Review: Do It Live presents the west coast premiere of Jon Fosse’s ‘I Am The Wind’ (*****)

December 15, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(*****)

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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 Am The Wind” plays through February 7 at the Adeline Studios Firehouse Art Collective in Berkeley.)

The magnificent and memorable “I Am The Wind” is not typical theatrical fare for Americans. In fact, many audiences will have difficulty understanding it as a “play”, and might prefer to think of it as “performance art”. It is poetry rather than narrative, playing directly on the emotions without benefit of story, relying on visual metaphor, and using language in ways more reminiscent of Gertrude Stein than William Shakespeare. It is philosophical, theological, poetic, esoteric, hermetic, and almost completely devoid of the naturalism which so pervades our theatrical experience that many theater goers don’t even realize a viable alternative exists.

But there is an alternative, and Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse is among its most successful practitioners. Although most English speaking audiences are unfamiliar with his work, Fosse’s plays are widely produced in non-English speaking Europe, where he has won numerous major awards, and is rightly considered a genius.

Norwegian playwright, Jon Fosse.

Playwright Jon Fosse.

Fosse, a poet and a novelist, was not initially drawn to the theater. In a 2011 interview in the British daily paper, The Independent, he stated:  “I thought [the theater] was stupid in its conventionality — as it often still is. The audience behaves in a conventional way, the play is conventional. It’s not art, it’s just conventionality.”

Audiences attending “I Am The Wind” will not find it even remotely conventional. At Adeline Studios they will find no stage, no lobby, no auditorium, and no theater in the usual sense of the word. The building is an old, small and rather decrepit warehouse. There are holes in the wall. The floor is of wooden planks. A couple of light bulbs hang on wires from hooks in the ceiling, and on the floor are some industrial spotlights of the sort you would expect to find lighting a construction site after dark rather than a stage. It feels more like a squat than a playhouse. Although there are a handful of conventional chairs available for less limber folk, most of the audience sits on the floor. On one end of the room is a minimalist set, nothing but a ladder and one of the lightbulbs. At some point, a length of rope is added, and there is a scene in which the actors sit down at a table and partake of a meal in the midst of the audience. (A communion, perhaps?)

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The characters are unnamed. The program refers to them as “The One” and “The Other”. Their relationship is never clarified — they could be strangers, sisters, lovers, mother and daughter, we just don’t know. What we do know is that they are in a boat at sea. The one (or is it the other?) seems relatively self-assured, a confident sailor. The other (or is it the one?) is fearful, a bit disoriented, ill-at-ease. Their words are more soundscape than story, offering themes of heaviness, alienation, loss, sailing, spirit, wind. Wind, with its connection to sailing, is perhaps the most central metaphor — as indicated by the title. There is a clue in knowing that the playwright is an adult convert to Catholicism — wind, in Judeo-Christian tradition, refers to the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the two women are two aspects of the same person, or two ways of being in the world. Perhaps they embody our conflicting drives for both life and death.

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The poetic language washes over us, moving, shaking, carrying us to unexpected places, never easily understood. There are other sounds, evoking the sea, and, at one point, an actress uses an accordion to play hymn-like music.

A swinging lightbulb creates danger and the sense of a rocking boat.

It is difficult to describe an event like this: it is poetry, not story, so there is nothing to retell. I can try to evoke something of the experience, but, really, you have to be there. A poem is a poem is a poem.

After the hour and a half performance, I found it difficult to leave the theatre, as did other audience members. We stood around, quietly basking in one another’s company, knowing we had shared something rather extraordinary. One audience member was deeply moved, crying, perhaps over a private grief. Several friends sat to comfort her. I have no idea what moved her so, but I understand that many will be strangely moved by this work, as was I.

If you find this review at all intriguing, you probably should go see this play.

For further information, click here.

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“I Am The Wind” by Jon Fosse, translated by Simon Stephens, a west coast premiere produced by Do It Live Productions. Director: Will Hand. 

The One: Ari Rampy. The Other: Amy Nowak.

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Review: Cutting Ball Theater and Campo Santo present ‘Superheroes’ at The Exit (****1/2)

December 4, 2014 Leave a comment
(from l to r) The cast of Cutting Ball Theater's production of 'Superheroes': Myers Clark as Free, Donald E. Lacy as Rev, Delina Patrice Brooks as Aparecida, Juan Amador as Bayuncoso and Ricky Saenz as Nico. Photo Credit: Cutting Ball Theater.

(from l to r) Myers Clark as Free, Donald E. Lacy as Rev, Delina Patrice Brooks as Aparecida, Juan Amador as Bayuncoso and Ricky Saenz as Nico in Cutting Ball Theater’s world premiere production of “Superheroes”. Photo Credit: Cutting Ball Theater.

(Charles Kruger)

(****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)

(“Superheroes” will play at The Exit through December 21, 2014). 

The opening of “Superheroes” as staged by playwright/director Sean San José is powerful. Six actor/dancers explode across the stage against a set depicting an urban outland, perhaps beneath a freeway overpass, as images and text from news coverage of the contra wars and the crack epidemic of the 1980s are effectively projected against the back wall. The actors shout and almost sing in sometimes rhyming language, hitting hard with their passion to tell this story. It is a brilliantly choreographed directorial performance, evoking the work of great theatre pioneers such as Bertold Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, and Louis Valdez. I was so excited by what I saw and heard that I scribbled in my reviewer’s notebook: “THIS is what theatre is for!”

Although I did not sustain that first rush of enthusiasm throughout this production, I left the theatre sure that I had seen something rare and special.

“Superheroes” is inspired by the work of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb who famously wrote a series of articles linking the CIA to drug dealers who were using earnings from the sale of crack cocaine to help fund the Contras’ battle to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. At the time, Webb’s work was dismissed and his career destroyed. Eventually, unable to find work and facing mounting personal difficulties, he committed suicide (although conspiracy theorists believe he was murdered). As the crack cocaine epidemic went on to devestate communities of color in America’s inner cities, some folks theorized that the CIA had intentionally released this scourge upon the community with genocidal intent. The entire story is complicated by the war on drugs, and the legal penalties for possession of crack cocaine (an inner city drug) versus powdered cocaine (a drug favored by the wealthy and privileged) which has led to the disportionate incarceration and criminalization of young people of color. The whole story is a sordid, dirty, complicated, horrifying mess.

Since Webb published his articles as a three part series called “Dark Alliance” in the mid 1990s, the mainstream press has come to recognize that many of his allegations were substantially correct. Charles Bowden wrote a significant article in 1913 in Esquire Magazine to that effect, and the fact that some contras (backed by the CIA) were funding their activities through drug smuggling was confirmed in 1988 by a Senate subcommittee headed by our current Secretary of State, John Kerry.

The “Superheroes” of the ironic title might include the self styled “freedom-fighting” contras, the brilliantly gifted drug dealer Free, Free’s crusading but addicted girlfriend Magnolia, and investigative reporter Aparecida (modeled after Gary Webb). At one point, a character suggests that the superheroes are the nameless inner city victims of the crack epidemic, dragged, drugged, or seduced into a nightmarish addiction, who miraculously manage to keep their humanity alive under nearly unthinkable conditions.

The telling of the story hinges on the efforts of journalist Aparecida (Delina Patrice Brooks) to get at the truth of the CIA/Contra/Cocaine connection after being tipped off by Magnolia (Britney Frazer), whose drug-dealing boy friend, Free (Myers Clark) is on trial. Other characters include a cocaine-addled fundamentalist preacher (effectively played by Donald E. Lacy, Jr.) and Free’s young partner-in-crime, Nico (Ricky Saenz). Bayuncoso (Juan Amador) is a mysterious, seductive, devilish character associated with the Contras and the CIA.

The details of the story are explored in an almost random fashion, moving back and forth in time. Some scenes are acted out, but such traditional narrative is interwoven with slide projections full of informative graphics and headlines, as well as dance interludes accompanied by rhythmic chanting and angry commentary, with the six performers slipping in and out of character, often functioning in the manner of a Greek chorus that comments on the action. It is the actors that matter here, as much as the characters: we are confronted with the company’s passionate desire to tell this story, using whatever means they have at their disposal, not just characterization and scene playing.

The result is that the details of the story are unclear, which can be rather frustrating to the viewer. On the other hand, the passion of the telling is enormosly moving and potent and the message comes through: a great injustice occurred that resulted in tragically undeserved human suffering while the perpetuators escaped unscathed.

Britney Frazier gives a standout performance as Magnolia in the world premiere of "Superheroes" at Cutting Ball Theater. Photo Credit: Cutting Ball Theater.

Britney Frazier gives a standout performance as Magnolia in the world premiere of “Superheroes” at Cutting Ball Theater. Photo Credit: Cutting Ball Theater.

All of the actors perform well, but Britney Frazier as Magnolia is a stand out. Magnolia is many sided: desperate drug addict, perhaps a street hooker, angry girlfriend, brilliant analyst, dancer, poet, potential revolutionary, she’s all that. Frazier’s performance tells it all and tells it like it is.

The production disappoints, though, in maintaining a too frenetic pace that never seems to pull back from the onslaught of images and angry rhythms to allow the audience to register the tragedy, so that we might cry deeply and experience a catharsis. There were moments, especially in the early parts of the show, and especially in the scenes featuring Frazier as Magnolia, when I and other audience members were moved fully to sobs, a rarer occurrence in the theatre than you might think. But there was not enough of that.

Still, this is important work, brave and ambitious. Injustice needs to be called out and its sources confronted and held accountable. It is a fine and worthy thing when theatre seriously sets out to do just that, and we should pay attention.

For further information, click here.

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“Superheroes”, written and directed by Sean San José, a word premiere produced by Cutting Ball Theater in association with Campo Santo. Movement Director: Rashad Pridgen. Scenic Designer: Michael Locher. Costume Designer: Courtney Flores. Lighting Designer & Projection Designer: Alejandro Acosta. Score and Sound Designer: Jake Rodriguez. 

Bayuncoso: Juan Amador. Aparecida: Delina Patrice Brooks. Free: Myers Clark. Magnolia: Britney Frazier. Rev: Donald E. Lacy, Jr. Nico: Ricky Saenz. 

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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.

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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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