Darwin in Malibu

“As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities.” Charles Darwin, 1879, in a letter to J. Fordyce.

At the outset of “Darwin in Malibu”, we see Charles Darwin lounging in a Hawaiian shirt, cutoffs, and sandals. We suspect that this is not the Darwin of the dour countenance we have seen in pictures. Indeed, the conceit of the play begins with the premise that the famed biologist resides in a paradise-like purgatory a century after his passing from life as we know it. What follows is a humorous and interesting look into a vital intellectual realm.

The purpose of the play is to provide a playful vehicle for discussion of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, one of the most seminal, profound, and controversial postulates in scientific history. A useful backstory to the play is provided in a pre-play talk by director Bruce Coughran.

For those who may not know, Darwin misclassified the famed Galapagos finches that are central to the theory. He thought that he had identified finches, warblers, and gosbeaks, but he later learned from ornithologists back in England that all of the specimens were finches. The bumbling that led to his treatise on natural selection cannot be understated, no matter how indelible the theory would become. In fact, he was not a biologist but was training in earth science when he took the assignment on the Beagle, which brought him to the Galapagos. He had studied Charles Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” and having learned theories about changes in the earth’s surface from that source, he was able to map Lyell’s notions onto a biological framework.

It is also noteworthy that Darwin was cautious about developing and expounding the theory of natural selection, and he largely abandoned the critical public debates, leaving his position to be advanced by the ardent Thomas Huxley. A prominent critic of the theory was Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who along with Huxley participated in the era’s most famous public debate of the theory, the 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate. Thus, the play is largely a series of informal two and three party arguments among Darwin, Huxley, and Wilberforce in a Malibu beach house.

The characters and their depictions are well delineated. George Killingsworth is Darwin, and he is played as an easy going man comfortable in his own skin. He is amused, amazed, and true to real life, he is uncertain of things religious and how exactly they fit with natural selection. He even reads horoscopes and trashy novels like his current diversion, “Malibu” by Pat Booth.

Darwin’s ally, Huxley, is played with unrelenting fervor by Robert Ernst. As a man committed to science, Huxley is highly empirical and brooks no compromise with beliefs that are not supported by fact. When he is asked which side of his family is descended from apes, he responds, “I’d rather be an ape than a bishop,” which is an adulturation of his real life reply. The other visitor, Wilberforce, is played with the smugness of a true believer by Stuart Elwyn Hall, and like, Huxley, he is didactic and dogmatic. Wilberforce and Darwin did not meet in real life, but somehow, after a century in “purgatory,” the former felt that the latter could be persuaded of the literal reading of the Bible and that he would abandon his theory.

The plot proceeds as a series of intellectual vignettes rather than a linear dramatic arc. Each of these giants is effective in making points, but Wilberforce slips when forced to respond to hypothetical examples. In one case, Darwin gets him to agree that he would be able to shoot partridges if he were in heaven. But then the bishop is forced to accept either that Darwin would be shooting partridges that are “good”, because they were in heaven, or he would be shooting partridges that are “bad” and shouldn’t be in heaven. Another more compelling example concerns Noah’s Arc. Without dwelling on details, Wilberforce is virtually forced to admit that because of space constraints in the arc, that evolution must have occurred since The Flood. Further interesting debate centers on Darwin’s arguing that Wilberforce’s heaven equates to Darwin’s hell, and that Wilberforce’s notion of perfection looks back in time, while Darwin’s looks forward.

In all, the play provides considerable food for thought in an entertaining package. The script does have some problematic elements, mostly around the fourth character, a young beach girl, Sarah, played by Leandra Ramm, who does bring a fine singing voice to the party. While Sarah facilitate in some ways, and she has a storyline of her own concerning love and loss, it’s a stretch to integrate it with the high order primary themes. It almost seems that the part was created to include a feminine accessory in the proceedings. The opening sequences with Darwin and Sarah are a bit pedestrian and lack energy. However, by the time the arguments begin, the activity level is pretty pumped up.

“Darwin in Malibu” by Crispin Whittell is produced by Intra’s Net Theater and is performed at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave, Berkeley, through January 15, 2017.


