Cal Shakes gets terrifically Tempest tossed

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Catherine Castellanos (left) is Prospero and Amy Lizardo is Ariel in California Shakespeare Theater’s All the Bay’s a Stage tour of The Tempest. Below: Patrick Kelly Jones (lower left) is Stephano and John R. Lewis is Caliban. Photos by Jay Yamada

On a day when terrible things were happening in the world, being immersed in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest was sweet balm, especially as performed by the fine actors of California Shakespeare Theater’s “All the World’s a Stage” tour of the show, which, in classic traveling players mode, is being performed in senior centers, homeless shelters, federal prison, rehab centers and the like. It’s hard not to agree with Caliban when he says, “Hell is empty. All the devils are here.” But dark notions of revenge, which so inform the play itself, are soothed by virtue, and Prospero’s exquisite speech, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” is practically heartbreaking in its beauty.

Director Rebecca Novick’s fine-tuned production has a handful of public performances at the Oakland Museum of California in a space generally used as the museum’s cafe. There’s not lighting, save what’s already in the ceiling. The audience is cozily set up in four sections around a central performance space, and the two-hour production unfurls at a spritely pace, outfitted in lovely designs by Naomi Arnst that assist in differentiating the double-, sometimes triple-cast actors.

What set there is by Nina Ball is clever. A ship-shaped crescent is instrumental in conveying the play-opening storm that leads to a violent shipwreck. Then, as the action shifts to the island home of the wizardly Prospero, that crescent is turned upright, set in a cradle and serves as a throne of sorts, a point of power for the island’s master, or, in this case, mistress as Propsero is played by the commanding Catherine Castellanos. The pole that had served as the ship’s mast, is relocated to a tuft of grass and is climbed upon by the fairy Ariel (Amy Lizardo), or serves as a doorway through which we glimpse the newly smitten lovers Miranda (Tristan Cunningham) and Ferdinand (Rafael Jordan) staring googly-eyed at each other and arm wrestling.

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This is stripped-down theater at its best: words and performance, story and emotion. What I will take away from this enlivened production, aside from yet another reminder of how profound Shakespeare can be at acknowledging the darkness in the world while holding on to hope and faith in love and our better nature, are the magic of Castellanos in performance, the thrill of watching Cunningham and and Jordan convincingly fall in love in an instant and the genuine comic inspiration of the show’s clowns.

Cunningham doffs her maiden’s weeds to become Trinculo, a buffoonish steward from the wrecked ship, Patrick Kelly Jones is Stephano and John R. Lewis is Caliban, and the three of them, as they pass the tippling gourd, are outright hilarious. Sometimes the shift from the revenge plot (Prospero lands all her enemies on the island to wreak revenge) to the clowning makes me cringe. But in this production I actively looked forward to it. At one point, Cunningham came into the audience, plopped into the chair next to me and put her arm around me for much of one scene. Now that’s audience interaction I can get behind.

The revenge plot is also quite satisfying thanks to Liam Vincent as Antonio, Prospero’s dastardly, throne-stealing brother, Jones as the ruthlessly ambitious Sebastian and Lewis as the grieving king (he believes his son was drowned in the storm). Also in their company but not part of any murderous plots is Gonzalo, here played as pregnant woman by Carla Pantoja. There’s lots of strong female power on this island, and Pantoja’s Gonzalo is a powerful part of it.

Lizardo’s Ariel sings like an angel (accompanied by composer/musical director Olive Mitra on upright bass and a variety of percussion), and Kelly’s Stephano sings scurvy tunes like a natural-born sailor.

Castellanos ends the show with a powerful, emotional reading of Prospero’s famous speech, but the way she delivers it to the audience, all seemingly delighted by the two hours they’ve just spent together, feels intimate and personal, like she’s talking just to us and not over hundreds of years and thousands of productions of The Tempest. Again, on this day when more terror was causing more mayhem and pain in the world, it was impossible not to be moved by the words.
     “Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
     As I foretold you, were all spirits and
     Are melted into air, into thin air:
     And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
     The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
     The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
     Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
     And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
     Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
     As dreams are made on, and our little life
     Is rounded with a sleep.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s All the Bay’s a Stage tour of The Tempest has a limited number of public performances through Nov. 22 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. Tickets are $20. Call 510-548l-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Cal Shakes scares up big laughs in vivacious Vep

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Danny Scheie (left above, right below) is Lady Enid Hillcrest and Liam Vincent is Jane Twisden in California Shakespeare Theater’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, the final production directed by now former Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone. Photos by Kevin Berne

How appropriate to go (high) camping under the stars in the Orinda hills with the California Shakespeare Theater. One doesn’t think of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep as a play for the great outdoors, but now-former Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone and his dynamic actor duo make a strong case for Ludlam being funny anywhere.

As swan songs go, Moscone picked a doozy, if only because he leaves them laughing. As Moscone exits the building for San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, he can be proud of an extraordinary 16 years with Cal Shakes during which he helped transform the company into one of the Bay Area’s finest, most inclusive and most ambitious. It has been a serious decade and a half, and his delightful dance with Irma seems all the more celebratory for it.

This is the third time Moscone has directed Ludlam’s 1984 love letter to low horror and high camp, and it’s the second time we’ve seen Danny Scheie in the role after his turn with the Aurora Theatre Company in 1997, which was re-mounted by the Magic. And the thing about Irma is that it never gets old. There’s a zany energy that’s simultaneously sending up, deconstructing and lavishing love on the ye olde penny dreadful take on gothic horror. Two actors play all the parts, with the gimmick (and the quick costume changes) part of the ongoing joke. Scheie’s partner in this mayhem is Liam Vincent, another Bay Area stalwart whose chemistry with Scheie is immeasurable. There’s one scene in which Edgar and Enid say each other’s names over and over again until it’s clear there’s a sexual roundelay going on, and it’s deeply hilarious.

Werewolves, vampires, mummies, flickering lights and thunder claps are part of the general recipe here as the estate of Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Vincent) welcomes a new lady of the manor in Lady Enid (Scheie). There’s still a portrait over the fireplace of Lord Edgar’s first, now late, wife, Lady Irma, and before the show is over, that portrait will run with blood and come to frightening (in theory) life. There’s a Scottish groundskeeper, Nicodemus (Scheie), and a Teutonic maid named Jane (Vincent) as well as various demons and monsters, and it’s all quite deliciously predictable.

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Scheie’s flouncy Lady Enid, who has (horrors!) spent time on the stage, is, at one end of the spectrum, like Dame Maggie Smith in “Downton Abbey” – but younger – and, at the other end, like Dame Maggie Smith in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Vincent’s Jane conjures memories of Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein, and his Lord Edgar is movie star handsome and statuary stolid. As Nicodemus, he with the wooden leg and yen for the milkmaid, Scheie sports an accent that is ripe and rangy and always good for a laugh.

Set designer Douglas Schmidt wisely blocks off much of the gorgeous view behind the stage to focus attention on the stately English manor directed with skulls and a howler monkey and some fabulous footlights made out of the comedy and tragedy masks. Lighting designer Alex Nichols and sound designer Cliff Caruthers get an exercise in thunder and lightning effects, and they were ably assisted last Wednesday night by actual strong breezes and rustling tree leaves.

The creative team member whose work proves invaluable is costumer Katherine Roth, who has to hurry her actors in and out of English formalwear and monster getups. Her creations are marvelous, and there’s an especially enjoyable moment in the long transition from scenes in an Egyptian tomb (involving a Cher sparkle wig and the song “It’s Raining Men”) back to the manse known as Mandacrest. Vincent’s Lord Edgar sings a kicky version of Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” while the backstage crew slowly transforms him into Jane the maid. It’s a gust of fresh theatrical air to liven up an already lively meta-theatrical enterprise.

In just about everything he’s in, Scheie exhibits an inexhaustible energy, and that is certainly the case here, but Vincent matches him volt for volt, but Scheie still launches more vocal fireworks than any comic actor I’ve ever seen. Irma Vep offers a great, scene-chewing showcase for him, although it’s nice to see Vincent getting a well-deserved leading man moment of his own.

The Mystery of Irma Vep is a little on the long side, two-plus hours, but the actors and the backstage crew (who get to take a bow with the actors) keep the evening lively, and the big laughs just keep rolling and rolling on into the night. For fans of Moscone’s, that makes for a pretty sweet swan song.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Moscone and many of his admirers for a pair of stories in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the main feature here and the sidebar on Moscone’s favorite Cal Shakes moments here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep continues through Sept. 6 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. Free shuttle to and from the theater from Orinda BART.

Threats of totalitarianism have never been so fun

Z Space
Liam Vincent (left) is Jeffrey, a Nebraska doctor, and Andrew Humann is Benn, is his revolutionary young patient in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians at Z Below. Below: Vincent’s Jeffrey gets cozy with his wife, Francine (Alexis Lezin), a political consultant. Photos by Mark Leialoha

Our sorry political state may be sending the country down the toilet, but it sure is inspiring some grand entertainment. Veep and House of Cards offer two distinct points of view on the absurdity of Beltway power mongering. Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming was a comic highlight of last year’s local theater scene (review here) in its exploration of political game playing.

Now we have Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians, a Z Space production in association with Encore Theatre Company and the National New Play Network. Set in the fine state of Nebraska, Nachtrieb’s biting comedy watches seemingly ordinary people mix with politics, all to disastrous results. Not that the play is anything resembling a disaster. On the contrary. It’s hilarious and painful and horrifying in the way it so effortlessly conjures a sham democracy populated by tricksters and schemers, murderers and mental incompetents.

What could be simpler than a race for Nebraska’s lieutenant governor? Those easygoing Midwesterners don’t get caught up in all that political nonsense do they? Oh, but they do, and there’s no such thing as simplicity in politics, not with every race leading back to some power broker in D.C.

Z Space

In this particular race, the underdog candidate is Penelope Easter (Jamie Jones in a performance so ferocious you have to wonder if she might actually be part politician), a foot-in-mouth candidate not unlike the former governor of Alaska. Except Penny is not dumb. She may not be a whiz with words (“Things come in my mouth wrong?), but she’s got passion and lots of it. And ambition. As long as she has someone to put words in her mouth (and maybe a few thoughts in her head), she’s OK.

Her underdog status shifts thanks to a career-defining speech by consultant Francine (Alexis Lezin), who is aching to break out of her Nebraskan confines. She may think Penny is stupid, but she’s also a powerful orator who makes Francine’s prose sing. Every writer responds to that.

Francine’s husband, Jeffrey (Liam Vincent), a generic general practitioner, is alarmed that his wife’s ethics seem to bend so easily to accommodate Penny’s grab for power. Perhaps that’s why he’s so easily swayed by a charismatic (and terminally ill) young patient, Ben (Andrew Humann), who believes that Penny is part of a covert scheme to turn Nebraska into a totalitarian regime.

The first act of this 2 hour, 20-minute comedy ends on such a comic high that is seems nearly impossible that Act 2 will be anything but a letdown. And it is, but only to a certain degree. There’s a lull in the first half of the second act that director Ken Prestininzi has some trouble carbonating. But then Nachtrieb gets his comic groove back, and the darker elements of the satire come bursting out in a bloody climax that essentially turns a Nebraska stadium into a Greek amphitheater.

If Jones is the holy roller (derby) motor of the play, then Lezin is its fuel. She straddles the worlds of realistic working woman and ruthless politician in a play (who is probably more realistically ruthless than we might like to believe). Her frustrations with her talent, her marriage and her career are as rich as her speech-writing, candidate-defining triumphs, and Lezin is such a marvelous actor we feel every bit of everything.

Vincent and Humann make an appealing duo, sort of a would-be terrorist Bert and Ernie, but they’re never quite as interesting as Jones and Lezin, nor are they given as much scenery to chew.

The enjoyment level of The Totalitarians (the title reminds me of a politically themed soap opera I wish I could DVR daily) is high. This new play, part of a rolling world premiere (we’re the second stop after New Orleans), isn’t perfect, but The Totalitarians is, like, totally the subversive laugh fest you need as we head into the brainwash known as the holidays.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians continues through Dec. 14 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.zspace.org.

Cal Shakes ends season with a vibrant Dream

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Erika Chong Shuch (left) is Titania, queen of the fairies, and Margo Hall is Bottom, a transformed rude mechanical and Daisuke Tsuji (rear) is Oberon a mischievous king of the fairies in the California Shakespeare Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Below: Tsuji’s Oberon and Danny Scheie’s Puck figure out how to right all the wrongs they’ve made with their midsummer meddling. Photos by Kevin Berne.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a landmark play for California Shakespeare Theater. When the company really became the company, then known as Berkeley Shakespeare Company, the first show produced at John Hinkel Park was Midsummer. Since then, the play has been performed seven more times, and now Cal Shakes concludes its 40th anniversary season with a version of the play that feels unlike any other production of it I’ve seen.

The opening scene, a battle/rough seduction between Theseus (Daisuke Tsuji) and the conquered Hippolyta (Erica Chong Shuch), is a good example of director Shana Cooper’s unique approach to the production’s tone. It’s hard to know whether to credit Shuch, who choreographed the play’s movement, or fight director Dave Maier for this dazzling encounter. But that kind of blended work is a hallmark of the production.

There’s a vigorous physicality to this Dream, whether it’s in the more formal dance moments (music and sound design is by Paul James Prendergast) or the heightened sense of vibrancy that enlivens the work of the forest fairies or the quartet of Athenian lovers who get lost and mightily tangled in the night. Even if there were no dialogue, you’d get a sense of relationships and tensions and emotions just from the way the thoroughly vivacious cast attacks the play.

There is dialogue, of course, and these sturdy actors deliver it as well as they embody the choreography. Margo Hall, for instance completely owns the role of Nick Bottom, the amateur actor who thinks he (or she in this case) should probably play every role in the play he and his friends are preparing for the King’s wedding festivities. Bottom is a rich comic role, and Hall finds new laughs in the pompous but lovable thespian, but she also finds the sincerity and the heart. That moment when Bottom, in mid-performance, stops ego acting and starts actually acting is wondrous (there’s a similiar performance moment for Craig Marker’s Flute, and it’s just as sweet).

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As if Danny Scheie hadn’t impressed enough earlier in the season playing twins in The Comedy of Errors (read my review here) – now he’s breathing new life into Puck, chief fairy in charge of forest mischief. Outfitted by designer Katherine O’Neill in sort of a steam-punk ensemble of latex pantaloons, suspenders and sleeveless shirt, Scheie sports a mohawk and an attitude. This Puck still has a twinkle in his eye, but he’s also kind of over it and, as they say, can’t even. Scheie is hilarious and a little bit renegade – a good mix for Puck.

Audiences rarely leave Midsummer talking about the lovers (it’s usually Bottom and Puck), but Cooper’s quartet, especially the women, are really something. Hermia (Tristan Cunningham) and Helena (Lauren English) begin and end as friends, but in the middle, with the help of fairy trickery, things get rough. And that’s when things get fun. The befuddled men, Lysander (Dan Clegg) and Demetrius (Nicholas Pelczar), get major points for their all-out attack on the physical comedy, but the night belongs to the women, who lament and rage and struggle with all their mighty might. Cooper wants her lovers to get dirty, and boy do they. Set designer Nina Ball covers her forest floor with some sort of softy, dirty kind of material, and when that’s not enough, the lovers begin flinging actual mud.

When the hurricane of midsummer magic begins to dissipate, watching the lovers clean themselves up turns out to be one of the nearly 2 1/2-hour production’s nicest (and most thoroughly earned) moments.

This is not a colorful Midsummer so much as it is a moody one, but not so moody that it’s gloomy. The lights (by Burke Brown) are stark (to go along with Ball’s fragmented, woodpile of a forest set) and only occasionally festive. Only at the end, when the lovers end up together and the amateur theatricals begin does color infuse the world of the stage (and Brown lights the trees behind the stage to spectacular effect).

And a word about those amateur theatricals: Hall and Marker, along with Catherine Castellanos, James Carpenter, Liam Vincent and Scheie, deliver the funniest version of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe I’ve seen, and Castellanos is the funniest wall, perhaps, of all time.

Even the autumn chill of opening night couldn’t diminish the feverish heat generated by this Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s got the laughs, the sparks and the moves you only find in the most memorable of dreams.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues through Sept. 28 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Double good, double fun in Cal Shakes’ Comedy

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Patty Gallagher (left) is the Courtesan, Adrian Danzig (center) is Antipholus and Danny Scheie is Dromio in the California Shakespeare Theater production of The Comedy of Errors. Below: Scheie steals the show as both Dromio twins. Photos by Kevin Berne

A visiting stranger makes a keen observation: “Your town is troubled with unruly boys.” The trouble is, he ends up being one of the unruly boys, and that’s the fun of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, a masterfully chaotic comedy now at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater.

As farces go, this Comedy requires us to believe that two sets of not-so-bright twins with the same names – the upper-class set is called Antipholus, the slave set is called Dromio – cause confusion, consternation and furious frustration when roaming the streets of Ephesus of the same day. Once over that hump (and Shakespeare makes it pretty easy), the farce clicks along like a finely tuned laugh machine until brothers are reunited, a father’s search is fulfilled and a courtesan gets her diamond ring back.

Director Aaron Posner strikes the right tone from the start as he has his troupe of seven actors deliver the pre-show speech about de-noising electronic devices and the traditional all-praise of Peet’s Coffee and Tea. There’s a lively informality to the proceedings that allows his loosey-goosey production to deliver an abundance of Shakespeare’s laughs and plenty devised by director and actors.

There’s a cartoonish feel to the proceedings, from the whimsical sound effects (by Andre Pluess) to the graceful arches and busy wooden-plank-heavy platforms of Nina Ball’s brightly colored set. But the zaniness is never so broad it becomes frayed and unfunny, and that’s thanks to a septet of actors that essays multiple roles with gusto.

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This is especially true in the case of Adrian Danzig playing both Antipholus twins and Danny Scheie as the Dromio twins. Many believe that Shakespeare originally intended that one actor play each set of twins, which makes for a double tour de force for a set of fine comic actors.

Danzig and Scheie are more than up to the challenge, with Danzig playing more of the straight role (still with cartwheels and a fantastic seduction of Tristan Cunningham as Luciana), making Antipholus of Ephesus kind of a thug and Anitpholus of Syracuse sweeter and more prone to naiveté. Scheie, a Cal Shakes favorite for good reason, all but steals the show as the Dromios. His nimble, high-energy performance gives us an abrasive Dromio of Ephesus and a dimwitted Dromio of Syracuse. With a Wonder Woman spin and a tilt of his hat, Scheie spends one scene being both twins, one on either side of a closed gate, and it’s so exciting you’d like to stop the show and ask him to do it again – stunt comedy at its finest.

Scheie might be described as a ham if he weren’t so incisive in his creation of distinct characters, mining the dialogue for each zinger and laugh. Dromio of Syracuse’s reaction to Nell, the large, greasy cook provides one of the evening’s best and most prolonged laughs, just as Dromio’s frequent cri de coeur, “Oh, for God’s sake!” just gets funnier each time.

There would be plenty to love about this Comedy with just Danzig and Scheie doing their twin thing, but the support they get from their fellow actors makes this zippy evening (not even two hours) all the more enjoyable. Ron Campbell and Liam Vincent play multiple roles (Vincent’s deadpan way with a punch line is priceless), and at one point near the end of the show, they realize the plot requires them to assume characters seen previously with no time or opportunity to change costumes. So clothing racks appear miraculously from backstage and the actors change in full view (and much to the delight) of the audience.

Patty Gallagher does a marvelous striptease without taking of any clothing as the Courtesan (all to a recording of her lines) and then moments later is in full nun regalia as an Abbess sporting a giant, pain-inflicting ruler.

In addition to her tantalizing tango with Danzig (choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch), Cunningham charms as Luciana, a little sister who doesn’t know what to do when her older sister’s husband (or so she thinks) falls madly and instantly in love with her. And then there’s Nemuna Ceesay, fresh from her wonderful turn in Cal Shakes’ A Raisin in the Sun, as Adriana, a wife who is done with her husband’s shenanigans. I’ll always remember Ceesay’s performance fondly, not simply because she’s such a force on stage, but because in one of her forays into the audience on opening night, she interacted with male members of the audience and planted a big ol’ lipsticky kiss on my lips. As if the balmy June night wasn’t already warm enough, here’s a good example, kids, of how live theater can do things movies and TV never, ever could.

There’s so much good will and sheer enjoyment built up in this Comedy that by the ending, when the two sets of twins are required to share the stage at the same time, the audience quite happily plays along as Danzig and Scheie jump back and forth from twin to twin, untangling all the farcical knots and supplying a little jolt of familial warmth, supplying a nice little cherry on top of this expertly crafted Comedy.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Danny Scheie about playing a set of twins for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s The Comedy of Errors continues through July 20 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Just Wilde over Aurora’s Salomania

EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 29
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Madeline H.D. Brown is Maud Allan (center) in the world premiere of Mark Jackson’s Salomania at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Brown as Allan observes the testimony of Lord Alfred Douglas (Liam Vincent, right) in the courtroom of Judge Darling (Kevin Clarke). Photos by David Allen

If only a 94-year-old scandal were sensational in ways we no longer understood, we could look back and wonder what all the fuss was about and why the media underestimated the taste of the general public and why the general public was so content to be constantly underestimated.

Alas, not much has changed since the early 20th century criminal libel suit that American dancer Maud Allan brought against British newspaper publisher Noel Pemberton-Billing after he described the interest in her dance piece Vision of Salomé as the “cult of the clitoris.” That was the headline he used in his paper, the Vigilante, to describe the moral reprobates who were attracted to Allan’s version of the play by Oscar Wilde, which had been banned since Wilde’s very public downfall.

What we learn in Mark Jackson’s fascinating and at moments electrifying new play Salomania is that the media, though their aims may be occasionally true, are a pawn in larger political games and panderers to public taste, which they help shape.

Allan, who spent her childhood in San Francisco, was a sensation in London, and as such, she became a prime target for Pemberton-Billing to goad her into filing a libel suit against him. He had apparently tried and tried to get the local politicos to do the same thing, but none of them took his bait. But Allan, with her past family scandal (her brother Theo murdered two girls in San Francisco) and her desire to be a self-made woman, wasn’t about to let a rabble-rouser tarnish her good name (though her actual name was Beulah Maude Durrant). So, at the height of World War I, Allan squared off against Pemberton-Billing at the Old Bailey, the same courthouse where Wilde had seen his world crumble 25 years earlier.

This is prime material for a drama, and Jackson is just the writer/director to bring it to interesting and finely detailed life. A trial is, of course, a kind of theater in and of itself, so there’s a scorching good drama already built in – especially when Wilde’s “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas, took the stand as a witness for Pemberton-Billing and dredged up all the turmoil and name calling and closed mindedness from 25 years earlier.

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But Jackson takes a wider view beyond just the trial. He spends a good deal of time in the trenches of No Man’s Land, fighting alongside the British soldiers slogging through the mud of France. While we’re constantly reminded of how the British public was being distracted from the war by the sensation of the Allan trial, we see the soldiers completely captivated by scandal back home. One soldier even says the headlines, as they trickle in, are the only thing keeping him going.

Part of the irony in this complicated tale is that Pemberton-Billing wanted a sensational trial precisely so he could call attention to the failures of the British government and its weak peace plans and advocate for a swift and decisive end to the war. His theory, hatched with Harold Spencer, an American who served as a British secret agent, was that if they can bring attention to a German black book containing the names of 47,000 traitors to Her Majesty’s government, they could rally the troops, so to speak, infiltrate the vast German network of spies and accomplices and win the war for Britain.

That he wanted to do this by smearing the name of a dancer and aligning her with the same “moral perversity” nonsense that brought down Wilde is rather astonishing. But seeing how much traction this stunt got him is more than astonishing – it’s sickening.

Jackson is such an astute craftsman that he’s able to create a near-epic feel in the intimate Aurora. His cast of seven, all playing multiple roles except for Madeline H.D. Brown as Allan, makes a powerful impression as major historical figures, ordinary British citizens and beleaguered soldiers. Mark Anderson Phillips works up quite a froth as Pemberton-Billing, who represented himself in the libel case and apparently did so at very high volume. This man wanted to be heard, and he certainly was.

Brown’s Allan veers from being an ethereal presence, especially when she’s dancing (choreography by Chris Black) to an understandably tormented young woman who is far away from her damaged family and navigating the perils and pleasures of fame and notoriety on her own. As Judge Darling, the colorful presiding justice of the case, Kevin Clarke is having a marvelous time with the character’s eccentricity. Clarke also plays Wilde in an interesting if overlong scene toward the end of the play that could use more crackle.

Perhaps that particular scene suffers in comparison to an earlier scene, also set a table, between a soldier (Alex Moggridge) home in London on two days’ leave, and a war widow (Marilee Talkington) anxious to do her part and show the fighting men her appreciation. Jackson has two actors, both quite visible, on the floor rotating the platform on which the scene takes place (the fantastically utilitarian set is by Nina Ball). The effect is mesmerizing, and the scene is among the best in the 2 ½-hour play.

Liam Vincent is superb as Lord Alfred Douglas, with vestiges of his youthful brattiness still visible even has he fights to prove how much he has matured and changed since his association with Wilde. And Anthony Nemirovsky is great as Spencer, the American who’s on a crusade with Pemberton-Billing to change the course of the war. Watching Nemirovsky essay Spencer’s breakdown on the stand is absolutely thrilling (it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch the blowhards, no matter how sincere, crumble).

Through it all, Jackson orchestrates the proceedings with lyrical moments of dance – not just Allan but also the soldiers in the trenches – and humor and horror. There’s a scene of a hanging that is so jarring it might as well have been real and not just a clever theatrical effect (with nods to lighting designer Heather Basarab and sound designer Matt Stines).

If Salomania is overstuffed with information and parallels to our own times, it’s completely understandable. This is rich, rewarding material, even if its observations about the third estate, wartime hysteria and the distraction of a good scandal are as alarming as they are entertaining

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Mark Jackson’s Salomania continues an extended run through July 29 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Cal Shakes’ Shrew anything but tame

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Kissed and cursed: Erica Sullivan is Katherine and Slate Holmgren is Petruchio in the California Shakespeare Theater production of The Taming of the Shrew. Below: The excellent supporting cast includes (from left) Liam Vincent, Dan Clegg, Danny Scheie and Nicholas Pelczar as suitors to the lovely Bianca. Photos by Kevin Berne.Photos by Kevin Berne

If you think you’ve seen The Taming of the Shrew, you might want to think again. Director Shana Cooper’s production – the season-closer for the California Shakespeare Theater – is fresh, feisty and full of insight. Many a Shrew can make you cringe, but very few, like this one, can actually make you lose yourself in the comedy, the provocation and the genuine emotion underneath it all.

Cooper brings a sense of contemporary flash and fun to the production, from the bright yellow accents in Scott Dougan’s double-decker set (backed by a colorful billboard-like ad for a product called “Tame”) to the zippy song mash-ups in the sound design by Jake Rodriguez. The music is especially fun. You can hear strains of Madonna’s “Material Girl” followed by a flash of the “Wonder Woman” theme song one minute and revel in almost an entire number (“Tom, Dick or Harry”) from Kiss Me Kate, the next. In this tale of love that is purchased, battled over and maybe even deeply felt, the song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” takes on intriguing textures, both comic and dramatic. Even the lighting by York Kennedy has a crystal-clear energy all its own.

The real miracle of Cooper’s production is that there are interesting characters in it other than feral lovers Kate (Erica Sullivan) and Petruchio (Slate Holmgren). Credit this to successful direction and a superb cast full of some of the Bay Area’s most versatile comedians. Of particular note are the suitors to Kate’s beauty queen little sister, Bianca (Alexandra Henrikson): the tailor Gremio (Danny Scheie), dapper dan Hortensio (Liam Vincent) and intellectual Lucentio (Nicholas Pelczar). When the action shifts away from the central taming story, it doesn’t feel like we’re just biding time until we get back. Even the servants – Dan Clegg as Tranio, Dan Hiatt as Grumio, Joan Mankin in a trio of nicely etched roles – feel richer than usual. Rod Gnapp in the thankless role of Kate and Bianca’s father, even emerges more fully fleshed out than usual.

Scheie, as usual, gets away with comic murder. Even the way he says the name of his beloved, Bee-ANK-uh, gets a laugh to say nothing of what he does with the phrase “turkey cushions.” Pelczar, Clegg and Theo Black as Biondello have an inspired bit of shtick in the first act involving the exchange of hats. The Marx Brothers would be proud. Almost as good is the timing of Clegg and Pelczar exchanging clothes, undressed to their matching skivvies for the line beginning, “In brief…”

Shrew 2

There are so many wonderful details in this production that its 2 1/2 hours zip by. When Petruchio is late for his wedding, a description of his wild attire precedes his arrival, building up certain expectations that costumer Katherine O’Neill more than meets when he actually steps on stage. The outfit should be savored as a surprise, but let’s just say that amid the Saran Wrap there’s a starring role for Holmgren’s left butt cheek. Hilarious.

There is particular satisfaction in the richness of the Kate and Petruchio scenes. Their first scene together, which received a well-earned round of applause at Saturday’s autumnally temperate opening-night performance, is a prolonged seduction as much as it is an intense fight. Cooper, with the help of movement coach Erika Chong Shuch and fight director Dave Maier, turns it into a memorably acrobatic dance that infuses every line of dialogue with meaning. And it’s sexy as hell, thanks to Sullivan and Holmgren’s expert execution.

The trajectory of Kate and Petruchio’s love story – and that’s really what it is here – is clear from the first time they see each other, and each, almost in spite of themselves, likes what they see. Sullivan and Holmgren have red-hot chemistry from the very first, and they’re so good together you really do want them together. Kate’s got emotional troubles and Petruchio’s actually terrified by her, a state incompatible with his alpha-male bravado. But they both dive in, each a little crazed and carried away until they reach an understanding about how deeply they are willing to invest in their union and in each other. The taming here is mutual, and in the end it isn’t taming so much as maturing. Theirs will not be a shallow marriage of arrangement, though that’s how it begins. Unlike Bianca’s meet-cute relationship with her groom, Kate and Petruchio will likely still love on another tomorrow.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed director Shana Cooper and Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s The Taming of the Shrew continues through Oct. 16 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24). Free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station and the theater. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Review: Octopus

Extended through June 21 at the Magic Theatre, San Francisco

Kevin (Eric Kerr, left) and Max (Liam Vincent) wade through murky relationship waters in Steve Yockey’s provocative Octopus, a co-production of the Magic Theatre and Encore Theatre Company. Photos by www.DavidAllenStudio.com.

 

Yockey’s Octopus explores inky waters of commitment
«««1/2 Dripping with intrigue

Steve Yockey’s Octopus is a thrilling, somewhat frustrating theatrical experience.

This inaugural co-production of the Magic Theatre and Encore Theatre Company delivers a first-rate production of a fascinating world-premiere play that ultimately comes up a little short only because Yockey sets the bar so high for himself at the outset.

What starts as another riff on gay romantic situation comedies quickly turns into something quite different then evolves into something else shortly after that.

Committed couple Blake (Patrick Alparone) and Kevin (Eric Kerr) are hoping to liven things up by inviting another couple to join them in the bedroom. “It’s something guys do,” Kevin says. Into their neat little urban apartment (fantastic set by Erik Flatmo, more on that in a minute) steps longtime couple Max (Liam Vincent) and Andy (Brad Erickson). While Andy natters on about wine, the voracious Max practically devours Blake with just a glance.

Director Kate Warner masterfully amps up the tension between the four men – as couples and as individuals – to humorous and then to anxiety-inducing levels. Soon enough, though, the clothes come off as Jarrod Fischer’s lights politely dim and the huddle of flesh makes its way to the bed. But things don’t turn out exactly as planned. Feelings are hurt, boundaries are crossed and the flood is unleashed. HIV-AIDS looms, even though Blake says: “It’s not even something people get anymore.”

Yockey is a funny, assured writer, and director Warner and her actors find the rhythms that heighten the laughs (“Don’t say my name like it tastes bad,” Blake snaps, or here’s Max describing a convoluted coffee order: “It’s like an insane caffeinated yard sale in a cup.”) and then underscore the drama. The tone of the play changes with the arrival of a telegram delivery guy (Rowan Brooks), who happens to be sopping wet. Danger fairly drips from the cheerful man, and with each telegram, Octopus grows more chilling.

The ability of Flatmo’s set to hold water becomes increasingly important as action shifts to the bottom of the sea and to apartments overrun with the fluid embodiment of fear – fear of death, fear of commitment, fear of anything honest and real. There’s brilliance in the set-up, with the ocean becoming a metaphor for illness and isolation and sea monsters becoming the threat of imminent death.

The fact that Warner and her crew pull off the aquatic special effects as well as they do carries the last portion of the 70-minute play, even as Yockey sets up a dramatic confrontation between the fearful Kevin and the increasingly angry telegram guy. By this point in the play, we’re literally swimming in metaphor (especially the people in the front row), and the function of the grim-reaperish telegram guy diminishes. We get it, so his presence, especially as the catalyst for dénouement never feels quite right (through no fault of Brooks, who is pitch perfect).

There’s still plenty of power and emotion in Yockey’s ending thanks largely to the excellent Alparone and Kerr, but getting there somehow took an unnecessary detour. And this is much too fascinating a play for detours. One of the hardest things to do in a theater is to scare people, but Octopus, with its crazy sea monsters (and rattling sound design by Sara Huddleston) and astounding imagery, comes close multiple times.

There’s something chilling about Octopus, and it’s not just because the theater is filled with water.

Octopus continues through June 21 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are$40-$45. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org for information.

Review: `Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain’

opened Jan. 13, 2007 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, San Francisco

Wacky `Dead Mother’ springs to vibrant life
three 1/2 stars Shirley not to be missed

Dead Mother, contrary to its title, is quite a lively evening of theater.

The full title of David Greenspan’s wickedly playful, intelligent play, Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain, gives you some idea of the writer’s general tone: funny, irreverent and secretly serious.

A co-production of San Francisco theater companies Traveling Jewish Theatre and Thick Description, Dead Mother opened marks the 17-year-old play’s first production since its premiere at New York’s Public Theater.

It’s easy to see why the play might scare companies less brave than TJT and Thick D. Here you have a farce involving sexual identity, cross-dressing, bestiality, Greek mythology, five acts and enough speedy dialogue to choke an untrained actor.

Thick D’s artistic director, Tony Kelly, is at the helm of Dead Mother, which is reassuring from the start, and he has assembled a cast of Bay Area stalwarts, all of whom do superb, even inspired, work here.

New York playwright (and actor and director) Greenspan seems to take his cue from Tony Kushner (Angels in America), who has called Greenspan “the most talented theater artist of my generation.” So, who knows? Maybe Kushner was inspired by Greenspan.

Whatever, Greenspan seems to relish breaking boundaries.

He sets up Dead Mother as a rollicking farce as Daniel (Gabriel Marin) has found the woman, Maxine (Deb Fink), he wants to marry. Trouble is, Maxine will only marry him if she can meet his mother, and Daniel’s imperious Jewish mother, Shirley, is dead.

Ever the creative thinker, Daniel goes to his brother, Harold (Liam Vincent).

It seems that years ago, while Shirley was still alive, Harold dressed up as his mother and successfully fooled his father, Melvin (Louis Parnell), into thinking he was Shirley.

If Harold is so convincing, why shouldn’t Harold pretend to be Shirley for just one more night so Maxine can be welcomed into the family?

Of course all goes swimmingly until Harold’s father shows up, sees his dead wife and is effectively convinced it’s her ghost.


This would all be so much gender-bending Neil Simon if Greenspan didn’t throw in some brainy, wacky stuff as well. When Maxine, Daniel, “Shirley” and Melvin go to the theater, we go with them and watch Greenspan’s randy take on the Greeks, with the cast playing the “actors” wearing togas with genitals on the outside (hilarious costumes are by Raul Aktanov).

Just what is all that Greek stuff? When Maxine gets back from the show, she asks the same question, but she says the play was “nice…we supported the arts and got out of the house.”

With the appearance of a sperm whale (played with Moby Dick style by Dena Martinez), the play heads off into self-conscious surrealism. Act 4 is performed as a reading, with the actors behind music stands, describing the epic action — Alice B. Toklas (played with elan by Corey Fischer) takes Harold on a guided tour through hell — that would be virtually impossible to stage on a shoestring budget.

The final scene is essentially a family drama, minus the farce, although Harold is still playing his mother, but the confrontations with his father are too intense and deeply felt to be comedy.
The epilogue, delivered gamely by Martinez, is far too conventional to wrap up a play that is so grandly — and oddly — entertaining.

Still, Dead Mother is a play that lingers because of the wonderful work by director Kelly and his actors — especially Vincent, whose extraordinary as Harold/Shirley with only a string of pearls to differentiate them, and Fink, who’s mile-a-minute mouth is a wonder.
Greenspan throws an awful lot onto the stage, but most of it works. Dead Mother is as audacious as it is funny, as head-spinning and confusing as it is beguiling and delightful.

Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain continues through Feb. 17 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $31-$34. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.atjt.com or www.thickhouse.org for information.

Review: “American $uicide”

(opened Feb. 12, 2007)
Jackson, actors commit American $uicide at Thick House
three stars Zesty satire

If “American Idol” ended each episode with a bullet instead of wild applause, some of us might stop watching. And some of us might start.

We love our reality TV in this country, and, truth be told, we love our violence. So far, the two haven’t collided much (discounting “Fear Factor” if only because “Fear Factor” should always be discounted).

That’s where director/writer Mark Jackson comes in. He’s still on a hot streak that began last fall with his Salome at the Aurora Theatre Company and continued through The Forest War with Shotgun Players.

With American $uicide, now at the Thick House in San Francisco, Jackson gives us something completely different: an ultra-contemporary twist on a banned Russian play.

While researching his brilliant The Death of Meyerhold, Jackson came across Nikolai Erdman, a writer whose second play was the biting comedy The Suicide. Finished in 1928, the play was a hot property, with multiple theater companies competing to produce it. But the Soviet government banned it for its supposed anti-government content. Stalin himself called the play “empty and even harmful.” Erdman was reportedly exiled to Siberia several years later and never wrote another play.

With the support of Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays, Jackson picks up where Erdman left off and gives us a wickedly funny, wonderfully warped mish-mash of human desperation, celebrity lust and good old American zeal.

As a writer, Jackson sets his action in the present day, but he’s clearly working in a 1930s stage comedy style with rapid-fire, exaggerated delivery and over-the-top characters. As a director, he takes that style to the next logical step: ’40s-style screwball comedy complete with pratfalls, broken dishes and zany costumes (by Raquel Barreto).

At the center of the story is a sincere sad sack named Sam Small (the incredibly funny Jud Williford, pictured above). He’s unemployed and ashamed that he has to rely on his waitress wife’s “greasy tips” and stolen sausages to survive.

His hardworking wife, Mary (Beth Wilmurt, a comedienne of the highest order), wants to help her husband out of his depression, so when he finally admits his secret desire to be an actor, she does her darndest to be a good cheerleader.

With the help of his across-the-hall neighbor, Albert (Marty Pistone), and his girlfriend Margaret (Denise Balthrop Cassidy), who make money on eBay and with their very own porn site, Sam makes his tentative way into show business.

This is when the personalities start to leap off the stage. We get a desperate, overly tan film director (Michael Patrick Gaffney) and a 22-year-old starlet (Jody Flader) _ the next big thing who’s also making a comeback. But best of all, we get Gigi Bolt, a former director at the National Endowment for the Arts and the current executive director of the Theatre Communications Group.

Bolt is a real person, but her presence here — in the divine form of Delia MacDougall, left, at her most Carol Burnett-ish — is sort of an inside joke. What’s funny for anyone who knows Bolt or not is the character’s grand dame theatricality. “Life is projected, transmitted and downloaded but no longer LIVED!” she intones.

Once Sam meets all these characters, he gets bamboozled into an outrageous scheme that has him committing suicide on live TV, with viewers bidding astounding sums to have him die in their name or in the name of their cause.

Sam agrees to do this because it will ensure his wife won’t have to work anymore. Gigi wants him to die in the name of American theater. The starlet wants him to die out of love for her in the hope that the attention might revive her career. And so on.

Going into intermission, which occurs just after MacDougall’s big scene, I was thinking “American $uicide” was just about the funniest thing I’d seen since Hunter Gatherers last summer.

But Act 2 disappoints if only because the build-up to the actual suicide — which takes place in a high N-R-G dance club (sturdy, flexible set by James Faerron) — results in an almost inevitable anti-climax. By this point we have Middle Eastern operatives and government baddies in the mix (all ably played by Liam Vincent), but Jackson’s sharpness dulls.

The play is so frenzied and fun that I wanted all the darker currents to amount to more. I had hoped that while we were having a great time watching the show, Jackson’s satirical saber was slicing into us more than we realized.

That doesn’t quite happen, but American $uicide, in all its grandly theatrical glory, remains a comedy to die for.

For information about American $uicide, visit www.zspace.org.