August 05, 2009

*MCT's "A Thousand Clowns," Belrose Theatre, 2005

*PLEASE NOTE: While on temporary leave, I am taking the opportunity to post some of my favorite past columns and reviews, both to give them new life and to pay tribute to the artists contained therein. The following review of Marin Classic Theater's 2005 production of "A Thousand Clowns," for example, is dedicated to the memory of MCT co-founder and artistic director Artie Gilbert, whose contribution to Marin community theater is beyond measure. Gilbert died at 61, Jan. 25, 2006.

-- ML

By Mark Langton

IJ Correspondent

In an ongoing attempt to strike the perfect balance between their dedication to classic works of American theater and their desire to stage something bland enough to pack ‘em in, the San Anselmo-based Marin Classic Theater has picked a marginal winner with their current revival of Herb Gardner’s 1962 comedy, “A Thousand Clowns,” now playing at the Belrose Theater in San Rafael.

Whether or not the play is an American “classic” is arguable, but it is decidedly American, and, as a funny and accurate reflection of its times, it is certainly worth a revival.

When “A Thousand Clowns” hit Broadway in 1962, John F. Kennedy still had a year to live, it would be two years before we’d meet the Beatles, and the Summer of Love was still in short pants, only four years away. And yet, the American celebration of the iconoclast was already well upon us.

Those of us of a certain age and cultural stripe no doubt look back fondly at the memory of Jason Robards as he re-created his Broadway role as Murray Burns in the 1965 movie version. How we cheered this flame-keeper of eternal unemployment and adolescence, and how we longed to identify with his wisecracking slacker of an anti-hero who, for us, appeared to send out the first clarion call to nonconformity.

But, with this second look that MCT so graciously provides, Gardner’s forty-plus-year-old play actually seems more like a paean to conformity than anything else. This is a coming-of-age story of a delusional, middle-aged man, and what may have seemed fresh and edgy in 1962 now seems more like a toothless old dog that’s been sleeping on the porch too long.

Still, how we loved that old dog. And we can’t help but smile when he tries to wag his tail.

The play’s story-line is as follows: Twelve-year-old Nick (played by Drake High School freshman Nick Daunt) lives with his Uncle Murray (Benjamin Colteaux ), a Dickensian Mr. Micawber-like character (“Something will turn up!”) who keeps hoping something won't turn up. Fed up with the rat race, Murray has quit his job as head writer of TV's popular “Chuckles the Chipmunk Show” and has retreated to his cluttered Manhattan apartment, where he carries on a mildly anarchistic existence with the precocious young Nick.

Though every bit like a father and son vaudeville team, Murray has never gotten around to legally adopting the boy, which has caught the attention of two social workers, Sandra (Jennifer Winter) and Albert (Justin Wagle). Where Albert is appalled by Murray's irreverence, Sandra is entranced by the somewhat belligerent free-spirit, and, with the aid of both Arnold Burns, Murray’s agent-brother, and young Nick, Sandra sets about to domesticate Murray and convince him to go back to work. Indeed, all around our poor anti-hero appear to be co-conspirators in the “Taming of the Jew.”

At first, Colteaux (who also produced) seems miscast in the role of Murray, given his serious and, at times, woeful look. But he soon warms to the task, revealing an aptitude for whimsy and for taking command of the stage, an aptitude heretofore missing in his previous, stuffed-shirted roles. If Colteaux does not quite capture the deep-seated eccentricity of Murray, he does manage to convey Murray’s slyness. This is no doubt due, in part, to the able direction of Billie Cox, who temporarily stepped in while creative director Artie Gilbert (relaxed and smiling in the audience at Friday’s opener) happily sits this one out.

Young Daunt does an admirable turn as Nick. Looking like a cross between Harry Potter and a shoe-in for the title role of “Honey, I Shrunk Eward R. Herriman,” what he lacks in experience he more than makes up for in charm. He brings a winning scrappiness to Nick that is refreshing, instead of the usual poker-faced, middle-aged kid.

As Sandra, Winter is sensational. Really first-rate. An award-winning dancer with Portland and San Francisco-based companies, she brings her entire body to bear with Sandra. She also brings a kind of playful grace – and, at times, throaty sexuality – to the otherwise tightly-pinned child psychologist. Never stealing a scene from Murray, which is as it should be, she nevertheless brightens every scene she’s in.

In fact, the cast as a whole are a pleasing lot. There’s not a clunker in the bunch, with each finding at least one interesting nuance to each role. Waggle’s Albert could easily have been played as a two-dimensional prig, but that’s not the way Gardner wrote it, and actor Waggle rises to the occasion, successfully conveying Albert’s doleful self-awareness, wittily understating both his annoyance and grudging admiration for Murray’s spontaneity.

The same goes for Howell’s Arnold Burns, who does a sensitive, layered turn as Murray’s less colorful brother. Ditto the versatile Stephen Dietz, who does a lively freak show as the neurotic Leo (a.k.a. “Chuckles the Chipmunk”), a kiddie-show host who hates himself almost as much as he hates kids.

If anything is missing from this production it is the right sort of pacing, but that may improve as the run goes on. They misspelled the playwright’s name on the program -- but that’s just nit picking. The Belrose was a good choice for this play; its intimate, crowded quarters is somehow well suited to Murray’s crowded apartment, and it is a vast improvement over MCT’s last venue. The set was unremarkable, and could do with more of Murray’s flair.

In all, “A Thousand Clowns” makes for a lively, entertaining evening of theater that, for the most part, has stood the test of time. In fact, in a way, with MCT’s darker emphasis on Murray’s inevitable compromise, it is, once again, a play well suited to the times.

Then again, maybe it was like that all along. Maybe we just see it differently now.

(Contact Mark Langton at

Artie Gilbert (1945-2006)

July 16, 2009

NTC's 'Inherit the Wind,'' July 2006

Deep homo sapien panic

By Mark Langton

IJ Correspondent

Once again, the now-homeless Novato Theater Company (formerly the Novato Community Players) has risen above both adversity and expectations by pulling off an absolutely riveting production of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s “Inherit the Wind,” which had its opening Oct. 29 in their temporary venue at Unity of Marin in Hamilton Field.

Not since the last time Bay Area theater legend John Brebner sat in NTC’s visiting director’s chair and made A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” the surprise hit of last year’s winter season, has this 81-year-old, comfortable old shoe of a company turned out anything of this caliber. In years past, the company’s offerings could be less like a night of theater and more like a night of Bingo. Brebner really should visit more often.

Coming at a time when the U.S. political climate has taken a sharp and unprecedented veer to the right, when religious fundamentalism appears to be on the rise both at home and abroad and Creationism (or, as it is called today, “intelligent design”) is once again being pushed as an alternative to Darwin, “timely” doesn’t even say it.

Ripped, as they say, from today’s headlines, the play is the fictionalized retelling of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial" (as it was called in the newspapers of the day), in which Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes was arrested for teaching Darwin's theories to his high school biology students in violation of state law. The trial became a national cause celebre when The Baltimore Sun, represented by the great journalist (and dyed-in-the-wool atheist) H. L. Mencken, hired famed attorney Clarence Darrow to defend the young schoolteacher. On the other side of the fence, the attorney for the prosecution was the crusading demagogue and three-time Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan.

The Scopes character (played by Buzz Halsing, who is also credited as Assistant Director and Music Director) is named Cates in this story, and Halsing plays him with great energy – perhaps too great. When he makes his first entrance among the crowds of milling townsfolk picketing the courthouse, he looks every bit like the bandleader in “The Music Man,” about to break into song, "free-style" (“I’m the new O.G. /and that rhymes with “D”/ and that stands for DARWIN…!”)

One of the more interesting performances of the evening was by actor Phil Wharton as the Darrow character, Henry Drummond. From the moment Wharton lopes into view -- with his baggy suit, funny tics, hair incongruously long underneath his snap-brim fedora, he looked like a cross between Groucho Marx and a clean-shaven Abe Lincoln. We like him on sight, and suspect we have an character on our hands. We are not disappointed.

Another interesting take on a role is Joe Peer’s interpretation of E.K. Hornbeck, clearly meant to represent journalist and social satirist H.L. Mencken (sometimes called “The American Nietzsche”). His ongoing commentary and mutterings are pure Menckenisms; and, while he doesn’t appear to trip over himself to comfort the afflicted, he still never hesitates to afflict the comfortable.

Conspicuous by their presence in crowd scenes are assorted small-town types and characters related to the principals. There is the apoplectic fundamentalist minister, Rev. Brown, played with gusto by Steve North, who gives the Bryan character, Mathew Brady (played by Mark Jordan) a run for his money when it comes to hellfire and brimstone. Either actor could have played either role. There is the latter’s painfully conflicted daughter and Cates’ paramour, Rachel Brown, a nervous but tasteful vision in white who chews her lip a lot (the vision thanks to the costume designs of producer Brenda Weidner, et al.). She does a journeyman’s job with a thankless role.

The staging was inventive and, at times, almost choreographed like a square dance. It was just as old-fashioned, anyway: When the two principals begin, they stand at far stage left and far stage right, striking stiff profiles that bring to mind those old textbook drawings of the Lincoln-Douglass debates – very stylized and artfully done. Also, Brebner’s last-minute decision to make the audience the jury box was inspired. The resulting eye contact with both lawyers during their summations made them that much more persuasive, and us that much more engaged.

There is a nobility to this work, ennobled further by this dignified production. When the two men come to their final showdown and the barrier of dogma is breached, it is, finally, Darrow/Drummond’s words that lifts us up, again. It is not the ring of oratory but the ring of truth, not the logic, but the sheer poetry of his argument, that transforms this play into something larger. Who can not be stirred when Drummond/Darrow pleads with the court, with anyone who will listen, to open their minds? “Don’t you understand?” he shouts. “That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, BACKWARD through the glorious ages…when bigots burned the man who dared to bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

July 09, 2009

'Humble Boy'

Robyn Wiley and Matthew Purdon
star in a modern reduction of 'Hamlet'

The quantum mechanics of bees

Or, to be a bee,
or to let bees
let bees be bees

By Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

Bravo to Ross Valley Players for taking on the Northern California premiere of a difficult, but beautifully written, contemporary work like “Humble Boy” by hot new British playwright Charlotte Jones. It opened Friday night at the Barn Theatre in Ross.

“Humble Boy” is a rich honeycomb of poetry and science, wrapped in an English comedy of country manners, that, we soon discover, is actually a reduction of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

Playwright Jones’ willingness to take on huge themes -- death, bereavement, immortality, betrayal, love -- is equaled only by her intellectual curiosity when it comes to big ideas. And they don’t come much bigger than astrophysics and quantum mechanics.

Felix Humble (Mathew Purdon) is an overweight, somewhat overwrought astrophysicist from Cambridge who has returned to his family home for the funeral of his father.

Purdon’s Felix is a moody, indecisive young man, given to suicidal ideation. Remind you of anyone? His professor-cum-beekeeper father has just died, and he’s just discovered that his mother is already keeping company with another old coot, whom she intends to marry with, what Felix feels is, unseemly haste. Sound familiar? Perhaps so, but this play is no tragedy the way “Hamlet” is tragic. It’s an elegant comedy that charms and amuses with dry, parlor room dialogue that would make Tom Stoppard proud.

Once Humble's mother, Flora (Robyn Wiley) comes on the scene we begin to understand where his dysfunction comes from, as she starts to skewer him verbally, treating him like a simple-minded, red-headed stepchild. In point of fact, he's a research fellow in theoretical physics at Cambridge, hoping soon to find "the mother of all theories, a unified field theory" that will reconcile Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. At present, it has put him into an existential spin.

“The equations don't exist for what I can already sense,” says Felix. “ I can't ... hold all the notes, all the variables, all the harmonies in my head..” When those are replaced by the sounds of a buzzing hive, we cannot help but fear for our dear Felix.

