SAN FRANCISCO - Theatres try to launch their seasons with a bang, but sometimes the result is a whimper. Such was the case for Tammy Ryan's The Music Lesson, Marin Theatre Company's opener. It was first commissioned by a theatre for youth, so perhaps it's not surprising that this story of a pair of shell-shocked Bosnian musicians, refugees in Pittsburgh, feels so formulaic. Despite director Amy Glazer's best efforts, a worthy theme (the healing power of music), and a live classical duo, the script is thin and predictable. Among the cast, Ron Campbell, normally brilliant, was cartoonish, but Lorri Holt and Rosalie Ward dug deep to superb effect.
A snappier season opener is Berkeley Rep's revival of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves. Director Barbara Damashek purposefully brings out all the dark notes in this '60s-era black comedy with slapstick?a difficult genre to pull off?about a second-rate songwriter's last, ruthless grab at fame; as a result, Guare's skewed and sometimes forced humor and desperate characters evoke more squirming than laughter. But we expect that kind of paradox from Berkeley Rep. The cast?including Jarion Monroe, Rebecca Wisocky, and Susannah Schulman?is strong, but Jeri Lynn Cohen deserves special mention for filling in at the last minute as Bunny; with script in hand on opening night, she was terrific.
TheatreWorks, too, evoked an earlier era by opening with McNally, Flaherty, and Ahrens' buoyant Ragtime, uplifting yet unsentimental in its examination of the dark underbelly of the American dream in early 20th century America. As directed by Robert Kelley, the show lived up to TheatreWorks' reputation as the Bay Area's prime purveyor of new and challenging musicals. A strong, assured cast, with Alice M. Vienneau especially poignant as the empathetic Mother, made this an auspicious 33rd season opener for the Peninsula company.
An edgy, contemporary drama?in which a romance between a dynamic art student (Stephanie Gularte) and a shy Lit major (Craig Marker) raises some provocative issues about love and art?was perhaps an unexpected choice of an opener for Aurora Theatre Company, better known for its jewel-like renderings of classics. But Neil LaBute's engrossing The Shape of Things beautifully showcases the Berkeley company's strengths: clean and crisp direction (by Tom Ross), simple but elegant production values, and smooth ensemble acting. Arwen Anderson and Danny Wolohan provide strong support for Gularte and Marker's impressive performances.
Carey Perloff had good reasons to direct Tom Stoppard's 1978 Night and Day for American Conservatory Theater's opener. For one, A.C.T. has a longtime special relationship with the British playwright. Also, Stoppard's examination of competitive journalists trying to uphold the ideals of a free press in dangerous situations?a fictional African country in turmoil?is indeed timely. However, this relatively realistic (for Stoppard) play is far from his best: The first scene is too talky; and the central romance?between a caustic, colonial-style wife and an idealistic young reporter?is unconvincingly written, with Rene Augesen and T. Edward Webster, despite otherwise good work, unable to ignite the necessary fire. Still, there's plenty to admire here, because even not-great Stoppard is darned good, and Paul Whitworth, Marco Barricelli, and Steven Anthony Jones turn in particularly sharp performances.
As year-round seasons opened, summer-only seasons closed. California Shakespeare Festival did so triumphantly, with Lisa Peterson's vaguely modern-day version of The Winter's Tale, a magical, emotionally involving show, full of too many wonderful performances to list?although Stephanie Roth Haberle simply has to be noted for her deeply moving portrayal of Hermione, the hapless queen.
Equally triumphant is Encore Theatre's season closer, the world premiere of Adam Rapp's Dreams of the Salthorse. Poetic, haunting, and mysterious, this surreal drama traces the painful journey of a metaphorically headless man?and other suffering souls?in a bleak, sodium-blighted world in which love is a crime. Part Shepard, part Beckett, at times entirely too obscure yet wholly original, Rapp is an astonishing talent, and director Sturgis Warner and a brilliant cast do him justice. Unfair as it is to single out anyone, I can't resist mentioning Kimberly Richards, Vanessa Aspillaga, and Melanie Rademaker.
Among the smaller groups, Last Planet Theatre likes to tackle difficult and often mythical plays, this time Henrik Ibsen's epic Brand, about the tormented life and ultimate fall of a fanatical priest. But the company, despite energy and enthusiasm, isn't up to the demands of the text; the result, in terms of acting, directing, and production values, is, at best, haphazard.
Similarly the usually reliable Shotgun Players chose to open with a play that, stylistically, is apparently outside its bailiwick: a recent translation/adaptation (by Ron Jenkins) of Dario Fo's hilarious social satire We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! The ensemble, unevenly cast by director Rebecca Novick, falters; a low-keyed Katja Rivera, for one, lacks an instinctive feel for Fo's broadly comic shenanigans, so despite good work by a few others (notably Clive Worsley), Fo's humor falls flat.
Eastenders Repertory Company fares better with its fourth annual one-act festival, this time three Tennessee Williams double bills. I caught two, written in the 1960s: the melancholy?no, downright depressing?two-character I Can't Imagine Tomorrow (the director withdrew due to internal conflicts), and the overly long and repetitive tragi-comical In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (director Susan E. Evans). However, sharp direction, simple and evocative sets, and across-the-board fine acting?with Kathryn Howell and Debbie Lynn Carriger especially memorable?make this a worthwhile evening.
Finally, the Fringe Festival, bravely competing with all these season openings, is always a crapshoot, but I lucked out with both my random choices. Spray, New Yorker Mike Albo's comic solo sketches satirizing contemporary gay life, was sharply written and performed. And Kraftwork's Woods for the Trees?a darkly absurdist re-imagining of "Hansel and Gretel"?was just what you want from the Fringe experience: low-tech multimedia, surprising, and offbeat. Created and performed by a highly skilled and captivating pair, Sara Kraft and Ed Purver, it was deservedly chosen to be among the "Best of the Fringe."
Horton's HeartSACRAMENTO - In the annals of musical theatre, there are handful of couples who personify the concept of romance: Laurie and Curly, Eliza and Higgins, Katharine and Petruchio. None can compare, however, to Gertrude and Horton. For, though California Musical Theatre's recent presentation of the currently touring Seussical the Musical is ostensibly a musical designed for the family trade?complete with high-flying choreography, glow-in-the-dark costumes, and fantastical sets?it is nothing if not an old-fashioned love story.
Like the Dr. Seuss sourcebooks by Theodore Geisel, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's rhyme-filled confection is simple and silly on one level, heartfelt and profound on another.
And despite those eye-widening, ooh-producing special effects and production values that Cathy Rigby?as the exposition-spewing Cat in the Hat?sails through, it is the unlikely liaison of Horton, the Who-hearing elephant (Eric Leviton), and Gertrude, the featherly challenged bird (Garrett Long), that keeps adults in the audience from squirming during the show's two and a half hours.
As anyone with a reading level above the first grade knows, Horton's assertion that intelligent life exists on a nearly microscopic level isn't the ranting of a pachyderm who's "off his trunk" but the observant discovery of a sensitive?and big-eared?soul who rightly believes "a person's a person no matter how small." It's not a belief shared by his fellow inhabitants of the Jungle of Nool, however. Indeed, Horton's commitment to the wisp of a clover on which the denizens of Whoville reside has left the Sour Kangaroo (Natasha Yvette Williams) hopping mad and the monkey-boy Wickersham Brothers (Venny Carranza, Luis Vilabon, Brian-Thomas Williams) ready to hurl excrement his way.
His lone supporter is the adorable, lisping Gertrude McFuzz, who is also the victim of Nool mockery thanks to her own "deviance." As the plumage-heavy Mayzie LaBird (the delicious Gaelen Gilliland) reminds her, Gertrude is a bit deficient in the tail-feather department. It's a deficiency Horton overlooks. To Gertrude's dismay, he also overlooks her in every other way, as well.
Will Horton convince his Grinchy peers Whoville exists? Will Gertrude ever get Horton to notice her? Will the young son of the Whoville mayor (Drake English) be accepted as a non-conformist "thinker"? Not to worry: This is a musical comedy.
The Seussical ensemble is wonderful, performing with a zeal and commitment that I only wish recent casts of such "serious" shows as Les Miserables and Jekyll and Hyde had exhibited such skill. Rigby, who cannily makes reference to her longtime role of Peter Pan on more than one occasion, takes on her Cat with more of a clipped approach than I would have liked?my impression is that the character is more of a smooth, devious, dripping-with-honey operator. But her energy and versatility (she also takes on several other characters) is undeniable, and her voice strong and pleasant.
But the show falls on Leviton and Long, who are very, very good as the put-upon couple-to-be. Leviton's character voice is full of emotion and sincerity, and Long is a quirky scream as Gertrude. Director Christopher Ashley and choreographers Patti Colombo and John Charron make the most of this pre-holiday present, with every cast member seemingly in motion throughout. David Woolard's costumes and James Kronzer's scenery provide the perfect surreal complements to the actors' out-of-this-world efforts.