Passing Strange

Myles Brown, Chanel Tilghman, Devin Cunninham, Champagne Hughes, Shakur Tolliver. All photos by Benjamin Krantz.

Ain’t life great?  What’s better than bemoaning a big commitment, only to be blown away by it?  It’s not clear why I had low expectations.  I really like Shotgun Players’ work.  I dig rock-and-roll.  I have great capacity for the Black experience and welcome European settings.  Maybe it was the notice that understudies would dominate the cast that evening.  But the show had me from “hello.”  “Passing Strange” is a distinctive and always involving play that deserves the Tony that it won for best book of a musical and its six other nominations.  Shotgun offers a high energy production with artistic values that fit the bill.

With “Passing Strange,” musician/playwright Stew created a multi-faceted coming-of-age story set to music and verse.  The music is a mashup of rock era styles that never hits a false note.  Both song lyrics and spoken sections set to music drive the narrative forward.  Romello Huins’ set is comprised of an unadorned apron for the show’s action, backed by a tiers occupied by the rock band.  The look created is that of a night club in a dark cave with Stephanie Anne Johnson’s neon lights defining the contours of the uneven walls of the cavity.  Her extensive use of area lighting helps create a perfect ambiance for the sometimes dark rock musical.

Albert Hodge.

Dominating the tiers is the charismatic Albert Hodge, “The Narrator.”  Although the actors who portray characters also have singing parts, The Narrator carries the bulk of the vocals.  Elevated above the acting stage, Hodge looms large.  He conveys the narrative in a storytelling style with broad gesticulation, sly humor, and a powerful baritone singing voice with rasp and soul.

The main character is called Youth, whose story begins as a teen in 1976.  Understudy Myles Brown portrays Youth with great confidence and skill.  If you didn’t know that he was an understudy, it would never occur to you.  Although a loving son, he goes through many of life’s natural transitions.  Objecting to phony churchiness as the Baptist Fashion Show, he adopts Buddhism.  But drawn in by attraction to a girl, he joins the church choir and sees the connection of call-and-response, common in Black church music, to rock-and-roll.

Many characters will cross Youth’s path, but none are as indelible as Franklin, the choir master.  Shakur Tolliver is an absolute scream as Franklin, the pot smoking son of the preacher, caught in a karma that he can’t escape.  His physical humor is totally reminiscent of a ‘70s sitcom comedian, whose name won’t be mentioned.  That might imply that Tolliver is an imitation of a known star, but frankly, I can’t imagine anyone being more compelling in this part.

Shakur Tolliver (foreground), Angel Adedokun, Chanel Tilghman, Myles Brown.

Making and writing music will motivate Youth, and he will travel through punk then psychedelic rock, while ingesting the latter’s namesake drugs.  Finding that after a psychedelic trip, he’s still in the same place, he will try a real trip.  His wanderlust will take him first to the paradise of the laid-back, Amsterdam, and then to Berlin, where even the anti-establishment is rooted in rules and tradition.  The same several supporting cast members who play Youth’s middle class Black friends in Los Angeles will be the open, free-loving Dutch and the abrupt leather and latex Germans.  Their transformations are all quite complete and compelling.

Along the way, Youth will be challenged and will grow.  He will face challenges of identity, family, friendship, and love.  He will suffer the realization that many decisions that affect adult life are made by stoned teenagers.  In the song “Bleeding Sunshine,” he will observe his need to break the chain of I, I, I, and find that he can’t be loved unless he reveals himself.  He will also learn new dimensions of being a Black man.

Literary titles often have great importance to authors, but sometimes their significance is lost on the audience.  “Passing Strange” derives from Stew’s inspiration to write a theatrical musical, which is Shakespeare.  Appropriately, the title come from a revelatory soliloquy in “Othello” spoken by the Black Moor himself.  But the word passing in Shakespeare’s time meant very or extremely, and the term referred to his adventures.  The double entendre of the word passing concerns a Black passing as white, or anyone passing for something that they are not, as Youth will attempt.  Finally, it can relate to passages, which Youth (and youth) endures.

Myles Brown, Devin Cunningham, Chanel Tilghman, Shakur Tolliver.

The musical is fully engaging, and Director William Hodgson has orchestrated a complex production task with precision.  Perhaps to comply with the current trend of tighter narrative design, the play could be pared down a bit, but most of the vignettes are interesting and well produced.

“Passing Strange” with book and lyrics by Stew, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, is produced by Shotgun Players and appears at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA through April 10, 2022.

Red Winged Blackbird

Aaron Wilton, Rinabeth Apostol, Adam Magill. All photos by Jay Yamada.

Every family is condemned to live with its own unique traits, its own unique secrets, its own unique pain.  Alyosha Zim writes of his family experience – a gemischt of dogma and spriritualism with inherited Judaism and adopted Buddhism; the challenges of love and relationships; and the overhang of a disease that if contracted is debilitating and ultimately fatal.  Although sadness pervades the play, it holds the attention throughout and fully satisfies on many levels thanks to great writing and formidable acting.

In part, “Red Winged Blackbird” is a classic play about two special generations of Americans – the parents being from the “greatest generation” who sacrifice all for their progeny, and the children being of the loving but self-indulgent “flower power” generation.  Sidney is a Jewish World War II refugee who lost virtually all of his family in the Holocaust.  Anchored in that tragedy, its gravity acts as a benchmark for evaluating everything in life.  Working hard in a deli, but valuing education and accomplishment, Sidney’s anguish and the hope that his children will have a better life are poignantly captured by Jullian Lopez-Morillas.  But like many of his era, his measuring sticks use orthodox values.  While Lopez-Morillas’s character is not sympathisch, we can’t help but respect how he has led his life.

Danielle Levin, Julian Lopez-Morillas.

Alyosha, born Sheldon but ultimately adopting a new identity from Dostoevsky’s spiritual Karamazov brother, has largely adopted the father’s values and achieved his desires, becoming a psychiatrist.  He’s retained an albeit diluted association with the Jewish faith and practice, like many American-born Jews.  He will also be the responsible one to stay near home to help his parents with their considerable needs.  But often it is the wayward child that a parent loves the most.  Harold, who takes on the name of Joshua, has disappointed by squandering the Harvard education that his father has afforded him; rejecting traditional religion; adopting a Buddhist lifestyle which the father scorns; and fleeing responsibility by migrating to an isolated aerie in Colorado.

The brothers are chalk and cheese, clashing on many issues.  They represent the changing landscape brought on by the ‘60s in which new values took root with some, but old ones remained with others.  In many ways, the play is about brotherly love, but it shows how circumstances can drive a wedge into a relationship.  A common bond is that each feels guilty about the ultimate death of a parent.  Aaron Wilton as the stiff, hard-working Alyosha, and Adam Magill as the laid back, but depressive counterculturist Joshua are fine fits for the roles.

Ogie Zulueta, Adam Magill.

But the 800-pound gorilla in the room is Huntington’s Disease, which degenerates the brain tissue, causing uncontrollable movement and mental and emotional deterioration.  Huntington’s is inherited.  The brothers’ mother suffers from the disease.  There is a 50/50 chance that either of them would contract it.   If one were to manifest it, the same odds would apply to his children.  It acts as a constant dark cloud over Alyosha and Joshua.

All of the acting in “Red Winged Blackbird” is noteworthy, including the two non-family members.  Rinabeth Apostol charms as Padma, Joshua’s soul mate and ardent supporter.  Ogie Zulueta fulfills as Rinpoche, Buddhist guru to the couple, and the comic relief who even rebukes Joshua for overdoing his spiritual commitment.

However, Danielle Levin as Eva, wife of Sidney and mother to the young men, is absolutely chilling.  Her contortions and thrashing as she struggles with the disease are heartbreakingly convincing – the endless jerky motion enervating.  Imagine suffering years from this condition.  As observed in the play, it gives so little time to living and so long to dying.

Aaron Wilton, Adam Magill, Rinabeth Apostol.

For scattered brief moments we see Eva before the disease set in.  Levin’s transformation is powerful as a totally different person wearing the same skin.  Oblivious to her fate, she broadly smiles with chirpy optimism, and patters on like a stereotypical Brooklyn immigrant mother of the era.  Great stuff.

Set initially in the late ‘60s, the play takes us forward to the mid ‘80s.  Much has transpired and critical points are reached.  The red winged blackbird symbolizes powerful forces within us that enable us to meet challenges and become stronger as a result.  The question is who in the family achieves that state.

As producer, Zim has assembled a formidable creative team.  Director Nancy Carlin marshals her resources well, notably Nina Ball’s clever set that incorporates two domestic settings and a Buddhist shine in a multitiered set.  Also, the music in Cliff Caruthers sound design adds a Jewish feel to the proceedings. Carlin also helped shape the script of a series of flashbacks into a tight and entertaining drama.

“Red Winged Blackbird,” written by Alyosha Zim, and produced by SparklePlenty Productions, plays at Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA through March 20, 2022.

The Tempest

Adrian Roberts as Prospero. All photos by David Flores II.

Productions in the intimacy of Oakland Theater Project’s venue continue to be among the most daring, provocative, and entertaining in the Bay Area.  In taking on William Shakespeare’s political fantasy, “The Tempest,” the company offers a stunning, if somewhat confusing, rendering of this compact study of the illicit taking of power and land.  In today’s environment, it is hard to ignore the parallels with Trump’s efforts to subvert democracy in the United States and the trumped-up Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan, but his position was seized by his brother Antonio, who was aided by Alonso, King of Naples.  Exiled, Prospero settles on a desolate island with his young daughter, Miranda.  Years later, Prospero uses his slave, the spirit Ariel, as the instrument of his magic to affect a shipwreck, marooning Antonio, Alonso, and their party on the little island as well.  Prospero intrigues hoping to reclaim his dukedom and marry off Miranda to Alonso’s son, Ferdinand.  Meanwhile, subversion and murder plots are thwarted.  This Shakespeare play is classified as a comedy!

Carla Gallardo as Ariel No. 3, Adrian Roberts as Prospero. Obscured are Romeo Channer as Ariel No. 2, Sharon Shao as Ariel No. 1.

Director Michael Socrates Moran’s total artistic concept and execution are eye-and-ear popping.  In Karla Hargrave’s set, the stage floor is an unadorned, reflective surface (easily seen as the audience is seated at stage floor level).  Off the only side of the mirrored floor without audience, a blue wall, rocks, stumps, and primitive pier-like platforms define the island’s aquatic surroundings – a good mix of abstract and grounded visuals that offer function and appeal.  Stephanie Anne Johnson’s lighting is spectacular in its variety as it depicts storm, calm, and the changing coloration of a seaside setting.  Elton Bradman’s sound design also represents the chaos of the tempest exquisitely, though it does drown out dialogue at times.  In addition, the show is punctuated with several brief, enchanting musical interludes that combine canned and live singing.

Acting is absolutely superb throughout.  In particular, Adrian Roberts offers a commanding presence as Prospero, firm in his convictions.  However, confusion results from five different actors each playing two roles (who sometimes share stage time in the original), a casting decision that is not specified by the playwright.  Some of the combinations of roles can be symbolically interpreted, as Roberts plays Prospero, regally adorned with a flowing red train, as well as his coarse and accented slave Caliban, signifying class contrast.  The innocent ingenue Miranda and the usurper Antonio, representing opposites in age, gender, and morality are both played Abril Centurión.  Although scenes and some character entrances are announced, visual congestion can make it a bit difficult to follow plot details, especially for those who might not be prepared or familiar with the work.

Abril Centurión as Miranda, Kevin Rebultan as Ferdinand.

The reverse conceit to one actor playing two roles is realized by casting Ariel with three actors, Sharon Shao, Romeo Channer, and Carla Gallardo, spritely in appearance and charming in manner, who perform simultaneously.  Sometimes close together, sometimes apart – they take turns in speaking lines and writhe around the stage in very elaborated and coordinated movement.   They can be seen as aspects of the same personality, but this device serves an additional purpose.  As constituted by The Bard in a time of extreme male dominance, the roles in the play comprised of 10 males and one female, Miranda.  By feminizing and replicating Ariel, plus having Antonio played by a female, a felicitous and reasonable gender balance is achieved.

The other three actors who also merit acknowledgement are Benôit Monin who portrays the weakness but also the kindness of Alonso; Nathaniel Andalis as Sebastian, who seems like a bumptious modern-day comic transported to a past era; and Kevin Rebultan as Ferdinand, who has the funniest schtick, including a mime of making love to a walking staff fashioned from a tree limb.

Benôit Monin (left, facing away), Adrian Roberts as Prospero, Nathaniel Andalis (right, rear).

“The Tempest” was one of Shakespeare’s final plays, and the last of his great ones.  It is uncommonly replete with moral themes of love, betrayal, conspiracy, reconciliation, power, family, and more.  Shakespeare can be hard to follow in the best of circumstances, but because of the density of the issues and structure of this production, attentiveness is very important.  Meanwhile, the visual and aural elements of the movement, acting, and staging effects of this fine production are so powerful that it is an experience just to let them wash over you – like attending an involved modern dance production or a play in an unfamiliar language that captivates beyond the meaning of the words.

“The Tempest,” written by William Shakespeare, is produced by Oakland Theater Project and plays on their stage at 1501 Martin Luther King Way, Oakland, CA through March 13, 2022.

Otello

Limmie Pulliam as Otello. All photos by Barbara Mallon.

Sixteen years had passed since the premiere of “Aida,” Verdi’s penultimate tragedy, and the maestro clearly had time to adopt some of the new practices in opera composing, while honing his traditional skills.  Many feel the resulting “Otello” is the composer’s finest masterpiece and unquestionably in the pantheon of the greatest in all of opera.  Livermore Valley Opera celebrates its 30th Anniversary with its fine execution of this challenging work, proving once again that this mid-sized company can deliver a most compelling artistic product.

Despite its musical and dramatic excellence, “Otello” has never achieved the audience popularity of “Aida” or Verdi’s great middle-period trio of “La Traviata,” “Il Trovatore,” or “Rigoletto,” which are among the most performed operas year after year.  Given how superb this opera is, perhaps two reasons explain this sad anomaly.  The easier to explain is that the title role is considered one of the most difficult tenor roles in the repertory – a serious voice-killer that most who might conquer the role won’t attempt until well into their careers.  The other two leads are also highly demanding.  Accordingly, the opera is hard to cast, thus less likely to be produced.

Layna Chianakas as Emilia, Elaine Alvarez as Desdemona, Alex Boyer as Cassio.

The other issue has to do with audience response to the structure and character of the music.  Following Wagner’s innovation and unlike the Italian tradition that continued into the 20th century, “Otello” employs a form of continuous music, with no breaks for applause.  It does, however, contain separable arias and ensembles of great complexity, beautiful music, and poignant emotion.  But these pieces are perhaps more subtle and a little less accessible than the direct and memorable melodies from Verdi’s more popular operas.  Thanks to LVO for undertaking this glorious and important work and doing it justice.

The orchestra’s pandemonious opening as a battering storm brews upon Otello’s victorious voyage home signals that tumult will follow.  Otello is a Moorish general and leader of Venice’s presence in Cypress.  His trust in the treacherous Jago will lead to Otello’s betraying his captain, Cassio; murdering his wife, Desdemona; and turning the knife on himself.  (For those not familiar, plot spoilers are okay in opera reviews, on the presumption that readers have seen other productions or read the synopsis elsewhere, but are generally not okay in movie and theater reviews – except for classics like Shakespeare, which gives this spoiler a second okay.)  Although the ship was righted quickly, early moments on opening night were inauspicious.  One minor principle was not in good voice; Otello’s voice seemed cloaked on his downstage entrance, which didn’t bode well for the evening; and the output from the men’s chorus was anemic.  This last deficiency was overcome when the women’s chorus and orchestra joined in to provide a rich, balanced sound.

Philip Skinner as Jago.

Otello is performed by Limmie Pulliam, and he attacks the singing with total abandon.  Of his many vocal trials, the best known is probably the Act 2 finale, “Si, pel ciel,” his conspiratorial duet with Jago to exact revenge on Desdemona and Cassio for what Jago has claimed was a dalliance.  Pulliam’s control and accuracy when he is so often high in his vocal range and extremely high in volume is mind boggling.  It is remarkable that he would have anything left at the end of a performance.

Elaine Alvarez is Desdemona, and like Pulliam, some of her best work is also on the high wire.  Their Act 3 and Act 4 duets are verbal combat.  But Desdemona’s signature aria, the most famous piece from the opera, is her lengthy lament and prayer soliloquy as she anticipates death in Act 4.  It might be even more famous if everyone could agree what to call it.  But it’s variously known as “The Willow Song,” “O salce, salce,” ”Piangia cantando, ”Mi parea,” or simply Desdemona’s aria, while the prayer portion is also called “Ave Maria.”  It is one of the most haunting and gut-wrenching pieces in opera.  Alvarez gives an engaging rendering and the audience broke protocol to reward her with applause.

Oddly, the driving force and central figure whose perspective is most prominent in the opera is not the title character, but rather the conniving, manipulative, hateful, vengeful Jago, who pulls Othello’s strings like his marionettist.  As Jago, Phillip Skinner dominates every scene he is in with a riveting presence and powerful singing.  His great Act 2 soliloquy, “Credo in un Dio crudel” prompted the other out-of-order audience applause.

Limmie Pulliam as Otello, Elaine Alvarez as Desdemona.

Two secondary principles deserve mention as having the most mellifluous voices – Alex Boyer as Cassio and Layna Chianakas as Emilia, whose emotional conflict is that she is the wife of Jago and the maid of Desdemona.  She also doubles as the Stage Director!  Quite a demanding working arrangement.

Verdi offers many more musical treasures in “Otello,” including an involved double duet in the handkerchief scene and an even more complicated Act 3 finale, a stunning ensemble of seven or eight individual vocal parts plus chorus.  Credit Arrigo Boito for crafting a superb libretto that some would argue is a step above the source material, despite its coming from Shakespeare.

“Otello,” composed by Giuseppe Verdi, with libretto by Arrigo Boito and based on the play “Othello” written by William Shakespeare, is produced by Livermore Valley Opera and plays at Bankhead Theater, 2400 First Street, Livermore, CA through March 13, 2022.

Talk to Your People

Dan Hoyle. All photos by Peter Prato.

Based on a first visit to the United States of less than a year, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville published “Democracy in America” in 1835.  It was long considered the definitive analysis of the American character.  Some consider it an affront that a foreigner would presume to better understand a society than members of that society.   But it follows the principle that one’s own people seem so normal that it is difficult to understand their unique features and to contrast them with other people, especially if one lacks experience with other societies.

Applying de Tocqueville’s practice, Dan Hoyle, extraordinary creator and actor of one-person shows, fashioned the hugely successful “The Real Americans” in 2014, in which the Oakland denizen traveled to red states and interviewed mostly conservative people with very different inclinations than his own.  He has now flipped the switch and created the intensely funny and provocative “Talk to Your People,” in which he has interviewed liberal people from in and around Oakland.

The concept was motivated by the confluence in mid-2020 of the Covid pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and a Black female colleague who implored him to learn from his own community how his people were dealing with race, privilege, masculinity, and power during these challenging times.   The result is a show that touches on a wide range of social issues with Hoyle acting as the interviewees in about ten vignettes.

Hoyle dynamically represents this motley crew of subjects, who lean heavily toward the goofy and wacked-out.  There’s the guy who feels isolated because in this age of technology, he relies on his cell phone for socialization.  There’s one who in his mind is still a hippie but in real life is a successful salesman who hates his job.  There’s the half-Mexican who looks non-Hispanic and sees discrimination as being more class than ethnic related, ignoring the fact that many minorities suffer bigotry on appearance alone, without ever being able to show their class.

Despite many seeming similarities in his subjects, Hoyle skillfully differentiates them with an exquisite array of mouth and eye movements, gesticulations, and patter.  In two instances, he sings his accounts of the interviews.  Between skits, the use of videos of the Oakland scene allows time for wardrobe changes to provide distinguishing sartorial looks, although all are casual.

Ultimately, this type of offering seeks validation on two criteria.  Is it entertaining?  In this case, the answer is yes.  Is it meaningful?  Yes, in that it triggers thoughts about many scattered questions of our time, yet it lacks a cohesive arc.  In the show’s defense, and as one of its characters notes – the situations in question are complicated.  And to complicate things further, a POC criticized this character for saying things are complicated as that defense comes only from a position of privilege.  Who’d a thunk it?

Indeed, one takeaway from the show may be that being conservative is easy.  You just say no to everything that you object to that will benefit those outside the privileged class.  Being liberal is hard.  In trying to empathize and support the underprivileged, there are so many ways to unintentionally go wrong.  What is the accepted racial descriptor of the day?  Do the underprivileged (is that word okay?)  want help or do they want to do it on their own?  How do they feel about abortion or religion or programs that favor one minority over another?  As contentious as the relationship is between the Black community and police, do they support defunding when the police at least provide some protection from crime?  Conservatives don’t have to be perfect, but when a liberal takes one false step (or even seems to), it becomes a catastrophe.  It is complicated.

Add to all of that, that liberals are criticized for talking the talk but not walking the walk by not engaging sufficiently with the minorities that they intend to promote.  Those liberals with great interest in theater will observe that very few Blacks attend, so that little racial communion occurs – sadly, even for plays with a number of Black actors.  What to do?  Give up a mind-and-heartfelt interest and try to find a common ground elsewhere?  The same principle applies to numerous other activities.  It’s complicated.

A final socio-political conundrum raised by one character is that people often try to persuade with the head – with logic and facts.  He rightfully notes that more effective persuasion comes from the heart – from feelings.  He goes on to poke a hole in his own argument when he queries – How can you persuade someone who says he “feels” that the presidential election was stolen or that vaccines don’t work?

“Talk to Your People” is a deserving show.  One improvement would be if Hoyle lost his facial hair for the duration.  It renders a visual sameness to each depiction that can’t be overcome with wardrobe and accessories, and temporary facial hair could be applied as wanted for particular characters.  It would also make it more plausible to perform female parts, which leads to another deficiency.  Hoyle’s “people,” at least in this production, include only one female, who is not acted, and no Blacks or Asians. Only one character is clearly over 45, he having been among students who were voluntarily bussed to try to desegregate Denver schools in 1973.

Each vignette stands on its own as interesting and funny, but conceptually, they are only loosely joined.  If the expressed concerns about race, privilege, masculinity, and power were directed specifically to racial relations, the piece would gel better thematically.

“Talk to Your People” is written by Dan Hoyle, developed with Charlie Varon, produced by The Marsh Theater, and plays on its stage at 1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA through April 16, 2022.

Master Class

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

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

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

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

Emily Owens Evans as Sophie, Libby Oberlin as Callas.

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

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

Morgan Harrington as Sharon, Libby Oberlin as Callas.

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

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

Men on Boats

Cast. All photos by Scott Lasky.

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

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

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

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

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

Cast.

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

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

Cast.

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

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

The Kind Ones

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

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

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

Anne Darragh.

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

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

Kian Johnson.

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

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

Kian Johnson, Anne Darragh.

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

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

Heroes of the Fourth Turning

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

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

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

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

Josh Schell, Ash Malloy.

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

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

Susi Damilano.

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

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

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

Johnny Moreno, Wera von Wulfen, Ash Malloy.

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

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

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

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Cody Garcia as Willy Wonka and cast. All photos by Jeremy Daniel.

Most of us have confronted situations that are discomforting because we’re not sure that we’re in a place where we belong.  Maybe we’re improperly dressed, or we expect to have little in common with the crowd assembled.  Well, what about attending a musical based on a children’s novel without having kids in tow?  When it comes to “Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” never fear.  At its San Jose opening, very few youngsters could be seen in the orchestra.  So, any adult can relax and let the inner child enjoy an exhilarating musical that works on many levels and transcends the age divide.

Charlie Bucket is a child from poverty with hopes and dreams (one might say, a Bucket List!).  A lover of chocolate, he is budgeted only one bar of his favored Willy Wonka chocolate per year.  When Willy Wonka offers a contest in which five recipients of “golden tickets” hidden in chocolate bar wrappers will receive a free tour of the chocolate factory, Charlie is all in.  And (of course), he receives one of the prizes and gets to see the magic behind the scenes.

William Goldsman as Charlie Bucket.

Casting makes all the difference, especially in the lead roles.  A charismatic Cody Garcia leaves an indelible mark as Willy Wonka, both acting and singing.  He is a worthy challenger to more famous film portrayers, Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp.  Self-absorbed and self-interested, Wonka totally lacks empathy.  As Wonka, Garcia delightfully and imperiously crushes the aspirations of any and all.  When others suffer tragedies, he sees only the disruptions to his life.

But are there seeds for redemption?  What about his signature song “The Candy Man (Can)” in which he “makes the world taste good….and mixes it with love?”  Or the inspiration “Want to change the world, There’s nothing to it,” he offers in “Pure Imagination?”  Curmudgeon or motivator?  To counterbalance Wonka, a waifish boy to portray Charlie is de rigueur, and William Goldsman, one of the alternates in the role, provides the goods as a loving son and dedicated lover of chocolate.

This touring musical brings all of the glitzy production values of Broadway.  Staging, which combines extensive back-lit projection along with movable scenery, is bright, colorful and appealing, especially the brilliant landscape diorama made entirely from candy.  The play is highly episodic with different musical twists in the introductions of each winner of the free tour.  Lyrics are clever, funny, and revealing.  The German, polka-inspired “More of Him to Love” for the pot-bellied boy from Bavaria who wears a string of sausages around his neck is particularly distinctive.  That vignette, and others like the one about the unruly Iowa boy whose dipsomaniac mother controls him with physical restraints, are also reflective of Dahl’s dark edges.  Surprisingly mature themes and streaks of cruelty run through much of his children’s literature, but those attributes probably induce adults to like his work.

Cast.

Perhaps the most memorable feature of the play is the Oompa-Loompas, who help run the factory and who sing and dance at each contestant’s calamity.  As the story specifies that they are little people, various productions use different solutions.  This show’s answer is a technique that was made famous by the Fred Astaire-led “triplets” in the movie “The Bandwagon.”  Several orange-wigged, black-clad puppeteers hide their bodies behind small, white-dressed, full-body marionettes attached to their heads, with the actors’ faces exposed.  They sing and crack jokes as they manipulate the puppets by hand.  The effects, with puppets dancing and gesticulating wildly, are hilarious.

For a fun evening at the theater, this is the ticket.

“Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” with book by David Greig, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, with added songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, and based on the novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, is produced by Broadway San Jose and plays at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden, San Jose, CA through January 23, 2022.