Gertrude Stein and a Companion

“There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.” Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein rests atop an odd pedestal in the gallery of fame. Certainly a wit of the highest order, her aphorisms are incisive and memorable. Her writing is sophisticated but confusing and is often given as much to cadence as content. Though a friend and contemporary of future Nobelists, her only significant contribution to the canon of literature was her slyly misnamed “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” from 1933, an honor to her lover and manager of the last 40 years of her life.

Alice is the unnamed party in “Gertrude Stein and a Companion,” and the title draws from Ernest Hemingway’s refusal to refer to Alice by name. The two disliked one another, perhaps divided by each having a love for Gertrude. However, Alice had her; Ernest didn’t. The play is a brief meander on the relationship of Gertrude and Alice and their pantheon of friends. It is presented by Theatre Rhinoceros with love and confidence, and it charms from beginning to end.

This piece was selected by Artistic Director John Fisher as a vehicle for Kathryn Wood who had long been drawn to the inter-war life of Paris. Fisher and Wood’s fingerprints touch all aspects of the production from co-directing to scenic design, with Wood also designing the costumes and playing the lead role. It is a role that she is made for, and she delivers with great brio.

The play is non-linear and episodic, with Gertrude deceased near the outset but still communicating with Alice. Together, they recount the glories as well as the heartbreaks of lives defined by Culture. Although Gertrude’s vocation was writing, she is perhaps better remembered for her contributions to modern art. As a seminal patron, especially of Matisse and Picasso, she did much to promote their paintings as well as others of the early twentieth century. Her salon was beehive for intellectuals including the aforementioned as well as Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many more.

The salon was covered with some of the finest paintings of the day, and in Alice’s coinage were “dollarless.” At one level, she could only imagine their evocativeness rather than their monetary value, but when it was necessary to finance publication of Gertrude’s books, she monetized what she needed off the walls. Those walls have been memorialized in photographs, and recently represented literally in Woody Allen’s movie “Midnight in Paris.” For this production, Kirsten Tradowsky has cleverly created the sense of the salon by mimicking a number of the hung works on unframed canvasses that are strung on wire and moved and removed as called for by the action of the play.

Elaine Jennings as Alice matches Wood for command of her role. Wood’s Gertrude is constantly beaming and self confident, but Jennings matches up to her every inch of the way. Wood relaxes open and uninhibited in armchair with her legs often splayed under a plain long skirt. Jennings is dressed in black and sits ramrod straight on a desk chair. What photographic images history provides us of Alice are even less flattering than those of Gertrude, but Jenning’s gives her a brilliance and a place in the sun that she must have had in order to thrive in the setting she did.

Gertrude declared herself a genius and noted that geniuses couldn’t possibly take care of themselves and need partners like Alice to do the necessaries for them. In another of Alice’s coinages, she said that she was dependented to Gertrude. Gertrude couldn’t decide whether the word was good or bad, but she said it was definitely delicious. It is somewhat amusing that having resided in Gertrude’s shadow, Alice’s name would be so much a part of pop culture. In addition to the “Autobiography” written about rather than by her, she did write the “Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” in 1956, which became a best seller. It is most remembered for her “hashish fudge,” more commonly known as hash brownies. As a result of that countercultural recipe, her name is even in the title of the 1968 Peter Sellers’ movie “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.”

Some vignettes in playwright Win Wells’ script are prosaic, but all are engaging. One scene that raises questions of the women’s sanity is that they remained in France through the Nazi occupation. Furthermore, they were required to billet German military officers from time to time. Of being Jewish, lesbian, American, or purveyors of “decadent” art, it’s not clear which could have been the quickest trigger to concentration camps or summary execution. Through good fortune and probably connections, they would live to see liberty again.

Several other characters put in brief appearances, from Hemingway to a German major to a midwestern U.S. journalist. The audience must suspend a little extra disbelief, as each is played by a young female, Haley Bertelsen. With only minor costume changes to represent the various roles, and no attempt to disguise her person, she adeptly conveys their essences.

