Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Full cast. Above (men) Jared Lee as Anatole, Corey Bryant as Balaga, Nicholas Rodrigues as Dolokhov, Stephen Guggenheim as Pierre, F. James Raasch as Prince Andrey. Below (women) Juanita Harris as Hélène, Annie Hunt as Sonya, Susan Gundunas as Marya, Paloma Maia Aisenberg as Natasha, Osher Fine as Princess Mary. All photos by Scott Donschikowski.

In a generic sense, the apotheosis of the 19th century’s Romantic Age occurred in Russia.  Passionate, dreamy love prevailed in the higher social classes, not just in courtship, but in highly popular illicit relationships.  Heroic individualism, evidenced by bold actions such as dueling and suicide, were admired.  Poetry was sublime and emotional, dominated by Pushkin, whose death exemplified romanticism as he happened to be killed in a duel by his wife’s lover.  Lush melodiousness infused serious music, led by composers Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Into this socio-intellectual environment, one of the greatest minds of that or any age emerged – Leo Tolstoy.  His epic novel “War and Peace” is noted as one of the most profound, respected pieces in world literature.  Contemporary author and composer Dave Malloy took Part 8 of the great tome, which offers considerable insight into Russian culture of the time, as the basis for an award-winning musical “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.”  It is now given a handsome, ingenious, and entertaining production by San Jose Playhouse.

Annie Hunt as Sonya, Paloma Maia Aisenberg as Natasha.

The simple storyline centers on Natasha, betrothed to Prince Andrey, who has been sent to fight against Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  But when she visits Moscow, Natasha is taken with womanizer Anatole, and decides to abandon Andrey for the more glamorous option.  Things don’t go as planned. The end.

Of course, events occur along the way.  We meet a number of friends, relatives, and social acquaintances.  In fact, the composer uses a clever device at the outset with a jaunty song in which characters introduce and give brief summaries of themselves.  Later, there is a duel, an attempted suicide, intrigue, betrayal, and everything you would expect from a 19th century Russian novel.

Osher Fine and Corey Bryant as harlequin dancers.

The cast is talented and spirited, imbuing their characters with distinct personalities.  The principal role is that of Natasha, portrayed by Paloma Maia Aisenberg, who invests it with smiling, youthful charm, though she will suffer angst from her choices as the narrative progresses.  She sings with great confidence and skill for the greater part, but does sag a bit at times.  Stephen Guggenheim exhibits a strong singing voice and a reserved countenance as the solid but stolid Pierre.  The other key role is that of Anatole, which Jared Lee plays with the appropriate strut of a peacock and smirk of a seducer.  He displays great vocal range but sounded thin in parts at this performance.  In the ensemble, Corey Bryant deserves recognition for his bright showing in several roles from troika driver to harlequin dancer in an appealing pas de deux.

In the operatic manner, this play is sung-through, though there is a fair bit of talk-sing and lyrics that are asymmetric to the music.  The music is appealing throughout and highly gemischt, in keeping with the quick changes of mood and players as the scenes whiz by.   To give a period feel, there is plenty of mournful Slavic/gypsy/klezmer influence, led by wailing woodwinds and accordions.  But contemporary genres dominate, with the composer drawing on indie rock, Broadway, and even bluesy forms.  The score mostly invigorates and brightens the tone, including some spontaneous clap-along, but the house was conspicuously hushed for the sensitive and lovely duet by the title characters at the climax.

Stephen Guggenheim as Pierre, Jared Lee as Anatole.

The impressive production, adeptly directed by Scott Evan Guggenheim, is full of moving parts requiring extensive effort and coordination.   A large number of vignettes are performed by an ensemble cast, with over two dozen musical numbers (Musical Director Stephen Guggenheim), many of which are choreographed with energetic dance by Shannon Guggenheim.  The action takes place on Jon Gourdine’s attractive and versatile stage design, with dramatic lighting by Gourdine as well.  The stage itself includes staircases and a catwalk, but action is further extended by a runway that goes into the seats and tees to the side aisles, facilitating considerable movement, dance, and intimacy with the audience.  Finally, Julie Englebrecht’s costumes complete the look – women in Empire-waist dresses and men in military-styled tunics and cutaways, many with gold buttons and piping.

So, you might wonder about the title.  If Natasha’s love interest shifts from Andrey to Anatole, where does Pierre fit in?  Good question.  Pierre is an older man who married Anatole’s disreputable sister, Hélène.  Her interest in Pierre was for money and stability, and Pierre’s relationship with Natasha is as a consoler, so it is unclear why his name is linked in the title.  Similarly, reference to The Great Comet occurs only at the very end of the play and can symbolize both destruction and renewal.  It seems to appear in the title simply because it is catchy, and to give more gravitas to the play.  Incidentally, the very real, spectacular comet was visible from earth for 260 days, but all within the year 1811.  Possibly 1812 sounds more impressive and provides stronger historical connections because of Tchaikovsky’s popular “1812 Overture” and the War of 1812 between the U.S. and England.

Corey Bryant as Balaga and cast.

“Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” with book, music, and lyrics by Dave Malloy, is based on Part 8 of the novel “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, is produced by Guggenheim Entertainment and plays for San Jose Playhouse at 3Below Theaters, 288 South Second Street, San Jose, CA through May 28, 2023.

Tosca – Opera San José

Maria Natale as Tosca. All photos by David Allen.

Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” seems to be the most produced opera in the Bay Area these days, with at least four versions playing within six months in 2023.  It has been one of the most performed operas in the world for over a century.  There is a good reason for that.  Beautiful music delights from curtain rise to fall, starting with the resounding orchestral chords of the Scarpia theme, and punctuated by memorable arias and powerful ensembles. Opera San José offers a beautifully staged and performed rendering that sears with passion.

The verismo-styled drama about real people is intense, and the stakes could not be higher.  It is no secret to opera lovers that the four critical characters in the action will die separately and violently.  To readers less familiar with the genre, let it be said that there are no spoilers in opera. 

Kidon Choi as Scarpia.

Puccini’s fascination with women and with their singing voices is evident in his oeuvre.  Of his eight full length operas, the title character is female in six.  The title is sometimes symbolic or metaphorical, as in “Madame Butterfly,” “La Rondine,” or “Girl of the Golden West.”  In the case of “Tosca,” it is not only bold and direct, but she displays an unusually broad array of thoughts, motives, and behaviors.  Has Puccini endowed any other heroine with the full range of emotions and the corresponding singing styles, which run the gamut from tender lyricism to scorching drama?

Into the role of Floria Tosca steps Maria Natale, and her time has come.  Although young by opera standards, she demonstrates that she can do it all.  From her entrance into the San Andrea della Valle church and her duet with lover Mario Cavaradossi, who is painting a Madonna portrait for the church, Natale reveals a sweet and mellifluous lyricism, which aligns with her perky mien.  Concerned that her lover may have another relationship on the side, even her pixyish jealousy is represented by lighthearted entreaties and coy little smiles.

Maria Natale as Tosca, Adrian Kramer as Cavaradossi.

It is hard to believe that in the following act, she will become a hardened, brazen murderer.  But Chief of Police Baron Scarpia has had Cavaradossi imprisoned and tortured. Scarpia’s price for granting his release is that he has his way with Tosca, so when she sees the opportunity to stab the villain to death, she avails herself.  In her Act 2 duets with the male principals as well as in their trio, Natale’s high wire singing shows the opposite end of her versatile voice.  At high range and full volume, with the piercing voice of the kind expected of a Wagnerian soprano, she is nonetheless smooth and listenable.  Very impressive.

Puccini wrote only one memorable aria for Tosca, but “Vissi d’arte” is one of the touchstones of any soprano’s canon.  Natale delivers it with exquisite skill.  However, the artistic decision was made to sing with full emotion from the first note.  Stylistically, it benefits from starting as a plaintive lament with a crescendo to full throttle.

Maria Natale as Tosca, Kidon Choi as Scarpia.

Cavaradossi is portrayed by Adrian Kramer, and his voice suits the role well.  Hardly has the music begun when he renders the lovely “Recondita armonia.”   Some opera afficionados, particularly those who lean toward the German repertory, may find his Italianate manner that corresponds to a country twang in American music, a bit emotive, but it is highly expressive and melodious.  The tenor’s other highlight, handled with great conviction, comes as he faces execution.  “E lucevan le stelle” exudes sorrow with the interplay of the condemned man’s voice and the mournful clarinet.

Kidon Choi portrays Scarpia, a cruel and vindictive official on the opposite side of the political divide from the other principal figures.  At the start, Choi’s baritone voice seems a little choppy, and he doesn’t display the lecherousness of Scarpia as broadly as he could.  But by the time he sings his signature piece, the powerful “Te Deum (Va, Tosca)” at the end of Act 1, his voice is in full flower and remains so until his death.  A final singer to recognize is bass, Robert Balonek, who plays Angelotti, a friend of Cavaradossi and an escapee from political incarceration.  Though the part is small, this character has profound impact on the proceedings, as his breakout and hiding in the church triggers the downfall of all of the principals.  Balonek sings the role with unfailing power and accuracy.

Adrian Kramer as Cavaradossi.

Some of Director Tara Branham’s artistic decisions in this “Tosca” that fall outside the constraints of the libretto are unconventional.  Cavaradossi is shown actually having a tryst, presumably with the model for his Madonna painting.  Scarpia’s office includes a bed, which will play a role in the action.  Also, some of the singing is done in a stand-and-deliver concert version style, from the front apron and facing the audience rather than characters facing one another.  This benefits sound projection but at the price of dramatic realism.  Nonetheless, the production excels.  The singing sizzles; the action compels; and the staging impresses.  Steven C. Kemp’s scenery depicting the church includes beautiful arched colonnades and expansive murals, while the Act 3 parapet of the execution includes an imposing statue of the Angel of Death that commands the scene.

“Tosca,” composed by Giacomo Puccini, with libretto by Luigi Illica & Giuseppe Giacosa and based on the play “La Tosca” by Victorien Sardou, is produced by Opera San José, and plays at California Theatre, 345 South First Street, San Jose, CA through April 30, 2023.

Poor Yella Rednecks – Vietgone 2

Jomar Tagatac as playwright Qui Nguyen (He also plays Bobby, an Anglo hayseed who speaks broken Vietnamese); Jenny Nguyen Nelson as the older Tong, being interviewed by her son to tell the retrospective family story. All photos by Kevin Berne.

With his highly successful “Vietgone,” playwright Qui Nguyen, told the beginning of his family’s immigrant story, following the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War.  His equally thoughtful and humorous sequel, “Poor Yella Rednecks,” continues the family’s saga.  Amusingly, he writes himself in as a character in the play and facetiously disavows to the audience that its characters are real.

The overall narrative of “Poor Yella Rednecks” appeals, and the situations seem genuine.  Although the members of the family reveal considerable flaws, they elicit empathy, and are portrayed by a crack ensemble.  The playwright has become expert at using actors in multiple roles, and this highly talented cast rises to the occasion, showing their versatility.

Hyunmin Rhee as Quang, Jenny Nguyen Nelson as Tong.

Like many immigrants, Quang finds that American streets are not paved with gold and that foreign training and experience often don’t translate.  A helicopter pilot in the South Vietnam Air Force, he now works menial jobs in the redneck town of El Dorado, Arkansas.  His wife, Tong, is attractive, but lacks education and English language competence.  Each has trigger traits that will cause division in their future.  Quang suffers vulnerability to a sin of the flesh.  Tong’s tripwire results from her own integrity and assertiveness.  She finds it hard to hold a job for long, as she tends to slap customers and bosses when they take uninvited liberties with her.

Quang and Tong face normal immigrant challenges caused by loss of prestige and inability to speak with confidence in the new language.  But we witness not only the effects of how the “natives” feel about the newcomers, often with different religion, food, race, and more, but there is also a bite back.  The Vietnamese family complains about the local yokels’ bad manners, bad food, racism, and ignorance.

Christine Jamlig as Huong, Will Dao who manipulates and voices Little Man (He also plays Nhan, the cowboy-fied former subordinate of Quang).

Because their refugee camp was in Arkansas, the couple have settled nearby, but a former military subordinate of Quang’s, Nhan, moved onto Houston, with a large Vietnamese population, and thus many of the amenities of their homeland.  Quang is tempted to make the move and even makes a visit, but Tong demurs, saying that it would only offer more reminders that they are no longer in Vietnam, the country that they love.  It is similar to the decisions that minority immigrants have faced for generations, for instance, whether to live in the social comfort of Little Italy or move to a white bread suburb.

