Arts & Events

Two Theater Reviews: Ibsen's 'A Doll House' in Marin, SubShakes' Burlesque of 'Shakespeare Night at the Blackfriars'

By Ken Bullock
Friday November 15, 2013 - 09:43:00 AM

--A Brilliant Version of Ibsen's 'A Doll House' in Marin

Driving past St. Vincent's School, on the bayside of 101 north of San Rafael, south of Novato, there's a glimpse, as maestro Kent Nagano once put it, of an older, bucolic California, a tableau that could've appeared anywhere along the coast or a few inland waterways in the not-so-distant past. The fields of the Silveira Ranch run to old eucalyptus in the background, with the spire of a Mission-style church visible through them, a former orphanage from Gold Rush days, now a home for abused young people.

There's an auditorium opposite the church, often used by local performing arts groups, where something unusual's being staged right now: a remarkable production of Ibsen's most famous play--one of the most famous plays in the modern repertory--'A Doll House,' 1878, which anatomizes the plight of the housewife with a tightly-wound plot and brilliant, ironic dialogue. Strindberg wrote another masterpiece to answer it, 'Miss Julie,' and 'A Doll House' has served as touchstone for both modern theater (and modern writing in general--for several generations, Ibsen was venerated as a stylist in the manner usually confined to poets and novelists) and awareness of the movement for women's equality ever since. 

Ron Nash, veteran director from the Northeast, who has had a few very good shows to his credit in North Bay community theater since he retired here awhile back, has taken on Ibsen's masterwork with fresh, immediate insight, rejecting the translations he read as awkward, finally making his own adaptation (Nash is also a playwright) that is unusually close to the bone, or--to put it differently--cuts to the chase, taking the colloquial Norwegianisms academically rendered in many translations as dead weight, jettisoning them, but embodying their meaning in the characters' action. 

And this is a very active production from the start, thanks to the ceaseless energy of Stephanie Ann Foster in the role of Nora, constantly bustling up and down her parlor, entertaining all as the songbird, the busy little squirrel her husband Torvald (Gabriel Ross) describes her as--and every second displaying new facets of the hidden anxiety and inventiveness that have kept her household afloat, albeit based on deception and self-deception. 

I've seen many versions of this masterwork onstage, and all repay the cast and audience based on how much honest artistry, professional or amateur, is lavished on 'A Doll House.' Maybe that's part of the definition of an authentic great work. But I don't recall any which opened up the story, the characters, every bit of activity, every pause to such a world of meaning at every moment. That's the real action of theater, and this is great theater in every sense. Director, cast (Foster, Ross, Bill McClave, Jim McFadden, Kelsey Sloan, Lynn Sotos, Amanda Lipari Maxson, Izzi Lipari Maxson, Kia Wahl) and the members and volunteers of Marin Onstage, from producer Gary Gonser, through Paul Abbott, Diane Pickell-Gore, Frank Sarubbi, Nancy Bodan-Gonser and Rick Banghart, who all have brought it so much to life, deserve a bow--a true triumph of ensemble theater. It more than rewards the drive out to this beautiful spot across the Richmond Bridge. 

Thursday through Saturday at 8, Sunday at 3, through November 17. Little Theater at St. Vincent's, 1 St. Vincent's Drive, San Rafael. Tickets: $10-$18. (415) 448-6152; 

--The Bard Upside-Down, Inside-Out by SubShakes 

What happens when you put seven zanies onstage as great Jacobean playwrights (well, one is the ghost of an Elizabethan), plus actors, a minstrel, all charged to perform something quintessentially 21st century, like make one minute plays from the Swan of Avon's unparalleled outpourings? 

The results are onstage, right now, by Berkeley's own Subterranean Shakespeare, albeit in a theater near Union Square, playing George Crowe's 'Shakespeare Night at the Blackfriars, London Idol, 1610,' which refers to an indoor theater managed by The Bard's old leading man, Richard Burbage, played by SubShakes producer Geoffrey Pond, presiding over the madness ... Jeffrey Trescott, Debi Durst, Michael Walraven, Mantra Plonsey, Amy Lizardo and Maureen Coyne (with live, onstage music by Cindy Webster) rage through plays-within-plays, roles-within-roles, leaving nary an eyeball unrolled, pratfall unturned, as they behave like what a few great dramatists swaggering out of the Mermaid Tavern after a few in a time of plague would've been wont to ... 

The play itself is one of the many that have come whizzing down the pike since the Stoppard-scripted movie 'Shakespeare in Love' waved the green flag ... 

The fun's in the moment-to-moment burlesque, the knock down, drag out inventiveness of the company. Crowe's play will either delight Shakespeare nitpickers or make them gnash their teeth at the rush of anachronisms, the flood of styles he subjects the Bard's plots and conceits to, sometimes with a zest for verbal cleverness. 

After years of producing staged readings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the good news is that SubShakes has essayed a full-length play, directed by Robert Currier, longtime artistic director of Marin Shakespeare and other Bardic enterprises, but as much a certifiable zany as any in his cast. 

Friday and Saturday at 8, Sunday at 7 through November 17, Phoenix Theatre Annex, 4th Floor, Native Sons Building, 414 Mason (near Geary), downtown San Francisco. $20-$25. (510) 270-3871;