Marin’s Seagull: a Chekhovian reverie

Seagull 2
The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Seagull, including (from left) Peter Ruocco, Christine Albright, Michael Ray Wisely and Tess Malis Kincaid, star in the world premiere of a new version by Libby Appel. Below: Craig Marker is Trigorin and Christine Albright is Nina. Photos by

[warning: many long Russian names ahead – think of them as caviar on toast]

As long as we live in a world where celebrity and art continually clash, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull will feel extraordinarily timely. And as long as people are restless, stingy and full of dreams, Chekhov will continue to offer extraordinary insight to his audiences.

It’s amazing that a flop play from 1896 has become such a resonant classic. From our perspective, Chekhov had the disadvantage of writing in Russian, which means his work has to be filtered through a translator/adaptor – and there have been some big names attached to that duty. Tennessee Williams did it with his “free adaptation” The Notebook of Trigorin. Playwrights Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard and Christopher Hampton have all done it as well.

Now former Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Libby Appel (working from a literal translation by Allison Horsley) brings us her version (a commission of OSF) in a world-premiere production at Marin Theatre Company under the direction of Jasson Minadakis.

This version adds in material that was cut from the original production, either by director Constantin Stanislavski or by government censors. MTC promotional materials maintain these cut scenes and lines have never been performed, so it’s practically a new Chekhov.

Except it’s not. This is Seagull (Marin cuts off the The) is what we’ve always known – artists in the country fighting and loving amongst themselves and their troubled hearts. But there’s a little extra, especially for the character of Polina, who is married to one man and openly in love with another.

This material can actually be quite repetitive, but this production has the great advantage of Polina being played by Julia Brothers, who makes what could be a whiny, annoying woman quite a compassionate soul.

Otherwise, Appel’s adaptation feels contemporary without straining and allows some of the emotional subtext to brim over into passionate language.

From the opening moments, when we see a black-clad Marya Ilyinichna (Liz Sklar) grieving for her sad life, a fog of rueful melancholy hangs over the bright green grass of Robert Mark Morgan’s lakeside set (which gets a little heavy on the penitentiary-like birch trees by play’s end). And that’s probably how Chekhov would have liked it – as long as there were also laughs, which there are.

Seagull 1Four wonderful actors vividly inhabit the central quartet of this rural drama. I wasn’t at all sure of Tess Malis Kincaid as famous actress Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina when she entered in the first act to watch her son’s al fresco play. She didn’t seem to have the weight or the bigger-than-life charm of an actress who is always starring in her own four-star drama.

But by the time she’s desperately trying to keep her love, the celebrated writer Boris Alekseyevich Trigorin (a masterful Craig Marker) from the arms of a younger, prettier woman, her desperation and insecurity poured from the stage.

Marker’s scenes with Christine Albright as Nina, the sweet local girl and aspiring actress, are the play’s best and most emotionally acute. They are two beautiful people caught up in the madness of their art. She’s consumed by dreams of greatness, and he’s caught up in his own cloud of celebrity, acclaim and the requisite self-doubt. Of course they’re going to dazzle each other with their most telling attributes – her beauty and innocence, his rock star/literati charisma – until it wears off and the people they really are emerge.

As Irina’s son, Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov, Tufts is the effective fourth member of the quartet. He’s a mama’s boy in the extreme, so the presence of Trigorin is an immediate threat. He’s also in love with Nina, so her obvious crush on the writer is in fact crushing to Konstantin, who also fancies himself a writer, but of the new-and-improved, not-stuffy-like-Trigorin variety.

Chekhov is the master of creating a seemingly normal, everyday portrait of life while filling his characters with every kind of emotional experience imaginable. In this assortment you have the ravages of old age represented by Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Richard Farrell), mid-life jealousy (Brothers’ Polina), unrequited love (Sklar’s Masha), relative professional and emotional contentment (Howard Swain as Dr. Dorn) and nerdy devotion (Peter Ruocco as devoted husband and father Semyon Semoyonovich Medvedenko).

