Friday, September 30, 2016

Making Sure No Child Is Left Behind

It took nearly 15 years for parents and politicians to understand that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was a cruelly misguided mess. As noted by Wikipedia:
"It supported standards-based education reform based on the premise that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals could improve individual outcomes in education. The Act required states to develop assessments in basic skills. To receive federal school funding, states had to give these assessments to all students at select grade levels. Each individual state developed its own standards. NCLB expanded the federal role in public education through further emphasis on annual testing, annual academic progress, report cards, and teacher qualifications, as well as significant changes in funding"
Parents and teachers complained that NCLB transformed the educational system into a process which was largely designed for "teaching to the test." Children were essentially ingesting data that they could later regurgitate without developing critical thinking skills.

"If you wanted to change a culture in a single generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children," explained Carol Black, who directed the documentary Schooling the World: The White Man's Last Burden. "Could we really not just look in our children’s bright eyes and know that they all bring something unique and precious to the world?"

In her lengthy article entitled A Thousand Rivers: What the Modern World Has Forgotten About Children and Learning, Black analyzes some of the key differences between the standardized education systems popular in the West and the ways children are allowed to learn at their own pace in most parts of the world.

"Science is a tool of breathtaking power and beauty, but it is not a good parent," she writes. "It must be balanced by something broader, deeper, older. Like wind and weather, like ecosystems and microorganisms, like snow crystals and evolution, human learning remains untamed, unpredictable, a blossoming fractal movement so complex and so mysterious that none of us can measure or control it. But we are part of that fractal movement, and the ability to help our offspring learn and grow is in our DNA. We can begin rediscovering it now. Experiment. Observe. Listen. Explore the thousand other ways of learning that still exist all over the planet. Read the data and then set it aside. Watch your child’s eyes, what makes them go dull and dead, what makes them brighten, quicken, glow with light. That is where learning lies."

Just as American society has evolved past the fantasy that the typical nuclear family lives in a house surrounded by a white picket fence and consists of 2.5 children being raised by two heterosexual parents, new definitions of family have been woven into the demographics of American society. Some may involve same-sex couples who adopted children that were created by heterosexuals who could not afford to raise their own offspring; others may be families who ostracized their children and threw them out of their homes.

As a result, there are times when interventions are necessary to make sure that a child does not fall through the cracks in society. In some cases, government agencies may try to rescue children who have been living on the streets; in other cases, extended family may be called upon to care for a child caught an emergency situation.

Two new films look at these situations with a rare sense of clarity and compassion. One tells its story through a fictional lens; the other copes with the harsh realities of children whose parents abandoned them or forced them from their homes. Both films are notable for their stunning cinematography.

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Directed and filmed by Nicole Opper, Visitor's Day is an observational documentary set in Puebla, Mexico. Focused on a group home for boys, the film's protagonist is 16-year-old Juan Carlos, whose home life took a turn for the worse after his mother died and his father's new girlfriend began beating the boy. After Juan Carlos ran away from home to escape her abuse, he spent several years living on the streets in Mexico City before finding his way to IPODERAC, a social outreach program which stresses trust building, teamworkbrotherhood and helps to guide boys through their adolescence as they grow into men.

When he is interested in the work he is given, Juan Carlos excels and shows signs of potential leadership. Often, however, he is haunted by the guilt of having run away from home and issues of abandonment. On each month's visitor's day, he waits in vain for a visit from his father that never materializes.

After discussing the situation with IPODERAC's counselors, Juan Carlos agrees to meet with his father in Mexico City in the hope of finding a way to move forward. His counselor acts as an intermediary who can not only make contact with the boy's father, but help Juan Carlos articulate what he hopes to achieve during their reunion and find a way to forgive his father for what happened to their family.

Juan Carlos is the protagonist of Visitor's Day

A 50-year-old social enterprise with a unique format for homeless boys (the organization is in the process of developing a similar program for homeless girls). IPODERAC's mission is to:
  • Raise awareness of the plight of children (including their families) who live and/or work on the streets of Mexico and have been socially excluded.
  • Support the development and implementation of effective programs for the reintegration into society of socially excluded children.
  • Identify and support projects and organizations which focus on children and families in vulnerable situations.
The IPODERAC program tries to foster a sense of
brotherhood and emotional honesty among its 72 boys

Unlike the conditions in the Victorian workhouses that Charles Dickens described in Oliver Twist, the IPODERAC facility in Puebla could easily be mistaken for a summer camp with a farming component. Separated by age groups, 72 boys are housed in six cabins along with two volunteers and a teacher in each cabin.  Some are assigned to janitorial tasks; others to feeding and caring for the goats. Some learn carpentry skills while others help with agricultural tasks such as planting new trees. The boys are also encouraged to choose a trade which appeals to them so that they can develop the necessary skills to get hired and become self sufficient after they graduate from IPODERAC.

As he nears his 10th birthday, Pepe is transferred to another cabin

As one watches Visitor's Day, it's impossible not to be impressed by the candid footage of the boys and the way the filmmaker has been able to capture their emotions. In her director's statement, Opper explains that:
"I first encountered the IPODERAC boys as an 18-year-old volunteer, and was deeply moved by my experience there. The boys at IPODERAC come from all over the country. Most ran away to escape abuse and lived on the streets for months or years before they get here. Many of them have never been able to trust an adult before IPODERAC, but they quickly learn to become accountable to one another and to their adopted home. Eleven years after volunteering as a teenager, I unearthed the journal I kept during my time there. In it, I had vowed to come back and make a documentary about this place. I returned to IPODERAC to fulfill this promise."
Robert is one of the boys living at IPODERAC

Over the course of its history, IPODERAC has helped to raise more than 1,000 boys. While there are endearing shots of the boys caring for the farm's goats, playing soccer, and going to school, there are also plenty of raw emotional moments in Opper's deeply moving documentary, These may be boys who once lived on the streets, but they are vulnerable children who often struggle with their emotions. Here's the trailer:

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Anyone who has spent time in New Mexico will have no trouble understanding how easy it is for Nancy Schreiber's glorious cinematography to steal attention from the human relationships in
Kepler's Dream. Based on the novel by Juliet Bell (aka Sylvia Brownrigg), the film catches an estranged family struggling to cope with the ramifications of one person's medical crisis.

