Thursday, May 21, 2020

Local Arts Groups Coordinate on Virtual Summer Camps

Posted By on Thu, May 21, 2020 at 3:34 PM

Students can take an online filmmaking class with Alexander Valley Film Society, one of several virtual camps happening this summer. - PHOTO COURTESY ALEXANDER VALLEY FILM SOCIETY
  • photo courtesy Alexander Valley Film Society
  • Students can take an online filmmaking class with Alexander Valley Film Society, one of several virtual camps happening this summer.
Three Sonoma County arts and education organizations are coordinating their summer schedules this year to collectively provide North Bay students with seven weeks worth of virtual summer arts camps, June 22 to August 7.

The Alexander Valley Film Society, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts and Transcendence Theatre Company are each engaging local youth with online arts experiences in their respective disciplines this summer, with the AVFS Filmmaking Bootcamp, the LBC Summer Arts Sampler Camp, the Transcendence Virtual Kids Camp and then a final AVFS Editing Bootcamp running consecutively to keep the kids busy all season.

“The collaboration is in the scheduling,” says Ashleigh Worley, director of education and community engagement at Luther Burbank Center. “The camps are independently run, and we’re working together so kids can participate in all three.”

Worley and the LBC have been offering virtual arts programming since a week after the shelter-in-place orders took effect in late March, and by meeting with several other arts organizations, it became apparent that everyone was worried about the status of summer camps in the North Bay.

“We started talking about how we can uplift and support each other’s work, whatever form it ended up taking,” Worley says. With so much unknown about the evolution of social distancing rules through the summer, LBC quickly made a plan to host a virtual summer arts camp, and Worley found likeminded groups in AVFS and TTC, which aligned their individual virtual camp schedules so students could attend all three camps.

First, the AVFS Filmmaking Bootcamp, running June 22–26 and led by Sonoma County–based writer/director and film educator Malinalli Lopez, welcomes students grades 5–12 to learn the basics of filmmaking over Zoom, using smartphones to creatively capture their story. The idea is for students to then continue to film themselves and their families during the rest of the summer camps for the final Editing Bootcamp that happens in August.

“The reason the three of us collaborated to get these programs out was to give families a sure-fire schedule that they could put into their calendars now and count on in the months to come,” says Alexander Valley Film Society founder and executive director Kathryn Hecht. “Even though we might be dealing with a little bit of screen fatigue, we want kids to stay engaged, meet new people and try to prevent much of that learning slide that is supposed to happen in the summer anyways.”

After the initial AVFS bootcamp, students are invited to participate in LBC’s Summer Arts Sampler Camp, a weeklong virtual experience for students grades 5–12 that will explore music in the form of ukulele, percussion and hip-hop dance. Available in three sessions, June 29–July 3, July 6–10 and July 13–17, the camps rotate through all three activities. The center’s massive instrument lending library will be open for students who don’t have a ukulele, and Worley adds there is no skill requirement to attend the virtual camps.

From there, students ages 7–12 can also choose to attend Transcendence Theatre Company’s virtual camp, July 27–31, that focuses on musical theater, improvisation, dance and movement. TTC is also hosting a Virtual Teen Intensive Camp for ages 13–18 a week earlier.

“Each day, they’ll have an hour of instruction and it’ll culminate in a 10-minute musical and solo concerts,” says Transcendence Theatre Company director of education and community engagement Nikko Kimzin. “It’s taking our in-person experience that we’ve had and seeing what works virtually and what can we amend for the virtual experience.”

The AVFS filmmaking bootcamps and the LBC sampler camps are free to attend. Transcendence Theatre Company is charging a modest fee, $35–$100, to pay the Broadway professionals who will be leading their camps, though Kimzin adds that TTC has several need-based scholarships available for students on their website.

“This is a collective mission of our arts organizations in the county,” says Kimzin. “I think arts are sometimes viewed as the side dish and not the main meal. We are trying to band together to say, especially in this time, connection and creating things as a group, as an ensemble, is a necessity for the mental health of our youth. The arts can be a main meal when it comes to that.”

The Alexander Valley Film Society, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts and Transcendence Theatre Company virtual summer arts camps run June 22–Aug 7. Registration is required for each camp.;;
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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Left Edge Theatre Offers Online Twist of Annual Showcase

Posted By on Tue, May 12, 2020 at 4:30 PM


Left Edge Theatre always likes to involve the public in planning next season’s shows with their annual spring fundraising Season Showcase.

Usually, the theater company takes to the stage at their space in the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts and presents several scenes from plays in consideration for the forthcoming season, and the attending audience votes on those they most want to see fully produced.

This year is anything but normal, and the ongoing shelter-in-place has kept audiences away from local theater. Left Edge knows that the show must go on, and the group is moving the Season Showcase online for a virtual event happening over Zoom.

Tickets are limited and going fast for the two online showcases, happening Saturday, May 16, at 7pm and Sunday, May 17, at 2pm. $30. Visit Left Edge Theatre's website for tickets and watch the video below to get hyped for the showcase.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Show Must Go On: Left Edge Theatre Plans Streaming Events

Posted By on Tue, Mar 31, 2020 at 9:41 AM

Left Edge Theatre's 2019 world premiere of 'Drumming With Anubis,' starring Richard Pallaziol, Nick Sholley, Chris Schloemp and Anthony Martinez, is one of several streaming shows in the works. - KATIE  KELLEY
  • Katie Kelley
  • Left Edge Theatre's 2019 world premiere of 'Drumming With Anubis,' starring Richard Pallaziol, Nick Sholley, Chris Schloemp and Anthony Martinez, is one of several streaming shows in the works.
Ever since William Shakespeare supposedly wrote several classic plays while in quarantine due to a bubonic-plague breakout in the early 1600s, live theater and pandemics have had a tempestuous relationship.

On one hand, live theater often acts as a critical community outlet for entertainment and social examination during times of difficulty. On the other hand, you have to be in the theater to experience the theater, which is impossible in times of social isolation such as the current coronavirus outbreak.

Now, Left Edge Theatre, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts’ award-winning resident theater company, is changing the way in which we experience local, live theater with its plan to stream events and productions online instead of onstage.

In the works are streaming presentations of past productions such as 2019’s world premiere of “Drumming With Anubis.” The hilarious supernatural crowd-pleaser, written by David Templeton and directed by David Yen, concerns a drum circle of friends who encounter an Egyptian God.

Left Edge will also soon stream a new version of their 2016 production of “A Steady Rain,” with actors Nick Sholley and Mike Schaeffer reprising their powerful performances from that original award-winning show.

In addition, Left Edge embraces the expression, “the show must go on,” with an online fundraising Season Showcase on May 16 and 17, in which Left Edge will present several scenes from shows they are considering for production and then ask the audience to vote for the shows they most want to see. That event will be held via Zoom online streaming; tickets are $30 and available here.

Other new productions and events in the works include a New Play Spotlight boasting local authors and professional actors in conversation, and a planned (if needed) streaming presentation of the new play “Small Mouth Sounds,” written by acclaimed playwright Bess Wohl and directed by Left Edge Theatre Artistic Director Argo Thompson, that was originally scheduled to run onstage in June. For more information on this and other planned streaming events, visit Left Edge Theatre’s website here.
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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: 'The Tempest' at Ives Park

Posted By on Tue, Aug 20, 2013 at 4:20 PM

Before the show even begins, audience members know something big is about to blow onto the stage at Ives Park, in Sebastopol. In the Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival’s massively entertaining production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, director Sheri Lee Miller lays on the mood with some magically eerie pre-show music, layered beneath the unmistakable sounds of a steadily building thunderstorm. By the time the play actually starts, we’re already into it, as the tempest of the title unleashes on a foundering ship at sea, and the shape-shifting spirit Ariel pulls all the strings of the wind and weather.

It’s a clever, confident beginning to a show that just keeps getting stronger from there. Miller, tackling Shakespeare for her first time as a director, shows a knack for getting to point of each scene, and she’s edited the text to keep the action and character development flowing at a nice, emotionally involving pace.
The Tempest, Shakespeare’s final play, can be a little tricky, which is why scholars consider it one of the Bard’s problem plays. But with a first-rate cast and an able, inventive technical team, Miller and company have solved all the problems, getting straight to the heart of a play that is, after all, a fairly straightforward story: a mistreated father, stranded, on a mysterious island, struggles to create the best possible future for his daughter, and to use what powers he has to right the wrongs that have been done to him.

Actor John Craven plays the good-hearted sorcerer Prospero with a palpably wounded dignity, and a sense of deep conflict, his best intentions warring against his worst when chance brings the very people who once abandoned him within a short distance of his island. With the help of his spirit servant Ariel, played with gracefully fluid intensity by Danielle Cain, Propsero summons a storm to overturn the passing craft, shipwrecking its crew, including his power-hungry brother Antonio, played with amiable menace by Peter Downey.

Also washed ashore are King Alonso of Naples, his dangerous brother Sebastian, Alonso’s son Frederick, and an assortment of nobles and sassy servants, who all end up in different parts of the island, each with their own part to play as Prospero and Ariel alternately enchant and confound the unknowing castaways.
Adding some additional drama is the monster Caliban, The Tempest’s most fascinating character. Played brilliantly by Keith Baker with a fused sense of scariness and heartbreak, Caliban—who lived on the island before Prospero—hopes to use the newcomers in his plan to overthrow Prospero.
Prospero’s own revenge plot turns softer when his daughter Miranda, played with wide-eyed innocence by Rachel Quintana, ends up falling in love, at first sight, with King Alonso’s son Frederick, played with a kind of swashbuckling innocence of his own by Jimmy Gagarin.

The supporting cast is strong, with great comic turns by Eric Thompson and James Pelican as a pair of drunken servants who form an unlikely alliance with Caliban.

The set by David Lear is a stunner, and the sound design by Doug Faxon brings an additional element of magic and mystery to the tale.

In the interest of full disclosure, my son Andy Templeton appears in the show as well, as the young, wonderstruck nobleman Adrian, and of course, Sheri Lee Miller is a frequent and favorite collaborator. She will, in fact, be directing my next play.

Taking that as it may, this Tempest is without question a powerful, eye-popping, relentlessly entertaining show, a deeply satisfying journey to a magical world that, for all its spirits and sprites and monsters, is fully and open-heartedly human.

‘The Tempest’ runs Thursday-Sunday July 12-28 at Ives Park. 154 Jewell Ave., Sebastopol. Thurs.-Sat. at 7pm. $7-$20. 707.823.0177.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Twelve and On Fire

'Troublemaker' a Pre-Teen Angst Spectacle at Berkeley Rep

Posted By on Thu, Jan 17, 2013 at 1:07 PM

Bradley Boatright is a troublemaker.

Twelve years old, possessed of a potent imagination, haunted by a childhood tragedy he considers the critical piece in his origin story, Bradley (played with elastic authenticity by New York actor Gabriel King) sees himself as the hero of an epic comic book adventure—though the real details of is life may be anything but comic. In Dan LeFranc’s colorful new youth-riot spectacle Troublemaker, or the Freakin’ Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatwright—running through Feb. 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theater—pre-teen angst is blended with unexpected insight. In three distinct acts, LeFranc heightens everything: the youthful dialogue is a gloriously stylized barrage of code words and slyly softened obscenities. Bullies behave like super-villains from a James Bond movie. Adults are seen as monsters, Nazis, zombies, or pirates. And though Bradley likes to treat his best friend Mickey Minkle (Chad Goodridge) as his sidekick, by the third act, even Bradley is forced to admit that maybe his troublemaking behavior is masking a monster-sized insecurity. Directed by Lila Neugebauer, the slightly stretched show is a whimsically awesome coming of age story, with an ending that is not exactly happy—but it is surprisingly, hopefully, painfully, real.

For showtime information, see Berkeley Repertory Theater.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Nov. 30-Dec. 16: The Ratcatcher at the Imaginists Theater

Posted By on Thu, Nov 29, 2012 at 12:47 PM

Claire McCaffrey, Taylor Diffenderfer and Emile Rosewater as the children
  • Eric Monrad
  • Claire McCaffrey, Taylor Diffenderfer and Emile Rosewater as the children

The Ratcatcher, playing through December 16 at the Imaginists Theater is a rollicking, slyly critical musical ride through the mysterious, ancient tale of the Pied Piper. As a refresher, the Pied Piper is the story of a man who arrives in the town of Hamlin, announcing that he can take care of a rat infestation for a small fee. The town council agrees and the man begins to play his flute. The rats follow him straight to the river where they drown. When the Pied Piper returns to the town for his pay, the Mayor refuses to pay him. The piper leaves the town, threatening to wreak revenge. When he returns sometime later, he again plays the flute, this time to devastating results, leading 130 children to either a mountain or a river (where they drown like the rats) depending on the version told.

Eliot Fintushel, Brent Lindsay and Layla Musslewhite as the Town Council
  • Eric Monrad
  • Eliot Fintushel, Brent Lindsay and Layla Musslewhite as the Town Council

Taking the Piper as inspiration, the Imaginists have created an entirely new and original production, made all the more interesting by a collaboration with The Crux, the North Bay band fronted by Josh Windmiller. The Hamlin town council, a dictatorial party of three, is obsessed with all things pancakes and cheese. “This is cheese country!” they declare during one of their many meetings, where committees decide the fate of the “artisan pancake breakfast” and the annual Pied Piper play. I couldn’t help but think of Santa Rosa’s obsession with all things wine country, and how that image and tourist-driven identity sometimes comes at the expense of true art and innovation. At one point, “The Ratcatcher” (played by Windmiller) asks for directions to City Hall and one of the kids points him in the direction of the real Santa Rosa City Hall (just down the street from the Imaginists Theater), describing it was a “weird-looking building.” The play carries this second layer of meaning throughout. Is it parable, or is it reality? In the end, it doesn’t matter. What comes out of the play is a sense of art’s possibility, as well as the price paid when art isn’t honored, or is shut down for the sake of “appearances.”

“It is 100 years since our children left,” begins the original tale. And in this updated version, what stays behind is the subtle warning. If a community doesn't support art, performance, experimentation and creative thinking, then the children will leave for places where they can find those essential components of life, and most of the time, they won’t come back.

The Crux’s pirate cabaret mood melds perfectly with the play's subversive, playful energy. It lends an atmosphere that is at once joyous, somber and slightly sinister. Musical theater can be a bit over the top, and cringe-inducing, but The Ratcatcher never veers into this territory. The themes are too real, too important and the music too engaging to fall into embarrassment.

Joshua James Jackson, Annie Crilley, Kalei Yamanoha, Josh Windmiller, Travis Hendrix
  • Eric Monrad
  • Joshua James Jackson, Annie Crilley, Kalei Yamanoha, Josh Windmiller, Travis Hendrix

The cast is rambunctious and well-suited for their roles. Brent Lindsay, executive director of the Imaginists, is a dynamic force as the drunken mayor of Hamlin. Layla Musselwhite, as the “Councilperson” is fabulous as a false sophisticate. Eliot Fintushel as the bald-headed, sinister Attorney is at his best when doing physical comedy or on stage singing "The Attorney's Waltz." For example, when the Councilperson sings her frisky cabaret song, it’s great fun watching the Mayor and the Attorney doing sexy leg-kicks and hip gyrations in their gray business suits.

The songs, written mainly by Josh Windmiller, are eminently listenable. Dogs Made of Rust (The Mayor’s Ballad), from the second act, sounds like a lost Leonard Cohen b-side. It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching wallop of a song, as is “The Gate (What the Children Remember),” the only song written by Crux member Annie Cilley. The band is in the midst of an Indie Go Go campaign to fund an album of songs from the play.

All in all, this is a fantastic production, of the type rarely seen in Sonoma County, and not to be missed.

The Imaginists are located at 461 Sebastopol Avenue, Santa Rosa. 707.528.7554.

The Ratcatcher performance dates:

November 29 | 30
December 1 | 2 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16

Performances at 8 p.m. Sunday performances at 5 p.m.

Tickets are...
$15 Under 25 & 62+
$18 Adults

November 29 (tonight) is "pay what you can" nights (tickets sold at door only)

Buy tickets online here:

As the Imaginists say, "Come support the integration of the musical and theatrical arts in the North Bay, and have a hell of a time doing it!"

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

New Plays in Ashland

'As You Like It,' 'Medea Macbeth Cinderella,' 'The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa' and 'Henry V' at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Posted By on Thu, Aug 30, 2012 at 2:24 PM


The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland—a scenic six-hour drive from Sonoma County—has become a popular summertime destination for theater-loving travelers from the North Bay and beyond. The prime time for Ashland journeying is between June and September, though the eleven-play season actually opens in late February, starting with shows in its two indoor theaters before opening the massive outdoor Elizabethan stage in June. Founded 77 years ago, the multifaceted festival features one of the oldest and largest repertory companies in the United States, with a reputation for quality theatrical undertakings unequaled on the West Coast.

It doesn’t hurt that the town of Ashland is so cute and pretty you want it take it home in your pocket once your visit is through. With banners bearing Shakespeare’s likeness flying all over town, and a service-industry as obsessed with theater as the 400,000 annual visitors (want to know which shows are good? Ask a barista at the local coffee place), Ashland is a unique and eccentric oasis of culture-loving obsession and offbeat charm.

In Ashland, the plays, above all, are the thing.

Up and running since Spring (and reviewed here previously) are Bernard Goopington’s 1840’s era Spanish-American Romeo and Juliet, and a breezy stage adaptation of the Marx Brothers classic Animal Crackers (both in the spacious Angus Bowmer Theater). In the intimate New Theater, also running since February, are Libby Appel’s elegant adaptation of Checkhov’s Seagull, Shakespeare’s Trojan War epic Troilus & Cressida (here set in modern-day Bagdhad).

In June, with the opening of the beautiful outdoor Elizabethan Theater, three new shows opened, and will run through October. One is a stunningly gripping production of one of the Bard’s most entertaining histories, one is an elegantly lyrical take a less-frequently-performed comedy, is fitting enough, given that OSF is one of America’s longest annual Shakespeare festivals—running each year from February to October—that director Jessica Thebus has placed Shakespeare’s much-loved pastoral romance, As You Like It, within the context of the passing of seasons. Winter, Autumn, Spring and Summer are personified in the play’s lovely opening, played by four female “graces,” who begin the show by singing life into the massive multi-geared clock which hovers over the entire stage, ticking and whirring, its enormous hands spinning the sun and moon around its face, setting the movement of clouds and sky, snow and falling leaves.

That clock is almost worth the price of admission.

The play—in which a loosely knit band of city-dwellers escape their tyrannical ruler, escaping to the magical Forest of Arden—tells several stories at once, most of them love stories: romantic love, brotherly love, love of life and love of nature.

Though packed with improbably situations and unlikely coincidences, As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical plays, containing one of his most famous speeches: All the World’s a Stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.” That speech is spoken by the melancholy nobleman Jacques, here transformed into a noblewoman. In many ways, that speech, with it’s description of the seven stages of life that the very old experience across their years, is at the heart of this production, in which Jacques’ melancholy does a little dance with the more joyful, inexperienced passions of the younger characters.

The large cast is superb, and they do a wonderful job of making their characters distinct, with individual arcs that are extremely clear and quite satisfying, which goes to describe the entire production, a sweet and gently bitter love-song to the never-ending cycles of life and death, love and loss.

Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare’s most inventive and tightly-written history, is far more spare in its presentation, the action staged on a monochromatic set of white and gray carpet, that black-and-white theme carrying over to the costumes of the characters.

Henry the Fifth, more or less a sequel to Henry IV parts one and two, is a play about war. Young King Hal, who Shakespeare showed as a young hedonist in the earlier plays, is now struggling against his youthful reputation as his powers of rule are tested. Encouraged by his advisors and family. Hal decides to invade and capture neighboring France, partially in retaliation for France’s stinging public insults against the untested ruler. Many productions of Hank Five attempt to juice up the action by including pantomimed battle scenes where Shakespeare only refers to them. Shakespeare, through the voice of a narrator, actually makes a point that the armies and horse, the battles and sieges and blood and death, must take place within the audience’s imagination.

Director Joseph Haj has taken Shakespeare literally, and yet there is no lack of tension of excitement. In fact, by retaining Shakespeare’s focus on the personal and emotional costs of war, with Henry forced to make unspeakably hard choices over and over, the play rises above mere pageantry and action. This is a visceral, riveting, deeply involving drama, with a handful of standout scenes that are breathtaking in their complexity and emotional beauty.

Hal’s decisive and clear-sighted action when a former friend is caught robbing the bodies of dead soldiers is both brutal and deeply moving. Henry V is easily one of this year’s best productions.

Medea Macbeth Cinderella, is something else entirely. A dream project of Artistic Director Bill Rauch—who first staged this odd theatrical mash-up while a wide-eyed college student—MMC is a strange mashup of three classics, each representing a different period in theatrical history: the Greek epic drama, Shakespearean tragedy, and American musical comedy. Rauch, in his earlier experiments with this project, found a certain amount of illumination in the idea of laying three major works of populist entertainment alongside each other to see if there was any juicy symmetry to be uncovered.

Euripedes’ epic Greek tragedy Medea—in which a spurned sorceress punishes the father of her children in the worst way possible—is one of the greatest dramas of all time. The same can be said for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the tale of two married murderers who take a stab at extreme social climbing, and go spectacularly whacko. Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella may be better known for its television adaptations than for its stage version, but it still features some of the loveliest songs ever written for a musical.

In Rauch’s ostentatious staging, co-directed with Tracy Young, all three stories are acted out, at the same time, all three unfolding and overlapping simultaneously. It’s a fun idea, but one that gets old . . . fast. The side-by-side comparison is academically interesting, occasionally proving that the three plays do have similar rhythms and themes, but most of the time, to this theater-goers eyes, the whole crazy enterprise is merely distracting, distancing, and confusing.

It’s a shame too, because in Young and Rauch’s bold direction there is enough theatrical genius going on to suggest that the three plays might have been brilliant had they been given their own individual stagings. The actors are all first rate, giving some stunning performances. Unfortunately, Medea Macbeth Cinderella is a little like watching the world-series, the Oscars and Dancing with the Stars all at once on three different television sits stacked up like a totem pole. The sensory overload may be stimulating, but in the end its impossible to enjoy the experience fully, because each screen pulls focus from the other, and the occasional rewards are too few and far between to make the effort worth it.

Meanwhile, OSF is taking another bold deviation from the norm in Allison Carey’s ‘The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa,’ directed by Christopher Liam Moore and adapted from The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Shakespeare. This modern-language translation updates the bard’s farcical comedy from Elizabethan England to modern day Iowa, just after the Iowa caucuses. In the original, the very large Sir John Falstaff attempts to woo two married women, and ends up the great big butt of the targeted wives’ combined attempt to humiliate and expose him. In Carey’s version, it’s Senator Falstaff, whose just lost his recent attempt at reelection, and tries to pay off his campaign debts by wooing and blackmailing two married women, one married to a man, the other—since Iowa allows same-sex marriage—married to a woman.

The gender swap yields some hilarious and frequently very clever and charming moments, with loads of corn-fed silliness including outrageous disguises, a singing cow made of butter, and a pair of mismatched lesbian suitors dressed improbably as sheep.

Focused and furiously funny, The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa proves that the same adventurous spirit that occasionally produces a failure or two, also often leads to magnificent, if unlikely, successes.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival continues through October. Visit for more information on the entire schedule.

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Monday, April 30, 2012

Theater Review: Five Plays at Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2012

Posted By on Mon, Apr 30, 2012 at 12:11 AM


In early Spring, when the world seems equal parts rain and sunshine, our thoughts predictably turn inside out. As the natural world turns green and lush around us, we suddenly feel the urge to trade those inward, reflective, heat-seeking pursuits of winter for anything that gets us up and out, moving and planting and creating. Right on schedule, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland, has—as of mid-February—officially rekindled and recommenced, with six shows currently running in a nine-month-long season that will eventually total 11 shows on three stages.

Some are old favorites. Others are brand new.

This year, many are a combination of both of those.

Romeo & Juliet—directed by Laird Williamson in the spacious Angus Bowmer Theater—takes Shakespeare’s timeless tale of ill-fated teenagers in love, and sets it in California of the 1840’s, where two wealthy Mexican families feud as the American military moves in to occupy its new geographic acquisition. Think Zorro, and you’ll have an idea of the vibe Williamson is going for.

The best thing about the play is the freshness of its look, with stunningly detailed costumes (Susan Tsu), and an adobe-and-wood set by scenic designer Michael Ganio. Also a plus are the delightfully youthful performances of Daniel Jose Molina and Alejandra Escalente as Romeo and Juliet, and some nicely choreographed stage fighting, which seems like the kind of fighting teenagers would do if they were permitted to carry swords to school.

Unfortunately, though our star-crossed lovers do successfully act the ages of the teenage R&J—pouting and flirting, raging and brawling, skipping and frolicking—the pair never demonstrate much actual romantic chemistry. Lacking any real passion and fire, the tone of the production becomes a bit flat and non-involving.

A similar lack of engagement takes place in Troilus & Cressida, Shakespeare’s seldom-staged sociopolitical satire about sexual and geographical politics during the Trojan War. The action—and I use that word loosely—is set several years into the famous siege of Troy, placed somewhere between the legendary kidnapping of the beautiful Helen and the famous Trojan Horse episode. A deliberately thoughtful look at the costs of violence, Shakespeare shows us what war looks like when it’s stuck in a quagmire, with little happening beyond soldiers waiting, and waiting, and waiting, their psyches slowly disintegrating.

The story follows Trojan prince Troilus (here played by Raffi Barsoumian) who’s fallen hard for the lovely Cressida (Tala Ashe), a Trojan woman whose family is in disgrace after the defection of her father to the besieging Greek army. When their love is threatened by a prisoner swap agreement between the two sides, Shakespeare relates a very different story of what happens when true love is denied.

When staged with the emphasis on the slow heartbreak at the center of Shakespeare’s storytelling, this is devastating material, and director Rob Melrose begins with an intriguing interpretation that promises more than it ultimately delivers.

Updated to modern-day Bagdhad, the Trojans have been turned into Iraqis, with the Greeks transformed into American soldiers, the versatile New Theater turned into a rubble-filled battle filled outside a ruined city. Melrose’s vision is tasty, at first. There is a visceral thrill at seeing recognizable names like Achilles (Peter Macon) and Ulysses (Mark Murphey) portrayed as Desert Storm army guys, but somewhere along the way, the direction becomes muffled and confusing, and the ultimate pathos of Shakespeare’s low-key tragedy is ultimately not served as well as it could have been.

Far less serious, and much better, is Allison Narver’s hilarious and inventive staging of Animal Crackers. Energetic and entertaining, if somewhat overlong, this is Henry Wishcamper’s fan-friendly adaptation of the celebrated Marx Brothers musical, built from the original Broadway script (by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind) that launched the Marx Brothers' career.

Like the classic movie inspired by the play, Animal Crackers is the story of one wild weekend at the Long Island estate of Mrs. Rittenhouse (K.T. Vogt), who invites the celebrated African explorer Captain Spaulding (a Groucho-channeling Mark Bedard) to give a lecture at her home. Bedard captures Groucho’s physical mannerisms to a tee, though his vocal impersonation occasionally wanders. Forming the rest of the famous foursome, Brent Hinkley, John Tufts and Eddie Lopez (Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, respectively) recreate some of the most famous bits in classic-comedy history. With a live chamber orchestra on stage, and some inspired physical choreography that sends the cast literally careening off of one another, the low-brow shenanigans do begin to wear thin into the show’s overstuffed third portion. Not that Narver’s madcap confection is ever boring. It’s not. Ultimately, I recommend Animal Crackers, because too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Also recommended is director Libby Appel’s shimmering production of Anton Chekhov’s poignant The Seagull, with a crisp and lucid English adaptation by Appel that shows its intentions beginning with the title, shorted to merely Seagull.

Chekhov’s tale of a family of Russian artists clashing over money, art and love—love denied, love ignored, love destroyed—is presented in such an unfussy and straightforward manner, the playwright’s rocky emotional jigsaw puzzle becomes pleasantly, unexpectedly and heartbreakingly clear, as all of Chekhov’s pieces fall beautifully, one by one, into place.

The theme of impossible love continues in my favorite show of the current crop. The White Snake, written and directed by the Tony-winning Mary Zimmerman, brings a little-known Chinese folktale to life through eye-pleasing visuals that are as poetic and the luscious and heartbreaking text. If you think Romeo and Juliet had it hard, consider the problems facing White Snake (Amy Kim Wascke), a mountain snake spirit who ventures to the city of humans for one day, and falls hard for a kind-hearted pharmacist (Christopher Livingston), who does not suspect that the woman of his dreams is actually a snake in human disguise. Told in one fluid act, the story touches a rainbow array of tones and feeling as the two mismatched lovers catch the eye of a cruel priest (Jack Willis), who decries the couple’s love as unnatural, and vows to separate them forever. At once achingly simple and miles deep, The White Snake packs a huge emotional wallop, with a breathtaking ending that somehow blends heartache and delight into a single unforgettable image.

For the full schedule, visit

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Stage Review: 'The Fantasticks' at Spreckels Center

Despite some musical glitches, 'The Fantasticks' glows with charm

Posted By on Thu, Feb 9, 2012 at 11:00 AM


From the moment the audience enters the room for Spreckels Theatre Company’s shiny new production of Jones & Schmidt’s beloved The Fantasticks, theatergoers are plunged into the celebrated play’s sweetly surreal, amiably over-the-top romantic world. Romping across the splendidly spare set—little more than a raised platform and a large, mysterious wooden trunk—is the Mute, the musical’s silent co-narrator, played with impressive physical charm and commitment by Denise Elia. Skipping, dancing, pantomiming and playing, she sets the tone for what is to come: an agreeably stripped-down, highly fairy-tailish examination of young love and the hard knocks of life.

Directed by Matthew Teague Miller, this production—in the intimate Condiotti theater—enhances much of what is good about this often difficult-to-stage, 1960 show, all while de-emphasizing those elements that some audiences have found to be sadly dated or in poor taste. I have to admit, though I’ve always loved the music of The Fantasticks, with songs like "Try to Remember," "Soon It’s Gonna Rain," and "Never Say No," I’ve never seen a production that meets the heightened expectations raised by the show’s shimmering reputation. It played for an astounding 42 years off Broadway, and has become a staple of community theaters and college theater arts programs for decades.

Despite the fact that, in many ways, The Fantasticks is exactly the kind of show I would normally fall in love with, I’ve been consistently disappointed. The good news is, with the graceful direction of Miller, a cast perfectly suited to their characters, and a clever series of changes, the dramatic and romantic aspects of this production absolutely pop right off the stage. In so intimate a setting, the silly-lovely dialogue seems immediate and real, and the chemistry between the actors had me writing the words “sweet,” “charming” and “very pretty” in my notebook.

The co-narrator character El Gallo, often played as a charlatan from start to finish, is here allowed to start the play as a truly decent guy, with actor Steven Shear dropping the oft-used goofball accent to sing "Try to Remember" with so much sincerity and straight-to-the-heart simplicity, few will be able to resist feeling melted into love-story mode right out of the gate. That story follows The Girl (Adria Swan) and The Boy (Gabriel Stephens), coaxed into falling in love by their fake-feuding fathers. The young lovers leapfrog through a plot involving a pretend abduction—described in much cruder terms in the original production—longing, disappointment, broken hearts, wisdom gained, and love rekindled.

If only the musical side of this production stacked up to everything else. Accompanied by musical director Lucas Sherman—who carries the show on his capable back as the sole accompanist, on a baby grand in the corner of the stage—the problems include an uneven range of singing strength among the cast, some of the singing drop-dead-great, some, um, not so, with harmonies that had me writing the words “yikes” and “ouch” next to all those other nice words I’d already written. When the singing is fine, even exceptional, the fact that no mikes are used makes it extremely hard to hear all of the lyrics, many of which are drowned out by the piano, despite Sherman’s heroic attempts to keep the music beneath the singer’s voices.

And so, my quest to finally see a production of The Fantasticks that lives up to its legend continues. Till then, despite its problems, the elegant and mostly-lovely Spreckels show is easily the best, most genuinely affecting production of this beloved musical I’ve seen.

The Fantasticks runs through Feb. 19 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Visit for information.

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