The Quality of Life

Ted Barker as Neil, Sindu Singh as Dinah, CJ Smith, Bonnie DeChant as Jeanette. All photos by Grizzly De Haro.

More and more, the United States is becoming a house divided – blue states versus red states.  Profound differences in fundamental values, from civil and women’s rights to gun control, rupture the connective tissue of the body politic.

Jane Anderson’s “The Quality of Life” depicts this schism within a family, and it feels even more pertinent today than at its premiere in 2007.  How “today” are family rifts resulting from moral/religious differences as well as the loss of virtually all material possessions due to a California home being consumed by wildfire?

Altarena Playhouse’s production of this biting drama, directed by Katina Psihos Letheule and with set design by R. “Dutch” Fritz, is outstanding.  An amazing foursome of wonderfully-cast actors deliver remarkable and memorable performances to a provocative script that especially resonates with Bay Area audiences.

Sindu Singh as Dinah, CJ Smith as Bill.

While the term quality-of-life registers with most people, its ambiguity derives from the fact that each person’s criteria for it will differ.  Despite the hardship associated with Jeanette and Neil’s losing their Berkeley hills home, the playwright may be suggesting that the involuntary return to nature dictated by their current situation has regenerative and other benefits.  Although some aspects of quality-of-life may be difficult to measure, most will be physical attributes such as number of sunny days a year or availability of public transport.  But the socio-political differences between the two couples in the play also suggest that the emotional effect of being in an environment with people of like thinking is important.

Dinah and her husband Bill have suffered a tragedy, and Dinah feels it would be a good time to get away from their home in Ohio and reconnect with her Bay Area cousin, Jeanette.  Meanwhile, Jeanette and Neil are living in an off-the-grid yurt on their charred property.

The reunion reveals love and conflict within and between the couples, each pair with their resolute philosophical views of how life should be lived.  The playwright exposes a raft of issues to contemplate – faith, ecology, life cycles, renewal, bonding, and letting go.  She endows her characters with distinctiveness, particularly in the nature and strength of their moral convictions.

Tension is continuously palpable from the opening scene when Bill shows his disrespect of Dinah by leafing through the newspaper while she tries to engage him in conversation.  But throughout, humorous asides cool the temperature and keep the taut, serious drama from being depressing. 

Bonnie DeChant as Jeanette, Ted Barker as Neil.

In large measure, the play is comprised of four character studies.  Central to the narrative is Neil, whose body is failing him.  An appropriately ashen Ted Barker exudes confidence as a professor who believes in his rational judgment and relishes intellectual exchange, even though his mind is made up on most issues.  He may even goad an opponent just for fun.

Jeanette is portrayed poignantly by Bonnie DeChant, as one who looks and acts like a maturing hippie.  She’s earthy; she’s confident; and she’s reconciled to the loss of the physical representations of the couple’s 29 years of memories, instead displaying as art the remains of cameras, glass, and window frames mangled by 2000° heat from the fire.

Sindu Singh is Dinah, and the actress beautifully captures her somewhat subservient and timid but sincere and generous nature.  She actively seeks guidance from Christ and usually follows Bill’s lead, but she is not happy with the new congregation that they’ve joined and is committed to helping Jeanette.

Bonnie DeChant as Jeanette, Sindu Singh as Dinah, Ted Barker as Neil.

Finally, while CJ Smith is probably a really nice person, he performs the dogmatic, inflexible Bill to a T.  Bill believes rigorously in his own righteousness and in the Christian path.  He questions whether non-believers can possess morality without having a guidebook for direction.  He is also troubled by the life style of Jeanette and Neil, especially pot smoking.  And as a prototype of today’s clannish conservative politician, there is no problem on earth that he can’t find a way to blame on people of persuasions different from his.  Like Dinah, he does have a giving side, but it derives from intrusion and dominance, not altruism.

As time passes, incidents arise that both bind and divide and raise more questions.  Why do tragedies sometimes promote division rather than unity?  What constitutes the sanctity of life?  Is God responsible when bad things happen to good people, or does God even exist?  Tempers flare and alliances are challenged.  In the end, Bill offers Dinah an avocado tree, and the open question is – “What will it take to grow an avocado tree in Ohio?”

“The Quality of Life” is written by Jane Anderson, produced by Altarena Playhouse, and plays on its stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through June 26, 2022.

Hat Matter: Thoughts of a Black Mad Hatter

Michael Wayne Turner III. All photos by Colin Mandlin.

The world of wardrobe fashion and fad changes endlessly.  Consider men’s dress jackets alone – from time to time, the mode has been two-button, three-button, thin lapel, wide lapel, double breasted, Nehru, unstructured, and more.  But in the 21st century, dressing up had already fallen into secular decline, then exacerbated by the pandemic and an accelerated rate of work from home.

Yet, pockets of contrarianism exist.  An exemplar of an atypical commitment to fashion is a self-proclaimed Black Dandy – Michael Wayne Turner III, the Black Mad Hatter.  To him, stylish dress is not only an aesthetic preference but a sociological statement of defiance.

In this one-man show, Turner is surrounded on stage by his own wardrobe.  While he tinkers with his clothing for much of the hour of the performance, the title of the show is still somewhat of a misnomer.  Fashion is clearly central to his personality, and the script reveals his personality.  However, he discusses fashion a bit, but sartorial matters act as a springboard for his storytelling and socio-philosophical thoughts.

And spring he does.  Turner is a veritable whirlwind of motion as he regales the audience with his own words – a series of many vignettes delivered variously as prose, poetry, and hip-hop-like lyrics.  They are an amalgam of social commentaries that he delivers with electrical charge.  His enthusiastic emotionalism and provocative thoughts induce audience involvement in a lively call-and-response atmosphere, often associated with African-American religious services.

The author/performer’s dominant and most emotive theme concerns race, which elicits the most vocal response from the audience.  He begins by asking the question “What do you think?” which deals with the issue of the great racial divide, the prejudice in the perceptions of White people about Blacks.  It prompts the thought, why is it that so many people and societies identify by color of skin.  In a more specific account, about the tragic and lawless practice of lynching, he honors the Billie Holliday popularized song “Strange Fruit” with his own ruminations.

Turner also looks at the macro issue of economics in the piece “What’s wrong with the world?”  He presents the humanist argument that much of the poverty and fault in the world derives from the vast concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of few self-interested individuals.  The imbalances cause fractures in all institutions in society including government, education, and justice.  Of course, these dysfunctions lead to further racial disparities.  At the other extreme, Turner includes personal stories from the very special relationship of a newborn with its mother to the first time he experienced getting beaten up – because of mistaken identity.

On a line-by-line basis, the text of “Hat Matter:…” is dramatic and compelling.  Audiences will find much to cheer and reflect upon.  Some tracts may seem stream of consciousness and disjointed, but overall, the language is colorful and riveting, and the thoughts are profound.

“Hat Matter: Thoughts of a Black Mad Hatter,” written by Michael Wayne Turner III, played on the stage of Oakland Theater Project at Flax Art & Design, 1501 Martin Luther King Way, Oakland, CA in May, 2022.

Pique Dame

Michael Boley as Hermann and Rhoslyn Jones as Liza. All photos by Otak Jump.

Few classical composers can claim a substantial portfolio in both instrumental music and opera.  In the United States, Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky is best known for his distinguished ballet music, “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” as well as great symphonic pieces such as his “Symphony No. 5,” and “Piano Concerto No. 1”.  Tchaikovsky also wrote 11 operas, several of which remain immensely popular in Slavic countries.

Despite the difficulty of casting Russian language opera, two are present in the American repertoire, “Eugene Onegin” and “Pique Dame” (“Queen of Spades” in English).  Although the former premiered 11 years earlier than the latter, they share the same DNA, including source material derived from Alexander Pushkin.  Thematically, both involve military officers, unconsummated love, lethal gunfire, and untimely deaths of principals.  Musically, their haunting Russianness draws on folk music, sharing similar idioms and phrases, yielding common overarching sound adorned with uncommon poignancy.

Jonathan Beyer as Prince Yeletsky, Jason Beaman as Chekalinsky, Matthew Lovell as Surin, Kiril Havezov as Tomsky, Michael Boley as Hermann.

Gaming occurs in numerous operas, usually to create an ambiance or to elaborate a main character’s character, sometimes as an addictive personality.  In “Pique Dame,” gambling acts as the central metaphor of casting one’s fate to the vagueries of chance.   Uniquely, the title of the opera is represented by one symbol-laden playing card.

Hermann, a seemingly virtuous but poor army officer, often visits the casino with friends but only as an observer.  Upon falling in love with Liza, he finds that she is the granddaughter of the Countess and therefore above his station.  Dedicating his life to becoming rich enough to marry Liza, he learns that the Countess extricated her way out of extensive gambling debts by betting on an irrefutably successful sequence of three numbers.  But that supernatural bestowal carried threatening conditions.  In his obsession to learn the sequence, Hermann’s morality is compromised, and Liza questions whether he still loves her or is only interested in the money or the quest itself.

A suitably doleful Michael Boley portrays the desperate Hermann.  In a role that challenges in vocal complexity, he also sings in every scene.  From his first significant set piece, the aria leading to a duet with his friend Tomsky, “I don’t even know her name,” Boley displays both range and power.  Early on at opening night, his voice seemed to lack full melodiousness, but it sounded richer as the evening progressed, and he redeemed himself well.

Maria Kaganskaya as Polina, Rhoslyn Jones as Liza, chorus member.

As the object of Hermann’s affection, Liza is played by Rhoslyn James.  With some exception, the tessitura of Liza’s part in early scenes is middle range, which plays well to James’ big, round vocalization in that realm.  Her duet with Polina, “Tis evening, the edges of the clouds have darkened” and her ambivalent aria about loving two men “But why these tears?” both demonstrate her easy power.  Range demands increase later in the opera, leading to her beautiful rendition of Liza’s evocative signature aria in Act 3, “Ah, I am worn out by grief.”

Tchaikovsky is at the top of his opera game in “Pique Dame.”  His plaintive and phantasmic sound, often relying on the reeds and large strings, suits the ghostly elements of the script.  The story line compels as we see Hermann’s obsession take hold, and considerable tension created.  The principal action is complemented by orchestral interludes and extensive use of chorus.  To make the setting more exotic to then contemporary audiences, the composer moved the action back to the 18th century.  In a gesture to classicism and particularly Mozart, he not only mentions that composer by name, but he includes a pastiche pastoral play-within-a-play, “The Faithful Shepherdess,” which also includes a fine female duet.

Laure de Marcellus as The Countess.

Producing this opera is among the many courageous decisions by General Director and Conductor José Luis Moscovich to extend the repertoire of his audience.  This production offers a delightful experience and everything an attendee of regional opera should expect.  That said, there are certainly pluses and minuses to note.  The secondary principal cast members, too many to mention, uniformly meet or exceed expectations.  Most had appealing and sometimes surprisingly strong voices, and they offered many highlights, as Tchaikovsky spread the wealth around.  The choristers have room for improvement, but they convey the music and the tone well.  Kudos to the large number of women, men, and children for participating in a work with considerable choral content that must be learned by most singers as nonsense syllables.

On the design side, Peter Crompton has established an excellent and efficient scenic formula for West Bay Opera productions that includes multilevel forestage; extensive projections as side walls and backdrops; and a few sticks of movable furniture.  These sets are handsome and make the staging appear complete. A number of projections are used, but in some instances, they fail to reflect the spaces they are supposed to represent – bedroom and barracks scenes, for instance.  Abra Berman also deserves a nod for capturing an appropriate look and for the sheer volume of costumes required for this production, which alone ornament the stage with a period appearance.  One exception is that the outer tunics of the military outfits lack appropriate decoration or distinction and thus don’t capture the feel of dress uniforms.

Women’s and Men’s choruses.

As indicated earlier, this is an opera that opera lovers will love.  It is a deserving production that can be thoroughly enjoyed.

“Pique Dame,” composed by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky with libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky, after a novella of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, is produced by West Bay Opera and plays at Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through May 29, 2022.

Monument, Or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play)

Rinabeth Apostol, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Sango Tajima. All photos by Jay Yamada.

I know.  Your first question will be “What’s with that name?”  Each of the three elements in the title reflects something of significance in the play.  It wouldn’t be my choice, but at least you can say that it represents the many layered nature of the narrative.  Playwright Sam Chanse has created a highly involving entertainment in this world premiere, propelled by the dual engines of humor and empathy.  Vignettes touch on a veritable compendium of issues that women face in life while mixing in a big dollop of environmentalism.  Its most significant weaknesses are that it can seem a little preachy and that unseen male characters are uniformly flawed or bad.  However, an otherwise fine script and an outstanding production yield a highly pleasing result.

Four API-American (that’s Asia Pacific Islander) sisters comprise the dramatis personae and the centrality of the story line.  Erin Mei-Ling Stuart is Amy, a marine biologist who not only has the most successful career of the sisters, but acts as the family anchor, always empathetic and ready to help.  Rinabeth Apostol portrays Constance.  She writes for animated children’s television programs but isn’t always happy about some of the concessions that she must make in depictions of female and minority characters.  Sango Tajima is Mac, the youngest of the group.  Although she was very happy in a job that she had held for years, she left under undisclosed circumstances and has been living at Amy’s house while she seeks a new way forward.  Finally, Lisa Hori-Garcia plays Lina, the mystery sister who rarely stays in touch.  Although she has a career in the arts world, her husband plans to move to a community where there would be no call for her professional skills.

Sango Tajima, Rinabeth Apostol.

Rather than a forward moving plot, “Monument…..” is more a well-assembled kaleidoscope of unfolding episodes that reveals its characters.  Themes of the uphill battles that women face include male priority and dominance, starting often with their fathers; sexual harassment; unfair behavioral standards, and more.  But while the topics aren’t new, their depictions are fresh.

Constance makes keen observations about gender discrimination that a man is usually less aware of than a woman.  She discusses the delightful animated movie “Ratatouille,” in which a Paris rat becomes an esteemed chef.  That’s okay, but her beef is that all of his sewer rat associates are voiced by males, which is probably unnoticed by most viewers.  Her point – if they were all females instead, the audience would undoubtedly wonder if they killed off all of the male rats.  She also notes that in the animated series that she writes for, the heroine, Magdalena, is the only female.  But Constance bemoans that Magdalena is characterized as expert in many endeavors in order to establish her credibility with viewers, whereas a man wouldn’t need all those qualifications in order to be the hero.

Erin Mei-Ling Stuart.

Two of the sisters’ professional activities tie into the ecological aspects of the story.  The characters in Constance’s animated adventure series are sloths, and audience of the play is regaled with the symbiosis and vulnerability that results from sloth’s pooping!  In addition, Amy gives lectures on coral building, which also depends on symbiosis, as well as the death of coral by bleaching, which comes from the collapse of fragile natural relationships.

“Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play)” is a delight.  The playwright introduces topics of great moment and invests them with an apt balance of poignancy and hilarity.  She has created lively and complex characters that we are drawn to, and who are played with consummate skill by a wonderful cast that exude emotions as varied as playfulness and gravity from the script as required.

Rinabeth Apostol, Sango Tajima, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart.

In addition, Magic’s production, deftly and richly directed by Giovanna Sardelli, turns the play into a multidimensional confection.  All of the creative designers add to the splendid outcome, however two have the most visible impact.  Sarah Phykitt’s videos are very active throughout, but those of the animated television program clips are particularly striking.  In conjunction with those video diversions, costume designer Michelle Mulholland excels.   The four actors play the comic sloths Magdalena and her male followers on the stage in costumes that fit the silliness of the skits.

“Monument, or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play)” is a world premiere written by Sam Chanse, produced by Magic Theatre, and plays on its stage at Fort Mason, Bldg. D, 2 Marine Blvd., San Francisco, CA through May 29, 2022.