Speaking the language of life in Berkeley Rep’s English

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ABOVE: The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s English includes (from left) Sarah Nina Hayon as Roya, Christine Mirzayan as Goli and Mehry Eslaminia as Elham. BELOW: Sahar Bibiyan is Marjan, the instructor, and Amir Malaklou is Omid, one of her best students. Photos by Alessandra Mello

It’s so interesting that in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s English, your ears have to become accustomed to hearing English. Playwright Sanaz Toossi’s sensitive comedy/drama is set entirely in a classroom in Karaj, Iran circa 2008. The instructor and her four students are engaged in English lessons leading up to the exam known as the TOEFL or Test of English as a Foreign Language. The play is (almost) entirely in English, so when the characters are speaking their native Farsi, they speak in unaccented, colloquial English. When they are communicating in English, we hear varying degrees of accents and grammatical skills, depending on the level of the speaker.

It’s a clever way to fall into the cadence of toggling between two languages without having to use sub/surtitles. There’s more engagement with the characters and their various states of mind, and it’s fascinating to contrast the levels of confidence some of the characters display when speaking their own language compared to the personality transformation that can happen when they are attempting to speak in a language that is not coming easily to them.

Director Mina Morita lets this one-act play unfold slowly as we get to know Marjan (Sahar Bibiyan), the instructor who lived, for a time, in England and still enjoys watching British rom-coms to keep her English skills sharp, and her small class. The biggest personality among them is Elham (Mehry Eslaminia), who has failed all past attempts at the TOEFL and struggles with everything about English. She’s under pressure to pass the exam because she’ll soon be starting medical school in Australia. Goli (Christine Mirzayan) is much more enthusiastic, and it’s one of the play’s many pleasures to see this youthful student gaining confidence in her language skills. Omid (Amir Malaklou) catches Marjan’s eye, and not just because he’s such a strong English speaker, and Roya (Sarah Nina Hayon) is, essentially, being forced to learn English by her son, who is now living in Canada and doesn’t want his child speaking Farsi with anyone.

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In about two dozen scenes, we see the ups and downs of the students, perhaps a romance and some minor drama (speaking strictly in dramatic terms). But within these very recognizable rhythms are lives in motion and the push and pull of family, career, culture, politics. We’re only seeing these people across six weeks or so and only during their classes, so we experience slivers of their lives even while they are creating the community that can happen in a classroom (complete with bonds and battles).

What comes through so remarkably in this intimate, often quite hilarious play is how oblivious we can be to the importance of language in expressing our identity. The idea of belonging or being an outsider based on how you speak is explored, as is the joy of being able to express yourself in a new way or to make someone laugh in a different language. Can a new language be an escape? A salvation? A personal revolution? Or maybe even a shortcut to an appreciation of your own native tongue? Playwright Toossi keeps her scope narrow, but she allows the weight of the world to press in on this little group.

Morita’s wonderful cast works in shades of nuanced reality that allow us to feel like we’re really getting to know these characters. Even when Toossi’s script can be a little too placid, a little too subdued, there’s abundant warmth and humor that keeps us deeply invested in these people’s lives.

There’s always going to be something funny in someone mangling language – not in a jeering way but in appreciation of the bravery required to even make the attempt – and that is certainly a big part of the laughs in English, but even more, the humor bonds us. When we laugh together (in real life and in the theater) we’re acknowledging the depth of communication – our shared humanity, our empathy, our awareness. We may not all speak English, but in English, especially in those moments of comedy, we’re all speaking the same language.

Sanaz Toossi’s English continues through May 7 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $43-119. Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes (no intermission). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Cal Shakes musters a forceful Glass Menagerie

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Karen Aldridge is Amanda and Sean San José is Tom in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, directed by Lisa Portes. Below: Rafael Jordan is Jim, the gentleman caller, and Phoebe Fico is Laura. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Except for a large proscenium frame, the stage of California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater is mostly bare. There’s no back wall to the stage, so the light from the setting sun on the Orinda hills is spectacular. It will be dark soon – in more ways than one.

On such a gorgeous Saturday night, complete with a warm breeze and, eventually, a full moon, Cal Shakes opened The Glass Menagerie, marking the Bruns debut of Tennessee Williams.

Director Lisa Portes approaches this well-worn, ever-brilliant memory play with a blank slate, or stage as the case may be. Set designer Annie Smart provides the clean, open space, and stacks all the furniture that will eventually fill the stage off to the sides. It’s up to Sean San José as Tom, our narrator, to fill that stage with an evocation of his family and their life in a claustrophobic St. Louis apartment in the early 1940s.

The role of Tom is a central one and challenging under any circumstances, but San José works doubly hard moving furniture from the wings onto the stage, timed so that as his mother, Amanda (Karen Aldridge or sister, Laura (Phoebe Fico) prepares to sit, a chair suddenly appears. This is a manic Tom, and not just because he’s running around like a stagehand, but also because he’s at his breaking point. He works a factory job he loathes and spends his nights either drinking or going to the movies until the wee hours. He wants adventure and, most importantly, he wants out from under the pressure of being the man of the Wingfield family. His father abandoned them years before, and the family barely ekes by with Tom’s salary and money Amanda gets from odd jobs. He loves his mother and sister, but the weight of their dependence is crushing him.

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San José conveys that frustration with frenetic force, and Aldridge’s Amanda is equally as forceful. Her Southern belle charm is frayed around the edges, as her dreams of a genteel life have given way to a hardscrabble existence with a son who resists her and a daughter who couldn’t be further away from the girl she herself was growing up as a debutante.

Between the powerful personalities of her mother and brother, Laura doesn’t have much room left to discover herself. Living with a disability that requires the use of crutches to walk, Laura exists in a time and in a family where her own empowerment is of little interest. She has grown up painfully shy. She knows she cannot be the daughter her mother wants – the kind of charming beauty who attracts, as her mother did, 17 gentlemen callers in a single afternoon. She finds it painful to interact with people and instead channels herself into music played on an old Victrola or into the crystal creatures of her knickknack collections, which her mother refers to as her glass menagerie. The practical reality of Laura’s situation, from her mother’s perspective, is that she is damaged goods and unlikely to snag a husband with the kind of job/bank account to support Laura and Amanda when Tom bolts, which he will inevitably do.

Snagging a husband is the last thing Laura wants, but her self-deluded mother steamrollers over her daughter’s wishes and makes an attempt to marry her daughter off to the first guy they can get into the apartment.

That man is an old high school chum of both Laura’s and Tom’s, Jim O’Connor (Rafael Jordan), and his arrival is a do-or-die moment for the Wingfields. It also heralds the most extraordinary scene in Portes’ high-strung production. The lights go out because Tom failed to pay the bill, so when Laura and Jim have a moment to themselves, it’s by candlelight on the floor. At long last, in this intermisson-less nearly two-hour play, the angst and volume and frenzy of the production calm down, and the delicacy comes through. Fico and Jordan find a sympathetic rhythm that draws in the entire audience and makes us feel like their conversation – Laura’s first real interaction with a man – is the most important thing we could possibly be experiencing.

Their quiet, intimate duet, followed by a dance, is utterly captivating and seems as real as it is poetic. Its beauty then renders its conclusion that much more heartbreaking.

That this production is cast with actors of color and that Fico lives with a mobility disability works to underscore the sense of isolation the characters are feeling. Each of the Wingfields feels separated from the thing they most want or that elusive thing that will magically make life better and unlock happiness at last. The play being performed outside also emphasizes that sense of small, roiling lives at odds in an overwhelming world. The thing the Wingfields have is each other, but their triad is doomed to destruction from within by forces of the past, present and future.

Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie continues through July 30 in a California Shakespeare Theater production at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Ruhl peters out in Berkeley Rep’s For Peter Pan

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Kathleen Chalfant (left) is Ann and Ron Crawford is George in Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: The cast of Peter Pan includes, from left, Charles Shaw Robinson as John, Keith Reddin as Michael, David Chandler as Jim, Chalfant as Ann and Ellen McLaughlin as Wendy. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Sarah Ruhl is a brilliant writer capable of intellectual heights and emotional depths. Her latest play, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, displays few of those qualities.

Paired with director Les Waters with whom she worked so memorably on Eurydice and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) at Berkeley Rep, Ruhl is working in mysterious ways here. At first glance it would seem that this Peter Pan curiosity is Ruhl doing her spin on Our Town, extolling the simple complexity of life and death as seen through the prism of theater, or, in this case, children’s community theater.

The luminous Kathleen Chalfant is Ann, a 70-year-old woman who begins the 90-minute one-act with a monologue recalling the life-changing experience she had playing Peter Pan in the musical of the same name in a 1955 children’s theater production in her hometown, Davenport, Iowa.

With Chalfant functioning in the Stage Manager from Our Town role to create a bridge between the audience and the play, the scene then shifts to a spacious hospital room at a Catholic hospital (which seemingly employs no doctors, nurses or orderlies), where Ann and her four siblings are holding vigil over their dying father.

Side note: this is a season of recurring themes at Berkeley Rep. Peter Pan marks the third play featuring pirates (Captain Hook appears toward the play’s end) following The Pirates of Penzance and Treasure Island. It’s also the second play, following the sublime Aubergine to deal with an adult child watching a parent’s final hours.

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From the hospital, Annie Smart’s set shifts to the siblings – Charles Shaw Robinson, Keith Reddin, David Chandler and Ellen McLaughlin – sitting around their father’s table drinking Irish whiskey and holding a sort of wake, while the ghost of their father (Ron Crawford) (and his late dog, played by a beautiful St. Bernard named Yodel) drift through the room. When the siblings go to bed, Ann dreams of her Peter Pan triumph, and a version of that story, complete with flying, unfolds, dream-style, with elements of Ann’s life and family mixed in to create, in theory, a poignant reflection on what it means to be an adult and how it feels, with the parent generation behind you, to be the sentry between life and death.

All of that is intriguing, and Ruhl is certainly a writer who can be profound and delicate and powerful and expansive. But what she and Waters are doing with Peter Pan remains enigmatic to the point of consternation. The dialogue is clumsy and corny (I’m assuming intentionally), with the siblings talking to each other in stilted tones as if they’ve just met and have to explain themselves, their parents and their childhoods for each other’s benefit more than for the audience’s. When the whiskey-fueled chatter turns from the provocation of politics to matters of faith and spirituality, things get interesting, but only briefly before they actually make a toast to not growing up. They might as well have made a wish on the second star to the right.

The action shifts to Neverland (with the set being clunkily moved by stagehands, again, assuming that’s intentional given all the whiz-bang technology at Berkeley Rep’s disposal), with the siblings playing Darling children John, Michael and Wendy (hmmm, also their names in the “real” world), Chalfant playing Peter and Chandler playing Hook. There’s some charm in watching actors of a certain age play with the idea of being children but children imbued with their full life experiences as senior adults. And it is certainly grand to see Chalfant zipping around the stage in green tights, crowing like an annoying but undeniably appealing rooster.

The blend of dream and play and drama and direct address is all a bit too eccentric to add up to much in the end. Ruhl is an emotional rather than sentimental writer, except here. She overuses “When the Saints Go Marching In” and rather than celebrating the impact of an amateur theater experience, she seems rather baffled by it. The whole play seems a flight of fancy that isn’t clear how high or how far it wants to go, a serious rumination on human existence that’s hard to take seriously. There’s plenty of actual pixie dust tossed around the stage but no actual theatrical magic.

Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday continues through July 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Cal Shakes sculpts a vital, vivacious Pygmalion

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Anthony Fusco (left) is Henry Higgins, Catherine Castellanos (center) is Mrs. Pearce and Irene Lucio is Eliza Doolittle in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Below: On the streets of Covent Garden – Nicholas Pelczar (on balcony) is Freddy Eynsford Hill, Lucio (center) is Eliza and Julie Eccles is Mrs. Eysnford Hill. Photos by Kevin Berne

When real life comes in and smacks Prof. Henry Higgins across the face, it’s a wonderful thing to see this brilliant yet stunted man consider, perhaps for the first time in his life, that kindness may have worth akin to genius.

The force representing the real world – a world of messiness and emotion and connection – takes the form of Eliza Doolittle, an extraordinary young woman who is the intellectual if not social equal of Higgins and his superior when it comes to living life as most of humanity experiences it.

One of the great things about the California Shakespeare Theater production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is how balanced it is. You feel Shaw’s guiding hand in Jonathan Moscone’s approach in the way that nothing feels superfluous. Every character is there for a reason and a point of view. Moscone’s cast is filled with Bay Area all-stars plus a remarkable company debut from Irene Lucio as Eliza, the flower girl with brains, bravery and aspiration.

Lucio’s Eliza is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is how she is fully emotionally alive without ever over-playing it. The rough Eliza we meet on the cobblestones of Covent Garden is recognizable in the graceful, articulate, beautifully spoken Eliza we see at the end. There’s an emotional through-line in the character I haven’t felt before in other productions of the play or its musical sibling, My Fair Lady. That makes a big difference in the focus of the story, which comes down to Henry, the teacher (or sculptor), and Eliza, the student (or sculpture) and then zeroes even closer in on Eliza before allowing Henry a moment of reflection, realization and possible heartbreak (which is, in its own right, a triumph brought about by Eliza).

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The pleasures of this 2 1/2-hour play are many, from the elegant, florally accented set by Annie Smart to the classy costumes by Anna Oliver. But it’s the sterling cast that really makes it crackle. As the “pretty pair of babies playing with their live doll,” Anthony Fusco and L. Peter Callender essaying Higgins and Col. Pickering respectively, are delightfully crisp in their camaraderie and confirmed bachelorhood. They embark on their experiment turning Eliza, a “draggle-tailed guttersnipe,” into a princess at a ball with the glee of boys building a fort in the woods. That Pickering is the warmer, more mannerly man is clear from the start, and Higgins, for all his selfish thoughtlessness, is always interesting and usually honest. He’s frank and even mean, but it doesn’t seem he intends to be. Callender’s charms are many here, and the masterful Fusco keeps Higgins from being a monster by virtue of his intelligence, enthusiasm and emotional complexity under all that scholarly folderol.

Catherine Castellanos is the epitome of British resolve as housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. She’s strong and sensible and can’t for the life of her talk Higgins and Pickering into understanding that their “experiment” involves a real, live human being with feelings and attachments and a future growing more complicated by the day. Equally strong but with more humor and heart is Sharon Lockwood’s Mrs. Higgins, a mother continually frustrated by her rude, inconsiderate yet somehow adorable son. Lockwood and Castellanos are also very funny in the opening scene as squawking Cockneys.

The Eynsford Hill family is often forgettable in Pygmalion, but not here. As members of the upper class who have very little money, their desperation masked with pretension is a powerful component of Shaw’s deconstruction of class and its illusions and debilitating demands. Julie Eccles as Mrs. Eynsford Hill keeps up appearances but clearly has suffered in life. She has compassion, unlike her daughter Clara (Elyse Price), while her son Freddy (Nicholas Pleczar) is simply a noodle.

Probably as Shaw intended it, Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, practically steals the show. James Carpenter’s performance bursts with charm and unfettered joy at being a proud member of the “undeserving poor.” Before he officially launches his crusade against middle-class morality, Alfred the dustman is a rouge and a ruffian touched with a gift for rhetoric. He brings discomfort and entertainment in equal measure, and there’s menace and merriment in Carpenter’s brilliant portrayal. It’s too bad Shaw never got around to writing a spin-off: Doolittle in America.

So often Pygmalion is presented as a play of ideas, which it certainly is. Shaw is never caught short on that score. But it’s also a play bursting with life. Eliza wants more and better for herself and does everything she can to get it, even if what she gets isn’t at all what she expected. But she’s undaunted, and she finds that she’s as smart as Higgins but even better equipped than he is to deal with the realities of modern life. She heads off into an uncertain future with confidence, and that’s absolutely thrilling.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Pygmalion dialect coach Lynne Soffer for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

California Shakespeare Theater’s Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw continues through Aug. 24 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free BART shuttle to and from the theater at Orinda BART station. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Fifty shades of Wonder in Marin Theatre Co.’s Lasso

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Liz Sklar (left) as The Amazon and Jessa Brie Moreno as The Wife in the world premiere of Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Lauren English is The Girl and John Riedlinger is The Guy with one of over 200 illustrations by Jacob Stoltz in the background. Photos by Kevin Berne

You’re bound to like Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth if you like Wonder Woman…and a heaping helping of S&M on the side.

If you didn’t know the two were related, first of all, think about it for a minute (the golden lasso, the bustier, the metal bracelets, etc.), and second of all, boy has Kreitzer got an origin story for you. Commissioned by Marin Theatre Company, the play is part of the National New Play Network, which means this is what they call a “rolling world premiere.” The show begins in Mill Valley then heads to Atlanta and Kansas City.

So where did Wonder Woman come from (and we’re not talking about Paradise Island, home of the Amazons)? For many of us, she sprung fully formed in the 1970s looking like the stunning Lynda Carter in a patriotic bathing suit and gold accessories. That famous TV show is actually a jumping-off point for Kreitzer’s play.

She has a contemporary woman (Lauren English) telling the audience about a great betrayal in her life. As a lifelong fan of Wonder Woman (spurred by Carter and the TV show), she was horrified to learn that the character’s creator, William Moulton Marston, was, in her words a “perv.”

From the present, we jump into the past to explore Marston’s so-called perversion. In the years leading up to Wonder Woman’s first comic book appearance in 1941, Marston, a psychologist and academic (and inventor of an early version of the polygraph), was shucking convention. An admirer of strong, beautiful women, he was married to just such a woman, and he’s often seen sitting at her feet, looking up at her adoringly while she strokes his hair as if he were a prize poodle. But then Marston’s research assistant entered the picture, and then she really entered the picture. Marston, his wife and his mistress crafted a polyamorous relationship that led to a bundle of children and relationships within the triangle that could handle the deepest, darkest explorations of S&M, bondage and erotically charged, emotionally fraught exchanges of power.

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It’s fascinating stuff, and Kreitzer, working with director Jasson Minadakis, does something quite extraordinary here in that she handles what really amounts to an exploration of unconventional sexuality with sensitivity and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor. It could be pretty deadly watching grown-ups explore their sexuality with ropes on a stage, but all of that is handled well. Nicholas Rose as Marston (here called “The Inventor”), Jessa Brie Moreno as his wife and Liz Sklar as the girlfriend (who, it’s worth mentioning, bears a passing resemblance to Lynda Carter) create dimensional characters prone to candor, enthusiasm and risky exploration. Sklar, it turns out, is also a whiz with knots.

The 2 1/2-hour show feels long in stretches. In Act 1, when the action shifts from the Marston triangle to English and her quest to find the original comic in which Wonder Woman first appears, these scenes feel like a distraction. She’s tangling with a geeky comic book store clerk (John Riedlinger) about the comic, about feminism, about her sense of betrayal with Marston’s real-life proclivities. But these scenes, despite the charms of English and Riedlinger, come off as strident and shallow.

But by Act 2, the contemporary scenes have become more interesting as our modern duo explores an actual relationship, and their characters emerge more strongly. In this act, the distractions come from a too-often repeated gimmick of darkening the theater and having the actors making sexy talk into microphones as they negotiate (sometimes with humor) the games they’d like to play. There’s also a goofy lie-detector machine on stage in Act 2 that looks like a reject from Forbidden Planet and is just a little too silly.

Other technical aspects of the show are marvelous. Annie Smart’s set provides efficient sliding panels to effectively frame the video designs by Kwame Braun and the terrific graphic art by Jacob Stoltz that never lets us forget that we’re firmly in the world of comic books. There are also some very funny videos involving Gloria Steinem (as played by Moreno), who was a Wonder Woman champion and put her on the cover of Ms. magazine’s inaugural issue in 1972.

The past and the present do come together eventually, but Kreitzer doesn’t seem to know how or where to end the play, which stutters its way to a conclusion. The impression she gives us of Marston (an endearing idealist who believed a comic book character could end war and bring about utopia) and the powerful women in his life is quite a strong one. That they all contributed in some way toward the creation of a positive role model for girls and women is clear, but the punch of their story ends with a pow rather than POW!

[bonus interview]
I talked with Lasso of Truth playwright Carson Kreitzer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth continues through March 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Looking at the stars: Cal Shakes fans flames of Wilde’s Winderemere

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The central trio of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan includes (from left) Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross), Lord Windermere (Aldo Billingslea) and Lady Windermere (Emily Kitchens). The California Shakespeare Theater production is directed by Christopher Liam Moore. Below: Kitchens and Billingslea work through the first big challenge of the Windermeres’ two-year marriage. Photos by Kevin Berne

If you want, as Oscar Wilde did, to make cogent and funny points about men and women, husbands and wives and the notion of good people vs. bad people, what better way to do that than by putting Danny Scheie in a dress and letting him unleash his inner Dame Maggie Smith?

Scheie’s performance as the Duchess of Berwick in the California Shakespeare Theater’s production Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde’s first major theatrical it, is one of many pleasures in director Christopher Liam Moore’s beguiling production. The play itself remains fascinating and relevant, but oh the visual delights of a period piece!

Set designer Annie Smart has fashioned a spacious London townhouse complete with crystal chandeliers on a terrace with draperies blowing in the cool breezes of Saturday’s beautiful opening-night performance. York Kennedy’s lights add elegance and shadows when appropriate to suit the melodrama. And costumer Meg Neville brings a sly sense of humor to the Victorian costumes, especially for leading lady Emily Kitchens as the young, self-righteous Lady Windermere. Neville makes her look like various slices of cake, with floppy bows and layers of plush stuffing. She’s a little like a little girl playing dress-up, which seems only appropriate given that the play takes her from naive, entitled girl to more worldly woman of experience. For the scandal-plagued Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross), Neville cleverly puts in her in a gorgeous black-and-white gown to underscore the extreme ways the character is perceived — no gray area where she’s concerned.

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And then there’s Scheie, doing a captivating riff on Wilde’s Lady Bracknell as the society matron who pronounces all women good and all men bad. Scheie conquers that tricky territory of high comedy and more serious intent that Wilde explores in Windermere. He lets the audience in on the joke, allows the laughs to come in regular waves but never relinquishes the satirical barbs and their sharp, wounding points.

At this point in the 21st century, Wilde’s late 19th-century play seems so clearly to be about the folly of conservatism, which is really nothing more than closed-mindedness (willful or naturally occurring) or utter denial of human beings’ capacity for complexity and inability to fit neatly into boxes like “good” or “bad.” It makes for delicious theater as Wilde sets up Lady Windermere to believe her husband (the stalwart Aldo Billingslea) is having an affair with the much-gossiped-about Mrs. Erlynne. The whole of London society is buzzing about the seemingly flagrant affair Winderemere and Erlynne are conducting, but appearances are rarely what they seem.

The one complication in Wilde’s formula is that the Lord and his supposed mistress are completely oblivious that their interactions might be construed as adulterous by gossip-minded outside observers. That doesn’t seem quite plausible for two such intelligent characters, but then again, if they’d taken pains to conceal their interactions, we wouldn’t have much of a melodrama, and the melodrama here is such juicy fun.

But again, the fun is constantly tempered by something real. One Wildean character can toss off an aphorism like, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” But later comes an observation like, “There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely — or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.” And sometimes the wit and the sting come packaged neatly together: “Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”

There are many levels on which to enjoy Moore’s sturdy production, and the performances allow insight into all of them. Kitchens is a slightly annoying Lady Windermere, a young mother so impressed by her righteousness that she all but collapses when she’s exposed to the real world outside the walls of her comfy cozy ideals. But Ross is a revelation as Mrs. Erlynne, a hardened, bitter woman who discovers she has a heart after all (and she doesn’t like it: “Somehow it doesn’t go with modern dress. It makes one look old,” she says).

Lady Windermere’s Fan has a lot to say to a country divided by politics, religion and combinations thereof. “Do you know that I am afraid that good people do a great deal of harm in this world? Certainly the greatest harm they do is that they make badness of such extraordinary importance.”

How nice it is to see badness of such goodness on the Cal Shakes stage.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Christopher Liam Moore for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan continues through Sept. 8 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72 (subject to change). Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. Cal Shakes runs a free shuttle to and from the Oridna BART station and the theater.

Sweet melancholy pervades Berkeley Rep’s Elizabeth

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Playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Below: Though the play consists almost entirely of letters from Bishop and Lowell’s 30-year epistolary relationship, there are moments of connection in Ruhl’s play. Photos by kevinberne.com

You would never, ever expect to see a production of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. In what has become a staple of community theaters everywhere, a man and a woman sit at a table and read letters from a binder that tell the story of their characters’ slowly evolving love story over many decades. It’s sweet, it’s conventional, it’s incredibly cheap to produce. Unless the two actors were Rita Moreno and David Sedaris, this epistolary play would be the antithesis of a Berkeley Rep production.

[side note: as a teenager, on a trip to San Francisco, I saw a production of Love Letters at the former Theatre on the Square starring Colleen Dewhurst and E.G. Marshall and they were wonderful. They were followed in the roles by Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt; who doesn’t think of that foursome in interchangeable roles? And let us please disregard the disastrous Love Letters from 2000 at the Marines Memorial Theatre starring Joan Collins and George Hamilton. Ick.]

All this talk of Love Letters because there’s a new two-person, letter-driven love story on the theatrical block: Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth, which had its world premiere last fall at Yale and is now in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre with the same director, former Berkeley Rep associate artistic director Les Waters and one of the same actors.

Though based on letters – real ones – between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, that’s about all this play has in common with Gurney’s war horse. That’s actually not entirely true. Dear Elizabeth is also a love story of sorts, a deep friendship between admiring poets who brought out the best in each other in their letters for 30 years, even while their lives were plagued with addictions and failed relationships and artistic crises. Theirs is ultimately a sweet story but far from sappy.

Mary Beth Fisher, the holdover from Yale Repertory Theatre (with which this production is produced in association), is Bishop, the hard-drinking lesbian poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Tom Nelis is Lowell, also a Pulitzer winner and a hard drinker as well as a serial husband and sufferer of manic depression. Their letters, collected in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, are, of course, filled with beautiful, clever and funny turns of phrase as well as poignant insights into their work and their relationship with their work.

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I must admit complete ignorance as to who Bishop and Lowell were before hearing about this play, and though I’m not a reader of poetry, I came away from this theatrical experience of two poets with a desire to immerse myself in their work. And that, I think, is a clear indication of this production’s success.

Waters and Ruhl could easily have sat their poets at a table (Love Letters style) and had them read. But there’s a lot more to this production, which is exactly what we’ve come to expect of the dynamic Waters-Ruhl pairing we’ve seen at Berkeley Rep in Eurydice and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). In two acts and running just under two hours, we are treated to a sort of visual poetry from Annie Smart’s surprise-laden set washed with color and mood by Russell Champa’s gorgeous lights.

As you might expect, this is a placid piece of theater, filled with lovely, lively writing and gorgeous images. There’s not a lot of action, though in various interludes between the letters, Ruhl and Waters imagine encounters between the poets that are referred to in the letters. Some are clear; others are more enigmatic. It’s nice to have moments of real, physical connection between the poets rather than simply experiencing their lives from the distance of the letters themselves.

Fisher and Nelis have warm chemistry with one another, and Fisher especially conveys the tremendous intelligence and complex emotional life of Bishop with an understated but heartfelt performance. The way Ruhl has constructed the play, there are seeming moments of dialogue as the letters overlap or address similar issues or events, and that goes a long way toward breaking the frustration of never having the poets actually talking to one another in the same room.

Though there’s a crackling energy in the writing and in the sincere affection the poets have for one another, the play does indeed feel like a Sarah Ruhl play in that it’s tinged with melancholy and loss as well as valiant attempts at sobriety or even-keeled living that end in failure.

Years from now, will be seeing plays consisting of emails between artists? Texts? Facebook updates? Instagram posts? It’s hard to imagine any of that will be as satisfying as hearing words carefully written, with paper and pen, from one friend to another. It’s easy to be sentimental about lost things, like the art of letter writing, but watching Dear Elizabeth it feels like that loss has taken something of tremendous value.

[bonus interview]

I sat down with director Les Waters to talk about Dear Elizabeth and working once again with playwright Sarah Ruhl. Read the story in the San Francisco Chronicle here. (may require subscription)

Dear Elizabeth continues through July 7 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$77 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

High on Cal Shakes’ spiffy Spirit

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Dominique Lozano (center) is Madame Arcati, the outsize medium who sets the ghostly plot moving in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, now at California Shakespeare Theater. Also at the seance are (from left) Melissa Smith, Anthony Fusco, René Augesen and Kevin Rolston. BELOW: Augesen’s Ruth reacts to the ghostly presence of Jessica Kitchens (right) as Elvira, first wife of Charles (Fusco on the couch). Photos by Kevin Berne

Noël Coward was a man of his time in many ways and maybe even ahead of his time in others. For instance, in the delightful 1941 play Blithe Spirit, now gracing the Orinda Hills in a handsome and well-tuned production from California Shakespeare Theater, Coward was way ahead of the ghastly Twilight curve.

No, he wasn’t dealing with pale but attractive vampires and shirtless werewolves, but he did understand a little something about mixing mortality and romance. In the play, the ghost of a dead wife returns to haunt her husband and his new wife, but her real aim is to get her beloved to join her on the other side, and she’s not above trying to kill him herself to accomplish that goal. To love someone enough to want to spend eternity with them is an intriguing concept, and thankfully Coward played it for laughs, with only a trace of the shadows poking through the peaked meringue of his comedy.

Director Mark Rucker’s buoyant production is full of sly, well-observed moments that help ground Coward’s smooth-as-dressing-gown-silk dialogue as it flies quickly and crisply through a foggy night in the Orinda Hills. By all rights, a drawing room comedy like this shouldn’t work in the great outdoors, with hawks and bats making guest appearances in the play’s rural Kent setting. But Annie Smart’s marvelous set is elegantly cozy without pretending it’s not outside. York Kennedy’s lights are warm when they need to be and ghostly cool when they don’t.

Anthony Fusco is wonderful as British prig Charles Condomine, a mystery novel writer dealing with a furious and confused living wife and a scheming, ethereally lovely dead wife. Charles is not terribly likeable, but Fusco makes him fun, and by the end we’re even rooting for him a little.

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As the ghostly Elvira, Jessica Kitchens as as lovely as she needs to be (and then some), outfitted in flowing, creamy white elegance by costumer Katherine Roth. All we really need to know about Elvira is that she’s charming and bratty in equal measure. She’s an annoying ghost, but Kitchens softens her edges with sexy mischief.

Blithe Spirit is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the actor playing eccentric medium Madame Arcati, who travels everywhere on her bicycle and delivers schoolgirl aphorisms like the most valiant trouper on the planet. Certainly Domenique Lozano steals every scene she’s in, but the rest of the production is sharp enough to contain her beguiling performance without upsetting the comic balance. The most rewarding aspect of Lozano’s energetic, comically dexterous performance is that for all her goofiness, Madame Arcati seems like a sincere person with talents and intelligence to bolster her eccentricities.

The nicest surprise of this spirited Spirit is how it becomes the story of Ruth Condomine, the reluctantly haunted second wife who finds herself fighting for her husband with a ghost she cannot see or hear. On loan from American Conservatory Theater (as is most everyone involved in this production), René Augesen is all smart elegance and ferocity as she goes from horror at her husband’s inexplicable and astonishing behavior (he swears he sees the ghost of his dead first wife) to grudging acceptance and willingness to fight with everything she’s got. Augesen’s Ruth is emotional and grounded, a woman who feels her way of life is at stake and well worth a serious fight.

It’s not that Blithe Spirit needs gritty acting to make its sophisticated repartee work, but the warmth and relatable human-size stakes offered by Augesen and Lozano help make the play more than a pleasant diversion with an improbable plot. Their spirit makes this comedy more than blithe. It’s a farce with force.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with the lovely Jessica Kitchens about her work in Bay Area theaters and her spirited turn as Elvira for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit continues through Sept. 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.