Arts & Events

Theater: Another Slew of Reviews:'Shoot O'Malley Twice' (Virago); 'Annie' (Berkeley Playhouse); 'The Soldier's Tale' (Aurora); 'Rumi x 7' (Golden Thread).

By Ken Bullock
Saturday November 26, 2011 - 10:47:00 AM

—'Shoot O'Malley Twice' (Virago Theatre Company) Since this review is running in the Planet, a note of disclosure—and reassurance—is in order at the start. The title of Jon Brooks' (who has written for the Mime Troupe) amusing play, about betting on "shooting fingers" while the Giants and Dodgers are betraying New York and Brooklyn by moving to the West Coast, refers to Walter O'Malley, owner of the Dodgers, object of such distain by the Brooklyn Faithful that—the saying goes—if you had Hitler, Stalin and Walter O'Malley together in a room and your gun had only two bullets, what would you do? "Shoot O'Malley Twice!" 

That exposition finished, it's a pleasure to state further that Virago, based in Alameda, has done their usual, thorough job of mounting this premiere of an engaging evocation of late 50s NYC, where Billy Future awaits his challengers in "shooting fingers," the slightly mysterious Association overseeing that the contestants follow the rules of the old children's game—no staring, squinting, just flash the fingers, scored odd or even ... Issues of Second Sight, psychic vision and Predestination are tossed around a lot—even some of the too-common vague speculation on Relativity, Quantum and String Theories, as well as a few anachronistic "predictions," mercifully brief here. What's good is the set-up, the crew and their tart talk, the offbeat comedy of their seriousness at betting and adjudicating such a street corner kids' sport ... 

It gets more interesting and even more cockeyed when the out-of-town wonder, The Savannah Kid, comes to challenge Billy, a rather different figure than expected, overwrought with confidence over a strange sense of mission. Clever use of very simple, well-crafted lighting and sound effects—and a burlesque/stage magic gimmick—add a great deal to the slightly outre'—slightly goofy—atmosphere. Angela Dant has directed her cast of nine very well, with particularly good performances from Christy Crowley and Dorian Lockett. 

Last performances this Friday and Saturday at 8, StageWerx 446, 446 Valencia Street (the former location of Intersection For the Arts), San Francisco. Wine and cheese reception after Saturday's closing show. $15-$25. (510) 865-6237; 

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—"I think I'm going to like it here!" An orphan girl, taken up by a billionaire for a two-week stay at his mansion, and the search for herlong-errant parents ... Pure nostalgia from the comics of one Depression for the audiences today, watching Occupy encampments busted up. 

'Annie,' the musical, has seldom been done so well as Berkeley Playhouse manages onstage at their Julia Morgan Center home. Everyone in the cast of 30 or so performs well—and that includes the choruses, both youth and adult, as the girls in the orphans' home, servants at Daddy Warbucks' estate, passersby on the streets of Midtown or down-and-outers at a riverside Hooverville ... All are liable to burst into song, step out in dance, flip with acrobatics. 

The ensemble is the driving force of the show's tempo and tone; the featured players stand out against this moving backdrop. Nandi Drayton (in alternation with Samantha Anne Martin) as Annie is a shrewd little optimist, who knows how to say things and get them done; Joe Kady eschews Daddy Warbucks' usual skinhead look, presenting him as a gruff businessman with a heart of precious metal; Melinda Meeng plays Daddy's secretary Grace Farrell with the same charisma she's displayed in 'Once On This Island' for the Playhouse and as the Tooth Fairy in Shotgun's 'God's Ear.' Rana Weber cuts a slatternly swath as Miss Hannigan of the Girls Home. Reggie D. White as Rooster sings and dances up as storm, as does Sophia Rose Morris as the Star-To-Be. Paul Loper and Pauli N. Amornkul are two more—among others—adding tone to foreground and back in this sparkling cast. 

The designers—Martin Flynn (scenic), Wes Crain (costumes), Molly-Stewart-Cohen (lights), Brendan Aanes (sound) and Megan Lush (props) deserve credit, too, for this family pleaser—some gags eliciting laughter from the kids, a few references catching the adults attention, much else appealing to both. Director Mina Morita has put it all together with music director Jonathan Fadner and Dane Paul Andres' exceptional choreography. 

Weekends (including matinees) through December 4 at Julia Morgan Center, 2640 College Avenue. $17-$35. 845-8542; 

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—On my desk is a print of Jean Cocteau's color drawing of the opening scene of Stravinsky and Ramuz's 'The Soldier's Tale,' showing the strange lepidopterist with his net, talking the soldier out of his fiddle. 

The Aurora's unusual production of this stage piece from 1918—which was intended from the start "to be read, played and danced"—plays the Russian folk parable out as a fairytale ... A fairytale starring a puppet, manipulated by a dancer, who performs the part of the sick princess cured by the soldier-puppet, wordlessly, by dancing. 

Peter Callendar narrates the Tale excellently, speaking dialogue for the soldier, while Joan Mankin—first seen at the back of the stage off to the side of the violinist and clarinetist, with a horned goat mask turned around on her head like a backwards baseball cap—essays the part of the Devil—and all the roles the Devil plays, starting with the lepidopterist conning the soldier, returning home on leave, out of his fiddle, in exchange for a book that foretells the stock market ... and "with two weeks' pay ... Somehow or other, lost the way." 

Muriel Maffre, former principal with the San Francisco Ballet—who pitched the staging idea to Aurora artistic director Tom Ross (the two co-directed)—both handily manipulates the four foot tall soldier puppet as his (almost) constant companion, and beautifully dances the role of the princess. 

Also collaborating are Mary Chun of Earplay as pianist and music director, percussionist Kevin Neuhoff (principal timpanist with Berkeley Symphony), alternating violinists Terrie Baune and Gloria Justin, and alternating clarinetists Jeff Anderle (of Redshift and the Paul Dresher Ensemble) and Peter Josheff (also of the Dresher Ensemble and an Earplay original). Jonathan Khuner of Berkeley Opera arranged the score, using concert suite material Stravinsky scored for a chamber quartet (down from a septet), and Donald pippin of Pocket Opera supplied the translation, which has Pippin's signature wit and anachronistic flourishes all over it. 

Benjamin Pierce's set design, using a translucent curtain with outlines of buildings, a village in the distance, lit by Jim Cave's light design, Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes and props by Mia Baxter and Seren Helday all add immensely to the atmospherics of this at times feather-light creation ... 

Perhaps it's a bit too light, missing something that would ground it a little more, what with a puppet at the center and a tale for a narrative, in a theater where the audience is used to seeing—theater. 'The Soldier's Tale' is highly enjoyable, though in this form a bit too indirect, which slows the dynamics—both musical and storytelling—down. Maybe there's not quite enough contrast between the different elements of the production. 

The cast and the musicians perform well; high points are the dancing—both Maffre's loose-limbed movements as the princess and a very different, grotesquely funny capering by Mankin when the fiddler does to the Devil what many new and amateur violinists do to their unwitting listeners when they practice. The dancing also brings out the multi-disciplinary contrasts of the piece, like in an opera or a masque. 

It's a departure for the Aurora—and one that's a perfect alternative to the usual—no need naming names!—holiday shows reworked every year by so many companies. 

Wednesdays through Sundays at different times; 2081 Addison (near Shattuck); $10-$55. 843-4822; 

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—There's the fortune cookie Rumi, the New Age version of "Confucius Say," spouting vague cliches that could be from anywhere, anytime—and then there's the great Persian lyric poet—and the Rumi of the tales in The Masnavi, "the Quran in Persian" (as poet Jami called it), his magnum opus, a kind of verse epic in all moods of the diversity, inner and outer, of medieval Islam. 

Hafiz Karmali, who staged the medieval parable 'Island of Animals' for Golden Thread and the Afghan Coalition a few years back, put on his adaptation of seven stories from The Masnavi last weekend as 'Rumi x 7,' theater-in-the-round, a one-ring circus of delights, at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California in downtown Oakland, inaugurating Golden Thread's project, Islam 101, performances over the next three years at different locations to educate about and explore the legacy of Islam as a worldwide cultural and spiritual movement, "as an Abrahamic religion, the third dimension ... in what's been heretofore called the Judeo-Christian tradition." 

His ensemble included practitioners of the circus arts, musicians, dancers—often all three in one performer—pitching their wares from Rumi in a variety of styles, from slapstick (and just plain shtick) to a little Commedia Del'Arte, silent movie comedy to whirling dervish dance (the observance Rumi introduced to his Sufi order), acrobatics to—the stunner—a New Orleans funeral march to celebrate Rumi's wake, which the poet declared in advance to be a joyous occasion. 

The exuberant cast included Jamie Coventry, Aylin Guvenc, Rachel L. Jacobs, Mahsa Matin, Aliah Najmabadi, Maruf Noyoft and Wiley Naman Strasser. The production team was Jim Cave, Taylor Gonzalez, Jamayla Kiswani, Wan-Yin Tang, Junelle-Johannah Taguas, Ninva Warda and Daniel Yelen. 

(In fact, Golden Thread hopes to reprise 'Rumi x 7' on and/or around December 17—the anniversary of the poet's death in Anatolia, 1273, the day he's traditionally celebrated, in San Francisco. Check for updates on showtimes and location.) 

Ralph Waldo Emerson adapted from a German translation the opening of The Masnavi, "The Song of the Reed" (performed in 'Rumi x 7'), which he called "The Flute" (and mistakenly attributed to a later Persian poet, Hilali): 

"Hark what, now loud, now low, the pining flute complains,/Without tongue, yellow-cheeked, full of winds that wail and sigh;/Saying, Sweetheart! the old mystery remains,—/If I am I; thou, thou; or thou art I?"