Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Verbal Sparring in NCR’S “Ben Butler” Reminds Me of Some Great Tennis Matches I’ve Seen.

Richard Strand’s “Ben Butler” now on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach through November 14th is referred to as an historical play. It’s a comedy, deals with slavery and Civil War conundrums. In fact, the blunders and convoluted legal gyrations (he was a lawyer in civilian life) surrounding Major General Benjamin Butler’s very short stint in the Union Army are actually one for the books.

Richard Baird and Brandon J. Pierce (photos by Aaron Rumley 

The fun begins first shot fired out of the box and the bantering gets hot and heavy when Butler tells Kelly that the telegram he just received informed him that Virginia seceded from the Union whereupon Kelly tells Butler that there is a Negro slave (actually there are three) in the compound (Fort Monroe in Virginia at the start of the Civil War) ‘demanding’ to speak to the Major. 

They go on for about ten or so minutes on who and what the runaway slave is doing in his fort. Does he have a name? And why doesn’t Butler know who is in his compound.? 

They move on for several more minutes about who has a right to ‘demand’ anything of the Major when finally, Mallory the now 'free slave' is brought in to see the major and for some reason Butler gets to stammering and stuttering with Mallory in the room and tells him to call him Ben.

The whole setup is quite funny while dealing with the very serious and human dilemma of slavery and what to do now that the slave is a ‘free slave’ and the complications that go along with that. Eventually Butler comes up with a plan once again, convoluted, to keep Mallory in the 'Union' fort.

Bruce Turk, Brian Mackeyand Richard Baird

Butler, played with expertise by Richard Baird, uses his commanding voice to frighten the bejuses out of his West Point befuddled Lieutenant Kelly, Butler’s adjunct (Brian Mackey), and turn the tables on the Confederate, most sure of himself, Major Cary (Bruce Turk.) 

The only one standing up to the Major General is the runaway slave Shepard Mallory (Brandon J. Pierce), who has nothing to lose but his life.  He wants asylum to escape death. To convine Butler even more Mallory shows Butler the scars on his back for having a 'different opinion'.


Brian Mackey, Richard Baird and Brandon J. Pierce

How they get around keeping Mallory, and what ensues along the way including the arrival of Major Cary to claim ‘his’ slave is a feast of words fit for a courtroom lawyer. Under artistic director David Ellenstein, who always has a twinkle in his eyes, Major Butler becomes a bigger than life character even though, as mentioned above his time in the military was short, and not very successful, his over the top wrangling is more than a footnote. * 

I recommend you watch Mackey’s facial expressions. They are worth more than words. 

Bruce Turk is perfect as the snotty Confederate Major. I’ll let you see for yourselves what Butler does to him. 

Pierce, making his NCR debut (hopefully he’ll come back) manages to meet Baird (Butler) on his terms word for word: “You are an arrogant oddity!” and Mallory retorts “So are you!” No minced words here. 

Set designer Marty Burnett designed the simple set consisting of a desk, chair, a cabinet against the windows for the Major’s favorite drink, sherry. To make a play like this work, both cast, crew and director have to work in harmony. 

Baird who has appeared and directed several shows at NCR is excellent as the Major. He can turn on the charm as fast as looking like he’s ready to strangle someone. He’s most convincing including his physical look that shows him at least 30 or so pounds heavier with half balding head (Renetta Lloyd, costumes and Kathleen Kenna makeup artist.) Philip Korth is credited for props and Matthew Novotny, lighting. Last but not least Aaron Rumley is stage manager and sound designer, 

If history and high stakes legal sparring is your game, I recommend you get into the action as both spectator and witness. 

*Butler went on to two terms in the US Congress as an anti-war Democrat and serving as the Governor of Massachusetts. He even ran for President. But that was a no go. After his short time as a Union soldier, Butler’s life was anything boring. He opposed President Johnson’s reconstruction agenda and was the house manager in the Johnson impeachment proceedings. As Chairman of the House Committee on Reconstruction, Butler authored Ku Klux Act of 1871 and   co-authored the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1875.

"Ben Butler” runs through November 14, 2021 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

Shows Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m.

Tickets:; (858) 481-1055

Masks and proof of vaccination required. 

Monday, October 25, 2021

Cynthia Gerber Rises to the Occasion in Lamb’s “The Bell of Amherst”

 Emily Dickinson wore many titles, least of all ‘poet’ until her death in 1886. During her lifetime she penned 1800 poems of which 10 were published. She was often called a recluse and eccentric. She lived in isolation with her parents, her brother Austin, whom she adored and her sister Lavinia. She refused to answer the door when someone approached, instead looked out the window to see who was calling. She dressed in all white, and during her later years stayed pretty much alone in her room. While most of her communications were through letter writing, her wish was that they be burned after her death.

At one time Ms. Dickinson predicted she would be “The Belle of Amherst” (“I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don’t doubt that I will have crowds of admirers at that age” Emily Dickinson Museum*) even though she attended but only one dance and that was at her high school dance, where it seems, all her romantic inclinations were dashed when the young man she had eyes on, asked about her sister, Lavinia. But that didn’t mean that she wasn’t a romantic. Her poems and future meetings with men of interest in the literary world, tell us so.

Playwright William Luce's (“There is a mystical energy, an inner tone in her writings,” Mr. Luce wrote in the author’s note to “Belle,”) in “The Belle of Amherst” that debuted in 1976. (It became Julie Haris' signature role). The one woman show at Lamb's is just as moving, a little less somber, with Gerber in the role, as the one I watched on TV with Harris.) This one runs about 100 minutes and  captures the essence of Dickinson including several of her short poems and how her mind works in selecting a topic or words to express her ideas.

Lamb’s Players Theatre artistic director Robert Smyth chose this particular play with seasoned actor Cynthia Gerber to open their 75th season and celebrate the reopening of the theatre after an absence of almost two years as a result of the pandemic. A wise choice in both circumstances. 

Ms. Gerber, who wanted to do this show over twenty years ago, is now up to the task for the role as a more mature and seasoned actor according to Smyth. She has the chops, the experience, the nuances and the credibility, agility and personality to portray Emily in every way beginning with her approaching the audience and offering them her favorite recipe for her chocolate cake. 

A great ice breaker. 

In that period of 100 minutes (without intermission), she flitts back and forth from one side of the stage to another, designed with Maple trees in full fall colors in the background to a sparsely designed interior by Mike Buckley. Buckley is also credited for the lighting design. Projections on a set of drapes in the background gave way to Michael McKeon’s projections of family members to particular words that interested Dickinson.  Jemima Dutra designed Ms. Gerber’s white outfit and Deborah Gilmour Smyth is credited for the sound design.

Gerber begins unraveling Dickinson's life, racing, in some instances, from one thought to another in no particular order. We do learn of her parents, her siblings, her nosey neighbors, her dear friends to little tid- bits of her community in Amherst, Mass where he father was a lawyer and served in Congress to her poems that really revealed her innermost thoughts. 

If ever a role was custom made for a solo actor, Ms. Gerber embodies that role. She’s affable, joyous, oft times sad and morbid, yet reflective. In other words, she too is having a good time with Emily as was everyone in the audience the night I attended.

I give it a two -thumbs up!

Photos by T.J. MacMillan

“The Belle of Amherst” plays through November 14, 2021 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave. in Coronado. Masks and proof of vaccination required.

For tickets: (619) 437-6000 or

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

“Shutter Sisters” Opens Globe’s Theatre in The Round

 Unlike the sisters in “Mineola Twins” by Paula Vogel recently seen at Moxie Theater,, “Shutter Sisters” by Mansa Ra now in a world premiere production in the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Mykal (Terry Burrell and Michael (Shana Wride), there is no outward look-a-like resemblance to even suggest that the two have anything in common save they share the same name, different spelling.  No. Mykal (“my mom must have wanted a boy”) and Michael have something they share that siblings from the same family rarely think about: adoption. 

OH, it’s coincidental that they both work at a Shirley Shutter Sore in Atlanta, selling shutters of all makes and brands, What else? The locations of their respective stores are on opposite ends of the city so in essence, they never met.

Mykal is black and Michael is white. Both have been divorced. One has a daughter, the other is childless both are in their fifties, both have been adopted and both have a story to tell

Shana Wride and Terry Burrell

And tell their stories, they do, of their parallel lives in search of their identity.

Set in the round, each of the M’s tell their respective stories without ever looking at the other. Director Donya K. Washington has them talking to the audience most of the time. 

 Michael tells us she has two brothers. She did not know she was adopted but was aware that she didn’t look anything like her siblings or parents. Hers is a story of conflict and not feeling as if she belonged. Frustrated and lonely her mission was to find her birth mother and her place in her life after one of her brothers blurted out that she was adopted. This happened at their mother’s funeral.

Mykal, on the other hand, grew up in a loving family. She succeeded in getting ahead in business and knew the ropes to fit in.  She was smart, aggressive and witty. Her biggest fault was in not seeing through the dangers of hooking up with the wrong guy (“He was trouble, but I didn’t mind a little trouble”) who ultimately left her on her own only to have her move back in with her mother. She overcompensated by spoiling her daughter to death only to be spurned by her. 

Both M’s needed a connection.

In telling their stories Ra has framed a series of monologues designed to fit each personality and both actors embrace their stories with pathos, humor, sadness, pride, regrets and humbleness.  Both are excellent, but the simple truth is that Burrell has the lion’s share of the of the funny and clever lines and tells them with pizazz. Wride’s share of the stories are told in a self -questioning, sort of apprehsive but determined tone.   


Wilson Chin’s set is filled with moving boxes of all sizes and shaped as if someone were moving in or out of someplace. Kara Harmon designed the Shirley Shutters aprons and Zach Murphy designed the effective lighting. Sound is always a challenge in the round. Inevitably someone’s back is facing you and mikes would be appropriate. That would be my suggestion. Sound designer Chris Lane is in charge so it is what it is.  

Ra’s “Shutter Sisters” does give food for thought along the spectrum, adopted or not. There’s always that unanswered question of what helps determine who we become, Nature vs. Nurture. 

“Shutter Sisters” plays through November 7, 2021 at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. Shows Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday nights at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm.

Photo: Rich Soublet II 

For tickets: or (619) 234-5623

Saturday, October 16, 2021

On the Road Again With Octavio Solis'“Mother Road”

When John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” was published in 1939 it won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for fiction., it was that well regarded. In the book, later made into a movie, it chronicles American families fleeing the Dust Bowl (Oklahoma in particular) states and headed for California where jobs were waiting for them. It’s truly a saga set in the great depression following the Joads family, struggling migrant farmers and follows them across Oklahoma to California

Dust Jacket from "Grapes of Wrath

Inspired by Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes’, Solis picks up, in a sense, where Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes’ leaves off only this time the characters, the ancestors of the Joad family, in particular William(Will) Joad (a venerable Mark Murphy) are on the road again, the Mother Road or Route 66 between Bakersfield, Ca. and Sallisaw, OK.  making the trip back. To say that along the way they were treated well or regarded with approval, would be a misnomer.                                            

Richard Jessie Johnson and Celeste Lamar

70 year old cantankerous William is dying of cancer. His last request is to meet and sign over his farm and land to the last heir and blood relative of the Joad clan. He is introduced to Martín Jodes (a handsomly perfect Richard Jessie Johnson) by Williams’ lawyer Roger (an always dependable Jason Heil.

Characters in "Mother Road"

Much to his chagrin William learns that Martín is of Mexican decent. Much to his relief he is an American citizen and migrant worker living in California. Not that he’s prejudice, he’s just a little kerfuffled that an ancestor of his could be Hispanic.

The long trip begins in Wills green Dodge pickup truck where on the way they add to their journey a menagerie of followers including a cross cultural makeup of everything and everyone indicative of what this country represents, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Along the way they pick up Mo a lesbian farm worker (Yadi Correa is pretty out there) who adds some much needed lightness and humor to the trek. She continues on the trip all the way with Martin and Will. James, (Cedric Lamar is outstanding and has been with the show from the beginning) an African American healer who saves Martín from a serious illness and gets him on the road to recovery. Others in the chorus include Javier Guerrero and Rubin Rubio. More homies hop on here and there and act as a Greek chorus of sorts filling in singing some of Solis’ music, reciting his poetry and telling stories. Others in the mix include Amelia (Celeste Lanuza) Martin’s lost heartthrob who keeps showing up looking rather celestial. They pledged themselves years ago. 

Sandy Campbell plays several roles including a waitress in a diner stop Martin and William take for a quick bite. She’s chastised by William who doesn’t agree with her attitude about the migration:( “Well, as I was sayin, y’all sure got farther than we ever did. My grandpa’s car broke down not five hundred yards from where we’re talkin right now. So we settled here. Didn’t quite have the spirit of you Joads. “Mister, I don’t know what your problem is, but you don’t judge my folks for the choices they made. To you, we’re nothin but a rest-stop meal and a potty break. But I raised a family here, and I have friends here, and the love I put in this town has been returned a hundredfold! I like where I'm livin, Mr. Joad. We don’t need your damn Oklahoma. Put that on your tab and shove it up your tailpipe." 

Jason Heil plays several characters but his main character is Roger, Williams’ lawyer and friend who finally shows his true colors when he thinks the farm should go to him. That’s another story and this is where Solis gets bogged down in the nitty gritty of too many stories that wander off, some connecting others not so much as the play comes full circle. 

Artistic director Sam Woodhouse works miracles again. Long as the play is it he kept moving at an OK pace. Charles Murdock Lucas scenery flashed on a giant screen showing the vast landscape as they drove past on their journey east. Jennifer Brawn Giddings is back doing what she does best as well, building the costumes. Chris Rynne designed the lighting and original music and sound designer is by Paul James Pentergast and Cedric Lamar is credited as movement and music coordinator and flight director. 

Mark Murphy and Richard Jessie Johnson

The entire cast along with Woodhouse deserves a two -thumbs up for consistency and endurance.  The play is well over two hours long. With some serious cutting and sticking to a more modern theme of healing the nation of its many stereotypes and letting the audience fill in with their own stories and drawing their own conclusions on how to reunite this country again, “Mother Road” would be more realistic if the audience concentrated on the heart of the story rather distracted by the side stories that were oft times difficult to place in the scheme of things.

It’s a good beginning, however for Solis and his “Mother Road”.

Where: San Diego Repertory Theatre, Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza DowntownTimes: 7pm Wednesdays; 8pm Saturdays; 2 and 7pm Sundays, through Oct. 31st.

Photo: Rich Soublet II.

Face masks are required.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Talented Samantha Ginn Shines in Vogel’s “Mineola Twins”

Paula (How I Learned to Drive”, “Indecent”, “The Long Christmas Ride Home” to name a few) Vogel has given us another jolting look at how history repeats itself. When I was a senior in high school, I dated a young man who smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes. Instead of the logo on the package was a picture of Eisenhower with the saying, I Like Ike”. Did He? I have no idea because politics was the last thing on my mind and Ike seemed like a good guy. Well there was that scandal about a Vicuna coat and Joe (Have you no decency)McCarthy.

Cast of Mineola Twins 

Vogel, who has a penchant for striking while the fire is hot and zeroing in on social mores and issues of the times, has created a spoof (not always funny, though) with the current production at Moxie; “The Mineola Twins” and placing them in history through three presidents or throughout the ages. Why the twins? The only set of twins I know pretty much agree on most things. Not so much the Mineola Twins from Mineola, New York, in case you were wondering. While they may look identical, (their boobs and hair or wigs tell another story) their thinking covers the gambit from ultra conservative to off the cliff liberal.

Myrna, the good twin and Myra the bad twin have made a pact. They drew an invisible line in their bedroom (Reiko Huffman sets) never twain shall meet or ‘stay out of my space’. Both spaces are occupied by one actor, Samantha Ginn who plays the good, virtuous, unsullied, chaste and above it all Myrna, while on the other side of the same coin or room Myra is a cocktail waitress, drinks, is promiscuous, rebellious, and lives life to the fullest even taking up with Myrna’s sexually repressed fiancé, Jim (Emily Jerez) in a one night fling. She ends up coming out as a lesbian and lives with her wife Sarah (Desiree Clark) and son Kenny. 

Samantha Ginn  and Emily Jerez 
Photo Moxie

The “Twins” lives take off in different directions, both fighting for their individual passions. Myra is active in a radical anti-war group. She is seen disguised as her ‘twin’ robbing a bank as part of the anti-war group’s plan. As time moves into the late 60’s and 70’s Myrna has been in and out of mental institutions, has a teenage son (Kenny Philip Magin, not by Jim) is lobbying abortion clinics and is even willing to blow one up. She’s a popular host of a radio talk show ‘Talk Back, Give Back, Bite Back’. A surprise visit from Kenny (Philip Magin) Myra’s young son (yup by Jim) who idolizes his aunt is there for her autograph. Both boys are following in the path of their aunts, not so their mothers. I guess you could say turnabout is fair play. 

Emily Jerez, Samantha Ginn, Desiree Clark

The action moves back and forth in time and is spaced into dream sequences as defined by the clothes, the wigs and the situations we are witness to. Most of the time scene changes run pretty smoothly considering Ginn and others become fast change artists. Blackouts are at a minimum and keeps the story from lagging.

All characters play multiple roles, and convincingly. Danita Lee’s costume are 60’s 70’s and 80’s right, Missy Bradstreet’s wigs (there are multiple ones) define the decades, Christopher Loren Renda’s lighting is spot on, and Matt Lescault Wood’s sound design is, as always, excellent. 

Between the multi- talented Ginn at her best, Vogel as the expert story teller (her bible stories are a hoot especially the one about Jacob and Esau) and Jennifer Eve Thorn directing, ‘The MineolaTwins’ is a great opportunity for us to take a look at how we, as a society have regressed back to the past where abortion clinics are pretty much banned, lying to the public is an everyday sound bite, shootings are but a mention in the news, women are still sex objects, democracy is on the line, and people are dying of  Covid unnecessarily

Hats off to the Moxie's for consistently bringing women’s issues to the fore.

"Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”  (George Santayna)


The Mineola Twins” plays through October 24. Thursdays at 7:30, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.  

For information:

See you at the theatre