Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Equivocation, The Floating Light Bulb and
Magic Forest Farm

Bill Cain's Equivocation is a Spellbinding Historical Play

Anthony Heald and John Tufts
Oregon Shakespeare Festival is presenting the world premiere of Bill Cain's gripping historical play Equivocation. This is a drama for critical theatergoers who will find the three-hour production a rich theatrical and emotional experience.

It is 1606 in London. William Shakespeare (Anthony Heald), called Shagspeare or Shag in this play, has been made an offer he can't refuse. King James I wants him to write a play about the recently foiled Gunpowder Plot.   It has been assumed that Roman Catholics had planned to blow up the Protestant king, his family and his court to horrify the nation. However, Shag is not so sure, since there are many details missing on how the Catholics dug a tunnel without anyone in Parliament hearing any noise, and where did they put all of the dirt from the tunnel?

Robert Cecil (Jonathan Haugen), the king's ruthless chief advisor, gives Shag the King's script and tells the playwright that he just wants him to write some dialogue and put some witches in it since the King likes witches. The Bard replies, "We don't do politics We do histories. True histories of the past." Shagspeare wants to dig deeper into the so called plot by the Catholics so he is allowed to question one of the chief conspirators, Father Henry Garnet (Richard Elmore), the author of "A Treatise of Equivocation" in his prison cell. The treatises were used as a guide, in a way of speaking, so that one's word could be taken two ways, only one of which is true. (Garnet says "Equivocation. Don't answer the question they're asking. If a dishonest man has formed the question, there will be honest answer.")   The priest handles the hostile and tricky questions put to him by Robert Cecil at the trial, skillfully using equivocations.

Six actors of the Shag's theatre company play numerous roles including The King's Men, King James I, conspirators, executioners, court officials and characters in two unnamed plays that we know as King Lear and Macbeth.   Even though this is a serious drama, there are many funny exchanges and much of the time there is lighthearted banter between the players. The scene in which the actors are rehearsing King Lear is side-splitting as the actors argue among themselves about its nihilism. The play's funniest smugness is when the playwright's daughter Judith (Christine Albright) finds a way for her father to get off Cecil's hook. She finds a play that Shag has thrown away. It's about killing a king and blaming others, and it has witches and equivocation.   The play is Macbeth and the company presents this to the fey king who loves and raves about the play because it has witches.

Anthony Heald is marvelous as Shagspeare. Shag's attempt at the truth of the Gunpowder Plot is beautifully accomplished by Heald's splendid acting.   Richard Elmore gives a charismatic performance as Father Henry Garnet. His trial scene is a tour de force of great acting.   Jonathan Haugen is powerful as the venomous Robert Cecil. He reeks of an egocentric man who flaunts his power over the kingdom.

John Tufts shows great range, going from Tom Wintour, a conspirator who tells Shag the real story of the plot, to the fey King James, played hilariously in a real camp style. Wintour's story is poignant, as he has been tortured to near death by Cecil Gregory. The lone female, Christine Albright, is charming playing Shag's daughter who complains that her father has too many soliloquies in his plays, especially in Hamlet.

Equivocation plays at the Agnus Bowmer Theatre through October 31. The cast then travels to Seattle to present the play. A production of Bill Cain's comedy-drama will also presented next year at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood and one at the Marin Theatre Company. For tickets to this play and the other plays being presenting at the Festival please call 541-482-4331 or on visit

Photo: Jenny Graham

A Magical Production of Woody Allen's The Floating Light Bulb

Ellen Ratner and Ben Freeman
Traveling Jewish Theatre is currently presenting an exquisite production of the rarely seen Woody Allen comedy-drama The Floating Light Bulb. I first saw this charming play about the dysfunctional Pollack family living in 1945 Canarsie, Brooklyn, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre with the late Bea Arthur playing the mother Enid during the spring of 1981.   The critics called the play a "Jewish Glass Menagerie" and it was not very successful.   It has rarely been produced since.

The Pollack family is headed by Max (Andrew Hurteau), a waiter and petty gambler who owes a large sum of money to a loan shark.   His air-brained, floozy mistress Betty (Jessica Kitchens) takes most of his tip money, leaving very little to give to his strong-willed, overbearing wife Enid (Ellen Ratner). You get the idea that Max is about to fly the coop and take off for Florida with Betty.

Enid, who once dreamed of being a George White Scandals dancer is a domineering mother to her two teenaged sons, but she has a warm heart for both of her boys. Paul (Ben Freeman) is a sixteen-year-old introvert who loves to perform dime store magic tricks. He is very shy, with a stuttering problem. Young brother Steve (John Murphy) is a wisecracking boy who could be a young Woody Allen.

The Floating Light Bulb centers around Paul and the magic tricks.   Enid gets second-rate agent Jerry (Rolf Saxon) to look at Paul's magic tricks.   Jerry is full of big talk, but his only clients are small-time acts who play the Catskills circuit. He is more interested in Enid than the mentally tortured Paul. Enid pushes her son too hard and as a result the magic act is a disaster.

Woody Allen's script is full of wonderful one-liners. It is fresh and stylish and even moving. The production benefits greatly from a terrific cast. Ellen Ratner (many television shows such as "Seinfeld," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Ugly Betty") is terrific as Enid. She reminded me Rose in Gypsy as she tries to encourage her son in his the magic act ("I don't nag, I encourage").

Ben Freeman (Yellowjackets) gives a poignant performance as the emotionally crippled Paul.   He walks about with a concave chest and looks very wretched. His disastrous magic act touches the audience's heart strings.   Andrew Hurteau (The Seafarer, Landscape of the Body) gives a wonderfully slimy performance as Max. It is a wholly believable performance. John Murphy (many children's productions on the Peninsula) is a real find as the younger brother Steve. He has the mannerisms and talk of a young wiseacre from Canarsie. He is perfect when just listening to the other actors talk. Outstanding is Rolf Saxon (UK television and West End productions) as Jerry. The "romance" between Jerry and Enid in the second act is one of the most convincing scenes in the play. Jessica Kitchen (Monkey Room, Blood Wedding, Cabaret) is very good in the small role of the dumb blonde Betty.

Director Nancy Carlin gives the production a great pacing and comic timing.   Magic consultant Christian Cagigal has furnished Ben Freeman with some amazing magic tricks, such as the floating light bulb trick at the beginning and ending of the play. Nina Ball has designed a detailed set of what a living room and bedroom would be like in a 1940s middle-class home in Brooklyn.   Jean Fredrickson's costumes are authentic '40s wear.   Lighting design by Lucas Krech is bright and cheery in many of the scenes.   He is also a great asset when Ben Freeman is doing the floating light bulb illusion.

The Floating Light Bulb plays through May 24th at the Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco.   For tickets call 415-292-1233 or visit

Photo: Ken Friedman

A Fascinating Production of Magic Forest Farm

Marin Theatre recently presented a provocative production of Zayd Dohrn's Magic Forest Farm. This world premiere production was the winner of the first annual Sky Cooper New American Prize in 2008.   The 90-minute drama was presented in the intimate 99-seat Lieberman Theatre.

Magic Forest Farm is a challenging story of a young woman's desperate search for her past during the free love period of the 1970s and the more conservative '80s. Seventeen-year-old Allegra (Laura Morache) is living with her family in La Jolla in 1989 but she is not happy.   She is something of an odd ball and is starting to feel sexual urges. She is one very confused teenager.   Her parents (Julia Brothers and Robert Sicular) cannot give her the right answers.

Allegra's parents ran away from a commune in Northern California in 1979, taking the young daughter with them.   The only way the misfit Allegra can find the answers is to go back to the commune, so she runs away from her conformable home. She meets communard Gabby (David Cramer) and her free-spirited daughter Swan (Anna Bullard) who still runs a farm in the area. Soon the parents arrive, along with Allegra's older brother Ben (Avery Monsen), to take back the errant child.

Allegra and Ben reconnect with Swan in a sweat lodge and Ben has sexual feelings toward Swan, not realizing that from the free love period she is his sister. Needless to say that puts a damper on the romance.

Playwright Zayd Dohrn attempts to present too much material in this short one-act drama.   A flashback to when Allegra's parents were hippies in the collective farm is unnecessary. The main problem here is that the characters are not fleshed out and there comes a point where we really don't care about these people's problems.

The actors are able to rise above the script and they keep the dialogue animated. Julia Brothers (Evie's Waltz, The Hopper Collection) is engaging as Allegra's mother Eleanor.   Robert Sicular (The Seafarer) gives a winning performance as Marvin. Laura Morache (My Children, My Africa ) is wonderful as the confused Allegra. These three actors produce some real apprehension amongst their characters in many of the scenes.

Avery Monsen (Artistic Associate at Cutting Ball Theatre, Victims of Duty, Endgame) gives a convincing performance as Ben while Anna Bullard (Killer Joe, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) is fascinating as the free-spirited Swan.   David Cramer (Ted Kaczynski Killed People with Bombs) excellently portrays an ex-hippie farm owner.

Ryan Rilette's direction is smooth and he manages to create tension between the parents and their children. The set by Jeff Rowling on the small stage gives a feeling of a magic forest farm.

Magic Forest Farm ended May 17th at the Lieberman Theatre in the Marin Theatre Building.

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

- Richard Connema

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