“The Convert” – March 4, 2015

Change is part of life.

Some changes are easy, others much less so.

And when cultures collide, change is often dangerous, violent, and destructive. From the opening scenes of Danai Gurira’s astonishing period drama “The Convert” – set in Colonial Africa in the late 1800s – we are plunged into the middle of such a change, as the brutal dominance of the British Empire and the aggressive forward thrust of Christianity brings civilization to the people of Africa – whether they want it or not. The absorbing and emotionally powerful play – presented with sensitivity and passion by Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley – follows a young Shona woman, whose conversion to Catholicism puts her at the precarious center of her country’s increasingly violent cultural divide. As the occupying English government imposes its rule, one of its tools of dominance is, of course, the church, its leaders waging war on local “pagan” practices, forcing codes of dress and behavior that seem bizarre to the locals, at the very least, and in some cases, represent a betrayal of centuries of local custom and religious tradition.

In a transcendent performance by Katherine Renee Turner, young Jekesai – speaking no English, having never set foot inside a house with an actual floor of cement or wood – has sought shelter at the home of Mr. Chilford, a pro-English Shona convert who lives in the rapidly colonializing country of Rhodesia. Bare-breasted and terrified, Jekesai hopes to escape a forced marriage to an elderly villager who has purchased her to join his other wives, by trading a goat to her cruel uncle, played by L. Peter Callender with comically menacing perfection.

Mr. Chilford has willingly traded in his native name and style of dress for proper Victorian substitutes. As a result, he’s incurred the suspicions of the locals, who call him bafu, or “traitor.” His chief allies are the well-tailored Chancellor – played with relish by Jefferson A. Russell – and Chancellor’s educated fiancée Prudence, an amazing character brought to life by the sensational Omoze Idehenre.

Fond of the benefits of British culture they’ve adopted, they are only gradually realizing that they will never be treated as equal to the wealthy whites who are coming to their country in droves, and are rapidly losing the connection to their own people.

And then there’s Jekesai.

Her resourceful aunt Mai Tamba, a wonderful Elizabeth Carter, works as a servant to the deeply Catholic Mr. Chilford. It’s a job Mai Tamba keeps by feigning conversion to Christianity, half-reciting her prayers – “Hail Mary, full of ghosts!” – while secretly maintaining her old customs, hiding charms in the house, reciting prayers to her ancestors. She encourages Jekesai, whose quickly been dressed in “proper” attire and renamed Ester, to follow her example, never guessing the young woman will quickly take to Christianity with a passionate fervor surpassing even Chillford’s.

As local anger against the British grows, Ester’s faith is put to increasingly impossible tests, her love of Jesus competing against her commitment to her family, her country and her most basic sense of identity.

“The Convert,” three hours long, told in three riveting acts, is gorgeously written by Gurira, best-known as an actress. She plays Michonne in the TV series The Walking Dead. This stunningly well-done production is directed with exceptional skill by director Jasson Minadakis. The story only stumbles in its final moments, with a perplexing twist that seems less the result of previous actions, and more a calculated attempt at giving the play some shock value.

It’s a tiny issue in a play of monumental power and insight.

The power of “The Convert,” a must-see if ever there was one, is how it illustrates, with impeccable beauty, how the changes we experience can affect more than just ourselves. When who we are shifts, we also change our families, our communities, and sometimes, violently or peaceably, for good or for bad, we end up changing the whole world.

“The Convert” runs Tuesday–Sunday through March 15 at Marin Theatre Company, marintheatre.org

“Bonnie & Clyde;” and “Shining City” – February 25, 2015

The thing about death is, it’s not negotiable.

Sooner or later, we all have to face it.

Till then, it’s hanging out there, somewhere, waiting for us.

And one way we deal with that is by experiencing books, movies, songs, poetry and plays about the inevitability of death. Somehow, when glimpsing the grim reaper through the arts, we feel a little better because, I don’t know, maybe watching other people deal with the specter of mortality makes it all seem more normal.

Or something.

If that’s your take, then a pair of just-opened plays make be just your cup of tea, since the inevitability of death hangs over both of them like an ax dangling above a doorway in a condemned cabin in the middle of an earthquake.

First, there’s Conor McPherson’s evocative drama “Shining City,” now playing at Main Stage West, in Sebastopol. In this sly, slippery, deceptively unassuming play, the author of “The Weir” and “The Seafarer” has crafted a ghost story, of sorts, in which a troubled Dublin therapist named Ian, played with marvelous intensity and fragile humanity by Nick Sholley, gains a new client: an anxious insomniac named John, played brilliantly by John Craven.

Poor old John. A steady-minded businessman, he is shaken by the fact that he keeps seeing the ghost of his recently deceased wife. And she doesn’t seem happy. Unable to sleep, afraid to enter his own house, John believes he’s being haunted for certain unspoken sins. Ian, convinced his new client is simply struggling with feelings of grief and unresolved guilt, gently coaxes the old man toward facing his fears, all the while carrying his own soul-crushing battle with shame and despair.

With carefully crafted delicacy, the playwright takes us through Ian’s increasingly powerful therapy sessions with John, scenes that play out against a pair of shattering close encounters Ian has with the fierce-but-frail Neassa (Ilana Niernberger) the mother of Ian’s child, and with Laurence (John Browning) a sensitive street hustler who brings Ian an unexpected understanding of how the world works. Elegantly staged by director Beth Craven, beautifully acted by the entire ensemble – with special kudos to Craven for the astonishing twenty-minute monologue that comes mid-way through the show – this rich, emotionally powerfully story is more than just a chilling ghost story. In the end, “Shining City” – glowing with intelligence, humor and humanity – reveals itself as a lyrical, lush look at the conversations we have, and the choices we all make, to feel alive in a world haunted by the ghosts of our past decisions.

Next up, “Bonnie and Clyde: the musical.”

It is widely known that the notorious Depression-era outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrows died violently in a hail of gunfire. In a car. In Texas. In composer Frank Wildhorn’s musical reworking of the bank robbers’ lives, the legendary tale begins at the end, the sound of gunfire, the flash of light, and famous fugitives’ bloody bodies dead in their car.

Ivan Menchell’s clever script then jumps back in time to Bonnie and Clyde’s childhoods, gradually working the story’s way back to where it began. It’s an effective choice.

As the title characters, Taylor Bartolucci and James Bock have some killer chemistry, thick enough to spread on a baguette, and they are matched in poise and presence by Scottie Woodard and Heather Buck as Clyde’s brother Buck and sister-in-law Blanche. Barry Martin, as a local preacher, brings some impressive southern gospel charm.

The somewhat uneven musical score does have a few strong moments, mostly when emphasizing the tragic love story at the heart of the play. On Jesse Dreikosen’s first-rate set of jagged wooden slats, director Craig Miller keeps the tension building and building and building, right to end.

And that’s no small feat, considering the fact that, hey, everyone knows the ending.

“Bonnie & Clyde” runs Thursday–Sunday through March 15 at 6th Street Playhouse. 6thstreetplayhouse.com.

“Shining City” runs Thursday–Sunday through March 15 at Main Stage West. Maistagewest.com.

“Carousel” – February 18, 2015

“Carousel,” the second musical created by the legendary Rogers & Hammerstein, is noted today for two major things. One – it’s the show from which we gained the songs “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” sometimes alternately known as “When You Walk Through a Storm,” a song without which funerals, church services, graduations, and high school music recitals would have been a very different experience over the last 70 years. The SECOND Thing “Carousel” is usually noted for is, well, the plot of the 1945 musical is kinda weird and sort of unsettling, But Hey, at least it’s got that ‘Storm’ song.

And didn’t Elvis have a huge hit with that song?

Yes, he did.

In truth, “Carousel,” a huge hit when it first spun onto Broadway with John Raitt and Jan Clayton in the leads, has a LOT of great songs, some of which you might even have heard before. “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” for what it’s worth, has been bustin‘ into movies, Bugs
Bunny cartoons, and major league baseball commercials ever since it first hit the stage. Then there’s, “If You Loved Me,” covered on record albums hundreds of times by everyone from Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como to Art Garfunkel, Chad & Jeremy and Sammy Davis Jr.