Amy (Kelly Lynch) is a single mother whose medical options have nearly all run out. Her one hope is a radical attempt at stem cell therapy to be performed at a hospital in Los Angeles. With her former husband leading fishing tours in Oregon, there is no one available locally to care for Amy's 11-year-old daughter, Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas), while she is away. Unable to make contact with Walter (Sean Patrick Flannery), she is left with no choice but to send Ella to New Mexico to spend the summer with her paternal grandmother, the formidable Violet von Stern (Holland Taylor).

Holland Taylor portrays Ella's formidable grandmother,
Violet von Stern in a scene Kepler's Dream

Violet's marriage came to a sudden end when her husband drowned in an arroyo during one of New Mexico's flash floods. She now lives in an isolated adobe house where peacocks roam freely and her ranch hand, Miguel (Steven Michael Quezada), lives in a small trailer with his wife and their 11-year-old daughter, Rosie (Esperanza Fermin).

Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas), Miguel (Steven Michael Quezada),
and Rosie (Esperanza Fermin) in a scene from Kepler's Dream

A bibliophile who has traveled extensively abroad and built a personal library of rare books, Violet's deep emotional scars from losing her husband have hardened her into the kind of woman who is far more concerned about inanimate objects than people. Being thrust into a position of responsibility where she must care for an adolescent girl is not just a huge annoyance, it occasionally brings back painful memories of when Walter and Miguel were boys who played together all the time.

Ella's arrival causes another disruption in Violet's meticulously controlled lifestyle because she is also expecting a visit from her long-time friend (and fellow bibliophile), Abercrombie (David Hunt), who is soon joined by his nephew, Jackson (Stafford Douglas), whose computer skills are needed to deal with Violet's outdated computer.

Amy (Kelly Lynch) undergoes stem cell treatment as a
last-ditch cure for cancer in a scene from Kepler's Dream

Although Amy has done a solid job of preparing her daughter for a long separation (and the possibility that she might not survive the stem cell therapy), nothing could have prepared the young girl for her battle axe of a grandmother, a fussy old woman who can barely hide her resentment at being asked to take care of a granddaughter she has never known.

Following up on Amy's suggestion, Ella asks Violet to show her one of Walter's favorite books, Johannes Kepler's novel, Dream. But one night, after shots are heard after the sighting of an intruder, the precious book goes missing. Having closely observed the behavior of Violet, Abercrombie, and Jackson, Ella and Rosie bravely set out to discover the identity of the thief and, in doing so, make a remarkable discovery.

Poster art for Kepler's Dream

Directed by Amy Glazer and supported by Patrick Neil Doyle's excellent film score, Kepler's Dream was mostly filmed in the area around Albuquerque and Santa Fe during the summer months. The role of Violet fits Holland Taylor like a glove and the film makes clear that, once Amy's stem-cell treatment succeeds, there is no expectation that Walter will move back in with his wife and daughter. Glazer (whose work has been seen on several Bay area stages) does an exemplary job of guiding Ella through the process of discovering her own strengths as well as piercing Violet's emotional armor.

Kepler's Dream manages to deal with adult themes of mourning, estrangement, denial, and despair without ever devolving into the kind of Disney family film that concludes with a perfectly happy ending. Much of the story deals with characters coming to grips with a past tragedy, learning to rediscover themselves, and gaining support from their extended family. It also does a beautiful job of depicting how curious and fearless young girls sharpen their problem-solving skills. Here's the trailer:

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Little Family Business

In 1982, an extremely successful playwright and screenwriter adapted a French farce by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy with disastrous results. During my travels, I actually managed to attend two performances of Jay Presson Allen's pathetic comedy (one during the Los Angeles tryout and one in New York). The show reaped the kind of scathing reviews that bitchy queens lie for. Some snippets from the venerable Frank Rich (who was then the drama critic for The New York Times) include the following statements:
  • "It would be unjust to say that A Little Family Business, the comedy that brought Angela Lansbury back to Broadway last night, is the worst production in a poor theater season. After all, those with long memories can still recall the summer's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. So let's be fair and just say that A Little Family Business is the season's worst nonmusical play. It's definitely the thing to see once you've exhausted all the all-night movies on 42d Street."
  • "Heaven knows that A Little Family Business has received just the production it deserves. The only way it could be worse is if Herman van Veen came on to sing. Martin Charnin's direction is so coarse that, next to this play, a typical episode of I Love Lucy looks as if it had been produced by the Comédie-Française. The motley supporting cast is an insult to the venerable theatrical institution of amateur night."
  • "In a less inspired moment, [Mrs. Allen] adapted another Barillet-Gredy opus into Forty Carats in the late 1960's. Though Forty Carats did seem execrable at the time, A Little Family Business now gives us the perspective to see that it was, relatively speaking, a classic of its kind."
Angela Lansbury in a scene from 1982's A Little Family Business

When illness or death strikes the head of a small family business, the question of succession is bound to raise its head.
  • Is there someone who can instantly take over for the company's founder or driving force? 
  • Does that person actually want to shoulder so much responsibility?
  • Is there a pressing need to keep a family tradition alive?
  • Is the family business the glue that holds together a show business family or a powerful dynasty?
The 2016 Presidential election has raised all sorts of speculation about American family dynasties. From early speculations about the Clinton and Bush dynasties to the political nightmares triggered by the political ambitions of Donald Trump and his loathsome progeny, the run-up to the election has had millions worried sick about who will take over the White House.

What will the transfer of power be like? Will it be a hyperemotional crisis or a rather stoic affair? Will there be a smooth transition or a global meltdown. Without doubt, these are important questions to be asked.
  • But what if the family business involves a bunch of clowns
  • What if the family itself has long been perceived as a bunch of clowns? 
  • Can the next generation take hold of the reins while resting secure in their knowledge of who they are without being stereotyped by others?
  • Can they keep calm and carry on?
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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As a professional, Lorenzo Pisoni's performing career has ranged from multiple Shakespearean roles to appearances on All My Children. With 20 years of circus work (in the Pickle Family Circus as well being the Ringmaster in one of Cirque du Soleil's resident shows based in Las Vegas (Mystère), Pisoni has an impressive theatrical résumé.

Having made his professional debut at the age of two, he quickly started memorizing cues and routines from the circus show in which his father, Larry (Lorenzo Pickle), co-starred with Bill Irwin (Willy the Clown) and Geoff Hoyle (Mr. Sniff).  When he was six years old, Lorenzo signed a contract with his parents' circus and became his father's clown partner.

Lorenzo Pisoni warming up the crowd prior to a performance
by the Pickle Family Circus (Photo by: Terry Lorant)

As Larry taught his son the tricks of clowning (how to stumble, fall down stairs, juggle, do a double take, and tumble) he would keep telling Lorenzo to "Do it again" until his son had worked the routine into his body and learned to own it. The seriousness with which the elder Pisoni mentored Lorenzo helped his child to build a solid appreciation for craft, precision, and the history and traditions of clowning from the early days of the commedia dell'arte to the present.

As he continued to tour with The Pickle Family Circus, the younger Pisoni had a very different experience from military brats who were constantly being relocated from one base to another. As he explains:
"I don't know many kids who not only have a first-hand knowledge of what their parents do on a day-to-day basis, but also get to see their parents enjoying what they do -- see any adults enjoying what they do. Everyone in The Pickle Family Circus was having a good time."
Larry and Lorenzo Pisoni performing with The Pickle Family Circus

Premiered in the Spring of 2009 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Pisoni toured his one-man show, Humor Abuse, for four years (including two short runs at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater). Originally planned as a history of clowning that would be presented with Jonah Hoyle (his childhood friend from The Pickle Family Circus), Humor Abuse underwent major revisions when Hoyle developed stage fright and, after living in Alaska for several years, joined the faculty of De Anza College to teach creative writing.

Pisoni then turned to an old friend from his student days at Vassar College who was able to point out that, unlike children who run away to the circus, Lorenzo ran away from the circus. Erica Schmidt also convinced Pisoni that, with Jonah out of the show, the narrative could be reshaped into a father-son story that would have a much broader appeal.

Humor Abuse was enhanced with slides that depicted Lorenzo at various stages of childhood, performing with his father as well as with a dummy his own size. Jennifer Westfeldt (who met Pisoni in 2013 while they were acting together at the Manhattan Theater Club) recalls that "It was completely incongruous to me that this straight-laced, terrific actor who looks like Clark Kent grew up juggling, flying through the air, and tap dancing in a gorilla suit! I couldn't stop asking questions."

As Lorenzo performed his father's famous "sandbag" routine without flinching, Humor Abuse moved into a rare territory that combined an adult's poignant recollections of his childhood with meticulously-planned moments of stagecraft. Throughout the show, his charisma, physical dexterity, and intelligence continued to seduce the audience into learning about the tradition of clowning. In between his numerous backflips and pratfalls, theatregoers gained a deeper awareness of why a good clown can not only make people laugh, but also make them choke back tears.

A new documentary entitled Circus Kid (which will be screened at the 2016 Mill Valley Film Festival) takes Humor Abuse one step further. The camera follows Lorenzo as he as he interviews his parents, his sister Gypsy, his godfather (Bill Irwin), and other members of The Pickle Family Circus to learn why the troupe shut down so suddenly, how he was shielded from the financial and personality problems that caused trouble backstage, and whether or not he had anything resembling a good childhood.

William Rexer with Lorenzo Pisoni (Photo by: Vasili Gavre)

Some of the interviews are designed to ferret out information about the actual mechanics of managing a small circus and what the life with a group of clowns was really like. The more serious parts, however, focus on Pisoni's questions about his childhood, since most of what he recalls are his experiences working onstage as his father's sidekick. Lorenzo's relationship with his father provides him with a unique coming of age story.

During his one-man stage show, Pisoni was able to punctuate Humor Abuse with slides of him performing as a child, as well as demonstrating many of the physical comedy routines he learned from his father. Watching him as a fully grown adult (and now a father) trying to piece together memories from his past is a fascinating process. Not only is Pisoni an extremely handsome and capable performer, he's also a mensch. As his friend, Jon Hamm (who starred in Mad Men), stresses: “Every kid wants to please his father. But not every kid had to learn how to fall down a flight of stairs in order to do that.”

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American Conservatory Theater inaugurated its 2016-2017 season with Mike Bartlett's intellectually bracing (and often hysterically funny) political thriller, King Charles III. Written in iambic pentameter and staged on Daniel Ostling's darkly imposing unit set (which could easily accommodate many of Shakespeare's plays), this co-production with the Seattle Repertory Theatre and Shakespeare Theatre Company has been meticulously directed by David Muse in ways that expose the weaknesses of the United Kingdom's royal family in both crisis and comedic situations.

King Charles III premiered  in April 2014, long before this year's shocking Brexit vote and before Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 90th birthday. Long before the beloved monarch entered the final decade of her life, there had been plenty of speculation over whether or not Prince Charles (a/k/a The Duke of Wales) would succeed her on the throne. Now 67 years old, Charles has spent his entire life on the assumption that he would one day be crowned King. Following the death of his first wife, Diana, Princess of Wales (and his subsequent marriage to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall), there is still a question about whether he will be crowned in Westminster Abbey or pass that honor to one of his two sons: Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (born in 1982) or his younger brother, Prince Harry, a/k/a Prince Henry of Wales (born in 1984).

Charles (Robert Joy) and Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen) in a
scene from King Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Bartlett's play begins with the royal family in mourning shortly after the death of Elizabeth II. Although he has been groomed to take over the throne, Charles (Robert Joy) is a bit nervous as he meets with Prime Minister Evans (Ian Merrill Peakes) and Mark Stevens (Bradford Farwell), the Leader of the Opposition. Cognizant of his duties as a member of the royal family, Charles is acutely aware that both men are experienced political operatives.

