Two Absurdist One Acts: “Play” by Samuel Beckett and “The Bald Soprano,” by Eugene Ionesco. Directed by Ruth Griffin. March 14-22, 2014.
“Othello,” by William Shakespeare. Directed by Brad Myers. May 2-10, 2014
Strong, interesting season. “Clybourne Park” is a very recent Broadway Tony winner — I saw it last season and it’s superb. I love the thought of an Absurdist double-header. And something tells me this isn’t going to be your grandfather’s “Our Town.”
The mysterious visitor appears from the desert like a mirage come to life. She is named Sympathy the Learned, the most educated person in the world, and she’s come here to the court of the king to prove it. Ask me any question, she says to the wisest men in the kingdom. One of these skeptical men hopes to trip her up with this: “What are the 17 branches of Islam?”
She knows the answer, of course, answering the question confidently and briskly. Brianne Vogt, as Sympathy, is great in the role. But the best part for me about this moment in Fresno State’s sweet and gracefully staged production of “Arabian Nights,” which continues through Saturday at the John Wright Theatre, is the reaction of the ensemble cast members seated at her feet.
With each of the 17 answers to the question, the other actors, sitting cross-legged at attention, twist their upraised hands back and forth, almost as if they’re belly dancers with clackers counting off each correct response. There’s something nuanced and subtle about these gestures — mere slivers of movement in a show bursting with carefully conceived motion — that adds a precious zing to the scene. It’s wonderful.
Last year, the San Francisco-based New Conservatory Theatre Center brought a touring production of “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” to the Unitarian Universalist Church. Continuing that tradition, the company is bringing a new play titled “The Bus.” I caught up with director Sara Staley via email to talk about the show, which plays 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the church.
Question: What is “The Bus” about?
Answer: It is the story of Jordan and Ian, two boys who regularly rendezvous in a parked bus that belongs to the most powerful church in town, Golden Rule. Late at night, they meet to explore sexual feelings that are at once awkward, humorous, and must remain a secret. When their meeting place is in danger of being discovered, the boys find themselves caught in a conflict between Golden Rule and a gas station owned by Ian’s father and the clash proves explosive. Can Jordan and Ian move their fragile relationship into the light, or will church and family drive them back?
I would add that it’s a story about family, love, the small town experience, belief systems, relationships, respect for differences, and how the secrets we keep can sometimes have tragic consequences.
I’m not feeling much passion for “Love Letters,” which Good Company Players opened last weekend at the 2nd Space Theatre. While the local production, directed by Karan Johnson, is perfectly serviceable, it struggles to break out of the confines of the script’s low-key, musty sensibilities.
When the show opened on Broadway in 1989, one of its appeals was its “epistolary” style — a fancy way of saying that it is structured as a series of letters between a man and woman over a nearly 50-year period. The practical impact of this conceit is that the script doesn’t have to be memorized because the actors can read their lines. With minimum rehearsal time required, the play was an opportunity to rotate in pairs of big-name actors not wanting to commit to long Broadway runs.
After returning to work Tuesday from my recent trip to New York and Washington, I got right back into the busy Fresno culture season. But I promised to fill you in on my various adventures. My final tally in New York: seven plays and two museums. Here’s my theater recap:
MATILDA THE MUSICAL, Shubert Theatre: My favorite show of the trip. I predict that when the Tony nominations are announced Tuesday morning, this import from London will score more nominations than any other show. (I’m not exactly going out on a limb here; last year the musical won more Olivier awards, the British equivalent of the Tonys, than any show in history.) In terms of Broadway depicting children, the tone of this smart and crisp adaptation of the famed Roald Dahl book about a genius little girl with pathetic parents is different than anything I’ve seen. It makes “Annie,” the other big currently running musical about a fictional little girl, look like little more than an extended sentimental sugar high. Sentimentality does exist in in “Matilda,” but it is doled out with the severity of a nutrition-minded mom offering a small dollop of whipped cream to top off a piece of pie; the small bit that is there seems to taste even better because of its scarcity.
The show is a marvel to behold, from the beautifully crafted tiled letters that fill every square inch of the front of the theater to the percussive lighting effects. (At one point, a giant “burp” becomes tangible, thanks to the lighting design, as we watch it travel to the front of the schoolroom and right up to the nostrils of the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, played by the splendid Bertie Carvel.) The staging is a wonder. And Tim Minchin’s music and especially lyrics are so smart they almost hurt.
Good Company Players opens the two-person play “Love Letters” tonight at the 2nd Space Theatre. One interesting thing about the production is you could conceivably see it four times over its two-month run with different casts.
One of the reasons “Love Letters,” which A.R. Gurney wrote in 1988, has been such a successful title over the years is the ease with which casts can rotate in and out of the production. The play, which tells the story of a nearly 50-year relationship between a man named Andy and woman named Melissa, is related in letters and cards written to each other over the years. (Presumably if the play were contemporary, it’d have to include emails and Tweets.) When the show played both on and Off-Broadway, it featured rotating casts.
The 2nd Space production, directed by Karan Johnson, uses the same casting technique. Tessa Cavaletto and Noel Adams kick off the production with a two week run (through May 5). They’re followed by Gordon Moore and Ameila Ryan (May 9-19), Peter Allwine and Danielle Jorn (May 23-June 2) and Amalie Larsen and Chris Carsten (June 6-16). An interesting side note: two of the couples are partnered in real life, and two aren’t. I wonder if the play is harder or easier to perform if you’re performing with your real-life partner.
Salisha is the top 5 of the “Make Me A Cover Model Contest.” I talked to her mom, Gail, earlier this week and she said that the winner is chosen based 50% on votes. People can vote 100 times per day. Vote here.
Salisha has an impressive resume. In February, she was named Miss Fullerton, which means she will compete at the Miss California Pageant in Fresno on June 29, 2013. Salisha is a musical theater major and apparently is going to appear in a production of “The Princess and the Frog” for Disney this summer, her mom says.
The winner will be announced on E! News on Friday, April 19, will be featured on the cover of the magazine’s August issue and will win an elegant evening gown.
StageWorks Fresno’s production of “I Am My Own Wife” is a hot theater topic this week, and for good reason. When we brought Terry Lewis in for a photo shoot, I talked to him about the show for a little video presentation. (Look for a cameo of director J. Daniel Herring.)
Update: Matthew McGee last night won a Helen Hayes award for outstanding supporting actor in a play. That’s a big deal!
Fresno State’s Brad Myers watched the award presentation online and got a little choked up at McGee’s acceptance speech, in which he thanked his parents (who traveled from California for the ceremony) and acting professors Myers and Leslie Martin. (You can listen to McGee’s heartfelt speech, in which he admitted he was scared to make the move to D.C. but was so glad he took the chance, here. Go to the 1:14 mark.)
How important is this award to McGee’s career? One of the hosts noted that a Helen Hayes award is highly esteemed by people on Broadway, and that having one in your back pocket can get you through lots of doors.
Original post 01/29/13: Fresno’s Facebook theater community is abuzz with the news that recent Fresno State graduate Matthew McGee scored a nomination for outstanding supporting actor in a play in the 29th Helen Hayes Awards, which represent excellence in Washington, DC-area professional theater. In doing so, he’s in the company of such nominees as Kathleen Turner, Paul Downs Colaizzo and Christopher Sieber.
She is polite and soft-spoken. Almost nun-like. With her black boxy dress, orthopedic shoes and head scarf — plus a string of pearls, the only carefree nod to ornamentation — she moves with a determined, contemplative air. When she asks a visitor for a small donation for the museum she’s spent her life building, it is with a demure nod and a slight bow, as if the mere mention of money detracts from the greater glory of preserving history.
But make no mistake. Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf is not a pushover. There is steel within.
From our first meeting with the central character in the beautifully staged and acted production of “I Am My Own Wife” from StageWorks Fresno, it’s clear Charlotte is a survivor. In the hands of Terry Lewis, who gives the most riveting performance I’ve seen from him in numerous local theater outings, and director J. Daniel Herring, whose careful and deft touch is evident throughout this well crafted production, a perplexing and entrancing character comes to life in a rich, textured portrayal. The challenge for Lewis doesn’t stop with Charlotte, however. In this one-person show — which calls for a male actor to play a famous 20th Century transvestite — Lewis portrays all the characters, more than 40, in a tale that gently nudges us toward a deeper understanding not only of an interesting historical figure but also the nature of history itself.
Ten things I learned Thursday night in Shrek’s dressing room at the Saroyan Theatre an hour and a half before performance:
1. It is not easy for Shrek (played in the national tour by Perry Sook) to talk to visitors when his lips are being painted.
2. It doesn’t matter the month: Red lipstick and green makeup applied to the same face makes me think of Christmas.
3. When Sook as Shrek can speak, he’s quite the amiable ogre. He tells his visitors (who consist of the four winners of The Bee’s “Shrek” contest — Mona Pineiro and Jenny, Robin and Max Gomez, all of Fresno — plus me and Bee photographer Mark Crosse) that the prosthetic he wears on his head weighs 7 pounds.
It’s Maria, of course. (Pronounced Mar-eye-ah.) The Good Company Players production of the Gold Rush-era musical “Paint Your Wagon,” with music and lyrics by the beloved Lerner and Loewe, opens tonight at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. The show’s best known tune is the beautiful “They Call the Wind Maria.” (Which kicks off with a solo by my favorite French taunter, Tyler Branco.)
We made the show our 7 cover story, so you can look for that tomorrow. Bee photographer Craig Kohlruss took some wonderful photos at the dress rehearsal. I particularly like the one above of Greg Ruud (who plays the gold prospector Ben) and Alyssa Gaynor (his daughter, Jennifer). I’ll be there tonight for a trip back to the Gold Rush.
On one hand, the new Children’s Musical Theaterworks production — the company’s annual all-ages community theater offering — includes some of the best choreographed numbers I’ve seen in a CMT show. (When the company performs the ecstatic first-act finale, “We Go Together,” which involves a flurry of hand-and-foot choreography, the precision and energy are remarkable.) There is fine singing throughout the production, including a few show-stopping moments. Vye Robinson’s scenic design and Trina Short’s costumes are strong. The live band is first-rate, with only a few balance problems. And when “Greased Lightning” makes an appearance, the car is a star. It should get its own dressing room.
On the other hand, I have some serious issues with how this production was cast, particularly the two leading roles. The lighting design doesn’t always work. While some ensemble numbers are excellent, a few — such as the iconic “Beauty School Dropout” — don’t have the impact they should. And the big climax of the show seems to just clunk into place, at least at the Saturday matinee I attended opening weekend.
If you love the music of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Harry James and the Andrews Sisters, then the touring musical production of “In the Mood” is for you. It plays 3 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Tower Theatre and features the 13-piece String of Pearls Big Band Orchestra and six singers and dancers. Songs performed include “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B),” “In The Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
I have six tickets to give away to the 3 p.m. show. (Weekday matinees are uncommon in Fresno, so note the time.) I’ll give two tickets each to the first three Beehive readers who comment on this post. (If you’d like, tell us your favorite Big Band song.) No repeat entries, please. These are paper tickets, so you’ll need to come down to The Bee’s front lobby by 2:30 p.m. Thursday to pick them up. If you’re one of the winners, I’ll contact you via email, so be sure to check yours. You can watch a promotional video for the show and read the complete rules are after the jump.
We’re conditioned to think there’s power in numbers. Consider the five senses. A person with all five is at a distinct advantage over someone who only has four, right?
Especially if the one with four is blind and sharing a confined space with an avowed killer.
But, as we slowly learn in the suspenseful stage production of “Wait Until Dark,” directed by Denise Graziani, the math doesn’t always add up so neatly.
Key to this crisply designed — and in a few choice moments, jump-in-your-seat scary — Good Company Players production is a rousing performance by Danielle Jorn as Susy, a recently blinded woman who gets caught up in desperate power struggle with a trio of hardened criminals.
The title of the 1917 play “Why Marry?” is, of course, a question. Another that might come to mind is this: How could characters from nearly 100 years ago possibly have anything relevant to say about marriage as an institution?
It turns out the answer is quite a lot, as we learn in Fresno City College’s studious and insightful production, which continues through Saturday.
