Riveting drama in Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew

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Christian Thompson (left) is Dez, Margo Hall is Faye (center) and Lance Gardner is Reggie in the Marin Theatre Company/TheatreWorks Silicon Valley co-production of Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau. Photo by Kevin Berne

What an incredible talent to balance the dark weight of tragedy and the electrifying light of hope. That’s what playwright Dominique Morisseau does in Skeleton Crew, a powerful play now at Marin Theatre Company (in a co-production with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley). It’s a workplace drama set in a Detroit auto plant, so that pretty much tells you how bleak it is. But the four characters we meet here are not hopeless, nor are they whiny pits of despair.

The extraordinary Margo Hall heads a strong cast, and the show is definitely worth seeing. I reviewed it for TheatreMania.com. Here’s a taste.

For the play’s two riveting hours, director Jade King Carroll brings out humor and heartache in almost equal measure and works in concert with Morisseau to push the drama as far as it can go without tipping into melodrama. When a story deals with life and death, rage and resignation, the threat of violence and the spark of young love, things could easily slip into soap opera territory. But that never happens here. Carroll, Morisseau, and a quartet of fine actors focus instead on reality and dignity.

Read the full review here.

Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, a co-production of Marin Theatre Company and TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley, continues through Feb. 18 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org. TheatreWorks presents the show March 7-April 1 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Cal Shakes gets terrifically Tempest tossed

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Catherine Castellanos (left) is Prospero and Amy Lizardo is Ariel in California Shakespeare Theater’s All the Bay’s a Stage tour of The Tempest. Below: Patrick Kelly Jones (lower left) is Stephano and John R. Lewis is Caliban. Photos by Jay Yamada

On a day when terrible things were happening in the world, being immersed in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest was sweet balm, especially as performed by the fine actors of California Shakespeare Theater’s “All the World’s a Stage” tour of the show, which, in classic traveling players mode, is being performed in senior centers, homeless shelters, federal prison, rehab centers and the like. It’s hard not to agree with Caliban when he says, “Hell is empty. All the devils are here.” But dark notions of revenge, which so inform the play itself, are soothed by virtue, and Prospero’s exquisite speech, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” is practically heartbreaking in its beauty.

Director Rebecca Novick’s fine-tuned production has a handful of public performances at the Oakland Museum of California in a space generally used as the museum’s cafe. There’s not lighting, save what’s already in the ceiling. The audience is cozily set up in four sections around a central performance space, and the two-hour production unfurls at a spritely pace, outfitted in lovely designs by Naomi Arnst that assist in differentiating the double-, sometimes triple-cast actors.

What set there is by Nina Ball is clever. A ship-shaped crescent is instrumental in conveying the play-opening storm that leads to a violent shipwreck. Then, as the action shifts to the island home of the wizardly Prospero, that crescent is turned upright, set in a cradle and serves as a throne of sorts, a point of power for the island’s master, or, in this case, mistress as Propsero is played by the commanding Catherine Castellanos. The pole that had served as the ship’s mast, is relocated to a tuft of grass and is climbed upon by the fairy Ariel (Amy Lizardo), or serves as a doorway through which we glimpse the newly smitten lovers Miranda (Tristan Cunningham) and Ferdinand (Rafael Jordan) staring googly-eyed at each other and arm wrestling.

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This is stripped-down theater at its best: words and performance, story and emotion. What I will take away from this enlivened production, aside from yet another reminder of how profound Shakespeare can be at acknowledging the darkness in the world while holding on to hope and faith in love and our better nature, are the magic of Castellanos in performance, the thrill of watching Cunningham and and Jordan convincingly fall in love in an instant and the genuine comic inspiration of the show’s clowns.

Cunningham doffs her maiden’s weeds to become Trinculo, a buffoonish steward from the wrecked ship, Patrick Kelly Jones is Stephano and John R. Lewis is Caliban, and the three of them, as they pass the tippling gourd, are outright hilarious. Sometimes the shift from the revenge plot (Prospero lands all her enemies on the island to wreak revenge) to the clowning makes me cringe. But in this production I actively looked forward to it. At one point, Cunningham came into the audience, plopped into the chair next to me and put her arm around me for much of one scene. Now that’s audience interaction I can get behind.

The revenge plot is also quite satisfying thanks to Liam Vincent as Antonio, Prospero’s dastardly, throne-stealing brother, Jones as the ruthlessly ambitious Sebastian and Lewis as the grieving king (he believes his son was drowned in the storm). Also in their company but not part of any murderous plots is Gonzalo, here played as pregnant woman by Carla Pantoja. There’s lots of strong female power on this island, and Pantoja’s Gonzalo is a powerful part of it.

Lizardo’s Ariel sings like an angel (accompanied by composer/musical director Olive Mitra on upright bass and a variety of percussion), and Kelly’s Stephano sings scurvy tunes like a natural-born sailor.

Castellanos ends the show with a powerful, emotional reading of Prospero’s famous speech, but the way she delivers it to the audience, all seemingly delighted by the two hours they’ve just spent together, feels intimate and personal, like she’s talking just to us and not over hundreds of years and thousands of productions of The Tempest. Again, on this day when more terror was causing more mayhem and pain in the world, it was impossible not to be moved by the words.
     “Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
     As I foretold you, were all spirits and
     Are melted into air, into thin air:
     And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
     The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
     The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
     Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
     And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
     Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
     As dreams are made on, and our little life
     Is rounded with a sleep.”

California Shakespeare Theater’s All the Bay’s a Stage tour of The Tempest has a limited number of public performances through Nov. 22 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. Tickets are $20. Call 510-548l-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Sisters count in SF Playhouse’s 1 2 3

Devin Shacket (left), Jessica Bates (center) and Tristan Cunningham are sisters 3, 1 and 2 in the world premiere of Lila Rose Kaplan’s play 1 2 3, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series at the Tides Theater. Below: Cunningham’s 2 dances with Jeremy Kahn’s Luke in a drama about sisters, family and the scars of childhood. Photos by Fei Cai

The three daughters of domestic terrorists – activists, as the eldest girl insists on calling them – have moved so often and changed their names so many times they can’t really remember who they are exactly. The easiest thing to do is simply number themselves. 1 will be the eldest. 2 will be the middle child and 3 will be the baby.

When we meet these three smart, malleable children, in the world premiere of Lila Rose Kaplan’s 1 2 3, they are in a new town about to head to a new school. Again. The eldest (Jessica Bates) seems older than her 17 years but that’s likely because she’s had to step up and be the active parent while her parents, who work for an organization they call The Cause, are off blowing things up and making statements about American imperialism. 2 (Tristan Cunningham), who’s around 15, seems the most vulnerable. She has affected a tough, petulant exterior, but she’s in need. And the youngest child, 3 (Devin Shacket), is a pre-teen, and she’s a live wire, full of spark and energy.

What looks to be another ordinary morning of figuring out new names and navigating a new town turns nightmarish when the FBI arrives in full force to arrest the girls’ parents for the death of a policeman in one of their explosions. The parents land in jail, and the girls are separated and placed into different foster homes.

All that happens within the first few minutes of Kaplan’s play, an intriguing drama sensitively and astutely directed by Lauren English for San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, a launching pad for new plays.

Once ensconced in their new, admittedly more stable lives, the sisters have a moment to expand. 1 can think about going to college. 3 now has a foster brother whose technology (video camera, HAM radio) feeds into her need for attention and her fantasies of celebrity. The most dramatic impact of tis on 2, who begins taking dancing lessons from an 18-year-old aspiring ballroom dancer named Luke (Jeremy Kahn). In the dancing (and the physical contact) she finds a way to channel her pent-up emotions and take control of some part of her life.


What starts out as a sad, rather grim take on the lives of these children, grows a little lighter. Even tightly wound 1 can take a moment to flirt, window to window, with a boy across the street. Even through their separation, the sisters maintain a strong connection through their regular breakfasts at the diner owned by Luke’s mom, and then comes the news that their own mother is getting out of prison early. 2, who sees her parents as despicable terrorists, wants nothing to do with her mother, let alone live in her house, and this causes a tremendous rift between the sisters.

Act 2 jumps ahead in time by about a decade, and whenever time shifts like this happen in a narrative, I get a little nervous. Playwright Kaplan catches us up on the sisters’ lives, none of which is going terribly well, and before this nearly two-hour drama is over, there will be another big time jump, and this one doesn’t work nearly as well, although the basic idea that the central relationship here isn’t necessarily the one you’d expect, comes through in a poignant way.

Director English is also an accomplished actor, and if you know her work on stage, you’ll recognize that in her direction. Her production brims with powerful emotion. It is suffused with intelligence and is full of moments that plumb the depths of these complicated young women and their relationships to one another and to the world at large.

These four excellent actors make you feel their connection, even when relationships rupture, and they feel fully immersed in the world of the play, which takes place in what looks like a basement rec room (set and projections by Jordan Puckett) that, with the repositioning of a card table and some boxes, can also be a diner, a dance floor, a Hollywood café and a university lecture hall. There’s also a fair amount of dancing (choreography by Sofia Ahmad), of the ballroom variety and the kind that keeps us skipping and tripping through the push and pull of the past while attempting to wrangle life in the present.

Lila Rose Kaplan’s 1 2 3, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, continues through Sept. 5 at the Tides Theater, 533 Sutter St. (second floor), San Francisco. Tickets are $20. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.