Review: ‘E-i-E-i-OY! — In Bed with the Farmer’s Daughter’ (**)

April 8, 2014 Leave a comment

(Martin A. David)

(Rating: **)

(“E-i-E-i-OY! — In Bed with the Farmer’s Daughter” plays at Theatre of Hugen’s NohSpace through May10th, 2014.)

I like solo shows. I don’t mean the kind of solo shows in which an actor portrays Mark Twain, or Emily Dickinson, or Will Rogers. I mean the generally autobiographical monologues in which adversity, history, and selected, tweaked moments of memory are turned into theatrical experiences. Shows like that are the quintessence of the storyteller’s art. 

Vivien Straus has taken a segment of her own life and turned it into a solo show. Straus presents her patchwork quilt of a tale with tenderness and vulnerability. Her story of self-discovery gives us glimpses of her life on her family’s dairy farm, her flight to the freedom of San Francisco, and the inauspicious night at a dance club when, fueled by alcohol, she picks up a Czech wanderer who manipulates a one-night stand into a multi-year live-in relationship. Straus tells us, in detail, how this happened, but she never really lets us know why she let it happen.

Bolie, the Czech, is portrayed as something between a borderline personality and a full-fledged nut case. One of the few times she lets slip a clue about her feelings for him is when she finds, at a birthday party, that her family likes him—and that she also likes him—before he has a drunken meltdown and curses them all out.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult, as an audience member, to like Bolie or to like the female character, Vivien. Sometimes pity becomes the dominant emotion, and sometimes annoyance at the woman who would let this situation continue for years. As her man-who-came-to-dinner interloper and his erratic behavior is described, the overriding feeling is one of relief that the parasite’s host didn’t end up as a dead statistic.

Vivien Straus presents her one-woman show, "E-i-E-i-OY"

Vivien Straus presents her one-woman show, “E-i-E-i-OY”, at Theatre of Hugen’s NohSpace through May 10th. Photo credit: Naomi Fiss.

Many of the work’s themes are attached externally like post-it notes. The core issue of a modern female struggling with her own liberation gets less attention than it deserves. Vivien grew up in a very restricted environment where her German Jewish father told her what to do and decided for her what was best.She was not permitted to do certain farm tasks because they might hurt her chances of giving birth to children.  When her father finally figured out Vivian had never developed the courage of her convictions so that she could stand on her own two feet and kick out the “bad” boyfriend, he blamed himself for not having given her a properly grounded Jewish education. The Jewish lesson he presented was the story of Esther, who had to risk her own life to stand up for what she believed in.

The theme that does get attention is animal husbandry. Straus makes constant comparisons of human behavior (particularly in the area of mating) with bovine behavior. The device works the first few times, but its repetition turns it into a gimmick.

Straus is a good storyteller and a more than adequate actress. However, in this piece her craft seems to have let her down. She gives the many characters in her story physical attributes and dialects, but her portraits of them are seldom three-dimensional. An ample share of the blame belongs to director Brian Glenn Bryson. The pacing of the performance is one of the things that saps its richness. The inner metronome of the evening seldom varies—even when the actress is jumping up and down on her bed. Dan Adamsky’s sound design seems cluttered, but it is difficult to tell when the person in the control booth misses so many cues. (Example: 1-Actress looks around with a worried expression and answers phone. 2-Actress starts to speak. 3-Phone rings.) The same can be said for Sophia Fong’s lighting. Several times the actress stepped into a pool of darkness and was halfway through an anecdote before the area light was brought up. 

Some of the flaws may have been a case of “opening night blues.” However, the basic story is not all that interesting and no amount of good storytelling, pacing, performance, or production values will make it so.

For further information, click here.

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“E-i-E-i-OY! — In Bed with the Farmer’s Daughter”. Written and performed by Vivien Straus. Director:  Brian Glenn Bryson. Sound Designer: Dan Adamsky. Lighting Designer: Sophia Fong. 

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Review: ‘Johnny Guitar: The Musical’ at Masquers Playhouse (**)

April 5, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: **)

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

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

(“Johnny Guitar: The Musical” plays at Masquers Playhouse through April 26, 2014.)

The Bay Area premiere of “Johnny Guitar” should have some appeal for dedicated followers of musical theatre and fans of the classic film. This adaptation of the Joan Crawford western was a 2004 hit in New York and winner of an Outer Circle Critics Award.

The film on which it is based was described by Roger Ebert as “one of the boldest and most stylized films of its time, quirky, political, twisted”. It was admired by François Truffaut. It is nothing if not bizarre. While having some of the trappings of a conventional western, it features a strong woman (Vienna) who owns her own saloon, wears a man’s clothes, packs a pistol and loves a reformed gunslinger who carries only a guitar. She is loved, in turn, by the mysterious Dancin’ Kid who may or may not be a stage coach robber and killer. The Dancin’ Kid is loved by Emma, another very masculine woman, who, enraged by jealousy, forms a posse to go after the Kid and Vienna after her brother is killed in a robbery. The plot is so unbelievable and over-the-top as to be laughable, but is played by movie stars Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge and others with an intense melodramatic conviction that is riveting. There is nothing quite like “Johnny Guitar” in the entire history of American cinema.

The musical adaptation wisely follows the original script, with most of its peculiar twists and turns, and the result is a stage play that is both entertaining and bizarre, lightweight and melodramatic at the same time.  It is easy to see how this unusual production could win acclaim in New York, despite its mediocre musical score.

A piece like this requires top notch singer actors and first rate production values to bring it to full life. The Masquers production, although it has some good moments, is not quite up to the task.

The best moments are the work of Michelle Pond as Emma. Ms. Pond has done a good job of capturing the eccentricities of Mercedes McCambridge’s film performance and knows how to balance the melodrama and comedy to good effect.

Michelle Pond as Emma sends up Mercedes McCambridge in "Johnny Guitar: The Musical" at Masquers Playhouse. Photo credit: Budinger & Scarpelli

Michelle Pond as Emma sends up Mercedes McCambridge in “Johnny Guitar: The Musical” at Masquers Playhouse. Photo credit: Budinger & Scarpelli

As Johnny Guitar, Craig Eychner is suitably laconic and pleases the audience very much with a showcase song that features a well-executed Elvis impression. Peter Budinger is a skilled musical performer and sings remarkably well as The Dancin’ Kid.

Masquers Playhouse is a community theatre with a long history, located in the charming hamlet of Point Richmond, just across the Richmond Bridge from San Rafael.

Theatregoing fans of the film who would enjoy a small town, community theatre experience, might find a trip to Point Richmond for this production to be a pleasant diversion.

For further information, click here.

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“Johnny Guitar: The Musical”. Book by Nicholas van Hoogstraten. Music by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins. Lyrics by Joel Higgins. Director: Robert Love. Music Director: Pat King. Choreography: Susan Dodge. Costumes: Maria Graham. Lighting: Steve Hill. Properties: Robert Taylor. Set: Robert Love. Sound: Joe Ponder.

Vienna, Title Singer: Shay Oglesby-Smith. Johnny: Craig Eychner. Emma: MIchelle Pond. The Dancin’ Kid: Peter Budinger. McIvers: DC Scarpelli. Bart, Tom, Carl, Trio & Quarter: Mark Enea. Turky, Western Singer, Posse, Trio & Quartet: Coley Grundman. Sam, Ned, Trio & Quarter: Chaz Simonds. Eddie, Jenks, Bill, Hank, Trio & Quartet: J. Scott Stewart. 

Musicians:

Piano: Pat King. Drums, etc.: Barbara Kohler. Keyboard: Jo Lusk. Guitars: Kevin Williams.

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Review: ‘Standing on Ceremony—The Gay Marriage Plays’ at New Conservatory Theatre Center (***)

March 31, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***)

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

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

(“Standing On Ceremony—The Gay Marriage Plays” continues at New Conservatory Theatre Center through April 27, 2014.)

With gay marriage increasingly legal and even commonplace in some communities, it is no surprise that New Conservatory Theatre Center, one of San Francisco’s premiere theatre organizations for the gay community, would want to address it on stage. It was Brian Schnipper’s excellent idea to solicit short plays from a number of established playwrights to create a full evening of theatre on this subject.

While this sort of  thematic idea sounds good, such politically themed theatre-by-committee experiments tend to be too polemical in execution, just preaching to the converted. For much of the evening, that is the problem with “Standing On Ceremony”.

But Paul Rudnick and Moisés Kaufman save the day.

Paul Rudnick offers two polished comedies. “My Husband” has great over-the-top fun with a stereotypical Jewish mother (Hedi Wolff) outrageously trying to marry off her gay son to the right guy. Even funnier is “The Gay Agenda” which satirizes a middle American Christian housewife type (an hilarious Colleen Egan) who is obsessed with the idea that gays are destroying her life.

