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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Bluest Eye, Ruthless! The Musical
and Chekhov in Yalta


A Poignant Production of The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye
Shanique Scott and Vernon D. Medearis
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre opens its 27th season with a heartrending production of prominent African-American novelist Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. It has been adapted for the stage by Lydia R. Diamond and directed by distinguished artistic director of Philadelphia's New Freedom Theatre, Walter Dallas.

The Bluest Eye is about a young black girl growing up in Lorain, Ohio in the 1940s, and we see the world through her eyes. This is a time when the color of a person's eyes, hair and skin might routinely be considered ugly. The one hour and 45-minute play opens with a poignant Nina Simone recording of Rodgers and Hart's "Little Girl Blue." Out onto the stage comes Pecola Breedlove (Shanique S. Scott), a twelve-year-old pregnant girl. She is dressed in a white smock and is hunched over, carrying a school book about a white girl named Jane.  Her childlike voice is striking.

Pecola tells a story that involves two black families. Her mother and father are parents from hell. The Breedloves internalize their superficial viciousness by acting out ugly lives filled with drunkenness, rage and cruelty. Pecola's father Cholly (Kieleil Deleon) suffers from a lonely childhood that left him homeless at age 15 in the rural South. In a flashback we see he had a horrible sexual experience at that age when he started to make love to his girlfriend for the first time and two "crackers" came by with flashlights and a gun, and they made him have sex in their presence.  As a result, Cholly associates sex with violence and humiliation.

Pecola's only friends are twelve-year-olds Claudia (Carla Punch) and Freida (Nichole Harley).  They come from devoted and loving parents and the young girls try to help Pecola overcome her self-hatred from being black. She wants to have blue eyes like Shirley Temple or Mary Jane of the Mary Jane candies.  Even Jane in the primer book has blue eyes.  She believes with pretty blue eyes everyone would be nice and the teachers would really look at her and say "Look at pretty-eyed Pecola."  Maureen Peal (Natasha E. Noel), a "high yellow" black who looks and acts like Shirley Temple, comes into the drama and Claudia and Frieda try bring the lively girl down to their level.

Pecola, tired of being faced with constant ridicule and abuse by others, prays for the blue eyes which she is sure will be followed by love. She goes to a deceitful medicine man, Soaphead Church (Vernon D. Medearis), in hopes that she can obtain blue eyes from him.  The tragic ending is chilling.

Toni Morrison's rich language, spoken by a very talented cast, examines the standard of beauty, a young girl's growing up and the demoralizing events she undergoes.  The drama is told in narrative form with no set.   The actors move about in sharp choreographed positions to tell the tale of Pecola.

Shanique S. Scott plays Pecola brilliantly. Carla Punch and Nicole Harley as Claudia and Frieda are remarkable as they transfer their voices from being twelve-year-old girls to adults in the narration.  Tamiyka White focuses her portrayal of Mrs. Breedlove as a commanding woman.  Kieleil Deleon is excellent as the drunken Cholly who sometimes becomes a clown.  Clara McDaniel as the rough-talking Mama and Vernon D. Medearis as an instructive Daddy to Claudia and Freda are outstanding.  Medearis also effectively portrays Soaphead Church. Natasha E. Noel is lively portraying the light-skinned Maureen. 

The Bluest Eye plays though November 11th at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-474-8800 or visit www.lhtsf.org.   Their next production is Black Nativity, inspired by Langston Hughes, opening on November 23 and running through December 23rd.

Photo: Marc Pâquette


A Riotously Campy Production of Ruthless!, the Musical

Ruthless!
Donna Sachet and Hannah Rose Kornfeld
Director Kristopher McDowell is spoofing musicals with Marvin Laird and Joel Paley's Ruthless! The Musical at the Purple Onion, 140 Columbus Ave, San Francisco through November 3rd.   McDowell obtained the services of Joan Ryan, the original mother in the Off-Broadway production in 1992, plus Bob Mackie's original outlandish costumes from that production.

Ruthless! is so decadently outrageous and nostalgic that it would delight any theatre fanatic who enjoys broad humor. It's a campy parody of several classic backstage dramas, a hilarious combination of The Bad Seed, Gypsy and All About Eve done by a fine cast of comic actors who are having a ball in their respective parts. Melvin Laird's music is enjoyable and Joel Paley's book and lyrics are very witty.

The silly plot involves third grader Tina Denmark (Hannah Rose Kornfeld), a bad seed who would kill for the lead role in her school production. She craves a show business career and sings out, "I was born to entertain." She tap dances heatedly on the living room coffee table while someone suggests she should postpone her ambitions to become a star and try to enjoy a normal childhood. She retorts, "I've had a normal childhood. It's time to move on."

Tina loses the lead in the school production of Pippi in Tahiti.  Her out of control ambition is fanned to murderous intensity by glamorous talent agent Sylvia St. Croix (Donna Sachet), so Tina bumps off the girl who got the lead in the play. Tina is sent to reform school for the crime and suddenly the farce changes.  The audience discovers that Judy Denmark (Joan Ryan), Tina's mother, was the glamourous musical comedy star Ginger Del Marco, the toast of Broadway.  (Don't ask how, because is really very harebrained.)  Also involved is the grandmother, an acid tongued drama critic (Sharon McKnight) who says "I never saw Fiddler but I gave it a terrible review." The second act of farce goes into total insanity.

Hannah Rose Kornfeld (13 going on 14, recently seen in The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, Blackbird)  is outstanding in the role of the tap dancing prodigy with a lethal modus operandi.  She has dynamic vocal cords singing several of the fourteen songs. Joan Ryan (besides the original producing, was also in Little Shop of Horrors and "Saved by the Bell") is outstanding as the mother. She plays the role like Nancy Keller in the first act and then becomes glamorous Joan Crawford in the second act. She has a four octave range in her vocals, especially in the second act.

The rest of the cast has a ball with their roles, especially local favorite Donna Sachet, who is deliciously ripe in her performance of Sylvia St. Croix. She gets many costume changes of bizarre Bob Mackie outfits.

Sharon McNight (1989 Broadway debut in Starmites and Songs Too Offend Everyone coming at the NCTC) gives a sleek performance as the most wicked theatre critic you will every meet (her credo is "I Hate Musicals"). Erin-Kate Whitcomb (two-time winner of the Dean Goodman Award) is impressively funny as Tina's teacher, Miss Thorn. She has excellent vocal cords in several of the numbers. Ara Glenn Johanson (Sextuple Indemnity at New York Fringe), who plays Eve and Louise, shines in a pair of songs. Her performance as Eve reminds me of Anne Baxter in All About Eve.

Kristopher McDowell keeps the action flowing. He makes sure that every note and action is delivered with great precision. The singers are backed by a terrific trio of Greg Zema on keyboard, David Dieni on percussion and Daniel Fabricant on bass.  Ruthless, the Musical runs through November 3rd at The Purple Onion, 140 Columbus San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-979-0777.


A Chekhovian Production of Chekhov in Yalta

Dragon Productions recently presented an ambitious production of John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow's 1982 play Chekhov in Yalta in their intimate theatre in Palo Alto. This stylish comedy is based on the last years of Anton Chekhov who was dying from tuberculosis.  Chekhov in Yalta was the winner of the Los Angeles Drama Critic Award for Best Play in 1982. It was also presented by the Berkeley Repertory Company the same year.

Chekhov in Yalta is described as a comedy; however, the play itself is fiendishly Chekhovian. It is a refined comedy play by a good cast of eleven actors.  It reminds me of Chekhov's early one-act plays that recently played at Playhouse West.  The Russian sense of humor is more cultured than American comedy with fast zingers from the actors. Chekhov himself declared The Cherry Orchard.

The play is set in 1900 where Chekhov's (James Brewer) consumption confines him to his Black Sea estate. Moscow Art Theatre director Stanislavsky (Dale Albright), his quarreling partner Nemirovich-Danchenko (Bill C.Jones), the theatre's leading actress Olga Kipper (Laura Jane Bailey) and actors Moskvin (Kevin Hsieh) and Luzhki (Philip Levi) descend on the invalid to persuade him to let the company produce The Three Sisters. Chekhov already has as houseguests the revolutionary Maxim Gorky (Manual Rojas), Chekhov's friend and biographer Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin (William J. Brown III), maid Fyokla (Annamarie MacLeod) and the playwright's sister Masha (Mary Lou Torre).

The two-hour play has a lot of romantic seductions, battles of wits and conspiracy going on. Things become quite farcical in the second act, which seems straight out of one of Chekhov's one-act plays. There are disputes between the money man and the artist's conception of the playwright's upcoming play.

James Brewer as Anton Chekhov glows with compassion throughout the production. He gives a very believable portrait, both physically and dramatically.   He is especially good in the last moments of the play when he give a brief soliloquy.

Dale Albright plays the legendary Stanislavsky with some over-the-top campy acting, saying, "Mark my words, Chekhov will not be remembered." Patricia Tyler is splendid as Lilina, Stanislavsky wife and leading actress of the Moscow Theatre.  Bill C. Jones is very amusing as Nemirovich-Danchenko. Kevin Hsieh as Moskvin has very little dialogue but he is an excellent mime. Manuel Rojas as Gorky plays the role with style. William J. Brown III is excellent as Bunin. Laura Jane Bailey, Mary Lou Torre, Annamarie MacLeod and Philip Levi are effective in their roles.

Ron Gasparinetti's outdoor garden set is excellent for the small stage of the Dragon Theatre. Costumes by Mae Matos are authentic early 20th century Russian. Director John T. Aney has constructed the play to make it look like an early Chekhov comedy.

Chekhov in Yalta closed on October 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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