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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Les Miserables @ CMT

Children’s Musical Theaterworks offers up a fantastic centerpiece production of Les Miserable (School Edition) for artistic director Skyler Gray’s inaugural season.  It’s cohesive, stylish, and very effective.

First a word:  this production is double cast with 15-20 year olds.  Donald Munro reviewed the production’s Red Cast last week.  I saw the Black Cast.

The production values are on this piece are the highest I’ve seen them in three years.   The set by Chris Mangels is a mish-mash of a distressed wood and brick stacked high and looking as though it is ready to just fall over– in a good way.  It moves well when it needs to and provides Gray’s staging several beautiful, high spots for great moments with the principle cast.

A highlight of the design was Laura Vogt’s lighting which captured the feel and tone of the 1862 illustrations of the original Les Miserable novel by Victor Hugo, and her stars effect was simple but very elegant.

Gray makes effective use of his troupe of actors against this backdrop, utilizing deft  group movement and choreography within the constraints of the rambling set.

In terms of performance, the Black cast worked a strong and convincing production.  Standouts were Haylee Cotta as Eponine whose simple delivery of her character’s desires and sadness is fine and sharp like a rapier point; Bryce Moser’s Enjolras is performed with a strong physicality and tremendous commitment that will make him a standout period actor when he grows into his full form; and Ryan Torres’ beautifully sung Valjean is, at moments, heartbreaking.  Torres, at only 15, has been blessed with a beautiful voice. Currently, though, he has the sort of awkward frame that will require that he be cast much older– until he’s around 30 and everything balances out.  But that dichotomy gives his Valjean a sensitivity and thoughtfulness that is appealing.

Are there times when the cast’s youth belie themselves?  Sure. But CMT is a training program for young performers.  And I, for one, was gratified to see training in musical theater acting yielding results on the stage of Les Miserables.  No matter which person was center stage, there was thought and imagination behind the terrific vocal work.

And it is that cultivation of imagination that will generate terrific shows in the future of CMT.

There are only two shows left (one in 45 minutes), the houses have been sold out,  and it closes tonight.  If you missed it, make sure you don’t make the same mistake for CMT’s Holiday Musical Annie directed by Leslie Mitts Martin, auditioning in October.

Go to www.cmtworks.org for more info.

“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/

Mini-Review: Beauty and the Beast, Jr @Stageworks Fresno

Delightful in its ebullience and utterly charming in its staging, Stageworks Fresno’s Beauty and the Beast, Jr. is highly recommended for families with children this summer.  The familiar Disney™ musical is truncated to a brisk 100 minutes with some real moments of theater magic performed by students under the age of 16.

A real asset to the production is the storybook set and the inventive use of puppetry to portray the inhabitants of the enchanted castle– a concession to the very intimate space in the Dan Pessano Theater— designed by Matthew McGee.  The students using the table top puppets for the likes of Lumiere (Kyla Kennedy), Cogsworth (Jacob Moon), and Mrs. Potts (Julie Cowger, during the performance I saw) had some of the best performances in the show.  It was as if requiring the actors to be so physically specific with their puppetry made their own movement more precise and expressive.  Their performances started in their bodies, carried through the puppet and then channeled back to their bodies making them all complete units as they sang and danced with the animated props.  All of this only heightened the effect of those actors singing “Human Again”, taking the idea of human animation to a truly imaginative level.

Also very effective was The Beast’s final moments in Act I. At the beginning of “If I Can’t Love Her”, the vocals seemed off, but soon enough director Joel Abels moves the The Beast’s platform centerstage and highlights it with Ben Holley’s evocative lighting.  And suddenly, young William Bishop flawlessly makes a key change, then hits and sustains the final dramatic high note of the number to chilling effect.

Emma Denbensten, as Belle, does a fine job– her singing and speaking voice is absolutely beautiful.  As a young performer, she is just on the verge of taking the expressiveness of her vocals and extending them down into her body.  The character work of Kennedy as Lumiere and Sydney Swearengin as LeFou is outstanding, both vocally and in terms of character/body movement.  Also charming were Cerece Duggan, Camden Johnson, and Greysa Lemons as the Silly Girls and Kyla Martin (again, on the night I saw it) as Chip.

In terms of staging, lighting, and overall performances by a student cast, Beauty and the Beast, Jr. will certainly inspire your young audience members in the wonder of theater magic.  It runs only one more weekend, so make your reservations in advance.

Thursday, July 14 (Menken Cast)-8:00 P.M.
Friday, July 15 (Ashman Cast)-5:00 P.M.
Friday, July 15 (Ashman Cast)- 8:00 P.M.

Saturday, July 16 (Menken Cast)-2:00 P.M.
Saturday, July 16 (Menken Cast)-8:00 P.M.

Tickets are $20.

http://www.brownpaperticke​ts.com/event/177875

“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