Saturday, March 23, 2019

Love's Merry-Go-Round Spins in Cutting Ball's La Ronde

La Ronde

Ella Ruth Francis and Jeunee Simon Photo: Cheshire Isaacs

based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen
translated by Eric Bentley
directed by Ariel Craft

Cutting Ball Theater
Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., SF

March 14 – April 14, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Turn the pages back through the ages
What are their names? Just you and I...
Love's Roundabout from the movie La Ronde (1950)

In his charming 1950 film La Ronde, director Max Ophuls lets us peek at the endless waltz of desire, need and connection that is so very basically human, male or female.

Although the script calls for five women and five men, Cutting Ball Theater’s production of La Ronde features two women, EIla Ruth Francis and Jeunee Simon, as the ensemble of all 10 characters to illustrate a new dance of sex, power, and sheer desire.

In Cutting Ball’s tiny box theater on Taylor St, the audience sits in a circle as the two actors sexually shapeshift in and out of the 10 roles. Like Tinder-swiping voyeurs, we watch the Whore hook up with the Soldier, the Soldier with the Maid, the Maid with the Gent, the Gent with the Wife, the Wife with the Husband, the Husband with the Lil’ Miss, the Lil’ Miss with the Poet, The Poet with the Actress, the Actress with the Count, and the Count with the Whore with whom the story begins.
 Jeunee Simon and Ella Ruth Francis Photo: Cheshire Isaacs
Francis and Simon both play the light and shadow of each character under the precise and playful direction of Ariel Smith (also the new Artistic Director of Cutting Ball), moving in sync with the equally exact lighting (Cassie Barnes) and sound (James Ard) cues such as drapes being opened or a snorer wheezing next door. Simple costumes (Morgan May Louie) hang on the walls to allow quick character changes. 
Jeunee Simon (The Count) and Ella Ruth Francis  (The Whore) Photo: Cheshire Isaacs
With powerful pas-de-deux of acting and movement, Francis and Simon reveal how each character is changed by sexual interaction, from trampled innocence to jaded disappointment. Especially amusing is Simon’s stuttering Count as he tries to regain composure after an interlude.
Jeunee Simon and Ella Ruth Francis Photo: Cheshire Isaacs
Cutting Ball's La Ronde offers the most explicit sex you can have on stage without nudity or physically obvious acts. With the speed-dating pace of the play not offering much time to think, I just let my body react. La Ronde invites the audience to be as aroused or put off as they wish; it makes no difference because the dance will continue anyway.

La Ronde
by Arthur Schnitzler
translated by Eric Bentley
directed by Ariel Craft

Cutting Ball Theater
Exit Theater, 277 Taylor St. SF

March 14 – April 14, 2019
Box Office at 415-525-1205

Ensemble - Ella Ruth Francis and Jeunee Simon

Costume Designer - Morgan May Louie
Lighting Designer - Cassie Barnes
Sound Designer - James Ard
Properties Designer - Adeline Smith
Scenic Consultant - Randy Wong-Westbrooke
Intimacy Choreographer - Maya Herbsman

Watch the trailer:

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Black Eagles: Trouble at Liftoff

Black Eagles

By Leslie Lee
Directed by L. Peter Callender
African-American Shakespeare Company
Marines Memorial Theatre / 609 Sutter St
San Francisco, CA 94102

Saturday and Sundays Until March 31, 2019

Above photo: Back row L-R: Luchan Baker, Ron Chapman, Donald Antoine; second row L-R: Devin Cunningham, Joseph Pendleton; front/center: Brandon Callender. Photo: L. Peter Callender

Reviewed by Christine Okon

African-American Shakespeare Company’s production of Leslie Lee’s Black Eagles is fittingly staged at that beautiful and revered bastion of military history, Marines' Memorial Theater.

The play begins with three elderly gentleman at a banquet in the late 1980s reminiscing about their WWII experiences as members of  the first all-black Army Air Force squadron of fighter pilots known as "The Tuskegee Airmen" or “The Fighting 99th.” The men are joined by their younger selves who bring the memories to life, laying out a predictable structure of back-and-forth reminiscing and staging that keeps the play at the level of storytelling than drama.

Elder Eagles (rear, Thomas Robert Simpson, Gift Harris, Todd Risby) Photo: Joseph Giammarco

Like weathered fisherman bragging about their catches, Elder Clarke (amiable Gift Harris), Elder Nolan (thoughtful Todd Risby) and Elder Leon (distinguished Thomas Robert Simpson) banter and argue about details of flight missions, aerial maneuvers, killing “Jerries,” losing friends and missing loved ones. Despite the racist military rules (such being denied admission to the white officer’s club) that blocked their full participation on the base,  they could be themselves amongst each other, away from the stateside clutches of Jim Crow.

EAGLES (Brandon Callender, Joseph Pendleton, Devin Cunningham, Luchan Baker III) Photo: Joseph  Giammarco
The six young soldiers--Clarkie (Luchan Baker), Roscoe (Ron Chapman), Nolan (Brandon Callender), Buddy (Donald Ray Antoine), Leon (Devin A. Cunningham) and Othel (Joseph Pendleton)--look sharp in their pressed khakis as they argue, chide, and laugh like the tight band of brothers they are. They engage in some aerial missions (hard to stage dynamically), argue about why the hell they are there, and snap to attention when General Lucas (a convincing Gene Thompson) enters the room and tells them that he wants to up his military stars to three if the “experiment” (about whether black men can make good fighter pilots),” for which he is “putting his ass on the line,” succeeds. Except for the really fun and hopping “Jitterbug Drill” and Nolan’s meeting with his Italian girlfriend Pia (Margherita Ventura), who establishes hat yes, they are fighting on the WWII Italian front), the first act circles around the runway without ever taking off, and a few heads were nodding in the audience.

General Lucas (Gene Thompson) give the Black Eagles their flying orders. Photo: Joseph Giammarco
Act II manages to lift off into the wild blue yonder and seems like a different play. There is more dialog, intent, desire and purpose. Two good-natured white soldiers--Dave Whitson (William Robert Caldwell, awkward but well-meaning) and Roy Truman (Kyle Goldman, with a Jimmy Stewart aw-schucksness)--pay a friendly visit and are immediately suspected by the Eagles. One of the Eagles pulls out a bottle of special cognac, but the proper civilized “savoring” quickly descends into a pass-the-bottle swill fest. The Black Eagles shout their pride, with Truman and Caldwell declaring themselves the "White Eagles". It seems like one team, but the sad reality is that the white pilots have far less training than the blacks yet have juicier, real combat flight assignments.

The camaraderie of the black soldiers brings a lot of energy to the scenes, and I wish the play had more of that. Some of the actors were strong and others not, with the effect being like high performance tires with small leaks. The cast has potential but the script is a scaffolding of historical trivia, which does not allow for momentum or exploration. But as an homage to the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen, Black Eagles is an enlightening slice of American history.

Tuskegee ELDERS (Center) reminisce about their younger years in Italy, 1944. Photo: Jospeh Giammarco
Director L Peter Callender, who performed in the original production of Black Eagles years ago, brings much love to this earnest production which unfortunately never quite gains the altitude of powerful drama.

Black Eagles
Written by Leslie Lee. Directed by L. Peter Callender. Through March 31. Two hours with 15-minute intermission. Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St, S.F.

Elder Clarkie — Gift Harris
Elder Leon — Thomas Robert Simpson
Clarkie — Luchan Baker
Nolan — Brandon Callender
Leon — Devin A. Cunningham
Pia — Margherita Ventura
Roy Truman — Kyle Goldman
Elder Nolan — Todd Risby
General Lucas — Gene Thompson
Roscoe — Ron Chapman
Buddy — Donald Ray Antoine
Othel — Joseph Pendleton
Dave Whitson — William Robert Caldwell

Director — L. Peter Callender
Stage Manager — Arashi Veronica Cesana
Lighting Designer — Kevin Myrick
Costume Designer — Sarah Smith
Production Manager & Props Manager — Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
Set Designer — Kate Boyd
Sound Designer — Everett Elton Bradman
Choreographer — Kendra Kimbrough Barnes

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Great Leap: More than a Game

The Great Leap 

By Lauren Yee
DIrected by Lisa Peterson
American Conservatory Theater - A.C.T. 
415 Geary, San Francisco, CA

Until March 31, 2019

Photo above: Tim Liu as Manford, Ruibo Gian as Connie, BD Wong as Wen Change Photo by Kevin Berne

Reviewed by Christine Okon

San Francisco native playwright Lauren Yee knows how to spin gold from her Chinese-American roots and weave it into the larger context of cultural history. In King of the Yees (recently at SF Playhouse), for example, she draws on her father’s commitment to the name Yee to take us on a wild ride through current news and ancient lore. In The Great Leap, currently at A.C.T.’s Geary theater, she frames Sino-American relations in the seemingly innocent structure of a rematch game of basketball between the American University of San Francisco coach (Arye Gross) and the coach of the Beijing team (BD Wong) who last encountered each other in 1971.

Set in 1989, The Great Leap seems to be about the world of basketball and basketball fanatics, and that alone is entertaining. But we soon learn that the real game occurs on the much bigger, global arena of politics, historical change, and evolving cultures.

BD Wong, Tim Liu, Arye Gross, Ruibo Gian (Photo by Kevin Berne)

At center court of the action is the 17-year-old Manford (an agile and eager Tim Liu), cocky in his self assuredness of being the best basketball player in the area and intent on joining the USF team headed to Beijing for the rematch. Manford is a Chinese-American kid whose energy seems to keep him aloft. He slips through the players’ entrance on the campus to reach coach Saul (Arye Gross), an almost hyperbolic fountain of crass obcenities and stubborn opinions about the game.  Manford’s longtime neighbor Connie (a down-to-earth and caring Ruibo Gian) is a surrogate sister and point guard of sorts, keeps him grounded. We learn that Manford’s dead mother was an avid Warriors fan and that he has never met his father.

Connie (Ruibo Gian) and Manford (Tim Liu) Photo by Kevin Berne

Some of the funniest dialog is between Saul’s brusque interactions with the controlled and subdued Wen Chang, highlighting the difference between American and Chinese demeanor and intention. The two men are playing the same game but with different rules and expectations. Americans win at all costs; Chinese collaborate, or else.

Wen Chang (BD Wong) and Saul (Arye Gross) Photo by Kevin Berne

Where Saul aims for the glory of victory, Wen Chang holds to a steady, measured pace to keep within party-approved bounds. BD Won delivers a superbly nuanced performance of a man trying to maintain an external compliance as his heart aches with the pain of opportunities and love lost because of the risks he did not take.

Wen Chang (BD Wong) Photo by Kevin Berne

The American team arrives in Beijing for the rematch during the student protests of Tiananmen Square. Manford gets lost in the swirl of student protests of Tiananmen Square; he has stepped out of bounds, and the contrasting ideologies come to the fore. Without revealing the most intense part of this play, I can only say you’re in for a surprise.

This production of The Great Leap gave me the  same adrenaline rush I get watching  a live basketball game, witnessing the non-stop movement, pauses, and shifts of power. With director Lisa Peterson balancing the emotional and kinetic energies of the play, the experience is largely due to the magnificent and dynamic projections (one of the best I’ve ever seen) that light up the stage and create excitement.  Scenic design by Robert Brill, projection design by Hana S. Kim, and sound design by Jake Rodriguez create the closest thing to a a non-VR immersive experience in theater.

The Great Leap is full of hilarious and poignant moments, and as we learn the real story behind of Manford’s  visit to Beijing we can sense that the sweep of history is a play-by-play of unresolved questions, family love, lost opportunity, and possibilities of change.

The Great Leap
Until March 31, 2019
A.C.T. Theater, 415 Geary, San Francisco

Single tickets are available at A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at

Arye Gross - Saul
Tim Liu - Manford
Ruibo Qian - Connie
BD Wong - Wen Chang

Written by Lauren Yee

Directed by
Lisa Peterson

Scenic Designer - Robert Brill
Costume Designer - Meg Neville
Lighting Designer - Yi Zhao
Sound Designer - Jake Rodriguez
Projection Designer - Hana S. Kim
Voice and Dialect Coach - Christine Adaire
Movement Coach  - Danyon Davis
Dramaturg - Joy Meads
Casting Director - Janet Foster, CSA
Assistant Director - Ariana Johnson
Associate Scenic Designer - Justin Humphres
Assistant Scenic Designers -  Yi-Chien Lee, Nicholas Kim, Anna Robinson
Scenic Design Associate - Angrette McCloskey
Head Video Technician - Jason Vaughan
Video Assistant - Haley Miller
Wigs Supervisor - Tim Bohle
Production Props Artisan - Andrea Falker

Friday, March 1, 2019

Family Baggage Carried in Her Portmanteau

Her Portmanteau

By Mfoniso Udofia
Directed by Victor Malana Maog

American Conservatory Theater
At the Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco

Until March 31, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

In Her Portmanteau, Mfoniso Udofia shows us how the threads of the fabric that we know as FAMILY can be frayed, stretched, broken and ultimately woven back together with a resilience born of loyalty, memory, tradition, humor and love. The story obviously resonated with director Victor Malana Maog for him to present such a crisply paced and moving interpretation.

Part of Udofia's nine-play Ufot Family Cycle, Her Portmanteau begins as the frantic and guarded Nigerian woman Ibiasisi (Eunice Woods) desperately tries to reach someone via a frustrating pay phone at JFK airport (see banner photo, above). She is greeted by a woman bundled up for a New York winter who is there to pick her up; it is her half-sister whom she hasn’t seen for decades and who is now a fully American 30-year-old with her own life and apartment in New York City.  Still filled with suspicion, Ibiasisi resists but reluctantly accepts the offer of a ride.

The rest of the play takes place in Adiaha’s tiny apartment which is full of character and warmth. David Israel Reynosos’s set design is simple and effective; you feel right at home among the furniture, paintings and family portraits.

Kimberly Scott, Aneisa J. Hicks, Eunice Woods Photo: Kevin Berne

We soon meet Abasiama, the mother of both Ibiasisi and Adiaha but with different husbands. She greets Ibiasisi in the Nigerian language Ibibio and just as seamlessly flows into American English with her other daughter Adiaha.

What seems to begin as a simple family visit deepens into an uncovering of deep and long-held beliefs, hurts, betrayals and hope. Guarded hearts, stubborn wills, the vagueness of memory and the persistence of imagination weigh down communication. The expectations of what it means to be a mother, to be a daughter, and to be free are challenged and argued, and frustration flies around in both languages. There is no need to translate the dialog verbatim. The three characters bump around the small apartment, the air sparking with uncleared anger, old feelings of abandonment and deep-rooted grief.

Kimberly Scott fills the character of Abasiama with a mother’s stubbornness, righteousness, concern and humor. Her wisdom is to be valued:  “I did not live to this age to know nothing.”
Aneisa Hicks as the younger sister Adiaha is likable, vulnerable, friendly, patient and open-minded; she is the catalyst for communication, providing a space and means for dialog. And Eunice Woods brings us the stranger-in-a-strange-land Iniabasi who is at once reserved and opinionated, especially when she claims the superiority of an “elder” over her younger sister.

Kimberly Scott and Aneisa J. Hicks Photo: Kevin Berne

When the daughters leave to go for some dinner, Abasiama recognizes Iniabasi’s suitcase as the very same one she used in Nigeria years ago and opens it out of curiosity. What she finds inside (no spoilers here) is an overwhelming treasure that aligns her thoughts and memories with her deepest heart.

As the reality of her discovery sinks in, Abasiama melts into a swirl of memories and regrets and can only utter sounds of joy, surprise, delight with few words. She realizes that grown-up Isiabasi is still the child she left many years ago, a child who needs her mother. When Abasiama realizes the pain she has caused, she cries for forgiveness. Scott is remarkable as a mother who is  turning her soul inside out, spilling it out in sobs, and reaching into years and years of history. Who cannot relate to such outpouring? Love and reconciliation are conveyed by images and actions, not words.

Eunice Woods and Kimberly Scott Photo: Kevin Berne

Udofia’s compact, simple script is as  tightly woven as a meticulously designed and embroidered garment. With the musicality of both Nigerian and English languages, the arc of communication grows from chaotic separation to rich connection.

The beauty of Her Portmanteau is how it so easily resonates with our own familiar experiences, making it a truly engaging theatrical interaction.

Her Portmanteau
Written by Mfoniso Udofia
Directed by Victor Malana Maog
Through March 31, 2019, at ACT's Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $15-$110, and are available at

Aneisa Hicks as Adiaha Ufot
Kimberly Scott* as Abasiama Ufot
Eunice Woods* as Iniabasi Ekpeyoung

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

Playwright Mfoniso Udofia
Director Victor Malana Maog
Scenic Designer David Israel Reynoso
Costume Designer Sarita Fellows
Lighting Designer Yael Lubetzky
Sound Designer Jake Rodriguez
Props Design Associate Jacquelyn Scott
Vocal Coach Lisa Anne Porter
Dramaturg Joy Meads
Casting Director Janet Foster, CSA
Movement Support Danyon Davis
Assistant Director May Liang
Dialect Consultant Mr. Essien E. Idiong
Head Carpenter Dante Clarke
Head Electrician Ana Gabriela Hernandez-McKig
Wigs Supervisor Ksenia Antonoff
Wardrobe Crew Mika Rubenfeld

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 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

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