Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Sweet Treat in "The Cake"

The Cake

J. J. Van Name Photo:Lois Tema

By Bekah Brunstetter

Directed by Tracy Ward
New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco

Until December 1, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

To make a perfect cake, “what you have to do is really, truly, follow the directions,” says Della, the proprietor of Della’s Sweets bakery in North Carolina in Bekah Brunstetter’s light but satisfying comedy “The Cake.”

Della is good enough to be a contestant on “The Great American Baking Show” where an unseen announcer booms out instructions in a Godlike British voice to which Della responds in flustered attempts to obey. The “revelations” of the voice, made more dramatic by light from above, get funnier and more absurd throughout the play. Bay area newcomer J. J. Van Name makes Della warm and likable, a good woman who follows the Good Book as closely as a recipe.

Jensen Power and J. J. Van Name Photo:Lois Tema

When Jennie (Jensen Power), the lighthearted daughter of Della’s best friend who died five years earlier, comes back to town to announce that she’s getting married and asks Della to make the cake, Della is overjoyed until she learns that the “lucky man” is actually a woman, Macy, a no-nonsense, truth-speaking, Brooklyn-bred black journalist. As much as she loves Jen, Della cannot bring herself to agree to fulfill Jen’s wish. “It just doesn’t sit right,” she finally admits sadly.

Conflicting beliefs, old traditions, fear, and love make for a lumpy batter. A Southern girl at heart, Jen longs for a lovely hometown wedding complete with a white dress, fairy lights, and cake, yet she realizes how much wider her world has become with Macy and their life in Brooklyn. Jensen Power portrays a soul divided in a tug of war of love. An exact opposite of Jen in temperament, Asia Jackson plays a cooly present Macy who cannot abide what the Southern lifestyle offers, from gluten and sugar loaded treats to conservative politics. When Della tries to politely converse with Macy, it’s like watching a dialog between two visitors from different planets.

Observing the genuine love between Jen and Macy, Della begins to realize the limitations of her own life, especially her marriage to her good ole’ boy husband Tim (a charming if not clueless Dixon Phillips). In a scene where Della, aching for physical touch, tries to tempt Tim with buttercream frosting, his confused response reveals the deep and sad dissatisfaction both of these characters have learned to hide over the years. In a powerful monolog, Della laments that her sexual urges bring the shame Eve must have felt when she ate the forbidden fruit, a shame that is passed down like a legacy from generation to generation. In a comedic counterbalance of one of the funniest scenes, Tim later tries to copy Della’s ploy in his own homey way.

Jensen Power, Asia Jackson, and J. J. Van Name Photo:Lois Tema

The optimism of “The Cake” shows that however unlikely, it is possible for change to occur albeit slowly. Given our current volatile political climate, the clash of worldviews could be incendiary if it weren’t for Brunstetter’s gentle touch and compassion for her characters.

A special nod to Carlos Aceves for his ingeniously simple and versatile set that makes Della’s bakery a contained world of delectable sweetness with turntables rotating to reveal alternate scenes.

Like a lovingly prepared buttercream confection, “The Cake” sparkles with a well-crafted script that allows the actors, directed by Tracy Ward, to enhance each other in scenes with surprising humor and revelations that give the audience a tasty treat.

"The Cake" by Bekah Brunstetter, directed by Tracy Ward, New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco, through December 1, 2019. Info: NCTSF.org

Della  J. J. Van Name
Macy Asia Jackson 
Tim Dixon Phillips
Jen Jensen Power

Written by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Tracy Ward 
Scenic design by Carlos Aceves 
Intimacy direction by Arturo Catricala
Costume design by Joanne Martin
Props design by Tom O’Brien
Lighting design by Molly Stewart-Cohn
Sound design by Kalon Thibodeaux

Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Wild and an Untamed Thing

The Rocky Horror Show

D'Arcy Drollinger and Joey Feldman Photo: Nick Otto

Book and Music by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Alex Rodriguez
Ray of Light Theatre
Victoria Theater, San Francisco

Until November 2, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

What “A Christmas Carol” is to Christmas, "The Rocky Horror Show" is to Halloween. It’s time to do the “Time Warp” again.