Jesse Lynch Williams’ play, which won the very first Pulitzer Prize for drama, isn’t often revived these days. It doesn’t have the poetic richness or thundering humanity of a Eugene O’Neill, say, who won the Pulitzer in 1920 and 1922. There’s a formality to the language and a professorial approach to the theme — as if we’re in a classroom and we’ve just been told, “The subject is marriage, now discuss” — that makes it hard to bond emotionally with the material.
UPDATE: Welcome to readers finding my “video column” through Sunday’s Spotlight section.
ORIGINAL POST: For my upcoming Sunday column, I figured it was time to get to the bottom — heh heh, I said “bottom” — of this whole French Taunter business. If you start giggling hysterically when someone says, “Your mother is a hamster,” you’ll be right at home with my very first Beehive video interview. If not, well, you’ll likely be bewildered. But at least you get to see me look very silly as I go mano a mano with the Taunter himself, played by Tyler Branco in the Good Company Players production.
Good Company Players turns off the lights and plays the suspense card with its new production of “Wait Until Dark” at the 2nd Space Theatre. In Friday’s 7 section, I talk with Danielle Jorn, who has the plum role of a blind woman who falls into a web spun by a trio of criminals. Here’s the extended version of our interview.
Question: Briefly put, what is the plot of “Wait Until Dark”?
It follows Susy, a blind woman, who is being conned by three men that believe a doll (filled with some very expensive “contraband”) is hidden somewhere in her apartment.
How would you describe Susy, your character?
Susy is such a strong person. She hasn’t been blind her entire life. She was recently blinded in a car accident. While it has been an adjustment period for her and she does struggle with it, she hasn’t allowed it to disable her nor does she ever play the victim. She wants nothing more than to be independent and to do things on her own. In fact, you could go so far as to say she is a bit stubborn about it. She has a great sense of humor as well. I think that’s a big part of how she has gotten through losing her sight. That’s something she and I definitely have in common, we both use humor to mask any sort of struggle.
StageWorks Fresno has made its spring production date official: The Valley premiere of “I Am My Own Wife,” which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, and the Tony awards for best play and lead actor Jefferson Mays, will run April 5-14 at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium.
The one-man show features some 40 roles, all of which will be played by local theater veteran Terry Lewis. Directing is J. Daniel Herring. I’ll be excited to see a StageWorks production in the Bonner — it’s a great intimate theater space for smaller productions.
Hey. You there, audience member. I want you to listen very closely to what I’m going to say.
Your mother was a hamster.
Now let’s gauge your reaction. Did you:
1) Immediately turn to the person nearest you — whether good friend or total stranger — and without hesitation, as if by Pavlovian response, blurt out “and your father smelt of elderberries”?
2) Offer a quizzical but hearty laugh, a little lost as to the context of the line but willing to extend your comic goodwill to such an offbeat non sequitur?
3) Listen with stone-faced bewilderment, trying to grasp at anything — anything! — remotely funny about someone declaring that the woman who bore you was a Eurasian rodent with large cheek pouches and a short tail — but finding yourself unable to cough up anything but a desultory chuckle?
If you’re in the first camp, you’ll likely react to the zany and well-done new Good Company Players production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” like a starving dieter granted permission to tear into a lemon meringue pie. If you fall into the second category, I’m guessing you’ll be happy to hop aboard and raft the comic whitewaters of this very silly and engaging musical.
And if you just don’t get the whole Monty Python phenomenon — and you don’t want to get it — you might, like the famed Black Knight, rather have your limbs chopped off one by one than subject yourself to an evening featuring some of the most famous bits of the Python legacy.
1. WATCH OUT FOR FLYING COWS
On Thursday on the Beehive I told you about opening night of “Spamalot.” Well, I attended the show last night — and while my review will come early next week, let’s just say I laughed so hard during the French Taunter scene that I almost choked on my Good Company water. (And there was even a gag directed at me, which I’m not going to share so as to ruin the moment, but let’s just say I’ve never been quite so personally surprised during a performance.) Check out my cover story in Friday’s 7. Also, Bee photographer Gary Kazanjian took a bunch of great photos, which he posted in an online gallery. “Spamalot” continues at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater through March 17. [Details]
So there I was, with probably 20 other men and 680 women at the Tower Theatre, in the audience for the first performance Saturday of “Menopause the Musical.” Outnumbered? Yes. Loving every minute of the show? You bet.
I’m certainly not in the target audience for a musical that turns the song “Night Fever” into “Night Sweatin.” (One of my Facebook friends commented that I should make my attendance into a drinking game by taking a swig every time a woman on stage complained about it being too hot. Sorry, I wrote back after the show: I wouldn’t have been able to drive home.) I can’t empathize when one of the cast members sings, “My personal summer is really a bummer.” I don’t exactly connect with the song “My Thighs” (sung to the tune of “My Guy”).
But comedy is comedy. And terrific actors are terrific actors, whatever the material. I didn’t want to miss the national tour of this popular Off-Broadway show, complete with a quartet of Equity performers. I’m glad I didn’t. In terms of staging, acting, singing and design, this extremely funny production is as smooth as the satin sheets the four women complain about when experiencing night sweats. (Satin gets so cold so fast. Ugh.)
There are two shows remaining: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
To this day, I still don’t understand how a play can be written by three people. Does one focus on the plot, another flesh out the characters and the third concentrate on the one-liners? Or does one do all the writing and the other two decide what to order for take-out?
After watching three Good Company Players productions now over a period of four years from the team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, it’s obvious that whatever the process, this trio has quite the machine going. After giving us “Dearly Beloved” in 2010 and “The Dixie Swim Club” in 2011, the latest title featured from the trio at the 2nd Space Theatre is the cheery but mostly unremarkable comedy “The Red Velvet Cake War.” (It continues Thursdays-Sundays through Feb. 24.)
With its goofy cracks about backwards Texans and inoffensive sex humor, this tale of a dysfunctional family reunion gone awry is aimed solidly at an older demographic. Hemorrhoid joke? Check. Gag about eating too many beans? Double check. A witticism about crafting? Triple check. Randy senior gentleman chasing even randier senior lady? Don’t bother with the scorecard; you’ve hit the jackpot.
The result is silly and innocuous fun that tickles a certain kind of funny bone. (As a dignified older woman sitting near me opening night said at intermission, “This is so crazy!”)
There’s only one (more) night only to catch the impressive production of “Dreamgirls” at the Saroyan Theatre. Solid, soulful vocals and an upbeat energy (especially in the dynamic second act) pump up this non-Equity national tour. But the top draw for me was the fascinating and effective scenic design, which added another theatrical texture to this oft-told tale. (It plays again 7:30 tonight at the Saroyan Theatre.)
This “Dreamgirls” keeps the same time period of 1962-1975 as it tells the story of the rise to the top of the fictional Dreams, a group loosely modeled on such 1960s R&B successes as The Supremes and The Shirelles, but it updates the look and feel of the original 1981 Broadway production. Instead of using traditional backdrops and set pieces, Robin Wagner’s scenic design consists solely of a series of LED panels that rotate, glide and move up and down. Five of these screens come together to provide a top-to-bottom backdrop, while additional panels downstage closer to the audience shift from side to side, carving out the stage into smaller spaces for more intimate scenes.
The result is a bare but charged visual aesthetic that might not satisfy theater traditionalists who like to see more literal scenery. (Except for one piece of industrial-looking metal furniture, the LED panels, credited to Howard Werner, provide all the visual information other than the costumed actors.) But I think the concept works really well.
UPDATE: Congrats to our winner, Steve! Thanks for playing everyone.
ORIGINAL POST: A visually reinvented national tour of “Dreamgirls” on Tuesday will make a stop at the Saroyan Theatre for a two-performance run — and the Beehive is giving away two tickets for opening night to a lucky reader.
I interviewed Charity Angel Dawson, who plays Effie White in the tour, for my cover story in Friday’s 7 section. She says the production has an updated visual look, including the use of LED screens. She calls it an “amped-up, modernized” version.
To enter the contest for the two tickets, leave a comment on this post telling us your favorite Effie from over the years. It could be an actress from the Broadway version, a local version or the movie. (If you can’t think of anyone, that’s OK — just say Jennifer Holliday. She’s the most obvious answer.)
Deadline to enter is 2 p.m. Monday. The winner will be chosen at random and notified via e-mail, so please leave a valid address. Only one entry per person, please. You’ll be able to pick up your tickets at the Saroyan’s Will Call window.