co-production San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Canadian Opera Company.  Conductor: Giuseppe Finze. Director: John Caird. Production Designer: David Farley. Lighting Designer: Michael James Clark. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. 

Marcello: Alexey Markov/Brian Mulligan. Rodolfo: Michael Fabiano/Giorgio Berrugi. Colline: Christian Van Horn. Schaunard: Hadleigh Adams. Benoît: Dale Travis. Mimi: Alexia Voulgaridou/Leah Crocetto. A Prune Vendor: Colby Roberts. Parpignol: Chester Pidduck. A boy: Ethan Chen. Musetta: Nadine Sierra/Elie Dehn. Alcindoro: Dale Travis. A Custom-House Sergeant: Bojan Knežević. A Custom-House Officer: Torlef Borsting.

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Review: Rossini’s ‘La Cenerentola (Cinderella)’ at San Francisco Opera (*****)

November 17, 2014 Leave a comment

(Daryl Henline + Lola Miller-Henline)

(Rating: *****)

Karine Deshayes as Angelina (Cinderella) in "La Cenerentola". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Karine Deshayes as Angelina (Cinderella) in “La Cenerentola”. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

(“La Cenerentola (Cinderella)” plays at the War Memorial Opera House November 18, 21st and 26th, 2014).

“La Cenerentola (Cinderella)” by Gioachino Rossini, currently in production at San Francisco Opera is a wonder in every respect from the set design to the colorful voices of the singers.

The story of “La Cenerentola” is a retelling of the classic folk tale we know as Cincerella. While most Americans have come to know this story through Walt Disney’s animated masterpiece, the opera is rich in additional detail, much of which differs from more familiar tellings. For instance, Angelina, the central figure, is kept in poverty and servitude by an evil stepfather, the Duke of a decrepit palace. Instead of a fairy godmother transforming the heroine into a princess, it is a spectral figure, a blind beggar who has received her kindness, that magically intercedes for the unfortunate girl. The beggar might be an incarnation of her dead father. The Prince meets Angelina while disguised as his own valet and falls in love with her pure heart, kindness and beauty. Of course there is a ball! And a hunt for the mysterious beauty who departs suddenly, leaving the prince with a bracelet and a challenge to “find the girl who wears its companion”.

The Dinner Party from Act I of "La Cenerentola". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

The Dinner Party from Act I of “La Cenerentola”. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

The opera was first performed in 1817, a year after Rossini’s great success with “The Barber of Seville”. Although “La Cenerentola” premiered in New York City in 1826, it was not produced in San Francisco until 1969, at which time the present production was created by the famed designer and director, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. The production was duplicated in Europe and has defined the opera for the last 45 years at houses throughout the world, remaining timeless and as perfect a treatment for this story as is imaginable. The black and white hand drawn sets, completely refurbished in 1991, seem to be lifted from the pages of a storybook and provide a simple yet memorable backdrop for the colorful costumes and humor of the story. The current production is directed by Gregory Fortner and ably conducted by Jesus Lopez-Cobos, returning to the San Francisco Opera after an absence of 40 years.

This is a performance of shining musicality, splendidly cast to take full advantage of Rossini’s florid melodies.

Singing the role of La Cenerentola is French mezzo soprano, Karine Deshayes, making her San Francisco Opera debut. Her performance is engaging and lively, her voice lustrous and colorful with ease and buoyancy throughout the evening. She is well paired with tenor René Barbera as Prince Don Ramiro, also making his company debut. Barbera’s voice is free and even in its mastery of the intricate coloratura aria blooming in complete control with thrilling high notes. Carlos Chausson contributes a rich, full baritone to the role of Don Magnifico, Angelina’s manipulative stepfather. It’s clear from his command of the role that he is a master of the comedic buffo repertoire.

Efraín Solís as Dandini, Maria Valdes as Clorinda and Zanda Švēde as Tisbe. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Adler Fellows Efraín Solís as Dandini, Maria Valdes as Clorinda and Zanda Švēde as Tisbe. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Adler fellows Efraín Solís, Maria Valdes and Zanda Švēde play the roles of Dandini, the prince’s valet and Angelina’s two haughty stepsisters. Solís in particular stands out for his full, pleasing voice and engaging acting. Christian Van Horn, bass baritone, adds intrigue as Alidoro, alternately commenting on plot developments and bringing Angelina’s dream of attending the Prince’s ball to life.

