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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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Theatreworks: Hershey Felder, Beethoven

Hershey Felder. Photo courtesy Christopher Ash.

Ludwig van Beethoven has left perhaps the largest legacy of any classical musician, with such seminal works as Für Elise, Moonlight Sonata, and the famous “Da-da-da-DUN” of his Fifth Symphony. And yet we mostly see Beethoven as a marble bust upon a shelf, a machine who created beautiful music, instead of the flawed, tormented human he really was. Pianist/actor/playwright Hershey Felder illustrates the struggle between joy and misery within the composer in his one-man show Hershey Felder, Beethoven, which brings to life a person whom most of us have known only as a distant legend.

Hershey Felder, Beethoven is not approached from Beethoven’s perspective: Perhaps Felder thought an outside look would better illustrate Beethoven’s complexities, or that Beethoven’s inner struggles were too complicated to be retold truthfully from his view. What we get instead is fragments of Beethoven’s life, death, and struggle with deafness, from the perspective of Gerhard von Breuning, his former caretaker. This framing is a more honest way of discussing a historical figure about whom little is known; the audience leaves the theatre still asking questions that may never be answered.

Felder’s acting dwells at two extremes: His portrayal of von Breuning is clipped and composed, calmly asking the audience to hear his side, while his portrayal of Beethoven is wild, driven to paroxysms of joy and rage. We don’t get tired of either character because Felder switches between them so often, and, in fact, discover new facets of their personalities every time we return to them. Other incidental characters, such as the point-of-view character’s father, are portrayed with delicacy and nuance.

Unlike most one-person shows, Hershey Felder, Beethoven is interspersed with Felder’s emotionally charged piano performances of some of Beethoven’s best-known work. This is vital for the performance, as it shows, not tells, the sheer impact of the music and allows us to experience for ourselves its timeless power. Interspersed between the music, Felder points out Beethoven’s love for composing in C minor, Beethoven’s melody speaking to us above the rhythmic base in the Moonlight Sonata, and many other insights into Beethoven’s legacy, which allows us to appreciate his music on a higher level.

Hershey Felder, Beethoven is a glimpse into what little we know of one of the greatest, most complex musicians in Western history. Knowing Beethoven’s flaws doesn’t bring him down to earth, but instead gives us more insight into a composer who, while fraught with despair and rage, was nevertheless able to produce works of tremendous beauty. Even for those with only a passing familiarity with Beethoven and his works, this one-person show will bring tears to your eyes.


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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2017: Beauty And The Beast

Left to right: David Kelly, Jennie Greenberry, Jordan Barbour. Photo courtesy Jenny Graham and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Though OSF has a positive track record with classic musicals, the decision to include Disney’s Beauty And The Beast as part of their 2017 season was nonetheless worrying. Would the theatre festival be able to find new meaning in a Disney musical? Fortunately, director Eric Tucker and a talented cast and technical team knocks Beauty and the Beast out of the park, moving from the bright colors of the original animated movie to a darker, more elegant visual style that makes special use of the live theatre format to tell its story.

The gradually defrosting relationship between Belle (Jennie Greenberry), a bold, intellectual girl who yearns for something more than her provincial French village, and the Beast (Jordan Barbour), a cursed prince who must find love to free himself from his monstrous form, sits at the core of the show. Greenberry’s Belle is reasonably faithful to the original movie: Though she’s technically the Beast’s captive, she maintains social control over their relationship for much of the musical. Barbour’s interpretation of the Beast draws from his origin story as a prince, employing a mix of arrogance and social ineptitude. He may have a lot to learn before he can be worthy of Belle, but his slow climb towards understanding is one of the most heartwarming parts of the play.

The supporting cast assembles a larger-than-life group of wildly entertaining characters. James Ryen plays the part of Gaston, a swaggering hunter who serves as the story’s main antagonist. Besides getting the best physical comedy in the play, Ryen is able to generate a surprisingly intense feeling of danger: He comes off as stupid for the most part, but his ability to manipulate and threaten is top-notch. All of the transformed objects in the Beast’s castle provide hilarious performances: The conflict between the uptight Cogsworth (Daniel T. Parker) and courteous Lumiére (David Kelly) is a delight to watch.

What separates the OSF production of Beauty and the Beast from its other stage and movie counterparts is its visual aesthetic. The set (designed by Christopher Acebo) doesn’t use static elements, but instead uses ensemble members carrying props to give the feeling of a location. This allows for greater use of motion; when Belle is given a tour of the castle, for example, the cast moves doors and windows in a circle to give the illusion of movement. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes for the transformed objects convey the nature of the character without sacrificing elegance; Lumiére’s outfit, which employs gloves covered with LED lights, deserves special attention.

OSF’s 2017 rendition of Beauty and the Beast repackages one of the classic stories from the Disney canon with mature, daring visuals that change the way we understand it. The production ranks with fascinating OSF productions like Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady as part of OSF’s commitment to find new meaning in some of America’s most classic musicals.

Beauty and the Beast runs until October 15th.

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