Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Legend of Georgia McBride and the Craft of Drag

The Legend of Georgia McBride
By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Kent Gash
JUNE 8 – JULY 9 
Marin Theatre Company

by Christine Okon

Marin Theatre Company is ending its 2016-2017 season with the glitzy and fun The Legend of Georgia McBride, written by Matthew Lopez, about a struggling Elvis impersonator who, through a twist of circumstance, finds success, fulfillment and most of all himself when he joins a drag performance act.
Adam Magill as Casey (in rehearsal)
Casey is an earnest musician trying to make a living as an Elvis impersonator in a dive bar in Panama City, FL, 40 miles from the tiny apartment he shares with his practical yet loving wife Jo (a warm and funny Tatiana Wechsler). Adam Magill brings a sweet (but perhaps not tough enough) vulnerability to Casey, a dreamer who is nudged to reality when he learns that Jo is pregnant, he’s out of money, and that the bar’s owner/emcee Eddie, desperate to stay afloat, has booked a new act to replace his. 
Kraig Swartz as Tracy with Adam Magill as Casey
Enter Tracy (a sharp and sassy Kraig Swartz) and Rexy (a recklessly selfish but wise Jason Kapoor), two seasoned, road-weary, hard-working yet glamorous drag performers who know the dive circuit all too well. (I expected to hear Tracy exclaim, “What a dump!” ala Bette Davis when she sees where she’s landed.) They’re pros who know how to wow a crowd, and wowed you will be with such numbers as I Will Survive or Amy Winehouse’s Rehab. But they’re also two people just trying to survive while being themselves.
Jason Kapoor channeling Amy Winehouse
When Casey is unexpectedly thrust into the drag light as an unwitting Edith Piaf who stumbles and staggers on stage like Bambi on ice, we’re right with him as he eases into having fun in the role. (I was reminded of the sweet and vulnerable young Tom Hanks in the 80's sitcom Bosom Buddies, about two ordinary guys disguised as women as a means of survival in the big city. Maybe it’s the hair.)
Kraig Swartz as Tracy, Jason Kapoor as  Rexy, John R Lewis as Eddie
The passage of time and the progress towards success is cleverly marked by a rapid succession of costume changes (thanks, Kara Harmon) as the emcee welcomes Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and so on, with the costumes and set getting glitzier and glitzier. Kudos to Jason Sherwood, Kurt Landisman and Chris Houston for creating different experiences, including a huge disco ball. Before we know it months have passed, and Casey is getting really good at drag. But he has not told his wife. He doesn’t know why—was he ashamed? It is Casey’s search for the answer that grounds him to the reality of his life. Rexy philosophizes about the importance of persona, of voice, of knowing who you are. Drag is about naming and claiming who you really are, proudly. “Two raised fists in sequined gloves.”
The Legend of Georgia McBride is about resilience, love, ambition, acceptance and FABULOUS clothes. It’s a simple story about finding your voice/persona without shame, and the important life lesson that no matter how bad things get, “there’s nothing a little makeup can’t fix.”
Kapoor, Magill, Swartz "Raining Men"
In San Francisco, where drag is a high art, MTC’s approach to the topic as presented in the lobby was an anthropological study with useful information about drag lingo and practices and the history of famous drag performers. 
If you like disco music and campy acts, you’ll especially enjoy this show. At curtain, several audience members sprang to ovation and kept on dancing. During San Francisco’s month of Pride, it may be just the show to bring visitors to. 

The Legend of Georgia McBride
By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Kent Gash
JUNE 8 – JULY 9 

All photos by Kevin Berne

John R. Lewis* (Eddie)
Jason Kapoor* (Rexy/Jason)
Adam Magill* (Casey)
​Kraig Swartz* (Tracy)
Tatiana Wechsler* (Jo)

​Matthew Lopez, Playwright
Kent Gash, Director
Dell Howlett, Choreographer
Jason Sherwood, Scenic Designer
Kurt Landisman, Lighting Designer
Kara Harmon, Costume Designer
Chris Houston, Composer and Sound Designer
Devon LaBelle, Props Master

Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA 94941-2885
Phone: 415.388.5200

Monday, June 12, 2017

HeLA: Connection, Communication, and the Legacy of Love

HeLa: The PoeticScientific DreamFate of Henrietta Lacks
By Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy
Dramaturgy by Lisa Marie Rollins
Directed by Evren Odcikin

Runs through June 17th. 2017
Live Oak Theater
1301 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley

"Tell me a story," a young girl asks her mother in a sunny home kitchen. The girl is Deborah Pullman, now grown, recalling a distant memory before her mother Henrietta Lacks died of cancer in 1950 but whose cells, harvested without consent by Johns Hopkins clinicians, continued to thrive and divide long after Henrietta’s death. These cells became an entity called HeLa, and it was quickly forgotten whether they belonged to Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane, or anyone for that matter.
JEUNÉE SIMON as Henrietta
There are many ways to approach this story of how the thriving cells of an ordinary African American woman with cervical cancer in the early 1950s in Baltimore made it possible to research phenomena that led to the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cures for several diseases, and the backbone of bioresearch industries like Genentech. The story was chronicled in the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, recently adapted into an HBO movie with Oprah Winfrey. The book and film address the who, what, when, where of the experiences, confusion and struggles of Henrietta’s family, especially her daughter Deborah, as they deal with the reality of Henrietta’s legacy. There is a lot of information to process if facts are the only guide.

Or you could choose to find the thread of meaning, the story beneath the story, to present the WHY of this story that makes it so compelling, universal, and beautiful. This is what TheatreFirst has done with its current production of HeLa: The PoeticScientific DreamFate of Henrietta Lacks, written by Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy, and the result is a remarkable journey through time and space that shows the legacy of love and connection through generations, with Henrietta as the constant point of reference.

Don't expect a literal retelling of the story. This production of HeLa is more like a dance of character interactions, with the two main characters of Henrietta (played splendidly by Jeunee Simon) and her daughter Deborah (Desiree Rogers), a “motherless child a long way from home,” still seeking connection and answers.

Henrietta’s cells persisted after death, and in this play Henrietta is a person, a consciousness, and a presence who experiences, and reacts to, the situations the HeLa cells went through. Jeunee Simon conveys a range of emotion as Henrietta, there at Jonas Salk’s discovery of the polio vaccine; on the trip to space with the patriotic Russian canine cosmonaut; in the doctor's office sharing the joy of a couple who has just learned that they at last could have a child in vitro; witnessing the pharma exec’s thrill at the profit made by selling HeLa cells.

JEUNÉE SIMON as Henrietta and SARAH MITCHELL as the Soviet Dog
The strong ensemble cast greatly expanded the scope of time and place. Sarah Mitchell nailed the cordial but emotionless technician as well as the wildly patriotic Soviet dog that went into space, a hilarious part of the show, with the dog conversing and barking its purpose to Henrietta. Richard Pallaziol was versatile as the detached doctor, the excited Jonas Salk, the profit-conscious pharma exec, and even the gee-whiz young father amazed at having a baby in a test tube. Khary Moye had great heart as Henrietta’s loving husband as well as a stubborn teenager and a scientist. And Akemia Okamura balanced concern with practicality as the scientist who tells Deborah about the reality of her mother’s cells.

But it is the dynamic interaction between Desiree Rogers as Deborah and Jeunee Simon as Henrietta that fills heart and soul of the play as the two move toward each other. "I don't know how, but I can see you!" is a recurring line spoken by Henrietta and Deborah that compresses time, space and circumstance into powerful emotions, as when Deborah first sees the living, moving cells of her mother, projected on the white lab coats of the scientists, and realizes that they were her mother's. But there is confusion. Is it my mother? Are the cells my mother? It is about recognition of where one belongs in the grand scheme of things.

The lighting (Stephanie Anne Johnson), costumes (Maggie Whitaker), sound and projection (Kevin Myrick), and set design (Bailey Hikawa and Devon Labelle) created a simple but compact and effective use of space to convey different settings and moods.

The story of Henrietta Lacks is about more than one person. She was the black marginalized patient in the 1950s who represents other marginalized patients today: the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, the sick, and even the dying, too often dismissed by the euphemistic efficiency of medicine, business and politics that too easily sidesteps humanity. As Henrietta realizes, it is ok to "take" but not "care" and too easy to say “take care.”

Like the cells themselves, the play HeLa is a living work in progress, with every show followed by a discussion. You still have time to see this show before June 17--don't miss this opportunity.
HeLa: The PoeticScientific DreamFate of Henrietta Lacks
By Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy
Dramaturgy by Lisa Marie Rollins
Directed by Evren Odcikin

KHARY MOYE, Ensemble


SALIM RAZAWI, Rehearsal Stage Manager
ELLEN BOENER, Performance Stage Manager
KATE LOGAN, Sound Technician
DIEGO PEÑA, Production Assistant

TIM PHAM, Production Assistant

All photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Live Oak Theater
1301 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley

Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Stranger Comes to Town...

The Roommate
by Jen Silverman
Directed by Becca Wolff
May 23 - July 1, 2017
SF Playhouse

by Christine Okon

A​ ​mysterious​ ​stranger​ ​enters​ ​someone's​ ​life​ ​and​ ​changes​ ​it​ ​forever:​ ​this​ ​is​ ​a familiar, exciting story premise; think of William Inge's Picnic ​or almost any Western. The thrill is in the allure of the unknown, the seductive break from boredom, the last-ditch chance to live the life you were meant to live. It's​ ​the instant​ ​dynamic​ ​of​ ​object​ ​and​ ​force,​ ​of​ ​catalyst​ ​and​ ​inert​ ​substance,​ ​to​ ​effect​ ​change. 

San​ ​Francisco​ ​Playhouse is ending its 2016-2017 season with the one-act play The​ ​Roommate​ ​by​ ​Jen​ ​Silverman​; it's a good choice because it's not about endings but beginnings, about the thrill of "what's next?"

The​ ​Roommate​ ​takes place in a seemingly peaceful and tidy kitchen in a charming house in the middle of "corn cobs and open sky": Somewhere in Iowa. It's Sharon's house, and she seems somewhat lost in the space that has grown too big. Sharon's in her​ ​50's​ ​and​ ​in​ ​a​ ​precarious​ ​transition​ ​from​ ​the​ ​certainty​ ​of​ ​wife​ ​and​ ​mother​ ​to..what? Her​ ​son​ ​has​ ​grown​ ​and​ ​left​ ​home,​ ​but​ ​she​ ​still​ ​clings​ ​to​ ​the​ ​mother-son lifeline through "I just want to see how you're doing" phone calls. 

Sharon (Susi Damilano) and Robyn (Julia Brothers) with the wide Iowa sky as backdrop.
​Susi​ ​Damilano's​ ​Sharon​ ​is​ ​a grown-up good girl who's​ a bit ​​insecure, gabby ​but​ ​not​ ​especially​ ​thoughtful,​ ​as she goes through the motions of daily routine. Sharon is anxiously waiting​ ​for​ ​the person who has answered her ad for a roommate. 
Wide-eyed Sharon (Susi Damilano) makes a phone call to her son.
The renter ​turns​ ​out​ ​to​ ​be​ ​a​ ​woman​ ​of a similar age named​ ​Robyn (Julia Brothers)--​slender,​ ​self-assured, worldly,​ ​and​ ​capable​ ​​quite unlike the ​usual​ ​timid​ ​flock​ ​of​ ​book club friends​ that ​Sharon alludes​ ​to.​ ​Robyn is an intriguing mystery: why did move from the Bronx to Iowa? Is she running from or to something? Julia Brothers ​brings​ ​a​ ​self-contained​ ​strength​ ​and​ ​beauty​ ​to​ ​the​ ​vagabond​ ​soul who is seeking a sense of place while barely containing a constant restlessness. 
Robyn (Julia Brothers) and Sharon (Susi Damilano) discuss their plans for their futures.
You​ ​wouldn't​ ​call​ ​Robyn​ ​"nice"​ ​-​ ​but​ ​she​ ​sure​ ​knows​ and has done ​a​ ​lot of things​ ​that​ surprise, shock and thrill Sharon. The best thing about this production is Damilano's and Brothers' electric approach-avoidance dance between the doubt and trust, distance and intimacy, of Sharon and Robyn, unsettling the audience with suspense. This is real acting craft in action.

Emboldened by​ ​the​ ​possibilities​ ​of​ ​danger​ ​​that​ ​Robyn​ describes, Sharon changes before our eyes, perhaps too quickly to be believable.​ Still, it's fun to see her gain confidence, moving from a cautious "Do​ ​you​ ​think​ ​I​ ​could?"​ ​to a delighted ​"I’d​ ​be​ ​good​ ​at​ ​that."  
Sharon on the brink of change
Although​ ​Sharon​ ​seems​ ​to​ ​want​ ​a​ ​stronger​ ​connection​ ​with​ ​Robyn,​ ​perhaps​ ​friendship​ ​and​ ​even love, she learns one's personal journey is about movement, not stasis.

Silverman's script is adequate but contains some expositional cliched devices such as a long voice message left "on the machine" by Sharon's son, who is never seen, plus some setups with no payoff such as Amanda, Robyn's estranged daughter. The set was functional although the side porch full of boxes was a distracting imbalance. The innovative lighting of the white cloud-bright blue Iowa sky that later reveals a night of stars is innovative and very effective. Costumes were a lot of fun, especially as Sharon explores the different looks she discovers while snooping in Robyn's things.

But again, it is the wonderful interplay of Damilano and Brothers that brings the parallel journeys of the two vastly different characters to life.

The talented creative staff and cast.

The Roommate
by Jen Silverman
SF Playhouse

Julia Brothers

Susi Damilano

Creative Staff
Jen Silverman

Becca Wolff

Robert Hand

Theodore J.H. Hulsker

Melissa Trn

Jacquelyn Scott

Lauren English

Sarah Selig

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

SF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
415.677.9596 fax 415.677.9597