Spirited new musical Messenger really delivers

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Young journalist Raina (Anna Ishida, right) arrives at Mama Sid’s (Annemaria Rajala) ashram to reveal the secrets of the world-renowned spiritual teacher’s past in the world premiere of The Fourth Messenger by Tanya Shaffer and Vienna Teng. Below: Sid’s father Sunny (Will Springhorn, Jr., center) and his neighbors sing about Bois Riche, the town he built to keep his daughter safe. Photos by Mike Padua

Beautiful, ambitious and with the kind of depth we’ve come not to expect from musicals, The Fourth Messenger is a triumph. This world-premiere work is not perfect…yet. But if any new homegrown musical were even half this good it would be considered a major success.

With a book by Tanya Shaffer, music by Vienna Teng and lyrics by both creators, The Fourth Messenger wants to tell an epic story in an intimate way, and in the most essential ways, that works. Shaffer’s book brims with intelligence and wit and Teng’s music feels rich in original ways, full of melody and intricacy captured expertly by musical director Christopher Winslow and his four-piece orchestra (the cello and woodwinds are especially expressive).

Director Matt August’s thoughtful yet robust production at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley has some rough edges, but it works because the story is strong. Taking a cue from other religious tales-turned musicals like Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, The Fourth Messenger turns to one of the greatest stories ever told, but this time it’s the life of Buddha that comes singing to the stage.

Shaffer has re-imagined young Siddhartha as Sid Arthur, a woman destined to change the lives of many on the planet. As we see from the cover of Time magazine, Mama Sid, as she is known by her followers, is a celebrity guru. She has carefully shielded certain parts of her life story from her minions, and that has piqued the interest of Raina, a journalist at Debunk Nation, who will go undercover at Mama Sid’s Newfoundland compound and uncover all the dirt.

Still grieving from the recent death of her father, Raina’s visit will turn out to be surprising on a number of fronts, more personal than professional. And what’s most interesting about this tale, which adheres fairly closely to Buddha’s life, from his exposure to the four messengers (sickness, old age, death and hope) to his visitation by temptations as he seeks spiritual nirvana.

Along the way we get some spirited numbers, like “Monkey Mind,” an ode to silent meditation and the brain’s resistance to quiet, and “Bois Riche,” a flashback look at Sid’s childhood in a gated community created to shield her from the inevitable horrors of the world. There are also sterling ballads, like Raina’s “The Story Is Mine,” which is reprised to great effect several times (especially at the end) and Sid’s “Force of Nature.”

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Working with choreographer Bridgette Loriaux, director August keeps the show moving at quite a clip (running time is just under 2 1/2 hours). Set designer Joe Ragey helps considerably with a simple but elegant set of wood and white (nicely lit by Steven B. Mannshardt) that conveys the wintry landscape of Mama Sid’s ashram and easily becomes many other locations.

Act 2 falls into soap operatics, which can be rewarding, but we also lose sight to some degree of Mama Sid’s empire and how followers are so anxious to deify their gurus, who are, after all, only human. There’s an interesting question here: if someone’s teachings are powerful and effective, does that person’s personal life and personal choices – whether we know about them or not—disqualify the teaching in any way? Or the teacher?

Those questions get subsumed by the Sid-Raina relationship, and that’s understandable, but some aspects of the larger story here are still waiting to be told (or sung).

That said, what’s here is compelling from beginning to end. The balance between humor and drama is nicely maintained, and the cast, in spite of some vocal limitations, rises to most of the score’s challenges. Anna Ishida as Raina effectively conveys barely contained rage and hurt, and Annemaria Rajala is commanding and almost ethereal as a highly believable Mama Sid. Among the spirited ensemble, Reggie White, Jackson Davis, Barnaby James, Will Springhorn Jr. and Cathleen Riddley all have standout moments.

By the final song, “As Long as I Am Living/Look to the Thought (Reprise),” the power of this story and Teng’s music combines in such a way that makes musical theater the best possible choice for this re-telling of an ancient tale. A smart producer will see the potential in this show – so abundantly displayed in this production – and help take it to the next level. It’s time for The Fourth Messenger to attain and share its own nirvana with a much wider audience.


