Saturday, March 26, 2011

Carousel : Lyric Theatre : Fine Production of a Flawed Masterpiece

Rodgers and Hammerstein moved the Broadway musical beyond the sentimentality and farcical style of their predecessors into what is now considered the golden age of the genre. For the first time the songs and dance numbers became an integral part of the narrative. And their stories often addressed serious themes of social relevance.
Carousel was their second effort and it features some of their most memorable and beautiful ballads, including “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It was both a commercial and critical success when it opened in 1945, resonating with a country in the throes of the Second World War.

Unfortunately, the passage of time has not served it well. Its dubious message about unconditional love has become woefully dated. What endures is a flawed masterpiece, weighed-down by an unappealing protagonist, a pervasive somber tone and a redemptive finale that feels somewhat forced.

Set in a New England fishing village in the late 1800s, the play opens with a vibrant, picturesque scene of pantomimic bustle. It’s an impressive and complicated piece of staging, and it’s performed with impeccable timing and zeal by the entire ensemble.

The lighting design is of particular note, accented by subtle changes in background color that enhance the mood reflected in the melody and lyrics. It’s a nice touch, and the vividly imagined scenic and costume design serve to complete the visual tableau.

Billy Bigelow, a handsome ne’er do well who works as a carousel barker, possesses few, if any, redeeming qualities. And yet, a brief encounter on a merry-go-round with the naive Julie Jordan blossoms inexplicably to a smitten romance. Her motivation is perplexing inasmuch as her life takes a turn for the worse the moment she pursues the conceited boor. A better example of “bad boy” syndrome could not be found!

Sascha Joggerst was most likely cast for his exceptional vocal prowess and not his acting acumen. His awkward demeanor does manage to convey Bigelow’s masculine swagger and overweening pride, but he lacks the charisma and vulnerability necessary to garner any respect or sympathy. The robust baritone does shine, however, when belting out a tune.

Jordan is depicted as a victim of Bigelow’s questionable charm and physical abuse. Kerie Darner-Moss, endowed with a melodious singing voice, captures the ambivalence of a woman who sincerely wants to support her man but lives in constant fear of his darker side. Alas, despite her best efforts, she cannot overcome the solemn material and her character remains curiously remote.

Carrie Pipperidge (Beth Anne Wells) and Jigger Craigin (Gary Stanford) provide the much-needed comic relief. Both actors display a winning stage presence, delivering strong supporting turns in all facets of their performance. When they share center stage their prodigious talent is in full bloom!
As is to be expected of local companies, none of the remaining cast members waver in their commitment or enthusiasm. Standouts are too numerous to mention, but special recognition must go to Lisa Marie Woods, who seizes the opportunity to showcase her dramatic skill and expressive balletic moves during an exquisitely choreographed ballet sequence. Bravo!

Overall, the production is a mixed bag, as is the historic Montgomery Theatre in San Jose, which can be unforgiving to those players who forget to project with the required intensity. Reservations notwithstanding, one should not forego a chance to see this entertaining Lyric Theatre presentation of a genuine classic.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Equus : City Lights Theater Company : A Masterful Rendering of a Modern Classic

British playwright Peter Shaffer frames his 1973 psychodrama as if it’s a clinical examination into the mysteries of abnormal psychology. In reality, it’s the existential rant of a repressed middle-aged man struggling with regret. It explores the notion that the pursuit of a “normal,” rational life denies the existence of an integral part of the human psyche that cannot be ignored. 

The play opens with a quartet of actors, adorned with equine masks, mimicking a horse-like motion as they amble downstage to the rhythm of a pulsating percussion. The choreography is strangely sensual, and it sets an eerily erotic tone that permeates the entire play. Kudos must be given to the moody, affecting sound design of the multi-talented George Psarras.

The spartan set design is embellished with four pillars reminiscent of proscenium columns utilized in classical Greek theatre-a recurring theme. Like a mute Greek chorus, supporting players are seated around a revolving center stage, entering or leaving a scene as their roles dictate. It’s a masterpiece of expressive minimalism. 

