“How sharper than a serpent’s tongue it is to have a thankless child” An Aging "Grease" works well with "The Belasco" touch!

“How sharper than a serpent’s tongue it is to have a thankless child”
William Shakespeare

The Berkeley based Shotgun Players is one of those “Little Theaters Who Could - - and Did”. What’s more, they are continuing to do “what they did” even better, growing from a dream in a basement under La Valle’s Pizza Parlor to a full fledged professional theatre that draws rave reviews from a broad-based theatre community. Their current production of “King Lear” is a brilliant piece of direction and casting and staging, from a fearless–shoot–from-the-hip gutsy alternative theatrical company. Described by some as the “Little Giant Killers of Berkeley”, Shot Gun Players under the artistic direction of Patrick Dooley have put out a Shakespearean experience to rival anything you have seen in the Bay Area, especially for a theatrical company that continuously works miracles for peanuts.

“King Lear” has long been one of Shakespeare’s most talked about tragedies, even described by Charles Lamb as so epical, to intensive and extensive that “the play is impossible of representation on the stage”. This description is extreme and ridiculous as it was written by one of the most experienced playwrights, certainly of that age. The play is not done as often as it should be, because it takes great talent to carry off the extremely diverse inner plots and its shear scale. The elements themselves, storm and rain, heath and hovel, clash of steel and cries of anguish, majestic court to the high cliffs of Dover, men gone mad and men pretending to be mad, mingle together in a cacophonic symphony of movement, emotion and sound!

Dooley has done an excellent job of casting and while there is some unevenness in the portrayal of various characters and delivery of dialect, the principal parts are very well chosen.

King Lear is played by Richard Louis James, who should be very familiar to East Contra Costa audiences for his many portrayals of Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek over the years. Richard has dug down deep into the complex nature of Lear and come up with pure gold; from the tyrannical, self-centered, self-assured extrovert leader of a great nation, to the whimpering, confused, vainglorious and impassioned father disdained and destroyed by his own family. Richard James has always displayed great range of talent and he delivers a very different Lear, here!

The three daughters who ply with dishonesty, deceit, love and compassion, are very good as well. The oldest daughter, Goneril (Trish Mullholland), and his middle daughter, Regan (Fontana Butterfield) are the pinnacle of evil personified, as daughters who are willing to do anything, say anything, pretend anything to wrest the reins of control from their father , King Lear. While each daughter is different, they are essentially united in deception and intent. The youngest daughter, Cordelia (Zehra Berkman), whom Lear professes to love and cherish most, has the least to say in praise of her father. She loves him dutifully and loyally, but will not falsely praise him to garner his humor and appreciation. Consequently she is outcast from his court. Lear had intended to divide his country up into three governing divisions with each daughter as that division’s head of state, allowing him to retire from the frustrations and pressures of governing state. Little does he suspect that two of his progeny bear a serpent’s bite.

Within the play’s inner plots we find another tale in which a bastard brother, Edmond (Benjamin Privitt), has designs upon usurping his legitimate brother’s position in the family hierarchy by claiming to this father, the Earl of Gloucester (John Mercer), that Edgar (Dave Maier) is planning to kill his father. All three deliver excellent portrayals, keeping their characters honest and meaningful. There are many more actors who contribute much to this production, more than I have space to include. There are some actors who try very hard but just don’t quite deliver the perfection they seek.

Over all "King Lear" is a very well produced and directed production that will, I’m sure, be remembered for a long time. I highly recommend this production. The theater is easily accessed at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, across the street from the Ashby BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Station. From Lafayette you take the BART Daly City train towards Oakland, disembark at the MacArthur Station, re-board the Richmond Train towards Berkeley and get off at the Ashby station and walk approximately one block to the Shotgun Players theater at 1901 Ashby Avenue in Berkeley. There is street parking available in the area but there may a bit of a walk. We arrived about 20 minutes before the production began and found parking within on block of the theater, right on Ashby. The seating is rather unique, a combination of church benches and comfortable folding chairs. The area feels safe to walk in. Call (510) 841-6500 for additional information and reservations or visit their website at www.shotgunplayers.org. This production plays Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., now through June 18th. Tickets range in cost between $15 and $30 each.

Eddie Belasco and the Belasco Theatre Company is taking us on a trip down memory land with their current fun-filled production of “Grease”, that popular 1972 musical created by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey.

Grease” was based on the emerging teenage High School culture that sprang into being in the mid-50’s along with the evolution of Rock-N-Roll, the more permissive personal freedom of the baby boom generation (1946 – 1964), and drive-in-movies! “Grease” tackles some pretty serious issues of that time with emerging adolescent sexual exploration, teenage pregnancy, love, friendship, rebellion, the gang violence and the increasingly common practice of dropping out of high school to “get a job”. “Greasers” was a term associated with the social practice or popular gang etiquette of wearing leather motorcycle style jackets and “greasing” or plastering the hair back on the sides of the head with a heavy hair grease or pomade.

Originally, the show opened in a garage in Chicago as an entirely amateur show, a show that ran for five hours, including intermissions. Its outrageous success caught the attention of Broadway producers Ken Waissman and Maxine Fox, who encouraged Jacobs and Casey to move to New York City and re-write the show down to a manageable 2 hour production. When the show opened on Broadway in 1972, it was nominated for seven Tony Awards and has been described in some internet surveys as one of the “greatest” musicals. The musical was very successful, which lead to the 1978 movie by the same name starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John.

The story takes place at a fictional Rydell High in the Chicago, Illinois area of the USA. The two lead characters, Danny and Sandy, had met at the beach during the summer and had developed strong feelings for each other. The are now surprised to discover on their first day back to school after their summer break, that they are attending the same school, all because the Catholic School that Sandy was to attend had an argument with her father over their stand on Sandy wearing patent leather shoes to school. After the initial excitement of meeting up with each other again, these two young people now find themselves and their public personalities influenced by peer pressures, more than by their heart-felt natural selves. Their false public persona creates a rift between the two potential lovers as they attempt to go the way their peer groups expect them to go.

There are a great group of characters in the show, all very familiar to our own life’s high school experiences I’m sure; the braggart, the brain, the nerd, the “I’ll do anything to please” character, the leaders, the followers, the bullies and tough guys, the winners and losers.

The music is a lot of fun with such numbers as “Summer Nights”, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, and “You’re The One That I Want”, high on my list as favorites. In all the Belasco Theater Productions, the challenge of using all youthful, amateur actors has its rewards and some minor drawbacks. Sometimes the acting is fantastic and sometimes it is a bit weak. But, it is always an entertaining and a rewarding experience. What is truly exciting is when you see young people actually emerge from the heart-felt training by Eddie and his teaching associates, as potentially professional talent. I see it in just about every production and this show is no exception. While the performances are sometimes spotty, where one actor may be terrific in one song or number and really mediocre in another, there are moments of true excitement when you see someone who has worked very hard, sometimes through several different shows, grow and mature into a really talented and accomplished actor ready to move to more professional adult shows. I always come away from these shows feeling good, singing a song and laughing and loving the great young people Eddie Belasco brings to his productions. .

The Belasco Theater Company is a non-profit Youth Performing Arts Organization that is celebrating its 25th season.

There are two complete casts who play the many characters in this production, with a few who are good enough to play the same character throughout the entire production run. Director Eddie Belasco and Assistant Director Clay Rosenthal and Choreographer Lawrence Pech have done an excellent job bringing this show together.

In this production, I have to make note of several young people who really contributed in a big way to the success and fun of this show. Mayra Swatt, who plays Sandy, is a terrific, petite young lady with a great big voice, who is well on her way towards star power. Michael Saarela, who plays Danny, is following not far behind. Gina Ricci, whom I have seen is several productions is another superb talent, great voice, stage presence, vitality and dedication that will make her a future star, if she so desires. Ashley Hunter has great stage presence, a magnificent smile and that hard working dedication that places her high on the list of potentially successful actresses from this group. She and several others could benefit from more extensive voice training to help them bring it all together. I only have the space to mention a very few of the fine members of this company that deserve kudo’s, but you should go to the Del Valle Theatre at 1964 Tice Valley Boulevard in Walnut Creek (near Olympic Boulevard and Tice Valley Blvd.), to enjoy this fun-filled musical and support these exuberant young people.

"Grease" plays Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., now through June 4th. Call the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts theater box office at (925) 943-SHOW (7469) for ticket and reservation information or visit www.Belasco.org for more information.