“Nuts” at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre (Aired: September 18, 2019)

While technically not set in a courtroom, Tom Topor’s Nuts, running now at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through Sept. 29, has all the elements of a classic courtroom drama – a defendant, a judge, a prosecuting attorney, a defense attorney, and witnesses. However, the question of Innocence or guilt of a crime is not to be answered here but whether a defendant is competent to stand trial.

Set in a hearing room in the psychiatric wing of New York’s Bellevue Hospital, State Supreme Court Judge Murdoch (Dwayne Stincelli) will determine whether Claudia Draper (Heather Gordon) will stand trial for manslaughter or be committed to a mental hospital for care. District Attorney Franklin Macmillan (Chris Schloemp, whose suit should have garnered him a contempt citation), along with Claudia’s mother Rose (Bonnie Jean Shelton) and step-father Arthur (Dodds Delzell), are determined to see her committed. Claudia, with the help of attorney Aaron Levinsky (David L. Yen), is determined to have her day in court. 

The play runs in real time with three acts of about 40 minutes each and two ten-minute “recesses” between the acts. The first act consists of testimony from Dr. Herbert Rosenthal (Peter T. Downey), the state’s evaluating psychiatrist. In the second, the parents testify and in the concluding act Claudia takes the stand in her own defense.  

Set Designer Argo Thompson utilizes the entire Studio Theatre in recreating the claustrophobic confines of a Bellevue hearing room, so much so that when the court officer (Scott Wagman) instructed all in attendance to rise, some audience members stood up.

Director Joe Winkler has an A-list cast at work here with particularly good work done by Downey as the smarmy psychiatrist and Delzell as the deceptively doting stepfather. The talented Gordon has little to do but appear perturbed in the background for the first two-thirds, but she gets to shine in the last act when her response to one of the DA’s questions turns into a brutally blunt monologue.

The play, written forty years ago, probably seemed more daring at the time with its story of an educated, upper middle-class woman with family secrets who turns to prostitution. Now it plays like an extended episode of Law and Order: SVU.

Its points about our flawed mental health system and the power of the patriarchy are (sadly) still valid, but they are wrapped in what is basically an unexceptional legal drama told by exceptional actors.

‘Nuts’ runs through September 29 at Left Edge Theatre in the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 8pm. The Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

For more information, go to leftedgetheatre.com

Eureka Day at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center (Aired: Spetember 11, 2019)

A recent New York Times headline asked the question “Can a Play About Vaccines Be a Laughing Matter?” Bay Area audiences can answer that question themselves by attending one of two current productions of the play in question – Jonathan Spector’s Eureka Day. You can catch it Off-Broadway in New York, or you can go to the North Bay’s Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park where it’s running through September 22.

Commissioned and produced by Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company in 2018, Oakland-based playwright Spector’s look at how the leaders of a Berkeley Charter School deal with an outbreak of the mumps won that year’s Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Original Script. Not really a debate on the issue of vaccinations (it’s clear in the play where Spector stands), it’s more a look at how the attempt to find common ground on certain issues is an exercise in futility.

Everything you need to know about the school becomes clear in the first minutes. Gathered in the school library, the members of the School’s Executive Committee are discussing whether to add “Transracial Adoptee” as an option for prospective parents on the school web site. As everything at Eureka Day is decided by consensus, a lengthy debate ensues between Head of School Don (Jeff Coté), and parents Suzanne (Sarah McKereghan), Carina (Val Sinckler), Meiko (Eiko Yamamoto), and Eli (Rick Eldrege). This debate and its various amusing sidetracks set you up for the even larger debate to follow.

The school is notified that one of their students has contracted the mumps and the County Health Department is prohibiting students with no documentation of immunity from returning to school. How will the consensus-minded board and the parents deal with an issue that has no consensus?

Hysterically, it turns out, as the first act ends with a brilliantly scripted “Community Activated Conversation” (their term for a Facebook Live session) between the Executive Committee and the parents that is gut-bustingly funny.

So yes, a play about vaccines can be a laughing matter. The second act shows that It can also be somber, serious, and enlightening. Director Elizabeth Craven and her pitch-perfect cast give life to Spector’s infuriating, moving and completely recognizable characters who manage to give us insight into why some people choose to believe what they believe without validating those choices. 

Sometimes agreeing to disagree just isn’t enough. Can we all agree on that?

‘Eureka Day’ runs through September 22 at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park. Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 7:30pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2pm. There’s also a Thursday, September 19 performance at 7:30pm.

For more information, go to spreckelsonline.com

The Book Club Play at 6th Street Playhouse (Aired: September 4, 2019)

Perhaps the most mislabeled entertainment genre is what we refer to as “reality TV”.  The belief that anything can be real in the presence of cameras is misleading at best and downright deceitful at worst.

That’s one of the themes at work in Karen Zacarias’ The Book Club Play, 6th Street Playhouse’s season opener running now on its newly christened Monroe Stage (formerly their Studio Theatre) through September 15.

Part satire, part farce, and part character study, it’s an odd show that mostly works once you let go of any concept of reality being involved.     

The show’s title sums thing up pretty neatly. A group of friends and co-workers have formed a book club. The group dynamic changes with the introduction of two variables. First, the group leader has arranged for their meetings to be filmed under the auspices of famed avant-garde Danish documentarian Lars Knudsen. On top of that, one of the members has invited a neighbor to join them, completely skipping over their intense vetting process. The group may survive one alteration to their rigid world, but can it survive two?

Zacarias’ characters are pretty stock. There’s Ana (Maureen O’Neill), the control-freak leader; Rob (Marc Assad), her milquetoast husband who never reads the books and mostly comes for the food; Will (John Browning) Rob’s fastidious college roommate and Ana’s ex-boyfriend; Jen (Heather Gibeson), Ana’s flailing-at-life friend, and Lily (Brittany Sims), Ana’s sassy co-worker and the group’s newest member.   

The only character that breaks out of the stock mode is Alex (Eyan Dean), a professor of comparative literature whose life has been upended by his lack of knowledge of sparkling vampires.

Director Jessica Headington had her hands full with the overabundance of themes at play here. It seemed at times that Zacarias didn’t know what she wanted her play to be about (it’s undergone two revisions since its 2009 premiere) so she wrote about everything: friendship, marriage, self-identity, race, sexuality, infidelity, career fulfillment, group dynamics, role-playing, honesty, and truth.

The show’s most interesting moment came in a debate over whether pop culture can be considered culture at all. Why shouldn’t a terribly-written pulp novel that’s sold millions of copies be considered in the same league as Moby Dick?   

Headington and her cast have fun with it and you will laugh, but I found this show about artificiality in life a bit too artificial.

‘The Book Club Play’ runs through September 15 on the Monroe Stage at the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30pm; there are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.

For more information, go to 6thstreetplayhouse.com

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” Running in Mill Valley (Aired: August 28, 2019)

For twenty years, Mill Valley’s Curtain Theatre has treated local audiences to admission-free, fully-produced Shakespeare plays performed in the small outdoor amphitheatre in Old Mill Park. Whether they will get to continue to do so is in the hands of city’s Parks and Recreation Commission as they deal with complaints from some neighbors who appear to be shocked – SHOCKED – that people actually use the park for its intended purposes.

In the meantime, they’re moving forward with this year’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The comedy runs weekends through September 8. Not one of Shakespeare’s most critically revered plays, it commits the cardinal sin (to some) of actually being entertaining.  

Described by one of the actors after a recent performance as “a terrible read, but great fun to watch”, it contains one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters – the portly Sir John Falstaff (Grey Wolf). He arrives in Windsor a little short on coin and decides the best way to rectify that is to woo two wealthy wives and seduce them out of their purses. Falstaff attempts to enlist his servants Nym (Steve Beecroft) and Pistol (Philip Swanson) in his scheme, but they refuse and are dismissed. Seeking revenge on him, the ex-servants notify the husbands of the wives, Masters Ford and Page (Marc Berman & Mark Shepard), of Falstaff’s designs. Mistresses Ford and Page (Heather Cherry & Marianne Shine) have already figured out Falstaff’s plan and plot his comeuppance.

