‘Frost/Nixon’ – a wily game of cat and mouse at TheatreWorks

By Ande Jacobson

News as entertainment isn’t a new phenomenon. In the 1970s, a real-life crime drama took center stage when the Watergate investigation jumped into high gear, ultimately resulting in the first ever resignation of a U.S. President. The crimes took place in the months leading up to the 1972 general election, but the public’s outrage didn’t reach record levels until two years later, when the latest TheatreWorks production’s story begins. The 2006 play, Frost/Nixon, written by Peter Morgan, opens with Nixon’s 8 August 1974 announcement that he would resign. The end of an era perhaps, but the beginning of a great hunger amongst the U.S. public. A hunger that would only be satiated if, and when, President Nixon did three things:

  1. Admit that he committed criminal acts of wrongdoing.
  2. Admit that he abused the power he had as president.
  3. Apologize for the agony that he inflicted upon the American public.

A tall order for a man who famously answered an interview question with “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Of course, in follow-up discussion on that answer, he added that he came to realize that not everyone agreed with him on that particular point. Continue reading

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“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

“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

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

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

What if…

By Ande Jacobson

What if you could explore the impacts of everything you’ve ever done along with everything you’ve never done? Constellations (written by Nick Payne and currently on stage at TheatreWorks) combines the science surrounding the concept of the multiverse (i.e., multiple universes existing simultaneously) through the lives of two people who meet by chance, fall in love, and live out their lives together; or maybe they don’t. Continue reading

‘Rags’ seeks the virtues of Lady Liberty at TheatreWorks

By Ande Jacobson

Lady Liberty has long been the symbol of America, offering the promise of freedom and opportunity to all who pass by her in their journey toward a better life. Rags, currently in production at TheatreWorks, takes a look at a community of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (circa 1910) trying mightily to overcome the challenges that face them. It was a difficult time, and these eager immigrants fled desperate conditions and persecution in Mother Russia to build new lives for themselves and their families. From the start, hucksters and thugs are never far away, lying in wait to prey upon the naïve newcomers. Although a period piece, many of the issues in the story are just as relevant in today’s socio-political climate. Continue reading

Yearning for peace and acceptance as time marches on

TheatreWorks_Velocity 5_Kevin BerneBy Ande Jacobson

There is one thing that we all have in common. As long as we live, we continue to change as we age. With age, comes experience, perhaps wisdom, and a measure of perspective, but what of our independence and abilities? After the summer of adulthood, does the velocity increase exponentially in the autumn of life? TheatreWorks is excited to present one answer to that question with the regional premiere of Eric Coble’s 2014 play, The Velocity of Autumn, which closes its 46th season in style with a delicious slice of life to which we can all relate. Continue reading