ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

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

Cinnabar's Steven Abbott stars in “I Am My Own Wife,” the astonishing one man show about a cross-dressing man, Lothar Berfelde, who took on a woman’s identity and lived in East Germany throughout its Communist era.  As Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Berfelde created the Grunderzeit Museum of Mahlsdorf, a museum of artifacts commemorating the pre-WWI furniture, household objects and culture that he loved.  The play, by Doug Wright, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play, 2004. Photo: Eric Chazankin

Cinnabar’s Steven Abbott stars in “I Am My Own Wife,” the astonishing one man show about a cross-dressing man, Lothar Berfelde, who took on a woman’s identity, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and lived in East Germany throughout its Nazi and Communist eras. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s exquisite collection of pre-WWI furniture and objects eventually became the Grunderzeit Museum of Mahlsdorf. The play, by Doug Wright, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play, 2004. Photo: Eric Chazankin

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?

In a tour de force performance at Cinnabar Theater, Steven Abbott plays all 36 parts in the Tony Award-winning solo show “I Am My Own Wife.” Photo: Eric Chazankin

In a tour de force performance at Cinnabar Theater, Steven Abbott plays all 36 parts in the Tony Award-winning solo show “I Am My Own Wife.” Photo: Eric Chazankin

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.

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.

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February 12, 2015 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cinnabar Theater’s “Of Mice and Men,” through April 13, 2014

 

Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma presents John Steinbeck’s masterpiece “Of Mice and Men,” starring Samson Hood (left) as Lennie and Keith Baker (right) as George.  The unlikely friends drift from job to job across the farms and fields of California, holding fast to their dream of one day having an acre of land they can call their own.  Photo by Eric Chazankin)

Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma presents John Steinbeck’s masterpiece “Of Mice and Men,” starring Samson Hood (left) as Lennie and Keith Baker (right) as George. The unlikely friends drift from job to job across the farms and fields of California, holding fast to their dream of one day having an acre of land they can call their own. Photo by Eric Chazankin)

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.

Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma presents Steinbeck’s masterpiece “Of Mice and Men,” featuring (L to R) Kevin Thomas Singer, Samson Hood, Tim Kniffin, and James Gagarin.  After the boss’s son Curley attacks Lennie for no good reason, Lennie squeezes Curley’s hand too hard and crushes it.  Slim tends to Curley while lumbering Lennie is shocked at what he has done.  Photo by Eric Chazankin

Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma presents Steinbeck’s masterpiece “Of Mice and Men,” featuring (L to R) Kevin Thomas Singer, Samson Hood, Tim Kniffin, and James Gagarin. After the boss’s son Curley attacks Lennie for no good reason, Lennie squeezes Curley’s hand too hard and crushes it. Slim tends to Curley while lumbering Lennie is shocked at what he has done. Photo by Eric Chazankin

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.

Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma presents Steinbeck’s masterpiece “Of Mice and Men,” featuring Dorian Lockett as Crooks.  Photo by Eric Chazankin

Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma presents Steinbeck’s masterpiece “Of Mice and Men,” featuring Dorian Lockett as Crooks. Photo by Eric Chazankin

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 .

March 26, 2014 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Craig Wright’s “The Pavilion”—old lovers meet at a high school reunion and unload 20 years of baggage—at Cinnabar Theater through September 22, 2013

Sami Granberg (left) and Nathan Cummings portray old lovers who encounter one another at a high-school reunion in "The Pavilion," Craig Wright’s bittersweet comedy which opens Cinnabar Theater’s 41st season.  Photo” Eric Chazankin

Sami Granberg (left) and Nathan Cummings portray old lovers who encounter one another at a high-school reunion in “The Pavilion,” Craig Wright’s bittersweet comedy which opens Cinnabar Theater’s 41st season. Photo” Eric Chazankin

Can you turn back the clock on love and start over?  That’s just one of the questions raised in Craig Wright’s delicate drama The Pavilion, which opens Cinnabar Theater’s 41st season.   Emmy nominee Wright, who also penned episodes for TV shows like “Six Feet Under” and “Lost,” is no stranger to the difficult but endlessly fascinating state of human connection and creating characters that embody the walking wounded.  The Pavilion, written in 2,000 and directed by Tara Blau, delivers many laughs amidst the universally familiar pain and frustration of love gone sour.  The play’s psychological acuity represents a slight but welcome shift in Cinnabar’s programming.

The Pavilion is enacted by three main characters and is set around a 20th high school reunion in Pine City, a small town that feels a lot like old Petaluma.  Sami Granberg and Nathan Cummings portray old lovers, Keri and Peter, who encounter one another at a high-school reunion.  Keri is now married and her life as a bank employee who escorts people to and from their safety deposit boxes is as stagnate as her marriage.  Peter is a big beefy likable guy, a therapist who’s in need of therapy himself.  He’s in a relationship but has come to the reunion hoping for another chance at love with Keri whom he abandoned twenty years ago after getting her pregnant.  Peter’s betrayal of Keri altered both of their lives for the worse and he wants redemption.

As the Narrator, Jeff Coté starts the play off philosophically by setting its context as the slow forward march of time.  He also adroitly plays a surprising number of secondary characters at the reunion who nudge Peter and Keri through their interactions.  Aided by Coté’s mastery of gestures, these humorous encounters reveal a motley collective of broken and warped souls at the Pine City reunion.

Under the feigned joviality of reconnection, everyone wants something.  Peter is most honest about his sense of dissatisfaction about where life has led him.  He is desperate to salvage lost love which he has fantasized will be his only real shot at happiness in this life but he must first get Keri to talk with him.  The clock stopped for Keri emotionally when she made the painful decision to terminate her pregnancy.  Twenty years later, she is still childless and anguished, and she claims she wants nothing to do with Peter.  A bevy of push pull signals reveal otherwise though.  The burning questions—will reconnecting heal their old wounds or inflame them?  Will talking about what transpired and the mistakes that were made free them to move on with their lives separately, or, will they find happiness ever after with each other?

Cinnabar Theater’s Tara Blau directs an exceptional dramatic journey which is well worth the price of admission (which is about half of what you’ll pay elsewhere).  Joe Elwick’s set is a wonderfully simple slice of small town nostalgia— a wooden dance hall, the Pavilion, with just a few tables and mood-setting Japanese lanterns whose backdrop is a picturesque lake.  To one side, there’s a garden and swing.  The Pavilion, ironically slated for destruction right after the reunion, holds a special place in the hearts of those former students and suggests the fragility of the past.

In Wayne Hovey’s capable hands, the beautiful lighting becomes a vehicle of great transformation, capable of evoking a myriad of moods and the magic of shooting stars.

From the beginning of the play, the Narrator (Coté ) functions as an all-seeing poetic consciousness capable of tracking the movements of the universe, from the enormous cosmos right down to the development of the little pavilion that is human consciousness and further down to this particular moment in Pine City High’s history.  Philosophically, every person becomes a lens through which the whole reflects itself and every passing moment a unique outgrowth of this unique universe.  It’s impossible to erase the past and start over but Peter imagines he is entitled to happiness and begs the Narrator to intervene and stop the inevitable.

Jeff Coté (left) and Sami Granberg star in "The Pavilion", a romantic new play  that opens Cinnabar Theater’s 41st season.  Coté is the Narrator and he comically plays a number of secondary characters—male and female— at a 20th high school reunion.  Granberg plays Keri, who has been seething since high school over being abandoned when she got pregnant. Photo:  Eric Chazankin

Jeff Coté (left) and Sami Granberg star in “The Pavilion”, a romantic new play
that opens Cinnabar Theater’s 41st season. Coté is the Narrator and he comically plays a number of secondary characters—male and female— at a 20th high school reunion. Granberg plays Keri, who has been seething since high school over being abandoned when she got pregnant. Photo: Eric Chazankin

Petaluman Nathan Cummings steps into the role of Peter with ease.  Here’s a guy who screwed up royally years ago and Cumming makes him fascinating as he ruminates dreamingly on why he’s entitled to another chance and how he’ll become a better man through love.  His shining moment comes when he takes to the pavilion and serenades Keri with “Down in the Ruined World,” a ballad which he delivers with intention.

Sami Granberg creates a resonant Keri—in a red satin dress, she’s still a youthful looking woman but she is frozen in bitterness and resigned to her fate.

The Pavilion is one of the most engaging plays I’ve seen at Cinnabar.  The story is laced with the pathos of regret and there’s no easy answer to the emotional wreckage that has emerged…the acting is genuine and it all rings true.

Details:  The Pavilion ends September 22, 2013.  Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. Cinnabar Theater is located 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North, at the intersection with Skillman Lane, Petaluma, CA 94952.

Tickets: $25 for adults and $15 for ages 21 and under. Significant discounts available as part of a ticket package.  Purchase tickets online at www.cinnabartheater.org, or call 707.763-8920

Monday through Friday between 10 AM and 3 PM.  Tickets may also be available at the door, but advance purchase is recommended.  Seating is general admission but the theatre is open about 30 minutes prior to each performance.

September 14, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment