Saturday, April 23, 2011

Altar Boyz : Palo Alto Players : Evangelism has never been more fun!

My full review can be read at!

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!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Enchanted April : Northside Theatre Company : A Gem that Lives Up to its Name!

Matthew Barber’s Enchanted April is a wonderful and genuinely affecting little confection set in London (and Italy) shortly after World War One. The era is important because while the soldiers fought abroad, women were obliged to take on traditionally masculine roles at home. Massive casualties created a surplus of young, independent females, which contributed to the modern flapper movement of the 1920s. Universal suffrage in the UK wasn’t far behind.

Two proper, middle class ladies have little in common except empty marriages that have depleted any sense of meaning and enchantment in their lives. Their husbands, a solicitor (Mellersh Wilton) and a novelist (Frederick Arnott), are fixated on advancing their careers. Neither man can fathom their dutiful wives being discontent making appearances or spending idol time sipping tea at the local social club.

The effervescent and chatty Lotty Wilton (Rebecca Wallace) comes across an advertisement listing a castle for rent on the Italian coast that offers “wisteria and sunshine.” Convinced that a holiday away from their spouses would be the perfect tonic for their mutual malaise, she persuades the pious and reticent Rose Arnott (Lorie Goulart) to join her wild escapade.

Their husbands would undoubtedly disapprove and not support their bold adventure, so they need to solicit two others to help defray the cost. They recruit the prim and aristocratic Mrs. Graves, and a beautiful, young socialite, Lady Caroline Bramble, to accompany them on their getaway vacation.

Rose (Lorie Goulart), Mrs. Graves (Marie Ballentine) and Lotty (Rebecca Wallace)
The moods are heightened by the understated but effective three-tiered set design by Richard T. Orlando, complemented by subtle lighting (Sarah Ashley Armes) and sound design (Nick Ferraro). All elements coalesce to highlight the stark contrast between the rain drenched dreariness of the British winter and the warm twilight hues of a Roman spring.

Sometimes one has the good fortune to encounter a performance that transcends anything that’s on the written page. Of course, the savvy casting and directing acumen of Meredith King has much to do with it. But most of the credit must go to Ms. Wallace, who imbues Lotty with an ebullience of spirit that’s utterly captivating. There isn’t a false note in her spot-on portrayal of a highly intuitive woman whose unwavering belief in her “paradiso” serves to inspire others to transform their lives. And her bookend monologues are poignant and heartfelt. Bravo!

Ms. Goulart also shines as the “unhappy Madonna,” using priceless facial expressions and nuanced vocal inflections to convey her innermost thoughts and feelings. Burdened no longer by a secret revealed in the second act, Rose comes to full bloom wearing a luminous white dress and smile that light up the stage. Indeed, the wardrobe changes are key to the setting and evolution of the characters, and Jean Cardinale’s period costume design, featuring elegant flapper gowns, coats and hats of the period, is outstanding!

Lady Caroline (Laura Fones), Lotty and Rose

The inimitable Marie Ballentine (Mrs. Graves) is entirely believable, and very funny, as the elderly widow whose stern manner masks a profound loneliness-and a penchant for nuts! And completing the sisterly quartet is Laura Fones who avoids superficiality by bringing to bear just the right note of melancholy and sensitivity to an otherwise aloof Lady Caroline.

The male cast members have less to do, but each does the most with their respective parts. Tony DiCorti scores as the vainglorious and domineering Mellersh Wilton who takes Lotty for granted. Jarrod Pirtle showcases his flawless Brit accent and comic timing as the philandering Frederick Arnott whose attempted assignation takes an unexpected turn-for the best! And Paul Ulloa projects a classy dignity and pathos as Anthony Wilding whose admiration for Rose Arnott is not quite what it seems.