And of course, though it has no lyrics and almost no one knows its name, this piece of music, “The Carousel Waltz,” is one of the most famous pieces of circus music ever written, gracing zillions of music boxes for seven decades.

Less famous, but worth noting is “Real Nice Clambake,” which gave us the indelible lyric, “This was a real nice clambake/we’re mighty glad we came/the vittles we et/were good, you bet/the company was the same.”

Man, that’s poetry.

Actually, all kidding aside, that IS poetry.

Rogers & Hammerstein’s commitment to capturing the vernacular of their characters was unheard of on the Broadway musical stage before R&H arrived with “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “The King & I,” and “Carousel.”

Oh, by the way, the reason I’m talking about it is that Spreckels Performing Arts Center is currently presenting a delightfully stripped down production of “Carousel,” putting the music front and center along with the orchestra, which is right there on stage with musical director Janis Wilson. Billed as a staged concert, it’s more of a fully staged musical with minimal sets, and an orchestra you can actually look at during the show if you want to.

But with gorgeous costumes, snappy choreography, and some truly magnificent singers and actors, you’ll soon stop noticing the musicians and be pulled into the story.

Or not.

The truth is, “Carousel” DOES have a kind of a weird, conspicuously dated story, in which the residents of a turn of the century New England mill town deal with everyday problems: love, poverty, death, spousal abuse, class divisions, what to do when you’ve died with unfinished business, and timeless issue of finding a suitable rhyme to the word ‘vittles.’ The music is lovely, and it weaves in and out of the dialogue like a river along a gentle mountainside.

Directed with fondness and a staunch refusal to ‘fix’ any of the stories outdated ideas, this “Carousel” but putting focus on it’s most notable attribute, the music, is as pleasant and laidback as a lazy ride on a merry-go-round – or a summertime clambake amongst friends.

“Carousel” runs through March first at Spreckels Performing Arts Center – spreckelsonline.com

“I Am My Own Wife” – February 11, 2015

Twelve years ago, journalist and playwright Doug Wright unveiled a new one-actor play with a curious name: “I Am My Own Wife.” As a member of the Tectonic Theater, which had earlier premiered the ground breaking play “The Laramie Project,” Wright was fully adept at the process of creating documentary style theater, a play that built from actual interviews with people who lived the experiences being recreated on stage, actors performing real-life characters using the actual words collected in the interview.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and travel was permitted into East Berlin for the first time since 1961, word began to spread about a woman named Charlotte Von Mahlsdorff, an elderly antique dealer who ran a museum in her home. Charlotte was an openly transgender woman; people then referred to her as a transvestite. When Doug Wright learned that a transgender woman had somehow survived not only the communist regime of East Germany, but the Nazis before that, he set out to build a play around her experiences, using actual interviews, which he taped face-to-face over the course of a few years.

Wright decided to emphasize the play’s tale of isolation and endurance by having all 40 characters, including himself and Charlotte, played by one single actor.

The result, “I Am My Own Wife,” is as much Wright’s journey as it is Charlotte Von Mahlsdorff’s, something much deeper, richer, complex and mysterious than a mere survivor story. It premiered on Broadway in 2003, winning the Tony for Best new play, and going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

In 2006, working with director Jennifer King, North Bay Actor Stephen Abbott tackled ‘I Am My Own Wife’ at Sonoma County Repertory Theater, a brilliantly-staged performance that played sell-out crowds. Four years later, Abbott and King remounted the show at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, with similar results. And now, nine years after first playing Charlotte Von Mahlsdorff, Abbott is doing it once again, this time at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma.

While it seems impossible to improve upon perfection, Abbott is doing just that. He is once again working with director King, who recently visited Germany and toured the real-life home and museum of Von Mahsldorff, who died in 2002 at the age of 74. That up-close-and-personal touch has only deepened the show, King introducing tiny details on which Abbott builds his characters, each one a bit more real, more clearly defined and complicated than ever.

