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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde’

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Should one feel despair at the end of Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde”? The 1895 punishment meted out to the great writer by the British legal system and his subsequent physical decline was a travesty, one of the great sadnesses of literary history (which, considering all the horrible things that have happened to artists over the years, is saying something).

Or should one feel vindication knowing that within mere years after Wilde was tossed into prison with hard labor for his homosexuality that his works were selling like crazy, and that less than a hundred years later many in British society would look back on the whole experience with shame and revulsion?

Interestingly, I felt both despair and vindication after viewing the The New Ensemble Theater Group’s new and uneven production, which continues for one more weekend at the Broken Leg Stage. I’ve become used to having a good “think” after one of TNE’s plays, and this one is no exception. Director Heather Parish’s brisk staging and Kaufman’s crackling script combine for a near whirlwind experience, but if you let the storyline and its implications soak in afterward, that’s when the real impact occurs.

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The Beehive Interview: Haley White

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First of all, an apology: My condensed interview with Haley White, who plays the leading role in The New Ensemble Theater Group’s production of Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” ran a whole week ago in the April 19 issue of 7, and this extended interview was supposed to run the same day. Oops. But the good news is there are still more chances to see the show, which runs through May 4 at the Broken Leg Stage.

Here’s the extended interview:

Question: For those who aren’t familiar with the play, can you give a brief description?

Answer: At the height of his career, just as his plays “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “An Ideal Husband” were hits on London stages, Oscar Wilde was tried by the British Crown for “gross indecency with male persons” and as a result he exposed the hypocrisy of Victorian society- far more dangerously than his plays ever did. Written by Moises Kaufman in a similar style to “The Laramie Project,” a group of actors take on many different roles to explore the story from the outside-in, using court transcripts, newspaper and eyewitness accounts from the 1890′s to tell the story. As a result, the play has a documentary style to it, with a lot of emotional punch.

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My pick tonight: ‘Freud’s Last Session’

I’m a big fan of The New Ensemble Theater Group’s play-reading series. If you’ve never experienced one, a play reading might sound like a dry-as-dust time suck that will have you fidgeting in your seat after 15 minutes. But when they’re done right, like with The New Ensemble, they can be an invigorating way to absorb a new play. Don’t worry: the actors don’t read the script cold. They’re as invested in developing their characters as if they were in a full-fledged production.

The company’s latest offering in its Hot Off the Stages series is Mark St. Germain’s hit Off Broadway play “Freud’s Last Session.” Can a Christian and an atheist have a frank discussion about the existence of God and still respect each other in the end? Jaguar Bennett and James Sherrill star.

The reading is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Revue Cafe,  620 E. Olive Ave. Admission is free with purchase of snack or beverage.

“Freud’s Last Session,” an Off-Broadway hit, is receiving its West Coast debut at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through Feb. 10. Who knows? If you like the reading enough, you could make a road trip to see Judd Hirsch and Tom Cavanagh in the leading roles.

A big theater week ahead

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The big summer theater milestones are already behind us, from “Spring Awakening” and “Next to Normal” to “Jekyll & Hyde.” (And, of course, “Calamity Jane” continues to pack in crowds.) But there’s another round of openings coming this week. Mark your calendars.

‘HENRY V’
I put the spotlight on Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s “Henry V” in my Sunday column, focusing on its talented director, Adam Meredith, a familiar name to area theatergoers. (He now lives in Chicago pursuing a career in acting and directing.) The show opens Thursday. From my column:

His concept for this “Henry V” falls somewhere between solidly traditional and a little cutting-edge. You can’t escape that war is a major theme, he says, although without a pervasive ongoing national conflict, audience members will bring vastly different backgrounds to the viewing experience. (An Iraq War vet will obviously be affected differently than an American for whom armed conflict is a distant experience.)

For his Woodward Shakespeare directorial debut, Meredith’s most emphatic choice is to focus on Henry (portrayed by KSEE 24′s Matt Otstot) as both a war leader and a person — and how his weighty responsibilities impact him.

