Just add water: Metamorphoses returns to Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses at Berkeley Rep includes (from left) Rodney Gardiner, Steven Epp, Alex Moggridge, Lisa Tejero and Benjamin T. Ismail. Below: Gardiner and Ismail. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

When you write about theater, you’re often asked, “What’s your favorite show?” It’s an impossible question because there are so many ways to answer it. One of my go-to answers for the last nearly 20 years has been Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. When Berkeley Repertory Theatre was the first regional theater to produce the show after its premiere with Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, I was the theater critic for the Oakland Tribune/Bay Area News Group. Berkeley Rep’s theater on Addison Street was otherwise occupied, so Metamorphoses, complete with its gorgeous central pool, was produced on the UC Berkeley Campus at Zellerbach Playhouse.

I had seen Zimmerman’s dazzling Journey to the West, but I was unprepared for the ways that Metamorphoses would knock me for a loop. The show, an adaptation of stories from Ovid, combined storytelling and visuals in such a way that each augmented the other, and the result was so emotionally and aesthetically powerful that it was like a theatrical apex.

You can read my full review of the 1999 production here. Now, nearly two decades on, Metamorphoses returns to Berkeley Rep, this time to the Peet’s Theatre. The actors and some details may have changed this time around, but my original review still holds.

This is not your dusty dry, overly intellectual Ovid. No, this is a splashy, funny, moving Ovid that is anything but dry.

The show remains stunning – still gorgeous, still moving, still an example of theater at its sumptuous best. There are moments that are stunning, thrilling, funny and breathtaking. After Berkeley Rep, the show ended up on Broadway, where Zimmerman won a Tony.

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Amazingly, four of the ’99 production cast members are back for this production (a co-production with the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis): Raymond Fox, Louise Lamson, Felicity Jones Latta and Lisa Tejero. The ensemble is rounded out with some superb additions: the remarkable Steven Epp (a frequent visitor to Berkeley Rep), Rodney Gardiner, Benjamin T. Ismail (Louis in Berkeley Rep’s superb Angels in America), Alex Moggridge (another Berkeley Rep stalwart last seen in Zimmerman’s Treasure Island), Sango Tajima and Suzy Weller.

It’s interesting how, with time, different things strike you. Twenty years ago, I remember being most taken with the tale of Eros and Psyche. This time around, it was Orpheus and Eurydice that got to me. So did the final story about Baucis and Philomen, who, when granted a wish, say they want to die together and so end their lives in a most beautiful and loving metamorphosis.

You never know if going back to revisit a favorite is a good idea or a bad one. For Metamorphoses, happily, another dip in this gorgeous pool is the best possible idea.

Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses continues an extended run through March 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Ticket prices start at $40. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

ACT crowns a glorious King Charles III

King Charles III (Robert Joy, right) is visited by a ghost (Chiara Motley) in Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater through Oct. 9. Below: Joy’s King Charles III tells Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen) about his meeting with the House of Commons. Photos by Kevin Berne

What will happen when Queen Elizabeth, Great Britain’s longest reigning queen, leaves the throne? In a hefty helping of royal speculation, playwright Mike Bartlett takes on that question, but does so by way of Shakespeare with a soupçon of Notting Hill.

The result is King Charles III a new history play that traffics in family drama, parliamentary procedure, the liberties of the fourth estate and everything we think we know about Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and Harry. There’s sensation and substance, comedy and some genuine emotion mixed in with provocative observations on the relevance of the monarchy in the 21st century.

This American Conservatory Theater season opener is a co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it heads next, and Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, where it opens shortly after the presidential inauguration, and it’s thrilling to be part of a history play (imagined history, but still) in which we feel invested, well, invested to the level of our personal Anglophilia (my level, for instance, begins with collecting coffee table books about Princess Diana at age 13 and just tea-and-crumpeting on from there).

It’s also thrilling to hear Bartlett’s attempt at being a modern Shakespeare come so completely to life. His ambitious script comprises blank verse meted out in iambic pentameter, and while you’re aware of the language being rather vaulted or twisted into the occasional Shakespearean turn of phrase and in the rhymed couplets that end scenes, there’s a rhythmic realism that makes this feel like something nestled comfortably in between a kitchen sink family drama and King Henry VI, Part 2. If we’ve learned anything from Shakespeare, it’s that royals should not speak like the rest of us, especially when occupying a stage and behaving as if they’re the most important beings on the Plantagenet, sorry, planet.


King Charles III is nothing if not juicy. Who doesn’t love seeing horsey Camilla Parker-Bowles slap a royal child or Prince Harry clubbing with his coke-snorting friends? Even as those of us who devour all things royal revel in the mon-arcana of it all, Bartlett and director David Muse take these proceedings veddy, veddy seriously, as they should. The Queen is dead, after all, and Charles, so long in waiting and with his own distinct take on what role the monarchy should play, finally seizes his moment.

