Friday, February 25, 2011

Deathtrap : Northside Theatre Company : Captivating!

Deathtrap, a comic-thriller that made its Broadway debut in 1978, was an enormous critical and commercial hit. Its success is largely due to its fanciful embrace of the classic elements of the genre.  Playwright Ira Levin revels in the use of misdirection, labyrinthine twists and dark humor with the craftiness of a magician and it all falls into place beautifully.

Of course, it takes a cast of equal cunning to pull it off.  And it’s our good fortune that the company of players at Northside Theatre knows precisely how to sustain the illusion. Aided by the sly direction of Angie Higgins and astute sound and lighting design, one is in for a captivating two hours.

Matt Singer plays Sidney Bruhl, a mystery writer and teacher in desperate need of a hit, with wry humor and effete charm. Despite the character’s startling amorality, Singer somehow imbues him with an undeniable likability. It’s a deliciously wicked, assured performance.

Melinda Marks plays his wife, Myra, and has the more difficult task of playing it straight. She’s as much an unwitting victim of the plot’s duplicity as we are, so it’s important that she reacts with a convincing realism. She succeeds, making the most of her less colorful but more emotionally complex role. And she nails it with her expression of absolute horror as she witnesses a violent garroting.

Cliff Anderson, a former student and fledgling writer, provides Sidney with a potential exit out of his predicament.  Jason Arias approaches the part initially with a guileless vitality that lights up the stage. As the story unfolds, however, he undergoes a nuanced transformation with darker shades that he handles with an effortless aplomb.

Both Shereen Merriam and James Lucas provide key supporting turns. Most notably, Ms. Merriam steals her scenes as a Danish psychic, Helga ten Dorp, delivering her lines with an engaging, lilting accent. She’s very funny!

Honorable mention must be given to the foreboding set design featuring menacing antique props hanging from walls, and to the period (‘70s) costume design. No other small theatre company is as adept in squeezing maximum value out of a limited budget!

A better value for one's entertainment dollar cannot be found in the South Bay. Hurry to this little venue with the gigantic creative talent!

Friday, February 18, 2011

On the Waterfront : San Jose Stage Company : A Must-See!

It takes a singular type of bravery to produce a theatrical adaptation of a cinema milestone. Since its release in 1954, the iconic “contender” scene, as portrayed by the inimitable Marlon Brando, has permeated our culture and given the movie near epic status. Is anyone not familiar with that scene?

Unfortunately, its cultural ubiquity has become something of a mixed blessing. Deprived of its proper context, the original meaning has been diluted nearly to the point of caricature. That’s too bad, because Kazan and Schulberg’s profound tale of moral courage and redemption is a genuine masterpiece. Oh, and by the way, so is this production.

The brilliant staging elevates the minimalist set design and authentic costuming to a heightened reality reminiscent of a stylized film noir. The characters are in essence prisoners of their own fear, and each element of the production design is fashioned to emphasize that central theme. Credit must go to the visionary direction of Kenneth Kelleher, who doesn’t miss an opportunity to utilize the creative talent at his disposal.

From the imaginative, artistic lighting to the ingeniously versatile use of cage back chairs as props, the prison bar motif is omnipresent. And the sound design sets the perfect ambiance by featuring the disquieting blare of industrial air horns and the elegiac rhythms of the jazz saxophone.

I must say, unlike the characters, there’s no evidence the actors were intimidated whatsoever. As Terry Malloy, the beleaguered protagonist originally portrayed by Brando, Johnny Moreno wisely resists any temptation to resort to imitation. Instead, he makes the honest choice of bringing his own signature style to the role and thus succeeds admirably. In fact, his earnest interpretation captures Malloy’s intrinsic ambivalence in a manner that is more true to the naïveté of the character.

Summer Serrafin, the sole female cast member, initially strikes an appropriately dissonant chord of East Coast toughness. But when she lets her hair down in a touching acting duet with Moreno, she reveals in both gestures and nuanced vocal changes an appealing feminine vulnerability and youthful innocence. She’s quite good.

In contrast to her subtle performance, there’s Randall King, as mob kingpin Johnny Friendly, who roars onto stage projecting a masculine persona of powerful malignant intensity. His baritone delivery commands respect, and his craggy, reptilian face and lethal gaze elicit dread. One finds him utterly believable as a man who’s lived a life of violence and mayhem. It’s a stunning performance that eviscerates any memory of Lee J. Cobb!

Going toe-to-toe with Mr. King is John Flanagan, who as Charlie Malloy must traverse an emotional tightrope between his loyalty to both his brother and his generous, albeit malevolent, boss. He’s exceptional in that he’s confident and smart enough to eschew ostentation and skilled enough to bring an innate integrity and strength to the role.  Bravo!

The remainder of the supporting players are all excellent, most of whom play dual roles made noteworthy by their uniformly purposeful commitment and seamless transitions. Honorable mention must go to the hardworking Carl Holvick-Thomas, however, who tirelessly plays four discrete parts, each unrecognizable from the other. One has to pay really  close attention to discern it’s the same actor!

The only regrettable aspect of the evening was the half-full house. Such apathy is entirely unjustified considering the caliber of talent on display at this venue. I encourage everyone not to miss a chance to experience the vibrant immediacy of local theatre at its best!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Thirty-Nine Steps : TheatreWorks : Marvelous Cast Elevates Material

The Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts is such a lovely venue. It’s undoubtedly among the finest mid-sized theatres in the Bay Area. And the TheatreWorks productions invariably live up to the promise of the immaculate décor that surrounds them.

The Thirty-Nine Steps, loosely based upon the Alfred Hitchcock film classic of Hollywood’s Golden Age, is an entertaining farce featuring dozens of characters performed with frenetic precision by a meager cast of four. Yes, I said four! 

Mark Anderson Phillips, as the iconic, wrongfully accused protagonist Richard Hannay, has the relatively easy task of portraying a single role. He adroitly assumes the prim British affectation with the requisite stiff upper lift and a tongue planted firmly in cheek.

He’s supported brilliantly by Dan Hiatt, Cassidy Brown and Rebecca Dines, all of whom tackle their multiple parts with a seemingly endless supply of energy, dialects and comic acumen. One could suffer whiplash just keeping up with them as they magically switch roles and manipulate props at a breakneck pace!

The set design, although rendered with impeccable taste, serves mostly as a backdrop for the intricately choreographed blocking. The exemplary staging, creative lighting design, and clever use of music clips from the scores of other great Hitchcock movies, all serve to sweeten the experience.

Alas, much to my chagrin, the second act does wane a bit, but that does not diminish the steadfast commitment of this splendid company of players. They do not permit the anemic script to undermine the fun to be had. Indeed, as Brits are wont to do, they carry on undeterred, handling the sly slapstick and shameless in-jokes with alacrity!

One should not allow such dedication to go unseen. Please make your way to the beautiful theatre on Castro Street and demonstrate your appreciation with richly deserved laughter and applause!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum : Another Winner at South Bay Musical Theatre

The success or failure of any comedy is dependent upon rigorous comic timing and the level of commitment the actors bring to their respective roles. It's analogous to the internal movement of a fine vintage timepiece. If any part of the mechanism fails, the watch stops. In the context of comedy, that means the humor falls flat.

I’m happy to report that all members of the South Bay Musical Theatre operate like clockwork. The large cast, directed with the deft hand and creative finesse of Walter M. Mayes, act in unison to deliver a delightful and mildly risque romp set in an imaginary ancient Rome.

The setting is not wholly inauthentic, however, inasmuch as the play draws heavily from the works of the period by Titus Plautus. One of the earliest known playwrights in Latin literature, he is the progenitor for what is considered “modern” farce.

Joe Colletti is perfectly cast as Pseudolus, "master of ceremonies" for this daffy ensemble. He exudes a blithe presence and sets the tempo with a smooth confidence. A chain of uniformly talented actors supports him without a weak link among them. The standouts are too numerous to mention, but one would be remiss without recognizing the hilarious contribution and unbridled enthusiasm of Chuck Manthe as Hysterium. Suffice it to say the character’s name suits him!

The staging, choreography, costumes, lighting and set design are all first-rate and executed with the type of professionalism one has come to expect from SBMT. Musical accompaniment by the live chamber orchestra serves to enhance the experience. And it’s the attention to detail, such as the nicely painted curtain, the addition of a vaudevillian style opening act, and the ingenious use of some wooden blocks, that set this production apart from the usual fare.

Once again, it’s a pleasure to encourage everyone to patronize this priceless treasure in the South Bay. SBMT