ACT puts Scrooge in your head this year

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James Carpenter revisits the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in American Conservatory Theater’s A Christmas Carol: On Air, an audio adaptation of the beloved annual production. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Some years I’ve had it up to hear with A Christmas Carol and want nothing to do with the Cratchits, the crutch and bah humbugs. Other years, I feel like there’s never been a more potent perennial, and every human should experience Dickens’ ghost story in one form or another. This year, this mind-bending year, is one of the latter.

American Conservatory Theater has been making holiday hay with Carol for more than 40 years, and in this year of lockdowns and shutdowns and only the memory of audiences, the company has opted to keep the tradition alive, albeit with an audio adaptation that we can listen to from the comfort and safety of our own homes and through the intimacy (if we so choose) of headphones to build the production between our ears.

Director Peter J. Kuo has adapted the adaptation (as it were) by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh from the Dickens novella, and the conceit here is that a group of young adults (all part of ACT’s MFA program), who constitute a social pod, attend a holiday party and do an impromptu reading of the play. Magic (and nifty sound effects) ensue.

Happily, once the reading begins in earnest, veteran actors James Carpenter and Sharon Lockwood show up – he to reprise his excellent performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, and she in a variety of roles, including Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fezziwig and Mrs. Cratchit. Both Carpenter and Lockwood could perform all the parts and make it dazzling, but it’s satisfying just to have them in the mix with enthusiastic young actors.

The MVP here, without question, is sound designer Jake Rodriguez, who essentially has to replace sets, costumes and lights with an evocative soundscape to keep the audience immersed in the world of the play for two hours. Rodriguez has great fun with all the ghostly elements of the story and also incorporates the original score by Karl Lundeberg effectively. Everything about the production is crisp and straightforward and clear, which is a good thing so the Dickens storytelling can shine through.

Other than the running time (two hours is a long time to sit and listen at home), my one real reservation here is that an adult is saddled with the thankless task of playing Tiny Tim, complete with little boy voice. The role is so pivotal to the plot and to the emotional construct of the story that this casting choice simply does not work.

Happily, and occasionally merrily, the production is mostly filled with vibrant performances and that divine Dickensian blend of gloom and cheer. Despair and hope intermingle throughout (landing on the latter, of course), making this whole holiday enterprise feel especially affecting this year.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
ACT’s A Christmas Carol: On Air streams online through Dec. 30. Tickets
are $40–$60. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Imaginary discomfort rules at Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere play Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit includes (from left)Sharon Lockwood as Mrs. Gold, Marilee Talkington as Naomi, Danny Scheie as the Ghost, Susan Lynskey as Sarah Gold and Cassidy Brown as Michael. Below: Talkington (left) and Lynskey star in the new play by San Francisco writer Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The first time I heard the title for the new play by Daniel Handler, the San Francisco writer behind the popular Lemony Snicket books, I was confused. Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit is the title, and it wasn’t the Snickety-y subtitle that perplexed me. It was the notion that comfort could be imaginary. Isn’t comfort comforting no matter where it comes from? You can receive comfort from an external source (a parent, a pet, a narcotic) or you can just imagine comfort (memory, dream, hallucination), but as long as you are comforted, job done…at least for a little while, right?

Surely seeing the play would help me understand the title, but no such luck. Imaginary Comforts opened Thursday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre in a slick world-premiere production directed by Tony Taccone and featuring a cast that boasts some of the best actors the Bay Area has to offer. The play itself seems confused about its comedy, its sincerity, its theatricality. It’s kind of like an imaginary play that may one day find its reason for being – and at one point a character questions the notion of imaginary comfort, which made me want to stand up and shout, “Yes! That!”

Fractured time and narrative make the play something of a puzzle, which is nicely reflected in the hyperkinetic set by Todd Rosenthal. A speedy turntable repositions moving walls and doorways that are framed with strips of light, thus creating the effect of a living comic strip whose pieces quickly fall into and out of place. The central discussion amid all the movement involves death and ghosts and stories, but nothing is really moving or scary or, to be quite honest, terribly engaging.

But it is fairly entertaining for about 90 minutes partly because Taccone knows how to move things along and his actors know how to wring everything they can from Handler’s script. Somehow the premise of an inept rabbi engaging with a grieving family over the course of several years never fully comes to life, in spite of all the spinning, brightly lit walls.

