BayOp shows what can happen when women are pirates and kings

By Ande Jacobson

Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance has long been an audience favorite ever since it debuted in New York City in 1879 (just barely). Billed as a comic opera, it’s a little closer in style to our modern Broadway musical format than some of the other works in the Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) oeuvre. Like much of their work, it pokes fun at 19th Century life, exaggerating stereotypical societal roles and attitudes for the sake of humor. The storyline is typical G&S fare. A young man is accidentally indentured as an apprentice (and accompanied by his nurse) to a pirate instead of a pilot until he reaches his 21st birthday (not to be confused with his 21st year of life). Shortly before his release, he falls instantly in love with the daughter of a Major-General, and the two seem fated to spend the rest of their lives together, that is until a rather unique paradox complicates their lives. Now for the Bay Area Opera Collaborative (BayOp) production, strike that, reverse it (with respect to gender anyway), and you’ll find that all of the humor remains and even grows beyond expectation. Continue reading

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‘Tarzan’ swings into Palo Alto in style

By Ande Jacobson

Palo Alto Players’ Tarzan is a Disney favorite suitable for all members of the family. The show is based on the 1999 animated film of the same name, with music and lyrics by Phil Collins and book by David Henry Hwang. The original Broadway show made its debut in 2006 and has delighted audiences worldwide since then. It’s a visually spectacular show with actors singing and swinging across the stage (and over the audience at times). In true Disney form, the heroes and villains loom large, and the story careens through a fairytale sequence of tragedy, joy, suspense, and finally, exuberant triumph in the familiar tale of two worlds colliding in the jungle. Continue reading

“Good fences make good friends” in TheatreWorks’ ‘Native Gardens’

By Ande Jacobson

The regional premiere of a crisp, new Karen Zacarías play is the latest TheatreWorks production. Native Gardens is a very topical take on just what it means to be a good neighbor when a young couple moves into an old, established Washington, DC neighborhood. This tight, 90 minute production, presented without intermission, covers many of the issues facing the U.S. today through an extended interaction between neighbors starting with the best of intentions. Initially welcoming and friendly, the old neighbors meet the new neighbors. Over the course of the play, an intense backyard drama ensues over the position of the fence dividing the two properties. The dispute takes on monumental proportions and serves as a microcosm of the country, and perhaps even the world at large as the Butleys fight for the status quo on their side of the fence, while the Del Valles’ challenge their long-held views of their neighborhood, their culture, and their property’s borders. The story is at turns gentle, humorous, contentious, and thought-provoking, challenging audiences to perhaps consider a neighborly border dispute in a new light. Zacarías penned the story in 2015, and it has increased in its societal relevance ever since. Continue reading

Stanford Rep celebrates female ingenuity strikingly combining Euripides’ ‘Hecuba’ and ‘Helen’

By Ande Jacobson

This summer, Stanford Repertory Theater’s festival is aptly entitled Nevertheless They Persisted in tribute to the strength and perseverance of women throughout history striving to overcome oppression. Rush Rehm again helms the live theatrical portion of the festival, directing a work that he and Courtney Walsh (the star of the production) adapted and combined from two of Euripides’ plays, Hecuba and Helen. This new adaptation, Hecuba/Helen, is presented in two acts running approximately two hours including a short intermission. Rehm, a professor of Theater and Classics, has long noted the relevance and value of Greek tragedies, and through a stroke of inspiration pursued combining these two stories of strong women from a time and patriarchal culture when women had no official power. He sees many lessons for today’s societal turmoil in these ancient writings and is excited to bring this adaptation to Stanford Rep audiences. In his program note, Rehm reveals the relevance of Euripides’ writings from a societal perspective:

“Disturbing and terrible, recognizable and even funny, Euripides’ plays have much to offer us – a society that aggressively denies its own obvious limitations and has so little interest in the lessons of the past.”

Continue reading

‘The Sound of Music’ is enthralling audiences at FMT this summer

By Ande Jacobson

This year, Foothill Music Theatre (FMT) is presenting that long-time family favorite, The Sound of Music. The show, with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, made its Broadway debut in 1959 with Mary Martin heading the cast as Maria. Today, far more people are familiar with the 1965 film version of the show as they picture Julie Andrews singing at the top of her lungs while running around an enchanting Alpine meadow. There’s a lot to love about The Sound of Music, and it has made the stage rounds in regional, community, and scholastic theaters for decades. The music is familiar to theater-goers young and old, and the story is touching with more than a hint of danger, a danger that has recently become all too recognizable. Long time standards from the show (and the movie) include “Edelweiss”, “My Favorite Things”, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”, “Do-Re-Mi”, and the title song, “The Sound of Music”. There are a number of lesser known songs as well. The stage version has a few songs that were not in the movie and vice versa. FMT’s production keeps the best songs unique to the stage version, and adds a couple written for the movie to make the show more familiar to newer audiences. Continue reading

