Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Importance of Being Earnest, Private Lives
and Teatro Zinzanni

An Exquisite Production of The Importance of Being Earnest

George Maguire, William Elsman, Joan Mankin and Alexandra Matthew
Marin Shakespeare Company is currently presenting a classy production of Oscar Wilde's social comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. I first saw this satire of Victorian morals at the Royale Theatre in Manhattan during the spring of 1947 with John Gielgud, Pamela Brown, and Margaret Rutherford as Lady Bracknell. Later I saw Patricia Routledge and Francis Sternhagen play the incontrovertible self-confident aunt. This marks the first time I have seen a male actor play the role of Lady Bracknell. Things could not be in been in better hands, with the incomparable George Maguire playing the part.

The Importance of Being Earnest is full of witty dialogue as it satirizes some of the foibles and the hypocrisy of late Victorian society. The droll comedy was the climax of Oscar Wilde's glittering career. He then fell into disrepute and never wrote a play again (at the opening performance the father of Oscar's lover Lord Alfred Douglas tried to enter the theatre to throw vegetables while the playwright was attempting to take his bow).

I have seen around ten productions of the Oscar Wilde play in this country and the U.K. over the years. Several productions showed the homosexually of Algernon and Jack, and "Bunbury" meant living a double life. (The word "Bunbury" was coined when it was reported that Oscar Wilde met a young school boy at the Bunbury train station and set up a date with the lad.) Also, the word "earnest" was a word used by the homosexual underground in Victorian times for someone who was gay. Director Robert Currier has stayed away from any hint of gayness in this production. He has a sterling cast to portray the fascinating characters of this comedic put-on of Victorian values.

George Maguire does not camp it up as Lady Bracknell but plays the character straight. He is superb in the role and his delivery is perfect. Sometimes his low register sounds like Lauren Bacall and his haughty look is straight out of a Victorian melodrama. I can't imagine any other actor delivering a more fearsomely arrogant retort than Maguire saying, "Prism! Where is that baby?"

Darren Bridgett is splendid as the despicably debonair Algernon Moncrieff. His speeches sparkle with Wilde's witticisms ("All young women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy"). William Elsman acquits himself with reserve as John Worthing. Both originate marvelous chemistry with pitch perfect comic timing and crisp delivery of the playwright's words.

Alexandra Matthew gives a delightful naïve performance as Cecily with some great Wilde's epigrams ("I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train"). Cat Thompson gives a knockout portrayal of the self-assured Gwendolyn. The tea party scene in the second act between these two actresses is enticing.

Joan Mankin as Miss Prism and Jack Powell as Reverend Chasuble give engaging performances. Ms. Mankin contributes a wonderful comic ability in Prism's commands to the young Cecily. Jack Powell shows a certain whimsical quality in his acting of the good reverend. Completing the cast is Lucas McClure who plays a very uppity butler in the first act and a character right out of a Thomas Hardy novel, another butler to the country home in Hertfordshire.

Robert Currier has helmed a smoothly pace production, providing a lot of physical humor for Darren Bridget as Algernon and keeping George Maguire from over camping Lady Bracknell.

Mark Robinson's set is an excellent two-story piece with the library on the top floor. There are stairways on each side that are used by members of the cast. Patricia Polen has designed some elegant Victoria costumes for both male and female. Lady Bracknell looks like she came from a J. Arthur Rank Victorian movie set. Billie Cox's sound design is excellent.

The Importance of Being Earnest plays in repertory with Twelfth Night or All You Need is Love through August 16th. Julius Caesar opens on August 21 at the Forest Meadow Amphitheatre, 1475 Grand Ave. Dominican University of Californian, San Rafael. For tickets call 415-499-4488 or go to

Photo: Morgan Cowin

A Smart Production of Noël Coward's Private Lives

Stephen Barker Turner and Diana LaMar
California Shakespeare Company is presenting a very elegant production of Noël Coward's classic comedy of manners Private Lives through August 2nd. The British playwright and raconteur presented this splendid British comedy in 1930 with the master himself playing Elyot. At the time Coward had problems with the British censors who thought the second act was too risqué. The play is regularly revived in London and has been re-energized six times on Broadway.

I first saw this drawing room comedy in New York in 1948 with Tallulah Bankhead playing Amanda and Donald Cook portraying the debonair Elyot. Over the years I have seen many productions both in London and New York, including the disastrous production with Joan Collins playing Amanda and the interesting presentation by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in New York, plus the recent revival with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan. This marks the first time I have seen this intimate play on an outdoor stage with California hills and trees in the background. Director Mark Rucker and company are presenting a sterling production of the Coward classic.

Diana LaMar (The Real Thing at A.C.T. and Wait Until Dark on Broadway) is dazzling as Amanda. She delivers Coward's polished lines with astute comic timing. When she remarks "Darling ... you're so terribly, terribly dear," it's as if the thought only just occurred to her and was in its own way atrocious. Her diction is flawless and she looks like a combination of Vivien Leigh, Margaret Lockwood, Annette Benning and Merle Oberon.

Stephen Barker Turner (Cal Shakes Cymbeline, Twelfth Night and Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby) gives a consummate performance as Elyot. He veers between frivolity and an inconsolable love for Amanda. Between the two there is a wonderful sexual chemistry, especially in the second act.

Sarah Nealis (Cal Shakes Romeo and Juliet) and Jud Williford (Romeo and Juliet) are marvelous in their supporting roles. Nealis displays Sibyl as a solemn, childlike character while Jud Williford portrays Victor as a prosaic and condemnatory person who wants to shield Amanda from the world around her.

Liam Vincent (Cal Shakes Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Twelfth Night and SFBATCC award winner for Dead Mother) shows a tour de force of aggravation as the manservant Louis.

Mark Rucker (A Midsummer Night's Dream at OSF) does a bang-up job of directing these five excellent actors. He tends to make the second act involving Amanda and Elyot a more physical presence than I have seen in prior productions. The fisticuffs are so realistic one almost fears for the actors' safety.

Annie Smart's set designs of a patio at the French Rivera hotel bathed in white, thanks to the lighting designer Scott Zielinski, is exceptional. Costume designer Katherine Roth has outdone herself with the exquisite gowns worn by Diana LaMar. Bravo also to fight director Dave Maier for the physical second act.

Private Lives runs through August 2nd at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd, Orinda. Their next attraction will be Samuel Beckett's Happy Days starring Marsha Mason opening on August 12 and running through September 6th. For tickets call 510-548-9666 or visit

Photo: Kevin Berne

Melba Moore at Teatro Zinzanni

The Randols (Massimo and Denise)
Tony-winning Melba Moore recently headlined the new production of Teatro Zinzanni in the spiegeltent on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. This is the ninth year of one of the city's favorite tourist attractions. Over 500,000 persons have seen the dazzling three-hour production since it first opened in 2000. Their productions are part Cirque du Soleil, part Moulin Rouge and part old-time schlock vaudeville.

Teatro Zinzanni is currently presenting Sultry Summer Magic starring Ukrainian master illusionist Yevgeniy Voronin and his lovely wife Svetlana, who has skilled pantomime movements. The legendary Melba Moore guest-starred until July 19 (Sally Kellerman is appearing now through August 9th; Darlene Love takes over from August 12 through August 30th). The theme of the summer program is Vampirism.

Melba Moore won a Tony Award for her performance as Lutibelle in the original production of Purlie in 1970 and is still breathtaking. The company outfitted her in dazzling costumes of feathers, short black skirts and rhinestones. She has an astounding four-range voice and is still able to put over numbers like "Born to be Wild," "Hold Me," "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Put a Little Love in Your Heart." She appeared in almost every scene of the dark and sensual revue.

The meals are served between each act so that patrons can enjoy the comedy of Michael Davis as Chef Tad Overdone; the malleable face of American clown Peter Pitofsky; Svetlana, the amazing pantomime artist who stays in character as a doll from the Leo Delibes ballet Coppelia; The Randols, a fantastic roller skating act done on a small round stage in the center of the audience; Duo Artemiev, a great Russian acrobatic team; an incredible hoop gig by Denise Garcia; and of course the great illusionist Yevgeniy Voronin.

Sultry Summer Magic opens up with a cartoon train going around the outer circle of the spiegeltent and stopping at the entrance of the round stage. Yevgeniy Voronin, who looks like a citizen of Transylvania, and the guest star arrive. The magician slinks about the room doing strange and wonderful magic tricks, like making wine glasses fly through the air and fire come out of his mouth and fingers. He performs some new and unbelievable fantasies involving a large white sheet while on the upper stage. His accompanist is the wonderful contortionist Svetlana. Both are charismatic in this unusual act of magic and illusion.

Michael Davis as the chef once again entertains the crowd with his Henny Youngman zingers. The piece de resistance is when he gets a member of the audience to interact with his juggling of a full undressed chicken and a big blob of margarine. It's hokey but a hell of a lot of fun. The Duo Artemiev (Dimitri Artemiev and Elena Mozgalevskaya) are absolutely astonishing, contorting on a heavy rope in the center of the ring.

Denise Garcia from Spain is beyond belief using metal hoops about all parts of her body. There are eight steel rings that she twirls simultaneity from head to toe. Her partner Massimo Medini throws the rings from the upper stage over the heads of the audience to her body on center stage. This is an amazing accomplishment.

The five-course meal prepared by Patrick Fassino is delicious, with three entrees to choose from. Paul is the wonderful waiter who is very personable and makes his guests feel at home. The magnificent spiegeltent was built in 1926 in France and was called Palais Nostalgique. The structure made its first appearance in this country in 1998. The structure is located on Pier 29 on the Embarcadero, San Francisco.

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

- Richard Connema

Privacy Policy