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.

Merrily We Roll Along

Will Giammona as Frank, Melissa WolfKlain as Mary, DC Scarpelli as Charley. All photos by Ben Kranz Studio.

Alert: Sondheim afficionados and other lovers of musicals.  Complete your dance card.  Take advantage of attending 42nd Street Moon’s new production of the rarely seen “Merrily We Roll Along.”

First, the easy part in discussing this stage oddity.  “Merrily We Roll Along” tells the evolving relationship of friends from 1957 to 1976.  The central figure is Frank, who begins as a poor, idealistic composer of musicals who cracks Broadway and then becomes successful composer for movies.  He is also a serial lover with a succession of girlfriends and wives.  Charley, Frank’s childhood best friend and lyricist during the Broadway days, becomes a family man and staunchly retains his artistic ideals, unwilling to bend to the demands of Hollywood.  The two men part ways.

Now for the complications.  When Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” hit Broadway in 1981, he was esteemed as the finest composer/lyricist in the stage musical idiom.  But for various reasons, this work was an abject failure.  However, it was subsequently reworked, winning various awards Off-Broadway and on the West End.  Confidence in the revision has reached the point that it is scheduled to play Broadway this fall.  That said, issues remain.

Will Giammona as Frank, Juliana Lustenader as Beth.

A distinctive, but not unique, feature of “Merrily We Roll Along” is that the story unfolds in reverse time.  We first see Frank as the toast of the town, hosting a party for Hollywood glitterati, and work backward to a rooftop on 110th Street in Manhattan, where Frank, Charley, and their new friend Mary view Sputnik and dream of the future.  The narrative arc is not remarkable, but serviceable as a libretto for a musical.

However, there are reasons that reverse-time storytelling is atypical.  Because it doesn’t conform to human experience, it is harder for the viewer to remember details and make factual connections as the story proceeds backward.  Perhaps more importantly, the conceit inhibits emotional involvement, as we don’t observe character evolution in its normal sequence.  Although Sondheim selected the Kaufman and Hart play of the same name with the reverse storytelling in mind, many will find that device to be the weakness of the musical.

Happily, there are good reasons to see the current rendering.  Those familiar with 42nd Street Moon will see how this offering fits the company’s modus operandi.  Obviously, it is a musical, and one that calls for a large ensemble, but with limited orchestration and minimal staging, all of which suit the company.  But for that, you get Sondheim – witty, and sometimes searing lyrics, creative rhythms, often delivered in patter style, and great music.  The music, however, is a little off the composer’s beaten path – a bit more conventional Broadway and a bit less dissonance.  There also seems to be an unusual amount of reprise, and not a lot of memorable melodies, though the leading phrase of the title song, which recurs a lot, is a prime candidate for an earworm.


The performers are also typical of the company, with many veterans of earlier productions.  Will Giammona heads the cast and is in fine voice.  But DC Scarpelli as Charley, whose vocals vary, delivers the real show stopper, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” largely a funny talk-sing about how they work, how they play, and how they are already going their separate ways.

Indeed, perhaps the central theme of the show, which is explicitly revealed soon after, is that good friends don’t want good friends to change.  It is very true to life as we all go through losing relationships because of growing in different directions, even as in the case of Frank and Charley, when the divergence has major financial consequences.  A very public, real-life case in point is when Paul McCartney ultimately acknowledged that it wasn’t the presence of Yoko Ono that caused the Beatles to break up.  Their fans wanted them to remain together and unchanged forever, but as McCartney said, they simply grew up and apart.

Much of the sauce in this production actually comes from the female secondary leads.  Mary, portrayed by a spritely Melissa WolfKlain, is the third friend who the men meet in 1957.  For years, she is the conciliator who works to keep Frank and Charley together, but in time, she becomes a liability rather than an asset in keeping the peace.  A sharp portrait comes from Christine Capsuto-Shulman, who plays Gussie to the hilt.  She will become Frank’s second wife.  On the plus side, Capsuto-Shulman has a wonderful and powerful singing voice and charismatic pizzazz.  On the minus side, her character is selfish, self-centered, and always one to create friction rather than harmony.  Gussie is trouble, but because of her allure, some men can’t avoid entrapment.

Christine Capsuto-Shulman as Gussie.

The ensemble effectively acts to brighten the stage and sound, usually as party goers.  Their voices are uneven, but some stand out, such as Juliana Lustenader, who also plays the role of Beth, Franks first wife.

In all, this work will not rank among Sondheim’s masterpieces, but that’s setting a very high bar.  This production meets expectations for the company’s offerings and does provide plenty to those interested in the musical genre.

“Merrily We Roll Along” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, and based on the play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart is produced by 42nd Street Moon and plays at Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA through April 9, 2023.

Ruthless! The Musical

Ronnie Anderson as Sylvia St. Croix, Sarah Elizabeth Williams as Judy Denmark. All photos by Grizzly De Haro.

