Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

2007 Oregon Shakespeare Festival Part 2

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is presenting three additional plays this spring season: the very popular Tom Stoppard adaptation of On the Razzle, August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean and William Shakespeare's As You Like It

On the Razzle

Tony DeBruno and Michael Elich
The current hit of the season is Tom Stoppard's On the Razzle, directed with great zest by Laird Williamson.  Thomas Stoppard adapted the farce by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy, "Einen Jux will er Sich Machen" (translates to "He wants to have a lark"), to English. The playwright had to redo the comedy which was considered untranslatable.

In 1938 Thornton Wilder wrote an American version and named it The Matchmaker. In 1964 Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman turned Wilder's comedy into the hit musical Hello, Dolly!.

Laird Williamson has pulled out all stops to make this a fast-paced, boisterous version of Stoppard's classic farce.  The play requires a great deal of energy and the cast has certainly risen to that occasion. They are just having fun with no hidden meanings and no intellectual undercurrents.   No need to go into the plot since it is basically the same as Hello Dolly without Jerry Herman's music. The farce is loaded with puns, double entendres and word plays.

Tony DeBruno is incredible as Herr Zangler, the purveyor of high-class provisions.  He is a great buffoon, almost on the order Falstaff. DeBruno's verbose acting is a joy to behold.  Also outstanding is G. Valmont Thomas as Melchior, Zangler's new servant.  Generally Mr. Thomas has appeared in mostly dramatic roles at the festival but his comedic turn as the servant is side splitting.  His classic comical look with big bug eyes is hilarious. It is a "classic" performance.

Rex Young as Weinberl, Zangler's chief sales assistant, and Tasso Feldman as Christopher his apprentice give winning performances as they seek a "razzle" or a night on the town as they sneak away to Vienna.  Suzanne Irving as the owner of a women's apparel shop and Emily Sophia Knapp as Philippine her assistant are enchanting.  Shad Willingham as Sonders in love with Zangler's niece played by Teri Watts; both are captivating.

Michael Elich as Bodelheimer the lecherous whip-snapping coachman and Emily Sofia Knapp as Lisette a French maid are a riot together. It is delightful to watch their shenanigans in the second act. Eileen DeSandre almost steals the show in the small role of Gertrud, Zangler's housekeeper, with her dead pan delivery. Catharine E. Coulson as Zangler's sister-in-law plays the role in high camp.

Michael Ganio's set is a detailed elegant emporium of Herr Zangler's shop. There are two trap doors to a cellar, a man-size chute and even an old fashion spring-loaded canister that I remember from my childhood. It travels between the cashier's station and the counter. All of this is used in the first act of the play. This is a creative set.

On the Razzle runs through October 29th at the Agnus Bowmer Theatre.

Photo: David Cooper

Gem of the Ocean

Greta Oglesby, Shona Tucker and G. Valmont Thomas
August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean will run October 27th at the Angus Bowmer theatre in repertory. This powerful playwright writes like no other about the African-American experience in the 20th century. 

Gem of the Ocean is set in 1904 in the Victorian home of spiritual guru Aunt Ester (Greta Oglesby) and her protégé and housekeeper Black Mary (Shona Tucker) in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Legalized slavery has been outlawed for 40 years, but African-Americans are struggling for equal rights and to escape to a better life in the harsh white world. The drama is intense when a young African-American named Citizen Barlow (Kevin Kenerly) knocks on the front door to see Aunt Ester.  She is known as a saver of souls and this man needs his "soul washing" to be saved. The guru takes the young man in as her own son.

The playwright's humanity and comedy stand out through the handsomely poetic language in the two-hour and forty-minute drama. We meet the kindly Eli (Josiah Phillips), her gatekeeper of the house known as a sanctuary for African-Americans.  There is Aunt Ester's close friend and a former member on the Underground Railroad, Solly Two Kings (G. Valmont Thomas), and the "Uncle Tom" ruthless local constable Caesar (Derrick Lee Weeden) who does not let personal feelings to get in the way of monumental ambition. Rounding out this cast of characters is Rutherford Selig (Bill Geissinger) a white traveling peddler.

This marks the second time I have seen this powerful drama.  The American Conservatory Theatre did a splendid production last year and the festival version is just a good with some more commanding acting on the part of Derrick Lee Weeden as the constable.  He gives a magnetic performance with his authoritative speeches when appearing on stage.  Also the scene involving the trance that Aunt Ester puts Citizen through the "City of Bones" is beautifully and dramatically rendered.

Greta Oglesby gives Aunt Ester an air of power and astuteness within the still pride with which she carries herself. Kevin Kenerly is mesmerizing as he makes his spiritual and opinionated transformation credible.   G. Valmont Thomas gives a superb performance as the talkative Solly, an inspiringly spirited figure.  He gives poetry to the words of August Wilson.  Shona Tucker gives a great performance as Black Mary and she is especially dominant in the last act. 

Josiah Phillips gives a great underrated performance as Eli, and Bill Geisslinger, dressed like Daniel Boone, is good in the small role of the peddler Rutherford.

William Bloodgood's set is a perfect Victorian living area around the early 20th century.  This play runs through October 27th at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.

Photo: Jenny Graham

As You Like It

Teri Watts and David Kelly
The lone William Shakespeare play of the spring season is a strange version of the Bard's As You Like It. It is always easy to present the Bard's work in different settings and periods since his language lends itself to any time period.  J.R. Sullivan has decided to set this two-act three-hour play during the American depression of the 1930s. 

As You Like It is generally considered a fantasy play full of wit and comedy.  However, this version appears to be darker than those I have seen in the past. The director has also inserted songs that sound like Woody Guthrie with some Leadbelly music thrown in. There is a "hillbilly" band with washboard and the one string bass to toward the end of the play.

Stylistic choices have been made, such as a long raucous wrestling match in the first act and young Rosalind and Celia chattering away like Valley Girls in the first act.  William Bloodgood's set is sparse in the first act and he fills the stage with huge leafy flats in the second act to represent the Forest of Arden.

Danforth Comins plays Orlando as an All-American boy but he has good command of Shakespeare's language. His voice rings out with the Bard's iambic pentameter style. Miriam A. Laube makes a better boy than a girl.  When she goes drag in boy's costume in the Forest of Arden she is marvelous.  Her mannerisms as she tries to "train" Orlando in the wooing of Rosalind are perfect.

David Kelly is amusing as Touchstone, the court clown, but he looks and acts like a person in a vaudeville sketch. Robert Sicular is excellent with his very first-rate Shakespearian voice as the melancholy Jaques. His famous "All the world's a stage" speech is done in an off-hand manner.  Julie Oda is effective as Celia. Outstanding is Juan Rivera LeBron as Silvius the shy shepherd. He has wonderful movements as he attempts to ply his love for shepherdess Phebe who is charming in the role.

Brad Whitmore plays the evil Duke Frederick like a Chicago mobster in a '30s Warner Brothers film while the good Duke Jacques is played by Rafael Untalan as a passionate fellow. Adam Yazbeck, Kersti Bryan, Teri Watts, Mark Peterson, Demetra Pittman, Mark Murphy, Todd Bjurstrom and Terri McMahon give good performances in their respective roles.  

Tickets for the above productions can be obtained by calling 541-482-4331 or on line at

Photo: Jenny Graham

Western Civilization

A wonderful alternative to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the Oregon Cabaret, a dinner theatre that presents small musicals on their intimate stage.  The theatre is located just two blocks from the OSF theatres.

The hilarious Western Civilization played there though June 3rd.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says it best "combining smarty-pants irreverence with physical buffoonery and street-wise smarts."   Three very talented young performers present hilarious historical scenes from Beowulf to Bay Watch.  The opening song "History Ain't What It Used to Be" opens the night to a fast pace two act, two hour show.

The clever book and lyrics by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor with original music by Nick Graham and additional material by Dee Ryan is bright and catchy. There is the rascally cheeky songs that you see in several abridged musicals created by the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

Three very talented actor/singers, Benjamin Scott Kramer, Caitlin McGinty and Jonathan Visser, portray all of the historical or should I say hysterical figures of history. Caitin McGinty is side splitting in the Joan of Arc scene where she is "burning" while Kramer and Visser roast hot dogs and marshmallows on the "fire."   Jonathan Visser is hilarious singing as Thomas Crapper, an English plumber who in the early 1900s held several patents on the invention of the flush toilet.  He sings "Flush Your Troubles Away."

Director and choreographer Jim Giancarlo directs a seamless well paced show. 

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

- Richard Connema

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