Regional Reviews: San Francisco
West Coast Premier of
The well known Eureka Theatre in its new home is presenting the West Coast Premier of Joshua Reynold's controversial play Stonewall Jackson's House. This is the final and best production of their new season in this charming little theater. The theater is situated near the Embarcadero Center No 1 and is very easily reached by Bart or by car since there is a large parking area just two blocks from the theater. There are also many restaurants within walking distance of the theater. The productions are now in what was a former movie house called the Gateway Theater. Site lines and seats are excellent in this gem of a theater.
This is the first time that Stonewall Jackson's House has been presented since its sensational 7 month run at the 52nd Street Theatre in New York. I talked to the playwright Joshua Reynolds when he was out here during the rehearsals of the play. To quote him: "Producers are afraid of controversy whether from the left or the right. Everybody is scared and not even necessarily of offending groups. They're afraid of offending one person." The play is a conservative minded satire about white liberals and race. It received rave reviews in New York. It has not been produced any where else until now.
Stonewall Jackson's House is a fearlessly funny satire and it turns the sentimental self centered persons from the left into ideological mush. Mr. Reynolds unleashes his bristling wit on everything from welfare to poor Southern racists, black ideologues to affirmative action, censorship to cultural commissars. This play is thought, two acts of unsettling intelligence expressed as a bold theatrical revelation
The play opens like a cartoon. A black woman tour guide is conducting a tour of Stonewall Jackson's house in Virginia. There are two couples: a well read "redneck" couple from Alabama and a liberal white couple from Ohio. During the tour she talks aside to the audience to tell us how unhappy she is. She has money woes, romantic woes and on top of that a toothache. She says "I can't believe how full of hate I am." The liberal couple talk about their ideal life on a farm in Ohio. They paint their place as a pastoral paradise of spring water, soft voices and white spired churches. It waves a magic spell on the black tour guide and she asks the couple if she can become their slave. Needless to say, the couple is shocked but in the end they accept her as a slave. This is only one third of the play
The cartoon set goes up and we see a work table and chairs one a stage of a New York Rep company. These same characters now become the rep company's brawling directors and administrators debating this affront of political correctness. This captures the view of how one well intentioned theater does its business. The ideas swirl from topic to topic. Two of the members conceal their theater's patronizing cant under a superficial commitment to minorities and the "sexually precarious. The other character is a gullible actor enslaved to his senses and career lusts. The black girl becomes the dramaturg and writer of the play we have just seen.
Starla Benford plays the black tour guide and dramaturg and she is brilliant in the role. She played the role during its 7 month run in New York. She is acutely argumentative and vividly frustrated as the tendentiously conservative black dramaturg. Ron Faber repeats his New York role as the artfully muddled and shifty arch liberal director. Wanda McCaddon as the head of the rep company has some nice theatrical grande dame moments in the play. Rebecca Dines, a well known Bay Area actress is a particular delight as the provocatively sexy English visitor and Michael Keys Hall comes through nicely from nasty redneck to angry young playwright to guilt ridden actor.
This an excellent play and well acted by the group of 5 actors. It runs until June 13.
Yippee the off Broadway hit Cowgirls has finally come to the Marin Theatre Company where it is having its Northern California premier. Mary Murfitt's 1996 country western musical played two seasons to full houses in New York. It garnered rave reviews from the New York Press. The musical is again being staged by Eleanor Reissa who directed and choreographed the Old Globe and Off Broadway production.
Cowgirls fits nicely into two popular American theater genres. There have been several thinly disguised musicals in the past that have dominated regional and off Broadway theater. These include Pump Boys and Dinettes and Oil City Symphony. This is the brainchild of Mary Murfitt who wrote the music and lyrics of this musical. She is also the co creator of Oil City Symphony
The story line is thin. Jo has inherited a famous country western saloon in rural Kansas from her father. The saloon has fallen into desperate times and she just 24 hours to save the saloon from foreclosure. Jo is determine to keep the place open and to obtain cash to save the place from the ruthless banker. Jo books a group called the Cowgirl trio and she is sure this group will save the place. Crowds will come to see the group and the saloon will be saved. However, through a minor misunderstanding over the phone, she books the Coghill Trio, a classical musician group currently on a reunion tour. This group of three girls arrives expecting to play Beethoven, Brahams and Chopin.
Fate has brought these women together and soon the battle starts. It is classical vs. country. However the group slowly change the classics to good old toe tapping country western music. The last part of the show is the concert before the audience where every taps their feet, claps their hands and have a good time.
Yes, it is a corny contrivance of a musical however it wrings every last drop of tipsy moonshine humor from its crossbreeding of classical and country. The group performs everything from Chopin to Gilbert and Sullivan to twangy tunes that could have been on the TV series "Hee Haw" during this production.
The cast of 6 talented actresses play every instrument on their own. Some are very talented on the various instruments. Joe is played by Ginger Riley and she possesses a powerful set of pipes. She styles most of her numbers with vivid blue inflection. Amy Meyers plays an engagingly spacey new age Lesbian and she is an excellent vocalist. The other girls have very pleasing voices.
My main problem with the musical was that it was over amplified. There were some scenes that I had no idea what Jo was saying in her country accent. Many of the actresses were over stepping their lines and as a result many of the one liners were completely unintelligable.
I personally am not a great fan of country western music. I was weaned on the stuff growing up in southern Ohio and I had the occasion to work briefly at WLW-TV in Cincinnati on a Western show called "The Midwestern Hayride". This program was fed to the nation during the early days of television. Just for the record Marcia Lewis of "Chicago" worked briefly at the station also. The audience at the Marin Theatre loved the show. They clapped their hands to the music and tapped their feet to the rhythms. This is the last show of the current season. The Marin Theater Company will open the 99-00 season in September with the revival of Rogers and Hart's Pal Joey starring Katherine Crosby.
- Richard Connema