Robert Joy plays Charles as something of a fascinating wily clown. He does that huffing and puffing Charles thing, but this observant man is an experienced statesman with a strong conscience and little concern for what his subjects think of him. He’s got a tremendous advocate/body guard in Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen, and it’s clear he adores his children and grandchildren (George and Charlotte are mentioned but, alas, never seen). During his first ceremonial meeting with the Prime Minister (Ian Merrill Peakes, a bill that has gone through Parliament restricting the rights of the press requires his ascent (aka signature). Charles feels the bill goes too far in impinging on free speech, so he refuses to sign it, thus setting of a remarkable series of events that throws England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into quite a tizzy. The great experiment in parliamentary constitutional monarchy goes incredibly awry when a king ascends who actually wants to wield his power in what he considers the best interest of his loyal royal subjects.

While Charles plays push me pull you with everyone in Westminster, William (Christopher McLinden) and Kate (Allison Jean White) are reveling in being the nation’s darlings and Harry (Harry Smith) is tormented by being the clown prince in his heir-to-the-throne brother’s nobel shadow. To make himself feel better, he goes clubbing with his friends (shades of Prince Hal), but instead of hooking up with Falstaff, he meets an art student named Jessica (Michelle Beck) and they begin the Notting Hill-meets-Love Actually portion of the play as a commoner begins a relationship with terribly famous person.

Traces of Hamlet (Princess Diana makes an interesting cameo) bump up against Macbethian ambition and King Learish child vs. father showdowns, and it all transpires within the walls of Daniel Ostling’s oppressive (and beautifully detailed) set, which feels a lot like Westminster Abbey, where centuries of history hang in the air and are literally buried in the ground beneath. Lap Chi Chu’s lights gracefully transform the gothic space into various Buckingham Palace rooms, a London disco, the scene of public rebellion and, of course, the Abbey itself.

In the end, what makes King Charles III more than just gussied up royal gossip gleefully sifted through an effective Shakespearean filter is that the characters actually emerge as interesting people. In William you can see his father’s intelligence and his mother’s spark. In Harry you see royal duty battling personal freedom and in Kate, perhaps the most intriguing character here, you see someone smart enough to know how the monarchy can survive and thrive and who possesses all the charm and skills to ensure that will happen.

The play’s two hours and 40 minutes doesn’t exactly whiz past, but there’s never a dull moment, and it’s ending is really just the beginning. With any luck, the BBC will pick it up for an eight-part series. Who needs Downton Abbey when you can have Buckingham Palace?

Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III continues through Oct. 9 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Cal Shakes closes with apocalyptic King Lear

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Kjerstine Rose Anderson is The Fool and Anthony Heald is Lear in California Shakespeare Theater’s season-ending production of King Lear directed by Amanda Dehnert. Below: Heald rages as Lear. Photos by Kevin Berne

When California Shakespeare Theater ended the 2007 season with a heavy, industrial-looking King Lear, opening night was a cold one in the Bruns Amphitheater (read my review here). Eight years later, Cal Shakes once again ends the season with another heavy, industrial-looking Lear, but opening night was one of the rare ones when you could have worn short sleeves throughout (most of) the 2 1/2-hour tragedy. There’s just something delicious about a warm, late summer night for watching the unraveling of the world.

More than any other Lear I’ve seen, this one feels apocalyptic. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many zombie shows on TV, but the play felt like the perfect recipe for end times: take a whole lot of hubris (and the ego, power, lust, greed and general wretchedness that comes with it), throw in the decay of actual madness to blur all the lines and then watch the cracks in the foundations followed by nihilistic chaos and the abundant flow of blood. If that’s not end times, what is?

At the top of the show, director Amanda Dehnert tips her psychological hand by having Kjerstine Rose Anderson sweetly sing a song (borrowed from Twelfth Night) that tells us about a man whose youngest daughter was “wise but he called her his fool.” Anderson will go on to play Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, the one who is banished when she refuses to kiss his royal ass when asked to do so in exchange for a third of the kingdom, and then she will reappear as the Fool. In this production, the Fool will be a sort of nefarious Snuffaluffagus, a figment of Lear’s fevered imagination that gives him tough love, taunts him and fuels his encroaching madness.

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Anderson is terrific in both roles, and she has crackling good chemistry with the marvelous Anthony Heald as Lear. The most poignant moment of the entire production comes when Lear, navigating the fog of his mind, recognizes Cordelia, home from her banishment to care for him.

Dehnert allows Heald to rage memorably from high atop the moving metal-and-glass boxes that comprise Daniel Ostling’s set. Stagehands connect, break apart, reconfigure and spin the boxes, and during Lear’s stormy night (mentally and literally), he finds himself high atop the boxes screaming at the sky and the hills of the Siesta Valley. It’s a beautiful, powerful image.

Another striking visual comes in the torture of Gloucester (Charles Shaw Robinson, whose clarity of language and thought make you wish he were in every Shakespeare play) by Regan (El Beh) and her husband, Cornwall (Craig Marker). First they strap him into a chainlink enclosure, electrify the metal and force him against it. Then, the box spins, and through shadows on the glass, we see them gouging out his eye.

The lighting of the play, by Christopher Akerlind, is distinct, with many large lights (like you used to see on movie soundstages) on stage and moved around to highlight different scenes. Depending on where you’re sitting, this can be like driving into the sunlight, but it also creates a stark landscape on stage and helps isolate action in a large space.

Along with Heald, Andreson and Robinson, the strength of this production comes from Aldo Billingslea as Kent, who even manages to dignify the silly get-up (complete with red mohawk) he wears when the banished Kent returns in disguise and from Dan Clegg as Edmund the cartoonish bastard of a bad guy who seizes on the moment of royal upheaval to destroy his own family and shred the country even more. Clegg takes such delight in Edmund’s dirty deeds he might as well be twirling his mustache, but he’s fun, even if his dirty deeds seem more cartoonish than evil.

Director Dehnert leans too heavily on comic relief from Patrick Alparone’s Malvolio-ish Oswald, footman to Goneril, and his death toward play’s end (though he’s perhaps playing a different soldier character, I wasn’t quite sure) elicits laughs that feel out of place in view of what’s to come.

As Cinderella’s stepsisters, er, sorry, Lear’s older daughters, Beh as Regan and Arwen Anderson as Goneril are fire and ice respectively and not much more. They come across as more cartoonish than human, and their deaths don’t register much more than the inevitable erasing of cartoon baddies.

There’s unevenness in tone to this Lear, but that doesn’t necessarily feel out of place when it seems everything is crumbling. While Heald’s Lear is center stage, there’s a pounding pulse to the production and you feel the real cost of our idiocy when it comes to the little things – like running the world, navigating family and dealing with other human beings.

California Shakespeare Theater’s King Lear continues through Oct. 11 at Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. Free shuttles to and from the the theater and Orinda BART.

ACT’s epic Orphan dusts off ancient tale

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BD Wong is Cheng Ying, a heroic country doctor in American Conservatory Theater’s The Orphan of Zhao, an ancient Chinese tale that receives a new adaptation by James Fenton. Below: Wei Jiang (Orville Mendoza, left), Gongsun Chujiu (Sab Shimono, center) and Zhao Dun (Nick Gabriel) confer about the sad state of the emperor’s court. Photos by Kevin Berne

American Conservatory Theater concludes its season with The Orphan of Zhao an epic tale of revenge that some scholars think stretches back to the fourth century BCE. It’s a tale as old as time, and the first act of this 2 1/2-hour show feels like a millennia itself. But once the revenge gears really start grinding, there’s an interesting story here. I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Director Carey Perloff’s production (in association with La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego County, where the show re-opens next month) also comes across more as pageant than play, and that diminishes the visceral impact that should be building through the show’s nearly 2 1/2 hours.

Certain elements of that pageant are quite enjoyable, most notably the original score by Byron Au Yong and played by an onstage cellist and violinist augmented by cast members on percussion and unusual instruments (like water bowls). Some of the songs feel organic to the tale, while others come off as second-rate Sondheim.

“The Orphan of Zhao” is, at heart, a juicy revenge tale. Once we get to the actual revenge part, the production gains some much-needed traction, but that doesn’t happen until Act 2. The whole first act is set-up, and it feels mighty long in spite of a heartfelt performance by San Francisco native and Tony-winner BD Wong as a country doctor whose life is forever changed by making a house call to the savage palace of the emperor.

Read the full review here.

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American Conservatory Theater’s The Orphan of Zhao continues through June 29 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 to $120. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Orinda hills, young lovers captivate in Cal Shakes’ Romeo and Juliet


Rebekah Brockman is Juliet and Dan Clegg is Romeo in California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Shana Cooper. Below: Brockman and Clegg infuse new life into the classic balcony scene. Photos by Kevin Berne

What’s immediately striking about California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, the second show of the season, is the apparent absence of a set. When the company last dipped into this romantic Shakespearean tragedy (in 2009 – read the review here), director Jonathan Moscone erected an enormous, cement-looking wall scrawled with graffiti to evoke the mean streets of Verona. For this production, director Shana Cooper and designer Daniel Ostling have opted for minimalism to glorious effect.

Ostling has built no walls, only platforms of rough wood, leaving the full beauty of the gold and green Orinda hills to dominate the sightline until the sun sets and Lap Chi Chu’s lights help give the open space on stage some architectural form (the columns of light stretching into the sky to convey a tomb are especially, eerily effective). With so much space to fill, you’d think this cast – also minimalist with only seven actors playing all the roles – might have trouble filling it, but that turns out not to be the case. Somehow the epic feel of the landscape only trains more attention on the flawed, flailing, ferociously romantic people at the heart of this oft-told tale.

Director Cooper has done some heavy trimming of the text so this is a concentrated version of the story, which is at its best in the ramp up to the inevitable tragedy. Dan Clegg as Romeo and Rebekah Brockman as Juliet have charm and chemistry, and it’s not at all unappealing to see them kiss (and kiss…and kiss). Their balcony scene is a real charmer largely because they’re so good at conveying that initial burst of intense joy that comes from young love. Clegg’s happy dance is awfully endearing.

But it’s Brockman’s Juliet who is a revelation in this production. It’s not just that she seems appropriately young (Juliet is not yet 14, after all). She’s a bit of a spoiled rich girl, but even more than that, she’s a force of personality, intelligence and staggering appeal. This is very much Juliet’s story, although Clegg makes it easy to see why she might become so captivated by her young suitor.


With any R&J, a director gets a chance to shine staging fights between Montagues and Capulets and dances (at the Capulets’ masked ball). The fights are one-on-one (minus the larger ensemble cast to create a brawl) and stylized in a powerful way by Dave Maier that makes full use of sound effects in the sound design by Paul James Prendergast, who also provides a hip, club-ready underscoring (although the DJ station off to the side of the stage seems phony and superfluous, as does the piano off to the other side). The deadly duels between Mercutio (Joseph J. Parks, who in a happier scene moons the audience) and Tybalt (Nick Gabriel) and then between Tybalt and Clegg’s Romeo pack a visceral punch – literally. And the dancing, courtesy of Erika Chong Shuch, is bold and muscular, fun yet powerful. Juliet even has a dance solo as she gears up to her sudden wedding that conveys as much anxious, love-addled joy as a monologue.

Cooper’s cast, which also includes Arwen Anderson (as Benvolio and Lady Capulet), Dan Hiatt (as Lord Capulet and Friar Laurence, the same role he played four years ago) and Domenique Lozano (as Juliet’s Nurse), ranks high on the clarity scale. Even with the actors shifting into different roles (with only minor alterations to Christine Crook’s modern-dress costumes), there’s a sharpness to the storytelling that makes it immediate and emotionally acute. Only at the end, in the beautifully rendered tomb, do the emotions fail to go as deep as they might. The death of the young people seems to have no effect on the battle between their families, thus rendering the tragedy even more tragic than usual.



California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet continues through July 28 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. Free BART shuttle runs between Orinda BART and the theater.

Story lifts ACT’s Elevator to great heights

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Joseph Anthony Foronda is El Elevator and Julius Ahn is Guāng in American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere of the musical Stuck Elevator at the Geary Theater. Below: Ahn as Guāng feels the pressure of being stuck in an elevator for days on end. Photos by Kevin Berne

It’s hard to imagine a better production of Stuck Elevator than the one now on view at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Production values and performance levels are superlative, and the show makes a forceful impression.

This world premiere by Bryon Au Yong (music) and Aaron Jafferis scores major points for originality. In telling the story of immigrants in America, they take their inspiration from the real-life tale of a Chinese restaurant delivery man, Kuang Chen, who was trapped for 81 hours in a stuck elevator in a Bronx highrise.

Their story sticks to the major details from this 2005 incident, but their protagonist is Guāng, an illegal immigrant who paid $120,000 to be smuggled from China in a cargo ship. He works endless hours making minimal pay to send home to his wife and young son and to pay down his massive debt.

The telling of Guāng’s story is the most powerful aspect of this 81-minute musical. The central performance by Julius Ahn is extraordinary for its vocal purity, stamina and emotional heft. We like Guāng almost immediately, and that’s due to Ahn and his low-key charm. Over the course of Guāng’s imprisonment, we watch as he registers panic, frustration, fear and despair among many other emotions.

The central tension of this tale, aside from the lack of food and water in the stuck elevator, is Guāng’s reluctance to push the emergency button that connects him directly with 911 and the police. As an undocumented worker, he would be deported, and his already troublesome life would become more so. He also panics when he sees the security camera in the elevator roof. He even fears that security might see him…and that they might not. He hides in a corner of the elevator out of the camera’s field of vision until he figures out that the elevator malfunction has rendered the camera inoperable.

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So much pressure contained in such a small space. The dominant emotion conveyed in this short but intense show is anxiety. So much weighs on Guāng’s shoulders that it’s hard not to feel the enormous pressure on his behalf. From Guāng’s point of view, he’s not ticking off the hours in the elevator as much as he’s thinking about how much money he’s losing each hour by not working. Au Yong’s music, under the music direction of Dolores Duran-Cefalu, conveys this anxiety more acutely than any other emotion.

Very soon after Guāng realizes that his predicament is not going to improve any time soon, the stage outside the elevator shaft (the marvelous set is by Daniel Ostling) begins to fill with Guāng’s memories, fantasies and nightmares, of which he has many. There was the nightmarish crossing from China, the beastly Boss’s Wife back at the Happy Dragon restaurant and two splashy, colorful interludes – one involving Atlantic City and the promise of easy jackpots and the other a wrestling match between El Elevator and “Big Guāng.”

Such episodes are really there to give the audience the kind of mental and emotional break that the real guy stuck in the elevator never had. While we have music and scenes played out for our entertainment, he only had four close walls and silence.

The supporting cast, which includes Raymond J. Lee, Marie-France Arcilla, Joel Perez and Joseph Anthony Foronda in multiple roles, is fantastic, and all have powerful, dynamic voices. But director Chay Yew never lets us forget that this is all about Guāng.

Of course we want him to escape the elevator, but he’s escaping into what kind of life? A life of being worked like a slave? A life of being mugged in hallways? A life of having to sell your cell phone just to appease debtors? If the goal here is to highlight the plight of the immigrant, the people we interact with on a regular basis, then Stuck Elevator is a huge success.

My only complaint is that I was never able to connect with Au Yong’s music in any way other than intellectually. I appreciated its beauty at certain points and liked how effectively it conveyed anxiety and passion and compassion and even worked in a little hip-hop and rap. But I missed a melody that I could grab hold of, a song with an emotional apex and a real ending. It’s a sophisticated score an an unconventional musical to be sure, but I longed for a moment or two of something simpler and more directly emotional. More conventional.

But when it all comes together, as it does in a scene that begins with the harrowing recollection of a mugging, morphs into a violent fantasia and ends with a betrayal of bodily functions, Stuck Elevator is a bold, imaginative creation that expressively tells the kind of story we need to hear more often.

American Conservatory Theater’s Stuck Elevator continues through April 28 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Berkeley Rep’s White Snake: ‘sssssss wonderful

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Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman returns to Berkeley Rep for the world-premiere production of The White Snake, which stars Amy Kim Waschke (left) and Christopher Livingston. Below: Tanya Thai McBride is the Green Snake, better known as Greenie. Photos courtesy of mellopix.com

Even celebrated ophidiophobe Indiana Jones would fall in love with the stunning serpents at the heart of Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake, a poignant, colorful tale from ancient China that arrives at Berkeley Repertory Theatre like a giant holiday gift just waiting to be unwrapped and savored by audiences.

This is Zimmerman’s seventh show at Berkeley Rep, following in the wake of such stunners as Metamorphoses, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and, most recently, The Arabian Nights. Like these previous outings, The White Snake is theatrical storytelling at its very best, a fusion of stunning imagery, captivating music and, best of all, characters whose stories cut straight to the heart.

A co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this Snake plays out on a mostly bare stage of bamboo flooring and two bamboo walls coming up on the sides (the set is by longtime Zimmerman collaborator Daniel Ostling). The back wall is a changing canvas of sumptuous projections by Shawn Sagady, often evoking Chinese watercolors and adding depth and lighting effects to the already stunning work of designer T.J. Gerckens.

From its earliest moments, Zimmerman’s script establishes a tone that is at once formal and serious in its storytelling and full of humor and contemporary connectors. We are told of the legend of the White Snake, a centuries-old spirit that lives high on a mountain. White Snake has studied the Tao so assiduously that she is able to practice a sort of magic, including the trick of being able to turn herself into a beautiful woman (Amy Kim Waschke. But there’s something restless about White Snake, and that restlessness has kept her from total transcendence.

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Spurred on by her friend Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), White Snake agrees that, as a lark, the two spirits should descend from their mountain home and cavort with humans in the mortal world.

Once among people, White Snake immediately falls in love with a common young man (who is uncommonly sweet) named Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston), and the way Zimmerman introduces this love story is indicative of how fun and rich her story is. As a side note, we’re told that in some versions of the White Snake story, the connection between Xu Xian and White Snake goes back to previous lives in which the young man spared the life of the snake. This destined them to fall in love somewhere along the continuum. These kinds of details, along with interludes in which we learn the formalities of Chinese drama, are great fun.

The love story of Xu Xian and White Snake, aided and abetted by the feisty and loyal Green Snake, or Greenie as she’s known, leads to marriage and a family. But the course of true love never did slither smoothly.

An egomaniacal Buddhist monk, Fa Hai (Jack Willis) senses the presence of a demon spirit and deduces that the pharmacist’s wife with the incredible power to heal must be the White Snake. So Mr. Monk makes it his mission to destroy the marriage and send White Snake back where she belongs.

Battles are fought, people are kidnapped, storms rage, characters die, and it’s all just gorgeous and beautiful and utterly enchanting. The original score by Andre Pluess evokes the sound and feel of China, but the music, so beautifully played by Tessa Brinckman (flute), Ronnie Malley (strings/percussion) and Michal Palzewicz (cello), is thrilling and moving in its own right. And the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld are just a feast of color and clever little touches (notice the red snakes trimming the white robes worn by White Snake).

Even though this one-act play is only an hour and 40 minutes, it has the feel of an epic adventure and an intimate love story. You don’t want to emerge from the spell cast by this tale, but there’s no denying that the ending, both sweet and sad, is just about perfect.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Mary Zimmerman about the creation of The White Snake for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake continues an extended run through Dec. 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$99 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Laughs of a Lifetime in ACT’s season opener

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Jerry Hyland (John Wernke, right) makes an unexpected proposal to his vaudeville partners May Daniels (Julia Coffey) and George Lewis in ACT’s season-opening production of Once in a Lifetime by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Below: Playwright Lawrence Vail (Alexander Crowther) and May (Coffey) compare notes on the craziness of Hollywood. Photos by Kevin Berne.

American Conservatory Theater opens the season with a play that only American Conservatory Theater could do. And I mean really do – the way it should be done.

The play is George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, a 1930 comedy that seems oh so very jaded about the new Gold Rush represented by the advent of talking pictures. What’s funny is that all the trashing of Hollywood types – dimwitted performers, egomaniacal studio heads, apoplectic directors, long-suffering writers – is so disdainful. But at the time of the play’s premiere on Broadway, The Jazz Singer, the first big hit movie with sound, was only three years old!

What’s more, all those stereotypes feel strangely current, as if absolutely nothing in the Hollywood world had changed, but instead of the frenzy over sound, we have frenzy over CGI and gazillion-dollar budgets and opening weekend grosses. Turns out has been a laughingstock, especially to legit stagefolk, for more than 80 years.

Once in a Lifetime is full of old-fashioned pleasures, and by old-fashioned I don’t mean quaint or sentimental. I mean that the three-hour, two-intermission structure helps the 2 ½-hour evening zip by. I mean the sets (by Daniel Ostling) fill the vast ACT stage perfectly and with just the right hint of theatrical opulence.

And I mean it’s utterly delightful to see a stage so full of exuberant actors – 15 of them, many doubling, tripling and quadrupling their roles – all seeming to relish the crispy, fast-paced dialogue that makes you think the 1930s were populated by particularly punchy and verbose people. The fact that more than half the cast comprises current MFA students in ACT’s Class of 2012 or recent graduates of the program is just more reason to crow about this production’s pleasures.

Director Mark Rucker has the touch here, combining just the right amount of zaniness, sophisticated comedy and human-scale sentiment. The most personable aspect of the show is its central trio, has-been vaudevillians May (Julia Coffey), Jerry (John Wernke) and George (Patrick Lane) who decide to cash in on the talking movie craze and start an elocution school in Hollywood.

The zany element is represented by pretty much everyone else, from the hard-edged studio head Mr. Glogauer (the pitch-perfect Will LeBow) to the bizarrely elegant secretary Miss Leighton (played in deliciously daffy drag by Nick Gabriel).

The world of Hollywood is evoked by Alexander V. Nichols’ wonderful projections, which include film clips from Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer to Bing Crosby in Going Hollywood to some hilarious audition clips and clumsy cinematic performances by some of the characters in the play. Watching movies in the gorgeous theater is strangely comfortable – perhaps because the theater regularly screened movies for decades.

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Amid the cast of loonies, several stand out. ACT core company member René Augesen hits all the right egocentric notes as a Hedda Hopper-like journalist and Jessica Kitchens is a hoot as a silent film star whose imperfect speech makes her future in talkies doubtful at best.

Coffey delivers May’s lines with a sharp punch just this side of Katharine Hepburn circa Stage Door in 1937. She’s delightfully wry, but her infatuation with Wernke’s Jerry doesn’t really register, probably because Jerry is such an uninteresting, under-written character.

Lane really gets to shine here in ways he didn’t as barely-there Brian in last season’s Tales of the City. He’s goofy and sincere, the opposite of most of the Hollywood folk we meet. He’s a dolt with a taste for crunchy Indian nuts (apparently another name for pine nuts) and terrible taste in women (Ashley Wickett as untalented actress Susan Walker). It’s interesting to watch a man-size ego grow in a manchild like George.

My favorite character, and the guy I wish May ended up with, is playwright Lawrence Vail, played by Alexander Crowther. As part of a “shipment” of playwrights from New York, Vail gets completely swallowed up by the studio system. He’s making tons of money, doing no work and losing his mind. The fact that he ends up in a sanatorium for playwrights is just the icing on his crazy cake (wouldn’t it be great to see a play about that sanatorium?).

Rucker guides his cast through the mayhem with style and grace. He navigates his actors skillfully through some of the play’s pitfalls and strange bends in construction, and he gives them a tap-dancing curtain call that is almost as entertaining the play that came before it.

[bonus video]
Watch a trailer for ACT’s Once in a Lifetime:

[another bonus video]
Watch Bing Crosby sing the title song in 1933’s Going Hollywood:

Once in a Lifetime continues through Oct. 16 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets range from $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Marvelous Much Ado closes Cal Shakes season

Andy Murray (right) as Benedick re-thinks his bachelor ways, much to the amazement of (from left) Nicholas Pelczar, Dan Hiatt and Nick Childress in Cal Shakes’ Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Kevin Berne. Below: Danny Scheie as Dogberry. Photo by Jay Yamada

Much Ado About Nothing can be one of Shakespeare’s trickier romantic comedies. It’s full of sparring lovers, great lines and thoroughly entertaining comic bits. But it also contains some harsh drama, faked death and edgy mischief making. Capturing just the right tone can help ease the audience through all those shifts, and that’s what eludes so many directors of the play.

Thankfully, California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone finds fresh ways to meld all of Shakespeare’s fragments into a seamless and captivating whole. The darker hues seem perfectly comfortable alongside the bright comedy, and the romance bursts with charm and appeal. If you’re looking for a late-summer fling, head straight for the beautiful Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.

There’s a warm autumnal hue surrounding Moscone’s production. Russell H. Champa’s lights lend a burnished glow to the Italian escapades on stage, and Daniel Ostling’s set, with its copper piping and airy construction, is alive with greenery, both real (the potted flowers and landscaping are courtesy of Will’s Weeders, the Bruns’ resident gardeners) and artificial. At the center of the stage is shimmering, manmade red-leafed tree, whose leaves occasionally flutter to the ground.

Even the cello music in Andre Pluess’ sound design is festive with a tinge of melancholy, and that’s just perfect.

All these design elements create a world in which Beatrice, a woman who thinks love has passed her by, can turn her merry war of words with Benedick into a later-life love story. It’s a world where the nasty malcontent Don John can play a brutal trick on innocent people. And it’s a world where a word-mangling sheriff can nearly walk away with the play.

The villainous Don John and Dogberry, the master of malapropisms, are played by a single actor, Danny Scheie, and his virtuoso performances ignite sparks in the play where there are rarely sparks.

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Don John is so often played as simply a means to a plot-twisting end, but Scheie takes such joy in the man’s misanthropy and relishes each line so much that he becomes an irresistible baddie. It’s almost a shame that Don John disappears in the play’s second half, but that absence affords Scheie the opportunity to sink his teeth into Dogberry, a character frequently defined by his hilarious inability to use words correctly.

Scheie doesn’t go that route. Almost surprisingly, he lets the verbal comedy become secondary to the character’s personality. In Scheie’s expert hands, Dogberry is not a bumbler. He’s a professional working at the top of his game – or so he thinks. There’s a certain arrogance in the man that comes from the pride he takes in his work as well as an unmistakable passion to be the best constable imaginable.

The fact that we see how inept this man is heightens and deepens the comedy. It’s a masterful creation, and Scheie is a wonder.

In any Much Ado we expect Beatrice and Benedick to hurl insults at one another with comic aplomb. Dominique Lozano and Andy Murray do that and a whole lot more. Lozano shows us a strong, vivacious woman who is boldly attempting to buck the notion of a spinster, while Murray gives us a man’s man who is aching to find a soulmate. Both are utterly charming actors, so it’s no surprise they spend so much time beguiling the audience – especially Murray in his asides. At one point, his exuberance leads him to kiss an audience member.

I saw Murray play Benedick at Lake Tahoe’s Sand Harbor about 14 years ago, and though he was good then, he’s great now. He finds nuance in each line, and the character feels lived in.

This Much Ado is nearly three hours but feels much shorter. That’s a testament to Moscone’s beautifully calibrated production and the excellent work of the ensemble, which also includes a fiery Andrew Hurteau as Friar Francis, Dan Hiatt as Leonato, Emily Kitchens as Hero and Nick Childress as Claudio.

It’s a spectacularly lovely production (the gorgeous late-summer weather on opening night sure didn’t hurt) and a sumptuous end to another great Cal Shakes season.


Cal Shakes’ Much Ado About Nothing continues through Oct. 15 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, just off Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets are $34-$70. Call 510 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

Theater review: `War Music’

Opened April 1 at American Conservatory Theater

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Soldiers rock out with their “guns” out in American Conservatory Theater’s War Music, a world premiere adaptation written and directed Lillian Groag. Photos by Kevin Berne.


Not much music, not much war in ACT’s academic `War Music’

American Conservatory Theater’s world-premiere War Music is a lot like a college course on the Greeks – it’s long and confusing, but unlike those dry academic lectures, at least this one has a better-than-average audio-visual presentation.

Adapted from Christopher Logue’s book of the same name based on Homer’s Iliad, War Music is the work of writer-director Lillian Groag, who has toiled admirably at both Berkeley Repertory Theatre and California Shakespeare Theater and previously at ACT. Having seen and enjoyed Groag’s work for years—especially her fine musical sensibility and her great sense of humor — perhaps I expected too much in the way of dynamic stage pictures set to bold, affecting original music by John Glover and exciting choreography by Daniel Pelzig.

The show on stage at ACT seems like a missed opportunity in many ways. The theatrical pulse of the show – the music, the movement, the images – is buried under a whole heap of words, words and more words that only occasionally spark to life.

Daniel Ostling’s simple, distinguished set – steps on both sides of a stage dominated by a moonlike orb in the back wall – is beautiful. Basic and classical, the steps and the circle provide just enough background, and when the circle moves to become a window onto the walled city of Troy or a crescent moon, the effect is powerful. Russell H. Champa’s lights cast some fantastic shadows on that giant back wall.

But we want this to be so much more than a shadow play.

The story is narrated within an inch of its life. The narrators – Anthony Fusco, Andy Murray and Charles Dean – do a fine job, but being talked at, especially in a nearly three-hour show, is disheartening. The narration, though, is absolutely necessary to keep track of who’s who and what’s what, though that’s a losing battle as well.

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We’re in the home stretch of the 10-year Trojan war. Something about Achilles (Jud Williford, at right) fighting with Agamemnon (Lee Ernst); something about the goddess Thetis (Rene Augesen, also at right); something about Zeus (Jack Willis) in a boxing robe and the other gods (especially Sharon Lockwood as Hera) behaving like they’re in a ’70s sitcom; something about Paris (Williford again) fighting Menelaus (Nicholas Pelczar) once and for all over Helen (Augesen again). Intermission.

Act 2 is somewhat livelier, and there’s even a piece of memorable Glover music underscoring a scene between Paris and Helen. Director Groag goes wild for one brief scene of warfare set to blaring rock music with bare light bulbs dangling above the warring soldiers (outfitted as they are through most of the evening in Beaver Bauer’s modern-day fatigues). Though this scene seems to be visiting from another show, this is the one I wanted to see. There’s also a scene with a ventriloquist’s dummy that, though amusing, is so perplexing as to seem pointless.

Too often, War Music feels static, and the musical score, rather than seeming original, comes across as cobbled together from other sources. The costumes are basic – the gold masks for the gods are effective – and the staging is too often as static as the text.

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If you don’t know your Scamander from your Pandar or your Thersites from your Idomeneo, you’ll likely have trouble following the story. Even with the narration and the four genealogy charts and guide to the players in the program, scenes are confusing, and all the multiple role playing is ultimately defeating. The Greeks wear red berets and the Trojans wear blue. Beyond that, anything goes.

The only time the play slows down and reverts to a scale of real human emotion is in Act 2 when Achilles and his beloved Patroclus (Christopher Tocco) face war, loss and grief unbounded.

Otherwise, we’re spending a lot of time and stage energy tell an oft-told tale that comes down to a simple message: mankind goes to war over the silliest things. Death, destruction and mayhem are part of the mortal condition, and it will ever be thus.

Groag seems to want to tell this story in a modern way, much the way Mary Zimmerman did in Argonautika, but Zimmerman is a masterful storyteller, and every piece of her production serves the story. Groag’s War Music trips over its story repeatedly and never settles into a satisfying style.

In the photo above, Jack Willis is Zeus, Anthony Fusco is Poseidon and Erin Michelle Washington shields them from the elements in ACT’s War Music.


ACT’s War Music continues through April 26 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information.