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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Oliver Twist, The Subject Tonight Is Love and Death of a Salesman

Oliver Twist
Ned Eisenberg and Gregory Derelian
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in association with American Repertory Theatre and Theatre for a New Audience, is presenting Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist at the Roda Theatre through June 24th.

Oliver Twist has probably been the most produced of Dickens' many novels. There have been many versions of the trials and tribulations of the waif on the London stage. In this production, Neil Bartlett has installed a ragged trio of actors playing violin, hurdy-gurdy and a strange instrument looking like tuba. The jaunty score includes the thirteen-member cast segueing from speeches to singing Victorian music hall songs. All have splendid choral voices.

Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist is a dark and stark production that reminds me of a "Penny Dreadful." Bartlett has created a frightening, lurid and fearsome world, all centered on Rae Smith's box set within the large stage of the Roda. The set is pure Victorian, with grubby walls of switches, pulleys, secret compartments, escape hatches and trap doors. There are even footlights that one would find in London theatres during the reign of Queen Victoria. Scott Zielinksi's lighting intensifies the mood of the melodrama. Costumes by Rae Smith are interesting rag-type black and gray dresswear. The only splash of color comes when Oliver moves to a higher level of society: at the end, he is dressed all in white.

The members of Neil Bartlett's solid cast play more than one role, with the exception of Ned Eisenberg (New York Awake and Sing, The Green Bird on Broadway) and Michael Wartella (New York Macbeth Clown Shorts). Eisenberg plays a very hard-boiled Fagan. He is excellent as the complex and menacing character. His mad scene in the prison cell at the play's ending is a superb piece of acting. Michael Wartella is engaging as the intimidated Oliver. His hollow eyes and trembling and cowering during the production are very striking. He makes the best of a passive role with little dialogue in the two-hour fifteen-minute production.

Gregory Derelian (New York Metamorphoses) makes a frightening Bill Sykes. He looks like the epitome of evil. Outstanding are Remo Airaldi (over 50 productions at American Repertory Theatre) and Karen Macdonald (founding member of A.R.T.; has been in 60 productions) as Mr. and Mrs. Bumble. They are a pure delight. Carson Elrod (Reckless and Noises Off on Broadway) is charismatic as the Artful Dodger and the narrator. He gives a slick performance as the Dodger. His comic movements are marvelous as he glides about the stage. Jennifer Ikeda (Broadway debut as Sarah in Edward Albee's Seascape) is strangely vociferous in the role of Nancy.

Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist's supporting cast, consisting of Thomas Derrah, Steven Boyer, Craig Patterson, Lucas Steele, Will LeBow and Elizabeth Jasicki, doesn't disappoint, with every member's portrayal well suited to his or her part.

Bartlett, who also directed the melodrama, gives us charming scenes intermingled with a frighteningly realistic view of London's underworld during the late 19th century.

Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist runs through June 24th at the Berkeley Repertory's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.

Coming up next is Mike Daisy's Great Men of Genius. It opens on June 6 and runs through July 1st.

Photo: Kevin Berne


The Subject Tonight Is Love

The San Francisco Bay Area theatres have been experimenting with many powerful plays to make audiences think during this theatre season. Sandra Deer's The Subject Tonight is Love is no exception. The Marin Theatre is presenting the West Coast premiere of the Atlanta playwright's inspirational 90-minute drama.

The play centers on a daughter's ongoing struggle to love her mother as Alzheimer's disease consumes the older woman's brain. It is hard to be objective if you have had personal experience with family members and this dreaded disease.

The playwright has created a beautifully poetic play that should give us a deeper understanding about the disease. She uses humor at the beginning to prepare the audience for the worst as we watch the cantankerous Ruby Land Parker (Wanda McCaddon) telling her daughter Diana (Julia Brothers) that her neighbors spy for the "Red Chinese." Ruby's eyes and face grow blank by degrees and, through violent mood swings, she goes from a nice elderly lady to a demanding shrew to a cowering woman.

Sandra Deer's play could have been a soap opera but she steers away from clichés. Emotional scenes intermingle with an academic lecture on a brief history of Alzheimer's and informal reminiscences from Ruby's past.

The acting of Wanda McCaddon, Julia Brothers and Anthony Veneziale is superb. Wanda McCaddon (George is Dead, Our Town, Visions of Kerouac) plays Ruby with incredible devotion and insight. She is so convincing with her gait and body movements that you expect she might fall. This is a tour de force of great acting.

Julia Brothers (Moving Right Along, Salome, The Hopper Collection) gives a captivating performance as the strong-minded Diana. She drives the play forward, pushing her character's blame, antipathy and fright beneath a sophisticated veneer. Her scenes near the end of the play when she discovers her love for her ailing mother are touching.

Anthony Veneziale (New York actor, Artistic Director of Back House Productions) makes his San Francisco debut as Josh the grandson, now a professor of biology in Iowa. Veneziale is first-rate in a less showy role. The professor gives a brief interesting lecture with slides about the disease (five million Americans Have Alzheimer's; by 2050, it is estimated that fifteen million will have the disease). His moments with his grandmother are very poignant.

Melpomene Katakalos has created a marvelous set with a spreading tree on the left side dominating the stage. Lighting director Kurt Landisman beautifully lights the tree to change from spring to fall to winter. Callie Floor's costumes are in line with the drama. The stage direction and blocking by Jasson Minadakis are effectively crafted to present a real life view of the family.

The Subject Tonight Is Love plays through June 10th at the Marin Theatre, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley. For tickets please call 415-388-5208 or online at www.marintheatre.org.


Death of a Salesman

Traveling Jewish Theatre completes its 28th season, rediscovering the Jewish essence of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The production recently completed its run in San Francisco and Mountain View and is slated to appear at The Julia Morgan Center for the Arts from May 24th through June 10th.

I have seen many actors play Willy Loman, including Lee J. Cobb who originated the wonderful character. Since then I have seen George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Quinn and Brian Dennehy in the role. Willy Loman and his family were anonymous, and those actors offered a generalization of a kind of American everyman. The character was stripped of a particular milieu and culture.

Corey Fischer is superb playing a salesman with a New York Jewish accent. He plays the role as a character with one foot in Brooklyn and the other in the shtetl. There is a Jewish quality about Miller's masterful dialogue in the conversations between Willy and his wife Linda. Willy's schizophrenic conversations between real people and his dream people are engaging. The conversations with Uncle Ben, played strongly by Julian Lopez-Morillas, are striking.

Jeri Lynn Cohen is perfect as Willy's wife Linda. She is crucially passionate and affectingly as Linda preserves the magnitude and self-esteem of her husband.

Michael Navarra gives an outstanding performance as the salesman Biff. His changing from a high school football star to a man in his thirties who can't find himself is first rate. John Sousa is fascinating in his portrayal of Happy, the younger brother, an over-anxious man/child who wants desperately to be loved by his father.

Louis Parnell gives a good performance as the smug Charley who is defiant in his ignorance of things American, especially sports, but is still sympathetic to Willy's problems, even when he is being insulted by the salesman. Zac Jaffee gives a fine performance as Bernard.

Meghan Doyle, Juliet Strong and Danny Webber give sharp performances in supporting roles. Aaron Davidman's direction is excellent as the scenes between fantasy and reality flow smoothly. Giulio Perrone's set is sparse which allows the audience to concentrate on the great performances of the cast. The production is enhanced by a live performance of a lovely, sorrowful score by cellist Jessica Ivry throughout the drama. One can hear a lovely Jewish lullaby during one of the dramatic scenes.

Death of a Salesman plays through June 10th at the The Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave, Berkeley. For tickets call 1-800-838-3006 or go on line at www.atjt.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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