Monthly Archives: July 2017

The Recipe for a Wonderful, Wild Frolic

Review of The 39 Steps
by Gary Gonser, SFBATCC

By John Buchan
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
Directed by Adrean Elfenbaum
For tickets / schedule :
The Barn Theater in Marin Art and Garden Center
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Ross, CA
Ross Valley Players

RUN: July 14 – August 20, 2017
RATING: 4.5 of 5 stars

(July 16, 2017)

Ross Valley Players - The 39 Steps

Photo by Gregg Le Blanc

Take a rather tired story with a chase scene from 100+ years ago, add a successful film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock from 1935, modify that with a concept by Simon Corble & Nobby Dimon, then finalize that in a 2005 script by Patrick Barlow for Broadway that uses four actors to play all the scenes and roles from the Hitchcock classic film, and you have a wonderful, wild ride.

The story starts out backstage at the Palladium in London. Michael Monagle (as Hannay) is sitting in the theater, only to be interrupted by Robyn Grahn (as the spy, Annabella). She is looking for a room for the night to hide from other spies looking to kill her. Hannay takes her in and after a short discussion of a secret document leaving the country in a few days, Annabella is killed. Hannay escapes only to find himself on the run from the cops, while tracking down the spies and secrets that killed Annabella.

Simple enough, but it’s a long way from London to the highlands of Scotland on a train, especially constrained by a single set and four actors. Along the way, Grahn morphs into Pamela (a wide-eyed highland sheep farmer’s wife) and Margaret (a fair city slicker aka “love interest”). Monagle remains the stable, indefatigable Hannay, tracking his prey to clear his name and save England from its enemies.

Ross Valley Players - The 39 Steps

Photo by Gregg Le Blanc

But wait! Who plays the comics onstage at the Palladium, or the cops chasing Hannay, or the spies, or the sheep farmer and hotel proprietors, or the Scots’ election team, or the many smaller parts done by extras in Hitchcock’s film?  Enter Sean Garahan and Andrew Amarotico to the rescue.

Garahan and Amarotico are amazing actors who take quick costume and dialog changes in stride as they exit off one part of the stage only to enter as different characters through another part of the stage. Each character they play is different in dress, accent (yea, the Scots’ accent is as fun as their German and British accents), and personality. This reviewer stopped counting the distinct parts after 15. I would actually see four people on stage, and wonder where the others were.

Yes, of course there is more. Not only are all scenes and characters from the Hitchcock film “39 Steps” included in this pastiche, but little treasures from all Hitchcock’s films are tucked away in the scenes for us to find.  For example, music from “Psycho” plays for 5 seconds in an unexpected spot, while visuals from “Vertigo” expand a scene. This is a scavenger hunt for hidden trivia celebrating Hitchcock, the master “who done it” filmmaker.

The whole show is a masterpiece of comic teamwork by expert actors having the time of their lives in this wild frolic of stagecraft done with perfect timing.  It is an engrossing puzzle to the audience (“which Hitchcock film did I see that in?,” “who is that character?” etc.) that infects the audience in a matter of minutes with infectious laughter that cheers throughout the show.

Ross Valley Players - The 39 Steps

Photo by Gregg Le Blanc

This is not suspenseful mystery, but it is a cacophony of acting challenges that bring out the best of each minute of the show.  The set never changes, but basic set pieces are moved as necessary to smoothly create the necessary scenes along the way. Costumes and choreography are included with the meal as tasty “side dishes” to the main dish of plot and action.

Add the exotic spices of spot-on lighting and sound, and we have the perfect meal. This reviewer is going back for seconds.


$27 General Admission
$15 Young Adults under 25
Available through Brown Paper Tickets, or at the door

Get to the Cannery in Apple Blossom Time

Review of In the Mood
Adapted from William Shakespeare
Directed by David Lear
For tickets / schedule :
Railroad Square, Santa Rosa
(Enter through 6th Street Playhouse parking lot)

RUN: July 13 – August 5, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(July 15, 2017)

Shakespeare in the Cannery - In the Mood

Photo by Alex Shapiro

Romantic sunset light envelops the ruins of an old cannery in Santa Rosa, from which Shakespeare in the Cannery derives its name. A patriotic set resplendent in red, white and blue becomes the backdrop for this Hogan’s Heroes style retelling of Much Ado About Nothing, set in World War II at the USO in Messina. Tracy Hinman’s costume designs of adorable vintage dresses, bathing suits and lineup of dashing army officers sets the tone for a boogie-woogie version of the classic tale that is lighthearted and fun for the whole family.

Denise Elia-Yen is a thoughtful Beatrice in addition to being saucily witty; she takes her cousin’s playful chiding about being scornful to heart in a contemplative performance that adds depth to the character. David L. Yen’s Benedick heavily relies on physical comedy and outrageous reactions that are highly amusing. His disgusted gagging at the mention of “love” had the audience in fits of laughter, and director David Lear uses the series of trap doors in his set design to advantage as Benedick attempts to hide during the discussion of Beatrice’s supposed affection.

In a slight twist of the story, Elizabeth Henry portrays Leonora, instead of Leonato, which works with minor adjustments, such as “be happy, lady; for you are like an honourable mother.” Her calm, stately presence centers the production, and her fierce confrontation with those caused her daughter’s ruin is formidable. In a brief exchange with Sergeant Dogberry (Brandon Wilson), Henry’s comedic timing duels well with his, augmented with support from Michal Victoria (Antonia).

Shakespeare in the Cannery - In The Mood

Photo by Alex Shapiro

The Watch is hilarious, marching in and out with a brisk “left, left, left, right, left” while bumping into one another, eating muffins and coming to attention while facing opposite directions. Wilson’s Dogberry and Brian Abbott’s Verges are quite the team, flawlessly pronouncing hopelessly ill placed vocabulary with the gravity of saints.

Finding an angle for the villains, conspicuously wearing black covers in this production, is a challenge, and Lear took a unique perspective that I enjoyed. Rather than making Don John (Stefan Wenger) the instigator, he is portrayed is rather bored and making sport of discomfort with a Loki trickster personality. It is Borachio (John Browning) whose cruelty suggests the disgrace of Hero and sinister machinations.

While this is an abbreviated retelling of Much Ado About Nothing, it fills the gaps with enchanting musical numbers and toe-tapping swing dances from choreographer Alia Beeton and costumed musicians led by Justin Pyne with favorites like “Stormy Weather,” “In the Mood” and “Taking a Chance on Love.” The finale floats with infectious rhythm, and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” is one of the more elaborate dance sequences I have seen in a North Bay musical.

This nostalgic romp through the 1940s with William Shakespeare’s brilliant comedy is a colorful evening of music and dance with a talented cast and creative direction from David Lear. Shakespeare in the Cannery continues to amuse and delight with this year’s In the Mood.

Humanity Explored in ‘Rhinoceros’

Review of Rhinoceros

By Eugène Ionesco
Translated by Derek Prouse
Directed by Rómula Torres Carroll

For tickets / schedule :
The Belrose Theatre
San Rafael, CA
Birdbath Theatres

RUN: July 7 – 22, 2017
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(July 15, 2017)

Birdbath Theatres - Rhinocerous

Photo by Robin Jackson

Rhinoceros has a double meaning; the exterior story is of a quiet country village interrupted by charging animals, as the townspeople slowly transform into rhinoceroses. Underneath is an examination of the herd mentality of humanity—how the majority can sway an entire population into belief systems they would otherwise never accept. The concept is fascinating, however the play itself suffers from a disjointed presentation. The first act is a playful, lighthearted comedy, filled with colorful characters and nimble writing, such as parallel conversations bouncing back and forth across the stage. It transitions through a surrealist phase, adeptly acted by David Abrams, into pure post-apocalyptic fantasy reminiscent of The Birds. Each piece is of itself an excellent play, but it does not have a unified structure and feel.

Written in 1959, the vintage worldview shows through with some jarring moments of racism and domestic abuse that were acceptable at the time, but are in poor taste to modern audiences. It draws on the German occupation of France and the reaction of citizens during World War II, demonstrating how the human mind is capable of shifting to protect itself, find companionship, and be accepted as normal. A thread of discussion regarding what is abnormal and what is normal leads many characters to conclude that perhaps becoming a rhinoceros is the new acceptable behavior, even though it disgusted them at first.

What holds the play together is the friendship between Berenger (Spencer Acton) and Jean (David Abrams). Jean is a self-absorbed dandy who is easily excitable and tries to hide his longing to belong behind a pompous demeanor. Down to earth, amiable, and charmingly rumpled, Berenger clings to his humanity—the good and the bad—perhaps inspired by the Maquis guerilla movement.

Birdbath Theatres - Rhinocerous

Photo by Robin Jackson

The cast is clearly enjoying themselves, and each actor has a chance to shine, from Nat (Krima) Davis as the Fireman toting a miniature ladder to Andrew Byars as the Logician, poking exaggerated fun at philosophers’ propensity to long discussions of definitions rather than actual facts. There is an attention to detail for each character, such as a brief homage to the painting American Gothic in the background of a scene toward the end of the second act. The visuals in this play are charged with emotion; I was particularly moved by the transparent backdrop being clawed at by a herd of animals during the final act.

Wyatt E. Dunkerly’s costume designs for the men were well executed, and created powerful images when juxtaposed with rhinoceros heads. I was impressed by the staging, which used the audience, piano and characters hanging out of windows for an interactive experience. The scene change transitions were barely noticeable, since entertaining vignettes filled the time and delved deeper into characterization. Genevieve Schaad creates a soundscape of the jungle, huffing rhinoceroses, smashing glass and chiming bells.

Rhinoceros at The Belrose is a high energy production of an intellectually stimulating French play. Although it runs rather long and could use some tightening of direction, it is both amusing and thought provoking with an excellent cast.

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