Saturday, January 17, 2015

Theatreworks: 2 Pianos 4 Hands

Christopher Tocco and Darren Dunstan. Photo courtesy TheatreWorks.

Theatreworks’ 2 Pianos 4 Hands bills itself as a universal exploration of excellence, mediocrity, and disappointment – some of my favorite themes in the American theatre. However, it also presents lively physical comedy with vaudevillian characters, packaged in an unorthodox narrative that jumps between the stories of two upcoming classical pianists. This format, along with the well-rehearsed piano segments and versatile talents of actors Darren Dunstan and Christopher Tocco, results in an entertaining play that solves some of the issues of the genre.

Using a casting trick similar to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), the two actors play multiple characters – parents, teachers, and audiences – in the piano careers of youth virtuosos Ted (Dunstan) and Richard (Tocco). There is some multimedia use (a shadow-puppet dad swinging a golf club, for instance), but for the most part, we know the different characters through versatile acting work on both sides. No part, not even the main characters, requires incredible depth (as can be expected from a comedy), but 2 Pianos requires a breadth that Dunstan and Tocco capture magnificently.

One of the biggest issues in farce is that its larger-than-life characters can often become repetitive – for example, the sour maid in Boeing Boeing. However, the “two-actor” format means that the play can use characters only as long as they’re funny. Overbearing European piano teachers – giving their students ironically opposite advice on arpeggios – may be tiring after ten or fifteen minutes, but playwrights Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt had the good sense to limit these characters to two minutes, constantly shuffling in new jokes as the old ones become tired.

Though the characters are exaggerated for comedic purposes, the protagonists are named after the playwrights for a reason. 2 Pianos gives a heartbreakingly realistic rendition of the foibles of practicing an art like piano, especially for children at their most energetic and playful life stage. Anyone who played an instrument as a kid can recognize some of themselves in the Ted and Richard of the first act: the playful improvisations, the attempts to weasel out of practice for a few minutes at a time, the stifling silence of not knowing the answer to your tutor’s question. You will probably cringe at some of the scenes, not because they’re poorly written but because they’re written with such an attention to detail. The protagonists’ eventual development into dedicated musicians through Act 2 is at turns miraculous and sad.

In a theatrical environment where the Noël Coward farce frequently dominates comedy, 2 Pianos 4 Hands refines the formula while introducing heavy themes and intricate structure. Experienced playgoers will love the elegance of its presentation, while its jokes and message will appeal to anyone who wanted to be great – or anyone whose parents wanted them to be great.

Restaurants Nearby: Sono Sushi, New Mongolian Barbecue, Ramen Shalala, Scratch

Saturday, January 3, 2015

New Mongolian BBQ

Location: Mountain View, CA

Food: Mongolian Barbecue

Close to: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (TheatreWorks), Pear Avenue Theatre

Mountain View’s Castro Street has a constantly changing wealth of dining options, ranging from Chinese bakeries to family-style pizzerias. For the enterprising theatregoer, one of the street’s best options is New Mongolian BBQ, which combines delicious food, a low wait time, and a reasonable price. Evidence of its quality can be seen in its longevity: It has been operating since 1973 on Mountain View’s Castro Street, one of the Peninsula’s most volatile shopping districts.

New Mongolian BBQ uses an all-you-can-eat system ($12 for a meal, weekday lunches $10) where you choose a variety of meat, noodles, vegetables, and sauces and give them to the chef, who will cook them to perfection on a gigantic open grill. You can go back as many times as you like or partake in unlimited vegetable egg rolls and soft serve ice cream. Because the ingredients are high quality, the fact that you can get your food quickly doesn’t influence how good it tastes.

The restaurant’s selection is wide enough to appeal to those with specific tastes, but provides guidance for the indecisive. This policy can be seen most clearly in the variety of ten sauces: There is a written guide with several standard combinations for the new restaurant goer, but nothing stops you from putting three ladles of sweet-and-sour and two ladles of chili sauce on your noodles. Garlic lovers like me will be pleased by the garlic powder you can add on your dish after it cooks.

This freedom of choice gives vegetarians and vegans a surprising number of options for what is ostensibly a barbecue. There are a number of seasonal fruits and vegetables, including unusual options like pineapple and water chestnuts alongside tofu, onions, and mushrooms. My personal favorite is the little baby corn, which adds a sweet crunch to meat dishes and acts as the star of the show in vegetable ones. Though the meat is excellent, there are many ways to create a non-meat dish that is just as satisfying.

In some ways, New Mongolian BBQ is the ideal restaurant for theatregoers, providing sit-down restaurant quality at fast-food speed. With delicious food, a delightful service staff, and proximity to multiple parking lots, it’s hard to go wrong when choosing this place.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Plays to See: Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2015 Season

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, located in scenic Ashland, Oregon, is a repertory theatre that produces roughly ten shows during its February to October season. There are always several Shakespeare plays (though not as many this year), in addition to classic, modern, and premiere shows that support OSF’s dedication to the language of theatre.

The city of Ashland boasts quality restaurants with farm-fresh ingredients; the restaurants are so good that, aside from Starbucks, chain restaurants simply can’t survive there. Nature enthusiasts will be interested in beautiful Lithia Park, which boasts scenic forests along the banks of Ashland Creek.

The following is some of the 2015 season’s plays that look especially strong:

Guys and Dolls (by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, and Abe Burrows, dir. Mary Zimmerman)

Runs February 22 through November 1

As I mentioned in my My Fair Lady review, OSF has a consistent record of staging tired Broadway go-tos in innovative and fascinating ways, most notably Bill Rauch’s Pleasantville-style Music Man from the 2009 season. Guys and Dolls has some of the catchiest music of its time, and the combination with OSF’s musical interpretations is very exciting.

What builds even more confidence is the revival under the direction of Mary Zimmerman, typically known more for directing her own mythological works, like 2013’s outstanding White Snake. Guys and Dolls seems like a departure for someone who hardly ever works with material on this side of 1900, but it has its own share of larger-than-life characters and mythological feats (Sky winning a high-stakes gambling game in “Luck Be A Lady”, for instance).

Jeremy Peter Johnson plays Sky Masterson in this production; I most remember him as Cinderella’s Prince in 2014’s Into the Woods. The ability to do goofy material seriously will fit him well as he takes on the role, and I’m excited to see what he does with it. I also eagerly await the hilarious Richard Elmore as imposing gangster Big Jule.

Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land (by Stan Lai, dir. Stan Lai)

Runs April 15 through October 31

Metatheatre (think Noises Off!) is a divisive genre, but one that OSF is unafraid to stage as part of their commitment to the language of theatre. Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land is a delightfully meta piece of theatre that also happens to be one of Taiwan’s most influential and powerful modern plays. The fact that the original writer and director, who semi-improvised the original piece in the 80s, is steering the helm turns the play from a curiosity into a true privilege to see.

Many historical pieces, including some at Ashland, possess a kind of dourness, but Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land combines wit and poignancy in an interesting interpretation of both Chinese ancient and modern history. Authentic non-Western theatre is difficult to find in the States, making Secret Love an amazing opportunity.

Long Day’s Journey into Night (by Eugene O’Neill, dir. Christopher Liam Moore)

Runs March 25 through October 31

It’s one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, starring Michael Winters (King Lear), directed by the person responsible for 2013’s stellar Streetcar Named Desire. I’m not sure what more needs to be said.

The Count of Monte Cristo (by Alexandre Dumas, adapted by Charles Fechter, dir. Marcela Lorca)

Runs June 4 through October 11

The Count of Monte Cristo remains one of the world’s premiere swashbuckling adventure stories, and though many adaptations exist, OSF decided to go with an old, wildly popular version that starred Eugene O’Neill’s father in its original run. This play is a more sophisticated attempt at adventure theatre after 2013’s Heart of Robin Hood, which also indicates the theatre company’s attempt to diversify their theatre styles.

The part of Edmond Dantés, the story’s central character, was given to Al Espinosa, who played assorted roles in mostly Shakespearean or early 20th-century plays in the past four seasons. The Yale-educated actor combines dashing charisma with a true grasp of difficult texts, which gives him an advantage in Count of Monte Cristo.