There’s no escapin’ the joys of this Scapin


Jud Williford (right) and Bill Irwin make a delightfully dynamic duo in ACT’s Scapin. Below inset, Irwin, and further below, the Scapin ensemble. Photos courtesy of

If you want to see what funny looks like, you should see Bill Irwin in a comedy. In recent years, he’s been fairly serious, what with his stage work in shows like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (a Tony Award-winning turn opposite Kathleen Turner) or The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (opposite Sally Field) and his movie work as a dedicated dishwasher-loading dad in Rachel Getting Married.

But Irwin is a clown in the purest sense. The Bay Area knows him as one of the founders of the Pickle Family Circus, and his alter ego, Willy the Clown, is as beloved as they come.

We’ve seen Irwin on the American Conservatory Theater stage in the last few years, in his luminous Fool Moon project with David Shiner and the conundrum of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, but his return as the title character in Moliere’s Scapin, ACT’s season opener, is reason to cheer.

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As dexterous and expressive a physical comedian as you’ll ever see, Irwin’s genius is that he’s not a show off. He’s a reveler. He revels in his every movement and rubber-faced grimace. He delights in his interactions with the other actors on stage and the smiling faces in his audience. It’s not all about him (though it easily could be) – it’s about the collective experience.

That’s reason enough to see Scapin, which is merrily directed by Irwin himself and features an irreverently updated script by Irwin and Mark O’Donnell (author of the wonderful novel Getting Over Homer and a Tony winner for his work on Hairspray’s book).

Without seeming to try too hard, Irwin does everything with humor. His walk is more like falling down, dancing and melting, all at the same time. His face never stops commenting on everything happening around him, and his verbal timing is just as sharp as it needs to be.

Irwin’s Scapin, a farcical fracas of winsome lovers and greedy fathers, is a free for all with its references to ACT subscribers, Inception, Robert DeNiro and gay marriage. Irwin and O’Donnell have stripped Moliere’s script to its essence, laying bare all the conventions of the farce, from the unbelievable consequences (helpfully pointed out by giant signs) to the requisite chase.

It’s all just so much silliness – brilliantly outfitted in the outrageously rich creations of costumer Beaver Bauer – but Irwin rises to the top of the fray like cream. Ably and comically backed by musicians Randall Craig and Keith Terry (both former Pickles), he elevates the rest of the ensemble, which includes some fine work by Geoff Hoyle (another old Pickle), Gregory Wallace and Steven Anthony Jones.

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But the truly wonderful surprise is Jud Williford as Sylvestre, one of Scapin’s servant peers. Apparently Williford and Irwin bonded several years ago when Williford was an ACT MFA student and Irwin was conducting a master class. Irwin knew then that Williford would be a brilliant second banana in Scapin, and he is.

In fact, he’s almost as good as the top banana. Sylvestre is a juicy role, and Williford makes the most of it. He gets loads of laughs, but he’s also warm and human.

The surprise isn’t that Williford is good. He’s always good – look no further than his recent performance in the title role of Macbeth at the California Shakespeare Theater. No, the surprise is that he’s so vibrant and funny, especially compared to the incomparable Irwin. The two have great chemistry, and it’s nice to see that the king of comedy now has a clown prince.


Moliere’s Scapin continues an extended run through Oct. 23 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$90. Call 415 749-2228 or visit for information.

Theater review: `Romeo and Juliet’

Opened May 30, 2009 at the Bruns Amphitheater

R&J 1

Alex Morf and Sarah Nealis are the star-crossed young lovers in the California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening production of Romeo and Juliet. Photos by Kevin Berne

Youthful passion, ancient hate heat up Cal Shakes’ `R&J’
««« ½

An explosion of color, violence and surprising beauty, the giant splash of graffiti that dominates the cement-heavy set of California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening Romeo and Juliet pretty much says it all.

Designer Neil Patel doesn’t bother with too many scenic flourishes. Two important pieces of furniture – a detailed sculpture of virgin and child and a heavy wooden bed – are on stage at all times, and except for a formal door, the only other opening in the imposing walls is a window platform just perfect for balcony romancing.

The colorful graffiti design, like something that Romeo and his compatriots might wear on a stylish T-shirt, is a youthful burst of energy amid the austerity and dark violence of Verona.

It’s a fitting stage for director Jonathan Moscone’s highly charged, deeply felt production, which opens Cal Shakes’ 35th anniversary season.

The first half of the show, as full of bloody battles as it is heart-melting courtship, is especially riveting. Dave Maier’s fight choreography (which makes great use of violently flung chairs) conveys the tension and drama of the age-old battle between the Capulets and Montagues, while MaryBeth Cavanaugh’s dance choreography – to the pop and dance tunes of Andre Pluess’ sound design – makes the Capulet’s masked ball a fizzy backdrop for Romeo and Juliet to fall in love at first sight.

What makes this production truly connect is Moscone’s choice to make Romeo and Juliet believable teenagers. From the first moments of the show, when we see young Montagues and Capulets with skateboards, iPods and cell phones (in everyday clothes by costumer Raquel M. Barreto), it’s clear that this is a fresh, youthful take on the story. When we meet Romeo (Alex Morf), he’s lovelorn and sappy, sick with love for a girl who has rebuffed him. He lays it on pretty thick, which is why it’s so fun to see his Vespa-driving compatriots Benvolio (Thomas Azar) and Mercutio (Jud Williford) having so much fun at his expense.

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Our first glimpse of Juliet (Sarah Nealis) has her staring out the window (awash in the pink light of Russell H. Champa’s expert design), lost in her iPod.

The two meet and fall in love as teenagers. From the famous balcony scene – as giddily romantic and as deadly serious as I’ve seen – up to the tragic chaos that ends their lives, these young people mature before our eyes, especially Juliet, whose resolve and emotional depth are beautifully conveyed by Nealis.

Catherine Castellanos as Juliet’s nurse nearly steals the show. From her fond, gushing remembrance of nursing Juliet as a baby to her soul-deep aching for her young mistress’ troubles, this nurse is as funny as she is moving. Wiliford’s fiery Mercutio leaves an equally strong impression. He and Castellanos have a memorable interaction, with Mercutio relentlessly teasing the nurse (he even bids adieu to her with a serenade of Styx’s “Lady”), but his best work is alongside his comrades.

The second half of the play, with all its weeping and wailing, can’t match the highs of the first half, obviously. Dan Hiatt is terrific as the helpful Friar Lawrence, and the adult Capulets (James Carpenter and Julie Eccles) and Montagues (L. Peter Callender and Castellanos again) all have powerful moments, but the final tragedy, amid the flickering torchlight of the Capulet tomb, didn’t land as solidly (at least not on a chilly opening night) as the rest of the play.

Still, there are indelible images from this production: the flutter of rose petals through a window, the prodigious puddles of blood under slain Mercutio and Tybalt (Craig Marker) and the sweet, sweet flush of first love between teenagers, whose bond has the power to change the world.


California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet continues through June 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24). Tickets are $20-$63. Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information. There’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and the Orinda BART station.

Cal Shakes maintains quite an interesting blog, taking readers behind the scenes of its productions. Check it out here.

Theater review: `War Music’

Opened April 1 at American Conservatory Theater

War Music 3

Soldiers rock out with their “guns” out in American Conservatory Theater’s War Music, a world premiere adaptation written and directed Lillian Groag. Photos by Kevin Berne.


Not much music, not much war in ACT’s academic `War Music’

American Conservatory Theater’s world-premiere War Music is a lot like a college course on the Greeks – it’s long and confusing, but unlike those dry academic lectures, at least this one has a better-than-average audio-visual presentation.

Adapted from Christopher Logue’s book of the same name based on Homer’s Iliad, War Music is the work of writer-director Lillian Groag, who has toiled admirably at both Berkeley Repertory Theatre and California Shakespeare Theater and previously at ACT. Having seen and enjoyed Groag’s work for years—especially her fine musical sensibility and her great sense of humor — perhaps I expected too much in the way of dynamic stage pictures set to bold, affecting original music by John Glover and exciting choreography by Daniel Pelzig.

The show on stage at ACT seems like a missed opportunity in many ways. The theatrical pulse of the show – the music, the movement, the images – is buried under a whole heap of words, words and more words that only occasionally spark to life.

Daniel Ostling’s simple, distinguished set – steps on both sides of a stage dominated by a moonlike orb in the back wall – is beautiful. Basic and classical, the steps and the circle provide just enough background, and when the circle moves to become a window onto the walled city of Troy or a crescent moon, the effect is powerful. Russell H. Champa’s lights cast some fantastic shadows on that giant back wall.

But we want this to be so much more than a shadow play.

The story is narrated within an inch of its life. The narrators – Anthony Fusco, Andy Murray and Charles Dean – do a fine job, but being talked at, especially in a nearly three-hour show, is disheartening. The narration, though, is absolutely necessary to keep track of who’s who and what’s what, though that’s a losing battle as well.

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We’re in the home stretch of the 10-year Trojan war. Something about Achilles (Jud Williford, at right) fighting with Agamemnon (Lee Ernst); something about the goddess Thetis (Rene Augesen, also at right); something about Zeus (Jack Willis) in a boxing robe and the other gods (especially Sharon Lockwood as Hera) behaving like they’re in a ’70s sitcom; something about Paris (Williford again) fighting Menelaus (Nicholas Pelczar) once and for all over Helen (Augesen again). Intermission.

Act 2 is somewhat livelier, and there’s even a piece of memorable Glover music underscoring a scene between Paris and Helen. Director Groag goes wild for one brief scene of warfare set to blaring rock music with bare light bulbs dangling above the warring soldiers (outfitted as they are through most of the evening in Beaver Bauer’s modern-day fatigues). Though this scene seems to be visiting from another show, this is the one I wanted to see. There’s also a scene with a ventriloquist’s dummy that, though amusing, is so perplexing as to seem pointless.

Too often, War Music feels static, and the musical score, rather than seeming original, comes across as cobbled together from other sources. The costumes are basic – the gold masks for the gods are effective – and the staging is too often as static as the text.

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If you don’t know your Scamander from your Pandar or your Thersites from your Idomeneo, you’ll likely have trouble following the story. Even with the narration and the four genealogy charts and guide to the players in the program, scenes are confusing, and all the multiple role playing is ultimately defeating. The Greeks wear red berets and the Trojans wear blue. Beyond that, anything goes.

The only time the play slows down and reverts to a scale of real human emotion is in Act 2 when Achilles and his beloved Patroclus (Christopher Tocco) face war, loss and grief unbounded.

Otherwise, we’re spending a lot of time and stage energy tell an oft-told tale that comes down to a simple message: mankind goes to war over the silliest things. Death, destruction and mayhem are part of the mortal condition, and it will ever be thus.

Groag seems to want to tell this story in a modern way, much the way Mary Zimmerman did in Argonautika, but Zimmerman is a masterful storyteller, and every piece of her production serves the story. Groag’s War Music trips over its story repeatedly and never settles into a satisfying style.

In the photo above, Jack Willis is Zeus, Anthony Fusco is Poseidon and Erin Michelle Washington shields them from the elements in ACT’s War Music.


ACT’s War Music continues through April 26 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit for information.

Review: “Rock ‘n’ Roll”

Opened Sept. 17, 2008

Rene Augesen is Esme and Manoel Felciano is Jan in a scene set at Prague’s John Lennon wall in the American Conservatory Theater production of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard. Photos by Kevin Berne


ACT gives Stoppard’s heavy `Rock’ a mighty roll

Rock ‘n’ Roll has a beat – a heartbeat.

Tom Stoppard’s play, the season –opener for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, bears all the playwright’s hallmarks: weighty intellect, deep sense of history, dry wit, thick dramaturgy. But all of that is less important here than the powerful emotions coursing through the characters’ complicated lives – the emotions and the words.

This is Stoppard’s most autobiographical play. Like his protagonist, Jan, Stoppard is Czechoslovakian by birth and spent an important chunk of his childhood in England. This duality gives Stoppard, and Jan, a dual perspective, not to mention another language, through which to view the crumbling of Communism.

Perhaps Stoppard’s intimate relationship with the history involved here combined with his passion for rock music help the play wage a battle between the heart and the intellect that lets the heart ultimately rule.

Director Carey Perloff, who usually does her best work with Stoppard, doesn’t disappoint. Her production has focus and momentum, and her cast navigates well the tricky balance between the ideology and the humanity.

This is a play that dramatizes Czech politics, from “Prague Spring” in 1968 to the post-Communist world of perestroika in the late ’80s. Unless you’re a historian, you likely don’t know a whole lot about this place or this period beyond what you remember from watching (or reading) “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

And while Stoppard requires his audience to be on its collective toes and pay close attention, the genius of the play is that underneath all the heated discussions about this regime, that petition, these arrests or the pros and cons of socialism, Stoppard allows life and emotions to propel the play.

This notion is embodied in – what else? – rock ‘n’ roll music. Jan (Manoel Felciano) is a rock devotee. When the Czech police want to destroy his spirit they know exactly what to smash: his LP collection full of the Doors, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett (a central, ethereal figure in the play).

Jake Rodriguez’s sound design is like a character in the play – the music is passion, connection and, in its way, revolution. The Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe (who are, coincidentally, playing Slim’s on Oct. 9) figure prominently in the play as comrades of Jan’s whom he admires musically and politically – he even ends up in jail with them after one of their subversive events (a wedding if I heard correctly).

A Rolling Stones concert becomes a testament to a changed world, and Barrett’s “Golden Hair” (itself based on a James Joyce poem) becomes a family’s musical touchstone.

Felciano (above right with Anthony Fusco as a Czech interrogator) as Jan carries much of the play’s emotional weight and does so beautifully. He ages more than 20 years in a believable, low-key way that takes him from the optimism of youth powered by a mighty mind to the realities of a police state and prison to a more subdued middle age where people matter more than politics.

ACT core company member Rene Augesen has one unforgettable scene in Act 1 as Eleanor, a cancer-ridden Cambridge professor giving Sappho tutorials on her back porch. Decimated by not defeated by her illness delivers a ferocious diatribe against words over meaning. She has just watched her student (Delia MacDougall as Lenka) flirt shamelessly with her Communist husband, Max (Jack Willis), during the lesson.

The word at issue is “mind.” Her husband has highbrow definitions of what the mind is – he says it’s a machine that could be made of beer cans — and she’ll have none of it: “Don’t you dare reclaim that word now,” she says. “I don’t want your `mind’ which you can make out of beer cans. Don’t bring it to my funeral. I want your grieving soul or nothing. I do not want your amazing biological machine – I want what you love me with.”

Augesen is extraordinary – not relying on any of the usual tricks we’ve come to see in her work over the years (those come in Act 2 when she plays Eleanor’s daughter, Esme) – she’s so real and vital and frail you almost feel the need to comfort her.

Words and truth are important and elusive in Rock ‘n’ Roll. How can so many words, so many shifting words, ever arrive at the truth?

Discussing words, Jan tells Max: “A thousand years of knowing who you are gives a people confidence in its judgment. Words mean what they have always meant. With us, words change meaning to make the theory fit the practice.”

The fascinating, compelling blend of words and music – intellect and spirit – fuels the play and makes it stand apart from Stoppard’s oeuvre. It’s a lifetime of experience in a complex, heartbreaking, spirit-crushing world that comes to no easy answer beyond giving yourself over to music you love.

That this trajectory comes through so clearly is a testament to the play itself and to Perloff’s handsome production. Douglas W. Schmidt’s set inspires a feeling of vertigo. Inspired by a photograph by Agata Jablonska, the set conveys a sense of standing amid dense buildings and looking up to the sky – oppression and release.

Aside from some accent issues (they come, they go), the cast is strong. Willis has fire but seems miscast as Max, the Cambridge professor for whom arguing is like breathing. But that’s the only major misstep, and strong supporting turns come from Jud Williford as Jan’s compatriot, Ferdinand, and Summer Serafin as Alice, an ‘80s teen with a restless mind and a big heart.

At nearly three hours, Rock ‘n’ Roll is overwhelming in the best sense. We’re pulled into a world – our world – and made to care. More importantly we’re made to listen. And think. And care.


Rock ‘n’ Roll continues an extended run through Oct. 18 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

ACT casts `Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ partners up for `Phedre’

Manoel Felciano, a San Francisco native who used to work at Recycled Records on Haight Street, plays Jan, the central character in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, an ACT production. Photo by Ashley Forrette Photography

With all this buzz about, there must be a new theater season about to start.

First up is news from American Conservatory Theater. Casting is complete for its season-opener, the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning Rock ‘n’ Roll, which begins performances Sept. 11 and continues through Oct. 12.

Artistic director Carey Perloff, something of a Stoppard expert, is directing a cast that includes San Francisco native Manoel Felciano (Toby in the recent revival of Sweeney Todd on Broadway) makes his Bay Area professional debut as Jan, the rock ‘n’ roll-obsessed Czech graduate student at the center of the play. The cast also includes ACT company members Rene Augesen, Anthony Fusco, Jud Williford and Jack Willis. The cast is rounded out by James Carpenter, Delia MacDougall, Marcia Pizzo, Summer Serafin and ACT MFA third-year students Nicholas Pelczar and Natalie Hegg.

Previews begin Sept. 11 and opening night is Sept. 17. Tickets are $17-$62 for previews, $20-$73 for regular performances. Call 415-749-2228or visit for information.

In other ACT news, the company will partner for the first time with Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Perloff will direct Racine’s Phèdre in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker, who previously provided scripts for Perloff’s Hecuba and Antigone.

The production, which will bow in the 2009-10 season, will star 17-year Stratford veteran Seana McKenna in the title role.

“We are thrilled to be producing Racine for the first time in ACT’s history,” Perloff said in a statement. “Timberlake’s extraordinary and fresh translation pays homage to the gorgeous poetry of the original while sustaining this play’s explosive heat and visceral sexuality. I have admired Stratford’s work for many years an am excited to work at the theater, where Heather Kitchen, my partner at ACT, started her career.”




Review: `Curse of the Starving Class’

Opened April 30 at American Conservatory Theater

Pamela Reed (left) as Ella, chucks artichokes out of the fridge across a prone Jack Willis as Weston and toward Jud Williford as her son, Wesley in ACT’s Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard. Photos by Kevin Berne


Shepard’s revised `Curse’ still packs punch
Three stars Let it bleat

Lambs, it turns out, are stage hogs.

There’s an adorable little lamb in the American Conservatory Theater production of Sam Shepard’s 1977 drama Curse of the Starving Class, and nearly every bleat emanating from the lamb pen got a laugh – or at least a chuckle.

That probably wasn’t Shepard’s aim, but he wanted naturalism, so he gets naturalism. When members of the Tate family want breakfast, they walk over to the functioning gas stove and fry up bacon and bread. Later on there’s some ham and eggs in a skillet. The title may include the word “starving,” but the Tates eat fairly well. Still, that’s not to say they’re not hungry for something. “We’re hungry, and that’s starving enough for me,” Mrs. Tate says.

Shepard has tinkered with his original ’77 script, most significantly turning it from a three-act to a two-act play, but what still registers is his view of the great American family and its ultimate dysfunction. The American dream is too big, too elusive. We kill ourselves and our families trying to achieve that dream, whatever it might be, and still we pursue it doggedly.

Weston Tate (Jack Willis) is a veteran – an air man – whose post-war life is a shambles. He’s drunk most of the time and ignores his wife, Ella (Pamela Reed) and his two kids, 20something Wesley (Jud Williford) and budding teen Emma (Nicole Lowrance). The wife and kids fend for themselves on a ramshackle desert ranch (beautiful, hyper-realistic set, complete with barbed wire, tumbleweeds and scrap-yard metal by Loy Arcenas) hoping against hope that dad will somehow straighten out and fill their empty refrigerator with food.

That refrigerator is practically a character in the play. Mom delivers a monologue to it and keeps peeking in, just in case the fridge, unlike life, has a surprise for her. The kids open the door to see if there’s any food. Groceries do occasionally arrive – mom has an assignation with a lawyer (Dan Hiatt) and gets some cash and groceries out of it. And then dad, on a bender, fills the fridge with artichokes.

Those artichokes later become projectile produce when mom – not pleased by the strange vegetables – hurls them across the room.

Many things are destroyed over the course of the play’s 2 ½ hours: a door, 4-H charts, a lamb, a car and, of course, dreams and lives. This is brutal stuff. As Weston says: “Family isn’t just a social thing. It’s an animal thing.”

Director Peter DuBois struggles with pacing in the first act. The natural rhythms are elusive, and it’s difficult to see where anything is heading (plus, what do you do after you have someone pee onstage?). But all the set-up has some nice payoff in Act 2. There’s blood, mayhem, nudity, napping, rebirth, death and a possible trip to Europe.

Reed (above left with Lowrance), who was so good as the wronged wife in ACT’s The Goat, returns to play another matriarch, this one much less likable, though Reed makes her awfully funny (and horrifying) and appealing (and awful). The really interesting thing is that in the original New York production of Curse, Reed played the angry daughter, and now, in this revised version, she’s playing the mother (a role originally played by Olympia Dukakis, another member of ACT’s extended family).

Reed’s Ella feels the most lived in of all the characters, though Willis seems to be having fun with the wastrel Weston. Williford (the one responsible for the nudity) is pouty and damaged as the son who has seen his “old man’s poison,” and Lowrance is a spitfire as the daughter who never met a screaming, angry fit she didn’t want to express to the utmost. Her tantrum and tirades are the highlights of Act 1.

As the economic downturn of the Tate family hits its spiral, Shepard quickly introduces some shady but entertaining figures (played by Rod Gnapp, T. Edward Webster and Howard Swain) before he turns Curse into a fully explosive tragedy with nothing good to say about the family unit.

Shepard seems to be saying that this is what happens to people who aren’t poor and who aren’t rich. They’re stuck in the middle with no hope, no prospects, no great love and a never-ending hunger that leads to terrible things. The playwright may have tinkered with the play, but he sure didn’t add a happy ending.

Curse of the Starving Class continues through May 25 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit for information.


Review: `The Government Inspector’

Opened March 26, 2008 at American Conservatory Theater

The town’s mayor (Graham Beckel, seated) succumbs to a sneezing fit while accepting the congratulations of the town council (from left: Delia MacDougall, Andrew Hurteau, Dan Hiatt, and Rod Gnapp) on the engagement of his daughter to Khlestakov.
Photos by Kevin Berne

Fantastic cast makes Gogol’s Government worth inspecting

Let me just say that I did not really enjoy American Conservatory Theater’s production of The Government Inspector, a Nikolai Gogol farce in a 2005 adaptation by Alistair Beaton.

The play itself does not have the farcical flair of Feydeau, nor does it have the satiric bite or vivacity of Moliere. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, this desperately unfunny play is long and in need of heavy-duty editing.

But I will say that where director Carey Perloff’s production stumbles in its attempts at exaggerated slapstick buffoonery, it excels in personality.

The ACT stage is virtually crammed with local talent, and these great actors all find ways to rise above the clunkiness of the play, which is about a remote Russian town filled with the usual pettiness and corruption. When word goes out that a government inspector has arrived, everyone panics, fearing their corruptness and pettiness will be discovered. No one, not even Russian peasants, it seems, wants the jig to be up.

Assuming that a gentleman at the inn — who is unable to pay his bill — is the inspector, everyone goes straight into ass-kissing mode, even though the broke man is really just a broke, wanna-be aristocrat trapped in a dingy inn with an unpaid bill, no food and his man servant.

That’s really about it for plot — mistaken identity, pettiness and corruption stretched into nearly three hours of so-called comedy that feels forced most of the time.

Here’s what I enjoyed in the play:

Amanda Sykes (above left) as the mayor’s daughter and Sharon Lockwood (above right) as the mayor’s wife. The two women are nasty and catty with each other and practically knock each other over to win the attention of the so-called inspector. Like so much of the production, the actors push too hard, but Sykes and Lockwood are a good team, and they have some great moments.

Another dynamic duo is Gregory Wallace (above left), who plays the man mistaken for the inspector, and Jud Williford (above right), the man servant who seems to be the only reasonably sane person in the play. Wallace is at his very best — desperate, snooty and more funny than annoying, which is no small feat in a production this manic.

The production itself is visually interesting, though the dreariness of the play works against it. Erik Flatmo’s set — barely standing facades, peeling wallpaper, general mayhem amid snow flurries — features a central performing platform that raises and lowers at center stage, and a great deal of over-crowded action takes place in this small space. The ever-reliable Beaver Bauer contributes costumes reminiscent of Russian toys, all whirling and nesting and full of rich textures and cartoonish poverty.

At a certain point in the show, watching such local laugh masters as Dan Hiatt (as the magistrate), Delia MacDougall (as the director of education), Anthony Fusco (as the drunk postmaster) and Joan Mankin and Geoff Hoyle (as the ginger-haired duo Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky respectively), I couldn’t help wishing they’d stop doing the Gogol and start doing something that would let them unleash their comic genius.

The Government Inspector continues through April 20 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Review: `The Triumph of Love’

Opened Aug. 11, 2007, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda

More love, less triumph in Cal Shakes-San Jose Rep co-production
two [1/2] stars Romance trumps comedy

In the theater, there’s nothing worse than feeling on the outside of a joke. Members of the audience chortle happily while you sit there stony faced and cranky wondering why the onstage antics delight some but only serve to annoy you.

Such was my fate at The Triumph of Love, a co-production of California Shakespeare Theater and San Jose Repertory Theatre that opened Saturday night (so far this so-called summer, Cal Shakes is three for three with bone-chilling opening-night weather).

Having seen and loved Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love when Stephen Wadsworth adapted and directed it in 1993 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I was looking forward to revisiting the play. TheatreWorks produced the musical version, which drops the “the” from the title (rather than add an exclamation point, one supposes), in 2001, but it seemed like a different play entirely.

Director Lillian Groag’s new adaptation (working from a translation by Frederick Kluck) attempts to temper the sharp-edged romance of the story with the spirit of Italian commedia dell’arte that inspired Marivaux. I’m all for the romance — especially when it gets thorny and dark — but the commedia stuff left me (literally) in the cold.

Most of the comedic duties fall to Danny Scheie as Arlechino and Ron Campbell as Dimas, a gardener. Scheie is like an Italianate Tigger — he’s bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun. Except he’s not all that fun. He jettes across the stage with zest, but his seemingly mentally challenged character is nothing more than silliness in a hat.

Campbell’s gardener is a riff on Larry the Cable Guy — so much so I expected him to interject a “Git-R-Done!” here and there. At one point, Scheie and Campbell are involved in a lengthy pantomime, and though I watched attentively, I had absolutely no idea what they were doing. None at all.

I was much more interested in the love quartet at the story’s center.

Stacy Ross is Princess Leonide, whose goal it is to get the handsome young Prince Agis (Jud Williford) to fall in love with her. The match will mend old family feuds and restore the prince to his rightful throne.

But to win the prince’s affections, Leonide must disguise herself as a man and infiltrate his sequestered court. With the help of her lady in waiting (Catherine Castellanos, a marvelous actor, squandered in an Ethel Mertz role), Leonide gains access to the home of Hermocrates (Dan Hiatt), a great philosopher and teacher/guardian to the prince.

The challenge will be to get Hermocrates and his sister, Leontine (Domenique Lozano), to allow her (aka him) to stay long enough for her to woo Agis. Turns out Leonide is quite adept at slinging the ol’ BS, especially in the ways of love.

She convinces Leontine, a somewhat hardened soul, that “he” is in love with her. Leontine melts under the handsome young “man’s” attentions. Hermocrates is a little harder to crack. He sees right through the princess’ male disguise, so Leonide convinces the old philosopher that she donned the costume to win his affections.

In her spare time, when she’s not deluding the older folks, the princess lures the prince’s affection, first as a friend (and fellow dude) then as a woman.

As Leonide throws her love around like promises at a presidential debate, Kate Edmunds’ set (which features shag-carpeted shrubs at one side and an unattractive rear wall that’s meant to indicate the harsh, ugly world outside Hermocrates’ gates) begins sprouting red flowers. The same is true for Raquel Barreto’s gorgeous period costumes — the more in love the characters become, the more red flourishes appear on their costumes.

With all the red, I wondered if this was a comedy or an effort to fight AIDS in Africa.

Director Groag has a hard time blending elements here, and the actors, especially during the so-called comic bits, struggle to make sense of it all. A sense of spontaneity is overwhelmed by work that feels tightly programmed and full of effort. Perhaps this will soften by the time the production moves to San Jose next month.

What works here — amid the cartoon sound effects and the totally uncharming cupid peeing fountain — is Ross’ central performance. She carries the production on her able back and receives stalwart support from Williford, Hiatt and Lozano, all of whom come alive — in comic and dramatic ways — in their scenes with Ross.

There’s some serious exploration of love here, and the “happy ending” is actually fairly sad, which is mightily interesting. It’s just too bad that so much of this Triumph is so mightily silly.

For information about The Triumph of Love visit

Williford aims to triumph in `Love’

Talk to enough actors and you’ll begin to see a trend emerge.

Most of them had a transformative experience as children acting in one particular show. Any guesses?

If you said The Wizard of Oz, you get a gold star _ or maybe a yellow-brick star.

Jud Williford, one of the Bay Area’s best and brightest emerging stars, played the Tin Man in what he calls “the greatest production of `Oz’ ever.”

“My mom made my costume,” he adds.

Count yourself unlucky if you missed little Judson Van Williford in that eighth-grade production, but despair not.

Young Jud survived a childhood bouncing from Louisiana to Colorado to Texas to become an actor of tremendous range and appeal. He arrived in the Bay Area about six years ago after graduating with an acting degree from the University of Evansville in Illinois, and spent three years getting his master’s degree from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

He has done standout work with California Shakespeare Theater in, among other shows, Nicholas Nickleby, with ACT in a number of productions, most recently “The Imaginary Invalid,” and with smaller groups like Encore Theatre and Z Plays’ American $uicide (pictured above, Williford is with Beth Wilmurt).

This weekend he opens in another California Shakes production, The Triumph of Love, a Marivaux romantic comedy in which he plays a prince falling deeply in love for the first time.

Earlier this year, ACT announced that Williford would be joining the core company for the new season, bringing him full circle — from student to professional on the same stage.

“It’s pretty neat to give back to a program that basically birthed you,” Williford says during a break in Triumph rehearsals.

In high school, Williford played basketball (his main position, he says, was “bench”) and a little football. But he made the choice to go for theater.

“We had this crazy head of the drama department, Mr. Larsen, and he loved theater. He yelled and threw stuff. It was great,” Williford recalls. “You’d be in two or three shows a year and spend seven weeks rehearsing and then perform for a weekend. He made us take it seriously — not just as a hobby or something to kill time, but something that was a viable option for existence. My GPA in high school was horrible. The only place I could focus was when I was being creative.”

Among his Bay Area acting highlights since his professional debut in ACT’s A Christmas Carol — which he will perform for a fifth time in December, but “that’s a whole other story,” he says — Williford cites the massive two-part Nickleby production at Cal Shakes two summers ago.

“To be a part of telling that story and to be part of something that was so truly an ensemble piece — it was a real pinnacle,” Williford says. “I’m doing Triumph of Love with people mostly from `Nickleby,’ and we spend most of our time talking about that.”

While working on a production of The Imaginary Invalid in Philadelphia (not to be confused with the more recent ACT “Invalid” in which he played the same role), Williford read The Triumph of Love for the first time, and his response to Price Aegis, the role he would be playing, was: “Oh my gosh, this is going to be a cakewalk.”

Then he got to the first read-through with director Lillian Groag, who has also newly adapted the Marivaux play. Williford’s perspective shifted.

“I realized the play was a whole lot deeper than it appears on the surface,” he says. “I thought: `This is the one — everyone will figure out I’m a fraud and demand their money back from previous productions.’ ”

Aegis is an isolated prince who has been told love is bad. He meets a young woman (pictured above, played by Stacy Ross, with Williford in the rear), who happens to be disguised as a boy, and Aegis, a true innocent, is thrilled to have found a best friend forever. Then he finds out she’s a woman and experiences something entirely different: true love.

“It’s all about experiencing love without knowing what love is,” he says. “As soon as love is turned on, so is all the bad s*** like jealousy and anger. You grow up real quick when you fall in love. Everything becomes extreme _ the highs are really high and the lows are really low. I love how hard this is.”

A co-production with San Jose Repertory Theatre, this Cal Shakes show heads to the South Bay in September. After Williford resumes Christmas Carol duties (he plays Bob Cratchit), his stint as an ACT company member kicks into high gear with roles in The Government Inspector, Curse of the Starving Class and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

Now that he’s a full-fledged, active member of the Bay Area acting community, Williford says he couldn’t be happier with the company he keeps.

“I have yet to do a show where I don’t know somebody involved,” he says. “It’s a tight-knit community, and I like that. I also like audiences that like their actors and have a history with them and an opinion about them. There are a lot of good actors here, more than other places. What am I basing that off of? It’s just what I think.”

The Triumph of Love continues through Sept. 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater, Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit off Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel, Orinda. Tickets are $15 to $60. Call (510) 548-9666 or visit

Review: “American $uicide”

(opened Feb. 12, 2007)
Jackson, actors commit American $uicide at Thick House
three stars Zesty satire

If “American Idol” ended each episode with a bullet instead of wild applause, some of us might stop watching. And some of us might start.

We love our reality TV in this country, and, truth be told, we love our violence. So far, the two haven’t collided much (discounting “Fear Factor” if only because “Fear Factor” should always be discounted).

That’s where director/writer Mark Jackson comes in. He’s still on a hot streak that began last fall with his Salome at the Aurora Theatre Company and continued through The Forest War with Shotgun Players.

With American $uicide, now at the Thick House in San Francisco, Jackson gives us something completely different: an ultra-contemporary twist on a banned Russian play.

While researching his brilliant The Death of Meyerhold, Jackson came across Nikolai Erdman, a writer whose second play was the biting comedy The Suicide. Finished in 1928, the play was a hot property, with multiple theater companies competing to produce it. But the Soviet government banned it for its supposed anti-government content. Stalin himself called the play “empty and even harmful.” Erdman was reportedly exiled to Siberia several years later and never wrote another play.

With the support of Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays, Jackson picks up where Erdman left off and gives us a wickedly funny, wonderfully warped mish-mash of human desperation, celebrity lust and good old American zeal.

As a writer, Jackson sets his action in the present day, but he’s clearly working in a 1930s stage comedy style with rapid-fire, exaggerated delivery and over-the-top characters. As a director, he takes that style to the next logical step: ’40s-style screwball comedy complete with pratfalls, broken dishes and zany costumes (by Raquel Barreto).

At the center of the story is a sincere sad sack named Sam Small (the incredibly funny Jud Williford, pictured above). He’s unemployed and ashamed that he has to rely on his waitress wife’s “greasy tips” and stolen sausages to survive.

His hardworking wife, Mary (Beth Wilmurt, a comedienne of the highest order), wants to help her husband out of his depression, so when he finally admits his secret desire to be an actor, she does her darndest to be a good cheerleader.

With the help of his across-the-hall neighbor, Albert (Marty Pistone), and his girlfriend Margaret (Denise Balthrop Cassidy), who make money on eBay and with their very own porn site, Sam makes his tentative way into show business.

This is when the personalities start to leap off the stage. We get a desperate, overly tan film director (Michael Patrick Gaffney) and a 22-year-old starlet (Jody Flader) _ the next big thing who’s also making a comeback. But best of all, we get Gigi Bolt, a former director at the National Endowment for the Arts and the current executive director of the Theatre Communications Group.

Bolt is a real person, but her presence here — in the divine form of Delia MacDougall, left, at her most Carol Burnett-ish — is sort of an inside joke. What’s funny for anyone who knows Bolt or not is the character’s grand dame theatricality. “Life is projected, transmitted and downloaded but no longer LIVED!” she intones.

Once Sam meets all these characters, he gets bamboozled into an outrageous scheme that has him committing suicide on live TV, with viewers bidding astounding sums to have him die in their name or in the name of their cause.

Sam agrees to do this because it will ensure his wife won’t have to work anymore. Gigi wants him to die in the name of American theater. The starlet wants him to die out of love for her in the hope that the attention might revive her career. And so on.

Going into intermission, which occurs just after MacDougall’s big scene, I was thinking “American $uicide” was just about the funniest thing I’d seen since Hunter Gatherers last summer.

But Act 2 disappoints if only because the build-up to the actual suicide — which takes place in a high N-R-G dance club (sturdy, flexible set by James Faerron) — results in an almost inevitable anti-climax. By this point we have Middle Eastern operatives and government baddies in the mix (all ably played by Liam Vincent), but Jackson’s sharpness dulls.

The play is so frenzied and fun that I wanted all the darker currents to amount to more. I had hoped that while we were having a great time watching the show, Jackson’s satirical saber was slicing into us more than we realized.

That doesn’t quite happen, but American $uicide, in all its grandly theatrical glory, remains a comedy to die for.

For information about American $uicide, visit