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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Macbeth, Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party and
Katya Ludmilla Smirnoff-Skyy's Red Christmas


An Invigorating Production of Macbeth

Macbeth
Blythe Foster and Craig Marker
Shotgun Players are currently presenting a stimulating, modern production of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Mark Jackson is directing this high-speed, sensuous and exciting two-hour and twenty-minute presentation of the Bard's classic work with Craig Marker as what could be described as a Macbeth for the 21st century.

Through the years, the role of Macbeth has attracted the greatest actors. One of the best Macbeths I saw was Laurence Olivier at Stratford Upon Avon with his wife Vivian Leigh playing Lady Macbeth in 1955. Other greats have been Nicol Williamson, Ian McKellen and Peter O'Toole in the infamous production at the Old Vic in 1980. I had the great honor to work on the Republic film as a novice assistant cameraman in 1948, watching Orson Welles speak the words of Shakespeare every day over the 37-day filming period.

Mark Jackson has not trimmed or modernized the text; however, this production—with a fashion runway and the cast dressed beautifully by Valera Coble—looks like something out of Vogue magazine. The drama opens with the sound of Scottish bagpipes getting louder and louder. There are sounds of a battle going on, and finally just one witch (played brilliantly by Zehra Berkman) drags a wounded soldier in modern battle gear onto the bare stage.

Craig Market, dressed like he has just come out of GQ magazine, comes onto the stage, along with the rest of the cast dressed to the nines, for the opening speech. Later, Lady Macbeth, played marvelously by Blythe Foster, comes strutting onto the stage looking like pop star Brittany Spears with the sounds of heavy metal rock in the background. This is one fantastic entrance for Lady Macbeth.

Some productions of Macbeth have had a supernatural look, with three witches and overly melodramatic moments done in a classical manner. This production is more political and could be apropos of current events. Members of the cast carry leather briefcases to signify they are government officials. The famous witches scene where they predict Macbeth's future is done beautifully. Instead of three witches, it appears that Lady Macbeth could be a symptom of Macbeth's disentangled mind when the second round of forecasts comes from Lady Macbeth's haunted body.

Craig Marker gives the greatest performance of his career. This is the wonderful motivated performance of a young man who has an oblivious aspiration to ascend the throne of Scotland. He is outstanding. The soliloquy on "It this a dagger I see before me?" is skillfully rendered.

Blythe Foster is dynamic as Lady Macbeth. I have never seen a performance of this character done in such a modern style. Reid Davis makes a hilarious Porter in his special scene in the first act. Zehra Berkman is excellent as the witch, Lady Macduff and a gentlewoman. Daniel Duque-Estrada gives a sharp performance as a na´ve Banquo. Ryan Tasker as Malcolm, Kevin Clarke as Seyton, Daniel Krueger as Lennox, Jarrod Quon as Donalbain, Peter Ruocco as Macduff, and Cassady Bogatin as Fleance and the young boy are very effective in their roles.

Daniel Gutierrez' work as technical director and Sarah Huddleston's sound are awesome. Lighting by Jon Tracy is flawless and adds to the brilliance of the production. Mark Jackson's direction is sleek and rich, and he gives the audience a refreshing, up to date Macbeth.

Macbeth plays through January 11th at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

Photo: Jessica Palopoli


Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party is a Knock Out

Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party
(clockwise) Brian Degan Scott, Velina Brown, Lorraine Olsen, Sarah Mitchell, Michael Phillis, Joe Kady, Mark Anderson Phillips
SF Playhouse is presenting the world premiere of Aaron Loeb's Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party through January 17th. This dramatic farce is one of the most provocative and interesting plays of the year. Director Chris Smith has assembled seven wonderful actors to present a motivating play on Honest Abe. Abraham Lincoln is a thinking person's drama about the trial of the century in a small town in the center of Illinois in current times.

Abraham Lincoln centers on a third grade teacher named Harmony (Lorraine Olsen) who has cast children in the annual school pageant. When the teacher alludes to Lincoln as being somewhat sexually ambivalent, local political attorney Tom (Joe Kady) decides to prosecute the teacher for teaching the homosexual lifestyle in school. Extreme right winger Tom is unaware that his son Jerry (Michael Phillis) in in the closet and travels to Chicago or St. Louis for his kicks. Completing this fast-paced two-hour and thirty-minute production are hot shot reporter from New York Anton (Mark Anderson Phillips) and his photographer Esmeralda (Velina Brown) coming to town to report on the trial for the New York Times.

Abraham Lincoln is very relevant in today's society, what with Prop 8 and the fallout from the defeat of that proposition in California. Loeb deconstructs the great man Lincoln and makes us look at ourselves and our prejudices. The playwright also puts in a lot of wonderful zingers to prevent the play from becoming too heavy or preachy. The play addresses the deep national divide as we fight over what it really means to be an American.

Abraham Lincoln opens on a high note, with seven Abraham Lincolns in appropriate stove pipe hats and beards dancing onto the stage almost like a scene from A Chorus Line. They tell the audience that they will see three different sides of the trial and ask the patrons to vote for which side they want to see first: Do they want to see a romantic story centering around the trial, a more political act called "House Divided" or a provocative act called "Power and Intricacy"?

On opening night the audience picked the more political scene to open the three-act farce. This act runs a bit too long and it does become preachy in spots. Velina Brown gives a sharp performance as the defense attorney with political ambitions while Joe Kady is splendid in the role of her adversary. Mark Anderson Phillips is outstanding as a debonair big city reporter with a bit of phony big city sophistication in his style.

Our second act featured a brilliant piece of acting and writing with wonderful lines relating to the film Footloose. Mark Anderson Phillips as Anton and Michael Phillis as the closeted young man Jerry give bewitching performances in the lovely romantic story.

The act we saw third, called "Power and Intricacy," brings everything together in the actual trial. One cannot help but think of Inherit the Wind when watching the trial scene. Joe Kady as right winger prosecutor Tom gives a powerful performance. Mark Anderson Phillips does an excellent portrayal of a serious and dignified ghost of Lincoln. Sarah Mitchell and Brian Degan Scott are marvelous as third-graders telling what happened at the pageant. Lorraine Olsen gives a very good performance as the teacher Harmony.

Chris Smith's direction is sharp and smooth. He is able to have the actors go from serious to farcical in a moment's notice. Set design by Bill English is very inventive, using boxes for the court scenes and a scrim for scenes in a corn field in Illinois. Kimberly Richards and Tom Segal do a bang up job as choreographers, getting the actors to perform all sorts of dancing, from salsa to chorus line hoofing.

Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party runs through January 17, 2009 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Photo: Zabrina Tipton


A Pleasurable Evening with Katya

The wonderful Katya Ludmilla Smirnoff-Skyy recently returned to the New Conservatory Theatre Center to present a delightful evening of Christmas, Russian style. Aptly named A Red Christmas, she regaled the audience with her past life as the reigning diva of the Russian opera world during the Communist era. She said she was the daughter of a famous dancer and a roving gypsy minister. She left Russia and married the famous elderly Count Smirnoff-Skyy ("I married him for love but diamonds were a perk"). She told of celebrating Christmas secretly with her mother who purchased a Perry Como Christmas album on the black market.

Katya is the invention of 29-year-old J. Conrad Frank who is San Francisco's newest drag diva. She was named Best Drag Act of 2008 by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She is a statuesque drag queen who looks a little like a young Rhonda Fleming and sometimes like the late Gilda Radner, Rosalind Russell and Norma Desmond. Her accent is more Hungarian than Russian and she talks like all of the Gabor sisters rolled into one. She has an excellent madcap mezzo voice when singing.

Pianist Joe Kanon opened the show with a "Russian" medley that included a little of "The 1812 Overture," and Katya came out dressed in a gorgeous red velvet gown with a white fur piece draped around her neck. She looked like Auntie Mame as she launched into "We Need a Little 'Red' Christmas." She sang the Irving Berlin classic "White Christmas," only this time it was called "Red Christmas" ("Just like the one Christmas I spend in Moscow hearing tanks plummeting through the snow").

Katya writes most of the lyrics to these classic holiday song parodies, with the exception of the "Alternative Holiday Nutcracker Suite" written by Tom Orr and Birdie-Bob Watt. This hilarious song celebrates not only Christmas but Chanukah, Kwanzaa and others in segments of Tchaikovsky's classical masterpiece. There was a parody of the Eartha Kitt number "Old Fashion Number" ("I met Eartha in Paris and we were known at Kitt and Kat") and a swinging arrangement of "Nine to Five."

The second act opened with some side-splitting zingers about her life and she sang the great Gershwin song, "I've Got Rhythm," with the lyrics "I've got Smirnoff and you've got Skyy; who can ask for anything more?". There were some wonderful stories of a man she met while traveling to Israel to have lunch at a kibbutz ("I won't tell you the man's name since he is a famous actor. The commander of the Starship Enterprise"). She sang a tribute to Chanukah to the melody of "One Night Only" from Dreamgirls, "Eight Nights Only," with Chanukah candles on the piano. One of the hilarious highlights of the evening was her take on "Carol of the Bells." She sang bits and pieces of every song that has a bell and she has various bells to ring while singing this uproarious song.

During the evening, Katya drank a lot of vodka and made fun of having to move her mike ("If this was a union house I would not have to move the mike"). She changed into outfits more glamorous than those of the late Josephine Baker. She did get serious in several of the songs, such as the lovely Christmas carol "O Holy Night."

Andrew Nance's direction was very stylish and sophisticated and reminded me of nights at the Blue Angel in New York. Pianist Joe Kanon was a great asset to the show.

Red Christmas played at the intimate theatre at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness, San Francisco through December 20th.


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

- Richard Connema



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