Review: Cinnabar Theater’s “I am My Own Wife”—a crafty and true survival tale featuring Steven Abbott as 36 characters, through February 22, 2015
You do what you have to do to survive—that’s the underlying theme of Doug Wright’s stunning one man play, I Am My Own Wife, at Cinnabar Theater through February 22. Dressed in a baggy black dress and pearls, transgender Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who was born a man, survived both the Nazi and East German Communist regimes with her unique identity intact. She also ran a thriving Weimar cabaret in her basement, managed to amass an important collection of late 19th century antiques and became a decorated national hero. On the down side, she murdered her abusive father and may have betrayed her friends and colleagues by informing on them to the Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police. Director Jennifer King and actor Steven Abbott team up for the third time to present this remarkable solo show, which burst onto Broadway in 2004 and won every major honor, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.
The reason to go—the entrancing Steven Abbott, well-known to Cinnabar audiences for A Couple of Blaguards and No Regrets: The Songs of Edith Paif. Abott plays transgender Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and 35 other distinct characters who were in her life with seamless fluidity, transitioning from one to the other with just the slightest inflection of voice or movements of his sparkling eyes. It’s a study in perfect alchemy.
Transgender refers to a person who identifies with the male/female role opposite their birth gender. Charlotte von Mahldorf was born Lothar Berfelde in Germany in 1928. Both the Nazi and Communist regimes would have labeled her a sexual deviant and sought to kill her, had they known. The performance begins as Charlotte looks at the audience, smiles and shows us a delightful antique cylinder phonograph, She then proceeds to lead us on a tour of her home, a private museum in Mahlsdorf, a suburb of East Berlin. Soon we are aware that the sparsely appointed Cinnabar stage, with its elegant European double doors, blue patterned wall paper, two tables, two antique chairs, phonograph and vast black fabric wings on each side, represents a vast floor-to-ceiling collection of von Mahldorf’s fine late 19th century antiques—sideboards, gramophones, clocks, etc. And in this collection of artifacts, which is now the celebrated Gründerzeit Museum, is her precious life story. We also learn that, before her home became a museum, it was a safe haven for people the State denied the right to exist because of their sexual orientation.
It was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall that American playwright Doug Wright learned about Charlotte from his journalist friend, Texan John Marks, the Berlin bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report. Marks had discovered her in 1992 when she was giving guided tours of her extensive collection of antiques. Wright traveled to the former East Germany to interview Charlotte on several occasions. Around that time too, noted German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim made a documentary about von Mahlsdorf, I Am My Own Woman (1992) (Ich bin meine eigene Frau) and her autobiography I Am My Own Woman: The Outlaw Life of Charlotte von Mahldorf came out in 1995. Wright was so overwhelmed with the breadth of Charlotte’s story that it took him several years to develop the material into the play and he actually inserted himself into it.
It was his discovery of Charlotte’s extensive Stasi file which claimed that she, like many other East German citizens, had not only been a subject of surveillance but also been an informant for that oppressive regime that left him conflicted. How could the subject of his respect and admiration have carried out such a betrayal?
According to director Jennifer King, “the tension resulting from the ethical implications about von Mahlsdorf’s alleged complicity with this monstrous regime is just one of many factors that make this an extraordinary subject for theatre.”
Tackling dozens of characters is a herculean task that Abbott handles in masterful stints of split second shifts. Some of those fascinating roles are frustratingly underdeveloped. As a journalist, I was hungry for more of Wright’s story and for more detail about Charlotte’s father who drove her to commit murder. What does come through in this 100 minute performance is the sheer complexity of von Mahlsdorf’s personality and the scars exacted by life under fascism. Abbott’s close to the chest depiction of Charlotte, who speaks matter of factly in an emotionally detached manner, is most engrossing. He plays her as an artifact that is tightly, brilliantly curated never admitting or denying Stasi complicity. Of course, we all know that, when presented correctly, moral quandaries can be the most intensely dramatic dilemmas of all and Cinnabar’s I am My Own Wife is indeed a gem of many facets.
Creative Team: written by Doug Wright; directed by Jennifer King; staring Mike Abbott; staging by Ross Tiffany-Brown; Lighting by Wayne Hovey; sound by Joe Winkler; costume consultant Lisa Eldredge; set construction by Mike Acorn, Joe Elwick, Aloysha Klebe & Ross Tiffany-Brown
Details: There are 6 remaining performances of “I Am My Own Wife” but several of these are sold out. Limited tickets are still available for Friday, Feb 20 (8 PM); Sat, Feb 21(8 PM) and Sunday, Feb 22 (2 PM). *Please note: Cinnabar advises that this show is best appreciated by ages 15 and up due to adult content. Youth ages 12-18 who are interested in seeing the show are encouraged to attend Friday Night Live on 2/6, when a speaker from Positive Images, Santa Rosa, will help provide context on the story. Tickets for this event are only $9.
Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink” at San Francisco’s ACT—a multi-layered love story—through February 8, 2015
Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink had its U.S. premiere at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in 1999 and is back at ACT through February 8, with director Carey Perloff again at the helm. Having been introduced to Stoppard through ACT’s finely-honed Arcadia in 2013, I couldn’t wait to see Indian Ink (1995), which also shares Stoppard’s penchant for twisting time periods, in this case the 1930’s and 1980’s—and examining important ideas with dialogue that is witty, sexy and deeply entertaining. On the chopping block were British colonialism and art, specifically mogul painting. The play also features another great passion of mine: British women writers who traveled the globe and had fabulous adventures. Here, we have the fictional free-spirit and poet Flora Crewe (the delightful Brenda Meaney) who has ties to the Bloomsbury group and is in India in 1930 lecturing at the local Theosophical Society about literary life in London while trying to keep her terminal illness under wraps.
“Indian Ink” is structured around Flora’s letters from India to her younger sister, Eleanor, a political magazine editor in London. Flora’s exciting past in 1930’s Jummapur (now Jamalpur in Bangladesh) is enacted with the Indian painter Nirad Das and the action then switches to 1980’s London, where Eleanor, now the widowed Mrs. Swan and in her 70’s, is going over their correspondence at the request of a Eldon Pike, an American scholar who is keen to write Flora’s biography. Eleanor is also visited by Anish Das, the grown son of the painter. All are intent to unravel the mystery of Flora’s time in India and the nature of her relationship with Nirad Das and there are three paintings which provide clues. An evening with Stoppard is always jammed packed and Indian Ink rewards the viewer with a multi-layered love story.
Stoppard, who was knighted in 1997 and is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest living playwrights, has collaborated with Perloff to rework the play’s ending. This revised version had its first run in Manhattan last fall at the Roundabout Theatre Company, where Perloff co-produced it. Wednesday’s opening in San Francisco revealed a highly-polished and very enjoyable performance, steeped in art, history and cross-cultural connections. So much has been packed into this play, however, that it dances elegantly on the surface, enticing us with the brilliant alchemy that is Stoppard’s calling card but never taking the plunge into those murky intellectual depths that will produce it. This is not “Arcadia,” a peak theatrical experience that stays with you for your lifetime, which isn’t to say that “Indian Ink” isn’t stirring or thought-provoking.