After the jump: More openings.

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Tonight: An opening at 2nd Space, a reading at The New Ensemble

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NOT-SO-WEDDED BLISS: Good Company Players opens the classic comedy “When We Are Married” at the 2nd Space Theatre. The 1938 play by J.B. Priestley is about three Yorkshire couples who were married 25 years ago in the same ceremony. When they gather to celebrate the anniversary, they learn they weren’t actually legally married — which sets off a comic scramble.

Noel Adams, Joyce Anabo, Karan Johnson, Larry Mattox, Henry Montelongo and Laurie Pessano play the “happy” couples. Dan Pessano directs. The show continues through April 15. [Details]

‘GOOD PEOPLE’ READING: The New Ensemble tonight offers the latest in its “Hot Off the Stages” contemporary-play-reading series:

Nominated for a 2011 Tony Award for Best Play, Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” takes an affectionate look at the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ through the eyes of characters who won’t be ignored. Margie Walsh can’t catch a break. Laid off from her job at the dollar store, Margie is faced with the reality that South Boston is providing her the same level of opportunity it always has: none. Ready to make a change, she finds herself in the ‘burbs and out of her element, facing the question – is opportunity granted or earned?

Kristin Lyn Crase, Jaguar Bennett, Anthony Rico Nan and Gabriela Lawson perform. [Details]

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Chesapeake’

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When we first meet Kerr, the performance artist in The New Ensemble’s cheeky new production of the one-man show “Chesapeake,” he’s disturbed. It’s hard to blame him. After an intense feud with a powerful U.S. senator– who just happens to own perhaps the most famous dog in politics–Kerr can’t escape the sound of barking in his head.

The fact the barking in question comes from the senator’s actual dog, a faithful Chesapeake Bay retriever named Lucky, is not the most offbeat thing about Lee Blessing’s play, however. Not by a long shot. Spend nearly two hours with the agitated Kerr — who is brought to life along with other human and animal characters by the very fine James Sherrill, who rises to the challenge in a well-prepared and solid performance — and you’ll soon be steeped in a theatrical soup so cheerfully weird that the mere idea of hearing a dog voice or two in one’s head will seem downright normal in comparison.

You can either look at the experience, directed with a sure hand after a wobbly beginning by Anthony Rico Nan, as jolly good fun or as an exercise in overwrought and vapid silliness. I definitely lean toward the former.

It’s not every day you get to be exposed to an experience that is part pointed political commentary about government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, part fascinating art-history recap of the early 20th Century Futurism movement, part metaphysical musings about the nature of religion and part — a big part! — a goofball series of entertaining plot machinations involving reincarnation, karmic payback and straight-up doggie sex.

The play continues through Saturday at the Broken Leg Stage.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. HEAD TO THE BROKEN LEG STAGE
Read my preview interview with James Sherrill in today’s issue of 7 talking about the new play “Chesapeake.” Performance details here.

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2011 Rewind: Favorite local discovery?

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Will 2011 be the year that you discovered your favorite. thing. ever? Perhaps.

As you know, we started our 2011 Rewind series with talk of local events then our favorite release of the year. Now we’re onto our favorite local discovery. What new (or new to you) Fresno thing rocked your world in 2011? It could be a restaurant you love an event you don’t miss or a favorite place to visit. Or, heck, anything else.

Check out our picks and leave your own in the comments.

KATHY: I discovered Eureka!Burger and fell in food love. I especially love the Turkey Cobb Burger with its gooey mix of blue cheese, avocado, bacon and spicy mustard. Delicious. I’m looking forward to trying some other creations on the menu in 2012.

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Donald’s weekend picks

The weekend before Thanksgiving is always one of the busiest of the year in terms of local events — and this one is no exception. Check out today’s 7 section for lots more options.

1. EXPERIENCE A ‘GREAT’ SYMPHONY WITH THE FRESNO PHILHARMONIC
They call Shubert’s Symphony No. 9 the “Great Symphony” because of its length — and to distinguish it from the composer’s other symphony written in C major, the 6th. (How’s that for a piece of trivia you can offer before the concert begins?) The orchestra will also play the Sibelius Violin Concerto featuring up-and-coming young Bulgarian violinist Bella Hristova. I have a roundup in today’s 7 section of the two Masterworks concerts offered this weekend: one at 8 p.m. Saturday, the other 2:30 p.m. Sunday. It’s a busy weekend for the orchestra: There’s also a family concert 2:30 p.m. Saturday featuring the “Classical Kids LIVE!” with an installment titled “Mozart’s Magnificent Journey.”

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Copenhagen’

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We learn in the play “Copenhagen” that when the German physicist Werner Heisenberg visited the United States in 1949, some of his colleagues wouldn’t shake his hand.

Viewed through the prism of American history, such a response wasn’t surprising. Heisenberg was one of the big brains behind the Nazi research into the atomic bomb, after all. His American colleagues, many of them German Jews driven out of their home country, had prevailed in the race for nuclear supremacy. The good guys won.

But Michael Frayn’s cerebral “Copenhagen,” presented in a well-crafted and ambitious Fresno premiere by The New Ensemble, isn’t interested in simplistic moral judgments. The play is far more complex and ambiguous than that.

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Note: There are only four performances of the play left: 8 p.m. tonight and Friday, and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Tonight’s performance is a deal: Tickets are only $5.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. IMMERSE YOURSELF IN BRAHMS
Talk about setting yourself up for a powerful experience: the acclaimed acoustics of Shaghoian Hall. An immense chorus of 145 singers. A 41-piece orchestra. And an impassioned conductor who has waited for years for the opportunity to perform the work. All this comes together in the Fresno Community Chorus 2:30 p.m. Sunday performance of the Brahms Requiem. I interview conductor Anna Hamre in Friday’s 7 section.

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To-Do Tonight: Brush up on your science ethics for ‘Copenhagen’

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Now here’s an interesting event: In preparation for The New Ensemble’s production of the Tony Award-winning play “Copenhagen,” which opens Nov. 11 at the Broken Leg Stage, the theater company is holding an event in conjunction with the Central Valley Café Scientifique 7 p.m. today at The Landmark. Guest speaker is Ray Hall, a professor of physics at Fresno State. I checked in with artistic director Heather Parish to learn more about the evening.

Question: How did this collaboration come about?

Answer: One of The New Ensemble’s objectives for the next year is to reach out to a wide variety of community groups and find ways to cross-pollinate. Considering the subject-matter of “Copenhagen”, a community partnership with Central Valley Café Scientifique seemed a good match. I contacted them with the details of our play and they suggested we meet. The most natural scenario seemed to be co-presenting a Cafe Scientifique topic during their regular meeting and promote to both audiences. It is a win-win for both organizations. We’re all very excited.

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Donald’s weekend pick: ‘Shipwrecked’

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Thanks to The New Ensemble theater company, I’m becoming an even bigger fan of staged readings.

I was thinking about this last Friday night while watching the top-notch reading of Sarah Ruhl’s naughty (and beautifully literate) “In the Next Room … or the vibrator play,” which the company presented at the Broken Leg Stage as part of a double weekend of theater festivities. The New Ensemble tonight will stage a reading of Donald Marguilies’ “Shipwrecked: An Entertainment!” (It starts at 8 p.m.; there’s a 7:30 p.m. wine reception, with your first glass of wine free as part of your $5 admission.)

At a staged reading, there are limited production values — often no more than a few chairs arranged on stage, an occasional perfunctory costume, perhaps a prop or two. The blocking is rudimentary, if it’s there at all. The actors carry scripts. There’s less of an effort to immerse the viewer in a total theatrical experience. Instead, you’re keenly aware of the nuts and bolts of the process.

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Heads up for the weekend

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This sounds like such a great weekend event I want to highlight it in advance:

The New Ensemble, one of Fresno’s dynamic new small theater companies, has a raucous weekend planned. On Friday the company presents a staged reading of Sarah Ruhl’s blistering 2009 title “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play,” at the Broken Leg Stage. On Saturday, the company shifts gears at the same venue for “TNE Variety Showcase,” an evening of original sketch comedy, monologues, musical numbers and door prizes.

New Ensemble artistic director Heather Parish notes that the Friday “vibrator play” reading is sponsored by For Your Pleasure Parties by Dorian. (“Yeah, we see the humor,” Parish writes.)

Both performances are at 8 p.m., but the evenings kick off with a 7:30 p.m. wine reception. Tickets are $5 each and include your first glass of wine and a drawing for door prizes (including tickets to other shows in town). Additional wine tickets may be purchased. Tickets and wine are cash only and available only at the door.

If you can’t make it this weekend, The New Ensemble has a similar two-night lineup planned for Sept. 2-3. The Friday play reading that week will be Donald Margulies’ “Shipwrecked: An Entertainment!”

Donald’s weekend picks

1. SEE A LOCAL PLAY
I have capsule reviews of The New Ensemble’s “A Picasso” and California Public Theater’s “Lonely Planet” in today’s 7 section. Here’s my extended review of “Picasso” and extended review of “Planet.” And don’t forget: Good Company’s “Skin Deep” is in its opening weekend.

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More on ‘A Picasso’

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The New Ensemble theater company on Friday opens an intriguing new play, “A Picasso,” at the Broken Leg Stage. I caught up with director Heather Parish for an interview. A condensed version runs in Friday’s 7 section. Here’s the extended version:

Briefly put, what is the play about?

The year is 1941, the Germans have rolled into Paris and Pablo Picasso has been ushered into a makeshift office by a beautiful Nazi bureaucrat to authenticate three works of art the Reich have recently “acquired” for exhibition. Soon, the master artist learns that the exhibition is a burning of art designated as “degenerate” by the Germans. A battle of wits ensues between the tough-minded Nazi and the passionate artist over the survival of Picasso’s work– and possibly the survival of the man himself.

What can you tell us about the play’s production history?

Jeffrey Hatcher, a very prolific playwright and screenwriter, wrote the piece when grappling with issues concerning his own art and the critical reaction to it. As such, it tends to resonate with artists of any stripe who put their work out there for public comment.

It premiered in 2003 by the Philadelphia Theater company. A subsequent production followed in 2004 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami starring Lucie Arnaz (who has had a strong regional theater career in Florida) as the Nazi. After that, the eminent Manhattan Theater Club in NYC picked it up with Dennis Boutsikaris and Jill Eikenberry playing the roles. Since then, it has been seen in myriad regional theater companies, including San Jose Repertory in 2009.

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To-Do Tonight: ‘The Pillowman’

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By my math, there are only five shows and 250 potential seats left — many of which have been sold — in the limited run of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” which starts up again tonight at the Broken Leg Stage for its second and final weekend. The show plays 8 p.m. tonight and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Here’s my review. This is a solid production of an amazing play. I recommend it.

THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Pillowman’

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There’s no gentle place here to rest your weary head for an hour or two of unthinking repose.

Watching “The Pillowman,” Martin McDonagh’s brilliant and trippy play at the Broken Leg Stage — and given a rousing if slightly uneven production by Fresno’s New Ensemble theater company — is more like washing down a couple of No-Doz with a cup of coffee and buzzing through the evening as you toy with big ideas and chuckle at the darkest humor you can imagine.

Director Heather Parish has crafted a keen, insightful production pumped up by stellar performances from James Sherrill and Landon Weiszbrod, two brothers living in an unnamed totalitarian state interrogated about a series of bizarre child murders. Sherrill plays Katurian, a struggling writer whose odd, and frequently violent, short stories mean the world to him. Weiszbrod is Michal, his “slow” sibling, who lives with him.

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