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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Radio Golf, Vera Wilde and K of D: an urban legend


Brilliant Acting in August Wilson's Radio Golf

Radio Golf
Aldo Billingslea
August Wilson's final play, Radio Golf, isn't as polished as his previous nine plays based on the African American experience in the 20th century. Unfortunately, the playwright died while it was still playing at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2005, before it played the Mark Taper the same year and in 2007 the Cort Theatre in New York.  One can imagine what this drama would have been like if August Wilson had fine tuned the almost three-hour play.  Yes, it is a gratifying play as it stands now, but the tension never builds to a fever pitch.  Even some of Wilson's lyrical speeches are missing.

Director and preeminent August Wilson scholar Harry Elam is helming a superb cast of five African American actors who make this drama come alive. The time is 1997 and the setting is a storefront redevelopment office in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.  Two middle-aged African Americans plan to develop a blighted area of Pittsburgh, and they need federal money to seal the deal.  Harmond Wilks (Aldo Billingslea), an idealistic who is also running for mayor of Pittsburgh, believes everything is right on track for an urban development plan that includes businesses like Starbucks, Blockbuster and Barnes & Noble. He firmly believes that both black and white can bring new life to this community.  His close friend and co-developer at Bedford Hills Redevelopment, Roosevelt Hicks (Anthony J. Haney), sees a chance to gain financial reward and become a power player in the white business world by being the minority front man in a lucrative radio station ownership deal. He is a wheeler dealer involved in back room dealing and politicking.

All is running smoothly until cantankerous Elder Joseph Barlow (Charles Branklyn) wants to paint an abandoned house once owned by the now deceased spiritual matriarch Aunt Ester (a predominant figure in earlier Wilson plays like Gem of the Ocean). It seems Barlow still owns the house.  Sterling Johnson (L. Peter Callender), who was first seen as the firebrand ex-con in Two Trains Running, has now become a one-man union to pass judgment on the debate of who owns this condemned house, now threatened with demolition.  Rounding out this provocative drama is Mame (C. Kelly Wright), Harmond's ambitious wife.

Elder Joseph Barlow, also known as Old Joe, and Sterling Johnson tend to speak the poetry of August Wilson's past nine plays while Hammond Wilks and Roosevelt Hicks speak in more modern terms.   The playwright described Barlow and Johnson having "loud voices and big hearts." Also interesting to note is that the set, by Erik Flatmo is a drab, brightly lit office while past August's plays featured sets alive with enchantment and history.

Billingslea (The Elephant Man, Gem of the Ocean) is a charismatic Harmond Wilks. He gives a powerful performance as a man on the move to become the first African American mayor of Pittsburgh. He is most moving when he is describing the effect of entering Aunt Ester's house, and seeing the wood railings, the stained glass over the front door, and the general smell of the house.  His last scene, as Harmond decides to fight to keep the house from being demolished, is beautifully acted without having to say a word.

Anthony J. Haney (more then 40 TheatreWorks productions) is intriguing as Roosevelt Hicks.  He is fun loving and passionate at first about the plan, then he brilliantly changes to be Harmond's formidable opponent. Hicks has the guts and conviction to tear down the "raggedy-ass, rodent-infested, unfit for human eyesore" of Aunt Ester's house.

Charles Branklyn (Two Trains Running) is superb as the spirited patriarch who still owns the deed to the house. He gives a vigorous and likeable performance as the argumentative old man. His speeches are classic August Wilson monologues.

L. Peter Callender (Associate Artists at California Shakespeare Theatre in over 20 productions) gives a stimulating performance as the local handyman who claims to be a one-man union worker. He is the play's moral conscience.  C. Kelly Wright( Caroline or Change) is excellent as the self-reliant wife who wants to get away from the Hill District. Her final scene with husband Harmond is beautifully accomplished.

Erik Flatmo's set of a dowdy office with very bright lights by Steven B. Mannshardt give a realistic feel to the area known as the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Costumes by Connie Strayer are very smart, especially the dresses worn by Harmond's wife.

Radio Golf runs through November 2nd at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  For tickets, call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.  Their next production will be Long Story Short, opening at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto on December 3rd through December 28th.

Photo: Mark Kitaoka


A Stimulating Production of Vera Wilde

Vera Wilde
Danielle Levin, Sean Owens, Ned Brauer and Tyler Kent
Shotgun Players are known for presenting interesting cutting-edge musicals, such as Beowulf, a Thousand Years of Baggage, scheduled to appear in New York in the spring of 2009. The company is currently presenting the provocative drama Vera Wilde with music, lyrics and book by Chris Jeffries. This young composer, who is popular with the Empty Space Theatre in Seattle, calls this an "alterna-musical for the 21st century."

Vera Wilde is an inspiring, witty and intelligent musical putting side by side two apparently very different characters from the same era: Vera Zasulich, a pre-Communism Russian radical who is called "the mother of terrorism"; and Oscar Wilde, the brilliant Irish playwright. Both lived their confrontations, success, fame and failure in entirely different social and political spheres.  They probably never met, but they shared the shakiest of connections. Wilde's first play, a disastrous one called Vera; or, The Nihilist was based on Zasulich's brief period of disrepute. It played for only three days in New York.

Vera Wilde has an interesting structure, with the life of Oscar Wilde going backward in time while the Russian revolutionary Vera goes forward until they intersect.  This is a lightheaded, complex structure that would satisfy Tom Stoppard in its convolution. The five talented actors plus a five-piece folk band comprised of upright bass, guitar, banjo, fiddle and drum kit all under the able direction of Maya Gurantz make for an exciting night of cutting edge theatre.

Chris Jeffries' engaging score reminds me of some of the early Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht musicals of the 1930s. There are hot jazz and bluegrass numbers along with the Russian peasant lament "Midnight in Russia" which is beautifully poignant. A '30s vaudevillian showstopping tune that involves the disastrous American premiere of Wilde's Vera, called "That's How a Show Should Go," is effervescent. Danielle Levin and Edward Brauer shine in this toe-tapping number. The spirited anthem of hope, "Make a Noise," is harmoniously energizing.

The cast is excellent playing various characters in this two and a half hour "alterna-musical." What they lack in vocal training they make up for in first rate acting playing both Russian and English characters. Sean Owens is charismatic as the fur-coated effete Oscar Wilde. He plays the role with a wonderful style and quick wit. Alexandra Creighton gives an engaging performance as Vera Zasulich.  Her zeal is compelling.

Danielle Levin, Tyler Kent and Edward Brauer give very good performances in their various roles.  Tyler Kent is especially good as Lenin.

Lisa Clark's set is straight out of a German film of the 1920s. It's a claustrophobic backdrop of a grey, hazardously inward-leaning Victorian house. Costumer Valera Coble provides authentic period outfits. Choreography by Brittany Brown Ceres is energetic.  Director Maya Gurantz delivers a fast-paced and well balanced staging of the work.

Vera West plays through October 26th at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave, Berkeley.  For tickets call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org for more information.

Photo: Jessica Palopoli


An Intriguing Production of The K of D

The K of D
Maya Lawson
The Magic Theatre launches its 2008-09 season with The K of D: an urban legend, a one woman show penned by Laura Schellhardt. It is an intriguing drama of teenagers in the rural town of St. Marys, Ohio.

Maya Lawson, a native of San Francisco, takes on the role of the young storyteller and the dozen inhabitants of this midwestern town. The artist tells the audience an urban legend that happened when she was growing up one summer near a manmade lake. She says, "An urban legend is always told as if it's true, or it's got enough details to be convincing."

The K of D is about Charlotte and her twin brother Jamie during what she calls "the summer of death." On his way to school, Jamie is hit by a rusty Dodge and Charlotte and her friends witness Jamie flying over the road and landing near a billboard that reads "God Sees You." Charlotte rushes over to her brother and he kisses her on the lips just before he dies. Now her friends believe that everything she kisses will die.

The gothic tale tells of how Charlotte is struck mute by what she has experience.  The haunting story includes two appalling men: her simple-minded, implacable father and a piece of human rubbish called Johnny, the driver who killed her brother.  There is also the story of a strange blue heron that suddenly appears at the lake.  At the beginning, there are so many characters—especially her thumbnail sketches of her teenage friends—that it takes a while to get into the swing of the legend.

Maya Lawson materializes each character, including her friends, a braggart who is into rap, a meticulous and rigid teenager, a wise ass and a know it all teenager called Steffie.  She amazingly transforms herself in posture and voice to portray the adults such as the parents of Charlotte and the evil Johnny who brags of all of the girlfriends he has laid.

Outstanding is sound designer Sara Huddleston who is a great asset in telling this story. The astonishing sounds include crickets, storms and frogs. Melpomene Katakalos' set is stark and Kate Boyd's sculptural lights, especially when Charlotte is catching fireflies, are excellent. Rebecca Novick capably coordinates the production with her smooth directions.

The K of D: an urban legend ran through October 19 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. 

Their next production is Carter W. Lewis's Evie's Waltz, opening on November 8 and running through December 7. For tickets call 415-441-8822 or visit www.MagicTheatre.org.

Photo: www.davidallenstudio.com


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

- Richard Connema



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