Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Mountain Play Association
Review by Patrick Thomas

Matt Skinner
Photo by Robin Jackson
Since 1913, The Mountain Play has been a Marin County tradition that takes theatre to the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais, the county's signature peak. There, at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheater, the Mountain Play Association stages one musical each year, and visitors come from across the Bay Area to enjoy the gorgeous setting (if not the stony seating) on the east slope of the mountain. Because of you-know-what, the Association was forced to cancel last year's production. This year, in the spirit of "the show must go on," they have moved indoors, to the much more intimate confines of the Barn Theater in Ross, home of the Ross Valley Players. (The Barn seats just 99 patrons, while the Cushing can accommodate 4000+!)

This massive difference in scale clearly presents enormous challenges for a company that is used to being able to do things like having actual vehicles drive on their stage, or have a fly-by of WWII era planes (which happened at the close of their production of South Pacific a few years back). To their credit, the MPA made no attempt to try and echo the scale they are able to achieve in their normal venue. In fact, they went in the exact opposite direction, with the program's Director's Notes stating "This version of the show forces us to let go of the tricks, realism, intricate sets and props, and instead, lean into our imaginations and the power of play." Smart move, though I must admit I would love to have seen how they would stage Camelot on Mt. Tam: I can imagine giant castle parapets, maybe a functional moat, and Arthur himself riding in on an actual horse.

Sadly, that didn't happen. So let's talk about what they actually were able to pull off.

True to director Zoë Swenson-Graham's vision, the production has a very homespun feel, with bare scaffolding, a couple of ladders, and a trunk full of props that the cast open and place around the set at the top of the show (after a brief reminder to remain masked up at all times inside the theater), which begins in a most charming fashion with David Schiller (as Sir Sagramore) playing an overture of sorts on a melodica. Then, oddly, Schiller breaks character and goes into another top of show announcement, re-reminding us to remain masked, silence our devices, and note the exits.

In addition to the venue change, this production of Camelot had another hurdle to overcome: losing their Arthur (it was to have been Phillip Percy Williams) less than week before opening night. Music director Phillip Harris graciously stepped into the role. Though he relied from time to time on cue cards he secreted in a book he carried at the performance I attended, and lost his place in the lyrics more than once, his voice is more than a match for the part, which is not generally considered a taxing singing role, which is why Richard Burton was able to play the role on Broadway.

Unfortunately, Phillip Harris, despite his vocal chops, lacks the regal bearing Burton brought to the part. He plays Arthur as a gentle ruler, forgiving of faults and kind to his people. This is great, as that's how the role was written. But despite this air of noblesse oblige, Arthur is still a sovereign, and Harris plays him too tenderly for this important aspect of the character to come through.

Although this cast is unbalanced, there are some performances worth noting. Izaak Heath's Lancelot is appropriately egotistical, carrying himself with a nose in the air attitude that befits the humbly arrogant nature of the character. Matt Skinner stands out in just the right way: Mordred is the villain of Camelot, and Skinner's glares and sneers are an excellent complement/contrast to the noble nature of Arthur, Guenevere and the Knights of the Round Table. Guenevere (Kristin Joy Serpa) is charming and sweet, maybe even a little too sweet. Yet, she clearly relishes the role, and it would have been interesting to see if her chemistry with the original Arthur would have felt more genuine.

This is a somewhat redacted version of the show that won five Tonys in 1961, as several characters are missing, including Merlin and Morgan le Fay. The songs are still there, which almost saves this production, but all in all, I'd rather have seen it on the mountain, under the stars, where the Mountain Play Association can truly shine.

Camelot is (because of the recasting) playing a reduced schedule through December 19, 2021, at the Barn Theatre, in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross CA. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket are $35 and the theater is general admission. For tickets and information, visit