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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Coriolanus, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter and
A Midsummer Night's Dream

An Exciting Staging of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

Corolanus
Mahira Kakkar and Danforth Comins
Oregon Shakespeare Company is presenting a vigorous production of William Shakespeare's last tragedy and last Roman play Coriolanus through November 2nd at the New Theatre.  This powerful 400-year-old play is rarely performed since there is no romance, no subplot to overwhelm us, and no character that we like.  The political message is a depressing one, telling us that all politics are putrid and nothing will ever save us from a utopian world.

Yet, even with these negatives, Laird Williamson's production is a powerful indictment of today's world and the battles in the Middle East.  The characters are dressed in desert war outfits and they carry AK-47s, cell phones and laptops.  It is ripped from today's headlines of the current war.  One can say that Coriolanus going from being a general in the Roman army to the Volscian enemy is like this country first supporting and then turning on Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

The audience sees the actors mounting battlements during the war scenes.  They even pop up from the bowels of the New Theatre shooting off their AK-47s. Actors walk up and down the aisle during the crowd scenes - we are in the front line of all of the action.

Coriolanus opens with the citizens of a non-specific Rome outraged at their treatment by the upper classes.  They want to revolt to get to the bread that has been promised them.  There are two contending factors: The Tribunes (played by Demetra Pittman and Rex Young) align themselves with the people, while Menenius (wonderful played by Richard Elmore) and former Consul Cominius (played exceedingly well by Bill Geisslinger) represent the current political power.

Popular general Caius Martius has just put down the enemy Volscian at the gates of Rome.  He wins the city and is given the name Coriolanus for his victory over his old foe Aufidius, played powerfully by Michael Elich. Coriolanus, who has no feeling for the lower class, is about to be made Consul but the Tribunes set into action a scheme with the people against the new Consul.  He is insulted by the crowd.  He takes sides with his old foe Aufidius where the final elements of his downfall take place.

Danforth Comins is superb in the role of Coriolanus, playing the part with the scorn and assurance of a self-centered killing machine. Robynn Rodriguez plays his mother Volumina; she has reared him as an egotistical power-mad person who hates the lower class citizens. She is the most detestable woman in all of the Bard's plays.  In the speech toward the end of the three-hour drama when Volumina pleads with her son to abandon Aufidius, Rodriguez provides a stunning piece of theatrical acting.

Richard Elmore plays Menenius, the closest friend of Coriolanus. He is great as a windbag who is a well-meaning liberal.  He plays it for comic relief in the rather stark drama. He is very poignant in his weepy appeal to Coriolanus returning to Rome.  Rex Young and Demetra Pitman give imaginative performances as the Tribunes. U. Jonathan Toppo, Christopher Michael Rivera, Mahira Kakkar and Sarah Rutan are well suited for their parts.

Richard L. Hays's scenic design is powerful, with its battlements and foxholes. Work by lighting designer Robert Peterson and sound man Todd Barton are exciting assets to the war being carried out on the four-sided stage. Deborah M. Dryden's military uniforms look like the desert outfits that the United Stages armed forces have in the Middle East; even the sleek outfits of Mahirak Kakkar and Sarah Rutan are very chic.

Coriolanus will run in the New Theatre through November 2nd. If you love the minor works of The Bard this is a production you should see. For tickets please call 541-482-4331 or visit www.osfashland.org.

Photo: Jenny Graham


Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter is an Intriguing Drama

Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter
Gwendolyn Mulamba
Oregon Shakespeare Festival has presented many world premiere productions that have gone on to be successful at regional companies in this country.  This year is no exception.  The company is presenting Julie Marie Myatt's drama Welcome Home Jenny Sutter at the New Theatre through June 20th.

The one-hour 20-minute one-act drama is about the touching story of Jenny Sutter, sharply played by Gwendolyn Mulamba. Jenny is a Marine returning from a tour of duty in Iraq.  Jenny lost her lower leg in a bomb explosion at a check point in that country.  She has now returned to the United States psychologically impaired.  Her seven-year-old son is living with her mother and she is debating going back to her home in Oceanside, California. The memories of the Iraq war and how she lost the leg are bad enough, but they are unbearable now that she is back in Southern California.  One of the big questions is, does she want her son to see her with the impairment.

The drama opens at the Los Angeles bus station where Jenny is debating with herself about taking the bus home.  Ditsy stranger Lou (Kate Mulligan) comes into the station and just never stops talking about her free spirit.  Scatterbrain Lou is very generous and compassionate, and she talks Jenny into accompanying her to Slab City. Slab City is a former World War II Marine base at the foot of Chocolate Mountain and the land is owned by the State of California. It is the world's largest seasonal encampment of squatters living in top-of-the-line RVs and dilapidated buses, classic Airstreams and freestanding camper shells.  Over 2000 residents stay there all winter for free. The place is full of lost souls, and Jenny finds comfort in this, since she is a lost soul.

Buddy (David Kelly) is the local "preacher" (he got his preaching certificate from an Internet religious site) and is sort of the camp's leader.  Every Sunday he gives a message of love and hope to his improbable congregation.  His speeches of love comprise some of the best scenes in this drama. Also in this camp is Donald (Gregory Linington), who is carrying some sort of guilt on his back.  He really does not give a damn about anyone or anything.   Cheryl (K. T. Vogt)  is Lou's "therapist."  She was formerly a hairdresser in a small desert town so she says she got her knowledge from listening to all of her customers while working on their hair.

Gwendolyn Mulamba is convincing as the moody Jenny. She alternates between pensive stillness and explosive outbursts of self defense. David Kelly is wonderful as the gentle Buddy. Kate Mulligan gives an inimitable performance as the talkative Lou. Gregory Linington is very good as the moody Donald.   Cameron Knight in a small role as the bus station night manager is effective in the first scene.

Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter is a work in progress.  It needs some tightening up before the drama goes to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  At the opening there is a much too long sequence of Jenny putting on civilian clothes in the bus station.  If seems to go on forever.  There are several long scenes in which nothing happens. Also, the Cheryl character is not fleshed out.  She just seems to walk on and off the stage with too little dialogue to give the part any kind of human temperament.

Director Jessica Thebus from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre has done a creditable work in progress job on the production. The drama runs at the New Theatre through June 20th.  For tickets call 541-482-4331 or visit www.osfashland.org.

Photo: David Cooper


A Wild and Lusty Production of A Midsummer's Night Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Josiah Phillips, Francis Flute and
Ray Porter

In the past five weeks I have seen three entirely different versions of Shakespeare's classic comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Center Repertory's production was set "in the mind of Director Michael Butler" with a Beatles overtone.  The production of the comedy now at the Curran is a bold and innovative Indian version of the Bard's work.

The OSF production is completely different, and it can only be said that this lusty version consists of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - Elizabethan style. It is set in a retro 1970s, complete with bellbottoms. This production contains more vivacity than the other two productions I have seen.

A Midsummer Night's Dream opens with Duke Theseus and wife-to-be Hippolyta sitting in two gigantic white armchairs speaking the opening lines of Shakespeare's work.  Theseus, played by Michael Elich, speaks with a Brooklyn accent. You gather he is the head of the Mafia in Brooklyn and he is dressed straight out of "The Sopranos." Hippolyta, played by Shona Tucker, is one sexy fox, dressed to the nines and speaking with little or no accent.  Metal framework set pieces are raising behind them, decorated with large neon circles rising like champagne bubbles.  There is a large disco ball suspended above the audience used in certain scenes.  This is a great start to an amazing production full of surprises.

Mark Rucker's production is full of 20th century music, costumes and even the culture of the latter part of the century.  The background turns over to two mammoth, strange sets that look like the fins of a gigantic whale, with round fluorescent lights one would see in an office. Sometimes the lights change to lovely small blue lights.  The set also has metal ladders where Puck (John Tufts), Oberon (Kevin Kennerly) and Titania (Christine Albright) climb up occasionally to view the actions of Lysander (Tasso Feldman), Hermia (Kjerstine Anderson), Helena (Emily Sophia Knapp) and Demetrius (Christopher Michael Rivera) as they carry on with their silliness in the woods. The young lovers are living in costumes that can be described as late '50s to early '80s, and they act in that time period. Their acting is vigorous and perplexed and idiotic.

John Tufts does an excellent way-out version of Puck.  He is straight out of The Rocky Horror Show and dressed like a combination of Alice Cooper and Frank 'N' Furter. He even wears high heels and what looks like a Castro District Halloween outfit. He sings with mike in hand looking a like a Vegas lounge singer, singing the last famous lines of the comedy. 

The Fairies Moth (Mark Bedard), Cobweb (Eddie Lopez), Peaseblossom (Neil Shah) and Mustardseed (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) are dressed in tutus and combat boots, and they do hilarious disco dancing along with Puck that any Castro Street bar would be happy to have for a Halloween Party. (Actually, during previews, they were so scantly dressed, they had to put on more leather to obtain a PG rating for the multitude of high school students who would be attending the performances.)

Peter Quince (U. Jonathan Toppo) and his armature group of Nick Bottom (Ray Porter), Francis Flute (Eileen DeSandre), Tom Snout (Josiah Phillips), Snug (Jeffrey King) and Robin (Richard Elmore) arrive in a flower power VW bus.  Ray Porter is an amiable Bottom who speaks all of the words with absolute ease and excellent humor.  He is wonderful when he "becomes" a donkey resting in the arms of Titania. Richard Elmore has a wonderful small part as Robin Starveling who is always eating something during those scenes.

Kevin Kenerly as Oberon, King of the Fairies, and Christine Albright as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, are evenly matched for their supremacy and are very convincing as they rule the forest at night. Both have real cool costumes and give superlative performances.

The inner play of "Pyramus and Thisbe" is side-splitting, with some very witty business with the wall that separates the doomed lovers.  Ray Porter is hilarious in his double death scene at the end of the play within a play.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is an extravagant production that runs about two and a half hours and will always be remembered as one of the strangest productions of the Bard's plays in the 21st century at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The comedy runs through November 2nd at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.   For tickets please call 541-482-4331 or visit www.osfashland.org].

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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