Saturday, September 21, 2013

Palo Alto Players: In the Heights

Now that it has been five years after the original show closed and the rights have been released, numerous theaters in the Bay Area are performing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical In The Heights. The Palo Alto Players’ rendition, running until the end of the month, combines the exciting score with a talented, spirited cast to create a show of integrity and wonder.

In The Heights concerns the entwined stories of numerous people on an increasingly gentrified block of Washington Heights in New York City. Usnavi, our protagonist, struggles to keep his grocery store in business as he pursues Vanessa, a hairdresser at a salon down the street. Vanessa longs to leave the barrio and move into an apartment downtown. Kevin and Camila Roasario barely keep their taxi business afloat, while their daughter, Nina, returns home after working two jobs and studying at Stanford proved too difficult to her. And through it all, a lone piragua vendor competes with an ice cream truck for customers.

The cast was extremely strong and did a wonderful job: Standout voices include Jia Taylor as Vanessa and Alexa Ortega as Nina. Mark Alabanza plays the small but important role of the Piragua Guy with aplomb, making the vendor’s subtle jokes with impeccable comedic timing and singing his songs with a golden voice.

The Palo Alto Players do an amazing job in conveying the economic difficulties of the characters of the play to an affluent community. Contrary to the feel-good messages of many other musicals, In The Heights portrays the humanity of people in desperate situations, and, in my opinion, it’s this kind of conflict that makes for truly great modern drama.

Interestingly, In The Heights  possesses some similarities to the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof, which nears its 50th anniversary next year: A focus on the economically disadvantaged, the clash of heritage and true love, and the enduring question: Where is your home when you’re forced to leave? I’m happy to see more modern musicals addressing these issues, especially since In The Heights modernizes the message but leaves its timeless teachings intact.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2013: King Lear

Michael Winters as Lear (Left), Ray Fisher as Burgundy (Center), and Sofia Jean Gomez as Cordelia (Right). Photo by Jenny Graham and courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In my sophomore year of college, I took a course on Shakespeare’s tragedies, taught by Santa Clara University’s resident Shakespeare scholar, Dr. Judith Dunbar. The class was enlightening, and I believe its greatest effect was that it introduced me to the intricacies of one of Shakespeare’s finest plays: King Lear. Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production, starring Jack Willis and Michael Winters as Lear in alternating performances, more than does the play justice.

My tickets were booked for the Michael Winters performance. Winters played Lear as a congenial, pleasant man, making his sudden fury towards his daughters and his eventual madness extremely unsettling. From what I heard, Willis played a mean, intimidating Lear; considering his prior performances as Lyndon Johnson in All The Way and evil monk Fahai in The White Snake, I'm sure that he performed the role as superbly as Winters.

The play is held in the black-box Thomas Theatre (previously known as the New Theatre). Though they are not as spacious or grand as proscenium theaters, the benefit of black-box theaters is their intimacy and potential for versatile staging. Artistic director Bill Rauch used these qualities to their utmost limits in King Lear, staging scenes in the catwalks above the stage and producing the storm scene using stagehands with leafblowers and flashlights. (It looks much, much better than it sounds). Particularly innovative is Daisuke Tsuji’s Fool, which – due to the desire not to spoil the artistry for you – I will not describe in great detail.

Similar to last year’s Troilus and Cressida, there is a military theme to King Lear’s design – when we first see him, Lear is wearing a general’s jacket covered in medals, and Edmund wears a soldier’s uniform for most of the play. Also like Troilus, we get a sense of both the depraved excess of the military upper class and the desolation of war, but Lear has a less narrow focus on the front lines, moving around to the streets and back alleys where Lear slowly descends into madness.

Whether this is your first Lear or your hundredth, there is something to be gained from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2013 King Lear. Make sure you know which Lear is playing when you purchase tickets – though both are great, it’s good to be able to decide between “Nice Lear” and “Mean Lear”.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2013: My Fair Lady

Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham. Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Over the past few years, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has developed a pattern of taking a classic musical – perhaps one that the audience is starting to tire of – and directing it in a way so fresh and innovative that it seems new once again. In 2009, OSF’s Music Man changed Harold Hill into a man bringing Pleasantville-esque color to a black-and-white town. 2012’s Animal Crackers kept the rapid-fire Marx humor but added some cleverly blocked visual gags–and a few choice barbs aimed at the Festival itself. And this year, OSF has accomplished the impossible – breathing new life into My Fair Lady, one of the most well-known musicals of all time.

