Friday, December 9, 2011

The Will Rogers Follies : Hillbarn Theatre : Review

Will Rogers is probably not a name that first comes to mind when considering the great entertainers of the 20th century. The fact is, however, during the 1920s and '30s he was an international phenomenon. He achieved initial success traveling the globe as a rope-trick vaudevillian. His "Wild West"-themed show then went on to Broadway, adapted as part of the famous Ziegfeld Follies. Thereafter, he achieved even greater fame and fortune with a career in Hollywood where he made over seventy films.

He was also a hugely popular humorist and social commentator, with his own radio show and nationally syndicated column. At the zenith of his notoriety he met his untimely death in an airplane crash in 1935 at the age of 55. His passing was mourned worldwide.

The Will Rogers Follies is the multiple Tony Award-winning musical revue from 1991 featuring the life and times of this enormous celebrity, done in the form of a fantastical Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. extravaganza. As such, the narrative is at best superficial; serving primarily as an excuse to showcase pretty chorus girls in sexy, flamboyant costumes, lavish sets, spectacular dance routines, and catchy songs. And although at times the pageantry seems a bit excessive, this extraordinarily ambitious amateur theatre production and its huge cast deliver the goods.

Scenic designer R. Dutch Fritz has outdone himself, essentially converting the thrust stage venue into a more traditional proscenium theatre, which better suits this type of show. His elaborate set, with exquisite lighting by Don Coluzzi, features a lariat-themed arch, and utilizes a scrim curtain and projected imagery that came off without a hitch.

But the piece de resistance is a massive, multi-tiered staircase, with each step colorfully illuminated from underneath. It’s placed center stage and climbs virtually to the ceiling in grand Ziegfeld fashion – bravo!

Alex Perez, as Will Rogers, leads the large troupe with an insouciant, country-boy manner and a melodious singing voice that fit the role and help bring the often over-the-top proceedings back to reality during frequent interludes. And he knows how to handle a lasso, too!

Perez is obliged to regularly break the fourth wall, confidently addressing the audience in between set pieces with a friendly political banter reminiscent of monologues given by the hosts of contemporary late-night television. Although the play covers major past events throughout his life, his character is set firmly in the present, looking in retrospect as he re-enacts each pivotal, albeit mostly humorous, moment.

The most dramatic sequence comes in the second act, where the follies are forced to close due to the onset of the Great Depression and Rogers is asked to give a radio speech to the nation. It’s surprisingly affecting, resonating with an immediacy that is no doubt tied to the current economic malaise. And his closing rendition of “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” is also quite poignant.

His exchanges with his wife, Betty Blake (effortlessly done by Corrie Lenn Borris), are nicely performed, but the material is purposely underplayed and doesn’t adequately explore their relationship or her displeasure with “the show business” and his endless tours on the road.

Ms. Borris is given ample opportunity to show off her dulcet tones, however, including the torch ballad “No Man Left for Me” (sung in a sultry gown seated atop an upright piano). And perhaps her best acting scene is the one immediately preceding her heartfelt “My Big Mistake,” in which she engages in a witty repartee with “Ziegfeld’s Favorite” girl, smartly played with a wink and smile - and undeniable sex appeal - by Rachelle Jones.

Besides the captivating presence of Ms. Jones, the other frequent scene-stealer is the redoubtable Todd Wright, as Will’s father, Clem Rogers. His character’s interplay with Rogers is priceless, and he brings an ebullience and rare comic-timing to the role that are truly infectious. And he knows how to belt out a tune with his delightful “It’s a Boy” and “Will-a-mania” reprise.

The rest of the company are first-rate, with honorable mention going to the sextet/Ziegfeld girls (Adrienne Tiffany Herro, Karen Althoff, Gabrielle Au, Anastasia Bonaccorso, Alyson Chilton, Katherine Leyva, Molly Murphy, Shannon Sullivan) whose graceful moves and leggy pulchritude do justice to the fabulous choreography of Dottie Lester-White and costumer Shannon Maxham. Their “Campaign-Our Favorite Son” number (among many) is brilliantly staged and executed – a genuine showstopper!

Although the first act doesn’t quite have the burnish of the second, the intricate staging by director Jay Manley is overall well-conceived and quite entertaining. And the live orchestra, under the direction of Greg Sudmeier, takes full advantage of the fine Cy Coleman score. It’s most certainly worth a trip to Foster City!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Three Sisters : 42nd Street Moon : Review

My review can be read exclusively on!


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Period of Adjustment : SF Playhouse : Review

Tennessee Williams’ best-known works (A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) are invariably melodramas preoccupied with the eccentric character of the American South. Although it takes place in that region of the country, Period of Adjustment is a lighter examination of suburban married life that could easily be located anywhere. And despite being a more overt comedy, Williams doesn’t shy away from his serious recurring motifs of familiar dysfunction, homosexuality and sexual repression.

From what one can discern the play’s setting during Christmas Eve is incidental to the plot, so the decision to offer this production as being celebratory of the season is somewhat disingenuous. On the other hand, inasmuch as the forced sentimentality of the holidays can often lead to more acrimony than harmony, the choice makes sense and might even be considered a bit subversive.

It’s 1958 and twentysomething couple George and Isabel Haverstick have just gotten married (the day before). After the ceremony the newlyweds drive cross-country in George’s ’52 hearse and he discloses to his bride that he’s quit his job. Suffice it to say the honeymoon doesn’t go well and George impulsively decides to visit his older Korean War buddy, Ralph Bates, in High Point, Tennessee.

Unbeknownst to George, Ralph has also resigned his position and as a consequence his wife of four years, Dorothea, has just left him and taken their “sissy” young son along with her to stay at her parents. What unfolds is an insightful comedy on the messy complexity and uncertain motivations behind human relationships.

The action takes place exclusively in a set consisting of a 1950s Spanish stucco home typical of the ugly décor of the period, replete with vinyl upholstery, hardwood furnishings, wrought iron banisters and rotary phones (nicely rendered by designer Nina Ball).

The opening sequence has Ralph (Johnny Moreno) alone in his home coping with being abandoned by his spouse. Moreno gives a convincing portrayal of a Southern gentleman who’s doing his level best to maintain his dignity as his life unravels before him. His initial scene is with Isabel (MacKenzie Meehan), who’s been dropped-off by George, and together they hit just the right note of awkward ambivalence. As the conversation progresses, however, they warm up to one another and it becomes clear that they’re two very lonely people desperate to connect with anyone with a sympathetic ear.

The lovely Ms. Meehan is absolutely captivating as a modern, albeit prudish, Texas belle. She brings an alluring femininity to a role that’s at once strong and vulnerable, giving her an opportunity to draw from a wellspring of talent and exhibit her impeccable comic-timing. And a formfitting skirt suit – and the obligatory pearl necklace – by costumers Tatjana Genser and Miyuki Bierlein enhances her character’s beauty and period authenticity. Bravo!

George (Patrick Alparone) arrives shortly thereafter, and it becomes readily apparent that his friendship with Ralph is quite intense. As they greet one another he literally leaps onto Ralph wrapping his legs around him, all the while ignoring the astonished Isabel. As more is revealed about George it becomes obvious that his marital problems stem from something much deeper than being unemployed or having an anticlimactic wedding night.

Alparone is asked to portray a veteran who’s suffering from severe body tremors ostensibly caused by posttraumatic stress syndrome. Remarkably, he steadfastly conveys his character’s affliction and genuine anguish while somehow maintaining a comical persona that’s a pleasure to watch.

One suspects, however, that his symptoms have as much to do with a man struggling with his own sexuality as it does with any traumatic wartime experience. The gay subtext of his many funny exchanges with Ralph is unmistakable.

George even goes so far as to suggest they run away together to Texas and start a cattle ranch in the land of “dignified Texas longhorns.” And a scene where Ralph attempts to place his hand on George’s shoulder could (without much imagination) have entered “Brokeback Mountain” territory had George not protested all too much!

Maggie Mason as the “homely” Dorothea gives a relatively brief but nonetheless indelible supporting performance. She exudes a palpable warmth and grace that serves as a calming influence upon the hysterical ranting of those around her.

There’s a distinct change of mood upon the entrance of her character in the final act, and Dorothea is instrumental in bringing things to a light-hearted (if not wholly satisfying) conclusion. The slightly contrived denouement was undoubtedly the product of a playwright constrained by the conventions of the time from fully embracing the controversial themes he had the courage to broach.

Equally impressive turns by Joe Madero and Jean Forsman as Dorothea’s parents bring depth and a sense of backstory that was not necessarily present on the written page. And one must not fail to recognize the invaluable contributions of sound designer Cliff Caruthers that just about brought down the house!

Bill English keeps the pacing taut and the staging moving with a clockwork precision that’s evident throughout. His deft direction, along with his extraordinary cast and skilled creative team, coalesce to make this an exemplary presentation of a lesser-known work by one of America’s preeminent 20th century dramatists. It’s a must-see!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Shout! The Mod Musical : Guggenheim Entertainment : It's Like Groovy, Baby!


Shout! The Mod Musical is a charming, nostalgic trip though the swinging, modernist subculture of 1960s London that helped define a decade. Presented as a comic revue split into two acts, it showcases many memorable popular tunes that swept the UK and the rest of the world during that period. And while it does maintain a whimsical tone throughout, it doesn’t shy away from serious underlying themes of feminine self-discovery and liberation.

The cast of lovely and uniformly talented ladies – mostly clad in fetching minidresses, groovy high heels and hip white vinyl go-go boots (“These Boots were Made for Walking”) – inhabit five distinct female types, each representing different colors of the so-called  “mod rainbow.”

“Red Girl” (Shannon Guggenheim) is the bespectacled, insecure nerdy girl; “Blue Girl” (Kate McCormick) is the vain, Twiggy-like model and actress who harbors a secret; “Orange Girl” (Hilary Little) is hopeful a husband and children will bring her happiness; “Green Girl” (Ashley Rae Little) is the tart who’s particularly adept in dumping men; and “Yellow Girl” (Catherine Brady) is the obnoxious American obsessed with Paul McCartney.

The static set is essentially a multi-tiered stage reminiscent of the television variety shows prevalent at the time such as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, to which the play and director (Scott Evan Guggenheim) owe much in terms of concept, design and staging. The scenic elements (Julie Engelbrecht) are fairly straightforward and effective, with the requisite beaded curtain, flower power motif and rainbow hues, but an opportunity was lost for a more imaginative and visually evocative (e.g., psychedelic) lighting design.

There is no storyline per se, and scenes are introduced by the characters glancing at annual editions of Shout! magazine while commenting on the latest news and trends in pop culture, with the unseen Holter Graham providing marvelous narration as the “voice” of the English periodical. We get to know more about them via a series of letters written to the rag's advice columnist “Gwendolyn Holmes.”

The questions asked of Ms. Holmes are sincere and heartfelt, but the guidance they receive – featuring fine offstage voiceover work by Carole Shelley – are unsatisfying, condescending platitudes espousing the traditional role of marriage and motherhood and extolling the virtues of visiting a beauty salon!
But it’s the splendid costuming and wigs, also created by the remarkably versatile Ms. Engelbrecht, that say as much about the women's evolution as they do about the era in which they live. Bravo!

The vocalizations are all very good, offering a melodious spectrum of complementary timbre and range. They do justice to the original hit recordings by such renowned Brit singers as Lulu, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey. And in between songs they perform a number of clever skits that touch upon a panoply of personal issues and controversial topics from “pot” to "the Pill."

Among the many highlights is the ensemble's hilarious and risqué segue into “Coldfinger,” a parody of the classic "James Bond" composition, with lead vocals by the charismatic and sexy Ashley Rae Little. Equally impressive are Catherine Brady’s rendition of a “Son of a Preacher Man,” and Shannon Guggenheim’s wonderfully comic interpretation of “How Can You Tell,” both enhanced by the latter artist's own vibrant and spot-on retro choreography.

The second act does take on a vaguely pensive mood, with Ms. Guggenheim’s poignant “Those Were the Days” eliciting spontaneous clapping from the enthusiastic opening-night audience. Few of the numbers ever quite reach a crescendo, however, because of an easily corrected sound design misstep limiting the sonic intensity. And the use of a somewhat flat and uninspiring canned musical accompaniment doesn't help, either.

Celebrating its second anniversary at The Retro Dome in San Jose, this Guggenheim Entertainment production lives up to the venue's name and is noteworthy for its singular vitality, clockwork professionalism and sheer entertainment value. It's highly recommended!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

American Buffalo : Actors Theatre of San Francisco : Outstanding Production Ensures No Danger of Extinction of Classic Play

American Buffalo took the theatre world by storm when it debuted in Chicago in 1975.  David Mamet’s allegory about the dubious morality of American capitalism showcased a mastery of the vernacular of the urban underclass that had been hitherto unseen. It has an undeniable authenticity and power – despite the fact that his stylized use of profanity, breakneck pacing and pithy, fragmented phrasing often flirts with (without ever fully embracing) the satirical.

The entire two-act play takes place in a single set depicting a seedy, secondhand store painstakingly decorated to capture the period by designers James Baldock and Jen Welch. It’s owned by Donny (Randy Hurst), the alleged “brains” of the hapless trio of small-time crooks who hatch a plan to rob a coin collector. The numismatist became a “mark” because he took advantage of the junk dealer by purchasing a rare American buffalo nickel for a fraction of its value.

Suffice it to say the scheme goes awry, but in the process the playwright weaves a stunning tale of friendship, betrayal, delusion and paranoia among his pitiable band of thieves.

Christian Phillips, co-founder and artistic director of the company, has a trademark menacing intensity tempered with an unmistakable intellect that serves his character well. “Teach” (aka Walter) ostensibly serves as “muscle” for the proposed heist, but his wry observations of the darker side of human nature reveal he’s an existentialist, albeit an uneducated one, at heart. The robbery is more than another job to him – it’s a defining moment in a life filled with disappointment and despair.

The intricate bond between Walter and Donny is undeniable, but it’s borne out of a kind of codependence as much as any notion of genuine affection. Phillips’ outstanding signature turn nails both the emotional volatility of the role and the unique rhythm of the dialogue with a seemingly effortless concentration and aplomb. Bravo!

Vlad Sayenko plays Bobby, a drug addict whom Donny takes under his wing and designates as his original partner in the daring plot. But Teach convinces Donny that Bobby is too naïve and unreliable for such a big score and is allowed to take his place. They assure one another that the decision is strictly "business" and nothing personal.

Sayenko portrays the young substance abuser as sweet and a little slow, but with an agenda that’s not entirely clear. Interestingly, the subtlety of his performance purposely avoids the manic energy one would typically expect of a junkie and is both engaging and quite affecting.

Caught between his addicted friend and his unpredictable, suspicious cohort, Donny does his level best to keep the peace and bring together his poorly thought-out crime.

Early on it becomes abundantly clear that he’s not a bad man and is not entirely comfortable with the highly risky, illicit project. But it’s his sense of righteous indignation and entitlement that motivate him to carry on. Besides, it's only business (a recurring theme). Hurst’s multi-layered characterization manages to effectively convey Donny’s ethical ambivalence and essential goodness, but he seems perplexed by the Mamet’s demanding timing and tempo and he flubs his lines a few times too often to ignore.

Once again, Actors Theatre of San Francisco has chosen to tackle one of the best and most difficult plays written in contemporary American English. This successful production, featuring the sure-handed direction of Keith Phillips, is illustrative of just how their steadfast refusal to be intimidated by such challenging material can have outstanding results.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Nine : City Lights Theater Company : Happiness is Being Italian!

Nine is the Tony Award-winning musical based upon the semi-autobio-graphical Federico Fellini film, 8 ½, set in 1960s Italy. During that period the famed director's body of work consisted of uniquely personal stories most notable for their surreal, dreamlike imagery and visual extravagance. The show was warmly received when it opened on Broadway in 1982, but its popularity was somewhat eclipsed by the simultaneous debut of the phenomenally embraced Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber. A less well-regarded adaptation for the silver screen was released in 2009.

Our protagonist, Guido Contini (Tim Reynolds), is an esteemed auteur who’s just turned 40 and is facing a mid-life crisis. He’s run out of ideas for a movie he’s been hired to make, and his relationship to his beloved wife, Luisa (Aoife Stone), is in serious jeopardy. They attempt to rejuvenate both their failing marriage, and his creative acumen, by visiting a Venetian spa. What ensues, however, is a fanciful, time-bending journey of self-discovery as he attempts to come to terms with the many women of his life, both past and present.

Despite the modest production values and minimalist, functional set design (Ron Gasparinetti), the blending of the fantastic and real elements is mostly successful - assuming one is willing to suspend disbelief and use a little imagination. The too literal-minded, however, might have difficulty accepting Guido’s recurring interaction with his nine-year old self (the wonderful Nicolas Sancen). 
And the superb musical direction by Jean Narunsky, accompanied by a small ensemble of musicians (Samuel Cisneros, Paula Filseth and Karen Lindblom), with sound by master designer George Psarras, make one forget the absence of a full orchestra.

At first blush Reynolds does not strike one as quite the lothario type, but he evinces enough of an artist’s ego, passion, and an insouciant, Latin charm to win one over. And one cannot underestimate the masculine appeal of the line “I can put you in my film” – especially when delivered with a flawless Italian accent.  His vocalizations of the many magnificent Maury Yeston tunes (“Only with You”; “The Script”) are certainly adequate but not at a par with his acting skill, and they’d often benefit from a bit more projection.  

On the other hand, Molly Thornton, as film producer Liliane La Fleur, does justice to the score and never forsakes the back row. She lights up the stage with her rendition of “Folies Bergeres,” featuring the outstanding (and very sexy) female chorus and brilliant staging and choreography by Jeffrey Bracco and Shannon Stowe, respectively. Her dubious French accent, however, does not reflect the uniformly fine work by dialect coach Patty Reinhart.

Ms. Stone brings a regal bearing and radiant beauty to her role that make it easy to understand why a narcissist like Guido would want to marry her - she’s exactly the type of woman a man of his stature would want to be seen with in public. She’s totally convincing, and despite her limited singing voice, her interpretation of the bittersweet “My Husband Makes Movies” is filled with pathos and a palpable ambivalence. 

If Luisa is Guido’s “Madonna,” Carla Albanese is the "whore" one would never take home to mother!  And as played by the delightful Elizabeth Santana, his lust for her is entirely understandable. The uninhibited sexuality of her performance of  “A Call from the Vatican,” both in terms of its vocal and physical (ahem) prowess, generates enough heat to ignite the theatre! She impresses  even more, however, by revealing an exceptional emotional depth and versatility with the poignant “Simple.”  Bravo!

Strong supporting turns are also given by Kristin Brownstone as Guido’s muse, Claudia,  (“A Man Like You”;  “Unusual Way”) whose inspiration frees him of his creative block, and by Kereli Dawn Sangstack as the earthy seductress, Sarraghina (“Be Italian”), who introduces the young Guido to the mysteries of sex. And recognition must go to the immensely talented Ruth E. Stein (Mama) and Robyn Winslow (Our Lady of the Spa), who prove Stanislovsky’s theory that “there are no small parts.”

Although  “The Grand Canale” sequence is probably the most spectacular with its splendid, colorful costume design (Amy Conners and Jill Schwinn) and impressionistic use of undulating reams of shimmering blue fabric as sea waves, the images that linger most are the simple scenes of Guido waving a baton -  like a symphony conductor -  that bookend the story. Perhaps it's only during those few moments when he is truly in control of his life.  

(photo credit: Shannon Stowe)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Romeo & Juliet - a cover band operetta : Alphabet Arts : The Bard for the Masses

Alphabet arts is a non-profit, artist collective dedicated to bringing quality live performances for both youth and adult audiences. This innovative production of Romeo and Juliet – a cover band operetta, is part of its  “2011 Summer Conservatory” program that features young people aged thirteen to twenty.

As conceived by director Mark Sitko, the classic play’s original dialogue is augmented with contemporary musical interludes that capture the themes and mood of their respective scenes. Although the tragic tale is more suitably the subject of grand opera, the spoken “libretto” is certainly characteristic of a lighter operetta. Regardless of how one chooses to define its form, it is, for the most part, a successful attempt in making The Bard more accessible to the average theatre patron.

Romeo (John Kellett) & Juliet (Rebecca Inderhees)
The setting of this romantic story of star-crossed love is 16th century Verona, Italy, yet the performers wield swords donning modern costumes. The poetry is spoken with decidedly American accents.  The songs cover all genres, from pop ballads to rap. And the set design is minimalist and stark, enhanced by simple lighting and seamless musical direction by Kirk Berkland - working with the assistance of a skilled trio of musicians (Will Kellett; Kevin Yoshikawa; Jose Martinez).

Mercutio & Romeo & Tybalt
The opening sequence is a poignant solo rendition of Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” by chorus member Miranda Morris.  It sets just the right, wistful tone and serves as an introduction to the narrative for the uninitiated. It’s immediately followed by a realistic brawl between the Capulets and Montagues, featuring some of the best swordplay and fight choreography I’ve seen in any amateur production (C. William Klipstine; Jacob Sanchez).

There’s no doubt that reciting verse with the correct rhythm and diction is a daunting task for any actor. If done poorly, the text can become virtually unintelligible.  And there’s always the danger that the meaning can be lost if too much emphasis is placed upon the aesthetic qualities of a line. As to be expected, this company of players meets the challenge with varying degrees of success.

John Kellett plays a charismatic Romeo, evincing the deep turmoil of a young man caught between his adoration for a girl and his loyalty to his family with earnest conviction.  As is the case with most of the ensemble, his metered delivery is adequate, but would benefit from clearer elocution. He shines, however, as he sings “Crazy Love,” displaying an inspired and mature singing style.
Mercutio (Taylor Barnes) & Tybalt (Matt Cummings)
He’s ably supported by the inimitable Taylor Barnes, whose comic portrayal of the flamboyant Mercutio remains true to the character and is among the most daringly passionate depictions I’ve seen.  Moreover, he showcases surprisingly proficient rapping skills with the tune “Current Events”! 
Mercutio & Princess (Katie Rounds)
Stacy Lammers and Katie Rounds, playing traditionally male characters Benvolio and Princess Escalus, respectively, make their smaller roles seem large by virtue of their exceptional talent and undeniable charm. And the remaining cast all contribute strong supporting turns.

Scene-stealer Michael Combs, as the female Nurse, brings a naturalism and comedic sensibility that would have made Edward Kynaston proud. His choral number, “Girls Just Want to have Fun,” with delightful choreography by Tori Evans and Chloe Townsend, and highlighting the superb vocal direction of Lisa Kellett, is a total hoot!   
    Center: Nurse (Michael Combs) & Chorus

What can one say about Rebecca Inderhees as Juliet? Rarely have I seen anyone realize with such truth and lucidity of purpose the emotional content behind the beauty of Shakespeare’s words. The effortless clarity and precise timing she brings to each phrase is never diminished by her astonishingly brisk tempo. 

But Ms. Inderhees’ amazing grasp of the playwright’s subtext is not a function of superior technique; it’s a matter of one’s DNA. And coupled with her magnetic stage presence and impressive vocal prowess ("Between Two Lungs"), one can’t help but rejoice in witnessing a genuine star early in her formation. Bravo!

Juliet & Romeo

This limited engagement ends July 21st at the Morgan Hill Community Playhouse.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Distracted : City Lights Theater Company : Superb Cast Grabs your Attention!

They say the origin of comedy is pain. And perhaps the worst agony one can experience is being the parent to a profoundly unhappy child. It stands to reason, then, that one would expect Lisa Loomer’s Distracted, a timely examination of a boy’s affliction with “attention deficit disorder,” would be nothing less than hilarious. Indeed, it is quite amusing. But her sitcom approach to the topic, while never failing to entertain, manages to elicit no more than an occasional guffaw and a random chuckle or two.
K. Michael Riley (Dad) and Karen DeHart (Mama)
That’s not to say that the playwright doesn’t go to great lengths to grab one's interest. While exploring the ethical dilemma of medicating children with powerful psychotropic drugs, she humorously depicts virtually every fanciful cause and treatment imaginable. She even resorts to having the actors break character and the fourth wall, albeit without ever really going all the way through. And she bombards us with a spectacular multi-media display of information overload, often highlighting suspected A.D.D. sufferers throughout history, from Vincent Van Gogh to George W. Bush. 

Mama on her laptop researches A.D.D.
And for the most part the stylistic devices are effective and mirror the central theme of the play. Of course, credit for pulling it all off must be given to the assured directorial hand of Lisa Mallette (City Lights' artistic director) and flawless execution by a set of talented designers including Anthony Catchatoorian (Video), Ron Gasparinetti (Scenic), Michael Palumbo (Lighting) and the one and only George Psarras (Sound).

Steve Gold (Dr. Jinks) and "Mama"
 Perhaps the basic flaw of the piece lies not with the quality of the material, but its sheer quantity. Most of the supporting cast members play multiple roles, each in their own way hapless victims of similar mental ailments. Quite frankly, despite the skill and alacrity of all concerned, the many characterizations become redundant. The use of no less than five doctors to make its point comes perilously close to overkill! 

