Arts Listings

Theater Review: “The Apple Tree” at the Masquers Playhouse

By John A. McMullen II
Thursday April 08, 2010 - 05:24:00 PM

The 1960’s quirky musical is by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick who wrote “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Fiorello.” It’s composed of three not-so-connected scenarios taken from three masterfully written short stories. The first act is based on Mark Twain's “The Diary of Adam and Eve”; the second act is based on Frank R. Stockton's “The Lady or the Tiger” and the third act is based on Jules Feiffer's “Passionella,” a Cinderella tale of a charwoman’s transformation into a movie star, “…but just for the hours between Huntley and Brinkley and the Late, Late Show.” Definitely 1960’s. It doesn’t have any songs you come out whistling, but all tunes are pleasing to the ear.  

The first act falls flat in the acting department and is only rescued by the near-professional singing of Shay Oglesby-Smith and Coley Grundman, two regular performers at the theatre. When they sing, they are natural, in control, and very honest. Coley’s tenor has developed some wonderfully mellifluous baritone notes, and Shay flawlessly blends highs and lows in a voice made for musical theatre.  

When they speak, it falls into the abyss of “musical theatre acting.” Every intention is sweet and de-emphasizes conflict, syllables are drawn out, and, in trying to be childlike in the garden, the acting approaches the style seen onstage at your kid’s middle-school. The wryness of Mark Twain worked well in the dialogue on Broadway because of the NYC smart-alecky-ness of Alan Alda and Barbara Harris and the savvy and cosmopolitan direction of Mike Nichols. The lines with comedic potential are glossed over. They aren’t funny lines to the untutored eye, but New Yorker comic strip funny is hidden in most of them. (“Old theatre riddle: “What’s the difference between a comic and a comedian?” Answer: “A comic says funny things; a comedian says things funny.”) Having the ear for the right inflection and playing the most inane situation like it was a matter of serious personal consequence is what made “Seinfeld” funny. The naming of animals is their first conflict. Adam has generic names: swimmer, growler, flyer. Eve has a more finely tuned talent for names which she proudly flaunts. Adam carries a fish in. She calls it a pickerel. She wants him to put the pickerel back in the pond. (The very word pickle anything is funny; remember “The Sunshine Boys” dialogue in which they expound on the catalogue of funny words? Pickle, chicken, anything with a ‘k’ in it, etc?) Her superiority with words, this curvy new-comer to his domain who is trying to run the show, is all comic fodder. To be clearer, we need the sensibility of all Jewish comics from the Borscht Belt to Second City, from Jack Benny and George Burns to (well, just name almost any comic: Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, John Stewart). You don’t have to be Jewish (Alda isn’t); just acquire the ironic attitude. Besides, Adam and Eve were Jewish, no?  

I was surprised that this wryness wasn’t employed. Let the dictionary prevail to explain what I mean by “wry”: “1. Dryly humorous, often with a touch of irony; 2. Temporarily twisted in an expression of distaste or displeasure: made a wry face; 3. Abnormally twisted or bent to one side; crooked: a wry nose; 4. Being at variance with what is right, proper, or suitable; perverse.” I’ve seen both of the leads embody this naturalistic, carping comic mode in other productions, and even later smaller roles in the second act. 

And they were clothed. Adam in pajamas, Eve in a plain skirt. Now the one thing we know about them is that they were seriously au naturel until…well, you know the story. There was another Genesis comedy on Broadway about this time: Arthur Miller’s only comedy, “Creation of the World and Other Business.” They wore body suits with genitalia sketched-on in Magic Marker which was a sight gag from the get-go. Some imagination—or wholesale borrowing of this device or similar—was sorely needed here. And how ‘bout a little sexual tension with serious distinctions of said tension before and after apple-eating?  

DC Scarpelli—who is a master do-it-all theatrician—looked very much the Snake in his scaly, flashy, colorful shirt, shaved head, and arch attitude. He could have used more direction or license in being a much more “know-it-all” and emphasize the hierarchy of this three-some. Hey, the ol’ Snake did bring knowledge to humankind, right? Adam is the man—and thus the dummy and low-man on the totem pole—just like in all the TV commercials. Eve is naturally superior, and we all know that it would be a better world if she were in charge—again another lesson from the TV. But an outrageously dressed, affected, fey probably gay man—well, on TV that character is the arbiter of fashion, intellect and behavior on TV, and surely it has been so in theatre world for centuries, so that should be played to the hilt and ridden all the way home.  

And there, I think may be the rub. It’s long been my contention that community theatre directors need more training to guide the extensive talent in the community theatre scene. Director Robert Love, who is the Managing Director and who keeps this truly community theatre together by his spirit and his long-time hard work, directed the show. My guess is that he put together a great cast, and turned them loose and gave them permission to express themselves, and in the second act, it worked wonderfully. Plays are like children: some need a strong, demanding hand while others need to grow on their own.  

On the other hand, the ability to attract, cast, keep together and keep happy a large cast of performers who aren’t getting paid is a lesson that is hard to teach. And therein Love is a master. And it shows in Act Two. This ranks among the top two or three acts of pure, joyful entertainment I’ve experienced there. 

Scarpelli plays the narrator in both scenes, and a couple of other characters; each is completely embodied, realized and delineated from one another. His pace and rhythms engage you, you understand every moment and intention, AND he did the sets! The wheeled-on mini-flats with two-dimensional graphics are perfectly apt for these plays; the photo-shop extravaganza allows us to use our imagination to enter their world rather than any attempt at realism (realism doesn’t work on the stage anyway unless you have an ACT budget and venue). They are done with graphic perfection, and when he makes the movie star poster of Michelle Pond’s “Passionella” character, he has the good sense to use her face—which reminds one of a Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford—and it is a really professional and impressive visual.  

Kudos, too, in bringing more color to the stage! Though in Point Richmond, the actors have generally been white, but Pamela Drummer-Williams is a terrific BBW Princess in “Lady and Tiger,” running from soft high notes to sexy blues belting with easy confidence and natural humor. She and her great big bald white-guy inamorato Michael O’Brien—the loyal captain who is not royal—blend well and believably in a doomed romance. Their duets don’t always blend but they are honest in their expression and Michael has some great high notes. O’Brien adds a nice touch by applying simple Maori-type face tattoos to make him more exotic and believable; a little touch goes a long way. The leads in the other scenes are recycled into the chorus and bit-parts so the singing ensemble is very harmonious. Carina Salazar is a youngster full of talent, pizzazz, and sex appeal who catches the eye in small cameos and will hopefully return to the Masquers.  

Michelle Pond has the title lead in “Passionella” and looks the part. She understands the lightheartedness of the character, and plays it with the right amount of fairy tale frivolity. She has a great belt, and though her high notes wavered, her character never does. Coley Grundman embodies the Bob Dylan-like rock star who brings her love and artistic enlightenment with a dead-pan take that could have served him well in the first act.  

The panoply of wigs injects the proper comic touch. Princess Barbara’s costume is fantastic and vivid in color, texture, and jewelry, and the rest of the costumes are a good journeyman job. The lighting of Renee Echavez should have been more fully considered, often throwing shadows and unwanted illumination that shake us out of our suspension of disbelief rather than usher us into the onstage world. Kris Bell knows how to choreograph for non-dancers and moves the ensemble easily about the stage.  

The new seats in the theatre are wide and comfortable, and there doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the 88-seat house. At $20, it’s a worthwhile night of entertainment that will leave you smiling and recounting the moments. Through May 1. Info at  


John A. McMullen II got his MFA at Carnegie Mellon U. Professional School of Directing under Tony winner Mel Shapiro, and has been on the faculty of CCSF and Los Medanos, as well as directing in the Bay Area for years. This is his first review.