Tickety boo! Kneehigh, Berkeley Rep jazz up history in Adolphus Tips

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Adi (Ncuti Gatwa, left) and Harry (Nandi Bhebhe) in 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, a Kneehigh production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Katy Owen as Lily, with her cat. Photos by Steve Tanner

Spirits are high at Berkeley Repertory Theatre this holiday season. What’s interesting is that the merry-making on stage in 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips – the singing, dancing and general revelry – is all in service to a story about war and a little-known and avoidable tragedy that cost nearly 1,000 during World War II. So it’s happy about sad, which makes sense given the theater company at work here is Kneehigh, the Cornwall-based troupe that has made various Bay Area splashes at American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Rep (The Wild Bride, Tristan & Yseult). Their work is marked by a certain exuberance that combines song, dance and storytelling with a powerful sense of true experience. From our limited perspective here (we haven’t seen, unfortunately, all their productions) The Wild Bride remains the benchmark toward which all their productions must aspire (read my review here), and though the new show has “amazing” in its title, the work, as enjoyable as it is, doesn’t quite get there.

Like the other Kneehigh shows we have been lucky enough to see, Adolphus Tips is directed by Emma Rice, who is currently the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London (she’s actually leaving in the spring of 2018 after only two years – that’s a whole other story). Rice is one of those directors whose vision and energy and good taste in actors, designers and music makes you want to experience everything she does, and if this ride isn’t as wild as her Bride, it still has an awful lot to recommend it.

As ever, the presentation is simple and straightforward. The set, a giant starburst bandshell (by Lez Brotherston, who also designed costumes) sits at the center of the Roda stage surrounded by sandbags (there’s a war going on) and a central playing area that is primarily the farmhouse where 12-year-old Lily lives with her mum, grandpa and ever-disappearing cat named Tips. Lily’s dad is off fighting the war, and the arriving American troops are going to evacuate everyone from Lily’s town, Slapton Sands, so they can rehearse their water landings in preparation for D-Day.

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Because the story is told from Lily’s point of view (via the diaries a grown-up Lily gives to her grandson), we only get a slice of all this, but it’s an intriguing slice, especially with the arrival of two African-American GIs who befriend Lily and her family.

This story, adapted by Rice and Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) from Morpurgo’s novel, isn’t’ so much about the loss of life that shouldn’t have happened but more about how war is seen through the eyes of a child. In this case, that’s Lily, played with rambunctious glee by Katy Owen, and she mostly cares about her cat, represented by a puppet, although one not nearly as appealing or as carefully manipulated as the puppet of the dog who herds sheep on the farm (Sarah Wright is credited as the puppet director). Lily spends much of the play’s 2 1/2 hours shouting for Tips, but she does get mightily distracted by Barry (Adam Sopp an evacuee from the London blitz who ends up in Lily’s class, which happens to be taught by a lovely Jewish refugee from France (Emma Darlow as Madame Bounine).

Boys and cats rule Lily’s world, and then she meets Adolphus (Ncuti Gatwa), whom his friends call Adi, and soft-spoken Harry (Nandi Bhebhe). Their exuberant entrance, full of irresistible swing dancing and high kicks, all but ensures that they will be adored by all who know them. How their fates intertwine with Slapton and Lily makes up the bulk of the show, which bounces from the present to the past and back to the present, all accompanied by a band that continually adds or subtracts members depending on which actors aren’t involved in a scene.

This may be a play, but it’s a play with an awful lot of music. Some of it is original (by Stu Barker) and some we’ve heard before (“Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Born to Be Wild”), and it’s all highly enjoyable. There’s even a sing-along “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at the top of Act 2 that is a lot more fun than it sounds (as is the dance-along at show’s end). Why is there a band and a blues singer (Akpore Uzoh) presiding over this war story full of puppets (sheep! chickens! a boy playing with a soccer ball!), adults playing children and small-town life mashed up with large-scale tragedy? Because this is a Kneehigh show, and a band adds bounce and humor and fire and, on occasion, a tender moment.

Rice directs with her customary brilliance and attention to detail, and her ensemble is as endearing as it is energetic. A standout for me is Ewan Wardrop pulling double duty (they all do) as Lord Something-or-Other, whose horse riding skills have to be seen to be believed and as Mrs. Turner, Barry’s enthusiastic mum up for a visit from London. Gatwa and Bhebhe shine as Adi and Harry, and Mike Shepherd as a motorcycle-riding granny is priceless.

If all the pieces don’t add up to something moving, if all the skittering and scattering obscure a story that lacks depth, there’s still an awful lot of good stuff here. War may be hell, but as seen through the Kneehigh prism, it’s full of sweet fun, fun for all ages.

Michael Morpurgo and Emma Rice’s 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips continues through Jan. 15 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Passion, ache and lots of great music in splendid Tristan

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Andrew Durand (Tristan) and Patrycja Kujawska (Yseult) star as ill-fated lovers in the West Coast premiere of Tristan & Yseult, the show that put British company Kneehigh on the theatrical map. Below: Durand as Tristan bleeds for his love. Photos by Steve Tanner

The thing about a love story is this: you want to feel it. You need to feel it. When Juliet wakes just after Romeo bites it, if you’re not feeling that dagger in your own chest, what’s the point?

There are only so many love stories – love gained, love lost, love unrequited – and so many variations. How, then, do you make the story fresh? How do you reignite the passions and make your audience feel it all anew?

The shortest answer to that query is: let Kneehigh tell the story. The invigorating British theater company first dazzled us with Brief Encounter at American Conservatory Theater. Then they returned (twice) with the dazzling (and still my favorite) The Wild Bride at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

What we learned from those two outings is that Kneehigh and director Emma Rice does not do theater in a conventional way. They deconstruct and reconstruct theatrical storytelling to find a through line to the comedy, the clarity and, most importantly, the passion. They utilize music the way a Beninhana chef utilizes knives, and they shake up an audience in the best possible way.

Kneehigh is back at Berkeley Rep with a show that’s new to us but is actually a landmark show in the company’s history. Tristan & Yseult is the show that, in 2003, made the British theater world finally stop seeing Kneehigh as a promising company and start seeing it as an exciting and important group of artists.

On these shores, we may not have the familiarity with the classic Cornish tale of Tristan and Yseult, but we can recognize a good love triangle when we see one.

Rice adapted the story from dozens of versions passed down through the centuries with writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy and gives it a wonderful contemporary spin. The dynamics of this love triangle – king, imported queen, valiant knight – feel an awful lot like that gang down in Camelot, but rather than giving us castles and dragons, Rice and team put us smack in “The Club of the Unloved,” a nightspot with a glorious band (music direction by Ian Ross) and a lot of sad inhabitants. These lovelorn souls look like birdwatchers with their warm knit head coverings, their nerdy glasses and binoculars around their necks. But they aren’t looking for gray-crowned rosy-finches or blue-footed boobies. They’re looking for love…or at least watching it from a safe distance.

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They hover around the action on designer Bill Mitchell’s multi-level scaffolding set, commenting and occasionally participating. The lovers at center stage give them plenty to watch, and the band, with singer Carly Bawden is often there with some gorgeous music to remind us we’re in a club overflowing with loneliness.

King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd, who founded Kneehigh in 1980) defeats Irish king Morholt (Craig Johnson) and sends his associate (possibly his son?), Tristan (Andrew Durand) to fetch Morholt’s sister, Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska) as a prize.

Given the title of the show, it’s a forgone conclusion that something will transpire between Tristan and Yseult before she can be claimed as King Mark’s queen.

Illicit love is exciting love, and Kneehigh’s method for expressing the soul-deep passion between these crazy kids involves swinging from ropes in ways that are as thrilling as they are sexy. But that’s not to say the title characters are the most interesting. That designation goes to Yseult’s handmaiden, Brangian (also played by Johnson). She is called upon to do quite a lot to cover her mistress’s indiscretions, and she does so in a way that is heartbreaking.

In fact, this sad love affair is bad for a number of people, including a character called Whitehands (Bawden), our story’s narrator and one more of its victims.

In addition to the acrobatics and some fun dancing, Kneehigh’s bag of tricks includes some spectacular music, most of it live (including a version of “No Woman, No Cry” that defies description) but some of it recorded (Nick Cave makes an indelible impression and Wagner adds some powerful themes). There’s even music during intermission, so think twice about running to the bathroom.

There’s much to love in Tristan & Yseult, and the performances (especially the fiery Kujawska, who also plays a mean violin) are full of surprises and depth. But I didn’t get the emotional wallop I got from The Wild Bride, and I think the difference is the script. There’s some clever rhyming here, but I got much less from the script than I did from the performances and the production itself. With such visceral theater, it’s really not that surprising that the words take a backseat to everything else.

[bonus interview]
I spoke with Kneehigh’s Emma Rice, adaptor and director of Tristan & Yseult for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult continues through Jan. 6 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addiston St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$99 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

2011 in the rearview mirror: the best of Bay Area stages


Let’s just get right to it. 2011 was another year full of fantastic local theater (and some nice imports). Somehow, most of our theater companies has managed thus far to weather the bruising economy. May the new year find audiences clamoring for more great theater. (Click on the play titles to see my original reviews.)

1. How to Write a New Book for the Bible by Bill Cain
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Kent Nicholson

Only a few days ago I was telling someone about this play – my favorite new play of 2011 and the most moving theatrical experience I’ve had in a long time – and it happened again. I got choked up. That happens every time I try to describe Cain’s deeply beautiful ode to his family and to the spirituality that family creates (or maybe that’s vice-versa). Nicholson’s production, from the excellent actors to the simple, elegant design, let the play emerge in all its glory.

2. Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
American Conservatory Theater

Directed by Jonathan Moscone

Because I interviewed Norris for the San Francisco Chronicle, I wasn’t allowed, at the playwright’s request, to review the production. Well, to heck with you Mr. Pulitzer Prize-winning Norris. This was a genius production. A great play (with some wobbly bits in the second act) that found a humane director and a cast that dipped into the darkness and sadness under the laughs (Rene Augesen in particular). How do we talk about race in this country? We don’t. We just get uncomfortable with it. This is drama that positively crackles – you can’t take your eyes off the stage and find there are moments when you’re actually holding your breath.

3. Bellwether by Steve Yockey
Marin Theatre Company
Directed by Ryan Rilette

Horror is hard in a theater, but Yockey came close to scaring the pants off his audience in this chilling, utterly compelling world-premiere drama about children disappearing from a suburban neighborhood. And the paranormal aspects weren’t even the scariest things – it was the humans being disgustingly human to each other in times of stress that really worked the nerves.

4. The Lily’s Revenge by Taylor Mac
Magic Theatre
Directed by Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Erika Chong Shuch, Erin Gilley, Jessica Holt and Jessica Heidt

The sheer scope, ambition and feel-good communal aspect of this massive undertaking makes it one of the year’s most disarming experiences. The charms of Mac, who also starred as Lily, cannot be underestimated. Kudos to the Magic for staging what amounted to the best theatrical open house in many a season.

5. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
California Shakespeare Theater
Directed by Shana Cooper

I debated which Cal Shakes show I should include on this – it was down to Moscone’s Candida, which featured a luminous Julie Ecclesin the title role. But I opted for this high-octane production of a really difficult play. Leads Erica Sullivan and Slate Holmgren brought not only humor to this thorny comedy but also a depth of emotion I hadn’t ever experienced with this play. Director Cooper worked wonders with this Shrew, making it feel new and relevant.

6.The Companion Piece by Beth Wilmurt
Z Space @ Theatre Artaud
Directed by Mark Jackson

The combination of Wilmurt and Jackson is irresistible (Shameless plug! Read my San Francisco Chronicle interview with Jackson and Wilmurt here). Always has been and probably will be as long as they want to keep creating theater together. This vaudevillian spin featured laughs and songs and the most exquisite dance involving wheeled staircases you can imagine. That dance was easily one of the most beautiful things on a Bay Area stage this year.

7. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Lauren Gunderson
Crowded Fire Theater Company
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

Fresh and funny, Gunderson’s spitfire of a play introduced us to a playwright we need to be hearing from on a regular basis.

8. Phaedra by Adam Bock
Shotgun Players
Directed by Rose Riordan

Every time Bock comes back to the Bay Area he shows us yet another facet of his extraordinary talent. This spin on a classic allowed Shotgun to wow us with an eye-popping set and a central performance by Catherine Castellanos that echoed for months afterward.

9.Lady Grey (in ever lower light) by Will Eno
Cutting Ball Theatre
Directed by Rob Melrose

I can’t get enough Will Eno. Whether he’s the Brecht of our generation or an absurdist spin on Thornton Wilder, I find him completely original and funny in ways that are heartbreaking. This trilogy of plays from Cutting Ball was uber-theatrical and highly enjoyable. As was Eno’s brilliant Middletown, which I saw at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company directed by Les Waters (Berkeley Rep’s soon-to-be-former associate artistic director who’s heading to Kentucky to head the Actors Theatre of Louisville).

10. Strike Up the Band by George S. Kaufman (book) and George and Ira Gershwin (score)
42nd Street Moon
Directed by Zack Thomas Wilde

42nd Street Moon shows have delighted me for years, but I can’t remember having this much fun at the Eureka in a long, long time. The laughs were big and genuine, and the score was sublime. The whole package was so appealing it’s a shame the production couldn’t move to another venue and keep the band marching on.


The Wild Bride by Emma Rice and Kneehigh
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Emma Rice

This extraordinary show would have been at the top of my Top 10 list had it originated in this region or even in this country first. But as it’s a British import by a genius theater company, it can be content to live in the honorable mention category. The really good news is that Berkeley Rep has extended the show through Jan. 22. Start your new year right and go see this amazing piece of theater.

Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary
Impact Theatre
Directed by Melissa Hillman

Nerds are people, too. This sharp, savvy and very funny show takes a very specific world – Dungeons and Dragons gamers – and makes it instantly recognizable because it’s so very human.

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Mark Jackson

The physicality of this production is what lingers in memory, specifically Alexander Crowther’s transformation into a spider-like creature crawling over the wonderfully askew set. Director Jackson does wondrous things with actors and stages.

Spring Awakening by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik
San Jose Repertory Theatre

Directed by Rick Lombardo

This is not an easy musical to pull off, not only because the original Broadway production was so fresh and distinct. It’s tricky material performed by young material who have to act and rock convincingly. Lombardo’s production didn’t erase memories of the original, but it staked its own claim, and the young cast was bursting with talent.

A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Tom Ross

Being so close to Albee’s drama in the intimate Aurora proved to be an electrifying experience as we began to feel the tension, the fear and the barely concealed sneers of the upper middle class. Kimberly King’s central performance was wondrous.


Nicest unscripted moment: Hugh Jackman ripping his pants and changing into new ones in full view of the audience on opening night of Hugh Jackman in Performance at the Curran Theatre. He’s a boxer brief guy. And a true showman.

Biggest disappointment: Kevin Spacey hamming it up so uncontrollably in the Bridge Project’s fitfully interesting Richard III. Spacey is a fascinating stage presence, but he’s so predictably Kevin Spacey. His Richard III offered no surprises and, sadly, no depth. If Richard was really the kind of guy who would do Groucho Marx impressions, he probably wouldn’t be the Richard III Shakespeare wrote.

Second biggest disappointment: ACT’s Tales of the City musical. Upon reflection, it just seems all wrong. Good idea to turn Armistead Maupin’s books into a musical. But the creative team was simply too reverent, too outside the time and place.

Berkeley Rep’s wildly wonderful Bride

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HERE COMES THE BRIDE! Stuart Goodwin is the King and Patrycja Kujawska is one incarnation of the title character in the Kneehigh production of The Wild Bride at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Photo by Steve Tanner. Below: Audrey Brisson (left), Stuart McLoughlin (on the bass), Stuart Goodwin and Éva Magyar revel in the glorious music and dance of this extraordinary Bride. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

Such joy. Such wicked, delicious, heart-pounding joy.

That’s what it feels like at the end of The Wild Bride, the dark fairy tale come to life on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda stage. This is, without question, the great treat of the holiday theater season (though it’s not really for kids younger than about 13, what with the mutilations, the sex and the devilish nature of the show).

Here comes the Bride indeed – in the most unexpectedly charming and poignant fashion you can imagine. Director/adaptor Emma Rice and Kneehigh, the quirky troupe from Cornwall, England, are blessedly back in the Bay Area, where they previously triumphed with their dynamic adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter at American Conservatory Theater a couple seasons back. May they keep coming back. And back.

Rice’s enchanting Wild ride takes a long look at the life of a woman who continually triumphs over the kind of adversity that could only be caused by the bedeviling interference of the Devil himself. When a slightly soused father (Stuart Goodwin) thinks he’s outsmarted the Devil (Stuart McLoughlin in a welcome return after shining in Brief Encounter), he sets in motion what should be a life of misery for his daughter.

To give you an idea of just how dark this story is, at one point the young woman’s hands are cut off – it’s so Shakespearean! – but it’s all done with theatrical flair with no hint of gore or pesky realism.

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The daughter, whose name we never know, hardly speaks, but she’s incredibly communicative and she’s played at three different stages of her life by the three women of the company. As a young woman, Audrey Brisson brings sweet defiance to the role and raises the bar on wildness. In her middle stage, the woman is played by Patrycja Kujawska and is so compelling you can hardly take your eyes off her (when not playing the woman, Kujawska plays a sweet, sweet violin). And then in the later years, the woman is inhabited by Éva Magyar, whose expressive dancing (of Etta Murfitt’s choreography) is so powerful it’s just leagues beyond language.

Brief Encounter was wonderful and complex and very commercial, but Wild Bride feels organically wild, bold and brave and full of the kind of sights, sounds and stories that make theater the most thrilling art form on the planet. Brief Encounter was beautiful and restrained. The Wild Bride is unrestrained and magnificent. Rice and her performers (we also have musician Ian Ross playing multitudes of instruments, often at the same time) dazzle us with humor, surprise us with movement and blow us away with the sheer force and imagination of their storytelling.

Music is a big part of the Kneehigh recipe. Every performer contributes in some way to the score (lyrics by Carl Grose), with the lion’s share of the musical bliss coming from the sweet-voiced McLoughlin, the Devil himself. Brisson also contributes a beguiling voice and some mean accordion chops.

There’s nothing fancy about Bill Mitchell’s set – there’s an apple tree made of ladders and scaffolding – but it springs to life under Malcolm Rippeth’s lights, but it just goes to show you that with light to help paint stage pictures and intriguing humans inhabiting a captivating story, you don’t need bells and whistles.

An involving story is key, and this tale, shot through with darkness and misery though it is, yields such well-earned happiness that it’s hard to disconnect. Mercifully, the curtain call is a joy all its own.

If only dancing and singing with the devil could be this entertaining and soul-satisfying in real life.

[bonus video]

Kneehigh’s The Wild Bride continues an extended run through Jan. 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.