Review: 'Rashomon' at Ubuntu Theater Project

Jordan Nickels

When several come forward, claiming to speak the truth, we look for truth. That is the dilemma in Ubuntu Theater Project’s Rashomon, adapted for the stage by Philip Kan Gotanda.

Rashomon is based on Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's short stories “Rashomon” and “In the Grove,” which later inspired the 1950 Japanese film of the same name. In this stage production, Akutagawa looks on as the Woodcutter, Wigmaker, and Priest discuss the discovery of a dead samurai’s body. They hear testimony from the Bandit, who interacted with the Samurai, the Samurai’s, the Samurai himself from the beyond, and the Woodcutter, who we learned witnessed the event.

Crossing back and forth between the present and the stories of each witness, the ensemble take on dual roles as Akutagawa occasionally intervenes with his creations. Each actor brought something different between their two roles; Christine Jamlig an excellent sense of chaos with the Wigmaker and control with the Wife, Jomar Tagatac balanced reserve with strength between the Woodcutter and the Samurai, and Ogie Zuleta went from holy man to a man equally hilarious and revolting in his behavior. Steven Ho who played the writer Akutagawa, was charming and brought an excellent sense of playful sarcasm to the source material.

The script was both hilarious and powerful, and credit goes to playwright Philip Kan Gotanda for adding new layers to a story surrounding such an iconic piece of Japanese film. Rashomon delved deep into the famous plot convention the original film created, of multiple characters providing subjective yet alternative accounts of the same incident. However, this story not only played on fact and fiction, but also on the mental stability and spirituality of these characters.

What holds the mind together? What holds the soul together?  The audience is challenged to not only find the answers, but also question the validity of the source. Once a lie is spoken, it can become a truth. Speaks volumes to the current dilemma in our culture of how we are getting our information. 

I was also blown away by the space in which the play was performed, which looked very much like a Japanese style kabuki theater.  The set was littered with manuscripts and tossed away ideas, a barrier of paper that Akutagawa had to navigate to get to his story. The scenic design made its own statement, as well as the dramatic lighting design.

If you love Japanese storytelling and new works, go see this spectacular production of Rashomon by the Ubuntu Theater Project in Oakland. Running now through September 17th, tickets can be purchased at ubuntutheaterproject.com.

Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com , Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8

Review: 'Zenith' at San Francisco Playhouse

Jordan Nickels

Life is a series of expectations and goals you set for yourself, that get you to where you want to eventually be. But what does it take to get there, to that highest point? This path is explored through Kirsten Greenidge’s new play Zenith, currently running at San Francisco Playhouse.

The play is a fictionalized account of a real-life mother of two named Diane Schuler, and piecing together the life behind a person involved in a tragedy. We live in a time where we are faced with tragedy daily in the media, and take the people we see tied to these events in black and white terms. However, Greenidge considered the grey area of this woman’s imagined past, to see if there was more to this perpetrator in terms of the motives behind her actions.

We meet Angela, a busy mother, a devoted wife, and a loving aunt…with an incredibly painful toothache. We experience the world swirling around as rapidly as the pain in her lower jaw, memories in her life leading up to the unfortunate event. Despite her determination, we see a woman with the Earth bearing down on her shoulders, incapable of reaching the highest point, the American Dream she has set out to claim. 

I thought Atim Udoffia did an excellent job of portraying Angela, playing a woman so strong and upbeat, but at the same time unstable and unable to ask for help. She balanced this character’s emotions brilliantly, never missing a stride. The show was rounded out by an incredible ensemble cast, including Indiia Wilmott and Sally Dana, who played the various female characters that took an incredible amount of range and personality, and Nia Fairweather, who’s final monologue as Hazel seized the audience’s full attention.

 Credit should be given to the director, Lauren English, for taking on this challenging, fast-moving piece. It was incredibly smart in the space they were in to use a profile staging, which gave us the feeling that the audience was closing in on Angela’s world and narrowing her viewpoint. The pacing was great and allowed the characters to never miss a beat, but also take their time with some very crucial moments with Greenidge’s words.

While it took me some time to get into this play, towards the end the complications all made sense. This nonlinear rush of snapshots, glimpses into Angela’s life, were a race to the top. One of the last texts she sends to her brother, Tim, at the campgrounds was that she was reaching her zenith, which means a highest point or state, a culmination. This play propelled the audience to the zenith, as we viewed everything in Angela’s life that lead her to this moment of culmination, and left the characters, and the audience, to deal with the aftermath. Like the climax to any story, your highest point may also be your lowest, and it’s important to know that behind every event, no matter how tragic, there is a person. They may not always be right or wrong, but there is a person there, and they have a story too, and a pinnacle they try to reach.

Zenith by Kirsten Greenidge is a part of the Sandbox Series of new plays at San Francisco Playhouse. See this world premiere play now through September 10th at A.C.T.’s Costume Shop in San Francisco.

Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com , Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8

Featured (left to right) Indiia Wilmott (Mom 2), Atim Udoffia (Angela), Nia Fairweather(Hazel) Photo: Ken Levin

Review: “La Cage Aux Folles” at San Francisco Playhouse

Jordan Nickels

On Saturday evening, I climbed the steps of the San Francisco Playhouse to enter a theater transformed into the gaudy yet fabulous night club of 1983 musical La Cage Aux Folles.  This musical makes you laugh, makes you cry, and gives you a traditional Broadway score performed by a cast of not so traditional characters. But this production captures the heart that the original production accomplished, during a time when a musical with two men falling in love was taboo.

Credit is given to this incredibly talented cast, that makes this production truly shine. Ryan Drummond as Georges charmed and complimented the hilarious John Treacy Egan as Albin/Zaza, who gave an astounding performance of the musical’s Act I Finale “I Am What I Am.” While Brian Yates Sharber’s Jacob was just breaking into the chorus, he quickly snatched the spotlight and stole the show. Credit must also be given to the impeccable singing and dancing talents of Nikita Burshteyn as Jean-Michel. And who could forget the chorus of Les Cagelles performers, each lady as glamourous and unique as the last.

In what appears to be a smaller venue at first glance, I was not expecting the incredible rotating set. Between Georges and Albin’s apartment, to the café outside, each were equally full of French charm. As the scenes changed, the set slowly turned to show a shadow box illuminating the alluring Cagelles girls that elevated the ambiance of La Cage. The costume, hair, and makeup team should be commended for bringing to life the incredible drag scene that is a staple in San Francisco, from Zaza’s performance outfits to Jacob’s powdered wig and colonial garb. 

In 1983, La Cage Aux Folles had its first tryout in Boston, going somewhere theater had never gone before regarding LGBT stories for a Broadway audience. The creative team of Jerry Herman, Harvey Fierstein, and Arthur Laurents huddled in the back of the theater, wondering what they got themselves into. However, audiences were met with a love story between two homosexual men, and cheered at the finale as they walked into the sunset. The musical was a hit.

While La Cage Aux Folles is known for its themes of drag and gay relationships, many forget to mention the musical’s strong since of family values. During a time now where LGBT rights and representation are so important, it’s refreshing to see La Cage represent a new modern family, showing this musical stands the tests of time. In the song “Look Over There,” Georges reminds Jean-Michel of how Albin stepped in to take care of them and treated Jean as his own son. “Someone puts himself last, so that you can come first.” As entertaining as this cast was to watch, they also brought the emotional impact of this story, showing us that sometimes in the LGBT community, we not only get to pick our families, but sometimes they also get to choose us.  

For an evening of fantastic drag, incredible music, and heartfelt characters, be sure to visit the San Francisco Playhouse’s production of La Cage Aux Folles, running until September 16th.

Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com , Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8

Theater Tech: First Time for Second Time Around

Kris Neely

These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

A high school student is interviewing a ninety-two-year-young man on videotape. The elder’s tales of life, love, innocence lost, and wisdom found are told to his teenaged counterpart accompanied by the soulful melodies of a cello.

The Rocky Horror Show, this is not. Second Time Around, written and performed by Charlie Varon and accompanied by cellist Joan Jeanrenaud on The Marsh’s San Francisco stage, is touted as a “duet for cello and storyteller.” The premise is refreshing and would have been more impactful had both artists brought bring their A-games. While I felt the storytelling didn’t match the cello playing, the result was still an interesting theater experience.  

***

Scenic Design

Presented on a bare stage—save seats and music stands—there is no scenic design to speak of. However, the spare setting does succeed in drawing the audience’s focus into the story and music. While there was no need to spend the time or money on an unneeded set, a slide show backdrop might have added a certain visual interest to the otherwise static tableau of storyteller and cellist. (Score: N/A)

Set Construction

Per above, no score. (Score: N/A)

Stage Management

In that no one made an entrance or exit except to start and end the performance, and there were no noticeable light cues other than lights-up and lights-down, the stage management was perfunctory.  (Score: 5/10)

Costumes

The performers were dressed in street attire. (Score: N/A)

Sound           

Kelly Witters ran the soundboard for this show. (Score: 5/10)

Props

There were no props for the show.  (Score: N/A.)

Direction

According to a comment made by Mr. Varon, he and director David Ford have worked together on various shows for more than 20 years. Their familiarity may not have helped this show. Mr. Ford’s directing choices felt too safe, too predictable. As a result, Mr. Varon’s performance was muted, failing to capitalize on the dramatic and comedic possibilities of the material, eliminating any opportunity to elicit an emotional reaction through intense beats or quietude. This was somewhat surprising considering Mr. Varon wrote the dialog. (Score: 5/10)

Lights

Kelly Witters also operated the light board and as previously noted there was little for her beyond lights-up and lights-down. The low score here should in no way reflect on Ms. Witters. Rather, I believe the director should have/could have used subtle lighting changes to help add emotional and visual impact—not to mention interest—to this production.   (Score: 2/10)

Casting

Ms. Jeanrenaud, who wrote the original cello score for the production, is a cellist of world-renown. Her playing and intonation were superb, inspired, and breathtaking in range. In fact, her execution and use of dynamic and sonic range was so profound as to cast Mr. Varon’s performance into a dimmer light, making any comparison come across as damning with faint praise. That is always the risk in putting a very good talent on stage next to a world-class talent. (Score Mr. Varon: 6/10. Score: Ms. Jeanrenaud: 9/10)

Overall Production

The concept of Second Time Around is solid. The storyline is interesting if somewhat slow to start. The music is superb, so the production should not be missed if for no other reason than to hear Ms. Jeanrenaud play in the intimate environment of The Marsh San Francisco.

As noted, the direction by Mr. Ford and the acting by Mr. Varon, while professional and capable, were workmanlike and uninspired.  (Score: 6/10)

Overall Theater Tech Score: Just okay, except for the playing of Ms. Jeanrenaud, which was exceptional. (38/70)


Second Time Around by Charlie Varon

Directed by David Ford

The Marsh, San Francisco, CA

Tickets for The Marsh available online at themarsh.org

Run time: 1 hour 15 minutes with no intermission

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics’ Circle and an award-winning stage director. In 2013 Neely earned an SFBATCC Best Director award for Lend Me a Tenor (Ross Valley Players) and his direction of Leading Ladies for Novato Theater Company was listed as one of the 10 Best Plays of 2014 in the North Bay by the Marin Independent Journal newspaper. He was also nominated for a 2013 Outstanding Production Shellie Award for directing A Case of Libel for the Pittsburg Community Theater.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found online at Aisle Seat Reviews https://aisleseatreview.wordpress.com/, For All Events (www.forallevents.com), Marin Onstage (http://backstage.marinonstage.org), and nationally at OnStage (www.onstageblog.com).

Review: Theater Tech - Good People at Role Players Ensemble

Kris Neely

By Kris Neely

These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

According to the program for this show, “Margie Walsh is barely getting by on her Dollar Store salary. When she loses her job and faces eviction, she takes a chance by rekindling things with an old flame, hoping for a fresh start. Quirky, unpredictable, and grounded in a genuine humor that comes from hitting rock bottom, Good People will have you laughing one moment and crying the next as it explores the natures of our loyalties and our hopes.”

Mr. Linday-Abaire’s script shows us characters we easily recognize, and it is character that underpins this play. We know Maggie is on the ropes practically from the tenth line of dialog and watching her trying to keep her financial head above water tells us much about her, her workmates, and her “friends.” It’s familiar territory we’ve all seen before, yet the script avoids the clichéd, the predictable, and the obvious moments when lesser writers would have played on our heartstrings. What you see is what you get and what you get is a realistic, naturalistic view into everywhere, everyday lower-middle class life, character, and motivations.

As rendered by Role Players Ensemble (RPE), the production was competent and for the most part well rendered.  An increase in tempo and a bit more drive, combined with a little more attention to some technical shortcomings would have gone a long way to making this play as funny/quirky/hard-hitting in person as it is on the page.

***

Scenic Design

Set designer Robert B. Golden and director Eric F. Hayes chose to use projection of various indoor and outdoor images against the upstage wall where other theaters might have relied on built sets. When done with taste and serious attention to the selection of imagery—as was the case here—this method can add dimension to staging while helping rein in the production’s budget. The rest of the set consisted primarily of various rotating wall units that showed the exterior wall in an alley, the interior wall of a professional’s office, and so on.   (Score: 7/10)

Set Construction

Overall, the constructed units for this show were adequate. One wonders if using three-sided units might have permitted faster scene changes.  (Score: 7/10)

Stage Management

Randal Chun, assisted by Jessica Riley, stage managed the show. Entrances were crisp, cues were universally tight, but set changes were much too slow—a common problem in local and regional theater today. When the audience is wrapped up in the story and characters, trying to puzzle out the latest plot device or enjoy a stitch-inducing laugh line, a slow set change lets the air out of the balloon, and the audience has to reset. It’s understandable that some set changes need to be stretched a bit to accommodate quick costume changes, but these too must be rehearsed to minimize the time involved.    (Score: 7/10)

Sound           

Ron Evans was responsible for the competent sound design. A bit more refinement in sound effects selection or in re-mixing the ball sounds might have underscored the crispness of the bingo scene. Ditto the bingo announcer sound effects. There were obvious comic cues in the character’s dialogue that went unmined.   (Score: 7/10)

Props and Costumes

Lisa Danz is a backstage veteran with a lengthy resume to her credit. Props were wisely limited to essentials and were well selected and presented. Similarly, costume selection was competent, albeit a bit too predictable. Also, the telephone used should have had a cord between handset and base. (Props score: 7/10. Costume Score: 7/10)

Direction

The show was directed by RPE Artistic Director Eric F. Hayes. Overall direction was solid, professional, and experienced. That said, more crispness in both the overall pacing of the show and in the aforementioned set changes would have added zest.  I’m also not a huge fan of accents in local or even regional theater unless absolutely required by the part/production or from a native speaker. Even with the best dialog coach—and this production enjoyed the expertise of Robin Taylor—accents add a 5-10 percent tardiness factor to each line/scene/act. Blocking could have had some natural activity added to give the play a bit more motion. (Score: 8/10)

Lights

Stephanie Lutz was the lighting designer for this production. Ms. Lutz is a journeyman-level lighting designer and it showed in this production. This theater enjoys an abundance of lighting instruments with which to light a scene. Unless there was some technical issue rendering the other instruments unavailable for use, there was no reason for dim spots between actors. This is especially true in set pieces where actors don’t move about a great deal, such as the bingo scene. Combining traditional lighting design with image projection to the rear, as opposed to rear projection of images, can make maintaining correct light levels and mixes tricky, to be sure. But dim spots are devoutly to be avoided at all costs. (Score: 5/10)

Casting

Mr. Hayes selected an able cast for his show. Of particular note was Bonnie Dechant in the role of Jean, a solid, skillful performance.

Melanie Dupuy was very competent as Margaret—a role originated on Broadway by Frances McDormand. A recent transplant from Los Angeles, we look forward to seeing more work from this solid talent. As Mike, Ed Nattenberg created a nicely nuanced character.   (Score: 7.5/10)

Overall Production

As a whole, this production was competently mounted and presented. The book, by an obviously gifted playwright, will no doubt become a stalwart in local and regional theaters. Casting had some notable bright spots. A bit more pacing, tighter lighting design, and faster set changes would have resulted in a higher score.  (Score: 7/10)

Overall Theater Tech Score: (69.50/100) -- Good.

Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire

Directed by Eric F. Hayes

Role Players Ensemble, Village Theater, Danville, CA

Tickets for RPE productions available online at vtboxoffice@ci.danville.ca.us.

Run time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics’ Circle and an award-winning stage director. In 2013 Neely earned an SFBATCC Best Director award for Lend Me a Tenor (Ross Valley Players) and his direction of Leading Ladies for Novato Theater Company was listed as one of the 10 Best Plays of 2014 in the North Bay by the Marin Independent Journal newspaper. He was also nominated for a 2013 Outstanding Production Shellie Award for directing A Case of Libel for the Pittsburg Community Theater.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found online at Aisle Seat Reviews https://aisleseatreview.wordpress.com/, For All Events (www.forallevents.com), Marin Onstage (http://backstage.marinonstage.org), and nationally at OnStage (www.onstageblog.com).

Theatre Tech Review: "One Man Two Guvnors" Shines

Kris Neely

These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

When the noted British actor Edmund Kean (allegedly) uttered, “Dying is easy…comedy is hard,” he was probably talking about farce.  For as difficult as farce is for an actor to do even moderately well, it’s even harder to mount a production that knocks the genre out of the park, but that’s what director Carl Jordan and his band of actors and designers have achieved at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse.

Based on Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell'arte classic The Servant of Two Masters and given a thorough dipping in all things British by playwright Richard Bean, the production is an homage to every pratfall, shtick, not-so-subtle sexual innuendo, kick-in-the-crotch, sight gag, and joke from groaner to giggler. That said, the play—which enjoyed successful runs on Broadway and in the West End—takes a while to really get into gear. While not all of the jokes are of Mark Twain Award quality, from act 1, scene 4 on, the show really cooks. 

The play revolves around Francis Henshall (Craig A. Miller) and his shambling attempts to serve two masters, get paid from both his employers, placate his ravenous appetite, and woo Dolly (Melissa Claire), a 1963 feminist-before-her-time complete with a costumer-enhanced rack that could rival a Cadillac of the same vintage.

There are a mere handful of stage directors in the San Francisco Bay area—and beyond—who could approach, much less top, Jordan’s deft hand at casting, stage traffic management, and script dissection.
***

Scenic Design

Steve Piechocki’s scenic design is intriguing: the two doors that anchor the set remain in place while the rest of the set rotates on a turntable. The choice of paint creates a highly stylized set that is visually somewhat reminiscent of 1970s-era cartoons by DePatie-Freleng. (Score: 8/10)
Set Construction 

The set was well served by an intriguing combination of solid door flats—necessary to survive all the door-slamming typical in a farce)—and lightweight materials in the actual wall structures that enabled the whole set to better move on the turntable. (Score: 8/10)

Stage Management 

A four-piece live band played clever and appropriate music to cover the overly long scene changes.  Some entrances were a beat or two tardy, but considering the numbers of actors moving in and out of the play’s many scenes, overall stage management by Sylvia Jones was solid, as was prop management and location. (See Props below) (Score: 7/10)

1MAN.jpg

Sound     

Craig Miller’s sound design was effective and unobtrusive, a skill surprisingly rare at the community and regional theater levels. (Score: 8/10)

Props 

In a show as prop-laden as this, the true artistry is in making the multitude of props blend-in organically with the action and not bolted-on or placed onstage just to…well, place them onstage. Ben Harper and Meghan Hakes deserve kudos for this properties selection. (Score: 9/10).

Hair, Makeup, and Costumes 

The show is set in 1963. Pamela Johnson’s hair, makeup, and costumes were consistently good-to-excellent.  (Makeup Score: 8/10), (Costume Score: 9/10), (Hair Score: 7/10) 

Direction 

Carl Jordan is the finest theater director in the North Bay, bar none. He deserves to be working in venues such as Marin Theater Company, SF Playhouse, Custom Made Theater, Shotgun Theater, and similar, more visible venues—and said venues would be fortunate to have his services. (Score: 9/10)

Lights

April George’s lighting design was almost flawless. The color choices and general light plot were well executed and better than almost any production I’ve seen in the past six months---except for a noticeable dim spot downstage center. Every time an actor stepped into that location there was a noticeable, and irritating, loss of illumination. (Score: 7/10)

Casting

Carl Jordan’s casting was solid. I have yet to see one actor in the North Bay who could play the role of Francis Henshall as well as 6th Street’s artistic director Craig A. Miller. His performance alone is a thesis on multiple aspects of stage comedy.  (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production

Overall, this production is superior to 90 percent of North Bay stagings in general, and 98 percent of North Bay comedies. There were a few night-after-opening-night jitters in the performance I saw, but such is live theater, especially following opening night. This production will just get tighter—and by extension, even funnier—as the run continues.  (Score: 9/10)

Reviewer Score 
Go see it. Twice! (Score: 9/10)
Overall Theater Tech Score: (106/130) Outstanding work.

One Man Two Guvnors by Richard Bean
Directed by Carl Jordan
Through Feb 7, 2016
6th Street Playhouse
Santa Rosa, CA
Tickets available online at http://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Run time: 2.5 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics’ Circle and an award-winning stage director. In 2013 Neely earned an SFBATCC Best Director award for Lend Me a Tenor (Ross Valley Players) and his direction of Leading Ladies for Novato Theater Company was listed as one of the 10 Best Plays of 2014 in the North Bay by the Marin Independent Journal newspaper. He was also nominated for a 2013 Outstanding Production Shellie Award for directing A Case of Libel for the Pittsburg Community Theater.
Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found online at For All Events (www.forallevents.com), Marin Onstage (http://backstage.marinonstage.org), and OnStage (www.onstageblog.com).

Review: Beyond Right and Wrong — Cops and Robbers at The Marsh

Kris Neely

Cops and Robbers is an important piece of theater. As presented at The Marsh in Berkeley, CA, it is also raw, honest, and powerful, demanding more than just passive viewing. This is theater that challenges the audience, regardless of ethnicity, to honestly assess their perceptions—and assumptions—on race in America.

In  Cops and Robbers, Mr. Jinho Ferreira plays 17 wildly different roles including a self-centered news reporter, a black activist, an amazingly comic white conservative talk show host, a judge, and a hyped-up police department sergeant. The plot of this 90-minute, one-man theater piece turns on the now all-too-familiar topic of an officer-involved shooting, with the host of characters morphing in and out of the show to tell the story from each person’s perspective.

To be fair, the production needs some minor editing/tightening, more consistent lighting, better microphone management, and a re-designed opening video montage that better engages the audience.

Yet, it is a  damned important piece of theater, well rendered by an actor/playwright focused on asking essential questions through his writing, storytelling, and acting.

This reviewer left The Marsh not just liking, not merely appreciating, but actively respecting Mr. Ferreira and his work as a playwright and as an actor.

Each character in  Cops and Robbers is the personification of an ethical viewpoint the playwright encountered growing up in West Oakland, CA. Mr. Ferreira’s insightful writing and bravura performance, goes where few American theater productions go by asking the audience a single, powerful, pervasive question: what will you do with your new knowledge, awareness, and insider view of topics many of us prefer to hear about in sanitized sound bites—if we want to hear about them at all.

This play takes on difficult topics—black-on-black crime, police officers’ use of force, American politics, the power of social media—and shows the audience how the people in these societal factions often do not speak the same language, value the same things, or make much of an effort to understand one another.  Mr. Ferreira is trying to drill down to the essence—not the stereotypes or popular perceptions—of those who live on these cultural islands, which are informed by ideology, pride, power (real and imagined), tradition, money, influence, and pain.

Typically, a play review discusses what the production is about. I believe in this case it is equally important to discuss what this play and performance is not.
It is not:
a politically-driven rant
a Black Power endorsement wrapped in the lights, costumes, and imagery of the stage.
an indictment of the power structure (whatever you deem that to be)
anti-white or anti-black
pro-black or pro-white
a classically-trained actor exploiting the onslaught of shooting and police-in-the-news stories
dumbed-down
Mr. Ferreira endeavors to go beyond right/wrong, white/black, yes/no and stereotypes to lead the audience beyond themselves to a new level of understanding; to see reality as it is and not as we think it is, or would like it to be.

This reviewer places lots of value on craft. As an actor, I applaud his work. As a writer, I’m amazed at the subtlety of his script. As a director, it would be an honor to work with a talent as powerful and singular as Jinho Ferreira. As an audience member who has experienced Mr. Ferreira’s craft and heard the messages of his play, my take-away—my responsibility—is to spread the word of this singular achievement.

If you like theater that supplies pat answers, this is not your show. If you like theater that asks you to think, that asks you to examine your perceptions, that urges and inspires you to  act and be part of the solution then this is your show.

Cops and Robbers is that rarest of experiences: essential and important theater.
 
Cops and Robbers
Directed by Ami Zins and Lew Levinson.
Written by Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Ferreira, who describes himself as a self-taught actor and playwright, is also a musician, singer, father of three, and Alameda County Sherriff’s Deputy.
Mature content: appropriate for ages 15+.
Runs  SATURDAY AFTERNOONS ONLY at 5:00 p.m. through October 3, 2015; dark on 9/19/15.
The Marsh Theater, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA

Tickets available online at  www.themarsh.org or by phone at 415.282.3055 1:00-4:00 p.m. Mon-Fri

Run time: 90 minutes with one intermission.

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics’ Circle and an award-winning stage director. In 2013 Neely earned an SFBATCC Best Director award for ‘Lend Me a Tenor’ (Ross Valley Players) and his direction of ‘Leading Ladies’ for Novato Theater Company was listed as one of the 10 Best Plays of 2014 in the North Bay by the Marin Independent Journal newspaper. He was also nominated for a 2013 Outstanding Production Shellie Award for directing ‘A Case of Libel’ for the Pittsburg Community Theater.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found online at For All Events ( www.forallevents.com ), Marin Onstage (http://backstage.marinonstage.org), and OnStage (www.onstageblog.com).

PHOTO: Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira in COPS & ROBBERS at The Marsh

Review: 'Company' is Here and That’s Good News!

Kris Neely

SF Playhouse has learned a secret uncovered by few community and regional theaters: big musicals in the June 1 to Sept. 1 time-frame can make serious money. Especially in tourist destination cities or areas.

Raising a vodka gimlet to toast their own obvious success with this secret (as witnessed by the near sell-out audience last Saturday night), SF Playhouse’s production of Company, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, went down as smooth as a cocktail and left many patrons with a satisfied glow as a result.

Company is not your typical all-singing-all-dancing musical. In fact, there’s little enough dancing in the show—this is a musical with the emphasis on the music and the singing. Company is not a sort of A-to-Z straight-line plot, either. The show is composed of a variety of scenes that taken as a whole tell our tale.

Images courtesy of SF Playhouse

Images courtesy of SF Playhouse

The scenes/music/singing all revolve around the dating / marriage / commitment / relationships of one newly 35-year-old man named Bobby, played with almost detached studied aplomb by Keith Pinto. A perpetual bachelor and bon vivant, Bobby, and his married friends, are celebrating his birthday; that, in essence, is the story line.

As directed by SF Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano, Company eschews the full orchestration and electric guitars of most productions, relying instead on two pianos, located stage left and stage right. Music Director Dave Dobrusky presides over one of these pianos and surely conducts his charges. The effect of this two-piano strategy is more personal, less grandiose than a full or even partial orchestra.

The set design by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott is elegant on many levels because the set is built on, you guessed it, many levels. The scenic rear projections as designed by Micah Stieglitz add a powerful theatrical touch to the proceedings. The sound design by Anton Hedman works well, as does the lighting design by Michael Oesch.

Stage management by Tatjana Genser is tight with sound and light cues snappily in place. Costume design by Shannon Sigman takes full marks—elegant, well designed, and nicely rendered. All the actors looked darn good in Sigman’s work. The props design is fine—what props need to be in place are in place, work well, and underscore scenes nicely.

Images courtesy of SF Playhouse

Images courtesy of SF Playhouse

Choreography by Kimberly Richards, ably assisted by Morgan Dayley, is sharp and professional, given the limitations on dancing room due to the multi-plane set.

Let’s move on to the acting. Overall, the casting and associated acting of this show is a little bit uneven, but, to be sure, the acting is in general rendered with obvious verve and commitment.

I do wish we’d gotten to see a bit more of Abby Sammons’ (Jenny) good work. This is a talented lady.

Then there is Monique Hafen as Amy.

Can I say, “Oh. My. God.” in a review? There’s nothing else to say. To say Hafen nails the anxiety, the intensity, the comedy, and the speed-singing of Amy, who may not be getting married today, is like saying the Mona Lisa is “a pretty, sort of, mostly OK drawing.” Once Hafen starts acting and singing, almost all the other cast members turn to specters at worst or supporting actors/singers at best. Hafen is the most exciting and engaging musical performer in this cast, bar none. If she doesn’t have a suitcase permanently packed for Broadway by her home’s front door she’s doing something wrong.

Another notable performance is rendered by Joanne (Stephanie Prentice). Never far from a bar or a drink, the fragile, emotional wreck that is Joanne has one of the most powerful songs of the night (“The Ladies Who Lunch”) and Prentice nailed it cold.

Full marks must be given to Morgan Dayley in her character as a flight attendant who spends as much time looking up at bedroom ceilings as she does looking down airplane aisles. Dayley gives the role her all and does so without stepping into cliché or camp. Watch this performer, she is going places.

“Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?” is, I will admit, one of my favorite dance numbers and SF Playhouse did it with gusto. Overall, the music and singing were quite good.

All in all, SF Playhouse’s Company is a fine night on the town.

Company continues through Sept. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco.

Tickets are $20-$120 (discounts available). Call 415-677-9596 or visit http://www.sfplayhouse.org.

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle. He is a stage director who earned an SFBATCC Best Director award (‘Lend Me a Tenor’, Ross Valley Players) in 2013, an Outstanding Production Shellie Award nomination for directing ‘A Case of Libel’ for Pittsburg Community Theater, and his direction of ‘Leading Ladies’ for Novato Theater Company was listed as one of the 10 Best Plays of 2014 in the North Bay by the Marin Independent Journal newspaper.

Review: Mr. Wilson’s Train is on the Tracks

Kris Neeley

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back reporting that there were more Tennessee Williams theater festivals and events sliding in between similar Shakespeare happenings than ever before. That’s a good thing, to be sure. Yet there is no doubt Mr. August Wilson will be joining those illustrious ranks soon.

Mr. Wilson exploded onto the American theater scene with critically acclaimed plays such as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, as well as Fences (1987 Tony Award, New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, Drama Desk Award, and the Pulitzer Prize) and The Piano Lesson (1990, Pulitzer Prize). 

Mr. Wilson’s command of the black experience in twentieth-century America is second-to-none. His talent for shaping dialog is unquestioned. His characters are realistic, genuine, and thoughtfully rendered while his choice of language is exacting and considered. His plays, including this one, often deal with themes of community loyalty and commitment, to fair play and justice.

Two Trains Running is Mr. Wilson’s seventh effort in his ten-part series of plays entitled The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play was first produced by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and later opened on Broadway in the spring of 1992 at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
The play gives us a complex story based on the lives of ordinary people, a volatile turning point in American history. The location is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the racially charged world of 1969. Mr. Memphis Lee's threadbare cafe is a regular stop for neighborhood folks all trying to understand the cultural maelstrom of the late 1960s. The regulars do their best to come to an accommodation with the swirling tides of change, but not always with the results they intended. 

As the play begins, the city block on which Mr. Memphis's diner is located is due to be torn down in a city renovation project. One of Mr. Memphis’ regular customers is the rich undertaker whose business is located across the street from the diner. The undertaker urges Mr. Memphis to accept his offer to buy the cafe, but his price is unacceptable to the stoic Mr. Memphis. He’s been swindled out of property before and he’s determined to stand his ground this time and get what he thinks his property is worth. 

Another regular to the café is Sterling, a petty ex-con just out of the penitentiary with big dreams for his future. Then there’s Wolf, a bookie, a hustler (in the survival sense of the word) and a man-about-town.  He dresses to the nine’s and is equally focused on the details of his own success. 

Risa is the only female in the cast. A waitress of quiet dignity occupying the still point in this play, she has self-inflicted cuts on her legs, self-mutilation as a barrier between herself and men. Hambone is a mentally disturbed man who seeks comfort in the friendship shown him by Risa. He speaks infrequently but when he does, it’s one variation or another of the phrase, “He gonna give me my ham. I want my ham!”

The senior character in the play is Holloway. He has seen it all and his role is steady anchor, neighborhood philosopher, and ardent proponent of a legendary 322-year-old woman prophet down the street. Although never seen, she radiates a strong influence over the actions of many of the characters in the play, and serves as a reminder of the heritage of Black Americans.

With these strong roots, Mr. Wilson grows a powerful theatrical experience and a strong history lesson for those of us not witness to Black life in 1969. 

As directed by Lewis Campbell with Esperanza Catubig assisting, and rendered by the Multi Ethnic Theater Company and presented in the Gough Street Playhouse in San Francisco, Two Trains Running ran 3 hours including one intermission. The running time is important, as slowness of pacing was an issue on opening night. This play requires pacing more like everyday life, with the dynamics of neighbors talking with neighbors they’ve known for years; that is to say briskly, sometimes obliquely, with awareness of personal quirks and hot buttons, and with every intent to find or deliver a message, a joke, a jab, or a cut. The actors cast in this production are certainly more than capable of doing this sort of work, but on opening night the presentation was too muted. (Note: It was extremely hot in the theater this night and I’m sure that had an impact on the actors. I know it did on the audience.)

Fabian Herd was superb as Wolf, Vernon Medearis a study in subtlety and nuance as West (the undertaker), and Stuart Elwyn Hall every bit the oracle of Black life as Holloway. All three actors demonstrated a keen ability to do what so many actors fail at: to listen to what is being said by other actors, instead of simply waiting for their turn to speak. These gentlemen delivered acting in considered gradations, rendering layered performances which would hold them in good stead with notable theaters across this country. 

The set design, that of a scruffy café so much a part of neighborhoods everywhere, was nicely done. The turquoise booths were period perfect. Unpainted plywood here-and-there emphasized  a business managed with small dollars and ‘just enough’ repairs. Set construction showed care. Making a set look down-on-its-luck without making it look slapdash is harder than one might imagine. The set designer/builders (Lewis Campbell and David Hampton) pulled it off nicely.

Props were period and detailed. Even though no one in the play ate anything which required catsup, the always ubiquitous red plastic catsup dispenser appeared one-third full. The bowl of beans eaten by Hambone were appealing, as was the coffee dispensed by Risa. 
Costumes were period and nicely selected (especially those for Wolf.) A bit more attention to fit would render some costumes perfect.

There is little doubt August Wilson has a ‘reserved seat’ in the pantheon of Greatest American Playwrights. Seeing Multi Ethnic Theater’s production of Two Trains Running shows why.

Two Trains Running continues through August 30th at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St, San Francisco, CA 94109. Discount tickets are available on Goldstar. 

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle. He is a stage director who earned an SFBATCC Best Director award (‘Lend Me a Tenor’, Ross Valley Players) in 2013, an Outstanding Production Shellie Award nomination for directing ‘A Case of Libel’ for Pittsburg Community Theater, and his direction of ‘Leading Ladies’ for Novato Theater Company was listed as one of the 10 Best Plays of 2014 in the North Bay by the Marin Independent Journal newspaper. 

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on For All Events at www.forallevents.com, at Marin Onstage at http://backstage.marinonstage.org/ and on OnStage at http://www.onstageblog.com