Grace, God and family in Berkeley Rep’s brilliant Bible

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Linda Gehringer is Mary and Tyler Pierce is Bill in Bill Cain’s world-premiere drama How to Write a New Book for the Bible at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Gehringer (far left) and Pierce (far right) are joined by (from left) Leo Marks as Pete and Aaron Blakely as Paul. Photos by

Sometimes you experience a work of art – for me that art is usually theater – and it connects you with something bigger and more powerful than your individual experience. You connect with the other audience members, the actors, the designers and, especially, the writer. When that connection is made, the communal heart of theater is so alive, so vast and so inexplicably moving that transcendence does, however temporary, seem a viable option.

Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible is one of those experiences. This world-premiere production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (a co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre) is the most moving and insightful new play since Margaret Edson’s Wit.

Like that play, Cain examines what he describes as “the final stations in the ordinary death of an ordinary woman.” And that woman happens to be his mother. But more than that, Cain’s drama is about family, his and mine and yours. The more specific the details of his family – good and bad – the more his family resembles yours. The details themselves may be different, but somehow in the sharing, everything his family does and goes through somehow relates to you and your family.

This is an extraordinary play, and it will affect everyone differently. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance on the Thrust Stage, audience members were visibly moved throughout the show’s nearly 2 ½ hours. I was in tears multiple times, and it wasn’t always because what was happening on stage was sad. When you’re not being moved, chances are good Cain is making you laugh, often at his own expense.

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Fully an autobiographical drama, the characters on stage are Cain, his parents, Pete and Mary, and his older brother, Paul. Bill (Tyler Pierce) is the writer in the family and the teller of this tale. He flips us back and forth in time – his parents’ courtship, his brother’s experience in Vietnam, his father’s battle with cancer – but primarily he’s sharing the experience of caring for his 82-year-old mother (Linda Gehringer) in the last year of her life.

To make sense of the Cain family, we have to understand that they were – prepare for a shock – a functional family. They fought, but their fights had rules. They weren’t perfect or all loving all the time, but their family unit worked, and they all seemed to genuinely care about one another.

Cain writes with such love for his family, and the fact that he’s so eager to share his family with audiences makes his story all the more endearing.
The cast, under the sensitive direction of Kent Nicholson, is superb. It’s hard to imagine a more appealing guide than Pierce or a more dynamic woman than Gehringer’s Mary. Aaron Blakely as older brother Paul (and a number of smaller roles) makes a powerful impression, especially when Paul and Bill pay a nighttime visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Leo Marks charms as Pete, the Cain patriarch, and there’s an especially moving scene when Pete, in the throes of his final illness, wanting Bill to read to him but really it’s just a pretense for Pete to be able to stare at his son.

With a brilliant play comes an equally brilliant set and lighting design. Scott Bradley wisely leaves the stage (with its gorgeous wood floor) bare, save for a doorway and a wooden chest that is utilized in a number of inventive ways. Occasionally items float in from above – a table lamp (with no need for a table), a window, the moon, the Washington Monument – but the set is impressionistic, much like the play.

The most dominant item hovering above the stage is a beautiful stained-glass window, which catches Alexander V. Nichols’ light in comforting ways. Surrounding this window are fragments of mirror, which also catch the light and throw it back on the audience.

How powerful to turn the play’s metaphorical illumination into something real – real light coming from the stage onto faces in the audience. It’s all of a piece in this Bible experience – this profoundly wonderful and deeply personal experience.

The masterful Cain has created a sort of theatrical sermon here. He deconstructs and then reconstructs the elements of a sermon – lesson, illumination, inspiration – and makes them mean something. He grapples with the very notion of God, which he says can be found in the details of a family.

At one point, Bill is talking directly to the audience and gives us a glimpse of the infinite: “Half the time, I don’t even know what God is. But I do – sometimes – experience a mystery – a vast and caring mystery – that gets past my defenses and into my soul and says – I – even I might matter. Vastly. That – limited as I am – I might be irreplaceable, unrepeatable and of unlimited worth.”