We’re introduced to Martin Dysart, a child psychiatrist who’s at a major crossroads in his personal and professional life. He’s reluctant to take on another patient, but the bizarre case of Alan Strang piques his waning interest.  Suffice it to say the young man committed an inexplicably brutal act of animal cruelty upon four horses.

Steve Lambert’s pitch-perfect performance captures the essence of an intellectual at odds with his own emotional repression; perhaps brilliant in his chosen profession, but otherwise quite ordinary. He recites his frequent monologues with a credible erudition and poignant urgency. It’s his interplay with the other cast members, however, where he’s most compelling.

It would be an understatement to describe the exchanges between Lambert and the dazzling Sean Gilvary as riveting. Under the guise of therapy, they engage in a complex and agonizingly intense game of cat and mouse. But the stakes go beyond the bounds of an arm's length, doctor-patient relationship. It’s a vicarious bond formed between two lonely individuals desperate to understand and rid themselves of their mutual pain.

Mr. Gilvary possesses a preternatural ability to inhabit the very soul of his character. Like the troubled teen that he portrays, both he and Strang possess a passion for something that is an inseparable part of their personality. As specifically addressed in the story, it’s unknown if it’s environmental or exists on a genetic level.  Either way, it’s our good fortune that, unlike Alan Strang, Sean Gilvary is not ashamed to share it with the rest of us!

The penultimate scene is a visually stunning reenactment of the horrible crime, performed in slow motion awash in a flood of blazing red light. The imagery is indelible, obviously the product of a visionary director (Kit Wilder) and lighting designer (Michael Palumbo) with an exceptional aesthetic sensibility. Bravo! 

Excellent support is provided by all, including Beth Boulay as a young woman whose feminine appeal tempts the sexually confused Strang. She conveys a precious vulnerability and natural poise that appears effortless. Monica Cappuccini plays Dysart’s close friend and the magistrate who originally refers the youthful offender to rescue him from criminal prosecution. Their friendship is sweet and her subtle portrayal evinces a genuine compassion for Dysart that hints at something more. 

Alan’s parents, Dora and Frank, provide clues to their son’s extreme behavior. Evidently each has sublimated their own sexuality in the form of her religious fanaticism and his hidden addiction. Beverly Griffith and Michael J. West exude the deep frustration and guilt that any parent would experience knowing their own shortcomings may have contributed to their child’s unhappiness. 

And honorable mention must go to Michael Bates as a convincing stallion who carries the full weight of Strang’s lustful desire!

Ultimately, we are left with as many questions as answers, but the density of ideas it posits, rich characterizations and meticulous production values make this a must-see. Please hurry to the City Lights Theater in San Jose for a rare opportunity to witness a flawless rendering of a modern classic!  

Thursday, March 17, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest : Broadway West Theatre Company : Talented Company Does Justice to a Wonderful Story

“Cuckoo’s Nest” is an important artifact of the American countercultural landscape that came into fruition in the 1960s. It successfully operates as allegory deeply rooted in the period. And yet, its theme of the dangers of social and political oppression still resonate a half-century later. But at its core is a wonderful, timeless and universal story about the indomitability of the human spirit.

What this company lacks in resources it more than makes up for in an abundance of talent and ambition. The creative design elements of the shocking opening scene augur well for what is yet to come. The set, lighting and sound design are realized to maximum effect throughout the entire production. Director John Rutski must be given credit for refusing to allow a limited budget to compromise his vision.

The story unfolds from the perspective of a gentle giant, Chief Bromden, a Native American patient at a mental health facility. He sees the world as controlled by an authoritarian force he calls “the combine”. His hallucinatory narration is key to understanding the story as it links each scene transition in a surreal, psychedelic haze.

As if reciting poetry, Anthony Frederick Aranda somehow conveys the delirious paranoia of the words without abandoning their heartfelt meaning. He captures the unassuming nobility of his character with an appealing, shy manner and authentic vocal rhythm. He’s totally convincing, and his uncanny serenity is pervasive on stage!

Randal P. McMurphy is the free-spirited protagonist who feigns mental illness to side step a prison sentence. He enters a hospital inhabited by a menacing staff and quirky assortment of troubled patients. Despite his duplicity, the sheer force of his personality serves to inspire his fellow inmates to overcome their fear of the powers that be. Chuck Phelps succeeds in bringing a rebel charm and streetwise edge to the role, but he lacks the gravitas necessary to make his portrayal as a leader wholly believable. 

Of the principal players, Johanna Hembry gives the most risky and daring performance. As perceived by Bromden, Nurse Ratched is not a real person as much as she’s a supernatural personification of the “machine.” As such, she must possess an intimidating presence sufficient to stifle the will and gain control.

Happily, Miss Hembry’s gamble pays off, and she delivers a deliciously wicked piece of acting. She adopts an eerily calm cadence to her speech along with deliberate facial and body movements that are almost ghoulish. Her detached malevolence is truly creepy and portends a sinister agenda. I hasten to add that she’s aided by a very clever lighting technique!

The remaining cast members are uniformly fine, each inhabiting their roles with the type of exuberance that does justice to the concept of “supporting” characters. Their commitment is exemplified best by a deftly handled “party” scene executed with great alacrity by all concerned. Honorable mention must be given to Adam Magill’s sensitive portrayal of the youthful and naïve Billy Bibbit, and the delightful Larry Voellger who, as Dale Harding, steals virtually every scene!

One would be remiss without noting that the play does take some time gaining momentum after the stirring initial scene. And the climatic encounter between McMurphy and Ratched is not handled with the type of virtuosity as that which precedes it. Those misgivings aside, the overall effect is quite entertaining and satisfying.

The dedication on display in smaller, local venues such as this one must not go unrewarded. It’s certainly worth a trip to the cozy ambiance of the Broadway West Theatre in Fremont!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sex and Death-A Night with Harold Pinter : Off Broadway West Theatre Company : Cast Highlights Both Productions

“The Dumb Waiter” is the first of a twin bill of Harold Pinter one-acters presented by the highly regarded Off Broadway West Theatre Company. Despite the talented cast and uncommonly effective minimalist design elements, it’s the less successful work.

Gus, as played by Conor Hamill, is the younger of a pair of hit men summoned by a faceless "organization" to await the arrival of their mark in a dark and dingy basement. The job is evidently routine, but for the first time Gus begins to express concern about his place within the overall plan.

His incessant questions test the patience of his older and more experienced cohort, Ben (Shane Fahy), who appears content to perform his designated role. Then, as an actual dumbwaiter is introduced, the play takes a somewhat surreal turn.

At this point we’re obliged to suspend logic as the absurdity unfolds. Understandably, this could be a confounding exercise for the uninitiated. And if it were not for the compelling turns by Hamill and Fahy, it might very well be too much to ask. The denouement does ultimately make sense, but the pay off is not wholly satisfying.

On the other hand, “The Lover,” the second of the two plays on the program is, in a word, magnifique

Despite the appearance of conventionality, an attractive, middle-class couple decides to embrace an “open” lifestyle to preserve their ten-year marriage. They both seem content with their arrangement; until, of course, things start to unravel.

Pinter’s examination of the games that people play suggests that one’s emotions are not so easily compartmentalized.  The complications begin when Richard, brilliantly portrayed with an impeccable Brit accent by Chad Stender, inquires about the details of his wife’s romantic interludes with her “lover”.

Sarah, performed to perfection by Nicole Helfer, greets her husband's curiosity with a deliberate candor that masks a well-nigh imperceptible reticence. The ensuing events could easily devolve into common melodrama, but Pinter throws us an ironic curve that’s far more intriguing.

A set of riveting confrontations inevitably take place, showcasing some of the most outstanding acting I’ve seen on stage in quite a while. Featuring a marvelously controlled intensity, Stender’s commitment and mastery of his craft is truly exemplary.

And Miss Helfer engages him with a passion equal in fervor and conviction. There isn’t a false note in her performance as she fearlessly traverses a complex range of emotions with a sublime agility. Not since Ingrid Bergman have I witnessed a more expressive face. At the risk of sounding disingenuous, her ability to totally inhabit her character-in mind, body and soul-is a genuine revelation!
The production is aided immeasurably by an original score by Randy Freemire, clever lighting and set design, and tasteful costuming. A show of this caliber must not be denied the proper recognition, let alone a receptive audience. I cannot recommend your attendance at the Phoenix Theatre more highly!

