Life is hell for Jerry Springer and Judas Iscariot

Jerry 0001

Timitio Artusio as Treymont (front) and Jordan Best as Zandra, both guests on “The Jerry Springer Show” in Jerry Springer the Opera at the Victoria Theatre. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

Below: Brandy Leggett is Mother Teresa and Ben Ortega is a prosecuting attorney in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Gough Street Playhouse. Photo by Jamie Buschbaum

There are some wonderfully theatrical theological discussions going on around town these days.

At the Victoria Theatre in the Mission, outlandish talk show host Jerry Springer is facilitating a conflict resolution session between Satan and Jesus in Ray of Light Theatre’s Jerry Springer the Opera.

And the Custom Made Theatre Company is delving deep into notions of Judeo-Christian forgiveness and despair in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Satan and Jesus make appearances in this show, too.

Jerry Springer is a mammoth undertaking for Ray of Light, and the results are pretty spectacular. I don’t love the show, which whisks us from the set of The Jerry Springer Show to the bowels of hell, but I admire the way it lends operatic grandeur to lives we too casually condemn as trailer trash.

M. Graham Smith’s production features a cast of more than 40 plus an eight-piece band, and the music, especially the choral blasts, is the best part of this nearly three-hour blast of foul language, bad behavior and humorously serious reflections on the worst (and marginally best) of human nature.

Music Director Ben Prince has accomplished some magnificent things with his singers and band – even when the show gets repetitive, the score by Richard Thomas (music and lyrics) and Stewart Lee (book and lyrics) is always interesting. You don’t exactly go out humming any of the melodies, but the blend of opera and show tune is mighty appealing.

For all of its shock (and schlock) value, Jerry Springer the Opera really is trying to jolt us into the realization that we’re all on this sinking ship together, and if we go down throwing chairs at each other and infecting everyone with our filth, we can’t fall into the drink quickly enough. But hey, at least we go down singing.

In place of glorious choral music, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is filled with a wondrous wash of words. This play is a whole lot of talk – nearly three hours’ worth – mostly because Guirgis utilizes the crusty old narrative tool of a trial.

Judas 1

The setting is purgatory – here a city very much like New York – and the trial concerns the fate of Judas, who has been condemned to eternal damnation for his betrayal of Jesus. The audience sits in jury boxes on three sides of the stage in the newly reconfigured Gough Street Playhouse (formerly The Next Stage).

Unfortunately, we the jury don’t get to vote on whether the prosecution (Ben Ortega as the unctuous El-Fayoumy) has made a convincing argument that Judas got what he deserved or whether the defense (Edith Reiner as the Irish/Gypsy Cunningham) has proved that Judas was part of a larger plan, that others acted more harshly than he did or that his attempt to recant makes his offense less damning.

Custom Made’s artistic director, Brian Katz, orchestrates this sprawling play with aplomb. He also appears an Everyman whose moving monologue attempts to link Judas’ actions with our contemporary lives.

This is actually a play masquerading as a bible study class for those of us with limited knowledge of the bible and its key players. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Guirgis is an entertaining writer who is able to engage and inform. He adheres to the trial structure but breaks out with scenes involving, for instance, a streetwise Saint Monica (Corrine Elizabeth Proctor), a Mary Magdaelne (Amelia Avila) bent on setting the record straight and a childhood friend of Judas’ (Perry Aliado as Matthias of Galilee).

Lewis Campbell
plays both the trial judge (a Confederate deserter) and Caiaphas and does well with both, especially the latter, the man often blamed for Jesus’ death. But the show is stolen, at least for a few minutes, by Brandy Leggett as a wily Mother Teresa.

I must admit to a low tolerance for biblical tales, but Guirgis held my interest for most of the play. He made me care about Judas (played with intensity by Kristoffer Barrera) and question what he represents in our culture. If Stephen Adly Guirgis were going to teach bible study class regularly, I might actually show up.


Ray of Light Theatre’s Jerry Springer the Opera continues through October 16 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$36. Visit for information.

Custom Made Theatre Company’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot continues through Oct. 30 at the Gough Street Playhouse,1620 Gough St., (at Bush Street), San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30. Visit for information.

Theater review: `Mr. Marmalade’

Marmalade 1

Lillian Askew is 4-year-old Lucy and Gabriel Grilli is her imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade in Noah Haidle’s oddball comedy Mr. Marmalade, a Custom Made Theatre Co. production. Photos by Bessie Delucchi

Tangy `Marmalade’ oozes with creepy, chilling laughs
««« ½

Jimmy Stewart had Harvey. Big Bird had Snuffleupagus. And 4-year-old Lucy has Mr. Marmalade, a Type-A businessman with a penchant for drinking, snorting coke and abusing Bradley, his mightily bruised assistant.

It seems imaginary friends, like so many aspects of modern childhood, have been co-opted by corporate America. At least that’s the case in Noah Haidle’s dark, twisted and deeply funny Mr. Marmalade, a production of the Custom Made Theatre Co.

The joke is that precocious Lucy (the superb and superbly named Lillian Askew), the product of a broken home who lives with her economically struggling mother (Juliet Heller), compensates for all the time spent alone or with a babysitter (a kind but rebellious Roselyn Hallett) by constructing an elaborate fantasy world, which playwright Haidle allows us to see.

Into Lucy’s fatherless world comes suit-wearing Mr. Marmalade (Gabriel Grilli), a by-appointment-only playmate who comes complete with briefcase, BlackBerry and promises to fly his young friend to Cabo San Lucas for a first-class vacation. Unfortunately, Mr. Marmalade is both more and less than he seems – he’s less of a beneficent playmate and more of a garden variety corporate asshole. After a stint in rehab, he attempts to make amends with Lucy and even offers to play one of her favorite games. “Let’s play doctor,” he says. “C’mere. My prostate hurts.”

When his assistant, Bradley (Daniel Duque-Estrada) appears to schedule brunch with Lucy, we know his black eye(s) and, eventually, his crutch, are the product of his boss’ unchecked rage.

What’s a little girl to do when even her imaginary life treats her horribly?

Haidle’s dark comedy is truly dark, though there’s near-constant laughter (when the audience isn’t gasping, that is) for most of its 80 minutes. That’s a real accomplishment, and director Daunielle Rasmussen deserves a whole lot of credit for finding and maintaining just the right off-kilter tone to keep Haidle’s humor bubbling while the action of the play delves into some terribly twisted territory.

Marmalade 2

Adults playing children can be one of the most annoying things in the world, but Askew is astonishingly non-annoying. In fact, it’s sort of genius the way she maintains the illusion of childhood while giving an entirely grown-up performance, which is just how Haidle has designed the character. He’s really digging into the adults of the world and the deplorable ways (intentionally or not) they model behavior for children.

The hero of the story comes in the form of 5-year-old Larry (Benjamin Pither, right with Askew), who is on record as New Jersey’s youngest suicide attempt. As Larry says, “If this is the carefree part of my life, I don’t want to see the part that’s supposed to be hard.”

Like Askew, Pither finds that tricky toehold between playing a child while never leaving the realm of the adult. When Larry and Lucy engage in a game of “house” (bolstered by pocketfuls of junk food lifted from 7-11), the game quickly takes on shadows of discontent and ceases to be at all childish (even when Larry’s imaginary friends, a sunflower and a cactus, played by Heller and Arthur Keng, turn the game into utter chaos).

A deep-in-the-night fantasia about what happens after the happy ending takes on horror movie overtones, but, amazingly, the play rights itself and ends on a sentimental note that remains more sharp than sappy. Somehow Haidle has created a perversely funny fairy tale with real-world relevance. It calls to mind Stephen Sondheim in his dark fairy tale, Into the Woods: “Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see. And learn.”

And, according to Haidle, imagine – some truly terrible things.


The Custom Made Theatre Co.’s
Mr. Marmalade by Noah Haidle continues an extended run through June 20 at The Custom Stage in the Off-Market theater complex, 965 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 800-838-3006 or visit or for information.

Theater review: `The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer’

Love Song 1

Ian Walker (left) is J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, and Charles Evans is Gen. Leslie R. Groves in Carson Kreitzer’s drama The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a production from San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Co.


`Love Song’ serenades Oppenheimer with magic realism
«« ½


With a title that echoes T.S. Eliot, you expect a certain intellectual rigor and poetic muscle from Carson Kreitzer’s The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, now in San Francisco courtesy of The Custom Made Theatre Company and artistic director Brian Katz, who is at the helm as director.

And Krietzer’s script doesn’t disappoint on either level. The story of Oppenheimer and his leading role in the development of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II gets a thorough and smart biographical treatment worthy of a world-altering theoretical physicist. To render the story more stage worthy, Kreitzer throws in some melodrama involving a martini-swilling wife and a suicidal lover and she underscores the entire play with a creature prowling the periphery of the stage that turns out to be Lilith, the character of Hebrew myth who pre-dated Eve as Adam’s gal pal.

Frankly speaking, I was bored by the play, just as I was bored by the Oppenheimer/bomb-related stories in John Adams and Peter Sellars’ Doctor Atomic and by the Paul Newman-John Cusack movie Fat Man and Little Boy. I understand the importance and magnitude of the work done in such secrecy in Los Alamos by Oppenheimer and his team of nerdy geniuses, but I just can’t get terribly worked up about scientist guilt. I care a whole lot more about the civilian victims in Japan and the radiation-poisoned land and people of this country, the unwitting victims of the bomb’s development.

Certainly Oppenheimer and Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock have some similarities as they ponder their lives and their places in the universe. As Prufrock says in his famous “Love Song”:

    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Oppenheimer, who taught physics at U.C. Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology from the late ’20s to the late ’40s, certainly dared to disturb the universe in a major way, and he spent the rest of his life working to prevent his invention from causing further devastation – we see that in Act 2 of the play along with his battles against Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, who had it in for Oppenheimer’s Commie-loving past.

Love Song 2

Though Ian Walker, himself a noted Bay Area playwright, makes for a compelling Oppenheimer, Kreitzer doesn’t surround him with much of interest beyond the explosive advancements in atomic technology. The women in his life remain rather stereotypical, and his co-workers are a blur of sameness.

The one exception is the very thing I thought would be most annoying about the play: Jessica Jade Rudholm(right) as Lilith.

Costumed like a paint-spattered iguana and confined to the jungle gym structure surrounding Cianan Duncan’s set, Rudholm is creepy Jiminy Cricket to Walker’s scientist Pinocchio. Climbing and writhing outside the reality of the story, Lilith interacts with Oppenheimer as he ruminates on his life and work. She’s an evil conscience and he’s both tormented and soothed by her verbal abuse.

What could have been a pretentious bit of nonsense turns out to be the two-hour play’s most compelling device, primarily because Rudholm is so committed to the role that she’s downright scary at times as she castigates Oppie. Equal parts modern dancer, gymnast and demon serpent, Rudholm gets quite a workout, physically and emotionally. She also has a little sense of humor, as evidenced when describing how she was cast from Eden: “God revoked my security clearance.”

The play, for all its seriousness, could use more jolts of humor like that. Kreitzer seems intent on breaking the rules of reality in this re-telling of Oppenheimer’s life, but she never quite breaks the bonds of dullness.

Custom Made’s The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer continues an extended run through May 2 at 965 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-25. Visit for information.

Review: `A New Brain’

Continues through Aug. 16 at Custom Stage, Off-Market Theatre

Benjamin Pither (center, in gown) is Gordon Schwinn, a man who needs a new brain in William Finn’s A New Brain, in a production from San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Company.

Finn’s `Brain’ pulses with vigor and vitality

William Finn’s A New Brain is a little treasure that slipped through New York and is finally getting its due in small productions around the country.

At Lincoln Center in 1998, it was clear that Finn, the composer of Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, had written a very personal musical about being diagnosed with a life-threatening brain condition.

But since then, the gems in Finn’s score have begun to shine even brighter.

San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Company is in the midst of A New Brain, and their production amply demonstrates what’s great about the show (and what’s not, but that’s of minor interest).

Artistic director Brian Katz is at the helm of this nine-person musical, and at the center of the production are two massive talents. First is music director/pianist Rona Siddiqui, who sits center stage in an awkward, rotating “orchestra pit” and plays beautifully almost nonstop for 90 minutes.

Music is fully part of the story as main character Gordon makes his living writing ditties for a children’s TV show starring a frog named Mr. Bungee. The act of songwriting becomes the ultimate leap of creative faith as Gordon has to decide how he wants to use his talent: for the despotic frog or for the nurturing of his own creative soul.

Having Siddiqui at the center of that battle, playing Finn’s gorgeous, funny, sometimes bizarre music keeps attention fully focused right where it should be.

The other major talent is in the center role of Gordon. Benjamin Pither is one of those singing actors whose work is so solid, so vocally assured you never worry for a minute whether he can handle it and just relax into the performance and the character.

That’s a huge advantage in a small production like this. Pither, even when wearing a hospital gown and receiving a sponge bath, commands the stage without overpowering it. We come to love Gordon and his neuroses and creative soul searching.

Finn’s score is at its best in the group numbers “Heart and Music,” “Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk” and “I Feel So Much Spring.” Along with the lovely duet “Sailing” (between Pither and Cameron Weston as Gordon’s boyfriend, Roger), and a mother’s torch song for her ailing son, “The Music Still Plays On” (nicely performed by Pat Christenson), these songs are among the most moving Finn has written.

There are also songs that feel like they’re from a different musical. Finn incorporates a homeless woman (well played here by Lisa-Marie Newton) into the story, but she never makes much sense in the overall arc of the story. And aside from “nice nurse” Richard (David Fierro), the medical staff (played by Charles Evans and Giana DeGeisco) don’t have clear enough characters and seem more like excuses to beef up the ensemble.

Marci Ring’s set turns the Custom Stage in the Off Market Theatre Complex into a brightly colored children’s room. It’s a small, multi-level space, and with nine performers on it, it gets crowded. And director Katz hasn’t always found the best configuration for his actors, especially when they attempt to execute Katie Kimball’s choreography.

But the energy is right, and the cast attacks the material with vigor. Even the not-so-great numbers come across well, and the show’s 90 minutes fly by. There’s real uplift at show’s end, and the heralding of spring, both as a season and as an attitude toward life, is genuinely moving.

A New Brain continues through Aug. 16 at the Custom Stage, 965 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 1-800-838-3006 or visit