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“Without Mercy”: Theater at Its Redemptive Best, at Off Broadway West, S.F.

“Without Mercy”: Theater at Its Redemptive Best, at Off Broadway West, S.F.

Patricia Milton Casts A Discerning Eye on Capital Punishment

by D. Marc Capobianco

The great paradox of the last year’s election in California was the defeat of Proposition 62, which would have repealed the death penalty, despite the overwhelmingly progressive vote that saw Hillary Clinton defeat Donald Trump by a nearly two to one ratio. Virtually no news outlets have devoted any focus to this curious anomaly, which virtually assures that debate over this controversial issue will perpetuate for years. Stepping into this void, however, is Patricia Milton’s new one-act play, “Without Mercy,” now headlining at San Francisco’s intimate Off Broadway West.

As befits such a heated topic, the play starts off confrontationally, with stern therapist Bethany Matthews (Niki Yapo-Held) unhappily discovering her off-kilter mother, loitering in her living room, uninvited. Despite her professional training, Bethany seems disconcertingly dispassionate towards Joanna (Sylvia Kratins), whose anxiety is clearly palpable. Indeed, Joanna has flown the coop from the rehab facility where her brother and Bethany have recently placed her; her daughter, in turn, is all-too-eager to drive her back that very night.

Niki Yapo-Held and Sylvia Kratins in “Without Mercy”

As the story continues, Milton’s deft script gradually unveils the source of this considerable tension. Younger daughter Mercy, who abruptly disappeared six years before, has been confirmed to have been kidnapped and murdered. Her murderer, already serving time in Arizona, has confessed and is being extradited to California for trial. This news has driven Joanna to the brink of despair. She has taken to drink while neglecting cleanliness or food, to the obvious chagrin of her surviving daughter.

You might expect a psychologist to empathize with her mother’s distress, but Bethany remains unmoved. Committing her mother to a therapeutic institution at this time has little to do with concern for Joanna’s welfare; rather, it is a thinly-veiled attempt to isolate her mother from the legal proceedings. Much to Yapo-Held’s credit, her iciness renders Bethany wholly unsympathetic, while generating our compassion for Joanna, which she failed to receive from her family.

The core debate in “Without Mercy” hinges on how justice should be meted out, with mother and daughter diametrically opposed on the need for capital punishment. In an effort to reconcile their differences, Bethany has retained, a family advocate, Sam Sibley (Ian Walker), who brings to light the District Attorney’s plea bargain. The D.A.’s bargain offers the murderer “life without the possibility of parole,” in exchange for the killer’s revealing where he buried Mercy’s body six years ago.

Ian Walker and Sylvia Kratins in “Without Mercy”

Here the play takes its unexpected twist. Stone-hearted Bethany readily accepts this deal, citing her belief in the sanctity of human life, no matter how heinous the crime. Joanna, in turn, remains implacable in her desire to see the killer executed. Though ostensibly neutral, Sam pushes for a consensus in line with Bethany’s stance—a balance Walker remarkably keeps credible—until his hand is forced by Joanna’s assertion that a black killer would be hard-pressed find a jury in their community who might feel any sympathy for his plight.

When Joanna plays “the race card,” Sam reveals that the murder of his daughter, a black policewoman shot point-blank by white assailants, made him leave his law practice to become a family advocate. No matter where one stands on the issue, Joanna’s suffering, as movingly played by Sylvia Kratins, stirs us, deeply. But her reaction to Sam’s story, gives us another turn of the screw.

Joanna’s downfall extols Bethany, who now appears a more sympathetic figure in light of her mother’s prejudices. We, as audience, now begin to question Bethany’s contention that her mother willfully cast a blind eye on her late husband’s purported lechery toward his younger stepdaughter. Bethany’s true motivation comes to light. Her sister hadn’t simply run away the night she was murdered—there’s more to the story.

Sylvia Kratins and Niki Yapo-Held in “Without Mercy”

Sylvia Kratins and Niki Yapo-Held in “Without Mercy”This unexpected dénouement renders Bethany a more pitiable presence than her mother, and from her fragility,  a new resolution is born. A trial now would run the risk of doubt and of the killer’s confession being retracted. The plea bargain will be accepted, and in lieu of her court appearance, Joanna is granted her deep desire to recite her Victim’s Statement before Bethany and Sam and before us, the public. It is terse. It is moving. It is unequivocal. It is final.

Patricia Milton’s stand against the death penalty is unequivocal, as well, but to her credit, the play gives voice to the anguish and suffering of all who are affected by such terrible crimes, no matter their philosophical beliefs. There are minor flaws to her story line—allowing Joanna her voice seems a glaringly obvious solution to the impasse.

But the power of Milton’s script prevails. “Without Mercy” accomplishes what theater can offer: to give us pause to reflect and consider. “Without Mercy” is well worth seeing.

 

“Without Mercy” by Patricia Milton, directed by Richard Harder, at Off Broadway West Theatre Company, 414 Mason Street, 6th Fl., San Francisco, through  Saturday, March 25. 2017.  Info: offbroadwaywest.org

Cast:  Sylvia Kratins, Niki Yapo-Held, and Ian Walker.

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.

Also check our Recent Shows.

“peerless” Peeks at High School Maniacs, at Marin Theatre Co., Mill Valley

“peerless” Peeks at High School Maniacs, at Marin Theatre Co., Mill Valley

Jiehae Park Makes Murder Fun in Macbeth Mash-Up

by Barry David Horwitz

Every detail in Jiehae Park’s “peerless” goes way Over the Top. The Barbie-Doll dressed Chinese American twin sisters, M. and L., choose a high school in a remote midwestern suburb to increase their chances of early admission to “The College.” They are riveting and hilarious as they bombard us with speeded-up micro-conversations. Director Margot Bordelon has brilliantly created a funny speed-dream of h.s. terrors.

The twins, have over-planned their academic journey from high school to college, and woe to anyone who gets in their way!  They even lie to get into separate years, to avoid competing with each other. Their idealization of “The College” reveals a common elitist fantasy, these days.

Tiffany Villarin (M) and Rinabeth Apostol (L) in “peerless.” Photo: Kevin Berne

M. (an anxiety-ridden Tiffany Villarin) must be a high school stand-in for Macbeth because she hesitates, and is shy.  Meanwhile, L. (an amped-up Rinabeth Apostol) must be Lady Macbeth because she is the bold, brash brains of the scheme. L. and M. are conspiring at their strategically selected high school, planning to move on to the best college, the best early admission, and with the best grades. Who can possibly stop them?

Well, first of all—they dress identically, with yellow and red backpacks or bright blue short prom dresses, and they speak at a breakneck super-speed, like poets at a Slam. They are awkwardly self-conscious about their macabre plans and they address the audience, directly.  “peerless” is a brilliant, speedy cartoon with rapid fire, comic speech, and sketch-skit styling. The fired up, young cast delivers superb comic performances and movements: A technical wonder that flies by, with lots of loud guffaws, at 82 minutes.

Rosie Hallett and Tiffany Villarin in “peerless.” Photo: Kevin Berne

Adding to the controlled mayhem, three large door-panels swing up to reveal farcical scenes at the high school, in a friend’s home, or in the gym. The scenes are like cartoon panels where ridiculous plots pop up and spin out of control. It’s a living cartoon where the bright colors, loud noises, and special effects define the characters.

Chief among their enemies is Dirty Girl (a dreadlocked Rosie Hallett) who swings all over the stage in her dirty duds. As a delightful teen-aged witch out of Macbeth, D.G. sees through the Machiavellean sisters and utters dire prophecies. She hates them and their intellect and their scheming. She is alt, and they are geeks.

On the other hand, a sweet geeky formerly fat boy loves them—he is D (a spot-on Jeremy Kahn), a noble King Duncan who tries to make sense of the capitalist competition laid down by M and L. Kahn runs us through D’s troubled adolescence, his former fat fingers, and other anxieties to pretty much send the show through the roof. He leaps, he apologizes, he dances, he sings, he tries to date at least one of the sisters—he really can tell them apart. He is a delight to watch, as he becomes their Number One Victim—because he won the early admission slot to The College! He has displaced M. and L.—a dangerous game.

Tiffany Villarin and Rinabeth Apostol in “peerless.” Photo: Kevin Berne

Well, there’s the BF (a puzzled and charming Cameron Matthews) based on Banquo/Fleance, and there’s D’s brother (a hooded Jeremy Kahn, again), and a Preppy Girl (a spiffy Rosie Hallett, again)—all of which gives us the snarky structure of a typical U.S. high school. Add a whiff of egotism, narcissism, entitlement, and murder—and you get a peerless look at U.S. cross-culture envy of the Other.

The play could profit from filled out minor characters, a fuller climax, and more of those eloquent speeches that define the characters and put down their peers. Every kid thinks he’s peerless, but L. and M. really are without peers. It’s a cultural mash-up—between immigrants trying to fit in and a closed culture that pulls down those who strive as much as it welcomes them.

Rinabeth Apostol and Tiffany Villarin in “peerless.” Photo: Kevin Berne

“peerless” portrays the quixotic claims of equality and opportunity that U.S. culture seems to offer, but then pulls the rug out. In fact, the so-called elite schools Rule.  Private colleges rule by the power of the pocket book and by our own anti-education elitism. Jiehae Park exposes the hollow claims to fair treatment in a system that dotes on “private” colleges—wheich do not even deliver what they claim.

What happened to the FREE University of California, for example, that we had before Reagan? No one even remembers that the Constitution of the State of California STILL STATES that the Universities in California are legally “FREE.”

Playwright Jiehae Park and Director Margo Bordelon leave no doubt that “the game is rigged.” Sound familiar? You will laugh out loud and then cry out against the lost potential in the rigged anti-educational system on stage and off.

 

“peerless” by Jiehae Park, directed by Margot Bordelon, at Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley, California, through Sunday, April 2, 2017. Info: marintheatre.org

Cast: Rosie Hallett, Rinabeth Apostol, Tiffany Villarin, Cameron Matthews, and Jeremy Kahn.

 

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.

Also check our Recent Shows.

“A View from the Bridge”: Heartfelt, Compelling, at Pear Theatre, Mountain View

“A View from the Bridge”: Heartfelt, Compelling, at Pear Theatre, Mountain View

Arthur Miller’s Italian Immigrant Drama Still Meaningful Today

by Tony Urgo

Arthur Miller’s “A View From The Bridge,” first performed in 1956, is now over 60 years old. The cultural tragedy is that its themes of illegal immigration and social intolerance have returned. These themes resonate strongly in Pear Theatre’s production, but the heart and soul of the story belong to the superb ensemble cast, which brings the characters vividly to life.

Director Ray Renati has infused the production with a naturalism that preserves its setting and tone in 1950s Brooklyn. Renati choreographs the actors to suggest the unseen beyond the minimal set: a home, a family, a town, and a culture that reflect the present and the past. The Brooklyn docks are evoked early on, when two men converse at a corner of the stage under a narrow light. You can almost see the gangways and crates behind them, and the hulking shadow of a freighter.

Marjorie Hazeltine, Richard Holman, Geoff Fiorito, and April Culver in “A View from the Bridge”

Of Italian heritage, Eddie Carbone (Geoff Fiorito) follows the cultural tradition of helping his fellow countrymen get a foothold in America, taking them into his home when they arrive illegally from Italy to find work as fellow dockworkers. Some will stay, seeking citizenship; others will return to Italy, having made enough money to improve their lives. The new arrivals— young, exuberant Rodolpho (Anthony Stephens) and older, quieter Marco (Drew Reitz)—are grateful to the Carbones for their generosity and support. Eddie and his wife Beatrice (Marjorie Hazeltine) welcome them, put them at ease. Eddie and Beatrice advise the immigrants to work hard and keep a low profile and things will work out. Unfortunately, the illegal immigrants run up against an unexpected force in Eddie Carbone, their benefactor.

Although Beatrice embraces her daughter’s first love for the optimistic, and flamboyant Rodolpho, Eddie sees this development as a burgeoning nightmare. At first this appears at odds with all that Eddie is doing for these men, but he grows jealous of Rodolfo and the warmth of welcome dissipates. Arthur Miller has written such a rich and complete character in Eddie, who can be generous and loving, but also selfish and hateful—and Fiorito does justice to the great role. We understand Eddie and cannot hate him, though he does hateful things. Fiorito gives us an Eddie who expresses great warmth, and falls into deep darkness.

Marjorie Hazeltine, Anthony Stephens, April Culver, and Drew Reitz in “A View from the Bridge”

The entire cast is remarkable for their effective and affecting portrayals. Catherine (April Culver), the daughter on the cusp of her adult life, is convincingly swept off her feet by her new love. Though naïve and optimistic, she is also self-aware and more than capable of defending her Rodolfo. Her internal conflict and dilemma becomes palpable when she defies Eddie, to whom she tries to remain loyal.

Beatrice, the practical and dutiful wife and mother to this working class family, in pivotal moments reveals an insight and wisdom into the inner workings of her husband and daughter that they cannot see in themselves. She is the true anchor of the Carbone family and Marjorie Hazeltine’s portrayal is simply riveting.

Miller employs Alfieri (Brian Levi), an immigration lawyer and family friend, as the narrator, acting as a Greek chorus while befriending the Carbones with his forthright counsel. Levi portrays Alfieri with strength, confidence and also a great sympathy for all that transpires.

Geoff Fiorito and Anthony Stevens in “A View from the Bridge” at the Pear Theatre

Supporting this core family are also outstanding performances by Drew Reitz and Anthony Stephens as the older, maturer Marco and the younger, free-spirited Rodolpho. Reitz wears Marco’s solidity and quietness with an assured centeredness as much as Stephens allows all of Rodolpho’s exuberant personality to shine.

Eddie’s buddy Louis (Anthony Silk) and an immigration officer (Rich Holman) are both evocative and familiar. Through them, we see the greater world of Brooklyn, the shipyards, the country.

Though this story is ultimately a tragedy, the remarkable ensemble cast, working on a spare stage in Pear Theatre’s intimate 99-seat space, bring the Carbone family and the people who enter their lives, their home and their street, into our own lives and into our hearts.

Geoff Fiorito, Marjorie Hazeltine, and April Culver in “A View from the Bridge”

“A View From The Bridge” by Arthur Miller, directed by Ray Renati, at The Pear Theatre, Mountain View, through Sunday, April 2, 2017. Info: thepear.org

Cast: April Culver, Geoff (Jeffrey) Fiorito, Marjorie Hazeltine, Rich Holman, Brian Levi, Drew Reitz, Anthony Silk, and Anthony Stephens.

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.

Also check our Recent Shows.

 

“Eclipsed”: Captured Women Seek Path to Liberation, at Curran Theatre, S.F.

“Eclipsed”: Captured Women Seek Path to Liberation, at Curran Theatre, S.F.

Danai Gurira Shines Light on African Patriarchy

by Sydney Roberts

In dark political times, Danai Gurira’s  “Eclipsed,” a wartime herstory from Liberia about five women, brings to light to women’s indomitable resilience and sisterhood.

During Women’s History Month, the elegantly restored Curran Theatre welcomes “Eclipsed,” directed by Leisl Tommy. Tommy directed the award-winning play by TV actress-turned-playwright Danai Gurira. Set in 2003, “Eclipsed” tells the story of five women living in war-torn Liberia, where thousands of Liberian women were taken from their families, left wounded and displaced, and forced into military and sexual bondage.

Ayesha Jordan, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, and Stacey Sargeant in “Eclipsed” at the Curran Theatre

Enslaved by a Liberian warlord, who never appears onstage, the women of “Eclipsed” are raped, beaten, and even stripped of the names their mothers gave them. They refer to one another by labels such as “Wife No. 1” and “Girl.”

The power of naming and identity is apparent in “Eclipsed.” At the end of the show, director Liesl Tommy joined the cast onstage to dedicate the performance to two girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. We all joined in speaking their names aloud and my eyes welled with tears. This powerful shared moment reminds us that the women’s struggles in “Eclipsed” are still with us. We feel the darkness that surrounds mere survival for women and children facing terror, fear, and domination .

Stacey Sargeant,  Ayesha Jordan, and Joniece Abbott-Pratt in “Eclipsed” at the Curran Theatre

The women in “Eclipsed” can only hope to survive day by day while the absent Commander, their captor, rules their lives. Dressed in tattered T-shirts and dirt-stained African fabrics, the women huddle amid the filth of their bullet-ridden hut. We are shocked to find that the natural leader, Wife No. 1 (a convincing Stacey Sargeant) and the pregnant Wife No. 3 (the energetic Joniece Abbott-Pratt) are hiding a 15-year-old girl, who has lost her family. They are concealing the Girl under a plastic tub.

The women can only dream of escaping using cleverness and violence. When the former Wife No. 2 (a commanding Adeola Role) returns as a soldier, hoping to make amends for leaving, she is clad in a hot pink tank top, studded jeans, and military boots. Wife No. 2  is also toting an impressive AK-47. She exudes unfaltering confidence and struts through the hut with a heavy sack of rice over her shoulder, flaunting her biceps and her swagger. No. 2 represents a future for the captive wives: Do they even dare to escape and join her?

Ayesha Jordan, Akosua Busia, and Joniece Abbott-Pratt in “Eclipsed” at the Curran Theater

“Eclipsed” centers around the young Girl  (the talented Ayesha Jordan), as she makes the decision to transition from an innocent child to a desensitized rebel soldier. In the role originated by Lupita Nyong’o, Jordan shows us how Girl grows, moment by moment. She carries her body with uncertainty as a young captive. Like an awkward child, her shoulders slump forward, her knees curve inward, and her eyes wander with a burning curiosity. Girl tries to absorb the reality of women in war, struggling to make the right decisions to survive.

When she chooses to join the rebel army, her persona shifts drastically. In her haunting and emphatic monologue, the Girl recounts a young girl’s gang rape and murder. Her terrible story is the most powerful moment of the show. She thrusts the brutality of the war in our faces.

Stacey Sargeant in “Eclipsed” at the Curran Theatre

For those who have been attending women’s marches and keeping up with the rising resistance against Trump in the Bay Area, “Eclipsed” is a must-see. It is the kind of play we need right now. “Eclipsed” is a rare all-black, all-woman production. Playwright Gurira tells the empowering story of women fighting against patriarchal and tribal rules for their own sexual, personal liberation. Does their isolation resemble what women are facing in the U.S., as well?

Women are still being enslaved, raped, kidnapped—stripped of their basic human rights. “Eclipsed” reminds us that, while we are marching and standing up for equal pay and control of female reproductive rights in the U.S., we are also marching for the thousands of women all over the world who are facing intolerable and inhuman exploitation.

 

“Eclipsed” by Danai Gurira, directed by Leisl Tommy, at The Curran Theater, San Francisco, through Sunday, March 19, 2017. Info: curran-theater/eclipsed

Cast: Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Akosua Busia, Ayesha Jordan, Adeola Role, and Stacey Sargeant.

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.

Also check our Recent Shows.