December 18, 2013

Drama department produces Wilde satire
By Andrew Lino

Jim Gessner plays Jack Worthing, the character who represents conventional Victorian values in a play that satirizes the social conventions of late Victorian London.

Jim Gessner plays Jack Worthing, the character who represents conventional Victorian values in a play that satirizes the social conventions of late Victorian London.

The College of Marin drama department presented The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Lisa Morse, for two weeks this December. Morse praised Zachariah Thompson’s portrayal, who played protagonist Algernon Moncrieff. Morse also said she wanted to see how her Lady Bracknell, played by Ann Ripley, would stack up against Judi Dench’s portrayal of the same character. Zach far exceeded expectations as the charming bachelor, and gave the stage the comic light that some others struggled with.

Jim Gessner, who played Jack Worthing, had a very strong show, seamlessly transitioning from thoughtful suitor to Algernon’s competitive friend. It is a testimony to Lisa Morse’s talent as a director that the less-experienced members of the cast pulled off a great display, carrying their dialogue with grace, using their body language as much as their voices, and drawing the audience into the Victorian-era story that is possibly Oscar Wilde’s most famous play.

“Absolutely worth the money,” said COM student Niki Dukellis. “The actors worked very hard to put this together and it shows… It is hard to find a director who can put together wit and humor the way Lisa Morse does. We are very lucky to have her.”

October 28, 2013

‘Streetcar’ makes a successful run
By Andrew Lino

Elexa Poropudas stole the show as the lead, Blanche Dubois, in COM’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Elexa Poropudas stole the show as the lead, Blanche Dubois, in COM’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Jazzy blues played softly in the background as the James Dunn Theater came to life. Located in the newly reconstructed Performing Arts Building, the theater hummed as friends, family and fans gathered for the opening night of Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Directed by drama teacher W. Allen Taylor, the show starred Elexa Poropudas, Adam Roy, Laura Espino and Erik Ortman.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play centers around Blanche Dubois (Elexa Poropudas), an attractive southern belle  who is haunted by a troubled past. Unable to make it on her own, she moves into a small apartment with her sister, Stella Kowalski (Laura Espino) and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski (Adam Roy).

The tension mounts within the household as Poropudas’ character Blanche controls the stage with her emotive performance. From the tenuous love she feels for Mitch (Erik Ortman) to her hatred and fear of Stanley, Poropudas takes the audience to hell and back as she navigates New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Errors with timing and a few notable hiccups reminded the audience that this was a student production.

The spartan set, a 1947 apartment designed by Ron Krempetz, captured the frugality of post-war New Orleans.

In his white wife-beater tank top and cream-colored slacks, Adam Roy was a little over-zealous as he charged head-first into the brutish character of Stanley Kowalski. The role was originally played by Marlon Brando in the Broadway production that launched his acting career.

Erik Ortman does an excellent job transforming Mitch from a sensitive, mild- demeanored drinking buddy of Stanley’s, into a jealous, explosive, angry drunk as he learns of Blanche’s past.

Poropudas displayed her full talent in an outstanding performance that had the audience on the edge of their seats. Carrying the production past its shakier moments, her performance led the cast in an exciting, memorable show.

The 29-year-old drama major carries herself with the subtlety of an experienced veteran. She has performed in four COM productions at College of Marin.

“Elexa Poropudas did an amazing job as Blanche Dubois,” said drama teacher Lisa Morse. “The actors did a great job getting in touch with Tennessee William’s work and expressing its beauty.”

Poropudas’ presence on stage makes most people who have seen her perform wonder where her talents will take her.

The audience came away from the show feeling it was an evening well-spent.

As the drama department approaches its 50th anniversary, the community can look forward to seeing Allen Taylor’s “In Search of My Father… Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins,” a one-man show which he wrote, directed and will be starring in.

May 13, 2013

Audiences love ‘I Hate Hamlet’
By Lisa Kelly

The ghost of actor John Barrymore (Chuck Isen) tries to convince Andrew Rally (Brendan Cobia) to play Hamlet.

The ghost of actor John Barrymore (Chuck Isen) tries to convince Andrew Rally (Brendan Cobia) to play Hamlet.

Ghosts, Shakespeare, seances and sword-fights were the theme of the evening at the College of Marin drama departments’ production of “I Hate Hamlet.”

Written by Paul Rudnick and directed by Jeffrey Bihr, the play takes place in the New York apartment of the late John Barrymoren (Chuck Isen), who was widely known for playing the role of Hamlet. Andrew Rally (Brendan Cobia) is a new rising television star who is encouraged to move into this apartment at the advice of his real estate agent Felicia Dantine (Floriana Alessandria), as Rally has just been offered the role of Hamlet in the Shakespeare show in Central Park.

The play takes a fun turn when the ghost of Barrymore appears to Rally and teaches him to play Hamlet and ultimately seduce his innocent demure girlfriend Diedre (Amanda Eckstut).

The show was held in COM’s studio theater which lends to a more intimate feel than the larger  James Dunn theater. With the dim candlelit setting and the quaint feel of a vintage apartment it’s almost impossible not to feel like you’re really there.

Highlights included many special effects, such as smoke machines for when Barrymore’s ghost appears, as well as lighting effects during the seance to speak to the late actor. A fencing scene takes place just before intermission. Both Cobia and Isen had to take extensive lessons with fight choreographer Richard Squeri.

“Fencing was something I’ve never done, but it was a great experience and it was definitely my favorite part of the show,” said Cobia.

The rehearsals for the play lasted about five weeks, which couldn’t have been an easy feat for director Jeffrey Bihr. “Working with Jeffrey was amazing. He’s so creative and concise. I feel like I’ve grown as an actor by just working with him, and he has a lot to offer to the theater and it was an honor to be a part of his show,” Cobia said.

Audience member Lindsay John said, “This show is pretty hilarious overall. The whole cast had a really good chemistry especially Barrymore and Rally. Every single aspect of the show worked, and I was never bored.”

March 28, 2013

A look back: James Dunn interview

In Spring 2012 the Echo Times interviewed James Dunn about his long career and his hopes for the future, as Dunn was set to retire as the director of the Mountain Play. Listen to an exclusive interview and get a peek inside Dunn’s history and creative process.

*Note: Please make sure your sound is turned up high. The interview begins and ends abruptly.

March 15, 2013

James Dunn crosses the ‘Big River’
Performing Arts building renamed after Drama Department founder
By Jasmin Demil

Director James Dunn is honored during the opening night of 'Big River.'

Director James Dunn is honored during the opening night of ‘Big River.’

Photos courtesy of Robin Jackson

It’s impossible not to get excited by anything that was written by Mark Twain, one of the most classic of all American voices. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was just one more example of how perceptive Mark Twain was. The James Dunn Theater production gave the local audiences a rare opportunity to see this musical brought to life on stage. “Big River”, which ran for the past three weeks, featured country and bluegrass songs that reflected the music of the era.

The miracle of this production is how James Dunn, the producer of the show, and his associates Susan Tanner and Paul Smith, managed to convey the story of Twain’s outlook on social issues of the nineteenth century. Dunn tells the story of rambunctious young boys, con men, and slave traders, all of which existed in Twain’s America. At the opening night gala performance on Friday night, March 1, Dunn’s vision managed to draw his audience into Huckleberry Finn’s world, and also managed to wow us with his cast. Zachary Isen as Huckleberry Finn and Phillip Percy Williams as Jim the slave were especially brilliant, sweeping the audience away.  When Huck and Jim sang “River in the Rain”, while they were hugging each other during their rendition, the audience could feel the bond  between them and that Huck preferred to follow his heart to free Jim, instead of following the law.

The ultimate moment that took everyone’s breath away was when Phillip Percy sang “Free At Last.” He sang his heart out, and touched everyone with his outstanding performance. This was followed by a tremendous applause by the audience.  It made the audience not only hear, but also feel Jim’s pain being a slave, and to understand the complicated racial issues of 1885 America to the 1985 political idiom. Songs like “Muddy Water”, or “River in the Rain”, depicted the relation to the river, the chance for a new beginning for Huck, and freedom for Jim.

The atmosphere during and after the performance was filled with  appreciation   for the cast as well as for Dunn’s lifetime achievements. Dunn was touched and said, “Thank you very much, I love you all. College of Marin is a great school, don’t you ever forget it.” After the show, the audience remained in their seats and was asked by COM President David Wain Coon  to sing “Happy Birthday” to Dunn, who turned 80 this month. Everyone was singing along, and one could not help but have a warm and happy feeling with the thought of belonging to the family of the drama department.

The gala performance celebrated Dunn’s many artistic achievements, culminating with the dedication of the James Dunn Theatre. On the way out of the theater a power outage suddenly occured, but people continued to carry their enthusiasm outside into the corridors and helped themselves to cake and coffee. With the help of flashlights, the after-party turned into a “candle-lit dinner atmosphere”.

College of Marin went the extra mile by decorating the hallways with black and white balloons, and by decorating the walls with photos from the play. COM hired the “Brass Quartet” which played trumpets, French Horn, Quinee and Tuba, featuring classic, modern and traditional American music. All of these carefully arranged details helped to keep the audience in a great mood throughout the night. COM and the audience showed James Dunn that the love he felt was mutual.

Huck Finn and Jim travel down the river towards adventure.

Huck Finn and Jim travel down the river towards adventure.

February 25, 2013

Behind the scenes of “Big River”
By Jasmin Demil

Zachary Isen as Huckleberry Finn and Phillip Percy Williams as Jim, in a scene where they raft down the Mississippi River.

Zachary Isen as Huckleberry Finn and Phillip Percy Williams as Jim, in a scene where they raft down the Mississippi River.

Photos courtesy of Robin Jackson

The ingredients to create a skillful musical like “Big River” come from the collaboration between Director James Dunn, Musical director Paul Smith, and Choreographer Sandra Tanner. Put these three to work, and you have a creative team with tons of experience.

It is worthwhile to have a closer look into Dunn’s team. For example, Sandra Tanner started off as Dunn’s student at College of Marin and earned an associate arts degree, followed by a dance major at the  University of California Irvine. Later in New York, she earned a masters degree in  Fine Arts and Performance in Dance and Choreography. She finally returned to College  of Marin as a dance teacher in 1987. With both passion for dance and drama, Sandra Tanner turned a former student of Dunn’s into his peer. With her knowledge and love for theater and dance, she is a valuable part of creating the upcoming musical.

“The movements are driven to the nature of the songs that needs to be communicated through the dance. The actors have to create a character which is a composite of physical, vocal and movement style,” said Tanner. She explained that the musical has the elements of Country and American Folk dances, such as the Virginia Reel dance, a folk dance that dates from the 17th century.

The Cake Walk dance, traditionally done in the days of slavery during plantation gatherings in the Southern United States, will also be present.

Last but not least there is Paul Smith, who is in charge for the musical direction of “Big River.” Paul Smith, who has worked for over  thirty-five  years with James Dunn, and was the music director of the Mountain Play for over twenty-seven years, surely knows his craft. His first project with Dunn was “The Music Man” in 1977. Since then, he and James Dunn created one show per year at College of Marin.  He described Big River as a more gentle musical style, with Country and Folk Music, which is ideal for Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”. He also mentioned, “It was James Dunn’s wish to use COM students, which means anybody from the community can be a COM student, all ages, all abilities, and all talents. Paul is also working with students of his own. One female student, who took piano lessons in his last semester class, will also be in this musical. Paul explained  that the story is a gentle journey through America’s history, and the show reflects that. The problems and issues then were as current as the issues today. I am amazed, Mark Twain’s eyes and ears were so perceptive, it is a well written show.”

“The students rehearse five times a week from 6:30 to 10:00 p.m., and sometimes even longer. After six weeks of rehearsal, the sound quality improved very much.  The musical has a  large active chorus, the actors will sound just great. There will be Novel songs, as well as Gospel. All parts are true to the characters,” Smith said.

The community of Marin can look forward to an extremely skilled, motivated, and inspiring team, putting all the good  ingredients of storytelling, choreography and music into the Big River production.

Big River recently played to sold out houses at the Theatre Works in Palo Alto. Based on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures  of Huckleberry Finn,” the musical, which leads us through a part of America’s history will be open for the public at the James Dunn Theater for an Opening Night Gala Performance presented by the Performing Arts Department of College of Marin on March 1 at 8 p.m.

The community of Marin can further look forward to  upcoming events such as the spring dance concert 2013, called  “Moved”,  created by the dance faculty of College of Marin, and to “Contemporary Opera Marin,” created by Paul Smith.

Febuary 1, 2013

Coming soon: James Dunn’s Big River musical
By Jasmin Demil


The theater community of Marin welcomes a new musical titled  “Big River”. Coming to the James Dunn Theater at the College of Marin Kentfield Campus on March 1, Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” will feature country and bluegrass songs. “Big River” debuted on Broadway in 1985 and won a Tony Award for Best Score the same year, however since 1985 it’s rarely been shown as a musical.

The James Dunn Theatre production gives the local audiences a rare opportunity to see this musical brought to life on stage. The show depicts young Huck Finn’s experiences in the pre-Civil War South as a young teenage boy who lost his father and was then raised by a typical middle class family. Huck does not like to follow rules, and he  doesn’t fit in well with the ideas of the rest of society. On his journey, Huckleberry learns about prejudice, and he doesn’t like it. As a result  he rebels  and helps his friend Jim, a slave, escape to freedom.

Dunn, who turns 80 in February, said, “I have been doing this for forty-nine years, I will never retire. I have been able to work in the theater since I left College. I am a lucky man, even though I have been doing this all these years, I still get a kick out of it. Every show is new, every show presents a new challenge, I am a story teller!”

Dunn has a lot of experience, and is highly recognizable in the theater community. According to the James Dunn feature story in the COM Spring 2013 Credit/Noncredit Class Schedule, Dunn has received  six Bay Area Critics Circle Awards for Directing, the Los Angeles Dramalogue Award for Directing, the San Francisco Dramalogue   Award for Directing, and a Mill Valley Arts  Comission Milley Award.

Dunn was nominated for the Academic Senate for California Community College Hayward Award for Excellence in Teaching and received an award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts  in Marin County from the Marin County Cultural Society. He also recently received a Life Achievement Directing Award from the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle. After a long absence, musical plays  are finally back at College of Marin.

When asked about the obstacles to create a musical like Big River, Dunn responded, “Musicals are more difficult then straight plays, because you have singing, dancing, and acting at the same time, you just have to put it all together. We have Musical Director Paul Smith, and Choreographer Sandra Tanner from the Dance Department. We will need five to six weeks to create the musical, and it will run for three weeks.”

Dunn’s “Big River” will be open for the public at the James Dunn Theater for an Opening Night Gala Performance presented by the Performing Arts Department of College of Marin on March 1 at 8pm.


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