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Center REP’s “Communicating Doors” is an Utterly Unique Audience Adventure!

By Jan Miller

Posted: 02/02/19

Photo caption: Sharon Rietkerk (Poopay) and Robert Sicular (Julian Goodman) are part of a wonderful six-person cast featured in Center REP’s Communicating Doors.

Center REPertory Company’s Communicating Doors, a dazzlingly ingenious play by Alan Ayckbourn, currently performing through February 23 at the Lesher Center for the Arts (1601 Civic Drive) in downtown Walnut Creek, CA., has a fiendishly clever plot that echoes a little of “Back to the Future” and “Psycho.”

This play mixes a dose of suspense with some effervescent comedy in what becomes a stunningly twisty time-travel thriller. What really stands out is the superb acting by each of the six cast members, along with a top-notch creative team.

The action begins in current times with an ailing Reece Wells (Charles Shaw Robinson), a wealthy businessman and owner of the Regal Hotel, in his suite with Julian Goodman (Robert Sicular), his business partner. Reece has called for the services of a self-styled “special sexual consultant,” a leather clad dominatrix by the name of Poopay (Sharon Rietkerk). After Goodman leaves the room the audience then learns that the only services requested of Poopay is that she witness a confession about the lethal nefarious conduct that Wells and Goodman have committed, including the lethal disposal of Wells’ two wives.

It is here that things begin to get a bit funky. Julian leaves the room, but when he returns, Poopay needs to make a quick exit to escape the murderous henchman. She does so through the communicating door of the hotel suite. But instead of taking her into the room next door, it takes Poopay back in time twenty years earlier to the very same room when it was occupied by Reece's second wife, Ruella (Julie Eccles), whom she attempts to forewarn. It is the very night on which, according to the confession, Ruella is to be thrown from the balcony by Julian. When Ruella and Poopay (her real name, the audience learns, is Phoebe) figure out what has happened, they realize they must get her out of there. When Ruella passes through the door, however, she does not go forward in time; instead she goes back, to 1978, when the same suite is occupied by Reece and his first wife, Jessica (Brittany Danielle), on their wedding night, seven years before the time when Reece confesses she was killed. It is here that she wishes to offer similar counsel to her disbelieving predecessor, Jessica. Then, returning to 1998, Ruella and Phoebe realize they must act now to avert history.

If all this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. But the time-travelling plot-twists never obscure the point that good can triumph overcome evil and that women, perhaps far more than men, have the capacity to be agents of change.

From the casting to the direction and design, this production is brilliant. Sharon Rietkerk demonstrates just how funny and versatile she can be, conquering the challenge to shift persona quite credibly from sleazy to quick-minded.

Each of the other talented cast members’ performances are also exceptionally good. Mark Anderson Phillips (as Harold) punctuates the proceedings with his own comic subtext as the inept but dedicated hotel security detective.

Director Michael Butler is superb as he packages the play precisely, keeping the time periods from colliding into one another. Richard Olmsted (scenic deslgn) and Maggie Morgan (costume design) also offer key ingredients in making Communicating Doors such an utterly unique audience experience.


"Communicating Doors”: Comical Crime Thriller, at Center REP, Walnut Creek

Millennial Notes
Alan Ayckbourn's Leading Ladies Escort Us Through Time

By Carly Van Liere

Posted: 02/06/19

In Center Rep’s production of “Communicating Doors,” three valiant leading ladies evade a murderous business man by hiding behind the communicating door of a posh hotel suite. But, this communicating door doubles as a time machine, transporting them twenty years into the future or the past—to 1983, 2003, or 2023.

At two hours and 30 minutes, wildly popular British playwright Alan Ayckbourn takes his time to spell out the convoluted time travel plot. But his roomful of intriguing characters keep the laughs coming, thanks to a cast full of the Bay Area’s finest actors.

In that hotel suite, black leather suited dominatrix Poopay (bubbly, funny Sharon Rietkerk), has been summoned by dying billionaire Reece. As Poopay, Rietkerk switches seamlessly between leather clad fierceness and deer-in-the-headlights sweetness. And delightfully bumbling Reece, gracefully played Charles Shaw Robinson, who charms us with his sincerity, despite his villainous past.

Reese wants Poopjay to witness his confession to the murders of his first and second wives. It seems that billionaires, past and present, think they can get away with murder.

When Reece’s cold and severe business partner Julian (menacing, funny Robert Sicular) tries to kill Poopay, she hides behind the time-traveling door. Much to her surprise, she swooshes back decades to the night that Reece’s first wife, Jessica was murdered. So, Poopjay decides to warn Jessica of her impending fate.

As Jessica, Brittany Danielle is hilarious and adorable, playing the ditsy-blonde archetype with flair and intelligence. As second wife Ruella, Julie Eccles commands the stage with leading lady energy. Along with Rietkerk, the three ladies make a fine trio of avenging angels, worthy of any cop show.

When all three bustling ladies end up in the present time, high comedy erupts. They pace the posh hotel room, trying to figure out how to prevent their murders in the past. The three women exhibit fabulous physical comedy skills as the dash around the room, and the audience roars with laughter. As Harold the bumbling hotel detective, Mark Anderson Philips shines with wit and tricks. Harold twirls his jingling hotel key-ring in tune with his comical limp. Harold miraculously ages twenty years right in front of our eyes. Fine comic timing, Mr. Philips!

Director Michael Butler has orchestrated a delightfully entertaining farce. The story clips along at a quippy, impressive pace, and the actors are  absolutely charming. Communicating Doors  delivers a silly, endearing romp through time. It makes me think about how I can change the past and the future. Perfect for a family night at the theater, and an excellent pick-me-up for a rainy Bay Area winter!


Time Heals Everything

By George Heymont

Posted: 02/04/19

Soon to celebrate his 80th birthday, British playwright Alan Ayckbourn has written and produced more than 70 plays (including his popular trilogy, The Norman Conquests) and seen his work translated into more than 35 languages. Those familiar with his writing are continually impressed by the complexity of his plotting, the solidity of his craft, the humanity to be found in his characters, and his ability to wrap the dramatic arc of a play in a healthy mixture of humor and compassion. As critic Peter Marks once noted: “Ayckbourn’s plays are worked out with the intricacy of whaling ships carved in scrimshaw.”

Center REP’s artistic director, Michael Butler, has directed his company’s latest production (a staging of Ayckbourn’s 1994 “comedic thriller” entitled Communicating Doors) with appropriate levels of mirth and mayhem. The play is set in an upscale London hotel with a value-added benefit. As the playwright explains:

“I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels (mostly in the course of touring plays around) and, in most cases, there’s this mysterious communicating door, locked from both sides, which leads God knows where. The rational side of me supposes that it’s used when my room is opened up to combine it with the one next door to become a suite. But there’s a side of me that much prefers the other explanation (that, actually, beyond that door lies another universe, another time continuum). I wanted to write about how, in many cases, our futures, our destinies rest in our own hands.”

Sharon Rietkerk (Poopay) and Robert Sicular (Julian) in a scene from Communicating Doors (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

“Science fiction is, amongst other things, a wonderful way to tell allegorical stories. It also creates a level playing field wherein the author is able to create a world in which all the laws are altered, reaffirmed, or even inverted so that, in a sense, we are all strangers. In Communicating Doors, the comedy grows out of the tension created by the thriller element. The narrative tool offered by the use of time is a fascinating element (under-used in my experience) for a dramatist to explore. In Poopay’s case, the opportunity is given to her to rewrite her life.”

Sharon Rietkerk appears as Poopay in Communicating Doors (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Poopay (Sharon Rietkerk) is the working name of a young dominatrix whose birth name is Phoebe. Her alias is an obvious play on the French word “poupee” (as opposed to hinting at a sex worker who specializes in clients with scatological fetishes). The play begins in July of 2023, as Poopay is welcomed into a suite at the Regal Hotel by the older Julian (Robert Sicular) while her intended client, Reese (Charles Shaw Robinson), is getting dressed in another room.

After some problems with mistaken identity and unrealistic expectations are put to rest, the elderly Reese orders Julian to leave the room and asks Poopay to witness his signature on a document in which the wealthy businessman admits to have had his first two wives killed. When Reese returns to the bedroom, Julian realizes that Poopay now has the key to solving the murders he committed for his employer. A struggle ensues during which Poopay seeks shelter in a closet which (unbeknownst to her) has a communicating door with magical properties.

Sharon Rietkerk and Julie Eccles in a scene from Communicating Doors (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Upon re-entering the room, Poopay finds herself in October of 2003. Her presence comes as quite a shock to Reese’s second wife, Ruella (Julie Eccles), who has trouble believing Poopay’s warning about her impending murder. After listening to Poopay describe details of how Reeses’s first wife, Jessica (Brittany Danielle) died, Ruella summons a hotel clerk, the dimwitted Harold (Mark Anderson Phillips), to her room.

Mark Anderson Phillips plays an imbecilic hotel clerk in Communicating Doors (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

After arguing about who should venture a trip through time in the closet (which only has room for one person), Ruella decides to test Poopay’s theory. But instead of returning to the room in 2023, she arrives in May of 1983 where she encounters the newly-wed Jessica, who is deeply in love with Reese. When Jessica calls the front desk for help, who should show up but Harold!

Mark Anderson Phillips, Brittany Danielle, and Julie Eccles in a scene from Communicating Doors (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Working on Richard Olmsted’s handsome unit set (with costumes by Maggie Morgan, lighting by Kurt Landisman, and sound design by Cliff Caruthers), Butler does a splendid job of keeping the actors on their toes and the audience on the edge of its seats as Poopay, Ruella, and Jessica travel back and forth through time with a winning combination of doubt and desperation. At one point, all three women end up in the same room at a farcically inconvenient moment which results in a grand display of physical comedy.

Sharon Rietkerk, Julie Eccles, and Brittany Danielle in a scene from Communicating Doors (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Though Poopay’s race against time is almost as delightful as 1973’s intricately plotted The Last of Sheila (co-written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins), it also affords the selfish Ruella a chance to develop some empathy and skillfully manipulate time (and Harold) in order to rewrite history. The six-character ensemble is top rate, with Sharon Rietkerk and Julie Eccles carrying the plot forward while Mark Anderson Phillips brings a talent for British buffoonery to bear as the bumbling Harold.

Charles Shaw Robinson and Sharon Rietkerk in a scene from Communicating Doors (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The play’s final scene delivers a surprise ending which wraps things up quite nicely, sending the audience home with big smiles on their faces. Performances of Communicating Doors continue through February 23 at the Lesher Center for the Arts.

Stellar cast rescues time-traveling farce at Walnut Creek's Center Rep

By Sam Hurwitt

Posted: 01/31/19

Time-travel stories tend to get awfully knotty awfully fast. “Communicating Doors,” the Alan Ayckbourn comedy that Center Repertory Company is performing at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, is a case in point. A dominatrix from a dystopian future stumbles through a time portal into the past and tries to prevent a murder or two that, from her perspective, have already happened.

The mode of transport is a hotel door that’s supposed to connect to an adjoining room but instead links to the same suite 20 years in the past (aided by Kurt Landisman’s swirling lighting effects and Cliff Caruthers’ eerie sounds). Richard Olmsted’s set of an elegant hotel suite amusingly (and conveniently) changes not a whit in the 40 years between the scenes in 2023, 2003 and 1983.

The play originally premiered in 1994, at which point the far-flung future sections were set in 2014 and the middle sequences that take up most of the play were set in the then-present. The version that Center Rep is performing has therefore been updated somewhat but not all the way, and the grim dystopian future looms only four years from now.

British playwright Ayckbourn is known for farcical comedies often based around one elaborate gimmick or another: different scenes shown simultaneously on a split set in “How the Other Half Loves,” real and imaginary families competing for attention in “Woman in Mind,” or a trilogy of plays that happen simultaneously with the same characters in different rooms in “The Norman Conquests.”

This one is more gimmicky than most. The script is short on zingers, more mildly droll than laugh-out-loud funny, but some of the time-travel shenanigans are awfully clever if you don’t think about them too closely. Much of the plot depends on even the most clever of characters being a bit thick-headed about how it all works, though most of the characters aren’t terribly bright to begin with.

While the script could be snappier, Center Rep gives it a terrific production with a superb cast, briskly staged by artistic director Michael Butler, who also directed “How the Other Half Loves” in his first season at the helm there in 2007.

Mark Anderson Phillips, who was also in that earlier production, is a hilarious highlight of “Communicating Doors” in the relatively minor role of the buffoonishly dim-witted and overconfident hotel detective.

Sharon Rietkerk is hysterically overwhelmed as hapless, time-tossed dominatrix Poopay, clad in gleaming black leather fetish gear by costumer Maggie Morgan. Charles Shaw Robinson’s Reese is a sympathetically doddering and repentant old man with many sins to confess, while Robert Sicular’s cold and severe Julian practically oozes contempt laced with menace.

Julie Eccles is a powerhouse of strength and cunning as Reese’s middle-aged and soon-to-be-murdered second wife, who takes full advantage of the unimaginably unexpected resources at her disposal to try to keep that from happening. Brittany Danielle is amusingly ditzy as young first wife Jessica, who might be technically the oldest of the three women in the overall timeframe but is certainly the youngest in the time when we encounter her.

Like a lot of time travel stories, this one is full of paradoxes that might not hold up to scrutiny if you ask too many questions (exactly the sort of thing critiqued at length in Quantum Dragon Theatre’s recently closed “The Do’s and Don’ts of Time Travel” in San Francisco). But it’s an awfully fun romp with some satisfying twists made 10 times better by the sharp performances of a masterful comedic cast.