Cultural isolation has its price, and one is that Tong’s mother, Huong, who speaks no English, is virtually limited to their home, other than for grocery shopping.  She’s feisty and raucous, and acts as built-in day-care and baby sitter for her six-year-old grandson, who also speaks no English.  That grandson is called Little Man and is none other than Qui Nguyen (unless you accept his denial that the play is not autobiographical).  The family faces the dual traumas of the boy being bullied at school and the threat of his being forced to repeat first grade because of learning deficiencies caused by lacking language.

Christine Jamlig as Houston bar fly, Hyunmin Rhee as Quang.

A splendid device used in the play is that rather than using a child to play the part of Little Man, a wood-colored, segmented, life-size puppet is operated and spoken by an actor.  The effect charms.  Although the puppet’s face lacks moving parts, its subtle tilts and movements effectively depict emotions.  And the slow movement of the puppet’s hand toward another character’s arm perhaps draws more attention and conveys more meaning than if Little Man were a real child.  The puppet even gets into a fight, and the audience cheers him on as if it were a sentient being.

Director Jaime Castañeda ensures that production values meet the highest professional standards.  Tanya Orellana’s tiered stage is at once appealingly austere, yet changeable and suggestive enough to let the imagination fill in the blanks.  Ambient lighting as well as generous use of various types of lights embedded in the set, designed by Yi Zhao, provide another visual layer, while Jake Rodriquez’s in-depth soundtrack adds to the overall effect.

Jenny Nguyen Nelson as Tong, Christine Jamlig as Huong.

“Poor Yella Rednecks” was a hit with the audience at its San Francisco debut, though the impact of friends and family can be distorting.   Two aspects of the script may reduce the pleasure of this otherwise excellent production for some of the audience.  First is the considerable use of rap/hip-hop, sometimes organically, other times just plopped into the dialogue.  Although the origins of these talk/sing forms predate the period of the play, their popularity didn’t really emerge until significantly later, so their use feels anachronistic.  And to some listeners, the vocal stylings are simply harsh and unappealing.

I’m no prude, but the other detraction is the gratuitous and puerile overuse of vulgarity, which doesn’t fit to the situations depicted and is aesthetically unpleasing to some.  Is the playwright making a freedom-of-speech statement or what?  In one rap, Tong uses the “f” word every few seconds, and in another, she repeats the phrase “I don’t give a s**t” what must have been 20 times.  The excesses parallel the political strategy of appealing to the base, but with the risk of losing usual supporters who reject the resulting extremism.

Will Dao, Christine Jamlig, Jenny Nguyen Nelson, Hyunmin Rhee, Jomar Tagatac.

“Poor Yella Rednecks – Vietgone 2,”is written by Qui Nguyen, produced by American Conservatory Theater, and plays at Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco, CA through May 7, 2023.

Grand Horizons


From the darkened stage, the upbeat recorded sound of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” plays.  Lights up.  Decrescendo music.  An elderly couple sits alone, passive and silent at first. 

She (matter of factly): “I think I would like a divorce.”

He (matter of factly): “All right.”

So begins “Grand Horizons,” a funny and serious and delightful look at fractious family life, from playwright Bess Wohl, wonderfully produced by San Jose Stage.


Bill (Julian López-Morillas) and Nancy (Lucinda Hitchcock) have been married for 50 years, and on the surface, they have been happy, or at least content.  But when they dispassionately announce their decision to divorce to their visiting adult sons, Brian (Nick Mandracchia) and Ben (Johnny Moreno), the boys are flabbergasted.  As expected, they have questions like “What happened?” but worse, they have answers, like “We can fix this,” as if the breakup could be within their control.  And when they finally realize that it could actually happen, it’s “Why couldn’t you get divorced when we finished school, like normal people?”

Problem is, kids often see parents through a restricted lens, only for their parental roles and not as complete people, especially not as people before they became parents.  In the equivalent of yelling “too much information” and covering their ears, the sons hear their mother’s unexpurgated account of a sexual experience of hers in candid language – and it wasn’t with their father.  Needless to say, the revelation is disconcerting.  Ben’s reaction is uncompromisingly severe and juvenile, screaming that their whole lives have been lies, BS.


As with many relationships, there are things that are said and things that are unsaid.  In Bill and Nancy’s case, one was having a current affair, and the other had maintained a relationship with a pre-marriage lover.  Each thought that their liaison was secret, but in both cases, the other spouse knew.  But more important than the transgressions, they suffered from the “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” syndrome, wanting to communicate and understand one another but not always knowing how.

Younger son, Ben is suffering such stress that he’s broken out with eczema.  His wife, Jess (Ashley Garlick) is with child.  As a marriage counselor, she maintains a professional cool and tries to get the older couple to open up with their feelings, while the sons have gone ballistic over the state of affairs.  But she finally cracks and joins the hostility when she concludes that the men treat Nancy like she’s nothing.  Nancy verifies that this feeling has been a cause of her building resentment.  She relates a confirming metaphor about being belittled, which her father had taught her while rowing on a lake.  Meanwhile, cracks in Ben and Jess’s communication appear.


But that’s just the beginning.  Many incidents enrich the proceedings – a chance meeting that Brian makes with a young man, Tommy (Matthew Kropschot); a visit from a ditsy foot-in-mouth friend Carla (Judith Miller), who shares advice about good vibrations; and an accident that causes further disruption to the chaos.  Wohl’s excellent script explores many aspects of character and family relationships that ring true, particularly those that create fissures.

Under Allison F. Rich’s direction, action and interaction are crisp.  The only hesitations are intended pauses that are used to great effect.  The acting corps could not be better.  An ensemble of seven actors from the first tier of the Bay Area’s outstanding acting pool are at the top of their games, extracting every drop of value from the playwright’s words.  They are supported by high quality production values.  Steve Schoenbeck’s outstanding sound design includes a pop and rock soundtrack that relates to the action and will leave the audience humming, especially those in the same age group as Bill and Nancy. Maurice Vercoutere’s lighting enhances the dramatic incidents and Robert Pickering’s scenic design.


Two final points to note – one is that I totally enjoyed the play, and the second is that its nature is farcical, which I often don’t like.  However, it is fair to say that viewers not disposed to broad humor will find some characters, particularly the sons and Carla (though in a brief appearance), to be one dimensional and overwrought and elements of the comedy to be sophomoric.  Most of us will find it a fun ride that also has significant meaning.

“Grand Horizons,” written by Bess Wohl, is produced by San Jose Stage, and plays in their theater at 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA through April 30, 2023.

A Distinct Society

Kenny Scott as Bruce, James Rana as Peyman (both foreground), Carrie Paff as Manon, Daniel Allitt as Declan (both center rear). All photos by Kevin Berne.

Between the United States and Canada lies not only the longest international border in the world but also, by far, the longest unprotected one.  The two countries share language, history, alliances, overlapping culture and food, and much more.  Until the evolution of the European Union, movement of people was the most unobstructed between two countries anywhere.  That has changed somewhat in the 21st century.   Broadly, differences in immigration policy for the undocumented and the Covid pandemic began to inhibit people flow.  One specific restriction enacted by the Trump administration in 2017 also stood out – the Muslim Travel Ban and its aftermath.

Playwright Kareem Fahmy taps into the American unease with Islam in his clever dramedy, “A Distinct Society,” but he introduces other dimensions to the storyline as well.  The TheatreWorks world premiere production, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, possesses superb stagecrafting and wonderful acting.

Carrie Paff as Manon, James Rana as Peyman.

Politically, northern New Hampshire is most noted for Dixville Notch, which is the first precinct to announce its vote for the U.S. Presidency every four years.  But 20 miles north exists the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, straddling the border between the U.S. and Quebec Province in Canada as a result of a surveying error that occurred before the library was built.  A line on the floor designates the border.  The playwright has deftly used this real-life anomaly as the crucible for the play’s conflicts.

A kerfuffle arises as a result of a social media posting which suggests that the library is a good crossborder meeting place.  The message is not lost on Muslims, particularly families with members on both sides of the divide.  Peyman (played by James Rana) is an Iranian-Canadian physician whose daughter Shirin (played by Vaneh Assadodurian) lives in the U.S.  Although they both live hours from the library, efforts to meet his daughter are central to the action.  To begin with, they suffer poor timing, but then Homeland Security steps in with the restriction that meetings cannot exceed five minutes and that no gifts can be given – even food.  And not only is Peyman a good chef, but Shirin has not been eating properly, and her father is sure that home-cooked Iranian cuisine is the solution.  The challenges of meeting will go from bad to worse.

Vaneh Assadourian as Shirin, James Rana as Peyman.

Two subplots complement the central action.  The more direct concerns Manon, the library manager, who is Quebecois, and is played with consummate skill by Bay Area veteran Carrie Paff.  She dances and sings tracts from the opera “Carmen” and speaks with a charming French accent.  Manon sympathizes with those trying to meet up, but she has her own rules that she enforces, and she is obligated to follow DHS rules as well.  They are reluctantly but emphatically enforced by Bruce (Kenny Scott), who also has a crush on Manon, though their backgrounds and interests differ vastly.

In another thread, Daniel Allitt, in a commanding first professional role, portrays Declan, an Irish-born, 15-year-old who comes to Haskell regularly from an hour away.   His pretext is the library’s graphic novel collection, but we later learn of his desire to escape the ridicule he faces in Quebec.  He often reads aloud from the novels, which focus on good and evil and distract at first, but ultimately the purpose comes through.

Daniel Allitt as Declan.

As disparate as these three substories seem, they make subtle but profound connections through their subtexts.  Fahmy shows in multiple contexts how the rigidity of rules can subvert humanity.  He also plumbs the importance of family and various dimensions of discrimination, trust, and ultimately, the power of love to stop people from destroying one another.  Finally, issues are expressed and implied about society and country, including the not always clear categorization of patriot versus terrorist.  His clay in molding these lessons and moral questions is comprised of five characters who we care about but who are flawed like real people.

Surprisingly, the play’s title does not refer to Islam.  In the Quebec separatist movement, climaxing in the 1995 vote for independence, the thematic appeal of the separatists was that Quebec was “a distinct society.”  And though the legal issues that pertain to the play are national level, U.S. to Canada, the sociocultural issues that derive from Quebec being French speaking, loom large.

Kenny Scott as Bruce, Carrie Paff as Manon.

“A Distinct Society” is highly involving.  With its complexity, many issues are broached, resulting in a number of denouements.  The actors are well cast and convincing in their roles.  Jo Winiarski’s scenic design is stunning in its overall look and detail.  Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting and Elton Bradman’s sound equally impress as they complement the set.

“A Distinct Society,” written by Kareem Fahmy, is produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and plays at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA through April 30, 2023.


Mehry Eslaminia as Elham, Christine Mirzayan as Goli, Sahar Bibiyan as Marjan, Amir Malaklou as Omid. All photos by Alessandra Mello.

English has gained the distinction of being the world’s most sought-after language.  It is the official language in more countries with advanced economies than any other.  It is the dominant lingua franca and sometimes official language of international business, international law, diplomacy, tourism, air traffic control, post-graduate educational materials, international conferences, global entertainment, and more.  English-speaking countries are the most desired targets for immigration – legal and undocumented.

Born to immigrant parents, Iranian-American playwright Sanaz Toossi looks at a part of the global industry that has derived from the ubiquitous nature of English – teaching English to non-native speakers.  Calling upon her own heritage to generate a narrative, her incisive dramedy “English” won both the Lucille Lortel and Obie awards for best new play in 2022.  Berkeley Rep presents a nicely produced and acted version of the work, intelligently directed by Mina Morita, that is worth seeing.  Yet, as well-crafted and revelatory as the script is, it lacks a wow factor.

Christine Mirzayan as Goli, Mehry Eslaminia as Elham.

Set in Karaj, Iran in 2008 at a private facility, four adult, advanced English learners comprise a class designed to prepare attendees for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, which is used as a benchmark by over 11,000 institutions worldwide.  The teacher is Marjan, who had spent nine years in the U.K., but she has returned to Iran.

The students vary in age, gender, and motivation for taking the course.  Some have more specific reasons, like an older woman, Roya, who plans to join her son and his family in Canada and a younger woman, the sometimes fractious Elham, aspiring to medical school in Australia.  The bubbly Goli simply wants to open new doors, while the goal of Omid, the only male and an accomplished English-speaker, is a mystery.

Classroom exchanges provide many humorous moments as students stumble along with fractured language.  Activities provide fun as well – imitating Christiane Amanpour in a role playing interview; a recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb;” a show-and-tell of a pencil; and a recurring tossing of a ball in a categories game.

But the dark underside has two elements.  One is that characters begin to clash.  Personality and behavioral differences arise in addition to open questioning about why individuals are there and whether they will be able to accomplish their goals.  Self-searching sets in.  The other and more intriguing aspect is the unearthing of the many unsettling issues of learning and speaking in a new language.  At the tip of the iceberg is inability to express oneself as precisely as in the mother tongue, and the effect that has on self-confidence and personality.  As Roya notes, her son, with the Anglicized name Nate, seems a different person from one language to the other.

Sahar Bibiyan as Marjan, Amir Malaklou as Omid.

Toossi’s text is malleable, and for that reason demands adept actors.  Although the playwright doesn’t intend it, it is easy to imagine the whole script being acted without a laugh.  But this cast cleverly extracts humor from everyday conversation, especially in the early going before conflicts among the characters emerge.

Because of the nature of the topic and setting, the script requires that a fair bit of Farsi be spoken.  One solution is that the actors could speak those lines in Farsi.  The drawbacks are that actors need to speak Farsi or be able to learn enough to mimic it; that the audience would have to read supertitles; and that some humor might be lost when spoken in a foreign language.  The somewhat confusing solution chosen is that when a character is supposedly speaking Farci, they speak in unaccented English, whereas, when speaking English, they have Iranian accents.  This solves the drawbacks.  Dialect Coach Ana Bayat has done a wonderful job, even coaching stronger and lesser accents among the characters.  However, it is sometimes difficult for the audience to know which language is being spoken, especially early on, before the device is understood.

Sarah Nina Hayon as Roya.

Perhaps the greatest thematic weakness of the piece is that the stakes are small, which diminishes the consequences of dramatic situations that occur and possibly the viewer’s emotional involvement with some characters.  Although the TOEFL exam represents a significant hurdle, not all students take the course or the exam with a specific purpose in mind.  What’s more, it can be retaken.   The applicant to Australian medical school had already taken it several times previously.

The single set staging is very effective, while the ensemble acting is solid. At the center is the almost always smiling Sahar Bibiyan who skillfully conveys her empathy as Marjan, yet she displays subtlety in her wariness and does have her limits. Mehry Eslaminia excels in the juiciest role as Elham. The most assertive and candid of the students, she jokes and whines and faces big obstacles in reaching English proficiency. In all, “English” engages for its full 100 minutes.

“English,” written by Sanaz Toossi, is produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and plays on their stage at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through May 7, 2023.

Our Trip to Antarctica (a real experience, not a play or opera!)

Vic and Karin landing in Antarctica – zodiac on the right, midsection of the ship behind us.

NOTE: I’ve circulated this travelog among friends and gotten positive feedback, including multiple suggestions to publish it. Included in the distribution was the owner of Berkshire Fine Arts, who is a friend and who also publishes my reviews. He asked if he could publish it, which I agreed to. So, given the encouragement, here it is on Cordell Reports as well.


Several friends have asked for reports about our Antarctic cruise, so here it is.  Given the 2,500 word length, it may be of more interest to us for our own external memory than for other people, but I have broken it into categories for picking and choosing.  It was a 9-day journey on Atlas Ocean Voyages, a new luxury brand, on the World Navigator.  We had previously decided to give the Antarctic a miss because of the potential misery of four days on the Drake Passage.  Then we learned of “Fly the Drake” (i.e., launching the cruise from South Georgia Island rather than Argentina or Chile) and became interested.  But we came upon a deal that included the Drake that was too good to pass up.

The voyage started inauspiciously with a 12-hour departure delay because of high seas in the Drake.  Our itinerary was unaffected, but the first day in the Drake was sheer misery – just what we feared. Motion sickness pills held our nausea at bay, but I was totally wiped out from a combination of conditions and slept any time I wasn’t eating or at a lecture.  If that wasn’t bad enough, on the return, the cruise truncated the Antarctica portion, skipping two landings because of heavy winds and seas.  Then we endured 92 mile an hour winds (i.e., hurricane force) on the Drake, which the ship’s captain had never witnessed in 10 years in the region.  We also confronted 35-foot waves, some of which T-boned the ship, while head-on is preferred.  After passing through the heart of the storm, I asked what height of waves might be cause for concern for structural damage or capsizing, and the navigation staff said that they were concerned.  For this, we waited 40 years before visiting our seventh continent!

“The Skinny” – Visitation Facts First

There’s no denying that visiting the White Continent is a special experience.  The pristine, austere, chilling environment has still been visited by very few people.  With the foresighted international treaties and practices that protect its character, it is a privilege to enjoy this extreme environment.  For those interested in Antarctica, note that currently, only ships with pax capacity of under 200 are allowed to land passengers.  Larger vessels cruise by only with no up-close and personal.  Depending on the specific destination, we sometimes had the choice of specified short hikes, milling around the landing site, or zodiac cruising.  Kayaking and standup paddling were available where safe for a fee.

Far more than most, Antarctica is a tourism crap shoot. Though the Expedition Leader plans an itinerary, the Ship’s Captain is the final authority, with weather playing the determinant factor.  We had four days scheduled for the Antarctic, and the first three were good to beautiful, with temperatures around freezing, some sunny patches, and modest winds. The fourth was the beginning of the epic struggle.

For those who are most interested in the wildlife, Antarctica offers a deep dive into a narrow range of animals.  One of the biggest highlights was seeing our first penguin colony on the continent, though we had seen temperate-climate varieties in South Africa, New Zealand, and the Galapagos.  As with all species, visitors are to remain 15 feet away from the animals, but it doesn’t seem that the penguins got the memo.  They often intruded on our space recklessly!  We saw beaucoups of penguins in rookeries (as it was the season) and beyond – mainly gentoo and chinstraps, but a couple of out-of-place kings as well. They are charming and fun to watch, with many chicks in their baby fuzz.

The observations were virtually all smiles, except that one of the staff did capture and share a video of two predator brown skuas snatching a penguin chick from under a parent with no resistance from penguins around (chickens!).  Then the skuas ate the carcass right there in the rookery.  When you think about how species adapt to their environments, perhaps a lot of species seem odd.  But among other factors, penguins need flatish, rocky areas without snow to incubate eggs, which would seem to make an Antarctica residence a stretch.  And unlike, say, Rocky Mountain Sheep who gracefully bound and navigate treacherous rocks, penguins look like fish out of water in their chosen terrain with their wobbly gait and flailing wings.  But they sure are cute!

A key factor in the distinctive fauna of Antarctica versus the Arctic is that the latter attaches to lower latitudes by continuous land, so that you get a continuity of animal species.  Antarctica is separated from other continents by the vast Southern Ocean, so that the species found there are water migratory or pelagic, which is why you don’t see wolves, antelopes, and such.  We did see several other types of birds from the gull, albatross, and cormorant families, as well as the graceful Antarctic and Arctic Terns (yes, they migrate the length of the globe).  We saw only two mammal types.  There were onesies and twosies of three types of seals that were pretty lethargic.  But the biggest excitement apart from penguins was numerous sightings and breechings of humpback whales, both from the ship and from zodiacs.  Among the citizen science projects that pax could engage in was a humpback identification project.  Each humpback has a unique tail fluke, and any photo captures can be shared with a research data base to learn more about family association and migration.

In addition to the wildlife, the white wilderness is striking.  The only other natural colors to be seen are the gray of the rocks and aqua blue in glacier crevices which results from great depth of ice and pressure over time.  Many glaciers come down to water.  We had seen calving, when ice sheets sheer off glaciers into the water in Alaska but did not experience it here.  We did however see icebergs with stunning blue striations as well as auto-sized, clear, egg-shaped ice rocks with honeycombed surfaces that come from pressure forcing air bubbles to the surface.

The most interesting panorama was Deception Island.  It is a large active volcanic caldera with a live vent and enough of a gap in the circle of mountains to allow capable vessels to enter the caldera.  It’s quite a sight to be in surrounded by a circle of white mountains lurching up from the sea.  We were scheduled to have land and zodiac excursions there, but our disappointment was that conditions didn’t allow getting off the ship.  Although the water surface was pretty flat, it was covered with mini-whitecaps from 50 mph winds.

Our connection with civilization was seeing a couple of people on the deck of a wreck-hunting vessel.  We passed two research stations, one Argentinian and one Spanish, but we saw no people outside.  We also saw a rusting shipwreck from over a century ago.

Shipboard Experience – For Those Considering the Voyage

Probably all carriers that offer landing privileges in Antarctica fit a similar profile.  I can only speak specifically to Atlas’s World Navigator and say this.  The experience is luxury quality.  Staterooms are large and well appointed.  Dining offerings are aspirational, and it’s remarkable how they can keep the quality up for nine days without reprovisioning.  They offer the obligatory afternoon tea but have no specialty dining venues.  Internet was spotty and slow, and while I could sometimes surf, I couldn’t use email at all for almost the full voyage because the Yahoo server is so slow loading.  General shipboard service is high quality.  You won’t get entertainment that is on offer from the Obesities of the Sea.  Piano bar, torch singing, amateurish staff performances, and guest dancing can be expected, along with voyage-relevant movies.  We were disappointed that they didn’t have competitive name-that-tune and trivia kinds of activities.   Bridge, anyone?  No.  There are two “biggest d***” activities – the polar plunge, a few seconds spent in the Southern Ocean for anyone and for free, and camping, an expensive overnight with small capacity and a wait list.  One of our usual meal companions, retired Iranian-American architect, Raheem, did both – at a healthy age 82.

At our age and condition, we passed on both extreme activities.  For me, the condition was that I had severe cold/flu/covid symptoms from early in the cruise. Karin followed by a few days.  We’ve both gone through periods of voluminous phlegm production, hacking coughs, total enervation, and in my case, limited appetite for food and drink (what timing!).   Each of us tested negative for covid, but my guess is that we either tested too late or had a variant that wasn’t captured.  It’s also noteworthy that while covid was mentioned in various staff presentations, it was only in historical context, never with concern for normative behavior.  We wore masks when not eating or drinking to protect other people, but only a few other passengers did, and we know that others had some symptoms.

You quickly begin to appreciate why these cruises are so expensive – high staff to guest ratio; small guest capacity and thus little financial leveraging of resources; special facilities and special equipment.  And then there is the expedition staff.  We had 12, of which at least three had polar station or expedition experience.  One was on the force that located the sunken Endurance, lost over a century ago (see below for more specifics).  They were a highly skilled team that led excursions and gave briefings and lectures on all aspects of polar exploration.  I was very impressed that Atlas had assembled such a team and offered such a flawless experience in their very first season in Antarctica.

In the seventh continent, we had two scheduled excursions per day.  Each activity involved one hour off the ship and required probably an hour-and-a-half of combined preparation and winddown.  So when you think about it, the financial expenditure relative to the essential experience is even higher than you might suspect.  Pax get to keep the cozy parkas but not the provided boots.  The only real cold we felt was on the face (Balaclavas or the like would help) and fingertips (battery-powered hand warmers come in handy).

In a sense, this is similar to a repositioning cruise in that there are no days off the boat investigating various cultures.  Here, the only culture pertains to the stories of the brave people who have spent serious time on the continent.

Antarctic Exploration and Lore

It’s hard to be not totally awed by the unparalleled courage of the early Antarctic explorers.  You can’t imagine any exploration having more risk, more sacrifice, more painful conditions with chronic frostbite and gangrene among the concerns.  Two names associated with successful Antarctic exploration are Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who won the race by leading the first expedition to reach the South Pole in December, 1911, but who was criticized for seeking only personal glory and serving no societal purpose.  The other in pursuit was Britisher Robert Scott, who did have research objectives.  His expedition launched in the same season, but facing particularly adverse conditions, Scott reached the South Pole a month later.  In one of the great “what-ifs” in history, Amundsen decided to return from the Pole with a tank of kerosene that his party would probably not need.  The alternative was to leave it behind in the expectation that Scott’s party would find it and might need it given the worse conditions that Scott would have faced from the late start.  Sadly, Scott’s men could have used Amundsen’s excess fuel to unfreeze food on their return.  Scott and all of his men perished instead.  You can only imagine the unfolding tragedy.

But ask anyone steeped in Antarctica, and one man is revered above all as a leader, despite the fact that he never accomplished his exploration objectives.  That was Englishman Ernest Shackleton.  No expedition leader put the safety of his men before his own glory like Shackleton.   To lighten load when weight was essential, he dumped precious gold memorabilia and a bible given him by the Belgian royalty.  When a man’s gloves were lost, Shackleton threatened to drop his own fur-lined gloves into the sea if the man didn’t take them.

His expedition in 1907 would have been the first to reach the South Pole, but calculating that a shortfall in provisions from continuing would result in the deaths of one or more men, he turned back only 90 miles from the goal.  On another expedition, his vessel, Endurance, was strangled by trap ice in the Weddell Sea and eventually forced by the relentless ice down into a watery grave.  The description of the inescapable, constant whining and grinding sounds of the ice imposing its will on the wood was chilling.  Shackleton and a few men improvised an escape from Antarctica in a powerless, rudderless lifeboat, and in a heart-stopping adventure they were lucky enough to make landing at South Georgia Island.  Had they missed this spec in the ocean, sure death would have followed.  Not only did Shackleton return to rescue the rest of the force which wintered in Antarctica, but he also led another harrowing rescue mission that would add nothing to his resume or marketability for financing future expeditions but showed his dedication to his men.  I believe that he never lost a man in spite of overwhelming challenges and hardships. I’m a little dubious about self-indulgent, high-risk adventurers, but I find Ernest Shackleton to be the most admirable expedition leader ever.

Travel Tie Ins

Many people simply did the cruise, which did include air charter from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia.  We figured that if we went that far, we might see other stuff in the area, so we spent a few days each in Buenos Aires and Santiago, both of which we had been to before.  For having many parallels, they are very different.  I won’t go into that except to say that we like BA which architecturally has a vibrant mix of Parisian formality with an organic naturalism.  Santiago is similar to Johannesburg, dominated by suburban communities that look like fairly prosperous South Florida – many high-rise residences surrounded by lush greenery, but with a downtown that is graffiti-ridden and dangerous.  However, there are interesting excursions from Santiago.  For the nature types in either country, Patagonia is the best bet.  Both also have nice wine regions, but Santiago’s is much more convenient.


Waffling is us.  Of course, whether Antarctica makes sense for you depends on you.  On the good versus great distinction, it was good for us, though I admit that the reflection involved with writing this piece raised my appreciation level.  Reasons – For us, we were mostly wildlife driven, and after eight or so wildlife-dominated vacations with huge variety in animals in most, we would rank this among our less interesting.  It is very expensive relative to alternatives.  If you take a traditional cruise, you have four pretty dead days on the Drake except for any lectures.  If you’re subject to motion sickness, it is a big gamble, but the yet more expensive option is to Fly the Drake. 

Most people rave about Antarctica, but you have to wonder if there isn’t a little cognitive dissonance in operation for some people.  However, for those with a special interest in the area or for the bucket-list driven, it is the brass ring.  Go for it!

Prospero’s Island

Amy Foote as Miranda, Bradley Kynard as Caliban, Shawnette Sulker as Ariel, Andrew Dwan as Prospero. All photos by Jeremy Knight.

Probably the greatest literary figure of all time, William Shakespeare, has served as a wellspring for opera narratives.  Verdi alone created three operatic masterpieces based on Shakespeare plays.  In recent times, Thomas Adès composed “The Tempest” with a libretto by Meredith Oakes, which holds closely to The Bard’s storyline, but adapted it to simplified yet poetic modern language.

Composer Allen Shearer and librettist Claudia Stevens have premiered their ninth opera collaboration, “Prospero’s Island,” another borrowing from the “The Tempest.”  But they have moved it one measure further from the source material.  In addition to lyrics in modern American-English vernacular interspersed with poetic accents, a plot update and revision gives the material more contemporary relevance while altering the moral profile of the main character.  The result is a riveting chronicle of moral corruption followed by a quest for redemption that is accompanied by equally compelling music, calling on diverse idioms.  Although the narrative arc is clearly dramatic, the creators frequently punctuate the proceedings with humorous interludes.

Andrew Dwan as Prospero, Shawnette Sulker as Ariel, Bradley Kynard as Caliban, members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus as penguins.

One way to unfold “Prospero’s Island” is to first contrast it with the original play, “The Tempest.”  Perhaps the critical difference is the cause of Prospero’s turpitude.  In the play, he is a duke who is wrongfully overthrown, and whatever villainy he displays derives only in consequence.  In this opera, he was the (presumably German) Minister of Science, whose weak spine, like many of his passive countrymen during the rise of Nazism, led to his moral downfall.  Overall, Shakespeare’s mostly good man has become mostly bad, but in either case, his complexity acts as the bedrock of conflict and contradictions.

In both versions, Prospero escapes to a distant island, but in this opera, the refuge is specific and presumably chosen by the opera creators with intent.  It is the Falkland Islands, a British territory nearest to and claimed by Argentina.  The presumed reason for the selection is that after World War II, many Nazis absconded to South America, including the nefarious medical experimenter Josef Mengele, perhaps a model for this iteration of Prospero.  Another change in the narrative is that Shakespeare’s part-humans, Caliban and Ariel, who would become subservient to Prospero, were native to the island.  In Shearer and Stevens’ version, they were created by Prospero.

Bradley Kynard as Caliban, Amy Foote as Miranda, Shawnette Sulker as Ariel.

A final critical difference is that Duke Prospero would return home triumphant.  The 20th century Prospero would return to be tried for his crimes.

This operatic update has been set to an eminently approachable and appealing score in Shearer’s very personal, eclectic modern operatic style.  Nathaniel Berman conducted the chamber orchestra comprised of 12 instrumentalists.  Their rich sound came in large measure from the orchestration which yields the range of timbres of a full orchestra.  The composer’s attention to detail is evident in instrumental interplay, but most easily observed in the complexity of the percussion part.

Amy Foote as Miranda, Andrew Dwan as Prospero.

Shearer does not employ leitmotifs liberally, an exception being a slow, rising figure in the French horn and viola indicating Prospero and his power.  He does, however, inflect his music to the character’s nature, with the most stylized being Ariel’s music, which is airy, with runs high in the soprano range.  Another motif that is vocal rather than orchestral is the high-pitched trills that accompany entrances of the penguin chorus.  Yes, you read that right.  This reviewer was dubious when learning that penguins would play a role in the opera, but the Falklands is a penguin habitat, and their alteration story (as opposed to creation story) of being taught human attributes by Prospero works well.  The birds were eight members of the Grammy-winning San Francisco Girls Chorus, and it was hard not to smile every time they hit the stage with their amusing waddles and clever outfits.  Nevertheless, their choral contributions were competent and relevant.

Both score and script swirl with surprise.  Interestingly, when script elements shock, darkness tends to prevail, as when daughter Miranda finds a Nazi armband among Prospero’s belongings.  When the score jolts, the mood is often lightened, as when two members of the security force looking to arrest Prospero sing a verse of “Cigareets and Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women,” or when the scratchy radio plays “Sweet Georgia Brown,” as if the Harlem Globetrotters were at the door rather than a threat to Prospero’s freedom.

Sergio Gonzalez as Andy, Amy Foote as Miranda.

Casting of “Prospero’s Island” was strong, drawing on the Bay Area’s wealth of young talent.  Mellow and crisp baritone Andrew Dwan dominates as the contrite but conflicted Prospero.  His revealing moment comes near the outset in his well-spun aria when he admits turning a blind eye to the brutality of his work in his homeland.  Clear, yet warm voiced soprano Amy Foote portrays daughter Miranda, and conveys her angst as one who has grown up in such isolation that she bemoans “I’m like a slate where little is written.  How do I know I’m even pretty?”  And as with current political affairs in this country, Miranda must deal with the trauma of her father’s facing a fate that she had never dreamed of.

One of the drawbacks of a 90-minute opera is that it has less time to develop secondary characters, which in this case are Ariel and Caliban.  Shawnette Sulker portrays Ariel.  Her bright, ringing soprano fits the bird-like quality of Ariel perfectly, and while much of her singing is in bits and starts, several brief poetic texts, including a take on Shakespeare’s “Full fathom five,” are written into her part, which she delivers with alacrity.  The grumpy, resentful Caliban is the smooth-toned and rangy baritone Bradley Kynard who nails the role.  Although given a grunt and groan personality, he excels in two significant solos of self-loathing over his ugliness and disgusting nature.  Declaring himself the wormiest of worms in one, he demonstrates a taxonomy of worms in a funny patter-like treatment.

Julia Hathaway as Steffi, Bradley Kynard as Caliban, Angela Jarosz as Trish.

The production is directed by Philip Lowery, and as with the singers and orchestra, the quality of the staging is impressive.  The set is simple, with Prospero’s primitive command and control center being the centerpiece.  Otherwise, Jeremy Knight’s often changing backwall projection screen provides context, receiving productive use from the opening fall of the baton as the incoming plane, ablaze, seeks to land.  In addition to Costume Designer Joy Graham Korst’s penguin costumes, particularly impressive is the colorful, fanciful attire of Ariel and Caliban.

This opera is highly literate, with deft treatment of the subject matter.  Provocative situations arise from the relationships, while ethical and social issues including personal responsibility, loyalty, and abuse abound.  “Prospero’s Island” is an enjoyable addition to the composer and librettist’s catalog and should receive further productions.


“Prospero’s Island,” composed by Allen Shearer with libretto by Claudia Stevens, was produced by Ninth Planet and InTandem, and played at Herbst Theatre, in War Memorial Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA in its world premiere on March 25, 2023.

Blithe Spirit

George Psarras as Charles, Georgia Ball as Elvira, Lisa Mallette as Madame Arcati, Maria Marquis as Ruth. All photos by Christian Pizzirani.

The flamboyant bon vivant Noël Coward excelled in many aspects of the performing arts, but he is best remembered today as a playwright who exposed the foibles of English society in several between-the-wars, comedy-of-manners plays.  The last of these was “Blithe Spirit.”  Many of us, having seen the movie and perhaps productions of the play as well, may wish to pass on seeing this war horse once again.  That would be a mistake.  City Lights has produced a sparkling rendition that hits the mark on every measure.

Probably the feature that distinguishes “Blithe Spirit” from most of Coward’s successful works is that it integrates fantasy into farce.  Charles Condomine is a well-heeled author who wishes to learn more about the occult for a story that he’s writing.  To do so, he hosts a small dinner party, with one of the guests being a medium, Madame Arcati.   Although Charles dismisses notions of spirits and communicating with the dead, his deceased wife, Elvira, appears, but only to him.  This induces the expected complications, especially in the friction created between Charles and his current, living wife, Ruth, in addition to the competition and bickering between the two wives with Charles as the go-between/translator.

George Psarras as Charles, Lisa Mallette as Madame Arcati, Georgia Ball as Elvira.

The script and production are replete with clichés from English society of the period – the high-pitched, formal, lilting conversational modes, even between a couple in the privacy of their abode; sunset sherry poured from crystal decanters and martinis strained from chrome shakers; cocktail dresses and dinner jackets for meals at home; dotty maids and loopy fringe dwellers like Madame Arcati.  George Psarras as Charles and Maria Marquis as Ruth are exquisite as the central couple, in all their class haughtiness and propriety.  But before it’s all over, Charles will become frenetic, quickly pacing about, drinking more feverishly, and gesticulating wildly while dealing with warring wives.  Ruth will become outraged about having to share her house and husband with an interloper that she can’t see or hear, especially when Charles has the audacity to warm to the situation.  But Ruth has less to do, which is unfortunate, as Marquis is an excellent performer.

Maria Marquis as Ruth, Kyle Smith as Dr. Bradman, Roneet Aliza Rahamim as Mrs. Bradman, Lisa Mallette as Madame Arcati, George Psarras as Charles.

The company’s Artistic Director Lisa Mallette returns to the stage after several years absence and shows that she has lost nothing.  As the balmy Madame Arcati, she flounces and flails, oblivious to convention and self-satisfied in her own wacky world.  Mallette’s detailed facial gestures and body movement along with her affable silly certitude result in a well-sharpened and humorous portrayal.

The final critical character is of course the blithe spirit, Elvira, played by Georgia Ball.  Although she may wish to leave this clumsy triangle, she does hold all the cards, and Ball plays them with smugness, yet teasing charm.  She often prods Charles into making insulting responses that Ruth wrongly thinks are directed at her, which adds to the fun.  Noteworthy is the fact nobody would suspect that the cool, controlled, mature interpretation of Elvira is given by a junior at San Jose State in her first professional performance.

George Psarras as Charles, Skylar Rose Adams as Edith, Lisa Mallette as Madame Arcati.

Mark Anderson Phillips directs, and he ensures that all of the pieces work.  Individual performances are vivid and the interactions timely with the humor landing as intended.  The whole of the wide stage is used to great effect.  All of the creative elements are rock solid.  Resident Scenic Designer Ron Gasparinetti’s expansive set is period looking, beautiful, highly detailed (Karen S. Leonard, Props Designer), and functionally superb.  The lighting by Edward Hunter rises, falls, and focuses to meet the characteristics of the goings-on, while attending to details such as adding lights to an otherwise non-functioning old radio.  And Resident Sound Designer George Psarras (yes, he’s also the lead performer) has covered all of the bases from the tinny sound of a period recording of the song “Always” to the thumping of table legs on the floor during the seances.  Kudos also to Pat Tyler for costumes and Richard Newton as dialect coach, as contributions in both of those arenas convey authenticity.

“Blithe Spirit,” written by Noël Coward, is produced by City Lights Theater Company and plays on its stage at 529 South 2nd Street, San Jose, CA through April 23, 2023.