Monthly Archives: April 2017

‘Agnes of God’ Defies Expectations

Review of Agnes of God
By John Pielmeier
Directed by Amy Lovato
Cloverdale Performing Arts Center
For tickets / schedule :
Cloverdale Performing Arts Center

RUN: April 21-30, 2017
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(April 21, 2017)

Agnes of God at Cloverdale Performing Arts Center

Photo from Cloverdale Performing Arts Center

A bleak cross dominates the unadorned stage and a psychiatrist steps into the light, captivating the audience with an honest examination of how she came to find her own faith away from the Catholic Church, tugging at a cigarette and contemplating what brought her to the steps of a convent. Sister Agnes was found bleeding in her room, a suffocated newborn stuffed in the waste basket, while claiming no knowledge of the child—is she insane, lying, or so innocent that she did not understand what was happening? Agnes of God is the clash of two powerhouse women who have the same goal of helping the young sister, but with entirely different notions on how to do so.

John Pielmeier’s play has a way of tripping up expectations, shifting reason from one character to the next until it is difficult to fathom who knows the truth. On the surface, Mother Miriam Ruth appears to be a cliché authoritarian who is suspicious of newfangled notions from Vatican II. The play strips away her façade to show a deeply troubled woman with a failed marriage, two children who despise her, and nearly shattered belief in God. Athena Gundlach’s portrayal is sensitive to the multi-faceted woman, eyes glowing when she describes her love of Agnes, and pragmatic in her assertion to the audience that her character is a regular person who is not losing her mind, simply grasping for something to give life meaning.

Agnes of God - Cloverdale Performing Arts Center

Photo from Cloverdale Performing Arts Center

Dr. Livingstone struggles with her own demons, drawing strength from the intellect and natural confidence. Elizabeth Henry gives a heartfelt performance, transitioning from hardened professional to the shaken closing monologue of a woman questioning her entire belief structure. Pristinely naïve Sister Agnes, Isabella Peregrina, is haunted by her vindictive mother in a terrifying ghost story that overshadows the play. It may be all in the nun’s head, but I could feel the goose bumps as she shrieked, blood pouring out of stigmata in her hands, weeping that she was being punished by her dead mother.

The three women, often present but not active in the scene, are staged in a triangular formation by director Amy Lovato, invoking a Trinitarian feel. Dramatic chiaroscuro lighting design by Yave Guzman keeps attention focused on the speaker, while adding a supernatural sensation to flashbacks. Agnes of God in Cloverdale is a chilling ghost story and powerful depiction of women delving into who they are at the core, questioning assumptions and challenging the Church. It shows the dark side of convents without vilifying nuns, who are doing the best they can as flawed human beings. It is worth the drive to Cloverdale for this mesmerizing production.

‘Way Out West’ Passes Inspection

Review of Way Out West
By Joel D. Eis
Directed by Buzz Halsing

For tickets / schedule :
Marin Art & Garden Center Barn Theatre
Ross, CA
Ross Alternative Works (Ross Valley Players)

RUN: April 7 – 23, 2017
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(April 14, 2017)

Ross Valley Players - Way Out West

Photo by Robin Jackson

Loosely based on Nickolai Gogol’s The Inspector General, it is 1848 in the frontier outpost of San Francisco, where corrupt officials hear that an incognito inspector will be arriving in town. Terrified, the local yokels fall over themselves, at times quite literally, to please the newcomer in town, hoping for a positive report back to the capital. This campy, nostalgic romp would fit right in as a street performance in Virginia City, with a gunslinger mayor and mysterious stranger. The overacting shifts between amusing and artificial, leaving an uneven impression, but overall it is an entertaining play and imaginative retelling of Gogol’s satire.

Pam Drummer-Williams as Pearl Monahan is a treat in this production—she sashays through scenes as an enthusiastic social climber who is far too much woman for any man in the room, gathering laughs with each twitch of her elaborate fan. Maureen Coyne as Maxine creates a clever, worldly maid whose perpetual eye rolls and cynical one liners keep the story from losing momentum. Country bumpkins Ike Bobkins (Ralph Kalbus) and Ida May Dobkins (Carrie Fisher-Coppola) find a balance of waddling caricatures and carefully crafted timing in their portrayals.

Ross Valley Players - Way Out West

Photo by Robin Jackson

The strength of Way Out West is in the relationship between Ridgeway (John Anthony Nolan) and partner in crime Rex Reynard (Paul Stout) long-time friends who need a break from each other, but are forced into increased intimacy. Their sniping, brawls, and tender moments have the ring of realism; it feels like they have been companions for years, which grounds the nonsensical characters who inhabit this mythological San Francisco. A particularly well-done moment was at the hotel, after arguing over who should portray servant and master, Ridgeway opens the door to find half the cast peering through expectantly, only to have him shut it in their faces, turning away in disgust at what he has to put up with.

Way Out West is reliant on Bruce Vieira’s sound design, which is both well done, such as the ambient background of a saloon to set the scene and carriage noises in the street, and distracting with pratfalls that do not need to be there—directed by Buzz Halsing, the actors are capable of being effective in physical comedy without accompaniment. Eugene De Christopher’s set design is marvelous; I have been on tours of mansions from the time period, and it looks like a parlour that would have been in use by a pretentious mayor, with wainscoting, deep burgundy walls, stiff furnishings, and Classical flair. For a relaxed comedy, Janice Koprowski’s costume designs are quite elaborate, from a smoking jacket to multiple gowns for Rose-Marie Monahan.

Way Out West is outrageous tomfoolery with a few good laughs that may be a trifle too ridiculous for some audience members. It could benefit from additional nuances to the shenanigans onstage, but is a fun jaunt through “Old West” San Francisco.

Captivating ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ from Raven Players

Review of The Diary of Anne Frank
By Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Adapted by Wendy Kesselman
Based on Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

Directed by Diane Bailey

For tickets / schedule :
Raven Performing Arts Center
Healdsburg, CA
Raven Players

RUN: April 7-23, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(April 8, 2017)

The Diary of Anne Frank - Raven Players

Photo by Ray Mabry Photography

When I was a teenager, my mother insisted that I watch the 1959 film adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, and its harsh insight into an era filled with horror yet brimming with humanity and love is a moment I will never forget. This play, revised by Wendy Kesselman, has not lost its power and is staged with a strong cast and dramatic set design by Michael Mingoia at Raven Players.

Forced to go into hiding to avoid being sent on transports to their deaths, the Frank and Van Daan families find themselves together in a tiny set of rooms. Personalities clash, aggravated by claustrophobic conditions, nerves on edge, starvation, and being absolutely silent to avoid detection during the day. Tom Luekens’ sound design is masterful, setting the feel of Amsterdam with rippling water and gulls, snippets of historical radio broadcasts, ominous creaking, and terrifying Gestapo sirens. As a member of the audience, I found myself straining to hear voices from downstairs along with the actors, jumping at every sound.

Mingoia’s set design winds its way up and down multiple levels with a wistful background of painted handwriting from Anne’s journal, mixed with watercolor style paintings based on photographs from her life. Diane Bailey’s direction takes advantage of the space, showing the families at everyday tasks, quietly going to bed, or huddled staring into the sky as an air raid warning screeches across the auditorium. Anne’s story gracefully transitions between diary entries as soliloquies and activity in real time with the inhabitants. The cast embraces their roles and works well as an ensemble, such as the intense confrontation when Mr. Van Daan (Thomas Gibson) is caught stealing bread by an irate Edith Frank (Saskia Baur) who threatens to evict them to the mercies of the Nazis, and family members quickly take sides until reason prevails.

Supporting the bulk of dialogue is the talented young actress Claire Lentz as Anne Frank, whose beautiful smile lights up the stage with joy and laughter, while equally able to feel the suffering of a character with recurring nightmares who struggles with a mother who refuses to accept her. Unfortunately, her voice does not carry well in the large theater, a technique that will improve with time and practice. Her brooding beau, Peter, is portrayed by Ari Vozaitis, who mopes about until Anne draws out his cheerful side just in time for them to be dragged off by the Nazis. Mr. Dussel (Robert Bauer) brings an exhausted, broken realism to his stories of occupied Amsterdam, and an amusing touch with a fussy reaction to Peter’s cat. Dawn Gibson’s Miep Gies is kindness personified, constantly insisting she is not a hero, while proving herself wrong with selfless acts. The idealized father of Anne’s diary, Gregory Skopp’s Otto Frank is the quiet, steady presence that keeps the family going. His final scene is heart wrenching as he relives the last days of each character, trembling when he tells of Anne’s death so close to liberation.

This play is timely, warning of the danger when specific ethnic groups are targeted and dehumanized. Thanks to underwriting by Lauren, Susan, and Hawlyn, teen attendance to this play is free during the entire run. Raven Players’ The Diary of Anne Frank is vibrant and challenging, remaining relevant to a modern audience, with a beautiful set and forceful ensemble.

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