By CHARLIE JARRETT
Martinez News-Gazette Columnist
This week’s reviews are unique indeed in that you only have to drive 9.7 miles to the first show reviewed (in Danville) or 300 miles and spend one or two nights in Ashland, Oregon to see them. You might ask, why is this guy suggesting that we travel to Oregon to see theater when there is so much excellent theater right here in the bay area, – – WHAT COULD BE THAT GOOD!!!
My days of seeing theater in Ashland, Oregon go back many years and I would do it more often if I were not already so engaged with excellent local theater here in the Bay Area. However, the theater productions staged in Ashland, meaning 11 shows each season, are often compared with the best in the nation by many very knowledgeable theater experts. I saw two outstanding productions two weeks ago and will tell you a little bit about one of the two later in this article.
First of all, I have great news and sad news as respects a very often praised little theater in Danville. The Role Players Ensemble is currently performing Ripcord, a thoroughly delightful play written by multiple award-winning author David Lindsay-Abaire. The sad and shocking news however, is that the company has just announced is that this show will be the last production they will mount in this theatre. The company will cease all operations following the last curtain call of this production on November 3rd and wrap up all activities on or by November 11th.
Ripcord focuses on two unique ladies who want to live comfortably on the upper floor of the Bristol Place Senior Living Facility, a space which its residents consider as “prime real estate”, with the best view of the neighboring park and surrounding scenery in general. When these two senior women, Abby (Ann Kendrick) and Marilyn (Beth Chastain), are forced to share this same room, it is no nurturing space, rather. It becomes a battle ground!! Marilyn seems the most convivial of the two, but her co-habitant, a totally opposite Abby, is a tenacious and die-hard controller, completely unwilling to share the space or to care about the needs of her roommate! She cannot tolerate what she considers an infuriatingly chipper, upbeat, talkative, and helpful roommate. Finally, the animosity brings about a dangerous bet between the two, a challenge in which winning the bet will force their stalemate into a difficult submissive position!
The nursing assistant staff member assigned to their room, Scotty (Terrance Smith), not only assists the ladies with their daily comfort and health tasks, but promotes co-operation, extra-curricular activities and off premises excursions. Marilyn’s children Derek (Vince Faso) and Colleen (Cynthia Lagodzinski) intercede and a surprise visit by Abby’s long absent son, Benjamin (Tyler B. Chastain) helps to change the disturbing dynamics! The acting is absolutely superb and brought the audience a rousing standing ovation. This is a terrific evening of entertainment and you should not miss it!
Under the smart direction of Scott Fryer the show is excellent in every respect. The clever set design by Tom Curtain facilitates the complicated story and the excellent costumes created by Stephanie Seaberg. The tickets costing $25 & $35 each for the remaining Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances (through November 3rd), and are available on line at www.RolePlayersEnsemble.com and at the Danville Community Center, 420 Front Street; at the theater box office or by calling (925) 314-3400.
Personally, I feel that the loss of this theater is a terrible loss for Danville and surrounding communities for many reasons. I am asking questions now and hope to determine and reveal any plan or hope for its resurrection.
Now, back to the importance of seeing theater in Ashland Oregon! While waiting for the Broadway award winning play, “Indecent”, to begin, a lady sitting next to me volunteered that she and four of her closest friends come to Ashland every single year (and have done so for the past 10 years) to every one of the 11 shows produced every season!!
There are four theater venues in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival complex, the Angus Bowmer, the Allen Elizabethan, the Black Swan, and the Thomas Theatre. The company not only produces plays, they also fund and orchestrate the development of new works, such as the very successful, multi-award winning “Indecent”, now in production there. The story behind the creation of this play was inspired by the controversial 1906 play by Yiddish writer, Sholem Asch, The God of Vengeance. The subject matter behind the The God of Vengance is a shtetl tragedy: a Jewish brothel owner buys a Torah to celebrate his daughter’s wedding to a scholar, but, when he learns that his daughter has fallen in love with one of his prostitutes, he casts her out of her family and forces to live and work in the brothel. The production became an early controversial success while touring across Europe. It was a hit in New York, as well; first on the Lower East Side, and at the Apollo Theatre. But when it moved downtown where it featured the first lesbian kiss seen on Broadway, the problems began. When a leading local reform rabbi feared that airing it in America it be might perceived as typical Jewish transgressions and sexual aberrations, which could prove dangerous in a climate of rapidly rising xenophobia. (especially when Industrialist Henry Ford’s newspaper was denouncing Jews as un-American). He rallied a campaign in New York against the play. Shortly after opening night, in March, 1923, the entire cast of “God of Vengeance” was arrested and jailed for “an indecent, immoral, and impure theatrical performance.”
The playwright, Paula Vogel, first encountered “God of Vengeance” in the seventies, as a graduate student at Cornell. “I read the whole play in the library standing up in the stacks,” Vogel recalled recently, over the phone. She was particularly enthralled by a lyrical, intimate scene in the second act when Rifkele, the daughter, sneaks out at night to join Manke, a prostitute; Manke bathes Rifkele in the rain, brushes her hair, and takes her to bed like a bride. “I felt such joy and uplift reading the rain scene,” Vogel said. “There was no moralizing, just a matter-of-fact presentation of desire and love. Asch seemed to her like a long-lost ancestor,
Indecent is the retelling of the original play and the trial of its creators over several years in several countries that examines why the first kiss by two women on an Americans stage should be accorded such a terrible rebuke. This production is so exciting and powerful and thought-provoking that I sincerely hope it will be brought to the Bay Area in the near future, where I for one, will undoubtedly go and submerse myself in its poignant and important story once again.
Under the direction of Shana Cooper and the Klezmer musical direction by Christina Crowder the show is exciting, moving and inspiring, and if at all possible, a MUST-SEE production. The cast, including Linda Alper, Shayna Blass, Willliam DeMeritt, Rebecca S’Manga Frank, Anthony Heald and Benjamin Pelteson are simply superlative. The play is set in the original time period of Poland, 1906 and continues over a 50-year time period while the story is studied by those it later engaged. For more information, I suggest that you simply connect with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival website and check it out. This is a premier environment for outstanding entertainment, in a city that has not only embraced their theatrical community, they love it!