It’s a captivating collection of human misery at various levels of intensity and self-delusion. Minadakis’ production does what you want a Chekhov show to do: it envelops you in its recognizable world and makes you feel what these people are feeling, whether you want to share their little miseries and joys or not.


Marin Theatre Company’s Seagull continues through Feb. 20 at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. Tickets are $35-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Marin ignites an inferno with extraordinary 9 Circles

9 Circles 3
(from left) Craig Marker, James Carpenter and Jennifer Erdmann star in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s 9 Circles at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Erdmann, Marker and Carpenter. Photos by Ed Smith

Craig Marker gives a performance of such magnitude in Marin Theatre Company’s 9 Circles that it almost eclipses the play itself.

Obviously the play has to be substantial and artful enough to elicit great work from actors, and that is certainly true of Bill Cain’s meaty script here. But at times it almost seems Marker’s not in a play at all – he’s a flesh-and-blood documentary, a slice-of-life person pushing everyone in the room through a barrage of intense emotions.

There’s simply no escaping Marker’s intensity in the 99-seat Lieberman Theatre, Marin’s intimate second stage. Nor would you want to escape. This is without question must-see theater.

Works of art dealing with the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not exactly been embraced by pop culture. Until the Oscar-bedecked The Hurt Locker, no one really bothered to pay much attention. Perhaps we’re too close in terms of current events and too far away in terms of geography and personal involvement.

Cain’s stunning work bridges those gaps with incredible efficiency. With three actors, one rudimentary set and running time of only an hour and 45 minutes, he whisks us from Iraq to the U.S. and back, pulling us deeper into his wrenching story with every scene.

Let me correct myself. We don’t have scenes here; we have circles – nine of them. Just like Dante’s Inferno. The hell that Cain depicts begins with a 19-year-old soldier, Daniel Edward Reeves, being honorably discharged after 10 months of fighting. Very quickly, we spiral down with Daniel as he’s arrested in the U.S. and charged with unspeakable crimes against Iraqi civilians.

Daniel’s hell involves betrayal, loneliness, guilt, rage, patriotism and self-realization, among many other things. The young man is described as having a personality disorder because he doesn’t feel things he probably should, and he’s also described as being “west Texas bullshit to the core” and “an articulate son of a bitch.”

9 Circles 1That’s all accurate, but it barely begins to describe the person we come to know as we spin through these circles. Whatever he did or didn’t do in Iraq, Daniel is a sympathetic character, if only because we begin to feel the enormity of his pain and get an acute view of his inner life – what it contains and, perhaps more importantly, what it’s missing.

Marker’s performance as Daniel is heroic – he lays it all bare (literally) and carries the weight of this heavy drama on his capable shoulders. Filtered through Marker, Daniel’s life force is at once terrifying and compelling. When a priest who is attempting to save Daniel’s soul admits that the young man is “plain I-don’t-give-a-fuck human evil,” it’s hard to argue. And yet, when Daniel shows us how his mind and emotions work in relation to his actions, we empathize, and empathy is a hugely important factor here.

Under the astute, keenly felt direction of Kent Nicholson, Marker receives able support from James Carpenter, who plays all the other male roles, from lawyers to priests to commanding officers. As the priest, Carpenter is chilling, and his scene with Daniel is one of the play’s strongest. A little later on, as a lawyer who wants to use Daniel’s case to prove the futility of the war in a court of law, Carpenter is fascinating in his single-mindedness. The lawyer tells Daniel that his biggest crime was to make the enemy empathetic. “Feeling the pain of the enemy is unendurable,” the lawyer says.

Jennifer Erdmann doesn’t have enough to do, which explains why she makes less of an impression here. But her key scene with Marker in which Daniel’s hyper-macho bullshit act is finally pierced by a military shrink, is by far the evening’s most moving.

