Imagination Soars in ‘Buyer & Cellar’

Buyer & Cellar 6th Street Playhouse

Photo by Eric Chazankin

Review of Buyer & Cellar
By Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Sarah Muirhead

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

RUN: February 3-19, 2017
RATING: 3 of 5 stars

(February 4, 2017)

Buyer & Cellar is a whimsical story sparked by the unique interior design of Barbra Streisand’s Malibu home where she chose to display her collections in a European style mall complete with Bee’s Doll Shop, antique shops, and a candy store with frozen yogurt. Playwright Jonathan Tolins was captivated by the attention to detail, and speculated on what it would be like to work in the faux stores, waiting for their one customer to arrive.

Enter struggling actor Alex More (Patrick Varner) who has been reduced to job hunting after being banished from the Magic Kingdom for an incident in Mickey’s Toontown. His dubious reaction to playing a part in the mall transforms into obsession with Streisand’s world; he throws himself into the role, creating elaborate backstories for the dolls, becoming consumed with his work. His relationship suffers for it, causing bittersweet exchanges with his boyfriend, both portrayed with unrelenting energy by Varner, who slips between characters with expressive physicality.

Buyer & Cellar 6th Street Playhouse

Photo by Eric Chazankin

Buyer & Cellar is pleasant throughout, with moments of intense contemplation, but it does not fully succeed as either a fluffy comedy or darker introspection of how important the impact of a distressing childhood can be. It flirts with both, and while the humor is amusing, the play is not a stand-out comedy. 6th Street’s production is strongest in the delightful performance of Varner, who is fascinating throughout the one act play, taking scenes that could have lagged in the hands of a less competent actor and focusing them into vivid pieces of imagination. Sam Tansleau’s elegantly simple set design becomes filled with glittering vintage gowns, picturesque barnyards, and a cramped Los Angeles apartment through the power of Varner’s storytelling and tight direction from Sarah Muirhead.

Buyer & Cellar is an escape into a universe of opulence and eccentricity, away from the demands of everyday work and disturbing news reports. Enjoy a frivolously diverting evening at the theater with a talented actor to forget your worries and spend time in Barbra Streisand’s extraordinary cellar.

Friendship at the Breaking Point in ‘A Steady Rain’

Review of A Steady Rain
By Keith Huff
Directed by Argo Thompson
(Remount of production by Left Edge Theatre in 2016)
For tickets / schedule :
Main Stage West, Sebastopol

RUN: February 3-19, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(February 3, 2017)

A Steady Rain - Main Stage West and Left Edge Theatre

Photo from Left Edge Theatre

Have you ever felt your life spinning out of control—despite your best efforts, nothing went right? For police partners Joey and Denny, the inconvenience of being passed over for promotion snowballs into a disturbing web of self-inflicted darkness. Joey watches his best friend become consumed by paranoia, and his feeble efforts to avert it are thwarted by his own inner demons. The play gains momentum, hurtling through the final act with engrossing suspense, striping characters bare, revealing fears and desires, smashing through pent-up emotions. Stark lighting design from April George creates an interrogation atmosphere, with sound design by Argo Thompson adding to the realism with accompanying effects bringing the story to life.

Joey (Nick Sholley) is worn down by loneliness, a dead end job, and abusive friend. He coasts along, describing events in mildly disgusted terms, accepting outrageous behavior, and slowly working up the courage to do something about it. He slumps his way through scenes, shrinking away from his partner. Denny (Mike Schaeffer) is a firecracker, reacting instantly to how he feels, whether that is lashing out or impulsively showing his love for others. Thompson’s set design takes a beating from Denny’s tantrums, emphasizing the explosive energy of his outbursts.

Their occasionally overlapping monologues describe the same events through entirely different personalities. Joey’s description is reasonable, well thought out, and linear; Denny is the personification of an unreliable narrator, yet there is a truth to his heart and devotion to family that Joey lacks. Writer Keith Huff, known for House of Cards, exposes the grim story through two men who have been tossed together since childhood, and are coming to terms with the fact that they should have drifted apart years ago, but hung on out of a perverted sense of loyalty.

