ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Opera’s “Luisa Miller” closes with a stand-out performance from tenor Michael Fabiano

American tenor Michael Fabiano, recipient of the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Artist Award, is Rodolfo in San Francisco Opera’s “Luisa Miller.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

American tenor Michael Fabiano, recipient of the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Artist Award, is Rodolfo in San Francisco Opera’s “Luisa Miller.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

At San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) Sunday matinee performance of Verdi’s Luisa Miller, all eyes and ears were on tenor Michael Fabiano and rightly so─his Rodolfo was inspired, powerful.  The tall, dashing 30 year-old embodied the aristocrat loved by two women, the son who defies his father and the unwitting pawn in a political intrigue that leads to murder.  How trilling to behold a young singer nail a performance and to find yourself rising to your feet, whopping and whistling for him out of pure joy, knowing in your bones that you have just witnessed one of the great tenors in opera. Fabiano, 30, is the recipient of the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Award, the first person in history to win both awards in one year.

Sharing the glory was young soprano Leah Crocetto, in the title role, alum of the Adler and Merola programs, who sang beautifully as well.  Actually it’s a match that’s been in the works for some time─ Crocetto and Fabiano sang Mimi and Rodolfo in SFO’s La Bohème in 2014 but never sang together as they were in separate casts.  Each garnered great reviews.  Fabiano went on to sing Rodolfo at the Metropolitan Opera House in December, garnering global attention there as well as at La Scala and the Glyndebourne Festival.  It was thus no surprise to see a few people in the audience on Sunday who had attended the gala season-opening performance and were back for a final dose of this rare, luscious singing.

Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” opened San Francisco Opera’s 2015-16 season. The opera pairs soprano Leah Crocetto and tenor Michael Fabiano as doomed lovers Luisa, a miller’s daughter, and Rodolfo, the son of the local count. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” opened San Francisco Opera’s 2015-16 season. The opera pairs soprano Leah Crocetto and tenor Michael Fabiano as doomed lovers Luisa, a miller’s daughter, and Rodolfo, the son of the local count. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

The 1849 opera, Verdi’s 15th, is based on Schiller’s play “Kabale and Liebe.”  The plot is insanely unrealistic─Luisa Miller, a commoner, is in love with Carlo, who is really Rodolfo, the son of the local Count, Walter.  Luisa’s protective father distrusts Carlo and schemes behind her back to have her marry Wurm, who works for the Count.  When Wurm (whose name translates appropriately as “Worm”) tells the count that his son is in love with a commoner, the Count orders Rodolfo to marry the recently widowed duchess, Federica who is in the good graces of the Imperial Court.  The rest of the opera revolves around political intrigue, deception and heartbreak and culminates in multiple deaths─Wurm by gunshot and Rodolfo and Luisa by poisoning, just after the truth of their abiding love is revealed, but too late as the poison has been drunk.

Soprano Leah Crocetto sang beautifully, consistently hitting the notes this demanding role calls for while evoking the emotional roller coaster that innocent young Luisa is subject to.  She soared in her Act II, aria “Te puniscimi, O Signore” which was pulsing with feeling as she expressed being torn between her love for Rodolfo and her father.  And right after Fabiano brought down the house with his exquisite Act II aria, “Quando le Sere al Placido,” it was as if she too got a boost from the fumes and came out singing with renewed fire.

Soprano Leah Crocetto is Luisa in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at San Francisco Opera through September 27, 2015. Crocetto is a former Adler fellow and Merola alum. As the opera opens, it is Luisa's birthday and the villagers (San Francisco Opera chorus) have gathered to serenade her. The Francesca Zambello production, from 2000, features sets by Michael Yeargan with gorgeous huge paintings. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Soprano Leah Crocetto is Luisa in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at San Francisco Opera through September 27, 2015. Crocetto is a former Adler fellow and Merola alum. As the opera opens, it is Luisa’s birthday and the villagers (San Francisco Opera chorus) have gathered to serenade her. The Francesca Zambello production, from 2000, features sets by Michael Yeargan with gorgeous huge paintings. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk has an intrinsically lush, full voice and her SF Opera debut as the widowed duchess, Federica, was enchanting.  It was particularly amusing when she made her entrance drawn in on an enormous horse statue replete with its clunky pedestal, as if it had been dragged there from a European park.  To dismount she had to be lifted down by another cast member. Her singing was nimble and spot-on, from her Act I aria, “Duchessa Duchessa tu m’appelli,” and duet, “Dall aule raggianti di vano,” with Rodolfo to her Act II recitatives.

Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk makes her San Francisco Opera debut as Federica in Verdi's

Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk makes her San Francisco Opera debut as Federica in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Baritone Vitaliy Bilyy as Miller, who has also sung the role at Milan’s La Scala, made his SFO debut and was impressive.  Bass baritone Daniel Sumegi sang Count Walter and imbued him with an appropriately dark character.  The great irony of the opera is that the Count, who conspires to entrap Luisa and her father, ultimately ensnares his own beloved son.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli sang wonderfully but could have imbued his bland Wurm with even more despicability.  Second year Adler Fellow, soprano Jacqueline Piccolino was impressive as the village girl Laura, whose Act I “Tidesta, Luisa” (sung with the chorus) immediately caught our attention. Her Act III “O Dolce Amica, E Ristorar Non Vuoi,” sung with Lusia and the chorus, again made an impression.

When SFO Music Director, Nicola Luisotti, comes to the podium, and it’s Verdi, one always has the sense that great things are in the pipeline.  It’s amazing how time flies too.  He made his SFO debut in 2005, conducting “La Forza del Destino,” and has been director since 2009.

He started the overture at a healthy clip, as he is prone to do, but, throughout the afternoon, brought the delicacy out in the scoring as well the drama, passion, and color that Verdi infused this score with. The clarinet solo in the overture and horns calls further enlivened the music.  The SFO chorus sang masterfully throughout, starting out as a chorus of simple country folk singing repeating melodies that were expressive and catchy.

The production, a 2000 revival by Francesca Zambello, which I had not seen before, intrigued me, particularly Michael Yeargan’s gorgeous sets.  They included a painted surround backdrop of a dense forest which changed colors, and several very large paintings─ a rustic farmhouse for Miller’s house, an elegant tapestry featuring a hunting scene with leaping hounds for Walter’s castle and, for Act II, a gray honeycomb pattern evoking metal mesh─all suspended from a distracting metal arm that hung over the stage for the duration of the opera.

Dunya Ramicova’s costumes were predictable─the villagers wore peasant costumes; the nobles were elegant in fitted red velvet coats and dresses for the hunt; Rodolfo and Wurm were fitted in green and the count wore an elegant black coat with a white ruffled shirt.  The fitted waists and abundance of fabric in the skirts of Crocetto’s and Semenchuk’s period gowns did nothing to flatter their rounder figures.

Details:  There are no remaining performances of Luisa Miller. For information about the SFO’s 2015-16 season, for which you can still catch all but Luisa Miller, click here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.

Advertisements

September 29, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Opera’s new production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”—not so scary, but bloody grand it is!

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

There’s nothing more satisfying than an occasional slice of pie!  And San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, offers just that─delectable meat pies with a killer secret ingredient served up in an exhilarating musical.  A co-production with Houston Grand Opera and the Paris Thèâtre du Châtelet, this Lee Blakeley production premiered in Paris in 2011, and garnered raves at the Houston Grand Opera in April 2015.  It features Sondheim’s original score for the lyric stage and boasts unforgettable tunes.  At the War Memorial Opera House, with a stand-out cast of singers who can also act, it has definitely found its groove.  The SFO orchestra and chorus are magical under guest conductor Patrick Summers.  Simon Berry’s powerful organ solos, which fill the opera house, punctuate the drama.  Wonderfully harmonic singing accompanies the throat slitting and a spare-no-expense big staging, designed by Tania McCallin transports the audience back to bleak 1860’s backstreet London.

In all, it’s a fitting coup for SFO’s Music Director David Gockley, who is retiring and is now in his final season.  Gockley has championed musical theater in the opera house to help build a wider audience base.  During his tenure at Houston Grand Opera in the 1980’s, it was he who mounted a groundbreaking production of Sweeney Todd, establishing HGO as the first opera company to stage the 1979 musical, originally directed for Broadway by Harold Prince and starring Angela Lansberry and Len Cariou.  By the looks and gleeful ovations of the audience at last Sunday’s performance, which included more in their teens and twenties than I have ever seen before, Gockley’s making headway at building that wider base.

The story: In London there once lived a barber named Benjamin Barker (baritone Brian Mulligan) and his sweet young wife and child and he loved them with all he had.  But the licentious Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs) had Barker exiled to Australia on trumped up charges, meanwhile holding his wife and daughter, Johanna, captive.  Turpin ravishes the wife, ruining her life, and the traumatized young Johanna grows up as his ward and house prisoner.  The wronged barber, going by the name of Sweeney Todd returns to London to exact revenge and teams up with an ambitious pie maker, with a few secrets of her own, who has high hopes that the barber will become her next husband.

At last Sunday’s matinee, there were three clear standouts —baritone Brian Mulligan in the title role; mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe as his pie baking accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, and baritone Elliot Madore as the young sailor, Anthony Hope.

From the moment he takes the stage, American baritone Brian Mulligan, commands full attention. Mulligan who sang the title role in SFO’s Nixon in China (2012) and, most recently, Chorèbe in Les Troyens (summer 2105), really channeled his dramatic flare, pulling off a dynamic performance with his rich vocals and acting.  Mulligan looks and a lot like School of Rock’s sensational Jack Black, so much so, that, at times, I half expected to see him amplifying his heartbreak with an electric guitar.  As the performance begins, Sweeney has just sailed into London with young Anthony Hope, Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, the winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in his SFO debut.  The duo’s energetic opener, “No Place Like London,” showcased the strength and lyricism of their blended voices, while Mulligan’s “The Barber and his Wife” conveyed sensitivity and heartbreak.  Later in the Act I, Mulligan’s chilling duo with Stephanie Blythe, “My Friends” referring to his razors, was powerfully macabre.

Madore, in his SFO debut, sung so tenderly throughout the afternoon that I too swooned, from he began wooing young Johanna away from her troubles with his exquisite “Johanna” to his ACTII reprise of that enchanting song and wonderful duos along the way.

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Stephanie Blythe is always an amazing stage presence but she outdid herself as shopkeeper Mrs. Lovett, a role that showcased her natural comedic genius and irrepressible bombast. She won hearts in “The Worse Pies in London” and continued to deliver full force delight in her Act I duo with Mulligan,  “A Little Priest,” an outlandishly hilarious culinary appraisal of humans as pie ingredients. Act II’s duos  “By the Sea” with Mulligan and “Not While I’m Around” with Tobias (Mathew Griggs) were exquisite. It was hard to believe that this is Blythe’s debut in this role; she’s set the bar high at SFO for future singers in this role.

There are also star turns by Heidi Stober as Johanna; Elizabeth Futral as Beggar Woman; AJ Glueckert as Beadle Bamford, Wayne Tigges as Judge Turpin; Matthew Grills as Tobias Ragg and David Curry as Adolfo Pirelli.

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober) who has became a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober), now a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s bakehouse. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s oven. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Stephanie Blythe at the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room October 4:  Blythe will perform her heart-warming cabaret show “We’ll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith,” about the great First Lady of Radio, Kate Smith, on October 4th, 2015.  For information and tickets ($70 or $100), click here.

Sweeney Todd Details:  There are 2 remaining performances of Sweeney Todd─Saturday, Sept. 26, 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 PM.  Both will be conducted by James Lowe.  Click here for tickets ($31 to $395) or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   While it’s sung in English, every performance of Sweeney Todd features English supertitles projected above the stage, visible from every seat.  For information about the SFO’s 2015-16 season, for which you can still catch all performances, click here.

September 26, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pounce: tickets are on sale now for the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival, October 8-18

Seven years in the making, Taiwanese film director, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s luxurious wuxia (martial arts) drama, “The Assassin” screens twice at the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival. The plot is minimal─a young girl (Taiwanese actress, Shu Qi) is kidnapped and trained to be an assassin. When she is a young adult, she is sent away by her master because she failed to complete a killing. She returns to her hometown and is ordered to kill her first love, her cousin, a powerful military governor. Featuring slow pans of China’s stunning mountains, valleys and historic temples, exquisite costumes and artifacts, as well as riveting physical feats, the film is like a lush painting come to life. Hou Hsiao-hsien, a leading figure of Taiwan's New Wave cinema movement, picked up best director award at Cannes this with this drama. Photo: courtesy MVFF

Seven years in the making, Taiwanese film director, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s luxurious wuxia (martial arts) drama, “The Assassin” screens twice at the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival. The plot is minimal─a young girl (Taiwanese actress, Shu Qi) is kidnapped and trained to be an assassin. When she is a young adult, she is sent away by her master because she failed to complete a killing. She returns to her hometown and is ordered to kill her first love, her cousin, a powerful military governor. Featuring slow pans of China’s stunning mountains, valleys and historic temples, exquisite costumes and artifacts, as well as riveting physical feats, the film is like a lush painting come to life. Hou Hsiao-hsien, a leading figure of Taiwan’s New Wave cinema movement, picked up best director award at Cannes this with this drama. Photo: courtesy MVFF

Now in its 38th year, the legendary Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), October 8-18, is hard to beat—11 days of the best new films from around the world, intimate on stage conversations with directors and stars, live music, and parties. AND it’s NORTH of the Golden Gate, so the driving is quicker. This festival is so good that five of the last seven Academy Award winners for best picture (Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave) made their Bay Area premieres there.  What it really prides itself on, though, is its selection of locally-directed indies, gems of world cinema, and engrossing docs selected with care to meet our exacting standards.   Mill Valley is an insider’s festival though and tickets are sold to members of the California Film Institute (CFI), based on membership levels, long before they are made available to the public.

This year’s festival is October 8-18 and tickets are now on sale to the general public. If you want to attend any of the fabulous tributes, spotlight or centerpiece screenings, it is essential that you lock in your tickets ASAP.

Producing a documentary is a labor-of-love that typically takes anywhere from one to ten years, and requires an unwavering belief that the world needs to see the story. Irene Taylor Brodsky was hiking in Nepal with an organization that treats cataracts when she encountered an elderly married couple, both blind, who qualified to have free cataract surgery that would enable them to see again. Musician Peter Gabriel liked her film so much that he wrote a song for it called “Open Your Eyes.” The film has its world premiere at the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival on October 10. Irene Taylor Brodsky will participate in a panel discussion followed by Sing Out for Sight, a benefit concert for Seva Foundation at the Sweetwater Music Hall. Image: courtesy MVFF

Producing a documentary is a labor-of-love that typically takes anywhere from one to ten years, and requires an unwavering belief that the world needs to see the story. Irene Taylor Brodsky was hiking in Nepal with an organization that treats cataracts when she encountered an elderly married couple, both blind, who qualified to have free cataract surgery that would enable them to see again. Musician Peter Gabriel liked her film so much that he wrote a song for it called “Open Your Eyes.” The film has its world premiere at the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival on October 10. Irene Taylor Brodsky will participate in a panel discussion followed by Sing Out for Sight, a benefit concert for Seva Foundation at the Sweetwater Music Hall. Image: courtesy MVFF

  

Icelandic director, Grímur Hákonarson’s “Rams,” Winner of the Uncertain Regard Prize at Cannes will screen twice at the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival, October 8-18, 2015. Shot in remote lush valleys of Iceland, it weaves the story of two brothers, both single and getting on in years, who compete fiercely each year for valley-wide recognition for having the best ram. They haven’t spoken in 40 years but are forced to come together in order to save what’s dearest to their hearts—their sheep. Photo: Courtesy MVFF

Icelandic director, Grímur Hákonarson’s “Rams,” Winner of the Uncertain Regard Prize at Cannes will screen twice at the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival, October 8-18, 2015. Shot in remote lush valleys of Iceland, it weaves the story of two brothers, both single and getting on in years, who compete fiercely each year for valley-wide recognition for having the best ram. They haven’t spoken in 40 years but are forced to come together in order to save what’s dearest to their hearts—their sheep. Photo: Courtesy MVFF

Stay tuned to ARThound for top picks.

Screening venues include: Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center (1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael); Century Larkspur (500 Larkspur Landing Circle); Lark Theater (549 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur), Century Cinema (41 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera); CinéArts@Sequoia (25 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley), Throckmorton Theatre (142 Throckmorton Ave, Mill Valley) and other venues throughout the Bay Area.

Online ticket purchase is highly recommended (click here to be directed to film descriptions, each with a “Buy Ticket” option. (Online purchases have a $1.75 per film surcharge).  There are also several box offices for in person purchases, offering the advantages of getting your tickets on the spot, no service fee, and picking up a hard copy of the catalogue—

SAN RAFAEL

Smith Rafael Film Center 1112 Fourth Street Sept.19-Oct 7, 4–8 pm (General Public)

MILL VALLEY

Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center, 85 Throckmorton Ave, October 7, 11 am–3:00 pm; Oct 8-18, 10 am to 15 min after last show starts

Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center 85 Throckmorton Ave October 1, 11:00 am–3:00 pm October 2–12, 10:00 am to 15 minutes after last show starts

September 21, 2015 Posted by | Film | , , | Leave a comment

Review: ACT’s sensational season opener, 2015 Pulitzer winner “Between Riverside and Crazy”

Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) argues with his son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates, right), while Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez, center) reads the newspaper in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy,

Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) argues with his son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates, right), while Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez, center) reads the newspaper in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy, “Between Riverside and Crazy,” at American Conservatory Theater (ACT) through September 27, 2015. Photo by Kevin Berne

Everything clicked Wednesday evening at ACT (American Conservatory Theater) which opened its 2015-6 season with Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama.  Drawn from real life, the story, which had the audience laughing all night with its biting dialogue and superb acting, captures a dark period in the life of ex-NYC cop and recent widower Walter “Pops” Washington, marvel Carl Lumbly.   “Pops” has a full set of problems which are only compounded by the company of ne’er-do-wells surrounding him.  He is trying to stave off eviction from his gigantic rent stabilized apartment on Riverside Drive while he waits for a hefty settlement from a racial discrimination suit he filed against NYPD 8 years back.  He’s also keeping tabs on Junior, his newly-paroled son (Samuel Ray Gates) who seems to be using the apartment for fencing stolen goods and who has moved his girlfriend, Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown), in, who might be a hooker.  Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez), an addict in recovery, is another questionable houseguest.  It’s no wonder that Pops is drinking.

While the entire cast is superb, Carl Lumbly, “Pops,” who hails from Berkley, is the glue that holds this superbly measured tragic-comedy together.  He has that wonderful sense of ease on stage that allows him to completely embody a character and to relate genuinely to everyone.

Carl Lumbly stars as Walter “Pops” Washington in Stephen Adly Guirgis’

Carl Lumbly stars as Walter “Pops” Washington in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Photo by Kevin Berne

Lumbly, garnered national attention as NYPD Detective Marcus Petrie on the CBS police drama Cagney & Lacey and as CIA Agent Marcus Dixon on the ABC espionage drama series Alias, is well known for his remarkable theatrical performances.  In 2013, at San Francisco Playhouse he played the lead character in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ tragicomedy, The Motherf**ker with the Hat, along with Gabriel Marin, who plays a police detective in this play.

As with so many plays drawn from controversial real-life events, perspective is everything and the brilliance of this Guirgis play is that it shrewdly limits itself to a few perspectives, ensuring that we learn everything about Pops and his past from either Pops or the two white NYPD detectives (his former partner (Stacey Ross) and her fiancé (Gabriel Marin) who come calling to try and dissuade him from pursuing his lawsuit against the NYPD.

The crux of the play is that Pops, confined to a wheelchair, has been seething in anger for years over being shot and has been finding consolation in a bottle.  He believes his shooting was a racially motivated crime rather than an accident and he wants “justice” and has held out for 8 years hoping for recognition that his civil rights were violated.  It’s very easy to fall for Pops and into his mindset.  As time passes, however, we learn that, in order to receive a more lucrative settlement, he embellished his story saying that the white cop that shot him called him “nigger” and we learn that, on the evening he was shot, he was off duty at a seedy bar and didn’t identify himself as police officer and his blood alcohol level was very high.  That seems to change everything, or does it?  Guirgis, who based the play on an actual shooting that happened in 1994, is exploring the limits of truth and the race factor.