The Homecoming : American Conservatory Theatre : Company Undaunted by Challenging Material

Harold Pinter’s darkly satiric vision of familial dysfunction, gender and class politics relies heavily upon sarcasm, derision and the absurd to make its point. To the extent the use of such devices doesn’t obscure the truth of his observations is ultimately a matter of taste. For it not to fail, however, one’s own life experience must provide some semblance of recognition.

Of course, the challenge for all the players is to maintain the perfect tone without sacrificing the basic humanity of the characters. This is extraordinarily difficult to do when one is asked to recite dialogue devoid of any civility and behave in a manner that strains credulity. As such, it’s a unique opportunity for both the performer and the director to show their true mettle.

Happily, for the most part, they get it right. It’s clear that Carey Perloff  has a special grasp of the material and understands how to utilize acting talent, tempo and staging to maximum effect.

Jack Willis gives the finest performance of his career as Max, the odious, widowed patriarch. Despite disemboweling everyone with his words, he manages to instill an underlying sense of loss, regret and profound loneliness.  It’s at once a larger-than-life and finely nuanced performance, and he commands your attention from the first line.

The four remaining male characters are played with varying degrees of success, each effectively conveying a conspicuous impotence that is painful to watch. Andrew Polk, as Lenny, takes full advantage of his meatier role and somehow maintains a deft balance between the comic and the despicable.  He's very funny!

Unfortunately, the same skill is not in evidence by the normally dependable Anthony Fusco. As the “homecoming” son, Teddy, his near paralytic reactions suggest he’s as baffled as we are by his cuckold character. Not for a moment did I find him credible at any level.

And then there’s Rene Augesen, as Teddy's wife Ruth, whose amazing talent will not be undermined by an underwritten part. Displaying a remarkable dexterity with the subtle gesture, quizzical expression, and furtive glance, she brings a depth and sexual power to an otherwise inscrutable character. Ostensibly a victim of male misogyny, her motivations are not readily understood until the revelation of the final scene.  It’s another winning turn by A.C.T.’s most versatile and reliable core member. Bravo!

Pinter is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but the insight into human nature and how we treat one another is certainly food for thought and will resonate long after one has left the theatre. And the marvelous acting is definitely the icing on the cake. Go see it!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Anything Goes : South Valley Civic Theatre : Young Cast Nails It!

The perennial community theatre favorite, this ‘30s musical farce by Cole Porter is performed with a marvelous savoir-faire by a troupe of teen actors. They approach the material with a professionalism and dedication to their craft that belies their age. 

The staging, a challenge considering the large cast, was obviously well-thought-out and executed without a major hitch. To her credit, Janell Cummings’ direction is uncompromising and it pays dividends. Notwithstanding the varying degrees of vocal talent, each member is fearless in their rendition of the Porter standards. And the choral numbers are performed with an infectious ebullience that elicits goose bumps!

The cast is uniformly fine. Taylor Barnes, as Billy Crocker, brings an impressive versatility and enthusiasm to the numerous wacky disguises he dons during the course of the zany events. Saskia Vinkhuyzen is perfectly cast as the worldly, sultry-voiced Reno Sweeny. The naturally mature resonance of her voice lends credibility to her role as an evangelist-turned-nightclub singer. Supported by a talented ensemble, her several choral numbers are genuine show-stoppers!

Wonderful supporting comic turns are given by Matthew Cummings, Oscar Leon, Katie Rounds, Nicole LaJeunesse, Pascale Vinkhuyzen, and Chris Bezanson, each showcasing an exceptional, innate comic sense and solid grasp of their respective characters. They’re all quite entertaining!

Of particular note is Rebecca Inderhees as Hope Harcourt. She possesses a remarkable poise and stage presence, not to mention an outstanding singing technique, that are equal to what one might see in a professional venue in San Francisco or even on Broadway. Her timing and reactions are superb. Her success as an actress is inevitable should that be where her passion lies.

The costume design is first-rate and true to the period-some of the gowns are truly breathtaking! And one can readily discern the care and attention to detail given to both the choreography and set design. Overall, a pleasant surprise that exceeded my expectations by far. This company of players deserves your support!