ACT’s deep dive into Albee’s Seascape

Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) and Charlie (James Carpenter) meet Leslie (Seann Gallagher), a human-sized lizard that has just crawled out of the sea, in Edward Albee’s Seascape at ACT’s Geary Theater through Feb. 17. Below: McLaughlin and Carpenter are startled by two human-sized lizards, played by Gallagher and Sarah Nina Hayon. Photos by Kevin Berne

As directing debuts go, Pam MacKinnon’s for American Conservatory Theater is pretty auspicious. Her production of Seascape by Edward Albee is her first on the Geary Theater stage since taking over as artistic director last year. A Tony Award-winner (for Albee’s 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who has worked on other Bay Area stages (Berkeley Rep, Magic), MacKinnon seems to have landed quite comfortably in the world of institutional regional theater.

Her production of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1975 play crackles with crisp performances that easily carry the audience through the more naturalistic aspects of the play and into its wilder, more absurdist regions. When the curtain rises, there’s a moment of refreshing awe at the sight of David Zinn’s set: tall, grassy sand dunes along the Atlantic coast. The sound of waves crash in the background, the peace occasionally interrupted by a screaming jet plane overhead (sound design by Brendan Aanes). It’s interesting that the back of the theater is left exposed, as are all the bright, sunny lights that comprise designer Isabella Byrd’s grid. There’s reality and there’s fantasy reality occupying the same space, which is entirely appropriate for this play.

Seascape begins as a marital drama (an Albee specialty). A long-married couple is readjusting to retirement and the twin notions of aging and mortality as reality rather than concept. Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) has found her happy place on this sunny stretch of beach. She envisions a future free of grown children, grandchildren and responsibilities. She floats the notion of becoming beach nomads and seeing the world from sand strip to sand strip. But Charlie (James Carpenter) wants to do nothing. “We’ve earned a rest,” he keeps saying. This schism – “purgatory before purgatory” – is cause for a discussion that gets deeper and more intimate between husband and wife, and McLaughlin and Carpenter are riveting. They feel deeply connected yet strongly individual and can also be quite funny.


Traversing the bumpy landscape of matrimony with this couple makes for surprisingly grand entertainment. Nothing major or melodramatic is happening, but in a way, as they review their life together, everything is happening. But then something major really does happen: a couple of human-sized lizards crawl out of the sea and begin a fairly deep existential discussion with the humans (once everyone determines that one couple is not interested in eating the other). It’s a little like the two-couple dynamic of Virginia Woolf meets the monster-in-the-house horror of A Delicate Balance.

Because Albee’s script is so smart and funny, and because the performances of the humans and the lizards – Sarah Nina Hayon as Sarah and Seann Gallagher as Leslie – are so warm and real, there’s never any difficulty making the leap into fantasy. The absurdity is quite enjoyable (like the man having the affair with the goat named Sylvia in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?), although Albee never quite solves the internal logic of how Sarah and Leslie have excellent vocabularies and seem to know what human months and years are but don’t know what birds are. Because we’re in the realm of evolution and those key moments when the next phase actually happens, it feels like something’s missing in the story of the lizards’ evolution up to this point. But we do get some wonderful “learning” moments, as when the lizards learn the human custom of shaking hands to say hello.

Designer Zinn’s costumes for Sarah and Leslie are spectacular, and the way Hayon and Gallagher inhabit them makes them so much more than green suits with giant tails. It’s easy to fall in love with these creatures, especially Sarah, who is curious and empathetic in ways that make you root for her personal evolution. If she can do it, you know Leslie, who seems not quite as advanced, can do it, too.

There’s a sag in Act 2, and Albee doesn’t quite seem to know where he wants his curious quartet to land. The overall tone of Seascape carries the tidal weight of existence and emotional turmoil, but that is lifted somehow by an element of hope and acceptance.

I talked to ACT’s new artistic director, Pam MacKinnon, about making her ACT directorial debut with Seascape for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Edward Albee’s Seascape continues through Feb. 17 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Ruhl peters out in Berkeley Rep’s For Peter Pan

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Kathleen Chalfant (left) is Ann and Ron Crawford is George in Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: The cast of Peter Pan includes, from left, Charles Shaw Robinson as John, Keith Reddin as Michael, David Chandler as Jim, Chalfant as Ann and Ellen McLaughlin as Wendy. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Sarah Ruhl is a brilliant writer capable of intellectual heights and emotional depths. Her latest play, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, displays few of those qualities.

Paired with director Les Waters with whom she worked so memorably on Eurydice and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) at Berkeley Rep, Ruhl is working in mysterious ways here. At first glance it would seem that this Peter Pan curiosity is Ruhl doing her spin on Our Town, extolling the simple complexity of life and death as seen through the prism of theater, or, in this case, children’s community theater.

The luminous Kathleen Chalfant is Ann, a 70-year-old woman who begins the 90-minute one-act with a monologue recalling the life-changing experience she had playing Peter Pan in the musical of the same name in a 1955 children’s theater production in her hometown, Davenport, Iowa.

With Chalfant functioning in the Stage Manager from Our Town role to create a bridge between the audience and the play, the scene then shifts to a spacious hospital room at a Catholic hospital (which seemingly employs no doctors, nurses or orderlies), where Ann and her four siblings are holding vigil over their dying father.

Side note: this is a season of recurring themes at Berkeley Rep. Peter Pan marks the third play featuring pirates (Captain Hook appears toward the play’s end) following The Pirates of Penzance and Treasure Island. It’s also the second play, following the sublime Aubergine to deal with an adult child watching a parent’s final hours.

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From the hospital, Annie Smart’s set shifts to the siblings – Charles Shaw Robinson, Keith Reddin, David Chandler and Ellen McLaughlin – sitting around their father’s table drinking Irish whiskey and holding a sort of wake, while the ghost of their father (Ron Crawford) (and his late dog, played by a beautiful St. Bernard named Yodel) drift through the room. When the siblings go to bed, Ann dreams of her Peter Pan triumph, and a version of that story, complete with flying, unfolds, dream-style, with elements of Ann’s life and family mixed in to create, in theory, a poignant reflection on what it means to be an adult and how it feels, with the parent generation behind you, to be the sentry between life and death.

All of that is intriguing, and Ruhl is certainly a writer who can be profound and delicate and powerful and expansive. But what she and Waters are doing with Peter Pan remains enigmatic to the point of consternation. The dialogue is clumsy and corny (I’m assuming intentionally), with the siblings talking to each other in stilted tones as if they’ve just met and have to explain themselves, their parents and their childhoods for each other’s benefit more than for the audience’s. When the whiskey-fueled chatter turns from the provocation of politics to matters of faith and spirituality, things get interesting, but only briefly before they actually make a toast to not growing up. They might as well have made a wish on the second star to the right.

The action shifts to Neverland (with the set being clunkily moved by stagehands, again, assuming that’s intentional given all the whiz-bang technology at Berkeley Rep’s disposal), with the siblings playing Darling children John, Michael and Wendy (hmmm, also their names in the “real” world), Chalfant playing Peter and Chandler playing Hook. There’s some charm in watching actors of a certain age play with the idea of being children but children imbued with their full life experiences as senior adults. And it is certainly grand to see Chalfant zipping around the stage in green tights, crowing like an annoying but undeniably appealing rooster.

The blend of dream and play and drama and direct address is all a bit too eccentric to add up to much in the end. Ruhl is an emotional rather than sentimental writer, except here. She overuses “When the Saints Go Marching In” and rather than celebrating the impact of an amateur theater experience, she seems rather baffled by it. The whole play seems a flight of fancy that isn’t clear how high or how far it wants to go, a serious rumination on human existence that’s hard to take seriously. There’s plenty of actual pixie dust tossed around the stage but no actual theatrical magic.

Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday continues through July 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

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.