Ham and jam and Camelot

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Lancelot (Wilson Jermaine Heredia, kneeling), King Arthur (Johnny Moreno, holding the sword) and Guenevere (Monique Hafen, right) take part in a knighting ceremony in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Camelot. Below: Royalty in a tower: Moreno and Hafen look down on the simple folk. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

I never loved Camelot, not ever once in silence. Not in the lusty month of May. Never. And I wanted to because how could you not love the work of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the guys who created the masterwork known as My Fair Lady? I’m also genetically inclined emotionally hard wired to love anything involving Julie Andrews, who followed up her star-making turn as Eliza Doolittle by playing the placid Guenevere in Lerner and Loewe’s adaptation of the King Arthur stories as told in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. But the fact is that the role of Guenevere, like the show in which she’s stuck, is a big drag.

The songs are corny and prissy and all wrong for a story of passion and chivalry and civil justice in bloody dark ages. In fact, Lerner and Loewe were all wrong for this story. They wrote Camelot as if still in the mists of George Bernard Shaw. There’s no blood and guts here, no red-hot love, no edge, which is interesting for a show with so much swordplay. It’s as if the passion is under glass in Camelot – you can see it, you just can’t access it, not through the music (which often feels like warmed over operetta), not through creaky book and lyrics (which are too clever and wordy by half).

Every production of Camelot I’ve ever seen suffers from the same problem. Because the show itself is so clunky, even the most professional of productions come across as mediocre community theater crossed with a Disney princess parade with a little Renaissance Pleasure Faire thrown in for kicks.

How exciting, then, to hear that San Francisco Playhouse was going to re-imagine Camelot as something darker and grittier. Director Bill English got permission to tweak the book and add in two cut songs, “Fie on Goodness” sung by the Knights of the Roundtable and Mordred, King Arthur’s bastard son (and a bastard in general), and “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” sung by Guenevere as a way of riling up the knights to give Lancelot the smackdown he so richly deserves.

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For all of English’s efforts, it’s still Camelot. The actors do their best to infuse some fire into the script, but Lerner defeats them at every turn. English has banished the twee flourishes that make the show ridiculous, but the central love triangle of King Arthur (Johnny Moreno), Guenevere (Monique Hafen) and Lancelot (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) still comes off as sorely underdeveloped.

The role of Mordred (Paris Hunter Paul) has been beefed up a bit but manages to remain a comic book bad guy who feels like he was thrown in at the last minute.

Nina Ball’s set gives us plenty to look at for 2 1/2 hours – castle towers, ruins, grassy hillsides (complemented by scenic projections at the back of the stage designed by Micah J. Stieglitz). And the fights are all grandly staged by Miguel Martinez and fiercely enacted by the actors.

Still and all, it’s Camelot, and that’s not such a good thing. Moreno has some affecting moments as the conflicted king, although Lerner’s ham-fisted dialogue tends to bring out Moreno’s inner Shatner. Hafen makes the most of Guenevere, but the role doesn’t ask for much more than anger, boredom and guilty passion. Heredia, who’s a long way from his days as Angel in Rent here, does everything he can to make Lancelot likeable in spite of his obsession with virtue and valor. Heredia is warm and appealing, although he seems hesitant in his big number, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” even though he has a beautiful voice.

Charles Dean opens the show on a lighter note as Merlyn, who is outfitted by costumer Abra Berman in a hilarious antler-tinged outfit with a bare midriff and a codpiece thrusting out into the audience. It’s such a funny moment that hopes are raised: perhaps this will be the Camelot that doesn’t take itself so very seriously. But no. Dean reappears later as an energetic Pelinore friend and defender to the king, and Merlyn is sorely missed.

Music director Dave Dobruksy and his quartet sound great (and make a brief appearance via video at the top of the show). The arrangements are refreshingly straightforward and aim to remove the preciousness that can make the score even more treacly than it already is.

But. It’s still Camelot, and though this is the most interesting and thoughtful version of the show I’ve seen, I should just accept the fact that I’ll never be a fan and leave it at that.

Camelot continues through Sept. 14 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Enter Stage Left: SF theater history on film

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Robin Williams is interviewed in a scene from the documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco.

Docuemntary film director/producer Austin Forbord (below right) has created a fascinating documentary about the history of San Francisco theater from the post-World War II days up to the present. The movie has its premeire at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week and will likely see wider release soon after.
Austn Forbord
I interviewed Forbord for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here.

The extraordinary cast of interviewees includes: Robert Woodruff, Chris Hardman, Christina Augello, Robin Williams, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Tony Taccone, David Weissman, Misha Berson, Cynthia Moore, Luis Valdez, Peter Coyote, Herbert Blau, Robert Hurwitt, Jean Schiffman, Anna Halprin, Mort Subotnick, RG Davis, Joan Holden, Oskar Eustis, Richard E.T. White. Larry Eilenberg, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Raz, Kimi Okada, Geoff Hoyle, Joy Carlin, Carey Perloff, Bill Ball, Ed Hastings, Bernard Weiner, Charles “Jimmy” Dean, Robert Ernst, Paul Dresher, John O’Keefe, Leonard Pitt, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pam Tent, John Fisher, Melissa Hillman, Brad Erickson, Philip Gotanda, John LeFan, Dan Hoyle, Stanley Williams and Krissy Keefer.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

You can keep up to date on the movie’s trajectory at the oficial website (click here).

Aurora tips Albee’s Balance delicately

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Kimberly King (right) gives a stellar performance as Agnes in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Agnes’ world is upended by the arrival of best friends Edna (Anne Darragh, rear left) and Harry (Charles Dean) who are fleeing a nameless terror. Below: Ken Grantham (in bathrobe) is Tobias, patriarch of a challenging clan, which now includes Harry (Dean, right) and (rear, from left) Agnes (King), Julia (Carrie Paff), Claire (Jamie Jones) and Edna (Darragh). Photos by David Allen

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance only looks like a suburban comedy. It’s really an existential nightmare slightly more gussied up than your average slasher movie. Oh, blood flows in this eviscerating drama, but it’s of a more metaphorical variety than you’ll find in the Saw franchise. Between the ravages of time and the mighty pen of Albee, the family on stage has absolutely no chance at all.

And their demise is so very delicious. (Also delicious: Albee himself was in the audience for Thursday’s opening-night performance.)

A Delicate Balance opens Aurora’s 20th season, and as directed by Artistic Director Tom Ross, it’s a perfect example of why the Aurora is such a glorious part of the Bay Area theater scene. An intimate theater and a thrust stage so deep it’s practically in the round make the Aurora a crucible in which outstanding writing and superb performances combine and, with luck and a good director, ignite. To watch an actor lose herself or himself in an exquisitely crafted part is one of the greatest pleasures in the theater, and there’s no better vantage point for this than the Aurora.

Ross’ Balance is one of those wonderful Aurora experiences – a cracking good play with a strong director at the helm and intricate performances that blur the line between art and reality.

Chief among this production’s pleasures is a central performance by Kimberly King as Agnes. Hers is a performance so compelling it’s sometimes to hard to watch anybody else. From the play’s opening moments, as Agnes muses on the very real possibility that she’ll lose her mind, it’s clear that King will be the vital center of this story. Agnes is a fascinating character – strong, controlling, incredibly smart and hard to the point of impenetrability. But through Albee’s incisive writing and King’s dynamic performance, we also see the person Agnes once was – warm, funny, compassionate, nurturing – before life, and the choices she made to deal with that life, built up her defenses and made her more sour than sweet.

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Because the audience is on three sides of the stage, it’s impossible for actors to escape the careful inspection of audience members at all times. Ross, who has been with the Aurora since 1992, is adept at directing the most minute details. This means that wherever you look at any time during the play, you’ll see something revealing, especially if, like me, you’re compelled to watch King’s Agnes for the play’s three acts and nearly three hours.

Whether she’s lovingly manipulating her somewhat baffled husband, Tobias (Ken Grantham, fighting her alcoholic younger sister, Claire (Jamie Jones or dealing with the hysteria of her oft-divorced daughter, Julia (Carrie Paff), Agnes is a force of nature (“There’s no saner woman on Earth,” we’re told). She’s well spoken (indeed, she apologizes at one point for being articulate), and her words have powerful impact. She’s the fulcrum attempting to maintain the delicate balance of the title.

