Thursday, December 22, 2005

"The Hard Nut" offers hilarious twist on standard Christmas fare

For theatergoers wanting to enjoy a holiday production but who feel a bit weary of the traditional versions, there’s one rendition that gives a lively twists on standard Christmas fare.

Cal Peformances’ presentation of the Mark Morris Dance Group’s “The Hard Nut” offers a hilarious alternative to the classic tale of “The Nutcracker.” Based on the story “Nutcracker and Mouseking” by E.T.A. Hoffman and choreographed by Mark Morris, it’s a funky, chaotic version where appealing, engaging and sometimes creepy characters parade and dance across the stage to the delight and giggles of audience members.

Most of the action takes place in the Stahlbaum’s 1960s house complete with Adrianne Lobel’s cartoonish, black and white set and a gigantic white Christmas tree. Mrs. Stahlbaum’s a tall, well-coifed woman played hilariously by John Heginbotham. Dr. Stahlbaum’s played comically by Guillermo Resto. Both remain hip despite living in the suburbs. But they’re also at a loss as to how to handle their rambunctious three children, Marie (Lauren Grant), Fritz (June Omura) and Louise (Julie Worden).

At the Stahlbaum’s annual holiday do, guests range from an inebriated character (Mark Morris) from the 1970s with his full head of curly hair and wide lapels to the strange, eye-patched Drosselmeier (Craig Biesecker).

As a subplot, Drosselmeier’s search for a hard nut sends him off on a global journey where he encounters a variety of dancers from an Arabian seductress swathed in wonderful turquoise colored fabrics to Chinese maidens dressed in citrus colors of green and orange.

One of the funniest dance sequences in the productions features male and female ballet dancers portraying snowflakes. Dressed in midriff baring white tutus and donning shell shaped hats, they sprinkle snow around themselves on stage as members of the UC Women’s Chorale, directed by Mark Sumner, sing ethereal style music in the background. The Waltz of the Flowers also shows both genders of dancers in another humorous number. It also displays costume designer Martin Pakledinaz's exquisite talents with his vibrant, wispy petal costumes.

The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra with conductor Robert Cole at its helm performs Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” Op. 71 magnificently.

Mark Morris Dance Group’s “The Hard Nut” plays Dec. 9-18 at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Way in Berkeley. Tickets range from $32-$60. Call (510) 642-9988 or visit for more information.

Friday, February 4, 2005

Berkeley Rep’s "Fêtes de la Nuit" offers varying perspectives on amour

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

Just in time for Valentine’s Day Berkeley Rep presents Charles L. Mee’s “Fêtes de la Nuit,” a madcap kaleidoscope of viewpoints on amour-Parisian style. Directed by Les Waters, this production at the Roda Theatre offers naughty glimpses into romantic situations and everyday life inspired by Mee’s travels to Paris.

“Fêtes de la Nuit” starts out simple then gains momentum, thanks to music ranging from house style to Edith Piaf, impassioned dancing and a whirlwind of humorous vignettes including “Le Bistro,” “The Avant Garde,” and “Vin.” While not all interrelated, most contain some element of human sexuality such as desire. They also feature people of varying sexual orientations-straight, lesbian and gay. All the adventures occur amid Annie Smart’s minimalist set with its white stage, large draped curtain and simple rows of stairs.

“Le Bistro” evokes an authentic feel when a small gathering of men and women indulge in favorite Parisian pastimes: Smoking, drinking red wine and erupting into loud, impassioned debates-complete with arrogant, all knowing attitudes. Bruce McKenzie portrays Jean Francois-the brooding, chain-smoking, storyteller of the downtrodden-with brilliant wit.

“The Avant Garde” elicits giggles from the audience as a pianist, portrayed amusingly by Michi Barall, struggles to scoot her piano bench to just the right place. It’s all for naught because suddenly, she leaps on top of the piano and runs a string through its chords to produce bizarre sounds.

Joseph Kamal proves truly engaging as Barbesco. An intellectual, he gives an account of his various sexual dalliances that took place in the Jardin du Luxembourg as part of his speech at an academic conference.

“Fêtes de la Nuit” also features vibrant dancing. During a solo performance, dancer Jeffery Lynn McCann’s dexterity and athleticism mesmerizes as he makes a series of complex break dancing moves look effortless. And yet another, when 12 dancers-then 14-twist, turn and gyrate at a frenzied pace to highly charged music.

Costume designer Christal Weatherly’s highly imaginative creations, ranging from the impish to glamorous, provide the perfect accoutrements to this production. Especially during an outlandish fashion show with models proudly swaggering down a Paris runway. Standouts include Danny Scheie strutting about in a peacock blue suit accented with a flowing train of billowy, creme colored fabric. Maria Elena Ramirez epitomizes haute couture by donning a clingy black and white striped column dress and a hat adorned with large plums of white feathers. In keeping with the generally mischievous style of “Fêtes de la Nuit” there’s also a model wearing an 18th century white French wig with baskets of baguettes strapped to her hips.

