Berkeley Rep’s Good Book is a revelation

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The cast of The Good Book at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (foreground) Lance Gardner; (background, from left) Annette O’Toole, Wayne Wilcox, Elijah Alexander, Shannon Tyo and Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Ibrahim is surrounded by (from left) Alexander, Gardner, Wilcox and Tyo. Photos courtesy of Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Let’s just admit it. The Bible is a clusterf**k. How in the world did such a literary hodgepodge, political football, myth collection become one of the most influential – if not the most influential book – ever created? That is the mammoth question playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare ask in their fascinating play The Good Book now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Their focus here really isn’t Christianity or even religion in the larger sense but rather how the Bible evolved over centuries into what we know it to be today: a confusing, contradictory, occasionally beautiful piñata poked at by people around the globe who want everything from solace to spiritual connection to straight up power.

How Peterson, Berkeley Rep’s associate director, and O’Hare (a Tony-winning actor best known lately for his TV work on “American Horror Story” and “This Is Us”) go about answering the question of what the Bible really is takes nearly three hours and a play that careens all through time and space in a most entertaining manner. They gather their seven remarkable actors amid the detritus of Rachel Hauck’s set – mostly overturned tables and chairs – and begin to create order. Then they begin what feels like a Bible 101 class, with Annette O’Toole taking the lead, as they all ponder the questions: what is the Bible (what is it really apart from all the baggage piled on top of it) and where the hell did it really come from?

The college seminar idea, as it turns out, isn’t far off. As the play comes into focus, O’Toole emerges as Miriam Lewis, a renowned Bible scholar and professor who, it should be noted, does not believe in God. The free-form nature of the play allows us to be in Miriam’s classroom and to bounce back centuries as we experience great moments in the creation of the Bible. Well, maybe not so great. Just moments. Like when a group of travelers, who have done their best to record the stories of their people and Jesus and Jesus’ wife on various scrolls, discover that a member of their band has discarded some of the most important scrolls so that he might collect figs to nourish them on their journey. B’bye, Jesus’ wife.

The other thread of the story involves a boy named Connor (Keith Nobbs), who is being raised Catholic and has become a “Biblehead,” someone obsessed with the Bible. He has an old-fashioned cassette recorder and, in addition to capturing the details of his life, he pretends to interview important figures from the Bible and the Bible’s history (King James even shows up). All of that biblical fascination adds layers of complication as he grows up and realizes he’s gay. He then struggles to hide that fact from his parents and his God until he rejects the church (even if temporarily) to figure out how to discover a loving deity instead of a hateful one.

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The motor at the heart of the play is O’Toole as Miriam. She’s smart, sarcastic and unafraid to put you in your place because she knows more than you do. In one of the play’s more contrived constructs, Miriam is the subject of a New Yorker article about the “new atheists,” and the reporter (Shannon Tyo) crafts a profile that displeases the professor mightily. The article also causes problems professionally (her students, especially the Christian students, find her judgmental) and personally with Miriam’s longtime companion (Elijah Alexander), an archeologist spending more and more time on his far-away digs.

Weaving in and out of Miriam’s and Connor’s stories, the play allows for an overview of the Bible (via Miriam) and its role in persecution and personal pain (via Connor). What’s really interesting, though, is the sense that most of us know so little about the Bible other than the parts that are dragged out all the time (say hey, Leviticus!) or so ingrained in our consciousness (Ecclesiastes!) that it’s hard to imagine Western culture without them. Though the play isn’t interested in Bible bashing per se, it does seem to relish tossing off facts like such and such an apostle never existed! Such and such an apostle never actually knew Jesus! Except for Paul’s letters, the Bible is not historical! All these little nuggets indicate that the Bible is like a Christian Wikipedia, altered and edited by just about anyone and everyone, not all of whom had the best or most spiritual intentions.

The Good Book, which also features sharp performances by Denmo Ibrahim, Lance Gardner and Wayne Wilcox, can feel scattershot, but that’s probably by design. Except for a trite TV talk show moment, it all works and proves that from disparate parts, you can assemble something that, even though it seems unlikely, coalesces in a deeply meaningful, thought-provoking way.

Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s The Good Book continues through June 9 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-64702949 or visit

Watch on the Rhine at Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Watch on the Rhine by Lillian Hellman includes (front row from left) Jonah Horowitz as Bodo Muller, Emma Curtin as Babette Muller and Elijah Alexander as Kurt Muller; (back row, from left) Sarah Agnew as Sara Muller and Silas Sellnow as Joshua Muller. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The thing I can’t stand about 24-hour cable news networks is that it’s 5% news and 95% talking heads spouting opinions and fighting over those opinions.

The thing I loved about Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine (a co-production from Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Guthrie Theatre) is that the author stakes a claim for action. After a certain point, opinions matter a whole lot less than what you choose to do about whatever opinion you hold.

I reviewed the production for Here’s a glimpse.

Though Hellman’s dialogue can be ponderous and stagey, there’s a fervor to it that director Peterson embraces, and the nearly three-hour, three-act drama steadily ratchets up the tension. By the third act, it becomes a thriller that actually delivers.

You can almost feel Hellman trying to rein in her passion by interjecting humor, which usually means the wisecracking Fanny, so sharply performed by [Caitlin] O’Connell, gets off another good line or insult while swanning about in elegant 1940s finery designed by Raquel Barreto. Otherwise, this is pretty serious and grim going.

Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine continues through Jan. 14 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Review: `An Ideal Husband’

Opened July 5, Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Orinda

Julie Eccles is Gertrude Chiltern and Stacy Ross is Laura Chevely in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde. Photos by Kevin Berne


Ferocity marries wit in Cal Shakes’ lively `Husband’

Nothing ages like happiness, or so Oscar Wilde tells us in An Ideal Husband. But you’ll be hard pressed to leave California Shakespeare Theater’s production without being happy for at least a few hours.

The combination of Wilde and director Jonathan Moscone, as we saw in the 2004 Cal Shakes production of The Importance of Being Earnest, is a potent one, and the marriage makes for an ideal Husband.

Moscone understands how to keep Wilde’s plates spinning. Over here, amid a swirl of “beautiful idiots,” as Wilde calls them, is broad, silly comedy with great comic one-liners dropping like rain at Wimbledon, and over here is a more serious drama about how the personal and political end up being the same thing.

It’s amazing that Moscone can get such big laughs and then delve so deeply into real-life emotions. Credit his superb cast for scaling the heights and depths so perfectly.

I have fond memories of Stephen Wadsworth’s production of An Ideal Husband at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1995. That production, if memory serves, was all elegance and sharp angles. The wit sliced and the venom was toxic on contact.

Moscone’s production is funnier and more deeply felt – an even greater accomplishment when you consider he’s doing it outside. On opening night, the weather was glorious: warm and clear, with a pair of hawks squawking and diving over the stage.

But it was not easy to be distracted from the production. Annie Smart’s set (lit with precision by Scott Zielinski) adheres to the drawing room conventions of Wilde’s play but manages to open it up to indicate life beyond the area of central focus.

Julie Eccles, as usual, commands the stage as the virtuous Gertrude Chiltern, a woman who has put her politician husband (Michael Butler, below left) so high on a pedestal he has no choice but to come crashing down on top of her. It’s interesting to note that in the Berkeley Rep production 13 years ago, Eccles charmed as Mabel, the sparky sister-in-law who’s too smart for her own good.

As Gertrude, Eccles plays beautifully opposite Butler’s conflicted Sir Robert, a noble, upright politico with a dirty secret in his past. She’s even better opposite Stacy Ross’ Laura Chevely, a character whose very name oozes danger.

Mrs. Chevely, fresh from Vienna (and costumed by Meg Neville as something out of a gorgeous Klimt painting), wants to accomplish several things: to blackmail Sir Robert (she has an incriminating letter in her possession) and she wants another husband after the first two failed her. She’s one of those smart, dreadful people whom Wilde describes “treating life as sordid speculation.”

To accomplish her blackmail, Sir Robert must either tell his wife about his dirty past and risk losing her love or admit publically his shame and face the loss of his fortunes and his future.

On the marriage front, Mrs. Chevely turns to an unlikely candidate: the Wilde-like Lord Goring (Elijah Alexander), a man she spurned years before. It turns out no bridge is ever too burned for Mrs. Chevely to trouble the waters. But Goring, for all his insouciance, has his eye on young Mabel (Sarah Nealis), whose gross self-awareness nearly trumps his own.

Ross takes such delight in her character’s nastiness that it’s a joy to watch her and root for her downfall. Alexander works himself into quite a sweat as the man caught in the middle of a possible government scandal, a ruptured marriage and an invented affair.

Moscone pumps up the farce in the play’s second half but then, with admirable control, brings the emotion fully into play when necessary. He even gooses the ending to make it more real, less happy.

There are multiple levels here to enjoy – the Wildean wit of the social comedy, the “what happens next” melodrama of the plot and the pithy observations about what Wilde calls “the modern mania for morality” and the “seven deadly virtues.”

Wilde’s Husband remains trenchant, perhaps because politicians and spouses have changed so little in the 100-plus years since the play’s debut. Wilde’s appeal for embracing human frailty rather than demonizing it still packs some punch.

“All I do know,” Lord Goring says to a stern Lady Chiltern, “is that life cannot be understood without much charity, cannot be lived without much charity.” It’s somewhat ironic and terribly sad that Wilde, in his troubled life following the premiere of An Ideal Husband, received so little charity himself.

In an ideal world, this brilliantly observed play, with so much substance under the froth, could have served as his defense.

An Ideal Husband continues through July 27 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, just off the Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. Tickets are $32-$62. Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information. Cal Shakes provides a free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station and the theater.


Elijah Alexander goes Wilde

Elijah Alexander starred as Jack Tanner in California Shakespeare Theater’s Man and Superman last summer. This year he’s starring in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. Photo by Kevin Berne

He’s right on time for his interview – early even – and he’s in character.

Oscar Wilde said that punctuality is a thief of time, and I’m trying to grapple with that,” says the ever-on-time Elijah Alexander. “People say you should always be fashionably late, but that’s impossible for me. Don’t know why. I’m always early. But right now I’m turning over a new leaf. Being late could stir things up a bit.”

Alexander is preparing for his third summer in the Orinda hills as a cast member of a California Shakespeare Theater show. Two years ago we were introduced to him in Amy Freed’s Restoration Comedy. Last summer audiences fell in love with him in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. And this week he opens in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband playing a very Wilde-like Lord Goring.

After last summer’s Shaw marathon, which Alexander calls “to date, the greatest challenge of my career,” the actor is settling into his first-ever Wilde play. Like last summer, his director is Jonathan Moscone, Cal Shakes’ artistic director.

“Working with Jon last summer was the beginning of a very, for me, important working relationship,” Alexander says. “The Wilde is interesting because it is so unlike Shaw. I usually play the rogue. This guy is the mediator. He’s utterly honest but in an unassuming way. He’s less bold and less brash than the characters I usually play. He’s taking a backseat while others drive the action, speculating and commenting on a lot of it. He’s the one the other characters come to for support. It requires an ease…I mean, the guy is effete. Essentially, he’s the Oscar Wilde of the play.”

Born and raised in Michigan, Alexander set out to be in broadcast journalism with a side interest in criminal justice. Then, at the University of Michigan, an acting class changed the course of his life.

“I was a junior, and that class was a monumental moment for me,” Alexander says. “I decided to get trained and make acting my life. Got into Yale for grad school. It was all new to me. I came out of grad school having done 50 plays. I was so hungry for work I was constantly doing three plays at a time for three years. Then I moved to New York and got into the real world, where you’re lucky if you do maybe two plays a year.”

Busy most of the time – even in the real world – Alexander is between home bases. He has spent the last five years in Los Angeles doing the movie and TV thing. His biggest claim to fame is a small but juicy role in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the movie that brought Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt together.

“My first movie involved me working with Angelina Jolie for a month,” Alexander recalls. “I had US Weekly calling me, trying to convince me that gossiping about those people would actually be good for my career.”

After the ups and downs of L.A., Alexander says he’s looking for a new artistic home base. After Ideal Husband closes he’s off to the Utah Shakespeare Festival. After that, he’s thinking about settling in the Bay Area or Ashland, Ore., home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the country’s largest resident company of actors.

“Earlier this year, the writers’ strike decimated L.A. because everyone was so desperate for work,” Alexander says. “There was such a sense of fear, even in the audition room. I realized I’m going to go where the meaningful work is. We attribute meaning to things, so if it means I’m have to go on the road again, I will. The road brought me to here and now.”

