Encountering the Other in Curtain Call Theatre’s ‘The Elephant Man’

Review of The Elephant Man
By Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Michael Tabib
For tickets / schedule :
Curtain Call Theatre
Russian River Hall, Monte Rio
Tickets: $20, $15 Students / Seniors 60+

RUN: September 1-23, 2017
RATING: 4.5 of 5 stars

(September 9, 2017)

The Elephant Man - Curtain Call Theatre

John Merrick (James Rowan) is discovered by a London policeman (Vince Black) and Carr Gomm (Joseph Potter)

Finding humanity in those who are radically divergent is a struggle for society; if someone looks or acts differently from what we are used to, it challenges our comfort zone. Historically it has been difficult to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and respected equally, as recent news attests to. With the severely disfigured “elephant man” it is easy to react with fear, revulsion, or pity, rather than recognizing him as an intelligent equal worthy of normal attention and dignity.

Loosely based on the life of Joseph Carey Merrick, who is known as John in the play, it takes place in 1884-1890. Curtain Call Theatre’s stark scenic design allows the actors to become the main focus, rather than an elaborate Victorian setting, utilizing chilling black and white projections by Bill Young as a backdrop.

John Merrick’s deformities are not recreated with makeup or illusion; it is entirely on the shoulders of James Rowan’s strength as an actor to bring the audience into Merrick’s world, which he confidently succeeds in. This difficult role is not only physically daunting, with specific facial contortions, arm weight, and shuffling limp, but emotionally draining as the character experiences heartbreak, joy, despair, and love over the course of the evening. Rowan is absolutely invested, deeply connecting with the audience who feels the journey with him.

The Elephant Man - Curtain Call Theatre

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

Rustling in luxurious satin, Yelena Segal is Mrs. Kendall, the down-to-earth actress who is able to see the real Merrick. Her tenderness and open friendship revolutionize his life as she goes to extreme lengths ensuring that he does not miss important moments. Lew Brown’s Frederick Treves captures the quiet suffering of a successful doctor who is adrift when it comes to managing his personal affairs, caught up in reconciling a keen scientific mind with the archaic moral values of the culture he resides in. The nightmare sequence in act two is riveting and a cruelly accurate examination of the idealized male during that time period.

The Elephant Man from Curtain Call Theatre confronts our perceptions with heartfelt awareness that external features do not reflect the soul and personality within; if we run away like the terrified nurse, refusing to encounter the “other” it is a mistake. Instead, reaching out to discover the unique contributions of each person shapes a compassionate, creative environment where men like Merrick are accepted and able to thrive.

Company photographer: Dave Hall Photography

Contemporary Twist on ‘Henry IV Part 1’

Review of Henry IV Part 1
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Skylar Evans

Petaluma Shakespeare Company
Tickets: Free Admission (donations appreciated)
Foundry Wharf, 2nd & H Streets
Petaluma, CA

RUN: August 25 – September 9, 2017
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

Henry IV Petaluma Shakespeare

Sir Walter Blunt (Matthew Leffel), King Henry IV (Neil Thollander) and Harry Percy (Ryan Whitlock) debate loyalty. Photo by Oliver Wenz.

(September 1, 2017)

On the edge of Petaluma’s downtown waterfront is an enclosed lawn overlooking the river at Foundry Wharf, with dramatic staircases, benches, and plantings that create a natural set for the play. Director Skylar Evans uses the environment to enhance scenes, whether for comedic effect with Falstaff drunkenly running into the grove of trees or guards descending smartly down the staircase with eyes peeled for danger, like the modern day secret service.

Shakespeare’s history plays involve complicated political shenanigans interspersed with wanton exploits to keep the audience entertained. Sarah Passemar’s color schemed costume designs establish who belongs to which faction—white for the Percys, red and black for Henry IV, and green for the Welsh.

It helps to have a rough background of the time period; the Percys assisted Henry IV in becoming king, and they feel that he owes them for that allegiance, the Scottish are discontented with the English in general, and Owain Glyndŵr (Glendower in Shakespeare’s version) has become frustrated enough with England’s chokehold on Wales to take up arms. They form a dubious alliance against Henry IV and his son, who will become Henry V. Welcome to the rat’s nest of political intrigue that paved the way for the Wars of the Roses.

In this production, roles have been distributed between men and women, evening out the gender gap present in history plays. It did not seem out of place, in fact Alexis Evon as Glendower brought a nobility and poise to the role that is rarely seen when presenting the Welsh royal. The setting is contemporary with a vintage edge to it in the costuming, and beautiful swords by Weapons of Choice that fight choreographer Barton Smith put to good use during the battle sequences.

Henry IV - Petaluma Shakespeare Company

Prince Hal’s nefarious companions. Photo by Oliver Wenz.

Neil Thollander’s powerhouse Henry IV thunders his way through scenes, making you believe he truly is the king. Political rival Harry “Hotspur” Percy is undeterred, with a passionate display of rash heroism from Ryan Whitlock. Their clash creates tense, exciting scenes that would otherwise be static strategy discussions. Around them, family members and allies scheme to an extent that would impress Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones.

Young and fiery Anya Cherniss is a punk inspired Prince Hal, sporting leather jackets and glugging down bottles of wine when not making sport of Sir John Falstaff, portrayed with bumbling magnificence by Nicolas Christenson. Their energetic antics keep the audience laughing in between serious political scenes, and Falstaff’s “Platypus” style bottle filled with alcohol was a stroke of genius.

This free production is good fun and a rarely performed play that is a treat for Shakespeare enthusiasts. Arrive early and bring your own chairs or blanket to sit on; there is plenty of parking at Foundry Wharf. Laugh with Falstaff and Prince Hal, pick a faction to cheer for in the fight over England’s throne, and enjoy Shakespeare’s wit in this thought provoking play.

Frustrated Lovers Conspire for Freedom in ‘The Miser’

Review of The Miser
By Molière
Directed by  Kim Bromley

For schedule (free admission):
Old Mill Park Amphitheatre
Mill Valley, CA
The Curtain Theatre

RUN: August 19 – September 10, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(August 20, 2017)

The Miser - The Curtain Theatre

Harpagon (Grey Wolf) and La Flèche (Nelson Brown) debate what it means to be a miser. Photo by Russell Johnson.

The Curtain Theatre transforms a picturesque redwood grove in Mill Valley’s Old Mill Park into an enticing outdoor amphitheatre, with delicately painted sets by Steve Coleman, creating the ambiance of a 17th Century French parlor.

Director Kim Bromley’s broad comedic brushstrokes exaggerate foibles of characters—Cléante is obsessed with his own appearance, covered in golden ribbons and lace, Valère manipulates to any length forwarding his goals, and Harpagon, otherwise known as the miser, ignores his children to protect material wealth instead. This satirical examination of society was one of Molière’s later plays, and wildly popular at its premiere in 1668, quickly spreading to the rest of Europe.

Harpagon, a tightfisted elderly gentleman, wishes his children to marry for wealth. Under his watchful eye, both have fallen in love with penniless suitors, and are secretly hoping to marry without his consent. After a series of mistaken identities and hidden truths come to light, all is well in a suitably chaotic deux ex machina denouement, in the style of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.

The Miser - The Curtain Theatre

Élise (Isabelle Grimm) and Valère (Steve Beecroft) in a tête-à-tête. Photo by Russell Johnson.

Live music drifts across the stage in romantic waltzes and well-timed pratfalls, lead by Don Clark. Isabelle Grimm as coquettish Élise minces through her formidable amount of dialogue beside Steve Beecroft’s calculating Valère. Their melodramatic love affair is charming and amusing in its awkward scenes behind her father’s back, attempting to escape his wrath.

Embodying an overtly emotional, plumed nobleman is Nick Moore as Cléante, a young actor who is studying at College of Marin. He boldly interacts with the audience, pleading for money, and succumbing to a faint spell in their midst after discovering his beloved Marianne is claimed by another.

Krystina Morrill’s feisty Marianne does not appear until after intermission, and she is far from the submissive innocent that is expected. Women in this play are confident, willing to take matters into their own hands, and adept at maneuvering situations to their advantage.

The Miser - The Curtain Theatre

Cléante (Nick Moore) reveals his secret love for Marianne to Élise (Isabelle Grimm) Photo by Russell Johnson.

In its earliest run, Molière himself portrayed the title character, and added Harpagon’s hacking coughs to cover his own illness. Grey Wolf’s miser is a lecherous, greedy villain whose hobbling gait and cantankerous insults plague the servants of his household and send his children running. Nelson Brown as the sharp tongued valet La Flèche stands up to him, saving the day.

The Miser can be enjoyed on weekends and Labor Day Monday at 2:00 p.m. in the relaxing shade of Old Mill Park below the library. Admission is free, although donations are encouraged; arrive early to take advantage of their preset chairs, or bring a blanket to sit on the hillside.

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