Aurora announces 18th season

Aurora Theatre Company artistic director Tom Ross announced today his Berkeley company’s 18th season, which stems from the theme “Family and Fortune.” In addition to classics and newer works, the season includes a world premiere by Joel Drake Johnson (pictured at right).


The season opens in August with Clifford Odets’ 1935 Awake and Sing, directed by Joy Carlin. The classic play about an extended Jewish family in the Bronx, had a hit Broadway revival three years ago. Carlin, something of a Bay Area legend as both actor and director, first helmed this play for Berkeley Repertory Theatre 24 years ago. (Run dates: Aug. 21-Sept. 27)

From the classic to the profane: Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig continues the season in October. The play wonders what happens when a good-looking guy falls for a plus-size woman. Barbara Damashek directs. (Oct. 30-Dec. 6)

The holidays will rock and roll once again with the return of last year’s hit The Coverlettes Cover Christmas. Volcaists Darby Gould, Katie Guthorn and Carol Bozzio Littleton reprise their roles as a fictitious ’60s girl group making the season bright with beehives and tight harmonies. (Dec. 9-27)

The new year brings the world premiere of Chicago playwright Johnson’s The First Grade, which originated as one of Aurora’s Global Age project winners last season. Ross directs this journey of a woman whose attempts to do something good lead her into chaos involving first graders, a depressed daughter, a Ritalin-addicted grandson and the ex-husband who still shares her home. (Jan. 22-Feb. 28)

Barbara Oliver, one of the Aurora’s founding members, returns to direct Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, in a new version by David Eldridge created for London’s Donmar Warehouse. In what sounds like a story ripped from today’s headlines, the Borkman family is struggling since the imprisonment of John Gabriel Borkman, a bank manager who speculated illegally with his clients’ money, ultimately losing the financial investments of hundred of people. (April 2-May 9)

Closing the season is the Bay Area premiere of Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate directed by Robin Stanton, who has been seen at the Aurora with Betrayed, The Busy World Is Hushed and Permanent Collection. In this play, dubbed “one of the Top 10 plays of the year” by Entertainment Weekly, three teenage misfits in Salem, Ore., discover they’re connected by a sex scandal that has rocked their home town. (June 11-July 18)

Subscriptions to the Aurora’s new season range from $130-$235. Single tickets are $15-$55. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information. All performances are at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.


Gabe Marin exorcises Aurora’s devilish `Disciple’

One of the great things about Bay Area theater is watching local actors grow into greatness.

They may or may not strike off to find fortune and fame in New York or Los Angeles, or they may choose to stay here and continue doing as much good work as they can.

The Aurora Theatre Company’s next show, George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, is packed with the kind of actors who, if you care about local theater, you’ve been watching for years. Names such as Stacy Ross, Warren David Keith and Trish Mullholland pretty much make a show worth seeing if they’re involved.

Another name to add to that list is Gabriel Marin (seen at right with Devil’s co-star Stacy Ross, photos by David Allen).

Theatergoers probably don’t remember Marin’s local stage debut in American Conservatory Theater’s The Play’s the Thing in 1995. He was a 23-year-old spear carrier amid some Bay Area greats such as Ken Ruta, Dan Hiatt and Kimberly King. He was fresh out of college (Chicago’s DePaul University) and eager to put all his acting training to use.

But on stage at the Geary, Marin remembers thinking: “Damn, I should have paid more attention in voice class. All the things I thought were old school and used to roll my eyes at, turned out to be more useful than I thought. And there I was watching people do it to perfection. Made me feel inadequate and in awe.”

But Marin persisted, even as he married, started a family and moved to Los Angeles. When the marriage ended, Marin and his son, Max, headed back to the Bay Area, while his daughter, Morgan, stayed in L.A. with her mom.

Being a single parent, Marin found a day job that involved theater – marketing director for Walnut Creek’s Center Repertory Company – that still allowed him to pursue acting opportunities.

“There’s nothing, other than acting, that I could do and be happy with myself,” Marin says. “When I was in LA, supporting a family, theater was something I had to obviously set aside, and those years were soul-sucking to me. Now I embrace the poverty. I embrace being bereft of amenities. That’s why I say this is all I can do and be happy.”

In the last couple of years, Marin has really come into his own, delivering some stunning performances for SF Playhouse (Bug, Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, Our Lady of 121st Street), Magic Theatre (The Rules of Charity), Marin Theatre Company (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Traveling Jewish Theatre/Thick Description (Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain).

All the theater work has meant that Max, about to turn 13, has spent a lot of time backstage.

“I cannot thank my son enough,” Marin says. “He’s had to sit in a lot of green rooms. He’s the light of my life. What’s interesting, is when I bow, I make an `M’ with my hands, and if he’s in the green room, he’ll run out to the wings to see if I give him thanks. I couldn’t act if he wasn’t on board.”

The younger Marin is so on board, in fact, that he’s been expressing the desire to be an actor (when he doesn’t want to be a computer game programmer or airplane pilot).

“I’ll encourage him and help facilitate that,” Marin says. “But I’m very careful not to push that on him.”

Marin is returning to Berkeley’s Aurora, where he previously appeared in Gunplay, The Glass Menagerie and Shaw’s Saint Joan, directed by Aurora’s founding artistic director, Barbara Oliver, who is also helming The Devil’s Disciple.

This is the one Shaw play set in America (during the Revolutionary War, naturally), and it tends toward the melodramatic. Marin is playing Richard Dudgeon, the self-proclaimed “devil’s disciple” who pretends to be the local minister, who may be fitted with a hangman’s noose to demoralize the townspeople.

“Richard is awesome,” Marin says. “He’s kind of Han Solo meets Obi Wan Kenobi in a very Shavian way. He’s the rogue with a heart of gold, and he made me think of Obi Wan because he reminded me of Obi Wan saying to Darth Vader something like, `If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.'”

Marin’s girlfriend teases him that he’s finally playing a rogue instead of a loser with a heart of gold.

After Devil’s Disciple, Marin will be seen in John Guare’s Landscape of the Body at SF Playhouse in January and then Jack Goes Boating back at the Aurora next summer under the direction of Bay Area veteran Joy Carlin.

With such a non-stop schedule, Marin must be exhausted.

“I’m not exhausted,” he says. “I’m grateful.”

The Devil’s Disciple begins previews Friday, Oct. 31, opens Thursday, Nov. 6 and runs through Dec. 7 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $28 for previews, $40-$42 for regular performances. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.

In the director’s chair with: Jon Tracy

The cast and crew of SF Playhouse’s Bug. Director Jon Tracy is on the right in the hat.

Ask Jon Tracy what’s bugging him these days, and the answer is easy: Bug.

Tracy is directing the Bay Area premiere of the play, by recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) for SF Playhouse. The production begins previews May 7, opens May 10 and continues through June 14 at the downtown San Francisco theater.

Famously creepy and skin-crawly, Bug is a tale of paranoia – a man and a woman in a grimy, slimy hotel room suffer delusions of a bug infestation brought about by a nefarious government conspiracy…or mental illness…or actual bugs. A movie was made of the play in 2006 directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, the star of the original Chicago production of the play. The movie, which some hailed and others reviled, did not impress Tracy, who was a fan of the play.

“Seeing that movie only made me want to direct the play more,” he says. “When you see a version of something you love that you don’t care for, that didn’t grab the story correctly, you want to fix it.”

What appeals to Tracy about the play is that there’s more to it than just the gore and horror it’s famous for.

“It’s an unbelievably wonderful look at a love story,” Tracy says.

The lovers in Tracy’s production are Gabe Marin as Peter, the AWOL Gulf War veteran who thinks he may have been subjected to experiments by the military, and Susi Damilano as Agnes, a cocktail waitress with a propensity for partying.

“What we’re finding in rehearsals is that Letts has a distinctive rhythm and sensibility,” Tracy says. “We’re working with two different rhythms in a farce staging that includes some really interesting rules to live by. There is a wit that needs to come out of it. There’s so much subtext. In most contemporary plays we don’t really say anything we mean, but what we mean is down there somewhere. Letts is an unbelievable wordsmith. He’s not afraid to punch you twice before you realize you got punched the first time. The play is beyond clever. The emotional journey is mathematically precise and goes well beyond the shock value he has become known for.”

Where the movie went wrong, in Tracy’s opinion, was in missing the natural comedy of the piece and messing up the ending.

“Friedkin misstated the end,” Tracy says. “We weren’t along for the ride. It was all screaming people, spinning camera and aluminum foil covering everything. Any amount of belief was blown out and it became silly. The central relationship wasn’t the love story I’ve come to see as so important to the play.”

SF Playhouse is just about the perfect space for a play like Bug that trades on paranoia and claustrophobia. Set designer Bill English (also SF Playhouse’s artistic director) has created a seedy motel set that Tracy says is “a character in and of itself.” The audience, for good or ill, is going to feel trapped in that hotel room and the paranoia that’s building around something that may or may not actually be happening.

That’s exactly how Tracy likes it.

“It’s time for theater to get back to holding the audience accountable,” he says. “That happens less in our modern theaters. We like to tell them what to do and what to think. Here, let me turn my imagination off. That’s counterproductive to why we started doing this in the first place.”

Why Tracy, a Vallejo native who now lives in Oakland, started doing this theater thing was simple: he thought it would be a cool way to meet girls. These days, though, he has a different philosophy.

“My thought is that we live today in an unbelievably beautiful, giving world that masquerades as a horrible, treacherous place,” he says. “If you’re looking for the good in it, it’s not going to appear. It’s about realigning ourselves so we can see what’s been there the entire time, and embrace what’s been there the entire time. I have to believe that theater is that bridge. For me, that’s what I believe we do. We call ourselves artists, but that’s the worst possible title for us. Instead, we need to look at the fact that we are like every other person pursuing their craft for the betterment of the community. By that definition, the plumber or the accountant is an artist. The problem is, that in the trappings of life – the mortgage, three kids and so on – we lose our art. That’s why we commune in the theater or go to a museum – to find a little of ourselves again and maybe to see that everything is actually here to help.”

Plucked out of the Solano College theater program by George Maguire who suggested directing over acting, Tracy says he has been lucky to have great people shepherd him along. Joy Carlin (right, with Tracy) and the Carlin family have been “incredible influences,” and now he says he has been embraced by co-founders English and Damilano at SF Playhouse.

“I’m a huge, huge, unbelievably huge believer in the people I work with,” Tracy says. “I know I will always learn more than I dish out. I know I’m lucky to be in the room.”

So far this year, Tracy’s directorial plate has been full of darkness – Macbeth, The Diviners and Bug – and now it’s time to lighten up. His next project, which will open Friday, June 13, in the Willows Theatre Company’s Martinez theater, is Evil Dead: The Musical.

“I listened to the music and thought it was raunchy and silly and fun,” Tracy says. “I grew up with the Sam Raimi films and just couldn’t say no to this one.”

SF Playhouse’s Bug runs from May 7 through June 14. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.

Little stage on the prairie

I was in the lobby at SF Playhouse for an opening a couple weeks ago, and while milling through the crowd, I heard a voice that zinged me straight back to childhood.

There I was, 8 years old, glued to the television while Ma, Pa, Mary and Laura (aka Half-Pint) attempted to make a life for themselves in a little house on the prairie.

The voice in the lobby belonged to Karen Grassle (pronounced Grass-lee), who played Ma for eight seasons on the NBC TV version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie’’ books.

It turns out Grassle, though famous for her TV work, is a theater person and a Bay Area native.
We’ve seen her on stage a few times – in California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet during artistic director Jonathan Moscone’s debut season, and in SF Playhouse’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan.

About three years ago, Grassle, 66, returned to the Bay Area for good.

She was actually born at Albany Hospital, but her family moved south to Ventura, and she wasn’t back in the Bay Area until after high school when she enrolled in the English Department at UC Berkeley.

During her college years, she was an apprentice at the Actors Workshop in San Francisco, and then did her post-graduate work at the London Academy of Music and Drama.

“Theater was just one of those things that was in my blood,’’ Grassle says. “Not being a practical thing to do, I tried to ignore it. My parents certainly tried to ignore it. Eventually I had to surrender. This was my calling.’’

Grassle has done a fair bit of traveling in pursuit of stage work. From London she landed in Memphis, Tenn., then headed to New York, where her big Broadway break, The Gingham Dog, earned her a Tony nomination.

After “Little House’’ ran its course, Grassle took time off to raise a family, but she kept a foot in the theater world. Eventually she moved to New Mexico to start a theater company there (“It was too hard trying to do everything.’’), then she landed in Louisville, Ky., where she worked for Jon Jory at the Actors Theatre.

In the last four years she has done Driving Miss Daisy four times, and now she’s making her TheatreWorks debut in Kathleen Clark’s romantic comedy Southern Comforts.

Directed by Bay Area veteran Joy Carlin, “Comforts’’ is a “December-Decmeber’’ romance about a Southern widow and a Yankee widower (the Bay Area’s Edward Sarafian) who get what they least expected — a second chance at love.

“My character is Amanda Cross, a former librarian from Tennessee,’’ Grassle explains. “She was widowed quite young and was a single mom for years. With any character you play, you find all the places in yourself that can touch the places in her. With Amanda, that’s being a single mom, loving books and wanting to share your happiness. That’s a longing I share with her.’’

And working with Joy Carlin?

“Oh, Joy is a joy,’’ Grassle says. “It’s like having a master class in comedy with her. Because she’s an actor, too, she’s extremely patient and sensitive with our process. She doesn’t lay all the pressure on you like some directors do. Besides, I just love her. I’m delighted I know her.’’

Southern Comforts continues through March 30 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $20-$56. Call 650-903-6000 or visit for information.

Theater review: `Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge’

SF Playhouse serves up a Cratchit-y Christmas
three stars Holiday hilarity

Gladys Cratchit is not having a merry Christmas.

Her husband, Bob, is a sap, a boob and a goody-goody. She has 21 starving children — including Tiny Tim, whom she refers to as a crippled idiot — and not an ounce of maternal concern.

There will be no Christmas goose or hot pudding at the Cratchits’ this year because Bob’s meager salary has been cut in half. So, for Gladys, there’s only one option: have a few drinks at the pub then jump off the London Bridge.

Can’t you just feel the holiday warmth emanating from Christopher Durang’s Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge? The irreverent 2002 comedy has knocked around Bay Area community theaters, but the play is only now having its professional San Francisco premiere courtesy of SF Playhouse.

Director Joy Carlin — long associated with American Conservatory Theater’s annual A Christmas Carol — knows her way around Dickens’ moralistic tale and helps make up in style what Durang’s play lacks in substance.

Ostensibly, Durang wants to give Dickens a good shake and knock off the cutesy-poo crust that has begun to encase A Christmas Carol, which, if you actually read the story, is pretty harsh and condemning of modern greed and capitalistic cruelty.

Durang knows Dickens makes potent points about our heartless world, but those points are often lost in the rush to make Scrooge a good guy, to save Tiny Tim from an early grave and to keep from scaring the children with all those ghosts.

To sharpen Carol and to keep it from being another blah humbug, Durang employs his trademark wit and cynical silliness. He makes this a post-modern Christmas Carol with a lump of coal where its heart should be.

Joan Mankin is Gladys Cratchit, and Mankin’s woebegone expression is good for a least a dozen laughs. Poor Gladys is misery personified, and her suicidal bent brings in a whole “It’s a Wonderful Life” subplot complete with George Bailey (Arthur Keng) and Clarence the Angel (Brian Degan Scott).

Durang loves mashing up his stories, so he happily skewers Oliver Twist, “Touched By an Angel” and “The Gift of the Magi,” all while deconstructing Christmas Carol.

If the focus of this two-hour romp were, as the title suggests, on Mrs. Cratchit, things would be better, but Durang wants to spend an equal amount of stage time with Scrooge (Victor Talmadge) and his various ghosts (all played by Cathleen Riddley). Talmadge is a ferocious (and funny) Scrooge, but his dealings with Jacob Marley (Terry Rucker) and the dudes from Enron (yes, Enron) steal focus from the “wild binge” we were promised.

Mrs. Cratchit’s home life is hysterical in every sense. Her husband (Keith Burkland) simpers nonstop. She keeps most of her children in the root cellar, though we do meet two nameless tykes (Gideon Lazarus and Madeleine Pauker sharing the roles with Olivia Scott Dahrouge and Henry Kinder) as well as the bonkers Li’l Nell (Jean Forsman) and Tiny Tim (the hilariously wide-eyed Lizzie Calogero).

By the time Scrooge and the ghost arrive, it’s no wonder Gladys wants to go with them. Durang’s one great conceit is that romantic sparks fly between Ebenezer and Gladys — it just feels right — though his late ’70s coda is terribly dated and lacks the requisite comic punch.

Special mention must be made of Megan Smith, a comic actor of considerable skill, who, when she’s not playing the bass or guitar during the musical numbers, mugs wonderfully in several choice supporting roles (including the Bob’s brainless second wife).

This Binge may not be as wild as it could be, and the laughs may not be as large, but time with Mrs. Cratchit is a delicious antidote to seasonal commercialism and heartless bleatings of “bless us everyone.”

Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge continues through Jan. 12 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit