Highlights of North Bay Theater in 2017

Looking back on this tempestuous year both politically and due to the devastating forest fires, local theaters have stepped up with thought provoking drama and welcome comedic relief. With such a vibrant performing arts community in the North Bay, these are merely a selection of productions that stood out for me in 2017.

The Elephant Man
Curtain Call Theatre in Monte Rio

The Elephant Man

Dr. Frederick Treves (Lew Brown) explains the meaning of “home” to John Merrick (James Rowan)

Based on the experiences of Joseph (John) Carey Merrick, who struggled with deformities in the late 19th century, the story follows an intelligent man who is ridiculed by society for his outward appearance until being discovered by a doctor, who provides him a safe haven.

This clever play by Bernard Pomerance shows that “the other” is not to be feared, first impressions should be questioned, and compassion can change lives. Rather than using heavy makeup, John Merrick is recreated through physicality and a powerful portrayal by James Rowan. When I look back on this year, The Elephant Man stands out as a moving piece of theater.

Visiting Mr. Green
6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa

Visiting Mr. Green

Mr. Green (Al Kaplan) cannot understand why Ross Gardiner (Kevin Kieta) is not interested in marriage and a family. Photo © Eric Chazankin.

An accidental friendship is formed when Ross is court appointed to check in on elderly Mr. Green, who is living alone and not eating properly. Through their confrontations and slowly built relationship, Ross admits to being rejected by his family for being gay, and although Mr. Green has difficulty with the news, he ultimately becomes the loving father that Ross needs.

Al Kaplan’s Mr. Green and Kevin Kieta as Ross Gardiner give mature, vulnerable performances. For anyone who has been isolated by family for being LGBTQA, the fiery arguments and loneliness are all too real. Watching Mr. Green work through his initial shock to discover that love of family and friends is more important than prejudice is beautiful.

Daddy Long Legs
Main Stage West in Sebastopol

Daddy Long Legs

Jerusha (Madison Genovese) muses on her letter to Daddy Long Legs (Tyler Costin). Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Unlike traditional musicals, Daddy Long Legs has a perpetually lilting melody, rather than separate songs. It weaves a delightful romance between Jerusha Abbott, an orphan, and her mysterious benefactor who finds himself falling in love with her letters.

Lively curiosity, new beginnings, and a hopeful outlook create a relaxing atmosphere that leaves a lingering smile in the audience. The two-hander musical with Madison Genovese and Tyler Costin was a quietly absorbing experience, demonstrating that musicals do not need to be flashy and filled with chorus lines to be effective.

The 39 Steps
Ross Valley Players in Ross

The 39 Steps

Photo by Gregg Le Blanc.

This chaotic comedy is loosely based on Hitchcock’s 1935 spy film, packed with chase scenes, romance and nefarious foreign agents. Hannay finds himself on the run to protect the 39 Steps from falling into the wrong hands. Three talented actors take on every other character in the play, from a mysterious professor to raging Scottish householder.

Using the stage to full effect, actors clamber through windows, use the ceiling to shimmy along a moving train, and wander among the darkened aisles, tripping over pig styes. In an exhilarating performance, this was a fantastic comedy from Ross Valley Players.

Guards at the Taj
Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley

Guards at the Taj

Babur (Rushi Kota) muses on beauty to his friend Humayun (Jason Kapoor). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Controversially gruesome, this play delves into the psychology of atrocities through a legend that builders of the Taj Mahal had their hands cut off by a capriciously cruel leader. Rather than examining it through court politics, the story narrows its focus to ordinary guards who find themselves forced to slice off the artists’ hands or face death themselves.

Childhood friends Humayun (Jason Kapoor) and Babur (Rushi Kota) joke around until discovering they have been chosen for the deed. In a dramatically blood drenched set, they deal with the aftermath of trauma in humanizing interactions, leading to a terrible decision that threatens their friendship. I was on the edge of my seat the entire play, it will stay with me for years to come. It also turned a full house into a handful of audience members who stayed to final curtain—many walked out, unable to take the violence and raw energy of the play, or disagreeing with how it was being portrayed. That being said, playwright Rajiv Joseph should be proud of this work and I stand by my belief that this is an outstanding production.

Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa


Jack (Chris Ginesi) sips pinot noir with the tasting manager (Mark Bradbury) while Miles (Ron Severdia) describes the bouquet. Photo by Argo Thompson.

The North Bay is in the heart of wine country, and what better way to celebrate that than with Rex Pickett’s Sideways. Although set in the Santa Ynez Valley, its inside jokes are entirely appropriate for tasting rooms in this area. I have seen the overly snobbish connoisseur swirling away next to the couple who is just there to get drunk for the afternoon.

In a wild bachelor binge before the wedding, Miles (Ron Severdia) takes Jack (Chris Ginesi) through a series of wineries. Along the way, they re-examine their life goals and whether romance is worth having.

The Diary of Anne Frank
Raven Players in Healdsburg

Diary of Anne Frank

Photo by Ray Mabry Photography.

Combining a compelling set design by Michael Mingoia with a strong ensemble, The Diary of Anne Frank is a timely reminder of what can happen when ethnic groups are targeted by society. Offered for free by Raven Players to any teenager in attendance during its run, this story of wonder and exploration set in the backdrop of war remains a relevant warning.

I will never forget when I first saw this play as a child and understood the implications—I am grateful that this year the next generation had an opportunity to experience it with such a fine cast.

‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ Be Careful What You Wish For

Review of Rapture, Blister, Burn
By Gina Gionfriddo
Directed by Nadja Masura
For tickets / schedule :
Curtain Call Theatre
Russian River Hall, Monte Rio
Tickets: $20, $15 Students / Seniors 60+

RUN: December 1-16, 2017
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

Rapture, Blister, Burn in Monte Rio

Gwen (Wanda Wiemar), Don (Lew Brown) and Catherine (Lisa Posternak) in discussion.

(December 1, 2017)

Feminist ideals of empowerment and equality are juxtaposed with the messiness of real relationships in this multi-generational drama. It enfolds on a muddled canvas of frustrated ambitions through the lives of Don, a college dean, his wife Gwen, their babysitter Avery, and Catherine, an old friend who has returned to town because of her ailing mother.

Catherine is restless, and proposes teaching a summer course inspired by her popular books examining the influence of porn on contemporary culture, resulting in Gwen wondering if she should have finished her degree, rather than becoming a stay-at-home mother, and Catherine musing on the emptiness of her successful, lonely middle-aged existence. The situation is complicated by Don and Catherine’s poorly hidden affair, which forces each character to take a long, honest look at what they have become.

Unfortunately, the performance quality outstrips its material. Rapture, Blister, Burn includes pretentious intellectual discussions hung on a framework more commonly found in a sensation novel, which creates a perplexing result, rather like attending a university lecture with a group of students who spent the previous night binge drinking. While the structure is contrived, playwright Gina Gionfriddo is deeply thoughtful, willing to examine the results of the feminist movement and its practical impact on the lives of women today, regardless of age. Director Nadja Masura has taken a frank, reasonable approach to the outrageous circumstances which come to light in the play, making it easier for the audience to acclimatize to Gionfriddo’s style of presentation.

Lisa Posternak (Catherine Croll) nuances a sexy, confident woman who’s polished career has become a mask covering lack of fulfillment and hollow dreams. Her raw plea to Don at the play’s close shows us the real Catherine, who yearns for companionship. In contrast, Wanda Wiemar (Gwen Harper) whinges in an excruciating fashion only to surprise with level-headed decisions and acceptance of her character’s lot in life, for a fascinating performance. Katie Cady (Avery Willard) is a walking “goth” runway thanks to a variety of bold fashion choices, and keeps her razor-sharp mind at work, constantly pushing for answers and soaking up Catherine’s rhetoric, along with Kathy Ping-Rogers (Alice Croll) the rather spry mother who shows no signs of wear after her heart attack. Lew Brown’s Don Harper has given up on life, losing his drive for success, blissful with his day old pizza and cheap porn. It is the women who move the play forward, taking center stage.

Rapture, Blister, Burn is a lengthy, honest inspection of how feminism compromises in the face of day-to-day challenges and the reality of mediocre relationships. Curtain Call Theatre’s observant, engaging production stirs up challenging questions, and is willing to consider multiple points of view—even Phyllis Schlafly.

‘Bakersfield Mist’ Tenacious Struggle for Meaning

Review of Bakersfield Mist
By Stephen Sachs
Directed by Argo Thompson and Kimberly Kalember

For tickets & schedule:
Luther Burbank Center for the Arts
Santa Rosa, CA
Left Edge Theatre
Tickets: $25 General Admission

RUN: November 17 – December 2, 2017
RATING: 4.5 of 5 stars

(November 17, 2017)

Bakersfield Mist - Left Edge Theatre

Maude (Sandra Ish) attempts to convince Lionel (Mike Pavone) that her painting is a genuine Jackson Pollock.

Sagebrush Trailer Park is cluttered with gaudy chachkies, milk carton furniture, frumpy decorative plates, and a Bigfoot Crossing sign courtesy of set designer Argo Thompson. It is the last place that a dramatic “Black and White” Jackson Pollock painting would be on display, yet that is what resident Maude Gutman claims to possess. Visiting art expert with impressive credentials, Lionel Percy, is rigidly pompous, unwilling to consider the possibility that a whisky swilling low-brow could possibly have a real Pollock next to her dreadfully vulgar clown painting.

A battle of wills commences over its authenticity, shifting between clever banter, effective parody of the stuffy pretension art enthusiasts can fall into, and darker glimpses into the reasons Maude is so set on her painting being genuine. In this tight single act play, the pace is exhilarating, building to a fever pitch as tensions rise. It finds a balance between amused chuckles and dramatic depth as Maude’s story unfolds.

Playwright Stephen Sachs is a master at crafting individual characters; Maude’s casual f-bombs and openhearted approach to conversation is contrasted with Lionel’s intellectual vocabulary of carefully chosen words and approach to social interactions.

Bakersfield Mist - Left Edge Theatre

Lionel (Mike Pavone) explains to Maude (Sandra Ish) that her painting is a fake.

Sandra Ish as Maude Gutman is a force to be reckoned with; she is absolute in her belief that the painting is real, and brings comfortable honesty to the role—it feels like Maude is a real person, not a character in a play. Despite the fact an expert is giving compelling reasons why the painting could not possibly be a Pollock, her unyielding faith is contagious, and had me wondering if maybe it was.

Mike Pavone’s Lionel Percy is easy to be amused by in early scenes, with his fussing over being a “fake buster” and unwillingness to shake Maude’s hand with more than his pinkie finger. He shines in the description of Pollock’s creative process, as unbridled enthusiasm breaks through the crust of academia to reveal an animated mania for the artist, leaving Maude and the audience staring with amazement at his transformation.

Bakersfield Mist is a dark comedy of prejudice, artistic passion, and the importance of believing in something, even if it is a piece of canvas covered in dripped paint. The dynamic duo of Ish and Pavone are mesmerizing; it is well worth the journey to Luther Burbank Center.

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