Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Theatreworks: Confederates

Left to right: Tasha Lawrence, Jessica Lynn Carol, Richard Prioleau. Photo courtesy Kevin Berne.

Though there are many political thrillers in the world of theatre, not many describe the surreal experiences of journalists on the campaign trail. Suzanne Bradbeer’s Confederates, premiering at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, uses this setting to examine the nature of scandal, journalism’s role in modern politics, and whether it’s more important to be first or to be right.

Three characters are present in the play: Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll), the daughter of a long-shot Presidential candidate, and the two journalists covering her and her family. Will (Richard Prioleau) has a personal connection with Maddie, and Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence) has a Type-A personality and a burning desire to get the scoop. Caroll portrays Maddie as likeable with an ignorant streak, perhaps similar to the main character of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. While the play centers on Maddie’s major gaffe, the audience can safely believe that what she did was not out of malice.

Maddie despises Stephanie and only talks to Will, who then talks to Stephanie. This makes Will the only connection between his fellow journalist and the woman they are both writing about. As Will, Prioleau interprets his stage time with each of the other actors differently: He’s collected and mature around the childish Maddie, but a little goofier and able to deliver jokes to Stephanie when she’s around to act as a foil. Lawrence is great at becoming the archetypical career woman as Stephanie, but adds a third dimension to the character through her love of the political game and her adoration of the intelligent, erudite candidate she’s covering.

Andrew Boyce’s set, modern with lots of glass and bold colors like the set of a cable news show, is, without doubt, one of the best TheatreWorks sets I’ve seen. It serves the needs of the production’s numerous locations, including buses and hotel rooms, while tying everything together in something slick and modern. This evokes the political themes of the play without beating the audience over the head with symbolism.

With instant access to a flood of news from large, faceless websites, it’s easy to forget the process that goes into delivering it. Confederates at Theatreworks takes a fascinating look into this life, portraying journalists not as marionettes holding cameras, but as real people who sometimes let their feelings get in the way. If you enjoy plays about politics, but want a fresh perspective on the climb to the top, Confederates is worth a watch.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

California Shakespeare Theater: Fences

Left to right: Aldo Billingslea, Margo Hall. Photo courtesy California Shakespeare Theater.
August Wilson’s work was instrumental in the promotion of African-American theatre, and his Pulitzer-winning Fences, which depicts a family reacting to their patriarch’s slow disintegration, could be considered Wilson’s masterpiece. Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges’ rendition of this classic tale of pain, anger, and loss, currently playing at California Shakespeare Theater does justice to Wilson’s language and characters. Under her direction, the play’s themes are explored partially using a framework of women’s issues discovered within the text.

Central to the story of Fences is Troy Maxson, a former baseball player and current garbage man who stands in the pantheon of American theatre’s deepest, most complex characters. Aldo Billingslea, a cornerstone of the Bay Area acting community, interprets Troy as a character desperate to believe that he is the hero of his own story. Troy is willing to do anything, from telling fanciful tales about wrestling with Death to exaggerating his children’s failings, to reinforce his belief that he is the sole good person in a world full of evildoers. As he falls over the course of the play and fewer people believe in or respect him, he works harder than ever to convince himself of his own lies. Billingslea’s Troy is not necessarily sympathetic, but he is, in his own way, understandable.

Margo Hall plays Rose, Troy’s wife; in the program, director Myrick-Hodges notes that she had been confused and angered for decades at what seemed like Rose’s eternal tolerance of her undeserving husband. Under Myrick-Hodges’ direction, Rose’s willingness to forgive becomes a major part of her character arc, while she maintains a high status throughout the play, refusing to defer to Troy. Her actions don’t indicate subservience or undue loyalty as much as an unshakable moral compass and a desire to do what’s right. Myrick-Hodges integrates the theme of forgiveness throughout the play, interspersing interviews with local women about the subject during scene changes.

Troy’s two children process living with him differently from each other: Thirty-four-year-old Lyons (Lance Gardner) has mostly cut ties and only drifts in to borrow or repay money, while teenage Cory (J. Alphonse Nicholson) has to balance his dreams of college football with living under his disillusioned father’s rule. Gardner’s Lyon is slick and friendly, but still shows a hidden honesty and vulnerability – indeed, his fa├žade isn’t something he cares about maintaining among his family but rather something he picked up as a musician. Nicholson’s Cory defers to his father throughout much of the play, but he also pierces Troy’s lies most deeply, and he switches from innocence into outrage seamlessly.

The rest of the cast is equally stellar. Guiesseppe Jones plays Troy’s best friend Bono; whereas Troy slowly descends into paranoia over the course of the play, Bono behaves roughly the same way he did at the beginning, serving as an emotional baseline that contrasts with Troy’s descent. Troy’s brother Gabriel (Donald E. Lacy, Jr.), suffering from brain damage, acts as both the subtle supernatural element present in many Wilson plays and as proof that there is some good within Troy – even at his worst, Troy always treats him with kindness. Most commendable is Lacy’s precise body language, with intense gazes and trumpet-playing hand gestures showing his eagerness to blast open the gates of Heaven.

The technical side of the production is subtle yet clever. One of the challenges in producing Fences at Cal Shakes’ outdoor venue is confining a stage graced with a wide view of California’s rolling hills into the Maxson’s tiny property in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Scenic designer Michael Locher accomplishes this by barricading a tiny, screened-in cube of a house between the titular fence and a series of dusty patio furniture. With the exits covered, and much of the action taking place center stage, the set conveys the barrier Troy has chosen to create between his family and the outside world. Costumes (Alina Bokovikova) are time-period appropriate, but the children’s clothing is fresher and more modern than those of their parents, hinting at both economic circumstances and Cory’s yet-uncovered potential.

Fences at California Shakespeare Theater is a breathtaking rendition of one of August Wilson’s greatest works. Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges reinterprets major themes in the play, choosing to illustrate Rose’s difficult decisions, bringing her further into the spotlight and giving the production a fresh perspective.

Note: Actor Aldo Billingslea was my professor at Santa Clara University.