[bonus interview]
I interviewed Tanya Shaffer and Vienna Teng about the creation of The Fourth Messenger for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

The Fourth Messenger by Tanya Shaffer and Vienna Teng continues through March 10 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $23-$40. Visit thefourthmessenger.com.

TheatreWorks offers Variations on a scheme

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With the help of her friend Gertie (Marie Shell, left), musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Rosina Reynolds) races against time to solve one of the greatest mysteries in the life of Beethoven (Howard Swain), who is breaking the bonds of time to complain about his soup in Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, a TheatreWorks production. Below: Reynolds and Swain have an otherworldly meeting between musicologist and music maker. Photos by Tracy Martin

When Moisés Kaufman gets to the point in his play 33 Variations, there’s resonance, beauty and purpose in it. For nearly 2 ½hours we’ve been tracking parallel stories: one in the present as a terminally ill musicologist delves into the mystery of why Beethoven wrote 33 variations on a waltz theme by music publisher Anton Diabelli. And the other in the early 19th century as we watch Beethoven, his health and hearing failing him, tackle major late-career works (his Mass, his Ninth Symphony) all while succumbing to an obsession with the Diabelli variations. The two stories do fuse in an interesting way eventually as issues of time, mortality and attention to detail bridge past and present while offering a spark of inspiration and insight into the nature of obsession.

Kafuman’s 2007 drama, produced by TheatreWorks and directed by Artistic Director Robert Kelley, takes its time getting to the point. Kelley’s production is thoroughly enjoyable and features some sharp performances, but the play itself doesn’t cut very deep, and the whole past/present cohabiting the stage thing doesn’t really work. In the crudest of terms, the play is an uneasy mash-up of Wit and Amadeus.

What works sublimely and powerfully is having a live pianist (William Liberatore) onstage the entire time, playing the original Diabelli waltz and then pieces of Beethoven’s variations on it. Hearing that music and listening to smart people talk about what’s happening in the music is exciting. This experience puts us inside the music and allows us to appreciate it (if we haven’t already) in a whole new way. The music, is in fact, much more interesting than the period drama Kaufman presents us with, as Beethoven (played by Howard Swain) behaves like a brilliant kook and makes life difficult for his assistant, Schindler (Jackson Davis), and music publisher Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan).

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Not for lack of effort by Swain, Davis and Sullivan, the past part of the play stuck in the past never gains traction. And the reality of Beethoven’s life – his hearing loss, his money woes – turns out to be far less interesting than his music. There’s only one scene with Beehoven – it’s a fantasy sequence in which the past and present fuse – that has an emotional payoff, so I can’t help thinking the play would be a lot more interesting if Beethoven’s appearances were more limited and his music was emphasized even more.

The drama unfolding in the present, at least the part involving musicologist Katherine Brandt (Rosina Reynolds) and her quest to solve the Diabelli Variations mystery, is more compelling, especially as her research becomes at once more intensely focused and more hindered by her encroaching illness. As she examines Beethoven’s notebooks in Germany under the watchful eye of archivist Gertie (Marie Shell), Katherine is exploring her passion for music and answering questions that turn out to have as much to do with her own life as they do with Beethoven. Reynolds’ performance has the requisite sharp edges but without making Katherine a cold academic.

Would that Kaufman could let Katherine’s exploration command the stage, but he tacks on a subplot about Katherine’s daughter, Clara (Jennifer Le Blanc) and her budding relationship with one of Katherine’s nurses, Mike (Chad Deverman). We see their first date and watch them grapple with the physical and emotional demands of Katherine’s illness. It all has a familiar TV-like rhythm to it. Neither Clara nor Mike is a particularly complicated character. Both are nice and well meaning and, frankly, kind of boring.

Two things here are of primary interest: Katherine and Beethoven’s music. Everything else just gets in the way.

