Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Travesties, Speech and Debate and Durang Me!


A Wild and Zany Production of Tom Stoppard's Travesties


William Elsman and Alexandra Matthew
Marin Shakespeare Theatre's production of Tom Stoppard's witty farce Travesties is a real off the wall, lively version of his classic farce. This marks the fifth time I have seen this captivating play, starting with the Royal Shakespeare production at the Aldwych Theatre in London during the summer of 1974. This adaptation is like Disney meets Tom Stoppard—and I mean that in a good way.

Tom Stoppard's writing is at its best in Travesties and I doubt if there is a playwright who can rival him when it comes to joining humor with serious issues. The playwright can match historical and invented characters on stage in perfect harmony. Where else could you see Irish author James Joyce, Russian revolutionary Lenin, and the Dada poet Tristan Tzara on stage talking about the concepts of art, revolution and patriotism? And all of this in a pleasurable manner.

This production opens with a brilliant tour de force of comic acting by William Elsman as Harry Carr, a British Consulate employee reminiscing through fuzzy and uproariously funny memories of his 1917 meeting with Joyce (Lucas McClure), the Russian revolutionary Lenin (Stephen Klum) and Tristan Tzara (Darren Bridgett). Elsman gives a spellbinding performance dressed in a bathrobe and sounding like a vaudevillian twit from the Monty Python series. He dominates the stage in a 12-minute soliloquy.

Travesties is full of slapstick comedy, like Darren Bridgett coming onto the stage looking like John Cleese doing his funny walk from the Python series, or rolling around the stage while talking about the new art of the masses. There is a side-splitting World War I battle scene between William Elsman and Darren Bridgett that could come out of a Disney film.

The play is constructed on the dramatic form of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and many of the Wilde scenes are incorporated into this farce. The second act also has William Elsman playing an amusing Algernon Moncrieff in an uproarious scene with Alexandra Matthew wonderfully playing Cecily, a librarian. She is a marvelous character whose interest in literature is "strictly alphabetical" ("I have read only up to the letter 'G' and I know Gilbert but not Sullivan," she tells Algernon). Also in the Ernest scenes is Gwendolyn, played stunningly by Cat Thompson. She also helps Lenin, as he works on his communist manifestos, and Joyce, who keeps looking over Dublin map books as he is writing "Ulysses." Director Robert Currier has inserted the delightful tea scene from the second act of Ernest, wherein Cecily and Gwendolyn perform an entertaining vaudeville song by Ed Gallagher and Al Shean called "Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean."

The cast is titillating, with William Elsman morphing from an old man with erratic memory to a young Algernon. Lucas McClure is beautifully whimsical as James Joyce, who spins out Irish witticisms with a lilting Irish accent. Stephen Klum is entirely believable as Lenin, and Sharon Huff is very good as Lenin's wife Nadya with her Russian lines.

Darren Bridgett once again lights up the stage with his antics on the athletic and campy side. He has perfect timing in the scenes involving Earnest and his English accent is faultless. Alexandra Matthew and Cat Thompson are charming as Cecily and Gwendolyn. Julian Lopez Morillas is flawless playing Henry Carr's manservant. He maintains the forbearing pose of a typical English butler.

Set design by Mark Robinson is amusing and includes a Salvador Dali cuckoo clock that cuckoos at appropriate times. Also on stage is a life-size pirate ship (used in Taming of the Shrew, which takes place in the West Indies in a pirate stronghold). Here, the ship is used in the silly imaginary "World War 1" battle scene.

Choreography by Cynthia Pepper is charming with clever dance scenes for the enjoyment of the audience.

Travesties plays at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 1475 Grand Ave, Dominican University of California, San Rafael in repertory with Taming of the Shrew through August 15th. For tickets please call 415-499-4488 or visit www.marinshakespeare.org.

Photo: Morgan Cowin


A Funny and Stimulating Production of Speech and Debate


Maro Guevara, Jayne Deely and
Jason Frank

Aurora Theatre recently presented a poignant and sassy production of Stephen Karam's Speech and Debate. This is the story of misfit teenagers Diwata (Jayne Deely), Solomon (Jason Frank) and Howie (Maro Guevara) coming of age in their high school in Salem, Oregon. The town, according to Howie, is full of citizens who are "liberal Puritans." The trio are inquisitively connected by a scandal that has stunned Salem.

Solomon is a gung-ho nerdy school newspaper reporter who tries to convince the newspaper advisor to let him investigate a sex scandal involving the town's Republican conservative mayor and teen-aged boys. He is advised that this is a taboo topic and the idea is squashed at the bud. We first meet Howie at his computer as his words are projected on a screen behind him. He is being picked up by an older man who turns out to be the school's drama teacher. Solomon soon uncovers this message and wants Howie to expose the hypocrisy of the town on sex scandals of the adults.

Diwata, the third member of the nonconformist trio, is a "drama queen" who thinks she is the world's greatest actress. However, she has been passed over for a role in a "cleansed version" of Once Upon a Mattress. She is so pissed that she threatens to contact the Mary Rodgers estate to get them to cancel the show. She also does not get a leading role in the school's production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Diwata is one angry teenager.

The group decides to form a speech and debate club but no one else joins. In a hilarious musical that the three perform, an accused witch from The Crucible time-travels to meet a teenaged, gay Abraham Lincoln and sings at him "Boy. Whatcha doin'?." This is a brilliantly performed little show within the show.

Jayne Deely (A Civil War Christmas and Distracted at TheatreWorks) captures the lonesomeness of Diwata. However, there are times her energy becomes too frenzied and over the top, as if she were playing for laughs rather than letting the humor of the dialogue speak for itself. She is funniest as a no-talent singer and actress when playing Mary Warren the accused witch from The Crucible, saying lines like "Try to hang me, see how strong my neck is."

Jason Frank (training in American Conservatory Theatre's three-year MFA actor training program) gives a winning performance as the very angry and closeted Solomon. He comes off genuine and appealing rather than conventional as the teenager. Maro Guevara (graduate of University of San Francisco, major in Fine Arts) is perfect as the effeminate Howie. He wonderfully underplays the role compared to the more aggressive roles of Frank and Deely.

Robin Stanton directs with a steady hand, although the play sometimes gets a little preachy. Eric Sinkkonen's set is minimal with a screen at the rear of the three-sided stage where great text messages are displayed. Billy Philadelphia is the musical director and has included some "American Idol" type songs in the 90-minute, no-intermission play.

Speech and Debate is a know-how comedy that brims with verve, wicked humor, and great teen-age dialogue. It gives the audience the zeal of present-day youth.

Speech and Debate ran through July 18th at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. Their next production will be Alice Childress's Trouble in Mind opening on August 20th and running through September 26. For tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auoratheatre.org.

Photo: David Allen


A Solid Production of Durang Me!

Durang Me! contains two one-act plays by Christopher Durang: Sister Mary Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and the show biz satire An Actor's Nightmare. The duo was recently produced by Custom Made Theatre Company at their location at 1620 Gough Street.

Christopher Durang grew up Catholic in the 1950s and his experience of Catholicism was strictly pre-Vatican II. There was an answer for absolutely everything in nature and the universe. A.J. Davenport's excellent portrayal of the self-righteous nun brought back memories of my own Catholic upbringing.

Sister Mary Ignatius is not for conservative Catholics; it is funny and controlled even in its savage moments. This was the third time I had seen the 60-minute monologue. A.J. Davenport played the nun who completely believes that everyone is on the verge of moral collapse. The nun might be a little nuts but she is sincere in her fear. She lectures the audience as if we are back in the 1950s.

Four former students come back to present to her with a Christmas pageant and the banter between them is sharp and hilarious (Sister Mary to one of the former students named Sarah Siddons: "You, with the little girl. Tell me about yourself." Sarah replies, "Well, my little girl is three and her name is Wendy." Sister says, "There is no Saint Wendy." Sarah replies, "Her middle name is Mary." Sister, "Too many 'y's. I'd change it."). Eleanor Mason Reinholdt gave a great performance as Sarah. Tavis Kammet, Eleanor Mason Reinholdt, Claire Slattery and Eric O'Kelly were very good as the former children who each have problems that Sister Mary Ignatius does not like. Also appearing was 11-year-old Cole Cloud who was a pure delight. This young boy has an angelic face and is a complete charmer.

The Actor's Nightmare is the evening curtain-raiser about an actor named George Spelvin who suddenly finds himself on stage in a play that he has never rehearsed. This is a captivating act that every theatregoer would enjoy. It shows off the playwright's talent for theatrical spoofs since we get combinations of Private Lives, Hamlet, A Man for All Seasons and the works of Beckett. Erin O'Kelly gave a great performance as the nebbishy and pokerfaced actor stumbling and ad libbing his way through this frightening dream.

Durang Me! closed on July 10th. Their next production will be The Last Days of Judas Iscariot a Celestial Courtroom Dramedy opening on September 28th. For more information visit www.custommade.org.


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

- Richard Connema


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