Marin Theatre Co. meditates on Ruhl’s poignant Boy

EXTENDED THROUGH OCT. 11
Oldest Boy 2
Kurt Uy (left, as Father) and Christine Albright (as Mother) interact with their 3-year-old son, Tenzin, a puppet operated by Tsering Dorjee (Bawa), Jed Parsario and Melvign Badiola in the Marin Theatre Company production of Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy. Below: Mother and son have a moment in India. Photos by Kevin Berne

The plays of Sarah Ruhl are mightily appealing in their intelligence, sensitivity, beauty and depth. From Dead Man’s Cell Phone to Eurydice (now at Shotgun Players) to In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, Ruhl makes the ordinary extraordinary and gives poetic voice to thoughtful, troubled lives that have a great deal to offer.

Now making its West Coast debut at Marin Theatre Company, Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy is in some ways very conventional: a well-heeled mother and father in the United States are conflicted about the education of their young son. But the circumstances surrounding this conflict are quite extraordinary. Their 3-year-old has been deemed an incarnate lama, the reincarnated soul of a “tulku” or high-ranking lama. Two monks arrive from India (where so many Tibetan Buddhists live in exile from their conflicted homeland) with the news, and the parents must decide if they will relinquish their son to life in a monastery on the other side of the world.

This news is perhaps more shocking to the mother (Christine Albright), who was raised Catholic in Ohio and has been a spiritual wanderer since, than it is to the father (Kurt Uy), a Tibetan who grew up in India and now operates a popular restaurant in an unspecified American city.

Oldest Boy 1

With the surprise arrival of a monk (Wayne Lee) and a lama (Jinn S. Kim), it quickly becomes clear that there is little doubt that the child is the reincarnation of the lama’s former teacher (who died three years previously), so the parents must decide how they will proceed. For a mother who is practicing attachment parenting, this is a jolt to be sure.

Ruhl doesn’t really spend much time with the “is he or isn’t he” issue of the child’s reincarnation, and the parents don’t fight much about the fate of their child. So there’s not a whole lot of conflict in this play, but there is a whole lot of feeling. When the action shifts to India, there’s also tremendous beauty in the ritual we see (Collette Pollard’s set is gorgeous, as are the costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt and the lights by Jeff Rowlings).

At the heart of the story is a little boy, Tenzin, represented by a bunraku-style puppet operated by Tsering Dorjee (Bawa) (who also provides the choreography), who provides the voice, and Melvin Badiola and Jed Parsario, who give astonishing expression to his body (the fantastic puppet is by Jesse Mooney-Bullock). There wasn’t one moment in this two-hour play when I didn’t feel the reality of the child, even though he was an obvious theatrical contrivance. That has a lot to do with the artistry of the puppeteers, Ruhl’s script and Albright’s strong central performance.

Director Jessica Thebus pulls nuanced, naturalistic performances from her actors, and that keeps the play grounded in reality, even when Ruhl stretches credibility in Act 2. We experience this story from the perspective of Mother, and Albright is a powerful focal point as we see her using her considerable intellectual abilities (she’s a literature professor, adjunct as she’d point out) to try and open up her spirituality and to the hardest thing a parent has to do: let go of a child. As she points out, “The cruel animal fact of motherhood is bigger than any idea.”

The play and this stunning production never lose sight of that, and The Oldest Boy turns out to be one of the more moving theatrical experiences I’ve had for a while.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy continues an extended run through Oct. 11 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Mill Road, Mill Valley. Tickets are $25-$55. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

TheatreWorks delights with devilish Angels

Angels 1
Rebecca Dines is Jane and Sarah Overman is Julia, best friends whose marriages are boring them to tears. In Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, the bored wives get up to some drunken mischief. Photos by Kevin Berne

Boredom, desire and champagne make for a potent cocktail in Noël Coward’s 1925 comedy Fallen Angels, now receiving a lively production from TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

Director Robert Kelley delivers an elegant outing for this zesty comedy that keeps its focus on two live wire ladies – Jane and Julia, best friends since grammar school. Living the easy life with their lackluster husbands is taking its toll on their vivacity, and when left to their own devices, they manage to stir up a whole lot of excitement with the help of a man from their past (a cameo by the ever-dashing Aldo Billingslea.

I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt:

If Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz had been born into London’s upper crust, they might have resembled Julia and Jane, besties since childhood and now five years into their respective marriages to wealthy ninnies. Julia (Sarah Overman) is frank with her husband, Fred (Mark Anderson Phillips), over breakfast: “We’re not in love a bit,” she says. Ever-sensible Fred replies that they’re in love in a different way, a way full of affection and “good comradeship.”
Jane (Rebecca Dines) has a similar conversation with her Willy (Cassidy Brown); and when the two men go off for a short golf holiday, the women decide to inject some much needed passion and excitement into their lives. “To put it mildly, dear,” Jane says, “we’re both ripe for a lapse.”

Read the full review here.

Angels 2

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels continues through June 28 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$74. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Faith, choices, colonialism collide in Marin’s gutsy Convert

Convert 1
Chilford (Jabari Brisport, left) is thanked by Mai Tamba (Elizabeth Carter, kneeling) and her niece Jekesai (Katherine Renee Turner) after he accepts Jekesai as his student and servant in exchange for her conversion to Catholicism. Mai Tamba’s son Tamba (JaBen Early, at rear) has serious doubts in the Bay Area premiere of Danai Gurira’s The Convert at Marin Theatre Company. BELOW: Prudence (Omoze Idehenre) gives the re-named Ester (Turner) advice about her studies in the language, religion and customs of the English settlers. Photos by Kevin Berne

For someone who kills zombies in her day job, Danai Gurira sure knows her way around a compelling drama. Best known as the kick-ass, Katana-wielding Michonne on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” Gurira is also a playwright, an impressive one as it turns out based on her Bay Area debut with The Convert now at Marin Theatre Company.

This is a good, old-fashioned historical drama – three acts and nearly three hours – about the soul-crushing damage of colonialism and missionary zeal. What’s interesting is that The Convert is the second play to open in the Bay Area recently specifically addressing the colonizing of Africa by Europeans. In Just Theater’s We Are Proud to Present… (read about it here), it’s about Germans (and later the British) in Namibia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In The Convert, we’re dealing with the English running roughshod over Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) in the late 19th century. Both stories, perhaps needless to say, end horribly for the native Africans.

Gurira’s Convert finds a land at the breaking point. The British, Dutch and Portugese have had a profound effect on local culture, the Shona people, seizing land and forcing many of the men to work in diamond mines for paltry pay and wreaking havoc with the native spirituality by aggressively converting Shona people to Christianity. Rebellion against the settlers began in the 1890s – when The Convert is set – and continued into the 1960s.

Convert 2

The title character is Jekesai (Katherine Renee Turner), a Shona woman who speaks no English but is in need of help from a local missionary, an African convert named Chilford (Jabari Brisport), who will save her from entering into an arranged marriage with a much older man is she agrees to open her heart to Jesus. Coached by her aunt, Mai Tamba (Elizabeth Carter) to say yes to anything the missionary says, the young woman begins her conversion as a means of protection, but her agile mind and ferocious spirit are soon caught up in her conversion for real. She learns to speak English and becomes Chilford’s right hand when it comes to bringing locals into the church.

Colonialists and missionaries, it turns out, are blinded by a similar affliction: 100 percent certainty that everything they think and do is right and that the world owes them. The profound disrespect they show to “savages” has disastrous ramifications for all involved, not to mention the land, the cattle and anything else that can be thoughtlessly pillaged for profit. Gurira’s play is fueled by the conflict of traditional culture and spirituality being overtaken by foreign culture and spirituality. Jekesai, who is renamed Ester, represents the locus of the conflict, but Gurira gives us another fascinating woman who is torn in a different way.

Prudence (Omoze Idehenre), a Shona woman, was not only fully educated by the British, she turned out to be smarter than most of her teachers and is now more convincingly British than they are. She has a crisp accent and a powerful vocabulary, and she’s set to marry a local bigwig, the African Chancellor (Jefferson A. Russell). The interesting thing about Prudence, outfitted in starchy, confining British styles (costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt) is that she acutely feels how thoroughly she has turned her back on her own culture and people. She still speaks the local language when she can and encourages Ester to do the same. She’s also smart enough to know that what now separates her from her people will ultimately fail to connect her to the Europeans. She’s in between cultures and will likely be rejected by both.

Director Jasson Minadakis and his superb cast fill Nina Ball’s simple missionary home set with drama that comes from sharply defined characters and well-defined historical conflict. Turner as Jekesai/Ester is stunning, as is Idehenre as Prudence. Their characters are vivid and powerful and rich they almost need no supporting cast at all. But the supporting cast, which also includes JaBen Early and L. Peter Callender representing Shona men who resent the European influence and are preparing to to something about it, provides complex human beings rather than cardboard historical cut-outs.

It’s a bold move in our world of contemporary drama to present a long, three-act play. When so many playwrights are moving toward 90-minute (or less) one-acts, it’s refreshing to see a playwright go bold. The advantage of a three-act structure is the opportunity to fully draw in the audience and get them involved in the story. That certainly happens in The Convict, but I wasn’t convinced that the same couldn’t have happened in two acts. There are some slow patches in Act One, whereas acts Two and Three are full of action and emotion and consequence.

The Convert is a powerful drama, and as much as I love “The Walking Dead” (and especially as much as I love Michonne), it probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing for Gurira to give up her day job and focus on being the kick-ass playwright she so clearly is.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Danai Gurira’s The Convert continues through March 15 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $20-$55. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

TheatreWorks’ musical Earnest fun but unnecessary

Earnest 1
The cast of TheatreWorks’ world-premiere musical Being Earnest includes, from left, Mindy Lym, Hayden Tee, Euan Morton and Riley Krull. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is now set in 1965 and includes an original score by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska. Photo by Mark Kitaoka. Below: The Act 2 opener, “All in the Gutter,” pays tribute to Wilde. The complete cast includes, from left, Lym, Krull, Diana Torres Koss, Tee, Morton, Brian Herndon and Maureen McVerry. Photo by Tracy Martin


In addition to some terrific songs and a perennial reason to scream at Dover to “move yer bloomin’ ass,” My Fair Lady has left an interesting legacy in the form a highly raised bar to which all classic plays turned into musicals must aspire. Most composers have all but given up trying to transform an already great play into an even better musical and instead turn to movies as grist for the musical mill.

But Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska are still aiming toward the Shavian/Lerner and Loeweian heights. Quite courageously, they have turned Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest into a musical. Being Earnest, their transformed work, is having its world premiere courtesy of TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Taken from its late 18th-century time period and transported to London’s fashionable and swinging Carnaby Street circa 1965, this admirable attempt to musicalize Wilde takes some risks, but, it turns out, none of them are quite big enough.

Being Earnest is a perfectly pleasant two-plus hours. Wilde’s ever-reliable play, still largely intact, offers wit and crisp comedy, and the score, with music by Gruska and Gordon and lyrics by Gordon, feels repetitive, but at least what’s repeated has a sturdy melodic hook. But there’s no fizz in the score to match the carbonation of Wilde’s farce. The sound of the mid-’60s in England is evoked but without the go-go energy and ebullience that the play aches for.

The basic fact is that Earnest the play did not need to be a musical at all. The play, though brilliantly written, requires a delicate comic touch, a careful approach to tone and performance that relies heavily on timing and tempo. The songs simply gum up the comic works and make the actors, under the direction of Robert Kelley, work too hard to connect the dots between the original text, the songs and a time period shift that ultimately feels way out of whack with the stolid society that Wilde was satirizing.

In a reversal of most musicals, Act 2 is actually much better than Act 1 because Wilde’s comic machinations are grinding away at full steam and a song finally lands solidly. The cat fight between Gwendolen (Mindy Lym) and Cecily (Riley Krull), who mistakenly believe they’re engaged to the same man, is actually sharpened by the musical thrust and parry. The only song in Act 1 that comes close to matching the play’s comedy and serving a real purpose is Lym’s reverie about men named Ernest, “Age of Ideals.”

Earnest 2

A good example of tone and setting working against the play is veteran Bay Area comic actor Maureen McVerry as Lady Bracknell. The role’s comedy stems from dowager stuffiness and blatant greed masquerading as propriety. McVerry is, as expected, quite funny, but she looks so chic and gorgeous in Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes that it’s hard to get a bead on where the character is coming from and why, in 1965, she is being so creakily old-fashioned.

The opening number attempts to set the scene, and while that song, along with the snazzy mod costumes on parade, should do the trick, the annoying video screen at the back of Joe Ragey’s set design goes into overdrive with photos of Twiggy and the Rolling Stones to ensure there’s no mistaking when and where we are. But if the score can’t do it, then it’s not really getting done.

Leading men Euan Morton as Algernon and Hayden Tee as Jack, who don’t fare nearly as well as the women on the fashion front, are never very likable, and it seems they keep singing the same song at each other for most of the show. Brian Herndon as butlers Lane (in the city) and Merriman (in the country) and as the Rev. Chasuble feels much more in tune with Wilde and seems to be laboring much less feverishly. Diana Torres Koss as Miss Prism also has some nice moments, though the notion of a spinster teacher/companion employed by a guardian for his 20-year-old ward seems much more 1895 than 1965.

What you don’t want in a production of Earnest, musical or not, is for the play to seem like an endless string of Wildean epigrams strung together by an ineffectual plot enacted by brittle caricatures resembling people. Too many scenes come off that way here, and the Act 2 opener, “All in the Gutter,” is actually a string of Wilde epigrams performed in front of a photo of the author on the big video screen. It is, in effect, what “Seasons of Love” is in Rent: a direct address to the audience welcoming them back from intermission and attempting to re-immerse them in the world of the show. In theory, it works, but in practice it does not.

Even while you can admire the attempt to improve upon The Importance of Being Earnest, it comes down to this: Wilde’s is a comedy for the ages, touched with brilliance. Being Earnest has been created with intelligence and some charm, but it tames Wilde and adds weight where there should be lightness.

[bonus interview]
I talked to composers Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
TheatreWorks’ Being Earnest continues through April 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

TheatreWorks designs with Sense and Sensibility

Sense & Sensibility 2
Jennifer Le Blanc (left) is Elinor, Stacy Ross (center) is Aunt Jennings and Mark Anderson Phillips is Colonel Brandon in the TheatreWorks production of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Photo by Tracy Martin

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle, I talk with TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley, set designer Joe Ragey and costume designer Fumiko Bielefeldt about their work on bringing Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility to the stage.

Here’s a little bit to start:

How appropriate to have a calm, rational discussion about Jane Austen and the theater on a Menlo Park corner that used to house a brothel.

The discussion takes place in a conference room, part of the TheatreWorks rehearsal complex, that is affectionately known as Miss Kitty’s in deference to the madam who purportedly did a different kind of business on this site many years ago.

TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley is talking about his affection for Austen and the kinds of sights and sounds he wants to conjure in the production of her “Sense and Sensibility” he’s directing in Mountain View.

Read the entire article.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

TheatreWorks’ Sense and Sensibility continues through Sept. 18 at the Mountain View Center for the Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.