Dad and Mama
“Mama” desperately seeks an answer to her 9-year-old’s malady, and her character is both the central participant and quasi-narrator. Undaunted by the prodigious volume of dialogue, Karen DeHart deftly wears both hats without ever missing a beat. It’s an impressive display of acting technique and comic timing, but inhabiting each part has an unintended consequence. Try as she might, she remains conspicuously detached from the emotional content of most of her scenes. 

Kate McGrath (Natalie)
“Dad,” as played by K. Michael Riley, is the irascible, less than exemplary father whose refusal to accept his son’s condition is rooted not only in denial but a sincere belief that his behavior is not abnormal for a kid. Riley is convincing and evinces an affable gruffness that’s not as easy to achieve as he makes it look.

A marvelous assortment of eccentric therapists, teachers and mothers fill out the remainder of the troupe, portrayed with outlandish zeal by Rachel Davidman, Kristin Brownstone, Steve Gold and Jennifer Jane Parsons. Honorable mention goes to Kate McGrath’s (Natalie) nuanced, spot-on depiction of a teenaged babysitter with serious problems of her own; and Mary Lou Torre (Vera), whose very funny and quirky turn is a case study in maternal neurosis! 
Mary Lou Torre (Vera), Mama, and Jennifer Jane Parsons (Sherry)
And special recognition must go to Kameron Dehart as young Jesse, whose brief appearance onstage steals the show and provides a much needed dose of genuine humanity and optimism. Bravo!

This is a worthy penultimate production of the season for one of the finest companies in the South Bay. Don’t miss it!

Kameron DeHart (Jesse) and Mama

Friday, April 22, 2011

Galileo's Daughters : Inferno Theatre Company : Science Collides with Religion in Silicon Valley!

Galileo Galilei, sixteenth century astronomer and mathematician, known as the father of modern science, was also a devout Roman Catholic. Among his more radical notions was heliocentricism, which suggested that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the known universe. This was in direct contravention to Biblical scripture and would inevitably lead to his being tried for heresy.
Despite his religious piety, he had three children out of wedlock, two of which are featured in this play. Even during the enlightened Italian Renaissance, women born illegitimate had little prospect for marriage, so as they entered adolescence Galileo decided to send his two daughters to a nearby convent. For better or worse, they would remain there until they died.

Playwright Giulio Cesare Perrone, the artistic director of the recently formed Inferno Theatre Company, has created an original work for their inaugural production. The expansive theatricality of Galileo’s Daughters flirts with the experimental, utilizing such devices as dance movement and visual symbolism, without ever breaking the fourth wall. As such, the experience is not typically mainstream and may be heavy going for the uninitiated.

The play examines how the pursuit of one’s passion in a hostile environment, whether it’s scientific inquiry or a cloistered life, can come at a high cost. Perhaps more importantly, it reminds one of the power of unconditional love to overcome adversity.  

Michael McCamish, as Galileo, strikes an imposing figure on stage. The lanky, baritone voiced performer eschews naturalism in favor a stilted, expressionistic style of acting. Taken on its own terms, his characterization does effectively convey the anguish of a man who is unable to reconcile how his quest for scientific truth can be considered religious infidelity. His portrayal comes to full bloom as he captures Galileo’s awe and excitement while demonstrating one of his many fascinating discoveries.

As Livina and Virginia share their lives in a Florentine monastery, they each approach their faith in a way that illustrates their disparate personalities. While the former’s more visceral nature struggles with the demands of an ascetic existence, her sister uses her keen intellect to cope and guide their way. And the broad-brushed performances of Simone Bloch (Livina) and Valentina Emeri (Virginia) reflect that dichotomy.

Befitting her more emotionally sensitive and complex middle child character, Ms. Bloch affects a manic intensity that at times borders on mental illness. Ms. Emeri brings a maturity and intelligence that suits her part as the quintessential elder sibling who’s most like their father. And they both have fun with the pomp and circumstance required of their dual roles as members of the church hierarchy - adorning splendid garments designed by Anne Victoria Banks Perrone. 

Bruno Louchouarn’s ethereal score, with motifs reminiscent of a choral chant, enhances Mr. Perrone’s austere scenic design and sets a vivid ambiance.

Overall, this mildly avant-garde one-act is probably an acquired taste that must be experienced firsthand to be fully appreciated. The Tabard Theatre Company in San Jose should be commended for providing a venue to a dramatic new voice in Bay Area theatre!