My Fair Lady takes place in the streets, apartments, and racing booths of the British upper class, and director Amanda Dehnert does not try to convince the audience any different. The twist is that these settings are left to our imagination; the action takes place in a rehearsal room, where a group of actors are practicing for My Fair Lady. This setting seems cliché, but the production doesn’t skimp on technical artistry. Eliza’s final exit has to be seen to be believed, and the familiar settings become new as the rehearsal room, with the help of a few props and costumes, transforms into a myriad of settings and spaces.

When I went to see My Fair Lady, an unfortunate illness was going through the ensemble, and numerous characters–including Eliza Doolittle herself–were played by understudies. Christina Acosta Robinson, coming straight from her role in The Unfortunates from earlier in the day, played Eliza immaculately, carrying her with the fire and emotional extremes the role requires to stay believable. Also great was Ken Robinson, probably the most acrobatic Freddy Eynsford-Hill in the history of the role, who drew wild applause for his rendition of “On The Street Where You Live”. The cast gave a wild, bombastic rendition of the show that made you almost forget where you were.

If you think you’ve seen My Fair Lady before, or even if you think you’ve seen it too many times, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s rendition of My Fair Lady will almost certainly change your mind. I am excited that the Festival is continuing the trend next year with The Cocoanuts, and, even more so, Into The Woods.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Theatreworks: Other Desert Cities

other desert cities
James Sutorius and Kandis Chappell. Photo by Tracy Martin.

Even a casual attendee of the theatre can tell that the sitting-room drama is currently experiencing a massive wave of popularity. It’s difficult to find a theatre these days that doesn’t have at least one show running about a group of horrible people yelling at each other in the same room. Some, like Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, are the most-produced plays in the world right now. Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, which just finished its Theatreworks run in Mountain View, is an example of the best the niche has to offer.

The play concerns the Wyeth family, a well-to-do family living in Southern California. Polly and Lyman Wyeth, the father and mother, are snooty Republicans; Polly is the ever-present psychologically abusive, alcoholic mother and Lyman acts as the more permissive parent.  Trip Wyeth, their son, is a flippant, vapid reality show producer, and Brooke, their daughter and the closest equivalent the play has to a main character, is an author who recently recovered from a deep spell of depression. Rounding out the cast is Selda, Polly’s sister, former partner, and current recovering alcoholic trapped in the house next door. When Brooke reveals that she is about to publish a memoir about her brother, who firebombed an army recruiting station and then committed suicide, the tensions underlying the family’s interactions come to a head.

Other Desert Cities takes the best of the sitting-room drama–the building tension, the subtly changing external and internal statuses of the characters–and avoids the larger problems with dialogue-heavy plays by keeping a fast pace and revealing more information with every conversation. There are issues with exposition being a little ham-handed and broader political issues appearing awkwardly in what should be a tightly focused, character-driven play, but the play as a whole is enjoyable enough that these are not particularly noticeable.

In this production, the Wyeths often turned to the audience to deliver important lines, acting as if they are constantly in front of the camera. This direction is divisive and largely depends on your taste (I don’t like it much personally), but there is no denying that it fits a family used to outside surveillance. The acting was strong across the board, with nobody standing out as better than the others particularly.

Unfortunately, the Theatreworks run is now over. However, the play itself is strong enough that if it opens again in the Bay Area or within a reachable distance, I would recommend buying a ticket.

Pasta Piatti


Location: Ashland, Oregon

Food: Italian

Close to: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Oregon Cabaret Theatre

Pasta Piatti is an Italian restaurant, conveniently located on Ashland’s Main Street. Described as “New World Italian,” I first went to this restaurant last year with my father, once in March and once, like this year, in September. The food was so good that I requested to go back this year with my family, a decision that I do not at all regret.

Pasta Piatti was crowded in March, but in September evenings there are only a few people in attendance, mostly eating on the restaurant’s spacious patio. The interior, with quiet music and dark wood, made for an inviting, intimate atmosphere. A number of wines and draft beers are available; I had a sip of a tart, crisp Riesling but my tastes in wine are so far not advanced enough to give a thorough review.

The first item I made sure to order was the house ciabatta ($3.50). Although dishes come with a few slices, only the whole loaf has a light brushing of oil on top, along with a salt-and-pepper seasoning that makes it one of the best breads I’ve ever eaten. As a Bay Area native and self-opined bread connoisseur, that is very high praise.

For an entrée, I had the lasagna ($14.95); the cheese was sweet and as wonderful as one might expect from a restaurant in one of Oregon's prime dairy locations. I also tried the planked sockeye salmon ($18.95), which was covered in a smoky glaze that brought out the fish’s sweetness. For dessert, I had a créme brulee ($6.50); it came with slightly sweet, crisp cookies for dipping and huckleberry preserves. Besides being a French dessert in an Italian restaurant, the only issue with the créme brulee was that the ramekin itself was deep but not wide, meaning there wasn’t as much crust to balance the richness of the cream.

Pasta Piatti has an excellent selection of Italian food and a wonderful atmosphere. It’s a great choice if you’re looking for a  nice dinner in Ashland. The extensive wine bar, beautiful terrace seating, and intimate indoor space make it a great place to go on a date as well.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2013: Cymbeline

Dawn-Lyen Gardner (back) as Imogen and Kenajuan Bentley (front) as Iachimo.

Photo by Jenny Graham. Courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival usually plays a similar selection of Shakespeare plays every year: A big, attractive tragedy, a comedy or two, and an apocryphal history or problem play. Though Cymbeline is classified as a comedy, it possesses little of the comedic elements of Midsummer Night’s Dream, and current scholars prefer to classify it as a romance. Cymbeline's language and plot are not as masterful as Shakespeare’s greatest, but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival made sure to give it as much justice as they did Troilus and Cressida last year.

As with most of Shakespeare, there are numerous plots that run throughout the course of the play, but most prominent is the romance between the ancient British princess Imogen and her lover, a court-raised boy named Posthumus Leonatus (after his father, who died in war). Posthumus’ Roman friend, under a bet, fakes evidence proving that he seduced Imogen, causing war to break out between the two nations. In the meantime, Imogen disguises herself as a man (as women were wont to do in Shakespearean comedies) and finds herself in the company of a hunter and his adopted sons…who happen to be the British king’s eldest two sons, lost long ago at sea.

OSF’s Cymbeline stayed roughly within Shakespeare’s time period, odd for the festival, but played fast and loose with accuracy: The Romans dressed like Venetians and used Italian accents, while some of the British wore elf ears. Though the costumes helped distinguish groups of characters from each other, they were certainly not as inspired as other OSF productions I had seen. However, the more typical setting worked for the obscure play.

Cymbeline should be seen just for the fact that hardly anyone does it, but OSF’s production of it is more than just sheer novelty. It  is an entertaining romp through the woods that allows us to experience a rarely seen side of Shakespeare’s work. My suggestion: Leave the full plot summary at home and enjoy getting shocked by the play’s twists and turns.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2013: The Unfortunates

Ramiz Monsef (right) as the Doctor, Cristofer Jean (Center, on trapdoor) as Koko, and ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham. Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In recent years, musicals have departed from traditional structure and composition methods, exploring the use of numerous musical styles to tell a story. 2008’s Tony Award-winning In The Heights used hip-hop and Latin pop styles, each character representedy by a different form of inner-city Brooklyn music, while Fela! told the story of African musician Fela Kuti with his traditional tunes.

The Unfortunates, currently in its premiere performance at Ashland, tells a bitter, simple story using that classic American art form: The Blues. The play concerns Big Joe, former right-hand-man to King Jesse, underworld boss and owner of King Jesse’s Kingdom, a bar/casino/brothel that caters to the baser desires of whoever walks in. When Jesse dies from a plague, Big Joe is given the crown, but he is as soft-hearted as he is big-fisted and finds it difficult to maintain what he’s been given. Meanwhile, he attempts to pursue a relationship with Jesse’s daughter; however, when she contracts the plague as well, Joe’s life is turned upside down.

The musical draws many of its devices from other musicals, but employs them together in a way that makes it a truly unique performance. The closest musical I can think of is Kander and Ebb’s Kiss Of The Spider Woman: Both use a fascist prison where death awaits at every turn as a framing device, and both protagonists escape their terrifying circumstances by disappearing into the realm of their imagination. However, The Unfortunates improves the formula: Joe's imagination torments him just as much as the foreign soldier outside the cell and the soundtrack uses a musical style able to convey more angst than the tango. Big Joe’s mental landscape is bizarre and circus-like (Joe himself dons immobile, Hulk-sized fists in his mind), but as much as its inhabitants are cheery and love to joke, there is a noticeable grim current at the back of every scene.

If you are going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it would be a shame if you missed The Unfortunates, which, if it weren’t for OSF’s astonishing Streetcar Named Desire, would far outpace the others as the greatest play of the season.