How do we decide who to believe in a shooting that is tainted with claims of racial motivation? Pops may have been lying when he said the cop who shot him called a name, but it is also possible that the cop was motivated by an implicit bias, which is almost impossible to prove.

The domestic chaos in the household seems a perfect accompaniment for Pops’ inner turmoil and one of the pleasures of Between Riverside and Crazy is Guirgis’ vivid contemplation of character.  Guirgis has long had a fascination with strugglers, strivers, misfits and perennial outsiders and they all come together in this crumbling apartment─each a slave to some form of self-destruction and each with a cover story that cracks as time passes. The push-pull drama is funny, sad and believable.

The Church Lady (Catherine Castellanos) prays for Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy,

The Church Lady (Catherine Castellanos) prays for Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy, “Between Riverside and Crazy”. Photo by Kevin Berne

We first meet well-meaning Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez), a junkie who is committed to rehabilitation but slips up.  His affection for Pops in Act 1 is palpable. His colorful riff on eating healthy which involves a diet of fresh organic raw almonds instead of Ring Dings with baloney and Fanta Grape unfolds like poetry. When Pop’s son’s fiancé, Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown), waltzes into the kitchen in short shorts and tries to wrap Pops around her finger, sweetness delivered in a Hispanic Brooklyn accent, we just know she’s trouble and not really studying accounting.  And Pop’s parolee son, Junior (Chris Butler), with whom he seems to have a strained relationship, purports to be walking the straight and narrow but his partying and strange comings and goings lead us to suspect he’s up to no good.  And then there’s the dynamic seductress “Church Lady” (Catherine Castellanos) who delivers a “Spiritual treatment” that sends Pops straight into cardiac arrest.

And Gabriel Marin, as Lt. Caro has a wonderful stage presence.  Seeing him again on stage with Lumbly, after their pairings at SF Playhouse (The Motherf**ker with the Hat (2013), Storefront Church (2013),  Jesus Hopped the “A” Train (2007)) makes me realize how magical their chemistry is.

All the action takes place in the confines of the kitchen and living room, essentially one large set, masterfully designed by Chris Barreca.  The space evokes the fading grandeur of those magical old large Riverside apartments from the era when middle class workers in New York really had some space.  Pops’ wife has passed recently so the place looks neglected with its ratty appliances, distressed cabinets and old linoleum but it’s got very good bones.

Director Irene Lewis’ pacing of this two hour play is near perfect with the first part devoted to Pops’ extended dysfunctional family and the second, a life-altering visit from Church Lady, revelations about his lawsuit, and an unexpected ending.

Carl Lumbly on playing “Pops”─ Pops has had to walk a hard line, and as a black man of his time, growing up and making the choice to become a police officer—perhaps in a neighborhood in which most people went a completely different way—was a complex decision.  As his career went on, I believe he saw some things that made him proud of having made that choice.  But over time, being tossed up against the serrated edge of reality that operates in situations where people are acting out of desperation, he saw some pretty awful forms of human behavior, in perpetrators and criminals as well as in the system of justice that gets applied to hold them in check. …Because he doesn’t have legitimate power any longer, illegitimate power achieved by lies in the face of unfairness doesn’t feel like the worst strategy.

Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis.  Directed by Irene Lewis

Cast: Chris Butler (Junior), Catherine Castellanos (Church Lady), Carl Lumbly (Walter “Pops” Washington), Gabriel Marin (Lieutenant Caro), Elia Monte-Brown (Lulu), Stacey Ross (Detective O’Conner), and Lakin Valdez (Oswaldo)

Creative Team: Chris Barreca (set design), Seth Resier (lighting design), Candice Donnelly (costume design), Leon Rothenberg (sound design)

Run-time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission

Details: Between Riverside and Crazy runs through September 27, 2015 at American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances are 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. most Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. most Sundays. Tickets: $25 to $125, phone 415.749.2228, or visit www.act-sf.org.

September 15, 2015 Posted by | Theater | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment