Archive for the ‘San Jose Rep’ Category

City Lights inadvertently presents allegory for the closing of The Rep

Resten (Ben Ortega) and Alta (Deb Anderson) share a moment in City Lights Theater Company's production of "The Language Archive" by Julia Cho. Photo by Mike Ko /

Theater audiences all over the Bay Area went to see fantastic, thoughtful, hysterical, amazing shows and musicals last weekend.  We came home looking forward to seeing the next shows, or acting or producing the next shows, and many of us contemplated our reviews of the weekend.  And then we sat down Monday to do our work.

And at 10:30am we received the press release in our In-Box:

San Jose, CA. June 11, 2014 – San Jose Repertory Theatre announced today that it has ceased operation as of Monday, June 9, 2014. 

This news came as a shock to most, even those of us who had heard whisperings and warnings, I mean it’s THE SAN  JOSE REP, it’s been downtown for over thirty years, well longer than I would bet most of the valley’s employees have lived here.  In Silicon Valley years, The Rep has been here FOREVER.

It was a heart break for me.  I have years of history with The Rep.  I have sat in almost every seat of their audience, I have played in the pit, I have introduced films and interviewed filmmakers and actors on the stage.  I have brought dozens of dates to see shows and had a close group of friends I loved to share tickets with.  I introduced my own children to theater at The Rep, and as adults I am proud to know that they attend theater on their own now, without being dragged by their mother. I have many memories of drunken shenanigans in and around the theater.  The Rep did not always produce my favorite shows, but they were always my favorite theater.

But I had a review to write, one that was very difficult to write for many reasons.  I had heard great things about City Lights Theatre’s production of The Language Archive and had really looked forward to seeing it.  But due to a scheduled vacation, I had to see the Sunday matinee when our temps were in the 90s and the theater had no air conditioning.  It was difficult to connect to the actors because the theater was so uncomfortable.  I was able to pay attention to the show, but in a distracted way, and I could not drum up any excitement except for getting back to my air conditioned car.  This is a terrible scenario in which to review a show fairly.  So I found myself in the position of feeling sort of mediocre about the show, but knowing it was likely only due to one very hot day since my fellow reviewers loved it, and feeling my normal pressure to want to get people to the theater no matter what, now with the added pressure of knowing the biggest theater in town just went bankrupt.

At the same time, feeling like I was in mourning for a lost friend, and trying not to feel anger towards a very wealthy valley who I felt had let the Arts down.

The Language Archive, playing at City Lights through January 29, IS a great show.  It’s about language and relationships and the care needed to keep them alive.  I sat here thinking tonight how the character of Mary treasures her ages old sourdough starter.  She told of how she had to feed it, pay attention to it, never forget about it or take it for granted, so that more warm, nourishing bread could be made from it, and it would never die.  The show is about George, a linguist who documents dying languages.  As stated in the show, any language needs more than one person speaking it in order to survive; if no one cares for them, the languages die.  George’s marriage to Mary needed the attention that the sourdough starter received.  When George could no longer speak the language that Mary needed to hear, the marriage died.

And sitting here thinking about that show I realized this is very much an allegory for the demise of The San Jose Rep, isn’t it.  No theater can survive on ticket sales alone, many don’t realize this.  Theaters require entire communities to not just attend, but to donate.  The San Jose Rep had an operating budget of $5 million.  I don’t have $5 million.  You likely don’t either.  But when you think of all the businesses in San Jose, all the wealthy businesses (who do indeed contribute money to our community), and the wealthy CEOs who live here (and also donate to the community)… Five million dollars seems like it could easily have been covered between allllll the businesses who reside here, don’t you think?  San Jose simply cannot keep crying that no one knows who we are, where we are, that we are not a neighborhood in San Francisco, if we cannot even keep our own local Repertory Theater open.  And like it or not, theater and the Arts really does fall on local businesses to survive, whether we’re talking about San Francisco or New York or a tiny middle America town. Or San Jose.

