Impact’s Comedy ponders: What’s up, Doc?

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Miyaka Cochrane and Maria Giere Marquis amp up the comic errors in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors at Impact Theatre. Below: Cochrane (left), Jon Nagel (center) and Julie Douglas bring the looney to the tunes. Photos by Claire Ann Rice

Impact Theatre has been known for its Shakespeare reboots, sometimes fierce, sometimes wholly inspired, always intelligent and interesting. Now in its valedictory lap before going on hiatus, Impact has two shows left, including the just-opened Comedy of Errors at LaVal’s Subterranean.

It’s another Shakespearean reinvention by Impact Artistic Director Melissa Hillman, and it is sublime – the perfect concept applied to the perfect play to make something funnier, fresher and more inventive than even Shakespeare could have imagined.

Certainly the Bard of Avon experienced his share of inspired silliness, but he predated Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes” by several centuries, so he had no way of knowing how perfectly the wild and wacky style of animators Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and the like would suit his goofiest comedy. It’s entirely possible as well that the screwball nature of Comedy of Errors, with its mismatched sets of twins, mistaken identity chaos and broad physical comedy, played a part in shaping the comic palette of American animation.

Whatever, the notion to pair “Looney Tunes” with Comedy of Errors is loon-atic genius. What Hillman has done here goes way beyond a thematic overlay. Her concept cuts right to the heart of the show itself and multiplies the comedy by multiplying the errors. A million goofy things have been done to Comedy (puppets, musicals, actual twins, single actors playing both twins), but Hillman tops it all by having her four astonishingly energetic actors play all the parts. Sure, single actors play both sets of twins – the Antipholi and Dromios of Ephesus and Syracuse – but that concept comes and goes quickly as the actors playing the twins grab wigs off the women’s heads and start playing Luciana and Adriana. And vice-versa as the women grab the color-coded hats denoting the twins and try on those personae.

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It’s madcap, delirious fun in the truest sense. The play begins at a breakneck speed and never flags through its brisk 100 minutes (including intermission). The actors break a sweat in the name of zaniness, and it really works.

Before the role swapping really gets going, Jon Nagel fills the Antipholus roles with Miyaka Cochrane as the slave Dromios. Maria Giere Marquis starts out as Adriana (fiery wife of Antipholus of Ephesus) and Julie Douglas is her slightly dippy sister Luciana. Adhering to clear roles at the beginning helps set the scene and build a sturdy foundation for the ensuing mayhem once the visiting twins from Syracuse begin causing mix-ups.

If the actors aren’t having a blast, they’re even better actors than they know. They work like a finely calibrated machine, with lots of opportunity to break the fourth wall and comment on the theater-making itself (at one point, an audience member is recruited when there absolutely needs to be another character on stage). Marquis and Douglas pop up as ladies with Minnesota accents and comfy sweaters to serve as hosts for the evening (Cochrane also appears as a sherry-swilling aesthete a la “Masterpiece Theater”), and even though it veers far from Shakespeare, it serves the comedy and helps bring the audience further into the zone.

In true Impact fashion, all of this happens on a single set (painted in bright primary colors by set designer Roger Chapman and simple but effective costuming (by Hillman). There’s an inspired moment toward the end when an abbess needs to appear, and she conveniently drops from the ceiling.

The play has been streamlined with room left for plenty of non-Shakespearean riffs and cartoon-like sound effects. Darth Vader even makes a key (and hilarious) appearance. There aren’t any actual “Looney Tunes” characters, but connoisseurs of Bugs, Daffy, Porky and friends will appreciate re-creations of classic bits and gags. It all fits so well and amps up the comic quotient so effectively that Hillman should patent her invention and send it into the world to make millions for Impact to continue its mission for many years to come.

Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors continues an extended through April 2 in an Impact Theatre production at LaVal’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 510-224-5744 or visit

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Here be dragons: Impact fires up fantastical drama

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Dragon (George Sellner, right) is a dangerous visitor who reenters the life of a woman he once knew (Sarah Coykendall) and her husband (Michael Michalske), while in the background, Boy (Jed Parsario) longs for his own beloved dragon, in the West Coast premiere of The Dragon Play by Jenny Connell Davis in her Bay Area debut. Below: Parsario and Lindsey Schmeltzer are a boy and a dragon in love. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Impact Theatre’s The Dragon Play breathes fire into what, at first glance, appears to be a fairly standard issue drama. Playwright Jenny Connell Davis blends the worlds of sci-fi/fantasy with Sam Shepard with surprising and wonderful results.

In only 80 minutes, director Tracy Ward creates two powerful worlds in which stories begin to bleed into one another. That’s no mean feat in the cramped quarters of La Val’s Subterranean, which offers set and lighting designers the ultimate challenge to turn a basement into a compelling performance space. Catalina Niño (sets) and Jax Steager rise to that challenge, even when the action spills off the stage and into the nether parts of the theater.

There are well-defined realms here, one of which is in some frozen northern state, where a woman (Sarah Coykendall), a librarian, lives with her husband (Michael Michalske) and their young son. Their sturdy home is represented by the kind of dining room that has been filling stage sets and Midwestern homes for a century. The other realm is more nebulous.

In that one, which we are led to believe is in the past, a boy (Jed Parsario) encounters a wounded young girl dragon (Lindsey Schmeltzer), whom he befriends and, in time, falls in love with. As their relationship progresses, we learn more about dragons (there’s something called the Dragon Dance and we aren’t allowed to know about it) and that they live for thousands of years. They have sex, but it’s beyond of realm of understanding.

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Schmeltzer’s performance as the dragon is mesmerizing. She often moves as if she’s performing some sort of dance, and it’s just quirky enough to convey a sense of dragon-ness without having to costume her in some ridiculous way (she worked with movement consultant Erin Mei-Ling Stuart). And Parsario is an understandably confused human boy who is tortured and consumed and transported by his love an otherworldly being.

Back in the snowy wilds, the uneasy marriage of the man and the woman is upended by the arrival of a stranger (George Sellner) from the woman’s past. Coykendall is a tormented wife and mother whom at first seems as if she wants to flee the confines of her domestic life. But when her exit strategy appears in the form of the stranger, we see that her torment is much deeper, and it involves him.

Michalske is eminently believable as the good-hearted, smarter-than-he-seems contractor who values the life he and his wife have made. He understands her and her torment a little more than she thinks he does, but he still doesn’t know the full story. Still, he’s charming, and he has a monologue alone at the kitchen table that turns out to be a show high point.

All the performances are strong, and the actors transcend the confines of the space to give us American wasteland, flight and fantasy. It’s really quite a marvel how much this short play and this astute production convey and convey powerfully. There’s deep feeling and imagination here, humor and sexiness, surprises and satisfaction. In other words, it’s just about a perfect Impact Theatre play.

Jenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play continues an extended run through Dec. 21 at Impact Theatre, La Val Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 510-224-5744 or visit

Battle cocks ruffle feathers in Impact’s rowdy Rooster

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Gil (Anthony Agresti, left) trains his prize rooster Odysseus Rex (Caleb Cabrera) to become a champion fighter in Eric Dufault’s Year of the Rooster at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre. Below: Cabrera gives an intense, physical performance as the prize battle cock. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

For Gil Pepper, the world as he sees it is a “big fuck-you machine.” He lives with his aging mother in a crumbling Oklahoma house his late father built. He has a go-nowhere job as a McDonald’s cashier, where his name tag is misspelled “Girl.” And though his prospects are bleak, there is a sliver of light: cock fighting.

This ancient sport, Gil tells us, goes all the way back to the Greeks, so there’s nobility in allowing feathered beasts to do horrible things to each other in the ring. Gil wants to be a winner at something in life, and this just might be his ticket.

What’s so interesting about Eric Dufault’s Year of the Rooster, the season opener from Berkeley’s Impact Theatre, is that on one level, it’s quite a conventional tale of an endearing underdog trying desperately to win and on another it’s an extraordinary, even moving, slice into the soul of a thinking, feeling creature.

That creature happens to be an 8-month-old rooster named Odysseus Rex, played with ferocity and gargantuan heart by Caleb Cabrera. Bare-chested and covered in red paint, with his mohawk in red-covered spikes, Cabrera’s Odie, as he’s affectionately called by Gil, is challenging the sun to a fight. Pumped full of steroids and chicken McNuggets, Odie is lean of body but wired for hostility. His deadly talons are represented by a curved fighting knife clutched in Cabrera’s hand, and he slices the air with it in a way that means business.

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Odie strains to understand the world he’s in, and his childlike impressions and reactions are as eloquent as they are intense. He’s a fighter philosopher, though all he really understands is the fight. Gil (beautifully under played by Anthony Agresti) truly loves his fighter, but that’s not something Odie can really grasp, although he does evolve enough at one point to observe of himself: “I got a heart like a fuckin’ firetruck.”

You really feel for Agresti’s Gil. His mother (Terry Bamberger) wears the filthiest bathrobe imaginable and keeps asking Gil to rub her feet and bring her honey mustard sauce. She doesn’t like the rooster, and that doesn’t bode well.

Dickie Thimble (Jon Nagel), on the other hand, really likes the rooster and would pay top dollar for him. Dickie is the king of the cocks. He’s the fight promoter who has his own stable of carefully bred champion killers (shredders?), and his contempt of pathetic Gil lends credence to Dickie’s accounting of himself as an asshole. So true, but as Dickie says, “We all gots to get what we gots to get.” Nagel’s imposing presence on Erik La Due’s cramped set (efficiently turning from a dingy home to a fight ring to a McDonald’s) is strongly felt, especially when he returns for the big fight as Dickie’s champion Bat Dolphin. That centerpiece fight, staged by Dave Maier, is a violent dance between birds with “road salt and hot sauce in their veins” that makes a huge impression.

Director Logan Ellis finds a nice balance between the everyday and the existentialist, the humorous and the profound. There’s a warmth to the home and work scenes and an electric charge to the moments that let us into Odie’s inner life. A lot of that has to do with the cast, which includes the fantastic Sango Tajima as Gil’s boss, who’s full of surprises. Tajima also plays a bio-engineered fast food hen brought in to mate with Odie. It’s a love scene that comes with instructions: “Touch her in her hen parts.”

With two acts clocking in at only about 100 minutes, Year of the Rooster manages to create a sizable journey in a short amount of time. It’s a play that’s weird and not weird, violent and poetic, entertaining and deeply felt. It’s just about what you’d expect for a play that makes you fall in love with the soul of a rooster.

Eric Dufault’s Year of the Rooster continues through Oct. 12 in an Impact Theatre production at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave, Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 510-224-5744 or visit

Far from mangy, this Mutt is a gut buster

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No really, let’s talk about race: cable news talking head Dave Matthews (Matthew Lai, right) interviews Len (Michael Uy Kelly), the Republican candidate for president who’s not just hapa but a member of every race and ethnicity on the planet in the world premiere of Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race! by Christopher Chen, in a co-production by Impact Theatre and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company. Below: Democratic National Committee heads Elizabeth (Patricia Austin, far left) and Mikey (Lawrence Radecker, far right) are thrilled to have found a hapa candidate for president in Nick (Matthew Lai) and a powerful brain trust in his campaign consultant, Hanna (Michelle Talgarow). Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Between the Shakespearean twists of House of Cards and the utter inanity of Veep, you’d think that we’d have Washington politics pretty well covered by pop culture. Well clearly not because we need to make room for Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race!, the absolutely hilarious and crazy smart new comedy from San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen.

Chen, you may recall, made quite a splash with The Hundred Flowers Project two years ago. That award-winning play pushed boundaries and offered all sorts of juicy theatrical challenges and made it clear that Chen is the kind of writer who delights and provokes and digs deep with intelligence and inspiration.

His latest work, Mutt, is an entirely different kind of play – a rollicking satirical comedy with grand guffaws and so many great lines the whole thing ends up feeling like a great line – but the brains are bolstering every belly laugh.

Chen is doing nothing less than taking on the issue of race in a big, bold way. He presents a completely corrupted and ridiculous two-party system that couldn’t’ make a good choice if the fate of the world depended on it (oh, wait, it does). The Republicans, still smarting from the last presidential election, realize they have a problem with race. With the help of a race management operative named Hanna (the wonderfully grounded Michelle Talgarow), they set out to find a hapa (mixed Asian race) candidate because Asian has been deemed a “safe” race in that it’s practically white.

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The perfect candidate turns out to be a “super hapa” who has some of every race in the world floating through his DNA. Len Smith (Michael Uy Kelly) is a god-like figure who feels the course of all history running through him. All that inner activity leads him to be something of a dolt on the outside, but he looks good on TV and has enough sexual charisma to make the whole world want to sleep with him, so he’s a shoo-in.

Frustrated by politics as usual, Hanna goes rogue and finds her own hapa candidate in Nick (Matthew Lai) to bring some semblance of reality into the presidential race. It may come as no surprise to find out that such reality is going to be in extremely short supply.

This world-premiere co-production between Impact Theatre and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company is not only well written, it’s expertly directed by Evren Odcikin, who makes the tiny La Val’s Subterranean space feel more fluid and limber than ever before. The play doesn’t feel constrained by the space so much as supported by it. Odcikin’s exuberant cast knows how not to push the comedy too hard to maximize laughs.

As both the Republican and Democratic Party hacks, Patricia Austin and Lawrence Radecker could not be funnier, and Austin deserves a special shout-out for a piece of slapstick comedy that precedes one of the funniest bits I’ve seen on a stage in a good long time.

The invaluable Marilet Martinez, in a parade of ever-more astonishing wigs, is the world’s worst therapist, a series of witnesses to brutal crimes, and a representative of the Latin immigrant community who does not take kindly to political bullshit. She definitely puts the whip in whip-smart comedy.

Most of the actors play multiple characters, and at the performance I saw Thursday night, they seemed to be feeding off the packed audience’s collective delight, relishing in comic pauses and savoring the raucous laughter.

Race is certainly no laughing matter, unless, of course, the political issues surrounding it are sliced and diced into such comically delicious (and dare we say, nutritious?) bite-sized pieces the way they are in Mutt.

Christopher Chen’s Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race!, a co-production of Impact Theatre and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company, continues through June 8 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Visit

Blood, gore, giggles galore at Impact Theatre

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Dana Featherby (left), Sarah Coykendall (center) and Maria Giere Marquis are three young women arming themselves for the world outside their door in Lauren Gunderson’s Damsel and Distress Go to a Party, one of the nine violent short plays in Impact Theatre’s Bread and Circuses. Below: Eric Kerr is a man with memory issues in Declan Greene’s Marimba, one of the more serious entries in Bread and Circuses. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Blood is fun – at least it is within the confines of Impact Theatre’s omnibus presentation Bread and Circuses, a collection of nine short plays fairly dripping with the thick red stuff.

As you’d expect with such an assortment, there’s a wide variety in style and substance here. There’s also one easy-to-draw conclusion: endings are hard.

The most satisfying entries in this two-hour experience at LaVal’s Subterranean include:

  • Heteronesia by Prince Gomolvilas about a dude so traumatized during masturbation (by a severed horse head falling through the window) that he’s unable to perform sexually in any way and must, under doctor’s orders, be gang banged by a football team. Hilarious. You don’t want to know where the blood comes from in this one.
  • Damsel and Distress Go to a Party by Lauren Gunderson is set in a dystopian future where three women are “putting on their faces” as they get ready to go to a party. They use the word “face” an awful lot in their slangy descriptions of themselves and their friends, and what emerges is a violent picture of women suffering abuse but choosing a warrior path (complete with painted warrior faces). (Now that I think about it, I don’t remember any blood in this short play – perhaps the war paint/makeup can be considered a stand-in for blood.)
  • Marimba by Declan Greene is the evening’s only solo outing and involves the actor Eric Kerr in an unsettling performance as a man for whom thought and memory has gone very wrong. The “marimba” of the title is the name of the ring tone on his iPhone that goes off at regular intervals and creates the jagged trajectory of this alarming tale. There’s blood here, but its appearance should remain a surprise.
  • The Play About the Aswang by Lauren Yee has a great set-up: a single mom is dating a flesh-eating Filipino monster. She can’t quite see the problem with that (even with the bones protruding from the bloody wound where her hand used to be), but her son and his best friend are quite alarmed and ready to do something about it. What’s really interesting about this short play is the way it blends horror, adult sexuality and adolescent sexuality in surprising ways.

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Those were my favorites, but that said, there isn’t one play here that doesn’t have something interesting about it. Steve Yockey has fun subverting horror movie tropes in Bedtime by having the traditional victim victimizing someone else to gain the upper hand. Dave Holstein’s Alone Together gives us a nightmarish mother-daughter scenario wherein the scariest thing (even more than the babysitter scalping) might be the fact that the mother participates in a social event called “jam night” that involves jars of actual jam.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Insect Love is a low-key 1950s love story among entomologists that is kind of sweet until the shadow of violence looms. Ross Maxwell’s Don’t Turn Around starts off as pure monster-driven horror but turns quickly into relationship hell as a young couple fleeing zombie-like creatures in a mall are sidetracked by their surprise break-up. And the evening comes to a satisfying end with JC Lee’s very funny The Reanimation of Marlene Dietrich, which is exactly what it purports to be. How the story’s teenagers came to find Dietrich’s body to reanimate remains a mystery, but who cares when Lee gives us a flesh-eating Marlene pauses to sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

Director Desdemona Chiang and her game cast are clearly having fun here. In addition to Kerr’s turn in Marimba, MVP honors are shared by Maria Giere Marquis, who is a terror of a little girl, a woman warrior, a quiet secretary and, perhaps most memorably, the reanimated corpse of Marlene Dietrich. The rest of the cast – Sarah Coykendall, Mike Delaney, Dana Featherby and Maro Guevara – all have excellent moments and add to the show’s fun, raggedy energy. But as is often the case at Impact, there are some serious smarts under the blood and irreverence.

Impact Theatre’s Bread and Circuses continues through April 6 at LaVal’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid, Berkeley. Tickets are $15-$25. Visit

What you should know about Impact’s What Every Girl Should Know

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The cast of Impact Theatre’s What Every Girl Should Know, set in a Catholic reformatory circa 1914, includes, from left Abigail Edber as Anne, Arisa Bega as Lucy and Carlye Pollack as Theresa. Below: Edber is restrained by (from left) Elissa Beth Stebbins, Pollack and Bega. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

The first thing to know about Impact Theatre’s What Every Girl Should Know, a one-act play by Monica Byrne, is that it’s a gripping play about matters physical and spiritual. It’s also very well produced by director Tracy Ward and an excellent cast of four. This is a play set in 1914 but feels, rather sadly, of the moment because, it seems, there will always be people (old, white men mostly) who want to keep other people (women, mostly) as ignorant as possible, especially when it comes to their own bodies and – heavens forfend – sex.

Byrne’s drama is set in the tight confines of Room 14, a four-bed dorm room at St. Mary’s, a Catholic girl’s reformatory on New York’s Lower East Side. The year is 1914, and the church is the ultimate power for the occupants of Room 14: innocent Lucy (Arisa Bega), Anne (Abigail Edber) and Theresa (Carlye Pollack). These young women are not exactly prisoners, but their lives are circumscribed by formal prayers, church services and work in the laundry. Their room, where their confirmation saints sit in framed portraits on a shelf over their beds, is their haven. We know this early on when we meet the girls. Before we see them, there is darkness and the sounds of moaning and creaking bed springs. These women happily engage in the sport of pillow humping and then giddily log their exploits in a book they keep hidden in the rafters. Poor Lucy can’t quite get the hang of it the way Anne and Theresa have, but she tries.

The empty bed that once belonged to a recently deceased roommate is soon filled by Joan (Elissa Beth Stebbins), whose uptight nature is a stark contrast to the more relaxed and playful aspect of her new roommates. But Joan isn’t so rigid that she won’t engage in an ice-breaking game of Truth or Dare.

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While Byrne’s play seems conventional in nature, it soon breaks out of its familiar shell to embrace a level of emotional exuberance that can only be expressed in dances created by Erica Chong Shuch. The first of these thrilling moments involves the former roommate’s death and the next takes the play to whole different level as the women embark on a self-made spirituality inspired by Margaret Sanger, the activist who devoted her life to making birth control available to all and whose work led to the formation of what we now know as Planned Parenthood.

Here’s a glimpse into Sanger’s work, from her pamphlet that gives Byrne’s play its name:

Every girl should first understand herself: she should know her anatomy, including sex anatomy: she should know the epochs of a normal woman’s life, and the unfoldment which each epoch brings: she should know the effect the emotions have on her acts, and finally she should know the fullness and richness of life when crowned by the flower of motherhood.

Sanger becomes the patron saint of the women in Room 14, and it’s fascinating to watch what begins as sort of a lark deepen into something truly spiritual and meaningful to this four-person congregation. The same is true for the other games the girls play, including a game of pretend that allows them to roam the globe and assassinate those who have wronged them. Here, too, the act of pretending ends up reflecting more reality than fantasy. And though Lucy, Anne, Theresa and Joan are exploring their sexuality and spirituality in the safe and supportive confines of their room, the real world outside those walls, where spirituality is a means of suppression and sexuality too often involves violence and ignorance, intrudes in harsh and, alas, not surprising ways.

Bega, Edber, Pollack and especially Stebbins give powerful performances that only grow in intensity throughout the play’s 100 minutes. They don’t necessarily seem like people from the early 20th century, but their emotional reality is more important, and they really deliver, especially when it comes to conveying the growing—sometimes unsettling — bond between them.

What Every Girl Should Know is scaled perfectly for the intimate stage space of La Val’s Subterranean (set designer Anne Kendall creates a plain but absolutely believable dorm room) and the result is one of Impact’s most dramatically satisfying productions yet.


Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know continues through Oct. 13 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid, Berkeley. Tickets are $12-$25. Visit

Wrestling affections in Impact’s As You Like It

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Celia (Alexander Lenarsky, left) and Rosalind (Maria Giere Marquis) while away the hours waiting for Orlando in Impact Theatre’s ultra-gender-bending As You Like It. Below: Phebe (Luisa Frasconi, center) attempts to woo Rosalind (Maria Giere Marquis, right) as Celia (Alexander Lenarsky) and Silvius (Brandon Mears) bear witness. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Shakespeare didn’t drop any F-bombs in his comedy As You Like It, but that doesn’t stop Impact Theatre. There are lots of non-Shakespeare asides in this highly edited, streamlined version from director Melissa Hillman, but purists shouldn’t despair. Such contemporary additions are usually thrown in during scene transitions or to punctuate a joke that has already landed. And they’re a hell of a lot of fun, as is the entire 2 1/2- hour show.

Hillman and Impact often draw from the Shakespeare well, but rather serving the plays up straight, they’re turned into potent cocktails, with some darker and bloodier than others. With As You Like It, Hillman and her game cast are reveling in relationships. Some of the more Shakespearean touches in the show – like the characters of Jaques the grump and Touchstone the clown don’t fare as well because they’re too much on the periphery and don’t fit in to the gender-bending love stories jumping through hoops in the center ring.

Set in present day, the play revs up for a wrestling match that is played in high style, behind chain-link fence, no less (set by Anne Kendall) with Hulk Hogan-ish Charles (Stacz Sadowski) ready to pummel underdog Orlando (Miyaka Cochrane). The flashing lights, the great choreography (fight direction by Dave Maier) and even an errant crowbar make the match a play highlight. And when Orlando emerges victorious, we dive into the main love story involving him and Rosalind (Maria Giere Marquis), the daughter of a banished ruler (traditionally a duke, but here a duchess plaeyd by Marianna Wolff) who is kept at court to amuse her beloved cousin, Celia (traditionally a woman but here a gay man played with scene-stealing panache by Alexander Lenarsky). That Rosalind and Celia are BFFs is not only a given here but the heart of the story. When their story sends them away from court in disguise, well Rosalind is disguised as a boy named Ganymede, they end up in the Northern California town of Arden, where the action takes place entirely in a bar.

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I must say I missed a sense of the outdoors because that is one of the charms of the forest-set As You Like It, but when you perform in a low-ceilinged basement theater on a stage the size of a Pop Tart, you do what you can, and it never ceases to amaze me what the Impact crew manages to accomplish on one of the most restrictive stages in the Bay Area. At one point, as the action shifts from the court to Arden, we get a music video – almost like the opening credits to a sitcom – featuring the main characters in a rock band (kudos to filmmaker Martín Estévez). It’s a delightful touch, and I hoped for more, or that at some point the cast would strap on their guitars for a number, but it didn’t happen.

Act 1 ends rather abruptly, but the longer Act 2 gets a big boost in the form of Luisa Frasconi as Phebe, a short skirt and fur-wearing, Gold Star-sipping lass who can’t be bothered with doe-eyed Silvius (Brandon Mears), who’s as smitten as a man can be. The minute she lays eyes on Ganymede, she herself is smitten, but we know how that will go. Still, it’s great fun to watch Frasconi spurn Mears and drool over Marquis.

Speaking of Marquis, after having played Viola in Twelfth Night and now Rosalind, she’s become expert at playing girls dressed as boys. She’s believable in both parts and never lets us lose sight of the love-struck girl who makes a passable boy in a newsie cap. She’s charming, and her relationship with Lenarsky’s Celia never fails to keep the action grounded in affection.

From the eye-rolling bartender (Cassie Rosenbrock, who looks 16 months pregnant) to a Corin (Jon Nagel) ready to officiate at any flavor of wedding, there’s no shortage of things to like in Impact’s As You Like It.

[bonus interview]

I talked to Maria Giere Marquis about Impact’s As You Like It for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Impact Theatre’s As You Like It continues through March 30 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Visit

If it looks and smells like fish, it must be The Fisherman’s Wife

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Fisherman Cooper (Maro Guevara) attempts to save his wife, Vanessa (Eliza Leoni), from the encroaching tentacle of a lustful sea creature in the world premiere of Steve Yockey’s comedy The Fisherman’s Wife at Impact Theatre. Below: Two hot cephalopods, Sarah Coykendall as the Squid and Roy Landaverde as the Octopus, provide some intermission entertainment. Photos by Mary Kay Hickox

You don’t really expect Japanese erotic tentacle art to be the inspiration for a feel-good treatise on saving a broken marriage. But that’s just what Steve Yockey delivers in the world premiere of The Fisherman’s Wife, the season opener from Berkeley’s Impact Theatre. Taking his cue from the Hokusai woodcut known as “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” in which a happy lady is serviced by two octopi, Yockey spins a fast-paced, mostly comic adult fairy tale that begins with an epically unhappy husband and wife.

Cooper Minnow (Maro Guevara) is the titular fisherman. He comes from a long line of successful fisher folk, but he’s a failure. His wife, Vanessa (Eliza Leoni), couldn’t agree more. She claims her seaside life is “undercooked” and she hurls hurtful diatribes at her husband like, “I was bamboozled by the man I thought you were.” Ouch. Through Yockey’s rapid-fire dialogue, we learn all kinds of things about this marriage – that it started happily enough, that what the fisherman lacks in length he makes up for in girth (TMI?), that the wife doesn’t like the husband’s collection of girlie magazines – so much information. And none of it to be found in the Grimm fairy tale of the same name (except maybe the filthy, stinky seaside shack).

When the fisherman sets off for his boat, he encounters two mystical creatures, an Ocotpus (Roy Landaverde) and a Squid (Sarah Coykendall), both adorable, both wearing old-fashioned swimming costumes (designs by Liz Weston). They take a liking to the fisherman and have what Prince Harry might call a party with him. For whatever magical reason, the fisherman (and all the other humans in the play, it turns out), see these horny sea creatures as humans, but they’re really slimy, tentacled cephalopods. And what they call a party, the fisherman calls rape (whether it was legitimate or not can be known only by the idiot troll who goes by the name Akin, but he’s not in this particular fairy tale).

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Meanwhile, back in the stinky seaside shack, Mrs. Minnow receives a caller, a traveling salesman named Thomas Bell (the charming Adrian Anchondo), and like all good traveling salesman, he has the cure for what ails the miserable housewife, and that cure happens to be in two places: his magical Mary Poppins-like bag with untold depths, and in his pants (merch alert: his nautically themed underpants should be on sale after the show, as should his “mystical phallic hat rack”). One highlight of Thomas’ visit is the tale of his tattoo. The anchor on his arm is just an anchor, but the green fish on his chest is so involved it needs a puppet show to tell it right – and not just nay puppet show but one that involves “thick, sticky beast juice.”

Like the good storyteller he is, Yockey ensures this tale involves lots of near nudity from the attractive and very funny cast, and director Ben Randle keeps the pace brisk and laughs (and the characters) coming. It’s all in good, dirty fun, and there’s actually a message. Yockey, the author of Octopus at the Magic Theatre and Bellwether at Marin Theatre Company is clearly having a lot of fun here, but it’s almost as if he wanted to prove to Dr. Phil and all those moronic self-help gurus that you could write about saving a marriage without resorting to all those clichés about rekindling the romance or breaking down communication barriers. In Yockey’s self-help world, all a broken marriage needs is a harrowing event (maybe involving mysterious creatures from the murky deep, maybe not), a hot salesman who swings both ways (with previously mentioned attractive undergarments) and blood lust revenge.

With two acts, each about 30 minutes each, this Fisherman feels like it really wants to be a one-act (with a false intermission featuring Squid and Octopus singing Bon Jovi while accompanying themselves on accordion). The laughs are plentiful, and even though the tone is light and colorful (set against the hilarious and high-schoolish mural set by Anne Kendall), there are shadowy depths under the surface. Sure, the ending is happy, but who knows when the fisherman or his wife might start craving a little tentacle on the side?


Steve Yockey’s The Fisherman’s Wife continues through Sept. 29 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit

Let’s give Impact’s Titus a big, bloody hand

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Reggie White is Aaron and Anna Ishida is Tamora in the Impact Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Below: Lucius (Caitlyn Tella) comforts her grieving father, Titus (Stacz Sadowski). Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Anna Ishida has a scream to remember – the kind of scream that startles your unborn children. She could supplant Jamie Lee Curtis as the Queen of Scream, but until then, she’s wreaking bloody havoc in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, this season’s revitalized Shakespeare project at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre.

Artistic Director Melissa Hillman is particularly adept at trimming a Shakespeare play to its most vital parts and shooting it through with a kind of energy that tends to surprise anyone who has forgotten that, in the right hands, Shakespeare can be lean and mean.

With Titus, which is really the Saw of the Shakespeare canon, Hillman has her work cut out for her, not in the lean-and-mean department but more in the “why is this worth doing beyond the blood and gore?” department. Her adaptation, a brisk and blissfully brutal two hours, comes up with an interesting answer to that question.

Often dismissed as Shakespeare’s most violent and therefore most worthless tragedy, Titus has sort of come into its own in the last century or so. Our view of violence has finally caught up with or reverted back to the level seen in the play, which is remarkably high. Sons fare especially badly in the play, though the worst of it is saved for a loyal daughter. In many ways, Titus is a few sex scenes away from being a new cable series.

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Hillman and her cast – an astonishing 16 people on a stage that can feel crowded with two – achieve a tone here that really works. You see it established especially in the performances by Ishida as Tamora, the vengeful Queen of the Goths, and Stacz Sadowski as Titus, a brave soldier and questionable father. Ishida is tough and sexy and intense. She’s not exactly a cartoon villain, but she’s not exactly real either. She’s somewhere in between, and that’s just about perfect.

Sadowski’s Titus is trickier, especially in this abbreviated version. He goes from being a noble hero to the murderer of his son in minutes. He’s attempting to be a great man one minute and accusing everyone of treason the next. He’s all over the place emotionally – “the woefulest man that ever lived in Rome – and Sadowski, a big, imposing fella, can barely keep up. But when things start to get really intense, the actor’s canny performance fuses the raw emotion of loss and violence with the overblown revenge drama to create a man of Shatnerian dimensions.

After horrible rapes, mutilations and murders, Titus gets punked by Tamora’s lover, Aaron (Reggie White in a devilish performance). The results are horrific, but the scene gets laughs. How could they not? It’s silly and sad in equal measure and way too much of both. So why not play it like Capt. Kirk and make it work?

Unlike brainless slasher movies, Titus at least makes a potent point about the inevitably awful results of revenge, and Hillman’s production lets that come through loud and clear. This is a giddily gory affair with full credit going to blood technician and props designer Tunuviel Luv, blood captain Joe Mason, fight director Dave Maier and weapons captain Carlos Martinez (also a member of the cast) for emphasizing the futility (and entertainment value) of barbarous violence.

There’s some unevenness in the cast, but in addition to Ishida and Sadowski, there’s some impressive work by Mark McDonald and Mike McDonald (I’m going to go out on a limb and say these nearly identical young men are brothers) as evil brothers Chiron and Demetrius. To say they give deliciously wicked performances may be revealing too much.

Also affecting is Sarah Coykendall as the doomed Lavinia. In a victim role, Coykendall brings some real starch and strength. And a shout out to Martín Estévez for his videos – most notably a completely believable CNN debate between three talking heads arguing over who should be Emperor of Rome. It’s a nice contemporary touch. After all, what is senseless violence without the 24-hour news cycle?


Impact Theatre’s Titus Andronicus continues an extended run through April 7 at LaVal’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $12-$20. Call 510-224-5744 or visit