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Audience Rating

SAN FRANCISCO—At opening night of Athol Fugard's 1982 classic, Master Harold… and the boys, the American Conservatory Theater audience leapt up for a thunderous ovation. At the time I thought the enthusiasm was more for the play's lasting power than for Laird Williamson's production, which seemed to me overheated. Since then, the across-the-board critical raves have made me admit I'm in the minority. This production was a certified hit.

The script probes the deep and fragile relationship between a troubled, precocious white boy in South Africa and the two black café workers who virtually raised him. Although Fugard meanders along rather talkily for the first hour, he packs such a wallop at the end that it's impossible to remain unmoved.

But as the boy, young Jonathan Sanders—who was great a few years ago in Trust at the Eureka Theatre and, more recently, in Edward II at A.C.T.—was too hyperactive, leaving himself nowhere to go at the climax. Playing opposite him, actor Steven Anthony Jones embodied the dignified, compassionate Sam, but at times he, too, overacted. Gregory Wallace, though, was effectively restrained as the more simple-minded, silent Willie. And Ralph Funicello's shabbily elegant tearoom set was gorgeous.

The same ovation greeted the opening night performance of the long-awaited off-Broadway docudrama by Moisés Kaufman, The Laramie Project, and deservedly so. Partly chronologically—with a clear arc—the play examines the aftermath of the brutal 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. The text is composed mostly of verbatim monologues and dialogues culled from 200 interviews with townspeople, conducted by members of Kaufman's Tectonic Theater Project (including some of the actors) over 13 months. Additional text sources are the Tectonic gang's own journals, as well as court transcripts.

What emerges is a generous, empathetic, deeply human look at Anytown, U.S.A., in crisis, its citizens forced to search their souls to understand how such a hate crime could have happened there. Writer/director Kaufman, head writer/associate director Leigh Fondakowski, and other participating writers beautifully capture the event's universal significance.

The night I was there, the audience was less enthusiastic for another play based on an appalling true tale: Louis Lippa's 1998 two-person Sacco & Vanzetti, A Vaudeville at Marin Theatre Company. Sacco and Vanzetti were wrongfully accused of murder and executed in Massachusetts in 1927, despite solid alibis and the fact that the actual perpetrator eventually confessed. The two Italian-immigrant anarchists were convenient scapegoats for America's anti-communist and anti-foreigner fervor. Lippa's S & V re-create their story, vaudeville style, on their way to their own execution, for our amusement, edification, and horrified sympathy.

Despite direction by San Francisco Mime Trouper Dan Chumley, the antic-frantic routines often fell flat, and an overwritten first act made the piece top-heavy. But Howard Swain and Robert Weinapple, in a series of wigs, goofy outfits, funny voices, and song-and-dance routines (accompanied by Frank Johnson on piano), were at once comic and touching as the doomed pair.

At the Marsh, another painful (and personal) true story, Liebe Wetzel's hour-long adult puppet show Snake in the Basement, also presented audiences with the dilemma of whether to laugh or cry. Wetzel and Lunatique Fantastique's five other graceful, black-clad puppeteers created puppets in plain view out of newspapers, napkins, and other humble materials. The expressive little creatures acted out the story—with very little text but lovely musical accompaniment—of a trusted Texas minister who routinely seduced his little-girl parishioners, especially one particularly vulnerable victim. Throughout, snakes slithered and hissed, and a metaphorical silken red serpent wove its sinuous way into the characters' lives.

But, unlike Sacco & Vanzetti, under master clown Jeff Raz's inspired direction, Snake was delicate and subtle. Thus we were at times startled, mid-chuckle, by an agonizing image, but the juxtaposition was always perfectly calibrated.

Enthusiastic laughter greeted the West Coast premiere of Christopher Durang's 1999 Obie winner Betty's Summer Vacation at Actors Theatre of San Francisco. And Durang's script is indeed hilarious: an impudent, over-the-top satire of America's fascination with sex, violence, and TV. The eponymous, naïve Betty finds herself trapped in a summer share-rental at the beach with a group of nut cases and a mysterious, malevolent laugh track that emanates (and eventually descends) from the ceiling.

But in Christian Phillips' production, almost everybody overacts. Durang's lines and situations are funny enough; the thing is to play them truthfully. Only the reliably grounded Liz Ryan as the lustful Mrs. Siezmagraff has a handle on how to function within Durang's skewed world.

The audience laughter seemed downright mindless on the opening night of the Phoenix Arts Association production of Gun-Shy, Richard Dresser's lame comedy about a couple in the throes of divorce but still in love. Or at least I think it's lame. A 1997 entry at Louisville's Humana Festival that continued on to Playwrights' Horizons Off-Broadway, Gun-Shy was apparently meant to snap and crackle à la Private Lives.

You wouldn't know it from Kimberly Richards' clunky production, though. The two-tiered set was way too complicated for the play's short vignettes (and for the tiny stage), requiring lengthy, deadening blackouts; the costumes were fussy and unflattering. And although Linda Ayres-Frederick as the neurotic, control-freak divorcée was in tune with the play's style (although shaky on her lines), everyone else hammed it up dreadfully.

Finally, at month's end, I joined enthusiastically in the audience laughter and applause for Paul Rudnick's hilarious gay comedy, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told at the New Conservatory Theatre. Rudnick shepherds his eight characters (plus two stage-manager characters) from the Garden of Eden to modern-day Manhattan. Thus, in Act One, we follow the exploits of the first humans in a sort of parallel universe in which everyone is gay—Adam and Steve, and Jane and Mabel—through various biblical episodes. Then, in Act Two, we see those same characters coping with AIDS and childbirth, all the while grappling with issues of love and fidelity and religious faith.

This is pretty much laugh-a-line material but not without poignancy. Under George Maguire's tight, crisp direction, the actors—some of whom play multiple roles—successfully walk the fine line between the play's satirical humor and its inherent gravity, never losing their spot-on sense of timing.

The actors are having a ball, and so, the night I attended, was the audience. When playwright, actors, and audience are in synch in a stage comedy, the communal experience is sublime.

—Jean Schiffman

Armed Women

SACRAMENTO—"I want a shy man. I've had enough of the other type," declares recent widow Daisy Wilson (Stephanie Gularte) when her ever-mindful older sister, Doris Perdue (Teresa Vuinovic), questions her intention to keep company with the much younger—and inexperienced—lumberyard heir Garland Steinholden (Sean Manwaring), in the Delta King Theatre's California premiere of Ellsworth Schave's funny and sweet A Texas Romance.

Gularte, who has distinguished herself as both the Delta King's artistic director and leading actress, turns in another interestingly layered and nuanced performance as the cautiously "hungry" Daisy, who is both reticent and anxious to enter a relationship with the sincerely nice Garland. Gularte deserves bigger crowds than the one this reviewer sat with during a recent Sunday matinee.

While she may not have the experience-building charisma of Bernadette Peters, newcomer Karyn Quackenbush nails the title role with the kind of accuracy you'd expect from a dead-eye shot in Annie Get Your Gun, the latest tour to grace the Sacramento Community Center Theater stage under the auspices of California Musical Theatre's Broadway Series. Though the recent revival's Broadway star, Tom Wopat (in a sure and easygoing turn as Frank Butler), gets top billing, it's Quackenbush's energetic performance that keeps the amiable Irving Berlin vehicle rolling along.

Sacramento audiences had another reason to agree that there's no business like show business, when Music Circus (another CMT operation) veteran Zale Kessler made his entrance as hotel owner Foster Wilson (and later as Pawnee Bill). Kessler, who's been an infrequent visitor to the canvas-covered circular stage in the last decade or so (he did, however, appear as Chief Sitting Bull in the 1990 MC production of Annie Get Your Gun) is one of those character actors who are money in the bank, and his fine job in this tour was a reminder of how rare a breed his like are becoming.

Equally fast with their respective draws (if not drawls) are Judy Jean Berns and Julia Brothers as a pair of women done wrong by the same man (Greg Alexander) in the B Street Theatre's production of Carter W. Lewis' Women Who Steal. Though Lewis' breathless dialogue is often too clever for its own good, John Lamb's tight direction and the all-or-nothing performances of B Street favorites Berns and Brothers raises Steal above the status of just another "chick production."

Though their revenge-minded Thelma and Louise-inspired characters put the excellent comedic timing of Berns and Brothers centerstage, Alexander is equally good as the generic "Man" of the piece—though it's a role that all but straitjackets the B Street's jack-of-all-characters.

—Barry Wisdom

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