One of the more pleasing experiences of a critic is to reluctantly attend a production with low expectations but to find the performance totally gratifying.   If the show is known to be a “send-up,” you can raise a red flag of apprehension, and even more if it’s a not-so-notable musical by not-so-famous collaborators.  Send-ups can be tricky, since pastiche, and particularly farce, can wear thin.  But “Ruthless! The Musical” pushes all the right buttons, offering a bright script and bouncy music with clever and provocative lyrics.  Altarena Playhouse gives it a rousing rendition that is enjoyable from start to finish.  The casting and acting are superb, and the creative elements sparkle.

“Ruthless! The Musical” is all about the super talented pre-teen Tina Denmark, portrayed by the super talented pre-teen McKenzie Lopezlira, who acts, sings, and taps up a storm.  Her sarcasm bites, and her occasional off-color language lands with just the right mix of surprise and humor.  Tina aspires to be a great performer.  She receives all the support imaginable from sacrificing Judy, her stay-at-home mom, who exemplifies the ideal 1950’s homemaker.  Attired in a crisp dress, a pristine white apron, and red high-heeled shoes, she’s prepared to serve tea or cocktails to any unannounced visitor.  Sarah Elizabeth Williams is Judy, who displays a fine singing voice and crack comic timing as the demure mom in Act 1, and as her alter ego in Act 2.

Ronnie Anderson as Sylvia St. Croix, McKenzie Lopezlira as Tina Denmark, Anna Joham as Miss Thorn.

The show starts with a light touch as we get to know the characters.  But then, Tina auditions to play the lead in “Pippi in Tahiti.”  She loses to the untalented but rich Louise Lerman, played to the hilt by Caroline Schneider, and we find that Tina wasn’t spawned on the set of “Father Knows Best,” but of “The Bad Seed.”  Black comedy sets in.  Not only does Tina become manipulative and foul mouthed, but evil intentions arise when she realizes that if she were the understudy, she would stand in as Pippi Longstocking if the lead is unable to perform.  Disaster looms.

Along the way, we meet Miss Thorn, the third-grade teacher, who selects Louise as the lead in the play because of her parents’ connections, and who suffers through the girl’s acting incompetence.  A special recognition goes out to Laura Morgan, who in an emergency stepped in to play Miss Thorn.  Morgan is not even the understudy, but the show’s choreographer!  Although she had a script in hand to help with the lines, her performance could not have exuded more acting savvy, full of emotion and zest.  The audience was demonstrative of its appreciation for her outstanding contribution during the bows. 

McKenzie Lopezlira as Tina Denmark, Caroline Schneider as Louise Lerman.

There are also not one, but two, important characters who draw on the “Mame” and Mother Rose from “Gypsy” tradition.  Ronnie Anderson plays Sylvia St. Croix, an unscrupulous theatrical agent, who pushes to get Tina into show business, with an over-the-top performance that fills the stage.  Enter Lita Encore, theater critic and Judy Denmark’s adoptive mother, portrayed by an also saucy and domineering Lisa Appleyard, who offers a powerful delivery of the contrarian “I Hate Musicals.”

Significant events toward the end of Act 1 lead to situational and character transformations and revelations that should be enjoyed as surprises when attending the play.  Some events become more extreme and darker, but they are so unrealistic and silly that they don’t dampen the fun.  Suffice it to say that “Ruthless! The Musical” deserves its cult status and the awards that it has received over the years.

Lisa Appleyard as Lita Encore, Sarah Elizabeth Williams as Judy Denmark.

Director Dana Anderson uses all of the resources of the Altarena stage from the balconies and circular staircase to the vomitoria (i.e.: egresses).  The crack performances and sharp interplay drive the action at just the right pace.  Of the creative elements, Sarina Renteria’s lighting especially stands out.

The production is not flawless, but weaknesses don’t diminish the overall enjoyment.  The band’s volume was too high in the prelude and continued to overpower the singers early in the performance.  Williams has a beautifully trained voice, but her lyrics in her opening number, “Tina’s Mother” were sometimes drowned out by the musicians.  The only sub-standard singing comes from Sylvia, which is particularly exposed in the trio “Angel Mom” because of the vocal range.   Fortunately, the role of Sylvia is conducive to a talk-sing style, so not much is lost, and Anderson’s acting prowess has already been noted.

“Ruthless! The Musical” with book and lyrics by Joel Paley and music by Marvin Laird is produced by Altarena Playhouse and performed on their stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through April 30, 2023.

Tosca – Livermore Valley Opera

Alex Boyer as Cavaradossi, Ann Toomey as Tosca. All photos by Barbara Mallon.

Of all opera composers, perhaps none is so beloved for his soaring lyricism and accessibility as is Giacomo Puccini.  His tragic heroines radiate fine-grained distinction.  And where is the maestro more embraced than the Bay Area?  From the time that Gaetano Merola brought professional opera to San Francisco, no composer has reigned with such a following.  All four of Puccini’s top tier of masterworks, “La Bohème” (1896), “Tosca” (1900), “Madama Butterfly” (1904), and “Turandot” (1926) enjoy great popularity here.

The work that stands as the benchmark is the passionate “Tosca,” which audiences can’t get enough of.  While sometimes criticized for its harshness, its compelling music which demands great vocal artistry, along with its wrenching libretto make it a perennial favorite.  As appealing as “Tosca” is to audiences, its productions attract fine performers.  The intense drama possesses three mighty roles to-die-for, and indeed, all three of the characters die!

Kirk Eichelberger as Angelotti.

Livermore Valley Opera provides a handsome, artistic, and well-cast traditional production of “Tosca,” which is no mean feat.  In its essence, the opera is an intimate triangle of love, predation, betrayal, and murder.  Although Puccini was no stranger to big ensemble numbers, he deliberately restrains that temptation to retain a strong sense of verismo and human closeness.

Yet the intimacy of “Tosca” plays against a grand canvass of three unrelated settings, which LVO executes deftly.  Act 1 occurs in the nave of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where Cavaradossi is painting a larger-than-life portrait of the Magdalene for the church.  Significant to the narrative, the painter is also a revolutionary fighting to overthrow Rome’s current government.  In this act, the integration of the physical set with the backlit projections is especially well done.  Act 2 takes place in the Chief of Police Scarpia’s vast quarters in Palazzo Farnese.  Here, he manipulates his defenseless prey, Tosca, with sexual extortion, and Cavaradossi, with false arrest and beating.  Act 3 takes place against the parapet of Castl Sant’Angelo, where Cavaradossi faces a firing squad.

Aleksey Bogdanov as Scarpia, chorus.

Casting for the three main parts in this opera is critical, starting with the title role, and Livermore Valley Opera has attracted Ann Toomey for her Bay Area debut.  Toomey offers the vocal versatility that suits this demanding role completely.  In mid range and middle volume, her lyrical voice caresses the composer’s beautiful melodic lines.  But Tosca is an actress – one who suffers personal degradation and whose lover faces existential threat.  As Toomey’s voice crescendos in emotional scenes, it emits a dramatic fervor rising to the intensity of the moment.  Although she masters this duality throughout, it particularly comes together in Tosca’s wistful yet powerful signature aria, “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art”), when she realizes that life will not go on as before, and she begs Scarpia to release her from the pain.

Although Alex Boyer’s resumé includes stints around the country, he is well planted in the Bay Area, where he has become an audience favorite as a fine lyric tenor with a strong, clear, and compelling voice.  Cavaradossi fits well within his catalog.  He nails the hero’s bookend arias.   His romanza, “Recondita armonia” (“Concealed harmony”), a love letter to Tosca when life is good, is sung with great panache.  Sadly, he faces death and regret with the hauntingly delivered “E lucevan le stelle” (“The stars showed brightly”), though his being seated at the beginning of the latter reduces the impact at the start of the piece.  Boyer also brings a little bit extra to his portrayal.  Cavaradossi is often played with a rather dull earnestness, but the tenor adds a light and humorous touch with a charming twinkle in the eye.

Aleksey Bogdanov as Scarpia, Ann Toomey as Tosca.

It is unsurprising to learn that, despite his youth, Aleksey Bogdanov has performed Scarpia with several opera companies around the country.  His characterization is as well-matched as it is profound.  The high demand for his services in this part becomes evident from his first entry onto the stage.  Unctuously pursuing Tosca, this cruel and imposing figure is a visual magnet who dominates the stage.  More importantly, Bogdanov’s dark baritone booms, but with a percussive clarity unusual for such deep tones.  While sopranos are often asked to sing above the din of many voices, it is uncommon to expect a male with a lower voice to do so.  But Bogdanov rises to the occasion with his “Va, Tosca / Te Deum” in which he vocally slays the lesser voices surrounding him.  The resounding number is particularly poignant in contrasting Scarpia’s purported religious devotion with his lust for Tosca as he repeats her name against the religiously themed music.

Of the supporting roles, Kirk Eichelberger deserves special recognition.  In his brief presence as Angelotti, an escaped prisoner and political ally of Cavaradossi, he delivers a ringing vocal account with his nimble baritone voice.  Conductor Alexander Katsman paces the orchestra well and produces a mellow sound.  One of the understandable compromises that a smaller opera company must make is the size of the orchestra.  Underpowering is an occasional issue, particularly with the striking opening of the opera and other recurrences of the searing Scarpia motif.  Nonetheless, “Tosca” is another credit to LVO’s artistry.

Alex Boyer as Cavaradossi.

“Tosca,” composed by Giacomo Puccini, with libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, is produced by Livermore Valley Opera and plays at Bankhead Theater, 2400 First Street, Livermore, CA through March 12, 2023.

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer

Greta Oglesby as Fannie Lou Hamer. Photos by Kevin Berne.

The side walls of the Lucie Stern Theatre are bedecked with simple posters reflective of 1962, when the push for the Civil Rights Act began.  “We Demand the Right to Vote.”  “No to Jim Crow.” “Pass the Civil Rights Bill.”  And many more.  Screen projections and audio on stage highlight the key players and incidents from the movement to secure voting rights for African Americans.

Several years ago, this play could be seen as history – a poignant reminder of the many tragedies and the ultimate triumph of good over evil – an admission of our reviled former days.  Regrettably, this country suffers a redux of our hateful and sinful past, if without the preponderance of violence and extreme intimidation for wanting the vote.  However, violence is still visited upon Blacks in other ways and for other reasons.

The political right wing in the United States threatens the very existence of democracy as political operatives boldly and cruelly crush the goodness out of progress and what made this nation great.  The U.S. Supreme Court has undermined the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and conservative (read Republican) local political authorities, judges, state legislatures, and their colleagues in the U.S. Congress brazenly introduce laws and administrative procedures with the evil intent of depriving people who are not in their clan the right to vote by using lies, deceit, and Machiavellian ploys.  As startling as the following question may be – how do these actions differ from fascism?  And why aren’t its enemies not fielding a stronger defense against this perversion?  So, ultimately, this is to say that “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” should not be viewed as a simple history lesson, but as a cautionary analogue to what is happening at this very time.

Greta Oglesby gloriously reprises the role of Fannie Lou Hamer that she performed at Oregon Shakes’ vast outdoor Elizabethan Theatre.  She brings a speaking voice brimming with passion and conviction, as well as a strong and melodious singing voice.  She stalks the stage with a slight hobble as a wounded warrior who is too busy planning the next demonstration to let her nagging injuries slow her down.

So, who was Fannie Lou Hamer?  A minimally educated, but intelligent, articulate, and committed Mississippi woman – she is one of those whose contributions are not recognized in the same breath as activist leaders of the day.  Yet, she organized the pivotal Mississippi’s Freedom Summer and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.  Perhaps her story has not rung forth simply because she is a woman, much like Dolores Huerta’s light as a leader of the United Farm Workers’ of America was totally overshadowed by co-founder Cesar Chavez until recently.

Playwright Cheryl L. West has crafted a 70-minute summary of Hamer’s work, shining light on this much overlooked lioness.  Mixing vignettes of great gravity with occasional lighter touches, the playwright keeps the action moving along, and Director Tim Bond creates a kinetic and visual environment to prevent the one-woman show from going stale.

Fighting through poverty, even through the years of her activism, Oglesby depicts Hamer’s indomitable spirit in a series of stories mostly from the 1960’s.  In one harrowing sequence in jail, she is beaten almost to death involuntarily at the hands of a Black male prisoner, so demanded by a White jailer.  Hamer would suffer permanent kidney damage along with other lasting ailments.  She vowed, however, that if she could survive that beating, she would be intimidated by nothing.  She continued to register people to vote and fight literacy tests, poll taxes, and lying intimidation to accomplish equal voting rights.  Along the way, she would objectively acknowledge the truths that she confronted.  Not to generalize, but some white women advanced their own voting rights at the expense of rights of Black women to vote, so that the suffrage movement actually set back progress for Black women.  At the same time, some white men and youths were instrumental in helping to move the needle toward universal suffrage.

The structure of the play is a key element in the entertainment.  Throughout, Hamer sings snippets of songs of protest to enliven the stories, and she does so with great verve in a number of styles from ballad to rousing revival meeting gospel with sing-along, inducing audience involvement.  Some lyrics are organic and cleverly carry the narrative of the story, while others are old standards like “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”   Missing is the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” which may have been omitted because it would seem too cliché.  This device of integrating music into dialog, which she did use in her meetings, adds much liveliness to what could be a wholly depressing chronicle.

“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” is a fitting tribute to a courageous and accomplished woman.  While its messages are important, unfortunately, they largely reach the already converted.  In these days, many people do not seek the truth but rather reinforcement of what they already believe.  So those who don’t want to acknowledge the flaws in American history are unlikely to seek exposure to a presentation like this.  As a footnote, Hamer’s prescient warning echoes that just because White resisters to the progress of Blacks are not wearing hoods doesn’t mean that they’re not trying to destroy the Black community.  The battle is far from won.

“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” is written by Cheryl L. West, produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, and is performed at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through April 2, 2023.


Chanáe Curtis as Alice Ford, Darren Lekeith Drone as Sir John Falstaff. All photos by David Allen.

Verdi admired Shakespeare.  “Macbeth” was among the composer’s great early works.  Four decades later, he would return to The Bard’s folio for his final two operas. Verdi’s penultimate opera, “Otello,” was perhaps his crowning achievement, with many cognoscenti arguing that the opera improves upon the play.  After toiling seven more years, the composer premiered “Falstaff,” based on the character introduced in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and fleshed out in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”  For the librettos of both of these final operas, the composer turned to Arrigo Boito, who perhaps deserves as much credit as Verdi for the greatness of these works.

“Otello” abounds with darkness and tragic intrigue, while “Falstaff” offers spirited roguishness and light intrigue. This would be Verdi’s only attempt at comedy other than the failed early work “Un Giorno de Regno.”  Unlike “Otello,” which is rich with notable arias, “Falstaff” seems to eschew memorable tunes in its through-sung, largely conversational format.  Lacking set pieces that would appear on “Best Hits” albums, “Falstaff” instead treats the listener to endless anticipation and variety.  In its highly inventive score, Verdi’s lifetime of musical mastery comes through.  The mix of texture and rhythm are pronounced, especially in ensemble pieces.

(below) Marc Molomot as Bardolfo, Andrew Allan Hiers as Pistola, (above) Alexander Hernandez-Lopez as Page, Darren Lekeith Drone as Sir John Falstaff, Zhengyi Bai as Dr. Caius.

Frothy delights like “Falstaff” present particular challenges.  Comic timing, enthusiastic affect, and vocal versatility must be heightened.  Opera San José’s production excels in every dimension.  Performers sing with joy and act with charm.  All of the artistic elements strike the right note, resulting in a production that glitters.

As the focus of his comedy, Verdi set his sights on the larger-than-life character Sir John Falstaff.  Licentious and self-indulgent, he is one of literature’s notable comic characters.  He may be viewed as a chauvinist whose confidence to seduce women exceeds his desirability as a love interest, and he’s certainly willing to use whatever deception to entrap the opposite sex.  But his self-delusion will become apparent as his scheming leads to humiliation.  Indeed, Shakespeare and Verdi may be viewed as feminists in the context of this work as the women win the contests by outfoxing the conniving men.

In the central plot line, Falstaff sends love letters to two married women, Alice Ford and Meg Page.  Although he fancies himself an appealing lover, his motivation is financial – to blackmail the women after having assignations with them.  Unknown to the perpetrator, his quarries are friends, and learning of the deception, they are able to turn the tables on Falstaff.  In a secondary plot, Alice’s husband, John Ford, has arranged for their daughter Nannetta to marry the established and older Dr. Caius, but she loves the callow Fenton.  The story develops a little slowly, having incidents that introduce characters without adding to the central narratives. But the story picks up steam and is always aided by the energy of the music as well as the fine performances and production values of this offering.

(seated) Natalia Santaliz as Nannetta, Chanáe Curtis as Alice Ford, Megan Esther Grey as Mistress Quickly, (standing) Shanley Horvitz as Meg Page.

The lively music is punctuated by animated ensemble pieces including the complex a capella patter quartet by the women in which they vow revenge against Falstaff.  Another highlight is the double quartet plus one, in which the four men commit to foil the young lovers Fenton and Nannetta, while the women show support for them, and the lovers pledge their love above the cacophony of their elders.  These clever ensembles are sung with remarkable zest and skill.

The score also includes aria-length soliloquys.  Particularly touching is Ford’s wonderful reflection about his love for Alice.  As previously noted, Verdi does not yield to recurring melodic phrases which mark the beloved arias of his middle period.  While this may disappoint some, “Falstaff” is a masterpiece in its own right.

Opera San José’s casting is superb.  Of course, the sine qua non for success with this opera is a compelling title character, and Darren Lekeith Drone transcends requirements in every way.  His full baritone voice with warm vibrato suits the role well.  Moreover, he nails the portrayal with a full range of visual and vocal expression.  In his flouncy corpulence, Drone commands the stage, displaying pompousness and narcissism with everything from mugging to mock and genuine ire.  His exuberance and smiling visage make him sympathetic enough to ultimately allow forgiveness in the end for his bad behavior.


Falstaff’s nemesis, Alice Ford, provides a counterbalance.  Played brilliantly by Chanáe Curtis, Mistress Ford possesses enterprise and quick wit to defeat him.  Curtis exudes charm and a full range lyric soprano with considerable power in the mid and upper portions.  Every other cast member contributes well to the happy outcome.  It is a little unfair to mention one individual without mentioning them all, but Natalia Santaliz, with a sweet soprano voice, as the young lover Nannetta is a favorite.

Joseph Marcheso conducts the orchestra with complete authority.  The sound is always rich and bright and the pace is brisk. Marcheso navigates the dynamics and staccato elements with particular skill.  Director José Maria Condemi deserves special commendation for orchestrating the onstage chaos, with striking movement and positioning.  The laundry scene, in which the women have Falstaff hide in a clothes basket only to get dumped into the river is particularly raucous.  Steven C. Kemp’s scenic design also deserves a nod.  He uses a single and appropriate basic set in a reddish wood color that is built around the visual theme of wine kegs and openings framed by the head hoops of barrels. Additionally, kudos to Howard Tsvi Kaplan for costumes, Christina Martin for wigs and makeup, and David Lee Cuthbert for lighting.

Darren Lekeith Drone as Sir John Falstaff.

“Falstaff” stands as a great achievement in the exquisite catalog of Giuseppe Verdi as well as that of librettist Arrigo Boito.  It is a work that will satisfy the greatest opera afficionados yet is accessible to newcomers to the genre as a great comedy supported by exhilarating music.  Opera San José has shown again what an asset it is to the Bay Area’s cultural community.

“Falstaff” is composed by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Arrigo Boito, produced by Opera San José, and plays at California Theatre, 345 First Street, San Jose, CA through February 19, 2023.

Everest: An Immersive Experience (Opera)

Sasha Cooke as Jan Arnold, Hadleigh Adams as Doug Hansen, Nathan Granner as Rob Hall, Kevin Burdette as Beck Weathers. All photos by Stefan Cohen.

For all of human history and eons before, Mount Everest has stood as steady as a rock – literally.  In its eight years, the opera “Everest: An Immersive Experience” has had three very different realizations, even though under the baton of Nicole Paiement for each version.  The genesis of the opera’s narrative is a real-life tragedy about three members on an Everest expedition in 1996, two of whom never came back. 

“Everest” premiered in traditional stage form at Dallas Opera.  Then, motivated by the pandemic, it transmutated under Brian Steufenbiel’s direction into an immersive, animated opera film by Opera Parallèle for home viewing.  Extending the film’s structure, it now returns to performance before a live audience in an innovative form under the guidance of the same two creative artists and their company.  The result is a unique and gripping 70-minute operatic experience.

Rather than a traditional live performance, the soundtrack for this production is recorded.  The box-like, flat-floor theater provides scenic-surround, with motion-capture animation projections on all four walls.  Having the grainy, low-resolution, slow-moving look of images from a graphic novel, its illustrations are by Mark Simmons, projection design by David Murakami, and scenic design by Jacquelyn Scott.  Most of the important visuals project onto the forward sections of the venue’s wall, but scouring the full 360 degrees is certainly grounds for neck ache.

The full expedition.

Mountaineers confront many enemies – possibilities of illness, falling, storm, avalanche, and more.  One constant is the inevitability of the race against time.  The climbers are reaching the summit 30 minutes after safe turnaround time.  Visual portrayal of the passage of time on the screen in addition to the slow dimming of light on the projections constantly forewarns of the risks ahead and adds to the tension of the score and the visual account.

Expedition guide Rob Hall has left Beck Withers 2,000 feet below, as the latter is suffering high altitude blindness.  Hall struggles to help Doug Hansen on the final assault, passionately urging him, but Hansen weakens and is unable to keep up.  The portentous depiction of the repetitious entreaties and pulsing music leaves the viewer quavering.  Flashbacks, reflections by the climbers, and radio communications with loved ones, both fearful and mundane, add to the anxiety sensed by the audience.  In a series of “what if” circumstances, a combination of deadly factors befalls the climbing party.

Beck Withers’ dreams in vivid colors.

Although the storyline is accompanied by simple graphics, the severity of the consequences carry inherent drama, which is amplified by the thumping of the music and the urgency of the dialog.  Joby Talbot’s eerie music for “Everest” is appealing and effective.  In keeping with the geographic situation, grandness, howling, groaning, and ringing abound in the score, describing the vastness of the horizon, the wind, and obstacles to overcome.

While there are some brief soliloquies and duets, conversational mode dominates the libretto.  The instrumental music backing the lyrics emphasizes percussiveness, while the sung melody lines are largely tonal.  Gene Scheer’s crisp and often stressful lyrics provide tautness, especially as Hall tries to induce Hansen onward.  The libretto speaks both to the grandeur and threat of the environment as well as the intimacy of the human experience.  Among the many ominous and touching lyrics are “Is this how it ends?” and “How can you know when you’re starting to let go?”

The quality of the musical performances is nearly flawless, delivered by a system that produces rich, full, spatially-mapped sound.  It is outstanding recorded music, but it is not comparable to live opera.   The voices of Nathan Granner, Hadleigh Adams, Kevin Burdette, and Sasha Cooke are electronically enhanced and presumably re-recorded until everything is just right.  The chorus that represents the soul of the mountain sounds like 40 voices, but is four singers who are repeatedly overtaped.  Rather than a traditional orchestra, the orchestral sound comes from MIDI (musical instrument digital interface).

Nathan Granner as Rob Hall, Sasha Cooke as Jan Arnold.

The great appeal of this unusual entertainment raises a couple of broader questions.  First is whether immersive, electronic opera represents a form that surpasses novelty to become a significant niche, a Cirque de Soleil of opera.  Perhaps some other productions will follow “Everest,” but the answer to the question is probably not.  To be sustainable as a form requires an audience with interests at the intersection of immersive electronic performance and opera music.

Among its many attractions, live opera is compelling because of the thrill of hearing highly accomplished vocalists and instrumentalists operating without aids.  Another aspect is the sheer humanity of the living form on stage interacting with the audience, from the crowd’s gaiety in the Café Momus scene of “La Boheme” to the intimate death scene sequence in “Otello.”  Electronic entertainment certainly has its benefits, but the market for live opera will remain.

The psycho-social issue is why mountaineers risk death for exhilaration.  Is it to accomplish or to escape?  To conquer? To stroke one’s ego? Rob Hall notes that “This is where I want to be.” It’s the only place that he can find bliss, but what does that say about the rest of his life?  And in seeking that bliss, he endangers the future of his pregnant wife and children.  It may be the ultimate price to pay.

“Everest,” an opera composed by Joby Talbot with libretto by Gene Scheer, is produced by Opera Parallèle and plays at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA through February 12, 2023.

Paradise Blue

Anna Marie Sharpe as Pumpkin, Titus VanHook as Blue. All photos by Kevin Berne.

Post-World War II urban planning from New York City to San Francisco and many cities in between failed egregiously.  It supplanted ethnic neighborhoods, usually African-American, with sterile public housing that failed to improve living conditions, or with freeways that divided communities but rarely reduced traffic.  Though the previous housing stock often consisted of blighted tenements, they were neighborhoods that provided a sense of belonging and dignity to most residents.  Most of these areas were largely redeemable if granted the investment that went instead to rebuild from scratch.  But by political imposition, not only was the baby thrown out with the bathwater, but the replacement was more pernicious bathwater.

Against this backdrop, Dominique Morisseau has authored the final installment of her Detroit Trilogy.  Previously, she explored race riots and relationships in “Detroit ‘67” and the effect of economic decline in traditional industries on the Black working class in “Skeleton Crew.”

Kenny Scott as P-Sam, Michael J. Asberry as Corn.

With “Paradise Blue,” she looks at a Black neighborhood of Detroit called Black Bottom, so named for its soil and geography, not for the people who later settled it or for the dance.  The area housed a vibrant jazz quarter in a district called Paradise Valley.  In the late ‘50s, Black Bottom had been targeted for urban renewal – read, destruction.  Morisseau has written a sometimes funny but always tense noirish drama which Director Dawn Monique Williams plumbs for all its nuance.  The actors find the essence of each character and deliver a gripping entertainment.

The Paradise of the title refers to the name of the jazz club and boarding house where the action of the play takes place.  Blue refers to its second-generation owner, who leads a quartet that performs at the club.  He is considered a second-tier trumpet player compared to his late father.   And though Blue is not the primary character in terms of stage time, “Paradise Blue” is about him.  Fittingly, he treats everything in his orbit as being about him.  And despite the fact that the other characters live and work in close proximity and feel like family, Blue, who would be the titular head of household, stands apart.

Rolanda D. Bell as Silver, Michael J. Asberry as Corn.

Titus VanHook portrays Blue in an apt, chillingly cool manner.  Suave and sartorially smart, his empathetic detachment from those around him is almost complete.  He runs the quartet in his own manner and brooks no interference.  A triggering event that has put the other band members (pianist Corn played by Michael J. Asberry and percussionist P-Sam played by Kenny Scott) out of work is that Blue refuses to pay the bass player before gigs rather than after, despite the known consequences of his intransigence. 

Blue suffers the unsettling spirits of his parents in the four walls around him.  Selling the property for the renewal project would give him the money to escape and begin a new life elsewhere, but the question is whether the demons would follow.  As far as others in the community who would be displaced, he doesn’t seem to have any concern.

Titus VanHook as Blue, Rolanda D. Bell as Silver.

Like many dissociative types, Blue has room for only one person who he can share warm moments with, even if he can’t totally open up.  That person is Pumpkin, who is delightfully portrayed by Anna Marie Sharpe.  While Blue is a one-note character who has difficulty living in his own skin, the well-written character of modest Pumpkin is complex, yet she is highly content with the simplicity of her existence.  A one-woman boarding house cook, server, and cleaning crew, she is happy to serve others and perform simple tasks in a small sandbox.  Despite her mousy affect, she draws empowerment from the beauty and symbolism of the works of Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglass Johnson.  And though Pumpkin blushes at foul language, she does appear to have a carnal relationship with Blue.

Into this already tempestuous situation walks trouble in the form of a traveling woman, Silver, who takes lodging at the Paradise.  Rumors about this black-widow, Louisiana woman swirl – 50 men in 50 cities, murdered her husband, practices voodoo.  What is true is that she’s an exceptionally strong woman, and her plans and actions could have some significant consequences in a short period of time.  As with Pumpkin, Morisseau endows this female with more breadth than the men in the show.  As Silver, a sassy and confident Rolanda D. Bell shows how women with conviction can hold their ground.

Anna Marie Sharpe as Pumpkin, Titus VanHook as Blue.

Although the context of “Paradise Blue” is a grand scale project, the playwright’s concerns are with the individuals whose lives will be buffeted by the larger scheme of things.  The intimacy of Aurora Theatre serves this play well.  There is some stage clutter having both the club venue and bedroom scenery on the stage throughout, but the closeness of the performers to the audience enhances the intensity of the fine drama.

“Paradise Blue” is written by Dominique Morisseau, produced by Aurora Theatre, and plays on its stage at 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through February 26, 2023.

Cashed Out

Rainbow Dickerson as Rocky. All photos by Vita Hewitt.

The government-mandated discrimination against and subjugation of minorities in the United States is legend.  Among the more egregious abuses have been those suffered by Native Americans, the country’s original denizens.  Under official aegis, they have suffered armed conflicts resulting in loss of life and lands; devastating dislocations; breaches of treaties; and attempts to eliminate their cultural heritage.

One official effort to rectify wrongs was the creation of Indian Reservations throughout the country, which has engendered mixed results.  Among the benefits to the tribes has been the authority to permit gambling on their lands, which has yielded financial benefits, but considerable social liabilities.  Addiction, especially alcohol-related, had long been a major affliction on “the res,” but casino society has exacerbated the plague.

Chingwe Padraig Sullivan as Levi, Rainbow Dickerson as Rocky.

“Cashed Out” takes place on the Gila River Reservation in southern Arizona, home to the Pima tribe, traditionally noted for their finely woven baskets – tightly twined bowls with crisp angular patterns.  The Camu family, whose women are noted as talented weavers, serve as the focal point.  While the compelling narrative gives interesting insights into the culture of the native people, universal themes abound – the power of love in family and friendship; internal struggle and external conflict; forgiveness and redemption.  The production is striking and highly appealing.

The central figure is Rocky Camu (Rainbow Dickerson), a bright and aspirational young woman.  Among the most talented weavers of her generation, she feels overshadowed by her deceased mother, Virginia (Lisa Ramirez), a legendary designer and artisan who views her creations as life forms.  Rocky wants to be somewhere other than the res, but despite going away for college, fortune brings her back.  However, unlike her working-class family, she would join the white-collar world, becoming an accountant working for the reservation.

Lisa Ramirez as Virginia.

Virginia’s downfall would be addiction to pain pills.  Rocky avoided the physical pitfalls of drugs and alcohol, but she would succumb instead to the psychological lure of gambling.  In Rocky, playwright Claude Jackson, Jr. has created a character who arouses mixed emotions.  In her early days, we laud her enthusiasm; her tender feeling for those near to her; and her quest to better herself.  Although we feel betrayed and reproachful as she makes unwise decisions, we wonder, does she suffer a disease for which we should sympathize, or does she bear full responsibility for her plight?  The playwright conveys in Rocky not just the desperation caused by gambling addiction, but also the loneliness and alienation.  

Rocky’s plight begs questions.  What makes a person believe that they can beat the odds, especially in a 100% chance proposition like slots or craps or roulette, where the long-term outcomes are highly predictable and always negative?  Why do people evaluate themselves and think that others will value them based on their hitting the jackpot?  Why do they shirk responsibility and sacrifice human interaction for the repetitive spin of the wheel?

Louisa Kizer as Maya, Matt Kizer as Buddy, Chingwe Padraig Sullivan as Levi, Sheila Tousey as Nan.

Women dominate the action of the story, displaying agency, leadership, and humanity.  One of the interesting aspects of “Cashed Out” is that the addicts are women.  In virtually all other artistic works about gambling, the gambler is a male, which may be true in high stakes games.  But the glazed eyes of slots players like Rocky usually belong to women.

Apart from the addiction issue, the narrative is full of well-developed collateral relationships.  Rocky’s drunkard father, Buddy (Matt Kizer), abandoned Virginia and has a new family, but he makes appearances in the latter period of the play.  Appropriately, he lives in Gallup, New Mexico, fondly known as “Drunk Town, USA.” Rocky has a complex, life-long friendship with Levi (Chingwe Patraig Sullivan) who rises to become Manager of Security in the casino.  She also has a daughter, Maya (Louisa Kizer – whose real father plays her grandfather), who faces the conflicts of growing up Native American on the reservation, and an aunt Nan (Sheila Tousey) who is a community leader and has takes on guardianship responsibilities when needed.

Louisa Kizer as Maya, Rainbow Dickerson as Rocky.

The portrayals of the two leads drive the production.  Rainbow Dickerson plays the complex role of Rocky.  With a quick smile and equally easy despair, her unquestionable charisma carries much of the show, though her performance is not fully consistent.  Sheila Tousey as the stoic and steady matriarch, Nan, is every bit Dickerson’s equal in easy emotional expression.  Tousey demonstrates noble command and great likeability in her character, though she did flub a few lines on opening night.  All of the characters in the play are distinctive, and most reveal complexities that generate a strong sense of realism.

Staging is another asset.  Designer Tanya Orellana takes advantage of San Francisco Playhouse’s revolving stage to offer two sets for scene shifts, and the stage walls are covered in a woven design to represent basketry.  Michael Oesch’s lighting offers contrasts and highlights, and Tara Moses directs with conviction.

Chingwe Padraig Sullivan as Levi, Sheila Tousey as Nan, Matt Kizer as Buddy.

The script does suffer a couple of weaknesses that were mentioned by multiple attendees.  One easily correctible is that time changes between scenes are often difficult to comprehend, which is exacerbated by flashbacks and imaginary sightings of Virginia.  Another is that the ending surprises with its suddenness.  It occurs without buildup, and there is a resolution of a character relationship that occurs without sufficient explanation.  In terms of performance, a number of lines were difficult to hear, particularly Maya’s.  Nonetheless, the play makes an important contribution by exploring Native American society.  Its topic matter and treatment are provoking and interesting.

“Cashed Out” is written by Claude Jackson, Jr., produced by San Francisco Playhouse, and appears on its stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through February 25, 2023.