Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Violet's Journey to Self-Discovery

Violet: The Musical

Juliana Lustenader and Jack O'Reilly photo: Ben Krantz

Music by Jeanine Tesori  

Book & Lyrics by Brian Crawley

Direction by Dyan McBride
Movement by Matthew McCoy
Musical Direction by Jon Gallo 

February 16 - March 17, 2019
Thursdays through Sundays

Bay Area Musicals 
Alcazar Theater
650 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Violet is a humble but heartfelt musical about a young woman who triumphs over physical and psychic scars as she journeys toward personal discovery. The story is elevated by Jeanine Tesori’s distinctly American and original music that pulls from country roots, Memphis blues, R&B and even gospel, with Brian Crawley’s lyrics widening the voice and meaning. With superb direction by Dyan McBride, choreography by Matthew McCoy and versatile conducting by Jon Gallo, Violet makes it very hard indeed to sit still.

Tanika Baptiste, April Deutschle, and Elizabeth Jones  photo: Ben Krantz

The time is 1964, when Vietnam was barely in the news, racial slurs seeped into everyday conversations, and traditional roles were shifting.

The 13-year-old Violet (“Vi"), played with a wonderful aplomb by Miranda Long, is an inquisitive and boisterous child until a horrible accident involving an ax disfigures her face and shakes her self-confidence, but not her resilience. Vi closely mirrors the adult Violet, played by Juliana Lustenader, who has developed a hard shell to withstand the pain of not being looked at. With no room for self pity, she aims to achieve her dream of looking beautiful.

Miranda Long and Clay David photo: Ben Krantz

Finally old enough to act for herself, Violet, clutching her dead mother’s well-used and heavily annotated catechism, boards a Greyhound bus in North Carolina to journey to Tulsa to meet the televangelist she believes will heal her face and make her beautiful with ”Elke Sommer's hair / With Judy Garland's pretty chin / With Grace Kelly's little nose / With Rita Hayworth's skin / But Ava Gardner for the eyebrows / Bergman cheekbones under Gypsy eyes..."

Violet is resilient and shrewd, having learned early from her father (Eric Neiman) how to play poker, a life lesson for holding, folding and bluffing that serves her well. Neiman paints a loving and realistic father in “Luck of the Draw”:
Some say things happen by design
By demand, decree, or law
I say most things fall in line
By the luck of the draw

Lustenader and Long’s voices are rich with yearning and spirit, and we want to both encourage and protect Violet on her journey.

The Greyhound bus is a rolling box of humanity, with all sorts of characters coming aboard  singing “On My Way." The staging of a bumpy bus ride is fun, and you want to bounce along with the quirky driver (Clay David). Violet meets two fresh Army recruits on their way to basic training, the African-American Flick (Jon-David Randle) and the hunky but dumb flirt Monty (Jack O’Reilly), and she literally wins them over by beating them at poker. She shows no fear as she imagines the possibility of being loved, wanted, and most of all, looked at.

Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Danielle Philapil, Tanika Baptiste, Jon-David Randle, Juliana Lustenader, and Jourdán Olivier-Verdé 

What makes Violet so enjoyable is the journey with music, which reveals so much about a place and the people who live there.  For example, the blues fill the air on Beale Street as the lonely hotel hooker (Shay Oglesby-Smith) sings “Anyone Would Do.”

Juliana Lustenader, Kim Larsen, Jon-David Randle, and Jack O'Reilly photo: Ben Krantz

In “Let It Sing,” Jon-David Randle as Flick puts his heart into his understanding of Violet’s aspiration to be heard and seen:

You’ve got to give yourself a reason to rejoice
Cause the music you make counts for everything
Now every living soul has got a voice
You’ve got to give it room
And let it sing

Clay David and Cast photo: Ben Krantz

Violet  finally reaches Tulsa, impatient to meet the preacher and be cured. In “Raise Me Up,” with Clay David’s over-the-top, high octane preaching, the ensemble’s glorious gospel singing, and Lula’s (Tanika Baptiste) soulful solo, I almost jumped up from my seat to be one of the saved.

The meticulous attention paid to period detail is a delight. The rack full of mid-1960s magazines, the clunky 60’s TV studio camera, the crisp suits and dresses of the women on the bus, and the sultry sequins of the Beale street women all contribute to the mood. Kudos to scenic designer Matthew McCoy, costume designer Brooke Jennings, and properties designer Clay David.

The only drawbacks for me were inconsistent miking that muffled some lyrics and the horizontal backdrop slats that blocked some of the action.

Despite the supercharged music, the story line of Violet is not that compelling or convincing (for example, why does Violet choose to be with one person and not another?) It probably doesn’t matter anyway, because we know for sure that Violet is finally “on her way.”

Violet: The Musical

Juliana Lustenader, Violet
Jon-David Randle, Flick
Jack O'Reilly, Monty
Miranda Long, Young Vi
Eric Neiman, Father
Shay Oglesby-Smith, Old Lady/2nd Hotel Hooker (Lonely Stranger)/Choir
Clay David, Preacher/Passenger/Radio Singer/Bus Driver 1
Tucker Gold, Virgil/Billy Dean/Passenger/Bus Driver 3/Radio Trio
Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Music Hall Singer/Passenger/Choir
Kim Larsen, Leroy/Radio Trio/Waiter/Bus Driver 4/Passenger/Choir
Tanika Baptiste, Lula Buffington/Almeta (Landlady)/Passenger
April Deutschle, Passenger/Choir/Music Hall Dancer (Lonely Stranger)
Jourdán Olivier-Verdé, Passenger/Choir/Bus Driver 2/Radio Trio/Music Hall Dancer (Lonely Stranger)
Elizabeth Jones, Passenger/Choir/2nd Hotel Hooker, Music Hall Dancer (Lonely Stranger)
Danielle Philapil, Passenger/Choir/1st Hotel Hooker (Anyone Would Do), Music Hall Dancer (Lonely Stranger)

Dyan McBride, Director
Matthew McCoy, Choreographer/Set Designer
Jon Gallo, Musical Director
Genevieve Pabon, Stage Manager
Frank Cardinal, Asst. Stage Manager
Isaac Traister, Asst. Stage Manager
Brooke Jennings, Costume Designer
Eric Johnson, Lighting Designer
Anton Hedman, Sound Designer
Clay David, Prop Designer
Jackie Dennis, Wig Designer
Taylor Gonzalez, Sound Board Op
Stewart Lyle, Technical Director
Cat Knight, Production Manager

Corey Johnson, Violin
Jackie Dennis, Cello
Jonathan Salazar, Guitar
Kyle Wong, Bass
Dominic Moisant, Drums
Jon Gallo, Keyboard/Conductor

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Dismal Dystopia of Brecht's Mother Courage

Mother Courage and Her Children

By Bertolt Brecht

Translated by Tony Kushner
Directed by Emilie Whelan

Ubuntu Theater Project    

February 8–March 3, 2018 (Th-Su)
Mills College, Oakland, CA

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Mother Courage and Her Children is not an easy play to watch, but it is essential to do so, just as Bertolt Brecht intended.

Ubuntu Theater Project has taken up the challenge to stage Brecht’s hard-edged dystopian saga of an intrepid merchant-mother who has learned to repress maternal warmth and self-sacrifice in order to get herself, her wagon, and her children through the absurd, ceaseless, and devastating Thirty Years War in mid-1600s Europe.

Director Emilie Whelan uses Tony Kushner’s translation from the original German to bring an eerie, familiar resonance to this story of a survival that's as futile as the effort of ants scurrying to rebuild a nest that will again and again be destroyed by unseen forces beyond their control.

The play begins with a jaded lieutenant (Dominick Palamenti) extolling war because it brings “order,” while the recruiting soldier (J Jha) whines about the near impossibility of finding men who will willingly fight. The war doesn’t make sense to the soldiers who are nothing but passive pawns in an existential chess game.

Soon, a ramshackle wagon laden with miscellaneous objects rolls onto the scene. It’s run by Mother Courage, a shrewd, finagling, savvy hustler who makes her living selling items to soldiers and who knows how to talk her way out of any situation. She has learned to work the war to her advantage (“A little more war, a little more money...”), for war brings profit which means survival for her and her mute daughter Kattrin and sons Eilif and Swiss Cheese.

It overwhelms all opposition
It needs to grow or else it dies
What else is war but competition
A profit-building exercise?
War isn’t nice, you hope to shirk it
You hope you’ll find someplace to hide
But if you’ve courage You can work it
And set a tidy sum aside

Wilma Bonet as Mother Courage Photo: Simone Finney

Wilma Bonet brings us a tough and strategic Mother, a little pit bull of a woman with a sharp mouth, quick reflexes, and a nose for bargaining. Bonet keeps pace with her character’s constant strategic recalibrations which involve  switching allegiances if it serves her, and using her wits and wares to get by. Her persistence and resilience keeps her in the game until stretched to the absolute limit by the harsh realities and chaos of the war. When she “haggles too long” to sell her wagon to the army to save the life of her son Swiss Cheese (played with complex innocence by Kevin Rebultan), he is killed. When she is asked to identify his body, she cannot bring herself to do so because it would mean losing the wagon.  This is one of the most heartrending scenes of the play, and Bonet’s face carries all of the internal turmoil of a mother who has must hide her feelings to save her livelihood.

On and on the wagon trundles, through the years, battles and betrayals of war, through cruelty and happenstance, through impossible circumstances.  Mother Courage keeps moving, encountering characters like the chaplain, cook, and prostitute, each seeking some straw to grasp in the chaos. Shane Fahy plays the clueless, supercilious chaplain who is useless without someone to preach to, and who tries to pair up with Mother Courage. John Mercer brings a suave seediness to the opportunistic cook who respects Mother Courage’s methods. Kimberly Daniels is a saucy and tough Yvette, the prostitute who is a kindred survivor to Mother Courage.

Shane Fahy as the Chaplain with John Mercer as the Cook Photo: Simone Finney

If she did not keep moving, Mother Courage would become like the miserable peasants, stupidly obedient to rules of state and church, buffeted by the war, starving and dying.  “We’ll all be torn to pieces if we allow the war to take us in too deeply,” she says before realizing how deep she has gone already.

The unseen, larger forces at work whittle away her wagon, chances, and humanity. She has no time to heed the suffering of others. When some peasants are wounded in the war, she refuses their request for cloth to stay the bleeding, for it would mean shrinking her inventory of shirts. It is the mute daughter Kattin who takes action, rescuing and comforting a baby and beating a drum to warn the peasants of the approaching army.  She can only emit sounds from the deep viscera, the kind of sounds animals make when they are in pain or afraid. Yet in her muteness she is the most articulate and compassionate of all of the characters.  Rolanda D. Bell is a powerful Kattrin, a silent but significant presence until the end. When Kattrin is killed by soldiers, Mother Courage, having now lost all of her children, sings a lullaby as she holds her daughter. But Kattrin did not listen to her mother’s advice that  “the ones that no one pays attention to manage to live,” and life must go on.

Rolanda D. Bell as Kattrin Photo: Simone Finney

Mother Courage realizes that to survive, she must capitulate. Tethered to her diminished wagon like a donkey at the mill wheel, she struggles to continue.

Brecht intended his plays to be rowdy, of and for the people, and this production nails it.  With the wagon in the middle of the floor and audience, the songs are as loud and catchy as beer hall tunes until you sense the darkness of the lyrics, as with the “Song of the Hours” about  Christ’s suffering chanted to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” A delightful and very fitting addition is the accordion, spritely played by Diana Strong, and backed up by stark percussion and a bass guitar providing a kind of heartbeat to the action. The final lamentation is:

The world will end and time will cease
And while we live we buy and sell
And in our graves we shall find peace
Unless the war goes on in Hell

For those not familiar with Mother Courage and Her Children, this three-plus hour production may be very trying and tiring, and indeed some people did leave at intermission. The interstitial explanations from the text are displayed on front and back screens but were not that readable, which may have added to confusion. There were times when the wagon obstructed the players from view which added to confusion.

Nevertheless, Ubuntu Theater Project has again put their hearts and souls into manifesting their vision of the play. I left feeling sad, agitated, and a bit despairing, wanting to take action to increase awareness of our own society’s invisible forces of control.

Mother Courage  -  Wilma Bonet*
Eiliff  -  Kenny Scott
Swiss Cheese -  Kevin Rebultan
Kattrin  -  Rolanda D. Bell
The Chaplain - Shane Fahy
The Cook - John Mercer
Yvette - Kimba Daniels
Ensemble -   J Jha, Regina Morones, Dominick Palamenti

*Member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers

Director - Emilie Whelan
Lighting Designer - Stephanie Anne Johnson
Composer and Sound Designer - Eric Schultz
Assistant Sound Designer - Danny Cantrell
Costume Designer - A. Rene Walker
Assistant Costume Designer - Clay David
Set Designer/Props - Nick Benacerraf
Projection Designer - Adam Larsen
Stage Manager and Handmade Props - Ann K. Barnett
Assistant Stage Manager - L. A. Bonet
Dramaturgical Consultant - Jessi Piggott

February 8–March 3, 2018

by Bertolt Brecht
translated by Tony Kushner
directed by Emilie Whelan

FEB 8 - MAR 3           
Thursdays, 2/14, 21 & 28: 8pm
Fri & Sat Evenings: 8pm
Sundays, 2/10 & 2/17: 7pm
Sundays, 2/24 & 3/3: 2pm

Tickets: $15-45 online, pay-what-you-can at door

Free for Mills students, staff, and faculty with valid Mills ID. Contact box office@ubuntutheaterproject.com for more information.

Lisser Hall - Mills College
Kapiolani Road
Oakland, CA 94613

Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Bitter and Exquisite Revenge

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Sweeney Todd (Keith Pinto) 

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler

Hillbarn Theatre

Foster City, CA
Until Feb 10

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Hillbarn Theatre, that little gem of Broadway on the Peninsula, has mounted a winning, razor-sharp production of Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Grand Guignol musical about a spiritually lacerated man obsessed with serving  revenge upon his tormentors. (The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared in the Victorian penny dreadful “A String of Pearls”.)

Directed by Joshua Marx, this  production brings us to Fleet Street in 18th century London where survival from poverty and injustice is the name of the game.

Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Sweeney Todd (Keith Pinto)

As Sweeney Todd, Keith Pinto compresses the anger, obsession, and hatred that simmered when he was falsely sentenced to 15 years of prison, torn from his wife and baby daughter by the lascivious “pious vulture of the law” Judge Turpin. With his gaunt frame, sunken eyes, and poignant voice, Pinto creates a very scary Sweeney indeed, and we are afraid of him and for him. When later he caresses and dances with his razor, the effect is chilling yet exuberant.

Sweeney meets the gleefully opportunistic, larger-than-life Mrs. Lovett who becomes Sweeney’s partner in crime and, she hopes, love. Heather Orth captures the Cockney piemaker’s bustling resourcefulness and sinister motives with both humor and fear. Their relationship is as toxic as the foul stench from the evil deeds that lead to a “City on Fire,” powerfully sung by the ensemble members as they weave in and out of the audience. The scenes depicting ordinary London folk, soldiers, or asylum inmates are elevated by the sharp choreography and direction of the talented ensemble.

More pie! Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Ensemble

Sondheim’s songs deepen the motive of each character in Sweeney’s path, and the cast does not disappoint. Jaron Vesely as Sweeney’s only friend Anthony Hope fills the space beautifully with his love for Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (a sweet Jennifer Mitchell) who is trapped like a bird in a cage by the lecherous and callous Judge Turpin (a frighteningly commanding Chris Vettel).  Turpin’s “bom-bom-bom” duet with Sweeney’s whistling about “Pretty Women” during the final “shave” is viscerally chilling. Ross Briscoe brings a touching vulnerability to the innocent Tobias who naively promises to protect Mrs. Lovett (“Not When I’m Around”) and later goes mad when he discovers how the meat pies are made.

Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Tobias (Ross Briscoe)

The theater’s small size puts the audience close to the actors, intensifying the pressure cooker of emotions. Lighting (Pamila Z. Gray) and scenic  design (Ting-Na Wang) create an appropriately ominous mix of light and shadows. One thing did not really work, though. The animated sketch projected on the backdrop like a thought balloon while Sweeney sings the mournful “there was a barber and his wife..and she was beautiful” was distracting and unnecessary, competing with the mental image created by the lyrics.

Nevertheless, Hillbarn Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd will resonate long after you leave the building, and you may find yourself singing “attend the tale” as you lift your razor high.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
HIllbarn Theater
1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, CA 94404
box office@hillbarntheatre.org

Keith Pinto* - Sweeney Todd
Heather Orth - Mrs. Lovett
Chris Vettel* -  Judge Turpin
Ross Briscoe - Tobias
Jesse Cortez - Pirelli
Juliette Green - The Beggar Woman
Jennifer Mitchell - Johanna
Sam Nachison - The Beadle
Jaron Vesely - Anthony

ENSEMBLE (Alphabetical Order)
Kyle Arrouzet, Karen Atlhoff, Juan Castro, Ryan Courtin, Ronald Houk, Danny Navarrete-Estassi, Elana Ron, James Schott, Molly Thornton, Catherine Traceski, Rachel Witte,

*Denotes Actors’ Equity Association

Director -  Josh Marx
Music Director & Vocals - Rick Reynolds
Costumes, Hair & Makeup - Y. Sharon Peng
Scenic Design - Ting-Na Wang
Lighting Designer - Pamila Z. Gray
Properties Designer - Phyllis Garland
Master Carpenter - Paulino DeLeal
Sound Designer - Brandie Larkin

Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

Saturday, January 26, 2019

When We Were Young and Unafraid of the Courage to Choose


When We Were Young and Unafraid

Agnes (Stacy Ross) and Mary Anne (Liz Frederick) Photo: Jay Yamada
By Sarah Treem 
Directed by Tracy Ward

Jan 17 – Feb 9
533 Sutter St (@ Powell)
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 798-CMTC (2682)

Reviewed by Christine Okon

The Custom Made Theatre Company’s production of Sarah Treem’s When We Were Young and Unafraid hops the time travel bus back to 1972, when society was reverberating from the upheaval of the 1960s and bubbling in the froth of nascent ideas and ideals. 

It’s a time when rules suppressing women’s right to choose her life and work path were being questioned (Roe v. Wade came a year later), and women themselves were raising clenched fists to take action. In When We Were Young and Unafraid, each of the four female characters must make choices and take action.

The setting is a somewhat shabby rustic kitchen on a remote island off the Washington State coast.. We meet Agnes, the middle-aged proprietor of a bed and breakfast that looks innocuous enough until we learn it’s a stop on a sort of underground railway for abused women fleeing domestic violence. 

Stacey Ross brings us an Agnes full of strength, wisdom and resolve; her homey baking of pumpkin cardamom muffins belies the radical person she really is, someone who continues to take great risks to help free women from a life of abuse. Agnes is the motherly guardian of Penny, an ambitious and intelligent young woman (played with bright energy by Zoe Foulks) who’s trying to find her way in the swirling confusion of her age and era.

Penny (Zoe Foulks) and Agnes (Stacy Ross)
Photo: Jay Yamada

Things seem to run like clockwork until Mary Anne arrives, a vulnerable young woman bearing the victim’s badge of a painful black and blue shiner.  Liz Frederick brings a depth of character to this woman who, although abused, is strong in her own mind and will.

Agnes accepts Mary Anne and lays down the rules: Mary Anne needs to stay hidden upstairs until her face heals; she needs to promise Agnes that she not call her abusive husband without telling her first. But Mary Ann has the strength of a survivor who’s been through the mill. She is strong by the rules she is familiar with in the game of “win the man,” even if it means suppressing one’s own voice and individuality. When she overhears Penny’s anguish over not winning the attention of the star football player, Mary Ann coaches Penny in the rules-- to wear a dress, fix her hair,  act interested only in the guy--in other words, to become a wind-up doll of feminine guile, a strategy that Mary Anne has lived by for years.  

Much to her dismay, Agnes fears that Mary Anne will sway Penny from her path toward college and self-actualization. Her attempts to control arise from love and experience at having seen so many young women’s lives ruined; her passion to help women get abortions had led to revocation of her nursing license. 

When Hannah, a self-reliant and self-assured lesbian comes looking for work (she can fix anything) at Agnes’s door, she is at first turned away but nevertheless persists. Renee Rogoff is a badass Hannah who takes no crap as she celebrates womynhood, her strong will a real match for Agnes. 

There is one guest at the B&B: the clueless, nice-guy Paul (played with a gentle befuddlement by Mark Hammons), looking like a lanky and confused Glen Campbell with long sideburns and polyester shirts as he tries to keep pace with the women who are straining at the leashes of their own lives.

Agnes (Stacy Ross) and Hannah (Renee Rogoff)
Photo: Jay Yamada

As an intense visit to those changing times, When We Were Young and Unafraid stirs the batter of how love is defined, the who, what, why and how of love in action, and the compromises that must be made.  

Of special delight, especially to the baby-boomer crowd, were the snippets of songs by Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills Nash and Young, and other beats of the 70s. Costume designer Coeli Polansky must have had a lot of fun foraging in vintage clothes stores to achieve that authentic 70s look. 

This play is an engaging study of how change is made in fits and starts, and not with a single smooth broad brush upward stroke toward enlightenment. With strong productions like this, The Custom Made Theatre Company is getting better and better at finding the heart of a play and putting it forth to the world -- with a lot of heart and limited funds.

When We Were Young and Unafraid
by Sarah Treem

AGNES: Stacy Ross*
PENNY: Zoe Foulks
MARY ANNE: Liz Frederick
HANNAH: Renee Rogoff
PAUL: Matt Hammons

*Member, Actors Equity Association

Director - Tracy Ward
Scenic Designer - Bernadette Flynn
Costume Designer - Coeli Polansky
Lighting Designer - Haley Miller
Sound Designer - Jerry Girard

Monday, January 21, 2019

August Wilson's Life Lessons

How I Learned What I Learned

Steven Anthony Jones as August Wilson (photo: Kevin Berne)

By August Wilson
Directed by Margo Hall
Featuring Steven Anthony Jones
In partnership with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and Ubuntu Theater Project

Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA

Jan 10 – Feb 3 2019

How I Learned What I Learned is August Wilson’s last play and an invitation to sit and visit with the Pulitzer Prize-winning raconteur as he regales us with stories about his life as a young writer in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Directed by the esteemed Margo Hall, Steven Anthony Jones steps into the soul of Wilson to recount the life and career of the playwright who magnified the voice and form of the African American experience via his American Century Cycle, a series of plays that include Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Jitney, Fences and others.

Steven Anthony Jones (photo: Kevin Berne)

In front of a wall of paper sheets, Jones dips and swaggers into the well of stories, memories, beliefs, and jokes that became the rich reservoir for Wilson’s creativity. He talks about his mother Daisy Wilson who insisted on respect at all costs,citing the time she won a washing machine in a contest but refused to accept the used model she was offered. The lack of, yearning for, and ultimate winning of respect are threaded throughout his plays. He tells us where he fits on the continuum of an African American history that is rife with societal discrimination, cruelty, and suppression, often adding his brand of humor and satire. “My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century. And for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job.”

Wilson’s stories are rich and poignant, like the time white patrons of a diner misinterpreted the signifying banter of a group of African American guys as troublemaking, something that has not changed much over the years. Or how he joined a group gathering on the sidewalk outside a jazz club to relish the sound of  John Coltrane may have been “background music” to the well-to-do patrons inside but whose spirit floated over the club audience to deliver a message to real audience.

Steven Anthony Jones (photo: Kevin Berne)

Jones as Wilson is amiable enough to put the audience at ease, and although on opening night there were a few nervous missteps, he carried the evening to a standing ovation.

Performed on the Marin Theatre stage, this play is as static and engaging as a Ted talk but not as intimate as a club experience. Jones delivers Wilson at a distance, and it would be interesting to see the show at the other venues planned by  the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and Ubuntu Theater Project in February and March.

How I Learned What I Learned
By August Wilson

August Wilson: Steven Anthony Jones
Stage Manager: Liz Matos

Director: Margo Hall

Scenic Designer: Edward E. Haynes, Jr.
Lighting Designer: Stephanie Johnson
Costume Designer: Katie Nowacki
Sound Designer: Everett Elton Bradman
Properties Designer: Rachel Hurado, Liam Rudsill

Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA 94941-2885
Phone: 415.388.5208
Email: boxoffice@marintheatre.org

Monday, December 24, 2018

Inviting Our Better Ghosts

A Noh Christmas Carol

Jakubei (Stephen Flores) haunting Sukurooji (Simone Bloch) Photo: Shannon Davis

Theatre of Yugen
At Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa Street, San Francisco

Ending December 30, 2018
Fridays at 7 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM and 7 PM, Sundays at 4 PM

We all know how Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the holiday staple that reminds us of the true meaning and magic of the season. We all have ghosts of past present and future, but to see this story presented in a new light by Theatre of Yugen is transformational. (The word Yugen is from the Japanese YU, meaning deep, quiet or otherworldly, and GEN, to mean subtle, profound or obscured).

A Noh Christmas Carol keeps the skeleton of the familiar story with a leap into unknown spiritual dimensions. As practiced as a tea ceremony, as simple as a brush painting, and as clear as a flute, this production is intriguing, engaging, and even disturbing. It’s the story of the miserly Sukurooji (Scrooge) who is callous to the pain of his workers and tenants until he is taught a lesson that he has suppressed all of these years..to see and love life anew, as a child.

Kurando [Cratchit] (Zoe Chien) and his wife (Mikah Kavita) at dinner as Sukurooji [Scrooge] (Simone Bloch) watches happily. Photo: Shannon Davis

Under the direction of Nick Ishimaru, each performer honors the ancient craft and discipline of Noh for a modern stage. Simone Bloch’s Sukurooji is both menacing and kindly, her expressions exaggerated by classic makeup. The chains that bind us into the next life are dragged by the ghost Jakubei (Stephen Flores), a scary and hunched apparition that mouths true agony. Rachel Richman is ethereal and elusive as the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet-to-come. Even the invisible koken stage hand moves like a silent spirit.

Stephen Flores as the tortured ghost of Jakubei Photo: Shannon Davis
A sublimely constrained format, like haiku and bonsai, minimalist abundance, is evident in this production. The very simple and deliberate set design features a large portal suggesting the Japanese character Enso, the circle of life’s journey. The music and sounds work subtly to bring a sense of mystery to this very familiar story, making it ring anew.

Set portal Photo: Christine Okon
There is still time to see A Noh Christmas Carol before it ends December 30. It would be a perfect way to celebrate a transition from past to present to future.

A Noh Christmas Carol
Theatre of Yugen theatreofyugem.com

Simone Bloch - Sukurooji (Ebenezer Scrooge)
Zoe Chien -  The Men
Steven Flores  - Jakubei Mashima (Marley); Kurogo
Mikah Kavita -- The Women
Rachael Richman -- The Christmas Ghosts

Nick Ishimaru -- Director
Mel Ramirez -- Stage Manager
Ella Cooley  -- Sound Designer
Josh McDermott -- Set Designer
Cassie Barnes -- Lighting Designer
Liz Brent -- Costume Designer

Monday, December 10, 2018

A Visit with a Timeless Icon of Hollywood Fashion

A Conversation with Edith Head

Susan Claasen as Edith Head

Based on Edith Head’s Hollywood by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro
Starring Susan Claasen

Until December 16, 2018

Pear Theater
1110 La Avenida St, Mountain View CA

Edith Head, that fierce little bespectacled bird of Hollywood fashion, lives again in Susan Claasen’s world-renowned solo show. A Conversation with Edith Head is indeed just that, with Claasen, as Head, engaging the audience with her “wit, wisdom, and a whisper of gossip” as she recounts her life as one of Hollywood’s foremost costume designers.

The "Real" Edith Head with her Oscars

Claasen, who bears a striking resemblance to Head, creates an easy intimacy as she chats about the 44 years at Paramount Studios where she costumed the likes of Elizabeth Taylor (with a 19-inch waist), Dorothy Lamour, and especially Grace Kelly, that paragon of exquisite beauty. Admitting that she best loved dressing men like Cary Grant, Paul Newman, and Danny Kaye because of how they looked and moved, she stresses how important it is for costumes to enhance, and not distract from, character. One of Head’s secrets of success is that she really listened to what the performers needed and wanted in their clothes while at the same time complying with the director, knowing that her role was, as Tim Gunn would say, to “make it work.”

When she was suddenly let go from Paramount after decades of service, her friend Alfred Hitchcock, whom she loved working with, helped her get established at Fox. Her anecdotes about working with Hitchcock are delightful and funny, as when Tippi Hedren’s green suit in The Birds had multiple iterations, “one for each peck.”

Classen's "Head" Shot

It is clear that Claasen relishes channeling the confident and sometimes snarky designer who stayed true to herself and thrived in the jungle that is Hollywood. She interacts easily with the audience, answering their questions, praising a woman’s put-together outfit and admonishing a man with an aghast “You wore JEANS to see ME?!”

Claasen’s knowledge of Head’s life, her love of the subject, and her easy demeanor on stage all create a comfortable and enjoyable visit with an icon of yesteryear. A Conversation with Edith Head will most likely appeal to the limited set of theatergoers who know and love the history of Hollywood glamor, and for those not familiar with the subject, it will be a learning experience.

More information about the show: edithhead.biz

A Conversation with Edith Head
Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St, Mountain View CA
Thurs-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm

Edith Head: Susan Claassen

Producer: Elizabeth Cruse Craig
Production Designers: James Blair and Susan Claasen
Costume Recreations:  Chris Brewer and Maryann Trombino
Wig Designer: Renate E. Leuschner
Voice and Movement Director: Dianne J. Winslow