Imaginary discomfort rules at Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere play Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit includes (from left)Sharon Lockwood as Mrs. Gold, Marilee Talkington as Naomi, Danny Scheie as the Ghost, Susan Lynskey as Sarah Gold and Cassidy Brown as Michael. Below: Talkington (left) and Lynskey star in the new play by San Francisco writer Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The first time I heard the title for the new play by Daniel Handler, the San Francisco writer behind the popular Lemony Snicket books, I was confused. Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit is the title, and it wasn’t the Snickety-y subtitle that perplexed me. It was the notion that comfort could be imaginary. Isn’t comfort comforting no matter where it comes from? You can receive comfort from an external source (a parent, a pet, a narcotic) or you can just imagine comfort (memory, dream, hallucination), but as long as you are comforted, job done…at least for a little while, right?

Surely seeing the play would help me understand the title, but no such luck. Imaginary Comforts opened Thursday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre in a slick world-premiere production directed by Tony Taccone and featuring a cast that boasts some of the best actors the Bay Area has to offer. The play itself seems confused about its comedy, its sincerity, its theatricality. It’s kind of like an imaginary play that may one day find its reason for being – and at one point a character questions the notion of imaginary comfort, which made me want to stand up and shout, “Yes! That!”

Fractured time and narrative make the play something of a puzzle, which is nicely reflected in the hyperkinetic set by Todd Rosenthal. A speedy turntable repositions moving walls and doorways that are framed with strips of light, thus creating the effect of a living comic strip whose pieces quickly fall into and out of place. The central discussion amid all the movement involves death and ghosts and stories, but nothing is really moving or scary or, to be quite honest, terribly engaging.

But it is fairly entertaining for about 90 minutes partly because Taccone knows how to move things along and his actors know how to wring everything they can from Handler’s script. Somehow the premise of an inept rabbi engaging with a grieving family over the course of several years never fully comes to life, in spite of all the spinning, brightly lit walls.

At the heart of the play, and, indeed, in the lumpiest part of the title, is a story told by a father to a young daughter about a childless couple that made a deal with a rabbit to take one of its many children in exchange for keeping the entire rabbit brood safe. The rabbit child turns into a human child, and when it comes time to offer comfort, care and safety to the rabbit family, the human parent kills the rabbit parent and serves it for dinner. The ghost of the rabbit then haunts the humans, reminding them of their unfulfilled promises. This story emerges as important when its teller, the father, has died, and his adult daughter offers it to the rabbi who will be leading the funeral service.

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There are two problems with this. First, the rabbi, Naomi, has no idea what to do with the story or a way to discern what it tells her about the deceased that she might be able to share with the congregation. The second is that the story, as fables go, just isn’t compelling. Even when the view of the fable shifts to an entirely different take on it, there doesn’t seem to be much there there – certainly not enough upon which to build a play.

As Rabbi Naomi, the always-appealing Marilee Talkington has the daunting task of making her a believable character. She’s highly self-aware in that she knows what a bad rabbi she is. Her entire rabbinical career seems to have been undermined and irretrievably damaged by the upending of a bottle of kosher wine at a key moment in her training. As a result, she bumbles through her job, bemoaning how bad she is at it and how she occupies the lowest rung of rabbi service even though there’s supposedly no hierarchy among rabbis. But all that self-awareness doesn’t make her any less inept. If anything, it makes her worse.

We meet her in the throes of a blind date with a self-described “psychic adviser” (the enigmatic Michael Goorjian) who is not Jewish, though he said he was in his computer dating profile, and she is perturbed that he thought her job was “rabbit” due to either her typo or his misreading. Either way, it’s a terrible date, though it allows Naomi to let us know (the first of many times) what a bad rabbi she is. Then we get to see her ineptitude in action when she meets the Gold family. Marcus Gold (Julian López -Morillas seen in flashbacks) has died. His widow (a funny but under-used Sharon Lockwood) can only moan and cry. His best friend (Jarion Monroe) seethes with anger, and his daughter (a wry Susan Lynskey) is lost in the chaos of death and gets no comfort from her husband (Cassidy Brown).

In a forced bit of coincidence, Naomi’s blind date has a connection to the grieving family, one that involves that odd rabbit fable and an actor (the sublime Danny Scheie) hired to actually play the ghost of the rabbit. Even as time passes and bits of plot and character are revealed, the play never comes fully into focus, and the recurring motifs – the story of the Jews, “the phrase I would use is…,” sucking at your job, being haunted by old stories, the whole rabbit fable – become less impactful and more annoying.

But there are flashes of light in the writing, like a potent delineation between “nonsense” and “bullshit” made by one of the characters. And the frazzled Naomi gets off a good laugh with her response to the rabbit fable. Upon hearing that the humans ate the rabbit, she sputters, “Rabbit isn’t even kosher! They’re for gentiles and Easter. Jesus.” She also has the gall to say, during a moment of tension amid the grieving Golds, “This is a difficult time for all of us,” which is kind of hilarious.

It is a difficult time for all of us, Naomi. Would that there was some comfort – imaginary or otherwise – in this jumble of play.

Daniel Handler’s Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit continues through Nov. 19 in a Berkeley Repertory Theatre production at the Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2900 or visit

Cal Shakes dreams a Dream under the stars

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The cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s Life Is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca includes (from left) Kaiso Hill as Ensemble, Jason Kapoor as the Soldier and Sean San José as Prince Segismundo. Below: Amir Abdullah is Astolfo and Tristan Cunningham is Estrella. Photos by Kevin Berne.

There’s so much talk about nature and stars in Life Is a Dream that it seems perfectly natural to be sitting outside on a temperate summer night watching Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1635 play about thwarting destiny and connecting to the deepest truths of human existence.

California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Dream, a beautiful if thorny play, offers the chance to see a work that is all too rarely performed (in my 25 years of writing about theater in the Bay Area, this is the first production of it I’ve seen). Considered one of the treasures of Spain’s “Golden Age,” Life Is a Dream has a Shakespearean feel in its mix of fantasy, soap operatics and complex humanity. In its original form, the play tends to be florid and rather convoluted. The Cal Shakes production, directed by Magic Theatre Artistic Director Loretta Greco, employs a lean translation/adaptation by Nilo Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Anna in the Tropics. The new script doesn’t solve all the play’s problems, but it strips the work to its essence and offers a spare but still poetic rhythm that adds lyrical grace to the machinations of the plot.

The ever-remarkable Sean San José plays Segismundo, a prince whose fault was in his stars. At his birth, all signs (and celestial portents) pointed to him becoming a tyrant who would destroy his kingdom. So the King (Adrian Roberts) decided to re-write fate by imprisoning the child for life, chaining him in a desolate cell and thereby, presumably, saving the country from his wrath.

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When the play begins, Segismundo rattles his chain in a metallic prison (set by Andrew Boyce), lamenting the loss of the liberty given to birds and streams. San José is as compassionate as he is forceful – clearly this character is an intelligent, sensitive human being who has been treated like a monster his entire life.

This is the crux of Dream. Is Segismundo destined to be a wretched ruler no matter what? Or can he exert control over his fate and prove the portents wrong? Are human lives mapped out from the start, or is there really such a thing as free will?

All of that is interesting, but the aspect of the play that really crackles is the titular notion of life as a dream. When Segisumndo is released from bondage and put on the throne, his barbarism comes through, and he is thrust back into prison. His keepers try to convince him that his brief time on the throne was only a dream, and that gets him thinking about how life really is only a dream. The thin glass that separates waking and dreaming may be more permeable than we know, so why not throw off expectations and chains (physical or metaphorical) and live life with gusto. Like a dream, it will be over sooner than we know.

San José’s final soliloquy, delivered from the roof of his cell while beckoning to the wide-open sky, is remarkable and emotionally stirring.

Other aspects of the play provide entertaining but uninvolving court drama. There are two love interests for Segismundo, Estrella (Tristan Cunningham) and Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon), and he ends up with the wrong one because of courtly rules of honor, and the character of King Basilio, though sturdily played by Roberts, never seems anything more than an insecure ruler who may or may not regret his treatment of his son. There’s a visiting prince (Amir Abudllah) who treats women badly and then pisses off Segismundo, but he’s also more functional than fascinating.

Of the supporting characters, only the jester/clown Clarin (Jomar Tagtac) and the jailer Clotaldo (Julian López-Morillas) resonate on a deeper level.

Played out on a set that looks like a section of roller coaster track with internal lighting reminiscent of a Laughlin casino, this Dream belongs to San José’s Segismundo, a man who learns from dreams a powerful way to live his life.

Pedro Cadelrón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream continues through Aug. 2 in a California Shakespeare Theater production at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit
Note: There’s a free shuttle from the Orinda BART station to Cal Shakes beginning two hours before curtain.

Family, politics, history tangle in Golden Thread’s Urge

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Camila Betancourt Ascencio (left) is Jamila, an ambitious Palestinian girl living in Lebanon in a refugee camp with her father, Adham (Terry Lamb, center), mother, Abir (Tara Blau) and other family members in Golden Thread’s production of Urge for Going by Mona Mansour. BELOW: The cast of Urge for Going includes, from left, Lamb, Munaf Alsafi, Ascencio, Julian Lopez-Morillas, Blau and Wiley Naman Strasser. Photos by David Allen

The remarkable thing about Mona Mansour’s Urge for Going and the work of Golden Thread Productions is how effectively the complex world of the Middle East comes through in a moving family drama. A very personal story set against a sprawling backdrop of history, politics and geography forges a strong emotional connection and brings a distinct perspective to a part of the world that can feel overwhelming if, like me, you know precious little about real-life experiences there.

Certainly drama benefits from conflict and tension, and that’s where Mansour’s story, set in Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, begins. In an introduction called “The Noise,” members of a family attempt to explain the history of the refugee camp and how in 1948, with the formation of the State of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced and sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The “temporary” camps received another infusion of refugees in 1967 with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, so nearly 60 years later (the play is set in 2003) the camp is, as Mansour puts it, “permanently impermanent.” But the thing about “The Noise” is that no one can seem to agree on the historical details. Some even take issue with one another’s tone of voice when discussing the topic.

The thought of living in a refugee camp like that, cobbling together a home and an existence for you and your family is hard enough. But to think you’re living that way with the promise of returning to your homeland always hovering vaguely in the distance – it just seems impossible.

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And yet that is how this family, like so many others, is living. Some family members have been there since 1948. Others arrived in 1967, and somehow they make it work.

While the older generation holds out some hope that promises will be kept and the refugees will go home, the younger generation, represented here by high-schooler Jamila (Camila Betancourt Ascencio), sees the return as a pipe dream. Jamila knows her future options are limited, so she’s seizing on the one within her reach: taking the baccalaureate exam and going to college. Being the daughter of a scholar (Terry Lamb as Adham), Jamila is inspired to follow in her father’s footsteps.

What’s interesting here is the complicated relationship between father and daughter. Adham and his wife, Abir (Tara Blau) had the opportunity to stay and work at a school in London many years ago, but returned home only to end up in the refugee camp and a life of subsistence. Now Adham is ambivalent about his daughter’s attempts to study for her exam and finagle the necessary paperwork and photo IDs to secure an exam appointment.

Jamila and her older brother, Jul (Wiley Naman Strasser) play a fascinating game together, a sort of fantasy talk show in which she imagines herself with multiple PhDs, traveling the world and changing it. The fact that her brother is brain damaged – we’re told he went out of the house one way and came back another – only underscores the poignancy of the game. Jamila has a chance, albeit a small one, to escape her family’s dire circumstances, while Jul does not. His primary pleasure in life is watching “Baywatch” reruns on a tiny television.

Emotions run high and strong in director Evren Odcikin excellent production. His cast, which also includes the extraordinary Julian Lopez-Morillas and Munaf Alsafi as uncles sharing Jamila’s home, cuts right to the emotional heart of Mansour’s powerful story. The details here are important – setting historical context, all of that – but at a certain point, we’re not just learning about life in the Middle East. We’re connecting with a family in the way that good drama finds those universal family heartbeats. On some level it could be O’Neill or Miller or Williams. The circumstances are unique, but a family’s love and loyalty, complicated by loss, strife and politics that affect your daily life, are part of a universal story and one we need to hear over and over again and connect with over and over again.

