The Illusion @ Fresno City College

Tony Kushner’s luxurious adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 1636 comedy “L’Illusion Comique”– here known as The Illusion— gets the gilded treatment at Fresno City College.  FCC staff and students, under the direction of Janine Christl, give this linguistically juicy, visually stimulating production their full powers to great effect.

The play itself is a treatise on illusion, story, memory,  love, and the great power of the theater itself.  Best known for the epic Angels in America, Kushner is not immediately known for lighthearted plays, but The Illusion is, of course, deceiving on that score.  Beneath it’s comic set up is an undercurrent of serious thoughtfulness.  It is a brilliant choice for production- hovering somewhere between classic and contemporary.

And magical. We can’t forget the magic.

The magic is really where the heart of this FCC production lies.  The power of the staging and lighting is integral to the work and is executed flawlessly.  Set  design by Christopher R Boltz successfully creates the appropriate atmosphere for an otherworldly magician’s cave, while his rich and specific lighting design provides some of the best magic tricks in the show– complete with misdirection and magical reveal.  Debbi Shapazian’s luxe period costumes, which are incredibly well researched and executed beautifully, also highlight the classic form while looking very appealing to the modern eye.  The full use of the technical staff’s capabilities are on display in this production.

But the real magic happens in the student acting and the buoyant direction of Christl.  The first powerful taste we get of The Illusion’s world is from Keshawn Keene’s Alcandre– the magician– with his rich voice and powerful presence ruling his little world.  As his magical foil is the versatile Ben McNamara as his servant The Amanuensis, who contorts his long limbs into an almost spider-like stance, taught and ready to strike.

Down below the set’s rocky upper-levels, are a dashing Jono Cota as the young romantic lead, Bridget Manders as the grandly cultivated ingenue, and Lena Auglian as the bold chambermaid.  Each play their part well, crafting their scenes with a comedic energy and intelligence.  Manders, in particular, activates the language of her role with skill allowing for nuance and change in colors for her character(s).   David Manning is also a standout in his role of Matamore the fop, flipping the cliches of his first act performance into a turn of great consideration and feeling in the second.  Josh Hanson as the romantic rival and Luis Ramentes as the longing, if unimaginative, father, round out the cast with solid performances.

But the real stand out is actually Christl, who manages to shape and form a fantastical ride full of love, betrayal, magic, swordfights, death and laughs into a beautifully executed “prestige” at the end of the play– and still had room for one of the most theatrical moments I’ve seen onstage in a long time.

The Illusion is one terrific magic trick.  Don’t look away, or you might miss it!

The Illusion plays at  Fresno City College Theater, October 12, 13, 14, and 15 at 7:30 p.m. and October 9 and 15 at 2 p.m.   Tickets are $14 general, $12 student/seniors/FCC Staff, $6 groups of 10 or more. Box office:  (559) 442-8221 or  boxoffice@fresnocitycollege.edu

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“Hamlet” at the Independent Shakespeare Company, Los Angeles

I know it is passe to be excited about Hamlet, but I ALWAYS get excited about Hamlet.

Some people believe that once you’ve seen it a time or two, you’re done.  But I’m sorry.  I cry ‘shenanigans’ at that.  The reason Hamlet is Hamlet is because you can see it as many different ways with as many different casts as possible and see something fabulous in it.  No matter if it is the best Hamlet, the worst Hamlet, or the myriad Hamlets in between, there is still something to find in it.  If you have the eyes to look.

I’d highly recommend the Independent Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet for exactly that sense of freshness that one hopes to find in something so familiar.

David Melville as Hamlet (with Sean Pritchett as Claudius)

David Melville’s Dane is funny, intense and thoroughly engaging, wandering back and forth between the prince’s impulsive cruelties and his whimsical humor.  Director Melissa Chalsma’s staging is neat and brisk and her interpretations worth considering. The costumes by Tamar Michelle and stage design by Caitlin Lainoff have a rough-hewn, unpolished look, which lends the outdoor production a DIY sort of feel.  But from me, that’s a compliment.  I’m odd in that I will always take unpolished, raw, gritty, imperfect, but ultimately human Shakespeare over ultra-varnished design and dead performances, any day.

Standouts in the production are Luis Galindo as Old Hamlet’s Ghost/The Player King/The Gravedigger who lent every moment onstage great urgency and Bernadette Sullivan as Gertrude, whose Closet Scene with Melville is one of the best and most moving I’ve seen anywhere.

The Closet Scene (Melville and Sullivan)

The entire cast is incredibly well-spoken, conveying the amazing language naturally and clearly.  The entire ensemble uses humor to great effect and I have to say I was impressed that I could hear nearly every word spoken by the unamplified actors’ voices. I was sitting in the upper quarter of the over 900 person audience (My companions, who are not as accustomed to listening so closely to actors as I am, had more trouble getting all of the language.  But I told them to listen harder!).

All in all, this Hamlet is worth the trek into Griffith Park if you’re in the LA area or Bakersfield.  It runs three more Sunday evenings (August 14, 21 and 28 at 7:00 p.m.  Admission is FREE.  http://www.iscla.org/

Three Tall Women @ California Public Theater

California Public Theater tackles another major issues play fresh off of their Lonely Planet outing.   Just two weeks after LP, founder S. Eric Day opens Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning Three Tall Women at the Voice Shop in Fresno.

The first Sunday matinee could have used an extra week of rehearsal, certainly.  There were some line recall and cue pick up issues from actor Julie Andrews (playing the central Old Woman), but she valiantly plunged forward throughout the first act.  Her part is certainly the hardest in the play in that portraying the thinking patterns and mannerisms of an Alzheimer’s patient is a tall order, even for the most experienced performer.  She might have been able to find better legs for her first act performance with another week of preparation.

Alisse Christensen, as the caregiver/Middle Aged Woman, has a warmth and accessibility to her, although she is much stronger in her delivery and characterization in the second act than in the first.

The standout of this production, however, is Jessi Knotts as a lawyer/The Young Woman.  In the first act she has a fire, an urgency to her frustration with the Old Woman that clearly speaks to her fear of growing old.  A germ of that character carries over into the second act where, playing the 26 year old self of the Old Woman, we see her idealism, her almost obstinate naïveté, and her terror at facing life’s compromises and heartbreaks.  She steals the show out from underneath itself.

Three Tall Women is a sensitive study on what it is to age, to live, and finally to end one’s life.  It runs July 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24 (Fri, Sat at 8 p.m. and  Sun at 2 p.m.) at the Voice Shop (1296 Wishon Ave, Fresno).  Tickets are $12.

“Skin Deep” at Good Company Players goes beneath the surface and succeeds

 

Can good acting and directing save a poor script?  For the most part, in the cast of Skin Deep at Good Company Players, the answer is a resounding yes.

So lets just get the script elements out of the way, shall we?  Skin Deep by Jon Lonoff feels a little. . . dusty.  It depends upon the box set, sitcom style format common to mainstream theater in the 1980’s and feels about as fresh as an episode of “One Day at a Time”.

Don’t get me wrong, “One Day at a Time” had some great characters and the zingers to bring on the laughs, but at its heart it lacked the emotional support to keep the comedy real.  Skin Deep can suffer from those same sitcom effects: lots of rapid-fire self-deprecation, the emotional relationships between the characters are muted in favor of zippy punch-lines, and a difficulty in identifying characters’ motivations for actions other than the demands of the script.  It also has the feel of a script written in the early 80’s and redrawn for a 21st century audience.  A few references and jokes were confusing in that it’s hard to pin down what time period they’re in.

But still, there is enough hanging on its bones that an intelligent director and a talented cast can flesh out on their own.

At the center of the talented cast is Kristin Lyn Crase as Maureen Mulligan, an overweight woman trying desperately to fend off the attempts of her picture perfect sister, Sheila (Ashley Taylor), to marry her off.  For the most part, Maureen seems like a happy person—save one area of her romantic past with which she hasn’t quite come to terms and which she may cling to her weight in order to avoid in the future. And this is the first place I applaud Crase’s choices as an actor and the production’s choices as a whole:  so often the overweight are portrayed as bitter sad-sacks with no desire to enter into the world.  Crase’s Maureen likes her job, has a cute (if slightly sloppy) apartment, and does her hair and owns nice clothes.  This characterization alone is a braver choice than the easy, but ultimately unsatisfying, portrayal of a plump, bitter mouse.

Crase’s Maureen is good-humored, warm and deeply self-aware, able to feel and acknowledge her emotions even as she may be casting them aside with food or jokes.  The specificity with which she chooses her actions and her line deliveries in this performance is far more than the script gives her.  We are, perhaps, seeing a character with whom this actor is intimately acquainted. Crase rises above the material with a grace and freshness that carries the audience along with her.

The ensemble also elevates the material with their serious and heartfelt comedic work.  This is a group that obviously likes each other and that sense of togetherness translates to the family structure on the stage.

Taylor as Sheila is particularly snappy and on the ball in her portrayal of a tightly-wound, insecure wife and mother obsessed with maintaining her youthful looks.  She moves like a tigress, her svelty curves in high heels saying as much about her character as her line delivery.  Her best laughs come at the moment her character reveals the real pain in her life, her mask slipping to show Sheila’s insecure impulses.

“The Davids” (David Marinovich as Squire, Sheila’s overly flirtatious husband and David Chavarria as Joe, Maureen’s blind date) work their way into the story’s fabric under the radar, but then bubble to the surface with some finely drawn character development.  If a few of their bits come off a little stage-y (a tentative kiss that’s a little too drawn out and a very chaste hug creating all kinds of havoc between the sisters), it is excusable considering their novice status as local actors.  Given their experience level they do some really terrific work on the whole.

Which is probably due to the finely-tuned direction of J. Daniel Herring.  Herring has taken the best of the sitcom tv tropes and used them to good effect with the humor of this play, but also guided his cast toward creating—almost out of thin air– the real emotion under the surface of each character. He takes the personal issues brought forth by this play seriously, not just as a running gag. This technique is what gives this mediocre script real structure and substance and makes this production a truly outstanding offering.

Skin Deep runs at Good Company Player’s 2nd Space Theater now til August 7th.  http://gcplayers.com/2nd-space-theatre

The Crucible @Good Company Players

As a theater practitioner, I’m always bitching about the fact that there are few bloggers in the Fresno area who post about their experience with plays they attend– especially when their experience is a good one.

So, I now put my money where my mouth is.

Last night, I attended opening night of “The Crucible” at Good Company Players’ Second Space Theater and was treated with a solid, gripping, and at times humorous production.

“The Crucible” is one of those shows that people feel they “ought” to go to because it is a classic, it has so much to say, blah blah blah. . . but you often dread it because there have been so many poor productions of it done.  You’ve possibly sat through a few of them.

But then you see a nicely staged, committed production and you think, “Ah.. . THAT’S why The Crucible is The Crucible.  That’s why it is a classic.  It is actually a really terrific script!”

Eric Day’s direction keeps the pace up nicely with the simple suggested set and easygoing movement of the actors in the 3/4 space.  It’s group scenes don’t get bogged down with complicated movement or self-consciously clever staging.  And Day emphasizes the big moments of the piece with verve and energy in the staging.

The acting among the ensemble had its opening night blips in dialogue, but overall this is one of the most even of large casts I’ve seen in a local production.  Everyone is doing everything they can to rise to the level of Arthur Miller‘s material without being overwhelmed by it.

Eric Orum, Jessica Knotts and Chris Carsten bring considerable presence, ability and commitment to their roles that lead the ensemble to a well-timed, clear, and convincing world of Salem.

Orum, as John Proctor, has a freshness and earnestness that he brings to the role of a man dealing honestly with his own demons.  His frustration and ardent desire to do right by his wife and his community is palpable and he succeeds in giving us a concerto of different notes in his performance.

Knotts’ Abigail hovers between the anger of a woman and the selfishness of a child with a delicate balance.  Her straightforward sense of action establishes her as a clear leader on the stage and among the histrionic girls in the story.

And Carsten’s Danforth is a strong combination of rationality and superstition that is almost unfathomable, yet whose motivations are perfectly clear and understandable to the audience.

Backed up by a solid ensemble with notable performances by Jeff Tuck as Hale and Suzanne Grazyna as Mrs. Putnam, this production creates its own momentum and stays focused at every turn.

There are a few moments where the actions of the actors lack the urgency and high stakes of their words, but overall these are brief and forgivable in such a complex script.  Overall, the production is everything I like:  thoughtful, emotional, stylish and clear.

Higher praise than that doesn’t come from me!

 

Light in the Piazza @Stageworks Fresno

dragged my decidedly non-musical-loving boyfriend out in the rain for this show.  I got my cute shoes wet.  I hadn’t eaten a proper meal all day, which makes me decidedly cranky.

Luckily, this beautifully staged production of The Light in the Piazza was worth it!

Director Joel Abels brings considerable thought and style to this musical in terms of aesthetic and staging.  The leading actors bring forth tremendous skill in performing the lush music while a nearly seamless ensemble supports the show effortlessly.

The staging in an “avenue” set up– with audience seated on opposite sides of each other and the playing space being a long, open avenue between– gives a sense of expansiveness to the story in terms of time and space.  It is a smart and effective move for setting the tone of the piece from the get-go.

In terms of performance, the vocal abilities of this cast are astounding.  Alternating between power and height and blended nuance, the voices of this group packs a punch.  In overall performance, however, the standouts are Taylor Abels as Clara Johnson, a young woman on holiday with her mother in Italy, and Tyson Pyles as Fabrizio, the son of a local merchant who falls for Clara.  For such young actors, the two of them have a remarkable handle on acting their way through a song with great urgency and high stakes.   Never once did I catch them in an inactive moment, wading in the feeling of a song.  Instead, at each turn, they actively pursue something of dire importance to them– embodying the thematic number “Aiutami” throughout the entire show.

Particularly memorable in the supporting cast are Ashley Taylor, whose fiery Franca explodes forth with great feeling, and a very effective Greg Ruud as Roy Johnson, the absent father left in South Carolina.  This role could be thrown away with its stationary staging under a lighting special, but Ruud gives it an oomph which really completes the Johnson family picture.

In terms of spectacle, don’t expect “Phantom of the Opera”– the staging is slight, elegant, and minimal, but with a style and attention to detail that makes it a feast for the eyes.  Izzy Einsidler’s lighting design is evocative and subtle, but the star of the design is truly Lisa Schumacher’s period-attentive costumes.  Created with the beautifully restrictive color palette of a sun-washed Florentine square, the Fellini-esque styles are a joy to behold.

As a whole, Stageworks Fresno’s The Light in the Piazza succeeds in giving audiences a beautiful evening’s experience in an emotionally grand story.

NOTE:  The first two evening’s performances were sold out 24 hours before curtain.  So do not wait to book your tickets and reservations or you WILL miss out on this one!

The Light in the Piazza runs March 18-27 at the California Arts Academy Severence Theater.  http://www.stageworksfresno.com

 

Hamlet @ The Spotlight in Bakersfield

As a theater practitioner, you know you’re watching someone else’s good production when you start thinking, “Yeah, I’m gonna steal that. .. “.     Not borrow.  Not “ be influenced by”. Full on STEAL.

While sitting in the Sunday matinee of the Spotlight Theater’s production of HAMLET, the impulses to thieve became too many for me to track and remember, which means the show went beyond good theater and into level of  immersive storytelling rarely seen in a community theater production of Shakespeare.  When the Spotlight says they’re going “beyond community theater”, they mean it.

Director Brian Sivesind seems to have a special feeling for Hamlet .  His last year’s Romeo and Juliet was fine– quite good in moments– but suffered from some structural devices and a relatively green cast.

Not so in Denmark.

His team managed a tremendous feat:  presenting Hamlet as an ensemble piece and placing the princely Dane square in the middle of a fully realized web of relationships, rather than setting him apart and watching him act in a bubble.

Sivesind makes a few significant choices that contribute to that ensemble feel.  The first, is the book-ending of the play with Hamlet’s final exchange with Horatio, telling him to draw his breath in pain, to tell his story.  And so the story begins, as a memory play from Horatio’s point of view, with some players brought forward, some parts cut out, a few things rearranged, and some details skimmed over in transitions.

The second choice is those transitions.  Sivesind opts for a technique he’s used before, but never so effectively:  slow-motion, stylized movement of the cast to the underscored music of Radiohead.  The movement is evocative, and useful in setting the emotional tone for the scene to come and in clarifying some of Shakespeare’s “unscenes”– scenes that happen offstage but are spoken of by characters in the play.

The imagery that these stylized transitions create become a feast for the eyes. Two in particular– one where Hamlet looks upstage with a grated special illuminating him from above and beyond, and one where Hamlet is pulling Polonius’ dead body– resound in the dark parts of our minds.

The real nitty-gritty of Hamlet always happens in the acting, though.  Jon Sampson, a local financial planner with an earlier career in professional theater, gives a stirring, energetic performance as Hamlet, but offers it up without the fussiness or self-consciousness that other actors have been prey to in the role.  His work is seamless, clear, and rich.  He makes it look easy, which undoubtedly means he racked his soul with each rehearsal.

What’s more, he illuminates the role better than several of the Hamlets I’ve seen in the last 15 years, making certain shifts in Hamlet’s emotional state perfectly understandable– even justifiable– which prevents Hamlet from grating on our nerves with his indecisiveness.  Suddenly, Hamlet’s heretofore ridiculous sense of inactivity becomes perfectly plausible and sympathetic.

Jon Sampson plays Hamlet at the Spotlight Theatre

The rest of the ensemble is adroit; Danvir Singh Grewal’s Horatio is a particular strength.  (How relieved I was to see a strong actor in the role as some Horatios are so often milque-toasty.)  Kamala Kruszka’s Gertrude shines in the “closet scene” and Joe Cannon’s Claudius is at his best in the latter half of the play.  All of these actors seemed to understand the incredibly high stakes of the action and the urgency in their performances were palpable.  There were a few moments in the early acts where I wished I could feel that tension bubbling just under the surface, but the urgency came along when it needed.

One of the huge assets of this production, undoubtedly, is the text and vocal coaching of Jennifer Sampson.  Buoyant, bright and seemingly effortless, the treatment of the language in this play is top-notch by every single actor on the stage– not one excepted.  In fact, I heard only one misspoken word in the entirety of the show.  Add to that Jon Sampson’s ability to use the full register of his buttery voice– from tenor to low baritone– and this show is, at its core, a truly pleasurable listening experience.

The costumes, designed by Ellie Sivesind, are functional and fashionable– modern but without too much reference to time and place. The black, white and grays of the set, lighting and costumes make for a pulled together noir feel.  Particularly good are the backlit elements of Jarred Clowes’ lighting design and the singularly purposeful use of red at key moments.

The cutting of the text is sleek, pragmatic and purposeful (but I still think there are one or two things that I could cut even more!) and some slight re-arranging of text works seamlessly for the structure established by Sivesind. The other-worldly style of the movement is effective in the overall concept of Horatio’s memory, but could be improved by the actors’ focusing more specifically on their movement choices and use of their body instruments (Sampson, Sing-Grewal, and Miguel Torres, excepted). The use of slow-mo for pivotal elements of the story– the murder of Polonius and the final sword-fight– are potent, but perhaps a tad overdrawn in some spots.  I also wish they could have been sped up in part three of the production, as that’s when the actions of the story are snowballing toward their tragic end.

The use of Radiohead’s music to underscore the story gives the play an added ethereal boost and is one of my favorite elements of the style of the show. The direction, technical style  and design possess that just-right level of minimalism; it is complete but not flashy, nothing’s extraneous, but nothing’s missing.

All in all, Sivesind’s troupe shows us the essentials of Hamlet for not just a modern audience– for any audience.  This isn’t about “relevance” or “history” or “modernism” or “the classics”.  This production is the story of a group of people with a stack of big, big problems– and the places their choices take them.

Hamlet continues its run at The Spotlight Theater in Bakersfield through  April 3rd. Tickets are $15-$20.  The Spotlight Theater is located at 1622 19th Street in Downtown Bakersfield.