Shout to the top with Shotgun’s Girls

Top Girls
The cast of Shotgun Players’ Top Girls by Caryl Churchill includes (from left) Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Pope Joan, Kendra Lee Oberhauser as Marlene, Aily Roper as Waitress, Karen Offereins as Lady Nijo, Danielle Cain as Isabella Bird, and Rosie Hallett as Dull Gret. Below: Mbele-Mbong as Nell, Jessma Evans as Win and Oberhauser as Marlene. Photos by Pak Han

Would that Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls was something of a dated relic in its details of the horrors, tribulations, indignities and injustices suffered by women through the ages. Things may have changed in the 33 years since the play’s London debut in the era of Margaret Thatcher, but they haven’t changed enough. The play, now being given a sterling production by Shotgun Players feels deeper and more relevant than ever.

It’s fascinating to see Top Girls in such close proximity to a much more recent Churchill play, Love and Information (an American Conservatory Theater production at the Strand Theater through Aug. 9 – read the review here). Both plays demonstrate Churchill’s non-traditional approach to theatrical storytelling and her enthusiasm for experimentation with form. In the newer play, she’s reflecting our collective ADHD back to us with the chill of isolation in a “connected” digital age. And in Top Girls, she plays with time, fantasy, politics, feminism, history and family in the most fascinating way.

The play begins in glorious fantasia as Marlene (Kendra Lee Oberhauser throws a dinner party for herself in celebration of her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency (oh, the cringeworthy-ness of that name). She has invited to her party an assortment of fascinating women from history. It’s not the expected Joan of Arc, Mata Hari, Cleopatra crowd but rather a much more intriguing collection that includes Pope Joan (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) of medieval legend who purportedly reigned as Pope in drag in the 9th century before being stoned to death after giving birth during a papal procession. There’s also Victorian-era author/traveler Isabella Bird (Danielle Cain), Japanese concubine turned Buddhist nun Lady Nijo (Karen Offereins) and Chaucerian muse Patient Griselda (Jessma Evans). Grunting and eating at the end of the table is Dull Gret (Rosie Hallett), a peasant woman painted by Bruegel who headed up a party to pillage hell.Top Girls

As the women drink wine and talk over one another, their stories begin to emerge, stories about children being taken from them, sexual violation, sacrifices on the way to successful careers and all sorts of fascinating details and reactions to the other women’s stories. Director Delia MacDougall pulls us gently into the richness of this long scene, and by the end, we’re fully immersed and reveling in Churchill’s writing and her actors’ performances.

With the help of Erik Flatmo’s sleek, efficient set, Act 2 shifts to the workaday world of the early ’80s as we see what life is like for Marlene and her co-workers at Top Girls. Candidates for jobs are interviewed and instructed not to mention a word about wanting to犀利士
get married, let alone the desire to start a family. No good job can come in the wake of such admissions. Churchill also takes us into rural England to meet Angie (an affecting Hallett), Marlene’s 16-year-old niece, who is a tough, forceful kid, possibly developmentally disabled. Her best friend is 12-year-old Kit (Aily Kei Roper) from the neighborhood, and their scene together is as fascinating as it is disturbing. Angie is openly hostile to her mother (Cain) and even expresses a wish to kill her.

Worlds collide when Angie runs away from home and shows up at her Aunt Marlene’s office just in time to see Marlene challenged by the wife of a co-worker who is angry that Marlene got the promotion over her husband. There’s a soap opera drama element at work here, but Churchill is careful to underscore every scene with issues of women working for or against each other in a world where success is defined by the long established patriarchy.

In Act 3, Churchill goes back in time one year to a rare visit by Marlene – successful city lady – to her niece and sister, an embittered woman at odds with just about everything Marlene stands for. Echoes of that first dinner scene reverberate through the entire play, and it all comes crashing together in this final scene.

Top Girls is Churchill at her best, which is really saying something, and this Shotgun production allows us to fully revel in the complexity and brilliance of her vision.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls continues in a Shotgun Players production through Aug. 2 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $5-$25. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

Twenty years on, Word for Word as brilliant as ever

EXTENDED THROUGH SEPT. 13
In Friendship 1
JoAnne Winter (left) is Viny Liberty, Jeri Lynn Cohen (center) is Calliope Marsh and Stephanie Hunt is Libbie Liberty in Word for Word’s 20th anniversary production In Friendship at Z Below. Below: Amy Kossow (left) is Mrs. Toplady, Patricia Silver (center) is Mrs. Mayor Uppers and Nancy Shelby is Mrs. Postmaster Sykes in short stories by Zona Gale adapted for the stage by Word for Word. Photos by Mark Leialoha

Here we thought Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were giving a master class in the fine art of the theater. Turns out there’s an equally good master class happening at Z Below, the climate-controlled space (formerly Traveling Jewish Theater) underneath Z Space. That’s where the geniuses (genii?) behind Word for Word are celebrating their 20th anniversary with a sharp-tongued, warmhearted show called In Friendship based on the stories of Zona Gale.

The nine women who founded the company, including artistic directors Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter, are all performing in the show (together for the first time, which seems hard to believe). So there’s more going on here than just another show, which happens to be an extraordinarily strong example of what Word for Word does – short works of fiction fully and beautifully adapted for the stage without altering a single word of the original text. Works of literature become, in the hands of these artists, imaginative, compelling and often transporting works of theater without compromising what made them great in the first place. That’s a hell of a formula.

The stories here are about the bonds between women (and two men – shout outs to Paul Finocchiaro and Joel Mullenix, who also directed four of the six stories) in the small town of Friendship. Judging by the harsh treatment of vowels, the town is located in the northern Midwest, and it’s a place where everyone is reasonably healthy and well situated. That leaves plenty of time for the politics of society, community and necessity. The women have all kinds of currents flowing between them – some friendly, some not – but they essentially run the town.

In Friendship 2

How appropriate, then, that the women of Word for Word chose these stories to mark two decades of some of the Bay Area’s best theater making. Watching these friends, co-stars and company members bring these stories to life is sheer pleasure on every level. Gale, the first woman to win the Pulitzer for drama, has a crisp way with words, and though there’s a humorous, almost cartoonish bent to her take on small-town America, there’s also a great deal that is sharply observed and, ultimately, quite heartfelt.

The first half of the two-hour show is devoted to competing social engagements and an attempt to reinvent the church bazaar as seen through the eyes of a relative newcomer to the town, who also happens to be a writer (Harloe). This is an effective way to get to know the town’s personalities and begin to understand the pecking order of local society. Mis’ Postmaster Sykes (Nancy Shelby) is clearly at the top of the heap, and Mrs. Ricker and Kitton (Winter), a cleaning lady who has come into an inheritance, is clearly at the opposite end. In the middle are people like the nervous but compassionate Mis’ Amanda Toplady (Amy Kossow); the domineering new lady in town, Mrs. Oliver Wheeler Johnson (Stephanie Hunt); a somewhat scandalized nearly former mayor’s wife (Patricia Silver); and the forceful Mis’ Holcomb-that-was-Mame-Bliss (Sheila Balter).

Scenic designer Giulio Perrone allows the ensemble to create an entire town through his simple but effective moving white panels that create living rooms, dining rooms, street corners and a firehouse, among many other things.

In Act 2, once we’re deep into the town’s psyche and well into the fall, things get more blatantly emotional. Director Delia MacDougall, who also performs in the final two stories, brings such warmth and intelligence to the stage that any trace of sentimentality is banished and only genuine feeling remains.

The story zeroes in on Harloe’s nameless writer and the woman she has most bonded with, the outspoken Calliope Marsh (a genius Jeri Lynn Cohen who artfully manages to never over- or under-play her bold character). It’s coming on Thanksgiving and these two women, who don’t have much family, want to do something for the community and give themselves a sense of holiday that doesn’t involve depression or loneliness.

What they end up creating is the very definition of holiday spirit, and not to sound cloying or cliché about it (the story is neither of those things), you may end up feeling more genuinely excited for Thanksgiving than you have in years.

The show concludes in a rush of emotion, for the characters we’ve just met, for the wonderful actors we’ve been watching and for the glory of Word for Word on the occasion of its 20th.

On a personal note, I have loved Word for Word since I first saw the work nearly 20 years ago. Intelligent, enterprising and always rewarding, this company, whether on its own or in one of the many great collaborations that have happened over the years, is original and inspiring. A huge congratulations to the women of Word for Word, simply one of the great theatrical endeavors.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Word for Word’s In Friendship continues an extended run through Sept. 13 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 866-811-411 or visit www.zspace.org.

Theater review: `Three on a Party’

EXTENDED THROUGH JUNE 21!

Rhino Party 1

JoAnne Winter is Cora and Ryan Tasker is Billy in Two on a Party, a theatrical adaptation of a Tennessee Williams short story and a co-production of Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros. The story is one of a trilogy, alongside work by Gertrude Stein and Armistead Maupin, and part of an evening dubbed Three on a Party. Photos by Kent Taylor

Something to celebrate: `Party’ trio brings out best in Word for Word, Rhino
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You know something’s working when even Gertrude Stein is the life of the party.

It’s no exaggeration at this point to say that Word for Word is magical. For 16 years now, this company has been creating some of the best theater in the Bay Area out of short works of fiction. Though they change not a word of the original text, their stage works are fully theatrical and quite often more exciting, more moving and more expertly performed than work created expressly for the theater.

The Word for Word alchemy – take a story, add a stage, throw in a dash of brilliance – receives a jolt of inspiration with a new collaborator in the form of Theatre Rhinoceros, the nation’s oldest, continuously operating gay and lesbian theater. The two companies join forces for Three on a Party, an evening of three short stories by gay authors spanning the 20th century, from Stein’s Miss Furr and Miss Skeene (written in 1910, published in Vanity Fair in 1922) to Tennessee Williams’ Two On a Party (written in 1951, published in 1954) to Armistead Maupin’s Suddenly Home (written in 1990).

Rhino Party 3

I tried to read the Stein story and, to be perfectly honest, couldn’t get through it, which is why I’m all the more impressed with director Delia MacDougall for not only making the story a vibrant piece of theater but also for giving it fully rounded characters and emotional depth. Apparently Stein was trying to do in words what Picasso, in his cubist phase, was doing on canvas. Her Miss Furr and Miss Skeene is almost Dr. Seuss-like in its constant use of the words “gay” and “regular.”

Here’s a taste: “Certainly Helen Furr would not find it gay to stay, she did not find it gay, she said she would not stay, she said she did not find it gay, she said she would not stay where she did not find it gay, she said she found it gay where she did stay and she did stay there where very many were cultivating something. She did say there. She always did find it gay there.”

But MacDougall, along with JoAnne Winter as Miss Furr and Sheila Balter as Miss Skeene and Brendan Godfrey and Ryan Tasker as the people in their lives, find the music and the humor in Stein. What had a tendency to become annoying on the page finds new life and clarity on the stage.

The centerpiece of the evening is the hour-long Williams story about two sozzled soul mates, Cora (Winter) and Billy (Tasker). She’s a barfly with a voracious sexual appetite, and he’s a gay writer more interested in liaisons than letters. They meet in a Broadway bar (where Balter is at the piano playing “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”), and over a double rye on the rocks, recognize something in one another that leads them to join forces – on the man hunt and as partners, of a sort, in life. They begin living and traveling together in pursuit, as Billy says, “of the lyric quarry.” They even make a misguided attempt at sex, which Cora sweetly brushes aside: “Sex has to be slightly selfish to have any real excitement.”

Williams’ writing is thrilling as what seems to be a fairly shallow tale of vice, brutality and hooch deepens into a love story about loneliness, companionship and sexual attraction. Director John Fisher finds endlessly clever ways to keep the story moving and evolving and makes expert use of a giant rectangle that is, by turns, a bar, a hotel desk, a train compartment, an elevator and a Buick Roadmaster.

Rhino Party 2

Winter and Tasker are extraordinary as they imbue the lush life of their characters with wells of emotion. Cora, whose eyes are described as “a couple of poached eggs in a sea of blood,” is above all else a kind person, and Winter makes that abundantly clear. Cora is complex and darkly shadowed but easy to love. Tasker’s Billy is somewhat aloof, which is not to say he lacks vitality. There’s nothing simple about him, but he’s a visitor to this rambling, shambling life and will eventually return to his world of words and leave life “on the party” behind.

The final piece of the trilogy belongs to San Francisco’s own Maupin, who sets his tale in an idyllic Noe Valley, where Will (Godfrey) and his husband, Jamie (Tasker), are making a happy life for themselves in the shadow of the AIDS plague. They’re visited by Will’s sister, Tess (Balter), who is on her way to Maui and a marriage with a man who treats her less than well.

Also directed by Fisher, and set to the bouncy-but-needy strains of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” Suddenly Home has the familiar rhythms of a sitcom but with some welcome sass and cynicism. Jamie, an AIDS activist, has just returned from a demonstration at Nordstrom and the spiral escalator. He describes it as being “like Tiananmen Square meets Busby Berkeley.”

This is Balter and Godfrey’s chance to shine, and their warmth and familial friction gives the piece a beating heart and some realistic edge.

I’ve said it before, and I plan on saying it again and again: there’s nothing better than a good Word for Word show, and this collaboration with Theatre Rhino is good times three and then some.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros’ Three on a Party continues an extended run through June 21 at Theatre Rhino, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 415-861-5079 or visit www.therhino.org or www.zspace.org.

Review: “Rock ‘n’ Roll”

Opened Sept. 17, 2008
 

Rene Augesen is Esme and Manoel Felciano is Jan in a scene set at Prague’s John Lennon wall in the American Conservatory Theater production of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard. Photos by Kevin Berne

 

ACT gives Stoppard’s heavy `Rock’ a mighty roll
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Rock ‘n’ Roll has a beat – a heartbeat.

Tom Stoppard’s play, the season –opener for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, bears all the playwright’s hallmarks: weighty intellect, deep sense of history, dry wit, thick dramaturgy. But all of that is less important here than the powerful emotions coursing through the characters’ complicated lives – the emotions and the words.

This is Stoppard’s most autobiographical play. Like his protagonist, Jan, Stoppard is Czechoslovakian by birth and spent an important chunk of his childhood in England. This duality gives Stoppard, and Jan, a dual perspective, not to mention another language, through which to view the crumbling of Communism.

Perhaps Stoppard’s intimate relationship with the history involved here combined with his passion for rock music help the play wage a battle between the heart and the intellect that lets the heart ultimately rule.

Director Carey Perloff, who usually does her best work with Stoppard, doesn’t disappoint. Her production has focus and momentum, and her cast navigates well the tricky balance between the ideology and the humanity.

This is a play that dramatizes Czech politics, from “Prague Spring” in 1968 to the post-Communist world of perestroika in the late ’80s. Unless you’re a historian, you likely don’t know a whole lot about this place or this period beyond what you remember from watching (or reading) “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

And while Stoppard requires his audience to be on its collective toes and pay close attention, the genius of the play is that underneath all the heated discussions about this regime, that petition, these arrests or the pros and cons of socialism, Stoppard allows life and emotions to propel the play.

This notion is embodied in – what else? – rock ‘n’ roll music. Jan (Manoel Felciano) is a rock devotee. When the Czech police want to destroy his spirit they know exactly what to smash: his LP collection full of the Doors, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett (a central, ethereal figure in the play).

Jake Rodriguez’s sound design is like a character in the play – the music is passion, connection and, in its way, revolution. The Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe (who are, coincidentally, playing Slim’s on Oct. 9) figure prominently in the play as comrades of Jan’s whom he admires musically and politically – he even ends up in jail with them after one of their subversive events (a wedding if I heard correctly).

A Rolling Stones concert becomes a testament to a changed world, and Barrett’s “Golden Hair” (itself based on a James Joyce poem) becomes a family’s musical touchstone.

Felciano (above right with Anthony Fusco as a Czech interrogator) as Jan carries much of the play’s emotional weight and does so beautifully. He ages more than 20 years in a believable, low-key way that takes him from the optimism of youth powered by a mighty mind to the realities of a police state and prison to a more subdued middle age where people matter more than politics.

ACT core company member Rene Augesen has one unforgettable scene in Act 1 as Eleanor, a cancer-ridden Cambridge professor giving Sappho tutorials on her back porch. Decimated by not defeated by her illness delivers a ferocious diatribe against words over meaning. She has just watched her student (Delia MacDougall as Lenka) flirt shamelessly with her Communist husband, Max (Jack Willis), during the lesson.

The word at issue is “mind.” Her husband has highbrow definitions of what the mind is – he says it’s a machine that could be made of beer cans — and she’ll have none of it: “Don’t you dare reclaim that word now,” she says. “I don’t want your `mind’ which you can make out of beer cans. Don’t bring it to my funeral. I want your grieving soul or nothing. I do not want your amazing biological machine – I want what you love me with.”

Augesen is extraordinary – not relying on any of the usual tricks we’ve come to see in her work over the years (those come in Act 2 when she plays Eleanor’s daughter, Esme) – she’s so real and vital and frail you almost feel the need to comfort her.

Words and truth are important and elusive in Rock ‘n’ Roll. How can so many words, so many shifting words, ever arrive at the truth?

Discussing words, Jan tells Max: “A thousand years of knowing who you are gives a people confidence in its judgment. Words mean what they have always meant. With us, words change meaning to make the theory fit the practice.”

The fascinating, compelling blend of words and music – intellect and spirit – fuels the play and makes it stand apart from Stoppard’s oeuvre. It’s a lifetime of experience in a complex, heartbreaking, spirit-crushing world that comes to no easy answer beyond giving yourself over to music you love.

That this trajectory comes through so clearly is a testament to the play itself and to Perloff’s handsome production. Douglas W. Schmidt’s set inspires a feeling of vertigo. Inspired by a photograph by Agata Jablonska, the set conveys a sense of standing amid dense buildings and looking up to the sky – oppression and release.

Aside from some accent issues (they come, they go), the cast is strong. Willis has fire but seems miscast as Max, the Cambridge professor for whom arguing is like breathing. But that’s the only major misstep, and strong supporting turns come from Jud Williford as Jan’s compatriot, Ferdinand, and Summer Serafin as Alice, an ‘80s teen with a restless mind and a big heart.

At nearly three hours, Rock ‘n’ Roll is overwhelming in the best sense. We’re pulled into a world – our world – and made to care. More importantly we’re made to listen. And think. And care.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Rock ‘n’ Roll continues an extended run through Oct. 18 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

ACT casts `Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ partners up for `Phedre’


Manoel Felciano, a San Francisco native who used to work at Recycled Records on Haight Street, plays Jan, the central character in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, an ACT production. Photo by Ashley Forrette Photography

With all this buzz about, there must be a new theater season about to start.

