Arts & Events

Theater Reviews: 'Death of a Salesman' and a Kathakali Performance

Ken Bullock
Thursday April 30, 2015 - 03:38:00 PM

Two shows worthy of note in Bay Area theater played--and one, 'Death of a Salesman', continues to play this weekend--in San Jose' recently, plays (and theater companies) from opposite ends of the world, of different eras and cultures and in very different styles of performance: the Arthur Miller classic at San Jose' Stage Company and 'Kalyana Souganthikam,' a Kathakali play written by Kottayom Tampuram (1645-1716) in South India, based on the Mahabharata and performed in the unique physical and musical style of Kathakali. 

"It's not what you do, it's who you know--and the smile on your face." Willy Loman's advice to his ne'er-do-well older son, Biff, belies his existence as an aging salesman, perpetually on the road. Miller's now-classic of small lives lost in the rush to an elusive success and of dysfunctional family life, is given a good, straightforward production at The Stage in San Jose', directed by Kenneth Kelleher, also artistic director of San Francisco Shakespeare, a workman-like director, who--especially in the first half--has a game cast moving the show along rails, crisply following the plot, nearly devoid of the nuancee aspect of many other productions, which sometimes dampens 'Salesman's' drive towards a modern, more Ibsen-like tragedy. 

The show also captures pretty well the sense of middle class "drivel" of the immediate postwar period, something Miller inherited from Ibsen (who in turn realized it from his reading Kierkegaard), the sometimes banal, sometimes fantastic, even self-contradictory things people say to get themselves through the day, slough off the slings and arrows--or to do evil to themselves and others. 

The performers, some featuring borough accents from New York ("So this is BROOKLYN," says Willy's rich entrepreneurish Uncle Ben in one of Willy's reveries, not so pleased at the prospect), work together as an ensemble. Noteworthy are Randall King (San Jose' Stage's co-founder and artistic director) as Willy, Michael Bellino as Willy's neighbor (and "only friend" and mock-antagonist Charley) and (in particular), Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as Linda, Willy's long-suffering wife, seemingly an aging ingenue, but sharp and ever-watchful, the only one besides Charley who has an idea of the real score. The two sons, Jeffrey Brian Adams as the rakehell Happy and Danny Jones as the melancholy, angry Biff, give a good account of the two very different but sympathetic--at least on the surface--offspring of the salesman's nest, raised on the over-stated difference between who's "liked, but not well-liked." 

It's the ironic salvation of that nest that provides the most famous line of the play, maybe most famous final line of any American play: "Free and clear!" ... in the graveside denouement scene, a tricky one to play, always fraught with possible awkwardness of tone, but brought across here, in great part due to Lucinda Cone's straight ahead performance, unstinting emotion. 

The other star of the show is Giulio Cesare Perrone's set and costuming. It's in part used well, but some of its subtle possibilities maybe remain overlooked. (Perrone is founder and artistic director of Berkeley's Inferno Theatre.) 

It's more than worth a trip to San Jose'--and this is the final weekend.8 p. m. Friday and Saturday in the excellent auditorium of The Stage; the Sunday closing matinee is sold out Tickets are $22.50-$54. or (408) 283-7142 

Watching the Kathakali performers of the Vidwan Sadanam Balakrishnan Troupe perform 'Kalyana Souganthikam' is, in some ways, to watch the proscenium and wings of a Renaissance "black box" stage fall don, to be replaced by something at once simpler and more complex--fre, in the open air. 

Performing in the CET Soto Theater--one performance only, alas--in San Jose', the Troupe was on a proscenium stage in a school auditorium, but arraayed as they would be in the fields of Kerala in South India to perform all night for a village. 

With no sets, merely a bench for Hanuman to climb up on to show the transcendental image of his grandiose rage as it will appear in a forthcoming battle, the ensemble--two stick drummers, drums suspended from them, two singers who provide the exposition and dialogue (no dialogue from the actors, just gestures and sounds--and rigorous performing) through the sung or chanted poetry of the text, and in this show, three actors, Sandanam P. V. Balakrishnan as the divinely heroic Bhima, in ornate costume and crown, green make-up befitting gods and heroes (as well as rice paper beard and other make-up that takes hours to apply), sent on a quest of the rare flower of the title by his consort, Droupadi, during which (in a mimed sequence) he crashes through the forest with hhis legendary cudgel, sees an elephant felled by the combination of a lion and a python, and finally comes near the garden where, unknown to him, his brother Hanuman is meditating. 

The very heart of the play is the encounter between the driven and arrogantly confident Bhima and the gentler, humorous monkey demigod Hanuman. And Sandanam Bhasi, as Hanuman in his fantastic get-up, is delightful and impressive. Small in stature and wingspan by South Indian standards, Bhasi plays the role physically like a tall actor might, with careful gestures, close to the body, like the wily and precious monkey character really might, alternating great leaps and turns when called for, in perfect--exquisite!--control, but with the appearance of wildness, of great abandon. 

First the stand-off, with Hanuman pretending to be an old monkey lying in Bhima's path, who Bhima to his surprise (which follows a kind of pre-emptory contempt) finds he cannot budge, then the recognition scene, Hanuman revealing who he is by whispering in Bhima's ear ... 

The synaesthesia of music and singing, bright costumes and the dynamics of the dance and movement, from the hieroglyphic mudras that convey messages by hand gesture to the elaborate footwork and facial expressions, is the real reason to go to a Kathakali performance, full of humor and virtuosity, playfulness and dedication. It's a world unto itself--a fantastic world from Indian myth, but one that can be read like a storybook as a reflection of our world, too, centuries ago or today. 

(The local producer's website: www/ --they produce touring performers and companies of music and dance from South India, several shows a year.)