Sudden End of an era in the South Bay Area

Today San Jose Repertory Theatre announced that it has filed for bankruptcy and will no longer produce shows or any output, immediately canceling the remainder of its season and its planned 2014-15 offerings.

Although I never made it to see a show there, I was familiar with its output as a notable producer of plays in the South Bay region. Additionally, I had worked with its now-former artistic director, Rick Lombardo, in the Boston area, and he and I actually made the move to California at the same time, though bound for different locations.

It’s a shame – and seems quite incredulous, actually – that the Rep couldn’t form an alliance with one of the deep – pocketed tech companies in the Silicon Valley area. I don’t know the whole story, of course, though it may be tied in to downtown San Jose’s ups and downs with making itself into a destination rather than just a place that people work. I applied to work there at least once between 2008 and 2011, though it was always just a little too far from my Marin County home base to go for a night. However, many regional actors based more in the central Bay Area (SF, Oakland, Berkeley) appeared there regularly in a variety of shows and roles.

There are uncomfortable parallels with a similar situation unfolding here in Ann Arbor at the moment with the city’s premiere resident theatre company, Performance Network, although in that case the organization’s board has “suspended operations” and a new business model is set to be presented to the board at their upcoming meeting next week.

And on a personal note, this news comes just as I’ve been accepted to study for an MFA at an arts management program. But I remain committed and hopeful that the power of the arts as a beacon of the community – and way for people and places to come together – will shine through.


One-Two Punch: An Iliad & The Counselor

I seem to be gradually re-gaining my frequent theatregoer routine, which is definitely a positive development. For some reason my filmgoing routine has been in overdrive these last several months, often seeing 2 films per week – I ought to have chronicled them more immediately but might try to do a reverse chronological list before the year is out.

I returned to the local Performance Network Theatre a few nights ago to catch An Iliad, their season opener that will be closing this weekend. I found the show to be the most impressive one I’ve seen there yet, and while I’ve only been to 3 or 4 productions there so far, it was a welcome reminder to pay attention to what the company has to offer, as my previous impressions had been more mixed.

This Iliad was a one-man show, and the narrative traced the familiar mythological story, adding some contemporary touches towards the conclusion. I found actor John Manfredi’s performance to be consistently engaging, even though individual moments tend to stand out more in my reflections on the play than the piece as a whole. There were many intriguing uses of set and light design that seemed to be some of the most versatile I had seen on stage in a long while. For example, the stage appeared to be sparsely illuminated by a series of search lights, but those same lights came on and off at very specific times throughout the narrative. Sound design also added a perceptive layer through use of a record player, recorded music and many individual LPs on stage that banded together for a late plot point. And I can’t forget the set as a whole, which used the entirety of PNT’s wide rectangular space to its maximum advantage.

Yesterday I ventured over to the Quality 16 (definitely the oddest named cinema I’ve ever been a regular patron of) to catch new release The Counselor. In retrospect I’m not sure why I rushed out to see this film, but suspect a glitzy advertising campaign and good memory of seeing previous New Mexico/Texas-based Cormac McCarthy (and Javier Bardem) film No Country for Old Men might have contributed to the “want to see” effect. Unfortunately this did not live up to the strong standards of No Country.

McCarthy’s first film script sees him exploring familiar bleak themes of life and death in an arid and lonely landscape. Unfortunately character motivation remains vague throughout the film, and the layered plot is never completely nor clearly unfolded. The featured actors fare inconsistently, and I felt particularly disappointed to see Penelope Cruz regressing to a glorified supportive girlfriend part that might have been more common for her earlier in her career. On the other hand, Cameron Diaz turns in a scenery-chewing performance in multiple ways, though looking noticeably older on-screen – I realize I haven’t chosen to see a new release of hers since The Box in 2009, which only drew me in because it was filmed in my home region of Massachusetts. Of the three primary men in the film, Javier Bardem fares the best, again playing up character eccentricities (a similar approach was seen in Skyfall last year) to create a memorable screen presence.

Two better known in the 90’s Latino actors (John Leguizamo and Rosie Perez) appeared in cameo roles, making me wonder what they’ve been up to the last several years. And the technical makeup of the film impressed me, but that’s not a surprise coming from the skilled hands of veteran filmmaker Ridley Scott.

Next up on my film list is clandestine Disney documentary Escape from Tomorrow, playing a very limited engagement at the Michigan Theater this week.


Corbin knows what Ann Arbor needs to know

Once again this post finds me in the friendly outpost of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’ve made a short yet enjoyable return to this area, primarily to support my friends The Penny Seats in their current and second-ever stage production, What Corbin Knew by Jeffrey Hatcher. Leap Day brought the second performance and consecutive sell out for the company. They have ingeniously enhanced the second stage “Mosh Pit” of larger local company Performance Network for this show. In fact, I see that the whole turn of events epitomizes my own cornerstone three Cs of theatre work: Community, Creativity & Collaboration.

Working on a script like this demonstrates a skillful broadening of horizons for The Penny Seats. The buoyancy and open-air theatrics of last summer have been exchanged for a tight playing space and awareness of unstated nuances. In several cases, what was not explained (or rather what was imagined) had more impact than plot dialogue and wordplay.

The show tells the tale of Roger Corbin, a successful yet somewhat mysterious contractor. He maintains a swanky skybox in a stadium venue, choosing to use the location to introduce two couples who did not previously know each other. Corbin has no way of knowing how the couples will find each other. The plot begins, and immediately thickens, when he’s the last one there to their introductory party… I could say a little bit more about the plot, but on the other hand, I like surprises.

The five actors worked strongly together, and while they seemed to be still balancing out the pacing of a few scenes/parts of dialogue, I’m confident those elements will tie together by the time the show resumes next week. Actors Melynee Saunders Warren and Russ Schwartz delivered particularly nuanced, vivid interpretations of the seemingly more urbane couple whose reality is a little different than that. Roy Sexton and Rebecca Hardin countered as a couple who seems to lead a perfect suburban existence, but has personal challenges to address. Matt Cameron explored the duality of Corbin, serving as the eyeglasses for the audience, but sometimes throwing those off to suggest Corbin’s individuality. Director Jacqui Robbins clearly led with a specificity and creative approach.

Structurally, the show appears to be a comedy at first glance, but Robbins and the cast succeed in holding a slightly uneasy, uncertain tone for the first act that left me knowing something was going to happen. And yet, I still got enveloped in the farcical comedy, so that when the tone shifted, it came as a genuine surprise.

Design elements made the production into a cohesive whole, most notably in a series of creatively colored outfits for the women, and a crucial photograph. The set itself didn’t need to be large scale, relying on imagination through sound design and use of entrances & exits.

I’m delighted to support and encourage a company like the Penny Seats and hope they continue to find success.