Review: ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’ at California Shakespeare Theater (***1/2)

August 21, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger
Rating: ***1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent in

Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent in “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

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

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

For his final directing project at California Shakespeare Festival (before he begins his new position at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), Jonathan Moscone has chosen to dive into the Theatre of the Ridiculous. Ronald Tavel, an early practioner and founder of “The Ridiculous Theatre Company” famously described the genre thusly: “We have passed beyond the absurd; our position is absolutely preposterous.”

The term “preposterous” barely does justice to Charles Ludlam’s bizarre and hysterical comedy, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” which sends up vampire movies, wolfman movies, gothic romances, realism, absurdism, and any other “ism” you can think of.

Liam Vincent and Danny Scheie square off in

Liam Vincent and Danny Scheie square off in “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”

On an overblown lush and realistic set (if you lived in a horror movie, that is), with over-the-top operatic costumes, under dramatic lighting that would be well suited for a wax museum, Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent have a blast using 30+ gender bending costume changes between them, including mummies, ghosts, werewolves, and vampires. With a range of voices and accents which resemble nothing in the real world, they cavort through this caper like refugees from a circus conceived by a collaboration between Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Rue Paul, and Milton Berle, with some help from Mel Brooks and Carol Burnett.

Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent...Again...

Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent…Again…

These two distinguished Shakespeareans are not shy about letting it all hang out, and the results are laugh provoking, to say the least. Jonthan Moscone has directed them with a sure hand, polishing each moment with care.

If anything, the performance on opening night was almost too perfect. This kind of ridiculousness requires a kind of knowing smirk by the actors, a loose, improvisational quality where anything might happen, that was not quite in evidence. One of the funniest moments occurred when a wig nearly fell off a head, but this kind of much needed casual flaw was mostly avoided. One hopes (and expects) that as the run progresses, the actors will relax more, and the show will be even funnier.

In any case, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is a fine parting shot for Mr. Moscone, who demonstrates, as if we had any doubt, that he will be missed.

It’s great fun!

“The Mystery of Irma Vep” plays at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda through September 6, 2015. For further information, click here.

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“The Mystery of Irma Vep” by Charles Ludlam, produced by CalShakes. Director: Jonathan Moscone. Assistant Director: Thomas Chapman. Scenic Designer: Douglas Schmidt. Costume Designer: Katherine Roth. Lighting Designer: Cliff Caruthers. Text/Dialect Coach: Domenique Lozano. Fight Director: Dave Maier.

Cast

Jane Twisden: Liam Vincent. Nicodems Underwood: Danny Scheie. Lady Enid Hillcrest: Danny Scheie. Lord Edgar Hillcrest: Liam Vincent. Alcazar: Danny Scheie. Ensemble: Liam Vincent and Danny Scheie.

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Review: ‘The Brothers Size’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney presented by Ubuntu Theater Project in Albany (****)

August 19, 2015 Leave a comment

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

borhters

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

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

Forty of us, sitting in folding chairs, in the warm Sunday evening outdoors, in the back yard of Dana Meyers Auto Care on San Pablo Avenue in Albany, are ready for an on-site performance. The broken-down cars in the open garage space are ready and waiting. The black auto tires are piled against the fence, and auto parts and tools decorate the cement working yard in front of us. No pretense here — just warning signs, advertisements, auto tools, and an old car seat tell us the set is the play is the thing: it’s the mechanicals’ drama we are about to see.

Suddenly, three dudes march down the aisle, full of rap, dance moves, beat box beats. Their musical intro through contemporary rap and hip-hop dance gives us a poetic and spiritual edge that colors the entire 70 minute performance. We begin to figure out the three dudes: Ogun Size (Deleon Dallas), is an imposing guy who owns and runs the auto shop. Ogun is serious, thoughtful, and hard-working; he has tried to look out for his wayward baby brother, all their lives. Oshoosi Size (Terrance White) comes fresh out of jail, sleeps in the shop instead of working, and looks around for cars and gals — he’s up for some fun, not much for work along side Ogun.

Then Oshoosi’s old buddy, a former prison-mate, Elegba (William H.P.), who bubbles over with enthusiasm, music, play, and trouble. We have to keep our eye on him because he brings out the danger and trouble that Ogun fears for his wandering brother.

These three powerful and distinct guys bring forth classic themes, African myth, and spiritual-political challenges to the brothers and rivals, surrounded by cars, machines, and U.S. limitations. Even the black cop on the beat waits for them to slip up, just a little. He harasses and harangues them, incessantly — representing power and protecting white privilege. MacArthur Grant award-winning playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays” opened in 2007, at the New York Public Theater, has combined ritual and music and family strife and epic struggles to forge a deceptively simple play. “The Brother Size,” the second play from his trilogy, has already been performed many times, from New York to L.A. to San Francisco. Here, McCraney combines Greek and African and U.S. rituals which subtly grow and mingle in front of us — like a dance or shards of epic poetry.

William H.P.’s serpent-like, seductive, and sensual Elegba represents all the appeal and the addiction to trouble that make up the school to prison pipeline, which was recently presented by Anna Deveare Smith in her one-woman show on U.S. education at Berkeley Rep. H.P. embodies the challenges facing a black man in the U.S., pointed up by the fact that he works in a funeral home. H.P.’s portrayal of the allure of the criminal life makes a poignant and perplexing picture—well worth a trip to Albany.

Each of the actors embodies tragic and touching choices and challenges: Ogun tries the straight path and is challenged by his imaginative and adventurous brother, who was entranced by a photo book of Madagascar while in prison. The great natural and African world calls to him, and he reaches for it, child-like — sleeping with a teddy bear on an old car seat and still believing in Santa Claus. There’s a lot of tenderness and a lot of lyrical narrative in the play, punctuated by familiar tunes.

Director Keith Wallace manages to take the small, realistic canvas and make large and moving strokes. Big epic movements, stirring poetic passages, and Homeric themes and music make up the weave of thia direct and emotional play. Finally, we realize that the Brothers Size are US, and their confict is ours, and transformative. Their challenges are in the news, everyday, and we need to take heed. Their music is on all our lips and in our eyes. We must listen, carefully. The language is beautiful and mingles street-lingo with eloquent lyrics, popular songs with heartfelt love and the tenderness of brothers. Go and listen to “The Brothers Size” and find out for yourself — fine theater deserves a listen, especially in the fresh air of an auto shop’s cement back yard. It’s almost like being in ancient Greece —or Africa.

Watch for Ubuntu Theater Project’s next piece, “Waiting for Lefty” by Clifford Odets — played at vintage car dealer Classic Cars West, on 26th St., in Oakland, beginning Sept. 3rd. Managing Director Colin Blatell says, “The Ubuntu Theater Project is committed to shaking up the status quo in theater.” And they sure do that in Dana Meyers back lot.

The Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of “The Brothers Size” plays in the back yard of Dana Meyers Auto Care through August 22. For further information, click here.

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“The Brothers Size” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, produced by Ubuntu Theater Project. Director: Keith Wallace. Ass’t. Director/Vocal Coach: Candace Thomas. Set Designer: Mary Hill. Lighting Designer: Stephanie Anne Johnson. Sound Designer: Steven Leffue.

Cast: 

Ogun Size: Deleon Dallas. Oshoosi Size: Terrance White. Elegba: William H.P.

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Review: August Wilson’s ‘Two Trains Running’ presented by Multi Ethnic Theatre at Gough Street Playhouse (**)

August 19, 2015 Leave a comment

by Victor Cordell
Rating: **
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

two trains

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

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

August Wilson’s magnum opus, the Pittsburgh Cycle, is comprised of ten plays, each exploring the social history of Black Americans in a different decade of the twentieth century.   “Two Trains Running” is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, PA, in 1969. At that time, great strides were being made in voting rights, civil rights, and women’s rights, but progress was uneven and incomplete, and advancement created its own forms of discrimination. The play has much to offer, but it is dogged by a pedestrian pace, an overly ambitious sweep, and some problematic characterizations. Multi Ethnic Theater’s valiant effort lacks sufficient spark to bring out the best in Wilson’s work.

Memphis’s Diner is the setting of the play, but it has been designated for demolition by eminent domain as part of an urban renewal project. The diner’s habitues are older black men, whose discourse is aimless and fatalistic, symbolized by their obsession with gambling the numbers. As played by Bennie Lewis, Memphis is the only character determined to take control of his fate. Lewis’s eyes are fiery, his look fierce, and his voice gruff, whether avowing that he will force the city to give him his price for the diner or barking orders at Risa, the cook/waitress. Though the portrayal works much of the time, it would benefit from variation in tone.

Two other focal characters are Wolf, played by Fabian Herd, and Holloway, played by Stuart Elwyn Hall. Herd is visually striking as the self-interested numbers runner who dresses like a preening pimp and fancies himself a great ladies man. Hall also looks his part as the eminence gris — unaspiring, but a thoughtful analyst and philosopher.

Sterling, played by Keita Jones, arrives as a strangely naive young man just out of prison. However, the depiction reflects neither a bitterness nor a steely resolve that would amplify Sterling’s personality. Through Sterling, the clash between generations in the black community is revealed. He tries to gin up support for a political rally honoring Malcolm X, but the diner denizens are unenthused. Their train has left the station.

And of course, by 1969, a fissure in the civil rights movement had appeared between those who held to Dr. King’s dream and those who argued that progress would not occur without violence. Other divides explored by the playwright are the white/black divide, with different standards and opportunities for the races, and the gender divide, with the female Risa being demeaned by Memphis and objectified by Sterling.

This play runs a long three hours, including a brief intermission. This excessive length is one of several flaws in Wilson’s script that undercut the production. For example, a subplot about Hambone, a gentle, but mentally-challenged soul, deals with abuse from within the black community, and could have beeen excised without loss of message. At the same time, some political issues are not well explicated. Some characters like Memphis and Wolf are well developed, yet Sterling’s contradictory actions render him incohesive rather than complex.

Director Lewis Campbell ably designed the set representing a poor ghetto diner  — partly worn out and partly roughed out. Two booths on either side of the thrust stage abut the front row seats, so that the Gough Street Playhouse becomes even more intimate than usual.  Campbell also uses other stage locations effectively for the public phone and the kitchen.

Campbell’s direction isn’t as incisive as his set design. Actors are often allowed to speak at normal conversational volume, resulting in mumbled diction and a lack of energy on stage in a play that demands emotive acting to keep the audience fully engaged. Better guidance to actors would help them more effectively define their characters. Finally, it is disconcerting to hear stage directions voiced to introduce each scene, as if it were a rehearsal rather than opening night.

“Two Trains Running” plays at Gough Street Playhouse in San Francisco, through August 30. For further information click here.

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“Two Trains Running” by August Wilson, produced by Multi Ethnic Theater. Director: Lewis Campbell. Scenic Design: Lewis Campbell. Music Selection: Stuart Hall and Charles Johnson.

Cast:

Memphis: Bennie Lewis. West: Vernon Medaris. Wolf: Fabian Herd. Risa: Beverly McGriff. Holloway: Stuart Elwyn Hall. Hambone: Anthony Pride. Sterling: Keita Jones.

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Review: ‘Don Quixote’ at Marin Shakespeare Company (***1/2)

August 12, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger
Rating: ***1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

 

Don Quixote (Ron Campbell) and Sancho Panza ( ) share a quiet moment in the midst of their misadventures. Photo Credit: Lorii A. Cheung.

Don Quixote (Ron Campbell) and Sancho Panza (John R. Lewis) share a quiet moment in the midst of their misadventures. Photo Credit: Lorii A. Cheung.

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

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

Don Quixote de la Mancha is one of a very small group of fictional characters instantly recognizable to almost anybody. Who hasn’t heard of the mad old man who went crazy over his romantic books and imagined himself a knight errant, setting out on a series of misadventures with his loyal neighbor and squire, Sancho Panza, tilting windmills and generally playing the fool? Quixote’s fame was nearly instantaneous from the time of the novel’s publication during the Golden Age of Spanish Literature, in the early years of the 17th century.

Beloved  and admired as it is, Don Quixote has always represented a paradox: is it farce or tragedy? clownish nonsense or a deep meditation on the existential condition of humanity? Of course, the concensus of generations of enthusiastic readers over four centuries is that it is both. Don Quixote is a ridiculously foolish clown, but he is OUR clown, he is US, as we strive for dignity in the face of a seemingly farcical world. He is the greatest comic invention in the entirety of the world’s literature.

To translate this huge sprawling novel to the stage is an impossible dream. At best, a stage translation can only hint at the full glory of the story. Choices must be made. Emphases must be considered. The result must be imperfect. It is, in a word, a quixotic undertaking.

Playwrights Peter Anderson and Colin Heath, and their company of skillful comedians, have taken Don Quixote as an occasion for some delightful masked theatre, traditional clowning, polished slapstick, inspired silliness, and only a hint of gravitas. Many favorite episodes are here, including, of course, the famous encounter with the windmills and the frightening engagement with the Knight of the Mirrors, who forces the Don to see himself as he truly is. There is also the scene with the innkeeper who dubs Quixote “the Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” and the romance with Dulcinea.

The stories are told by masked players using clever props and tumbling about a well-designed multi-level set (by Jackson Currier). Ron Campbell as Quixote is fantastically funny as he creates the illusion of his nag Rocinante using a broomstick and a watering can. His pop-eyed demeanor and flamboyant poses are everthing one would wish. As his foil, Sancho Panza, John R. Lewis displays a mastery of low comedy, delivering the funniest series of fart jokes since the bean-eating scene in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.” A particularly exciting and telling sequence is performed by the entire ensemble at the start of the play, as they juggle the books that drive the good Don mad, flinging them about the stage as Quixote grabs them from the air to devour. It is a wonderful set piece. The humor of this Don Quxote is as broad as a barn. An encounter with sheep devolves into a pillow fight, with sheep (pillows) being flung into the audience, to be, not unsurprisingly, flung back at the actors, who often leave the stage to barnstorm through the theatre, engaging audience members all the while. It’s great fun.

The deeper themes of the story receive little emphasis, but they are not disregarded, and thoughtful reflections on the nature of fantasy vs reality, good vs evil, hope vs despair, are not absent. This is Cervantes light, but Cervantes it is.

“Don Quixote” plays at the Forest Meadow Amphitheatre at Dominican University in San Rafael through August 30. For further information click here.

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“Don Quixote” by Peter Anderson and Colin Heath, adapted from the novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Produced by Marin Shakespeare Company. Director: Lesley Schisgall Currier. Costume Design: Maria Chenut. Fight Director: Richard Pallaziol. Lighting Design: Ellen Brooks. Mask Design: David Poznanter. Properties and Set Decor: Joel Eis. Set Design: Jackson Currier. Sound Design and Composer: Billie Cox. 

Cast: 

Don Quixote: Ron Campbell. Sancho Panza: John R. Lewis. Ensemble: Cassidy Brown, Rick Eldridge, Lee Fitzpatrick, Monica Ho, Jed Parsario.

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Review: World Premiere of ‘Demetrius Unbound (or the Homeric Midlife Crisis)’ by Bare Flag Theatre Company (**1/2)

August 7, 2015 Leave a comment

by Victor Cordell

Rating: **1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

demetrius01

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

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

To contextualize Soren Oliver’s “Demetrius Unbound (or the Homeric Midlife Crisis),” those familiar with Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” need only remember the title character as one of the four lovers subjected to Puck’s pixie dust. Demetrius was tricked into marrying Helena, rather than Hermia, who had been promised by her father.

The  story picks up twenty years later in ancient Athens, when we learn that as chicken supplier to King Theseus, Demetrius is “Lord of the Fowl,” a designation that becomes fodder for several plays on words. Trapped in a comfortable  but loveless marriage, he learns how he was tricked and uses that revelation to divorce Helena and pursue Hermia, a quest that leads to complications.

The script has many humorous moments, some more farcical than witty, others vice versa. Which parts work best may depend on the viewer’s preference. A classic door-slamming sequence is well choreographed, but the set undermines the comedic impact as actors blast through one flimsy door and three curtains.

The production is marred by unevenness and lack of focus, although the story line remains clear.  Much of Act 1 deals with Demetrius’ apparent struggle with a succubus.  The remainder of the play explores the impact upon the characters of previously made decisions and the resulting rearrangement of their relationships, producing some unexpected and humorous consequences.

Many audience members will enjoy the clever Greek and Shakespearian references, but there is also an interesting overlay of modern attitudes and values to which we Californians can relate. Along the way, humorous anachronisms are introduced concerning health care coverage, computational technology, abusive banking, and the hard-for-the-playwright-to-resist, Nike footwear, swoosh and all. The inclusion of modern day feminism, transgenderism, and immigrant labor give some spine and purpose to the humor. However, the Motown music that plays during the scene changes is one modern element whose pupose escapes me, though I did find myself humming along to the tunes.

“Demetrius Unbound” is the inaugural production of Bare Flag Theatre, for which the company has attracted a capable professional cast, most of whom have dual roles. Each actor rises to the occasion, although some interactions could be crisper. Stacy Ross plays Helena with her usual brightness and sense of clarity. In the grittier roles of Hermia and Pythia, Delia MacDougal also shines. Gendell Hing-Hernandez’s Puck is a frenetic whirlwind of action.

The surprise performance comes from the playwright, Soren Oliver, himself, as Demetrius. Stepping into the lead role after the cmpany lost its lead actor only a week before opening, Oliver acquits himself well.  The other actors — Robert Sicular, Dodds Delzell, Jordan Winer, and Molly Benson — all performed nicely.

As with many world premiers, this work may not have its final polish, but it is thoughtful, produces many laughs, and will likely improve over the run.

“Demetrius Unbound (or the Homeric Midlife Crisis)” plays at Live Oak Theater, Berkeley, through August 22. For further information click here.

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“Demetrius Unbound (or the Homeric Midlife Crisis)” by Soren Oliver. Director: Cliff Mayotte. Scenic Design: Martin Flynn. Lighting Design: Kate Boyd. Sound Design: Chris Houston. Costume Design: Maggi Yule. Fight Choreography: Andrea Weber.

Cast:

Demetrius: Soren Oliver. Helena: Stacy Ross. Hermia/Pythia: Delia MacDougall. Snug/Melpomene: Dodds Delzell. Puck/Theseus: Gendell Hing-Hernandez. Head Priest/Philostrate: Robert Sicular. Naxos: Molly Benson. Augur/Oikonomia/Poseidon: Jordan Winer.

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Review: ‘Dance of the Holy Ghosts — A Play on Memory’ by Marcus Gardley (***)

July 26, 2015 Leave a comment

by Victor Cordell
Rating: ***
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

dance

Thanks for the Memory

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

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

Oakland-reared playwright Marcus Gardley has impressed the Bay Area theatre community with his well-received “And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi” and “Head of Passes.” Currently, Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project offers a revival of his first produced play, “Dance of the Holy Ghosts – a Play on Memory.” Appropriately, the play is being performed at Oakland City Church.

The central character is Oscar Clifton, a live-alone, self-indulgent, 72 year old. While laid-back, Oscar is a man of passions — a guitarist by trade, a skirt chaser by nature, and a chess player by pastime. His life’s moments are recorded in a book of memories, which acts as a reference source for a time-layered reflection of significant periods of his adult family life. Oscar is deftly played by Keith Wallace, who exudes the charm, irritability, and irresponsibility of the character.

Oscar’s current nemesis is his grandson, Marcus G., and it is hard to ignore the playwright’s choice of his own name for this character. William Thomas Hodgson plays Marcus through various ages and, like Wallace, without the benefit of makeup changes. He, too, is very convincing in his portrayal, moving back and forth from the fourth grade through adulthood. His spotty relationship with his grandfather swings from domineered to demanding, and Hodgson commands the emotional tenor of each age well.

The key events in Oscar’s life center around relationship conflicts with his long estranged wife Viola and daughter Darlene, adeptly played by Candace Thomas and Megan Wells, respectively. Oscar is a recurring disappointment to the women in his life who want to rely on him and love him.

Dance of the Holy Ghosts plays at Oakland City Church through August 2. For further information, click here.

Rounding out a fine cast of principal actors is Halili Knox, listed in the program as “Woman of Wisdom.” As an apparition reading stage directions and narrative transitions, she provides an authoritative presence. The proceedings are rhythmically punctuated with original music and dance of both black American and Swahili origin, delivered by an always present lively choir that rings or fronts the stage.

Ubuntu is using site-specific locations for their current season, and the ambiance created by the church setting is suited to this work. The scope for staging and lighting is somewhat restricted, but the bare bones setting is appropriate, and the choir, informally draped around the stage, is an effective substitution for a more conventional set.

Two versions of this play have been previously produced, the original (with a three hour running time) and a 40-minute shorter revision. In consultation with the playwright, Ubuntu is performing the original. Although most all of the vignettes are engaging, not all are essential to the dramatic arc. In particular, a long episode concerning Marcus G. interacting with his fourth grade classmates is superfluous. One can hypothesize that Gardley is loath to relinquish something that he had invested effort in or that retaining this episode is a way to give a meatier role to attract an equity actor. And it is true that Hodgson stretches his acting chops with this scene, but it is a drag on the play’s momentum. Although the singing and dancing add considerable color, they provide sense rather than meaning and could also be reduced by a third without loss.

All things considered, this is the kind of work that deserves an audience, and hopefully it will attract regular theater lovers as well as underserved communities. Kudos to director Michael Socrates Moran for demonstrating that rewarding theater can come from very limited resources.

‘Dance of the Holy Ghosts’ plays at Oakland City Church through August 2. For further information, click here.

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“Dance of the Holy Ghosts – a Play on Memory” by Marcus Gardley, produced by Ubuntu Theater Project. Director: Michael Socrates Moran. Scenic Designer: Seren Moran. Props Master: Mary Hill. Lighting Designer: Stephanie Ann Johnson. Costume Consultant: Luther Michael Spratt. Choreographer: Latanya D. Tigner. Choir Director: Branice McKenzie.

Oscar: Keith Wallace. Marcus G.: William Thomas Hodgson. Woman Old as Wisdom: Halili Knox. Viola: Candace Thomas. Darlene: Megan Wells. Big Ass Willie Smalls: William Oliver III. Father Michael: William H.P. Precious Parquet: Katrina Allen. Princess Parquett: Leigh Rondon-Davis. Erma: Kimberly Daniels. Paramour: Vintre Scott. Musician: Elandis Brooks.

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Review: ‘Project Ahab; or Eye of the Whale’ at Central Works (*****)

July 22, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Izzy(Caitlyn Louchard) and Cree (Sam Jackson) join the crew of the Rainbow Warrior 2 on a mission to save the whales in Central Works’ new musical,

Izzy (Caitlyn Louchard) and Cree (Sam Jackson) join the crew of the Rainbow Warrior 2 on a mission to save the whales in Central Works’ new musical, “Project Ahab; or, Eye of the Whale.” Photo Credit: J. Norrena.

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

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

To say that “Project Ahab; or Eye of the Whale” is ambitious is an understatement. How could Gary Graves and the Central Works company possibly imagine squeezing the massiveness that is Moby Dick into the rectangular parlor that serves as both stage and house at the Berkeley City Club? It’s absurd. But a couple of years ago, this team (writer Gary Graves and Director John Patrick Moore) successfully and brilliantly staged the history of the revolutionary French Commune of 1871 (“Red Virgin“). If a revolution can fit, why not Melville’s whale of a tale? It can and, thanks to the brilliantly conceived script and staging, it does.

Well, it’s not exactly “Moby Dick” of couse.  “Project Ahab” is actually a contemporary tale about whale hunters and their whale loving adversaries, inspired and informed by Melville’s masterpiece. The spirit of Melville’s genius is fully present, but the details of the story have undergone a fascinating sea change. The story is revisioned in the tale of the “Rainbow Warrior 2,” an anti-whaling vessel, and its fictional Captain Franklin (clearly modeled after the very real Paul Franklin Watson). Gary Graves summarizes the piece as “Ahab goes after the whalers.” The summary is accurate enough, but fails to do justice to this fantastic and moving work of theatre.

It opens with a young sub sub of a lab assistant, Dr. Sponge (Clive Worsley), who humorously lectures us (like the opening passages of Moby Dick) concerning the history of whales and whale hunting, after which appears a young woman, Izzie (Melville’s Ishmael, of course), who seeks to find herself by going to sea to save the whales from aggressive hunters. In a lovely moment, she sings a sea chanty accompanied by recordings of whale song. It packs an amazing punch. Soon, at a commune, she encounters the mysterious and tattooed Cree (Queequeg), who after a night of LSD tripping and a desert sunrise, agrees to accompany Izzie on her quest to join the crew of The Rainbow Warrior on its mission to find and disrupt the cruel work of a Russian whale-hunting vessel. This will be accomplished by the  life risking tactic of placing themselves between the massive ship and the whales, while Cree, a professional photographer, documents the encounter. Clive Worsley briefly reappears as a mysterious street prophet who warns them of the mad Captain Franklin, after which they successfully join the Rainbow Warrior’s crew.

Captain Franklin (Clive Worsely) answers only to the whales, not the people. Photo Credit: J. Norrena.

Captain Franklin (Clive Worsely) answers only to the whales, not the people. Photo Credit: J. Norrena.

The subsequent story closely follows Melville’s tale. There is an earnest, idealistic first mate, Hunter (Melville’s Starbuck), the mad Captain Franklin (Melville’s Ahab, played by the impressively versatile Mr. Worsley), and the strangely moving, addled character of  Mel (Melville’s Pip). Despite Hunter’s pleas for sanity and concern for the safety of the crew, they are all caught up in Captain Franklin’s mad and dangerous pursuit of the whale hunters. The story builds, with increasing excitement, to the inevitable tryst.

‘Project Ahab’ uses traditional sea chanteys, original songs, poetry, science, superb acting and musicianship, and passionate commitment to tell the tale. This production has a soul as big as Melville’s masterpiece, and cannot fail to move. When I attended on opening night, I couldn’t help but notice my fellow audience members (we are seated across from one another) who, like me, were slack jawed in awe and awash in tears and laughter throughout the performance. At intermission, the excitement was palpable — we couldn’t wait to get back inside for more.

This is Central Works 48th world premiere, and it’s a wonder. “Project Ahab” is must see theatre! It’s work like this that keeps us coming back.

“Project Ahab; or Eye of the Whale” plays at Central Works through August 23, 2015. For further information, click here.

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“Project Ahab; or Eye of the Whale” written by Gary Graves in collaboration with the company. Directed: John Patrick Moore. Musical Direcction: Ben Euphrat. Sound and Projection Design: Gary Scharpen. Properties Design: Debbie Shelley. Costume Design: Tammy Berlin.

Cast:

Hunter: Michael Barrett Austin. Mel: Ben Euphrat. Cree: Sam Jackson. Izzy: Caitlyn Louchard. Franklin/Dr. Sponge/Elijah: Clive Worsley.

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