February 14, 2008

"The Gin Game," Novato Theater Company

Give them a hand

By Mark Langton
Article Launched: 02/13/2008 09:01:47 PM PST, Marin Independent Journal

Four minutes before anyone utters a line in "The Gin Game," now playing at the Novato Theater Company's Pacheco Playhouse in Ignacio, veteran North Bay actor Norman A. Hall steps onto the stage and does a full four minutes of shtick involving, among other things, the opening of a card table.

It is a setup of the highest order: Everything you'd want to know about his character, Weller Martin - his frustration, his need for (and lack of) control, his short fuses and slow burns - is there in those four minutes. It is a masterful exercise in comic understatement. As played by Hall, Martin is revealed to be a man with a system - and the system isn't working. The center does not hold.

And there the "shtick" ends. For this is not a comedy, but a serious piece of theater - a tragedy with laughs, if you will, that could hold itself up with any Equity house.

In its ongoing bid to shed its backwater image and be held to as high a standard as the other North Bay community theater companies, the Novato Theater Company has succeeded in pulling out another small triumph with this revival of D.L. Coburn's "The Gin Game," thanks primarily to the considerable talents of the husband-and-wife acting team of Norman A. Hall and Shirley Nilsen Hall of Novato.

"The Gin Game" earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1978 when first produced with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, another married couple. Revised in 1997 with Charles Durning and Julie Harris, it won a Tony that year. Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke took their turn as the two feisty elders in a PBS television special.

A poignant story of the developing relationship between two senior citizens, the play is set on the porch of a run-down "old folks home," and concerns the relationship between the curmudgeonly Martin, a longtime resident, and new arrival Fonsia Dorsey. Both have come to the last act of their lives without much in the way of money, friends or family, so they find in each other a comrade in a dark and hostile cave - and do so by playing gin rummy. The game is played throughout most of the play's action and neatly orchestrates the relationship between the two.

For his part, Norman A. Hall reins himself in, playing Martin with great generosity when his wife is onstage. Normally an inadvertent scene-stealer by sheer force of his talent for comedy (among his signature roles have been Alfred P. Doolittle in "My Fair Lady," Sir Joseph Porter in "H.M.S. Pinafore" and the ghost of John Barrymore in "I Hate Hamlet"), this is clearly serious business to actor Hall, resulting in a thoughtful, at times nearly terrifying, nuanced rendering of the role.

But it was Shirley Hall who was a revelation to this critic (no doubt, due to this critic's neglect), having only seen her in the past in light musicals. She is every bit the match for her husband, sinking her teeth into every meaty bit of this role. At times ferocious, at others demure, when called on to be funny, she expertly plays the situation for laughs, not the character. When called upon to be vulnerable, she startles us, suddenly, by revealing the Girl Who Was.

Both of these actors, in fact, have an ageless quality, a playfulness onstage in key scenes, that is, ironically, ideally suited to the elders in this story. For example, there is a moment in Act I where Fonsia can't find one of her cards, only to discover that she'd been holding it in her teeth. At the moment of her discovery, she catches Weller's eye, and they both smile. It is a lovely moment that crystallizes both the bond between these two characters as well as between this man and this woman.

Anyone who'd like to see how two truly fine actors can make your heart ache for two ordinary people whose lives have slid from dreary to discarded, run, don't walk, to the Pacheco Playhouse. I hear it's the best game in town.


What: "The Gin Game"

Who: Novato Theater Company

When: Through March 2. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays.

Where: Pacheco Playhouse, 484 Ignacio Blvd., Pacheco Plaza Shopping Center, Novato

Tickets: $10 to $20 Information: 883-4498, www.novatotheatercompany.org

Rating: Four stars out of five

Mark Langton can be reached at mark.langton@comcast.net.

February 03, 2008

MTC's "American Triage"

Angels walk among us

Playwright Marisela Trevina Orta (left) and Marin Theatre Company's Maryanne Olson and Josh Costello discuss American Triage, Orta's play based on San Rafael's immigrant raids. (Special to the IJ/Thomas K. Sorensen)

By Mark Langton

Article Launched: 02/14/2008 11:22:00 PM PST, Marin Independent Journal

A play is like a poem standing up," says poet/playwright Marisela Trevina Orta, 31, who will bring a workshop production of her new, lyrical play set in San Rafael's Canal District, "American Triage," to the Marin Theater Company this weekend.

The performances are the culmination of MTC's Canal Project, part of its ongoing Nu Werks outreach series. It will be performed again Feb. 22 and 23 at the Pickleweed Community Center with live Spanish translation.

"That line's not original with me," Trevina Orta says of the profound description of a play. "It was a statement made by (poet and playwright) Federico Garcia Lorca. It really resonated with me, because that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to stand up and awaken an audience's senses as well as tell an emotional story. ... And I wanted to write something that called attention to social injustice. I wanted my play to have a social conscience."

Indeed, it was her social conscience, as well as her love of language and imagery, that led Trevi o Orta to discover that theater was the next obvious literary step for her. Trained primarily as a poet - she received her MFA in creative writing with a concentration on poetry from the University of San Francisco - she found she disliked the solitary aspects of writing poetry. "I wanted to be out in the community," she says. "I wanted to make a difference."

Her first play, "Braided Sorrow," was accepted to the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco. Orta's participation in the Playwrights Festival resulted in MTC's decision to bring her to San Rafael to teach a bilingual playwriting class for students in the Canal area.

Her second play, "American Triage," still in workshop, came out of the experience of working with these students - particularly after the immigration raids last year, as they took place during the period she was teaching the class.

"I really got to really know these kids and their families," Trevina Orta says. "When MTC first approached me to write a commissioned work, I had no idea what I was going to write. I was waiting for the story to reveal itself to me.

"Then the raids happened, and I knew exactly what I wanted to write about."

In March 2007, agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the largest investigative branch of the Department of Homeland Security, staged simultaneous raids in Novato and in the Canal in the early morning hours.

Agents arrested an unspecified number of people - many rousted from their homes - as part of a stepped-up campaign, Operation Return to Sender, to send illegal immigrants out of the country,

Trevi o Orta said she was politicized by the experience. She had always wanted to exploring social injustice issues in her writing, but poetry alone did not seem to cut it - not for her, anyway.

"I couldn't figure out how to be a writer of political poems. ... However, I did find I could be very poetic image-wise for the stage," she says.

Directed by Nicolas C. Avila, "American Triage" focuses on two high schoolers, a brother and sister, from the Canal whose parents were deported as a result of the immigration raids. It also concerns an angel who lives in a statue in an old church in downtown San Rafael, who turns out to be the guardian angel of the younger brother. He goes to ask the angel to help.

Trevina Orta said a playwright must give characters names, hopes, wishes and dreams about their lives in order to make audiences care. Once the audience cares, she says, the writer has the opportunity to really make them think.

"Immigration can be very impersonal in this country," she says. "With this play, we hope to put a face on it. We hope to make it personal."


What: "American Triage," by Marisela Trevi o Orta

When and where: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16 and 17 in Marin Theatre Company's 99-seat Lieberman Theatre, at 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22 and 23 at Pickleweed Community Center, 50 Canal St., San Rafael

Also: Live translations in Spanish (via headphones) will be provided by renowned playwright Caridad Svich. After each performance, Juan Carlos Arauz, Youth Education Development Director at San Rafael's Canal Alliance, will talk with playwright Marisela Trevi o Orta about the play and the immigration raids in Marin.

Tickets: $10 donation suggested

Information: 388-5208 or www.marintheatre.org

Mark Langton can be reached at mark.langton@comcast.net.