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San Francisco by Richard Connema

1776 and Buried Child

Also see Jeanie's review of Animals Out of Paper


Thirteen Yeas for American Conservatory Theatre Production of 1776


Andrew Boyer and John Hickok
Photo by Kevin Berne
The American Conservatory Theatre, under the superb direction of Frank Galati, is currently presenting one of the best productions of 1776 I have ever seen. Galati has assembled twenty-six amazing actors, such as Ryan Drummond, Dan Haitt, Richard Farrell, Mark Farrell, Ian Leonard, Keith Pinto, Noel Anthony and Benjamin Pither, many of whom are local favorites to play members of the assembly. All give outstanding performances.

1776 is as much a play as it is a musical. History is never sacrificed for a song and dance routine and, still, the music and dance is integrated. Gouty old Benjamin Franklin (Andrew Boyer) and strident John Adams (John Hickok), who seems to be the most verbose and most disliked man in Philadelphia, trick Thomas Jefferson (Brandon Dahlquist) into writing the first draft of the now famous Declaration of Independence. It is only after the two send for the young man's wife Martha (Andrea Prestinario) that the Declaration is finally finished.

As the actors first gather on designer Russell Metheny's handsomely realized set of the Assembly Room in Independence Hall to sing the vivacious opening number "Sit Down, John," I found myself catching my breath. Book writer Peter Stone gives the audience that hot, fly-plagued, disputatious early summer to mid-summer of 1776 when passionate men clashed over the cause of independence from Britain and its tax-addicted king. These men are not noble, not gods or giants. They are are querulous, argumentative and often at bitter ends. Some even detest each other.

The cast is wondrously brilliant and I salute them all for their fine work. John Hickok gives a solid performance as the quick-tempered and single-minded John Adams. He carries the play with such songs as "Till Then" and "Your, Yours, Yours," which he does with Abby Mueller who is marvelous as Abigail Adams. Andrew Boyer is a delight as Benjamin Franklin. He plays the role differently than the original Howard de Silva who had a booming voice when speaking his lines. Boyer makes the role his own with the slightly timorous voice of an older man.

Ryan Drummond gives a brash and breezy impersonation of Richard Henry Lee, and Brandon Dahlquist is exceptional as the stubborn and stalwart Thomas Jefferson. One of the loveliest moments is the enchanting Andrea Prestinario as Martha Jefferson singing "He Plays the Violin."

Jeff Parker as John Dickinson is on a par with the Dickinsons I have seen in the past. He is first rate singing "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men." One the most outstanding moments of the production is Jarrod Zimmerman as Edward Rutledge singing "Molasses to Rum." What an astonishing performance. He sings the hell out of the song and it brings down the house.

It must be mentioned that "Momma Look Sharp" by Zach Kenney as the courier is perfect. His voice is soft and gentle and he puts a lot of heart into the number.

1776 runs through October 6th. For tickets call 415-749-2250 or visit www.act-sf.org. Coming up next is Glen Berger's Underneath The Lintel starring David Strathairn opening on October 23rd and running through November 17th.


A Riveting Production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child


Patrick Alparone (in the air), Patrick Kelly Jones and Rod Gnapp
Photo by Jennifer Reiley
To say that the action of Sam Shepard's 1978 Pulitzer Prize winning play orbits around the death of child is hardly a plot spoiler. Shepard's writing in Buried Child poses a challenge to actors, but the actors in this Magic Theatre production accept the challenge, making it a spellbinding presentation. This marks the third time I have seen this masterpiece, including the New York revival in 1996 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and the 2002 American Conservatory Theatre; director Loretta Greco's production, which is performed in the three-sided intimate theatre, is on a par with both.

Buried Child is a mesmerizing play about one of the most dysfunctional families on the American stage. This family portrays infanticide, alcoholism and, yes, probably incest. It lays bare our treasured notions of home and hearth. The brilliance of Shepard's excesses are very familiar; comedy and horror dance together. The play is severely poetic, humorous and mysterious. There is deep symbolism in each of the characters.

A family is both torn apart and brought together by a deep secret. Vince (Patrick Alparone), who had not seen his family in six years, shows up at his grandparents' farmhouse in Illinois for a surprise visit. He brings his girlfriend Shelly (Elaina Garrity) into this crazy menagerie. At first, Shelly looks at the family and says, "It's like a Norman Rockwell cover or something," but, oh, how wrong she is. Both Vince and Shelly begin to realize through some strange encounters that this family is quite a bit different. Through dogged investigation, Shelly begins unraveling the family secret that has been so deeply buried.

Rod Gnapp as grandfather Dodge commands the Magic Theatre stage from the beginning to the end of the production. He superbly plays the role as a boozy, cantankerous old man who spends most of his life lying on an old beat-up couch watching television. He roars commands and makes scratchy pleas, cajoling, demanding, manipulating and complaining throughout the two-hour drama. Denise Balthrop Cassidy is excellent as his overripe wife Halie who talks incessantly about nothing important and is flirting with the local minister, played splendidly by Lawrence Radecker. (In the opening minutes Ms. Cassidy does all of her acting off stage.)

Elaina Garrity is outstanding as Shelly (this is Ms. Garrity's first professional role after graduating from San Francisco State). She guides the audience through the trepidations and sympathies of the character. Patrick Alparone gives a gripping performance as Vince, and he ably bestrides the central inconsistencies in the character.

James Wagner is magnetic as the shell-shocked son who wields a compelling force while simply husking corn in one scene (he reminds me of Lenny in Of Mice and Men). Patrick Kelly Jones derives bubbling evil as one-legged brother Bradley.

Loretta Greco's direction is sharp and fast paced. She lets the momentum of the drama roar ahead like a runaway train. Andrew Boyce's set with an off-kilter living room is perfect. Jake Rodriguez provides a dynamic soundscape with the patter of rain coming from the back of the set. Both he and Jason Stamberger have devised haunting music to add to the devastating performances of the actors.

Shepard is an acquired taste and Buried Child in particular is close to a horror story about seriously twisted folks. If you are up for a challenging drama this is the granddaddy of them all.

Buried Child plays through October 6th at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd, Building D, 3rd floor, San Francisco. To purchase tickets call 415-441-8822 or online at www.magictheatre.org. Coming up next is the world premiere of Victor Lodato's Arlington opening on November 13th.


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

- Richard Connema



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