Thursday, May 3, 2018

CROSSWORD PUZZLE FANS WILL ENJOY CV REP’S LATEST COMEDY 2 ACROSS

Joel Bryant and Andrea Gwynnel in CV Rep's "2 Across"

The impact that crossword puzzles play around the world obviously is unknown, despite the fact that millions indulge themselves every day solving or at least, trying to solve these literary challenges known as the ‘war of the words’.
What is known, however, is the role that one particular New York Times puzzle plays, in the current CV REP stage production, “2 Across” in Rancho Mirage. This delightful comedy of words and puzzles, and conversation, written by prolific comedy TV writer/producer Jerry Mayer, is seamlessly and creatively directed by Deborah Harmon.

Audiences can always rely on the technical/creative team credits at CV REP as being first rate. Theatrical productions often win over the hearts and minds of their patrons when they walk into the auditorium. CV REP is blessed with the creativity and artistry of its resident Set Designer and Emmy Award winner Jimmy Cuomo, who never fails to impress his audience. In “2 Across”, two stars perform their magic on a BART train set that feels so visually real, that we’re ready to exit when we hear our station being called by the car’s recorded conductor’s voice. Now, that’s an almost virtual reality experience.

The story hook, in short, that brings two strangers aboard a San Francisco BART train at 4:30 AM is a pesky NY Times crossword puzzle, and how each reacts to it and their personal situations.  They’re alone in the car, each is married, and both are silently challenging the crossword author. When Josh (a terrific Joel Bryant), tosses his puzzle away in frustration.  Janet (a lovely and prim Andrea Gwynnel) snaps, “Crosswords are a metaphor for life, those who finish, succeed; those who don’t, fail.”  Thus, setting up a witty, hilarious ‘He said. She said.’ dialogue and at times, delivering many poignant moments of personal revelations, by Josh and Janet in the bargain.

Although the play is performed without an intermission, running about 85 minutes, we’re quickly drawn into the play’s narrative thanks to the wonderful on-stage chemistry of Mr. Bryant and Ms. Gwynnel.   As many airline travelers can attest, when traveling alone, seatmates frequently get chatty, especially on non-stop, coast to coast flights.  English travelers are amazed at how most Americans when traveling reveal so many bits of information about themselves to strangers.  The American rationale is: it’s such a huge country and the odds of ever seeing one other again is highly remote. So what’s the risk?

Joel Bryant and Andrea Gwynnel in CV Rep's "2 Across"
The dialogue between Janet and Josh says a lot about our civic discourse, social mores, our working lives, and our frustrations in dealing with our families and friends.  Janet, is sharp-tongued because she’s dealing with a ‘flight from the nest’ syndrome.  Her young 18-year old son has just enlisted in the Marine Corps, and is now on his on his way to Parris Island boot camp. She feels that her world is falling apart.

Josh, an outgoing, social guy now begins to ease Janet’s anxiety by acting as a volunteer advisor.  It’s his way of paying life’s benefits forward.  He left his family’s button factory business seeking new and exciting opportunities.  Although, he’s currently between jobs, Josh is always upbeat; but no more spoiler alerts from me.  You will just have to see for yourself how Mr. Bryant and Ms. Gwynnel, in highly nuanced performances, resolve their character’s situations.  A great deal of the success of this entertaining comedy rests with director Harmon whose light touch brings out the best in her two stars.  Their comedy timing is impeccable and a joy to watch.

Helping to make the stage magic we see on Designer Cuomo’s set, is a pitch-perfect lighting design by technical manager Moira Wilkie Whitaker that allows the audience to appreciate the costumes designed by Julie Onken; with Hair and Makeup designs by Lynda Shaeps, along with an excellent spot-on sound design by Kate Fechtig.  Louise Ross stage manages.

“2 Across”, performs at CV REP theatre in Rancho Mirage and runs through May 20, 2018.  Don’t Miss It!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

ALAN AYCKBOURN’S RIOTOUS COMEDY “HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES” ONSTAGE AT NCRT

Christopher M. Williams, Jacqueline Ritz, Noelle Marion, Sharon Rietkerk,
James Newcombe, Benjamin Cole in "How the Other Half Loves".
All photos by Aaron Rumley.
There ought to be a law stating all British farces and comedies must be staged by British-trained directors in order to get the full impact of their special, zany, erudite, and/or silly brand of comedy. Old-timers will remember the joys of listening to the BBC’s “The Goon Show” on radio or viewing “Fawlty Towers”, on TV with the incomparable John Cleese or enjoying the wackiness of the “Carry On” series of movies at one’s favorite neighborhood cinema.

Well, the North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) of Solana Beach will satisfy any aficionado of British ‘humour’ (Please note English spelling) with their current production of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedy “How the Other Half Loves” directed by award-winning dual-citizen Geoffrey Sherman.

NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein has a knack for selecting plays and directors that appeal to his theatre-savvy audiences. With his choice of British born directors from which to choose, Ellenstein has selected one of the best professional directors in Geoffrey Sherman. Sherman directed one of three iterations of the original production and revivals when he lived in ‘Jolly Ole England’. Alan Ayckbourn, is to the English stage, what Neil Simon is to Broadway. Both are prolific playwrights of the comedy-farce genre, and both are comic geniuses when it comes to making audiences laugh.

The play is a riotous peek into the peccadilloes and shenanigans of how the Brits handle marital infidelity. Although the whole world, it appears, has at one time or another engaged in some form of ‘no-no’ behavior. It’s only the English, however, who appear do it with impeccably good manners.

The story, in short, revolves around three couples: Frank and Fiona Foster (James Newcomb and Jacquelyn Ritz); Bob and Teresa Phillips (Christopher M. Williams and Sharon Rietkerk); William and Mary Featherstone (Benjamin Cole and Noelle Marion). All are accomplished comedy-farceurs, and it shows from the minute the play begins.

Christopher M. Williams, Sharon Rietkerk in
"How the Other Half Loves"
The plot addresses the consequences of an adulterous affair between Bob (Mr. Williams) and his boss’ wife Fiona (Ms. Ritz) and their attempts to cover their tracks by involving William (Mr. Cole) and his wife Mary (Ms. Marion) by asking the unwitting Featherstone’s to be their alibi, resulting in a chain of misunderstandings, conflicts and revelations. All components that are required for a successful farce production are present and are delivered at warp-speed. There is even the obligatory slamming of several doors during the performance for the purists in the audience.

Comedy/farce productions are usually an ensemble effort, making it difficult in separating individual actors and their special moments in the production from the tricky ensemble work in a setting that has two households, side by side, on a stage that is occupied by six characters. This is where the seamless directorial touches of Geoffrey Sherman shine. There is no substitute for experience and creativity when it comes staging a theatrical production, especially a farce production. It’s usually populated with lots of dialogue and movement, and this production is no exception. Director Sherman neatly solves the tricky onstage traffic management issues and the precise timing required by each cast member in order to visually pull it off.

Benjamin Cole, Jacqueline Ritz and
Noelle Marion in "How the Other Half Loves"
“How the Other Half Loves”, is blessed in having six talented actors who know their stuff; perform on NCRT’s stage and have fun in doing it. Mr. Newcomb, is an absolute delight as Frank Foster, the trusting, clueless, cuckolded husband of Fiona. Ms. Ritz as Fiona is perfect as the bored wife looking to widen her sexual horizons by having a fling with her husband’s employee Bob Phillips, solidly played by Mr. Williams. Teresa, Bob’s unhappy, shallow, wife and new mom, is looking for ways to get out of doing housework and taking care of their new son, is impressively played by a striking Sharon Rietkerk. Noelle Marion’s timid, shy, quiet as-a-church-mouse Mary is the exact opposite of the party girl role she played in NCRT last season’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers”. William, the bright up and coming young manager in Frank Foster’s company, is nicely played by Benjamin Cole.

The technical credits at NCRT are always first rate, The Set Design by resident designer Marty Burnett, is always a clever and visual feast for the eyes, thanks to Lighting Designer Matt Novotny who paints the stage with just enough mood lights, yet illuminates the costumes of Eliza Benzoni to be appreciated by the audience. Aaron Rumley’s Sound Design and Props designer Holly Gillard complete the creative team. Cindy Rumley Stage Manages the production.

“How the Other Half Loves,” is a fun and entertaining evening of theatre that performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre and runs through May 13, 2018.

POWERFUL AND INSIGHTFUL DRAMA OF HASSIDIC FAMILY LIFE AT OLD GLOBE'S "THE WANDERERS"

Dave Klasko as Schmuli and Ali Rose Dachis as Esther in The Wanderers
All photos by Jim Cox
The Old Globe’s Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director Barry Edelstein is a bit of a National Treasure when it comes to the Arts. What a boon for audiences of San Diego’s Old Globe theatre complex when Edelstein was handed the keys to one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious theatre venues.

In snaring the services of Edelstein, it’s become a case of New York City’s loss in 2012 is now San Diego’s gain and we’re not giving him back. The Rhoades Scholar, writer, producer, and director’s track record is the envy of theatre professionals everywhere, and a beacon for new playwrights hungry to have their work seen on the stages of The Old Globe.

Edelstein is known as a theatre artistic director who welcomes new and emerging creative artists and provides a safe harbor and a caring environment allowing all to stretch and grow. Case in point: the current production “The Wanderers,” directed by him, is now performing in the round on the Sheryl and Harvey White stage. Edelstein not only fully embraced this world premiere drama, he collaborated with playwright Anna Zeigler in helping shape the powerful and little-known story of New York City’s Satmar Hasidic Judaism, a small, isolated, sect of highly orthodox Jews who adhere to strict Jewish religious dietary laws and traditions.

Brilliantly directed by Edelstein, who has a long list of New York credits as a producer and director at New York’s famous Public Theatre for ten years and at regional theatres across the county, also has a keen eye for talented actors who can run the gamut of every emotional moment once they step on stage. “The Wanderers,” is a powerful, insightful, and fascinating story vibrantly brought to life by five talented actors in a series of non-linear scenes that flash backward as well flash forward which collectively produce an evening of riveting theatre.

The story takes place in the present, in Monsey, New York, and Brooklyn New York. According to Edelstein’s character notes the play follows the lives of two sets of characters: a couple in the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism: Esther, a terrific Ali Rose Dachis and her husband Schmuli, introspectively and understatedly played by Dave Klasko.

And the other couple: Sophie (Michelle Beck) a writer with one book to her credit and working on her second novel, and Abe (an astonishing Daniel Eric Gold) already a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, with two Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay, in their young careers come to grips with their unraveling marriage. Sophie is a loyal, dedicated, wife and mother to their three children. Abe is a wordsmith and a dreamer/show business journalist who lives in a fantasy-like bubble and wonders if his life has the prospect of tasting forbidden fruit, perhaps, just waiting outside the no-nos of his marriage contract. Celebrity/actress Julia Cheever, alluringly played by sexy, Janie Brookshire, is Abe’s muse.

Daniel Eric Gold as Abe and Janie Brookshire
as Julia in The Wanderers
They connect over the internet in what begins as an interview assignment, but, now borders on an obsession of Julia by the glib, smooth-talking, and articulate Abe. Julia is a pivotal character in playwright Ziegler’s compelling drama in which Ziegler wisely leavens the narrative by infusing it with just the right amount of comedy and humor to hold the interest of the audience.

The beauty of this fascinating play lies in the actors’ talent to imbue their characters with such a ring of authenticity that even those unfamiliar with its core story subject matter can appreciate and enjoy its achingly poignant moments. Good writing and talented actors can elevate a good production into a great production.

The subject of ‘arranged marriage’ is still practiced in some places and cultures in the world. But in the West, and especially here, in America, one might have some difficulty finding small enclaves of religious separatists that still cling to the old ways of religious observance.

Dave Klasko as Schmuli and Ali Rose
Dachis as Esther in The Wanderers
If one is waiting for spoiler alerts, you won’t get them from me. This remarkable cast deserves your full attention. Enough cannot be said about the wonderful and inspired direction of Barry Edelstein who seamlessly sweeps his audience along on playwright Ziegler’s richly textured narrative tale of ‘arranged marriage.’

The technical team led by Edelstein is equal to the performer’s dedication and talent when it comes to creating magical and memorable on-stage moments. The Set Design by Marion Williams is a spare, space staging design that maximizes the White Stage performing in-the-round space which allows full viewing access for the audience. Costumes designed by David Israel Reynoso are spot on, with Lighting Design by Amanda Zieve, and Sound Design by Jane Shaw, complete the creative team.

On a sidebar note: Kudos to Old Globe Dramaturg Danielle Mages Amato on her interviews and background articles for the production. I recommend patrons arrive early enough in order to read her informative articles. They will enhance your enjoyment of this impressive world premiere, which is performed without an intermission.

This splendid production of “The Wanderers,” performs at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Stage in Balboa Park, and runs through May 6, 2018. If you find yourself in San Diego sometime before May 6th, make sure you catch a performance. You won’t be disappointed
- Jack Lyons.


AM-DOCS 2018 FESTIVAL AT CAMELOT THEATERS PALM SPRINGS

Madame Xia (R) and granddaughter Xia Yuan in "The Girl and the Picture"
Seven years ago, AM-DOCS Film Festival founder Teddy Grouya, felt that filmmakers of documentaries needed a proper festival of their own to display their diverse and wide-ranging, special subject-matter films, for lovers and audiences of the documentary film genre in a festival format with all the trimmings.

The audiences for the first AM-DOCS festival has grown exponentially to the point where seven years later, the place to see just documentary films in America, is right here in Palm Springs, California, at The Palm Springs Cultural Center and Camelot Theatres.

The popularity of the festival has created a need for a Spanish language segment to meet the demand for Spanish speaking documentaries at the 2018 festival.  Grouya, wisely added a two-day break-out segment on April 13th and 14th that was held at Cathedral City’s Mary Pickford Theatre, where 30 Latino documentaries were screened; with some Q & A sessions following the screenings.   The 2018, eight-day festival that ended on April 14th, screened 170 films, covering a broad range of subjects from filmmakers located all over the world; some of whom, attended with their films in competition.

We were fortunate to see the festival documentary film entry “The Girl and the Picture”, written, produced, and directed by Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Vanessa Roth.  Her documentary is a strong, powerful, visual statement on war and survival in general, and more specifically, following WW II and its aftermath, her film depicts how it affects all people, not just the victims, but also the survivors and their extended families for generations.

Ms. Roth’s main focus in “The Girl and the Picture” is on the 1937 Japanese army’s infamous scorched earth policy in its invasion of Nanking, China (one of China’s six ancient capitals back in 1638 A.D. then spelled as Nanjing), during what came to be called “The Rape of Nanking” prior to World War II. Thousands of Nanking’s citizenry were raped, shot and killed by marauding Japanese troops during the invasion.

The film chronicles and explores the life of Xia Shuqin, now 88 years-old, who became an orphan at eight years of age when her parents and her sibling were murdered by invading Japanese forces. It’s an inspiring true story of a young Chinese girl who could not read or write, yet somehow, miraculously survived wars and life under Chairman Mao Tze Tun.

It is a story that has never been told until now.  Ms. Roth weaves a fascinating ‘East Meets West’ documentary story from interviews with Xia, her daughter, and her seven-year-old grandson.  The West component is represented by Chris Magee, the grandson of American missionary John Magee who lived in Nanking in the 1920’s and 30’s. It was John’s diaries, letters, old newspaper clips, plus invaluable 16mm home movies and archival film footage given to Ms. Roth, along with her detailed, research and additional information that became the basis for her documentary film.

As both writer and director, Ms. Roth nicely weaves the various interviews and the exact location sites into the story.   Conducting and filming her interviews, at the actual locations of 80 years ago, whenever possible, lends her film a ring of authenticity and verisimilitude that are the hallmarks of good documentary filmmaking.  “The Girl and the Picture”, is a story that has remained unknown for far too many years.  Now it’s being shared with everyone at film festival around America.

I got to briefly chat with Ms. Roth following her screening and the Q & A session of her film over a bottle of deliciously cold spring water. Vanessa Roth is a soft-spoken, bright, highly educated filmmaker with a Master’s Degree in Social Work, and a minor in Family Law from Columbia University, NY.

Her father is the Academy Award-winning screenwriter Eric Roth of the movie “Forrest Gump”. Her mother is the Archeologist Linda Roth.  Ms. Roth’s canon of films is quite impressive for one so young and talented.  She is 47 years old, but looks 30. She is the recipient of the prestigious Alfred I. du Pont-Columbia award for “Taken In: The Lives of America’s Foster Children”.  Her film festival wins and honors include two Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prizes, Cine Golden Eagles, Casey Medals and a MacArthur Grant.