For the fifth and final year, Ray of Light Theatre turns the venerable old Victoria Theatre into the freaky funhouse of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, who’s “just a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania.” First produced in 1973, "The Rocky Horror Show" was far ahead of its time in celebrating sexual freedom and gender fluidity in the framework of a silly plot full of old scifi and horror movie tropes, like aliens, a mad scientist, and a creepy house on a dark and stormy night. Most people learned the back-and-forth “liturgy” from the ubiquitous midnight showings of the “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” which were full of fun cosplay and talking back to the screen.

Caleb Haven Draper and Courtney Merrell Photo: Nick Otto

Ray of Light Theatre always seems to get the best local talent in everything from acting to costume design, and this production of "The Rocky Horror Show" is no different. As the newly engaged and vacuously “normal” Brad and Janet, Caleb Haven Draper and Courtney Merrell work well off each other’s straight and naive demeanor in “There’s a Light,” and it is fun to watch each of these characters fall into the wild swirl of the night where much is learned. Unfortunately, the inadequate miking made it hard to discern a lot of the lyrics, but hopefully that problem has been fixed.

As Frank-N-Furter’s assistants Riff Raff and Magenta, Randy O’Hara and Jocelyn Pickett are delightfully sleazy and funny in their quirky physicality, as when Magenta’s butt cheek serves as the doorbell. As the outrageous plot devolves even more, John Flaw shines big as both the rock and roll rebel-without-a-brain Eddie and the wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott who later reveals a frilly secret underneath his lap blanket. J. Conrad Frank brings a controlled but hilarious Dame Edna aura to the Narrator who can return audience volleys as fast as they are dealt in a time-honored interactive tradition of the play.

But the absolute star is D’Arcy Drollinger as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, towering above all in a burst of glitter, swagger, seductiveness and humor as he welcomes Brad and Janet into his home and later reveals what he’s been working on in his lab. Not only is Drollinger a sublime drag diva with a deep voice and exquisite moves, he’s a master of comedic timing and acting.

D'Arcy Drollinger and Ensemble Photo: Nick Otto

Speaking of glitter, the costumes designed by Maggie Whitaker are a fantasia of gold lame, leather, sparkles, and chiffon. In shiny, clingy boy shorts, Joseph Feldman as Rocky scampers like a simian trickster let loose in sexual frolic, adding to the delightful chaos.

Scenic design by Peet Cooke makes good use of the small space, such as incorporating a turntable stage to maximize action or using the actors themselves as props. John Bernard’s lighting design intensifies the moods that range from confusion to ecstasy. The live music coordinated by musical director Steven Bolinger is never less than expert. Alex Rodriguez pulls it all together with keen directing and choreography.

Admittedly, people who have never seen or heard "The Rocky Horror Show" may have trouble following the details or lyrics of the plot. For those who know all the words to the outrageous liturgy of Rocky Horror Show, it's not too late to become a "creature of the night."

"The Rocky Horror Show" by Richard O’Brien, directed by Alex Rodriguez, Ray of Light Theatre, Victoria Theater, San Francisco through November 2, 2019.  Info: RayofLightTheatre.com

Charles Atlas Ad
Kevin Achas (Phantom)Sara Altier (Phantom)
Melinda Campero (Columbia)
Caleb Haven Draper (Brad Majors)
D’Arcy Drollinger (Frank-N-Furter)
Emily Dwyer (Usherette)
Joseph Feldmann (Rocky)
John Flaw (Dr. Scott/Eddie)
J. Conrad Frank (Narrator)
Carlos Guerrero (Phantom)
Melissa Martinez (Phantom)
James Mayagoitia (Phantom)
Courtney Merrell (Janet Weiss)
Spenser Morris (Phantom)
Randy O’Hara (Riff Raff)
Jocelyn Pickett (Magenta)
Caroline Shen (Phantom)

"God Bless Lili St.Cyr"


John Bernard (Lighting Designer)
Steven Bolinger (Music Director)
Connie Caranza (Assistant Stage Manager)
Peet Cocke (Set Designer)
Jerry Girard (Sound Designer)
Madeline Lambie (Assistant Director/Assistant Choreographer)
Anton Hedman (Sound Engineer)
Maggie Whitaker (Costume Designer)

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Loneliness of a Long Day's Journey

Long Day's Journey into Night 

Cathleen Riddley, Victor Talmadge, Kevin Rebultan

By Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Michael Socrates Moran
Ubuntu Theater Project
FLAX Building, Oakland

Until Sunday, November 3, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Long Day's Journey into Night” is a pressure cooker of a play that locks us in with the Tyrone family who dwell in a dreary house by the sea but move past each other like lonely and lost ships in the fog. Eugene O’Neill draws from his own Irish-American roots to portray people gripped by past, present, and future ghosts.

As James Tyrone, the miserly head of the family, Victor Talmadge is a self-righteous, obstinate man who prides himself on providing for his family while withholding needed money for decent medical care for his wife Mary Tyrone, given a delicate vulnerability by Cathleen Riddley who moves like a compass needle looking for true North. Mary revels dreamily in past, happier memories but cowers from reality like a cornered animal desperate to escape. And escape she does, into the temporary peace of morphine prescribed by the low-rate physician hired by James. It would be very easy to lapse into the cliched exaggeration of a crazy “dope fiend,” but Riddley carries her character with dignity and guardedness. It is heartbreaking when Mary’s actions are seen as weakness of character and not cries of pain, but that was not the attitude of early 1900's.

Cellist Andrew Kort and Cathleen Riddley

Jose Rodriguez conveys the deep anger and stubbornness of Jamie, the son who drinks to dull the awareness that he will never be accepted by his father. Kevin Rebultan infuses the character of the consumptive brother Edmund with rage, confusion, and the passion for the most beautiful lines in the play, as when he recounts his time at sea when it was “as if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea….” As with his mother Mary, Edmund is a victim of his father’s closefistedness.

Victor Talmadge, Kevin Rebultan, Jose Rodriguez

This play references addiction, but what wrenches my heart is how each character suffers in utter loneliness. Director Michael Socrates Moran elicits a deep and disturbing energy from his actors, beginning with an opening tableau, silent save for the plaintive cello playing of Alexander Kort, where each character flinches, writhes, and convulses before moving on. The actors tune in to an inner vibrancy that transcends physical types.

As the characters interact with the hallmark rituals of addiction--blame, anger, denial, secrecy, fantasy, self-centeredness--they helplessly watch each other drown, alone.

Trailer: https://youtu.be/deXyaQJ8u4Y

"Long Day's Journey Into Night" by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Michael Socrates Moran, Ubuntu Theater Project, FLAX Building, Oakland, Th-Sunday through October 20, 2019. Info: ubuntutheaterproject.com

Photos by Carson French

Victor Talmadge* (James Tyrone)
Cathleen Riddley* (Mary Tyrone)
Jose Rodriguez (Jamie Tyrone)
Kevin Rebultan (Edmund Tyrone)
Alexander Kort (Cellist/Ensemble)
*Actors Equity

Director  Michael Socrates Moran
Stage Manager Vanessa Hill
Production Manager Dominick Palamenti
Set Designer Karla Hargrave
Sound Designer Uriah Findlay
Costume Designer Ralph Hoy
Lighting Designer  Stephanie Anne Johnson
Composer Andrew Vargas

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Enduring Fight for Identity


Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances)

by Mary Kathryn Nagle
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
Marin Theatre Company

Until Sunday, October 20, 2019

By Christine Okon

Sovereignty,” termed a “documentary play,” is about how great wrongs done to a people--in this case, the Cherokee Nation--cause suffering that continues to be endured by many subsequent generations. Without doubt, it presents an important lesson about Native American history that is diminished in traditional American history books, and those who see it will be enlightened indeed. As a dramatic play, though, “Sovereignty” lags between drama and lesson, caught in the back-and-forth “A-B roll” staging that makes it hard to sustain empathetic continuity with the characters. Still, the very nature of the topic is compelling.

Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) meets with President Andrew Jackson (Craig Marker)

Present-day lawyer Sarah Ridge Polson (a dynamic and passionate Elizabeth Frances) tasks herself with understanding the role her forefathers played in the numerous treaties between Native tribes and the United States in the 1830s. The Cherokee Nation, in several attempts to negotiate with a new American nation headed by Andrew Jackson, hell-bent on westward expansion, ultimately lost their sovereignty, land, and rights that led to the “Trail of Tears.” The long-term result is the fragmentation of Native American tribal cultures, life, and identity that has persisted in devastating repercussions over generations.

The signing of the Treaty of New Echota (L-R: Elizabeth Frances, Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa, Robert I. Mesa).

Sarah renews the fight to preserve jurisdiction over people committing crimes on Cherokee land, specifically rape, echoing the struggles of her great-great-great-great grandfather Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) who was murdered for signing the 1835 Treaty of Echota in a failed attempt to bargain with the US government to preserve Cherokee sovereignty. When Sarah is violated by her jealous fiance Ben (Craig Marker, who also plays Andrew Jackson), the reality of inadequate legal protection hits home. A fine, diverse cast of actors, aptly directed by Jasson Minadakis, assumes double roles representing characters from the parallel lines of present and past, and it would have been interesting to have Sarah directly engage with individual ancestors as members of the Cherokee diaspora. A moving scene where Sarah’s grandfather (Andrew Roa) speaks to her infant is an example of powerful cross-generational interaction.

As always, MTC provides extensive, well-researched background information in the lobby and in numerous live-panel discussions about the wider scope and impact of the play. If you would like to learn about the current and past dilemmas of Native American tribes, “Sovereignty” will be well worth your time.

"Sovereignty" by Mary Kathryn Nagle, directed by Jasson Minadakis, Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley, through October 20, 2019. Info: marintheatre.org

Photos by Kevin Berne

Scott Coopwood* White Chorus Man
Ella Dershowitz*  Sarah Bird Northrup / Flora Ridge
Elizabeth Frances* Sarah Polson
Adam Magill* Samuel Worcester / Mitch
Craig Marker* Andrew Jackson / Ben
Robert I Mesa* John Ridge
Andrew Roa* Major Ridge / Roger Ridge Polson           
Kholan Studi* Elias Boudinot / Watie
Jake Waid* John Ross / Jim Ross
* Member of Actor's Equity Association

Mary Kathryn Nagle Playwright
Jasson Minadakis Director
Brenda Pipestem  Cultural Consultant
Annie Smart+ Scenic Designer
E.B. Brooks+ Costume Designer
Danny Osburn  Lighting Designer
Sara Huddleston Sound Designer
Mike Post  Projection Designer
​Laura A. Brueckner Literary Manager & Resident Dramaturg

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

A Poe-pourri of Puppets and Puns

Puppets & Poe: Devised Defiance

Steven Flores and Ella Cooley

Directed by Shannon R. Davis
Theatre of Yugen, NOH Space, San Francisco

October 3 - November 2, 2019
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 PM

By Christine Okon

Who knew that Edgar Allan Poe could be the life of the party?

In "Puppets and Poe: Devised Defiance," the collaborative, creative spirits that comprise Theatre of Yugen riff on the greatest hits of the master of macabre in ways that are exotic, erotic, creepy, unnerving, and really fun.

Steven Flores and Ella Cooley

You’ll have a good time if you abandon expectations of traditional structure and plot and pretend that you’ve been brought to a strange and delightful party that’s brimming with unusual and engaging characters who are inviting you to play with them. The performers (Ariella Cooley, Alan Coyne, Shannon R. Davis, Steven Flores, Nick Ishimaru, and Jamin Jollo) use voice, improv, Noh and Kyogen movement, dance, and puppetry in short skits that all have some relevance to Poe.

