‘Grace’ Ponders the Intimacy of Belief

Review of Grace
By Craig Wright
Directed by John Craven
For tickets / schedule :
Main Stage West, Sebastopol
Tickets: $30, $25 Senior 65+, $15 Students

RUN: September 8-24, 2017
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(September 14, 2017)

Grace - Main Stage West

Sam (Sam Coughlin) and Sara (Ilana Niernberger) share a moment while Steve (John Browning) questions his decisions. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Personal beliefs formed through experience powerfully motivate decisions, whether feeling a sense of wonder in the universe or bitterness from the darkness it contains. Grace is a collection of four characters examining life through different lenses. Steve is an overbearing “born again” Christian, urging his faith on others whether they want to hear about it or not. His wife Sara has a quiet, deeper spirituality based on her loving, compassionate view of the world. Karl’s heinous experiences in Nazi Germany caused him to reject the idea of a deity entirely. Sam’s self-loathing and survivor’s guilt leave him vulnerable and searching for meaning.

This dark comedy follows a couple who recently moved to Florida, planning to renovate hotels, and their shut-in neighbor who is a scientist at NASA. What begins as an innocent attempt to help him feel included blossoms into friendship with the equally lonely stay at home wife.

Grace - Main Stage West

Sara (Ilana Niernberger) discusses hotel renovations with Steve (John Browning). Photo by Eric Chazankin.

While there is a definite story, playwright Craig Wright plays with abstract use of time, rearranging sequences, pausing scenes at crucial moments, and replaying encounters in slow motion to reiterate a point. Doug Faxon’s sound design situates the audience, moving through the complexity of this presentation style; John Craven’s direction keeps the sudden shifts clear and easy to follow. Missy Weaver’s creative lighting design shifts focus, illuminating specific areas of the stage, as needed. The result is a fascinating surreal journey with spikes in tension and a dramatic climax.

Blustering husband Steve (John Browning) constantly asks if others attended church growing up, and becomes irate at their lack of interest. I have met plenty of similarly enthusiastic Christians, wishing they could let it rest long enough to have a regular conversation. His smugly content facial expressions slowly grate at Sara (Ilana Niernberger) who is tired of his discordant insistence on ignoring the emotional landscape of a room to push his beliefs. He blusters at Sam, while his wife huddles on the couch, head in her hands, wishing it would end.

Grace - Main Stage West

Steve (John Browning) explains an investment opportunity to Sam (Sam Coughlin). Photo by Eric Chazankin.

The two apartments overlap locations simultaneously, offering unique visual dynamics. A view of palm trees silhouetted by the sunset shimmers in the background, printed by Robert Brendt. Sam (Sam Coughlin) slides effortlessly between comedic exchanges with uncooperative technical support for his camera software and opening up to Sara about the tragedy of his past with anguished sensitivity. In a brief, dynamic role, Craven as Karl is an exterminator who arrives at the apartments, willing to argue down Steve’s self-righteous rhetoric.

Despite the title Grace, this is not a lighthearted Christian play. Wright brings the sharpened intellect of his Master of Divinity degree to bear on a broken faith community, shining a light into the crevices of petty arrogance and willful ignorance. Sara’s acute embarrassment at the typical behavior of a modern Christian is a reminder that whatever a person’s belief, it is more important to be present and aware of others, willing to set aside pride for their hopes and dreams. Main Stage West’s Grace is a disturbing and desperately needed commentary on using faith to excuse a litany of behaviors toward fellow human beings, gathering a riveting cast of local talent.

Aroma of Friendship and Vice in ‘Sideways’

Review of Sideways
By Rex Pickett
Directed by Argo Thompson

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

RUN: September 8 – October 1, 2017
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(September 15, 2017)

Sideways - Left Edge Theatre

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

Sideways has morphed forms from bestselling novel to film and this stage adaptation by the original author, Rex Pickett. Although it takes place in Santa Ynez Valley wine country, the play is appropriate for this area, and the industrial style tasting room set design by Argo Thompson with vino pin wine racks is reminiscent of wineries in Sonoma County.

Wine snob and floundering writer Miles takes his buddy Jack on a whirlwind bachelor party, consuming vast amounts of alcohol in a quest for the perfect pinot noir. Along the way, they meet two beautiful vino enthusiasts and strike up an impromptu romance.

Sideways - Left Edge Theatre

Miles (Ron Severdia) lectures Jack (Chris Ginesi) for getting into another scrape. Photo by Argo Thompson.

Wine country inside jokes abound, with hissy managers sputtering “this is a tasting room, not a bar” while pulling bottles away, and Miles attempting to explain how to properly drink wine, describing a delicate bouquet in pompous detail that has Jack rolling his eyes and downing the pour in a single gulp. The burgundy soaked sex scene with lovers as turned on by the wine as each other had the audience laughing hysterically, and constant derision of merlot was hotly contested in the lobby by locals who favor that varietal.

Ron Severdia’s Miles portrays an outward veneer of confidence that wears away in a downward spiral personified by clutching at an unopened bottle of Château Latour that is slowly degrading in quality. He is unwilling to uncork it and take the consequences, since it has become a parallel to his overall life decisions. In contrast, Chris Ginesi’s easy going Jack is terrified of commitment, bouncing between women in a headlong rush toward his wedding.

Recently divorced Maya (Maureen O’Neill) discovered her love of wine by taking revenge on her ex-husband’s infidelity by breaking open his treasured cellar and consuming the finest burgundies. O’Neill’s reserved charm is appropriate to the character, and she has a grounded authenticity to her reactions. Jazmine Pierce as Terra is a wildcat in her confrontation with Jack’s dishonesty, leaping on the bed, ferociously brandishing a golf club. The supporting cast moves through a variety of roles, Mark Bradbury’s tasting room managers being especially memorable.

Sideways - Left Edge Theatre

Terra (Jazmine Pierce) furious with Jack (Chris Ginesi) and Miles (Ron Severdia). Photo by Argo Thompson.

The downfall of the play is in its length and pacing. With engaging characters and an entertaining concept, a tighter editing pass would have maintained the energy; instead, it slumps in several scenes, until building up to a satisfying conclusion. There are enough captivating interactions throughout to keep the audience interested; Thompson’s direction and the cast’s investment in their roles make up for the scattered timing by keeping characters realistic and connected. Left Edge Theatre’s Sideways celebrates the significance of close friendship, with its ups and downs, in a hilarious wine drenched road trip.

Academic Escapades in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’

Review of Love’s Labour’s Lost
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Rob Clare
For tickets / schedule :
Marin Shakespeare
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University of California
Tickets: $37, $34 Senior 65+, $12 for 25 and younger or pay your age

RUN: September 2-24, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(September 10, 2017)

Love's Labour's Lost - Marin Shakespeare

Longaville (Walter Zarnowitz), Dumain (Terrance Smith), Biron (Patrick Russell), and King Ferdinand (Dean Linnard) enjoy the last moments of freedom before signing the edict. Photo by Jay Yamada.

Shakespeare’s comedies range from wickedly sharp banter between lovers to drunken buffoonery, utilizing clever plot twists and mistaken identities. In this frothy little play, it is language that takes the forefront; Shakespeare is showing off and doing it splendidly. Dancing rhythms range up and down in a capering melody of words. It is no wonder that love blossoms so easily when the atmosphere is charged with sizzling poetry.

In the court of King Ferdinand, four young men decide to eschew the pleasures of female company and lengthy banquets to concentrate on academic pursuits that will sharpen their minds. The agreement is signed just as a princess and her ladies arrive. Secretly, declarations of affection are written, and the firm pact is set topsy-turvy. The women have their fun at the suitors’ expense, until realizing that the men are truly in earnest.

With eight lovers dashing about in various disguises, I was grateful to costume designer Abra Berman for color coding the couples with hat ribbons and sashes. Her elegant Edwardian summer frocks are a pleasing sight against golden stone walls of the Oxford University quad inspired set design by Jackson Currier. The visuals in this play are a confection of light colors and frivolity, matching the meters of frolicking poetry.

Love's Labour's Lost - Marin Shakespeare

Rosaline (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) flaunts her love letter. Photo by Jay Yamada.

Despite being a solid ensemble piece, each character flashes with individuality. Dean Linnard’s King Ferdinand attempts to hold firm to his studies with stoic duty, while hiding the fact he is a hopeless romantic at heart. Linnard’s hilarious attempt at singing a tune for the princess was matched only by his heel kicking performance in a Russian dance while in disguise. Playful rascal Biron (Patrick Russell) would rather be playing cricket than worrying about books, the opposite of his quietly earnest friend, Longaville (Walter Zarnowitz) and energetic Dumain (Terrance Smith) whose antics land him in the pond rather than face King Ferdinand to admit he is in love.

Their affections are not to be wondered at, with wit cracking Rosaline (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) who triumphs in every encounter, Livia DiMarchi as the poised princess able to hold her own against the flustered king, flirtatious Maria (Eliza Boirin), and mischievous Katharine (Morgan Pavey) who finds her suitor’s ardor amusing.

Love's Labour's Lost - Marin Shakespeare

Biron (Patrick Russell), King Ferdinand (Dean Linnard), Longaville (Walter Zarnowitz), and Dumain (Terrance Smith) prepare to face the ladies. Photo by Jay Yamada.

Amy Lizardo as Costard has a never ceasing loquacious tongue that could cause Sense and Sensibility’s comment “I do not think she drew breath from the moment we left London.” Lizardo’s personable warmth is a welcome addition to the cast. Carl Robinett’s Moth wanders by in the background of scenes, making snarky remarks until having his moment to shine as the young Hercules wrestling with a snake, causing enthusiastic cheering from the audience and characters alike.

Love’s Labour’s Lost may not have the popular appeal of other Shakespearean comedies, but its richness in language and charming love stories are an entertaining delight with this exquisite production. Rob Clare’s direction crafts a spirited gambol of poetry and awakened desire that is the perfect way to end this year’s outdoor theatre season.

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