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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Holding the Man, King Lear and
Theatre Rhinoceros: The First Thirty Years


A Powerful Production of Holding the Man

Holding the Man
Ben Randle (L) and Wesley Cayabyab
New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting the U.S. premiere of Tommy Murphy's Holding the Man. The play is based on the best selling memoir by Australian writer and actor Timothy Conigrave, who died from AIDS in 1994. It premiered in November 2006 at Sydney's Griffin Theatre to great critical acclaim, becoming the highest-grossing production in the theatre's 28-year history. The drama transferred to the Sydney Opera House where it had full houses every night and became one of the most successful Australian stage productions in recent years. The term "holding the man" comes from Australian football and refers to a transgression that incurs a penalty.

Holding the Man centers on Tim Conigrave's (Ben Randle) relationship with his lover of fifteen years, John Caleo (Bradly Mena). They meet at a Jesuit high school in Melbourne in the mid-1970s. Tim is in the school production of Romeo and Juliet and develops a crush on John, who is the captain of the football team. The first act is a whirlwind race, with scenes that leap frog to the end of the act. We see the young men's first attempts to get through to their unsympathetic parents who try to crush the relationship. The Conigrave and Caleo families are dismayed and devastated upon learning their sons are gay.

Tim wants to explore his sexuality and he joins a gay rights group in university. He wants to meet other guys for sexual experience. John wants the relationship to be monogamous and is not interested in meeting other men for sex. Tim decides to become an actor and attends NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) in Sydney. John remains true to Tim, even though Tim is playing around with other men. Act two of the two hour and 30 minute piece becomes powerfully dramatic as both young men learn they are HIV positive, succumbing over the next decade to full blown AIDS. Holding the Man is an unwavering, devastating, moving reanimation of the awful time when the AIDS crisis became public. It is also a beautiful story of two people in love.

Ben Randle and Brandy Mena are outstanding as Tim and John. They are compelling as they go from fumbling adolescence to becoming serious adults dealing with the dreaded disease. Danielle Perata, Dennis Parks, Nicole Lungerhausen and Wesley Cayabyab play everyone else in a bravura display of ensemble skill and sharp explanation.

Matthew Graham Smith's direction, along with the outstanding cast, makes this one of the most powerful plays of the year. Costumes by Prem Lathi and props by Jon Wai-keung Lowe compensate for the restrictions of the simple stage.

Hold That Man plays through November 4 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-861-8972 or on line at www.nctcsf.org.

Photo: Lois Tema


A Sharp Production of King Lear

King Lear
Ben Randle and Wesley Cayabyab
California Shakespeare Theatre is presenting as their final 2007 production, William Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, King Lear, at the Bruins Memorial Amphitheatre through October 14th. Many great actors have played the demanding and emotionally draining role of the unfortunate king. I have seen British and American actors play Lear, and each played the role more in line with the classical portrayal of the monarch. In this production, noted Broadway and Hollywood actor Jeffrey DeMunn puts a different spin on the role. He plays it more like a CEO of a large corporation. Director Lisa Peterson places the action in the late 1920s, sometime during the Great Depression. The opening of the three-hour tragedy shows the downtrodden searching through oil cans for food. There are two poverty stricken men clinging onto a rich man as he enters the stage. The director attempts to explore themes of the rich ruling class and its desolately poor subjects. However, this ultimately does not work since the play says very little about the demoralized masses.

Lisa Peterson gives us a focused Lear, compact but not diminished. This Lear fails to show the ethereal grief of the fall of the great king. Jeffrey DeMunn plays the aging king as a person in the here and now. He is memorable in his pathos as he slowly goes mad at the end of the first act. His impetuosity is notable in the hovel scene when Lear suddenly runs off to join Edgar, now almost naked in his guise as Poor Tom. This is a brilliant scene as they clasp each other for safety against the merciless storm.

A very strong cast has been assembled for the other roles in this somewhat modern version. Delia MacDougall is outstanding in her portrayal of Goneril as a controlling bitch. She plays the role like Lady Macbeth. Julie Eccles' portrayal of the heartless Regan is terrific. Sarah Nealis, who has the lesser role of Cordelia, is fairly obscure and somewhat strident.

James Carpenter gives the role of the ill-fated Earl of Gloucester a down-to-earth decency. The scene where his eyes are plucked by the evil Duke of Cornwall (L. Peter Callender) is a horrifying spectacle. Mr. Callender's Duke is the personification of evil. Anthony Fusco is very entertaining as the Fool. Andy Murray gives a strong performance as the faithful Kent. Liam Vincent gives a persuasive performance as the sneaky kowtowing Oswald. His Shakespearian speech is impressive.

Ravi Kapoor, who is known for his role in NBC's Crossing Jordan, is a compelling Edmund. He plays it like a devious businessman trying to claw his way to the top. His take on the Bard's iambic pentameter is interesting. Erik Lochtefeld's portrayal of Poor Tom is very moving. Andrew Hurteau gives a fine performance as the confused Duke of Albany.

Rachel Hauck's set consists of oil barrels and a large steel trestle dominated by an enigmatic steel circle where actors enter and exit. Costumes by Meg Neville are from the late 1920s. The two evil women wear silky, elegant Jazz Age outfits. There is nominal use of Paul James Prendergast's score with the Fool singing his songs a cappella.

King Lear plays through October 15 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda just off Highway 29 pass the tunnel at the Gateway Entrance. Tickets can be obtained by calling 510-548-9666 or on line at www.calshakes.org.

Photo: Kevin Berne


A Fast Paced, Laid Back Theatre Rhinoceros: The First Thirty Years

The First Thirrty Years
Laurie Bushman, Alice Pencavel
Theatre Rhinoceros, America's longest running professional queer theatre company, is presenting a fast paced revue called Theatre Rhinoceros: The First Thirty Years through October 14th. The 85-minute "Gayhem, a Happening" (a term that came from Lanny Baugniet, in his first Rhino Show) has snippets of past productions that were written especially for the Rhino. This seemingly impossible task features five talented actors/singers with artistic director John Fisher narrating the history of the theatre in an off-the-cuff manner. There is also a talking head film shown throughout the revue that features past directors and actors of the gay theatre.

The First Thirty Years is in four parts and features scenes and musical numbers from past Rhino productions. The first part, called "Coming Out/Living Out," opens with the five-member cast singing "Dirty Dreams of a Clean-Cut Kid" from one of the Rhino's first original musicals of the same name. Unfortunately, the canned music is so loud that it drowns out the lyrics at the beginning. However, when the cast comes forward, the clever and naughty lyrics can be heard.

Kim Larson and Matt Weimer are enjoyable doing a scene from Doric Wilson's Street Theatre. Kim, an over-the-top gay sweater queen, tries to pick up a butch leather queen with very little success ("if you got me in bondage, what would you do?" asks the bothersome person; "Move to another apartment" replies the irritated leather queen). Following this droll scene we see Matt Weimer and Michael Vega depicting two gay sailors on board ship trying to find a place to have sex. This brief scene is from George Birimisa's Pogey Bait (gay slang word for a gay sailor). Both actors give good performances as the horny sailors. Laurie Bushman and Alice Pencavel give bang up performances as two roommates and potential lovers in from Theresa Carilli's Dolores Street (the first play that showed lesbians at the Rhino).

Part two is the sorrowfully predictable theatre of AIDS. Theatre Rhino was the first company to present a play about the dreaded disease (The AIDS show by Karl Brown and Matthew McQueen). The company sings about the fearsome virus that has no cure. Michael Vega gives a wonderful performance of a guy wearing just a white towel looking for love at the baths. He is moving in this edifying piece that ends with the young man having AIDS. Laurie Bushman gives a poignant performance from Adele Prandini's Momma's Boy about a mother who discovers her son has AIDS. Part two ends with "Safe Livin' In Dangerous Times" which tells how gays should wear condoms to avoid the danger of the illness. John Fisher even throws condoms to the audience.

Part three is called "Diversity, the Classics and a Search for New Directions." Alice Pencavel does a nice imitation of Marga Gomez in Marga Gomez' Intimate Details about a lesbian relationship with a sociopath married housewife. A scene from Guillermo Reyes' Deporting the Divas with Michael Vega as a cop and Kim Larson in drag is the weakest scene of the revue. Kim Larson, looking like Chiquita the Banana and Michael Vega in a trench coat both speaking flux Spanish accents just go on too long. The "Hillbillies on the Moon" number from the same named musical by A. Toone has two lesbians in drag singing a bizarre song. Alice Pencavel and Laurie Bushman do what they can with this silly number about gays on the moon. Matt Weimer and Michael Vega come out in space uniforms that do nothing for the number. The third part ends seriously with Kim Larson singing Don Seaver's "What is Love" with lyrics by Shakespeare from the Rhino's production of Twelfth Night. Kim has good vocal chops on the touching song.

Part four is called "The New Millenium" and it features the controversial Barebacking sex comedy by John Fisher. The scene shows three gay guys at a table labeled with a sign that says "Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Noel Coward, Kevin Spacy, Gay, Lesbian, BI, and Desperately Confused Political Society." Matt Weimer is side-splitting as the over-the-top drama queen talking about not wearing condoms during sex. Kim Larson plays his screaming counterpart who insists on wearing condoms when having sex. The moderator, played by Michael Vega sits quietly between them. "Please Wait for the Beep" by Margery Kreitman is a good take-off of the 1950s television series Father Knows Best. The whole cast takes a role in this gay version of the show. The show ends with the whole cast joyfully singing Don Seaver and Matt Weimer's "The Rhino."

Theatre Rhinoceros: The First Thirty Years has been extended October 21st at their theatre located at 2926 16th just off Van Ness Ave, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-861-5079 or on line at www.TheRhino.org.

Photo: Kent Taylor


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

- Richard Connema



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