Wilder’s genius shines in Shotgun’s Our Town

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El Beh as Emily and Joshua Schell as George share strawberry ice cream sundaes in the Shotgun Players production of Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Below: Sam Jackson as Mrs. Soames loves a good Grover’s Corners wedding. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

When it comes to the rituals of the New Year – making and abandoning resolutions, vowing to live more fully and with intention, trying not to let time slip away so quickly by living more fully in the present – the most powerful thing you could do for yourself is head over to the Ashby Stage in Berkeley and see Shotgun Players’ excellent production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

This 1938 masterpiece has long been my favorite American play, and aside from its structural genius, its Expressionistic (and still unmatched) theatricality balanced with genuine emotion, Our Town is the self-help book embedded in our nation’s consciousness. I’ve seen the play dozens of times in straightforward productions (like Shotgun’s) and over-produced and over-thought re-imaginings, in musical and film versions, in schools and on the professional stage, and every time I come away with something new. More than any other, I feel Our Town in other works when they succeed in connecting audience to play or when they tap into simple truths that need constant reiteration about what the hell we’re even doing on this planet.

If I could start every new year with a production of Our Town as engaging and as powerful as director Susannah Martin’s, I would gladly do so. The holidays, and especially New Year’s, are a time when we’re prone to being more thoughtful and retrospective anyway, so we’re already primed for Wilder’s musing on time, memory and cracking the shell of what we know as everyday life. Walking into the Ashby Stage (a former church whose pews have become increasingly more comfortably in Shotgun’s tenure there) at this time of year, we’re ready for Wilder to bring it all on: the prosaic, the nostalgic, the poetic, the awesome, the mind-blowing, the heart-wrenching – all the malleable gunk that joins each moment of our lives to another and to each other.

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In some ways, with this play, you need to set it up, let it go and get out of the way. Martin, her designers and cast, do that with their own smart, deeply felt choices. The performance space itself, as designed by Nina Ball, has a huge impact on the play before it even starts. Where there’s usually a stage there are now audience members. The stage where the actors do their work is now more in the center of the room, although in another canny move, actors spend a lot of time sitting in and moving through the audience. There’s very little division between audience and play, which is just as it should be.

Ball and lighting designer Heather Basarab dangle bare bulbs the length of the entire theater, casting a warm glow and making the audience quite visible for much of the play. If part of the play’s effect is creating a sense of community in a vast universe, Martin and her crew do a beautiful job of allowing that to happen.

Madeline H.D. Brown strikes a match and lights her pipe as she begins, in her role as Stage Manager, to tell us all about Grover’s Corners in 1901. She’s a wise and trustworthy guide through this case study of small-town American life as microcosm for human existence. There’s no phony New England crust to her, which is a relief, but she retains a healthy sense of detachment and humor.

That no-nonsense attitude filters down through the entire cast. Tim Kniffin makes an especially strong impression as a thoughtful Doc Gibbs. In a scene where he chides son George (Josh Schell) for not helping his mother more, Kniffin turns a scolding into something much more emotional between father and son. It’s a powerful moment when George’s ego gets its first check – he gets another ego smackdown from neighbor Emily Webb (El Beh) that is so effective he marries her.

Hardworking mothers (Michelle Talagarow as Mrs. Webb and Molly Noble as Mrs. Gibbs) keep the world spinning, choir practice keeps the gossip flowing (especially when the topic is the tippling of Simon Stimson (Christopher W. White,one of those suffering souls not meant for small-town life) and weddings and funerals keep the community tightly knit. In other words, it’s all pretty ordinary in extraordinary ways, and then, in Act 3, one of the most wondrous pieces of writing in American drama, Wilder takes a leap of imagination that remains staggering in its effect. Everything he has done in the play up to this point comes into play and brings everything together. We go from mundane to cosmic in an instant and never go back.

In three acts over 2 1/2 hours, this Our Town never lags and never panders. It’s sharp at some points, poignant in others, devastating and inspiring. It’s filled with the friction of warm memory crashing into harsh reality, made all the more powerful under the light of the stars.

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town continues through Jan. 25 in a Shotgun Players production at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby St., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

2012 flasback: 10 to remember

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James Carpenter and Stacy Ross in Magic Theatre’s Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, the best play of the year. Photo by Jennifer Reiley Below: the cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, another highlight of the Bay Area theater year. Photo by Kevin Berne.

