Aurora’s Lyons subdues its roar

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Nicholas Pelczar’s (left) Curtis visits his ailing father, Ben (Will Marchetti) and acerbic mother, Rita (Ellen Ratner) in Nicky Silver’s The Lyons at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Ratner and Marchetti’s Rita and Ben suffer the visit of daughter Lisa (Jessica Bates). Photos by David Allen

There are breathtaking moments – literally, your capacity to process oxygen is shut down – in Nicky Silver’s script of The Lyons now at the Aurora Theatre. Silver takes an average situation – a patriarch in the final days of an illness is tended to by his wife and two adult children – and makes it painfully funny by exposing every sharp edge he can find and slicing through anything in his way. Those breathtaking moments usually involve some sort of truth telling at the expense of someone else’s fragile or carefully crafted sense of self, but the inability to breathe is often followed by a huge laugh.

Or at least it feels like there should be a big laugh. Director Barbara Damashek’s production is dialed to 6 while Silver’s script seems to call for at least double that. What should be ferocious and funny comes across as rather pallid and only slightly amusing. Perhaps there was a fear that playing it too big and mean in Aurora’s intimate space would alienate rather than amuse the audience, and maybe it would, but there seems to be a whole lot of pent-up energy in this script that never gets released.

The Lyons family is perfectly recognizable and relatable as stage families go, but they’re also nightmarish, annoying and incredibly incisive when it comes to shredding one another (and therein lies the entertainment value). Matriarch Rita (Ellen Ratner) is the primary architect of the horror. She seems so sensible and lovely, but then the things that come out of her mouth are just astonishing

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Flipping through a home decorating magazine at the hospital bedside of her dying husband, she muses on changes she’d like to make to their living room and casually (and caustically) notes that he won’t be around to enjoy the new decor. But it’s not like her husband, Ben (Will Marchetti) gives a damn. When the children arrive, daughter Lisa (Jessica Bates) and son Curtis (Nicholas Pelczar), the family portrait comes into full focus: this group has no kindness, compassion or concern for anyone. The dominant theme among these Lyons is self-involvement to a pathological degree. A grandmother thinks nothing of dismissing her young grandchild as “retarded” and a husband has no problem sharing the fact that he can’t stand his gay son. The daughter is in and out of recovery and the son, a writer, can’t seem to relate to actual human beings. In short, they all deserve each other.

The only voice of sanity is a stern nurse (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) who ends up caring for multiple members of this tribe. There’s also an appearance by an actor (Joe Estlack) who has a bad reaction to the Lyons brand of interaction. But mostly we have here an insular group fighting through and interlocking their psychoses.

The performances feel restrained and fall too often into sitcom rhythms without breaking into the ferocity needed to make this play feel less like a retread of dysfunctional family tropes and more of a manic comedy about the extreme narcissism of the complacent upper middle class. Seems like an outrageous comedy has been de-clawed, or, in other words, this Lyons has been tamed.

Nicky Silver’s The Lyons continues through March 1 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$60. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

A Whale of a (heartbreaking) tale in Marin

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Liz Sklar is Liz, a nurse and a friend, and Nicholas Pelczar is Charlie, a man who needs friends and nurses in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Charlie receives some help from a passing Mormon missionary (Adam Magill). Photos by Kevin Berne

Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, now at Marin Theatre Company is a difficult play to watch. That description might not make you want to run out and buy a ticket, but hold on. Difficult doesn’t preclude greatness.

At first glance, the play, winner of MTC’s 2011 Sky Cooper New American Play Prize, involves a guy in a fat suit. Granted, it’s a really good fat suit (Christine Crook is the costume designer), but faking a 600-pound guy and watching an actual 600-pound guy are very different experiences. But here’s the thing: what actor Nicholas Pelczar brings to that suit is extraordinary.

He plays Charlie, a sweet-natured man stuck on his couch (which is raised and supported by cinder blocks) in a Northern Idaho town (the cramped, dingy set is by Michael Locher). He makes a living doing online tutorials, and his friend Liz (Liz Sklar), who happens to be a nurse, brings him junk food, makes cursory efforts to clean his outrageously filthy apartment and cares for his well being as best she can. It’s a losing battle, what with Charlie’s congestive heart failure and his utter unwillingness (not to mention lack of medical insurance) to consider a visit to the hospital.

Hunter, a savvy playwright whose A Bright New Boise was a wow at Aurora Theatre Company last fall (read that review here), focuses a lot of attention on Charlie’s heart. It’s a broken heart to be sure – the loss of his boyfriend years before precipitated his long, slow suicide by morbid obesity – but it’s a heart capable of tremendous compassion, for his faceless online students, for great writing, for the young daughter he essentially abandoned 15 years before. Physically, it’s no wonder that Charlie’s heart is giving out (we’re told at the top of the play that he’ll be dead by the weekend), but emotionally, it seems a man this lonely and this full of empathy would tax his heart in any condition.

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There are many intriguing layers to this tale, directed with a sure hand by Jasson Minadakis, and though it’s a sad, sad tale, there is also a fair amount of humor, much of it provided by the acidic teenage daughter, played by Cristina Oeschger, who reunites with her father only because she thinks there might be money in it for her.

Pelczar imbues Charlie’s gargantuan body (outfitted in sweatshirt and sweatpants so grimy they rival his sofa for the things you would most want to avoid contact with) with such feeling, that you immediately root for him, even though the odds are decidedly not in his favor. The wheezing, the strenuous effort to journey from the couch to the walker to the bathroom is arduous and hard to watch, but then there’s Pelczar’s sweet face or Charlie’s even sweeter nature there to remind you of the person underneath all that person. Charlie is not just sweet, either. He’s complicated. He’s a gay man who left his wife and child for a man and has sort of paid the price ever since. He had a great love, but that love broke him, and he’s constantly apologizing. He’s on a rough road, and the compassion and empathy he feels for the world rarely comes back to him.

There’s a flash of kindness from an unlikely friend when a Mormon missionary happens by Charlie’s apartment just as Charlie is in the grip of a scary heart incident. Elder Thomas (Adam Magill) wants desperately to believe his faith can actually help someone and he sees Charlie as perhaps his last chance. But Charlie has a tricky relationship with the Mormon Church, and the nature of that relationship is used as a sort of plot-propelling mystery.

The supporting cast, which also includes Michelle Maxson as Ellie’s at-the-end-of-her-rope mom, is fantastic and fits into the docu-drama world of Hunter’s play with ease. There are moments, especially when the playwright bangs the Moby Dick drum a little hard, when the stark realism veers dangerously close to melodrama, but pitfalls are avoided.

The Whale is a tragedy that ennobles a good man. It’s difficult and challenging but also uniquely beautiful.

Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale continues through Oct. 26 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $35-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Cal Shakes ends season with a vibrant Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues through Sept. 28 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Cal Shakes sculpts a vital, vivacious Pygmalion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The might that is right and Shaw’s Major Barbara

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SO MANY FRAMES: The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw includes, from left, Gretchen Hall as Barbara, Nicholas Pelczar as Adolphus, Stafford Perry as Stephen, Kandis Chappell as Lady Britomart, Tyrell Crews as Charles and Elyse Price as Sarah. Below: Jennifer Clement as Mrs. Baines, Hall as Barbara and Dean Paul Gibson as Andrew. Photos by Pak Han

Might, they say, makes right, but whose might and whose right? Muddled human notions of charity, salvation, integrity and power receive a full-bore workout in George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 comedy/drama/call for revolution, Major Barbara. In the American Conservatory Theater production that opened Wednesday (in association with Theatre Calgary), Shaw – especially his rather extraordinary brain – is the star attraction.