At the heart of the play, and, indeed, in the lumpiest part of the title, is a story told by a father to a young daughter about a childless couple that made a deal with a rabbit to take one of its many children in exchange for keeping the entire rabbit brood safe. The rabbit child turns into a human child, and when it comes time to offer comfort, care and safety to the rabbit family, the human parent kills the rabbit parent and serves it for dinner. The ghost of the rabbit then haunts the humans, reminding them of their unfulfilled promises. This story emerges as important when its teller, the father, has died, and his adult daughter offers it to the rabbi who will be leading the funeral service.

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There are two problems with this. First, the rabbi, Naomi, has no idea what to do with the story or a way to discern what it tells her about the deceased that she might be able to share with the congregation. The second is that the story, as fables go, just isn’t compelling. Even when the view of the fable shifts to an entirely different take on it, there doesn’t seem to be much there there – certainly not enough upon which to build a play.

As Rabbi Naomi, the always-appealing Marilee Talkington has the daunting task of making her a believable character. She’s highly self-aware in that she knows what a bad rabbi she is. Her entire rabbinical career seems to have been undermined and irretrievably damaged by the upending of a bottle of kosher wine at a key moment in her training. As a result, she bumbles through her job, bemoaning how bad she is at it and how she occupies the lowest rung of rabbi service even though there’s supposedly no hierarchy among rabbis. But all that self-awareness doesn’t make her any less inept. If anything, it makes her worse.

We meet her in the throes of a blind date with a self-described “psychic adviser” (the enigmatic Michael Goorjian) who is not Jewish, though he said he was in his computer dating profile, and she is perturbed that he thought her job was “rabbit” due to either her typo or his misreading. Either way, it’s a terrible date, though it allows Naomi to let us know (the first of many times) what a bad rabbi she is. Then we get to see her ineptitude in action when she meets the Gold family. Marcus Gold (Julian López -Morillas seen in flashbacks) has died. His widow (a funny but under-used Sharon Lockwood) can only moan and cry. His best friend (Jarion Monroe) seethes with anger, and his daughter (a wry Susan Lynskey) is lost in the chaos of death and gets no comfort from her husband (Cassidy Brown).

In a forced bit of coincidence, Naomi’s blind date has a connection to the grieving family, one that involves that odd rabbit fable and an actor (the sublime Danny Scheie) hired to actually play the ghost of the rabbit. Even as time passes and bits of plot and character are revealed, the play never comes fully into focus, and the recurring motifs – the story of the Jews, “the phrase I would use is…,” sucking at your job, being haunted by old stories, the whole rabbit fable – become less impactful and more annoying.

But there are flashes of light in the writing, like a potent delineation between “nonsense” and “bullshit” made by one of the characters. And the frazzled Naomi gets off a good laugh with her response to the rabbit fable. Upon hearing that the humans ate the rabbit, she sputters, “Rabbit isn’t even kosher! They’re for gentiles and Easter. Jesus.” She also has the gall to say, during a moment of tension amid the grieving Golds, “This is a difficult time for all of us,” which is kind of hilarious.

It is a difficult time for all of us, Naomi. Would that there was some comfort – imaginary or otherwise – in this jumble of play.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Daniel Handler’s Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit continues through Nov. 19 in a Berkeley Repertory Theatre production at the Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2900 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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 www.berkeleyrep.org.

Fractured tales confound in ACT’s Love and Information

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Cindy Goldfield (left) and Dominique Salerno star in Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a collection of 57 scenes that challenge audiences to consider the fateful, intimate dance between the virtual and the real, and the ways we filter data in the Information Age. Below:Joel Bernard, Salerno and Christina Liang in a short scene of love, information or both. Photos by Kevin Berne

Confounding and captivating in equal measure, American Conservatory Theater’s debut production in the newly renovated Strand Theater certainly lives up to its title. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information sounds like a generic title for just about anything in our short-attention-span world, on or off line, and that seems to be part of the point.

More like a curated collection of scenes and short films than an actual play, Love and Information breaks down into 57 scenes (like Heinz, 57 varieties) for a total running time about about 100 minutes. There are 12 actors deftly assaying hundreds of characters (or sketches of characters, really), and the whole thing is slickly, fluidly directed by Casey Stangl.