The opera is very much an ensemble piece with numerous duets, trios and quartets matching the artists with one another, showcasing their vocal talents in an endless variety of Rossini’s delightful devices. An unexpected highlight of the evening was the rich sound of the men of the SF Opera chorous. They were particularly adept and well used in this production.

“La Cenerentola” is at once a worldly tale of greed and cruelty turning on their master, a reminder of the roles of women in the world of feudal Italy, and a lighthearted fairy tale that indulges our very human wish for a happy ending.

This production is highly recommended: it will take you back to childhood and show you a bedtime story all grown up.

For further information, click here.

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“La Cenerentola”, by Gioachino Rossini, libretto by Jacopo Ferretti. Conductor: Jesus Lopez-Cobos. Director: Gregory Fortner. Production Designer: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Lighting Director: Gary Marder. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson.

Angelina (Cenerentola): Karine Deshayes. Clorinda: Maria Valdes. Tisbe: Zanda Švēde. Alidoro: Christian Van Horn. Don Magnifico: Carlos Chausson. Don Ramiro: René Barbera. Dandini: Efraín Solís.

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Review: ‘Three Tall Women’ at CustomMade (***)

November 13, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***)

Michaela Greeley, Terry Bamberger and Katherine Otis in "Three Tall Women". Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

Michaela Greeley, Terry Bamberger and Katherine Otis in “Three Tall Women”. 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)

(“Three Tall Women” plays at The Gough St. Playhouse through December 7, 2014.)

Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” represents one of the greatest “comeback” stories in  the history of American Theatre. In the early 1990s, Albee’s reputation was that of a has-been, with many believing his best work was behind him.  With “Three Tall Women” he brilliantly answered any such detractors. The play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1994, and went on to win numerous Best Play awards. It is produced often by companies all over the world. Admittedly, it is not a truly classic play, like Albee’s most famous masterpiece (need I identify “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe”?) but it is certainly a major work by a major playwright.

CustomMade Playhouse and Director Katja Rivera have provided a straightforward rendition that does justice to this fine work, if not fully realizing its potential.

In typical Albee fashion, the three women of the play are identified only as “A”, “B” and “C”. “A” is elderly (over 90), “B” is in her 50’s and “C” is in her 20’s. Together, they represent one life and — as suggested by their anonymity — every life, as we all move (barring the unexpected) from youth, to mid-life to death. The details of the characters are fluid. In the first act, they are quite separate: the old woman is senile and close to death, the middle-aged woman is her hired practical nurse, the young lady is a representative from her lawyer. In the second act, they gradually merge into a single person at differing life stages. Of course, that is absurd, but then this is the work of Edward Albee, for whom realism is a lie and absurdity the truth.

The play is often quite funny (as it must be, because it speaks truth about life) but also unrelentingly sad, examining this essentially unpleasant woman under a microscope and offering little sympathy or hope. It is a grim view of life’s compromises and ultimate decay, punctuated by repetitions of the phrase “so it goes”. Audiences who saw CustomMade’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse Five” will recognize the phrase, which Vonnegut famously used repeatedly in his novel about the absurdity of war. Albee’s appropriation of the phrase effectively suggests that he views life as an absurd and meaningless battle.

This is grim stuff, but because the language is so striking, the characters so true-to-life, and the observation so acute, it is also deeply moving.

The three actresses do not make very deep explorations into this complex character, but they do give clearly delineated performances that easily hold our attention. Michaela Greeley’s performance of encroaching senility is painfully accurate and moving. Terry Bamberger captures the winsomeness and regret of middle age, as well as its hard earned wisdom. As the youngster of the three, Katharine Otis is effective as she cries, “I will not ever be like you!” But of course she will, indeed, she already is. As the woman’s estranged son, who visits at her deathbed, Nathan Brown speaks volumes although he never says a word out loud.

This production is a worthwhile rendering of a fine play.

For further information, click here.

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“Three Tall Women” by Edward Albee, produced by CustomMade Theatre Company. Director: Katja Rivera. Properties: Melissa Costa. Set: Stewart Lyle. Lights: Hamilton Guillén. Costumes: Scarlett Kellum. Sound: Liz Ryder.

A: Michaela Greeley. B: Terry Bamberger. C: Katharine Otis. The Boy: Nathan Brown.

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Review: ‘And I And Silence’ at Magic Theatre (***1/2)

November 12, 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)

(“And I And Silence” plays at the Magic Theatre in Fort Mason through November 23rd, 2014.)

Naomi Wallace has written a play that is demanding, disturbing, deceptive, delightful, depressing, and never dull. It is however, like its eccentric title (from a poem by Emily Dickinson), quite puzzling. Naomi Wallace herself was first known as a poet of some distinction before venturing into playwrighting, and the poetry tells.

The play opens in “the present”, which is the late 1950s. Dee and Jamie are in a small cell-like apartment, fighting with one another, aggressive, engaged, brimming with history. They argue, they laugh, they play rhyming games. Their language is startling, not quite realistic, emotionally true but confusing at the same time. There is little exposition. The scene is all intensity and confrontation, subtext and excitement, with hints of sexual tension and deep secrets.

The next scene sends us to the past, set in a prison cell, virtually identical in appearance to the cell-like apartment of scene one. We see Dee and Jamie meet as imprisoned teenagers. Dee has spotted Jamie in the yard, and decided that they will be friends for life. Why? It’s not entirely clear. They dance around one another, are playful, intrigued, form a rapport, begin to dream of a future. We sense some racial tension (Dee is white  —Jamie is Black — it matters — but we’re not sure how and why). There is still very little exposition.

It was at this point a friend of mine reports that he left the theatre, confused and disheartened. He is a sophisticated playgoer, but he found the opening scenes to be that confusing, that unusual, that new. (He might say “that boring”, but he’d be wrong.) He should have stayed. His effort to embrace this very different work of art would have been rewarded, in my opinion.

Young Jamie (Angel Moore) and Young Dee (Siobhan Marie Doherty). Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley.

Young Jamie (Angel Moore) and Young Dee (Siobhan Marie Doherty). Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley.

The structure of the play begins to make sense as it continues to unfold: each scene bounces between prison cell and apartment. We gradually learn that the women spent nine more years in prison after they met, and built a friendship based on dreams of living a life together after release. Jamie’s mother was a maid who taught Jamie the trade. Jamie agrees to teach Dee and this is how they plan to live. Their relationship becomes strong enough that when they are separated by prison authorities in their final year of servitude, they nevertheless come together after release.

Back and forth on the loom of their lives, the play weaves its tapestry of themes. There is race and servitude, sexuality, oppression, lesbian love and the denial of lesbian love, anger, resentment, hope and despair. We begin to sense the prison these women carry within them, the limitations societal and personal they have endured that brought them to jail and keep them in a kind of psychological and social prison that they fight fiercely to transcend with love and humor. It’s hard. Sometimes the love is violent and the humor dark. Life is a struggle.

Dee (Jessi Campbell) and Jamie (Tristan Cunningham). Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley.

Dee (Jessi Campbell) and Jamie (Tristan Cunningham). Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley.

The play is not so much a story as an exploration of character and condition. The conversations are not so much plot driven as complex emotional games and theatrical tricks the ladies play upon one another, teasing the past out of each other, trying to squirm an escape through a seemingly unescapable maze of cells within cells within cells, real and abstract, inner and outer. They are strong. They are loving. They are full of fear and passion and hope. It is never clear how it will end until it does. Happily? Unhappily? Inevitably? It’s hard to say.

This is a demanding play that is difficult to describe, difficult to watch, and difficult to understand. But if you open yourself to its poetry, it is likely to move you deeply. (All of which reminds me of Emily Dickinson, which is no accident.)

The four actresses playing Dee (Jessi Campbell), Young Dee (Siobhan Marie Doherty), Jamie (Tristan Cunningham) and Young Jamie (Angel Moore) are definitely put through their paces. The piece makes athletic demands on every level: physically, emotionally, linguistically. Each actress rises to the occasion with skill.

This is brilliant writing from a very exceptional and original voice that deserves to be heard. Certainly Producing Artistic Director Loretta Greco, who directed this production herself, must believe in it strongly.

This is the sort of courageous new work that has made the Magic’s reputation what it is today. It’s good to see a fine tradition so well honored.

For further information, click here.

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“And I And Silence” a world premiere by Naomi Wallace, presented by Magic Theatre. Director: Loretta Greco. Set Design: Daniel Ostling. Costume Design: Brandin Barón. Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge. Sound Design: Sara Huddleston.

Dee: Jessi Campbell. Jamie: Tristan Cunningham. Young Dee: Siobhan Marie Doherty. Young Jamie: Angel Moore. 

