Shavian wit still dwells in Aurora’s Houses

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The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s Widowers’ Houses by George Bernard Shaw includes (from left) Megan Trout as Blanche Sartorius, Dan Hoyle as Harry Trench, Michael Gene Sullivan as Cokane and Warren David Keith as Mr. Sartorius. Below: Keith’s Sartorius (left) wrangles with Howard Swain’s Lickcheese. Photos by David Allen

George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses last played Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company more than 20 years ago, and though the theater company has come up on the world (bigger, spiffier theater), the satirical world of Shaw’s play still reflects badly on our own lack of evolution where greed, poverty and decency are concerned.

That 1997 production, directed by Aurora co-founder, the late Barbara Oliver, made me a fan of Shaw’s first produced play and made me an immediate fan of Aurora’s chamber approach to great plays where every subtlety and nuance is amplified and the intimacy increases your connection to the characters and the action.

The new production of Widowers’ Houses, directed by the estimable Joy Carlin, is certainly handsome to look at, from the giant gold-framed screen depicting Victorian life dominating the set by Kent Dorsey, who also did the lighting design, to the posh costumes by Callie Floor (who also makes shabby costumes look so real you can practically smell them).

Dispensing with three acts in under 2 1/2 hours, Carlin’s pace is brisk but not rushed. There’s a surprising disparity in the small six-person cast. There’s the expected precision and excellence bringing shaw to vibrant life, but then there’s also some distracting hamminess and amateurishness that keeps the play from truly taking off.

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But what’s good is really good. Warren David Keith is the dark heart of the play as Sartorius, a self-made man of means who turns out to be one of London’s biggest slumlords. He swears he does it all for his daughter, Blanche (an incisive Megan Trout), whom he has raised on his own (and turned into a spoiled, tiny-hearted brat in the process). He is also of the opinion that there’s nothing to be done with the poor except leave them to their own wretched devices. If you extend any sort of generosity – like repairing a dangerous bannister, for instance – they’ll just turn it into so much firewood. You might as well take what you can from them and keep moving along.

Keith is cold and imperious as well as frustratingly smart and considered. His Sartorius is commanding and chilling. He speaks from the heart, but where his heart ought to be is a giant bag of cold coins.

Equally good is Howard Swain as Lickcheese, whose Dickensian name is so very appropriate. He’s Sartorius’ henchman who wrings every last cent from the tenants, many of whom are paying for a quarter of a room. Lickcheese also swears he carries out his heinous duties to support his own family, but he clearly relishes it. When Lickcheese returns later in the play a changed man, he calls to mind a later Shaw character, Alfred P. Doolittle in Pygmalion, who will also use his life on the streets as the basis for a future fortune.

Trout’s Blanche is a delicious character – a prissy Victorian lady hoping to woo marry a naive young doctor she and her father met in their European travels but who reveals herself to be vicious in her thinking and her actions. She hates the poor almost as much as she hates her maid, whom she beats and berates incessantly (the maid is played by a broadly comic Sarah Mitchell). Blanche is the very opposite of what you think of when you think of a Victorian lady in that she is robustly physical and has no qualms in speaking her mind.

By the third act, Shaw’s stomping on his soapbox results in splinters more than barbs, but his point is well made: one man’s riches is the result of another’s poverty. Advantage will always be taken, and even the most noble among us are culpable, whether we realize it or not, in keeping this system alive and thriving. In other words, the play could have been written last week. When the Aurora produces Widowers’ Houses again in another 20 years or so, if the world still exists, the same will undoubtedly remain true.

George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses continues through March 4 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$65. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Here’s what for the How and the Why at Aurora

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Rachel (Martha Brigham, left) and Zelda (Nancy Carlin) toast to their first meeting in Aurora’s West Coast Premiere of The How and The Why by Sarah Treem. Below: Zelda (Carlin, right) offers a tearful Rachel (Brigham) a tissue. Photos by David Allen

Watching a play like Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why makes me feel smarter – fractionally but still. To prove my point, I’m going to quote Ernst Mayr, an evolutionary biologist with whom I was unfamiliar before this play. Mayr, as we’re told in the play, was interested in the how and the why of things, the mechanism and the function.

Let’s apply that to Treem’s play, shall we? The how is pretty clear: Treem wrote a two-person play about two evolutionary biologists, an older professor and a younger grad student, having a discussion about their research, their theories and their lives. Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company chose to produce the play with direction by the redoubtable Joy Carlin and starring Joy’s daughter Nancy Carlin as Zelda, the brilliant but somewhat distracted professor, and Martha Brigham, as Rachel, the brilliant but somewhat unstable grad student. The play would be produced in Harry’s UpStage, the Aurora’s even more intimate space than its already intimate main stage.

The why is also pretty clear: this is a fascinating and, at least in my case, highly educational play in which two interesting and interested women at different places in their lives and careers dive deep into science, gender roles, academia and what it means to be a woman conducting research on the evolution of women and how that works in the patriarchal halls of science.

There’s an element of melodrama here as well, and Treem, best known for television writing (House of Cards season one, In Treatment and The Affair), doesn’t seem to be as invested in that part of the play. There’s a point where a slap occurs, and it’s not nearly as deeply felt as some of the more intellectual elements of the play, which truly are fascinating. There’s a secret afoot, and Treem doesn’t even bother disguising it much, so that when it’s revealed, the audience is, by design, already way ahead of the characters.

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Where this play soars is when the women are able to fully express their passion for their work. It’s sheer coincidence (or is it?) that both women are in the field of evolutionary biology. Zelda’s career-defining, Dobzhansky Prize-winning theory is called “The Grandmother Hypothesis” and involves menopause and how it allows women to live longer and assist their children in the raising of their children, thus, as Zelda puts it, inventing childhood.

Rachel, a character inspired by the work of Margie Profet as detailed in Natalie Angier’s Woman: an Intimate Geography, has come upon a potentially revolutionary idea. Why do women menstruate exactly? We think we know, but Rachel isn’t at all sure. She thinks the process has less to do with the reproductive process and more to do with women’s bodies and their defense against what she calls “the toxicity of sperm.” This theory, Rachel says, will change the way women think about their bodies, it will change the way men think about women’s bodies and it will change the way people have sex.

Zelda recognizes the brilliance in Rachel’s theory, but there are many unanswered questions and, as it turns out, Rachel’s theory presents certain challenges to Zelda’s.

For a talky two-hander, there’s actually a lot of action in this play, though we don’t see it, for instance, when Rachel presents her abstract at a conference and gets devoured by both male and (to her surprise and deep disgust) female critics. The action shifts from Zelda’s nice office (in a revered Boston-area university, not, I think, the Cambridge Community College) to a hockey-themed bar with a popcorn machine (sets and lights by Kent Dorsey), and the discussion, not to mention the tension, between the characters never flags for the play’s nearly two hours.

Credit that to Carlin’s astute direction and her casting of two actors whose intensity and commitment could manage to make much less crackling dialogue work. Nancy Carlin is so rooted in her character’s sensible shoes you half expect her to lead a post-show seminar in the intricacies of menopause and Zelda’s time spent studying it within a nomadic African tribe. There’s haughtiness in Zelda that no doubt comes from years of being the smartest person in the room and certainly being the most awarded. Brigham’s Rachel has her youth and naiveté working against her ferociously powerful mind, but we also see the potential for strength and, if Zelda can be any kind of role model, her potential for scientific ass kicking.

Watching two fierce actors attack meaty material like this is hugely pleasurable, and the fact that we get to learn some fascinating things about half of the world’s population is just evolutionary icing on this delectable theatrical cake.

Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why continues through May 22 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $35-$45. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Say amen – SF Playhouse takes it to Church

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The Divine Plan for Salvation Church holds its first service in San Francisco Playhouse’s Storefront Church by John Patrick Shanley. The cast includes (from left) Gabriel Marin, Derek Fischer, Rod Gnapp, Carl Lumbly, Ray Reinhardt and Gloria Weinstock. BELOW: Lumbly and Marin address politics and spirituality and the battle between noise and stillness. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

In many ways, John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church, now at San Francisco Playhouse for a well-timed holiday run, is less about the battle between the material world and the spiritual world and more about finding the most personal of solutions to the stress and pull and darkness of life: being still.

In such a hectic world, stillness seems practically revolutionary, but that’s where the Rev. Chester Kimmich (Carl Lumbly) finds himself: in stillness waiting for an answer or a way to cross the giant black hole that has opened up before him.

The interesting thing in Shanley’s script, and in director Joy Carlin’s marvelously entertaining but deeply felt production, is that being still in the modern world comes with consequences. You can’t pull away from the world for any length of time without the world coming to look for you. In the Reverend’s case, his withdrawal into the realm of contemplation has real-world consequences. The $30,000 he borrowed from his landlady, a woman of great faith, was supposed to refurbish a storefront church. But months later, with the money spent, the church is still not open, and the landlady is facing foreclosure from the bank.

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Is Chester being irresponsible by taking the money and not paying his rent? Or is his devotion so true that stillness and contemplation truly is the only way he can find a solution to his spiritual crisis?

The real world comes calling for Chester in the form of Donaldo (Gabriel Marin) the Bronx borough president who has a personal investment in the Reverend’s fiscal irresponsibility. It turns out that the clash between the ambitious politician and the spiritual seeker is just what each man needed to see himself and his place in the world a little differently.

Sort of a 21st-century It’s a Wonderful Life, weighing the value of the human soul against the human construct of commerce (aka greed), Storefront Church has the nobility of the big questions and the practicality of everyday life. On a fantastic turntable set (by Bill English), we spin through a gritty world of people struggling. Jessie (Gloria Weinstock) and her older husband Ethan (Ray Reinhardt) have financial woes and health concerns to deal with. Their different faiths – she’s a devout Christian, he’s a secular Jew – don’t cause conflict between them. If anything, they seem completely comfortable with their spiritual lives. It’s the money that’s putting on the pressure.

There’s no way that bank employees cannot be the bad guys in this scenario, but loan officer Reed (Rod Gnapp) is pretty sympathetic. Bank president Tom (Derek Fischer), on the other hand, is not. It doesn’t help that Shanley stacks the deck against him by 1) having him actually devour a gingerbread house during a meeting and 2) have him rather implausibly show up to a service at the Rev. Chester’s humble, unfinished church.

Somehow, though, it all works. No one is a monster here, and when the spirit begins to move people, the warmth and emotion comes as much from a simple gathering of people and their connection as it does from the religion itself.

In a way, that’s what theater itself does – gathers strangers, attempts to make them feel something, both individually and collectively, and leave a little bit different. In a broad sense, every theater is a storefront church, and right now the San Francisco Playhouse is shining with a little extra light.

John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church continues through Jan. 11 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Personal is political in Aurora’s fiery Revolution

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Rolf Saxon is Ben Joseph and Jessica Bates is Emma Joseph in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of After the Revolution by Amy Herzog and directed by Joy Carlin. Below: Bates’ Emma is comforted by Adrian Anchondo’s Miguel. Photos by David Allen

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company opens its 22nd season with Amy Herzog’s smart, moving drama After the Revolution, an ambitious play that juggles American history, the cost of political idealism and how one generation affects another – for good and ill – in a tight-knit family.

This is the same Herzog whose 4000 Miles was so good at American Conservatory Theater earlier this year (read my review here), and this play, which predates 4000 Miles, also features the character of Vera Joseph (who is based on Herzog’s own grandmother). Vera is the widow of Joe Joseph, a member of the Communist party and a blacklisted victim of the McCarthy witch hunts in the 1950s, and though she’s younger in this play (by about a decade), she’s just as irascible – a crusty, Leftie granny with lots of bite left in her.

But Vera isn’t the focus here. The spotlight belongs to Vera’s granddaughter, Emma Joseph (Jessica Bates), a brilliant, recently graduated lawyer who runs the Joe Joseph Fund, a nonprofit aiming to release Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther who was given the death sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman. The year is 1999 (before Mumia’s sentence was commuted to life in prison), and Emma and her group feel that Mumia, because of his outspoken political views and the fact that he’s black, led to a farce of a trial and an overly harsh, even racist sentence. In other words, Emma feels she is carrying on her grandfather’s legacy by not giving in to governmental abuse of power.

Emma is the pride and joy of her family. Her dad, Ben (Rolf Saxon) can barely contain the tears when he toasts his daughter, who is so proudly carrying the banner for the family’s history and politics. Ben’s brother, Leo (Victor Talmadge) is equally proud and somewhat chagrined that his own three children, whom he calls “jocks,” don’t care at all about politics, blacklists or Communists. And then there’s Vera (Ellen Ratner), who is disappointed that all of her grandchildren, except Emma, have so little political intelligence or ambition.

When a deep, dark secret from decades past emerges, as such secrets often do, the Joseph family splinters. Emma suffers the most from the news, and everyone is left to deal with her implosion. It seems Joe wasn’t exactly the stand-up-and-fight-the-power Commie Emma thought he was. He was the “share government secrets with the Soviets during World War II” kind of Commie, and to Emma, that is dishonest and dishonorable. Vera sees it differently, that Joe was working for Stalin, in whom he believed more than Roosevelt, and it was before we knew everything we later knew about what Stalin was actually doing in Russia.

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Whatever, this revelation makes Emma question everything about her choices in life, especially the work she’s doing in her grandfather’s name. The revelation also threatens to destroy Emma’s relationship with her father, whom she revered as an inspiring Marxist public school teacher. Not a liar who kept vital information from her and arguably let her take money from donors to the Fund under somewhat false pretenses.

When it comes right down it, After the Revolution is really a father-daughter drama, and a bracingly good one. As Emma retreats from the world and wallows in self-pity and seems incapable of showing any shred of compassion for anyone (especially her father), Ben keeps trying to reach out to her and heal their rupture. The scene when they finally do meet, each prepared as if for a lecture demonstration, is alive with humor, regret, deep sadness and even deeper love. It’s a marvelous scene, beautifully played by Bates and Saxon. We never doubt Ben’s love for his daughter or his torment over not sharing the truth about his father sooner. But the scene allows Bates’ Emma to show that she has grown and expanded as a human, that she is capable of compassion.

Perhaps because that scene is so emotionally rich and rewarding, it’s disappointing, then, that the play shifts attention away from Emma, who is the protagonist, and to Vera, who is but a key supporting player. Vera makes an important point about Emma’s choices as they relate to her grandfather, but the play suffers from the shift in focus.

Director Joy Carlin navigates these tricky dramatic waters with aplomb and sensitivity. Politics are important here, but they never overtake the emotional lives and connections of the characters. The excellent supporting cast includes Adrian Anchondo as Emma’s boyfriend, who also works at the Fund; Pamela Gaye Walker as Ben’s wife (who has one of the play’s best scenes in a late-night phone call to a suffering Emma); Peter Kybart as a wise (and loaded) donor to Emma’s Fund; and Sarah Mitchell as Emma’s sister, who is fresh from another round of rehab.

Herzog creates a broad canvas here that allows money, history, truth and family to ratchet up the stakes and provide the ultimate reward. After the Revolution
isn’t exactly revolutionary, but as a family drama it surges with power and heart.

[bonus interview]

I talked to After the Revolution director Joy Carlin for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.


Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution continues an extended run through Oct. 6 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., San Francisco. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Marin offers a real beauty of a Queen

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Beth Wilmurt (left) as Maureen, Rod Gnapp (center) as Pato and Joy Carlin as Mag star in Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Joseph Salazar’s Ray watches telly while Carlin’s Mag waits for the news. Photos by Kevin Berne

Watching Joy Carlin work her magic Mag Folan in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the epitome of theatrical delight. Here you have one of the great Bay Area actors offering a sly, darkly humorous, even compassionate portrayal of a woman who could easily be described as a nightmare. Carlin, like the character she’s playing, appears to be a lovely older woman. But perhaps unlike Carlin, Mag is something of a sociopath. And that’s a trait she’s passed along to the youngest of her three daughters, Maureen, played with sinewy gusto by Beth Wilmurt.

That mother-daughter relationship is the crux of Beauty Queen, and the source of its humor, its drama and its horror. Director Mark Jackson’s production for Marin Theatre Company etches that relationship with realism and a savory dash of melodrama. Neither Carlin nor Wilmurt is a scenery chewer, so everything they do comes from character and is directly invested in their mutual dependence/hatred. These marvelous actors create a finely detailed portrait of a mother and daughter that is so fraught, you flinch and still you can’t turn away.

McDonagh’s play (now 17 years on since its premiere in Ireland) is a soundly constructed dramatic work that puts on a good show, involves its audience and delivers something with heft and abundant laughs. It’s hard to ask for much more from a two-hour evening of theater. Set in a remote village in western Ireland, the action simply involves a needy, manipulative mother (she’s 70 but acts much older) and her 40-year-old spinster daughter who is stuck with care-taking duties and has never had much of a life of her own.

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From the start, there’s something sinister in this little house – evoked by Nina Ball’s wall-less kitchen/living room set adrift on a stage full of cloudy vagueness and illuminated by York Kennedy’s precise light. Sweetness and light do not dwell here. While Maureen makes endless cups of tea, porridge and vitamin drinks for her carping mother, she jokes about decapitating the old woman and spitting down her neck. And for her part, mother dear wastes no time telling a potential suitor (the estimable Rod Gnapp as Pato Dooley) about her daughter’s stint in a mental institution.

Eventually, the play turns into a sort of Whatever Happened to Baby McJane?, but director Jackson and his excellent cast – which also includes the testy Joseph Salazar as Pato’s brother Ray – don’t go for sensationalism as much as cringe-inducing shock. McDonagh’s play really is a horror show, and when something as sweetly old-fashioned as delivering a love letter goes terribly awry, the results are particularly gory.

But it’s not just about the horror, either. There are interesting wrinkles with characters who may be more divorced from reality than they realize, and that gives the actors even more deliciously meaty moments to play.

The Irish accents, well, they come and they go, but even if they vanish, clarity remains. And really, the most extraordinary thing about this production is the tension between Wilmurt and Carlin, two ferociously good actors creating a mother-daughter bond that is palpable. And terrifying.

Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues through June 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Aurora’s Heaven falls well short

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The women of Anthony Clarvoe’s Our Practical Heaven are (from left) Joy Carlin as Vera, Lauren Spencer as Magz, Julia Brothers as Willa, Blythe Foster as Suze, Anne Darragh as Sasha and Adrienne Walters as Leez. Below: Willa shows granddaughter Leez that she’s the “bird of the day” in the Aurora Theatre Company production. Photos by David Allen

There’s a lot to like in the world premiere of Anthony Clarvoe’s family drama Our Practical Heaven at Aurora Theatre Company. Laughs come frequently, the production itself – full of light and space – is lovely and the six women in the cast are all quite interesting.

Many of the funniest lines come from the character Willa, a ruthless titan of business who has a thorny relationship with her 20something daughter, Magz. Willa is caught between being the warm and thoughtful person she wants to be and the cold, heartless businessperson she is forced to be much of the time. That internal conflict makes the character crackle, and it helps things considerably that she’s played by the always reliable Julia Brothers.

When asked how she could possibly like a certain person, Willa answers, “She makes me laugh,” to which her questioner says, “You’re not laughing.” “I’m in hysterics,” Willa rejoins. “I’m also very sad. This is the net result.”

If only there were more of that snap, both dark and comic, in Clarvoe’s play. Clearly he’s after a Chekhovian mood as he gathers family members – some related by blood, others by choice – at the nearly seaside home of Vera, the matriarch of a large clan who is grieving the loss of her husband.

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Joy Carlin as Vera has some very funny moments – especially when she defies her children’s expectations by not only not tumbling over a box left on the floor but kicking it across the room – but like most of the characters here, she doesn’t have enough to do, enough complexity to play. Vera doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with any of the women in her house, not daughter Sasha (Anne Darragh), not honorary daughter Willa, nor with granddaughters Leez (Adrienne Walters) and Suze (Blythe Foster) or honorary granddaughter Magz (Lauren Spencer).

The one defining element of Vera, other than occasional flashes of sass, is that she is a birder and has made bird watching a mandatory activity for the entire family. Why? “You’ve got to have something,” Vera says. “Some families drink.” After a while, you kinda wish this family imbibed a few more cocktails.

It’s easy to see why Vera isn’t connected to these women because aside from Willa, who has a tangible life beyond the country house, none of these women feels real. They come off rather like stiff characters in a play who are asked to be disagreeable much of the time.

Director Allen McKelvey’s production feels forced, as if he and his actors were pushing hard to squeeze more out of Clarvoe’s play than is actually there. When the end of Act 1 comes, for instance, it’s quite a surprise because nothing has really happened. We haven’t earned an intermission, yet here it is. Act 2 throws in a few more complications but no real drama.

The end of the play feels a lot like the end of Act 1: seriously? It’s over? I felt like I wanted to have some empathy, some connection to this family but I just didn’t. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing about the modern world and its abundant means of communication and its actual dearth of communicating. Our Practical Heaven, with its projected text messages, surly teenagers and cranky adults, feels like one more message zipping through the airwaves without enough to say.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Anthony Clarvoe about creating Our Practical Heaven for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Anthony Clarvoe’s Our Practical Heaven continues through March 3 at the Auorra Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Four hot bodies heat up Aurora’s Body Awareness

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The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s Body Awareness includes (from left) Howard Swain, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Amy Resnick and Patrick Russell. Below: Cohen and Swain prepare for a body awareness photo session. Photos by David Allen

Drama in the small college town of Shirley, Vermont, is much like it is anywhere: small, intimate and, for the people involved, earth shattering.

Playwright Annie Baker, one of the theater world’s most acclaimed and buzzed-about writers, has a particular skill in writing about the lives of ordinary people. She’s acutely aware of the comic absurdity and the fissures of sadness and anger that clash continually and cause tremors, both minor and majorly damaging.

Baker is a humane and very funny writer, and the Bay Area is finally getting a taste of her talent in the Aurora Theatre Company’s utterly delightful production of her Body Awareness. In true Aurora form, the production gives us a meaty play and performances by a quartet of Bay Area actors that defy you to find a false moment in this up-close and intimate space.

Baker is taking a sideways look at the essential and uniquely individual nature of family. She gives us a non-traditional family and quickly throws it into crisis.

Jeri Lynn Cohen is Joyce, a high school teacher and mom in her mid-50s whose son, Jared (Patrick Russell) is likely dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome, but he’s never been diagnosed, let alone spent time with a psychologist. Joyce was married to Jared’s dad but has taken a different turn in middle age. She’s now partnered with Phyllis (Amy Resnick), a psychology professor at the local university.

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Phyllis is one of the organizers of the university’s Body Awareness Week (formerly Eating Disorder Awareness Week), and to “celebrate” and create dialogue and otherwise create all that activity that empowered academics so cherish, she and her organizing crew have invited an array of guests artists, from a Palestinian dance troupe to a puppet theater, to discuss all aspects of body awareness.

One of those visitors – not one of Phyllis’ choosing – is Frank (Howard Swain), a photographer who shoots nude women of all ages. Because it’s a small university, guests are housed at professors’ homes, and Frank is staying with Phyllis, Joyce and Jared. It’s the perfect storm as Jared fights his parental figures and Frank appears as an inspired artist to Joyce and a loathsome misogynist pervert to Phyllis.

Director Joy Carlin gets such delicious performances from her actors, it’s hard to know where to begin in praising them. Resnick’s ability to play reality and comedy at the same time makes her the perfect actor for a Baker script. Phyllis could so easily come off as a ridiculously pompous academic, but Resnick keeps her grounded and her intellectual foibles within the realm of (very funny) reality.

Cohen is a superb foil for Resnick. She’s part pragmatist and part yearning earth mother. When she gets it in her head that she’d like Frank to photograph her, Phyllis is so repelled she threatens to end the relationship. Cohen’s reaction as Joyce is a wonder – surprise, hurt, defiance and a yearning to make everything right without sacrificing what she thinks is right for her.

It’s wonderfully complex, all of it, and these actors handle it with ease. Swain is downright goofy in a role that could easily be crass and repellent. His Frank has warmth occasionally cooled by ego but also genuine concern fueled by compassion.

And Russell, an ACT Master of Fine Arts graduate, is astonishing as he conveys Jared’s tortured interior life. He’s a young man smart enough to know not everything is right with him but afraid to do anything with that knowledge. His flashes of anger toward his mother are jolting but understandable. This is a sensitive, highly PC household, so flashes of unrestrained anger have a certain welcome appeal.

Carlin deftly keeps the action lively for the play’s 90 minutes and never lets the rhythms fall into predictable, sitcom beats. She keeps the humor at the forefront, which only makes the real-life drama of it that much more pronounced, especially at the end, when Baker allows the notion of family to define itself.

Body Awareness traffics in jealousy and devotion, maturity and folly, pomposity and true love. In its low-key brilliance, the play serves to heighten awareness – body and otherwise.


Annie Baker’s Body Awareness continues an extended run through March 11 as part of the Aurora Theatre Company’s Global Age Project. 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Enter Stage Left: SF theater history on film

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Robin Williams is interviewed in a scene from the documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco.

Docuemntary film director/producer Austin Forbord (below right) has created a fascinating documentary about the history of San Francisco theater from the post-World War II days up to the present. The movie has its premeire at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week and will likely see wider release soon after.
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I interviewed Forbord for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here.

The extraordinary cast of interviewees includes: Robert Woodruff, Chris Hardman, Christina Augello, Robin Williams, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Tony Taccone, David Weissman, Misha Berson, Cynthia Moore, Luis Valdez, Peter Coyote, Herbert Blau, Robert Hurwitt, Jean Schiffman, Anna Halprin, Mort Subotnick, RG Davis, Joan Holden, Oskar Eustis, Richard E.T. White. Larry Eilenberg, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Raz, Kimi Okada, Geoff Hoyle, Joy Carlin, Carey Perloff, Bill Ball, Ed Hastings, Bernard Weiner, Charles “Jimmy” Dean, Robert Ernst, Paul Dresher, John O’Keefe, Leonard Pitt, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pam Tent, John Fisher, Melissa Hillman, Brad Erickson, Philip Gotanda, John LeFan, Dan Hoyle, Stanley Williams and Krissy Keefer.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

You can keep up to date on the movie’s trajectory at the oficial website (click here).

Fathers and sons: Aurora’s Awake and TheatreWorks’ Yellow

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TOP: Ralph and Myron (l-r, Patrick Russell and Charles Dean) have a father-and-son talk as Moe (back, Rod Gnapp) listens in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Awake and Sing! Photo by David Allen
BOTTOM: Playwright D.H.H. (Pun Bandhu, left) takes a lesson on the American dream from his father, H.Y.H. (Francis Jue, right) in the Bay Area premiere of Yellow Face at TheatreWorks. Photo by Mark Kitaoka


As long as there have been fathers and sons, one has wanted to please the other and often encountered difficulty in doing so.

Two very different plays opened in the Bay Area last weekend, and each has, at its center, a touching father-son story.

In the Aurora Theatre Company’s Awake and Sing!, Clifford Odets’ 1934 slice-of-Depression-life family drama, the son Ralph (Patrick Russell) is constantly being brow beaten toward the life of a successful capitalist –not by his father but by his domineering mother, Bessie, played with ferocity by Ellen Ratner. Ralph’s father, Myron, is the epitome of meekness. Though he means well, Myron (the ever-compelling Charles Dean) can’t help but be his wife’s best ally, even when she’s lying and scheming and doing what she thinks – in her sometimes warped way – is best for her family.

Ralph can’t turn to his father for a role model. Instead he turns to his soulful grandfather, Jacob (Ray Reinhardt), who knows that in spite of Bessie’s ranting about the importance of money, life can’t be printed on dollar bills. But Jacob, like Myron, can’t really stand up to Bessie, who admits to her children that she had to be both father and mother to them.

There’s a fascinating friction between the generations in director Joy Carlin’s production. We see Jacob’s generation, which has found meaning in struggle and ideas that actually mean something in the life pursuit. Then we have Bessie’s generation reacting against that – grabbing for money and security no matter what the spiritual cost. And then there’s Ralph’s generation, seeking something beyond the struggle, beyond the financial fixation.

No one’s really happy, but everyone’s up against it. There’s a sadly sweet scene toward the end of the play when Myron, who has gone to bed after much emotional unrest in the family, returns for an apple. He has no way of knowing that his children, Ralph and daughter Hennie (Rebecca White), have undergone seismic emotional shifts that will affect the course of their lives.

No, Myron, chomps on his apple and heads back to bed and to the all-consuming Bessie.

Meanwhile, down at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, TheatreWorks is traversing a more contemporary father-son relationship in David Henry Hwang’s mockumentary Yellow Face.

Hwang makes himself the central character in this true/false account of racial uproar in the theatrical community and beyond. There’s farce and there’s dramatic/political heft here as Hwang (played by doppelganger Pun Bandhu) recounts his adventures trying to prevent Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian Welsh actor from playing a half-Asian pimp in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. But then, in creating a follow-up play to his Tony-winning M. Butterfly, Hwang writes a racial farce and accidentally casts a Caucasian man (Thomas Azar) in the role of an Asian man pretending to be Caucasian to get a role in a play.

Hwang plays fast and loose with the facts as the theatrical brouhaha becomes overshadowed by systematic racism perpetrated by the American government on Asian Americans in the 1990s.

Amid the farcical chaos of director Robert Kelley’s production, one relationship emerges with emotional depth. That relationship is between Hwang and his father, Henry Y. Hwang, who founded the first Asian-American-owned, federally chartered bank in the U.S. Francis Jue, a longtime Bay Area favorite, plays the elder Hwang (among many other roles) and reveals just why the role won him an Obie when he performed it off Broadway at the Public Theater.

Jue, playing well beyond his actual age, makes Henry a fascinating man – a self-made Chinese immigrant who always idolized Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper and who ended up a wealthy man. Henry is funny, especially when trying to get tickets to Miss Saigon through his son, but when things turn serious in the second act, Jue keeps pace with the jagged turns of the script and imbues the character – indeed the play – with heart.

Hwang has clearly been deeply affected by his relationship with his father, and in many ways, in spite of the tornado of issues swirling through the play, Yellow Face seems in many ways to be a simple tribute to the elder Hwang, a man the playwright missed and wanted (or needed) to conjure.


Aurora Theatre Company’s Awake and Sing continues through Sept. 27. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.

TheatreWorks’ Yellow Face continues through Sept. 20. Call 650-463-1960 or visit for information.

Beth Wilmurt goes `Boating’ in Berkeley

You’ve heard about monsters being unleashed and wreaking havoc in New York? Well, Beth Wilmurt was just such a monster.

The San Francisco-based actor played a ferocious dragon in the final scenes of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, the Shotgun Players/Banana Bag & Bodice musical that headed to New York after its award-winning birth in Berkeley.

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Wilmurt replaced Cameron Galloway, who plays a starchy academic for most of the play then, at the end, turns into a dragon for one final battle scene with the warrior Beowulf. This was Wilmurt’s first New York performance experience, and she describes it as “a super-positive experience.”

“It felt like the best possible circumstances to be in New York,” she says. “I was there for about five weeks with one thing to concentrate on, this wonderful artistic experience. I had my days free during the run of the show, and during rehearsal I could go out at night and see shows. I saw a ton of theater and ran into a lot of people missing the Bay Area.”

Once she got home, Wilmurt didn’t have much time to dawdle before she was back in the rehearsal room, this time for the Bay Area premiere of Bob Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating, a four-person romantic comedy that begins performances this week at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. The play, directed by Joy Carlin, is about two couples, one more established, played by Amanda Duarte and Gabriel Marin, and one just forming, played by Wilmurt and Danny Wolohan.

The 2007 play was originally part of the LAByrinth Theater Company season starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, who will direct the upcoming film version.

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Wilmurt describes her character, Connie, as somewhat troubled. “I think she might even have some sort of diagnosed problem, though it’s never specified,” she says. “She’s dealing with issues, and Danny’s character, Jack, clearly has some, too. Here are two people in their late 30s/early 40s, and they’re facing a long-term relationship for the first time. Why hasn’t that happened thus far? There isn’t a lot of plot in the play, but there are obstacles. The obstacles are simple seeming, but they represent bigger obstacles for the individual.”

The role of Connie is somewhat similar to a role Wilmurt played in a previous Aurora outing, John Guare’s Bosoms and Neglect (seen above, with Wilmurt and Cassidy Brown), which Carlin also directed.

“Joy is an amazing actor, right? So it’s no surprise that she’s a really good director when it comes to getting inside a moment,” Wilmurt says. “She senses when a moment isn’t fully embodied and senses what the rhythm should be. She can get inside these micro-moments and help figure out the timing and depth of them. She can speak from the outside in, and she’s a great comedic actress.”

Wilmurt is no slouch herself. The Bay Area native grew up in Dublin (in the Tri-Valley area, not Ireland) and began her performing career at the Willows Theatre in Concord and has worked consistently since doing musicals, musical revues, plays and productions of her own creation.

With her partner, Mark Jackson, she founded Art Street Theatre in 1995, which produced a show a year for about 10 years. Ask Wilmurt about her favorite theatrical memories –her time in Germany studying, creating and performing in theater and dance gets a shout out, but Art Street is at the top of the list.

“I have a ridiculous amount of great memories from Art Street,” she says. “We worked with a lot of the same people, and everyone had such amazing energy and enthusiasm. I certainly loved doing Io, Princess of Argos. I had an idea and started talking to Mark about combining Greek mythology and cabaret. We got Marcy Karr involved and just started writing it. We wrote the show and 15 songs in about four months. We didn’t preview it or workshop it. We just did it, whatever, flaws and all. Art Street was like our own little school because we were just moving forward and not worrying how things were received.”

Though completely immersed in Jack Goes Boating (and anticipating her next Shotgun show, Marcus Gardley and Molly Holm’s a cappella musical This World in a Woman’s Hands in the fall), Wilmurt is feeling that old Art Street itch to create new works.

“I’m really attracted to brand-new work,” she says. “I like the problem-solving aspect, the figuring out how it’s all going to work. I’ve worked with so many great companies and choreographers and directors, and I like all kinds of performance—musicals, plays, fringe, cabaret, dance – and I’m getting these ideas for plays. Should I be in them? Should I pitch them? Direct them? It’s that Art Street energy: gotta create a show!”


Bob Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating performs June 12-July 19 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $28-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.