His mother, Flora, is overbearing in the extreme, blaming her own misery on her son, her late husband, the weather, bees, pointing her finger at everyone but back at herself. She aims her comments at her son like a circus knife-thrower, wounding him with each successive throw -- tossing out stingers like, "I have been doubly unlucky in my life. To marry a biologist and give birth to a physicist.” Her very presence is so toxic to Felix that he actually stutters in her presence.

Felix discovers she is having an affair with a neighbor, George Pye, played by Simon Boddington. Pye has no love for Felix, and the feeling is mutual. It is amusing to note that Flora's married name is Humble and George's last name is Pye. Given Jones' penchant for punning, perhaps it is a suggestion of what Flora feels like she's eating when suffering a mouthful of the social-climbing George.

The cast is completed by George's daughter Rosie (Mary Beth Smith), Felix’ ex-girlfriend from seven years back; also Mercy Lott ( Lynn Stofle), a neurotic family friend -- and the play's female Polonius -- and Jim, the Gardener (David Bintinger), just a bare wisp of a fella. The Hamlet parallels are clever, almost glib, but never truly integral, nor do they prevent the play from telling a story of its own.

One performance that stood out as absolutely authentic was Mary Beth Smith’s Rosie. The character is written somewhat one-dimensionally as merely promiscuous. In Smith’s hands, a stronger character emerged – almost a feminist sensibility in the quality of independence she brought to Rosie, never striking a false note.

Busy, buzzing bees are at the poetic heart of this extended metaphor of a play –indeed, even its title, “Humble Boy,” is but a short, onomatopoetic leap to “bumble bee”), and actress Wiley is perfectly cast as the queen of this buzzing little hive. Wiley even looks like a bee, with her large, black sunglasses, suggestive of huge insect eyes and her hair done up in (what else?) a beehive. She is groomed, politely dressed, but there is nothing coiffed about her anger, or her despair.

Even though this play was written with Felix at the center, due to the sheer force of Wiley’s talent and experience – and, what appeared to be Purdon’s lack of same – this interpretation has the mother at the fore.

Wiley’s scenes with Boddington’s George have a playful quality that contain moments of truth for both actors. George is written as kind of a social-climbing, pawing lout; however, this is not possible with Boddington. He has an air about him that is both capable and charming -- a virile, Sean Connery-like, rough-and-tumble Australian thing going on – though Boddington actually hails from Hartfordshire, England. Where h-urricanes, h-ardly, h-appen.

For all the talk about bees and black holes, however, it is as a son-and-mother story and a study in grief that Jones's play works best. Without giving anything away, there are transformative moments in the second half -- in the performances, the language and the tale -- that would confirm for anyone who pays attention that this is an important new work.

Just as Hamlet reminds Horatio that “there are more things in Heaven and Earth that can be dreamed" in his philosophy, so, too, does Felix discover not even a unifying theory of "everything" can truly explain the depths of the human heart. Could it explain the rules for, say, the kind of love that knows no law?

Go see this play. Make a bee-line for it.

Marin Independent Journal

July 05, 2009

Redemptive Americana: TheatreNOW's 'The Spitfire Grill'

By Mark Langton

Article Launched: 07/01/2008 04:30:38 PM PDT, Marin Independent Journal

As sweet and as corny as Kansas in August, high as a flag on the Fourth of July, if Bruce Springsteen was a Broadway musical he'd be "The Spitfire Grill," TheatreNOW's soaring production of redemptive Americana, playing through July 13 at Novato's Pacheco Playhouse.

Written by composer James Valcq and lyricist Fred Alley, who also collaborated on the book, "Spitfire Grill" has all the sweeping, anthemic grandeur of a Springsteen concert, with its distinctly American themes of triumph against impossible odds and the manifest destiny of a hardscrabble small town. Indeed, you could almost do away with the dialogue and turn it into a full-scale opera (or "folk opera," as mentioned after the show by a member of the cast); it's that universal. Its heart is that huge.

Based on the inexcusably sentimental 1996 movie by Lee David Ziotoff, this production never becomes too precious, thanks to the skillful hand of director Carl Jordan, the towering musical direction of David Shepard and the scaled-down producing talents of Gary Gonser and Parker Lee. While it has the wholesomeness of "Oklahoma!" or "The Music Man," it is not without the darker hues of any song on Springsteen's "Nebraska," or the brooding rock opera of "Born to Run." And with its plot references to rape, incest and manslaughter, "The Spitfire Grill" could never be accused of trafficking in treacle. It lets us know that it's midnight in America -- and this is no time to get cute.

Witness just some of the lyrics of one of its better songs, "Diggin' Stone":

"Shoulder to shoulder / diggin' stone / pay hard cash for all you own / a man is more than blood and bone / when he's shoulder to shoulder / diggin' stone ...."

It has "John Henry," Woody Guthrie and Bruuuuuuce just written all over it.

Still, it is not unlike "The Music Man" in that it follows a timeworn, albeit successful, formula. We've seen it before ("The Foreigner," "The Bishop's Wife," "Being There"). A suspicious stranger comes to town when the curtain rises, and changes everyone for the better by the time it falls.

The stranger in this case is Percy Talbot, a tough-as-nails young woman, fresh out of prison, looking to make a fresh start by taking a job at the local grill in a small, mythical Wisconsin town - a town with the hopeful (indeed, biblical) name of Gilead. Angela Madaline-Johnson plays Percy with all the rough but eventually softened hues of a wild but wounded bird, who gradually lets us know why caged birds sing.

The cast also includes Linda Paplow as the seemingly unfriendly Hannah Ferguson, longtime owner of the Spitfire Grill. (Paplow's is a Cinderella story all its own, having stepped in brilliantly - only three weeks before the show opened - as understudy for original cast member Jamie Kelley, who had to drop out due to a medical emergency); the supremely talented Dani Innocenti-Beem as Shelby Thorpe, abused wife of the defensively macho Caleb (handily played by Bryan Hendon); and Drew Gasparini as the town's handsome young sheriff - two strong and gifted actors who give nuanced renderings of what easily could have been a couple of two-dimensional roles. To her credit, Julie Ekoue-Totou reins in her own prodigious talents as Effy, the town gossip, and Jim Fye and Larry Williams alternate as a mysterious figure in the shadows introduced only as the Visitor.

They are an attractive group, with a pleasing vocal blend (in evidence in ensemble numbers like "Shoot the Moon," "Ice and Snow" and "Come Alive Again"), and if a couple of solos crack (as with Hannah's "Forgotten Lullaby," a must-listen for any kid thinking of shipping out to Iraq) or strain (as with Percy's difficult opener, "A Ring Around the Moon"), it is because they are rendered with a courage and a passion that is easy to forgive.

The challenges of the small Pacheco Playhouse stage are overcome by the brilliant set design of Steve Murch, which has more optical illusions than a drawing by M.C. Escher.

Enough cannot be said about the professionalism of the three generations of women in this cast, who are the standouts of this production - particularly Innocenti-Beem. When her classically trained voice turns to sotto voce ("When Hope Goes," "Wild Bird"), everyone in the audience sounds as if they caught the same cold. She's that good.

Go see this show. Let's try to keep politics outta this, but if you've ever been stirred by a Barack Obama speech, you will be stirred by "The Spitfire Grill" - and for one very good reason: It has the audacity to give us hope.


What: "The Spitfire Grill" by James Valcq and Fred Alley

Who: TheatreNOW

Where: Pacheco Playhouse, 484 Ignacio Blvd., Novato

Tickets: $19-$22

Information: 883-4498,,

Rating: Five out of five stars

Mark Langton can be reached at

June 25, 2009

'Driving Miss Daisy,' Ross Valley Players

Anne Ripley's Miss Daisy wields a map at her chauffer, Hoke (Bertron

Bruno), in RVP's current revival of "Driving Miss Daisy.

Phoning Miss Daisy

By Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

First, let it be said that an opportunity to see a performance by one of the grande dames of local theater, Anne Ripley, simply should not be missed. Ripley is cast in the leading role of Ross Valley Players' otherwise clunky revival of "Driving Miss Daisy," which opened July 11 to a nearly sold-out audience at the Barn Theatre in Ross. The English-born, classically trained veteran of the stage turns in a subtle and wistful interpretation of the sharp-tongued, formidable Atlanta widow Daisy Wertham that could, arguably, stand alone.

This project is also fortunate to have writer, director, actor and RVP newcomer Bertron Bruno in the cast. He plays Hoke Coleburn, the woman¹s black chauffer, and does so with the easy humor and grace of a practiced Southern raconteur. He, too, is an important figure in Bay Area community theater, having founded Pathlight Productions and Infinity Gospel Ministries in the Bayview-Hunters Point district of San Francisco, and continues to fight the good fight by involving young people in the self-expression and discipline of theater. He was -- again, arguably -- an excellent choice for this role.

Still, this is an impossibly dated selection for RVP's season finale, especially during an election year when the subject of race is back in the national dialogue, primarily because the presumptive Democratic nomineefor president is a multicultural male. It begs the question: Why would this venerable, 68-year-old company choose to close out its unremarkable 2007-2008 season with a play that addresses the subject of race from the perspective of 1987?

Writer Alfred Uhry took a lot of heat in 1987 when he first opened his play for an otherwise successful five-week run at Playwrights Horizons in New York, and again for his screenplay in 1989. Only last January, San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle referred to the 1989 Oscar-winning film of "Driving Miss Daisy" as a "ridiculous throwback" and unworthy of the prize. Most objected to what many found to be latent racism hidden in the story and the production.

To some, the story, told in a series of choppy vignettes, of a wealthy Jewish southern widow as she slowly warms up to her gradually empowered black driver, is an example of "edgy" modern theater.

However, the only thing on edge during this production was this reviewer's teeth.

While the two leads managed some subtlety and humor, they establish no palpable chemistry between the two of them, at least until the final scene. Three crucial opportunities for this connection were missed:
a) When Hoke confesses his inability to read and Daisy, a former schoolteacher, begins giving him lessons;
b) When the Jewish Daisy gives Hoke a "Christmas present"
c) When Hoke stands up for himself by going through the indignity of having to demand to ³pass water" during a long drive.
None of the required intensity of shame, tenderness and rage were anywhere in evidence in these all-important scenes.

There were other problems. Daisy¹s son Boolie is the play¹s third character (played genially enough by Alex Shafer), a superfluous intermediary whose apparent purpose is to handle the story¹s expository stuff, mostly on the telephone. It¹s a contrived plot device. Also, Boolie¹s loud sportswear costuming, perhaps to signify the passage of seasons, was mystifying, and in bold contrast to the wonderful choice of hats and scarves sported by Daisy from scene to scene by costume designer Michael A. Berg.

Equally mystifying were many of the choices by Cris Cassell, who has proven herself to be a gifted director in many past RVP productions ("Postmortem," "Over My Dead Body," "Proof"). For example, why did she confine the actors to the strict parameters of Ken Rowland¹s uncharacteristically lackluster set? Why pantomime car keys and not the roadmap? Why allow one actor to walk through an invisible car door that another has just closed? Why not use plush leather seats to suggest a car, instead of an awkward, lumbering contraption that looks like a cross between a golf cart and a tipped-over PortaPotty? Add to these, the confusing (if tasty) musical selections and accident-prone sound design of Billie Cox Jr. that had to be stopped and started during the July 11 performance; the synagogue that featured Christian choral music; as well as the telephone that didn¹t ring, and one can chalk it off, one supposes, to opening-night jitters, or the inequities of community theater.

However, those excuses just aren't good enough. Not by the standards of this most professional of semi-professional companies. Not with the talent pool to be found in Marin. Not in what purports to be a politically and culturally- enlightened community. Not by what we have come to expect from RVP.

Alas, there is nothing so condescending as the bleeding of a liberal¹s heart. This space cannot, in good conscience, participate in celebrating passive racism. Nor should it celebrate mediocrity.

There is an old saying about mediocrity: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Maybe so. Or maybe he's just suffering from limited vision.

Mark Langton can be reached at