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NoCal Notes 2/13

Many Returns

SAN FRANCISCO--At last, a Naomi Wallace play on a major local stage: the Kentucky-born playwright's intense and grittily poetic The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre. Although overwritten, this is nevertheless an artful and moving examination of the debilitating effects of the Depression--and of dead-end, small-town life--on a pair of sensitive teenagers. Under Soren Oliver's direction, Jennifer Wagner and Ian Scott McGregor Jursco as the youngsters captured ineffable moments of anguish and beauty. Less successful--in the writing and in the acting--were the strained scenes with the boy's parents.

Again, at last, Amy Freed scored a big production in her home town with Mark Rucker's staging of The Beard of Avon at American Conservatory Theater. Hilarious and at times wistful, Beard hypothesizes an eager, gullible Shakespeare's rise to fame as a cover (a "beard") for the aristocratic, writerly Edward de Vere. You could quibble--it's too long, it lacks a steady dramatic build--but hands down, it's a clever charmer, and Freed's literary skills dazzle. So did director Mark Rucker's cast, headed up by Matthew Boston as Will and Marco Barricelli as a deliciously effete de Vere in luxuriant tresses.

And when did we last see a Howard Korder play around here? Adventurous director Val Hendrickson and jazz composer/bassist Marcus Shelby set Korder's 1993 The Lights--a tightly crafted, lyrical drama about lost souls adrift in a big city--to an original score played live, and almost continuously, by a 16-piece orchestra. With choreography by Reginald Ray-Savage, this elegant and ambitious show at ODC (in collaboration with Intersection) was so good that wooden performances by a few key players almost didn't matter and were, in any case, balanced by the talents of the rest of the large cast, particularly Lara Bruckmann, Roberto Robinson, and Matthew Henerson.

Eagerly awaited--after his brilliant debut, Swimming in the Shallows--was San Franciscan Adam Bock's Five Flights, once again helmed by the meticulous and astute Kent Nicholson. Here Bock gently probes the morass of relationships, obsessions, and aborted romances of his handful of characters. The central images--involving birds, a disputed aviary, and classical ballet--are flawlessly realized. Indeed, Flights soars beyond the Shallows: It's fresh, howl-with-laughter funny, and deeply touching. The tight Encore Theatre ensemble--Dawn-Elin Fraser, Kevin Karrick, Alexis Lezin, Craig Neibaur, Lisa Steindler, and Liam Vincent--is divine. This is likely to be the gem of the local season.

Director Robert Kelley also assembled a crack cast--headed up by a soulful Ken Ruta as the aging scion of a New York robber-baron family--for the West Coast premiere of Wendy Wasserstein's Old Money at the Peninsula's TheatreWorks. Wasserstein neatly places two troubled families--at the turn of the past two centuries, respectively--within the same mansion in order to examine the timeless lure, and the danger, of material wealth, and to contrast the inherent values of money and art. But the script is lightweight, full of cheap nostalgia, the characters sketched rather than probed. The best efforts of this gifted crew, and Eric E. Sinkkonen's gorgeous set, can't make the play rise above the pedestrian.

At San Jose Repertory Theatre, too, the acting trumps the writing. In Lynn Redgrave's heartfelt but somewhat thin The Mandrake Root, a mother (Redgrave as a petulant, self-absorbed retired actress, now partly senile) and her long-suffering lesbian daughter (a strong Cynthia Mace) belatedly reconstruct their troubled relationship. The memory drama offers potentially complex characters at least partly based on Redgrave's own famous showbiz family but, aside from the role of the mother, fails to develop them fully. And the pervasive metaphor of the mandrake root feels self-consciously poetic. Yet there are some touching emotional scenes, made so mainly because of Redgrave's rich, multilayered performance, which is well supported by the rest of director Warner Shook's well-chosen cast.

Impressive acting chops were on display in another new play as well, this one at Marin Theatre Company. Jeffrey Hatcher's Sockdology, part backstage drama, part fictionalized history, and part mystery, is set in the Ford Theatre on the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Everyone in the cast of the play-within-the-play has something to hide. Under David Dower's brisk and polished direction--with sumptuous period costumes (Cass Carpenter) and set (Kate Boyd)--it proved an engrossing diversion. In a uniformly strong cast, Amy Resnick as a diva and Will Marchetti as a gimlet-eyed detective turned in their usual finely modulated performances.

Oddly, Berkeley Repertory Theatre's comedy of one man's losing battle against conformity, Rhinoceros, felt like a waste of abundant acting, directorial, and design talent. Is it possible that Ionesco's theatre-of-the-absurd style, fresh in 1960, is passe (although his theme remains painfully relevant)? Our own world feels so absurd these days that director Barbara Damashek's beautifully detailed rendering of Ionesco's timeless, topsy-turvy environment packed little punch, and the script took too long to make its point. And although Geoff Hoyle was pitch-perfect as the hapless alcoholic Everyman Berenger, it was a shame to see actors like Hector Correa, W. Francis Walters, Jarion Monroe, and Warren Keith so underused.

Although some of the acting lacks a burnished edge in Sonoma County Actors Theatre's production of Alan Ayckbourn's farce Communicating Doors, the script--in which three time-traveling women deflect a murder plot by creating a parallel universe--is strong enough to triumph. Under Sheri Lee Miller's buoyant direction, Danielle Cain, as an appealingly vulnerable dominatrix, fares best; the others, although each has his or her moments, seem to be working entirely too hard. Despite that, this is an entertaining and, in the end, an affecting comedy tidily mounted on the company's small stage.

Notable turns of the month: Kandis Chappell as a hilariously sulky, imperious Queen Elizabeth in The Beard of Avon; Gerald Hiken as a fanatical leftie in Rhinoceros; Mercedes Herrero in five cleanly delineated small roles in The Mandrake Root, and Ian Walker as an almost seductive serial murderer in Second Wind's production of Lee Blessing's drama Down the Road.

--Jean Schiffman

River Runs

SACRAMENTO--In Jay Feldman and Fred Sokolow's musical-in-progress, A Loud Noise in a Public Place, which recently enjoyed a staged reading during River Stage's third annual Playwright's Festival of New Works, a disgruntled ConEdison employee terrorizes New York with a series of bombs exploded throughout the city. It's based on a true story which played out in the late 1940s and early '50s, but while director Frank Condon calls the "gritty" new tuner "highly entertaining" he acknowledges the subject matter could leave many thinking the River Stage chief, as well as his collaborating authors, were capitalizing on the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001.

But Condon said the scheduling of the musical's staged reading was just an unfortunate coincidence. "One thing that's important that I want to get out is that the script was selected over a year ago," he said. "My first reaction after I learned of [the Sept. 11 attacks] was, 'Oh, my gosh,' followed by, 'How can we do this?' "

But Condon felt that canceling the production was out of the question. "I think it's the death of art to practice artistic self-censorship," Condon said. "I realized that the musical was more pertinent than ever."

Dealing with such issues as why those who practice terrorism resort to such reprehensible acts, A Loud Noise in a Public Place was inspired by "mad bomber" George Meteskey, whose own desperation was spurred by unaddressed health issues created by years of toiling in a ConEdison boiler room?including severe lung disease. "He was trying to get attention," said Condon of Meteskey.

Also getting a read-through during the festival was Judy Soo Hoo's Texas (originally produced at the Secret Rose Theatre in L.A. in 1999)--"a darkly comic view of the American West as seen through an Asian-American lens."

Directed by Jerry Montoya, Texas is the latest in a line of River Stage offerings dealing with the immigrant experience. Likening it to a Sam Shepard work, Condon said the dark comedy is about two brothers who take on a boarder and the "strange" games the trio plays in its cramped trailer home.

"They're second-generation Cambodian and they have all the trappings of the West, but they still carry a lot of the baggage they brought along with them, and it deals with them trying to fit into mainstream American society," explained Condon.

Like last year, Condon and his playwrights--as well as guest associate Mark Stein, who played the role of festival dramaturg?assembled prior to the event in Grass Valley for a retreat "focusing on what we're trying to do."

But as important as the brainstorming of the creative teams is, Condon acknowledged the invaluable input supplied by the Playwright's Festival of New Works audiences. "It's an opportunity for them to become part of the creative process," said Condon.

Stein, whose Gunfighter: A Gulf War Chronicle was a former Playwright's Festival production, will see that work fully produced at River Stage this spring when it opens on Apr. 13.

--Barry Wisdom

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