Faceless – May 29, 2019

Courtroom dramas have long been a staple of mass entertainment. From TV’s Perry Mason to plays and films like The Caine Mutiny Court Marshall and A Few Good Men, audiences have long enjoyed the compact drama provided by a judicial trial. Playwright Selina Fillinger has written a worthy addition to that canon with Faceless, running now at 6th Street Playhouse through June 2.

Susie Glenn (Isabella Sakren) is an 18-year-old Chicago woman who is being put on trial for “conspiring to commit acts of terrorism”. Seduced and recruited on-line by a member of ISIS she knew as Reza, she converted to Islam and was apprehended on her way to become his bride.

United States Attorney Scott Bader (David Yen) is determined to make Susie an example for other easily-manipulated youth and figures the best way to do that is to have one of his assistant attorneys lead the prosecution. Why? Well, it might strengthen their case against a young, female Muslim defendant if it’s led by a young, female Muslim prosecutor. Claire Faith (Ilana Niernberger) at first resists the appointment as mere tokenism, but soon sees the case as a way to defend her faith against those who would corrupt it.

For the defense, Claire’s father Alan (Edward McCloud) has hired top gun attorney Mark Arenberg (Mike Pavone) who has his hands full dealing with a defendant who, upon looking at a photograph of her, is seen by one person as a confused young girl and by another as an angry young woman. Which persona will the jury see?

Former 6th Street Artistic Director Craig Miller returned to direct this crackling drama. Set in the round in their Studio Theatre, the focus switches back and forth between the two sides as they prepare for trial with sidebars to Susie’s social media-facilitated enlistment.

Conflict is at the heart of all good drama, and the religious, political, personal, and legal conflicts that envelop these characters all make for a gripping evening of theatre.   

Miller’s cast is terrific, delivering Fillinger’s sharp and often uncomfortably humorous dialogue via somewhat stock but nevertheless dynamic characters. All are excellent, with McCloud doing some very heavy lifting as a man living a parent’s worst nightmare – a child accused of a heinous crime.

An absorbing script, top notch performances, and some very effective technical elements combine to make Faceless one of the most compelling courtroom dramas in recent memory. Case closed.  

‘Faceless’ runs through June 2 at the 6th Street Playhouse Studio Theatre in Santa Rosa. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

For more information, go to 6thstreetplayhouse.com.

This Random World – May 22, 2019

Serendipity. Fate. Chance. Destiny. Karma. Fortune. Kismet.

Call it what ever you like, but playwright Steven Dietz (Becky’s New Car) doesn’t believe in it so much so that his play This Random World, running through May 26 at Left Edge Theatre, is even sub-titled The Myth of Serendipity. The connections that people have, make, or miss are the focal point of this pleasant collection of vignettes featuring pairs of characters.

There’s an over-achieving sister (Heather Gordon) and her under-achieving brother (Zane Walters at the performance I attended, Anthony Martinez at all others) who are bickering over the writing of an obituary. There’s a couple (Paige Picard, Ariel Zuckerman) who are dissolving their relationship from across the table at a bad Mexican restaurant. There’s an elderly woman (Trish DeBaun) and her caregiver (Rosie Frater) who travel the world and spend each morning looking at the sunrise. There’s also a funeral home receptionist (Chandler Parrott-Thomas) and a gentleman (Norman Hall) who makes a late appearance.

How these characters connect (or don’t) is something that the audience gets to discover – even if the characters never do – as the show progresses through its 90 intermission-less minutes. No point in ruining that for you now.

The play hopscotches around from such places as a living room to a mortuary to an airport to Nepal to a hospital waiting room and accomplishes this in Left Edge’s intimate theatre with a combination of great technical elements. Argo Thompson’s minimalist set and vibrant projection design are really enhanced by April George’s lighting and Joe Winkler’s sound design.

Director Phoebe Moyer has an excellent ensemble at work here with Dietz’s characters (with one exception) pretty much sharing the stage for equal amounts of time and each getting opportunities to shine in both comedic and dramatic moments. As the initial pairings of characters splinter off, each actor gets to display real range as their stories develop. All are excellent, with Gordon in particular displaying why she’s one of the best comedic talents around and DeBaun providing the wisdom, strength, and regret at the center of this World.

This show has humor and heart. What it’s missing is an ending. After 85 minutes of somewhat exaggerated but nevertheless relatable humanity, this smooth-running express train of story-telling inexplicably derails. Dietz’s script has a natural ending point, but he runs right over it.

There’s random, and then there’s random.

‘This Random World’ runs through May 26 at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa. Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

For more information, go to leftedgetheatre.com

Jazz – May 15, 2019

The Oxford Dictionary uerecsa Huerdefines ‘jazz’ as a type of music of black American origin characterized by improvisation, syncopation, and usually a regular or forceful rhythm.

The same definition could be applied to Nambi E. Kelley’s Jazz, her theatrical adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel of the same name. Awoye Timpo directs the Marin Theatre Company production running through May 19 in Mill Valley.

Death hangs over this story like a coffin lid, which is exactly what the scenic design by Kimie Nishikawa evokes from the opening. Below it is the grave of an unknown person, surrounded by mourners. Enter a woman who begins to rail against the deceased before pulling out a knife with the intent to disfigure the corpse.

We soon learn that the woman is Violet Trace (C. Kelley Wright), wife of Joe Trace (Michael Gene Sullivan), and that the deceased was a young girl named Dorcas (Dezi Soley). She was Joe’s mistress and Joe shot her after she attempted to end the relationship. Violet is bedside herself trying to understand why Joe would enter into that relationship. The story then moves back in forth in time and location as Violet and Joe’s story is told.

Having not read the book, I can’t tell you whether or not the playwright successfully captures the essence of the novel, or what is kept or lost when a 229-page novel is reduced to 95 uninterrupted minutes.

What I can say is that the non-linear approach is often confusing. Scenes and dialogue are repeated, ostensibly from different points of view, but that is often not very clear. A parrot (portrayed by Paige Mayes with wonderful physicality in a terrific Karen Perry-designed costume) seems to exist only to chirp “I love you” to Violet. By the end, we do get a sense of why Joe did what he did, but the morally ambiguous conclusion is unsatisfying.

What is more-than-satisfying is the caliber of performance brought to this tale by a cast of Bay Area stalwarts and guest talent. Wright and Sullivan give towering lead performances and are given a bedrock of support from Margo Hall as Alice Manfred, Dorca’s aunt and guardian. Soley spends a great deal of time on stage as a “living” painting, but really comes alive in her portrayal of Dorcas. Strong work is done by the entire ensemble.

Jazz isn’t the most comprehensible play. Actually, it’s a bit of a mess but a well-produced and well-acted one.

‘Jazz’ runs Tuesday through Sunday through May 19 at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley.

Tuesday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30 pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2:00 pm.

For more information, go to marintheatre.org.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men – May 8, 2019

The theatrical treatments of two great American novels come alive on North Bay stages with mixed results in productions running through May 19.

6th Street Playhouse is presenting Christopher Sergel’s adaptation (not Aaron Sorkin’s) of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Sergel had an agreement with Lee to produce a theatrical version of her novel suitable for school or community theatre productions and, though revised several times by Sergel, those roots show.

Lee’s tale of growing up in the South and her memories of one momentous summer involving her lawyer father and the trial of a black man was adapted by Horton Foote for the classic 1962 film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and this Marty Pistone-directed production does battle with memories of the film.

Jeff Coté, while having the look we’ve come to expect for Atticus, lacks the gravitas necessary for the character and though technically the lead, cedes the spotlight to the play’s supporting characters.  The young actors playing Scout, Jem and Dill (Cecilia Brenner, Mario Herrera, Liev Bruce Low) do fine, and Val Sinckler is a tower of strength as Calpurnia. Jourdán Olivier-Verdé is a steadfast Tom Robinson, and Mike Pavone and Caitlin Strom-Martin succeed in making the Ewell’s thoroughly detestable.

An interesting addition to this production is a gospel choir/Greek chorus to ‘bookend’ several scenes. It’s quite effective and the addition of music is welcome.

Lee’s story still packs a punch and, while uneven, this production does have its strong moments.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ runs through May 19 at the 6th Street Playhouse Studio Theatre in Santa Rosa. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30 pm. There are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.

For more information, go to 6thstreetplayhouse.com

The Cloverdale Performing Arts Center is presenting John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in a production directed by Beulah Vega, who had the advantage of working with a script written by Steinbeck himself.

Steinbeck’s depression-era tale of George and Lenny (Rusty Thompson, William Gilbertson) and their dream of a place of their own still resonates today for those seeking the ever-more-unattainable “American Dream”.

Vega has taken a minimalist approach to the show’s staging, leaving it to her cast to grab your attention and hold it for two hours. They do.

Gilbertson brings a fresh approach to Lenny, a character that can often dive into caricature, and there’s a strong ensemble doing excellent work here.

Hell, even the dog is good.

‘Of Mice and Men’ runs through May 19 at the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center in Cloverdale. Saturday evenings at 7:30pm; Sunday afternoons at 2pm.

For more information, go to cloverdaleperformingarts.com

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – May 1, 2019

Most folk’s affection for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory began with reading the book or watching the somewhat renamed 1971 Gene Wilder film. “Charlie” purists rejected Tim Burton’s 2005 cinematic take on the tale as too dark and weird. Well folks, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

San Francisco’s SHN Golden Gate Theatre is hosting the touring company from the 2017 Broadway production through May 12 that, while based on Dahl’s classic tale, goes in several decidedly different directions. Audience’s expecting anything close to the original book or film are likely to leave somewhat disappointed.

The show actually opens with Willy Wonka himself (Noah Weisberg) providing needless exposition and singing “The Candy Man”. Lest you think that’s a sign of good thing to come, forget it. While you’ll hear some of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s Oscar-nominated score and songs from the original film, most of the songs in this version are by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Despite their pedigree (Broadway’s Hairspray, the recent Disney sequel Mary Poppins Returns), their work here is pretty weak and forgettable.

That’s just the first in a series of mistakes made by this show’s creators. David Grieg’s book introduces Wonka from the get-go and eliminates a lot of the mystery about him. He’s also written Wonka as pretty much of a jerk and aged every other child but Charlie into a sullen teenager (or older.) This may have been out of necessity as they might have had difficulty casting children as characters who (spoiler alert) explode on stage or are dismembered by giant squirrels.

You heard that right. While in the book and films the bratty kids get their comeuppances, in this version they’re killed. Be prepared to do a lot of explaining to your tykes should you choose to bring them along. Additionally, the stagecraft was surprisingly weak and the finale with the great glass elevator was less than great.

What the show does get right is some of the casting. Henry Boshart (one of three young actors performing the role of Charlie Bucket) is absolutely delightful in the role and brings a charm to the show that is sorely lacking elsewhere, and James Young brings a lot of heart as Grandpa Joe. The solution to casting the Oompa Loompas is a clever one, and their appearances were definitely the show’s highlights.

Overall though, the Chocolate being served up here was a bit too bitter for my taste.

‘Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ runs through May 12 at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. Weekday evening performances are at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8 pm, and the Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matiness are at 2 pm.

For more information, go to shnsf.com

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown – April 24, 2019

One would be hard-pressed to find Clark Gesner’s You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in the pantheon of great American musicals.  What began as a concept album in 1966 soon transmogrified into a very successful off-Broadway show that never really cut it on Broadway. Its first run in 1971 lasted less than a month, and its 1999 revival closed one week after winning two Tony Awards.

Nevertheless, its simple staging and audience familiarity with the source material have made it a staple of community theatres. The Novato Theater Company brings it to their stage in a Michael Ross-directed production that runs through April 28.

There’s no plot of which to speak, just a series of vignettes featuring the beloved characters from the Charles Schulz strip. The daily tribulations of Charlie Brown (Robert Nelson), Linus (Lorenzo Alviso), Lucy (Tika Moon), Sally (Julianne Thompson Bretan), Schroeder (Paul Hogarth), and Snoopy (Jake Gale) are set to Gesner’s pleasant but mostly unmemorable music and lyrics. (NTC is apparently using the 1999 revival version of the show but curiously omits any mention of composer Andrew Lippa’s contributions in the show’s program.)

Familiar “Peanuts” territory is covered with bits about Charlie Brown’s pining for the little red-headed girl, Linus’s blanket, Lucy’s Psychiatrist booth, Sally’s school troubles, Schroeder’s love of Beethoven, and Snoopy’s battle with the Red Baron.

Ross’s cast is uneven. Nelson, a usually reliable musical-comedy performer, misses the mark as Charlie Brown, coming off as more of a whiner and complainer than the melancholy, gentle-hearted, resilient character we’ve come to know. Moon needs to find more variation in her delivery for Lucy.

Alviso hits the mark as the philosophical Linus, whose asides are a frequent source of amusement. Hogarth has fun with “Beethoven Day” – one of the show’s better musical numbers – and Thompson Bretan makes for a feisty Sally. Gale, whose take on Snoopy as the smartest “person” in the room is an interesting one, delivers the show’s high point with his spirited delivery of “Suppertime”.

Musical director Lucas Sherman and his five-piece orchestra do well by the music, and the cast, though uneven in character, are consistent with good vocal delivery.

The simple, functional set by Michael Walraven is aided enormously by the colorful scenic artistry of Kristy Arroyo and her recreations of Schulz’s comic strip panels.

Affection for Schulz’s creation aside, in the end You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is as two-dimensional as one of the strips.

’You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ runs Friday through Sunday through April 28 at the Novato Theater Company in Novato.  Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8pm. The Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

For more information, go to novatotheatercompany.org.

Barbecue Apocalypse – April 17, 2019

It’s been said that the only two things guaranteed to survive the Apocalypse are cockroaches and Cher. Playwright Matt Lyle would like to add one more thing to that list – the good ol’ American barbecue – as he explains in his 2014 play Barbecue Apocalypse, running now at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center through April 20.

Deb (Jess Headington) and Mike (Sam Coughlin) are getting their backyard deck and lawn ready to host some friends. Deb’s a little status conscious, hence the decision to host a barbecue as opposed to a sit-down dinner.  She’s not too thrilled with the beanbag chair in the living room or the movie posters tacked to the wall. Then again, she’s not thrilled with the lack of matching lawn furniture either.

The friends they’ve invited are an odd lot.  Ash (Trevor Hoffman) and Lulu (Lyndsey Sivalingam) are yuppie-hipsters-foodies, with Ash permanently attached to his phone and Lulu permanently attached to a drink. Win (J. T. Harper) is your basic supply-side-economics asshole who seems to thrive on putting Mike down. Win’s girlfriend Glory (Katie Kelly) is a dancer who’s hoping for a successful audition with the Rockettes.

Things go south fairly rapidly at the barbecue, followed by things going really south for the rest of the planet. While we never find out the specifics, the first act ends with the end of the world as they know it and they do NOT feel fine.

The second act takes place at a barbecue one year after the first, and a lot of role reversals have taken place. Deb’s become a “female MacGyver”, milquetoast Mike has come into his own, the lack of cell phones has forced Ash and Lulu to have an actual relationship, and Win has been reduced to a blubbering mess. Where’s Glory? No one’s sure, but everyone keeps asking Win if he cannibalized her. Maybe it has something to do with an uninvited guest (Matt Witthaus) who shows up at the barbecue.

Larry Williams directs this jet-black comedy with a sure hand and has the right cast to pull it off.  Coughlin’s underplaying of Mike nicely compliments Headington’s overplaying of Deb. Eye-rolling casual pretentiousness just drips from Sivalingam and Hoffman as Lulu and Ash. Kelley is fun as the not-quite-dim bulb dancer and Witthaus effectively throws the show into even darker territory with his character. Only Harper’s Win seemed out of sync in the mix.

Barbecue Apocalypse is a fast paced and funny show. See it before it (or the world) ends.

‘Barbecue Apocalypse’ runs through April 20 at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park. Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8pm. The Sunday matinee is at 2pm. There’s a Thursday, April 18 performance at 7pm.

For more information, go to spreckelsonline.com

Heathen Valley, The Perfect Ganesh – April 10, 2019

God takes center stage in two North Bay productions running through April 14. Sebastopol’s Main Stage West transports to you to 1840 and an Appalachian Heathen Valley, while Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater takes you on a passage to India in search of A Perfect Ganesh.

Heathen Valley is referred to in the play as “the land that forgot God” and an Episcopal Bishop (John Craven) is determined to correct that by bringing God to the North Carolina mountain community. He sets out with an ex-con he took under his wing (Kevin Bordi) that’s familiar with the region and an orphan boy (Jereme Anglin) in tow.

The “violent, carnal and heathen” locals are represented by Juba (mollie boice), a mid-wife and a woman of unerring common sense, Harlan (Elijah Pinkham), a true mountain man who’s just buried his wife and sister (they are the same person), and Cora (Miranda Jane Williams), the mother to Harlan’s infant daughter who wishes to be Harlan’s wife.

The role of religion in society and the fuzzy line that separates superstition’s “charms and spells” from organized religion’s garments and practices makes for a very interesting drama under the co-direction of John and Elizabeth Craven with Bordi and Pinkham doing particularly fine character work among an excellent cast.

‘Heathen Valley’ runs through April 14 at Main Stage West in Sebastopol. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 8pm. The Sunday matinee is at 5pm.

For more information, go to mainstagewest.com

The elephant-headed Hindu God of wisdom, success and good luck serves as the narrator in Terrence McNally’s A Perfect Ganesh.  Director Michael Fontaine reteams with performers Elly Lichenstein and Laura Jorgensen to remount a production they first did at Cinnabar nineteen years ago.

Margaret Civil (Jorgensen) and Katharine Byrne (Lichenstein) are best friends who don’t really like each other. Trading in their usual two weeks shared vacation in the Caribbean for a tour of India, these two ladies have issues – issues with the world, issues with each other and issues with themselves. Ganesha (Heren Patel), the “remover of obstacles”, does his best to assist the ladies in overcoming their own.

Mmes. Jorgensen and Lichenstein play well off of each other. John Browning’s work as every male character they meet along the way is quite entertaining and Patel’s Ganesha is a warm and welcoming figure, though his ornate headgear often led to muffled dialogue.

This play’s greatest obstacle is McNally’s script, which is overwritten and overlong.

‘A Perfect Ganesh’ runs through April 14 at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma. Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8pm. The Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

For more information, go to cinnabartheater.org

The Revolutionists – April 3, 2019

“That’s so meta” is a phrase you hear bandied about a lot these days. It’s usually used to describe a reference by someone about themselves. Metatheatre is a style of play that acknowledges it is a play within a play – actors are aware of the audience and may interact with them or acknowledge they’re actors and not the characters they play, or they’ll reference props, sets, location, etc.

Playwright Lauren Gundersen takes metatheatre to the extreme with The Revolutionists, her story of a French playwright’s attempt to write an “important” play about the French Revolution. It’s running now at 6th Street Playhouse through April 7.

