Pointed Rhinoceros stampedes the Geary stage

Rhino 1
Berenger (David Breitbarth) watches in horror as citizens of his village turn into rhinoceroses in Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Below: Citizens attempt to remain civilized in the face of craziness as people transform into beasts all around them. The cast includes (from left) Jomar Tagatac as Mr. Botard, Danny Scheie as Mr. Papillon, Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boeuf (rear, on the back of a giant rhino), David Breitbarth as Berenger, Rona Figueroa as Daisy and Teddy Spencer as Mr. Dudard. Photos by Kevin Berne

There are multiple points in human history when Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros would make for funny/terrifying entertainment. Unfortunately, this is one of them.

In Ionesco’s 1959 play, a small French village is best by giant horned pachyderms. Or, more accurately, the citizens are, one by one, turning into beasts. It’s up to one man to resist the herd mentality, hang on to his sanity and resist whatever sort of magic is transforming small-town people into rampaging creatures.

There is never a moment in director Frank Galati’s robust production now at the Geary Theater courtesy of American Conservatory Theater that the audience doesn’t feel the weight of everything happening outside the theater walls, from coast to coast in this small French village we call America. The rhinos in the play (and we see a few of them in Robert Perdziola’s stage design and they’re awesome in every sense of the word) aren’t wearing red baseball caps, but they might as well be.

You might say, hey, wait. Ionesco was responding to Nazis and other really bad people from the 20th century, to which I would say, hey, we have Nazis of our own and hordes of bad people who seem hellbent on lying, cheating, destroying and stupefying. So it’s the perfect climate for Rhinoceros, which goes from silly to scary in only 90 minutes (including intermission).

Galati’s production has a finely tuned sense of what’s important here, and that changes as the play progresses. The first scene, for instance, takes place in front of a small backdrop painted with a village scene. Two friends are having a drink and arguing in front of a cafe when the first rhino is spotted in town. That causes a stir, but not quite the stir you might imagine if something like this were actually to happen. It’s more of a curiosity that townsfolk can regard as not really involving or affecting them. The tone is light, the pace brisk. Actors Matt DeCaro (a comic powerhouse) as Gene and David Breitbarth as Berenger, our unlikely hero, are arguing over propriety. Gene is all about it. Berenger is bored, disheveled and wants a drink. But then the rhino thing starts to get out of hand. Berenger’s workplace – the local newspaper – is damaged by a stampeding beast, but that’s not enough to convince Mr. Botard (the excellent Jomar Tagatac) that the rhinos exist or that there’s not something else happening here. He dubs all of this “fake news.” I’m hoping that translator Derek Prouse didn’t have to massage that quote at all and that Ionesco himself would have chosen those exact words if he were translating it today.

Rhino 2

More citizens are turning into rhinos, including Berenger’s best pal Gene, who does not slip easily into the weathered hide of the beast, but oh boy does that give DeCaro a lot to play with (at one point he even does the Macarena and the Floss to hilarious effect).

What was funny and absurd begins to carry more weight with each succeeding scene. The painted backdrops give way to a dark stage in which a giant rhinoceros looms (the lighting is by Chris Lundhal), and the tension mounts. Characters continue to debate philosophy and the true intention of the rhinos (or the people who want to join the rhinos) as if there was actually something to debate (people are turning into rhinos for goodness’ sake!). Whatever the reasons for this occurrence, it has actually occurred, and the majority has quite willingly accepted – some even enthusiastically – this new life of knocking about on four legs with a horn (or two, depending if you’re an Asiatic or African rhino). At some point you have to just shut up and try to do something.

That something for Berenger (so vividly and empathetically portrayed by Breitbarth) is to hold on to his humanity with everything he’s got, which turns out to be a whole lot more than he or anyone he knows could have guessed.

Galati pitches the mounting intensity with skill, and he gets able assistance from a cast that includes the always fascinating Danny Scheie as a newspaper editor and Rona Figuero as Daisy, a seemingly sensible, sensitive person and (we think) good romantic match for Berenger. The fact that she has a gorgeous voice and keeps singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” is a definite plus. Until it’s creepy.

ACT might consider selling red baseball caps in the lobby. But instead of the usual white-stitched words, they could read as a manifesto: “I will not capitulate!”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros continues through July 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Imaginary discomfort rules at Berkeley Rep

Imaginary 1
The cast of Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere play Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit includes (from left)Sharon Lockwood as Mrs. Gold, Marilee Talkington as Naomi, Danny Scheie as the Ghost, Susan Lynskey as Sarah Gold and Cassidy Brown as Michael. Below: Talkington (left) and Lynskey star in the new play by San Francisco writer Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The first time I heard the title for the new play by Daniel Handler, the San Francisco writer behind the popular Lemony Snicket books, I was confused. Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit is the title, and it wasn’t the Snickety-y subtitle that perplexed me. It was the notion that comfort could be imaginary. Isn’t comfort comforting no matter where it comes from? You can receive comfort from an external source (a parent, a pet, a narcotic) or you can just imagine comfort (memory, dream, hallucination), but as long as you are comforted, job done…at least for a little while, right?

Surely seeing the play would help me understand the title, but no such luck. Imaginary Comforts opened Thursday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre in a slick world-premiere production directed by Tony Taccone and featuring a cast that boasts some of the best actors the Bay Area has to offer. The play itself seems confused about its comedy, its sincerity, its theatricality. It’s kind of like an imaginary play that may one day find its reason for being – and at one point a character questions the notion of imaginary comfort, which made me want to stand up and shout, “Yes! That!”

Fractured time and narrative make the play something of a puzzle, which is nicely reflected in the hyperkinetic set by Todd Rosenthal. A speedy turntable repositions moving walls and doorways that are framed with strips of light, thus creating the effect of a living comic strip whose pieces quickly fall into and out of place. The central discussion amid all the movement involves death and ghosts and stories, but nothing is really moving or scary or, to be quite honest, terribly engaging.

But it is fairly entertaining for about 90 minutes partly because Taccone knows how to move things along and his actors know how to wring everything they can from Handler’s script. Somehow the premise of an inept rabbi engaging with a grieving family over the course of several years never fully comes to life, in spite of all the spinning, brightly lit walls.

At the heart of the play, and, indeed, in the lumpiest part of the title, is a story told by a father to a young daughter about a childless couple that made a deal with a rabbit to take one of its many children in exchange for keeping the entire rabbit brood safe. The rabbit child turns into a human child, and when it comes time to offer comfort, care and safety to the rabbit family, the human parent kills the rabbit parent and serves it for dinner. The ghost of the rabbit then haunts the humans, reminding them of their unfulfilled promises. This story emerges as important when its teller, the father, has died, and his adult daughter offers it to the rabbi who will be leading the funeral service.

Imaginary 2

There are two problems with this. First, the rabbi, Naomi, has no idea what to do with the story or a way to discern what it tells her about the deceased that she might be able to share with the congregation. The second is that the story, as fables go, just isn’t compelling. Even when the view of the fable shifts to an entirely different take on it, there doesn’t seem to be much there there – certainly not enough upon which to build a play.

As Rabbi Naomi, the always-appealing Marilee Talkington has the daunting task of making her a believable character. She’s highly self-aware in that she knows what a bad rabbi she is. Her entire rabbinical career seems to have been undermined and irretrievably damaged by the upending of a bottle of kosher wine at a key moment in her training. As a result, she bumbles through her job, bemoaning how bad she is at it and how she occupies the lowest rung of rabbi service even though there’s supposedly no hierarchy among rabbis. But all that self-awareness doesn’t make her any less inept. If anything, it makes her worse.

We meet her in the throes of a blind date with a self-described “psychic adviser” (the enigmatic Michael Goorjian) who is not Jewish, though he said he was in his computer dating profile, and she is perturbed that he thought her job was “rabbit” due to either her typo or his misreading. Either way, it’s a terrible date, though it allows Naomi to let us know (the first of many times) what a bad rabbi she is. Then we get to see her ineptitude in action when she meets the Gold family. Marcus Gold (Julian López -Morillas seen in flashbacks) has died. His widow (a funny but under-used Sharon Lockwood) can only moan and cry. His best friend (Jarion Monroe) seethes with anger, and his daughter (a wry Susan Lynskey) is lost in the chaos of death and gets no comfort from her husband (Cassidy Brown).

In a forced bit of coincidence, Naomi’s blind date has a connection to the grieving family, one that involves that odd rabbit fable and an actor (the sublime Danny Scheie) hired to actually play the ghost of the rabbit. Even as time passes and bits of plot and character are revealed, the play never comes fully into focus, and the recurring motifs – the story of the Jews, “the phrase I would use is…,” sucking at your job, being haunted by old stories, the whole rabbit fable – become less impactful and more annoying.

But there are flashes of light in the writing, like a potent delineation between “nonsense” and “bullshit” made by one of the characters. And the frazzled Naomi gets off a good laugh with her response to the rabbit fable. Upon hearing that the humans ate the rabbit, she sputters, “Rabbit isn’t even kosher! They’re for gentiles and Easter. Jesus.” She also has the gall to say, during a moment of tension amid the grieving Golds, “This is a difficult time for all of us,” which is kind of hilarious.

It is a difficult time for all of us, Naomi. Would that there was some comfort – imaginary or otherwise – in this jumble of play.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Daniel Handler’s Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit continues through Nov. 19 in a Berkeley Repertory Theatre production at the Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2900 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Comedy and more fill Great Moment at Z Below

Great Moment 2
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Making of a Great Moment stars Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik and makes its world premiere under the direction of Sean Daniels at Z Below. Photos by Meghan Moore

There are so many great moments in The Making of a Great Moment, the new play from the scintillating San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, that it’s hard to decide if the best ones are from the comic side or the more dramatic one.

Of course the comedy moments have that pleasurable sting, like the insult, “I think her halitosis gave me pink eye” is one that lingers. And so is the sage advice: “Don’t give your own poop to the chimpanzee.” I may never look at a nursing home the same way now that I’ve heard them described as “the hole before the hole.”

Certainly Nachtrieb, one of the sharpest, funniest playwrights working in this or any city, knows his way around a great line, and Great Moment, a Z Space production at Z Below, packs its 90 minutes with memorable lines and some big laughs. But this seeming trifle of a comedy about two Canadian actors touring a ridiculous four-hour show on their bicycles is ultimately going for something much bigger. The epic drama that Mona (Aysan Celik) and Terry (Danny Scheie) are peddling while pedaling is called Great Moments in Human Achievement, and that says it all. Using daffy paper cutouts (by Jessica Ford) to transform quickly into characters from every epoch of human existence, they illuminate such moments as the invention of clothing and language to the all-important creation of the bicycle. The funniest excerpt we see, by far, is the invention of kissing.

But as silly as the play-within-the-play can be, its absurdity is masking a deep yearning to create something that matters to the world, to the actors and to the audience members (meager as they may be). Mona is especially insistent on honoring the play and its quest to honor humanity and inspire humans toward greatness in their own lives. Terry, on the other hand, is over it. For him, this is a job – a difficult one that, he admits, causes him to hemorrhage chunks of his dignity.

It’s easy to laugh at actors who are serious about acting because they can seem pretentious and narcissistic, but Great Moment 1
Great Moment wants to have it all ways: laugh at the actors, laugh with the actors and develop an emotional connection with two humans who happen to be actors. Nachtrieb and director Sean Daniels mostly succeed in these tonal shifts thanks largely to the wonder of Celik and Scheie, who can be cartoons and flesh-and-blood within the same scene. Scheie, with his acid tongue, and Celik with her astonishingly expressive face and eyes, make for a great duo and easily bridge the transitions from tetchy, cynical comedy to the drama of frustrations aching for transcendence.

