Friday, February 23, 2007

Erik Rhea, Katherine Bickford, Sarah Daum and Calder
Johnson rehearsing Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 at HSU.
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On the North Coast

Cloud 9 at HSU

Opening night of the HSU production of Cloud 9 answered some of the questions posed and implied in my previous post. Would this production be funny? Would it solve the second act problem? The answer in both cases is yes.

The Thursday night audience was about half the capacity of Gist, but the laughter was there. Even for those who might have been somewhat bewildered or dismayed by the lifestyles portrayed and point of view expressed, there was enough showmanship and built-in comedy of (in particular) males playing females that the author's intended style--comic--could take hold anyway. And there were enough people in the audience whose laughter was raucous and infectious to bouy that mood. That permission to laugh is important, because it provides access to the deeper sources of humor, and without that the play loses half its life and much of its general humanity.

In my previous experience of the play and in reviews of other productions I've read, I've found that the second act has been difficult to carry off successfully. The HSU production did it partly with a crisp pace and directness. But I suspect it succeeded also because the first act was not as funny as it could be.

The second act problem may be inherent in the difference between the two acts. The Victorians in Africa of the first act are so hypocritical and unconscious that they can easily be played as hysterically funny caricactures. But in the second act, set in modern London, the characters are "liberated," conscious--and very self-conscious-- of sex and gender roles and freedom, and the comedy is more ironic (though there is a scene or two of farce.) The problem is that the comic potential of the first act is so extreme that the second act will pale by comparison.

In this production, though, the temptation to make the first act as hysterically hilarious as it could be is avoided, and so there isn't the great letdown with the lower octane comedy of the second act. The play works better as a whole. If this was the director's intention, it works great. If it wasn't, it works great anyway.

That's also important because there are moments of drama and shocking intensity in both acts, that can have a revelatory effect in the midst of comedy, but not in the midst of tedium.

I also wrote about accents in that last post, and I'm pleased to report that on the whole they work well here. There is a contemporary middle class lilt to them in Act II--particularly Tisha Sloane's--and an appropriate contrast to the more formal dictions of the Imperial Victorians in Act I.

The characters in both acts are extreme, yet very human. While I mentioned Churchill's irony, seeing the second act reminds me how that irony is grounded in her humanity. The most touching moment for me was the conversation between the gay young man (whose speech about his promiscuous lifestyle may remind us that this play was written before AIDS) and the mother of the man he had been living with. Though fraught with misunderstandings and revelations, it ends up in a simple friendship beyond age, gender or sex. (It also seems very English.)

Opening night jitters aside, the cast was uniformly entertaining. Erik Rhea was a crowd favorite as the colonial wife, Betty, and his switch to Edward, the gay son who decides he's a Lesbian, was also very well and sympathetically performed. Tisha Sloane had a lot of quick changes of clothes and character in the first act, and a difficult role in the second--she was excellent throughout, with real depth to her characterization of Victoria in Act II.

By giving us real characters quickly, Sarah Daum, Katherine Bickford, Alex Gradine, Missy Hopper and Calder Johnson not only gave audiences what they needed to enter the play, they provided the great after-effect of musing on the connections between the characters they played in Act I with those they played in Act II. They are also to be saluted for their courage in taking on these parts and bringing the energy and commitment to them that brought them alive. Gradine had one monster speech, unlike anything else in the play, and he delivered it effectively. Perhaps even more impressively, The older Betty in Act II also had long speeches which verge on dithering at first, but her sincerity becomes something of the moral center of the play. So Katherine Bickford had to walk a fine line to make her credible, which she admirably did.

The set design, the music (especially the singing), lighting and the other elements of the production all worked to create these twin imagined worlds. Once you get used to his characteristic style of placing actors at a distance from each other to essentially declaim their lines, all the better to make stage pictures and navigate symbolic spaces, John Heckel's direction works well for this play. I thought he'd lost a lot of the bitter comedy in Brecht's Mother Courage last year with this style, but here it works, at least in conjunction with the non-Brechtian acting this cast accomplishes. I'm not sure the added cross-casting of Martin in Act II worked to fully illuminate that character and his role in the melange, but that amounts to a quibble.

