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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Figaro, Bug and Brooklyn Boy


A Beautiful Production of Figaro

Figaro
Jennifer Baldwin Peden and
Momoko Tanno

Theatre de la Jeune Lune of Minneapolis is presenting the part drama / part opera / part video Figaro at Berkeley Repertory Roda Theatre through June 8th. The production draws on material from three Figaro plays: The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and the long forgotten A Mother's Guilt. At least 60 percent consists of famous aria from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro sung by glorious singers.

Figaro opens with a flash of light and a large bombardment sound as we are in the midst of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. The stage is almost bare with videos playing on large screens showing the outside of an elegant French mansion. There is gunfire outside, but on stage is "Fig" (Steve Epp) and Mr. Almaviva (Dominique Serrand), an ex-nobleman who is now a citizen of France. Fig is still a servant to a very strange Almaviva. Most of the comedy comes from the caustic remarks between the two. Dominique Serrand looks like a vaudevillian comedian dressed in what looks like an outfit from Waiting for Godot. His slight foreign accent is a delight, as he speaks short phrases and repeating words.

The text by Steven Epp is taken from the Beaumarchais classic with modern words thrown in for comic effect ("Don't be so sensitive," Almaviva scolds Fig, "You'll end up being a Democrat" or Fig blustering about a new United States, saying, "They have a president, not a king who sits on a throne just because his daddy did. His name is George umm ... something with a W").

Steve Epp is outstanding as the heartfelt servant who gives sparkling soliloquies on his feelings about his past life and the current state of affairs. He is a sad sack Everyman, the perfect straight man for the antics of Serrand. Their conversations are about disillusioned love and sexual betrayal. They talk about Almaviva, who was a count sixteen years ago when he attempted to seduce Figaro's young wife to be, Susanna.

The projected images are shown when the now empty mansion suddenly shows the baronial splendor of the home sixteen years ago when Count Almaviva tried to get into Susanna's knickers on Figaro's wedding night. The splendid singers take over the various roles of Mozart's delightful opera The Marriage of Figaro. The arias are lithely executed.

Theatre de la Jeune Lune's hilarious brand of physical comedy is slapdash and impulsive in the flashback sequence involving minor squabbles in the garden. Young Figaro (Bryan Boyce) and Susanna (Julie Kurtz), young Count Almaviva (Bradley Greenwald) and his beautiful wife Rosina (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), and Rosina's admirer Cherubino (Christina Baldwin) have a side-splitting scene about their infidelities, some real and some that were intentionally manufactured.

Bryan Boyce has a golden voice and is very charismatic as the young Figaro while Bradley Greenwald (he also adapted the score for the 7th Avenue String Quartet) plays an aggressive and darkly sexy Count with his rich baritone voice. Christina Baldwin, with her beautiful soprano vocal chops, is charming as Cherubino while Jennifer Baldwin Peden (alternating with Anna Hersey) gives an outstanding performance as Rosina with an exciting mezzo soprano voice. She makes the most of her two great arias and blends perfectly with Julie Kurtz's (alternating with Momoko Tanno) Susanna in the captivating Letter Duet. Carrie Hennessey is very good playing the randy servant Marcellina while Bryan Janssen gives some witty and musical assistance as Bartolo to Mozart's magnificent score.

Dominique Serrand, who directs the farce and does the scenography video, is dazzling in both fields. The sounds of the revolution outside (by Zach Humes) are very authentic, while Sonya Berlovitz' costumes are lovely apparel, especially in the Marriage of Figaro scenes.

Figaro runs through June 8th at Berkeley Repertory Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Photo: Kevin Berne


SF Playhouse Presents an Electrifying Production of Bug

Bug
Susi Damilano and Gabriel Martin
SF Playhouse is currently presenting the Off-Broadway hit, Tracy Letts' controversial Bug. This is a criminally great production with the exhilarating performances of Susi Damilano and Gabriel Marin. The two-hour twenty-minute production assaults the audience with aggressive acting and strong, shocking incidents that take place in a grungy motel room somewhere in Oklahoma. Letts (Killer Joe, the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for August : Osage County) has written a tightly constructed drama about psychotic conspiracy paranoia carried to strident extremes.

This is the story of Agnes White's (Susi Damilano) inevitable journey to the edge of the abyss. She is a lonely and substance-abusing woman. Her only friend is Ronnie (Zehra Berkman), a lesbian who loves to party. Agnes has an ex-husband, Jerry (John Flanagan), a dangerous man just out of prison whom she is trying to avoid. Things look pretty bad for her. Ronnie brings over a drifter named Peter (Gabriel Marin), also a loner, who has a delectably ironic and simpatico way about him. Agnes asks Peter to share her room, her bed and even Peter's strange secrets. Peter is a real likeable nice guy at the beginning. However, we soon find out he has a thing about bugs, which becomes psychotic. He finds them all over and even on his body. First there are just a few and then finally swarms of bugs. He turns from being a good guy to a frightening maniac.

Peter becomes extremely paranoid as he believes he contracted the bugs as a soldier in the Middle East and he has been deliberately given these bugs by the sinister government while in an Army psychiatric hospital for four years. He convinces Agnes of the bug fetish and in the second act, the whole motel room is wrapped in tin foil since Peter believes these bugs can communicate with the each other. His fear of an ominous government is closing in on him, and his persona sends him and Agnes into outbursts of hysteria. The whole drama becomes a mind boggling, paranoid tragedy at the end.

Susi Damilano (2007 SFBATCC Best Dramatic Actress for Six Degrees of Separation) is brilliant as Agnes. She gives a nuanced, affecting performance as the 44-year-old cocktail waitress turning slowly into being Peter's companion in the world of madness. She gives a sympathetic portrayal of woman worn down by apprehension and anxiety. Gabriel Marin (Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped The A Train and A Streetcar Named Desire) is superb as the paranoid Peter. His transformation from being a milquetoast to a monomaniac is outstanding. He does amazing things with his body and eyes that give you hints as to what paranoiac thoughts are spinning in his head. Both Susi Damilano and Gabriel Marin are perfect as they neatly, stylishly and precisely give charismatic performances.

Zehra Berkman (The Cryptogram, Theophilus North) is great as Agnes' tough-talking pal R.C. Their interactions in the first act with talk over talk are beautifully and timely rendered. It reminded me of the early films of Orson Wells, who devised this system of persons talking over each other.

John Flanagan (Summertime, Angel Face, God of Hell) is menacing as Agnes' ex-con husband Jerry. He gives the character a bluster that is definitely on the dangerous side. Keith Burkland (Our Lady of 121st Street, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan) gives a winning performance as Dr. Sweet. He is the personification of a menacing government official. Chad Deverman, who is never seen, does what he can as the voice of the pizza delivery man.

Bill English has designed a striking set of a seedy motel room and has realistically covered all of the furniture in the second act with foil. He has paid careful attention to detail.

Sound designer Cliff Caruthers has delivered convincingly the sounds of the rattling of an old air conditioner; the thwack, thwack, thwack of a helicopter is terrifying.

Director Jon Tracy has capably handled this top notch cast of actors. He has managed to have realistic violent choreography in the confines of a theater set. The pragmatic lighting by Jon Tracy gives moody effects in each scene.

Bug plays through June 14th at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-677-9596 or on line at www.sfplayhouse.org. Their next production will be Kander and Ebb's Cabaret opening on June 28th.

Photo: Zabrina Tipton


A Personable Production of Donald Margulies' Brooklyn Boy

Brooklyn Boy
Matthew Lai and Timothy Beagley
Ross Valley Players has been one of the most successful semi-professional theatre companies for 78 years in Marin County. They are presenting Donald Margulies' Brooklyn Boy through June 15th.

Donald Margulies is a master of restrained characterization and humor-filled dialogue. He gives his actors natural conversations, and scripts that are elegantly genuine and entertaining. Brooklyn Boy is a comedy with somber overtones.

Eric Weiss (Matthew Lai) is a 51-year-old best-selling author. He has written two prior novels that were not successful. However, his new novel has become a best seller and it's number 11 on the New York Times Best Seller list. The book is about Eric's childhood, growing up in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. He returns to the old neighborhood because his father Manny (Jerry Jacob) is dying of cancer.

Eric is a middle-aged person trying to bring together his past and present. He has left his Jewish faith behind and has not been to temple since his bar mitzvah. The play has five smoothly orchestrated scenes, and Eric's success is mirrored through the prism of someone else's reaction to it. The first scene is a confrontation with his cranky father Manny. The father is completely indifferent to his more academic son's achievements.

Eric's encounter with his boyhood friend Ira (Timothy Beagley) in the hospital cafeteria is a well written scene. Ira is a practicing Orthodox Jew and the conversation makes Eric very uncomfortable. He is a little envious of Eric's success ("What is it you were born with that I wasn't? What is it, a gene? A chemical?").

Eric visits his soon to be ex-wife Nina (Robin Steeves), who is also a writer, hoping they can patch up their marriage. However, the conversation reveals her failure as a writer. The novelist scene with young attractive college student Alison (Allison Porto-Yale), a wannabe producer, is very touching.

Brooklyn Boy lightens up the drama when Eric meets an impetuous studio executive, Melanie (Safiya Arnaout), who is closer to being a caricature than a human being. The scene becomes off the wall when a hunky young man (Joseph Rende), who has achieved stardom in a TV series called "Outlaw Billy," wants to play a Brooklyn Jewish boy in the film version of Eric's book. Melanie believes the book is too ethnic ("It's one thing to be Jewish in a book and another to be Jewish in a movie").

The last scene is Eric's sensitive encounter with Ira, who turns up to sit "shiva" for Eric's father, who has passed away. Eric still resists the Jewish ritual. The ghost of the father returns to put him straight about his Jewish heritage. Each of these scenes could stand as a mini-play.

Matthew Lai is excellent as Eric. He is natural as a listener in the five scenes. He makes the character a passive man and becomes a focus in all five scenes. Timothy Beagley as Ira gives a memorable performance. His Brooklyn Jewish accent is right on the mark. Robin Steeves is topnotch as Nina, especially in her confrontation with Eric. Safiya Arnaout goes completely over the top as the Paramount producer. Joseph Rende is creditable as Tyler. Allison Porto-Yale is captivating as the airhead college student Alison. Jerry Jacob gives a splendid performance as Manny.

Under Phoebe Moyer's customarily expert direction on Ken Rowland's sparse set the cast takes excellent possession of the play.

Brooklyn Boy plays through June 15th at The Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, Sir Francis Drake Blvd at Lagunitas, Ross. For tickets please call 415-456-9555 or on line at www.rossvalleyplayers.com. Their next production is Moonlight & Magnolias opening on September 5th.

Photo: Ron Severdia


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

- Richard Connema



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