Apollo Mark Weaver creates a meta-theatrical set so that the play and the play-within-the-play both live in a formal theatrical space with painted backdrops. There’s a nifty mechanism that allows Terry and Mona to climb on their bicycles and pedal while the backdrop rolls behind them (kind of like an old cartoon), and when they make camp by the side of the road, we get the illusion of them in their sleeping bags though they’re actually standing up against another backdrop.

It’s a slick production, though it’s always about Mona and Terry and whether they can – or should – go on. One of the sharpest, funniest moments is Mona spending a sleepless night wondering if the ad lib she created in that night’s show when the electricity went out (“We are all in the dark.”) should become a permanent part of the show, even without the playwright’s permission. Mona’s personality splits in two, each arguing with the other – like a Canadian Gollum in the New Hampshire woods. Mona knows she’s onto something, a real moment of connection with people, but she’s a good theater person and doesn’t want to break the rules.

Terry implores her just to add it already, and while they’re at it, there are a million other things they should fix, but that’s the difference between them. He’s a journeyman who feels life and success has passed him by, and she is still holding out hope that she can make some sort of difference, that theater/art can make a difference. Like Terry, we might not quite believe that, but we really, really want to. Terry, after all, isn’t so far gone that he doesn’t hum Julie Andrews songs to himself (“Stay Awake,” “I Have Confidence”) while he’s doing other things.

There’s a lot to say about The Making of a Great Moment, a broad, entertaining comedy that aims to examine the human condition and figure out what purpose our lives can serve. But enough with the nice comments. As Terry says, “Arbitrary positivity is a sign of mental illness.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Making of a Great Moment continues through Aug. 26 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 415-626-0453 or visit www.zspace.org.

Theater Dogs’ Best of 2016

Best of 2016

The theater event that shook my year and reverberated through it constantly didn’t happen on Bay Area stage. Like so many others, I was blown away by Hamilton on Broadway in May and then on repeat and shuffle with the original cast album (and, later in the year, the Hamilton Mix Tape) ever since. Every YouTube video, official or fan made, became part of my queue, and checking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incredibly busy Twitter feed has become a daily ritual. Hamilton is everything they say it is and more. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, the score that continually reveals its brilliance and a bond with friends, family and other fans. In a year in which hope seemed to physically shrivel and evaporate, Hamilton keeps bolstering my faith in art, in theater, in musical theater, in theater artists and even in this messy country of ours. The show has yet to fail in delighting, surprising or moving me, and I plan to continue testing that limit.

Now that Hamilton is a bona fide phenomenon, the conquering expansion is under way. There’s a company wowing them in Chicago with another set for San Francisco (and later Los Angeles) next spring as part of the SHN season. If you don’t already have your tickets, good luck. I’ll be entering the ticket lottery daily because there’s no conceivable way I can get enough of this show.

Shifting focus back home, theater in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to be a marvel, which is really something given the hostile economic environment arts groups are facing around here. I saw less theater this year (while Theater Dogs celebrated its 10th anniversary in August) and took some time off to reevaluate my theater reviewing future. The upshot is I’m still here, still reviewing but on a more limited scale given the demands of my day job. I’ve been writing about Bay Area theater for 24 years (25th anniversary in September 2017!) and love it too much to stop, and that’s the truth. With so many extraordinary artists here and an ever-intriguing roster of visitors, who could stop trying to spread the good word?

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite Bay Area theatergoing experiences of 2016. (click on the show title to read the original review)

A good year for San Francisco Playhouse

Making notes about the most memorable shows I saw this year, one company kept coming up over and over: San Francisco Playhouse. Talk about hitting your stride! They kicked off 2016 with a mind-blowingly creepy show, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a drama about virtual reality that blurred all kinds of lines between theater, audience, reality and fantasy. Thinking about this production, expertly directed by Bill English and designed by Nina Ball, still gives me the shivers. Two other shows made a powerful mark on the SF Playhouse stage as well: Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, a blend of drama and dance in the service of exploring football and masculinity, and Theresa Rebeck’s Seared about a hot little restaurant and its chef and loyal staff. I could also add the Playhouse’s musicals, which continue to grow in stature and quality as seen in City of Angels and She Loves Me. But I’ll just give those honorable mention so that one theater doesn’t take up half of this list.

Local playwrights shine

Let’s hear it for our local scribes who continue to devise startlingly good shows. Each of these writers should inspire any prospective audience member to check out whatever they happen to be working on.

Christopher Chen has a brain that knows no boundaries. His Caught, part of Shotgun Players’ stunning repertory season, was like an intellectual amusement park park ride as fun as it was provocative and challenging. Chen had another new show this year, but on a different scale. His Home Invasion was given small productions in a series of people’s living rooms as part of 6NewPlays a consortium of six writers creating new work under the auspices of the Intersection for the Arts Incubator Program. Directed by M. Graham Smith the play is set in a series of living rooms (how appropriate), but its realm expands way beyond its setting. The concepts of multidimensionality that come up in the play truly are mind altering, and what an extraordinary experience to get to watch such amazing actors – Kathryn Zdan and Lisa Anne Porter among them – in such an intimate space.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb also took us into a home with a new play this year, but this home was built primarily in the theatrical imagination (and in the wondrously impressionistic sets by Sean Riley). In A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry, Nachtrieb and his solo actor, the always-remarkable Danny Scheie, the audience got to play tourists as we moved from room to room in the most unique historical home tour imaginable. Commissioned by Z Space and written expressly for Scheie, this experience was so delectable we can only hope it will return for another tour of duty.

Not only is Lauren Gunderson a wonderful playwright, she also happens to be the most produced living playwright in the country this season. One of the reasons for that is the new play she wrote with Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that delivers a feel-good Christmas experience with snap rather than sap (especially in the top-notch Marin Theatre Company production). Gunderson’s love of science and literature combined with her grace, intelligence, good humor and prodigious dramatic talents should continue yielding marvelous results for years to come.

Big drama at Thick House

Two companies in residence at Thick House continually do fantastic things on its small stage. Crowded Fire hit two shows out of the proverbial ballpark this year: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment and Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers. Both plays explore different aspects of race, religion and being an outsider in this country, and both were powerful in their of-the-moment relevance and dramatic impact. The other company in residence at Thick House that dazzled is Golden Thread Productions, whose Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi delivered action and depth in its exploration of what it means, among other things, to be Muslim in this country. It should be noted that a significant part of what made both I Call My Brothers and Our Enemies so good was the work of the marvelous actor Denmo Ibrahim.

A dazzling finale for Impact

This one makes me as sad as it does happy. As it wound down its work at LaVal’s Subterranean, Impact Theatre unleashed yet another brilliant Shakespeare reinvention. This time it was The Comedy of Errors meets Looney Tunes, and the results in director Melissa Hillman’s production were inventively hilarious and so spot-on it’s a wonder Yosemite Sam or Bugs Bunny didn’t make cameo appearances. Here’s hoping that Impact returns in some form or another sometime soon.

My favorite play this year

Let the record show that this year Berkeley Repertory Theatre was home to two of my least favorite theater experiences (a ponderous Macbeth starring Frances McDormand and a disoncertingly disappointing For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday) as well as my favorite local theater experience: Julia Cho’s Aubergine. Sensitively directed by Tony Taccone, this deeply moving play about families, loss and growing up was rich in quiet beauty and full of performances that allowed the understated to just be. Food and memory played a big part in the drama, but it really came down to who we are within the defining experiences of our parents and our own mortality. A gorgeous production of a gorgeous play that said as much in silence as it did in sound.

A Tour de force for Scheie and Nachtrieb

House Tour 2
Danny Scheie is Weston Ludlow Londonderry, the world’s most passionate tour guide, in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s A House Tour at Z Space. Photos by Julie Schuchard

The tour group is just heading out when the enthusiastic guide, suddenly quite sensible, says, “You will need to extrapolate quite a bit if you wish to enjoy this tour.”

That is, at once, an incredibly honest thing for a tour guide – any tour guide – to say because it’s almost always true and a subtle wink at the theatrical adventure on which we are embarking in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s beguiling world premiere A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry, a commission from Z Space tailor made for its vast space and built on the prodigious talents of actor Danny Scheie.

