Aurora’s Fifth of July more cherry bomb than firework

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Ken Talley (Craig Marker, center right) debates his future with guests at his Missouri home (from left Harold Pierce, John Girot, Nanci Zoppi, Oceana Ortiz, Jennifer LeBlanc and Elizabeth Benedict) in the Aurora Theatre’s production of Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson. Below: Shirley (Oceana Ortiz, left) dramatically enacts meeting her famous future self in front of gathered family and friends (from left, Zoppi, Josh Schell, Girot and Marker). Photos by David Allen

It’s easy to imagine how, in 1978, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July was remarkable for several reasons. It featured a loving gay couple at the center of its family-friend-reunion plot and didn’t make a big deal about it. That’s not what the play is about, but the couple and their relationship are as important as any other on stage. Also, the play wrestles with the repercussions of the 1960s anti-war movements and how all that passionate activism evolved, and in many cases, dissipated into the ’70s.

Some have compared Wilson to Chekhov, and it’s easy to see why – a large group of people at a country house (in this case, it’s a 19-room house in Lebanon, Missouri) musing on how they find themselves older and atop a heap of broken dreams. But the comparison really ends there. Wilson’s characters are very much the product of their time, which leaves Fifth of July feeling rather dated and, in the current Aurora Theatre Company production, rather dull.

It’s unfair to compare the play (which was produced on Broadway in 1980) with The Big Chill, which came out in 1983, but while watching the Aurora production, I couldn’t help thinking about how similar they are and how much more fun the movie is. But Wilson was first, so he should get credit, even if Fifth of July creaks more often than it should (a paternity subplot is downright deadly).

The central issue with director Tom Ross’ production is that it feels entirely surface. There are good actors in the cast working hard to break through the veneer of people playing ’70s dress-up, but that shiny surface never cracks. So if there are depths to this play, they are not visible here. And what is visible is only fitfully interesting.

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Craig Marker is Ken Talley, a Vietnam vet who lost both of his legs in battle. Ken and his lover, Jed (an understated Josh Schell) are at the Talley family home for the summer, though Ken is there most of the time, while Jed lives in St. Louis. They are joined by assorted family and friends for the Fourth of July weekend. Ken’s sister, June (Jennifer LeBlanc), and her daughter, Shirley (Oceana Ortiz), are also there, as is their Aunt Sally (Elizabeth Benedict), whose senior years are threatening to take her to California and the kind of life she’s not much interested in.

Also in the house are old friends of Ken and June’s from their wild, cocaine- and protest-filled UC Berkeley days, Gwen Nanci Zoppi) and her husband, John (John Girot), and a strange hippie-ish musician named Wes (Harold Pierce) who is going to help Gwen become a country-western star. It’s an eclectic lot, and Wilson doesn’t really give them much to do. Ken’s struggle to move on with his life and adapt to a different body and world is the most compelling component of the story, and Marker makes Ken likable even if he never quite discovers the darker shades under Ken’s attempts at good humor. The scene stealer here is Benedict as Aunt Sally, who, in the second act, comes as close as this production gets to being lively.

LeBlanc, a superb actor, does what she can with a woefully underwritten role, and Ortiz has to contend with some of the least believable dialogue ever written for a teen character. Many of the actors have a good moment or two but seem adrift and unable to really make a strong connection with the play or the audience.

Set designer Richard Olmstead gets points for building an enormous house in the tiny Aurora space and then takes us from inside the house in Act 1 to outside in Act 2 – no small feat in such a limited space.

But then again, maybe the size of this show is part of the problem. The Aurora is an up-close-and-personal space, and it’s entirely possible that Fifth of July, heralded by many as an American classic, works best from a distance and suffers in close-up.

Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July continues through May 17 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Aurora’s Lyons subdues its roar

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Nicholas Pelczar’s (left) Curtis visits his ailing father, Ben (Will Marchetti) and acerbic mother, Rita (Ellen Ratner) in Nicky Silver’s The Lyons at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Ratner and Marchetti’s Rita and Ben suffer the visit of daughter Lisa (Jessica Bates). Photos by David Allen

There are breathtaking moments – literally, your capacity to process oxygen is shut down – in Nicky Silver’s script of The Lyons now at the Aurora Theatre. Silver takes an average situation – a patriarch in the final days of an illness is tended to by his wife and two adult children – and makes it painfully funny by exposing every sharp edge he can find and slicing through anything in his way. Those breathtaking moments usually involve some sort of truth telling at the expense of someone else’s fragile or carefully crafted sense of self, but the inability to breathe is often followed by a huge laugh.