Then Bill pauses.

“When that happens, that’s called God.”

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Bill Cain for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.
I couldn’t fit everything into that interview, so read the “outtakes” here.

Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible continues through Nov. 20 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.

Bill Cain opens a new book for Bible

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Tyler Pierce is Bill and Linda Gehringer is his mother, Mary, in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo courtesy of Below: Playwright Bill Cain. Photo by Jenny Graham

Bill Cain’s last two Bay Area outings, Equivocation and 9 Circles, both at Marin Theatre Company, were absolutely fantastic. So there’s reason to be excited about the world premiere of his latest play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. With great compassion, intelligence and humor, Cain writes about his parents and his older brother in a play that flips back and forth in time as Cain cares for his dying mother.

I talked to Cain about the play for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

As usual, there wasn’t enough space in the story to include all of Cain’s interview, so I’d like to include a few more morsels here.

It’s somewhat ironic that for a play about “writing a new book” that when Cain set out to chronicle his family, he didn’t write a play first. He wrote a book. “The language I speak is the language of stage and ritual,” Cain says. “So why did I write a book? I don’t know exactly, but all of it comes out of my desire to celebrate my family. I shared parts of the book with my brother, and he was very responsive to it. ‘Yes, that’s who we were,’ he said. The book didn’t make either of us nervous in the way the play does. The enacting of a ritual is a frightening thing. It’s where taboos are broken. The lights go out in the theater, the lights come up on the stage. You enter a private space. With a book, you read it in your own space and time. It’s difficult to take a private thing into a public arena.”

Bill Cain

In writing about his parents’ marriage, Cain thought about the kind of marriages we’re used to seeing on stage – George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Willy and Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman – and the high drama involved. His parents didn’t display that kind of drama. “But there’s drama as well in the effort of people to love one another,” Cain says, “to put themselves aside to make space for the other. This play is the story of a man and a woman, both of whom are making each other’s fullness of life possible by creating space for the other. You don’t see that too often on stage. It’s a hard thing to dramatize and usually relegated to comedy, but there is drama to it, but maybe not in the way we’ve defined drama, with a protagonist and an antagonist. In the definition of a good marriage, there is no enemy. You don’t make the other the enemy, but that doesn’t mean there’s not struggle. It’s not George and Martha but rather Ralph and Alice. You treat that struggle with honest respect. Two people accept the foolishness of each other and stand by the other. That requires huge sacrifice, huge discipline.”

New Book is directed by Kent Nicholson, with whom Cain worked at Marin Theatre Company on 9 Circles. “I love working with Kent because he has a way of opening the room to the best idea, to the best impulse,” Cain says. “So everyone is involved fully, creating clarity. He puts it all together, but everyone’s questions help shape the outcome.”

With the new play, Cain says he hopes to create images and stories closer to people’s actual experiences rather than the ones we’re constantly handed. “It’s hard to see what our actual experience is,” Cain says. “Like right now, if you’re watching or reading the news, the only thing that seems to matter is the economy and we should be very afraid. But as a writer and as a Jesuit, I have to say, hey, wait a minute. Where was I touched by the infinite today? What actually was my experience? That’s where great works of art come from. My favorite work of art, my favorite book is Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne Frank lived in a world that told her what she was supposed to be, but she insisted on her own experience. She found huge darkness, and under it found a more luminous reality. That is available to all of us. What’s unique to you is what the world needs.”

Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible continues through Nov. 20 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50 to $73. Call (510) 647-2949 or visit

Marin ignites an inferno with extraordinary 9 Circles

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(from left) Craig Marker, James Carpenter and Jennifer Erdmann star in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s 9 Circles at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Erdmann, Marker and Carpenter. Photos by Ed Smith

Craig Marker gives a performance of such magnitude in Marin Theatre Company’s 9 Circles that it almost eclipses the play itself.

