Theater moments: Reflections on 2007

I’ve already offered up my Top 10 list of 2007’s best Bay Area theater (see it here).

That’s all well and good, but there was way too much good stuff in 2007 to contain in a polite numbered list. What follows, in no apparent order, are some of the year’s most distinctive theater moments (mostly good, some not so much).

The shows in the Top 10 were really great shows, but so were these. This is my honorable mention roster:

American Suicide, Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays
Pillowman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
The Birthday Party, Aurora Theatre Company
Pleasure & Pain, Magic Theatre’s Hot House ’07
After the War, American Conservatory Theater
Heartbreak House, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle and The Marsh
Annie Get Your Gun, Broadway by the Bay
Des Moines, Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts
Richard III, California Shakespeare Theater

Favorite scene: Didn’t even have to think twice about this one. The dinner scene in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Director Les Waters, working from Adele Edling Shank’s script, fashioned a multilayered scene that would have made Woolf herself proud. A boisterous family dinner, warmly illuminated by candles, allows us into the head of each of the diners without ever losing track of the dinner conversation. Extraordinary and beautiful — and vocally choreographed like a piece of complex music.

Greatest guilty pleasure: Legally Blonde, The Musical, had its pre-Broadway run early in 2007 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, and though it had its problems, it was a heck of a lot of fun. The best number was the lengthy “What You Want” in which sorority gal Elle Woods (Laura Bell Bundy) decides to apply to Harvard. In true musical fashion, the number sweeps through time and space, coursing through months of effort and from Southern California to the hallowed halls of Harvard. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography incorporates a frat party, the Harvard selection committee and a marching band.

Favorite image:The green girl in Berkeley Rep’s The Pillowman.

Favorite couple: Francis Jue as Mr. Oji and Delia MacDougall as Olga Mikhoels in Philip Kan Gotanda’s After the War at ACT. The sweetest romance was also the most surprising: a shy Japanese man and a recent Russian immigrant, neither of whom speaks much English.

Speaking of MacDougall: It was a good year for the actress (seen at right with the fur and tiara), who died memorably in Cal Shakes’ King Lear and ended 2007 with a superb, hip-swiveling, lip-pursing performance in Sex by Mae West at the Aurora.

Favorite tryout: Joan Rivers is more than a red carpet personality and an experiment in plastic surgery. An avowed theater lover, Rivers got down to some serious (and seriously funny) business in The Joan Rivers Theatre Project at the Magic. She combined stand-up with drama as she told an autobiographical tale of growing old in show business. The play was far from perfect, but she gets an A for effort.

Best ensemble: Behind every good show is a good ensemble, in front of and behind the scenes. But the one that comes to mind that, together, elevated the play was the fine crew in TheatreWorks’ Theophilus North (left) directed by Leslie Martinson.

Biggest disappointments: There were a few of them. I adore Kiki and Herb (Justin Bond and Kenny Melman), but their summer gig at ACT was in desperate need of a director. Berkeley Rep hosted Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Oliver Twist, and while it was good, it didn’t reach anything approaching the heights of David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby. I complained about this in the review, and I’ll complain about it again: In ACT’s The Rainmaker, when the rain falls at the end, the actors should get wet. That’s the whole point of the play. In this version, the rain fell from above, but the actors were behind it and only pretended — acted if you will — the wetness. Lame.

Most gratuitous nudity: Actors bare all emotionally _ it’s what they do. But this year saw some unnecessary flesh, most notably in ‘Bot at the Magic, Private Jokes, Public Places at the Aurora and Two Boys in Bed on a Cold Winter Night. Costumes are a good thing.

Favorite quote of the year: It was uttered by the food critic Anton Ego (and written by Brad Bird) in the brilliant Pixar/Disney movie Ratatouille. As a critic (or what’s left of one), the words really hit home. And they’re true.

Here’s a taste: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

Happy New Year. May your stages in 2008 be full of the discovery of the new.

Thoughts on `Sex’

I can’t really review the Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Sex, a 1926 play by the delectable Mae West. One of my best friends is in the cast (he’s brilliant, by the way), so I have what they call in the ethics business a “conflict of interest.”

So, knowing my bias, here’s what I enjoyed about the production, directed by Tom Ross, the Aurora’s artistic director.

This is unlike any show I’ve seen in 10 years of going to the Aurora. First of all, it’s a musical (under the terrific musical direction of Billy Philadelphia, who tickles the ivories, and when pressed into acting service, looks sharp in an officer’s uniform). The second act of West’s play takes place in Trinidad, and it’s mostly an excuse to sing a lot of songs. Philadelpia has written three new songs to add to the Sex-y song list, and they’re terrific. The best one is “At the Cafe Port au Prince,” expertly performed by Danny Wolohan in an afro wig. It’s a funny, catchy number, and Philadelphia’s other new tunes, “Under the Red Light” and “Goin’ Down Under,” make me think that perhaps it’s time for Philadelphia to seriously consider writing a jazzy musical (and his wife, Meg Mackay, could star because it’s been too long since we’ve seen her onstage).

To be perfectly honest, Sex is a fairly lousy play. There are some very funny lines, and West wrote herself an interesting role in Margy LaMont, a Montreal prostitute who attempts to go straight and gets involved with a naive society boy. But the dialogue is stiff and dated, and as for plot, well, nothing really kicks in until Act 3 when the past and present clash in an amusing way.

What makes Sex interesting now is, of course, West herself. She wrote this piece before she had fully developed her trademark Mae West persona, so we get her intelligence, humor and strength with less of the robotic waxwork mechanisms she later created for herself.

Ross’ supporting ensemble — Robert Brewer, Steve Irish, Craig Jessup, Maureen McVerry, Kristin Stokes, Philadelphia and Wolohan — does a whole lot to keep the play from dragging (in lesser hands, boy would it drag). But the star here is Delia MacDougall as Margy.

MacDougall has always been a smart, reliable actor, and she knows that simply doing a Mae West impersonation for 2 1/2 hours isn’t going to cut it. So we get glimpses of Mae — especially when MacDougall struts and sings “Sweet Man” and “Shake That Thing” (a great ensemble number) — but what we really get is Margy, a worldly broad desperate to make something of her life. She doesn’t exactly have a heart of gold, but she has a brain and good instincts. And perhaps most happily of all, she has a raging libido, and she owns it. Could this be where the expression “You go, girl!” comes from?

MacDougall is marvelous (and she looks fantastic in Cassandra Carpenter’s ’20s dresses). Her performance alone should make you eager to dive headlong into Sex.

For information about Sex, visit

Here’s a trailer for West’s movie I’m No Angel from 1933 with Cary Grant.

MacDougall has `Sex’ appeal

This month, if you’re looking for good Sex, you may need to head for Berkeley.

This week, the Aurora Theatre Company opens Mae West’s 1926 show Sex starring Delia MacDougall as Margy LaMont, the role West originated herself.

MacDougall, a familiar face to Bay Area audiences (she most recently died onstage in California Shakespeare Theater’s King Lear), grew up in Mountain view and remembers her mother taking her to Palo Alto’s Stanford Theatre to see old movies.

“My mom was a big fan of Mae West’s and would quote her all the time,” MacDougall says from her San Francisco home. “I loved all those sexy pre-Code 1930s ladies. I think Mae West had something to her that was more powerful than any of them — more sexual but not very sexy. She was a powerful, sexual woman.”

Of course young Delia didn’t necessarily know what West was talking about.

“It still takes me a while to catch on — she makes innuendo out of everything.”
Even before MacDougall was approached by Aurora artistic director Tom Ross about playing West’s role in Sex, the busy actor/director was something of a West aficionado.

“I saw her films then started reading the biographies. I was impressed by the paths she cut,” MacDougall says.

After an audition for another Aurora show, MacDougall was sensing she didn’t get the part when Ross handed her the Sex script. The first few pages had MacDougall hooked, and she knew she wanted to do the show.

“The character, Margy LaMont, is clearly a prostitute, and that’s what was so upsetting to people at the time,” MacDougall explains. “She’s very real, which is a funny thing to associate with Mae West. In the ’20s, prostitutes onstage had to suffer and die at the end. Audiences had to believe there was good in them somewhere. But with Margy, it’s not like that.”

Sex got bad reviews when it opened, but, as you might imagine, audiences adored it. It ran for a year before the City of New York sent the police in to shut it down. West was arrested on a morals charge and served eight days in prison (though legend has it she was allowed to wear her silk underwear in jail).

Of course, being the Madonna of her day, West turned all the publicity to her advantage, wrote more plays (most of which were shut down or forced out of town) and made her way to Hollywood.

Because Sex emerged before the West persona was set in curvy stone, the character of Margy is, as MacDougall puts it, “more man- and society-angry than later West characters. Mae had a better sense of humor than Margy.”

Consequently, MacDougall does not have to do an out-and-out West imitation, though she is working on her shimmy.

“I think it’s a good play — it’s not Inherit the Wind but it moves quickly, you don’t know where it’s going and it has characters you love,” MacDougall says. “And Mae always wrote that Margy is in a clinch, so I love playing the part because I’m always in the arms of some guy.”

This will be the year MacDougall chose Sex over Christmas (the sex jokes just never end with a title like that). She was all set to go back into American Conservatory Theater’s annual A Christmas Carol, but decided to opt for West’s play.

“I don’t know how many more years I can be in a play called Sex,” she says.
If you’d like to sample a little of West at her best before you head to Sex, which is directed by Ross and features Maureen McVerry, Danny Wolohan, Steve Irish, Robert Brewer, Kristin Stokes and Craig Jessup, MacDougall recommends West’s first movie, Night After Night, in which a hat-check girl says to West, “Goodness, what lovely diamonds.” To which West replies, “Dearie, goodness had nothing to do with it.”

MacDougall also recommends listening to West’s song “A Guy What Takes His Time.”

The Aurora’s Sex continues through Dec. 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40 to $42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit