Pointed Rhinoceros stampedes the Geary stage

Rhino 1
Berenger (David Breitbarth) watches in horror as citizens of his village turn into rhinoceroses in Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Below: Citizens attempt to remain civilized in the face of craziness as people transform into beasts all around them. The cast includes (from left) Jomar Tagatac as Mr. Botard, Danny Scheie as Mr. Papillon, Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boeuf (rear, on the back of a giant rhino), David Breitbarth as Berenger, Rona Figueroa as Daisy and Teddy Spencer as Mr. Dudard. Photos by Kevin Berne

There are multiple points in human history when Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros would make for funny/terrifying entertainment. Unfortunately, this is one of them.

In Ionesco’s 1959 play, a small French village is best by giant horned pachyderms. Or, more accurately, the citizens are, one by one, turning into beasts. It’s up to one man to resist the herd mentality, hang on to his sanity and resist whatever sort of magic is transforming small-town people into rampaging creatures.

There is never a moment in director Frank Galati’s robust production now at the Geary Theater courtesy of American Conservatory Theater that the audience doesn’t feel the weight of everything happening outside the theater walls, from coast to coast in this small French village we call America. The rhinos in the play (and we see a few of them in Robert Perdziola’s stage design and they’re awesome in every sense of the word) aren’t wearing red baseball caps, but they might as well be.

You might say, hey, wait. Ionesco was responding to Nazis and other really bad people from the 20th century, to which I would say, hey, we have Nazis of our own and hordes of bad people who seem hellbent on lying, cheating, destroying and stupefying. So it’s the perfect climate for Rhinoceros, which goes from silly to scary in only 90 minutes (including intermission).

Galati’s production has a finely tuned sense of what’s important here, and that changes as the play progresses. The first scene, for instance, takes place in front of a small backdrop painted with a village scene. Two friends are having a drink and arguing in front of a cafe when the first rhino is spotted in town. That causes a stir, but not quite the stir you might imagine if something like this were actually to happen. It’s more of a curiosity that townsfolk can regard as not really involving or affecting them. The tone is light, the pace brisk. Actors Matt DeCaro (a comic powerhouse) as Gene and David Breitbarth as Berenger, our unlikely hero, are arguing over propriety. Gene is all about it. Berenger is bored, disheveled and wants a drink. But then the rhino thing starts to get out of hand. Berenger’s workplace – the local newspaper – is damaged by a stampeding beast, but that’s not enough to convince Mr. Botard (the excellent Jomar Tagatac) that the rhinos exist or that there’s not something else happening here. He dubs all of this “fake news.” I’m hoping that translator Derek Prouse didn’t have to massage that quote at all and that Ionesco himself would have chosen those exact words if he were translating it today.

Rhino 2

More citizens are turning into rhinos, including Berenger’s best pal Gene, who does not slip easily into the weathered hide of the beast, but oh boy does that give DeCaro a lot to play with (at one point he even does the Macarena and the Floss to hilarious effect).

What was funny and absurd begins to carry more weight with each succeeding scene. The painted backdrops give way to a dark stage in which a giant rhinoceros looms (the lighting is by Chris Lundhal), and the tension mounts. Characters continue to debate philosophy and the true intention of the rhinos (or the people who want to join the rhinos) as if there was actually something to debate (people are turning into rhinos for goodness’ sake!). Whatever the reasons for this occurrence, it has actually occurred, and the majority has quite willingly accepted – some even enthusiastically – this new life of knocking about on four legs with a horn (or two, depending if you’re an Asiatic or African rhino). At some point you have to just shut up and try to do something.

That something for Berenger (so vividly and empathetically portrayed by Breitbarth) is to hold on to his humanity with everything he’s got, which turns out to be a whole lot more than he or anyone he knows could have guessed.

Galati pitches the mounting intensity with skill, and he gets able assistance from a cast that includes the always fascinating Danny Scheie as a newspaper editor and Rona Figuero as Daisy, a seemingly sensible, sensitive person and (we think) good romantic match for Berenger. The fact that she has a gorgeous voice and keeps singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” is a definite plus. Until it’s creepy.

