Friday, November 25, 2016

Los Altos Stage Company: Circle Mirror Transformation

Ensemble. Photo courtesy Richard Mayer.

Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation exemplifies the playwright’s slice-of-life style, an approach to theater that later won her a Pulitzer for The Flick. Baker dispenses with many of the conventions of drama in her work, creating a vividly compelling snapshot of the daily lives of downcast people in a community center acting class. Los Altos Stage’s ambitious performance brings out the best of this challenging work, capturing the pathos and quiet anguish of these characters as if they were real.

Despite not following the classic rules of theatre, the script of Circle Mirror still possesses a clear order: During the “six weeks” of classes, students participate in theatre games, delving deeper into their lives. Many of the games are repeated over and over, so although we won’t know the direction the story will take, we can at least know what future scenes will look like. Simpler games gauge the group’s unity, while more complex ones give us insight into the lives and pasts of individual characters.

Over the course of the play, the characters of Circle Mirror Transformation occupy the archetypes that one might expect from an acting class, yet simultaneously reveal unique traits. One of the most relatable is Lauren (Brittany Pisoni), a 16-year-old who joins the class hoping to gain sufficient performance skill to get the lead role in her school’s production of West Side Story. A combination of dashed expectations for the class and embarrassment at having to participate in goofy acting games causes her to sigh and complain constantly, but she’s not just a sullen teenager who’s forced to do stuff – her anger is borne out of restrained ambition.

Teaching the course is Marty (Judith Miller), who approaches the class with a freewheeling enthusiasm that is as infectious to some as it is off-putting to others. Miller understands precisely the points at which Marty’s issues start to overcome her naturally cheerful attitude, and handles the emotional shift with delicacy. The complexities of Marty’s identity, however, are more intricate than “sad person wearing a happy mask,” and Miller is as able to return to a place of peace as she is to leave it.

One of the more interesting subplots is a romance between Schultz (Gary Landis) and Theresa (Kristin Brownstone); though both of them half-stumble into it, it’s obvious that Theresa is able to handle the relationship with more maturity. Landis interprets Schultz as awkward and needy, still recovering from an emotional divorce, while Brownstone’s Theresa is ready to move past a difficult breakup with her manipulative boyfriend and an early exit from New York. Rounding out the cast is Damian Vega as Marty’s husband, James. His character is more stable than the others, not displaying any particular quirks or difficulties for most of the play but helping the others to stand out.

Circle Mirror Transformation is unlike most other plays and above the level of difficulty usually chosen for community theatre. Los Altos Stage takes on this challenging slice-of-life drama and succeeds, capturing many of the linguistic and nonverbal nuances required by Baker’s superb dialogue. Don’t expect a tidy conclusion when attending this show, but do expect to exit the theater thinking about your own life.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Palo Alto Players: The Diary of Anne Frank

Left to right: Vic Prosak and Roneet Aliza Rahamim. Photo courtesy Joyce Goldschmid and Palo Alto Players.

When the world of the Allies reeled from the discovery of the horrors committed by the Nazis, it was difficult for many people, especially those without personal connections, to process the meaning of what occurred during the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s diary, discovered after the war, allowed insight into the lives of the millions of victims of Hitler’s atrocities and remains a classic of historical literature to this day, with several stage and film adaptations. Palo Alto Players’ version, based on the 1997 script by Wendy Kesselman, brings to life the personalities and trials of the people in hiding in a small annex in Amsterdam.

Through her diary, Anne Frank put a face on the victims of the Holocaust as an ordinary girl surviving under extraordinary circumstances. In a theatrical adaptation, the actress portraying her must balance the innocence of a middle school girl with the desperation of someone forced into hiding. Roneet Aliza Rahamim’s rendition achieves this balance: She begins the play excited and adventurous, and although she becomes more distraught as her circumstances turn grim, she never loses the positivity and hope that lie at the core of her character.

Another standout performance in the play is Vic Prosak as Anne’s father, Otto. Prosak has a deep, powerful voice, which lends authority to his attempts to maintain peace among the members of the annex. Otto feels a profound sadness about the group’s situation as he watches his children grow up under Nazi persecution; he expresses his protectiveness through unfailing diplomacy yet rigorous adherence to the stringent rules dictated by extreme circumstances. It is Otto who gives the final monologue detailing the horrific fates of the rest of the annex group, and the sorrow and rage in his telling is palpable.

As their living situation becomes more desperate over the course of the play, the group wears down, each member reacting to the deteriorating situation according to their own idiosyncrasies. Most obvious is the dentist Mr. Dussel (Tom Bleecker), whose irritable personality is a source of humor in the play’s lighter moments, but, over time, becomes genuinely angry. The Van Daans (Shawn Bender and Rachel Michelberg) show perhaps the most dramatic transformation, as their refinement crumbles under the face of a dwindling supply of money. However, despite the increasing deprivation and tension, human decency and empathy survive, even during the terrifying moments when the Nazis arrive.

Kuo-Hao Lo’s set captures the confined space of the annex while providing a reasonable amount of room for the drama to unfold. Skylights at the top of the stage let in a sliver of cool light, hinting at the outbreak of the war in Nazi-occupied Holland, but not giving the audience – or the members of the annex – quite enough information. Rooms are set up so beds don’t occupy too much of the audience’s visual space; this gives the actors room to perform, while still conveying a cramped living area too small for its occupants.

Many people have read The Diary of Anne Frank at some point in their lives, but Palo Alto Players’ stage adaptation further captures the point of reading the book – understanding the story of those who lost their lives during the Holocaust. More than simply a documentary about genocide, the play allows us to sympathize directly with a handful of people whose lives were destroyed. For those who want to further know the life of people hiding desperately from a government intent on exterminating them, Anne Frank provides profound insight.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Dragon Productions: On The Verge

Left to right: Meredith Hagedorn, Doll Picotto, and Maria Giere Marquis. Photo courtesy Kimberlee Wittlieb and Dragon Productions.

Dragon Productions, located in downtown Redwood City, is notable for performing strange and obscure plays that test the boundaries of the medium of theatre. Their current production, Eric Overmyer’s On The Verge (Or the Geography of Yearning) falls firmly within their wheelhouse. Using the trappings of three Victorian-era explorers on an adventure in the mysterious Terra Incognita, the play embarks on a wild journey through time, language and culture that defies literary norms.

Though there is technically a plot, much of it is an excuse, the colorful tent pitched over a linguistic funhouse. There’s no sense of dramatic structure or stakes, and very little character development, but the show doesn’t need it – it’s a whirlwind of words, an exploration of sound as much as meaning through the use of rhymes, description, and onomatopoeia. It’s much closer to poetry than it is to literature; if you go in expecting this experience, you’ll get more out of the show.

Despite the looseness of the plot, the three main characters are well defined. Mary (Doll Picotto) represents the values of her native Victorian era, professing the virtues of stiff bloomers and classical anthropology. Her booming voice and intense personality win the audience over. On the other side of the spectrum is Alex (Maria Giere Marquis), a younger explorer obsessed with rhymes and Tibet; she’s more than willing to eschew her social norms and gaily dance forward into the future. Bridging the two is Fanny (Meredith Hagedorn, also the executive artistic director of the company), who doesn’t subscribe to any one corner of acting but adapts as the circumstances change. The ever-surprising Tom Gough pops up periodically in a number of different roles, ranging from a small yeti to the mysterious Mr. Coffee.

The set is more suggested than built, a stark black-and-white affair that makes use of projected subtitles to separate scenes. Lighting designer William Campbell subtly relights the stage to give a vague sense of location: a pale green for the misty rainforest, icy blue for the freezing mountains. Following the example of the play itself, the technical details of On the Verge are blurry and ambiguous, designed deliberately for the audience to not have a clear mental image of what’s happening.

A lot more occurs in On the Verge than I describe in this review, and I’m purposely leaving it out so, should you attend, you can experience the same surprises as the opening night audience. It’s a tremendously strange play, a slice of the unexpected unlike anything you’ve seen in a long time. If you’re a fan of plays that are a little more out there, consider it for your next evening of theatre.

Suisha House

Location: Redwood City, CA

Food: Japanese

Close To: Dragon Productions, Fox Theatre

Suisha House is perhaps a perfect destination for theatregoers looking for Japanese food before their play. It’s located just a few blocks from Redwood City’s two premiere theatres, and despite its intimate space, the restaurant always seems to have an open table or two for dinner. Sporting a menu of both sushi and Japanese comfort food at inexpensive prices, Suisha’s a great place to grab a bite to eat before your show.

There are a number of appetizers to choose from, including gyoza ($5.95), a Japanese pot sticker filled with either pork or vegetables. The gyoza, which are also available as a free side along certain dishes, are crisp and bursting with flavor, without being greasy or overwhelming the flavor of your entrĂ©e. They’re so addictive, you might regret only ordering one set of six.

Of note on Suisha House’s menu is its selection of udon noodle dishes. I’m personally more of a fan of the thick udon noodle than its more popular cousin ramen, and Suisha does udon justice. The most luxurious choice is the nabeyaki udon ($11.50), a rich mix of ingredients including chicken, shrimp tempura, vegetables, and a fried egg, a combination of flavors that becomes even more savory and complex as you eat it.

Like many casual Japanese places, there are also combination meals ($14.95 for two options at dinner, $17.95 for three). These come with sides that include Suisha’s miso soup, which is slightly saltier and more savory than miso soups served at other restaurants – a good compliment to many of the combination choices, which trend towards sweeter flavors. Consider ordering the tonkatsu, a fried pork cutlet that comes with rich katsu sauce on the side, along with one of Suisha’s numerous sushi options. The milder sushi helps balance out the heavier flavors of the fried cutlet so neither overwhelms the palate.

With a reasonable selection of tasty Japanese dishes, convenient location near two theatres, and friendly service, Suisha House is an excellent choice for a pre-show dinner. My favorite little touch is when they bring the check: Instead of a couple of wrapped hard candies, the waiter will serve a peeled orange with some toothpicks to round out your meal. It’s one of the cutest things I’ve seen from a restaurant in a long time.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Cavalia: Odysseo

Elise Verdoncq and Omerio. Photo courtesy Cavalia and Dan Harper.

Created in 2003 by Cirque du Soleil co-founder Normand Latourelle, the troupe Cavalia combines intricate human acrobatics with complex equine performances featuring dozens of trained horses in the lavish custom settings. Their recent touring show Odysseo is a melding of visual delight and incredible precision, simultaneously evoking a fantasy dreamscape and the horse-riding cultures of the world. The performance continually exceeds its own standards for what’s possible in human and equestrian motion, never settling to simply meet audience expectations.

Normally, descriptions of the technical theatre go near the end of a Theatre and Bites review, but because Odysseo’s performances are so profoundly tied to its venue, the subject deserves to be mentioned first. The show takes place in a gigantic white tent that can be seen from the highway, featuring a curved proscenium stage several times bigger than that of Bay Area regional theatres. Because of its size and subtle lighting, the space almost seems like watching a show outside. The stage itself tilts to create the illusion of great distance, which provides a sense of vastness and glory.

Odysseo consists of fourteen scenes; almost all feature its four-legged performers. These scenes can almost be seen as an introduction to the spectrum of horse performance, with riders enacting deliberate, precise dressage routines at one moment and performing wild Cossack riding acrobatics the next. The scenes don’t simply hew to formal notions of equestrian skill, either: “The Odyssey,” which opens Odysseo’s second act, opens with horses lying prone and slowly bonding with their handlers before joining together into the spectacular choreography of a Liberty performance.

Though all of the scenes are gorgeous, the very best are the two at the end: “The Great Adventure” and the grand finale, “Odysseo.” Without giving too much away, “Great Adventure” begins with a quiet, captivating solo performance by Elise Verdoncq, riding Lusitano horse Omerio, as the front of the stage fills with a shallow layer of water. This water, though no great impediment to human or horse, adds a layer of spectacle to the daring, adventurous routines about to unfold.

The inclusion of horses adds an interesting dash of uncertainty to a performance art that is almost robotically precise with only human dancers. The horses are well trained and talented, but they are still animals and possess their own habits and idiosyncrasies. (I saw the aforementioned Omerio try to sip some water out of a groove in the stage at the end of “The Great Adventure.”) The broad staging and ensemble of Odysseo allows audience members to follow a horse that particularly interests them, which adds a nice touch to the theatrical experience.

Cavalia’s Odysseo is a lavish, incredibly well choreographed performance piece that combines the best work of human and horse alike. It provides an evening of stunning visuals, uplifting themes, and a glimpse at the connection between species that has existed since the dawn of civilization. For people drawn to the performing arts for aesthetics as much as they are for a well-crafted script, Odysseo is a must-see.