Some of her award-winning documentary films include: “Close to Home”, “Aging Out”, ”Schools of the 21st Century”, ‘The Third Monday in October”, “9/11’s Toxic Dust”, No Tomorrow”, “The Other Side”, “American Teacher”, and “The Texas Promise”.  Filmmaker Vanessa Roth is too busy making award winning films too worry about anything as mundane as looking her age.

How many of your films, I asked, have you entered in film festivals over the decade that you’ve been a professional filmmaker?    She replied, “I think it’s about 12.”   Do you ever tire of the film circuit road trips?  “No, actually I enjoy it.   Of, course, I miss my three children, but that’s what makes going home so special when I do get home.”  Where is home these days?  “I live in Brooklyn”.  Where are you taking this film next?  “This is the world premiere screening of “The Girl and the Picture.”  We also will screen it at The Newport Film Festival, and the Tribecca Film Festival in New York City, with more festivals, dates to be announced.”

What year did you win your Oscar?  “That was 2008, as the producer of “FREEHELD” – Best Short Film Documentary.”  What lies ahead for filmmaker Vanessa Roth in 2018/2019? “Last year I was the Executive Producer and Director of “Daughters of Destiny: The Journey of Shanti Bhavan” – a four-part Netflix Original documentary series that debuted on July 28, 2017.”  Is it possible that we may see a full-length feature motion picture from you some day?   Ms. Roth smiles sweetly, as I thank her for her time away from her busy festival schedule.  I think it’s a good bet that she just might.  It would a pity to deprive audiences of her filmmaking talent.

Friday, April 6, 2018

DEZART PERFORMS THEATRE COMPANY PRESENTS POIGNANT COMEDY “MOTHERHOOD OUT LOUD”

Desireé Clarke, Theresa Jewett and Melanie Blue perform in the Off-Broadway
comedy MOTHERHOOD OUT LOUD,  Photo credit: Clark Dugger

Where would any of us be today without the mothers of the world?  Everyone has had one or better yet, it is hoped, still has one.  They are so necessary to life on this crazy planet.  We honor them with their own special day every May, and rightly so!

What a fabulous production Dezart Performs chooses to end their 10th Season. It’s been a stellar season of outstanding entertainment for the Palm Springs-based theatre company beginning with “The Legend of Georgia McBride”, followed by the powerful drama “Rabbit Hole”, to Dezart’s annual tribute/fundraiser to old-time radio, with their hilarious production “On the Air”, performed by Hollywood actor/celebrities., of radio, TV, Film, and the New York stage.  Which brings us to their current production “Motherhood Out Loud”, now gracing the boards of the Pearl McManus Theatre, in the historic downtown Palm Springs, Woman’s Club, is performed without an intermission.

This fun-filled production is comprised of a series of thirteen vignettes, sketches, and monologues written by some of America’s finest comedy and drama female playwrights.  The ‘community of women’ is like a secret society to men who don’t have a clue when it comes to child-birthing and raising a family, or understanding why the shoes and purse have to match, let alone, grasp the delicious feeling of a hot bath and soak as a restorative, with a glass of chardonnay nearby at the end of a full day as a stressed out, new Mom, or as a mother again; accompanied now with double the stress of parenting chores.

Under the smart and crisp direction of Artistic Director/Actor Michael Shaw, “Motherhood Out Loud” brings insights and revelations to the males in the audience and smiles and a multitude of laugh-out-loud- moments from the ladies in the audiences; be they mothers or not.  Don’t be misled by preconceived ideas drawn from TV sitcoms.  The shock of recognition of life as it’s lived in 21st century America – and probably most everywhere else – resonates with both male and female audiences when it comes to married life.

Theresa Jewett, Leanna Rodgers, James Owens and Desiree Clarke
Shaw cleverly arranges the sequencing, selection, and order in the telling of the story, much as a symphony conductor orchestrates his or her musicians. Dezart Performs, superbly gets their job done with just five talented cast members who deliver terrific poignant and nuanced individual moments on stage and display great comedy timing in the ensemble format.

