Lost in Austen with Marin’s Christmas at Pemberly

Extended through Dec. 23!
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Cindy Im (left) is Elizabeth Darcy, Adam Magill is Arthur de Bourgh and Lauren Spencer is Jane Bingley in the rolling world premiere of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Martha Brigham (left) is Mary Bennet, Laura Odeh (center) is Anne de Bourgh and Erika Rankin is Lydia Wickham. Photos by Kevin Berne

We’re all in need of some genuine Christmas cheer this year, and that’s exactly what Marin Theatre Company’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley provides. It’s sweet without being sappy. It’s sharp, clever and funny with a warm undercurrent of genuine emotion. What more could you want from a holiday show (except maybe passed eggnog and a round of carols)?

The show also has the distinction of slaking the seemingly bottomless appetite for all things Jane Austen. Writers Lauren Gunderson (the San Francisco playwright who holds the distinction of being the most produced living playwright this season in the U.S.) and Margot Melcon (MTC’s former director of new play development) have gone back to the Austen well to fashion a sequel of sorts to the 1813 Pride and Prejudice. They focus in on Christmas in the grand home of Elizabeth (Bennet) Darcy and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Esq., married for several years now and hosting family and friends for the holiday.

We never get to see the Bennet parents and daughter Kitty, who are on their way up from London, but we do get to spend time with oldest daughter Jane (who is nearing the birth of her first child) and husband Charles Bingley, unmarried Mary Bennet and youngest daughter Lydia, whose marriage to George Wickham remains a source of concern for the family.

So the Miss Bennet of the play’s title is Mary, a young woman who loves books and music and dreams of seeing the world even though she knows her fate as a middle daughter has landed her smack in the “old maid caring for the aging parents” slot. Gunderson and Melcon are not content to let the intellectually curious, spirited Mary fulfill her lonely duty, so they give her a big Christmas present in the form of Lord Arthur de Bourgh, who ends up at Pemberley for the holidays and quickly finds Mary to be as delightful an oddball as he.

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The Austen lovers will lap up the complications in the from of Anne de Bourgh, Arthur’s cousin (and a previous source of tension in P&P when her mother tried to forcefully engage her to Mr. Darcy), who is now, true to her departed mother’s memory, forcing an engagement with the most advantageous man, who happens to be Arthur.

Gunderson and Melcon clearly have great affection for all things Austen, and if there’s anything that connects the original with this new chapter, it’s the spirit of the women defying expectations of their corseted times with feisty intelligence, humor and compassion for one another. Even though Anne is sort of the bad guy, she is not simply discarded once the romantic machinations have clicked into happy ending gear. She is afforded a future and, happily, a friend.

The Marin Theatre Company production of Miss Bennet is the third part of what they now call a rolling world premiere. The first production opened at the Northlight Theatre in Chicago just before Thanksgiving. The second opened at the Round House Theatre in Maryland the night before the Marin production. That’s an abundance of Miss Bennets!

The MTC production looks appropriately grand with the Pemberley drawing room/library outfitted by set designer Erik Flatmo and featuring what was apparently a real oddity in the early 19th century outside of Germany: a freshly cut spruce in the corner just ready for trimming with jewels and candles. For much of the play’s two hours (plus intermission), a gentle snow falls just outside the stately windows, giving the whole enterprise an even cozier feeling.

Director Meredith McDonough has some trouble establishing a firm comic tone in Act 1, but by Act 2, things are much more solid. Part of that has to do with the arrival of Laura Odeh as Anne, a comic force of nature. Most of the really big, satisfying laughs in the show are hers.

The entire cast is tremendously appealing, and how nice to see the usual women-to-men ratio overturned here: five women in the cast and three men. Martha Brigham and Adam Magill are charmingly effective as the central couple, Mary and Arthur. Both are misfits in their world, so finding one another is incredibly appealing, and we root for them from the start. Brigham epitomizes the Austen heroine – smart, well spoken and painfully self-aware. Magill is awfully tall, and he uses his height to convey Arthur’s awkwardness in the world, which can also be terribly funny.

Cindy Im and Joseph Patrick O’Malley are appropriately google-eyed newlyweds Lizzie and Darcy, and though they have their moments, they know they’ve had their time in the spotlight and now it’s Mary’s turn. Lauren Spencer and Thomas Gorrebeeck add some fizz as Jane and Bingley, and Erika Rankin makes for a petulant but somehow endearing Lydia.

Spending Christmas with these people is quite pleasant. The conversation is always lively, the intrigues are on the low end of the silly/soapy scale, and by the end there is a wealth of good feeling, both on stage and off. The programming people who make beautiful television like “Downton Abbey” or “The Crown” would do well to return to the world of Jane Austen, and they would be wise to turn to Gunderson and Melcon to ensure that it’s done right.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon continues an extended run through Dec. 23 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

The delights of TheatreWorks’ time-twisting Triangle

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Brian (Ross Lekites, left) finally accepts Ben (Zachary Prince) into his life in the TheatreWorks world premiere of the musical Triangle at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Photo by Kevin Berne

In the wake of my review of TheatreWorks’ world premiere musical Triangle someone tweeted a link to the review and suggested that the show could make it to Broadway. I have some thoughts about that. First of all, if Triangle opens on Broadway, godspeed and congratulations to all the talented people who made it and happy (or sad as the case may be) will be the audiences who get to enjoy its well-crafted pleasures. But I don’t think Triangle belongs on Broadway. This is an intimate chamber musical – cast of six – that takes love and grief and history seriously and deftly uses music to underscore its rich emotions. In other words, it’s too good for Broadway – at least the Broadway we knew before Fun Home and Hamilton made it safe for intelligence and intensity once again on the Great White Way.

Who knows if this trend continues, but if it does, maybe shows like Triangle will reach the larger audiences they deserve to, but if this musical continued through the world of regional theater or even ended up off Broadway, that would be OK. Audiences would have the pleasure of experiencing it in smaller houses where it feels personal and scaled just right – epic emotions but small-scale storytelling with the added twist of time travel.

I can imagine audiences experiencing Triangle in a stripped-down version at TheatreWorks New Works Festival three years ago and falling hard for it and feeling proprietary about it. That’s kind of how I feel about it now. I don’t want Broadway to ruin something with such integrity.

Here’s a bit of my review:

The show, a hit at TheatreWorks’ 2012 New Works Festival, aims to accomplish a complex and ambitious task while remaining heartfelt and intimate. Though there are still kinks to work out, “Triangle” is astonishingly successful.
The trick is flipping back and forth in time without making the show feel bifurcated and blending a contemporary pop sound with a more traditional chamber musical sound. Composer Curtis Moore and lyricist Thomas Mizer, who both crafted the book with Joshua Scher, have mostly figured out how to do it, with a huge assist from Meredith McDonough’s effectively streamlined direction.

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Triangle continues through Aug. 2 in a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$74. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Starry, starry night: Gunderson lights up Sky at TheatreWorks

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The cast of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky at TheatreWorks includes, from left, Matt Citron as Peter, Jennifer Le Blanc as Margaret, Elena Wright as Henrietta, Sarah Dacey Charles as Annie and Lynne Soffer as Williamina. Below: Citron and Wright find love through astronomy. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

Mind-expanding science and heart-expanding characters are the stock in trade of San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson, whose not-so-stealthy takeover of the Bay Area theater scene couldn’t be more welcome. Her staggering smarts are matched by her delectable sense of humor, so any new work with her name attached to it is reason to pay some serious attention.

Gunderson’s latest Bay Area production comes from TheatreWorks: Silent Sky, a bright, poignant drama about, among other things, the persistence and power of dreams, the transforming nature of scientific exploration and discovery and the triumph of women working under the weight of a sexist society. The play is warm, funny and incisive. It’s deftly directed by Meredith McDonough and features an entirely likable cast of five working on a lovely observatory set by Annie Smart that gives them plenty of room for stargazing.

Elena Wright, sharp and funny, is Henrietta Leavitt, a real-life pioneer of American astronomy and someone I didn’t know at all before this play. Her discoveries while working a menial job at the Harvard College Observatory went on to influence Edwin Hubble (of Hubble Space Telescope fame) and inspired consideration (albeit posthumously) for the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on “period luminosity relationship,” which had to do with the rhythmic (like music) pulsing of stars known as Cepheids (one can learn so much from the theater).

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If the real Leavitt was as disarming and lively as Wright and Gunderson make her out to be, she must have been fun (and occasionally frustrating) to be around. Though stifled in her own scientific explorations by the men who called the well-educated, hard-working women in her department a “harem,” she didn’t pout or rail. She just did her job (brilliantly) and pursued her own course of exploration on her own time. In Gunderson’s version, it helps considerably that she has the support of two of her co-workers, Annie (Sarah Dacey Charles) and Scottish pistol Williamina (Lynne Soffer), as well as a doting sister back home in Wisconsin (Jennifer Le Blanc as Margaret) who took the more traditional wife-mother route rather than focusing on her music composition.

There’s also a sweet love story afoot involving one of Henrietta’s other co-workers, a man and automatically her professional superior. Peter Shaw (Matt Citron) is also a nerdy astronomer, but while Henrietta has an open, inquisitive mind and a willingness to accept the unknown, Peter is much more rigid in his views (about the universe and about women), so their relationship is far from smooth, and it helps us know Henrietta a little bit better as she navigates a realm – romance – she knows so little about.

Though Silent Sky paints a vibrant portrait of Henrietta Leavitt, with a abundance of good humor and some terrific laugh lines, I have to say I lost track of her in Act 2, which becomes more of a surface skim than a deep dive. Time goes by quickly, relationships get a little fuzzy and tragedy strikes. My impression of what fate befell Leavitt was such that I wanted to know more about her, so I was surprised to find out that what I thought was happening to her in her early 30s actually happened in her early 50s. Somehow I really lost track of the passage of time (which, as we’re reminded, is relative).

As beautiful as Gunderson’s Sky is – and it is, both in content and in form, with a lilting underscore by Jenny Giering – I found myself wanting more. More science, more biography, more time with Henrietta Leavitt. But that’s also the triumph of the play. Here’s a significant figure in American astronomy about whom I’d never heard a word, and I’m feeling greedy about her. I want more. So, perhaps we can fantasize about Silent Sky the Discovery Channel miniseries penned by Gunderson in her spare time when she’s not writing a new play for every theater in the Bay Area?

[bonus interview]
I talked to Lauren Gunderson and Jennifer Le Blanc about their working relationship for a story in American Theatre magazine. Read the feature here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky continues through Feb. 9 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$73.Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Magic camps it up with Another Way Home

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Daniel Petzold as Joey (foreground) and Jeremy Kahn as Mike T. in the world premiere of Anna Ziegler’s Another Way Home at Magic Theatre. Below: Mark Pinter is Philip and Kim Martin-Cotten is Lillian. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Director Meredith McDonough’s production of Another Way Home, a world-premiere play by Anna Ziegler, at the Magic Theatre, is so sharp, so expertly performed and executed it may take a while to realize that the play itself is a fragment that doesn’t amount to much or really even make much sense. There’s a play in there I’d like to see, but it’s not the one that Ziegler has delivered.

Like John Guare did in Six Degrees of Separation, Ziegler has a well-heeled Manhattan couple address the audience directly as if whatever story they’re about to relate has had little effect on them beyond another story from the “anecdote jukebox.” They’re speaking from the other side of the events that comprise the action of the play, and that distance is a chasm that the drama only occasionally bridges in the play’s short, 75-minute running time.

The crisis at hand involves a difficult 17-year-old, summer camp and self-involved, overbearing parents who also serve as our narrator guides. Philip (Mark Pinter) works too much for two primary reasons: to provide for his family and to escape his family. Lillian (Kim Martin-Cotten) is a wife and mother without enough to do except obsesses over her marriage and her children. The older child is Joey (Daniel Petzold), a difficult kid who has been diagnosed with everything from ADD to depression. He has learning issues and social issues, so the fact that he can go away to Maine’s Camp Kickapoo and have a reasonably good time is something of an achievement. Younger child Nora (Riley Krull) is a stark contrast to her brother: she’s well behaved, good in school and doesn’t antagonize her parents at every turn.

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When Philip and Lily show up in Maine for parents’ day at camp, Joey, who is serving as a counselor-in-training, goes ballistic and goes missing, much to the surprise of his counselor/friend Mike T. (Jeremy Kahn). Joey’s absence gives his parents ample time to squabble with each other, call Nora back in Manhattan and guide us through not-so-interesting flashbacks and internal monologues. We spend way too much time focused on the parents and not nearly enough on the kids, especially Joey.

Seeing this story from Joey’s perspective and not through the cold storytelling vantage point of his parents would be ever so much more interesting. There’s a scene (with no narration) between Joey and Mike T. that is full of emotional charge as two boys, damaged in different ways by their families, forge a connection. The scene is beautifully performed by Kahn and Petzold, and it makes you long for more of their individual stories. But this is a brief respite from the parents, who soon regain control of the story. There’s also a poignant interaction (via phone) between mother and daughter. Nora admits that she doesn’t really believe in god, but since her brother went missing, she’s been praying and wants her mother to pray with her. Lillian agrees, but rather than seeing how it might transpire that a not particularly religious mother and daughter pray on the phone, Lillian switches into narrator mode and tells us that it happened. Whatever happened to the preference for showing rather than telling?

The performances are solid throughout, and Martin-Cotten and Pinter work especially hard to overcome the fact that their characters are aggravating and annoying more than they are interesting or endearing. They don’t ultimately succeed, having been trumped by the performances of Kahn, Petzold and Krull as the young people with much more intriguing narratives. Something tells me that if any one of the young people had been the focus rather than the parents, this over-told story would end with something other than a supposedly meaningful family portrait session, something that actually illuminated the parent-child dynamic rather than just related one more story about it.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Anna Ziegler’s Another Way Home continues through Dec. 2 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$65. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.