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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Part 2
The Visit and Topdog/Underdog

Also see Part One

The Visit
Richard Elmore and
Demetra Pittman

The OSF production of Swiss Playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit is one of the most innovative productions of this powerful moralistic play that I have seen. Kenneth Albers, who directed the magical production of Midsummer Night's Dream last year, has made this three act drama an evening of exciting theater. The second act is one of the most novel presentations that I have seen in a long time.

Dürrenmatt first presented Der Besuch der alten Dame, or what was known as The Visit of the Old Lady, in 1956. My first experience with the play was in 1958 when I saw the legendary Lynn Fontanne play the lady Clara and Alfred Lunt play Josef the victim. A young Vincent Gardenia had a small role in that production at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Hal Prince revived the play in a three play repertory in 1973 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre with Rachel Roberts playing Clara and John McMartin playing Josef. David Duke played all three husbands of the rich lady in that production. Roundtable Company did an interesting version of the play in 1992 with Jane Alexander and Harris Yulin taking the leads. Recently, Kander and Ebb presented a musical version starring Chita Rivera in Chicago, but it seems to have died in the Windy City. Fox also released the film version made in Europe with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn in 1964 but it was not successful.

Many persons are thrown off by the story that is a complex work of revenge, love, greed and justice. It is a modern day "Greek tragedy" that shows the frailties of the human spirit when poverty and misfortune are facing everyday lives. The citizens of Gullen must face a moral and ethical problem to make their lives richer.

Claire (Demetra Pittman) is one of the wealthiest women in the world when she returns to her birthplace, the improvised village of Gullen. She had left the village at age 15, pregnant from an affair with Josef. The man denied the secret affair at a trial and even bribed two witnesses to testify against the woman. She was driven out of town for being a fallen woman.

Josef has now become a much respected man who owns the village grocery store and has a wife and two children. The townspeople love him so much that he probably will become the next mayor. However, the village is suffering from deep poverty and moral decay. Nothing can save them until the rich Claire comes back for "a visit". Claire offers Gullen and its citizens one billion dollars, to be split 50-50, fifty percent to the town to rebuild the cathedral, the main buildings and general improvements, and fifty percent to be divided among all citizens of the village. There is just one provision - they must put to death Josef the lover who betrayed her.

The citizens of Gullen immediately reject the offer in the name of humanity. Claire announces she will take up residence in the town and says with a grin on her face, "I'll wait." The villagers are basically decent people who are faced with a moral dilemma. They've suddenly been offered credit to buy anything they desire. Needless to say, someone is going have to pay the piper and greed gets the better of the citizens of the village. They proceed to make Josef a demon and rationalize murder on the grounds of justice. Josef, who finally accepts his guilt and the inescapability of his death, becomes the only person who has human nobility.

Demetra Pitman is extraordinary as Claire. She performs the role with a wonderful savoir-faire. Pitman dominates the stage with wonderful body language and she communicates the will to power. She plays the role less strict than other Claires I have seen on stage; however, in the scene of the silver forest, her evocation of lost love is heartrending.

Richard Elmore is a perfect foil for Claire, and his change from the town's most beloved person to the most hated person is wonderfully presented as he accepts death as the final solution. Excellent use is made of the large cast, especially the current mayor played by John Pribyl. The quality of the acting ensemble lends a consistency to the work.

Kenneth Albers has a done an excellent job of staging and helming the three act play. The set is the train station at the village in the first two acts. The second act is almost in panto with very little words being spoken by the townspeople. Josef is waiting for a train to take him out of the town. He must decide rather to escape or stay. The citizens come in one by one without a word spoken and set up chairs to wait to see what the man will do. It is brilliant staging on the part of director. The third act, which is the "trial," is beautifully presented with large television screens showing the townspeople turning against Josef.

The Visit will run at the Angus Bowmer through July 11.


Photo: Andrée Lanthier


Topdog/Underdog

Topdog/Underdog
Kevin Kenerly (front) and
G. Valmont Thomas

Suzan-Lori Park's Pulitzer Prize winning play Topdog/Underdog is playing at the intimate New Theatre. The two character production is being presented on the small stage that is surrounded by the audience on three sides. It makes for a very friendly presentation. The set has been minimized to a cut down version of a sleazy rooming house in the upper 150s of Manhattan.

The production uses the Seattle restaged version with some small changes in the two acts. This is my third viewing of the realistic play, and the interplay between Kevin Kenerly as Booth and G. Valmont Thomas as Lincoln is striking. These two very fine actors are as good as Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def in the New York production. This production is better than the touring production that appeared here in San Francisco. (see my review in regional past columns)

Kevin Kenerly slows down the street speech so every word can be heard. His jiving is wonderful, especially when he enters in the second act with all of the clothes on his person that were "boosted" from a department store. Also, the scene where he tries to hide all of the porno books under his bed before his girlfriend arrives is great.

G. Valmont Thomas is fine as Lincoln. He plays the role with great dignity and his scenes at the end of the production are very dramatic.

This production will play at the New Theatre through June 25th.

For tickets to all of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, please call 541-482-4331 or groups of 15 or more call 541-488-5406 or visit www.osfashland.org .


Photo: Jenny Graham

I will review the remaining plays in September.


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


- Richard Connema



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