Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cirque du Soleil’s “Ovo” offers a charming glimpse into the world of insects

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

Insects surround us every day—in the air, underground and sometimes underfoot. Yet because of the tiny stature of most bugs, the majority of people don’t give them much thought. That’s what makes Cirque du Soleil’s “Ovo” so delightful. It presents these petite creatures in full, life size view, by focusing on a bustling day in the life of butterflies, grasshoppers ants, spiders, scarabs and more. The production opened and made its U.S. premiere Nov. 27, under Cirque’s familiar royal blue and sunflower yellow grand chapiteau, just outside AT & T Park in San Francisco.

“Ovo” means egg in Portuguese, which makes sense given that Deborah Colker, its writer, director and choreographer, is from Brazil. When audience members first enter the tent, they encounter a huge, glowing egg on a stage dotted with dandelion stalks and back dropped by a honeycomb.

It all takes place on Gringo Cardia’s changing set, with Éric Champoux’s ethereal lighting and Fred Gérard’s acrobatic rigging designs. Liz Vandal’s vividly hued, whimsical costumes and Julie Bégin’s playful make up design add richness to the production. Composer and musical director Berna Ceppas provides the lively, Latin rhythm inspired score. It's all under the artistic leadership of director of creation Chantal Tremblay and Cirque du Soleil’s artistic guide, founder Guy Laliberté.

Colker’s story centers upon a flirty, ditzy ladybug (Michelle Matlock) who becomes enamored with the Foreigner (François-Guillaume LeBlanc), a goofy, over the top fly, under the overbearing supervision of Master Flippo (Joseph Collard). Providing comic relief, the characters' antics are charming for the most part but also get a bit tedious at times. However, Lee Brearley as Creatura, who appears intermittently throughout the show, keeps the audience thoroughly amused with this dancing, Slinky like insect. Moreover, the stunning circus acts, presented in the highly imaginative manner for which Cirque du Soliel is known for, make “Ovo” a must see.

Vladimir Hrynchenko gives a breathtaking, hand balancing performance as a dragonfly atop a plant during “Orvalho,” in which he exhibits the tremendous strength and control required to execute such an act. Later, he gracefully glides his lithe body along the plant’s curves.

In “Cocoon,” Marjorie Nantel enthralls during an aerial silk performance as an immersed caterpillar undergoing a metamorphosis.

In the romantic “Butterflies (Spanish Web Duo),” Maxim Kozlov and Inna Mayorova epitomize elegance and grace in a performance that blends an aerial flying act, hand-to-hand ballet and contortion, all taking place on ropes on which they soar above in harmonious unison.

In the engaging “Spiders,” Svetlana Belova, Marjorie Nantel and Robyn Houpt twist their bodies in seeming impossible contortions.

In “Acrosport,” Anna Gorbatenko, Natallia Kakhniuk, Khrystsina Maraziuk, Elena Nepytayeva and Olga Varchuk also defy preconceived notions of physical limitations as they fashion themselves into a series of flawlessly balanced, human sculptures, in an act that blends acrobatics and dance.

Spiderman Li Wei challenges gravity and physics with his nimble balancing in “Slackwire,” including riding the wire while perched on an inverted unicycle.

“Ovo’s” finale includes the thrilling “Trampo-wall,” featuring Anton Alferov, Michel Boillet, Lee Brearley, Kasper Falkesgaard, Laura Houson, Yahia Icheboudene, Karl L’écuyer, Marjorie Nantel, Ludovic Martin, Zeca Padilha, Gary Smith and Hironori Taniguchi as power tracking, trampoline hopping, wall walking and running crickets taking flight and leaping onto a massive wall, sans any support equipment.

“Ovo” plays through Jan. 24, 2010 at A T & T Park in San Francisco and Feb. 4-March 7, 2010 at the Taylor Street Bridge in San Jose. $54-$135 regular admission and $175 to $250 for Tapis Rouge package. (800) 450-1480.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig” challenges societal ideals of beauty

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

Neil LaBute’s provocative and deeply moving play “Fat Pig,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, takes an honest and necessary look at one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice in contemporary society—fat phobia—and the devastating harm it causes.

LaBute, whose work includes “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors,” employs his searing humor in “Fat Pig,” the second play in a trilogy dealing with modern culture’s obsession with physical appearance, its quest for thinness and its fixation on an idealized version of beauty.

Beginning with “The Shape of Things,” which the Aurora Theatre staged in 2003, and culminating with “Reasons to be Pretty,” “Fat Pig” centers upon Helen (Liliane Klein), an attractive, confident, intelligent, funny, sensual young woman, who also happens to be Rubenesque. She meets Tom, (played wonderfully by Jud Williford), a handsome and physically fit but otherwise unremarkable office worker, inside a crowded cafeteria at lunch. The two share a table and Tom quickly becomes enamored with Helen, as does the audience thanks to Klein’s vibrant and charismatic portrayal. Helen boldly gives Tom her business card, tells him to call her and entices him with a hopeful statement. The two begin dating, enjoy a mirthful relationship and fall in love.

However, viciousness ensues after Tom’s two superficial colleagues discover that his new girlfriend is plus size. Aside from their obvious shallowness, each holds their own motivations for being cruel. There's the grating, sexist Carter, (portrayed superbly by Peter Ruocco), who crudely assesses women’s value solely on his perceived attractiveness of their bodies and who continues to feel resentment toward his obese mother after her weight caused him public humiliation as a teenager. The attractive, non plus size Jeannie, (played with marvelous spite by Alexandra Creighton), is not just Tom’s co-worker but also his on again, off again lover. She finds out that Tom no longer wants a relationship with her in the harshest of ways, when the juvenile Carter deliberately discusses Helen in front of her. Despite this, Tom still struggles to tell Jeannie the truth and that he's now dating Helen. This gives insight into the weakness of his character, while neither Carter nor Jeannie possesses the depth to recognize Helen’s beauty or numerous personal attributes.

Instead, the pair embarks on an unrelenting campaign directed at Tom and against Helen. Their mean spirited actions include Carter coaxing Tom to show him a photograph of Helen, then grabbing it from his hand, running off with it and posting it in a mass company e-mail that mocks her weight. For the infuriated, 28-year-old Jeannie, her preoccupation with her looks and clothes only superseded by her desperation to be married, she cannot fathom why Tom would want to be with that “fat bitch” rather than her. This and a company picnic at the beach, forces Tom to make a decision: Continue the happy relationship he enjoys with Helen or succumb to societal pressures and break up with her.

To some, the title of the play and the dialogue may seem severe and feel uncomfortable. But sadly to most fat women living in society today both will be all too familiar, reminding them of similar exchanges they have personally experienced, often with complete strangers.

In “Fat Pig,” LaBute demonstrates his gift for stripping away the layers of the characters he creates and infusing them with genuine emotion. Although he does pepper the play with some tired fat stereotypes—Helen is overeating when she and Tom first meet and Carter tells of how his mom fills up four grocery carts at the store and checks the calorie content of bags of candy—at least LaBute takes on fat phobia, a prevalent, social ill that is rampant yet rarely discussed. For that, this work is highly commendable.

With brilliant direction by Barbara Damashek and powerful performances by its four-member cast, the Aurora Theatre Company’s compelling production of “Fat Pig” makes for vital theater.

“Fat Pig” through Dec. 13. Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. One hour, 45 minutes with no intermission. $15-55. (510) 843-4822,

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Broadway by the Bay enchants with Rodger and Hammerstein’s “The King and I”

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

A colliding of cultures, a test of wills, the challenge of learning to embrace people very different from yourself and the darker issue of human slavery are the enduring themes in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” which continues to resonate strongly with audiences nearly 60 years after it first debuted on a Broadway stage.

Broadway by the Bay is currently bringing this classic musical to life with lush vocals, beautiful orchestration, delightful dancing and exquisite costumes in its current production directed by Dennis Lickteig, with choreography by Jayne Zaban and musical direction by Mark Hanson, which opened on July 16 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center.

Based upon the book “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon, it tells the true account of a fiercely independent, widowed English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, (portrayed superbly by Susan Himes Powers), who arrives in 1862 Bangkok with her young son Louis, (played sweetly by Hunter Lowdon), to tutor the King of Siam’s numerous children and wives.

In the opening scene Anna and her son make the transition from the familiar to the foreign when they disembark from the ship Chow Phya, with its wary English Captain Orton (John Duggan), and enter the mysterious Bangkok. Trouble immediately ensues when Anna discovers she and Louis will live in the royal palace despite the King's (Jared Lee) promise that they would live in their own home outside the palace walls. Her lack of familiarity with the city, and the new culture in which she now lives, doesn’t prevent Anna from immediately asserting herself and demanding a ten minute meeting with the king—in a land where this is simply not done. It all occurs on an exotic set designed by Premier Sets that features a pair of stone gates adorned with carved faces, back dropped by the ornate skyline of Bangkok and a crimson sunset.

Two poignant numbers convey the tragic aspect of this story. The first is when Meryll Locquiao, as Tuptim the enslaved and secret lover of Lun Tha (Romar De Claro), sings “My Lord and Master" which exhibits her gorgeous, haunting voice. The other is Himes Powers’ performance of “Hello, Young Lovers,” whose lovely voice produces chills.

There are also lighter and endearing moments as well, such as when the royal children meet Anna during the number “March of the Siamese Children” and one of them curiously lifts Anna’s hooped skirt—much to the dismay of the King,(portrayed brilliantly by Lee). It also gives the audience the chance to spy the array of costumes provided by The Theatre Company and created with sumptuous fabrics in vivid hues such as fuchsia, violet, deep green and accented with luxurious brocades.

Other playful numbers include “A Puzzlement” sung by Lee, who gives a charismatic and commanding performance as the powerful, macho and domineering—yet secretly insecure—King. Other charmers include “Getting to Know You” sung by Himes Powers, Lowdon, the Royal Children and the Royal Wives,(played by the ensemble cast), and when Anna (Himes Powers) takes the King (Lee) for an effervescent whirl during “Shall We Dance.”

By far one of the most deeply moving scenes happens during the number “We Kiss in a Shadow” as Tuptim, (portrayed eloquently by Locquiao), and Lun Tha, (played tenderly by De Claro), gently face and caress each other while dreaming and longing for a life of freedom together.

Zaban's choreography adds a powerful element to the production’s most intense scene, a Siamese version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and the number “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” The tension is palatable as the master Simon, (interpreted splendidly by Erin McKevitt), uses a pack of menacing dogs to hunt his slave Eliza, (interpreted gracefully by Yoshi Humfeld). Throughout the chase a female chorus chants “run, Eliza, run,” as the the scene builds to a crescendo. The choreography between Eliza and the Angel, (interpreted enchantingly by Joshua Lau), enriches it further and the masks worn by the characters add to the eerie nature of it all.

Overall, Broadway by the Bay’s production of “The King and I” provides an engaging evening of musical theater.

“The King and I” plays through Aug. 2 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware Ave., San Mateo. For tickets call (650) 579-5565 or visit