Some scenes are more memorable than others – a man attempting to share mnemonic games with a woman is delightfully surreal (“the hedgehog is in the microwave”); a brother and sister redefine their relationship in a shocking way; a text battle between wife and philandering husband takes place under the surface of polite dinner conversation; a young woman describes to a friend what it’s like growing up unable to feel any pain at all; a grandmother attempts to teach a grandchild about fear; a man who experiments on chick brains regales a date with tales of decapitation and brain slicing. And the list does go on.

About half the scenes feel like they’re part of a bigger, more interesting play. The other half feels like filler.

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It’s all very proficiently done, and Stangl, working with scenic designer Robert Brill, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu and projection designer Micah J. Stieglitz show off the Strand beautifully. The sound, the sight lines, the vibrancy of the room itself – it’s all thrilling and makes for an ideal second ACT stage.

What I didn’t get from the play was satisfaction. There isn’t much connective tissue here, and that seems to be part of the point. We’re fragmented, we’re chaotic, we’re filtered. Technology has increased our options for communications but has done the quality of communication no favors. That comes through here, but what I missed (after hitting the wall at about the one-hour mark) is that moment when it all comes together, when the fragments coalesce into something bigger and more meaningful. And though the end incorporates an appealing slice of Electric Light Orchestra, I never felt the whole became more than the sum of its attractive, often intriguing parts.

Maybe that’s what Churchill is after here: there is no sum game anymore. It’s all just parts. Maybe so. But as long as those parts keep coming on the stage of the Strand, I’m happy. San Francisco’s newest theater should be its most active and alive for many years to come.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Love and Information director Casey Stengl about her work on the play for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information continues through Aug. 9 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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 www.calshakes.org.

In praise of Anthony and Sharon and Lorri and Spike

EXTENDED THROUGH OCT. 25!
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Sharon Lockwood (left) is Sonia, Heather Alicia Simms (center) is Cassandra and Anthony Fusco is Vanya in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the season opener for Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Mark Junek (center) as Spike does a reverse striptease, much to the shock/delight of Fusco as Vanya, Caroline Kaplan as Nina and Lorri Holt as Masha. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.

If you spend any time at all going to theater in the San Francisco Bay Area, you soon see that we have some extraordinary homegrown talent populating our local stages. That’s not empty boosterism – rah, Bay Area! – but something nearing actual fact – rah, working Bay Area actors in it for the long haul! In just the last month or so, Marin Theatre Company, TheatreWorks, Aurora Theatre Company, American Conservatory Theater and Magic Theatre have opened their seasons with at least one dazzling, shake-your-head-in-wonder performance by a Bay Area actor.

Now Berkeley Repertory Theatre gives a triple scoop of local actor goodness in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the local premiere of Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning comedy. Playing the titular siblings, whose community theater-actor parents had a thing for Chekhov, are Anthony Fusco as Vanya, Sharon Lockwood as Sonia and Lorri Holt as Masha. Watching these three seasoned pros work together is a joy, to put it mildly. They have craft and nuance and real connection (with the audience and each other), and it genuinely feels like they’re having fun up there together.

Granted, Durang’s play, though rooted in the world of Chekhov and tinged with some of the same sadness borne of lives barely lived, is a jaunty vehicle for the talents of great actors. In this world, everybody is carbonated, some more than others, and everybody gets a chance to, if you’ll pardon the expression, pop their cork.

At the start, it would seem that Vanya and Sonia, now living in the country home they grew up in following the long, slow death of their parents, have absolutely no fizz left in them at all. Vanya is reasonably content – watch him take simple joy in a good cup of coffee and sunrise from the morning room – but Sonia is a lament on legs. Life has passed her by, and at 52, she has nothing to live for. She is, in effect, mourning her life in the morning room.

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Then sister Masha arrives, her international movie-star fame whirling around her like a dervish. She has lived more lives (and had more failed marriages) than her brother and sister could ever dream of having. Her current infatuation is a boy toy named Spike (Mark Junek), a wannabe actor to whom shirts and pants are but fleeting garments. He craves attention and cannot stop moving, undulating, teasing, texting and flirting with everyone. Junek’s performance is so deft, so physically alive he might as well be a modern dancer performing “Ode to 21st-Century ADHD.”

To continue the Chekhovian theme, a winsome, starstruck young lady from across the pond (literally, across the pond just outside the house) comes wandering over hoping to meet the famous Masha. Her name is Nina, naturally, and she ends up performing in a play Vanya (whom she calls Uncle Vanya just to clarify, for anyone who might be asleep, that Chekhov is the godfather of this comedy) has written, inspired by a scene from The Seagull.