Or at least it feels like there should be a big laugh. Director Barbara Damashek’s production is dialed to 6 while Silver’s script seems to call for at least double that. What should be ferocious and funny comes across as rather pallid and only slightly amusing. Perhaps there was a fear that playing it too big and mean in Aurora’s intimate space would alienate rather than amuse the audience, and maybe it would, but there seems to be a whole lot of pent-up energy in this script that never gets released.

The Lyons family is perfectly recognizable and relatable as stage families go, but they’re also nightmarish, annoying and incredibly incisive when it comes to shredding one another (and therein lies the entertainment value). Matriarch Rita (Ellen Ratner) is the primary architect of the horror. She seems so sensible and lovely, but then the things that come out of her mouth are just astonishing

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Flipping through a home decorating magazine at the hospital bedside of her dying husband, she muses on changes she’d like to make to their living room and casually (and caustically) notes that he won’t be around to enjoy the new decor. But it’s not like her husband, Ben (Will Marchetti) gives a damn. When the children arrive, daughter Lisa (Jessica Bates) and son Curtis (Nicholas Pelczar), the family portrait comes into full focus: this group has no kindness, compassion or concern for anyone. The dominant theme among these Lyons is self-involvement to a pathological degree. A grandmother thinks nothing of dismissing her young grandchild as “retarded” and a husband has no problem sharing the fact that he can’t stand his gay son. The daughter is in and out of recovery and the son, a writer, can’t seem to relate to actual human beings. In short, they all deserve each other.

The only voice of sanity is a stern nurse (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) who ends up caring for multiple members of this tribe. There’s also an appearance by an actor (Joe Estlack) who has a bad reaction to the Lyons brand of interaction. But mostly we have here an insular group fighting through and interlocking their psychoses.

The performances feel restrained and fall too often into sitcom rhythms without breaking into the ferocity needed to make this play feel less like a retread of dysfunctional family tropes and more of a manic comedy about the extreme narcissism of the complacent upper middle class. Seems like an outrageous comedy has been de-clawed, or, in other words, this Lyons has been tamed.

Nicky Silver’s The Lyons continues through March 1 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$60. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Breakfast of champions? Aurora chills with Mugabe

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Dr. Peric (Dan Hiatt, center) looks to make an exit from his breakfast meeting with Robert Mugabe (L. Peter Callender, left) as presidential bodyguard Gabriel (Adrian Roberts) stands watch in Aurora Theatre Company’s Breakfast with Mugabe. Below: Hiatt’s Dr. Peric has a run in with Mrs. Mugabe (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). Photos by David Allen

I can’t imagine the choosing of a tie or the pouring of orange juice has ever been more sinister as it is in Fraser Grace’s Breakfast with Mugabe, now on stage at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company.

One of the delights of the Aurora has always been its intimacy. The audience sits on three sides of the stage, and everyone feels part of everything happening on stage. Strictly from a theatrical point of view, that allows us tremendous access to every detail of the performance and allows us into the nuance of a beautifully written script.

That intimacy is all well and good…unless you’re dealing with a monster. And that’s essentially what we hve in Mugabe, making its West Coast debut after hit runs with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in New York. It’s not just Mugabe (L. Peter Callender), the longtime president of Zimbabwe, who’s the monster. He is, perhaps, suffering from acute psychological issues, but his power structure is firmly in place and making itself known through his bodyguard, Gabriel (Adrian Roberts), also an intelligence agent, and Mugabe’s much younger second wife, Grace (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), an ominous presence dressed up in elegance.

Our entrance into Mugabe’s world circa 2001 is through Dr. Andrew Peric (Dan Hiatt), a psychiatrist summoned to the State House in Harare. A white native of the country, Peric attempts to keep control of the situation from the start and remain as professional as possible, but it soon becomes clear that the control he usually requires with his patients won’t be happening here.

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What is so interesting about Grace’s play is that he takes his cue from history – it is said that Mugabe was indeed treated by a white psychiatrist – but rather than creating a documentary-like drama, he taps into his inner Shakespeare and gives history a Macbeth-ian, Richard III-ian spin. This Mugabe is seeing ghosts – literally. He’s haunted by an “ngozi” or the aggressive spirit of a restless soul, and it’s not some nameless spirit either. It’s Josiah Tongogara, a commander of the ZANLA guerrilla army whose death in a car crash (cause unknown) paved the way for Mugabe to become prime minister.

The psychiatrists’ job is to treat Mugabe and get to the source of his anxiety and his visions (hallucinations?). It’s game of psychological cat and mouse, though, as Mugabe (and his team) are toying with the doctor as well and his long-held family estate that may or may not be taken over by soldiers.

Director Jon Tracy keeps the action taut, though there are dull spots in Grace’s script. His lead actors, Callender and Hiatt, are each at the top of their considerable game, which is saying something. They know their Shakespeare and they know naturalism, so the balance they create is just about perfect for this 100-minute show down.

Confined within the elegance of the presidential home (set design by Nina Ball), the story grows darker and darker, and the stakes grow higher. Tracy, working with video designer Micah Stieglitz, brings the world into the palace via fuzzy TV news montages, flashes of headlines and, most effectively, in live video surveillance of Dr. Peric. If it feels like the play doesn’t know where or how to end, just wait. Grace’s conclusion is absolutely chilling. Clearly you don’t have breakfast with Mugabe. He has you for breakfast.

Fraser Grace’s Breakfast With Mugabe continues an extended run through Dec. 20 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Porn, feminism and laughs in Aurora’s Rapture

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Alice (Lilian Bogovich, left), Catherine (Marilee Talkington,center), and Avery (Nicole Javier) toast to freedom in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo. Below: Gabriel Marin as Don and Talkington as Catherine have a grown-up slumber party. Photos by David Allen

There’s an observation about Internet porn in Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn now at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company that is at once hilarious and trenchant. A college woman encapsulates the ease of access to porn this way: “Once you get directions from Google Maps, it seems such a hassle to unfold an actual map.”

Generational differences and technology come into play a lot in Rapture, a crackling season opener for the Aurora. Gionfriddo is a smart, feisty writer who knows her way around a joke that always contains more than a laugh. She tackles the gargantuan issue of feminism and its evolution into the 21st century and comes through with a stage full of surprising, complicated characters having passionate, always intriguing discussions.

She’s such a sharp writer, in fact, that she’s able to make a case for Betty Friedan on one end of the feminist spectrum and Phyllis Schlafly way on the other side, all the while generating laughs and bothering to imbue her characters depth and heart.

Rapture, Blister, Burn (the title comes from a lyric by Courtney Love) is essentially a two-part invention: one part involves a summer seminar in feminism called “The Fall of American Civilization” taught by a writer described by Bill Maher as the “hot doomsday chick” and attended by a housewife and a college student making a provocative reality show with her boyfriend. The other part is a mid-life crisis triangle in which former grad school friends attempt to correct the mistakes of their past and attempt to travel the roads they didn’t take. The housewife wants to trade in her porn-loving pot-head husband and kids so she can finish the degree she abandoned. And the rock star writer wants to forgo her success for the family she didn’t have.

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Director Desdemona Chiang creates a natural but propulsive rhythm to the nearly 2 1/2-hour play, and her appealing cast makes of the most of playing smart, funny people while managing to convey real emotional weight. Marilee Talkington is Catherine, the famous writer who has returned home to care for her supposedly ailing mother (Lillian Bogovich as Alice doesn’t seem nearly as infirm as the daughter makes her out to be). Talkington expertly shifts between Catherine’s intellectual prowess and her emotional confusion as she reopens an old wound.

Catherine’s mother just happens to live in the same town as two significant people from the past: her grad school roommate, Gwen (Rebecca Schweitzer), and her former boyfriend, Don (Gabriel Marin). Gwen and Don are now married with two sons. Gwen works in the home and Don is a dean at the local college. Their marriage is not what you’d call a strong one – she’s a nag, he’s a porn-addled layabout and they have financial problems – so Catherine’s arrival finds them at a particularly vulnerable moment.

To make some extra cash while taking care of her mother, Catherine offers a summer seminar. Gwen signs up and so does Avery (Nicole Javier), a bright college student with distinct views on feminism.

The play takes some surprising turns, and if it comes close to feeling like a sitcom, Gionfriddo’s insightful writing manages to subvert those comfy-cozy expectations. Even Don, the odd man out here, is sympathetic, and through his stoner fog, he displays the smarts that have been dulled by the lack of real challenges in his life. He finds moments of truth (as they all do) when he says with tenderness: “Is that just a monologue you need to say so this isn’t your fault?” It’s a great line at a great moment, but you need to see it.

There are serious issues being bandied about here – the rise of degradation as entertainment, the notion of two empowered people navigating equality, breaking through our own personal mythologies – and no easy conclusions. Rapture, Blister, Burn entertains as much as it provokes, and while it doesn’t exactly blister or burn, it comes pretty close to achieving some theatrical rapture.

Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn continues an extended run through Oct. 5 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$60. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Mamet with heart (and humor) at Aurora

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Donny (Paul Vincent O’Connor, center) scolds Bobby (Rafael Jordan, left) as Teach (James Carpenter) smolders in the background in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of American Buffalo by David Mamet. Below: Two Bay Area greats, O’Connor and Carpenter, square off as Donny and Teach. Photos by David Allen

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company concludes its season with David Mamet’s American Buffalo, an early (1975) Mamet play that has all the telltale Mamet qualities (staccato dialogue sprayed in four-letter directions, life among conmen and criminals, pointed criticism of the “great American way,” etc.), but unlike some of the later, more intentionally provocative and disturbing work, this one has a core of compassion and human connection.

Part of that is Mamet’s play and part of it is director Barbara Damashek’s production headed by two Bay Area greats: James Carpenter and Paul Vincent O’Connor. Watching them spar is theatrical bliss.

I reviewed the play for the San Francisco Chronicle.

One of the pleasures of director Barbara Damashek’s production is how much of the humor she and her actors bring out of Mamet’s 1975 script. Sure, there’s rough language and violence and even blood at one point. But after the overly long setup of Act 1, the desperation of Donny and Teach reaches near-hilarious levels in Act 2.

It’s almost like they’re a low-life Abbott and Costello wrangling over an important phone call (the fact that it’s on a rotary dial phone somehow makes it even funnier) or figuring out how to crack a safe, which neither of them can do.

Carpenter and O’Connor know how to find the comedy without losing touch with the grim reality these characters inhabit.

Read the full review here.
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David Mamet’s American Buffalo continues an extended run through July 20 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are 32 to $50. Cal 510-843-4822 or visit

Dear Comrade: No love posted in Aurora’s tense Letters

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The Director (Michael Ray Wisely) tangles with his employee Anna (Beth Wilmurt) in the Aurora Theatre Company production of The Letters by John W. Lowell, the first play in the Aurora’s second performance space, Harry’s UpStage. Below: The confrontation between the Director and Anna grows in intensity. Photos by Sarah Roland

After hosting three cabaret performances, the Aurora Theatre Company’s rehearsal/black box/office space (the Dashow Wing, to be specific) known as Harry’s UpStage at last beings life as a playhouse. The first play in the space, John W. Lowell’s The Letters, a tense, 75-minute two-hander about abuse of power and the triumph of smart people.

Director Mark Jackson is known for his kinetic, dynamic productions, but this time out he’s confined to one small office (1930s-era Russian Ministry utilitarian decor by Maya Linke), and for most of the play, the Director (Michael Ray Wisely) sits at his desk and subordinate Anna (Beth Wilmurt) sits across from him and we see them in profile. They sit side by side on an uncomfortable love seat (an ironic name) for a bit, but this is mostly a face-to-face confrontation, so creating a tense atmosphere is important.

From the outset, as Anna waits alone in the office, Jackson establishes a tone of discomfort for us and for Anna. The Director, a career soldier who has moved up in the Stalinist hierarchy, makes it a point never to be uncomfortable. He has the power and boy does he know it. That leaves Anna to squirm and figure out just why she has been called into this meeting. Has she done something wrong that will lead to arrest and brutality? Has she been implicated in a colleague’s dastardly scheme? Or could she possibly be getting a promotion?


It’s all possible, and as the truth comes out, it’s not all that surprising that lies, violence and overweening governmental control are all in play. There aren’t a lot of surprises in Lowell’s play, though it offers the pleasure of a good mystery thriller with a few satisfying twists. And the way he incorporates Tchaikovsky’s life and sexuality into the action is most intriguing. There’s nothing like a good sex scandal no matter how antiquated.

Wisely’s Director, who carries a chip on his shoulder about being an uneducated soldier in a Ministry full of nerdy intellectuals, looks like a cross between Stalin and Ronald Reagan, which is just about perfect. His attempts to be convivial and folksy are downright creepy. No man in his position can just joke around, and that is eminently clear on the face and in the body language of Wilmurt’s Anna, an “intellectual version of the perfect foot soldier,” as the Director describes her. She has lived her life pretty much by the rules, and this meeting, no matter how friendly it may seem, is fiendish in the way you imagine all such meetings were in Soviet Russia. One wrong word and you’re in Siberian Gulag or worse.

That reality underlies Anna’s every word and action, and Wilmurt plays the tension beautifully. She’s the humanity going up against the stone cold government, and it’s gratifying to see her strength and intelligence emerge to fight the power, even if the fight seems impossible to win.

John W. Lowell’s The Letters continues an extended run through June 8 at the Aurora Theatre Company’s Harry’s UpStage, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

To laugh or not to laugh: that’s the question in Wittenberg

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Hamlet (Jeremy Kahn, center) is torn between Faustus (Michael Stevenson, left) and Martin Luther (Dan Hiatt) in David Davalos’ Wittenberg at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Elizabeth Carter (center) is Faustus’ beloved, Helen, who takes a shine to Hamlet during a tennis match. Photo by David Allen

You don’t have to have a college degree to enjoy David Davalos’ Wittenberg a the Aurora Theatre Company, but it sure will help.

If 16th-century academia is your thing, then you probably already know all about Wittenberg, the German university made famous as the seat of higher learning from which young Prince Hamlet of Denmark returned home after his father’s murder.

Wittenberg also happens to be where Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, theologian and lecturer, nailed his 95 provocative thoughts on a church door and sparked the Protestant Reformation. And, to keep things interesting, the hallowed university happens to be where Christopher Marlowe’s fictional Dr. Faustus practiced his dark arts.

With such a confluence of fictional and factual famous folk, it’s surprising that it was only in 2008 that a playwright smart enough to put it all together and create a campus comedy with serious underpinnings.

There’s no question that Davalos’ Wittenberg makes for good comedy – at times it’s split-your-tights funny – but this clever playwright is after something more than just laughs. OK, so every Animal House-type college stereotype comes into play at some point. In fact John Faustus, a cool philosophy prof, also performs on his lute down at the Bunghole. It’s a two-stein minimum and all the tripe you can eat. Ba dum bum.

Or when Martin Luther is beginning his theology seminar, he announces that if you’re in league with devil, Faustus’ philosophy seminar is just down the hall. In Room 2B no less.

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But Davalos has tucked quite a serious existential debate right behind the laugh lines (the play’s subtitle is “A Tragical-Comical-Historical in Two Acts”). Luther and Faustus are colleagues, friends even, but they are radically opposed in their beliefs. Luther is a company man, or, more to the point, a Church man. Anything the big Church says, goes, except that he has his doubts and questions and problems with the way Pope Leo is running things from Rome. And, by the way, what’s up with Purgatory? Still, he’s all about faith and doctrine.

Faustus on the other hand, is all about independent (but rigorous) thought, a free spirit and embracing the mystery of life. He really digs that Copernicus has recently reported that the Earth is not the center of the universe as previously thought but rather the little blue planet revolves around the sun.

“Save your soul, John,” Martin says. “Free your mind, Martin,” John retorts.

Under the direction of Josh Costello, Act 1 of this two-plus-hour production gets off to a bold start, skirts a few dry patches, and then rolls confidently to its conclusion in Act 2. There’s not much plot to speak of unless you know what’s coming for each of the three famous dudes (Martin Luther’s Theses, Faustus’ deal with the devil and Hamlet’s bloody homecoming), but Davalos keeps things interesting in Act 2 with a lively tennis match (Hamlet vs. a cranky Laertes) and a hilarious, expertly choreographed sex scene spliced with a sermon by Martin Luther.

Dan Hiatt as Martin Luther all but steals the show because his performance is so nuanced. This Martin Luther is no stick in the mud – he’s firm but thoughtful, and Hiatt gives the man depth of soul that makes you feel his every word. Michael Stevenson as Faustus is like a rock star professor but a really smart one who knows his way around a good punch line.

And Jeremy Kahn as Hamlet is suitably tortured (of course the moody Dane hasn’t yet declared a major) by the grudge match Faustus and Luther are fighting over his soul. When Hamlet feels like he’s losing his mind, it’s pretty easy to see why that might be the case.

Adding some fun to the mix of merry men is Elizabeth Carter in a number of roles, including Helen, Faustus’ love. She’s a free and spirited woman, way ahead of her time and unwilling to forgo the freedom that John so prizes, even if it means she can’t become his wife.

Here, history and comedy collide with fact and fiction, with poetry and science mashed in for good measure, making Wittenberg, the university and the play, a beguiling spot for some higher learning.

David Davalos’ Wittenberg continues an extended run through May 11 at the Aurora Theatre, 2018 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Fit to be tied in Aurora’s powerful, provocative Knot

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Stacy Ross (left) is a fifth-grade teacher and Jamie J. Jones is the mother of a fifth-grade student in Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot, probably the most fraught parent-teacher conference you’ll ever experience. Jon Tracy directs the Aurora Theatre Company production. Photos by David Allen

To call Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams’ play now at the Aurora Theatre Company, a mystery is accurate but only to a point. Certainly there are things we don’t know and need to find out, but there’s a whole lot more to this complex, disturbing and even devastating drama.

Looking at Nina Ball’s incredibly realistic fifth-grade classroom set – complete with tiled ceiling and fluorescent lights – it’s easy to think, “A play about a parent-teacher conference in a bright, friendly classroom. How intense could this be?” Oh, it’s intense all right. And surprising and fraught with the kind of societal and personal issues that create gulfs (or build bridges) between people.

Director Jon Tracy is especially adept at re-creating a version of real life for the stage that is unflinching, even if that means it’s sometimes hard to watch. This two-person play is, as you might expect of Tracy, so finely calibrated that there’s hardly a pause or a body movement that doesn’t feel at once natural or directly part of the playwright’s vision.

Tracy’s actors pull this off with incredible skill and emotion. Stacy Ross is the teacher, Heather, and Jamie J. Jones is the mom, Corryn. The topic at hand is Corryn’s son, Gidion, who has been suspended. Just why he was so severely disciplined and why this particular conference is so very intense is all part of the mystery and the dramatic motor of the play.

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And though hot-button issues like cyber-bullying and free speech arise, there’s something deeper happening, and it has to do with people who have very different viewpoints about life. It also has to do with core human qualities such as compassion, kindness and hostility. How do people deal with each other, person to person, personally or professionally, when their views of life are so fundamentally opposed?

Neither of these characters is exactly what you’d expect, although you probably know people like them. Heather is brittle, beleaguered and deeply invested in her students. Corryn is brash and honest, which can have the effect of making her unlikable. She’s the kind of person who asks a question and makes you guess at the answer. When you do hazard a guess, she guffaws at the sheer stupidity of your guess. Not so likable, but as she freely admits, she’s been up for 72 hours.

Whatever impression you have of either woman is likely to change – several times – over the course of this provocative play’s 75 minutes. You know it’s 75 minutes because there’s a clock over the classroom door (the same door through which you hear the bustle and see the shadows of the students going by when the bell rings), and the play spins out, sometimes agonizingly, in real time.

There’s some rough stuff in this play – one patch is so rough, in fact, it’s hard not to look around the intimate confines of the Aurora to assess how your fellow theatergoers are taking it all – but playwright Adams isn’t interested in the sensational here. Like Corryn, she’s more interested in honesty, even if it’s uncomfortable or unpleasant.

Gidion’s Knot is a hell of a tangle, and it’s somehow more than a play. It’s an extraordinary experience.

Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot continues an extended run through March 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

2013: The year’s best Bay Area theater

2013 (third try)

If you’re looking for the year’s best, you can shorten your search by heading directly to Word for Word, that ever-amazing group that turns short works of fiction into some of the most captivating theater we see around here. This year, we were graced with two outstanding Word for Word productions.

You Know When the Men Are Gone – Word for Word’s first show of the year was based on two excellent stories by Siobhan Fallon. We are a country at war, and as such, we can never be reminded too often about the sacrificed made not only by the men and women serving in harm’s way but also the families and friends they leave behind. These connected stories, masterfully directed by Joel Mullenix and Amy Kossow, created a direct, emotional through line into the heart of an experience we need to know more about. Read my review here.

In Friendship – A few months later, Word for Word returned to celebrate its 20th anniversary by casting the nine founding women in several stories by Zona Gale about small-town, Midwestern life. It was pleasure from start to finish, with the added emotional tug of watching the founders of this extraordinary company acting together for the first time. Read my review here.

Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts and California Shakespeare Theater collaborated this year on an intimate epic about the Golden State we call home comprising three plays, art projects, symposia and all kinds of assorted projects. This kind of collaboration among companies is exactly the kind of thing we need to infuse the art form with new energy and perspectives. The best of the three theatrical offerings was the first.

The River – Playwright Richard Montoya authored the first two plays in this collaboration, and though the Cal Shakes-produced American Night was wild and enjoyable, Montoya’s The River, directed by Sean San José had the irresistible pull of a fast-moving current. A truly original work, the play was part comedy, part romance, part spiritual exploration. Read my review here.

Ideation – My favorite new play of the year is from local scribe Aaron Loeb because it was fresh, funny and a thriller that actually has some thrills. Part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development, Ideation is still in search of the perfect ending, but you can expect to hear much more about this taut drama of corporate intrigue and interpersonal nightmares. Read my review here.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane – The combination of heartbreaking personal history and heart-expanding piano music made this Berkeley Repertory Theatre presentation the year’s best solo show. Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother’s exit from Germany as part of the Kindertransport includes all the horror and sadness you’d expect from a Holocaust story, but her telling of it is underscored by her exquisite piano playing. Read my review here.

Other Desert CitiesTheatreWorks demonstrated the eternal appeal of a well-told family drama with this Jon Robin Baitz play about Palm Springs Republicans, their lefty-liberal children and the secrets they all keep. This one also happens to have the most beautiful set of the year as well (by Alexander Dodge). Read my review here.

The Fourth MessengerTanya Shaffer and Vienna Tang created a beguiling new musical (no easy feat) about Buddha (absolutely no easy feat). The show’s world premiere wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good. Expect big things from this show as it continues to grow into its greatness. Read my review here.

Good People – Any play starring Amy Resnick has a good chance of ending up on my year’s best list, but Resnick was beyond great in this David Lindsay Abaire drama at Marin Theatre Company. Her Margie was the complex center of this shifting, surprising story of old friends whose lives went in very different directions, only to reconnect at a key moment. Read my review here.

The Taming – One of the year’s smartest, slyest, most enjoyable evenings came from Crowded Fire Theatre and busy, busy local playwright Lauren Gunderson. This spin (inspired by The Taming of the Shrew) was madcap with a sharp, satiric edge and featured delicious comic performances by Kathryn Zdan, Marilee Talkington and Marilet Martinez. Read my review here.

Terminus – Oh so dark and oh so very strange, Mark O’Rowe’s return to the Magic Theatre found him exploring theatrical storytelling that encompassed everyday lie, mythic monsters and rhymed dialogue. Director Jon Tracy and his remarkable trio of actors (Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly) grabbed our attention and didn’t let it go for nearly two hours. Read my review here.

No Man’s Land – Seems a little unfair to include this production here if only because the can’t-miss team of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart would likely be a year’s best no matter where they were performing or what they were doing. In this case, they were headed to Broadway but stopped at Berkeley Rep to work on Harold Pinter’s enigmatic comic drama. Their work (along with that of Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) provided laughs and insight and complexity where you didn’t know any was possible. Pure master class from start to finish. Read my review here.

Breakout star of the year: Megan Trout. It was impossible not to be transfixed by Megan Trout not once but twice this year. She illuminated the stage as Bonnie Parker in the Mark Jackson-directed Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players and then stole the show in the Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise as a shy big-box store employee who is mightily intrigued by the new guy who also happens to have been involved with a now-defunct cult. Trout has that magnetic ability to compel attention and then deliver something utterly real and constantly surprising.