Summer Theatre Reviews: 'Toke'-ing with 'Mary Jane'
CANNABIS CULTURE - After premiering in LA and playing Berkeley last year, Toke the Play had a multi-week run in Sacramento in June and July.
Author Dee Dee Kirkwood has re-tooled the show with some thoughtful improvements to the writing and a new ending encompassing a raid on a medical marijuana collective and a rally where cast members wear T-shirts saying "FREE POT (Dispensaries)."
The talented Tenaya Hurst returns once more as Weedee, the autobiographical lead character, and she's perfectly cast as the irrepressible pot enthusiast who tries to please everyone in her life – her mother, her children, her lovers – and only then, herself. As with other productions, the cast is augmented with talented performers who bring to life the people in Weedee's story, among them the always-hilarious Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Sacramento show featured a special treat: the return of the Pot Fairy who opened the show and provided its transitions. The casting of 70-year-old Scarlet O’Conner in this role was inspired. I also particularly liked Yuri Tajiri, who took us on Weedee’s trip across the Middle East with clever costume changes and dance; Jake Brooks as the troubled Woody; and Tony Lopez, who brought a special sparkle to all of his characters.
As the play opens, Weedee sneaks a toke behind her backyard clothesline so her children don't see. She takes the audience through her evolution: falling for a soon-to-be Vietnam veteran who turns her on to pot, joining a radical commune in Germany, marrying an uptight perfectionist, and finally finding happiness with a down-to-earth plumber who fashions her a pot pipe out of spare parts. It's a story of self-exploration and empowerment, from a fresh female voice on a mission. One fan of the show is Dennis Peron, the main force behind Prop. 215 and himself a Vietnam vet. Peron’s brother Brian contributed music to the Sacramento production.
Also this summer, Dell'Arte's newest production of Mary Jane: The Musical wrapped up a second successful run in Blue Lake (Humboldt County). The show is a non-stop musical revue that touches on every aspect of pot culture in the Emerald Triangle: indoor vs. outdoor gardens, the Reggae scene, pot's illegality vs. alcohol, and more. Joan Schirle returns as Mary Jane, the back-to-the-lander who trucks with fellow growers, "Humbold Honeys", lawyers, journalists, and others bedazzled by the temptation of participating in what can be described as an addictive livelihood.
The music is artfully written and performed, with stellar vocals and flawless orchestration in all styles; the choreography and staging are also terrific, as are the countless costume changes. A new song, "The Trimmer's Flamenco" deals with the tension between traveling trimmers and the local women who work beside them. Featuring both the women and the men in the ensemble in ruffled dresses, it was a crowd pleaser.
The second act, blissfully short, hit home with some heavy new segments about profiteers and the effect of illegality on growers' children and grandchildren. One song, "Officer and Child" deals with children being taught to hide their parents' deeds. Mary Jane pronounces, "I am tired of living in the shadows," and vows not to let her grandchild grow up stigmatized, although she doesn't say how she will accomplish that. Instead the focus harkened back to the lighthearted first act, with "Nuggy Nuggy Nuggy", a Bollywood-style dance featuring the engaging Pratik Motwani, to end the show on a happy note.
A performance of Toke is an activist-minded event, with nonprofit reform groups invited to participate and bring literature; by contrast, I was not permitted to leave literature at the theatre where Mary Jane was staged. That play, while entertaining, asked more questions than it answered. I hope to see both plays gain a wider audience, and keep the conversation about legalization going while celebrating cannabis culture in all of its forms.