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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.