‘The Sugar Bean Sisters’ Supernatural Antics

Review of The Sugar Bean Sisters
By Nathan Sanders
Directed by Denise Elia-Yen

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

RUN: March 17 – April 9, 2017
RATING: 3 of 5 stars

(March 24, 2017)

Spreckels The Sugar Bean Sisters Rohnert Park

Photo © Eric Chazankin

When sisters have been living too long together, tempers bubble to the surface, causing unfounded squabbling mingled with compassion. Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen’s set design is a crumbling shrine to the Nettle sisters’ departed parents in a humid, marshy version of Miss Havisham’s dusty sanctuary; rotting wood and Christmas decorations linger on the edges of the stage as a reminder of their passing. Deep in sugar bean territory, infested with mosquitos, the neglected house sinks into the mire, taking its inhabitants along with it.

The eldest sister, Willie Mae Nettles, suffers from loneliness, clutching at the hope of finding a husband to love her, while weighed down by her age and appearance making that unlikely. Mollie boice’s nervous energy realistically depicts a paranoid woman who has stretches of calm with an other worldly sense of delight. Mary Gannon Graham’s fiery Faye Nettles seems to be the practical, common sense sister until her eyes light up with the promise of returning alien visitors coming to take her away from the meaningless state her life has become, trapped in her role as caregiver in a dank house far from civilization. She needs that release desperately enough to go to extreme lengths to achieve her perception of freedom. The transition from irritated helpmate to violent machinations felt rushed and out of character, perhaps there was not enough in the script to work with, but a gradual shift in behavior or reactions may have smoothed that in earlier scenes.

Spreckels The Sugar Bean Sisters Rohnert Park

Photo © Eric Chazankin

The Sugar Bean Sisters opens in silence as a mysterious visitor pokes about the house, searching it with careless indifference to the inhabitants, making herself at home with the cookie jar and vanity mirror. Director Denise Elia-Yen brings out Lydia Revelos’ physical comedy in an engaging introduction to Vidella Sparks, who flounces her way through the window, losing colorful feathers and her dignity, but capturing the audience’s heart. Pamela Johnson’s exotic costume design combined with Revelos’ mincing steps creates a flighty, dangerous creature who is not what she appears to be.

For a story about alien landings and sisterly antics, it has a grounded feel to it with touching moments of family connection and loss interspersed with outlandish side stories, such as the melodramatic Reptile Woman (Sharon Griffith) wielding voodoo prophecies, and Vidella Sparks’ sinister exit. Join the Nettles in this supernatural comedy set in the depths of Florida’s swampland.

‘peerless’ is Deftly Crafted Dark Comedy

Review of peerless
By Jiehae Park
Directed by Margot Bordelon

For tickets & schedule:
Marin Theatre Company
Mill Valley, CA

March 9 – April 2, 2017

RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(March 22, 2017)

Marin Theatre Company - peerless

Photo by Kevin Berne

I will not look at gluten free cookies again without thinking of peerless. Playwright Jiehae Park populates this imaginative retelling of Macbeth with exaggerated versions of high school students we can relate to—D, the dopey nerd who manages to enjoy life in spite of himself, Dirty Girl, who disgusts and mesmerizes, dragging on a cigarette and ignoring expectations, and the driven academic achievers who eschew anything that does not fit into their perfect plan. While realistic, the drama heightens their personalities to throw a light on societal flaws. The pressure of being accepted to “The College” drives students to murder for a place, while gender and race gaps are addressed with brutal satire.

It is the sound of this play that is truly unique. Phrases are tossed back and forth, interrupting in overlapping chorus. The twins, L (Rinabeth Apostol) and M (Tiffany Villarin) begin in unison, almost with their own language, until it becomes clear that one dominates the other, and their relationship takes a damaging codependent turn, changing their intimacy into poison. Sound designer Palmer Hefferan creates an ever shifting background that culminates in the visceral and disturbing skittering rats that travel from one side of the stage to the other, using a trail of small speakers backstage. The atmosphere he creates is chilling, combined with Heather Basarab’s lighting design, which flashes into use during the hauntings.

