ACT puts Scrooge in your head this year

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James Carpenter revisits the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in American Conservatory Theater’s A Christmas Carol: On Air, an audio adaptation of the beloved annual production. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Some years I’ve had it up to hear with A Christmas Carol and want nothing to do with the Cratchits, the crutch and bah humbugs. Other years, I feel like there’s never been a more potent perennial, and every human should experience Dickens’ ghost story in one form or another. This year, this mind-bending year, is one of the latter.

American Conservatory Theater has been making holiday hay with Carol for more than 40 years, and in this year of lockdowns and shutdowns and only the memory of audiences, the company has opted to keep the tradition alive, albeit with an audio adaptation that we can listen to from the comfort and safety of our own homes and through the intimacy (if we so choose) of headphones to build the production between our ears.

Director Peter J. Kuo has adapted the adaptation (as it were) by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh from the Dickens novella, and the conceit here is that a group of young adults (all part of ACT’s MFA program), who constitute a social pod, attend a holiday party and do an impromptu reading of the play. Magic (and nifty sound effects) ensue.

Happily, once the reading begins in earnest, veteran actors James Carpenter and Sharon Lockwood show up – he to reprise his excellent performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, and she in a variety of roles, including Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fezziwig and Mrs. Cratchit. Both Carpenter and Lockwood could perform all the parts and make it dazzling, but it’s satisfying just to have them in the mix with enthusiastic young actors.

The MVP here, without question, is sound designer Jake Rodriguez, who essentially has to replace sets, costumes and lights with an evocative soundscape to keep the audience immersed in the world of the play for two hours. Rodriguez has great fun with all the ghostly elements of the story and also incorporates the original score by Karl Lundeberg effectively. Everything about the production is crisp and straightforward and clear, which is a good thing so the Dickens storytelling can shine through.

Other than the running time (two hours is a long time to sit and listen at home), my one real reservation here is that an adult is saddled with the thankless task of playing Tiny Tim, complete with little boy voice. The role is so pivotal to the plot and to the emotional construct of the story that this casting choice simply does not work.

Happily, and occasionally merrily, the production is mostly filled with vibrant performances and that divine Dickensian blend of gloom and cheer. Despair and hope intermingle throughout (landing on the latter, of course), making this whole holiday enterprise feel especially affecting this year.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
ACT’s A Christmas Carol: On Air streams online through Dec. 30. Tickets
are $40–$60. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

ACT’s deep dive into Albee’s Seascape

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Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) and Charlie (James Carpenter) meet Leslie (Seann Gallagher), a human-sized lizard that has just crawled out of the sea, in Edward Albee’s Seascape at ACT’s Geary Theater through Feb. 17. Below: McLaughlin and Carpenter are startled by two human-sized lizards, played by Gallagher and Sarah Nina Hayon. Photos by Kevin Berne

As directing debuts go, Pam MacKinnon’s for American Conservatory Theater is pretty auspicious. Her production of Seascape by Edward Albee is her first on the Geary Theater stage since taking over as artistic director last year. A Tony Award-winner (for Albee’s 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who has worked on other Bay Area stages (Berkeley Rep, Magic), MacKinnon seems to have landed quite comfortably in the world of institutional regional theater.

Her production of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1975 play crackles with crisp performances that easily carry the audience through the more naturalistic aspects of the play and into its wilder, more absurdist regions. When the curtain rises, there’s a moment of refreshing awe at the sight of David Zinn’s set: tall, grassy sand dunes along the Atlantic coast. The sound of waves crash in the background, the peace occasionally interrupted by a screaming jet plane overhead (sound design by Brendan Aanes). It’s interesting that the back of the theater is left exposed, as are all the bright, sunny lights that comprise designer Isabella Byrd’s grid. There’s reality and there’s fantasy reality occupying the same space, which is entirely appropriate for this play.

Seascape begins as a marital drama (an Albee specialty). A long-married couple is readjusting to retirement and the twin notions of aging and mortality as reality rather than concept. Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) has found her happy place on this sunny stretch of beach. She envisions a future free of grown children, grandchildren and responsibilities. She floats the notion of becoming beach nomads and seeing the world from sand strip to sand strip. But Charlie (James Carpenter) wants to do nothing. “We’ve earned a rest,” he keeps saying. This schism – “purgatory before purgatory” – is cause for a discussion that gets deeper and more intimate between husband and wife, and McLaughlin and Carpenter are riveting. They feel deeply connected yet strongly individual and can also be quite funny.

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Traversing the bumpy landscape of matrimony with this couple makes for surprisingly grand entertainment. Nothing major or melodramatic is happening, but in a way, as they review their life together, everything is happening. But then something major really does happen: a couple of human-sized lizards crawl out of the sea and begin a fairly deep existential discussion with the humans (once everyone determines that one couple is not interested in eating the other). It’s a little like the two-couple dynamic of Virginia Woolf meets the monster-in-the-house horror of A Delicate Balance.

Because Albee’s script is so smart and funny, and because the performances of the humans and the lizards – Sarah Nina Hayon as Sarah and Seann Gallagher as Leslie – are so warm and real, there’s never any difficulty making the leap into fantasy. The absurdity is quite enjoyable (like the man having the affair with the goat named Sylvia in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?), although Albee never quite solves the internal logic of how Sarah and Leslie have excellent vocabularies and seem to know what human months and years are but don’t know what birds are. Because we’re in the realm of evolution and those key moments when the next phase actually happens, it feels like something’s missing in the story of the lizards’ evolution up to this point. But we do get some wonderful “learning” moments, as when the lizards learn the human custom of shaking hands to say hello.

Designer Zinn’s costumes for Sarah and Leslie are spectacular, and the way Hayon and Gallagher inhabit them makes them so much more than green suits with giant tails. It’s easy to fall in love with these creatures, especially Sarah, who is curious and empathetic in ways that make you root for her personal evolution. If she can do it, you know Leslie, who seems not quite as advanced, can do it, too.

There’s a sag in Act 2, and Albee doesn’t quite seem to know where he wants his curious quartet to land. The overall tone of Seascape carries the tidal weight of existence and emotional turmoil, but that is lifted somehow by an element of hope and acceptance.

[BONUS INTERVIEW]
I talked to ACT’s new artistic director, Pam MacKinnon, about making her ACT directorial debut with Seascape for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Edward Albee’s Seascape continues through Feb. 17 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Berkeley Rep’s Macbeth: Double, double dull, in trouble

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Frances McDormand is Lady Macbeth) and Conleth Hill is Macbeth in Daniel Sullivan’s production of “the Scottish Play” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: McDormand’s Lady M attempts a challenging feat: hand cleansing while sleepwalking. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

Say this for Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Macbeth now on stage at the Roda Theatre: it stars an Oscar winner, a Tony Winner and an Emmy winner. And she’s doing some interesting things with Lady Macbeth. People are coming to this production to see Frances McDormand try her hand at one of the juiciest roles in the Shakespearean canon, and it’s impossible for McDormand’s genius not to shine through despite the uninvolving production that surrounds her.

There’s a lot of blood in Macbeth, with ritual torture, equal-opportunity murder (men, women, children) and even a beheading, but director Daniel Sullivan delivers a bloodless take on this challenging play. There’s a lot of strutting and fretting in 2 1/2 hours on the stage signifying, sorry to say, mostly nothing.

Aside from the distracting and over-used projections (clearly, projections have become to the live theater what CGI is to film – the easy, go-to solution for sets and effects), this is a fusty, musty kind of Shakespeare where people where pelts, swing swords and intone greatly with only rare connections to what they’re actually saying. The exception is James Carpenter, who plays King Duncan, the drunken porter and Lady Macbeth’s doctor – he makes complete sense of every sentence.

That can make for some dull going, and it stems from, among other things, some serious miscasting and a startling unevenness among the cast.

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Game of Thrones star Conleth Hill, who has a wealth of stage experience in the UK and on Broadway, doesn’t make much of an impression as Macbeth. He somehow never seems quite believable in the world the production is trying to create and never shows much of a connection with McDormand’s Lady Macbeth. There’s one powerful moment between the two when they reference the fact that they haven’t ever had children, and McDormand opens up her character to expose a deep source of pain and torment. Hill never really has a moment like that, so his vaulting ambition just comes across as by the numbers ego wrangling.

In addition to that one moment, McDormand, who suffers without a complex, powerful leading man to equal her own complexity, has another stunning moment at the end of the famous sleepwalking scene when, with great vulnerability, she reveals that she might not be sleepwalking after all.

I’ve always been disappointed that Shakespeare never let us see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth together late in the play, each dealing with guilt and regret in different ways, and that absent scene is sorely felt here because it seems McDormand is really on to something here.

Among the scenes with the most crackle is one between Lady Macduff (Mia Tagano) and her son (the excellent Leon Jones) as she bitterly discusses her husband as a traitor and a liar and any scene involving the three witches played by McDormand (with a billygoat beard), Tagano and Rami Margron). We first see the witches torturing a man tied to a tree, and though they’re competing with way too much stage smoke, they are direct and creepy. When we see them again at the height of Macbeth’s mania, they are the perfect embodiment of that dangerous and destructive need for power (and fame and wealth and anything else that effectively separates us from our humanity). Sometimes the “toil and trouble” spell casting can be funny rather than unsettling, but here the witches conjure appropriate anxiety.

It would seem, in this contentious and bullying political climate, that Macbeth would be the right play at the right time. Perhaps it is, but you wouldn’t really know it from this production.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth continues through April 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theater, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $35-$125 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Cal Shakes ends season with a vibrant Dream

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Erika Chong Shuch (left) is Titania, queen of the fairies, and Margo Hall is Bottom, a transformed rude mechanical and Daisuke Tsuji (rear) is Oberon a mischievous king of the fairies in the California Shakespeare Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Below: Tsuji’s Oberon and Danny Scheie’s Puck figure out how to right all the wrongs they’ve made with their midsummer meddling. Photos by Kevin Berne.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a landmark play for California Shakespeare Theater. When the company really became the company, then known as Berkeley Shakespeare Company, the first show produced at John Hinkel Park was Midsummer. Since then, the play has been performed seven more times, and now Cal Shakes concludes its 40th anniversary season with a version of the play that feels unlike any other production of it I’ve seen.

The opening scene, a battle/rough seduction between Theseus (Daisuke Tsuji) and the conquered Hippolyta (Erica Chong Shuch), is a good example of director Shana Cooper’s unique approach to the production’s tone. It’s hard to know whether to credit Shuch, who choreographed the play’s movement, or fight director Dave Maier for this dazzling encounter. But that kind of blended work is a hallmark of the production.

There’s a vigorous physicality to this Dream, whether it’s in the more formal dance moments (music and sound design is by Paul James Prendergast) or the heightened sense of vibrancy that enlivens the work of the forest fairies or the quartet of Athenian lovers who get lost and mightily tangled in the night. Even if there were no dialogue, you’d get a sense of relationships and tensions and emotions just from the way the thoroughly vivacious cast attacks the play.

There is dialogue, of course, and these sturdy actors deliver it as well as they embody the choreography. Margo Hall, for instance completely owns the role of Nick Bottom, the amateur actor who thinks he (or she in this case) should probably play every role in the play he and his friends are preparing for the King’s wedding festivities. Bottom is a rich comic role, and Hall finds new laughs in the pompous but lovable thespian, but she also finds the sincerity and the heart. That moment when Bottom, in mid-performance, stops ego acting and starts actually acting is wondrous (there’s a similiar performance moment for Craig Marker’s Flute, and it’s just as sweet).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Cal Shakes sculpts a vital, vivacious Pygmalion

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Anthony Fusco (left) is Henry Higgins, Catherine Castellanos (center) is Mrs. Pearce and Irene Lucio is Eliza Doolittle in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Below: On the streets of Covent Garden – Nicholas Pelczar (on balcony) is Freddy Eynsford Hill, Lucio (center) is Eliza and Julie Eccles is Mrs. Eysnford Hill. Photos by Kevin Berne

When real life comes in and smacks Prof. Henry Higgins across the face, it’s a wonderful thing to see this brilliant yet stunted man consider, perhaps for the first time in his life, that kindness may have worth akin to genius.

The force representing the real world – a world of messiness and emotion and connection – takes the form of Eliza Doolittle, an extraordinary young woman who is the intellectual if not social equal of Higgins and his superior when it comes to living life as most of humanity experiences it.

One of the great things about the California Shakespeare Theater production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is how balanced it is. You feel Shaw’s guiding hand in Jonathan Moscone’s approach in the way that nothing feels superfluous. Every character is there for a reason and a point of view. Moscone’s cast is filled with Bay Area all-stars plus a remarkable company debut from Irene Lucio as Eliza, the flower girl with brains, bravery and aspiration.

Lucio’s Eliza is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is how she is fully emotionally alive without ever over-playing it. The rough Eliza we meet on the cobblestones of Covent Garden is recognizable in the graceful, articulate, beautifully spoken Eliza we see at the end. There’s an emotional through-line in the character I haven’t felt before in other productions of the play or its musical sibling, My Fair Lady. That makes a big difference in the focus of the story, which comes down to Henry, the teacher (or sculptor), and Eliza, the student (or sculpture) and then zeroes even closer in on Eliza before allowing Henry a moment of reflection, realization and possible heartbreak (which is, in its own right, a triumph brought about by Eliza).

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The pleasures of this 2 1/2-hour play are many, from the elegant, florally accented set by Annie Smart to the classy costumes by Anna Oliver. But it’s the sterling cast that really makes it crackle. As the “pretty pair of babies playing with their live doll,” Anthony Fusco and L. Peter Callender essaying Higgins and Col. Pickering respectively, are delightfully crisp in their camaraderie and confirmed bachelorhood. They embark on their experiment turning Eliza, a “draggle-tailed guttersnipe,” into a princess at a ball with the glee of boys building a fort in the woods. That Pickering is the warmer, more mannerly man is clear from the start, and Higgins, for all his selfish thoughtlessness, is always interesting and usually honest. He’s frank and even mean, but it doesn’t seem he intends to be. Callender’s charms are many here, and the masterful Fusco keeps Higgins from being a monster by virtue of his intelligence, enthusiasm and emotional complexity under all that scholarly folderol.

Catherine Castellanos is the epitome of British resolve as housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. She’s strong and sensible and can’t for the life of her talk Higgins and Pickering into understanding that their “experiment” involves a real, live human being with feelings and attachments and a future growing more complicated by the day. Equally strong but with more humor and heart is Sharon Lockwood’s Mrs. Higgins, a mother continually frustrated by her rude, inconsiderate yet somehow adorable son. Lockwood and Castellanos are also very funny in the opening scene as squawking Cockneys.

The Eynsford Hill family is often forgettable in Pygmalion, but not here. As members of the upper class who have very little money, their desperation masked with pretension is a powerful component of Shaw’s deconstruction of class and its illusions and debilitating demands. Julie Eccles as Mrs. Eynsford Hill keeps up appearances but clearly has suffered in life. She has compassion, unlike her daughter Clara (Elyse Price), while her son Freddy (Nicholas Pleczar) is simply a noodle.

Probably as Shaw intended it, Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, practically steals the show. James Carpenter’s performance bursts with charm and unfettered joy at being a proud member of the “undeserving poor.” Before he officially launches his crusade against middle-class morality, Alfred the dustman is a rouge and a ruffian touched with a gift for rhetoric. He brings discomfort and entertainment in equal measure, and there’s menace and merriment in Carpenter’s brilliant portrayal. It’s too bad Shaw never got around to writing a spin-off: Doolittle in America.

So often Pygmalion is presented as a play of ideas, which it certainly is. Shaw is never caught short on that score. But it’s also a play bursting with life. Eliza wants more and better for herself and does everything she can to get it, even if what she gets isn’t at all what she expected. But she’s undaunted, and she finds that she’s as smart as Higgins but even better equipped than he is to deal with the realities of modern life. She heads off into an uncertain future with confidence, and that’s absolutely thrilling.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Pygmalion dialect coach Lynne Soffer for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw continues through Aug. 24 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free BART shuttle to and from the theater at Orinda BART station. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Mamet with heart (and humor) at Aurora

EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 20.
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Donny (Paul Vincent O’Connor, center) scolds Bobby (Rafael Jordan, left) as Teach (James Carpenter) smolders in the background in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of American Buffalo by David Mamet. Below: Two Bay Area greats, O’Connor and Carpenter, square off as Donny and Teach. Photos by David Allen

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company concludes its season with David Mamet’s American Buffalo, an early (1975) Mamet play that has all the telltale Mamet qualities (staccato dialogue sprayed in four-letter directions, life among conmen and criminals, pointed criticism of the “great American way,” etc.), but unlike some of the later, more intentionally provocative and disturbing work, this one has a core of compassion and human connection.

Part of that is Mamet’s play and part of it is director Barbara Damashek’s production headed by two Bay Area greats: James Carpenter and Paul Vincent O’Connor. Watching them spar is theatrical bliss.

I reviewed the play for the San Francisco Chronicle.

One of the pleasures of director Barbara Damashek’s production is how much of the humor she and her actors bring out of Mamet’s 1975 script. Sure, there’s rough language and violence and even blood at one point. But after the overly long setup of Act 1, the desperation of Donny and Teach reaches near-hilarious levels in Act 2.

It’s almost like they’re a low-life Abbott and Costello wrangling over an important phone call (the fact that it’s on a rotary dial phone somehow makes it even funnier) or figuring out how to crack a safe, which neither of them can do.

Carpenter and O’Connor know how to find the comedy without losing touch with the grim reality these characters inhabit.

Read the full review here.
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FOR MORE INFORMATION
David Mamet’s American Buffalo continues an extended run through July 20 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are 32 to $50. Cal 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Scheie shines in SJ Rep’s poignant Next Fall

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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.”

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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.

Looking at the stars: Cal Shakes fans flames of Wilde’s Winderemere

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The central trio of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan includes (from left) Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross), Lord Windermere (Aldo Billingslea) and Lady Windermere (Emily Kitchens). The California Shakespeare Theater production is directed by Christopher Liam Moore. Below: Kitchens and Billingslea work through the first big challenge of the Windermeres’ two-year marriage. Photos by Kevin Berne

If you want, as Oscar Wilde did, to make cogent and funny points about men and women, husbands and wives and the notion of good people vs. bad people, what better way to do that than by putting Danny Scheie in a dress and letting him unleash his inner Dame Maggie Smith?

Scheie’s performance as the Duchess of Berwick in the California Shakespeare Theater’s production Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde’s first major theatrical it, is one of many pleasures in director Christopher Liam Moore’s beguiling production. The play itself remains fascinating and relevant, but oh the visual delights of a period piece!

Set designer Annie Smart has fashioned a spacious London townhouse complete with crystal chandeliers on a terrace with draperies blowing in the cool breezes of Saturday’s beautiful opening-night performance. York Kennedy’s lights add elegance and shadows when appropriate to suit the melodrama. And costumer Meg Neville brings a sly sense of humor to the Victorian costumes, especially for leading lady Emily Kitchens as the young, self-righteous Lady Windermere. Neville makes her look like various slices of cake, with floppy bows and layers of plush stuffing. She’s a little like a little girl playing dress-up, which seems only appropriate given that the play takes her from naive, entitled girl to more worldly woman of experience. For the scandal-plagued Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross), Neville cleverly puts in her in a gorgeous black-and-white gown to underscore the extreme ways the character is perceived — no gray area where she’s concerned.

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And then there’s Scheie, doing a captivating riff on Wilde’s Lady Bracknell as the society matron who pronounces all women good and all men bad. Scheie conquers that tricky territory of high comedy and more serious intent that Wilde explores in Windermere. He lets the audience in on the joke, allows the laughs to come in regular waves but never relinquishes the satirical barbs and their sharp, wounding points.

At this point in the 21st century, Wilde’s late 19th-century play seems so clearly to be about the folly of conservatism, which is really nothing more than closed-mindedness (willful or naturally occurring) or utter denial of human beings’ capacity for complexity and inability to fit neatly into boxes like “good” or “bad.” It makes for delicious theater as Wilde sets up Lady Windermere to believe her husband (the stalwart Aldo Billingslea) is having an affair with the much-gossiped-about Mrs. Erlynne. The whole of London society is buzzing about the seemingly flagrant affair Winderemere and Erlynne are conducting, but appearances are rarely what they seem.

The one complication in Wilde’s formula is that the Lord and his supposed mistress are completely oblivious that their interactions might be construed as adulterous by gossip-minded outside observers. That doesn’t seem quite plausible for two such intelligent characters, but then again, if they’d taken pains to conceal their interactions, we wouldn’t have much of a melodrama, and the melodrama here is such juicy fun.

But again, the fun is constantly tempered by something real. One Wildean character can toss off an aphorism like, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” But later comes an observation like, “There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely — or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.” And sometimes the wit and the sting come packaged neatly together: “Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”

There are many levels on which to enjoy Moore’s sturdy production, and the performances allow insight into all of them. Kitchens is a slightly annoying Lady Windermere, a young mother so impressed by her righteousness that she all but collapses when she’s exposed to the real world outside the walls of her comfy cozy ideals. But Ross is a revelation as Mrs. Erlynne, a hardened, bitter woman who discovers she has a heart after all (and she doesn’t like it: “Somehow it doesn’t go with modern dress. It makes one look old,” she says).

Lady Windermere’s Fan has a lot to say to a country divided by politics, religion and combinations thereof. “Do you know that I am afraid that good people do a great deal of harm in this world? Certainly the greatest harm they do is that they make badness of such extraordinary importance.”

How nice it is to see badness of such goodness on the Cal Shakes stage.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Christopher Liam Moore for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan continues through Sept. 8 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72 (subject to change). Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. Cal Shakes runs a free shuttle to and from the Oridna BART station and the theater.

Berkeley Rep’s Pericles: Prince of Tyre-less theatrics

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David Barlow (left) is Pericles and Annapurna Sriram is Marina in Mark Wing-Davey’s re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Evan Zes (left), Sriram (center) and Rami Margron tussle over virtue and capitalism in a later chapter of the Pericles saga. Photos courtesy of mellopix.com

There’s a rough beauty to director Mark Wing-Davey’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre now on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. The industrial look of the bi-level set by Douglas Stein and Peter Ksander indicates that this will be a utilitarian telling of this dubious Shakespeare tale – dubious only because we don’t really know how much (if any) of the play the Bard actually wrote.

From the giant crane that hoists everything from crystal chandeliers to pirates’ nets to the goddess Diana, to the sliding metal doors that bang and clang during scene transitions, this is a production that revs and lurches like an engine that could use a little more tuning

But that’s not to say that this re-imagining of Pericles by Wing-Davey and Jim Calder isn’t entertaining or even, at times, quite captivating. The creative team, also including costumer Meg Neville, lighting designer Bradley King, sound designer Jake Rodriguez and composer/music director Marc Gwinn and his three-piece band, have a lot of tricks up their respective sleeves, and they employ a lot of moving parts to dress up a tale that can always use a good dressing up.

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Wing-Davey and Calder have also done some heavy editing, which streamlines this choppy tale into just over two hours. The ensemble of eight plays multiple roles save for David Barlow as the titular prince. They bring a zesty humor to the proceedings, which range from the truly lovely (Pericles brings corn to a starving nation and we watch as their coffers fill with the golden food) to the ribald (Pericles’ wedding night with Thaïsa on an ultra-bouncy bed is a hoot) to the just plain goofy (as knights prepare to joust for the hand of a fair maiden, one of the contenders turns out to be Batman complete with sidekick, Robin).

James Carpenter plays several kings (one horrific, one kindly) with commanding authority and looks particularly good in a robe covered with images of his face. Jessica Kitchens is also effective in contrasting a sweet princess with a deceitful queen (whose gowns have shoulders to be envied by the most fashionable quarterbacks).

Because this play is so full of incident, it helps to have an engaging narrator (Anita Carey) to help stitch the adventures together, and it’s even better to have a narrator with a lilting Northern England accent.

The actors hurtle through the various episodes with verve, though they tend to get upstaged by props and scenery from time to time. It’s hard to compete with a full-on drenching from a storm at sea, especially when a realistic looking baby doll shows up. The contrast between hyper-theatrical, stretch-your-imagination tricks and the occasional human moments can be jarring.

Wing-Davey’s Pericles labors to make the most of a fractured script, but in the end, this take on the tale isn’t nearly as beguiling as California Shakespeare Theater’s 2008 production (read the review here). In that version, director Joel Sass used a storytelling approach (also with eight actors) that turned out to be as enchanting as it was moving.

This production has some dazzle and some heft and definitely some humor, but all that wacky set-up, which is really just an excuse for an impossible, tear-jerking happy ending, is practically for naught. The one thing that’s missing, amid all the storms and anachronisms and hard-working theatrics, is heart.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre continues through May 26 on the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$77 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Marin’s Godot and the impression we exist

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Mark Bedard (left) is Vladimir and Mark Anderson Phillips is Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, now at Marin Theatre Company. Below: James Carpenter (left) as Pozzo and Ben Johnson as Lucky complicate the barren landscape. Photos by Kevin Berne

I suspect Samuel Beckett knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote Waiting for Godot and left more questions unanswered than answered. The less specific you are, the more your audience members project their own business onto the characters and their situation.

The world Beckett creates could be the depressed past or the post-apocalyptic future. He could be writing about God and religion or about the hell of human existence. His main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, could be clowns or tragic figures or both. It’s all up for discussion, open for interpretation. Everything is symbolic or nothing is symbolic and just is what it is and the population has increased. And that’s the genius of Beckett and the joy of his most famous play.

The first time you experience Godot is often the best (if you’re fortunate enough to see a solid production). My first time – and to consider this a theatrical deflowering is not at all inappropriate – was in the early ’90s on a stage in the Central YMCA in San Francisco’s skeevy Tenderloin neighborhood. Dennis Moyer was directing for Fine Arts Repertory Theatre, and it starred John Robb and Joe Bellan in the leads, with a mind-blowingly brilliant Dan Hiatt as Lucky. This production demonstrated to me just how transcendent Beckett could be: funny and sad at the same time, crude and enlightened, bleak and hopeful. So many contradictions in one theatrical experience and yet so completely entertaining and moving.

That production is my high-water mark for Godot (although I love the original cast recording with Burt Lahr as Estragon and E.G. Marshall as Vladimir: click here to download on Amazon for a mere $3.56). I’ve seen productions since that I liked, but not one I loved as much as the first time.

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But the current production at Marin Theatre Company directed by Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis comes pretty close. Mark Anderson Phillips as Estragon and Mark Bedard as Vladimir are, in a word, adorable. Should these crusty characters be adorable? Why not? Both of them at various times reminded me of dogs (and I noticed for the first time just how many canine references there are in the play), and sometimes Phillips even sounds like Scooby-Doo. Their clowning is inspired, but it’s all done with heart. I really liked these guys, who affectionately call each other Gogo and Didi, and that affection only magnifies their plight.

And just what is their plight? Living life is the short answer. Killing time. Waiting for whatever or whoever it is with the power to suddenly make their lives better, more interesting or somehow more meaningful. Vladimir, who tends to be more of an optimist than Estragon, says about life: “We wait. We are bored. No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it…In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!”

Much of Godot is about staving off boredom or at least creating the illusion of activity or some kind of momentum through the world. Waiting is, after all, an activity, and an exhausting one at that. It can even be exhausting just to watch men waiting, although in the hands of talented actors like the ones on the MTC stage, it’s also entertaining.

Phillips and Bedard make a captivating tragicomic duo. There’s real chemistry between them, and it’s easy to see why, even though they talk constantly of separating, they can never part. In this day and age, you could see how Didi and Gogo might be poster children for same-sex marriage minus the sex (which is what makes it marriage, ba dum bum). They’re partners in the futility, frustrations and occasional fun of life, and we root for them, not necessarily to succeed, which seems a tall order, but at least to rise above the misery and tedium from time to time. There are little details in their performances that are priceless, like Bedard’s penguin-like shuffle and the way Phillips keeps buttoning and unbuttoning a top button on his coat even though there is no button.

When James Carpenter and Ben Johnson arrive as Pozzo, a master, and Lucky, a slave, respectively. The play takes a decidedly darker turn. Both Carpenter and Johnson are in fright makeup. Carpenter looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie (the red hair is a nice touch) and Johnson looks like a member of the Addams Family.

But the show belongs to Phillips and Bedard, two lovably sad guys being human under bleak but not impossible circumstances. I do find myself wondering, though, where their clothes and bowler hats came from, where they shower (if they do) and how they subsist on a diet of turnips, carrots and black radishes. Clearly, they live in a world that still puts a lot of faith in the Bible (there are lots of references), and down the road there’s apparently some sort of fair where Pozzo was going to sell Lucky but ends up blinded (and Lucky is rendered mute). It’s a strange in-between world Beckett has created, a time-bending absurdist purgatory built for entertainment and, if you’re in the frame of mind, enlightenment. The simple but expert design certainly helps (clean, bright lighting by York Kennedy, barren tree and rock landscape by set designer Liliana Duque Pineiro, tattered suits by costumer Maggie Whitaker).

Seeing Godot in 2013, I couldn’t help thinking about a comment a friend made recently: “Don’t worry about me. I’ll have my iPhone with me, and when you have an iPhone, you always have a friend.” Perhaps we should start calling our smart phones and tablets Didi or Gogo. They’re our newest defense against boredom, our electronic shield from the great void of simply existing and a powerful illusion that we’re actually connected to other people and a way to masque the howling of existential angst.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot continues through Feb. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.