Revived Fair Lady bursts with melody, life, wit

The cast of The Lincoln Center Theater production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady includes (from left, center) Sam Simahk as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle, Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering and Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins. Below: Transformations are happening in Professor Higgins’ posh London flat (set design by Michael Yeargan). Photos by Joan Marcus

My Fair Lady has always been so brilliantly constructed, so full of beautiful, vital music that its nearly perfect machinations can leave a slight chill. The very idea of turning George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmailion into a musical was at once genius and ridiculous – how could such a brainy parlor comedy sing and dance? Composers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (working with director Moss Hart) figured it out in 1956, and a classic play was soon eclipsed by a classic musical.

As we know, classic musicals don’t always remain in sync with changing times, especially in respect to issues of race, gender and sexuality. Given that My Fair Lady flexes Shaw’s feminist muscles, it is interesting to re-visit the show in the sumptuous, expertly appointed touring production of the Lincoln Center Theater’s 2018 revival that is now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season.

There has been so much focus through the years (from the original Broadway production through the 1964 movie and endless tours and regional/community productions) on the relationship between Henry Higgins (the teacher) and Eliza Doolittle (the student) that the center of Shaw’s story seems to have shifted. This is a show about class, one of the artificial restrictions society employs to determine who is allowed to do what and to whom. In this case, the wealthy British elite (high society, aristocracy, royalty, etc.) maintain their position over the, as one character puts it, “undeserving poor.”

When Higgins makes a bet with his pip-pip-cheerio chum, Pickering, that in six months, he can pass off Eliza, a “draggle-tailed guttersnipe” flower girl, as a duchess at an embassy ball, he’s making a casual revolt against societal norms for his own amusement (and to maintain his gargantuan ego by proving what a god-like teacher he is). In a musical, this would constitute the “A” relationship, which would normally be a romantic one, and the “B” relationship, here between Eliza and an entitled, rather dopey suitor named Freddy Eysnford-Hill, would be the secondary romance. But Shaw wasn’t aiming for conventional romantic comedy here, even if that’s what audiences crave. Higgins and Eliza develop an extraordinary relationship/battle of wills, but romance isn’t (and shouldn’t) be part of it, which makes the ending problematic (we’ll get to that).


It also means the Eliza-Freddy plot hardly matters, although the stalker-like Freddy, who writes to her multiple times a day and can’t seem to tear himself away from her doorstep, gets a lovely song in “On the Street Where You Live.” The much more interesting secondary story here belongs to Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, and his unlikely ascent from drunken dustman and general blackguard to eminent philosopher and money bags. He also gets two of the show’s liveliest songs, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

There’s so much more than a love story here, and director Bartlett Sher’s sterling production brings that out. There are flimsy tours and there are grade-A tours – this falls firmly in the latter category. The design, the onstage talent and especially Sher’s smart, detailed direction make this show shine for a new generation. And here’s the best thing of all: it’s warm, emotional, funny and sharp without having to make any excuses for its age.

Much of the show’s heart comes from Shereen Ahmed as Eliza as she breaks down the character’s gruff exterior to reveal intelligence, vulnerability and strength. The first hint of Eliza’s inner life comes in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and then comes fully forward in a rage-filled “Just You Wait,” which is is staged on Michael Yeargan’s fantastic turntable set allowing Eliza to storm through multiple rooms of Higgins’ handsome two-story London flat. By the time Eliza has her breakthrough in “The Rain in Spain,” we love her, and then she totally captivates us with a shimmering “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

Laird Mackintosh brings a sort of Hugh Laurie quality to his Higgins and gives the character an energetic bounce that rivals the nonstop vibrations of his brain (and, it must be said, ego). Adam Grupper as Doolittle is a comic force, but he’s nuanced and lets the character build. He could stop the show with “Luck” but doesn’t (which can make Act 1 peak too soon), but completely lets loose in Act 2 with his show-stopping march to get to the church on time. This is also when choreographer Christopher Gattelli gets to let it all out with drag queens, drag kings, lust, booze and general debauchery of the highest order.

Every My Fair Lady, although a show full of potent ideas and stinging smackdowns, will always be judged on its “Ascot Gavotte” because a) it’s hilarious and b) it’s such a showcase for the costumes. Designer Catherine Zuber rises to the challenge here (and everywhere else) with a feast for the eyes.

Sher has tinkered with the musical’s ending to make it more in line with Shaw’s original ending (spoiler alert: Eliza asserts her independence and does not stay with Higgins, nor does she fetch his slippers), although the way it’s staged is rather bizarre. It’s almost as if Eliza appears as a figment of Higgins’ imagination as she wordlessly breezes into his flat through the door and out through one of the invisible walls. Still, it’s gratifying to see that Sher sticks with the anti-rom-com trajectory.

I also couldn’t help thinking that maybe it’s time for another movie version – one that stays sharp instead of gets mushy but lets us keep this glorious score alive. In my dream version, the song “Hymn to Him” (aka Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?) becomes literal as confirmed old bachelors Higgins and Pickering discover their deep and abiding love for one another through their love of phonetics and their staggering privilege. Shaw never quite got there, but in time, he probably would have. Higgins could be played by Andrew Scott (the sexy priest from “Fleabag”) and Pickering by Benedict Cumberbatch. And Eliza? Adele, of course. Now wouldn’t that be loverly?

The Lincoln Center Theater production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady, presented by BroadwaySF, continues through Nov. 28 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit COVID-19 policy detailed here.

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

Cal Shakes sculpts a vital, vivacious Pygmalion

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Anthony Fusco (left) is Henry Higgins, Catherine Castellanos (center) is Mrs. Pearce and Irene Lucio is Eliza Doolittle in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Below: On the streets of Covent Garden – Nicholas Pelczar (on balcony) is Freddy Eynsford Hill, Lucio (center) is Eliza and Julie Eccles is Mrs. Eysnford Hill. Photos by Kevin Berne

When real life comes in and smacks Prof. Henry Higgins across the face, it’s a wonderful thing to see this brilliant yet stunted man consider, perhaps for the first time in his life, that kindness may have worth akin to genius.

The force representing the real world – a world of messiness and emotion and connection – takes the form of Eliza Doolittle, an extraordinary young woman who is the intellectual if not social equal of Higgins and his superior when it comes to living life as most of humanity experiences it.

One of the great things about the California Shakespeare Theater production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is how balanced it is. You feel Shaw’s guiding hand in Jonathan Moscone’s approach in the way that nothing feels superfluous. Every character is there for a reason and a point of view. Moscone’s cast is filled with Bay Area all-stars plus a remarkable company debut from Irene Lucio as Eliza, the flower girl with brains, bravery and aspiration.

Lucio’s Eliza is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is how she is fully emotionally alive without ever over-playing it. The rough Eliza we meet on the cobblestones of Covent Garden is recognizable in the graceful, articulate, beautifully spoken Eliza we see at the end. There’s an emotional through-line in the character I haven’t felt before in other productions of the play or its musical sibling, My Fair Lady. That makes a big difference in the focus of the story, which comes down to Henry, the teacher (or sculptor), and Eliza, the student (or sculpture) and then zeroes even closer in on Eliza before allowing Henry a moment of reflection, realization and possible heartbreak (which is, in its own right, a triumph brought about by Eliza).

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The pleasures of this 2 1/2-hour play are many, from the elegant, florally accented set by Annie Smart to the classy costumes by Anna Oliver. But it’s the sterling cast that really makes it crackle. As the “pretty pair of babies playing with their live doll,” Anthony Fusco and L. Peter Callender essaying Higgins and Col. Pickering respectively, are delightfully crisp in their camaraderie and confirmed bachelorhood. They embark on their experiment turning Eliza, a “draggle-tailed guttersnipe,” into a princess at a ball with the glee of boys building a fort in the woods. That Pickering is the warmer, more mannerly man is clear from the start, and Higgins, for all his selfish thoughtlessness, is always interesting and usually honest. He’s frank and even mean, but it doesn’t seem he intends to be. Callender’s charms are many here, and the masterful Fusco keeps Higgins from being a monster by virtue of his intelligence, enthusiasm and emotional complexity under all that scholarly folderol.

Catherine Castellanos is the epitome of British resolve as housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. She’s strong and sensible and can’t for the life of her talk Higgins and Pickering into understanding that their “experiment” involves a real, live human being with feelings and attachments and a future growing more complicated by the day. Equally strong but with more humor and heart is Sharon Lockwood’s Mrs. Higgins, a mother continually frustrated by her rude, inconsiderate yet somehow adorable son. Lockwood and Castellanos are also very funny in the opening scene as squawking Cockneys.

The Eynsford Hill family is often forgettable in Pygmalion, but not here. As members of the upper class who have very little money, their desperation masked with pretension is a powerful component of Shaw’s deconstruction of class and its illusions and debilitating demands. Julie Eccles as Mrs. Eynsford Hill keeps up appearances but clearly has suffered in life. She has compassion, unlike her daughter Clara (Elyse Price), while her son Freddy (Nicholas Pleczar) is simply a noodle.

Probably as Shaw intended it, Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, practically steals the show. James Carpenter’s performance bursts with charm and unfettered joy at being a proud member of the “undeserving poor.” Before he officially launches his crusade against middle-class morality, Alfred the dustman is a rouge and a ruffian touched with a gift for rhetoric. He brings discomfort and entertainment in equal measure, and there’s menace and merriment in Carpenter’s brilliant portrayal. It’s too bad Shaw never got around to writing a spin-off: Doolittle in America.

So often Pygmalion is presented as a play of ideas, which it certainly is. Shaw is never caught short on that score. But it’s also a play bursting with life. Eliza wants more and better for herself and does everything she can to get it, even if what she gets isn’t at all what she expected. But she’s undaunted, and she finds that she’s as smart as Higgins but even better equipped than he is to deal with the realities of modern life. She heads off into an uncertain future with confidence, and that’s absolutely thrilling.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Pygmalion dialect coach Lynne Soffer for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

California Shakespeare Theater’s Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw continues through Aug. 24 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free BART shuttle to and from the theater at Orinda BART station. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

The might that is right and Shaw’s Major Barbara

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SO MANY FRAMES: The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw includes, from left, Gretchen Hall as Barbara, Nicholas Pelczar as Adolphus, Stafford Perry as Stephen, Kandis Chappell as Lady Britomart, Tyrell Crews as Charles and Elyse Price as Sarah. Below: Jennifer Clement as Mrs. Baines, Hall as Barbara and Dean Paul Gibson as Andrew. Photos by Pak Han

Might, they say, makes right, but whose might and whose right? Muddled human notions of charity, salvation, integrity and power receive a full-bore workout in George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 comedy/drama/call for revolution, Major Barbara. In the American Conservatory Theater production that opened Wednesday (in association with Theatre Calgary), Shaw – especially his rather extraordinary brain – is the star attraction.

The grand and glorious space that is the Geary Theater sometimes gets the better of director Dennis Garnhum (the artistic director of Theatre Calgary), who can’t always find the non-clumsy way to move the actors around the space for their speech making. And set designer Daniel Ostling, whose gracefully gliding set pieces are a thing of beauty, attempts to fill the vast space with empty frames and windows only to create a burden for the eyes by about the two-hour mark. When the busy-ness of the set starts to interfere with the Shavian verbosity, which occurs toward the end, there’s a problem.

The performances are all sturdy enough, with standout work coming from Nicholas Pelczar as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins, a Greek scholar who gets a whole lot more than he bargained for when he falls for the daughter of a munitions millionaire. Also adding a little edge and effervescence to a nearly three-hour show that intermittently has trouble breaking through the dialogue to find the human pulse, are Kandis Chappell (in full Dowager Countess mode) as a domineering matriarch, Stafford Perry as a milquetoast son perfectly suited to politics and Dean Paul Gibson as a captain of industry who doesn’t give a fig if his bullets, cannons and aerial bombers kill good guys or bad guys as long as the check clears (so to speak).

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What’s exciting here is the clever way Shaw slips us into the world of a fractured English family that could inhabit an Oscar Wilde play, with witty bon mots dropping all over the stage. But the longer we linger with the Undershaft clan, the more we get pulled into the vortex of moral and spiritual dilemma. By the last half hour or so, when the speeches are coming fast and furious (who needs bullets when you have such sharp, explosive words?), audience heads spin trying to keep up with all the arguments, observations and conundrums.

Shaw’s pontificating is positively delicious as when he has Andrew Undershaft, profiteer of war, make this observation:

Let six hundred and seventy fools loose in the street; and three policemen can scatter them. But huddle them together in a certain house in Westminster; and let them go through certain ceremonies and call themselves certain names until at last they get the courage to kill; and your six hundred and seventy fools become a government.

Then a few sentences later, Undershaft goes in for the kill, almost literally:

When you vote you only change the names of the cabinet. When you shoot, you pull down governments, inaugurate new epochs, abolish old orders and set up new.

At this point in the play, the duel is between Undershaft and his soon-to-be son-in-law, Adolphus. What of Barbara, the seemingly major character of the title? She sort of gets lost in the verbal badinage. The play really is a battle for Barbara’s soul, but Gretchen Hall doesn’t make much of an impression in the role. It’s fun to watch her try and save the soul of a violent thug (Brian Rivera) and to watch her squirm when her precious Salvation Army has no qualms taking giant donations from her father or from a whisky maker. But the character that registers most here is Adolphus. So why is his name not in the title? Hello, Dolly! was apparently on cosmic reserve for a 1960s musical. Here’s Shaw’s Dolly in full revolutionary pique as he falls under the Undershaft spell:

I love the common people. I want to arm them against the lawyer, the doctor, the priest, the literary man, the professor, the artist, and the politician, who, once in authority, are the most dangerous, disastrous, and tyrannical of all the fools, rascals, and impostors.

With characters shouting about the saving of souls, the value of mass destruction and the ethics of taking good money from bad business, it’s hard not to wonder how Shaw knew so much about American life in the 21st century, where guns in schools and movie theaters and on seemingly every other block attest to the notion of “my might is the right might” and questionable (at best) money being thrown at nonprofits to shine tarnished images questios the very notion of charity. How can we possibly do good in the world when doing good means doing bad somewhere else along the line? Whose definitions of “good” and “bad” are we using, anyway? Shaw doesn’t really have an answer and, unfortunately, neither do we.

American Conservatory Theater’s Major Barbara continues through Feb. 2 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$140. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Smile, you’re on Candida camera

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Shavian romance: Julie Eccles is Candida Morell and Nick Gabriel is Eugene Marchbanks in the California Shakespeare Theater production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. Below: Eccles’ Candida is caught between Gabriel as Marchbanks and Anthony Fusco as her husband, the Rev. James Morell. Photos by Kevin Berne

A beautiful night at the Bruns Amphitheater is made even more so by something marvelous on stage.

That would be George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, a sharp early play (1894) that is concise, funny and, in this incisive production directed by California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, surprisingly moving.

Moscone’s six actors inhabit the levels of Shaw’s play with dexterity. The broad, satirical comedy generates some hearty laughs as we delve into the emotional heart of London parsonage, home of the Rev. James Morell and his wife, Candida.

Shaw has everyone, from the main characters to the lively supporting crew of assistants and family members, tripping over their attitudes toward one another and the world at large. Some of the funniest exchanges involve Alexandra Henrikson as a stubborn secretary and Jarion Monroe as Candida’s profit-driven father (shades of Alfred P. Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion).

Morell (Anthony Fusco), a Christian Socialist pastor in the Church of England, is apparently a genius preacher, much in demand around town and never ever at a loss for words. He’s likeable but smug, especially on the subject of his domestic bliss.

He tells his assistant, the Rev. Lexy Mill (Liam Vincent): “Get married. Get married to a good woman; and then you’ll understand. That’s a foretaste of what will be best in the Kingdom of Heaven we are trying to establish on earth…We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it. Get a wife like my Candida; and you’ll always be in arrear with your repayment.”

Such happiness (and preachiness) cannot go unpunished, so Shaw brings trouble into the mix in the form of Eugene Marchbanks, an 18-year-old poet with a most curious nature. He’s terrified of the world and shrinks from it, yet he’s an acute, even aggressive observer with no tolerance for subterfuge or attitude.

At first, Marchbanks’ infatuation with the radiant Candida (Julie Eccles) is of the besotted puppy variety. But we quickly see that the young man means business, especially when he’s alone with the good reverend and the claws (attached to a powerful brain) come out.

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Marchbanks, played with intermittent fire and fear by the extraordinary Nick Gabriel, is completely fascinating, a simpering child one minute, a ferocious lover the next. And he’s so very frank. “That is what all poets do: they talk to themselves out loud; and the world overhears them. But it’s horribly lonely not to hear someone else talk sometimes.”

He longs to rescue Candida from her life of “sermons and scrubbing brushes,” as he puts it, but Candida needs no rescue. She presides over her modest but lovely home (cozy, cocoon-like set by Annie Smart) and is more in charge than anybody realizes.

Eccles, long one of the Bay Area’s most astute and consistently rewarding actors, is so incredibly alive in this meaty role. Candida’s default position is an “amused maternal indulgence,” as Shaw puts it, but this is a woman with enormous intellect and ability, a fact that becomes more apparent as Shaw concludes his three-act, two-intermission glimpse into the artifice and actual reward of marriage.

At only two hours, Candida is deceptively light and enjoyable, but in Moscone’s deft production, the stakes carry increasing emotional weight. The final act, which takes place in the romantic firelight (sharp lighting by York Kennedy), is a powerfully felt glimpse into how a marriage actually works – honest and harsh but resolute and, in the end, quite loving.

The trio of Eccles, Gabriel and Fusco works so perfectly, in such synchronicity by the final scenes that you don’t quite want these stories to end even though they must. Laughs and ideas spill over this delightful play, but what lingers from this Candida is the unquestionable honesty of passion.

[bonus video]
Take a look at scenes from Cal Shakes’ Candida:

George Bernard Shaw’s Candida continues through Sept. 4 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel). Free shuttle to and from Orinda BART. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information.

Review: `The Devil’s Disciple’

Michael Ray Wisely (left) is a British soldier and Gabriel Marin is Dick Dudgeon, a man about to hang even though he’s not the man the Brits think he is in the Aurora Theatre Company’s production of The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw. Photos by David Allen


Aurora’s comic melodrama goes to the `Devil’
««« ½


The Devil’s Disciple, the Aurora Theatre Company’s latest offering, is funny as hell.

Leave it to the Aurora and the ever-reliable director Barbara Oliver to expand their list of sparkling George Bernard Shaw productions. This is Oliver’s seventh Shaw play for the Aurora, a company she helped found, and her sure hand helps team this somewhat beastly Devil.

Produced in 1897, The Devil’s Disciple was Shaw’s first success in the United States (we’re told it toured the country with a cast of 33 and a marching band), and it is his only play set in America, though technically the play, set in 1777, actually takes place in the colonies during the early years of the Revolutionary War.

Oliver’s crisp production makes do with nine engaging actors and no marching band. John Iacovelli’s set, with the help of Jarrod Fischer’s lights, transforms quickly and effectively from one spare New Hampshire home to another, to a courtroom and then, with a few swift adjustments, to a town square outfitted for a hanging.

The fact that death and war loom over Shaw’s comedy makes it rather tricky to pull off and perhaps accounts for the play’s infrequent production. But Oliver and her actors quickly find a way to balance the tone so that Shaw’s incisive humor and wry satire mix with his melodrama and his rather serious thoughts on oppression, independence and hypocrisy.

Gabriel Marin plays Dick Dudgeon, a self-proclaimed “devil’s disciple” who is reported to be a gambler, a swindler and one who runs with the gypsies. From what we know of Dick’s family – his piously pitiless mother (a wonderfully grumbly Trish Mulholland) and oafish brother (Anthony Nemirovsky) – it’s no wonder the man flew the family coop and embarked on a blasphemous life of crime and infidelity. He’s a proud reprobate, and his pride is evident in Marin’s every swagger and sideways grin.

On the occasion of his father’s death, Dick has inherited everything, including the palpable disdain of his pinched, prudish family. Strangely, Mr. Anderson (Soren Oliver in a robust performance), the Calvinist minister, sees something in Dick that belies the man’s dastardly reputation, but Anderson’s wife, Judith (Stacy Ross, above, with Marin), is so disgusted with the rogue that she recoils from him as if his devilishness were contagious.

Shaw stacks everything in Dick’s favor so that, in reacting to the ridiculous people around him, we see what a good man he is – his paternal attentions to his late uncle’s bastard child (played by Tara Tomicevic) provide irrefutable proof. It’s all a set up so that when, via mistaken identity, Dick is carted off by the Redcoats to be hanged in the town square, we know Dick will do the honorable thing and continue pretending that he is indeed the minister.

This honorable act, coupled with her husband’s cowardly dash to safety, so surprises Judith that her faith is completely shaken.

Purple melodrama and blue humor give way to red-coated comedy in the second half when the Brits go through the motions of giving Dick (aka the minister) a “trial” before they hang him. Warren David Keith, playing the real-life Gen. John Burgoyne, all but steals the show as a sensible man among twits (Allen McKelvey and Michael Ray Wisely play his bumbling comrades).

Burgoyne strikes up an almost immediate admiration for Dick and his gentlemanly ways, and the process of sending the man to his death is so bloody civilized it’s a riot.

Keith and Marin spar wonderfully, and the laughs just get bigger and bigger, stopping only when the noose is actually fitted around Dick’s neck.

True to the two-hour play’s melodramatic strains, Shaw ties things up neatly, even heroically. He leaves poor Judith, pulled from one man to another and back, flapping in the patriotic breeze, but everyone, even the British soldiers, receives a just resolution. And the audience is left to ponder the historical significance of the devils among us.



The Devil’s Disciple continues through Dec. 7 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit .

Gabe Marin exorcises Aurora’s devilish `Disciple’

One of the great things about Bay Area theater is watching local actors grow into greatness.

They may or may not strike off to find fortune and fame in New York or Los Angeles, or they may choose to stay here and continue doing as much good work as they can.

The Aurora Theatre Company’s next show, George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, is packed with the kind of actors who, if you care about local theater, you’ve been watching for years. Names such as Stacy Ross, Warren David Keith and Trish Mullholland pretty much make a show worth seeing if they’re involved.

Another name to add to that list is Gabriel Marin (seen at right with Devil’s co-star Stacy Ross, photos by David Allen).

Theatergoers probably don’t remember Marin’s local stage debut in American Conservatory Theater’s The Play’s the Thing in 1995. He was a 23-year-old spear carrier amid some Bay Area greats such as Ken Ruta, Dan Hiatt and Kimberly King. He was fresh out of college (Chicago’s DePaul University) and eager to put all his acting training to use.

But on stage at the Geary, Marin remembers thinking: “Damn, I should have paid more attention in voice class. All the things I thought were old school and used to roll my eyes at, turned out to be more useful than I thought. And there I was watching people do it to perfection. Made me feel inadequate and in awe.”

But Marin persisted, even as he married, started a family and moved to Los Angeles. When the marriage ended, Marin and his son, Max, headed back to the Bay Area, while his daughter, Morgan, stayed in L.A. with her mom.

Being a single parent, Marin found a day job that involved theater – marketing director for Walnut Creek’s Center Repertory Company – that still allowed him to pursue acting opportunities.

“There’s nothing, other than acting, that I could do and be happy with myself,” Marin says. “When I was in LA, supporting a family, theater was something I had to obviously set aside, and those years were soul-sucking to me. Now I embrace the poverty. I embrace being bereft of amenities. That’s why I say this is all I can do and be happy.”

In the last couple of years, Marin has really come into his own, delivering some stunning performances for SF Playhouse (Bug, Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, Our Lady of 121st Street), Magic Theatre (The Rules of Charity), Marin Theatre Company (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Traveling Jewish Theatre/Thick Description (Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain).

All the theater work has meant that Max, about to turn 13, has spent a lot of time backstage.

“I cannot thank my son enough,” Marin says. “He’s had to sit in a lot of green rooms. He’s the light of my life. What’s interesting, is when I bow, I make an `M’ with my hands, and if he’s in the green room, he’ll run out to the wings to see if I give him thanks. I couldn’t act if he wasn’t on board.”

The younger Marin is so on board, in fact, that he’s been expressing the desire to be an actor (when he doesn’t want to be a computer game programmer or airplane pilot).

“I’ll encourage him and help facilitate that,” Marin says. “But I’m very careful not to push that on him.”

Marin is returning to Berkeley’s Aurora, where he previously appeared in Gunplay, The Glass Menagerie and Shaw’s Saint Joan, directed by Aurora’s founding artistic director, Barbara Oliver, who is also helming The Devil’s Disciple.

This is the one Shaw play set in America (during the Revolutionary War, naturally), and it tends toward the melodramatic. Marin is playing Richard Dudgeon, the self-proclaimed “devil’s disciple” who pretends to be the local minister, who may be fitted with a hangman’s noose to demoralize the townspeople.

“Richard is awesome,” Marin says. “He’s kind of Han Solo meets Obi Wan Kenobi in a very Shavian way. He’s the rogue with a heart of gold, and he made me think of Obi Wan because he reminded me of Obi Wan saying to Darth Vader something like, `If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.'”

Marin’s girlfriend teases him that he’s finally playing a rogue instead of a loser with a heart of gold.

After Devil’s Disciple, Marin will be seen in John Guare’s Landscape of the Body at SF Playhouse in January and then Jack Goes Boating back at the Aurora next summer under the direction of Bay Area veteran Joy Carlin.

With such a non-stop schedule, Marin must be exhausted.

“I’m not exhausted,” he says. “I’m grateful.”

The Devil’s Disciple begins previews Friday, Oct. 31, opens Thursday, Nov. 6 and runs through Dec. 7 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $28 for previews, $40-$42 for regular performances. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.

Cal Shakes’ `Ideal’ hit

Word from the California Shakespeare Theater is that artistic director Jonathan Moscone’s production of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde has become the company’s biggest box-office hit in its 35-year history.

This breaks the previous record held by Moscone’s production of Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw last summer.

Says Cal Shakes’ outgoing managing director Debbie Chin: “We are so grateful that despite challenging economic times, we are part of a community that responds to, and frankly demands, great art.”

Ideal broke the previous record for gross sales, single tickets and group sales and performed to a 93 percent capacity during its 24-performance run July 2-27 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda.

The Cal Shakes season continues with Emily Mann’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya opening Aug. 9 and continuing through Aug. 31. The season closes with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night directed by Mark Rucker, Sept. 10-Oct. 5.

Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information.

