Sovereignty at Marin Theater Company (Aired: October 16, 2019)

There aren’t a lot of plays that explore Native American history or the modern-day social and political issues that continue to challenge that community. Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty, running at the Marin Theatre Company through Oct. 20, attempts to do both in about two hours.

Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) returns to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma seeking a position with Attorney General John Ross (John Waid) with the hope of enforcing the Violence Against Women Act on tribal lands and perhaps getting the opportunity to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 Oliphant decision. That decision declared that Native American Tribal Courts had no criminal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans.

Things are complicated by family history. Sarah’s ancestors were part of the Cherokee nation who agreed to the Treaty of New Echota which ceded all Cherokee territory east of the Mississippi to the United States and led to the Trail of Tears.  Ross’s ancestors considered those that supported the treaty traitors and put many of them to death.

So begins the back and forth between the two centuries that tells the story of the Cherokee nation, the abuse they suffered (and continue to suffer) at the hands of the United States government, the two families, and how the decisions of the past continue to haunt the present.

Playwright Nagle is also an attorney which would explain the very legal approach she took to her script. In her zeal to enter all the facts of her case, she enters all the facts of her case through reems of expository dialogue in which her characters come off more as court clerks citing cases than co-workers and family members engaged in conversation. 

It’s not the fault of director Jasson Minadakis’s talented cast (the majority of whom are Native American) that the dialogue they’re given to deliver often seems straight out of a History Channel reenactment or that one character leaps from charming goofball to vicious thug in a seeming-millisecond.    

I left the opening night performance thinking that rather than cram two centuries worth of history into a single play, audiences might be better served with a series of plays (à la August Wilson) that tone down the legal-ese and up the humanity quotient.   uerecsa Huer

There’s a lot of good work on stage and the information imparted by Sovereignty is important (and sadly little-known), but theatre needs to be more than just a staged legal brief.

‘Sovereignty’ runs Tuesday through Sunday through October 20 at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. Tuesday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30pm; there are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.

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Gypsy at the 6th Street Playhouse (Aired: October 9, 2019)

In sports, the term ‘ringer’ generally refers to the practice of using a clearly superior competitor in order to gain an unfair advantage. In theatrical terms, it can be used to describe the importation of outside talent in the hope of drawing a larger-than-normal audience. In both cases, the hope is that the player/performer will hit it out of the park.

6th Street Playhouse has a ringer in their cast of Gypsy, running through Oct. 20, in the person of Kathy Fitzgerald. A successful character actress with featured roles in several Broadway hits (Wicked, The Producers), Ms. Fitzgerald takes on the challenging lead role of Momma Rose in what many consider to be the greatest American musical.

Momma Rose will stop at nothing to make her daughter “Baby” June (Gigi Bruce-Low) a star, keeping her perpetually young as they cross the country with a third-rate vaudeville act. When the grown up “Dainty” June (Melody Payne) tires of the child act and elopes with one of the young men from the troupe, Momma Rose turns her sight to frequently dismissed second daughter Louise (Cecilia Brenner, then Carmen Mitchell.) With vaudeville dying, they’re reduced to appearing at a low-rent theatre that turns out to be a burlesque house.  When the main ‘attraction’ is unable to go on, Momma Rose sees the chance to make Louise a star, if only for a night. The shy and retiring Louise soon becomes Gypsy Rose Lee.

The book by Arthur Laurents is complimented by the classic Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim score that contains such classics as “Let Me Entertain You”, “Together Wherever We Go”, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”, and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”.

Director Jared Sakren got a ‘two-fer’ with the casting of Ms. Fitzgerald as she’s joined onstage by her husband Roger Michelson in the role of Herbie, the harried agent who’s hopelessly in love with Rose.  He’s quite good and is often the emotional heart of the show. Carmen Mitchell also shines as the coming-into-her-own Louise.

Production values are spotty, with the show visually flat until late in the second act when bright costuming by Pamela Johnson and lighting by April George elevated the show. The same can be said for Ms. Fitzgerald’s performance.

To return to sports parlance, she spent most of the show hitting singles and doubles and didn’t really get a great at-bat until the show’s conclusion with “Rose’s Turn”.  

It was a solid triple.

‘Gypsy’ runs through October 20 at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30pm; there are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.

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Merman’s Apprentice – October 2, 2019

It’s a virtual Merman-palooza in the North Bay as two theatre companies present ‘musical fables’ with Ethel Merman connections. Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse has Gypsy running through October 20 while Sonoma Arts Live has Merman’s Apprentice, an original musical with Merman a character, running through Oct. 13.

