Monday, March 27, 2017

Shotgun Players: Nora

Clockwise from left: Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Adam Elder, Michael J. Asberry, Jessma Evans, Kevin Kemp. Photo courtesy Pak Han.

In 1879, shocked audiences watched Nora leave her husband to pursue an education at the end of the first production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Since then, the play’s feminist themes and complex relationships have elevated it into the pantheon of modern dramatic masterpieces. But it’s not Ibsen’s version of A Doll’s House that Shotgun Players has chosen to start off their season – rather, it’s the theatrical adaptation by legendary film director Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal). The adapted script, along with Shotgun’s fascinating artistic decisions, cut away the chaff from the original to create a lean, tense experience.

Shotgun’s smartest move was not underestimating their audience; Nora is especially rich for theatregoers familiar with Ibsen’s original work. Although the basic story beats are the same, the production moves away from familial drama and into a character study of Nora herself, as she becomes increasingly pressured by a patriarchal society. Jessma Evans creates a nuanced view of the character: She takes lines that would normally indicate subservience and reinterprets them into strikes at the people who continually underestimate her. Evans’ acting is intentionally at odds with the other characters, a twenty-first-century woman stuck in a world with the masculine ideals of the nineteenth.

The most unusual character in the play, besides Nora, is Michael J. Asberry as Dr. Rank. In the original work, Dr. Rank is a dour, hopeless character, doomed both to a one-way infatuation with Nora and a painful terminal illness. However, Asberry’s poise and charisma lend the fatalistic doctor the bearing of a king, as he towers over the others in stage presence as well as height. Dr. Rank’s philosophy and motivations run perpendicular to the dignity-focused society of the play, but Shotgun’s production, backed by Asberry’s performance, asks if perhaps he was closer to the truth than the others suspected.

The other men of the play are not given such flattering treatment: Nora’s husband Torvald (Kevin Kemp) is a swaggering, condescending brute from his first line, and Krogstad (Adam Elder) is as much a villain as he was in the original text. These interpretations reflect director Beth Wilmurt’s commentary on both Ibsen’s work and modern toxic masculinity, and would be heavy handed in a more character-focused version of the play. However, in this production, which takes a more introspective, symbolic view of Nora’s struggles, these characterizations smoothly fit the broader tone. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart periodically drifts onstage as Mrs. Linde, Nora’s wife and closest ally. Though her life is difficult, Mrs. Linde is hardened enough to bear it, and is able to help Nora through her journey without pushing her. Stuart’s interpretation feels more like a force of nature than a person – a comforting breeze when needed, and a thundercrack when called for.

The technical work (Maya Linke as set designer, Allen Wilner as lighting designer, Matt Stines as sound designer) creates a sense of intense pressure as Nora’s marriage to Torvald becomes more and more unbearable. Dark ambient noise interrupts the usual theatre silence, never allowing the audience to relax; the bare, minimalistic set leaves no place for the eye to wander. However, the most interesting twist is the upstage wall, wallpapered with women’s faces and bearing a set of double doors that lead to Torvald’s office. The wall clearly delineates Torvald’s life from Nora’s, the man’s sphere from the woman’s, pushing slowly forward over the course of the show until only a few feet remain for the female characters to stand. It’s a brilliant work of nonverbal poetry that ties together the larger themes of the show.

Nora at Shotgun Players explores new meaning in a text familiar to theatre veterans, yet still presents a coherent story for newcomers. The themes and characters from the original are adapted to fit a modern context and the director’s vision, but not so much to be unrecognizable. While the base text is a Swedish play written over a century ago, Nora – and innovative companies like Shotgun – represent the future of American theatre.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Broadway By The Bay: The Producers

Left to right: Robert Lopez, Jocelyn Pickett, Marcus Klinger. Photo courtesy Mark & Tracy Photography.

In 2006, Hollywood comedy master Mel Brooks brought his legendary film The Producers to Broadway. The musical received rave reviews and broke the record for most Tony Awards won by a single show. Now playing at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, directed by Jason Jeffrey, Broadway By The Bay’s The Producers combines Brooks’ lyrics and characters with an outstanding cast and meticulous comedic touches. The result might be the funniest show to appear on the West Coast in years.

Jeffrey has a deep understanding of what made the original run such a smash hit – a constant barrage of jokes, ranging from subtle wordplay to acrobatic slapstick to prop comedy. The show is incredibly over-the-top, which is where it needs to be to truly shine; in fact, there is rarely a serious moment – but the comedy varies enough that it doesn’t become monotonous.