The grand and glorious space that is the Geary Theater sometimes gets the better of director Dennis Garnhum (the artistic director of Theatre Calgary), who can’t always find the non-clumsy way to move the actors around the space for their speech making. And set designer Daniel Ostling, whose gracefully gliding set pieces are a thing of beauty, attempts to fill the vast space with empty frames and windows only to create a burden for the eyes by about the two-hour mark. When the busy-ness of the set starts to interfere with the Shavian verbosity, which occurs toward the end, there’s a problem.

The performances are all sturdy enough, with standout work coming from Nicholas Pelczar as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins, a Greek scholar who gets a whole lot more than he bargained for when he falls for the daughter of a munitions millionaire. Also adding a little edge and effervescence to a nearly three-hour show that intermittently has trouble breaking through the dialogue to find the human pulse, are Kandis Chappell (in full Dowager Countess mode) as a domineering matriarch, Stafford Perry as a milquetoast son perfectly suited to politics and Dean Paul Gibson as a captain of industry who doesn’t give a fig if his bullets, cannons and aerial bombers kill good guys or bad guys as long as the check clears (so to speak).

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What’s exciting here is the clever way Shaw slips us into the world of a fractured English family that could inhabit an Oscar Wilde play, with witty bon mots dropping all over the stage. But the longer we linger with the Undershaft clan, the more we get pulled into the vortex of moral and spiritual dilemma. By the last half hour or so, when the speeches are coming fast and furious (who needs bullets when you have such sharp, explosive words?), audience heads spin trying to keep up with all the arguments, observations and conundrums.

Shaw’s pontificating is positively delicious as when he has Andrew Undershaft, profiteer of war, make this observation:

Let six hundred and seventy fools loose in the street; and three policemen can scatter them. But huddle them together in a certain house in Westminster; and let them go through certain ceremonies and call themselves certain names until at last they get the courage to kill; and your six hundred and seventy fools become a government.

Then a few sentences later, Undershaft goes in for the kill, almost literally:

When you vote you only change the names of the cabinet. When you shoot, you pull down governments, inaugurate new epochs, abolish old orders and set up new.

At this point in the play, the duel is between Undershaft and his soon-to-be son-in-law, Adolphus. What of Barbara, the seemingly major character of the title? She sort of gets lost in the verbal badinage. The play really is a battle for Barbara’s soul, but Gretchen Hall doesn’t make much of an impression in the role. It’s fun to watch her try and save the soul of a violent thug (Brian Rivera) and to watch her squirm when her precious Salvation Army has no qualms taking giant donations from her father or from a whisky maker. But the character that registers most here is Adolphus. So why is his name not in the title? Hello, Dolly! was apparently on cosmic reserve for a 1960s musical. Here’s Shaw’s Dolly in full revolutionary pique as he falls under the Undershaft spell:

I love the common people. I want to arm them against the lawyer, the doctor, the priest, the literary man, the professor, the artist, and the politician, who, once in authority, are the most dangerous, disastrous, and tyrannical of all the fools, rascals, and impostors.

With characters shouting about the saving of souls, the value of mass destruction and the ethics of taking good money from bad business, it’s hard not to wonder how Shaw knew so much about American life in the 21st century, where guns in schools and movie theaters and on seemingly every other block attest to the notion of “my might is the right might” and questionable (at best) money being thrown at nonprofits to shine tarnished images questios the very notion of charity. How can we possibly do good in the world when doing good means doing bad somewhere else along the line? Whose definitions of “good” and “bad” are we using, anyway? Shaw doesn’t really have an answer and, unfortunately, neither do we.

American Conservatory Theater’s Major Barbara continues through Feb. 2 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$140. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Take it on faith: see Marin’s Whipping Man

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Tobie Windham (left) is John, L. Peter Callender (center) is Simon and Nicholas Pelczar is Caleb in the Bay Area premiere of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. Below: Windham’s John and Pelczar’s Caleb fall into the chaos of life after the Civil War. Photos by Kevin Berne

If Matthew Lopez were a miner, he could brag that he uncovered a rich mineral vein of enormous wealth, both cultural and commercial. But Lopez isn’t a miner. He’s a playwright, and though there are similarities to be sure, what Lopez brings to the surface in his fascinating play The Whipping Man is a mostly untold chapter of American history with deep spiritual resonance.

Lopez, whom Bay Area audiences met earlier this year when his play Somewhere ran at TheatreWorks, is a young playwright of note. The Whipping Man is the play that first brought him notice, and it receives its Bay Area premiere courtesy of Marin Theatre Company and co-producer Virginia Stage Company and in association with San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.

The great thing about this co-production is that we are on the latter half of it, which means the cast of Bay Area actors – L. Peter Callender, Nicholas Pelczar and Tobie Windham, all of whom start out being at the top of their game – have had the benefit of a full run in Virginia and extra rehearsal in Marin with director Jasson Minadakis. The result is a riveting two hours of finely tuned performances so in sync with one another the play is elevated to an astonishing level of immediacy and impact.

Act 1 is mostly set-up, as we meet wounded Confederate soldier Caleb (Pelczar) returning to his family’s decimated Richmond, Va., plantation (the ruins of set is by Kat Conley) in mid-April, 1865. The Civil War is over, and though Caleb is thrilled and relieved to meet Simon (Callender), one of his family’s slaves, there’s a new tension between them, especially when Caleb orders Simon to do something instead of asks – as if he were still the owner and Simon still the property.

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With the arrival of John (Windham), another former slave from the estate, the trio is complete, although John brings with him a whole lot of uncertainty. He’s been looting the neighboring plantations, and there’s something he’s not telling. There are, in fact, secrets all around, but there are two pieces of business that need to be addressed more immediately.

The first is Caleb’s leg would – he was shot in the Battle of Petersburg, the final humiliation of four years at war. Simon recognizes gangrene and knows decisive action must be taken to save Caleb’s life. The other issue is Passover. Caleb’s family is Jewish, and the slaves raised on the plantation have also been raised Jewish, so Passover is a major holiday. Simon and John are up for improvising a Seder, though Caleb’s war experience has led him to a crisis of faith.

There’s more juicy drama packed into Act 1 involving emancipation, romance and betrayal, but the real heart of The Whipping Man emerges in Act 2 when the three men begin the ritual of the Passover Seder, and the words about being freed from the bonds of slavery take on even deeper meaning, and the ritual quickly becomes raw emotion.

These extraordinary scenes also beg certain questions, like how is it that Jews in the South had slaves? It’s a fact that they did, but how did a people whose freedom from slavery in Egypt has become a touchstone in their religion, reconcile that with actually owning slaves? And feeling the power of the Passover ritual acted out in those confusing, exciting, dangerous post-war days also exposes the absence of a dignified commemoration or ritual in this country’s relationship with the end of slavery. How do we go from generation to generation ensuring that the enslavement of one people by another never happens again?

Well, theater is ritual, so in a way, The Whipping Man serves a purpose greater than an evening’s entertainment. Lopez is a compassionate writer, and his characters – even the touchy John – are full of complex emotions and, in spite of obvious obstacles, a strong sense of family and kinship to one another.

All three actors are superb, but Callender just ignites the play in Act 2. His Simon conducts the Seder as if it’s the first time such a service has ever been held, with every word and gesture infused with meaning and spiritual connection. It’s a beautiful performance.

On one level, The Whipping Man is a thoroughly enjoyable Civil War melodrama, on another, it’s a much more significant glimpse into the nature of faith and how it connects us and into the upheaval of great historical moments and what we do – or fail to do – in their wake.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright Matthew Lopez for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man continues an extended run through April 28 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Cal Shakes ends season with a moody Hamlet

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Julie Eccles is Queen Gertrude and Leroy McClain is the title character in Hamlet, the California Shakespeare Theater’s final show of the 2012 season. Below: McClain’s Hamlet meets the remains of poor Yorrick in the graveyard. Photos by Kevin Berne

On exactly the kind of temperate night for which they invented outdoor theater, California Shakespeare Theater opened the final show of the summer season. Hamlet, directed by Liesl Tommy (best known for her direction of Ruined at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in spring of last year) clocks in at about 3 hours and 10 minutes, and there are some glorious things in it. But on the whole, this Hamlet left me curiously unmoved.

But first here’s what’s good. Leroy McClain as Hamlet delivers a fascinating performance, pouring his heart and mind into the torrent of words that continuously pours out of the moody Dane’s mouth. You don’t have much of a Hamlet if you’re not riveted by the title character, and McClain certainly puts on a good show, especially when he’s affecting madness to upset the court. Director Tommy does some interesting things with the text, the most intriguing of which involves the famous “To be or not to be” speech, which Hamlet now delivers to Ophelia (Zainab Jah) as he clutches her in his arms. Given Ophelia’s fate in the second half of the play, having her hear this speech is a bold choice.

McClain is a nimble actor with charisma to spare, all of which he needs for a marathon like this. He (and the production) really springs to life with the arrival of the Players (Danny Scheie, Nichoals Pelczar and Mia Tagano). In addition to being a showcase moment for the comic heights and dramatic depths of Scheie, the Player scenes crackled with energy, perhaps because they were so overtly theatrical, when the production as a whole seems somehow strangely untheatrical.

But more of that in a minute.

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The other scene that pulsed with life and passion was the bedroom scene between McClain’s Hamlet and Julie Eccles as his mother, Queen Gertrude. The emotional honesty and intensity of this confrontation, simply played out on and around the queen’s bed, told the story of a disintegrating family better than any other in the production.

Dan Hiatt as a pompous but likeable Polonius wrings laughs and poignancy (except when he has to join the ghost parade with a bloody gut), and because it’s always good to see Hiatt do anything, it’s nice to have him back toward the end as an unsentimental gravedigger.

I liked that the ghost of Hamlet’s father (played by Adrian Roberts, who also plays newly crowned King Claudius) was turned into a jittery zombie with gore peeling off his face, but I found Jake Rodriguez’s eerie sound design much scarier than the ghost himself.

So with all these strong performances, why did this Hamlet only come alive in fits and starts for me? I think it has mainly to do with the concept behind the production – or maybe lack of a clear concept. Clint Ramos’ set is like a post-apocalyptic Holiday Inn, a dreary cement bunker and an empty swimming pool littered with junk ranging from chairs, tattered pink lawn flamingoes, thrift store lamps, stacks of books, children’s toys and the kind of heavy-duty lights you see on construction sites. But then Ramos’ costumes are slick and stylish, beautifully tailored modern gowns and suits. I just plain didn’t get it and never felt the production did anything to clarify the characters, their stories or their landscape, emotional or otherwise.

For this reason, I would say that to enjoy this Hamlet you should be fairly well versed in Hamlet before you get to the theater. It’s pretty apparent something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, but just what that something is remains more cloudy than clear.


California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet continues through Oct. 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free shuttle to and from Orinda BART. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Othello: not a fan but a grudging admirer

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Craig Marker (left) is Iago and Aldo Billingslea is Othello in the Marin Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice. Below: Billingslea with Mairin Lee as Desdemona. Photos by David Allen.

When faced with the prospect of seeing another production of Othello, I usually gird my loins, wipe my nose with a strawberry-embroidered hanky and settle in for a show I know I’m not going to like much. As a theater critic, I suppose I’m not supposed to have a bias for or against certain plays, but that’s really nonsensical when you think about it, especially plays you’ve seen over and over and over again. I’ve been doing the theatrical criticism thing for almost 20 years now, and I’ve seen Desdemona choked (and choked and choked again) a number of times, in good productions and bad. And I’ve never really been moved by the play. Certain performances made an impact, but more on an intellectual than emotional level.

Perhaps I should have skipped the latest Othello at Marin Theatre Company, but the prospect of seeing two actors I admire greatly, Aldo Billingslea and Craig Marker as Othello and Iago respectively, was too much to resist. I have to say I’m glad I saw the production because these two formidable local talents do not disappoint. Watching Billingslea transform from noble warrior to blushing groom to murderous, jealousy-enraged monster is captivating. And Marker’s boyish earnestness somehow makes Iago even more coldhearted than usual. Even from behind a scruffy beard, Marker can’t escape a look of innocence that contrasts sharply with the evil spewing from his lips.

Billingslea and Marker perform a beautifully calibrated duet of provocation and victimization that erupts into a finale can’t help but satisfy when Othello realizes what a tool he’s been and Iago is exposed for the inveterate villain he really is.

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What gets me about Othello is that until that final section when all the plot machinations start to take hold and the bodies start to drop, I really couldn’t care less about any of it. The motivations, the exposition, the supposed justifications for the coming blood bath – it’s all just so much rumbling to me, and none of it really adds to the final act, which would still have a visceral impact without any of it.

So while I’m slogging through the first two-plus hours of the nearly three-hour MTC production directed by artistic director Jasson Minadakis, I have time to notice the set by J.B. Wilson. It’s two towers of a battlement connected by a wooden walkway with half of a big stone sphere visible between the two towers. The more I looked at the set, the more I realized what it reminded me of: Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the sphere is like that giant boulder that nearly steamrollers over Indy in the opening sequence. And the lighting by Kurt Landisman is distinctive as well – very dark and shadowy like Shakespeare noir…or a really moody new restaurant in a hip Cypress neighborhood.

Fight director Dave Maier gets some vigorous sword fighting out of the cast, who hold swords in one hand and mini-shields in the other, so there’s lots of satisfying clanging going on. Speaking of the cast, the supporting players who impressed me most were Liz Sklar as Aemilia, Desdemona’s lady in waiting. Aemilia is such an impressive woman – so powerful, loyal and forthright. You have to wonder what she’s doing with a slime bag like Iago. Anyway, also good in the supporting cast are Nicholas Pelczar as Rodorigo and an underused Dan Hiatt as Desdemona’s pissed-off father. The other players were uneven and often seemed out of their depth with the Shakespearean language.

In spite of all the good things, this is still Othello, a play that tests my patience. In the end, this Othello left me wanting, as so many other productions have, wanting ever so much (you should pardon the expression) Moor.


Shakespeare’s Othello continues through April 22 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$50. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

TheatreWorks’ Pitmen paints poignant arts ed picture

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The titular painters in TheatreWorks’ The Pitmen Painters are (from left) James Carpenter, Nicholas Pelczar, Patrick Jones, Jackson Davis (sitting) and Dan Hiatt as they respond to seeing the work of Vincent VanGogh for the first time. Photo by Tracy Martin

Seeing some of the Bay Area’s best actors collected on one stage is a pleasure in and of itself. But Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters has other things to recommend it like its unapologetic championing of the arts as an essential part of being a fully formed human being.

Bringing this true story to life are James Carpenter, Dan Hiatt, Jackson Davis, Nicholas Pelczar and, in perhaps the most revealing performance, Patrick Jones. They’re all wonderful actors, and to see them interacting and playing off of one another is worth the ticket price alone.

I reviewed the production for the Palo Alto Weekly. You can read the review by clicking here.

Here’s the gist of the review:

To Hall’s credit, he keeps the focus on the art teacher and the miner-artists and everything their success meant in terms of class, creativity and the artistic potential in every person if given the opportunity to express it. There’s no forced romance, no artificial drama, no Hollywood flourishes. But there’s still a lingering feeling that, despite the inspiring real-life story, what we have in “The Pitmen Painters” is less a play than it is a well-argued, well-intentioned plea for more arts and more arts education.


Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters continues through Feb. 12 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit