Thornton, a Wilder and crazy (wonderful) guy

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The family (from left, Stacy Ross, Patrick Russell, Heather Gordon) reads the billboards they pass as father (Søren Oliver) drives them through Trenton and Camden in “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” part of Aurora Theatre Company’s Wilder Times. Below: Infants Tommy (Patrick Russell, left) and Moe (Brian Trybom, right) discuss life in “Infancy,” the first play in the Wilder Times quartet. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Of the four short Thornton Wilder plays that comprise Aurora Theatre Company’s Wilder Times, one is grating, one is darkly funny, one is poignant and one is so brilliant, so moving it almost erases the memory of the other three.

To begin with, these four one-acts were not written to be performed together, but director Barbara Oliver and her Aurora crew saw links between the first two, “Infancy” and “Childhood,” written in 1962, and “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” and “The Long Christmas Dinner,” both written in 1931. Together, they form a sort of piquant portrait of human lives, beginning to end, with special attention given to family dynamics. It’s interesting that the plays more concerned with death and time were written first, and the plays dealing with our most formative years were written 30 years later.

“Infancy,” whose most notable feature is two man babies in giant prams, is the most outright comic piece of the evening, but it’s also grating in canny way. These babies (Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom are frustrated and upset, as babies often are. They can’t communicate properly with their mothers, so they break into loud, tough-talking brutes to get their message across.

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Wilder’s dip into childhood grows murkier, and therefore more interesting, in “Childhood,” as the eldest of three siblings (Marcia Pizzo) concocts elaborate games for her younger siblings (Heather Gordon and Russell), the most involved being the one where they’re orphans after the accidental deaths of their parents. What begins as child’s play evolves into a dark dream in which mother (Stacy Ross) and father (Trybom) become actors in the death fantasies of their children. Kind of creepy, but really interesting.

Act 2 features Wilder’s two most famous short plays, and they’re full of the same kind of seemingly sentimental but actually quite trenchant and profound musings on human existence that make Our Town one of the best American plays ever written. In “The Long Christmas Dinner,” we watch one ever-changing, ever-evolving family sit down to Christmas dinner over 90 years in about 30 minutes. It’s a dazzling piece of writing full of life and death and grief and getting by. Children age from infancy to dotage, stories are told and re-told, traditions come and go, all beautifully performed by Oliver’s cast.

The stand-out here is “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” a simple story of a New Jersey mom, dad and two kids driving down state to see their married daughter/sister after an illness. That’s it for plot, but Wilder fills the play with stark emotion and powerful relationships. This apparently happy family has seen major loss, and there are raging currents of sadness running through their journey.

From the backseat, mom (Ross), keeps saying to her husband, (Søren Oliver) things like, “You know what’s best.” But no one in that car, including the son (Russell) and daughter (Gordon), believes that dad, sweet as he is, is the one who’s in charge. It’s all about mom. She loves this family of hers ferociously and is doing everything in her considerable powers to ensure their happiness, safety and general well being.

Ross’ performance is revelatory. This mother figure is as complicated and as admirable as any I’ve seen on stage. Even a small spat with the son ends up being a major emotional catharsis. And the reunion with the married daughter (an extraordinary turn by Pizzo) is fraught with grief and comfort and release.

Wilder demonstrates so powerfully that length matters far less than emotionally charged, expertly sculpted content. We can experience nearly a century of life and death in a half an hour and the full breadth and complexity of a flawed, functional, loving family in one quick road trip. It’s genius, and it’s great theater.

Thornton Wilder’s Wilder Times continues through Dec. 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $35-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Aurora announces 18th season

Aurora Theatre Company artistic director Tom Ross announced today his Berkeley company’s 18th season, which stems from the theme “Family and Fortune.” In addition to classics and newer works, the season includes a world premiere by Joel Drake Johnson (pictured at right).


The season opens in August with Clifford Odets’ 1935 Awake and Sing, directed by Joy Carlin. The classic play about an extended Jewish family in the Bronx, had a hit Broadway revival three years ago. Carlin, something of a Bay Area legend as both actor and director, first helmed this play for Berkeley Repertory Theatre 24 years ago. (Run dates: Aug. 21-Sept. 27)

From the classic to the profane: Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig continues the season in October. The play wonders what happens when a good-looking guy falls for a plus-size woman. Barbara Damashek directs. (Oct. 30-Dec. 6)

