Aove The Violet vibrates with youthful energy and Crime and Punishment is intensely powerful, while Cymbeline by Shakespeare is a mixed bag!

Three shows this week offer a broad range of engaging entertainment opportunities, from Shakespeare, to Dostoevsky, to Berchdorf, and all reasonably close at hand. Beginning with the theatre facility nearest to Rossmoor, the Onstage Theatre Company is currently offering a delightfully entertaining theatrical production, “Above the Violet”, written by local playwright, Laura Means Berchdorf, written for children and their families.

Most of my readers are aware of the fact that Helen Means lost her theatre facility in Pleasant Hill when the City of Pleasant Hill was forced to retire that theatre due to earthquake concerns. Helen has vowed to forge on by finding other theatre facilities, in the short term, until a permanent solution can be found. Consequently, she has just opened this wonderfully entertaining children’s show in the Knight’s Stage Theatre in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, in Walnut Creek.

“Above the Violet” takes us on a wonderful educational scientific journey exploring both celestial heavens and dinosaur digs, as Mom (Candice Carter) and her two children, John (Dillon Aurelio-Perata) and his sister, Grace (Courtney Sanderson) and Dad (Bill Schneider), who is also known as the “Man Who Keeps on Talking”, explore the world of science as a family.

The children are poster-children for “the family who plays together, stays together movement”. Mom, who is played superbly by Candice Carter, is the perfect example of a loving, supportive, giving mother, constantly seeking ways to reduce the natural conflicts between siblings, while at the same time, fostering competitive challenges that channel the children’s energies in constructive directions. John and his good friend, Ollie (played by Evan Lachman), are presently “hooked” on everything prehistoric, from dinosaur fossils to ancient rocks. Sister Grace, on the other hand, is looking up towards the heavens, curious as to what allows the creation of rainbows, what, where, when and why!

The presentation of science topics in a way that will grab children’s attention is not the only fanciful aspect of this story. A mischievous Berchdorf has included a magical transition wherein the elemental colors of the rainbow, red, orange, yellow, green, blue/purple and the unseen element, ultra, are brought to earth as individual fairies, each with its own color, attitude and personality. The Red Fairy (played by the very lovely Karen Leigh) is the “queen” of the group, the epitome of self-admiration. Orange (played by Dawn Lenz) is a voice of reason and wisdom, as is the Green Fairy (played by Joyce Tubb). The Yellow Fairy (played in superlative fashion by Helen Means) is a worry-wart, nervous and easily upset. Shanti Rachel plays the dark Fairy, Ultra. She is a whisperer, sweet, evocative and lovely, a silent guide to the others. The final fairy, Blue/ Purple, is played with a silly flair, but a terrific addition, by Ryan Terry. Of course, no self-respecting rainbow would ever illuminate the sky, without a poetic leprechaun close at hand (to protect the illusive pot of gold - - of course) to ride herd on the fairies, and in this tale, that leprechaun is called Roy (played by Jonathan Miller).

The one weak point or confusing point in the play, is why “The Man Who Keeps on Talking”, is not revealed as being the children’s father, until the final act of the show. He is a wonderful character and Bill Schneider is an excellent actor, a guy who is portrayed as an overzealous actor who just cannot get enough stage time, who is constantly dropping in on the audience between each and every scene to present us with another segment of an ongoing slide show about the heavens (as revealed through the telescopic cameras of the incredible space platform that we learn is the Hubble Telescope).

The stage-width screen and resulting slide show is terrific. The play concept is terrific and the acting is truly outstanding. Director Randall Nott has done an excellent job with the young actors, who are “stellar”. When I truly become “prehistoric”, they will probably have grown up and become professional entertainers. Grace (Miss Sanderson) needs to learn a little more about projection so that in the scenes where she is facing away from the audience, looking into the window, we can hear her better.

There are some very funny touches including the ongoing discussion between the boys about “copalite” (fossilized dinosaur “dodo” spelled coprolite). “The Man Who Keeps on Talking”, Bill Schneider, is also very entertaining, but the actual purpose of his character does get a bit confusing, at least for me. This actor plays two distinct characters, and has three different purposes according to the author. Berchdorf is on the right track with this type of children’s theatre production and she is open to suggestions and input from her audiences. Altogether, this is a perfect evening of entertainment for a family outing, including the children and grandchildren. This new play by Berchdorf is a work in progress that needs a few concepts and loose ends tightened up, but at the same time, it is wonderfully entertaining just as it is.

The Knight’s Stage III Theater is on the ground floor in the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. This production continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8:15 p.m., Thursday, March 19th at 8:25 p.m., with matinees on Saturday March 21st, Sunday March 15th and Sunday, March 22nd at 2:15 P.m., and closing on the 22nd. Call 943-7469 (SHOW) for reservations and any additional information.

Cymbeline resonates with the clash of criminal elements taking us back the the 30's and 40's with Butterfield 8 production in Concord!

Down the road, in Concord, the Butterfield 8 Theatrical Company is presenting an innovative and unique vision and somewhat confusing version of Shakespeare’s curious play, Cymbeline.

Cymbeline was written by Shakespeare while the two theaters he was writing for (Blackfriars and The Globe) were both closed between July 1608 and December 1609. He had a lot of time to write and he certainly created a very verbose amalgam of elements, overlong, overly complicated and incongruous. Director John Butterfield has re-directed the time-frame for this multi-leveled plot-laden play into the Film Noir period of time when Hollywood was making the most of black and white. In this production, Butterfield has added another level of confusion by crafting this play as a play within a play. Shakespeare by himself created a plethora of plots in which there is a lot of black and white, good and evil.

Encompassing everything from an evil Queen, to her clownish, churlsh son Cloten (probably whence came the term “Clot”), to stolen children, to banished lovers, to wagers to prove fidelity, to bashing the Italians (from Cesar’s troops and emissaries to a miscreant adventurer and lover), to safety in the highlands of Wales (Milford Haven), to the conflict between England and its refusal to pay homage to its conqueror, Rome. Wow, what a full plate, intermixed with the play being set in Hollywood, during the filming of the play, all portraying gangsters and gun-molls and bad-guys! Somehow, no matter how far I stretch my imagination, I cannot envision movies, even bad “B” movies of the forties, wherein hunters go in search of game with Tommy-guns and hand guns.

This play has to be one the wordiest, most difficult and complex plays Shakespeare ever wrote. The bard is never “easy” for modern readers to decipher, but allow the great poet from Stratford to create his works with plenty of ink and nothing but time on his hands and you get “Cymbeline”. Granted, his great poetry, songs and extraordinary style are still prevalent in grand proportion.

Cymbeline, the king at the time, is played well by Donald L. Hardy. His evil “Queen” is played in very nasty fashion (meaning very well) by Deborah Doyle. Eddie Peabody plays two totally different characters in unique roles demonstrating his growing and diverse talent, that of the idiot son, Cloten and the banished lover, Postumus Leonatus. The lovely young princess, Imogen, is portrayed well by Becky Potter. Helen, the woman who stole Cymbeline’s two young sons, Guiderius and Aviragus, is played well by Kathleen MacKay. While there are numerous actors who also deserve recognition, due to my need to cover another story, I have to say you simply have to see this if you want to appreciate it. While the acting was for the most part very good, the play (even with the surgical skill exercised by Director Butterfield) was more than an evening’s entertainment. Some aspects I truly enjoyed (I have never seen Cymbeline previously, in my 23 years of reviewing theatre) and some concepts I felt were not well thought out.

This intriguing play continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 P.M., with Sunday Matinees on March 15th and 22nd at 3 P.M., and closing on March 28th. The theatre is located in the studios of Cue Productions Live at 1835 Colfax Street, in Concord, just off Willow Pass Road. Call 798-1300 for reservations and any additional information. Tickets range between $12 and $18.

Crime and Punishment is intense and powerfull, at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre!

Berkeley Repertory Theatre has just opened with a very intense play adaptation of Dostoevsky’s famous book, “Crime and Punishment”. When I was in college, I had to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, while others in my literature class had to read “Crime and Punishment”. Dostoevsky has been considered by many as one of the great thinkers and philosophers of all time, in fact, even at his death in 1881, he was considered a Russian “National Treasure”.

“Crime and Punishment” began with the concept of a short novella about his belief that all people have an ”innate moral compulsion to seek out punishment for their sins, and that that compulsion can not be mastered or overridden.” At the same time Dostoevsky was also writing a novel entitled, “The Drunkards” about the Russians’ compulsion to drink excessively. He wanted to warn his countrymen how dangerous this growing habit of drunkenness could be and how it would wreak havoc on families, friends, and their loved ones. He tried to get his work published by a book publisher, but was turned down. In his urgent desire to get his work published and to get an advance for his work, he contacted a monthly publication called The Russian Messenger, a periodical that had provided favorable results for both Turgenev and Tolstoy. Dostoevsky had major differences of opinion with the editor, Katkov, but Katkov respected the author as an independent thinker and writer and finally agreed to sponsor him.

Dostoevsky originally told Katkov it should not take more than a month to write his story, but after he merged both stories into one, the story was finally published in monthly installments, a year later, in 1866. He infused his belief that God can be found in individuals and that the way to god is in great suffering that will lead eventually to forgiveness. His focus on man’s part in the equation earned him a reputation as one of the forerunners of existentialism.

The adaptors of his book who transformed it into this play, Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, have honed down 697 pages of text into roughly a 90 minute high energy play.

This play is a portrayal of the interaction between the three primary characters, Raskolnikov, a murderer, his investigator, Profiry, and Sonja, the young woman with whom Raskolnikov is infatuated. Sonia is the daughter of a drunkard, who is driven to prostitution by her father’s need for drink and the family’s need for financial survival. The main character, Raskolnikov, believes that certain men, certain great thinkers, are above the morality of common or “ordinary” men. He believes that in order to achieve the common good, if necessary, an “extraordinary” man who takes action into his own hands, such as murdering someone in pursuit of what is best for society, should not be held accountable for his actions.
The play focuses almost entirely on the interaction between the suspected murderer, Raskolnikov, and an astute investigator by the name of Porfiry, who is trying to pry an admission of guilt from Raskolnikov. Within the intense time frame of 90 minutes, we become engaged between the clever investigator, the astute murderer, the woman he is enamored with, and vignettes of past interactions between the murdered victims, the drunkard father, and the murderer.

In the greater picture, the question asked by Dostoevsky seems to be - - what about man’s need to justify his actions, man’s need to be responsible for himself, and to his society and God? Dostoevsky seems to be asking himself as well as the audience or reader, - - what is and where is God?

The direction by Sharon Ott brings us directly to the controversy and issues at hand. However, if you are not familiar with Dostoevsky and his works, you may be lost in the translation, able to enjoy the play on a superficial plane only. Again, as with many deeply probing works presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I strongly advise you to get to the theater early and at least read the articulate articles contained in the program before you see the production. By all means, read about Dostoevsky and then go and see the play and it will probably deliver a very meaningful experience for you.

Raskolnikov is played by Tyler Pierce; Profiry and the drunken father Marmelodov is played by J.R. Horne and Delia MacDougall plays the female characters, Sonia, Alyona (the pawn broker), Lizaveta (her sister) and Rashkolnikov’s mother. The acting is, as always, brilliant, exquisite.

“Crime and Punishment” is superbly directed and continues Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 P.M., with Wednesday and Sunday performances at 7 P.M., and there are matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 P.M. and closing non March 29th. The production will be in the Thrust Stage at 2025 Addison Street in Berkeley, near Shattuck Avenue. Tickets range in price between $33 and $71 each. Call (510) 647-2949 for reservation and any additional information you may need. Their website is found at where you may find much more information.