Tuesday, January 30, 2018

City Lights: Alabama Story

Left to right: Karen DeHart, Steve Lambert, Erik Gandolfi. Photo courtesy Taylor Sanders and CLTC.

Kenneth Jones’ Alabama Story is in many ways the second coming of the classic play Inherit The Wind: A heartwarming narrative, based on a true story, about reason and togetherness emerging victorious over the evils of hate in a Deep South town. City Lights’ San Jose production, a West Coast premiere, is a play as uplifting as the children’s book about which it is written.

Alabama Story’s most overt theme is racial integration and the fight over a children’s book that – at least according to Alabama’s white supremacist element – implicitly supported interracial marriage. The burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the actions of early protesters like Rosa Parks drives much of the action of the play. However, existing alongside the play’s message of tolerance is a subtler theme of the power of literature to touch anyone’s heart. The main character, veteran librarian Emily Reed (Karen DeHart), defends The Rabbits’ Wedding on the basis that books shouldn’t be censored. Even the antagonist, segregationist senator E.W. Higgins (Erik Gandolfi), continues to fund the library during the fight out of a childhood love of Tom Sawyer. Books in Alabama Story are the most important ideological boundary, and nobody in the play disrespects the boundary enough to truly step over it.

City Lights’ cast brings the play to life. Gandolfi’s E.W. Higgins is the very picture of a Southern politician, employing a stentorian voice, Sunday morning delivery, and a passive-aggressive method of enforcing his will. DeHart’s Reed, on the other hand, stands opposite in every way: She displays a powerful inner strength while remaining humble and neutral. This emphasizes the clash not only between these characters’ values, but how they fight for them. Steve Lambert takes on a variety of roles, but the best is the elderly politician Bobby Crone, which he portrays with a mix of practicality and force of will. Jeremy Ryan plays Reed’s charming assistant Thomas Franklin with innocence, charm, and well-meaning righteous anger. Meanwhile, Bezachin Jifar and Maria Giere Marquis portray star-crossed lovers Joshua and Lily; their chemistry is evident whether they’re sharing small talk or reckoning the reality of a Jim Crow South.   

While some plays benefit from a wild technical approach, the design team of Alabama Story wisely knew when to experiment and when not to. Standing out most is scenic designer Ron Gasparinetti’s proscenium archway of book-shaped projector screens: Though they’re noticeable while the audience gets settled and awaits the show, it’s employed subtly so it doesn’t draw focus away from the actors. The tiered floor of the set also serves, along with Mia Kumamoto’s insightful, economic lighting work, to define the multiple plotlines that run simultaneously during the show.

Alabama Story at City Lights is a comforting tale of the triumph of knowledge over ignorance and a future classic. Lovers of Twelve Angry Men and, as mentioned, Inherit the Wind, will especially enjoy the play’s timeless themes and well-defined characters.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2018 Season

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, located in peaceful and scenic Ashland, Oregon, produces 11 plays in repertory each year from February to October. Only half are the works of Shakespeare, while the rest are a mixture of classic American plays, world premieres, and musicals that do justice to Shakespeare’s all-encompassing themes and love of language.

The town of Ashland boasts numerous quality restaurants with fresh ingredients, plenty of opportunities for a hike, and a thriving visual arts scene. It’s a perfect destination for a weeklong getaway.

Here are some of the most exciting plays of OSF’s 2018 season:

Othello (Directed by Bill Rauch)

Othello is the most cerebral and slow moving of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies, observing Iago’s psychological torment of the proud and jealous Othello in uncomfortable detail. The 2018 production moves the play into the American military apparatus and casts Chris Butler as Othello and Danforth Comins as Iago.

Sense and Sensibility (Adapted by Kate Hamill, directed by Hana S. Sharif)

Kate Hamill’s adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel ran for over 265 performances off-Broadway and won several awards. Now, fellow Austen lover Hana S. Sharif directs the play, which features Kate Mulligan (Queen Elizabeth from last year’s Shakespeare in Love) as the formidable Mrs. Dashwood.

Destiny of Desire (By Karen Zacarías, directed by José Luis Valenzuela)

Destiny of Desire pays tribute to the beloved Mexican telenovela with a raucous musical comedy featuring twins separated at birth, conniving beauty queens, and other outlandish twists. OSF cornerstones Vilma Silva, Armando Durán, and Al Espinosa make up part of the play’s ensemble cast.

Henry V (Directed by Rosa Joshi)

Henry V completes the three-play cycle that OSF began last year with Henry IV part 1 and part 2. Daniel José Molina continues as Prince Hal – now a fully-fledged king – as he demonstrates his growth from a carefree party boy into a cold, practical ruler. Rosa Joshi, OSF newcomer and founder of the all-female theatre troupe upstart crow collective, directs.

The Book of Will (By Lauren Gunderson, directed by Christopher Liam Moore)

Lauren Gunderson, notable for her modern plays that twist familiar Shakespearean plots, examines the creation of Shakespeare’s First Folio in this lively dramedy directed by Ashland veteran Christopher Liam Moore. A group of Shakespeare’s friends and actors attempt to keep Shakespeare’s words accurate after his death in the face of pirated scripts of dubious accuracy.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Theatreworks: Around The World In 80 Days

Clockwise left to right: Jason Kuykendall, Ron Campbell, Michael Gene Sullivan, Tristan Cunningham, Ajna Jai. Photo courtesy Kevin Berne and Theatreworks.

One of my favorite theatrical traditions is the small-cast comedy. Beginning with Ludlam’s Mystery of Irma Vep and popularized with the Broadway adaptation of The 39 Steps, these plays make use of character actors’ talent and elaborate costumes to portray dozens of parts with a cast of five or fewer. Mark Brown’s adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days, now playing at Theatreworks, pays tribute to Jules Verne’s classic adventure tale with a lean group of actors and a delightfully irreverent script.

Director Robert Kelley understands the secret to good farce: Bringing the comedy over the top as much as possible without disrupting the core of the plot. Most of the cast portrays a number of exaggerated characters apiece, including priests, police, and rugged sea captains. Ron Campbell shoulders the bulk of these roles, his funniest work done with the cavalier Colonel Proctor. Unlike other small-cast comedies, there’s a relatively high number of recurring named characters, making the humor less reliant on metatheatrics and more on standard farce.

Unflappable main character Phileas Fogg (Jason Kuykendall) serves as a grounding element to this chaos, with energetic and loyal servant Passepartout (Tristan Cunningham) bridging the gap between clown and straight man. Cunningham’s circus experience aids her in the mainly physical work required of the character, while Kuykendall’s confidence propels the plot implacably forward. Michael Gene Sullivan’s blustery Detective Fix and Ajna Jai’s timid-yet-powerful Aouda round out a stellar cast.

One of the unique technical elements of Theatreworks’ production is the use of Cameron Wells as a foley artist. Wells helps express the numerous international locations of the play through special effects that don’t obscure the action onstage, and accents the humor of scenes to make them even funnier. Anachronisms like the Law and Order gavel sound are scattered throughout the play, not enough to cloud the original work but sufficient to add a new layer of humor.

Around The World in 80 Days at Theatreworks ties together classic adventure, vaudeville comedy, and modern metatheatrics in a unique package. No matter how familiar you are with Jules Verne’s original story, you will find something to appreciate in this production.

Around The World runs until December 31st.       

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Theatreworks: The Prince of Egypt

Left to right: Jason Gotay, Diluckshan Jeyaratnam. Photo courtesy Kevin Berne and TheatreWorks.
Dreamworks’ 1998 movie The Prince of Egypt, an adaptation of the story of Exodus, thrilled audiences with its superb animation and Stephen Schwartz-composed music. The film’s lynchpin song, “When You Believe,” won Schwartz an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Theatreworks’ world premiere adaptation, directed by Scott Schwartz and featuring a selection of new music, translates the majesty of the original work in a way that can only be expressed on the stage.

Central to the work are Moses (Diluckshan Jeyaratnam) and his brother Ramses (Jason Gotay), crown prince of Egypt. Jeyaratnam’s Moses is mischievous, emotional, and tormented by the actions he has to take as God’s chosen one. This human interpretation of Moses is an interesting departure from the Moses-as-inscrutable-prophet version in the public perception. Meanwhile, Gotay portrays Ramses not as a force of evil, but a pitiful figure crushed by the expectations held of him. Though he is responsible for the continual enslavement of the Hebrews, it stems more from weakness than malice. Ramses’ confrontation with Moses is as inevitable as it was in Exodus, but in this production, Gotay gives us a sense of tragedy on both sides.

The rest of the cast delivers equally stellar performances. Brennyn Lark’s Tzipporah ventures into romance with Moses without losing the fiery independence at the core of her character. Tom Nelis approaches the role of old pharaoh Seti like one would approach Shakespeare’s Caesar, weighing down the younger characters with his gravitas even after his death. High priest Hotep (Will Mann) is elevated from a goofy minor antagonist in the film to a force of authority responsible for many of Ramses’ worst decisions; Mann’s balance of sinister power and cartoony outrage is perfect for the role.

The songs in the musical are a combination of the award-winning soundtrack from the movie and new work made specifically for the stage adaptation. The opening song “Deliver Us” retains its overwhelming grandeur, setting the stage for the great scope of the story as a whole. Moses’ new song “Footprints on the Sand” prefaces his journey through his desire to accomplish something meaningful, not just to live in luxury. “One of Us”, another new number at the beginning of the second act, uses a jaunty tune and fun rhymes to lighten the mood before the Exodus truly begins.

Because the movie made frequent use of expensive artistic elements, one would expect the stage adaptation to do the same. Instead, the technical elements are restrained, making use of minimal props and sets to tell its story. Much of the musical’s visual aesthetic is created through the work of choreographer Sean Cheeseman; a talented ensemble uses dance to construct such set pieces as the wall of an Egyptian palace or the fire through which God speaks to Moses. What can’t be represented through human motion is created through Shawn Sagady’s projection work or set designer Kevin Depinet’s multipurpose stone blocks. This technical work avoids the long shadow created by the musical’s predecessor, creating a visual spectacle that can only be achieved by live theatre.

The Prince of Egypt at Theatreworks is more of a reinterpretation of both the original film and the story of Exodus than a retelling. Not only are the structure and characterization different, but even major story components like Ramses drowning in the Red Sea are changed. Even if you’ve seen the film, the stage adaptation creates a fresh perspective through a talented cast delivering new takes on familiar characters and a visual style that makes use of the theatre’s ability to represent through movement.

Monday, July 24, 2017


Location: Berkeley, CA

Food: Japanese, Yakitori

Close To: Berkeley Rep, The Marsh

Conveniently located next to a BART station in the middle of downtown Berkeley, Ippuku provides a quiet refuge from the bustling Bay Area. The seating in the long, narrow space – consisting of both booths and traditional low tables – is partially enclosed by walls, creating intimate eating spaces. Within these areas, diners are treated to yakitori, charcoal-grilled skewers that form a cornerstone of Japanese tavern cuisine.

Skewers (prices range from $7-$9) arrive in pairs; one could expect to eat three or four plates as part of a meal. Various chicken skewers, as the core of yakitori cuisine, feature prominently within Ippuku’s menu. Common varieties like chicken breast and thigh are available, along with more unconventional cuts like heart, which possesses a rich flavor accentuated by its time on the grill, and satisfyingly chewy gizzard. For $16, you can get an omakase (chef’s choice) plate of five different skewers; this is a great option for people who want to taste a variety of offerings, as well as for those who can’t decide.

Chicken isn’t your only card to play at Ippuku. Mochi, pounded rice cakes, are more common as dessert items in the West, but their neutral flavor and sticky texture work just as well as an entrée. Some of Ippuku’s best menu items make use of small mochi cakes, including mochi skewers wrapped in bacon and grilled mochi wrapped in nori. Other skewers might contain asparagus or mushrooms; some slightly larger options include a warm and satisfying zosui rice porridge with chicken on top ($10), grilled rice balls ($8), and a small selection of desserts.

Ippuku’s appeal is twofold: Its peaceful, quiet atmosphere in an otherwise hectic city center, and its unbelievably high-quality skewers. Spending an evening eating yakitori here is a great way to burn off the stress of a big week. If you don’t find yourself in Berkeley particularly often, I recommend making a visit to Ippuku a high priority. The restaurant’s wide menu, high quality, and inviting atmosphere create a peaceful, satisfying eating experience that one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.


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Monday, July 17, 2017

San Leandro Players: Arsenic and Old Lace

Left to right: James Michael Gregory, Maya Rath, Paul Petersen. Photo courtesy San Leandro Players.

As one of the quintessential American comedies, Arsenic and Old Lace, with its blend of macabre humor and farce, withstands the test of time and remains hilarious to this day. As the San Leandro Players navigate this play, the small, gutsy company uses its intimate space to bring the physical humor out into the audience.

The headlining characters of the show are Abby and Martha Brewster (played by Jessi Lee and Terry Guillory, respectively), a pair of aunts who delight in euthanizing lonely old men with poisoned wine. The pair functions as a two-person comedy unit that charms the audience despite their deadly hobby. Lee and Guillory shine as the Brewsters through a combination of neighborly charm, well-meaning nosiness, and naiveté over their crimes.

Many other characters add to the over-the-top nonsense of Arsenic and Old Lace. Robyn Werk towers over early scenes as Teddy “Roosevelt” Brewster: Her mixture of childish glee and faux-Presidential outrage generates an entertaining performance. Contributing genuine danger to the play are Boris Karloff lookalike Jonathan Brewster (Paul Pedersen) and his partner-in-crime Dr. Einstein (Maya Rath). Pedersen does a great job channeling Karloff’s sinister horror work as he menaces the rest of the cast, while Rath lends a surprising amount of empathy to an ostensibly insane plastic surgeon.

The San Leandro Players also do an interesting job in implementing the play’s foils –serious characters with no real quirks that exist to react to the others’ wackiness. James Paul Gregory plays the story’s ostensible protagonist, Mortimer; he is the standard model of foil that attempts to control the increasingly ludicrous antics of the play. Gregory manifests his role with splendid physical comedy work, leaping maniacally from set piece to set piece. Meanwhile, love interest Elaine (Natalie Moisa) serves as a foil to the foil: As she has no idea what’s happening, even Mortimer’s actions seem ridiculous to her. Moisa’s interpretation is charged with a justifiable impatience; the dual foils provide a fascinatingly multilayered style of comedy not seen in most farces.

Michael Guillory’s set work is standard for the play – the aunts’ old-fashioned house, with doors aplenty for farcical antics – but it not only accommodates, but takes advantage of, the limitations of the San Leandro Players’ stage, which is very narrow and close to the audience. Objects like the corpse-storing window seat are placed at a diagonal, giving the actors more room to maneuver. Some set pieces are actually in front of the stage, so the action merges into the audience. Director Mark O’Neill extends the action across the horizontally oriented space, maintaining the actors’ visibility.

San Leandro Players’ production of Arsenic and Old Lace does justice to the evergreen American classic. The morbid jokes and slapstick comedy are just as funny as they were when the play premiered nearly 80 years ago, and the ensemble cast lends energy and talent to Joseph Kesselring’s script.

Note: Natalie Moisa, who portrayed Elaine in this production, is a personal friend.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs until August 13th.


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