The creative magic taking place on the stage comes from five fine actors whose roles fit them like expensive patent leather gloves. There are no spoiler alerts by me because they’re all self-contained, linear-styled vignettes, broken into five chapters. The audience is here to observe and be entertained in the process.  And, boy are they entertained. The company features the talents of:  Melanie Blue, Desiree Clarke, Theresa Jewett, Leanna Rodgers, and James Owens.

Chapter One: introduces us to a sketch concerning “Fast Births”.  Men, here’s where you need to pay attention and learn why very few new fathers are allowed to watch the berthing process at hospitals. The ladies know all about this section.  Leanna Rogers hilariously performs playwright Brooke Berman’s piece entitled “Next to the Crib.”

Theresa Jewett in Motherhood Out Loud
Chapter Two: ‘First Day’, is about the learning curves in the lives of young children. Theresa Jewett, delivers a tender and insightful portrayal as a young mother explaining to her gender-conflicted son why he probably shouldn’t attend the Purim party at school dressed as Queen Esther. Her rationale and her ultimate decision brings a lump to one’s throat.

Chapter Three: ‘Sex Talk’.  The children in this piece entitled Sex Talk Fugue’ are now approaching, or, are in their teens.  The pieces by playwright Michele Loew, Lameece Issaq, Luanne Rice, Clair LaZebnik and director Shaw give his entire cast of four ladies and one man the okay for a full speed ahead to review their various family observations concerning the subject of sexual awakening issues in their families when they come up.  They’re hilarious and enlightening thanks to the performances of Melanie Blue, who is fabulous as a hip, up to date, Muslim mom with daughter Leanna Rodgers,  Desiree Clarke, Theresa Jewett, and James Owens commiserate about their various teenagers.  Owens especially delivers a wonderfully droll, comical monologue about the Christmas Holidays from the perspective of a gay man.

Chapter Four: ‘Stepping Out’ covers the children getting married and leaving the nest.  In ‘Bridal Shop’ by Michele Loew, Desiree Clarke, and Melanie Blue discuss their future daughter and son’s new relatives. It’s bittersweet but funny and hilarious.  This Chapter also features terrific singer/actor Teresa Jewett, as the mother of a son in the Army recalling the day he decided to enlist, saying he finally found out what he wanted to do with his life. Her achingly poignant performance was one of the most powerful and stunningly rendered soliloquies in recent memory; bringing tears to many eyes in the audience.  The audience was so fully engaged and so quiet, one could hear a pin drop. It was as if everyone just stopped breathing.  It’s a sublime theatrical moment not be missed.

In Chapter Five: ‘Coming Home’, Ms. Jewett has another evocative, poignantly delivered monologue in a piece by playwright Annie Weisman, entitled ‘My Baby’. Keep a couple of Kleenex handy for this one too.  Now you know why we celebrate Mother’s Day in America.

The technical credits that enhance this splendid production belong to Set Designer Thomas L. Valach, Lighting Designer Phil Murphy Costumes Designed by Frank Cazares, Sound Design by Clark Dugger and Prop Master Cecilia Orosco. The production is stage managed by Diane McLure.  The technical crew of Sierra Barrick, Kaley Doherty, and Sierra Johnson are Interns under the direction of co-producer Clark Duggar.

“Motherhood Out Loud” is a stellar production that performs on the Pearl McManus stage in the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, produced by Dezart Performs, and runs through April 8, 2018.  For tickets and reservations, call 760-322-0179.

Jack Lyons

Monday, March 26, 2018

CHEKHOV’S MASTERPIECE “UNCLE VANYA” SHINES AT SAN DIEGO's OLD GLOBE

(from left) Celeste Arias as Eléna, Yvonne Woods as Sónya,
Jay O. Sanders as Ványa, and Roberta Maxwell as Márya
Photos by Jim Cox

Let me say at the outset, that in literature, no one suffers more than characters in Russian novels and plays except, possibly, JOB and perhaps Oedipus Rex. That being said, San Diego’s The Old Globe Theatre is presenting a new translation and a new way of staging Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece dramedy “Uncle Vanya”.

Renowned Russian translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky along with Chekhov scholar/director Richard Nelson, put their collective heads together coming up with, not only, a new translation of ‘Vanya’, but a unique presentation style that director Nelson calls “conversation voiced dialogue”.

The Old Globe’s White Stage is a performing space in the round, which presents a challenge for directors in solving vexing blocking and traffic issues. At some time during the performance actors will obscure the view of some audience members, causing them to strain to clearly hear the dialogue.

The actors, in the White Theatre production, for all intents and purposes speak to one another, in character, as if they are at an intimate gathering of family members in a kitchen room setting.  According to Erna Finci Viterbi Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein, Richard Nelson’s directing requirements for staging the production at the intimate 250 seat White Stage called for 14 strategically placed microphones to be installed over the heads of the on-stage actors in order to capture the conversational dialogue, along with special speakers that are aimed at all rows; enhancing the audiences’ relationship to the on-stage action.  It’s as if we’ve become flies on the wall; not missing even the smallest facial expression, raised eyebrow, or important nuanced character dialogue.  It’s a fascinating and innovative theatrical convention and it works.

The  ”Uncle Vanya” production that fans of Chekhov expect to see will be familiar.  It’s still a wonderful family story of relatives kvetching about the weather, the lack of money, their aches and pains, and the give and take of characters who still struggle in seeking love and small rewards of country life in Russia during the late 19th century.

Director Nelson describes his approach in staging ‘Vanya’, in an interview with James Hebert, senior theatre critic of the San Diego Union-Tribune, who says In keeping with the intimacy of “Vanya”, which is a family play, a very complicated family play, but it’s a family play. “You have Sonya and then you have her uncle, Vanya, and you have a father and a grandmother and a nanny and a stepmother. And the person she loves. It’s a very tight-knit group of a very complicated family, adding, “it also has the smallest cast of any of the Chekhov plays.  It’s a play that is in essence is a series of conversations.”

Actor Jay O. Sanders is charged with the heavy lifting in this splendid production as Vanya. Mr. Sanders,  a seasoned New York-based actor, with over 40 years of experience, delivers a stunning and powerful performance as Vanya. It’s a highly nuanced effort that displays a more assertive Vanya than we are used to seeing.  His scenes with the young and beautiful Elena (Celeste Arias) in Act I are achingly poignant as he declares his feelings for her.  Vanya’s protective side in Act II in his scenes with his niece Sonya (Yvonne Woods) are also poignant and deeply affecting. She admits that she is in love with Dr. Astrov, the tired and world-weary local doctor who has no romantic feels for Sonya, and, will no doubt, die of alcoholism, due to his depression as a failure in life, is nicely played by Jesse Pennington.

The conversational style of the play is jolted out of its rhythm momentarily, in Act II when an explosive verbal exchange between Vanya and his self-absorbed and irritating, brother-in-law Professor Serebryakov (solidly acted by Jon Devries) berate and demean each other over the fate of the family estate.

The story may remind some of Horton Foote’s family comedy “Dividing the Estate”, however, that is an American southern setting, and “Uncle Vanya”, is a study in 19th century Russian rural life. Generally speaking, however, human emotions are universal, it’s just the cultures and the time periods that are different.  Universal truths come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.  It’s just a matter of how we display and/or accept those truths.  Dedicated performances also come from Roberta Maxwell as Marya (Vanya’s mother) and Kate Kearney-Patch as a former house nanny. It’s a compelling ensemble cast of pros who know their way around a Chekhov masterpiece when they find themselves in one.

Director Nelson shines a light on small cast, intimate productions, giving directors an alternative when staging in the round becomes an issue.  Perhaps ,”conversation  voiced dialogue” productions, when appropriate, will become more acceptable to both directors and audiences.  However, it works for me.

In the technical department led by director Nelson, the single set designed by Jason Ardizzone works for both actors, and the audience. The costumes designed by Susan Hilferty and Mark Kloss are period appropriate under the lights designed by Jennifer Tipton.  The Sound Design by Will Pickens and Alex Heath, deftly blend the sounds of the countryside; enriching the overall visual experience.

If I had to be picky with this otherwise stellar production, it would merely be for a lack of “feeling” that hot, enervating, oppressive, heat that drives the characters ennui, which is a hallmark of Chekhov plays that are set in the summertime.

“Uncle Vanya” performs at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park on the Sheryl and Harvey White stage and runs through March 11, 2018.

Monday, March 19, 2018

ALBEE'S TRAGI-COMEDY "THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA" AT CV REP RANCHO MIRAGE

Sharon Sharth and Sean Smith
Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre (CV REP) of Rancho Mirage, CA, goes where few regional theatres have dared to go over the years; producing one of America’s renowned playwright Edward Albee’s most controversial plays: “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?”.