One of the things I love about Bay Area theater is that picking a Top 10 list is usually a breeze. My surefire test of a great show is one I can remember without having to look at anything to remind me about it. The entire list below was composed in about five minutes, then I had to go look through my reviews to make sure they were all really this year. They were, and it was a really good year.

10. “The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden” by Thornton Wilder, part of Wilder Times, Aurora Theatre Company

9. The White Snake by Mary Zimmerman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

8. Tenderloin by Annie Elias with Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Kelly, Leigh Shaw, David Sinaiko and David Westley Skillman, Cutting Ball Theater

7. The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson, American Conservatory Theater

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6. The Aliens by Annie Baker, San Francisco Playhouse

5. The Hundred Flowers Project by Christopher Chen, Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation

4. Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe, California Shakespeare Theater

3. Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, Marin Theatre Company

2. The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, American Conservatory Theater

1. Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, Magic Theatre

Playwright Annie Baker appears twice on this list and could have appeared a third time for Aurora’s Body Awareness. This was the year of Annie Baker in the Bay Area – the first time her work was done here, and with any luck, not her last.

The most valuable player award in this list goes to Stacy Ross, who was extraordinary in #1 (Any Given Day) and #10 (“The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden”). In Any Given Day, she appeared opposite James Carpenter, another valuable player, and to see two of the Bay Area’s best actors work opposite each other in a remarkable play was sheer theatrical joy.

Three of the shows on this list – The Normal Heart, The Scottsboro Boys and The White Snake – all originated at other places, but that doesn’t make them any less brilliant or make ACT or Berkeley Rep any less canny for having the wherewithal and smarts to present them to local audiences.

Another name that is on this list twice is George C. Wolfe, represented as the adapter of Zora Neale Hurston’s Spunk, seen in a joyous production at Cal Shakes, and as director of the riveting and emotionally intense The Normal Heart at ACT.

There are two new plays here (#5, Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project and #8, Cutting Ball’s ensemble-created Tenderloin). They couldn’t have been more different, but they were both illuminating and exciting and felt a whole lot bigger than the small spaces in which they were taking place (in scope and importance, not in size).

As ever, thank you for reading Theater Dogs. This is a labor of love, and it would be silly for me to be here without you.

Happy New Year.

Thornton, a Wilder and crazy (wonderful) guy

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The family (from left, Stacy Ross, Patrick Russell, Heather Gordon) reads the billboards they pass as father (Søren Oliver) drives them through Trenton and Camden in “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” part of Aurora Theatre Company’s Wilder Times. Below: Infants Tommy (Patrick Russell, left) and Moe (Brian Trybom, right) discuss life in “Infancy,” the first play in the Wilder Times quartet. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Of the four short Thornton Wilder plays that comprise Aurora Theatre Company’s Wilder Times, one is grating, one is darkly funny, one is poignant and one is so brilliant, so moving it almost erases the memory of the other three.

To begin with, these four one-acts were not written to be performed together, but director Barbara Oliver and her Aurora crew saw links between the first two, “Infancy” and “Childhood,” written in 1962, and “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” and “The Long Christmas Dinner,” both written in 1931. Together, they form a sort of piquant portrait of human lives, beginning to end, with special attention given to family dynamics. It’s interesting that the plays more concerned with death and time were written first, and the plays dealing with our most formative years were written 30 years later.

“Infancy,” whose most notable feature is two man babies in giant prams, is the most outright comic piece of the evening, but it’s also grating in canny way. These babies (Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom are frustrated and upset, as babies often are. They can’t communicate properly with their mothers, so they break into loud, tough-talking brutes to get their message across.

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Wilder’s dip into childhood grows murkier, and therefore more interesting, in “Childhood,” as the eldest of three siblings (Marcia Pizzo) concocts elaborate games for her younger siblings (Heather Gordon and Russell), the most involved being the one where they’re orphans after the accidental deaths of their parents. What begins as child’s play evolves into a dark dream in which mother (Stacy Ross) and father (Trybom) become actors in the death fantasies of their children. Kind of creepy, but really interesting.

Act 2 features Wilder’s two most famous short plays, and they’re full of the same kind of seemingly sentimental but actually quite trenchant and profound musings on human existence that make Our Town one of the best American plays ever written. In “The Long Christmas Dinner,” we watch one ever-changing, ever-evolving family sit down to Christmas dinner over 90 years in about 30 minutes. It’s a dazzling piece of writing full of life and death and grief and getting by. Children age from infancy to dotage, stories are told and re-told, traditions come and go, all beautifully performed by Oliver’s cast.

The stand-out here is “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” a simple story of a New Jersey mom, dad and two kids driving down state to see their married daughter/sister after an illness. That’s it for plot, but Wilder fills the play with stark emotion and powerful relationships. This apparently happy family has seen major loss, and there are raging currents of sadness running through their journey.

From the backseat, mom (Ross), keeps saying to her husband, (Søren Oliver) things like, “You know what’s best.” But no one in that car, including the son (Russell) and daughter (Gordon), believes that dad, sweet as he is, is the one who’s in charge. It’s all about mom. She loves this family of hers ferociously and is doing everything in her considerable powers to ensure their happiness, safety and general well being.

Ross’ performance is revelatory. This mother figure is as complicated and as admirable as any I’ve seen on stage. Even a small spat with the son ends up being a major emotional catharsis. And the reunion with the married daughter (an extraordinary turn by Pizzo) is fraught with grief and comfort and release.

Wilder demonstrates so powerfully that length matters far less than emotionally charged, expertly sculpted content. We can experience nearly a century of life and death in a half an hour and the full breadth and complexity of a flawed, functional, loving family in one quick road trip. It’s genius, and it’s great theater.

Thornton Wilder’s Wilder Times continues through Dec. 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $35-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Where there’s a Will…

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Playwright Will Eno. Photo below by Farzad Owrang.

Recently I had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with playwright Will Eno, whose Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and other plays closes this weekend at Cutting Ball Theater.

Read the interview in the San Francisco Chronicle here.

There was more interview than there was room in the newspaper, so please enjoy the rest of the brilliant Mr. Eno’s responses.

Q: Dogs tend to pop up in your work, or more specifically, the deaths of dogs. Does this mean you’re a dog lover or the opposite?

A: I am solidly and proudly a dog lover. I even sometimes think of this as an enlightened position, a paradoxically humane approach to the world. Other times, though, I worry that I love dogs because I love to imagine a world in which there are only about three total feelings and three total needs, and it never gets more complicated than that. “Yes, I want to go for a walk. Yes, I’m hungry. Yes, thank you, I would like to climb up on your leg. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go around in circles and then fall asleep until I wake up barking and run over to the door.” The great dogs in my life have made me feel like I’m a good and trustworthy person. They allow you to live on or near an essential level that is just fairly basic and stable needs, and once those are taken care of, it’s all cats and shiny hubcaps and tennis balls.

Q: Mr. Theatre nods in the direction of Shakespeare and the “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It. What in your canon do you think might inspire a nod from Mr. Shakespeare (given we could overcome his inconvenient death)?

A: The good thing about this is that we can’t overcome his death, convenient or not, and so the level of abstraction here is high enough that I won’t worry about seeming arrogant by even trying to answer. I could possibly imagine him hearing Thom Pain’s line to someone in the audience, “I have that same shirt,” and thinking, “Hey, that’s not a bad way to accomplish the thing that just got accomplished.” Another one might be a line in my play The Flu Season where, after one narrator has narrated a scenario in which a lot of terrible stuff is about to be reversed and erased by a change of setting, the change of setting does not occur, the terrible stuff continues, and the other narrator says, coldly and flatly, “Oops.”
Q: Do people ever think you’re Brian Eno and then get mad when your plays turn out not to be Music for Airports concerts?

A: It happens less and less that someone will ask if I’m related to Brian Eno, and I regard this as a bad sign for the culture at large. I just found out about a month ago, there is a small chance that we are, very distantly, related. I believe we both travel under a misspelled version of a French name, “Henault.” Mine was changed about five generations ago when some relatives who couldn’t spell came down from Canada. I don’t know what his story is. He’s someone I really admire. He has a kind of genius that expresses itself both at the very scientific level and, as well, at the level of the lullaby.

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Q: When Berkeley Rep produced your TRAGEDY: a tragedy in 2008 I recall audiences having extremes in their reactions, from thinking it was hilarious and brilliant to walking out mid-performance. How much does the audience’s experience with your work matter to you?

A: It means a lot, good or bad, when you’re sitting right there. But then time passes. That play, to me, is about death and anxiety and how we try to talk about unspeakable things. Also, around the time I was starting writing it, my mom was having terrible insomnia for the first time in her life, and I was feeling a lot of sympathy for how lonely and scary a night can be to some people. Those are the memorable things. As for my response to people’s responses, there’s not tons of nuance there – it hurts when people hate something, and feels good when they like it, but it’s good to remember you’re not owed either response. I loved that cast and loved working with Les Waters and Berkeley Rep and thought the production was really great. So I’m pretty sure that the people who hated it, hated what I wrote and how I wrote it, and not anything else, which is not exactly a good feeling, but at least a very clear one. It’s good to try to accept that thoughtful and intelligent and decent people might really hate what you do.
Q: If you could go to a show with any of the characters in these short plays – Lady Grey, Mr. Theatre, Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Jack and Jill – who would it be and why?

A: That’s an interesting question. I tend to resist giving that particular kind of reality to characters I’ve written, partly because I’m happy enough with the reality they achieve within a theatrical production and partly because it always seems weird to me when playwrights do that. But since you ask, it would probably be one of the women. Romulus Linney, who was a good good guy, and who just died over the winter, has a beautiful short play called F.M. I can’t think of the name of the main female character, but, she very much comes to mind as a fictional character I’d like to meet. I don’t know if we’d go to a play, though. Maybe we’d see some music or go to an aquarium.
Q: You’ve been compared to all kinds of people, from Samuel Beckett to Jon Stewart to Thornton Wilder. How would you describe what you do and how you do it to a non-theater-going person?

A: I try not to get too carried away with the comparisons, as I understand that we all need the convenience of a category, a point of reference. Think of how many incredibly different things are described by us saying, “It’s like riding a bike.” I don’t know why I thought of this, but, my cousin James said to me, about the character Thom Pain, after seeing the production in New York, “At first, I didn’t trust that guy. And then, I completely trusted that guy.” That always made me feel good. I would like to describe what I do by saying that I’m trying to create trust against terrible and even impossible odds, and then allow for something great and new to happen within that field of trust. That’s probably a little highfalutin or overreaching, but, hey, so shoot me, I’m highfalutin. Truly, I don’t think I’m up to anything too mysterious, or esoteric. I think it’s just something about trying to create or allow for the audience a certain sequence of feelings. I think the thing is to change the speed of life a little, speed it up or down, and put some felt and relevant words in the air, so that we can see it a little differently, and, my great hope would be, love it more, care for it more. Speaking of comparisons, here’s a good one. I was once visiting my great aunt in a nursing home. I’d just had my appendix out and weighed about 20 pounds less than I usually did, and she asked to see the scar. When I lifted my shirt and showed her, she said, “Look at you. You’re like Christ.” I didn’t know if she meant the scar, or, that I’d come to visit, or what. It turned out she thought I was too skinny. I like the idea of the word Christlike being used solely in reference to someone’s physique.

Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and other plays continues through April 10 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit cuttingball.com for information.

Robots in love: WALL-E meets `Dolly’

Not only is Pixar’s WALL-E an extraordinary movie – it’s also, in its strange way, a paean to musical theater.

You just don’t head into a computer-animated film set in the 2100s to feature tunes by the great Jerry Herman, but that’s exactly what you get. WALL-E is about a soulful little robot, one of the last moving creatures on Earth (save for his faithful and resilient cockroach friend), whose duty is to compact the mounds of garbage humans left on the planet into stackable little cubes.

How WALL-E the robot got his soul is left for us to ponder, but this adorable little guy – a cross between E.T., the robot from Short Circuit and a little bit of V.I.N.C.E.N.T from Disney’s The Black Hole – is fascinated by the detritus of humanity. When he comes across items that intrigue him, he throws them into a little cooler and takes them home to the Dumpster he lives in (and has festooned with Christmas lights). One of his favorite items is an old VHS tape copy of the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau. Using an old VCR, an iPod and some sort of magnifying lens, WALL-E watches two scenes over and over again: “Before the Parade Passes By” with Michael Crawford as Cornelius Hackl strutting down the street and the ballad “It Only Takes a Moment” with Crawford crooning sweetly with Marianne McAndrew as Irene Molloy.

There’s no Streisand or Matthau in sight (which is probably for the best – Hello, Dolly!, though directed by Gene Kelly, is not a great movie musical). Rather, WALL-E is attracted to the high stepping of “Sunday Clothes” and the song’s naively romantic message about joining the human race to discover wonderful things and the heart-fluttering, hand-holding romance of “It Only Takes a Moment.” The fact that the movie and the original 1964 Broadway musical are based on a Thornton Wilder play (The Matchmaker) all play into the movie’s core message about the vital importance of connection and consciousness.

WALL-E director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) understands the potent romance of musical theater – the same thing that people who hate musicals deride as silly and unrealistic. In a post-apocalyptic setting, Herman’s sweet music represents an idealistic side of humanity not visible for all the junk and rubble. That’s what little WALL-E responds to – he wants to dance and be in love like Cornelius Hackl.

There’s a scene of WALL-E trying to dance with a hubcap for a hat that is priceless. But that’s just a prelude to the robot’s actual chance to fall in love with EVE, a slick droid sent down from the mother ship (where all the too-fat humans are carried on floating chairs, eyes glued to the screens in front of their faces). Neither of the ‘bots really speaks, so the true expression of their feelings (again, why these robots have developed feelings is mysterious, but intriguing) is by touching, or holding hands, just like Irene and Cornelius do in Hello, Dolly!

Is it corny? Yes. Is it effective? Undeniably.

Stanton comes by his affection for musical theater naturally. Apparently he was in a high school production of Hello, Dolly! See what we risk losing when we cut arts programs from our schools?

And Herman, whose music is so integral to one of the best movies of the year (animated or otherwise), is getting the kind of exposure he deserves. He told the Associated Press: “I’m still blown away by the fact that two songs of mine that are close to 50 years old have been used as the underpinning of the movie.”

Herman sold Pixar the rights to use the songs, but he was unaware of just how they’d be used in the final product. He said the movie brought tears to his eyes. He told the Hartford Courant: “It really blew me away. You’re talking to someone still in a haze. I couldn’t believe how beautifully the songs expressed the entire intent of the film.”

Now it’s time for those geniuses at Pixar, who haven’t made a bad movie yet, to create a full-bore musical of their very own. Maybe they’ll get Jerry Herman to help them out.

Here are clips of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” from the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly!:

Theater moments: Reflections on 2007

I’ve already offered up my Top 10 list of 2007’s best Bay Area theater (see it here).

That’s all well and good, but there was way too much good stuff in 2007 to contain in a polite numbered list. What follows, in no apparent order, are some of the year’s most distinctive theater moments (mostly good, some not so much).

The shows in the Top 10 were really great shows, but so were these. This is my honorable mention roster:

American Suicide, Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays
Pillowman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
The Birthday Party, Aurora Theatre Company
Pleasure & Pain, Magic Theatre’s Hot House ’07
After the War, American Conservatory Theater
Heartbreak House, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle and The Marsh
Annie Get Your Gun, Broadway by the Bay
Des Moines, Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts
Richard III, California Shakespeare Theater

Favorite scene: Didn’t even have to think twice about this one. The dinner scene in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Director Les Waters, working from Adele Edling Shank’s script, fashioned a multilayered scene that would have made Woolf herself proud. A boisterous family dinner, warmly illuminated by candles, allows us into the head of each of the diners without ever losing track of the dinner conversation. Extraordinary and beautiful — and vocally choreographed like a piece of complex music.

Greatest guilty pleasure: Legally Blonde, The Musical, had its pre-Broadway run early in 2007 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, and though it had its problems, it was a heck of a lot of fun. The best number was the lengthy “What You Want” in which sorority gal Elle Woods (Laura Bell Bundy) decides to apply to Harvard. In true musical fashion, the number sweeps through time and space, coursing through months of effort and from Southern California to the hallowed halls of Harvard. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography incorporates a frat party, the Harvard selection committee and a marching band.

Favorite image:The green girl in Berkeley Rep’s The Pillowman.

Favorite couple: Francis Jue as Mr. Oji and Delia MacDougall as Olga Mikhoels in Philip Kan Gotanda’s After the War at ACT. The sweetest romance was also the most surprising: a shy Japanese man and a recent Russian immigrant, neither of whom speaks much English.

Speaking of MacDougall: It was a good year for the actress (seen at right with the fur and tiara), who died memorably in Cal Shakes’ King Lear and ended 2007 with a superb, hip-swiveling, lip-pursing performance in Sex by Mae West at the Aurora.

Favorite tryout: Joan Rivers is more than a red carpet personality and an experiment in plastic surgery. An avowed theater lover, Rivers got down to some serious (and seriously funny) business in The Joan Rivers Theatre Project at the Magic. She combined stand-up with drama as she told an autobiographical tale of growing old in show business. The play was far from perfect, but she gets an A for effort.

Best ensemble: Behind every good show is a good ensemble, in front of and behind the scenes. But the one that comes to mind that, together, elevated the play was the fine crew in TheatreWorks’ Theophilus North (left) directed by Leslie Martinson.

Biggest disappointments: There were a few of them. I adore Kiki and Herb (Justin Bond and Kenny Melman), but their summer gig at ACT was in desperate need of a director. Berkeley Rep hosted Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Oliver Twist, and while it was good, it didn’t reach anything approaching the heights of David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby. I complained about this in the review, and I’ll complain about it again: In ACT’s The Rainmaker, when the rain falls at the end, the actors should get wet. That’s the whole point of the play. In this version, the rain fell from above, but the actors were behind it and only pretended — acted if you will — the wetness. Lame.

Most gratuitous nudity: Actors bare all emotionally _ it’s what they do. But this year saw some unnecessary flesh, most notably in ‘Bot at the Magic, Private Jokes, Public Places at the Aurora and Two Boys in Bed on a Cold Winter Night. Costumes are a good thing.

Favorite quote of the year: It was uttered by the food critic Anton Ego (and written by Brad Bird) in the brilliant Pixar/Disney movie Ratatouille. As a critic (or what’s left of one), the words really hit home. And they’re true.

Here’s a taste: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

Happy New Year. May your stages in 2008 be full of the discovery of the new.

Review: `Theophilus North’

Opened July 21, 2007 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto

TheatreWorks’ `Theophilus North is Wilder and wonderful
three stars Northern delights

In turning Thornton Wilder’s final novel, Theophilus North, into a play, adaptor Matthew Burnett took a cue from Wilder’s best-known work, the play Our Town.

Because Wilder is constantly searching for the universal in the specific, simply having characters speak dialogue to one another hardly seems sufficient. In Our Town, we get the Stage Manger filling us in on the geography of the town and even the archaeology as he helps us find the town’s place in the universe.

In Theophilus North, which had its West Coast premiere Saturday under the auspices of TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, the setting is Newport, R.I., circa 1926, when the ’20s were really roaring in spite of Prohibition.

Burnett makes the town come alive — literally. We hear from trees, statues, stately homes, jalopies, road signs, ferry boats and even a lonely lighthouse. The effect, with its elements of silliness and scope, works beautifully to imbue the story with theatrical language while it enriches our experience of the setting.

TheatreWorks’ casting director Leslie Martinson steps into the director’s chair for this production and gives us an evening full of charm supplied by an inventive production and an agile, energetic cast.

When they’re not playing inanimate objects, the seven cast members play the denizens of Newport _ the wealthy ones who are served and the less wealthy who do the serving. Our hero is 30-year-old Theophilus North, played with irresistible appeal by Mark Anderson Phillips, who fancies himself an adventurer who needs to see the world.

Tired of “auxiliary verbs like `should’ and `ought,’ ” Theophilus quits his job at a private boys’ school and heads off to discover a more exciting fate. He only makes it 180 miles from his New Jersey home when his car breaks down in Newport, and there he stays for a spring and a summer doing odd jobs like teaching tennis (badly) at a country club and reading to the rich and infirm.

Theophilus tells us that since childhood, he has harbored nine ambitions: to be an anthropologist, archaeologist, detective, actor, magician, lover, saint, rascal and free man. During his summer in Newport, he has the opportunity to be a little of each and become a better man for it.

Unlike the Theophilus of Wilder’s novel (a sort of stand-in for the author himself), Phillips’ Theophilus is obnoxious in a likable way.

His great intelligence, ambition and ego are tempered by humor. For instance, he tells a young French student (a hilarious Craig Marker) that gigolo is “French for dancing partner with ambition.”

Theophilus means well, and he is both creative and manipulative as he strives to help those who seek his assistance. “Imaginative kindness can give a man a shock,” he says.
Among other accomplishments, he emboldens a frail old man (Jackson Davis) to reconnect with his passions, convinces a debutante (Kristin Stokes) not to elope with a gym teacher (Patrick Sieler) and helps a pregnant woman (Zehra Berkman) on bed rest save her marriage.

Of course Burnett had to streamline the novel in its transition to a 2 [1/2]-hour play, but while the character of Theophilus has been improved, some wonderful characters are completely left out. And some that remain, like the delicious former servant and now boarding house maven Mrs. Cranston (Julia Brothers), gets precious little stage time.

The dramatic arc of the play — the novel is much more episodic in nature — now involves Theophilus’ quest to become something more than a catalyst, the element that never changes while inspiring change in those around him.

The rallying cry here is Tennyson’s “I am part of all I have seen,” and it becomes Theophilus’ mission to eschew adventure for its own sake and attempt something more difficult: to belong to the world wherever he happens to be.

Part of that “belonging,” ironically, will come from observation as Theophilus, like Wilder, finds his true calling as a writer. As he says: “Memory and imagination can do marvelous things.”
The emotional pay-off in this lovely production — simple, graceful set by Annie Smart, lighting by Michael Palumbo and unflashy but handsome ’20s costumes by Taisia Nikonischenko — doesn’t have the passion it might. And the darkness and stark realism of Our Town is almost entirely absent, but Theophilus North radiates with the warmth and intelligence of a summer day spent in the best possible company.

For information about Theophilus North, visit www.theatreworks.org.

Burnett helps find Wilder’s true `North’

In his unfinished, unpublished preface to Theophilus North, his final novel, Thornton Wilder wondered what we humans do with our “despair, rage and frustration.” He considered North, which was published in 1973, to be precisely about our battle against the worst things that life throws at us.

That battle courses through Wilder’s work, whether it’s one of his plays (Our Town) or one of his novels (The Bridge of San Luis Rey).

Early in his career, Wilder summed up his work to then, and his assessment proved true for most of what was to follow: “It seems to me that my books are about: What’s the worst thing that the world can do to you, and what are the last resources one has to oppose it.”

In Theophilus North, published when Wilder was 76, two years before his death, Wilder offered a somewhat autobiographical title character who was both aimless and ambitious, anxious to find his place in the world and to be of service.

Theophilus (who bears the same name as Wilder’s twin, who died shortly after birth), is stuck in Newport, R.I., and ends up working odd jobs for the town’s wealthy inhabitants and the less wealthy people who serve them.

He’s not unlike Dolly Levi in Wilder’s The Matchmaker, who ends up meddling and changing people’s lives.

The story of Theophilus grabbed hold of Matthew Burnett, also aimless and ambitious, almost by chance and ended up changing the young actor’s life. His stage version of the novel has its West Coast premiere Saturday in a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

Having reached a sort of post-college sand bar that had waylaid his own voyage through life, a 23-year-old Burnett ended up back at his old high school in Calabasas chatting with the teacher who had directed him in a production of Our Town. The teacher recommended the young man read Theophilus North.

“I started to read the book and was dumbfounded,” Burnett says from his New York City home. “It became apparent to me within 30 pages that this novel would be a great play. It just had to be a play. At that point I was thinking about it as an actor. I was Theophilus. I figured I’d write the play for myself.”

Years passed, and by the time Burnett was at the point where he could actually begin to seriously turn the novel into a play, he was too old to play the 30-year-old North.

“It’s just as well,” he says. “If I was going to write this, I needed to be able to separate myself and see what’s working, what isn’t.”

Before Burnett began to write in earnest, he contacted the Wilder estate, which was then run by Wilder’s sister, Isobel. The response from the estate was pretty much, “No thank you very much.”

A heartbroken Burnett couldn’t be dissuaded. He decided if he couldn’t write the play as a viable project, he’d write it for the love of doing it.

For several years, in between acting gigs, Burnett would sit on the roof of his Brooklyn building and turn Theophilus North from a nearly 400-page novel into a two-hour play.

When he actually had a working script and had actor friends read it in a sort of living room workshop scenario, he decided to make a serious move: He hired a literary agent.

“I knew I had no credibility as a writer, but through the agent we contacted the Wilder estate again, which was by this time run by Thornton’s nephew, Tappan Wilder,” Burnett says.

One night Burnett’s phone rang, and it was Tappan Wilder. Burnett recalls Wilder saying: “You know, we don’t ever give rights to these things, but I’m intrigued by the work you’ve done and who you are and why you’ve done this.”

Burnett and Wilder met in New York at the Yale Club, and at the end of the night a deal was struck.

“Tappan said to me: `I like you and think you’ve done a good job. I say yes.’ He shook my hand. I don’t know what I did for the next three hours or how I got home or any of it,” Burnett says.

Theophilus North, the play, had its world premiere in 2003 as a co-production between the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and Geva Theater Center in Rochester, N.Y., and it was produced again last year off-Broadway.

The novel is episodic, as Theophilus makes his way through Newport, helping here, teaching there and affecting lives everywhere. Burnett’s job as a dramatist was to give Theophilus a more dramatic arc and emphasize that although he’s a bright man with a wealth of factual knowledge, he still has a lot to learn about the world.

“There’s a section in the novel in which Wilder says Theophilus wanted to be surrounded by a constellation, but that this desire had nothing to do with romantic love or love of family.

“That made me think, `What kind of love are we discussing exactly?”’ Burnett recalls wondering. “It’s such a pure, beautiful thing that Wilder ended up turning to: a love of friends, a love of your community, which is a love that is not swayed by broader, more basic impulses. But that’s one of the things Theophilus in my play has to discover. That’s his journey. He’s somebody that has a perspective on the world at the beginning that is kind of unraveled by the end through the process of him helping other people.”

For the last few years Burnett has been, in essence, living in Wilder’s world, which, he says, is not a bad place to be.

“I think Wilder, more than any other American writer, was better able to articulate in a direct, tangible fashion, the ability to see the universal in the particular,” Burnett says. “We can’t live within the constant desire to have consciousness of the universal, but we can find the universal in the specific.”

When he died, Wilder was reportedly at work on a sequel to Theophilus North, and its tentative title was Theophilus North, Zen Detective.

Now there’s an intriguing idea. Perhaps the time has come for Burnett to pen a Thornton Wilder-inspired TV series.

Theophilus North continues through Aug. 12 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $21 to $57. Call (650) 903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

TheatreWorks’ new season

Jane Austen, Thronton Wilder, Tony Kushner and Golda Meir will all be there…sort of.

Robert Kelley, the founding artistic director of Mountain View’s TheatreWorks has just announced his company’s 38th season.

Unlike many theaters around the Bay Area, TheatreWorks begins its season in the summer, and this year, Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, the story of deformed circus sideshow attraction John Merrick, kicks things off June 20. TheatreWorks produced the play, which, unlike the movie version, leaves the deformities to the imagination, in 1985.

In July comes the West Coast premiere of Theophilus North, Matthew Burnett’s adaptation of the charming Thornton Wilder novel of the same name.

Next up in August is the world premiere of a new musical based on Jane Austen’s Emma, the tale of a well-meaninng matchmaker who finally stumbles into her own true love. Paul Gordon (Broadway’s Jane Eyre) contributes music, lyrics and book.

In October comes more serious fare: William Gibson’s one-woman show Golda’s Balcony, a peek into the complex mind and heart of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

For the holidays comes Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and with the new year comes a welcome old friend: the late Wendy Wassterstein (below), whose last play, Third, finally makes it to the West Coast.

In March 2008, Kathleen Clark’s Southern Comforts, a late-in-life love story, takes a bow, followed by the season-ending Caroline, or Change, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori. If you saw the touring Broadway version in San Francisco, you know this is one of the most powerful and important musicals to come along in the last decade or so. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s your chance.

Subscriptions for the season range from $100 to $373 and are available now. Single tickets go on sale June 1. Call (888) 273-3752 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.