Tiny but terrifying: Go ask Alice

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Rod Gnapp and Carrie Paff work out some kinks in their relationship in the Marin Theatre Company production of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice. Below: Andrew Hurteau as Brother Julian. Photos by Kevin Berne

The legend of Tiny Alice looms large. Edward Albee’s notorious 1964 follow-up to his monster Broadway smash Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf baffled critics and continued to cause kerfuffles for years to come (especially when William Ball, in the early days of American Conservatory Theater played fast and loose with the script).

This is not one of Albee’s frequently produced scripts, and after seeing Marin Theatre Company’s riveting production, it’s easy to see why. This play is a monster. It’s not like Albee hasn’t created monsters before (he loves to rile the beasts in many ways), but this one is especially weighty.

Notions of God, faith, corruption and the supernatural all bear down for three acts and three solid hours, which means a serious evening of theater. It’s not that there aren’t laughs – how could there not be, the Catholic Church is involved (cheap shot, sorry)? – Albee is such a sharp writer and this cast is so astute that chuckles and outright laughs are frequent (and that can make the difference between endurance and enjoyment).

But this is a challenging play to say the least. Act 1 is familiar territory as Albee introduces his players, his zest for zingers and a juicy central mystery. In Act 2, the ground begins to wobble, and by Act 3, the ground has given way altogether. The monster, perhaps literally speaking, is loose.

Directing this play has been a decades-long obsession for MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, and his production clearly demonstrates the guiding hand of someone to whom the play’s mysteries are, if not clear, at least illuminated.

Minadakis has said he couldn’t do the play until he had just the right actors, and it’s good thing he waited as long as he did. The quintet at work on stage here is doing some mighty powerful work.

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Andrew Hurteau is the emotionally and spiritually conflicted center of the play as Brother Julian, a lay brother whose crisis of faith – seemingly in his past but powerful enough to institutionalize him for a number of years – makes him especially vulnerable to the machinations of those whose motives may not be pure.

The motives of the Cardinal (Richard Farrell) are quite clear. The Church has been promised $20 billion dollars from the estate of a young woman who, working through her lawyer, wants to spend time with a representative of the Church. That turns out to be Brother Julian. If Alice takes a shine to him, the Cardinal is a hero, and the Church is billions of dollars richer.
From their first, bizarre meeting, Julian and Alice create a bond. It would be hard not to be intrigued by Alice, especially as played by the beguiling Carrie Paff (looking gorgeous in elegant costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt).

The power dynamic between Paff and Hurteau, sometimes charged with sadistic thrill (Alice) and sometimes with wrenching heartbreak (Julian), never ceases to fascinate.

Alice also works a strange dynamic with her lawyer, played with aggressive intelligence and chilling malice by Rod Gnapp. They have a sexual relationship, but they’re in each other’s heads to a dangerous degree.

Alice’s trusty butler is always on hand to provide a quirky line or a bit of comfort – and Mark Anderson Phillips is a comfort indeed. He makes Butler (yes, that’s the butler’s name) as fascinating as everyone else, even though he functions on the periphery of the action. He, like Julian, seems a little more human than the devils conspiring to win the lay brother’s soul for reasons they won’t divulge until it’s too late (for Julian).

J.B. Wilson’s set (lit beautifully by Kurt Landisman actually becomes another character in the show. As Julian becomes more and more immersed in Alice’s world, he gets to know her mansion and the miniature replica of it that dominates the main drawing room.

I won’t say I understand where Albee is going with Tiny Alice, but I will say I enjoyed the ride. Asking questions about the nature of God and man’s relationship to spirituality is fascinating, especially in the hands of a compelling writer. Brother Julian, so fiercely and compassionately played by the astonishing Hurteau, has a tenuous relationship with God at best. The world of hallucination and reality are not comfortably defined for him, nor are they for us.


Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice continues through June 26 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $32-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org for information.

Something Fuddy going on here

Andrew Hurteau and Mollie Stickney great the day with resolve and a blank slate in the Marin Theatre Company production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers. Below: Stickney with the puppet Hinky Binky. Photos by Kevin Berne

The world of David Lindsay-Abaire is askew. From his earliest wacky comedies to his later, more serious award-winning work, Lindsay-Abaire’s “askewniverse” (to borrow a word from Kevin Smith’s oeuvre) is filled with people on the outside of perceived normal life, people who are, for whatever reason, struggling just to make themselves understood.

In Shrek the Musical it’s a green ogre who takes a while to figure out that even though he’s not a handsome prince, he’s actually a hero. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole it’s a mother numbed by grief slowly rebuilding a life and marriage after the death of her young son.

And in Fuddy Meers, Lindsay-Abaire’s first produced play (written while he was still in grad school at Juilliard), it’s an exceedingly cheerful woman named Claire who suffers from psychogenic amnesia.

It’s like Drew Barrymore in the movie 50 First Dates (produced five years after Fuddy Meers by the way): every morning she wakes up a blank slate. She has no memory of her life or the people in it. The thought of that affliction sounds somewhat terrifying, but both Drew in the movie and Claire, the hero of the play, seem quite content to orient themselves to their lives and get on with their days.

In both cases, they have helpful people around to speed the process. In Claire’s case, she has her husband, Richard, who has created a binder of helpful hints to fill in the giant blank of Claire’s life.

In addition to Richard, Claire also has a 17-year-old son, Kenny, who seems to be having some difficulty graduating the eighth grade. With every day the first day of your life, the possibilities of a fresh start are practically endless, though you have a lot of fresh-starting to do before bedtime comes and wipes the slate clean again.

Marin Theatre Company’s production of Fuddy Meers has the great advantage of having Mollie Stickney in the role of Claire. In the play’s nearly two hours, Claire’s blank slate becomes surprisingly full, and every revelation, recovered memory, moment of joy or pain registers on Stickney’s wonderfully expressive face.

As luck (and the playwright) would have it, we meet Claire on a particularly dramatic day in her usually placid life. Very soon after waking and discovering that she has no memories, Claire meets two men: her husband (played with loving, somewhat frustrated gusto by Andrew Hurteau) and a masked stranger claiming to be someone from her past.

This limping, lisping guy is played by Tim True, whose performance is at once scary and hilarious – no mean feat.

Once this guy limps in, the rest, as they say in comedy, is mayhem.


To reveal any more about the plot would be a crime, and I’d have to administer an amnesiac drug. There are surprises galore here – some delightful, some rather contrived.

But I will say that there are some sparkling performances in director Ryan Rilette’s production. Joan Mankin as Gertie, Claire’s mom, is at once touching and hysterically funny. Gertie is recovering from a stroke and suffers from word-twisting aphasia. She can almost make herself understood – more in tone than in word.

It’s from Gertie that the play gets its title. That’s her way of saying “funny mirrors” like in a carnival funhouse, which is what this play resembles in its twisted, contorting version of family life.

Lance Gardner is Millet, a colleague of the limping man’s who has a penchant for a hand puppet named Hinky Binky. Gardner’s somewhat schizophrenic performance is equal parts funny, disturbing and sympathetic.

Not all of the rhythms in Rilette’s production work – some of the transitions in Eric Flatmo’s set from kitchen to basement, take too long and slow the comic flow. Act 1 ends with a bang (literally) but without as much rapport between characters and audience as you might hope to find.

But it’s not all about comedy here, and that’s why Act 2 is so much more rewarding. There’s a pall of sadness hovering just over the chaos, and a lot of that has to do with the son, Kenny (a touching, angry Sam Leichter, losing his mom every day.

The final scene of Fuddy Meers brings the emotion to the forefront. Things may be twisted and tiled in David Lindsay-Abaire’s world, but when it comes right down to it, even people approaching life from different angles still just want to connect.


David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers continues through April 24 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $33-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org for information.

Happy Now? Well no, not really.

Mark Anderson Phillips (left), Rosemary Garrison (center) and Alex Moggridge contemplate the void of harried modern lives in Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now? at Marin Theatre Company. Below: (from left) Moggridge, Mollie Stickney, Phillips, Kevin Rolson and Garrison. Photos by Ed Smith

The smiling cartoon woman on the poster – the one juggling the trappings of modern life such as a cell phone, a brief case, a lap top, a glass of wine and a baby – is a comic figure. She’s about to slip on a skateboard, but she’ll go down being what society wants her to be: a productive super gal.

The poster says comedy, but in actuality, Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now? Is something of a modern tragedy. The 2008 drama had its premiere at the National Theatre in London and is only just receiving its West Coast premiere from Marin Theatre Company.

Directed by Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, the production is sharp where it should be as well as hard and cynical for most of its nearly 2 ½ hours. The cast, though beset with fluctuating British accents, creates vivid, highly recognizable characters who are easy to relate to and who make us cringe frequently.

There are a few laughs along the way as we watch two households unravel or come dangerously close to it, but this is serious stuff. There’s a whole lot of misery, anger and stress pouring off the stage, and to be honest, it’s not pleasant.

The fact that the play is well directed, well acted and well designed (Melpomene Katakalos created the appealingly abstract kitchen/living room set, Kurt Landisman designed the lights and Wesley Cabral hits the photo realism hard with the video projections) only heightens the realism and thus increases the discomfort.

What we have here are a lot of privileged white people whining. When they exhibit a sense of humor, it’s usually tinged with acid, and their affection for one another, when it’s visible, is strained at best. The main character, Kitty (Rosemary Garrison), has one vital relationship, and that’s with her gay lawyer best friend, Carl (a good-natured Kevin Rolston). But even that relationship seems more of a comfortable convenience than a necessity.

Kitty works for a company searching for a cure for cancer. She has two children (whom we hear but never meet) and a husband, Johnny (Alex Moggridge), who has forsaken the business world to teach in public schools. On the topic of his work, Johnny tends to turn into a righteous ninny, especially when friends dare to mention Catholic school.


Kitty and Johnny’s closest friends (with close still being a far distance here) are Miles (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Bea (Mollie Stickney). He’s an acerbic ass who sees the world this way: “Three things keep people going: drinking, fucking and telling lies.” She’s been beaten down by his negativity and doesn’t exhibit much personality until the marriage finally crumbles.

The play only really sparks to something resembling life when Kitty encounters Michael (Andrew Hurteau), a dumpy philanderer who propositions her at a conference. He’s a player because he has to be, but he’s astute. The mere fact that he pays attention to Kitty’s emotional being makes her putty in his hands – eventually.

The dinner party scenes have genial rhythms, but nobody actually seems to be having a good time. And there’s a reason for that. These are uninteresting, passionless people. They’re in life but not of it. Nobody talks about the arts or athletic activities. Politics is barely addressed. And forget about spirituality.

That’s probably the most depressing aspect of the play. Not one of these characters seems to have even the most remote spiritual inclination – not religious, not New Age self-help, not anything. They’re wallowing in a void, scrambling to grab hold of one another but shocked when the other hollow shells are unable to save them. So they turn to alcohol and reruns of American sitcoms.

None of this is new, but Coxon gives it a sheen of existential exhaustion that makes it seem freshly dispiriting.

The play’s title, Happy Now?, is, of course, ironic. We seem to be happy. We pretend to be happy. But if we’re to believe these characters, we’re really anything but happy and have few tools to extract ourselves from the modern-day muck and mire.


Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now? Continues through Dec. 5 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $33-$53. Call 415 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org for information.

Marvelous Much Ado closes Cal Shakes season

Andy Murray (right) as Benedick re-thinks his bachelor ways, much to the amazement of (from left) Nicholas Pelczar, Dan Hiatt and Nick Childress in Cal Shakes’ Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Kevin Berne. Below: Danny Scheie as Dogberry. Photo by Jay Yamada

Much Ado About Nothing can be one of Shakespeare’s trickier romantic comedies. It’s full of sparring lovers, great lines and thoroughly entertaining comic bits. But it also contains some harsh drama, faked death and edgy mischief making. Capturing just the right tone can help ease the audience through all those shifts, and that’s what eludes so many directors of the play.

Thankfully, California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone finds fresh ways to meld all of Shakespeare’s fragments into a seamless and captivating whole. The darker hues seem perfectly comfortable alongside the bright comedy, and the romance bursts with charm and appeal. If you’re looking for a late-summer fling, head straight for the beautiful Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.

There’s a warm autumnal hue surrounding Moscone’s production. Russell H. Champa’s lights lend a burnished glow to the Italian escapades on stage, and Daniel Ostling’s set, with its copper piping and airy construction, is alive with greenery, both real (the potted flowers and landscaping are courtesy of Will’s Weeders, the Bruns’ resident gardeners) and artificial. At the center of the stage is shimmering, manmade red-leafed tree, whose leaves occasionally flutter to the ground.

Even the cello music in Andre Pluess’ sound design is festive with a tinge of melancholy, and that’s just perfect.

All these design elements create a world in which Beatrice, a woman who thinks love has passed her by, can turn her merry war of words with Benedick into a later-life love story. It’s a world where the nasty malcontent Don John can play a brutal trick on innocent people. And it’s a world where a word-mangling sheriff can nearly walk away with the play.

The villainous Don John and Dogberry, the master of malapropisms, are played by a single actor, Danny Scheie, and his virtuoso performances ignite sparks in the play where there are rarely sparks.

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Don John is so often played as simply a means to a plot-twisting end, but Scheie takes such joy in the man’s misanthropy and relishes each line so much that he becomes an irresistible baddie. It’s almost a shame that Don John disappears in the play’s second half, but that absence affords Scheie the opportunity to sink his teeth into Dogberry, a character frequently defined by his hilarious inability to use words correctly.

Scheie doesn’t go that route. Almost surprisingly, he lets the verbal comedy become secondary to the character’s personality. In Scheie’s expert hands, Dogberry is not a bumbler. He’s a professional working at the top of his game – or so he thinks. There’s a certain arrogance in the man that comes from the pride he takes in his work as well as an unmistakable passion to be the best constable imaginable.

The fact that we see how inept this man is heightens and deepens the comedy. It’s a masterful creation, and Scheie is a wonder.

In any Much Ado we expect Beatrice and Benedick to hurl insults at one another with comic aplomb. Dominique Lozano and Andy Murray do that and a whole lot more. Lozano shows us a strong, vivacious woman who is boldly attempting to buck the notion of a spinster, while Murray gives us a man’s man who is aching to find a soulmate. Both are utterly charming actors, so it’s no surprise they spend so much time beguiling the audience – especially Murray in his asides. At one point, his exuberance leads him to kiss an audience member.

I saw Murray play Benedick at Lake Tahoe’s Sand Harbor about 14 years ago, and though he was good then, he’s great now. He finds nuance in each line, and the character feels lived in.

This Much Ado is nearly three hours but feels much shorter. That’s a testament to Moscone’s beautifully calibrated production and the excellent work of the ensemble, which also includes a fiery Andrew Hurteau as Friar Francis, Dan Hiatt as Leonato, Emily Kitchens as Hero and Nick Childress as Claudio.

It’s a spectacularly lovely production (the gorgeous late-summer weather on opening night sure didn’t hurt) and a sumptuous end to another great Cal Shakes season.


Cal Shakes’ Much Ado About Nothing continues through Oct. 15 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, just off Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets are $34-$70. Call 510 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

No equivocating: this is good theater

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The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Equivocation includes, from left, Andrew Hurteau, Craig Marker and Lance Gardner. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Now heading into the final weekend of a well-deserved extended run, Marin Theatre Company’s Equivocation is enormously enjoyable theater.

I liked Bill Cain’s play last summer when I saw it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and I still like its muscular, hugely entertaining theatricality. The Marin production, directed by Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, is more intimate but just as rewarding.

The cast boasts some of the Bay Area’s finest – Anna Bullard (the lone woman in the cast), Lance Gardner, Andrew Hurteau, Craig Marker, Andy Murray, and Charles Shaw Robinson – as they crawl around J.B. Wilson’s scaffolding set that reminds of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Where else would you want to set a story of William Shakespeare, or Shagspeare as he’s called in the play?

As Cain’s play imagines Will attempting to write a piece of propaganda theater for bonny King James (and his henchman, Sir Robert Cecil) and discovering that what he writes has to be the truth or nothing, something very interesting happens. Cain’s immense knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays and British history coalesce into a drama that feels recognizably human yet epic in its scope and more than just a little bit contemporary.

It’s so easy to forget that Shakespeare’s plays came from a human being, albeit a phenomenally talented human being (and for the sake of argument, let’s deny the Shakespeare deniers). Like Tom Stoppard did in Shakespeare in Love, Cain wants to remind us that Will Shakespeare was a son, a husband, a philanderer, a father and a successful artist. Whereas Stoppard’s movie was comic and romantic, Cain’s play is more intellectual and of the theater. But both makes us care anew about Shakespeare and stop to consider what it might have been like for him to actually create plays like Macbeth or King Lear. Something similar happened with Amadeus – we were asked to consider that Mozart was a brilliant composer and flawed human being and that his work wasn’t always “classical music.” At a certain point, it was fresh and new and surprising. We’ve turned his music into an institution, just as we have Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s refreshing when artists like Bill Cain come along to toy with our notions of why something great is actually great.
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In Equivocation, Shakespeare is commissioned by the king to create a play about the Gunpowder Plot, a thwarted attempt to blow up the king and Parliament. But Will can’t muster any enthusiasm for the “powder plot” because, in dramatic terms, there’s no plot. The more he investigates, the more he discovers about a royal cover-up and dastardly deeds done by the overly ambitious Cecil.

Robinson (seen at right with Hurteau) is Will, an earnest if ego-conflicted playwright and mediocre father two his two daughters (we only meet Judith, an underwritten role played with aplomb by Bullard). He and Cecil (a brilliant Hurteau) loathe each other, but Will has a theater troupe to feed, so he accepts the king’s commission to write a play about current events. Will’s research leads him to the prison cells of the accused traitors, the most fascinating of which is Father Henry Garnet (Murray), whose theory about equivocation is that it allows you to tell the truth under difficult circumstances. You don’t have to compromise your morals if you learn to answer the answer really being asked of you – the question under the question.

And this is where Cain’s play gets really interesting – what’s the play under the play? Could it be about U.S. politics? Of course it could. But it’s also so wonderfully theatrical that, at its best, this play crackles with energy. Like most of the actors, Marker plays a member of Shakespeare’s troupe and several other roles – traitors, royals or whatever’s necessary. This role shifting provides some stellar moments for the actors, as when Marker gets to be an actor in a play and the king watching the play at the same time.

Theater about theater can come across as so much navel gazing in a spotlight, but Equivocation gazes into all the right places, questioning everything and putting on a hell of a good show.


Equivocation closes May 2 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$54. Call 415 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org for information.

Review: `The Seafarer’


The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s The Seafarer by Conor McPherson includes (from left) Julian Lopez-Morillas as Richard, Andrew Hurteau as Ivan, Andy Murray as Sharky, John Flanagan as Nicky and Robert Sicular as Mr. Lockhart. Photos by Ed Smith


Bedeviled on Christmas Eve in McPherson’s `Seafarer’
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The first holiday show of the season is upon us, and it’s overflowing with booze, poker and a visit from ol’ Satan himself.

Yes, it’s just another Irish Christmas by way of Conor McPherson’s rollicking The Seafarer which opened Tuesday night at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley.

It’s a fantastic production of a play that ranks among McPherson’s best, which is saying something. The author of The Weir, Dublin Carol and others is one of Ireland’s foremost playwrights and one of those assured voices that has a touch of magic to them. If you require more evidence, we’re in the midst of a minor McPherson festival. Aside from The Seafarer in Marin, SF Playhouse is winding up its scarily good production of McPherson’s Shining City.

Both Seafarer and Shining City take otherworldly routes to darkly human places. They’re fantastic in every sense but squarely grounded in the alcohol-soaked, muck-ravaged lives of people who’ve seen the good life pass by.

The past weighs heavily in The Seafarer. It’s Christmas Eve in Baldoyle, Ireland, and Sharky (Andy Murray) has returned home to care for his blind older brother, Richard (Julian Lopez-Morillas). Sharky is hardly a saint, though he’s not too shabby as a caretaker. Richard is not a kindly patient – he’s cantankerous, ornery, voluble and prone to the drink.

Sharky is, at the moment, taking a break from alcohol. He’s two days dry, and if he can just get through Christmas, he’ll be OK.

But being back in the bosom of family is enough to drive anybody to drink.

Set designer J.B.Wilson literally sets the brothers’ home in a dank Irish cave. There’s a recognizable house in there – though the brothers have basically turned it into a junk heap littered alcoholic refuse – but the overall impression is that of a dark, chilly underground lair.

How fitting, then, that as the brothers welcome some friends – Andrew Hurteau as Ivan and John Flanagan as Nicky — over for holiday cheer and a friendly poker game, that the devil, in the suave form of Mr. Lockhart (Robert Sicular, right in overcoat with Hurteau), shows up as well to claim a soul that was promised to him about 25 years earlier.

This deal-with-the-devil scenario is hardly Damn Yankees and this Christmas tale is hardly of the Carol variety, though there are certainly elements of both here.

There’s guilt, regret, drunk and disorderly conduct, hidden passions and maybe even a little redemption in this long Christmas night of the soul, but there’s also a whole lot of laughter.

Lopez-Morillas’ Richard is highly memorable – the kind of character you love to watch on stage but would never want to know (or smell) in real life. Loud and emotional, Richard is the exact opposite of his brother, a bruised (literally) man tired of being beaten by life. Murray’s great skill as an actor allows us glimpses of the man Sharky is trying to hard to be but can never quite make that breakthrough.

Sicular is devilishly good with his keenly focused gazes and his seen-it-all worldliness. His is not a sly devil – more like a drunk one who makes no bones about why he’s there and who he’s after.

The final card game, one that could result in the reclaiming of a soul, is beautifully directed by MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis, who never lets this seemingly lumpy play out of his tight control. There’s careful orchestration at work here, and Minadakis executes McPherson’s verbal score like a master.

Hurteau as Ivan is a sad sack bundle of misery – a lousy father and husband but a good friend with a wide streak of decency in him, while Flanagan’s Nicky is a good-time guy who never met a bottle of beer he couldn’t best.

It’s a veritable full house of great actors, and they’re a joy to watch in this disarming tale of deep, dark nights, hopeful day breaks and, yes, maybe even a little genuine (and genuinely sozzled) Christmas cheer.


The Seafarer continues through Dec. 14 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $31-$51. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.