In fact, that scene provides the emotional apex of the story, and it’s only circle No. 6. The three circles after that should increase the dramatic momentum, but they don’t entirely. The final few minutes of the play are quietly horrifying, but they still don’t top the wrenching agony of Circle 6.

This world-premiere production is firmly on its feet, but there’s still work to be done in the fine-tuning.

The power and punch of 9 Circles is undeniable. Cain’s script zeroes in on one soldier’s story and leaves us feeling the inescapable historic and emotional weight of the entire war. This is theater that shakes your foundation and leaves you breathless.


Bill Cain’s 9 Circles continues through Nov. 7 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Road, Mill Valley. Tickets are $33-$53. Call 415 388-5208 or visit for information.

No equivocating: this is good theater

equivocation 2 crop

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.
equivocation 1

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 for information.

Theater review: `Romeo and Juliet’

Opened May 30, 2009 at the Bruns Amphitheater

R&J 1

Alex Morf and Sarah Nealis are the star-crossed young lovers in the California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening production of Romeo and Juliet. Photos by Kevin Berne

Youthful passion, ancient hate heat up Cal Shakes’ `R&J’
««« ½

An explosion of color, violence and surprising beauty, the giant splash of graffiti that dominates the cement-heavy set of California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening Romeo and Juliet pretty much says it all.

Designer Neil Patel doesn’t bother with too many scenic flourishes. Two important pieces of furniture – a detailed sculpture of virgin and child and a heavy wooden bed – are on stage at all times, and except for a formal door, the only other opening in the imposing walls is a window platform just perfect for balcony romancing.

The colorful graffiti design, like something that Romeo and his compatriots might wear on a stylish T-shirt, is a youthful burst of energy amid the austerity and dark violence of Verona.

It’s a fitting stage for director Jonathan Moscone’s highly charged, deeply felt production, which opens Cal Shakes’ 35th anniversary season.

The first half of the show, as full of bloody battles as it is heart-melting courtship, is especially riveting. Dave Maier’s fight choreography (which makes great use of violently flung chairs) conveys the tension and drama of the age-old battle between the Capulets and Montagues, while MaryBeth Cavanaugh’s dance choreography – to the pop and dance tunes of Andre Pluess’ sound design – makes the Capulet’s masked ball a fizzy backdrop for Romeo and Juliet to fall in love at first sight.

What makes this production truly connect is Moscone’s choice to make Romeo and Juliet believable teenagers. From the first moments of the show, when we see young Montagues and Capulets with skateboards, iPods and cell phones (in everyday clothes by costumer Raquel M. Barreto), it’s clear that this is a fresh, youthful take on the story. When we meet Romeo (Alex Morf), he’s lovelorn and sappy, sick with love for a girl who has rebuffed him. He lays it on pretty thick, which is why it’s so fun to see his Vespa-driving compatriots Benvolio (Thomas Azar) and Mercutio (Jud Williford) having so much fun at his expense.

R&J 2

Our first glimpse of Juliet (Sarah Nealis) has her staring out the window (awash in the pink light of Russell H. Champa’s expert design), lost in her iPod.

The two meet and fall in love as teenagers. From the famous balcony scene – as giddily romantic and as deadly serious as I’ve seen – up to the tragic chaos that ends their lives, these young people mature before our eyes, especially Juliet, whose resolve and emotional depth are beautifully conveyed by Nealis.

Catherine Castellanos as Juliet’s nurse nearly steals the show. From her fond, gushing remembrance of nursing Juliet as a baby to her soul-deep aching for her young mistress’ troubles, this nurse is as funny as she is moving. Wiliford’s fiery Mercutio leaves an equally strong impression. He and Castellanos have a memorable interaction, with Mercutio relentlessly teasing the nurse (he even bids adieu to her with a serenade of Styx’s “Lady”), but his best work is alongside his comrades.

