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Sense and Sensibility: Theatreworks Play Review


Sense and Sensibility – Play Review

Musical version of Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility, playing at Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto, through Theatreworks Silicon Valley is a treat for the senses and is sensible for the minds. Incredible lyrics by Paul Gordon, make it a must see musical treasure and is directed by brilliant Robert Kelley. Incredible scenic design by Joe Ragey and costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt place the formidable cast right in the 18th century England where properties were passed to male heirs, and young women were left to find a suitable match or navigate through life in poverty or worse, spinsterhood, in a society where premium is placed on rank and status. 

Sisters Marianne Dashwood (Antoinette Comer) and Elinor Dashwood (Sharon Rietkerk) find themselves at such a pivotal juncture, upon the passing away of their father. Marianne Dashwood is passionate and spontaneous, quick to love and hasty in her laments; she loves change of seasons, random walks and finds joy in nature and poetry in dead leaves; she embraces zest for life and romantic idealism, and loves wholeheartedly, laughs uproariously, and weeps dramatically. Women like her are often the force behind much needed changes in a society. When the property is passed to her brother, she asks her sister, “why? Is it because he is a dutiful son or because he is deserving? For, he is neither”.

Marianne’s sister Elinor Dashwood is subdued in her emotions, slow and thoughtful in expressing her feelings, polite and considerate in her commentary, rational and restrained in her thinking; she speaks of decorum and propriety; and she always tries to see things from others’ perspective, be sensitive to their feelings and say the right things, even when she suffers great hardship in doing so. Women like her, are often the ones who help maintain order in society and prevent chaos not only through their own patience and kindness but also with their counsel to others, as her sister Marianne acknowledges, “my sister hopes to save me from my excesses”.

While either disposition in excess may not serve a person well, it seems Austen clearly favors domination of sense over sensibility. As Elinor says to her sister Marianne, “it is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves”. From good natured, shy Edward Ferrars (Darrell Morris Jr.) to dashing and temperamental John Willoughby (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka) to dutiful husband, John Dashwood (Nick Nakashima), they all play their roles to perfection. With prevailing sense of the time, Austen navigates her heroines through the plot twists and rewards them with a suitable match, at the end of her novels, as the happy audience departs with a smile.
This is a not-to-miss play of this theater season and a treat to be savored, after the lockdowns of the pandemic. Tickets are available at www.theatreworks.org .

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Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow” – Play Review


“…the real tragedy of life was that you got what you wanted…”
― Agatha Christie, The Hollow

At CityLights theater in Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow”, directed by Doll Piccotto, audience get exactly what they wanted, intriguing murder of a complex person; with many possible suspects.  The homeowners, Sir Henry Angkatell (Ken Boswell) and his eccentric, ditzy wife, Lucy (Karen DeHart) have planned an extended family weekend and have invited several relatives and cousins. 

In addition to the colorful characters engaged in intrigue, affairs, and stolen moments of love and passion, there are maids, butlers, and an intriguing neighbor Victoria (Laura Domingo) who drops in as soon as she hears of the presence of her former love, Dr John Cristow (Damian Vega), notwithstanding the presence of his overly cheerful wife, Gerda (Caitlin Lawrence Papp), completely devoted to her husband and perpetually doubting herself. And then there was Lucy’s cousin Henrietta Angkatell (Anne Yumi Kobori); her character as complex as her sculpted and artistic creations. Henrietta, with her deep sense of integrity and right and wrong, rebuffed advances of affection from her cousin, Edward Angkatell (Kyle Dayrit) and yet was hopelessly in love with a married man.  While Edward’s attention was on Henrietta, Midge Harvey (Alycia Adame) was deeply in love with Edward. Adding to the chaos was the character of Dr. John Cristow, a philanderer who admired the single minded devotion of his wife Gerda. Dr. Cristow also cared more about the disease he was trying to find the cure for than his patients and was at once both highly narcissistic and yet seemingly unconcerned about anyone, including himself.

With so many miscreants and so much intrigue, when the murder takes place, everyone is a plausible suspect, and yet everyone seems innocent of committing such a heartless crime. And to add to the list of suspects, there is the maid, Doris (Erin Southard), and very very English butler, Gudgeon (Tom Gough). It becomes the responsibility of Inspector Coquhoun (Patricia Tyler) and Detective Penny (Andre Leben) to investigate the suspects and nail the culprit. And while you may be going through the “who dunn it” in your head, there are some characters least interested in solving the crime.

  • Lady Angkatell : I’m not terribly interested in who killed who. I mean, once you’re dead, you’re dead. It doesn’t matter why, does it?

So glad the theater season in the bay area is back.  This play will be running at Citylights Theater in San Jose, CA till March 6, 2022 and tickets are available at www.cltc.org .

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens at San Jose Stage: Play Review


The novel “Great Expectations” penned in 1861 by Charles Dickens, has received near universal acclaim and has been translated in several languages. Dickens’s themes of extreme poverty, jaw dropping wealth, love and rejection, and the eventual triumph of basic human goodness, resonate across countries and cultures.

Interpretation of this masterpiece was adapted for stage, by Neil Bartlett, and is currently playing at San Jose Stage Theater in San Jose, CA. Big kudos to Artistic Director, Randall King and Executive Director, Cathleen King. The story begins with an orphan, Pip (Keith Pinto) who lives with his hot-tempered sister and kindly brother-in-law, stealing some food. The key challenge in playing this masterpiece on stage is to whittle down Dickens’s brilliant use of character and plot to a few minutes of on stage performance. Credit for this artful performance goes to brilliant director, Kenneth Kelleher and masterful cast of performers, Li Leng Au, Jennifer Le Blanc, Julian Lopez-Morillas, Norman Gee, and Nick Rodrigues, in various roles, besides Pip’s. And it goes without saying that Keith Pinto as young orphan Pip, lovestruck teenage Pip, and wealthy and more mature Pip, is truly brilliant.   

San Jose Stage Company's 'Great Expectations' at San Jose Stage Company |  Datebook

Little boy Pip gets a peek into wealth and upper class society when fabulous and wealthy Miss Haversham asks for Pip to visit her, for her amusement. Miss Haversham was left at the altar in her youth and she continues to nurse her pain. As a daily reminder of her pain, she still wears a tattered old wedding dress. Li Leng Au as Miss Haversham brings dramatic energy and a sense of gravitas. But it is not the wealth that sparks Pip’s interest or curiosity about eccentric Miss haversham that propels him to continue to visit her. Pip falls hopelessly in love with Miss Haversham’s adopted daughter, Estella. However, Estella’s cold treatment (encouraged by Miss Haversham) and Pip’s own low social status in life, precludes any chance for him marrying Estella. And yet, Pip harbors great expectations that perhaps some day he may be a man of means and be worthy of marriage with Estella. 

And yet, acknowledging the futility of this exercise, Pip laments,

“Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.”

This is a brilliant story depicting differences between classes in Victorian England. It is a also a story of courage, romance, love and hope. Sometimes the lessons one learns through trials and tribulations in life, only become apparent much later. It is much later that Pip understands that love transcends wealth and he also realizes that money can never buy love, nor guarantee happiness. The play is beautifully performed and as intended by Dickens, it provides a window into the society that was most significantly divided by class and also serves as a morality tale.

In the words of Artistic Director, Randall King, “this story challenges us to open our hearts and minds to become kinder, more compassionate and better at discerning true moral values.”Tickets are available at www.thestage.org .

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Buddha – Play Review


Buddha, Naatak’s grand musical in the park in San Jose is written and directed by the brilliant Sujit Saraf.  Producer and dance director is Soumya Agastya and Music Direction is by Nachiketa Yakkundi

The play is set in the sixth century BCE and viewers are given a booklet written in English, with full text of the music and brief descriptions of all that transpires in between. 

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Siddharth Gautam was born in a land known as Madhyam Desh (most likely today’s Nepal) at a time when aside from Ved, only about five Upanishads had been composed and the epics Ramayan and Mahabharat had not yet come into existence. This was not a time when there was a great deal of conformity of thought and beliefs. Atheists, ascetics, heterodox thinkers and others subscribed to their own version of good, bad, evil and virtuous, while Brahmanical Hinduism was a weaker sect among others.

Siddhartha was born a prince and could not find contentment in his easy going life. When he witnessed suffering, death and disease, he was deeply moved and set about trying to find enlightenment and gave up his lavish lifestyle. When poverty and suffering also failed to bring peace then he promoted the “middle way”, existing between two extremes, a life without indulgences but also without deprivation.   He preached attainment of enlightenment through achieving morality, meditation, and wisdom. One can say that it was one of the first attempts at religion through spirituality, and minus the invention of a deity.

Following Buddha’s death, his disciples gathered to jot down Buddha’s spiritual journey and his path to enlightenment under the Peepal tree and to compile his teachings. The play is largely based on what emerged in these compilations.

Naatak’s play attempts to capture Buddha’s spiritual journey, almost 2,500 years ago, through a combination of songs, captivating dances and dialogues, written entirely in rhyme, in “prachin” hindi.. The play is performed outdoors in the shade of giant maple and oak trees, in San Jose, CA.

For tickets, please go to www.naatak.org .

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They promised her the moon – Play Review


Girls have dreams too. Seven year old Jerry Cobb (Sarah Mitchell) was obsessed with flying. But in 1960, a time of great social change in American history, certain dreams were still reserved for men. Laurel Ollstein’s dramatization of the true story of Jerry Cobb and her female peers in Mercury 13 astronaut training program, is currently playing at theatreworks in Palo Alto. 

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Stories of two aspiring women are intertwined in “They promised her the moon”Jackie Cochran (Stacy Ross) used her wealth and connections and had already made history as a first woman pilot. Later, financed by her husband, she ran a successful cosmetics company. But for most women, these dreams were out of reach. Jackie Cochran had pushed for women to be allowed to fly for the military, and women did fly during the war. But when WWII ended, women were barred from flying most sophisticated planes. 

During that time, as a little girl, Jerry Cobb seemed determined to fly and touch the heavens.  Her pilot father, Harvey Cobb (Dan Hiatt) encouraged and inspired her and taught her some basics about airplanes. Jerry began flying at the age of twelve and by her twenties, she was setting world records in flying speeds, distance, and altitude. Inspired by her predecessor, Jackie Cochran who was pushing for female astronauts, Jerry Cobb enrolled in Mercury 13 program training to send astronauts into space. Jerrie Cobb beat most of her male counterparts as she went through strenuous rounds of tests and invasive physical and psychological evaluations. 

Meanwhile different politics started getting played into the upper echelons of men, status, wealth and political power. Among the first group of astronauts was John Glenn, the new American hero. Given the culture of the time, Glenn and other men felt that since men flew combat missions, they were more equipped to become astronauts. Cochran was the lone woman in the boys club and sought to leverage her power. Cochran wasn’t happy that her popularity and status as the first woman pilot was getting replaced with a surge in Cobb’s popularity and she perhaps also felt that history would forget her completely if Cobb were to become the first woman astronaut in space. 

Jerry Cobb passed away in 2019. Theatreworks’ celebration of Jerry Cobb in “They promised her the moon” reminds us that legacy is not only created with great achievements, but also by those who dare to dream.  Entire cast is marvellous and Sarah Mitchell’s performance is truly unforgettable.  Huge kudos to director, Giovanna Sardelli for this fabulous and not-to-miss show.

Unfortunately, to mitigate and contain coronavirus pandemic, Theatreworks is canceling all shows right now so please check the website at http://www.theatreworks.org for updates and stay safe.

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“Rumors” by Naatak – Play Review


I was not expecting a great deal from NAATAK company’s most recent on stage production of Neil Simon’s “Rumors”. After all, farce is one of the most challenging genres to perform. A farce is a comedy in which everything is absolutely absurd and usually involves some kind of deception or miscommunication. People are not forgiving when it comes to laughter and lame comedy tragically falls short in generating laughs. Add to that the challenging part of translating humor into another language and culture. The play is in Hinglish with supertitles in clear English projected on top of the stage.

 

However, my worry was unfounded. This performance is by NAATAK and in every show NAATAK meets the challenge head-on and delivers the best. In Rumors, five couples invited to celebrate a sixth couple’s anniversary, find that the host has shot himself, hostess is missing, servants are nowhere to be seen and the dinner isn’t prepared. What ensues is a brilliantly interwoven performance of farcical missteps, outlandish lies, and dialogs so hilariously delivered that you will be in stitches, in no time. 

 

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First, there is an exceptional cast of actors with Kamala Subramananian, Chaitnya Godsay, Ekta Brahmkshatri, Ritwik Verma, Anjali Bhide, Natraj Kumar, Roshni Datta, Chanpreet Singh, Bruce Blau, and Deanna Shinsky.  There are also ubiquitous Chakra and Meera, the host and the hostess who never quite make an appearance but drive the events from the shadows.

 

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The title of this play (given by original playwright) is well suited for Naatak’s performance, adapted to Indian socialites. While on one hand, well meaning friends are driven to protect the scandal of the day (details of it are not yet fully known to them) and on the other hand, there is equally well intentioned and cultural proclivity to share about the scandal (to find and lend support), and to fill holes in the missing details.

 

The dialogs are nothing short of brilliant. Here’s how it goes between two people at the party,
“She has a thing you know”.
“What sort of a thing”?
“She is doing something with somebody, somewhere”.


There is also sarcasm in hinglish. Here’s one dialog.

“I am melting”.
“So are the planets. But that we can manage.
Aap ki mange
Environment ke aage.”


Kudos to Director and translator of the original script, Naatak’s marvelous, Harish Agastya. Everything comes together brilliantly in “Rumors”, with witty script in Hinglish, plethora of underhand comments, sarcasm, complex storyline, unbelievably nutty sequence of events, ridiculous cover-up and dynamic fabrications, events that unfold in slapstick manner, neurotic cast of characters who successfully deliver ingeniously funny moments,
elegant costumes that indicate high socialite status of Silicon Valley’s Indian socialites and exceptional staging, sound and light. This is a not-to-miss play of this theater season for all theatergoers in Silicon Valley. Naatak has 5 more shows and is running till March 1, at the Cubberley Community Theater in Palo Alto. There are few tickets left for some shows. Tickets can be obtained at http://www.naatak.org .

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Chicago – Play Review


Come on babe
Why don’t we paint the town?
And all that Jazz…

If you’re intending to paint the town there’s no better place than at Chicago, the musical that is currently playing at the stage in San Jose and is the longest running American show on Broadway. The story is based on real events where in roaring twenties Chicago, Roxie Hart (Monique Hafen Adams), a nightclub dancer, lands on murders row. Her role as narcissistic, self absorbed and spoiled wannabe star is poignant and powerful. While she can be locked up forever or hanged for the murder, Roxie is enjoying the stardom, the notoriety has brought her.

The name on everybody’s lips
Is gonna be Roxie
The lady rakin’ in the chips
Is gonna be Roxie
I’m gonna be a celebrity
From just some dumb mechanic’s wife
I’m gonna be Roxie
Who says that murder’s not an art?
And who in case she doesn’t hang
Can say she started with a bang?
Foxy Roxie Hart!

Another famous nightclub star, Velma Kelly (Allison F. Rich) is also going through the legal system, having committed a prior murder.  Roxy and Velma compete with each other in spinning their stories, in getting jury’s sympathy and as their notoriety throws them into stardom, they compete to get the best roles in the nightclub shows.

The female driven murderer song and dance is full of energy romp through upcoming “not guilty” plea and “self defense” defense, along with the corruption characteristic of the court and prison system of 1920s.. 

He had it coming
He had it coming
He only had himself to blame.
If you’d have been there
If you’d have seen it

But you haven’t seen nothing yet, until you meet Mama Morton. Branden Noel Thomas is dazzling and commanding in his role as Mama Morton and….

When you’re good to Mama
Mama’s good to you!
And now ladies and gentlemen –
the Keeper of the keys,
the Countess of the clink,
the mistress of Murderers Row,
Matron Mama Morton!

My most favorite piece is the press briefing. The PR campaign reminiscent of what is currently going on in politics, is complete with word plays, spins and conniving and evil manipulation of the news. It seems media manipulation with an aim to influence public perception with false propaganda through suppression of information and outright deception was almost as devilish in the 20s, as it is today.

Give ’em the old razzle dazzle
Razzle dazzle ’em
How can they hear the truth above the roar?
Throw ’em a fake and a finagle
They’ll never know you’re just a bagel
Give ’em the old three ring circus
Stun and stagger ’em
Daze and dizzy ’em
Show ’em the first rate sorcerer you are
Long as you keep ’em way off balance
How can they spot you got no talents?
Razzle dazzle ’em


This show explodes with energy, wit, and fabulous music and dance numbers. Kudos to Randall King for superb direction. Chicago is a class act. Whatever happened to class? It’s all there in this show.

Why is it everyone now is a pain in the ass?
Whatever happened to class?
Now, no one even says “oops” when they’re
Passing their gas
Whatever happened to class?

 

Chicago is a not-to-miss show during this theater season and will be playing at the San Jose Stage Theater till March 15, 2020. Tickets can be obtained at www.thestage.org

 

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The Pianist at Willesden Lane – Play Review


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As a sole performer of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane”, Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother, Lisa Jura. Ms. Golabek is a concert pianist and in this deeply affecting, heart-rending memoir, adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, she tells tells the story of her mother’s youth, during World War II, in her mother’s voice.

 

Lisa Jura was 14 in 1938, when Nazi Germany began to populate its concentration camps. The British Jewish Refugee Committee drummed up support in Parliament and extended a helping hand, towards children caught in this tragedy, unfolding across the English Channel. The group began operation of Kindertransport, “children’s trains” leaving from major cities including Berlin, Vienna, and Prague, carrying thousands of children to safer areas, outside the reach of the Third Reich. With the assumption that this was a short lived crisis, the children who reached Britain, were awarded temporary visas and were placed in British homes.

 

“My name is Lisa Jura and I’m 14 years old. It’s Vienna, 1938, and it’s a Friday afternoon. I’m preparing for the most important hour of my week – my piano lesson”. Thus begins Lisa’s story. But an ordinary piano lesson turns into a foreboding feeling of the cruelty of things to come. Her instructor regretfully tells her he has been forbidden to teach Jewish students and he adds, “I’m not a brave man”.  After demeaning experiences and knowing full well that Germany and Austria were becoming unlivable for Jewish citizens, Lisa’s father manages to secure one pass on Kindertransport. Lisa’s parents had to select one of their three daughters, to set out for the safe zone, away from the family in Vienna. 

 

Along with her family, Lisa leaves behind her tumultuous adolescence and her lofty dreams about her place in the adult world. Lisa sets out on her harrowing journey to safety, through Nazi checkpoints and through several countries, going through multiple boat and train rides. Lisa was one of over 10,000 children, ranging in age from infancy to 17 years, who streamed across Europe on the Kindertransport.  After arriving in England, she works as a maid before winding up in a busy hostel full of refugee children like her, on Willesden Lane, There she found camaraderie and hope. 

 

 

Lisa’s mother, who was Lisa’s best friend and inspiration, gave her one last piece of advice, before Lisa left. She said, “You must promise me that you will hold onto your music. It will be the best friend you ever have. I will be with you every step of the way when you’re playing that music”. It is Lisa’s music that turns this deeply tragic story, into a story of hope, romance, love and triumph. 

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Mona Golabek effortlessly slips into the persona of her mother, the pianist Lisa Jura. Underpinning the entire story, is the fabulous music that she plays on a beautiful black Steinway. She plays the music her mother loved, including Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Chopin’s Nocturne in B-Flat Major, and Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata. When she was little, Golabek’s mother gave her piano lessons and in the midst of these lessons, she would tell Golabek the story of her life. She told Golabek that each piece of music tells a story. Golabek honors that memory and weaves her mother and piano prodigy Lisa Jura’s inspirational story of survival and hope with beautiful music.  The Pianist at Willesden Lane will be running at www.theatreworks.org till February 16. 2020.

 

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The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley: Play Review


In “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley”, Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have brought back to life, delightful characters from Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. The show also brings back fond memories of Downton Abby, with most of the action happening below stairs at Pemberley, home of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy (Keenan Flagg and Asha Kelly)

Action is again with George Wickham (Alexander Draa), the profligate, wayward, philanderer  husband of Lydia (Barbara Jackson). Younger sister of Elizabeth Darcy and Jane Bingly, Lydia, it seemed, with her silly giggles and girlish exuberance, was incapable of maturity and wisdom that her older sisters displayed, in dealing with matters of the heart, but the show has a surprise for the audience. As the family gathers to celebrate Christmas, Mr. Wickham is expressly not invited to the gathering. 

George Wickham arrives nevertheless, uninvited and unwanted, creating a headache for the below stairs residents, the housekeeper, Mrs. Reynols (Deb Anderson) and her assistants, Brian (Kyle Dayrit) and new hire, Cassie (Marlena Westley). Anderson is clearly the star of the show and her natural ease and stage presence is reminiscent of Downton Abby’s Mrs. Carson (Elsie Carson)

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Writers Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have moved along the story to fit into the 21st century narrative. Elizabeth Bennet, the dynamic protagonist in Pride and Prejudice, sought actual goodness over superficial goodness, especially when it came to choosing a life partner. That role is assumed by Cassie, and even good men sometimes require women to lead them in accepting role equality. Accordingly, Cassie tells her beau, “Love is about seeing someone and allowing them to be exactly as they are”. 

In “The Wickhams”, George Wickham is certainly a flawed character, but can Jane Austen’s heroine remain flawed forever? If your curiosity is piqued, then don’t miss the play. “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” will be playing at Citylights theater in San Jose, till December 22. Tickets can be obtained at www.cltc.org .

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The Humans – Play Review


The Humans by playwright Stephen Karam, offers a funny, sad and blisteringly realistic portrait of American family drama, at a thanksgiving meal.  The Humans was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play.

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Blake family, father Erick (Tim Kniffin), mother Deirdre (Marie Shell), daughter Brigid (Madeline Rouverol), daughter Aimee (Lyndsy Kail), Brigid’s live-in lover, Richard (George Psarras) and Momo, (Jessica Powell) have gathered for the meal at Richard and Brigid’s run down apartment in Manhatten, New York. These are the people we know; they are our neighbors, friends; indeed they are us.

Like many families, the Blakes have strong bonds and deep resentments. At times, they differ and argue over what appears to be inconsequential stuff.  There are generational differences. Erick and Deirdre want the best for their two daughters but their best is not the same as what their daughters desire.  At times, subtly and at times overtly the parents show their disapproval of Brigid’s choice of apartment and her decision to co-habit with her partner, without a marriage. Blake parents agonize over their daughter Aimee’s apparent anxiety, her major bowel disorder and her apparent losses in life. While Richard tries hard to get approval from Aimee’s family and convey to them that he has cleaned up his life, it is not easy to come by. Jessica Powell’s acting as momo suffering from dementia, is absolutely amazing and realistic.

David Zinn’s fascinating two-tiered set with a spiral staircase connecting the floors enables the family drama and action to move between upstairs and downstairs, just like the ebb and flow of their emotions. Kudos to director Tony Kelly and to the scenic team including Guilio Perrone and Michael Truman Cavanaugh for this insightful show.  

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This family drama is a penetrating portrayal of psychological unease. And yet, even as imperfect individuals and imperfect families travel through uncertainties and challenges, it’s the same ties that create the discomfort that also give hope for the future.

The Humans will be running at San Jose Stage Theater in San Jose, CA till December 15, 2019. For tickets, contact www.thestage.org .

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