But the blame cannot just be put on our local businesses.  Theater is a very complicated business, full of catch-22s and the need for good shows that cost money that doesn’t come without big shows that cost money.  Karen D’Souza has written an excellent article for the Mercury News which points to several of the various factors that went into the closing, and wonders if perhaps San Jose isn’t just due for a different sort of Arts environment.  I would never oppose different, as long as the Arts do not die altogether.

But San Jose does have many, many smaller theaters that many locals haven’t even heard of.  City Lights is a great little theater and it somehow operates in the black.  Hopefully that’s not just due to their lack of an air conditioning bill, LOL (I JOKE! I JOKE!).   And they are one of many theaters that not only put on outstanding productions on a regular basis but are accepting tickets to The Rep’s canceled shows for their own shows.  Theater is a community, and they support each other like a family no matter what.  We should try to support them back.  Like sourdough starter, the Arts require all of us to feed it, pay attention to it, never forget about it or take it for granted, so that it will never die.

Baseball fans flock to GAME ON at the San Jose Rep.

Dan Hoyle and Tony Taccone star in GAME ON

Let’s do full disclosure first, shall we?

1)      My interest in baseball on a scale of 1-10 is 0.

2)      My knowledge of baseball is maybe a 6.

3)      My interest and knowledge in fantasy leagues is 0.

Please don’t run me out of town or take away my citizenship.  I’ll happily cook up party food for every night of the World Series if you like, just please let me read a book during the game.

And I promise not to serve you bugs.  Or DO I????

That said, baseball fans think Game On is a home run.  Set in an upper class home in Los Altos (is there any other kind?) the story is framed by a televised game between the San Francisco Giants and the LA Dodgers.  Local fans are so serious about baseball that I heard several in the audience exclaim they were having panic attacks during the play by play for the game.  But the main storyline is about two men who desperately need financing for their new venture, the use of insects as a protein. This is a real thing, and I actually know more about the trend towards eating insects than I do about baseball.  But in real life as in the show, the hard part is convincing the American public that insects are good for you and tasty too.

They actually had samples of (deep fried?) insects in the lobby before the show started.  I did not try them.  I said I had knowledge of the idea, not that I had ingested any bugs.  However, my guest did try one of each of the four samples, and she said one of them definitely tasted “just like corn nuts.”  So there ya go.

Back to the show.

At just 90 minutes with no intermission, it is a fast paced show with only a few characters but non-stop conversation.  It starts out with tons of laughs about the game, the players, and their fantasy league, but due to my lack of knowledge I had a difficult time following much of it.  Eventually we hear about the company the two main characters are trying to get funded.  And finally we realize that while the buddies really believe in their cause, they also desperately need the financing for their own personal reasons, and the show’s tone gets a little darker.

There are a lot of laughs about the bugs, and there is a fantastic food fight later in the show that released a lot of the building tension and got the comedy back on track.  There are many references to local areas, but using “South Bay”, “Menlo Park” and “Redwood City” as punch-lines will not likely work outside of Silicon Valley.  This local audience was privy to the inside jokes however, and appreciated all the humor.

It felt a little to me like the playwright had a few too many ideas he was trying to cram all into one show, and the dependence on a local audience will prevent the show from being a national hit. But this local audience certainly appreciated and related to all the ideas and situations presented and everyone appeared to be having a fantastic time.  I definitely recommend the show if you are a baseball fan, and if they are still serving insects at the Rep, I heard the toffee mealworms over ice cream are delicious.  YOU should totally try them.

San Jose Repertory Theatre
Through April 19

Don Bugito’s edible insects

Paul Lazarus, Director: SLINGSHOT Documentary at Cinequest

Paul Lazarus, Director of SLINGSHOT

Silicon Valley may know Dean Kamen as the inventor of the Segway. But he is an amazing inventor and trying to use his genius to help solve the world’s clean water problem.  We don’t worry much about water here other than our perpetual drought, but we have it good in the USA – our water is clean for the most part.  50 percent of all human illness is the result of water borne pathogens.  Dean Kamen has invented an energy efficient vapor-compression distiller that can turn any unfit source of water into potable, safe water.  Paul Lazarus directed this important documentary.

