Regional Reviews: San Francisco
You, Nero, The Wedding Singer and Collected Stories
Emperor Nero (Danny Scheie) has summoned Scribonius (Jeff McCarthy), a largely forgotten playwright who wrote Death of a Sailmaker and Blood under the Aqueduct, to write a play about the egotistical ruler. Most of Rome is enjoying productions of things like Christians being eaten by lions or gladiators killing each other in the large coliseum, and the mimes have left the city to practice their art undercover. Nero wants to revive live theatre with actors (this sounds familiar, regarding what is happening today in live entertainment like "American Idol" and the violent video game "Manhunt 2").
This two hour and ten minute production has a lot going on besides the writing of the epic for Nero. We are introduced to some of the members of the imperial court; most look as if they came from the late Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatre Company. There is the conniving and oversexed mistress of Nero, Poppaea ( Susannah Schulman); the incestuously overly possessive mother Agrippina (Lori Larsen); two wonderful eunuchs (Mike McShane and Richard Doyle); and effeminate actor Fabiolo (Kasey Mahaffy), soon to become a eunuch, Oxus, and a mistress of Nero.
You, Nero has a lot of inside one-liners about today's theatre, such as A Chorus Line (Scribonius says to Nero, "We should have a Greek chorus for the play," and Nero replies, "Oh that would be great. We could have a line of actors dressed in minimum clothes telling the stories of their lives") or when Poppaea is being pressured by the playwright ("Oh what I wouldn't give to be back in Pompeii helping Mother re-grout the mosaics") and Agrippina entering the stage in a hurry ("Who do I have to fuck to get a cup of coffee around here?").
Danny Scheie (five seasons at Cal Shakes; created this role at South Coast Rep this year) is brilliant as Nero. He is terrific lying around wearing leopard-skin briefs and scurrying about in enchanted appreciation of an actor reading or his physique. He is wonderfully comic, crafty and caustic in his performance. Whenever he is on stage portraying the fey emperor, his comedy flirts with idyllic lunacy. His wild egotism finds definitive expression in a Vegas-style revue, which is a satire of "American Idol" and funny if a bit overdone.
Jeff McCarthy (original Broadway cast of Urinetown, The Pirate Queen, Side Show) gives a winning performance as Scribonius, who is also the narrator of the play. He shoulders most of the words and successfully levels with the audience directly to put the onstage escapades in the startling context of today's events that we called theatre. Lori Larson (Seattle-based actress created the role at South Coast Rep) gives a madcap presentation of Nero's mother, and could also be called his Oedipal sweetheart. Susannah Schulman (House of Blue Leaves and Continental Divide at OSF, Berkeley Rep and London) is tantalizing as the nymphomaniac Poppaea.
Kasey Mahaffy (originated the role at South Coast Rep) is delightful as the overly fey actor and later as a person who has lost his manhood to become a "mistress" to Nero. He brings a wonderful madness to the role. Mike McShane (regular on "Whose Line is It Anyway?" and many plays in the West End) and Richard Doyle (founding member of the South Coast Rep) play various roles. They are very entertaining as the two eunuchs. Donnell Hill, Maggie Mason and Sarah Moser are effective in small parts.
Director Sharon Ott instills the fast-paced farce with a wonderful freshness. The timing is perfect among the actors in each scene. Erik Flatmo has created an attractive set with a lot of room for the actors to scamper about. The back part of the set has Romanesque mosaics and arches through which the actors enter the stage. Paloma H. Young's costumes, especially for Nero, are campy and wonderful. Even the togas are a perfect for time of Nero. Peter Maradudin's lighting is inventive, merging the modern arena with the ancient setting of the Coliseum, especially in the Las Vegas revue scene.
You, Nero runs through June 28th at the Berkeley Repertory Thrust Stage at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets please call 510-647-2959 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. Carrie Fisher returns to the Berkeley stage in Wishful Drinking for 15 performances only July 9 through July 23rd.
Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
The Wedding Singer finally reaches the Bay Area, courtesy of The Willows Theatre Company. It opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York in 2006 and ran for 285 performances. The musical received five Tony nominations but won none. The New York critics dismissed the show. There were no horrible reviews, but they didn't gush over it. The show toured but never reached the San Francisco Bay Area. Two songs, "Somebody Kill Me" and "Causality of Love," have been cut for the production.
The Wedding Singer features a score by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin. The book, by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy, is based on the successful Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore film. The musical follows the outline but not the details of the 1998 film.
The plot is about a washed up rock 'n' roller who finds true love in the suburbs of New Jersey. Mr. Sklar's lampoon score traverses the full range of '80s styles, from power pop ballads to ear-piercing rock. They are some good songs in the score, like the toe-tapping "Pop" and "Saturday Night in the City," and the melodic and clever lyrics of "Come Out of the Dumpster." The second act opener is a rollicking song called "All About the Green" which could be a parody of the Michael Douglas character in Wall Street.
Ryan Mark Weible directs this audience-friendly production with two very good singers, Ryan Drummond and Sarah Aili, as the leads. Ryan Drummond (Leo Bloom in the DLOC production of The Producers) is appealing as Robbie. He has a good voice on his songs, including "Not That Kind of Thing." As Julia, Sarah Ahi (Grey Gardens at TheatreWorks) has a lovely full-range voice, especially on the strangely titled song "Come Out of the Dumpster" and "Someday."
Noel Anthony (Into the Woods at TheatreWorks) is very good as the egotistic womanizer Glen. He has good vocal chops singing the zippy ode to '80s greed, "All About the Green." The whole chorus, with Brittany Ogle (A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine) as Holly, shines in the lively "Pop." Danny Cozart (DLOC'S The Producers) and Brady Woolery as Robbie's pals show their inane side singing the joys of being "Single." Mary Kalita (Cats) sings "American Idol"-style in the sensual "Let Me Come Home." Linnea von Ahn (mostly performs at Vallejo Music Theatre) does a nice rap in "Move That Thing."
The ensemble performs the energetic choreography by Gia Solari well. Cartoon sets by Peter Crompton are fun. Tim Hanson has designed a good mix of music on the company's special musical unit.
The Wedding Singer played through June 14th at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd, Concord. They are presenting the campy Pageant at their cabaret located in the Campbell Theatre in Martinez through June 21. For tickets please call 925-798-1300 or on line at www.willowstheatre.org.
Collective Stories spans more than six years, starting in 1990. Ruth Steiner (Carol Mayo Jenkins), a short story writer/teacher who does not care much for socializing (she never picks up the phone even if it is ringing off the hook), has agreed to have 26-year-old Lisa Morrison (Anna Bullard) visit her Greenwich Village apartment for a private evaluation of her writing talent.
Lisa is a naïve and giddy student who has an overwhelming devotion to Ruth. The older teacher decides to let Lisa become her assistant. During the six years, Lisa obtains the total self-assurance of her mentor and even gets the older woman to talk about her past life and sad love affair with the self-destructive poet Delmore Schwartz. Ruth never wrote the story that she shared with Lisa, so the companion incorporates Ruth's story into a novel that is a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. Since there is no plagiarism, the question becomes whether or not confidences shared in what has become a close friendship are morally and ethically fair game as a source of literature.
There is a constant shift in the relationship between these two women as the drama unfolds. While watching the two characters I could not help thinking of Eve and Margo Channing in All About Eve. Ruth's relationship with Lisa as student, assistant, protégé, comrade and finally betrayer is a hornet's nest of passion, jealousy and ambiguities. The final confrontation between them is an awesome tour de force of acting.
Both actresses work superbly together. Carol May Jenkins (regular on TV's "Fame" and many years Broadway and Off-Broadway) commands the stage as the venerable fiction writer. You will find yourself listening less to the dialogue than watching and listening to this excellent actress' gestures and speaking nuances, and you can see from both splendid actresses the rise and fall of a friendship.
Anna Bullard (Enchanted April, Around the World in 80 Days, Magic Forest Farm) is magnetic as she changes from a naïve scatterbrained student with a genuine respect for and devotion to her teacher to a woman with callous, calculated, commercial reasoning that commences her celebrity status.
Elizabeth Craven, who directs, keeps the play's six scenes moving forward at a rapid pace. David R. Wright has designed the cozy sitting room of Ruth's book-lined house on the intimate stage.
Collected Stories ran through June 13 at the Cinnabar Theatre, 3333 Petaluma Blvd N , Petaluma . For more information, visit www.cinnabartheater.org.
Photo: Eric Chazankin