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The Apple Tree at the Masquers

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By Theresa de Valence - Posted on 31 March 2010

Feeling at loose ends? Don’t know what to have for dinner? The Apple Tree might solve your itch—it’s three, seemingly unconnected plays in one. Continuity occurs because the same actors play throughout, time travels from long ago to the present, and the stories are about love and innocence. The publicity flyers for the show differ, stating that these plays are about getting what you want and discovering what you really wanted afterward. You’ll have to decide who's right.

Music and lyrics of The Apple Tree were written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. The first play was based on the writings of Mark Twain, the second a short story by Frank R. Stockton and the third a story by Jules Feiffer. In the Masquers performances, Robert Love directs, with music direction by Pat King. Music is ably performed by Pat herself, Ted Bigornia, Jo Lusk, Jim Ware and Barbara Kohler. The show plays until May 1.

The first play is The Diary of Adam and Eve, a sweet comedy, especially for those with a Judeo-Christian background—particularly since it answers so many questions. (Photos by Jerry Telfer).

Arthur Atlas was a benign, box office ticket taker on opening night. With merry eyes and clouds of breezy white hair, he looked like a grandfatherly cherub. In the first play, he becomes grandfather of us all as The Voice. This is a new rôle for Arthur but, to go by the programme, a thoroughly expected one.

The beginning of time is beautifully done—the first boy-man, Adam (Coley Grundman, photo, left), awakens alone. The scene was created by Set Designer DC Scarpelli with help from a large crew and Lighting Designer Renee Echavez.

Adam begins with hints of a five o’clock shadow. Does this foretell that his youth and innocence are not long for this world?

Adam delights in discovering this new world.

Naturally, Eve (Shay Oglesby-Smith, photo, right) has a different way of appreciating life. She is lovely, straightforward, and easy to identify with.

Our troubled, modern world would be quite refreshing if the division between the sexes could be as simple as this Garden of Eden.

It’s an interesting take on an old muddle: one exhibits a senseless display of crossness while the other is bewildered. One complains that the other always has to be right. One invents corny jokes, the other seems humourless. Can you figure out which sex is which? Betcha you can—the scenes are hilarious!

The Snake is a breathtaking creation and validates my unjust and completely unreasonable expectations for DC Scarpelli, photo, top. Emerging from the darkness in silky, tight pants, he slinks towards Eve. In a manner at once sophisticated and bland, and at others bewitching and urgent, he insinuates ideas into her vision. He envelops her, suffocating her with his closeness—yet he never touches her. Is Eve protected by her innocence?

The dance by which Snake mesmerizes Eve will burn itself into your memory. A mix of tango, quickstep and more, he spins her—he’s irresistible.

Eve becomes convinced the apple tree is not what it appears. Is Eve willingly seduced or a victim of fraud?

Tossed from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lurch along through various funny mishaps (including parenthood) and compelling songs.

Eve’s voice is still with me days later. Adam becomes a man that every woman could love.

As the curtain rises on the second play, The Lady or the Tiger, tropical music floats toward us, and we behold the dancing feet of peasants, soldiers and concubines in a barbaric kingdom long ago. The music quickens and the peasants step lively. The scene devolves into the exaggerated marching of a raucous children’s troupe. Everyone sings loudly in time with the stomps.

Into the middle of this juvenile parade prances King Arik (Larry Schrupp) in an old bed sheet with a youthful rug of hair. He disposes his Royal Person by draping himself upon the throne in a studiously bored fashion. Then he glares round, giving a perfect impression of a petty tyrant.

The music is drowned out by the audience’s wails of laughter. Larry just gets better!

King Arik is joined by his richly dressed daughter, Princess Barbara (Pamela Drummer-Williams, photo, left). She’s a traditional girl—at least as far as a semblance of demureness goes. But, the Princess’s assurance comes from something deeper, because she’s in love. This gives her the self-possession to explore flaunting her charms and she sings I’ve Got What You Want. But, she’s only at the beginning of this journey, so her gestures are small, inexperienced sexual signals which only intimate the richness within.

Captain Sanjar (Michael O’Brien, photo, right) is a big, handsome warrior with a deep bass voice who’s pledged fealty to his king, but he’s in a difficult kind of love. Like a huge, dumb ox he’s set on doing the bidding of his master—whatever it takes, whichever one it turns out to be.

It does take him quite a while to get there—for our amusement. Through torment and song, he follows his heart and duty with devoted puppy eyes.

Justice comes to a prisoner in King Arik’s Court (Coley Grundman). A peculiar sentence unfolds.

Nadjira (Carina Salazar) is an alluringly disrobed, nubile, young maiden with a sideline in tigers. She succumbs to the charms of a fallen hero; in trying to revive him, another difficulty unravels.

Amazon Guard (Sue Claire Jones) sings first soprano. She is a strait-laced, devoted soldier, marching and hauling disorderly prisoners.

Maidens of King Arik’s Court (Michelle Pond, Shay Oglesby-Smith), singing alto and soprano, wander around bedecked in fetching deshabille.

The Balladeer (DC Scarpelli), dressed in a djellaba with a turban of rich gold and sporting a Pharoah’s beard, pops in an out of the performance clasping a fancy harp, which he strums in an alarmingly funny manner. He’s sings several songs as an outsider to the play, helping the audience interpret what’s going on.

As civilization develops, love becomes complicated by politics—but is it still simple and true?

On a foggy, rainy, city street in modern times, Passionella, the third play, opens.

The Narrator (DC Scarpelli, photo, left) is a hot gin fizz—a parody of a nearly forgotten Hollywood Great. In this rôle DC’s attitude is more demonstrative than the prior plays, but he’s not friendlier. He’s more distant—it’s a gushing act. He’s very funny, but you can see he’s taking the mickey out of someone.

Michelle Pond, photo, centre, is Ella and Passionella. Ella is a charming char dreaming of being in the movies. She tugs our empathy as she trudges through her job, adding a soupçon of humour.

The officious Mr. Fallible (Larry Schrupp, photo, third right) intervenes with a hard dose of reality.

Bad luck sometimes delivers. Ella, by the grace of her dazzling fairy godmother, gets her wish. She is whisked off to the movies and transformed into Passionella. She becomes a bewigged dame squeezed into a glittering dress with alluring bits of flesh popping out. An insular, self-centred woman emerges.

But she has become the darling of Hollywood— Producer Sue Claire Jones wants her. Director Larry Schrupp wants her. Newsboy Shay Oglesby-Smith wants her. Reporter Michael O’Brien, photo, second right, wants her. Starlet Carina Salazar wants to become her. And Pamela Drummer-Williams is a fan.

Suddenly, from the darkest reaches of the stage, a colossus materializes into the rock star, Flip (Coley Grundman, photo, right). Coley’s grown a beard since the first play. Flip’s an outstanding creation, making the audience snicker. He sings the lead of his popular hit You Are Not Real with the company singing backup vocals. We break into screams of adoration.

Flip seems too good to be true—the Producer wants him, the Director wants him, the Newsboy wants him, the Reporter wants him, the Starlet wants him, Pamela is a fan and the costumes are ludicrous!

These god-like creatures and the company dash on and off stage in a medley of farcical events. With Michelle playing a glamorous star, one tends to lose sight of the glamour which Michelle brings to a production. And Coley is far too cool to bother being glamorous.

Sadly, I’m unable to think of the allure of Hollywood without thinking of its other side: the tired out, wasted, shallow world of meaningless patter. Passionella and Flip come to realize this as well. They solve this problem in the most interesting way.

At curtain, the applause was thundering.

Several years ago when I began writing these reviews, I knew less than nothing about theatre. Since then I’ve had exposure, but do I know more? Sometimes I think so, then come up short. Here’s what struck me this time.

New for me is the understanding that actors must continually move, else the audience’s attention might wander. The audience is never allowed the perspective to consider the play—even seeing the play twice doesn’t help—reflection must occur elsewhere. During the play, we are bombarded with action, in order to keep us in the immediate present. To keep us from thinking.

Many times I’ve read scripts of Masquers plays. Aside from dialogue, the script only moves actors on and off stage. Where does this march of motion come from? The choreographer invents it all? Choreographer Kris Bell keeps everyone constantly moving with aplomb. The Snake’s dance and the barbaric kingdom are but two great pieces in a complex production.

There’s no accounting for taste and I have a complaint which might not matter to you. I’m not very fond of computer generated graphics unless they’re works of art or exceedingly clever. As part of a dying breed of traditionally trained visual artists, I mind the lack of hand painted scenery images. I hope the passing of Dave Wilkerson doesn’t signify that this skill has left Masquers forever.

The trees in the Garden of Eden were amusing because they were interpretive. Sadly, most of the other images left me cold. Many features of the set were fabulous: Adam’s perch, the versatility of the middle Kingdom doors, the chimney and more—just not the artwork.

As a cook, I’m familiar with the creativity required to throw together an odd juxtaposition of ingredients, but I don’t get where Captain Sanjar’s streaky makeup came from. I do get how his makeup manipulated my understanding of the show. Brilliant!

Some effort has been expended to significantly change each actor’s appearance for each play by Costume Designer (Maria Graham), Wig Stylist (Tammara Plankers), and the makeup coordinator. DC and Coley get hairier, both on top and bottom. Clothing styles range from deceptively simple homespun to glitzy nightclub ostentatiousness. There’s a charm to the series.

For average persons, a large quest in life is finding a way of being ourselves. For an actor, the quest must be in becoming someone else for a short while—I remember a sad Japanese opera where the star couldn’t enjoy the accolades following the show because he was too ingrained in his character to smile. What must be required to become three different characters all on one night, some of whom are changing during the course of the play?

Larry goes from the preposterous to the staid and back again; Shay falls from the pinnacle of sweetness to a brazen showgirl in a chorus; Coley changes from a silly boy, to a sweetheart, to something barely human; DC morphs from seductive evil, to chaste village elder, to frenetic shallow showboy. These are impressive transformations.

This show is a feat of many hands. So much, I want follow these folks around, peppering each with silly questions, peering inside them to see how they arrived at the decisions which become the show’s magic.

Wondering about the thread holding these plays together, I believe the answer rests in the innocence of human beings—how, despite what happens, every one remains fundamentally innocent.

This show is something to see. Years from now, I’m sure we’ll still be talking about it.

How did you feel about the play? Comments are welcome.

The Apple Tree was performed March 26 - May 1, 2010, at the Masquers Theatre in Point Richmond, California. This review was also published in This Point In Time (TPIT), Vol. XXVIII-5, April 2010, a publication of the Point Richmond History Association.