1Q: Tell us a little about the origins of SLINGSHOT, from concept to financing.

We have been working on this movie for seven years.  When inventor, Dean Kamentold me about his work on providing the world with clean, safe water, I thought it was potentially the most important challenge he’d ever tackled and I suggested we make a movie about it.  We have covered the development of the machine at Dean’s research company, in Ghana, Paraguay and all across the United States.

2Q: Cinequest is hosting the World Premiere of SLINGSHOT.  Explain to us how it feels to bring this film before audiences for the first time, and what do you think their reaction will be to your film?

After all this time, it’s a little frightening to bring the film before the public.  We want so badly for the film to succeed and help tell the story of this lifesaving technology and help spread this amazing technology all over the planet.  It feels like so much is at stake.   But, as Dean Kamen says, the safest place for a ship is in the harbor, it just doesn’t do any good there.   We hope that the movie both inspires and entertains the people that see it.

3Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making SLINGSHOT?

Best was going to Ghana two times and meeting incredible people like Lydia Odum, the headmistress of a small school 90-minutes north of Accra.    And the kids, who always seemed happy to see us. Worst was trying to raise the money to make the film.

4Q: Festival audiences often have to make hard decisions about what to see, and the catalog descriptions sometimes run together. In your own words, why should people see your film?

Too often, especially with issue documentaries, you leave the theater feeling helpless and hopeless.  We believe that people who take the time to see SlingShot will leave the theater hopeful, energized and feeling like they might be able to make a difference.

5Q: Time to pre-plan: You just won the Best Picture Oscar for SLINGSHOT.  Give us your acceptance speech.

Thank you to the hundreds of people who helped create this film.   I hope in some small way it will make you think about the world’s safe water crisis.  I want to quote a man who has devoted over 15 years of his life trying to create a machine that can turn any form of bad, unclean water into safe, pure water:  ”We could empty half of all beds in all the hospitals in the world by just giving people clean water.”

See SLINGSHOT at Cinequest!
“Like” them on Facebook!
Follow them on Twitter!

Dean Kamen, Inventor

R. Buckminster Fuller brings a creative mind to The SJ Rep

"R. Buckminster Fuller: THE HISTORY (and Mystery) OF THE UNIVERSE!"

My review of R. Buckminster Fuller is way late, but let’s be honest here, it’s because this amazing show just might have been too smart for me.  I didn’t understand every word Fuller said, and I can’t comprehend some of the concepts he was talking about, but I do know it was one certifiably entertaining show.

Let me clarify: I didn’t sit there stupidly wondering what was going on.  The show is profoundly interesting.  I often found my mind wandering while Fuller was talking, but I was just thinking more carefully about something he had said earlier.

Rick Lombardo is taking a risk by bringing R. Buckminster Fuller to the Rep because I don’t think the show is for everyone, but with great risk often comes great theatre.  This is not your typical show, and the show is not for your typical audience.  On the other hand, it may bring in a new audience to the theatre, which is always a good thing.

R. Buckminster Fuller was the science/philosophy/architecture/social science teacher you wish you had.  He was likely a genius, and not only ahead of his time, but ahead of our time as well.  His genius comes with a hypo-eccentricity, which perhaps made it difficult for people to take his ideas seriously, or at least see them to fruition.

I went into this one man show not really sure who Fuller was, only knowing that he had something to do with inventing the geodesic dome.  My mind is currently so crammed full of theatre shows, independant films, and trying to finish a stack of fat library books that I had a very difficult time trying to drum up interest in a show about science. But I have faith in Rick Lombardo, so I went in with the knowledge that Lombardo was likely going to knock my socks off.

I will say that instead, Ron Campbell knocked my socks off with his portrayal of the amazing Fuller.  Campbell is charming and engaging and makes this show more than a science lesson.  As Fuller, he tells the story of his difficult childhood, and explains how his brain works and how he came up with a lot of his ideas.  He was an amazing man, and the show is cerebral and enjoyable.  What better place to hold this forward-thinking show than in the heart of Silicon Valley? Our town was built by forward thinkers, on ideas that were ahead of their time, and concepts that most people could not comprehend.

Let’s not waste any more time here and get this published so you can buy your tickets.

R. Buckminster Fuller
Through February 23
The San Jose Repertory Theatre


The Snow Queen warms winter hearts at The SJ Rep


Jane Pfitsch, Rhett George, Lee Ann Payne, Tim Homsley, Eryn Murmam and Jason Hite. Photo by Ana Zavala.

When San Jose Rep artistic director Rick Lombardo and associate artistic director Kirsten Brandt were planning for this year’s winter show, they soon realized they had already produced most of the popular seasonal shows (some of them to death).  In order to bring something new to the stage, they went above and beyond: they created their own show, and a musical to boot.

The Snow Queen is a fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen.  It follows the fateful travels of young Gerda (Eryn Murman) as she seeks the realm of the Snow Queen (Jane Pfitsch) to rescue her kidnapped friend Kai (Tim Homsley).  Along the way, Gerda comes across many different obstacles in her path, in the form of groups of criminals and magical creatures who want to keep her for themselves.  My daughter described it as having a Wizard of Oz feel.

After partnering with friend Haddon Kime, Lombardo and Brandt were able to turn this into an original pop rock musical, and set the scene in a steampunk world of interesting, quirky characters.  Everyone sings, and almost everyone plays an instrument. It’s a musical, magical show that is perfect for Winter.  With themes focusing on love, friendship and family, it is also a perfect holiday show.  When the show finished on Opening Night most of the audience gave a standing ovation, and everyone was excitedly talking about the show on their way out. It appeared to be loved and adored by all.

There were many stand outs in the show.  I would have loved to see Rhett George have a bigger part (or appear in future shows!) as his rich voice brings the troll to life and his narration sets the tone for the story to come.  Tim Homsley, who I thought was terribly miscast in last season’s The Minister’s Wife, brings his acting skills to play in this show. Starting out as a fun loving boy, he makes a startling transformation to the hypnotized mathematician under the spell of the Snow Queen.

Pictured: Full cast of San Jose Rep’s The Snow Queen. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Cindy Im makes the most charismatic rose you will ever see on stage, and her steampunk flower friends Janice Engelgau (Tiger Lily), and Summer C. Latimer (Hyacinth) were fun and sexy and great singers.  More special attention goes to Jason Hite (Daisy) who also plays Old Crow.

Costume designer Frances Nelson McSherry not only created some terrifically fun steampunk costumes for all, but she made the decision to leave bare the amazing upper arms of Jane Pfitsch’s Snow Queen.  Seriously, those arms were scene stealers. (more…)

This year give the Gift of Theatre

I hope you all aren’t really braving the crowds on this Black Friday, but if so I also hope you’re enjoying the holiday hustle and bustle and excitement.  I’m an internet shopper myself, and won’t visit the mall at any time of year unless forced.  But whether you shop with the masses or shop from your couch, sometimes figuring out WHAT you’re going to buy is the hardest part. Especially when it comes to that someone who has everything.

So why not give the gift of Theatre this year?  Most theaters have tickets on sale now not just for their holiday shows but for the next show in line as well.  Hillbarn Theatre is showing Mame in December, and Grapes of Wrath in January. The Palo Alto Players are selling tickets for all their upcoming shows: The Heiress, Young Frankenstein and The Farnsworth InventionTheatreWorks opens Little Women the Musical in next week. Opera San Jose is gearing up for Madame Butterfly in February and EVERY opera buff will want to attend that show. And of course Ballet San Jose has The Nutcracker.  Tickets to any of these shows would make an amazing and original gift, or you can just plan to take the family as part of the holiday season enjoyment.

At the moment though, there is one show that I am looking forward to the most, and that is The Snow Queen at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.  Here is why:  We have only seen two shows of the 2013-2014 SJ Rep season and I am already blown away.  One Night with Janis was an amazing look at the queen herself and all her inspirations, and the show moved on to Broadway after leaving its extended run in San Jose.  Then they showed Next Fall which was just about the best show I have seen in the Bay Area in the last five years.  It combined issues of religion, age difference in relationships, dealing with death and impending death, and also several issues of gay relationships, and it did all this without preaching that any side is right or wrong – but overall it was a story about any relationship and every relationship.  And it was played by a group of some of the best actors we have available in the Bay Area.  This was two in a row of not just good theatre, but GREAT theatre.  And now we have The Snow Queen.

“With steam punk flair, an alternative rock score and girl heroine, this is not going to be your average Holiday Musical,” states the SJ Rep, and the early audience reviews of the previews are gushing:   “Fantastic.. One of the BEST plays ever.. LOVED every minute” says Joani Krieger Mitchell.  “Absolutely FANTASTIC! Not to be missed. All you fans of English pantomime will rejoice,” from Sally Bookman.  Click here to see a preview of The Snow Queen.

And if you buy your ticket today (Black Friday) you can get 42% savings off regular ticket with promo code “FRIDAY2013”.

I am looking forward to writing a review for the show next week, and I hope you all will join me there.  Something amazing is happening at the SJ Rep this year, and I cannot wait to see what the season brings us.  Happy Holidays!

Many more nights with Janis Joplin to come, at The Rep

Kacee Clanton as Janis Joplin. Photo by Kirk Tuck.

It’s not often a show at the San Jose Repertory Theatre is extended before the curtain at Opening Night even goes up.  But that is what happened with the extremely popular production of One Night With Janis Joplin, now through October 6.

There is magic up on stage.

Much more than a concert, One Night with Janis Joplin explores the history of the Queen of Rock, brings to life her blues influences such as Etta James and Aretha Franklin, and brings an enormous amount of fun throughout the night.

Kacee Clanton has been immersed in playing Janis Joplin on a variety of stages, including touring as the lead vocalist for Big Brother and the Holding Company (a band I was not aware was still around).  Clanton is an amazing presence on stage, with vocals strikingly similar to Joplin’s, and though she’s not a ringer for her physically, there is enough of a resemblance to sometimes bring chills when she reappears on stage with certain familiar Joplin looks.  The vocals however are what wins this night. There are times when it seems certain that Clanton is channeling Joplin’s soul straight from heaven, and speaking of chills, listening to her belt out Ball and Chain is almost a religious experience.  I will never forget being in the audience for this song, the closest I will ever be to actually hearing Joplin sing live.

Kacee Clanton as Janis Joplin. Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Clanton, as Joplin, speaks to the audience throughout the show, giving us her personal history growing up in Texas and then moving to San Francisco to be an unwitting major player in the history of rock & roll.  She talks about all her blues influences, and there are breaks between Joplin’s songs to listen to songs by Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone and the great Aretha Franklin, brought to life by Tiffany Mann, Tricky Jones and Shinnerrie Jackson. All accompanied by an amazing live band.

There is clapping, there is dancing, there are tears.  There is an audience dressed in tie-dye and gorgeous vintage 60s dresses.  There is a free photo booth with feather boas and a bottle of Southern Comfort as props, and if you’re thirsty there is a special Southern Comfort drink available at concessions.   There is magic on stage, and I wouldn’t doubt for a moment that the soul of Janis Joplin herself is there as well.

This is a show not to be missed, but it is selling out quickly, so get your tickets while you can.

One Night with Janis Joplin
Through October 6
San Jose Repertory Theatre

Note: The part of Janis Joplin is played by Cari Hutson on all Tuesday evenings, Saturday matinees, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday, September 18 at 11am.


Excitement growing for the 2013/2014 Theatre Season!!

It’s been awfully quiet around here over the summer, but let’s get real, even writers need vacations.  Hopefully we still have some Bay Area readers patiently waiting for us because we are BACK and ready to get back in the saddle!  Theatre opening nights for the 2013/2014 season are starting soon and the schedule is exciting!

Here are some of the shows we hope to review in the next months. Take a good look, mark your own calendars, and start calling for tickets because this season is going to be packed!


Other Desert Cities

Other Desert Cities
August 21 – September 15
Mt. View Center for the Performing Arts

A Hollywood star’s desert estate glows with Christmas cheer. But home for the holidays is daughter Brooke, a novelist whose tell-all memoir is sure to rip the politically-divided clan apart. Are we having fun yet? With dazzling wit and razor-sharp insight, this Pulitzer finalist balances fierce comedy and riveting family drama in the blockbuster hit of last year’s Broadway season. Contains adult language. 

I don’t think we’re going to make this show, but TheatreWorks is one of the best companies in the Bay Area. If you can get to this show, we recommend that you do so.


And Miss Reardon...

And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little
August 29 – September 22
Dragon Productions Theatre Company
2120 Broadway, Redwood City

The inaugural production of Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre, this dark comedy explores the lives of the three Reardon sisters, who have recently lost their mother. During an uncomfortable dinner reunion, a well-meaning but obnoxious set of neighbors crash the party and set an already incendiary situation ablaze.

Dragon Productions has moved to a new theatre they are doing some great things.  I am really looking forward to this show.


Monty Python's Spamalot

Monty Python’s Spamalot
August 30 – September 22
Hillbarn Theatre
1285 East Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City

Lovingly ripped off from the classic film comedy MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, SPAMALOT retells the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and features a bevy of beautiful show girls, not to mention cows, killer rabbits, and French people. Did we mention the bevy of beautiful show girls?

We are likely going to miss this show, unfortunately, however it’s not often this show comes further south than San Francisco, and Hillbarn Theatre always has AMAZING season openers. If you haven’t yet seen Spamalot, or even if you have, try to get to Foster City for this one.



The Fantasticks


The Fantasticks
September 5 – September 29
Los Altos Stage Company
97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos

The Fantasticks, the world’s longest running musical, is a funny and romantic fable about a boy, a girl, his father, her mother, and a wall. The narrator, El Gallo, bids the audience to draw on their imagination and follow him into a world of moonlight and magic. The boy and the girl fall in love, grow apart, and find their way back to each other after realizing the truth in El Gallo’s words that “without a hurt, the heart is hollow”.

I have never seen The Fantasticks, and, full disclosure, I know someone in this cast and cannot wait to see it.  But you should see it too, because how often do you see The Fantasticks in theatres around here?


One Night with Janis Joplin

One Night With Janis Joplin
September 5 – September 29
San Jose Repertory Theatre

This full-on concert experience is a musical journey into the life and inspirations of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest legends. With a voice like whiskey and a laugh like pure joy, Janis Joplin took the music scene by storm. Simultaneously rough and vulnerable, Joplin was dubbed the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” proving music wasn’t just a man’s world anymore.

ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN also shines a spotlight on the great African-American blues artists who influenced Janis’ musical style and career, including Bessie Smith, Etta James and Aretha Franklin. This new musical event includes a live onstage band and features Joplin hits and classic songs such as “Piece of My Heart,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Ball and Chain” and “Summertime” – creating a compelling portrait of an artist through the words and music of one of America’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll icons.

There’s not a chance in the world that I’ll be missing this show, and I’ll be taking my daughter with me because I gave her good taste in music.  It’s another musical season opener at the Rep, and no expense is ever spared to put on the best shows ever for their openers.



September 7 – September 22
Opera San Jose
California Theatre, San Jose

A tale of greed. A travesty of stymied desires. An old knight’s ridiculous hunger to recapture his youth and gain riches through sexual liaisons is challenged when he meets his match in the form of two wily married women. This is the setting for Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic commedia lirica, Falstaff. Based on Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, this insightful opera is a humorous celebration of love and life that can be enjoyed by all. Sung in Italian with English supertitles.

This is one of those “can’t miss” operas that will be great for anyone new to the opera.  We wouldn’t miss it, and you should not either.


Priscilla Queen of the Desert
October 29 – November 3
Broadway San Jose
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts

This OUTRAGEOUSLY fun show tells the uplifting story of a trio of friends, on a road trip of a lifetime, who hop aboard a battered old bus searching for love and friendship in the middle of the Australian outback and end up finding more than they could ever have dreamed.  An international hit with over 500 dazzling, 2011 Tony® Award-winning costumes, Priscilla Queen of the Desert features a hit parade of dance-floor favorites including “It’s Raining Men,” “Finally” and “I Will Survive.” 

A friend notified me in June that this was coming up, and I have had this on my calendar ever since. I cannot wait for this show and I already know it will be amAAAAAAZZZZingggg!!!!

Doctor Faustus frightens and terrifies, Mephistopheles makes uswant more!!

Doctor Faustus (Mark Anderson Phillips) attempts to conjure the devil with incantations. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The San Jose Rep is currently staging a strange but beautiful, disturbing yet fascinating, dark and mysterious production.   Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” is different, uncomfortable and thought provoking.  As far as I’m concerned, it is everything that theatre should be.

Most people are at least marginally familiar with the controversial story of Doctor Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power, then realizes repenting at the end of his life may not be enough to save him from eternal damnation.  There are slightly different versions to the written play and there are often changes to Marlowe’s story in productions.  Opera San Jose’s “Faust” last year ended with the doctor repenting and headed for Heaven.  The San Jose Rep’s version has the doctor paying dearly for his sins.  It is a gloomy, scary, horrifying show. It is not for kids or the faint of heart or anyone who thinks actual demons may get called onto stage, as the Puritan William Prynne stated happened in 1632.

Doctor Faustus (Mark Anderson Phillips) is spurred forward in his quest for power and dark magic by his Evil Angel (Halsey Varady). Photo by Kevin Berne.

I say all this because a quite different production had been scheduled for this slot (Geoffrey Nauffts’ “Next Fall”) and although the Rep did their best to notify ticket holders of the change, some people did not get the memo and have been a bit upset to see this macabre replacement.  And the show is disturbing.  You need to be ready for it.  So, you think you’re up for it?  Let’s get to the review:

I loved it.  I loved it so much.  And yet… I was unhappy through most of the show.  I was disturbed and upset and usually thrown by the humorous scenes sprinkled throughout.  I kept thinking… “I don’t like this.  I really don’t like this.  But do I want to leave?  NO.  Actually, though I’m extremely uncomfortable right now, this is possibly the best show I’ve seen at the Rep this year!”  This strange grouping of thoughts replayed themselves over and over through the whole show.

There are only four actors playing over 20 different parts, and the cast is highly skilled and up for the job.  Doctor Faustus is played by the only male, the familiar and loved Mark Anderson Phillips (“Double Indemnity”, “The Weir”, “Dr. Jeckyll” and more).  Three women then play all the rest of the roles, many of them male characters.  All three women first appear wearing prominent and sparkly codpieces, and the androgyny forced on many of their characters adds a great sexual dimension throughout the play.   Rachel Harker and Halsey Varady are both amazing playing wildly different and varied parts.  Varady switches seamlessly and believably (and thus horrifyingly) between a good and bad angel, and many other vastly different characters as well.  Harker’s best part is fascinating and very terrifying as an extremely sexy Lucifer for whom you could see men selling their souls (and then regretting dearly later).

Devilish Mephistopheles (Lyndsy Kail) answers Faustus' call and lays claim to his soul. Photo by Kevin Berne.

But I have to state that the star for me was Lyndsy Kail as Mephistopheles.  This woman is a FIND and artistic director Rick Lombardo needs to get this actress here more often.  She brings such physicality to the role I could never take my eyes off her when she was on stage.  Her toes were always pointed, her legs and ankles tensed at weird angles, her entire body down to her pinkies were part of her character at every moment on stage.  When she first appears on stage she is dressed as a human but her body language just screamed “serpent”.  Every pose she struck was tensed and fighting gravity. There was never any doubt that this scraggly but gorgeous, androgynous yet hypersexual being on stage was the great Mephistopheles.

The set is large but minimal and very technical, and uses a lot of animated and filmed visuals for backgrounds.  The weird juxtaposition of the Elizabethan storyline and the ultra modern, high tech background not only serves to throw the audience slightly more off balance, but also gives a strange authenticity and realism to the Doctor’s thirst for knowledge.

There were some things, mostly the purposely humorous bits, that bothered me and sometimes brought me out of the story.  There were two dress forms that stood in for some background characters and didn’t work for me.  The dragon bicycle was just too, too silly for me when it appeared.  And at first the shadow puppets (yes, there are shadow puppets!)  bothered me as well and seemed out of place.  But by the second act I had grown to love and appreciate them, both as part of the story and also as a nod to the past.  What other story but Doctor Faustus can have shadow puppets AND such a highly technical set, and make it work?

When the show was over, I was glad.  It is a lot to sit through.  But it was also a lot to think about, a lot to appreciate, a lot to marvel over.  Instead of going home and straight to bed, I stayed and talked to a friend for a great while about the show (perhaps the better to stave off nightmares!). And this is EXACTLY what should happen when you go to the theatre. This year has been a very interesting one for the SJ Rep, and I think it’s been a great improvement and breath of fresh air over last season.  So if you can stand to watch a pope wearing sparkly pink pumps on stage, get to the Rep and watch Doctor Faustus before it ends its run.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
Through June 2
San Jose Repertory Theatre

But wait, there’s more to the season!

As a surprise to me anyway, there is one more show this season:  A Minister’s Wife, a “new musical re-telling of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida” starts on June 20!  So if you don’t think you have the heart or stomach for Doctor Faustus, “A Minister’s Wife” is probably the show for you.  I will see you there!

Death of the Novel: San Jose Repertory


Sebastian (Vincent Kartheiser) and Sheba (Vaishnavi Sharma) begin to flirt. Photo by Kevin Berne

The San Jose Repertory  has brought Hollywood to local theater, and you still have a chance to see it.  Fans of Vincent Kartheiser from “Mad Men” (Pete Campbell) can see him live on stage through Saturday evening in a modern day play titled The Death of the Novel.

Kartheiser plays Sebastian, an agoraphobic writer who has decided he won’t ever leave his apartment until his advance runs out.  Sebastian is a bit of an insufferable, skeevy egotist… sort of a present day Pete Campbell.   He has issues, many stemming from the aftermath of 9/11, and others from a series of deaths in his own life.  When he meets beautiful Sheba (played by Vaishnavi Sharma), his life is turned upside down as he struggles to understand who she is, and whether it matters to him.

It’s quite a psychological drama, which seems to focus on the mystery of who Sheba really is.  She has created an intricate family history and background for herself, none of which appears to be true.  We meet the main characters in the first act, and get to know Sebastian well… then learn that we know nothing at all about Sheba.  The second act is a whirlwind of psychological intrigue and drama… an overload of the senses that is almost too much to absorb by the end.  But though it was tough to take our eyes off the beautiful Sheba, I thought the most interesting character was Sebastian.  From what we know of him, he has only one real male friend, Philip (Patrick Kelly Jones), who is Sheba’s original boyfriend.  But he also has three very important women in his life: Perry, his therapist; Claire, his hooker; and Sheba, the woman he wants but may not ever fully have.  It’s a virtual id, ego and superego of females.

In particular, I thought Zarah Mahler as Claire and Amy Pietz as Perry were the best of all the actors in the show.  Vincent Kartheiser also puts in an incredible amount of work in a role that requires him to talk almost non-stop through both acts.

It is not my favorite show that I’ve ever seen at the Rep, but there are several good points about the show and I still recommend it.  I would like to have seen it twice, or went over the script later, so I could absorb it all.  Of course, anyone wanting to see a bit of “Hollywood Stardom” should get themselves down to the Rep immediately before it’s too late.  It’s quite a coup to have gotten Mr. Kartheiser down to our theater, and we definitely appreciate the work that he and everyone else involved put into the show.  Thanks to the San Jose Repertory for an interesting and thought provoking opening to the 2012-2013 season!

The Death of the Novel
San Jose Repertory Theatre
Through September 22
Next up: Freud’s Last Session
October 11 – November 4

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