Wuthering Heights

Liam Tamne as Heathcliff, Leah Brotherhead as Catherine. All photos by Kevin Berne.

A great many of today’s theater goers are “of a certain age.”  They (ahem – we!) may have first experienced the original source material of Emily Brontë’s novel “Wuthering Heights” as a physical book in paper and ink as a teen or young adult.  Most of us stage lovers cut our teeth on the silver screen, and our touchstone is the unsurpassable classic 1939 black-and-white film.  Lawrence Olivier commanded the screen in an idol-making performance as the handsome, brooding Heathcliff, and the beautiful, conflicted Merle Oberon engendered our obloquy for making a mating decision based on the social standing of birthright rather than true love.

In my early years, I wondered why re-makes are made.  I finally realized that it was rarely because the producers thought that a new version would be better, but that it would be different and would reach a new audience while making money, of course.  So it is with Adaptor/Director Emma Rice’s stage interpretation of this tale of star-crossed love.  This rendering must be measured by a very different yardstick than traditional versions.  By a calculation based on contemporary sensibilities, Rice’s innovation succeeds in providing a multifaceted entertainment executed with top rate professionalism.

Jordan Laviniere as Leader of the Yorkshire Moors (center).

Although this Gothic novel is grounded in drama, the current version is flippant – a totally accomplished stage version that plays largely for wows and belly laughs.  At first, it seems like it may be too silly.  The opening sequence, when a Mr. Lockwood arrives at Wuthering Heights in the Yorkshire Moors during a storm, is so farcical as to be over-the-top.  For instance, the visitor is held horizontally by other actors to simulate the effect of gale-force wind.  Happily, the play settles into a merely raucous, but sustainable tone.  Although many diversions are on display for entertainment value and to demonstrate irreverence, the narrative is pretty faithfully revealed.

The story is divulged in flashback.  The brutish Heathcliff was abused by an adoptive family after the death of the kind head of household.  Despite stepsister Catherine’s fractiousness, she and Heathcliff love one another, but because of his low status, she marries the landed Edgar.  Unhappiness ensues for all.

Leah Brotherhead as Catherine, Liam Tamne as Heathcliff.

The scene is set with action playing out on a bare stage having open wings.  Minimal props, such as a free-standing door set, are wheeled in as needed.  Actors wear an omnium gatherum of mostly contemporary rags (literally, as well as figuratively).  As a plot device, a Greek chorus characterized as The Yorkshire Moors helps advance the story.

Consistent with the abstraction of the staging, animals are represented through puppetry operated on sticks by actors.  Snapping skulls represent dogs, and flopping books act as birds.  Another conceit used to humorous effect is portable blackboards.  Why, you ask? The family histories are so convoluted and the deaths of characters so frequent that the visual notations in chalk help the viewer keep a scorecard.

A band of several, mostly string players, is scattered around the stage periphery throughout.  Ian Ross’s always interesting original music helps propel the plotline.  With an eclectic mix of British folk, pop, and other influences, it acts as a major driver in enlivening the feel of the production.  Unfortunately, much nuance that the lyrics would provide is lost as they are often indecipherable.

Sam Archer as Edgar, Leah Brotherhead as Catherine.

Performances, including acting, singing, and dancing, are superb.  However, many actors play multiple roles, so keeping characters straight is challenging.  As Heathcliff, Liam Tamne cuts a striking figure.  Swarthy and charismatic, he dominates his scenes as a sneering tiger of a man, relentless in his goals and contemptuous of obstacles.  One curious affectation is that his voice is often Indian accented.  And though a romanticized possible backstory suggests that Heathcliff may have been a lost young prince from an exotic land like India or China, he arrived in Yorkshire at an early age and would certainly have lost any previous accent.

Leah Brotherhead portrays his counterpart, and she stomps the stage as well.   Her Catherine is no shrinking violet, but rather is demonstrative and tempestuous.  The actor’s high energy extends to singing also, and Brotherhead possesses a dark and gruff vocal instrument that is put to good use.

Emma Rice’s distinction has arisen from innovative, subversive, and often inauthentic interpretations of literature.  She is no stranger to Berkeley Rep, having imported and directed other productions, “The Wild Bride” being a personal favorite.

Leah Brotherhead as Catherine, Liam Tamne as Heathcliff, Jordan Laviniere as Leader of the Yorkshire Moors.

For those wanting something akin to past experience, be forewarned, this is not your father’s “Wuthering Heights.” To open Act 2, Heathcliff even breaks the fourth wall to ask, if not taunt, the audience with the question, “What did you expect?”  This prompts the reflection that personal enjoyment often derives from how experience compares with expectation.  Audience members who are unfamiliar with Brontë’s novel, as well as those who do know it but are willing to take a deep dive into a radical revision of “Wuthering Heights,” should find this a highly engaging evening.

“Wuthering Heights” is adapted by Emma Rice from the novel by Emily Brontë, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and plays on its Roda Stage at 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA through January 1, 2023.

Orpheus and Eurydice

Jakub Józef Orliński as Orpheus, Meigui Zhang as Eurydice, dancers as earlier versions of principals. All photos by Cory Weaver.

It would be a pretty good wager to bet that the reader has never seen a serious opera open with, or even contain, a break dance which includes balancing and spinning on one hand – much less that the dance is performed not by a professional dancer, but by the title character!  This unique skill performed by Jakub Józef Orliński, as Orpheus, is merely the beginning of a San Francisco Opera production spectacular in all of its creative aspects.  Despite individually simplistic staging elements, their combination results in a striking visual experience to support the notable operatic creation. 

Christoph Willibald Gluck’s contributions to opera extend beyond the merits of his individual operas.  Like Richard Wagner a century later, Gluck conceived an intellectual framework that changed the opera landscape.  Though his published formulation for reform followed the debut of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” this opera had applied the changes he would later prescribe.  It would stand as the great transition work between Baroque and Classical period opera. And while “Orpheus and Eurydice” certainly stands the test of time, it does have some issues.

Jakub Józef Orliński as Orpheus.

Among simplifications and elimination of restrictive conventions, Gluck specified the end of the da capo aria with stanzas in the a-b-a format, which totally repeats the first stanza, giving scope for vocal ornamentation to display the singer’s virtuosity without otherwise adding dramatic or musical value.  Also, rather than wearisome harpsichord accompaniment to recitatives, Gluck supported these less melodic tracts with full orchestra.

Notwithstanding these reforms, Gluck’s musical foundations were laid in the past.  He continued Baroque melodic idioms, and while he avoided the a-b-a form, he did use recurring musical phrases frequently.

The Orpheus myth has been the basis for dozens of operas, but no plot could be more simplified than Gluck’s, another reform objective of the composer.  He minimizes the number of principal roles to the three essentials, the title characters plus Love (aka – Amore).  No subplots.  No diversions between point A and point B in the story line.  The narrative is reduced to: Eurydice is dead; Love tells Orpheus how to retrieve her from the dead; he fails to heed Love’s stricture that he not look back at her during their passage from Hades; Eurydice dies again.  But as happens in some other versions of this classic, a Hollywood ending yields eternal happiness. 

Nicole Heaston as Love.

With such an economic tale to tell and 80 minutes to fill, the aria lyrics may not be repeated identically as in the a-b-a format, but conceptually, they are.  For the first 50 plus minutes, Orpheus is the only principal on stage except for a brief visit from Love.  He is so distraught about his loss, that he is constantly pining away.  What is remarkable is that the librettist de’ Calzabigi could find so many ways for Orpheus to express his lament.  Fortunately, OrIiński is a world class countertenor whose presence and vocal quality carry the day with considerable vocal and visual support from the chorus.

Musically, the opera is of its time, 1762.  The modulations from Baroque format make it more listenable to those who tire of the incessance of earlier style.  “Orpheus and Eurydice” does contain one particularly memorable aria, Orpheus’s final lament, “What will I do without Eurydice?”  which OrIiński delivers with great passion.

The countertenor voice is unnatural in its harsh falsetto character and high tessitura, though OrIiński handles it admirably.  Conversely, the sopranos, Meigui Zhang as Eurydice and Nicole Heaston as Love both possess mellow instruments, and the ranges of their singing parts display the warmest qualities of their voices.

Jakub Józef Orliński as Orpheus, chorus.

But as talented as the performers are, the creative design team distinguishes this production.  Director Matthew Ozawa relates the stage components to contemporary resonance, and his minimalistic aesthetic delivers a powerful and lush sensibility.  With Yuki Nakase Link’s sharp and everchanging lighting against set designer Alexander V. Nichol’s black back wall, the solid-colored, satin-like material of Jessica Jahn’s simply styled costumes visually pop as if a fashion show for colors.

Orpheus’s red and Eurydice’s blue outfits stand with distinction, but Love displays the real eye candy.  Not only does her yellow-gold costume sizzle with its brightness and contrast to the black backdrop, but her entrance is a dramatic swing down from the fly, and beneath her trails a drape of perhaps 20 feet of the same material.  Now that’s a real fashion statement!

Another strong visual element is Rena Butler’s choreography.  Orpheus and Eurydice are each replicated by three dancers wearing costumes in different shades of their respectively assigned colors to represent different stages of the couple’s relationship.  The many dances are evocative, stylistically dominated by the herky-jerky motions of Orpheus and the sensuality of Eurydice.  The chorus’s movement and posturing add another dramatic element, as does their monochromatic sea of color, whether white or black, but often altered in appearance by colored lighting.

Principals and chorus.

Although conflict dominates the action of the opera, Gluck offers a positive overarching outlook.  He posits the magical power of music and the heroic nature of the musician.  And though the possible price of giving in to temptation is clear, he demonstrates his belief that suffering grief will ultimately be rewarded with happiness.  Let’s hope he’s right!  In the meantime, we can obtain much happiness by enjoying this sterling production.

“Orpheus and Eurydice,” composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck with libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi is produced by San Francisco Opera and plays at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue through December 1, 2022.

Kinky Boots

[Overview – After a pandemic pause, the American Theatre Critics Association resuscitated its annual fall conference in New York City in November 2022. It represented an opportunity for theater critics to share new insights into what is happening in the theater world nationwide; to renew acquaintances; and to catch a few plays in the heart of the theater universe. Karin, my wife+editor, and I were fortunate enough to attend four plays in diverse theater categories. They are “A Delicate Balance” (Off or Off-Off Broadway classic drama),”Where We Belong” (Off Broadway world premiere solo performance), “Kinky Boots” (Off Broadway musical revival), and “Kimberly Akimbo” (new Broadway musical moved from Off Broadway). Incidentally, the definition of the category Broadway refers to size of house, specifically capacity of 500 seats or more. 100 to 499 seats is classified as Off Broadway, and smaller is Off-Off Broadway.]

“Kinky Boots”

Christian Douglas as Charlie, Callum Francis as Lola. All photos by Matt Murphy, MurphyMade.

Traditional industries in advanced economies collapse with regularity. Usually decline is accompanied by sad stories of displaced workers who lack job skills or mobility to secure a comfortable future. Occasionally, repurposing obsolete assets succeeds not only in saving jobs, but the whole ecosystem in which they occur. Doesn’t sound like grist for humor, does it? But British writers Geoff Deane and Tim Firth turned the idea into a rollicking comedy movie, “Kinky Boots,” and book writer Harvey Fierstein and composer and librettist Cyndi Lauper have transformed it into a highly successful Broadway musical which is now receiving a resounding Off Broadway revival. The audience howls to the humor and roars to the high energy music and dance.

Briefly, the conflict begins with Charlie, played by an empathetic yet insistent Christian Douglas. The young man inherits a shoe factory in small town England that is on the brink of bankruptcy, unable to compete with lower quality and cheaper foreign products. Prompted by what he observes in London as a poorly served market niche that is forced to buy products that can’t take the stress of weight and heavy activity, he decides to fully redirect production to this niche and to hire a user as a designer and consultant.

