Delight and loss dance through Magic’s Waltz revival

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The cast of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at Magic Theatre includes (from left) Patrick Alparone as Carl, Lauren English as Anna and Greg Jackson as The Third Man. Below: Alparone’s Carl and English’s Anna spend some quality time in Paris. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Any of us would be lucky – beyond lucky – to be as loved as Paula Vogel’s brother Carl. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (who, after nearly 50 years as one of the country’s preeminent playwrights, will see her first Broadway opening next month with Indecent) wrote The Baltimore Waltz a year after Carl died of complications from AIDS. This is her tribute to him, a love letter from sister to brother, but she accomplishes this with such offbeat originality, whimsy and heart that there’s no room for sentimentality or feeble clichés about love and loss.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Magic Theatre has revived The Baltimore Waltz 25 years after hosting its West Coast premiere. Under the direction of Jonathan Moscone the plays still feels fresh and vital, and while its roots are firmly in the plague years, its fancifully clever and sound construction give it a timeless sense. There’s no expiration date for the love of a sibling or the depthless grief of losing that sibling.

When Vogel’s brother invited her on a trip to Europe, she had neither the time nor the money to make it happen. Here’s something else she didn’t have: the knowledge that he was HIV-positive and that within two years, he would be gone. From his hospital bed at Johns Hopkins in 1987, Carl wrote his sister a letter (which she invites theaters to publish in their programs) detailing his funeral arrangements. “Oh God – I can hear you groaning – everybody wants to direct,” Carl wrote. “Well, I want a good show, even though my role has been reduced involuntarily from player to prop.” That spark, that humor – they’re alive and well in Vogel’s rich 90-minute play, and she has given her brother what he wanted and more. She has written him a great show.

In perhaps the play’s most inspiring and heartbreaking conceit, Vogel gives her character the fatal disease. In this alternate reality, Anna (the Vogel stand-in played by Lauren English) is a Baltimore schoolteacher who sat on an infected toilet seat at school and contracted ATD – Acquired Toilet Disease. She hasn’t got long, so her older brother, Carl (Patrick Alparone) wants to take her to Europe. The trip would be for fun and to see a doctor in Vienna with a promising treatment. Even though she has a fear of not speaking any other languages, Anna agrees, and she and Carl head to France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, where everyone they meet – from doctors to the Little Dutch Boy to student activists – are played by the remarkably versatile Greg Jackson as a character referred to in the program as “the Third Man” (references to the 1949 movie abound).

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We know this is an alternate reality in several ways, but the most elegant is the set (designed by Nina Ball and lit by Heather Gilbert), which replicates a hospital room filled with flimsy curtains to separate the beds. There are harsh fluorescent lights for the more clinical moments, but mostly we’re in a dreamy wash of light and shadow and dances under a mirror ball. In the clothing department (costumes by Meg Neville) Carl wears pajamas and a sport coat (pink triangle on the lapel) and Anna wears a negligee and an overcoat – not your usual ensembles for international travel.

Throughout the play’s fragmented scenes, Carl clings to a stuffed rabbit throughout the trip but hastily hands it over to Anna when going through airport security or border crossings. Just what’s in the bunny remains a mystery, but Carl clings to the toy as if it were his soul, his sexuality, his comfort. He connects with other men carrying bunnies, and yet the minute his bunny is taken from him, the fantasy of the play begins to give way to reality.

For much of its running time, this is a fun and funny play about dying but with shadows lurking to darken the comedy. Vogel and director Moscone never let us forget what is really happening here. English as Anna is relatable and comic without being silly. Anna has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, she’s visiting Europe for the first time with the human she treasures most in the world, and she seizes the opportunity to live, to have lots of sex, to open her ears to new words and conditional tenses, to eat new foods and to love her brother.

Alparone has an edgy sort of charm that keeps Carl as prickly as he is passionate, as enigmatic as he is loving. He and English pair effectively as siblings who can clash and squabble but never question their inexorable bond. There’s an easy flow to Moscone’s production, where it seems every detail has been attended to, from the actual waltzes that dot the play to Anna’s red strap shoes to the croissants that dot the headboard in a Paris hotel.

Reality catches up with Anna and Carl eventually, and the shift from fragmented fantasy to the starkness of real life could, in less capable hands, be jarring. Here it is simply moving and, like the play itself, a thing of beauty that leaves the theater with you.

Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz continues through April 16 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$85. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Berkeley Rep’s warning: it can so happen here

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Tom Nelis (left) is Doremus Jessup and Charles Shaw Robinson is Effingham Swan in the world premiere of It Can’t Happen Here at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: The cast of the show, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, includes (seated, left to right) Tom Nelis as Doremus Jessup, Carolina Sanchez as Sissy Jessup, David Kelly as Buck Titu; (backseat, left to right) Anna Ishida as Mary Jessup Greenhill, Sharon Lockwood as Emma Jessup; and (standing, left to right) Mark Kenneth Smaltz and Gerardo Rodriguez. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s It Can’t Happen Here is a nightmare on so many levels, and that’s mostly a good thing in the world-premiere adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel.

This is the right story at the right time, and therein lies the dark heart of this nightmare. Eighty-one years ago, Lewis observed the world around him – race riots and severe economic disparity at home, fascist demagogues on the rise in Europe – and conjured a vision of how things could go if were weren’t very, very careful in who we elected president in 1936.

In Lewis’ novel, which has been freshly adapted by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, the United States is a country at odds with itself. Half the population is disaffected and tired of the Big Money, of which they have none, controlling all the strings of the “belching politicians” in Washington, D.C. An enterprising businessman, Buzz Windrip, hears the voices of the masses and throws himself into the political ring as a presidential candidate. He’s got a good head for business, they say, and he tells it like it is. People like that. Others feel he should be on the vaudeville circuit rather than in a race for the presidency, but he gains the trust (and endorsement) of the religious right, and off he goes.

One of Windrip’s greatest skills is pitting “everybody against somebody” and seizing power, and that’s just one of many echoes reverberating through the Roda Theatre as this tale from eight decades ago rattles the audience and makes us wonder how we could be here, in this exact same spot, in such a relatively short time with so little national memory of having been somewhere like this before. Granted, the terrors being addressed in Lewis’ story were primarily affecting Europe prior to World War II, but the dangers were everywhere and as ever present as they are now.

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That’s the chill of this production, which zings and zips through its first act like a parable with the sting of a slap to the face and a knee to the crotch. The crack 14-member ensemble, under the direction of Lisa Peterson, addresses the audience at the top of the show, setting the tone for a kind of literary/presentational style that will continue throughout the show’s 2 hours and 15 minutes as they move all the furniture, set the scene, introduce us to new characters and otherwise serve as narrators in this fast-paced journey from functioning democracy to totalitarian hellscape.

Tom Nelis is the central character, Doremus Jessup, the editor of a small-town New England newspaper, and like Mr. Webb, the newspaper editor in Our Town, a character he often calls to mind, he serves as the town’s moral conscience. He’s frightened by what he sees happening not only in his country but also in his own ordinary town. The “Minute Men,” a kind of national guard just ripe for evolving into a militia, preys on the worst fears and failings of the local young men (including but not limited to staunch antisemitism), and he, along with a few other sharp townsfolk, including the woman with whom he’s having an affair, sense imminent disaster.

When the action shifts to a political rally celebrating candidate Buzz Windrip (the electrifying David Kelly), the dial turns way up on the excitement/horror factor. Listening to Windrip (and trying not to hear the yuge, bleating voice of a current grossly unqualified candidate), it’s easy to start extrapolating to our modern times. What if our current guy wasn’t such an idiot and wasn’t such a godawful speaker. What if, like Windrip, he was eloquent and charismatic – or even smart. That would spell disaster for sure, just as it does in Lewis’ alternate America.

There are diminishing returns in Act 2 as a version of Europe before and during World War II plays out in the United States, with a scrappy band of rebels fighting the good fight and the Jessup family shattering in multiple ways. So much happens of such severity that emotional impact is lost. Events are merely sketched in as we rush through violence, insanity and other assorted horrors, and the ending isn’t chilling so much as a shrug and a sad head shake acknowledging that all of this is bad, bad, bad and we shouldn’t let it happen.

This well-produced gloom features a marvelous and quite active ensemble that also includes some standout work by Sharon Lockwood as a rabble-rouser, Doremus’ head-in-sand wife and a kind revolutionary; Deidrie Henry as Lorinda Pike, one of the small town’s most acutely aware citizens; and Anna Ishida as a grieving widow and fierce rebel.

The reality of 1936 is that Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican candidate Alf Landon. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were in full power of the Reichstag. In Italy, Mussolini was gearing up to give Hitler a big political bear hug, and citizens wondered how this could be happening here. Berkeley Rep’s resurrection of Lewis’ cautionary tale certainly holds sway over the choir to which it is preaching, but what about those who deem our current gasbag candidate a worthy leader? This bleak vision might just be the happy ending they’ve been looking for.

Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, adapted by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, continues through Nov. 6 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Women rock the Night at Cal Shakes season opener

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Lisa Anne Porter (right) plays separated twins Viola and Sebastian in the California Shakesperae Theater season-opening production of Twelfth Night. The female-led cast also includes (from left) Rami Margron as Orsino, Julie Eccles as Olivia, Margo Hall as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch and Domenique Loazno as Maria. Below: Stacy Ross (left) as Malvolio is under the mistaken impression that his mistress has the hots for him, a ruse concocted by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Photos by Kevin Berne

Last year, California Shakespeare Theater offered an off-season touring production of Twelfth Night that featured an all-women cast and made stops in prisons, homeless shelters, senior communities and the like. It was a stripped-down, wonderful production, and apparently its impact was strong enough that outgoing artistic director Jonathan Moscone (he bids adieu in August after he directs The Mystery of Irma Vep) decided to pull the play into the company’s 41st season.

With a different director (Christopher Liam Moore), this is a very different Twelfth Night but with two key returning players and one overriding concept. The actors reprising their roles are Rami Margron as Duke Orsino (she also played scheming lady in waiting Maria last year) and the invaluable Catherine Castellanos making an even deeper impression as boozy wastrel Sir Toby Belch. This is not an all-female production, but it is what you might call female led. Of the eight cast members, seven are women, and – the irony is not subtle here – the only man, Ted Deasy, plays Feste, the fool (and other roles including a sea captain, a priest, a police constable, Antonio and a member of Orsino’s court).

Director Moore’s production is so sure footed and satisfying that the whole idea of a gender-bending cast populating an already gender-bending play quickly becomes less of a gimmick and more about some really good storytelling. It’s great that companies like Cal Shakes are shifting the balance away from male domination of Shakespeare, but it’s even better that the company is giving the stage to some incredibly talented actors to tell a sad, romantic, occasionally very funny tale.

Deasy begins the show by climbing out of a coffin sitting center stage. If that sounds grim – this is a play largely about grief, after all – not to worry. In full court jester garb (costumes by Meg Neville, who mercifully makes this jester bell-less), he whips out his iPhone and samples a playlist to indicate a storm is brewing: “Riders on the Storm,” “It’s Raining Men,” “Stormy Weather” and one other that’s too fun to spoil.” We’ll see iPhones throughout the 2 1/2-hour play, mostly for cuing up music (Air Supply, Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin make appearances) but also for photo taking and the inevitable selfie.

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This is the 150th time Cal Shakes has done Twelfth Night (actually the eighth counting last year’s tour), and every time it feels like a slightly different play. Moore is having fun to be sure, but with that coffin never leaving the stage, the specter is ever present. The coffin represents several deaths affecting various characters. The twins Viola and Sebastian (both played by the marvelous Lisa Anne Porter) each think the other perished in a shipwreck. And the Lady Olivia (Julie Eccles, whose transformation from grief to love addled is spectacular) lost her father and brother in a short space of time and is drowning in her loss. But that coffin, being front and center in Nina Ball’s simple set, which resembles either a mausoleum or an elegant resort, also finds itself being used as various pieces of furniture, an ice chest for beer and as a dark, dank prison for the most notoriously wronged Malvolio.

Speaking of Malvolio, the righteous prig who brings out the bully in Sir Toby and his cohorts, Maria (Dominique Lozano) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Margo Hall), a word on the broad comic performances in this production. As Malvolio, Stacy Ross so fully inhabits the character that it’s as easy to hate him (and understand why he gets so viciously pranked) as it is to love him (when the prank goes way too far). Ross is funny, especially taking smiling lessons from the audience or gingerly navigating a set of stairs, but she’s also heartbreaking as the character is humiliated, taunted and bereft of the love he thought he had won.

With Castellanos’ turn as Sir Toby, there is broad hilarity (the costume conjures a Depptonian Capt. Jack Sparrow feel) but also a beating heart under all the liquor and brio and bullying. You get the sense that Toby is performing for Maria, whom he loves, and for Sir Andrew (Hall is quite funny as the blundering idiot), his sycophantic money bags of a sidekick. He’s got a (squalid) reputation to protect, but it really registers when even he admits the Malvolio prank has gone too far.

The happy ending, when the separated twins reunite, is handled deftly, and Porter, who has delineated her male and female (and female pretending to be male) characters beautifully, comes as close as a single actor could to making that scene poignant and a little heartbreaking (Viola gets her brother back from the void, but that hope does not exist for Olivia’s brother).

That this production can be rambunctious (Feste’s songs have a delightful country-western lilt) and funny, romantic and lyrical, sad and shadowy is its ultimate triumph.

California Shakespeare Theater’s Twelfth Night continues through June 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit