Saturday, July 27, 2019

Dreamscapes of Mortality

Escaped Alone and
Here We Go


By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Robert Estes

Anton’s Well Theatre Company 
At Thousand Oaks Baptist Church, 1821 Catalina Ave., Berkeley

Until August 3, 2019. (Thursdays-Saturdays, with additional performance on Wednesday, July 31, all 7:30) 

By Christine Okon

Robert Estes, director of Anton’s Well Theatre Company, has chosen to produce two of Caryl Churchill’s later short plays "Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" because they “so acutely chart our shared future.”

Victorian Skull Illusion

“Escaped Alone” brings to mind the Victorian image that shows either two women talking or a skull, depending on how it is viewed. Church presents a bifurcated reality of chit-chat among old friends against graphic descriptions of apocalyptic devastation and horror.

The audience waits in a small outdoor garden; there’s a waterless fountain and hummingbirds cruise the red flowers on the bushes.

Three women--Vi (Jenn Lucas), Sally (Jan Carty Marsh), and Lena (Susannah Wood) enter, sit down, and begin to engage in the ordinary, friendly banter of old friends. A fourth woman, Mrs. Jarrett (Marsha Van Broek), joins the group but seems uncomfortable. She faces the audience and describes an appalling and terrifying scenario of death, violence, and destruction; this is what the world has come to.  She then joins the other women in their conversation about daily routines, gossip, and pleasantries. All four sing The Beatles’ "Help," united in giddy familiarity with a tune from their youth until Mrs. Jarrett describes more horror, and the personal, bizarre crises of the women are revealed.

Sally is extraordinarily paranoid about her cat and is heading for a breakdown. Another talks fearfully about gunshots. All are traumatized somehow, yet they shift back into mundane chatter mode. To Churchill, images are visual morphemes to be interpreted as one would try to make sense of a strange dream.

Sound effects (e.g., meowing, explosions, or guns firing) were distracting and should have been used sparingly, if at all. Still, “Escaped Alone” reminds us of how easy it is to become inured to the global horrors we are exposed to every day.

Jenn Lucas & Jan Carty Marsh in ESCAPED ALONE Photo: Jay Yamada

After a brief intermission, the audience moves indoors for the next play,  “Here We Go.” The title alone connotes either enthusiasm or resignation. There are three scenes, each a study of the experience and reality of death and dying.

The first scene presents eight mourners at a post-funeral party chatting about their lives and reminiscing about the dearly departed man, who wanders among the crowd unseen yet wanting to participate. As each mourner steps forward to state how and when they later died, we are put on Churchill’s time-space continuum where past, present, and future are blurred, and existential finality underscores the most ordinary conversations.

Abe Bernstein in HERE WE GO Photo: Anton's Well Theatre Company

In “After,” a dead woman fretfully ruminates on death, dying, the afterlife and the meaning of existence but receives no answer. Words, even if philosophical, are empty in a vacuum.

The last scene, "Getting There," is the most moving and beautiful, with no words at all.  A caretaker in scrubs (Jan Carty Marsh) assists an old, frail,  woman (Alison Sacha Ross) in a hospital gown. The woman has long, flowing, gray hair, and she is tiny, almost melted away. Her body language denotes intense pain. The caretaker combs the woman’s hair and gives a sponge bath in a routine that is repeated a few times during the scene. Although the caretaker is simply doing her job, the patient relishes the act as a delicious, tactile respite from suffering and a moment of connection with another living being. When the caretaker moves across the room, the woman reaches forward in longing as if begging for the moment to last longer. Gradually, the caretaker becomes more involved and exhibits fondness, and the emotional intensity is profound and visceral. The two actors become one entity of empathy, and their interaction is remarkable to observe.

Both "Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" are contemplations and meditations rich with images, talk, and the simple gift of presence, making for a quiet yet disturbing night of theater.


"Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" by Caryl Churchill, directed by Robert Estes of Anton’s Well Theatre Company, at Thousand Oaks Baptist Church in Berkeley. Through Saturday, August 3, 2019. Info: antonswell.org



Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Translating the Language of the Heart

The Language Archive



By Julia Cho
Directed by Jeffrey Lo
Lucie Sterm Theatre, Palo Alto

Until August 4, 2019

By Christine Okon

Here’s a sobering fact from UNESCO: of the 7,000 living languages in the world, more than half will be extinct by the end of the century. In urgent response to the dilemma, many people dedicate their lives to the study and preservation of such languages.

In Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive,” George (Jomar Tagatec) is a linguist so immersed in the study of dying languages that he is oblivious to his wife Mary’s (Elena Wright) attempts to communicate. These two are not the kind of people who finish each other’s sentences, and it seems that one's signal is the other’s noise. For example, Mary leaves little desperate notes for George and cries continuously in her unhappiness, while George is befuddled by her actions. How did these two ever get married?

Jomar Tagatac and Elena Wright Photo: Alessandra Mello

When the last two remaining speakers of the dying language Elloway agree to visit from a far-off and unspecified country, George looks forward to fulfilling his research by capturing their conversation in their native language. He is surprised when his guests Resten (Francis Jue) and Alta (Emily Kuroda), an old married couple, bicker about trivial things in English because, as Alta explains, “it is the language of anger.” Jue and Kuroda are as funny and practiced as an old vaudeville team as they shake up George’s, and our, expectations. Costume designer Noah Marin must have had a lot of fun dressing Resten and Alta in the motley and colorful items of clothing from a far-away land.

Francis Jue and Emily Kuroda Photo: Alessandra Mello

George, upset that his study is straying from protocol, tries to steer his subjects toward his ends. The concept of love is brought up, with George fretting in “analysis paralysis” while Resten and Alta define their bond as simply not being able to imagine living without the other person. Cho’s poetric gifts infuse “The Language Archive," illuminating how language gives voice to the heart. 

The give-and-take and sad breakdowns of communication form a delicate cat’s cradle among the characters. George thinks compiling a CD of “I Love You” in dying languages will win Mary back, but she leaves him to nourish an unfulfilled longing for her own life and passion. George’s assistant Emma (Adrienne Katori Walters) is his work-wife of sorts and strives to demonstrate her love by learning Esperanto, his favorite language. Torn by conflicting but unexpressed feelings, Tagatac delivers a heartbreaking portrayal of a man who cannot even communicate with himself.

L-R Elena Wright, Jomar Tagatac, Francis Jue, Emily Kuroda, Adrienne Kaori Walters
Photo: Alessandra Mello

Justifiably exuberant with winning the 2019 Regional Theatre Tony Award, Theatreworks Silicon Valley begins its 50th season with this play. Even though “The Language Archive” has ingredients for a perfect production: superb cast, smooth direction by Jeffrey Lo, an evocative and versatile set (Andrea Bechert), poignant music and sound (Sinan Refik Zefar), it was hard to connect with the characters except for Resten and Alta, who seemed to be the only ones who had self-awareness. The beautiful image of Resten and Alta after death becoming  “two trees whose leaves whisper to each other all day long” lingers long after the play ends, hinting at what real communication is all about.

"The Language Archive" by Julio Cho, directed by Jeffery Lo, Theatreworks Silicon Valley at the Lucie Stern Theater, Palo Alto, through August 4, 2019.
Info: theatreworks.org or call (650) 463-1960

CAST
George  Jomar Tagatac
Mary  Elena Wright
Emma  Adrienne Kaori Walters
Alta and others  Emily Kuroda
Resten and others  Francis Jue

CREATIVE TEAM
Playwright  Julia Cho
Director  Jeffrey Lo
Scenic Designer  Andrea Bechert
Costume Designer  Noah Marin
Sound Designer  Sinan Refik Zafar

Friday, July 12, 2019

This "Hairspray" Has Bounce and Shine

Hairspray


Cassie Grilley and Company Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

Music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan; based on the 1988 film of the same name by John Waters

Directed by Matthew McCoy

Bay Area Musicals
Victoria Theater, San Francisco

Until August 11, 2019

By Christine Okon

Long ago, my mother would take me to get a wash, set and styling for next to nothing at the local beauty school. The student would grab her can of Aqua Net hairspray as I squeezed my eyes shut and held my breath as the ssshhhh buzzed around my ears, and small sticky droplets hit my neck.  Hairspray was the essential, bubblegum fix for the instant glamour of beehives, bouffants, and big hair.

Bay Area Musicals (BAM) has launched a high-powered, fun show with the musical "Hairspray.”  Under the direction of Matthew McCoy, BAM performers, in any show they put on, always exude commitment and enthusiasm, and this show is no different.

"Hairspray," set in 1962 when times were about to be a-changin’, follows the sweet and “pleasingly plump” teenager Tracy Turnblad (a big-haired and bubbly Cassie Grilley) as she celebrates her life in Baltimore, “where every day is an open door,” and dreams of meeting and marrying Link Larkin, the handsomest dancer on the Corny Collins (a slippery and suave Scott Taylor-Cole) after school dance show. Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton (a remarkably versatile Melissa  Momboisse) squeal and wriggle as they watch the show on the small black and white television in the Turnblad living room. With her “radio and hairspray,” Tracy can take on the world, which indeed she does.

Dave J. Abrams and Company Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

This musical beats like the heart of a teenage girl dancing to songs, joys, challenges and triumphs. From beginning to end, the stage is full of action and surprises with dance numbers that keep on coming. You feel that sweet anticipation for the next 45 rpm to drop down the spindle rack and hit the turntable.

Jon Gallo and musicians adeptly travel the musical allusions that range from doo-wop, girl band, surf, and Trudy’s favorite: rhythm and blues and soul, which Corny Collins plays once a week on “Negro Day” when local black kids take the floor.  As lead dancer Seaweed J. Stubbs, Dave Abrams lights up the stage with his moves, flips and grinds in “Run and Tell That.”

Sarah Sloan and Lauren Meyer Photo: Ben Krantz Studi

When Tracy asks innocently why Negroes can’t dance every day with the white kids, she unveils the racism and snobbery of the show’s producer Velma Von Tussle (Sarah Sloan) who, with her equally vacuous and pink-chiffon-dressed daughter Amber (Lauren Meyer). will stop at nothing to do the white, er, right thing to protect the status quo. It’s as if she were using the show’s sponsor “Ultra-Clutch Hairspray” to keep flyaway hair, times, behavior, rules and mores in place.

Tracy’s eyes and consciousness are widened by Motormouth Maybelle (Elizabeth Jones), a “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” black woman in shimmering blue lame and sequins (cheers to costume designer Brooke Jennings). When Jones belts out “I Know Where I’ve Been,” I felt as if I were at a leap-to-your-feet church celebration.

Elizabeth Jones Photo: Ben Krantz


With “Welcome to the 60’s,” Tracy urges her mother Edna Turnblad, who has not left the house since 1951, to take chances. Scott DiLorenzo fills out Edna’s housedress adequately but needs to create a more convincing mother-daughter bond of affection.

Although the miking had problems opening night, BAM brings another fun night at the theater. When the audience leaps up to join the actors in the final number “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” everyone dances out the history lesson that teaches that for true change to happen, “just to sit still would be a sin.”

"Hairspray" by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, directed by Matthew McCoy of Bay Area Musicals at The Victoria Theatre, San Francisco, through Sunday, August 11, 2019. Info: bamsf.org

CAST
Cassie Grilley, Tracy Turnblad
Melissa Momboisse, Penny Pingleton
Scott DiLorenzo, Edna Turnblad
Kamren Mahaney, Link Larkin
Elizabeth Jones, Motormouth Maybelle
*Dave Abrams, Seaweed J. Stubbs
Kennedy Williams, Little Inez
Paul Plain, Wilbur Turnblad
Lauren Meyer, Amber Von Tussle
Sarah Sloan, Velma Von Tussle
Scott Taylor-Cole, Corny Collins
Bonnie Lafer, Prudy Pingleton/Others
Kim Larsen, Principal/Male Authority
Stephen Kanaski, Brad
Ronald James, Fender
Emma Sutherland, Brenda
Brendan Looney, Sketch
Claire Pearson, Tammy
Steven McCloud, I.Q.
Peli Naomi Woods, Detention Kid/Dynamite
Smita Patibanda, Detention Kid/Dynamite
Chanel Tilghman, Detention Kid/Dynamite
April Deutschle, Detention Kid
Carlos Carrillo, Detention Kid
Zoe Hodge, Detention Kid
Ajay Prater, Detention Kid

*Appears courtesy of Actor’s Equity Association   

ARTISTIC TEAM
Matthew McCoy, Director/Choreographer
Jon Gallo, Musical Director
Leslie Waggoner, Assnt. Choreographer
Cat Knight, Stage Manager
Andie Fanelli, Assnt. Stage Manager
Lynn Grant, Set Designer
Brooke Jennings, Costume Designer
Eric Johnson, Lighting Designer
Anton Hedman, Sound Engineer
Jackie Dennis, Wig Designer
Matthew McCoy/Cat Knight, Prop Designers
Richard Gutierrez, Wardrobe Master
Stewart Lyle, Technical Director

ORCHESTRA
Sonja Lindsay, Trumpet
William Berg, Woodwinds
Adam Hughes, Guitar
Kyle Wong, Bass
Dominic Moisant, Drums
Jon Gallo, Keyboard/Conductor