Lust, lies and addiction fuel Shotgun’s Phaedra


Catherine Castellanos is Catherine and Keith Burkland is Antonio in the world premiere of Adam Bock’s Phadera, a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage. Below: Patrick Alparone (left) is Paulie, a prodigal son returned to the home of his father (Burkland) and stepmother (Castellanos). Photos by Pak Han

The sensational zing of the Phaedra myth has always come from the incestuous relationship at the story’s heart: Phaedra is secretly in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. When that love becomes less of a secret, tragedy ensues.

Everyone loves a titillating love story, especially when there’s a taboo to be wrestled to the ground. Euripides apparently wrote two plays involving Phaedra, but only one, Hippolytus, survives. Then, in the late 17th century, Racine wrote a version of Phaedra that has aroused audience interest for more than 300 years. Eugene O’Neill had fun with the Phaedra story in his pulpy Desire Under the Elms, and now Adam Bock, one of North America’s most intriguing playwrights, puts his own stamp on the tale.

Bock reunites with Berkeley’s Shotgun Players for the world premiere of his Phaedra, and though Bock has a long history with Shotgun (his Swimming in the Shallows will always be a Shotgun highlight for me), this new drama finds him working in mature playwright mode, with echoes of Pinter and Albee bouncing through the silences and percolating under the familial tension.

A classical Greek story now resides in Connecticut, more specifically in the well-appointed home of Catherine and Antonio (the spectacular two-level set is by Nina Ball and its elegance is just a degree or two above chilly). He’s a judge and she’s a businesswoman (she goes to work but we never quite know what she does). He has a son from a previous marriage, and together they have a daughter whose off at boarding school.


We learn from the opening narration, delivered by housekeeper Olibia (the precisely effective Trish Mulholland), that the marriage of Catherine and Antonio was one of convenience, with things like novelty and need being mistaken for passion and love. Many years on, the marriage is tense. He’s kind of an establishment blowhard with a penchant for knocking back scotch. And she’s an impeccably dressed (pricey-looking costumes are by Valera Coble) slab of granite, which is to say, she’s uptight and she’s never seen a coaster that didn’t need readjusting.

Catherine has built walls to barricade her loneliness and mask her regret at creating such an empty life for herself. It’s fascinating to see how Bock has created such an easily relatable modern version of Phaedra without having to apologize for her or make her a monster. It hardly comes as a surprise when we learn that Catherine has secret passions, especially when we see those passions ignited by someone who reminds her of the lost days when her husband – not to mention her future – was sexy and full of hope.

Director Rose Riordan exposes the danger and damage in this fine, upstanding family, and in addition to the gorgeous physical production (including sharp lighting and projections by Lucas Krech and white noise sound design by Hannah Birch Carl) she elicits some fine performances from her cast.

Keith Burkland as Antonio comes across as a violent man even if his lashing out is nothing more than verbal. There’s an exchange with his wayward son Paulie (the brooding, vulnerable Patrick Alparone) that makes the audience gasp as if there had been actual physical contact. Alparone’s Paulie, fresh out of rehab and working diligently to make his sobriety stick this time, is the real victim here, a child of parents so caught up in their own internal messes that they have no empathy for his.

Mulholland is an invaluable supporting player as the nattering housekeeper who cares for this family in ways well beyond her cooking and vacuuming. And Cindy Im is a bracing presence as Taylor, a friend of Paulie’s from rehab and a hopeful love interest.

Which brings us to Catherine Castellanos as Catherine, the complex motor of this story. Long one of the most powerful actors found on a Bay Area stage, Castellanos commands attention with the slightest movement or the loudest cry. Here, she is mostly restrained and absolutely heartbreaking. When emotions finally break through the carefully composed surface, there’s no escaping the intensity of lust, of sadness, of need. In many ways, she’s addicted to her secret love of Paulie because it’s the one connection that awakens feelings in her other than depression or boredom or swampy regret.

She can’t go to rehab to deal with this addiction, but she can spray it into the world like poison. Watching Castellanos do anything on stage is interesting, but this is rich, savage material, and her approach mixes elements of the damaged human, the compassionate woman and the unwitting monster to such effect that it’s hard not to love Catherine for all her flaws…until she goes far too far.

Bock’s Phaedra fascinates and compels. It titillates and terrorizes. It connects powerfully to the ancient and finds eloquent, emotional life in the here and now.


Adam Bock’s Phaedra continues through Oct. 23 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$26. Call 510-841-6500 or visit

Bock, Beck hit `Drunken City’

The arrival of a new Adam Bock play is always an event.

Even though the Canadian playwright decided to forgo the pleasures of life in the Bay Area for the rigors of a New York writer’s existence, we still love him. And as long as he sends us a play every now and then (like The Shaker Chair, a Shotgun Players/Encore Theatre Company production from last year), we’re happy.

Last week, Bock’s latest, The Drunken City, opened at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater in New York. Christopher Isherwood, writing in the New York Times, called it a “flimsy but sweet comedy” but generally liked the tale of a bride-to-be and her three bridesmaids out on the town just before the wedding, drinking quite a lot, fraternizing with men who aren’t their husbands or fiances and coming to some realizations about love and marriage.

The production marks the New York debut of Cassie Beck (above), a uniquely charming Bay Area actress who, with her husband, Kent Nicholson, is co-artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre Company. Isherwood had this to say about Beck, who plays Marnie, the bride-to-be: “Ms. Beck, making her New York debut, brings an understated sweetness to her role as Marnie, whose inebriation gradually subsides as she discloses the real dissatisfaction fueling the evening’s folly.”

Also in the cast are Maria Dizzia, who was so devastatingly good as the title character of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and Barrett Foa, who did his best to charm in the disco drudgery of TheatreWorks’ world-premiere musical Kept.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz called Bock’s play “a playful and hopeful comedy in which everybody’s tipsy and everyone’s shaken and stirred after one long, liquor-filled night.” He has this to say about our local star: “Beck, in her New York debut, is fantastic and turns the moment into something deeply touching. Her five castmates are as equally appealing, adorable and top-shelf.”

All good news. So when’s our next Adam Bock play? We have yet to see The Receptionist or The Thugs in these parts, and it sounds like The Drunken City, complete with Beck in the lead, was just made for San Francisco.

Review: ‘The Shaker Chair’

Dramatic Shaker Chair unseats expectations
three stars Stirring

Marion loves her new chair. It’s a beautiful wood straight back with woven seats. It’s a copy of a Shaker chair, and though she finds it beautiful, Marion admits that the chair isn’t very comfortable.

“The Shakers didn’t believe in sitting around,” she tells us. “There was no procrastination…I should get up and do something.”

That simple call to arms — “get up and do something” — kicks off Adam Bock’s The Shaker Chair, a co-production of Berkeley’s Shotgun Players and San Francisco’s Encore Theatre Company now at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.

Bock had hit shows with both companies (Swimming in the Shallows with Shotgun, Five Flights with Encore) when he was living and working in the Bay Area. He’s a hot-shot New York playwright now. His The Thugs won an Obie earlier this year, and his current show, The Receptionist, is an off-Broadway hit.

The Shaker Chair is an older work that had its premiere in 2005 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, and of Bock’s work we’ve seen here, it’s the least developed.
Bock is a wonderful, intriguing writer, and all his strengths are evident in Shaker, but the the play never quite fulfills its initial promise.

Marion (Frances Lee McCain), the new chair owner, is, effectively, asleep. She, like so many of us, enjoys a certain complacency in her comfortable life. Drama happens around her, not to her.

Her sister, Dolly (Nancy Shelby, below), is an emotional mess as a result of marital strife with her husband, Frank (a smiling, menacing Will Marchetti, below with Shelby), and turns to Marion for solace.

Marion’s best friend, Jean (Scarlett Hepworth), is an activist unafraid to commit crimes or resort to violence in the name of her good cause. Jean’s current fixation is a sewage-spewing pig farm polluting the nearby countryside and mistreating its pigs.

“There’s no reverence!” Jean shouts. “In the powerful, without reverence, there’s nothing to protect the weak.”

Perhaps stirred by her Shaker chair and the Shaker believe that “if your life is shaken you will be awakened,” Marion joins forces with Jean and her young activist-terrorists (Andrew Calabrese and Marissa Keltie) for a pig farm mission in the wee hours of the night.

Exhilaration, uncertainty and horror follow as Marion is forced to decide just how awake — just how shaken — she wants to be in the name of doing the right thing and working outside the system.

Bock writes in a hyper-natural style with short clipped fragments of sentences that approximate and exaggerate human speech. Director Tracy Ward has her actors _ all of whom are superb _ talking over each other through much of the show’s brisk 70 minutes.

A key piece of action shifts the play into its final moments, and that’s when The Shaker Chair wobbles. Bock’s attempt at Pinteresque unease fused with his own sense of hope doesn’t have the impact it should.

The Frank-Dolly subplot, ostensibly meant to represent those of us with little regard for anything outside our own jumbled lives, diffuses the clean line of Marion’s story. We need more time with this interesting woman — so beautifully limned by McCain — who has, in later life, stumbled into the courage to make radical change.

The Shaker Chair continues through Jan. 27 at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley (directly across from the Ashby BART station). Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 510-841-6500 or visit or

Bock builds a ‘Shaker Chair’

Sure Adam Bock misses his friends in the Bay Area. But the Canadian playwright, who moved from San Francisco to New York about five years ago, really misses the food.

“Food in San Francisco is so yummy,” he says. “It’s just not the same in New York. I don’t know what it is about the Bay Area — maybe all that produce or the fact that people there like to eat so much.”

Still, Bock is hardly complaining. While in the Bay Area, he had to have a day job to supplement his career as a playwright (he assisted a typographer). But in New York, he’s been able to make a living solely from his writing.

In fact, he’s something of a hot commodity. Last year, his play The Thugs, about office temps who suspect someone might be killing people in their building (but no one will talk to them because they’re temps), won an Obie Award.

And his current off-Broadway show, The Receptionist, has been extended through the end of the month.

As much as he loves New York, Bock, 46, has not forgotten his Bay Area peeps. Encore Theatre Company, for whom he wrote the award-winning Five Flights, and Shotgun Players, for whom he wrote the award-winning Swimming in the Shallows, are teaming up to produce Bock’s The Shaker Chair.

“I love it,” Bock says, “because it’s my two gangs. Totally excellent.”

The play previews tonight and opens Saturday at Berkeley’s Ashby Stage.

Commissioned by New York’s Playwrights Horizons and premiered at the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Ky., in 2005 (seen at left), The Shaker Chair is unusual in that it stars three middle-age women.

“I looked at the Playwrights Horizons audience and saw a lot of older women,” Bock explains. “I thought maybe I’ll write a play with an older woman. Or maybe three older women. Then I thought, `Who do I know like that?’ And (I) thought of my mom and my aunt, both of whom are activists, so I decided to make one an activist. I had also been reading `Anna Karenina’ and was interested in the sister, Dolly, so I decided to put her in, too.”

The title, The Shaker Chair, came to Bock in a flash. He knew that would be his title — if not why it was his title.

“I started researching the Shakers, and they’re like activists,” Bock explains. “To them, procrastination is a sin. That’s when the activist thing came together. How big should your circle of concern be? As big as your family or larger? That’s an important and interesting question for me. How much are we responsible for and how open should we be?”

Bock also admits that Shaker chairs are beautiful objects (and yes, there is a Shaker chair in the play).

“The Shakers don’t really make the chairs much anymore,” Bock says. “The Shakers are a small group now. They were big in the 1800s, made all these beautiful communities where everything they did was beautiful and simple. Their artwork is unbelievable. Every action is a prayer. How they tended animals mattered, how they mowed the lawn mattered, what kind of clothes they wore mattered. It was all simple, beautiful, useful.”

The Shakers also believed in separating men and women and being celibate.

“There’s definitely strangeness involved with the Shakers, too,” Bock says.

The notion of simplicity is one that has appealed to Bock for a while. In Swimming in the Shallows, for instance, one of the main characters is searching for simplicity. In his own New York apartment, Bock says he’s also aiming for simplicity.

“I keep it as clear as I can,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in Japanese art, negative space and stuff like that. To be honest, it’s discouraging to see how much crap we have.”

In his quest to remain crap-free, Bock will focus his attention on upcoming projects, which include a screenplay deal with producer Scott Rudin (one of his potential topics is “a woman who wants to get rid of all her stuff”) and the production of his play The Drunken City at Playwrights Horizons. Bay Area actor Cassie Beck (the co-artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre Company) will be in the cast when that show opens in March.

Drunken is about three women who get engaged at the same time, and during one of the bachelorette parties, one of the engaged ladies kisses a man who is not her fiance.

“You know how in a play, if someone’s drunk, we assume they’ll tell the truth?” Bock asks. “Well, I decided to have everybody drunk, and these girls are funny, funny, funny.”

The Shaker Chair continues through Jan. 27 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave,. Berkeley. Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 510-841-6500 or visit or

Bock in black

We can claim Adam Bock as a San Francisco playwright, but that’s really not quite accurate.

The talented writer basically used the Bay Area as a way station between his native Canada and the greener pastures of New York. But it must be said, the pastures were pretty green in San Francisco, where Bock made a splash with the man-in-love-with-shark comedy Swimming in the Shallows with Shotgun Players (done in the basement of Theatre Rhinoceros) and most especially with Five Flights, a production of Encore Theatre Company at the Thick House.

Well, let’s all celebrate the fact that “San Francisco” playwright Adam Bock won an Obie Award last Monday for his play The Thugs. (The Obies, in case you don’t know or barely care, are the Village Voice’s awards for off-Broadway shows.)

The Thugs, we have discovered through some diligent Googling, is about temps in a law office who suspect some of the firm’s employees are being murdered or something even more sinister.

The New York Times’ Jason Zinoman described the play as, “a delightfully paranoid little nightmare that is both more chillingly realistic and pointedly absurd than anything John Grisham ever dreamed up. ”

Message to Adam: congratulations. Message to Bay Area theater companies: please produce The Thugs. We hear it’s only an hour.