ACT might consider selling red baseball caps in the lobby. But instead of the usual white-stitched words, they could read as a manifesto: “I will not capitulate!”

Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros continues through July 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Founding Fathers sing a show tune in ACT’s spirited 1776


Members of the Second Continental Congress prepare to vote on independence in Tony Award-winning director Frank Galati’s staging of the musical 1776 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Below: Andrew Boyer (left) is Benjamin Franklin and John Hickok is John Adams. Photos by Kevin Berne

American Conservatory Theater opens the new season with canny revival of the 1969 musical 1776 originally produced last year at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla. Tony Award-winning director Frank Galati helmed the patriotic tuner in time for the presidential election (which somehow seems a lot further behind us than just a year), and now he has brought his creative team and his leading players to San Francisco along with a cast fleshed out with some lively locals.

1776 is an unusual choice for a musical and creators Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (book) take a rather unusual approach in that they’ve crafted more of a play than a musical, but the dozen or so songs somehow work to add a humanizing and emotional layer to a history lesson we think we know but was actually messy and contentious and full of ominous compromise. And though this tale about how the 13 colonies made the decision to break from England is ultimately a patriotic show – it’s hard not to be moved by the very action of creating a brand-new nation – it’s not a flag-waving, firework-popping gloss on the great American creation myth. Perhaps that’s why it was such a hit in 1969, the same year that Hair was letting the sunshine in and taking an entirely different approach to the American experience.

If John Adams was really “obnoxious and disliked” by his fellow congressmen, at least in musical terms he’s absolutely charming, especially as played by the marvelous John Hickok, who has a clarion voice and a crisp character. He radiates intelligence and annoyance in equal measure, and it’s nice that the show allows him some warmhearted interactions (via letters) with his wife, Abigail (Abby Mueller) and gives him a chance to show off his dancing skills with Martha Jefferson (Andrea Prestinario).

But mostly Adams wrangles with the members of Congress who do not favor independence, especially his rival John Dickinson of Pennsylvania (Jeff Parker), who was proud to be a subject of the British Empire, and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Jarrod Zimmerman), a fierce and slickly charming advocate of slavery. Adams is even cantankerous with his key allies, most notably Benjamin Franklin (Andrew Boyer) and Thomas Jefferson (Brandon Dahlquist), but his frustrations come from someplace noble – his firm belief in what is emerging as the American character and the need to start fresh with a nation conceived in liberty for all its citizens (or the white ones anyway, as it turned out).


The musical gets off to a robust start with “Sit Down, John,” an expression of the Congress’ contempt for Adams’ constant harangues, and then gives us some of that contempt first hand in Adams’ own “Piddle, Twiddle” before a reprieve in which Adams exchanges thoughts with his wife. Then Richard Henry Lee of Virginia (the ultra-charming Ryan Drummond) gives us an appealing song and dance about his family (fami-Lee) and then…talking. The musical suddenly turns into a play. The approximately 30 minutes between Lee’s song and the next, “But, Mr. Adams –,” holds the record for the longest stretch in a musical with no music.

Though taking certain liberties with history, 1776 is never the less a beautifully constructed piece of theater, creating suspense around whether or not this Congress can muster a unanimous vote for independence, which seems highly likely right up until the last minute. Even within that suspenseful structure, the musical still finds time to give Jefferson kudos for his virility (“He Plays the Violin,” beautifully performed by Prestinario) and to allow a military courier (Zach Kenney) a moment to bring the realities of the Revolutionary War into the chamber (“Momma, Look Sharp,” though how was there to observe the soldier’s final words and death while his mother searched for him through the night remains somewhat mysterious).

Galati’s production runs just under three hours but is never dull. His large 26-member cast is full of personality but free from unnecessary fussing. Music director Michael Rice and his 10-piece orchestra deliver rich, vibrant sound for a score that, despite its late ’60s origins, feels entirely contemporary. Because Sherman’s score is not rooted in any distinct time period, the music sounds distinctly of the musical theater without pandering to 18th-century details or ’60s pop conventions.

Like the Spielberg movie Lincoln, 1776 takes a part of American history we think we know well, artfully deconstructs and puts it back together as a dramatic narrative that speaks to how connected we remain to our heritage, whether we know it or not.


[bonus interview]
I talked to 1776 director Frank Galati for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776 continues through Oct. 6 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary Ave. San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$160 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Murakami’s `quake’ rattles Berkeley Rep

Opened Oct. 17, 2007 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage

Galati translates Murakami stories to the stage
Three stars Stirred, not shaken

We’re lucky to live in the Bay Area for many reasons, the quality and bounty of theater chief among them.

When our theater companies aren’t producing interesting shows themselves, chances are they’re importing good stuff from elsewhere. That’s the case with Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new show, after the quake, which opened Wednesday on the Thrust Stage.

The show originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and is presented here as a co-production with the La Jolla Playhouse. You might call this Part 1 of a two-part mini-Chicago festival. Berkeley Rep’s next show is Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika, which hails from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Pulling shows from other places seems especially relevant in the case of after the quake, a theater piece created from fiction. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s after the quake deals with the aftermath of the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan.

For the stage version, Galati, an avowed Murakami devote, takes two of the book’s stories and creates an 80-minute play that, for all its theatrical artistry, still feels like a piece of literature.

Getting back to the “lucky to be in the Bay Area” thing, one of our great companies is Word for Word, the company that turns short fiction into fully staged theater pieces without altering the original text. Well, Galati’s after the quake, which has been more liberally adapted, is beautiful but not on par with Word for Word’s best work (Stories by Tobias Wolff comes immediately to mind).

What’s missing is the theatrical thrill, the excitement of crackling good writing coming alive and becoming something more than just writing.

There are certainly moments in “quake” that reverberate. Most come from the story “Superfrog Saves Tokyo,” in which an action-hero frog (Keong Sim), shows up the home of a mild-mannered loan officer (Paul H. Juhn) to enlist his help in fighting the Worm, an underground villain that absorbs hatred, gets angry and makes earthquakes.

Sim, in his three-piece suit, green gloves and green sunglasses (costumes by Mara Blumenfeld), is a wonderfully droll frog who takes the saving of lives very seriously, and Juhn is just as good as the average Joe who rises to the challenge of being a heroic sidekick.

The other story, “Honey Pie,” is a sweet love story that aims to be something more but falls short, at least in theatrical terms. On the page, with time to muse and decipher, the story may reveal more depth.

Junpei (Hanson Tse), Sayoko (Jennifer Shin) and Takatsuki (Juhn) were inseparable in college until two sides of their friendly triangle fell in love, leaving the third side feeling lonely and rejected.

Years later, Sayoko and Takatsuki are the divorced parents of a little girl, Sala (Madison Logan V. Phan on opening night, alternating in the role with Gemma Megumi Fa-Kaji), whose dreams are invaded by a creature she calls “earthquake man.”

The only thing that seems to calm the girl is a bedtime story from her mom’s old friend, Junpei, a short story writer by trade. He tells her about clever bears and other bears who miss their chances.

Notions of anxiety, safety and finding equilibrium on shifting grounds course through each of the stories, but aside from the fact that “Superfrog” is one of Junpei’s short story creations, the connection between them does not come through strongly, thus giving the brief evening a somewhat incomplete feel.

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy, from Galati’s simple, fluid staging on James Schuette’s dark, elegant set (think of a hip advertising agency lobby beautifully lit by James F. Ingalls), to the warm, charming performances from the cast. Best of all is the live music performed by Jason McDermott on cello and Jeff Wichmann on koto (a stringed instrument that, like the accordion does for Paris, immediately conjures Japan). In addition to the original compositions by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, the duo also manages to work in the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and “You Light Up My Life.”

after the quake ends up being a more intellectual pleasure than an emotional theatrical experience — sort of like a good short story compared to a big, juicy novel.

For information about after the quake, visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Galati reads Murakami

There’s a definite literary bent — no ice rinks or Disney TV musicals here — to director Frank Galati’s work.

Two of his best-known stage adaptations began life as books: The Grapes of Wrath and Ragtime. He even got an Oscar nomination for his screenplay version of Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist.

Now he turns his attention to celebrated Japanese author Haruki Murakami with after the quake, now in previews at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

The show, an adaptation of Murakami’s book of stories related to the massive 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, that killed more than 6,000 people, began life in Galati’s classroom at Northwestern University, where he is an emeritus professor in the department of performance studies.

“Right after 9/11 I was looking for material for my students to work on,” Galati says during a rehearsal break at Berkeley Rep. “I often teach a course on performing short stories and have done James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley and others. But the students were just not connecting with some of these classic writers.”

So Galati tried Murakami, who is arguably Japan’s most celebrated author and is probably best known in this country for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.

“The stories are so cryptic, elusive, deceptively simple,” Galati says. “They create a world that’s very recognizable. Clearly, the stories are about Japan, but the world of the stories seems very much like the one we live in. The students really dug the stories.”

After a couple of years of working on the stories in the classroom, Galati took them to Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf, where Galati is an ensemble member, and after the quake made the leap from academia to the professional theater.

The show has since been done several times, and the Berkeley Rep production is produced in association with Steppenwolf and the La Jolla Playhouse.

The simplicity of the production — four actors and two musicians — helps convey Murakami’s blend of Chekhovian naturalism and phantasmagorical comedy.

While dealing with a hugely serious issue like the aftermath of an earthquake, there’s still time for something called “Super Frog Saves Tokyo.”

“That’s something Murakami does in all his works,” Galati says. “He’s tremendously interested in the thin membrane that separates the waking from the sleeping world, the mundane jog through the workaday world and the dreams that are kind of haunted by dark and threatening forces. I just find that tremendously interesting and rewarding.”

Galati notes Murakami’s deft use of contrast: Chekhovian nautralism in the way characters are drawn and in the way relationships unfold. But then there’s this interest in pop culture, which Galati describes as “fantastical, phantasmagorical and comically grotesque.”

“There’s this great kind of tension between the realistic and the more Kafkaesque, uncanny, scary side,” Galati says. “His is a destabilized world, a world that is as porous as the dream world. You see that in all his works.”

Though Murakami is a novelist, Galati says the writer’s sense of drama makes him a good fit for the stage because of the way they “manipulate time and memory and the past.” But novels can penetrate the interior lives of the central characters in ways plays cannot.

“That’s been of great interest to me,” Galati says. “The audience is able to enter inside the sensibilities of the characters through the agency of a narrator, a storyteller. I’ve tried to construct this 90-minute evening in such a way that the two stories we’re doing are interlocking, with actors playing multiple roles.”

To Galati’s knowledge, Murakami has not seen after the quake. “I gather he’s not too keen about hearing his words spoken aloud,” Galati says. “He’s a mysterious guy. He writes a lot about jazz — he’s a very articulate music critic. He and his wife had a jazz club in Tokyo, a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop, for about 15 years. He loved it because he could listen to jazz all day, but that’s a hard business to keep going. He compares his process as a writer with jazz musicians, Thelonious Monk in particular, in regard to cadence, rhythm and phrasing. You can feel when you read him that he’s improvising. He has this kind of wonderful sense of how to create a melodic line, how to repeat it, change key and tempo and keep the same motif and melodic cadence but then alter it again.”

Working on this show has inspired Galati to try his hand at another: Kafka on the Shore, Murakami’s most recently published (in the U.S.) novel.

“I’m hoping we’ll do it at Steppenwolf next year,” Galati says.

For information about after the quake, visit www.berkeleyrep.org.
Visit Haruki Murakami’s Web site — where he will occasionally answer readers’ questions — here.