Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
This year's harvest is especially rich in its variety, seeding mini-plots that sprout stories ranging from a long-overdue doomsday to a long-delayed big day in court, from a couple desperately seeking motherhood to warring mothers of a bride-to-be, and from a dead sister who refuses to go away to a mother who shows up to a seder uninvited. The supernatural world as well as unexpected twists and turns leading to big surprises take big space on the plate of Pear Slices this year, with an excellent cast of seven playing a total of twenty-three parts in the evening's repertory.
Robyn Ginsburg Braverman and Troy Johnson co-direct the eight playlets, ensuring a seamless flow from one setting to the next, with Elizabeth Kruse Craig creating efficient but totally effective set designs for each, aided by the wall-size, backdrop projections of David L. Hobbs (whose sound design includes thematically selected, familiar tunes to serve as musical transitions to the next play). Pat Bristow's eclectic costume designs span decades, economic classes, and storyline genres, while the lighting designed by Meghan Souther sets the stage for futuristic blandness, film noir midnight mystery, and a pawnshop clash of heaven and hell.
And it is that last scenario where the evening begins with a highly entertaining bang just as the world is about to end in Douglas Rees' Eschaton (a word meaning "the final event in the divine plan"). A snappily dressed man with New Jersey underworld mannerisms and speech patterns calling himself Nick (Ray D'Ambrosio) comes into a pawnshop carrying a beat-up trumpet case. The proprietor, Safi (Alice Highman), is highly suspicious of this overly cheerful, mightily pushy guy who is quick to peer intently at her bent-over tush and then to offer her seemingly unlimited cash for an old trumpet whose bell is bent in a half-dozen directions. His devilish explanations of why he wants this particular trumpet become clearer when he quickly hides behind the counter as a wild-eyed, white-haired lady named Gabriel (Jackie Roach) with mismatching socks and an odd assortment of colored clothing enters the shop pushing her cart of belongings. It turns out she too is looking for one particular trumpet. When it becomes evident that both want the same instrument that evidently was supposed to have been blown more one hundred years ago by this very woman clearly in disguise in order to hide a certain pair of wings, everything is set for a heaven-hell clash and for some clever manipulations by the one earthly being who is present.
Ray D'Ambrosio leaves his satanic tendencies next to appear as meek, near-sighted banking accountant Marty in Barry Slater's Collision. The story in fact begins with Marty's Hyundai colliding with the Beemer of a dressed-to-kill Russian woman, Grace. Leslie Newport is superb speaking in Slavic accent and high-heeled mannerisms, with a look that cannot help but remind anyone who has wandered down any street heavy with Russian emigres of a proud matron seen in her perfectly attired best. As Grace uses every feminine ploy she can in order to engage at lip-close range the much shyer Marty, her increasing suggestions of how he can make a lot of money due to their seemingly accidental encounter begin to spell a mystery that will eventually take the audience by fun surprise. There is no sense of wreck in Collision, which is one of the real hits of the night.
As just one example of the acting malleability displayed by the entire cast, Ray D'Ambrosio's third role is that of a rather distraught man, Brian, who has just buried his mother and is being hounded by a bouncy squealer of a little, pigtailed girl who keeps begging him to "fix Mr. The Bear." It does not take long to realize that Cara (Becca Gilbert) frequently visits an exasperated Brianespecially each time another of his family members passes awayand that she herself has long ago left this earth, but has not left Brian. Bridgette Dutta Portman's Mister The Bear goes from being a somewhat annoying interplay between this bratty kid and this irritated man to becoming an emotionally charged scene where each finally receives from the other what is needed to let go and move on in life and in death. Kudos goes to both actors for a moving conclusion.
Jackie Roach and Leslie Newporttwo of the evening's best overall performershave a chance to go head-to-head in a war of motherly wills in Meghan Maugeri's excellent Mothers of the Bride. Each actor shines in her own, distinct wayone as an over-bearing, highly critical mother, Beth (Leslie Newport), and the other as a mushily supportive, hugging-prone stepmother, Kristy (Jackie Roach). Against Beth's wishes, daughter Hanna (Becca Gilbert) has invited both her and the woman Beth most dislikesKristy, the now wife of one of Beth's four past husbandsto help her pick out a wedding gown. Hanna just wants her real mom to bury the hatchet with Kristy, but the expensively dressed Beth sipping her champagne replies with a sizzling snarl about the jeans-wearing Kristy, "I think you never know when a hatchet might come in handy." Things only get worse as Beth's comments about how Hanna looks in modeled dresses ("A little pudgy") are countered by Kristy's "Like a princess." But when the two mothers are left to fare for themselves while Hanna escapes to the sanctity of a dressing room, the gloves come off and the truths start coming outwith results that surprise everyone.
Jackie Roach's other stellar appearance is also as a mother, this time as Ruth Ann, a surprise arrival to daughter Becky's Passover Seder in Elyce Melmon's Open the Door for the Stranger. Becky (Alice Highman)clearly and increasingly uncomfortable of the subjectfinds herself being persistently pushed by a mother she never expected to see today to move beyond her grieving a husband who died five years prior and to seek a new love. But Becky insists she is "doing fine without the burden, the burden of being loved." Ruth Ann is not about to let that dampen her cheerful prodding, especially when she hears Becky has invited a Tesla salesman named Paul to the family Seder. That Paul is not Jewish is of no worry for this Jewish mother ("He'll think you're a great cook ... Every religion comes with its cruelties.") Ruth Ann's intervention takes on new and revealing dimensions when the amiable, whistling Paul (Daniel Zafer-Joyce) arrives at the Seder with a loaf of his specially baked bread (oops!). Our luck is to enjoy one of the evening's best and most-heartwarming plays.
The crowning winner of the night, among several deserving candidates, is a welcome return of a Pear Slices favoritetrench-coat wearing detective Deuce Cooper, a film noir knock-off and this year ably portrayed by Bill C. Jones. Deuce finds himself in the late 1940s on a lonely dock at midnight meeting a couple of shady charactersalso of course in required trench coatsand trying to remember the hilariously complicated passwords and responses he is supposed to know (or face the possible consequences of bye-bye, Deuce). Daniel Zafer-Joyce as Dick Peck (a name Deuce cannot let pass without a chuckled comment) and Becca Gilbert as Amanda Hunt (leading Deuce to another under-breath comment about "A man to hunt") are two fellow detectives who bring Deuce a proposition of Cold War importance that he dare not refuse. That they were earlier in his kitchen nook while he was sleeping ("You ought to get that kitchen window fixed, Deuce") and even did a little dirty together on the kitchen table while he snoozed are just two of several items that Deuce learns that make this meeting at the port more and more fishy. The final ingredient to the mounting mystery is the appearance of Svetlana, giving Leslie Newport another chance to show off her Russian dialect and manners as she also helps make this final playDeuce Cooper: Pier Pressure by Paul Bravermana sure-fire winner.
In an evening of eight premieres, each one cannot be as successful as the others. A tension-filled morning between a young couple (Becca Gilbert as Julia and Daniel Zafer-Joyce as Rob) trying to employ vitro fertilization to "go where two becomes three" reveals in Leah Halper's Tick Tick Bio Clock the pressures and marital issues such a process and its invasive procedures can produce. However, neither the plotline nor the portrayals completely hit the mark to lead to much more than gently felt empathy for the struggling couple.
Least engaging of the evening's offerings is a strange piece that is also somewhat confusing in its revelations and arguments. V.B. Leghorn's The Supreme Question imagines a time when Mike (Bill C. Jones) is an artificial being that has taken over all the human aspects of the Supreme Court. Petitioner Alex (Alice Highman) brings to the court a case dating back to 1893 for the all-knowing judge to adjudicate. After warnings that the judgment could have "catastrophic consequences for the world"leading to a ho-hum back-and-forth discussion between the two on whether to proceed or not with the decision-makingthe judgment is given; and we as an audience are left to say, "Huh?"
But the real news and the good news is that any small bump in the evening is short-lived and that the overall effect of the evening's eight offerings is one of high entertainment and a jolly good time. Pear Slices 2019 is yet another worthwhile and welcome addition to this annual Pear Theatre tradition and one that is certainly ripe for the picking among the current theatrical offerings in Silicon Valley.
Pear Slices 2019, through May 19, 2019, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.