History Rocks in Stoppard's "Rock 'N' Roll" and Dunn's "Favorite Day" provides a wonderfully funny and well done play!

“Helen’s Most Favorite Day” is an absurd but hillarous play!

The Onstage Theatre in Pleasant Hill is currently presenting, “Helen’s Most Favorite Day”, a very “unique” play by author Mark Dunn. Dunn’s whimsical play is a love story and a comedy, a real rollercoaster ride, a mixture of absurd science fiction and mystic nonsense, an unlikely love triangle that begins after a 20 year hiatus, and before it’s over its characters take actions that ultimately save the universe! Yes, it’s sort of a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not - - plot!

This delightful comedy, under the direction of Helen Means, is just plain fun, nothing you have to think about. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t think too much. Just sit back and let the fantasy and insanity roll over you. It’s a real kick!

Helen (Babette Bilger) is smart, single and not looking for anyone. In addition, she is a math teacher with an incredible memory and sense of organization. Her loving sister, Ruta (Candice Carter), is also a single gal, albeit somewhat anxious, waiting for her boyfriend, Herman, to declare his intentions. Helen is very self-assured and Ruta is very anxious and insecure.

Further, Ruta is an aspiring artist with one of her pieces of art on display at the county fair. She comes to Helen early in the play and begs her to go to the fair to find out if she has been awarded a prize for her newest painting. Ruta has promised to prepare Helen’s favorite dinner, if Helen agrees to make the trip to the fair on Ruta’s behalf. However, before Helen is even out of the house, it becomes obvious that Ruta’s word is not to be entirely depended upon. Ruta’s train of thought has quickly moved on, having been sidetracked into encouraging her boyfriend, Herman (Michael Kirwin), and his mother, Bolivia (Janice Anderson), to come to the house for dinner.

Meanwhile, at the fair, in a fortune teller’s tent, Madam Lily Moreau, a “fortune teller extraordinaire”, is visited by her close friend and fellow carnival worker, Jed. He has just brought her an early morning treat, a cup of java and a special pastry for her to eat. Madam Lily (Roberta Tibbetts), who, when she is not performing acts of real magic and foretelling people’s real fortunes (whether they make people happy or not), is at times delightfully silly or dreadfully serious, depending upon the situation at hand. At this time, Lily is so pleased with her long time friend, Jed, that she decides to grant him her ultimate gift, a free magic wish. This magic wish is extremely powerful, so much so, that it can grant a person their fondest desire, change destiny, provide medical cures, etc., that is - - as long as it is a reasonable wish. In other words, if you wished for world peace, well, that’s just a bit much for one Carney fortune teller to accomplish!

Lily cautions Jed that he must treat this great gift with great respect and not use it foolishly. Jed, skeptical and not overly bright, doesn’t fully grasp the gravity of this gift!

While at the fair, Helen is observed by Jed, who spies her standing in line to buy a “Corny Dog”. Suddenly an image from the past flashes in his brain and he remembers an incident 20 years earlier, when the Ferris Wheel broke down, where two lovely young ladies were stuck at the top of the ride. Jed, having admired the beautiful ladies when they got on the ride, foolishly, in a wild burst of bravado, scaled the outside of the wheel and in showing off for the ladies, delivered a spiel of encouragement, telling them that help was on the way. When the crisis came to an end, and the ladies were safely back on the ground, the handsome daredevil, Jed, tried to make a date with the ladies but was rejected. Now, 20 years later, his heart has skipped a beat, as the lady he thought he had fallen in love with (but who had rejected him) was now back at the fair.

Jed approaches her, explains, appeals, and treats Helen to a wonderful day at the fair; in fact one of the nicest days of her life, or so she thinks. Reckless one more, Jed offers to transfer upon Helen, with whom he is now totally enamored, the gift of the “mystic wish” he had received from his fortune teller friend earlier in the day. Helen accepts the gift graciously and without even believing that there is such a thing as a magic wish, she declares out loud, “I wish every day could be today”, thereby unknowingly wishing she could repeat this special day again, and again, forever!

That night, Helen hosts a dinner party in her home, with the meal prepared by sister Ruta, and with Ruta’s boyfriend and her prospective mother-in-law as their guests. The next day strange things begin to happen as Helen disappears entirely. Jed comes looking for her at her home and tells Ruta he has not seen Helen since the evening before, when they kissed on the front porch. Helen does not show up at her school and Ruta starts to call the police, when Jed and “Mystic” Lily realize that Helen’s spur-of-the-moment wish may have derailed her life, forcing her to relive the same day, again and again, forever, in a separate alternative time and universe.

The acting is really quite excellent for community theatre, especially the role of Helen, played by Babette Bilger, who stepped into the role, learning this very lengthy and complicated part in less than one full week when the former lead actress became ill during the previous week’s show. Wow! This lady never ceases to amaze me! She really is quite excellent, and perfect for the part. In addition, Candice Carter, takes on her longest role ever, performin in superlative fashion as sister Ruta. Roberta Tibbetts (as Lily, the Fortune Teller) is as always, great, and Janice Anderson, who has many years of experience, does very well as the boyfriend’s mother. The boyfriend, Herman, is played by Michael Kirwin in terrific fashion, outrageously funny! Jed, the Carney worker, played by Gary Williams, is very, very good as well.

“Helen’s Most Favorite Day” continues playing through this week and next, with Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., and with a matinee next Sunday, at 2:30 p.m., continuing through Saturday, October 11th. Call (925) 944-9006 or visit their website at www.onstagetheatre.org for more information. Tickets range in cost between $12 for Seniors/students and $15 for general admission. The theatre is located at 2050 Oak Park Blvd. in Pleasant Hill, at the corner of Pleasant Hill Road in the old Schoolhouse Culture Center.

Tom Stoppard's "Rock'N'Roll" makes history rock with realism!

With its current production of “Rock ‘N’ Roll” , the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco has delivered a stunning look at the intersection of politics and music and how art “restrained”, set in motion an revolution in Czechoslovakia that brought freedom from Soviet dominated Communist rule.

Acclaimed playwright, Tom Stoppard, was born in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, in 1939. Following his father’s death six years later, his mother moved to England where she married a British colonel. Raised in England, Stoppard evolved into one of the great British playwrights, winning many awards and accolades for his premier works, including, The Coast of Utopia, Arcadia, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. In 2006, his most recent success is a play concerned with the significance of rock and roll music and its influence over the emergence of the democratic movement in Czechoslovakia between 1968, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

The story begins in 1968, and revolves around a young Czech graduate student (a rock and roll aficionado), Jan (Manoel Felciano), and his relationship with his Cambridge British “Marxist” professor, Max (Jack Willis). The student has just returned to Prague, and tries to assimilate into the communist mind set, but finds himself becoming more and more appalled by the increasingly repressive regime. The play contrasts the realities of living in a communist dominated regime and the idealistic attitudes of those who believe in the concept of Marxism over Capitalism. The harsh realities of this repression and the resistance by a Czechoslovakian rock group, called the Plastic People of the Universe, is made a cause célèbre for freedom, by Václav Havel, who was an author of many essays, articles, and letters, before he became the president of Czechoslovakia. Stoppard reveals how Rock ‘N’ Roll music actually became a major catalyst for change.

The play takes place over several decades, in both England and Czechoslovakia, in which the protagonist, Jan, and his circle of friends, are browbeaten by the Communist authorities for daring to cling to their love and appreciation for Rock ‘N’ Roll music and Jan’s college professor’s staunch and ongoing defense of Marxist ideals (even after witnessing communism’s degradation of its people and its collapse in the Soviet Union). More than that, it is not simply about the “Plastics” or Rock ‘N’ Roll, it is about the need for the repressed to rise up, to revolt in one fashion or another, and this is a story of culture verses politics!

There are several stories within the play, stories of betrayal and family discord, stories of the sexual revolution’s ongoing imprint on society and a central story about political expediency and stupidity, occurring between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution. One of the somewhat subliminal stories is one in which we have recurring glimpses of British “Pink Floyd” rock performer Syd Barrett, at the height of his popularity and his gradual decline into self-imposed exile and possible mental instability (purportedly brought on by heavy drug use) that continued until his death in the year the play opened in England, 2006.

This is a brilliantly written play with a unique view of history, a view that had I not seen “Rock ‘N’ Roll”, I would never have known about. I strongly recommend arriving early so that you can take time to read the program, especially the article written by Tom Stoppard, which provides some excellent historical background, adding greatly to the powerful and moving story itself. In addition, you might “Google” the internet for the Czech references to Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, before you attend the production.

Director Carey Perloff has once again delivered a true masterpiece with her artistic interpretation of Stoppard’s work. The huge cast, too many to name in the space I have available, most of whom are core ACT actors, are perfect in the execution of their craft. The set designed by Douglas W. Schmidt is bound to be remembered for a long time for his incredible set design. Lighting design by Robert Wierzel is a major contribution to the effectiveness of this production.

This production is certainly worth a “Tip ‘O’ The Hat” for a job exceptionally well done. “Rock ‘N’ Roll” plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., with Sunday performances at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., continuing now through Sunday, October 12th, in The American Conservatory Theatre at 415 Geary Street in San Francisco. Call (415) 749-2228 or visit the ACT website at www.act-sf.org to purchase tickets or to obtain additional information. Tickets range between $20 to $73 each, depending on day, date and location of seating in the theatre.