Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Topsy-Turvy Time for Fun

Head Over Heels

William Giammona, David Bicha, Stephanie Temple, Jake Daniel Leahy, Scott Scholes,
Abigail Campbell, and Casey Anne Apregan  Photo: Lois Tema

Music and Lyrics by The Go-Go's
Directed by Ed Decker
New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco

Until January 12, 2020

Reviewed by Christine Okon

If you’re in the mood for a fun party where 16th-century royalty bops to a 1980’s beat, head on over to New Conservatory Theatre Center's production of “Head Over Heels,” Jeff Whitty’s unlikely but delightful musical mashup of Sir Philip Sidney’s romance “Arcadia” and songs by The Go-Go’s.

"Head Over Heels" has a simple, rambling plot that follows a royal family as they come full circle to preserve the kingdom of Arcadia’s most precious resource, The Beat, and thus rediscover themselves and each other.

Ella Ruth Francis Photo: Lois Tema
King Basilius (William Giammona), Queen Gynecia (Stephanie Temple), and their daughters Pamela (Ella Ruth Francis) and Philoclea (Kimberley Cohan) go about their lives in peaceful Arcadia. As the self-absorbed Pamela, Francis exults in the bigger-than-life beauty that's magnified by huge projections (Chris Lundahl and Sarah Phykitt) of her ubiquitous face. Cohan brings a wide-eyed honesty to Philoclea who is in love with her childhood friend Musidorus, the humble shepherd played with Harpo Marx-like comic innocence by Scott Scholes. 

Rotimi Agbabiaka* Photo: Lois Tema

Like a fabulous, shimmering Trickster, Rotimi Agbabiaka shines as the Oracle Pythio who warns that the only way to preserve Arcadia’s Beat is to reinvent the status quo with topsy-turvy changes, which make for some very funny scenes. To keep the Beat, ya gotta let loose and enjoy the ride.  It’s like shaking a gender-fluid snowglobe where things settle in the most delightfully unpredictable ways.

Try not to time travel back to the Reagan era 1980's when you hear The Go-Go's hits like “We Got the Beat,” “Get Up and Go,” “Cool Jerk,” “Vacation,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Lust to Love,” “Head Over Heels,” and “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”

William Giammona, Danya El-Kurd, Rotimi Agbabiaka*and David Bicha Photo: Lois Tema

Like many shows by New Conservatory Theatre Center, this "Head Over Heels" features some sharp choreography by Rick Wallace to the bouncy beat of Mark Dietrich and band. If you’re resolving to make changes in the New Year, "Head Over Heels"will no doubt get you up and going.

"Head Over Heels," music by The Go-Go’s, book by Jeff Whitty and Sir Philip Sidney, directed by Ed Decker. New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco, through January 12, 2020. Info:

Rotimi Agbabiaka* (Pythio), Casey Anne Apregan (Ensemble),  DavidBicha (Dametas), Abigail Campbell (Ensemble), Daniel Cancel (Ensemble), Ciara Carvajal (Ensemble), Kimberley Cohan (Philoclea), Danya El-Kurd (Mopsa), Ella Ruth Francis (Pamela), William Giammona (Basilius),
Jake Daniel Leahy (Ensemble), Scott Scholes (Musidorus), and Stephanie Temple (Gynecia).

*Appears through the courtesy of Actors' Equity Association

Director Ed Decker
Musical direction - Mark Dietrich
Choreography - Rick Wallace
Production audio engineering - Wayne Cheng
Costume design - Wes Crain
Props design - J. Conrad Frank
Stage management - Toni Lynn Guidry
Lighting design / Projections - Chris Lundahl
Fight choreography - Kristen Matia
Scenic design/Projections -Sarah Phykitt

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Witches Among Us

Vinegar Tom

Perry Fenton, Sam Jackson, Lyndsee Bell
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Ariel Craft

Shotgun Players, Berkeley
Until January 19, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

It is not a new thing that strong women are feared, mistrusted, blamed, and punished for owning their anger, passion, sexuality, or independence..for being too different, too poor, too anything that denied or baffled the patriarchal world order.

For four centuries, such women were demonized as witches, hunted, tortured, and extirpated according to rules established by those in power and documented in such go-to reference books as the 15th century The Malleus Maleficarum (the Hammer of Witches).

With the term “witch hunt” permeating the news these days, Shotgun Players has grabbed the devil by the horns in staging “Vinegar Tom,” Caryl Churchill’s evisceration of the belief that strong women are evil beings that must be punished.

Sam Jackson and Sharon Shao
Set in rural England in the 1600s when witch hunts were legal and dangerous, “Vinegar Tom” follows the lives of simple peasant women (and one man) trying to get by in a world where all depends on the health of livestock and unquestioned obedience to intractable, obscure laws. Irascible and misunderstood Joan (Celia Maurice) is blamed by neighbors for sick and dying cows, impotence, stillbirths, and other problems; her “nasty cat” Vinegar Tom is often seen near the dairy or other places where one can only conclude that proximity = cause of problem.  “Find something to burn / let it all go up in smoke / burn your troubles away.” Joan is deemed a witch and thus ostracized, demonized and painfully "examined" by renowned witchhunter Packer (Sarah Mitchell) and his assistant Goody (Melanie DuPuy) who finds it "an honor to work with such a great professional."

With the back and forth pace of a boxing match, “Vinegar Tom” doesn’t have a plot so much as it stirs commotion and upset. Caught up in larger and unseen societal machinations, the characters collide with each other in fear and desperation.

Celia Maurice as the demonized Joan
Director Ariel Craft brilliantly orchestrates the creative energy of the Shotgun actors to capture the conflicting but synchronous feelings of horror and delight of the play. Daniel Alley and musicians provide lilting interludes that help distance us from the primitive but procedured persecution. The cabaret-like chorus struts in sensuous costumes designed by Brooke Jennings as they sing witty commentary with an in-your-face audacity no peasant woman would dare assume. Churchill stirs the cauldron of our sense and reason, and how strangely exciting it feels to be both repulsed and delighted.

The absurdity of the “scientific” practice of witch hunting is brilliantly lanced in the vaudeville-Edwardian music hall scene with Sam Jackson as Kramer and Celia Maurice as Sprenger, the two authors of the Malleus Maleficarum.  Jackson and Maurice wield mean top hats and canes as they engage in witty banter in sprightly counterpoint to the treacherous tome.

Vinegar Tom” emerged at the beginning of the women’s movement in the 1970s, when the book Our Bodies Ourselves opened the eyes of so many women who never before questioned their place in society. Such women would have been witches for sure. Although we can look back at the absurdity of 15th century practices, we should not sit back and assume that all is well if “powers that be” have their way.

Where have all the witches gone?
Who are the witches now?
Here we are.
- “Lament for the Witches”

"Vinegar Tom" by Caryl Churchill, directed by Ariel Craft. Shotgun Players, Ashby Stage, Berkeley, through January 19, 2020. Info:

Photography by Ben Krantz

The Cast
Lyndsee Bell, Ensemble, Doctor
Melanie DuPuy, Goody
Amanda Farbstein, Susan
Perry Fenton, Ensemble, Bellringer
Dov Hassan, Jack
Sam Jackson, Ellen, Kramer
Celia Maurice, Joan, Sprenger
Jennifer McGeorge, Margery
Sarah Mitchell, Packer
Sharon Shao, Betty
Megan Trout, Alice

The Crew
Daniel Alley, Music Director
Nina Ball, Set Design*
Dani Chapparro, M.A.D. Sound Fellow/Sound Sound Board Op
Ashley Corso, Wardrobe Supervisor
Ariel Craft, Director
Evan Favela, M.A.D. Props Fellow
Natalie Greene, Choreographer
Taylor Gonzalez, Sound Engineer
Brooke Jennings, Costume Designer
Liz Johnson, Production Assistant
Heather Kelly-Laws, Stage Manager
Amar Khalsa, Clarinet Sub
Devon LaBelle, Props Designer
Dave Maier, Fight Director
Caitlin McFann, Sound Sound Board Op
Ray Oppenheimer, Lighting Designer
Leigh Rondon-Davis, Assistant Director
Caitlin Steinmann, Master Electrician
Matt Stines, Sound Designer
Derek Sup, Piano/Associate Conductor

*Member of United Scenic Artists Local 829

The Band
Daniel Alley, Music Director, Piano/Conductor
Dup Crosson, Drums
Jorge Hernandez-Lopez, Alto Sax/Flute
Morgan Brittni Sonnenfeld, Clarinet

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What a Difference a Day Makes

Groundhog Day

Cameron La Brie, Sophia Introna*, Michael Motroni,  Jorge Luis Diaz

Book by Danny Rubin; Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed by Susi Damilano
Music direction by Dave Dobrusky
Choreography by Nicole Helfer

San Francisco Playhouse, San Francisco

Until January 18, 2020

Reviewed by Christine Okon

SF Playhouse brings a bit o’ brightness with “Groundhog Day,” an uplifting story about second chances, redemption, and the importance of cherishing each moment. Although it takes place on February 2nd in Punxsutawney, PA when the famous rodent reveals or does not reveal its shadow, “Groundhog Day” fits right in with the ancient belief of bringing Yule light to the darkest nights of winter.

Based on the 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray, “Groundhog Day” gives rich life to the people in the small town where jaded weatherman Phil Connors (Dean Linnard, the understudy for Ryan Drummond) is assigned to report on the yearly reveal regarding the groundhog’s shadow. Linnard projects the smugness, disdain, and boredom of a man who sees himself as the center of his own universe, impatient to get out of the drudge town until he slips into a time loop where he must repeat February 2 again and again and again, waking up to the same annoying alarm clock in the same plain little B&B where he encounters the same people in their mundane daily routines. To Phil, “There's nothing more depressing than small town, USA / and there is no town smaller than Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day.”

Ryan Drummond

Phil spins like a small cog in a larger clock, the clock of the day-to-day life we all must lead. Edward T. Morris’s ingenious stage design reminds me of a medieval cosmology where the rotating stage signals the passing of the days while Phil spins in his orbit. Gripped by boredom, he tries to escape “empty smiles in empty faces, the same old places, this stunning stasis” and tries everything from rudeness to cruelty to reckless behavior as he descends into a depression that leads him to creative but unsuccessful (and funny) suicide attempts. It’s a perfect metaphor for addiction where one does the same thing hoping for different results.

Scott Taylor-Cole, Jorge Luis Diaz, Ryan Drummond

While Phil careens through frenzied, frustrated confusion, we learn more about the other townsfolk who are also struggling with their lives. Phil joins two local good old boys, Gus (David Schiller) and Ralph (Jorge Luis Diaz), on a wild ride in a pickup truck where they sing a C&W lament about their routine lives: “I wake up hungover / I go to bed smashed / Like an alcoholic hamster / On one of them little wheelie things…”

In “One Day,” each character in the town voices what they want..some day. Rita Hanson (Rinabeth Apostol), the TV producer Phil tries to impress, sings about finding a real person to love: “...I'd rather be lonely / Than sit on my fanny / Waiting for my prince to come…” Apostol plays Rita with a wonderful mix of humor and skepticism that veils a deep longing for connection. Sophia Introna gives a standout performance with “Playing Nancy,” a heartrending and all-too-common story about a girl who “takes what [she] is given, just to feel the love again.”

Ryan Drummond and Rinabeth Apostol

Trapped in an infinite loop, Phil slowly realizes that it doesn’t matter what he does if he doesn’t connect with others. The passage of time is suggested by Phil’s learning the piano on a spinning stage, going from novice key-plunker to virtuoso over the course of so many days and years, always freshly impressing his teacher (Kathryn Han). His iterative observations of the people around him finally move him toward compassion, and he realizes that he has the chance to redeem himself and help others. Linnard and Apostol sing a beautiful duet “If I had my time again.../ To make mistakes and set them right / Delay the coming of the night.”

"Groundhog Day” is a much needed gift for the spirit, beautifully wrapped in Susi Damilano’s direction and presented by the masterful creative team and ensemble. It’s also a fun speculation on the quantum possibility that the same moment can be revisited, like a spot on Fibonacci spiral.

"Groundhog Day" Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin, Book by Danny Rubin, directed by Susi Damilano. San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, 2nd floor of the Kensington Park Hotel, San Francisco, through January 18, 2020. Info:

Production photos by Jessica Palopoli

CAST on December 6, 2019
Rinabeth Apostol* as Rita Hanson
Jorge Luis Diaz as Fred, DJ, Ralph
Dean Linnard* (for Ryan Drummond) as Phil Connors
Kathryn Han as Doris, Piano Teacher
Sophia Introna as Nancy, Joelle, Healer
Larissa Kelloway as Mrs. Lancaster, Healer
Cameron La Brie as Chubby Man, Deputy
Scott Taylor-Cole (for Dean Linnard) as Ned Ryerson
Michael Motroni as Mr. Cleveland, Stormchaser, Elder
Montel Anthony Nord as Jeff, Groundhog, Bartender Billy
Danielle Philapil as Mrs. Cleveland, Stormchaser, Healer
Anthony Rollins-Mullens* as Sheriff, Healer
Bobby Singer (for David Schiller) as Jenson, Elder
Loreigna Sinclair as Debbie, Nurse, DJ
Michael Gene Sullivan* as Buster, Healer
David Schiller (for Scott Taylor-Cole) as Larry, Gus

*Member of Actors' Equity Association

Susi Damilano DIRECTOR
Sydney Isabelle Mayer DRAMATURG

Thursday, December 5, 2019

St. Joan through a Modern Lens

Mother of the Maid

Rosie Hallett, Sherman Fracher, and Scott Coopwood  Photo: Kevin Berne

By Jane Anderson
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley

Until December 15, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

If Joan of Arc were alive today, she might be a media “influencer” with a huge following. Although set in 14th Century France, Jane Anderson’s “Mother of the Maid” has a modern feel that allows us to relate to the whole Joan: Joan the stubborn and outspoken teen, passionate leader, inspired saint, and ordinary girl who calls for her mother in times of suffering.

Mother of the Maid” widens the scope to include how Joan’s rise and demise affects her family, especially her mother Isabelle Arc (Sherman Fracher), a simple peasant woman occupied with the day-to-day tasks of  maintaining a home while trying to handle a daughter she doesn’t quite understand. Fracher takes her character from everyday exasperation to awed reverence and finally to heartbreaking grief when she tries to save her daughter. Isabelle walks 300 miles to visit her famous daughter in the palace, and Fracher deftly moves between the pride and awkwardness of a peasant who has never imagined such kind treatment of the exquisite court lady, played with regal stature and warm curiosity by an elegant Liz Sklar.

Sherman Fracher  Photo: Kevin Berne

Rosie Hallett gives us a strong, passionate, and stubborn Joan who is driven by her connection to St. Catherine, St. Margaret, and the warrior Archangel Michael to carry out a holy mission to restore the Dauphin to his rightful place as king of France. Hallett shines as the young peasant girl who doesn’t hold back with expletives and becomes the magnificent spiritual warrior who transcends her mortal surroundings. The powers that be seize upon the opportunity to use Joan as a symbol of what is good and noble about France. In a sense, she is put forth to improve the “brand” of the Dauphin and to rally the populace in support.  Why, even her style of mannish dress becomes fashionable for other young girls of the kingdom. Joan is given the royal treatment, literally, securing a spot in the luxurious castle while public acclaim swells. She is joined by her brother Pierre, played with a cocksure demeanor by Brennan Pickman-Thoon, who enjoys the palace benefits as his sister ascends in grace and notoriety, until the rules of the game are changed to demonize her for the very thing she was revered for. She becomes a pawn in  the nefarious machinations of the political religious dynamic of the times, only to be discarded and destroyed.

Rosie Hallett  Photo: Kevin Berne

The chasm of class difference is clear, and Fracher exudes the spirit of a proud but simple woman trying to navigate deep, dark, political, and religious-- waters. Despite the whirlwind of her daughter's life and being awed by Joan’s ascendant transformation, Isabelle’s love for Joan is the true constant. As Joan’s father Jacques Arc, Scott Coopwood gives a fine performance of a man who at first seems preoccupied with everyday concerns until he becomes he steadfastly witnesses his daughter’s cruel execution. Johnson’s device of characters narrating their own stories before moving into action is very effective, creating a story within a story.

Every character experiences profound and complex transformations that are expertly directed by Jasson Minadakis.

Rosie Hallett and Sherman Fracher  Photo: Kevin Berne

Special attention must be paid to Sean Fanning’s versatile and resplendent set design that suggests a peasant’s home as well as a castle. Sarah Smith’s expert costume design is wonderfully detailed and crafted, from the whipstitching on the hems of ragged peasant garb to the sparkling embroidery of the court. You could almost smell the dung balls on the sheep and the perfume of the palace.

"Mother of the Maid" is a powerful production with a superb cast that expands the familiar story of the Maid of Orleans to reveal how families share in the volatile and unpredictable forces of fame.

"Mother of the Maid" by Jane Anderson, directed by Jasson Minadakis, Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley, through December 15, 2019. Info:

*Sherman Fracher: ISABELLE ARC
*Rosie Hallett: JOAN ARC
*Scott Coopwood: JACQUES ARC
*Brennan Pickman-Thoon: PIERRE ARC
*Robert Sicular: FATHER GILBERT

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association