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

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“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

TheatreWorks presents the cure for holiday hype – ‘The Santaland Diaries’

By Ande Jacobson

During the holidays, the hype and family togetherness can sometimes be just a little overwhelming. It seems that it’s all about the kids, and the presents, and the singing, and the egg nog. Instead of drowning in that last one to escape, there is another remedy for someone seeking something that’s just a little less saccharine – The Santaland Diaries. What started in 1992 as a NPR holiday tradition that catapulted memoirist David Sedaris to international fame, has reached the TheatreWorks stage in their “alternate” holiday production this year. Joe Mantello adapted Sedaris’ essay into a full one-act, one-man play in 1996, and it has enjoyed seasonal success in regional, college, and in some cases even high school theatre ever since. In short, this little gem details Sedaris’ experiences as Crumpet the elf, navigating the treacherous landscape of Macy’s in Manhattan during the holiday season.

The play runs just 70 minutes without an intermission, and while it’s not appropriate for the youngsters who still believe in Santa, it will have their parents at least chuckling if not fully guffawing at poor David’s predicament as a misplaced and somewhat “low key” elf.

Jeffrey Lo directs Max Tachis in this TheatreWorks production at the Lohman Theatre on the Foothill College campus. Scenic designer, Christopher Fitzer captures the feel of the Macy’s Santaland setup with a nicely framed Santa throne in front of a small, but tastefully lighted pine forest. There’s no snow, except when momentarily provided by Mia Kumamoto’s lighting design toward the end of the piece.

Tachis is wonderful in this show. It’s not an easy task to be an engaging solo performer for an unbroken 70 minute stretch, but Tachis is up to the challenge. Before he enters the stage, the set stands open for patrons to take turns sitting in the big chair and taking pictures. Yours truly decided to take that opportunity to shoot the accompanying shot of the colorful set, signpost (next to the big chair) and all.

When Tachis first enters, he hams it up posing with the signpost for a few last photos before he instructs patrons to put their phones away for the duration of the performance. His curtain speech is a bit different than the standard recordings. It both does the job and sets the tone for much of what is to come.

Howard Ho’s sound design could almost be considered “counter-Christmas” with some rock, some eerie haunted-sounding holiday arrangements, and a bit of burlesque thrown in at just the right moment. In addition, as Tachis portrays David / Crumpet the elf introducing the audience to the different regions of Santaland, sudden horn blasts accompany the unfurling of the appropriate banners, sounding like attacks to the poor elf on stage.

Tachis, for his part, starts out as himself. Once he takes care of the pre-show business and delivers his unique announcement, he reemerges as David Sedaris, job hunter in NYC during the holiday season. As David, he recounts to the audience a conversation he had with his roommate sneering at the ads for seasonal help. He then shares that he applied to become a store elf on a whim after this discussion. Despite his having shared in some mockery with his roommate over such a position, he’s unemployed and down to his last $300 before he’d have to resort to becoming a dog walker to be able to eat and figures how hard could it be? Little did he know.

Tachis’ easy manner, sardonic delivery, and facial expressions convey volumes. Through his monologue, we come to understand that in many ways, becoming a store elf is much like any other job. The duties, however, are a bit specialized. As he recounts the interview, onboarding, and training phases, he clearly points out the unique aspects of his position. It’s evident that David really doesn’t belong in this job, but he’s going to make it work somehow.

Then David gets to the final training session when his work uniform is required. He changes on stage with appropriate snide comments about his elven wear, and a chorus of “Santa Baby” plays on as he applies the velvet costume pieces. Costume designer Jill C. Bowers hits the perfect combination of colors and textures to make his outfit memorable and authentic.

Much of what Tachis relays sounds extremely familiar to anyone who has worked in the service industry dealing with the general public up close and personal. Whether it’s the impatient or insipid customers, or his zany colleagues, audience members can picture the people he describes and, in many cases, correlate them to acquaintances from their past.

The standout scenes though are when Tachis brings out his alter ego, designed by Mark Stys. His mini-me elf puppet is adorable, and the interactions Tachis has with him are priceless. Whole conversations ensue, some involving members of the audience, some further upstage, but all with wonderful expressions and mannerisms. Tachis is quite an adept puppeteer for this production, seamlessly manipulating the mini-elf and frequently exchanging glances as they “share” the jokes together.

Being live theatre, there are moments where slight malfunctions might occur, and on opening night did occur at least once. At one critical moment, a set piece didn’t entirely cooperate when it was deployed, but Tachis adroitly delivered a situational ad-lib and didn’t miss a step. He has internalized this material to the point where it flows easily and naturally, no matter what happens.

This production won’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re looking for a fun escape from the normal holiday happiness, this is definitely the show for you. It’s a little edgy, but not overly so. It’s a got a wee bit of off-color language and content, but there too, not excessively so. It gives audiences an entertaining appreciation for a seasonal job that they’ve certainly at least seen if not lived themselves. It’s clever, and the time flies by before sending folks back to their normal holiday hubbub.

What:  The Santaland Diaries, by David Sedaris, adapted by Joe Mantello

Where:  Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, Los Altos Hills, CA

When:  Continues through 23 December 2017

See http://theatreworks.org/201718-season/201718-season/santaland-diaries/, email boxoffice@theatreworks.org, or call (650)463-1960 for more information or to order tickets.

(Photo credits: Kevin Berne for all but the preshow set shot; A Good Reed Review preshow set shot)

Background References:
The Santaland Diaries / Season’s Greetings: 2 Plays
NPR: A Holiday Tradition: David Sedaris Reads ‘Santaland Diaries’

TheatreWorks packs 80 days into a fun-filled, 2-hour trip around the world

By Ande Jacobson

TheatreWorks presents Mark Brown’s adaptation of the 1872 Jules Verne classic novel, Around the World in 80 Days, and has audiences whooping at the antics on this whirlwind, 80-day adventure compressed into 120 hilarious minutes (including intermission). Although the show is billed as a holiday adventure, the only holiday aspects are the festive adornments throughout the house at the Lucie Stern Theatre, a bit of snow along the journey, and the timing of the target arrival home from the adventure. It’s good, clean, family-friendly entertainment that will have even the “grinchiest” audience member smiling. The adventure intertwines technology and romance across the globe in that bygone era of the late 19th century. Continue reading

BBB mounts a dancing spectacular that glistens in the rain

By Ande Jacobson

Singin’ in the Rain started life as an MGM film in 1952 showcasing the talents of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds. It later became a classic film legend, even though it originally only enjoyed modest success. It tells the memorable story from the 1920s about the transition of the film industry from silent films to talkies, and humorously details the challenges felt by those unfortunate silent film stars whose voices were better left unheard. In the mid-1980s, the film was faithfully adapted for the stage keeping the story and all of the songs and memorable dances intact. It’s actually a little surprising that it took until the mid-80s to reach the stage given that its story fits the traditional musical mold so well. It’s an uplifting tale of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girl back in the end after a few interesting twists and complications. Then again, this show requires three true triple threats along with a well-synchronized dance ensemble, masters of tap one and all. And it requires on-stage rain, so it’s not a trivial matter to mount a successful production. Continue reading

The prescience of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’ – who knew?

By Ande Jacobson

The Pear never backs away from edgy theatre, a tradition that’s alive and well in their current production – An Enemy of the People. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 political masterpiece premiered in London in 2008 and made its Broadway debut in 2012. Though this version of Ibsen’s story is 90 minutes shorter than the original (the Pear’s production runs approximately 120 minutes including the intermission) and includes updated (and translated) language, the integrity of Ibsen’s material remains intact. The surprising aspect of this work is that although it depicts a situation in 1880s Norway, its themes and issues are just as pertinent to U.S. society today and include altruism and whistleblowing vs. profit and venal self-interest; media manipulation vs. the truth; free speech; and the educated elite vs. the working class. Continue reading

TheatreWorks’ ‘The Prince of Egypt’ brings a big story to life in a spectacular way

By Ande Jacobson

TheatreWorks is no stranger to world premieres, or even to working with the powerful father-son artistic duo of Stephen and Scott Schwartz. Lest audiences think that the current TheatreWorks production of The Prince of Egypt is routine in any way, they can rest assured that it is not. The show is adapted and expanded from the 1998 DreamWorks film of the same name, and conveys its story of biblical proportions in an immensely creative and captivating way while providing some breathtaking theatre. The Prince of Egypt tells the story chronicling the early life of Moses up through his awakening as one of the Hebrews on his quest to “let his people go.” The production is a world premiere that Mountain View audiences will savor for reasons that will be described shortly. What will be seen on stage; however, stems from a collaboration that breaks new ground for TheatreWorks. The stage adaptation by Stephen Schwartz and Philip LaZebnik is being mounted in collaboration with the acclaimed Fredericia Teater in Denmark. Once the Mountain View run completes, Diluckshan Jeyaratnam (Moses) will head back to his homeland to star in the European portion of this co-world premiere in both Fredericia and Copenhagen, telling the story in both Danish and English beginning in April 2018.

What makes this production so spectacular? It’s all in the storytelling. The cast is a talented, diverse, international troupe that explodes with the grandeur and precision this story demands. The grand scale, with empires and monumental physical elements from the Egyptian pyramids, to the river Nile, the expansive desert, and the Red Sea are well-known, and generally not seen on stage. In a film, these can be included directly, but on stage, while they could be projected, a far more creative approach can also be applied. Per director Scott Schwartz:

“We call on cloth, light, and dance to represent water, fire, plagues, and more.”

Continue reading