Tickety boo! Kneehigh, Berkeley Rep jazz up history in Adolphus Tips

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Adi (Ncuti Gatwa, left) and Harry (Nandi Bhebhe) in 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, a Kneehigh production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Katy Owen as Lily, with her cat. Photos by Steve Tanner

Spirits are high at Berkeley Repertory Theatre this holiday season. What’s interesting is that the merry-making on stage in 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips – the singing, dancing and general revelry – is all in service to a story about war and a little-known and avoidable tragedy that cost nearly 1,000 during World War II. So it’s happy about sad, which makes sense given the theater company at work here is Kneehigh, the Cornwall-based troupe that has made various Bay Area splashes at American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Rep (The Wild Bride, Tristan & Yseult). Their work is marked by a certain exuberance that combines song, dance and storytelling with a powerful sense of true experience. From our limited perspective here (we haven’t seen, unfortunately, all their productions) The Wild Bride remains the benchmark toward which all their productions must aspire (read my review here), and though the new show has “amazing” in its title, the work, as enjoyable as it is, doesn’t quite get there.

Like the other Kneehigh shows we have been lucky enough to see, Adolphus Tips is directed by Emma Rice, who is currently the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London (she’s actually leaving in the spring of 2018 after only two years – that’s a whole other story). Rice is one of those directors whose vision and energy and good taste in actors, designers and music makes you want to experience everything she does, and if this ride isn’t as wild as her Bride, it still has an awful lot to recommend it.

As ever, the presentation is simple and straightforward. The set, a giant starburst bandshell (by Lez Brotherston, who also designed costumes) sits at the center of the Roda stage surrounded by sandbags (there’s a war going on) and a central playing area that is primarily the farmhouse where 12-year-old Lily lives with her mum, grandpa and ever-disappearing cat named Tips. Lily’s dad is off fighting the war, and the arriving American troops are going to evacuate everyone from Lily’s town, Slapton Sands, so they can rehearse their water landings in preparation for D-Day.

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Because the story is told from Lily’s point of view (via the diaries a grown-up Lily gives to her grandson), we only get a slice of all this, but it’s an intriguing slice, especially with the arrival of two African-American GIs who befriend Lily and her family.

This story, adapted by Rice and Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) from Morpurgo’s novel, isn’t’ so much about the loss of life that shouldn’t have happened but more about how war is seen through the eyes of a child. In this case, that’s Lily, played with rambunctious glee by Katy Owen, and she mostly cares about her cat, represented by a puppet, although one not nearly as appealing or as carefully manipulated as the puppet of the dog who herds sheep on the farm (Sarah Wright is credited as the puppet director). Lily spends much of the play’s 2 1/2 hours shouting for Tips, but she does get mightily distracted by Barry (Adam Sopp an evacuee from the London blitz who ends up in Lily’s class, which happens to be taught by a lovely Jewish refugee from France (Emma Darlow as Madame Bounine).

Boys and cats rule Lily’s world, and then she meets Adolphus (Ncuti Gatwa), whom his friends call Adi, and soft-spoken Harry (Nandi Bhebhe). Their exuberant entrance, full of irresistible swing dancing and high kicks, all but ensures that they will be adored by all who know them. How their fates intertwine with Slapton and Lily makes up the bulk of the show, which bounces from the present to the past and back to the present, all accompanied by a band that continually adds or subtracts members depending on which actors aren’t involved in a scene.

This may be a play, but it’s a play with an awful lot of music. Some of it is original (by Stu Barker) and some we’ve heard before (“Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Born to Be Wild”), and it’s all highly enjoyable. There’s even a sing-along “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at the top of Act 2 that is a lot more fun than it sounds (as is the dance-along at show’s end). Why is there a band and a blues singer (Akpore Uzoh) presiding over this war story full of puppets (sheep! chickens! a boy playing with a soccer ball!), adults playing children and small-town life mashed up with large-scale tragedy? Because this is a Kneehigh show, and a band adds bounce and humor and fire and, on occasion, a tender moment.

Rice directs with her customary brilliance and attention to detail, and her ensemble is as endearing as it is energetic. A standout for me is Ewan Wardrop pulling double duty (they all do) as Lord Something-or-Other, whose horse riding skills have to be seen to be believed and as Mrs. Turner, Barry’s enthusiastic mum up for a visit from London. Gatwa and Bhebhe shine as Adi and Harry, and Mike Shepherd as a motorcycle-riding granny is priceless.

If all the pieces don’t add up to something moving, if all the skittering and scattering obscure a story that lacks depth, there’s still an awful lot of good stuff here. War may be hell, but as seen through the Kneehigh prism, it’s full of sweet fun, fun for all ages.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Michael Morpurgo and Emma Rice’s 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips continues through Jan. 15 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Berkeley Rep’s Meow Meow: It’s all feline and dandy

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Meow Meow, sort of a Lady Gaga-meets-Lotte Lenya kind of performer, stars in the world premiere of An Audience with Meow Meow, a blend of play and nightclub act directed by Emma Rice of Kneehigh Theatre fame. Below: Meow Meow gets support (literally) from Michael Balderrama (left) and Bob Gaynor. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

You get the impression, watching An Audience with Meow Meow that the star, a self-styled international singing sensation, and director Emma Rice would like nothing better than to destroy the theater and finish the show from the rubble. While audience members wipe blood from their faces and grapple with their broken bones, Meow Meow will persist in singing, making jokes and lamenting the state of the world. Stripped of all theatrical artifice, artist and audience will become one, and art will have saved the world.

That doesn’t happen – well, not exactly. But Meow Meow and Rice (on loan from Kneehigh Theatre, the company behind Berkeley Rep hits The Wild Bride and Tristan & Yseult) do what they can to deconstruct a nightclub act and turn it into a substantial piece of theater.

Meow Meow, in case you don’t know, is the creation of Melissa Madden Gray, a wildly talented singer, actor, comedian. Think about how Stefani Germanotta created Lady Gaga or even Bette Midler created The Divine Miss M – both alter-egos that fully display the performer’s talents but give license to be larger, bolder and braver than life. Meow Meow says repeatedly that her mother was a bottle of Absinthe, and the impression she gives is one of world-weary glamour and sophistication tinged with hardship and a hint of the gutter. She’s a chanteuse you might find in Weimar-era Germany or a clown in a vaudeville act or a jaded broad in the lounge of a skeevy Vegas casino.

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In fact, when Audience begins, it feels very much like a Vegas flashback. Meow Meow sits perched above the stage, her name in lights, giant gown flowing beneath her (the glitzy sets and costumes by Neil Murray look like a million bucks – literally). She’s joined by two dancing boys (Michael Balderrama and Bob Gaynor), and they do some perky dancing (choreography by Tiger Martina) suitable for the Vegas stage or a ’70s variety show. Musical director Lance Horne leads his agile quartet from the piano, and they make the shifts from the glossy to the gritty without missing a beat.

Things quickly begin to go wrong. Meow Meow injures her dancers but pushes on. The dancers quit, but she pushes on. The stage crew (also played by Balderrama and Gaynor) try to keep up but eventually revolt and attempt to shut down the show. Still, Meow Meow goes on. To sing “Ne Me Quitte Pas” she gets to men from the audience to perform with her (they serve as mic stand and chair). It’s a hilarious bit, but the other audience participation routine with five volunteers is even better (and funnier) and ends with Meow Meow crowd surfing through the Roda Theatre.

It seems that Rice and Meow Meow have taken some of the best bits from previous Meow Meow shows – a multilingual version of “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Binkini,” Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” the crowd surfing, the line “I am real. I’m not a TV.” – and fashioned them into a 90-minute excursion into the frayed and the fabulous. By the time the stage is stripped bare and Meow Meow is stripped to her slip (another very funny bit), it comes down to the music, and that’s a good thing (and something I could have more of). The show feels a little like Hedwig and the Angry Inch as it wraps up, with the music amping up in emotion and power. Megan Washington’s “Skeleton Key” and Patty Griffin’s “Be Careful (All the Girls)” benefit from Meow Meow’s gimmick-free, full throated and affecting performance.

Meow Meow is really something, whether she’s being an adept physical comedian, a post-apocalyptic cabaret star or just an emotionally astute singer standing before a crowd. To be in her audience is to be in for a rich, rambunctious experience.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Meow Meow for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

[bonus video]
Here’s Meow Meow at her best, accompanied by Michel Legrand, singing “Sans Toi”.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
An Audience with Meow Meow continues through Oct. 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Passion, ache and lots of great music in splendid Tristan

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Andrew Durand (Tristan) and Patrycja Kujawska (Yseult) star as ill-fated lovers in the West Coast premiere of Tristan & Yseult, the show that put British company Kneehigh on the theatrical map. Below: Durand as Tristan bleeds for his love. Photos by Steve Tanner

The thing about a love story is this: you want to feel it. You need to feel it. When Juliet wakes just after Romeo bites it, if you’re not feeling that dagger in your own chest, what’s the point?

There are only so many love stories – love gained, love lost, love unrequited – and so many variations. How, then, do you make the story fresh? How do you reignite the passions and make your audience feel it all anew?

The shortest answer to that query is: let Kneehigh tell the story. The invigorating British theater company first dazzled us with Brief Encounter at American Conservatory Theater. Then they returned (twice) with the dazzling (and still my favorite) The Wild Bride at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

What we learned from those two outings is that Kneehigh and director Emma Rice does not do theater in a conventional way. They deconstruct and reconstruct theatrical storytelling to find a through line to the comedy, the clarity and, most importantly, the passion. They utilize music the way a Beninhana chef utilizes knives, and they shake up an audience in the best possible way.

Kneehigh is back at Berkeley Rep with a show that’s new to us but is actually a landmark show in the company’s history. Tristan & Yseult is the show that, in 2003, made the British theater world finally stop seeing Kneehigh as a promising company and start seeing it as an exciting and important group of artists.

On these shores, we may not have the familiarity with the classic Cornish tale of Tristan and Yseult, but we can recognize a good love triangle when we see one.

Rice adapted the story from dozens of versions passed down through the centuries with writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy and gives it a wonderful contemporary spin. The dynamics of this love triangle – king, imported queen, valiant knight – feel an awful lot like that gang down in Camelot, but rather than giving us castles and dragons, Rice and team put us smack in “The Club of the Unloved,” a nightspot with a glorious band (music direction by Ian Ross) and a lot of sad inhabitants. These lovelorn souls look like birdwatchers with their warm knit head coverings, their nerdy glasses and binoculars around their necks. But they aren’t looking for gray-crowned rosy-finches or blue-footed boobies. They’re looking for love…or at least watching it from a safe distance.

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They hover around the action on designer Bill Mitchell’s multi-level scaffolding set, commenting and occasionally participating. The lovers at center stage give them plenty to watch, and the band, with singer Carly Bawden is often there with some gorgeous music to remind us we’re in a club overflowing with loneliness.

King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd, who founded Kneehigh in 1980) defeats Irish king Morholt (Craig Johnson) and sends his associate (possibly his son?), Tristan (Andrew Durand) to fetch Morholt’s sister, Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska) as a prize.

Given the title of the show, it’s a forgone conclusion that something will transpire between Tristan and Yseult before she can be claimed as King Mark’s queen.

Illicit love is exciting love, and Kneehigh’s method for expressing the soul-deep passion between these crazy kids involves swinging from ropes in ways that are as thrilling as they are sexy. But that’s not to say the title characters are the most interesting. That designation goes to Yseult’s handmaiden, Brangian (also played by Johnson). She is called upon to do quite a lot to cover her mistress’s indiscretions, and she does so in a way that is heartbreaking.

In fact, this sad love affair is bad for a number of people, including a character called Whitehands (Bawden), our story’s narrator and one more of its victims.

In addition to the acrobatics and some fun dancing, Kneehigh’s bag of tricks includes some spectacular music, most of it live (including a version of “No Woman, No Cry” that defies description) but some of it recorded (Nick Cave makes an indelible impression and Wagner adds some powerful themes). There’s even music during intermission, so think twice about running to the bathroom.

There’s much to love in Tristan & Yseult, and the performances (especially the fiery Kujawska, who also plays a mean violin) are full of surprises and depth. But I didn’t get the emotional wallop I got from The Wild Bride, and I think the difference is the script. There’s some clever rhyming here, but I got much less from the script than I did from the performances and the production itself. With such visceral theater, it’s really not that surprising that the words take a backseat to everything else.

[bonus interview]
I spoke with Kneehigh’s Emma Rice, adaptor and director of Tristan & Yseult for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult continues through Jan. 6 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addiston St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$99 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Berkeley Rep’s wildly wonderful Bride

EXTENDED THROUGH JAN. 22!
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HERE COMES THE BRIDE! Stuart Goodwin is the King and Patrycja Kujawska is one incarnation of the title character in the Kneehigh production of The Wild Bride at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Photo by Steve Tanner. Below: Audrey Brisson (left), Stuart McLoughlin (on the bass), Stuart Goodwin and Éva Magyar revel in the glorious music and dance of this extraordinary Bride. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

Such joy. Such wicked, delicious, heart-pounding joy.

That’s what it feels like at the end of The Wild Bride, the dark fairy tale come to life on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda stage. This is, without question, the great treat of the holiday theater season (though it’s not really for kids younger than about 13, what with the mutilations, the sex and the devilish nature of the show).

Here comes the Bride indeed – in the most unexpectedly charming and poignant fashion you can imagine. Director/adaptor Emma Rice and Kneehigh, the quirky troupe from Cornwall, England, are blessedly back in the Bay Area, where they previously triumphed with their dynamic adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter at American Conservatory Theater a couple seasons back. May they keep coming back. And back.

Rice’s enchanting Wild ride takes a long look at the life of a woman who continually triumphs over the kind of adversity that could only be caused by the bedeviling interference of the Devil himself. When a slightly soused father (Stuart Goodwin) thinks he’s outsmarted the Devil (Stuart McLoughlin in a welcome return after shining in Brief Encounter), he sets in motion what should be a life of misery for his daughter.

To give you an idea of just how dark this story is, at one point the young woman’s hands are cut off – it’s so Shakespearean! – but it’s all done with theatrical flair with no hint of gore or pesky realism.

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The daughter, whose name we never know, hardly speaks, but she’s incredibly communicative and she’s played at three different stages of her life by the three women of the company. As a young woman, Audrey Brisson brings sweet defiance to the role and raises the bar on wildness. In her middle stage, the woman is played by Patrycja Kujawska and is so compelling you can hardly take your eyes off her (when not playing the woman, Kujawska plays a sweet, sweet violin). And then in the later years, the woman is inhabited by Éva Magyar, whose expressive dancing (of Etta Murfitt’s choreography) is so powerful it’s just leagues beyond language.

Brief Encounter was wonderful and complex and very commercial, but Wild Bride feels organically wild, bold and brave and full of the kind of sights, sounds and stories that make theater the most thrilling art form on the planet. Brief Encounter was beautiful and restrained. The Wild Bride is unrestrained and magnificent. Rice and her performers (we also have musician Ian Ross playing multitudes of instruments, often at the same time) dazzle us with humor, surprise us with movement and blow us away with the sheer force and imagination of their storytelling.

Music is a big part of the Kneehigh recipe. Every performer contributes in some way to the score (lyrics by Carl Grose), with the lion’s share of the musical bliss coming from the sweet-voiced McLoughlin, the Devil himself. Brisson also contributes a beguiling voice and some mean accordion chops.

There’s nothing fancy about Bill Mitchell’s set – there’s an apple tree made of ladders and scaffolding – but it springs to life under Malcolm Rippeth’s lights, but it just goes to show you that with light to help paint stage pictures and intriguing humans inhabiting a captivating story, you don’t need bells and whistles.

An involving story is key, and this tale, shot through with darkness and misery though it is, yields such well-earned happiness that it’s hard to disconnect. Mercifully, the curtain call is a joy all its own.

If only dancing and singing with the devil could be this entertaining and soul-satisfying in real life.

[bonus video]

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kneehigh’s The Wild Bride continues an extended run through Jan. 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.