Theresa Rebeck's "The Understudy" at San Jose Repertory Theatre "Souvenir" at Sixth Street Playhouse "Blues for an Alabama Sky" at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre CUTTING BALL THEATRE PRODUCTION OF "THE TENDERLOIN"

San Jose Repertory Company is concluding an engaging production of Theresa Rebeck’s 2007 off Broadway hit “The Understudy” running through June 3rd. The story unfolds on a mid-run rehearsal day of a Kafka’s play that is to appear on Broadway with the two actors running through their lines.

The understudies are an up and coming action star Jake (Craig Market) and an unsuccessful theatre actor Harry (Gabriel Marin). He is an actual working actor who can’t get a three part line in a blow-em-up film as he tells the audience at the beginning of the 90 minute comedy “I’M NOT BITTER” Added to this comedy of wit is the less enamored and more drained stage manager Roxanne (Jessica Worthham).

Added to this mix of hilarity is the frayed relation of Harry and Roxanne. It seems that Harry abandoned her at the altar some months ago and as he says in the spurious Kafka drama “Silence is defeat” and this sad sack has no excuse to mouth.

“The Understudy” is hardly a masterpiece but it is a fun ball of derision, wrath and industry complaint that you forgive its thingamajigs. Here we have two competing actors suit up in their faces to trudge the “darkling plain” of the Kafka. What playwright Theresa Rebeck concern here is the corruption of the American theatre by the industry obsession with celebrity which is very timely in today’s Broadway theatre world.

Harry opens this comedy coming stage forward to explain he has just seen one of those typical Hollywood action pictures. He can’t understand how this no brainer film is doing so well at the box office. ($22 million opening day) He does have a chip on his shoulder since he has to understudy to an actor named Jake who has “zero talent” and a “quote” as they say in movie business, of some $2 million a picture. The most memorable line Jake says in the film is “Get in the truck” he tells the audience.

Playwright Rebeck does have fun playing with the Kalfa theme such as actors are like giant, sad bugs although the dramatist never digs very deep into the three characters. All of three characters are fun and relevant especially if you are a theatre aficionado. The dialogue just pops along and sometime they lose their flavor after too many replications. The ending seems like a hasty set-up but still there is a lot to enjoy in the script and the performances.

All three expertly patch over the holes in Rebeck’s occasionally thin script while handling the show’s well-written, soulful conclusion with grace. Craig Marker (received the SFBATCC award for best actor last year) gives a winning performance as Jake a sensitive fellow who knows his Kafka and does not want to be branded as an action figure all his career. He successfully shows a self-satisfied Jake with his trainer-toned physique encased in premium jeans and tight black T-Shirt.

Gabriel Marin brings a dubious charisma to his role as the wearily bitter Harry. He does terrific monologues to the audience such as “All I see are movie stars movie stars. It’s like a disease. Not a disease. I didn’t mean disease. Maybe more like pathology or ongoing cultural disaster”. Even his inevitable Jeremy Piven’s mercury-poisoning reference earned a big laugh from those in the audience who are Broadway theatre hip. It is a joy to watch these two very fine actors have a go at each other.

Jessica Worthman almost steals the show with her spot on characterization of a control freak that is losing her grip as the play progresses. She is given some awesome monologues to reveal the wounds Roxanne has suffered at Harry’s hands and she performs them with upright sensitive precision.

Adding to his rehearsal chaos is an unseen stoner in “the booth” who keeps flying in the wrong sets and cueing the wrong music. Amy Glazer crisply frantic staging for the San Jose Rep stage is abetted by Annie Smart’s colorful toy-circus sets. She directs this with a clear understanding of both comic timing and backstage politics.

“The Understudy” is no “All About Eve” but it does not have to be since the playwright is just having a good time and thanks to Amy Glazer’s skilled production so is the audience.

The Understudy plays through June 3rd at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. For tickets call 408-367-7255 or on line at
I had seen Stephen Temperley’s wildly funny “Souvenir “several times over the past three years so this marked the third time to see this entertaining and ultimately poignant life of the socialite and tone deaf singer of the 1930s and 40’s who unwittingly desecrated a ruthless classical repertoire.

Sixth Street Playhouse presented a touching story of Florence Foster Jenkins efforts to become a great coloratura soprano who gave private recitals at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. The two hour and thirty minute “fictional biography” covers the life of the society matron beginning in 1927 when she hired 29 year old musician Cosme McMoon as a recital pianist to the ill fame concert at Carnegie Hall on October 1944.

The second act was a Reader’s Digest version of the infamous concert for the armed forces at Carnegie Hall. It was accented by Pam Enz’s outlandish costumes and highlighted by Florence’s deference to her devoted pianist as she performed his Mexican “Serenata”.

Although billed as a farce, I found director Michael Fontaine production more poignant that the prior productions I have seen. Mary Gannon Graham was brilliant in the role of Florence Foster Jenkins. She made this character more human than the prior actresses who portrayed the role. Whether singing or speaking, she was an absolute delight. She also had great vocal cords when singing Shubert’s “Ava Maria” as the way it was meant to be sung at the end of the production.

John Shillington was just the right balance to the crazy antics of the singer and he landed every droll line with excellent timing and great body language. He also had a great voice singing Gershwin’s “Crazy Rhythm”.

Later I joined the two member cast for a Question and Answer session since I was at the concert in October 1944 just before shipping out to the Pacific Theatre of War.
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre recently culminated their 31st season with a vivid production of “Blues for an Alabama Sky” by renowned American author and playwright Pearl Cleage. This acclaimed tale was developed in 1995 focusing on the lives of five Harlem residents during the Great Depression of the 30’s. During this time the neighborhood was overflowing with creativity and it became known as the Harlem Renaissance. However it was also an area where there were hard luck stories where many of its citizens were experience hard times. Although it’s the 30’s in Harlem the play is still timely since it deals with such issues as religion vs. birth control, rampant unemployment, culture wars and fierce battles over gay rights and abortion.

Playwright Cleage’s old fashioned potboiler about the demimonde of the 1930’s Harlem gets a sturdy outing under the direction of Michele Shay. The play is an entertaining and engaging melodrama with a solid performance by Shinelle Azoroh as Angel, a jobless nightclub singer down on her luck that had just been dumped by her gangster boyfriend. She moves in with her gay best friend (Tobie Windham), a costume designer with dreams of moving to Paris to design for Josephine Baker. Both have been fired from the fame Cotton Club and both have impossible dreams but the rent’s money’s running out.

Living next door is Della (Leliani Rosine Drakeford), a church going activist with a deep conviction of building a birth control clinic in the neighborhood. Also involved is the fun loving Sam (Steven Anthony Jones), the neighborhood physician who delivers babies at Harlem Hospital. He also delivers bootleggers’ babies when he’s not pulling shifts at the hospital.
A recent transplant Leland (Joshua L Green), a solemn widower from Alabama comes into the life of Angel. He looks to fill a hole in his heart since his wife has died in pregnancy. He falls instantly in love with Angel and offers to free her from the servitude of nightclubs and gangster. However the story becomes heartbreaking as dreams are turned to dust and ethical consequences come down upon them.

Guy is played with a flamboyant grace by Tobie Windham. He clearly savored his over the top performance with his dreams to move to Paris to dress Josephine Baker; he wisely never turns the character into a humiliating character.

Leliani Rosine Drakeford shines as the plain-Jane neighbor who finds as long last love in very true to life element of the drama while Steven Anthony Jones (filling in for Robert Gossett who was called away for a personal matter in Los Angeles) her new lover bring a strong, soothing presence to the stage as Sam. Joshua L. Green gives a first-rate as the sweetly charming Alabama interloper Leland who morphs into a very shocking character at the end of the two hour, fifty minute melodrama. Kiara Fitzgerald rounds out the great cast by beautifully playing Little Angel. Although not seen the drama there is a strong presence of Josephine Baker, Margaret Sanger, Adam Clayton Powell and Langston Hughes in this enthralling play.

Costumes credited to Karen Perry captures the period with precision. Angel’s sophisticatedly sexy gowns and Guy’s colorful suits with sparkling vests are great creations. Martin Flynn’s detailed duel apartment set establishes the time and place well. “Blues for an Alabama Sky” closes today at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 450 Post Street, San Francisco.
In every major city in this country there is a gritty place where you see the downtrodden living with an blitz of hustlers, panhandlers and street people in the rundown neighborhood. These areas are called “The Tenderloin”. Broadway even had a musical called “The Tenderloin” in the 60’s starring Maurice Evans.

Cutting Ball Theatre Company the leading avant-garde group in the Bay Area is presenting the world premiere of Annie Elias’s “The Tenderloin” which is a raw and often mesmeric evening of documentary theatre. It’s currently playing at the Exit on Taylor which is in the center of The Tenderloin. The two hour riveting drama is the theatre’s group attempt to channel the playwright’s realistic portrayal of the area. The docudrama is based upon interviews with the residents of the area, the children, adults, social workers, cops and other professional who serve the area.

“The Tenderloin” is a well-crafted production dramatized series of interviews that were conducted by the actors who superbly play the various characters of the area. It is reminiscent to the Tectonic Theatre production of “The Laramie Project” that was recently seen at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. Playwright also directs this piece of fascinating theatre.

The company literally brings the neighborhood into the theatre even with its opening piece where the audience observes an onslaught of the area against the impressive Michael Locher’s set which is a jumble of broken furniture and personal items. Even Michelle Mulholland’s costumes are authentic to the area.

There are many brilliant performances by the six actors portraying the characters. Michael Kelly vividly recounts the tasks of caring for a baby alone in one of the apartments. He gives a polish performance as a San Francisco policeman working in the area. One ageing couple enchantingly portrayed by Rebecca Frank and David Sinaiko owners of the Cadillac Hotel remembers that once the district was a thriving Greek area and has now been converted into a “containment zone” for the mentally ill. David Sinaiko also frames the story as Tenderloin historian and photographer Mark Ellinger, many of whose photos embellish the set. He relates a beautiful story of meeting a vet who has lost his wife, his home and everything in life. He wonderfully morphs himself into the role of character called “Still Bill”.

Tristan Cunningham gives some enthralling portraits from an optimistic Filipina counselor Ester Aure to a skeptical street cleaner and a homeless beat boxer trying to hold on his pride. Leigh Shaw switches excellently from a bouncy tittering little girl to a penetrating lawyer. Rebecca Frank smoothly surrogates between a sunny, enthusiastic Chinese American high school senior and a street wise devoted male African American youth counselor. Siobhan Doherty gives a conspicuous portrayal of a woman who feels safer in the Tenderloin then in the suburbs of Palo Alto and transforms herself as Mary Ann Finch, founder of “Care through Touch”.

The Tenderloin runs through June 3rd at Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-525-1205 or on line at