Deftly Crafted Dark Comedy in ‘peerless’

Review of peerless
By Jiehae Park
Directed by Margot Bordelon

For tickets & schedule:
Marin Theatre Company
Mill Valley, CA

March 9 – April 2, 2017

RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(March 22, 2017)

Marin Theatre Company - peerless

Photo by Kevin Berne

I will not look at gluten free cookies again without thinking of peerless. Playwright Jiehae Park populates this imaginative retelling of Macbeth with exaggerated versions of high school students we can relate to—D, the dopey nerd who manages to enjoy life in spite of himself, Dirty Girl, who disgusts and mesmerizes, dragging on a cigarette and ignoring expectations, and the driven academic achievers who eschew anything that does not fit into their perfect plan. While realistic, the drama heightens their personalities to throw a light on societal flaws. The pressure of being accepted to “The College” drives students to murder for a place, while gender and race gaps are addressed with brutal satire.

It is the sound of this play that is truly unique. Phrases are tossed back and forth, interrupting in overlapping chorus. The twins, L (Rinabeth Apostol) and M (Tiffany Villarin) begin in unison, almost with their own language, until it becomes clear that one dominates the other, and their relationship takes a damaging codependent turn, changing their intimacy into poison. Sound designer Palmer Hefferan creates an ever shifting background that culminates in the visceral and disturbing skittering rats that travel from one side of the stage to the other, using a trail of small speakers backstage. The atmosphere he creates is chilling, combined with Heather Basarab’s lighting design, which flashes into use during the hauntings.

Marin Theatre Company - peerless

Photo by Kevin Berne

References to Macbeth abound, from knocking to shouts of “Wake up!” a modern translation of “Sleep no more!” Rosie Hallett’s Dirty Girl is grounded with an air of dark prophecy to her, adding layers of magical realism that leaves the audience wondering if perhaps she does see the future. Underneath the snappy repartee is an aura of mysticism that permeates the story, right until the final curtain. Kate Noll’s set design utilizes three sliding doors that move the narrative along—the middle panel might reveal a dance studio bathed in fuchsia light with a chattering L one moment, then close with the far right revealing a high school classroom of M and BF arguing about grades the next. It is a functional and dynamic way to shift between locations, although the brisk pace makes the story difficult to follow without prior familiarity with Macbeth.

M labors under the dictates of her sister, repressing the first glimmer of love, which Villarin’s expressive portrayal displays in soft shifts of expression, discomfort, and guilt which slowly drives her character mad. Apostol’s domineering L carries herself with vicious confidence, bereft of pity in her single-minded goal. Jeremy Kahn as D is awkwardly enthusiastic, naively reminiscing while L plots his downfall. His artless rambling about death and conquering fear is irresistibly charming.

Peerless is a nimble comedy of captivating characters with a twisted sense of humor and remarkable execution. Its clever dialog and ruthless twins take the stage by storm, leaving the audience laughing, and confused as to why they are doing so. Marin Theatre Company’s West Coast premiere of peerless is a rousing success.

Impactful Journey in ‘Program 5: Contemporary Voices’

Program 5: Contemporary Voices
Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson
For tickets & schedule:

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA

RUN: March 9-19, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

March 19, 2017

In these three curated pieces, San Francisco Ballet explores a powerful coming of age story in Salome, the intensely sensual Fearful Symmetries, and a hopeful future in the compelling Fusion from Yuri Possokhov. This is a dynamic program, filled with expressive dancing and poignant choreography.

Fusion - San Francisco Ballet

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Yuri Possokhov’s “Fusion” at San Francisco Ballet. (© Erik Tomasson)

Choreographer: Yuri Possokhov
Composers: Graham Fitkin & Rahul Dev Burman

Delicate musicality infuses this melding of traditional and progressive movement. Enhanced with flowing costumes by Sandra Woodall, white robed men turn in casual fluidity, weaving with serene music and simple undulating torsos. The partnering in Fusion is unusual and creative, utilizing angled port de bras and subtle connections—a comforting hand or light twist of the shoulder. In a dramatic pas de deux, the ballerina darts through a wall of corps de ballet to her waiting partner shrouded in darkness, only to find herself alone, cast back into the light.

The steps have a gentle detail to them, rather like ornate filigree. James F. Ingalls’ lighting design brings the piece from soft twilight through the day, sliding gradually into shadow, with a precision that is reflected throughout. It is a restful piece that is elegant and quietly hopeful.

Salome - San Francisco Ballet

Dores André, right, and Aaron Robison in the world premiere of Arthur
Pita’s “Salome” at San Francisco Ballet. (© Erik Tomasson)

Choreographer: Arthur Pita
Composer: Frank Moon

Loosely based on the Biblical tale of King Herod and Herodias, it wavers on the border between theater and dance; as Ballet Master Katita Waldo pointed out in a pre-performance talk, rather than being driven entirely by the movement, Salome depends on sets, lighting, and costumes—they are not just a frame, but integral to the production, leading to the term “dance theater” to describe this type of structure.

An ominous, cinematic score washes across the stage, lifting billowing fog as a black limousine slides into view. Flanked by bodyguards, “the family” emerges, stalking downstage with eerie confidence. While the visuals in this ballet are stunning, at its core is the journey that Salome is forced to endure. She is unsure at first, clutching her gown, eyes darting in exploration and uncertainty. When the hostages appear, she draws on inner strength, her posture straightening, her reactions gathering an elevated domination as she tests her newfound power. When Salome embraces the physicality of her environment, explosions of petals shoot across the stage with deepening red hues, littering the stage in ever fluctuating rivers of blood hued ground, bringing to mind the “red” scenes in Hero, a Chinese film that used a similar cinematic technique. Salome revels in her position, until its inevitable conclusion drives her to question what she has become, leading to a chilling denouement that leaves the audience shivering as the fog returns, covering the glowing limousine as the curtain falls.

Dores André gives riveting performance as Salome, turning her from an innocent child-like girl through a horrific coming of age, revulsion, and ultimate maturing, using body language of how she walks and reacts to others. Aaron Robison’s John maintains a dignity tempered with outbursts of fiery rebellion against his captors, taking to the strongly grounded and primitive choreography with ease. Val Caniparoli’s Herod and Anita Paciotti’s Herodias have no dancing, using their presence and experience to guide them; the stillness adding to their cruelty.

Fearful Symmetries - San Francisco Ballet

Lorena Feijoo, right, and Luke Ingham in Liam Scarlett’s “Fearful
Symmetries” at San Francisco Ballet. (© Erik Tomasson)

Fearful Symmetries
Choreographer: Liam Scarlett
Composer: John Adams

Taken from William Blake’s poem The Tyger, this ballet is starkly contemporary, set on a black stage with geometric bars of white light that shift in patterns. Dancers trace the floor with pulsing energy, isolating joints and limbs for oscillating rhythm interspersed with snapping ferocious speed.

John Morrell’s post-apocalyptic charcoal gray costumes lend a futuristic, ragged feel as multi layered as the music. Despite the frantic pace, there is a sense of community between the dancers onstage, building suspense into a series of intimately sensual encounters under a rich soundscape. The interplay of the corps de ballet keeps the dancers in constant flux, each with a specific role to play, like looking through a powerful microscope. There is a give and take of control throughout the piece, which pairs well with Salome, although it is a darker expression of subjugation.

Boisterous Fun in ‘Emma! A Pop Musical’

Review of Emma! A Pop Musical
Written by Eric Price
Music by various artists
Directed by Libby Oberlin
Vocal Direction by Sherrill Peterson
Choreography by LC Arisman
Sonoma Arts Live
For tickets / schedule :
Sonoma Community Center, Sonoma

RUN: March 9-19, 2017
RATING: 3 of 5 stars

(March 18, 2017)

Emma! A Pop Musical Sonoma Arts Live teens

Photo from Sonoma Arts Live

Shakespeare plays are regularly staged in contemporary settings, and it was a matter of time before classics such as Jane Austen’s Emma received similar treatment, inspired by the success of Clueless in re-imagining her world for a modern audience. Gathered from students of Sonoma Arts Live’s education director, Libby Oberlin, these teens in training have become Highbury Prep—an elite boarding school housing the timeless characters from Jane Austen’s novel.

Emma! is not so much a musical as a chain of songs chosen to illustrate themes and emotions surfacing in the story, given voice through popular music. They are used to comedic effect, such as a rendition of “Be My Baby” that cooes across the stage whenever Harriet finds a new crush, leading to hysterical laughter when it wafts toward yet another potential beau. The result is infectious frivolity that parallels the plot’s zany matchmaking humor, with additional impact infused by the unpolished but talented young cast.

Emma’s naïveté and enthusiasm are the perfect fit for a high school student; Veronica Love captures her genuine excitement to find Harriet a boyfriend, with wide-eyed enthusiasm and an authoritative voice that speaks to leadership qualities that attract men like Elton and Knightley. Kamryn Conway as Harriet Smith is a strong singer, dominating the stage with “How Will I Know?”. The two women form a compelling duo that brings out their friendship in a way most adaptations avoid in favor of placing Harriet in a simpering, subservient role.

Alex Garber’s Miss Bates is a delightfully awkward old maid stumbling through the school balancing a martini glass and dropping one liners with precise comedic timing. A fellow scene stealer is Cooper Bingham as Jason, the ever present minion of Philip Elton, who’s reactions to the unfolding drama are perennially amusing. Preening himself for a future political career, Philip Elton (Graham Durfee) oils his way through the school with despicable ease; Durfee gives the character realistic adolescent cruelty in his dismissal of Harriet. Jeff Knightley is a difficult role to take on; Knightley balances closely guarded affection for Emma with outward criticism and an innate maturity that sets him apart from her. Max Szanyi maintains a gentleness in his lectures, reaching for her and pulling away, casting glances across the room, and avoids the trap of what Mrs. Elton would call “puppy” responses to his harbored crush.

While the dialog leaves something to be desired, Emma! A Pop Musical is creative fun that will keep your toes tapping with a cast of young actors honing their craft and enjoying the moment as students of Highbury Prep.

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