Thursday, October 26, 2017

History through a Distorted Lens

Thomas and Sally
Written by Thomas Bradshaw
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
Marin Theatre Company

Extended to October 29, 2017

Reviewed by Christine Okon

If you question the narrator of MTC's production of Thomas Bradshaw'sThomas and Sally,  the controversies about "revisionist history" stirred up by this play can be put into perspective, sort of.

Roomies Ella Dershowitz and Rosie Hallett
Martha (Ella Dershowitz) and Karen (Rosie Hallett) are college roommates in a typical modern dorm room, with two twin beds, desks, closet door, etc. that soon have different uses as the play unfolds. Martha is raving about the gorgeous, shirtless athletes she watched earlier in the day as she hunts for her vibrator which was casually "borrowed" by Karen who is now struggling with a paper she needs to write about Thomas Jefferson.  It turns out that Martha's last name is Hemings and that she is a descendant of Sally Hemings, the slave who bore several children by Thomas Jefferson. And boy, does Martha have stories to tell, since she knows "everything" about that topic, but in an Entertainment Tonight - meets American History 101 gossipy sort of way.

Robert Hemings (Cameron Matthews), James Hemings William Hodgson), Martha Jefferson (Ella Dershowitz), Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips), Betty Hemings (Charlette Speigner), and Karen (Rosie Hallett).

Martha's storytelling is not linear and moves quickly between the present and 18th century America, with actors doing double or triple duty to portray multiple characters entering, exiting, and interacting, and set pieces being rearranged in a crisp and rapid choreography of stage design (kudos to Sean Fanning). The slavelife saga of Sally's mother Betty involved multiple sales and many children with different men; in one birth scene, "babies" (plastic dolls) are "delivered" one after the other in quick sequence, an amusing and effective trick to compress the passage of time. This same trick is later used to depict the many children of Thomas Jefferson with his wife Martha. A lot happens, and some of it may be historically accurate (Bradshaw did extensive research for the play), but remember, it's story told by someone from the future looking at events through her subjective lens.

The conflicted (he owns slaves, but thinks they should be free?) and contemplative Thomas Jefferson is earnestly and passionately played by Mark Anderson Phillips who engages in anachronistic banter with John Adams and Ben Franklin as if they were college buddies who "get to do all the fun stuff" when it comes to shaping the emerging new government.

Benjamin Franklin (Robert Sicular) and Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips)

The meeting of Thomas and Sally, so wonderfully played by Tara Pachecho, buzzes with an attraction that becomes pretty juicy and intense, depicting the two as passionate and creative lovers more than master and slave. Whether this is true or not is not at issue: Martha doesn't hold back on the vivid descriptions of what may have happened, although it is probably more of what she wishes for in her own romantic life.

Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Sally Hemings (Tara Pacheco).

Thomas and Sally
  tries to titillate with explicit details and a sprinkling of some facts to show how some parts of collective memory are shaped by the zeitgeist.  Martha and Karen never leave the dorm room, nor do they really learn anything new, from what went on with Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Thomas and Sally

Photographer: Kevin Berne

L. Peter Callender*
Jupiter Evans/French Servant

Scott ​K. Coopwood*
John Adams/Lafayette/Captain Hemings/Overseer/Jacques

Ella Dershowitz

Rosie Hallett*
Abigail Adams/Patsy/Karen

William Hodgson*
James Hemings

Cameron Matthews
Robert Hemings/Hugo

Tara Pacheco*
Sally Hemings

Mark Anderson Phillips*
Thomas Jefferson

Robert Sicular*
Benjamin Franklin/John Wayles/French Cook/French Tailor/Man

​Charlette Speigner*
Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings/Renee

​Thomas Bradshaw

Jason Minadakis

Betsy Norton*
Stage Manager

Laura Brueckner
Production Dramaturg

Sean Fanning+
Scenic Designer

Ashley Holvick
Costume Designer

Mike Post
Lighting Designer

​Theodore J.H. Hulsker
Sound Designer

Jessica Berman
Dialect Coach

Jemier B. Jenkins
Assistant Director

* Denotes member of Actors Equity Association
+ Member, United Scenic Artists
^ Member, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers

Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue 
Mill Valley, California 94941
Phone: 415.388.5200 Fax: 415.388.0768

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Expectations Flipped with Barbecue at SF Playhouse

Written by Robert O’Hara
Directed by Margo Hall
September 26 to November 11, 2017

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Bright lights glare down on a rundown urban patch of flattened grass, a bent and rusty safety fence, a beat up grill and the parks-and-rec-issue brutalist concrete washroom that sets the stage for Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue, directed by Margo Hall, to launch SF Playhouse’s 15th season.

Marie (Teri Whipple), James T (Clive Worsley), and Adlean (Jennie Brick) express reservations about the planned intervention

Blackout and lights up. A tableau of good-old-folks Americana: Adlean, a plump middle-aged woman smoking a cigarette in a portable chair, nonchalantly played by Jennie Brick ; James T, the backward-baseball-cap-wearing and slightly goofy brother played by Clive Worsley; Marie, the self-absorbed and sexy millennial played with detached snarkiness by Teri Whipple; and Lillie Anne (Anne Darragh), the frustrated sister who is trying to organize her family “team” to stage the intervention disguised as a barbeque for their wayward family member Barbara (a self-possessed Susi Damilano) whom they think is wrecking her life with drugs. These people can barely save themselves as they squabble with each other and argue about how they’re supposed to act when Barbara arrives. But despite their good intentions, Barbara follows her own story which unfolds later in the play.

Lillie Anne (Halili Knox*, right) explains to Adlean (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe), James T (Adrian Roberts*), and Marie (Kehinde Koyejo*) how an intervention works

Blackout again and lights up, but this time the characters are black. Whaa? Why? We’re intrigued. The same action continues but with a different pace and energy, and we are drawn into this extended story of a family trying to support one of their own. The juxtaposition of white and black families in the same situation has echoes of all those family sitcoms with familiar “types” like the sarcastic aunt, the snarky teenager, the doofus brother, and the do-gooder sister. The mirror-flip family forms a hilarious and vibrant unit,with Adrian Roberts as James T; Halili Knox as Lillie Anne; Edris Cooper-Aniforwoshe as Adlean; and Kehinde Koyejo as Marie trying to get ready for Barbara, played with powerful distinction by Margo Hall.

Marie (Kehinde Koyejo*), Adlean (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe), and James T (Adrian Roberts*) express skepticism
To describe what happens next would spoil the surprise, as this play has more twists than a mall pretzel shop, so enjoy the ride. Let it be said that this play is an innovative exploration of what happens when someone’s real-life story meets the primal forces of pride, ambition, greed and whatever it takes to turn that story into Oscar-worthy gold.

The most powerful dynamic--indeed the fulcrum of the play--is between the two Barbaras, Susi Damilano and Margo Hall, partners in crime who match wits as they strike a deal that seems like, but is not really, a win-win.

Margo Hall as Barbara
Susi Damilano as Barbara

Barbecue skewers the forces of fabrication and deception in our society, leaving the audience perhaps a bit confused and uneasily entertained.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli


Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe
Jennie Brick

Margo Hall
Susi Damilano

Clive Worsley
Adrian Roberts

Anne Darragh
Halili Knox

Kehinde Koyejo
Teri Whipple

Margo Hall

Bill English

Brooke Jennings

Cliff Caruthers

Wen-Ling Liao

Jacquelyn Scott

SF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 94102