Comedy rules in Benica, Dramatic Pathos rules in Berkeley and you win, no matter which one you chose!

Nolan Mecham (as Norbert) consoles the very lovely Rana Kangas-Kent (as Pippi) in The Benicia Old Town Theater’s “The Great American Trailer Park Musical”
Photo courtesy: Jeffrey Duffin

This week we have two terrific shows that are as far apart in entertainment style and concept as two shows could possibly be. The first, in Benicia, is entitled “The Great American Trailer Park Musical”. This is a delightfully funny and bawdy cartoon-like musical comedy wherein the musical mavens of Armadillo Acres Trailer Park in North Florida rise up in an effort to save the marriage of one of their trailer-park sisters from a strip-joint lap dancer who befriends her husband. The second play, in Berkeley, is a brooding and powerful testimony to greed and power, in Henrik Ibsen’s, “John Gabriel Borkman”. This second play delivers a dark, powerful & dramatic dose of conflict in which two aging disillusioned sisters battle for control of a discredited husband/lover’s son, desperate to groom the son to restore a family’s name and credulity and/or to perpetuate a family name where one might never have existed. Written over 100 years ago by one of the greatest playwrights of the past century, Henrik Ibsen, “John Gabriel Borkman” is one of Ibsen’s most successful plays, and perhaps second only to “The Doll House” in its world-wide popularity.

The first of my two reviews this week leads off with a delightfully insane comedy chuck full of white trash southern idioms, bringing to mind the class and mindset of the characters populating the landscape in the old TV show, “The Dukes of Hazard”, but this group is populating a wild and wacky new musical called “The Great American Trailer Park Musical”. This new comedy, written by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso, was first performed in 2004 in the New York Musical Theater Festival. Subsequently, in 2005, it opened off-Broadway at Bows at Dodger Stages. It garnered enough riotous reviews to move on to Gainsville Florida in 2006, to pave the way for the first American National Tour which began in January of 2008, which in turn, propelled it across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom later that year.

This tuneful adult domestic melodrama takes place just off Highway 301, in a North Florida trailer park called Armadillo Acres. Three musical mavens who sing at every opportunity and who are co-residents of the same trailer park, Betty (Steph Peek), Linoleum (Courtney McAllister) and Pickles (Sydnee Ortiz), open the show singing a number to set the perspective entitled, “This Side of the Tracks”. Obviously, if the first song is about life on this side of the tracks, there has to be “the other side of the tracks”, and believe me, the side of the tracks as they describe it is not a senior citizen community for upwardly mobile, middle class retirees. The story quickly focuses on a married couple who are long time residents, Norbert and Jeannie, who married in high school and moved into the trailer park as their first home. Now after 20 some years, Norbert is really into the money, well, at least he receives a lot of money every day, one dollar at a time as a turn-pike toll taker. His sweet little wife, Jeannie (Elazabeth Reber), has become a sofa-born reviewer of day-time-soaps on TV and invests her time in keeping tabs on Opra, Montel and the other key TV daytime hosts. For some unexplained reason, she had developed a debilitating agoraphobic illness years before that keeps her from leaving the safety she feels in her little trailer home. After 20 years, poor Norbert (Nolan Mecham) has become very frustrated that he can no longer take his wife out for an evening of high-class entertainment and fun, such as going to the local roller-rink. Unfortunately, his cousin invited him to join him in a pint of brew at a local strip-joint and bar where he has now found some solace in a new friend, a very sexy and loquacious friend. When it turns out that this lovely and exotic lap-dancer turned confidant and sincere friend to Norbert, Pippi (Rana Kangas-Kent), takes up residence in the same trailer park as Norbert, all those local flamingos aren’t likely to be turning a deeper shade of pink because they are painted pink! Whoop-see! There-yah-go, southern –hospitality, that’s what it is, just plain old fashioned southern hoss-pitality!

Well, our all girl chorus, previously cited, has plenty to say about this, and they say (or sing) plenty from here on in! With song titles such as “One Step Closer”, “The Buck Stops Here”, “It Doesn’t Take a Genius”, well - - it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this little illicit romance ditty is headed. Add to this some more songs like “Flushed Down the Pipes”, “Storm’s A-Brewin”, “Road Kill”, and you can begin to see that this show has a real-romantic and spiritual feel to it! Well, maybe “spiritual” is not the best word, perhaps that’s entirely the wrong word, maybe “spirited” is a little bit better word! Yep, that’s it, Spirited!

Director Jeff Lowe has sought out a terrific cast of very talented actors and actresses who do wonders with these characters. Another actor not previously mentioned, Michael Scott Wells, plays well a not too bright character known as “Duke”. The lady actresses are all blessed with truly beautiful voices and when they are not clowning around, they deliver some really beautiful singing and terrific acting! While the show started off a little rough, with a few sound problems and a little getting used to singing with “canned” music, by the second act, everyone was truly getting into their characters and singing their hearts out with all the gusto they could muster. I am really excited about the caliber of both professional level and neophyte performers in this show, because they give it their all and pull off a really entertaining and heartfelt performance.

The set designed by Paul Zill is a terrific little set, in every detail. The entire company makes this an experience really worth the little drive up highway 680 across the Benicia Bridge to downtown Benicia and the Historic B.D.E.S. Hall at 140 West J Street, Benicia (94510). Call (707) 746-1269 for ticket and reservation information or visit their website at for reservation and direction information. There is plenty of free parking on the streets, the feeling of downtown Benicia is very safe and the drive only took us about 45 minutes from Alamo. Tickets are $20 each ($18 for Seniors 62 and over) and the theatre is cabaret style, with tables you can sit at, have a glass of wine (you have to purchase) or other drinks while you are watching the show. The stage is a raised auditorium type stage so everybody can see the action on stage pretty darn well. This show runs Friday, Saturdays (at 8 p.m.) and on Sundays at 4:30 p.m., now through May 15th. This is community theatre at its best and this is a fun-filled evening of entertainment.

Now, back to the serious side of this review, with my review of the not-frequently staged “John Gabriel Borkman” by Ibsen, in the Aurora Theater in Berkeley. I have been fortunate over the years to see many of the plays made famous by Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian author revered for his plays that have tackled issues of women’s independence, liberal realism and his characters’ conceptions of what makes life worth living, their values and their understanding of existence. Plays such as Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Doll’s House, The Master Builder, The Lady from the Sea, Peer Gynt, and John Gabriel Borkman, deal with social realism and criticism and the imperfections in all mankind. Ibsen was an accomplished poet as well as a dramatic author. He became very controversial because of his portrayal of women as equal human beings. The British drama researcher, Ronald Gaskell puts it this way: “Peer Gynt” inaugurates the drama of the modern mind.” Bjorn Hemmer, a professor at the University of Oslo says that “Ibsen’s drama is the Rome of modern drama: all roads lead to it - - and from it.”

Borkman (James Carpenter) is a very astute man of uncommon persuasion who uses his access to other people’s money to fund his own dreams of building an industrial empire and solidifying his financial power, through his prowess and greed. He is a business man of great talent and ability who, through deception, uses that ability to expand his own wealth at the expense of others. Not unlike another major financial titan in our headlines today, one Bernie Madoff and his family, there appears to be no outward remorse for the destruction and devastation of all of those who trusted in his reputation and his firm’s ability to make consistent and highly improbably financial returns. The play is based in large part on a true story that Ibsen became familiar with over a period of several years.

In his youth,Borkman had fallen for a young woman, Ella Rentheim (Karen Lewis). He abandoned his personal affection for Ella and settled for marrying her twin sister, Gunhild (Karen Grassle), in order to achieve a bank managerial job, which ultimately led to a position of great power and trust in a very prominent bank. The story never explains why marrying one sister over another would lead to the bank manager’s job. Borkman never quite releases Ella from his grasp. When he “borrowed” funds and fortunes from everyone else to build his empire, he had been careful to leave the other sister’s assets alone, protecting her, just in case his plans did not prevail. He was betrayed by an attorney associate who becomes aware of his criminal activities. Borkman was then arrested, jailed, tried and convicted and spent 5 years in prison. His activities destroyed and bankrupted just about everyone within his circle of business associates and friends, except for Ella. Because Ella had been spared, when his estate cames up for auction following his conviction and demands for restitution, she was the only one who had the wealth at her disposal to buy back his home and estate and becames its trustee. Further, when the distraught wife, Grunhild founds herself incapable of caring for her own son, she turned him over to her sister Ella to raise, and she does so for many years. Eventually the son returns to live with his mother after the father is released from prison.

The play opens 8 years after Borkman has been released from prison for stealing, for misappropriating his investor’s money. Borkman is now shunned by everyone except one old friend, a drone who previously worked for him in his bank. This man, known by the name of Vilhelm Foldal (Jack Powell), is a kindly old gentleman who fancies himself as somewhat of a poet and a potential playwright.

As the lights come up we are introduced to Borkman’s wife, Gunhild, who sits in her parlor waiting for her son to return home from an evening with friends. John Gabriel Borkman continually paces the floor in his bedroom and study upstairs in the same house, as he has done for the past 8 years, scheming as to how he can be restored his former position of power and wealth, not acknowledging that there is no possibility of that in his community. He fancifully believes that soon, they (those who previously condemned and imprisoned him) will eventually realize how brilliant he was and still is and that they will want him back in power and will eventually rescue him from his self-imposed exile and press him to take charge of their affairs once again. He and his estranged wife, Gunhild, and their only son, Erhart (Aaron Wilton), are living in their home at the discretion and benefit of the other sister, Ella. Grunhild hates her husband, not for what he has done to others, but for the disgrace the affair has brought upon her and the family name. While her husband was at the pinnacle of his financial success, she became the darling of society and now that is all gone; she lives in disgrace, filled with vehemence and hate.

Unexpectedly, her sister Ella arrives at the house (having not been there for many years), seeking something, but not for any reason that Gunhild can at that moment foresee. But her arrival will set in motion a chain of events that will draw the Borkman trial to its final conclusion, on this very night!

In addition to the above mentined actors, the very talented Lizzie Calogero joins the cast as two different characters, Malene (a servant) and Frida Foldal (Vilhilm Foldal’s daughter). Pamela Gaye Walker brings her vivacious strength and skills to the character of Mrs. Fanny Wilton. Director Barbara Oliver has once again shared with this company, the sensitive brilliance and artistic skills with which she has guided and benefited this theatre, moving it on to its great prominence in the theatrical community since its inception.

“John Gabriel Borkman” continues Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sundays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., now through May 9th. The simple set, designed by John Iacovelli, once again stands out as an exceptional contribution to another show. The Aurora Theater is located at 2081 Addison Street in Berkeley, practically next door to Berkeley Repertory Theatre. There is plenty of parking just down the street in the public garage and the cost is only $5 for the evenings performances. You may call (510) 843-4822 for additional information or visit their website at for more information. Tickets range in price between $34 and $45. This is without a doubt a stellar production, one that I highly recommend.