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We closed out the season at Berkeley Playhouse this afternoon with Tarzan: The Stage Musical. It was entirely meh.

I can't totally blame the Playhouse, because it was a real dog of a show. The problem starts with its plot, which is all over the place. It's a story about a boy avenging his parents death! (And oh boy, the start of the play is gruesome with the killing of said parents by a leopard on stage and later the killing of that leopard.) No, it's about an outsider finding his own family. No, it's about an abusive adoptive parent. No, suddenly at the end of Act I, it realizes that it's a Disney play and it rather quickly introduces an insipid romance. No, it's about bad guys destroying nature. Then the big finale is about Tarzan finding out who he was, which was literally only an issue for one song, far far earlier in the play. There is no through line, and the rapid-fire introduction of all these various elements meant there was no real characterization and no real plot development along the way. (OK, a little bit, mostly about Tarzan and his ape mom.)

And the messaging is often troublesome as well. I mean, we know that Disney romances are going to be utterly unrealistic and offer bad modeling for young adults, but Jane falling in love with someone she can't even communicate with, mainly because he's mostly naked all the time ... that's horrifying. And then after a play that was mostly about finding family, Tarzan and Jane are totally OK with Tarzan abandoning that family, until he's guilted into staying by his abusive adopted father's death. And then Jane leaves her family, and that's totally OK and not even commented on, because she's the woman. Meanwhile, the ape-murderer is just wheeled away in a cage like it's no big deal (which turns out to be a [BAD] change from the movie.)

And the music, it's almost totally soulless and unmemorable. (I kind of liked "I Need to Know", which was the one thing that tied to Tarzan's who-I-am finale, but mainly because its tune reminded me of Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower")


The actors actually weren't great either, though that might have been the poor source material. The young Tark was superb: gymnastic, emotive, and enthusiastic. But she appears in one scene. The older Tark was pretty good too, but his relationship with Tarzan was one of the things that notably suffered in this horribly truncated script. Jane was the third best, but beyond that we're getting into "OK" land. (There wasn't anyone bad, because this is the Berkeley Playhouse, but just a lot of "fine".)

The best performers in the play? Actually the back-up dancers, who did many awesome, acrobatic dances. And when the backup dancers are the best thing about the play, that's a bad sign.

The Playhouse was trying to figure out how to make their Tarzan as "immersive" as the Broadway experience, and they did so by making heavy use of their center aisle and their side aisles. At one point we had a snarling leopard swinging mere feet from us. Kimberly wasn't doing entirely well during the play and was not pleased when apes, having looted the Porter camp, ran up our aisle and tried to encourage her to bang on a metal mixing bowl. No amount of frantic shaking of her head deterred the apes. I finally had to rescue her by leaning over and giving the bowl a ba-bam.

And that was Tarzan.

Next up Sister Act, which I'll have to see early on, before life becomes some amount of busy in October.

PS: The most memorable song of the day was actually Schoolhouse Rock's "Three Ring Government", which we listened to while walking to the Playhouse after talking about how Trump doesn't play well with others and thinks he's the boss of the whole gov't. I thought it kind of sad that a cartoon song overshadowed a whole Broadway play until I learned that it (and many other Schoolhouse Rock songs) was written by Lynn Ahrens, who went on to become the broadway composer of Seussical (our first, excellent Berkeley Playhouse play) and Ragtime (which is showing next year and I'm now enthusiastic about).
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Urinetown. That's pretty much San Francisco, isn't it? Maybe Berkeley too? Except the play says it's all our towns.

We actually went the play today with our friends M. and K. and daughter M. I think this is a first for us at the Playhouse, as we're usually solitaire goers. But we had a nice lunch with them at the Blue House in the Library Gardens, then a nice walk through campus (after walking a few scummy blocks of downtown Berkeley), then we saw the play. It's a nice bit of community and hanging out.

So, the play. It's satire and social commentary. It's about corporations taking over and plutocracy given precedence over human necessities. (Yes, like peeing.) It's also about rebelling, and how the rebellion can be as bad the corpocratic fascism, though I find the message gets a bit more muddled there.

That's because the play is also about Broadway, about the expectations of musicals, and how artificial some of them are. There was a lot of fourth-wall-breaking in the person of narrator Officer Lockstock. And there was a lot of exaggerated shock ("Whaaaaaaaat?") and more useless pirouetting than I've seen in two or three musicals. A lot of it was pretty hilarious, which is a good way to couch serious commentary. But the messaging got a little confusing because of those two competing issues: was the way the rebellion became what it despised actually about the rebellion against corpocracy or was it a strike against the happy endings of musicals. I dunno.

Throughout the early part of the play, I felt like every song came from a different musical, which was cool. Some of it felt very classic, and some of it felt modern. Near the end of the first act, everyone started waving flags as they rebelled, and that was the first one where I could directly spot the influence, which was of course Les Miserables. Then the second act started off with Russian dancing, which was clearly influenced by Fiddler on the Rooftop (To Life!) and Kimberly quickly recognized the finger-snapping of the next song as influenced by West Side Story. That was another fun element. (And it turned out that we got many of the direct references, though I later discovered that the wonderful gospel song that I couldn't recognize but seemed so familiar was influenced by "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat", from <I>Guys & Dolls</i>; and I've never seen two of the other influences <i>The Threepenny Opera</I> and <I>The Cradle Will Rock</i>).

Overall a fun play, a thoughtful play, a weird play, and for at least one scene a shocking play. As usual there were great actors at the Playhouse, including Lockstock (our narrator), Hope (our female lead), and Little Sally (our youngest rebel). I'd recommend it, except that was the last performance.
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K. and I saw our newest musical at the Berkeley Playhouse today, Billy Elliot: The Musical. It was most excellent, and a good panacea to mediocre plays of late.

The well-known story (based on the film) is of a boy who wants to become a ballet dancer, in a '80s mining town, where it was even more taboo. However that '80s date is also key, because it's right at the heart of Margaret Thatcher's dismemberment of England and in fact the story is set during a mining strike.

And personally, it was that historical story that really touched me. Of people losing their way of life*. But it wasn't just about livelihood, it was about community. This mining village was truly a family, and many of the songs that touched me most ("The Stars Look Down", "Solidarity", "Once We Were Kings") focused on that.

However, it was also hard not to be touched by the pathos at the heart of many of these peoples' lives, and their stern determination to forge on (for example: "Grandma's Song", "Mum's Letter", and "Deep into the Ground").

It was really a beautiful distillation of a whole way of life.

Yes, Billy's story was touching too. Yes, the dancing was beautiful.

Oh, and I loved some of the staging too (which I expect comes right from the script). Billy learning to dance as police and miners play hide and seek, sometimes dancing on their own (that's in "Solidarity") and Billy dancing with his older self ("Swan Lake"). Beautiful.

Overall, my favorite Berkeley Playhouse play in a while. And 20 days left if you're in Berkeley and want to see it.

* Your political assignment for the week is to compare and contrast the miners of Durham with the blue collar workers of the Rust Belt, both losing their way of life, one turning to each other, the others to Donald Trump.
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Yesterday night, Kimberly and I went to see The Importance of Being Earnest, put on by the Actors Ensemble of berkeley up at the Live Oak Theatre.

I think we've grown somewhat spoiled by our local community theaters, Berkeley Playhouse and Shotgun Players, because they've bother grown to be entirely professional companies. While the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, it was ... well, amateur.

I was somewhat forewarned when we were sitting in the teenie lobby, waiting for them to open the doors. A couple of old folks were there running things, and they were talking about stuff like maybe they should think about running some ads (for the show ending in a week) and how they had just 16 pre-orders (thankfully, the small theatre ended up being more than half full).

Inside the theatre, the sets were OK. Kimberly says the costumes were generally badly fitting, though I scarcely noticed.

The play somewhat disturbingly started with one of the servants sitting on stage reading for 10 minutes. As the clock ticked to 8:10 for a show that was supposed to have started at 8:00, with the servant on stage the whole time, I began to wonder if we'd tricked into some performance art BS. Fortunately we then got started for real.

But the acting ...

The big problem was Lady Bracknell, and that's a pretty big problem in "The Importance of Being Earnest". She was constantly forgetting her lines, and the rest of the time she seemed like she was on the verge of forgetting them. There'd be a lag, and then she'd blurt it out, stomping all over the actual content of the line along the way. Which is a shame because Bracknell of course has many of the best lines in the play. But we really didn't to appreciate any of them (except a couple I appreciated because I knew they were coming). The program book said the actress has been in theatre for 40 years, and even did some Off-Broadway, so it makes me feel bad that she might be losing what she loves to do.

Chasuble meanwhile was horribly overacted. And I couldn't tell if he was also forgetting lines or if the big pauses and stutters were more bad overacting. Earnest (Jack) was wooden. But things improved from there. Prism was OK. Gwen and Cecily were good.

And Algie, he saved the play. The actor was quite good, and he has most of the other really good lines. And he was very amusingly (and appropriately) constantly eating. He sometimes used this to purposeful humor such as one line he gave that was largely muffled by what he was eating, but which had to have been intentional because Jack then repeats what he says. And this all led to the funniest moment of the play, when Algie was eating muffins and accidentally spit some of it back on himself. He seized the moment (and the ejected muffin bit) and thew it violently down in great agitation, and you could see that he was just barely containing laughter. And on he went.

As for the play itself: it's Oscar Wilde. The play really feels like an excuse for everyone to spend two hours exchanging witticisms. And, if it feels a bit unbelievable at first, you soon lose yourself in the cleverness.

So, a fun play, thanks largely to the writing and the Algie.

(This is just the second play we've seen at Live Oak Theatre, the first being Rough Crossing, in 2001.)
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We saw Beauty & The Beast at the Berkeley Playhouse today, the 1993 musical based on the 1991 film, and I found it pretty meh.

Let's be honest, the plot is problematic. Beast imprisons Belle and holds her in his castle until she loves him. Meanwhile, her other suitor Gaston tries to win her over with sexual harassment and trickery. At least Belle's "I Want" song is about wanting to see the world ... though she pretty quickly forgets about that.

It also felt a little cookie cutter when compared to The Little Mermaid, out just a few years earlier. "Part of Your World" could have described Belle's desire to live beyond her provincial French village and the animated objects could have sung "Kiss the Girl" when they were trying to help Beast and Belle to fall in love, to end their curse.

Meanwhile, the actual music in Beauty & The Beast just wasn't nearly as good. The eponymous "Beauty & The Beast" is quite memorable and original, and the rest ... ? Not so much. In fact, I was shocked that the leads don't really have any good songs. "Beauty & The Beast" is sung by Mrs. Potts, while other songs that are pretty decent, such as "Gaston" and "The Mob Song" are ensembles. Belle and the Beast do have several songs of their own, but none of them stand out.

I think the musical is also hurt by the whole enchanted castle motif. The gothic elements can carry very well (and Berkeley Playhouse did so), but the animated objects: not so much.

The first Act was the most troublesome. Very little happens. Various people are mean or creepy. Beast is a jerk and Beauty hates him. The second Act was much better, and is the only thing that redeems the play. The heel turn toward Belle and Beauty loving each other is so sudden that it's a little hard to swallow, but seeing them together works better and we get lots of action.

Overall, I wasn't that happy when Berkeley Playhouse suddenly went heavy into Disney last year with Peter Pan and The Little Mermaid and this year with Beauty & The Beast and Tarzan. But, I liked Peter Pan and really enjoyed The Little Mermaid. The Beauty & The Beast was more what I expected: shallow and unmemorable.

(Ironically, I'd been looking forward to this one after the success of the last few and how catchy the theme song is; I just didn't know that was it.)

PS: Despite the fact that this musical didn't really strike me, Berkeley Playhouse's production was good. Belle was great, and thank god we live in a community where a very accomplished actress and singer can take the role without comment or complaint even when she isn't white. The staging was quite nice. The beast's costuming was very strong. But they weren't working with the best material.
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Surprise! The new Berkeley Playhouse play isn't a musical. Oh, there are a few short numbers, and somewhat surprisingly this played on Broadway and won some Tonies, but it's not really in the same category as an actual music. And that was a bit disappointing, because I'd been looking for a light-hearted musical today.

Surprise! The new Berkeley Playhouse play is a comedy. Pretty full-throated. Oh, there's some serious theming about childhoods and responsibility and doing good. But there's a lot of funny too.

I suppose I should back up: Peter and the Star Catcher is a Peter Pan prequel. We get Peter and the Lost Boys and the first Wendy (Molly) aboard a ship. And Captain Hook is there too and even pixie dust, if you know where to look.

The play is divided into two parts: the first Act is about setting up all the parts and putting them into position, and was definitely the slower of the parts; the second Act is about dumping everyone on the island, setting off all those explosions, and seeing what happens, and is definitely the more delightful half.

The humor in the play was very mixed. It ran the gamut from fart jokes and slapstick to rather clever word play and playful anachronisms. Unshockingly, I found the first dull, but appreciated the last. Actually, I was humored by some of the slapstick, like god-save-the-queening a banana.

The connections to Peter Pan were well-done and fun, particularly in the few cases where they subverted expectations.

The staging of the play may have been the most notable thing, because it was innovative and interesting. I think part of this was used to hold up the flabby first half of the play ... but it did so. For example in one scene Molly races through the ship looking for pigs, with a series of ladders being used to represent his trip and the actors playing out momentary scenes as she burst into each room. There were lots of practical effects like that, representing the sea, flying, and more. They even fought with rock-scissors-papers.

Overall, I enjoyed the play, though some of it was over-the-top and some was under-the-belt. But, it was generally fun, and a fine extension of mythology. I love ever-growing mythologies.

It really makes me want to see Finding Neverland, to add to my trilogy of Peter and Wendy, Peter Pan, and now Peter and the Starcatcher.

(And I hope the next Playhouse play is actually a musical!)
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Today K. and I saw The Little Mermaid at the Berkeley Playhouse. I was surprised to read that the stage adaptation was a relatively recent thing, dating back to just 2007 or 2008. Which I suppose explains what Aladdin was still showing in New York when I was there.

Anywho, as far as I can tell I've never actually seen the Disney movie. However I was familiar with several of the songs from my Broadway channels on Pandora (particularly "Part of Your World" and "Under the Sea").

Overall, the music was quite nice. My favorite two were Sebastian's songs, "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl" which are both obviously calypso. I think that unique style is what really makes them shine. (And I was unsurprised to discover that they were the two up for awards.) But I also loved the songs by the Daughters of Triton, particularly "Daughters of Triton" (which to me felt reminiscent of "So Long, Farewell" from The Sound of Music) and "She's in Love" (which sounded like it came right out of Hairspray). I know some of the songs are purposefully references to older songs, but if any of those was intended, I don't see any discussions of that.

As for the story: it's good enough. A typical Disney princess. Ariel's 'I want' song, "Part of Your World" almost feels like it could be swapped with "A Whole New World" from Aladdin. But I appreciate the fact that the few times in which it looks like Ariel is going to entirely give up her agency, she draws back: she ultimately saves herself from Ursula and after Triton and Erek both try, then Triton says she can decide for herself ("speak for herself", K. points out) when Erek asks to marry her.

Overall, an enjoyable play. I'd like to see more other stuff, not more Disney, but they have a few more coming up next season.

PS: Gotta guess that the lesbian unrequited love subtext between Flounder and Ariel was totally not in the movie ... but obviously in the musical.
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Today we saw a play of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Berkeley Playhouse. It was a wonderful performance that left me in tears. And that's because it's a wonderful book. It's a bit harder to review the play on its own, except to say that it faithfully reproduces and abridges the book.

I thought it was pretty clear that lot of Harper Lee's prose was reproduced exactly. An older Jean Louise Finch shares the stage with the younger actors and as she narrates you can hear Lee's voice.

And it's such a wonderful story that Lee tells. About community and racism. About personal courage and personal cowardice. About innocence ... lost.

The staging by Berkeley Playhouse was also quite beautiful. There was a massive woodcut of a tree as the backdrop, with some sort of screen behind it that glowed with a variety of colors. In the first act, as Scout and Jem enjoyed their final summer of innocence, it was lit bright oranges and purples, and you could feel the sun-kissed days streaming by forever. Then we opened the second act on the trial of Tom Robinson, and a black curtain was pulled up behind the tree. It receded when the trial did, but the bright colors were gone. The backdrop was now gray, lighting up to a somewhat vibrant blue only when Bob Ewell tried to murder the kids. The wonderful staging made me appreciate the wonderful structure of the book even more, because you could see how that trial was the dividing point between innocence and maturity, as Scout and Jem were brutally thrust into adulthood by it.

The actors were great too ...

But the whole play was surprisingly subdued. It was offered as a quiet story, and that somehow felt appropriate, because it let the harsh edge of this story cut through. But it did keep any of the actors from being able to step out and really excel (though Jem managed to overshadow the stage at times).

Anyway, great book, great show. We actually didn't attend the last show for once (because I'll be in New York next Sunday), which means it's still showing for another week. And it's highly recommended.

The play made me want to reread To Kill a Mockingbird, which I don't think I've read since high school. Shockingly, I don't think we have a copy of this book in our house, despite it being one of the top books from American literature.

However last year I decided I had no interest in alleged sequel Go Set a Watchman. I don't really care about the hi-jinx involved in its publication, and whether Lee approved it. I lost interest when I learned that it assassinates Atticus Finch's character. Then I lost even more interest when it came out that the publisher was purposefully misrepresenting the book, and it was just an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. I generally don't feel the need to see the early drafts of any of the books I love; the polished, published one is good enough, thank you.
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We were back to the Berkeley Playhouse today to see The Addams Family, a broadway musical of very recent pedigree.

It was very enjoyable. I had fun the whole time, entranced by the Addams Family and their interactions with a "normal" family. However, I was also a bit surprised by the fact that the play was both unpolished and too-polished. I'm pretty surprised that the play was successful on Broadway. (Looking now after I drafted this, I see it was successful despite very bad reviews.)

The heart of the play seems to be the fun question of what's normal, and whether that's even desirable. It kicks off in Act I with "One Normal Night", where Wednesday begs her family to be normal when they meet her fiancé's family. But then the play rather delightfully undercuts our expectations by showing us her "normal" fiancé having the same conversation with his own family. Then in Act II we get a reprise of the theme with a new song called "Crazier than You" in which the aspirations toward normalcy are thrown off and everyone embraces their inner weirdo. It's nice messaging and a nice through-line for this play.

Except it's really not a through-line. The rest of the play is all over the place, talking about honesty, love, closeness, distance, and even the Moon. There are lots of good themes there, but it just feels like a mess when you jam them all together.

Meanwhile, the show also felt overworkshopped, like the creator had dutifully followed all the notes he was given to produce a soulless Broadway production. So you have numerous topical references, which are all really cheap laughs. And you have a bit of fourth wall breaking (which produces at least one well-earned laugh). And you have dances and songs in several styles, including a Tango (of course!), a ballet, and a chorus line. If you wrote a book about how to write a modern musical, I'm pretty sure that all these elements would be there.

And too often the show relies upon spectacle, going to the well of the Addams' family spookiness and kookiness to keep the audience entertained without thinking too much about it.

Still, as I said, I enjoyed the play. It was familiar and easy. It had great performances, with Wednesday being a real stand-out (and Pugsley too, but he got too little attention). The set design was also great.

I also loved once concept from the play: the chorus, which was made up of Addams ancestors. They looked great on the stage with costume design going back centuries, and this also allowed the Addams to make amusing references to their various exotic deaths.

But I suspect I'll remember very little about the play in a few weeks time.
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Today we saw the final performance of Berkeley Playhouse's first ever original musical, Bridges.

It was a two-threaded story, literally split on the stage, with Selma in 1965 to the left, under the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and Oakland in 2008 to the right, under the Golden Gate Bridge. The dual storytelling was quite well done, with the stories reflecting each other, with a few songs being tossed back and forth between the two timeframes, and with one character literally bridging them, as a young girl in Selma and an older grandmother in Oakland. You could really tell that this was one of the strengths of the play because when it faded away in the second Act (to focus on the present-day), the show also faded away a bit.

The other strength of the story was its focus on civil rights, in the '60s and '00s. Obviously we had black civil rights in the '60s. That thread continued into the '00s, but it focused more on gay civil rights (and the homophobic Prop 8 that was briefly the law of the land in California). I had some trepidation about the parallel because I was afraid the black evangelical support for Prop 8 would be ignored to preserve the parallelism, but Bridges hit that straight on with the black priest at the heart of the modern day story supporting 8 until he was inundated with revelations about both his family and his past. That sort of thing could be ham-handed, but the play managed to approach it well.

Overall, I felt that Bridges was heartfelt and Important with a capital I. It was good stuff, and I'd recommend it if that weren't the last performance we saw.

With that said, it was also obvious to me how meticulously polished the average Broadway play that we see is. As an original Berkeley Playhouse production this one had the occasional line that was a bit too on the nose and the occasional song that were too superficial, without enough connection to the heart of the play. But they were forgivable flaws in the overall tapestry of the show.

Bridges had good actors too, as is always the case at Berkeley Playhouse. I was astounded that the girl we saw as Annie four and a half years ago is now twice as tall (and I'm astounded that we've been going to the Playhouse for that long). She was great as were the rest of the main actors.

So, go see it. Or not, I guess.

Oh, and after the play ended and after the standing ovation and after the cast took their bows, they brought out the boyfriends of one of the main actors, and he proposed to her. It was certainly a memorable end to the show.

I guess we should go to the final performances more often. (We often go to the next to last one, because we prefer the midday shows, but this one didn't have an evening showing for some reason.)
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Tonight we saw The Mousetrap, a murder-mystery by Agatha Christie, at Shotgun Players. It's (now) a rather delightful period piece, set in England just after WWII. Thankfully, the Shotgun Players didn't try and modernize the play, so it kept all of its classic appeal.

It is such a traditional mystery (by today's standard), featuring a house full of people, one of whom is (presumably) the murderer. Every one is even called together by the detective several times.

Toward the end of the play, I came up with a complex explanation for what was going on that fit everything together in a way that I thought was quite clever. It also ended up being not the answer to the mystery. Ah well. Later on I told Kimberly that I felt like Christie had done a great job of setting up yet obscuring a mystery ... but at the same time she did it by making everyone a very possible suspect. Fair or not fair? I dunno, but I liked it.

I'd love to see more of Christie's mystery plays (though this is apparently the big one).

Sadly, this is our last Shotgun play for the nonce. After three years of subscription (I think), we're ending our relationship with them for the moment due to considerable lack of enthusiasm over the next season.

It's being conducted in repertory, which enthused us, but ..

  • It includes Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, which you'd have to pay Kimberly and me to see again.
  • They're ruining Hamlet by randomly selecting who plays which role at the start of each performance, which is the exact sort of superficial post-modern bullshit that I hate at the theatre, and which also produces travesties like this season's Antigonick, which I think is the only play I've ever walked out of.
  • The rest of the season is totally uninspiring based on the play's descriptions.

If any of the individual shows get great reviews we may decide to just go see those (but the horrible Antigonick got some good reviews too, which suggests to me that Bay Area theatre critics would laud the emperor's new clothes if they didn't see them).

Longer term, it looks like we won't be continuing our two-year tradition of plays on New Year's Eve, which was kind of cool, but we may not even be in California next 12/31.
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Today Kimberly and I saw Peter Pan, our penultimate play of the year. Actually, we kept calling it Peter Paro because the Berkeley Playhouse used a terrible font that has a big flourish on the "n", making it look like an "ro".

Kimberly said that Peter Paro should have dogs, and it indeed did, Nana. No surprise there ... except that Nana was played by an actor who had to crawl around in a dog suit. And that pretty much set the tenor for the play.

I should say this was a production of the 1954 Broadway musical, which was in turn based on the 1904 play by J.M. Barrie. And, in all honesty, it's a pretty mediocre musical.

My biggest problem is that it's entirely superficial. The plot is barely existent (Peter takes Wendy, John, and Michael to Neverland; They set up house with the Lost Boys; They befriend the indians; They're capture by pirates; Peter tricks the pirates and emerges victorious; Wendy, John, and Michael go home). However, the music was worse. There was just no depth to it. It either described what was happening or what was going to happen. There were no subtle entendres, no double meanings, no meaningful views into the minds of the characters.

There was one exceptional moment, when Wendy is singing a bedtime song to the Lost Boys, and Peter chimes in, also recalling how his mother taught him the song. For a boy who claims to have left his parents the day he was born, it's a rare moment of revealing vulnerability, and truth, but that was it.

The pirate songs were also OK. One's a Tango, one's a Tarantella, and one's a Waltz. They have a bit of depth, because they contain not just superficial discussion of what's going on, but there's also this crazy bit of wackiness because they're singing a specific sort of song, just because.

Overall, I was surprised how silly the pirates were. I thought it was the directing at first, but it soon became obvious that it's as the script too. Once I got into it, I enjoyed it, but it was unexpected.

And then we have the Indians. The Berkeley Playhouse introduction to the play was all an argument about how they could put on the play despite the fact that people in the community were whining about the Indians, and I thought "Typical Berkeley busybodies". And so the Playhouse changed the Indians into Warriors, and that was fine, though the lack of specificity hurt the fantasy element. (Since they were all women, Kimberly and I thought they should have been Amazons.) But then we got to the 11th song, "Ugg-a-Wugg", and it was every bit as awful as it sounds. I could not believe Berkeley Playhouse put it on, and it's a pity because it had the best choreography of the whole show. But it was offensive too.

Things I loved about the play:

  • Peter's dramatic flying entrance to the nursery.
  • The epilogue about Jane (which it turns out that Barrie added as an afterthought, and isn't used in all modern versions of the original play). It's always been my favorite part of the story, because it gives it depth and a mythic feeling.
  • The depiction of Peter as selfish and self-absorbed — not just a child, but some of the worse characteristics of a child, which is something that modern takes on the character sometimes miss.

And otherwise it was mostly OK. It didn't help that I saw a vastly superior original musical adaptation called Peter and Wendy at Berkeley Rep; yeah, it was almost 17 years ago, but I got a CD and I continue to play it sometimes. So much better songs. Particularly the Crocodile Tango.

