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The City God and Godot Peninsula Classics Callback Sacramento 'Tis the Season

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Amidst the frenzy of national politics, San Francisco's theatre companies, like the Energizer bunny, just keep going. And audiences, for the most part, keep coming, thank goodness, although I've been to a few of the smaller houses lately where actors outnumbered patrons.

The San Francisco two-man production company Kaliyuga Arts fell short of its usual standards with The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, the stage version of Michael Ondaatje's poetic novel. Despite director Steven Patterson's interesting environmental staging, John Sowle's elegantly rustic set, and great old-timey music (by the Dickel Brothers), the production didn't fly. Ondaatje offers a literary look at the violence-prone legends of the American West, but the leads were weak, and some of the smaller roles were cartoonishly played. However, Paul Gerrior as a laconic John Chisum, Marin Van Young as his niece, and Lawrence Motta as Billy's cold-blooded nemesis, Pat Garrett, shone.

Another adventurous small company—the playwright/director-managed ensemble Last Planet Theatre—took on an equally challenging piece, somewhat more successfully: Harold Pinter's most recent (1993) full-length play, Moonlight, in which family dysfunctionality assumes all the mystery that we've come to associate with Pinter's best plays.

Director John Wilkins made skillful use of the trademark Pinterly silences and oblique interchanges, but those moments were to be found almost entirely in the tight, spare, subtext-packed scenes between Bel (an intriguing Sarah Neal) and her dying husband, Andy (an equally adept Matt Leshinskie)—whereas scenes between their weird sons seemed more Monty Python than Pinter, right down to the Silly Walks. Similarly, a visiting couple from Bel and Andy's adulterous past were played too broadly.

Meanwhile, the small ensemble A Traveling Jewish Theatre quietly opened its 22nd season with a new interpretation of the biblical exodus from Egypt that ranks right up there with the company's best original work. God's Donkey: A Play on Moses, a multidisciplinary piece for two performers (in multiple roles) plus a musician, uses both modern and ancient idioms—and an updated ending that is mindful of the current Middle East crisis—to tell the familiar tale. Expressive movement, vaudeville shtick, live and recorded music (from klezmer to blues to pop), rap-like numbers, a touch of Hebrew, and one really great Pharaoh puppet-head are all part of the imaginative mix.

Aaron Davidman as a stammering quizzical Moses and Eric Rhys Miller as a hipster God in shades represent a worthy younger generation of artists poised to take on the ATJT mantle. They created the piece along with director Corey Fischer and are terrific, as is Daniel Hoffman on stringed and percussive instruments.

The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, on the other hand, opened its 20th anniversary season with much hoopla, and rightfully so. For a mid-sized African-American theatre with a 300-seat downtown venue to survive into the new millennium in one of the most expensive cities in the world is indeed miraculous. And it has mounted a flawed but ultimately moving production of August Wilson's brilliant 1985 Ma Rainey's Black Bottom—about the legendary blues singer "Ma" Rainey and her sidemen in 1927 Chicago, struggling to survive in a white-dominated industry. Aldo Billingslea is impressive as a rageful and deeply vulnerable young trumpet player who longs to leave jug band music behind for a more jazzy sound, as is Lonnie Ford as the dignified and bemused piano player. Abbie Rhone and Charles Branklyn also turn in fine, nuanced performances, although the latter three tend to lose focus in their monologues. Local singer Michelle Jordan is a convincingly imperious Ma Rainey, her buoyant bluesy singing a special treat. But, under Luther James' direction, the pacing's altogether too slow.

In a too-short visit, Dublin's famed Gate Theatre of Dublin brought two Samuel Beckett plays to the U.C. Berkeley campus. I saw that classic of existential ennui, Waiting for Godot. Directed by Walter D. Asmus—with two exquisitely slump-shouldered sad sacks, Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy, as Vladimir and Estragon respectively, Alan Stanford as the sadistic Pozzo, and Stephen Brennan in the virtuoso role of Lucky—this version is stunning in its truthful simplicity. The acting is, dare I say it, flawless. Nor has Beckett's crystalline prose ever sounded better, I'll wager, than it does spoken in the authentic, melodious Irish accent that Beckett himself must have grown up with (only the self-important Pozzo speaks the Queen's English). Fittingly, Godot is pronounced God-o here.

It was odd to go, only nights later, from Beckett's minimalism to Molière's 17th century expansiveness. American Conservatory Theater commissioned playwright Constance Congdon to adapt, for modern American audiences, The Misanthrope—in which the frank-to-a-fault Alceste is hopelessly besotted with the social butterfly Célimène.

Carey Perloff's is a smooth and stylish production in ACT's finest tradition, complete with a few delicious commedia touches. Yet the actors are so intent upon articulating, in plummy tones, each syllable of the rhymed couplets that everything they say seems to be of equal weight. You find yourself praying for someone to throw away a line here and there. This may be why René Augesen as the hypocritical Célimène, and some of the others, seem a tad bland. But Kimberly King as the conniving bitch Arsinsoë is completely convincing, and David Adkins as Alceste is wonderfully spontaneous in the second act.

Also tackling the classics is Woman's Will, with an all-female, stripped-down Hamlet. Inventive director Erin Merritt has scrambled, overlapped, and cut many scenes. She also begins the play at the end, turns Polonius' fatuous advice to Laertes into a speech consisting mostly of the words "blah blah blah," has Ophelia sing "Que Sera Sera" in her mad scene, and generally speeds along the action. Dramaturgically, it mostly works. I especially loved Jubilith Moore's focused grieving ghost, who has a bigger role here than you've seen in other Hamlets. Although Gillian Chadsey makes an appealingly boyish-looking Hamlet, and I've seen her do brilliant work elsewhere, she lacks emotional depth here. But, save for Ellen Brooks' crafty if superficial Claudius, she's hampered by a not-ready-for-prime-time cast.

Across the street at the Alcazar, Eve Ensler captivated the opening-night crowd with The Vagina Monologues, her ground-breaking 1997 Obie Award winner in which she reveals—with carefully measured doses of humor, pathos, and poignancy—women's most personal feelings about their bodies and their sexuality. She based the monologues on interviews she conducted worldwide, with everyone from East Coast octogenarians who haven't thought about "down there" for decades to Bosnian rape victims to survivors of childhood abuse.

The Vagina Monologues has been performed by celebrity actresses all over the country (currently in L.A. at the Canon Theatre), but it's a treat to see Ensler herself: barefoot in a slinky black dress, her black page-boy-style hair shimmering, perched, legs crossed, on a high stool with nothing but a bottle of water, a microphone, and a few notecards. As directed by the ubiquitous Joe Mantello, she easily assumes the different vocal deliveries and accents of her interviewees. But, as far as body work goes, she's no Anna Deavere Smith; her posture and gestures remain Ensler throughout, including a tendency to fiddle self-consciously with her hair.

No matter. She has passion to spare, and she draws audiences in with her earth-mother warmth and energy. And forget about Meg Ryan's famous scene in When Harry Met Sally—Ensler's hilarious demonstration of various types of sexual and orgasmic moans is the real thing.

—Jean Schiffman

Perhaps no writer better captured that tragic chapter of American history, the Depression, than John Steinbeck. His 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, chronicled the western migration undertaken by thousands of Dust Bowl residents. Steinbeck made the migrants' plight palpable by focusing on one extended family, the Joads, who lost their Oklahoma farm and set off for California. John Ford made it into a movie in 1940, and playwright/director Frank Galati and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company adapted it for the stage in 1988. A new production of this latter version recently enthralled TheatreWorks audiences.

Co-directed by Robert Kelley and Leslie Martinson, TheatreWorks' Grapes of Wrath was anchored by Linda Hoy as Ma Joad and Mark Phillips as her oldest son, Tom. Hoy delivered one of those unforgettable moments in theatre when Ma first sees Tom, returned home after four years in prison. The emotions crossing her face in one brief moment told almost everything one needs to know about this strong, indomitable woman.

