Flying high in Aurora’s Mud Blue Sky

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Sam (Rebecca Dines, left center) sends Jonathan (Devin O’Brien, center right) on an errand as Angie (Laura Jane Bailey, right) enjoys some fine cognac and Beth (Jamie Jones, left) pours herself another one in the Bay Area Premiere of Marisa Wegrzyn’s Mud Blue Sky at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Jones as Beth straightens the bowtie worn by O’Brien’s Jonathan on his bizarre prom night. Photos by David Allen

There’s easy comedy and titillation to be had in choosing to explore the lives of flight attendants. You could blithely whip up a story detailing the lives we imagine those high-fliers live, with their easy access to great cities, hot coworkers and the occasional randy passenger. That story might be fun, but in truth, the days of “coffee, tea or me” are long past, and flying is a grind for everyone, from passengers to crew, and that may actually be the more interesting story.

Marisa Wegrzyn’s Mud Blue Sky, now in an extended run through Oct. 3 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, tries to have it both ways – swinging comedy, down-to-earth drama – and succeeds mightily. There are farcical elements in play, and cognac and marijuana are enjoyed, and there are some hearty, satisfying laughs to be had, but what lingers in the air after the show is a sense of connection, comradeship and workaday resilience among the characters.

Unlike those “flight”sploitation movies of the ’60s and ’70s, there is nothing glamorous about the two flight attendants we meet at a cheap motel in the purgatory between O’Hare and Chicago. Beth (Jamie Jones) has a terrible back and won’t do anything about it except self-medicate with pot, which she gets from a teenage supplier, Jonathan (Devin S. O’Brien) somewhere behind the motel. Sam (Rebecca Dines) seems to be more of a partier. She wants to go to the bar, meet up with an old friend and strap on the old feedbag at IHOP (“Bacon!”). But she’s not as breezy as she seems. She’s got a 17-year-old son back at home in St. Louis, and he’s on his own an awful lot, given her schedule, and that weighs on her.

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What’s so interesting about Wegrzyn’s play is that it really does feel like a slice of life we don’t get to see very often. For instance, Beth is what’s known as a “slam locker.” She gets to the hotel room, slams the door and locks it. But on this night, Beth’s locked door won’t be enough. She’s drawn out to meet Jonathan and make their usual deal. The high schooler is wearing a tux because it’s prom night, and he’s available to help Beth score because he has been ditched by his date.

Details about the lives of these characters begin to trickle out, and while there’s not high drama here, there’s compassionate drama filled with day-to-day realities of just trying to get through and deal with the people you have to deal with and maybe something more (better?). We’ve all encountered flight attendants who seem weary or who have their heads somewhere else, and taking a peek into the fictional lives of these flight attendants fills in the back story very nicely.

As the evening wears on, Jonathan ends up in Beth’s hotel room (the set by Kate Boyd is so perfect you want to call housekeeping for an emergency deep cleaning) and there’s a new guest: Angie (Laura Jane Bailey), who trained with Beth and who used to be a key member of the crew. But she gained some weight and was promptly fired. She’s been living with and taking care of her mother since and hasn’t been able to find another job.

Bailey’s Angie has a long monologue toward the end of this 95-minute one-act, and it’s as sweet as it is heartbreaking. She misses the connection with her former co-workers and passengers. She longs for the chance encounters with fun and kindness and outrageousness that her job afforded her, and this short visit with her old friends (who have not been great about keeping in touch since her departure) is a boost to her psyche.

Director Tom Ross does superb detail with work with his wonderful actors here. Nothing feels rushed, and the actors give us characters whose lives feel lived in. That’s why the humor can spark so effectively one minute and the pathos can register deeply the next.

Jones’ weary Beth keeps trying to be a stick in the mud, but fun and empathy continually prevent her from giving in completely to her misery. She has a real (if somewhat reluctant) connection with the Eeyore-like Jonathan, expertly played by O’Brien, whose slumpy posture and teenage galumphing are scarily accurate and endearing.

Dines’ Sam is peppery and bright, which is to say she’s bursting with energy, but she’s also prone to stinging from time to time. Sam’s participation in the evening’s festivities takes a surprising, provocative turn that takes yet another surprising turn. Credit Wegrzyn’s intriguing script for keeping us guessing as to where this story will fly next.

Mud Blue Sky has the crackle of good television (a compliment in this golden age of television) but the rhythm and heft of good theater. These skies are friendly enough, but it’s the turbulence that really matters.

Mud Blue Sky continues through Oct. 3 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Threats of totalitarianism have never been so fun

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Liam Vincent (left) is Jeffrey, a Nebraska doctor, and Andrew Humann is Benn, is his revolutionary young patient in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians at Z Below. Below: Vincent’s Jeffrey gets cozy with his wife, Francine (Alexis Lezin), a political consultant. Photos by Mark Leialoha

Our sorry political state may be sending the country down the toilet, but it sure is inspiring some grand entertainment. Veep and House of Cards offer two distinct points of view on the absurdity of Beltway power mongering. Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming was a comic highlight of last year’s local theater scene (review here) in its exploration of political game playing.

Now we have Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians, a Z Space production in association with Encore Theatre Company and the National New Play Network. Set in the fine state of Nebraska, Nachtrieb’s biting comedy watches seemingly ordinary people mix with politics, all to disastrous results. Not that the play is anything resembling a disaster. On the contrary. It’s hilarious and painful and horrifying in the way it so effortlessly conjures a sham democracy populated by tricksters and schemers, murderers and mental incompetents.

What could be simpler than a race for Nebraska’s lieutenant governor? Those easygoing Midwesterners don’t get caught up in all that political nonsense do they? Oh, but they do, and there’s no such thing as simplicity in politics, not with every race leading back to some power broker in D.C.

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In this particular race, the underdog candidate is Penelope Easter (Jamie Jones in a performance so ferocious you have to wonder if she might actually be part politician), a foot-in-mouth candidate not unlike the former governor of Alaska. Except Penny is not dumb. She may not be a whiz with words (“Things come in my mouth wrong?), but she’s got passion and lots of it. And ambition. As long as she has someone to put words in her mouth (and maybe a few thoughts in her head), she’s OK.

Her underdog status shifts thanks to a career-defining speech by consultant Francine (Alexis Lezin), who is aching to break out of her Nebraskan confines. She may think Penny is stupid, but she’s also a powerful orator who makes Francine’s prose sing. Every writer responds to that.

Francine’s husband, Jeffrey (Liam Vincent), a generic general practitioner, is alarmed that his wife’s ethics seem to bend so easily to accommodate Penny’s grab for power. Perhaps that’s why he’s so easily swayed by a charismatic (and terminally ill) young patient, Ben (Andrew Humann), who believes that Penny is part of a covert scheme to turn Nebraska into a totalitarian regime.

The first act of this 2 hour, 20-minute comedy ends on such a comic high that is seems nearly impossible that Act 2 will be anything but a letdown. And it is, but only to a certain degree. There’s a lull in the first half of the second act that director Ken Prestininzi has some trouble carbonating. But then Nachtrieb gets his comic groove back, and the darker elements of the satire come bursting out in a bloody climax that essentially turns a Nebraska stadium into a Greek amphitheater.

If Jones is the holy roller (derby) motor of the play, then Lezin is its fuel. She straddles the worlds of realistic working woman and ruthless politician in a play (who is probably more realistically ruthless than we might like to believe). Her frustrations with her talent, her marriage and her career are as rich as her speech-writing, candidate-defining triumphs, and Lezin is such a marvelous actor we feel every bit of everything.

Vincent and Humann make an appealing duo, sort of a would-be terrorist Bert and Ernie, but they’re never quite as interesting as Jones and Lezin, nor are they given as much scenery to chew.

The enjoyment level of The Totalitarians (the title reminds me of a politically themed soap opera I wish I could DVR daily) is high. This new play, part of a rolling world premiere (we’re the second stop after New Orleans), isn’t perfect, but The Totalitarians is, like, totally the subversive laugh fest you need as we head into the brainwash known as the holidays.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians continues through Dec. 14 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 866-811-4111 or visit

Fit to be tied in Aurora’s powerful, provocative Knot

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Stacy Ross (left) is a fifth-grade teacher and Jamie J. Jones is the mother of a fifth-grade student in Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot, probably the most fraught parent-teacher conference you’ll ever experience. Jon Tracy directs the Aurora Theatre Company production. Photos by David Allen

To call Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams’ play now at the Aurora Theatre Company, a mystery is accurate but only to a point. Certainly there are things we don’t know and need to find out, but there’s a whole lot more to this complex, disturbing and even devastating drama.

Looking at Nina Ball’s incredibly realistic fifth-grade classroom set – complete with tiled ceiling and fluorescent lights – it’s easy to think, “A play about a parent-teacher conference in a bright, friendly classroom. How intense could this be?” Oh, it’s intense all right. And surprising and fraught with the kind of societal and personal issues that create gulfs (or build bridges) between people.

Director Jon Tracy is especially adept at re-creating a version of real life for the stage that is unflinching, even if that means it’s sometimes hard to watch. This two-person play is, as you might expect of Tracy, so finely calibrated that there’s hardly a pause or a body movement that doesn’t feel at once natural or directly part of the playwright’s vision.

Tracy’s actors pull this off with incredible skill and emotion. Stacy Ross is the teacher, Heather, and Jamie J. Jones is the mom, Corryn. The topic at hand is Corryn’s son, Gidion, who has been suspended. Just why he was so severely disciplined and why this particular conference is so very intense is all part of the mystery and the dramatic motor of the play.

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And though hot-button issues like cyber-bullying and free speech arise, there’s something deeper happening, and it has to do with people who have very different viewpoints about life. It also has to do with core human qualities such as compassion, kindness and hostility. How do people deal with each other, person to person, personally or professionally, when their views of life are so fundamentally opposed?

Neither of these characters is exactly what you’d expect, although you probably know people like them. Heather is brittle, beleaguered and deeply invested in her students. Corryn is brash and honest, which can have the effect of making her unlikable. She’s the kind of person who asks a question and makes you guess at the answer. When you do hazard a guess, she guffaws at the sheer stupidity of your guess. Not so likable, but as she freely admits, she’s been up for 72 hours.

Whatever impression you have of either woman is likely to change – several times – over the course of this provocative play’s 75 minutes. You know it’s 75 minutes because there’s a clock over the classroom door (the same door through which you hear the bustle and see the shadows of the students going by when the bell rings), and the play spins out, sometimes agonizingly, in real time.

There’s some rough stuff in this play – one patch is so rough, in fact, it’s hard not to look around the intimate confines of the Aurora to assess how your fellow theatergoers are taking it all – but playwright Adams isn’t interested in the sensational here. Like Corryn, she’s more interested in honesty, even if it’s uncomfortable or unpleasant.

Gidion’s Knot is a hell of a tangle, and it’s somehow more than a play. It’s an extraordinary experience.

Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot continues an extended run through March 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit