Harold and Maude, What the Butler Saw and This Wonderful Life: Clever, Articulate and fully engaging High School, College and Professional Theatre!

This week’s reviews, three of them, cover an examination of acting skills that range from high school, to college, to professional, all to assure you that the evolving world of thespian endeavor is growing, and evolving and healthy, as evidenced in this week’s productions. Concord High School’s Drama Class is presenting a delightfully articulate Harold and Maude, while Diablo Valley College is presenting an absolutely absurd comedic production of the Joe Orton’s British comedy, What The Butler Saw. Then, in San Jose, you have an opportunity to see the epitome of acting skill demonstrated by one highly skilled professional actor in Dan Hiatt’s production entitled, This Wonderful Life, a one man play at San Jose Repertory Theatre, based on the 1946 Frank Capra holiday classic movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, that starred Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

Wow, what an exciting week of wild, wacky and wonderful, exhilarating and heartfelt theatre!

First, I want to assure you that with the deep commitment of theatrical instructors and directors throughout the Bay Area, I can practically guarantee that the delightful entertainment that we can enjoy in theatrical venues throughout the Bay Area will continue to flourish in a healthy environment. I had the opportunity to visit Concord High School to review Colin Higgins’ poignant comedy, Harold and Maude, under the astute direction of Paul M. Crissey, the drama instructor.

In 1971, Harold and Maude was released by Paramount Pictures starring Ruth Gordon as free spirit septuagenarian, Maude, and Bud Cort as the troubled and morbid 20 year old, Harold. The movie was a resounding financial failure but rose from its economic ashes as a cult classic and is currently listed as number 45 in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Funniest Movies of all time.

The movie and the play features the dark disaffected morality and exploits of a young man from a wealthy family who has become isolated, without personal worth or direction from his domineering mother and family’s superficial and ambivalent moneyed life style. Harold stages incredibly realistic mock-suicides to get attention from his egocentric socialite mother and attends the funerals of strangers for kicks. Into this dark and existentialistic existence, fate directs an older woman who is his complete opposite, an impulsive, eclectic widow who exudes positive mental attitude, a woman called Maude.

In the Concord High production, Director Crissey has chosen his cast with great care, selecting community theatre guest artist, Sandra Risser as Maude. The remainder of his cast is composed of his students, beginning with a polished, cool and collected young actor by the name of Jordy Eisenmann as the melancholy young man, Harold. These two actors deliver heart-felt, poignant and deliciously funny, off-beat humor that is richly rewarding. Young Eisenmann is remarkably believable in his portrayal. He has his lines nailed! Not a hint of confusion, not a miscue is perceived. Sandra Risser is quite wonderful, a genuine Maude, as a lady who has lived, loved and endured life, who has decided how and when the final chapter in her life will be written. Risser delivers a superb performance. . “Death is no surprise - - it’s part of living, you’ve got to have faith.”

At the same time, there are other members of Crissey’s class that deliver performances that demonstrate genuine student actors, focused and articulate, some more dedicated than others, but certainly within this nucleus lay the promise of future professional actors. I do not have space in this article to mention all who deserve kudos, but Elisa Castenada, who plays Harold’s mother, Mrs. Chasen, and Jason Holland, who plays the Irish priest, stand out. Even little bit parts by the maid (Atessa McAleenan-Morrell) and girlfriends 1, 2, and 3 (Casey Newbegin, Galina Pavlova and the thoroughly outrageous Liz Brown) were a true delight.

On the other hand, these are predominately neophyte actors who still need to learn to enunciate, to project and tighten up their timing. To some, it is a game, to others it is an opportunity to hone their skills and it is toward this higher purpose that I encourage you to take the time to drop in for the final week of this production and support and encourage these young people to take their acting to the next level

Harold and Maude continues in The Small Theatre, in classroom 208, in Concord High at 4200 Concord Boulevard, Friday, December 7th, and Saturday, December 8th at 8 p.m., with a final matinee at 2 p.m., on Sunday, December 9th. Tickets range between $3 for Concord High and $5 for non-Concord High students to $7 for all others. Tickets may be purchased at the door. Director/instructor Crissey should be commended for the high quality of this high school presentation.

Diablo Valley College production goes absolutely bonkers!

Stepping up to the next level, Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill is a venue I review quite often as their productions are generally quite good and on a par with many community and regional theatrical productions. This week’s review of Joe Orton’s racy comedy, What the Butler Saw, is about a mental institution that provides licentious comedy that is so bad, so chaotic, so outrageous, that it is uproariously funny!

Dr. Prentice (Armando Ramirez) is a psychiatrist who manages a mental institution with a mal-direction towards sexual exploits. His gorgeous wife, Mrs. Prentice (Kristina Teves), is a nymphomaniac who is pursued by an enterprising bellhop (Soren Santos), just as the government inspector, Dr. Rance (Trevor Moppin) is about to audit the hospital’s operations. Secretarial applicant Geraldine Barclay (Kady Brown) is asked to disrobe by Dr. Prentice as part of her pre-employment examination, when all hell breaks loose. Student director, Duncan Moore, has selected a cast that is up to their outrageous best, be it in under-ware or outer-ware. One of the best portrayals is by Kyle Peterson, who plays Sergeant Match. Soren Santos, Kristina Teves and Kady Brown were equally superlative as well!

None of the play makes sense, nor is it intended to. It is just a loony romp in a mental institution, that has everyone disrobing, and groping and hoping and moping! After all, it’s so sad when you’re so good at being bad; - - does that make any sense? Well, neither does this play, but it is lots of fun anyway.

What The Butler Saw continues through next weekend, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with the final performance on Sunday, December 9th, at 2:30 p.m.. The production is in the Arena Theatre on the DVC campus, at 321 Golf Club Road in Pleasant Hill. Tickets range between $8 and $13 each and can be purchased in the box office on the campus in front of the main theatre complex. Call (925) 687-4445 for ticket and reservation information.

Frank Capra's movie, "It's a Wonderful Life" is reborn as a one man show entitled "This Wonderful Life"

The final review is a one man performance, a demonstration of professional acting excellence, where one actor plays dozens of characters in rapid succession, a tour de force of acting by long-time Bay Area Actor, Dan Hiatt, in This Wonderful Life! The play takes place in the fictional community of Bedford Falls over a 30 to 40 year period ranging from George Bailey’s childhood to a time shortly after World War II. I would think that just about everybody is familiar with the 1946 movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, from whence this show was created and it would certainly help if you had seen the movie before you see this production.

Dan Hiatt is a nationally acclaimed actor who must be very familiar to our local audiences as he has performed in numerous productions in theatres such as Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and San Jose Repertory Theatre, amidst a plethora of outstanding theaters across the country.

Dan superbly plays all 35 characters and encapsulates the entire movie in a very captivating, humorous and delightful evening of entertainment. Dan is absolutely amazing as he captures the character, mannerisms and even in many respects the voices of the many actors and characters ranging from Jimmy Stewart (as George Bailey), to Lionel Barrymore (as Mr. Potter), to Henry Travers (as Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class), to Thomas Mitchell (as Uncle Billy), and even Donna Reed (as George’s wife Mary). Hiatt even narrates the story, delivering an overall superlative experience. If you love the movie, and I certainly do, then you would be hard pressed not to enjoy this very clever and professionally executed “abridged” version of the show.

This Wonderful Life continues Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p/m., and with matinees on Saturdays at 3 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through December 23rd. Ticket prices range between $37 to $59 dollars. Call the box office at (408) 367-7255 or visit their web site at http://www.boxoffice@sjrep.com/ for more information. The theatre is located at 101 Paseo de San Antonio in San Jose between south 2nd and 3rd streets. There is free public parking available after 6 p.m. each day in a multistoried garage (at the corner of East San Carlos Avenue, between south 2nd and 3rd streets) adjacent the theatre. Drive south on highway 680 (which becomes hwy 280) to the 7th street off ramp, in San Jose, were you will exit and drive the short distance to the theater, near the parking garage at East San Carlos and 3rd streets. San Jose is packed with holiday shoppers and revelers and parking is very difficult in the evenings, especially because of all the Christmas decorations and Christmas fair exhibits in the nearby South Market Street park. Karen and I often go early and have dinner at one of the many nearby restaurants, such as Scott’s Seafood Restaurant on Park Avenue. San Jose is just a short drive away and many times easier to get to than some of the great theatres in San Francisco.