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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink” at San Francisco’s ACT—a multi-layered love story—through February 8, 2015

Free-spirited English poet Flora Crewe (Brenda Meaney), left, arrives in Jummapur, India, in the 1930s as her younger sister, Eleanor Swan (Roberta Maxwell), reflects on letters from her 50 years later in England in “Indian Ink,” Tom Stoppard's epic romance that weaves decades, continents, and cultures.  The play’s ending has recently been reworked by Stoppard and director Carey Perloff. Photo: Kevin Berne.

Free-spirited English poet Flora Crewe (Brenda Meaney), left, arrives in Jummapur, India, in the 1930s as her younger sister, Eleanor Swan (Roberta Maxwell), reflects on letters from her 50 years later in England in “Indian Ink,” Tom Stoppard’s epic romance that weaves decades, continents, and cultures. The play’s ending has recently been reworked by Stoppard and director Carey Perloff. Photo: Kevin Berne.

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.

Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji) paints a portrait of English poet Flora Crewe in 1930s India in Stoppard’s “Indian Ink.”   Das also played the role last fall in New York when the play ran with its newly revised ending at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre.  In addition to their mutual attraction, Stoppard uses the relationship between Das and Flora Crewe to explore issues of culture clash.  Photo by Kevin Berne.

Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji) sketches English poet Flora Crewe at one of her public lectures in 1930s India and she then agrees to let him paint her privately in Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink.” Bamji also played the role last fall in New York when the play ran with its newly revised ending at the Roundabout Theatre Company. Bamji has also played the role of Anish Das (Nirad’s son) in other productions of the play. In addition to their deep mutual attraction, Stoppard uses the relationship between Das and Flora Crewe to explore issues of culture clash. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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.

Anish Das (Pej Vahdat) and Eleanor Swan (Roberta Maxwell) reflect upon the legacy of a portrait from 1930s India, painted by Anish’s father, Nirad Das in “Indian Ink,” Tom Stoppard's epic romance which had its US premiere at ACT 15 years ago.  Stoppard, who lived in India as a child, uses conversation between Das and Mrs. Swan and their different interpretations of history to explore issues of Empire without taking sides about whether the British occupation was good or bad for India.  Photo: Kevin Berne.

Anish Das (Pej Vahdat) and Eleanor Swan (Roberta Maxwell) reflect upon the legacy of a portrait from 1930s India, painted by Anish’s father, Nirad Das in “Indian Ink,” Tom Stoppard’s epic romance which had its US premiere at ACT 15 years ago. Stoppard, who lived in India as a child, uses conversation between Das and Mrs. Swan and their different interpretations of history to explore issues of Empire without taking sides about whether the British occupation was good or bad for India. Photo: Kevin Berne.

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.

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January 26, 2015 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”—an hilarious reflection on the what-ifs in Chekhov, at Berkeley Rep through October 25, 2013

(l to r) Leading Bay Area actor Anthony Fusco (Vanya), award-winning actress Lorri Holt (Masha), and stage and TV actor Mark Junek (Spike) star in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Berkeley Rep through October 25, 2013. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

(l to r) Leading Bay Area actor Anthony Fusco (Vanya), award-winning actress Lorri Holt (Masha), and stage and TV actor Mark Junek (Spike) star in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Berkeley Rep through October 25, 2013. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

There are very few Chekhov shows that have the audience busting out in laughter, but that’s exactly what happened last Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s regional premiere of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the Broadway blockbuster from Obie Award-winner Christopher Durang.  Richard E.T White, who directed numerous productions at Berkeley Rep between 1984 and 1993, is back at the helm for the staging of this delightfully zany production.  I can’t think of a recent Berkeley Rep performance that I’ve enjoyed more.  Demand has been so strong that the play has been extended through October 25, 2013.

Durang, the renowned author of rollicking comedies such as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979) and The Marriage of Bette & Boo (1985), has described his farcical family drama as “Chekhov in a blender,” referring to the fact that he took his characters and themes from the Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov but set them in present-day Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he actually resides with his long-time partner.  The play draws on characters and themes from Chekhov’s most popular works—Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Seagull, and Cherry Orchard.  Durang cleverly combines elements of those stories, asking the “what-if” questions that Chekhov’s characters themselves might have asked about the trajectories of their lives had Chekhov not penned them another way.  It’s not essential to have read Chekhov or seen any of these plays but if you have, you’ll get a lot of more of the references. To keep it popping, and in sync with his own signature of outrageous, Durang added loads of great one-liners, a great voodoo pin-stabbing doll scene, crazy storybook costumes, wild impersonations, and boy-toy eye candy.

Beloved Bay Area actors Anthony Fusco and Sharon Lockwood portray Vanya and Sonia, the two terminally melancholic siblings anchoring the production.  They got their names from their community college professor parents who were enamored with Chekhov.  They dawdle through their days in their family’s peaceful Bucks County farmhouse performing such rituals as morning tea and daily bird watching while bickering like an old married couple.

Lockwood gives a priceless tender and comedic performance as Sonia, the dutiful adoptive spinster sister, who bemoans the fact that life has raced by while she’s has been stuck on the farm caretaking.  At least, she’s got her beloved cherry orchard.  There are 10 struggling cherry trees way out back which Sonia insists constitute an orchard and Vanya insists don’t.  So Chekhovian…and not.

Vanya, a struggling writer who keeps his play hidden in the parlor, is brought to pitch-perfect life by Fusco.

There’s also Cassandra, their belligerent but good-hearted servant who is brought to life by the bright energy and stage presence of Heather Alicia Simms.  Cassandra doesn’t cook much but, like her Greek namesake, she’s a psychic whose pronouncements are heeded.  She also happens to whip up a mean voodoo doll.

(l to r) Bay Area actors Anthony Fusco (Vanya) and Sharon Lockwood (Sonia) portray siblings in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Play, at Berkeley rep through October 25, 2013.  Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

(l to r) Bay Area actors Anthony Fusco (Vanya) and Sharon Lockwood (Sonia) portray siblings in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Play, at Berkeley rep through October 25, 2013. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

The whole play transpires in an expansive wood-and-stone home, with gorgeously appointed wicker furnished sunroom by set designer Kent Dorsey, with lighting by Alexander V. Nichols.

The anxiety-ridden question of the moment is how Vanya and Sonia will handle the pending visit of their sister Masha (Lorri Holt), a Hollywood B-movie star, who made her career in the “Sexy Killer” film franchise and who’s been footing all their bills.  These middle-aged dependents worry that she’ll sell the house and leave them homeless. When glamorous Masha arrives, it’s in grand style— she’s dressed in sophisticate clothing, is full of interesting conversation (about herself) and is accompanied by her dim-witted hunky young lover, Spike (Mark Junek).  Masha is not really there to see Vanya and Sonia but to attend a costume party down the road at Dorothy Parker’s house and to show off.

Masha triggers jealousy and longing in frumpy Sonia.  Preening Spike triggers carnal urges in Vanya.  Enter Nina (Caroline Kaplan)—the sweet, sincere and very comely neighbor, straight out of The Seagull, who draws Spike’s attention away from Masha and ignites Vanya’s literary passions.  In the shadow of Nina’s radiant natural beauty, Masha’s anxieties about aging quickly come to the surface.

As they all prepare their costumes for the party, the play achieves comic brilliance.  To ensure that she will steal the show as Snow White, Masha tries to control what everyone else wears, insisting they go as her attendant dwarfs, with the exception of Spike who is to be Prince Charming.  Costume designer Beaver Bauer’s Disney Snow White costumes are delightful.

Sonia’s priceless moment of ascension comes when she defies Masha, steps out of her sorry self and dons a sparkly evening gown to channel Maggie Smith, “on her way to claiming an Oscar in California Suite.”  And does she shine, so much so that she attracts some long-overdue male interest.

Vanya’s moment comes when Nina gives the group a read-though of his secret play about a molecule…a slow existential boiler whose enactment is rudely interrupted by Spike’s texting.  The cell phone incident triggers Vanya’s inspired rant about horrors of the modern technology.  It all neatly ties in with Chekhov’s main themes in The Cherry Orchard— the inescapable forward march of time and the arrival of progress into the change-resistant cherry orchard.  This full-on comedy, with as much depth as you want to give it, is a wonderful way to celebrate the start of Berkeley Rep 46th season.

Run-Time is 2 hours 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

Creative Team:

Kent Dorsey (scenic designer) has designed sets for a number of Berkeley Rep productions, including The Alchemist, For Better or Worse, Serious Money, The Importance of Being Earnest, Dancing at Lughnasa, Mother Jones, and Blue Window. Beaver Bauer (costume designer) has designed several Berkeley Rep productions: What the Butler Saw, Tartuffe, Blue Window, In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe, Rhinoceros, The House of Blue Leaves, and Menocchio. Alexander V. Nichols (lighting designer) returns to Berkeley Rep for his 26th production. His theatre credits include Berkeley Rep’s production of Wishful Drinking here and on Broadway, Hugh Jackman Back On Broadway, and the off-Broadway productions of Bridge and Tunnel (also at Berkeley Rep), Horizon, In the Wake, Los Big Names, Taking Over, and Through the Night. Composer Rob Milburn and sound designer Michael Bodeen composed music and designed sound for Berkeley Rep’s previous production, No Man’s Land, which moves to Broadway this fall.  The stage manager for the production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is Michael Suenkel, Berkeley Rep’s resident production stage manager.  Executive producers are Bill Falik and Diana Cohen.

Details: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike has been extended through October 25, 2013 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances are Tues-Fri at 8 PM and Sat at 2 PM and 8 PM and Sun at 2 PM and 7 PM.  Tickets: $29 to $89.  Discounts:  Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain.

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 $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is accompanied by a free voucher ticket that is available in the theatre lobby.  These new tickets accommodate the newly automated parking garage’s ticket machines and are available in a pile located where the ink stamp used to be.

October 2, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Set in two different centuries, Tom’s Stoppard’s “Arcadia” is a smart romantic play that uses garden design as metaphor for progress, at A.C.T. through June 9, 2013

Rebekah Brockman is brainy Thomasina Coverly and Jack Cutmore-Scott is her ambitious tutor, Septimus Hodge, in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” directed by Carey Perloff, through June 9, 2013.  Photo by Kevin Berne.

Rebekah Brockman is brainy Thomasina Coverly and Jack Cutmore-Scott is her ambitious tutor, Septimus Hodge. Their smart repartee is divine and their on stage chemistry is magic in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” directed by Carey Perloff, through June 9, 2013. Photo by Kevin Berne.

I saw Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia for the first time, when it opened last Wednesday at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) and, already, I’m already planning to go again. It’s gardening season and time is precious but I was seduced by this dazzling production whose action that moves between the 19th century and the present and its riveting exploration of how big ideas take root, blossom, and then, become compost. The repartee and on-stage chemistry of the fine actors, the gorgeous set design and overall flow of the performance added up to an unforgettable evening. I was hooked once I discovered that, at its core, Arcadia uses tensions in garden design as a metaphor for progress. Frequently, when I describe plays to friends who live up in the wine country, no matter how good the production is, they bemoan the drive in to San Francisco, especially during gardening season.  Well, here it is!—a play brimming with ideas that will have you cutting your precious antique roses with renewed zeal because you’re on fire with ideas and how gardens through time embody them.  Whether you’re an orderly classicist who believes in preserving the structure of things or you’re more of a romantic who views structure as a straightjacket, and are constantly tossing out the old rules in favor of the new, there’s something intoxicating in Stoppard’s romantic story that will leave you exquisitely satisfied and slightly perplexed that you haven’t quite caught it all.

Set in Sidley Park, an English stately home, in two different centuries, the play opens in Edwardian 1809, much in the fashion of an Oscar Wilde drawing-room farce. The first thing you notice is Douglas W. Schmidt’s expansive drawing room set, appointed with picturesque trees that wind elegantly around the room. Septimus Hodge (played by Jack Cutmore-Scott), a young science graduate, is resident tutor to Thomasina Coverley (played by Rebekah Brockman), the precocious 13-year old daughter of the owners of Sidley Park. The two are cozied up at a wooden table. Reading through her Latin homework, she asks him, quite innocently, to explain what “carnal embrace” means. When he tells her, she is appalled. “Now whenever I do it, I shall think of you!” she gasps. “Is it like love?” He replies: “Oh no my lady, it is much nicer than that.” 

(from L-R): Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly), Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge), Adam O’Byrne (Valentine Coverly), and Gretchen Egolf (Hannah Jarvis) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

(from L-R): Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly), Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge), Adam O’Byrne (Valentine Coverly), and Gretchen Egolf (Hannah Jarvis) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

Turns out that Septimus has been practicing that on which he expounds—he was seen having a “perpendicular poke” in the gazebo with Mrs. Chater, the wife of a visiting poet. Their tutoring session is interrupted by a note from Mr. Chater, demanding he receive “satisfaction” for his wounded honor in the form of a duel. Septimus moans: “Mrs. Chater demanded satisfaction and now you demand satisfaction. I cannot spend my day and night satisfying the demands of the Chater family.” When Mr Chater arrives in a fury, Septimus asserts that he won’t engage in a pistol-fight to defend the honor of “a woman whose reputation could not be adequately defended with a platoon of musketry deployed by rota.” Septimus is also pursuing Lady Croom, Thomasina’s pert mother, but she has her eyes fixed on nabbing Lord Byron, Septimus’ college pal.

The play then shifts abruptly to the 1990s, and a more realist style. In the same house, and using the same set, a historian, Hannah Jarvis, is delving into Sidley Park’s history, with the permission of the Croom family. She is immersed in her research and in piecing together stories from the past.

She is interrupted by her rival, a patronizing old English fart, Bernard Nightingale, who has discovered a note that Chater wrote to Septimus in an old book.  He is convinced that the note was written by Lord Byron, the great Romantic poet, who happened to be visiting Sidley Park that weekend— and that he fought in the duel and killed Chater. He posits that this would explain why Byron fled to France in 1810 and asserts that he is hot on the trail of “the literary discovery of the century” which will make him a media sensation.

Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly) and Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly) and Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

Those are the bare bones. The action unfolds from 1809 to 1812, while the characters in the late 20th century attempt to untangle what happened by reviewing what they know about their lives. The stories alternate until, in the final scene, all the characters appear on stage together, waltzing past each other, unseen.

Rebekah Brockman delivers an astounding and entirely believable performance as Thomasina, the innocent girl genius, the heart and soul of the play.  Her natural chemistry with her tutor, Septimus, Jack Cutmore-Scott, is a delight.  As he educates her in the basics of Newton’s laws of physics, she quickly demonstrates that her grasp of the implications of these principles far exceeds that of her adult peers.  She’s able to cut to chase using very familiar examples, making astounding connections between seemingly unrelated things—“When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. (1.1).”  Later, she makes observations about what happens with free will in a world where we are all merely atoms following the laws of motion in Newton’s universe.  It is she who leads Septimus to see the flaws in Newton, and he, in turn, who falls for her.

The present day couple—Hannah and Bernard, played by Gretchen Egolf and Andy Murray—due to their lack of on stage chemistry, is less dynamic, though they both, as feuding scholars, represent interesting ideas.  She is a model of classical reserve while he, boisterous and passionate, follows his gut instincts and prefers to reject the hard evidence that leads to the conclusion that Byron was not the killer he initially thought him to be.       

And the garden?  The garden at Sidley Park is never actually seen but its symbolic presence is felt throughout the play, as styles (Romanticism and Classicism) and their attenuate ideas butt up against each other.

Says Perloff: “To me Arcadia is the perfect play: sexy, subtle, romantic, bracing, hilarious, and complex, rewarding multiple viewings and multiple explorations. When I directed the show at A.C.T. in 1995, the Geary Theater was still undergoing repairs from the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake, so we have never done it on The Geary stage. Now we’ve gathered an incredible company and it is truly a fulfillment of a dream for me to bring Arcadia back to A.C.T.”

More on the origin of “Arcadia”— Arcadia is part of the Peloponnese peninsula and in European Renaissance arts was celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness, even an imaginary idyllic paradise, immortalized by Virgil’s Eclogues, and later by Jacopo Sannazaro in his pastoral masterpiece, Arcadia (1504). The Latin phrase “Et in Arcadia ego,” which is usually
interpreted to mean “Even in Arcadia there am I” (“I” meaning Death), is a memento mori, a cautionary reminder of the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death. The phrase is most often associated with a 1647 painting by Nicolas Poussin, also known as “The
Arcadian Shepherds.”  In the painting, the phrase appears as an inscription on a tomb discovered by youthful figures in classical garb.

Best Garden Quote:  “English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour. Here, look – Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia! And here, superimposed by Richard Noakes, untamed nature in the style of Salvator Rosa. It’s the Gothic novel expressed in landscape. Everything but vampires.”  (Hannah 1.2)

Run time:   2 hours and 35 minutes with a 15 minute intermission

CAST:  Rebekah Brockman is Thomasina Coverly; Jack Cutmore-Scott is Septimus Hodge; Julia Coffey is Lady Croom; Allegra Rose Edwards is Chloë Coverly; Gretchen Egolf is Hannah Jarvis; Anthony Fusco is Richard Noakes; Nick Gabriel is Captain Brice; Andy Murray is Bernard Nightingale; Adam O’Byrne is Valentine Coverly); Nicholas Pelczar is Ezra Chater; Ken Ruta is Jellaby.

CREATIVE TEAM:  by Tom Stoppard;  Directed by Carey Perloff.   Douglas W. Schmidt (scenic designer), Alex Jaeger (costume designer), Alexander V. Nichols (lighting designer), Jake Rodriguez (sound designer).

InterACT Programming for Arcadia— InterACT events are presented free of charge to give patrons a chance to get closer to the action while making a whole night out of their evening at the theatre. Visit act-­‐sf.org/interact to learn more about subscribing to these events throughout the season:

Audience  Exchanges: Tuesday, May 28, at 7 p.m. | Sun., June 2, at 2 p.m. | Wed., June 5, at 2 p.m.  Learn firsthand what goes into the making of great theatre. After the show, join A.C.T. on stage for a lively onstage chat with the cast, designers and artists who develop the work onstage.

OUT with A.C.T.:  Wednesday, May 29, following the 8 p.m. performanceThe best LGBT night in town! Mingle with the cast and enjoy free drinks and treats at this popular afterparty.

Wine Series: Tuesday, June 4, at 7 p.m.  Before the show, raise a glass at this wine tasting event featuring leading sommeliers from the Bay Area’s hottest local wineries.

PlayTime: Saturday, June 8, at 2 p.m.  Before this matinee performance, get hands-­‐on with theater with the artists who make it happen at this interactive workshop.

Bike to the Theater Nights: Thursday, May 23.   Providing a greener alternative to theater transportation, A.C.T. and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offer free valet bike parking, as well as a special discount on tickets, for these select performances.

Details: Arcadia runs through June 9, 2013 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: $20 to $95, phone 415.749.2228, or visit www.act-sf.org .

A.C.T.’s 2013–14 season:  Seven incredible productions await A.C.T. patrons in 2013-14, including the West Coast premiere of Tony Award–winning director Frank Galati’s acclaimed new staging of 1776; the Northern California premiere of David Ives’s captivating cat-­‐and-­‐mouse drama, Venus in Fur; James Fenton’s beautiful reinvention of The Orphan of Zhao, starring the inimitable stage and film star BD Wong; and a sumptuous production of George Bernard Shaw’s political comedy Major Barbara. The remaining three shows will be announced at a later date. In addition to the seven-­‐play subscription season, A.C.T. is happy to welcome back the Bay Area’s favorite holiday tradition, the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, after its record-­‐breaking run last season.  To subscribe or for more information, please click here, or call 415.749.2250.

May 28, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: In Carey Perloff’s riveting production of Sophocles’ “Elektra,” Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis and A.C.T.’s fabulous René Augesen enliven this age old tale of justice—at A.C.T. through November 18, 2012

L to R: René Augesen is Elektra, Olympia Dukakis is the Chorus Leader, and Allegra Rose Edwards is Chrysothemis (Elektra’s sister) in Sophocles’ “Elektra,” directed by Carey Perloff at A.C.T. Photo by Kevin Berne.

With American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) and Berkeley Rep, the Bay Area’s two most prominent theatres, staging revitalized Greek dramas this November, there’s no escaping the enduring power of the ancient Greek classics. A.C.T. presents A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff’s production of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Elektra — featuring a specially commissioned new translation by Olivier Award–winning British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, an original score by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer David Lang and Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis. Across the Bay, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre has extended its run of An Iliad, performed by Henry Woronicz and adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare with a compelling translation by Robert Fagles. An Iliad provides an unforgettable
oral overview of the battles and main characters of the Trojan War, which transpired some 3,200 years ago.  Elektra is set later and focuses on the fall-out from one of those ancient wars and is a cause and effect case study in the ideas of justice and vengeance, pitting truth and deception against each other.  Sophocles left it up to the audience to ferret out the ethics of avenging a strike to the family bloodline with more murder.  Timberlake Wertenbaker distills the story brilliantly in her adaptation with poignant and, at times, very humorous passages which are enlivened by René Augesen in particular.

A.C.T.’s Elektra is a must-see for the exceptional women it brings together on stage— René Augesen, Olympia Dukakis, Caroline Lagerfelt and Allegra Rose Edwards.  Watching A.C.T. core actress René Augesen over the past 11 years has been transformative—she just keeps digging deeper to deliver astounding character performances (she’s done over 30) that have come to anchor entire productions from Hedda in Hedda Gabbler (2007) to Esme in Tom Stoppard’s Rock–n-Roll (2008) to Ruth in Harold Pinter’s Homecoming (2011) to Beverly in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park (2011). She always good but when she gets on stage as Elektra, Agamemnon’s grief-stricken grown daughter, it is like watching some sort of primal creature emerge. She readily delivers an Elektra who cannot shake the traumatic memory of her father’s murder by her mother Clytemnestra (Caroline Lagerfelt), an Elektra who is so obsessed, so stuck in grief, that she is incapable of moving forward in her own life. Augesen credibly sinks to the lowest suffering imaginable showing the heroic and tragic nature of her character. She is addicted to pain and we can all somehow relate to that.

Caroline Lagerfelt (left) is Clytemnestra, Elektra’s mother, who was unfaithful to her husband, King Agamemnon, when he was away fighting the Trojan War and then conspied with her lover to kill him when he returned home. René Augesen (right) is Elektra who seeks to avenge her father Agamemnon’s murder. Photo by Kevin Berne.

As the entire chorus, boiled down to one character, Olympia Dukakis is formidable. The Academy-Award winning actress (Moonstruck), now 81, seems born dispensing wise counsel.  At times empathetic, at times burning with intensity, she urges the distraught Elektra to justice, knowing full-well the blood that will be shed.  Clothed in a dark gray tunic with an ornate metallic scrolling on the front (all costumes are by Candice Donnelly), Dukakis dramatically entered to the very minimalist music of Pulitzer Prize winning David Lang, which successfully evoked the sense of ancient rhythms and tones as they might have existed in that very time.  As cellist Theresa Wong began keening and wrapping on her instrument, it was as if she was calling up the ancient spirits.  As Dukakis took to the stage, she transfixed the audience and held them in her grip for the next 90 minutes.  Her natural rapport with Augesen is palpable.

And lithe Caroline Lagerfelt, as Clytemnestra, Elektra’s adulterous murderer of a mother, is a model for glorious aging.  She wears the trappings of queen hood well—exquisite jewelry and eloquent flowing gowns—and she feels justified in killing Agamemnon.  Is she?  Her daughter, Iphigenia, was murdered, in a deal that her husband Agamemnon cut with the goddess Artemis to save the Greeks in the Trojan War.  As morally reprehensible as she is, she has a case, adding complexity to the drama. In fact, many of the characters feel justified in their actions in this play—Clytemnestra needs to extract justice on Agamemnon for the death of her daughter; Orestes needs to kill his mother Clytemnestra for killing his father; and Elektra feels bound to kill Clytemnestra and her new husband Aegisthus, but as woman, she needs her brother Orestes to carry out the revenge.  With no divine intervention, Sophocles leaves the question of justice squarely on his audience.

Allegra Rose Edwards (left) is Chrysothemis and René Augesen is Elektra in Sophocles’ Elektra. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis is cast perfectly in Allegra Rose Edwards (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2013), who has survived by living with the imbalance in the universe.  Dressed in a ridiculous white dress haut couture dress looks like one of the impossibly impractical numbers that gets a full page spread in Vogue, she engages authentically with Augesen throughout the play, acknowledging that Elektra has justice on her side but she prefers to go with the flow.  In one of the play’s most touching passages, Elektra finally persuades her to offer a prayer at their father’s grave that Orestes will return and avenge their father’s death.

Orestes (Nick Steen), Elektra’s brother, and true heir to the throne, was the weak link in the play.  From the moment Orestes spoke, it seemed as if his lines were not deeply felt.  Of course, he is younger and hasn’t suffered the way Elektra has.  When he was very young, Elektra feared for his life and took him to live with King Strophius of Phocis, who raised Orestes with his own son Pylades (Titus Thompkins), who accompanies him to the oracle at Delphi.   Then, with Pylades, and his Tutor (Anthony Fusco), Orestes travels in disguise to his former home to avenge his father’s death by killing his mother and her lover.  Another Orestes might have brought more to the production.

Run time is 90 minutes

Cast: René Augesen, Elektra, Olympia Dukakis, Chorus Leader, Caroline Lagerfelt Clytemnestra, Anthony Fusco, the Tutor, Nick Steen, Orestes, Allegra Edwards, Chrysothemis, Steven Anthony Jones Aegisthus.