Meanwhile, young Anne Page (Lily Jackson) is being pursued by three men – Slender (Anthony Rummel), French Doctor Caius (Beecroft again) and young Fenton (Dan DeGabriele). Each suitor has support from various family members and associates and it should come as no surprise that the two storylines will connect by the play’s conclusion.

It’s interesting to note that in this play the female characters are all level-headed while most of the male characters are idiots. Director Kim Bromley posits this may be one of the reasons this play is often dismissed.

There’s a good ensemble at work here, led by Wolf’s charismatic Falstaff. He’s a rogue and a scoundrel, but you’re gonna like the guy. The same goes for the rest of the cast, who are mostly well-cast and very entertaining, especially Beecroft’s Inspector Clouseau-ish Doctor Caius.

Dress warmly, bring a picnic, borrow one of the theatre company’s blankets, and say good-bye to summer with a very enjoyable, light-hearted trip to Windsor.

‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ runs Saturdays and Sundays through September 8 at the Old Mill Park Amphitheater in Mill Valley. There is also a special Labor Day performance. All shows are at 2pm and admission is free though donations are graciously accepted.

For more information, go to curtaintheatre.org

Monty Python’s Spamalot at Dominican University (Aired: August 21, 2019)

Silliness takes the stage at Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre as the Marin Shakespeare Company presents Monty Python’s Spamalot. It’s the company’s first full musical production in thirty years.

“Lovingly ripped off” from the Python’s 1975 cult classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s the tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table on their quest to find the revered relic. Original Python member Eric Idle has taken the core of the screenplay and added songs (with John Du Prez) as well as bits of other Python business to come up with a full-fledged Broadway musical. Needless to say, it doesn’t hurt to be familiar with the comedy troupe’s repertoire.

King Arthur (Jarion Monroe) and his faithful servant Patsy (Bryan Munar) are scouring the English countryside for men to join the Court at Camelot. After gathering the likes of Robin (Phillip Percy Williams), Lancelot (Ariel Zuckerman), Galahad (Michael McDonald), and Bedevere (Nathan Townsend Levy), they’re off on their quest. Their journey will take them to a castle oddly manned by French soldiers and through a very expensive forest. Along the way they’ll encounter the Lady of the Lake (Susan Zelinsky), the Knights Who Say Ni, an argumentative Black Knight, a damsel in distress (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) and a killer rabbit before their quest is (somewhat) completed.

Python humor runs the gamut from socio-political satire to outrageous slapstick. Some of it holds up after 40-plus years, some of it doesn’t. Drag has always been a component of British humor, but the evolution of that performance style has made it as archaic as pie throwing as a source of humor.  

Director Robert Currier, who along with music director Paul Smith and choreographer Rick Wallace consider themselves long-time fans of the comedy troupe, has gathered a game cast to execute the tomfoolery. Many of them essay several roles, with Monroe’s Arthur at the center as more-or-less the show’s straight man forced to deal with the silliness surrounding him. They’re all good, with O’Malley doing yeoman’s work in three very different roles – the Historian, Not Dead Fred, and Prince Herbert. Zelinksy is delightful as the Lady in the Lake and gets one of the show’s best musical numbers with “The Diva’s Lament”.

The timing and choreography could be crisper in several scenes and sound issues plagued the performance I attended, but if you’re on a quest for laughs, seek out Spamalot.

‘Monty Python’s Spamalot’ runs through August 25 in the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University in San Rafael. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 8 pm; the Sunday matinee is at 4 pm.

For more information, go to marinshakespeare.org.   

Napa’s Lucky Penny Production of “The Tasting Room” – August 14, 2019

Adhering to Mark Twain’s advice to “write what you know”, Napa Valley’s Barry Martin has written and directed a play based on his experiences in the wine hospitality trade. The Tasting Room, running now at Napa’s Lucky Penny Community Arts Center through August 18, is his comedic take on the individuals found on both sides of a tasting room bar.

The fictional Lusch (that’s pronounced loosh, not lush) Family Vineyards are struggling to survive, and sisters Rebecca (Taylor Bartolucci) and Emily (Danielle DeBow) Lusch are doing their best to keep the doors open. Assisting them in this endeavor is wine educator Tony Spiccoli (Barry Martin), who’s not above adding some “special flavoring” to a rival vintner’s wine for comparison tasting.

Rebecca treats every patron as an inconvenience and that includes a gentleman named Sid Taylor (Michael Scott Wells). Mr. Taylor, who doesn’t seem to know much about wine, is about to get the heave-ho when it’s revealed that he’s the advance man for Wine Fanatic magazine and its imperious wine critic Elbert Fleeman (Michael Ross).

Fleeman and the Luschs seem to have some history, but that’s secondary to the fact that a good review from him could put the winery back on the path to solvency. They have just a few hours to prepare and a lot of their time is being taken up by a particularly pesky wine tourist (Tim Setzer).  How will the tasting go? And just what is the connection between Fleeman and Grandma Lusch?

Martin takes good-natured shots at just about everyone involved in the industry, from the jaded front-line hospitality staff to pretentious blogging connoisseurs. He has the most fun and generates the show’s biggest laughs with Tim Setzer’s wine tourist from hell. Setzer, who knows his way around a tasting room, is very funny in the role and plays well off of Martin’s wine selling huckster.

Bartolucci earns laughs as well as the sister who’s never met a mimosa she didn’t like. DeBow’s Emily is there to conveniently fall for the advance man and give the show a bit of a secondary plot, but Martin is asking his audience to swallow a lot that Fleeman would hire someone as un-wine-worldly as Sid to work for him.  

The Tasting Room doesn’t aspire to be much more than a live sitcom for locals – there’s nothing wrong with that – and at that level it succeeds.    

’The Tasting Room’ plays through August 18 at the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center in Napa. The Thursday performance is at 7pm; Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8pm, and the Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

For more information, go to luckypennynapa.com

Raven Theater’s As You Like It (Aired: August 7, 2019)

Summer used to be the season for Shakespeare ‘al fresco’ but with the shuttering of the Shakespeare in the Cannery Program last year it seems be in shorter supply these days. Still, interested patrons can find a couple of shows at opposite ends of the North Bay to satiate their seasonal appetite for the Bard.

Mill Valley’s Curtain Theatre will present The Merry Wives of Windsor in mid-August and the Marin Shakespeare Company will close their 30th season in September with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Healdsburg’s Raven Players are in the middle of their run of As You Like It.

Probably best known for the monologue that begins with “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…”, there’s so much going on in As You Like It as to make it almost impossible to summarize. Suffice it to say that it contains the usual Shakespeare plot devices – feuding Dukes, sibling rivalries, disguises, cross-dressing, mistaken identity, and young love. Add wrestling, sheep herding, and a melancholy malcontent to the mix and you’ve got a show.

Director Steven David Martin has set the production during the ’67 Summer of Love, which means its cast is attired in bell bottoms, beads, and bandanas and its scenes are bridged by some of the sixties’ best known musical hits. Healdsburg’s tiny West Plaza Park (really just a patch of grass between the Bear Republic Brewing Company and a municipal parking lot) fills in for the Forest of Arden where much of the play’s action takes place. 

There’s no set to speak of (just a single backdrop) and the large cast is often in a losing battle for vocal superiority with the nearby raucous brewpub patio crowd, but they’re an energetic group doing their best to bring a little theatre to their hometown audience. It’s actually a co-production with the City of Healdsburg and kudos to them for supporting the performing arts. 

The cast is peppered with some North Bay stalwarts as well as some new faces. Azulito Bernal as Orlando and Grace Reid as Rosalind are charming leads. Athena Gundlach’s ‘Jaques’ gets most of the good lines, while Hande Gokbas steals every scene she’s in as the put-upon and infatuated Phebe.

Ask audience members at the conclusion of the show what it was about and they might shrug their shoulders. Ask if they had a good time and I suspect they would enthusiastically nod their heads in the affirmative. 

‘As You Like It’ runs through August 10 at West Plaza Park in Healdsburg. Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 pm. Admission is free. Bring a blanket, a low-back chair, and a picnic to enjoy. 

For more information, go to raventheater.org.

Crimes of the Heart – Ross Valley Players (Aired: July 31, 2019)

The Ross Valley Players conclude their 89th season with a production of Crimes of the Heart, running in Ross through August 11. Beth Henley’s tragicomedy won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was followed by a film adaptation starring Sissy Spacek that nabbed three Oscar nominations.

The Magrath sisters have gathered at their grandfather’s home in Hazelhurst, Mississippi in support of sister Babe (Margaret Grace Hee) who’s out on bail after shooting her husband in the stomach. Lenny (Jensen Power) has been taking care of Grandpa after sister Meg (Chandler Parrott-Thomas) took off to Southern California in pursuit of a singing career.

Things haven’t turned out so well for any of them. Lenny’s given up hope of ever finding love because of a shrunken ovary. Meg, who left a broken heart in town, is back after suffering a breakdown and spending the last year working for a pet food company. Babe is going to find herself on trial soon for the attempted murder of her ne’er-do-well husband. Current problems and past grievances will test the bonds of sisterhood.

Full of the absurd and grotesque for which the style of “southern Gothic” is known, Henley’s play has six great character roles for actors, and director Pat Nims has filled those roles well. Along with the three aforementioned sisters, there’s Chick Boyle (Caitlin Strom-Martin), a neighboring cousin with a perpetually upturned nose; Doc Porter (Michel Harris), the man Meg left behind; and Barnett Lloyd (Jeremy Judge), the wet-behind-the-ears defense attorney who has taken Babe’s case for some “personal” reasons.

The cast keep their performances nicely modulated, with no one succumbing to the urge to go full “southern” and chew the scenery which, by the way, has been provided via a finely detailed set by Ron Krempetz.  The action is relegated to the kitchen of the modest Mississippi home with a short staircase leading to the rest of the house and front and back entry/exit ways. Subtle lighting and sound cues really enhance the environment.

Henley mines the dark material (suicide, infidelity, attempted murder, etc.) for a lot of humor, and none of it seems cheap. The ability for these women to carry on despite the harshness of their lives and still have hope for better times to come is one of this show’s appeals. Audiences looking for a little support in their lives might learn a little something from the Magrath sisters.

‘Crimes of the Heart’’ runs Friday through Sunday through August 11 at the Barn Theatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 8pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

For more information go to rossvalleyplayers.com.

“Bonnie & Clyde” at SRJC’s Summer Repertory Theater (Aired: July 24, 2019)

After a one-year hiatus forced upon them by the renovation of Santa Rosa Junior College’s Burbank Auditorium, the Summer Repertory Theatre program returns with a full schedule of three musicals and two plays running in “rep”. The plays will continue to be performed in Newman Auditorium while the musicals are being done in the SRT Performance Pavilion; an enclosed, air-conditioned, hi-tech tent erected over the campus tennis courts that seats 300 in-the-round.

Their season opened in June with the 147th Bay Area production of Mamma Mia! and continues with the musical Bonnie & Clyde. It had a brief Broadway run in 2011 before being relegated to the regional and community theatre circuit. Opening with the deaths of Bonnie Parker (Jamie Goodson) and Clyde Barrow (Cameron Blakeley), it travels through time from their childhood to their violent end.

Young Bonnie (Evie Goodwin) wants to be a movie star like Clara Bow and Young Clyde (Liev Bruce-Low) wants to be an outlaw like Billy the Kid. Their older counterparts meet cute and in no time one of their dreams comes true. Along for the ride is Clyde’s brother Buck (CJ Garbin), his wife Blanche (Gabbi Browdy), and local constable Ted Hinton (Jeremy Beloate) who pines for Bonnie but will soon join forces with the lawmen sent to track the gang down.

Taking a cue from the 1967 Hollywood blockbuster starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the show presents a highly fictionalized and romanticized version of the story with a book by Ivan Menchell, music by Frank Wildhorn and lyrics by Don Black. Music director Jane Best and a nine-piece orchestra (tucked behind a curtain in the back) do a good job with the mostly-unmemorable mixture of country, blues, and gospel music.

The young cast who, in a rarity, are actually close to the ages of the protagonists, do well by their roles with particularly strong work done by Goodson and Browdy. Beloate shines in the show’s stand-out number “You Can Do Better Than Him”.

Director James Newman mostly meets the challenges of performing in-the-round, though sight-line and audio issues are present, especially for those sitting directly in front of the orchestra. The minimalist set by Sarah Beth Hall works and there’s creative use of crates, suitcases and trunks to create various set pieces. Terrific costuming by Megan Richardson evokes the period.

SRT’s Bonnie & Clyde is a well-crafted and well-performed production of a mediocre musical. 

‘Bonnie & Clyde’ runs through August 7 in the SRT Performance Pavilion at the back of the campus of Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa. Add some extra time to your plans to find it. Dates and times vary.

For specific show dates and times and ticketing information, go to summerrep.com

Marin Theater Company’s “Measure for Measure” – July 17, 2019

The Marin Shakespeare Company opens its 30th season with Measure for Measure. The Bard’s take on justice and mercy would seem to be a perfect fit for a company that brings their Shakespeare for Social Justice program to eight California State Prisons.

Officially labeled as a comedy, it’s considered by some to be one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ in which the situation a main character gets into is reflective of a greater societal problem. In Measure for Measure, it’s the enforcement of law with little mercy.

Judge Vincentio (Patrick Russell) cedes his authority to Judge Angelo (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) in an attempt to avoid responsibility for the strict enforcement of the law. Vincentio disguises himself as a friar so he can stick around and see what happens.

Angelo begins immediate enforcement of the laws, closing all the brothels (except those that cater to the upper crust) and imposing the death penalty on those found guilty of fornication.  Claudio (Brennan Pickman-Thoon), who has impregnated his girlfriend, soon finds himself on death row. He begs his friend Lucio (Ariel Zuckerman) to get his sister Isabella (Luisa Frasconi) to leave her convent and intercede with the judge.

Isabella meets with the judge to plead for her brother’s life. After a day’s consideration, Angelo offers to release Claudio if Isabella gives herself to him. Isabella threatens to expose him, but the smug Angelo knows she will not be believed, “Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.”

Working behind the scenes to right the many wrongs in play, Vincentio puts a plan in motion to save the day.

One of Shakespeare’s lesser known and infrequently-produced works, director Robert Currier has added elements to make the play more contemporary. The set by Jackson Currier is modeled after San Quentin. The costumes by Tammy Berlin are modern. Spoken word sound-bites by LeMar “Maverick” Harrison and picket signs with social justice messages were used to bridge the scenes.Devices like these are often used to make a play more accessible, but this a case where the show was lesser (and longer than it needed to be) for some of them.

Performances ranged from the professional to the amateurish with the best work done by Russell, O’Malley (when you could hear him), Frasconi, Steven Price as advisor Escalus, and Ed Berkeley as Pompey.

Get past the directorial excesses and you’ll find a darkly comic tale of morality, hypocrisy, and law. After all, the play’s the thing.

‘Measure for Measure’ runs through July 21 at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University in San Rafael. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 8 pm; the Sunday matinee is at 4 pm.

For more information, go to marinshakespeare.org.