[bonus interview]

I interviewed playwright/director Moisés Kaufman for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


TheatreWorks’ 33 Variations continues through Oct. 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

TheatreWorks’ Pitmen paints poignant arts ed picture

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The titular painters in TheatreWorks’ The Pitmen Painters are (from left) James Carpenter, Nicholas Pelczar, Patrick Jones, Jackson Davis (sitting) and Dan Hiatt as they respond to seeing the work of Vincent VanGogh for the first time. Photo by Tracy Martin

Seeing some of the Bay Area’s best actors collected on one stage is a pleasure in and of itself. But Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters has other things to recommend it like its unapologetic championing of the arts as an essential part of being a fully formed human being.

Bringing this true story to life are James Carpenter, Dan Hiatt, Jackson Davis, Nicholas Pelczar and, in perhaps the most revealing performance, Patrick Jones. They’re all wonderful actors, and to see them interacting and playing off of one another is worth the ticket price alone.

I reviewed the production for the Palo Alto Weekly. You can read the review by clicking here.

Here’s the gist of the review:

To Hall’s credit, he keeps the focus on the art teacher and the miner-artists and everything their success meant in terms of class, creativity and the artistic potential in every person if given the opportunity to express it. There’s no forced romance, no artificial drama, no Hollywood flourishes. But there’s still a lingering feeling that, despite the inspiring real-life story, what we have in “The Pitmen Painters” is less a play than it is a well-argued, well-intentioned plea for more arts and more arts education.


Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters continues through Feb. 12 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Russian dressing: The vintage charms of Silk Stockings

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Ninotchka (Lee Ann Payne) explains the Communist theory of romance to a skeptical Steve Canfield (Ian Simpson) in the song “It’s a Chemical Reaction, That’s All” from the 42nd Street Moon production of Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings. Below: Simpson resists the charms of Hollywood bathing beauty Janice Dayton, played with relish by Dyan McBride. Photos by DavidAllenStudio.com

How in the world do you follow Strike Up the Band? 42nd Street Moon’s last outing was a spectacularly charming and tuneful production of a Gershwin show that has been unjustly sidelined by musical theater history.

The problem with doing such a bang-up job with Band is that there’s still a final show in the season with which to contend.

And may I say, the finale is no Strike Up the Band. But it’s Cole Porter, so all is not lost.

Silk Stockings, a 1955 musical adaptation of the Greta Garbo film Ninotchka, is a minor work with a wildly unfocused book and a hit-and-miss Porter score.

You don’t see a lot of Silk Stockings revivals, so we have yet another reason to celebrate 42nd Street Moon’s dedication to dusting off shows that we’d never otherwise get to experience.

Director Greg MacKellan’s production certainly has style, which is important when you’re basking the capitalist and romantic decadence of Paris in the ‘50s. Sarah Phykitt’s set introduces a nifty little proscenium that allows the stage, with just a few adjustments, to be a fancy Parisian hotel, a private salon for fashion shows or a movie musical set. It’s one of the more involves sets we’ve seen in a Moon show, and it’s lovely.

But loveliest of all are the glamorous ‘50s fashions put together by costumer Louise Jarmilowicz. The leading ladies look stunning – like they just stepped off the pages of 1955 Vogue.

As ever, the score is ably handled by music director/pianist Dave Dobrusky and invaluable saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Nick DiScala.

I only wish the score they were playing was more rewarding.

There are some fun songs in the score, but even some of the better tunes don’t make a whole lot of sense in context of the story. For instance, the ebullient “Stereophonic Sound” is performed by a former bathing beauty of the cinema (think Esther Williams) who has fled the Hollywood studio system to make an independent French film.

When she sings “Stereophonic,” which lists all the latest widescreen crazes like Cinemascope and Todd A-O sound, it’s never quite clear if she’s overwhelmed by all that technical gimmickry, delighted by it, railing against it or happy just to be in the mix at all (perhaps it’s all of the above). One certainly didn’t make movies in France in the 1950s to revel in Hollywood dazzle (even though that’s exactly what the bathing beauty ends up doing), so the purpose of the song doesn’t really come across.

The same is true for a song added to the 1957 movie (with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse), “The Ritz Roll and Rock.” The song is a lot of fun (and the choreography by Jayne Zaban is snappy), but as performed by Russian artists who would rather be back in Paris, this Porter twist on rock and roll seems more of a novelty than a number integrated into the story.

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Ah, the story, the pesky story. Part of the problem with Silk Stockings is the muddled book by George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath and Abe Burrows. It takes too long to figure out whose story this is. First it seems to be the tale of a defecting Russian composer, then it seems to shift to a Russian bureaucrat who falls under the spell of capitalism (and a handsome American) while in Paris. Then it seems maybe we’re shifting to the swimming Hollywood star.

But no, the story really is about Ninotchka, the stern Russian lady whose Communist resolve is no match for decadence and delight.

Though nicely performed by Lee Ann Payne, Ninotchka isn’t all that interesting a character, and neither is her paramour, slick agent Steven Canfield (charmingly played by Ian Simpson).

Far more interesting is Dyan McBride as Janice Dayton, the actress aspiring to roles that don’t leave her waterlogged. McBride has great fun with “Stereophonic Sound” and does her best with the limp “Satin and Silk.” Even her goofy musical number “Josephine” (the result of turning a serious take on War and Peace into a musical bio of Napoleon’s wife), as fun as it is, goes nowhere.

The title song, sung by the lovestruck agent, has to be one of Porter’s weakest, and the duet “As on Through the Seasons We Sail” aims for poetry but just tanks.

The love song “All of You” is still performed with some regularity, though it sounds like Porter recycling himself.

Functioning in this show much the way “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” functioned in Kiss Me Kate is the song “Siberia,” an old-fashioned vaudevillian shuffle. In this production, Porter’s ode to Russia’s punishing frozen wasteland is performed with gusto by Jeremy Vik, Michael Rhone and Jackson Davis.

I would have liked to just relax and enjoy the production, but certain things kept niggling at me.

For instance, late in the show, the action shifts to a Moscow apartment building, where Russians in Russia, we assume, are speaking Russian to each other. Through the willing suspension of disbelief required for musical theater (or any theater, for that matter) the Russian is magically translated to English for our monolingual ears. That’s why “The Red Blues” bothered me so much. If they’re speaking Russian to each other, chances are good that the Russian equivalent of feeling sad and bummed out is not the same word as the color blue. It’s just a convenient (and rather lazy) attempt on Porter’s part to be clever.

And that’s my basic problem with Silk Stockings. Porter is, in many respects, phoning it in. But Porter on a bad day tends to be better than a lot of other composers on their best day, so at the very least, the score is consistently interesting if not exactly silky.

42nd Street Moon’s Silk Stockings continues through May 22 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstreetmoon.org for information.

Musical Coraline is creepy, kooky, altogether ooky

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Brian Degan Scott as Mr. Bobo and Maya Donato as Coraline in the SF Playhouse production of Coraline. Below: Scott (left), Stacy Ross and Jackson Davis. Photos by Jessica Palopoli.


A door presents itself. You enter. Suddenly you’re immersed in a warped version of reality.

That’s what happens to 9-year-old Coraline, the heroine of Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name when she unlocks a door in her creaky new house. And that’s what happens to audiences that venture into Coraline the musical by David Greenspan (book) and Stephin Merritt (music and lyrics) now at SF Playhouse.

This looks like a children’s musical, but there’s a twist. Things are pretty creepy in this tweak-y world. And it sort of sounds like a musical, though this is about as far away from Rodgers and Hammerstein as you can get and still be in a theater.

SF Playhouse’s Coraline looks just right. The black-and-white set (by director Bill English and Matt Vuolo) looks like a storybook haunted house, and when Coraline slips through that locked door and enters an alternate reality, Michael Osch’s lights kick into blacklight gear, with fluorescent colors cracking the darkness. The same is true of Valera Coble’s costumes – shades of black, white and gray give way to crispy fluorescents once Coraline encounters the mirror-image “others” on the other side of the door. Oh, and the others also come equipped with button eyes – a truly creepy feature.

The 90-minute show begins with the entire cast gathered around toy pianos, plunking out indecipherable melodies. Then the musical duties are handed over to musical director Robert Moreno (tucked behind the set), who is playing piano, toy piano and prepared piano (prepared with nuts, bolts, playing cards, earplugs, paperclips and anything else handy that might warp and twist Merritt’s music).

As much as I wanted to, I did not enjoy Coraline. It’s a half-hearted musical that never comes fully to life. Henry Selick’s movie version was much livelier and a lot more fun. Greenspan’s book follows the Gaiman novel pretty faithfully (more than the movie does), but Merritt’s music is challenging to the point of being dull. There’s an occasional flash of humor or snippet of melody to latch onto, and the musical mayhem toward the end is interesting. But the score mostly drones and plunks and fizzles. It’s like when Danny Elfman wrote music for The Nightmare Before Christmas – it should have been much better than it was, but Elfman, like Merritt, comes from the pop world and doesn’t really seem to know or care how songs function in a musical.

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That said, I adored 12-year-old Maya Donato as Coraline (she alternates in the role with Julia Belanoff). With a crisp British accent, she essentially carries the show and serves as our tour guide through the weirdness. Stacy Ross also shines as Other Mother, the button-eyed villainess intent upon enticing Coraline into her twisted lair. The bigger Ross’ hair gets, the more fun she is. By the end of the show, she has become a spider-like version of a giant hand, complete with bright red fingernail polish (puppets are by Christopher W. Wright).

Susi Damilano and Maureen McVerry are having fun as Miss Forcible and Miss Spink, two old-maid actresses who live in the flat above Coraline and her family. With their herd of terriers, these doddering old ladies get the best song in the show, “Theatre Is Fun.”

The whiff of Oz and Wonderland pervade Gaiman’s world, though it’s not as much fun as any of its progenitors. Musically speaking, the show comes to life only at the end, as the ensemble – which also includes Jackson Davis, Brian Degan Scott and Brian Yates Sharber – sings “One Long Fairytale,” which encourages youngsters to “keep chasing your tale.” That’s good advice. The chase may lead to tales even more interesting than this one.



Read my interview with composer Stephin Merritt in the San Francisco Chronicle. Click here.



Coraline continues through Jan. 15 at SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 415 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.

Review: `Dead Man’s Cell Phone’

Opened May 9, 2009 at SF Playhouse

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Jackson Davis and Amy Resnick are Dwight and Jean, two lovers awash in a sea of cynicism, stationery and sentiment in Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone at SF Playhouse. Photos by Zabrina Tipton.

In Ruhl’s quirky `Phone,’ we get the message

There are few things more enjoyable, theatrically speaking, than watching Amy Resnick on stage. The veteran Bay Area actor fascinates, compels and entertains in ways entirely her own. She’s completely reliable and always surprising.

In Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, now at the SF Playhouse, Resnick has found an ideal role: Jean, a seemingly nondescript woman who happens to be in a café eating lobster bisque when the guy next to her ups and dies. When his cell phone keeps ringing, she answers it and, in a manner of speaking, finds her calling. Jean is a blank slate, quite literally. Here’s what we find out about her life over the course of the play’s two hours: she reads in cafes, she likes lobster bisque, she’s a vegetarian (one that apparently eats shellfish), she’s a little bit religious, she occasionally goes to the pharmacy, she works in the office of a Holocaust museum and she is titillated by the feel of quality stationery.

Oh, and Jean lies. With good intentions.

In some ways, Ruhl’s play is like a Frank Capra movie. Jean is sort of an angel who wants to reassure the people in the dead man’s life – his name was Gordon, he did something really creepy and immoral for a living – that Gordon was a good man who, despite his behavior, really and truly loved and valued them. The only way she can do that is by lying to them, making up Gordon’s good intentions. She presents gifts he supposedly wanted his mother, his widow and his brother to have. She tells the widow and the mistress exactly what they want to hear to make them think Gordon loved them sexually and emotionally.

It’s extraordinary how much she lies – and how much her lies mean.

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But this isn’t Frank Capra, and Jean is not a kindly spirit helping Gordon get his angel’s wings. This is a Sarah Ruhl play, which means it’s a peculiar play in the best sense. We’ve seen Ruhl’s work at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (the exquisite Eurydice and, more recently, the fascinating In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play) and at TheatreWorks (The Clean House). She’s one of the hottest playwrights in the country and for good reason. Her work is like nothing on television. She’s a deeply intelligent and emotional writer unafraid of connecting with her audience. Dead Man’s Cell Phone (also being done at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season) is Ruhl working in a lighter vein, but there’s still an undercurrent of darkness, and she’s unafraid, even in a quirky romantic comedy such as this, to indulge her fascination with death and the afterlife.

Ruhl’s work is all about connection, or lack thereof, and in Dead Man, she focuses in on cell phones. Jean describes not having a cell before she “inherited” Gordon’s because she liked to “disappear.” “But it’s like when everyone has their cell phone on, no one is there. It’s like we’re all disappearing the more we’re there.”

Jean is something of an innocent – perhaps psychologically damaged, we don’t know – and Resnick imbues this cipher with a rich inner life. There’s much about Jean we don’t know, but with Resnick inhabiting her skin, we know all we need to know about her compassion, her depth of feeling, her best intentions, her sentimentality.

Ruhl courts sentiment here as a defense. The play’s most touching scenes are between Resnick’s Jean and Jackson Davis as Dwight, Gordon’s brother. The two bond over caramel popcorn then visit Dwight’s stationery store, where they promptly fall in love. Dwight likes that she’s sentimental. “No one wants to remember anything,” he says. “I want to remember everything,” Jean answers, “even other people’s memories.”

Dwight hates the digital world because it’s so impermanent. “All the digital…stuff…the information bits..flying through the air. No one wants to remember People say I love you on cell phones and where does it go? No paper. Remembering requires paper.”

Ruhl is an extraordinary writer, and her brilliance rings throughout Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Director Susi Damilano’s efficient production can’t quite overcome the moments when Ruhl runs out of imagination in the second act – Jean ends up, improbably, in Johannesburg and then with Gordon in sort of a heavenly way station. Some of the smaller roles don’t quite land because the comic/dramatic tone of the play keeps shifting.

Joan Mankin, as Gordon’s mother, delivers a hilariously heartbreaking eulogy about vaulted ceilings and using cell phones on the toilet, and Rachel Klyce as Gordon’s widow gets a fun drunken scene with Resnick that turns on sexual frustration.

SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English, who also plays Gordon, designed the set, which had a few stumbles on opening night. Ruhl’s plays require a fluid, almost cinematic production with highly theatrical flourishes, and while the intimacy of SF Playhouse is great for actors like Resnick, the small space can sometimes cramp the ambitions of the play itself.

Even with the uneven second act, Dead Man’s Cell Phone rights itself by the end, and the final scene (involving Resnick and Jackson, naturally) is one of the most potent in recent memory, sentimentality and all.


Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone continues through June 13 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.


Bill English and Susi Damilano have announced the 2009-10 SF Playhouse season, which will be themed as “The Power of Laughter.”

  • The world premiere of Billy Aronson’s First Day of School directed by Chris Smith (Sept. 23-Nov.)
  • David Greenspan’s She Stoops to Comedy directed by Mark Rucker (Nov. 18-Jan. 8 )
  • Amy Glazer directs a play TBA (Jan. 20-Feb. 27)
  • Stephen Adley Guirgis’ Den of Thieves director TBA (March 10-April 17)
  • Allison Moore’s Slasher, director TBA (April 28-June 5)
  • Terrence McNally and David Yazbek’s musical The Full Monty (June 16-Sept. 5)

Review: `The Best Man’

The cast of the Aurora Theatre Company’s The Best Man by Gore Vidal includes (from left) Tim Kniffen, Deb Fink, Charles Shaw Robinson, Michael Patrick Gaffney, and Michael Cassidy. Photos by David Allen


Vidal’s `Best Man’ wins at Aurora
(three ½ stars)

Just in case you haven’t already had it up to here with presidential politics, you should turn your attention to Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, where Gore Vidal’s 1960 The Best Man is showing us unpleasant things about the way we elect our leaders.

