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