Review: `Mrs. Warren’s Profession’

Opened March 21, 2008, Ashby Playhouse, Berkeley

Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Warren, Emily Jordan as Vivie. Photos by Howard Gerstein

Shotgun Players do bang up work on Shaw’s Profession
three 1/2 stars Zesty Shaw

“There are no secrets better kept than the secrets that everybody guesses.” So says a character in George Bernard Shaw’s secret-filled comedy Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a play banned in England in the 1890s due to “lascivious content.”

Of course there’s no better way to grab attention than to call something dirty, so Shaw’s play about women’s liberation, fashionable morality and widespread cultural hypocrisy eventually made it onto the stage in 1925.

Only Shaw’s third play, Mrs. Warren is incredibly sharp and funny. It gets preachy, as Shaw is wont to do, toward the end, but there’s still plenty of zing.

Shotgun Players’ production, directed with a firm hand by Susannah Martin, is polished and full of the right kind of energy, which is to say it has sass, playfulness and satiric edge.

The only thing clunky about the two-hour, 20-minute production is the set (by Steve Decker), which looks great, but the scene changes in the cramped space involve stagehands clearing and rolling and turning and hauling. We’re so spoiled in this day of cinematic quick cuts — even in the theater — that an old-fashioned set change can seem laborious.

But it’s what’s happening on the set that matters more. Emily Jordan is delightful as Vivie Warren, the bright, well-educated daughter of Mrs. Warren (Trish Mulholland), an international success with businesses in Brussels, Vienna and other European capitals.

Vivie, raised in boarding school, hardly knows her mother, so when Kitty Warren pays a visit to her daughter’s small country cottage, certain facts are sure to come into play, facts such as this: Mrs. Warren went into the prostitution business with her sister when they were young, poor and struggling. Now they’ve mastered the immoral business world and have all the power and money they could ever want. The sister retired to a cathedral town, but Mrs. Warren, who has a great talent for managing all her “private hotels,” loves the work.

At first, when Vivie learns of her mother’s profession, she’s horrified. Then she realizes that bright, aspiring women have little choice in the business world, so she comes ’round to admire her mother’s business acumen.

But success in such a questionable business — a business that is still thriving — carries a whole lot of emotional and cultural baggage. Vivie has to decide just how involved she wants to be in her mother’s enterprise. The young woman has, after all, been the beneficiary of ill-gotten gains her entire life.

Mulholland, a Shotgun staple, always brings vivacity to the stage, but in Mrs. Warren, she has found new performance levels. She’s tough, tender, sexy, funny and extremely grounded in the reality of her character. Her scenes with Jordan are the play’s highlights because there’s so much emotion.

Martin’s entire cast is strong, with nary a weak spot in the bunch. John Mercer is suitably creepy as filthy rich aristocrat Crofts, who proposes marriage to Vivie as part blackmail, part business proposition. Her refusal of him is Shaw at his most vituperous.

Nick Sholley is Praed, a possible suitor for Vivie, and Joseph O’Malley (above with Jordan) is Frank, a country friend of Vivie’s who has his designs on her mother’s money. Both men are pitch perfect. Sholley is a compassionate prude and O’Malley is a likable scoundrel who berates his ineffectual rector father (a very funny, fuzzled Rick T. Williams) every chance he gets.

It’s not enough for Shaw to use prostitution as a pulpit for scolding an economic system that rewards immorality at every turn. He also has to throw incest into the mix. No wonder the Lord Chamberlain got his knickers in a twist when the play first appeared.

But there’s far more here than sensation. Mrs. Warren has a great line toward the end when she and Vivie are having it out: “You think that the way you were taught at school to think right and proper is the way things really are. But it’s not. it’s all only a pretense, to keep the cowardly, slavish, common run of people quiet. The big people, the clever people, the managing people, all know it. They do as I do, and think as I think.”

There’s no denying the power of knowing how the system works and working it for all it’s worth. But Shaw asks, and it’s still the question we need to ask every day: At what cost?

Mrs. Warren’s Profession continues through April 27 at the Ashby Playhouse, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$25. Call 510-841-6500 or visit for information.

2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.