"The Family Makespeace" by Tom Mercer has it all, mystery, surprise, humor and an articulate understanding of the human psyche! Glorious Sunset and Concerning Strange Devices form the Distant West, two very unique and intriguing shows that almost defy description!

Diablo Actor’s Ensemble recently produced a smash hit and thoroughly outstanding production of Willy Russel’s Educating Rita, starring well known professional actor, L. Peter Callender and local favorite Ginny Wehrmeister in their little 49 seat theater in Walnut Creek. Now, a month later, Artistic Director Scott Fryer, has come up with another terrific offering in a "world premier" of Tom Mercer’s “The Family Makespeace”. This new play is a gritty, tightly woven and pungently humorous story of a terribly dysfunctional family, brought about in large part due to the infidelities of the family patriarch, Jack Makespeace. Director Daunielle Rasmussen has brought together a stellar cast of professional level performers to deliver a story about a family gathering to celebrate (with tongue in cheek), among other things, Jack’s birthday. Jack is a professional actor, albeit a minor bit part and commercial walk-on actor, with many years of enduring skills and enough talent to keep him traveling and engaged constantly.

The gathering consists of Jack’s lesbian daughter, Sally (Hannah Brunner), his depressed and alcohol sustained son, Michael (Vince Faso), Jack’s second wife, Peg (Jennifer Lucas), a friend of his daughter, Gwen (Kate Jopson), Sally’s significant other and lesbian lover, Andi (Maryssa Wanlass), and a surprise guest, Isabel (Rachel Siegel).

As soon as the lights come up on the first act, it is obvious that the tension is palpable and that something far more significant than a simple birthday gathering is about to occur as we observe second wife Peg, attempting to quickly camouflage three suitcases in a corner of the front room as she rushes to the front door to admit her first visitor. Michael arrives with a chip on his shoulder, obviously not thrilled with the idea of being at this gathering to celebrate the birthday of a father he has absolutely no love or respect for. He immediately asks Peg what there is in the house to drink, requests a beer, then changes his mind and asks for plain scotch, and plenty of it. Peg and Michael discuss his well developed propensity for booze and she tries to convince him that it will be better for all concerned if he lightens up on the attitude and alcohol. Michael learns that his sister will be arriving soon, accompanied by a friend, whom he assumes will be her lesbian girlfriend. Peg runs off to another room to complete the birthday cake and Michael responds to a knock on the door. He admits a very attractive young woman, Gwen, whom he incorrectly assumes is his sister’s lesbian girlfriend. After making a complete ass of himself during the introductions, he learns that Gwen is actually a “straight” girlfriend of his sister, who has been invited specifically to meet him! They start the introductions over to attempt to get off on a better foot, but it seems that Michael has three left feet, one of which is perpetually in his mouth.

Andi and Sally arrive and the sparring continues into a near blood-sport event as the family members verbally dissect each other, each trying to determine who has the greatest disdain for dear old dad for leaving their mother in shambles many years earlier. No one seems to know when dad is actually supposed to arrive but bantering continues as the family laundry is put on fluff dry to remove some of the static in the air.

As the palpitations continue, the heart of the evening’s story is about to make a left turn in an even more disastrous direction. While there is a great deal of pain and frustration between the family members, author Tom Mercer has done a superb job of taking the acrimonious edge off, with some outstanding and cleverly penned humor. There are many insightful lines such as “I think I want to slip into something more comfortable - - like a coma!” Perhaps his artful mix of comedy and sarcasm might be compared with Neil Simon, but I think he has landed on his own feet, quite soundly, with a terrific, albeit very short and succinct play. I believe the entire play, with no intermission, took just slightly over an hour. While the story and the characters have room to expand without desensitizing the impact, the play as written, works very well.

The acting is absolutely perfect, a true triumph in bringing these characters from page to stage. I loved the mix of emotions, love, frustration and sweet surprise in a perfectly culminated story. Just as in real life, there are a lot of twists and turns. This story has it all, mystery, surprise, humor and an articulate understanding of the human psyche.

The story came about when Tom Mercer attended the first Contra Costa Times playwriting contest a few years ago. The following year Tom sat down and began writing this play which had been bouncing off the walls of his brain for some time. He came away the winner with what was considered to be the best play in that year’s contest. Then in 2008, when the Diablo Actors Ensemble promoted its own play writing contest, Tom submitted a reworked version of the story and again won the contest, which led to the opportunity for this play to be staged in this theater.

Tom has been a long time Bay Area resident and holds a B.A. in drama from San Diego State University. He has attended and worked through an interface program that brought highly respected actors and writers from the theatrical incubator that is Los Angeles to the hallowed halls of SDSU to work with students to assist them in their learning process. After Tom returned to the Bay Area, he immersed himself in community and local theater, eventually piloting a new dinner venue theatre company called, “Mystery is Served.” I attended some of his productions and reported very favorably on his company and efforts. Tom is a long time member of the Walnut Creek Fantasy Forum Actor’s Ensemble where his acting and working skills have been further honed. I have to tell you that Karen and I have been invited to other “new plays” written by local playwrights, and while some were very amateur and awkward, this one has “success” written all over it. We came away absolutely enamored with this short but thoroughly sweet theatrical experience.

“The Family Makespeace” is a play that I highly recommend! It will continue Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Sundays now through March 27th in the Diablo Actors’ Ensemble Theater located at 1345 Locust Street in downtown Walnut Creek. Tickets range in price between $10 and $25 and there is plenty of parking directly across the street from the theater in a public garage. Call (866) 811-4111 for reservations or visit the company’s website at www.diabloactors.com for more information. Stay tuned as the next show coming up at DAE will be the delightful Neil Simon comedy, “Same Time Next Year” starring two of our now favorite local stars, Joel Roster and Ginny Wehrmeister!

In you love the San Francisco Symphony and enjoy the brilliance of Charlie Chaplin, then why not "Go for the Gold" on April 15th, by attending the SF Symphony's complete 1942 "original Chaplin composed" orchestral score to his popular silent movie, "The Gold Rush".

If you love old movies, then I want you to be aware that the San Francisco Symphony will be presenting Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 15th through the 17th at Davies Symphony Hall, at 201 Van Ness Avenue, in San Francisco. The orchestra, led by Assistant Conductor Donato Cabrera, will perform Chaplin’s original movie score to accompany this rare viewing of the film.

The Gold Rush (1925) is one of Mr. Chaplin’s most successful films and the highest grossing silent film comedy of all times. Inspired in part by the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush and the horrific Donner Party Tragedy, the film tells the story of Chaplin’s iconic character, Tramp, as the “Lone Prospector” during the great gold rush in Alaska. His adventures, his dreams, and his pursuit of unrequited love are depicted through a mixture of slapstick, pantomime and a dash of sentimentality. Classic scenes include his “dance of the dinner rolls”, the teetering cabin on the edge of the cliff, and the starving Chaplin eating his leather shoe soles! This was Chaplin’s favorite film and the one that he said he wished was the most remembered. It was re-released in 1942 with a full orchestral score composed by Chaplin.

Stephen Salmons will give an “Inside Music” talk one hour before each concert. This is free to all concert ticket holders. Doors open 15 minutes before the talk.

Tickets are available at www.sfsymphony.org or by phone at (415) 864-6000 and at the Symphony Hall Box office on Grove street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Streets in San Francisco.
This week’s reviews take us to the Onstage Theater Company’s newest production, “Glorious Sunset”, at Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek and the Berkeley Repertory Company’s latest production, entitled “Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West” in the Berkeley theater.

The first is a community theatre production of a play written by local Lafayette playwright, David E. Harris, entitled “Glorious Sunset” just opening for the first time in Walnut Creek. I am not sure how to classify this play as it almost defies description! “Glorious Sunset” is a comedy, a murder mystery, an outrageous spoof and a play that is definitely not in your typical format, but yet a very fun and entertaining and enjoyable piece of theater. When the lights went down and the theme music from the James Bond thriller, “You Only Live Twice” and the theme music from “Dragnet” filled the theater as the lights came up on the courtroom scene, I knew we were in for a bit of outrageous theatrical spoof!

The opening scenario is totally absurd, in a courtroom with a judge, lawyers and defendants that defy any sense of modern judicial decorum! Even if the scene were set in Hicksville USA, I would have found the whole opening scene totally silly and just plain weird. As several items are handled in quick succession by the judge, the craziness of the story starts to unfold. In short order, we are introduced to a rain-coat attired artist, Michael Upton (Barry Hunau), who is about to be tried for indecent exposure, primarily due to the fact that he was discovered painting in the nude and using part of his manhood as his paint applicator!

It takes a little while for the play to get down to the real purpose of the story, which is to re-enact a murder trial and to solve a murder mystery in which there is nothing really mysterious or suspenseful. It is about the murder of local merchant, Wilson Dean, the victim of a love triangle that occurred 140 years earlier in this same community, a bit of community folklore that is still on everyone’s lips.

A country judge by the name of Susan Felton (Roberta Tibbetts) has joined with her friends and associates in jurisprudence in this community to turn their little courtroom into an enterprising theatrical opportunity for the little town of Amberhill. Someone, perhaps the judge herself, has come up with an idea that they hope will draw media attention to their backward little town, and entice tourists to come and bring about a surge in their wilted economy. They, as a courtroom group, have agreed to set up a mock trial in an attempt to solve the 140 year old murder (that was never really considered a mystery to anyone in this town). Now there is no “real explanation” as to why reporters and photographers would flock from far and wide to cover such “old news”, but then again, maybe this story was set before the advent of the internet, Yahoo and Google, which has cut newspaper’s incomes and photography budgets to the bone. The group finally rises to the occasion and puts on the trial and the newspaper reporters and photographers do come from all over to cover it. The courtroom group even entices Sam Witte, one of their previous local boys, but now settled in the big city (a bright, up and coming defense attorney), to play the role of the defense attorney for the accused and long-since-deceased murderer.

Local attorney Dawn Kennedy (Melissa Vargas), really doesn’t want anything to do with this mock trial, especially once she learns that her former boyfriend, Sam Witte, is coming back to town to participate in the fun and games. Dawn has agreed to play the prosecution’s attorney. Court bailiff, Lyle (played by Tim Biglow), has the “hots” for court clerk, Maureen (Siobhan O’Brien), which creates a lot of totally inappropriate courtroom antics, that is, I guess, unless you reside in Amberhill. Attorney Sam Witte (Matthew Shotwell), is accompanied by his legal clerk, Fred Cody (Matt Bucci), whose only significant purpose (in the plot) is apparently to put the make on Sam’s old girlfriend, continuously. Two other attorneys, John Sanders (Neil McChesney) and Charles Andrews (Mark Barry) are really written into the script so that they can come back in the mock trial as other characters. Sal Russo portrays the nearly deaf court recorder as his principal character.

Another key element in this plot is that the audience becomes the jury and as such, you are asked to participate in the fun. It should be noted that yours truly was accused of chewing gum (which I don’t) and was ordered by the bailiff to shape up! Before the evening’s entertainment is over, you will be asked to find the defendant “guilty” or “innocent”!
If you think this is a convoluted and silly plot, you are absolutely right, but strange as it seems, it is just silly enough to be outrageously entertaining. It is so bad, that it turns out to be quite funny. When the mock trial actually comes to fruition, the actors each come to trial in period costume. Some of the costume pieces (especially the hair pieces and mustaches) are so ridiculous that you find yourself laughing at the pure absurdity of it all. The acting is really quite good, over the top certainly, but perfect for the characters as written. Director Helen Means has turned what I thought would be a sow’s ear into a silly silky purse! If you ever enjoyed vaudeville, community theater or melodramas, then this wacko comedy is bound to grow on you. The audience loved it and the applause at the end was very strong! Just plain dumb fun!

“Glorious Sunset” plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:15 p.m., with a Thursday performance on March 25th at 8:15 p.m., and on Sunday, March 21st and 28th, at 2:15 pm and closing on March 28th. Call the Lesher box office for tickets and reservations at 837-3276. The performances are in the Knights Stage III Theater on the ground floor of the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, which is located at 1601 Civic Drive in downtown Walnut Creek. Tickets are $18 for general admission and $15 for seniors.

Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West is a "mind-warping", multi-dimensional visual experience!

Berkeley Repertory Theatre has just delivered a multidimensional theatrical tale, a story that encompasses “something old and something new” as it explores early Japanese photography, and body tattoo imagery, and has brought this tale into the 21st century, with a modern twist.

Playwright Naomi Iizuka has created a very complex story that overlaps and drifts between current time and the 1880’s in Japan with two overlapping stories of love, sexual intrigue, prejudice and passion, in her new play, “Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West”. This techno-modernist production is a powerhouse of mind-warping imagery, rapidly converging and re-emerging set plasticity, near-blinding lighting transitions that set the synapses on a collision course with information dissemination overload. The production is impressively unique and yet almost too much, paced too fast for me and my aging mind to fully absorb the wonder of it all.

The story begins with a wealthy American woman arriving in Yokohama in 1885, seeking a sensual side of the "real" Japan, pursuing a dark curiosity that was stimulated by a photographic image she had seen many years earlier. The image was of a nearly naked Japanese man, his entire body emblazoned in ritualistic artistic tattoo. She seeks out a well known American photographer living in Yokohama who has made his living taking photographs of rickshaw drivers, geishas, and monks which he sells to Western tourists hungry for images of Old Japan. The photographer quickly recognizes that her professed desire to see and explore the ancient art of Japanese tattoo is in fact, a hidden desire to experience a personal erotic adventure, a reality that he finds quite irritating to him. He unmasks her outwardly expressed desire to simply assuage a long standing artistic curiosity.

Her wealthy husband has visited Japan many times furthering his gun-selling trade, and while he outwardly expresses great disdain for the Japanese people as a whole, he has been secretly keeping a Japanese woman for his sexual pleasure and companionship.

A century later, an American tourist harboring dark secrets of his own, comes to Japan ostensibly to purchase rare Meiji era photographs. His subliminal sexual agenda overshadows his professed search for valuable photography to add to his collection.

Author Iizuka artfully explores how the medium of photography captures not only historical moments and acts as a persuasive art, but captures the imagination and stimulates the senses. She illustrates how photography serves as an interpretive language of its own, crossing language barriers to form a communicative bridge to other lands, emotions and desires, not entirely dissimilar from our own.

The actors play dual roles and deliver a very powerful experience. The cast includes Kate Eastwood Norris, Johnny Wu, Bruce McKenzie, Teresa Avia Lim and Danny Wolohan. Director Les Waters brings his powerful insights to the development and delivery of the play. Further, the production team contributes immeasurably to the success of this production, and the design efforts of Mimi Lien (scenic design), Annie Smart (costume design), Leah Gelpe (projection and video design) and Alexander V. Nichols (lighting design), probably deliver the most, significantly. The lighting design, particularly the overpowering flash-bulb-like lighting effects, used to facilitate scene changes, was almost too, too much. That aspect needs to be toned down as it was somewhat uncomfortable physically, blinding, at least momentarily.
While I loved the concept, I came away somewhat uncomfortable, as though I had overstuffed myself at a marvelous dinner, thinking less would have been more satisfactory, more fulfilling. There was so much packed into this story that I have no idea of how one would do that, short of a major re-write.

“Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West” continues Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Sunday evening performances at 7 p.m. and matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, now through April 11th. Call (510) 647-2949 or (888) BRT-Tix (toll free) for additional information and reservations. You may also wish to visit their website at www.berkeleyrep.org for more information and photographs of the production to assist in your decision making process. Ticket range between $33 and $71 each, depending on seating and performance times. This production is in the Berkeley Repertory Roda Theater located at 2015 Addison Street in Berkeley.