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Civil Wars And Cultural Divides

The Civil War moves north to Connecticut. And Tom Stoppard plays with time again‹this time in Indian Ink, making its U.S. debut in San Francisco.

Connecticut

Several recent works hereabouts seem to have forgotten that "character is action."

As of now, The Civil War, the new Frank Wildhorn musical at the Shubert Performing Arts Center (through March 7) in New Haven, is a formless piece, lacking in narrative skill and emotional encounters that would engage an audience not out to view a diorama. After the Houston premiere, director Jerry Zaks was brought in to give shape to what is essentially an oratorio, with the war itself tying strands together.

On the basis of what I saw, Zaks has his work cut out. Efforts to go beyond the abstract are cursory; we know too little about the characters. Wildhorn's music is full of variety and melody, the cast is smashing, and some sequences have strength, especially numbers for the black slaves and scenes with a rapscallion named Autolycus Fell. Otherwise, the dots are not connected.

At Stamford Theatre Works, Benard Cummings' The Grandmama Tree (closed Feb. 21), subtitled "a folk fable," was an attempt to bring magic realism to the tale of a Texas shaman whose wisdom of the past is a remedy for present troubles. Here, too, theme dictated substance and the result was more sketch than fully developed play.

Artistic Director Doug Hughes' facsimile of his Off-Broadway The Grey Zone (through March 27) is causing talk at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Although author Tim Blake Nelson does not trivialize his subject‹the setting is Auschwitz‹neither does he satisfactorily delineate his characters. But the production is blistering.

We'll get a quadruple whammy of character, of course, with Hartford Stage's production of the Eugene O'Neill masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night (through April 1), featuring Ellen Burstyn, David Selby, Rick Stear, and ex-Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy. In July, Hartford brings back its successful production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, first seen last September. Those oldsters knew a thing or two about individualizing.

David A. Rosenberg

San Francisco

American Conservatory Theater is currently presenting (at the Geary Theater, Feb. 24-March 31) the American premiere of Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink, with a cast featuring Jean Stapleton and Art Malik. Originally written as a radio play for BBC, Indian Ink was first produced theatrically in London in 1995. The lyrical mystery jumps between India during the Raj and 1980s London, exploring art, language, and cross cultural romance. The ACT production is directed by Carey Perloff, who in 1995 helmed the company's acclaimed staging of Stoppard's Arcadia.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Bay Area's leading professional company, has not only begun work on construction of its 600-seat proscenium theatre adjoining the current facility, but is also producing works on the Main Stage, as well as mounting the Parallel Season at the Florence Schwimley Theatre next door.

At the Schwimley (in a lamentably limited engagement, through Feb. 22), Berkeley Rep presented what is possibly the most enchanting, magical show to be seen locally in a long time. New York's legendary Mabou Mines company brought in its marvelous Peter and Wendy, based on J.M. Barrie's 1911 novel written seven years after his popular play Peter Pan. Featuring Bunraku-inspired puppetry and a haunting Celtic score by Johnny Cunningham, the fascinating theatre piece was directed by Lee Breuer, adapted and produced by Liza Lorwin, and designed by Julie Archer with an astonishing tour-de-force performance by Karen Kandel.

On the Main Stage (through March 5), is an excellent production of Donald Margulies' Collected Stories, an intriguing drama of literary prerogatives and personal betrayal. Christine McMurdo-Wallis is outstanding as an acclaimed novelist challenged by an ambitious grad student (Jennifer Tighe), and director Richard Seyd brilliantly avoids the two-character play's merely becoming a series of academic arguments.

The Parallel Season at the Schwimley continues March 10-April 4 with a modern opera for solo voice, Ravenshead, co-commissioned by Berkeley Repertory and directed by Artistic Director Tony Taccone. Based on the true story of Donald Crowhurst, who vanished mid-Atlantic during the inaugural 1968 Golden Globe race (a non-stop solo sail around the world), the opera was composed by Steve Mackey with libretto by Rinde Eckert, who will also perform with the Paul Dresher Ensemble Electro-Acoustic Band.

A.J. Esta

Arizona

Over the last several years, Arizona Jewish Theatre Company has grown in size and prominence, becoming one of the top professional companies in the Phoenix theatre community. Janet Arnold, producing director for AJTC, has taken the company from humble beginnings to impressive heights. Throughout this explosive growth, she has remained true to the theatre's mission, presenting work by Jewish authors and/or about important religious, social, or societal issues within the Jewish community.