This and many other scenes illustrate the playful charm of “Fêtes de la Nuit,” with Mee’s use of exaggeration as a means of conveying a sense of joir de vivre and a humorous way of looking at amour and daily life.

Two vignettes that don’t work and actually interrupt the chaotic rhythm of “Fêtes de la Nuit’s” are “Le Petomane” and “The Other Paris.” The first includes a tasteless bit centering around Le Petomane, portrayed by Bruce McKenzie, a 19th century performer who entertained crowds at the Moulin Rouge with his varied repertoire of flatulence. “The Other Paris” shows actual footage and news reports of rioting crowds in the outskirts of the city. It’s clearly meant as jarring but it feels totally out of place with the lighthearted feel of this play.

Overall however, “Fêtes de la Nuit” offers engaging tales as well as a breezy, cheeky approach sure to result in large amounts of laughter and plenty of eye candy.

“Fêtes de la Nuit” plays through Feb. 27 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street in Berkeley. Ticket prices range from $10 to $55 and can be purchased by calling 510-647-2949, toll free at 888-4-BRT-Tix or by visiting

Saturday, January 29, 2005

"ACT’s 'The Gamester' offers a rollicking good time."

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

For those looking to indulge in a riotous romp there's “The Gamester,” American Conservatory Theater’s current production at the Geary Theater. Based upon Jean-Francois Regnard’s “Le Joueur” and set in late 17th century Paris, this adaptation by playwright Freyda Thomas centers on Valère (played by Lorenzo Pisoni) a likeable cad who’s obsessed with gambling.

It’s overshadowed his life so much that debtors rap emphatically on his front door and his father Thomas (played by Steve Irish) disowned him. That’s disheartening enough but now his fiancé, the beautiful, naïve and very wealthy Angélique (played sweetly by Margot White), gives Valère an ultimatum: The game or her. Adding to the pressure, Valère’s crusty old Uncle Dorante (played hilariously by Ron Campbell) schemes to make Angélique his new bride. What’s a gambler to do?

With his dark-haired good looks and athletic build, Lorenzo Pisoni portrays Valère with vulnerability, charisma and agility as he tumbles and fights his way to a decision. A host of mirthful characters cross Valère’s path-each with their own agenda-and thoroughly entertain the audience, thanks to a plethora of high jinks, pranks and mischief.

Among them, Madame Sécurité (played saucily by Joan Mankin), a glamorous, affluent widow with an insatiable appetite for amour who satisfies it by lingering around casinos. Then when male gamblers find themselves broke but not yet ready to quit, she swoops down to offer them francs in exchange for a quick tête-à-tête. Those indebted to her include Valère who she stops by to visit at his shabby quarters. There, her dominatrix style seduction proves clever and swift. With a quick turn she removes Valère’s belt. Then she slyly pulls out a whip tucked away in her décolletage. With Valère staring at her helplessly while seated on a stool, Madame Sécurité strips off his shirt and coils the whip around his neck. Before he realizes it, he’s flayed on the floor with her on top. Following a chase scene they end up in his weathered bed where Valère quips, “They all look the same in the dark.”

Anthony Fusco delivers an engaging and delightful performance as Marquis de Fauxpas, a fancy dresser and an elegant speaker. That is, unless he’s around Madame Argante, Angélique’s widowed, cynical elder sister played charmingly by René Augesen. Secretly, the Marquis fancies her so in her presence he stutters and can barely speak. Stacy Ross portrays Madame Préférée, Angélique’s cunning, manipulative servant, with clever wit as her character exploits people and circumstances for her own plans and schemes.

Beaver Bauer’s elegant costumes beautifully convey the opulence of 17th century Baroque France, with the use of rich fabrics and wonderful detail. As actors take the stage in each creation it’s difficult to rate one more gorgeous than the next. However, Madame Sécurité’s red brocade gown accented with gold, with its sheer, resplendent cape topped with plumes of crimson feathers, proves exquisite. In another scene, Marquis de Fauxpas’ textured gold suit featuring rings of bright yellow feathers-topped with a petite hat with pheasant feathers-illustrates his flamboyant persona.

Kate Edmund’s uncomplicated, modern set with its ceiling-high playing cards-depicting the Queen of Hearts no less-provides the perfect backdrop. Director Ron Lagomarsino brings Thomas’ script to life with a frenetically paced and fun production. However, Thomas’ rhyming lyrics grow tedious despite the vigorous comic delivery by a superb cast. While this production showcases wonderful performances and stunning costumes, the script disappoints due to its lack of substance.

“The Gamester,” plays through February 6. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets $15-$68. Call 415-749-2228 or visit