Fresno-area companies stage powerhouse productions

The Fresno BeeAugust 28, 2013 

A roundup of theater reviews:

''Night, Mother'

What really got me was the coffee creamer.

The scene is in the kitchen of the Cates household in the Organic Theater Factory's unforgettable site-specific production of "'Night, Mother." Jessie, the daughter, is refilling the creamer while having an intense discussion with her mother.

It took only a few seconds for the sharp odor to float over to where I was sitting, about 15 feet away.

Up until that point in the production, I was perfectly well aware on an intellectual level that I was experiencing Marsha Norman's 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play in a private home. But it wasn't until the creamer that the full emotional impact hit me: that I was there with them, these two troubled women, as if I'd somehow been rendered invisible and was being allowed to peek in at a very private moment in their lives.

This "'Night, Mother" is a grand experiment, and you should feel privileged if you get to take part in it. Director Adam Schroeder, working with two exceptional actors — Leslie Martin as the mother and Danielle Jorn as the daughter — provide an experience that makes you feel both a voyeur and a confidant.

That experience starts when you buy a ticket online. You're emailed a list of instructions that includes the address of the Prather home. You're told what to do when you get to the front door. (You open it. What did you expect, an usher?) Take a seat, one of 20 that are set up in the home's dining room, which provides a view both of the kitchen and living room, where the action takes place. If you need to use the bathroom before the show begins, find it down the hallway. (I did. It's very much a family bathroom. The Eiffel Tower soap dispenser was a nice touch.)

Most important, you receive in that email a link to download a song list for the drive up to Prather, which takes 25 minutes or so from most parts of Fresno. Schroeder's music selection helps set the tone for the show, further drawing you into the experience.

However you experience a production of "'Night, Mother," it's inevitably going to be intense. Many people know the material best from the 1986 movie starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft. The daughter, Jessie, is depressed and divorced, a recluse. The mother, Thelma, recently has slipped into a routine of letting Jessie take care of her, even though she hasn't really reached the age where that's needed, perhaps because she wants her daughter to feel needed. The play takes place in real time over the course of an evening after Jessie delivers shattering news.

In the hands of lesser actors, this frankly could be frightening. But Martin and Jorn give such honest and unadorned performances, and there's such a crackle of chemistry between them, that it's riveting. From the moment we see Jorn, sitting outside smoking as cars are parked and audience members arrive, she brings to her character a peculiar sensation of doggedness but also a sort of empowered nobility. Martin, who wanders into the performance space about 20 minutes before the show begins, bounces off Jorn's weird vibes until she slowly builds to a frantic desperation. Together, they're remarkable.

Details: Through Sept. 8, location in Prather provided to ticket buyers. $15.

'Importance of Being Earnest'

We all need a little "Earnest" in our lives. I'm guessing that the strong new production of the Oscar Wilde classic "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the 2nd Space Theatre is easily the 10th time I've seen the show, including several professional outings, and I'm always happy to see another fine version.

"Fine" is certainly a word to use for this Good Company Players production, which delivers the silly drawing-room comedy — boasting Wilde's famed wordplay and prickly parries at Britain's stuffy upper classes — in a well-directed, nicely cast package. I've seen productions in the past of "Earnest" that felt overstuffed and somehow rounded, like plump little Victorian pillows, content to be museum pieces. Director J. Daniel Herring achieves another sensibility here: this "Earnest" feels a little sharper, more angled, brisk and athletic. And very funny.

Ryan Torres offers yet another impressive notch on his local theater résumé as Jack, finding in the character a supple blend of low-key suaveness and uptight skittishness. He bounces nicely off his main foil, Algernon (an endearing Jacob Rico). "Earnest" requires bluster but not danger between the two, and the pair delivers with easygoing charm. Tess Mize, as Gwendolyn, and Kayla Weber, as Cecily, are crisp and effective as the love interests. Heather Parish's precise Miss Prism and Gordon Moore's officious Rev. Chasuble pop up in choice moments. The butlers (Benjamin Geddert and Mitchell Lam Hau) get a chance for a few comic jolts.

Then there's Patricia Hoffman as the iconic Lady Bracknell, Algernon's overbearing aunt. Hoffman offers a fresh, interesting take on the character. Her Lady Bracknell isn't as sternly in control or as overwhelmingly formidable as I've seen in other interpretations. She comes across as a tiny bit flustered even as she delivers her precious Wilde one-liners. Yet there's enough of the battleship in her to satisfy Bracknell purists in the bunch. Just her pronunciation of "authenticity" could qualify as a word weapon in some states.)

Helping Hoffman achieve that persona is Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed's gorgeous costumes. Sometimes period productions can look frumpy because, quite frankly, the clothes don't fit that well. These look like they come straight from a high-end London tailor.

Details: Through Oct. 13, 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave., (559) 266-0660. $16, $15 student/senior.

'Julius Caesar'

Brutus and gang don't kill this "Julius Caesar." Weak direction does.

Let's start with the screeching. In early scenes of this political/historical thriller — a riveting narrative in which a group of Caesar's allies turn on him because they're afraid of him toppling the Roman Republic and becoming king — we watch tense negotiations between Cassius (Gabriela Lawson) and Brutus (Jay Parks). Will Brutus agree to join Cassius in the plot against Caesar?

Cassius was a man, of course. The whole idea of playing the character as a woman? I'm fine with that. I think it adds another level of complexity. But from the beginning in this production, Lawson affects a screechy, grandiose acting style. Even in her delicate, intrigue-laden interactions with Brutus, she bellows at him as if he's lost 80% of his hearing. The problem isn't just the volume. It's the stagey, overwrought line readings that director Erica Riggs has tolerated — or drawn out — from some of her leading actors.

Other major offenders: Brooke Aiello, whose turn as Calpurnia, Caesar's husband, could be toned down by half. And Mohammad Shehata, as the feisty Mark Antony, screams through his anger at the end of the first act in a moment that very nearly reaches clownish status.

The major players who best manage to resist the urge to overact are Parks, who brings to his Brutus a conflicted sense of introspection, and in a more secondary role, Bridget Martin as Portia, the astute wife of Brutus.

Riggs' creative concept for the show is not well-defined. She sets the play in early 1960s Rome, a charged political time. (It also fits in better with Cassius being a woman.) How do I know all this? Not from the director's note in the program, but from an interview I did to advance the show. The only signal to a casual theatergoer wandering into this production that it is not set in Caesar's time would be Johnnyangel Pineda's odd mishmash of costumes.Some bright spots: Aaron McGee's fight choreography adds pep to the final battle scenes. And Richard Adamson is in many ways a compelling Caesar, both physically and in bearing.

The perplexing thing about much of the rest of the acting is that I've seen all these actors deliver much more nuanced Woodward performances in the past. There are times when Lawson, Aiello and Shehata tone it down enough to impress. All three obviously are comfortable with the text.

But somehow this production just doesn't come together. The talent is there, but the concept and direction of "Julius Caesar" are a disappointment.

Details: Through Sept. 14, WSF Stage in Woodward Park., (559) 927-3485. Free, but $10 reserved seats available.


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The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.

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