The cast “Standing On Ceremony” (from l to r): Heidi Wolff, Patrick Barresi, Sal Mattos, Scott Cox, Colleen Egan, Katharine Chin. Photo Credit: New Conservatory Theatre Center.

The cast of “Standing On Ceremony” (from l to r): Heidi Wolff, Patrick Barresi, Sal Mattos, Scott Cox, Colleen Egan, Katharine Chin. Photo Credit: New Conservatory Theatre Center.

The highlight of the evening, by far, is the wonderful “London Mosquitoes” by Moisés Kaufman. Kaufman’s one-person play is a eulogy presented by an elderly Jewish man on the death of his male partner after 46 years together. The eulogy reflects on their long relationship and their choice not to get legally married when it became possible late in their shared life. What would that say, they wondered, about the years before they were legal? The long monologue touches movingly on AIDS, 9/11, family, intimacy, and many other subjects. The two men, eulogist and deceased, are given beautiful, in-depth characterizations. Patrick Barresi gives a moving, tour de force performance.

For further information, click here.

“Standing On Ceremony—The Gay Marriage Plays” written by Mo Gaffney, Jordan Harrison, Moisés Kaufman, Neil LaBute, Wendy Macleod, Jose Rivera, Paul Rudnick and Doug Wright. Conceived by Brian Shnipper. Directed: Sara Staley. Scenic and lighting design: Christian Mejia. Costume Design: Emily White. Sound Design: Billie Cox.

Ensemble: Patrick Barresi, Katherine Chin, Scott Cox, Colleen Egan, Sal Mattos, Heidi Wolff.

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Review: ‘I Never Lie—The Pinocchio Project’ from 99 Stock Productions (**1/2)

March 29, 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)

(“I Never Lie—The Pinocchio Project” plays at The Phoenix Theatre through April 12th, 2014.)

99 Stock Productions is the project of graduates of the theatre department at San Francisco State University. They are a company of great energy and vision. Individually and collectively, they represent some of the finest young talent currently working in the San Francisco Bay Area. As is always the case with graduates of the SFSU Theatre Department, they are conspicuously well-trained.

“I Never Lie—The Pinocchio Project” is clearly the product of considerable talent, vision, creativity and hard work. In spite of these impressive elements, however, it remains very much student work that does not quite succeed as a full theatre piece.

Director Meredith Eden states that she wanted to explore some of the grimmer elements of Carlo Collodi’s classic, in which Pinocchio murders the Talking Cricket with a hammer, and the Cat and Fox rob Pinicchio and abandon him hanging helplessly in a tree. It is not the happily-ending tale envisioned by Disney.

The ensemble cast of "I Never Lie—The Pinocchio Project". Photo Credit: Alandra Hileman.

The ensemble cast of “I Never Lie—The Pinocchio Project”. Photo Credit: Alandra Hileman.

Eden and her troupe of young actors have clearly spent a great deal of time and energy investigating the complex themes of lies and injustice, reality and unreality, cruelty and kindness, which Collodi’s fable evokes. Unfortunately, they have not succeeded in organizing their discoveries into a theatrically compelling presentation. It is difficult to understand who is who in the story, a narrative structure is mostly conspicuous by its absence, and the various theatrical moments—some of which are truly compelling—do not coalesce into a whole. The result is an evening that veers dangerously towards boredom, but not without some very interesting flashes of excitement along the way.

The work of the excellent design team provides much of the excitement. Set Designer Kirsten Royston has beautifully created an old fashioned schoolroom with loving attention to detail. Joey Postil’s lights provide a great deal of visual interest as do Andy Faulkner’s props,  James Ard’s sound design and, especially, the mutimedia elements provided by Kevin Sweetser.

It is the visual delights of this production that stay with the viewer such as the boyish Pinocchio appearing mysteriously out of a rainstorm, boys collapsing like marionnettes whose strings have been cut, Pinocchio encumbered with ropes, a game of make believe war. It is not enough, however, to make up for the confusing and ultimately uninteresting dialogue.

The opening night audience of friends and colleagues were delighted and encouraging. This reviewer is delighted and encouraged by the company’s talent, hard work and enthusiasm, and hopes to see more impressive results in the future.

For further information, click here.

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“I Never Lie—The Pinocchio Project” a devised theatre piece written and directed by Meredith Eden, produced by 99 Stock Productions. Sound Designer: James Ard. Props Designer: Andy Faulkner. Costume Designer: Michelle Mal. Lighting Designer: Joey Postil. Cinematographer: Nicholas Poulos. Set Designer: Kirsten Royston. Multimedia Designer: Kevin Sweetser.

Fox: Derek Caplan. Cricket: Andrew Chung. Cat: Tim Goble. Gepetto: James Mayagoitia. Romeo: Hunter Ridenour. Pinocchio: Renzo Romero.

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Review: World Premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s ‘Bauer’ at SF Playhouse (*****)

March 27, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: *****)

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

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

(“Bauer” plays at SF Playhouse through April 19th, 2014).

Rudolf Bauer is the subject of a brilliant new play about art and artists by up-and-coming San Francisco wunderkind, Lauren Gunderson. You should certainly see it. Before discussing the production, though, a little background is required.

You most likely have never heard of Rudolf Bauer. He was, however, along with Wassily Kandinsky and others, one of the great masters of non-objective (abstract) art, active in the early part of the 20th century. His reputation as a major artist seemed certain when Solomon Guggenheim became his champion, providing funds for Bauer to found his own museum of non-objective art in his native Germany, and selecting Bauer’s and Kandinsky’s work as the core collection of the Guggenheim Museum in the United States.

But fate and a woman intervened. As the political situation in Germany deteriorated throughout the 1930s, the foreign collectors upon whom Bauer relied to purchase his work and build his reputation visited less and less often. Then, in 1937, Bauer was imprisoned by the Gestapo as a “degenerate” artist accused of selling art works on “the black market”, by which they meant American collectors. It did not help that Solomon Guggenheim, his most prominent collector and promoter, was a wealthy Jewish businessman. So much for fate.

Stacy Ross as Baronness Hilla Rebay in the world premiere production of Lauren Gunderson's "Bauer" at SF Playhouse. Photo credit: Lauren English.

Stacy Ross as Baronness Hilla Rebay in the world premiere production of Lauren Gunderson’s “Bauer” at SF Playhouse. Photo credit: Jessica Palopoli.

And then there was the woman. Ah, yes, cherchez la femme. 

Rudolf Bauer and Baronness Hildegard Anna Augusta Elizabeth Freiin Rebay von Ehrenwiesen (or, simply, Hilla Rebay) were artists and lovers. The Baronness was also a collector and a promoter of non-objective art, who advised Solomon Guggenheim and was a cofounder of the Guggenheim Museum. When Bauer was imprisoned by the Gestapo, it was Rebay and Guggenheim who bribed the Nazi officials to secure his release. Then they brought him to America.

In America, something went wrong. Bauer closed up his studio and stopped painting. Completely.

When SF Playhouse’s artistic director Bill English heard this story, he thought immediately that it would provide the framework for a wonderful play. And then he had the good sense to commission Lauren Gunderson to write it. Ms. Gunderson has had multiple plays produced in San Francisco over the past few years, and is poised to explode on the national theatre scene. This wonderful play ought to do the trick.

Bauer (Ronald Guttman) and wife Louise (Susi Damilano) attempt civility by offering tea to Hilla (Stacy Ross).

Bauer (Ronald Guttman) and wife Louise (Susi Damilano) attempt civility by offering tea to Hilla (Stacy Ross).

Gunderson sets the play in Bauer’s abandoned studio, where he and his wife Louise are about to receive Hilla Rebay for afternoon tea. He hasn’t seen her in years, not since he stopped painting. With her arrival, a lifetime of repressed emotion is released among the three players. Gunderson’s script explores their personal history, the philosophy and politics of art, and the history of the founding of the Guggenheim Museum in language that is full of emotional depth, fascinating fact and delightful wordplay. In the course of the conversation, we learn why Bauer shut down his creative life.

These characters are remarkably vibrant and quick witted, and Gunderson gives them wonderful dialogue. When Bauer’s wife defends the Baronness by remarking, “She’s trying to be civil,” Bauer snaps back, “Life’s too short for civility.”

Invention (Composition 31) by Rudolf Bauer. Photo Credit:  Solomon Guggenheim Museum.

Invention (Composition 31) by Rudolf Bauer. Photo Credit: Solomon Guggenheim Museum.

Later in the conversation, Bauer reminds his former girlfriend about why he resented her relationship with Solomon Guggenheim. “You were sleeping with the man.” “Not a lot,” she replies. Later she says, “We could forgive each either. We’ve never tried that. It might be nice.”

This well-crafted dialogue is well-served by an outstanding cast. Ronald Guttman, an actor of wide-ranging accomplishment, is superb as Rudolf Bauer. Using charm and wit to mask a smoldering volcano underneath, he plays Bauer with an explosive sexual charisma and carefully managed rage. As Baroness Hilla Rebay, the always outstanding Stacy Ross is the epitome of class privilege and entitlement. Her gradual softening in the course of the play to reveal her tender feelings and artistic sensitivity is carefully calibrated in this polished performance. Susi Damilano as Louise Bauer once again demonstrates her superb comedic skills, never missing the opportunity to find the laughs in the midst of the drama, yet always emotionally on target and alert to nuance.

It’s just damn good theatre is what it is.

This production of “Bauer” is on its way to New York in the Fall where it has already secured an off-Broadway debut at 59E59 Theaters.

You should see it.

For further information, click here.

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“Bauer” a world premiere of a new play by Lauren Gunderson, comissioned and produced by SF Playhosue. Director: Bill English. Set: Bill English. Projection Design: Micah J. Stieglitz. Lighting: Jordan Puckett. Sound: Theodore J. H. Huisker. Costume Design: Abra Berman. Original Score: Savannah Jo Lack. 

Louise Bauer: Susi Damilano. Rudolf Bauer: Ronald Guttman. Hilla Rebay: Stacy Ross.

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Review: ‘Top Girls’ at Custom Made Theatre (***)

March 23, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***)

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

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

(“Top Girls” plays at the Gough Street Playhouse through April 13, 2014.)

Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” premiered in London in 1982, when Margaret  Thatcher, the Prime Minster of England, sent her country to war in the Falkland Islands, and pursued a conservative policy of dismantling England’s welfare state. The most powerful woman in the world was pursuing a conservative political agenda in every way at odds with the more leftist feminist movement that had paved the way for her election.

It was in this context that Caryl Churchill set out to write a play to try and explore the meaning of female power in the home and in society. The play that she wrote was one of the most successful and controversial of that decade, and solidifed her reputation as a leading playwright.

The opening sequence presents a dinner party of “top girls” from history, hosted by London business woman Marlene, who is celebrating her promotion to be managing director of “Top Girls” employment agency. It raises profound questions about the proper “employment” of women as these powerful characters get drunk together and describe their life experiences.

Monica Cappuccini as Pope Joan comforts Mimu Tsujimura as Lady Nijo in Customade Theatre's revival of Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls". Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

Monica Cappuccini as Pope Joan comforts Mimu Tsujimura as Lady Nijo in Customade Theatre’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls”. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

They include Pope Joan (the mythical woman pope of the middle ages), Lady Nijo (a Japanese courtesan from the 14th century), Patient Griselda (a suffering and obedient wife described in Chaucer’s  “Canterbury Tales”), Dull Gret or Mad Meg, a character in a painting by Brueghel who leads a group of women into an assault on Hell. Last of the crowd is Isabella Bird, a famous Victorian adventuress whose travel books reflected the imperialist mindset of Victorian England.

The two subsequent acts depict Marlene’s personal and professional life, and the experiences which reflect and comment upon those of women throughout history. The last act, which involves a confrontation between the successful Marlene and her lower-middle-class sister, serves to challenge an understanding of feminism that fails to address economic inequities, but celebrates the “success” (Marlene’s or, by implication, Marget Thatcher’s) of modern women without regard to the costs paid.

This complex play has been called (by the distinguished British director and theatre writer, Dominic Drumgoole), “a dazzling intellectual fantasia, a technically brilliant circus act that flings around heavyweight intellectual conceit as if it were light as air.”

In short, this is a complex, weighty and challenging play. It is just the sort of politically charged, intellectually bracing work that is the calling card of Custommade Theatre Company. Audiences who seek out work with substantial intellectual and political content will be pleased and excited.

The challenge of a piece of this sort is to communicate the complex social commentary while still providing entertainment and mainting interest for a lengthy evening. Director Laura Lundy-Paine succeeds in this regard.

The intellectual content is very accessible, most especially in the justifiably famous historical dinner party that comprises the first act. With its many allusions, complex overlapping dialogue, and emotional fireworks it is a tour de force of ensemble playing when successfully accomplished, as it is here.

The performance would benefit from greater attention to its comedic potential, but overall this is a production well worth attending.

For further information, click here.

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“Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill, presented by Custom Made Theatre. Director: Laurel Lundy-Paine. Scenic Design /Props: Kevin Dunning. Lighting Design: Colin Johnson. Sound Design/Composition: Liz Ryder. 

Marlene: Cary Cronholm Rose. Isabella Bird/Joyce/Mrs. Kidd: Cat Luedtke. Lady Nijo/Win: Mimu Tsujimura. DullGret/Angie: Katie Robbins. Pope Joan/Louise: Monica Cappuccini. Patient Griselda/Nell/Jeanine: Carina Lastimosa Salazar. Waitresss/Kit/Shona: Megan Putnam.

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Review: African American Shakespeare Company presents ‘Medea’ (****)

March 20, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

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

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

(“Medea” plays at the Buriel Clay Theater in San Francisco from March 8 through March 30, 2014.)

Dawn Monique Williams’ production of “Medea” at the African American Shakespeare Company declares its excellence in its first moments. The set features the facade of an upscale contemporary home that might well be inhabited by a diplomat and his family.  A large window is hung with a wrinkled curtain upon which we see a grotesque shadow play of a live woman. The shadow, contorted by the folds of the curtain, difficult to interpret, alienated by the window frame, a play within a play, is grotesque and horrifying. Before we even learn that it is the figure of Medea, the lady of the house, we hear her tortured screams of grief and rage.  Thrillingly emitted by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, they are the howling roar of a powerful wounded animal, powerfully emotive.

Listening in horror is the children’s Nurse (Cathleen Riddley).  The Nurse declares her fear of what her mistress Medea might be capable of doing and we share it. In only a few seconds, we are drawn successfully into the mindscape of ancient Greek tragedy, where emotions are of more than human size, and the pressure of fate (the manipulating hand of the gods) is felt as a visceral reality, as present as a thunderstorm or an earthquake.

The story is familiar: the scorned and enraged Medea, having left her home to follow her husband Jason to a new land and give him children, finds herself abandoned in favor of a powerful mistress, daughter of a King, and takes a horrifying vengeance.

The emotional impact of Greek tragedy is rooted in its seeming inevitability: once the situation is clear, and the plot is set in motion, it moves to its conclusion with stunning certainty—we hope against all hope that things will end differently, but the tragedy proves inescapable as each seeming loophole proves to be a tightening noose. It is no accident that these plays have survived for thousands of years and continue to be produced. There simply is no storytelling more effective than that of the ancient Greeks.

Cathleen Riddley as Nurse (back) and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Media (front) in African American Shakespeare's modern dress production of the classic Greek tragedy. (Photo credit: Lance Huntley.)

Cathleen Riddley as Nurse (back) and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Media (front) in African American Shakespeare’s modern dress production of the classic Greek tragedy. (Photo credit: Lance Huntley.)

After the shocking start, we expect  to see Medea enter the scene disheveled, tearful, beaten and afraid. Instead, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong emerges from the house with regal grace. Tall, beautiful, perfectly coifed, she presents an image of controlled anger and personal power that is more terrifying than madness.

Her neighbors, the excellent Chorus of actresses Danielle Doyle, Sheila Collins and Shani Harris-Bagwell, attempt to calm her even as they realize that she has moved beyond any possibility of human intervention. In a marvelous directorial touch, they totter about the stage in ridiculously oversized high heels, always on the verge of tipping over. It is a clever and effective visual interpretation of the Greek concept of “hubris” (the pride that goes before a fall). Medea alone, towering over the others, appears to be physically and emotionally in control, even as she moves towards an unspeakable act to obtain a victory that is simultaneously the greatest imaginable loss.

In this production the story is told with great clarity, and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Medea has the necessary physical, vocal and emotional range to encompass this classic part. She gives an impressive and memorable performance, with the help of a highly capable supporting cast. Courtney Flores’ deserves to be recognized for her excellent costume designs, which, on a mostly bare stage, provide much of the productions’ visual excitement.

Young audiences, unfamiliar with classic Greek tragedy in general or “Medea” in particular, will find this production interesting and easy to follow. More sophisticated viewers, with high expectations, will not be disappointed. 

For further information click here.

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“Medea” by Euripedes, translated by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael, produced by African American Shakespeare Company. Director: Dawn Monique Williams. Set: Bert van Aalsberg. Lighting: Kevin Myrick. Costumes: Courtney Flores.

Medea: Leontyne Mbele-Mbong. Tutor: Elizabeth Strong. Nurse: Cathleen Riddley. Chorus: Danielle Doyle, Shelia Collins and Shani Harris-Bagwell. Creon/Aigeus: Dwight Dean Mahabir. Children: Gabriel Reader and Amir Glenn. Jason: Khary Moye.

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