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.

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

Hansberry’s Sun blazes brightly in Cal Shakes opener

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The cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s A Raisin in the Sun includes (from left) Nemuna Ceesay as Beneatha Younger, Marcus Henderson as Walter Lee Younger, Margo Hall as Lena Younger, Ryan Nicole Peters as Ruth Younger and Zion Richardson as Travis Younger. Below: Henderson’s Walter imagines a brighter vision of the future for him and his family, including his mother, Lena. Photos by Kevin Berne

If you can’t make it to Broadway to see the latest star-studded version of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic American drama A Raisin in the Sun, you’ll probably do just as well to head out to Orinda and catch California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening production.

Director Patricia McGregor’s production offers a superb cast and makes a case for Hansberry’s play to be in the pantheon of American dream plays alongside Miller, Williams and O’Neill. This is very specifically an African-American play from the late 1950s, but it’s also a timeless family drama about struggle, failure and redemption played out in a classic battle between taking (aka capitalism, money, material worth) and giving (aka love, compassion, family).

A sense of place is vital to the success of Raisin. The Younger family lives in a cramped, decaying, roach-infested tenement on Chicago’s south side, and the hope that emerges in the play, thanks to a $10,000 insurance check, is that they can start over in a home of their own in a sunny suburb known as Clybourne Park. Set designer Dede M. Ayite tackles the challenge of turning the gorgeous expanse of valley on view at the Bruns Amphitheater into a dingy, oppressive slice of the inner city by blending the two. At the center of the stage is the Younger’s apartment, too small for its five inhabitants and too shabby for this family’s strong sense of pride. Surrounding the apartment walls is a grid of fire escapes and balconies, with lines of laundry flapping in the cool evening breeze. It’s surprisingly effective (with a tremendous assist from Gabe Maxson’s lights) and offers a subtle but constant reminder that there’s a better, brighter life waiting just outside.

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The extraordinary Margo Hall (fresh from her powerhouse turn in Marin Theatre Company’s Fences) is Lena Younger, the matriarch whose depths of compassion and love for her family are constantly surprising. She sees her family falling apart around her and takes drastic action by using her late husband’s insurance money to buy a house that will not only get them out of the grit and grime of Chicago but will also serve their future by giving them roots (albeit roots in a neighborhood with no other black families, but change has to begin somewhere).

Hall’s performance has such depth and feeling that she anchors the entire production, and that anchor is especially helpful because Lena’s children are angry and explosive in different ways. Walter Lee (Marcus Henderson) is 35 and restless. His 11-year marriage to Ruth (a strong Ryan Nicole Peters) is strained because Walter’s focus is almost solely on money, or lack thereof. He wants, he needs, he yearns, but he can’t latch on to anything. His chauffeur job is a dead end, and he figures he could use his mother’s insurance check to invest in a liquor store to make a better way for his wife, 10-year-old son and mother and sister.

Walter’s younger sister, Beneatha (Nemuna Ceesay) is a bright young woman on her way to medical school. Her unease has to do with limitations she feels as a woman and as a black woman wrestling with her heritage (she and Walter are the fifth generation of Youngers in this country, a family of slaves and sharecroppers). She rails against “assimilation” and yearns to know more about her African roots.

In both of these children – and in the actors’ powerful performances – you feel the push and the force that will explode and change history in the ’60s. But for now, the Youngers’ angst is contained in their small apartment, described in the play as a “beat-up hole.”

Hansberry’s Raisin has had two Broadway revivals in the last 10 years, with the most recent perhaps inspired by the success of Clybourne Park, a play by Bruce Norris that imagines what is happening in the suburbs as the Youngers prepare to move in and then jumps into present day to examine the state of the neighborhood. The only character in Norris’ play that actually appears in A Raisin in the Sun is Karl Lindner (played at Cal shakes by Liam Vincent), the Clybourne Park resident who basically tells the Youngers they’re not welcome and offers to buy them out (he also, horrifyingly, keeps calling them “you people”). It’s a fascinating bit of subtext, but what becomes clear in this fine Cal Shakes production – a wonderful way to kick off the 40th anniversary season – is that Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is the real thing and everything else is a riff on her masterwork.

Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun continues through June 16 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Wilson’s Fences hits hard at Marin Theatre Co.

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The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Fences by August Wilson includes (from left) Eddie Ray Jackson as Cory, Margo Hall as Rose and and Carl Lumbly as Troy Maxson. Below: Lumbly and Hall are joined by Steven Anthony Jones as Jim Bono. Photos by Ed Smith

I’ve always been moved by August Wilson’s Fences, the 1950s installment of his extraordinary Century Cycle of plays depicting African-American life in the 20th century. But the current production of the play at Marin Theatre Company under the direction of Derrick Sanders made me feel the play in a whole new way.

This has largely to do with Carl Lumbly’s wrenching central performance as Troy Maxson, a complicated man whose life is ruled by ego. And that’s what struck me about this production: how much the play is about the destructive nature of ego – not the “I’m so great, look at me, check out my Google Glasses” ego but rather the insidious part of ourselves that divorces us from real life and forces us to live under the weight of preconceptions and regrets and fear and walled-off (perhaps fenced-off is more appropriate) emotion.

Troy has seemingly done everything right. He survived a gruesome childhood with a shabby father, struck out on his own and, after fighting the rampant racism of the early 20th century, nearly making it in baseball minors and surviving incarceration, finally put down roots inn Pittsburgh’s Hill District. He wasn’t a father to his first son, Lyons, whose childhood flew by while Troy was in prison. But with wife Rose, a saving grace in his life, he raised a second son, got a steady job as a garbageman and made a home for his family.

That’s the history of a good citizen, maybe not someone who started out that way but who eventually took responsibility for himself and his family in a big way. So what’s wrong with that? Plenty, and that’s what makes the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences so interesting. Troy is a proud man, an angry man who fights to live the life he thinks he should and struggles hard when it feels like parts of him are dying.

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Lumbly’s performance is so powerful and so achingly real, it’s easy to see why Rose (a fine Margo Hall) and son Cory (Eddie Ray Jackson) are afraid of him to varying degrees. They aren’t really allowed to be themselves (just as Troy isn’t able to be himself) but rather the image he holds of them. Rose isn’t a person so much as a person to be loved, protected and provided for, and Cory isn’t a talented football player whose skill could be his ticket to college but rather a young black man who will have to fight, like Troy did, to make his way in the world.

Troy’s vision of his life has been pretty easy to uphold for nearly two decades, but unsupported facades fall away, and that’s where we are in Fences as secrets, resentments and outright hostilities send everything crumbling down.

Wilson’s set-up in the first act can get a little draggy, but once Troy is challenged – first by his son, then by his wife – the action and the emotional wallop are significant.

Sanders’ cast, which also includes Steven Anthony Jones as Troy’s best friend, Tyee Tilghman as Troy’s first-born son, Adrian Roberts as Troy’s damaged brother, Gabriel, and Makaelah Bashir and Jade Sweeneysharing the role of Raynell, is as sturdy as it gets, even though the drama belongs mostly to Lumbly. Later in the play, though, Wilson hands the play to Rose to bring everything into perspective, and Hall handles the shift with her usual grace and vigor.

Fences is a great American drama about the true cost of doing the “right” thing and living the life you think you should live rather than the life you’re actually living. That’s a fascinating clash and one that will remain relevant as long as we’re operating under the illusion of the American Dream.

August Wilson’s Fences continues through May 11 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Cal Shakes’ lukewarm take on Winter’s Tale

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L. Peter Callender (far left), Tyee Tilghman, Margo Hall (center), and Christopher Michael Rivera deal with unexplained jealousy in Cal Shakes’ production of A Winter’s Tale, directed by Patricia McGregor. Below: (from left) Tristan Cunningham, Callender, Aldo Billingslea and Hall celebrate spring in Bohemia. Photos by

On a refreshingly brisk autumn night, California Shakespeare Theater’s A Winter’s Tale aimed to tell a sad story with a happy ending. “A sad story is best for winter,” or so we’re told by a young boy not long for this earth.

Even by Shakespearean standards, this is a strange play, with its jarring shifts in tone, unexplained fits of jealousy, interference by the gods and living statuary. In other words, it’s a director’s dream – here’s a wacky play that needs lots of interpretation and massaging to make it work for a modern audience.

Cal Shakes previously closed the season with A Winter’s Tale in 2002 with a massive production in which the audience moved around to accommodate the shift in action from Sicilia to Bohemia. Director Lisa Peterson hauled out screaming teenagers, a school bus and an all-out rave before audience members headed back into the theater proper for the moving, if fantastical, finale.

This time around, we get a wildly different Tale directed by Patricia McGregor, who returns after the triumph of last season’s Spunk, and her production is only fitfully successful. There’s a half-baked concept here that the story is told by a troupe of traveling actors, but this approach – so beautifully realized in Cal Shakes’ 2008 Pericles – makes little sense when there’s a towering, rotating set piece (by Michael Locher) standing center stage. This troupe certainly doesn’t travel light. The concept really seems more of an excuse to use nine actors to tell this complex story, which only reminds us of the “storytelling” concept before and after intermission and toward the end when there’s a nearly disastrous abridgment of the play that is rapped for our “enjoyment.” And there’s one awkward scene where Tyee Tilghman playing Camillo and Florizel has to be both characters in the same scene, so one of them stays conveniently out of view behind a small travel trailer, while other actors pretend to see him or interact with him.

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Attempts at audience interaction are well intentioned but don’t add much to the experience. At Wednesday night’s performance a lumberjack-looking fellow was pulled out of the audience to stand by the maypole while actors and ribbons whirled around him. Can’t imagine that was a theatergoing highlight for Mr. Bunyan. And pre-show plate spinning and cavorting also lacked the necessary pizzazz, as did the attempt at a sing-along in Act 2, which bombed primarily because the song (with lyrics on a handy program insert) is hard to sing and not remotely catchy.

Two things about this production work well: Shakespeare and McGregor’s cast. This may be a weird and wacky play, but Shakespeare knew what he was doing. The master of set up and denouement, Shakespeare spins a lot of plates (more effectively than the actors in the pre-show) but knows just how and when to take each plate down. There’s a certain satisfaction in the storytelling here, even though McGregor’s attempt to speed things up toward the end bleeds any emotion out of the ending, and that’s all Shakespeare.

When you need someone to play an intense king, who swings from wild, unfounded jealousy to soul-deep repentance within just a few scenes, you hire L. Peter Callender, an actor who can make emotional sense out of just about anything (and in a nice twist, he played Polixines in the 2002 production, so he has true insight into the pain his current character is causing). The reasons for King Leontes’ jealousy are never clear – he just decides that his Queen Hermione (Omozé Idehenre) is having an affair (and a child) with visiting King Polixenes (Aldo Billingslea) of Bohemia. After trying to kill Polixenes and then imprisoning his pregnant wife, Leontes is smacked down by a message from the oracle saying he’s a tyrant and has done his wife and friend a horrible wrong. To watch Callender navigate this steep emotional terrain is to watch an actor in full command. We don’t understand Leontes, but we absolutley believe him.

The same is true of Idehenre as Hermione, a regal monarch and loving mother who finds herself the victim of her husband’s temporary insanity. Shackled in a courtroom, pleading (with dignity) for her life, Idehenre’s Hermione is a vision of grace and strength coming from deep pain.

In supporting roles, Billingslea and Margo Hall provide exactly the kind of support you want here – serious when it needs to be (Billingslea’s wronged Polixenes, Hall as the protective Paulina) and lighter when called for (Hall as a Bohemian clown, Billingslea as the famous exiting bear).

While this production focuses on the more tragic parts of the play in its first half, all’s well that begins well. The actors are excellent and the story theater gimmick is kept at bay. Once the story zips forward 16 years and shifts to Bohemia, the tone wobbles and director McGregor loses control of the emotional through line, in spite of her actors’ best efforts. Here is a Winter’s Tale that chills, heats up and then more or less melts.

California Shakespeare Theater’s A Winter’s Tale continues through Oct. 20 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda (free shuttle to and from Orinda BART station). Tickets are $20 to $72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

A Night to remember as Cal Shakes opens season

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Dena Martinez (far left) as Sacajawea, Sharon Lockwood (left) as William Clark, Dan Hiatt (center) as Meriwether Lewis and Sean San José as Juan José in California Shakespeare Theater’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José by Richard Montoya, directed by Jonathan Moscone. Below: (from left) Tyee Tilghman as Ben Pettus, Margo Hall as Viola Pettus, San José and Martinez. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Spring and early summer 2013 may well be remembered as the Great Montoya Surge.

In April, Richard Montoya – one third of the legendary San Francisco-born comedy trio Culture Clash – premiered a play with Campo Santo called The River (read the review here), and it was funny and brash and heartfelt and messy and pretty wonderful. It had to do with, among other things, death and immigration, and it made you crave more Montoya work.

We didn’t have to wait long. Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José opened the California Shakespeare Theater season Saturday on a night so warm and beautiful under the stars in Orinda you wonder why every play can’t be done outdoors (how quickly we forget those freezing cold, windy, foggy nights when nary a star is visible). The play, developed with Culture Clash and Jo Bonney (who has directed earlier productions of the play, including its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the original commissioner of the work), is wild, messy, funny, irreverent and heartfelt. It’s about immigration (not so much about death) and about the strength of a nation built on and still thriving from the hard work of its diverse citizenry, most of whom are or descend directly from immigrants.

Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone attempts to contain Montoya’s manic energy in a 105-minute production that crams in so many references, both historical and pop-cultural, that it’s impossible to appreciate them all. There’s not a sour note in Moscone’s excellent cast, which is full of actors that seem to be loving the comic whirlwind, which has, among other personages, Sacajawea in braces and headgear, Lewis and Clark as egotistical buffoons, Celia Cruz (for no apparent reason), Neil Diamond, Teddy Roosevelt, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mormon missionaries and Abraham Lincoln (using his Academy Award as a hand weight, naturally).

What keeps it all centered is the performance of Sean San José as Juan José, a recent Mexican immigrant who, after fighting corrupting influences on the Mexican police force, leaves his wife and infant son to try for a better, less morally compromising life across the border. He has his green card but needs to spend the night studying up before his citizenship test in the morning. Before he can delve too deeply into questions like, “Name the original 13 colonies,” he falls asleep. And the ensuing dream/warped history pageant is the bulk of the play.

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San José is Dorothy in this wild American Oz, with episodes that range from downright silly (he uses dead rabbits as nunchucks) to the incredibly sweet. During a stay in West Texas, he encounters the Ku Klux Klan (Dan Hiatt as a local judge), an African-American couple saving infants’ lives during the flu epidemic of 1918 (Margot Hall and Tyee Tilghman as Viola and Benjamin Pettus) as well as some of his ancestors. His encounter with Jackie Robinson (Tilghman again) is also a rare quiet moment that is quite moving, as is a stop at a radio station in the Manzanar WWII internment camp, where Sharon Lockwood is a ferocious teacher of the young Japanese detainees and Todd Nakagawa is an ultra-cool teen feeling deep conflict about his country, his heritage and the war.

Two MVPs in this game cast are Brian Rivera in a number of roles, including Juan José the First, and Richard Ruiz in drag and out (and especially as a zaftig Neil Diamond belting out a re-written “America”), are hilarious and ferocious in equal measure – like they’re directly channeling that Culture Clash electricity.

Set designer Erik Flatmo and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau keep things simple to keep up with the fast pace and the hairpin turns, but special shout out to costumer Marin Schnellinger for adding a whole lot of zest and humor with his colorful creations.

Before Juan can depart his dream world, he has to suffer through a contentious town hall meeting in which every viewpoint is spewed and he’s reminded that he’s about to “pledge allegiance to a country that doesn’t want him.” We get a sweet “Tonight You Belong to Me” on the ukulele from Dena Martinez and an ending that is more poignant than you might expect from such a zany history lesson. The whole vibe of the show feels a lot like mature Culture Clash (no surprise there) but also like a San Francisco Mime Troupe show when that company was at its best. There are strange elements here, like a narrator who only appears to introduce the flu epidemic scene, and a Japanese game show sequence toward the end of the show (featuring a funny Nakagawa and Lockwood) is probably one more layer of zany the show doesn’t need.

But this American Night – especially on a gorgeous Northern California night – is historically hilarious and the most entertaining way imaginable to learn the three branches of American government (and the original 13 colonies).



Richard Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José continues in a California Shakespeare Theater production through June 23 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Yo, Mofo! SF Playhouse tips a mighty fine Hat

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Jackie (Gabriel Marin, far left) and Cousin Julio (Rudy Guerrero, left) visit sponsor Ralph D. (Carl Lumbly, right) and his wife Victoria (Margo Hall, center) to discuss suspected misdeeds in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat. Below: Marin’s Jackie fends off angry girlfriend Veronica, played by Isabelle Ortega. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

[warning: this review does not hide or disguise the word “motherfucker” in the title of the play at hand]

The comedy, the intensity and all that rough language keeps things skittering right along in the San Francisco Playhouse production of The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis. The play is this rush of plot and character and language, then the sadness and despair lands. It takes Lionel Richie and the Commodores to underscore it, but man oh man is it there.

In so many ways, Gurigis’ Hat is about growing up, about taking yourself and the world you live in seriously enough to find purpose and pursue it with as much discipline as you can muster. The grown-ups in the play, let it be said, don’t do such a good job on the discipline part, although most of them have (or find) some degree of purpose.

This is the fourth time the Playhouse has tacked a Guirgis play, and it’s easy to see the attraction to the hefty, funny, complicated worlds that Guirgis creates. Compared to previous shows such as Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the A Train, The Motherfucker isn’t quite as gritty or as dark, but it’s still a substantial work about lives (and lies) in transition.

The main character, Jackie (Gabriel Marin) is fresh out of a 24-month stint in prison for getting caught dealing drugs out of the apartment he shares with his on-and-off girlfriend since the eighth grade, Veronica (Isabelle Ortega). When we meet Jackie, he’s as excited as a puppy getting adopted. He has his sobriety, he has his love and he has a new job. Life is good for Jackie…until it isn’t, and all those things he thought he had require re-evaluation.

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Jackie turns to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Ralph D. (Carl Lumbly) for solace and guidance, and though the older man appears to be the soul of compassion and grounded intelligence, he’s not quite what he seems. Curiously, though we learn many unsavory things about Ralph and he’s a liar, he really does turn out to be a pretty good sponsor. He’s got a lot of life experience, which results in a fair amount of common sense (if not outright morality). When he says he loves his cranky wife, Victoria (Margo Hall), we believe him, in spite of evidence to the contrary. And when we think Victoria might just be unlovable, we discover a smart, passionate woman with a unique perspective on the truth.

Guirgis is a writer capable of surprising his audience, and that’s a welcome trait here. Probably the most delightful character in the play is Cousin Julio (Rudy Guerrero), who, like Victoria, is a truth teller. But flamboyant Julio has flair and charm and, surprisingly, a wife. He’s a muscle man who likes to cook empanadas on his balcony grill, and when he channels his inner Van Damme, the result is funny but also impressive. Maybe one day Guirgis will write a play all about Cousin Julio.

Director Bill English made a smart choice in set designers by hiring himself to create two New York apartments, one grungy, one pristine, set against a backdrop of brownstones and Cousin Julio’s plant-laden balcony high above it all. Now that the Playhouse is settled into its fantastic new space, the sky is clearly the limit in terms of set design.

English gets some superb performances from his cast, most notably from Lumbly as an AA warrior with a unique perspective on life and love, Hall as a knowing, frustrated wife and Guerrero as the unflappable Cousin Julio. Marin and Ortega also have stellar moments, but as the combustible couple at the center of the story, the one struggling with addiction and adultery, there’s something missing. They both create endearing characters, even at their most obnoxious, duplicitous and self-deluding, but they don’t seem to belong together – and the play seems to want us to think they do.

The play boasts some satisfying laughs and an engaging, “what could possibly happen next” sense of storytelling. But this is a serious piece, though it’s less rooted in the head than it is in the heart. Being a grown-up, even one who makes the right choices and still takes advantage of people, is posited as a better alternative to the freefall of addiction and perpetually indulgent, childish behavior. It’s’ not a terribly hopeful message, but it’s one that’s hard to argue.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat continues through March 16 at the San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Gettin’ to the git in Cal Shakes’ glorious Spunk

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The cast of Spunk at Cal Shakes shakes it up. Below: Omozé Idehenre and Aldo Billingslea in the final story of the trilogy, “The Gilded Six Bits.” Photos by

Zora Neale Hurston writes with zest and zeal. She can move from joy to anguish in a second and still find her way back to hope. All of this is readily apparent in California Shakespeare Company’s production of Spunk at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Sharp and spirited and brimming with talent, these three Hurston stories, adapted for the stage by George C. Wolfe, are poetry and drama, blues and jubilation and as much stirring music as you’re likely to hear in 90 minutes in the foggy Orinda Hills.

Wolfe honors Hurston by making sure the audience knows these are short stories – not plays – being brought to life so that we, as a group, can appreciate Hurston’s rich, beautiful and musical language. Each of the three stories includes narration of some kind, so the evening never strays from its literary roots. But this is no storytime theater. This is theater that moves. And sings. Boy, does it sing.

Before the show even begins, musician Tru warms up the audience with a call-and-response song to “stir up some ancestors.” What starts as sort of a lark, ends up being surprisingly beautiful. There are pockets of such delightful surprises all through this sharply executed production directed by Patricia McGregor in her Cal Shakes debut.

The cast of six, expertly accompanied by Tru on guitar (mostly), does a lot of singing, but the golden voice of the bunch belongs to Dawn L. Troupe as Blues Speak Woman. Whether she’s singing the narration and vocal punctuation to a story of abuse and eventual triumph (the original score is by Chic Street Man)or singing an up tempo version of “Unforgettable,” Troupe is the shine on this production, and Tru is its pulse.

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Though we’re aware that we’re being told stories, director McGregor allows these tales to move as much as they sing. Thanks to choreographer Paloma McGregor (the director’s sister), there’s never a static moment. There are full-on musical numbers, but there’s also poetry of movement going on, especially in the middle chapter, “Story in Harlem Slang,” where two zoot-suited hustlers, playing the cool game and desperate to hit up ladies with cash so they can get a hot meal, try to come across as the hippest things in Harlem. They strike poses – early voguing, no doubt – and many of them involve bodies at a diagonal. Outfitted in dazzlingly bright suits (costumes by Callie Floor), L. Peter Callender, Aldo Billingslea and Tyee Tilghman are all angles and slants in jazzy colors. Their speech is nothing short of Shakespearean in its colorful way with words, and while their hustle is masterfully deflated by Omozé Idehenre, their “dance of the desperate pimps” makes for dazzling entertainment.

In the opening story, “Sweat,” Margo Hall is Delia, a hardworking, God-loving woman with a snake for a husband. Callender gleefully plays the devilish Sykes (such a Dickensian name for evil), though his violence is far from cartoonish. With fanciful touches, like a puppet horse and a puppet old coot on a porch, this story goes to some dark places – it’s practically biblical in its use of serpents – and emerges in something like the light of triumph.

The same is true for the final chapter, “The Gilded Six Bits,” in which the ever-charming Billingslea and a powerful Idehenre play a blissfully wed young couple that hits a gold-covered rough patch in their marriage. There’s a lot of room in this story for melodrama, but Hurston seems more interested in complicated human emotions and lets time and true love take their course.

Everything about this production, from the set by Michael Locher, which looks like a down-home art installation, to York Kennedy’s lights, which only add to the colorful glow of the stories, is pitch perfect. The lights come up after 90 minutes and you’re just not ready to leave Hurston’s world. When I saw the show Friday night, the audience didn’t have to leave – they were invited on stage to learn dance moves from the Harlem Renaissance and to revel in a dance party. The stage was crowded with dancers, proving that Spunk, when delivered in just the right way, is contagious. And irresistible.

[bonus interviews]
I interviewed Spunk director Patricia McGregor and choreographer Paloma McGregor for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.


Spunk continues through July 29 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 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

Undine undone or finding fabulous in Fabulation


Margo Hall stars in Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation or The Re-Education of Undine, the season-ending production at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. Below: Hall with Rudy Guerrero. Photos by Moanalani Jeffrey

Though unplanned, we have something of a Lynn Nottage festival happening in the Bay Area right now.

Berkeley Rep is showing Nottage’s most serious side with her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Ruined, a tale of hope amid brutality, and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre showcases a more lighthearted (though not exactly comic) side of Nottage with Fabulation, the story of a modern woman’s relationship to her roots.

The really good news here is the story of the Lorraine Hansberry itself. After losing both of its founders last year – the subsequent deaths of Stanley Williams and Quentin Easter is still difficult to fathom – the Hansberry could have foundered and disappeared. That would have meant a huge loss to Bay Area theater. How would you compensate for the loss of one of the nation’s most prominent African-American theater companies as it’s just about to celebrate its 30th anniversary? You couldn’t. And thankfully, we don’t have to.

Steven Anthony Jones, formerly a company member at American Conservatory Theater, has taken the reigns as artistic director, with Shirley Howard-Johnson as his general manager. I have every reason to believe this team will be exactly what the Hansberry needs to reinvent itself and honor its legacy. Fabulation is a terrific production, top to bottom, and it shows a team of dedicated theater professionals working at the top of their game.

And being a top-flight professional is, in many ways, what Fabulation or the Re-education of Undine is all about.

The redoubtable Margo Hall – an asset to any production – stars as Undine, a self-made star of New York’s PR world. She traffics in celebrities and the high life. She has a gorgeous Latin husband, her own successful business and the kind of Manhattan whirlwind life that kids in the nearby projects can only dream about.

We meet Undine on the day of her undoing. The fact that she can’t line up an A-list star (or even someone ghetto enough to cause a splash but not so ghetto as to cause a problem) becomes the least of her problems when she gets a visit from her accountant. It turns out her too-wonderful life has suddenly become too good to be true. That handsome husband has left her and taken all her money. I think “absconded” is the word the accountant uses.

This sends Undine on a downward spiral that will lead her back to the family she hasn’t seen in 14 years. In an act of fabulation (the act of creating fables or stories), she killed her family – at least she mentioned in the press that they were killed in a fire. Since then, the family – not to mention her real name, Sherona – has ceased to exist, at least in the “reality” of her Manhattan world.

It’s like Undine is being punished for success at the cost of the truth. None of her hoity-toity New York friends knows about her past in the projects or the mother and father and brother – all security guards of various types – still in that outer borough. But now that project apartment is the only place Undine has left to turn.

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Once that spiral begins, of course, it just goes down and down. Cops, jail, narcotics anonymous – it all becomes part of Undine’s new world. Oh, and she also finds out she’s pregnant with the absconder’s baby.

Director Ellen Sebastian Chang mines a great deal of humor from Nottage’s script (which powers along mightily until the final quarter, when it runs out of imagination), and she has a superb cast at her disposal. Hall is just about perfect as Undine – brittle but deeply felt. When she addresses the audience, you adore her immediately, and in spite of her sharp edges, you really begin to feel for her.

The supporting players all play multiple parts – sometimes unrecognizably. Daveed Diggs makes a huge impression as Flow, Undine’s poet of a little brother. He’s got an Act 2 show stopper in the form of his own fabulation on the Br’er Rabbit stories. Rudy Guerrero pulls double duty as the scoundrel of a soon-to-be ex-husband and as a wannabe fireman Undine meets as part of her drug rehab program. Michael J. Asberry makes for a sympathetic father, and Britney Frazier is wonderful as Undine’s assistant (among others).

Halili Knox is a knockout as Undine’s mom, and she starts Act 2 with a gorgeous take Elton John’s “Border Song,” and Carla Punch just about steals the show as Undine’s grandmother, a woman with some surprises up her sleeve (literally). Rounding out the cast is David Westley Skillman, who never met a number cruncher he couldn’t make more interesting.

Fabulation is all about, as Oprah might put it, being your most authentic self, and it offers a lot of laughs as well as a few cringes along the way. It’s so gratifying to see the Lorraine Hansberry producing shows at this level. You might even say it’s fabulous.



Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation continues through March 27 at the Southside Theater, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 415-345-7575 or visit for information.

The 2011-2012 Lorrain Hansberry season has been announced!

Two one-act plays: Almost Nothing by Marcos Barbosa and Days of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward; Oct. 11-Nov. 20

Rejoice! A musical retelling of the Christmas story; Dec. 11-31

Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall, a powerful British drama; Feb. 5, 2012-March 18, 2012

Blues for an Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage offers music, culture and history of the Harlem Renaissance; April 1, 2012-May 12, 2012

Be mindful of Aurora’s Trouble

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Margo Hall is Wiletta Mayer in Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind at the Aurora Theatre Company. Photos by David Allen


If only playwright Alice Childress could see Margo Hall’s performance in her 1955 play Trouble in Mind now at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company.

Hall has long been one of those Bay Area actors you go out of your way to see, whether she’s directing, acting or writing. Somewhat unbelievably, Hall is only just getting around to making her Aurora debut, but what a debut! Hall plays Wiletta Mayer, a successful African-American actress on the Broadway stage. Wiletta isn’t biter exactly, but she’s learned how to play the race game in order to succeed in her chosen field. She’s hardened, and this is especially evident when she’s instructing a Broadway novice (Jon Joseph Gentry as John) before they begin rehearsals on a new play with a mostly black cast that’s bound to court controversy because it’s an anti-lynching screed.

“Laugh at everything they say,” Wiletta tells John. “Make them feel superior. White folks can’t stand unfunny negroes.”

John is somewhat taken aback by Wiletta’s instruction. “Sounds kind of Uncle Tom-ish,” he counters. But Wiletta stands firm. She has learned the hard way that if you want to succeed on the Great White Way (with that middle word being key here), there are certain rules you have to follow, and kissing up to The Man is one of them.

As we meet Wiletta and John’s co-stars and creative team, all gathering for the first rehearsal, we see that the black actors have had to bow and scrape just to find work in ridiculous bowin’ and scrapin’ roles written by white men depicting happy slaves full of mammy-speak. There’s even a funny exchange between Wiletta and fellow actress Millie (Elizabeth Carter) about all the roles they’ve played named after flowers and jewels – so many Gardenias, Petunias, Opals and Rubys.
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There’s a lot of humor in Childress’ play, but this is a serious work about race in America. Wiletta has done things a certain way for a long time, but the more she delves into this anti-lynching play, in which the white folks who realize lynching is wrong emerge as the heroes, the more she realizes the compromises to her self-respect and self-dignity she has made over the years.

To watch Wiletta, so fully and beautifully realized by Hall, come to life as an activist, which is to say someone who is going to push back and stop laughing when nothing is funny, is an extraordinary thing. Hall’s masterful performance is full of small but explosive revelations. You see everything going on in Wiletta’s mind because it all reads on Hall’s face and, most especially, in her eyes. This is a spectacular play to see in the intimate Aurora because there’s so much to watch in the faces and bodies of this splendid cast, h eaded by the incomparable Hall.

Director Robin Stanton pitches the entire two-hour play at the ideal pace and tone. On one level, there’s work being done – an arrogant director (Tim Kniffin, whose Bill Clinton-esque smarmy charm is perfect here) is trying to make great art from a play he considers important. He’s playing mind games with his actors, but what he’s really toying with is the very notion of race in America.

Rhonnie Washington is superb as Sheldon Forrester, another journeyman black actor who’s not quite as content as Wiletta and tends to squawk when the absurdity gets to be too much. Washington is good for some great, prickly laughs – just watch him try to follow director’s orders and whittle a stick during a scene when that’s the very last thing his character should be doing. Sheldon also gets some great lines. Speaking of white people in general, he says, “I wouldn’t trust one of ’em if they was sittin’ in front of me on a merry-go-round.”

Sheldon’s casual observation about race also rings true: “Two people got the world all messed up – the blacks and the whites.”

There’s so much that’s wonderful about this production, it’s hard not to gush. The cast, which also includes Earll Kingston as a doddering stage door manager, Melissa Quine as a Connecticut liberal being tested by her first job on Broadway, Patrick Russell as a beleaguer stage manager and Michael Ray Wisely as a character actor who can never manage to say the right thing. Eric Sinkkonen’s set expertly conveys the grandeur of a Broadway theater, while Callie Floor’s costumes, especially her sharply tailored dresses for the women, evoke the crisp styles of the ’50s.

It’s a shame that Childress’ Trouble in Mind never made it to Broadway. After a successful off-Broadway run, the play was supposed to make the transfer, but producers apparently wanted a happier ending. Childress wisely refused to make changes (her ending, by the way, is low key but powerful and lingers long after you leave the theater). Trouble in Mind has a great deal to say – the fact that it’s more than half a century old hasn’t dimmed its humor, insight or provocation.

Wiletta is a different person by the end of the play. The status quo won’t work for her anymore. She sees a world that needs to be changed. She says simply and powerfully: “We have to go further and do better.”


Aurora Theatre Company’s Trouble in Mind continues through Sept. 26 at 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$55. Call 510 843-4822 or visit