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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Streetcar Named Desire, Thrill Me and
Caroline, or Change


A Vigorous Production of Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar named Desire
Carrie Paff, Daniel May and
Arwen Anderson

The Marin Theatre Company has presented a strong production of Tennessee Williams' classic A Streetcar Named Desire. There is no doubt that this is one of the great American plays of the 20th century. It's a scorching, naturalistic drama about sex, class and power. The dialogue is an eloquent lyrical poem about gentleness and beauty against a world that maltreats them.

A Streetcar Named Desire goes a long way back for me, starting with the winter of 1948 when I saw Marlon Brando play Stanley Kowalski to Jessica Tandy's Blanche DuBois. I was very fortunate that, when I came over from Republic studios to Warner Brothers, I was assigned to Harry Stradling's cinematography crew to help film Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh in the film version. Since then I have seen many stage productions, both here and the U.K. Each time I see this classic, I see something different.

Director Jasson Minadakis has opted to present the complete three-hour production and has assembled a very strong cast for not only the major roles but the minor characters as well. Carrie Paff, playing a delicate Blanche, is first rate playing the role like a Southern aristocrat who uses lies and fantasy to cope in the real world. She gives a touching performance as a person full of contradictions. In the opening scenes with Stella, she seems to be a little too nervous since she should build up the edgy energy as each scene progresses. Her scenes in the second act with the men are brilliant.

Daniel Thomas May is dynamic as Stanley. He is a young Marlon Brando in looks and in actions. He swaggers about the stage displaying brute animalism. At times he can be repulsive and other times he is like a little wounded puppy dog wanting love from Stella. This is shown when he yells, "Stella!" when she has escaped to the second floor after he slaps his wife in a drunken rage. It's a stunning performance.

Arwen Anderson's Stella is simply perfection. She is down to earth and lighthearted one minute and self-reproachful in the next. Her closing scene when she says "What have I done to my sister?" is heartfully rendered.

Gabriel Marin is excellent in the role of Mitch, who conveys tenderness toward Blanche and then has a feeling of reflective duplicity once he realizes that Blanche is really not a delicate Southern lady but a lady damned by society for her love for young boys. When Mitch holds Blanche's face up to a bare lightbulb and in that harsh glare exposes the truth behind her long covering up of lies, it is powerful.

Patrick Alparone is very good in his brief scene as the young Evening Star collector. He brings out the total innocence of a young boy against the lasciviousness of his encounter with Blanche. Dena Martinez, Lance Gardner, Hector Osorio, Marjorie Crump-Shears and Daniel Riviera are all very successful in small roles.

Robert Mark Morgan has designed a set that is like a movie set with three tiers. His outstanding design looks like a place in the French Quarter, with Spanish moss and wood slats on the stage. There is even a bathtub on the uppermost landing where Blanche is seen luxuriating. Joan Arhelger's lights help the mood of the play while Chris Houston's score with piano and sax solos merges a humid spell. Laura Hazlett's costumes are in line with 1947 New Orleans.

A Streetcar Named Desire played through April 20th at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave. Mill Valley. Upcoming is the world premiere of Aditi Brennan Kapil's Love Person playing in the Lieberman Theatre beginning April 23rd. and Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is in the Boyer Theatre from May 22. For tickets, call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.


Photo: Ed Smith


Strong Performances Help Thrill Me

Thrill Me
William Giammona and Ricardo Rust
Once again, we are titillated by Leopold and Loeb, the infamous couple who killed a fourteen-year-boy in Chicago in the 1920s. New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting Stephen Dolginoff's 70-minute chamber piece, Thrill Me. There will always be an audience for this Chicago crime story. It has been the source for three noteworthy films: Hitchcock's Rope, Richard Fleischer's Compulsion and the independent film Swoon.

Those who have read Nietzsche's philosophy will see the perfect morality-free specimen in Loeb, as he dominates the weaker Leopold until the very end of the play when there is a minor twist. The musical format has a generic score with klutzy lyrics ("I'll always obey you!/One perfect accomplice/Who'll never betray you/ If you thrill me!/Thrill me"). However, the production has two top-notch performers who are terrific in singing and acting the roles of the notorious pair.

Thrill Me is the story of how two very rich young men who are law students at the University of Chicago decide to randomly choose a boy to kill just to prove they are intellectually superior. Fixation and homosexuality are prominent in this musical. The drama tries to go deep into their libido, but in a short space of time this is an impossible task.

William Giammona is excellent as Richard Loeb. He plays the role as a creepy person with a Nietzsche "Superman" complex. There is not one spark of humanity in his character. He is mesmeric in the murder sequence in which Richard entices the unseen victim into his car with the unforgettably disturbing song, "Roadster." His singing "Superior" is sparkling. Ricardo Rust brings real emotion to the proceedings at Leopold. He has a strong voice in songs like "Thrill Me" and "Life Plus 99 Years." It's impossible to make his spine-chilling character compassionate. He plays the role brilliantly as a person obsessed with Richard ("I'll do what you want me to/There's no me, if there's no you").

Timothy Hanson is excellent as the pianist, who is hidden behind a screen. Dennis M. Lickteig's direction is first rate and he keeps the scenes moving effortlessly. John Kelly's lighting is effective on a bare stage. Jessie Amoroso has designed two excellent rich men's suits that are straight out of the '20s.

Thrill Me plays through May 4th at Walker Theatre in the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness near Market Street in San Francisco. For tickets call the box office at 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.

Photo: Lois Tema


A Beautiful Production of Caroline, or Change

Caroline, or Change
C. Kelly Wright and Julian Hornik
TheatreWorks is presenting a powerful production of Caroline, or Change, with music by Jeanine Tesori and words and book by Tony Kushner through April 27th. This marks the third time I have seen this musical and this production is on a par with the New York production at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. C. Kelly Wright as the strong, stubborn maid is compelling in the title role. She gives a superb singing performance with an inflexible lucidity. Her 11 o'clock number, "Lot's Wife," is a showstopper and she sings it with passionate intensity.

Caroline, or Change takes place in 1963 Louisiana where social change is flowing through America. Obstinate and dispirited, Caroline has her own reasons for refusing to accept the foreseeable tide of change. The sole supporter of three children, Caroline works for a Jewish family in Lake Charles for $30 a week. The young son of the family, Noah (Julian Hornik), has developed a stereotypical friendship with Caroline. He looks upon her as a surrogate mother since his real mother has recently passed away from cancer.

Caroline is embittered by the difference between the lifestyle of the white family and her struggle to give her kids a chance in life. She even tells young Noah, "How come you like me? I'm never nice to you." This is a meticulously cynical friendship between the white boy and African-American maid.

The score is an appealing melange of musical styles, drawing on gospel and the eclectic blues of African-American music. There is even a pastiche of klezmer music for the Chanukah sequence that is lively and fun. Kushner's lyrics are in line with Caroline ("Some folks do all kind of things/And black folks someday live like kings/And someday sunshine shine all day/Oh sure it true/it be that way/But not for me/Not not for me!").

Robert Kelley has assembled a stunning cast of singers for his chamber opera. The show includes Caroline's imaginary friends in fanciful interludes in which the moon is sung with classy vivacity by Anise Ritchie. The Motown trio of Radio singers, Marsha Lawson, Adrienne Muller and Dawn L. Troupe, are fantastic. James Monroe Inglehart is dynamic as The Dryer and The Bus. His wild dance moves are showstopping.

Twelve-year-old Julian Hornik is very poignant as Noah, who is trying to become friends with Caroline but to no avail. He has a bell clear voice in all of his songs. Allison Blackwell is appealing as Caroline's friend Dotty. Valisia LeKae is bright and perky as Caroline's daughter Emmie. Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman (alternates performances with William David Southhall) and Brandon Charles Deadwiler (alternates performances with Evan Stone Green) heighten the action as Caroline's other children.

Eileen Tepper gives a dramatically impressive performance as Noah's insecure stepmother, Rose. Ryan Drummond is effective as Noah's weak, widowed clarinet-playing father. Jessie Caldwell and Roberta J. Morris as Noah's grandfather and grandmother are first rate. Randy Nazarian rounds out the large cast and is successful in his small role as Mr. Stopnick.

The nine-piece orchestra led by William Liberatore expertly plays Tesori's demanding score. J.B. Wilson has designed an excellent set that shows the Jewish family dining room and Caroline's basement all on the same level. Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes reflect the early sixties. Pamela Gray's lighting is effective. Choreographer Pjay Phillips provides some wonderful period soul and folk dances to liven the production.

Caroline, or Change plays through April 27 at TheatreWorks, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org. Their next production will be Stephen Schwartz' Snapshots opening on June 18th and running through July 13.

Photo: David Allen


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

- Richard Connema



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