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Acting and Overacting Hims and Hers

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SAN FRANCISCO—American Conservatory Theater jump-started the season, opening in August with Canada's CanStage production of The Overcoat. Created-directed by Canadians Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, and set to music by Shostakovich, it's based largely on Nikolai Gogol's classic short story of the same name, about a worker bee (a lank and expressive Peter Anderson), scorned for his raggedy attire, who splurges on a custom-made coat with ultimately disastrous results. Performed wordlessly in quasi-silent-film style by a large and agile cast, it was framed by Ken MacDonald's magnificently expressionist set. Gogol's simple story is stretched mighty thin, but it was a whimsical delight.

Of the four Fringe Festival shows I saw this year, Claudia Barr's Go Kibbitz looked especially promising: In 1933 Berlin, Albert Einstein joins two intellectual gamesters absorbed in a round of Go as Nazi police patrol the streets. But under Andy Hamner's slow-paced and awkward direction, the acting—except for a sharp-eyed, jovial Gene Thompson—was weak. Also disappointing was Murray Meyer's Walking Back to Brooklyn, an insubstantial autobiographical solo show, clumsily acted, about Meyer's childhood despair when his family moved from New York to Montréal. And Opera Piccola's collage of short scenes, Being Something: Life in a U.S. City, performed by a multicultural cast of teens and adults (the latter from Stagebridge Senior Theatre) was community theatre fare, which belies the Fringe's reputation of presenting edgy experimental works. But I liked Go!, a quirky, funny, and disarmingly honest piece about, as the subtitle indicates, "a life in progress," written and performed by the talented Gillian Chadsey and Michelle Talgarow.

If this season is dedicated to the late Arthur Miller, so much the better. Aurora Theatre opened with his 1968 The Price, an emotionally intense and at times comic drama in which the longstanding resentment between two middle-aged brothers erupts when they meet to sell their father's old furniture. It was gracefully directed by Joy Carlin, with Charles Dean, Judith Marx, and Michael Santo overemoting occasionally on opening night but otherwise beautifully on target. And Ray Reinhardt's old furniture dealer was pitch-perfect—not one false note. Surely there is no better actor of his generation in America today.

Equally riveting is San Francisco Playhouse's production of Miller's indelible moral tale The Crucible. Directed by Bill English with dramatic staging and maximum urgency—yet somehow safely skirting melodrama—it boasts a top-notch, mostly non-Equity cast. Among the rock-solid talent, Janna Sobel, Lauren English, Susi Damilano, and Kevin Karrick stand out.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre also opened with an American classic: Thornton Wilder's deeply moving, deceptively simple Our Town. Director Jonathan Moscone took a nontraditional approach to the minimalist play, using a real—although surreal and spare—set (by Neil Patel, with equally eloquent lighting by Scott Zielinski) and real props. The effect was to give the play a darkly poetic sheen, enhanced by strong acting all around, with Barbara Oliver as a tiny, solemn, questing Stage Manager and a particularly luminous turn by Emma Roberts as Emily.

We don't get to see enough Caryl Churchill these days, so hurrah for Shotgun Players, now showing the British feminist–political playwright's first produced play, the 1972 Owners. It's a scathing and timely look at a ruthless real estate developer (Trish Mulholland, effectively meganasty but rather one-dimensional) who screws—literally and figuratively—everything in her path. Under Patrick Dooley's direction, the show is both laugh- and chill-inducing, with sharply etched performances. Howard Dillon's macho butcher is especially well-limned.

On the new-plays front, Marin Theatre Company opened with a world premiere musical, River's End. Cleverly, writer Cheryl Coons and composer Chuck Larkin created two parallel alternative versions of a true-life tale—in which a honeymoon couple mysteriously disappeared while shooting the Colorado River rapids in 1928—by using two sets of couples simultaneously, with two present-day river guides narrating the dueling versions. But what might have been an intriguing, otherworldly exploration of human impulses and nature's lure is instead a rather banal pair of romances full of repetitive arguments. Nor does the generic-sounding, ballad-heavy score help matters. But under Lee Sankowich's direction, the actors shine.

Another world premiere, by San Francisco playwright Trevor Allen, also involves water, a mysterious disappearance, and a true tale. His chilling, Celtic-influenced Tenders in the Fog—about three generations of men in one Irish-American family whose fishing boat disappears in the fog off the coast of (in Allen's fictionalized rendition) San Francisco—is a poetic fugue for four voices in internal and external conflict and occasionally in harmony. It's nicely balanced by taut action and mesmerizing visual effects in Kent Nicholson's San Jose Stage Company production. A weak point is the bickering among the men, which sounds mundane compared to their dreamy interwoven monologues. But the acting, including Jessa Brie Berkner's sly and seductive turns as narrator and water spirit, is terrific; Mikiko Uesugi's fishing-boat set is starkly perfect; and the play lingers in the mind. (Full disclosure: The playwright is the husband of one of my editors.)

Finally, the Magic Theatre opened its season with the American premiere of Irish-born novelist-playwright Edna O'Brien's Family Butchers, a drama that puts an unsentimental Irish spin on painfully unresolved family conflict. In its examination of love, long-held resentments, and attachment to an unattainable vision of an ancestral home, it is reminiscent of such classics as King Lear, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and The Cherry Orchard. It left me wanting more, though, from the cast—who, under Paul Whitworth's otherwise finely tuned direction, tended on opening night to barrel through heavy emotional moments without giving them their proper due—and from O'Brien, whose freighted dialogue, hinting at a roiling subtext, cries out for further development. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing play with strong acting, including Anne Francisco Worden, nicely understated as the favored daughter; Robertson Dean as the handsome, loathsome patriarch; Esther Mulligan as his long-suffering wife; and a particularly captivating Ian Scott McGregor as a slow-witted neighbor.

—Jean Schiffman

SACRAMENTO—Even before its midseason transition earlier this year into the fully professional Capital Stage, the former Delta King Theatre was making waves on Old Sacramento's waterfront as one of the area's most engaging, consistently well-cast companies. Frequently unreviewed by the city's only daily newspaper, it was the capital's best-kept theatre secret for more than half a decade. With Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things—Capital Stage's debut production in its first full season as an Equity house—Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte and Managing Director Peter Mohrmann have further solidified the company's position as contender for the B Street Theatre's title of leading new-works company. Even without the impact of the play's Twilight Zone–like twist of an ending—perhaps spoiled for those who caught the 2003 big-screen adaptation—the charged emotional interplay so well-conveyed by the show's scarily good actors demonstrates that getting there is more than half the fun.

In The Shape of Things, opposites seemingly attract. Big time. Soon after discovering the paint-can wielding, art-theory spewing Evelyn (Gularte), part-time museum staffer and full-time undergrad nerd Adam (Craig W. Marker) finds himself inexplicably drawn into his fellow student's orbit. "You're dangerously close to owning me," he admits after their first sexual tryst. At least Evelyn is a benevolent master, steering him toward an improved version of himself formed by a healthier diet, exercise, designer clothes, contact lenses, and plastic surgery. But if Evelyn is Dr. Frankenstein, Adam soon becomes Frankenstein's monster as his surface "cool factor" increases and the world that once ignored him embraces him. Case in point: One-time crush Jenny (Jeanette Penley), whose engagement to Adam's Cro-Magnon best friend, Phillip (Michael Claudio), is complicated by her reignited attraction to the newly "oh, so cute" Adam 2.0.

But as we learn over the course of the production, taking anything at face value isn't the best idea. Under Jonathan Williams' expert direction, LaBute's script offers a few red herrings along the way, suggesting there's more going on between the four principals than is evident—which is all part of the tension-filled pleasure. Gularte and Marker, who played the same roles in the 2002 West Coast premiere at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, display their familiarity with the parts and each other in presenting a fully feasible "the things we do for love" relationship. It's easy to see how the shy, hunched-over, hand-kneading Adam could turn himself around when showered with attention and affection by the exotic older Evelyn, and how his metamorphosis into a Nutty Professor–like lothario could further be developed through the attentions of the extremely comely Jenny. Penley and Claudio also provide plenty of emotional button-pushing: It's impossible not to get irritated by Phillip and not be drawn to Jenny. All four actors are accomplished and their choices dead-on.

The production is well-supported by the show's design trio: Shawn Weinsheink (set), Stephen Jones (lighting), and Michael Healey (sound). Minimalist is usually the best way to describe sets onboard the perpetually docked Delta King, but Weinsheink, Jones, and Healey have done well to present a slice of Midwest university life on the small stage. Ditto for costumer Michael Coleman.

"The things we do for love" are also uncompromisingly thrown in our faces in the B Street's extremely entertaining production of Bill Corbett and Kira Obolensky's Hate Mail. Ostensibly a twisted, dark satire on A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, Hate Mail gives us another pair of mismatched characters: trust-fund dilettante Preston (Kurt Johnson) and struggling artist Dahlia (Dana Brooke), who meet via a series of correspondences initiated when Preston's snow globe breaks in transit from New York to Minneapolis. It's not a long story, but all you need to know is that Brooke and Johnson are laugh-out-loud hilarious as sarcasm-spewing lovers-to-be who have little in common besides a love for snail mail, but who each need something the other offers. The two never speak directly to each other, referring to their letters as they read to one another while prowling the multilevel stage (niftily choreographed by director Buck Busfield, who keeps what could be a static exercise moving ahead at full speed). When the characters finally meet at the end of Act One, we're somewhat disappointed that the letter-reading affectation isn't dropped, but that disappointment evaporates with the killer delivery of the perpetually pissed-off couple.

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