As the weeks wind down toward the holidays, I'm glad I've been able to have some cultural endeavors amid the shopping and, you know, work. Last week, I left two different performances with two very different expressions on my face.
The first event was San Francisco Opera's final offering of the season, Puccini's La Bohème, a coproduction with Houston Grand Opera and the Canadian Opera Company. I went with my friend Julia Flynn Siler, a writer deep into work on her third book. She was so happy for the opera break, she took me for hamburgers at Jardinière, the classiest restaurant and bar near the War Memorial Opera House, or anywhere else, first. Yum. And we skated into the city, avoiding both traffic and rain.
So the evening started out strong and only got better. I've thoroughly enjoyed everything I've seen from SF Opera this season, and La Bohème, conducted by Giuseppe Finzi, was no exception. (This justifiably popular opera has such gorgeous and accessible music, it is likely the one I'd recommend to someone who's never seen an opera.) Two strong singers were cast in every leading role -- Mimi, Rodolfo, Marcello and Musetta -- and we were enchanted with those we saw. Soprano Alexia Voulgaridou was a gentle and tentative Mimi -- I don't mean in her singing, which was beautiful and assured, but in her manner; her Mimi was shy and unsure of herself (quite the opposite of the sexy Musetta), which made the complications of her love for Rodolfo even more heartrending in that cold Parisian winter. I'd seen tenor Michael Fabriano (Rodolfo) in Lucrezia Borgia, with Renée Fleming, three years ago, and he's even better now. His voice is so lush, warm and strong, I could listen to him forever. And he was such an ardent and conflicted lover, so destroyed by the poverty that was killing Mimi, he kept pushing her away.
As the other couple, soprano Nadine Sierra embodied the flirtatious Musetta, who loves the painter Marcello (baritone Alexey Markov) but needs someone with an income to have a better life. You could certainly understand why she'd prefer the handsome, passionate Markov -- so full of feeling not just for her but for his friends, which included the fine Hadleigh Adams and Christian Van Horn (I've seen them in many productions lately) as the other bohemians.
In fact, when Mimi is dying in their garret, it's always been the reactions of the friends that make me weep. Still hoping against hope, Rodolfo doesn't realize she is gone, but they do; and their sorrow...well, I was still tearful on the way out that night.
Two evenings later, I left the Marin Theatre Company with a smile, from remembered jokes and bits in The Complete History of Comedy (abridged), the latest show from the three-member Reduced Shakespeare Company.
This theater group began, with different actors, in 1981, when the trio performed a 25-minute-long Hamlet at Marin County's Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Six years later, the troupe created and performed the full-length play that brought the company wider fame, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). Since then, two new actors, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, have written eight more touring shows and performed in them with the third "new" member, Dominic Conti.
The latest play has puns, pratfalls and puppets, riffs and rundowns on commedia dell'arte and slapstick, slide shows of funny and unfunny people, putdowns of mimes and clowns. I liked the homage to Abbott and Costello's famous "Who's on First?" routine (done Shakespearean style), the mashup of Chekhov plays, the nod to silent movies using a strobe light (Conti was amazing in that), the sweet, quick-paced ditty Tichenor sang in appreciation of comedy geniuses well remembered and almost forgotten.
Most of all, I enjoyed the bit performed with two members of the audience, enlisted to provide sound effects for the action Conti and Reed improvised from concepts provided by the audience. The two really showed their chops with that one.
Comedy isn't everyone's favorite form of entertainment; nor is it mine, actually. And frankly, I'm hoping MTC will reprise -- or have these guys back to perform in -- one of their plays based on existing material: the Shakespeare, or The Complete History of America (abridged) or The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), all of which I've managed to miss. This show did not have me laughing aloud as often as I smiled and applauded the performers' commitment, timing and dexterity.
Even so, you don't have to laugh out loud to enjoy yourself. The play was a fine respite from the cold and rain and the depressing news of the day. If it rarely had you falling out of your chair that night, it certainly made you glad you'd forsaken your couch.
Reduced Shakespeare, through Dec. 21, Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, 415.388.5208, marintheatre.org.