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Review: ‘Delicate Particle Logic’ a world premiere from Indra’s Net Theater (****)

November 8, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

From L to R: Terssa Byrne as Lise Meitner and Janet Keller as Edith Hahn in Indra's Net Theater's world premiere production of Jennifer Blackmer's "Delicate Particle Logic". Photo Credit: Indra's Net Theater.

From L to R: Teressa Byrne as Lise Meitner and Janet Keller as Edith Hahn in Indra’s Net Theater’s world premiere production of Jennifer Blackmer’s “Delicate Particle Logic”. Photo Credit: Indra’s Net Theater.

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)

(“Delicate Particle Logic” plays at the Osher Studio in Berkeley for a limited run of four weekends only, through November 23, 2014.)

Indra’s Net Theater declares a mission to produce plays that “deal with science, philosophy, and the ‘big questions'”. With the world premiere of Jennifer Blackmer‘s fascinating “Delicate Particle Logic”, they land a big fish.

Blackmer’s engaging, intellectual treat of a play deals with science and art, memory, truth of observation, splitting the atom, marriage and more. In the course of its presentation the audience will learn something of an artist’s process, a scientist’s process, the history of the discovery of nuclear fission, the European scientific community in the decades before, during and just after World War II, a smidgen of physics, and the politics of the Nobel Prize, all palatably presented while telling the fascinating story of German physicists Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner.

This banquet makes for a full plate. The play is quite an impressive accomplishment.

The play of ideas is a popular genre. Audiences do love to think and to feel they are learning something, and to be drawn into intriguing debates. It is, however, a difficult genre in which to succeed. I have written elsewhere about what I call “the Masterpiece Theatre Syndrome”. The syndrome is characterized by well mounted productions presenting an intriguing intellectual problem, but skimming the surface of its themes so that the scholarly and intellectual references seem more like indicators of depth than the real thing. The syndrome is the intellectual equivalent of valentines and puppy dogs, substituting powerful and evocative symbols for genuine emotion.

Jennifer Blackmer succeeds in avoiding this syndrome. She doesn’t just evoke the big ideas; her characters genuinely engage with them, struggle to understand, and educate us in the process. She accomplishes this magic by means of a wonderfully clever dramaturgic conceit: her set up for the play is to imagine an encounter between physicist Lise Meitner, the close professional colleague of Otto Hahn (together they discovered nuclear fission) and Hahn’s beloved wife of many decades, Edith, who late in life has suffered a nervous breakdown and is locked in a mental institution. Both women were Hahn’s partners in one way or another, both loved him, both felt betrayed by him. As they try to understand the difficult Otto, Edith,  the artist, looks to Lise for an understanding of Otto’s life in physics, as Lise, the scientist, looks in turn to Edith to explain her life as an artist. Both women seek to understand their shared and complicated history with a complicated man. This emotionally rich situation keeps the audience deeply involved, making it possible to keep our interest as a large amount of intellectual territory is explored.

As the women begin to discuss their lives and their pasts, other characters appear onstage to act out memories, sometimes in multiple versions of the same scene. Art and physics, love and memory, human splits and atomic splits all dance together in an elegant quadrille. At one point, director Bruce Coughran actually puts this on stage, having the actors perform an elaborate dance with one another while discussing physics at an academic conference. It works because it is not “reality” but “memory” and “memory”, like all other presumed facts, has a way of playing tricks.

In this production, the play’s the thing, making large emotional and intellectual demands on the audience with its dense text and complicated references, but all of the actors do a fine, professional job delivering the goods.

As the two women, Janet Keller and Teressa Byrne offer wide emotional range. Michael Kern Cassidy is a bit stiff as Otto Hahn, but always clear and concise in his telling of the story. As a whole series of characters, Jeff Garrett demonstrates his usual chameleon-like skills and likewise for Derek Burkowski.

The fine set and lighting design by Lili Smith and Beth Hersh, respectively, effectively evoke what a program note describes as “a room where time and space are slippery”.  Composer and Sound designer Scott Alexancer accompanies the action with an interesting and original score featuring, of all things, banjo and bassoon, which he performs to the side of the stage, in clear view of the audience.

If you work in the sciences, love the theatre, but rarely see science or scientists portrayed in performance in a meaningful or convincing way, you will love this play. For the rest of us, you may find it unusually challenging, but if you enjoy intellect in the theater, you are likely to leave quite well satisfied.

For further information, click here.

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“Delicate Particle Logic”, by Jennifer Blackmer, world premiere presented by Indra’s Net Theater. Director: Bruce Coughran. Set: Lili Smith. Lights: Beth Hersh. Original Music written and performed by Scott Alexander. 

Edith Hahn: Janet Keller. Lise Meitner: Teressa Byrne. Otto Hahn: Michael Kern Cassidy. Rubens/Haber/Coster /Strassman/Interviewer: Jeff Garrett. CVollege/Solder/Robert/SS Guard/Doctor: Darek Burkowski.

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Review: ‘In From The Cold’ at Just Theater in Berkeley (***)

November 6, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***)

Julian López-Morillas as Howard and David Sinaiko as Charlie, two over-the-hill cold warriors in Jonathan Spector's new play, "In From The Cold" presented by Just Theater. Photo Credit: Cheshire Isaacs.

Julian López-Morillas as Howard and David Sinaiko as Charlie, two over-the-hill cold warriors in Jonathan Spector’s new play, “In From The Cold” presented by Just Theater. Photo Credit: Cheshire Isaacs.

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)

(“In From The Cold” plays at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley through November 23, 2014).

Jonathan Spector’s new comedy touches on many of the familiar tropes about spies familiar to fans of John Le Carre and other serious spy novelists: loyalty versus betrayal, paranoia versus trust, east versus west, family versus country, winning versus losing, sacrifice versus self-interest. At its heart, it is a family drama set among people whose lives have been touched by history. These are serious themes.

But in execution, “In From The Cold” is more Maxwell Smart than John Le Carre’s kind of smart. And that is all to the good.

Spector has managed to write a funny, funny play about serious themes that both moves and tickles its audience. His vision has been well served by director Christine Young and an expert cast who know how to milk the laughs (and how!) without sacrificing the play’s emotional heartbeat.

Howard is a retired spy. Once high up in the Russian military, he defected to America at the height of the Cold War, in search of a better life for his wife and infant son. Now an old man, he lives in fear that he is being hunted down by vengeful remnants of the KGB. He has faked an injury to lure his son home from Japan, because he fears that spies are out to kill the boy and he alone knows the game and can offer protection. He doesn’t tell this to his son, Alex, because the boy, quite understandably, thinks the old man is bonkers.

Julian López-Morillas delights as Howard. Intelligent, quirky, unpredictable, López-Morillas keeps us guessing about Howard’s sanity right to the end. But he never loses our sympathy. We may wonder if Howard is completely off his rocker, but we like him. And he certainly makes us laugh.

(From L to R: Harold Pierce as Damian, Sarah Moser as Carrie, and Seton Brown as Alex. Photo Credit: Cheshire Isaacs)

From L to R: Harold Pierce as Damian, Sarah Moser as Carrie, and Seton Brown as Alex. Photo Credit: Cheshire Isaacs.

As son Alex, Seton Brown is a riot trying to survive as a substitute teacher at the local high school, reduced to showing 80s popular movies which he hiliariously reinterprets as deeply insightful commentary on the American scene. As a colleague, Carrie, who may or may not be a spy herself, Sarah Moser offers considerable charm.

Damian (Harold Pierce) and Howard (Julian López-Morillas) hilariously bond over vodka. Photo Credit: Cheshire Isaacs.

Damian (Harold Pierce) and Howard (Julian López-Morillas) hilariously bond over vodka. Photo Credit: Cheshire Isaacs.

As Damien, an old high school buddy of Alex’s, Harold Pierce gives a comic jewel of a performance. His drunken, goofy, ridiculous caricature of a loser working as a manager at Chili’s is the cover for a man who turns out to be unexpectedly sensitive and highly intelligent. Pierce makes us laugh while gradually revealing Alex’s surprising depth. His vodka drinking scene with the old man is a hoot.

As two other cold warrior colleagues of Howard’s (Franklin and Charlie) David Sinako provides fine comic support.

In the end, the play offers revelations not so much about politics and history as about family dynamics and the hard won rapprochment between difficult but loving fathers and hurt but caring sons.

‘In From the Cold’ will definitely heat up your funny bone, and touch your heart in the end. Nicely done.

For further information, click here.

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“In From The Cold”, a new play by Jonathan Spector, world premiere produced by Just Theater. Director: Christine  Young. Scenic Designer: Martin Flynn. Costume Designer: Christine Crook. Lighting Designer: Drew Kaufman. Composer/Sound Designer: Chris Houston.

Alex: Seton Brown. Howard: Julian López-Morillas. Carrie: Sarah Moser. Damian: Harold Pierce. Franklin/Charlie: David Sinaiko.

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