Set and lighting designer Kate Boyd depicts a ramshackle collage of a shelter – some cinderblock, some plywood, some plastic tarp – with a loosely wired electrical system providing a tentative current. But watching the family prepare a meal or reconfigure the sparse furniture for the sleeping of five people in a tiny space serves as a reminder: a home is a home is a home.

Ascencio as Jamila bears much of the story’s weight, and she’s marvelous, as is Strasser as Jul. There’s humor and depth and passion in all the performances, making Mansour’s intimate family drama all the more personal, all the more powerful.

Golden Thread Production’s Urge for Going by Mona Mansour continues through Dec. 8 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Visit

Nostalgic for The Homecoming at a different home

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The cast of ACT’s The Homecoming includes (from left) Kenneth Welsh, Anthony Fusco, Jack Willis (seated), Adam O’Byrne, René Augesen and Andrew Polk. Below: The cast in the shadows of Daniel Ostling’s impressive set. Photos by Kevin Berne


The absolute power of live theater, when it’s done superbly well, is undeniable. The connection the playwright, the director, the actors and designers forge with the audience – and vice-versa – can be incredibly powerful.

That’s a wonderful thing and leave a lasting impression. Sometimes, perhaps, too lasting.

Last week I saw Carey Perloff’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming for American Conservatory Theater. It’s a bizarre, tormentingly fascinating play by a master playwright at the height of his game-playing dramatic powers. And though the production is fine, all I could think about was the Aurora Theatre Company production staged by Tom Ross at the Berkeley City Club in April of 2000.

I’ve seen a lot of plays in the nearly 11 years between that production and this one, and yet while sitting in the giant ACT space, I was longing for the intimacy (where horror is even more horrific when you feel like it’s unfolding in your lap and there’s no escape). I could even remember line readings delivered by Julian Lopez-Morillas as Max, the monstrous father figure, now played by ACT company member Jack Willis, and by James Carpenter and Rebecca Dines, who play Max’s returning son, Teddy, and his wife, Ruth. René Augesen, celebrating her 10th anniversary as an ACT company member, did the most of any cast member in the current production to make me forget the performances of more than a decade ago. But Anthony Fusco, who plays her husband, might as well have phoned in his performance for all the impression he made (he was so much more vivid in the recent Clybourne Park).

It’s absolutely not fair to judge one production by another, but when a certain production burns itself into your brain, there’s no escaping it. When I left the Berkeley City Club that night, having just experienced The Homecoming for the first time, I was thrilled and unsettled, which is, I think, a perfectly fine way to feel after a Pinter play. All the performances in Ross’ production had been pitch perfect, which made the production easy to admire, but the actors’ skills only augmented the work of Pinter and his genius for pleasant unpleasantness. With his sheen of British propriety and his structure of well-chose words (and, of course, his silences), Pinter unleashes monsters who look and sound remarkably human.

The ACT production has the size of the theater working against it automatically. It’s a huge stage, a giant house and an intimate six-person play. Set designer Daniel Ostling handles this beautifully by building one of the most imposing living rooms ever seen on a stage. With great heaving gray walls leaning heavily into the performance space, you feel the weight of this house. And the giant staircase (giant – think the BART station at 16th Street) is agonizingly gorgeous. So too is the lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. I don’t remember so much turning on and off of lights in the previous production, but in this space, you feel the presence and the absence of light.

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The physical production does just about everything it can to make the space feel intimate, or, if not exactly intimate, then imposing in an intimate sort of way. In fact, the set and lights do more work than some of the actors.

Perloff creates some compelling tableaux, especially with Nichols’ lighting, but that becomes a problem. This is not a still life. It’s a play. Actors, when they aren’t striking a pose, are moved awkwardly around the stage, and that diminishes the sense of unease and discomfort that should build steadily from the first minutes of the show. I wanted to like Willis as Max – he looks perfect in the part – but his uneven British accent kept throwing me off until I was defeated.

This production does cause gasps, but I’d credit Augesen’s mastery of Ruth for that. When her character really gets to know her in-laws – like when Max meets her and calls her a “stinking pox-ridden slut” – mouths should drop and brows should furrow. But Augesen conveys intelligence amid the fear, some control, even pleasure, in the flood of testosterone overwhelming the stage. There’s a kind of heat coming off of her, and it isn’t just sexual.

I found more humor than horror bubbling through the ACT production, which is certainly enjoyable. But every production of The Homecoming I see from here on out, is going to have be better than my first time out. Apparently that’s going to take some doing.



Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming continues through March 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Review: `The Seafarer’


The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s The Seafarer by Conor McPherson includes (from left) Julian Lopez-Morillas as Richard, Andrew Hurteau as Ivan, Andy Murray as Sharky, John Flanagan as Nicky and Robert Sicular as Mr. Lockhart. Photos by Ed Smith


Bedeviled on Christmas Eve in McPherson’s `Seafarer’
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The first holiday show of the season is upon us, and it’s overflowing with booze, poker and a visit from ol’ Satan himself.

Yes, it’s just another Irish Christmas by way of Conor McPherson’s rollicking The Seafarer which opened Tuesday night at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley.

It’s a fantastic production of a play that ranks among McPherson’s best, which is saying something. The author of The Weir, Dublin Carol and others is one of Ireland’s foremost playwrights and one of those assured voices that has a touch of magic to them. If you require more evidence, we’re in the midst of a minor McPherson festival. Aside from The Seafarer in Marin, SF Playhouse is winding up its scarily good production of McPherson’s Shining City.

Both Seafarer and Shining City take otherworldly routes to darkly human places. They’re fantastic in every sense but squarely grounded in the alcohol-soaked, muck-ravaged lives of people who’ve seen the good life pass by.

The past weighs heavily in The Seafarer. It’s Christmas Eve in Baldoyle, Ireland, and Sharky (Andy Murray) has returned home to care for his blind older brother, Richard (Julian Lopez-Morillas). Sharky is hardly a saint, though he’s not too shabby as a caretaker. Richard is not a kindly patient – he’s cantankerous, ornery, voluble and prone to the drink.

Sharky is, at the moment, taking a break from alcohol. He’s two days dry, and if he can just get through Christmas, he’ll be OK.

But being back in the bosom of family is enough to drive anybody to drink.

Set designer J.B.Wilson literally sets the brothers’ home in a dank Irish cave. There’s a recognizable house in there – though the brothers have basically turned it into a junk heap littered alcoholic refuse – but the overall impression is that of a dark, chilly underground lair.

How fitting, then, that as the brothers welcome some friends – Andrew Hurteau as Ivan and John Flanagan as Nicky — over for holiday cheer and a friendly poker game, that the devil, in the suave form of Mr. Lockhart (Robert Sicular, right in overcoat with Hurteau), shows up as well to claim a soul that was promised to him about 25 years earlier.

This deal-with-the-devil scenario is hardly Damn Yankees and this Christmas tale is hardly of the Carol variety, though there are certainly elements of both here.

There’s guilt, regret, drunk and disorderly conduct, hidden passions and maybe even a little redemption in this long Christmas night of the soul, but there’s also a whole lot of laughter.

Lopez-Morillas’ Richard is highly memorable – the kind of character you love to watch on stage but would never want to know (or smell) in real life. Loud and emotional, Richard is the exact opposite of his brother, a bruised (literally) man tired of being beaten by life. Murray’s great skill as an actor allows us glimpses of the man Sharky is trying to hard to be but can never quite make that breakthrough.

Sicular is devilishly good with his keenly focused gazes and his seen-it-all worldliness. His is not a sly devil – more like a drunk one who makes no bones about why he’s there and who he’s after.

The final card game, one that could result in the reclaiming of a soul, is beautifully directed by MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis, who never lets this seemingly lumpy play out of his tight control. There’s careful orchestration at work here, and Minadakis executes McPherson’s verbal score like a master.

Hurteau as Ivan is a sad sack bundle of misery – a lousy father and husband but a good friend with a wide streak of decency in him, while Flanagan’s Nicky is a good-time guy who never met a bottle of beer he couldn’t best.

It’s a veritable full house of great actors, and they’re a joy to watch in this disarming tale of deep, dark nights, hopeful day breaks and, yes, maybe even a little genuine (and genuinely sozzled) Christmas cheer.


The Seafarer continues through Dec. 14 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $31-$51. Call 415-388-5208 or visit