August 20, 2012


'Proof' of life

By Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

It doesn’t take a genius in mathematics to appreciate the symmetry in almost everything about Ross Valley Players’ sensitive revival of David Auburn’s “Proof,” which opened Friday, Sept. 15 at the Barn Theatre in Ross -- with variable results.

Mathematics is only ostensibly the subject of playwright Auburn’s precise rendering of human relationships, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award when it opened on Broadway in 2001. It is not exactly a linear tale -- one that reads right-to-left like a mathematical proof or, say, a musical composition. Instead, it gives us a disassembled, sideways look at even the passage of time, as well as the random elements and vagaries of love -- bending them the way some theorems bend light. It is an edge-of-your-seat mystery the way human relationships are a mystery: endlessly surprising, funny and incalculably complex. Rendered in poetry rather than by-the-numbers, this rich, absorbing play has more to do with measuring the depth of the human heart than it has to do with its circumference.Nevertheless, things got off to a stuffy beginning on opening night. In the opening scenes, actors started bouncing their lines back and forth like a quick game of Pong – appearing to be more concerned with picking up the ends of their cues than listening to each other. This was peppered with uncomfortably long pauses in dialogue, presumably to create tension. Alas, the only tension this created was an initial concern that actors had gone up on their lines -- or that maybe we had a clunker on our hands.

Then, something happened.

Perhaps it was that these are four likable actors in four likable roles, but by the end of Act One, you couldn’t help but feel that you already knew these people. Whether it was the surprise piece of information craftily withheld in the opening scene, or the end-of-Act-One shocker that caused audible gasps from the audience, it was as if these four actors took heart from the general intake of air from the audience, causing them to breathe life into these roles by the second half.

Without giving too much away, the story concerns Catherine (Katherine McDowell), a lovely math geek who is the grown daughter of Robert (Wood Lockhart), a genius mathematician who revolutionized his field in the early part of his career, only to descend into mental illness. Daughter Catherine appears to have inherited some of her father’s gifts and, she fears, some of his pathology as well. Enter Hal (Michael Abts), a grad student of Robert’s, to help Catherine sort out some of her father’s potentially promising old notebooks. But not before Claire (Jeanette Harrison) enters the scene as Catherine’s “normal” older sister, a yuppie meddler who takes it upon herself to move in for a “rescue” operation. Boy meets girl; girl loses trust in boy; boy loses girl and – well, you do the math.
Out of this quartet, director Cris Cassel has developed intellectually and emotionally compelling music, especially as this production finds its stride. As demonstrated in her direction of the recent RVP comedy, “Over My Dead Body,” Cassel has a rhythmic gift for time signatures as well as storytelling, which ultimately transcended any opening night jitters Friday.

Of course, it helps that all four of these actors ultimately make us care about them. And it doesn’t hurt that both women in this cast are unconventional beauties, essays in geometry as they glide across the stage. McDowell’s Catherine reveals a visible arc from play’s start to play’s end, moving from strident amateur to knowing ingĂ©nue, with touches that were surprisingly subtle and wise. Also, to her everlasting credit, Harrison softens the role of Catherine’s controlling older sister with warmth and sensitivity, instead of opting for a shallow caricature of Claire.

As to the men, Lockhart, as he did with the Henry Fonda role in last season’s “On Golden Pond,” infuses Robert with humor and paternal warmth, even in dementia. And with Abts’ ultimately winning performance as Hal – especially in the love scenes with Catherine – this actor completely inhabits his body, his gestures playful and precise, whether engaged in forelock tugging or erotic intent.

Again, this intriguing play has more to do with the human heart than with math. Greater truths, it seems to say, especially when it comes to "soft" evidence of loyalty, love or family ties, can always be found hidden in plain sight – much like the satisfying symbol that dominates Don Cate’s oh-so-symmetrical set (in case anybody missed it): the symbol for pi, disguised as an archway at center stage.

Employing variables of dissonance and counterpoint, harmonies of opposites, often calling upon the music of the spheres, this production of “Proof” gives equidistance to both the sorrows and exultations of complex relationships – whether they be between rival siblings, a father and a daughter, or two people in love.

It is not difficult to recommend a play whose whole is larger than the sum of its parts. Go see it – if only because it will remind you of yourself, of your humanity, that life is made up of principles of uncertainty and, especially when the equation is love, that you know how to count to two, too.

Photo: Ron Severdia

August 18, 2012

Marin Shakes' 'The Comedy of Errors'

By Mark LangtonIJ Correspondent

(First published in the Marin Independent Journal, June, 2008)

TAKE ONE PART "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," one part "Road Runner" cartoon, add a dash of "Keystone Kops," spin around three times and do the funky chicken, and you'll begin to get a picture of Marin Shakespeare Co.'s new, wildly funny - if unnecessarily confusing - production of William Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors."

With his return to MSC, veteran director James Dunn is back in fine, high-handed form with his best comedy in recent memory, a mish-mash of ancient and contemporary pop culture that opened Friday at Dominican University's outdoor Forest Amphitheater.

What Shakespeare borrowed from the Roman dramatist Plautus, Looney Tunes borrowed from Shakespeare, and clearly director Dunn decided to borrow a little back. Lovingly drawing on the vaudeville slapstick of a Warner Bros. cartoon, the rat-a-tat-tat of Borscht Belt comedy and a broad visual style that can only be described as a kind of hip-hop Commedia dell'Arte, Dunn's knockabout farce succeeds primarily because it is so outlandish, so over-the-top in its burlesque, that - human error notwithstanding - its comedy borders on the divine.

In this, what many scholars believe to be his first play, Shakespeare extended Plautus's 'The Two Menaechmuses" and gave us this delightful absurdity about two identical twin brothers with identical servant/clowns, a funny story with loneliness at its wistful heart.

The plot line is pure screwball comedy: Behold Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, played by Andrew Fonda Jackson and Brandon Roberts, both decked out in full hip-hop "gangsta" regalia (designed by Patricia Polen from a palette of enough tie-dyed yellows, purples and greens to make your eyes bleed). They wreak havoc on the lives of their counterparts, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus (also played by Jackson and Roberts). All four confuse family members, paramours, each other and audience alike, as both sets of twins keep crossing each other like, well, Crips in the night.

And here is where things break down a bit. Sadly, where Dunn's experiment does not succeed is in the area of clarity. His choice to cast the same actors as both sets of twins, while common, seems odd, as it takes an already absurdly confusing situation and renders it nearly impossible to sort out. With both sets of twins "thugged out" in the same hip-hop threads and speaking in identical "surfer dude" patois, hilarious though it may be, it is not enough to discover that the only way to tell who's who is that one Dromio turns his yellow cap backward and the other Dromio does not. Ditto Antipholus' bling-bling vs. no bling-bling. The distinctions are far too subtle, and leave even careful students of Shakespeare behind.

Still, this was of little consequence as the action whooshed by on Friday night, mostly because of the pure entertainment factor of rim shots, "Keystone Kops" interludes, telegraphed burlesque (as in pink-clad, vestal virgins who cross the stage like card-carrying, ring-side, prize fight bimbos, with signs that say DROMIO'S BALD PATE BIT and DROMIO'S KITCHEN WENCH BIT) - plus a few standout performances that ultimately ruled the day.

Chief among these was an inspired comic turn by actress LeAnne Rumbel as Luciana, sister of Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus. While Roberts' energetic Dromio of Syracuse is the acrobatic source of much of the slapstick in the play, and Jackson's Antipholus is the Dean Martin to Roberts' Jerry Lewis, it was the floating comic grace of Rumbel's Luciana that frequently stopped the show.In a giddy love scene where Antipholus of Syracuse calls Luciana his "sweet mermaid," Rumbel appeared to be swimming in a veritable ocean of love - quite literally, as she proceeded to do the backstroke, the crawl, the breaststroke and the Hully Gully, with a final, quick flutter of her feet as a kicker to bring the house down.

Other standouts included Stephen Dietz's drunken Duke Solinas of Ephesus - picture Dudley Moore's "Arthur" as Nero - whose "spit-take" upon sipping a goblet of water from a fountain (because it wasn't alcohol!) brought a roar from the house; Mary Knoll as Adriana, who nailed it with broad strokes and with her usual traces of Ethel Merman and Lucille Ball; MSC co-founder Robert S. Currier as exorcist Dr. Pinch, who took obvious relish in chewing, not just the scenery, but the moat; and the ever-elegant Jack Powell as the elderly father Egeon, who demonstrated a range that went from a Gallagher-style prop comic and puppeteer to surprising poignancy in the reunion with his long-lost wife, Emilia. The abbess Emilia is also played with poignancy and elegance by Maureen O'Donoghue.

Indeed, it is the honesty delivered in these final scenes that makes this incongruous mixture of eloquence and Valleyspeak truly succeed at day's end. There is something ultimately satisfying about a comedy that has something tragic at its core - about a tale in which love conquers all, after all; where all sins are forgiven; where "every why hath a wherefore;" and every wherefore a whatever.

Photo: Ron Severdia

August 16, 2012

RVP's 'Shadowlands'

Goodbye, Mrs. Chips

By Mark Langton

Article Launched: 03/19/2008 05:05:45 PM PDT, Marin Independent Journal

See Jack. See Jack run. See Jack run from joy.

See Joy. See Joy chase Jack. See Joy catch Jack - and die.

See Jack weep.

So goes a remedial outline of playwright William Nicholson's original stage version of "Shadowlands," now in revival by the Ross Valley Players through April 20 at their historic Barn Theatre in Ross.

But when Jack is C.S. Lewis - or Clive Staples "Jack" Lewis (1898-1963) - the Irish-born writer, lecturer, Christian apologist and author of "The Chronicles of Narnia" series of children's fantasy novels; and when Joy is Joy Gresham, the Jewish-American poet who married Lewis near the end of both their lives, things aren't quite that simple.

It is the 1950s, and Lewis (Chuck Isen) enjoys a reputation as one of Britain's foremost professors and thinkers, living a contented and simple bachelorhood with his brother Warnie (Alex Ross) in the cloistered comfort of Oxford academia. Our story is set in motion when this comfort zone is shattered by the arrival of Gresham (Jennifer Reimer), a fan who has come to England to meet Lewis, with her young son Douglas (neatly played by Philip Bohlman, a seventh-grader at Marin Primary and Middle School).

Despite that she is known to him only by her letters, Jack is nevertheless charmed by Joy's frank honesty and life-affirming sense of humor, as when she receives a less-than-warm reception from his rather stuffy colleagues. When Riley (Wood Lockhart), one of Jack's more condescending peers, asks Joy how she found England, "Cold and dull," is her reply.
"How original," sneers Riley.

"I wasn't talking about the weather," Joy shoots back.

As their friendship deepens, Jack surprises everyone by agreeing to marry Joy - "only technically," at first - so she may obtain an English citizenship. But when Joy is diagnosed with an advanced form of bone cancer, Jack realizes he has fallen deeply in love for the first time, and marries her in earnest as she lies dying in her hospital bed.

Anglophiles and armchair theologians will find much to like in this staid and somewhat off-kilter production of Nicholson's 1989 play about a staid and off-kilter romance. Ably directed by Linda Dunn, it does manage to achieve an authentic, rarefied British air, greatly enhanced by a marvelously artful and utilitarian set design by Patrick Kroboth and scenic artist Megan Kenyon. Comprised of huge bookcases and sliding walls, the set is otherwise dominated by gigantic, fairy tale-sized books, no doubt meant to invoke the world of wonder discovered by children in Lewis' fantasy tales - offset by the spot-on wintry Oxford gloom in Ellen Brooks' lighting design.

The production gets off to a slow start in the first half (imagine, if you will, "Terms of Endearment" without Jack Nicholson), but finds its stride in the second.

Isen is well cast as C.S. Lewis. His "Jack" is a model, mostly, of clipped diction and repressed emotions - indeed, there are times when he struggles so hard to choke out his feelings that he looks like he might require a Heimlich maneuver. But when he finally spits it out - particularly in the difficult scenes that deal openly with grief - he does so honestly, and with great tenderness. Mr. Chips, however, could use a little more Dr. Doolittle.

Reimer also extends the boundaries of her talent to encompass Joy, and manages to be believable as this bluntly intelligent, Jewish-American woman from New York - and even more so once we learn of her conversion to Christianity. The two actors make up for their lack of sexual chemistry by achieving a kind of emotional chemistry instead, suitable to this rendering of a seemingly chaste romance.

This RVP production boasts a couple of strong supporting performances. Most notable is Alex Ross, who renders Jack's devoted older brother almost like an abstract impressionist - bringing to mind one of those all-seeing Fools one finds in Shakespeare ("Twelfth Night," "King Lear"). Also excellent was Lockhart's curmudgeonly Riley. It is great to see this affable actor (a shape-shifter if there ever was one) apply his rubber-faced comedy to a truly unlikable prig. Anne Ripley practically earned an ovation for a wonderful walk-on as a nurse.

Although the playwright's philosophical conflict is clearly understood, the production doesn't always succeed in communicating it.

Loosely fashioned around the biographical facts of Grisham and Lewis's real-life autumnal romance, "Shadowlands" is a kind of anti-Pygmalion tale of equals, made interesting not so much because of the fact of that romance, but because of the philosophical conflict that the playwright found so interesting there. "Shadowlands" is not so much a love story as it is a somewhat academic exploration of love and suffering - and the reasons God might have for burdening us with either. Lewis' answer, that pain is "God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world," appears to sew things up neatly from an intellectual point of view in the play's first scene. "We are like blocks of stone," lectures Lewis to his students, "out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt so much, are what make us ... perfect."

But to speculate upon pain is not the same as living it. What Lewis finally gets at final curtain is this: Only when we accept the full measure of life's experiences do we open ourselves to its greatest joys - as well as its greatest suffering. (Indeed, it is during the throes of Joy's illness that Jack exclaims, "I didn't know I could be so happy!")

When the blows of the chisel begin to fall, the Oxford don with the easy answers finally realizes that, when it comes to love and loss, there are no easy answers. The time for answers will come, to be sure, but even then one must accept Lewis' one great, final epiphany - that there are things the heart can know that the mind will never understand.


What: "Shadowlands," by William Nicholson

Who: Ross Valley Players

Where: The Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross

When: Through April 20; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $16-$20

Special events: 2 p.m. March 30 post-performance discussion with the director and cast; 2 p.m. April 5 staged reading of Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Information: 456-9555,

Rating: Three out of five stars

Mark Langton can be reached at