Still sounds pretty dry? Well, the product is gaudy, thigh-high boots, and the market is drag queens! The designer is Lola, a wildly flamboyant denizen of the dark who had escaped the socially conservative sticks for the friendly confines of cosmopolitan London. To Lola, a boot is not merely an accessory to walk in, it is 2 1/2 feet of tubular sex, and in red, it represents not only sex, but danger. And, oh, that stiletto heel – as she sings, “The sex is in the heel!” Needless to say, Lola’s appearance in staid, working-class Northampton causes quite a stir.

The Angels.

Conflicts abound. Charlie loves chic and sassy Nicola, but factory worker Lauren loves Charlie. Many clashes result from the baggage that Lola carries with her as one with a lifestyle that offends many. Don dislikes Lola because of what she represents and resents having to make the new product. Lola and Charlie clash over product design and promotion. She wants to use actual drag queens to model the product, but he insists on using professionals. Although her father trained her as a boxer (which is relevant to the plot), Lola’s coming out became a source for rejection. Lola laments how her father never saw the best in her in “I’m not my father’s son.” But even Charlie shares the common thread of not following the path that his father hoped for. Although they didn’t create the characters, is it fair to say that some of the success of the musical comes from Fierstein’s identification with Lola and Lauper’s with Lauren? Anyway, as you might expect from an uplifting experience, there are happy resolutions.

“Kinky Boots” offers a light-hearted escape triggered by the brashness of Lola, played with great verve and sung with a striking voice by understudy Nick Drake. But what brings the house down at their every appearance is the Angels, a dancing and singing crew of four drag queen friends of Lola. They rev up the house as they shimmy and shake in sexy synchronicity.

Callum Francis as Lola

Although the show can be appreciated as simply an attractive diversion, the creatives are clearly going for more. Shared values come to the fore in romantic relationships as Charlie and Nicola grapple with what goals in life that they can agree on. The importance of community and shared experience weighs on the workers as they sacrifice in hopes of seeing a new vision to fruition. And certainly, core messages concern diversity and acceptance as Lola and her friends seek to have mainstream people understand that they are who they are, and that they deserve to be embraced by society, just as anyone else.

Throughout the story. Lauper’s bouncy and melodic music along with Director and Choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s lively dance provide emotional propulsion. It all culminates with the togetherness of the iconic and elevating “Raise you up.” “Kinky Boots” pleases audiences and in particular, inspires a younger generation of patron to appreciate what the institution of musical theater has to offer.

Danielle Hope as Lauren, Christian Douglas as Charlie.

“Kinky Boots” with book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper is based on the movie of the same name written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, and is performed at Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street, NY, NY through November 20, 2022.

Kimberly Akimbo

[Overview – After a pandemic pause, the American Theatre Critics Association resuscitated its annual fall conference in New York City in November 2022. It represented an opportunity for theater critics to share new insights into what is happening in the theater world nationwide; to renew acquaintances; and to catch a few plays in the heart of the theater universe. Karin, my wife+editor, and I were fortunate enough to attend four plays in diverse theater categories. They are “A Delicate Balance” (Off or Off-Off Broadway classic drama),”Where We Belong” (Off Broadway world premiere solo performance), “Kinky Boots” (Off Broadway musical revival), and “Kimberly Akimbo” (new Broadway musical moved from Off Broadway). Incidentally, the definition of the category Broadway refers to size of house, specifically capacity of 500 seats or more. 100 to 499 seats is classified as Off Broadway, and smaller is Off-Off Broadway.]

Victoria Clark as Kimberly, Justin Cooley as Seth. All photos by Joan Marcus.

“Kimberly Akimbo”

From the time that Victoria Clark steps on stage at curtain rise, it becomes a “you had me at hello” moment. The immensely talented and highly decorated senior citizen enacts the conceit that she is Kimberly Levaco, a 15-year-old suffering from progeria, the rare, rapid-aging disease. The disease ages her at four or more times the normal rate, and the life expectancy is 16 years, so most likely, her expiration date will soon arrive. Clark captures the affect and behaviors of a teen with great precision, and her buoyancy and optimism in the face of inordinate bad fortune puts a smile on your face and a hole in your heart.

Bonnie Milligan as Debra.

Geeky and looking like she could be the grandmother of her peers, Kimberly doesn’t have a lot going for her. She would love nothing more than to experience for a single day how normal people live. Apart from not fitting in socially because of her physical weirdness, her family is wacko.

Her mother Pattie, played by the perky Alli Mauzey, is a narcissistic hypochondriac who wouldn’t know how to prepare a meal. Both of Pattie’s hands and forearms are in casts, making any activity difficult. In one sequence, Kimberly feeds Pattie. With visual tongue in cheek, it appears that mother is feeding daughter rather than vice versa. To top things off, Pattie is pregnant, although there is a high likelihood that any child that Pattie and Kimberly’s father, Buddy, spawn would also suffer progeria. But that’s another story.

Alli Mauzey as Pattie, Victoria Clark as Kimberly.

Portrayed as well-intended but shifty by Jim Hogan, Buddy is a heavy-drinking wastrel whose pride and main source of supplemental income is winning bets that he can put a whole mango in his mouth. Guess who’s the real adult in the family. One funny vignette has Kimberly expressing romantic interest in new friend Seth. In his protective fatherly mode, Buddy says that she better be careful not to get pregnant, to which erstwhile aged teenager Kimberly replies “Dad, I went through menopause four years ago!”

And then there’s Aunt Debra. An inveterate grifter, she’s served time. When Kimberly’s parents moved, they kept their new address secret from Debra. Of course, a grifter will always find a way, and an effusive and brazen Bonnie Milligan acts her craftiness and evasive nature with great flair. The final major character is Seth, played by a form-fit Justin Cooley as a bubbly loner with an anagram passion. Like Kimberly, he has had to overcome poor parenting to find his own way in the world.

Geeky choristers Nina White, Michael Iskander, Fernell Hogan, Olivia Hardy.

In the adaptation of this play to a musical, composer Jeanine Tesori has drawn diverse arrows from her rich musical quiver that has produced music for “Fun Home,” “Shrek,” “Caroline, or Change,” and many others. The overall music tenor is upbeat and youthful, but there are also reflective moments such as Seth’s ruminations about being a “Good Kid,” without much benefit. David Lindsay-Abaire, Pulitzer Prize winner for his drama “Rabbit Hole,” has adapted his kooky but highly insightful story and added incisive and revealing lyrics to songs. (Disclaimer – This reviewer and his editor were fortunate to attend an informative and entertaining panel discussion with Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire as well as Bonnie Milligan and Justin Cooley shortly before we saw the performance.)

The narrative includes sequences that derive from the main characters’ traits, such as Kimberly’s presenting a science project with Seth on her disease or applying to the New Jersey Make-a-Wish Foundation, hopefully for a visit to Disneyland (represented by the charming song “Make a Wish”.) Her parents’ ineptness is endless, and even when they try to do the right thing, they don’t have the skills or the perseverance to make it happen. Kimberly’s dreams go unrealized.

An otherwise unrelated thread involves a Greek chorus of four geeky schoolmate choristers needing money to have costumes made for a competition. But Debra has a scheme that would satisfy Kimberly and the choir group’s needs. However, the playwright’s endorsement of the outcome of the plan introduces moral turpitude that may create a sense of discomfort in some of the audience.

That said, the play has a heart of gold. It recognizes the need for friendship, even among fractured people, and the importance of seizing the day. No one gets a second time around. It tells its story with great compassion and in an entertaining and involving manner. Apt music and dance produce tremendous audience enthusiasm that ensures this winning production will enjoy a great run and an esteemed position in the constellation of Broadway musicals.

Cast.

“Kimberly Akimbo” with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, is performed at Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, NY, NY on an open run.

Where We Belong

[Overview – After a pandemic pause, the American Theatre Critics Association resuscitated its annual fall conference in New York City in November 2022. It represented an opportunity for theater critics to share new insights into what is happening in the theater world nationwide; to renew acquaintances; and to catch a few plays in the heart of the theater universe. Karin, my wife+editor, and I were fortunate enough to attend four plays in diverse theater categories. They are “A Delicate Balance” (Off or Off-Off Broadway classic drama),”Where We Belong” (Off Broadway world premiere solo performance), “Kinky Boots” (Off Broadway musical revival), and “Kimberly Akimbo” (new Broadway musical moved from Off Broadway). Incidentally, the definition of the category Broadway refers to size of house, specifically capacity of 500 seats or more. 100 to 499 seats is classified as Off Broadway, and smaller is Off-Off Broadway.]

[Addendum – We were originally scheduled to see Suzan-Lori Parks’ new “Plays for the Plague Year,” but because of covid cases in their cast and staff, the performance was cancelled. Happily, The Public Theater was able to substitute this alternative premiere production which delivered a fruitful evening.]

Madeline Sayet. All photos by Joan Marcus.

“Where We Belong”

Regrettably, many Americans blithely refuse to acknowledge the many blemishes in our country’s history, both officially as a government and informally as a society. As a result, we fail to learn from our mistakes. Among our most egregious acts as a country has been our mistreatment of Native Americans, including genocide. Probably the height of hypocrisy has been the abrogation of treaties with various tribes. These and many other abuses can result in feelings by the Native American population of not belonging to the main and of being conflicted in loyalty, as European-Americans have seized their land, suppressed them, and worse. And, of course, many Americans still don’t get it, or don’t want to get it, perhaps because acknowledgement does not conform with their sense of national image. It becomes embarrassing, inconvenient, and expensive.

Against this backdrop, writer, performer, and educator Madeline Sayet has written and acts in a one-person show, “Where We Belong.” The playwright comes from a mixed background of Jewish and Mohegan (known by many as Mohican) and identifies with the latter. Despite displacement and loss of population, her tribe’s roots and reservation remain in Connecticut.

The play covers much ground but explores two major themes. The more common, universal, and expected one concerns the loss of indigenous language, which resulted from U.S. federal policies that insisted on assimilation by native tribes. In school and government work environments, punishment was typically meted out for speaking in native languages. This theme has been explored in other theatrical work. Although James Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans” was apocryphal, the Mohegan language shrank to near extinction. Sayet shares stories about trying to reconstruct spoken language from documents and the challenges of resuscitation without native speakers to intone the words.

The more distinctive and personal story derives from the playwright’s love of Shakespeare. An avid student of The Bard, she was accepted into a doctoral program in the United Kingdom. Sayet was particularly attracted to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and especially the character Caliban. Parallel to the experience of Native Americans, Caliban’s territory was invaded by foreigners, and he was subjugated by the interloper. Sayet began her studies in London with enthusiasm and expectation, but one aspect of her participation disillusioned her. There was something about the way that others connected the relationship of her being Native American and succumbing to the attractions of Shakespeare as being her acceptance of Anglo superiority, which was a notion that she rejected, and which would influence her future direction.

Sayet acknowledges that her stories were not intended to be a play. However, she presents and weaves the stories with great confidence. But rather than constituting a cohesive narrative, they act as an interesting collection of related vignettes. Despite the conviction of her presentation, the pacing is somewhat pedestrian for much of the show. However, the latter third contains considerable spark with drama and animation, coordinated by Director Mei Ann Teo.

The performance is aided by uncommonly stunning production values for a solo performance. Production and Lighting Designer Hao Bai’s earthen serpentine on the stage floor symbolizes the Trail of Life with its ups and downs as well as the people who are met along the journey. A rumpled but reflective backdrop shows the distortions that we all witness in life but process inaccurately. Constellations of lights and mobile bars of florescents, along with Erik Schilke’s powerful sound design and composing stimulate the senses and enhance the experience.

The messages of the production are what is expected from one who is trying to promote respect and dignity for all peoples, particularly Native Americans. The content of the show is a bit preachy, and to a large extent, Sayet is preaching to the choir. The theater industry is in the forefront of trying to recognize American indebtedness to the original stewards of the land, and its audiences are among the most committed to diversity and mutual esteem. At the same time, these stories should be told. Hopefully, they will touch potential converts, and good will come from them.

“Where We Belong” is a world premiere written by Madeline Sayet, produced by The Public Theater, and plays on its stage at 425 Lafayette St., New York, New York through November 27, 2022.

A Delicate Balance

[Overview – After a pandemic pause, the American Theatre Critics Association resuscitated its annual fall conference in New York City in November 2022. It represented an opportunity for theater critics to share new insights into what is happening in the theater world nationwide; to renew acquaintances; and to catch a few plays in the heart of the theater universe. Karin, my wife+editor, and I were fortunate enough to attend four plays in diverse theater categories. They are “A Delicate Balance” (Off or Off-Off Broadway classic drama),”Where We Belong” (Off Broadway world premiere solo performance), “Kinky Boots” (Off Broadway musical revival), and “Kimberly Akimbo” (new Broadway musical moved from Off Broadway). Incidentally, the definition of the category Broadway refers to size of house, specifically capacity of 500 seats or more. 100 to 499 seats is classified as Off Broadway, and smaller is Off-Off Broadway.]

Manu Narayan as Tobias, Mia Katigbak as Agnes. All photos by Carol Rosegg.

“A Delicate Balance”

This Pulitzer Prize winning play written by the great Edward Albee tells the story of an upper-class couple stressed by the pressure of disruptive house guests. First, the alcoholic Claire (played by an acerbic Carmen M. Herlihy), who is sister of the wife, Agnes, alit. Claire had no other place to turn and has long been a burr under the saddle of her hosting sister Agnes (portrayed with eloquent and resentful reserve by Mia Katigbak). Agnes’s husband, the easygoing Tobias actually finds Claire a comfortable diversion from his austere wife. Then, the couple’s best friends, who have suffered from an inexplicable psychological fear, have sought a refuge with Agnes and Tobias. Finally, their boomerang daughter returns home after separating from her fourth husband.

The central antagonist is Claire, the resented guest, and her lilting sardonic humor prevents the depression from sinking to the level of Albee’s own “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or Eugene O’Neill’s greatest plays. The somewhat farcical treatment of events also provides relief. But the playwright’s view of relationships, whether of family or friend, seems quite grim. Is all of our togetherness obligatory or forced or driven by ulterior motives? Claire is a leech who does nothing to ingratiate herself to Agnes. When Edna and Harry show up uninvited, their sense of entitlement as closest friends extends to moving in for an indeterminant period. What’s more, when the host couple’s daughter, Julia, returns home, they not only insist that they stay in her room, but they treat her with parental authority, causing the already put-upon Julia to turn furious. The delicate balance of Agnes and Tobias’s own fragile relationship is further upset by these intrusions. Must they favor family over friends or vice versa? Is there any way they can re-establish agency and their own peace?

Tina Chilip as Julia, Carmen M. Herlihy as Claire.

Through this all, characters are faced with establishing priorities in relationships, but sadly, the playwright’s pessimism leaves virtually none unsullied by self-interest, as opposed to unselfish generosity. Although much of the context of the narrative fixes on social class and dates the action (dressiness, formalities of speech and actions, cocktails), the friction of the issues remains relevant today, and the underlying message is chilling

The distinctive feature of this production is that it employs an all-Asian cast, something that we might more likely expect to be presented in the Bay Area. The most remarkable aspect of this casting is that there is nothing remarkable. Nothing at all seems unusual about these characters being performed by Asian actors. And the performers act with great conviction. The only issue of note is that while Katigbak probably possesses the greatest gravitas among the actors, her weaker vocal projection makes it difficult to hear her at times.

Paul John as Harry, Rita Wolf as Edna.

Another point of interest is the set design, as a proscenium arch theater has been turned into an in-the-round concept with audience on two sides, creating an intimacy that suits the play well – effectively turning an Off Broadway theater temporarily into Off-Off. The staging, while conventional in appearance, is quite creative with the stage raised above an apron of books and drinking glasses in separate rows (drinking cocktails is a constant pastime in the household). A huge staircase separates the characters’ intimate lives from their together lives.

Director Jack Cummings III has brilliantly realized the clash between the gracious externalities of elegant living with the hellish internalities that outsiders may never see. This is a play that always justifies revival because the underlying universal issues will never go away.

“A Delicate Balance” by Edward Albee is produced by Transport Group and plays at Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th St., New York, New York through November 19, 2022.

Clue

(front) Wilma Bonet as Mrs. Peacock, Keiko Shimosato Carreiro as Mrs. White, Sarah Mitchell as Miss Scarlett. (rear) Dorian Lockett as Colonel Mustard, Corey Rieger as Professor Plum, David Everett Moore as Mr. Green. All photos by Kevin Berne.

Murder!  Mystery!  Mayhem! are the order of the day (er – night) as Center Rep takes on the classic trapped-in-a-scary-mansion who-dunnit?  Did the butler do it?  In a play that relies on style rather than gravitas, Director Nancy Carlin pulls all the right strings to make for a fluffy and entertaining ninety minutes.

The premise of “Clue” consists of the genre standard.  Several characters unknown to one another are invited to a gathering at Boddy Mansion by the mysterious Mr. Boddy.  Guests are identified by color-coded monikers rather than their real names to protect their identities. One common connection is that they are all being blackmailed, but only Miss Scarlett, who runs an escort service, will admit it.  Guests are locked in, and murders occur.   The challenge is to determine who is (are) responsible for them.

Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, Sarah Mitchell, Wilma Bonet, Corey Rieger, Dorian Lockett, David Everett Moore, Brady Morales-Woolery as Wadsworth.

The success of the narrative depends first on the cleverness of the mystery.  To enliven matters, there is not one central thread, but multiple murders with various presumed motives, so the plot is suitably complicated with many twists and turns.  Evidence will suggest plausible explanations for some of the killings, but they may be red herrings.  To add socio-political heft to the proceedings, the mystery takes place in the Washington, D.C. area, with the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations as a backdrop, but this aspect is not properly developed in the story.

The other requisite is humor, and it flourishes.  The overall tone is farcical, with considerable physical comedy ranging from characters floundering about to corpses being propped up to seem overindulged rather than dead.  Of course, the invisible host wouldn’t be styled as Boddy if there weren’t bountiful opportunities for plays on words with the name. There are plenty, as bodies keep falling.  Each character has odd quirks.  Brady Morales-Woolery deftly portrays Boddy’s butler, Wadsworth, the central figure and orchestrator of activities or herder of cats.  A variant of John Cleese in “Fawlty Towers,” he’s in control – except when he’s not.

David Everett Moore, Caroline Pernick as Yvette, Keiko Shimosato Carreiro.

Perhaps the funniest character is Colonel Mustard, played in amusing dimwitted fashion by Dorian Lockett.  The Colonel constantly interjects eye-rolling non sequiturs and admits that when he doesn’t get things that he is “not very good at nuance.”  He and Wadsworth share a set piece reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first,” built around the Colonel’s wanting to know if there’s another body (Boddy?) in the house and getting more confused with each of Wadsworth’s ambiguous responses.

All principal characters are well-drawn, each with their own amusing schtick that provides the little filler laughs.  Sarah Mitchell as Miss Scarlett shakes her booty; Wilma Bonet as Mrs. Peacock shrieks; and Keiko Shimosato Carreiro sulks and glowers.  Overall, the cast is up to the task with exaggerated gestures and good timing.  Most of the gags prompt laughter in the right places.

Brady Morales-Woolery, Sarah Mitchell, Dorian Lockett, Wilma Bonet, Corey Rieger, Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, David Everett Moore.

Repetition is used effectively to bring laughs to several situations.  The assembled often move en masse from one room to another (but ending up in the same space on the stage), so they enact galumphing slow-motion movement on a dimmed stage to arrive at their destination.  Otherwise, various characters, one-at-a-time, provide conflicting scenarios of what has transpired.  After each tale, characters rewind, lurching backward to return to their previous positions.  Even though the audience comes to expect the device, it works successfully several times.  Finally, because matters have become so convoluted, Wadsworth gives a full review of everything that has come before, and as unlikely as it would seem, the recitation plays for laughs.

This type of comedy also relies heavily on staging to enhance effects.  Kelly James Tighe’s single-set stage design transports the audience to different venues within the house by the use of three large set elements that revolve, exposing different rooms, albeit in the same graytone colors and pattern.  Cliff Caruthers’s soundtrack is almost constantly present and includes an abundance of atmospherics like ominous music and crackling thunder to create an eerie sensation.  Similarly, Jennifer Fok’s lighting creates contrast to amplify the sense of foreboding.

Cast.

“Clue” is written by Sandy Rustin; from the screenplay “Clue” by Jonathan Lynn; based on the Hasbro board game of the same name; is produced by Center Repertory Company; and plays at Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA through November 20, 2022.

La Traviata

(foreground) Alonso Sicarios-León as Alfredo, Shaina Martinez as Violetta; (second row left) Jackson Beaman as Gastone; (second row right) Daniel Morris as Marquis d’Obigny, Morgan Balfour as Annina. All photos by Otak Jump.

As one of the most beloved and most performed operas in the repertoire, virtually any opera lover will know the story line of “La Traviata,” so there are few secrets here.  And in opera reviews, spoilers don’t pertain.  Briefly, Violetta is a courtesan.  Alfredo falls in love with her.  While they are living together, Alfredo’s father Giorgio appeals to Violetta, suggesting that his daughter’s engagement would be compromised if Alfredo married a woman of questionable repute.  Violetta’s graciousness in abandoning her beloved astonishes the initially skeptical Giorgio. Violetta, who has suffered consumption from the outset, dies.

Shaina Martinez as Violetta, Alonso Sicarios-León as Alfredo.

West Bay Opera takes on this war horse, and as one who had already seen six productions of “La Traviata,” you’ll understand why your reviewer approached it with little enthusiasm.  But it’s easy to forget how soaring and melodic Verdi’s music is from curtain to curtain and how it can sweep you away.  West Bay operates with the usual constraints of a small, suburban opera company in dealing with a large production like this.  Additional obstacles derive from their facility – like having a pit inadequate for the orchestra and having to place some musicians in either stage wing.  The outcome of all of these imperfections? – a great success!

Ballet dancers and chorus.

“La Traviata” opens with one of its two party scenes, and immediately, the audience is regaled with one of the opera’s myriad of highlights, the brindisi, or drinking song, ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ (‘Let’s drink from the joyful cups’).  Alfredo must sing in full voice from the outset, and Alonso Sicarios-León, performing the part, brightens up to commence a solid rendition.  He follows with the lead on the beautiful love duet ‘Un di felice, eterea’ (‘One day, happy and ethereal’) and demonstrates not only emotional power often associated with Italianate style, but a textured, rich voice with excellent control of dynamics.  He exhibits many fine qualities that are well suited to tenor roles in the 19th century canon.

Sicarios-León pairs well with his Violetta, Shaina Martinez, who joins her counterpart in the delightful Act 1 duets.  A lyric soprano, she possesses enough edge to give gravitas and strength to her mid and upper range, though her low end lacks similar penetration.  Martinez also demonstrates fine coloratura skills with quick trills and runs in her solo parts.  She offers a well-defined ‘È strano!….Ah, fors’ è lui’ (‘Ah, perhaps he is the one’).  In the ultimate scene, and adhering to one of the conventions in opera that we have come to accept, she belts out with great passion and power her ‘Gran Dio!…morir sì giovane’ (‘Great God!…to die so young’) just before dying from a lung abrading disease!

Morgan Balfour as Annina, Joshua Hughes as Grenville.

The impediment to the lovers’ happiness is Geogio, who is portrayed as sympathetically as possible by baritone Jason Duika.  He brings great earnestness to the part, and his singing is smooth and mellow, if slightly cloaked.  He also handles quick patter and his duet with Alfredo ably.  And he delivers his signature aria‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol chi dal cor ti cancellò?’ (‘Who erased the sea, the land of Provence from your heart?’) which is directed at his son with great mellifluous intensity.

Supporting roles are performed with great aplomb as well.  Morgan Balfour as Annina, Jackson Beaman as Gastone, and Joshua Hughes as Grenville were in particularly good voice for this performance, as was the chorus. The graceful ballet dancers choreographed by Kara Davis provide an excellent diversion.

Alonso Sicarios-León as Alfredo, Shaina Martinez as Violetta.

As usual, General Director and Conductor José-Luis Moskovich marshals a fine orchestra and production.  Of course, the party scenes in particular require special attention, and director Igor Vieira ensures their grandeur.  Peter Crompton’s set follows the West Bay template with multiple stage levels, massive columns, and projections that produce considerable scenic detail in two dimensions.  Callie Floor’s costumes give the requisite elegant period look.

“La Traviata,” with music by Giuseppe Verdi and libretto by Francesco Maria Piave is based on the novel “La Dame aux Camélias” by Alexander Dumas fils, produced by West Bay Opera, and plays at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through October 23, 2022.

A Nice Family Gathering

(Rear) Alejandra Wahl as Stacy, Peter Marietta as Carl, Kyle Smith as Dad (visible only to Carl). (Foreground) Marsha Howard as Mom (facing away), J. Aaron Seymour as Jerry, Byron Guo as Michael. All photos by Grizzly de Haro.

What tradition is more American than a family get together for Thanksgiving dinner?  Phil Olson’s “A Nice Family Gathering” occurs on such an occasion, but with a couple of wrinkles.  It takes place in Minnesota, embracing a panoply of only-in-Minnesota traits, including the dialogue being delivered in droll sing-songy Scandinavian-American accents, replete with the signature “you betcha!”  And, oh yes, there’s a spirit in the house that has nothing to do with alcohol.

Altarena Playhouse has taken this endearing and hilarious parlor comedy and made it their own.  Under the masterful direction of Kimberly Ridgeway, every role is performed exquisitely with crackling comedic timing.  The play moves briskly, offering a laugh-out-loud evening with just the right soupçon of sentimentality.

Peter Marietta as Carl.

Missing from the reunion is Dad, a physician who died 10 months before.  However, unbeknownst to others, his ghost appeared to son Carl at his funeral, and he has returned for Thanksgiving.  In a chatty column that Carl writes for the local weekly paper, he had captured his father as “the man who loved his wife so much that he almost told her.”

Now, the deceased wants to tell his widow how much he loved her.  Higher authorities have designated Carl as his mouthpiece, but the son begrudges the assignment, because he never felt that his Dad really loved him.  Mom shows symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and it’s not clear how she would respond to supposed communication from beyond the grave.  Complicating matters, she has invited a date to dinner, Jerry, who was a golf buddy of Dad’s.  You can imagine Dad’s reaction to that.  As Dad, Kyle Smith mines his irascibility with sardonic humor.  He convinces as one who regrets that he didn’t express his love for all of his family when he was alive.

Alejandra Wahl as Stacy, Missa Perron as Jill, Marsha Howard as Mom.

Beyond the ethereal thread in the narrative, a family in dysfunction unveils.  Mom, who is played in appropriately drowsy understatement by Marsha Howard, is a doozy.  She delivers hot water that is supposed to be coffee; blithely draws everyone’s attention to announce an agenda for the day comprised of one item; and can’t remember her daughter’s name, if she can remember her at all.  But when she discusses her estate, she sounds like a Certified Financial Planner.

Despite Mom’s isolation and mental state, her children rarely visit. Carl, the central character who communicates with the living and the one dead, has the opportunity, but he’s both self-indulgent and self-conscious.  He hopes to earn a living as a writer, and like most artists, he identifies himself by his aspiration.  What pays the rent is driving a Pillsbury Doughboy truck, so he hasn’t set the world on fire.  As Carl, Peter Marietta brings great charisma, yet he uncovers the character’s ambivalence and resentment and makes him quirky and very funny.

(foreground) Marsha Howard as Mom, Peter Marietta as Carl, (rear) Alejandra Wahl as Stacy.

Older brother, Michael, played by an effusive, confident, and condescending Byron Guo, has met Dad’s expectations.  He possesses the trappings of being a physician, from the country club to the BMW, but he has marital issues, as evidenced by the frequent crying fits of wife Jill, effectively portrayed by Missa Perron.  Alejandra Wahl captures the diffidence of younger sister, Stacy.  Who knows whether her timidity is the cause or the effect, but everyone around seems to forget or ignore her.  However, she will come to life with surprises that will grab everyone’s attention.  Finally, J. Aaron Seymour nicely conveys the slipperiness of the interloper, Jerry, who tries to ingratiate himself with Mom and her protectors.

Objectively, most of the characters in “A Nice Family Gathering” are not sympathetic, but the plights that they confront are common, and their frailties are human and understandable.  The goofiness of their personas, exacerbated by their accents, also take the edge off of their weaker traits.  Humor abounds.  Mom tells a pizza story with a conclusion that is a total non sequitur.  That story and the implausible ending are even reprised to more laughter.  Carl frequently must cover up for talking to his invisible Dad by acting as if he’s talking into his recorder.

Finally, the staging enhances the overall effect.  Tom Shamrell’s single-set design expresses hominess and works nicely to allow activity in the main room as well as outdoors.  Stephanie Anne Johnson’s usually unobtrusive lighting with occasional directional floods is very effective.

J. Aaron Seymour as Jerry, Marsha Howard as Mom, Kyle Smith as Dad (invisible), Byron Guo as Michael.

We can often overlook any deeper meaning when seeing a comedic play, but this one actually has a lot to say.  It honors selfless mothers; urges the courage to say and do the right things before it is too late; advocates following our dreams; pillories slavish devotion to status symbols; and asks us to better understand those who are near to us.

“A Nice Family Gathering” by Phil Olson, is produced by Altarena Playhouse and is performed on its stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through November 20, 2022.

Dialogues of the Carmelites

Heidi Stober as Blanche, Michaela Schuster as Madame de Croissy. All photos by Cory Weaver.

How fitting that “Dialogues of the Carmelites” should be produced by San Francisco Opera in its centennial year and that the production should be so brilliant and stunning.  Not only did Francis Poulenc’s opera have its U.S. premiere here in 1957, but the performance by the great Leontyne Price as the New Prioress, Madame Lidoine, represented her career launch in a big house with a major company.

Poulenc requested his opera be performed in the language of the audience because he wanted it fully understood.  However, with the advent of supertitles, San Francisco Opera offers it for the first time in French, the libretto language to which the music was designed, without the sacrifice of translation nuance.

Religious operas, or more broadly, those concerning faith, can be fractious.  “Dialogues” is based on the true story of 16 Carmelite nuns of Compiègne who were guillotined in 1794 during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror because of their unwillingness to compromise their faith.

Michaela Schuster as Madame de Croissy, Heidi Stober as Blanche.

We live in a divided age when many have abandoned religion, and the Bay Area represents the leading edge of humanistic thinking unfettered by religious stricture.  So how can such a story speak to a community like ours?  Although its religious trappings are unrelenting, universal themes underpin the story – communal and personal love; growth and change; courage and sacrifice.

Poulenc himself was a troubled soul – committed to Catholic doctrine despite being gay.  He also suffered the untimely loss of a dear friend from decapitation, leaving him profoundly depressed.  Although he relied on detailed source material to create “Dialogues,” he penned one fictional character, the protagonist, Blanche.  No doubt, his personal history led him to this particular material, and his own fears and conflicts are manifest through his fictional character.

Deanna Breiwick as Constance, Heidi Stober as Blanche.

This opera rightfully stands as one of the post-Puccini era’s most often performed.  Perhaps one reason is the melodiousness of its score, in contrast to much modern opera.  Poulenc even joked that he was sorry, but his nuns insist on singing tonally.  Yet the vocals consist mostly of recitatives and arioso, with little that could be considered arias.  However, the orchestra, guided decisively by Eun Sun Kim in this production, adds color, particularly with accents and percussive punctuation.

The plotline centers on Blanche, performed by a scintillating Heidi Stober, sometimes brittle in her character but assertive in her singing.  She is a coddled aristocrat who fears for her life during the Reign of Terror and seeks escape in the convent.  Madame de Croissy, the “Old Prioress,” is dubious, noting that the convent is a place of prayer, not of refuge, but she relents.

As Croissy soon lies dying a difficult death, she grapples with her having accepted Blanche as the most recent novice.  More significantly, Croissy had been a sturdy and brave leader who reveals uncharacteristic anguish and fears death during her decline.  Michaela Schuster provides the opera’s most powerful and harrowing soliloquy in her lengthy death scene, aided by a scenic device in which her bed is set vertically on a wall to allow her singing to project better.

Michelle Bradley as Madame Lidoine (center).

To cognoscenti, “Dialogues” can be appreciated with great depth beyond the superficial plot.  In the aforementioned scene, Constance, the other novice, notes that Croissy’s gruesome end, despite her past strength, means that she is dying someone else’s death, and in this case, it is in exchange for Blanche who will then face death with courage and calm.  This pertains to the religious notion of belonging to a Beloved Community and to the sacrificial love aspect of agape.

Another layer that most will miss is the richness from the unusual pastiche that the composer employs.  Each of the five key principals shares personal traits and musical motifs with heroines from earlier operas.  Blanche (Heidi Stober) reflects the title character in “Thaïs,” Constance (Deanna Briewick) is Zerlina from “Don Giovanni,” Croissy (Michaela Schuster) is Amneris from “Aida,” Marie (Melody Moore) is Kundry from “Parsifal,” and Madame Lidoine (Michelle Bradley) is Desdemona from “Otello.”  All of these artists meet the demands of their roles, with Bradley displaying the most commanding voice. The men, led by Ben Bliss as Blanche’s brother, also impress.

Olivier Py, who designed the original realization of this production also adds symbols to enhance the opera’s complexity.  Several dioramas representing moments in the life of Christ embellish the action, two of which will resonate with most opera goers.  As the nuns await their doom, they appear in a scene reflecting the Last Supper, and later, a Crucifixion tableau links their faith to their deaths.

Efrain Solis as Jailer (upper left window), cast.

The overall abstract stage design symbolizes the nuns’ appearance and lives.  The set can be described as “a study of right angles in shades of gray, with movement.”  Charcoal gray abounds, and spectral color appears only as occasional highlights.  The austerity of the set fits well with most of what it represents, especially the convent and the prison, and the versatility and mobility of the pieces is striking.

The musical composition of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is strong, with intense characterizations, although the narrative moves slowly at times.  Add excellent artistic design and strong portrayals to make for a memorable experience.  And if impression and memory are dominated by recency, the opera goer will leave the house with a vivid and despairing chill as the nuns depart the stage one by one to the swishing, thudding sound of the guillotine and the convulsing of their bodies to the violence of politics gone mad.

Cast.

Historically, the nuns’ singing as they ascended the gallows quieted the bloodthirsty crowd that gathered at these beheadings.  In less than two weeks, Robespierre’s degenerate reign ended with his execution at the guillotine.

“Dialogues of the Carmelites,” with music and libretto by Francis Poulenc and based on the play of the same name by Georges Bernanos is produced by San Francisco Opera and plays at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA through October 30, 2022.