Reviews

Murphys Creek Theatre’s ‘Accomplice’ is clever and well-performed

By KATHIE ISSAC-LUKE

For The Union Democrat

Murphys Creek Theatre opened its new season last weekend with “Accomplice,” Rupert Holmes stylish brew of comedy and suspense.

This deviously plotted thriller earned Holmes an Edgar Award for best mystery after it opened on Broadway in 1990. The play pays homage to such earlier thrillers as “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap,” and ends up outdoing them in creating a maze of enigmas and revelations.

The action begins in a refurbished English cottage outside London. Here, on a rainy evening, Janet is plotting to poison her stuffy husband Derek. 

But is she? To answer that question would be to spoil the many surprises in store as the play unfolds. 

Pointing out that nothing in this play is as it seems constitutes a major understatement. The plot’s twists and turns proceed at a rapid pace, and the excellent cast makes the most of them.

In addition to directing, Maryann Curmi plays Janet, reprising a role she played about 10 years ago. She and Don Bilotti are wonderful as a jaded couple trapped in an unhappy marriage. 

Curmi is delightfully sinister as she slinks about the stage in various evening ensembles while planning her machinations. 

Bilotti is wickedly funny as the fussy and mercurial Derek. Their dialogue is peppered with witty jabs, pointed insults and sexual innuendo.

Joe Conn, in a very versatile and energetic performance, plays John, Derek’s business partner. 

This play marks Conn’s MCT debut, but he has many other theater credits, including a highly praised performance in “True West” at Center Stage Conservatory in Modesto.

Michelle Low plays John’s wife, Melinda, who is not so naive as she initially appears. Low, who was so good as Trish in “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress,” which recently played at Stage 3 Theatre Company, gives a funny and endearing performance as the underestimated Melinda. 

Director Curmi keeps this fast-paced production on track, and keeps the audience guessing throughout the performance.  Just when you think you have the plot figured out, the play veers off into a series of unexpected directions. 

In keeping with the English setting, the actors speak in British accents, which are consistent and subtle enough not to be distracting.

The cast is uniformly good as they navigate through the ever shifting puzzles in this play, most of which I dare not divulge. Suffice it to say that none of the characters are up to any good, and their motives are always unpredictable. 

Theater fans will enjoy the many inside jokes. And, I can almost guarantee that no one will be able to anticipate the surprise ending. 

When the curtain comes down, the audience is sworn to secrecy so as not to spoil the fun for future audiences. 

This clever and well-performed play provides a roller coaster ride of amusement and entertainment. To unlock its secrets, you will just have to see it for yourself.

The inviting and highly detailed English hideaway was designed by Artistic Director Graham S. Green. Lighting design is by Nathen Neill. The stylish and authentic costumes designed by Susan Chapman add just the right touch to the production.

Because it contains suggestive language and adult situations, this play is not recommended for young children. 

“Accomplice” runs through April 26 at the Black Bart Playhouse in Murphys. Performances are Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations or more information, call 728-8422 or visit www.murphyscreektheatre.org.

There is so much I would like to say about Murphy Creeks production of Accomplice by Rupert Holmes, directed by Maryann Curmi but I can’t. See, I was sworn to an oath.

I can tell you Accomplice is a comedy-thriller starring  Don Bilotti, Joe Conn, Maryann Curmi and Michelle Low with understudies Paul Del Gatto and Celeste Flory. I can tell you when I was there on Saturday evening during the first week of performances Mr Del Gatto had to step in for Jon Conn in the first act -Mr Conn’s arrival at the theatre was delayed for some reason- and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a seamless transition from one actor to the other. It was almost as if the actors existed in the same skin. Kudos to Mr Del Gatto for his last minute heroism.

Another item I can pass along is the writer, Rupert Holmes is that Rupert Holmes. Yes he’s the Pina Colada Song guy and he is also a long time session musician, a British born American composer and a prolific playwright.  He has many albums, single and plays under his belt and Accomplice is certainly one of the best of those plays.

PictureMichelle Low & Joe Conn

Accomplice is part murder mystery, part British farce, part comedy and part thriller with more twists and turns then the foothill roads that lead to the Black Bart Theatre that Graham Green’s theeatre company calls home. There are plots within plots within enigmas within puzzles. It’s a four character piece that seems to have a fifth player that goes by the name Confusion and it takes until the very last moments of the play for that final players mysteries to be resolved. The journey through the long first act and quicker second act  is fun, exciting, sometimes very funny and ultimately very satisfying.

Maryann Curmi sits in the directors chair and is also a main player. In the first act her mugging is sometimes a bit over the top but by the second act you realize the reasons for her actions, and what is at first a distraction is easily forgiven and in keeping with the complicated plot. Joe Conn, though he did not appear until the second act glides through a role that could have been written with him in mind.

Don Bilotti was simply wonderful. His speech early in the first act describing his day at work shows true flashes of brilliance and from this patron’s perspective it could have gone on forever. Curmi and Bilotti are veterans of many many shows together and they’ve developed a kind of actors shorthand that is a treat to watch and a joy to be a part of.

What can you say about Michelle Low? She recently appeared in Stage 3’s smash hit Five Women Wearing the Same Dress to rave reviews and while she doesn’t appear in Accomplice until the very end of the first act, she practically owns the second act. Her timing, her physicality and her sense of space are just a few of the reasons she is always in demand for local theatres.


PictureMaryann Curmi with Don Bilotti

Graham Green’s set design has the look of a modern English cottage with some nice stone work around the inevitable bar and fireplace. Nathen Neill’s technical direction is as full of tricks, turns and delicious gimmicks as the script and every one of them is pulled off without a hitch. Susan Chapman’s costume design is never out of step from Curmi’s slinky black dress, to Bilotti’s British suit to Low’s lingerie it is perfectly on point.

Go see Accomplice at Mruphys Creek Theatre, it’s worth the trip, even from the valley. I would love to tell you more about this wonderful and sometimes hilarious play, but then I would have to kill you. Like I said, I’ve sworn an oath.

Accomplice plays through April 26, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7pm with Sunday matinees at 2pm. For reservations or more information visit Murphys Creek Theatre or call 209 728 8422 and like them on Facebook.

Don Bilotti
04/04/2015 9:19am

Thanks for your kind words Rocky. When I first read this play years ago my reaction was WHAT!!?!?. It’s just so deviously put together. People come back a second or third time with friends in tow – just to see the looks of delighted shock on their friends’ faces. For anyone who loves a good whodunit or whodunwhat it’s a must see.

Reply

The Valley Stage
04/04/2015 9:46am

Thank you so much Don. You are a valuable human resource to the entire foothill community. TVS is always interested in watching what you are up to. Here’s to full houses for the rest of the run of this wonderful production!

This Shakespeare is dusty – and it works

William Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedy “Twelfth Night” requires suspension of disbelief. To this end, Murphys Creek Theater’s production seizes the audience’s imagination by capitalizing on their new locale.

For summer 2014, the troupe has moved “Theater Under the Stars” to Brice Station Vineyards, four miles east of Murphys.

Embracing the new venue, director Tara Kayton seems to have asked: What if a place called Illyria sat on a mountaintop surrounded by pines, agricultural equipment and tin roofed barns?  Shrewdly, she answers: Deposit the cast in a Depression-era, Dust Bowl context and you’ll capture the renegade spirit of the play. 

Given that this cast is filled with accomplished Shakespearean performers, the result is a charming, intelligent production. 

Let’s start with Misty Day, who has an easy stage presence as Viola, a young heiress tossed ashore by shipwreck into Illyria. Never mind that a shipwreck, Dust Bowl and mountaintop are incongruous. With the arrival of the cast in a vintage 1930s flatbed truck, imagination takes over and all things are possible.

Believing her twin brother Sebastian has drown, Viola decides to dress as a man and join the service of Duke Orsino. Renaming herself Cesario, Viola quickly discovers that the Duke is in love with the Countess Olivia after Orsino enlists Viola-Cesario to woo Olivia on his behalf. So begins a tale in which the characters tipple and topple into nonsensical positions that amuse and confuse.  

To begin with, Orsino’s scheme goes completely awry because Viola-Cesario falls in love with him while Olivia falls in love with this man-servant, who is actually a woman. Meanwhile, Orsino is flummoxed by strange feelings of attraction to Cesario. 

Sid Marsh plays the white-suited, self-dramatizing Orsino with sophisticated aplomb. Brieanna Shumway exudes a classy hauteur as Lady Olivia that gives her character depth. In contrast, Emily Bock Graham, Olivia’s handmaid Maria, plays a naughty and nice character with perfect balance. 

Maria, in cohoots with an Apple Dumpling Gang ensemble, unleashes the mischief that comprises a lively subplot. Graham Scott Green, as the buffoon Sir Toby Belch, leads the comedic gang, mostly in search of drunken adventure. Toby is also Olivia’s cousin, but the bottle seems to take priority over familial duty to the despairing Olivia.

Sean M. Lewis is perfect as a madcap, no-holds-barred Sir Andrew Aguecheek, another of Olivia’s thwarted suitors. Even through cartoonish drunken antics, Lewis manages to deliver highly understandable Elizabethan English.

In another excellent casting decision, Jason “Clocky” McDowell is the fool Feste. McDowell’s precise comedic timing and fluid physicality are spot-on exceptional. Rounding out the silliness is Matt Hobgood as Fabian. 

In a terrifically staged scene, the four comics provide a hilarious backdrop to an incredible performance by Sheila Doyle as Malvolio. The officious fusspot Malvolio, who reigns over Olivia’s household, is entrapped by these mischief-makers in a plot that undermines his fastidious earnestness. Doyle deftly portrays Malvolio’s descent into his own fully imagined private world like a man in the grip of a mad dream. The irony that a female actor delivers a first-rate Malvolio lends flair to the cross-dressing commotion of this particular “Twelfth Night.”

Meanwhile, Ross Aldrich adorns Antonio with a wistful, swishy air as the swooning pirate pining for the rescued Sebastian, played by Robert Zellers. Taylor Hunt pops in here and there as Curio and as the Officer. 

The production team is top notch. For example, the resemblance of Zellers’ Sebastian to Day’s Cesario, helped along by Ann Mazzaferro’s costuming, is uncanny. Lightning in the first act is superbly provided by a mountain top sunset that repeatedly spotlights actors at key moments. 

It appears that Kayton has purposely worked in tandem with nature to accomplish this delightful effect. 

The set is extremely simple — a wooden stage, muslin curtains, and few steamer trunks and old suitcases that hold props — but the actors roam the entire amphitheater during the performance, making use of trees, poles and farm vehicles and projecting their lines distinctly without amplification. 

This production stands firmly on costuming, staging and solid acting, providing a terrific summer evening of fun. 

The production continues until July 19 on alternating Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call 728-8422 or see www.murphyscreek theatre.org for times and dates.

Kudos posted on our Facebook page from Murphys Historical Hotel upon seeing Almost, Maine:
Great Play! I brought my dad on opening night and he loved it :).  He has never been to a play before and now wants to come see more! This is what theatre is about! Bringing new people to an art form that encourages you to think and feel, and leave the theatre feeling just a little bit changed. Grateful thanks to our wonderful, supportive community (This fine Thanksgiving day!)”


MCT is barking up right tree with ‘Sylvia’
By Kathie Isaac-Luke
For The Union Democrat

Murphys Creek Theatre opened its 2012 season on Friday with “Sylvia,” a comedy by popular and prolific playwright, A.R. Gurney. A hit when it premiered Off-Broadway in 1995, “Sylvia” tells the story of how the unexpected arrival of an abandoned pup complicated the lives of the humans who adopt her.
Kate and Greg are a middle-aged couple who have been married for 22 years.  With their children out of the household, they have scaled down their lives and moved to an apartment in Manhattan. Kate is adapting to her empty nest by starting a second career as a teacher who brings Shakespeare to urban students.
Greg has lost interest in his job in the financial sector, and seems to be drifting when Sylvia serendipitously springs into his life during a visit to the park.
The arrival of Sylvia is very disruptive to Kate as the dog interrupts her while she tries to plan her curriculum, and sheds hair on the chic, black furniture in their well appointed apartment.
Greg is resentful that Kate doesn’t welcome Sylvia with open arms and soon starts spending more time with the dog, to the distress of his wife.
In nuanced and honest performances, Laura Dyken and Graham Scott Green play the long married couple. They are at their best when they bicker, reconcile and do some soul searching to try to accommodate each other.
In an amazing performance, Sylvia is played by Amelia Van Brunt. A graduate of Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, her training and experience in physical comedy are very much in evidence in this challenging role. Sylvia drapes herself on the furniture, scratches for fleas and pulls at her leash. And to the delight of the audience, Van Brunt is able to accomplish all of this while being entirely convincing in her canine persona.
A hybrid of poodle and Labrador, Van Brunt’s Sylvia is, in turns, Valley Girl, coquette, enfant terrible and sycophant. She dominates every scene that she is in, underscoring how this energetic pet reigns over her adopted household.
It soon becomes clear that Sylvia is the catalyst that crystallizes the unresolved issues in her owners’ marriage. She becomes the recipient of all that is projected on her by Greg and Kate. And in a clever move, Gurney has given Sylvia the ability to speak, offering the audience a glimpse into the couple’s innermost thoughts.
Sean M. Lewis is hilarious in multiple roles. He plays Tom, a fellow dog owner who meets Greg on frequent sojourns to the park. In an edgy and jaded manner, he dispenses philosophy about pet rearing, marriage and other topics. Lewis is also quite funny as the androgynous therapist, Leslie, a walking Rorschach test who is out of his depth in trying to counsel Kate and Greg.
And, in a tour de force that has the audience howling with laughter, Lewis plays Phyllis, the outspoken former classmate of Kate. Well connected in Manhattan society, Phyllis initially tries to introduce Kate to some prominent people, but ends up being appalled by Sylvia’s lack of discipline.
In spite of her owners’ attempts to anthropomorphize her, Sylvia remains, after all, a dog with an animal’s instincts and urges.
In a particularly funny moment, Sylvia hurls a string of profane invectives at a cat who comes into her view.
In another scene, Sylvia romps with abandon in the park and returns disheveled. It is quite amusing when the helpless Greg, upon learning that Sylvia is in heat, tries to impose human morality upon her.
Under Terri Wilson’s direction, this production brims with energy and wit, and never lags. Wilson is herself a dog owner, and her affinity for this material is apparent.
Wilson also designed the effective set, which encompasses Kate and Greg’s apartment as well as other locales in Central Park, an airport and the therapist’s office.
Laura Dyken’s clever and surprising costumes serve to illustrate the various phases in which Sylvia finds herself.
Although “Sylvia” is primarily a comedy, it manages to also be thought-provoking and touching. Gurney’s material basically transcends itself to reveal deeper truths about relationships and compromise.
Graced with intellect writing and laugh-out-loud circumstances, this well-acted production is thoroughly engaging and entertaining.
Because it contains graphic language and adult situations, the play is not recommended for children.


The Turn of the Screw : “Sparse, eerie tale fills Black Bart Playhouse”

Written by Patricia Harrelson

The Union Democrat –  October 13, 2011

October is the perfect time for a disquieting ghost story.     Murphys Creek Theater capitalizes on timing as well as place when producing Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of the Henry James’ provocative novella “The Turn of the Screw.” The time-worn Black Bart Playhouse on the shadowy back streets of Murphys serves well for Hatcher’s stage play which calls for a sparse set, no sound effects, no costume changes, no theatrical trickery, and a cast of only two — a Governess and a versatile Man who shape shifts through several roles.

Artistic Director Graham Scott Green demonstrates bold confidence in producing this edgy, heavily nuanced piece, staying true to the minimalist design by relying heavily on the talents of two young actors — Amelia Van Brunt and Sean M. Lewis.

While the capable Lewis, an MCT favorite, is likely well cast as the Man, this review is based on the performance of Ben Moroski, who played the role on Oct. 7 and 8.

The story unfolds as the Governess applies to work for a man who is uncle to two orphaned children — Flora, who refuses to speak, and 10-year old Miles, who shows signs of imbalance. A heightened sense of romanticism underlies the Governess’ decision to work for this gentleman, who early on establishes a foreboding condition to her employment.

From the opening scene, charged with palatable sexual energy, the tale slides slowly into confounding and ambiguous horror.

Van Brunt facilitates the ominous trajectory. She moves her character from passionate if naive enthusiasm to gradual unhinging as the Governess comes to believe she is encountering the spirit world. The moment Van Brunt is first startled by something unseen, her face transforms, convincing onlookers that something is truly lurking.

Atmospheric details support her uncanny shifts from exuberant to frightened and fanatical. Lighting design by Ross Aldrich is particularly effective in blurring the lines of real and imagined to create the sinister.

A red hue behind a window glows with supernatural portent and a strategic spotlight on Van Brunt blanches her face and casts looming shadows.

Moroski, meanwhile, morphs with finesse from an aristocratic gentleman to a chattering housekeeper to the little boy Miles. Fostering a just right pitch in his voice and subtle postural adjustments, he embodies the elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and the precocious, intense Miles.

Moroski’s adult-sized 10-year-old lends the child a disturbing
power. And both he and Van Brunt bring the invisible Flora to life with miming gestures.  The two give definitive shape to this grim narrative.

Though neither Van Brunt nor Moroski has a local reputation, they each deserve one. Clad in Laura Dyken’s Victorian era costumes, they are a dark and alluring combination.

Van Brunt rustles or sweeps across the stage; Moroski creeps about in morning coat and upstanding collar.

Director Green turns the screw ever so tightly on the stripped down aesthetic sought by the playwright, extrapolating a moody mansion setting.

Three hanging window frames, a grandfather clock, a chair, and wide stairway to nowhere suffice for an atmosphere of restrained dread.

However, the spoken sound effects, called for by the script, walk a tightrope between convincing and laughable. It is hard to suppress a giggle when Moroski calls out “footfall” during one ghostly scene, but he is actually impressive sighing, “Woosh! Flip-flip-flip” to imitate a gust of wind turning pages in an old Bible.

Another disconcerting script element is the Governess waxing into exposition. While the play is shaped by a story telling structure, the expository interludes are much less compelling than the dramatic exchanges between Van Brunt and Moroski.

“The Turn of the Screw” might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it will appeal to those who thrill to ghosts emanating from a confused mind. And you can definitely count on a spirited debate after the show on the meaning of the chilling conclusion.


‘Scapin’ … an evening worth repeating
from The Copper Gazzette (No author credited)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Murphy’s Creek Theater production of ‘Scapin’ is an adventure in vaudeville merriment, Freudian slips and outrageous tales.

Scapin is a hilarious journey through the lives of the Hatfields and McCoys of the 1600’s, known as the house of Geronte and the house of Argante. Engaging the audience, utilizing unsuspecting theater goers as actors, combining modern movie soundtracks and jingles to enhance the character creation and precise acting that creates bursts of laughter from the audience loud enough to drown out the next line, is what makes Scapin worthy of a family evening.

The play, performed in the beautiful Stevenot Amphitheater in Murphys, begins with a dimming of the lights as the strains of the Pink Panther float through the air, setting the stage for certain hilarity.

Sons of both households have fallen in love with penniless beauties and are in need of money to solve their dilemmas. Enter Scapin. As servant to the household of Geronte, Scapin and his friend Sylvestre, servant of the household of Argante, set out to solve the sons’ problems through much bending of the truth, outright lies and manipulation of facts.

As all know, one lie begets another and another and so on, until ultimately the one who cast the lie becomes so twisted in the web it becomes difficult to remember where the truth stopped and the lie began.

Sean Lewis, playing the part of Octave, lending his special flair for the dramatic combined with intense vanity, kept the crowd in stitches.

Tyler Mattson, playing the part of Sylvestre, embraces the goofy, ready to please puppy dog mentality, making each scene he is in a scene stealer. His body language and facial expressions convey every word in his lines with clarity and humor that shoots straight to the funny bone. (Having seen Mattson in Jekyll and Hyde, Romeo and Juliet and now in Scapin, he may just be one stage actor to watch. The variety of characters for which he can embody is impressive to say the least.)

Deanna Grady, Hyacinth, portrayed her part beautifully for her first production with MCT. Sweet, gentle, and in love. Her character reminiscent of a Disney princess, flowing across the stage, yet strong and capable.

Vickie Hall, Zerbinette, had so much fun with her character as the gypsy girl, her laughter rolled through the crowd making you want to laugh with her. Her suggestive tone so under played, kids would miss it, adults however, pegged it each time. It was fun to see the children in the audience looking at their parents oddly wondering what they thought was so funny…well, it was Zerbinette.

Clocky McDowel, Scapin, was a whirlwind of lines, activity and action. A schemer to the core, one must wonder if this was type casting….hmmm. Serious is not a word Scapin is familiar with. Scapin prefers to live on the edge, get all he can out of life, after all, as a servant, there is nowhere to go but up. Playing off of the other actors Clocky seems to thoroughly enjoy each scene, prancing around a bit, waiting for the laughter to die down to deliver his next line. A delight to watch in action.

Each actor was inspiring and hilarious. Scapin was an evening worth repeating.


REVIEW:  Stars on stage – and in sky – give ‘Romeo’ flair

Written by Patricia Harrelson
July 01, 2011

For a super romantic summers’ night, get thee to the Cornelia B. Stevenot Amphitheater at Munari Winery to see “Romeo and Juliet.”
Producing the quintessential love story under the stars was a dynamite choice by the production team at Murphys Creek Theater. Adapted and readapted over the years, “Romeo and Juliet” has encountered all manner of unconventional interpretations, including many that focus on the feud central to the tragedy.
While other productions have set the play in contexts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, South Africa during apartheid, or gang life on the upper west-side streets of New York City, the directorial vision of John Gallagher concentrates on the wit and tender emotion of the script.A grassy amphitheater tucked into a pine forest is a fine container to embrace such vision. To fill the container, Gallagher has grabbed the essential elements of the Shakespearean classic and shaped them in a production of muted originality.Using color to foster the hush of his vision, Gallagher created a pewter gray set with minimalist embellishment and poised it against Laura Dyken’s simple costumes of white, off-white, taupe, and tan that are more evocative of character than period.The effect is timeless, like the story itself.

The capricious romance of Romeo and Juliet is undoubtedly an enduring signifier of hormonally imbalanced teenagers embarking on impetuous, heated, but nevertheless tender affairs.Teenage love is anything but subtle, and Shelby Richardson as Juliet offers a vibrant portrayal of a young girl torn between her family, her lover, and her growing sense of self.

Simmering with the fickle radiance of adolescence, Richardson is the shining star of this show. She delivers the brilliance of Shakespeare in a manner that highlights not only Juliet’s intelligence but also reveals Richardson’s own acting versatility.

Alex Stoicheff offers a convincing, soul-searching, almost sappy Romeo. While Stoicheff does not exude the same vibrancy as Richardson, he nails the romantic side of Romeo, especially in the balcony scene when the audience will no doubt be as enamored with him as he is with Juliet.

Romeo never quite stacks up to the raucous attitude of the young men around him — a cohort of boys really — who, confused by lust, play with swords and taunt, tease and flirt with bawdy abandon. Though this makes Romeo all the more endearing, Stoicheff’s Romeo could do with little more heat.

Hot with humor, Sean M. Lewis as Mercutio is a charismatic interpreter of Shakespeare’s words.  At the top of his game in the Queen Mab monologue, Lewis is nevertheless consistently hilarious in his expressive evocation of the ill-fated Mercutio.

Divided by the prejudice of two warring families, the young men as well as the servants perpetuate foolish conflicts, the origins of which are all but forgotten.

Two characters who mindlessly heed the strife are Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin played by Tyler Mattson, and Gregory, a Capulet servant played by Sara Garcia. Both Mattson and Garcia, smoothly deliver the metrical language — one earnest and the other lively — leaving no doubt about their allegiances in the feud.

However, this production takes the high road with regard to vengeance and hate, a refreshing take during a time of gratuitous violence in entertainment

In Act 1, Sampson, a Capulet servant, played by Zachary Morris, establishes the lightness of tone in a merry initial exchange with Abram (Margeaux Gallo), servant to the Montagues.

“No sir,” says Sampson, “I do not bite my thumb at you, but I bite my thumb.”

Shakespeare’s use of word play to make light of an offensive gesture is the first of many occasions for comedic spoofing of insolence. Coupled with Bruce Cole’s stylized fight choreography, such occasions emphasize a gentler rendering of indignation and wrath.

For example, Robert Zellers gives Tybalt an angry, compelling edge in a vigorous performance, yet the pivotal sword fight is theatrically elegant rather than nasty.

Fight choreographer Bruce Cole also plays Friar Laurence. Once again humor reigns as the predominant mood, this time in a character who ultimately serves as the vehicle in the young couples’ demise. While Cole is able to give Friar Laurence a strong voice of reason when needed, he is at his best delivering comic lines.

Like Romeo’s young friends, Juliet’s Nurse is bawdy in contrast to the emotionally over-wrought romantic inclinations of her teen charge. Played by Suza Bowser, Nurse is more guilt-tripping than doting and certainly flawed in serving Juliet’s best interest. Bowser gets all of this right though her brashness and costuming require a mental adjustment if you have a previous Nurse incarnation in mind.

The remaining cast ably supports the thematic nuances of the production.

Shelia Doyle applies her skill to many roles, including the chorus, the prince, a Capulet cousin, an apothecary, and Friar John — moving from noble to frazzled without batting an eye.

Kyle Eastman serves well as Paris, Romeo’s slightly odious competition for Juliet.

Sarah Grimes makes a plausible Lady Capulet, Juliet’s confounded but hopeful mother.

Graham Scott Green plays Lord Capulet and Avery Lovecreek plays Lord Montague, the long-time antagonists who though worldly in appearance lack sufficient wisdom to save their children. The children die in the wake of their feuding, one of several messages in a play about the agony and ecstasy of being and parenting a teen.

Timely? Always!

Worth seeing? Definitely.

The mood befits a summer night — more romantic than tragic; more comedic than anguished. This is Shakespeare made accessible by virtue of solid acting while the stars overhead make it oh so authentic.


REVIEW: Fast-paced ‘Lend Me a Tenor’ has style, energy

Written by Kathie Isaac-Luke

March 31, 2011

The scheduled opening of Murphy Creek Theatre’s production of “Lend Me a Tenor” was delayed until Saturday, because Friday’s snowstorm caused an actor to be stranded and the theater to lose power.

By Saturday night, all was well, and the Tony Award winning classic farce by Ken Ludwig opened to an appreciative audience.     Terri Wilson, who has been the director of the Calaveras Follies for the past six years, directs this fast-paced comedy with style and energy.

Wilson said her goal was to assemble some of the best comedic acting in the area while preserving the musical integrity of the story. And she has succeeded in gathering a very talented cast whose ensemble acting provides the heart of this madcap comedy.

For the music, which is an intrinsic part of the story, Wilson has characters lip-sync to recorded songs from opera singers Robert Vann and Sean Bianco.

 Set in 1934 in a upscale hotel suite in Cleveland, Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, is scheduled to appear as Othello in a benefit performance for the Cleveland opera.

The temperamental Merelli is characteristically late to arrive, causing much consternation for Saunders, the opera company’s acquisitive manager.

Saunder’s pretty daughter, Maggie, is an avid fan of Merelli and is determined to stick around and get his autograph, even if she has to resort to subterfuge. Her boyfriend, the mild-mannered Max, is Saunder’s underrated assistant, and is also a frustrated wannabe opera singer.

Add to the mix Maria, Merelli’s jealous wife; Diana, an ambitious opera singer; Julia, chair of the opera guild; plus a boisterous singing bellhop, and the recipe for a screwball, door-slamming comedy is in place.

When Merelli’s wife mistakes the determined Maggie for her husband’s secret lover, she storms out of the hotel. The agitated Merrelli accidentally takes a double-dose of tranquilizers and loses consciousness. Saunders, concerned about his investment, convinces Max to don an Othello costume and impersonate the tenor for the evening’s performance. The ruse works until Merrelli wakes up, and the fun begins.

Graham Scott Green’s Art Deco set provides a perfect backdrop for the action.

The set is appointed with period furniture, prints and lots of doors for frenetic entrances and exits.

The glamorous, retro costumes designed by Laura Dyken add flair to this milieu.

Ross Aldrich, who has a long list of theater credits, endearingly plays the eccentric tenor Merelli. The role might tempt another actor to veer over the top, but Aldrich gives a controlled performance which displays the vulnerability beneath the star’s bravado.

Graham Scott Green gives a confident and convincing performance as Saunders, the type-A manager whose main concern is the bottom line. As one mishap follows another, Green ratchets up his character’s anxiety level.

Kate Gonzales, in her third show with MCT, is charming and effective as the conniving, yet naive Maggie. Sean M. Lewis as Max, Maggie’s persistent, yet unappreciated suitor, is excellent in a challenging role. In the course of the play, his character must evolve from petulant to assertive to suavely debonair. Lewis handles these transitions with ease.

Terry Richardson, an experienced comedic actress, is hilarious as Maria, Merelli’s passionate wife. She delights the audience in a role which requires a good deal of physical comedy.

Cyndie Menard, who has appeared in many local productions, is excellent in the role of Diana, a flirtatious and opportunistic soprano who has been “flinging her way through the whole cast.”

Sheila Doyle, a founding member of MCT, is impressive as the imposing and pretentious Julia, whose life revolves around the opera guild.

Andrew Gary-Scott, as the intrusive bellhop, lights up the stage each time he enters seeking to set himself in the path of the famous Merelli. Fresh from studying musical theater in London, Gary-Scott also has a fine singing voice and performs his own forays into song.

Because of adult situations and suggestive innuendo, the play would probably be confusing for younger children. But for adults, the witty dialogue, spirited plot twists and finely honed performances make this energetic comedy a perfect antidote for the winter doldrums. For two hours, I forgot how cold and dreary it was outside.

 


August/September2010
REVIEW: ‘Into the Woods – Musical’s fairy tale characters are fun, hilarious’
Modesto Bee–By Lisa Millegan Renner

MURPHYS — You couldn’t find a better setting to watch Stephen Sondheim’s hilarious musical “Into the Woods” than the venue used by Murphys Creek Theatre

Audience members sit outdoors under the stars in the stunning tree-ringed amphitheater at Albeno Munari Vineyard and Winery (formerly Stevenot).

Director Graham Scott Green’s large cast had Friday’s opening-night audience laughing nonstop at the show’s clever humor and tapping their toes to the catchy songs. The musical is exceptionally well-written and won Tony Awards for best book (James LaPine) and best score (Sondheim) in 1988.

Although some of the singers struggled with staying in tune and keeping in time with the recorded accompaniment, their performances were more entertaining than what’s seen in many of the region’s theater productions.

“Into the Woods” blends several fairy tales, including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rapunzel,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Cinderella.” In the first act, each character pursues a wish. In the second act, we find out what happens when they get their wishes.

Characters fall in and out of love, magic spells are cast, and giants go on the attack. Parents struggle to understand their children, and families wonder if they should follow their dreams or help the community.

The single mountainlike set, designed by Green and Misty Day, easily accommodates all the scenes, from Rapunzel’s tower to Cinderella’s cottage.

Green also has fun as the Narrator, who pops in from time to time to comment on the action, and as the Mysterious Man, who offers the characters advice. Day is equally sweet and lovely as the much-abused Cinderella.

Michael Critch makes Cinderella’s father a humorous drunk, and Lauren Dyken, Lauren Robinson and Jessie Scales are appropriately obnoxious as the evil stepmother and stepsisters.

The standout in the cast is Vickie Hall as the smart and ambitious Baker’s Wife. Her voice and timing is first- rate, and her good-hearted scheming is amusing to watch. Clocky McDowell goes through the biggest transformation as the Baker, starting out shy and unsure and ending as a confident leader.

Mitzi Nelson is delightfully wicked as the Witch and nails her comic rap about destruction to her garden.

Her daughter Madison Riley Nelson, who is only 11, is hilarious as Little Red Riding Hood, an innocent young girl who learns self-defense and starts carrying a knife. Grant Vaughn Davis, who is 13, has some of the funniest scenes as Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and gets big laughs with his ditzy expressions, confused demeanor and inexplicable love for his cow. Martha Omiyo Kight is brave as Jack’s mother, but Carley Neill gets little to do as Rapunzel.

Thomas Smith and Robert Vann, who play the pampered princes, are comically distraught in the best song of the show, “Agony.” Smith also shines in his other role as the salacious Wolf.

Costume designers Alexis Cienfuegos and Carolyn Collins find colorful fairy tale garb for each of the characters, including a seductive suit for the Wolf and wolf-skin cape worn by Little Red Riding Hood.

If you go, don’t forget to bring a jacket or a blanket. Temperatures get quite chilly after the sun goes down.

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REVIEW: ‘Murphys Creek Theater Into the Woods an Amazing Adventure’
Pinetree.net–By Charity Maness

Murphys, CA….How do you combine Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Bean Stalk, and more? If you are Murphys Creek Theater, very cleverly, that’s how. The adult version of these classic fairytales intertwine together to create a clever presentation of musical, theatrical, and comical entertainment that keeps the audience enraptured and in laughs. ….

Set in the woods in the Cornelia B. Stevenot Amphitheater on grounds of the Albeno Munari Winery in Murphy’s, the setting could not be more intimate, more personal, and more rewarding of an experience. Into the Woods combines a comedic flair with musical numbers, filled with innuendos and quick witted lyrics. Utilizing incredible acting talent, the cast takes you to a mystical place within the woods where a prince hunts a damsel, a wolf hunts a girl, a baker hunts a white cow, and a witch casts spells. Let’s not forget the evil step sisters and the wicked step mother, but I don’t want to give too much away.

Though rated PG the play is definitely a must see for the family in search of something different, something fun, and something magical. Chairs available for use or bring your blanket, but most importantly, bring your sense of humor.

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June/July 2010
REVIEW: ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream is Outdoor Treat”
Union Democrat–By Patricia Harrelson

High-spirited is the perfect descriptor for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” currently under production by Murphys Creek Theater. Stage in the ideal setting—a grassy amphitheater tucked into a pine forest at the Albeno Munari Winery (formerly Stevenot)—the timely and timeless 400-year-old comedy elicited gales of laughter from the opening night crowd clustered around the outdoor stage.
Director Misty Day has drawn upon the history and character of the region to give the production a large dose of Western flair.
To begin with, she and artistic director Graham Scott Green have created a wry set for Shakespeare’s interwoven story lines—the romantic jousting of four young lovers, the dueling of two fairy rulers, and the antics of a bunch of working folk practicing for a play within the play.
Red rock cliffs serve as the outback home for scampering fairies and the backdrop for a collection of earthy Athenians—cowboys, dance hall girls, and bustled or top-hatted gentle folk. Throw in three bark teepees, a saloon, a bale of hay, and a few tree rounds for sitting and you have a set that merges the Mother Lode with the happy, sometimes ethereal, comedy.
If you doubt that a welcoming set will be enough to entice you to take a taste of Shakespeare, do not fear! This talented cast makes every work—every syllable—comprehensible, not to mention hilarious, with big faces and meaningful gesture.
Take the central players, Theseus-Oberon, played by Sean M. Lewis and Hippolyta-Titania, played by Allison Blackwell. Whether parading as imperious lovers or feuding in exotic personage of wood spirits, Lewis and Blackwell each manifest a commanding presence.
Lewis uses his elegant body to communicate a myriad of emotion and suggestion while Blackwell’s animated face could speak reams without saying nary a word. Both, of course, are also spot-on delivering Shakespearian iambic pentameter.
Several actors infuse their lyrical lines with a good bit of Western twang. Tom Vannucci, as Egeus, father to Hermia, twangs away to great effect. No stranger to comedic roles, Vannucci also sustains an amusing regional inflection as one of the mechanicals, Robin Starveling the tailor, ably assisted by a coonskin cap.
But accent, costume and posturing come together most notably in John Gallagher’s portrayal of Nick Bottom, the weaver. The one character to cross over between the human and the fairy worlds, Bottom decides he has had a “most rare vision.” In fact, “the eye of the man hath not heard, the ear of the man hath not seen…” such a rare vision as Gallagher’s Bottom.
Achingly funny, touched by the spirit of vaudeville, Gallagher’s performance is comic genius that doesn’t steal the show but instead seals it.
Also toying with scene stealing is the eye-catching Brooke Lawrence as Puck. Costumed in feathers and leotard, she leaps, cartwheels, and stretches in graceful lunges as the shape-shifting, mischievous Hobgoblin.
Nimble and charming, Lawrence’s physical performance reinforces the fact that acting is the best special effect.
Just as Puck complies with Oberon’s bidding, three fairies arrayed as Indian maidens attend to Titania: Peaseblossom (Erica Nunnelley), Cobweb (Taylor Hunt) and Mustardseed (Vicki Hall). Their beaded leather garb is supple and alluring, conjuring a “just right’” magical touch.
Oberon’s headdress is a further example of the way costuming detail serves the mood and flavor of the performance.
The crux of the play’s action centers on the foolish lovers: perky Hermia (Kate Gonzales), her love-crazed friend Helena (Gina Williams) and their gun -slinging suitors, Lysander (Robert Zellers) and Demetrius (Thomas Smith).
The young people dosey-doe in a four square of bickering and betrayal, their speeches alive with whining and desperation, the acting as impressive as it is funny and feral.
Sheila Doyle as Quince the carpenter, least the amateur acting troupe, or so called “rude mechanicals,” including Vannucci and Gallagher and completed by Flute (Kyle Eastman), Snout (Graham Scott Green) and Snug (Sarah Grimes-Emmons).
The delightful chemistry of this contingency explodes during their production of “Pyramus and Thisby” in Act V. The amphitheater convulsed with hoots and shrieks of laughter on opening night, a merriment that lingered long after the last bow.
Don’t miss the shenanigans contrived by Murphys Creek Theater this summer. Pack your picnic basked and come early to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
From the lilting strains of Stan Emmons’ pre-show performance to Puck’s closing words atop the red rock façade, a spirited energy floats across the midsummer evening at the Cornelia B. Stevenot Amphitheater.
The production runs through July 17. For tickets, call 728-8422

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February 2010
REVIEW: MCT’s ‘Folly’ proves charming and poignant
From the Union Democrat
Written by Kathie Isaac-Luke February 25, 2010 02:13 pm

It is easy to see why Lanford Wilson’s romantic comedy, “Talley’s Folly,” garnered the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for drama. This lyrical play, which opens Murphys Creek Theatre’s 16th season, is peppered with history, wit, philosophy, warmth and wisdom. Set in the small town of Lebanon, Mo., against the backdrop of World War II, “Talley’s Folly” tells the story of Matt Friedman and Sally Talley, an unlikely pair trying to make sense of their relationship.

He is Jewish and 11 years older than Sally. She is Protestant and from an intolerant family. Both harbor secrets which prevent them from fully trusting each other.

Matt, an accountant from St. Louis, has met Sally while vacationing in Lebanon a year before the play begins. He has written to her nearly every day and is convinced they can make a life together.

Sally, however, is reluctant and ambivalent. While she goes out of her way to rebuff him, Matt sees the tenderness beneath her brusque facade.
This two character, one-act play requires two strong actors to bring it to life, and Graham S. Green and Lara Ford are more than equal to the task.

Ford, who has given memorable performances in a number of other MCT productions, is excellent as the prickly, mercurial Sally. She adeptly captures the complexity of her character whose mood evolves from fearful and dismissive to understanding and compassionate.

Green, who is artistic director of MCT, so completely immerses himself in the character of Matt, that from the moment he steps onto the stage he makes this role his own. His timing is excellent as he portrays Matt’s humorous side as well as his patience and determination.

As the play opens, Matt speaks directly to the audience telling them what to expect. Among other things, we learn that it is evening on July 4th, 1944, and that the 97-minute play will be a waltz.

The “folly” in the play’s title does not suggest any decisions made by the two characters. It refers to the crumbling Victorian boathouse where the entire play takes place. The boathouse was built years earlier by Sally’s eccentric uncle, Everett Talley, who created other whimsical and useless architectural projects which were disdained by the local townspeople.

The boathouse is nicely designed by Misty Day and detailed by Susannah Allatt. With its weathered wood, abandoned still and decaying latticework, it can be seen as a metaphor for the loneliness and isolation experienced by Sally and Matt.

The audience has been promised a waltz and as the characters move toward each other and then apart, we notice the rhythm of their dance as they carefully reveal the past injuries which have prevented them from connecting.

Referring to himself in the third person, Matt slowly tells Sally the tragic story of how he lost his entire family in Europe during World War I. It becomes clear that the grief and alienation he has experienced has completely colored the way he sees the world.

Sally, in turn, discloses a highly personal trauma in her past which has damaged her and caused her to raise barriers around herself. She also reveals that she does not share the biases of her wealthy and bigoted family.

The fact that she has been fired from her Sunday school post for teaching her students about the labor movement further endears her to the liberally minded Matt.

In exploring their histories these two wounded characters learn that in spite of their cultural differences, they actually have a lot of common ground. And the revelation that they also share similar goals ends the play on a satisfying and hopeful note.

Directed by Diane Brown, this charming and poignant tale is an engaging piece of theater and deserves a larger audience than was there on opening night.

“Talley’s Folly” plays through March 21 at the Black Bart Playhouse in Murphys.


REVIEW: Laugh like the Dickens at MCT’s ‘Christmas’

The Union Democrat, Review by Patricia Harrelson

December 2010

Murphys Creek Theatre Company conjures the spirit of Christmases past with its production of “Every Christmas Story Ever Told.” The zany, high energy production currently under way at Black Bart Playhouse in Murphys dares to take our “beloved holiday classics” (BHCs) and present them in a new — and completely twisted — light.

Cleverly scripted by Michael Carleton, Jim Fitzgerald and John Alvarez, the play opens with Allison Blackwell re-telling “A Christmas Carol.”

Her stodgy recital is quickly halted by Sean M. Lewis, playing the ghost of Jacob Marley clad in a chain-laden garment and ridiculous wig, who is sick of doing the Dickens’ classic year after year.

His plea for an alternative performance, one that depicts every Christmas story ever told, is met with earnest agreement by Stephen Daly, the third in this trio of actors who bring a “Xmas Xtreme” to the stage.

With Blackwell continuing to resist the plan, what follows is an energetic free-association Christmas extravaganza, a goofy parody of secular seasonal classics mixed with commercial spoofs and elementary school staging.

Vickie Hall must have a capital sense of humor to take on this agreeably corny production as her directorial debut. This kind of free-wheeling comedy demands game actors, which she found in Blackwell, Lewis and Daly.

Blackwell serves as a comely point-person, the character who wishes to maintain tradition, but who eventually gets sucked into the silly mire.

Forever frowning and fussing about getting back to “A Christmas Carol,” her character nevertheless leaps over self-imposed boundaries to don silly costumes and deliver rapid-fire dialogue while dashing and dancing with her fellow players.

Blackwell’s plastic, inventive style makes for superb physical comedy.

Daly stands as the loquacious officiate in the trio’s effort to portray this slew of holiday stories, casting the net far and wide to pay homage to Chanukah and Kwanzaa and include dubious factoids about Christmas traditions from far off lands.

In such a role, it is hard to determine if Daly’s halting delivery was in character or a flawed performance. Whatever, such nervous wit worked to good effect.

Lewis cavorts and gyrates on stage in a role that might have easily slipped into grandstanding. However, in his capable hands, which are clearly in touch with his inner child, a nimble character emerges — one who displays credulous innocence while flaunting adult humor.

Lewis capitalizes on the mix in a standout scene with Blackwell in Act 1 that parodies telling the truth about Santa. Blackwell sits on an office chair with the long-limbed Lewis in her lap, embroiled in the misery of a 4-year-old facing this well-intentioned adult lie. The visual itself is comical but the two interact in rocking tandem to hilarious effect.

Truth telling is the humorous heart of this show. Frosty meets his maker, a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float tangles with veracity, and Gustav, aka Rudolph, reveals his differences in prominent display. Nothing is above a poke, not fruit cake nor Santa nor the Grinch.

That’s not to say this show is without poignancy. Near the end of Act 1, Lewis as Linus clutching a large blue blanket recalls for Charlie Brown (and onlookers) the story of “the true meaning of Christmas.”

Another thing that makes the show fun is the manner in which the fourth wall of performing arts is disregarded to bring the audience into the performance. Not only do the actors frequently address theatergoers, but stage hands step from the auditorium to adjust computer projectors and deal with props.

Audience participation adds an improv element to a couple of skits, including a game-show segment in which Daly is super as a pompous game show host.

Capital Stage in Sacramento assisted by loaning many of the necessary props and contributing design ideas for costumes developed by Diane Brown. The wigs and hats were particularly gay as was the artful adornment for Gustav the “reingoat.”

Pacing is critical in a successful comedy, and though timing is a bit sticky in Act 1, the actors really hit their stride in Act 2 in a theatrical mash-up of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

All three characters sail through this fracas, morphing rapidly and hilariously from Ebenezer Scrooge to George Bailey, from the Christmas Ghosts to Clarence the Angel, Mary and Uncle Billy.

A finale of caroling, this time a mash-up medley of Christmas tunes, winds things up and underscores the quirky talent of the cast.

Vickie Hall has directed a spunky production, but for comedy to truly work, actors need to face a rollicking crowd who are knee-slapping and guffawing. That’s what was missing from this show: a large fun-loving audience laughing at the hilarious spoof.

This is not high art, but those who seek Yuletide frivolity will enjoy this family-friendly diversion. Kids may not get all of the jokes and innuendos, but they are sure to laugh when they see folks like Allie, Sean and Stephen having a rip-roaring good time.

The production runs through Dec. 20.


REVIEW: “Skull” Sends Shivers of Delight

Calaveras Enterprise: Sierra Lodestar, Review by Mike Taylor

8/26/2009

I’m a big fan of the black comedy; those dubious works by authors who many might consider being just a little “off”. This style of comedy leaves audiences squirming – especially during live theater performances – because it can be tough to know what’s appropriate to laugh at during rigorous conversation about subjects not fit for the nightly news.

The Murphys Creek Theatre company is presenting a show that has more unruly laughs tucked inside it than anything I’ve seen lately and it a whole lot of fun. “A Skull in Connemara” would have been a delight to see staged at the Amphitheatre outside of Murphys because of its dreariness, but this Black Bart Playhouse production is tops.

Director and Set Designer Graham Scott Green has a lackluster apartment – a shack, really – as the primary set, but it’s the graveyard scene that adds to the quirky cleverness that comes along in this Martin McDonough play. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Skull” concerns Mick Dowd, the gravedigger in rural Galway, Ireland. Simply digging graves might be enough for a dark comedy, as far s a profession of choice goes, but McDonough cranks it up several notches; once a year down must dig up older plots in the cemetery to make room for newer, um, fresher arrivals.

The show opens in his shack, just as MaryJohnny comes by for her daily nip and so she and Mick can chew the fat. Tom Vannucci and Sheila Doyle act like a middle-aged married couple in this scene, finishing each other’s and arguing with a polished charm. They’ve said all this many times before.

Just as this exchange begins to grow a little slow, Mairtin Hanlon bursts into Mick’s domicile with news he’s to assist Mick in his daily diggings. Mairtin’s a punk, plain and simple; one of those Irish rogues made famous in perhaps too many Hollywood films. He’s on edge, jittery and just barely keeping himself out of trouble. Robert Zellers does a fine job giving Mairtin all his quirks, easily stomping about Mick’s home like a ruffian.

Mairtin’s the one who reminds MaryJohnny and Mick that this is the  year Mick will have to dig up his wife, whom he served a stint in prison for killing in a drunk driving car crash seven years ago. There’s much moodiness brought about when the event is mentioned around Mick, but Mairtin – ever the agitator – thrills at jousting with Mick on the subject.

Many aspersions are cast, among them the idea that perhaps Mick assisted his wife in her departure from this world with more than a drink and a set of car keys.

The next scene, staged in the cemetery, is brilliantly list and acted with punch and patience. Mairtin and Mick are exhuming away when Mairtin’s older brother – and local cop on the beat – Thomas Hanlon arrives, we’re told so he can watch the bones of Mick’s dearly departed be removed from the dirt. Sean M. Lewis delivers another performance rife with pressure points that punctuate the play perfectly. I can’t say anything more, except to give these actors credit for delivering their parts in measured fashion, carefully taking the audience along on an intriguing journey.

This show isn’t for children; there’s much swearing in Mairtin’s world and the subject matter is darker than I allude to here. While it’s mature in nature, it’s also interesting; the characters might not be the most likeable to step onstage, but the action tugs along at your collar, pulling you deeper into the tale.

I also found it intriguing that this is the second time this season that Lewis has played Zellers’ older brother. In “Lone Star,” Lewis’s drunken debauchery added much weight to the show and Zellers’ simplistic approach to his character made the elder brother’s anger all the more human. In “Connemara, Thomas Hanlon is the determinedly dominant older brother who’s found license – he’s a policeman, remember, which he seems to feel gives him much more power than a man of his status should be able to acquire. Again, as in “Lone Star,” Lewis and Zellers add a lot of raw emotion to the show.

That’s not to detract from Vannucci’s masterful pauses as Mick. He knows just when to lean into a line and force a reaction, metaphorically moving Mick’s soft-spoken nature to the background.  This is a wonderful character given life by a fine actor who knows how it’s done.

If smashing bones after a hard night’s digging doesn’t pique your interest or raise your eyebrows, I’d say skip this tale. If you’re drawn to stories that are well off the beaten path, “A Skull in Connemara” will deliver a few tingles and a lot of laughs. It’s a deviously good time.


REVIEW: “Skull” Sometimes Requires a Thick Skin to Appreciate

Review by Patricia Harrelson

The Union Democrat

8/17/2009

Murphys Creek Theatre is pulling no punches in its 15th season. The latest production, “A Skull in Connemara” at the Black Bart Playhouse is an outrageous tale, full of course banter, sarcasm, and insults.

One critic described Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s work as “an absurdist realignment of social customs.” There is no doubt that McDonagh mischievously upends polite society by taking as his subject matter ghastly perverse acts.
This play will suit everyone’s tastes, but those who enjoy crazy, dark humor are fortunate indeed that director Graham Scott Green has brought “A Skull in Connemara” to a local stage.

Green’s pleasure in presenting ”Skull” to the community is apparent in his deft management of four actors who successfully deliver black comedy.

The setting is the rural village of Leenane in County Galway, a community overgrown with past grievances. For one week each autumn, Mick Dowd (Tom Vannucci) is hired to disinter bones in the Leenane cemetery to make room for new arrivals.

As the play opens, MaryJohnny Rafferty (Sheila Doyle) is visiting Dowd, her neighbor who she has long suspected of murdering his wife but nevertheless visits each day to enjoy his liquor.

The thick Irish dialect, skillfully rendered by Vannucci and Doyle, makes the audience listen carefully as the crux of the situation is revealed in their obviously habitual sparring.

Dowd’s wife Oona died seven years earlier in a car accident in which he was the drunk driver. MaryJohnny, along with other village “ijits”, have let their imaginations run to concoct a rumor that Oona might actually have died from a deadly blow struck by Dowd.

As if there isn’t enough irony in suspecting Dowd of bludgeoning his wife as opposed to killing her while driving drunk, Dowd is also faced with having to dig up Oona’s bones when he next exhumes bodies.

This last is revealed by Mairtin Hanlon, MaryJohnny’s grandson who interrupts her visit with Dowd to announce that he has been hired by Father Walsh to assist in the gravedigger’s chores. Much of the responsibility for the inane conversation that permeates the play lies on the shoulders of Robert Zellers, who plays Mairtin, a loutish youth with a hair-trigger response to insult and the ability to hurl a heap of abuse.
Zellers rises to the task, propelling Mairtin superbly through ridiculous discussions such as what happens to a man’s private parts once he is interred and the relative merits of drowning in various bodily fluids.

Though Zellers is not consistently in control of the Irish dialect, he throws himself into the nuances of Mairtin’s character to reveal fear amid bravado and discernment underneath absurdity.

Doyle gives the bingo-playing granny a perfectly dour visage to compliment her character’s grudge-bearing, suspicious nature.

Doyle is clearly not as fat as Mairtin’s insults suggest, but she waddles and sits spread-legged like the stoutest of women. Doyle’s performance is solid and wonderfully humorous.

White haired Vannucci is well cast as Mick Dowd. His fierce gaze drives Dowd’s brutal, penetrating cynicism home. And yet Vannucci casts a flicker of poignancy now and again into Dowd’s alcohol-soaked person, a hint of something lamentable beneath a sardonic surface.

The fourth actor is Sean Lewis, who plays Thomas Hanlon, a policeman and Mairtin’s brother. Lewis nails the role of a low-key fool enamored with television detectives. Deeply disgruntled about police work in a small town, Hanlon seethes with ambition.
Green makes good use of the rough-hewn stage in creating the sparsely appointed front room of Dowd’s cottage. Behind this room, through a cleverly rigged black screen, the cemetery eventually appears, with the help of suffused lighting.

There, Mairtin and Dowd work atop piles of dirt and in grave pits deep as their thighs. Soon their macabre task turns into graveyard shenanigans. And eventually, the disinterred skulls, compliments of prop master Martha Omiyo Kight, become the mark of some truly ghoulish business.

“A Skull in Connemara” is a black comedy, but it is also about wounded hearts situated in the midst of petty recriminations and shattered bones.

Green and the Murphys Creek Theatre company have chosen another play with an idiosyncratic view of rural life. Perhaps they are daring us to look, to think, and to laugh.

Go ahead! See for yourself.


REVIEW: Modern ‘Merchant’ shines under stars

Modesto Bee, Review by Lisa Milligan

7/6/09


Rating: three out of four stars

MURPHYS — Murphys Creek Theatre knows that Shakespeare can be hard to understand, so the company does its best to lighten things up from time to time.

The group’s outdoor production of “The Merchant of Venice” is in modern dress and includes hip-hop dancing, laptops and text messaging.

Under director Graham Green’s guidance, it all works and doesn’t seem intrusive or gimmicky. It might help some younger audience members better enjoy the Bard’s work.

Though it’s classified as a comedy, “The Merchant of Venice” deals with weighty issues of religious persecution and justice vs. mercy.

The Jewish moneylender Shylock (Eric Baldwin) is constantly antagonized by his Christian neighbors. When the unfriendly Christian Antonio (Eric Owens) asks him for a loan, Shylock reluctantly agrees but only on the condition that if Antonio defaults, he gets a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Baldwin, who looks and acts like Richard Dreyfuss, is compelling as Shylock, making him sympathetic despite the character’s considerable flaws. In his portrayal, we see that Shylock became so bitter because of the constant mistreatment he faced.

Shylock is ultimately outwitted by Portia, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable female characters. Beautifully played by Allison Blackwell, she is feisty, smart, brave, funny and supremely confident.

Sean Lewis, who stands out in the cast for his height and spiky blond hair, provides much of the comedy in a dual role as Graziano and Aragon. In the first part, he’s a coarse young man who doesn’t quite know how to act in upper-class company. In the second, he’s an arrogant Spanish aristocrat trying for Portia’s hand in marriage.

Bruce Cole shows a talent for getting laughs as Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock’s hyperactive servant.

As with most productions, there are some directorial choices that don’t quite work. It’s strange that Portia’s Moroccan suitor is cast as a white woman (Misty Day). The lines about the Moroccan’s dark complexion no longer make sense. And it’s confusing for the audience because Day also plays Shylock’s daughter.

Moreover, Green’s set is drab and unattractive, offering little more than a few doorways.

Still, nothing in the region can beat the gorgeous venue. The production is at Stevenot Winery’s lovely tree-ringed amphitheater, which allows plenty of space for picnicking. Shakespeare is rarely sweeter than when it is performed under the stars.

 


 

 

Murphys Creek Theatre is a small, professionally oriented theatre company located in the charming and historic goldrush-era town of Murphys, in Calaveras County, California.