Admittedly, the abbreviated final act of this enchanting fable does reach some all too tidy conclusions, but the lessons of hope, self-discovery and renewal are duly learned. And it's helped immeasurably by the hilarious scene-stealing turn of Janet Strangis as Costanza, the Italian maid who makes herself understood despite not speaking a word of English!

For 32 years the Northside Theatre Company has brought exceptional theatre to the South Bay. Its productions invariably exceed well beyond one’s expectations. It has earned your wholehearted support!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Strike Up the Band : 42nd Street Moon : Another Winner from the Company that Knows How!

Strike Up the Band's opening in 1927 represented a significant advance in the evolution of the American musical. Unlike the farcical revues of the period that purposely avoided any semblance of plot, George and Ira Gershwin fully integrated their songs into a satiric, albeit mostly screwball, narrative written by the esteemed humorist George S. Kaufman.
Despite the impressive pedigree, the madcap antics and mildly subversive subtext held little appeal for the audience of the day and its initial run in Philadelphia was woefully short-lived. A significant revision, with a different song list and softened political content, made its Broadway debut in 1930 and was ultimately a commercial success.

Perhaps the original version would have been a hit if a company as skilled as 42nd Street Moon had produced it. Their trademark brisk pacing, wonderful staging, and palpable elation never fail to bring a silly grin to one’s face. And they have an uncanny ability to enliven vintage material with a relevance and immediacy that belies its age. 
Horace J. Fletcher, owner of the Fletcher Cheese Company, is resolute in his belief that what’s good for his business is good for America. So, when the Swiss government threatens his bottom line by imposing a tariff on cheese imports, he convinces our nation’s leaders to declare war on Switzerland.  To sweeten the deal, he agrees to bankroll the cost of “another war to end all wars" and share the profits!

Gabriel Grilli portrays the corporate mogul with a steadfast conviction leavened by an undeniable charm that keeps his preening self-importance from becoming too off-putting. The dramatic baritone possesses a resonant vocal timbre, and he recites the snappy dialogue and one-liners with alacrity-as does the entire cast.

Jim Townsend is a newspaper reporter who wears his principles on his sleeve and is a bit of a wet blanket. Of course, that doesn’t keep him from misusing the power of the pen to gain the attention of Fletcher’s daughter. Michael Scott Wells plays the romantic lead fairly straight, and what he lacks in charisma he makes up for with his versatility and mellifluous singing.

Samantha Bruce, as Joan Fletcher, is the object of the smitten journalist’s desire. A clarion-voiced soprano, her impassioned rendition of the torch standard “The Man I Love”, in a duet with Wells, is by itself worth the price of admission.  Her comic timing is impeccable, and her physical attributes suit the many exquisite '20s flapper gowns she’s asked to wear. Scarlett Kellum’s superb period costume design could not have looked any better!

Excellent supporting turns are provided by Sharon Rietkerk (Anne Draper) and Luke Chapman (Timothy Harper), whose duets together showcase their complementary dulcet tones and the whimsical, fluid choreography by the inimitable Alex Hsu.

The statuesque Rietkerk exudes a disarming sassiness and a magnetic, starlike presence. She’s a walking, talking double entendre and one can’t keep one’s eyes off her! And Chapman shines, too, as he leads most of the troupe in a tap-dancing extravaganza performed to the rhythm of “Strike up the Band”.  The energy on stage was so infectious that the opening night crowd spontaneously clapped to the beat of the rousing tune. It was a real show-stopper ending to the first act!

Act two has a similar moment of affecting intensity, where out of nowhere a secondary player, Benjamin Pither (Pvt. McNally), accompanied by a small ensemble, belts out a richly harmonic “Homeward Bound” with immense virtuosity and pathos. It’s one of many highlights throughout the show, but its solemn tone seemed out-of-place in the somewhat disjointed, less successful second act.

This wonderful production once again demonstrates the depth of talent and creativity that one has come to expect when visiting the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. And special recognition must go to reedman Nick Di Scala, and musical director/pianist Dave Dobrusky, who did the most they could with an overture and score that demand a full orchestra. Bravo!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Lolita Roadtrip : San Jose Stage Company : A Masterpiece

It’s by design that Vladimir Nabokov casts a giant shadow over Lolita Roadtrip. But instead of paying simple homage, playwright Trevor Allen has the audacity to step out from under it and unveil an astonishing and complex masterpiece all his own. It’s not only a contemplation of the darker side of human nature and the inevitable challenges of the human condition, but an exaltation of the human spirit’s capacity to endure unspeakable adversity.  

The Russian-American author and lepidopterist was infatuated with all things pubescent, whether it's the nymph stage of the common butterfly, or the twelve year old “nymphet” depicted in his classic tale. Allen’s ambitious narrative weaves the lives of two couples whose stories parallel Nabokov’s life and twin obsessions. The metaphor that binds them is disguised as a segmented series of short lectures on the life cycle of the monarch butterfly delivered by the novelist himself.

We’re introduced to Paul Drake (Julian Lopez-Morillas), a plainspoken university professor, addressing a class of undergraduates attending his course on Nabokov’s “Lolita”. His scenes are intercut with those of Julia Martin (Chloe Bronzan), a doctoral student whom we meet doing research at the New York Public Library in preparation for a cross-country migration to California. Her trek will trace the path taken sixty years earlier by Nabokov, the subject of her dissertation. 
Julia has a chance encounter with a young man after dropping an arm load of books. Danny (Patrick Alparone) is also on his way to The Golden State for a reality show audition and needs a ride. Despite her better judgment, she agrees to take him along for the drive west. 

Although he appears harmless enough, she soon learns that the flirtatious teenager has had to resort to male hustling to survive. Despite this troubling disclosure, they continue on together and one begins to suspect Julia's growing fond of his boyish charm.

Alparone is pitch-perfect as the charismatic adolescent whose childhood was fraught with an inordinate amount of hardship and pain. He shares all of his scenes with Ms. Bronzan and the chemistry between them is a delight to behold. His ability to imbue a streetwise cynicism with a childlike innocence is quite impressive. And his innate vitality, intelligence, and physical stature, all serve Danny well. 

Lopez-Morillas alternates between Nabokov and Drake with amazing dexterity; each very different in personality except for a conspicuous passion and erudition-traits the actor has in abundance. The latter role requires that he evince a range of difficult emotions, many of which are quite distasteful. Moreover, the former’s “metamorphosis” talks require that he credibly recite arcane jargon as if it's poetry. Throw in a few extra minor roles, and what one has is a wizard at the height of his powers! 

Paul is married to Mary (Stacy Ross), who’s terminally ill. She obviously loves her husband, but his inattentiveness distresses her and it's clear that it’s not something new. Her role is the least developed, but Ms. Ross successfully captures the pain of a wife that’s had a history of facing malignancies that go far beyond her disease. And she’s given an opportunity to showcase her impressive versatility by assuming a variety of smaller characterizations that are broadly played for the desired comic effect. 

As Julia’s personal odyssey progresses, each of the characters bear witness to their own lives in an intricately staged, crisscrossing succession of expository monologues that inevitably converge to reveal a set of startling revelations. It’s a complex and exemplary piece of stagecraft, creating an illusion whereby the actors occupy the same revolving stage, but their characters exist in a separate dimension of time and place that allow only for the faintest recognition of the other’s presence. Kudos must go to the ingenious staging and direction of Lee Sankowich, the hypnotic lighting ( Maurice Vercoutere) and sound design (Cliff Caruthers), and the dreamlike set design (Giulio Cesare Perrone).

Bronzan has a majestic inscrutability that's fascinating to watch. The emotional journey that she is required to undergo, from the frightened, guarded fragility that's readily apparent when we first meet her, to the brave, spirited woman that emerges before our eyes, is nothing less than phenomenal. Everything one has to know about Julia is evident from her fearless expression of strength and vulnerability as she stands alone in the final scene. Bravo!

Trevor Allen, Playground and the San Jose Stage Company have produced a challenging, provocative play that explores some important themes with a rare courage and unflinching honesty that resonates long after one leaves the theatre. It’s bound to spark controversy in much the same way “Lolita” did over a half century ago. Isn’t that the goal of any work of art?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? : Coastal Repertory Theatre : Fine Production of a Milestone in American Theatre

Edward Albee’s uncompromising expose of marriage was tantamount to dropping a nuclear bomb upon the venerated institution when it opened on Broadway in 1962. Not until Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf hit the stage had any American playwright stripped the veneer of wedded bliss with such explosive frankness and corrosive vulgarity. Once the fallout subsided, however, what remained was a surprisingly poignant, albeit decidedly perverse, love story.
The title is a parody of the song from the Disney cartoon “Three Little Pigs,” and it’s a recurring line meant to reference the introspective, stream-of-consciousness technique that characterizes much of Woolf’s body of work. Her evocative writing style is in stark contrast to the conjugal illusions that Albee proceeds to destroy without a shred of mercy!

The entire play takes place on a single, functional living room set. Highlighting the minimalist design is a tall pair of opposing bookcases standing upstage, featuring separate collections of books to one side and liquor bottles to the other. Hung dead center between the twin towers is a surreal portrait of a multi-faced woman, completing Rich Allen’s handsome, expressionistic composition.

George is a middle-aged associate history professor and his older spouse, Martha, is the daughter of the president of the small New England college that employs him. In the wee small hours of a Sunday morning they retire to their campus home after attending a faculty party. 

The fun and games are about to begin, as Martha has invited a young biologist and his wife over for a nightcap. What ensues is an alcohol-fueled frenzy of acerbically funny exchanges that serve to humiliate and eviscerate. And their unwitting guests are not immune, as they too become embroiled in the ritualistic insanity.

Martha is a woman whose bitterness stems from the profound disappointment she’s suffered living vicariously through the dubious accomplishments of the men in her life.  Her rage is eclipsed only by her own self-loathing.

Befitting her role, Pennell Chapin plays her loud and obnoxious, reciting caustic dialogue such as “I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you” with a diabolic glee. It's a strong performance, but truth be told, there’s an artifice to her over-the-top delivery that lacks verisimilitude. She misses the right tone required of the third act and ultimately comes off as more caricature than human.

George is depicted as a man resigned to make the most of a union that resembles a codependent hell more than holy matrimony. He survives by deploying a superior intellect and rapier wit as weapons against the onslaught of an overbearing and emasculating mate.

Ms. Chapin’s emoting may very well demand our attention, but it’s Tom Woosnam’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the beleaguered husband that commands our respect. Instead of chewing the scenery, he adopts a cerebral, soft-spoken demeanor that provides the ideal foil to his obstreperous adversary. His subtle approach adroitly belies his character’s complicity in their mad dysfunction. And the undertone of affection present in his voice each time he utters her name reveals that it is George's love for Martha that keeps him going. Bravo!

Daniel Trecroci is fine as the ambitious young colleague who finds himself in over his head as he becomes the somewhat deserving target of the older couple’s simultaneous envy and contempt.

And Mary Waterfield is simply superb as his mousy better half, providing a depth and vitality to the part that one suspects was not evident on the written page. Wonderfully attired like Doris Day and dutifully clutching her Kelly purse, she just about steals her scenes right from under her unsuspecting fellow cast members!

A solo bass player (Michael La Guardia), costumed in full beatnik regalia, performs jazzy interludes between acts that evoke the period and set the mood. It’s a classy touch, and it illustrates the thought and careful attention to detail that director Tim Longo and his talented staff put into this elegant production by the Coastal Repertory Theatre. A trip to the beautiful seaside town of Half Moon Bay could not be more worthwhile!