First up is news from American Conservatory Theater. Casting is complete for its season-opener, the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning Rock ‘n’ Roll, which begins performances Sept. 11 and continues through Oct. 12.

Artistic director Carey Perloff, something of a Stoppard expert, is directing a cast that includes San Francisco native Manoel Felciano (Toby in the recent revival of Sweeney Todd on Broadway) makes his Bay Area professional debut as Jan, the rock ‘n’ roll-obsessed Czech graduate student at the center of the play. The cast also includes ACT company members Rene Augesen, Anthony Fusco, Jud Williford and Jack Willis. The cast is rounded out by James Carpenter, Delia MacDougall, Marcia Pizzo, Summer Serafin and ACT MFA third-year students Nicholas Pelczar and Natalie Hegg.

Previews begin Sept. 11 and opening night is Sept. 17. Tickets are $17-$62 for previews, $20-$73 for regular performances. Call 415-749-2228or visit www.act-sf.org for information.

In other ACT news, the company will partner for the first time with Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Perloff will direct Racine’s Phèdre in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker, who previously provided scripts for Perloff’s Hecuba and Antigone.

The production, which will bow in the 2009-10 season, will star 17-year Stratford veteran Seana McKenna in the title role.

“We are thrilled to be producing Racine for the first time in ACT’s history,” Perloff said in a statement. “Timberlake’s extraordinary and fresh translation pays homage to the gorgeous poetry of the original while sustaining this play’s explosive heat and visceral sexuality. I have admired Stratford’s work for many years an am excited to work at the theater, where Heather Kitchen, my partner at ACT, started her career.”

 

 

 

Review: `Pericles’

California Shakespeare Theater production opened May 31, 2008, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda


The eight-member cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s Pericles puts on a jousting pageant on stage at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda. Photos by Kevin Berne

Cal Shakes season opens with radiant romp
«««« Rich, rewarding, adventurous

Presented as a gorgeous fairy tale for grown-ups, California Shakespeare Theater’s first show of the season, Pericles, reminds us that in a seemingly horrible world, faith, love and integrity will receive their just reward.

One of those tricky plays labeled “romance,” Pericles might as well be called “kitchen sink Shakespeare” because it includes a little bit of everything: incest, fiery shipwrecks, knightly jousts, swirling romance, assassination attempts, tragic death, magical resurrection, marauding pirates, betrayal and beyond-belief happy ending machinations. Experts quarrel about the exact authorship of the play, especially the first two of the five acts, but the fact is, Pericles is mightily entertaining, especially when directed with flair.

And flair is something director Joel Sass has in great abundance. This Pericles, which is winnowed down to eight actors (and four general ensemble members) playing forty-some roles, is based on the adaptation Sass created for Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre in 2005. All the role switching gives the play a hyper-theatrical feel and helps keep it more in the realm of vibrant storytelling and less in the more emotionally demanding world of realism.

The stage of the Bruns Amphitheater, nestled in the rolling Orinda hills, has rarely been so beautiful. Set designer Melpomene Katakalos gives us a natural world – a tree trunk forms a central arch amid a sandy floor – with crude structures walled in by Persian carpets. Exotic carpets and pillows are strewn about the sand to create a warm, cozy atmosphere for ripping yarns and lusty romance. Russell H. Champa’s lights play with the set the way fireworks play with a Fourth of July sky – they form an extraordinary element in the storytelling here, with their dastardly shadows, warm hues, heroic posturing and near-operatic grandeur.

All of those elements are necessary in the telling of Pericles, the story of the Prince of Tyre (Christopher Kelly), whose life seems to take dramatic turns every time he takes a voyage. First he heads to a kingdom to woo a beautiful princess, but because her father the king is an incestuous letch, that doesn’t work out too well, and Pericles finds himself and his kingdom under attack.

So the handsome prince heads off to a kingdom suffering famine and brings them grain and hope. Returning from that trek, his ship catches fire and sinks. He washes up on the shores of a gentle kingdom and is taken in by kindly fisherman. It just so happens that there’s a knightly tournament going on and that the good-hearted king has a lovely, unmarried daughter. Cue the jousting. From here, the tale takes a more tragic turn, with death, kidnapping, jealousy, murder, forced prostitution and the supernatural all coming strongly into play.

But director Sass and his wonderful octet of actors sail through these bumpy dramatic waters with style. Shawn Hamilton(above) holds the narrative together as Gower, the storytelling poet who sings beautifully and fills in the blanks as the years hurry by over the course of the play’s nearly three hours. Having a narrator helps because it’s a little hard to keep track of this wandering tale.

But that’s another reason Sass’ production works so well – even when the play loses its way or gets tangled in yet another adventure, the stage is gorgeous and there’s always something interesting going on. Raquel M. Barreto’s costumes are lush and beautiful, like something out of 1,001 Nights. She also has a sense of humor. Her fishermen, for instance, look less like people and more like grass huts. And when it’s time for the joust, the knights strap on their horses like clowns. Composer Greg Brosofske lends pomp and romance to an already lyrical story.

The role-shifting actors all shine. Ron Campbell goes from dastardly (as the incestuous king) to dippy (as a fisherman) to equine (as a prancing knight on “horseback“); Delia MacDougall (above, with Kelly) is a robust redhead who wins Pericles’ heart, and then she’s a madam in a fat suit (complete with over-stretched fishnet stockings); Domenique Lozano is a duplicitous queen and an enigmatic sorcerer who has the power to bring the dead back to life; Sarah Nealis is a radiant Marina, daughter of Pericles; Alex Morf plays a series of bad guys until his final bad guy, in the face of overwhelming virtue, turns good; and Danny Scheie plays several good, noble men and one feisty hunchback.

Is the play nonsensical and outlandish? Absolutely. Is it incredibly moving at its tearjerking conclusion when all is set right, and noble Pericles, after all his misfortunes, is given what he most wanted in the world? Oh, yes, and then some. Fairytale is fantasy, and we want to believe some of that fantastical world, of outrageous wrong and unwavering right, can rub off on our world. We want to believe in happy endings so that in our daily dealings with shipwrecks, bawds and nefarious kings, we, like Pericles, can take heart in an ending of the happy, tear-stained variety.

Pericles continues through June 22 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on the Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit in Orinda (there’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and the Orinda BART station). Tickets are $32-$62 (with student, senior and under 30 discounts). Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

 

 

Great actors at Cal Shakes

Casts and creative teams for the first two Cal Shakes shows have been announced, and it looks like it’s shaping up to be another hot summer in the chilly environs of the Bruns Amphitheater in the bucolic Orinda hills.

The 24th season opens May 28 with Shakespeare’s Pericles, directed by Minneapolis-based director Joel Sass in his Cal Shakes debut. The play is being done as an ensemble piece, with eight actors playing multiple roles. Embattled Pericles, Prince of Tyre will be portrayed by Christopher Kelly, a newcomer to Cal Shakes and a five-year resident at the Denver Center Theatre Company. Delia MacDougall, who appeared last season in Man and Superman and King Lear, returns as This/Bawd and Danny Scheie (Arlecchino in The Triumph of Love) portrays Helicanus/Simonides/Boult.

Shawn Hamilton, who appeared in Sass’ Guthrie Theater production of Pericles, will reprise his roles as Gower, Lychorida, and Diana. Associate artist and Fox Fellowship awardee Ron Campbell and associate artist Domenique Lozano, (co-stars in last summer’s The Triumph of Love, play Antiochos/Cleon and Dionysia/Cerimon, respectively; and Sarah Nealis (Cordelia in last season’s Lear) plays Marina/Antiochus’ Daughter. Finally, newcomer and recent ACT MFA grad Alex Morf (Act’s The Rainmaker) is Lysimachus/Thailand/Leonine.

The creative team includes Melpomene Katakalos (Set Designer); Raquel M. Barreto (Costume Designer); Russell H. Champa (Lighting Designer); Greg Brosofske (Composer); and Jeff Mockus (Sound Designer).

Pericles runs through June 22.

Next up, on July 2, is Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone teams up with Michael Butler (artistic director of Walnut Creek’s Center Repertory Company) making his Cal Shakes debut as politician Robert Chiltern. Associate artist Julie Eccles will play his wife, Gertrude, Stacy Ross will portray the villainess Mrs. Cheveley and Elijah Alexander (SO good in last summer’s Man and Superman) plays the rake Lord Goring.

Other Man and Superman cohorts returning for Mosconi’s latest production include include set designer Annie Smart, associate artist Nancy Carlin (Lady Basildon) and Delia MacDougall (Mrs. Marchmont). Joan Mankin will play Lady Markby, Sarah Nealis is young Mabel Chiltern and Danny Scheie as the Vicomte de Nanjac/Phipps.

Moscone’s creative team includes Annie Smart; Meg Neville (Costume Designer); Scott Zielinski (Lighting Designer) and Jeff Mockus (Sound Designer).

An Ideal Husband continues through July 27.

Visit www.calshakes.org for information, and don’t forget to check out the new-and-improved Cal Shakes blogs here. The blogs currently include an interview with Pericles himself, Christopher Kelly, and a plea for housing for Cal Shakes interns.

Review: `The Government Inspector’

Opened March 26, 2008 at American Conservatory Theater

The town’s mayor (Graham Beckel, seated) succumbs to a sneezing fit while accepting the congratulations of the town council (from left: Delia MacDougall, Andrew Hurteau, Dan Hiatt, and Rod Gnapp) on the engagement of his daughter to Khlestakov.
Photos by Kevin Berne

Fantastic cast makes Gogol’s Government worth inspecting

Let me just say that I did not really enjoy American Conservatory Theater’s production of The Government Inspector, a Nikolai Gogol farce in a 2005 adaptation by Alistair Beaton.

The play itself does not have the farcical flair of Feydeau, nor does it have the satiric bite or vivacity of Moliere. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, this desperately unfunny play is long and in need of heavy-duty editing.

But I will say that where director Carey Perloff’s production stumbles in its attempts at exaggerated slapstick buffoonery, it excels in personality.

The ACT stage is virtually crammed with local talent, and these great actors all find ways to rise above the clunkiness of the play, which is about a remote Russian town filled with the usual pettiness and corruption. When word goes out that a government inspector has arrived, everyone panics, fearing their corruptness and pettiness will be discovered. No one, not even Russian peasants, it seems, wants the jig to be up.

Assuming that a gentleman at the inn — who is unable to pay his bill — is the inspector, everyone goes straight into ass-kissing mode, even though the broke man is really just a broke, wanna-be aristocrat trapped in a dingy inn with an unpaid bill, no food and his man servant.

That’s really about it for plot — mistaken identity, pettiness and corruption stretched into nearly three hours of so-called comedy that feels forced most of the time.

Here’s what I enjoyed in the play:

Amanda Sykes (above left) as the mayor’s daughter and Sharon Lockwood (above right) as the mayor’s wife. The two women are nasty and catty with each other and practically knock each other over to win the attention of the so-called inspector. Like so much of the production, the actors push too hard, but Sykes and Lockwood are a good team, and they have some great moments.

Another dynamic duo is Gregory Wallace (above left), who plays the man mistaken for the inspector, and Jud Williford (above right), the man servant who seems to be the only reasonably sane person in the play. Wallace is at his very best — desperate, snooty and more funny than annoying, which is no small feat in a production this manic.

The production itself is visually interesting, though the dreariness of the play works against it. Erik Flatmo’s set — barely standing facades, peeling wallpaper, general mayhem amid snow flurries — features a central performing platform that raises and lowers at center stage, and a great deal of over-crowded action takes place in this small space. The ever-reliable Beaver Bauer contributes costumes reminiscent of Russian toys, all whirling and nesting and full of rich textures and cartoonish poverty.

At a certain point in the show, watching such local laugh masters as Dan Hiatt (as the magistrate), Delia MacDougall (as the director of education), Anthony Fusco (as the drunk postmaster) and Joan Mankin and Geoff Hoyle (as the ginger-haired duo Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky respectively), I couldn’t help wishing they’d stop doing the Gogol and start doing something that would let them unleash their comic genius.

The Government Inspector continues through April 20 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Theater moments: Reflections on 2007

I’ve already offered up my Top 10 list of 2007’s best Bay Area theater (see it here).

That’s all well and good, but there was way too much good stuff in 2007 to contain in a polite numbered list. What follows, in no apparent order, are some of the year’s most distinctive theater moments (mostly good, some not so much).

The shows in the Top 10 were really great shows, but so were these. This is my honorable mention roster:

American Suicide, Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays
Pillowman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
The Birthday Party, Aurora Theatre Company
Pleasure & Pain, Magic Theatre’s Hot House ’07
After the War, American Conservatory Theater
Heartbreak House, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle and The Marsh
Annie Get Your Gun, Broadway by the Bay
Des Moines, Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts
Richard III, California Shakespeare Theater

Favorite scene: Didn’t even have to think twice about this one. The dinner scene in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Director Les Waters, working from Adele Edling Shank’s script, fashioned a multilayered scene that would have made Woolf herself proud. A boisterous family dinner, warmly illuminated by candles, allows us into the head of each of the diners without ever losing track of the dinner conversation. Extraordinary and beautiful — and vocally choreographed like a piece of complex music.

Greatest guilty pleasure: Legally Blonde, The Musical, had its pre-Broadway run early in 2007 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, and though it had its problems, it was a heck of a lot of fun. The best number was the lengthy “What You Want” in which sorority gal Elle Woods (Laura Bell Bundy) decides to apply to Harvard. In true musical fashion, the number sweeps through time and space, coursing through months of effort and from Southern California to the hallowed halls of Harvard. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography incorporates a frat party, the Harvard selection committee and a marching band.

Favorite image:The green girl in Berkeley Rep’s The Pillowman.

Favorite couple: Francis Jue as Mr. Oji and Delia MacDougall as Olga Mikhoels in Philip Kan Gotanda’s After the War at ACT. The sweetest romance was also the most surprising: a shy Japanese man and a recent Russian immigrant, neither of whom speaks much English.

Speaking of MacDougall: It was a good year for the actress (seen at right with the fur and tiara), who died memorably in Cal Shakes’ King Lear and ended 2007 with a superb, hip-swiveling, lip-pursing performance in Sex by Mae West at the Aurora.

Favorite tryout: Joan Rivers is more than a red carpet personality and an experiment in plastic surgery. An avowed theater lover, Rivers got down to some serious (and seriously funny) business in The Joan Rivers Theatre Project at the Magic. She combined stand-up with drama as she told an autobiographical tale of growing old in show business. The play was far from perfect, but she gets an A for effort.

Best ensemble: Behind every good show is a good ensemble, in front of and behind the scenes. But the one that comes to mind that, together, elevated the play was the fine crew in TheatreWorks’ Theophilus North (left) directed by Leslie Martinson.

Biggest disappointments: There were a few of them. I adore Kiki and Herb (Justin Bond and Kenny Melman), but their summer gig at ACT was in desperate need of a director. Berkeley Rep hosted Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Oliver Twist, and while it was good, it didn’t reach anything approaching the heights of David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby. I complained about this in the review, and I’ll complain about it again: In ACT’s The Rainmaker, when the rain falls at the end, the actors should get wet. That’s the whole point of the play. In this version, the rain fell from above, but the actors were behind it and only pretended — acted if you will — the wetness. Lame.

Most gratuitous nudity: Actors bare all emotionally _ it’s what they do. But this year saw some unnecessary flesh, most notably in ‘Bot at the Magic, Private Jokes, Public Places at the Aurora and Two Boys in Bed on a Cold Winter Night. Costumes are a good thing.

Favorite quote of the year: It was uttered by the food critic Anton Ego (and written by Brad Bird) in the brilliant Pixar/Disney movie Ratatouille. As a critic (or what’s left of one), the words really hit home. And they’re true.

Here’s a taste: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

Happy New Year. May your stages in 2008 be full of the discovery of the new.

Thoughts on `Sex’

I can’t really review the Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Sex, a 1926 play by the delectable Mae West. One of my best friends is in the cast (he’s brilliant, by the way), so I have what they call in the ethics business a “conflict of interest.”

So, knowing my bias, here’s what I enjoyed about the production, directed by Tom Ross, the Aurora’s artistic director.

This is unlike any show I’ve seen in 10 years of going to the Aurora. First of all, it’s a musical (under the terrific musical direction of Billy Philadelphia, who tickles the ivories, and when pressed into acting service, looks sharp in an officer’s uniform). The second act of West’s play takes place in Trinidad, and it’s mostly an excuse to sing a lot of songs. Philadelpia has written three new songs to add to the Sex-y song list, and they’re terrific. The best one is “At the Cafe Port au Prince,” expertly performed by Danny Wolohan in an afro wig. It’s a funny, catchy number, and Philadelphia’s other new tunes, “Under the Red Light” and “Goin’ Down Under,” make me think that perhaps it’s time for Philadelphia to seriously consider writing a jazzy musical (and his wife, Meg Mackay, could star because it’s been too long since we’ve seen her onstage).

To be perfectly honest, Sex is a fairly lousy play. There are some very funny lines, and West wrote herself an interesting role in Margy LaMont, a Montreal prostitute who attempts to go straight and gets involved with a naive society boy. But the dialogue is stiff and dated, and as for plot, well, nothing really kicks in until Act 3 when the past and present clash in an amusing way.

What makes Sex interesting now is, of course, West herself. She wrote this piece before she had fully developed her trademark Mae West persona, so we get her intelligence, humor and strength with less of the robotic waxwork mechanisms she later created for herself.

Ross’ supporting ensemble — Robert Brewer, Steve Irish, Craig Jessup, Maureen McVerry, Kristin Stokes, Philadelphia and Wolohan — does a whole lot to keep the play from dragging (in lesser hands, boy would it drag). But the star here is Delia MacDougall as Margy.

MacDougall has always been a smart, reliable actor, and she knows that simply doing a Mae West impersonation for 2 1/2 hours isn’t going to cut it. So we get glimpses of Mae — especially when MacDougall struts and sings “Sweet Man” and “Shake That Thing” (a great ensemble number) — but what we really get is Margy, a worldly broad desperate to make something of her life. She doesn’t exactly have a heart of gold, but she has a brain and good instincts. And perhaps most happily of all, she has a raging libido, and she owns it. Could this be where the expression “You go, girl!” comes from?

MacDougall is marvelous (and she looks fantastic in Cassandra Carpenter’s ’20s dresses). Her performance alone should make you eager to dive headlong into Sex.

For information about Sex, visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Here’s a trailer for West’s movie I’m No Angel from 1933 with Cary Grant.