Scheie, perhaps the Bay Area’s most consistently electrifying actor, is the high-octane engine in this one-man show as Weston Ludlow Londonderry, the tour guide in the light blue blazer and matching beret. We meet Mr. Londonderry in the visitor center of the Porter Family Mansion, one of the historic big buildings in the world worth visiting, according to a list in the visitor center (which also includes the Taj Mahal, Monticello and the Spelling Family Manse). The center’s rather hilarious video introduction to the Porters, narrated by someone claiming to be Linda Hunt, indicates that we are about to see “some of the finest world collections of many different things.” What could be more intriguing?

It turns out that Weston has very little interest in collections of things and is much more interested in the late Porters themselves, Hubert (son of Millie Watanabe, a world-class turmeric addict) and Clarissa, described as “the oatmeal raisin of society, the universal third choice.” When Hubert and Clarissa, both social rejects and physically repellent to all but each other, met at a ball, they found in one another intellectual equals and equally erotic adventurers. We know this because Weston spares no detail in his descriptions of how smart the Porters were and in how many ways they liked to get busy. Living on the fringes of society in a simple shack, Hubert and Clarissa explored (and explored) their every carnal urge and, while they were at it, came up with a unique, fortune-making idea.

House Tour 1

When Ludlow fills us in on all these interesting details, he has already taken us through the garden to the rear entrance (if you read a great deal into that particular detail, Weston would be pleased) and into a replica of the original, rough-hewn Porter shack (the original burned down as a result of young vandals striking sparks with each other) that is now, he tells us, literally and figuratively the cornerstone of the mansion that grew up around it.

Through the marvelously impressionistic efforts of set designer Sean Riley and lighting designer Drew Yerys, our tour takes us through hallways and chambers and rooms and byways of the mansion, always just skirting the other tour groups led by the other tour guides so utterly loathed by Weston: Morgan, Emily and especially Todd. All three are concerned with furniture and the trappings of wealth and society, none of which, we learn, held any interest to the Porters, who lived a secret life under the veneer of their seemingly “normal” mansion.

Weston takes our group into some surprising places and makes some surprising offerings (some edible, some concerned with moisturizing), all in the name of providing an authentic tour and a thorough exploration of the lives and work of two iconoclasts he quite obviously admires. The deeper we journey into the mansion, the deeper we go into Weston’s psyche and the darker the play becomes. If, to honor the spirt of the Porters, Weston could have us all delve into an ecstatic orgy near “the stick of butter that changed it all,” he would, and he comes pretty close near the tour’s end.

That the audience, sorry, tourists, are willing to do whatever Weston tells us to is credit to Scheie’s sharp, disarming performance, which only grows funnier and more poignant as the 90-minute play draws on. Scheie’s expertise keeps the crowd under his spell and (with help from the stage crew shifting set pieces around) helps us extrapolate like pros. Nachtrieb’s play, with its delicious turns of phrase, rich ribaldry and generous embrace of all things “abnormal,” is loaded with big laughs, surprises and a climax that both Hubert and Clarissa would have loved to detail in their personal diaries (available, we’re told, in the gift shop as a set). Director Jason Eagan conquers this massive endeavor, which could be gimmicky, into a consistently intriguing experience that allows a piece of immersive theater to be truly immersive.

There are tours and then there are tours de force. A House Tour is the latter, a triumph for playwright and star, and a theatrical experience to remember.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry continues through April 23 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22 to $33. Visit www.zspace.org.

Aurora builds a mighty (funny) Monster

EXTENDED THROUGH DEC. 20!
Monster 2
The cast of Amy Freed’s comedy The Monster Builder – (from left) Rod Gnapp as Andy, Sierra Jolene as Tamsin, Nancy Carlin as Pamela, Thomas Gorrebeeck as Dieter and Tracy Hazas as Rita – believe they have avenged the evil of Danny Scheie as “starchitect” Gregor in the Aurora Theatre Company production. Below: Jolene and Scheie work out the intricacies of a design. Photos by David Allen

When salsa splatters across the unsealed Carrara marble, the horror of the architect played by Danny Scheie resounds through the intimate Aurora Theatre Company. An hors d’oeuvre has fallen on the floor, and after admonishing the clumsiness of his girlfriend, the architect demands a napkin and some vodka to clean it up. The marble is not stained, and the architect, one Gregor Zobrowski, calms down enough to say, “Crisis averted.” But is the crisis averted? Not even a little bit, and that’s the fun of Amy Freed’s The Monster Builder, a very funny riff on Ibsen’s The Master Builder (which the Aurora produced in 2006).

San Francisco writer Freed once again partners with the inimitable Scheie – past collaborations include You, Nero and Restoration Comedy – to create a comedy that skewers the world of egomaniacal “starchitects” and their sometimes godawful creations as well as the bad architectural taste of the general public that aims for nostalgia but settles for utilitarian garbage.

The fun of Freed’s play is watching Gregor navigate his giant ego through a cocktail party at his newly completed masterwork, an island residence made only of glass and marble with no walls and, apparently, no place but the floor to sit down (the humorous angular set is by Tom Buderwitz). Gregor is toying with a young married couple, Rita and Dieter (Tracy Hazas and Thomas Gorrebeeck), who run an idealistic architecture firm whose goal is bring back the commons in some way and help people come together the way they used to.

Monster 1

Gregor’s girlfriend Tamsin (Sierra Jolene) tries to fill in the social graces that the master architect lacks, but this is the Gregor show. Director Art Manke keeps the comedy fairly subdued at first. Scheie is strong and funny but reigns in what can sometimes be a wild on-stage personality. There’s a slow build, so to speak, at work here, and the payoff involves a leap into some theatrical wildness involving human sacrifice, revenge and the building of the Abu Dhabi Tower of Justice and Interrogation. Oh, and there may be something supernaturally Faustian going on as well. One of Scheie’s finest moments here (among many) is the astonishing measure of disgust he can express in three simple words: “arts and crafts.”

If Ibsen’s Master Builder had some sort of troll in his soul, well Gregor’s got something even bigger and nastier – a mystery that is only partly solved by play’s end. There’s a Young Frankenstein vibe to the second act of Monster Builder, and that’s a whole lot of fun. At one point, in full villain mode, Gregor is pounding out Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in the church he has converted into his office. It’s really just a set up so he can say to Rita, “Put your hand on my organ.” As smart as Freed can be, she also can’t resist a cheap joke, and we love her for that. Who else would reference an Alzheimer’s institute made of a series of mazes?

The game cast, expertly balancing zany farce and brainy comedy, also includes Nancy Carlin as an old-money dame with a juicy remodeling job and Rod Gnapp as her husband, a man whose occupation can inspire surprising reactions. There’s a lively camaraderie among the actors, and when, in Act 2, they all (save one) join together in a common pursuit, there’s a satisfying enjoyment in their efforts.

Part farce, part examination of the world we make for ourselves, The Monster Builder erects a lovely, lively structure around a dark heart that beats with the sounds of delight in every crack of humanity’s foundation.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Amy Freed’s The Monster-Builder continues an extended run through Dec. 20 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$60. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Cal Shakes scares up big laughs in vivacious Vep

Irma Vep 1
Danny Scheie (left above, right below) is Lady Enid Hillcrest and Liam Vincent is Jane Twisden in California Shakespeare Theater’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, the final production directed by now former Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone. Photos by Kevin Berne

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

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

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

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

Irma Vep 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cal Shakes ends season with a vibrant Dream

Midsummer 2
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).

Midsummer 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double good, double fun in Cal Shakes’ Comedy

Comedy 1
Patty Gallagher (left) is the Courtesan, Adrian Danzig (center) is Antipholus and Danny Scheie is Dromio in the California Shakespeare Theater production of The Comedy of Errors. Below: Scheie steals the show as both Dromio twins. Photos by Kevin Berne

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

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

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

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

Comedy 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scheie shines in SJ Rep’s poignant Next Fall

SJRep_NextFall_038_print
Danny Scheie (left) is Adam and Adam Shonkwiler is Luke in San Jose Repertory Theatre’s production of Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts. Below: James Carpenter (left front) is Butch, Scheie (right, kneeling) is Adam, Lindsey Gates (left rear) is Holly and Rachel Harker is Arlene in a tense momentin a hospital waiting room. Photo by Kevin BernePhotos by Kevin Berne

As an actor and director, there is seemingly nothing Danny Scheie cannot do. Over the summer, he dazzled in several drag roles in California Shakespeare Theater’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (read my review here), and now he’s doing a serious about face in the drama Next Fall with San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Geoffrey Nauffts’ play is formulaic to a degree, but it’s a sturdy formula, and Scheie – not to mention the rest of the excellent cast – bring out the best in this play about faith, love and family.

In the aftermath of a traffic accident, friends and family gather in a New York hospital waiting room, and playwright Nauffts flashes back over the last five years to bring us up to speed on who all these people are to each other and to the man in a coma and why there’s so much tension between some of them.

The central couple is Adam (Scheie) and Luke (Adam Shonkwiler). They met at a party on a rooftop where Adam was having a meltdown. A once-aspiring writer, he has spent the last six years selling candles in his friend Holly’s shop, and he realizes he has to make a change in his life. He insists he’s 40, but in deference to his mini-breakdown, he has likely shaved off a decade or so. The caretaker in this mid-life moment is 20something Luke, an adorable cater-watier/actor, who falls for Adam the moment he jokes that his “soul is fat.”

SJRep_NextFall_212_print

It was the mention of “soul” that likely piqued Luke’s attention. As a practicing Christian and guilt-plagued gay man, Luke has the surety of faith and the darkness of a sinner. He fully believes that when the Rapture comes, he and the other believers will ascend to heaven, while fully 2/3 of the world’s population, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists like Adam, will have seven years to contemplate their fate and make better spiritual choices before being condemned to hell. While this sounds looney-tunes to Adam, for Luke it’s a spiritual and emotional truth, and there’s going to be no convincing either man otherwise.

Therein lies the spiritual conflict at the heart of Next Fall, and Nauffts is never preachy, though he is often funny (perhaps even funnier with Scheie bringing every ounce of his comic genius to Adam’s love of/frustration with Luke).

Another complication is that Luke is not out to his divorced parents, Butch (the masterful James Carpenter) and Arlene (Rachel Harker as sort of a modern spin on Blanche DuBois). There’s a great flashback scene when Butch pays a surprise visit to New York. Luke has tried to hurriedly de-gay the apartment, but Butch, though he uses the Bible as a crutch (according to his ex-wife), is also a smart man. When he finds himself alone drinking tea with Adam, he calls the cups “dainty” and the jig is up, but it isn’t. Butch doesn’t say anything, and by the time he and Adam see one another again, Butch can’t even remember where they met. Lots of denial happening there.

Also in that hospital waiting room are friends Holly (Lindsey Gates), a spiritual seeker who meditates, does yoga and still can’t quite find anything to replace the comfort of her Catholic upbringing, and Brandon (Ryan Tasker), a successful businessman and fundamentalist Christian friend of Luke’s who disapproves of Luke and Adam’s relationship because, though sex is sometimes necessary, love between men is not, nor is it acceptable.

Scheie and Shonkwiler make a fascinating couple with a believable bond between them in spite of all the complications. Scheie is the emotional heart of the play, and the ease with which he inhabits Adam’s quirks, manias and passions is extraordinary.

As the nearly 2 1/2-hour play winds down, Scheie and Carpenter really pull out the emotional stops (without overdoing it) and make Next Fall the moving experience it aims to be, even though Nauffts nearly topples his ending by co-opting Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to underscore the brevity of life and the mostly unconscious way we live it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall continues through Nov. 10 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $29-$74 (subject to change). Call 408-367-7255 or visit www.sjrep.org.