As the play is short, uses one simple set, and has only three actors, it might be considered a “small” play. But it is highly literate, revealing, and engaging, and it is well presented. For local audiences, there is the special attraction that it is about two Bay Area women, Gertrude having grown up in Oakland and Alice in San Francisco. Some people familiar with Gertrude’s quote when returning to Oakland that “There’s no there there” believe that she was disparaging the city. The quote is not in the play, but was mentioned by John Fisher in his pre-play talk. The “there” she was referring to was her home, which had been razed. So, take that, Berkeley, with your “Here” and “There” sculpture on your border with Oakland.

“Gertrude Stein and a Companion” by Win Wells is produced by Theatre Rhinoceros and plays at the Eureka Theater, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, through January 8. 2017.

The Mountaintop

A man is but a man

Ever wonder what’s behind the public persona of a celebrity? What is the private person like eating breakfast or getting ready for work or taking care of kids? The conceit of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop is to suppose the man behind the legend of Martin Luther King. In doing so, she presumes an earthy man with a flirtatious nature; feet smelling from the sweat of many long marches; and a fearful reaction to gunshot-sounding thunder. Along the way she creates a lively fiction that invokes thoughts of “It’s a Wonderful Life” as the story juggles drama, comedy, and fantasy. But it would be unfair to divulge some of the special elements of the script that give it added dimensions.

The action occurs on April 3, 1968, in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It is night before King’s assassination. He begins drafting a speech on American arrogance in fighting a war in Viet Nam when so much needs to be done at home. After calling room service for a pot of coffee, a beautiful young African-American maid delivers it to his room. King’s entourage has not arrived, and always dreading loneliness, he repeatedly cajoles Camae (an abbreviation of Carrie Mae) to stay.

Michael Wayne Rice has a look that reflects King so well that the viewer doesn’t have to struggle with that issue. With the exception of one brief speech at the end of the play, well after getting to know the character, Rice doesn’t convey the public gravitas of King. That actually works well to better demonstrate his humanity and makes his flirting seem more playful, rather than potentially adulterous. The warmth Rice conveys also makes us care more about the person.

Natalie Autumn Bennett acts Camae with great exuberance. She grasps all of the character’s contradictions and plays them to the hilt. She is sassy, coquettish, irreverent, argumentative, foul-mouthed, and apologetic in equal measures. She is willing to take on King in his own home ground. They clash on the basic tenets of civil protest, with Camae unsatisfied by King’s passive philosophy. She argues that for African-Americans “to speak by love is to die by hate,” while King counters that “to live by the sword is to die by the sword” as in the case of Malcolm X.

King is impressed by how thoughtful Camae is and challenges her to tell him what kind of speech she would give if she were him. She humorously puts on his suit coat and shoes and delivers an eloquent response. It is here that King realizes that she is something beyond a common maid. And it is here that he reflects on his own immortality and how vulnerable he feels as the tallest tree and easiest target when he is in the pulpit. Expectant of a violent and early end, he alternatively wonders whether he should have been a more committed husband and father, or whether he has done enough to ensure a legacy of leadership to help end the blight of discrimination and deprivation for his people.

Although the play is fanciful, it does depict human character and raises many issues concerning the civil rights movement in a unique and entertaining way. Director Ray Renati presides over an appropriately static staging for the bulk of the play, letting the actors deliver the message. However, the epilog sequence does offer visual excitement as the stage opens up and a video montage is presented.

The Mountaintop plays at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View through January 31.


The Gospel of Lovingkindness

Love’s Labor Lost

“Why would a person steal a pair of shoes,” a disconsolate mother moans, “when he already has his own?” The true-life tragedy of a black teen murdered for his newly purchased Air Jordans is the central incident in Marcus Gardley’s The Gospel of Lovingkindness, a somewhat didactic but compelling drama given a riveting production by Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project.

Mary is a principled mother whose life is dedicated to creating the opportunity for her only child to have a better existence. She sings “You’re gonna have things I didn’t have.” That son, Manny, seeks the same status as many youths, the fanciest, most expensive athletic shoes of the moment, a want protested by his father whose cheap work boots have lasted for years. Sadly, that desire leads to his untimely death.