Stoppard uses character dialogue in a brilliant back and forth, almost debate, style to explore what he wants to know about and in this case it’s the mutability of the past, the concept of rasa played out between a poet and painter in fascinating conversation about their passions and, on a larger level, the morality of empire. Perloff’s wonderful staging, excellent acting, Neil Patel’s elegantly textured sandstone wall which is a backdrop to his fine sets, Candice Donnelly’s spot on period costumes and Dan Moses Schreier’s evocative musical backdrop of tabla and violin all work in synchrony to bring out the very best in this play.
Brenda Meaney (who reminds me of Keira Knightley at her best) delivers a wonderfully complex Flora Crewe, a bold and intellectually, as well as sexually, adventurous young woman who is intent on living her life to the fullest in India while keeping it a secret that she is dying. She is particularly delightful where she is flirting it up with Englishman David Durance (Philip Mills), one of many romantic dalliances, and blurts out one of the play’s funniest and most memorable lines—“Wangle the Daimler!”—urging Durance to secure the Residency’s fancy car and escort her to a dance. Funny double entendre lines like this are Stoppard’s forte.
The play’s title “Indian Ink” actually refers to a poem that Flora is writing while sitting for Nirad Das (the wondrous Firdous Bamji) and it is their meandering dialogue during those sittings that illustrates one of the play’s most interesting themes—rasa—an aesthetic concept and the central theory of Indian art appreciation that was developed by Hindu sages and artists in the third century CE that describes an artwork’s overall essence as well as the heightened state of delight that arises from the relationships among creator, audience and artwork.
When he first meets Flora, Nirad Das puts out an edgy vibe. He seems a bit uncomfortable in his own skin and seems compelled to impress Flora with his bookish knowledge of England and British culture. Flora really wants him to just be himself and to paint her from “his own point of view.” Her idea of real Indian art is images of women with “breasts like melons, and baby-bearing hips.” As Nirad explains rasa to Flora, his graceful spirit shines through and you can almost feel her heating up when he explains the elements of shringara, the rasa of erotic love—”a lover and his beloved one, the moon, the scent of sandalwood, and being in an empty house.” When he presents her with a nude portrait he has created of her in the style of a Rajput miniature, Flora is deeply moved and acknowledges that he has completed something in his own tradition rather than in the European style—“This one is for yourself… I’m pleased. It has rasa.”
Meanwhile, in 1980’s London, through the conversations of Eleanor Swan (the elegant Roberta Maxwell) and Anish Das (Pej Vahdat) Stoppard conveys vital lessons about the reinterpretation of history, avoiding sides about whether being part of Empire was a positive or negative for India. Mrs. Swan refers to the events of 1857 as “the Mutiny,” while Anish refers to it as “our first war of Independence.” Mrs. Swan claims “We made you into a proper country” and Anish points out that long before the British came to India they had a culture that was older and more splendid than that imposed on them.
When the bothersome American academic Eldon Pike (Anthony Fusco) comes calling at Eleanor’s door to dig up material for his biography, we see her prickly side emerge as she delivers another great Stoppardism, “Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.”
Even as it verges on three hours, the play’s beautifully intercut narratives between sisters, lovers, father and son and academic and his subject, are captivating and reveal the myriad of ways in which the past is mutable and can be interpreted by bystanders or direct participants. I can’t wait for another Stoppard production.
Director Carey Perloff on the re-worked ending: “I feel happy about where it (the ending) is. It makes an enormous difference in actually finishing the relationship between Flora and Das, which is so complicated. I also think time has caught up with this play in a good way. Today, the notion of cross-cultural love affairs, and the complexity with which colonized peoples inevitably end up taking on the characteristics of their colonizers, are things we actually know about. … In the 15 years since it was done, the relationship between Flora and Das has become much more interesting and complex, because these ideas are more in the world than they were.
Stoppard is Czech!—Sir Tom Stoppard, now 77, was born Tomáš Straüssler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) in 1937. His family left just as the Nazi’s invaded and went briefly to Singapore. His father was killed in the war. Tomáš and his mother arrived in India as refugees when he was four years old and lived there from 1942 to 1946. Tomáš learned English while attending a school in Darjeeling run by American Methodists. While in India, his mother met Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British Army, who brought the family back to his home in Derbyshire, England, married the mother and Tomáš became Tom Stoppard. Stoppard’s career spans 50 years. His works include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Arcadia (1993), The Coast of Utopia (2002), Rock-n-Roll (2006) and Shakespeare in Love (1998). He has received one Academy Award and four Tony Awards. It has been nearly a decade since a new work of his has appeared on stage. “The Hard Problem” (2014) is now having its world premiere at London’s National Theatre and will be broadcast to thousands of people in cinemas across the world as part of the popular NT live series in April, 2015. Stoppard has also just become engaged to heiress Sabrina Guinness, of the famed brewery dynasty, also catapulting him in the headlines.
Run-time: 3 hours with a 15 minute intermission
Creative team: by Tom Stoppard; Directed by Carey Perloff, Neil Patel (set designer), Candice Donnelly (costume designer), Robert Wierzel (lighting designer), Dan Moses Schreier (sound designer)
Cast: Josie Alvarez, Firdous Bamji, Joel Bernard, Vandit Bhatt, Danielle Frimer, Anthony Fusco, Dan Hiatt, Roberta Maxwell, Brenda Meany, Philip Mils, Ajay Naidu, Mike Ryan, Glenn Scott, Pej Vahdat, and Rajeev Varma
Details: Indian Ink runs through February 8, 2015 at 2013 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 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: $20 to $120, phone 415.749.2228, or visit www.act-sf.org.
Review: Cinnabar Theater rings in 2015 with the world premiere of “Edith Piaf: Beneath Paris Skies”—through January 18, 2015
The music, singing and scenes from Cinnabar Theater’s brassy new commission, “Édith Piaf: Beneath Paris Skies,” are so ingenious that it’s easy to imagine them invigorating Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (2011) or Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose” (2007) or even the outrageously countercultural “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975). Conceived and written by Valentina Osinski and Michael Van Why, this new musical had its world premiere on Saturday and is a gem will linger in your memory long after the last chanteuse sings.
“Beneath Paris Skies” brings together five wonderful performers and a talented five-piece band to take you on an enthralling trip to mid-century France through the eyes of Édith Piaf and her half-sister and life-long partner, Simone “Mômone” Berteaut. No joy ride, this is a fractured fairy tale that delves into the tempestuous “Little Sparrow’s” epically messy life. It presents her famed song repertoire with new lyric translations in English by Lauren Lundgren and in the original French. Fractured is a key theme of the production as the reckless, romantic, jaded and traditional sides of Piaf’s complex personality are sung by four different performers. Mezzo soprano Valentina Osinski, soprano Julia Hathaway, tenor Michael Van Why, and tenor Kevin Singer appear throughout the performance, each mining their juicy bits of Piaf for all they’re worth. Aside from playing parts of Piaf, the performers take on other roles too, such as those of Piaf’s many lovers. Suffice it to say, there’s a bed on stage and it’s frequently got more than two people in it. It’s complicated and quickly-paced but a lifetime has cleverly been packed into two hours… and it works. We’re given resonating personality slices and a chance to experience Piaf’s songs in dramatically different voices as spellbinding solos, duets and harmonies.
The chemistry between the singers is the glue that binds it all together. As the small ensemble shifts through various roles and costume changes–Pat Fitzgerald has dressed the singers in Piaf’s signature black–sparks fly and we can feel their pain, their joy and the palpable crush of the green monster, jealousy. It is pure pleasure to behold soprano Valentina Osinski in action. She sings with a smoldering intensity and her Piaf is tantalizing, pitiful, despicable and enviable. Osinski was honored last year with a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award. It’s a real treat to see her in Cinnabar’s intimate space, where you can almost feel the rustle of her movements. As Simone Berteaut, lovely Melissa Weaver delivers an equally beguiling performance. We see a master of facial expression at work as she anguishes over loosing years basking in the shadow of her famous but dysfunctional half-sister.
These are the same artists and creative team who crafted and appeared in Cinnabar’s sensational tribute Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” that rang in 2014. As far as winning creative partnerships go, Cinnabar has a great thing going by drawing on local talents who are also multitalented—conception and stage adaptation was done by Valentina Osinski (also sings Edith Piaf), Michael Van Why (also sings Piaf and various lovers) and Lauren Lundgren (also did lyric translations), with stage direction by Melissa Weaver (also plays Piaf’s half-sister) and music direction by Al Haas (also plays guitar) and Robert Lunceford (also plays accordion). Other musicians include Daniel Gianola-Norris (horn), Jan Martinelli (bass), and John Shebalin (drums).
Adding to the splendor are nostalgic black and white photo projections of Piaf and period Paris, designed by Wayne Hovey, that serve as a backdrop to the action on stage. And the intimate 99 seat theater itself has been transformed into a cozy French cabaret with small tables set-up between most of the seats so that you can get to know each other and properly enjoy your drinks along with the show.
Lauren Lundgren on translating Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” into singable English for Cinnabar:
“Throughout her life, Édith professed absolute faith in love. She thought of it as a remedy for pretty much everything, even though, or maybe because, it’s so easy to lose, so often painful, and so damnably hard to find. When “La Vie en Rose” came out, she was thirty and had had countless one-night stands, a fair amount of affairs, but had not yet met the love of her life. Was she wistful, ardent, anxious, ecstatic, naïve, or cynically commercial? With the help of outside research, I decided that she was all about fairy tale love, pure romance, without any dishes to wash or beds to make, with a definite patina of lust. Her songs are drenched in longing, and they are also dipped in a bit shit, pardon my French. That is what guided the translation.
“It became a quandary…how much to sanitize her vs. how much to reveal her. …There are times when it’s a sin to deviate one iota from the meaning of a phrase and other times when its a sin not to. And now I find myself having to inoculate you against the French that demanded a translation you’ have to pardon. Who knows. You may welcome a smattering of course language. … After an enormous struggle with the problem, I concluded that one can’t second guess an audience and I might as well come as close to the original as possible. (Extracted from Lundgren’s remarks entitled “Pardon My French” at Cinnabar’s Cinelounge on Saturday, January 4, 2015)
Details: There are 7 remaining performances of “Édith Piaf: Beneath Paris Skies” but several of these are sold out. Limited tickets are still available for Friday, Jan 16 (8 PM); Sat, Jan 17 (2 PM and 8 PM) and Sunday, Jan 18 (2 PM). Cinnabar Theater is located at 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North (at Skillman Lane), Petaluma, CA, 94952. Buy tickets online here. For more information, visit cinnabartheater.org.
Review: Cinnabar Theater opens its 42nd season with a touching Fiddler on the Roof, celebrating beloved musical’s the 50th anniversary—extended twice, closes September 28, 2013
There are many gaps in my cultural exposure and the musical, Fiddler on the Roof was one of them—until I saw Cinnabar Theater’s opening night (September 6) performance, which had me and an enthusiastic audience humming, clapping, and tearing up throughout. What better way for Cinnabar to kick off its 42 season than by celebrating the 50th anniversary of this beloved musical whose poignant story about embracing change is captured in the swirl of dance and glorious song. Directed by John Shillington, choreographed by Joseph Favalora, with music direction by Mary Chun, this is a big-hearted production that celebrates what Cinnabar excels at—talented actors making a human connection so palpable it feels like they’re doing it especially for you.
The story centers on Tevye, father of five strong-willed daughters, who is struggling to maintain his family’s Jewish traditions in the tiny shtetl (village) of Anatevka which, in 1905, begins to reel as Tsar Nicholas II’s anti-Jewish propaganda campaign spreads and begins to incite fear and hatred of Jews, even in the far corners of the Imperial Russian empire. Stephen Walsh, who wowed Cinnabar audiences in last November’s hit, La Cage aux Folles, plays Papa Tevye with Cinnabar’s own Elly Lichenstein (Artistic Director) as Golde, his wife. Their on stage chemistry is palpable and they each play their roles with emotional conviction and good-hearted humor. It was nice to hear Lichenstein, a formally-trained opera singer, singing again and embracing a pretty decent and consistent Yiddish accent. She had the audiences in stitches in the scene where the couple is in bed and Tevye relates his frightening dream to her. “This role has enormous personal significance for me,” said Lichenstein. “All four of my grandparents came to America from villages like Anatevka, and it excites me that our magnificent cast is so committed to tell their story.”
In Walsh’s hands, the milkman Tevye is a warm-hearted father, steeped in faith and tradition, who only wants the best for his daughters, each of whom challenge his notions of what is right. Is it following tradition and marrying them off to men of means, picked by a matchmaker, who can provide for them financially and offer them security, or, is it letting them pick the men they love, who inspire them and make them happy?
As the story progresses, Tevye becomes concerned not only that his daughters are falling in love with poor men, but that they are stepping away from their faith. In one of his many dialogs with God and his conscience he reflects on his struggle to accept the men they have chosen.
“Accept them?” How can I accept them?” Tevye groans. “Can I deny my own child? If I try to bend that far, I will break. On the other hand, there is no other hand.”
The daughters are all delightful in their feisty and independent search for love and meaning in their lives—Jennifer Mitchell is Tzeitel, the eldest, who wants to marry a poor tailor instead of an aged butcher. Molly Mahoney is Hodel, who falls for a Bolshevik who would take her far from Anatevka. Erin Asha is Chava, who falls in love with a non-Jew. Lucy London is Bielke and Megan Fleischmann is Shprintze. The roles of their suitors are played by equally talented young men.
The action is set against another of Fiddler‘s delights—its marvelous set by Joe Elwich who has masterfully re-purposed the gorgeous salvage lumber from last season’s “Of Mice and Men” into a modest rustic village which frames the small stage. The fiddler, talented violinist Tyler Lewis, sits atop a small sloping roof, quite close to the off-stage orchestra and serenades gloriously throughout. The peasants’ rich spiritual lives are reflected in their costumes which take on a life of their own in several moving dance scenes. Each of the 40-odd costumes is unique and all designed by Cinnabar’s fabric wizard, Julia Hunstein Kwitchoff.
The original Broadway incarnation of this beloved musical racked up an astonishing 10 Tony Awards by introducing unforgettable songs like “Tradition” and “If I Were a Rich Man.” Music is by Jerry Brock, lyrics by Serldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein. Cinnabar’s small orchestra, under Mary Chun’s capable direction, brought great energy to the production. Clarinetist Larry Lipman’s haunting solos were played beautifully throughout.
As I watched Fiddler unfold, I couldn’t keep from thinking how relevant this musical is today. Religious conflict is prevalent in so much of the world and has created such upheaval that entire populations are still being forced to leave their homeland. And family dynamics are reeling and shifting constantly. Parents everywhere are struggling to accept their children’s choices which are different from those they would make. Many Americans are intensely proud that they can trace their heritage to villages like Anatevka and they can personally relate to the sadness and plight of the villagers who are forced to leave. Cinnabar’s engaging production, with its strong emotional core, brings out the many facets of this timeless story about the bittersweet evolution of family life.
On Sunday, September 21, Cinnabar offers a special performance and party (long sold-out) commemorating the day the musical first opened on Broadway.
Details: Cinnabar Theater is located at 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North (at Skillman Lane), Petaluma, CA. There is ample parking on the lot at the crest of the hill, just feet from the entrance. Fiddler on the Roof has been extended twice and there are10 remaining performances. There are a few available seats for these—Thursday, September 25th (8 PM), Friday 26th (8 PM), Saturday 27th (2 PM and 8 PM), Sunday 28th (2 PM) Tickets: $35 General, $25 under age 22, $9 middle-school and high-school. Buy tickets online here or call the box office at 707-763-8920 between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM on weekdays. Last minute: Occasionally, there are “no shows” and if you arrive at the theater 30 minutes prior to a show, you might be able to get a seat. Arrive early for all performances as all seating is general seating, save for opening night, where the house saves seats for subscribers.
The 9th annual Taste of Petaluma is this Saturday, August 23, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and it’s all about connecting with Petaluma’s small-town charm and rich sense of community—bite by glorious bite. Taste is a benefit for Cinnabar Theater’s youth repertory programs and if you’ve ever attended one of Cinnabar’s remarkable youth performances, you understand what a treasure Cinnabar is. This year, Taste of Petaluma is bigger than ever with over 100 of Petaluma’s restaurants and food, wine and beverage purveyors participating at 54 locales. Some 85 musicians will be playing in a dozen locales downtown too, offering just as promising a musical menu (full performance schedule here). The event draws people from all over the Bay Area and $40 gets you 10 generously portioned tastes of your choosing.
Recently, I participated in two “mini-tastes” and had the chance to meet the owners and chefs of several new restaurants, hear their stories and sample what they’re preparing for Taste. I tried everything from bacon jam BLTs with duck egg mayo and heirloom tomatoes on homemade sourdough from Miriam Donaldson and her team at homey Wishbone on Petaluma Blvd. North, down by the Police Station, to Wagyu New York Tataki from Joe O’Donnell at upscale Seared on Petaluma Blvd. North’s restaurant row. Both of these inviting establishments opened in the past year, have chefs and staff in their 20’s and 30’s, and represent the energy and diversity in our local food scene. As if cooking weren’t a full time job, many chefs are growing their own vegetables and fruits and are highly attuned to what’s peaking on a daily basis. Their menus are constantly changing and they are experimenting with their bounty. A few are even raising their own meat. They’re all joyous about having a hand in every step of the process and that includes scoring some great salvaged wood or a glass case or pulling all-nighters ripping out flooring. “It’s been nice to move around,” says O’Donnell, “but Petaluma feels like home and it’s got everything I need close at hand. There’s no place like it. We’ve caught up.”
“Even though it’s bigger than ever, Taste was a lot easier this year,” explained the event’s founder Laura Sunday, who estimates that 1,500 people will turn out. “A lot of restaurants contacted me early, eager to participate, and several of the hosting venues took the initiative and told me who they were partnering with. This is the only tasting event on this scale I know of that doesn’t operate like a food fair. People actually get to go into a restaurant, check out the ambiance, and sample very generously. You couldn’t buy better advertising. We’ve got new establishments eager to introduce themselves to the community and lots of well-rooted restaurants and vendors who do this year after year because they enjoy giving back to Petaluma and to Cinnabar Theater.”
Stay-tuned to ARThound for more on Taste of Petaluma.
More About Cinnabar: Cinnabar Theater, located in the old red Cinnabar Schoolhouse on Petaluma Blvd and Skillman Lane, opens its 42 season on Friday, September 5, 2014, with the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, celebrating this golden oldie’s 50th anniversary. The heartwarming story centers on Tevye, father of five strong-willed daughters who is struggling to maintain his family’s Jewish traditions. Stephen Walsh, who wowed Cinnabar audiences in last November’s hit, La Cage aux Folles, plays Papa Tevye with Cinnabar own Elly Lichenstein (Artistic Director) as his wife. “This has enormous personal significance for me,” said Lichenstein. “All four of my grandparents came to America from villages like Anatevka, and it excites me that our magnificent cast is so committed to tell their story.” The original Broadway incarnation of this beloved musical racked up an astonishing 10 Tony Awards by introducing unforgettable songs like “Tradition” and “If I Were A Rich Man.” Music is by Jerry Brock, lyrics by Serldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein. Fiddler ends September 21 with a special performance and party commemorating the day it first opened on Broadway. Runs: Sept 5-21, 2014, just 10 performances; tickets $35. Pounce! This is selling out. Cinnabar Theater is a 501(c)(3) California non-profit.
Cinnabar’s Young Repertory Theater opens its new season on November 28, 2014 with the classic musical, The Wizard of Oz. This charming adaptation by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company is based on the beloved classic motion picture and features our adorable local munchkins on stage along with Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man. There’s no better way to celebrate the holidays! Runs: November 28-December 14, 2014; tickets $15. Pounce! This too will sell out.
Details: The 9th Annual Taste of Petaluma is Saturday, August 23, 2014 from 11:30 AM to 4 PM. Ticket packages are $40 and consist of 10 tasting tickets, good for 1 taste each. Advance tickets can be purchased in person until Friday, August 22, 3 p.m. at the following venues in Petaluma—
Gallery One – 209 Western Ave.
