Stravinsky and the sadness of a puppet Soldier

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The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s The Soldier’s Tale includes (from left) Joan Mankin as the devil, L. Peter Callender as the storyteller and Muriel Maffre as Joseph, the soldier. Below: Backed by members of the classical chamber group Earplay, Maffre guides Joseph home from the battlefield. Photos by David Allen

As the weary soldier trudges down the road home, you see the weight of his exhaustion as well as his excitement to see his mother and fiancée in his every step. The remarkable thing is that this soldier – who goes by the name of Joseph – is a Bunraku-style puppet. All that extraordinary expression is coming from his puppeteer, Muriel Maffre, the San Francisco Ballet star who retired in 2007.

Along with Aurora Theatre Company artistic director Tom Ross, Maffre is the co-director of The Soldier’s Tale, a theatrical fusion of music, dance, puppetry and storytelling that carries a melancholy charm for its brief 75 minutes. Much of that charm comes from Maffre, who also dances the role of the King’s daughter, who falls under Joseph’s spell.

It’s easy to succumb to this Tale. L. Peter Callender is the storyteller and also gives Joseph his voice from time to time. He guides the story from Joseph’s homecoming march to his fateful meeting with an old man on the road. The two agree to exchange knowledge – Joseph will trade his violin for the old man’s magical book about future fortunes, and they will spend three days teaching each other what they know.

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That old man, played with wicked glee by Joan Mankin, is actually the devil, and those three days turn out to be three years in devil time. So when Joseph finally gets home to his village, he is shunned because everyone thinks he’s a ghost, and he finds out his fiancée is now married with children. What’s a bedeviled soldier to do? If you’re Joseph, you simply carry on. Unfortunately for him, though, the devil stays on his tail.

Joseph tries to outsmart the demon, and does manage some happy years, but apparently you can’t outrun the devil. At least that’s how it goes in the story by C.F. Ramuz, who collaborated with composer Igor Stravinsky on The Soldier’s Tale in 1918. This is a grim story made all the more unsettling because Joseph is a seemingly good guy who has followed the rules. Why the devil is determined to destroy him remains a mystery.

This beguiling theatrical mélange is at its most extraordinary when Stravinsky’s score, played by four members of classical chamber group Earplay and arranged by Jonathan Khuner, is at its most eclectic. There’s jazz and rag and dissonance and captivating beauty. Donald Pippin’s translation of the book has its pleasures, but I found the rhyming dialogue to be childish in a way the music is not. There’s a deeply serious tone to this tale, and the cute and clever rhyming is occasionally at odds with that tone.

In the Aurora’s intimate space, experiencing music and dance is especially rewarding – you’re right in the middle of it all, right there with poor old Joseph, a soldier in an epic battle for his soul.


The Soldier’s Tale continues through Dec. 18 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Seven Guitars, ably played

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Marc Damon Johnson (left), Tobie Windham (center) and L. Peter Callender star in the Marin Theatre Company production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars. Below: Shinelle Azoroh (right) is Ruby, who struts her stuff in front of the rest of the cast (from left) Tobie Windham, Omoze Idehenre, Margo Hall, L. Peter Callender and Marc Damon Johnson. Photos by Kevin Berne


Marin Theatre Company’s beautiful production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars is the third I’ve seen, and it amazes me how similar and how different those productions have been. The first was in 1995 when American Conservatory Theater hosted the Broadway-bound version of the show as part of its season. The distinctive thing about that night of theater was the overwhelming wash of lyrical language that poured from the stage. For 3 ½ hours. I called it “indulgent” and “overly long” in my review for the Bay Area Reporter, but I also called the writing “lucid and full of gorgeous natural rhythms.” Of Viola Davis’ performance as Vera, of whom I wrote, “One of the play’s best scenes occurs early in the first act when Vera gives Floyd every reason she can think of why she won’t take him back. She does take him back, of course, but her aching, shattering litany – brilliantly delivered by Davis – is probably the truest torch song that was never sung on stage.”

The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre produced Seven Guitars in 2003 under the direction of the late Stanley Williams, and by then the show had been trimmed to a more manageable three hours, and in my review for the Oakland Tribune, I commended the ensemble (seven characters, hence the title) when they were able to “revel in the beats and rhythms of Wilson’s almost-musical writing.”

And now Marin Theatre Company, tackling its first August Wilson play, enters the fray with special attention to the music. Director Kent Gash had the good sense to hire Bay Area folk music legend Linda Tillery to help shape the bluesy sounds of the show, which takes place (like most of the plays in Wilson’s mammoth 10-play Century Cycle) in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The year is 1948, and one of the characters, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, has had a surprise radio hit with the bluesy “That’s Alright.” Music erupts spontaneously throughout Wilson’s drama, and the ensemble must play together with Wilson’s lyrical tapestry of words and individually on some of the most exquisite solos – arias almost – in the Wilson canon.

Tillery’s work here is sublime, and you leave the theater fully convinced that words and music can combine in powerfully emotional ways both in and out of songs, in the cadence of poetry and in the rhythm of everyday language.

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The look of Gash’s production is also quite stunning. The central playing area of J.B. Wilson’s set is a realistic courtyard between brick buildings, and Kurt Landisman’s lighting goes mostly for realism except for some extreme moments of theatricality when characters are caught in a solo spotlight. Surrounding the real-world playing area is a patchwork mural reminiscent of the paintings of Romare Bearden. And there’s a sumptuously lit backdrop of the Hill District behind the set that allows streetlights and houselights to hover somewhere between reality and artistic fantasy.

There’s not much action in Seven Guitars beyond some romantic shuffling, some smalltime crime, lots of longing and more than a few hints of mysticism. So without heavy plot, Wilson’s plot relies heavily on character detail and group interactions. Gash’s ensemble is fantastic: Margo Hall, L. Peter Callender, Marc Damon Johnson, Omoze Idehenre, Charles Branklyn, Tobie Windham and Shinelle Azoroh. Each actor has at least one moment of transcendence, and that fact alone makes this show worth seeing.

The night I saw Seven Guitars, real life interfered with theater. A gunman holed up in a hotel room had closed the Richmond Bridge and wreaked havoc on Bay Area roads, especially in Marin County. One of the actors coming from the East Bay was stuck on a bus trying to cross the Richmond Bridge, which was shut down for hours. The 7:30pm curtain time came and went, and MTC’s producing director, Ryan Rilette, came out to inform the audience of the situation. The actor was going to be fetched from the bus stop in San Rafael, but in all the traffic mess, the car sent for him had been in an accident. So the actor was in a cab on a slow crawl to the theater.

Rilette handled the situation perfectly. With the audience’s permission, he moved the post-show discussion to a pre-show position. He introduced the play and placed in the wider frame of Wilson’s cycle of plays about African-American life in the 20th century. He took questions and offered patrons free coffee or water from the snack bar. Some audience members chose to bail, which was understandable as they were facing a late-starting three-hour play.

But for those of us who stayed, the play offered rich rewards. I suspect the pre-show tension threw the actors a little. Ensemble rhythms were somewhat off, but the solo moments were spot on – especially Hall’s humorous ramble as Louise.

I also have to mention Branklyn’s turn as Hedley, the play’s spiritual connection. Branklyn played the same role eight years ago at the Lorraine Hansberry, and in that production, his performance was out of synch with an ensemble that wasn’t fully in control of the language. Here, his performance is infinitely more incisive and compelling.

Seven Guitars is a tough play, full of small, deeply connected details that add up to a brooding portrait of hope and desperation in the middle of the 20th century. Marin Theatre Company production is good enough that it leaves you wanting more. Perhaps the other nine plays in the cycle?


August Wilson’s Seven Guitars continues through Sept. 4 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$55. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

IPH… a picture paints a thousand words

C. Kelly Wright (left) is Klytaimnestra, Traci Tolmaire is Iphigenia and L. Peter Callender is Agamemnon in IPH…, a collaboration of Brava Theater and African-American Shakespeare Company. Photos by Charlie Villyard

One general problem I have with Greek tragedy is that I’m not Greek and, most days, not terribly tragic. I’ve experienced, a time or two, the feeling of catharsis that can come from being immersed in godly and ungodly troubles. Fiona Shaw as Medea comes to mind, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Oresteia had its acutely emotional moments.

But my favorite Greek tragedy wasn’t tragic at all. John Fisher’s Medea: the Musical, which upended all that stuffed-toga stuff and had a ball at the expense of people taking themselves (and life) too seriously. That was 16 years ago, and I still use it as my barometer for making sense of everything that’s Greek to me.

I was secretly hoping that IPH… the new translation/adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis by Irish writer Colin Teevan would be more giddy than grotesque. Sure, the story of a father forced by the gods to sacrifice his own daughter for the good of his country and its war against Troy is rough stuff. But John Fisher found a way to have fun and be serious.

The U.S. premiere of Teevan’s script marks a first-time collaboration between Brava Theater and the African-American Shakespeare Company – two companies that seem to work well with and benefit from one another.

I try not to pay too much attention to pre-show buzz, but I had heard something about the show being part rock concert (in fact, I read it in the program note from director Dylan Russell), and that made me think this could be a not-your-average-Greek experience.

And to some degree, IPH… is an attempt to make the ancient contemporary. There are some amusing and intriguing video projections (by Wesley Cabral) mixed in with live video of the actors on stage, and there is music, courtesy of a lively chorus (Lisa Lacy, Marilet Martinez, Sarita Ocon and Natalia Duong). Music Director Uma Errickson had fun with the songs harmonies, especially the number singing the praises of superstar Achilles (Luke Taylor).

But when it comes right down to it, this is a thick slice of Greek tragedy whose 90 minutes feel a lot longer.


The first 30 minutes of the play is dominated by monologues – first from Agamemnon’s servant (Peter Kybart), then from Agamemnon himself (L. Peter Callender, the new artistic director of African-American Shakes), then from his brother, Menelaus (Dorian “Jim” Lockett). The men in the play tend to orate, while the women actually seem to converse.

At about the half-hour mark, we finally get a glimpse of Klytaimnestra (C. Kelly Wright) and Iphigenia (Traci Tolmaire). They’re singing beautifully to one another at the back of the Brava Theater, and it’s a huge relief when they arrive. The pontificating and sermonizing scales down, and the drama kicks into gear.

Callender’s intensity knows no bounds. Every labored breath is fraught with emotion as Agamemnon weighs the life of his beloved daughter against the well-being of his country and its army.

And Wright is one of those actors you go out of your way to see because she’s so grounded, so real and so very grand. She’s larger than life but constantly reflects real life through genuine emotion. Her motherly connection with Tolmaire is deeply felt and brings us most fervently into the play’s tragic heart.

Director Russell’s supporting cast doesn’t have the firepower of Callender and Wright, which tends to diffuse their power.

Stylistically, the modern touches and the music don’t always work. The video can steal too much focus from the actors, although the sheer size of set designer Matt McAdon’s multi-level, gracefully ramped stage calls out for ways to bring us closer and deeper into the emotion.

The music doesn’t always work, either, as we find when Menelaus does sort of a beat-box rap whose lyrics are mostly unintelligible (although the chorus’ back-up “be doo ba doo’s” are lovely).

I kept wanting IPH… to break its Greek bonds and just be real for a minute. Callender and Wright come closest to making those moments happen, but the tragedy here remains more of an idea rather than an emotional state.


Brava Theater and African-American Shakespeare Company’s IPH… continues through Oct. 16 at the Brava Theater, 2781 24th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415 647-2822 or visit or for information.

New seasons: TheatreFIRST, Broadway by the Bay

TheaterFIRST, under the new artistic direction of Dylan Russell, has announced its 15th anniversary season, which will run from January to June 2009 and will include a staged reading series and a Harold Pinter revival.

The season opens with a staged reading series from mid-January to mid-February. Plays and location still to be announced, but the readings will be at 2 p.m. Sundays.

The centerpiece of the season is Pinter’s Old Times featuring L. Peter Callender, a veteran Bay Area actor who last performed with TheatreFIRST in World Music. Old Times runs April 2 through May 3 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley.

Call 510-436-5085 or visit for information.

San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, under the leadership of artistic director Brooke Knight and executive director Jim Gardia, has also announced its new season — its 44th — which begins in April of 2009 and concludes the following November. Here’s how the season shakes down:
Crazy for You, a revamped Gershwin musical, runs April 2-19.
The King and I, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, dances July 16-Aug. 2
The Full Monty, a Broadway musical based on a spunky British film, disrobes Sept. 17-Oct. 4
Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman, starring Jason Graae (right), runs Nov. 5-8

Performances are in the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware, San Mateo. Season subscriptions are $90-$152 until Nov. 16, when prices change to $100-$164. Single tickets also go on sale Nov. 16. Call 650-579-5565 or visit

Review: `Radio Golf’

Aldo Billingslea (left) is Harmond Wilks, C. Kelly Wright (center) is Harmond’s wife, Mame, and Anthony J. Haney is Harmond’s business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, in August Wilson’s Radio Golf at TheatreWorks in Mountain View. Photos by Mark Kitacka.


Superb cast tunes up Wilson’s `Radio’ at TheatreWorks
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Even the prodigious talents of August Wilson have a hard time making the ’90s interesting.

Radio Golf, Wilson’s final play and the last piece of his extraordinary cycle of plays documenting African-American life in each decade of the 20th century, receives its Bay Area premiere in a tightly focused, incredibly well acted production from TheatreWorks in Mountain View.

Perhaps because we have the least distance from the ’90s, as opposed to other plays in Wilson’s cycle (such as “Fences” in the ’50s or “The Piano Lesson” in the ’30s), it’s difficult to feel the dramatic weight of a decade that is best remembered for e-mail, the Internet and little else.

Curiously, there’s not a computer to be seen on Erik Flatmo’s set – a “raggedy,” as one character calls it, office space in Pittsburgh’s Hill District that was once the height of elegance with its embossed tin ceiling. The year is 1997, and the space is being used as home base for the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Project, an ambitious attempt to obliterate the blight of the black district’s poverty and hard times and introduce apartment complexes, a Starbucks, a Barnes and Noble and, of course, a Whole Foods.

The project is spearheaded by old college chums Harmond Wilks (Aldo Billingslea, right), owner of a successful real estate agency, and Roosevelt Hicks (Anthony J. Haney), a banker. This redevelopment is just the beginning, especially for Harmond, who grew up in the Hill District and wants to take the energy of this project and turn it into a bid to become Pittsburgh’s first African-American mayor.

There’s a lot of business talk in Radio Golf – maybe that’s another reason the ’90s are hard to enliven because the decade was all business – but with all the exposition of Act 1 out of the way, we get to the heart of what Wilson seems to be after here.

As time rolls on, and as “progress” pushes forward, we tend to want to deny – or at least ignore – the past rather than deal with it. But without the past, how do we know what our success really is? And without a clear view of where or who we’ve been, how do we know we’re aiming for success for the right reasons?

These are the issues faced by Harmond, a straight-laced, follow-the-plan kind of guy. His gorgeous, successful wife, Mame (C. Kelly Wright), has helped formulate the plan to get him into the mayor’s office, and together they are going to head all the way to the Senate.

But just as the plan is kicking into gear, the past shows up in the form of two men. One, Old Joe (the superb Charles Branklyn), is slightly crazy and has questionable motives, but he is deeply rooted in the past of the Hill District and even more rooted in Harmond’s past than he knows.

The other is Sterling Johnson (L. Peter Callender), a self-educated, hard-working man who brings a big dose of reality with him wherever he goes. Wilson, in a rather lazy narrative approach, makes him read from the newspaper a few too many times, but Sterling has the kind of integrity that makes businessmen and politicians nervous.

Director Harry J. Elam Jr. has a hard time kicking the long first act into gear, but in Act 2, the play and the actors catch fire because Wilson is focusing less on plot and much more on character.

With his open, honest face, Billingslea is superb as Harmond. There are dark currents coursing through this ambitious man who adopts as his election slogan: “Hold Me to It.” Faced with compromise and injustice, Harmond has to find some sort of balance between his ambition and his integrity.

Billingslea has an incredible scene with Wright, who never makes a misstep as the supremely well put together Mame. The couple watches their goals and their dreams of a perfect life in politics crumble around them. And in this one scene, they have to determine their future as a couple and what their past measures up to in the present.

There’s another extraordinary scene in the second act, this one between Haney’s Roosevelt and Callender’s Sterling. The two men – from opposite ends of the African-American male spectrum – clash in a profound way, each calling the other names and attempting to define one another through blame and accusation. It’s a difficult, chilling scene, and through it, Wilson cuts right to the heart of why race in this country has been for more than a century, and will continue to be, such a complex, polarizing issue.


Radio Golf continues through Nov. 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit