Welcome return to Pemberley with Georgiana and Kitty

GNK_103
The cast of the world-premiere Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley includes (from left) Lauren Spencer as Georgiana Darcy, Aidaa Peerzada as Emily Grey, Emilie Whelan as Kitty Bennet, Zahan F. Mehta as Henry Grey, Adam Magill as Thomas O’Brien, Alicia M. P. Nelson as Margaret O’Brien and Madeline Rouverol as Sarah Darcy. Below: Mehta and Spencer find holiday romance in the Marin Theatre Company production. Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt, Scenic Design by Nina Ball, Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao. Photos by Kevin Berne courtesy of Marin Theatre Company


Jane Austen has undoubtedly been visiting with her celestial publisher to check on the status of her earthly estate. Over the years, she has seen her cultural clout grow and grow, with movies, novel sequels, themed weekends and generation after generation of new Austen fans clamoring for more. Among the most interesting of the offerings related to the much-loved 19th-century novelist created in the more than 200 years since her death are the Christmas at Pemberley plays by San Francisco playwrights Lauren M. Gunderson and Margot Melcon.

Locally, we saw the post-Pride and Prejudice Christmas at Pemberley series begin in 2016 at Marin Theatre Company with Miss Bennett (read my review marintheatre.org) and continue in 2018 with The Wickhams (a sort of below-stairs/Downton Abbey take). Now, what has become a trilogy, concludes with Georgiana and Kitty. The genius of the trilogy is that it essentially covers one Christmas holiday but doesn’t actually require you to have seen the other installments (or read Austen, for that matter) – but your enjoyment and appreciation will be enhanced if you have.

This third chapter is the most audacious of them all if only because it takes the greatest liberties with Austen by imagining what the five Bennett sisters, their husbands and children will be doing 20 years after this initial holiday gathering. Not to give anything away, but the future for these characters involves bold moves for womankind, enduing female friendship and consistent breaking of women’s societal restraints – all within a warm holiday glow and amid boisterous (sometimes contentious) familial affection.

We didn’t actually get to meet Kitty Bennett in either of the other two plays, so it’s lovely to see the youngest Bennett finally get her moment in the spotlight along with her BFF, Georgiana Darcy, sister of Fitzwilliam Darcy, husband of Kitty’s sister Lizzy.

GNK_187

There’s great excitement in the house because of – what else? – boys. Georgiana (Lauren Spencer) has been corresponding with Henry Grey (Zahan F. Mehta), a potential beau, for almost a year, and she has impulsively invited him to visit Pemberley at Christmas. He arrives, smitten and tongue-tied, in the company of his friend Thomas O’Brien (Adam Magill), who immediately sparks with the vibrant Kitty (Emilie Whelan). But this double romance quickly skids to a halt when Henry fails to pass muster with Georgiana’s domineering brother, Darcy (Daniel Duque-Estrada), whose self-imposed duty to protect his sister makes him overbearing and obnoxious.

The great thing about all the Pemberley plays is how they play with formula – calculated through both Austen and holiday romance equations – and still come up with something that is highly enjoyable, smart and full of real charm and warmth. Gunderson and Melcon honor Austen and write characters who defy expectations of the 19th, 20th and 21st century varieties. The holiday aspect wouldn’t be out of place in a Hallmark movie, but there’s an intelligence and spirit at work here that far exceeds all the usual, sappy trappings.

Performances are bright and focused in director Meredith McDonough (who also helmed Miss Bennett five years ago), and if some of the characters seem to be extra set dressing (on Nina Ball’s stately estate set), that is rectified when the action shifts ahead two decades and we meet a vivacious new generation of Darcys, O’Briens and Greys.

Austen would no doubt love to see the triumph of some her women characters as envisioned by Gunderson and Melcon, whether it’s the successful balancing of family and work life by one or the artistic success of another as she makes great inroads in a world wholly dominated by men. She may also love that even in the future, Mr. Darcy is a well-meaning ass who would do well to listen to his wife, who is seldom, if ever, wrong.

It’s a little bit sad that Kitty and Georgiana is the final chapter in the Christmas at Pemberley trilogy, but here’s hoping that Gunderson and Melcon continue to make such savvy, satisfying theater.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley continues through Dec. 19 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $25-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

Brilliant Mind artfully blends live, digital, interactive

Brilliant Mind 1
Denmo Ibrahim as Dina and Ramiz Monsef as Yusef in Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht’s live and interactive premiere of Brilliant Mind by Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Dina and Yusef deal with the aftermath of their father’s death.


Samir El Musri texted me more than two dozen times the other night while I was watching an online play. Rather than tell Samir to stop bothering me while I was otherwise engaged, I eagerly awaited each short message or photograph.

Samir, you see, is not a real person. He’s a character in Denmo Ibrahim’s world-premiere show Brilliant Mind, a presentation from Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht that revels in the digital realm rather than treats it like a stopgap until theaters reopen.

Before the 80-minute show begins, we’re invited to explore a virtual 3-D replica of Samir’s apartment in which there are a number of items that will trigger additional information. We’re also invited to allow Samir to text us and to put his name in our address book so the texts actually come from Samir (and heightens the reality of the experience).

Unlike many digital plays, Brilliant Mind begins at a proscribed time because, as it turns out, there’s a live aspect in addition to the interactivity, and that live aspect involves Samir himself (as played by Kal Naga aka Khaled Abol Naga, who has died this very day and exists in a sort of limbo while he observes his grown children, Yusef (Ramiz Monsef) and Dina (Ibrahim) sort through what he has left behind – physically, culturally, emotionally.

Dramatically speaking, this live aspect combined with previously filmed segments involving Ysef and Dina, could be gimmicky at best and technologically glitchy at worst. Happily, Ibrahim, working with director Kate Bergstrom and digital/interactive designer Marti Wigder Grimminck, folds this idea meaningfully into the narrative, making Samir an observer – as we are – of the unfolding action and giving him a touch of magic realism in that he is able to use his phone to text us (his fellow observers) and make his presence felt in the world his children occupy.

Brilliant Mind 2

Yet another interactive component allows viewers to choose the play’s path at certain moments, which frankly made me a little anxious because of I have FOMO and am always certain I choose the less interesting option (and if you don’t choose rather quickly, the system chooses for you, so there’s that).

All the technology aside, the story of Brilliant Mind is intriguing in its own right as it explores the lives of Yusef and Dina, first-generation Arab-Americans, and how their lives have been (are being) affected by the lives of their immigrant parents and how a family forms its identity through cultural roots, geography, secrets and the politics of history (and the history of politics).

Ibrahim has long been a Bay Area actor of note, someone to rely on for depth, intelligence and emotional realism on stage. She and Monsef are marvelous together as their scenes crackle with the fraught chemistry of siblings who want to do better by one another but mostly fail to rise to that challenge. This period following their father’s death is sort of an emotional crucible, which is, of course, an excellent time to check with them from a dramatic point of view.

The richness of the characters and the bells and whistles of the presentation can’t conceal certain lags in the script (which would probably be more effective on stage than on screen) and a reliance on clichés (especially for Samir), but it’s all so well acted and produced that there’s still a great deal to enjoy, savor and ponder.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Denmo Ibrahim’s Brilliant Mind continues performances through June 13. Tickets are $30. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

Catastrophist unleashes contagious drama – catch it

Catastrophist Still 4
William DeMeritt is Nathan in Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist produced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre. Photos courtesy of Marin Theatre Company; Director of Photography Peter Ruocco; Lighting Designer Wen-Ling Liao; Costume Designer Sarah Smith

San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson was already one of the most admired and produced playwrights in the country. She didn’t necessarily need to be on the forefront of pandemic drama. And by pandemic drama, I mean several things: creating new, relevant, interesting work in this time of theatrical shutdown; but also creating work having to do with the pandemic itself. As a writer with a special penchant for creating drama fueled by a love and fascination with science, it seems logical that Gunderson would find a way to bring the science of our current situation to the stage in a way that only she can.

It just so happens that Gunderson’s husband, Dr. Nathan Wolfe, is one of the world’s foremost virologists. The Catastrophist is Gunderson’s one-man play about her husband, and it’s fascinating (again) on several levels: it can’t help but be interesting when a skilled and thoughtful writer decides to write about her spouse, his work and his inner life; and hearing from Wolfe (via Gunderson, of course) about why a brilliant scientist chases down viruses to try and prevent pandemics is, certainly, a relevant and captivating topic, especially as told by Gunderson, who has a flair for making the scientific entertaining and comprehensible.

William DeMeritt stars as Wolfe, standing on a stage, wrestling with the fact that his wife has made a play – this play – about him and acknowledges a sort of silent communication with her, like he can her her whispering in his ear at certain times during this 80-minute drama. It’s one of those conventions of a solo play that has to address the fact that a person is alone on a stage talking for whatever reason. Except in this case, DeMeritt is playing Wolfe in a theater empty of audience but filled with cameras. Jasson Minadakis directs this co-production from Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre (in Maryland) of a play commissioned by MTC, and he keeps the camera work active. DeMeritt’s sharp, impassioned performance is captured with the actor delivering his focus directly into this camera, then turning to this camera on this line and back to that camera on that line. It looks like a stage performance, but it feels more like a carefully choreographed and edited movie (especially toward the end).

Catastrophist Still 5

For me, the most interesting aspect of the play is its glimpse into the science of viruses and what led Nathan into a world filed with words like zoonotic, eukaryote and prokaryote. The fact that viruses, as Nathan tells us, are the most abundant life form on the planet and that viruses are built into our DNA is startling, especially since we all have a newfound awareness (and fear … and loathing … and fear) of viruses. But this is more a play about a scientist – an “expert in a terrible thing” as he puts it – than it is about our current predicament.

At a certain point, Gunderson leaves the science and dives deeper into the personal – Nathan’s relationship with his dad, Nathan’s relationship to becoming a dad, Nathan facing his own health crisis – all of which is embodied with intensity and gusto by DeMeritt. But I found myself wanting to know more about what Nathan had to say about where we are, almost a year into this thing, and how we get out and what dangers still lie in store.This, however, is not a TED Talk. The real Dr. Wolfe has already done that (watch it here – it’s fantastic). And written a book and will likely do more of both in the future. This is a play about a complex, likable human with a wealth of knowledge and a job that sets him apart but who is also a son, a dad and a husband. We experience all of that here.

I’d still like to spend time with Nathan – real or fictional – to know more about where we are now, but perhaps that will be The Catastrophist: Act 2, performed when we can all be in the same room together and we can, at along last, feel like this particular catastrophe is in the past.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist is available for streaming in an extended run through July 25. Tickets for on-demand streaming are $30. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

Riveting drama in Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew

Skeleton 3
Christian Thompson (left) is Dez, Margo Hall is Faye (center) and Lance Gardner is Reggie in the Marin Theatre Company/TheatreWorks Silicon Valley co-production of Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau. Photo by Kevin Berne

What an incredible talent to balance the dark weight of tragedy and the electrifying light of hope. That’s what playwright Dominique Morisseau does in Skeleton Crew, a powerful play now at Marin Theatre Company (in a co-production with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley). It’s a workplace drama set in a Detroit auto plant, so that pretty much tells you how bleak it is. But the four characters we meet here are not hopeless, nor are they whiny pits of despair.

The extraordinary Margo Hall heads a strong cast, and the show is definitely worth seeing. I reviewed it for TheatreMania.com. Here’s a taste.

For the play’s two riveting hours, director Jade King Carroll brings out humor and heartache in almost equal measure and works in concert with Morisseau to push the drama as far as it can go without tipping into melodrama. When a story deals with life and death, rage and resignation, the threat of violence and the spark of young love, things could easily slip into soap opera territory. But that never happens here. Carroll, Morisseau, and a quartet of fine actors focus instead on reality and dignity.

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, a co-production of Marin Theatre Company and TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley, continues through Feb. 18 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org. TheatreWorks presents the show March 7-April 1 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Love doth evade Marin’s Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare 1
Megan Trout is Viola de Lesseps and Adam Magill is Will Shakespeare in the Marin Theatre Company production of Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the 1998 movie. Photo by Kevin Berne

The most produced play of the 2017-18 season, according to American Theatre magazine, is Shakespeare in Love, the stage adaptation (by Lee Hall) of the 1998 movie of the same name that is now (in)famous for being one of the first “success” stories of Harvey Weinstein’s battering ram-style Oscar campaigns. The movie picked up abundant awards, including best picture and best screenplay for Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. Then it took more than a decade and a half to find its way to the stage, and the results are disappointing. This should have been a musical, but apparently they couldn’t bear to cut any of the Stoppardian dialogue, so they just went the way of play with lots of music.

The Bay Area finally gets to see the show thanks to Marin Theatre Company, and while the cast boasts some of the Bay Area’s best actors – Stacy Ross, Lance Gardner, Megan Trout, Mark Anderson Phillips, L. Peter Callender – the production flails under the direction of Jasson Minadakis.

I reviewed the production for TheaterMania.com. Here’s a preview:

With an Oscar-winning screenplay by preeminent playwright Tom Stoppard (with Marc Norman), it seems only natural that a stage adaptation would eventually appear. What is surprising is that the play adaptation feels like it had aspirations to be a musical, with adapter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) wrestling it into a lumpy play with lots of music and retaining only some of the charm of the movie.

Director Jasson Minadakis goes for a stripped-down theater vibe with Shakespeare in Love at the Marin Theatre Company, with 13 actors playing around 30 roles and having them provide all of the musical accompaniment for Paddy Cunneen’s overactive score. That makes for a frenetic two-plus hours that offer only intermittent pleasures.

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Shakespeare in Love continues through Dec. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Lip synch or swim! Drag fun in Marin’s Georgia

EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 9
Georgia 2
The cast of Mathew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride at Marin Theatre Company includes (from left) Jason Kapoor as Rexy, Adam Magill as Casey and Kraig Swartz as Miss Tracy Mills. Below: Backstage drama comes to Miss Tracy Mills (Swartz, left), Rexy (Kapoor, center) and Eddie (John R. Lewis). Photos by Kevin Berne

When you’re already an Elvis impersonator, could drag really be that far behind? Not according to the glittery, big-hearted drag comedy The Legend of Georgia McBride now closing the 50th anniversary season at Marin Theatre Company. Playwright Matthew Lopez dips into territory previously covered by The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Kinky Boots, Tootsie, Sordid Lives and Some Like It Hot, and while there are certain formulaic aspects of the story of a straight man embracing his inner drag diva, it’s all done with such sincerity and good humor it’s impossible to resist.

One question Lopez doesn’t really answer in his script is why Casey (Adam Magill) is so invested in being an Elvis impersonator at a rundown club in Panama City, Fla. He had done some musicals in high school, but now that he’s a married adult, his choice of profession is swiveling his hips and lip-synching to Elvis songs for about seven indifferent people in the audience. His wife, Jo (Tatiana Wechsler) is living the cranky life as a waitress and serves as the family’s bread winner. During a fight involving a bounced rent check, the loss of the Elvis gig and impending eviction, Jo announces she’s pregnant.

Even though he can’t don his rhinestone jumpsuit (complete with cape!), Casey returns to the bar to serve as bartender, but wouldn’t you just know? The drag duo the bar’s owner, Eddie (John R. Lewis), hired to drum up some audience interest has hit a snag: one of the performers, Miss Rexy (Jason Kapoor) has passed out cold. So in true show-biz fashion, the older, wiser drag queen, Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) whips Casey into a wig, a dress, heels and makeup and forces him onto the stage. Somehow, the number works in spite of Casey’s awkwardness and the fact that the Piaf song he was saddled with was in French (just mouth the words “watermelon motherfucker” is the advice he’s given, and it sort of works). A drag star is born.

Georgia 1

Casey doesn’t exactly tell Jo why they can suddenly pay the rent, so of course that will catch up with him. But apart from the requisite drama, the fun in director Kent Gash’s production comes from some delightful drag performances featuring a parade of beguiling outfits designed by Kate Harmon. Swartz has real panache – his Garland and Streisand bits are priceless – and the ever-appealing Magill oozes sincerity and sensitivity and makes his drag persona, Georgia McBride, really shine when his performances are more organic and less choreographed. Kapoor, who does double duty as Casey’s friend/landlord, also has an impressive Lady Gaga moment of his own. I’m not sure we needed another drag performance of the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men,” but the choreography by Dell Howlett is awfully fun.

As you might expect from such a likable play, this is an extremely likable cast, and it’s especially nice to feel such warmth between Casey and the women in his life: his wife, to whom he gives foot rubs and his eternal devotion, and Miss Tracy, the mentor who will actually make him a better man (i.e. an adult who can see more clearly who he is and what he wants). As Miss Tracy puts it, Casey is a straight man in drag and she’s a drag queen in hell. Lopez gets off some nice zingers, and there’s a sustained sense of laughter and good cheer through much of the show’s intermissionless 115 minutes. We get an unnecessary lecture about what drag really means, and the play doesn’t know quite how (or when) to end, but as long as Swartz’s in-charge Miss Tracy is actually in charge, it’s all good.

Drag is complicated, especially in terms of its relationship to gender, sexuality and good old-fashioned camp. Georgia McBride isn’t the play that’s going to delve into and unpack or illuminate all of that. But it is a rousing good time with a zippy soundtrack, Florida panhandle glitz and endearing, open-hearted characters.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride continues an extended run through July 9 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets start at $22. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

Theater Dogs’ Best of 2016

Best of 2016

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

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

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

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

A good year for San Francisco Playhouse

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

Local playwrights shine

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

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

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

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

Big drama at Thick House

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

A dazzling finale for Impact

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

My favorite play this year

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

Lost in Austen with Marin’s Christmas at Pemberly

Extended through Dec. 23!
Miss Bennet 1
Cindy Im (left) is Elizabeth Darcy, Adam Magill is Arthur de Bourgh and Lauren Spencer is Jane Bingley in the rolling world premiere of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Martha Brigham (left) is Mary Bennet, Laura Odeh (center) is Anne de Bourgh and Erika Rankin is Lydia Wickham. Photos by Kevin Berne

We’re all in need of some genuine Christmas cheer this year, and that’s exactly what Marin Theatre Company’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley provides. It’s sweet without being sappy. It’s sharp, clever and funny with a warm undercurrent of genuine emotion. What more could you want from a holiday show (except maybe passed eggnog and a round of carols)?

The show also has the distinction of slaking the seemingly bottomless appetite for all things Jane Austen. Writers Lauren Gunderson (the San Francisco playwright who holds the distinction of being the most produced living playwright this season in the U.S.) and Margot Melcon (MTC’s former director of new play development) have gone back to the Austen well to fashion a sequel of sorts to the 1813 Pride and Prejudice. They focus in on Christmas in the grand home of Elizabeth (Bennet) Darcy and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Esq., married for several years now and hosting family and friends for the holiday.

We never get to see the Bennet parents and daughter Kitty, who are on their way up from London, but we do get to spend time with oldest daughter Jane (who is nearing the birth of her first child) and husband Charles Bingley, unmarried Mary Bennet and youngest daughter Lydia, whose marriage to George Wickham remains a source of concern for the family.

So the Miss Bennet of the play’s title is Mary, a young woman who loves books and music and dreams of seeing the world even though she knows her fate as a middle daughter has landed her smack in the “old maid caring for the aging parents” slot. Gunderson and Melcon are not content to let the intellectually curious, spirited Mary fulfill her lonely duty, so they give her a big Christmas present in the form of Lord Arthur de Bourgh, who ends up at Pemberley for the holidays and quickly finds Mary to be as delightful an oddball as he.

Miss Bennet 2

The Austen lovers will lap up the complications in the from of Anne de Bourgh, Arthur’s cousin (and a previous source of tension in P&P when her mother tried to forcefully engage her to Mr. Darcy), who is now, true to her departed mother’s memory, forcing an engagement with the most advantageous man, who happens to be Arthur.

Gunderson and Melcon clearly have great affection for all things Austen, and if there’s anything that connects the original with this new chapter, it’s the spirit of the women defying expectations of their corseted times with feisty intelligence, humor and compassion for one another. Even though Anne is sort of the bad guy, she is not simply discarded once the romantic machinations have clicked into happy ending gear. She is afforded a future and, happily, a friend.

The Marin Theatre Company production of Miss Bennet is the third part of what they now call a rolling world premiere. The first production opened at the Northlight Theatre in Chicago just before Thanksgiving. The second opened at the Round House Theatre in Maryland the night before the Marin production. That’s an abundance of Miss Bennets!

The MTC production looks appropriately grand with the Pemberley drawing room/library outfitted by set designer Erik Flatmo and featuring what was apparently a real oddity in the early 19th century outside of Germany: a freshly cut spruce in the corner just ready for trimming with jewels and candles. For much of the play’s two hours (plus intermission), a gentle snow falls just outside the stately windows, giving the whole enterprise an even cozier feeling.

Director Meredith McDonough has some trouble establishing a firm comic tone in Act 1, but by Act 2, things are much more solid. Part of that has to do with the arrival of Laura Odeh as Anne, a comic force of nature. Most of the really big, satisfying laughs in the show are hers.

The entire cast is tremendously appealing, and how nice to see the usual women-to-men ratio overturned here: five women in the cast and three men. Martha Brigham and Adam Magill are charmingly effective as the central couple, Mary and Arthur. Both are misfits in their world, so finding one another is incredibly appealing, and we root for them from the start. Brigham epitomizes the Austen heroine – smart, well spoken and painfully self-aware. Magill is awfully tall, and he uses his height to convey Arthur’s awkwardness in the world, which can also be terribly funny.

Cindy Im and Joseph Patrick O’Malley are appropriately google-eyed newlyweds Lizzie and Darcy, and though they have their moments, they know they’ve had their time in the spotlight and now it’s Mary’s turn. Lauren Spencer and Thomas Gorrebeeck add some fizz as Jane and Bingley, and Erika Rankin makes for a petulant but somehow endearing Lydia.

Spending Christmas with these people is quite pleasant. The conversation is always lively, the intrigues are on the low end of the silly/soapy scale, and by the end there is a wealth of good feeling, both on stage and off. The programming people who make beautiful television like “Downton Abbey” or “The Crown” would do well to return to the world of Jane Austen, and they would be wise to turn to Gunderson and Melcon to ensure that it’s done right.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon continues an extended run through Dec. 23 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Money trumps all in MTC’s fascinating Invisible Hand

EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 3!
Invisible Hand 1
Kidnapped banker Nick Bright (Craig Marker, left) deals with his Pakistani kidnappers, Dar (Jason Kapoor, center) and Bashir (Pomme Koch) in the Marin Theatre Company production of Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand. Below: Nick, Dar and Bashir are visited by group leader Imam Saleem (Barzin Akhavan, seated). Photos by Kevin Berne

Marin Theatre Company concludes its 49th season with a play that is timely for this election cycle to be sure, but because its focus is on the powerful religion known as money, it’s really timely all the time.

The Invisible Hand by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced), is set in the Middle East, involves Muslim extremists and traffics in terrorism in the form of a potentially lucrative (and vengeful) kidnapping of American banker Nick Bright. But the most fascinating aspect of the drama is how incisively it cuts into what money (lots of it) does to human beings, whatever their cause or background. Akhtar takes a situation we think we know: an American employee of Citibank is kidnapped and held for $10 million ransom while he is working in Pakistan. The kidnappers, followers of a man named Imam Saleem, are attempting to bring some semblance of order back to their country after the U.S. has “raped and plundered” it and the government has failed its people utterly.

“This country has gone to hell because of people like my father wanting something better for themselves,” says a kidnapper whose family moved from Pakistan to the outskirts of London. It’s the same kidnapper who says he gave up a “soft life in the West” for something more meaningful, which, in this case, involves extorting money from the West to serve the people of Pakistan.

Nick, played by the always remarkable and relatable Craig Marker, was not the intended kidnap victim – the goal was someone higher up the corporate ladder – but he happens to be a catch because he’s a brilliant financier who knows how to turn money into more money through smart, not always scrupulous ways. That’s going to come in handy because the kidnappers have decided to put Nick to work. With access to a few million dollars, he is going to have 12 months to raise his own $10 million ransom by playing the market. The British-born kidnapper, Bashir (an excellent Pomme Koch), will serve as his chief assistant (and manage the laptop, which Nick isn’t allowed to touch).

Invisible Hand 2

So from the confines of a mud and brick prison (set by Kat Conley), Nick and Bashir create their own little financial empire, with Nick providing a crash-course master class in manipulating the markets for his eager and able student.

What’s remarkable about this two-hour play, especially in its tighter first act, is how tense and exciting it can be two watch two guys moving money around on a laptop. Director Jasson Minadakis keeps the emotional stakes high and, with the compelling performances by Koch and Marker, turns what could be a dry class in international economics into a powerful dive into the corruptive and addictive nature of money.

We see Nick warn Bashir that making money can be intoxicating and that he needs to pull himself away from that rush. We also see Bashir ignore that advice. We also see that no matter how well intentioned or righteous a cause or a person might be, money and the power it brings can trump spirituality, morals and intelligence. Even leader Imam Saleem (a charismatic, enigmatic Barzin Akhavan) cannot remain immune from its corrosive power.

The second act, filled with shorter, choppier scenes, isn’t as effective as the first, but as things change and grow more desperate, the stage, ironically, becomes more beautiful as the lighting by York Kennedy effectively conveys stark loneliness and isolation through some stunning, almost painterly images.

Akhtar’s ending is less than satisfying if only because what has come before has been such an intelligently and dramatically wrought tangle of politics, finance and personal drama. The end comes too soon and lets the political take over, when that has been the least interesting aspect of the play.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand continues an extended run through July 3 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $10-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

MTC’s Mañana captures real-life struggles, passions

My Manana 1
The four busboys at a Manhattan restaurant (from left) , Whalid (Caleb Cabrera), Jorge (Eric Avilés), Pepe (Carlos Jose Gonzalez Morales) and Peter (Shaun Patrick Tubbs), prepare for their shift in Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Tubbs’ Peter and Cabrera’s Whalid and bond at the workplace. Photos by Kevin Berne

Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes cuts through any pretense and gets right to the heart of real life in these United States. In so much of the entertainment we consume (and, truth be told, in the lives we lead), the people Irwin writes about here are on the fringes, working diligently to make modern life run smoothly and efficiently but without much consideration from those whose lives their work benefits. In this case, the focus is on four bus boys in a busy Manhattan restaurant. Two are Mexican immigrants, one here for four years, the other just a few months. The other two are American born. One is African American and the other is born to Mexican immigrants but without much connection to his parents’ native culture (he says he thought he was Puerto Rican until was a teenager).

All four share the need for more money than they presently have – to send money home, to save up to bring family to New York, to pay for education, to support wife and child. And they all have to find ways to deal with the low-paying grunt work they are required to do on a daily basis and the lack of respect and/or dignity that can entail.

Hearing these voices on stage, experiencing the lives of these men is reason enough to see My Mañana Comes – the humanity, the empathy, the struggle that come through is powerful and, in many ways, universal. Any examined life, as they say, will yield great drama and complexity, and that’s certainly true here. These men are dealing with issues of race, economy, immigration, self-respect and ethics in ways that can have profound impact on their lives like where they sleep that night, how to avoid the police or how to save money when it costs so much to live in New York (especially when you’re eyeing a new pair of Nike sneakers).

My Manan 2

The four actors – Eric Avilés, Caleb Cabrera, Carlos Jose Gonzalez Morales and Shaun Patrick Tubbs – are the other reason to see this play. As realistic as the kitchen set is (by Sean Fanning), they bring even more realism to their portrayals of four very different men. Avilés’ Jorge is sort of the calm center of the group. He is radically frugal in an effort to save enough money to return to his family in Mexico and finish building their home. His deep commitment gives him a focused center around which the other guys bounce. Tubbs’ Patrick, the one black guy amid the Mexican and Mexican-American guys, is the crew leader, and when management attempts to screw the bus boys out of their salary pay, his ferocious energy is focused on galvanizing his coworkers and fighting back.

Cabrera’s Whalid is young and ambitious. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he sees this bus boy job as a stepping stone to something bigger and better, like being an EMT. And Morales’ Pepe, whose English is still a work in progress, is sort of the comic relief – lots of new guy and new immigrant jokes at his expense – but there’s also something compelling and sad about his desire to bring his brother to the U.S. and the pull he feels to spend money rather than save it.

There’s camaraderie and tension and fascinating dynamics within this quartet, and that’s when Irwin’s play and director Kirsten Brandt’s production are strongest. We mostly see the kitchen in off hours, before or after food service happens, but there’s a beautifully choreographed sequence involving the service of food (at this restaurant servers are apparently never in the kitchen, chefs are not part of the kitchen culture and bus boys prep the food and bring it to the tables), with the guys coming and going like a well-oiled machine. But the hyper-reality of the setting can also work against the production because it doesn’t feel quite real enough. There’s a lot of busy work involving the slicing of lemons and limes, and when one guy is doing inventory, he’s basically unboxing a few bottles of olive oil. For all the realism, this never feels like a functioning kitchen.

Brandt’s play has some great exchanges between the busy boys, and her dialogue often feels less like drama and more like documentary. But her dramatic structure invests a whole lot of the show’s 95 minutes in set-up. The actual conflict doesn’t occur until late in the play, and when it does, there’s real power to it. The lengthy set-up pays off, but in many ways it also feels like the story is just beginning.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes continues through Nov. 22 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $10-$58. Call 415-333-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.