A man who has expressed strong views on architecture, climate change, and organic farming, Charles is used to paying careful attention to detail. When asked to sign a bill which could severely impact the freedom of the press, he balks at the Prime Minister's need for urgent action, worried that he might do more harm than good by signing a bad piece of legislation. His failure to fall back on "business as usual" (based on his respect for certain legal principles) sets up a curious chain reaction. As the playwright notes: "The issue of press freedom and privacy matters to Charles very personally, so the idea that he might end up defending the press is fascinating. You can feel it oozing Shakespearean complications."

In Bartlett's play, Charles's youngest son, Prince Harry (Harry Smith), has traveled around the world, done plenty of charity work, and grown sick and tired of the stifling responsibilities of being a member of the royal family. After Harry meets an attractive young commoner at a nightclub named Jessica (Michele Beck), he finds her opinions intoxicating. Jess's ability to broaden his horizons and boost his self confidence lead Harry to wonder what it would be like to abandon his privileged lifestyle and live anonymously, like an ordinary bloke.

Prince Harry (Harry Smith) is attracted to Jess Michelle Beck)
in a scene from King Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although Prince William (Christopher McLinden) is hesitant to push his father toward making any decisions, his wife, the former Kate Middleton (Allison Jean White), is focused on the long-term implications of who succeeds Elizabeth II. Far more decisive and aggressive than her husband, Kate devises a plan whereby Edward could force Charles to abdicate the throne in favor of her husband (and her children).

Prince William (Christopher McLinden) confront his father
(Robert Joy) in King Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Orbiting around the emotionally conflicted Charles are:
  • His blunt and horsey wife, Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen), who won't hesitate to slap one of her stepsons across the face.
  • His long-time butler, James Reiss (Dan Hiatt), who wouldn't hesitate to seek better employment with a different future king.
  • A ghost (Chiara Motley) who haunts the palace, ominously telling Charles and Edward that they will be the greatest king England has ever known.
A palace ghost delivers a message to the Prince of Wales
in a scene from King Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Though many have likened Bartlett's portrayal of Prince William and his wife to the Macbeths, I find his characterization of the conniving Kate much more in line with King Lear's power-hungry daughters, Regan and Goneril. One could equally imagine Donald Trump's offspring going after their father's power with a similarly forceful sense of righteous greed. As Charles becomes increasingly conflicted when forced to make decisions, it's easy to see him deteriorating into madness like Lear. In a recent interview, Bartlett noted that:
“The Windsors have an interesting narrative. They are the country embodied (which is a very Shakespearean idea). Shakespeare draws those metaphors, and I can’t tell you how useful doing that is in this play. The endless metaphors and parallels you can draw between the personal and the national are brilliant. The [royal family] went from being really popular after World War II to drifting out of popularity through the 1970s and 1980s. The depths of that unpopularity were in the mid-1990s, with Windsor Castle burning down and the divorce of Diana and Charles. With William, Harry, and Kate, a new generation has fallen in love with the Windsor family. You see a dramatic rise and fall with the Windsors, whose peaks and troughs are a gift for a storyteller. When you write about these specific people, you are writing about the entire country.”
Allison Jean White as the power-hungry Kate Middleton
in a scene fromKing Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With costumes by Jennifer Moeller, lighting designed by Lap Chi Chu, and original music and sound design by Mark Bennett, I found this production to be remarkably satisfying. Robert Joy's beautifully layered portrait of Charles sits astride a frothy mixture of family comedy and political backstabbing in the uppermost levels of British society. A large part of the play's success may also well be due to the style in which it is written.

“Iambic pentameter is a way of writing kings and queens that feels appropriate. If you write them speaking as we speak, it would sound as though you were mocking them," explains the playwright. "But if they speak in [blank] verse, their language has a more formal rhythm and a heightened vocabulary. Verse also compresses meaning down (you can get more meaning into three words of verse than you can in three lines of prose). ”

Robert Joy stars in King Charles III (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of King Charles III continue through October 9 at American Conservatory Theater (click here for tickets). It's a magnificent new play, full of challenges befitting a royal family.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Saved By The Bell

It's an old gag, but a great one. As the action heats up late in Act I of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a vain Roman soldier named Miles Gloriosus learns that the virgin bride he paid for in advance has gone missing and he is to be deprived of a long-anticipated sexual conquest. Furious at the blow to his masculinity, he turns on Pseudolus, a slave impersonating the pimp who negotiated the sale. As he threatens to kill the man who supposedly cheated him of his bride, Pseudolus meekly asks if he can have one final word. "It better be a good one," barks the soldier.

"Oh, it is," replies Pseudolus.  "INTERMISSION!"

Zero Mostel as Pseudolus in the film version of
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Unless you're attending (or writing) a one-act play, first acts can be a bit like an obstacle course. Depending on the nature of the piece (comedy, drama, musical), a certain amount of exposition is necessary to advance the plot. Key characters must be introduced, along with their personal backstories. Sufficient dramatic tension may need to be developed in order to create and sustain suspense. As the old saying goes: "Timing is everything!"

On many occasions an audience can become confused by a first act that leads them on a confusing trek through mountains of trivia. Or, there may not be much spark to the performance. Some people become tempted to leave at intermission and, in all honesty, I can't blame them. If, after 20 minutes, a playwright, director, and cast have not been able to engage an audience, it's possible that no amount of beating a dead horse is going to bring a production to life.

Sitting through abominable performances (like Eleanor) is an occupational hazard. I've often told my guest that it's perfectly okay to leave at intermission if they're bored to tears. Their choice is simple:
  • Will staying for the second act reward them with a dramatic payoff or turn out to be a complete waste of their time? 
  • Will the second act be able to rise above the detritus of a tedious first act or will the production keep sputtering until the final curtain? 
  • Will members of the audience be glad they stayed to the end of the play or keep checking their watches as they pray for a mercy killing?
September witnessed two Bay area stagings of musicals with curious production histories. Even if these shows had regrettably short lives on Broadway, one has had (and the other will soon develop) a loyal following. The important question is: Why?

* * * * * * * * *
In October of 2009, a new musical with book and lyrics by Brian Hargrove and music and concept by Barbara Anselmi was presented at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's Festival of New Musicals held at Manhattan's New World Stages. The next year, It Shoulda Been You received a reading from the Village Theatre in Issaquah, Washington followed by fully-staged productions at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey in October 2011 and back at the Village Theatre in the Spring of 2012.

Riding a wave of enthusiastic word of mouth, the show had its Broadway premiere on April 14, 2015 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre but closed four months later after a disappointing run of only 135 performances. Directed by David Hyde-Pierce, It Shoulda Been You had arrived with a solid cast featuring Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris, Chip Zien, David Burtka, Sierra Boggess, Montego Glover, Lisa Howard, Edward Hibbert, and Josh Grisetti (all bankable names). Although audiences seemed to love the show, box office receipts kept falling.

What happened? Society may have progressed further and faster than the show during the six years it took the creative team to get It Shoulda Been You to Broadway. On paper, the show seemed like a fresh twist on an old formula (or two) in the hands of solid theatrical professionals.
Elizabeth Curtis and Jeremy Kahn in a scene from
It Shoulda Been You (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In many respects, It Shoulda Been You was conceived along the lines of an old-fashioned musical. So what could have gone wrong?
Rebecca Steinberg (Jade Shojaee) and her groom, Brian Howard
(Nathaniel Rothrock) in a scene from It Shoulda Been You
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Center Rep in Walnut Creek recently opened its 2016-2017 season with the West Coast premiere of It Shoulda Been You in a production directed by Marc Jacobs and choreographed by Gia Solari on a handsome unit set designed by Kelly James Tighe with costumes by Maggie Morgan. While the first act worked steadily to lay the groundwork for the plot's contradictions and convolutions, it seemed a bit slow in reaching the big reveal at the end of Act I. By contrast, Act II was solidly entertaining and resonated nicely with the audience. One of the show's clear strengths is how easy it is for members of the audience to relate to the characters onstage.

Judy Steinberg (Cindy Goldfield) is the kind of passive-aggressive Jewish battle axe who pushes her husband and daughters around with the subtlety of a bulldozer. Constantly elevating the needs of her pretty daughter, Rebecca (Jade Shojaee), over the feelings of Jenny (Elizabeth Curtis), her plain and decidedly overweight daughter, she's a bit like Mama Rose without the lure of vaudeville to keep her distracted from reality.

Judy Steinberg (Cindy Goldfield) and her daughter, Jenny
(Elizabeth Curtis) in a scene from It Shoulda Been You
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Judy's spouse, Murray (Brian Herndon), is a classic henpecked Jewish husband. The family's beloved Uncle Morty (Paul Plain) can barely hear what's happening around him despite the use of hearing aids. Aunt Sheila (Suzy Shepard) has survived enough insults from Judy's viper-like tongue that when she gets a juicy bit of gossip with which to return the compliment, she serves it up with flare. Even though Rebecca's "co-maid of honor," Annie Sheps (Mila Ashley) is black, Judy is willing to make believe that her daughter's best friend is also Jewish. For mothers like Judy, denial is never "just a river in Egypt."

As is to be expected, the goyim on the groom's side of the wedding are coping with a different set of issues. Georgette Howard (Maureen McVerry) is a lusty drunk who went out of her way to help foster an environment that could turn her son Brian (Nathaniel Rothrock) gay and is crushed that, by his getting married to Rebecca, she will no longer be his best girl. Her husband, George (Richard Frederick), is clumsily trying to learn how to show affection for his son. True to form, he is also insisting on a prenuptial agreement (which sends the bride and groom into a state of panic).

Georgette Howard (Maureen McVerry) and her son, Brian
(Nathaniel Rothrock) in a scene from It Shoulda Been You
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Trying to second guess every potential mishap are Albert (Scottie Woodard), the kind of wedding planner who could make gay icons like Johnny Weir and Paul Lynde seem overly butch, and his lunkhead assistant, Walt (Paul Plain). Meanwhile, the bride, groom, co-maid of honor, best man Greg Madison (Jason Rehklau), and Rebecca's best friend, Marty Kaufman (Jeremy Kahn), have all been hiding a huge secret from Brian and Rebecca's parents.

Judy Steinberg (Cindy Goldfield) and Georgette Howard (Maureen McVerry)
in a scene from It Shoulda Been You (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Cindy Goldfield and Maureen McVerry have a clear handle on the inherent bitchiness of the two mothers and lace their comic moments with a touch of lemon-flavored acid. With music direction by Brandon Adams, Center Rep's extremely likable ensemble delivers a performance in which the second act is noticeably stronger than the first.

From the moment Jeremy Kahn's Marty leaps up from the audience and announces his plan to stop Rebecca's wedding until the time when he and Jenny realize that they've always loved each other and are willing to explore a relationship best defined by the word "Whatever," his performance continues to energize the proceedings.

Jeremy Kahn as Marty Kaufman in It Shoulda Been You
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In what may be the show's strongest trajectory of character development, Jenny moves from being the put-upon ugly duckling through her personal rage at not being informed of her sister's secret, to the unexpected triumph of finally hearing her mother say she's beautiful when she appears in a wedding gown, ready to take Marty's hand in marriage while Rebecca weds Annie and Brian and Greg tie the knot. As with Shakespeare's comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, the evening ends with three happy couples getting married and a pleasantly surprised audience going home happy.

Although It Shoulda Been You may have had a short run on Broadway, I expect it enjoy a long life in regional and community theatres. Why? The audience can easily relate to the characters onstage, which helps to make this show is a genuine crowd pleaser. Performances of It Shoulda Been You continue through October 8 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek (click here for tickets).

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It's easy to fall victim to an earworm -- a piece of music that lodges in one's memory and refuses to go away. In 1990, when a provocative new musical by Stephen Sondheim premiered, it became a source of controversy for numerous reasons. With a book by John Weidman, Assassins reintroduced audiences to the men and women who attempted to assassinate the President of the United States. First produced at Playwrights Horizons, it also marked the first time Sondheim had premiered a major musical off-Broadway.

In 1993, when the American Musical Theatre of San Jose presented the West Coast premiere of Assassins, the radio ads for the show entranced me. Backed by music that had been orchestrated to sound like a carnival calliope, the melody being used to promote the show proved to be a powerful earworm. Many years passed before I learned that it was a clever arrangement of "Hail to the Chief" (the official Presidential Anthem of the United States).

A similar phenomenon took place in 1984, when the concept album of Chess was released. With lyrics by Tim Rice and music by former ABBA musicians Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, one song from the show became an international hit. With its throbbing beat, "One Night In Bangkok" had the kind of popular appeal which quickly found an audience in discos. The irony was that the most popular part of the song was actually the refrain or chorus, rather than Rice's intense lyric for the soloist, Freddy Trumper.

Freddy Trumper (Mischa Stephens) sings "One Night in Bangkok"
in a scene from Chess (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Other than hearing "One Night In Bangkok" innumerable times on the sound system at my gym, my only exposure to Chess was a student production staged by San Francisco State University's adventurous Department of Theatre Arts in November of 2008. It was such an appalling mess that, since I was not reviewing the production, I left at intermission.

San Francisco's Custom Made Theatre recently premiered a new version of Chess as the initial offering of its 2016-2017 season. As Brian Katz (the company's artistic director who also staged the show) writes in his program note:
“If you had any interest in groundbreaking musicals in the 1980s, you definitely had a vinyl copy of the Chess album lying around. As is the way with most concept albums, you probably had no idea what was going on, but invented the plot lines that were obscure and sang at the top of your lungs in your best falsetto. Fast forward 30 years and the actual show of Chess has had a three-year London run, a complete re-tooling for Broadway which then bombed, and has become that show everyone talks about but few have seen. I grabbed a perusal copy of the UK version last year on a whim, thinking it would be fun to finally find out what really happens and found a libretto that confused me even more. It was meandering and full of unnecessary complications.”
Stuart Bousel (Walter) and Martin Bell (Molokov)
in a scene from Chess (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 
“Then I read lyricist Tim Rice’s introduction, giving permission to make our own version of this show. He said to cut what we want, rearrange the score as we see fit, and best of all, suggested using the beloved concept album as a guide, saying he sometimes wishes he hadn’t changed a word of it. I am indebted to dramaturg Stuart Bousel for tirelessly listening to and reading every version of the show he could find and putting together this excellent variation. Equally monumental was music director Armando Fox’s task in piecing together this patchwork score and helping us make it a seamless whole.”
Chris Uzelac (Anatoly) and Heather Orth (Svetlana)
in a scene from Chess (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Those familiar with the show know that parts of the story were inspired by the exploits of two chess grandmasters (Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov) at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. If the musical is broken down into a game of three-dimensional chess, the plot's three dimensions can be identified as follows:
  • The political tug of war being waged by political operatives from each country -- an American named Walter (Stuart Bousel) and a Russian named Molokov (Martin Bell) -- who are trying to manipulate the players as part of their respective schemes to release captured spies and/or family members that are supposedly being held hostage.
  • The professional competition between the two lead chess players, the egomaniacal, brat-like Freddy Trumper (Mischa Stephens) and the more clinically calculating Anatoly Sergievsky (Chris Uzelac).
  • The tense love triangle involving Freddy, his lover, Florence Vassy (Leah Shesky), and Anatoly as well as the fate of Anatoly's quietly suffering wife, Svetlana (Heather Orth).
Mischa Stephens (Freddy Trumper) and Lea Shesky (Florence
Vassy) in a scene from Chess (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

While many in the opening night audience greeted this new version of Chess with a level of enthusiasm bordering on rapture, I felt more like an outsider at a cult event (or, in the old days, a cocktail party where most of the attendees worked for Pacific Bell). To my mind, Chess is an hugely overrated piece of musical theatre with large patches of sprechgesang and sprechstimme which underwhelm far more often than they entertain (there's a big difference between a musical score that is compelling and one that is relentless). Even with the help of Alan Coyne as the Arbiter and Juliana Lustenader as the TV Hostess, the first act barely got off the ground. Despite Brian Katz's clean direction and Daunielle Rasmussen's energetic choreography, I still think this show is a dud.

In addition to some problems with a follow spot, there were some vocal challenges which lessened the impact of the opening night performance. Mischa Stephens strained to hit some of Freddy Trumper's high notes to a point that was often cringeworthy. I found Lea Shesky's portrayal of Florence oddly monochromatic and dispassionate.

Leah Shesky (Florence) and Chris Uzelac (Anatoly)
in a scene from Chess (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

The glaring contrast between the quality of their singing and the more accomplished vocal artistry of Heather Orth's Svetlana and Chris Uzelac's Anatoly was impossible to ignore. The larger problem is that a show which has gained most of its popularity from people who have never actually seen it onstage can end up being worshipped as a much greater artistic achievement than it actually is.

During the 1980s and 1990s, musical theatre witnessed the premieres of numerous pop-operas (Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon) and rock musicals (Little Shop of Horrors, Starlight Express, Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch). I would not place Chess very high on that list.

Heather Orth as Svetlana Sergievsky in Chess
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Seeing and listening to Chess in a fully-staged production reminded me why, despite its cult following, it has never been revived by 42nd Street Moon, Encores! or the now-defunct Reprise Theatre Company in Los Angeles (all three devoted to re-examining "lost" musicals). If anything, experiencing the fully-formed Chess only made me yearn for a Bay area theatre company to offer a concert reading of 1996's Martin Guerre -- a failed musical with a score that's really worth listening to.

Performances of Chess continue through October 15 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Moor Than You'll Ever Know

Those of us living in San Francisco are frequently reminded that we live in a tiny bubble of liberalism. While the Bay area's expansive theatre community has done a lot to address issues of diversity in casting, community outreach, and the programming of works written by women and minorities, it's easy to forget that discrimination occurs all the time.

