Believing is Seeing this Rhinoceros

Review of Rhinoceros
by Gary Gonser, SFBATCC

By Eugène Ionesco
Translated by Derek Prouse
Directed by Romula Torres Carroll

For tickets / schedule :
The Belrose Theatre
San Rafael, CA
Birdbath Theatres

RUN: July 7 – 22, 2017
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(July 15, 2017)

Birdbath Theatres - Rhinocerus

Photo by Robin Jackson

We are living in a time of split affiliations. Different groups are focusing on philosophies that are mutually exclusive. Arguments from either side are deflected by the belief that belonging to a group is more important than the truth.  More importantly, “truth” becomes relative to the group, and the rhinoceros flourishes on the street.

Rhinoceros was written in 1959 by Eugène Ionesco as a post World War II “theatre of the absurd” reflection of the group acceptance and mob hysteria that accompanied the rise of the Nazi party in Europe. More importantly to Ionesco, the Vichy government of France survived because of group acceptance and mob hysteria.

Existence is a lonely place by definition. We are born and die alone, and we long to belong to a group that loves us during our life, even if we don’t believe in the same things the group believes in. Enter the rhinoceros.  t is an animal that is thought to rush into the fray, running over plants and animals and people. Ionesco uses the rhinoceros as symbolic of the “different” and destructive behavior of the mob.

Birdbath Theatres - Rhinocerus

Photo by Robin Jackson

In Rhinoceros, low brows, high brows, bureaucrats and intellectuals, rich and poor, succumb to the need to believe in the group philosophy of the rhinoceros. Slowly, the entire town questions, and then believes in the rhinoceros mentality roaming the city streets.

This new theatre group, Birdbath Theatres, chose a challenging play to present to their community. Characteristically French in the topics and tone, the play develops the humorous incidents in the beginning that set the stage for the serious impact at the end of the play.

Director Romulo Carroll brings out the best in the actors to move the simplest of interactions into riveting theatre. I was struck by the animation of David Abrams and Spencer Acton while they launched into their roles of Jean and Berenger, respectively, with gusto and over the top enthusiasm.  The talent of these actors is amazing.

Birdbath Theatres - Rhinocerus

Photo by Robin Jackson

Abrams (as Jean) is the righteous, dedicated bureaucrat attempting to make the case for a good life without the drinking and carousing of other citizens.  He is the first person to see the rhinoceros running through the streets. Ultimately, he pulls away from his traditional society and joins the majority viewpoint. His physical transformation at the end of act 2 is truly amazing.

Acton (as Berenger) is the good natured hedonist who drinks and likes life, but longs for the ideal and disciplined life described to him by Jean. His watches his friends change one by one into the other camp, but cannot help them. As they transform, Berenger remains the sole holdover to the life he knows and loves.

Andrew Byars (as Mr. Papillion) enjoys a good syllogism with friends to prove that a dog is a cat, but he slowly comes to believe it, at the expense of the cat, who is trampled by a raging rhinoceros. Emma Farman (as Daisy) plays the straight receptionist starkly drawn against the background of the absurd behavior consuming the other citizens in town.

Abrams and Acton help to make the play enjoyable with their facial expressions, enthusiasm, body language and extreme reactions to the developments along the way. The timing was done well in acts 1 and 2 to keep me on the edge of my seat, anticipating the resolution in act 3.

However necessary act 3 is to illustrate the actual emotional transformations taking place in the rest of the town, its length and understatement were disappointing. At one high point, Farman and Acton work through the arguments for and against love and rhinoceroses, finally coming to an emotional catharsis of their relationship. Acton summarizes the encounter by saying to the audience: “in just a few minutes we have gone through twenty-five years of married life!”

The other villagers, Jenny Donohue, Terra Schamun, Jack Sabido, McKay Williams, Nat Davis and Jarrod Ackerley all portrayed their characters well and distinctly. This reviewer would have enjoyed reading their bios, which were absent in the program. Their experience in theatre certainly helped them with their good supporting roles.

The set is simple and effective, shifting between the marketplace, Jean’s bedroom and Berenger’s bedroom. Costumes were period French and mostly appropriate to French fashion and class.

Humor is always present under the surface, with perfect “off the cuff” comments designed to release the building dramatic energy into audience laughter relief. This production is a good study in classic “absurd” theatre.

Appalachian ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Review of Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert S. Currier
For tickets / schedule :
Marin Shakespeare
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University of California

RUN: June 30 – July 23, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars

(June 30, 2017)

Marin Shakespeare - Much Ado About Nothing

Photo by Jay Yamada

Much Ado About Nothing’s musical elements have been brought to the forefront in this creative hoedown of an adaptation. The iconic characters find themselves in the Appalachian mountains on the side of the McCoys during the early 20th Century, with gunslingers, cavalry troops and outspoken ranchers. Jackson Currier’s rustic set design has meticulous attention to detail, from the hay loft to copper distiller for moonshine. Director Robert Currier makes full use of the space, with Beatrice acquiring her disguise from overalls hanging on the outhouse, entertaining dance moves in doorways, and Benedict jumping into a clothes basket to hide, with highly amusing consequences.

The play itself stays firmly to the original, with place names swapped out and the occasional modern adjustment. Billie Cox weaves in original music, based on traditional folk songs, which augment ambience, explain backgrounds of characters, and assist with smooth scene transitions. Rather than feeling out of place, they are comfortably part of the story and setting. Abra Berman’s wide range of costume designs add a sense of fun with colorful farm dresses, Sunday “duds” for the wedding and pastoral masks.

Marin Shakespeare - Much Ado About Nothing

Photo by Jay Yamada

Elena Wright is the finest Beatrice I have had the pleasure of seeing inhabit the role. Her boundless energy and spunk are captivating; it is no wonder that Don Pedro proposes and insists that she was “born in a merry hour.” Her swaggering antics, cigar chewing and use of the spittoon add to her charm—this production is worth attending simply to enjoy her sparkling portrayal. Dameion Brown’s Benedict had a rocky start, most likely due to nerves, but relaxed into the second act, when his natural bearing and well-timed humor carried the day.

The hillbilly Watch brandishing clubs and an oversized baking whisk are kept in a shambling sort of order by the brilliant Barry Kraft as Dogberry with a scattered Verges (Debi Durst) by his side. They manage to capture the two conspirators by accident, leading to an interrogation scene filled with dry wit and saucy interchanges with arrogant Conrade (Lindsey Schmelzer) and a hipster inspired Borachio (Ben Muller).

Marin Shakespeare - Much Ado About Nothing

Photo by Jay Yamada

John the bastard (Clay David) is a difficult character, since he has little motivation for his actions, so Currier chose to emphasize this lack of substance by turning him into a classic mustache twirling villain from a “B” Western. It is so dramatically over-the-top that he is distracting at times, although his rendition of “I’m Bad” is delightful. His knavery might have worked better had it been toned down in favor of balancing with the rest of the cast.

Marin Shakespeare has collected a strong group of actors—Brittany Law’s Margaret is coquettish and handy with a guitar, Leonato (Steve Price) has a heartwarming relationship with his daughter, Hero (Nicole Apostol Bruno), Joshua Hollister’s Claudio is a believable wronged lover, and even the Gardener (John Neblett) is hilarious while puttering about the stage.

Marin Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is a heel tapping shindig celebrating the triumph of love, with a lively cast and inventive setting. Promenade down to the Forest Meadows Amphitheater for a frolicking adventure in romance with the bard.

‘Tempestuous’ Imaginative Shakespeare Mashup

Review of Tempestuous
By Merlyn Q. Sell
Directed by Beulah Vega
For tickets / schedule :
Pegasus Theater Company
Riverkeeper Stewardship Park, Guerneville

RUN: June 9 – 25, 2017
RATING: 3 of 5 stars

(June 17, 2017)

Pegasus Theater Company - Tempestuous

Photo by Anna Narbutovskih

A sleepy, rundown riverside resort is turned upside-down by the accidental release of local fairies from Oberon’s court. Playwright Merlyn Q. Sell deftly balances modern characters, wandering through on their cell phones, with a closet sorceress who is fond of crossword puzzles, hippie inspired Ariel munching on cheese snacks, and eerily cruel other-worldly tricksters.

The underlying sense of magic in the play is hinted at from the first scene, as Cal saunters in overtly wearing a Dumbledore’s Army t-shirt. Weaving in and out are discussions regarding the nature of magic and its interaction with humans and fairy kind, touching on the idea that there is something missing from both that can only be found when working together without ulterior motive. Although it borrows heavily from William Shakespeare’s plays, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Coriolanus, the story is entirely of Sell’s devising, and extremely clever; it twists and turns with philosophical musings and its emphasis on the importance of family is oddly comforting.

Olivia Rooney (Andy) always delights with her nuanced expressions and vivacious personality. In this role, she struggles with classic millennial frustrations—after graduating school and working hard to make ends meet, her dreams are crushed, and she returns home, defeated and desperate for something to give her a reason to get up in the morning and continue the fight. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Cal (Conor O’Shaughnessy) who accepts his lot in life and makes the best of it, not wanting excitement to upset that equilibrium. His choices throughout the story, leading to a difficult, but necessary decision at the end, are steady and logical, saving the world from being overrun by wild sorcery.

Pegasus Theater Company - Tempestuous

Photo by Anna Narbutovskih

Nick Christenson’s bumbling, scatterbrained Ariel retains childlike enthusiasm and wonder, which is maddening and endearing simultaneously. Straight talking Roxie (Jana Molina) and Toni (Alexis Evon) are the sort of strong female characters I appreciate seeing on stage. Although his portrayal is rather over-the-top, Paul Menconi’s Professor has a dramatic presence, and as the evening progressed, he loosened up and become more comfortable inhabiting his character. The two nefarious fairies, Triniculo (Noel Yates) and Stefano (Rusty Thompson) oil their way through the action with vile elegance and poise, turning invisible when it suits them.

There is almost no need for a set, because the play was commissioned with the miniature stage beside Russian River in mind, and its dancing boughs of trees from surrounding groves are often referenced, becoming characters in their own right. While the cast needs more rehearsal time to work through kinks in timing and dropped lines, they bring the story to life, and the patchwork of contemporary slang with Shakespearean language I find to be highly entertaining. Tempestuous is a warmhearted, magical play set in the natural beauty of Guerneville’s Riverkeeper Stewardship Park.

A note if you plan to attend: Walk down behind Sonoma Nesting Company where the bridge begins, do not cross the bridge, but continue straight to the other side of the road and look for tall banners marking the trail entrance. Follow the brief meandering riverside trail until you reach the box office in a circular paved area. Cushioned seating is provided, but bring extra blankets or pillows if you like for a more comfortable experience.

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