Yearly Archives: 2016

Retrospective of North Bay Theater in 2016

The San Francisco North Bay is rich with opportunities to see a wide variety of theater—from polished productions in large venues to swashbuckling adventures perched under a bridge by the Russian River. I was unable to cover every company this year, due to the sheer amount of plays opening simultaneously around the counties, but I am grateful for the hard work of the theater community, even if they may not be specifically mentioned. We are lucky to reside in an area filled with the arts, and my hope is that in 2017 companies will continue to experiment, push the boundaries of regional theater expectations, and of course entertain in the North Bay.

Main Stage West maintained a consistently high standard of thought-provoking plays that tug at the heart and filled their small theater with local talent. Save the dates for their upcoming productions; it is always worth a trip to downtown Sebastopol.

Introducing contemporary and premiere works with stunning set designs and riveting direction, Marin Theatre Company shone this year with Anne Boleyn, a unique perspective on the Reformation in England, The Invisible Hand, a suspenseful and timely piece set in the Middle East, and the sparkling holiday play Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.

A significant standout production was The Curtain Theatre’s staging of The Comedy of Errors set in the 1920s. I was suffering Shakespeare fatigue by late summer, and their lively, madcap romp made it exciting again, prompting a second attendance to enjoy the flapper era mayhem under towering redwoods in Old Mill Park.

The far north had a strong year with the roving Pegasus Theater Company, Curtain Call Theatre, and Cloverdale Performing Arts Center. They are accomplishing a great deal with limited resources, and the drive is beautiful through the rolling hills and forests of Sonoma County. I especially enjoyed Cloverdale’s The Importance of Being Earnest and interactive Puss In Boots.

Dedicated, hard-working, and producing an astonishing number of plays that are often elaborate musicals, 6th Street Playhouse and Spreckels Theatre Company remain the backbone of the North Bay. While they may not always have the highest caliber of presentation, they achieved several memorable productions this year, including Titanic: The Musical, The Little Mermaid, Wait Until Dark, and Baskerville from Spreckels and Anna in the Tropics, Animal Crackers, and A Christmas Carol from 6th Street Playhouse.

There were many other phenomenal artists and productions that could be named, such as the students of Sonoma State University and Lucky Penny Productions in Napa. I look forward to what 2017 has to offer audiences in the North Bay.

‘Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley’ is a Holiday Treat

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
By Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed by Meredith McDonough

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

November 25 – December 18 (Extended to December 23), 2016

RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(December 22, 2016)

Miss Bennet Christmas at Pemberley Marin Theatre Company

Photo by Kevin Berne

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is ‘excessively diverting’; having read and experienced a plethora of Jane Austen inspired works, I can vouch that it ranks at the pinnacle. Characters feel like themselves, the dialog crackles with lighthearted banter, and the love story is genuine and amusing, creating the perfect Christmas gift for ‘Janeites’. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon were inspired by an author who was daring enough to write about women in the early 19th century, examining their social position and calling into question practices such as entailment, where the estate was left to the nearest male relative, rather than daughters, while creating vivacious, strong characters who are universal across race and time.

A road trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival brought the two writers of Miss Bennet into a discussion of the lack of holiday plays—endless productions of A Christmas Carol cannot be the future of theater. Their casual conversation turned to taking notes in earnest for an original play. “We do our best work in the car” Melcon quipped in a Q&A Discussion. The result is a tightly paced love story “what if” the characters from Pride & Prejudice met for Christmas several years later. Mary Bennet’s quiet observation and studies have transformed her into a mature and dryly witty young woman, Jane is expecting a child, and Elizabeth sends the household topsy-turvy with her exotic spruce tree decked with candles and bows.

Miss Bennet Christmas at Pemberley Marin Theatre Company

Photo by Kevin Berne

Jane Austen’s quintessential Mr. Darcy (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) has become comfortable in his new situation; O’Malley has an easy grace and gentleness in his portrayal. Cindy Im’s Elizabeth sparkles with holiday spirit, eager to see her family happy and still very much in love with her husband, which does not prevent her teasing him. Laura Odeh’s Anne de Bourgh’s brief appearance is as stately and ferocious as the late Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Odeh’s formidable presence would frighten anyone out of a drawing room. Rather than keeping characters precisely like their personalities in the book, there is growth in both Lydia and Mary. Lydia (Erika Rankin) hides a miserable marriage under her flirtatious exterior, and nasty asides turn into an acceptance of her sisters’ love when they try to help her. Rankin flits in and out of scenes with boundless energy, leaving chaos in her wake.

