Monthly Archives: February 2018

Clash of Kings in ‘Richard II’

Review of Richard II
By William Shakespeare
Directed by David Abrams
For tickets / schedule :
Birdbath Theatres
Key Tea / Open Secret
921 C St, San Rafael, CA
Tickets: $24, Student/Senior $20 (or donation as can afford)

RUN: February 1-18, 2018
Extended through February 25

RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(February 9, 2018)

Birdbath Theatres - Richard II

King Richard II (David Abrams) abdicates to Henry Bolingbroke (Winona Wagner).

The reign of Richard II is perplexing to historians; he gained the throne at a young age, shaping the court into a peaceful sanctuary for the arts, patronizing literature, fashion, and architecture. He encouraged the use of English as a primary language, inspiring writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer. On the other hand, his actions seem abrupt and tyrannical in a fragile gathering of noble houses and tenuous loyalty from the peasants, who went into open revolt under his rule. Shakespeare considers the king through a biased lens of the Tudor dynasty, eager to paint Henry Bolingbroke (future King Henry IV) in a friendly light, rather than Richard II, the rightful ruler.

History plays have the potential to be confusing, with so many dukes and earls plotting against each other, often changing sides. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is helpful to quickly glance over the life of Richard II before attending, despite the liberties taken with recorded history. The power plays between families can be fascinating to observe, and Shakespeare’s tumbling verse is executed to perfection by this cast, with clear elocution.

Birdbath Theatres - Richard II

The Earl of Northumberland (Rob Garcia) rants against the king.

Key Tea / Open Secret is an eclectic cafe and bookshop in downtown San Rafael, with a casual, New Age environment. Costume designs by Wyatt Dunkerly reflect the setting; he observed that Renaissance styles have “similar lines” to attire seen at burning man. Director David Abrams explained the purpose of mingling eras in the costuming. “We decided to play with the similarities of shape and differences in material to give a nod to the past and present while setting the play in a neither here nor there place and time. We felt that setting the play in this alternate universe might serve the audience in letting go of where and when this is happening to listen to what is said.”

Although the play is rarely performed, it is filled with well-known passages, such as “grace me no grace” and “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” which are placed back into context. Abrams crafts a naïve ruler, out of touch with his subjects, and self-absorbed until grief forces compassion from him. In a clever directing choice, a love affair is extrapolated between Richard and the Duke of Aumerle (Jesse Lumb), which adds depth to the young man’s decisions with regards to the king.

Birdbath Theatres - Richard II

The Duke of York (Melanie Bandera-Hess) worries for the future of his house.

Melanie Bandera-Hess is dynamic as the Duke of York, an aging general forced to support Bolingbroke, for whom he has little admiration. Leon Goertzen charges onto the field as Thomas Mowbray, swiftly transforming into the troubled Bishop of Carlisle, mincing Bushy, and a hilarious Duchess of York. Winona Wagner’s noble Bolingbroke is charismatic, and her gentle Queen brings the royal gardeners to tears. The ensemble is able to carry the shuffling of characters, although Genevieve Schaad, a newcomer to theater, is still working on delivery and comfort with her roles.

Richard II flows with Shakespeare’s agile grace, emphasizing the elements of fire and water, referenced in Birdbath’s playbill cover. This exquisite production of a difficult history play has a unique, intimate setting and sensational cast. The political intrigue may not be for everyone, but the underlying motivations of loyalty, friendship, and love are universal.

‘Buried Child’—Fading Americana’s Final Breath

Review of Buried Child
By Sam Shepard
Directed by Elizabeth Craven
For tickets / schedule :
Main Stage West, Sebastopol
Tickets: $30, $25 Senior 65+, $15 Students

RUN: February 2-25, 2018
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(February 8, 2018)

Main Stage West - Buried Child

Dodge (John Craven) is presented with corn by his son Tilden (Keith Baker). Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Buried Child examines the reality behind a Norman Rockwell “all-American” family decaying into sunset years. The confident father holding court at Thanksgiving with a glistening roast turkey has become a cantankerous invalid bellowing for whisky, and the popular high school halfback shuffles about the kitchen with a haunted expression, a fragile shell of the man he was. Sam Shepard’s writing is a product of his era—its leisurely pacing and measured dialogue is difficult for a contemporary audience to connect with, although the genius of his imagination echoes through the play.

Swaying between gritty realism and flights of the surreal, Buried Child is a mashup of genres, held together by Missy Weaver’s extraordinary lighting design enveloping the actors in gloom, swaths of green, and dramatic ruby bleeding across the walls. The emotional journey is less focused, eliminating transitional arcs in favor of disjointed snapshots. Buried Child is not entirely linear; time overlaps, expanding into a mosaic of chaotic pieces in its conclusion, giving the story a dreamlike quality.

Main Stage West - Buried Child

Shelly (Ivy Rose Miller) contemplates the odd situation. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Shelly, a young woman visiting the house, becomes a stand-in for the audience, reacting to the jaded family with horror and pity at what they have become. Ivy Rose Miller portrays Shelly as openhearted, hoping to believe the best in others, while maintaining an intelligent outlook. Her boyfriend Vince (Sam Coughlin) appears to be reasonable at first glance, until his dismissive, violent attitude emerges.

John Craven as Dodge is both engrossing and repellent, wrapped in his soiled blanket, blustering orders that are no longer obeyed. His sons, Tilden (Keith Baker) and Bradley (Eric Burke) are ghoulish shadows of their former youth, equally disturbing in contrasting ways. Tilden’s innocent, yet perturbing desire to stroke Shelly’s jacket earned a mutter of “disgusting” from the audience, and Bradley takes perverse pleasure in shaving his father’s hair until the scalp bleeds from his attention.

America’s idealized family and white picket fence rot before our eyes in Buried Child, parading the flawed nature of humanity. Is there a future beyond the corrupt, decomposing dream?

Pippin Revealed

Review of PIPPIN
by Gary Gonser, SFBATCC

Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Directed by Kim Bromley & Jenny Boynton
Music directed by Judy Wiesen
Choreography by Katie Wickes

For tickets / schedule :
The Belrose Theatre
San Rafael, CA
1415 5th Avenue, San Rafael
Marin Musical Theatre Company
Tickets: $30-$50

RUN: January 26 – February 10, 2018
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(February 9, 2018)

Pippin - Marin Musical Theatre Company

Photo by Marin Musical Theatre Company.

This production of PIPPIN is fun and high energy, a surprisingly good match to the little Belrose Theatre in San Rafael.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Roger O. Hirson, this show won 5 Tonys for its debut on Broadway in 1973 and 4 for its revival in 2013.  Not bad for a play that started out its life as a student musical at Carnegie Mellon.

This play within a play is presented by a traveling troupe of actors.  It’s set in 780 AD, somewhere in the old Holy Roman Empire.  At curtain, the MC or “Leading Player” (played by Earl Alfred Paus) magically transforms a simple stage into a sensual blank canvas, ready to be painted.  The group has cast Pippin (played by Zachary Isen) as a newer actor who is searching for the true meaning of his life. Not satisfied with just being the eldest son of “Charles” (king Charlemagne, played by Jere Torkelsen) in the Middle Ages, Pippin wants more. As a prince, Pippin has all the choices of the age available to him – war, academia, religion, politics, hedonism and more.  What road does he take?  Why not all (spoken like a true humanities student)?

And so it goes. The troupe takes the blank stage and creates scenes with all the choreography and costumes and makeup so outstanding in the original production on Broadway. Did I say the original Director & Choreographer was Bob Fosse? This production goes all out to bring out the best of dance and choreography so inherent in its sensual beginnings.

Pippin’s first choice of life path is academia, but this grows old fast within the court of Charlemagne. The path of war leads to battle with the Visigoths, but Pippin is appalled by the violence (surprise?). Escaping to the countryside, Pippin visits his exiled grandmother Bertha (played by Kim Bromley), who clears the air a bit by telling him that he needs to experience life, because youth is gone “in no time at all.” Life revels in romantic antics on stage, accentuated by the delightful ensemble. Pippin tires of that as well and follows the Leading Player’s advice to try politics.

Charles’ second wife Fastrada (played by Marla Cox) does a good job of cajoling Pippin into murdering her husband, the good Charles. She hopes her son Lewis (played by Nelson Brown) will survive the plot to become king. “Down with tyrants” becomes the mantra of the minute, and Pippin kills his father for his heartless ways as king. Intermission follows after a promise of the “best finale ever” after the break.

Pippin - Marin Musical Theatre Company

Photo by Marin Musical Theatre Company.

Pippin takes over the crown, but is not able to resolve the issues of the kingdom and begs the Leading Player to bring king Charles back to life so he can settle the kingdom down again. DONE!  Pippin then tries art and finally religion. Nothing works. He despairs. Along comes the widow Catherine (played by Jenny Boynton) who takes Pippin in to help her on the farm with her son Theo (played by Carl Robinett). Eventually, we get to love as the answer to Pippin’s developmental crises. Simple, but it takes a life to appreciate love.

The troupe ensemble ebbs and flows around the characters to add interest to this rather linear story. It works. There is never a dull moment with song and dance defining the emotions along the way. Comedy is the rule here, and when Bromley sings her “No Time at All,” she invites the audience to join her chorus to wish Pippin a full love life around the neighborhood.

The ensemble dancers are fantastic. Nine “players” fill all the dancing and support roles perfectly with face makeup and costumes having a mix of styles and colors reminiscent of “King Arthur” and “Hair.”  In the small space that is the Belrose, the audience shares the intimacy of the work onstage. Having made quick work of the art of war, the players move smoothly into the exotic, erotic and passionate areas around Pippin’s future development.

The lighting works well to define the action and sensuality surrounding Pippin’s travels.  It is obvious that lighting designer Marilyn Izdebski knows her lights and technique. Choreographer Katie Wickes and costumer Amaris Blagborne do wonders with this play to make it shine. The ensemble in these capable hands looks stunning. The 5-piece band was perfect for the voices working Judy Wiesen’s music magic.

Overall, PIPPIN at the Belrose Theatre is fun and energetic, with a good cast that is able to carry the storyline with an attitude that does not let the play drag. Yes, there is a dramatic ending but I can’t reveal it. The ending hints at the beginning of another life on this stage. I believe the Lead Player will take it from here.

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