But this was one of the two plays from this Berkeley Playhouse season that I was less than enthusiastic about. It was certainly no Antigonick, but it was one of the weakest Playhouse plays I've seen, mainly because of book & lyrics. But fun enough.
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Tonight we saw The Rover at Shotgun Players, which is a pretty cool piece of theatre because it was written by the first (known) professional female playwright, about 80 years after Shakespeare.

I will now speak heretically: I've never been a great fan of Shakespeare. The dialogue is the big problem, because I have troubles understanding it, but it also rarely catches my interest. (I'm more interested in his historical plays — and in fact am fond of Julius Caesar and some of the Henry and Richards — less interested in his comedies, though last year's staging of Twelfth Night at Shotgun, which was spectacular, certainly showed me I could be won over.)

Anywho, I could clearly see the connections between Shakespeare and Behn (who was a fan of the Bard). Her The Rover was another comedy of romance where the characters have obstacles put in their way, but eventually pair up. It was the story of a young rake, tamed by an even more rakish woman. It had language that was hard to understand, but not quite as hard as Shakespeare. However, it also had elements of its own. There was threat of sexual violence and some serious gender politics, neither of which I'd expect from your typical Shakespeare.

I enjoyed it. Not jumping out of my seat applauding, but it was a fun play, occasionally funny, and occasionally uncomfortable. It had a great Act IV (or so) where we quickly intercut through characters as they intersected while running across the city of Naples. (And I love that sort of thing.)

The most interesting bit was (unsurprisingly) the role of woman. There were four different women in the play, and to a large extent, they were all masters of their own fate — choosing their men and choosing their destinies. The one who talked the best game (the courtesan) fell the hardest, and the one who initially seemed the most controlled (the would-be nun) proved the strongest. Like I said, gender politics. And I expect some pretty shocking ones for 1677.

Interesting and wroth seeing.
shannon_a: (Default)
Today Kimberly and I saw Avenue Q at the Berkeley Playhouse. This was their first "adult" musical (Things I cannot unsee: puppets having sex on stage), and it was one that I was quite looking forward to. That's in part because I've become fond of these more modern Broadway plays (see also: Rent, Seussical, Wicked) and in part because I already knew and enjoyed many of the songs (see: For Now, The Internet is For Porn, If You Were Gay, It Sucks to Be Me, Everyone's a Little Racist).

I appreciated the social messaging of the songs I already knew, but I was surprised to discover that I hadn't grokked the overall theme of the play. Avenue Q is an ode to Millennial angst (cf "It Sucks To Be Me"). It's about people searching for their purpose in life (cf "Purpose"), worrying about their jobs, and desperately seeking love (cf "A Mix Tape", "Fantasies Come True", "The More You Ruv Someone").

What I really love is the play's answer to this Millennial angst. Avenue Q suggests that people just need to be more Zen — to stop thinking only about themselves (cf "The Money Song") and to stop worrying about the future (cf "For Now"). It's really terrific.

I'm also amused how songs I'm familiar with from a musical make so more sense when you actually see them performed. Like with "It Sucks To Be Me", there's a line that introduces Gary Coleman, and I'd always assumed that it was some humorous aside, not realizing that he was a major character in the play.

For the Berkeley Playhouse production, I was quite impressed with the actors, who were often simultaneously singing, expressing emotions, and expressing emotions through their puppet. Wow! We got seats way to the front of the theatre, and it was a play where I thought that really paid off.

I also discovered that there were two songs that I wasn't familiar with that I really liked: "Schadenfreude" and "I Wish I Could Go Back to College".

Hopefully this "adult" experiment will be successful for the Playhouse, and they'll be putting some more adult shows on their schedule in future years. I'd love to see Rent (performed live; I've seen the recording they did of one of their later performances) and Book of Mormon. And Wicked, but that could probably be shown to their regular audience. All I Know from today is that they had a big audience and way more college students than I usually see.

Anywho, a good show, and a week for good plays.
shannon_a: (Default)
Kimberly & I saw Eurydice at the Shotgun Players tonight. Much like Antigonick, the first play of their year, it was post-modern and experimental. Unlike Antigonick, I loved it (as did Kimberly).

The play was a very modern take on Eurydice, which I think helped. Antigonick instead tried to push experimentalism into the classic era, and it stuck out that much more.

But the experimentalism in Eurydice just ... worked. Kimberly seemed to think that it was because it was used in more moderation, helping to characterize without taking over the play. That might be right, but I also thought it was about 83% less pretentious. It was experimental, but it wasn't purposefully opaque. It sometimes shocked, and it sometimes caught you unaware, but that's not a bad thing in live theatre.

What do I mean by experimentalism? There was a lot of dancing at the very start, with few words. Hades was initially presented as a heavy-metal infant. Water was a constant presence on the stage, through metal pails and faucets. A house was made out of string.

But, like I said, it worked. In fact, the moment I was totally won over was when Eurydice died and that was somewhat experimental. She climbed out over a balcony and tried to walk down a great, precarious stairway made out of buckets. It collapsed, of course. But you only really saw the first step as the lights went out, then there was a deafening clatter of metal buckets in the dark. Then, when the lights finally came up again, it was just a single spotlight, shining on Eurydice from far, far above her. It was beautiful.

(In general, the directing and staging were both superb.)

The other beautiful bit of post-modernism? The stones. I'm certain they were intended as a traditional Greek chorus ... but they were totally subverted, taking on their own characters, and really making the play joyful.

The show was very much Eurydice's story, not this Orpheus-as-hero claptrap that's the more common modern-day take on the myth. It's largely about her stay in Hell, and how her father slowly brings her back to life before Orpheus shows up and is given his traditional challenge.

My interpretation was that Eurydice purposefully rejected Orpheus when they were coming out of Hell, running up to him and shouting him name to force him to turn back. She later apologized to him, saying she'd been afraid (of returning to life? of being with a man she barely remembered? of leaving her father? that was never stated.). Kimberly hadn't seen that from her viewing. And that's good theatre, that not only makes you think, but lets you come up with different answers.

I was a little less sure about the messaging of the the end of the play, which is about everyone dipping into the river Lethe as things get worse and worse for them. It starts with the father, who Lethes himself when he thinks Eurydice is gone. Then, Hades is preparing to take advantage of Eurydice ... and the fact that he's played by the same stalker who drove her to her death originally made it all the creepier. Then Eurydice follows her father into the Lethe, and then Orpheus shows up dead too ...

And that was our rather tragic ending. What more can you expect, I suppose?

Great play. I thought this would be the one that caused us to cancel our season tickets for next year, but instead I think it convinced us to stay on. They're announcing their new plays on Sunday, and apparently they're going to be playing them in repertoire.

Still coming up this season: two classics, The Rover (which I have no opinion on) and The Mousetrap (which I'm looking forward to).

PS: I can only remember one other play so obsessed with water, to the point that they had a huge pool on stage. That was Ovid's Metamorphoses. Hmmm.

PPS: The (outstanding) star of the show is even named Megan Trout.
shannon_a: (politics)
I was pleased when I saw that Churchill's Top Girls was on the calendar for the Shotgun Players this year, because it's a modern classic, and I'd like to see more of that. So, we saw it tonight.

I thought Top Girls showed off how to offer up an unusual plot structure and go sort of postmodernist without destroying the play (as has happened at too many Shotgun and Berkeley Rep productions I've gone too). I mean, in order, the three acts of the play are: a dream about having dinner with great women; a series of scenes in the office and the country; and then a birthday party a year previous that puts it all in perspective.

(Ironically, Churchill seems to have gone way more postmodernist after Top Girls, and I have a suspicion I'd hate her later work.)

Anywho, this one is about women in the world. It's a really great play for Shotgun's season of women because everyone in the play is a woman and it's all about them.

The first act is interesting because it's about the cruelty and problems faced even by great women in past times ... and it's all about their relationship with children. Pope Joan is stoned to death after she gives birth, Lady Nijo has her children forever stolen, and Patient Griselda has her children taken away for years and years as part of a warped loyalty test by her Earl. As modern viewers, we can wince at this cruelty, and look down upon it as something we've grown past.

Which is of course supported in Act II when we see that Marlene, the host of that dream dinner, is a successful business woman, about to move up in the world. Of course Act III reveals to us the truth, and so hammers at our beliefs of a progressive modern world: we learn that she was only able to make that successful life ... by abandoning her child, and her child seems to be in a very bad place now.

There's a lot in the play too about women being forced into male roles in order to rise to greatness, from the disguised pope Joan to the warrior woman Gret to the Victorian adventuress Isabella. To, of course, Marlene.

So, the more things change the more they stay the same, it seems. And Churchill does a very effective job of showing us how the biases of our own society blind us to the prejudices within it. (A lesson that people who whine about being called privileged could bear to learn.)

Some of the play is obviously a reaction against Margaret Thatcher too, who is called out in the play by a wonderful scene which goes something like this: "And it's wonderful to have our first female prime minister." "But if it's Margaret Thatcher, is it worth it?" And, there's some class stuff too, with Marlene clearly having abandoned her progressive roots to become a member of the conservative party. I suspect that has to do with the topic of female masculinity.

Overall, a good play, a thoughtful play, and one that takes good advantage of postmodern touches to actually create something that's thoughtful, not obscure.
shannon_a: (Default)
We saw Fiddler on the Roof at the Berkeley Playhouse today. I thought it was entirely magnificent, though its strength wasn't in its music (which was enjoyable), but in its play craft. I could just as easily have seen it played at Shotgun Players, and in fact it reminded me of some of the plays we've seen there. With its focus on tradition, small town life, and love it could have been an alternate reality version of Our Town; and with its focus on rebellion in Russia, it could have been a parallel story to The Coast of Utopia. In fact, in my personal canon, Perchik is clearly the descendent of some of the Russian intellectuals from Stoppard's play.

I'm not a big fan of heavy theming and symbolism in my literature, because it's so often ham-handed, but it was instead beautifully managed in Fiddler on the Roof, which is all about TRADITION and change. Tevye has three daughters of marriageable age, and each of them chooses an increasingly inappropriate husband: the first troths herself instead of waiting for a matchmaker, the second decides to marry without even her father's permission, and the third runs off with someone from outside the faith(!). Teyve can accept the first, comes to accept the second, but disowns his third daughter, because there's only so far he can bend. It generates great sympathy for those bound by tradition, because we can see Teyve is a good man, but he can only change so much.

The idea of tradition is of course interlaced throughout the whole play. It's there in the many Jewish customs we see, including a beautifully choreographed wedding. But change is also there in new customs, new sewing machines ... and ultimately the expulsion of the people from their home. Though it's often presented as good, we see the bad too.

But in the back of the stage (and the staging and directing were both spectacular) we had the ROOF ... except it wasn't a roof, it was a ramp running upward along the back of the stage. It was like a dividing line between the past and the future, but it was also a line that was ever ascending upward.

I liked some of the songs too. TRA-DISH-YON! gets stuck in your head, but the Matchmaker song was the one that make me quickly love the three elder daughters. These songs were just more the backbeat of the play than is usual for a musical.

Overall, a terrific play.
shannon_a: (Default)
Saw Heart Shaped Nebula at Shotgun Players today. It was a big relief after their craptastic lead-off for the season, Antigonick. More than that, Heart Shaped Nebula was actually worth seeing.

It was fundamentally a magic realism story about a man who'd lost his true love and how he might be reunited with her. At times I found that overarching story a little heavy-handed. Admitted, there was some nice ambiguity (such as whether the third character was an angel, a thief, or both), but there was also a lot of relatively clichéd romance.

Where the play really excelled was in its characters. They were well-drawn and interesting, and their dialogue was terrific: it blended love and science in a positively Andrea-Barrettesque, and though it went overboard at times, there were also a few sublime moments too. ("You're the center of my universe." "The center of the universe is an enormous black hole!") Two of the three actors (the guy and the angel-thief) were also superb, while the last was good enough.

Overall, it was really nice to get the bad taste of Antigonick out of our mouths, so that we don't keep dreading the return to Shotgun. And, I'd be interested to see what else playwright Orta has done.
shannon_a: (Default)
After a disappearing start to our theatre year with a horrible Antigonick and a mediocre Charlie Brown, we were very pleased to have a great success today with Hairspray at the Berkeley Playhouse.

It's a period musical set in 1962 that focuses on an American Bandstand-style TV show and a new star who wants to integrat ite. It's really a great story that reminds us how far our society has gone and how far it still has to go.

Probably the best song is "I Know Where I've Been", a pretty full-throated call for equality that was the show's eleven o'clock number. Our theatre played it with scenes of MLK and segregation on the big "TV" in the background. And, it was stunning, a really rare song in the middle of the play that brought members of the audience to their feet. I was shocked to read that it was controversial in the original Broadway show, apparently because people thought that some of the white cast should sing the eleven o'clock number. Yeah, no irony at all there. Musical composer Shaiman said, "We simply didn't want our show to be yet another show-biz version of a civil rights story where the black characters are just background. And what could be more Tracy Turnblad-like than to give the 'eleven o'clock number' to the black family at the heart of the struggle?"

I was also surprised by how familiar most of the songs were. Some of it was probably due to adaption of rhythms from the '60s, but I've also heard a lot of the songs on my Broadway channel on Pandora. Many of the songs in the second act brought tears to my eyes, but particularly "Without Love" and "You Can't Stop the Beat", because I've heard them a bazillion times, but now I could finally get to see them in context. (And there were so many more that I recognized, like "I Can Hear the Bells" and "Welcome to the '60s".)

So, this was a terrific, funny, and enjoyable show, but also I think an important one, compared to the (enjoyable) fluff like Mary Poppins earlier this season.

Ironically, K. and I watched the Rock of Ages movie last night, so we were going back in time this weekend from the hair bands rock metal of the '80s to the hair spray rock origins of the '60s. It was fun.

Hairspray was clearly the better of the two, but it's hard to compare a vibrant live theatre experience to a musical trapped in a little box; I'd love to see Berkeley Playhouse do Rock of Ages some time ... but next season I'll be content with Avenue Q and keep hoping for Wicked.
shannon_a: (Default)
We've had problems with street kids using our outside water lately. I don't have a philosophical problem with sharing our water, but I do have problems with these kids loitering around our property, and really paying attention to our house in general.

So I hear the water running the other night and I mostly ignore it, because the homeless problem has gotten so troublesome and unchecked in Berkeley that a guy up in the hills was murdered a year or two ago for confronting a homeless guy. So, no confrontations.

The next morning I went out and saw lemon rinds strewn all across our steps. And they all been very cleanly cut open with a sharp knife.

I'll leave that picture for a moment: some kid sitting on our steps with a big knife eating lemons.

After more hose use yesterday by some kid, I decide we've become a destination for some reason. Fortunately, it turns out that they make locks to put on outside faucets.

Just a month or so after we received it, our new Samsung washer has already broken down. It was pooling water under it this weekend.

So, K. is heroically jumping through the hoops that Samsung is laying out before her to get our warranty service.

First Samsung required us to get Home Depot out to verify it wasn't an installation problem. We'd already looked at things close enough to know it wasn't an installation problem. Nonetheless, the installation people were out at 7.30am this morning, and apparently very apologetic in explaining that it wasn't an installation problem. They said the washer was defective and the water pump was broken.

Second, Samsung is requiring us to get a repair person out. That's occurring Monday morning.

Presumably then (third) they'll send out a replacement washer. By which time both the washer and drier will have been replaced since we got them in February.

In case it wasn't obvious from my post yesterday, Antigonick was a pile of crap. I find that most experimental theatre is bad, but this was in a whole other dimension. It was like it'd been written by a Freshman drama student. Probably the worst thing I've ever seen at live theatre, and I'm pretty sure it was the only live show I've ever walked out of.

K. was afraid it was rude to walk out of a live performance. On the other hand, I feel that it's almost obligatory. That people walking out is the main walk to protest how terrible a show is. (Shotgun also tends to send a poll out after their shows, and I'm going to be much more blunt that I usually am.)

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