Martha Brigham’s Mary Bennet is curious and precise; she must have definitions secured, and strides through life as a continuous formal debate, which irritates or inspires, depending on who she is in contact with. Her sisters have ignored her for years, and Mary realizes she is restless in her assigned role in the family, but is unsure what to do about it. Brigham’s comedic timing and clipped delivery of deadpan lines in response to the action is riveting, leaving the audience in hysterics, while also pitying her lot as the sidelined middle sister. It is Adam Magill’s Arthur de Bourgh, an original character, who steals the show with his awkward attempts at romance. Symbolic to the love story’s uncertain course, Mary and Arthur own identical books with different color covers that are swapped back and forth, dropped, and mistaken for each other throughout the scenes. Arthur de Bourgh is a lanky, socially inept Oxford student who has spent his life in libraries, rather than the company of ladies, and is at a loss when he realizes that Mary has secured his affections. Magill draws on his considerable talent at physical comedy, and is a believable addition to the canonical core of characters.

Miss Bennet Christmas at Pemberley Marin Theatre Company

Photo by Kevin Berne

In addition to brilliant writing and a stellar cast, Miss Bennets scenic design and costumes are spectacular. Erik Flatmo’s set recreates the Regency era with intricate medallion moldings, colorful décor, a cozy library, and snow gently falling behind the windows. Callie Floor’s pastel and festive gowns add cheerful gaiety to the scenes, and Arthur’s oversized hat is a humorous touch. Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is the new standard in holiday plays. It celebrates individuals who are a force of nature, while advocating that strong personalities can find a way to live together with kindness and understanding. It reminds us to follow our dreams, even if they do not seem practical at the time, and push the boundaries of what others expect us to be. The end of its run was sold out weeks in advance for good reason—do not miss the opportunity to enjoy this Christmas treat.

‘Polar Bears’ Rekindles Christmas Magic

Review of Polar Bears
By David Templeton
Directed by Sheri Lee Miller

For tickets / schedule :
Sonoma Community Center
Sonoma, CA
Sonoma Arts Live

RUN: December 8-17, 2016
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(December 10, 2016)

Polar Bears Sonoma Arts Live

Photo from Sonoma Arts Live

Do you remember the moment you stopped believing in Santa Claus? Perhaps an older sibling blurted it out, or the evidence piled up, or your parents informed you that it was just a game. Have you watched the light in a child’s eyes dim as they realize the truth? For the young David Templeton, that moment came too soon, leading to a list of his own as a parent determined to give his children the gift of a magical childhood. His antics as the man behind Santa Claus are joyful and clever, until the mother’s passing casts a shadow across Christmas, drowning that levity with heartbreak.

Polar Bears navigates the numb landscape of loss and coming of age, mingled with laughter and windows of hope—as Templeton suggests, the holiday spirit is fragile, like stepping on a glass ornament when tiptoeing around the house in the dark pretending to be Santa Claus, but it is worth the effort to preserve and nourish.

Over 100 years old, the Sonoma Community Center is piece of history itself, with touches of Edwardian elegance arching over the stage. The Polar Bears set, by Steve Hagstrom and the Sonoma Arts Live team, recreates a comfortable, lived in family room strewn with decorations, toys, and boxes. It is easy to imagine living there, and Templeton spends the solo performance casually unpacking, enjoying a beer, and speaking to the audience as if they are sitting on one of the sofas beside him. He has an ease and warmth that feels natural. Simple props such as stuffed animals and a massive gray steamer trunk become characters in the stories. Templeton is a representation of all fathers who yearn for their children to be happy and loved, occasionally taking the sentiment too far and blundering, but always with their family’s best interests at heart.

Polar bears are woven throughout the stories, from frivolous details such as a wrapping paper anecdote to a deeply moving vignette at the mother’s funeral, when Andy, one of the children, begs to be a “polar bear” (pall bearer) with his father. While most of the play is crafted directly from memory, there were gaps to fill in, and Templeton turned to his children, mining surprises from their perspectives on the events. This imaginative play is filled with universal themes of love, loss, and the importance of family that are the heart of Christmas. Polar Bears does not rely on ornate costumes, a flashy plot, and a large cast. It is a quietly true exploration of the holidays that stirs our own memories, offers a hopeful future, and proves the tenacity and creativity of parents can bring a family through the darkest of times.

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