Macbeth mesmerizes while Six Women with Brain Death dies!

Stacy Ross as Lady Macbeth and Judd Williford as Macbeth (photo by Kevin Berne)

Two wildly different theatrical experiences are available in Orinda and Martinez this week that provide audiences the opportunity to experience complete sensory overload that is sanguinary, scintillating, and scary in one production, and the other, a tabloid musical that is filled with outrageously silly, sophomoric and upbeat humor. The California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda opens its new season with the madness and murderous machinations of Macbeth and the Willows Campbell Cabaret Theatre in Martinez has revived a crazy musical first produced by them many years ago, “Six Women with Brain Death”.

Shakespeare and Macbeth, what more can one say and what more can there be to see one might ask? Everyone on this planet must be familiar in some way with William Shakespeare’s famous Scottish play, Macbeth. It is certainly one of his most well known, most often staged productions. This story of ultimate greed and despotism is renowned for its horrifically gory and bloody intrigues. Yet, the current production, adapted and directed by Joel Sass, is definitely a “stunner”, from beginning to end! From set design, to sound, to lighting, to an exceeding amount of blood dispersal, to superlative acting, this production will have to go down as one of the most noteworthy yet, certainly in the eyes of this reporter.

When I learned that Stacy Ross, who recently excelled in her portrayal as Mrs. Warren in California Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, would play the stone cold and merciless wife of Macbeth, my anticipation to see this particular production grew. Add to this the knowledge that Jud Williford, who was so excellent in Private Lives and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, generally in more light-hearted roles, would play the hard hearted if not heartless Macbeth, I knew this would be a unique production. Add into the mix the very talented Craig Marker whom I loved in Center Repertory Theater’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro”, and who is now assuming the powerful character of Macduff. I awaited this show’s opening with great anticipation this past weekend.

No disappointments here! Sass’s vision of this marvelous theatrical statement on greed, revenge and warrior mentality exceeded my imagination in every respect, in every detail, except perhaps for one over indulgence. There was blood everywhere, in every scene, in every nook and cranny, almost to the point of being cartoonish! So much blood throughout the play that I found myself echoing in advance the well known forthcoming pronouncement by Lady Macbeth, “- - yet who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him!” Lady Macbeth will later lament her participation in the death of Duncan, as she (walking and talking in her sleep) tries to cleanse her hands of the imaginary sanguinary deposits.

If you are not familiar with the story, it begins with two great warriors, captains Macbeth (Jud Williford) and Banquo (Nicholas Pelczar) returning from their victorious military engagement with invading Norsemen. They encounter three weird sisters, witches in common parlance, who, while in “incantation mode”, predict to the two warriors that one, Macbeth, shall be a future king and the other, Banquo, will father future generations of kings, without becoming a king himself. This revelation excites their imaginations and sets in motion the desire and ultimate series of events that allow these prophecies to come to pass.

Sass has set this scene in modern times with modern, well equipped warriors and appropriately attired soldiers, brandishing modern automatic weapons and long knives (machetes) as their swords of choice. The opening scene is set in a structure that evokes fear and foreboding, reminiscent of a war-torn antiquated hospital ward, focusing attention on a filthy, dirty, grimy operating room environment. A worried King Duncan (James Carpenter) looks on as nurses wheel in an injured warrior, bleeding and in excruciating pain, but conscious enough to inform the king of his military’s successes, particularly the glorious actions of soon to be heroes, Macbeth and Duncan.

As the weird sisters had foretold, events begin to unfold which allow Macbeth to be granted greater political position, first elevated by decree of the King from Thane of Glamis to Thane of Cawdor. Shortly thereafter, the king and his entourage gather at Inverness, Macbeth’s castle, to celebrate the announcement that the King’s eldest son, Malcolm, will be the future king, if and when Duncan should leave his mortal life. Macbeth’s wife (Stacy Ross) sees this as a great political opportunity and goads her husband into killing the King while he is asleep and frames his attendants with the murder. The king only has one son in this version of the story (Donaldbain, the younger son is missing) as Sass has adapted it and that son is Macolm (Nick Childress). Young Malcolm fears for his life due to the heavy feeling of treachery in his country and he immediately flees to England, leaving the impression that perhaps he had arranged the murder of his father so that he could succeed to the throne more rapidly. Macbeth is named King of Scotland, succeeding the murdered Duncan.
Macbeth revels in his role as king of Scotland but he is obsessed by the second pronouncement of the Weird Sisters, that Banquo’s offspring will provide a line of future kings. He dreams fitfully and fearfully every night, dreams related to Banquo and his son Fleance succeeding him as king. Macbeth has no children and little apparent prospect of having any, so he dispatches murderers to waylay Banquo and Fleance (Noah Baldwin). The murderers succeed in killing Banquo but Fleance escapes.

Macbeth's fears drive him to return to the heath to again consult the Weird Sisters. They warn him to beware the warrior Macduff, but assure him that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth," and that he "shall never be vanquished until great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him." Macbeth asks the sisters if Banquo's children or their children shall ever reign upon the Scottish throne. In answer, the Weird Sisters conjure up a frightening dreamlike procession of kings who all look alike and are followed by the ghost of Banquo. Macbeth is transfixed in horror as he realizes the meaning of the prophecy. Macbeth immediately sends murderers to Fife, the home of Macduff, and Macduff's wife, children and servants are brutally murdered while Macduff is in England seeking the assistance of Malcolm and others to help him raise an army to overthrow the tyrannous King.

Lady Macbeth’s fears and guilt begin to imbue her with a terrible melancholy and unsettled nature. She begins to walk in her sleep and speak of terrible things. Her instability troubles Lord Macbeth and he calls for a doctor to administer to her. In the process of diagnosing her ailment, the doctor witnesses her nocturnal wanderings and utterances:
Hark! She speaks: I will set down what comes fromher, to satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.
Out, damned spot! Out, I say!--One: two: why,then, 'tis time to do't.--Hell is murky!--Fie, mylord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need wefear who knows it, when none can call our power toaccount?--Yet who would have thought the old manto have had so much blood in him.
Doctor to Lady Macbeth’s nurse
Do you mark that?
The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?--What, will these hands ne'er be clean?--No more o'that, my lord, no more o' that: you mar all withthis starting.

Macduff and Malcolm lead a great army into battle against the King of Scotland and Macbeth is finally slain by Macduff, allowing Malcolm to succeed to the throne.

This production is certainly unique and enriched by a broad pallet of talented actors in addition to the several already mentioned. James Carpenter plays at least four totally different characters and demonstrates excellence in each and every characterization. Perhaps his most memorable is that of the porter in the scene where King Duncan is found murdered. Omoze Idehenre plays Macduff’s wife and several other characters. Samantha Martin plays well the son of Macduff, and Brian Patterson and Marissa Keltie play significant roles as well.

This is Shakespeare Theatre at its best and I strongly urge you to sign up and buy your tickets now as I am sure this production will sell out soon. “Macbeth” runs Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., with Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Saturday matinee on September 11th at 2 p.m., and Sunday performances at 4 p.m., now through September 12th. The Bruns Amphitheater is located at 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (new name, formerly Gateway Blvd.), just off highway 24 at the new Wilder Road Exit. All tickets are available at the California Shakespeare Theater box office at 701 Heinz Avenue, in Berkeley. You may call (510) 548-9666 or visit their website on line at . Single tickets range in price between $34 and $70 with discounts for seniors. The grounds open two hours before each show for picnicking.

The theater is still subject to the whims of the weather, as this is an outdoor amphitheatre, so be sure to dress warmly with layers of clothing that you may adjust according to need. When that fog comes over the hills, it can get downright cold and uncomfortable in the outdoor seating. Blankets are available for a small donation on the premises.

Six Women with Brain Death - - Plagued by sound problems, fails to live up to expectations!

Now, back to Martinez and “Six Women with Brain Death” in progress in the little Willow’s Campbell Cabaret Theatre. Karen and I originally saw this production in the old Willows Theatre in the Willow’s Shopping Center around 1990 and absolutely loved it. We were so impressed with the show’s concept, its cleverness, the brashness and audacity of the show’s author, Mark Houston, that we were excited that we were going to get an opportunity to see it again. After the first few minutes however, we realized that our hopes were sadly misplaced as this production was nothing close to what we thought we remembered it being many years ago.

While the show has some really talented actresses portraying the diverse characters in this production, the sound was atrocious. I do not know what was going on, but starting from the first act, first scene, the music was so loud that it drowned out the beautiful voices causing us to ask each other again and again and again, “What did they say?” By intermission I had just about given up hope, but we hung in there and it seemed to get better, slightly, after that. After the show, several people I spoke with also complained that the sound was a real problem. The sets were uninspired and drab, bringing absolutely nothing to the production values. Sadly, even though the talented cast performed well as individuals, even the harmony as a group was lacking. I had to read the program to figure out that the opening scene was supposed to be about archeologists searching through ancient ruins where they found and reported on headlines from the past, headlines apparently from old grocery store tabloid publications. Apparently I couldn’t interpret the hieroglyphics on the backdrop and the pith helmets with headlights worn by the ladies didn’t resonate for me either. Boy, I would never make it in Egypt as an archeologist, would I?

This is a very clever show that takes the cover stories from tabloid publications such as the Enquirer, the National Star, and other celebrity bashing, take-no-prisoners yellow journalism publications and brings each dumb story to life in a very funny pop-culture assortment of musical comedy vignettes. Headlines such as: “Severed Head Lives 6 days”, “Mom Sells Twins to Buy Lottery Tickets”, Bizarre Disease Makes Woman Eat Kitchen Sink” and “Cannibal Cow Eats Hamburger” inspire the skits to follow. If the real tabloids couldn’t bash Judy Garland or schmoose up Elvis Pressley, they turned to Sonny and Cher, their super star romance, marriage, and divorce and on again, off again encounters of the kinky third kind. Americans bought millions of these trash journals from the supermarkets and loved it, so why not a musical about the same phenomenon.
Then came “Six Women with Brain Death” asking us what is real, and what to do with it when you find out, hence the clear fit with the subtitle of this play: Expiring Minds Want to Know ("expiring" seems to equate to both "inspiring" and "inquiring" minds). Brain death seems to come from conflicting information that makes truths difficult to ascertain.

The play seems to ask us if TV soap operas are as real as the gossip and character assignation brought on by one's neighbors? Are wild stories in the tabloids less fictional than the weird truth we see every day in the newspapers? Can children understand the difference between fairy tale and reality in a nursery rhyme? A dream is very real while we are inside dreaming it. Some of us seem to live the dream and after it's over, do we recover from the bubble of its illusion?

There are some very funny scenes in this production; in particular, the severed head on the kitchen table scene is an absolute riot! Several of the scenes were very well done, high energy, great enthusiasm, great spunk, lots of good stuff, but the sound mish-mashed the good stuff and made it less than desirable.

The ladies of this show are very talented ladies with excellent voices and consist of: Chatherine Gloria, Julianna Kohley, Kristine Lowry, Muraya Ranierri, Erica Richardson and Jujuana Williams. They tried very hard and I give them a great big “A” for effort, but with other elements making life difficult for them, their efforts could not pull it off. This converted auto parts store turned theater venue has always had a sound problem and it was evident in spades the night I saw this show. If they get the sound turned around it could be a very entertaining production. Here’s hoping and wishing them the best, but I certainly cannot recommend it this time. Sorry gang, sorry that I have to have to report this kind of story, but I must.

“Six Women with Brain Death” continues Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday performances at 2 p.m., now through September 10th. Tickets range in price between $22 and $32 each with discounts for Seniors and Students. To purchase tickets call 798-1300 or visit the Willow’s Theater web site at . The theatre is located at 636 Ward Street in downtown Martinez, one block east of Main Street, at the corner of Estudillo street.

Taylor Jones as Mimi and Robert Lopez as Roger in CCMT's "RENT"

Two big rock musicals in one week bring high energy music to the local audiences with Dream Girls in San Francisco and Rent in Walnut Creek, while a community in the park theater does a tongue in cheek children’s story fit for all ages, with Wind in the Willows, in Orinda.

The Contra Costa Musical Theater is currently producing an outstanding, exhilarating, exciting, professional level revival of the rock musical, Rent. This 1996 smash Broadway hit focuses on a group of impoverished young people who live the artist’s life, barely surviving in artistic colonies amid the social and economic squalor of lower east side New York.

In 1988, playwright Billy Aronson wanted to create "a musical based on Puccini’s La Bohème, in which the splendor of Puccini's world would be replaced with the cacophony of a modern New York City.” In 1989, Aronson connected with Jonathan Larson, a 29-year-old composer, and they began collaborating on this project. It was Larson who suggested the New York setting, simplifying the storyline and even the ultimate title, “Rent”. Aronson did not like the title, until Larson explained that the word “rent” also meant, “To tear apart”. A major underlying theme in the storyline developed around the HIV/Aids epidemic which was prevalent at this time in New York City, and it was the Aid’s illness and destruction of lives and friendships that replaced the theme of tuberculosis central to Puccini’s La Bohème.

The original La Bohème was first written and first produced for the public almost exactly 100 years earlier by Puccini. In fact, it was the happy coincidence of the 100 year anniversary that drew the interest of New York Time’s music critic Anthony Tommasini and secured the show’s musical creator, Jonathan Larson, his first and only interview. Larson, the show’s creator, died suddenly as the result of an aortic aneurism the night before the off-Broadway premier. Larson’s untimely death generated a buzz that translated into a very rapid interest in the show, which quickly outsold the 150 seat accommodations available in the New York Theatre Workshop where it began and in April of the same year it moved to the previously derelict Nederlander Theater on 41st, where it took off like a rocket.

On Broadway, Rent gained boisterous critical acclaim and won a Tony Award for Best Musical among several other awards. The Broadway production closed on September 7, 2008, after a 12-year run and 5,124 performances, making it the eighth-longest-running Broadway history as of December 2009. The production grossed over $280 million.

The current production examines the relationships of lovers and friends and how much time and events can change those relationships. Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III, a former roommate of Mark and Roger, has greatly benefitted from a fortuitous marriage and the financial support of wealthy in-laws. He subsequently purchased the derelict building in which his old friends, Roger (Robert Lopez) and Mark (Will Skrip) now live. He plans to renovate the building and to do so, his plans require that he remove or evict its tenants and homeless squatters. This musical rock opera also examines the lives, hopes and frailties of the building’s other inhabitants. In so doing, the show examines Mark’s relationship with former girlfriend Maureen (Meghann Reynolds) and Roger’s relationship with new girlfriend Mimi (Taylor Jones). Tom Collins (C.R. Lewis), a gay guy, is involved with a homosexual transvestite who goes by the name of Angel Schunard (Alex Rodriquez). Angel is adversely affected by Aids. There are many different relationships in this little community that are beautifully intertwined and poignantly correlated, stories and relationships that bring a bittersweet and sad recognition to the realities of the lives of the poor in modern America, in our times.

The broad range of talent who comprise this production are truly extraordinary and if I didn’t know better, I would swear that this show had to be a professional traveling show mounted by a major New York company, a big budget company that could afford to find the very best talent available. The voices, the acting abilities, the choreography by Devon LaRusa, the beautiful set design by Kelly Tighe, the lighting design by Paul Miller, the costumes by Marianna Ford, and the many elements of this production combined under the artistic direction of Jasen Jeffrey, musical direction of Matt Smart and production management of Scott Strain, culminate in an outstanding production. While most of the actors deserve kudos for their individual performances, Alex Rodrigues is truly brilliant as the transvestite, Angel.

This high energy, often very loud (you might want to bring some soft earplugs to tone it down a bit) and boisterous production of “Rent”, will truly be a long remembered standout for this remarkable company. Contra Costa Musical Theater deserves a standing ovation for this production. This is a very limited engagement and only continues this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, closing on September 4th in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Tickets range between $40 and $45 each, with discounts available for seniors. Call 943-SHOW (7469) for ticket and reservation information, or purchased on their website at

Dreamgirls Rocks the Soul!

In San Francisco, the SHN (Shorenstein Hays Nederlander) organization has brought the touring company production of the 1980’s musical hit, “Dreamgirls”, to the Curran Theatre for a spectacular four week run. Similar to the previously discussed revived musical, “Rent”, Dreamgirls is a revival of a hit Broadway Musical that stormed the Broadway scene in the early 1980’s. Dreamgirls, under the direction of Robert Longbottom and co-choroegrapher Shane Sparks, SHN brings a spectacular, technologically stunning, brilliantly staged theatrical event to San Francisco.

This fictional rock musical story tells about the hopes, heartbreaks and heartthrobs of a young group of black women, hoping to break into the world of entertainment, a group remarkably similar to and perhaps modeled after the highly successful “Supremes”. Bringing the musical talent and the rhythm and blues inherent in the black culture of America to the awareness of mainstream America was the marvelous heritage and opportunity provided hundreds of talented entertainers via the stage of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. This highly entertaining musical is vibrant with spectacular staging and enhanced with modern computerized backdrops used to amplify the performing talent and color and poignancy woven into the fabric of this story.

Dreamgirls introduces Moya Angela as Effie White as the original lead singer for a group who called themselves “The Dreams”, a group which also included the talents of Syesha Mercado as future lead singer Deena Jones, Adrienne Warren as Lorrell Robinson and Margaret Hoffman as Michelle Morris. The original “Dream” girls story is recounted as they first appear on the Apollo Stage and through that appearance find the opportunity to develop their showmanship by working as a backup group for established singer, James “Thunder” Early (Chester Gregory). The story is rife with backstage drama, illicit love affairs, management wars, money made and money lost, love made and love lost, and most importantly, friendships made, lost and eventually restored.

There are a number of stellar actors and performers in this show in addition to the ladies in the Dreamgirls group, especially the very talented Chester Gregory who plays the rockin’ sockin’ mind blowin’ James “Thunder” Early. This man is perhaps one of the best things in the entire show. What a performer. In addition, the “Cadillac Man” and conniving second manager of the “Dreamgirls” is a superb actor who deliverd a remarkable character. The ladies themselves have beautiful voices.

The staging is almost overwhelming with hundreds of costume changes, most of which are made in an incredibly short time (one in 3 to 4 seconds), a plethora of wigs and wig changes, and eye popping, colorful costumes that re-create the theatrical excesses and eccentricities of the times. While there are a number of great songs delivered by beautiful voices, the unique style of black singing, bordering on theatrically exaggerated choir style, greatly excessive in vocal trills and shouting exercises, became an annoyance and a headache to me by the second act. The sound system is on steroids and you might want to bring ear plugs to this show as well.

The story brings back memories of the Supremes and similar groups that I truly enjoyed and still enjoy when I hear their old recordings today. The blues and soul aspect is entertaining and enjoyable for the most part, but if the blaring sound were not turned down, I would not go back to see it again.

This production of “Dreamgirls” continues Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through Sunday the 26th of September. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling (888) SHN (746) 1799 or by visiting the Orpheum Theatre Box office at 1192 Market Street in San Francisco. Ticket prices range in cost between $30 and $99 depending on seating location and date of performance. The Curran Theatre is located at 445 Geary Street in San Francisco. I usually take BART to San Francisco, exit at the Powell Street Station and walk the few blocks to the Curran Theater.

The Wind in the Willows opens on a very windy evening in Orinda!

Sometimes I actually prefer the simple aura of community theatre staged by amateur and aspiring actors of promise. The Starlight Village Players Theatre that performs in the Orinda Community Center Amphitheater, next to the park, is one of my favorites. Local director John Butterfield is currently directing a very silly and fun-filled production of “The Wind in the Willows”, a version adapted by theatre director Charlotte Meyer from the book by Kenneth Grahame.

The story tells of a wealthy gentleman Toad who is spoiled and has a tendency to do whatever moves him, whether it is good, bad or just plain foolish. “Toady”, as he is called by his friends, is always enamored by everything new, be it sailing boats, horse carriages or horseless carriages. Once he sets eyes and ears upon the hypnotizing sights and sounds accompanying the put-putting bouncing motorcar, chugging down his country lane, he is determined to have one, even if it means stealing one. Which he does and he finds himself in a great deal of trouble, eventually ending up in jail, sentenced for a very long stay. He bribes his way out of the prison, makes his way home only to find that his home has been taken over by a band of Weasels. Unable to gain control of his residence, he turns to his band of friends who come to his aid and find a way to dislodge the brigands.

This production is wonderfully simple! It is the acting skill and adept direction that makes this absurd little story come to life. Leading everyone in this bit of theatrical madness, Malcolm Cowler takes top honors as the unmanageable, irascible but beloved Toad! John Chapin is an absolute delight as the frequently somnambulistic Rat and Patricia Inabnet is purely brilliant in her portrayal of the playful, trustworthy and endearing Mole! A number of other local talents fulfill the characters and local citizenry. Geotty Chapple plays the wise, stern and lordly Badger and Al Guaraglia plays a plethora of characters, while Kelly Hansen tackles the role of the Otter and Washerwoman. Laura Matin-Chapin steps up to the role of policeman and gypsy woman, among others; Natalie Chapin, Claire Stevenson, Stephanie Stratman and Ken Sollazo fill in where necessary, all important to making this show a silly, fun-filled engagement. Charles Guitron provides some guitar accompaniment as a strolling minstrel throughout the show and at intermission.

This is a fun way to spend the evening and a show you can take the children or grandchildren to. I have to warn you to dress warmly in layers as the theater can become very cold when the fog rolls over the Orinda hills and permeates the theatre. The seating consists of wooden benches without backs and is not the most comfortable. The theatre does provide cushions for your derriere and back, but you might want to bring a folding chair to be a bit more comfortable. The tickets are only $16 for adults and 8$ for seniors and children. The Orinda Community Center is directly across the street from the Rite Aid Drug store and Orinda Post Office. It is not necessary to make reservations and the tickets can be purchased at the ticket booth at the theatre prior to the show. If you need more information, call 528-9225 or email to . Wind in the Willows continues on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., with performances at 4 p.m. on September 12th and 19th, and on Thursday, September 23rd at 8 p.m., closing on September 25th . There will be no performance on September 4th.