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San Francisco by Richard Connema

2007 Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Part 1)

The current season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is drawing theatre buffs from not only the west coast but other states as well. During its eight-month season, the company is presenting 11 plays - four by Shakespeare, six by classic and contemporary playwrights, plus a world premiere of a new musical based on a 1951 William Saroyan novella. Almost 800 performances will be presented in three theatres: the outdoor Elizabethan Stage (1,190 seats), the Angus Bowmer Theatre (seats 601), and the intimate New Theatre (seats 270-360 seats). Last year the festival was seen by 387,474 persons, which represented a capacity of 87% in all three theatres. Eighty-eight percent of the OSF audience travels more than 125 miles to attend the Festival.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has an eclectic mix of productions now playing in two theatres. The Bard of Avon is represented by As You Like It. Also playing are Tom Stoppard's campy On the Razzle, Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean. David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole is also playing, along with the world premiere of a new musical called Tracy's Tiger. Later the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre will open with three plays by Shakespeare: The Tempest, The Taming of the Screw and Romeo and Juliet. The Bowmer will be presenting Moliere's Tartuffe next month and the New Theatre will be presenting Lisa Loomer's Distracted.

I am reviewing six productions, including the great revue at the Oregon Cabaret called Western Civilization. The reviews will be published in two parts.


Tracy's Tiger

Tracy's Tiger
Jeremy Peter Johnson and René Millán
It is very unusual for the OSF to present a musical, and this marks the first time that the festival is presenting a world premiere. Tracy's Tiger is a work-in-progress musical featuring a jazzy score to reflect the cool jazz of 1950s San Francisco. The score by composer and music director Sterling Tinsley reminds me of the early work of Stephen Sondheim, like Saturday Night and Primrose. The hip lyrics are by Linda Alper, Douglas Langworthy, Penny Metropulos and Sterling Tinsley. The musical is based on William Saroyan's fantasy novella The Barber Whose Uncle Had His Head Bitten Off By a Circus Tiger. Cool riffs, pop songs and show tunes abound in Tracy's Tiger.

In the prologue, we meet Thomas Tracy (Jeremy Peter Johnson) as a young lad who is enthralled by a tiger in a zoo and we see how he acquires an invisible one, played by Rene Millán. The play opens with Thomas reciting a few stanzas of William Blake's "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright, in the forest of the night." Thomas goes to work in a coffee importer warehouse on the Embarcadero in San Francisco where he meets the petite Laura Luthy (Laura Morache) who has an invisible tigress of her own, played by sexy Nell Geisslinger.

Tracy has great dreams of becoming a coffee taster or maybe a songwriter but many things happens to him along the way. There are some very eccentric characters who cross his path, including Laura's sexy mother (Miriam A. Laube) who thinks she is a movie star and changes her name to June Allyson; philosophical coffee taster Nimmo (Michael J. Hume); a volatile and high-strung police chief (Brad Whitmore); and a comical, good-natured policeman (David Kelly) one would see in a B film of the 1930s. Also featured on the second tier of the great but complicated set is Hedda Hopper-ish gossip columnist Betty Olivetti (Linda Alper) commenting on the news of the day to San Francisco radio listeners. Rounding out the cast of characters is Victor Tosca (Juan Rivera LeBron), a wiseacre reporter straight out of the cast of Front Page.

Tracy's Tiger seriously needs pruning from its two-hour and twenty minute length. Some numbers just don't work, such as a large number in the second act involving a tiger hunter who has allegedly captured a tiger. The melody, like an early Kurt Weill sound, is good but totally unnecessary in this production. Also the characters of Betty Olivetti and Victor Tosca throw the show off base with their side remarks. The wonderful momentum in the first act seems to completely slow down in the second act with a lot of incidental nonsense.

It is a pure delight to watch Jeremy Peter Johnson's swinging movements. He has great vocal chops in his songs. His "tiger," Rene Millán, reminds me of Edward James Olmos in Zoot Suit. Miriam A. Laube as Laura's mother has a strong singing voice in several numbers. As Laura, Laura Morache has pitch perfect resonance. Outstanding is Michael J. Hume as the philosophical coffee taster Nimmo. He later comes back in the second act as a Viennese doctor with a great accent. David Kelly hams it up as the comic cop while Brad Whitmore goes slightly overboard as the nervous police chief.

Tracy's Tiger makes good use of San Francisco locations since it mention every landmark of the city, including Trader Vic's and the crooked Lombard Street. There is even a song called "Daly City" in the score. There is a gem of a very good Off-Broadway musical in this opus. Once the script is tightened it should play well in various cities.

Tracy's Tiger plays through October 29th at the New Theatre.

Photo: Kim Budd


Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole
Jeris Schaefer and
Robin Goodrin Nordli

David Lindsey-Abaire's Rabbit Hole was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This powerful play, about a mother grieving over the loss of her four-year-old son who was killed in a traffic accident, reverberates with spoken and poignant truth. The two-act drama played to good reviews at the Biltmore Theatre in New York during the winter of 2006, and later this year San Jose Repertory will be doing a production of the potent drama.

Rabbit Hole centers around Becca (Robin Goodrin Nordli), a woman coping with the loss by keeping a spotless house, baking cakes and cookies, and registering clipped disapproval of her sister Izzy's (Tyler Layton) free lifestyle. There are confrontations among Becca, Izzy and Nat (Dee Maaske), her mother. There also are word battles between Becca and her husband Howie (Bill Geisslinger) on how she will cope with the death of her only son.

Later in the play, Jason (Jeris Schaefer), the teenager responsible for Becca's son death, enters the scene. He arrives unannounced one day to the stunned reactions of the family. Jason has published a sci-fi story in the high school magazine and has dedicated the story to Danny. The play gets its title from the story about a notion of parallel universes with inestimable space and potential which hints at a dimension in which the mother might feel normal and happy again. The scenes between Jason and Becca's are engrossing.

Robin Goodrin Nordli gives a brilliant performance as the complex character of Becca, an open-minded woman whose coping mechanisms are clearly beyond her control. Tyler Layton gives a winning performance as the loose-cannon sister Izzy. Bill Geisslinger shows depth and texture as husband Howie. Dee Maaske plays the mother as a down-to-earth woman who is distrustful of affluence and wealth. She provides the only humor in this powerhouse drama. Outstanding is the young Jeris Schaefer as the teenager Jason. His actor in the meetings with Jason and the family shows very impressive talent, and you can't help feeling sorry for Jason for the accidental death of the young boy.

Richard L. Hay's detailed two-story set of the family's tidy kitchen and bedroom above is extraordinary. James Edmondson's direction is spot on and his blocking is remarkable.

Rabbit Hole plays through June 22nd at the New Theatre.

Photo: Jenny Graham


The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard
Richard Howard and Judith-Marie Bergan
Oregon Shakespeare Festival always does an impressive Chekhov play and this year's production of The Cherry Orchard is absorbing. The extraordinarily talented ensemble plays the full range of the playwright's work from crude physical humor to heart-wrenching loss. This revised edition by University of Denver's Allison Horsley features a more darkly comic and ironic version of the classic. The opening and closing scenes gives a different connotation of Chekhov's writing.

Judith-Marie Bergan as the grande dame Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya is brilliant in the role. Her wonderful voice and mannerisms are a joy to watch. She plays the role like an Ethel Barrymore or a Katherine Cornell. Richard Elmore once again proves that are no small parts, playing the wonderful antique butler using the work "nincompoop" over and over again.

Armando Durán, who should be considered the "villain" of the drama, plays the role of Lopakhin with great humanity. Christopher DuVal provides humor as the comic estate clerk while Christine Albright is charming as Ranevskaya's daughter. Outstanding in the small role of Boris Simyonov-Pischik is Anthony Heald. His jolly movement and speech are beautifully accomplished. Robynn Rodriquez sports a great German accent straight out of an early Kurt Weill German musical. Richard Howard as Lyonya gives a great performance as he ambles on about absolutely nothing.

Gregory Linington gives a strong portrayal of the angry young student who undoubtedly is one of the moving forces of Communism in a later time. Christine Albright is effective as the adopted daughter of Ranevskaya. John Tufts, Nancy Rodriguez and U. Jonathan Toppo play small but successful roles in this three-hour drama.

The Cherry Orchard plays at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through July 8th.

Tickets for all productions are available at www.osfashland.org or by calling the Box Office at 541-482-4331. Part Two will include reviews of Tom Stoppard's witty farce On the Razzle, William Shakespeare's As You Like It and August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean. Also a review of Western Civilization at the Oregon Cabaret will be included.

Photo: Jenny Graham


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

- Richard Connema



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