Veering entirely away from Chekhov, Durang also throws in a cleaning lady named Cassandra (Heather Alicia Simms) who, like her namesake, has the power to foretell the future. In her case, though, the system is a little herky-jerky, but she gets it right a lot of the time. More the point, whenever she goes into a trance or brings voodoo into the mix, the audience goes wild with joy because Simms is so much fun to watch.

Director Richard E.T. White, returning to Berkeley Rep after an almost 20-year absence, knows that this is a light play. There are shadows to be sure, and some of it is almost poignant, but for nearly three hours, the experience is about the laughs and the mash-up of highbrow Chekhov and lowbrow pop culture and, most of all, the moments when the characters explode in effervescent bursts.

Fusco’s moment comes in the second act when Vanya has a major flip-out and decries everything about the present in favor of the gentler past. It’s a masterful tirade, and Fusco gives it all he’s got. Holt’s vainglorious Masha has multiple snit fits, not the least of which involves a costume part, her Snow White costume and a demand that everyone else be dwarfs (Spike at least gets to be Prince Charming). But perhaps Holt’s funniest moment comes when Masha attempts to realign her aura from the negative to the positive – or as positive as Masha can get.

Lockwood’s Sonia is, simply, a dream. Debbie Downer for the first part of the play, Sonia comes to life at the costume party when she makes herself pretty and sparkly and starts speaking in an imitation of Dame Maggie Smith in Neil Simon’s California Suite (for which she won an Oscar playing an actress who loses the Oscar). We watch Sonia come to life – she is re-carbonated, and it’s a beautiful thing.

The entire cast is a delight, but there’s special pleasure in watching Fusco and Lockwood and Holt bring their unique talents to bear in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a zany family comedy with the zing of sparkling wine and, thanks to marvelous actors, the occasional tang of real champagne.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Christopher Durang for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues an extended run through Oct. 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-657-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

A Night to remember as Cal Shakes opens season

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Dena Martinez (far left) as Sacajawea, Sharon Lockwood (left) as William Clark, Dan Hiatt (center) as Meriwether Lewis and Sean San José as Juan José in California Shakespeare Theater’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José by Richard Montoya, directed by Jonathan Moscone. Below: (from left) Tyee Tilghman as Ben Pettus, Margo Hall as Viola Pettus, San José and Martinez. Photos by Kevin Berne.


Spring and early summer 2013 may well be remembered as the Great Montoya Surge.

In April, Richard Montoya – one third of the legendary San Francisco-born comedy trio Culture Clash – premiered a play with Campo Santo called The River (read the review here), and it was funny and brash and heartfelt and messy and pretty wonderful. It had to do with, among other things, death and immigration, and it made you crave more Montoya work.

We didn’t have to wait long. Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José opened the California Shakespeare Theater season Saturday on a night so warm and beautiful under the stars in Orinda you wonder why every play can’t be done outdoors (how quickly we forget those freezing cold, windy, foggy nights when nary a star is visible). The play, developed with Culture Clash and Jo Bonney (who has directed earlier productions of the play, including its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the original commissioner of the work), is wild, messy, funny, irreverent and heartfelt. It’s about immigration (not so much about death) and about the strength of a nation built on and still thriving from the hard work of its diverse citizenry, most of whom are or descend directly from immigrants.

Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone attempts to contain Montoya’s manic energy in a 105-minute production that crams in so many references, both historical and pop-cultural, that it’s impossible to appreciate them all. There’s not a sour note in Moscone’s excellent cast, which is full of actors that seem to be loving the comic whirlwind, which has, among other personages, Sacajawea in braces and headgear, Lewis and Clark as egotistical buffoons, Celia Cruz (for no apparent reason), Neil Diamond, Teddy Roosevelt, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mormon missionaries and Abraham Lincoln (using his Academy Award as a hand weight, naturally).

What keeps it all centered is the performance of Sean San José as Juan José, a recent Mexican immigrant who, after fighting corrupting influences on the Mexican police force, leaves his wife and infant son to try for a better, less morally compromising life across the border. He has his green card but needs to spend the night studying up before his citizenship test in the morning. Before he can delve too deeply into questions like, “Name the original 13 colonies,” he falls asleep. And the ensuing dream/warped history pageant is the bulk of the play.

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San José is Dorothy in this wild American Oz, with episodes that range from downright silly (he uses dead rabbits as nunchucks) to the incredibly sweet. During a stay in West Texas, he encounters the Ku Klux Klan (Dan Hiatt as a local judge), an African-American couple saving infants’ lives during the flu epidemic of 1918 (Margot Hall and Tyee Tilghman as Viola and Benjamin Pettus) as well as some of his ancestors. His encounter with Jackie Robinson (Tilghman again) is also a rare quiet moment that is quite moving, as is a stop at a radio station in the Manzanar WWII internment camp, where Sharon Lockwood is a ferocious teacher of the young Japanese detainees and Todd Nakagawa is an ultra-cool teen feeling deep conflict about his country, his heritage and the war.

Two MVPs in this game cast are Brian Rivera in a number of roles, including Juan José the First, and Richard Ruiz in drag and out (and especially as a zaftig Neil Diamond belting out a re-written “America”), are hilarious and ferocious in equal measure – like they’re directly channeling that Culture Clash electricity.

Set designer Erik Flatmo and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau keep things simple to keep up with the fast pace and the hairpin turns, but special shout out to costumer Marin Schnellinger for adding a whole lot of zest and humor with his colorful creations.

Before Juan can depart his dream world, he has to suffer through a contentious town hall meeting in which every viewpoint is spewed and he’s reminded that he’s about to “pledge allegiance to a country that doesn’t want him.” We get a sweet “Tonight You Belong to Me” on the ukulele from Dena Martinez and an ending that is more poignant than you might expect from such a zany history lesson. The whole vibe of the show feels a lot like mature Culture Clash (no surprise there) but also like a San Francisco Mime Troupe show when that company was at its best. There are strange elements here, like a narrator who only appears to introduce the flu epidemic scene, and a Japanese game show sequence toward the end of the show (featuring a funny Nakagawa and Lockwood) is probably one more layer of zany the show doesn’t need.

But this American Night – especially on a gorgeous Northern California night – is historically hilarious and the most entertaining way imaginable to learn the three branches of American government (and the original 13 colonies).

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Richard Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José continues in a California Shakespeare Theater production through June 23 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

ACT’s Metaphor: a bright balloon that pops

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George Hampe is former military sniper Dean Trusk and Anthony Fusco is Oliver Denny, a military employment counselor in the world premiere of George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor, an American Conservatory Theater production. Below: Sharon Lockwood (left) as Frannie Trusk, Fusco and René Augesen as Helen Denny make the best of an awkward church encounter. Photos by Kevin Berne.

It seems there are two plays battling it out in American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere of Dead Metaphor by Canadian plawyright George F. Walker. Three of the characters are broadly comic – one foot in the real world, the other in a dark comedy of extremes. And the other three characters are just plain folks, getting by as best they can with anger, fear and desperation causing storms on a daily basis.

Both of those plays are pretty interesting, at least in Act 1. The comedy is especially biting as the three exaggerations – a politician running for reelection (the marvelous René Augesen getting to show of a real flair for biting comedy), her increasingly agitated husband (a grimly funny Anthony FuscoTom Bloom) acting erratically because of fatal tumor bearing down on his brain.

These three characters are able to wallow in the comedy extremes because the other three characters keep them grounded. Dean (George Hampe) is a military sniper returned from war in the Middle East. He’s been looking for gainful employment for months but with no luck. He’s about to re-marry his ex-wife (Rebekah Brockman), not because she’s pregnant but because she only divorced him while he was deployed because she couldn’t stomach the thought of being a military widow. And Dean’s mom (Sharon Lockwood doing wonders in a mostly thankless role) is suffering through her husband’s brain tumor-inspired dementia.

In the set-up, Walker’s play, under the keen direction of Irene Lewis, crackles with humor and potential. Whenever Augesen or Fusco is on stage, laughs are guaranteed as we get to know Helen Denny, Augesen’s unscrupulous, immoral candidate, and Fusco’s Oliver, a sensitive, intelligent man increasingly terrified by the monster his wife has become.

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When Dean goes to see Oliver about getting him a job, worlds collide and Dean ends up working as an assistant to Helen, much to the chagrin of Dean’s father, who, even in his addled state, can work up a full steam of hate directed toward conveniently conservative, opportunistic Helen and all the brain-dead politicos she represents. (“I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore,” is one piercing insult lobbed at Helen, and she absorbs it with astonishing aplomb.)

Act 2 starts to misfire as the satirical comedy and the real world begin to make uneasy intersections, and then, by the end, the whole play has self-destructed. It’s easy to feel compassion for Dean, who, as embodied by Hampe, is a well-adjusted young man who has been expertly trained for military murder but who can’t catch a break in real life. Potential employers tend to get jittery when they find out he was an effective sniper. Walker makes his point about the world our veterans face upon their return, but by the end, he has clouded that message and not taken Dean (or his ex-wife) into believable emotional terrain (even for a bleak comedy). Walker demonstrates some sharp shooting comedy then misses his target entirely.

Walker’s cop-out conclusion is just the last wrong turn of many in a act that expects us to make leaps involving plot and emotion that simply aren’t earned. So it’s a good thing these actors are so solid and the production itself is so slick (the dual turntables of Christopher Barreca’s prove incredibly effective). Otherwise, you might be tempted to say Dead Metaphor is dead not on arrival but on conclusion.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright George F. Walker for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor continues through March 24 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$95. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Theater review: `War Music’

Opened April 1 at American Conservatory Theater

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

 

Not much music, not much war in ACT’s academic `War Music’
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American Conservatory Theater’s world-premiere War Music is a lot like a college course on the Greeks – it’s long and confusing, but unlike those dry academic lectures, at least this one has a better-than-average audio-visual presentation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Countdown to ACT’s `Carol’


James Carpenter (center) is Scrooge in American Conservatory Theater’s annual production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Kevin Berne

American Conservatory Theater’s annual production of A Christmas Carol is in full swing in downtown San Francisco. Rather than reviewing this holiday perennial, let’s just hit some of the major points. Herewith, in descending order, some reasons to see the show. (To read the complete list, visit my theater page here.)

10. Before and after the show you get to wander around the festive Union Square area, which, despite the general mood of the nation, is rich with decoration and holiday cheer. The ice rink in Union Square, just under the enormous, beautifully decorated tree, is especially nice.

9. The special effects, especially where the ghosts are concerned, are marvelous. The first appearance by Jacob Marley’s ghost is a doozy, and the giant Ghost of Christmas Future is creepy in all the right ways (young audience members should probably be at least 4 years old to see this show).

8. During the Fezziwig’s ball, choreographer Val Caniparoli goes to town with the joyous dancing. His moves for the children are especially charming.

7. Speaking of children, the youngest members of the cast are wonderful. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Noah Pawl Silverman St. John is a notable Boy Scrooge, and Lauren Safier is a whirlwind of affection as his sister, Little Fan.

6. The not-so-enjoyable aspects of the production (the sketchy set, the wan music) are trumped by the better aspects of the show and by the story itself. That Charles Dickens knew a thing or two about entertaining while moralizing.

5. Nicholas Pelczar adds a welcome jolt of real holiday feeling as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. His unfurling of a red scarf as a gift for old Ebenezer is one of the show’s simplest yet most enduring images.

4. The costumes by Beaver Bauer are gorgeous and funny (see No. 3). The colors, textures and patterns swirl around the stage like a confectioner’s dream.

3. The dancing Spanish Onions (Isabella Ateshian and Ella Ruth Francis), Turkish Figs (Rachel Share-Sapolsky and Kira Yaffe) and French Plums (Megan Apple and Megumi Nakamura) bring a whole lot of charm to the Ghost of Christmas Present’s dissertation on abundance.

2. Some great Bay Area actors sink their considerable chops into delicious supporting roles. Ken Ruta as the ghost of Jacob Marley is a delight, as is Sharon Lockwood as Scrooge’s char woman, Mrs. Dilber, and as the festive Mrs. Fezziwig. Jarion Monroe, in a curly red wig, is adorable as Mr. Fezziwig, and Cindy Goldfield and Stephen Barker Turner are warm and fuzzy as the Cratchits, impoverished only in economic terms.

1. James Carpenter’s performance as Scrooge is reason enough to see this production. He’s a brilliant actor and breathes life into this chestnut of a character. The production surrounding him isn’t always up to his level, but he lifts the entire experience to an appropriately Dickensian level.
You can also read my review of ACT’s A Christmas Carol in the San Francisco Chronicle here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

A Christmas Carol continues through Dec. 27 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $18-$102. Call 415-479-2ACT or visit www.act-sf.org

Photo at right: Ken Ruta is the Ghost of Jacob Marley in ACT’s A Christmas Carol. Photo by Kevin Berne