Infatuated with Figaro and in love with The Ladies of the Camillias!

Figaro, Figaro, Figaro - - - Berkeley Repertory Theatre delivers an outstanding re-envisioned production of the classic Mozart opera that blends the innovative concepts of modern theatre with the classic beauty of exquisite music and voices in its current production of Figaro. In this same week, the Off Broadway West Theatre Company in San Francisco is presenting a funny and cleverly written play about a fictitious meeting between two great icons of Theatre, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, in Paris in 1897, entitled The Ladies of the Camellias.

Figaro, an operatic, theatrical masterpiece!

Starting with the production closest to Walnut Creek and Rossmoor, Berkeley Repertory Theatre has engaged Paris native and award winning director/actor, Dominique Serrand to direct his adaptation of the Pierre-Augustin Caron De Beaumarchais’s classic character, Figaro.

Beaumarchais is revered by both the theatrical world and the operatic world for the gift of his “little barber of Seville”, Figaro, who has been at the heart of so many grand theatrical productions ever since his creation in 1772, in a opera-comique (comic opera) as Il Barbariere di Siviglia. Due to the characterization of a main character, Count Almaviva, as a lustful and depraved member of the aristococracy, whose servants were the intellectual equals of their masters, Beaumarchais was unable to get clearance by the King’s theatrical sensor, to produce the opera. Beaumarchais later re-wrote the opera into a play under the title of The Marriage of Figaro in the late 1770’s and finally in 1784, King Luis XVI permitted a public performance in Paris. It became an overnight success, applauded by the same aristocracy which it so irreverently lampooned! Two years later, graced with an Italian libretto by da Ponte and music by Mozart, the normal four hour production, often lingered into the wee hours of the morning, as encore after encore sometimes stretched the production into an eight hour marathon.

The story and the many characters envisioned by Beaumarchais originally has spun off into many different tales and theatrical pieces, both theatre and opera. Now, Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp, have added another chapter, moving the tale forward in history, from the time of the marriage of Figaro (set around 1780) to the year of the French Revolution, 1792. Now, simply entitled Figaro, we find the city of Paris in the midst of a revolutionary uproar, aristocracy fleeing the rebelling citizens and the guillotine. In addition, we find the home of Count Almaviva in shambles, with the Count’s faithful servant, Figaro, hiding both he and his master from those who would kill them, as the revolution rages outside.

The two main characters are referred to in the present tense as “Fig” (played by Steven Epp) and “Mr. Almaviva” (played by Dominique Serrand). They argue and revile each other and relive both sweet and bitter memories of their past loves, lusts and rivalries. Their memories of the events surrounding the marriage of Figaro are relived in operatic form and come to life all around them. The past tense, or memory operatic characters, Cherubino (played by Christina Baldwin), Figaro (Bryan Boyce), Count Almaviva (Bradley Greenwald), Marcellina (Carrie Hennessey), Bartolo (Bryan Janssen), Basilio (Justin D. Madel), Countess (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), and Susanna (Momoko Tanno), are played in superlative fashion, with voices that thrill the senses. Epp and Serrand are unequalled in their brilliant portrayals.

The basic and operatic tale of the marriage of Figaro, evolves around the pending marriage of servant Figaro to his sweetheart, Susanna, and the count’s long standing privilege to bed a servant’s bride on the couple’s wedding night. The attitudes of society were rapidly changing in France at this time as the poverty stricken populace was fed up with the attitudes and power of the rich aristocracy. In fact, it was only about six years after The Marriage of Figaro was first allowed public audience, where aristocracy laughed at themselves as portrayed in the play, that they were running for their lives at the dawning of the revolution.

This production is brilliantly written and staged, melding the tragic events of history with the farcical nature of the comedies that so accurately ridiculed the shortcomings of the wealthy privileged class and the monarchy, shortcomings that eventually led to the revolution and the establishment of the new Republic.

This marvelous musical adventure is a marriage of the efforts of two superb and innovative theaters, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Figaro plays Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Sunday evening productions at 7p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The Berkeley Repertory “Roda” Theatre is located at 1015 Addison Street in Berkeley @ Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley (just one block from Bart). Tickets prices range between $33 and $69 per seat. Call (510) 647-2949, or too free at 888-4-BRT-Tix or go online to their website at

The Ladies of the Camellias blossoms brightly in San Francisco!
Photo above: Richard Harder and Joyce Henderson in
"The Ladies of the Camillias"

In San Francisco, a relatively new theatre company that Karen and I have been frequenting again and again over the past two years, The Off-Broadway West Theatre Company, has once again delivered a deftly directed comedy. This story is embued with rich and rewarding acting and is cleverly written by Lillian Groag. Director Joyce Henderson has garnered the talents of a select group of professional actors to deliver this marvelously funny fictional tale of what might have happened had these two grand acting personas, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, actually met and been held captive by a publicity seeking anarchist in Paris, in the late 1890’s.

In reality, in 1897, the highly regarded actress, Eleanora Duse, arrived in Paris as part of her first French professional tour. Both she and Sarah Bernhardt were great rivals of the stage at this time in history. Unusual as it may sound, both ladies chose almost the same repertoire of productions that year, including playing the same role in the same play (The Lady of the Camellias, written by Alexander Dumas), at the same time, in two different cities. Both ladies had the same theatrical manager, M. Schurmann, and for some unknown reason, there was no theatre available for Ms. Duse to perform in when her tour arrived in Paris. Sarah Bernhardt offered Ms. Duse her own Parisian theatre, The Theatre de la Renaissance, for her use. Was this a grand publicity stunt, or was this poor planning? At the same time the anarchist movement in Europe was gaining acknowledgment and press throughout the European theater. A few years later, the First World War was started by an anarchist murdering the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Hapsburg in Sarajevo.

While the events in this play are purely fictional, they are in fact events constructed out of characters and politics and conceptual changes in theatre that were coming to fruition in the late 19th century. For example, up until this time, “directors” were unheard of. “Critics” were newly in vogue but probably distrusted as much then as they are today.

The cast selected for this production is pluperfect in every respect! Sarah Bernhardt is played by Barbara Michelson-Harder, Eleanora Duse is played by Joyce Henderson (also the director). Alexander Dumas is played by Richard Harder. Graham Cowley is delightful in his characterization of Ms Bernhardt’s assistant, as is Chris Beale who plays famous actor, Benoit Constant Coquelin, in the character of Cyrano de Bergerac, with wild abandon. The two men who play the leading male actors in the competing productions of “The Lady of the Camellias”, Flavio Ando (Randy Hurst) and Gustave-Hippolite Worms (Nicholas Russell) are thoroughly delightful. Karen Ann Light plays (the girl) a minor character in Duse’s production, but becomes a major contributing character in this evening’s circus of madness, in Madam Bernhardt’s theatrical parlor. Last but not least, Vlad Sayenko is really quite superb as the mad anarchist (Ivan), who takes the above characters captive, in his attempt to free his fellow Marxists from a Paris prison. Barbara Michelson-Harder and Joyce Henderson will be long remembered how well they demonstrated “grand dueling egos” and articulated theatre family values at the conclusion of the play.

If you are looking for an evening of light humor, delivered in a very comfortable and intimate little theater, where you can hear everything well, then by all means, drop in at the Phoenix Theatre on the sixth floor at 414 Mason Street, in San Francisco.

I had a lively discussion after the final curtain with Kim and Ron Hunt of Scottsdale, Arizona and Allen Bruce (formerly of New Zealand) and his friend Anita, who made a last minute decision to select this production. Both couples gave a big “verbal thumbs up”, emphasizing their emphatic approval of the production and their enjoyment of it!

Karen and I usually take BART into the city and walk to the theater, right straight up Mason Street, and cross Geary to the theater in the next block. For advanced sales, call (800) 838-3006 or visit their website at For additional information you may also call (510) 835-4205.