Regardless of how one ultimately feels about Von Mahlsdorff, and the questions of how she actually survived her years under brutal totalitarian regimes, this is an impressive work of art. Was she telling the truth with stories of killing her Nazi father with a rolling pin and turning a beloved gay friend over to the communists at his request? Did she really operate a gay brothel under the eyes of one of the most oppressive governments in history? Some of her stories are easier to swallow than others. Perhaps it was her ability to tell tall tales, to spin the truth her own way, part of what allowed her to survive in such an impossible set of situations? Either way, Abbott fully embodies the heart and soul of this extraordinary human being, showing her from the inside out, along with scores of the family, friends, soldiers, neighbors, customers, journalists and visitors she met along the way.

As an extraordinary feat of first-rate theater, “I am My Own Wife” is a must see. As an inspiring, true-ish tale of living as your heart guides you, existing by your own rules, it could even, for some, be nothing short of life-changing.

“I Am My Own Wife” runs through February 22 at Cinnabar theater, cinnabartheater.org.

“Heroines” and “In the Next Room” – February 4, 2015

In Victorian England, the unhappy wife of a repressed doctor yearns to feel alive – and finally takes matters into her own hands. In an imaginary steam-punk version of Victorian England, a band of brave, opera-singing women similarly yearn to be happy, free – and a little bit naughty – and they make it happen through the power of song. In East Berlin, Germany, a mysterious woman with a powerful secret survives against impossible odds, ultimately becoming an inspiration to a young American journalist. She survives through the power of her own belief in herself.

In three productions either currently running or about to open in the North Bay, the concept of “gender” is just the tip of the iceberg in stories that challenge us, the audience, to look beneath the surface of some amazing human beings – some real, some fictional – all with something to show us we might not be expecting.

Let’s start with “Heroines,” opening tomorrow night at Sonoma State University.

This one is a brand new original musical review featuring classic operetta tunes from the likes of Bertolt Brecht, Franz Lehar, Gilbert & Sullivan and others. It was created by musical director Lynn Morrow and stage director Jane Irwin Hammett, who appropriately titled their piece, “Heroines.” Set during a time of radical change in England, when women were demanding the vote and a whole lot more, the piece pulls famous females from out of other stories and throws them all together. Due to a magical twist of time, these women from various centuries join forces to express their feelings through indelible songs borrowed from shows like “The Threepenny Opera,” “The Merry Widow,” and other musical masterpieces, and number from the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. In a fantasy version of London, these iconic characters come together in a city blending visuals from Dickens with ideas from Jules Verne, joining their hearts and voices in a revolutionary effort to break the shackles of tradition and inequality.

Sounds fun, huh?

New shows deserve our support, and SSU, in recent years, has made a strong effort to present at least one original show a year. And with voices recruited from SSU’s Departments of Music and Theater Arts & Dance, this is a production that probably will sound like a blast of pure operatic dynamite – and then some.

Meanwhile, At Cinnabar Theater, Doug Wright’s Pulitzer-winning one-actor drama “I Am My Own Wife” introduces audiences to a different kind of heroine: the real-life Charlotte von Mahlsdorff, a transgender woman whose courage – and possibly a bit of treasonous duplicity – allowed her to escape Hitler’s concentration camps, and survive, in her own way, operating a small museum under the noses of her enemies, all during the communist party’s decades-long reign of suspicion and terror.

I’ll be reviewing it in full next week.

And finally, there’s Sarah Ruhl’s eye-opening drama, “In the Next Room,” subtitled, “The Vibrator Play.” This is a daring move for the usually fairly reserved Raven Players. The play looks at the marriage of a late Victorian woman and her husband, a doctor specializing in the treatment of hysterical women. He has been using a new treatment, made possible through the power of electricity, which seems to leave his patience extremely happy, and eager for their next appointment. It only his wife could become the focus of his attentions, she – and maybe even he – could find what is missing in their lives.

Gorgeously written by Ruhl, it’s a love story with a jolt of raw truth, another story of what happens when strong women are given the power they need to take control of their own destinies, their own happiness, their own world.

“I Am My Own Wife” runs February 6-22 at Cinnabar Theater, cinnabartheater.org.

“Heroines” runs February 5-15 in the Evert B. Person Theater at Sonoma State University, Sonoma.edu.

“In the Next Room” (or “The Vibrator Play”) runs through February 14 at Raven Theater, Raventheater.org

Theatre Awards Season! – January 28, 2015

It’s awards season, and everyone’s talking about who got nominated and who didn’t. And no, I’m not talking about the Oscars. Last week, the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle announced the nominees for its upcoming 29th annual awards ceremony, to be held Monday March 9, at the Victoria Theater in San Francisco. After decades of neglect from the Circle, which simply has had a majority of writers working and watching shows in the City, the East Bay and South Bay, the poor North Bay, and especially Sonoma County, has recently been enjoying a gradual shift in attention from the Circle, of which I am a member. Last year, there were actually a fair number of wins for a few surprised actors, directors and stage artists from North of the Golden Gate.

With this year’s announcements though, it’s as if some sort of theatrical earthquake has hit the area, changing the geography so much that even Main Stage West, in far-from-the-Bridge Sebastopol got a number of well-deserved nominations.

The reason for the change?

It’s a mix of factors, one being simply that more North Bay theater critics have joined the circle of late, at the same time that the ranks of the circle have been declining due to attrition and other factors. So the odds once stacked impenetrably against Sonoma County theater artists are, for the time being, somewhat in our favor. There are, in fact, too many local names to mention all of them here, though I will point out a few highlights, and let you look for yourselves, if you find yourself curious. I’ll give the link to the Critics Circle web site in just a minute.

Focusing primarily on Sonoma County, congratulations are due to Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater, snapping up 22 nominations, including a Best Director nod for Sheri Lee Miller, for last year’s spectacular “Of Mice and Men,” which also got nominations for Samson Hood for best Principle actor in a play, who played Lennie in the production also nominated for best show and best ensemble. Cinnabar was also awarded several nominations for its production of “The Marriage of Figaro,” and for “Fiddler on the Roof,” the latter snapping up a nomination for best principle actress for Elly Lichenstein and Best principle actor for Stephen Walsh.

Nineteen nominations were awarded to Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse including several for choreography in a musical – congrats to Stacie Ariaga and Joseph Favalora for their work on “Grease” and “Victor/Victoria,” both for Stacie, and “Thoroughly Modern Milly,” that one for Joe.

6th Street also several got nominations for acting, including a much-deserved nomination for Abbey Lee, stealing every scene and dazzling audience with her hilarious strip-tease seduction in “Victor Victoria,” and Larry Williams, doing the same thing, sort of, with exhausting-to-watch energy in the comedy “Boing Boing.” Other acting nominations include one for Trevor Hoffman who played Kinicki in 6th Street’s production of “Grease.”

Other companies honored are Spreckels Performing Arts Center, with a whopping 25 nominations, including acting nods for members of “The Book Of Matthew Liebowits,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Oliver!,” and “Bell, Book and Candle,” and “Scrooge the Musical”. Then there’s Main Stage West, with fourteen nominations, including one for Mary Gannon Graham for her work in “Mother Jones in Heaven,” directing nods for Sheri Lee Miller for “T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common” and Beth Craven for “Yankee Tavern,” and acting nominations for Sheri Lee Miller (a good year for her) for her work in “Other Desert Cities,” which also got nominations for Sharia Pierce.

Whew! These names are just the tip of the iceberg.

To read them for yourself, and get info on how you can attend and cheer on our local heroes, go to the website at SFBATCC.ORG, those being, of course, the initials of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle. Check it out.

“The Fever” – January 21, 2015

I saw an amazing performance last weekend, but I have no clue how to properly describe what I saw. I could start by talking about Wallace Shawn, the playwright of “The Fever,” which was first performed in 1990 or so, was turned into a provocative film in 2004, and is now being performed by actor and author Elliot Fintushel, most commonly in other people’s living rooms.

Occasionally their backyards.

And for one more weekend . . . in an actual theater, Main Stage West in Sebastopol to be specific.

But I was talking about Wallace Shawn.

He’s best known as the voice of Rex the lovable plastic dinosaur from the Toy Story movies, or as the villainous Vizzini in “The Princess Bride,” yeah the guy who says, “Inconceivable.” You might even know him as the other guy at the dinner table in ‘My Dinner With André,’ the one who wasn’t André.

Anyway, Shawn is also a playwright, and while his films are often light and airy and fluffy and mostly positive, his plays – including things like “The Designated Mourner” and “Aunt Dan” and “Lemon” – are not. An avowed socialist, Wallace writes plays about the world at large, about politics and oppression and the plight of the poor and dangers of fascism and hypocrisy of the ruling class.

But of course, he’s also a millionaire. The website celebritynetworth.com estimates Shawn’s fortune at about eight million. So as a socialist, Shawn feels sort of conflicted about that.

Which is why he wrote “The Fever,” a stunningly effective, frequently lyrical, inescapably uncomfortable, and occasionally very, very funny ninety-minute monologue, which Shawn originally performed for his rich Hollywood friends in their own living rooms, which made them uncomfortable, which was exactly Wallace Shawn’s intention.

How do we in the west deal with our position of privilege, how do we who enjoy relative wealth and luxury compared with all of those third world countries where people have literally nothing actually make ourselves okay with that?

Told as if it’s just some guy at a dinner party telling a story about a recent trip abroad, the wildly stream-of-consciousness monologue traces the storytellers gradual existential crisis, made vivid while suffering a strange fever that keeps him on the bathroom floor of a hotel in a small country currently engaged in violent revolution.

It’s an astonishing piece of writing, and in Elliot Fintushel’s hands, a wholly remarkable act of high-risk performance art. At Main Stage West, you can sit on stage with Fintushel if you like, perched on a comfy couch, though you may also sit out in the darkened theater if that’s too intense for you. Either way, what you will witness is the theatrical equivalent of Philippe Petit’s famous tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in New York. Barely moving from his own chair at center stage, Fintushel takes his audience on a journey through what it means to be human being in a world where only a few share the wealth while the majority go without. It’s powerful,
challenging, important, sad, funny, beautiful, and (though definitely not exactly light-hearted theater) DEFINITELY an experience you are not likely to regret, or easily shake off . . . on your way home.

“The Fever” runs this Thursday through Sunday at mainstage west, mainstagewest.com

“Clybourne Park” – January 14, 2015

One need not have ever seen Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun to appreciate the setup – or laugh at the jokes – in Bruce Norris’s brilliant 2012 Pulitzer-and-Tony-winning comedy-drama “Clybourne Park.”

Taking place immediately following the events of the original, Clybourne – running through January 25 at 6th Street Playhouse – is a smart, insightful, baldy frank and frequently hilarious examination of the racial divide in America.

Hansberry’s play – which gave many theater-going white folks their first glimpses into the lives of Africa-American families – takes place in a poor, Southside neighborhood of Chicago in 1959, where the African-American Younger family is preparing to move to a house they’ve just purchased in the all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. At the end of that play, Karl – a nervous, white representative of Clybourne Park – visits the Youngers, attempting to bully, cajole or outright bribe them into selling the house back – something they ultimately refuse to do.

In “Clybourne Park,” directed with expert comic timing, gripping intensity and escalating drama by Carl Jordan, the action now takes place in the Clybourne Park house the Youngers have purchased.

The place is half-empty, its contents mostly packed into cardboard boxes standing here and there on the nicely detailed set by Ronald Krempetz, as its white residents Bev and Russ prepare to move out of the area. When Karl, the white guy from Raisin in the Sun, appears – having just come from failing to bribe the Youngers – Russ stubbornly digs in his heels at the suggestion he should assist the neighborhood in keeping the black family out.

It turns out Russ has some grudges against his neighbors, in part for the way they treated his son after the Korean War.

The escalating conflict, which pulls in the young minister Jim and Karl’s deaf, very-pregnant wife Betsy, takes place in the presence of Russ and Bev’s longsuffering black housecleaner Lena and her husband Albert, who gradually insert their own opinions about the callous racism they are witnessing.

Decisions are made. Words are exchanged. Lives are changed. Then, in the play’s boldest move, the story suddenly leaps fifty years ahead.

In Act 2, the Younger’s home is now a condemned wreck covered in graffiti, the property about to be demolished following years of drug-enhanced neglect in the once depressed, all-black but now mixed-race and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The same, supremely strong flexible cast appears again, this time as contemporary characters, gathering at the house to discuss the details of what kind of structure can be built on the same spot. IT being a historically valuable neighborhood, there are rules how big, and how tacky, the new owners are allowed to make any new building. The witty dialogue is riveting, raw, and real, as the marvelous cast shows us the prejudices still lurking below the surface, demonstrating with humor and candid transparency that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

“Clybourne Park” runs Thursday–Sunday through Jan. 25 at 6th Street Playhouse. 6thstreetplayhouse.com

“Edith Piaf: Under Paris Skies” – January 7, 2015

It’s a new year, and as the North Bay theater community prepares to launch its first shows of 2015, Cinnabar Theater, in Petaluma, has already unveiled its newest show, and I mean new. “Edith Piaf: Under Paris Skies” is an original commission, assembled from scratch for Cinnabar Theater, and though its creators are better known as performers than authors, I predict their clever, moving, raunchy, mysterious, funny, sad and seductive little musical theater piece will definitely have a life beyond Cinnabar, or should, if there is any justice in the world.

Written by Michael Van Why and Valenitna Osinski, with additional work by translator Lauren Lundgren, “Edith Piaf: Under Paris Skies” is primarily a musical revue, blending many of the legendary French cabaret singer’s best-known songs with a number of obscure treasures from the far reaches of her repertoire. The songs are sensitively and cleverly blended with biographical vignette’s, adapted mainly from the memoir’s of Piaf’s sister Simone, played with world-weary panache by Melissa Weaver, who also directs the shopw with endlessly entertaining creativity. Simone appears as a kind of narrator/spirit guide through the show, commenting on but also interacting with Piaf. In the show’s most interesting artistic choice, Piaf is played by four different performers – two female, two male – each embodying a different aspect of Piaf’s character.

Osinski, for example, is Reckeless Piaf, while Van Why plays Jaded Piaf. Joining them are Julia Hathaway as Romantic Piaf, and Kevin Singer as Traditional Piaf.

Piaf’s life was a rough one, and the script does not shy away from that, with language and sexual references that are suitably appropriate to the kind of hard-drinking, hard-hitting life she rose from, and eventually fell back to. That the creators of the show chose not to turn Piaf into a singer-makes-good saint is one of the strengths of the show. Through the four aspects of Piaf’s personality, demonstrated through songs that chart her growth as a writer and as a defiant, love-struck, frail but also fearless human being, we get a better sense of who this woman was and what she achieved than any traditional biographical piece would do.

The music, performed by a tight stage band under the direction of Robert Lunceford and Al Haas, is sensational, all of it arranged by the directors, who had almost no printed sheet music to work with.

The first act is perhaps a bit too long, with a few too many songs crammed in, but the second act, which includes the stories of Piaf’s doomed love affair with a prizefighter and her stint in an asylum. Flies along on a wave of dramatic power, aided by some of the show’s strongest musical pieces, including Piaf’s signature song La Vie en Rose. That song, a sweet and melancholy description of love in all its openhearted vulnerability, has lasted for decades, pretty much defining Piaf’s commitment to the kind of love she dreamed of but never found. Here’s hoping that audiences will find “Edith Piaf: Under Paris Skies,” and that it will have a life as rich and memorable as the woman who inspired it.

“Edith Piaf: Under Paris Skies” runs through January 18 at Cinnabar Theater. Cinnabartheater.org