Creative Team: music by composer David Lang, cellist Teresa Wang,  scenic design Ralph Funicello, costume design Candice Donnell, lighting design Nancy Schertler, and sound design by Cliff Caruthers.

InterACT Programming for Elektra: InterACT events are presented free of charge to give patrons a chance to get closer to the action while making a whole night out of their evening at the theatre.

Audience Exchanges: Sunday, November 11 at 2 PM, Wednesday, November 13 at 8 PM, and November 14 at 2 PM.  Learn firsthand what goes into the making of great theatre.  After the show, join A.C.T. on stage for a lively onstage chat with the cast, designers and artists who develop the work onstage.

Wine Series:  Tuesday, November 13, 8 PM.  Raise a glass at this wine-tasting event featuring leading sommeliers from the Bay Area’s hottest local winderies.

PlayTime: Saturday, November 17, 12:30 PM.  Get hands on with theatre and the artists who make it happens at the interactive preshow workshop.

Details:  Elektra’s limited run ends on Sunday, November 18, 2012 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances: Tuesday-Sundays at 8 PM, with several 2 PM matinee performances, including Saturday, November 10, Sunday November 11, Wednesday November 14, Saturday November 17, and Sunday, November 18, 2012. Tickets (starting at $20 to $150) are available at or at act-sf.org or by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228

Olympia Dukakis narrates SF Symphony’s holiday performance of Peter and the Wolf  

Delight your children with San Francisco Symphony’s annual presentation ofPeter and the Wolf including festive holiday songs for the whole family to sing—perfect for music lovers of all ages.  Donald Cabrera conducts The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra as it performs Prokofiev’s charming tale with Olympia Dukakis narrating.  Approximate length is 1 hour.   Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 1 PM and 4 PM at Davies Symphony Hall.  Tickets are $27-$57 for adults and $13.50 to $28.50 for Children.  For more information and tickets: www.sf.symphony.org

November 9, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: A.C.T.’s Samuel Beckett double bill—“Endgame” and “Play”— through June 3, 2012

Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, left, is Hamm and ) and A.C.T. core acting company member Nick Gabriel is his servant, Clov, in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” performing together with Beckett’s one-act “Play,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

No one pokes fun at the misery of existence with the crystalline lines of the late master playwright Samuel Beckett. The problem has always been finding actors who can deliver those lines with the exact flavor of irony and detachment that Beckett calls for.   Two-time Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, no stranger to Beckett, gives a memorable performance as Hamm in Beckett’s masterpiece, Endgame, which is currently at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in a double bill with Beckett’s Play, a lesser known absurd comedy written in 1963.  These two Beckett one acts are well-executed revivals that pair well together.

Play opens with a spotlight directed on the three babbling ashen faces protruding out of three huge funeral urns, placed side by side.  A man (M), Anthony Fusco, occupies the middle urn, while his wife (W1), René Augesen, occupies the left urn, and his mistress (W2), Annie Purcell, occupies the urn on the right.  Eternally together in the afterlife, locked in their urns and only able to engage in slight turns of their heads, Beckett uses this trio of lovers like a captive chorus.  Each is condemned to repeat his or her version of the affair for eternity.  One character speaks at a time, in a very mechanical and detached refrain, and only when the spotlight shines on his or her face.

A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell (left), A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco (center), and A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen (right) in Samuel Beckett’s Play, performing together with Beckett’s Endgame at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

After the realization that you cannot possibly comprehend all that is said because it is delivered too quickly, you begin to experience it as a concert, taking in fragments and understanding that the heads aren’t communicating with each other, they seem oblivious to each other.  Beckett is all about repetition, which is core to his discourse and is used as a means to unsettle some of our most fundamental notions of how humans function.  Once completed, the cycle of dialogue is repeated.  Hearing it all again, you begin to get a sense of Beckett’s brilliance, much of which will only come through if the timing and delivery of these lines is perfect.  Last Wednesday’s performance was delivered with admirable skill by this unharmonious trio of dead lovers.  A.C.T. core-acting company member Annie Purcell, who gave a vivid performance this February in as the daughter/sister, Janine, in A.C.T.’s Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, again gave a compelling performance as a seething woman who felt she had won the love of this man (M) and scorned her rival, his wife Augesen (W1).  The wife, of course, has a different take, she feels she owns him.

What makes Play all the more interesting it that it somewhat models Beckett’s personal experiences.  When Play premiered in June 1963, Beckett had recently married his long-time companion of twenty-odd years, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil.  He had also resumed his long-term affair with Barbara Bray, the acclaimed BBC script editor, who had moved to Paris to be near him.  When Play premiered, Bray not only attended but reviewed it favorably for the venerable Observer, referring to the man (M) as “scooting breathlessly back and forth between the two women, perhaps the worst of the bunch: all need and weakness and feeble, if amiable duplicity…” (A.C.T.’s program p 20).

Bill Irwin portrays the invalid, Hamm, in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” performing together with Beckett’s one-act “Play” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Endgame, one of Beckett’s best plays, takes its English name from the final part of a chess game, when there are very few pieces left, and the outcome is obvious. Its French title, Fin de partie, applies to games beyond chess as well, but there is no precise English equivalent for the phrase.  Beckett himself was an avid chess player.   Endgame is a commentary on death and our transition through life.  Beckett has whittled human drama down to the bone—longing, relationship, abuse and hope.  Everyone meets Endgame on a different terrain based on their own individual life experiences, aesthetics, and needs.  Some will see it as the story of a master and slave and others as that of an overworked caretaker tied by some means to an ill or dying man.

The setting is minimalist.  A bare, partially underground room is inhabited by four characters—Hamm the master (Bill Irwin), Clov his servant (Nick Gabriel), and Hamm’s father, Nagg (Giles Havergal), and mother, Nell (Barbara Oliver).  Hamm is blind and can’t walk and is in a wheelchair that also might be a throne. He makes Clov, who cannot sit, move him around the room, fetch objects, and look out the window for signs of life, of which there are none. Nagg and Nell have no legs and reside in huge trash urns and are fed and watered daily by Clov.  Inside this bleak little world, staged wonderfully by Daniel Ostling, the characters pass their time waiting for an end that never comes.

Bill Irwin, who has acted in Waiting for Godot three times, brings a vibrant energy to Hamm.  Irwin delighted audiences with his perfect comedic timing and remarkably elastic body movements as the wily servant, Scapin, in Molière’s Scapin, which opened A.C.T.’s 2010 season.  In Endgame, even though Hamm is confined to a chair, Irwin manages to make him the life of the party, using his dancing eyes and sharp facial gestures to imbue him with human spirit, so much so that we pity him.

Nagg (Giles Havergal, left) and Nell (Barbara Oliver) in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, performing together with Beckett’s one-act Play at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

There is a strong and palpable chemistry between Irwin and Nick Gabriel, who plays Clov. The two are well-synced in their sparse dialogue and numerous pauses but an almost comedic undertone locks into place between the two, overshadowing the necessary cruelty, abuse and anxiety that are part and parcel of the power-tripping relationship Beckett calls for.  When Clov delivers sadly powerful lines like “No one that ever lived thought so crooked as we,” we don’t understand the full extent of their perverted existence.  In this regard, A.C.T.’s enactment of Endgame falls short of its full dramatic potential. On the other hand, watching Nick Gabriel move about the stage, re-arranging a short step ladder so that he can peer out through the windows into one of two views of oblivion and report on it to Hamm, is slapstick brilliance.  So is Gabriel/Clov’s brief encounter with what he thinks is a flea in his trousers.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find any two actors with more instinctive mastery of the physical gesture than Bill Irwin and Nick Gabriel.

Beckett is frequently criticized for making people feel stupid because they don’t get it.  There’s plenty to ponder in this double bill—our human response to loneliness—but there’s a lot that’s laugh out loud funny too, even if Beckett’s characters are too exhausted to laugh themselves.

Run-time:  Play is 22 minutes long, followed by a 15 minute intermission and Endgame runs for 90 minutes

Cast Play: René Augesen (W1), Anthony Fusco (M), Annie Purcell (W2)

Cast Endgame: Bill Irwin (Hamm), Nick Gabriel (Clov), Giles Havergal (Nagg), Barbara Oliver (Nell)

Creative Team: Carey Perloff (Director), Daniel Ostling (Scenic Design), Candice Donnelly (Costume Design), Alexander V. Nichols (Lighting Design), Fabian Obispo (Sound Design), Michael Paller (Dramaturg), Janet Foster, CSA (Casting Director), Elisa Guthertz (Stage Manager, Megan Q. Sada (Assistant Stage Manager), Daniel Ostling’s staging

A.C.T. InterACT Events:

Audience Exchanges: May 22, 7 p.m., May 27, 2 p.m., June 3, 2 p.m.
After the show, stick around for a lively Q&A session with the actors, moderated by a member of the A.C.T. artistic staff.

Killing My Lobster Plays With Beckett: May 24, 8 p.m.
San Francisco’s premiere sketch comedy troupe offers an original, Beckett-inspired performance 15 minutes after the final curtain (approximately 10:15 p.m.). Possible sketches include “Hunger End Games,” “Cooking with Clov,” and a speed-dating sketch featuring Beckett characters.  Admission is free, but seating is limited. Ticketholders for the May 24 performance will receive priority seating but must RSVP—information will be emailed to you separately.  Non-ticketholders who wish to attend can add their names to the waitlist by sending an email to lobster@act-sf.org with their name and requested number of seats (limit two seats per person).

OUT with A.C.T: May 30, 8 p.m., The best LGBT night in town! Mingle with the cast and enjoy free drinks and treats at this popular afterparty. Visit www.act-sf.org/out for information about how to subscribe to OUT nights throughout the season.

PlayTime New!:  June 2, 2 p.m.
Get hands-on with the art of theater with the artists who make it happen at this interactive preshow workshop. Doors open at 12:45 p.m.; the workshop will begin promptly at 1 p.m.

Details: Endgame and Play end on Sunday, June 3, 2012, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances: Tuesday-Sundays, with several 2 p.m. matinee performances, including Wednesday May 30, 2012, Thursday, May 31, 2012, and all Saturdays and Sundays of the run.  Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at act-sf.org.

May 22, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In David Mamet’s captivating Broadway hit “Race,” a court case involving race and sex causes three lawyers to get real about their own beliefs, at A.C.T. through November 13, 2011

In David Mamet’s “Race,” which has its West Coast premiere at San Francisco’s A.C.T., law firm partners Jack Lawson (A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco, left) and Henry Brown (Chris Butler) discuss whether they should take on a controversial case involving a white man raping a young black woman. Photo by Kevin Berne.

What do you get when you mix three attorneys with a white man accused of raping a black woman?  It all depends.   David Mamet’s  dramedy “Race,” which has its West Coast premiere at San Francisco’s A.C.T.(American Conservatory Theatre), uses a not-so-straightforward scenario of rape to explore the complex world of sexual and racial politics and our discomfort at talking about our deeply held beliefs.  When Jack Lawson (Anthony Fusco), Henry Brown (Chris Butler) and Susan (Susan Heyward) are roped into defending Charles Strickland (Kevin O’Rourke) a wealthy white man who appears to have raped a young black woman in a hotel room, we quickly see how this law firm operates.  Their mandate is to get their client off the hook by whatever legal means available, despite the truth.  Newly-hired associate Susan is most challenged.  As a young black woman, she empathizes with the victim and grows increasingly uncomfortable as a zany defense strategy involving a red sequined dress unfolds, but being new and lowest on the totem pole, she has little power to stand-up directly to her two senior partners.  While the two men spar directly each other about their respective assumptions about racial relations and sex and power dynamics and what may have really unfolded in the case, Susan finds non-verbal ways to assert herself, proving she is not as naïve as she presents.  White versus black; male versus female; privilege versus underprivileged–each character at first seems to conform to certain perceptions but then doesn’t.  Personal convictions and prejudices are road-tested all around by Mamet who also explores the predatory nature of the news media.  

Law firm associate Susan (Susan Heyward) quietly pays close attention to the racially charged case. As the play develops, she proves to be not as naïve as she is presumed to be. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Given Mamet’s track-record for presenting first-rate controversy, “Race” has no real shock impact─it has been upstaged by some of the racially-repugnant language currently on television but it is an entertaining puzzler hat offers a wide platform for exploration of our own deep prejudices.   The 2009 play also has an uncanny applicability to the issues in the highly-publicized case against former International Monetary Fund Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn for allegedly sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid in May of this year.  The shift in that case came when the Manhattan County District Attorney’s office disclosed in a letter to the defense team that the accuser admitted to lying on her 2004 asylum application and subsequent lies were then revealed.  Separating out and isolating issues relevant to the case at hand became part of a legal and media extravaganza and personal biases and projections were intentionally whipped up.  In rape cases, it seemed that one needed to be the near perfect victim, whereas, the friends, family, and supporters of the accused, a man of great wealth and power, argued that he was a certainly seducer but not a rapist.  Justice was a game that was to be played out and the truth was something else.  

Law firm associate Susan (Susan Heyward) and law firm partners Jack Lawson (Anthony Fusco, left) and Henry Brown (Chris Butler, second from right) prep their wealthy client Charles Strickland (Kevin O’Rourke) for questioning at A.C.T. through November 13, 2011. Photo by Kevin Berne.

At the end of the first act of “Race,” lawyers Lawson and Susan are debating the Strickland case when Susan tells Lawson, “This isn’t about sex. It’s about race.”

“What’s the difference,” Lawson asks. “It’s a complicated world, full of misunderstandings. That’s why we have lawyers.”  “Race” explores what’s at the heart of our biases and the world of sin that attorney-client privilege can hide.  At 90 minutes, without intermission, with a four member cast, and all set in a law firm’s conference room, it is one the best productions in A.C.T.’s recent history.  Alert: intentionally coarse language.  

Cast: Anthony Fusco as partner Jack Lawson; Chris Butler as partner Henry Brown; Susan Heyward as associate Susan; Kevin O’Rourke as wealthy client

Directed by Irene Lewis; scenery by Chris Barreca; costumes by Candice Donnelly; Lighting by Rui Rita; Sound design by Cliff Caruthers

“Experts Talks Back” special post-show discussions:  Delve deeply into the issues raised by “Race” with legal and cultural specialists leading discussions about many of the provocative topics that percolate throughout the production:

Friday, October 28, 2011, following the 8 p.m. performance:  Regina Arnold, a former rock critic who teaches at Stanford University, leads a discussion about race and ethnicity in today’s popular culture, moderated by Edward Budworth, A.C.T.’s groupsales and student matinee representative.

• Thursday, November 3, 2011, following the 8 p.m. performance:  Mary McNamara, a white collar criminal defense lawyer who was named one of the top 50 women lawyers in Northern California, leads a discussion moderated by Patrick S. Thompson, a partner at Goodwin Procter and a member of A.C.T.’s Board of Trustees.

• Thursday, November 10, 2011, following the 8 p.m. performance:  Wilda L. White, executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law, and Jennifer Madden, deputy district attorney in Alameda County, lead a discussion moderated by Patrick S. Thompson, a partner at Goodwin Procter and a member of A.C.T.’s Board of Trustees. 

Admission to all Experts Talk Back events is free with a ticket to Race; the discussions will take place in Fred’s Columbia Room on the lower level of the American Conservatory Theater (415 Geary Street, San Francisco).

Details:  The West Coast premiere of “Race” runs through November 13, 2011; tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at http://www.act-sf.org.

October 28, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Pinter’s “The Homecoming” at San Francisco’s A.C.T. is still pathologically disturbing after 47 years, runs through March 27, 2011

 

Written in 1964, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming was revolutionary in its exploration of the dark and dysfunctional side of family and marriage.  The original Broadway production won the 1967 Tony Award for Best Play and its 40th anniversary Broadway production at the Cort Theatre was nominated for a 2008 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Play.”   Now at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre), The Homecoming is a must-see for its superb acting, anchored by A.C.T. core actors René Augesen as Ruth and Jack Willis as Max the family patriarch.  And while it’s no longer the cutting- edge provocateur it once was, it is one of the most profoundly disturbing and exceptional portraits of a family to be found.  That’s because in the play’s near half decade of existence, our society has evolved to the point where we can recognize bits of ourselves in these wounded and intriguing characters and admit they embody a primal darkness that lies in all of us.  We’ve almost caught up with Pinter.

Lenny (Andrew Polk) puts on an aggressive front for his brother’s wife, Ruth (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen). Photo by Kevin Berne

The Homecoming is the story of a long absent son, Teddy (Anthony Fusco) who shows up in the middle of the night at his family home in North London with his wife, Ruth (René Augesen).  Teddy, a philosophy professor in the Midwest, seems to have little in common with the working-class relatives he left behind: Max, his father, (a butcher)(Jack Willis) and his younger brother Sam (a driver)(Kenneth Walsh) and Max’s two grown sons who still live at home, Lenny (pimp)(Andrew Polk) and Joey, the youngest (a boxer)(Adam O’Byrne).  They are all what a therapist might call trigger happy–constantly warring, trying to one up each other as they act out an ingrained pattern of lobbing hurtful responses back and forth.  Anything and everything is up for grabs—they fight over a cheese roll as passionately as they discuss philosophy, constantly vying for power.  As soon as Ruth enters the picture, they all compete for her attention. 

In Harold Pinter's The Homecoming at A.C.T. though March 27, 2011, Max (A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis, left) and his sons, Joey (Adam O’Byrne, second from right) and Lenny (Andrew Polk, right), have unexpected plans for Ruth (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen). Photo by Kevin Berne.

By the second act, Ruth, who was initially quiet, grows misogynistically pathological and cranks her own game into high gear, ultimately calling the shots in the family.  Augesen laces every word and gesture with ambiguity, hauntingly alluding to Ruth sexual past.  It’s a curious experience to watch a family implode before your eyes and at the same time to be wondering what it would be like to be any of them, as repulsive as each of them are. 

Acclaimed theatrical designer Daniel Ostling’s stage set, with its inward tilted walls, vertigo-inducing wooden staircase and stark lighting enhances the feeling of suffocating oppression within the family.  Thick clouds of fragrant cigar smoke and evocative jazz frame many of the conversations while Alex Jeager’s costumes for Ruth, particularly a form-fitting red silk dress, aid her in stealing power from right under the noses of these men.

Details: The Homecoming plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, through March 27, 2011. Tickets ($10-$85) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at A.C.T. online box office.

March 19, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Clybourne Park’s West Coast Premiere at A.C.T., extended through February 20, 2011

In Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park at A.C.T. through February 20, 2011, Beverly (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen) and Russ (A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco), a married couple in 1959, are packing to leave their family home. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

From all the critical buzz about playwright Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, and its recent extension at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) until February 20, you would think it was hilarious or riveting, but I found it neither.  The play, which has its West Coast premiere at A.C.T. and is directed locally by Jonathan Moscone, is so full of dumbed-down humor in Act 1, that you may not appreciate Act 2 where it all comes together.  Is this the reaction renowned provocateur Norris was aiming for in this button pusher about urban development and race?   If you like your repartee razor-sharp, steer clear of this production of Clybourne Park.   If you can hang through the first hour, you will find the story in Act 2 builds to a quite provocative end.  If you’ve read it’s funny and are expecting to laugh a lot, this is not that type of funny…this is nervous laughter that pops out and then sits by you.  

The idea of “neighborhood” in a major American city as seen through a house and its ownership, white and black, over a period of 50-odd years is a fascinating topic.  Playwright Bruce Norris takes the events of Lorraine Hansbury’s acclaimed play 1959 A Raisin in the Sun and spins a new story about race and real estate in America that picks up where that play ends.  Clybourne Park was the fictitious all-white Chicago neighborhood that the African American Younger family was moving to at the end of Hansbury’s play.   The move to the house symbolized promise—access to a broad range of resources, including school funding, infrastructure, and law enforcement that would mean a much better quality of life that would lead to a better future.   

In Norris’ Clybourne Park, we visit the same Younger house in two different eras, a half-century apart.  Act 1 is set in 1957 Clybourne Park,  just after Russ and Bev Stollers, a white couple, have unknowingly sold their house to a black family, the Youngers.  Act 2 is set in the same house in 2009 but the situation is reversed: the now-black neighborhood is gentrifying and a black couple is selling to a white couple who are planning to rebuild on that property and upset the neighborhood.  The dialogue is very similar to the one that transpired 50 years earlier in the house.  Times have changed but the concept of white privilege remains embedded in the culture of home ownership and people still have very hard time knowing what their biases are unless, of course, they are actually thrown into a situation that forces them out.  Enter Norris.  

Neighborhood association representative Karl (Richard Thieriot, left) discusses the sale of the house with Russ (A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco), while their wives, Betsy (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Emily Kitchens, back left) and Beverly (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen), make conversation. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

As the play opens, Russ (Anthony Fusco) and Bev (René Augesen) Stoller are in the process of packing up their home to relocate to Glen Meadow, a suburb outside Chicago.  Their African American housekeeper, Francine (Omozé Idehenre), is helping them.  Apron-clad Bev is heavily channeling June Cleaver and hovering over Russ but it’s too overdone, detracting.  She starts up a phonics word game about capital cities that is funny up to a point and then grinds.  Was that what substituted for meaningful conversation back then?  The way characters farcically embody their roles in Act 1 is frustrating….is that the point? 

Francine’s work shift has ended but Bev hints that she wants her to move a huge trunk upstairs and offers her a silver chafing dish, one that she pronounces she has no use for and which we assume Francine will not need either (because she is not of a class that entertains with sterling) but will accept.  Bev then takes back the offer.  Francine holds her tongue.   And so it begins…a series of gestures and phrases that form a collection of biases, universal biases, that Norris serves up and keeps simmering all night long.

The elephant in the room for the couple is the tragic loss of their son and Russ’ depression. Since their son, Kenneth, committed suicide in the home two and half years ago, it has come to be a place of pain and Russ has been unable to talk about his loss.  Bev sees their move as a fresh start. 

When Francine’s husband, Albert (Gregory Wallace), arrives to pick her up, the action kicks into high gear.  While Albert awkwardly waits, the minister, Jim (Manoel Felciano), arrives for a house call and attempts to counsel Russ which goes over horribly.  Then, Karl Lindner (Richard Thieriot), a representative from the neighborhood community association, and Karl’s deaf pregnant wife Betsy (Emily Kitchens) arrive.

The discussion, which unfolds in front of Albert, focuses on the fact that new buyers are black and the likely negative impact on property values in the neighborhood and that there are differences between blacks and whites that will make the move into the neighborhood awkward…. for the new Black residents.  It starts with what foods the neighborhood stores stock (blacks and white eat differently) and culminates in Karl’s absurd argument that blacks don’t downhill ski  (and therefore won’t enjoy the sports that other residents do.)

In 2009, neighbors Lena (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Omozé Idehenre, right) and Kevin (A.C.T. core acting company member Gregory Wallace, second from right), with their lawyer, Tom (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano, center), meet with new homeowners Lindsey (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Emily Kitchens) and Steve (Richard Thieriot), who are planning to drastically remodel the house. Photo by Erik Tomasson

Russ won’t change his mind about the sale, distancing himself from their claims that he has a responsibility to protect the community.  He feels that the community betrayed his son when he returned traumatized from Korea and that he and his wife were treated horribly after Kenneth’s suicide.  By intermission we are grappling both with what appeared to be a simplistic presentiation about racial bias in the 1950’s–none of us were alive to really know— and the loss of the son.

In Act 2, set in 2009, a group is gathered in the same living room about to wade through some legal documents and a petition protesting the proposed renovation of the house by the white new owners who are moving from the Glen Meadow suburb into Clybourne Park and are planning to build a much bigger house on the property.  The current owners are black and the suburb is now all-black and the property owners association wants to ensure that the re-do proposed for the home by the new white owners is consistent with the aesthetic of this “historically significant” (black) neighborhood. 

The discussion gets more and more inane, zeroing in on building codes and specs, and rehashing the proposed building’s height and scale, while the topic of race is circled round and round.  Norris has cleverly incorporated several people from Act 1, reintroducing them in tangentially related roles—–Bev now plays a savvy lawyer named Kathy who is representing the young white couple buying the home and Lena (Omozé Idehenre, who played the maid Francine in Act 1) is the grandniece of the Younger family matriarch (from Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun) who wants to do right by the neighborhood, meaning protect it black character. 

Lena (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Omozé Idehenre) and her husband, Kevin (A.C.T. core acting company member Gregory Wallace), have drafted a petition protesting the new design of the house. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

No one will come out in the open about how a white owner will change things. It gets heated very quickly though when race is addressed directly, culminating in an unexpected exchange of blatantly sexist and racist jokes that leaves everyone flabbergasted.  Lena’s zinger “How is a white woman like a tampon?  brings the audience fully into the drama as people melt down in uncomfortable laughter.   All to show what prejudices still lie buried in supposedly liberal people like them–AND us.  

The play concludes by unearthing the trunk from Act 1 and wrapping the subplot about the Kenneth, the young vet who committed suicide in the house, another chapter in America’s unease.

Post – Play Discussions “Experts Talk Back”: Thursday, February 10, 2011:  After the 8 p.m. performance, A.C.T. presents a new post-show discussion program “Experts Talk Back.” Stanford University Professor Michael Kahan, a specialist in 19th and 20th –century social history, will be in conversation with Scott Miller of the Oakland Zoning Commission. Free admission with performance ticket.  

Details:Clybourne Park plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, through February 20, 2011. Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at A.C.T. online box office.

February 7, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment