Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Under the direction of Robyn Ginsburg Braverman and Troy Johnson, this year's eight playlets range from the sublime to the absurd, from out-loud hilarious to grippingly touching, from a time centuries ago to a time somewhere in the not-too-distant future. In just two hours fifteen minutes (with intermission), eight complete stories of newfound hope, shocking surprises, new insights discovered, old prejudices further ingrained are told through a rotation of fast-built scenes (Troy Johnson) and quickly changed costumes (Robyn Ginsburg Braverman). Each is linked to the next by a cleverly selected song that helps the memory of the play just ended linger a bit longer while the next is set up (sound also designed by Ms. Braverman).
In the evening's opening fare, Walk the Plank by Leah Halper, five invisible four-year-olds arrive for a fun time of games and goodies at Raymond's pirate-themed birthday party. Very much seen is his pediatrician mom Lauren, played by Nicole Martin, and her best friend and a systems engineer Melanie (Alyssa Lupo-Zulueta), who are making final preparations for cake and candles while chitchatting. Not a lot happens until Melanie drops the bomb that she is working, as chief systems administrator for her consulting firm, on a project that has created software that is going to replace all doctors at Lauren's hospital in six monthsincluding, of course, Lauren.
Lauren's hubby Tom (Matt Brown) strolls in from the excitement of hamster balls in the pool amid squealing kiddies to learn all nursesincluding hewill be gone within two years. While the adults' smiles and sweet, loving voices continually turn themselves on for the kids, the accusations and justifications that erupt when the invisible kids are outside create a fireworks show worthy of the Fourth of July. All in all, this play as the night's opening course gets the audience's appetite whetted without doing much to fill us up yet. Fortunately, this just so-so offering is the baseline from which all the other seven spring up as much better.
In fact, the next two are probably the evening's best offerings. Barry Slater's Eagles in Heaven is set somewhere in the open Sierras as teenager Becky and her huffing-puffing Grandpa arrive on the sixth and last day of their backpacking trip. Gramps is complaining about "the lousy food, tired feet, and bugs that have an appetite for human flesh." What we soon learn is he actually more upset in anticipating the start of radiation treatments for his newfound cancertreatments that will likely only extend his life one to two more years. Ariel Aronica and Bill C. Jones are both stellar as, with sensitive and authentic manners, their characters work through their own and each other's fears, anger, depression, and finally hopes. In just a matter of minutes, Barry Slater, these two excellent actors, and an overhead eagle help us all delve into our own mortality and what might or might not entice us to hang on just a little while longer when faced with certain death.
A completely different setting follows as Tanya (Nicole Martin) and her husband Justin (Kyle Smith) arrive at a Bay Area plaza with their $40 bottle of wine and select cheeses from Salvatore's for An Afternoon Tango, by Barbara Anderson. Tanya is striking (something she clearly knows) in a red top barely hanging on to her body and thousand-dollar depressed jeans with today's required ripped-out holes. They ask to join a woman at her table who is sipping her coffee while sitting in a kind of quiet elegance and dressed in what Tanya assumes is a Dolce & Gabbana vintage piece. Tanya is non-stop blah-blah-blah, with Justin occasionally adding a tidbit and with Madeline (Alyssa Lupo-Zulueta) holding a face that gives away no emotional responseonly politely but succinctly answering Tanya's incessant questions when necessary.
A shopping cart of tarpaulin-covered belongings parked in the nearby bushes initiates an increasingly bitter tirade by the invading couple about the city's homeless, with such insensitive comments as Justin's, "I have to say it, these people just lack personal pride." The call of tango eventually wins out, leaving Madeline again peacefully on her own. Ms. Lupo-Zulueta then gives the entire evening's peak performance, leaving an image of poetic beauty and inner strength long to be remembered by those of us privileged to watch.
Contrasting views of religion versus science dominate two of the night's selections and ,while the settings, characters, and eras could hardly be any more different, the vehement arguments and the fears of considering an alternative reality are strikingly similar. In A Mind Full of Venom, playwright Bridgette Dutta Portman imagines a meeting between the accused heretic but world-renown scientist Galileo (Bill C. Jones) and a monk named Padre Caccini (Kyle Smith) who is firmly planted in his belief that to challenge the earth being the center of the universe is to deny God. As Mr. Jones' Galileo takes a more gentle, steady approach in trying to persuade the monk just to take one glance through his eyeglass at the wondrous mountains and valleys of the moon (in Galileo's eyes, prime examples of God's magnificence), Mr. Smith's Caccini becomes more and more apoplectic. The ensuing scene between them taking place hundreds of years ago is unfortunately not that different from what we might today hear on some cable news networks.
Similar arguments of non-moving piety versus science-based facts are heard from two very different sources, with a third caught literally vacillating in the middle. Two hot dogs rotating on heated spindlesone known as Dog on the Right and one as Dog on the Leftdebate in increasingly spicy terms "life after rotation" in Paul Braverman's hilarious but provocative Stuck in the Middle. Dog on the Right (Kyle Smith)with self-righteousness dripping from his constantly turning selfblasts with "Oh, Dog, of little faith" as he warns "only juicy dogs are selected" by "the tongs of God" to one day relax in a "bed of dough with scented lotions covering you."
Dog on the Right, who rotates near enough the newsstand so that he can read the latest in headlines, is convinced that there is a different fate awaiting them, one involving a "gaping maw" and a "bottomless pit." He also is sure that Dog in the Middle's (Ariel Aronica) current predicament of being stuck in no rotation and of having not been selected by the tongs even as she turns red to grey has more to do with the world's encroaching "spindle change" and not with something she has done to anger the Great Tong above. The arguments and debates sizzle with fun and fury in this excellent piece, with an ending that is heavenlyor not, according to your beliefs.
Humor plays a big part in two other offerings that also differ greatly in time and setting. Ross Peter Nelson's Housemaster 3000 imagines a time just a few years from now when Amazon's Alexa has a competitor named Al who takes the voice and personality of his owner, Cameron (both played by Matt Brown). Cameron's latest overnight fling and possible girlfriend Jessie (Ariel Aronica) orders everything from coffee to vacuuming from Al, who manages a household full of robotic appliances and helpers, with Al and Jessie soon vying to see just who is really in control.
Who is in control is also the central issue of Evan Kokkila-Schumaker's Duelin' for Keeps, a parody of the showdown at the O.K. Corral. Bill Jones and Kyle Smithwho fought in words and beliefs earlier as Galileo and Caccini are back at it, this time as pistol-carrying Buck and Ward, respectively, ready to line up for a dusty duel (that is, as soon as Buck learns what exactly are the rules of dueling). Buck is a rough-necked, rough-voiced name-caller ("You yellow-belly coward"), while Ward is mild mannered in speech and demeanor, calling his adversary "Bucky," and "such a doll" who is "adorable." Things take a real turn for the bad when Buck starts over-using double negatives ("I ain't nothing of the sort," e.g.), leading to an intervention by the new sheriff in town, the knock-out in red fringed vest, Sherriff Darla (Nicole Martin). Ready, aim, fire for some good laughs.
Rounding out the eight plays is a mildly entertaining sentimental piece, Helping Out Mrs. G. by Steve Koppman. Matt Brown does a good job posing as the awkward, shy Mitcha boy plagued with the nickname Itchy Mitchy. While waiting for his best friend to come home, he gets cornered by mom Mrs. G. (Alyssa Lupo-Zulueta) to do miscellaneous home repairs while undergoing her third degree. Hung pictures on the wall of her family lead to a story neither expects to tell or hear and to Mitch's growing up more than he expected to when he first walked in.
The beauty of Pear Theatre's Pear Slices 2018 is that there is something for most everyone's taste and probably something that is not first-choice in its topic or approach but that turns out to be much better than expected. It is fun to guess which of these seeds may germinate in the next year or so to a full-blown world premiere on the Pear stage as has happened in past Slice versions. I have my bet placed. Come to the Pear by May 20 and place yours.
Pear Slices 2018, through May 20, 2018, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.