Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Being an election year, this is a propitious time for the Ross Valley Players to trot out NOVEMBER by David Mamet.

True it is only another vicious, rabid, mud-slinging California gubernatorial election and a power-puff Senatorial race, but there is a palpable whiff of byzantine intrigue, testosterone and estrogen in the air.

Parody and satire usual involve hyperbolic exaggerations of the most risible elements of whatever it is the author is trying to lampoon.

In the world of politics, it is difficult to exaggerate the truth.

The unapologetic sale of pardons, the shake-down for bribes (a.k.a. campaign contributions) the grotesque distortions of spin doctors (a.k.a. speech writers and press secretaries), the groveling influence peddling (a.k.a. lobbyists) and the foul, hard-ball language of the rich, powerful and irreverent, all provide the tempera with which Mamet paints a riotous picture of the Presidential Oval Office.

Mamet writes in a language highly reminiscent of the Nixon tapes and Pacino's SCARFACE.

Director James Dunn judiciously cast Buzz Halsing as the Honorable (sic) President Charles Smith.

The tirades and machinations of Buzz’s President Smith keep the audience in paroxysms of laughter from curtain to curtain.

Like most politicians, President Smith adheres to the prime directive of government officials: “Parlay the public’s trust into personal gain.”

President Smith also wants to build a presidential library to chronicle and immortalize both his mediocrity and rapacity.

Money is the only resource that President Smith seems to lack: his reelection war chest sits at $4000 and his library fund could not afford to turn the first spade of soil.

As most reckless people will assure you, “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” and in the absence of moral fiber or ethics, President Smith tries his best to hi-jack America's Thanksgiving dinner, exploring such surrogates as pork and tuna in lieu of turkey.

His speech writer Clarice Bernstein (played by who is undoubtedly Marin’s funniest female comedian: LeAnne Rumbel) hammers out a marvelous denunciation of the traditional Thanksgiving repast; borrowing heavily from the lexicon of exploitation, imperialism, colonialism, chauvinism and liberal guilt.

Her diatribe could have easily done for Thanksgiving what Hollywood’s epic 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE, with Gérard Depardieu did for Columbus Day amongst fatuous Californians.

Stephen Dietz (as Archer Brown) superbly captures the White House Chief of Staff type: officiously distorting, extending and projecting executive privilege to include crimes and misdemeanors.

A stunning set, designed by Ken Rowland and ushered into reality by Ian Swift, adds even more polish to this near flawless production.

Special kudos should be extended to sound man Bruce Vieira for never missing one of the dozens of incoming phone calls to President Smith.

NOVEMBER is intelligent sophisticated humor, lightning paced, unflagging and honed to a razor’s edge.

You will laugh until your lipo suction scars ache.

For best entertainment value in all of Marin, contact the ticket office at 415-456-9555 or surf on over to

Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

The San Jose Repertory Theatre is currently presenting BLACK PEARL SINGS! as written by Frank Higgins and directed by Rick Lombardo.

The play is one story derived from a plethora of similar stories compiled during a government program established in 1936 to collect and catalogue America’s musical folklore.

The fictitious Susannah Mullally (marvelously played by Jessica Wortham) is based on the historical persona John Lomax: a Texan who traveled the country with 315 pounds of recording equipment stashed in the trunk of his car.

Lomax operated under the assumption that prisoners, due to their isolation, remained largely uninfluenced by radio and the contemporary music of their times.

The music of prisoners would more faithfully date back to the slavery ear or even to the pre-slavery era in West Africa.

In his search for uncorrupted Africa music, Lomax met Huddie Ledbetter in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Huddie had been languishing in prison since he was 21; show casing his talent to the governor, Lomax engineered Huddie’s early release and the two of them immediately sprinted off to New York City.

Given his prodigious talent and Lomax’s management, Huddie quickly ascended to become the 12-string folk and blues legend Lead Belly.

Frank Higgins has borrowed generously from the miraculously serendipitous Lead Belly – Lomax story; retooling it into the Black Pearl – Mullally story.

While Lead Belly’s musical influence stemmed from the Mississippi delta and Shreveport, Louisiana, Pearl’s tradition was Gullah: from the South Carolina barrier islands and the Lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia.

Gullah is arguably the most undisturbed African-American cultural tradition.

Lomax got Lead Belly to perform in prison garb in New York and likewise, Mullally directs Pearl Johnson to do the same.

Art has a way of imitating life.

Pearl reluctantly capitulates to Mullally’s demands as her musical manager even though Pearl trusts that Mullally can help her reunite with her daughter and give her the means to raise her granddaughter.

Pearl does not give in easily: Pearl chaffs under Mullally’s yoke and bucking at nearly every staging suggestion Mullally makes.

Mullally made have garnered Pearl’s freedom from a Texas prison, by Pearl immediately relinquishes a portion of that freedom, by stepping into the reins wielded by well meaning Mullally.

The bristling, halting, resistant of Pearl to the best intentions of Mullally provides the grist for this show.

Having gained her freedom from prison, Pearl assumes an even greater challenge of preserving her identity and autonomy.

BLACK PEARL SINGS! is a heart-warming profile of desperation growing into trust and friendship.

Every performance is likely to earn a standing ovation: it is not to be missed.

Now through September 26th, tickets can be purchased via or 408-367-7255.

Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

TROUBLE IN MIND, superbly directed by Robin Stanton, written by Alice Childress and currently performed at the Aurora Theatre Company of Berkeley is a stimulating, provocative potpourri of irony and contradiction.

Structurally, the play is a play within a play: specifically, it is a play about rehearsing a Broadway play; the imbedded play being CHAOS IN BELLEVILLE.

The year is 1957; the season is Autumn; and the day is Monday.

The chaos however is not confined to Belleville: it erupts at a rehearsal when African American cast members take rightful umbrage with the stereotypic characters contained in the BELLEVILLE script.

The play is resplendent with ethnic and cultural diversity, yet it is ironic that a play, crafted to expose African American stereotypes in theatre, relies so heavily on other popular stereotypes.

The chief malefactor in the show is the director character: Al Manners (played masterfully, almost infuriatingly so, by Tim Kniffin).

Al Manners is brash, abusive, petulant, insensitive, tyrannical, remote, uncompromising and unmistakably identified as a WASP (i.e. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant); he is pitted against nearly every character in the show.

Given the subtle clues that MS Childress discretely seeds into the script, it is apparent that the stage assistant: Eddie Fenton (played by Patrick Russell) is gay.

Eddie is wrongly and disproportionally castigated by Al Manners for not having deflected a disturbing phone call from Al’s ex-wife.

Henry, the doorman, is Irish; replete with his Tam O’Shatter hat no less.

Henry deliberately provokes Al by ignoring his request for Danish and substituting jelly-filled donuts instead.

Henry uses the reprimand he receives from Al as a springboard, to reveal that he comes from a fighting Irish family and has strong opinions over British rule in Northern Ireland.

Leaping from Danish to "Home Rule," Henry dredges up the turmoil overtaking Ireland due no doubt to the English or WASP types.

Henry clearly sees his conflict with Al as emblematic, or as an extension, of the nagging Irish-English conflict that stretches back 800 unrelenting tit-for-tat years in Belfast.

Henry’s donut caper comes off symbolically as the equivalent of an IRA pipe bomb attached to Al’s muffler.

The nefarious Al takes no prisoners: in a heated religious discussion cascading from the play, Al points accusingly to Bill O’Wray, who apparently is some relative of Abraham (the one drop rule must apply) and reminds Bill, “it was your people who crucified Christ.”

So, in addition to riding rough-shod over the gays and suppressing the Irish of the six counties, Al is also a raging anti-Semitic: righteously carping to the Jews for their deicide.

After speaking with his ex-wife on the phone, Al shares with the cast and crew that his ex-wife now has a boy friend—apparently a real man—as Al reports himself as totally “emasculated” by the situation.

The revelation seems to reassure the entire cast that Al may be a successful director and the boss on the set but, as they may have covertly suspected, he is fundamentally a failure as a man and as a human being . . . what a relief to confirm that Al has feet of clay.

Bill O’Wray (played by Michael Ray Wisely), who has been exposed by Al as a Jew, is aloof: only reluctantly will he eat with the rest of the company: we are certain that kosher food is not necessarily the issue.

Bill is also a man with options: in addition to being selected for CHAOS IN BELLEVILLE, Bill in snuggly cast in soap operas: Bill is a man holding two passports.

Judy Sears (played by Melissa Quine) is the apotheosis of the Caucasian girl: she is blonde, she hails from Connecticut: the very Citadel of White America; and she is a graduate of Yale: the highest expression of WASP privilege.

Admittedly, this is a play about stereotyping African Americans in theater, but one might wonder if this play would have worked as well had the tyrannical director been a hapless Irishman, a deicidal Jew or an African American.

No one is suggesting that, like the movie AVATAR, the nefarious villain is rendered even more despicable when he is an old white, single, straight, Protestant man.

It seems that such men can be vilified with guaranteed immunity.

It does seem as if the cast of characters is too conveniently cogent, too off the shelf and resting too soundly on culturally embraced stereotypes and prejudices.

TROUBLE IN MIND is a play for our times, it is an Obie winning script, flawlessly produced by the award winning Aurora Theatre and should not be missed.

For tickets through September 26 th, contact the box office at 510-843-4822 or on the web.