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David Templeton

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Brick-and-mortar medical cannabis dispensaries shot down in Marin County

When it comes to legal, walk-in medical cannabis dispensaries in Marin County, residents are out of luck.

By David Templeton

Ten applications. Ten rejections.

Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel has, after considering all sides of the matter, soundly rejected each and every applicant vying to establish a legal medical cannabis dispensary anywhere between the Golden Gate Bridge and the southern wilds of Petaluma. Each applicant put forward their best business plan, model of operation, mission statement, and qualifications.

His answer was, “No.”

And No.

No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

And … wait! Let us think about it.

No.

For those too high to count, that was 10 ‘No’s.

Based on Hymel’s decision, one might be justified in presuming that marijuana—medicinal, recreational and otherwise—has not just been voted by a record number of poll-goers and officially made legal in the State of California. But it has. Last November, 86.8 percent of registered voters in Marin County cast ballots, and 57.13 percent of those voters said yes to Proposition 64.

Yes to legalizing marijuana for any-and-all purposes to anyone over 21 years of age.

Of course, a hefty 42.8 percent of Marin voters said no.

And a good number of them do not want cannabis dispensaries—legal or otherwise—anywhere near their houses, schools, businesses, hospitals, gas stations, farms, produce stands, outhouses, or churches.

Those opponents have been very, very vocal. And what they said—at public forums and in letters to editors—was “No.”

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

And, for the time being, apparently, Hymel has elected to say the same thing.

“After reviewing 10 vendor and site locations, the County Administrator has not approved any of the applications, and has recommended a revised approach to licensing medical cannabis dispensaries in unincorporated areas.”

On Monday, April 10, the Marin County Community Development Agency—in an announcement on the Medical Cannabis page of Marin’s official government website—employed those exact, carefully selected words to put an end to any over-optimistic, post-election expectations that medical marijuana would quickly be available in Marin, or that safe and accessible cannabis dispensaries would soon be open for business within a short driving distance of Mount Tamalpais. And so, for the 10 applicants seeking permission to open brick-and-mortar dispensaries somewhere between the Golden Gate Bridge and Santa Rosa, it’s back to the drawing board.

And for those Marin County residents—rich and poor, young and old, slightly sick and seriously ill—the ones who’ve been prescribed cannabis for chronic pain related to cancer, arthritis and glaucoma, or to reduce muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, or to reduce nausea and loss of appetite resulting from chemotherapy, or just to feel better as their bodies shut down in the final days of their life, it’s back to Sonoma County, where a number of authorized dispensaries are currently serving their clients—and simultaneously contributing to Sonoma County’s tax base through employment opportunities and other advantages.

According to the announcement, Hymel is now recommending that the Marin County Board of Supervisors consider a “revised ordinance,” one that might separate the “selection of the operator” from “that of the location,” and also that the board take a look at what he’s calling “a delivery-only dispensary model.”

If this statement gives rise to visions of cannabis ice cream trucks roaming the streets of San Rafael playing the theme song from Cheech and Chong’s movie Up in Smoke, Marin County Planner Inge Lundegaard, program manager of the county’s medical cannabis program, is quick to say that’s not at all what is being suggested.

“Matthew Hymel has made a recommendation to look at a ‘delivery only’ system,” confirms Lundegaard, “but he’s not saying it would be a true mobile delivery, where the dispensary is in a mobile unit of some sort. The model he’s suggesting is more of a mail-order delivery system. Right now, with the state regulations as they stand, ‘brick-and-mortar’ dispensaries—where clients visit to pick up their medicine—would not be the system we’d have in Marin. The only license type that would be granted here are those that serve their medical cannabis clients remotely.

“That’s the initial concept,” she says.

Asked if such businesses would still have a brick-and-mortar home base, from which the orders would be processed and mailed out, Lundegaard says various options are being considered.

“We’re going to investigate all variations of the suggested policy,” she says. “It might not necessarily be a brick-and-mortar space. Other types of sites might be available. But for right now, what we’re going to be doing is taking a look at how a conditional delivery-only dispensary might work.

“So far,” she adds, “our initial investigations suggest there are different definitions of what a workable dispensary might be. Our concerns are finding a solution that offers a reduction of community impact, in terms of traffic, and other problems people have expressed concern about. And of course, safe product is a priority for the county as well.”

Of the 10 applications denied by Hymel, four would have had customer-access sites in Mill Valley, along Shoreline Highway, one would have been located on San Pablo Avenue in San Rafael, three were planned for the Black Point area along Harbor Drive in Novato, one would have been in the San Geronimo Valley area and another in Marshall.

Despite the relatively remote locations, many residents expressed concerns about having such a business within close proximity to town. Such opinions were heard by the county at three public meetings that took place last winter, organized and overseen by the county’s Community Development Agency. The dispensaries under consideration were strictly medicinal cannabis operations. Though recreational marijuana was technically approved via last November’s Proposition 64, Marin County’s Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance in February banning recreational pot businesses in unincorporated areas of Marin.

Federal law, of course, continues to prohibit all uses of cannabis.

That said, the state of California has historically shown a certain amount of guarded tolerance for pot use as medicine. Over 20 years ago, in 1996, Proposition 215 was passed, allowing limited possession of cannabis for seriously ill patients and their caregivers, with the written recommendation of a physician.

So medical pot is nothing new to Marin.

And yet the county continues to wrestle with how to make it work in ways that balance the concerns of the population with the needs of those who use cannabis to treat their illnesses—and those who believe locally headquartered businesses would be a benefit to those clients.

“Local access would be a definite benefit to patients,” Lundegaard allows, adding that it’s a complicated issue and must be approached extremely carefully. In regards to Hymel’s new focus on separating the applications of medical cannabis providers from their brick-and-mortar plans, what Lundegaard describes is something of a two-step process.

“We are looking at decoupling the location process,” she says. “First, we will focus on the actual business plan and business model of the applicant. We would select applicants that we feel are strong. Then they would work toward establishing a site, and they would go through the licensing of that site.”

By decoupling the site from the provider, she suggests, a delivery-only model could be the first step in giving authentic patients access to the medicine they have been prescribed.

Such business models, however, could possibly require the expansion of certain zoning definitions. Of the reoriented focus on delivery-only businesses, says Lundegaard, “It will give the opportunity for all interested applicants to apply. Previously, some qualified potential applicants did not apply because they couldn’t acquire a site. This will level the playing field, because we would select them based on certain criteria, not based on whether or not their brick-and-mortar location was acceptable.”

More public workshops, predictably, will be part of the process. As to when any of this will take place, Lundegaard cannot say.

“We really have no idea when this is going to happen,” she says. “For now, we’ll primarily be looking at our next steps. We’ll definitely schedule more workshops, and be talking to the public about their thoughts and concerns. “Then we’ll see.”

Poet Prartho Sereno on kindness, humanity and ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is the story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, a Polish couple who hid Jews in their Warsaw Zoo during WWII.

By David Templeton

“The film has a very poetic heartbeat, perhaps because it’s based on a book written by a poet,” observes Prartho Sereno, sipping a cup of coffee this rainy Saturday, while discussing The Zookeeper’s Wife, a new film based on the bestselling book of the same name. “It’s funny, I know, but different poems kept coming to me, popping into my head, all the time I was watching the film.”

“Actually,” I suggest, silently acknowledging that Sereno herself is an award-winning poet, “that’s not really that surprising.”

An acclaimed teacher and author, Sereno is a regular participant in the California Poets-in-the-Schools program. She just completed a two-year term as Marin County Poet Laureate, and only just passed the honorary title to 2017-2018 Poet Laureate Rebecca Foust. Sereno’s books include Elephant Raga, winner of the 2014 Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry, plus Call From Paris, Everyday Miracles, Garden Sutra and Causing a Stir, the latter a series of poems exploring “the secret lives and loves” of kitchen utensils.

The Zookeeper’s Wife, the book, is, in fact, the work of a poet: Naturalist and author Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, One Hundred Names for Love). The book, and the movie version—directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider)—tells the true-life story of Warsaw zookeepers Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh), who risked their lives during WWII following the Nazi invasion of Poland, by using their zoo to secretly smuggle Jews from the ghetto to safety. Antonina’s profound empathy for animals and humans alike drives much of the action. And for a tale in which bombs drop from the sky and death comes suddenly, it’s amazing how quiet the whole enterprise is.

“There was this one line, from a Mary Oliver poem, that I kept thinking of during the movie,” says Sereno, searching her mind for the line, and quickly finding it. “‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,’” she recites. “‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’ That’s from Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese,’ a beautiful poem.”

Sereno says that she thinks the poem coming to mind had something to do with the deep primal innocence of animals. “That was particularly powerful in the scene where Warsaw is being bombed, and the animals in the zoo all respond to it in their own natural way,” she says.

“That was terrifying,” I agree. “There’s something about seeing war through the eyes of children, or in this case, of animals, that gets us to see it afresh.”

Sereno notes a tearful scene in which Antonina helps birth a baby elephant. “There was so much beauty in that moment,” Sereno says. “Her connection to all the animals was quite powerful, wasn’t it? It felt like the perfect comment on what’s going on right now in the world, all these questions we’re asking about what it means to be human, and what our responsibilities are to take care of each other. But to explore all of that through this woman’s love of animals, that was extraordinary. I think Antonina exemplifies the highest possibility of what humans are capable of, while also showing us the worst possibilities of what humans are capable of—the Nazis and the ghetto and the trains to the concentrations camps.”

“In a way, it was a very moral movie, without ever being preachy,” I suggest. “It worked on a very emotional level.”

“I heard a scientist once, this utter intellectual, who was asked what it was he thought that could save the planet from destruction,” Sereno says, “and his answer was, ‘The sensation of awe. That’s the only thing that can save us.’ I get chills just thinking about that.

“There’s so much awe in this film,” she continues. “I really do feel that it’s … in a state of connection with other beings, animals and people, children and adults, strangers and family, that we all can rise. That’s our destiny, I believe, to really become caretakers of this planet, and of each other. And we can do that, if we can allow ourselves to experience that transformative state of wonder.”

“There’s so much destruction and violence in this world, though,” I counter. “Can we ever really give that up, as a species?”

“Yes,” Sereno says. “I think the urge to destroy comes when our impulse to create and connect is frustrated. If that impulse is encouraged, rather than suppressed, then I think healing and connecting and creating is our natural tendency.”

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United Patients Group helps untangle the web of misinformation about cannabis

The cannabis industry in California is evolving, but some organizations, like Marin-based United Patients Group, are taking the lead on making information about medical cannabis more accessible to people.

By David Templeton

“Pharmacists like to meet at 6am,” says Corinne Malanca. “I don’t know why.”

Malanca, co-founder of Marin County’s United Patients Group, is calling early on a Sunday. She is at the tail end of the March 24-27 weekend American Pharmacists Association Annual Meeting & Exposition at Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. She’s been speaking, meeting with attendees and talking with the early-rising pharmacists as part of her effort to get the word out about the true medical value of cannabis and cannabis-derived products.

Six years ago, when Malanca and her husband John first founded the nonprofit educational organization—inspired by their own experiences finding credible cannabis information after Corinne’s father was diagnosed with a fatal illness—the idea that they would someday be addressing a national assembly of pharmacists was barely fathomable. In May, they’ll be in Washington, D.C. hosting a “wine day” event, where they’ll be explaining cannabis science to legislators and their staff.

“Clearly,” Malanca says, “the days when people didn’t want to hear anything about cannabis as medicine are long gone. But not entirely gone. There is still lots of work to do. But new opportunities are presenting themselves all the time.”

Case in point: Earlier this month, the Malancas conducted a day-long educational course at Sonoma State University (SSU). The workshop was titled “Medical Cannabis: a Clinical Focus,” and was led by registered nurse Eloise Theisen and Dr. Donald Land, a chemistry professor at UC Davis, and Chief Scientific Consultant at Steep Hill Labs, Inc., a cannabis science and technology company. The course is part of SSU’s commitment to educating professionals for the emerging medical cannabis workforce in California.

The workshop, heavy with medical detail and discussions of “the endocannabinoid system,” attracted nearly 100 people—primarily health care professionals, and a number of workers from a cannabis dispensary in the city of Shasta Lake. One of the day’s most interesting moments came during a Q&A session, when several of the dispensary workers expressed a need for better communication between doctors and dispensaries. Anecdotes were shared that related to clients visiting a dispensary with a vague prescription from their doctor, but no clear direction on which type of product, strain or ‘terpene”—used in the medical marijuana business to indicate different types of marijuana, with different effects and uses—they would best benefit from.

Clearly, better communication is needed between clients, doctors, nurses and those who dispense medical marijuana. This morning, as Malanca moves from one conference event to another—taking the conversation onto the elevator at one point—she answers a few questions for the Pacific Sun about that very issue.

David Templeton: According to the dispensary workers present at the SSU conference, if a prescribing doctor doesn’t know what specific strains or “terpenes” to recommend, harm could be done by a client making wild guesses and trying something with negative side-effects for their particular illness—like trying a product that increases anxiety, when cannabis has been prescribed to treat that anxiety. But [dispensaries] say that there is little they can do because they are not legally allowed to prescribe. Is this the situation as you see it?

Corinne Malanca: Well, there’s actually quite a bit that dispensaries can do. But I have to tell you—that was the first group of dispensary staff workers that has ever chosen to attend one of our conferences. We’ve been doing this for six years, and whenever we bring a workshop to a particular area, we always market our workshops to dispensaries. Because there is a lot they can do, legally, without having to prescribe anything. In six years of doing this, our medical team tends not to refer anyone to medical dispensaries, because they have been choosing not to attend our educational seminars. But there is a lot they can do, without prescribing, that will create much more safety around the communication they have with clients.

For example, if someone comes in and says, ‘I have chronic pain. What can I take for pain?’ The staffer might say, ‘Oh, well, you can take this, this, this or this.’ But if they don’t ask the client if they take opiates, or other medications, there could be a problem. That’s not prescribing, that’s educating. Knowing that cannabis magnifies opiates four-to-seven times its original magnitude, that’s very important. They need that information so they don’t spend time talking about products that aren’t really right for that client.

Templeton: That seems to be the very point those particular staffers were bringing up. Are you saying that some dispensaries are better informed about the products they provide than others?

Malanca: Well, yes. In our experience, a lot of dispensaries have chosen not to get the vital cannabis education that we offer. We’ve invited local groups over and ever, and usually, they never show up. So we were thrilled when that group from Shasta called and signed up.

If a client comes into a dispensary, and says they have cancer, well, as you heard at the seminar, cannabis is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. It depends a lot on the medical history. Dispensaries should be referring gravely ill and chronically ill people to someone like our medical team. They should not be guessing.

On the other side, a lot of times, a new patient at a dispensary gets a ‘new patient freebie’—as they call it—which is usually an edible of some sort. A cookie, a brownie, a cupcake. But does that patient have diabetes? Does that patient have cancer? Cancer patients shouldn’t be eating sugar. They should not be freely dispensing these things without having a lot of education. And it sounds like the Shasta group does have that information, or some of it, and is doing the responsible thing and getting more.

Templeton: So they can better answer a client’s questions?

Malanca: Yes. And so they can know what questions to ask, themselves. We were thrilled that that group from Shasta came.

Templeton: It was interesting that the perspective that they were representing was that it was the prescribers—the doctors writing the prescriptions for cannabis and sending them to a dispensary—that are most in need of education. That the dispensaries are the ones on the front lines, trying to take care of their clients, but doctors are undereducated on how to counsel a patient as to what kind of cannabis they should be using.

Malanca: I totally agree that better education for all health professionals, and better communication, is exactly what’s needed right now. My personal opinion is that, if a client who is gravely ill comes into a dispensary, and has come with a recommendation from a medical professional about which formula and dosing to use, there should be a specific place to go—other than a cannabis dispensary intended for the general population—where they can get very specific medical advice.

But yes, communication is key.

Templeton: In a place like Marin, where there are no brick-and-mortar dispensaries at the moment, what options are there for people who have a clear prescription from a doctor, and have been given solid advice from a medical professional?

Malanca: Well, there are reputable mail-order services within California. Organizations you join, under the right circumstances, and they provide you with the exact items, the formulation and potency and dosage that your doctor or medical professional recommends. That’s what we recommend. The medicine is sent directly to their house, so they don’t have to go anywhere.

Templeton: From hearing your story, we know you had to learn a lot, very quickly, when you were trying to determine how best to take care of your father, who was failing, unable to eat and wasting away. And no one had the information readily available.

Malanca: It was mind-boggling! On the flip-side, it was awe-inspiring, and I might even say addicting. [Laughs] Can I use that word? There was so much to discover. We became ravenous for any new information that became available. Yes, we’ve been buried in it, and working six or seven days a week ever since.

Templeton: So what do you think needs to happen now, in order to get reliable information out to the public?

Malanca: It’s got to be a grassroots thing. But it’s important—it’s a life-or-death matter, actually—that the grave and chronically ill, people who don’t have a lot of time, don’t get caught up in this tangled web of misinformation and fear that’s out there.

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people out there who don’t WANT the information. They have an aversion to this industry, and they just don’t want to know.

And people are suffering because of it.

Learn more about United Patients Group at unitedpatientsgroup.com.

Stage director Jay Manley on the importance of ‘Beauty and the Beast’

'Beauty and the Beast' a live-action adaptation
Disney’s new ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a live-action adaptation of the Oscar-nominated 1991 animated classic.

By David Templeton

As the Sunday afternoon sun reaches into the lobby of the movie theater, a stray shaft of light briefly illuminates a massive cardboard display propped up against the wall. It vividly depicts actress Emma Watson—who briefly glows in the sunlight—posed alongside an array of gesticulating clocks, candelabras, teapots and feather dusters, plus an enormous, forlornly scowling horned monster.

“I thought it was a very successful film, overall, and quite charming,” says Berkeley-based stage director Jay Manley. “But in many ways, I still think the stage version is better.”

We’ve just caught an early matinee of the immensely popular new film, a live-action adaptation of the Oscar-nominated 1991 animated classic. That film, as Manley mentions, was turned into a much-beloved Broadway show in 1994, a show that has since become a staple of theater companies across the country.

Manley is the founder of Foothill Music Theatre, and a fairly regular director of Marin County’s annual Mountain Play extravaganza up on Mt. Tamalpais. In two months, from May 21 to June 18, Manley will be directing the Mountain Play’s own production of Beauty and the Beast, giving the show a massively-scaled production.

“We’re building a village up there on the mountain,” Manley reveals. “And a castle. It’s outrageous, but we’re doing it. I’m guessing that the popularity of this movie will increase people’s appetites to see the live version—because they really are quite different.”

That’s true. The new movie takes the best parts of the animated film, employs some expert casting, then adds a few original elements, delivering plenty of clever digital magic.

“What you can do with film today is amazing,” Manley notes, as we sit down for a cup of coffee just down the street. “In terms of scale and special effects and all of that, you can’t replicate some of this spectacle on stage. And I think this film does succeed in creating a believable world in ways that the animated version didn’t quite accomplish.”

And yet, Manley still feels that the live version has a special magic of its own.

“As wonderful as it is seeing the servants in their enchanted form, as household objects, in the film,” he says, “there’s something even better about seeing actual human beings, in costumes, half-transformed into the piece of furniture they are slowly turning into. We get a better sense of the humanity they are afraid of losing.”

Good point. Though skeptics thought it a preposterous idea when Disney first announced its Broadway adaptation, the stage show proved, in places, to be an improvement over the animated original, adding unexpected depth of character and a few marvelous new songs by Alan Menken and Tim Rice.

“Speaking of those songs , shall we talk about the big omission?” I ask Manley. “The one song from the stage show that should be in the new movie, but isn’t?”

“Oh,” he says with a nod. “You mean, ‘If I Can’t Love Her.’ Yes. What happened there?”

The moment from the film that we are referring to is a scene where the Beast (Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey), experiencing a moment of profound despondence, stands on a balcony atop his enchanted castle, and sings a mournful tune. Written for the film by Menken and Rice, it’s a dirge titled, “Forever More.” It’s awful.

“I don’t love that new song,” Manley admits. “It has some pretty terrible lyrics. ‘If I Can’t Love Her’—the song the Beast sings in the stage version—that’s a much better song.

“I liked the backstory for Belle that the movie gives us,” he continues. “It makes the whole story more poignant. Everyone knows the basic Beauty and the Beast story … the girl gradually comes to see the real person inside the beast. But the movie actually takes that a little deeper. It actually improves the original story.”

“That story,” I point out, “has, in one form or another, been told over and over for centuries. Why do you believe we keep returning to it?”

“Well, it’s an important story, I think,” Manley says. “When told properly, it’s got a very profound message.”

“Which is?” I ask.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” he says. “You can’t judge a person by their outward appearance, or by what you assume you know about them. Down deep, people can often surprise you. That’s a message that cuts across all kinds of cultures and beliefs. It never gets old, and there are times in our lives when it becomes especially important to remember.

“Clearly,” Manley continues, “based on the sort-of-unstoppable popularity of Beauty and the Beast on stage or on screen, right now is one of those times.”

Transcendence Theatre Company takes its show on the road

“You kind of have to experience it to get it,” says actor-singer Lexy Fridell of Transcendence Theatre Company’s ‘Broadway Under the Stars.’ Photo courtesy of Transcendence Theatre Company.

By David Templeton

Every summer, since 2012, the Transcendence Theatre Company takes over the gorgeous, open-air winery ruins at Glen Ellen’s Jack London State Historic Park, for a months-long series of shows succinctly and appropriately called ‘Broadway Under the Stars.’ Generally, the show features Broadway tunes (and others), performed by an energetic troupe of Broadway performers, staging effervescently inspiring and entertaining shows as the sun sinks and the stars begin to shine.

Blending dance, comedy, melody and impressive showmanship, Transcendence performances frequently pack the place, selling out night after night.

“It’s a very special experience,” says actor-singer Lexy Fridell, of Avenue Q and The Pee-Wee Herman Show. Fridell recently moved to Sausalito after years in Sonoma wine country—and a few energetic stints in Los Angeles and New York. “I’ve performed all over,” she says, “but there’s nothing quite like doing a Transcendence Theatre show.”

The giddy group of singers and dancers—under the artistic direction of Amy Miller (a veteran of Broadway’s 42nd Street revival)—is hitting the road and moving indoors, touring the North Bay with a show called ‘Best of Broadway Under the Stars.’ Featuring performers from Wicked, Mary Poppins, The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q and Mamma Mia!, the show comes to the Marin Civic Center on Saturday and Sunday, March 18 and 19.

“Transcendence is just really pumped to bring their energy to different parts of the Bay Area,” Fridell says. “People from Marin … people who maybe haven’t had a chance to come up to the park and see one of the outdoor summer shows, maybe this will be their first experience with what a Transcendence Theatre Company, ‘Broadway Under the Stars’ show is all about.

And, what is that like?

“You kind of have to experience it to get it,” Fridell says, laughing. “It’s about the energy of creativity, and the beauty of music and the inspiration of people who have a big dream, that want other people to have big dreams, too. And we share all of that through some really great, awe-inspiring songs—and some really goofy, silly stuff, too.”

As per the name, the show will be an array of the best moments from past seasons of ‘Broadway Under the Stars.’

“I don’t think I’m supposed to say what’s in the show,” Fridell says with a laugh. “I can say that I’m doing my personal favorite song, ‘Party Dress,’ from the musical Henry and Mudge, which I did in my first Transcendence show. There will be some awesome medleys, the epic 10-minute excursions through a certain type of show or style, a mash-up or two and a lot of people’s favorite songs from classic musicals, and a few newer ones.”

According to Fridell, the Transcendence team is counting on the experience being as addictive for the Marin audiences as it has proven to be for the performers themselves.

“Hopefully,” she says, “people will get excited enough to come up to Jack London, and experience one of our outdoor shows, right there under the stars, where it all started.”

‘Best of Broadway Under the Stars,’ Saturday, March 18, 7:30pm and Sunday, March 19, 2pm, Marin Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael; $39-$69; VIP, $129; 415/473-6800.

Reviews of the 'first four'

'Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles' is an impressive Oregon Shakespeare Festival play, presented with remarkable power and passion. Photo courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

By David Templeton

Well, despite the stormy weather and floods and torrents, it’s spring.

The proof lies a mere six-hour drive north, in Ashland, Oregon, where the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has just kicked off its 2017 season. Per tradition, the year begins with four new shows—out of an eventual total of 11—the majority of them playing for the next nine months. These ‘first four’ include a frisky stage adaptation of the film Shakespeare in Love, and two plays by William Shakespeare—a bloody and visceral staging of Julius Caesar and a highly entertaining take on  father-son history in Henry IV, Part One.

Taken together, they make for a strong opening salvo at OSF.

For me, the most impressive of the bunch, however, is the play Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles—playing through July 6 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre—written by the prolific Los Angeles-born writer Luis Alfaro, and presented with remarkable power and passion by director Juliette Carrillo.

Alfaro has adapted a number of classic Greek tragedies over the years, putting a Latino spin on such time-honored myths as Electra and Oedipus Rex, and now Medea. In Mojada (the Spanish word for ‘wet,’ as in ‘wetback’), Medea is an undocumented Mexican seamstress, living in L.A. with her husband Jason, her son Acan and her talkative, Greek Chorus-like storyteller Tita. They are all survivors of a brutal crossing from Mexico, which, we eventually learn, has cost Medea much more than mere money or blood.

Frail and fearful, she now confines herself to her small yard in L.A.’s Boyle Heights barrio, avoiding her neighbors and making beautiful dresses that she could never afford to buy with the meager wages she earns.

Played with ferocious fragility by a superb Sabina Zuniga Varela, Medea carries some very dark secrets—and a desperate fear of losing Jason (an excellent Lakin Valdez), a construction worker whose American dreams of money and influence have placed him in an uneasy alliance with the wealthy widow Armida (Vilma Silva, wonderful). Also an immigrant—though with a very different story of making her way to the States—Armida employs Jason as a contractor in her construction company, and may have her eye on more than just his house-building talents.

Medea’s neighbor, the over-effusive Josefina (Nancy Rodriguez), is yet another version of the immigrant story. She’s a hard-working baker who rises early to make the bread she sells from a cart on the streets. Providing some easy comic relief, Josefina’s resourceful acceptance of America’s love-hate relationship with its immigrant population is a stark reminder of what Medea might become, if she could somehow find a sense of power and strength in her life, all of which this strange new land seems to want to deny her.

Anyone familiar with the Medea story, of course, will know where all of this is headed, and the machete occasionally wielded by Tita (wonderfully played by the excellent single-named actress VIVIS) just serves as a constant reminder of what’s to come.

Alfaro does much more with this marvelous, gorgeously constructed drama than just parrot the bloody plot turns of the original Medea myth. In retelling it through the eyes of a Mexican immigrant in America—with one stunning bit of beautifully queasy magical realism—the playwright reveals what happens when any human being is denied a sense of humanity, dignity and control over their own lives.

I should add that the set by Christopher Acebo is first-rate, a little marvel of architectural beauty and poetry. Within the Bowmer, Acebo has created a protective circle of chain-link and concrete. There’s a garden, of sorts, growing in old tires and tin cans, and there’s a tiny house that appears to almost float above the yard, with vast roots angling beneath it. It seems to underscore the sense of ‘uprootedness’ and ‘in-between-ness’ that constantly threatens to define Medea, just as it does, tragically, an entire generation of disenfranchised American dreamers.

Julius Caesar, also in the Bowmer (through October 29), is directed by Shana Cooper (of Washington, D.C.’s Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company, and the Bay Area’s California Shakespeare Theater), who is widely acclaimed for her tightly stylized, occasionally off-putting, highly visual approach to classic and original plays. That style is certainly on display in her impressively visual Caesar, in which the war-and-violence themes of Shakespeare’s story are played out on a set built of actively crumbling drywall, the action scenes propelled by wildly aggressive, aerobically impressive fight choreography, all of it underscored by the rhythmic, chantlike shouts and vocalizations of the fully committed cast.

As Caesar, longtime OSF member Armando Durán is wonderful. His subtle physicality and quickly shifting emotions brilliantly suggest the kind of politician some would distrust while others would worship. Roman senator Marcus Brutus, often played as the dark, brooding opposite of the virtuous Mark Antony, here becomes the central figure of the play. Played by Danforth Comins as a man of high intellect who is caught between his love of Caesar and his suspicions of powerful people, Brutus is easily manipulated by the angry Cassius (Rodney Gardiner), who despises Caesar for what he sees as the new leader’s deeply hidden weaknesses and frailty.

Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour), usually the moral axis of the play, is portrayed as an opportunistic hothead, further placing the central ethical weight of the story on Brutus’ shoulders.

When the inevitable slaying of Caesar takes place in the Capitol—simply suggested by rows of easily upended chairs—it is effectively bloody and horrific, and credit must be given to Duran for the emotional power that this much-played scene manages to evoke, even pulling fresh power from the line, “Et tu, Brute?”

There is an appealingly stripped down, industrial-decay vibe to every detail of the show, from the deceptive simplicity of Sibyl Wickersheimer’s construction-site set, to the plastic buckets used as stools and lanterns, to the flashlights used to illuminate actors’ faces during key meetings of the conspirators, to the sheets of plastic used to wrap about corpses, to the castoff hoodies and Army-surplus grunge of Raquel Barreto’s highly effective costumes.

There is a strong “indie theater” feel to the production, which sometimes feels lifted from some underground warehouse theater, where brilliant artists do impressive work for next-to-no money.

The observation is meant as high praise.

In the program’s Director’s Note, Cooper praises “the deep physical and emotional sacrifices that this fierce ensemble of actors contribute,” and one gets a sense of it from the opening moments, as bewigged celebrants pound on the theater doors, invading the auditorium with whoops and hollers, stomping and dancing across the stage. In the play’s second act—long accepted by scholars as a bit of a confusing mess compared to the play’s lean, tight first act—the consequences of Caesar’s murder play out in an escalating series of interchangeable skirmishes and bloody deaths.

It’s here that Cooper’s vision fully reveals itself. The battles, choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch, are danced as much as they are fought, though these are no West Side Story rumbles. There is a true sense of terror and rage in these scenes, suggesting that the violence unleashed by the conspirators did not take much to set free. The easily manipulated populace—portrayed by the cast in eerie masks—commit compulsive acts of revenge every bit as savage as the murder of Caesar. Even after the final line has been spoken, the warriors’ vigorous, frightening fight-dance continues, and continues—till we in the audience ask ourselves, “When is this ever going to stop?”

And that, of course, is the whole point of Julius Caesar, and Cooper’s offbeat but stirring approach to Shakespeare’s tragedy, an examination of politics, manipulation, bloodshed and war, that ultimately demands to know, “When is this ever going to stop?”

Unlike Julius Caesar—which generally plays like a tragedy—Henry IV, Parts One and Two, have gradually lost much of the love Elizabethans felt for them. If they are performed today at all, it is for the benefit of Shakespeare completists, and because the twin plays feature the beloved character of Sir John Falstaff. Ironically, given that he first appeared in a pair of “histories,” the corpulent scoundrel is entirely fictional.

Rumor has it, by the way, that it was per Queen Elizabeth’s request that Shakespeare spun Falstaff off into the wholly invented The Merry Wives of Windsor—which OSF will be staging later this season.

Till then, in a vivid, energetic and cleverly contemporary production, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Henry IV, Part One (running through October 28) is giving audiences a strong dose of what made people fall in love with Falstaff 400 years ago. Though only a supporting character, his mighty shadow looms large within the Thomas Theatre, reconfigured as theater-in-the-round. The play begins a year after King Henry (Jeffrey King, all steely nerves) violently usurped the throne of Richard II—then had him killed. Henry’s son, Hal (Daniel José Molina, first-rate) is a disappointment to his father, spending his time carousing at the Boar’s Head Inn, which is ruled, after a fashion, by the hard-drinking reprobate Falstaff (G. Valmont Thomas, sensational), and his cadre of thieves, rascals and fallen women.

When King Henry’s claim to the throne is suddenly challenged by a dangerous collective of foreign and outcast warriors—on their way to England and hell-bent on splitting the island up between themselves—Hal finds himself torn between his two very different father figures, one bad but lovable, the other good (sort of), but hard as nails.

Director Blain-Cruz’s vision is a bold one. The action is set on a simple set of gleaming metal poles, which flash in neon colors for the Boar’s Head scenes, underscoring the inn’s depravity with an inflatable pool full of bubbles, and scantily clad dancers with animal heads. The poles instantly represent columns, trees or tent-poles whenever the action pivots to the throne room, or to the riveting battlefield conferences of the crazy Welsh warlord Glendower (Lauren Modica, delightfully off-the-wall in a role usually played by men) and the fierce Hotspur (Alejandra Escalante, magnificent). The latter is yet another gender-switching casting choice, a decision that takes on remarkable resonance here, largely due to Escalante’s uncanny understanding of the optimistic, single-minded zeal that makes Hotspur tick.

This is the kind of Shakespeare production in which swords are frequently replaced with guns and rifles, and during the inevitable battle scenes at the end, the noise (augmented by the distant sounds of helicopters and mortar fire) is intense. Beautifully balancing bloodshed is the occasional appearance of Falstaff, whose battlefield cowardice eventually borders on a kind of heroic pragmatic, anti-war self-expression.

Though one or two favorite characters do not survive Henry IV, Part One, audiences willing to drive to Ashland again in July are guaranteed to see a bit more of Falstaff when OSF unveils Henry IV, Part Two, with the same cast continuing the story.

By then, of course, The Merry Wives of Windsor will be playing on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, so Falstaff lovers will get a triple-dose of their favorite character—with a twist. In Wives, the famous fat man will be played by OSF regular K.T. Vogt, which should be a hoot. She’s hilarious.

Ironically, OSF’s biggest hit of the spring is likely to be a show that is not by William Shakespeare, but about him. Certain to delight audiences and fill the Bowmer with movie-loving theatergoers is the extravagantly entertaining Shakespeare in Love (now through October 29), the American premiere of playwright Lee Hall’s mostly successful, if perplexingly overlong, London adaptation of the superb Oscar-winning 1998 movie. That movie, co-authored by the great Tom Stoppard, played like a witty, mirthful, somewhat Mel-Brooksian spoof of age-old theatrical conventions, joyfully disguised as an anachronistic mishmash of Elizabethan history and Shakespeare-centric fiction.

The play is relatively faithful to the movie’s plot line, though frequent liberties are taken, which seem unwise to quibble about given that the film took its own share of liberties with the life of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare (William DeMeritt, all-around excellent) is struggling with writer’s block, having promised a new play—tentatively titled Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirate’s Daughter—to Mr. Henslowe (a hilarious Brent Hinkley), owner of the struggling theater, The Rose. Alternately goaded on by and in competition with rival playwright Kit Marlowe (Ted Deasy), Shakespeare finds unexpected inspiration after auditioning the spirited Thomas Kent, who, unbeknownst to him, is really the theater-loving Viola deLesseps (a marvelous Jamie Ann Romero) in disguise, hoping for a chance as an actor despite it being illegal to put a woman on stage.

The primary deviations from the movie include Marlowe having much more to do. The script essentially turns him into Cyrano de Bergerac for the scene in which Shakespeare—smitten with Viola yet not guessing she’s also Thomas Kent—woos her beneath her balcony, with Marlowe feeding him lines from the shadows. Later, Marlow appears again as a ghost to offer Shakespeare additional wisdom and advice.

Also somewhat expanded in size is the role of young John Webster (Preston Mead, pitch-perfect), the creepy, vengeful, blood-loving actor who figures out Viola’s secret identity. What Mead does with his face, a mix of gothic leer and bug-eyed pout, is well worth the price of admission.

Well-directed by Christopher Liam Moore, who has an eye for spectacle and a knack for staging broad physical comedy, the play is a frothy delight for most of its two-hour-and-45-minute running time (with one 15-minute intermission), but seriously bogs down, pace-wise, just when it should be turning up the mph as it plummets toward the climax. The stage version layers on additional stuff during the big Romeo and Juliet performance, and on opening weekend, the actors slowed down their pace, including interminable pauses between lines. One can only hope that the pace will pick up as the cast grows more confident with the material, which is certainly not easy.

I should also add a few words about the live music, performed by a masterful trio of musicians (Michael Palzewicz on strings, Mark Eliot Jacobs on lute, hurdy-gurdy and sackbut, and Austin Comfort on vocals). On stage throughout, the musicians are as much a part of the show as the actors, and are occasionally spoken to, especially by Lord Wessex (Al Espinosa), Viola’s would-be suitor, who keeps telling the musicians to shut up.

The cast is immense, with marvelous turns throughout—Kate Mulligan’s Queen Elizabeth is also worth the price of admission—and the sprawling set (Rachel Hauck) and stunning costumes (Susan Tsu) are frequently dazzling. Slow pace or not, aided by the familiarity of the movie version, this lovingly crafted bauble is certain to have audiences falling in love with Shakespeare all over again.

For information on tickets and the full Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2017 season, visit osfashland.org.

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A Shakespeare lover sets out to see all of the Bard’s plays

Marin Shakespeare's Macbeth
‘Macbeth’ has been one of the many Shakespeare plays staged by Marin Shakespeare Company over the years. Photo by Steven Underwood.

By David Templeton

It is generally accepted that William Shakespeare—aka the Immortal Bard, aka the Upstart Crow, aka the Sweet Swan of Avon, aka the greatest playwright the world has ever known—wrote 37 plays during his lifetime, which ended exactly 400 years ago last April 23.

He possibly wrote more. Possibly a lot more. Possibly even a play called The Two Noble Kinsmen. Though there’s still an argument about that one. As I shall reveal. But all of that said, there are at least 37 Shakespeare plays, for certain. They are commonly known as Shakespeare’s  canon (the canon).

I was 21 years old when I set myself the task of seeing every single play in the canon—even the bad ones. Even Cymbeline. Even Henry VIII. Even Timon of Athens, which I’d heard was basically “unstageable.”

I would do that one, too. Basically, if Shakespeare wrote it, I wanted to see it. And no, movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays did not count—though to this day I still mark Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, as a major turning point in my life, because, well … because Olivia Hussey.

I was nine years old at the time, watching the film at a drive-in theater in Glendora, part of a double feature with something called Battle Beneath the Earth. I can’t even remember that one. But I do remember Romeo and Juliet. And though I could only barely fathom the meaning of the words, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep,” I knew upon hearing them that they were somehow kind of sexy and appealing and beautiful, and that Olivia Hussey-as-Juliet was totally worth, you know, dying for.

But where was I? Oh, right. The canon.

At the time, I’d only seen a handful of Shakespeare’s plays performed live. The first, for the record, was Richard III—or Dick 3, as I affectionately came to know it. That production, notable for its spirited sword fights and unconvincing ghost effects, was performed by students from the theater department at University of California, Irvine, in Southern California. Three months after being dazzled by the language of Dick 3, I caught a production of Macbeth, starring a young Danny Glover, at the Actor’s Theatre Los Angeles. That production was set in a post-apocalyptic future, with Scotland transformed into a bombed-out shopping mall. It was awesome.

In quick succession, I saw professional productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet, and was hungry for more. By then, I had fully recognized that among my other major life’s goals—becoming a screenwriter, winning an Oscar, meeting Olivia Hussey—I would somehow, someday, experience all 37 of the Bard’s plays. It was a goal I believed I might conceivably accomplish within nine or 10 years, possibly completing the canon by the neat-and-tidy age of 30.

It took 26 whole years longer than that. But last July, up in Ashland, Oregon—home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF)—my impossible literary-nerdy dream came true as I crossed off one final play title from the long list. The show? Timon of Athens.

It was not, as advertised, “unstageable.” It was, in fact, quite grippingly directed by Amanda Dehnert. But it was very dark—the tragic tale of a generous Athenian who loses faith in humanity after giving away all of his money, and finding that none of his former beneficiaries will bankroll his recovery. In the OSF production, there was a whole lot of the great actor Anthony Heald (Silence of the Lambs, Boston Public) wandering the stage in his underwear, rolling about in large piles of garbage, then hanging himself. It was also awesome.

Best of all, as I stepped out of the theater into the warm Oregon sunshine, I carried with me the heady, giddy delight of having just completed a remarkably ambitious task, one that most theater fans never even attempt, and very few ever actually accomplish.

My giddiness, unfortunately, did not last long.

The next day, I met Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a literature instructor whose bona fides include his being the Ronni Lacroute Chair in Shakespeare Studies at Linfield College, and also Scholar in Residence at the Portland Shakespeare Project. He was in Ashland leading a group of school alumni, many of whom were in town for the very same reason I was.

“A lot of the folks I’ve brought with me are excited for Timon, because now they can cross it off their list,” explained Pollack-Pelzner. “One or two of them will complete the canon with this afternoon’s performance. Though I have to say, as a Shakespeare scholar, there are a number of reasons why Timon of Athens is an exciting play to see, separate from its ‘bucket-list’ quality.”

“So,” I asked, “you’re not one of those who count Timon as one of Shakespeare’s ‘bad plays?’”

“Actually, I’m fascinated by which plays we think of as Shakespeare’s ‘good plays’ at different times in history,” he replied, taking a seat on a bench on “the bricks,” the outdoor courtyard surrounded by OSF’s three separate theaters. “Right now, Hamlet is the one play that most modern scholars think of as Shakespeare’s best work. But it didn’t seem to have been thought of that way for at least its first 200 years or so. It was performed. But it was never thought of as the supreme Shakespeare tragedy until right around 1800 or so, when writers and critics of the Romantic period started to value such things as individuality, and alienation, and ‘interior monologue,’ as great qualities in a work of art. Many of those things—Prince Hamlet’s extreme sense of self-involvement, the play’s over-emphasis on the interior life of one character, its strange mix of comedy and drama—those things had always made the play seem weird, and sort of sloppy and weak. But, those virtues suddenly being valued rather than scorned, Hamlet suddenly seemed brilliant.”

According to Pollack-Pelzner, many other of Shakespeare’s “good plays,” were also once seen as the flip-opposite of “good.”

“People used to hate King Lear,” he said. “They thought it was unperformable as written, and way too bleak. It wasn’t until after the horrors of WWII that people began to appreciate Shakespeare’s vision of a world torn apart by madness in the seats of power.”

Timon, ironically, was once a very popular play.

“For what it’s worth, it was Karl Marx’s favorite Shakespeare play,” Pollack-Pelzner said with a smile. “He thought it was a brilliant articulation of the pernicious power of money, a condemnation of how the pursuit of money becomes a god to many people. I actually think this is a great time for Timon to reemerge, as the culture talks openly about economics and wasteful spending and the power of money to transform social relationships.”

Pollack-Pelzner adds that Timon’s star has been rising around the world ever since the global financial crisis of 2007-2008.

“Suddenly, Timon of Athens feels ripped from the headlines,” he remarked. “It now feels uncomfortably contemporary.”

So far, so good. A nice conversation with a guy who clearly loves Shakespeare as deeply as I do. But then, things got weird. When I informed Pollack-Pelzner that I had just completed the canon myself, he smiled the gentle smile of a man who’s become accustomed to letting people down gently.

“Well, as a Shakespeare professor, I have to say, OK, you think you’ve completed the canon—but what are you

Luisa Frasconi and Dameion Brown were the stars of Marin Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘Othello’ last year. Photo by Steven Underwood.

calling the canon?”

“Um, you know, the 37 plays that Shakespeare wrote,” I replied, fully aware that some purists consider The Two Noble Kinsmen to be Shakespeare’s 38th play, but confident that I could safely leave it off the list. None other than Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, had assured me of it a year previously, when he announced that Timon of Athens would be one of the plays that would kick off OSF’s commitment to present all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays between 2015 and 2025.

I believe the way I put the question was, “I hope to see all of Shakespeare’s plays before I die, but I still have to see Timon and possibly The Two Noble Kinsmen. So, when I see Timon next year, do I have to keep going until someone does Noble Kinsmen, or can I go ahead and die?”

“See Timon of Athens, he said with a laugh. “Then you can die. Shakespeare might have written a few paragraphs of Two Noble Kinsmen, but that hardly counts. The official stance of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is that Shakespeare wrote all or most of 37 plays—and Two Noble Kinsmen is not one of them.”

“Them’s fightin’ words,” said Pollack-Pelzner, when I shared this anecdote. “We have really good evidence that Shakespeare collaborated on a lot of plays, not just at the beginning and ending of his career, as we’d once thought. Some believe he contributed to, or wrote, several other plays not generally considered part of the canon.

“He might have been a hired gun on Sir Thomas More,” Pollack-Pelzner added, in reference to a play commonly attributed to Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle. “And then there are the ‘lost plays, like Cardenio, which we know Shakespeare wrote, but no longer have a script for, or Love’s Labour’s Won, a possible sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is referred to in several sources, but we don’t have a script for either. Some suggest that was another title for the play that became Much Ado About Nothing.

“So,” my articulate bubble-burster continued, “the issue of completing is, for me, never quite a final process, because we can never be sure when we’ve reached the true boundary of the canon.”

Complicating the question, Pollack-Pelzner added, is the awareness that early on in his career—when no one knew or cared who William Shakespeare was—he may have allowed theater owners to slap a more popular playwright’s name on some early work. Conversely, later in his life, when he owned his own theater and his name had become golden, he may have allowed his “brand” to be applied to plays he was producing, but had little creative input on.

“It makes it very complicated to really know what’s what,” he said. “But it doesn’t stop any of us from having plenty of great fun, seeing as many of Shakespeare’s plays—or his possible plays—as we possibly can.”

Hmmmm. I guess I can’t die yet.

Or can I? For what it’s worth—professor Pollack-Pelzner’s excellent argument aside—there are still plenty who hold to the view, as I had not so long ago done myself, that there is too much speculation and uncertainty about who wrote what, to be able to convincingly claim those other plays—the Shakespeare “Apocrypha,” if you will—as deserving of being called part of the canon.

“I’ve definitely completed the canon, and I’ve never seen any of those plays,” said Eddie Wallace, Associate Director of Communications for OSF. Convinced that one can comfortably separate the canon from the Apocrypha, Wallace said that he completed his own Shakespeare canon in 2012, when he saw Henry V, one of the Bard’s most popular plays. “That’s an odd one to complete the canon with, I know,” he said, “since it’s produced so often—but somehow I always missed it. I had seen the Kenneth Branagh movie version.”

“But the movies don’t count, of course,” I pointed out.

“So I’ve been told,” Wallace said with a nod. “And I really wanted to see a live presentation of all of them, anyway. It was a big moment, for me, I have to say. I’ve devoted my life—first as an actor and then later as a Shakespeare Festival administrator—to promoting the works of the Bard. And it did feel really, really important to see all of them.”

It’s for that reason, he continued, that companies like OSF, and a handful of others around the globe, have committed themselves to presenting all of the canon—and not just the most popular ones. The 2017 season, for what it’s worth, includes a mix of both: Julius Caesar, and Henry IV, Part One (which opened in February), plus The Merry Wives of Windsor (opening in June) and Henry IV, Part Two (opening in July).

The two Henry IV plays, Wallace acknowledged, could possibly complete the canon for many who’ve never found a company willing to stage them. And since they are the plays where the character of Falstaff first appeared, there is a pleasant symmetry in getting to see Merry Wives too, since Shakespeare invented that story to give one of his most popular characters extra life.

“You can’t write off the lesser works of any playwright or novelist or filmmaker or musical group,” Wallace said. “What doesn’t speak to you at age 20 might speak to you very strongly in your 50s. When I think of the bands that I’ve been passionate about in my life—Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin and Rush, to name a few—there’s no way that I would not want to find and listen to every album they ever made.

“So,” he added, “for anyone who expresses a love, or even just a like, for Shakespeare, and if you have a chance to see all of them, then why not? Arguably the best playwright ever? Why wouldn’t you want to?”

Well, as a lover of Shakespeare, myself, one who’s actually completed the entire canon—yep, I’ve decided to just go with it—I can say that there is a special feeling that comes from claiming the “canon completion” badge.

But still, there is a quiet voice that has begun to question whether my Shakespeare-watching work is really done.

It belongs to Lesley Currier, Managing Director of Marin Shakespeare Company. She, it turns out, has seen all of the canon also. Except, she says, for one.

“I’ve seen all of them,” Currier recently told me. “All of them but Two Noble Kinsmen. It just seems like it should be included.”

Currier, apparently agreeing with those who believe that any trace of Shakespeare’s DNA makes a play worth perusing, points out that as scholarly research deepens around the world, we are learning more about the Bard all the time.

“There are now, I think, seven plays that scholars believe Shakespeare had a hand in writing,” Currier said, “including The Spanish Tragedy. That gory, revenge-filled epic—which Marin Shakespeare staged a few years ago—is traditionally credited to Thomas Kyd, but bears a strong resemblance to Shakespeare’s bloody Titus Andronicus.”

Ultimately, offering a variation on Wallace’s point about one’s favorite bands, Currier thinks that if you like the work of William Shakespeare, it just makes sense to see it all—even if the Bard only changed a line or two. And reading such works is not enough.

“It’s always best,” reminded Currier, “to see a live performance, by skilled actors who have studied the play and the characters, and can bring them to life with intelligence and passion.”

Speaking of passion, it’s possible that I may have just stumbled into a new one.

I’ve actually seen The Spanish Tragedy. If it was, indeed, partially written by Shakespeare, then perhaps I’ve actually already begun my next theatrical pursuit—seeing all of the Apocrypha on stage, in a theater. It’s not going to be easy.

It might be possible to find a production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, but what about the others? What about the lost plays?

It’s possible that they might actually turn up in some dusty archive. And when they do, some enterprising theater company will certainly stage them. And canon completers like me will be there to watch it.

Apparently, I really can’t die yet. I might have to live for a long, long time.

To read some of David Templeton’s reviews from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, click here

Playwright Star Finch peels back the layers of ‘Get Out’

Daniel Kaluuya stars in ‘Get Out,’ a horror-comedy from Jordan Peele that touches on issues of race.

By David Templeton

 “Slavery is a horror story,” says San Francisco playwright Star Finch. “Slavery is something that, when you are African-American, and also a parent, you have to tell your children about at some point. And that’s horrifying. That’s a very painful thing. It’s painful in general, telling your children about the horrors of the world. But when you are a parent of color, specifically African-American, you have to feed them these stories that you know could affect their sense of self, and self-esteem, or might paralyze them as they move out into the world. How to do that is a question I’ve been struggling with for a while.”

It’s a bright Saturday morning between rainstorms, and I’ve reached Finch at her home in the city, a few days after catching the film Get Out, the ingenious new horror-comedy from Jordan Peele (MadTV, Key & Peele). It’s the twisty tale of a black photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), who take a trip to visit her parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) at their secluded estate in the woods. What begins as a hilariously uncomfortable primer in what micro-aggression is, and what it feels like, the story veers into A+ creep-show territory, placing Get Out solidly alongside such sociological thrillers as Night of the Living Dead, The Stepford Wives, The Mephisto Waltz and Rosemary’s Baby.

“It was an amazing experience, that movie,” agrees Finch. “When it was over, this audience of strangers, all these people who didn’t know each other, they were all sharing looks and comments, like, ‘That was great!’ and ‘I can’t believe what I just saw!’ We were all laughing and smiling, but we were also pretty stunned by it. That movie taps into the highest and best potential for what storytelling has to offer.”

That, of course, is a subject Star Finch knows plenty about.

A multiple award-winner for her remarkable creativity and strong authorial voice, Finch writes in what she calls an “Afro-surreal style, addressing multiple issues and multiple layers at once.” That style was on bold, lyrical display in last summer’s hit show H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars, Eventually). The play, presented in San Francisco by Campo Santo, an award-winning multi-cultural ensemble, was partly set in a futuristic Oakland and partly on Mars, with a plot touching on the collapse of America, teleportation, planets ruled by Google, technological domination, sex, race, gender, class and love.

In her new play, Bondage, presented by San Rafael’s award-winning AlterTheater ensemble (March 22 through April 16), Finch brings her gorgeously detailed storytelling back down to Earth—and back in time—with a story set on a small island in Pre-Emancipation America.

“At its heart,” Finch explains, “Bondage is about two girls who, because of the isolation of where they live, and the circumstances of their childhood, were raised pretty much as sisters, more or less. But now that they are heading into puberty, one of them, Emily, is expected to step into her ‘mistress’ role, as a white woman, and the other character, Zuri, who is mixed-race, is feeling the heat to become more subservient, essentially to become Emily’s slave. As Zuri’s eyes are opened to the world she inhabits, she begins to question that reality. And that’s the journey these two girls go on together, as they negotiate all of this, discussing it within the structure of the adults around them, who behave the way they’ve been programmed to, within the context of the slavery system they all live in.

“It’s really a fable, in a lot of ways,” she continues. “It’s a way I can tell my own daughter, someday, about the realities of the past, through a character like Zuri, a young woman who is strong, and who can find a way to take control of her own life.”

Control, given and taken—in more ways than one—is a core concept in Get Out as Chris ultimately finds himself in a nightmare scenario in which all of the black people he encounters have lost their sense of individuality or free will. In a series of increasingly hilarious phone calls with his friend Rod (LilRel Howery), Chris is warned that he might have been abducted by a kinky sex cult. Where writer-director Peele finally takes his smartly-crafted plot is surprising, clever, chilling, wildly over-the-top and, in the way of great horror films, often lots of fun.

“Number one, it’s just really great storytelling,” Finch says. “It hooks you, and draws you in, and I think that—having a great story—will always be successful across all kinds of borders.

“I went with my husband and my sister,” she continues. “We had to stand in this long line, and there was this huge sense of excitement and buzz, almost like we were at Great America or something, all of us waiting to get on a great big roller coaster together. And even though none of us knew exactly what was in the movie or what the twists were going to be, everyone in the audience—and it was a pretty racially mixed audience—clearly knew, from the previews, that the movie was going to tackle issues of race.

“So I think there was a thrill of potential ‘truth telling’ with this movie,” she muses. “For all the emotional repression or head-in-the-sand reactions that people have when it comes to certain issues, like sexism and race, there’s a kind of thrill we experience when we know someone like Richard Pryor or Dave Chappelle is going to ‘go there’ anyway.”

For the record, Get Out goes there.

“And everyone in the theater was right there with it,” Finch says, “yelling, talking to the screen, screaming, clapping, cheering. I would attribute that, not just to the storytelling, but to the timing of the movie, too. This film has come out at a very specific time, when our society—a good chunk of us, anyway—are feeling that we really are in a horror movie. Our current government was almost the unspoken third character in the film. That same uncertainty that people of color can feel going into an all-white space, or driving into the suburbs, we are having that same kind of feeling right now with our government. It’s a horror film kind of feeling. ‘What’s going to happen?’ ‘How far are they going to take this?’ ‘Who’s going to survive it?’”

Finch notes that, just as we can’t guess at Chris’s fate, going into the film, no one in America knows quite how the next several years are going to play out.

“There is a sense of fear and trepidation, but there’s a sense of hope, too,” she says, “hope that a big chunk of us—across race, across class, across gender, across everything—will sort of decide whether we are in this together or not, whether we can join forces to fight back and have the unlikely happy ending that so many people in the audience really want for Chris.

“Personally,” she continues, “I want that happy ending for the rest of us, too.”

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Actor/director George Maguire on starting anew

Actor/director George Maguire says that although he just turned 70, he feels like he's just getting started.

By David Templeton

“I just turned 70,” says actor/producer George Maguire. “But in many ways, as an artist particularly, I feel like I’m just starting out.”

After a lifetime appearing in other people’s plays and films, and teaching others how to do the same, Maguire is finally venturing into the field of developing and producing his own projects.

“It had to happen eventually,” he says with a laugh.

Having appeared in dozens of films and television shows, and hundreds of stage plays, Maguire is perhaps best known for the small, colorful, slightly offbeat characters he’s played in such cult-hit films as David Fincher’s The Game and Fight Club, Clint Eastwood’s True Crime, Finn Taylor’s Dream With the Fishes and the upcoming Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. He moved to California from New York City in 1984, initially finding work in Southern California, where he was an actor, teacher and board member of the acclaimed Pacific Conservatory Theatre. Maguire moved to the Bay Area in 1986, and soon became a frequent figure on local stages, racking up numerous appearances with the Marin Shakespeare Company, Marin Theatre Company, Aurora Theatre Company, Magic Theatre and more. He eventually landed a gig teaching theater at Solano Community College, from which he just recently retired.

“I’d done New York and I’d done Broadway,” he says of his motivation for leaving his home state and becoming a permanent West Coaster. “I’d been onstage with Phil Silvers and Ginger Rogers, traveled around and done regional theaters. I’d done all the things an actor is supposed to do—but I was turning 40, and I wanted something new and different. Moving here turned out to be the very best thing, because I have been able to keep doing stage work, which I love, and to teach, which I love—and then, when the film work started coming, I was able to relax into that too, and my life has been endlessly wonderful ever since.”

For his stage work, Maguire has received numerous nominations from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Asked what his favorite stage role has been, he instantly names the part of Kent in a 2006 production of King Lear, staged by Marin Shakespeare Company at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre in San Rafael.

“I loved doing Kent,” he says, of playing the mad king’s resourceful but banished counselor. “I liked doing him a lot because King Lear is such a good show and Kent is such a rich and juicy character. He’s a real ‘butch part,’ a manly man, and he was a discovery every single night.”

Maguire says that his string of parts at Marin Shakespeare Company was some of the most fun he’s ever had on stage—a run that included wearing a dress as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

“The very first thing I did there was Brabantio in Othello, in 2004,” Maguire recalls. Brabantio, the father of doomed Desdemona, appears in the first act, and is not heard from again until his death is mentioned in the fifth act. “It doesn’t get better than that,” Maguire adds with a laugh.

“Brabantio is so fun because he’s fast and he’s fearless—he’s in and out of the play, and then he’s gone,” he says. “I also enjoyed playing the Emperor in Amadeus, for the same reason. It’s a small role, but he has some of the best lines in the show.”

Maguire acknowledges that many actors often want the lead part.

“They want a lot of stage time and they want the most lines,” he says. “But it’s the small roles that really test an actor. It’s easy to do a lot when you have a lot to work with. But doing a lot with very little—that’s when you really show your skill as an actor. And actors who can do that are golden in this business. Directors love actors who give their all, no matter how small a part you put them in.”

Maguire says that he considers himself “mostly” retired from stage acting, but finds the film work, especially some of the independent short films he’s been acting in over the last few years, to be the perfect kind of project for his skill set.

“I don’t have to learn so many lines,” he says, “and I get to do things on film that people never asked me to do on stage. I recently did a bedroom scene in a short film called Youth, which won the Casting Society of America’s 2017 Artios Award for short films. I’m the lead, and the first day out I meet the gorgeous Jessica Stroup, from Beverly Hills 90210, and the next day we’re shooting a bed scene together. ‘Hi, I’m George!’ ‘Hi, I’m Jessica!’ ‘Now, let’s eat mints, get naked and shoot a bedroom scene.’ I have to say, it was hilarious. And that’s the nature of the business.”

The other thing that Maguire likes about making movies, he admits, is the intensity of the process.

George Maguire as Buffalo Bill Cody.

“The thing that’s so addictive about film work,” he explains, “is that, unlike stage work, where you slowly create a character over several weeks of rehearsal, in movies you have to make very, very strong choices, right at the top. It’s scary, and it’s intense and it’s intoxicating.”

Given that, in television work especially, actors with their own wardrobes are given a bonus, Maguire has collected a number of surprisingly specific costumes.

“I play a lot of priests, and a lot of funeral directors,” he says. “I just have that kind of face. So I have my own priest outfit, my own funeral director outfit and sometimes it pays off in other ways. When I was shooting The Sweetest Thing with Cameron Diaz, I played an Irish priest, and because I wore the outfit to and from the set, I ended up getting free parking because everyone thought I was a real priest.”

Of his many film roles, Maguire counts his appearance in Fight Club—playing the morose group leader of a testicular cancer support group—as one of his all-time favorite movie-making experiences.

“That was wonderful, and it’s one of the parts I still get recognized for,” he says. “It was grand getting to work with Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter, and my old buddy Meatloaf, who I knew from back in my New York days. I never got to work with Jared Leto, unfortunately.

“But it was a blast, making that film,” he goes on. “David Fincher works very carefully and slowly, so a part that might have taken someone else a day to film, kept me on set for five days. I’d had a wonderful scene in Fincher’s The Game, working with Michael Douglas. But he’s a taskmaster, and he’s fascinating to work with. Clint Eastwood shoots one or two takes only, but David shoots take after take. And I had to be at the top of my game every single take. Artistically and intellectually, it was an amazing experience.”

Which brings Maguire to his current project, producing a short film based on his own original idea. The film, to be titled Generations, is currently in pre-production, with the budget still being raised. But Maguire says that it’s quickly become a passion project for him.

“You know, time ticks by and pretty soon you start thinking about how time is running out,” he muses, “and then you start thinking about all the things you haven’t done with your life. And the one thing I’d never done was produce a film.”

There was an idea that had been sticking in the back of his mind, a story about several generations of a single family coming to grips with a long-buried secret about their genetic heritage. The film, in which he will star, involves a man, his wife, his daughter and granddaughter, and a surgeon. Maguire declines to tell more, but says there are twists and surprises.

“The story sprang from a conversation I had with one of my brothers,” he says. “So I commissioned a script from Candice Holdorf, and it turned out beautifully. I gave the script to a brilliant young director I know named Kourash Ahari, and he loved the story. And suddenly, there I was, producing a short film. Which has been eye-opening and exhilarating—and we haven’t even started filming it yet.”

The film, which he hopes to shoot in Solano and Marin this May, will cost an estimated $40,000, about half of which has been raised through crowdsourcing sites and private fundraisers. He has high hopes that the film will play the film festival circuit, and based on the responses he’s received from the script, he believes that it will capture the attention of filmgoers all over the world.

“That’s what happens with these shorts, a lot of times,” Maguire says. “Shorts are where it’s at right now. Big stars are doing them. In Youth, the one where I do the bedroom scene, it’s actually  played all over the place. My sister saw it at a film festival in Holland. She called up and said, ‘I don’t know what was wilder, watching my brother play the lead in a sci-fi movie, or watching my brother make love to a woman half his age.’ I told her, ‘Well, pick one. They’re both funny.’”

As for Generations, Maguire says that he’s currently holding his breath, working to pull together the final funding and lock in the locations.

“We’ll be filming part of it on Mare Island, and possibly some of it outdoors at the Marin Art & Garden Center,” he says. “I’m a first-time producer, so I’ve made a few mistakes, including launching our big fundraiser at Christmas time, last year. Evidently, that’s the worst time to ask people for money! We did OK, but we have a little ways to go.”

With a laugh, Maguire adds, “And who knows? If I don’t screw up really badly, there could be more films in the future I might produce. I’m really having the time of my life!”

If you want to help fund ‘Generations,’ contact Mammoth Pictures at mammoth-pictures.com or write to George Maguire at gmaguire1204@yahoo.com.

Bringing the plays of August Wilson from stage to screen

Actor/director Denzel Washington’s screen adaptation of the play ‘Fences’ is the first of 10 August Wilson productions to successfully make it to the big screen.

By David Templeton

“The 10 stage plays of August Wilson are an American treasure,” actor/director Denzel Washington has repeatedly noted over the last few months. “Now that Fences has finally been put on screen, I plan to see all nine of the others made into films, too. That’s my life’s work, now.”

As “life’s works” go, transferring Wilson’s spectacular cannon from the live theater to the movie theater is one of the best one’s a fan of plays and films could ever imagine. Commonly listed alongside Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee as one of America’s greatest playwrights, Wilson’s own life’s work was the Century Cycle, 10 plays about the African-American experience, each one set in a different decade of the 20th century. Wilson finished the last two plays in the cycle—Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, and Radio Golf, set in 1997—in the final years of his life.

Smack in the middle of the cycle, set in 1957, is Fences, the first of two August Wilson plays to win the Pulitzer Prize. The other was The Piano Lesson, set in 1936.

Washington’s screen adaptation of Fences, it turns out, is the first of the 10 to successfully make it to the big screen, in part because of Wilson’s demand that only an African-American director be allowed to helm the project. The critically acclaimed film has now been nominated for a 2017 Best Picture Oscar, along with nominations for Best Actor (Washington), Best Supporting Actress (Viola Davis) and Best Adapted Screenplay, which was written by August Wilson himself, several years before he died in 2005.  

With the Oscars taking place this weekend, Washington is the odds-on favorite to win Best Actor, and though Damien Chazelle is expected to win Best Director for La La Land, some are predicting an upset victory of Washington in that category, too.

Either way, the success of Fences is an excellent kick-off to the plan of turning all of those other plays into movies. Washington insists that he will not appear in or direct all of them, but has recently inked a deal with HBO Films to executive produce the rest of the cycle. So he will most definitely be overseeing the epic project. No announcement has been made about which of Wilson’s plays will be the next to get the big-screen treatment, but given that Washington has started in the middle, it’s unlikely that he plans to bring them out in chronological order.

Another factor that Washington has yet to remark on is that not all of the plays appear to lend themselves to a cinematic treatment. In fact, the one recurring criticism of Fences, the movie, is that its “play nature” never gives way to the more opened-up demands of cinema. Wilson did not include a lot of scene changes in his plays, and every one of them is set in a single place—a living room, a backyard, a recording studio, a restaurant, a taxi station, etc.

“Wilson’s plays aren’t always that easy to stage … on the stage,” noted Jasson Minadakis, artistic director of Marin Theatre Company (MTC), following his company’s stellar stage production of Gem of the Ocean in January of 2016. That production was directed by Daniel Alexander Jones, and has been nominated for several awards by the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, with the awards being given out on March 27.

Asked last year when Marin Theatre Company would be staging its next August Wilson play—having staged Fences in 2014 and Seven Guitars in 2011—Minadakis said, “Soon, very soon,” adding that producing a Wilson play is not something one does unless all of the right people are in place. Thus his remark about August Wilson’s plays not always being easy to present in their original stage form. So bringing all of the Century Cycle to the screen is certainly going to be a challenge, regardless of which order Washington ultimately chooses to make and release them in.

My hope for the next one to hit the screen? Gem of the Ocean. Not only will it set the stage for what’s to come, by introducing the character of Aunt Esther—a former slave who is reportedly close to 300 years old, and has the power to “wash men’s souls.” Esther only appears once, in Gem, but she is referred to in several of the plays that follow. In fact, Fences is one of the few plays in the Century Cycle that carries no references to Aunt Esther at all, or makes reference to her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, in Pittsburgh, the focus of Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf, in which realtors debate demolishing Aunt Esther’s historic home to make way for apartments and chain stores.

So kicking off the next phase with Esther herself would make sense.

But more than that, I would argue that, for all of the challenges of putting that particular story on stage, Gem of the Ocean is the most potentially cinematic of all of Wilson’s works. Though the play is set entirely inside Esther’s home, there are constant references to action taking place outside, with stories of a man drowning under a bridge after stealing a bucket of nails from a nearby factory, a massive fire that at one point engulfs the factory, one or two hair’s-breadth escapes in a wagon and the remarkable moment when Aunt Esther takes the troubled Citizen Barlow on a trip to the City of Bones, at the bottom of the sea, where the remains of slaves tossed from ships are lain to rest.

In the play, it’s merely described. But in a movie, the right director—and I’m putting my hopes on Washington—will finally be able to bring the City of Bones to aching, shimmering, heartbreaking life. That, I have to say, is something I can’t wait to see.

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