"Something is rotten in Denmark" and "it always looks darkest just before it gets totally black!" How similar yet different, Hamlet and Charlie Brown!

This week’s reviews examine interpersonal relationships, life’s wonderful and cherished moments, protracted miseries, and painful consequences. First, interaction strictly between children with “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”, at the Willows Theater in Martinez, and next the re-envisioned betrayal and murder of a Danish King by his brother and his unfaithful wife, in “Hamlet”, at the Butterfield 8 Theatre in Concord.

The Willow’s Campbell Theater in Martinez is currently delighting young and old alike with the fun-filled and whimsical musical about the average kid in all of us, in the award winning musical created by Clark M. Gesner and Andrew Lippa in 1967, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”. Charlie Brown is joined by his cluster of “round headed” friends, Lucy, Sally, Linus Van Pelt and Schroeder, in a delightfully endearing and child-like musical which opened on Broadway on March of 1967 and played for 1,597 continuous performances. Charlie Burghoff originally starred in the role of Charlie Brown which later propelled him into the role of “Radar” in the enduring TV comedy series, M*A*S*H*.

Charles Schultz and his father Carl shared a weekly ritual in which he and his father read the comics in the newspaper every Sunday morning. As a result, Charles began creating his own personal comic strip in which he featured their family dog, When one of his cartoons featuring that dog, Snoopy, was printed in a Ripley’s Believe it or Not newspaper article, the immediate reaction by the public to that cartoon character was the impetus needed to launch his famous comic strip, “Peanuts”. Snoopy and Charlie were soon welcomed at every breakfast table on Sunday morning and the kid who loved to read cartoons, quickly became one of the most famous cartoonists in history. In 1975 Peanuts celebrated 25 years of publication and at that time, it was carried in approximately 1,480 newspapers across America and with 90,000,000 readers worldwide. In 1960, Hallmark Cards created the first Peanuts greeting card series and the popular Ford Falcon advertising promotions campaign incorporated the Peanuts characters as well. In 1965 Peanuts was featured on the cover of Time magazine and in 1967, the world was introduced to a theatrical version of Peanuts with the Musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”.

Just as Charlie Brown has delighted young and old alike for many years, the musical is still doing the same and the themes shared in the musical are merely excerpts from the famous cartoon strip itself, just acted out by adults, pretending to be Charlie Brown and some of his best friends. Charlie Brown’s quotes are still timeless and wonderful and they make up the fabric of this show, which consists of a series of vignettes taken from the actual comic strip itself. Some of my favorites are:
“If I stand here, I can see the Little Red Haired girl when she comes out of her house... Of course, if she sees me peeking around this tree, she'll think I'm the dumbest person in the world... But if I don't peek around the tree, I'll never see her... Which means I probably AM the dumbest person in the world... which explains why I'm standing in a batch of poison oak”

“I've developed a new philosophy... I only dread one day at a time.”

“There's nothing like unrequited love to take all the flavor out of a peanut butter sandwich.”

“It always looks darkest just before it gets totally black.”

Naturally, no one show could ever encapsulate all that is grand about “Peanuts”. This simple little musical brings back for our pleasure, many of the Snoopy and the Red Baron jokes; Charlie Brown perpetually trying to get his kite in the air; plus many memories of Lucy pretending to be the psychiatrist in the road side stand shelling out advise; a creative mix of the Schroeder and Lucy at the piano snippets and even reminds us of poor Linus trying to retrieve his security blanket. There is a delightful mixture of wit and wisdom and silly songs spawned by the “Peanuts” comic strip. This show is a delightful trip down memory lane, and if you know anyone who is young enough to not be familiar with these delightful characters, then by all means, this is a great opportunity for you to introduce them to it. Even though “Peanuts” reflected on the “average“ and “unremarkable” in all of us, this delightfully produced and directed show is anything but average.

Director Christine Marshall has selected a very clever and articulate cast including Eric Inman as Charlie Brown; Jenny Angell as Sally Brown; Sean Fenton as Linus Van Pelt, Catherine Gloria as Lucy Van Pelt and Trevor Moppin as Schroeder. Special kudos must go to Michael Scott Wells who is truly terrific as the famous aviator Snoopy, who continues to search the sky for the infamous flyer of the Fokker tri-winged World War I fighter plane, the Red Baron!

While the music is a kick and the acting is delightful, one of the most important ingredients is the vibrant “live” musical accompaniment provided by Kim Vetterli. Kimberly is an accompanist who’s upbeat and articulate and her titillating keyboard artistry helps the actors to really come alive. The show would not be the same without her talent.

