Destiny of Desire

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Destiny of Desire

by Karen Zacarías
directed by José Luis Valenzuela

Destiny of Desire is an evening of a schlocky, cheesy, unbelievable, perfectly-executed, spectacularly entertaining, brilliantly-written live telenovela.

Before I write my 1000 words of “Oh my God, I loved it, here’s why…”,  a picture:

Destiny of Desire

Vilma Silva, Ella Saldana North, Esperanza America. Photo by Jenny Graham.

The photo is truly worth more than 1000 words of descriptive praise. (Click on it to see it full size.) But, here goes…

Director José Luis Valenzuela has directed Destiny at four theaters — everywhere it’s been produced (or at least everywhere I could find on the Internet). He and the author have created a soap opera/comedy of manners/musical that is witty, stupidly low-brow funny, predictable, surprising, and sometimes meaningful.

Go into Destiny expecting a fun romp watching a bad Days of Our Lives.  The play at heart is a telenovela, so it’d be wrong to suggest that the audience is going to learn the secret of world peace by watching the performance.

But, Valenzuela talks a lot about how 1/3 of the world’s population — 2 billion people — is hooked on telenovelas. There is a reason for that nonsensical fan devotion, and Destiny taps into the essence of the genre that makes it addicting. One scene after another delves deeper into relationships, class, and morality. Watching you know that in the end Good will triumph and happiness prevail. Spoiler alert: it does!

Along the way, there is riotous fun, preposterous revelations, hilariously horrible acting, giggling bad stagecraft, and bizarre (but necessary) plot twists. There’s extremely sharp dancing and satisfying singing, too.

Ella Saldana North, Adriana Sevahn Nichols, Eddie Lopez, Al Espinosa. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Ella Saldana North, Adriana Sevahn Nichols, Eddie Lopez, Al Espinosa.
Photo by Jenny Graham.

The cast is beyond flawless. They are energetically perfect. They immerse themselves in their characters, crying sincerely over a lost child one moment and then credulously happy the next when yet another plot point releases them from anguish. Then they break into ballads (in both Spanish and English) and dance dramatically. And, they take their turns breaking the fourth wall by delivering comments directly to the audience, and these comments increasingly (and satisfyingly) target social issues as the play moves on.

The playbill and other OSF materials I read later made much of how Brechtian Destiny is. Having actors make sure the audience is reminded that they are watching a play is not a telenovela technique, apparently. Well, sure. I guess. However, I think the improbability of telenovela storylines and the reputed uneven use of technology provides a distance that the ad hoc comments to the audience mimics on the stage. It works well.

Looking at the list of actors to pick standouts to applaud is revelatory. Each earned the screaming standing ovation. Vilma Silva (Fabiola Castillo), Eddie Lopez (Ernesto Del Rio), and Armando Durán (Armando Castillo) were my early favorites. But Al Espinosa (Dr. Jorge Ramiro), Adriana Sevahn Nichols (Hortencia Del Rio), Esperanza America (Pilar Esperanza Castillo), and Ella Saldana North (Victoria Maria Del Rio) were equally good. And, I don’t want to damn with late praise Eduardo Enrikez (Sebastian Jose Castillo) or Fidel Gomez (Dr. Diego Mendoza). At the end, I loved Casterine Castellanos (Sister Sonia) the most.

It’s not just the script, directing, and acting. All of the crafts had a hand in this creative collage.

Esperanza America. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Esperanza America.
Photo by Jenny Graham.

The costumes… well, look at a picture again. Click on it to blow it up! Costume Designer Julie Weiss did a masterful job creating elegant, appropriately over-the-top wardrobes for each character. Very, very fun to see.

Francois Pierre Couture, the scenic designer, was no slouch, either. The sets felt like thrown together richness with just the right amount of obvious misses. They came directly from the back lot of the telenovela production company.

I hugely appreciate plays, movies, performances that do a great job at what they are trying to do. I hold Schindler’s List  to a different standard than Star Wars. I rate them both highly because they deliver the best of their genre.

So, I may expect more meaning from Othello than I do a soap opera on stage. But, damn, I appreciate this soap opera!

Moreover, Destiny truly is the modern adaptation of Sense and Sensibility that OSF doesn’t deliver in the S&S production. Destiny deals with class, income inequality, manners and mores. It exposes the 2018 world’s roughness, tenderness, and delivers on the hopes for a happy ending.

Play rating: 5 out of 5 Syntaxes

Armando Durán, Catherine Castellanos and Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Armando Durán, Catherine Castellanos and Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Destiny of Desire runs only through July 12th. Buy your tickets now! The morning after the opening production I went online to buy a single ticket for a Saturday matinee in mid-April, and the performance was sold out!

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Othello

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Othello at Oregon Shakespeare FestivalOthello

by William Shakespeare
directed by Bill Rauch

I know I have seen Othello before, at least a couple of times. But, I never experienced this deliberate, painful story with believable Evil, blinded goodness, and flawed purity. Other Othellos were classic SHAKESPEARE. This was 2018 artistry. I left the theater wondering if Othello‘s tragedy is personal or is the real sadness that racism, dislike of foreigners, faux-Christian superiority and male dominance has changed so little in 400+ years?

Othello (Chris Butler) is certainly flawed and succumbs too completely to Iago’s (Danforth Comins) suggestions of marital infidelity. But, Butler’s Othello is not the bombastic, purely self-important character I’ve been presented with before. He’s trusting, reflective. There are pages of dialog from him and about him I swear were written for this performance. Yes, he makes terrible decisions, but they are recognizable human decisions.

I suspect the nasty racial slurs and the dwelling on Othello’s nationality have been swallowed in other productions to make the play more a great piece of literature focusing on irrational jealousy, suitable for educated audiences. Othello is about misplaced jealously, after all.

But, in Director Rauch’s Othello, the prejudiced-based plotting against the Other, exemplified by, but not solely practiced by, Iago deepens the significance of the production. This show is not the easy moral lesson about avoiding gossip and trusting your wife that other Othellos have been.

Chris Butler, Alejandra Escalante. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Chris Butler, Alejandra Escalante. Photo by Jenny Graham.

There are so many comments about race and nationality. How could I have missed their importance before? I mean, they were there, but it was all about misplaced jealously, wasn’t it?

Furthermore, Rauch and his cast have discovered that none of the characters are true stereotypes of good, mindless evil, and blind protectiveness. I don’t remember hearing the subtitles of personality in other productions, but Rauch’s actors emphasize nuance over comfortable classifications.

Iago shares his cunning schemes not as an irrational one-dimensional crazy person, but as a hurt, vindictive, effective narrow human. Comins gives us a man, not just an archetype, to despise.

Amy Kim Waschke, Danforth Comins.

Amy Kim Waschke (Emilia) Danforth Comins (Iago). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Audiences for all Othellos must lament Desdemona’s panicked concealment of the symbolic handkerchief’s innocent loss. Yet, I’ve never felt before how reasonable Othello was in his doubts about Desdemona’s purity as I did watching OSF’s scene of repeated questions and dissembling. My God! Othello was not the insanely jealous icon of self-delusion and self-righteousness who I remember.

I’m sure the dismissive xenophobia of the local population, especially the Muslims, has been there before. But, I just haven’t seen it. At least not in a way that made it part of the central weaving of prejudice and unfairness that poisoned Othello’s mission, marriage, and mind.

I especially appreciated a small silent scene, possibly added by Rauch, where the local Muslim official (Barzin Akhavan) unrolls a prayer mat downstage and bows his religious obligations. The dialogue and force of action is about preparation for a public dinner by our Christian characters, but we get to see this quiet act of differentness. Brilliant.

This is no pageant grandly presented in the Elizabethan theater. The simple, but exquisite, set by Christopher Acebo allows Iago to come out and literally touch audience members, to draw us in to his need for to recover from the ego injury of having been passed over for promotion by the dark-skinned Othello. I felt his need to bring down the foreigner and to make Venice great again.

Othello is placed in modern times, almost flawlessly. The location unleashes Acebo. His clean stages always allow the audience to see the action on stage better, and in Othello he has devised ways to make us feel very comfortable and included in the story.

My favorite setting was that of the work-out gym that is used for the serial plotting of the women and the men. You know those series of conversations where people keep meeting each other on the street, saying their lines that move the story, and then disappearing in a rapid succession of “Adieus”? To avoid the street mish-marsh, Acebo created a gym, complete with a wall of big-screen TV’s, where Othello et al naturally came in, worked out, talked, and then moved on to the showers. That’s how people would meet and gossip in 2018!

Chris Butler, Derek Garza, James Ryen, Barzin Akhavan. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Chris Butler, Derek Garza, James Ryen, Barzin Akhavan. Photo by Jenny Graham.

The entire cast was excellent. I am particularly fond of people who make small roles memorable without drawing too much attention to their minor part, and so kudos to Richard Elmore for his whistling handyman. (He’s the Duke, too, but much more fun with his box of tools.) I feel the need to applaud Desdemona (Alejandra Escalante), Cassio (Derek Garza), Roderigo (Stephen Michael Spencer), Emilia (Amy Kim Waschke). and Lodovico (James Ryen) — great jobs!

There are two areas which left me flat. First, Othello has an accent that is difficult to understand. Butler delivers it consistently, and I get that it makes him more foreign. But, the accent sounds more like central or south African to me, although I am no expert. In any event, even if it is genuine Moroccan, its distracting. A minor nit.

The other nit is some of the costume designs by Dede M. Ayite. For an elegant dinner Desdemona’s dress is a green thing that looked like it came from someone going to my high school prom in 1967. My theater date complained about Desdemona’s orange pants in another scene. Meanwhile Roderigo is given prominent bulging, pointed crotches for no apparent reason. Maybe he has a problem fitting into the wardrobe, but whatever the cause, the effect is distracting. Nothing is ever made of his endowment so I felt like they showed us a gun in Act I but never fired it. Either the costumes — or Roderigo — need some surgery.

Nits aside, Bill Rauch’s Othello is a masterful performance that exemplifies the uniqueness of the talent and vision of the artists at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He and his team avoid the simple, single-themed popular approach to Shakespeare’s story. They restore the many detailed narratives and human depths so that Othello is a modern horror.

Play rating: 5 out of 5 Syntaxes

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Imaginary Comforts
or the Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit

Berkeley, CA
at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Set of IMAGINARY COMFORTS, OR THE STORY OF THE GHOST OF THE DEAD RABBIT
Opening Scene of IMAGINARY COMFORTS,
OR THE STORY OF THE GHOST OF THE DEAD RABBIT

Imaginary Comforts or
The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit

by Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket)
WORLD PREMIERE

I am unreasonably pleased at not knowing how to start a discussion of Imaginary Comforts. 

The locally-produced theater I’ve seen in the Bay Area in the past decade has been linear, easily described, one-dimensional. Some productions, especially recent Theatre Rhinoceros shows, have been quality, great fun events. But, none has risen to the gob-smacking, “I got to think about this” level that the productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival frequently obtain. In fact, the only mind-twisting disrupted narrative I’ve seen on stage in San Francisco has been the packaged OSF production of The UnfortunatesUntil today.

Imaginary Comforts is not a straight-forward, easily tracked narration. It is simultaneously clear and chaotic. The purpose of each scene is obvious, but only when it is.

So, how to tell you why it’s amazing art you want to see?

I can tell you the play is about a character who is a rabbi, another who is a recovering alcoholic, another who is an alcoholic who fails recovery, another who is an alcohol therapist, another who is a bookkeeper, etc., etc.  They interact with each other. There are funerals and searches for connection. You don’t see how the different characters could matter to each other. But they do. Eventually.

It’s a play about storytelling, and the power of the stories told. The main character is really The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit. Most people will think the story is horrible. We don’t ever hear the full story. It’s in virtually every scene.

The play opens with Clovis (Michael Goorjian) and his friend who is playing the ghost of the dead rabbit (Danny Scheie) practicing a dramatization of the rabbit’s story. The main character is on stage from the start!

Rabbi Naomi Middleton (? on the last name — it’s mentioned in dialogue but not in the playbill, played by Marilee Talkinton) is consumed with the need to find stories for the funeral of Dr. Gold (Julian Lopez-Morillas). Naomi is all about stories, they’re central to her identity as a Jew and her calling to be a rabbi. She hears the story of the Ghost early on. She initially is repulsed by the story; ultimately she is strengthened by it. The story doesn’t change.

Rabbi Naomi’s insistence on coming back to the central importance of storytelling to Judaism made me consider the style of my own church’s new Senior Minister. Even if they both weren’t redheaded religious leaders, their similar dedication to the power of stories would be striking. It’s not just the Jewish religion that finds power in a good story. All religions and cultures use stories. And, it is not just rabbis or ministers or priests who are consumed with finding the right story for the moment. The rabbit gets to everyone.