Director Tom Ross guides an astute cast through 2 ½ hours of Vidal’s quips, observations and jabs, all on the subject of the dirty business involved in getting to the White House. It’s a swell, snappy production with lots of laughs, some of which hurt more than others.

The play may be almost 50 years old, but it reverberates – a scary thing in a country that has supposedly changed so much. The only real difference between the two candidates fighting it out for their party’s nomination at the Philadelphia convention and the ones at the conventions we just saw in Denver and Minneapolis is the absence of mobile phones, Blackberries, laptops, blogs, 24-hour news pundits and hordes of hovering staff members.

At the core, Vidal shows us, politics has changed very little, and in the end, America’s choice will be “the angel of grayness…as usual.”

The candidates squaring off are William Russell (Charles Shaw Robinson), a former Secretary of State, and Joseph Cantwell (Tim Kniffin), a reigning senator.

Russell, described as a “fancy Dan from back east,” has a tendency to joke too much and quote the likes of Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell and Bertrand Russell to a confused press corps. He’s an intellectual in politics and therefore the subject of mistrust.

Cantwell is slick and ambitious, a true politician who’s willing to sling mud to get what he wants. And that’s just what he does. He gets the dirt on Russell (illegally) and times to release it at the convention in such a way that Russell will have to withdraw from the race.

But Russell has a couple things on his side: a conscience (which some would say makes him a wishy-washy flip-flopper), intelligence and the backing of the Truman-esque former President Arthur Hockstader (Charles Dean). Together, with the help of Russell’s chief of staff (Michael Patrick Gaffney), they go in search of dirt on Cantwell and find something juicy, something that makes him “not normal.”

“I don’t believe it,” Russell says. “Anyone with that awful wife and those ugly children has to be normal.”

While the men get ugly, the women get…ugly. Russell’s wife, Alice (Emilie Talbot) is uptight and a little cold. She and her husband have actually been separated for years but are putting up a united front for the sake of the campaign. Mabel Cantwell (Deb Fink), on the other hand, has a little bit of the Lady Macbeth vibe as she does everything she can to keep his political machine running smoothly.

Vidal stirs up sensational fun as he creates a political potboiler that, as entertaining as it is, doesn’t cut terribly deep. It’s like a good B-movie that stirs things up and lets the viewer take it from there.

The actors do all they can to find three dimensions in the play. Robinson is perfectly cast as the conflicted intellectual, and so is Kniffin, whose Cantwell seems like a power-mad little boy much of the time.

Dean is positively presidential as Hockstader, and he seems to relish being the “hick president” who still wields a mighty power stick.

In supporting roles, Fink’s blond would-be first lady is deliciously bitchy, all grace and smiles and viciousness. And Gaffney, Talbot, Elizabeth Benedict (in multiple roles) and Jackson Davis (in several roles, including a satisfyingly slimy one) populate the intimate Aurora stage – designed with 1960s hotel flair by Richard Olmsted – with genuine character.

Vidal’s view, in the end, is cynical. Is there any other option when it comes to American politics? He doesn’t have any faith at all in our electoral process, and we end up getting what we deserve. Someone brings up the notion of an immoral president, to which former President Hockstader retorts: “They hardly come in any other size.”

Try not keeping that in mind for the next two months.

The ladies of the Aurora Theatre Company’s The Best Man (seated on the couch) are, from left, Emilie Talbot, Elizabeth Benedict and Deb Fink.

The Best Man continues through Sept. 28 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.