The Late Wedding

Tyler Jeffreys (above), Moshe Goodman (below). All photos by Squirrel Visuals.

Christopher Chen, born and raised in San Francisco, is one of the Bay Area’s favorite playwrights.  Innovative in structure and subject, funny and thoughtful, his plays break new ground.  But the title block on the program itself suggests that “The Late Wedding” goes a step beyond even his extraordinary.  Rather than stating that the play is “by” the playwright, it indicates that the play is “from the notes of Christopher Chen.”  This odd citation becomes the crux of the play’s structure and the basis for its criticism.  Those who favor the absurd; who value creativity; who appreciate skit comedy; and who follow the work of the playwright will be most drawn to this play.

With their fully-staged production of Chen’s work, kudos to Mountain View’s Pear Theatre for leading the way in the return to indoor theater after 15 months of pandemic-imposed darkness.  The adventuresome small company not only offers socially-distanced indoor performances to a play with a full cast, but also outdoor performances and online streaming, to accommodate all manner of theater lover. Hallelujah!

Carissa Ratanaphanyarat, Stephen Kanaski.

The company gives a spirited rendering of the play, directed by Sinohui Hinojosa.  The cast is led by the highly animated Annamarie MacLeod as the narrator, who tries from time-to-time to inject meaning into the proceedings.  Six other actors play multiple roles in the dozen-ish sketches that comprise the narrative.  Largely, the performers fit the characters well and imbue them with verve, though not all are equally convincing.

So, what is the playwright up to?  Chen acknowledges in the play itself the influence of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” in which Emperor Kublai Khan discusses with merchants the cities that they trade in – thereby learning the nature of people in the various outposts.  In the case of “The Late Wedding,” relationships replace cities.  The unfolding of unusual foreign social practices yields farcical situations that produce more smiles than hardi-har belly laughs.

The first three segments provide a humorous anthropological look at what conventional people would consider strange marriage practices in these fictional places.  For example, in one venue, courtship is so revered and marriage considered such a letdown that true believers remain apart after marriage for as long as they can!  In another, marriage is so open that parents routinely don’t know who the fathers of their children are.

Annamarie MacLeod.

The formula then shifts to what Chen calls interludes, which are also segments largely focused on relationships.  In a thriller episode, a spy meets her handler and tries to prove legitimacy, despite having forgotten part of the passcode.  In a latter segment, a spaceship seeks the celestial bodies of the Calaman Islands, which played as a separate honeymoon destination for the earlier couple who planned to live blissfully apart.  While this closes one story loop, it doesn’t provide a prism through which to see the full procession of vignettes.

Many other playwrights have used absurdism as a central theme, such as one of Calvino’s inspirations, Luigi Pirandello, with his “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”  And giving broad latitude to directors on fleshing out and casting shows with many roles has been done by the likes of Caryl Churchill in “Love and Information.”  But as opposed to Chen’s play, those pieces convey the sense that they were completed as designed. That said, while much action in “The Late Wedding” is fanciful and disjointed, it is underscored by important themes such as social mores, time, perception, change, and morality.

“The Late Wedding” gives the sense that the playwright cobbled together several ideas that he couldn’t fully develop individually.  The fact that authorship attribution of the play is to “the notes of Christopher Chen,” and that a comment within the play observes that it includes leftovers conforms with the thinking that the sketches are an omnium gatherum. It even raises the question of whether he is responsible for the final text.  Also, extraneous “notes” appear throughout the play, including grocery lists and questions whether certain commentary in the manuscript was intended to be text or the playwright’s reminders to himself.  And the final support to the notion that the design is not premeditated is that there is explicit reference to writer’s block.

Gaz Jameel, John S. Boles, Tyler Jeffreys.

Of course, all of these diversions could be subterfuge – red herrings to make the audience think that the structure is chaotic rather than calculated to seem incoherent.  In any case, it is provocative and entertaining. But ultimately, does the work stand on its own as patchwork comedy? As metatheatrical exposition? As an expression of absurdism?  Is it art?  It’s up to you to decide.

“The Late Wedding” from the notes of Christopher Chen is produced by Pear Theatre and plays on its stage and outside of that venue at 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View, CA, and streaming online through July 18, 2021.

Victor Cordell, PhD

American Theatre Critics Association

San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Hold These Truths

Jomar Tagatac as Gordon Hirabayashi. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Gordon Hirabayashi grew up in Washington state as a nisei, a second-generation Japanese-American.  Although imbued with reverence for the United States Constitution, his “aha” moment comes upon his initial case before the United States Supreme Court, realizing then the painful contradiction between the Constitution as a most laudable political contract and those who were appointed to uphold it.

Playwright Jeanne Takata’s one-man, biographical drama “Hold These Truths” beautifully captures Hirabayashi’s courage and sacrifice in challenging President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order 9066, which consigned Japanese-Americans, including those who were American citizens, to internment camps during World War II.  This act displaced human beings based strictly upon race, forcing them to virtually give away businesses, property, and personal possessions.

Political cartoon inciting fear of Japanese Americans.

Unlike any other nation, American polity is anchored in the bedrock of a set of glorious documents that provides a guiding light for democracy.  At conception, its Declaration of Independence embraced the radical notion that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  And at its birthing, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution observes that the first objective of the American people is “to form a more perfect union,” conceding the new nation’s flaws at outset, but implying the quest of better welfare for its posterity.

American democracy has largely improved with age but not without suffering setbacks.  Egregious and systemic racism is at the core of many of our failures to live up to the grandiloquence of our ideals – slavery as an accepted practice at our inception; breaching of innumerable treaties and other agreements with Native American tribes;  Jim Crow laws in the South to deny African-Americans their rights following the emancipation amendments; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspending Chinese immigration; the rejection of Jewish refugees during World War II and in the face of the Holocaust; and the blatantly discriminatory voter suppression laws passed or currently proposed by Republicans in over 25 states that are designed to impair blacks’ and other minorities’ ability to exercise their most cherished democratic rights.  All of these horrific practices fomented by our elected leaders serve to generalize the specifics of this play concerning the Japanese Relocation Order.

“Hold These Truths” is a love letter from the playwright to Hirabayashi’s memory.  Seemingly an average kind of guy who is a little diffident and socially clumsy, Takata largely applies a light touch to his childhood and time as a student at the University of Washington.   Although Hirabayashi adheres to the cautions of Japanese geography in Seattle, meaning he knows to avoid walking certain blocks because of anti-Japanese signs and in which shops and cafes he won’t receive service, he lives like a typical poor student.

Inflamed by the wartime actions against Japanese-Americans by the government, but lacking any expertise or strategy, he rises to the occasion and defies the order, certain that he is protected by the Constitution.   Some droll incidents occur after he is found guilty.  For reasons that won’t be shared, he asks for a longer sentence than he is originally given, but is told that the court doesn’t have the funds to transport him to an appropriate facility. So, he negotiates to wend his way to prison on his own recognizance!  1,500 miles away!  In Tucson, Arizona!

Another political cartoon inciting fear of Japanese-Americans. The cartoonist is Dr. Seuss.

The pace of “Hold These Truths” is a bit pedestrian, yet it excels in storytelling.  Surprisingly, a relatively small portion of it is dedicated to the reason that we care about Gordon Hirabayashi – the Supreme Court cases that challenged the unequal treatment of Japanese-Americans in World War II on the basis of race.  Yet, the character is very involving, and the storyline holds the audience’s attention.

A key element that makes the play work is the astounding tour-de-force performance of Jomar Tagatac, who conveys such genuineness and believability in the main role.  The actor has become recognized as one of the great performers in the Bay Area, but he has been seen in plays with ensembles in which he constitutes part of a whole.  Now he has proven beyond a doubt that he can single-handedly carry a one-hour-and-forty-five minute production with great conviction.

As Hirabayashi, Tagatac displays a wide range of emotions with engaging animation.  With Jeffrey Lo’s direction, his movement around the spare set and changes in affect keep the action lively.  In addition to playing the central character, he voices and mimes many others, from his mother and father to prisoners and judges.  His voicings are distinctive, yet never exaggerated.  Significantly, he uses posture and micromovement with remarkably subtle precision to bring even brief characterizations into focus.

Gordon Hirabayashi’s family was interned soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

This review is of a first preview, and in normal times, one would not publish a review of a preview.  Of course, these are not normal times.  Because of pandemic capacity constraints, SF Playhouse must spread the reviewers across several nights and has requested this exception.  This is the first indoor live performance that this theater lover has seen in 15 months.  There were a few hiccups along the way, but who cares?  I won’t even mention what they were.  It is a highly recommended theatrical experience.

“Hold These Truths” is written by Jeanne Sakata, produced by San Francisco Playhouse, and plays on their stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through July 10, 2021.  It is also available streaming online throughout the run.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.

American Theatre Critics Association

San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Begin the Beguine: A Quartet of One-Acts

Dawn L. Troupe, Benoit Monin (from “Healing”) All photos by Carson French.

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One can only imagine how many treasure troves of artistry lie hidden away around the world in dusty attics and musty cellars.  Nina Collins, daughter of playwright and poet Kathleen Collins, has collected and released a rich reserve of her late mother’s previously unpublished works from the 1970s and 1980s.  Included are four short plays that, while they are uneven, and despite their age, resonate today.

Like Kathleen Collins’s predecessor and inspiration, Zora Neale Hurston, who is referenced in “Begin the Beguine,” Collins’s work was largely unrecognized in her lifetime.  Two films she wrote and produced were seen only on the festival circuit, with no commercial distribution.  However, in the last several years, her “Losing Ground” from 1982 was released in various home electronics formats.  In 2020, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress designated the movie for preservation as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Participating in a joint world premiere with Performance Space New York, Oakland Theater Project presents the quartet live, viewed by the audience in these pandemic times from their vehicles and heard through FM radio feed.  Vehicles are parked only one-deep on three sides of the performance ground, so that the audience has unobstructed views as if from mid-orchestra around an outdoor thrust stage.

Leon Jones (from “Begin the Beguine”), Margherita Ventura (from “The Reading”).

Michael Socrates Moran and Dawn L. Troupe co-direct, and the latter plays the lead role in each play.  Ms Troupe’s passion for the project is evident in her commanding performances.  Her four characters are not defined as comprising one identity, yet, a complex, archetypical profile derives from the aggregate.  She must convey a wide range of emotions from reverent to hostile to sassy.  She is aloof, alluring, and uncertain in defining a composite personality.

It is not disclosed whether the plays were intended as a set, but together, they possess a symmetry in which the whole exceeds the sum of the parts.  Taken as one, they plumb the psyche of a black woman, or a group of black women, if the viewer rejects the notion of four phases of a single character.  The opening play is a soliloquy, while each of the remaining three have two significant players.  But in each, the two characters are variously distinguished by contrasts in race, gender, and/or age.  A professional or artistic black woman is central to each. 

“Reflection,” the most universal and existential of the plays, confronts us at the outset.  The black woman could be any ethnicity or gender as she confronts daily life and tries to find God.  As a dancer and a housewife with daily chores to complete, she tries to reconcile the different lives she leads, wondering which one is real.  The main concept in this play is of timeless interest, but consistent with the problem itself, the play offers no conclusion.  This thread runs through the one-acts and may be unsatisfying for those looking for closure from stories.

Most animated, conflictual, and interesting is “The Reading.”  Two women, one black and one white, await appointments with a psychic.  The sociable and uninhibited white woman probes and expounds and begins to reveal stereotypical racial thoughts, while the black woman parries and condescends.  Yet in the end, she, too, lets down her guard and shares her own inner thoughts.  When the women learn that the psychic will have time for only one reading, which woman will it be, and why?

Most opaque is the eponymous third play, “Begin the Beguine.”  A middle-aged actress engages with a younger man in a park.  At first, it seems that he is her son, but the relationship becomes increasingly ambiguous to the point that he becomes every man.  Her inclination to perform on and off stage is evident in her storytelling, but what does this say about her being?  Is she trapped on a treadmill, or is she released?

In the final episode, “The Healing,” the black woman receives laying-on-of-hands treatment from a white therapist.  Their fractious session evidences the divide between his offer of faith healing, a solution without reference to cause, versus her organic need to understand why it is that she hurts.  Along the way, racial tension is heightened as she willfully breaks a rule of propriety and he participates in a naive act that may be perceived as a precursor to what we now consider appropriation.

Kimberly Daniels (from “The Reading”), Dawn L. Troupe.

Kudos to OTP for devising ways to bring live theater to its audience.  The staging of these four one-acts is simple, accented by attractive decorative lighting.  The acting, mostly by company members, suits the material.  Nonetheless, the plays would benefit from production in a more traditional environment.  As a corollary to our time, observing a play from a car is a bit muffled, like breathing through a surgical mask. Yet it certainly serves it purpose.

Through the series of well-revealed incidents, we do gain understanding, as well as empathy, for this multidimensional woman.  Each play possesses its own internal motivation and noteworthy development, but typical of such compilations, it lacks connection to provide a true dramatic arc.  Minor adaptations to the texts could help facilitate connectiveness.  Nonetheless, these works represent a notable artifact from an underappreciated author, and an interesting viewing for those drawn to this type of material.

“Begin the Beguine: A Quartet of One-Acts,” a world premiere of plays written by Kathleen Collins is produced by Oakland Theater Project and plays live in drive-in format at FLAX art & design, 1501 Martin Luther King Way, Oakland, CA through July 3, 2021 and streams online June 19-July 3, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

The Adlers: Live at the Drive-In

2021 San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows and concert piano accompanyists. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The experiment continues.  San Francisco Opera broke new ground with their production of “Barber of Seville” – live performances of an opera at a “drive-in” with music delivered by FM radio to patrons seated in their vehicles.  Now the company’s resident artists, the Adler Fellows, are giving their annual concert series at the same venue, the beautiful and versatile, Frank Lloyd Wright designed Marin Center.  With the Fellows’ talent, they could delight an audience by performing anywhere.  In this case, they sing from the same purpose-built stage as “Barber”, which comprises a repurposed set originally designed for the company’s “Fidelio.” That production was cancelled due to the pandemic.  In addition to viewing the singers in the flesh, large projection screens provide close ups.

Singers wearing pandemic-induced rehearsal masks especially-designed for San Francisco Opera. Photo by Kristen Loken.

The hour-long program consists of sixteen musical numbers written by almost as many composers.  Appropriately, signature opera pieces dominate, with memorable music that suits this type of event, supplemented by a mix from other domains.

Highlights of the evening are very much determined by the subjective ears of the listener.  One that is almost universally appreciated is the gold standard of tenor-baritone duets, “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de Perles.”  Its heightening drama of two men loving the same woman, with the slow crescendo leading to sensational melodies and harmonies are passionately delivered by Christopher Oglesby and Timothy Murray.

Another vocal extravaganza is well known outside the opera world as well. In “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Hertz,” better known as the “Queen of the Night aria” from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte,” the lady with dark intentions screeches her vengeance.  Elisa Sunshine makes the daring coloratura number pop with its thrilling high-pitched “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-aaah” sequences.  Like other artists, Sunshine had to deal with the weather, but she blew away the audience while the blustery wind blew her dress a bit sideways.

The other rat-a-tat number that gets the toes tapping rapid fire is from outside the opera realm, but penned by the great Gioachino Rossini.  “La Danza” is a southern Italian folk tarantella from the composer’s “Les soirées musicales.”   Zhengyi Bai brightly sings and charmingly conveys its conviviality.

Of course, sublime finds a significant place on the evening’s menu, with some of the most beautiful melodies from all of opera, each sung with great artistry.  Among those, Anne-Marie MacIntosh and Simone McIntosh (alert – there are no typos in those surnames) take on the haunting barcarolle “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” from Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” with luminous delight.  Also, Esther Tonea and Simone McIntosh’s ethereal voices shimmer in the subtle dual melodies of “Cosa mi narri…Sull’aria,” from Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

Christopher Colmenero is earnest and expressive in his rendition of the affirming “Freunde, das Leben ist Lebenswert,” from Lehár’s “Giuditta.”  Perhaps the warmest, richest voice is that of bass Stefan Egerstrom who sings “Some enchanted evening” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”  Each of the several remaining offerings from Verdi, Puccini, Bellini, Gounod, and others add to the program and display the Fellows’ substantial gifts.

The cast lifts a toast. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Because of social distancing restrictions, performers are separated into the cubicles of the set – two levels, each constituted of several defined spaces.  Thus, shoulder-to-shoulder ensembles and celebratory hugfests are not doable this year.  That limitation, plus the absence of audience applause (though glowsticks that are provided to the audience were waved after numbers and there was plenty of horn honking at the end of this evening’s performance) takes a little edge off the ambiance of the event.  Although recitals are usually given in formal dress, the overall effect of the concert would be enhanced by dressing in costumery appropriate to each number.  Also, though cost may be a prohibitive factor, a fuller sound more akin to an operatic performance would come from adding three or four strings to the piano accompaniment.  Nonetheless, the Adler Fellows are renowned throughout opera, and the high-quality performances expected of them are very much present.

“The Adlers: Live at the Drive-In” is produced by San Francisco Opera, directed by Jose Maria Condemi, and plays at Marin Center, San Rafael, California, with one remaining performance on May 13, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Barber of Seville

Lucas Meachem as Figaro (projected above left, live below left), Philip Skinner as Dr. Bartolo (projected above right, live below right), Daniela Mack as Rosina and Alek Shrader as Lindoro (live below center). Photo by Stefan Cohen.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  With the stage of the grand War Memorial Opera House dark for over a year, the San Francisco Opera fashioned a creative fix – not a permanent solution, but one which offers a measure of the thrilling artistry that only live opera can provide.  In overcoming myriad technical, logistical, marketing, and public health issues, the company has produced a wonderfully charming “Barber of Seville” that will live in our memories. Gioachino Rossini’s 19th century imagination could probably conceive of people driving automobiles, but patrons attending one of his great comedic operas while ensconced in their vehicles would probably be beyond his wildest notions.  

Rossini’s “Barber” ranks as one of the most revered opera buffa in the repertoire.  Full of silly characters and silly situations, it tantalizes the funny bone.  At the same time, it is replete with wonderful music.  This adaptation operates under the pleasant conceit of a day of rehearsals, culminating with an evening performance.  Thus, the artists initially appear in contemporary casual costumery and progress toward 19th century dress as time progresses.  The “Barber” narrative is enhanced by announcements from an unseen stage director, including social distance warnings, as well as live and video back stage antics, which add to the fun.

This production contains an ideal cast with deep San Francisco Opera roots that would be the envy of any opera company.  Lucas Meachem plays the title role, and from the opening familiar-to-all “Largo al factotum,” he demonstrates that he possesses the vocal dexterity and magnetic appeal of a memorable Figaro.  Reprising their casting as the lovers several years ago, Daniela Mack and Alek Schrader perform as Rosina and Lindoro (who is really Count Almaviva).  Notably, the artists are married.  Mack also happens to be several months pregnant.  In a playful acknowledgement and despite Rosina’s being single, her first costume reveals the large bump, though later costumes showed that the pregnancy could easily have been hidden.  The pair are superb together and apart, with the highlight being Mack’s “Una voce poco fa,” which she embraces with a warm coloratura vibrato.

All of the principals, masked for rehearsal. Photo by Stefan Cohen.

A remarkable trio comprises the remaining principals.  Philip Skinner is powerful as Dr. Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian.  The company’s legendary Catherine Cook as the maid Berta and Kenneth Kellogg as Don Basilio are admirable as always, this time in roles with little song time, but the latter does deliver the bass aria “La Calumnia” with flair and conviction.  Apart from great solo numbers, “Barber” possesses ensembles, some with six or seven voices. These rapid fire, high wire vocal explosions are given with great precision and fine humor.  Supporting the singers is Maestro Roderick Cox’s orchestra.  Due to logistical and pandemic conditions, the orchestra is limited to 18 instrumentalists, and it performs out of sight.

Setting aside the beloved opera and sterling performances, the production suffered three possible deficiencies before even getting to the drive-in, in this reviewer’s mind.  The opera is perhaps overly familiar to a frequent opera goer; it is condensed to 90 minutes to meet Covid protocols; and instead of glorious acoustic music, it is piped electronically through FM radio.  Upon arrival at the venue (Marin Center, which is a stellar Frank Lloyd Wright designed multi-purposed civic campus for the county), another possible fault was finding that it was being sung in English.  Much to my surprise, in the overall, those concerns were more than adequately addressed.  Although trimming the opera’s length results in a jumpy and incomplete plot line, the good news for those who know the opera is that it hits all the high spots and eliminates the drag.  And while the acoustics of War Memorial are superior to any vehicle’s sound system, voices in particular come through with sufficient glory to make the listening well worthwhile.   Finally, opera almost always fulfills its intentions best in its original language.  However, the comic material of “Barber” in some ways benefits from being sung in words comprehensible to the listener’s ear, with supertitles in the same language.  So despite my misgivings, and perhaps because of the uniqueness of the experience, I enjoyed this version better than most all I’ve seen.   Concerns satisfied.

Many kudos go to General Director Matthew Shilvock and his team for accomplishing a project with a wide scope of demands that go well beyond those required when operating within one’s own home base.  Stage Director Matthew Ozawa orchestrated his creative directors to assemble a lively milieu for the production.  Masterfully adapting sets originally designed for the cancelled production of “Fidelio”, the stage is comprised of compartmentalized spaces on two levels, flanked by large video screens.  Projection screens often overlay the stage as well.  One positive aspect of this drive-in format is that there is more to look at.  While viewing the live performance gives a broad visual perspective, simultaneously, the screens provide more intimate close-ups.

Daniela Mack as Rosina. Photo by Drew Altizer.

Indoor live performance cannot return to the Bay Area too soon.  The intimacy of the stage; the immediacy of the performers; and the ambiance of the event are irreplaceable.  Yet, this format could have legs, especially for newcomers to the art.  Assessing this experiment on a slightly different set of criteria than used in traditional formats, it is a delightful romp and a magnificent piece of work, worthy of the world-class company that San Francisco Opera is.

“Barber of Seville,” composed by Gioachino Rossini, with Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini, translated to English and adapted by Marcie Stapp, is produced by San Francisco Opera, and plays at Marin Center, San Rafael, California through May 15, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Love and Secrets: A Domestic Trilogy

Vanessa Becerra, Efraín Solís in “Il Segreto di Susanna.” All photos by Ian Fullmer.

What a pleasure to see Bay Area opera companies offering alternatives to traditional live performance productions until we are able to return to the opera houses to experience their magnificence as intended.  Following its streaming production of “Three Decembers” by Jake Heggie, Opera San José now offers a curated trilogy of one-act operas.  Marital relationships, or more loosely, love constitutes the common bond among the trio.  With each requiring only two singing parts, they are highly conducive to the strictures of pandemic era productions.

The outcome is splendid.  All of the stellar performers excel in their singing and acting artistry, and director Tara Branham takes advantage of the assets that the electronic medium has to offer opera.  Yes – there are some pluses to opera production designed for film.  Mobile cameras allow different perspectives rather than the fixed point of view in a theater.  Close up shots add an appealing intimacy, and these artists thrive in the visual immediacy.  Blocking varies more, as singers needn’t have concern about projecting voice forward toward the audience.  And staging has been scaled to more realistic proportions than the stage filling requirements of a theatrical setting.

The three operas frame the 20th century, embracing widely different styles.  The anchor to the program, both in terms of its place in the repertoire and its length, is Wolf-Ferrari’s charming Italian opera buffa from 1909, “Il Segreto di Susanna.”  It opens the program, but as the only comedy, it might be better positioned as the closer, to leave the audience more upbeat at the end, just as “Gianni Schicchi” often closes Puccini’s “Il Trittico.”  Joining “Il Segreto” are the more brittle mid-century American “Four Dialogues” by Ned Rorem, and finally, from 1993, another American entry, the brief and melancholic “The Husbands” by Tom Cipullo.

The one-trick plot line of “Il Segreto di Susanna” is straightforward.  Bubbly young bride Susanna has been surreptitiously smoking, and when husband Gil returns home to smell the smoke, he fumes, assuming that she has a lover.  Even when Susanna thinks she has confessed to her transgression, Gil thinks she’s admitted to an illicit relationship rather than smoking.  Thus, they argue at cross purposes.  The light comedy is disrupted by Gil’s rage scene, which turns into an unlikely opera event, a hilarious pillow fight.

Musically, the opera holds to the 19th century Italian tradition of great lyricism and melody, with a pleasant score, highlighted by the harmonious duet “Dear memories” and Susanna’s aria “What a joy to follow the blue spiral.”  Vanessa Becerra is sweet as Susanna and uses her bright voice and delicate vibrato to good effect.  Efraín Solís pairs well as the righteous, jealous Gil, and a strings plus piano chamber orchestra provides a lush backing to a delightful rendition of this little gem.

Carlos Enrique Santelli , Marnie Breckenridge in “Four Dialogues.”

“Four Dialogues,” which composer Rorem based on the poetry of Frank O’Hara is cleverly comprised of four short vignettes representing the episodes in a relationship, from chance meeting through romance, marriage, and unfortunately, dissolution.  The tight formula with everchanging character affect and musical treatment encapsulates the life cycle of a couple. Although its musical idiom is generally modern opera form, the sultry duet “You’re burning like fire” is melodic and quite captivating as sung by Marnie Breckenridge and Carlos Enrique Santelli.  “And my heart is going gray” provides an appropriate sorrowful conclusion. 

Eugene Brancoveanu, Ashley Dixon in “The Husbands.”

Tom Cipullo’s “The Husbands” is a sad and mysterious reminiscence set to an excerpt of William Carpenter’s poem “Rain.”  Ashley Dixon plays a widow on a bus tour in New England along with other widows.  Their lives are full of routine exchanges about their children and children’s children and deceased husbands and the doleful existence of ordering extra meals at restaurants for lost soulmates.  Eugene Brancoveanu plays a man who the widow communes with, seeming at first to be a local observer and then transitioning into the spirit of the husband. Together, the couple contemplates eternity in the poignant conversation.

Each opera in the program is well-staged – an ornate drawing room for “Il Segreto,” and hanging artistic panels as backdrop for “Four Dialogues” and “The Husbands,” but with distinguishing props. Placement and movement are thoughtful throughout.  One (Ingmar) Bergmanesque symbolic moment of note appears in the dissolution scene of “Four Dialogues” with a close up of the couple in profile, facing as if toward each other but actually in different planes and looking past each other. The lighting in “The Husbands” is particularly absorbing, playing on the autumn red tree leaves in the outdoor scene and isolating the characters from the world around them.

The domestic trilogy pleases and compels.  Much credit goes to Opera San José for translating these pieces to film with great skill.  One enhancement would be to provide some connective tissue with introductions to the operas and explaining their selection and development.

“Love and Secrets: A Domestic Trilogy,” comprised of “Il Segreto di Susanna” composed by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari with libretto by Enrico Golisciani, “Four Dialogues” by Ned Rorem based on the poetry of Frank O’Hara, and “The Husbands” composed by Tom Cipullo with lyrics by William Carpenter is produced by Opera San José and streams online through May 15, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

The Waste Land

Solo performer Lisa Ramirez. All photos by Carson French.

“April is the cruelest month…..”  This famous line opens T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” generally regarded as one of the finest pieces of modern literature.  At its best, this 434-line epic poem oozes symbolism and begs never-ending analysis of its trenchant insights.  Yet, like its opening line, “The Waste Land” contains endless contradictions and ambiguities.  Indeed, Eliot provided lengthy annotations of the poem in its original publication, though some of those confuse rather than illuminate.  Detractors would submit that his episodic narrative with leaps in time, and changes in speakers and narrative style lacks cohesion.  But perhaps that reflected the way he saw the new world around him.  Further, Eliot’s frequent allusions to other literary works and use of untranslated foreign languages may seem to impress rather than inform.

John Wilkens has adapted “The Waste Land” to the stage as a vehicle for a solo performer.  Oakland Theater Project has produced the staging, starring the multi-talented Lisa Ramirez and directed by Michael Socrates Moran.  This production is the first live performance with a live audience sanctioned by Actors Equity in the state of California since the start of the pandemic.  But to accomplish the approval, the performance is outdoors, and the audience remain in their cars.  The good news with this arrangement is that the cars are parked one-deep, so that sight lines are great and the audience is close to the performer.  The audio comes through FM on the car radio.  The bad news, for the company, is that audience size is seriously limited.

Because the poem tells stories in different voices and perspectives, it is conducive to dramatic staging.  For those who wish to expand their intellectual horizons but can’t muster the motivation to read Eliot’s masterpiece, Ramirez’s recitation with impressive interpretive movement, and variation of voicing, affect, and intensity captures the viewer’s attention in a manner that few readers would self-engender.  And the performance offers an admirable dose of high-brow culture in well under an hour.  As a fine actor, Ramirez does emote effectively, although her voice is not long on the gravitas often associated with poetry reading. 

This production offers the added stimulation of projected images to enhance the lyrics and acting.  A video preface to the live performance of brief clips covers the history from when the poem was written to current day – a reminiscence of iconic snippets embracing everything from pop culture to war, while videos within the body of the play largely support the text.  In the absence of a printed program, I am unable to credit the creator.  Few props appear on the earthen parking-lot “stage.”  One used to pleasant effect is a strummed mandolin, which accompanies Ramirez as she delivers the words of the blind, Greek prophet, Tiresias, in a manner akin to an opera recitative. The overall impact of the production is provocative and engaging.

The poet doesn’t refer explicitly to a waste land, so what is the poem about?  The dominant received wisdom is that it concerns loss.  Published in 1922, American-born Eliot had lived for a decade in England, which had just suffered through World War I, and concurrently, the (inappropriately named!) Spanish Flu epidemic.  Sensing that the massive loss of life and destruction of property had permanently displaced pre-war society, Eliot foresaw a bleak future.  The poem is written in five distinct sections.  The first, “The Burial of the Dead” establishes the overriding motif, and the speaker, Marie, evidences loss of station and things when she leaves childhood behind.  The most direct reference to the uncertainty ahead appears in the final section, “What the Thunder Said,” with an expressed reference to the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” providing the analogy to failed civilization.

“The Waste Land” particularly resonates as a corollary to our time.   The impact of Covid-19 in the United States now approaches that of the Spanish Flu, though worldwide, the latter was 15 times more deadly than Covid-19 has been to date.  And while a devastating military war loomed in Eliot’s consciousness, this country now faces a cultural war that increasingly cleaves us into two disparate camps with little common ground between us, and in which, tragically, a large segment of the population representing one of those camps even refuses to accept empirical facts that disconfirm what they wish to believe. 

“The Waste Land” is written by T. S. Eliot, adapted by John Wilkens, and produced by Oakland Theater Project.  It plays in live performance drive-in theater format at the company’s home, Flax art + design, 1501 Martin Luther King, Jr. Parkway, Oakland, CA through May 16, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

God of Vengeance (Got fun Nekome)

Roni Alperin as Yankl, Jill Eickmann as Soreh. All images courtesy of Yiddish Theatre Ensemble.

Throughout history, the creative energy of playwrights has generated works of performing arts that have exposed the public to new worlds; challenged their old assumptions; and even incited them to action.  Few plays have been as successful or stormed the intellectual world like Sholem Asch’s 1906 Yiddish-language drama “God of Vengeance” (“Got fun Nekome”).  Even by today’s standards, the premise would be considered offensive, or at least controversial, by many.  But this play was also one of the most successful of its time, translated into many languages and performed throughout the theatrical world.  The Bay Area’s Yiddish Theatre Ensemble (YTE) has mounted a Zoom presentation of this important work that deserves attention.

Born and raised in a Hasidic Jewish family in Poland, the peripatetic Asch would become a naturalized American citizen, but symbolic of numerous Jewish theater companies, he traveled and wandered.  He may have been escaping the criticism that hounded him despite his becoming one of the lions of Yiddish literature.  Y.L. Peretz, a leader in that movement and mentor to Asch, simply said of “God of Vengeance,” “Burn it, Asch, burn it.”

YTE has used an English adaptation by the Irish-born Caraid O’Brien, an unlikely name for a Yiddish translator.  The setting shifts from a turn-of-the-century Polish shtetl to Depression-era New York City.  The central plot line concerns a pious, observant Jewish father, Yankl, who wishes to marry his daughter off to a Yeshiva student.  One hitch – the basement of his tenement row house is a brothel.  Yankl is a pimp!  Oh – and his daughter Rivkeleh is in love with one of the girls downstairs.  Hardly material for television’s “The Love Boat.”

Elena Faverio as Revkeleh, Zissel Piazza as Mankeh.

Despite the origins of the play, far from the American experience of the 21st century, many of the universal thematic situations from “God of Vengeance” resonate.  While daughter Rivkeleh comes from a caring family that wants only the best for her (or what they think is the best for her), she rebels.  Decades before the sexual revolution, she is drawn to another woman.  Yankl represents the contradictions that most humans possess.  His piety is inconsistent with his profession and his religiousness seems hypocritical.  A man of faith, he pleads for intervention from God to resolve his dilemma with Rivkeleh, but if there is a God, why should God care about him?  His wife, Soreh, is earnest and loving and will do anything necessary to ensure Rivkeleh’s safety when she goes missing.  If we weren’t told, it would be hard to believe that Soreh was a prostitute.  Her redemption from that way of life seems so complete.

The play operates well in terms of storytelling, but the action is sometimes slow until the third act.  Characters are varied and have dimensionality.  Despite working in the underbelly of society, we meet people who have the same dreams as we do.  And like many others in society who distinguish between their professions and their lives, the prostitutes do as well.

On an isolated basis, most performances are high quality, especially the leads.  Roni Alperin summons the dour, temperamental, conflicted Yankl.  Elena Faverio as Rivkeleh begins as a bright, bubbly maiden, but matures before our very eyes.  And Jill Eickmann captures the earnest devotion of a loving mother as Soreh, but reveals darker instincts when the situation calls for it.  Unlike most Zoom actors, she wisely shifts her visual focus away from the camera often to create a more realistic portrayal than many talking heads do.

Director Bruce Bierman marshals resources well and with good result under the circumstances.  The “look” works, with period costumes and rough, graphic scenery. But the backdrops are colorful and varied and even include different frames for the windows.  However, like any director of a Zoom production, Bierman faces constraints that are bound to limit viewer satisfaction.

Simon Winheld as an aspiring pimp Shlomo, Jill Eickmann as Soreh (yes, the same actor and character as in the lead photo!)

The windowed format of Zoom cannot produce the immediacy or interaction of characters to yield the dramatic tension of a live or realistically filmed performance. The inability to rehearse in one place is another obstacle.  Because visual flow is inherently jumpy in Zoom, so is the narrative, and the more characters there are, the clunkier it seems.  This play has the disadvantage of having around a dozen roles.  Perhaps the only advantage of Zoom productions is that it does allow the involvement of actors from far remote locations, as is this case with this one.

A final issue of interest in this production concerns dialogue-driven sound.  During a several minute scene between Rivkeleh and her lesbian lover Mankeh, they speak Yiddish, and happily, subtitles are used.  However, throughout the performance, Yiddish words and phrases are used that are not given translations through subtitles.  These usages are realistic, but non-Jewish audience members may find these words harder to hear and understand.  So how to treat with this issue largely depends on what audience the producer hopes to reach.

Despite whatever shortcomings caused by the pandemic, many aspects of this production are appealing given the circumstance.  While not for everyone, this is a significant play that retains an important place in theatrical history.  It is also a draw for those who are interested Jewish culture of the period.

“God of Vengeance” (“Got fun Nekome”) by Sholem Asch as translated by Caraid O’Brien is produced by Yiddish Theatre Ensemble and streams on Vimeo through March 23, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Bird on a Tree Branch

Kerry Gudjohnsen (Vivian), Richard Aiello (Doug), Desiree Rogers (Hannah)

The year is 1965.  The place is small town Indiana.  During a thunderstorm and with a tornado threatening, middle-aged, white, married couple Doug and Vivian are driving home from church.  Seeing an already drenched, middle-aged, black woman at a bus stop, they give her a ride and offer that she join them in their basement until the violent storm passes.  Revelation often finds fertile ground in confined space, and many secrets are unearthed as the three weather the storm.  We learn the back stories that brought the characters to this juncture and witness the clashes of the moment in Jan Probst’s insightful drama, cleverly set in an earlier era, but one that is well-known today.

This tidy 75-minute play covers an uncommonly wide swath of issues – notably the effects of secrets and local myths, often riddled with falsehoods, that define perceptions about us and our community.  But in addition to that, the play deals with racism; sexism, including situations that foreshadowed the MeToo movement; survival; measuring against others rather than valuing what we have; sibling rivalry; gender roles; marital challenges; pacifism and war; time-anchored mores; religion versus belief in God; and redemption – among others.  Many of these could be the nexus for digging into this play, but the racial matters particularly tie into events of the current moment in time.  The following is as much essay that relates to the play as it is a review.

Doug, is a plain guy who does pretty well as an insurance salesman, but who, in his own words, sells products to people who don’t need them.  His self-loathing derives from a life-long parade of missed opportunities to do what his peers have done, and he even feels that as a marital catch he was consolation prize for Vivian, played with earnestness and resignation by Kerry Gudjohnsen.  Doug does consider himself a good person, yet I disliked him almost from the outset, which is a sign of the effective characterization that the playwright has penned and that Richard Aiello acts.

The black woman, Hannah, displays a reserved, confident dignity and that very special trait that many black people develop – to deal with insults from whites with great equanimity.  Doug asks her what she was doing in this neighborhood on a Sunday, noting that maids don’t work on Sundays, and blacks don’t live in this part of town.  He then assumes she is on welfare and asks what kind of work she does.  The microaggressions in this line of questioning comport with his reality and seem innocent enough and natural to him.  He follows up by asserting that blacks should be appreciative for the benefits that they have in this country, even if they are second-class citizens.  In time, Hanna will show that despite her status, she is more than Doug’s match by many measures.  Also relevant is that Doug’s view toward white women is condescending as well, reflecting the thinking of patriarchal society.

Even though people turn out differently, the time and place that one lives strongly influences their attitudes.  My dislike of Doug comes partly from my knowing this person who lacks understanding beyond his own frame of reference and my own repudiation of attitudes from my teenage years.  Growing up in an all-white suburb of Dallas, I thought many of the same thoughts, simply out of lack of exposure and ignorance.  Coincidentally, it was around 1965 that my view of the world started to expand, and I embraced inclusion.

“Bird on a Tree Branch” engages on many levels. We find festering resentments and unrealized potential, because people, even couples, remain uninformed and fail to communicate.   In the play, we witness some character evolution and wonder particularly with Doug, what kind of person he would become later in life. 

Thanks in part to the font of knowledge called Wikipedia and ubiquitous social media that archives every stupid message that every thoughtless person has shared on the Internet, we have entered an era of “gotchas.”   For example, the San Francisco School Board decided to eliminate 44 historical figures from school names, largely because of revealed racial bigotry.  While racist acts of a few of these figures were egregious, most of them were products of, if not progressive for, their times.  Many were more than redeemed by subsequent acts, to wit, Abraham Lincoln, who the Board wants to delist (Washington and Jefferson as well)!

Ironically, a current black member of the Board is under fire for postings she made five years ago which were critical of Asians.  So is this a good time to roll out that old adage about “let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” Some of her criticisms were borne out by facts, and she has since worked on issues that are helpful to Asians.  So, with her, Doug, and millions of others, do we evaluate them by current standards or in the context of their environment?  If they erred but changed, do we honor their redemption?

The play is produced in Zoom.  The three principal actors play their individual parts well.  Desiree Rogers as Hannah is particularly strong as she navigates the boundary of assertiveness without wanting to alienate her hosts under the circumstances.  In some ways, this is an ideal play for Zoom because of the small cast and contained setting.  Director Julie Dimas-Lockfeld opens up the space with a couple of outdoor video bits, including flashbacks to 1942.  Ambient sound occurs throughout along with occasional major storm sounds.

Nonetheless, the bulk of the production is in talking-head format, so that it comes across as a well-rehearsed reading.  Characters are mostly stationary and look into the camera rather than at one another, so that individual performances don’t add up to the desired theatrical experience.  Yet, this is a worthy play, and hopefully as actors, creatives, and techs get Covid inoculations, we will see more natural filming of this and other plays (see my review on [hieroglyph] for a contrast).  For the time being, if you accept it for what it is, this rendering is worthwhile.

“Bird on a Tree Branch,” a world premiere play by Jan Probst, is produced by Phoenix Arts Association Theatre and is available on streaming at YouTube through March 31, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

[hieroglyph]

Khary L. Moye as Ernest, Jamella Cross as Davis. Photos by Jessica Palopoli.

For one year, we lovers of live performance have suffered without our favorite pastime.  On the one-year anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic comes the closest thing the Bay Area has had to live theater.  Although it lacks the palpable dynamics of “the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd,” San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre have joined to produce a filmed staging.  While we all look forward to the vitality and urgency of live performance as well as the associated socialization, the current streamed performance of [hieroglyph] provides great satisfaction that has been missed for some time.

[hieroglyph]s plot line concerns the displacement of Davis, a 13-year-old Black girl, from the world that she understands.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she and her father, Ernest, relocate from New Orleans to Chicago.  The natural disaster destroyed her memories; disconnected her from the things that she knew and loved; and triggered the spatial and marital separation of her parents, as her mother stayed behind to live in a FEMA trailer.  Davis now tries to reconstruct the happy moments of her life but is haunted by the more recent horrors.

Often, children find relocation more traumatic than adults.  Unsurprisingly, Davis is not adjusting well and collapses academically, except in one class – art.  Although she exhibits talent in her sketches of her previous life, disturbing characteristics are revealed that may reflect deep seated anxiety.  Her understanding teacher, Ms. T, takes a special interest in the girl’s talent and problems.

Playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s poignant drama deals with trauma and loss that most of us, thankfully, will never have to handle. She speaks to the fears that women particularly suffer – and moreso, women of color; and moreso yet, teenage girls of color.  These core elements are enhanced by a rich exploration of boundaries – parent-child, teacher-student, parent-teacher, friend-to-friend, as well as those of professional and sexual propriety.  Causes of conflict are manifold. While many of those that are addressed result from conscious awareness of the participants, others derive from lack of understanding, suggesting that not all clashes result from intent, but often from naivete about the conditions of other people.

Khary L. Moye as Ernest, Jamella Cross as Davis, Safiya Fredericks as Ms. T.

The actors offer wonderful portrayals.  Only four roles are cast, as their interactions outside of this group cleverly transpire with characters who are unseen and unheard.  Jamella Cross gives a star turn as Davis, capturing the teen’s hopes and angst, and displaying a full range of emotions from cheerful to tormented.  Safiya Fredericks is equally challenged as the concerned teacher, striking the right balance of professionalism and compassion, but also employing righteous rage.  Khary L. Moye aptly plays Ernest, whose name is a homonym for his character.  An involved father, he is also brought to rage when some of his dearly held beliefs are brought to question.  Finally, Anna Marie Sharpe is sharp as Leah, the friend who tries to help Davis adjust to her new environment.

Dickenson-Despenza’s script and Margo Hall’s direction keep the action moving and interesting throughout, albeit with a little didactic bent.  Ms. T is the spokesperson for the playwright’s sympathies, but her inclinations deserve airing.  For instance, the play promotes the painting of Black artist Ernest Crichlow, who blossomed under the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.  Appropriately, the teacher’s analysis in class of his cynical anomaly “Lovers” advances the theme of sexual suffering of Black women.  Conversely, whereas discussion of Jim Crow is central to understanding racial abuses perpetrated on Blacks in this country, it only tangentially relates to the matters at hand.

Some minor flaws exist in the text that can’t be discussed without spoiling the plot.  One that can be referenced is that the denouement is telegraphed without sufficient nuance, especially to those familiar with a particular movie that follows a similar path or other works like it.  Most of the dialogue is quite clear, but when the two girls are together, their teen talk can be a little harder to follow.  But these issues are minor glitches in a highly recommended theatrical event.

It is a pleasure to see natural theatrical staging again and the San Francisco Playhouse’s revolving stage put back to work.  Bill English’s scenic design is skeletal but suits the play perfectly.  Another key element in creating an outstanding production is the camera work, which is perhaps the one improvement over live performance.  While the cinematography won’t win an Emmy, the use of multiple camera positions and variable focal lengths, including close up shots, adds vibrance that would be missed from Row G in a theatrical space.

[hieroglyph] by Erika Dickerson-Despenza is co-produced by San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and is available by online streaming through April 13, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle