‘Buried Child’—Fading Americana’s Final Breath

Review of Buried Child
By Sam Shepard
Directed by Elizabeth Craven
For tickets / schedule :
Main Stage West, Sebastopol
Tickets: $30, $25 Senior 65+, $15 Students

RUN: February 2-25, 2018
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(February 8, 2018)

Main Stage West - Buried Child

Dodge (John Craven) is presented with corn by his son Tilden (Keith Baker). Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Buried Child examines the reality behind a Norman Rockwell “all-American” family decaying into sunset years. The confident father holding court at Thanksgiving with a glistening roast turkey has become a cantankerous invalid bellowing for whisky, and the popular high school halfback shuffles about the kitchen with a haunted expression, a fragile shell of the man he was. Sam Shepard’s writing is a product of his era—its leisurely pacing and measured dialogue is difficult for a contemporary audience to connect with, although the genius of his imagination echoes through the play.

Swaying between gritty realism and flights of the surreal, Buried Child is a mashup of genres, held together by Missy Weaver’s extraordinary lighting design enveloping the actors in gloom, swaths of green, and dramatic ruby bleeding across the walls. The emotional journey is less focused, eliminating transitional arcs in favor of disjointed snapshots. Buried Child is not entirely linear; time overlaps, expanding into a mosaic of chaotic pieces in its conclusion, giving the story a dreamlike quality.

Main Stage West - Buried Child

Shelly (Ivy Rose Miller) contemplates the odd situation. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Shelly, a young woman visiting the house, becomes a stand-in for the audience, reacting to the jaded family with horror and pity at what they have become. Ivy Rose Miller portrays Shelly as openhearted, hoping to believe the best in others, while maintaining an intelligent outlook. Her boyfriend Vince (Sam Coughlin) appears to be reasonable at first glance, until his dismissive, violent attitude emerges.

John Craven as Dodge is both engrossing and repellent, wrapped in his soiled blanket, blustering orders that are no longer obeyed. His sons, Tilden (Keith Baker) and Bradley (Eric Burke) are ghoulish shadows of their former youth, equally disturbing in contrasting ways. Tilden’s innocent, yet perturbing desire to stroke Shelly’s jacket earned a mutter of “disgusting” from the audience, and Bradley takes perverse pleasure in shaving his father’s hair until the scalp bleeds from his attention.

America’s idealized family and white picket fence rot before our eyes in Buried Child, parading the flawed nature of humanity. Is there a future beyond the corrupt, decomposing dream?

Pippin Revealed

Review of PIPPIN
by Gary Gonser, SFBATCC

Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Directed by Kim Bromley & Jenny Boynton
Music directed by Judy Wiesen
Choreography by Katie Wickes

For tickets / schedule :
The Belrose Theatre
San Rafael, CA
1415 5th Avenue, San Rafael
Marin Musical Theatre Company
Tickets: $30-$50

RUN: January 26 – February 10, 2018
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(February 9, 2018)

Pippin - Marin Musical Theatre Company

Photo by Marin Musical Theatre Company.

This production of PIPPIN is fun and high energy, a surprisingly good match to the little Belrose Theatre in San Rafael.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Roger O. Hirson, this show won 5 Tonys for its debut on Broadway in 1973 and 4 for its revival in 2013.  Not bad for a play that started out its life as a student musical at Carnegie Mellon.

This play within a play is presented by a traveling troupe of actors.  It’s set in 780 AD, somewhere in the old Holy Roman Empire.  At curtain, the MC or “Leading Player” (played by Earl Alfred Paus) magically transforms a simple stage into a sensual blank canvas, ready to be painted.  The group has cast Pippin (played by Zachary Isen) as a newer actor who is searching for the true meaning of his life. Not satisfied with just being the eldest son of “Charles” (king Charlemagne, played by Jere Torkelsen) in the Middle Ages, Pippin wants more. As a prince, Pippin has all the choices of the age available to him – war, academia, religion, politics, hedonism and more.  What road does he take?  Why not all (spoken like a true humanities student)?

And so it goes. The troupe takes the blank stage and creates scenes with all the choreography and costumes and makeup so outstanding in the original production on Broadway. Did I say the original Director & Choreographer was Bob Fosse? This production goes all out to bring out the best of dance and choreography so inherent in its sensual beginnings.

Pippin’s first choice of life path is academia, but this grows old fast within the court of Charlemagne. The path of war leads to battle with the Visigoths, but Pippin is appalled by the violence (surprise?). Escaping to the countryside, Pippin visits his exiled grandmother Bertha (played by Kim Bromley), who clears the air a bit by telling him that he needs to experience life, because youth is gone “in no time at all.” Life revels in romantic antics on stage, accentuated by the delightful ensemble. Pippin tires of that as well and follows the Leading Player’s advice to try politics.

Charles’ second wife Fastrada (played by Marla Cox) does a good job of cajoling Pippin into murdering her husband, the good Charles. She hopes her son Lewis (played by Nelson Brown) will survive the plot to become king. “Down with tyrants” becomes the mantra of the minute, and Pippin kills his father for his heartless ways as king. Intermission follows after a promise of the “best finale ever” after the break.

Pippin - Marin Musical Theatre Company

Photo by Marin Musical Theatre Company.

Pippin takes over the crown, but is not able to resolve the issues of the kingdom and begs the Leading Player to bring king Charles back to life so he can settle the kingdom down again. DONE!  Pippin then tries art and finally religion. Nothing works. He despairs. Along comes the widow Catherine (played by Jenny Boynton) who takes Pippin in to help her on the farm with her son Theo (played by Carl Robinett). Eventually, we get to love as the answer to Pippin’s developmental crises. Simple, but it takes a life to appreciate love.

The troupe ensemble ebbs and flows around the characters to add interest to this rather linear story. It works. There is never a dull moment with song and dance defining the emotions along the way. Comedy is the rule here, and when Bromley sings her “No Time at All,” she invites the audience to join her chorus to wish Pippin a full love life around the neighborhood.

The ensemble dancers are fantastic. Nine “players” fill all the dancing and support roles perfectly with face makeup and costumes having a mix of styles and colors reminiscent of “King Arthur” and “Hair.”  In the small space that is the Belrose, the audience shares the intimacy of the work onstage. Having made quick work of the art of war, the players move smoothly into the exotic, erotic and passionate areas around Pippin’s future development.

The lighting works well to define the action and sensuality surrounding Pippin’s travels.  It is obvious that lighting designer Marilyn Izdebski knows her lights and technique. Choreographer Katie Wickes and costumer Amaris Blagborne do wonders with this play to make it shine. The ensemble in these capable hands looks stunning. The 5-piece band was perfect for the voices working Judy Wiesen’s music magic.

Overall, PIPPIN at the Belrose Theatre is fun and energetic, with a good cast that is able to carry the storyline with an attitude that does not let the play drag. Yes, there is a dramatic ending but I can’t reveal it. The ending hints at the beginning of another life on this stage. I believe the Lead Player will take it from here.

‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ at Sonoma State University

Review of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Book, Music and Lyrics by Clark Gesner
Music Direction by Lynne Morrow
Stage Direction by Doyle Ott
Choreography by Anna Leach, Emily Rice with Dylan Smith
Sonoma State University Department of Music and Theatre Arts & Dance
Sonoma State University, Evert B. Person Theatre
Rohnert Park, CA

RUN: January 31 – February 11, 2018
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

February 2, 2018

Sonoma State University You're A Good Man Charlie Brown

Snoopy (Emily Rice) sings to Woodstock. Photo by James Wirth.

Heartwarming vignettes mingle seamlessly in a steady stream of insights and amusing antics from the beloved comic strip Peanuts in this tranquil musical. Sally rants against an unfairly graded art project of bent coat hangers, Lucy rules the playground, Linus waxes poetical while clutching his blanket, and Snoopy daydreams as a World War I flying ace in pursuit of the infamous Red Baron.

Michael Smith’s simplistic set design recreates the casual line drawings of Charles M. Schulz, filled with primal colors; the “kite eating tree” is particularly effective and integrates with the bold palette of Roxie Johnson’s costumes. Robin DeLuca’s lighting design takes center stage, shifting in vivid hues across an otherwise unencumbered backdrop. The puppet element of a fuzzy Woodstock entrances children in the audience, giving Snoopy a friend to interact with during songs.

Stage direction by Doyle Ott takes advantage of the shifting set elements, keeping visuals fresh between scenes, although the brick wall’s constant rotation becomes distracting during the Peter Rabbit book report. A clever reference to Les Miserables revitalizes it, with Charlie Brown enthusiastically waving a carrot flag while perched heroically atop the wall.

Noah Evans exaggerates the trials of Charlie Brown for comedic effect, trailing his baseball bat dejectedly after a disastrous game, and wringing his hands at the mailbox while waiting for a Valentine. Emily Rice lopes with boundless enthusiasm as Snoopy, exploding into a tap routine, while crooning “Suppertime”.

Sonoma State University Your'e A Good Man Charlie Brown

The ensemble gathers for the title song. Photo by James Wirth.

Anna Leach is an effective Lucy Van Pelt, curling her fist when life does not go her way, with an operatic clarity to her songs. Brandon Matel’s Schroeder blings up for “Beethoven Day” and manages to ignore Lucy’s constant pestering. Sally Brown’s (Hailey Patrick) innocent, cheeky comebacks add zest to the musical, although her rabbit hunting expedition became rather rambunctious with audience interactions. Mathew Adiao as Linus Van Pelt needs more rehearsal of the blanket dance, which is easily overlooked due to his natural chemistry with Leach. They are believable siblings, quarreling over a missing pencil only to come together with mutual understanding and support when the need arises.

Incorporating tumbling and dance infuses energy into this production. The action is infectious, with characters playing catch during the baseball game, running through the audience with nets, and leaping into forward rolls across the stage. Sonoma State University’s lively You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is a fun-filled performance for children and the young at heart.

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