Master Class

Libby Oberlin as Maria Callas. All photos by Miller Oberlin.

Maria Callas didn’t have the most beautiful voice among sopranos of her era.  She certainly was not the most beautiful of women.  But with a powerful presence and an astonishing set of operatic skills, she was as esteemed and remembered a diva as ever set foot on stage.  Playwright Terrence McNally’s paean to Callas is less a dramatic narrative than a platform for a virtuoso performance by an actress capable of displaying La Davina’s charisma and self-absorption.  That a cavalcade of iconic actresses have inhabited the mantel on Broadway and beyond speaks to the vitality of the role.  Those grande dames include Zoe Caldwell (who won a Tony), Patti LuPone, Tyne Daly, Faye Dunaway, and locally at Berkeley Rep, Rita Moreno.

John Partridge as The Pianist, Rob Kaywin-Dornaus as Tony, Libby Oberlin as Callas.

Sonoma Arts Live offers an absolutely delightful rendering of this chamber play.  In the lead role, Libby Oberlin captures the glamor, dominance, humor, and candid self-reflection of the great Callas.  Oberlin commands the stage as she alternately intimidates and charms students, her accompanist, and a stagehand.  She also engages patrons directly, frequently breaking the fourth wall, and connecting so closely with widened eyes and grand gestures that it seems she might step off the stage into the audience.  Her dramatically-accented speech (Callas was born in and spent her first 13 years in New York City) is peppered with French and Italian vocabulary and punctuated with nasalous “aahs” grunted for emphasis.  The part is non-singing, but when Oberlin recites Italian lyrics, her voice is melodious; her accent is convincing; and her depiction of passion for opera is searing.

Emily Owens Evans as Sophie, Libby Oberlin as Callas.

As suggested by the title of the play, Callas evaluates the performances of hopeful opera singers.  But her guidance derives less from commenting on technical sound production and more on everything that goes before the opening note.  She castigates the students for everything from not knowing the history of an opera to the emotional state of the character to how they enter the stage.  Throughout, she reminisces.  She bemoans her ugly duckling childhood; draws strength from surviving World War II in German-occupied Greece; resents much of her relationship with Aristotle Onassis; but glories in her successes on the greatest operatic stages and revels in her rivalries with other great sopranos of her day.

Three young singers appear before the diva.  Each possesses a strong voice and the acting ability to play off Oberlin’s indominable insistence as Callas.  Emily Owens Evans plays Sophie, the diffident ingenue, a sweet-voiced lyric soprano, who sings Amina’s lovely aria and cabaletta from Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”  The always smiling, confident, and somewhat bumptious tenor Rob Kaywin-Dornaus sings Puccini’s beautiful “Recondita Armonia” from“Tosca.”  Of course, his presence prompts Callas’s tenor jokes.  Finally, Morgan Harrington portrays Sharon, a dramatic soprano who, after the typical needling from Callas, nails Lady Macbeth’s aria from Verdi’s “Macbeth.”  The arias are a benefaction to the ear and much of Callas’s criticism is highly instructive.

Morgan Harrington as Sharon, Libby Oberlin as Callas.

In her brilliant but too short career, Callas was blessed with a number of signature roles and arias.  But perhaps the most fitting aria, which closes the program, is the one that most closely reflected her own life – Florio Tosca’s plaintive plea to the villain Scarpia “Vissi d’arte,” (I lived for art).

“Master Class,” written by Terrence McNally, is produced by Sonoma Arts Live and plays at Sonoma Community Center, 276 Napa Street, Sonoma, CA through February 27, 2022.

Men on Boats

Cast. All photos by Scott Lasky.

Somehow, the theatrical stage doesn’t seem quite the right venue for depicting a historic, path-finding river expedition of several hundred miles that includes countless rapids and waterfalls and that traverses the world’s largest canyon.  But by leaving much to the playgoer’s imagination, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus came up with a solution in her play “Men on Boats.”  She figured – what if we present the action without boats and without a river and with only rudimentary set and props?  And just for fun, how about as a final conceit that we eliminate the men?  So, there you have it – a cast of all females and non-binaries with bare-bones staging, and the curtain can be raised.