Velvet Ice Collections – 140 2nd Street, Theater Square
Blush Collections – 117 Kentucky Street
Cinnabar Theater between 10-2:30 weekdays
Tickets can be purchased online here (with $4 surcharge per ticket). Tickets can also be purchased on the day of the event from 10:30 AM onwards at Helen Putnam Plaza. Only 1500 tickets will be sold.
Advance tickets can be picked up at WILL CALL at Helen Putnam Plaza (129 Petaluma Blvd. North) after 10:30 AM on the day of the event. The first 1,000 guest to purchase tickets will receive a free Taste of Petaluma tote bag. All participants receive a plastic wine glass. You can purchase more tickets throughout the day for $4 each.
Review: Hershey Felder channels the angel of all pianists, Chopin, in another mesmerizing musical portrait at Berkeley Rep, through August 10, 2014
Cherish the moment. It’s Paris, March 1848, just after the February 1848 Revolution, and Hershey Felder as Polish composer/pianist, Fryderyk Chopin, welcomes you into his elegant Paris salon for an unusual piano lesson—one where he does all the playing. It seems like he is making up the music as he goes, and what beautiful music it is—full of delicate dynamics, soft tempo fluctuations, imaginative color and touch—utterly different from any previously existing in the 19th century. Throughout the lesson, he recounts his life story, from his first composition written at age 7 in his Polish hometown of Zelazowa Wola, to his complicated romance in France with the female French novelist, George Sand, to his death at age 39 from tuberculosis, to his heart’s famous burial in Poland. Hypersensitive Chopin’s story is no sweet melody but his pain and losses and moments of epiphany are punctuated with actual shifts in the tone of Chopin’s music.
Monsieur Chopin, which opened Sunday, is Berkeley Rep’s latest collaboration with Hershey Felder, who is proving his genius for bringing famous composers to life. Monsieur Chopin, which Felder both wrote and stars in, is directed by Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time) and arrives at Berkeley Rep on the heels of Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro (June, 2014) and George Gershwin Alone (June 2013). Monsieur Chopin is part of Felder’s series of musical enactments, “The Composers Sonata” which have been presented at dozens of theatres across the U.S. and around the world. The series also includes Beethoven, As I Knew Him (2008) and Hershey Felder as Franz Liszt in Rock Star (2013). As director, Mr. Felder premiered Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in April 2012 and the musical biography delighted Berkeley Rep audiences in December 2013 and is now immensely popular in New York.
“Fryderyk Chopin, the diminutive ‘Polish Poet of the Piano’ who died at the tender age of 39 and who spent much of his adult life as the prince of the Parisian salon, took an instrument of wood, felt, and metal and made it sing,” remarks Felder. “Chopin said, ‘If one wants to learn how to really play the piano, one must listen to the best opera singers – they will show you what you need to know.’ And for almost two centuries every pianist who has ever touched the instrument strives to bring it to life by making the piano human, by giving it ‘song’ just as Chopin did. He was the first, and the piano music he left us is the music of angels, the music of another world.”
Felder steps into the role of Chopin with complete credibility—from his Polish accent and rendering of Chopin’s artistic temperament to his concert-level playing of some of the most exquisitely lush piano music ever written. He plays selections from some 15 pieces—polonaises, valses, preludes, mazurkas, and nocturnes—and seems to be spontaneously working them into the story as he goes. Felder guides you with information about the inventive and enlivening forms that characterized Chopin’s brilliance—even in his youth, he was keenly aware of the fine-line between improvising and composing—as well as his love of Polish songs and dances. And this is as much the story of music’s golden age as well—an incredibly compressed period, some 200 years— when musical and artistic genius flooded middle Europe. How profound when Chopin says, “When I was 17 and had my debut, Bach had died 78 years earlier.” Bach’s compositional genius influenced him heavily and Bach was an importance point of reference when he was teaching his students. This was also a time when high drama characterized the life of composers and transfixed the public, as much as Hollywood does today.
Speaking of transfixed, I wasn’t able to take my eyes off Felder, a natural born storyteller, and I never would have guessed that he has given this performance over 800 times. That he’s of Polish ethnicity, considers Chopin his pianistic home and lives in Paris, and even owns one of Chopin’s pianos, are no doubt huge factors in the attention to detail and care that he has poured into this.
We all love a love story and the audience on the edge of their seats as Chopin told of his relationship and semi-guarded Bohemian lifestyle with French novelist George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), a woman whose importance as a writer has been eclipsed by her notoriety for wearing trousers, cigar-smoking and her involvement with Chopin. Strong-willed Sand was painted in broad strokes but we get enough flavor to ascertain that he was attracted to her nurturing and protective side and that she loved him and, for 8 years, tolerated his fragility, mood swings and unpredictability and then, abruptly, she ended it.
Chopin’s relationship with Sand is also an effective vehicle for exploring the vibrant environment of the French salon where his small scale piano pieces, most of them brilliantly improvised, were a hit and fundamental to his legacy. “Invention came to his piano, sudden, complete, sublime,” wrote Sand who would frequently lay under the piano as he played for her.
Chopin’s dedicated student, Karl Flitsch, who Felder also lovingly draws on, wrote “The other day I heard Chopin improvise at George Sand’s house. It is marvelous to hear Chopin compose in this way: his inspiration is so immediate and complete that he plays without hesitation as if it could not be otherwise. But when it comes to writing it down and recapturing the original thought in all its details, he spends days of nervous strain and almost terrible despair.”
Felder’s works a great deal of humor into this piece and his funny and illuminating impressions of the people in Chopin’s life—like the swooning women in his audience or Hungarian composer and pianist, Franz Liszt, Chopin’s biggest “frenemy” in Paris—humanize Chopin and impart information. Liszt attended Chopin’s first concert in Paris and promptly declared him a genius and became his agent, collaborator, friend, and at times, bitter rival for public attention, and oddly, his first biographer.
Chopin’s elegant salon (sets by Yael Pardess) is framed by an ornate golden trim, giving it the feel of a romantic period painting to be entered. Chopin’s Steinway and bench are front and center and a lovely fireplace whose mantle is adorned with Sevres style porcelain vases and an ornate clock are behind. There’s a delicately carved wooden table with a pitcher where he fastidiously washes his hands, as if to rid himself of the unpleasant memories he’s just shared.
The set also features “smart drapes,” a subtle and elegant scrim for different lighting effects (Richard Norwood) and projections (John Boesche & Andrew Wilder) which change their color hue and design in accordance with various phases of Chopin’s life. In 1829, when Chopin met his first love, a singing student named Constantia Gladkowska, she was dancing a Polish Mazurka and caught his eye. Against spectacular dark lighting, she appears romanticized in a white traditional Polish folk dress, smiling and dancing the Mazurka with other young Polish girls. Felder completes the portrait with his “Mazurka in A Flat Major, Op. 50 No. 2,” a short vibrant piece which concludes in a burst of chromatic harmonies.
Sunday’s opening night became even more special when Polish Consul General Mariusz Brymora from Los Angeles, presented Felder with the “Bene Merito” honorary distinction on behalf of the Polish government. Established in 2009, this distinction “is conferred upon the citizens of the Republic of Poland and foreign nationals in recognition of their merits in promoting Poland abroad.” Felder, deeply moved, also received a beautiful Polish woodcut.
Following this, Felder/Chopin engaged with the audience in an open Q & A, further revealing his skill as an improvisational performer.
The ultimate irony, which I mention in closing, is that this performance nearly sold out before it opened and was extended until August 10 and those performances are nearly sold out. It’s much easier to get people to go to this than an actual Chopin concert. We live in the age of story and it’s the combination of music and story that brings people in. Of course, after experiencing Monsieur Chopin, who could not be hungry for more?
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission
The music of Fryderyk Chopin is played Hershey Felder enacting Chopin
Production Team— Yael Pardess (Scenic Design), Richard Norwood (Lighting Design), John Boesche & Andrew Wilder (Projection Design), Benjamin Furiga (Original Sound Design), Joel Zwick (Director), Trevor Hay (Associate Director, production stage manager), Erik Carstensen (Sound design, production manager, production stage manager). Samantha F. Voxakia (General Manager, co-producter), Eighty-Eight, LLC (Producer)
Details: Monsieur Chopin runs through April 20, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.
Performances are Tues-Sun with matinees on Sat, Sun and Thursday, August 7.
Tickets: $29 to 87. Discounts: Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain. Tickets and info: 510 647–2949 or visit: www.berkeleyrep.org
Parking: Paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $5 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM.
Review: Nina Raine’s “Tribes”—a family that is all talk and very little listening tackles language barriers
I don’t know anyone closely who is deaf but, when my parents reached their early eighties and their hearing began to decline, they both experienced difficulty in comprehending complex sentences. That, in turn impacted their ability to communicate. That’s when I began to think more about what it’s actually like to be hearing impaired and the range of issues associated with hearing. British theatre director Nina Raine’s Tribes, which had its Bay Area premiere at Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage on April 16, further opened my eyes. This engaging and very relevant family drama tackles hearing, partial hearing, deafness, and listening through the story of a family that can’t shut up long enough to hear much of anything. The action revolves around Billy, a young man who was born deaf and who has been raised in this overeducated and verbally combative family that considers learning sign language a sign of conformity or capitulation to otherness. Consequently, Billy reads lips and does not sign…until he falls in love with a woman who upends him and the entire family.
Thoughtfully directed by Jonathan Moscone (artistic director of Cal Shakes and son of SF mayor George Moscone who was slain in 1978), Tribes represents Berkeley Rep at its finest—challenging our tightly held assumptions with realizations that keep coming for days afterwards. Speaking of assumptions, once I discovered that Nina Raine came from such solid stock—she is the grand niece of the great Russian poet, novelist, and Nobel laureate, Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago (1954)—I assumed the play would be substantial fare. Tribes had its world premiere in 2010 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, earning an Olivier Award nomination for best play.
The cast of six is built around a family ( a “tribe” onto itself) that seems to be arguing constantly. The professorial British father, Christian (Paul Whitworth), whose fallback refrain to comments offered by others is “bullocks,” delights in his own self-involvement. He’s presently learning Chinese and brings his laptop to the dinner table where his obnoxious practice drills create another layer of babel. He’s also keen on insulting his ditsy novelist wife, Beth (Anita Carey), who is experiencing writers block. She is determined to finish her book—”a marriage-breakdown detective novel.” She doesn’t know who’s “done the murder yet. I’m going to decide at the end… and then put all the clues in.”
The adult children, all twenty-something, live at home and suffer failure to launch. Ruth (Elizabeth Morton) is an aspiring opera singer who can only score singing gigs in pubs. Daniel (Dan Clegg) is a grad student continually rewriting his thesis on language. He stammers when caught by surprise and suffers from auditory hallucinations. Billy (James Caverly), the central character, was born deaf.
The play opens with a typical family dinner that establishes their communication dynamic as a nightmare of disconnection. It’s amusing to keep a running tally of all the non-compassionate listening infractions that occur while trying to stay on top of all the literary namedropping. We recognize immediately from Billy’s silence that his comprehension is limited. The family doesn’t accept this though. Over the years, they have refused to accommodate him or to really accept his deafness. Billy doesn’t know sign language because the family has always belittled it. He has adapted to them by learning to read their lips but even this has been challenging as it requires their willingness to participate, which they haven’t always been consistent about. On the up side, having spent his life isolated from the ruckus, Billy is the sweetest of the lot.
Todd Rosenthal’s set is a lived-in dining and living room whose walls are lined with books, reinforcing the impression that this is a family that is book smart and but short on common sense and wisdom.
The pot is stirred to a boil when Daniel meets Sylvia (Nell Geisslinger), who hears but is struggling with the early phases of adult-onset deafness. She learned sign language because she was raised in a deaf family. Eager to connect with Billy, she introduces him to the Deaf community and helps him with learning to sign and with getting a job that involves lip-reading and transcribing videotapes that are used as evidence in court. Not only does she serve as a great catalyst for Billy, she is tender and compassionate and remarkable young woman.
One of the drama’s most gratifying moments comes when Billy begins to stand up to his family and to insist, from now on, that they communicate with him on his terms. But just he experiences empowerment and gets more immersed in the Deaf community, Sylvia becomes frustrated with its politics and insularity. We learn that while some deaf people feel cut off from the hearing world, or disabled, for others, being Deaf is a culture and a source of pride. (Capitalized “Deaf” denotes culture, as distinct from lowercase “deaf,” which describes a pathology.) Geisslinger anchors the entire production with her authentic performance as someone navigating her own identity issues while slowly embracing a world of non-hearing. Sylvia has grown up understanding from an early age the issues that Billy is tackling much later in life and the couple is both united and separated by this divide.
One of the play’s most powerful scenes occurs when Sylvia comes to meet the family and Christopher challenges her about the expressiveness of sign language—what it can and cannot do. She rises to the occasion, educating us all about its strengths and limitations, and matching him argumentatively blow for blow, never backing down. She also explains the implicit hierarchies of the Deaf which she finds hard to navigate–she was not deaf from birth so that makes her “less than” someone who was (Billy) but she was raised in a deaf family which gives her as edge. At which point Christopher asserts that the Deaf community is just like any other tribe that has rules about who it will and will not admit.
James Caverly delivers an engaging Billy whose personal journey imparts a great deal of information about language and deafness. His lip-reading, for example, turns out to be an incredibly inexact tool and Raine has weaved this into the plot. (Since most lip movements are associated with more than one sound, the lip reader must guess and intuit in order to make sense of what is being said.) The play’s important take-away is the message that, if you know one language, you can go on to learn another. The learning process will show you how language defines systems of thought and reveal the biases implicit in the languages you are dealing with. The audience is forced to engage and to experience some dissatisfaction because not all of the sign language is translated with subtitles and not all of what Billy says is understandable. Is this an issue of translation? Are we then of a different tribe? The plays invites a lot of questions.
Details: Tribes runs through May 18, 2014, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley.
Performances are Tues-Sun with matinees on Sat, Sun and some Thurs.
Tickets: $29 to $99. Discounts: Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain. Tickets and info: www.berkeleyrep.org or phone: 510 647–2949.
Parking: Paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $5 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM.
The 1937 New York Times review of the Broadway stage production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” reads “If the story were callously told, the conclusion might be unbearable. But Mr. Steinbeck has told it with both compassion and dexterity…In the bunkhouse of a ranch in CA, the story ensnares rootless lives and expands into dreams of a glorious deliverance. (Brooks Atkinson , original review Nov 24, 1937, NYT, p. 20.) It’s now seventy-seven years later and the play, performed at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater under the tight direction of Sherri Lee Miller, delivers all the potency and magic that it had back in the Great Depression when audiences could personally relate to the bleak life of migrant workers. Most of us read the novella in high school and were under strict pressure to knock out an essay on some aspect of Lennie and George’s relationship. Revisiting the story and its archetypal characters as adults is another experience all together. Miller has pulled together a team of impeccable actors who bring these tragic characters to life and revitalize their struggles. The audience on opening evening was squirming with anticipation and revulsion at the injustice of Lennie’s plight, the imploding of dreams and the ugly, unquestioned racism of the times.
Set in the 1930’s, the play is carefully staged by Joe Elwick to reflect the grit and sparseness of ranch-hand life in Salinas Valley at the time. From the opening scenes at the riverbank, marked by a simple line of rocks along the stage line, to the sturdy simplicity of the handcrafted log cabin bunk house, which serves as a humble home for the workers, to Crook’s isolated room in the hay barn; the set works both as a backdrop and catalyst. And in Cinnabar’s intimate space, it all makes for a near perfect experience. I’d be willing to bet that the Broadway revival opening in April at the Longacre Theatre with James Franco as Lennie has nothing over Cinnabar’s.
The great pleasure in the production comes from watching Samson Hood embody Lennie, who is mentally challenged. It’s not much of a stretch for him physically—he’s a giant of a man with huge hands and a lumbering gate that already speak volumes. But the magic is in his thoroughly convincing facial expressions and the absolute sincerity of his child-like delivery, whether he’s hunched over and trying to hide that he has stroked his little mouse to death, or is excitedly dreaming of raising rabbits and living off the fat of the land or is spilling secrets that he’s been asked to keep quiet about. Kind-hearted and simple Lennie doesn’t understand the power of his own strength or the complexity of the world or the ugliness of human nature and he is completely dependent on George to navigate his course.
As George, Keith Baker, is an intriguing combo of protective caregiver and a go-getter with big dreams. He is gruff and impatient with Lennie one moment and then, after lashing out, he whips back to tender and sentimental. The friendship is exacts a heavy toll on George who must constantly protect and cover up for George as they drift from job to job holding on to their dream.
James Gagarin plays Curley, the ranch-owner’s son with such spite and fury towards everyone that we shudder with revulsion and feel no empathy him when his hand is crushed accidentally by Lennie.
As one-armed Candy, Steinbeck’s for foil the aged and abandoned, Clark Miller manages to convincingly convey the pain of isolation and physical frailty. The scene involving the shooting of his ancient and beloved dog will tug at your conscious. It’s made all the more dramatic by the using a real dog who is old but not so decrepit as to be near death. The idea of shooting it to put it out of its misery seems wrong and is one of the play’s more dramatic moments, beautifully navigated by Clark Miller and by Anthony Abaté who plays callous Carlson with bone-chilling precision.
After the loss of his dog, Candy has nothing to live for but after he overhears George and Lennie discussing the farm, he offers them his life savings (some $250) to go in on the farm and he has something to fix his dreams on. Steinbeck’s play is full of dreaming and, in contrast, the harsh reality of the life of itinerant workers. The men poor their blood and sweat into keeping up the owner’s ranch for a minimal wage and three daily meals—work may keep a man honest but the capitalist system is stacked against the worker who toils his entire life and never advances.
As Crooks, the black stable hand who is forced to live in the barn, Dorian Lockett is cagey, defensive and so disempowered that he is wary of everyone. The repeated use of the word “nigger” predictably drew cringes from the Cinnabar audience who had empathy for Crooks’ plight and recognized his insightfulness and warmth once he let his guard down and began to dream of a place, a piece of land, where he too could be free.
Ilana Niernberger, Curly’s vulgar wife does a marvelous job of guiding the audience through a love-hate relationship with her. At first, she appears to be a tart who flirts shamelessly with the workers and is interested in stepping out on her new husband Curly. In the barn, alone with the men, we see her vulnerability and that she is lonely and craves emotional attachment and conversation. Her flirtatious nature ushers in the play’s tragic climax. When she coaxes Lennie to stroke her hair, she finally and fatally understands that he is not able to gauge the power in his touch. Her screams for help only worsen things. As Lennie covers her mouth and tells her to be quiet, he breaks her neck.
The play’s emotional trajectory goes from hope in the American Dream to the shattering of that hope. Cinnabar has taken this great classic and elegantly brought it to life.
Run-time: Two hours and 20 min, including one intermission
Creative Team: Of Mice and Men stars Keith Baker and Samson Hood as the famous friends, George and Lennie. The ensemble of talented actors also features Anthony Abaté (Carlson), James Gagarin (Curley), Tim Kniffin (Slim), Dorian Lockett (Crooks), Clark Miller (Candy), Ilana Niernberger (Curley’s wife), Kevin Singer (Whit), and Barton Smith (The Boss). Directed by Sheri Lee Miller.
Design Team: Joe Elwick (scenery), Pat Fitzgerald (costumes), Wayne Hovey (lights), Jim Peterson (sound). This production is generously underwritten by Sandra O’Brien and Elly Lichenstein.
Details: Of Mice and Men has been extended an additional week through April 13, 2014, at Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma, CA 94952. Performances: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $15 for ages 21 and under; $25 for adults. Purchase tickets online here or call Cinnabar’s Box Office at 707 763-8920 between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM on weekdays. Tickets may also be available at the door 15 minutes prior to each performance, but pre-purchase is recommended as Cinnabar shows tend to sell out! For more information about Cinnabar Theater — www.cinnabartheater.org .
Berkeley Rep’s “Accidental Death of An Anarchist”…tweaked for the liberally inclined, through April 20, 2014
Ever since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979, Italian playwright and actor Dario Fo has been on my radar. An anarchist and a profoundly gifted clown, Fo’s genius comes in his ability to make us look at ourselves in new light. All of his plays, in some way or another, deal with subverting ideology, questioning why society is set up a certain way and why some people are the winners and others losers. Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which opened Wednesday at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater and runs through April 20, 2104, is a tweaked version of Fo’s original masterpiece from 1970, a bit too tweaked.
Adapted by Gavin Richards from a translation by Gillian Hanna and directed by Christopher Bayes, this Yale Repertory Theatre co-production has been injected with some (stale) references to contemporary American politics and pop culture (Obama health care, NSA, Netflix, Bush-Cheney and so forth) intended to resonate with the well-informed liberal cognoscenti. The resulting mash-up feels like an overdone affirmation, considering Berkeley’s Rep’s sophisticated audience. The good news is that the add-ons are fired off quickly and only mildly detract from the play’s exhilarating tour de farce—Steven Epp. Director Stephen Bayes and Epp were the team behind Berkeley’s Rep’s 2012 hysterical hit A Doctor in Spite of Himself. Here, Epp works with a great group of comic actors whose chemistry and timing and lunacy are so spot on you have the impression it’s all being improvised on the spot. The play contains some of the finest comedic acting you’ll see in the Bay Area this year. And the various musical gigs, all under Aaron Halva’s direction, are lyrically delightful and hysterically performed.
The play addresses a real-life mystery that got tremendous play in Italy—the 1969 death of a suspected anarchist who “fell” from the fourth floor window of a police station window while being interrogated for bombing of a bank in Milan which left 16 dead. Did he fall, or, was he pushed? That’s the question. The charges were eventually dropped against the anarchist but it was too late to be of benefit. Fo called his play a “tragic farce.” Knowing full well that laughter can be a profound vehicle for exploring human nature, Fo deconstructed this man’s tragic death through comedy. A Maniac (Steven Epp in the role Fo wrote for himself), who himself has been arrested for fraud, sequentially questions the police who are holding him captive By pretending to be on their side, he gradually wins the trust of the gullible officers, records their conversations and tricks them into divulging what really happened. In the process, he exposes their brutality, corruption and collusion with neo-fascist gangs carrying out such bombings in Italy at the time. The events of the play are fictional but the implications profound. The fast-paced momentum, epic slack stick and wonderful moments of musical comedy are delightful.
Highpoints are the opening of the play, when Inspector Bertozzo (Jesse J. Perez) is interrogating the Maniac on the first floor of the police station. Perez and Epps are magical. Perez later shows how light he is on feet as he performs a number of song and dance gigs with Inspector Pissani (Allen Gilmore), the Superintendent (Liam Craig), and Eugene Ma, brilliantly playing two Constables at once and seemingly embodying Oliver Hardy. Renata Friedman steals the action as Feletti, an Oriana Fallaci-style investigate journalist who is conducting her own investigation in a short red dress. When she lets go with a stupefyingly-agile rap riff, prepare to have your jaws drop. But nothing compares with Epp, who jumps from one disordered personality to another, never ever missing a beat.
Cast & Creative Team: The cast of Accidental Death of an Anarchist includes Liam Craig (Superintendent), Steven Epp (Maniac) Renata Friedman (Feletti), Allen Gilmore (Pissani), Eugene Ma (Constables), Jesse J. Perez (Bertozzo). The creative team consists of Aaron Halva (music director, composer, and musician), Travis Hendrix (musician), Kate Noll (scenic design), Elivia Bovenzi (costumes), Olivier Wason (lighting), Charles Coes (sound designer), Nathan Roberts (composer and sound designer), Michael F. Bergmann (projection designer). The stage manager for Berkeley Rep is Kimberly Mark Webb.
Repartee : FREE docent talks before Tuesday and Thursday evening performances, and free discussions after all matinees
Post-play discussions: Thursday 3/27, Tuesday 4/1, and Friday 4/11 following the performance
Open captioned performance: Sunday 4/20 @ 2pm
Details: Accidental Death of an Anarchist runs through April 20, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.
Performances are Tues-Sun with matinees on Sat, Sun and some Thurs.
Tickets: $29 to $99. Discounts: Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain. Tickets and info: 510 647–2949 or visit: www.berkeleyrep.org
Parking: Paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $5 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM.
“Storefront Church,” John Patrick Shanley’s new play, finishes his Church-State trilogy with a hard-edged look at the mortgage crisis, greed, and redemption—at San Francisco Playhouse through January 11, 2014
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley’s new play Storefront Church, at San Francisco Playhouse, transports the audience to a wintery Bronx, where a disenchanted and broke preacher has lost his faith while trying to start over in New York after his New Orleans church was washed away by Katrina. His Latina landlady, Jesse, has taken out a second mortgage trying to help him pay for the renovation of the storefront church. Her Jewish husband, Ethan, a retired tax accountant, pays a visit to an unsympathetic loan officer at the bank that is about to foreclose on her. Donaldo, the Bronx Borough president, who has known Jessie since his childhood tries to intervene and the bank’s CEO seizes the moment to enlist borough support for a new mall he hopes to finance. It sounds dismal but it all ends on a hopeful note— the preacher conquers his despair enough to deliver a sermon; the characters reconnect with their faith; Jesse gets to keep her property; the mall is given the green light with a percentage of the space allocated for community use.
In 2005, Shanley won a Pulitzer Prize in drama and a Tony Award for best play for “Doubt” in which a strict nun accuses a highly respected priest of being sexually inappropriate with one of the school students under her charge. “Doubt” was the first in Shanley’s trilogy of Church and State plays; the second play, “Defiance,” from 2006, explored racism and the disunity it caused aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina as the Vietnam War was winding down. “Storefront Church” is an exploration of contemporary society’s lack of faith and of the plight of the individual striving to survive in a world dominated by corporate greed.
While “Storefront Church” is less powerful than the other two plays in the triad, it is a moving portrait of our troubling times, when one’s convictions and sense of self are under constant siege and achieving and maintaining financial security is a game few succeed at. In order to cover overarching themes, Shanley sacrifices character development resulting in some confusion about back stories and relationships. Director Joy Carlin has assembled a talented cast— popular Bay Area actors Derek Fischer (CEO of the bank), Rod Gnapp (bank loan officer), Carl Lumbly (Pastor Chester), Gabriel Marin (Borough President), Ray Reinheart (Ethan, Jesse’s husband), and Gloria Weinstock (Jesse). As usual, San Francisco Playhouse’s staging is impeccable.
Stay-tuned to San Francisco Playhouse…Director Bill English says their next play, Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem,” (January 21-March 8), is “probably the best play written in the 21st century so far.” I’ve come to trust Bill English…he serves us our moral peas and carrots in the most interesting dishes. He promises that the San Francisco Playhouse’s production will be the “first American” production of the play that earned raves at London’s Royal Court in 2009. It makes frequent allusions to Blake’s poem from which its title is derived.
Details: Storefront Church ends Saturday, January 11, 2014. San Francisco Playhouse is located at 450 Post Street (2nd Floor of Kensington Park Hotel, b/n Powell & Mason) Performances: Tuesday to Thursday 7pm, Friday and Saturday 8pm. Matinees: 3pm Saturdays; 2pm Sunday on 1.5.14 Tickets: $30-$100. For more information visit www.sfplayhouse.org or call the box office at (415) 677-9596.