Steven Flores

Trying to identify the unexpected allusions to “The Bells,” “Premature Burial,”  “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Annabelle Lee” is part of the fun. “The Raven” with the refrain of “Nevermore” is prominent with the added presence of a huge, hilarious raven skeleton puppet working the audience like a snarky and raunchy Sesame Street character.

Ella Cooley and Steven Flores

Overflowing with ideas, "Puppets and Poe" could use some editing, especially the “Murders in the Rue Morgue” segment. Still, it’s a fun and unexpected way to step into the spooky season.

"Puppets and Poe: Devised Defiance” directed by Shannon R. Davis, Theatre of Yugen, NOH Space, San Francisco, through Saturday, November 2, 2019. Info: theatreofyugen.org

All photos by Theatre of Yugen

Watch the trailer: https://youtu.be/Oh57Du3CbbU

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Success at All Costs

Top Girls

Rosie Hallett, Summer Brown, Michelle Beck, Monica Lin, Julia McNeal

By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Tamilla Woodard
A.C.T. Geary Theater, San Francisco

Until October 13, 2019

“Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill is a paradoxically anachronistic and timeless examination of the quandaries faced by women who try to make their mark on the world. Set in 1982 in Thatcher’s England, the fast-paced crosstalk among the characters creates an annoying noise that’s hard to follow until one realizes that the characters are trying to find their own “signal” in the noise.

Marlene (Michelle Beck), voluptuous and powerful in a striking red dress, is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls Employment Agency with a dinner party at a posh restaurant with her besties who happen to be unique women from different historical and fictional times. It is interesting to compare this scenario with Judy Chicago’s art installation “The Dinner Party”
which was making the rounds around the same time as the play.

With their stories of struggle and resilience in a man’s world, Marlene’s female mentors are enhanced by the wonderfully inventive costume designs of Sarita Fellows. Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett) regales the group with stories of how she fooled everyone into thinking she was a man. Dull Gret (Summer Brown) carries the fierceness captured by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his apocalyptic painting of 1563. Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal), indeed a tough British bird, matter-of-factly describes how intense physical pain did not keep her from intrepid world travels. Soft-spoken Lady Nijo (Monica Lin) describes her path from royalty to exile to enlightened compassion.  Had there been room at the table, Lady Macbeth with her plea to “unsex me here” would have fit right in. 

Summer Brown and Rosie Hallett

Marlene relishes her role as a woman in power, but the very name of “Top Girls” diminishes the impact. Because “girls” could go just so far in a man’s world, their only recourse is to find ways to win. I am reminded of that 80’s guide Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women .

In the office, Marlene reigns supreme in impeccable, shoulder-padded dress-for-success garb, and the other women fear and respect her. Her disdain of weakness becomes an unspoken measure of candidate selection as she ferrets out those who will “never make it.”

Michelle Beck and Gabriella Momah

Marlene’s tightly ordered universe is challenged when Angie (a desperately confused and vulnerable Gabriella Momah), the daughter of Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe), visits her favorite aunt Marlene unexpectedly at the office. Marlene at first feigns delight but realizes she can’t let Angie live with her as the teenager wants. As the reality of the relationship of Marlene, Joyce, and Angie is disclosed, we realize the sad effects of Marlene’s decision to choose power over maternal love. She is a victim of her own cross-talk between being a player in a man’s world vs. that of a mother to a child who just might not “make it.”

Michelle Beck and Nafeesa Monroe
I can’t say that I liked this play, but I thought about it a lot days after. Following it takes patience, and a few audience members left at intermission. Not a comfortably linear play with a discernible plot, “Top Girls” is as if Churchill were exploring an iceberg where the visible part is a mere fragment of the huge mystery underneath.

"Top Girls" by Caryl Churchill, directed by Tamilla Woodard, A.C.T. Geary Theater,
San Francisco, through Sunday, October 13, 2019. Info: act-sf.org

All photos by Kevin Berne

Monique Hafen Adams*
Patient Griselda, Mrs. Kidd
Michelle Beck*
Summer Brown**
Dull Gret, Nell
Rosie Hallett*
Pope Joan, Win
Lily Harris**
Kit, Shona
Monica Lin**
Lady Nijo, Jeanine
Julia McNeal*
Isabella Bird, Louise
Gabriella Momah*
Nafeesa Monroe*
Joyce, Waitress

Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Tamilla Woodard
Scenic Designer Nina Ball
Costume Designer Sarita Fellows
Lighting Designer Barbara Samuels
Sound Designer Jake Rodriguez
Voice and Dialect Coach Christine Adaire
Dramaturg Allie Moss
Casting Director Janet Foster, CSA
Assistant Director Karina Fox

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.

** Member of the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program class of 2020.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

A Special Bond Between Two Women of Words

HICK: A Love Story
The Romance of Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt

Written and performed by Terry Baum
Directed by Carolyn Myers

San Francisco Fringe Festival
Exit Theater, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco

Sept 5, 7, 8, and 12, 2019

“The love that dare not speak its name” finds voice in the letters between journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Playwright Terry Baum (who first performed this piece in 2014) IS Hick in this show. You’re right there with her in the New York newsroom of the Associated Press in 1932 when star “gal reporter” Lorena Hickok lands the choice assignment of covering the campaign tour of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his bid for the Presidency.

Terry Baum as Hick Photo: Bill Selby

In a gesture to give advantage to her fellow female reporters, Hick suggests to her editor that it would be a good idea to assign a female reporter to cover Mrs. Roosevelt. Instead, Hick herself is awarded that assignment, thus beginning a relationship with Eleanor that soon grows into passionate love.

Aware of FDR’s indiscretions, Eleanor maintained her position as his wife, and the two gave each other a wide berth when it came to personal matters. Eleanor was key in helping her husband land the Presidency while living as independently as anyone could in the public eye.

Baum dons the floppy hat, baggy clothes, and clunky shoes of Hick, a spitfire of a woman who was gifted with cojones and acerbic wit while realizing that she would always be on the periphery of social acceptance. It is Eleanor who triggers the romance with the reporter, a dream that Hick never imagined could come true.

The development of the love relationship is captured in over 2300 letters that reveal a range of emotion, passion, and tenderness between the two women, from coy fondness to outright “naughtiness.”

Loretta Janca as Eleanor Photo: Bill Selby

Baum bubbles like a giddy schoolgirl who learns that her “crush” is reciprocated. Her joyful exuberance fills the room, and the letter exchange between “E.R.” (Loretta Janca) and Hick suggests a wonderfully intimate inner life of a first lady who was often judged solely on a drab appearance that belied her colorful character. Realizing how deeply human, joyful, and sexual E.R. was is a fresh and delightful revelation.

As if waiting by the fireside for the next chat, the Narrator Tara Ayres colors the sweep of time with snippets of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Moonglow” and contextualizes events from the Great Depression to FDR’s inauguration to WWII, all the while highlighting the difficulty of sustaining a discreet bond between E. R. and Hick.

Terry Baum and Tara Ayres Photo: Bill Selby

The span ends in 1968, the year of Hick’s death, with Hick trying to decide what to do with the boxes and boxes of correspondence between her and Eleanor, “some of it good and some of it bad.” She ultimately decides to donate all to the FDR archives.

In an innovative and efficient way to establish the different worlds of the two women, the set is literally a pop-up, with enlarged handwritten letters on White House stationery on the left and various newspaper headlines on the right.

The energy of “HICK: A Love Story” is about a timeless and chaotic love that could barely be contained by the conventions of the time, and holds special relevance today. You will be rewarded with a warm and educational encounter with two women of words who briefly shared their life.

“HICK: A Love Story” by Terry Baum, directed by Carolyn Myers, at SF Fringe Festival, Exit Theater, San Francisco, September 5, 7, 8, and 12, 2019. Info: hick.brownpapertickets.com