“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”, continues Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees at 3:30 on Wednesdays, at 2 p.m., on Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays, now through June 6th in the Campbell Theater, located at 636 Ward Street in downtown Martinez. Tickets range in price for adults between $22 and $32, $2 less for Seniors (65+) and $14 for youth, 14 and under. Call 798-1300 or visit their website at www.willowstheatre.org for more information.

Also, I highly recommend having dinner at the La Tapatia Restaurant at 536 Main Street in Martinez before the show. Karen and I have eaten there three times in recent history and the food and ambiance is superlative, the food prices reasonable, and the service is quick and courteous. There are a lot of other excellent places to dine on Main Street in Martinez, all within a very short walking distance from the theater, approximately one block away! Try it, you’ll like it!

Who would a thunk’, Shakespeare done in Steam Punk!

The Butterfield Theater Company is currently in production with “Hamlet” in the Cue Productions Live theater and performance space. I have stated previously that this local theater company is one of the most understated gems in Contra Costa County and I have to again articulate that. They have left me spellbound by this production! How many times and in how many ways have we experienced Hamlet? Let me count the ways - - - - portrayed in modern clothing and settings, in Victorian settings, but once again, this innovative little theater has hit a home run with a heartfelt and moving and totally unique production. This time we visit a Victorian era production time-warped into a futuristic, steamy, fog-shrouded fantasy. The eloquent beauty that is Shakespeare remains as eloquent and stirring as ever, but this adaptation by Maureen-Theresa Williams is breath-taking visually as well as verbally.

According to Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia, Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and a form of speculative fiction, frequently featuring elements of fantasy that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works of art or fiction set in a world where steam power is still widely used, often set in Victorian era England— but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. If you remember the television series from 1965, entitled “The Wild Wild West” starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, then you were being introduced to a “Steam Punk” adaptation of a “Western” that incorporated a modern James Bond type of spy-chasing hero on horseback into a wild-west tale in which steam trains were the principle mode of transportation.

Fantasy, futuristic mechanical apparatus, steam and/or fog shrouded castles, dark foreboding lighting, and outrageous costumes, all add measurably to the mystery surrounding the death of the King of Denmark, and the despondency of his young son. Hamlet has long been one of my favorite Shakespearean plays, generally produced and directed in similar fashion in familiar and typical settings, but this play, in this production, is a true work of art, visually, as well as it is performed, thanks to its excellent direction by John Butterfield.

I don’t want to spoil anything by telling you too much, but the costumes, provided by Liz Martin and Pink Depford Design Studio, are based on Victorian era clothing. They are bold and quite thought-provoking.

The play begins following the death of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet is depressed and angry with his uncle, Claudius, now the new King of Denmark and his mother, Gertrude, who has just married his uncle. He believes that his uncle and mother have conspired in the murder of his father, who died mysteriously. Hamlet encounters what he believes is the ghost of his father on the ramparts of the castle and makes up his mind to exact revenge on his mother and step-father. He takes advantage of an opportunity in which a group of players come to the castle to perform a standard play before the King. They are tricked into performing a play written instead by Hamlet. Hamlet’s play is designed to anger and trick the King into an expression of guilt as to his part in the plot to kill his brother, in order to gain control of the kingdom and a legal right to bed his brother’s wife, Gertrude. Through this ploy, Hamlet is able to exact his revenge.

Where would William Shakespeare be without great actors providing expression and depth and life to his words? So it is with this production. The actors are most excellent, bringing the pain and poignancy of Hamlet to full fruition here. Donald Hardy plays a convincing Claudius, the King of Denmark, recently ascended to the throne following the mysterious death of his brother. Hamlet, played in superlative fashion by Nick Jackson. Becky Potter is pure, sweet and vibrant as the lovely virginal Ophelia. Maureen-Theresa Williams is outstanding as Ophelia’s plotting and genuinely concerned mother, Polonia. Edwin Peabody is excellent as her loving brother, Laertes. Melynda Kiring and David Hardie are both delightful and impressive as long time friends of Hamlet. Alan Cameron is outstanding in the several roles he plays. Deborah Doyle is equally powerful as the immoral wife, but loving mother, Gertrude, Queen of Denmark. I would love to go on further giving credit where credit is due, but time and space will not allow.

I strongly recommend this production Hamlet as a clever and very unique theatrical experience, one that really captivated me. It continues Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday performances at 3 p.m., now thorough May 23rd., in the Cue Productions Live performance space at 1835 Colfax Street in Concord, one block east of Todos Santos park. Tickets are a very reasonable $12 for Seniors and students, $18 for Adults and tickets are available at the door or you may order them on line through Eventbrite ticket services by visiting http://b8hamlet-efbevent.eventbrite.com .