Skip to main content

Gaetana Caldwell-Smith


Threats and Rewards

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

I hadn’t been to a live performance in a theater in over a year.  Since I am totally vaxed and masked and meet the guidelines set by The Marsh, I decided to attend Marga Gomez’s Spanking Machine last night. Everyone obeyed the safety protocols throughout the performance.

Gomez is the perfect act to open at the Marsh to a live audience in over 18 months.


I’ve been following Ms. Gomez’ performances for decades.  I believe I saw one of her earliest performances at Theater Rhinoceros.  Even then, I thought she was unique and very funny.  Also poignant and very physical in portraying various characters.  Last time I saw her was at the Central Works theater in Berkeley.  She was acting in King of Cuba by Cristina García, a full-length play in which she appeared as Fidel Castro.  Since I hadn’t seen her in years, I wondered if I would recognize her.  However, as soon as she came on stage in typical Castro military garb, I knew it was her.  She has said that Spanking Machine would be her last solo performance.  She wants to write for other actors.  Hopefully she will appear in other people’s plays.  Whatever she does, I’m sure she’ll be a huge success.


In Spanking Machine, Gomez as Gomez talks about friendship with Scotty the boy in the third grade of her Catholic school who became her best friend and the first boy she ever kissed which made them realize that they were both gay even at that young age.  She knew it, but he didn’t- then.  She relates their friendship as being very sweet, poignant and devilish in that they were bent on pranking big people.  Spitting on them. Shooting them with water guns in subways, and doing other mean things children cook up to harass adults.  They, of course, as kids, think they’re hysterically funny.  However, if you misbehaved in class, you were threatened to be sent to the principal’s office to face the spanking machine.  The children didn’t exactly know what this machine did but all feared it.  Anyone who came back from suffering its effects did not want to talk about it for fear they would be sent back to face it again.  It was a threat that hung over them all through their school years.  Upstage on the set is a cardboard box with a black block letters on it that read: Spanking Machine.  We think that we are going to actually see this device.  But, of course, we don’t; however not seeing it, we can only imagine it as the traumatized children can.

She and Scotty lost contact with each other for 40 years until one day, she gets an email from him.  Gomez, as Scotty, types out his email, verbalizing the text in the raspy asthmatic Cuban-accented voice she gives him.

Gomez creates her characters not so much physically- well, that too- but relies more on voice.  He tells her he lives in Miami and invites her down for a visit.  She somehow gets the impression that he’s very wealthy.  Turns out differently as we find out during her stay in Miami.   He now lives with his wife and mother-in-law- a Cuban thing- who do not appear in the piece.  However, Margo gives us glimpses of their characters through her vocal delivery.  To indicate different situations and physical locations, she announces a costume change and will change to a tropical blouse for her Miami visit, a bomber jacket when she becomes truly comfortable as- what she comes to realize- a dyke.

Gomez doesn’t shy away from speaking about the sexual abuse that she suffered not only from men but from women as well.  She gives anecdotes about responding to an interesting man’s invitation and visits him in his apartment to see his collection of tropical fish only to hear him lock all the doors in his apartment. After managing to escape, she came away with a water-filled plastic bag of guppies when she was promised exotic tropical fish- one of the reason she agreed to visit him.  One of her male abusers has an extensive ceramic collection which in a wonderful depiction she doesn’t hesitate to destroy in order to get him to release her.  At one point she relates graphically how she was sexually abused. Thankfully, the necessary revelations about other bad stuff- sadistic treatment of brown kids by Irish nuns: Sister Kevin McGillicuddy (?) for one, for instance, are scattered among humorous anecdotes.  Her only props are a table, a tall stool,a chair and a shopping bag containing a few items. Through her verbal delivery alone she allows us to magically see the scene.

Spanking Machine does not run smoothly.  It has stops and starts. It as though she takes time to gather herself to talk about the trauma she has undergone throughout her life as a gay, dark-skinned Cuban, Catholic girl growing up in New York, whose only friend in the third grade was Scotty the first boy she ever kissed.

Marga Gomez’s one woman show Spanking Machine, is at The Marsh in San Francisco on Valencia Street between 21st and 22nd through October 23.  Tickets and information can be found at the Marsh web site:




Two Trains Running – Multi Ethnic Theatre

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

The Multi Ethnic Theatre in association with Custom Made Theatre presents August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running.”

“Two Trains Running,” which premiered in 1990, is set in the 1960s. It is one in a series of Wilson’s plays for each decade from the 1900s through the 1990s called the “Pittsburgh Cycle.” The plays are about Black lives in America.   Opening night at Custom Made Theatre there was a lighting glitch so someone offstage verbalized the lighting cues. Nevertheless, it was not a problem.

“Trains,” takes place in 1969 over a few days; it was directed by Lewis Campbell (who also designed the set).   Wilson, like other 20th Century playwrights, such as Eugene O’Neill, wrote plays that unfold slowly, asking the audience’s patience as the characters take their time telling their stories. There is a lot of talk and very little action. The dialogue throughout concerns Black’s relationship to the white man, much of it tracks with the current white-cops-shooting-innocent-Blacks milieu. A major character in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” is Aunt Esther, mentioned, but never seen. In earlier plays, she is 285 years old. In “Trains” she is 322. She is known as the “washer of souls”. All believe that if you visit Aunt Esther and do as she says, your wish will come true. Yet she is rarely home or is “sleeping.”

With the audience on three sides of the realistic set, depicting a typical diner complete with booths, a jukebox, and pass-through window to the kitchen, we felt we were patrons in Memphis Lee’s (an excellent Bennie Lewis, whose scowl almost outdoes the late Toshiro Mifune’s) diner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along with his regulars. Prices written on a blackboard for fried chicken with dumplings, beans and corn bread, and steak and potatoes range from 65 cents to $2.35; and coffee is a nickel.

Sleek, catlike, well-dressed Fabian Herd plays 40s-something Wolf, a numbers-runner. Old man owner Memphis Lee, who comes off angry most of the time, railing at cook/waitress Risa (played with quiet introspection by Beverly McGriff), warns Wolf about using the diner’s payphone for his business. The city wants to buy his building cheap and tear it down, part of the gentrification of the city, forcing out black communities. He holds out for a higher price. A heavy-set, older man, Holloway (Stuart Elwyn Hall) sprawls in his booth, doing what looks like crossword puzzles, or studying racing forms; he often interjects philosophical comments. Keep an eye on the actor to catch his facial expressions as he listens to the others. For most of the first act we hear about West, the undertaker- black suit, black hat, black gloves. When we finally meet him (Vernan Medearis ), we are surprised. He appears to have once been a much larger man. Sporting a gray goatee, he comes in for his cuppa, always reminding Risa to bring the sugar packets. He talks about the man he’s burying for whom a crowd of mourners line the block for a last look, and the treasure the dead man is bringing into the afterlife. He boasts that he will never go out of business. People are always dying. Opening night, Anthony Pride replaced Geoffrey Grier as the believable, pathetic character of Hambone. Hambone is obviously mentally ill. Seems he was duped into painting a fence and never got paid what was promised. Other regulars want him to shut up, and some sympathize, especially Risa.

Sterling (a stocky, handsome Keita Jones), a newcomer, appears. He is a young ex-con who brings to the diner the current events of the time about which the others seem uninterested or cynical, and a stack of flyers for a Malcolm X rally which is building up outside. He wants a girlfriend and courts Risa. Risa has mystery behind her, which is obvious physically, but doesn’t speak about it, leaving us to wonder what she is all about. The play ends with Sterling rushing in with Hambone’s payment. There’s an explosion offstage and sirens.

I encourage you to see this play which runs through August 30.

Go to for information and tickets.

In August 2016, Multi Ethnic Theatre will present Wilson’s last play, “Radio Golf” (August in August) at the Gough Street Playhouse.

“Don Quixote” – Marin Shakespeare Company

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

Ron Campbell as Don Quixote

The tale of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance has been transformed from the written word into many forms from plays, to operas, to movies, even television specials.  Written, allegedly, by Miguel de Cervantes from a found Arabic text, “Don Quixote de La Mancha”  is considered the to be the first modern novel.  Playwrights Peter Anderson and Colin Heath certainly had a lot to work with in adapting the novel for its United States premiere at the Marin Shakespeare Company’s 2015 Season.  In a preview talk, Canadian Anderson admitted that the work was difficult and that they had to cut it down to make it meet his and Heath’s vision of how they saw the completed production – as Commedia d’ell Arte theatre.

The playwrights and director Lesley Schisgall Currier couldn’t have cast a more perfect Quixote than movement and solo artist Ron Campbell and, as his co-star, the equally outstanding John R. Lewis as Sancho Panza.  Ron Campbell’s skills as a movement artist are evident in portraying Quixote’s physical fluidity and dance-like actions.  The leads were enhanced by an ensemble of five actors in various supporting roles: Cassidy Brown, Rick Eldridge, Lee Fitzpatrick, Monica  Ho, and Jed Parsario.  Adding to the wonderment of this fantastic production were the twenty five or more half-masks hand-crafted especially for this production by multi-talented, David Poznanter, who is also an actor, circus performer, and acrobat.  He spent a year in Italy learning mask-making from a famous mask-maker, Matteo Destro.

The ensemble: (Not in order) Rick Eldridge, Cassidy Brown, Lee Fitzpatrick, Monica Ho, and Jed Parsario, with Ron Campbell.

Poznanter’s masks enable an actor to change  and embody the character, which is significantly recognized in all the actors.

Quixote, having steeped himself in a library full of books on knights and chivalry, claimed the mantle of a knight, bent on saving damsels in distress, and putting to rights social and political wrongs.  Yes, he was delusional; believing things were what they were not – an inn, a castle; a bucket on a broom handle – his horse, Rosenante.  A barmaid, a princess.


Ron Campbell as Don Quixote and John R. Lewis as Sancho Panza

I read Book One of “Don Quixote” and wondered how the playwrights would handle some of his most difficult adventures: the windmills which Quixote insisted were giants; the scene with the chain-gang; the flock of sheep, etc.  But they did so, beautifully; assisted by all whose efforts went into making a truly inventive, memorable production.

Don Quixote plays Friday nights and weekends through  August 30 at  Forest Meadows Amphitheatre on the Domincan University campus in San Rafael.  Go to for more information.



Photos by Steven Underwood

“Cymbeline” – Marin Shakespeare Company

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

Paul Abbott as Cymbeline, Rod Gnapp as Belarius, with Zack Purdy and Patrick St. John as the Princes with Jed Pirario as Pisanio.

William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Marin Shakespeare Company.

Directed and adapted by Robert Currier, with a cast of thousands- no, not really. No one really knows much about Cymbeline, Shakespearse’s convoluted rom-com (in today’s parlance), except that it’s alleged to be one of his last plays.  It is believed to have been written in 16ll and to echo the Bard’s own coming to terms with his family as he approaches his final act. Director Robert Currier has effectively trimmed the play to a manageable couple of hours and still maintain its coherence, continuity and major and minor plot twists.  To his credit as well is his clever incorporation of contemporary tropes, such as Nat Curries’ additional lyrics to Brooks’s and Warner’s “That’s Amore.” Another that elicited delightful laughter from the audience was Rod Gnapp’s (the leader of the uncouth Mountain Folk of Wales, Belarius) deliberate breaking of the fourth wall to clarify the multiple names for his “adopted” sons to help us make sense of the confusion.  The play is upbeat and never loses our interest thanks to the actors who maintain high energy throughout.  Kudos to composer Billie Cox for her musical adaptations from Shakespeare’s lyrics as well as original compositions.  She created lovely musical interludes in the style of the era, everything from romantic ballads, a rock tune played on a ukulele no less; a madrigal, a monologue mimicking Gibert and Sullivan; an Irish dirge and a jaunty woodsman tune.  Cox also designed the sound for the outdoor arena, enabling us to hear every word and song lyric.

Cymbeline is the bellicose King of the Britons, beautifully played by a believable, heavily-bearded Paul Abbott.  Cymbeline ruled when Rome occupied Briton and battles were still being fought over payment of the tribute owed Rome. His daughter and only heir is Imogen (a sweet yet strong and determined Stella Heath).   In order to ensure that she will stop at nothing to attain her goal, she at one point disguises herself as a boy.  Cymbeline’s (nameless) narcissistic and perfidious Queen (Lee Fitzpatrick) had a son (from a previous marriage?), Cloten (Thomas Gorrebeeck).   He is spoiled and self-indulgent, a dandy with shoulder-length blond locks.  He swans about on stage flipping those locks, seeing himself as the proverbial God’s gift, yet cannot understand why he’s rebuffed!

Thomas Gorrebeeck as Cloten and Lee Fitzpatrick as his mother, the Queen

The plot begins to confuse when it is revealed that Imogen had two brothers who were kidnapped as infants by Belarius, from Cymbeline and their mother.  We meet him and his charges near play’s end.  The boys, Guiderius, known as Polydore (Zack Purdy) and Arviragus, known as Cadwall (Patrick St. John) are now twenty-something strapping mountain dudes in their own right, but innocent of their rightful heritage.  They leap agiley about the mountain set created by set designer Jackson Currier.  Then there’s Posthumus, a poor orphan, raised by Cymbeline.  He’s shy thus non-assertive and hopelessly in love with Imogen. Actor Thomas Gorrebeeck plays both Cloten and Posthumus, two totally different characters.  Unless you followed the cast list, you’d never know this, which attests to the actor’s versatility. A delightful, expressive Jed Parario, who moves about the stage like a dancer, plays Posthumus’s loyal servant, Pisanio.

Imogen and Posthumus    Stella Heath as Imogen and Thomas Gorrebeeck as Posthumus

Others vie for Imogen’s hand.  Davern Wright credibly acts the part of the most aggressive suitor, Iachimo, rightly billed as “a smarmy” Italian.  His cohort played by Zack Purdy is Philario; in the mix is a Frenchman played by Rafael Sebastian.  Glenn Havlan returns to Marin Shakes for a third season after a successful run of “Taming of the Shrew,” by Theater of Others in San Francisco of which Havlan is the founder and director.   In “Cymbeline” he plays a musician as well as a rather thankless rôle as Calius Lucius, the Roman Consul; Xander Ritchey played his Captain. Caius’s soldiers are played by Carolyn Doyle and Isabelle Grimm. Shakespeare most always writes otherworldly characters into his plays.  “Cymbeline” is no exception: Debbie Durst plays Cornelius, a doctor in the ruler’s court.  She is referred to as a witch, carries a wand, and is dressed in a black cowl and flowing gown.  Ms. Durst delivers her portends with commanding, yet wry ominousness.   Lee Fitzpatrick also plays a Goddess (the dead Queen?) and Annika Gullahorn is double-cast as a court gentlewoman and an Otherworldly Mercury.

Costume designer Tammy Berlin deserves praise for her work in this production.  A costume can either make or break the believability of a character. “Cymbeline” will play at Marin Shakespeare’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University of California in San Rafael, through July 26.  Go to: for more information and a schedule of upcoming plays..

“The Taming of the Shrew” – Theater of Others

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

Presented by Theater of Others.

Director Glenn Havlan’s “Taming of the Shrew” is not your usual “Taming.”  Havlan has created a most outrageous, boistrous, raucous  version of Shakespeare’s comedy through costuming and staging.  He has rearranged the auditorium at the Kelly Cullen Community Auditorium on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco to accommodate his free-wheeling, in your face (literally) cast of fifteen.  The audience sits on folding chairs, angled off to the side on the floor where most of the action takes place, while in the Induction (Scene I), the tinker Christopher Sly (Mason Waller) and his “lady” are ensconced on a chaise lounge on the stage.  The Players below  are welcomed by the chiseled,  stentorian-toned, Lord of the Household (Greg Gutting); his huntsmen played by Richard Gutierrez and Paul Seliga, and his Page, Zach Simon, who also plays Sly’s “lady.”  Thus the play begins.

Maria Graham offered costume assistance, working with the actors to come up with inventive attire, from rag-tag to formal with matronly and cocktail somewhere in between.  What is a Shakespeare’s comedy without switching or mistaking identities, gender confusion, and a long lost heir suddenly being revealed.  Basically Baptista (Irving Schulman), a gentleman of Padua, must marry off his eldest daughter, Katherine,  before the younger, Bianca (a sweet, comely Alaish Wren).   No one wants to marry headstrong, feisty Katherine (aptly played by Nitika Nadgar).  Outstanding suitors for Bianca are Hortensio. who is to prove his worth in the arts but has no talent.  And  Gremio- the three “Rs”; and he woos her in Latin.

Petrucio, a gentleman of Verona, is Katherine’s suitor, the only man willing to take her on.   Petrucio is played by a very physical Dan Mack, whose red hair signals a well-suited temperament for the role. He appears mostly in formal dress, yet his wedding outfit comes as a delightful shock and surprise.  Other “players” Are Lucentio (Edwin Jacobs), a Gentleman of Pisa, his servent, Tranio (Lijesh Krishnan); Biondella, Lucentio’s dithering secretary (an understated and subtly comic Kristin Anundsen).

As in Shakespeare’s time, the audience becomes part of the play.  Half the fun is interacting with the actors when they purposely break the “fourth wall” to make you part of their act.

Final performances: Fri May 29; Sat, May 30, 8PM; Sun May 31, 2PM $10.00 or Pay what you will.

Kelly Cullen Community Auditorium

220 Golden Gate Auditorium,SF, CA

38 Geary, BART, 19 Polk.


“Jesus Christ Superstar” – City College of SF

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

1970 album cover for the American musical production.


The theatre arts department of City College of San Francisco has done it again,  in fact, it exceeds its previous productions with  Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice’s iconic rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.”   It literally rocks the house!

Director and choreographer Deborah Shaw and musical director Michael Shahani, worked closely with set designer Patrick Toebe and lighting designer Jeffrey Kelly to create what Shaw described as a “steam punk” atmosphere, enhanced by George Georges sound design of clanking metal and hissing steam.  A metal scaffolding makes up the many-leveled set, backed by what appears to be a wall of thick, heavy, frayed ropes descending from the flies behind a scrim against which an array of psychedelic lights play, often changing colors and pulsing in time to tunes like “What’s the Buzz.”   Shahani’s orchestra can barely be seen behind the scrim, but it’s certainly heard.

The large cast of close to three dozen actors, singers and or dancers consists of students, alumni, and other Bay Area talent.  They are outfitted in Ralph Hoy’s inventive costumes.  He and his staff: Sarah Moss, Julie Wong, Tatiana Prue, and Steve Murray, gives the production a certain 1930s Brechtian look.  Characters such as the Soul Girls, Dancers, and Prostitutes wear short-skirts and blouses of colorful netting with flared sleeves, and low-cut, form-fitting, leather-like and metal studded vests, in the “Xena, Warrior Princess” mode.  Their feet are shod in thick-soled, black, stomper boots fastened with metal buckles.  The Three Angels’ (Natalie Ayala, Kasia Kransnopolska and Holly Labus, who also double as Prostitutes) costumes are augmented with black wings.  The apostles and chorus wear outfits of early 20th century laborers.

After the Overture, black-bearded David Peterson as Judas Iscariot enters, singing “Heaven on Their Minds.”  He wears a long, brown duster over pants and vest;  his long hair in dreads, eyes rimmed in black.  The amazing Peterson is electric, charismatic and passionate, yet, at the same time he allows Judas’s vulnerability and confusion to surface, so that you almost feel sorry for the guy for selling out Jesus.  Peterson’s  voice,  like rough velvet, is strong and full of emotion.

Jesus (Zachary Bukarev-Padlo)  is not the robed, long-haired, bearded sandal-wearing  ethereal being we’re used to seeing, but a sweet-faced guy with a neat goatee and short blonde, wavy hair.  He wears a khaki shirt, jodhpurs, boots, and a strange skewed plaid vest with an over the shoulder strap.    Bukarev-Padlo’s tortured delivery allows us to experience his dilemma as he questions himself and his fate.  Unasked for demands made on him prove too much.

Jenneviere Villegas plays a red-headed Mary Magdalene.  You hear the sweet, plaintive keening of unrequited love  in her voice as she sings, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”  Like David Peterson, Villegas, too, shows her vulnerability to and confusion about her feelings for Jesus.

Pilate is played by Ron McCan whose physical disability serves to enhance his role.  He pushes himself from his “throne”/electric chair, moves purposefully across the stage wearing a kind of crown and embroidered robe, singing, “Pilate’s Dream” in which he meets Jesus, singing words that tell of his  guilt for what he’s about to do to him, which he overcomes with his arrogance.

The entire production is remarkable, though some scenes stand out:  One lively scene is of Jesus destroying the temple where drugs are sold, and pimps tout their prostitutes, as the chorus sings, “Temple”;  another- gut-wrenching and dramatic-  is that of lepers costumed in off-white pants and extended sleeved shirts resembling straightjackets, crawling, pulling themselves across the stage, moaning as they confront Jesus, grabbing at him, beseeching him to heal them.  Overwhelmed, he tells them to “heal themselves.”

Act 1 ends with Judas, priests Annas (Kevin Hurlbut), and Caiaphas (David Richardson), and the chorus singing the rousing, “Damned for All Time/Blood Money,” and Judas accepts his 30 pieces of silver.

Priests seem always to be dressed in long black gowns.  Ralph Hoy gets around this  stereotype by outfitting them with multi-lensed eyewear that looks like something out of “The Matrix” (or an optometrist’s office), which are not only inventive, but extraordinary and effectively sinister.

Outstanding actors are David Richardson as  Caiaphas, the head priest.  Richardson intones in his basso profundo, singing with Annas the above number, and with other priests (Joey Alvarado, David Herrera, and Jack Landseadel) “This Jesus Must Die,” and more.   Pablo Soriano gives a believable performance as the wide-eyed, intimidated, burdened apostle, Peter, who denies Jesus in “Peter’s Denial” in a scene with Maid by the Fire (Elizabeth Castaneda), Mary, and old man, and a soldier.   Another is Spencer Peterson as Herod, playing the king as only Spencer Peterson can: as a heavily made up, top-hatted, flamboyant gay dude in tights and a huge brown leather cod-piece straight out of an early Roman comedy.  He dances, prances, and jumps around the cabaret-like set singing, “King Herod’s Song (Try it and See)” with the dancing girls, prostitutes and chorus.

After Judas’s suicide (Judas, Annas, Caiaphas, and the Chorus sing the dirge, “Judas ‘s Death”), he appares to Jesus as a vision in a tuxedo- jacket open revealing his bare chest- black bow tie, and red suspenders.  He, the Soul Girls, Dancers, and Angels dance and sing “Superstar.”    Brilliant!    The staging of Jesus’ crucifixion (“The Crucifixion,” Jesus, Mary, the ‘apostles), is beautiful.  Enhanced by Kelly’s lighting-  light beams fan out behind Jesus like searchlights,  he appears in silhouette, arms out-stretched.

Each actor, including priests, Herod, Pilate, and the apostles play more than one role.  Exceptions are Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene, and Caiaphas.   That said, each sprechstimme-singing  or singing actor is believable in his or her role.

One problem with a large cast is ensuring that everyone is invested in the story and its principles.    An audience is aware when this doesn’t happen; it feels it; something is off.  I didn’t sense this at all.  Each actor gives his or her all to make  “Jesus Christ Superstar” a success.  The singing and acting in this production is some of the best I’ve seen in a musical.

April 26-28 are its final performances, so  don’t miss it.

Diego Rivera Theatre on the City College of SF campus, Gennessee @ Judson, or Phelan and Judson. Go to City College of SF website, click on index, scroll down to  Theatre Arts Department current productions for more information.



The Fringe of Marin Lives On! 31st Season 4/19-5/5

By David Hirzel, Flora Lynn Isaacson, Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

The Fringe is upon us again.  We have lost our guiding light, Annette Lust, but the long-running series of one-act theater productions she created and nurtured through 31 seasons lives on, still suffused with her energy, and now her memory.  Opening night April 19, with its mixture of low comedy, witty insight, and real-life drama, is a powerful testament to that memory.

The evening opens with “Mr. Wonderful” (long-time Fringer Harold Delinsky) and MC/writer/director George Dykstra exchanging vaudevillian one-line groaners between sets of 60s popular dance (think “the Swim”) by a trio of local high-school students.   Danielle Littman has written a touching, insightful ode to the “Last Letter” that will ever be carried by our dwindling USPS, and actress Hilda Roe delivers.  Maureen Coyne and Al Badger return to the Fringe with their trademark well-tuned performances, this as a married couple who never quite got what they wanted in Norma Anapol’s “Rose Levy Learns at Last.”

After the Intermission, the Romantic poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Molly McCarthy) comes to life, choosing “Not Death, but Love” (written and directed by Roberta Palumbo) and leaving the father who never quite knew her for the poet now taking her away to new and unknown adventures.  “The Dead Celebrity Line” (by Gaetana Caldwell Smith) looks into the inner workings of a lingerie store, and the lives of the young ladies in retail.  Amazing performances by Hilda Roe and Flora Lynn Isaacson reach deep into the real tragedy that war brings to those who have no part in it in David Hirzel’s “The Two Hundredth Day” (very well directed by Steve North).  The evening comes to a well-tuned close with a witty take on the complicated ritual of birthday-gift choices in modern marriage.

As always, the Fringe of Marin continues to surprise and delight.  Program Two opens tonight.  See the Fringe website for performance times and dates for both programs.


All shows at Meadowlands Hall, Dominican University in San Rafael.

Five performances only of each program, weekends.

Last show May 5 matinee.

Box Office 415-673-3131

Fringe of Marin website and program

Review by David Hirzel (author of “The 200th Day”)

“Beautiful Creatures”

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, from the novel by Kami Garcia, starring Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, and Viola Davis.



After reviewing “The Gatekeepers” for this web site, I wanted to see some fantasy, something light, so I checked out “Beautiful Creatures.”    Another reason is that one reviewer said that Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson make a meal of the scenery.  I love both and enjoy them in anything, and listening to Jeremy Irons’ voice with its oily, James Mason-smooth, rich delivery.   If anything, maybe this film will get teens to read.

It is a modern fairy tale in which the sought after young girl is not a princess but a witch who comes from a long line of witches and warlocks.   Except they’re not called “witches” but “casters” as in casting spells.  Not casters like wheels for moving furniture around.  “Creatures” stars two unknown (to me, anyway) actors, Alice Englert as Lena Duchannes, the caster, and her teen-age suitor, Ethan Wate played by Alden Ehrenreich, who has the endearing vocal inflections and mannerisms of a young Leonardo diCaprio.  Alice Englert is the daughter of filmmaker Jane Campion; Alden Ehrenreich is said to have been discovered by Stephen Spielberg at a friend’s barmitzvah.  If he’s never acted before, you wouldn’t know it by his portrayal of Ethan.  He’s a natural.

Ethan lives in a small, moss-covered town in North Carolina. He wants to get out, and sees college as a way.  His only escape is books- good ones- literature.  Real books- paper backs.  He reads Vonnegut, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, Bukowski, and more.  His mother is allegedly dead; his father non-compos-mentis with Alzheimer’s and never appears.  Ethan has been cared for since infancy by Amma, played by Viola Davis in a familiar role as a wise, spiritual, all-knowing woman, who lives in a spooky house in the swamps.  She is the town librarian, dresses in the latest African chic: prints, bangles, etc, and has a key to a hidden vault of secrets reminiscent of Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code.”  Part of the town’s history goes back to the Civil War and each year the townsfolk take part in a Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Honey Hill.  There are flashbacks to that era shown in dreamy, surreal scenes in which a young woman a la Scarlett O’Hara, loses her young Confederate soldier to Union fire- but spookily brings him back to life.  (Could it be? . . .)

One of the things I loved about “Creatures” is that it shies away from stereotypes as much as possible in a fairy tale:  Lena, as a caster, is not a pale, anorexic, willowy girl who dresses in long, clinging, black dresses.  Though Ethan has been seeing her this way in recurring dreams, with long, black tendrils hiding her face.  In real life, Lena is the picture of rosy-cheeked health and dresses like a typical teen.   Anyway, seems she has been kicked out of every high school from here to Hades and ends up a senior at Ethan’s.  She’s the newby, and is taunted and bullied by her bland, blond classmates. (They suffer the consequences.)

Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons) lays down the law to Lena and Ethan.

Lena lives with her Uncle Macon Ravenswood (Jeremy Irons).  From the exterior, the house looks like the Munster mansion- all ropey vines, a squeaky, baroque, wrought-iron gate, a long, winding road o’er shadowed with cypresses festooned with Spanish Moss.  Ethan pays an uninvited visit hoping to talk to her.  He is the only one willing to befriend her, having, like I said, seen her in his dreams.  The heavily carved door is, of course, somehow ajar.  He pushes his way in.  We expect to see a dark room, dimly lit with wall sconces and candelabras; overstuffed, 17th century furniture, including a mahogany dining table with scrolled legs, ending in dragon claws, clutching amber balls. But what a delightful surprise!  It is nothing you’d expect.  When Uncle Macon appears, he is elegant- suavely dressed in cream silks, his grey mane swept back in deep waves.  He speaks in well-modulated, orotund tones.

Naturally, there is a curse that has to be broken if Ethan is to get the girl before she goes over to the dark side when she turns 16 in a few weeks, epitomized by her cousin Sidney Duchannes (Emmy Rossum), who wears slinky, red dresses, shades, and speeds around in a sporty red convertible.  You know she’s evil when she causes a squad car to suddenly career off the road and burst into flames.  Another hint is that her eyes became supra-naturally luminescent immediately before she executes an evil deed.  The introduction of Sidney was, I thought, an unnecessary element, except she was a device to influence Ethan’s best friend and get Lena to come over to the dark side.  But the family relationships got confusing.  What with shape-shifting Emma Thomson as Mrs. Lincoln, the town radical fundamentalist Christian AND Serafine, Macon’s dark, caster of a sister, and Lena’s mother, as well as a bunch of other ageless relatives:  Gramma (Eileen Atkins), Aunt Del (Margo Martindale), a little-seen brother, etc.

One of the high-lights of the film takes place at a banquet at Macon’s.  Everyone’s been called together to convince the young lovers to break it off.  Ethan finds himself seated at the sumptuous table headed by Macon, with Lena and all the relatives.  Everything’s quiet.  In the background we hear the theme from the 1959 movie, “A Summer Place.”  Broke me up.  Then the room starts spinning around.  I expected everyone to end up as butter when it stopped.

Amma shows the pair the secret vault in the library where the history of the Duchannes and Ravenswood families are kept in leather-bound tomes that only Lena is privy to.  Spells are cast, Ethan loses his memory, Lena stays in her room and pouts.  It’s as though they’d never met.  Soon they all gear up for the re-enactment.  There’s some shape-shifting going on, someone is accidentally shot dead with a real bullet and is brought back to life in another body.  Serafina?  Next time you’re in the woods and see a tangle of thick vines choking a tree, think of her.  Yes, it did get a little hard to follow.  Ethan drives down the road, off to college.  Lena is in her room studying.  She looks up.  Her eyes reveal her new state of being.  The movie ends with nothing resolved, but you come away feeling that somehow, the young lovers will end up together.



“The Gatekeepers”

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

The Gatekeepers, directed by Dror Moreh who also conducted the interviews.Poster from "The Gatekeepers"



By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

“The Gatekeepers” is a riveting documentary film that reveals the behind the scenes actions of one of Israel’s key tools for maintaining its repressive rule over the Palestinian community—Israel’s secret intelligence operations: the Shin Bet (appellation for Israel Security Agency or ISA, formerly Mossad) through candid interviews with ex-leaders, including archival, black and white film clips.   The film opens with a clip of Israel’s six day war with Egypt (UAR at the time), Syria and Jorden in June 5th-10th, 1967.  One result was that one million Palestinians were put under Israeli rule.  Shin Bet had focussed on internal affairs, but now expanded into combating foreign terrorists. A former member, Avi Dichter, shown being interviewed, was only eleven years old during the war.  He had to ask, “What is war?”

Dror Moreh was inspired by Errol Morris’s documentary, “The Fog of War,” where Morris interviewed Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War.  Moreh’s interviewees either retired or resigned from Shin Bet having gained a conscience regarding their actions. The film contains many memorable yet unsettling images, some  seem right out of a Bond or Bourne film, such as a successful bomb in a cell phone triggered to explode in the user’s ear; and the inhumane conditions of prisons where Palestinian suspects are tortured and held without trial.

Acting under Shin Bet orders, Israeli soldiers’ actions were not unlike those of the US military in Afghanistan.  Taught simple Arabic commands, they went to Palestinian homes to count how many lived in each.  Those who didn’t comply got their doors kicked down.  Soldiers grabbed men, bound and corralled them into trucks and hauled them off, leaving wailing women and children behind.  Unfortunately, one of the commands was mistranslated by one vowel so that “We want to ‘count’ you” came out as “castrate.”

Moreh interviewed one ex-leader who spoke of the beauty of the Palestinian olive groves.  Here, he included grainy black and white shots of soldiers driving through them.  Yet soon the land was confiscated and people were sent to refugee camps.   A Shin Bet leader, curious about the camps, paid a visit and was sickened by the conditions.   Illustrated by archival film clips, we saw people who once lived freely on their land relegated to rows and rows of one room concrete blocks.  Demeaned, Palestinians protested with rudimentary acts of terrorism against Israelis they now saw as” occupiers.”  As these acts increased, a curfew was instigated and as many as a hundred people a night were arrested and tortured.  One Shin Bet member laughingly bragged that some of the methods were such that a victim would confess to killing Jesus.  Shin Bet also relied on human intelligence (HUMINT).  We witnessed films of warehouses filled with rows of file cabinets containing dossiers on hundreds of thousands of alleged suspects.  Clerks sat at Microfiche machines running countless records from which Shin Bet recruited people to betray friends and family.  I imagined that their record-keeping rivaled those of the Nazis.  Villagers, fearing for their safety, ratted on each other.

One of the most unsettling interviewees was Avram Shalom.  In 1982, after the Israeli war with Lebanon, the organization recruited him to head it.  He’d been an officer.   He told Moreh that he felt he could do whatever he wanted and if you didn’t go along, heads would roll.  Sitting for the camera with his glasses and argyle sweater, Shalom, looked more like someone’s grandfather than a leader of a ruthless killing machine.   One incident was the blowing up of a bus transporting suspected terrorists, killing most.  Moreh asked him about it; Shalom couldn’t remember.   When asked if he thought the attack was illegal, Shalom replied that there was no such thing as an illegal action.  Moreh pressed on, “Not even shooting people with their hands behind their backs?”  He said he ordered killings instead of trials because he didn’t want the chance of an armed terrorist in court.  (Ironically, this sounds like a sound-bite from today’s US administration speaking about the “war on terror,” especially how it dealt with Osama bin Laden.)  Impassively and coldly, he answered Moreh’s questions:, “In a war against terrorists, there is no morality.” Anyone who argues with an Israeli soldier is shot in cold blood.  When questioned about their intelligence, he snickered, “All the intelligence in the world could not have predicted the worst terrorist acts,” which made me think of 9-11- there was plenty of intelligence, but no one acted..  He actually chuckled when he said that Shin Bet reminded him of the Nazi’s handling of Jews during the Second World War.   Palestinians see Israelis as terrorists.  Another interviewee said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.   One of their mottos is: “Victory is to see you suffer.”  Yet in n November 2003, four former heads of Shin Bet ( Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Gillon and Ami Ayalon) called upon the Government of Israel to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Retaliation for the bombing of the bus resulted in a suicide bus bomb in Tel Aviv.  It was hard to watch the news coverage of mangled, dismembered bodies among twisted, blackened metal.   Talks about the peace process between Shimon Perez, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat angered radical, right-wing Jews.  Rabin said, “We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, in a loud and a clear voice, enough of blood and tears … enough!”  Meanwhile, Israel soldiers were fighting Jews building illegal settlements in the West Bank.  Radical Jews were organizing to bomb buses carrying Palestinians.  They also plotted to destroy the Dome of the Rock, clips illustrated how they would do it.  This would bring on Armageddon and the long-awaited Messiah would appear, was their thinking.   Shin Bet infiltrated the Jewish underground to make arrests and succeeded in preventing further attacks.  Shin Bet did double-duty: investigating both Palestinians and their own people.   Yet they could not prevent the 1995 assassination of Rabin by Yigal Amir, a radical right-wing Orthodox Jew, for his signing of the Oslo Accords.

Their matter-of-fact attitude, calmness, and lack of emotion (except for Shalom’s giggles), made them appear as pathological killers.  Still, they verbalized their remorse.  Whether or not they meant it, only they would know.  With decades of stale-mated peace talks, the dismantling and building of settlements; the separation wall; promises, and on-going devastating attacks on both sides; two deadly intifadas; and the division between Hamas and Fatah, between radical, orthodox and moderate Jews; with Palestinians continuing to lob missiles into Jerusalem and Israelis retaliating with air wars and successful missile intercepts; the disagreement on the possibility of a two-state or one-state solution appear to be an endless problem of insurmountable proportions.  Shin Bet has its work cut out for them.

In 2007, the organization started a public recruitment drive with a blog where current members would answer questions; a Web site, and an international ad campaign aimed at computer savvy people.   Shin Bet’s heads stated that all this is geared towards “promoting a more accessible and positive public image for the secret service, long associated with ‘dark, undercover and even violent activity’.”

Django Unchained

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

Django Unchained, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino’s latest film takes place in 1858, two years before the Civil War-  the year that William Wells Brown published the first Black drama, Leap to Freedom; John Brown held an anti-slavery convention; Abraham Lincoln said  “A house divided against itself cannot stand;”  The  Richmond Daily Dispatch reported that 90 blacks were arrested for learning.  Early that year a series of events hostile to Blacks happened in San Francisco.  The case of the escaped slave, Archy Lee, heightened conflicts between pro- and anti-slavery contingents in town.  Black children were excluded from public schools and legislation was introduced to ban black immigration into California.

Tarantino made his engaging, well-acted and directed film in the true spaghetti-western style, with Ennio Marricone adding to the soundtrack as he had  for Sergio Leone’s films which featured Clint Eastwood.  However, he tackled a more serious issue than that of the typical pulp western of revenge, show-downs, and gun-battle one-upmanship.  Django Unchained is a seriously nutty “comedy” that elicits a sober discussion on enslavement, and its portrayal over the years by slaves to Hollywood.  Put bluntly, he does not employ mushy sentimental platitudes a la Spielberg in Amistad or The Color Purple.  It is about the deadly craziness of racism and slavery’s particular horrors.

“Django” stars Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the incredible German actor, Christopher Waltz, for whom Tarantino wrote delightful, erudite, highfalutin exchanges (as he did for Waltz in Inglourious Bastards).   He also wrote a lot of inflammatory dialogue for the white guys and some “domesticated” Blacks, including generous use of the “n” word.  Tarantino’s love for Japanese samurai films is evident in lots blood splattering, gushing, and spraying.

Dr. King Shultz (Waltz), a meticulous record keeper, is a bounty hunter who tracks wanted men: Dead or Alive.  He’s masquerading as a traveling dentist, evidenced by the oversize spring-mounted molar that jounces and wiggles on top of his horse cart as it rumbles along .  During a chance meeting in the woods at night, he comes across Django, an escaped slave in a chain gang.  Shultz frees him because  he knows where the bad guys are and elicits his help.  Django agrees only if Shultz helps find his wife, Broomhilda (an obvious play on the name Brunhilda of Wagnerian lore), played by Kerry Washington.  She is a slave at Calvin Candie’s Mississippi plantation.  When they ride into a town, the townsfolk are shocked:  “Looka there!  A n- – – – – on a horse!”  and dumbstruck.   A tavern owner shouts, “Get that n – – – – outta here!”  Over beers, Shultz tells Django that bounty hunting  is “like slavery, a flesh-for-cash business.”  He convinces Django to play his valet so as to come off more a business man than bounty hunter, and sends him off to a costume shop.  Django emerges dressed as Gainsborough’s  The Blue Boy  (Tarantino does have a wicked sense of cultural reference).   To his credit, Tarantino uses flashbacks sparingly; showing them only to flesh out character, such as Django and his wife and his early days as a slave.

Many scenes are shot through with gory brutality wreaked on blacks that are difficult to stomach, one of whipping a half-naked woman for breaking a few eggs.  Shultz and Django rile up white slave owners who resort to forming a hooded posse (precursors to the Klan?) who complain about the hand-made hoods- the eye holes, especially, which is hilarious; much needed levity in this bloody, violent film.  In one scene, Shultz asks Django about Broomhilda’s name, then tells him the German myth, how the hero, Siegfried rescues Brunhilda.  He then convinces Django to act like a slaver himself, to ingratiate themselves with Candie,  outfitting him in fine, well-to-do cowboy attire and a beautiful, hi-steppin’ horse, on which he cuts quite a figure.

By now, almost half-way into the near three hour film, I was getting impatient- when would meet we Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio)?  After witnessing a gruesome contest between slaves egged on by white plantation hands, involving a slave, d’Artagnan (Eto Assando), they arrive at  Candie’s plantation, CandiLand.   Candie is handsome, rich, smooth-talking, corrupt, and evil.  He stages a bloody wrestling-to–the-death matches between slaves in a gorgeously appointed room while guests drink and dine, oohing and ahhhing as they shrink from blood spatters.   Broomhilda is there, severely punished for trying to escape.  Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, made up like, as one critic said, Uncle Ben), is Candie’s kowtowing, simpering house slave with his own agenda, who literally hangs over Candie’s chair at the head of the table.  He bows and nods as Candie explains to his guests why slaves don’t revolt, using a skull to illustrate.  At one point, Shultz is visibly appalled; Stephen asks Django why it doesn’t bother him, being Black himself.  Django answers that Shultz is German, “I’m more used to Americans than he is.”

One scene in particular: Shultz gets Candie’s goat by mentioning the slave d’Artagnan, telling him that the man who wrote The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas, was Black.  Candie loses it spectacularly, in a mad rage.  It’s fair to say that Christopher Waltz carries the film.  When both Candie and Shultz  are literally no longer in the picture (Shultz had a trick up his sleeve) near the end, the film becomes predictable.  Django turns himself in to spare his wife.  But he has an out: money- lots of it.  The ending is, of course, an absolute blood-bath, no one is spared, not even Candie’s toady, incestuous sister, Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette).  Django gives Stephen his comeuppance, too.  There are horrific explosions and a happy ending.   Django impresses Broomhilda with his horse’s dressage, then the couple ride off into a Gone with the Wind-like sunset.  Django becomes a legend for Blacks, almost like Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Tarantino is known to tap “has been” actors for his films.  In Django, the TV actor Don Johnson plays a sheriff, and film star Franco Nero who was in the original Django  a decade or so ago, is seen as one of Candie’s guests at the wrestling match.  The film is up for several Academy Awards.  See it now!

This review can also be read in an abbreviated version at