Tiny but terrifying: Go ask Alice

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Rod Gnapp and Carrie Paff work out some kinks in their relationship in the Marin Theatre Company production of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice. Below: Andrew Hurteau as Brother Julian. Photos by Kevin Berne

The legend of Tiny Alice looms large. Edward Albee’s notorious 1964 follow-up to his monster Broadway smash Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf baffled critics and continued to cause kerfuffles for years to come (especially when William Ball, in the early days of American Conservatory Theater played fast and loose with the script).

This is not one of Albee’s frequently produced scripts, and after seeing Marin Theatre Company’s riveting production, it’s easy to see why. This play is a monster. It’s not like Albee hasn’t created monsters before (he loves to rile the beasts in many ways), but this one is especially weighty.

Notions of God, faith, corruption and the supernatural all bear down for three acts and three solid hours, which means a serious evening of theater. It’s not that there aren’t laughs – how could there not be, the Catholic Church is involved (cheap shot, sorry)? – Albee is such a sharp writer and this cast is so astute that chuckles and outright laughs are frequent (and that can make the difference between endurance and enjoyment).

But this is a challenging play to say the least. Act 1 is familiar territory as Albee introduces his players, his zest for zingers and a juicy central mystery. In Act 2, the ground begins to wobble, and by Act 3, the ground has given way altogether. The monster, perhaps literally speaking, is loose.

Directing this play has been a decades-long obsession for MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, and his production clearly demonstrates the guiding hand of someone to whom the play’s mysteries are, if not clear, at least illuminated.

Minadakis has said he couldn’t do the play until he had just the right actors, and it’s good thing he waited as long as he did. The quintet at work on stage here is doing some mighty powerful work.

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Andrew Hurteau is the emotionally and spiritually conflicted center of the play as Brother Julian, a lay brother whose crisis of faith – seemingly in his past but powerful enough to institutionalize him for a number of years – makes him especially vulnerable to the machinations of those whose motives may not be pure.

The motives of the Cardinal (Richard Farrell) are quite clear. The Church has been promised $20 billion dollars from the estate of a young woman who, working through her lawyer, wants to spend time with a representative of the Church. That turns out to be Brother Julian. If Alice takes a shine to him, the Cardinal is a hero, and the Church is billions of dollars richer.
From their first, bizarre meeting, Julian and Alice create a bond. It would be hard not to be intrigued by Alice, especially as played by the beguiling Carrie Paff (looking gorgeous in elegant costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt).

The power dynamic between Paff and Hurteau, sometimes charged with sadistic thrill (Alice) and sometimes with wrenching heartbreak (Julian), never ceases to fascinate.

Alice also works a strange dynamic with her lawyer, played with aggressive intelligence and chilling malice by Rod Gnapp. They have a sexual relationship, but they’re in each other’s heads to a dangerous degree.

Alice’s trusty butler is always on hand to provide a quirky line or a bit of comfort – and Mark Anderson Phillips is a comfort indeed. He makes Butler (yes, that’s the butler’s name) as fascinating as everyone else, even though he functions on the periphery of the action. He, like Julian, seems a little more human than the devils conspiring to win the lay brother’s soul for reasons they won’t divulge until it’s too late (for Julian).

J.B. Wilson’s set (lit beautifully by Kurt Landisman actually becomes another character in the show. As Julian becomes more and more immersed in Alice’s world, he gets to know her mansion and the miniature replica of it that dominates the main drawing room.

I won’t say I understand where Albee is going with Tiny Alice, but I will say I enjoyed the ride. Asking questions about the nature of God and man’s relationship to spirituality is fascinating, especially in the hands of a compelling writer. Brother Julian, so fiercely and compassionately played by the astonishing Hurteau, has a tenuous relationship with God at best. The world of hallucination and reality are not comfortably defined for him, nor are they for us.


Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice continues through June 26 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $32-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org for information.

Taking Steps toward a lively evening

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The stellar cast of TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps comprises (from left) Rebecca Dines, Mark Anderson Phillips, Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown. Below: Dines and Phillips take a step closer to romance. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

Whatever will we do when the British have thoroughly unstuffed themselves? That stiff-upper-lip stuff and famous British reserve have long been targets for comedy – especially by the British themselves.

We love to lampoon the stalwart Brit character – the rigid veneer that provided such fodder for Kneehigh Theatre Company’s brilliant adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, which we saw here at American Conservatory Theater. British frigidity was practically its own character in that show, which threw two placid lovers – a doctor and a housewife – into an ocean of romantic emotion and took incredible glee in the destruction of their noble facades.

I couldn’t help thinking about Brief Encounter during The 39 Steps, the rollicking stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name.

Both Coward and Hitchcock (working on an adaptation of the 1915 John Buchan novel) enjoy throwing prim-and-proper Brits into tumultuous events and watching their reserve knock against passion and danger.

Stage adaptor Patrick Barlow goes Hitchcock one better. He turns the tumult into a farcical fracas that allows four adept actors to play 140 different characters.

A hit on London’s West End in 2006, the play became Broadway’s longest-running comedy two years later. The touring production played San Francisco’s Curran Theatre in December of 2009, and now Mountain View’s TheatreWorks has cast it with a quartet of local favorites.

Under the direction of Artistic Director Robert Kelley, it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable evening of mystery mayhem and slapstick espionage. Kelley has cast an irresistible quartet of actors to create the whirlwind, and the result is two hours of constant laughs.

39 Steps 2Mark Anderson Phillips is Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London. Bored, he craves something mindless and trivial, so he goes to the theater. Naturally. There he meets a classic femme fatale, a German named Annabella Schmidt played by Rebecca Dines with an accent think as strudel.

When Annabella comes home with Richard and ends up with a knife in her back, the adventure begins. In true Hitchcock style, Richard becomes an innocent man on the run, and his journey takes him to Scotland, where invaluable comedians Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown chew the accent as if it were haggis-flavored taffy.

Joe Ragey’s set creates a pretty but second-rate theater complete with elevated box seats on the sides, and the actors seem to be playing the theater’s company actors. Phillips is the vain leading man (the narration keeps emphasizing how handsome Richard is, what with his wavy brown hair and pencil moustache) and Dines is the beleaguered leading lady. Hiatt and Cassidy are the hammy scene-stealers who can’t help playing the show as if it were their own vaudevillian showcase.

The costumes by B. Modern add fuel to the comic fire, especially when Brown does drag. His buxom Scottish hotelier is hilarious, while Hiatt’s villainous Professor sports an impressive two-tone pompadour that wouldn’t be out of place in a band like Josie and the Pussycats.

Act 2 of The 39 Steps loses some steam, especially in a long hotel room sequence, but most of the show is filled with deft physical comedy and cute allusions to other Hitchcock films (the Psycho reference is particularly funny).

What’s especially rewarding about a show like this is how spectacularly theatrical it is. With cargo trunks, ladders and a lot of stage smoke, four skilled actors create a world that sucks you in despite the inanity of it all. You’re laughing at the farce of it all, but the story exerts a certain pull because the characters are distinct, the locations are effectively evoked and you’re having a grand time enjoying it on a number of levels.

The 39 Steps isn’t exactly a stairway to paradise, but it’s definitely more than three dozen steps in the right direction.


TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps continues an extended run through Feb. 20 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $24-$79. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.

Theater review: `Miss Julie’



Mark Anderson Phillips is Jean the footman and Lauren Grace is Miss Julie, the title character in Mark Jackson’s production of the Strindberg classic at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Photos by David Allen

Sex, class, intensity heat up Aurora’s `Miss Julie’
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She looks at him dramatically and says, “Where did you learn to talk like that? You must have been to the theater.”

Oh, he’s been to the theater all right. He’s been to a lot of places and plans on going to many more.

She is Miss Julie, the title character in August Strindberg’s 1888 drama now on stage at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company under the astute direction of Mark Jackson, one of the Bay Area’s most original and exciting directors.

Played by Lauren Grace, Miss Julie is all the things Strindberg is aiming for: a contrast in high-born class and low-end raunch, a bold man hater and a sexual provocateur. Grace is fierce and flinching, beautiful and crass.

The man in question is Jean, footman to the Count, Julie’s father. Jean is a self-made man with finely honed skills. As played by the ever-reliable Mark Anderson Phillips, he is masterfully subservient with an eye to greater things. In planning his escape, possibly with Miss Julie’s help, he envisions himself becoming a hotelier who, one day, will be able to buy himself the title of Count.

Strindberg’s Miss Julie is really quite a simple set-up: two passionate people play games – carnal, psychological, fatal — during Midsummer’s Eve festivities. Within that simplicity comes all the delicious complexity of class, economics, sexuality, ambition and power.


Using a vital adaptation of the play by Helen Cooper (originally created for England’s Greenwich Theatre and then turned into the screenplay for Mike Figgis’ 1999 film version of Miss Julie), Jackson’s production takes advantage of the heat generated by Phillips and Grace to sustain some prolonged, sexually loaded silences.

The adaptation, running as a 90-minute one-act, expedites the ending, upping the drama and bringing on stage what Strindberg took off stage. Cooper heightens Strindberg’s extremes. Warning Miss Julie, Jean says, like a low-grade lothario, “It’s dangerous to play with fire.” To which, Julie answers like a soubrette, “Not for me. I’m insured.”

But when the tone shifts to uglier recriminations, Jean makes no bones about their roles as he pours himself a drink: “A servant is a servant, and a whore is a whore. Skol!”

Jackson brings some cinematic flourishes to this intimate chamber production. Composer/sound designer David A. Graves offers a movie-like underscore – folksy jigs when we’re reminded of the celebrations happening outside on the estate’s grounds, intensely romantic and cello dominated when Jean and Julie inch closer to the consummation of their heavy-duty flirtation. And lighting designer Heather Basarab lets colors wash over scenes like tints to photographs – orange for passion and reproach, purple for dancing and romance, blue for casting portentous shadows.

Giulio Cesare Perrone’s kitchen set features a big back wall that catches Basarab’s lights beautifully. There’s also a dangling bunch of tree boughs in the center of the room that casts gorgeous shadows of a verdant summer.

The set is dominated by a long center table that serves as a sort of gauge indicating just how off-kilter the play intends to go. When the table divides the kitchen in half, as it is supposed to do, all is well. When Jean and Julie begin to tussle, the table is pushed askew. After their misguided night of passion, the table is all but upturned.

When Jean’s lover, the pragmatic kitchen maid Christine (efficiently executed by Beth Deitchman), makes known her disapproval of the night’s activities, she straightens that table with righteous fervor.

Jackson’s production is full of potent moments strongly punctuated and expertly staged. The kissing of a shoe becomes an erotic dance. The pushing of a chair or the slamming of a beer bottle become well-placed exclamation points.

While Grace reflects the confusion/confidence of a young woman who knows a lot less about the world than she thinks, Phillips seizes the stage with Jean’s cleverness, his loathing of the upper crust that employs him and his overwhelming desire to be part of that privileged world. When Phillips unleashes Jean’s rage, the small Aurora stage is barely enough to contain him.

Miss Julie is a play that wants to fly in the face of convention, and director Jackson delivers a heat-seeking production that is anything but conventional.


Aurora Theatre Company’s Miss Julie continues through May 17 at 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information.

Review: `Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party’

The cast of Aaron Loeb’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party performs an elaborate opening number in the SF Playhouse world-premiere production. Photos by Zabrina Tipton.


History, politics, utter zaniness collide in Honest Abe’s `Dance Party’
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Aaron Loeb’s world-premiere play Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party at the SF Playhouse embraces adventurous theatricality. There’s drama, comedy, dancing, politicized fourth graders, absurdity, murder, betrayal, romance, insanity, corruption, rampant homosexuality and even more rampant conservatism.

In short, this is an ambitious play that includes just about everything you can think of. By rights, the play shouldn’t work. With so much going on, the focus should be shot and the play’s intentions scattered all over the place.

But the great thing about Loeb, working with director Chris Smith (former artistic director of the Magic Theatre), is that he’s a ferocious entertainer. As he demonstrated last year, also at the SF Playhouse, with First Person Shooter, he builds plays with a sort of maniacal energy that helps them careen from scene to scene and back again.

Abraham Lincoln, which opened Saturday, is above all else, a hugely entertaining show. The fact that it has something serious on its mind is less immediately apparent when the cast of seven – all dressed as Abraham Lincoln — is performing an elaborate dance number (choreography by Kimberly Richards and Tom Segal) that pays goofy homage to the likes of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.

There’s even a gimmick afoot to complicate the proceedings. The cast invites the audience to vote on the order of the three acts (with two intermissions). As we hear about the “trial of the century” in Menard County, Illinois, we’re asked if we want to hear first from the defense attorney, the prosecuting attorney or the reporter covering the trial for the New York Times.

On opening night we began with the defense attorney, Regina (Velina Brown), a black Republican senator with designs on the governor’s office (hard to imagine anyone at this moment in history wanting to be governor of Illinois). Her mentor and dear friend, Tom (Joe Kady), a disgraced senator of the Regan vintage, has surprised her by wanting the governor’s chair for himself.

Tom is using the bully pulpit of a county courtroom to stage his comeback. He’s prosecuting a fourth-grade teacher (Lorraine Olsen) for allowing her students’ Christmas pageant to claim that Abraham Lincoln liked to sleep with men and was likely in love with his friend Joshua Speed (as some historians have claimed).

Not to be outdone by Tom’s grandstanding, Regina and her trusty assistant, Tina (Sarah Mitchell), head for the cornfield county and proceed to play dirty and grab some headlines for themselves.

Loeb plays fast and loose with styles here. On Bill English’s highly efficient, Lincoln-plastered set full clever compartments and cupboards, action shifts quickly. We have realism in the offices of the politicos, then we have broad slapstick, as with the members of the press. The hayseed reporter, Sparky McGee, is a rube with flashes of brilliance. The blogger is a Bluetooth-y ass. And the New York Times reporter, Anton (Mark Anderson Phillips, above right, with Michael Phillis), arrives wearing a kingly cape amid reverent huzzahs.

It turns out that Anton will become an actual character in this drama, and his story was the second one we saw on opening. He arrives in Menard with his best gal pal, fashion photographer Esmeralda (Brown again in a zesty comic performance) and immediately makes a beeline for Tom’s pie shop-owning son, Jerry (Michael Phillis). If Tom is so insistent on continuing the gay witch hunt he began in the Reagan administration, Anton is going to make sure there are no useful secrets in the former senator’s family closet.

Anton’s story is the most poignant of the three because of his interaction with Jerry, a sensitive young man trapped by family in a painfully untenable situation. The two men have a heated scene in the thick of a corn field (English’s set triumphs yet again), and Loeb’s writing crackles with intelligence and intensity.

The third act on opening night was told from Tom’s point of view, and this proved to be the trickiest of the trilogy. Tom’s anti-gay crusade is never fully explored, and as issues of mental health enter into the picture, his motives become even fuzzier. Still, Kady gives an extraordinarily full performance as the troubled family man who isn’t above hiring a Karl Rove-like operative (Brian Degan Scott) to smooth the way to the governor’s office.

It’s hard to overstate the skill of this ensemble. Everyone plays multiple roles, and they all zip from comedy to drama and back (not to mention all the dancing) with ease. They all have individual moments to shine, but the greatest impression comes from their work together. There’s real connection here, and that’s another element that helps this scattershot approach adhere.

That said, Phillips and Phillis do extraordinary work together, and their characters both end up being far more interesting than first impressions would indicate.

Through it all, Loeb keeps returning to Abraham Lincoln, whose iconic visage permeates the entire production, both in serious and comic ways. A statesman, a humanitarian, an enigma and, perhaps most importantly, an American, Lincoln lends a certain gravitas to the evening. Even at its zaniest – and things do get zany – there are serious issues, both political and personal, being thrown around.

But here’s the thing: Loeb and this fantastic production aren’t on any soapbox. They’re throwing an all-American bash, and we’re all invited.


Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party continues through Jan. 17 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.