Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Starship Shakespeare Beams Down in San Francisco
Mister Schpill and Mister Tippeton Misses the Mark

A local theatre group called the Oliver Production Company in association with the Shakespeare Festival of Los Angeles are presenting Ben Donenberg's sci fi adventure Starship Shakespeare at the Actors Lab. The cast are local Bay Area actors who have appeared in various regional productions in the area. This is an enthusiastic group of young actors and actresses strutting around the small stage in Star Trek uniforms and spouting Shakespeare-like lines.

Ben Donenberg, who is now the Artistic Director of Shakespeare Festival Los Angeles, wrote this play in 1983. At that time Mr. Donenberg had a small role in the original long-running Broadway production of Amadeus and he wrote Starship Shakespeare between scenes.

The playwright gathered other cast and New York actors including David Hyde Pierce to perform Starship on the steps of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at the Lincoln Center. Mr. Pierce played Hamlet in the production. It moved off the steps into The Cubiculo, an off Broadway theatre, in Hell's Kitchen, where it had a successful run in that small theatre.

The play moved to Los Angeles in 1984 where it played at , of all places, Al's Bar in downtown LA. It ran once a week for a year and the playwright renamed his company Al's National Theatre. He changed the name of the group in 1986 to Shakespeare Festival Los Angeles. Since that time Mr. Donenberg has produced a summer festival every year. He also runs an acclaimed youth education program in LA.

Starship was substantially rewritten in 1999 to update some of the science fiction references and change some of the characters. The play combines Shakespeare and science fiction characters and themes. The plot is simple: what would happen to several neurotic Shakespeare figures who were beamed aboard a starship hurling through space? What would these major characters in the Bard's play do? Needless to say they would fight for command which in this case would be the control of the captain's chair.

The play is written in iambic pentameter. The lines are from Hamlet, Romeo,Othello and Macbeth among others. There are twists in the lines and some are very clever. Many are puns and are very silly. However it is in good fun. The plot is taken mostly from Macbeth and Hamlet. The last scene, which is actually taken from the last scene of Hamlet, is completely over the top, with cream pies being thrown in each other face. This was a little too much.

Some of the actors are quite skillful in their roles. The best of the group is David Berkson who plays Richard III. He had an acquired hunchback and was dressed in black with a sterling black wig. He looks and acts like Sir Lawrence Olivier doing Richard. He has a good voice and he is very well stage trained. He was in the Reduced Shakespeare Company in Marin and he knows the Bard's words.

I usually like Stephanie Taylor, who played Lady M. However she really went over the top in this role. She was trying to camp the Lady Macbeth character but she just over acted. I think she should tone down the performance.

There were uneven performances in the production. However, I got the feeling that some of the group was playing to each other rather than to the audience. They tried just too hard to make this a fun show. Some of it was just too juvenile for an adult audience. The costume by Donovan Thompson were excellent and the scenic design of the small stage was adequate.

The production runs until March 12th at the Shelton Theater.

Mister Schpill and Mister Tippeton

The Marin Theatre Company is presenting the American premier of Gilles Segal's Mister Schpill and Mister Tippeton, a Nazi allegory drama. The play premiered in Paris in 1995 and it won the Molire award for best dramatic show. The company had great success with Segal's The Puppetmaster of Lodz last season which also had its American premier. Unfortunately the The Puppetmaster was a superior play.

This is a four character 90 minute intermissionless leaden drama about tyranny and survival. It takes place in a circus tent, apparently somewhere in a country that has been occupied by the Nazis. However, they are never mentioned by name so it could be anywhere where there was no freedom of speech, such as Bosina or Brazil.

We have two clowns endlessly rehearsing routines for a performance we know will never come. We hear that their fellow artists have been seized by the authorities because of ethnic differences. These rehearsals are continually being interrupted by blackouts and bombings.

Mr. Schpill is a large framed clown and his partner Mr. Tippeton is a 3 feet, 6 inch dwarf. They play off well together. The little people are slated to be the next group singled out for extermination probably followed by clowns in general. Also appearing is a sinister cop in a black leather coat who is looking for a 10 year old Gypsy boy who escaped when his family, the circus bareback riders, were rounded up.

The play opens very slowly and it fails to deliver, both theatrical or thematically . The play sags a great deal of the time. We see the clown wandering about the circus set looking for Mr. Tippeton. This goes on for an extremely long time and you wonder when the other characters will show up. Mr. Tippeton all this time is inside a truck on the stage. The lines being delivered are mundane and very dull. Things start to liven up when the Cop appears and there is a battle of wills between authority and the clowns.

Jeff Raz, veteran Make a Circus and Pickle Family circus player, plays Mr. Schpill. He is a talented and versatile clown and he graces his performance with delf juggling and acrobatics. He also has a booming voice that works well with his acting. Mr. Tippleton is played by the diminutive and multitalented Niki Botello-Pabros. She is excellent in the role but she can do nothing with the rhythms of the play. It feels just too slack, generating neither comic dissonance nor the urgency of Tippleton's escape.

ACT veteran John Robb plays the Officer Cop. He enters from the back of the theatre and continues to prowl on and off the stage. He is a villain personified in his black trench coat.

The gypsy boy is played by 10 year old Michael Bellings. He is adequate in the role since it needs no great acting talent.

There were uneven performances in the production. I believe the main reason is that these novices are not used to iambic pentameter. It is really hard for experienced American actors to grasp the meter let alone young inexperience actors. However I give them credit for trying.

The set is stunning. It is magnificent and to me the highlight of the production. It creates a timeless fantasy using a vast circus ring with trucks, great loops of colorful curtains and acrobatic rigging and a hugh, gilded, ornately carved circus wagon emerging from the gloom of Novella Smith's lights.

This production closed on February 13. George Bernard Shaw's Candida opens on March 9th.


- Richard Connema

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