The play opens with Olympe de Gouges (Tara Howley Hudson) headed for the guillotine until she realizes that’s no way to start a comedy. As de Gouges struggles with writer’s block, she’s visited by Marianne Angelle (Serena Elize Flores) – the only fictional character in the play – a Caribbean revolutionary seeking independence for her island and an end to the slave trade. She needs de Gouges help in writing pamphlets and declarations.

A bellowing at the door heralds the arrival of Charlotte Corday (Chandler Parrott-Thomas), soon-to-be-assassin of Jean-Paul Marat.  She’s looking for a “last line” to utter after the deed that’ll be remembered.

They’re soon joined by Marie Antoinette (Lydia Revelos) who insists she did not say that thing she’s been accused of saying and just needs better press.

These four “badass” women challenge each other as to their place in history and the role of the artist in the world before meeting their fates. One remains to tell their stories.

Director Lennie Dean has an excellent cast at work here. Hudson is solid as the insecure playwright struggling to find the right words for everything. Flores communicates as much with a look as she does with a page of dialogue. Parrott-Thomas keeps her slightly-unhinged character just this side of insane. Revelos takes the cake as Marie Antoinette, managing to be both touching and hilarious. It’s a break-out performance.

The Revolutionists has interesting characters, great performances, and effective design work that are too-often overwhelmed by Gunderson’s need to wrap it all up in a meta-theatrical cloak. It diminishes some really interesting points about women in history and the arts. The play would be better if she had used a metaphysical guillotine and cut a lot of it out.

‘The Revolutionists’ runs through April 7 at the 6th Street Playhouse Studio Theatre in Santa Rosa. Thursday through Saturday performances are at 7:30 pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2 pm.

For more information, go to 6thstreetplayhouse.com

These Shining Lives – March 27, 2019

At a time when occupational safety regulations are being loosened and funding for the agencies responsible for their enforcement being reduced, it’s good to be reminded how those safeguards came to be and what life was like for American workers before then. The Ross Valley Players’ production of Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives does just that. It runs through March 31.

Part domestic drama, part workplace tragedy, it’s based on the true story of the women who worked for the Radium Dial Company of Ottawa, Illinois in the late 1920’s through the early ‘30’s. It focuses on Catherine Donahue (Jessica Dahlgren), a happily married mother of two who joins the workforce to help support her family. Her husband Tom (Frankie Stornaiuolo) isn’t thrilled by the thought of a working wife.

Catherine joins a work crew whose task is to paint the numbers and hands on watches and clocks with the luminescent radium. The process is simple: lick the brush and bring it to a point, dip the brush in the radium, apply to watch elements, repeat.

It’s not long before Catherine starts to feel ill, but the company doctor merely prescribes aspirin. Being a company town, she finds it tough to find anyone to listen to her and her co-workers as their ailments get worse and worse. It’ll take a trip to Chicago to find a doctor and eventually a lawyer who will listen. It will be years before they are really heard. Their time is severely limited.

Marnich has latched onto a fascinating story and done a pretty good job of telling it. The workplace scenes work better than those at the homestead, where the dialogue frequently lapses into the trite – “How did I ever find you?” “Just lucky, I guess.”

Director Mary Ann Rodgers has cast it well, with Dahlgren and Stornaiuolo overcoming their weak dialogue to create compelling characters. Jazmine Pierce, Sarah Williams and Carly Van Liere play her co-workers, and each do a fine job with their semi-stock roles (the funny one, the harsh one, etc.)

The time-centered set design by co-star Malcolm B. Rodgers (he essays several roles) and the scenic artistry by Kristy Arroyo really compliment the subject matter as does the sound design by Billie Cox.

Ross Valley Players’ These Shining Lives is a well-mounted production that serves both as a reminder of how things once were and a warning that, without diligence, they can be again.

‘These Shining Lives’ runs Thursday through Sunday through March 31 at the Barn Theatre at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross. Thursday performances are at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays are at 8 pm, and the Sunday matinee is at 2 pm.

For more information, go to rossvalleyplayers.com.