Obviously the play has to be substantial and artful enough to elicit great work from actors, and that is certainly true of Bill Cain’s meaty script here. But at times it almost seems Marker’s not in a play at all – he’s a flesh-and-blood documentary, a slice-of-life person pushing everyone in the room through a barrage of intense emotions.

There’s simply no escaping Marker’s intensity in the 99-seat Lieberman Theatre, Marin’s intimate second stage. Nor would you want to escape. This is without question must-see theater.

Works of art dealing with the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not exactly been embraced by pop culture. Until the Oscar-bedecked The Hurt Locker, no one really bothered to pay much attention. Perhaps we’re too close in terms of current events and too far away in terms of geography and personal involvement.

Cain’s stunning work bridges those gaps with incredible efficiency. With three actors, one rudimentary set and running time of only an hour and 45 minutes, he whisks us from Iraq to the U.S. and back, pulling us deeper into his wrenching story with every scene.

Let me correct myself. We don’t have scenes here; we have circles – nine of them. Just like Dante’s Inferno. The hell that Cain depicts begins with a 19-year-old soldier, Daniel Edward Reeves, being honorably discharged after 10 months of fighting. Very quickly, we spiral down with Daniel as he’s arrested in the U.S. and charged with unspeakable crimes against Iraqi civilians.

Daniel’s hell involves betrayal, loneliness, guilt, rage, patriotism and self-realization, among many other things. The young man is described as having a personality disorder because he doesn’t feel things he probably should, and he’s also described as being “west Texas bullshit to the core” and “an articulate son of a bitch.”

9 Circles 1That’s all accurate, but it barely begins to describe the person we come to know as we spin through these circles. Whatever he did or didn’t do in Iraq, Daniel is a sympathetic character, if only because we begin to feel the enormity of his pain and get an acute view of his inner life – what it contains and, perhaps more importantly, what it’s missing.

Marker’s performance as Daniel is heroic – he lays it all bare (literally) and carries the weight of this heavy drama on his capable shoulders. Filtered through Marker, Daniel’s life force is at once terrifying and compelling. When a priest who is attempting to save Daniel’s soul admits that the young man is “plain I-don’t-give-a-fuck human evil,” it’s hard to argue. And yet, when Daniel shows us how his mind and emotions work in relation to his actions, we empathize, and empathy is a hugely important factor here.

Under the astute, keenly felt direction of Kent Nicholson, Marker receives able support from James Carpenter, who plays all the other male roles, from lawyers to priests to commanding officers. As the priest, Carpenter is chilling, and his scene with Daniel is one of the play’s strongest. A little later on, as a lawyer who wants to use Daniel’s case to prove the futility of the war in a court of law, Carpenter is fascinating in his single-mindedness. The lawyer tells Daniel that his biggest crime was to make the enemy empathetic. “Feeling the pain of the enemy is unendurable,” the lawyer says.

Jennifer Erdmann doesn’t have enough to do, which explains why she makes less of an impression here. But her key scene with Marker in which Daniel’s hyper-macho bullshit act is finally pierced by a military shrink, is by far the evening’s most moving.

In fact, that scene provides the emotional apex of the story, and it’s only circle No. 6. The three circles after that should increase the dramatic momentum, but they don’t entirely. The final few minutes of the play are quietly horrifying, but they still don’t top the wrenching agony of Circle 6.

This world-premiere production is firmly on its feet, but there’s still work to be done in the fine-tuning.

The power and punch of 9 Circles is undeniable. Cain’s script zeroes in on one soldier’s story and leaves us feeling the inescapable historic and emotional weight of the entire war. This is theater that shakes your foundation and leaves you breathless.


Bill Cain’s 9 Circles continues through Nov. 7 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Road, Mill Valley. Tickets are $33-$53. Call 415 388-5208 or visit for information.

Warm and fuzzy: `Working for the Mouse’ evolves

A man of character, Trevor Allen decided to put his character life behind him.

Having detailed what it’s really like to work as a costumed character in Disneyland in his popular solo show Working for the Mouse, Allen made a conscious decision to focus on his burgeoning career as a playwright. Mouse, under the direction of Kent Nicholson, had a great run at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre (and a transfer to the EXIT in San Francisco), but the time had come to hang up the ears and write.

Trevor Allen

He had abundant projects, including one about Albert Einstein with found-object puppeteer Liebe Wetzel, another about artificial intelligence that the Magic Theatre picked up for its New Media Festival and yet another assignment to write something for Playground.

The resulting plays, One Stone, The Nutshell and Tenders in the Fog respectively, were all well received but only Tenders ended up being produced (by San Jose Stage Company). Then came Zoo Logic and Lolita Road Trip, two more projects that generated readings and interest but, so far, no actual productions.

Rather than do the writerly thing and revel in despondency, San Francisco resident Allen headed back to the Magic Kingdom. For just a few jam-packed performances in the summer of 2005, he resurrected Working for the Mouse at Bus Barn Theatre in Los Altos. For those few shows, he traveled back in time to age 17. He was an acting student at UCLA (studying with “The Brady Bunch’s” Robert Reed, no less) and worked at Disneyland, first as Pluto, then as Capt. Hook’s first mate, Mr. Smee, then as various characters including Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh), Friar Tuck (from Robin Hood) and Gideon (the mute cat from Pinocchio). He graduated to “face work,” meaning he wasn’t enclosed in plastic and fur, with the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland and actually got to utilize his improvisational skills when interacting with park guests.

A friend of Allen’s from Los Angeles encouraged him to come do Mouse at a small North Hollywood theater. “It’d sell out!” the friend said.

And Allen wondered, if he took the show to LA, if that is exactly what he’d be doing: selling out.

“I had considered taking the show to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, then I had to think about LA, and then I thought, `Do I really want to be the guy who does funny voices and plays Pluto and the Mad Hatter?'” Allen says over lunch at, yes it’s true, Pluto’s.

That’s when Allen’s wife, Theatre Bay Area magazine editor Karen McKevitt, said it was time to do something serious about Working for the Mouse. She pointed out that when he talked about his four years as a character in Disneyland, he always had fresh stories to tell that never made their way into the show. She landed on a solution: Turn the stories into a book utilizing the factual but entertaining writing style known as creative nonfiction.


Allen is currently hard at work on that book. Until he finds a publisher brave enough to weather the Disney waters, that book-in-progress is also a blog: This is the 21st century, after all.

“As a performer, you get immediate response from an audience,” Allen says. “You know when a story or a line works or doesn’t work. The same is true with the blog. You put it out there yourself – you don’t have to wait for someone to publish you. There’s no barrier between the artist and the audience anymore. I hear immediately from people, some who love Disney, some who hate it.”

The blog belies Allen’s theatrical roots because there’s a whole lot more available than chapters (called “mouse droppings”) of the upcoming book. There’s performance video and, to the author’s great delight, podcasts in which the actor gets to exercise his expertise with voice over narration.

“Now that I’m not writing for performance, I’m able to get into the heads of the other characters more,” he says. “Then turning that into audio is great fun.”

Working for the Mouse is, in many ways, Allen’s coming-of-age story. He was a 17-year-old San Jose native, somewhat naïve, getting a fast education about life in the real world. Backstage and after hours at Disneyland was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but it was also more than that.

“It was a real education,” Allen says. “What I saw there, backstage and during work hours, was tragic, raw, funny and sad. From inside the costumes, you saw a parade of human tragedy going by in the guests. At a certain point after I had left the Disney bubble, it occurred to me, `Why is no one telling this story?'”

One answer is easy: because Disney will sue your pants off. They’ll cease and desist you so quickly you won’t know your Mickey from your Mouse.

“I’ve always thought that in the world of theater, the more controversial the better,” Allen says. “Freedom of speech is supposed to allow for that. But Big business has co-opted the place of religion and government in dictating what you can or can’t say. I’m of the school, as a playwright, a performer or a writer, you have to tell stories that haven’t been told, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

So far, response to the blog has been good. There’s even been some interest in reviving the one-man show, which Allen says he’d be happy to do, especially since working on the Mouse has given him new insights.

“This has been a process of rediscovery,” he says. “The arc of the show would likely remain unchanged, but I think I’m finding some other stories with some different resonance.”

Here’s a taste of Working for the Mouse, the show and the Web site:



Crowded Fire shakes things up (again)

Seems like just yesterday that Crowded Fire Theatre Company announced the departure of founding artistic director Rebecca Novick and the ascension of co-artistic directors (and husband-and-wife) Cassie Beck and Kent Nicholson. Actually, it was more like a year ago.

Today the company announced that Beck and Nicholson have “decided to pursue their careers at a national level,” and Marissa Wolf will succeed them as artistic director.

Wolf, 26, recently directed Crowded Fire’s Gone by Charles Mee and has also worked with FoolsFURY Theater, Fury Factory, Playwrights Foundation and Cutting Ball Theater. She held the Bret C. Harte Directing Internship at Berkeley Repertory Theatre for two years, where she assisted artistic director Tony Taccone, associate artistic director Les Waters and visiting directors Lisa Peterson, Frank Galati and Mary Zimmerman. She was the assistant director for the world premiere of Passing Strange. She has a degree in drama from Vassar College and received additional training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Beck, a longtime Crowded Fire company member, will be performing at a number of theaters, among them Playwrights Horizons, The Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Nicholson, who continues as director of new works with TheatreWorks and as a freelance director, will shift to Crowded Fire’s board of directors.

Next up for Crowded Fire is the world premiere of Stephanie Fleischmann’s My Name Is Vera Cupido, running Oct. 4-Nov. 2 at the Thick House in San Francisco.

Visit for information.

Review: `Grey Gardens’

Opened Aug. 23, 2008 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

Beth Glover (left) is Big Edie and Elisa Van Duyne is Little Edie as they perform “Peas in a Pod” in Act 1 of the TheatreWorks production of the musical Grey Gardens. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

`Gardens’ at TheatreWorks is solid production of crumbling musical


The TheatreWorks production of Grey Gardens, the musical version of the 1975 documentary of the same name, has been billed as the first since the show closed on Broadway, but that’s not exactly true.

A production opened earlier this month at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts on Long Island. Whether that was a professional production or not, I couldn’t tell.

The TheatreWorks production that opened Saturday at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts under the direction of Kent Nicholson is definitely professional. It’s solidly performed by an able cast and designed to look very much like the Broadway production.

In other words, it’s a first-rate production of a really lousy musical.

I didn’t like the show much on Broadway, but the performances by Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson as a deeply tormented mother and daughter trapped by finances, circumstances and, possibly, mental illness, in a crumbling East Hampton, N.Y., mansion, were dazzling.

The original Grey Gardens documentary by the Maysles brothers is fascinating, and Edith Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and her daughter, Edie Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”), are like a train wreck you can’t help watching.

But did their story really need to be a musical?

Composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and book writer Doug Wright saw the potential, but rather than re-create the Beales as we knew them in the movie, they attempted to give us the women’s back story and place their later, squalid years in context.

So, in Act 1, we see the gracious Beales. Big Edie (Beth Glover), is planning a party to announce her daughter’s (Elisa Van Duyne) engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (Nicholas Galbraith), older brother of John F. Kennedy.

A singer who apparently never could resist the urge to mar an event with a recital, Big Edie plans a nine-song concert at the engagement party, much to Little Edie’s dismay.

We get hints about marital strife between Big Edie and her absent husband, Phelan, and we see the rift between Big Edie and her father, J.V. “Major” Bouvier (Paul Myrvold), caused by the daughter’s bohemian nature and her relationship with the fey piano player, George Gould Strong (Michael Winther).

The score of Act 1 is an uncomfortable mix of pastiche period songs (“The Girl Who Has Everything,” “Hominy Grits,” “Will You?”) and character-driven songs, the best of which is he simple, dramatic “Telegram Song” when Little Edie’s world comes crashing down on her.

Truth is, Act 1 should have been nothing more than a prologue. The first act is musically uninteresting and dramatically inert.

Act 2 takes us directly to the crumbled mansion Grey Gardens (terrific set by J.B. Wilson) and to the women as we knew them in the documentary. Little Edie (now played by Glover) is now wearing skirts on her head and blouses as a skirt. Big Edie (a soulful Dale Soules) is mostly confined to bed, and the rest of the cast (including Anthony J. Haney, Kathryn Foley and Carolyn Di Loreto, alternating in the role of Lee Bouvier with Isabella Wilcox), is reduced to playing the more than 60 cats that infested the mansion, back-up singers for Edie’s delusional dance number and a choir backing up Norman Vincent Peale.

The relationship between the Beale women is given emotional heft by Soules and Glover, and a scene where they fight is by far the best moment in the show, and, by the way, no one is singing.

But then you have to deal with musical moments such as “Jerry Likes My Corn,” which has to be one of the worst songs ever written for a musical.

There’s abundant melodrama in Act 2 as Little Edie attempts to muster the courage to leave Grey Gardens while a choir encourages her to “Choose to Be Happy,” and you just want to leave the theater, go home and watch the movie. Some artistic licenses should be revoked.

This is a fascinating story of American aristocracy brought low. But some of the best parts are left out – like that middle act, when Little Edie attempts to make it on her own in New York (1947-1952) but then comes home to her ever more isolated mother. How did the women of Act 1 become the women of Act 2? And what happened to Little Edie after Big Edie’s death in 1977? Well, part of that story involves her becoming something of a celebrity because of the documentary and becoming an honest-to-God cabaret singer in New York City (her reviews were terrible, but still).

The story of the Beales of Grey Gardens is a fascinating one, but the musical Grey Gardens is hardly the last word – or song – on the subject.

Grey Gardens continues through Sept. 14 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $26-$64. Call 650-903-6000 or visit

TheatreWorks announces `Grey Gardens’ cast

Mountain View’s TheatreWorks will present the first post-Broadway production of the Tony Award-winning musical Grey Gardens, based on the documentary of the same name about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s quirky, reclusive relatives.

The cast has been announced, and in the role that won Christine Ebersole (above) a Tony on Broadway is Beth Glover, a veteran of touring companies such as All Shook Up, Dirty Blonde and Promises, Promises. In Act 1, Glover plays Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie), a quirky society matron married to Phelan Beale. In Act 2, she plays Edith and Phelan’s daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), a truly odd woman who liked to wear a lot of clothing, none of it in its usual function (i.e., skirts on her head, shirts as a skirt, etc.).

Playing the elder Big Edie is Dale Soules, who understudied the role on Broadway and went on to play it when Mary Louise Wilson left the show. Also in the cast is Elisa Ven Duyne as Little Edie in her younger years (in Act 1), Nicholas Galbraith as Joe Kennedy (Act 1)/Jerry (Act 2), Michael Winther, Michael LeRoy Brown, Kathryn Foley, Carolyn Di Loreto, Isabella Wilcox and Paul Myrvold.

The musical opens in the 1940s, when the Beales entertained lavishly in their East Hampton estate, Grey Gardens. Act 2 finds Big Edie and Little Edie still living in a crumbling, raccoon-infested Grey Gardens as virtual hermits. These are the Beales the world came to know through the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, which inspired the musical, with a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) and music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie.

Kent Nicholson directs the TheatreWorks production, which begins performances Aug. 20 and continues through Sept. 14. Tickets are $26-$64. Call 650-903-6000 or visit

Review: `The Listener’

Opened July 14, 2008 at Traveling Jewish Theater (show moves to the Ashby Stage Aug. 15-31)


Juliet Tanner plays the title character in The Listener, a world-premiere play by Liz Duffy Adams and presented by Crowded Fire Theater Company. Photos by Melpomene Katakalos


`Listener’ spins junk into a sci-fi jumble
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Liz Duffy Adams’ world-premiere play The Listener could very easily take place in the same landscape as the hit summer film WALL-E. Both imagine a post-apocalyptic Earth destroyed by the human need to acquire stuff without any sense of responsibility toward the planet.

Both the play and the movie create a bleak landscape of garbage towers and a world so uninhabitable that humans have had to flee to other parts of the universe for survival.

Instead of a cute little robot left to pick up the mess, playwright Adams creates a race of savages — those left behind to forge a life where there should be no life, while the so-called “civilized” humans have learned to make the moon hospitable to human life and dubbed the once-barren satellite Nearth, or New Earth.

This is the third collaboration between Crowded Fire Theatre Company and Adams following The Train Play in 2003 and the fantastic musical One Big Lie in 2005, and it’s probably the least interesting. It bears some resemblance to Adams’ award-winning Dog Act, which Shotgun Players produced in 2004, in that it takes place after the apocalypse and uses malapropisms and jumbled cultural references to demonstrate the evolution – or devolution as the case may be – of language in a world without order.

Duffy’s use of language is less complex here. The characters who use her poetic slang the most are rag-tag “finders,” low-level scavengers who search through the piles of garbage that comprise Junk City to find anything useful or mysterious. Smak (Michael Moran) and Jelly (Rami Margron), when they’re not “frugging” each other silly, take their treasures to Namer (Lawrence Radecker), a sort of spiritual leader who holds the story of their ravaged world’s “creation,” and shares his knowledge by naming the junk. An old board, for instance, is named “lumbar,” and an old battery is called a “juice box.”

The other person of power in Junk City is Listener (Juliet Tanner), who operates a radio and regularly transmits messages to “others” she hopes might be listening. Hers is a position passed down through the six generations since the apocalypse, and all she does is sit in her junk house operating the radio.

Into the junk pile one day comes a man from the moon, a lunatic or looney as the Finders call him. He’s part of a liberal faction that regrets having left anyone on the poisoned earth and has come back to engineer their rescue. “We’re sorry we left you,” he says. “Some of us are.”

The visitor, John (Cole Alexander Smith, above center with Margron and Moran), is captured by the Finders and treated like a dog. Namer doesn’t believe the man’s story and instead tells his own version of what happened to the planet. This is one of the play’s highlights as he spins out a tale of Sam (as in Uncle Sam) and his giant mall. “In the beginning there was Tech,” Namer says.

Listener is intrigued by the visitor and gives him safe haven in the hope that he might boost the signal of her radio even though inventing new tech is strictly forbidden in Junk City. So begins the love story aspect of the play.

My problem with science fiction in the theater is that a stage, especially a small one like the Traveling Jewish Theater stage, can’t contain a large enough world to satisfy our curiosity about this new and different world. The limits of the stage, especially in a literal tale such as this one, limit the story…

Set designer Melpomene Katakalos gives us a stage heaped with junk – some of it beautiful like the stained-glass window made of soda bottle bottoms in Namer’s house — but in many ways, it looks like the set for Cats. Midnight, not a sound from the pavement and all that. One theatrical junk heap looks very much like another.

Where does the electricity for Namer’s machine come from? Where does the food come from and the water? We hear it rain and are told about greenery taking over the junk piles, but we see little evidence of natural life outside the junk heap. Are there animals in this world? And just who are the Jimmys we keep hearing about? And why are there only two Finders?

When John lands in his spaceship, he only brings more questions. If he, like most of the people on the moon, believe the Earth to be a toxic, cancer-causing heap populated by a dwindling race of savages, why did he come alone and unarmed? And in the near future, when traveling through space to a hostile environment, is a traditional gas mask really the best technology available?

Director Kent Nicholson’s cast finds levels of humor in the message-laden sci-fi, but some of them can’t help but come across as silly because Duffy’s play lays it on so thick. Hearing the Finders talk about the “demagogues” such as Okrah (the god of wisdom and bounty), Thump (the god of building who shoots fire as in “You’re fired”) and My Donna (as in “Like a Virgin”) and Elvisto the Christo is cringe-inducing.

The Listener, which aims to unearth hope in the bleakness through the character of Listener (played with enigmatic, understated power by Tanner), delves into melodramatic violence to reach its inevitable conclusion and leaves the stories of Namer, Jelly and Smak dangling in space.


The Listener continues through Aug. 3 at Traveling Jewish Theater, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25. The show moves to the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, Aug. 15-31. Call 415-433-1235 or visit for information.

Cassie Beck is a winner

Cassie Beck, local actress and co-artistic director of San Francisco’s Crowded Fire Theatre Company went off to New York to be in Adam Bock’s Drunken City. And what do you know? She won a Theatre World Award for her New York debut!

Beck first worked on Bock’s play when it was part TheatreWorks’ New Works Festival (the play was developed as part of the company New Works Initiative). Beck was also featured in TheatreWorks’ production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, directed by Beck’s husband (and Crowded Fire co-artistic director) Kent Nicholson.

This year’s Theatre World Award winners include:
de’Adre Aziza, Passing Strange
Cassie Beck, Drunken City
Daniel Breaker, Passing Strange
Ben Daniels, Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Deanna Dunagan, August: Osage County
Hoon Lee, Yellow Face
Alli Mauzey, Cry-Baby
Jenna Russell, Sunday in the Park with George
Mark Rylance, Boeing-Boeing
Loretta Ables Sayre, South Pacific
Jimmi Simpson, The Farnsworth Invention
Paulo Szot, South Pacific

The Theatre World Awards ceremony will be held in Manhattan June 10 at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre.

Bock, Beck hit `Drunken City’

The arrival of a new Adam Bock play is always an event.

Even though the Canadian playwright decided to forgo the pleasures of life in the Bay Area for the rigors of a New York writer’s existence, we still love him. And as long as he sends us a play every now and then (like The Shaker Chair, a Shotgun Players/Encore Theatre Company production from last year), we’re happy.

Last week, Bock’s latest, The Drunken City, opened at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater in New York. Christopher Isherwood, writing in the New York Times, called it a “flimsy but sweet comedy” but generally liked the tale of a bride-to-be and her three bridesmaids out on the town just before the wedding, drinking quite a lot, fraternizing with men who aren’t their husbands or fiances and coming to some realizations about love and marriage.

The production marks the New York debut of Cassie Beck (above), a uniquely charming Bay Area actress who, with her husband, Kent Nicholson, is co-artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre Company. Isherwood had this to say about Beck, who plays Marnie, the bride-to-be: “Ms. Beck, making her New York debut, brings an understated sweetness to her role as Marnie, whose inebriation gradually subsides as she discloses the real dissatisfaction fueling the evening’s folly.”

Also in the cast are Maria Dizzia, who was so devastatingly good as the title character of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and Barrett Foa, who did his best to charm in the disco drudgery of TheatreWorks’ world-premiere musical Kept.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz called Bock’s play “a playful and hopeful comedy in which everybody’s tipsy and everyone’s shaken and stirred after one long, liquor-filled night.” He has this to say about our local star: “Beck, in her New York debut, is fantastic and turns the moment into something deeply touching. Her five castmates are as equally appealing, adorable and top-shelf.”

All good news. So when’s our next Adam Bock play? We have yet to see The Receptionist or The Thugs in these parts, and it sounds like The Drunken City, complete with Beck in the lead, was just made for San Francisco.