Review: World premiere of ‘Sagittarius Ponderosa’ by MJ Kaufman at New Conservatory Theatre Center (**1/2)

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

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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)

“Sagittarius Ponderosa” is a sweet dream-like play with some lovely writing, characterizations, and acting, but it is at times difficult to follow exactly what is going on.

It is Thanksgiving, and young Angela has returned to her rural home for unclear reasons. She has an ambivalent relationship with her mother, her father has a life-threatening illness, and her loving Grandma is going deaf and sliding into mild dementia.

Angela, unsure about her future, and perhaps even her gender (although this is one of the points that is unclear), seeks comfort from the companionship of a giant Ponderosa tree near the family home. There she meets Owen, a university student who is studying the Ponderosa trees for his doctorate. They experience immediate chemistry – Owen asks Angela, “Do you want to fuck?” within ten minutes of their fist meeting, and she responds affirmatively.

Grandma, who might have mysterious powers, has been busy creating a love potion which may have something to do with Angela and Owen’s affair. In any case, in her apparent delirium, Grandma repeatedly states that she is looking forward to Angela’s upcoming marriage — although it appears that Grandma is the only one who anticipates such an event.

These several plot strains involve the various characters over a years’ time. All of this is very dreamlike: Grandma begins an affair with her rather vague neighbor Peterson, who appears as a very charming puppet, beautifully designed by Dave Haaz-Baroque. Pops (a charismatic Andy Collins) is sneaking sugar against doctor’s orders, and may be jeopardizing his health. Mom and Angela struggle with their relationship, and Angela has doubts about Owen. All of this is beautifully played by a fine company of actors, but the absence of a through line of plot creates a distressing lack of focus to the proceedings.

A key theme seems to be Pops’ decision to change his name as part of his healing process, at his doctor’s recommendation. Later, Angela follows suit, renaming herself (himself? themselves?) Archer in honor of the astrological sign of Sagittarius.

Overall, the play gives the impression of being lovely but unfinished. Playwright MJ Kaufman has succeeded admirably in creating a gentle mood and dreamy ambience, bringing to life characters whom we care about, but has been less successful in binding these elements together into a coherent whole.

Nevertheless, these lovely people are great, if confusing, company, and audiences will enjoy spending time with them for the length of the play.

“Sagittarius Ponderosa” by MJ Kaufman contineus at New Conservatory Theatre Center through February 28, 2016. 

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“Sagittarius Pondersoa” by MJ Kaufman, a world premiere produced by New Conservatory Theatre Center. Director: Ben Randle. Composer & Sound Design: James Ard. Puppet Design: Dave Haaz-Baroque. Costume Design: Miriam R. Lewis. Scenic Design: Anthony Powers. Prop Design: Adeline Smith.

Cast: 

Pops/Peterson: Andy Collins. Mom: Janis DeLucia. Grandma: Michaela Greeley. Owen: Matthew hannon. Archer: SK Kerastas.

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