The year is 1869, and while a few Native American and small Mormon settlements exist in Southern Utah, the Colorado River, and its main tributary, the Green River, have not been successfully navigated and charted by the white man.  President Ulysses S. Grant has commissioned his friend Major John Wesley Powell to lead an otherwise volunteer expedition of nine geographers and geologists to do just that.  If your synapses are burning to link the Major with the manmade Lake Powell on the Colorado River, you have made the right connection.  That still doesn’t tell you whether he completed the trip or if the expedition succeeded.  You have to go to the play or read the history for that answer.

Mary Melnick as Major John Wesley Powell, Melissa Jones as William Dunn.

The first observation to make about the play, which is not a criticism, but an interesting bemusement, is the disorientation that may result from the playwright’s casting specification.  The actors are predominately female females (word repetition borrowed from the song “I Enjoy Being a Girl” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song”).  The observer may be whipsawed between a) perceiving the action as truly an expedition of courageous women, and b) trying to push through that surface to grasp the men underneath who they represent.  I even found myself making gender errors in my drafting this review.  With swagger and a lowered voice, Mary Melnick as the one-armed Major Powell (just the body configuration you want for the grasp and balance needed to run rapids!) comes the closest to neutralizing the casting anomaly.  But, of course, the whole idea is to create the tension of the untested.

The play merges adventure and drama with comedy.  While vignettes often include at least one of those attributes, there are some that lack any of them, rendering those periods a bit slow.   Among the best amalgams are the explorers confronting the most perilous challenges on the river.   The four boats are represented by prows that are carried by the lead rower in each.  As the men maneuver the hazards, boats and their contents are violently heaved and corkscrewed to the blood-curdling screams and flailing of crew against the indominable crashing of water and intransigeance of rocks.  The viewer’s optimism that the boatsmen will conquer nature tempers the anxiety of the visual chaos with humor. That said, these recurring episodes did become a bit repetitious.


Some surprisingly subtle moments also occur.  In what the movies call a reaction shot, the display of awe as the crew views the Grand Canyon after weeks of torment is quite touching.  Later, and not knowing how far or how long they had to get through the canyon, provisions run low and risks run high. A splinter group led by the divisive William Dunn, played very demonstrably by Melissa Jones, reveals that they plan to leave the expedition by climbing out of the canyon to try to find a settlement.  The humanity of the whole expedition party that shared danger and hardship but now divides in outlook is moving.  Finally, the quiet is punctuated several times throughout with the haunting and penetrating acapella singing of Maria Mikheyenko, who plays Old Shady, the older brother of Major Powell.

Among the humorous incidents, Hawkins, as portrayed by the lively Katie O’Bryon Champlin, confronts his first ever hissing, coiling rattlesnake.  Coffee pot in hand, he beats it to oblivion.  Stepping away, he returns to obliterate it further.  In a final return, he pulverizes it to make absolutely sure that the snake is dead beyond revival.  This reviewer can verify from personal experience that the process Hawkins follows is absolutely authentic, except that a hoe is a much preferred weapon to a coffee pot.


While Palo Alto Players’ rendition of “Men on Boats” is not a perfect production of a perfect play, it does provide entertainment and stimulation.  Give credit to Director Lee Ann Payne for her interpretation and execution.  Apart from the immediacy of the camaraderie and challenges that the adventurers encounter, it provokes broader issues.  One wonders how the play would compare with a male cast.  Could it be as lighthearted?  As sensitive?  More importantly and in real life, one thinks about what it would have been like if women had the opportunity to mount such an expedition.

“Men on Boats” is written by Jaclyn Backhaus, produced by Palo Alto Players, and plays at Lucie Stern Community Center Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through February 20, 2022.

The Kind Ones

Anne Darragh, Kian Johnson (in shadows). All photos by Jay Yamada.

Solitude, especially in isolation, can engender eccentric and dangerous behaviors.  At one extreme, simple daily activities can become elaborate and self-indulgent rituals that consume time.  At the other, they can be perfunctory exercises that satisfy function rather than aesthetics.  The Biblically- inspired adage suggests that “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” and the same could be said of idle minds.  With time to spare, mischief finds Miranda Rose Hall’s central character in this compact, 70 minute, two-hander. 

Nellie is a 60ish widow in rural Montana who operates a small pig farm, and who slaughters her stock whenever she receives an order from her marketplace.  She came to this work late in life, as she was sidetracked by the unfortunate circumstance of murdering her abusive husband and serving 20 years in prison for it.  Having been a seemingly middle-class woman of reasonable intelligence and social stature, incarceration has left its imprint.

Anne Darragh.

The formidable Anne Darragh embraces the role of Nellie with total authority, understanding her contradictions.  In many ways, her role is a stereotypical male character, the courageous, self-sufficient hermit.  Physically, she slumps, disheveled, with sloppy clothes and unkempt hair that she often runs her hand over.  Her recurring repast is canned peaches, mushed banana, and Saltine crackers.  Yet her kitchen is as neat as a pin, with peach cans neatly stacked on the counter and dishes organized on the open shelves.  And perhaps in a nod to her pre-prison memories, she uses a rotary telephone!

An unexpected knock on the door reveals Fitz, the young adult child of Nellie’s lawyer, Frank, who had moved to Washington state after defending her.  Fitz has responded to a flyer that Nellie had sent Frank to show that she was in business, but apparently, in combination with vague conversations that she’d had with Frank, Nellie ends up in a bind and accepts engaging in illicit activity with Fitz.

Kian Johnson.

As an aside, note that Fitz is written as a transmasculine man and is portrayed effectively by Kian Johnson, a transmasculine man.  Although the character’s transgenderism is revealed in the script, the role has no inherently gender-specific qualities.  Perhaps the playwright admirably chose this characterization in recognition of the abuse (like Nellie) that transgenders suffer and/or to promote opportunity for the marginalized.  And if transgenders represent a small, yet underrepresented, population, transmasculines are a small percentage of that small percentage.

Fitz offers a huge contrast in style with Nellie.  Trim and spiffy, he is a barista with a college education, if majoring in digital poetry qualifies.  But in pursuing an uneasy partnership, trust between the two grows until the moral underpinnings of the narrative emerge.  The dramatic tension rises when the two diverge on what is good and what is evil.  Are evil actions redeemable if they produce good outcomes?  Further, when can we rely on the word of others to guide our own actions?  Are we accountable if we don’t help others when given the chance?

Kian Johnson, Anne Darragh.

The play is well done and the story has merit, though I appreciated it more on reflection than at the time.  It may not be to the liking of those who object to some of the coarseness or the morality of the characters, but that is a diminishing segment of the population.  Staging is effective.  Tanya Orellana’s single set conveys the kitchen and eating areas nicely, though the outdoor scenes, including slaughtering are left to the imagination.  Christopher Michael Sauceda’s sound design conveys everything from rich Americana music to the final mournful protests of pigs.  Lisa Peterson’s direction is resourceful and hits all the right notes.

“The Kind Ones” is a world premiere written by Miranda Rose Hall, produced by Magic Theatre, and plays on their stage at Fort Mason; Building D; 2 Marina Blvd.; San Francisco, CA through February 20, 2022.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning

Josh Schell, Susi Damilano, Wera von Wolfen, Johnny Moreno. All photos by Jessica Palipoli.

Reunions provide great grist for drama.  Before and after snapshots of the participants offer scope for character development as they reminisce, revealing not only their shared glories but often how differently those events are remembered.  As layers of the onion unpeel, secrets are divulged.  We see how some characters move on, while others remain defined by the past.

In Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” four friends converge seven years after graduation to celebrate the installation of a favorite professor as the new president of a fictitious small Catholic university in Wyoming.  The playwright knows whereof he speaks, as his father held the same post at the real institution after which the fictional one is modeled.

The script is built around verbal sparring, punctuated by bombastic polemics.  Rather than the generalistic, unsupported claims that dominate debate in real life, the arguments are largely supported by academic and religious sources.  The play itself is riveting, but not always enjoyable, while the production is world-class, with exemplary performances by each member of a fantastic cast and fine direction and scenic design by Bill English.

Josh Schell, Ash Malloy.

One discussion point about the play is that the playwright’s intent is to introduce the liberal-leaning theater crowd to conservatives that are full-featured and even likeable.  Judge for yourself.  The action occurs outside the country cabin of Justin (Johnny Moreno), a dark and moody gun-loving libertarian who seems like he could erupt at any time.  His affable college roommate, Kevin (Josh Schell), sells religious books in Oklahoma.  The actor admirably appears drunk for the full two hours and fifteen minutes during which his general weakness and specific neediness for a girlfriend arises again and again.

The angelic Emily (Wera von Wulfen) has suffered constant and sometimes incapacitating pain for several years from deer tick fever.   To liberals, she is the golden hope who befriends and respects others with different opinions.  Her foil, and the pivotal character, is Teresa (Ash Malloy), now living in Brooklyn.  An exemplar of Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer,” her identity is absorbed by conservative, nay, reactionary Catholicism.  She sets the rules and brooks no compromise, for instance, insisting on calling abortion supporters murderers.  As fanatical and fractious an advocate as she is for her beliefs, one could see her being just as passionate for communism, ecology, or anything else she was exposed to at the right developmental point.  A late arrival to the party, the incoming president, Gina (Susi Damilano), relates cordially to her former students, but still uses the power of position to dominate when necessary and promote principle with compromise.

Susi Damilano.

Many liberals may find the early part of the play particularly depressing with its unrelenting reinforcement of an alienating philosophy.  Oddly, seeing a parallel scenario taking place in Hindu India or Moslem Egypt might be better received by the left-leaning as exotic, educational, and non-threatening.  But to those not closely exposed to the resolute and divisive thinking of what could be considered extremism within our midst, there might be a sense of dismay.

Over time, the discussion turns to even more disturbing views, but counterpoint is also rendered.  The desirability of empathy is questioned in the play.  Paradoxically, San Francisco Playhouse promotes itself as the Empathy Gym.  Racism is cloaked in deceptive garb, but antipathy for LGBT is not.  Whites, and particularly Catholics, are presented as martyrs (maybe they haven’t observed the composition of the Supreme Court, Congress, the Presidency, or corporate America).  Attributions to non-Catholics’ motivations are horrifying.  A torturously feeble defense of supporting the anti-Christ, Donald Trump, is given.  And there is more.  Perhaps one reason that the United States seems to be losing its way as a society is that a significant portion of the population views another portion as the enemy more so than threats like Russia and Covid.  We may realize that the thoughts of these characters do occur, but to see vivid depictions of well-educated young people harboring these thoughts is chilling.

Although the setting clearly draws from the playwright’s own experience, its symbolism cannot be ignored.  Wyoming is the least populated and one of the most isolated states in the country.  Its people are among those who consider themselves to be the real Americans, despite the fact that the state is grossly unrepresentative and has been a net recipient rather than contributor to the nation’s economic and intellectual health.  It serves as an ideal crucible for segregation and indoctrination that might be associated with a parochial school.

Johnny Moreno, Wera von Wulfen, Ash Malloy.

Finally, there is the matter of the title of the play.  It derives from the book “Generations” by William Strauss and Neil Howe.  The authors postulate in great, but highly questionable, detail that cycles of history with four phases repeat every 80-90 years.  Certainly, the notion of cycles has its own long history and is loosely demonstrable.  The question is whether the theory should be observed in order to understand current events or whether it should be accepted as deterministic and allowed to dictate our actions in order to fulfill its prophecy.

“Heroes of the Fourth Turning” is well produced; highly provocative; dense with scholarly detail; and even has a few unexpected turnings of its own.  But be prepared for something that may be outside your normal comfort zone.

“Heroes of the Fourth Turning” is written by Will Arbery, produced by San Francisco Playhouse, and plays on its stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through March 5, 2022.