Arnold has made sure to create her seasons with balanced amounts of well-known plays and Neil Simon classics, as well as lesser-known works with important Jewish themes. The group's latest production may well be its most challenging and groundbreaking. AJTC has called upon a modern American master, Arthur Miller, and is producing the southwestern premiere of his critically acclaimed and award-winning play, Broken Glass.

A recipient of the 1995 Laurence Olivier Best Play Award, as well as Tony and Outer Critics Circle nominations for best play, the show focuses on a Jewish couple in 1938 dealing with the wife's psychosomatic paralysis. This affliction could exist for many disparate reasons; it is up to the couple's psychiatrist to discover the root of this illness. Miller's theme, as in much of his work, is that a sense of connection with other human beings, near and far, is at once our most destructive and most redemptive condition.

Directed by locally renowned director Matthew Mazuroski, who was responsible for AJTC's critically acclaimed production of The Twilight of the Golds last season, and starring several talented local performers, this production can potentially raise the bar on the depth and professionalism of AJTC's productions. This play, as well as the recent successful production of Kuni-Leml, highlights the fact that AJTC can present shows for the Jewish community that also have a bearing on the human condition, and speak with a universal voice to all religious and racial communities.

Broken Glass, which ran from Feb. 13-28, was performed at the Herberger Theatre Stage West.

Mark S.P. Turvin

Kansas City/St. Louis

he Last Night of Ballyhoo, Alfred Uhry's take on southern Jews, arrived in the Midwest this year, showing the understandable weaknesses of something written to celebrate the Olympic Games (in Atlanta, 1996). The play, performed at the Missouri Repertory Theatre in Kansas City and The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at its home base, deals not only with the wish to assimilate, but also with the arrogance and prejudice of families of German descent toward their Eastern European counterparts.

Casts and directors were different in both cities; reviews were mixed. Bob Trussell at the Kansas City Star found it thin, while Judith Newmark in the Post-Dispatch was totally positive. This critic was extremely disappointed, seeing a mix of Junior Miss and Meet Me in St. Louis, and noting performers who equated volume with emotion and whose accents drifted nationwide. The Missouri Rep version runs through March 12, while the Kansas City production has moved on in favor of The Miracle Worker, Feb.19-March 14.

Kansas City/St. Louis

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Black Repertory Company opened a strong production of OyamO's searing drama I Am a Man, set against the Memphis garbage collectors' strike of 1968‹an event that brought Martin Luther King to the city, and to his death. Director Ron Himes brought powerful performances from a large cast, with A. C. Smith outstanding as T. O. Jones, who led the strike. Gregg Haynes, a guitar-playing wanderer who sings" Garbage Man Blues," is a delight as a narrator and one-person chorus. It runs through March 7.

Joe Pollack

Utah

Quincy Long is taking Utahns on an intriguing journey. His play The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite (Feb. 6-March 14), at the Salt Lake Acting Company, goes nowhere definite but nonetheless spins out an adventure worth tagging along for. Nancy Borgenicht and Allen Nevins direct this bizarre trip in an old jalopy with stops at the neighborhood saloon to pick up even more travelers. Don Glover Jr., William C. Moore, and William Stockholm play the good old boys bent on mischief.

But the Pioneer Memorial Theatre offered Utah audiences another kind of trip: Patrick Page as Shakespeare's Richard III (Feb. 10-27). Dangerous, deranged, demonic‹Page's Richard still managed to seem more man than devil. The production, directed by Pioneer's artistic director, Charles Morey, was exquisite. Huge concrete walls, lovely brocades, copper and gold armaments‹all contrasted with the darkly handsome but crippled King.

Right now Utah companies are offering audiences a range of good theatre choices. Also in Salt Lake City, Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor (Feb. 4-March 13), at the Off Broadway Theatre, is fast paced and funny. Director Bob Bedore encourages an over-the-top performance of this comical game of musical doors. The production exploits the possibilities for physical comedy. Such split-second timing and hilarious movement are hard to pull off with this much pizzazz. Lend Me a Tenor is a good vehicle to spotlight the company's talents.

Meanwhile, in the next valley south, the Provo Theatre Company is performing Marvin's Room (Feb. 11-March 20), Scott McPherson's sad, funny play about living and dying. McPherson, who died in 1992 at 33, placed his characters in extreme situations, partly in memory of his mother, who was his dying grandmother's caregiver, and partly in recognition of his own personal battle with AIDS. If anything, the production directed by Ed Gryska is not over-the-top enough. Marvin's Room shows that the process of dying can simultaneously be both poignant and hilarious.

Claudia Harris

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