Edward Albee is arguably one of the five most influential American playwrights of the 20th century,  the other four being Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams.  His canon runs the gamut from one acts to three acts, with the 1962 iconic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as the jewel in his crown.

Albee, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, debuted his highly controversial play “The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia?” on Broadway in 2002.  It went on to garner a Tony Award for Best Play, a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, and was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Seventy years ago America lost its innocence. WW II ended.  Societal norms were morphing from conservative values into individual values and new paradigms.  American writers and playwrights delved into these new mores and explored those new territorial freedoms via the theatre. Albee was a new voice who dared to create characters and situations that challenged his audiences to question the nature and meaning of love. In his tragicomedy “Sylvia”, he raises the question whether love and shame can coexist After all, who defines normal?  Who decides which behaviors are acceptable?  Is dysfunctionality the new normal?  These are large and complex issues to ponder in a changing 21st century America.

CV REP Artistic Director Ron Celona selected “Romance: Real or Imagined” as the theatre’s 2017/2018 season theme.  “The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia?”, falls enigmatically into both categories.  Joanne Gordon, who directed CV REP’s stunning production of Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” last season, returns to helm Albee’s most controversial play.  40 years after his huge success with “Virginia Woolf”. He still delivers the goods.  Echoes of “Virginia Woolf” abound in “Sylvia”. But if Shakespeare could steal from the Greeks, then it’s okay for Albee to steal from himself.

The emotionally-charged story in short focuses on happily married, 50 year-old famed architect Martin Gray (a sensational Sean Smith in an understated, riveting performance) who reveal’s to his best friend of 40 years, Ross Tuttle (Arthur Hanket) that he has recently fallen in love … with a goat!  Martin’s wife, Stevie Gray, played by Sharon Sharth in an astonishing performance, and Billy Gray, their seventeen-year-old Gay son played, perhaps, a little too earnestly by Ian M. White, make up this terrific ensemble of professional Actors’ Equity performers.

Sharon Shart, Ian M. White, Sean Smith
Bestiality, is not normally a subject of discussion outside or inside one’s home, perhaps, with the exception of a licensed Veterinarian.  Ross, however, feels compelled to inform Stevie, via letter, of Martin’s sick, unacceptable, sexual fixation on a goat, setting off a volatile confrontation between Martin and Stevie that draws Billy into their now deeply fraught and damaged marriage.

Albee, in 2013 said to his critics of “Sylvia”, that his intent of the play was to make people “think afresh about whether or not all the values they hold are valid”.  When one views the breaking apart of this family, it’s a little like watching a train-wreck.  We’re fascinated yet horrified at the carnage at the same time.  Having said that, just as in real life there are indeed, comedy moments in this production too.  It took about 10 minutes for the opening night audience to realize that it’s okay to laugh sort of like gallows humor. When an audience becomes fully engaged, that’s when a cast begins to really ‘cook’ on stage.

Sean Smith
There are four terrific, finely-judged performances in this play.  But, the performances of Sharon Sharth as Stevie and Sean Smith as Martin, are true tour de force star turns.  The play is performed without an intermission.  These two actors are on stage for almost the entire evening.  They’re emotionally ‘naked’ out there.  Their high-octane, intense, and highly nuanced performances drain them and the audience as well.  It’s a mesmerizing evening of theatre.  However, a note of caution at this point: This a powerful play about adult behavior and language for adults.  So, leave the kiddies at home.

Director Gordon leads the creative team of Emmy Award-winning Set Designer Jimmy Cuomo who cleverly makes excellent use of employing three levels to give the actors the feel of a real home and more space to create their magic.  Lighting design by Moira Wilkie Whitaker, allows lots of light source to appreciate the costumes designed by Julie Onken.  I especially liked the sound design by Kate Fechtig, and her creative use of music that plays under selective scenes to heighten or enhance the mood.  It’s a film convention alas, and rarely employed in stage dramas.  Pity, it really works in the skilled hands of a creative designer, especially in a venue the size of CV REP and their cozy 88 seats.

“The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia?” performs at CV REP, in Rancho Mirage, CA through April 1, 2018.

Jack Lyons