Unexpected Guest and Teatro ZinZanni provide two great entertainment options! Shakespeare’s Richard the III vies with Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam!

Unexpected Guest - - Delivered well, as expected!

The Orinda Starlight Theatre is a stalwart hometown theatre that works very hard to deliver some truly heartfelt theatrical experiences, a true community theatre in every sense of the word. Under the artful direction of Charlotte Meyer, this handy band of thespians have pulled one of Agatha Christie’s more delightful old chestnuts out of the fire and warmed it up for your evening’s enjoyment. The Unexpected Guest is a typical Christie murder mystery “Who Done It”, a delightful (albeit farfetched) tale that stirs in a dash of suspense, a little imagination, a convoluted plot, and a splendidly mischievous mix of comedy, all coming together to provide you with a very enjoyable evening of theatre under the stars.

The Unexpected Guest began its life on the Duchess Theatre Stage in London in 1958, where it ran for a respectable 18 month run. Author Agatha Christie is considered one of the most prolific playwrights in history, second only to William Shakespeare. In addition, she is the author of over 66 novels with over one billion copies of her novels in English alone, with another billion copies in 103 other languages in circulation today. Her play, Mousetrap, began a run at the Ambassador’s London in London on November 25th, 1952, and is still running continuously today, celebrating over 20,000 continuous performances.

As the play opens, a man whose car has run into a ditch because of a terribly thick local fog, is desperately seeking assistance and finds himself knocking on the French doors of Richard Warwick’s home study in South Wales. When Michael Starkwedder (Geotty Chapple), the unexpected guest, cannot seem to rouse anyone by banging his knocking, he cautiously opens the doors, calls out, steps into the Warwick home, and unknowingly, enters into the midst of a murder scene.

Mr. Starkwedder nearly stumbles over the body of a man slumped over in a wheelchair directly in his path. Mr. Starkwedder quickly concludes from the bullet hole in the man’s still bleeding head, that the man in the wheelchair has just been murdered a few minutes before his arrival. Standing in the shadows, a terrified Laura Warwick (Susan England), Richard Warwick’s wife, stands with gun in hand, trying to figure out what to do next. Obviously confused and disoriented, she admits, somewhat unconvincingly, that she has murdered her husband.
Starkwedder quickly concludes there is more here than meets the eye. He refuses to call the police until Laura Warwick explains to him what has happened and why. When she admits that her husband has been an abusive and mean-spirited husband for many years, Starkwedder feels sorry for her and attempts to help her to construct a plausible explanation for someone other than herself to be blamed for the murder.

It turns out that almost every member of the household has a reason for rejoicing at Richard Warwick’s death, including some who would even profit from it. The story gets more convoluted as the cast of characters grows.

The cast is very good, with Geotty Chapple and Susan England leading the way. Police Sergeant Cadwallader (Jim Fritz) and Inspector Thomas (Malcolm Cowler) provide the typical British investigative team. Family members include Jan Warwick, a mentally retarded younger brother to the mean-spirited Richard Warwick, who is played exceedingly well, exceptionally convincingly by Brian Edwards. The deceased husband’s mother, Mrs. Warwick, is played by Marian Simpson, the household secretary, Miss Bennett ( by Dee Moore), and a neighbor, Julian Farrar (by John Edwards).

Tickets are $15 each, but only $7.50 for Seniors and Students. The theatre is located at 26 Orinda Way, in the Orinda Amphitheatre adjacent to the Orinda Community Center, Park, and Library. The OrSVP (Orinda Starlight Village Players) have been serving Orinda residents and surrounding communities for approximately 30 years. Performances are every Friday and Saturday evening at 8:30 p.m., and tickets may be purchased at the ticket booth adjacent to the theatre. Reservations are not necessary as the seating is open on a first come, first served basis. Remember to dress warmly (perhaps even bring a blanket to cover the legs) as many of these evenings in the Orinda hills can be very chilly. My wife and I always bring folding chairs or “tush” cushions, as this outdoor theatre’s seating is very hard.

The Orinda Starlight Village Theatre has been around for many, many years and continues to bring a satisfactory mix of amateur and seasoned community actors to Orinda Audiences that will provide very reasonably priced entertainment.

The Zinful Zaneiness of Teatro Zinzanni captivates Pier 29 Audiences!