Noel is another young black man raised by a mother who missed her chance to escape the Chicago projects. Her quest in to ensure that Noel doesn’t suffer the same fate. He plays by the rules, but because he isn’t good with the books, he is relegated to dead end work with inadequate pay. When receiving his first check from Walmart, a pittance reduced by taxes and FICA, he petulantly wads it up and throws it at his boss. Sadly, that incident leads to his descent.

Through these characters, we see that being black, being poor, being poorly educated, being ghettoized are and have been conditions for failure in this country. Garvey invokes the ghost of Ida B. Wells, a black Chicago leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1800’s to represent the long struggle and its shortfall in bringing truly equal opportunity to African-Americans. She rallies followers to demand change that will make a difference.

Offsetting positive changes that have occurred since Wells’ time and the 150 years since the end of the Civil War are ominous developments. Lynchings of the past have been replaced by police killings, and putting guns in the hands of bad elements has triggered black-on-black violence and murder. Coincidental to Walmart’s paltry pay in this drama, Walmart just announced the closure of its Oakland store, a move attributed to the City of Oakland’s increasing the minimum wage in hopes that workers can receive a living wage. Regrettably, much of the personal dignity that the black community prided itself in in the past has been eroded by cynicism and fatalism that contributes to bad decisions and to holding the community back. Yet, as indicated by the title, a reference to Jesus Christ’s message, Garvey doesn’t paint only despair today or in the future.

The venue of the play is the intimate chapel of Oakland City Church with the audience against the long walls and the action in the middle. The production is accordingly spare. There are no sets, and sound is limited mostly to storms and a boom box song. Illumination is restricted to tens of candles and white lights from permanent ceiling installations, plus a few klieg-type lights on the floor, but this allows for considerable lighting effects. The beauty of this Michael Socrates Moran directed piece is that the production is really about the story and the acting.

That a young and small company like Ubuntu can attract such outstanding actors is a great tribute, but the honors go to the actors themselves who are exceptional. Only Dawn Troupe as Mary acts a single part, and she does so with understated grace and melancholy. Halili Knox absolutely pops in several roles including Noel’s mother. Though she plays somber moments well, her charisma sparkles in high energy segments. William Hartfield impresses playing both young men, showing his ability to play swagger and despair equally. Dorian Locket as Mary’s ex and others, imbues them all with great vigor, fervor and conviction. And Rolanda Dene makes well of her opportunity to play Ida B. Wells and is the finest voice among several in the occasional unaccompanied songs and ditties.

The power of the actors is unleashed in several high energy parts when they break the fourth wall and engage audience members with strong eye contact and even touch. One criticism of the production that may rest with the playwright or the direction or both is the confusion caused by players in multiple roles. Sometimes characters are not clearly identified in fast moving action. It is easier to absorb different characters when they are played by different actors, but special attention is required when they are not. But minor flaws aside, any person of goodwill will appreciate an evening with this script and this cast.

The Gospel of Lovingkindness is produced by Ubuntu Theater Project and plays at Oakland City Church, 2735 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland, through January 31.


of Serpents and Seaspray

A flight of fantasy

Iro is a sad young teen whose parents died tragic deaths, and who now lives with a family that abuses her. Her solace is an imaginary friend, Annika, and her quest for the winged Pegasus that symbolizes her yearning for figurative and literal escape from the painful present. Together, girl and spirit climb aboard steamer trunks on a barren stage and visit a world that Iro knows only through the adventure stories told by her archeologist uncle, now in Greece.

Thus, Act One of Rachel Bublitz’s world premiere of Serpents and Sea Spray is a wild, episodic voyage in which Iro and her invisible accomplice fly by the great sites of the world and encounter pirates and a circus troupe along the way. But intermittently, they must return to the sad reality of suffering and loss. The action is frenetic in the manner of a fantasy farce. Many in the audience respond favorably to this style, though some, this writer included, find it a bit clanging and disjointed. Because actors play multiple roles, it can be a little confusing to figure which parts they are playing, and sometimes, whether they are in fantasy or reality. But the play is worth seeing for the elements that director Ariel Craft has successfully integrated.

One thing for sure is that the acting is superb throughout the cast. Maria Leigh as Iro is intense and in total command of her role – a seemingly exhausting, high energy part. As Annika, Maria Marquis is amazing. She has elasticity like Jim Carrey and uses facial and whole body expression, as well as exacting delivery of lines, to great comic effect.

Andrew Calabrese is solid as the lead male actor in multiple parts, most importantly as the unnamed uncle. Sabrina de Mio is a commanding presence in the meaty, materfamilias/gang leader/nurse roles she portrays. Her characterizations are widely differing, and she is called on to affect various mannerisms and accents, which she does with glee. Laura Domingo and Heren Patel provide fine support in smaller parts and are clearly capable of major roles.

Act Two reveals a split personality in the production, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as it produces the play’s redemption. A more measured poignancy is introduced to the action. Stemming from the closing incident in Act One, which had seemed to be a fantasy, Iro is hospitalized with multiple injuries. The stage is now but a few square black columns and a bed.

Her uncle returns from Greece to tend to her. While Iro still pursues the quest for Pegasus, this act is very grounded by the presence of the reality-driven uncle. Despite the uncle’s sacrifice to be with her; his efforts to be accommodative; and his willingness to play along with her fantasies, Iro is largely implacable. She now sees him as a regular person rather than the adventure hero that she’d imagined him from the stories that he’d told in years past. The character we wanted to console and embrace in Act One becomes an unsympathetic ingrate in Act Two. Of course, the denoument concerns if or how the conflicts resolve, and for that, you have to see for yourself.

of Serpents and Sea Spray is produced by Custom Made Theatre and plays at Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco through January 30

Dangerous Corner

Let sleeping dogs lie

Dangerous Corner marked a significant turn in literary life of its author, J. B. Priestley, and more broadly, in the evolution of topic matter in theater. After a rough start, the play had a long run in its 1932 London premiere and succeeded abroad. Priestley became a prominent playwright of the decade. The play was noted for broaching the topics of homosexuality and recreational drugs in an unprecedented manner – all this in the context of affairs and other betrayals. SF City Theatre Company offers a low budget production of this interesting play, which has merit but seems that it could use a couple more rehearsals.

The parlor room drama concerns family members associated with a publishing firm and their close friends. The closely bound group is ostensibly successful and happy. A looming cloud is that Martin, brother of the senior partner in the firm, Robert, died of a gunshot wound a year earlier. This occurred shortly after a small embezzlement at the firm, and connected dots suggested that Martin stole the money and committed suicide out of guilt.

At a social gathering of the friends and family, interest centers on a cigarette box that Robert’s wife, Freda, had given to Martin on the very day of his death. However, close friend, Olwen, remembers a timeline of that day at variance with Freda’s rendering. But Robert is unconvinced by Olwen’s yielding to Freda’s version.

In contradiction to his later assertion that illusions help us to live, Robert doggedly pursues the truth, leading to a stream of revelations involving the whole gathering. Was the cavalier Martin as deserving of affection as it had seemed? Who did he really love? Had everyone told all about their actions on the day of the death? Were the marriages in the group as solid as they appeared? Were there illicit passions or passions unrequited? The drama is interesting for its twists and turns; for its exposing illusions; and for developing the notion that one small, seemingly innocuous incident can lead to profound and far reaching consequences.

The production is directed by David Acevedo, who stages the action well – briskly moving through the dialogue and balancing movement around the stage. The set design is appealing, reflecting appropriate period furnishing styles and using the space well. The ladies are well outfitted in stylish cocktail dresses and the gents in tuxedos, enhancing the feel of class and period.

Collectively, the actors are most effective in expressing intense emotions such as shouting, laughing, and crying, but they are less convincing at normal conversation. Each actor has moments of stronger performance, but there is more stumbling through lines than is expected. Hopefully, better overall delivery and confidence will grow through the run. Deborah Joves as Freda and Mary Waterfield as Olwen give the better performances. Lucas Hoag as Charles Stanton, the non-family-member partner in the firm, shows some panache and promise.

Dangerous Corner is produced by SF City Theatre and is playing at the Royce Gallery (which, incidentally offers free wine, coffee, and little tidbits at each performance in the house, whatever company is producing!), 2901 Mariposa St., in San Francisco through January 24. Tickets are available at http://www.BrownPaperTickets.com.