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Point Richmond’s Masquers Mark 50 Years with ‘Proof’ By BETSY M. HUNTON

Special to the Planet
Friday April 15, 2005

The Masquers of Point Richmond, housed for the last 40 years in one of the most charming theaters in one of the most charming areas in the Bay Area—we’ll get to that later—are celebrating their 50th anniversary with their usual eclectic selection of plays. The company started the season with a bubble entitled The Farndale Avenue Dramatic Society’s Production of MacBeth and has now moved on to one of Broadway’s recent and best-known block-busters. 

They’re is planning a 50th anniversary party in September. 

There are lots of rather remarkable things about David Auburn’s Proof, not the least of which might be that in 2001 it won both the Pulitzer Prize in Drama and the Tony for Best Play. Both. That’s not bad for a playwrite’s second full-length play, as well as his first one to even get to Broadway at all. 

By this time the play is well enough known that the fact that three out of the four characters are mathematicians may not seem quite as daunting as it did earlier on. But people who haven’t seen Proof yet will probably admit that math doesn’t seem like the first place you would expect theatrical material. Obviously, however, in this instance it works very well indeed.  

The play, after all, is about the characters: a daughter who has interrupted her life to take care of an aging father whose internationally known genius has deteriorated into worse than decay, an ambitious young man who falls in love with her and an older sister who is determined to reorganize her family’s lives. 

Proof manages to touch on most of the great dramatic themes; it’s a love story and it’s full of both humor and sadness. There’s a mystery, a seeming betrayal, a loss and a recovery. The play demands a lot of its actors, and in this production a very strong cast is up to the challenge.  

In the lead role of Catherine, the daughter who has put her own life on hold to care for her father, Carolyn Zola does terrific work, covering situations which require portrayals of almost every emotion in the book. It’s a very convincing and moving performance. 

The play opens on Catherine’s 25th birthday—an age which has particular significance in a mathematician’s family. It’s the age when mathematicians are generally believed to have finished their significant creative works. It was by that time that her father was considered to have “changed the face of mathematics.”  

Zola has appeared in productions throughout the Bay Area and is studying acting with David Ford and at Studio ACT. Her father, Robert is touchingly portrayed by multitalented Masquers’ member, David Coury, an actor in numerous productions as well as a four-time award winner for his lighting designs. In real-life, he’s in transportation engineering, but for many years he has been an active member of several theater groups with multiple roles, primarily as a technical designer and advisor, and board member.  

Georg Herzog is Harold Dobbs, a young Ph.D. candidate who comes into the isolated world of Catherine and her father, in the hope that, by going through the old man’s endless and mostly incoherent notebooks, he will find valuable mathematical materials. His relationship with the unpredictable Carolyn becomes a new complication to the scene and a major issue in the play. Herzog has studied acting with Full Circle Productions, B.A.T.S. Improv, and the ACT Studio program. Director John McMullen describes him as “a real hunk who has real talent.” 

Lily Cedar-Kraft plays the take-charge big sister Claire who has come sweeping in from New York City to straighten her family up—primarily by taking her sister off with her for what she presents as a well-organized “normal” life. Catherine, however, suspects, perhaps legitimately, that Claire really plans to commit her along with their father. 

Cedar-Kraft recently received an Arty best actress nomination. She plays a variety of roles, including, she says, “every film I can get.” Her B.A. from San Francisco State is in Drama. 

Part of the production’s success goes straight to the Masquers’ technique of selecting both plays and their directors. Thanks to Theatre Bay Area, a magazine which is almost mandatory reading for the area’s theatrical world, the Masquers and other “non-professional” theaters are able to draw on a large pool of theatrical talent from many miles around.  

It’s “almost” only because of Actors Equity’s rules for its members’ participation. Thus a sizable number of actors who either haven’t yet made “the Big Decision” or who have the good sense to prefer a less chancy way of earning a living or even—Heaven help us—of wanting to lead “a normal life,” are available, no, make that “eager” to move heaven and earth to play a particular role.  

Theater people are an obsessed breed of cats; they routinely commute staggering numbers of miles to have the chance to do a role they want on their resumes, or a director whose work they want to experience. They think nothing of a schedule that no sane person would even consider. Thus Point Richmond, this tiny, hidden little gem of an “almost village,” is able to draw talent from most of the entire Bay Area’s acting community. 

All The Masquers had to do was to place an announcement in Theatre Bay Area of their desire for a director, asking what play that he/she wanted to direct, and what his/her rationale was for that choice, and select among the people they interview. 

Director McMullen, who lives in Oakland and teaches in the Theater Departments at City College of San Francisco and Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, wanted very much to direct Proof.  

McMullen says, “I find that I choose plays which have psychological issues that resonate in me, or are particularly timely about something that’s happening in the world about which I feel strongly. Proof started off as a psychological issue—I had an aunt who cared for my grandparents and was put out of the house after their deaths by her sisters—not my Mom. And the play turned into something timely with the big flap about women in math that the guy (President) from Harvard started. I put in for Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple for next year at Masquers because I think it’s important now to remember about fighting for your freedoms.” 

McMullen has worked with all the members of his cast previously. Carolyn Zola (“Catherine”) was in McMullen’s first acting class at CCSF and he says he knew “she was an incipient talent.” He has cast her in four of his plays. He himself has acted with Georg Herzog at Berkeley’s Impact theatre. Lily Cedar-Kraft played the “Marilyn Monroe” part in Bus Stop and Dave Coury was the bus driver and also did the lights. McMullen describes Coury as a “multi-talented man. He is a lighting genius. He even took my course in acting at CCSF.” 

When asked about casting people whom he has known previously, McMullen added: “It’s nice to have people you know you can work with, and in my case, to have people who will put up with me.” 

And now, finally, we get to Point Richmond itself. 

There just doesn’t seem to be another adjective as accurate as “charming” to describe both the Masquers’ Playhouse and its setting in Point Richmond. It’s a tiny, hilly area, as different as it is possible to get from the unfortunate stereotype that Richmond has to fight. 

The buildings around the theater itself are appealing and individualized. Call it a town square, but whatever you call it, try out one of the several restaurants that lie behind the inviting fronts.  

Berkeley doesn’t have anything to teach Point Richmond’s chefs. 

The Masquers of Point Richmond perform Proof at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through May 7 and at 2 :30 p.m. Sunday, April 24 and Sunday, May 2. $13.  

Masquers’ Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Richmond. 232-4031. ?