Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Hysteria, Love Song and The Brute and Other Farces

Terry Johnson's Hysteria is a Hysterical Knockabout Farce

Howard Swain, Warren David Keith and Nancy Carlin
Aurora Theatre opens its 16th season with British dramatist Terry Johnson's frenzied farce, Hysteria. The play reminds me of those great British farces written by Brian Rix and Ben Travers. In fact, Travers' very funny Rookery Nookis mentioned in Hysteria.

Hysteria premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1993. It centers on a dying Sigmund Freud (Warren David Keith) in London in 1938, the year of the Anschluss and Kristallnacht (Crystal Night when many Jews were killed by Nazi hooligans), and fuses various real and imagined events of Sigmund Freud's last months of exile in London. He is visited by biblical scholar Dr. Abraham Yahuda (Charles Dean), a daughter of one of his early case histories (Nancy Carlin) who can't keep her clothes on, and the highly egocentric Salvador Dali (Howard Swain) in this fluid two-hour and twenty minute travesty.

The first act has everything that makes a farce work.  There are concealments in a closet big enough for two people, fast entrances and exits, disrobing, dropped trousers in a very hilarious scene, and an awkward discovery of imitate clothing (including a figurative Freudian slip). The second act has serious discussions among the shenanigans that take place, a debate between Jessica and Freud about child sexual abuse and recovered memory syndrome. There is even a weird dream sequence with strange images against the back wall of nightmarish Dali-esque landscapes with mysterious figures coming onto the stage. Even with all of the monkey business going on in this play, there are serious matters discussed, such as Freud's theories of the repression of sexual desire and philosophical and moral musings on religion, psychotherapy and familial abuse.

Joy Carlin has directed the fast-paced romp with four actors who have first rate experience. They are able to transfer from farcical action to serious acting in a split second. The scenes are created with the precision of a watch. Carlin has met the challenge of presenting a hysterical production that has serious theories on hysteria and sexual abuse.

Warren David Keith is outstanding as Freud. In a magnificent portrayal of the father of psychoanalysis, Keith captures the mannerisms of an old man perfectly, and he has a perfect Viennese accent.

Charles Dean as Dr Abraham Yahuda is an ideal straight man to all of the tomfoolery going around him. He remains flawlessly calm everyone else loses their equanimity and some of their clothes.

Nancy Carlin is wonderful as the young lady who keeps throwing off most of her clothes to make a point. She moves from funny to upset in split seconds. Her discussion of her childhood sickness is very poignant.

Howard Swain is side splitting as the egomaniacal surrealist painter Salvador Dali.  He plays the role like the character Aldolfo in The Drowsy Chaperone. His crazy antics are straight out of a Marx Brothers film.  His fractured Spanish and egotistical excess is uproarious. It's a tour de force of over the top comical acting.

Set Designer Richard C. Ortenblad Jr. has expertly designed a detailed set that looks like a 1930s patient room.  There is the prescribed couch and a heavy wooden desk full of Egyptian artifacts (Freud was a collector of the Egyptology items.) Jon Retsky on lights and Christ Houston on sound combine for some excitingly surreal effects in the dream sequence.  Costumes by Callie Floor are excellent late 1930s outfits.   Director Carlin keeps the action and verbal zingers crisp, and carries out smooth transitions into the more serious conversations of the play. 

Hysteria plays through September 30th at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley.  For tickets please call 510-843-4822 or on line at   Their next production is the West Coast premiere of Mae West's 1929 comedy, Sex.

Photo: David Allen

John Kolvenbach's Love Song a Quirky Romantic Comedy With a Beautiful Cast

Jody Flader and Darren Bridgett
Marin Theatre Company kicks off their 2007-2008 season with the West Coast premiere of John Kolvenbach's idiosyncratic Love Song.  The romantic comedy is graced with an attractive cast of Bay Area favorites.

Love Song had its world premiere at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The offbeat comedy comes directly from a successful West End run that starred rising Irish film star Cillian Murphy. The London cast also had American film stars Neve Campbell and Michael McKean.

Love Song's  super cast of Darren Bridgett, Julia Brothers, Steve Irish and Jody Flader and the very deft direction by MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis do a lot to shore up the playwright's smug and over-romantic script.

The offbeat comedy is about a lonely, borderline autistic young man Beane (Darren Bridgett) who finds it hard to function in society. He lives in a tiny one-room studio that looks like it is in the skid row section of town.  He owns a beat up chair that has seen better days, two pair of pants, a cup and a spoon and, would you believe, no fork.

Beane has a sister Joan (Julia Brothers), a career-driven woman who tries to come to his aid.  Beane's lifestyle causes friction between Joan and her cynical husband Harry (Steve Irish).  One night a "burglar" named Molly (Jody Flader) appears in Beane's apartment and, along with stealing his meager possessions, she also steals his heart. Suddenly, Beane becomes a new man and in the following scene he raves about a simple turkey sandwich. He is liberated, and Harry and Joan feel a similar effect.  The big question is just who is this "burglar," and that question can only be answered if you see the play.

Love Song's opening scenes between Joan and Harry in their upscale home are very well written with many clever zingers. However, when Beane discovers the "burglar" in his downtrodden flat, Kolvenbach loses confidence in his writing and outlines his thoughts rather than having the actors convey them. The conversations with the mysterious stranger become strained.  Clever lines like "I think a person can have you at gunpoint whether or not they have gun" make very little sense.  Later in the 90-minute drama, when Beane is becoming a person who loves life, he has conversations with Molly that are straight out of a David Mamet play.  Adverbs and adjectives make up most of the dialogue.  I wish the writing could have kept pace with these two wonderful performers.

Darren Bridget is excellent as an individual in shambles who can't find his way in life in the opening scenes. Once Beane has met Molly he becomes like Bobby in Company and you feel he will burst into the song "Being Alive."  The scene involving the turkey sandwich shows extraordinary acting on the part of Mr. Bridget.

Newcomer Jody Flader, a recent graduate from the A.C.T. school of acting, is entrancing as a malevolent pixie who tends to shout a lot. One begins to wonder if what we are seeing is a fantasy. The exchange between her character and Beane borders on poetic lyricism that becomes too sentimental. However, the two rise above the script and give a bravura performance.

Julia Brothers is terrific as Joan.  Her performance as a hard-hitting, hard-nosed wife reveals that she is really a superb comic actor.  She shows great tenderness when dealing with Joan's susceptible brother. Steve Irish is perfectly chosen for her straight-faced husband (these two have played husband and wife in two prior productions - they have great chemistry together). He is superbly relaxed when relating to Joan's self-imposed problems. They are utterly convincing as a married couple.

Will Springhorn Jr. has a very small role as the waiter but he makes the most of it while on stage. The set design by Eric E. Sinkkonen is interesting.  The center of the stage shows the posh living quarters of Joan and Harry while both ends of the stage look like the tawdry, barren studio of Beane. Lighting by Kurt Landisman is very effective, especially at the beginning and end of the comedy drama with a "ghost light."  Costumes by Laura Hazlett are smart trendy dresses for Joan while Beane is sloppily dressed, looking almost like a vagrant.

Love Song runs through September 30th at the Marin Theatre, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley.   Tickets can be obtained by calling 415-388-5208 or visit  Their next production is John Strand's Lovers & Executioners.

Photo: Ed Smith

The Humorous Side of Chekhov

George McRae, Robert Parnell and Sarah Eismann
Playhouse West has returned to the original address on Locust Street to present The Brute and Other Farces by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. When we think of this Russian master of words we immediately think of The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull.  We might forget that Chekhov had a sense of humor. Lois Grandi has put this to rest with this grand opening production.

Ms. Grandi discovered these Russian farces that were written early in the playwright's career, in the 1880s. She has taken four, which include The Marriage Proposal, Swan Song, The Harmfulness of Tobacco and The Brute, and all are done by a very good cast of five actors covering all of the roles.

One should recognize that Chekhov farces are not like the French farces of Georges Feydeau or the British farces of Ben Travers.  Russian farces consist of a lot of the blustering and stuttering eloquence of the playwright's unlikely heroes. The cast play these pieces like a combination of penny dreadfuls and Victorian melodramatic acting.   It is acting over the top with a lot of vociferous performing.

The Marriage Proposal is a simple tale of a shy hypochondriacal neighbor (George McRae) who comes calling on the middle-aged daughter (Sarah Eismann) of his farmer neighbor (Stu Klitsner). The father is anxious to get the daughter out of the house and he is over the moon about the prospects. However, the proposal breaks down over a confrontation of who owns a piece of meadowland bordering on their land, and whose dog is the best.  Sarah Eismann as the farmer's daughter does a lot of screaming in the intimate theatre, and plays it over the top like an old fashioned melodramatic actress.  It reminds me of how the great Constance Collier played her scenes in films.

Robert Parnell gives a meaty monologue in Swan Song about an ageing actor who has taken to drowning his sorrows about his diminishing career in vodka. It is a good, animated performance and he is especially fine saying some of the lines of Shakespeare.

The third piece is a wonderful tour de force by Morgan Mackey, who is a Walter Mitty-ish lecturer in The Harmfulness of Tobacco, which turns into talking about his verbal battles with his wife. This short solo part is probably the funniest of the quartet.

The group of Chekhov's farces ends with his favorite one-act piece, The Brute. It displays how men feel that women treat men and in same respect how women feel that men treat women. Smirnov (George McRae), an irate landowner who has a complete disrespect for anyone of the opposite sex, comes to the house of Widow Popov (Sarah Eismann) to collect a debt that is owed him from the late Mr. Popov.  This ends up in a war of words between them and a delightful performance by a somewhat scared butler played by Robert Parnell.  Sarah Eismann again does an amusing acting bit in the exaggerated style. George McRae portrays Smirnov as a pompous, ranting ass.

Jan Zimmerman has designed a detailed set that smacks of a Chekhov play, while Krista Nelson's costumes are authentic late 19th century garments.  Lois Grandi's direction is sharp.

The Brute and Other Chekhov Farces runs through October 7th at the new location at 1345 Locust Street, Walnut Creek.  For tickets call 925-942-0300 or visit   Their next production is John Patrick Shanley's explosive drama, Defiance, opening on October 25th

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

- Richard Connema

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