Shavian wit still dwells in Aurora’s Houses

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The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s Widowers’ Houses by George Bernard Shaw includes (from left) Megan Trout as Blanche Sartorius, Dan Hoyle as Harry Trench, Michael Gene Sullivan as Cokane and Warren David Keith as Mr. Sartorius. Below: Keith’s Sartorius (left) wrangles with Howard Swain’s Lickcheese. Photos by David Allen

George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses last played Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company more than 20 years ago, and though the theater company has come up on the world (bigger, spiffier theater), the satirical world of Shaw’s play still reflects badly on our own lack of evolution where greed, poverty and decency are concerned.

That 1997 production, directed by Aurora co-founder, the late Barbara Oliver, made me a fan of Shaw’s first produced play and made me an immediate fan of Aurora’s chamber approach to great plays where every subtlety and nuance is amplified and the intimacy increases your connection to the characters and the action.

The new production of Widowers’ Houses, directed by the estimable Joy Carlin, is certainly handsome to look at, from the giant gold-framed screen depicting Victorian life dominating the set by Kent Dorsey, who also did the lighting design, to the posh costumes by Callie Floor (who also makes shabby costumes look so real you can practically smell them).

Dispensing with three acts in under 2 1/2 hours, Carlin’s pace is brisk but not rushed. There’s a surprising disparity in the small six-person cast. There’s the expected precision and excellence bringing shaw to vibrant life, but then there’s also some distracting hamminess and amateurishness that keeps the play from truly taking off.

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But what’s good is really good. Warren David Keith is the dark heart of the play as Sartorius, a self-made man of means who turns out to be one of London’s biggest slumlords. He swears he does it all for his daughter, Blanche (an incisive Megan Trout), whom he has raised on his own (and turned into a spoiled, tiny-hearted brat in the process). He is also of the opinion that there’s nothing to be done with the poor except leave them to their own wretched devices. If you extend any sort of generosity – like repairing a dangerous bannister, for instance – they’ll just turn it into so much firewood. You might as well take what you can from them and keep moving along.

Keith is cold and imperious as well as frustratingly smart and considered. His Sartorius is commanding and chilling. He speaks from the heart, but where his heart ought to be is a giant bag of cold coins.

Equally good is Howard Swain as Lickcheese, whose Dickensian name is so very appropriate. He’s Sartorius’ henchman who wrings every last cent from the tenants, many of whom are paying for a quarter of a room. Lickcheese also swears he carries out his heinous duties to support his own family, but he clearly relishes it. When Lickcheese returns later in the play a changed man, he calls to mind a later Shaw character, Alfred P. Doolittle in Pygmalion, who will also use his life on the streets as the basis for a future fortune.

Trout’s Blanche is a delicious character – a prissy Victorian lady hoping to woo marry a naive young doctor she and her father met in their European travels but who reveals herself to be vicious in her thinking and her actions. She hates the poor almost as much as she hates her maid, whom she beats and berates incessantly (the maid is played by a broadly comic Sarah Mitchell). Blanche is the very opposite of what you think of when you think of a Victorian lady in that she is robustly physical and has no qualms in speaking her mind.

By the third act, Shaw’s stomping on his soapbox results in splinters more than barbs, but his point is well made: one man’s riches is the result of another’s poverty. Advantage will always be taken, and even the most noble among us are culpable, whether we realize it or not, in keeping this system alive and thriving. In other words, the play could have been written last week. When the Aurora produces Widowers’ Houses again in another 20 years or so, if the world still exists, the same will undoubtedly remain true.

George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses continues through March 4 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$65. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

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.
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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).

Dan Hoyle’s Glickman Award

Dan Hoyle knows how to liven up a party.

On Sunday afternoon, Theatre Bay Area hosted the Glickman New Play Award reception at the home of Nancy Quinn (a TBA board member) and Tom Driscoll (purveyor of a stunning wine cellar). All the usual award-event elements were in place: the honoree (Dan Hoyle, writer and performer of Tings Dey Happen), his associates (Stephanie Weisman, founder and artistic director of The Marsh, where Tings was born, and director Charlie Varon, himself a Glickman award winner for Rush Limbaugh in Night School).

Hoyle’s parents, Mary and Geoff (as in beloved Bay Area actor Geoff Hoyle, currently in ACT’s The Government Inspector), were in attendance, as was his girlfriend.

(above from left) Charlie Varon, director of Tings Dey Happen, Stephanie Weisman, artistic/executive director of The Marsh and Glickman Award-winner Dan Hoyle, author and performer of Tings.

After hors d’oeuvres and visits to the cool, inviting environs of the wine cellar, TBA’s executive director, Brad Erickson presented Hoyle with the plaque and a check for $4,000. Weisman, as producer of the show, also received a plaque. The five members of the Glickman committee — theater critics all — said nice things about Hoyle’s show and why they thought it was the best play to have its premiere in the Bay Area last year.

Then Hoyle said a few words and got all choked up when he tried to thank his parents. He shook off the tears and, much to the delight of the crowd, he performed a scene from Tings, which happens to be running at The Marsh through April 19. Click here for information.

Hoyle’s performance was, not surprisingly, the highlight of the evening — even better than the wine cellar. Go see him in action at The Marsh and learn a thing or two about Nigerian oil politics and about the wonder of theatrical storytelling.

And finally, here’s the winner with the critics — one of those rare, once-a-year meetings of artist and critic.

From left: Robert Avila of the SF Bay Guardian, Chloe Veltman of the SF Weekly, Chad Jones of Theater Dogs (go bloggers!), Glickman Award-winner Dan Hoyle, Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle and Karen D’Souza of the San Jose Mercury News.

Dan Hoyle wins Glickman Award

Tings certainly do happen when you’re Dan Hoyle.

The young performer, both author and performer of Tings Dey Happen, is this year’s winner of the Will Glickman Playwright Award, which brings with it a check for $4,000. The award is given annually to a playwright whose work makes its world premiere in the Bay Area.

In Tings, the dynamic Hoyle (son of great Bay Area actor/clown Geoff Hoyle) told the story of his experiences in Nigeria studying that country’s complicated — and dangerous — oil indsutry and its political fallout. The play had its premiere at San Francisco’s The Marsh, one of the country’s top theaters for the development of new solo work, and then went on to a well-received run in New York. Charlie Varon, a previous Glickman winner himself (for Rush Limbaugh in Night School), directed.

The Marsh, as producer of the work, will receive a plaque in honor of Hoyle’s achievement.

The Glickman Award, named for comedy writer and theater lover Will Glickman, is administrated by Theatre Bay Area, and the award committee comprises yours truly, Rob Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle, Rob Avila of the Bay Guardian, Chloe Veltman of the SF Weekly and Karen D’Souza of the San Jose Mercury News.