Phillips' Tom also was strong. Rather than just accepting his lot and trying to hold the family together as Ma does, Tom decides to try to organize the migrants to stand up for their rights. Others who stood out in the ensemble cast included Ron Evans as Pa Joad, Don Hiatt as Uncle John, Gregory Bratman as Al Joad, and Tim Hendrixson as Jim Casy, a former preacher. The production had some profoundly moving scenes, but a few hadn't completely jelled on opening night.

Ardith Ann Gray's costumes, Tom Langguth's set designs, Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting, and Michael Smith's music all enhanced the production. Although the play is fairly heavy going with few moments of levity, it's an important reminder of tough times, as well as a tribute to the courage and strength of its characters.

Another classic film that has been adapted for the stage is Singin' in the Rain, the 1952 MGM musical. The 1985 stage version is being presented by American Musical Theatre of San José. The story is based on the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with familiar songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed.

The most memorable aspect of the film was the choreography by Stanley Donen and star Gene Kelly. AMT director Marc Jacobs and choreographer Dottie Lester-White aim to re-create that choreography and generally succeed. The tall, lithe Dirk Lumbard, who plays the Kelly role, is a limber, talented dancer, but he lacks Kelly's easy charm, and his singing is problematic, with uncertain intonation and abrupt register breaks. His co-stars are more successful. Sweet-voiced Melodie Wolford plays the young actress who becomes his love interest, the irrepressible Jamie Torcellini plays his pal, and his shrill co-star is played by Rachel deBenedet, who has the dumb blonde routine down to a T. The rest of the cast is solid.

Thomas Marquez's '20s-inspired costumes are stunning. The sets by Michael Anania from Paper Mill Playhouse serve the show well, as does Pamela A. Gray's lighting, but sound designer Timm Burleigh sometimes cranks the volume up too loud. Likewise, musical director/conductor William Liberatore's orchestra needs to tone down during the overture. Technical director Nick Nichols deserves applause for the showers and the film sequences. It's hard to live up to a legend, but this cheerful show delivers a pleasant evening of entertainment.

At San José Repertory Theatre, director Timothy Near points out in her program notes that until David Hare wrote Amy's View, perhaps no major playwrights since the Greeks had explored as thoroughly the deep ties between mothers and daughters. Spanning the period from 1979 and 1995, Hare's drama focuses on a famous English actress, Esme (Carol Mayo Jenkins), and her daughter, Amy (Christina Rouner). Their close relationship is tested when Amy becomes involved with Dominic (Matthew Greer), a brash young man who thinks theatre is being eclipsed by film and television.

Hare skillfully develops his character and plot, and Near and her talented cast successfully meet his dramatic challenges. Jenkins has a strong presence as Esme, who sees Dominic taking her daughter and debunking the theatre, both of which she loves. Rouner conveys Amy's dilemma as she's torn between her mother and her eventual husband. Greer balances the triangle with enough childlike appeal to justify Amy's love for Dominic, but his crass, selfish side justifies Esme's dislike. Completing the cast are Ken Ruta as Esme's friend and financial advisor, Kenna Hunt as her mother-in-law, and Daniel Loeser as a young actor.

The handsome set is by David Ledsinger, with costumes by Ann Bruice Aling, lighting by Derek Duarte, and sound by Jeff Mockus, who also composed the music. With Amy's View, Hare fills a dramatic void and creates a thought-provoking drama that San José Rep makes both moving and cogent.

—Judy Richter

"Fill the halls with shows called Carol… Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la! If you don't stage Dickens, you're imperiled… Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!" At least that's what Sacramento-area artistic directors seem to be thinking as they prepare to present holiday-season theatregoers with no less than three dramatically different versions of how Ebenezer got his groove back.

Easily the most anticipated of the three Christmas Carols set to open between now and Dec. 1 is playwright Doris Baizley's commedia dell'arté-flavored adaptation, which opens at River Stage Nov. 18 for a five-week run. River Stage AD Frank Condon will direct, a far-from-foreign task, having helmed the show for more than a few of its annual mountings at the Mark Taper Forum during the late-'70s/early-'80s.

"I had just come to Los Angeles and been hired by the Taper to do commedia workshops and worked on Carol making masks for its world premiere," recalled Condon. "Shortly thereafter, I was named director of improvisational theatre and eventually ended up directing the show."

Condon recalled that Baizley's take on the classic 19th century morality play became such a popular tradition for Southland audiences that he sometimes had to take notes from an aisle seat. That is, sitting in the aisle, not on it.

"What I love about this version is, it's so much fun," said Condon, who admits to having seen his share of "stodgy and flat-footed" Carols. "It involves clowning, juggling, handbills—it's a highly theatrical version of the story, and I think children and adults will love it."

Condon, whose River Stage has earned a critical reputation as being Sacramento's theatre with a conscience—dedicated to celebrating thought-provoking, multiculturally oriented comedies and dramas—said that, as odd as it may seem, Baizley's Christmas Carol fits neatly into that niche. "It's really about looking at the world and humanity from a different perspective—a global perspective, you might say," said Condon of his "gift to the community." "When we originally did it at the Taper, Alfre Woodard was in the company. That was a powerful, multicultural company, and this company is as well."

Loren Taylor heads up the 12-member cast as a "crotchety old stage manager" who's recruited by a contemporary traveling theatre troupe when its regular Scrooge opts to stay behind in Boise "to raise potatoes."

"There's no Tiny Tim, either," explained Condon. "But there's a prop boy dying to be an actor—so, there's a side story to it all that makes it a great deal of fun. But, we don't miss the heart of the story, which makes for a powerful piece of theatre."

Other twists include the replacement of the Ghost of Christmas Present with the Ghosts of Christmas Presents, a trio of white-faced, maniacal-looking clowns "who try to drive Scrooge crazy and do a pretty good job of it."

Should his experiment with a "holiday show" go well, Condon said he could see bringing back Carol every other year as the start of River Stage's own Yuletide tradition.

Other Sacramento companies readying Carols for public consumption include the T Street Players, which opens its version of the show (as seen through the eyes of a young boy who has lost the spirit of Christmas) Nov. 17 at the Coloma Community Center, and Synergy Stage, which premieres Christine Nicholson's adaptation at the Delta King Theatre on Dec. 1.

The number of Carols for 2000 might have been one greater had Sacramento Theatre Company artistic director Peggy Shannon opted not to give STC's own commissioned version the year off. In its place, however, will be the world premiere of Cinderella (Nov. 14-Dec. 24), with book and lyrics by Kate Hawley and music by STC artistic associate Gregg Coffin. Like Everything's Ducky, TheatreWorks' fairy tale-inspired musical of last season, Cinderella is a highly theatrical, kid-friendly show that plays on many levels as it tells the story of the put-upon princess wannabe through British pantomime. Shannon and Peggy Hickey share directorial duties.

Though other holiday-themed shows are in the offing in and around the capital—including the world premiere of Buck Busfield's As Things Remain at the B Street Theatre (opens Nov. 19), Stagewright Presentations' Gifts of the Magi at the Geary Theatre (through Dec. 23), California Stage's Reckless (opens Nov. 16), and A Sanders Family Christmas at Sonora's Mountain Actors Conservatory (opens Nov. 17)—the majority of companies are simply offering family-oriented productions designed to pull all generations out of the malls and into the theatre.

"It's definitely a conscious decision," says Sierra Repertory Theatre managing director Sara Jones of picking lighter, more accessible shows for November/ December. "I think, during the holidays, people are looking to do things with grandparents and kids and, generally, we do something like that."

On Nov. 24, SRT will open All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten at its Fallon House Theatre in Columbia.

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