A Steady Rain is a brutally honest portrayal of mutually destructive friendships, the gradual breaking down of trust in a marriage, and reminder that when we cling too desperately to what we love, it will evade our grasp. If you missed Left Edge Theatre’s production last year, take the time to attend this remount with a stellar cast and chilling tale of being on the street as a “beat cop” in Chicago.

(Recommended for high school and above due to sexual content and language.)

‘Native Son’ Challenges Perceptions

Review of Native Son
By Nambi E. Kelley
Adapted from the novel by Richard Wright

Directed by Seret Scott
For tickets / schedule :
Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley

RUN: January 19 – February 12, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(January 20, 2017 – Preview Night)

Native Son Nambi E Kelley Marin Theatre

Photo by Kevin Berne

Trapped by circumstances and fear, a young African American is on the run, drowning in an ever shrinking world of suspicion and paranoia, until he falls shivering onto a snowy rooftop in South Side Chicago. In that moment, memories flit across his consciousness, mingling past and present, reliving the cause of his distress in an overlapping kaleidoscope of time. This electrifying 90-minute play is a window into the mind of Bigger, mingling factual events with feverish imagination in a non-linear narrative. Nambi E. Kelley draws from Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ idea of double consciousness to explain the duality of experience that oppressed minorities feel, pulling between who they are and what society expects them to be; rather than looking directly at oneself, it is always through the lens of outside perception. This can be true of racial differences and economic struggles, and is a concept that desperately needs to be understood as a reality in our current society.

Rather than using plain monologue to reproduce Bigger’s inward conflict, Kelley personifies it in The Black Rat, allowing for dynamic internal dialogue and commentary without interrupting the flow. Seret Scott’s direction keeps the core of the story clear, while deftly moving between locations and chronology through use of Giulio Cesare Perrone’s sparse wood beam set and the lighting design of Marc Stubblefield, who shifts the audience’s attention as needed.

Native Son Nambi E Kelley Marin Theatre

Photo by Kevin Berne

Native Son premiered in Chicago, with Jerod Haynes as Bigger, who is reprising his role for Marin Theatre Company. Haynes’ performance is vulnerable, allowing for an intimate connection with his character, while the physicality of Bigger’s building terror drives him into excruciating violence. William Hartfield’s The Black Rat is an ever present shadow, remarking on situations with acerbic wit and alternatively trying to restrain Bigger and taunt him, as internal voices are wont to do. He is the collected calm to Bigger’s primal emotions. Cautiously optimistic and ready to take on the world is Dane Troy as Buddy, who ambles through memories with his comic book, a timely nod to Marvel’s recent work with African American stories such as the Netflix series Luke Cage and the revised Iron Man, Riri Williams.

Kelly Wright (Hannah) is a powerhouse in this production, transforming a brief role into both touches of comedy and an anguished mother pleading for her son’s life. Adam Magill’s Jan is a starry-eyed dreamer who wants to see the best in people, but has no idea of the true darkness of their situation. Rosie Hallett (Mary) bounces with naïve enthusiasm, weaving between a giggling heiress and haunting reminder of Bigger’s tragedy. Ryan Nicole Austin is the conscience of the story—her characters love Bigger, wanting the best for him, and slowly have that hope stripped away. Her horror and isolation in the freezing snow, watching him slip away from her is grim and terrifying. She is the heart of this adaptation, demonstrating the depth to which Bigger falls when panicking about his future.

Native Son is an exacting confrontation of the harsh circumstances that surround racial minorities and the economically deprived, hemmed in by a world that ignores or despises them, demanding that they act and speak and look a certain way, regardless of internal needs. While Bigger gives in to those expectations, he feebly fights against them, angry at himself and those who forced him to see himself as a monster. This passionate and heart-pounding drama is a unique view into the soul of a man cornered by prejudice and despair.

Due to mature themes and sexual content, I recommend this play for high school age and above.

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