In San Francisco, Teatro Zin Zanni, permanently housed in a grand Spiegeltent at Pier 29, continues to provide an evening of wild and wonderful, “Zinful Zaneiness”, sporting a cacophony of courageous, crazy and clever circus acts, topped off by a taste bud scintillating dinner.

Karen and I have had attended several different productions over the years by this outstanding company and have enjoyed each one fully. With each show the cast and characters change to meet the needs of a new storyline. This covey of high energy clowns, acrobats, waiters, vocalists (ranging from opera to jazz), and production impresarios, keep you laughing and entertained every minute, even while you are eating your dinner.

This year’s comedia cirque del extraordinaire evolves around a wacky Queen Krissie Illing, who snorts and cavorts her trashy romantic escapade among the Zin Zannia-land family as she chases after and embraces an old flame, the show’s madcap Juggling Chef par excellence, Michael Davis. None of this wacky show’s storyline is meant to change the way you live your life nor to have any profound lasting meaning, but it is so much fun, and the food is so delicious, that you will be hard pressed not to remember it for a very long time.

The circus acrobatics include some pretty incredible performances of “suspended” animation, beginning with the very beautiful Berlin born Crystalle, performing a gravity-defying rope suspension ballet, high above the audience. Another exquisite, award-winning aerial dance ballet, is performed by Sam Payne and Sandra Feusi, as they perform a “Vertical Tango”, a dangerous dance of love, climbing and cavorting on a tall slender shaft of steel. In an outrageous mixture of fun and buffoonery, “Die Maiers”, consisting of Sabine Maier and Joachim Mohr (total opposites in looks and demeaner) captivate the audience with their clever acrobatics. A master of prime mime, Svetlana, performs an amazing robotic marionette contortionist act, like a puppet without strings, who mysteriously moves in fits and jerks, demonstrating to all her hilarious pinnacle of cleverly articulated hijinks. Sarah Dash delivers a Bourbon Street Jazz sound with her husky melodic tones, quite the opposite in style to the exquisite operatic music sung by Svetlana Nikitenko. Eugeniy Voronin confounds our senses with his Count Dracula demeanor and slick slight of hand illusionist tricks, and Peter Pitofsky clowns around in many malleable caricatures.

Throughout the entire evening, including while the audience is being served their next meal course, the cast of characters roam around the room, interacting with the audience (all while staying completely in character). Individual members of he audience are asked to participate in a couple of acts.

In one such act, the Chef called for a volunteer, preferably someone with juggling experience. In this evening’s performance, the friends of an audience member volunteered him to assist the Juggling Chef, Michael Davis. The young man reluctantly arose and was taken to the center of the stage where he admitted that he had done some juggling “many years ago!” Mr. Pierce then went on to practically steal the act, not only copying the performing actor/juggler but on occasion, actually out shining the “mentor”. The act became a bit messy by the time they began to juggle a chicken, bread, and a large blob of margarine, Mr. Pierce proved he could not only be a good sport, but a great competitor. The audience loved it and cheered the guest performer on!

The Teatro ZinZanni orchestra delivers equally impressive accompaniment that keeps the show on an upbeat, razz-ma-tazz musical tempo. The overall evening of entertainment was superlative. Music Director and Associate Artistic Director, Norman Durkee was assisted in part by Berkeley Repertory Company’s Artistic Director, Anthony “Tony” Taccone.

My wife and I both elected to partake of the herb marinated lamb sirloin with roasted potatoes, fava-bean hash and baby carrots (one of four entrées available). The Lamb sirloin meal was perfectly prepared and literally melted in our mouths. Even the antipasto plate that was awaiting our arrival at the table, was excellent, followed by a tantalizing Carrot – Ginger soup, then a crip and cold bay shrimp and romaine salad. The meal concluded with the tangy lemon mousse dessert, which brought the evening’s meal to a perfect conclusion. I’m getting hungry again, just thinking about it.

This show is a great collage of music, acrobatic skills, and comedic talents. Tickets range between $123 and $147 each, which includes the show and dinner. Alcoholic beverages are available for at extra cost. Call (415) 438-2668 for reservations or go to their website at http://www.zinzanni.org/ for more information. The weekly schedule is Wednesday through Saturday at 6 p.m., with Sunday performances at 5 p.m.. The Circus Tent is located at Pier 29 on the Embarcadero in San Francisco.
There are two terrific theatrical productions well worthy of your attendance this week; a blood curdling Shakespearean thriller, Richard III, and a delightfully clever comedy about a nervous, neurotic movie reviewer desperately seeking the perfect girl, in Play It Again Sam.

Ben Ortega superb in Woody Allen masterpiece!

Act Now! Theatre Company is producing an outstanding Woody Allen comedy with their current production of Play It Again Sam, in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

Born Allen Stewart Königsberg in 1935, “Woody” Allen was raised by Jewish parents in Flatbush, Brooklyn. He had a natural gift for comedy and began writing gags and jokes for newspapers while in high School. His first published joke (reportedly), “I am at two with nature,” preceded his first paid comedy writing gig, beginning with Sid Ceasar, when he was just age 16. By 19 years of age he was writing scripts for the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show, and the Ceasar Hour. It was during his side-by-side working relationship with Danny Simon on the Sid Ceasar Show that he developed his intellectual, cerebral, shy, nervous, neurotic style of writing. The rest, they say, is history, as this brilliantly talented comedy writer, film director, actor, author, jazz musician, and stand up comedian, went on to win three Academy Awards while being nominated for 12 Best Original Screenplay awards (and won 2), nominated for 6 Best Director Awards (won 1), nominated for a Best Actor Award, and has directed over 40 films to date.

Play It Again Sam is an example of Woody Allen’s early, funny plays, also turned movie. It introduces Allan Felix (Ben Ortega), a San Francisco ardent movie buff and writer for film magazines, who is despondent following the departure of his wife, Nancy (Robyn Wiley), who left him to pursue a different, more active and involved lifestyle. Nancy describes Felix as a “watcher of life”, an observer, a passive, non-participant. His best friends, a married couple, Linda and Dick (Terry Darcy D’Emedio and John Hale), attempt to come to his rescue, to pull him out of his negative, downward emotional spiral by finding him dates.

Felix fanaticizes about "stepping out a little”, and bringing "broads...swingers, freaks, nymphomaniacs, dental hygienists" up to his apartment to share his self-imagined sexual prowess. Woody Allen delivers a plethora of great one-liners, such as:
“You can’t expect me to keep up that level of charm, - - I’d have a heart attack.”
“I tried marijuana once, I had a bad reaction - - I tried to take my pants off - - over my head.”
I’m such a naïve jerk - - She used to lay in bed and look up attorneys in the yellow pages.”
“I hate the beach. I hate the sun. I'm pale, I'm red-headed, and I don't tan - I stroke!”

Felix has such a poor self-image of himself, that he continually tries to set the stage for his dating encounters, trying to be someone more romantic, dashing, and more masculine than he actually is, resulting in a succession of romantic misadventures. Felix, repeatedly draws on the advice of an imaginary visitor, Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Motta), one of his favorite cinematic heroes. Bogart delivers typical Bogart character style advice such as “Dames are simple. I never met one that didn't understand a slap in the mouth or a slug from a forty-five.”

These misadventures therein provide the canvas upon which Allen paints his series of outrageously funny situations. The entourage of lovely ladies drawn into Felix’s disastrous romantic forays include Jacquie Duckworth (as Sharon), Jeannine Rouse (as Gina), Cynthia Padden (as Vanessa), Christina Angelos (as the museum girl), and Julie Golden (in several different characters, including the girl upstairs).

This clever play earned Woody Allen a Phillipe Halsman portrait on the front cover of Time Magazine in 1969, along side his character’s ghostly counterpart, Humphry Bogart.
The acting is simply superb. Ben Ortega plays Felix brilliantly. John Hale and Terry Darcy D’Emidio are equally entertaining. The entire cast fits its characters perfectly. The direction by Stephen Murphree works very well. It may be an old play, but time has not dulled its sharpness!

Play It Again Sam plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:25 p.m., with matinees on Sundays at 2:15 p.m., now through June 23rd. Tickets range between a very reasonable $12.50 and $25. For tickets and reservations call 943-7469 (SHOW). For more information visit their web-site at www.actnowtheatre.org or www.dlrca.org . The Act Now! Theatre is located in the ground level theatre in the Dean Lesher Regional Cener for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek.

Richard III, history remanufactured to “educate” the masses!

California Shakespeare Theatre opens it 2007 season with Richard III, a stunning, brilliantly conceived and directed masterpiece in William Shakespeare’s almost autobiographical historical play about life in England after the War of the Roses. I say almost autobiographical, because, if one knows the facts, Shakespeare was certainly perpetuating the fallacy set about by Sir Thomas More (King Henry VIII’s main man), “to legitimize the rule of the Tudor dynasty, by defaming the rule and historical events surrounding the life of King Richard III.” While the play is certainly long on drama and intrigue, suspense and villainy, I strongly recommend that you read Laura Hope’s article (in the program) about Shakespeare’s re-writing of history, before you get caught up in the despotism of its principle characters. While none of these Kings, Queens, Earls and Dukes were exactly princely characters, they lived to survive the times and to maintain the monarchy. Shakespeare generally wrote in league with the populists concepts to make his work more acceptable and saleable.

Richard III is set during the political chaos immediately following the War of the Roses, a series of civil wars waged between the royal houses of the Lancasters and the Yorks, descendents of Edward III. The many plots and sub-plots in this play are much too convoluted to encapsulate here, other than to say that Richard III (Reg Rogers) is portrayed as a villainous and greedy brother who engineers the death of his brother Clarence (Max Gordon Moore); his brother, Edward of York (not seen in the play); the Duke of Buckingham (Dan Hiatt); Prince Edward and Prince Richard (Elvy Yost and Caroline Gelber); Earl Rivers (Brad Myers);Lord Grey (Raife Baker); Lord Hastings (T. Edward Webster) and finally, of course, his new bride, Lady Anne (Susanna Livingston).

At least nine specific deaths are ascribed to this one man, in one play (not to mention those he kills in battle), which must make him the first serial killer in history. Shakespeare makes this man into a more villainous character by changing his stature to that of a hunch-back with deformed arm and leg. This is certainly a clever writer’s tact designed to make this man as heinous as possible. This portrayal is, in fact, probably the most heinous and horrific of characterizations I have ever seen made of Richard the III. Reg Rogers portrays this character so well, it makes this old play new again. To merely say it is powerful, horrifying and humorous all wrapped up in one actors interpretation, does not begin to do it justice.

The three Queens who meet and share their misery and misfortune and hatred for Richard III, are Queen Margaret (Catherine Castellanos), Queen Elizabeth (Lorri Holt), and Queen Richard III (Lady Anne played by Susannah Livingston).

This is a very long production, but I feel necessary to show the many intrigues and levels of involvement of all of the characters. The ascension of Richard III to the throne takes place over a relatively short time, but it is a very convoluted and turbulent transition.

This powerful play, one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest, is exceptionally well directed by Mark Rucker. The costumes designed by Katherine Ross are a marvelous melding of time periods, proving the universality of themes between then and now. Our governments today are apparently still attempting to re-write the history of our times to fit their spin, their whim, their purpose. The set (using a large number of lights) designed by Erik Flatmo presented the story in a glaring and unvarnished text. The Sound by Ted Crimy worked effectively along with the comic interplay of Kay Starr’s 1952 hit song, Wheel of Fortune.

Richard III plays Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 or 8 p.m., with Sunday mid-day performances at 4 p.m., and there are a couple of Saturday performances at 2 p.m. as well, now through June 24th. Call the Box Office at (510) 548-9666 or visit their web-site at www.calshakes.org for more detailed information. The Cal Shakes Theatre is located in the Bruns Amphitheater at 100 Gateway Blvd., in Orinda. There is plenty of parking at the entrance to the theater which is at the last exit east of the Caldecot Tunnel, at 100 Gateway Blvd, in Orinda. There is a hill to climb to the Bruns Amphitheater seating area, but if you prefer, the company has a free shuttle up the hill from the entrance, and from the Orinda BART station as well. Tickets start at $15 and generally range between $37 and $60 depending on accommodations and date. Remember to dress warmly as it can be very chilly, in-fact, down-right cold if the fog comes in over the Orinda hills into the theater area.

Bring a picnic dinner or lunch or buy a dinner from the food booth adjacent to the theater seating area and dine before the performance in the wonderful picnic ground also adjacent to the theater. Come early and wander around the beautiful grounds and see the lovely pieces of statuary and art work. Cal Shakespeare is more than a theatrical experience - - it is a walk in the park, and it is an educational opportunity, a rich and rewarding experience.