Humanity Fights for Survival in ‘The Birds’

Review of The Birds
By Conor McPherson
Adapted from a short story by Daphne du Maurier
Directed by Elizabeth Craven
For tickets / schedule :
www.mainstagewest.com
Main Stage West, Sebastopol

RUN: April 7-23, 2017
RATING: 3 of 5 stars

(April 7, 2017)

Main Stage West - The Birds

Photo from Main Stage West

Bay Area residents are well aware of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, which was filmed in Bodega Bay, and while the play is set in the same world where birds flock together to attack their nemesis, humans, it is based on the work by Daphne du Maurier, where survivors join together for shelter in an abandoned New England cabin. Time jumps between each scene, strung together as snippets of reactions, often ignoring crucial pieces of information for tantalizing insights, rather than a linear plot. The anchor is Diane (Liz Jahren) a former author on the run whose sanity is faltering under the stress of constant attacks by birds, the loss of her family, and twisted love for Nat (Nick Sholley) whom she met on the road.

The Birds, while an intriguing concept, rang hollow. It is too cheerful for a thriller, rather tame to be post-apocalyptic, and melodramatic for a comedy. As a result, it feels scattered, with snippets of excellent theater, such as the entrance of the Mad Max road warrior neighbor in ornate handmade armor from costume designer and actor Anthony Shaw Abaté, exuberant delight when scavenging hoarded pound cake, and the cold-hearted actions of conniving Diane, but overall there is no connecting theme that holds the play together; it has a War of the Worlds vibe without the frightening follow through.

Characters are casual and relaxed the majority of the time, despite their situation, acting out in minor ways by jumping to radical conclusions or playing little tricks to get on each other’s nerves. For a plot that examines what happens when people begin losing their humanity and turning on each other, the cast is quite calm and upbeat with hints of unrest. Emotional moments pass by quickly, making it difficult to connect with and follow the progression of character development that leads to the rather shocking decisions made in the final act.

Liz Jahren’s Diane is poised and appears quite normal, with a proclivity for nasty journaling, and is effective in her nervous body language when Tierney appears wielding a shotgun. Julia (Rae Quintano) lounges across furniture, and is unabashedly in pursuit of Nat; she comes across as either secretive and naïve or a woman with an agenda, switching between the personas in a manner that confuses Diane, aggravating her suspicion. Nat (Nick Sholley) tries to make the best of the situation. “As long as there is kindness, there is hope,” he exclaims, convinced that the human race can be saved, and perhaps with enough people like him, it can.

Despite its lack of focus, this is an entertaining play with fascinating characters and a rich sound design by Doug Faxon—swinging shutters, howling wind, and birds tapping at the walls. For a lighthearted take on the post-apocalyptic genre with an unexpected twist at the end, The Birds is an amusing way to spend the evening.

Tempers Flare in ‘The Sunshine Boys’

Review of The Sunshine Boys
By Neil Simon
Directed by Ron Nash
Marin Onstage
For tickets / schedule :
marinonstage.org
Belrose Theatre, San Rafael

RUN: March 31 – April 15, 2017
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(April 1, 2017)

Marin Onstage - The Sunshine Boys

Photo from Gary Gonser

The bustling heyday of Vaudeville languished toward the late 1940s, leaving comedy teams marooned and turning to alternate work. Inspired by the era are the fictitious “Sunshine Boys”—Al Lewis, who gave up his top hat to become a businessman and retired happily onto a porch in New Jersey, and Willie Clark, who refused to acknowledge that his acting career was over, clinging to every scrap of opportunity, even as he grew too senile to remember the lines. Their vibrant personalities clash; Clark vehemently blames his partner for breaking up the act and forcefully retiring them both from show business, while Lewis is cold and fastidious, convinced he made the right decision, if only his former partner could accept it.

While there are comedic moments, such as a painfully drawn out argument over how to arrange the furniture during a rehearsal, director Ron Nash has chosen a more dramatic angle on the play, concentrating on the tempestuous team and strained relationship of Clark with his nephew, Ben, who is moved to tears when he finally connects with his uncle in the final act. Nash is unafraid of silence, encouraging natural pauses that build tension and creating realistic characters who are awkward, irritated, and somehow pressing on while caught in a situation they would rather avoid.

Grey Wolf as the curmudgeonly Willie Clark is the grandfather you love, but are equally relieved to leave behind. He portrays the older actor with a playful spirit beneath the bitterness, which comes out in a cheerful dance during an advertising jingle, while maintaining a character whose health is failing, holding on through force of will. Richard Kerrigan is the every man as Ben Silverman, the nephew who refuses to give up on his feisty relative. Their scenes of talking at cross purposes and not listening properly are all too accurate of conversations within a family. Michael Walraven’s Al Lewis is debonair with an air of suspicion, carefully accurate in details—brushing off a chair before sitting, or holding the grimy telephone well away from his pristine suit jacket.

Marin Onstage - The Sunshine Boys

Photo from Gary Gonser

During the play, a vintage Vaudeville act is reproduced, complete with over-the-top props, groan worthy one-liners, and a sexy nurse whose job is to jiggle about on stage and bat her eyes, which strains a modern audience. Christina Jaqua’s alternate ego, the Registered Nurse, restores the depiction of women with an irreverent character who can match wits with Clark’s attempts at humor, and brazenly eats her way through his chocolate.

The Sunshine Boys depicts the misery of a faded career, the danger of ignoring age and circumstances rather than accepting that life is changing, and the power of reconciliation, even if it isn’t perfect. Marin Onstage has a contemplative, grittier staging of the play than the usual bantering comedy, which allows the depth of Lewis and Clark’s story to be revealed in a different way. The intimate Belrose Theater is well adapted for this type of production, which feels like being inside Clark’s tiny, worn hotel room as part of the action.

Transcendence Music and Dance Inspires

Best of Broadway Under the Stars
Review by Gary Gonser, SFBATCC

Directed by Roy Lightner and Tony Gonzalez
Music Direction by Daniel Weidlein
Choreography by Dylan Smith and Roy Lightner

For tickets / schedule :
www.transcendencetheatre.org
Luther Burbank Center for the Arts
Santa Rosa, CA
Transcendence Theatre Company

RUN: March 11-12, 2017
Extended run at Marin Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, March 18-19, 2017
RATING: 4.5 of 5 stars

(March 11, 2017)

The Best of Broadway Under the Stars - LBC

Photo by Ray Mabry

After producing theater and music shows for 20 years, I was pleasantly surprised by the music and dance, rhythms and humor of this show. It is a pleasure to experience good productions again that fill the heart with the great energy that transcends the plodding seasons of shows many theaters are providing these days.

Good Broadway musicals leave you singing your favorite songs as you walk out into the real world. Transcendence takes these wonderful songs, and adds new choreography, costumes, singers and energy to them to bring them alive again. It doesn’t hurt to have a 30 foot thrust into the audience to let the performers sing to you up close and personal. It doesn’t hurt to have 25 professional dancers/singers with big stage experience perform singly and in unison with the best material they can find and arrange. Finally, it doesn’t hurt to have a big band play all the music for the show.

The Best of Broadway Under the Stars - LBC

Photo by Ray Mabry

In “Don’t Rain on my Parade”, from Funny Girl, Meggie Cansler sings as she walks downstage with a voice that fills the auditorium with unforgettable sounds and quality that condenses the entire show for us into one song. Follow this with Eric Jackson leading eight men in a signature Fosse jazz arrangement of “Bye Bye Blackbird” that honors the Bob Fosse traditional dance forms while showing us what the flock can do with good dancers.

“I Can Do That”, from A Chorus Line, allows Rachel Thomas a chance to teach an amazing new dancer, Evan Ruggerio, a new tap dance step or two—or is it the other way around? I learned what talent, guts and fortitude can do. Crazy for You gave us “I Got Rhythm”, but with the entire troupe tapping to the music, we get a broad sense of what is possible with this company, and it warms the heart and feet.

Leah Sprecher and Stephan Stubbins do Andrew Lloyd Webber and Les Miserables. Yes, I mean they really do a full medley of both, with irreverent humor and charm.

Forget the strong voices of the two for a minute and focus on the words. Having seen many shows of Mr. Webber and, of course, Les Miserables, I could place all the music. The two sets were amazing, non-stop fun.

Amy Miller, Brad Surosky and Stephan Stubbins are the executive life blood of this company. They started Transcendence as performers who wanted to make a difference in the world. True to form, they continue to dance and sing onstage, appearing as major singers in this show even after five years of guiding the company to new heights. Their dedication to professional quality is obvious.

For large vision music and dancing, the Transcendence Theatre Company is making its presence known in the North Bay. On March 18-19, they journeyed to the Marin Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium in San Rafael with a reprise of this show. They return to their Jack London Park summer venue on June 16, 2017, with their “Another Openin’ Another Show!”.

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