It's so convenient to imagine that discrimination happens somewhere else. With the "#OscarsSoWhite" hashtag highlighting the difference in the racial diversity on display at 2016's Academy Awards (as opposed to this year's Tony Awards and Emmy Awards), some people may have convinced themselves that problems with racism and misogyny exist primarily within the decision-making circles of the film and television industries in New York and Los Angeles.

As more and more innocent black men are gunned down by police (while white supremacists and political conservatives insist that the Black Lives Matter movement is a genuine threat to the purity of their vision of 'Murica), one occasionally has the opportunity to experience a rare theatrical production which attempts to approach issues of diversity from a human, rather than a political perspective. The advantage of attending such performances is that, when a piece of theatre holds a mirror up to an audience so that people can see the perverse, age-old tactics still being used to dehumanize and delegitimize the "others" in a community, the message hits home.

Acting while Black isn't always a barrel of laughs. The one saving grace is that the fake blood used is a stage prop. The bullets are blanks.The deaths being enacted onstage are fictional. We should all be so lucky.

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The first time I experienced Rotimi Agbabiaka in performance was in the tiny Exit Stage Left venue during the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival. A native of Lagos, Nigeria, he impressed me as a wildly gifted artist with the muscular fluidity of a trained dancer, the nuance of a veteran actor, and a genuine, warm-hearted personality that audiences couldn't wait to embrace,

After pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin and finishing grad school at Northern Illinois University at DeKalb, Agbabiaka studied with the Moscow Art Theatre, Bulgaria's Leon Katz Rhodopi International Theatre Laboratory, and performed with Shakespeare at Winedale in Texas. Soon after arriving in San Francisco, he began rehearsals with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and became a member of the League of Burnt Children (a queer performance and literary collective that used to meet at Mama Calizo's Voice Factory).

Rotimi Agbabiaka stars in Type/Caste (Photo by: Shot in the City)

In his previous one-man show, Homeless, Agbabiaka described how, in the eyes of others, he is often only seen as the manifestation of a race-driven sexual fantasy. However, to those who have seen him perform in a wide variety of plays on multiple Bay area stages, there is no doubt that, in addition to having a lithe and muscular body, this man also possesses a fierce intellect and hungry heart that yearn to be engaged. He is a true "theatre animal."

Earlier this year, Agbabiaka appeared in two productions at the Magic Theatre that were part of Mfoniso Udofia's impassioned nine-play cycle about the fictional Nigerian Ufot family. One was the West Coast premiere of Sojourners; the other was the world premiere of runboyrun. As the frightened boy who would eventually travel to America, he delivered a stunning performance of white-hot intensity that was nothing less than heartbreaking.

Each time I've seen Agbabiaka perform, I have been bowled over by his versatility, his fierce dramatic commitment, the complexity of his craft, and the white-hot fire he brings to any theatrical venture. This is a man who gives 150% of what he's got to an audience. It is breathtaking to watch him take a stage and own it.

Rotimi Agbabiaka stars in Type/Caste(Photo by: Shot in the City)

Directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, Agbabiaka is currently performing his newest one-man show, Type/Caste, at the Bravo Theater Center. During his monologue, he challenges the limited vision of theatrical producers who can't see past the color of his skin to cast him in their shows (yet often express a desire for him to portray someone whose skin color is "darker" or "lighter" than his own). When asked how he would market himself as a bankable talent, Rotimi demonstrates that being a multi-talented professional who can sing, dance, and speak with a wide variety of accents really doesn't matter when the only way he is perceived is as a "Blacktor." The fact that he is perfectly at ease in drag and not the least bit shy about being openly gay further limits his opportunities during auditions.

Rotimi Agbabiaka stars in Type/Caste(Photo by: Shot in the City)

Whether reliving the childhood thrill of trying on his mother's wedding gown or dressing down to nothing more than a tailored sport jacket, shiny high heels, and a bulging studded leather jockstrap, Agbabiaka proves once again to be a remarkable performer whose abundance of talent is bound to confuse casting agents and producers who suffer from limited artistic vision. Among the challenges he faces is the need to move past his early definitions of artistic success in order to bypass the narrow minds of people who are ill-equipped to appreciate his gifts. When confronted with the realities of how blatant capitalism impacts the arts (in both the for-profit and nonprofit arenas), the ultimate solution is to make one's own rules and proudly live by them. His performance in Type/Caste demands to be seen.

Rotimi Agbabiaka stars in Type/Caste(Photo by: Shot in the City)

Performances of Type/Caste continue through October 1 at the Brava Center (click here for tickets).

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For the final production of its 2016 season, California Shakespeare Theater is presenting Shakespeare's multiracial tragedy, Othello, in a new production directed by Eric Ting and designed by Nina Ball with lighting by Russell Champa and sound design by Brendan Aanes. Updated to the present, the cast is led by veteran Bay area actors Aldo Billingslea as the tragic Moor and James Carpenter as Iago, the manipulative villain.

Emilia (Julie Eccles) and Desdemona (Liz Sklar) in a scene
from Act II of Othello (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

With minimal scenery (save for Desdemona's bed and the use of projections and live feeds from digital cameras), this production of Othello is mostly framed by chain-link fencing and some cloth surfaces onto which images can be projected. The actors introduce themselves to the audience and explain which roles they will be playing (the audience is also warned that a gun will be used later in the play). The cast then moves to their positions in a circle of chairs so that, when they are performing, they can stand and move around; when seated and silent, they are essentially offstage.

Occasionally, an actor will move downstage and tap a microphone to indicate that they are stepping out of character to offer some background material to the audience. These moments include Aldo Billingslea discussing the influence of a fellow actor who died of AIDS. In Act II, another actor steps forward and interrupts the action in order to explain the physiology of what actually happens to a body when someone is being strangled to death. At one point, Billingslea angrily stares into a camera as Othello's rage begins to boil so that the projected image the audience sees resembles the angry eyes of a wild beast.

Aldo Billingslea (Othello) stares into a digital camera which
projects his image behind the stage (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Performed in modern dress (the male characters all wear hoodies), Alexae Visel's costumes serve two purposes: They help to keep the actors warm during outdoor performances on colder nights during September and October. They also allow the actors a much greater sense of physical freedom and agility (which would be impossible to achieve in period costumes). Thus, it becomes quite refreshing to see the young, infatuated Desdemona (Liz Sklar) leap into Othello's arms or stand on tiptoe in order for the two lovers to see eye-to-eye during a conversation.

Desdemona (Liz Sklar) and her husband (Aldo Billingslea) are
very much in love in Act I of Othello (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

The audience's reaction to any contemporary production of Shakespeare's 412-year-old tragedy is bound to be influenced by the political climate in which it is staged. With the 2016 Presidential campaign inflaming racial tensions and ramping up the misogyny that infects the alt-right movement (and the insidious ways in which social media can amplify gossip and lies), it doesn't take long for audiences to realize that Othello has lost none of its relevance in today's world, where hatredfear, xenophobia, and willful ignorance can easily overwhelm reason and love.
  • There is no doubt that Desdemona's father, Brabantio, is repulsed by the fact that his rebellious daughter has fallen in love with and married a Moor, whose skin color and race disgust him.
  • Nor is there any doubt that part of Iago's hatred for Othello is based on the fact that he sees the Moor encroaching on the white/Caucasian power structure of Venetian society (much like Donald Trump accuses Mexicans of taking jobs that should have gone to "real Americans").
Iago (James Carpenter) plots the Moor's downfall in a scene
from Shakespeare's Othello (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

In her program note, Torange Yeghiazarian (the founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions) stresses that the cost of “otherness” lies at the core of Othello’s tragedy.
“Othello is an immigrant, a refugee, a slave who has the same capacity for humanity and happiness as everyone else. To be accepted into Venetian society, he has adopted the social norms of that society and worked hard to prove his worth, and his worthiness. By all measures (at least according to the value system of Shakespeare’s time), Othello should be the happiest of souls. He acknowledges his age and ‘the vices of my blood’ but, at the same time, recognizes his accomplishments that have earned him honor and a good name. He confesses himself worthy of Desdemona’s love and, in the presence of Desdemona we find Othello gentle and kind. In the presence of the Duke, Othello embodies the essence of valor. When speaking with Cassio, Othello is a true friend. Yet, with the slightest provocation, Othello is driven to distrust Desdemona and question her loyalty. ”
Desdemona (Liz Sklar) has fallen in love with Othello (Aldo
Billingslea) in Shakespeare's tragedy (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
“From the early moments in the play, we hear Othello described as an ‘old black ram' and ‘a barbary horse.’ This is in stark contrast to Othello’s perception of himself. In a way, most of us have experience of ‘being different‘ because, after all, we are not identical people. But for those who are displaced and must conform to new social norms and values, ‘otherness’ takes on greater dimensions. Having played and won by the rules, Othello believes himself to have been accepted, indeed honored and decorated. Othello performs his identity slightly differently depending on who is in the room. In Iago’s eyes, Othello is nothing but an animal. And Iago does not rest until he creates an environment in which Othello can behave only as an animal. In the presence of Iago, Othello turns into an insecure and doubtful man. Othello’s internalization of Iago’s perception of Othello’s true nature is at the core of the tragedy. Perhaps, at that moment, Othello realizes that no matter his long history of valor, honor, and true friendship, in everyone else’s eyes he will always be a Barbary Horse.”
Iago (James Carpenter) skillfully manipulates Othello (Aldo
Billingslea) in Shakespeare's tragedy (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

In many productions of Othello, the actor portraying the Moor may be the only black person onstage. In this new staging by Eric Ting, Lance Gardner has been cast as Michael Cassio, which makes blazing good sense considering their history as the closest of friends. Not only does it put Desdemona's adamant pleas for her husband to forgive Cassio in an entirely different light, it also adds an extra layer of racism to Iago's betrayal of Cassio.

In supporting roles, Michael Storm appeared as Desdemona's father, Brabantio, as well as two other Venetians (Montano and Lodovico). Elizabeth Carter doubled as the Duke of Venice and Cassio's lover, Bianca. Matthew Baldiga portrayed the easily manipulated Roderigo, who had pined for Desdemona's love but ends up being killed by Iago (for whom Roderigo's death is little more than collateral damage).

Othello (Aldo Billingslea) kisses his sleeping wife (Liz Sklar) before
strangling her in Shakespeare's tragedy (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Without doubt, the biggest surprise of the evening was Ting's decision to stop the action following Emilia's death at the moment Aldo Billingslea raised a gun to his head as if to commit suicide. The house lights were brought up for ten minutes of audience participation during which theatregoers were encouraged to describe their reactions to what they had witnessed and ask questions of the cast.

Aldo Billingslea, James Carpenter, and Liz Sklar in a scene from
Eric Ting's new staging of Othello (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

While Ting was probably aiming to get the audience involved on a more personal level by discussing their reactions to the racism, misogyny, duplicity, and relevance of Shakespeare's play, I was stunned by something else that happened.

In both the theatrical and operatic versions of Othello (see Verdi's Otello), the final scene accelerates past Desdemona's untimely death to Othello's suicide. As he bleeds to death, he uses his last bit of strength to pull himself up onto Desdemona's bed for one last kiss. Instead, Ting has Othello blow his brains out (with fake blood being spattered on the drapes surrounding Desdemona's bed).

On one hand, I really resented depriving the audience of Shakespeare's ending, which puts a more poignant spin on Othello's death. However, Ting's staging accomplished something much more important to me. By interrupting the action after Julie Eccles had pretty much torn up the stage with Emilia's accusations against her husband and Othello, Ting left the audience shocked by the righteous indignation of Desdemona's loyal servant, who is usually left to die in a darkened corner of the stage.

Eccles brought genuine fire to the moment, which showcased how knowledgeable women are routinely ignored and trivialized in societies dominated by alpha males. As much as I admired the work of Aldo Billingslea, Liz Sklar, and James Carpenter, I thought Eccles stole the show.

Emilia (Julie Eccles) berates her husband Iago (James Carpenter) for
evil he has done in a scene from Othello (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Performances of Othello continue through October 9 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here for tickets).