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Authors Posts by Charles Brousse

Charles Brousse

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‘La Cage aux Folles’ a stunning treat

‘La Cage aux Folles,’ San Francisco Playhouse’s season-closing show, features a Saint-Tropez transvestite-themed cabaret as a backdrop for a story that explores family loyalty. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Playhouse.

By Charles Brousse

Every season during the 14 years that the San Francisco Playhouse has been a mainstay of quality entertainment, it has offered a special closing season summer show extended run. This time around it’s La Cage aux Folles in a production staged by Playhouse artistic director Bill English that sets a new standard for quality.

For some out-of-towners from more conservative parts of the country, a romantic comedy that features a gaggle of transvestite queens may be a hard sell, and more jaded local theatergoers may hesitate to attend out of concern that the 1983 musical by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) may be dated, or is too much of a gay polemic. To all of them I have one word of advice: Relax. This is a stunning show. Sit back and enjoy.

La Cage aux Folles (literally “the cage of crazy women”) began life as a little-known 1973 play by the French writer Jean Poiret. It was the basis for a popular 1978 Franco-Italian film, followed by further tweaks and iterations until it morphed into a full-fledged Broadway musical by the Fierstein/Herman team in 1983 that won six Tony Awards and ran for 1,761 performances over four years.

Driven by a combination of performing talent and shrewd decisions by the Playhouse’s core creative team (stage director English, music director Dave Dobrusky, choreographer Kimberly Richards, costume designer Abra Berman, scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott, lighting designer Robert Hand, sound designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker and their associates), this Playhouse version takes advantage of every opportunity for comic effect without sacrificing overall aesthetic quality. Most important of all, it preserves the script’s central moral issue, which is definitely NOT whether homosexuality or transvestism is good, but rather how do you balance family loyalties in a society that includes a variety of conflicting social norms? Seems to me, you can’t get more relevant to the contemporary world than that—and there’s great singing and dancing to savor while you’re thinking about it!

Cage’s plot revolves around the relationship between George (a sympathetic Ryan Drummond), who owns and manages the Saint-Tropez transvestite-themed cabaret that provides the musical with its title, and Albin (a flamboyant John Treacy Egan), his gay “wife” of 20 years, who stars as the drag queen Zaza in the establishment’s nightly review.

George’s 24-year-old son Jean-Michel (Nikita Burshteyn), offspring of a brief heterosexual fling, suddenly appears with his fiancé, Anne Dindon (Samantha Rose). Although he has been raised considering George and Albin to be his parents, he has now invited Anne’s super conservative mother and father to meet George and his real mother. That sets up a crisis for everyone involved. In order not to offend Anne’s parents, he asks George to pretend to be a retired diplomat, tame down the decor of their apartment and disguise the nature of his cabaret. His most controversial request is that Albin, who has helped to care for him throughout his life and loves him, be excluded. The result is pathos for Albin, ethical agony for George and high humor for the audience. I won’t go into details except to say that there is a happy ending.

Perhaps a bit too happy. My only caveat with the show is that the senior Dindons are converted to a more tolerant outlook without enough of a struggle. But, nevermind. When George bounds down the runway to introduce “Les Cagelles”—the chorus of assorted queens who perform throughout the evening—we know that we’re in for a treat. San Francisco’s summer nights may be chilly, but it’s always hot inside the Cage aux Folles.

NOW PLAYING: La Cage aux Folles runs through September 16 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.

‘The 39 Steps’ masters quick transformations

Ross Valley Players’ ‘The 39 Steps’ features a skilled director, and performers that impress with humor and character changes. Photo by Gregg Le Blanc.

By Charles Brousse

Ever since Patrick Barlow unleashed his farcical version of The 39 Steps in 2005, the show has made box offices hum at theaters large and small around the globe. In addition to delighting audiences, it has also garnered critical accolades that include Broadway Tony Awards and London’s prestigious 2007 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. No doubt a strong case can be made that The 39 Steps and Michael Frayn’s antic Noises Off  represent the gold standard of modern comic dramaturgy.

With such a glowing record, you might conclude that Barlow’s play would be an easy choice for ending Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) 2016-2017 season—a decision that is strategically important because it sets the tone for selling subscriptions for the coming year. But farce, particularly English farce, is a risky proposition. It requires a combination of skills by the performers and director that few American theaters can muster. Luckily, to a degree that is remarkable for a community theater, RVP delivers in every area.

The 39 Steps (a fictitious code phrase for British intelligence operations in the early days of World War I) began life as a 1915 spy novel by the then-popular Scottish writer John Buchan. It was one of a series of books that Buchan called “shockers” because they pushed readers to the edge of credulity by combining realism with unexpected fantasy. Gradually, as the story was retold in numerous adaptations by other writers for stage, radio and film (Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie is the most famous of these), the realistic element gave way to magic and humor, until we now have the wildly popular, played-for-laughs pastiche by Patrick Barlow that debuted in London in 2005 and then went on to acclaim on Broadway and at theaters throughout the U.S.

Unlike the modern era’s most famous spy-chaser James Bond, who revels in being an amoral sybarite, Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, is a self-sacrificing patriot (Scottish, of course), whose only wish is to serve “God and Country” when he accidentally discovers an enemy plot to expose the British Secret Service. Ross Valley Players has found the perfect actor to fill that role in lanky, clean-cut Michael Monagle. A model of gentlemanly decorum when we first meet him, he quickly morphs into an agile man on the run as he pursues a nefarious foreign spy ring, while simultaneously dodging police who mistakenly want him for a murder he didn’t commit. Robyn Grahn is utterly credible as the three attractive women (not present in Buchan’s novel) who enter his life; especially Pamela, who is as innocent in the ways of the world as he is.  

Although Richard and Pamela generate plenty of laughs when they are forced into an unwanted intimacy while trying to escape the criminals and police while handcuffed together, the show’s essential comedic drive comes from the antics of Sean Garahan and Andre Amarotico—designated in the program simply as Clown #1 and Clown #2—who open the evening with a music hall routine and then engage in a series of lightning character changes (allegedly around 150 in total) that is beyond any I’ve witnessed in my years of reviewing. As if that’s not enough, when they aren’t shifting accents, donning wigs, dresses and whatever else it takes to transform their identity, they morph into stagehands moving props and scenery.

All of this depends on exact timing and blocking, the province of RVP’s director, Adrian Elfenbaum, who also adds many creative touches to the staging.  

It may seem like hyperbole to call the result a triumph, but that’s what it is.

NOW PLAYING: The 39 Steps runs through August 20 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ a colorful comedy

Marin Shakespeare Company opens its 28th season with ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ one of the Bard’s most popular comedies. Photo by Jay Yamada.

By Charles Brousse

Hee haw! Pass the moonshine!

Each weekend through July 23, Marin Shakespeare Company (MSC) is transporting audiences on a journey to small-town Appalachia for a two-hour romp through one of the Bard’s most popular comedies, Much Ado About Nothing. It’s Shakespeare, country style—a bowl of grits seasoned with lumps of corny, thigh-slapping humor and toe-tapping musical interludes. Unless you’re a literary purist or genetically averse to an evening of wonderful theatrical entertainment performed “under the stars” in the company’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, you won’t want to miss it. Such opportunities don’t come around every day.

In their unceasing quest to find ways of freshening 16th century plays for audiences that may have become jaded by too many repetitions of the inner circle of favorites, producers have often turned to “concepts” that alter their setting and time frame, while retaining as much as possible of the original dialogue. Sadly, of the many I’ve attended, few have been successful. The Wild West Taming of the Shrew that was developed in the late 1960s at the College of Marin (COM) drama department is an exception, and now comes a similarly themed Much Ado.

Both broad comedies were originally set in southern Europe (Italy and Sicily, respectively) during the Renaissance. The colorful characters who inhabit them are timeless archetypes whose absurd antics are easily transposed across the centuries. For MSC adapter/director Robert Currier in Much Ado, it is mythical Appalachia (Pikeville, Kentucky, to be precise), home to the feuding Hatfield and McCoy clans. Currier is also helped by the fact that, as the title suggests, Shakespeare didn’t intend his comedy to be more than an entertainment. Unlike the dramas and history plays, there are no power struggles or moral dilemmas to resolve.

Currier has assembled an excellent cast to bring his vision to life. Much of the pre-opening buzz was around his casting of Dameion Brown, a “graduate” of MSC’s theater program at Solano State Prison, in the key role of Benedick. He’s the confirmed bachelor whose prickly relationship with the equally stubborn Beatrice forms Much Ado’s core. Brown excelled as the Moor in last season’s Othello, but people wondered whether someone with so little training and experience would know what to do with comedy. Within five minutes of his appearance on stage, all doubts vanished. Brown is a natural, pure and simple. I doubt that anything—comedy, drama or farce—lies beyond his range.

Elena Wright’s Beatrice is a worthy competitor as she and Brown jockey for position in what turns out to be an unusual courtship dance. Steely when it counts, meltingly romantic when events finally topple her resistance, Wright makes the transitions without skipping a beat.  

A subplot involves the on-again, off-again relationship between Hero (Nicole Apostol Bruno), daughter of Leonato (Steve Price), a wealthy property owner, and her suitor Claudio (Joshua Hollister), who has just returned from one of the frequent clan skirmishes. Both actors give it their all, but their underwritten story—which begins on a strong note—gradually fades in the shadow cast by Beatrice and Benedick until it is resurrected in the play’s final minutes.

Space limitations prevent consideration of everyone’s work, except to say that there isn’t a weak link among them. Likewise, I can only note the impact of Billie Cox’s country-western songs, especially the lament hauntingly sung by Claudio as he realizes that the serious error he has made may cost him his chance to win Hero’s affection. Jackson Currier’s rustic set and Abra Berman’s spot-on costumes greatly enhance the atmosphere.

All in all, it’s a fine evening of outdoor summer theater. One can almost taste that flavorful Kentucky moonshine!

NOW PLAYING: Much Ado About Nothing runs through July 23 in Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 890 Belle Ave., San Rafael; 415/499-4488; marinshakespeare.org.

‘Splendour’ presents problems to solve

‘Splendour,’ premiering at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, is an all-women project. Photo by David Allen.

By Charles Brousse

Back in the day, there was Rubik’s Cube. At the height of the craze, somebody gave me one and stood watching and smirking while I struggled to put the pieces together. I failed, an outcome that was repeated many times during the next year or two until I finally gave up and put it in a bag of discarded items that was delivered to Goodwill.

At first, my reaction to the repeated failures was frustration. With friends boasting of their increasing prowess, I wondered whether my IQ was so low that I was destined for failure in life. Gradually, however, it dawned on me that they might have it wrong. Why did it matter if I were able to reassemble the scrambled segments in five hours, five seconds or never? All I would have was the identical six-sided plastic cube that I started with. “Yes,” they said knowingly, “but it’s what lies between, the journey, that counts.”

Truth is, I never did buy that explanation, but the same mixture of frustration, self-doubt and skepticism flooded back as I left Aurora’s Mainstage Theatre in Berkeley, after the opening night performance of Splendour, by the British writer Abi Morgan. The play, which is having its Bay Area premiere, opens with Micheline, Morgan’s protagonist, alone in her upscale residence, miming rearranging shoes on imaginary closet shelves. She’s seemingly oblivious to the muffled sounds of streetfighting outside as she awaits the arrival of her dictator husband for an appointment with a foreign photojournalist. When the intermission-less drama ends about two hours later, she’s again alone, sitting in a window alcove, seemingly oblivious to the tumult that is now about to engulf her.

So what do we learn in those two hours that makes this particular journey worthwhile? Despite vague allusions by reviewers of past productions to “long buried secrets being revealed” and “insights into how violence affects the wives of strongmen around the world,” the information bin remains relatively empty.

Four women—the wife, her best friend, the photojournalist and the latter’s interpreter—gather in a small sitting room inside the presidential palace. Where this is taking place is never identified. (Some have suggested an Eastern European state like Ceausescu’s Romania, but that appears unlikely if the husband is named Julio.) The issues being fought over by the two sides are barely mentioned, let alone explored. There are abrupt time shifts. A constantly ringing telephone goes unanswered even though the caller might have vital information. Parts of scenes are repeated over and over, separated by battle noise and the sound of breaking glass as the interpreter drops a vase hidden under her coat. The women chit-chat about their past lives, accompanied by interior monologues spoken to the audience about their real feelings toward each other and other personal subjects. From this we glean that Genevieve, Micheline’s best friend for 35 years, has really despised her all that time, the interpreter is both unreliable and a kleptomaniac and the journalist herself is a victim of the myth that the profession demands that she stay on the job despite any danger. It’s a pretty meager harvest. Only in the final minutes is there a serious recognition of the perilous situation they are in and what to do about it.  

My point is that, from a content perspective, Splendour is essentially a complex structural puzzle that, like the Rubik’s Cube, may not be worth trying to solve. On the positive side, Aurora must be complimented for casting four accomplished female actors—Lorri Holt as Micheline, Mia Tagano as Genevieve, Denmo Ibrahim as the photojournalist and Sam Jackson as the interpreter. The addition of director Barbara Damashek makes it (on the performance side) an all-women project. Despite the script’s shortcomings, it’s one small but welcome step in addressing theater’s endemic gender disparity.

NOW PLAYING: Splendour runs through July 23 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley; 510/843-4822; auroratheatre.org.

Marin Shakespeare Company, going strong, opens 28th season

Award-winning actors Dameion Brown and Elena Wright star in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ the opening production of Marin Shakespeare Company’s 28th season. Photo by Steven Underwood.

By Charles Brousse

Within a few days of the publication of this column, Marin Shakespeare Company (MSC) will officially open its 28th season in Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre with a production of one of the Bard’s favorite comedies, Much Ado About Nothing. In a world in which theater companies devoted to Shakespeare come and go, 28 years in itself is an accomplishment, but there is much more to the story. Driven by the energy, persistence and vision of co-founders Lesley and Bob Currier—bolstered by some opportune financial good luck—MSC’s growth has been truly remarkable.

It all began in July of 1989. With the exception of graduation exercises and occasional other special events, Dominican University’s old amphitheatre had been largely unused since the Marin Shakespeare Festival, headed by John and Ann Brebner, declared bankruptcy in 1974. Fearing that the college would abandon it and aware that the Brebners weren’t interested in resuming their former roles, a group of local Shakespeare lovers had been searching for someone to head their effort to resurrect the failed festival. One lead led to another before they finally settled on Bob Currier, then the young artistic director of the Ukiah Players Theatre.

“Out of the blue I got a call asking if I was interested,” Bob says. “When I said ‘yes,’ I was invited down to Marin for an interview with Ann Brebner at her San Rafael house. At the end of the conversation, she gave me the intense look she was famous for and said, ‘I intuit that you will bring back Marin Shakespeare.’ That was it! I was hired. No mention of how I was supposed to do it.”

Lesley left UC Irvine where she was working on an M.F.A. in acting and the pair set about the task of building a company capable of producing high-quality summer shows. That first year they worked without compensation and their commitment might have ended there if Marcia Lucas, George Lucas’ former wife, hadn’t donated $10,000 to keep them afloat. Today, MSC is a substantial organization with an annual budget of more than $1 million, spread over five separate programs:

*Production: Like the Mountain Play, it began with one play a summer, performed by a mix of mostly community performers and an occasional professional (Actors’ Equity) guest actor. Gradually, as resources permitted, a second play was added, and then a third, which is today’s format. A contract with Actors’ Equity has allowed more professionals to participate, and there have been significant improvements to Forest Meadows’ infrastructure.

*Internships: Every year, a group of young apprentices is recruited to be the proverbial
“spear carriers” (aka members of the ensemble) who assist the company in many ways while getting opportunities for valuable performance experience.

*Schools: As strong believers that both students and their theater will benefit from an early exposure to Shakespeare, the Curriers have promoted an extensive network of visits to local Marin schools, as well as well as offering special subsidized performances.

*Prisons: Under the general management of Lesley Currier, this is an area in which MSC has been a pioneer. Starting with San Quentin a few years back, the program sends a director and a trained drama therapist to work with interested inmates on the production of a Shakespeare play. The program has been so successful that California prison authorities have requested that it be expanded to a half dozen other locations.

*514 Fourth Street: From every angle, these accomplishments comprise a formidable record, but possibly the biggest challenge lies just ahead. After receiving $1 million from an anonymous donor in 2013 for improvements to Forest Meadows, that same donor came through with another $2 million in 2015 that allowed the company to purchase the old Heller’s Baby World building at the east end of San Rafael’s Fourth Street. Completion of a year-round combination community performance and training center (plus offices) will require a capital campaign and a myriad of planning approvals. The timetable is three-to-five years to full operation.

Can MSC pull it all off? I’ll be following the progress. One thing is certain, however: I wouldn’t bet against the Curriers.

‘The Legend of Georgia McBride’ wildly entertaining

Marin Theatre Company’s amusing ‘The Legend of Georgia McBride’ is anything but a drag. Photo by Kevin Berne.

By Charles Brousse

Are you among those who find watching drag queens do their thing on stage exciting? Are you attracted by the thought of observing the graphic details of how men transform themselves into caricatures of women with wigs, costumes, makeup and figure-altering “enhancements?” Does the quality of the script and performances matter less than the performers’ ability to connect with their audience and deliver an entertaining show?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, you should consider attending Marin Theatre Company’s (MTC) Bay Area premiere of Matthew Lopez’ The Legend of Georgia McBride, the final production (through July 9) of its 2016-2017 season. If you answered “yes” to all three, get on the telephone or internet NOW and make your reservations. This show is for you!

Lopez’ previous connection with MTC was the well-received 2013 production of The Whipping Man, an intense drama set in Richmond, Virginia near the end of America’s Civil War. A pair of liberated black slaves risk their lives caring for the seriously wounded Confederate son of their former owner. The setting, style and overall “feel” of  this earlier work are so completely different from what we encounter in Legend, that it’s hard to imagine that they are by the same author.

We’re now in present-day Panama City, a backwater town on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Adam Magill is Casey, a sweet-tempered, personable young Elvis impersonator at Cleo’s, a rundown nightclub. His passion for the “The King” blinds him to the obvious fact that his audiences have been drastically shrinking, compelling Eddie (John R. Lewis), the club’s flamboyant owner, to conclude that a change of format is needed. For Casey, the timing couldn’t be worse. Lacking the rent money for their apartment, he and his anxious wife Jo (Tatiana Wechsler) may soon be homeless, a prospect that takes on greater gravity when she announces that she’s pregnant.

Then, suddenly, fortune intervenes. The drag queen act of Rexy (Jason Kapoor) and Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) is barely in place and beginning to draw crowds to the club when Rexy’s drinking problem forces him to leave the show. A desperate Eddie asks Casey to fill in “temporarily,” but is initially rebuffed. Aware that his financial situation is deteriorating daily, however, the latter decides to give it a try without telling Jo, whose strict moral code might be an obstacle. Miss Tracy takes him (and us) on a crash course through the basics: How to dress, the use of overstuffed bras, hip pads, wigs and heavy makeup and, most importantly, how to lip-sync and “sell” the songs by well-known performers (Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Lady Gaga and others) that are the core of their show. Casey’s a fast learner and, as the duo’s popularity grows, he realizes that he doesn’t have to be gay to be a drag queen—it’s simply a role that he can play successfully and be handsomely rewarded for it. Gone are the days of poverty and insecurity for him, Jo and their baby—a resolution that Jo, despite her doubts, ultimately embraces.

By the end of two intermission-less hours, it’s “feel good time:” Everything is neatly tied up and the audience is ready to cheer, loud and long. No matter that the script is weighed down with clichés, or that much of the plot strains credulity.

This is not a work of theatrical art that should be judged as such. Nor does it make a convincing case for the social or moral value of informing the public about the life of drag queens and their contribution to the American cultural scene. The Legend of Georgia McBride is entertainment—a “show,” pure and simple. As such, it depends upon the ability of the performers and director Kent Gash to persuade ticket-buyers to overlook the author’s inadequacies and decide that their efforts—irrespective of any shortcomings that they also might have—are worth watching.

Go and judge for yourself.

NOW PLAYING: The Legend of Georgia McBride runs through July 9 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.

Women of ‘The Roommate’ overcome challenges in script

‘The Roommate,’ currently in its Bay Area premiere run at the San Francisco Playhouse, is the story of two women in their 50s living together. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Playhouse.

By Charles Brousse

Strictly from a performance standpoint, a two-character play may be one of the most difficult forms of live theater to pull off successfully. Solo performers rely only on their own talent—either they’re up to the task, or they aren’t. Multi-character plays are a team effort, in which weakness in one place can be balanced by strength in another. But “two-handers” (as they’re called by people in the industry) depend on actors having exactly the right balance, especially when the script has some kinks in it that need to be overcome.

That’s the situation facing Susi Damilano and Julia Brothers in Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, which is currently in its Bay Area premiere run (through July 1) at the San Francisco Playhouse. Luckily for director Becca Wolff and the Playhouse, this is a match made in … well, I’ll leave the place up to you, but it isn’t anywhere warmed by fire and brimstone. Watching them, I can’t imagine a more effective casting; their brilliant response to the challenges that Silverman’s script poses almost (and I emphasize that word) makes one forget that there are problems waiting to be solved.

Damilano is “Sharon,” a fluttery, thoroughly conventional 54-year-old divorcee living in Iowa City. She suffers from “empty nest” syndrome brought on by a failed marriage and the refusal of her grown son, now living in Brooklyn, New York, to allow her to interfere in his life. (Although the play doesn’t specify it, Silverman has her sounding like a stereotypical Jewish mother.) Deciding that keeping a neat house and staying alert by attending regular meetings of a book club isn’t enough, she advertises for a boarder with the hope that having another person to talk to will make her loneliness easier to bear. Thus begins a chain of events that will have important consequences for both her and the new arrival.

Brothers’ character, “Robyn,” is the exact opposite. She’s a refugee from the Bronx: Tall, lanky, and given to ironic observations, she is, in dress and demeanor, the very image of post-hippie cool. When Sharon presses her about her background, she provides cryptic responses. Her reason for moving to the Midwest? To escape the stress she felt in New York and get a fresh start.

Instead of rejecting her, as might be expected, Sharon welcomes Robyn as a roommate and the fun begins. Act I feels like a knockoff of The Odd Couple formula.   

Robyn’s a vegetarian, which Sharon doesn’t understand. She’s a smoker, which Sharon won’t accept. Sharon worries that her son may be dating a lesbian, which Robyn thinks is just fine. Sharon also worries that he doesn’t love her anymore, which Robyn replies is par for the course. “Children,” she says, “don’t have to like us. They only have to survive long enough to be like us.”

It’s mostly lighthearted banter that elicits plenty of laughs, but underneath there’s a gathering tension as Robyn reveals more and more about herself and her past life. She’s gay. She makes “voodoo dolls” that she carries around in a suitcase. She loves Patti Smith. In New York, she was a con artist who telephoned old people and talked them into sending her their savings. She likes to grow and sell pot. She did (in her words) “a little bit of auto theft” when she was particularly hard up.

I’d say it’s not the best resume for a roommate, but instead of alarm, Act II finds Sharon engaging in a complete exchange of roles. Out with The Odd Couple and in with Breaking Bad. Defying Robyn’s attempts to restrain her newly awakened enthusiasm, this formerly straight-laced divorced housewife seeks to emulate and even outdo her boarder’s petty crimes, drug use and sexual libertinage—all (she claims) in the interest of achieving a transformative “liberation.” If that sounds pretty unconvincing, there is a surprise ending in which the author partially redeems herself and these two very fine actors work hard to keep the boat afloat. Long after the play is forgotten, we’ll remember their performances.

NOW PLAYING: The Roommate runs through July 1 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, 2nd floor, San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.

Energetic ‘Monsoon Wedding’ keeps spirits high

Film director Mira Nair’s ‘Monsoon Wedding,’ the story of an arranged marriage in India, is full of drama, love and laughs. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

By Charles Brousse

Anyone who has ever seen a Bollywood movie will know what to expect from Monsoon Wedding, a staged musical version of the eponymous 2001 film that is currently receiving its official world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BRT) prior to a planned Broadway run. The details of the latter have not yet been released, but the enthusiastic reception (standing ovations and a pair of box office-driven extensions that have moved the closing date to July 9) should make it easier to raise the funds required for the transfer.

Despite the warm popular response here and to workshops around the country, however, the future for Monsoon Wedding is not entirely clear sailing. A perusal of reviews reveals that a sizable number of critics have had reservations about the musical’s chances for success in the “Big Apple.”

So, who’s right: The ordinary ticket-buyers who seem to like what they see, or reviewers who claim that this highly admired emperor has no clothes?

First, a bit of background. Bollywood combines two movie-making centers—Mumbai, India (formerly Bombay) and Hollywood—that have wide influence in their respective countries. While they play to different audiences, one inescapable characteristic that links them is a dedication to turning out films with the widest possible audience appeal, irrespective of artistic merit. For Hollywood, that means action movies, trendy stars and graphic sex. For Bollywood, the formula is usually a simple boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, but they-eventually-find-each-other storyline that weaves its way through up-tempo scenes that feature lavish sets and colorfully costumed actors singing and dancing their hearts out.

Monsoon adheres to this basic structure, with some extra issues added to give it a semblance of topicality and intellectual heft. Lalit Verma (Jaaved Jaaferi) and his wife Pimmi (Mahira Kakkar) are upper-middle-class Indian parents who are anxious to blend old and new by arranging the marriage of their daughter Aditi (Kuhoo Verma) to satisfy tradition, but selecting Hemant Rai (Michael Maliakel), who lives in Texas, as the groom. Following tradition, the nuptials will be celebrated with a four-day party that will bring relatives and friends from around the world to New Delhi just before the annual monsoon rains begin.

Unfortunately for them, however, Aditi has other ideas. She’s been having an affair with Vikram (Ali Momen), her married boss, and isn’t about to be told that she must marry a complete stranger. Pressured by her parents and beginning to be drawn to Hemant despite her initial resistance, she tries to find out what Vikram’s intentions are; when he continues to be evasive, she realizes that they have no future together. Not wanting to begin marriage under a cloud of deceit, she informs Hemant about the affair. Outraged, he is determined to cancel the ceremony, but at the last minute …

Well, even if you haven’t seen the film, you can guess the rest. It’s all part of a Bollywood formula that requires that the audience leave the theater in high spirits after witnessing a whirlwind finale. This should come as no surprise, since the core creative team of director Mira Nair, Sabrina Dhawan (book), Susan Birkenhead (lyrics) and Vishal Bhardwaj (composer) is well-versed in the genre. (The sole exception is veteran choreographer Lorin Latarro, who has a long list of stage credits.) In this case, Monsoon’s ending is an explosion of energy, as spectators are drawn into a happy resolution of not one, but two troubled relationship struggles.

The main reservation about Monsoon is that there isn’t much beneath all of the froth. Even the substantive “extras” previously referred to—things like the partition of India and Pakistan, the charges of child abuse leveled at Adita’s Uncle Tej (Alok Tewari) and the generational clash of cultural values—have no lasting impact. But does it really matter? The show is a splendid spectacle that leaves people feeling good about the world, if only temporarily. Seems to me that even cynical New Yorkers can benefit from that.

NOW PLAYING: Monsoon Wedding runs through July 9 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley; 510/647-2949; berkeleyrep.org.

‘Private Lives’ is entertaining—at first

‘Private Lives’ is the story of a once-married couple that finds themselves honeymooning with new partners at the same hotel. Photo by Robin Jackson.

By Charles Brousse

“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives … Elyot and I were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.”

That’s how the just re-married Amanda Prynne explains the divorce from her previous husband to new spouse Victor in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which is currently occupying the stage at the Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) Barn Theatre. With its theme of the familiar pitfalls in marriage and accompanying witty repartee, it might seem a natural choice for a community theater like RVP. In fact, the opposite is true.

A bit of digging into the critics’ response to the 1930 London premiere reveals that while the play—which incidentally had an all-star cast that included Coward himself, Adrianne Allen, Gertrude Lawrence and the young Laurence Olivier in principal roles—was considered amusing, but as a distinctly English comedy of manners it would stand or fall on the ability of future productions to capture its special flavor. That’s a tall order for 21st century American performers, who are not skilled in this kind of droll humor, with its understated irony and sarcasm; Americans tend to plunge ahead full tilt. “Clear the deck and let ’er rip!” For better or worse, subtlety is not a value on these shores.

That being so, the bar for RVP was set pretty high, and although director Ken Rowland and his cast give it the old college try, they can’t clear it. The result is that while the first act is reasonably entertaining, the second act’s repetitious marital conflicts begin to feel like watching  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf twice in one sitting. Whatever comedy there was dissolves into tedium.

Coward reputedly wrote Private Lives in four days while recovering from influenza in a Shanghai hotel during a China tour. Literary critics differ as to the author’s intent. Some say that he wanted to write a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, a good friend and the London stage’s leading actress. Others say that he was in a nasty mood because of the illness. Still others maintain that the play is a typical homosexual dig at heterosexual marriage as an institution.

Its plot can be quickly summarized. Newlyweds Sibyl (Laura Morgan) and Elyot (Gregory Crane) have chosen a seaside Deauville hotel for their honeymoon. This is a second marriage for both, the first having ended some years before, and already there are cracks in the relationship caused by Sibyl’s inability to repress her curiosity about her new husband’s past. Coincidentally, Amanda (LeAnne Rumble), Elyot’s ex, and Victor (Simon Patton), also just married, arrive on their honeymoon and are assigned a suite with an adjacent balcony (nicely conceived to capture the oceanfront ambience by set designer Ken Rowland). They, too, are having their problems as Victor annoys his bride with unending questions about her previous marriage.

When Amanda and Elyot discover their unexpected proximity to former spouses, a romantic flame is rekindled and they resolve to run off together to Amanda’s Paris flat. Almost immediately, the old pattern of quarrel and makeup ad infinitum begins again, echoed by Sibyl and Victor when they appear after tracking the fugitives down. Watching the latter couple bicker reminds the original two that the future will be stormy, but having concluded that although they can’t live with each other, they also can’t live without each other, and they tiptoe quietly away.

This “resolution”—if it can be called that—is certainly not an optimistic view of relationships that are clearly dysfunctional. But, when performed by actors who are skilled at English comedy, it can be very funny. The fact that RVP’s cast lacks that capacity is not their fault—few American actors do. It does, however, suggest that producers should be wary of scheduling such material unless they are assured the needed talent is available. Take this innocuous exchange between Amanda and Elyot:

Amanda: “Have you ever crossed the Sahara on a camel?”

Elyot: “Frequently. When I was a boy, we used to do it all the time. My grandmother had a lovely seat on a camel.”

Amanda: “There’s no doubt about it, foreign travel’s the thing.”

It’s all nonsense, of course, but (if delivered with just the right inflection) it’s such lovely nonsense!

NOW PLAYING: Private Lives runs through June 18 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.

Mountain Play presents a gripping ‘Beauty and the Beast’

‘Beauty and the Beast,’ this year’s Mountain Play atop picturesque Mt. Tamalpais, excels in every area by which annual productions are measured. Photo by McNally and Company Photography.

By Charles Brousse

Right away the omens were encouraging. After a short walk through the forest, my little party of four that included a visitor from rural Pennsylvania emerged into the sunlit bowl of Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre on Mt. Tam. (Yes, it’s true—we press people, performers, staff and other VIP types associated with the show are allowed to park in a nearby unpaved, dusty, abandoned quarry, while others have to find spots along the road, use one of the nice, clean, free buses from Mill Valley or hike up a trail with a spectacular view that begins thousands of feet below. Lucky us.)

As I was saying … we emerged from the forest and there it was: The curving rows of stones painstakingly put in place in the ’30s during the Great Depression by workers whose object was to recreate the atmosphere of the famous amphitheatres of ancient Greece and Rome. Beyond the imposing set (scenic design by Andrea Bechert, construction by technical director Ken Rowland and his crew and painting by scenic artist Dhyanis Carniglia) was the vast Bay Area vista that has attracted people to this spot each spring for 114 years of community celebrations. The sound clarity of the pre-show singing group of young performers indicated that there would be no problems in that department. The weather was warm, but not too warm, and for those super-sensitive to heat, an overhead hose above much of the seating area sprayed a fine cloud of cooling mist.  

A colorfully dressed crowd was assembling. Among them were many family groups whose members ranged from the most senior of seniors to the tiniest newcomers. Lunch baskets were everywhere. Finally, the preliminaries (which included a costume contest won by the only entrant, a vivacious little girl named Ruby, were over.) You could feel the anticipation building.

Frankly, I don’t see how anyone could have been disappointed by the main event. In my opinion, this year’s production, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, is one of the best Mountain Plays I have seen since I first started trekking up the mountain in the late ’70s. It excels in every area by which these annual productions are measured: A gripping story that will hold the attention of old and young, even if they have to sit on those very hard rocks for a couple of hours; a beautiful production that propels this classic French fairy tale into vivid life; and, finally, a heartwarming message that there is light as well as darkness in our conflict-ridden world.

To be honest, I hadn’t expected such copious rewards. My experience since former producer par excellence Marilyn Smith shifted the format from an amateur, locally generated, Mill Valley-centered community celebration to high quality, semi-professional presentations of Broadway’s most popular musicals that attracted viewers from all over the Bay Area and beyond, was that shows with expansive settings—Oklahoma, South Pacific, The Sound of Music and the like—were likely to be the most successful in a rustic, open-air stadium with a huge playing area. I didn’t think that Beauty’s intimate love story fit the bill.

As it turns out, I was wrong. The romantic core that traces how group prejudice and unjustified feelings of guilt can be overcome by requited love remains in place, but director Jay Manley and choreographer Nicole Helfer—ably assisted by costumer Michelle Navarre-Huff—and the sheer size of the cast, add an unexpected sense of spectacle. Of course, it helps enormously that the leading characters are so strong. Belle, the village beauty who is considered strange because she loves to read, is played with just the right combination of feistiness and compassion by Chelsea Holifield. Jeff Wiesen is Gaston, her bumbling, testosterone-driven suitor.

The Beast (a former prince who is less beastly than he appears) is given a sympathetic interpretation by Daniel Barrington Rubio. Surrounding him in his castle is a group of followers who are subject to the same spell that the prince fell under when, long ago, he refused to help an old woman who was in dire need of assistance. I don’t have the space to name them here, but their hilarious antics are among the show’s highlights. The corps de ballet is stunning, and a 22-piece orchestra, conducted by David Möschler, holds the whole enterprise together.

With its Disney ties, this is a sentimentalized version of the original fairy tale, but the musical’s message of the need for tolerance and good comes through loud and clear. Can’t argue with that!

NOW PLAYING: Beauty and the Beast runs at 2pm on Sundays through June 18, at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mt. Tamalpais State Park; 415/383-1100; mountainplay.org.

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