Marcus Klinger (who previously played the role at Diablo Theater Company) delivers a tour-de-force performance as Max Bialystock, a washed-up producer who hatches a scheme to oversell Springtime for Hitler and run away to Rio with the profits. Klinger knows that he’s playing a walking clichĂ© and wholeheartedly embraces it, dominating scenes with his impressively loud voice and scenery-chewing performance. Klinger’s best moment is the Act 2 song “Betrayed,” where he impersonates all of the other characters in a summary of the story up to that point.

Serving as Max’s foil is Leo Bloom (Robert Lopez), a shy, neurotic accountant with dreams of becoming a big Broadway producer. Lopez adeptly switches between the only sane man in the scene and a hysterical, insecure man-child. Going pound-for-pound with his scene partner, Lopez holds his own comedy-wise, despite Klinger’s more numerous funny moments in the script. Also notable is Lopez’ clear, beautiful voice, which makes songs like “I Wanna Be A Producer” not only hilarious, but also delightful.

However, The Producers isn’t just a musical about two people, and the supporting cast is as funny as the stars. David Schiller’s Nazi runaway Franz Liebkind is hilariously uptight – slapstick is twice as good coming from a character screaming about order and beauty. Jocelyn Pickett plays ingĂ©nue Ulla, combining straight-up cabaret performance with Marx Brothers level wordplay. Last but not least, national tour veteran Eric Johnson as Roger De Bris – along with his entire entourage – steals the show with the most elaborate song in the production, “Keep It Gay.”

Accolades also go to the members of the technical team, who recall the golden age of midcentury Broadway while relentlessly mocking it at the same time. Leandra Watson’s costumes are not only technically adept, they’re funny – beyond the obvious prop comedy lies subtle touches like trimming all of Roger De Bris’ outfits with sequins. (Well, at least as subtle as anything trimmed with sequins can be.) Kelly James Tighe’s sets make extensive use of billboard lights and other parts of Broadway kitsch, which both solidify the show’s themes and provide a gorgeous visual effect. Most interesting are the dozens of floating screen fragments, which, combined with Aaron Spivey’s projections, deliver the public’s judgment upon Max and Leo.

With one of the funniest scores ever written, a wonderful cast, and Jasen Jeffrey’s deft hand, The Producers at Broadway By The Bay is a true masterpiece of comedy. If you love stage comedy, or even if you only dabble in it occasionally, get in line at the box office immediately – you won’t want to miss this production.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Foothill Music Theatre: "Side Show"

Left to right: Jessica LaFever, Lauren Meyer, Edward Clark. Photo courtesy David Allen.

Buried in the file drawer of Broadway history is the 1997 musical Side Show, based on the lives of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Despite the high-concept premise, Side Show is a surprisingly grounded exploration of disability, show business, and heartbreak packaged within complex musical numbers written by Henry Krieger, also responsible for the smash hit Dreamgirls. Foothill Music Theatre’s adaptation is an excellent performance of one of the American theatre’s forgotten gems.

Musically, Side Show is complex on two different levels. On the micro level sits Henry Krieger’s fast, dense lyrics, displaying intricacy in their construction as much as they make you hum along. At the macro level, the placement of the songs is unique; unlike most musicals, where the numbers are placed in a neat little sequence, many of Side Show’s songs are folded into one another like the Arabian Nights. This unusual structure is enough to pique the interest of even the most jaded theatre attendee.

At the core of the show are the aforementioned twins, played by Jessica LaFever (Daisy) and Lauren Meyer (Violet). Violet and Daisy have different goals  – Daisy wants worldwide fame, while Violet wants a quiet home life – but they are refreshingly supportive of each other. Despite their bizarre circumstances, they have the least dysfunctional relationship of anyone in the play, and LaFever and Meyer act, with all the petty squabbling it implies, as true sisters. The actors their behavior – in relative privacy, their extroverted/introverted dichotomy is more obvious, while in their side show and vaudeville performances, they act almost completely in sync.

The rest of the cast matches LaFever and Meyers’ acting talent. Buddy (Tarif Pappu) plays Violet’s love interest, a choreographer who wants the twins to make it big as much as he wants to shine on stage himself. Pappu charges the role with the innocence and kindness it requires, gradually changing his pity for affection over the course of the play. Terry (Sean Okuniewicz) is the most business-minded of the main cast, with Okuniewicz obscuring whether he’s helping the Hiltons for the money or out of a genuine sense of care. The most complex character, narratively speaking, is Jake (Edward Clark), the former sideshow cannibal who follows the twins through their show business career; his protective nature and cautiousness about anything new, combined with Clark’s incredible singing voice, creates an unforgettable character.

Side Show at Foothill has many excellent attributes, but perhaps the best is that I genuinely did not know what was going to happen next. The intriguing plot and musical structure, combined with the acting company’s heartfelt performances and excellent singing, provokes a genuine sense of suspense. Side Show is highly recommended for anyone who loves musicals and wants to see something a little bit different. Side Show is not to be missed.