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San Francisco by Richard Connema

At Home at the Zoo, What the Butler Saw, Cabaret


A Riveting Production of At Home at the Zoo

At Home at the Zoo
René Augesen, Anthony Fusco and Manoel Felciano
Fifty years ago Edward Albee wrote The Zoo Story, which opened in Germany in 1959. After the American opening, which was at the Provincetown Playhouse with George Maharis as Jerry and William Daniels as Peter, Albee was acclaimed as an American Beckett. In this play, Albee showed the daily rage and hopelessness beneath the surface of middle-class life.   I have seen this exciting 48-minute one-act drama many times since it opened in New York; it is usually paired with another one-act play, such as Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape or Albee's American Dream. In 2004 Albee unveiled another one-act play to show what happened just before the encounter between Peter and Jerry on a park bench in Central Park. In that play, called Homelife, Peter, a nerdish text book editor, sits on his couch in his own environment feeling very self-satisfied about his middle-class existence. He has a sheltered home life with his wife, two kids, two cats and two parakeets.  

American Conservatory Theatre is now presenting the two one-act Albee plays as At Home at the Zoo with three brilliant actors taking on the characters. At Home at the Zoo opens in an immaculate white on white room with tweedy Peter (Anthony Fusco) engrossed in a 700-page textbook. Ann (Rene Augesen) enters, saying, "We should talk."   She says it several times and you know that something is wrong in this cozy relationship. The dialogue between the two is droll, splendidly sparse and illuminating.

In act two, Peter goes to Central Park and sits at his favorite bench.   Everything is serene until Jerry (Manoel Felciano), a frightening person who borders on psychotic, arrives. His first words are "Mister, I've been to the zoo," and from then on we get a gripping second act. The menacing Jerry is a troubled and fuming person who is at war with the world.   The end is a frightening bit of dramatic theatre.  

Rebecca Bayla Taichman has created a spellbinding night of theatre. Manoel Felciano (Rock n Roll) is terrific as Jerry.   He gives a powerful performance as Jerry tells Peter about the bizarre people in his room house and of his clash with his landlady's hideous dog.   Felciano acts like a wild animal, insulting Peter, wanting him to react to his life and his stories. Anthony Fusco (War Music, Rock 'n' Roll, Tis Pity She's a Whore) beautifully underplays the role of Peter as more or less a silent partner.

Rene Augesen (ACT Core actress) gives an outstanding performance as Ann in the first act.   Both she and Anthony Fusco convey an extraordinary display of words, beliefs, desires and confusion. Even the moments of dead silence between the two is significant.   This is one of the best confrontations between two persons you are likely to see this year.

Robert Brill's set of white on white is striking, while the lighting by Stephen Strawbridge is exceptional.   Rebecca Bayla Taichman's direction keeps the audience on edge, especially in the second act.

At Home at the Zoo played through July 5th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street , San Francisco.   A.C.T. opens its 2009-2010 season with the United States premiere of the Kneehigh Theatre production of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter. For tickets, call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for more information.

Photo: David Allen Studio  


A Bawdy Farcical Production of Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw  

What the Butler Saw
Andy Murray and Stacy Ross
Marin Theatre recently presented Joe Orton's frantic tomfoolery, What the Butler Saw. Orton's masterpiece is a challenge to any American regional company since it requires a most delicate style of stage comedy with exquisitely precise timing and attitude. British farces are hard to present in this country because of the dry humor that American audiences are not use to hearing. Director Amy Glazer and the excellent actors nearly reached that goal here, especially in the second act.

This marked the fourth time I have seen this social farce, beginning with the Queens Theatre production in 1969 with a young Ralph Richardson playing the lecherous doctor. Later I saw the very successful revival at The Whitehall in London with Michael Medwin playing the lead. Theatre Rhinoceros did a production several years ago that did not capture the flavor of Orton's work.

What the Butler Saw centers on Dr. Prentice (Charles Shaw Robinson), the lustful head of a mental institute who is interviewing Miss Barclay (Cat Walleck), a typist from the Friendly Faces Employment Agency. The madcap cast of characters in this madhouse comedy include a nymphomaniac, Mrs. Prentice (Stacy Ross); an unyielding Dr. Ranch (Andy Murray); a cross-dressing policeman (Kevin Rolston); and a horny pageboy (Rowan Brooks) all doing frantic monkey business.

Joe Orton's one liners are perfect British zingers and puns you might expect from a fast-paced parody with gunshots, ringing alarms and unclothed men staggering from door to door.

Leading this wacky cast was Charles Shaw Robinson (The Best Man), constantly vigorous and very droll in his remarks as Doctor Prentice. Stacy Ross Devil's Advocate, looking like she just stepped out of Vogue, was fine as Mrs. Prentice, who is not quite as respectable as she looks, with her affection for sex and gin (She says, "I hardly even have sexual intercourse." Her husband replies, "You were born with your legs apart. They'll send you to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin").

Andy Murray's (SFBATCC award for best actor last year) Dr. Rance was outstandingly thickheaded as he turned bewilderment into pandemonium.   He was able to deliver some of Orton's extremely extensive speeches as he walked an astute path through all of the shenanigans going on onstage. Cat Walleck (recently graduated from the A.C.T MFA program) was good as the naïve Miss Barclay, and Kevin Rolston (Doubt at Center Rep) gave an adroit performance as the London bobbie who spirals the zaniness on stage. Rowan Brooks (The Lieutenant of Inishmore) who portrayed the cockney bellhop gave a mischievous performance.

Amy Glazer mounted a good revival that captured some of the spirit of Orton's carefully complicated plot, especially in the second act.   Eric Flatmo's '60s detailed doctor's office set was excellent while Fumiko Bielefeldt's dresses were spot-on from Carnaby Street.

What the Butler Saw played at the Marin Theatre, 397 Miller Ave. Mill Valley, California, through June 28th.

Photo: Ed Smith


An Intriguing Production of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret  

Cabaret
Casi Maggio, Nick Gabriel and Amy Nielson
Center Repertory Company of Walnut Creek recently presented a fascinating production of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret.   I am not sure how many times I have seen this beguiling musical since its opening at the Broadhurst Theatre during the winter of 1967 with Joel Grey, Jill Haworth, Jack Gilford and the legendary Lotte Lenya as Fraulein Schneider. During the summer of 1968 I saw Judi Dench playing Sally Bowles and Barry Dennen as the emcee in London. I have seen many different versions of the musical, including the darkly revisionist deconstruction by Sam Mendes, both at the Donmar Warehouse in London with Alan Cumming and Jane Horrocks and Studio 54 in New York with Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles.

Director Mindy Cooper (Dracula: The Musical in New York) presented the melodic somewhat sanitized version of the original 1967 musical.   This two-act production did not have the immediacy of the Sam Mendes version. It was less bawdy than recent productions at the Shotgun and SF Playhouse with a clearer version of the story of Clifford Bradshaw in the late '20s before the Nazis took over the government in Berlin. Even the subplot of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz became an essential part of the story.   The sexuality of Clifford was clearer, with a male to male kiss on stage. The 10-piece orchestra under the direction of Brandon Adams on an upper tier of the stage sounded more like Broadway than a 1930s German band.

Kate Del Castillo (worked with every Bay Area Theatre Company including Cabaret at SF Playhouse) was outstanding as Sally Bowles. She had a bohemianism air about her acting and her vocal cords were terrific, especially in the title song at the end of the musical.   She not only sang the song but dramatized it as well.   There was a certain amount of bitchiness when she sang, "Life is a cabaret, old chum."

Nick Gabriel (New York International Fringe Festival Martha and Me) put a difference spin on the role of the Emcee.   He played it more as an All-American boy dressed in a sexy pair of pants and black suspenders. He brought a certain amount of cynicism to the role. Gabriel showed great vocal cords in "I Don't Care Much" from the film version and was highly sexualized singing "Two Ladies" and "If You Could See Her."

Milissa Carey (The Musical of Musicals, Putting It Together) as Fraulein Schneider and Jarion Monroe (Model Apartment, many companies in the Bay Area and South Coast Rep) as Herr Schultz gave heartwarming performances, especially with "It Couldn't Please Me More," putting in little dance movements.   Millissa Carey sang in a satisfyingly vigorous alto that suited the character. Jarion Monroe made the role of Herr Schultz very touching and sang in an amazingly good voice.

Jeffrey Draper (How the Other Half Loves, Around the World in 80 Days at Center Rep) brought a certain naïve quality to the role of Cliff Bradshaw. He also had good singing chops on "Perfectly Marvelous." Kathryn Zdan (a season with the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Company) as the hooker-turned-Nazi Fraulein Kost showed powerful vocal cords in the number "Tomorrow Belong to Me." John-Elliott Kirk was excellent as Ernst Ludwig.

The Kit Kat girls and two boys looked like something out of a Berlin cabaret in the late '20s. The girls were husky and the boys looked very Germanic. Ryan Meulpolder as Bobby sported a Mohawk-type haircut (this type cut was popular with young liberal-thinking men in Berlin in the '20s).

Cabaret's 10-piece orchestra under the direction of Brandon Adams (2008 BATCC award for musical direction of Musical of Musicals) gave good backup for the singers and dancers.   Robert Broadfoot designed a large, sprawling set with the orchestra high above the stage and most of the action taking place center stage on a disc that transferred from the nightclub set to an apartment in Fraulein Schneider's house. In the background were rows and rows of suitcases.   Lighting by Kurt Landisman was very good, especially in the last scene.   Costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall were authentic for a Berlin cabaret before the rise of Nazism. Mindy Cooper's direction and Joe Bowerman's choreography were first rate.

Cabaret ran through June 27th at the Lesher Center for the Arts, Civic Drive at Locust, Walnut Creek. Center Repertory Theatre of Walnut Creek will present the Broadway musical comedy All Shook Up with the songs of Elvis September 3rd through October 10th. For more information, visit www.certerrep.org.

Photo: www.kevinberne.com


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

- Richard Connema



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