Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Richard III, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine and Wilde Boys

A Daunting Production of William Shakespeare's Richard III

Reg Rogers
California Shakespeare Theatre is beginning its 34th season with a new production of William Shakespeare's Richard III at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda.  This inventive production runs through June 24th.

I have seen many versions of the Bard's dark plays, with performers including Lawrence Olivier, Anthony Sher, Al Pacino and Ian McKellen as the "evil" king of England. Mark Rucker's production contains a mixture of both modern and traditional styles of acting.   However, he splendidly steps up to the task of making this presentation dark and moody, leading us through murder, intrigue and madness. This is one of the bloodiest Richards I have ever seen; some of the scenes are meant to shock the audience, such as Richard kicking the head of the Duke of Clarence around on the stage, and an attempted rape scene by Richard on Lady Anne in the second act. The fight scene of the Battle of Bosworth is done very well, with some faked blood spilled onto the stage. The "despair and die" scene toward the end of the drama in which the ghosts killed by Richard visit him in his sleep on the eve of battle is moodily staged with Robert Wierzel's lighting and Ted Crimy's ghostly sound design.

Erik Flatmo has designed a set that looks more like a rock concert, with rows of strong work lights sometimes blinding the audience and colored fluorescent lights around the frame of the proscenium stage. Costumes by Katherine Roth are rich-looking black, period robes with an occasional splash of stark white outfits for Lady Anne.

Richard III opens on the bare stage with the audience hearing the voice of Kay Starr singing "Wheel of Fortune (the piece is played throughout the production, with Richard singing parts of the song in the second act). Reg Rogers (New York The Pain and The Itch, Ridiculous Fraud, A Midsummer Night's Dream) as the deformed Richard III comes slowly out onto the stage dragging his left foot and showing his withered hand. He looks at the audience and, spitting and spewing, starts with "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York."  All the while he is putting on his dark and foreboding costume. Rogers brilliantly portrays the most overtly evil of Shakespeare's protagonists with no humanity whatsoever.  He plays the role like a mafia-type Al Pacino. He is, as one character calls him, "a poisonous bunch backed toad." He is cunning, untamed and seductive. His wooing of Lady Anne in the first act is superb.

Mark Rucker has assembled a brilliant cast with each member well-suited to his or her part. Catherine Castellanos (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Nicholas Nickelby) is extraordinary in her role as the hysterical prophet Margaret whose husband was killed by Richard.  She chews up the scenery and spews it out in the form of curses on the royal clan.   Veteran actor James Carpenter (many productions at Cal Shakes) gives an engaging performance as the frail King Edward IV, and Dan Hiatt (SFBATCC award for Best Supporting Actor of 2006) very commendably plays the Duke of Buckingham as a very crafty strategist. Liam Vincent (Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV, Comedy of Errors) as Catesby, Richard's henchman, gives a disturbing, flexible performance with a true Shakespearean voice. Lorri Holt (Fete de la Nuit, Finn in the Underworld) is compelling as the elegant and distrustful Elizabeth, Edward's wife. Her best scenes come at the end of the play in a bitter tour de force of heartfelt acting.

Max Gordon Moore (Private Jokes, Public Places) gives a masterful performance as George, Duke of Clarence.  His scene wearing only a pair of briefs awaiting execution is vexing. His intense performance is thrilling to watch. T. Edward Webster (Long Days Journey's Into Night, Merchant of Venice) gives a cool portrayal of Lord Hastings. Blake Ellis (Love's Labor Lost plays Henry, the future king of England more as a commanding officer in today's army in Iraq.

Sharon Lockwood (Restoration Comedy) powerfully plays the Duchess of York with perfect Shakespearean rhythm. Susan Livingston (Nicholas Nickelby, As You Like It) is enthralling as Lady Anne. Thomas Azar, Raife Baker, Kevin Dedes, Caroline Gelber, Brad Myers and Andrew Hurteau give excellent supporting performances.

Richard III plays through June 24th at the Bruns Amphitheatre just off Highway 24 past the tunnel at the exit marked Gateway Blvd in Orinda.  Tickets can be purchased at 510-548-9666 or go to their web site for the complete season.  The next production is George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman opening on July 4th.

Photo: Kevin Berns 

A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine is the Funniest Musical the Marx Brothers Never Wrote

Mickey Nugent, Jessica Raaum, and Mark Farrell
The Willows Theatre Company is currently presenting the rarely produced musical A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine through July 1 at their theatre in Concord. Director Richard T. Hanson has assembled a terrific cast of young, energy-driven dancers and singers for the theatrical "double feature." This fast-paced song and dance show first premiered at the Royal Theatre in London in March of 1979. It had its American premiere at the John Golden Theatre and transferred to the Royale where I saw for the first time Priscilla Lopez (who won a Tony for her performance) during the summer of 1980.

Under Richard T. Hanson's brisk direction, the eight-member cast singing is fervent and the solos are strong from all members of this splendid cast.  The hoofing generates enough energy to light up the East Bay.  The opening act takes place in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, with talented 19-year-old John Jeffords, wearing the perfect Grauman's usher outfit, tap dances and sings "Just Go to the Movies" by Jerry Herman.  Jeffords is a combination of Tommy Tune and Ray Bolger in dancing and he has a dynamic voice as well. Out of the doors of the "theatre" comes the marvelous singing and dancing team of Mark Farrell, Cynthia Myers, Jessica Raaum, Vincent Graham, Mickey Nugent, Brittany Ogle and Virginia Wilcox. Hanson's choreography is patterned after the original work of Tommy Tune and is exciting, with marvelous tap dancing in first act, especially the fine hoofing in the "Doin' The Production Code" at the end of the first act as the cast recites through a tap dancing beat the rules that governed the movies during the '30s and '40s. 

A Day In Hollywood is a Hollywood tribute to those wonderful musical movies of the 1930s with additional songs by Frank Lazarus and book and lyrics by Dick Vosburgh. Jerry Herman contributed three songs to the energetic first act.  The Richard Whiting melodies are pleasing to hear again, along with songs from the pens of Harold Arlen, Leo Robin, Franke Harling, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. Outstanding solo parts are Virginia Wilcox singing the sublime "Too Marvelous for Words," and Mark Farrell and Jessica Raaum in a rousing song and dance number, "Famous Feet," where-in the audience sees through a cut opening on the second tier the famous feet of Dorothy Lamour, Sonja Henie and Mickey and Minnie Mouse.  Mark pairs up with John Jeffords in the delightful "Japanese Sandman." Cynthia Myers, dressed in a Jeannette McDonald outfit, sings "Nelson" to a cardboard Nelson Eddy, and Cynthia comes back as Shirley Temple playing a toy sax singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop." Mickey Nugent and Jessica Raaum are wonderful as "Two Sleepy People," and Jessica Raaum does a mellifluous rendition of "The Best in the World."  Brittany Ogle and Vincent Graham also are first class in their singing and dance moves.

Richard T. Hanson and scenic designer Tom Benson have designed an excellent detailed set of the front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in glowing red and gold. The narrow open-cut set above allows the audience to see the famous feet of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple's tap dancing feet, and the ruby red slippers of Judy Garland in Wizard of Oz.  Much of the dancing is done by talented 17-year-old Vincent Graham and John Jeffords.

Frank Lazarus and Dick Vosburgh's hook in the second act is Metro Goldwyn Mayer's "latest" film starring the Marx Brothers film at Grauman's. The audience is delighted to see the famous comedians in A Night In the Ukraine, based on Chekhov's The Bear. I would think Anton Chekhov would be rolling over in his grave after seeing what those zany men do to the play.

All members of the first act take various parts in this screwball production.  Every member is perfect for their roles and there are zingers going at a rapid pace during the one-hour farcical fest. Mark Farrell looks and acts like Groucho Marx and throws one-liners out at quick speed. He has Groucho's walk down perfect and sings "Samovar the Lawyer" like Groucho did in his early Paramount musical comedies.  Cynthia Myers is the perfect "Margaret Dumont" as Mrs. Pavlenko the rich widow.  She is the ideal straight person for the leering lawyer.  Mickey Nugent portrays the Chico character, matching Groucho zinger by zinger.  Jessica Raaum skillfully portrays Harpo's entertaining facial expressions and physical comedy.

John Jeffords and Virginia Wilcox are the "romantic leads" and they beautifully portray the couple with sweeping gestures and dramatic flourishes.  Jeffords is hilarious, singing with his powerful voice "Again." There is great emphasis on the word "again" again and again.   Vincent Graham and Brittany Ogle are fine in their small roles.

The set for A Night in the Ukraine by Tom Benson reminds me of those flats that one would see on touring companies in the 1930s. Costumes by Christine Crook in the first act look authentic Grauman's usher uniforms. Musical Director Andrew F. Holtz uses the synthesizer to get a full range musical accompaniment for the show. 

A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine plays through July 1st at their theatre located at 1975 Diamond Blvd, Concord, California.    To purchase tickets please call 925-798-1300 or visit the Willows Theatre Company Web site at   Their next production will be The Kentucky Cycle, Part 1 and 2 opening on August 27th and running through October 28th.

A Wild Production of Wilde Boys

Back Row - Casey Bair, Alex Kirschner, Brandon Finch; Front Row - Benjamin Pither, Richard "Scrumbly" Koldewyn, Steven Satyricon
New Conservatory Theatre Center is presenting the world premiere of Richard "Scrumbly" Koldewyn's Wilde Boys through June 23rd.  This is a novel contribution to musical revues since it takes place in the "Gay Nineties" in Victorian London. All songs but three are original English music hall songs with naughty lyrics that were presented to gay men in the 1890s.

London during the reign of Queen Victoria was supposed to be very moralistic and anything "sinful" was frowned upon in polite society.  However, there were private clubs where the upper crust males could visit "rent boys."  These boy prostitutes entertained in song and dance, and various other ways. Alfred Taylor was one of the famous men who took homeless boys from the streets and provided them shelter and food in return for entertainment of the upper-class men.  Oscar Wilde and his friend Lord Alfred, also known as Bosie, frequented these places.

Richard "Scrumbly" Koldewyn, a founding member and performer of the famed Cockettes, has assembled the original naughty songs and lyrics of the British music hall period. He has also written three new songs in the same vein for this 90-minute, fast-paced, rowdy production.

The setting on the intimate theatre stage looks like a very sensual place, with three large scrim panel of drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. They illustrate some of Oscar Wilde's most outrageous works. Alfred Taylor (Richard "Scrumbly" Koldewyn) plays the master of ceremonies and accompanies the boys on the piano.

The thin storyline involves Lord Alfred (Casey Bair) visiting the house for entertainment on this particular night without the notorious Oscar Wilde. Four very talented young men sing some very broody songs with suggestive lyrics to tantalize Lord Alfred.  Each boy sports a somewhat London accent and each has good cockney-type voices. Their movements are silky, sensual moves. Brandon Finch (understudied at Berkeley Rep and TheatreWorks and recent Theatre/Music graduate) gives a charismatic performance as Willie. His accent is more My Fair Lady than cockney, but his moves are flexible and he has excellent vocal chops, especially when singing "Where Is My Little Willie Gone," written by Richard Koldewyn. Benjamin Pither (Woody Allen's Death at Custom Made Theatre plus 42nd Street Moon Li'l Abner and Mack and Mable) is a real hoot, dressed in drag singing "Why Do Men Run After Me," a real Victorian music hall song. He looks like a character that just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel.  He has a charming voice and his accent is between cockney and upper middle class gent. Alex Kirschner (recent graduate from Saint Mary's College) as Tom and Steven Satyricon (performed at various clubs in the city) as Reggie have agreeable voices. Steven is especially droll when singing the old music hall standard "A Little Bit of Cucumber" which has very suggestive lyrics. Alex is very seductive when singing "It's All Right in the Summer Time."

The lads are harmoniously engaging when singing the madrigal "I Live and Yet Me Think."  Giuseppe Verdi's "La Donna Mobile" melody gets a workout to the song "Young Boys Are Cheap Today" by the group.  Michael Mohammed, who also directed, has his moment to shine coming on stage dressed as Nefertiti singing "I'm a Mummy (An Old Egyptian Queen)."

Wilde Boys ends with a put-on of Oscar Wilde's Salome, with Brandon Finch as Salome dancing to the music of Koldewyn with a little bit of "The Dance of Seven Veils" by Richard Strauss thrown in for good luck. He has a sort of Cher look about him when dressed in drag.

Wilde Boys is pure camp and it is very likely with some pruning this could play at various gay theatres throughout the country, maybe even Off-Off-Broadway. It is playing at the intimate theatre in the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness off Market, San Francisco through June 23rd.   For tickets please call 415-861-8972 or go on line at

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

- Richard Connema

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