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 www.auroratheatre.org for information.

Review: `Twelfth Night’

 

Alex Morf (left) is Viola disguised as Cesario and Stephen Barker Turner is Count Orsino in the California Shakespeare Theater’s season-ending production of Twelfth Night. Photos by Kevin Berne

 

Director’s vision weighs heavily on Cal Shakes’ `Twelfth Night’
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It’s not often you leave a Shakespeare play and feel like you need to take a shower.

That’s sort of the overwhelming sensation that emanates from California Shakespeare Theater’s season-ending production of Twelfth Night.

What is usually one of Shakespeare’s most moving romantic comedies becomes, in the hands of director Mark Rucker, a bizarre mess of a play that feels like the painful morning after a 12-day bender. Give the director credit for bringing something new to an oft-produced play, but his oppressive directorial vision often gets in the way of the storytelling.

Unlike TheatreWorks’ ’60s hippie version of Twelfth Night last year, Rucker’s production is hardly cute. It takes place in some sort of giant Studio 54 vault (set by David Zinn) with disco balls strewn amid the ultra-mod, abused furniture (you don’t even want to know what’s been happening on those grimy couches). There’s a tacky beach scene photo mural in one corner and a man wearing a bunny suit confined to a cage in another. The lights (by Thom Weaver) range from neon to fluorescent to trance-y-dance-y.

Clint Ramos’ costumes evoke the late ’70s, early ’80s (with the men in tights fighting their own version of the Battle of the Bulge), and the general mood is one of debauched days and degenerate nights – a party that has lasted too long and no one is very happy about it.

This is a heavy layer to impose on Twelfth Night, but Rucker goes even further to complicate matters by having one actor – a game Alex Morf – play both Viola and Sebastian, twins who are separated in a storm-wracked shipwreck. Each thinks the other is dead, and their presence in the kingdom of Ilyria leads to confusion and, ultimately, what is supposed to be an emotional reunion.

The play’s primary focus is on Viola, who, to protect herself in a foreign land, disguises herself as a boy named Cesario and begins working for Count Orsino (Stephen Barker Turner). She falls in love with him, but in this production it’s hard to see why because he’s a miserable, melancholy drunk with no apparent redeeming qualities (though he does sport a nice white tux at play’s end).

Cesario is sent as an emissary of love on the Duke’s behalf to woo the Countess Olivia (Dana Green), who is deep in mourning over her dead brother. Cesario’s wooing is too effective, and she falls in love with a person she thinks is a clever young man.

Olivia’s court is a mess. Her drunken cousin, Sir Toby Belch (Andy Murray) and his idiotic cohort, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dan Hiatt), do nothing but drink, carouse and cause trouble. They are aided by the jester Feste (Danny Scheie, adorable in a dress), maid Maria (Catherine Castellanos) and the bunny-suited Fabian (Liam Vincent).

The target of their sozzled wrath is Olivia’s right-hand man, Malvolio, played here with gender-bending mirth by Sharon Lockwood. There has likely never been a Malvolio who looked more ridiculous in yellow stockings and cross-laced garters.

The malicious high jinks practiced by Sir Toby et al come across as particularly mean in this production and its aura of chilly dissoluteness.

There are elements of Rucker’s production that work well – Andre Pluess’ music, for one, though he doesn’t adhere to the ‘70s-‘80s theme much. Scheie’s vocal performance on several songs is mesmerizing, and it’s amusing when Sir Toby begins to sing, and the tune is borrowed from “Now I’m a Believer.” One of the evening’s highlights, in fact, comes in the pre-show number performed by the cast, thanking the production’s sponsors with a tune borrowed from Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.”

Morf is actually very good as Viola and Sebastian – he’s got pluck and passion — but he needed a director with a stronger conception to see him through. All through the nearly three-hour play I was worried about how Rucker would stage the twins’ reunion at the end. Alas, he cheats, and there’s nothing even enjoyably theatrical about it.

In 2001 Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone directed a beautiful, moving Twelfth Night that, it turns out, was the exact opposite of this one. It’s fascinating to see how one play can be so diametrically opposed to itself in the hands of different directors.

Moscone directed a play I felt a deep connection to and admiration for, and Rucker directed a play I’m not even sure I really like.

Twelfth Night continues through Oct. 5 at the Bruns Amphitheater, just off the Shakespeare Festival/Gateway exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. There’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and the Orinda BART station. Tickets are $32-$62. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Review: `Uncle Vanya’

Continues through Aug. 31 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda

Annie Purcell is Sonya and Dan Hiatt is Vanya in Cal Shakes’ beautiful, moving production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Photos by Kevin Berne

 

Beauty, boredom, brilliance imbue Cal Shakes’ Vanya

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Passion runs deep in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, but until late in the game, that passion barely stirs the surface.

One of the fascinating things about Chekhov, and one of the great elements of the California Shakespeare Theater Vanya now running in Orinda, is that hardly anything or anyone can be judged in a simple way.

Vanya is essentially about two deeply lonely souls whose lives either have escaped them or are about to. Sonya is a plain young woman with a powerful mind and an even more powerful heart. She and her Uncle Vanya are stuck running a wheat farm so that they can support Sonya’s father, Alexander, an esteemed academic who’s not nearly the great man they think he is.

Seemingly resigned to their lives of toil and isolation, Sonya and Vanya harbor passions and hopes and plans of their own. For Sonya, it’s all about her love of the dashing, slightly gone-to-seed Dr. Astrov, a country doctor with forward-thinking ideas about the preservation of the earth. But the doctor’s cynicism (and alcoholism) prevent him from connecting with anyone decent. He only responds to beauty, which means he only responds to Yelena, the gorgeous young second wife of academic Alexander.

The doctor is bored and interesting. Yelena is bored and beautiful. It’s a lazy but potent combination, which is too bad for Vanya, who also pines for Yelena but for whom he’ll never be anything but a good friend.

If this sounds a little melodramatic, it isn’t, especially in Emily Mann’s crisp, clear adaptation directed by Timothy Near, the outgoing artistic director of San Jose Repertory Theatre making her Cal Shakes debut.

Mann and Near emphasize the comedy – there really are a lot of laughs, all of which come from character more than situation – only because the more we laugh, the more our hearts break, especially for Sonya, a young woman who deserves so much better than she gets.

Near adds some fussy directorial flourishes at the top of each act, but mostly she adheres to the complex simplicity of Chekhov’s characters as they coast through their days full of regret, misery, exhaustion, suffocation, idleness, old age, restlessness and failure, all the while chatting and getting on with the business of their days. There are some great musical moments – both with recorded folk music and muted trumpet in Jeff Mockus’ expert sound design and live guitar playing by Howard Swain as Waffles, a friend of the family’s.

Near’s production is filled with warmth, and the Cal Shakes stage is stunningly beautiful with Erik Flatmo’s rustic, raw wood set blends seamlessly with the golden Orinda hills behind the stage. York Kennedy’s lights make all that wood glow in rich golden tones, and Raquel Barreto’s costumes blend perfectly except for Yelena’s gowns, which are meant to stand out as sophisticated beauty amid rural earthiness.
Dan Hiatt gives Vanya some much needed levity, but when the character snaps, when he’s finally had enough, Hiatt connects with profound anger and desperation. Early on, Vanya gets a laugh with the line: “It’s a senseless, dirty business this living.” But by play’s end, nearly 2 ½ hours later, we believe him.

Vanya’s friendship with the doctor is strongly felt because Andy Murray is perfectly cast as Astrov, a man with some sexual fire still in him but who has given over to the pressures of his job and the futility of being an environmentalist in an industrial world.

Sarah Grace Wilson as Yelena has the requisite beauty, but she reveals much more under the surface and makes her character, who is stuck in a horrible marriage with an egomaniacal blowhard (James Carpenter as Alexander), one of the bright lights of the play.

But no light is brighter than Annie Purcell as Sonya. Purcell is so grounded, so real, it’s almost impossible to watch anyone else when she’s on stage. She listens with intensity, and even the most fleeting expression on her face can break your heart. And Sonya is a heartbreaking character to be sure – just watch her in the doctor’s thrall as he, oblivious to her adoration, degrades, demeans and destroys her without ever knowing it.

It’s a tribute to Chekhov first, and to everyone in this production next, that such a depressing play isn’t depressing. “It’s the world that’s insane for letting us live in it,” Vanya says. And he’s right. But like Vanya and Sonya, we go on and find a way to live in a sad, insane world, even if we never quite know why or how we do.

Cal Shakes’ Uncle Vanya continues through Aug. 31 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, off the Shakespeare Festival/Gateway exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets are $32-$62. There’s a free shuttle between the theater and the Orinda BART station. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Dan Hiatt on Chekhov, regret and gunshots


Last summer, Dan Hiatt was in three California Shakespeare Theater shows, including The Triumph of Love (above, with Domenique Lozano). This summer he is playing the title character in Cal Shakes’ Uncle Vanya. Photo by Kevin Berne

Actors tend to love working on Chekhov plays. There aren’t many of them, but they’re juicy – rich in character, simple on the surface and utterly complex underneath.

Dan Hiatt, a familiar face to Bay Area theatergoers, has done two of Chekhov’s big three: The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. Now he’s closing in on the third. He’s playing the title character in California Shakespeare Theater’s Uncle Vanya, which previews this week and opens on Saturday in Orinda.

Hiatt, taking a break from rehearsal in Berkeley, says he’ll always jump at the chance to do Chekhov.

“He puts human nature on the page more accurately than most other writers, it seems to me, and with such humor,” Hiatt says. “The plays are more than a century old, yet they’re still absolutely recognizable. The plays are a great kind of loving, humorous, tongue-in-cheek takes on what human nature is, what it is to live our lives. The other thing is I don’t think there’s a bad character, an unrewarding character in any of them. Even the smaller roles require so much.”

Playing Vanya, a man looking back on his life with great regret, Hiatt has been loving rehearsals, calling them a “joy…up to now.” Then he sort of hit an emotional wall and had to do some deep thinking about the character.

“It’s almost like maybe I’m even sort of looking back on the time when I was Vanya’s age – I’m maybe a few years older than he is – from the vantage point of having gone through what he’s going through,” Hiatt says. “You get through that, and you reach a place where you’re pretty comfortable and happy. I’m there, Vanya isn’t. Looking back on all this angst, it’s better to have been through it than to have to imagine it entirely. The advantage of being older is not having to go through it in life while you’re working on the role.”

Though successful and one of the most admired actors in the Bay Area, Hiatt says his phase of existential regret had to do with his life choices.

“I never married or had children,” he says. “That’s something I think helps to tether people to something. And then living a life on stage – wow, that was really insignificant. There’s nothing to show for it and I’m still struggling to make the rent. It’s the story of age. I think probably a lot of people at 3 a.m., no matter what their life situation, look back and say, `If only…'”

Some complain that nothing much happens in a Chekhov play, characters just sit around and yak, but Hiatt disagrees.

“We all sit around most of the time, yet we’re all wrestling with some life-changing thing everyday,” he says. “People are trying to work out their lives, dream about things not possible to them. That’s a tremendously active thing.”

Cal Shakes’ Vanya is directed by San Jose Repertory Theatre’s outgoing artistic director, Timothy Near, and uses an adaptation by Emily Mann that Hiatt describes as “active and muscular in language.”

“You really sense Vanya change over time in this script,” Hiatt says. “He grows much darker in the second act, so it’s maybe not as surprising when he runs off and grabs the pistol. Emily Mann has had some really great ideas here.”

To read Dan Hiatt’s thoughts on being a veteran Bay Area actor, visit my Examiner.com page.

Uncle Vanya begins previews Wednesday, Aug. 6, opens Saturday, Aug. 9 and continues through Aug. 31 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, just off the Shakespeare Festival/Gateway exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. There’s a free shuttle that runs between the theater and the Orinda BART station. Tickets are $32-$62. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.