Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Trojan Women, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Tragedy: A Tragedy

Acting is Stunning in Euripides' The Trojan Women

Carla Spindt and Nora el Samahy
The Greek tragedian Euripides wrote the anti-war tragedy The Trojan Women more then 2000 years ago and it is still being performed around the world today. The play has relative importance to today's war in the Middle East. It is being presented by the Aurora Theatre through May 11th.

Many playwrights have presented versions of the Peloponnesian War drama. Jean Paul Sartre's adaptation was a popular version of the drama for many years.  Edith Hamilton's translation of the tragedy was used for the 1971 Michael Cacoyannis film starring Katherine Hepburn.  There was even a musical version with music and lyrics by Maurice Chernick in the U.K. in 1983.  Recently, James Morewood adapted the play in the United Kingdom for presentation in the provinces.

Ellen McLaughlin has now adapted the massive work into a shortened, one-hour version centering on the trials and tribulations of the women after the fall of Troy. They are the spoils of war and will become slaves to the Greek victors. The time is the present and the setting is San Francisco, since there are four rectangular box tubes in the set that reminds the audience of the Vaillancourt Fountain in Justin Herman Plaza on the Embarcadero in our city.

The women wear contemporary outfits such as that of schoolgirls, businesswomen and even a nurse. In a brief scene at the beginning of drama, the costume worn by Poseidon (Julian Lopez-Morillas) is a summer white American captain's naval uniform.  

The Trojan Women starts out with seven women weeping and wailing, thrashing about on a wooden floor. They are led by Hecuba (Carla Spindt), Queen of Troy, and they murmur, "Troy is lost" as they speak erratically of the comforts they had in their former lives. This goes on for a considerable amount of time. The drama comes alive when Helen of Troy (Nora el Samahy), looking like a Hollywood starlet in a brilliant red dress, large sunglasses and a full length fur coat, comes down some steps to the center of the three-sided stage. She says she was the cause of the war, and the women pounce on her, causing severe cuts and bruises to her body.

The Trojan Women has several highly dramatic scenes in a short space of time.  Andromache (Emile Talbot), wife of the slain Hector, comes onto the scene with her newborn child who will be chattel to the victor Achilles' son. However, a Greek soldier (Matthew Purdon) declares that the baby must be thrown over the walls of Troy.  Emile Talbot, in true Greek tragedy acting, gives an outstanding anguished performance over her fated infant. 

Sarah Nealis gives a spellbinding performance as Cassandra, giving prophesies of what will happen to the women. Carla Spindt, as Hecuba, seems sublime in her grief and controlled as a royal among the refugees.  However, she becomes animated when she is hurt by the farsighted ravings of her daughter Cassandra.

Noel el Samahy gives a splendid performance in her brief role of Helen of Troy while chorus members Erika Antonsen, Siobhan Doherty, Gwen Loeb, Charisse Loriaux, Sepideh Makabi and Tara Tomicevic give exceptional performances.  Julian Lopez-Morillas and Matthew Purdon give good performances their small roles.

Director Barbara Oliver stresses the contemporary setting and subliminally confronts our part in the current war in the Middle East. 

The Trojan Women will play at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St, Berkeley through May 11th.  For tickets, call 510-843-4822 or visit  Their next production will be the West Coast premiere of Keith Bunin's The Busy World is Hushed opening on June 13 through July 20th.

Photo: David Allen

A Robust Production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream has had many interpretations over the years. I have seen many productions, including the strange production of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s that was set in the Old South with a Tara mansion as the palace, the Peter Brook production of 1970 that took place in a gymnasium with ropes and trapezes suspended from the ceiling, and recently a rock musical version in Seattle that was set in a high school gym.

It is difficult to produce the comedy in an original rendering without appearing gimmicky. Michael Butler has reinvented the piece for a 21st century audience and has the most wonderful movement and design of the Bard's classic, presented by the Center Repertory Company of Walnut Creek at the Lesher Center for the Arts.

A thoroughly committed 18-member ensemble is guided through the ins and outs of the Bard's intertwining plotlines.  This A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place, as one actress in the production notes, in the mind of director Michael Butler.  It could be called a "timeless" version of the Bard's great work. Sometimes it looks like the land of Oz, a Beatles movie, or a Marx Brothers comedy mixed with the Monty Python television series.  All of the pomp and circumstance has been eliminated in the scenes between Theseus (Kalli Jonsson) and Hippolyta (Carie Kawa). Actually, this pair becomes their subconscious selves, Oberon and Titania as the King and Queen of the Fairies, as they dream out their conflicts and marry happily at the end.  The fairies remind me of a ballet class in a remedial wing of a school for girls.  Two of them use ropes from the ceiling to swing in and out of the audience, looking like dual Peter Pans.

The highlight of this two-hour and thirty-minute production is the side-splitting antics of Peter Quince (Liam Vincent) and his company of amateur actors.  Their play within a play of Pyramus and Thisbe is hilarious and, like everything else in this production, it is packed with verve, fizz and brash energy.  Mark Anderson Phillips is uproarious as Bottom. He plays the role with a great deal of humanity, as one of the greatest "hams" of all time. His take on the character when he becomes an ass is brilliant. Jeff Draper as Tom Snout, a tinker, is terrific, playing the "wall" in the play within a play. Michal A. Berg looks like the man in the moon and Joel Roster roars like a lion in the "tragedy" of Pyramus and Thisbe.

The romantic wordplay among petite and lively Hermia (Lizzie Calogero), her love sick Helena (Elise Youssef) - both dressed like Shirley Temple in the film Heidi - and their male suitors Demetrius (Darren Bridget) and Lysander (Adam Yazbeck) - dressed in what could be Beatles outfits - is vivacious and endearing.    This is the first time I have ever seen a Lysander playing an accordion in a scene.  Even when Helena says that the night is tedious, it certainly is not to the audience.

Carie Kawa as Hippolyta and Titania gives a top notch performance in both roles.  Her diction is clear and she is classy saying the Bard's iambic pentameter verse. Kalli Jonsson gives commanding performances of Oberon and Theseus.  Mick Mize jumps all over the stage as Puck, but he seem more like a hip juvenile delinquent than a magical being.

The dancing fairies Sarah Bush, Lena Gatacalian, Fredrika Keefer and Krissy Keefer (who choreographed the comedy) give sprightly performances.   Richard Louis James is first rate in the small role of Egeus.

Kim A. Tolman has designed a strange opening set that looks like a white washed-out hunting lodge as the palace of Theseus and Hippolyta. The set flattens down and there are weird looking trees and a man in the moon looking down on the proceedings. B. Modern has designed a hodge-podge of outfits that look like something out of a Beatles movie. Lighting Designer Kurt Landisman gives excellent moods to the whole production while composer Marc Ream has written avant guard melodies for the production.  Krissy Keefer's choreographing of the fairies is charming.

A Midsummer Night's Dream played through April 26th at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. 

The Musical of Musicals will be their next production. It opens on May 14th. For tickets call 925-943-7469 or visit

Will Eno's Tragedy: A Tragedy Stretches One Joke Too Long

Thomas Jay Ryan, Marguerite Stimpson and Danny Wolohan
The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting the United States premiere of Will Eno's strange Tragedy: A Tragedy at their Thrust Theatre. Watching this short play is like watching paint dry.  The premise of the dark satire is a mock television newscast about three reporters in the field covering what could be an apocalyptic event.  The sun has set - maybe for the last time, or then again, perhaps not.

Tragedy: A Tragedy lampoons the preposterous sycophantic qualities of nightly television news.  The play contains a one-line joke premise that could be done on "Saturday Night Live" in 10 minutes. There is a clever conceit in the first 10 minutes of this farce, but when stretched to over one hour it becomes a tedious production.  Even when the moderator Frank (David Cromwell), who looks and acts like Walter Cronkite, says there is a break, the three reporters just sort of stand around or do some trivial thing.  This is meant to be funny.  Will Eno has been compared to Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation. However, I believe the Irish Beckett is head and shoulders over this playwright.

The whole production, which has some clever lines, probably would be much better if trimmed and played on a small, intimate stage.  John in the Field (Thomas Jay Ryan) is funny when most of his conversations to the television world are about dogs.  Michael, Legal Advisor (Max Gordon Moore), comes up with some droll remarks, especially when reading letters from the governor.   Constance at the Home (Marguerite Stimpson) tries to come up with tedious insights into anything.   The Witness (Danny Wolohan) has little or nothing to say but "yes" and "no" but comes up with some sort of inane speech at the end of the play.

All four actors do excellent work with the humdrum script. David Cromwell is very good as Frank in the Studio, the Cronkite-like moderator. He has a dignified silver-toned voice that is pleasant to hear.  When things seem to fall apart, he maintains his dignity.   Max Gordon Moore's performance is solid. He has a great weird language which captures the empty repetition of news reporters ("I've just gotten word that we don't know anything more").

Thomas Jay Ryan as the John has some very funny lines (the moderator says, "Is this sense of tragedy palpable?" and John replies, "Yes, you can almost feel it").  He has a hang-dog look about him as he gives idiotic news reports.

Antje Ellermann has designed a compact news desk in the center of the stage. On the right side is a white, painted wood siding home which is Constance's "home" location.  There is trodden grass underneath John's field location. Michael is in front of a gray government building.  Matt Frey's austere lighting occasionally immerses the audience in a ruthless glare.

Tragedy: A Tragedy closed on April 13 at the Berkeley Repertory's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St. Berkeley.   The Company's current new is Figaro adapted by Steven Epp and Dominique Serrand. It runs through June 8th.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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