An Ideal Husband previews today (July 2) through Friday (July 4) and opens Saturday (July 5). The show continues through July 27 at the Bruns Amphitheater just off the Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. Tickets are $32-$62. Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information.

For more of my interview with Elijah Alexander, visit my theater page here.

Watch Cal Shakes’ An Ideal Husband trailer here.

2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Review: `Man and Superman’

Opened Saturday, July 7, 2007, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda

Cal Shakes’ Man and Superman soars with superheroic cast
four stars Shavian perfection

A lifetime happiness? No man alive could bear it.

So says Jack Tanner the irresistible leading man in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, the second show of the California Shakespeare Theater season.

A lifetime of happiness may be unattainable, but for about three hours and 15 minutes, director Jonathan Moscone, his extraordinary cast and Shaw’s incredible gift for enlightened entertainment provide a distinct measure of glee.

The summer weather in Orinda, not to mention Shaw himself, can get a little chilly, and sure enough, Saturday’s opening night was shrouded in fog and brisk around the edges. But Moscone and his actors kept the chill at bay with a production so full of energy and ideas that you left the Bruns Amphitheater more charged up than when you entered it.

Moscone has judiciously trimmed what he could from Acts 1, 2 and 4 so that he can include the Act 3 play-within-the-play, Don Juan in Hell, a thrilling dream sequence that cuts to the heart of the issues in the play and provides an enjoyable philosophical take on humanity that essentially says nothing ever really changes, we’ll never fully know why we’re here, we’re obsessed with our fear/love of death and it would be foolish to exist without a balance of serious thought and serious fun.

Most productions of Man and Superman cut the Don Juan sequence (or produce it as its own one-act play), but it’s a joy to see the sequence in the context of the larger play, because it really does pull everything together.

Moscone aids this unity by incorporating swaths of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, with actors lip synching arias and choruses to great comic effect.

That’s really the only directorial embellishment here. Otherwise, this is straightforward Shaw, performed on Annie Smart’s elegant, simple sets: an industrial metal pair of curlicues provides a sort of proscenium with the gorgeous trees and hills fully visible (and lit beautifully by Russell H. Champa) behind.

During an Act 2 trip to a country home, we’re treated to a psiffy early 20th-century automobile, and when the scene changes to Hell, where the devil is outfitted like Hugh Hefner and nuns consigned to the lower depths drink Tab and Heineken, we get illuminated rocks and, ultimately, a disco party.

The tremendous efforts of the cast here cannot be emphasized too highly, especially those of leading man Elijah Alexander as the roguish revolutionary Jack Tanner and Susannah Livingston as the charming, conniving Ann Whitefield (above).

These two formidable actors carry the bulk of the play (with the heavy lifting in hell provided by an exuberant Andy Murray as Senor Satan) and attack their roles with such seeming joy, it’s almost impossible not to be swept away by them. They are overflowing with the Life Force that Shaw keeps bringing up in the text.

Alexander (last seen at Cal Shakes in Restoration Comedy) has numerous rants against the hypocrisy of so-called liberals and against the horrendous institution of marriage, but he’s never boring. Part of the reason is that he’s physically so invested in what he’s saying — his body language punctuates everything he says unbelievably well. Never mind that all the other characters listen to him then summarily dismiss everything he says.

And Livingston, a Cal Shakes regular, is all grace, intelligence and ulterior motives as her character manipulates pretty much everyone on stage.

L. Peter Callender is a marvelous Roebuck Ramsden, a pillar of society and a prude (as Jack Tanner says, “Pooh, prudery!”), and Ben Livingston (husband of Susannah in case you were wondering) almost makes the mealy mouthed Octavius Robinson pitiable as everyone keeps telling him to be more of a man.

Delia MacDougall is commanding as Violet Robinson, and Dan Hiatt is great fun as the chauffeur Straker, a man for more educated and worldly wise than the middle-class boobs who employ him.

Shaw jokes about the “pious English habit of regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in,” but Shaw’s plays, especially Man and Superman provide a strenuous mental workout. Such an effort for our lazy 21st-century minds could be tedious, but when the exercise is as sharp, clever and captivating as this Cal Shakes production, there’s happiness to be found as Shaw asks us to ponder religion, politics, art and that trifling thing known as human existence.

For information about Man and Superman, visit