She rules her suburban roost (the gorgeous living room set is by Richard Olmstead and the lighting by Kurt Landisman) like a drill sergeant crossed with dowager empress with a hint of Margaret Thatcher. And yet she’s entirely likeable, even empathetic, and that’s largely due to the intricacies of King’s masterful performance.

Agnes gets even more interesting when her world starts to rock. Errant daughter Julia returns home after her fourth failed marriage on the same day that best friends Harry and Edna (Charles Dean and Anne Darragh) arrive with news that they have fled their home due to some unnamed terror. The monster of mortality is storming the neighborhood, like Godzilla touring Japan, and Agnes is just the warrior to ready her troops. As she and Tobias discuss early in the play, from their plateau of soul-numbing suburban domesticity, “we do what we can,” so of course they take in their creepily spooked friends and mentally unbalanced daughter. They don’t want to but they do.

There are so many good laughs in this production that it can feel like a rollicking comedy, but for every great laugh line, or accordion solo, there’s an equally searing observation about marriage, friendship, family and the ruinous nature of time. As when Claire, a self-described drunk rather than an alcoholic, asks for a refill on her cocktail: “Oh, come on. It’s only the first I’m not supposed to have.” The more you laugh, the closer you get to falling down the bottomless pit – “the dark sadness” as Albee describes it – at the center of the play. And that’s a theater experience to savor.

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance continues an extended run through Oct. 23 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org

An elegant, inspiring Sunset at SF Playhouse


Carl Lumbly (left) and Charles Dean move from issues of black and white into areas of gray in Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited at the SF Playhouse. Photos by Jessica Palopoli


Cormac McCarthy makes a pretty good argument for the ruin of mankind in The Sunset Limited, a 2006 “novel in dramatic form.” But then again, McCarthy is his own best argument for mankind’s salvation.

By taking two characters, Black and White (each named for his race), McCarthy goes for the tricky gray area in this 95-minute dialogue about the worthiness of the human race. It’s a play defined by talk, not by action. The only real action of the play has taken place before the lights came up. Black, an ex-con murderer who is now an evangelical Christian, prevented White, a professor, from throwing himself in front of an oncoming subway train (aka The Sunset Limited, like the train that criss-crosses the Southern half of the U.S.).

The action of the play is about what doesn’t happen. Black has locked the door of his tenement apartment to prevent White from rushing out there and killing himself. The strategy, according to Black, is to ignite the light of God in White, and failing that, to at least turn him into a friend and instill in him a sense that life is worth living.

But White, a learned man whose refuge in education and art has ultimately failed him, makes a levelheaded case for exiting a world devoid of true meaning or true civility. “Western civilization went up in smoke at Dachau,” White says. Hard to argue with a man who sees life as a forced labor camp where we’re all marched to an ignominious end.


So who wins? The man who has heard – and listened to – the voice of God, a man of faith and deep compassion who now dedicates is life to saving others? Or the man with irrefutable arguments and a deadened soul?

It’s not giving anything away to say they both do. And their arguments make for a fascinating and compelling evening of theater in Bill English’s beautifully acted SF Playhouse production.

As played by Carl Lumbly and Charles Dean respectively, Black and White are eloquent and, in their unique ways, passionate about their particular ideologies. Lumbly’s Black is warm and soulful – his life experience has led him to a place of faith and forgiveness. He’s sensible about his faith and articulate without losing his sense of humor. White is, understandably, shaken. He set out to do something that he had been carefully considering for a long time and was thwarted. Now he’s stuck in the ramshackle apartment (the beautifully decrepit set is by director English) of a man spouting all the Jesus talk he doesn’t want to hear.

In spite of their opposing viewpoints and places in life, the two men develop a keen camaraderie. You even allow yourself to think that when White leaves the apartment, he may be willing to give humanity another shot. Then you remember this was written by the man who gave us The Road and No Country for Old Men.

But that’s part of what I mean about McCarthy being his own best argument for mankind at its best. When you’re able to write the way McCarthy does – with such economy and poetry and desolate beauty – you tap into the mysterious power of art. As an extraordinarily gifted artist, he creates a world and pulls us into its horror and wonder. The Sunset Limited doesn’t have the mythic power of his novels, nor is it terribly theatrical. But it pulses with intelligence and allows two extraordinary actors the opportunity to give us a master class on their art.

I’m not saying that anyone about to throw themselves in front of a train might change their mind after seeing this play, but it does crack open a thorny conversation. And the words reverberate long after the sun has set on this particular production.


Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited continues through Nov. 6 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$45. Call 415 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.

Fathers and sons: Aurora’s Awake and TheatreWorks’ Yellow

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TOP: Ralph and Myron (l-r, Patrick Russell and Charles Dean) have a father-and-son talk as Moe (back, Rod Gnapp) listens in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Awake and Sing! Photo by David Allen
BOTTOM: Playwright D.H.H. (Pun Bandhu, left) takes a lesson on the American dream from his father, H.Y.H. (Francis Jue, right) in the Bay Area premiere of Yellow Face at TheatreWorks. Photo by Mark Kitaoka


As long as there have been fathers and sons, one has wanted to please the other and often encountered difficulty in doing so.

Two very different plays opened in the Bay Area last weekend, and each has, at its center, a touching father-son story.

In the Aurora Theatre Company’s Awake and Sing!, Clifford Odets’ 1934 slice-of-Depression-life family drama, the son Ralph (Patrick Russell) is constantly being brow beaten toward the life of a successful capitalist –not by his father but by his domineering mother, Bessie, played with ferocity by Ellen Ratner. Ralph’s father, Myron, is the epitome of meekness. Though he means well, Myron (the ever-compelling Charles Dean) can’t help but be his wife’s best ally, even when she’s lying and scheming and doing what she thinks – in her sometimes warped way – is best for her family.

Ralph can’t turn to his father for a role model. Instead he turns to his soulful grandfather, Jacob (Ray Reinhardt), who knows that in spite of Bessie’s ranting about the importance of money, life can’t be printed on dollar bills. But Jacob, like Myron, can’t really stand up to Bessie, who admits to her children that she had to be both father and mother to them.

There’s a fascinating friction between the generations in director Joy Carlin’s production. We see Jacob’s generation, which has found meaning in struggle and ideas that actually mean something in the life pursuit. Then we have Bessie’s generation reacting against that – grabbing for money and security no matter what the spiritual cost. And then there’s Ralph’s generation, seeking something beyond the struggle, beyond the financial fixation.

No one’s really happy, but everyone’s up against it. There’s a sadly sweet scene toward the end of the play when Myron, who has gone to bed after much emotional unrest in the family, returns for an apple. He has no way of knowing that his children, Ralph and daughter Hennie (Rebecca White), have undergone seismic emotional shifts that will affect the course of their lives.

No, Myron, chomps on his apple and heads back to bed and to the all-consuming Bessie.

Meanwhile, down at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, TheatreWorks is traversing a more contemporary father-son relationship in David Henry Hwang’s mockumentary Yellow Face.

Hwang makes himself the central character in this true/false account of racial uproar in the theatrical community and beyond. There’s farce and there’s dramatic/political heft here as Hwang (played by doppelganger Pun Bandhu) recounts his adventures trying to prevent Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian Welsh actor from playing a half-Asian pimp in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. But then, in creating a follow-up play to his Tony-winning M. Butterfly, Hwang writes a racial farce and accidentally casts a Caucasian man (Thomas Azar) in the role of an Asian man pretending to be Caucasian to get a role in a play.

Hwang plays fast and loose with the facts as the theatrical brouhaha becomes overshadowed by systematic racism perpetrated by the American government on Asian Americans in the 1990s.

Amid the farcical chaos of director Robert Kelley’s production, one relationship emerges with emotional depth. That relationship is between Hwang and his father, Henry Y. Hwang, who founded the first Asian-American-owned, federally chartered bank in the U.S. Francis Jue, a longtime Bay Area favorite, plays the elder Hwang (among many other roles) and reveals just why the role won him an Obie when he performed it off Broadway at the Public Theater.

Jue, playing well beyond his actual age, makes Henry a fascinating man – a self-made Chinese immigrant who always idolized Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper and who ended up a wealthy man. Henry is funny, especially when trying to get tickets to Miss Saigon through his son, but when things turn serious in the second act, Jue keeps pace with the jagged turns of the script and imbues the character – indeed the play – with heart.

Hwang has clearly been deeply affected by his relationship with his father, and in many ways, in spite of the tornado of issues swirling through the play, Yellow Face seems in many ways to be a simple tribute to the elder Hwang, a man the playwright missed and wanted (or needed) to conjure.


Aurora Theatre Company’s Awake and Sing continues through Sept. 27. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information.

TheatreWorks’ Yellow Face continues through Sept. 20. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.

Review: `The Best Man’

The cast of the Aurora Theatre Company’s The Best Man by Gore Vidal includes (from left) Tim Kniffen, Deb Fink, Charles Shaw Robinson, Michael Patrick Gaffney, and Michael Cassidy. Photos by David Allen


Vidal’s `Best Man’ wins at Aurora
(three ½ stars)

Just in case you haven’t already had it up to here with presidential politics, you should turn your attention to Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, where Gore Vidal’s 1960 The Best Man is showing us unpleasant things about the way we elect our leaders.

Director Tom Ross guides an astute cast through 2 ½ hours of Vidal’s quips, observations and jabs, all on the subject of the dirty business involved in getting to the White House. It’s a swell, snappy production with lots of laughs, some of which hurt more than others.

The play may be almost 50 years old, but it reverberates – a scary thing in a country that has supposedly changed so much. The only real difference between the two candidates fighting it out for their party’s nomination at the Philadelphia convention and the ones at the conventions we just saw in Denver and Minneapolis is the absence of mobile phones, Blackberries, laptops, blogs, 24-hour news pundits and hordes of hovering staff members.

At the core, Vidal shows us, politics has changed very little, and in the end, America’s choice will be “the angel of grayness…as usual.”

The candidates squaring off are William Russell (Charles Shaw Robinson), a former Secretary of State, and Joseph Cantwell (Tim Kniffin), a reigning senator.

Russell, described as a “fancy Dan from back east,” has a tendency to joke too much and quote the likes of Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell and Bertrand Russell to a confused press corps. He’s an intellectual in politics and therefore the subject of mistrust.

Cantwell is slick and ambitious, a true politician who’s willing to sling mud to get what he wants. And that’s just what he does. He gets the dirt on Russell (illegally) and times to release it at the convention in such a way that Russell will have to withdraw from the race.

But Russell has a couple things on his side: a conscience (which some would say makes him a wishy-washy flip-flopper), intelligence and the backing of the Truman-esque former President Arthur Hockstader (Charles Dean). Together, with the help of Russell’s chief of staff (Michael Patrick Gaffney), they go in search of dirt on Cantwell and find something juicy, something that makes him “not normal.”

“I don’t believe it,” Russell says. “Anyone with that awful wife and those ugly children has to be normal.”

While the men get ugly, the women get…ugly. Russell’s wife, Alice (Emilie Talbot) is uptight and a little cold. She and her husband have actually been separated for years but are putting up a united front for the sake of the campaign. Mabel Cantwell (Deb Fink), on the other hand, has a little bit of the Lady Macbeth vibe as she does everything she can to keep his political machine running smoothly.

Vidal stirs up sensational fun as he creates a political potboiler that, as entertaining as it is, doesn’t cut terribly deep. It’s like a good B-movie that stirs things up and lets the viewer take it from there.

The actors do all they can to find three dimensions in the play. Robinson is perfectly cast as the conflicted intellectual, and so is Kniffin, whose Cantwell seems like a power-mad little boy much of the time.

Dean is positively presidential as Hockstader, and he seems to relish being the “hick president” who still wields a mighty power stick.

In supporting roles, Fink’s blond would-be first lady is deliciously bitchy, all grace and smiles and viciousness. And Gaffney, Talbot, Elizabeth Benedict (in multiple roles) and Jackson Davis (in several roles, including a satisfyingly slimy one) populate the intimate Aurora stage – designed with 1960s hotel flair by Richard Olmsted – with genuine character.

Vidal’s view, in the end, is cynical. Is there any other option when it comes to American politics? He doesn’t have any faith at all in our electoral process, and we end up getting what we deserve. Someone brings up the notion of an immoral president, to which former President Hockstader retorts: “They hardly come in any other size.”

Try not keeping that in mind for the next two months.

The ladies of the Aurora Theatre Company’s The Best Man (seated on the couch) are, from left, Emilie Talbot, Elizabeth Benedict and Deb Fink.

The Best Man continues through Sept. 28 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.