The holidays will rock and roll once again with the return of last year’s hit The Coverlettes Cover Christmas. Volcaists Darby Gould, Katie Guthorn and Carol Bozzio Littleton reprise their roles as a fictitious ’60s girl group making the season bright with beehives and tight harmonies. (Dec. 9-27)

The new year brings the world premiere of Chicago playwright Johnson’s The First Grade, which originated as one of Aurora’s Global Age project winners last season. Ross directs this journey of a woman whose attempts to do something good lead her into chaos involving first graders, a depressed daughter, a Ritalin-addicted grandson and the ex-husband who still shares her home. (Jan. 22-Feb. 28)

Barbara Oliver, one of the Aurora’s founding members, returns to direct Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, in a new version by David Eldridge created for London’s Donmar Warehouse. In what sounds like a story ripped from today’s headlines, the Borkman family is struggling since the imprisonment of John Gabriel Borkman, a bank manager who speculated illegally with his clients’ money, ultimately losing the financial investments of hundred of people. (April 2-May 9)

Closing the season is the Bay Area premiere of Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate directed by Robin Stanton, who has been seen at the Aurora with Betrayed, The Busy World Is Hushed and Permanent Collection. In this play, dubbed “one of the Top 10 plays of the year” by Entertainment Weekly, three teenage misfits in Salem, Ore., discover they’re connected by a sex scandal that has rocked their home town. (June 11-July 18)

Subscriptions to the Aurora’s new season range from $130-$235. Single tickets are $15-$55. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information. All performances are at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.


Review: `The Devil’s Disciple’

Michael Ray Wisely (left) is a British soldier and Gabriel Marin is Dick Dudgeon, a man about to hang even though he’s not the man the Brits think he is in the Aurora Theatre Company’s production of The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw. Photos by David Allen


Aurora’s comic melodrama goes to the `Devil’
««« ½


The Devil’s Disciple, the Aurora Theatre Company’s latest offering, is funny as hell.

Leave it to the Aurora and the ever-reliable director Barbara Oliver to expand their list of sparkling George Bernard Shaw productions. This is Oliver’s seventh Shaw play for the Aurora, a company she helped found, and her sure hand helps team this somewhat beastly Devil.

Produced in 1897, The Devil’s Disciple was Shaw’s first success in the United States (we’re told it toured the country with a cast of 33 and a marching band), and it is his only play set in America, though technically the play, set in 1777, actually takes place in the colonies during the early years of the Revolutionary War.

Oliver’s crisp production makes do with nine engaging actors and no marching band. John Iacovelli’s set, with the help of Jarrod Fischer’s lights, transforms quickly and effectively from one spare New Hampshire home to another, to a courtroom and then, with a few swift adjustments, to a town square outfitted for a hanging.

The fact that death and war loom over Shaw’s comedy makes it rather tricky to pull off and perhaps accounts for the play’s infrequent production. But Oliver and her actors quickly find a way to balance the tone so that Shaw’s incisive humor and wry satire mix with his melodrama and his rather serious thoughts on oppression, independence and hypocrisy.

Gabriel Marin plays Dick Dudgeon, a self-proclaimed “devil’s disciple” who is reported to be a gambler, a swindler and one who runs with the gypsies. From what we know of Dick’s family – his piously pitiless mother (a wonderfully grumbly Trish Mulholland) and oafish brother (Anthony Nemirovsky) – it’s no wonder the man flew the family coop and embarked on a blasphemous life of crime and infidelity. He’s a proud reprobate, and his pride is evident in Marin’s every swagger and sideways grin.

On the occasion of his father’s death, Dick has inherited everything, including the palpable disdain of his pinched, prudish family. Strangely, Mr. Anderson (Soren Oliver in a robust performance), the Calvinist minister, sees something in Dick that belies the man’s dastardly reputation, but Anderson’s wife, Judith (Stacy Ross, above, with Marin), is so disgusted with the rogue that she recoils from him as if his devilishness were contagious.

Shaw stacks everything in Dick’s favor so that, in reacting to the ridiculous people around him, we see what a good man he is – his paternal attentions to his late uncle’s bastard child (played by Tara Tomicevic) provide irrefutable proof. It’s all a set up so that when, via mistaken identity, Dick is carted off by the Redcoats to be hanged in the town square, we know Dick will do the honorable thing and continue pretending that he is indeed the minister.

This honorable act, coupled with her husband’s cowardly dash to safety, so surprises Judith that her faith is completely shaken.

Purple melodrama and blue humor give way to red-coated comedy in the second half when the Brits go through the motions of giving Dick (aka the minister) a “trial” before they hang him. Warren David Keith, playing the real-life Gen. John Burgoyne, all but steals the show as a sensible man among twits (Allen McKelvey and Michael Ray Wisely play his bumbling comrades).

Burgoyne strikes up an almost immediate admiration for Dick and his gentlemanly ways, and the process of sending the man to his death is so bloody civilized it’s a riot.

Keith and Marin spar wonderfully, and the laughs just get bigger and bigger, stopping only when the noose is actually fitted around Dick’s neck.

True to the two-hour play’s melodramatic strains, Shaw ties things up neatly, even heroically. He leaves poor Judith, pulled from one man to another and back, flapping in the patriotic breeze, but everyone, even the British soldiers, receives a just resolution. And the audience is left to ponder the historical significance of the devils among us.



The Devil’s Disciple continues through Dec. 7 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit .

Gabe Marin exorcises Aurora’s devilish `Disciple’

One of the great things about Bay Area theater is watching local actors grow into greatness.

They may or may not strike off to find fortune and fame in New York or Los Angeles, or they may choose to stay here and continue doing as much good work as they can.

The Aurora Theatre Company’s next show, George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, is packed with the kind of actors who, if you care about local theater, you’ve been watching for years. Names such as Stacy Ross, Warren David Keith and Trish Mullholland pretty much make a show worth seeing if they’re involved.

Another name to add to that list is Gabriel Marin (seen at right with Devil’s co-star Stacy Ross, photos by David Allen).

Theatergoers probably don’t remember Marin’s local stage debut in American Conservatory Theater’s The Play’s the Thing in 1995. He was a 23-year-old spear carrier amid some Bay Area greats such as Ken Ruta, Dan Hiatt and Kimberly King. He was fresh out of college (Chicago’s DePaul University) and eager to put all his acting training to use.

But on stage at the Geary, Marin remembers thinking: “Damn, I should have paid more attention in voice class. All the things I thought were old school and used to roll my eyes at, turned out to be more useful than I thought. And there I was watching people do it to perfection. Made me feel inadequate and in awe.”

But Marin persisted, even as he married, started a family and moved to Los Angeles. When the marriage ended, Marin and his son, Max, headed back to the Bay Area, while his daughter, Morgan, stayed in L.A. with her mom.

Being a single parent, Marin found a day job that involved theater – marketing director for Walnut Creek’s Center Repertory Company – that still allowed him to pursue acting opportunities.

“There’s nothing, other than acting, that I could do and be happy with myself,” Marin says. “When I was in LA, supporting a family, theater was something I had to obviously set aside, and those years were soul-sucking to me. Now I embrace the poverty. I embrace being bereft of amenities. That’s why I say this is all I can do and be happy.”

In the last couple of years, Marin has really come into his own, delivering some stunning performances for SF Playhouse (Bug, Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, Our Lady of 121st Street), Magic Theatre (The Rules of Charity), Marin Theatre Company (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Traveling Jewish Theatre/Thick Description (Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain).

All the theater work has meant that Max, about to turn 13, has spent a lot of time backstage.

“I cannot thank my son enough,” Marin says. “He’s had to sit in a lot of green rooms. He’s the light of my life. What’s interesting, is when I bow, I make an `M’ with my hands, and if he’s in the green room, he’ll run out to the wings to see if I give him thanks. I couldn’t act if he wasn’t on board.”

The younger Marin is so on board, in fact, that he’s been expressing the desire to be an actor (when he doesn’t want to be a computer game programmer or airplane pilot).

“I’ll encourage him and help facilitate that,” Marin says. “But I’m very careful not to push that on him.”

Marin is returning to Berkeley’s Aurora, where he previously appeared in Gunplay, The Glass Menagerie and Shaw’s Saint Joan, directed by Aurora’s founding artistic director, Barbara Oliver, who is also helming The Devil’s Disciple.

This is the one Shaw play set in America (during the Revolutionary War, naturally), and it tends toward the melodramatic. Marin is playing Richard Dudgeon, the self-proclaimed “devil’s disciple” who pretends to be the local minister, who may be fitted with a hangman’s noose to demoralize the townspeople.

“Richard is awesome,” Marin says. “He’s kind of Han Solo meets Obi Wan Kenobi in a very Shavian way. He’s the rogue with a heart of gold, and he made me think of Obi Wan because he reminded me of Obi Wan saying to Darth Vader something like, `If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.'”

Marin’s girlfriend teases him that he’s finally playing a rogue instead of a loser with a heart of gold.

After Devil’s Disciple, Marin will be seen in John Guare’s Landscape of the Body at SF Playhouse in January and then Jack Goes Boating back at the Aurora next summer under the direction of Bay Area veteran Joy Carlin.

With such a non-stop schedule, Marin must be exhausted.

“I’m not exhausted,” he says. “I’m grateful.”

The Devil’s Disciple begins previews Friday, Oct. 31, opens Thursday, Nov. 6 and runs through Dec. 7 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $28 for previews, $40-$42 for regular performances. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.

Review: `The Trojan Women’

Opened April 10, 2008 at the Aurora Theatre, Berkeley

Carla Spindt (left) is Hecuba, queen of fallen Troy, and Sepideh Makabi is a member of the Greek Chorus in the Aurora Theatre’s production of The Trojan Women. Photos by David Allen

Aurora resurrects timely, wrenching Trojan Women
3 ½ stars War in pieces

Watching Barbara Oliver’s production of The Trojan Women at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, there’s every indication that this will be an intelligent, sharply directed version of Euripides’ Greek classic about the ravages of war.

Using Ellen McLaughlin’s hour-long adaptation (which was “inspired” by Euripides), with its crisp, direct dialogue, Oliver and her cast present a stylized version of the Trojan War’s devastating end – devastating to the women of Troy, most certainly. There’s something rather placid about the production, with its lovely choral dancing (choreography by MaryBeth Cavanaugh) and its striking but bizarre setting: designer John Iacovelli has placed the Trojan women in the middle of the Vaillancourt Fountain in Justin Herman Plaza along San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

It’s an interesting choice to be sure, and the square tubes (minus the water, just like the real fountain so often is) afford some interesting, echo-y sound opportunities for sound designer Chris Houston. The sculptural structure also looks great under Jim Cave’s lights.

But the production, at its start, has that remove of “we’re performing a vital piece of dramatic history with relevance today,” interesting but less involving than the Aurora’s previous Oliver-McLaughlin collaboration, The Persians, in 2004.

Then the dramatic artifice begins to be stripped away. First it’s the entrance of Helen (Nora el Samahy, above right, with Spindt), the kidnapped woman over whom a thousand ships were launched and for whom the Greeks destroyed the city of Troy. She enters wearing a black fur coat and vibrant red dress. She’s bejeweled and with every hair in place (costumes by Anna Oliver).

The beleaguered Trojan women loathe Helen, understandably, especially the fallen Queen of Troy, Hecuba (Carla Spindt). “What have you ever borne other than a lover’s weight?” the queen hisses at Helen. “The contempt of the world,” Helen shoots back.

The women spar verbally as Helen attempts to equate her servitude as a kidnapped woman in Troy and the pain of this “remorseless noon light” of “endless visibility” with the women’s new position as the spoils of war, or “baggage,” to the Greek soldiers.

There’s no reasoning with any of the women, and the Trojans fall on Helen and basically rip her to shreds (fight choreography by Gwen Loeb).

It’s a savage, defiling moment, and the play comes to life in ways that have nothing to do with history or intellect. From this point on, it’s all passion and pain.

It’s hard to imagine a moment more devastating than the one involving Andromache (Emilie Talbot, below, center) and her infant son whose father, Hector, was killed by Achilles in battle. Andromache has now been promised as so much chattel to Achilles’ son, and her attitude is astounding. She’s sad and angry but resolute. She realizes she has been blessed to have been given life and she will not waste it. She vows to keep the memory of her slain husband alive through her infant son. And for a moment, hope comes to the women of Troy.

Then a Greek soldier (Matthew Purdon) arrives with instructions to throw the infant from the parapets of Troy. There’s no artifice in Talbot’s reaction. We feel every jagged shard of anguish in Andromache’s soul when that baby is ripped from her. It’s an astonishing moment, and it’s exactly the kind of moment you hope for in watching a play more than 2,000 years old when time ceases to matter and human emotion and connection is the one thing in the universe that matters.

The consequences of war — their human cost — are what linger after The Trojan Women. Any kind of war play, new or old, can’t help but bring to mind current conflicts and what we’re not thinking about beyond the headlines and the constant stream of bad news. There must be women in Iraq who loved Baghdad before it was, as Hecuba calls Troy, “the end of memory…loss beyond comprehension.”

Of course there’s a play to be written – The Iraqi Women of the Afghanistani Women – but until then, a line from McLaughlin’s The Trojan Women echoes: “Another war is ended. When will the next begin?”

The Trojan Women continues through May 11 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.