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Pop culture, entertainment & all things Fresno

The Beehive Interview: Ruth Griffin on ‘The Maids’

In 1933 France, two maids who were sisters brutally murdered their employer and her daughter.

From that real-life event, Jean Genet in 1947 crafted his provocative play “The Maids,” a feisty and (at the time) scandalous show that emerged as a scathing comment on relations between the social classes. The maids regularly indulge in a ritualized game in which they act out a revenge fantasy involving the death of their mistress. Will this be the time they play the game to its conclusion?

Fresno State theater professor Ruth Griffin is directing the Genet classic. Known for her interest in physical and avant-garde theater, Griffin is describing her production, which opens Friday, Oct. 31, as a melodrama. We caught up with her via email to talk about the show. There’s an excerpt of the interview in Friday’s section; here’s the extended version.

Question: What is “The Maids” about?

Answer: “The Maids” constellates a situation between the haves and the have-nots, the entitled and the outcasts. They are a duality that exists together. Genet was inspired by a case in the news of 1933. The Papain sisters were maids who committed two brutal and ritualistic murders, slaying their mistress and her daughter. The French intellectuals of the time interpreted the murders as a compelling symbol of class relations.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Jersey Boys’

What happened in Jersey didn’t stay in Jersey. It finally made it to Fresno.

Which makes fans of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons very happy.

The central San Joaquin Valley waited a very long time indeed for the national tour of “Jersey Boys” — which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary — to get to the Saroyan Theatre. And judging from the enthusiastic reception at Tuesday’s opening night performance, I’d say there’s a lot of pent-up demand for the smooth harmonies and Garden-State-sized angst that this jukebox musical provides. Valli and his bandmates over the years churned out an amazing number of No. 1 hits, and the evening at the Saroyan floated along in a sort of nostalgic cloud of goodwill, with songs like “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” eliciting appreciative murmurs from the audience.

This national tour features an Equity cast — the same union to which Broadway performers belong — and the depth of talent is clear from the beginning. Compared to some of the other smaller, non-Equity tours that come through Fresno, this production is clearly a rung above. (It plays through Sunday Nov. 2.)

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Can Fresno send ‘Janka’ to New York?

I have an in-depth Sunday Spotlight column for Oct. 19: a look at a push by people in the Fresno community to send the Holocaust one-woman play “Janka” to New York for an off-off Broadway run. From my column:

That dream is coming together thanks to a core of Fresno-area supporters. In a move that’s quite novel in the theater world, Noga and Speace are raising the $40,000 needed to finance a run at an Off-Off-Broadway theater. To kick off the campaign, benefit performances of the show will be held Oct. 25 and 26 at the 2nd Space Theatre.

“Janka” is a remarkable story featuring remarkable people, including the title character herself — who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp while most of her family died — to Janice Noga, Janka’s daughter-in-law, who has played the role for 12 years. I’m excited to think that “Janka” could be playing at the June Havoc Theatre on West 36th Street in Manhattan next May.

Bee photo: Eric Paul Zamora

Opening tonight: ‘The Crucible’

Selma Underground Productions opens a new version of “The Crucible” tonight at the Selma Arts Center. Expect some interesting staging. From the company:

“We are looking to produce a fresh take on this classic show,” says director Juan L. Guzmán. “My vision is to stay true to Miller’s intentions, to honor the script, and to let Miller’s words take center stage.

Set in the 1600s, amidst the infamous Salem witch trials, a community must grapple with their morals and faith as they set out to vanquish an evil that has permeated the wilderness they inhabit. “The Crucible” tells the story of one man’s fight to clear More his conscious and save his name, no matter the cost. The Selma Underground production will take liberties with staging and costuming, and will be set outside of the time period in which it is written. Even the stage itself will be altered, so as to provide a different viewing perspective for the audience.

The show runs through Oct. 26. Ticket information here. Here’s Guzmán talking about the show:

Farewell to the ‘King’

UPDATE 10/13: Services will be 6 p.m. Oct. 20 at North Fresno Church, 5724 N.  Fresno St.

ORIGINAL POST: George Akina’s last role in theater was one he’d always wanted to play: the King of Siam in “The King and I.” Even though he’d been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, he spent much of the last year of his life on stage, appearing with Good Company Players in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Shrek” and — in a witty, heartfelt and beautifully crafted performance —  the King in “The King and I,” which closed May 16.

Mr. Akina died Friday. He was 63.

I had the privilege of sitting down in April with Mr. Akina midway through his “King and I” run and talking about him for my Sunday column about the challenges and joys of performing the role. (Sometimes it was hard. Very hard.) His gentleness of spirit, love of family and towering Christian faith shined through on that late Friday afternoon. I suggested to him that his love of theater was remarkable, and he told me: “The theater has been life-giving to me. When I think ‘What would I be doing if it weren’t for ‘The King and I’ right now?,’ I think I’d be much sicker.”

A few days later, he sent me a follow-up email, and that’s how I ended my column:

Yes, I do love theater, but not perhaps in the same way you meant. The truth is I love God first above all else. He has given me gifts which I can express on stage. It’s when I’m on stage using those gifts that I feel the most fulfilled, most alive, and most in His will. Add to that that my work entertains, engages and touches others and there is nothing else that can surpass it, save the love and support of my wife and children.

He will be missed.

Updated 10/14: Revised information about remembrances to come.

 

Win tickets to ‘Jersey Boys’

UPDATE 10/16: We had a robust turnout for our “Jersey Boys” giveaway with 293 total entries (including Beehive comments and mailed-in comments). Our winners are Jennifer Heintz and Susan Gilbert.

ORIGINAL POST: “Oh what a night” it will be on Oct. 28 when the national tour of “Jersey Boys” swaggers into the Saroyan Theatre for a six-day run. Broadway fans have waited for years for this big-deal jukebox musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to reach Fresno. The title is one of the highlights of the season, along with the upcoming “Book of Mormon” in July.

Here’s the exciting news for Beehive readers: Two lucky winners will each receive a pair of opening-night tickets PLUS the original Broadway cast recording CD. I’ll pick the winners randomly. To enter, leave a comment on this post answering this question: What’s your favorite Four Seasons song? (If you’re not sure, just say “My Eyes Adored You” — it’s my favorite.)

Deadline to enter is 10 a.m. Thursday. Please don’t enter more than once. I’ll be informing our winners by email on Thursday, so keep a watch on your inbox. If I haven’t heard back from a winner by 10 a.m. next Friday (Oct. 17), I reserve the right to pick another. You’ll need to be able to pick up your tickets and CD at The Bee. Rules are on the jump.

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Five Things You Should Do This Weekend

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Fresno State football is in Vegas this weekend. Catch the rundown on Twitter while you’re doing any of these …

1. The Big Fresno Fair
It’s your last chance. Until next year.

2. “The Judge”
Robert Downey Jr. proves he can do more than the eccentric billionaire bit.

3. Vintage pop-up shop
And book swap. You know how I feel about books.

4. Blimprov LIVE!
Zen and the art of funny.

5. “Avenue Q”
Did someone say “puppet sex?”

For a music specific list, check out this week’s BANDGEEK!

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Avenue Q’

You never forget your first visit to “Avenue Q.” Eleven years after the irreverent musical opened in New York, I’m long past the days when puppet sex can shock me. But there’s still great joy in repeated viewings of this show. The best part about Fresno City College’s accomplished production is watching it with an audience that obviously includes lots of first-timers. As they discover the silly joys of this clever, tuneful musical — a decidedly adult-oriented take on “Sesame Street” —  it’s like reliving the experience for the first time. 

No question about it: There are a lot of moving parts required to deliver a satisfactory version of “Avenue Q,” and for the most part director Charles Erven and his creative team bring it together with flair. The biggest weakness is the sound. (I’ll get to that in a moment, alas.) But in terms of acting, direction, vocals, choreography and general stagecraft — and the very fine live band — I found a lot to applaud at the Saturday evening performance I saw.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Race’

“Race” checks the platitudes and niceties at the door. Walk into the inner sanctum of the law firm depicted in David Mamet’s brusque and provocative drama, which continues through Saturday at Fresno State, and you’ll get the “fly on the wall” treatment – people speaking in brutally frank terms about what the play refers to as this nation’s most incendiary topic.

I know there is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive,” the grizzled white attorney tells his young black associate. Within these walls, however, the politically correct rules of the game are suspended. Those things do get said. In very frank terms.

In several ways I like the Fresno State production of “Race” more than the actual play itself. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis has crafted a hard-hitting, thoughtfully staged outing that effectively captures what is at the essence of any Mamet play: a slugfest.

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Opening tonight: ‘Avenue Q’ and ‘Race’

The Fresno City College and Fresno State theater seasons kick off tonight with two very different shows: the irreverent musical “Avenue Q” and the searing drama “Race.” You can’t dawdle when it comes to seeing either show, because both only run through Oct. 11.

I had a fun time conducting video “tell-all” interviews, above, with Kate and Rod, two of the puppet stars of “Avenue Q” at Fresno City College. It’s celebrity journalism at its finest. You can also read my 7 section interview with director Charles Erven.

And with David Mamet’s “Race,” pictured below, at Fresno State, we made the play the cover story in Friday’s 7 section. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis talks about his decision to stage this provocative play. 


Pictured: Mitchell Lam Hau, Ryan Woods, Joel Young and Breayre Tender in “Race.”

Last chance: ‘The Normal Heart’

I know. Everyone’s busy. You have every intention to get out to see a limited-run play, but things get in the way. Before you know it, it’s gone.

I’m talking about StageWorks Fresno’s “The Normal Heart,” which is in its third and final weekend. I recommend catching it at the Fresno Art Museum before it closes.

Tonight’s performance has a bonus: Curtain has been pushed back to 8:30 p.m. so playgoers can attend the opening reception of the Fresno Art Museum’s series of fall exhibitions, which include “Mildred Howard: Collective Memories.” Howard is the museum’s distinguished artist for 2014. (Here’s my rundown of today’s museum activities, which begin at 4:30 p.m., from today’s 7 section.) It also plays 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Another special museum/”Normal Heart” event: On Saturday, a forum titled “Let’s Talk … HIV/AIDS in the Central Valley” will be held 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

“The Normal Heart” is about the beginning days of AIDS, and playgoers might walk away 30 years later with a false sense of complacency that the disease isn’t something about to worry about anymore. Far from it. There are new cases of HIV/AIDS every day, and education is more important than ever. Kudos to StageWorks and the museum for reminding us of that.

Opening tonight: ‘Ben Minus Jake’

The Fresno premiere of local playwright Andrew Champagne’s “Ben Minus Jake” opens tonight at the Fresno Soap Co. (formerly the Broken Leg Stage) and continues through Oct. 4. It’s a Curtain 5 Theatre Group production. From the company:

BEN MINUS JAKE tells the story of two friends. Haunted by his past, Ben, (Matthew Vargas) struggles to find a sense of identity, as Jake (Jason Andrew) desperately desires to move forward; even at the cost of his friendship. Director Jacob Williams’ debut show examines human identity and how those around ultimately help us come to terms with it.

Performances this weekend are 8 p.m. today (Sept. 26) and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 27).

THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Addams Family’

Sometimes a show just has Itt.

The new Good Company Players production of “The Addams Family” is a slick and happy affair. All the cylinders in this goofy engine of pop-culture genuflection run smoothly: sharp and witty direction, accomplished acting, spot-on costumes, strong sets, sturdy choreography and innovative lighting and projection design. Are Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics or Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book the stuff of musical theater that will endure for the ages? Probably not. But as this GCP production shows, you can have a heck of a lot of fun goofing off for an evening about a beloved TV show.

The key to the success of a show like “The Addams Family” is fidelity to the source material — something that director Dan Pessano takes to heart. This isn’t a time for a revisionist view of Morticia Addams, say, by putting her in a button-up blouse, or turning Uncle Fester into a hard-charging investment banker instead of a moon gazer. Pessano’s casting is superb, with each of the actors in the major roles matching their characters both physically and in terms of temperament.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Normal Heart’

The injustice at the core of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” isn’t as raw today as when the play came out in 1985. Some events depicted in Larry Kramer’s drama, set early in the AIDS crisis, had occurred just a year before. The fear, anger and throat-clutching sadness among the audience members at the New York Public Theater’s original production must have been suffocating.

But decades later, the injustice in this play — which is receiving a local premiere in a sturdy production from StageWorks Fresno — still seethes and provokes. Even with the distance of time, the choices made by media and government gatekeepers — and some in the gay community — to sweep early news about the epidemic under the rug seem perplexing and bizarre. It’s unfathomable today to think that a scare about Tylenol tampering earned a tsunami of coverage in the New York Times but that a new illness killing hundreds of New Yorkers had to fight to get to the front page. But that’s what happened.

The StageWorks production, directed with heartfelt commitment by J. Daniel Herring, immerses us in the autobiographical world of Kramer. His alter ego is Ned Weeks (played with verve and feeling by Terry Lewis), who vows to stir up a fuss when he realizes that many in the gay community are falling to a disease so new and mysterious it doesn’t have a name. Yet the organization he founds, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, is far from unified on the best approach. He continually clashes with Bruce Niles (Bob Creasy), the group’s president, who favors a less confrontational, more “establishment” approach. At the root of this conflict, Bruce — and many other gay men — object to any attempt to discourage sex in an age of newfound sexual permissiveness.

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‘Jersey Boys’ tickets go on sale 10 a.m. Friday

Lots of people have already snagged tickets to the national tour of “Jersey Boys” — which plays Oct. 28-Nov. 2 at the Saroyan Theatre — by buying season tickets or the package deal with the Fresno Grand Opera. But if you’ve been waiting for single tickets, they go on sale 10 a.m. Friday. Good luck!

The performance schedule is Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 and 8 pm, and Sunday at 1:00 and 6:30 pm.

The Ticketmaster number is (800) 745-3000.

Prices range from $33-$103.

Bandgeek: Blake, The Beetles and Blockhead

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Instead of sitting at home wondering whether it’s OK to continue watching football (American, that is), head out on the town and catch one of the dozens of live concerts happening in the next week. We’ve listed them here in our weekly BANDGEEK roundup.

TONIGHT:

  • Zeahorse. W/Midwest Moms and Space Apes.
    At Peeve’s Public House. 10 p.m. Free. All ages.

  • BJ Sings.
    At Full Circle Brewing. 8 p.m. Flat rate (whatever that means).

  • Blake Shelton.
    Ten Times Crazier Tour. W/The Band Perry, Neal McCoy and Dan + Shay. At the Save Mart Center. 7 p.m. $29.75 and $54.75. (Flier link)

  • Morris Day and the Time.
    At the Tulare Country Fair. 8 p.m. Free with fair admission.

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    Five Things You Should Do This Weekend

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    UPDATE: This story has been updated to remove the Mike Tyson show, which is not this weekend at all. Calendars are confusing.

    Slather on some DEET and …

    1. Metalachi at Arte Americas Nights in the Plaza
    Who doesn’t want to hear a mariachi version of “Run to the Hills?

    2. “Preacherman at Burning Man
    Fresno is the Detroit of California, might explain this show’s inclusion as the best of West Coast fringe.

    3. Taste of River Park
    Remember when River Park put a curfew on kids? This is like that, but with Let’s Go Bowling.

    4. Keyboard Concert Series
    Garrick Ohlsson opens the 43rd season of the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series. This should be on your list of “Things every Fresnan should do once.”

    5. Madera Fair
    It is officially fair season in the Valley. Enjoy!

    For music-specific events, check out this week’s BANDGEEK roundup.

    THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Tempest’

    tempest

    The Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of “The Tempest” had a rough opening Thursday night at Woodward Park.

    Very rough.

    This production wasn’t ready for an audience. Awkward pauses, lethargic pacing, forgotten lines and a turgid advance through what should be an airy, magical narrative marred the evening. The production had some strong points in terms of choreography and costume and sound design, but the most important aspect of any Shakespeare play — the text — was often problematic among an array of cast members. I fear that director Julie Ann Keller got too absorbed in the movement and design of the show and didn’t make sure her actors were well versed in the fundamentals.

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    Follow-up: At 90, ‘Papa Glenn’ wins best actor

    papa glenn

    In February, I brought you the sweet story of Glenn Edwards of Porterville, who at age 90 undertook his first starring role on stage, as the cantankerous Willie in “The Sunshine Boys.” It played at Porterville’s Barn Theater.

    At the theater’s recent “Hosscar” Awards — I’ll have to get the story on that name someday — Edwards took home a big prize: best lead actor. His daughter Nicki, who directed the show, writes:

    In fact “The Sunshine Boys” swept the awards, I’m happy to say. The Porterville Recorder headline was “90-year-old steals Hosscar Show” & he did. Papa Glenn is very loved in our theater community, not only for his amazing stamina but his quick wit & happy nature.

    Nicki reports that one of her dad’s co-stars, Denise Everhart, pictured above, won for her portrayal of the Sexy Nurse in “The Sunshine Boys.” Everhart started teasing Edwards about when he was going to marry her.

    He replied: I’ll gladly marry you Tuesday for a honeymoon tonight!” (“He’s a rascal!! his daughter writes.)

    Opening tonight: ‘The Tempest’

    One of Shakespeare’s most magical plays, “The Tempest,” opens tonight at Woodward Park. It’s the final production in the 2014 Woodward Shakespeare Festival season. From the company:

    The 10th season closes with Julie Ann Keller’s The Tempest, a magical tale of romance, vengeance and redemption. Rick Adamson plays the powerful sorcerer Prospero. Bridget Martin and Broderic Beard play the two lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. Joshua Taber and Abbygail Williams portray the fantastical spirit Ariel and the villainous creature Caliban. The production features original music composed by Emma Ferdinandi, winner of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s Young Composer’s Competition.

    The show plays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Sept. 20 at the Festival Stage. Look for my interview with Keller in Friday’s issue of 7.

    Pictured: Miranda (Bridget Martin), Ferdinand (Broderic Beard), and Prospero (Richard Adamson).

    Opening tonight: ‘The Comedy of Errors’

    Tonight’s opening at the 2nd Space Theatre is a first for Good Company Players: The new production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” is being done in a Commedia dell’arte style. Director J. Daniel Herring is setting the play in a town square, performed by a traveling band of actors that include many of the stock characters associated with Commedia dell’arte. From GCP:

    In this merry mix-up by the Bard, two sets of identical twins are separated as children in a shipwreck – they land on far distant shores, not knowing what happened to the others. Once grown, Antipholus of Syracuse (MATTHEW RUDOLF SCHILTZ) and his servant Dromio (DANIELLE VALDIVIA) travel to Ephesus and are mistaken for their long-lost twin brothers, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus (KEN STOCKS and BRIANNE JANAE VOGT). When they meet by accident as adults, the possibilities are endless: mistaken identities, near-seductions, false arrests, and wild accusations of adultery, larceny, and insanity are flung about with wild abandon.

    This is the first Shakespeare production done by Good Company since 1993′s “Twelfth Night.”

    “The Comedy of Errors” continues Thursdays-Sundays through Oct. 12. Look for my interview with Herring about the show in Friday’s 7 section.

    THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Mountaintop’

    The view is grand from “The Mountaintop.”

    The StageWorks Fresno production of Katori Hall’s provocative play about the imagined last night of Martin Luther King, Jr. is deftly staged and strongly acted. Director Joel C. Abels crafts a powerhouse production that manages to seem both taut and dreamy — a charismatic and combustible combination. 

    It’s tricky to write about “The Mountaintop” because it’s one of those plays that, frankly, works better the less you know about it. (When New York Times critic Ben Brantley reviewed the show in 2011, he noted that the production’s press representatives requested that he not divulge certain key plot details.) But there are some essentials to know going in: The action takes place on the evening of April 3, 1968 in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. On the next day, King was assassinated on the motel’s balcony.

    Hall’s take on what happened on that last night of his life comes purely from her literary imagination. In this two-person drama, she invents the character of Camae, a maid at the motel. Camae knocks on King’s door with room service after a long day for him in which he gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. What follows — their conversation and the events that unfold on a strange and stormy night — is pure conjecture.

    But enough is grounded in what we know about King — his formidable strengths and all-too-human weaknesses — to give the experience a fly-on-the-wall authenticity.

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    And now a word from Winthrop

    “The Music Man” is in its closing weekend in Clovis, and I couldn’t let the occasion slip by without giving 6-year-old Jackson Estep, who plays Winthrop in the show, a moment of Beehive fame. Here’s my video:

    P.S. — I wrote about Jackson and the Estep family — there are five of them all appearing in the show together — in Thursday’s Life section. It turns out they have company. Cheryl Martin writes:

    You may not be aware that there is another family with 5 members in the production.  They are the Smiths.  Father Patrick, sons Michael Patrick and Tim, daughters Anna and Joy (who played Amaryllis).  What are the odds of that happening?

    Think about it: Even with a cast of more than 60, the Esteps and Smiths together make up a significant percentage of “The Music Man” cast.

    Weekend pick: ‘Virginia Woolf’

    There are lots of theater options this weekend, but I want to give a last shout-out for Artists’ Repertory Theatre’s impressive “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” now in its final weekend at California Arts Academy’s Severance Theatre. It plays 8 p.m Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. From my review:

    This is an exemplary production — one of the best of the year locally. Long before there were games involving hunger, George and Martha set the standard for weird, memorable and dangerous antics.

    And if you’ve never seen the stage version of this acclaimed show, you owe it to yourself to see a great piece of American theater.