Sunday, August 29, 2010

Marin Shakespeare: "Antony & Cleopatra" ☼ ☼

Shakespeare did like his main characters to die slowly, and in "Antony & Cleopatra" both take nearly three hours to do the deed. The 2010 Marin Shakespeare Company production is the sequel to last year's "Julius Caesar," but where that was filled with action, this is longer and has more characters. Caesar figures in both, in the flesh last year, but only in memory this time around.

Marcia Pizzo's Cleopatra is exciting and girl-like when first we meet her, flushed with love for Marc Antony, who has left Rome after Caesar's death and settled in Alexandria with her. (There is the matter of his wife back home, and also of the other noble Romans, none of whom has slept with Cleopatra yet, except for Caesar himself, but he's dead, and maybe Pompey.) Pizzo plays Cleopatra like an oversexed teenager at the beginning, but as she matures we see a woman who -- well, she's not a teenager any more.

Marvin Greene's Marc Antony is a man whose judgement has been destroyed by his love. Of course, what would you do if your girl friend insisted on placing your armor over your private parts before she sent you out to battle? This Cleopatra is some dame. Once the greatest general of them all, Marc Antony now follows Cleopatra around like a tongue-lapping hound. They make not only love but war; even though she keeps betraying him by sailing away in her ships, he keeps accepting her apologies.

Stephen Klum is terrific as Enobarbus, as is William Elsman as Octavius Caesar, someone you'd love to hate, but you can't since he is obviously the only actor on the stage who gets to play someone with a brain. Also, he's taller than the rest of them.

It's always beautiful to laze away an afternoon in the amphitheater at Marin Shakespeare, watching people sitting on their rented seat cushions as the hawks and crows wheel overhead, actors in red and purple parade across the stage and Cleopatra and Marc Antony refuse to die until only a few moments before Taming of the Shrew comes on at 7pm.



The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Marin Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" Two Stars. The Awards Committee has to admit it did not find Antony & Cleopatra nearly as engaging as Julius Caesar. There are no heroes in this play, no great immortal lines from the Bard (though Cleopatra does refer to her 'salad days'), and though the acting was fine and Leslie Schisgall Currier's direction crisp enough, in the end there are just too many arrogant Romans and sleazy Egyptians serving nobody you care about very much. And we all know that Alaric the Goth is waiting in the wings only a few hundred years down the pike and he, eager critic with a tight budget, will make the Romans die a lot faster.

Marin Shakespeare makes enjoying the Bard a lot of fun, with a lighthearted attitude and excellent core of performers. But we have now praised Caesar and buried him. Let's get down to MacBeth, Hamlet, Lear!

"Antony & Cleopatra"
Marin Shakespeare: Dominican University, Forest Meadows Amphitheatre
1475 Grand Avenue, San Rafael
Through Sept. 25

"The Light in the Pizza": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

You can't hum a note of it, you can't remember a word of any song they sang and the story is as old as the Tuscan foothills: woman and daughter go to Italy -- Florence, in this case -- daughter falls in love with Italian boy, mother rues her own faded romance, boy and girl get together. Finito.

And yet -- every minute of "Light in the Piazza" is captivating. Composer and lyricist Adam Guettel (yes, he is the grandson of Richard Rodgers) and librettist Craig Lucas, along with brilliant scenic design by J. B. Wilson, costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt and lights by Pamila Z. Gray, have created a precious Florentine world for us to inhabit. We have somehow become the doting parents of gorgeous-but-flawed Clara (Whitney Bashor), helpless before the onslaught of young love, in the person of handsome Fabrizio (Constantine Germanacos).

The play belongs not to the young lovers but to Margaret Johnson, Clara's mom. Margaret (Rebecca Eichenberger) and her seldom-seen husband in America (Richard Frederick) came to Florence when they were first married. She remembers the glory of the city, but that flush of romance has passed her by. Her telephone conversations with her husband are strained at best. She wishes more for her daughter, who has a mysterious affliction (which for some reason is never apparent to the audience. All we see is a headstrong, amazingly beautiful young woman who just happens to have an operatic voice that can shake the Uffizi).

If you don't fall in love with this woman you don't deserve to be Italian.

Margaret must shepherd the romance along, while looking out for her own attraction to Fabrizio's father (Martin Vidnovic). As she says as Act Two is proceding: "Don't ever take a dream to Italy."

Adam Guettel, of course, is in a bind. Anything he does that sounds like his grandfather would be pilloried by the legion of Richard Rodgers lovers across the land. So he writes tunes, but they are to modernistic melodies. You don't get "If I Loved You" or "Oklahoma!" Instead, you get a modernistic "Light in the Piazza," which is lovely as it is being sung by Clara but could never be repeated by you or anyone else. You don't hum back Adam Guettel any more than you do Igor Stravinsky or most Stephen Sondheim.

But that's the deal. These songs work beautifully within the context of the story. The story does not exist simply to showcase the songs. It doesn't hurt that the characters are all equipped with operatic voices. You feel their angst as well as their happiness, even if, later on, you can't remember exactly what they sang.

(Where do these beautiful people with huge voices come from anyway? Is there a planet where they clone people who look and sound like Whitney Bashor and Constantine Germanacos? Is it in New Jersey?)

We must also give very special thanks to the chamber quintet that plays the music, especially written for fewer pieces to suit regional theater. This is a difficult score to play in sync with actors. If they had done what most theaters do these days, i.e. replace the violinist, cellist, bassist and harpist with one synthesizer player, the music would have none of the sweetness and texture that is crucial to the score.

But that's the musician talking. The theater critic was totally captivated by "Light in the Piazza" and hopes you will be too.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Light in the Piazza" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. No show since Peter Pan (in May) has earned this high a rating, and give the crinkly curmudgeon who grimaces as he hands out these stars just one or two songs to hum back and the rating would have been higher. The cast is fabulous. While the trio of Eichenberger, Bashor and Germanacos control our emotions, the supporting cast shines as well, moving across a stage as easily as our hearts sail through this tale of young love.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for director Robert Kelley. Nothing stands out and everything stands out. This means Robert Kelley has directed with that perfectly invisible hand.

And it's not Shakespeare. Nobody dies. Hurray!

"The Light in the Piazza"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Sep. 19

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Trouble in Mind: ☼ ☼ ☼ PLUS!

The play is great but this fact, gleaned from the press-pak, is astonishing: Playwright Alice Childress was the first black woman in America to have a play professionally produced. What year was that? 1850? 1910? No, 1952.

Small surprise that three years later, after a very successful off-Broadway first run of her new play "Trouble in Mind," Broadway beckoned. They told her they would love to run her play on the big stage if she just wouldn't mind making...a few changes.

They wanted to take her play-within-a-play -- a story about black actors fighting to keep an anti-lynching play from being watered down with white stereotypes about black people -- and water it down, turning it into a feel-good drama. Childress refused and the show never got to Broadway.

You couldn't write irony like this, because nobody would believe it.

The new Aurora Theater production of "Trouble In Mind" feels fresh, which is to say that racial divides in America may not be as cast in concrete as they were in Childress's time (she died at age 78 in 1994), but they are certainly still there. The show does not feel like a period piece, it feels like America 2010, and if you don't think so just look at Al Manners.

Tom Kniffin is perfect. His Al Manners, the white director, is the patronizing and sexist creature everyone in the audience recognizes. He makes us squirm. Perhaps in 1955 a white audience would not have found him quite as odious -- and he certainly has his own troubles -- but today we see him more clearly. Certainly the black actors in the play-within-the-play will do anything he says, since all are desperate just to have a job. As the excellent Rhonnie Washington (as actor Sheldon Forrester) says, "I still owe the doctor. I need this job."

Sheldon's monologue about a lynching he saw as a small boy (he is the only one in the room who actually ever saw one) is memorable -- Alice Childress wanted to make sure we all felt the true horror, in this case seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old. Equally memorable is the show's moral center, Willeta, when she decides to turn up the volume on racial stereotyping, for the benefit of Al Manners.

Meanwhile, the banter between Wiletta (Margo Hall), Millie (Elizabeth Carter), Jon (John Joseph Gentry), Judy (Melissa Quine) and Sheldon continues unabated. Each actor is trying to do what Al Manners tells them to do, but we can see all they really want is to stay employed.

The ending is a little ambiguous, and we wish we could know a little bit more about Wiletta and Sheldon. Act One is the true rarity in modern theater: it's too short. When the lights come up for intermission you can't believe it. That's how Alice Childress wanted it -- you find yourself immersed in her world.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Trouble in Mind" Three Stars Plus! This same rating could be suggested by ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG but there is no real BANGLE of PRAISE here. No actor nor piece of dialogue stands out from the rest. But "Trouble" is more than a ☼ ☼ ☼ play, if not quite as nuanced and fleshed out as ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼.

Alice Childress grew up in the Harlem Renaissance and is the author of the novel "A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich." Perhaps it is finally time to pay this ground breaking writer more attention.

"Trouble in Mind"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison St., Berkeley
EXTENDED through Oct. 3

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Dreamgirls": ☼ ☼ BANG

Ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no valley low enough to describe the new traveling "Dreamgirls," currently running at the Curran through September 26. The highs are monumental -- notably, the costumes and costume changes (305 costumes and 175 wigs used during a single performance), several of the leads (none more spectacular than Chester Gregory as Jimmy "Thunder" Early) and the quintessential show-biz story itself of the unknown girl group rising to unfathomable success (not the Supremes, but The Dreams).

And no discussion about Dreamgirls cannot include the incomparable sets -- you won't see a more interesting-looking stage anywhere than Robin Wagner's Scenic Design at the Curran, with lights by Ken Billington and mixed media by Lightswitch. Even stripped down from the enormous Broadway original, this is a feast for the eyes.

The costumes, most of the leads and the sets themselves are ample reason to want to come see the current production. You've seen the movie -- come grab a taste of what it looked like originally on Broadway, when the show premiered in 1981.

But in the interest of honest disclosure, just as a conversation about Dreamgirls must include staging, so it must also include the music. Tom Eyen (Book and Lyrics) and Henry Krieger (Music) MUST have been listening to the Supremes, the Marvelettes, Tammi Terrell and Gladyce Knight. Right? Marvin Gaye? The Temptations? What about catchy tunes? Catchy, danceable tunes? Catchy, danceable, joyful tunes? Catchy, danceable, joyful and infectious tunes that peg themselves into your skull like a sticky pad you can't remove?

None of that here. Zzzzzip. Act One sets you up for a musical payoff and Act Two puts you to sleep. Although the audience screamed and applauded for Moya Angela, who plays the sympathetic part of Effie White, made famous first by Jennifer Holliday and then Jennifer Hudson, and though Ms. Angela's acting was first rate, it has to be mentioned that her pitch in Act Two was...let's just say problematic. We are not talking about a note here and a note there.

Hey, these things happen and it may have been Opening Night jitters. We leave that to you to decide. And there is no pitch so perfect that these lyrics cannot injure:

"Walking down that wrong road
There was nothing I could find
All those years of darkness
Could make a person blind"


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Dreamgirls" Two Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. First, the bangle: Chester Gregory and Chaz Lamar Shepherd. Gregory, who had the moxie to play Jackie Wilson, arguably the greatest soul singer who ever lived, on Broadway in "The Jackie Wilson Story," puts the OW! in shOWstopper! We want them to stop this silly story and just give James "Thunder" Early another half dozen songs. Sings! Dances! OW! Similarly, Shepherd's gospel voice, though it only gets hinted at a few times, is beautiful, in an Al Green kind of mystical way. And yet he plays the most hardboiled character of all, the Berry Gordy figure, the driven visionary. Shepherd and Gregory are two excellent reasons to catch "Dreamgirls."

Syesha Mercado as Deena, Adrienne Warren as Lorrell, Trevon Davis as C.C., Milton Craig Nely as Marty and Margaret Hoffman as Michelle are also excellent. The mountains are high in Dreamgirls and many may choose to ignore the valleys.

Curran Theater
445 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through Sept. 26

Friday, August 20, 2010

"Dis-Oriented: Nguyen, Nakamoto and Noorbakhsh" BANG BANG BANG

San Francisco's cup is overflowing with brilliant solo performers these days. The Solo Performance Workshop Festival features two weeks of one-person theater pieces. Last night's premiere "Dis-Oriented" showcased Thao P Nguyen, Colleen "Coke" Nakamoto and Zahra Noorbakhsh.

Each woman does her own segment, although Nguyen and Nakamoto do a short bit together at the beginning and Nakamoto and Noorbaksh finish the evening with another short short. The concept has something to do with Asian-ness but is really more about each woman finding her own place to stand in a complicated world.

Thao P. Nguyen is the most multi-faceted. Her tale of Obama-mania leading to gay rights marches from City Hall to the Castro -- and back to City Hall -- is beautifully drawn. She uses her Vietnamese parents to great effect, especially the portrait she draws of her dad peeling a piece of fruit for her mom, as he has done every day of their life together.

Next comes Coke Nakamoto, who is a few decades more than eight years old but has channeled her inner eight year old brilliantly, as the child searches for exactly what it means to be a woman. Nakamoto appears to have no hip or leg joints as she bounces around the stage in a plastic skirt with constant looks of fluid amazement on her face. Her bit about finding the Playboy and Penthouse magazines in her brothers' room is priceless.

We are assuming the selection of James Brown's "sex machine" on the house music system, after Nakamoto's questioning of female roles, was an unfortunate accident and not some kind of really twisted irony.

After intermission, Zahra Noorbakhsh spins a delightful story about how she and her Perisan Muslim father come to a compromise over her choice to have her white atheist boy friend move in with her. Love conquers all, especially after the boy friend is willing to chant a little incomprehensible Arabic. "All Atheists are Muslim" reminds us that with a little humor and a lot of food anything is possible.

All three women do beautiful portraits of their parents, and all three stories have a common thread: exactly how much do we, as independent women, choose to fit in or stand out from our culture? If the rest of the festival is as good as Nguyen, Nakamoto and Noorbakhsh, this will be a terrific two weeks.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Thao P. Nguyen, Coke Nakamoto and Zahra Noorbakhsh Three BANGLES of PRAISE. Each was thought-provoking, and all three showed off a different side of themselves. Nguyen is brash but still leery -- she's openly gay to everyone but her family. Nakamoto is wide-eyed as a child but clearly guarded as an adult -- she is, for example, unwilling to believe that even Asians can be racists.

And Zahra Noorbakhsh is all of us -- the modern adult anxious to make her own decisions while still desperately wishing to be at one with her family. The culmination of her story is quite touching -- she and her father know they either have to compromise their hardened positions or they will lose each other. Neither is willing to do that. When her dad says "Daddy take care of this, man," both are pleased. And he does. Daddy knows best.

A lovely night of theater at Stage Werx.

"Solo Performance Workshop"
Different performers through August 29
Stage Werx Theater
533 Sutter Street (at Powell Street), San Francisco
$20-$35 (or all 7 shows for $69)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Beauty and the Beast: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Scattered throughout the opening night audience are several dozen seven year old girls, squirming in their seats in enthusiastic anticipation, each wearing a shiny blue or purple princess costume. (One small boy is also seen, sitting between his two buff dads.) "Beauty and the Beast" is Disney to the core, and whether or not you approve of the message (young woman finds happiness by acting nice and pleasing ogre who then turns into Knight in Shining Armor), it is undeniable that your little daughter will love every second and wish to come back again tomorrow night.

After all, Beauty, a.k.a. Belle (Liz Shivener) is everything her mommy and daddy would want her to be -- oops, only a daddy, no mommy. (There is never a mommy in these fairy tales, unless it's a wicked stepmother. Why is that?) Belle is prim and proper and a bookworm to boot, but with enough moxie to reject the persistent pursuits of SeƱor Muy Macho, known as Gaston (Nathaniel Hackmann). Gaston is vaguely prehistoric, and doomed to lose his struggle to the more sensitive and modernist Beast (Justin Glaser), but you can't help love poor Gaston. He is playing with a short deck. He can't help being a Republican.

You already know the story -- it has been the same since Aesop. Young girl is a good little thing but the fates have conspired against her. Still, by being very, very good, she will attract the attention of the most powerful man in the kingdom, who has his own tsuris, having been temporarily assigned to beasthood or frogdom; in the end her devotion and kiss will save him and her and the kingdom and the whole damned show.

Which is what happens here. Act I takes a long time to develop, but Act II zips right along carrying your emotions with it. You know exactly what is going to happen but you are cheering for the good guys and hissing the bad guys anyway.

It just feels good: this is the power of the production. Director Rob Roth and Scenic Designer Stanley A. Meyer keep the characters running in and out of movable sets and up and down strange stairways. You never get bored.

But even if your attention should wane, your little princess in the seat next to you is rapt. She loves this stuff. She adores this stuff. She CRAVES it. If you don't give it to her, some handsome prince in the next town will. So you may as well buy an extra ticket and sit through it, knowing that as sure as magic spells only last until the final curtain, you will walk from the theater with a lightened heart and an adoring, snoring sweetheart on your shoulder.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Beauty and the Beast" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The male leads, in particular (Glaser and Hackmann as the Beast and Gaston) are superb, with huge voices and commanding presences on the stage. Shivener is a fine Belle; also notable are several of the side characters, especially Merritt David Janes as Lumiere.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the one notable song in the show: "Beauty and the Beast." It couldn't be more derivative. It also couldn't be more perfect.

For this reviewer, Christopher Spencer as Belle's crazy father is so over the top you don't know whether to laugh or cry and Michael Fatica as Lefou (humorous sidekick) is just plain silly.

But the story rises and falls with Beauty and the Beast.

And you get a Royal Wedding at the End. Shazam!

"Beauty and the Beast"
Golden Gate Theater
1 Taylor Street (at Market Street), San Francisco
Through August 29