Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Footprints of a Gigantic Hound!

Review of Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery
By Ken Ludwig
Directed by David L. Yen

For tickets / schedule :
Spreckels Performing Arts Center
Rohnert Park, CA
Spreckels Theatre Company

RUN: September 16 – October 9, 2016
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(September 17, 2016)

Spreckels Rohnert Park Baskerville

Photo by Eric Chazankin

Baskerville is an outrageous, laugh every minute adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle classic tale The Hound of the Baskervilles. In addition to Holmes and Watson, a versatile cast of three creates over thirty additional characters, from gender bent seedy Londoners (Zane Walters) to a brashly Texan rendition of Sir Henry Baskerville (Larry Williams). Mayhem is king in this chaotic and terrifically funny staging, reminiscent of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Equally entertaining is watching audience members unfamiliar with the story gasp as plot points are revealed, eager to find out who the true villain is. For all its silliness, Baskerville stays true to the original story, other than adjustments to scenes for comedic effect, such as a normal conversation turned into hilarity by violent gusts of wind against which the cast struggles to stand.

The setting is created by a simple door and chairs wheeled about the stage, with projections that change using the side table with a stereoscope and cards that match sepia toned images surrounding the stage. The ominous hound looms across the screen until an eventual appearance onstage surrounded by billowing clouds of moor fog and darkness in a dramatic conclusion. Actors use the small stage to full effect, rushing about with well timed energy, and sliding down the ramp for thrilling entrances.

Spreckels Rohnert Park Baskerville

Photo by Eric Chazankin

Zane Walters, Larry Williams, and Kim Williams caper and strut across the stage, changing costumes with lightning speed and accents even faster, occasionally playing multiple characters simultaneously, such as Sir Henry and Inspector Lestrade. Not all appearances are fully successful; standout performances include Kim’s Mrs. Barrymore and Zane’s Stapleton. Background characters are utterly ridiculous and therefore hilarious in the context of the scene–the Baby mewling in a hotel lobby comes to mind.

Chris Schloemp as Dr. Watson is brilliant, capturing his intelligence and naive excitement at being involved in one of Holmes’ cases. His friendship with Sir Henry is explored in this adaptation, and throughout the play it is clear they will protect each other in the face of danger. Stephen Cannon has the look of Holmes, but slips rather badly with the accent. In this loose, slapstick production, his anachronistic American voice does not cause the depth of problems that it would in a serious presentation, but it is distracting.

All ages will enjoy this ingenious romp into the world of Sherlock Holmes. Whether your copy of the story is well thumbed, or you have no idea who Holmes is, this will be an amusing evening. Bring your family and friends to Spreckels for a deliciously ridiculous evening of misadventures.

Engaging Lecture on Jack London

Review of The House That Jack Built
By Cecelia Tichi
Directed by Craig A. Miller

For tickets & schedule:
6th Street Playhouse
Santa Rosa, CA

RUN: September 9 – 25, 2016
RATING: 3 of 5 stars

(September 16, 2016)

The House That Jack Built

Photo by Eric Chazankin

The House That Jack Built is a product of meticulous scholarship, which is both a blessing and a curse. Packed with detailed historical information, it brilliantly ties Jack London’s social justice work into the present day, rendering his works relevant to a modern audience. Quotes from Jack London are seamlessly mingled with original writing—recognizable to those who have spent time in Glen Ellen or are familiar with his work. Attending the play is rather like having a history book read aloud, causing the drama to struggle under heavy prose and preachy asides that constantly interrupt flow. A hilarious reference to Fanny Farmer’s cookbooks is cut short by a screeching halt in the play to explain who Fanny Farmer is to the audience. References are laboriously picked apart, talking down to the audience and repeating information.

As a Chautauqua it is wildly successful; as a play it falls short. The purpose is admirable—there should be more public awareness of Jack London’s work for the marginalized, poor, labor laws, prison reform, and environmentally friendly farming techniques. I have seen history plays fall into this trap before; it is possible to over research to the point where facts and data overwhelm the story.

Mingled with straight lecturing is an engaging love story between Jack and Charmian that is both relaxed and challenging. From lounging about in the cottage to a passionate boxing match thanks to accurate and exciting fight choreography by Marty Pistone, their relationship is the best part of The House That Jack Built. Costume Designer Beulah Vega recreates the characters’ looks, from Jack’s signature loose tie and light suit to Charmian’s dressing gown that you can see a photo of in the cottage. Jesse Dreikosen’s set design evokes the Wolf House in craggy ruins and a stone floor, with quiet homages to the locations, such as strung up writing notes in Jack’s study that I have seen when walking past his room in the museum.

The House that Jack Built

Photo by Eric Chazankin

Edward McCloud as Jack London embodies his character in poise, expression, and study of a brief audio clip of the author. He projects Jack’s soul onstage in a palpable way; his hopelessness seated amid the ruins of the Wolf House brings that moment in history to life with the assistance of clouds of smoke and Ryan Severt’s fiery lighting design. For a moment, we were part of that terrible day with him. Elizabeth Henry (Charmian London) is the highlight of this production. Her vivacious portrayal comes alive as a loving, adventurous companion. Her chemistry with McCloud’s Jack is dynamic and heartwarming, pulling their romance out of forgotten history into breathing reality. The supporting cast does their best with the fact heavy dialog. Ben Harper adds atmosphere and silent commentary to the bar scene, which lurches between tense drama and a race to see how many historical notes can be crammed into the least amount of time, rather like a docent who has ten minutes to explain an entire museum, because the tourists’ bus is about to leave.

Jack London is an integral part of North Bay history, and his stances on the economic problems of his age are crucial to understand for our crisis today. The House That Jack Built is the perfect introduction to a life that was more than mere adventure—his thoughtful and firmly held beliefs in a better world are an inspiration. Despite problems with dense presentation, there is enough life in this play to maintain the audience’s interest. It prompted a visit to Jack London State Historic Park for me, and although the play reads like a guided tour of the Wolf House, it is worth attending for its historical significance and excellent cast.

For hours and fees to visit the Wolf House and cottage, visit:

Enjoy photos I took today from my trip to Jack London State Historic Park of locations and objects referenced in the play:

Cautionary Tale of Family Rancor

Photo by Kevin Berne

Photo by Kevin Berne

Review of August: Osage County
By Tracy Letts
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
For tickets / schedule :
Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley

RUN: September 8 – October 2, 2016 (Extended to Oct 9)
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(September 13, 2016)

Vitriolic wit permeates this dark comedy in a depressingly accurate portrayal of the modern American family. Flashes of poetry lash out through mumbling exchanges and misunderstood conversations typical of disillusioned relationships. Family members talk and shout at each other, unwilling to listen before replying, deliberately twisting words, and desperately unhappy. Lighting designer Kurt Landisman expertly weaves a story through careful illumination—harsh daylight for the main action, soft for supporting vignettes, and semi-darkness silhouetting poignant tableaux of the grieving family huddled in pain, watching TV, or quietly reading. Beverly, the patriarch, goes missing and is eventually found drowned after committing suicide. His wife turns to her addiction for solace, ruling with cruel wordplay until her daughter snaps under the poisonous atmosphere, ripping apart the already broken gathering. August: Osage County heightens the drama many families suffer from, spotlighting how casual quips can turn into hurtful exchanges and true pain when we inflict them on those we love. In the lobby, discussions came up of re-evaluating what to say during holidays; perhaps comments like “Elbows off the table! Were you born in a barn?” are not appropriate or constructive, but serve simply to wound.

August: Osage County ramps up in the second act into spine-tingling drama due to the tempestuous relationship of Barbara (Arwen Anderson) with her mother, Violet (Sherman Fracher). Anderson’s performance in the confrontation is sensational. She moves from irritated sniping to seething at the emotional jabs, and righteous fury, thundering out “I’m running things now!” leaving the audience catching their breath. Fracher’s physicality makes the role; she stumbles up and down the teetering set, kneeling, swaggering, and falling with reckless abandon. Her breakdown of grief for Beverly (Will Marchetti) takes powerful form as she crawls upstairs, clutching at the wood, crying out for her lost husband. Danielle Bowen (Jean) is the odd one out as the youngest—present, but not seen as a contributor. Her casual, wannabe bad girl front hides a dangerously innocent teenage girl.

Photo by Kevin Berne

Photo by Kevin Berne

Running through the play is a theme of living in the present, and embracing what that means, good or bad. It is shown in Ivy’s (Danielle Levin) romantic notions, Bill’s (David Ari) pursuit of a younger woman, and Violet’s jaded vision of female body image. The supporting cast is riveting, from Robert Sicular’s awkward speech of grace before dinner as Charlie to Kathleen Pizzo’s (Johnna) comforting and occasionally daring interactions. Realistic Native American characters are rare, and she is a grounding presence in the mayhem onstage.

Ashley Holvick’s costume designs underline the authentic feel of the family. Clothing is soiled, well used, and sloppy or starkly understated in an intimate reflection of each character. Barbara’s journey descends from elegant lines of a perfect suburban housewife to underwear and old pajamas. J.B. Wilson’s sets of naked beams crisscross in a chaotic jumble, allowing for intimate family moments while maintaining the isolation of characters such as Johnna in the attic, or Violet in a Spartan bedroom. Dialog becomes the set dressing of the unadorned dwelling, painting a visual picture in the mind, rather than handing over the interior on a silver platter. A strength of theatre over cinema is that imagination still plays a vital role in the story’s creation, rather than relying on polished special effects. The bare house is filled with emotion, rather than objects, colored by our own family history. Marin Theatre Company has brilliantly set up an in depth display thanks to the work of dramaturg Lydia Garcia, including a board for post it notes from audience members talking about what family means to them. Take a moment to peruse them—sentiments vary wildly from statements that family is “the best most important part of my life” to merely “awkward holiday dinners”. Detailed analysis continues into the bathrooms, which feature hanging plaques about life on the plains in Oklahoma.

Photo by Kevin Berne

Photo by Kevin Berne

August: Osage County is a bleak examination of human nature, and our propensity to attack those we love instead of building them up. Marin Theatre Company presents a clever, gloomy depiction of family that serves as a reminder not to take our relationships for granted, but to nurture them. August: Osage County features a stellar cast in a Pulitzer Prize winning play that is not for the faint of heart, delving into the loathsome depths of frustrated dreams.

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