Marin Theatre Company - peerless

Photo by Kevin Berne

References to Macbeth abound, from knocking to shouts of “Wake up!” a modern translation of “Sleep no more!” Rosie Hallett’s Dirty Girl is grounded with an air of dark prophecy to her, adding layers of magical realism that leave the audience wondering if perhaps she does see the future. Underneath the snappy repartee is an aura of mysticism that permeates the story, right until the final curtain. Kate Noll’s set design utilizes three sliding doors that move the narrative along—the middle panel might reveal a dance studio bathed in fuchsia light with a chattering L one moment, then close with the far right revealing a high school classroom of M and BF arguing about grades the next. It is a functional and dynamic way to shift between locations, although the brisk pace makes the story difficult to follow without prior familiarity with Macbeth.

M labors under the dictates of her sister, repressing the first glimmer of love, which Villarin’s expressive portrayal displays in soft shifts of expression, discomfort, and guilt which slowly drives her character mad. Apostol’s domineering L carries herself with vicious confidence, bereft of pity in her single-minded goal. Jeremy Kahn as D is awkwardly enthusiastic, naively reminiscing while L plots his downfall. His artless rambling about death and conquering fear is irresistibly charming.

Peerless is a nimble comedy of captivating characters with a twisted sense of humor and remarkable execution. Its clever dialog and ruthless twins take the stage by storm, leaving the audience laughing, and confused as to why they are doing so. Marin Theatre Company’s West Coast premiere of peerless is a rousing success.

‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ in Sebastopol

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Main Stage West

Photo from Main Stage West

Review of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
By Edward Albee
Directed by David Lear
For tickets / schedule :
Main Stage West, Sebastopol

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

(March 17, 2017)

Exquisitely crafted language is filled with painful candor in this quintessential American play. It can be a vicious picture of a middle aged couple whose relationship has been sucked dry of any respect, reduced to lashing out at each other and competing in a series of “games” that celebrate their rancor. Director David Lear has taken a different approach to this classic play that is a refreshing vision; George and Martha give the impression that underneath the arguing they are still deeply in love, on the verge of giving up, but pushing for a better life together. There are glimmers of light peeling back the layers of routine and frustration that culminate in a touching conclusion as they clutch for each other, torn up from the fight and ready to find peace.

Peter Downey’s George brings a steady flow through movement and an easy going attitude that speaks of intellectual boredom exercising itself by wrecking havoc on less finely tuned minds. Martha (Sandra Ish) is perfectly capable of tossing his dark repartee back at him in manner that disturbs their guests and occasionally the audience in a manner that the couple, in contrast, seem quite comfortable with.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Main Stage West

Photo from Main Stage West

Rose Roberts as the younger Honey has few lines, and does not need them to make an impression. She is fully present and hilarious as an extremely tipsy guest ready with well timed reactionary expressions and a sudden breakout of interpretive dance that is brilliantly executed. John Browning’s Nick keeps a stiffness that oozes disgust at having to put up with the shenanigans, until alcohol takes hold and rips away his inhibitions, leading to a loosely passionate moment reveling in exhausted inebriation. This is an all-around strong cast that holds their own, each bringing unique energy to the stage.

The prevailing feel of Lear’s set design is emptiness, reflecting the state of George and Martha’s lives, leaving the bar to take center stage, as it does in the story. One of the few distractions in this staging was the lack of ice tongs—it may seem minor, but the amount of times that George reaches in to pick ice up with his bare hands to toss them in glasses took me into a train of thought wondering how anyone who drinks as much as they do could have a household without simple bar tools; it seemed out of character, especially in that time period.

Main Stage West has embraced the lighter side of Edward Albee’s play—replacing bitter venom with a realistic couple struggling to regain control over their dreams. Lear’s intimate portrait reveals how easy it is to give up, and the importance of pressing forward through the pain to reclaim an honest and loving relationship.

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