Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Uncle Vanya, Bad Habits and Idols in Concert

A Moving Production of Anton Chekov's Uncle Vanya

Director Timothy Near has assembled some of the Bay Area's best actors to present a sharp production of Anton Chekov's tragic-comedy Uncle Vanya, which has been adapted by Emily Mann. I have seen at least four productions of this Russian classic and all have been heavy-handed Russian melodramas with very few laughs. I have seen the British actors Derek Jacobi, Tom Courtenay and Nicol Williamson take on the role of sarcastic Uncle Vanya. This marks the second time I have seen an American actor perform the role (Richard Elmore played Vanya in the OSF's production several years ago), and Dan Hiatt who plays Vanya is amusingly sardonic. It's a brilliant interpretation of the title character.

Uncle Vanya is the third production of the California Shakespeare Company performing under the stars at Bruins Amphitheatre. Timothy Near makes Emily Mann's adaptation a comedy-tragic full of humor yet keeping the pathos intact. Generally we see unhappy and bored estate dwellers who keep repeating "I've wasted my life," but in this production the characters are much more humorous. There are wonderful comic asides, such as the character Ilya Telegin played by Howard Swain who is laughably pathetic. He strums the guitar throughout most of the performance.

Uncle Vanya is a story of futile passions, as most of the residents of a sinking Russian estate in the 19th century pursue love in the most unsuitable places. Vanya chases Yelena (Sarah Grace Wilson) who is love with her scholar husband Alexander (James Carpenter) who is three times her age and suffering from the illnesses of old age. Dr. Astrov (Andy Murray) is smitten with the lovely Yelena while Sonya (Annie Purcell), Alexander's daughter by his first wife, is secretly in love with Dr. Astrov.

Dan Hiatt gives an excellent performance as the clumsy Vanya with a wonderfully ironic wit about him when talking to Vanya's brother-in-law Alexander Serebryakov in the second act. James Carpenter is first rate as the crotchety, pompous, self-pitying Professor Alexander. His complaints of old age in the first act represent a tour de force of superior acting.

Andy Murray gives a commanding performance of the original "environmentalist," Mikhail Astrov. He presents a complex and enigmatic character of the good doctor who cares passionately about the land. His scene when explaining about preserving the environment of the decaying Russian estate is powerfully acted. New York actress Sarah Grace Wilson gives an enchanting performance as outwardly composed Yelena who desperately wants to go back to city life.

Annie Purcell gives a heartrending performance as Sonya, and her last scene when she tells Vanya "We must go on living" is full of pathos and wisdom. Joan Mankin gives a stylish performance as the pamphlet-reading, elegant mother of Alexander's first wife. Howard Swain gives a touching performance as Ilya Telegin. One has to feel sorry for him as he tries to fit in with the family. His optimistic speeches are wonderfully performed. Barbara Oliver is marvelous in the small role of Marina, the nanny to the family.

Erik Flatmo's set is a stunning wood plank set against the natural roiling hills of Contra Costa County. It looks like a working ranch as actor T. Louis Weltz, speaking no lines, goes about cutting shafts of wheat in the background. York Kennedy's lights are fantastic, especially during a thunderstorm in the first act. The natural large trees in back of the stage light up as lightning flashes. Jeff Mockus has devised an incredible sound design for the storm. He also has the sound of cows mooing when the nanny enters the stage at the beginning of the performance. (There actually are cows grazing on the hills behind the stage during the matinee performances).

Chekhov's Uncle Vanya is a gem of a production and it plays through August 31st at Bruins Amphitheatre, 100 Gateway Boulevard, Orinda. For tickets call 510-548-9666 or visit The last production of the season will be Shakespeare's Twelfth Night which opens on September 10th.

A Hilarious production of Terrence McNally's Bad Habits

Candace Brown, Brett Sharenow, and Sylvia Kratins
Square Mama Productions is a new theatrical company in the Bay Area founded by two "New York refugees." Suki O"Brien started at La MaMa E.T.C. and Randy Warren, who directs Bad Habits, started at Circle in the Square. The company will focus on good plays that disappeared too soon, giving anyone in the Bay Area a chance to see these little gems.

Bad Habits was one of Terrence McNally's early plays, from when he was just becoming famous for his insightful writing. The set of two one-act plays set in sanatoriums premiered Off-Broadway at the Astor Place Theatre where it ran for 96 performances during the winter of 1974. The cast consisted of F. Murray Abraham, Paul Benedict and Doris Roberts. It transferred to the Booth Theatre on Broadway for an additional 177 performances. It also won the Obie Award as Distinguished Play for the 1973-1974 season. Following this production, Terrence McNally became a Broadway household name with The Ritz. Manhattan Theatre revived the farce with Nathan Lane, Faith Prince and Kate Nelligan in the leads in 1990.

One must have a mind set of 1970s farce to really appreciate Bad Habits since modern day audiences might consider the comedy very dated. However, you can hear the early gems of McNally's special dialogue that made him a famous playwright.

The farce is about a day in two rehab centers; one is Dunelawn, a posh rehabilitations center run by Dr. Jason Pepper (Raul Ramon Rubio), who reminds me of Monty Wooley in a wheelchair (a la The Man who Came to Dinner). His remarks are very urbane and droll and he lets everyone do as they please. Most of McNally jokes come from this actor's mouth. Patients include Roy Pitt (Brian O'Connor), a narcissistic actor, and his wife April Pitt (Sylvia Kratins), a loud mouth performer who has played in a series of flop plays. There is a longtime gay couple, Hiram (Tom Juarez) and Francis (Brett Sharenow), who have "bad habits" of bitching with each other. (This was a time when homosexuality was considered a "bad habit.") Added into this crazy mix is Harry Scupp (Michael Sally), a real obnoxious person who has an obsessive compulsion to become a famous tap dancer entertainer. His long suffering wife Dolly (Sharon Sittloh) would love to murder him. In fact, he has the same thought. Rounding out this cast of zanies is German rehab employee Otto (Remi Barron) who loves to give massages to both men and women.

The second act is the better of the two, as it contains much more clever dialogue. It takes place at Ravenswood and involves two nurses: sexually repressed and rigid Ruth Benson (Sylvia Kratins) and naive Becky Hedges (Candace Brown), both of whom are wonderful with syringes. Into this wild and madcap act is benevolent-looking Dr. Toynbee (Brett Sharenow), who speaks gibberish into each patient's ear to make them well, and a randy gardener named Bruno (Brian O'Conner), who chases Nurse Hedges. The three cuckoo patients are hilarious squeaky-voiced Mr. Ponce, who keeps wanting something alcoholic to drink; Mr. Blum (Michael Sally), who loves to dress in drag and has a particular favorite actress, the "legendary" Nina Foch; and Mr. Yamadoro (Raul Ramon Rubio), who speaks peculiar Japanese sentences. Added to this cast of characters is Hugh Gumbs (Tom Juarez), the love of the life of Nurse Benson. Juarez tends to go way overboard in his acting of a mental patient.

Bad Habits is a fun show and the acting is effective overall. Remi Barron as Otto and Mr. Ponce gives wonderful characterizations of the masseur and the alcoholic. Sharon Sittloh is excellent as Dolly, while Michael Sally is good as the insufferable verbose husband. Even his very bad tap dancing is good, for a person who can't dance. Raul Ramon Rubio is effectual as the doctor in the wheelchair, and his Japanese character is entertaining (director Randy Warren has taken over both roles now). Brian O'Connor is suitable as the randy gardener. Brett Sharenow in the small role of Dr. Toynbee cracks up the audience with the strange language he whispers to the patients in the second act. Sylvia Kratins as the randy nurse Benson and Candace Brown as the timid nurse Hedges are great in their roles.

Randy Warren directs the fast-paced two-act farce that runs around two hours and thirty minutes with intermission. Set design of the two sanitariums by Suki O'Brien is excellent, and sound and music by Tom Juarez is effective.

Bad Habits runs through August 30th at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-861-5079 or visit

Photo: Aura O'Brien

Idols in Concert at the Rrazz Room

This summer, the sophisticated new nightclub in the Hotel Nikko tried something different. Each week a different combination of singers from seasons one through six of the Fox Network "American Idol" series performed 15 to 20 minute segments of their songs. It was a daring move on the part on the owners of the room to present these young singers, who are more used to younger fans in large auditoriums.

We decided to see three of these singers—R.J. Helton, Vonzell Solomon and Constantine Maroulis—for ourselves. It was a different kind of audience for a stylish cabaret. There were teenagers and mothers with small children, and most were dressed in t-shirts and jeans. The singers each had their own clique and when they performed that group went wild.

R. J. Helton is a cute young man who told his fans, "I'm from Georgia, and I have been living here for two years." He lives with his lifetime companion in Belmont where he is an active member of the choir at the Immaculate Conception Church. He placed fifth in the first season of the TV series. Helton appeared ill at ease on the small stage of the cabaret; he is the athletic kind who would like to move and jump about a large stage to rev up then audience. He even made a little fun of himself when he announced, "this is the song that got me kicked off of the Idol contest" and then sang the Motown song, "Can't Help My Self," made popular by The Four Tops. This artist had a good voice when singing in the lower registers and was good singing "Arthur's Theme," made popular by Christopher Cross and written in collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer and Peter Allen. The young man also rocked when singing the Stevie Wonder song "Lately."

Vonzell Solomon, who finished third place in the fourth season of "American Idol," seemed a little self-conscious before the intimate audience and was a combination of a young Aretha Franklin and Beyonce. Once she gets more stage presence she could become as professional as those two singers. She belted out most of her numbers, such as Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Anyone Who Had a Heart" made famous by Dionne Warwick and the Otis Reading song "Respect" made famous by Aretha Franklin. She showed her best vocal chops on the closing song, David Foster's "I Have Nothing" from the film The Bodyguard which she did in a duet with R.J. Helton. The two were harmoniously energizing.

Constantine Maroulis came on stage last with the large clique of his audience giving him wild applause. The 31-year-old singer was the most professional of the trio since, as he said to the audience, "I am an actor." He had a recurring role on "The Bold and the Beautiful" and starred in New Jersey's premiere theatre production of Jesus Christ Superstar and on Broadway in The Wedding Singer.

The Brooklyn native, who finished in sixth place on the television show in 2005, was full of self ego and told the audience when singing a song called "Fading Into You," "I've released it on my own label. It's hard to sell records this way but I have a lot more control. It's risky but that's the Greek boy in me." He also informed his fans that he will be starring in the Off-Broadway musical Rock of Ages this fall. Maroulis showed a good voice, especially when singing softly the Rodgers and Hart classic "My Funny Valentine," but then took off on the second chorus to try and make it a rock song, which did not work. He had good vocal chops when singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and sang only partly the Queen song, "Bohemian Rhapsody," which seemed out of place.

The singers were backed by Michael Orland on piano and a trio of musicians from Chicago. Michael is the director for Idols in Concert and is also the Associated Music Director, arranger and pianist for "American Idol."

Coming up this fall at the Rrazz Room are more famous singers like Cleo Lane, Rita Moreno, Andrea Marcovicci and Chita Rivera, just to name a few. Also coming to the room are comediennes Kate Clinton and Miss Coco Peru. The Rrazz Room is located in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason Street, San Francisco. For more information, visit or call 866-468-3399.

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

- Richard Connema

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