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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Blood Knot, Satellites and In This House


An Overpowering Production of Athol Fugard's Blood Knot

Blood Knot
Steven Anthony Jones and Jack Willis
American Conservatory Theatre is tackling big issues in Athol Fugard's powerful Blood Knot, playing at their theatre through March 9th. This is set in the apartheid subjugated South Africa of the early 1960s where two brothers are divided by skin tone but joined together by blood. The play is a scorching condemnation of South Africa's impenetrable apartheid system in the early '60s

Fugard uses misleadingly simple language to explore these vividly specific characters. Every wrong step the brothers make in this two-hour fifteen-minute powerhouse is a likely symbol for some larger impacting of mankind. Both Steven Anthony Jones as the darker brother and Jack Willis as the lighter brother give riveting performances.

Light-skinned Morris (Jack Willis) has successfully "passed" in white South Africa and returns home from his wanderings to his dark-skinned brother Zachariah's (Steven Anthony Jones) rundown ghetto shack downwind from an industrially polluted lake. Morris is a very fussy, somewhat "old auntie," who hovers over the fun-loving Zachariah. Morris fixes his brother's foot-bath water when he returns from his job of running little black kids out of a whites-only park. He makes Zach's bed and takes the working brother's paycheck to put money away for a little farm somewhere away from the industrial stench of Port Elizabeth. Zach remembers the time when he and his neighbor friend would have a woman every Friday. To alleviate that sexual urge, Morris proposes that Zach get a female pen pal. Since Zach can't read or write, Morris sends out a pen pal letter to an 18-year-old girl up north. They soon find out that the girl is white and has a police officer as a brother.

Admittedly, the first act is somewhat slow, concentrating on the daily comings and goings of the two brothers. However, you know something is going to happen in the second act after the young girl responds, thinking Zach is white. This is where we find the meat of the play. The young girl is coming south to meet Zachariah who has told her he has a fast car. Zach decides that since Morris is light skinned he should take Zach's place and pretend to be a white man. They take all of their savings for the little farm and Zach buys Morris a complete white gentlemen's outfit, from hat to real boots and even an umbrella. Things turn out okay when the young girl has written another letter to say she is engaged and won't be coming down.

The final scene is spellbinding as the two brothers play a game, with Morris wearing the white gentlemen's outfit and Zach playing a subservient dark black man working in the park. Morris and Zach find support in each other and in the "blood knot" that binds them together.

Jack Willis (ACT core member) is superb as Morris as he over-compensates his guilt from being light skinned by primly patronizing Zach. He has one of the truly great theatre voices of the American stage today. Steven Anthony Jones (ACT core member) is brilliant in the role of Zachariah. He is an actor who is inseparable from the role of the na´ve man. His Southern African accent is perfect.

Alexander V. Nichols' set fills the large stage with sheets of corrugated metal. In the middle he has created an imprecise shack of wooden slats. Kathy A. Perkins' lighting effect on the corrugated metal in the back of the stage is striking. She changes the mood of the play through intricate lighting. This is especially true when Morris and Zach are remembering playing in an old abandoned car when they were children.

Tracy Chapman has delivered an excellent original score to help the drama's mesmerizing potential. Director Charles Randolph Wright has captured the racial dialog perfectly. He successfully shows the tensions of the brothers, especially in the second act.

Blood Knot plays through March 9th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street at Mason, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

American Conservatory Theatre Master of Arts Program is presenting Virginia Woolf's Orlando, opening February 28th at the Zeum Theatre, 4th and Howard, San Francisco. A.C.T.'s next main attraction will be Nikolai Gogal's The Government Inspector opening on March 20th and running through April 20th.

Photo: DavidAllenStudio.com


A Well Intended Production of Diana Son's Satellites

Satellites
Julie Oda and Lisa Kang
Aurora Theatre is presenting an interesting production of Diana Son's Satellites through March 2nd. It is strange that the Berkeley audiences are again seeing a play about the gentrification of a neighborhood in New York City. Berkeley Repertory Theatre just had Danny Hoch in Taking Over about the gentrification of the Williamsburg neighborhood; Diana Son's drama is about a primarily black Brooklyn neighborhood. In this case, it is the story of an African-American husband and his Korean American wife moving into run-down brownstones that used to house crack heads and vagrants.

Korean-American architect Nina (Julie Oda) and her unemployed computer expert African-American husband Miles (Michael Asberry) move into a three-story, crumbling home in a Brooklyn brownstone that a real estate brokers would call a fixer-upper. Nina is the mother of a newborn who seems to cry a lot. She wants everything in life, including an important position as an architect and is currently working with her partner Kit (Ayla Yarkut) on a deadline for an international architecture competition in Paris. She wants her baby to be proud of her Korean ancestry so Nina hires Korean-speaking Mrs. Chae (Lisa Kang) as a nanny.

Things are not going to be easy for her since, within a few minutes of the play's opening, a brick is hurled through the couple's window by an unknown person. To make matters worse, Miles' insecure wheeler-dealer white brother Eric (Darren Bridget) who is looking for rent-free living, has just returned from Southeast Asia and has moved into the three storied house. He is pitching a shifty commercial proposal to his brother that Nina does not approve of. Miles, who was an adopted heroin baby and grew up in an all-white house, is not very happy with the baby and will not hold her when she cries.

No one appears to be happy in this overwrought soap opera. Nina is never satisfied, and she seems to be flustered all the time because nothing adds up for her. She can't take care of the baby or complete the international competition. She has a climactic crackup that seems very illogical and rushed.

The dialogue is sharp and naturalistic. All of the rudiments of the drama echo and improve upon each other, especially in the first hour. However, the ending seems to be very synthetic, as if the playwright did not know how to end the play.

All of the actors do credible work. Julie Oda (Oregon Shakespeare Festival for eight years) is excellent as Nina, giving the character a humorous pessimism and unbending abrasiveness to suggest a woman heading for a mental breakdown. Michael Gene Sullivan (appeared at the Magic, Lorraine Hansberry and TheatreWorks) is very good as a father who cannot connect with his newborn child. Darren Bridgett (Love Song, Fortune, The Last Schwartz) is top notch as the energy-driven brother. Lisa Kang's (Immortal Heart) Korean accent is so thick and her projection so weak that audience members sitting on the right side of the three-sided theatre cannot understand her.

Ayla Yarkut (After the Fall) gives a good performance in the small role of Kit, Nina's partner. Michael J. Asberry (Top Dog/Underdog) with his powerful voice is admirable as the African-American wheeler-dealer. There is a mysterious character who keeps running up and down the stairs, dressed in a black trench coat, who allegedly is a renter of one of the rooms in the house. He is not mentioned in the program nor does he take a bow at the end of the 85-minute play. However, there is a reason why he is in the drama.

Director Kent Nicholson keeps the cast moving continually around the stage almost in a state of confrontation. Melpomene Katakalos has designed an excellent set of a run down brownstone. The walls are cracking and there is a rickety staircase going up to the second floor.

Satellites plays through March 2nd at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets, call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. Their next production will be the world premiere of Ellen McLaughlin's The Trojan Women based on Euripides' classic anti-war tragedy. It opens on April 4 and runs through May 11.

Photo: David Allen


In This House is an Appealing Musical

In This House
Michael Harrington, Henry (Standing), Gretchen Grant, Lynda DiVito, Darrin Glesser
Playhouse West is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of In This House, with music by Mike Reid and lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger. The book is by Sarah Schlesinger, Mike Reid and Jonathan Bernstein. Ex-football player Mike Reid, first round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1970, was Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFL All-Pro in 1972 and 1973. He decided he would rather write music than play football for a living. Since 1980 he has composed more then 30 top ten country and pop hits. He has been the recipient of the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year award.

Artistic Director Lois Grandi is mounting a full-scale production of this charming two-hour musical about four people exploring the challenges of waking up and moving on in the face of unspoken truths. The easy-on-the-ear, melodic musical is about two couples, one young and the other long married, who happen to share a chance encounter on New Year's Eve in a now deserted house.

John D'Amato (Darrin Glesser) meets his wife Annie (Lynda DiVito) at Dulles International Airport on New Year's Eve after a long separation. Both have been contemplating major secrets they've been keeping from each other. At the same time Henry (Michael Harrington) and Luisa (Gretchen Grant), a couple in their late middle years, are returning to spend New Year's Eve in the now deserted house they built and lived in for many years. John and Annie's vehicle runs off an icy road and into the Arden's brick wall and the four end up spending the night together. They share humor and heartbreak as they compare their views of marriage. Many previously unspoken truths come out that could either destroy or save their relationships.

Mike Reid's music sounds like early Stephen Sondheim, especially from his musicals Evening Primrose and Saturday Night, and some sounds like the work of Adam Guettel or Andrew Lippa. Sarah Schlesinger's lyrics go well with the story. This is an eclectic score that has country western, counter-melody and harmonious romantic songs.

Lynda DeVito is marvelous as Annie. She has wonderful thematic resonance, especially in "Some Other Woman," and in her duets with Darrin Glesser, "Casa D'Amato" and "Home to Stay." Glesser is first rate as a weak-willed Italian being dominated by his father and mother. (Although Darrin was suffering from a head cold the night I saw him, he still had a full range voice.)

Gretchen Grant and Michael Harrington have excellent vocal chops as the older couple. Michael Harrington's voice is especially powerful in his rendition of "The Wall" and Gretchen Grant has a lilting voice in the duets.

Jan Zimmerman has designed a charming old-fashioned living room set on Playhouse West's intimate stage, and Lois Grandi's direction is sharp. Dave Dobrusky on piano gives a good background to this easy listening musical.

In This House runs through March 2nd at the Playhouse West, 1345 Locust Street, Walnut Creek. For tickets call 925-942-0300 or on line at www.playhousewest.org. Their next production will be the West Coast premiere of When Something Wonderful Ends opening on April 3rd and running through May 4th.


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

- Richard Connema



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