ATNU’s “Children of an Idle Brain” blurs the definition of reality

By Ande Jacobson

Each summer, A Theatre Near You takes an aspiring group of teen actors bent on pursuing careers in theatre or film, sometimes supplemented by a few strategically cast older actors, and presents an original work designed for the cast to experience, explore, and expand their theatrical awareness and depth. This year’s offering, Children of an Idle Brain, takes these eager thespians across the boundary between real and surreal. Playwright Tony Kienitz’s script begs the questions, what is reality? Are dreams real? Can one trust their perceptions? And finally, is there any crossover between one’s dreams and one’s waking life? Continue reading

“Finks” shows how one famous family survived McCarthyism

By Ande Jacobson

TheatreWorks’ current offering is a riveting family history reaching back into one of the darkest times in living memory. Playwright Joe Gilford, son of Jack and Madeline Gilford, tells his parents’ harrowing tale through his 2013 play, Finks, currently on stage at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. His parents, like many of their friends in the entertainment industry, were brought up before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to testify in the early 1950s. They were bullied by the committee in an attempt to get them to turn on, or “fink” on their friends and loved ones as many in the industry did to reclaim their careers after being blacklisted for holding “subversive” beliefs. Those subversive beliefs were what today would be considered pro-labor or progressive. Continue reading

“Cowboy Versus Samurai” takes a love story for the ages and turns it upside down at The Pear

By Ande Jacobson

The story of Cyrano de Bergerac has been told innumerable times. This story is a fictionalized account of a real person, and the play that started it all was penned by Edmond Rostand in 1897. The original play has been translated into many languages and adapted into other plays and movies worldwide over the years. In 2006, a new stage adaptation entitled Cowboy Versus Samurai, written by prolific playwright and screenwriter Michael Golamco, was published. The Pear is currently presenting this Golamco incarnation which moves the action to Breakneck, Wyoming, and adds a few new elements to the story.

Golamco has been quoted as saying that his play is “Cyrano de Bergerac with race as the big nose,” although there is far more involved than mere physical attractiveness. In Breakneck, there are initially only two Asian Americans in town. Travis Park (Lorenz Angelo Gonzales) is a high school English teacher. He’s a Korean-American transplant from Los Angeles who arrived in town a few years earlier in an attempt to get away from the chaos of the big city and the shambles of his life there. Chester A. Arthur (Chuck Lacson) is the only other Asian American resident. Chester was adopted by a local, white family as a baby, and he has been searching for a key to his biological heritage his whole life. Del (Drew Reitz) is the school’s P.E. teacher and a wannabe cowboy. He is a stereotypically, dim-witted jock who uses the word dumb as a noun in reference to himself, i.e., he is “a dumb.” Veronica Lee (Heather Mae Steffen) is another Korean-American who moves into town adding a third Asian American to the mix. She’s recently arrived from NYC and is the high school’s new biology teacher who shares a classroom with Travis. Like Travis, she has come to town to escape some of the big city chaos.

Chester founded BAAA – the Breakneck Asian American Alliance – to address Asian oppression, such as trying to get the local grocery store to carry tofu. Their organizational meetings are a source of witty repartee and consternation. Travis and Chester are the unlikeliest of friends given Travis is erudite and well-spoken, and Chester is kind of a militant hick with delusions of ninja-inspired grandeur. One might initially wonder what, other than race, brought these two together. As the plot thickens, it becomes clear that Travis feels a little sorry for Chester and clearly wants to help him.

Veronica’s arrival stirs the pot. Chester sees her presence as a cause for celebration and hopeful conquest. Travis sees her as an intelligent “officemate” and is somewhat smitten given their numerous common interests and histories. The only problem is that Veronica has “preferences” where dating interests are concerned, and those do not include Asian men. Enter Del and the start of the quirky, eloquent Cyrano story.

Ting Na Wang’s scenic design is appealing. A unit set is used for this production, featuring a gorgeous mural painted along the entire upstage wall. A classroom door defines the stage right boundary, and a teacher’s desk is positioned in front of the door. A moveable student desk is normally center stage, though that is moved a bit with the action. A working lamppost hugged by weeds is upstage right. A short, wooden, two-railed fence is immediately downstage of the lamppost. The fence runs along the upstage portion slightly in front of and beneath the mural. There is a cottage door on a platform stage left that is used both as a porch and a living space within the cottage, depending on the scene.

Jeffrey Lo directs this production beautifully and is assisted by Kaede Komatsuzaki. Lo’s cast isn’t completely authentic for the roles as defined, but his tight ensemble shines. Every characterization and movement is believable, even when some of the dialogue becomes rather farcical at times, particularly where Chester’s militancy is concerned. Lacson is clearly adept at playing larger venues as his exuberance and enthusiasm as Chester more than fill the space. In fact, he is slightly overpowering when viewed from the front row. All four actors show a great deal of depth and sensitivity in their portrayals. While audiences might expect Gonzales’ and Steffen’s characters to show such depth, Reitz and Lacson also evolve through the story. One very heated Act 2 exchange between Chester and Veronica is particularly gripping, each one taking verbal stabs at the other in rapid succession, each drawing the other out in bouts of unexpected honesty and deep feeling. Del too shows insights that one wouldn’t expect from his character through a discussion with Travis late in Act 2.

In the end, the story really is about love, not race. The message is that love goes far deeper than strictly the romantic variety. Golamco touches upon romantic love to be sure, but he also delves deeply into love of self, and love as friendship. Golamco makes it clear that one cannot love others if he cannot love himself. The script’s use of the letters Travis writes for Del to impress Veronica provide context and background that is both instructive and entertaining, particularly with Del’s delivery of material through those letters that is clearly not about him. They give the audience, and Del, a detailed look at what makes Travis tick.

One minor bit of inconsistency in staging is worth noting. At one point, Travis has all of the letters in hand, and he starts skimming them. The problem is that although audience members cannot read the writing, they can see through the page enough to notice that Travis is holding the letters sideways (at least they can from the front row). Perhaps this is an artistic choice to denote Travis’ life running slightly askew, or it’s an oversight.

Lo also provides the sound design for this production, and his choice of music for preshow, scene changes, and intermission provide an interesting mood mix. There is of course some country-western influence as one might expect in cowboy country, but there are also disco and pop elements, and even a hint of Hoagy Carmichael at one point.

There is some colorful language and innuendo interspersed along the way, but it is not gratuitous and instead sounds genuine in the course of the discussion. There is also high comedy in the more farcical portions of the story, particularly where Chester is concerned. While probably not appropriate for very young children, this Pear production is definitely worth a look.

What:  Cowboy Versus Samurai, by Michael Golamco
Where:  The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View, CA 94043
When:  Continues Thursdays – Sundays through 8 April 2018

See http://thepear.org or call (650)254-1148 for tickets or more information.

(Photos courtesy of Michael Craig/The Pear)

References:
Cowboy Versus Samurai (script)
Cyrano de Bergerac


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In finding one’s Mecca, it’s the journey that counts

By Ande Jacobson

The Pear’s current production is another alarmingly topical piece from the not-too-distant past. This time, audiences are transported back to 1974 and the rural village of New Bethesda (properly named Nieu-Bethesda) in the Karoo region of South Africa. Athol Fugard’s play, The Road to Mecca, incorporates themes of racial and gender inequality and religious fervor that are so prevalent in the rural South African culture of the time. These issues are in the forefront of this work, at times uncomfortably so. Additionally, the themes of trust, love, aging, and artistic freedom and inspiration are explored in a powerful way. This is a challenging piece, and the Pear gives it the respect and sensitivity it deserves. Continue reading

Tchaikovsky takes the TheatreWorks stage by storm

By Ande Jacobson

Hershey Felder brings another of his unique musical biographies to TheatreWorks. The Bay Area premiere of Our Great Tchaikovsky gives audiences insight into the life of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Like the other portrayals Felder has done in previous seasons, he takes on the persona of Tchaikovsky, as well as of various people in the composer’s life. Compared to his portrayals of Irving Berlin and Ludwig van Beethoven, this one is a little different. It is different because his subject is a little different. Tchaikovsky, while a musical genius, led a personal life filled with fear, strife, and chaos because he didn’t fit the social mold demanded by his culture. The composer’s music is still front and center in this production, music that Felder dispatches with his characteristic verve and virtuosity. He is as adept at playing Tchaikovsky’s music as he is at playing the music of Berlin and Beethoven. The changes this time are that he adds a bit more of himself in the storytelling, and the story itself is much darker than the previous Felder shows that have reached the TheatreWorks stage. Continue reading