Sunday, March 1, 2009

Fertile Minds

There aren't many theatrical experiences where I would urge readers to go for the marimba and stay for the play. But the gloriously vibrant instrument used in the Boxcar Theater's new production of Where The Sidewalk Ends (a new play by Sarah Savage based on stories and drawings by Shel Silverstein) is so gorgeous to look at -- and produces such magnificent sounds at the hands of Christian Foster Howes -- that you'd be cheating of yourself of one of the best "added value benefits" to be found in live theater around the Bay area if you were to skip this production.

The other "added value" benefit can be found in the program notes, where the show's cast and crew have been asked to write their mini-biographies in a style akin to Silverstein's poems. Here are my two favorites:
"If I Were Five Years Old Again" by Sarah Savage (Playwright)

If I were five years old again, I'll tell you what I'd do
I'd dance in the rain and climb up a tree and never tie my shoe
If I were five years old again, I'll tell you what I'd see
A rainbow in the mirror, a ghost in the closet and an acrobatic flea
If I were five years old again, I'll tell you what I'd find
a treasure map, a bottle cap, and a mystery to unwind
If I were five years old again, but I'm not, I'm all grown up
so I go to work and I pay my bills and I never spill my cup
I tie my shoes, I eat my vegetables and always stand up straight
I feed the cat and check the mail and don't stay up too late
But sometimes, for reasons I cannot explain
I still see that ghost in the closet,
and I still like to dance in the rain.

"Me, My Life, and a Frog Named Fred" by Ben Freeman (Shel)

Benjamin Bunny had a sitter named Honey
Who wrote calligraphically
Seeing his name in her hand, Ben exclaimed
"Fame is the life for me!"
So Benjamin played a frog in a glade
Whose feet graced a lily pad
Trained in Chicago and the City of Fog, oh
His muscles were aching quite bad!
He sang and danced (and giggled and pranced)
On stage, in squares and in malls
Directed a show on electron flow
And escorted at debutante balls
He worked at the Rep where he'd seen Irma Vep
And now that 'Jackets is done,
He's anxious for Brown in Providence Town
But Sidewalk's been so much fun!

A sure way of getting in touch with your age is to listen to someone rhapsodize about an author of children's books who has had a profound effect upon his age group and realize that, by that time, you were graduating from college and no longer interested in children's literature. Although I've been fortunate enough to interview Maurice Sendak and enjoy a great deal of his art (in children's books as well as onstage), I was not familiar with Shel Silverstein's charming creative output.

Playwright Sarah Savage has combined Silverstein's The Giving Tree with Where The Sidewalk Ends in a way that allows children of all ages to step back into a vivid fantasy world that features a talking tree, confused children, stupid adults, and the painful process of searching for the "missing pieces" of one's life. As directed by Nick Olivero, her new play provides  long-lost sustenance for those who miss their daily dose of childlike logic from Bill Watterson's beloved comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes.

When we first encounter Shel (Ben Freeman), he appears as one of the wonderful child-sized puppets designed by Sarah Beth Parks. Sharing his thoughts with his beloved tree (Michelle Ianiro) while struggling to find common ground with a neighborhood girl named Sarah (Mariah Castle), Shel must also cope with the adult logic of his single mother (Elinor Bell) and his dyspeptic Uncle Albert (John Foley).

Elinor Bell, Ben Freeman, and John Foley (Photo by Peter Liu)

As Shel grows up he loses interest in his friendship with the tree and becomes more focused on earning money (that he imagines could impress Sarah and win her love). The tree, which has stood in the neighborhood for nearly 100 years, is more than willing to sacrifice its apples, limbs, and leaves to make Shel happy. But true happiness can only come from within.

Once Shel embarks on a voyage of self-discovery (using a boat created from an aluminum ladder and an eggbeater), he finds that life is much more complicated than he thought. Some people live in garbage cans, resenting their family's supposed lack of interest. Some people fail to communicate with the people who love them the most. Some people just don't make sense -- or even know where they are.

Ben Freeman and Mariah Castle (Photo by Peter Liu)

During the course of Shel's long adventure in the city his mother joins the Peace Corps, his Uncle Albert dies and, when Shel finally returns home like the prodigal son, all the tree has left to offer him is a comfortable stump on which he can rest his tired, aging body.

Boxcar Theatre's production is an absolute delight, filled with wit and imagination. Despite a few flubbed lines on opening night, the cast has a very strong handle on Shel Silverstein's fantasy world and is obviously having a good time.  The evening is chock full of theatrical treats, some great laughs, and a sense of whimsy that will melt your heart. You can order tickets here.

* * * * * * * *

Across town, at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. actor Frank Ferrante brought his one-man show, An Evening With Groucho, to town for two performances on Saturday. Ferrante has performed his 90-minute tribute to the Groucho Marx (who had one of the most fertile comic minds of the 20th century) in cities around the world. Because a good part of the show involves improvisational interaction with the audience, it never gets boring.

After more than 2,000 performances, Ferrante is still having himself a wonderful time. So is his music director, Jim Furmston. So is the audience.  Many at the JCC were life-long devotees of the Marx Brothers as well as being fans of Groucho's two television game shows from the 1950s, You Bet Your Life and Tell It To Groucho

All of Groucho's classic bits -- the vamping, camping, leering, dancing, shtick and tomfoolery -- were recreated by Ferrante for the audience, which ate it right up.

Songs were sung. Insults were flung. A grand time was had by all. And yet, as wonderful as it was to hear stories about such Hollywood legends as Margaret Dumont, Louis B. Mayer, Charlie Chaplin, Irving Thalberg, W.C. Fields, and Harpo Marx, nothing can hold a candle to the original, the one and only, Groucho Marx. Here's Groucho in all his comic glory:

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