The second half of the play, with all its weeping and wailing, can’t match the highs of the first half, obviously. Dan Hiatt is terrific as the helpful Friar Lawrence, and the adult Capulets (James Carpenter and Julie Eccles) and Montagues (L. Peter Callender and Castellanos again) all have powerful moments, but the final tragedy, amid the flickering torchlight of the Capulet tomb, didn’t land as solidly (at least not on a chilly opening night) as the rest of the play.

Still, there are indelible images from this production: the flutter of rose petals through a window, the prodigious puddles of blood under slain Mercutio and Tybalt (Craig Marker) and the sweet, sweet flush of first love between teenagers, whose bond has the power to change the world.


California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet continues through June 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24). Tickets are $20-$63. Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information. There’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and the Orinda BART station.

Cal Shakes maintains quite an interesting blog, taking readers behind the scenes of its productions. Check it out here.

Theater review: `The Story’

The Story 3

The cast of SF Playhouse’s taut drama The Story includes, from left, Craig Marker, Ryan Peters, Kathryn Tkel and Halili Knox. Photos by Zabrina Tipton


Racial politics, lies, ambition and the rest of `The Story’

Writing about race it’s hard to do more than signify: this person is this color, therefore he or she must feel this way. The depth of real life, the complications of the actual people beneath the skin color is difficult to convey if you’re trying to relate plot points and especially if you’re trying to make a point.

One of the reasons Tracey Scott Wilson’s 2003 drama The Story is so satisfying is that she sets off a dramatic bomb, and just as we reach detonation, the play is over.

One of the key elements of good play writing is knowing when you’ve rattled your audience enough and it’s time to step away.

A co-production of the SF Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, The Story is a mere 75 minutes long, but playwright Wilson (currently represented in New York with the well-received The Good Negro) crams decades of civil rights action, unrest and unease into a play that also offers insight into why newspapers were in trouble long before the current economic crisis had doomed them to certain extinction.

Director Margo Hall knows that speed is of the essence here, and not a moment is wasted in the telling of Wilson’s tale, which is inspired by the story of Janet Cooke, a Washington Post writer in the early ’80s who won a Pulitzer Prize for a story she had, in large part, fabricated.

The Story 1

Wilson wants to know why an intelligent, ambitious woman like Cooke, here known as Yvonne Robinson (Ryan Peters) would pile lie up on lie in building a career in print journalism. Could it be that as a black woman, she felt she had to do whatever it took to convince people she was a viable reporter worthy of covering stories beyond the opening of a new community center in a primarily black neighborhood?

Or could it be the woman, after years of living her lies, could barely distinguish reality from the falsehoods?

Whatever, Wilson doesn’t offer any conclusions or pop psychology analysis. What she does is pile on the complications.

Yvonne is the new kid at a large metropolitan newspaper called The Daily. She’s aiming for the Metro department, where her blueblood boyfriend (Craig Marker) presides as editor. Instead, she’s relegated to the Outlook section, a community-minded department looking for positive stories to tell in the African-American community. The embittered Outlook editor, Pat (Halili Knox), has fought long and hard to integrate the newspaper to her liking. Her star reporter, Neil (Dwight Huntsman), takes an instant dislike to Yvonne, to her naked ambition, to her seeming denial of her cultural roots and to her sloppiness as a journalist.

For all her crankiness, Pat is the only character who seems to value the power of words and, consequently, the responsibility to execute journalistic responsibilities with care and precision. Were she working in the real world of journalism, she’d probably be unemployed.

Hall’s expert production clips along with help from set designer Lisa Clark’s sliding panels and Cy K. Eaton’s slick lighting design.

Secrets, lies and willful ignorance slide around the stage like those panels, giving us glimpses into the politics of newspapering and the racism of big city life. When a white man teaching at a mostly black inner city school is murdered, racial tension heightens in the city. That’s when two reporters, one ace, one novice, square off over getting the scoop on the murderer. Their duel is intense, and the results are frightening.

The scariest thing of all in this Story is the suppression of facts out of fear of political repercussion should the truth come out.

The Story continues through April 25 at SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40.Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information. For more on the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre season, visit