Merman’s Apprentice is a throw-back to the classic Broadway musical – a simple plot, larger-than-life characters, a little schmaltz, and lots of songs to tell its story.

Plucky 12-year-old Muriel Plakenstein (plucky 17-year-old Emma Sutherland) runs away to Broadway and runs right into her idol Ethel Merman (Dani Innocent Beem). Merman, about to begin a short run in Hello, Dolly!, is impressed with Muriel’s knowledge of her career and takes her under her wing. The next thing you know Plakenstein is set to star in an all-juvenile version of Dolly! for producer David Merrick (Patrick Barr).Or is she?

Playwright/lyricist Stephen Cole, a friend of Merman’s late in her life, joined up with composer David Evans to come up with this theatrical valentine to her and to Broadway. As the first full production of the show, co-directors Jaime Love and Larry Williams had no playbook to follow. Adding to their challenge, Cole and Evans were also present for the final week of rehearsal, so last-minute changes continued to be made.

The opening night performance went very well, but a few more changes should be considered. The first act overran a natural concluding moment and continued for two additional songs. The second act ran under thirty minutes. The acts should be better balanced.

There’s nary a note of any Merman standard to be heard in the show, but Cole and Evans’s score evokes the feel and sound of classic Broadway with lyrics that are often clever – one jarring anachronism aside. (I highly doubt a song ostensibly written in the 1940’s and sung in 1970 would reference FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in a dress.)

Emma Sutherland as the title character is a dynamo in the role. She more than holds her own with the estimable Dani Beem, who catches the essence of Ethel Merman while wisely avoiding any attempt at impersonation. There’s a nice ensemble at work with Julia Holsworth and Sean O’Brien a lot of fun as Ethel’s Mom and Pop.

A theatre-lover’s treat, the exceedingly pleasant Merman’s Apprentice is what All About Eve would have been in the hands of Walt Disney.

‘Merman’s Apprentice’ runs through October 13 at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center in Sonoma. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

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Curtain Call’s The Haunting of Hill House and Raven’s Arsenic & Old Lace (Aired: September 25, 2019)

Halloween comes early to North Bay stages with two productions more commonly seen around that particular holiday. Monte Rio’s Curtain Call Theatre recreates The Haunting of Hill House through September 28th while Healdsburg’s Raven Players present the serial-killing comedy Arsenic and Old Lace through September 29th.

Shirley Jackson’s 1958 novel The Haunting of Hill House is considered by many (including Steven King) to be one of the finest horror novels ever written. Adapted for film twice (and currently a Netflix series), F. Andrew Leslie adapted it for the stage in 1964 and its that version that is being presented.

Curtain Call’s previous genre production (Dracula) was undone by a leaden script. This time, it’s uneven performances that are problematic. Casting is often a challenge for smaller community theatres and this West County troupe is no exception. Where they excel is with scenic design. They somehow manage to get really interesting sets onto their tiny hall stage and can also be counted on to have some effective technical elements. Here, they do a good job in creating an atmosphere of fear and suspense through lighting, sound and special effects.

It’s an earnest production good for at least a shiver or two.

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ runs through September 28th at the Russian River Hall in Monte Rio. The Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8pm.

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Arsenic and Old Lace, Joseph Kesselring’s tale of the Brewster sisters and their proclivity for poisoning lonely, old gentlemen, has been an audience pleaser for over 75 years. The popular 1944 film adaptation directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant as nephew Mortimer Brewster contains what most film aficionados (and Grant himself) consider the debonair star’s worst performance.

Unfortunately, it’s that performance on which Michael Hunter appears to have based his interpretation of the role. The eye-popping, face mugging approach to the character didn’t work on film, and it doesn’t work on stage.

Other performances in this Joe Gellura-directed production do work, including Rebecca Allington and Priscilla Locke as Abby and Martha Brewster, Sophia Ferar as Mortimer’s girlfriend/fiancé, and Eric Yanez as a play-writing cop on the beat. Steve Cannon is actually a touch Karloff-ian as murderous brother Jonathan Brewster (Boris Karloff originated the role on Braodway) and the reliable Robert Bauer is amusing as Jonathan’s sidekick Dr. Einstein. Michael Romero is a bit young as Teddy, but his appearances bring much-needed energy to the proceedings.

With dated references and its raison d’être (Karloff) long gone, Arsenic is starting to feel old.

‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ runs Friday through Sun through September 29 at the Raven Performing Arts Theater in Healdsburg. Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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