Win, lose or draw, HSU productions bring plays and styles of theatre that aren't otherwise available on the North Coast. Theatre here would really be unbalanced and incomplete without it.

Cloud 9 continues at HSU on Saturday (Feb. 24) and next weekend, Thursday through Saturday (March 1-3) at 7:30 in Gist Hall Theatre.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Stage Matters Online

Caryl Churchill
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Stage Matters Online

Equal Opportunity Humor

by William S. Kowinski

Caryl Churchill, author of Cloud 9, which will be presented at HSU beginning this week, is that anomaly of the celebrity age: an unknown major playwright. Tony Kushner has called her the greatest living English playwright, and her plays are done often in North America, not only in places with San Francisco values (like San Francisco), but (this spring alone) at the University of Pittsburgh and my alma mater, Knox College in downstate Illinois.

Still, “everybody knows Tom Stoppard but hardly anyone knows Caryl Churchill,” said the artistic director of a Philadelphia theatre which completed a Stoppard play and was beginning a Churchill festival. The comparison is apt, since they both hit the British theatre scene at about the same time, in the heady, flashy, London swings, everything-is-possible, late 1960s. Some of their differences may also suggest why Churchill is less known: she was more experimental, more openly collaborative, more political from the beginning, and more pioneering and radical in the ideas she played with. She was also the first woman playwright to be produced at the Royal Court Theatre, which became her artistic home.

That’s also meant that most discussion of Churchill has been in the various academic permutations of gender studies, cultural semiotics and political analysis. But while her plays have taken the lead in consciously and courageously confronting such issues, what often gets lost in all the ideology and specialized jargon is what a skilled, daring, energetic, witty and generous playwright she is.

I’ve had a good time reading some of her plays this week. There’s quite a variety--she wrote contemporary and historical dramas and comedies, radio and television plays, adaptations, stage plays that emphasized movement or song as well as those that depended on dialogue, etc. But what stands out about them all is how she expresses the irony of real life.

One difficulty may be that her plays are notoriously hard to stage. I’ve seen three productions, one of Mad Forest and two of Cloud 9, including its original New York staging, directed by Tommy Tune. I remember that production as having a dynamite first act, and a confusing second act. Cloud 9 is especially difficult because the two acts are so different: the first (which takes place in 19th century colonial Africa) verges on caricature, while the second (in modern London) is more naturalistic in tone.

Part of the problem may be the language difference. (Don’t laugh—one Churchill play was partly inspired by the different pronunciation of “ice cream” in England and America.) English English depends a great deal on class, place and time period. While the Brits in Act I may adopt upper class accents of the Queen’s English because they represent England in an African outpost of the Empire, they are basically middle class. If they were nobility, they wouldn’t be posted deep in the heart of darkness. The characters in Act II are openly urban middle class, and so their accents aren’t of the posh Masterpiece Theatre sort.

This may be difficult for Americans to grasp, but it affects the rhythms. It also reflects the differences of the characters: those in Act I are pretending and repressing, with tragic and hilarious results, while those in Act II (metaphorically the grown-up children of Act I) are aware of the issues and are trying to deal with them, though with residual and therefore hilarious bits of unconsciousness. That the second act takes place on a playground suggests the innocence and exploration of new roles and rules across generations, as well as anticipating pratfalls.

[text continues after photo]

Tisha Sloane in the HSU production of Cloud 9.
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Caryl Churchill Continued

Certainly the content of gender identity and sexual repression as it relates to political power and social violence created difficulties for audiences in the 80s, when this play premiered over here. Men playing women pretending to be men was a Shakespearian era convention, but Churchill used gender-bending casting to explore and confront these issues. But even with the alarming ascent of reactionary fundamentalism, audiences today are better prepared to see what Churchill is getting at, and to get the jokes.

On the other hand, I can appreciate the weariness of those who feel they are constantly being told that the world is so awful because of people of their color, class, gender and/or sexuality. What I especially appreciate about Churchill is that I never feel demonized, and in the sense of trying to be part of the solution, I never feel excluded. I think this is partly due to how she links gender and racial prejudices to sexual repression generally, which seems accurate, and it makes the play more universal. But mostly I’m guessing it’s the irony in her writing and stagecraft. Irony is an equal opportunity deflator and illuminator.

The HSU production of Cloud 9, directed by John Heckel, begins in the Gist Hall Theatre this Thursday for a two-weekend run. If you are automatically offended by bad words, outrageous ideas and sexual situations in unconventional permutations, don’t go. You can find more information at, including comments by the director. I put the blog together as the HSU Theatre, Film & Dance department publicist. The views expressed there represent the department. The views expressed here, as always, represent nobody but me.

Jeff De Mark
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On the North Coast

Coming Up

Tonight (2/20) is your last chance to see The Duelist presented by Sanctuary Stage at Mazzotti's on the Plaza, for dinner at 6:30 and the show at 8. But you can still catch the show at Arts Alive! on March 3rd at 8pm at the Eureka Theatre, Film and Concert Center.

Singing, dancing and cartwheels in The Glories of Gloria, a solo show by Mooky (Kathleen Cornish) presented by Four on the Floor Theater, plays at the Arcata Playhouse Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 23-25 at 8 PM, and moves to Beginnings in Garberville on March 2 and 3…Teens from around the county are participating in Ferndale Rep’s Hamlet Through the Looking Glass, from March 1 to March 11…Jeff DeMark is reprising his Writing My Way Out of Adolescence in the HSU Studio Theatre as a benefit for HSU technical theatre students, on March 9 and 10 at 7:30.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Michael Frayn
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Booking the Stage

The Human Touch

Here in America, land of geographically and socially separated enclaves of experts where only one "brand" per person is permitted, British writer Michael Frayn would be not only an anomaly but a suspicious character. As a playwright, he wrote "Noises Off," the international hit that critic Frank Rich called "the funniest play written in my lifetime," and "Copenhagen," a drama about quantum physicists, another international hit. Frayn is also an accomplished journalist, novelist, translator, screenwriter and writer of nonfiction, including philosophy, of which "The Human Touch" is the latest example. Moreover, it is not the "how to win friends" or just "how to win" sort of philosophy, but serious analysis of what we know and how we know it, particularly concerning the nature of scientific knowledge, as well as the nature of reality.

For more on Michael Frayn's new book, click here for my review in today's San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

This is how I remember Lloyd Richards and August Wilson,
in his O'Neill uniform, pictured here under the signature old oak
at the O''Neill Center in Waterford, CN.
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First Principles

Lloyd Richards' Fading Dream

In years past, this would be the season that playwrights would be waiting to hear whether they had been selected to participate in the summer National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Waterford, Conn. To say this is a month-long experience of crafting new plays and discovering new playwrights with the participation of of some of America's best theatre artists only hints at the magic that happened there. That used to happen there.

When I spent a couple of weeks there in 1991, on assignment to Smithsonian Magazine (an expanded version of my article is on the web here), there was some worry about the conference's future. But as long as the late Lloyd Richards was in charge, it was one of the most important places in American theatre, both in the nurturing of new writing (writers I met there have since become major voices in TV and film as well as regional and New York theatre) and in reaffirming the best ideals and practices of American theatre. One of the many New York actors who returned there every year described it as "renewing my vows."

But for the past few years I've watched from afar as the summer conference has deteriorated. They've had a couple of artistic directors since Richards' retired, at least one of them leaving under a cloud. Last spring-- a few months before Lloyd Richards died--the new artistic director, 31 year old Wendy Goldberg, gave an interview in American Theatre. Her quotes, and some statements in the story which seem to be based on impressions and information the writer got from her, suggests how far the O'Neill has strayed, and for my money, fallen. An article in the latest issue of The Dramatist suggests the situation is even worse.

For many years, Lloyd Richards was the head of Yale Drama and artistic director of the O''Neill's playwright conference. Richards directed the first New York production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun in 1957, arguably the first authentic portrayal of African American life on the American stage. But in his years of directing and discovering and nurturing playwrights of all races, his most important find was August Wilson, who created the richest and most sustained expression of African American life in the twentieth century, and in doing so, became a great American playwright. Richards discovered him when, after several years of his entries being rejected, August Wilson sent Ma Rainey's Black Bottom to the O'Neill.

But August Wilson wasn't the only discovery. The fledgling playwrights who spent July at the O'Neill included Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare, Christopher Durang, David Henry Hwang, Lee Blessing, Charles Fuller and Lanford Wilson. For two weeks, a playwright's script was the center of attention by a director, a dramaturg, a designer--all accomplished professionals--and professional actors, which might well include Obie, Tony or even Oscar winners. Writers could rewrite as much or as little as they wanted, and everyone was ready and eager to make changes, even between the two performances each play received. Everyone in the summer community attended every play, and everyone was invited to carefully organized critiques a day or so later.

Lloyd Richards was the heart and soul of the O'Neill, so important to many American playwrights. He transformed it into a community concentrating on honing and freeing new voices in theatre. He was utterly respected by everyone, for his discipline and gentleness, his rigor and humor, his attentiveness to detail and insistence on communicating the big picture, so everyone knew and shared the same vision of the O'Neill process.

For four decades, the O'Neill had a policy of open submissions: anybody could send a script and it would be considered. Without such a policy, it's doubtful that many if not most of the new voices the O'Neill discovered and nurtured would have had a chance, and that seems especially true for its most important discovery: August Wilson.

A few years ago, the new regime tried to change that, and limit submissions to pre-selected playwrights. There was a hue and cry and unsolicited scripts were again considered, though in a narrower time frame, and with conditions that made entering a pretty pricey proposition. Goldberg reinstated open submissions, and though I don't know the exact rules and regs this year, statements that she makes in the interview suggest the situation hasn't really returned to what it was."We've had 800 submissions this year, a record amount of plays," Goldberg is quoted as saying.

First of all, unless she is judging them by weight, she probably meant "a record number of plays." But even that is simply false, and by quite a lot. There were some 1500 scripts submitted for the 1991 conference, according to Lloyd Richards, and confirmed by others that summer.

There were also 12 playwrights chosen for 1991, although I believe they had previously hosted 14, but budget shortfalls forced both fewer playwrights and an altered schedule--the pre-conference in the spring, during which the playwrights spend a couple of days simply each reading their plays aloud, had to be folded into the summer conference.

But the conference in 2006 hosted but eight playwrights, and one of them did not emerge from the regular submissions process. Moreover, this play was "workshopped" before a scheduled production in Atlanta, something that Richards' resisted. He didn't want the O'Neill to become a venue tied to specific productions elsewhere.

The Dramatist article (by Steven Ginsberg) shows that the O'Neill has become even more restrictive for this summer. He writes that of the eight spots in 2007, two are pre-determined, one to the Alliance Theater and another to the Abbey Theater in Dublin. A third is devoted to a Theater for Youth Project, and a fourth "is taken by an established playwright who was likely 'not in competition'". Ginsberg conjectures this year one of these is "awarded to a playwright wth commissions from several major theatres" and another to a new play by the playwright who authored the Youth Project play. He reckons that unsolicted submissions are actually vying for two spots.

In the Richards era, it wasn't unusual for playwrights who had been at the conference before to return with a new play. In fact, that was part of the culture of the place--and the new playwrights learned from the O'Neill veterans. But the year I visited at least half of the playwrights were new to the O'Neill, and several didn't have much in the way of significant productions in their resumes. (Ginsberg's article is ostensibly about whether it is worth it to unproduced playwrights to pay the fees to enter contests, of which the O'Neill has traditionally been the gold standard. He mentions that the O'Neill's fee is relatively high, at $35. It used to be much less. But what he doesn't mention is that the O'Neill, which used to require only one copy of the script, requires several bound copies now--a few years ago it was 5--which could easily push the cost of submitting a script to more than $100.)

In the Richards era, the O'Neill was about the playwright and the play, and nothing else. That clearly is no longer true. Goldberg had done away with the system Richards instituted (and which other places copied) of simple, modular sets and basic production values, and script-in-hand performance, so that playwrights could change things right up to the minute of production, based on what they learned in their creative collaboration with all the others involved.

In defending the use of more elaborate sets and production values for some plays, Goldberg says that "each play is different" which is a truism but also signifies the distinct possibility that some plays are going to be favored in light of imminent productions elsewhere. In fact, before Richards took over and even early in his tenure, there were such elaborate productions. He put a stop to them because of all the chaos they caused. Being so close to New York, the O'Neill always had the pressure of New York producers coming up to shop for new plays, and the more elaborate productions gave some plays an unfair advantage, and the competition and commercialism threatened to swamp the festival as a place to help playwrights find their voices and make the best scripts possible. So he went to the strict rules of simple sets, and the same basic production values for all plays.

The critique system Richards set up is also slandered in the article, as some sort of vicious punishment visited upon the victimized playwright. I don't know what they were like in later years, but when I was there, Richards himself made sure these sessions were positive. He spoke before every one of them, about their purpose and how they fit into the larger purpose of the conference.

Through design and through his presence, authority and leadership, Lloyd Richards created a sense of the process as almost sacred, as touching the foundations of theatre and theatrical creativity and collaboration. That's why the actor I met, who did a lot of TV playing cops and criminals (an awful lot of O'Neill actors show up in episodes of Law & Order, a series co-created by an O'Neill playwright) described his participation as "renewing my vows." The O'Neill was so important to so many people in the theatre, and so treasured, because it was a kind of temporary monastery (with a lot of un-monklike--or nunlike--behavior, to be sure) for the kind of pure creative process that the theatre needs. If it has succumbed to whatever pressures and necessities, or to poor judgment, then theatre will suffer for it, and so will playwrights.

While a new generation of administrators has every right to their own vision, and certainly a responsibility to respond to today's realities, they might try respecting what made the O'Neill a living legend in world theatre. And the people who created it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

On the North Coast

Club Shampoo, the potpouri event inaugurating the Arcata Playhouse, played to a full house Saturday night. It was a real community event, from the children and teenagers in the audience, to the conversation in line about a memorial service for someone who had recently died. The audience seemed to know all the performers, and the performers knew each other. There was a lot of affection expressed for hosts Jackie Dandeneau and David Ferney.

There was music (including some sharply political songs from Joyce Hough and Fred Neighbor), clowning (the Los Payasos Mendigos duo) and two brief stories by Jeff DeMark that gave voice to the moral essence of the venture. Everyone seemed happy to see this Arcata venue back in business. Carole Wolfe, director of Vagabond, told me that they've already received several solid inquiries about renting the space. Jackie announced that donations to Four on the Floor Productions would be matched dollar for dollar by the Humboldt Area Foundation.

Among the attendees was Michael Fields, co-AD of Dell'Arte, back from the Company's travels, which included a five week gig at the Marin Theatre, doing eight shows a week of a version of Tartuffe developed in Blue Lake, which he hopes to present locally at part of this summer's festival.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Birth of the Arcata Playhouse

In cities across the country big and small, new artistic energies have often found focus in abandoned industrial districts, where fine old buildings with lots of space offer opportunities for lofts, studios and performance venues, plus the people-oriented businesses that come to surround them.

Now and again the old Creamery in Arcata, in the largely depopulated and marginal area west of K Street, has suggested this potential. It hosts the Arcata Ballet, DanceCenter and New World Youth Ballet, with spaces for rehearsal, classes and performances. Years ago, the legendary Pacific Arts Center Theatre began here. Still, it hasn't reached the critical mass to transform the area into a familiar audience destination.

But there are signs that may be changing -- specifically, a new sign in front saying "Arcata Playhouse," and new paint being applied to the foyer last week from a tall ladder to which is affixed a small red teddy bear.

Though the fresh paint outside and inside is only the first step in the planned transformation, this venue's potential is being suggested and perhaps tested with a gala opening event this Saturday, featuring local luminaries such as Rudi Galindo, Jeff DeMark, Joyce Hough and Fred Neighbor, and hosted by the couple that comprises one-third of the partnership attempting to create a viable and affordable playhouse for theatre, music and other forms of performance, with a family emphasis and a community reach.

They are Jackie Dandeneau and David Ferney, whose Four on the Floor Productions is partnering with Shoebox Puppet Company (Corey Stevens, owner of Muddy's Hot Cup) and Vagabond Players, which most recently operated the space as the Stargarden Theatre.

Pacific Arts Center Theatre had spawned Vagabond, which struggled on after PACT faded away. But true to its name, it was homeless in 2005 when Carole Wolfe, its volunteer artistic director, called the Creamery looking for storage space.  Instead she found Vagabond's new home, in the same place where PACT had begun some 30 years before.

Other groups also used the space (including Four on the Floor) but this summer Vagabond had fallen several months behind in the rent.  That's when Dandeneau and Ferney put together the partnership and became the venue's managers.  Now all three enterprises--Four on the Floor, Shoebox Puppets and Vagabond--have a home, and the rent is split three ways.

Ferney and Dandeneau are Dell'Arte people.  Ferney graduated from the school about 20 years ago, and became a member of the locally famous family comic acrobatic troupe, Los Payasos Mendigos.  The troupe traveled far and wide, which is how he met Dandeneau at the Edmonton Fringe Festival.  She was with a traveling feminist sketch comedy group called Full Figure Theatre.

"We would hook up in New Zealand, and hang out together in England," Ferney recalled.  "Meanwhile, I was living in San Francisco and she was in Vancouver.  Finally we realized we would either have to shack up or call it quits."

They chose the former, moved to Pender Island between Vancouver and Victoria, started a small theatre company, and a family.  Then Dell'Arte called, and hired them both.

They recently began branching out to produce shows through Four in the Floor, which brought them to the Stargarden Theatre, and to the managing partnership of the Arcata Playhouse.  Noting the couple's professional experience, Ferney said, "I'm interested in exploring a hybrid of professional and community theatre."

Upgrading the space is a major goal.  "Getting a decent lighting and sound system, some decent drapes, figuring out the best seating arrangement," Ferney said.  "Corey is a great partner because he just took over that cafe, and he's really interested in getting concessions together, and taking care of all that.  So we want to elevate the venue and make it a happening place in Arcata."

"I'm excited," Carole Wolfe professed in the Playhouse lobby, paint roller in hand.  "There's all this new energy--it's fun again!"

The Playhouse is going forward with a performance later this month by Mookie Cornish (Cirque de Soleil clown and Dell'Arte grad) and Faust Mask Works from Toronto in May.  Synapsis, which is temporarily displaced from its Eureka home, is one of what they hope will be many local groups to perform here.

David and Jackie talked enthusiastically about the possibilities, especially for family-oriented shows and filling community needs, such as a place for young people and seniors to hold performance events.

But they're also thinking of adult theatre--the kind the Pacific Arts Center Theatre used to do.  "I've met a lot of people who are really excited about the rejuvenation of the old PACT space," Jackie said.  "I'd like to do a PACT-style show, with some of the actors who were involved in it."

"You know, pretty much anything is possible, once you've got the space," David observed.  "You might be thinking, 'Oh, I've always wanted to do Ionesco's Rhinoceros, so why not?"

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The TV Stage

Tom Stoppard is the guest on Charlie Rose tonight (Wednesday). His latest play, Rock & Roll is about the revolution that ultimately led to his fellow playwright, Vaclev Havel, becoming president of the Czech Republic. Stoppard was himself exiled from Czechslovakia as a child. One of Stoppard's earlier plays--one of his "adaptations"--called On the Razzle--is being produced as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival season.

When not pre-empted, Charlie Rose is seen at 11 p. on KEET.
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Thursday, February 1, 2007

This Week's Column

Jake's Women

There's a particular interest in a writer seeing a play about a writer who is too much the observer and not enough the participant in his own life, especially when one is among those reviewers who began as a participant in theatre -- as a playwright, actor, director and even a song composer, and whose role now is as journalist and judge.

Well, when you get a role, play it.

The column--a review of Jake's Women at the North Coast Rep-- continues here at the North Coast Journal. Sneak preview: I liked the performances and the production more than the play itself.

Other reviews of this show are Barry Blake's in the Times-Standard, and Wendy Butler's in the Eureka Reporter. Barry went past Jake as a writer to see a more universal message in his fantasizing, and as usual integrated his description of the story with choice evaluative comments--he especially complimented the costume design. I'm not sure he liked the play any better than I did, though. Wendy was even more bothered by the accent that I was--actually I thought Michael Thomas had arrived at a more stable New York accent by the second act; in the first act it was hard to tell whether he was supposed to be from Boston or Brooklyn. And it wasn't just him in the first act. I'm guessing they got it together in later shows.