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From Silly to Soaring

SAN FRANCISCO—The good neighbor policy: The Shotgun Players, that increasingly popular and adventurous little company, has had nothing but frustrations in its 10-year search for a home. Finally, just when the curtain was about to go up in its new 90-seat space in the Gaia Building in downtown Berkeley, it turned out that a permit to operate a theatre had not been issued, necessitating a last-minute venue change for the world premiere of Adam Bock's latest, A Fairy's Tail. So Berkeley Rep came to the rescue with its Thrust Stage. We assume the new theatre will be in shape for Shotgun's next production, Medea.

But A Fairy's Tail was a disappointment after local writer Bock's previous two hits, Swimming in the Shallows and Five Flights (the latter held over for an extended run at Encore Theatre). Both are funny, poignant, and imaginative takes on contemporary relationships among thirtysomethings, gay and straight. Tail, though, is a goofy, rambling fairy tale, with a few unmemorable songs, about a little girl (the irresistibly energetic Beth Donohue, scheduled to play Medea herself next) who sets out to "stomp" a mean giant. Kids will love it. Some adults might, too. I was mildly entertained by things like the acoustically correct "fart swamp" but longed for more wit and substance. Also, although Patrick Dooley provided sprightly direction, the play's humor was bogged down by Ana Bayat as an overly coy and affected narrator. She also doubled, not very effectively, as the giant. Still, the combined energies and spontaneity of the rest of the cast, plus Andrea Weber's simple, humorous choreography, buoyed the storybook ambiance.

Next door in this blossoming theatre district, Aurora Theatre Company harked back to its opening show of the season, GBS's St. Joan, by presenting Jules Feiffer's absurdist 1976 comedy Knock Knock. In it, Feiffer sends a chipper St. Joan, in full armor, into a cabin in the woods inhabited by a couple of eccentric, agoraphobic Jewish hermits. The story is silly, and Feiffer's humor is redundant, forced, and self-consciously clever. A stellar cast of comic actors—Will Marchetti and the inimitable Dan Hiatt as the grumpy but not very Jewish geezers; Sara Moore as a manic, magical "Wiseman," and Rachel Brown as Joan—did their best to make it work. It wasn't their fault, nor that of director Michael Butler, that the play's life-affirming message failed to resonate amid the tiresome banter.

Speaking of theatre districts: Actor/director Linda Ayres-Frederick's 17-year-old Phoenix Theatre now has a new home (49 to 75 seats) in downtown San Francisco's own theatre district, in the 414 Mason Street building.

And director Andrea Gordon's Venture Theatre Company also has new digs, the 150-seat Oakland Metro Theatre, near Jack London Square. Venture shares the flexible space with Oakland Opera. Nearby theatre neighbors are Clive Chafer's TheatreFirst, which recently moved into the downtown YMCA, and Oakland Ensemble Theatre.

Down in the South Bay, San José Repertory Theatre's world premiere of Lynn (Crumbs From the Table of Joy) Nottage's Las Meninas is a dazzler. Fresh, funny, and beautifully written, the play—based on historical fact—hypothesizes an affair between French "sun king" Louis XIV's neglected and homesick Spanish wife, Marie-Thérèse (a wonderfully impetuous Mercedes Herrero), and her slave/fool, an African dwarf (a petite and graceful Daniel Bryant). The daughter of this illicit union (Rachel Zawadi Luttrell, overly perky and artificial in this delicate role), now sequestered for life in a nearby convent and about to take her vows, narrates the story of her own ill-fated origins. It's a touching tale in which queen, dwarf, and scandalously mixed-race daughter are sad prisoners in the roles into which society has forced them. But, as lustrous as the play is under Michael Donald Edwards' direction, its heart—the relationship between two lonely exiles—is unfortunately eclipsed by B. Modern's rich and sumptuous period costumes, Carolyn Hauser Caravajal and Marcus Cathey's striking choreography, and Gordana Svilar's elegant sets. And Bryant, although charming, hadn't, on opening night, fully captured this quirky character's deep despair and yearning.

Across the Golden Gate, Marin Theatre Company staged Eugene O'Neill's 1922 expressionist one-act The Hairy Ape. The tale, with its stylized sound and movement juxtaposed with naturalism, is of a clueless Everyman, Yank, a fire stoker on a ship, who becomes slowly and painfully aware of class distinctions and his own miserable status. Once enlightened, though, he is doomed. Director Lee Sankowich did a fine job with this oddity, choreographing it tightly on a cold steel set (by John B. Wilson) that reflected the soulnessness of industrialism. Aldo Billingslea was a ferocious Yank (although with an off-key New York accent), well supported by Joe Bellan as a nostalgic old Irish drunk. One quibble: At the play's crucial turning point, when the ship owner's daughter (a suitably snooty Bethanny Alexander) glances at Yank with disgust, that pivotal moment lacked adequate focus, and Billingslea didn't build to it adequately. Still, it was a pleasure to see even the small roles filled by such bright talents as Robert Ernst, John Flanagan, and Andy Murray.

Utterly captivating was a commercial import at the Curran, Best of Broadway's presentation of August Wilson's Olivier Award–winning Jitney, last seen here in a Lorraine Hansberry Theater production a few years ago. This relatively early play—part of Wilson's decade-by-decade series chronicling African-American life—looks at a few important days in the lives of a passel of gypsy cabbies in 1977 Pittsburgh. Everything worked in this brilliant production, from Marion McClinton's tender, unsentimental direction, to David Gallo's gorgeous, larger-than-life cab-station set that also captured the shabby world beyond, to Donald Holder's melancholy lights, to Rob Milburn's blues-infused sound. Best of all were Wilson's script—painful, funny, and deeply humane—and the seamless acting of the nine actors, who inhabited their characters as effortlessly as they slouched around in Susan Hilferty's well-worn costumes. A playwright, a director, a design team, and an ensemble like this remind you why you fell in love with theatre in the first place.

—Jean Schiffman

Martial Art

SACRAMENTO—It's quite the acting workout that director Kurt Johnson puts his talented cast through in the B Street Theatre's West Coast premiere production of F-Stop. Veering from chop-schlocky action-film sendup to life-and-death drama centered on an African despot's gleeful pursuit of genocide, Olga Humphrey's thoughtful script may seem undemanding on the surface but requires a black-belt skill level. Without such expertise Humphrey's sharp turns could easily result in an uneasy mix of slapstick and melodrama that leaves the audience asking itself, "What the hell was that?"

But Johnson, whose nimble direction keeps the satire sharp and the shifts in tone smooth, is blessed with actors who have obviously been rigorously cross-trained in theatre arts, and they are more than up to the challenge. Despite its unconventional nature, F-Stop retains a sharp focus, delivering a clear if disturbing image of courage and personal sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds. Gill Bernardi is Caleb Lawe, a young man we first meet when he's a Rhodes scholar by day and photographer by night, who spends what little free time he has obsessed with the bohemian Charlotte (Jamie Jones). They meet up years later in Africa, of all places, where he's trying to change his paparazzo image by shooting actress Susanne Ferrante (Elisabeth Nunziato). She, too, is looking for a public-perception makeover by trading in her Hong Kong film persona of martial-arts mistress Chop Susie for that of a Princess Di-like mistress of mercy.

Bernardi's Lawe has become the stereotypical tabloid photojournalist: cynical, jaded, and unable to utter a line that isn't dripping in sarcasm or world-weariness. Jones' Charlotte, meanwhile, has grown into a sincere, caring woman working selflessly on behalf of Third World children. Their reunion is tense and tender, further complicated by the presence of Ferrante, who expects red-carpet treatment in her pursuit of sainthood. But these are not static caricatures, and it is a wonder to witness these fearless actors go back and forth between the play's fantasy elements (involving Chop Susie fighting the forces of evil in Hansord Prince's strong-arm General), while assuredly fleshing out their always evolving characters. It's a true actors' piece, and Bernardi, Jones, Nunziato, and Prince—plus Anthony D'Juan playing a young innocent whose abduction drives the changes, and the chameleon-like Anthony Shank essaying a host of roles—are all very good. Nunziato, with the showiest role, has to be called the standout, transforming her Susanne from self-involved actor-type to selfless hero.

Aiding and abetting the fine cast on the production side is Kim Simons Condon, who has whipped up some terrific kung fu costumes for the fantasy film moments, and Matt Guimbellot, whose multilevel stage makes the transitions all the easier.

—Barry Wisdom

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