But, this isn’t a “good-for-you” intellectual thought piece. Throughout the play the dialogue is God-awfully fun. Witty, meaningful, and wickedly well written. Lots of funny moments. Sophisticated language is interspersed with low-brow physical humor. It works wonderfully.

IMAGINARY COMFORTS poster by Berkeley Rep

Moreover, Imaginary Comforts passes my continuity test. There are no orphaned illusions or actions. If we see a gun in Scene 1, it’s used before the curtain comes down. In a play that seems scattered at first, having every bit of dramatic fabric woven into the complete production is a satisfying accomplishment.

I have only mentioned a few of the characters because I think it really needs the 90 minutes to property describe how the people on stage fit together. I don’t mean to short the actors, though. The entire cast rings true.

The set needs a special shout out, though. Applause to designer Todd Rosenthal. The scenes are rotated into place on two turntables, and the interaction between the components mirrors the complex integration of the characters’ stories. The design and movement are strong, simple, and also intricate. The physical stage helps thrust the characters, including the Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit, into the lap of the audience. It’s an excellent design.

This world premiere is fun and meaningful and well acted and well produced. There are a few moments when the language seems a bit stilted, so I wouldn’t discourage an editorial review. And, there were some minor flubbed lines in the matinee we saw.

But, wow! Thank you Berkeley Rep for offering the Bay Area a very enjoyable play that demands attention, analysis, and discussion.

Ozdachs rating:
Rating: 4 and 1/2 Syntaxes out of 5

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Henry IV, Part 2

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Henry IV, Part 2

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Carl Cofield 

Scene from Henry IV, Part 2

Daniel Jose Molina as Prince Hal. Photo by OSF/Jenny Graham.

This production is unique in my Ashland experience. Not in a good way. At all.

The Festival is allowing an actor to go onstage who does not know his lines and cannot read them from the script he’s holding on a clipboard.

It is bizarrely unbelievable that this nationally-known repertory theater has hired an actor for a single role which he cannot do. And, they have left him in the role, ruining the play for audiences and destroying the show for the other cast members.

Unfortunately, G. Valmont Thomas, who was originally cast as Falstaff, has not been able to perform since right after opening in early July. OSF decided to cast former Love Boat bartender Ted Lange as the replacement Falstaff, bypassing understudy Tyrone Wilson. According to reports from several company members, Lange was so bad in that pivotal role that the actors demanded that Wilson be made the permanent Falstaff. OSF management agreed, and Lange was given Wilson’s assignment as Northumberland, Snare, and Warwick.

Ted Lange as Issac Washington on the Love Boat

Ted Lange as Issac Washington on the Love Boat. Photo: Wikipedia

These three characters are not major, but are often on the stage moving the story along. Except, Lange is inept and cannot get through a single paragraph of dialogue without screwing up the timing, emphasis, or completely forgetting his lines. So, instead of helping the narrative move, Lange is constantly taking the audience out of the moment and disrupting the rhythm and sense of story.

When we saw the performance the third week of August, Lange should have had a month to learn his part. Lange was in his third performance. He doesn’t have any other assignment at OSF, and the people he’s playing aren’t verbose. But, Lange messes up the cadence and makes the show feel junior high school-ish from the first moment he’s on stage. He’s unable to get through his first scene without misspeaking and forgetting words. [8/27/17 – Bill Rauch generously wrote me about this blog and corrected my original statement that Lange had a month to learn his part when I saw the performance.  Bill informed me that I saw Lange’s third appearance in the roles.]

After the initial appearance Lange often shows up on stage with a clipboard so he can read from the script to get through his speeches. But, he cannot even read his role without skipping lines and sounding weird.

Lange is around too much to allow any momentum in the show. The performance a waste of audience time and a waste of the tremendous talent elsewhere on stage.

Tyrone Wilson feels completely in charge and comfortable as Falstaff. Daniel Jose Medina as Prince Hal does a fine job,  and Jeff King (Henry IV) has excellent moments. Robin Goodrin Nordli has a scene stealing moment, Robert Vincent Frank is a memorable Bardolph, Kimberly Scott is regally rebellious, and, well, all the other actors are the excellent, talented people we have become accustomed to at OSF.

Lange is so bad that the other good acting doesn’t matter. Instead of getting engrossed in the suppression of the rebellion or the maturing of Prince Hal, we kept dreading the next appearance of Lange. When King Henry IV calls out for Lord Warwick to join him, I really thought of standing up up and shouting, “Oh, God. Not Warwick! Anyone but Warwick!” But, I didn’t, and Warwick came on, clipboard in hand, and fumbled through the next scene.

OSF’s response to Lange’s inability to perform is to schedule frequent rehearsals for the company that are supposed to continue until a couple weeks before the show’s closing. Seriously. Think of the cost in money and time to keep Lange in the role. And, so far, the extra rehearsals are not working.

We have heard that Bill Rauch picked Lange because he wanted to keep the ethnic balance of the characters and cast. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, that impulse strikes me as patronizing. And, the continued reliance on Lange feels stunningly stupid.

Even if you decide that it’s necessary in a Shakespeare history play to replace one African American actor with another, why pick an LA television actor? Even if all African American company members are completely booked, reach out to an alumnus or a local college actor. Alum Kyle Hayden is in town for other business, for God’s sake. I bet Kyle would be off-book and a fine Warwick inside a week.

Ted Lange must feel awful. He looks sharp on stage. He is bright and animated. He’s directed and won awards (see his Wikipedia page). He’s probably a nice guy.

But at this stage of his career, he is not a capable stage actor. OSF is doing a disservice to him, to the cast, and the audience by allowing him to continue in performance after performance.

While Lange is in the show, Henry IV, Part 2 is unwatchable. Turn your tickets back in.

Play rating:  No Syntaxes. Play Rating 0 out of 5.

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Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical

Eureka Theater, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco
at Theatre Rhinoceros

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
The Musical
By Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Directed by John Fisher

Darryl V. Jones* as Bernadette, Charles Peoples III as Adam, Rudy Guerrero* as Tick and the Company in PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, directed by John Fisher. A Theatre Rhinoceros Production at the Eureka Theatre, Photo by David Wilson.

Photo by David Wilson, Theatre Rhinoceros

The more I think about this production, the better I like it. And, I left the theater damn happy to begin with!

The musical Priscilla follows the basic story of the original movie and adds in about every disco/pop hit of the late 70’s and 80’s in a supremely fun, colorful, and fast moving montage that makes the 2 1/2 hours running time go too quickly.

Theatre Rhinoceros executes perfectly. There’s pop, acting, razzle-dazzle, music, and emotion. The singing is good++, the choreography spectacular, and the staging top notch. There is a surplus of enthusiasm and good feeling, and that glow gets us focusing on the positives and ignoring imperfections. So, the costumes are eye-catching (if not perfectly fitted).

The huge cast of 14 (plus three alternating youngsters who share the role of Benji) has strong acting and musical ability. You’re treated to a engaging show, not just a campy, over-the-top extravaganza. Each actor successfully walks the tightrope that keeps them entertaining and in character while NOT falling into farce or tawdry caricature.

 Rudy Guerrero* as Tick, Charles Peoples III as Adam, and Darryl V. Jones* as Bernadette in PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT

Rudy Guerrero* as Tick, Charles Peoples III as Adam, and Darryl V. Jones* as Bernadette

The main characters, divas, minor characters, … everyone! has spotlight moments and makes the most of them. Okay, there’s a minor character or two who were “enthusiastic”, but that attitude and at least moderate ability just made the show more Priscilla-like to me.

Minorly flawed, but damn happy, 100%-effort is how Priscilla should be presented, in my world. In fact, when I heard of how glitzy the New York production was, I felt that we were seeing a better version. Priscilla is about a pick-up drag show in the out Outback of Australia. Production values are not what’s important. In New York there was a major tour bus on stage, apparently. At the Rhino we had a big, fun prop bus that was a better Priscilla than any modern metal Greyhound monstrosity would be. In New York they changed the road signs from “Kangaroos Ahead” or “Wombat Crossing” to things like “Deer Crossing”.  That’s what I was told, anyway.

Overall, the Rhino production felt right. It was absolutely entertaining. It made me grin insanely, clap along, and root for our hero, heroine, and even the obnoxious foil. There were show-stopping moments (how did they do that pingpong ball scene?) and masterclass scenes.

I wouldn’t have wanted them to change anything. There was a perfection in this performance that embraced its slight imperfections.

Thank you, Theatre Rhinoceros for putting together this 5 out of 5 stars (well, Syntax dachshund heads, and not stars, really!) production!

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