Review: `TRAGEDY: a tragedy’

Opened March 19, 2008, Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage


Thomas Jay Ryan, Marguerite Stimpson and Danny Wolohan. Photos by Kevin Berne

Laughing through the tragic darkness
three stars Our top story tonight

Reportedly, during a preview performance of Will Eno’s TRAGEDY: a tragedy at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, an audience member rose up mid-show and, on her way out of the theater, muttered loud enough for other audience members to hear: “Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

Seems a perfectly reasonable response to Eno’s offbeat, highly original, thoroughly captivating play, which is most certainly not for every taste. Eno has been called a “Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation,” and boy is that description apt.

TRAGEDY, now on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, is a brief, bracing piece of theater that doesn’t play by the usual rules. It’s only about 70 minutes long, but it feels longer because it’s dense and weird — obtuse, to be succinct.

This absurdist foray into a dark, dark night is also full of laughs (most at the expense of the already-absurd notion of TV news). But then again, there’s also despair, disconnection and the inescapable fact of eventual death.

Eno sets the play up as a newscast. Frank, the anchorman (David Cromwell, below), is the distinguished, John Chancellor-like figure in the TV studio. He throws the broadcast variously to John (Thomas Jay Ryan), literally out in a field, Constance (Marguerite Stimpson) stationed at an empty home and Michael (Max Gordon Moore) the legal expert on the steps of the state capital.

Director Les Waters’ challenge is to keep the show moving even though there’s hardly any movement at all. The reporters stand there, holding their microphones and reporting into invisible cameras, and Frank sits at his anchor’s desk, often ignoring what the reporters are reporting.

Thankfully, there’s no video used in the show — this is a fully theatrical evening, imagination required. The actors all use what you might call “TV voices,” which is to say, overly enunciated, overly emphatic language as they report on a massive event that has swept the entire country.

That event, as we come to learn, is the fall of night. Yes, it got dark, and the Channel 3 news team is there to cover the tragedy of it all, even when there’s nothing to report.

“This, of course, as the hours grow more and more late out here, and we, it seems, learn less and less,” John says from the field.

The literalness of the newscast begins to melt away as the night deepens, and the news folk, even solid Frank in the studio, all succumb to nervous breakdowns of varying kinds. They ramble about their childhood, about lost pets, about parental figures, about their deepest misery. During one report, Michael (Moore, below) recalls an uncle who gave him a dictionary, which he “mistook as the long, sad, confusing story of everything.” Later he adds from “the missteps of my life”: “They should have never let me use the alphabet.”

Humor helps make all this flow, but occasionally, Eno slips in some actual human tragedy. We now go to Frank in the studio: “The flashlight is dead and we are left darkling — as we used to say in my youth, which is also gone, with no remains.”

TRAGEDY goes from funny and odd straight to sad. When all the on-air bounce has been drained from the reporters, a slight shred of hope emerges in the form a witness, a “man who happened to be standing right near or somewhere around the horizon as night fell tonight at nightfall.” As played by the pitch-perfect Danny Wolohan, the witness wraps things up with a warm dose of spirituality, some comfort and a little storytelling. It’s not anything like a happy ending, but it’s not bleak either.

Director Waters lets Eno’s words be the play’s action, and that’s a good thing. The actors stand in their locations, suggested by the four zones of Antje Ellermann’s set, and Matt Frey’s lights help provide TV focus in a theater.

This is definitely Beckett land. In one part of the world, you can imagine two sad clowns waiting for the elusive Godot, while in our part of the world, night falls and inspires a tormented newscast.

But Beckett’s Godot allowed characters to actually interact. Eno is only able to connect his characters via cameras and microphones, and that leads to unavoidable detachment. There’s much to admire in the play, and there are emotional moments (especially from Cromwell’s Frank), but there’s also a chill that even the humor can’t banish.

TRAGEDY: a tragedy requires an open mind, a willingness to take the ride without promise of a destination. There are rewards aplenty, but go with someone whose hand you can hold on the way home.

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TRAGEDY: a tragedy continues through April 13 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets start at $27. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

Wolohan out!

One of my favorite Bay Area actors, Danny Wolohan, is moving on.

Wolohan was voted by American Theatre magazine as one of the country’s seven actors “worth traveling to see,” and I wholeheartedly agree.

I first met Wolohan when I interviewed him during his stint in the Aurora Theatre Company’s Tough! That was in 2000, and since then, Wolohan has continued to create indelible performances, many for Campo Santo, the San Francisco troupe headed by Sean San Jose that is responsible for some of the most interesting new work in the country.

Wolohan is currently making his Berkeley Repertory Theatre debut in Will Eno’s extraordinary TRAGEDY: a tragedy, which begins previews this weekend and opens next Wednesday on the Thrust Stage.

When Wolohan finishes his run with Berkeley Rep, the San Francisco actor (and die-hard Giants fan, die-hard) is moving to Los Angeles.

“I am going to spend a year there,” Wolohan says. “People have been saying for years I should come down and make some money. I turned 35, and I’m busier than ever, but financially it’s a miracle that actors can make their lives happen doing what we love to do. I’m going to spend a year there and plan to be back in May of ’09 for another Aurora show.”

Wolohan had to turn down theater jobs so he could make the move, and though he admits that, especially in baseball terms, he’s heading into “enemy territory,” he can’t say no to the prospect of gainful, possibly financially lucrative work.

“One of the most difficult things I’ve ever done is walk away from all the good things that are happening here and aim for financial security,” he says. “But I’m coming back no matter what. If it goes really well down there, I’ll use whatever success to help Campo Santo and help it grow. The work is so special there. To my mind, not enough people know about it, and I’d like to affect that.”

For his last hurrah — for now — Wolohan is playing the key role of the Witness in TRAGEDY, a bizarre, funny, chilling one-act play about a TV newscast covering a mysterious, possibly cataclysmic event.

It’s a challenging role if for no other reason than Wolohan only has a few sentences early in the play then a meaty monologue late in the play. But he, like his fellow cast members, remains onstage the entire time, not moving much.

“I’ve done construction off and on for 16 years, so it’s silly for me to complain, but it’s hard to be still that much,” Wolohan says. “But I’m soldiering on through my hardships.”

Describing the play is difficult, even for Wolohan, who has been immersed in it for weeks.

“I think the play succeeds best when its indefinable,” Wolohan says. “One moment it’s the funniest thing ever, the next, it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. Will pulls you in and opens you up with this relentless humor. Once you’re open, he sneaks in these things that are real bombs — all this stuff about the hard-to-handle aspects of being alive, about dying and losing everything but also about how we have to keep going and how hard that is. That’s where the compassion is in the play — in acknowledging how hard it is for us to do that.”

Working with director Les Waters, who is something of wonder with new plays, has been a pleasure, Wolohan says.

“He creates a great atmosphere. Everyone feels safe,” he says. “He lets us make mistakes and continue to be creative. It’s always impressive when someone has talent and good manners and respect for everybody. At a certain level of success, you can get away with not having those qualities. But he’s a real gentleman, and for me, that makes going to work great.”

Remember when you see Wolohan on screens large or small that he’s coming back to the stage. Let’s hold him to that, shall we?

TRAGEDY: a tragedy continues through April 13 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33 to $69. Call 510- or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

Berkeley Rep, San Jose Rep announce seasons

Time to start thinking about those season tickets — or at least cherry picking which shows you’re going to make a point of seeing next season.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 2008-09 season was announced this week. Here’s how it shapes up.

Yellowjackets by Itamar Moses (left) — Berkeley native writes about Berkeley High School and the student newspaper. Tony Taccone directs.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson — East Bay resident Delroy Lindo returns to Berkeley Rep to direct the play that earned him a Tony Award nomination.

The Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman — Local audiences are getting quite used to the dynamic theatricality of Chicago’s Zimmerman, a near-constant in Berkeley Rep’s recent seasons. This time out she’s zaaaing up the legend of the 1,001 nights.

The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl — The last time director Les Waters was paired with Ruhl, the results were extraordinary. Eurydice turned out to be one of the best nights at the theater in a good long while. Now the director and the fast-emerging writer pair up for a world premiere about six lonely people seeking relief from a local doctor.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky — Former Berkeley Rep artistic director Sharon Ott returns to direct Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus’ 90-minute adaptation of the classic Russian crime novel.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh — The pairing of Waters and McDonagh was exciting last season in The Pillowman. Now Waters sinks his teeth into McDonagh’s bloody comedy about a dead cat and the Irish troubles.

Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang — Hwang finally makes his Berkeley Rep debut with a satirical self-portrait of a writer caught in a controversy of his own creation.

For information visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

And now for San Jose Rep’s new season, the final for artistic director Timothy Near.

The Foreigner by Larry Shue — A staple of community theaters everywhere, this comedy involves a rural fishing lodge, mistaken identity and slow-witted rubes.

Splitting Infinity by Jamie Pachino — Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist decides to use physics to prove whether God exists or not.

Around the World in 80 Days by Mark Brown (adapted from Jules Verne) — Adventurer Phileas Fogg embarks on the original version of “Amazing Race” in this streamlined, highly theatrical stage adaptation.

The Kite Runner by Matthew Spangler (adapted from Khaled Hosseini) — A big coup for San Jose Rep, this is the world premiere stage adaptation of the hot, hot novel that has already been turned into a controversial movie.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn — This utterly charming musical was a big hit in San Francisco, and now it makes its way into the regional theater circuit.

For information visit www.sjrep.com.

Me, me, me (and Will Eno and Les Waters)

Shameless plug: I’m the Q in the Q&A Friday for Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Page to Stage” series.

At 7 p.m. Friday on the Thrust Stage (2025 Addison St., Berkeley), I’ll be chatting with playwright Will Eno (above), whose Tragedy: a tragedy, is next up at Berkeley Rep, and associate artistic director Les Waters, who’s directing.

Here’s Eno’s bio from the back of the published version of his Thom Pain (based on nothing):
Will Eno lives in Brooklyn. His plays include The Flu Season, Tragedy: a tragedy, KING: a problem play, Intermission and others. His plays have been produced in London by the Gate Theatre, the Soho Theatre Company and BBC Radio, and, in the U.S., by the Rude Mechanicals, the NY Power Company, and Naked Angels. Thom Pain (based on nothing) was awarded the First Fringe Award at the Edinburgh Festival.

Here’s what Edward Albee has to say about Eno: “He strikes me as being the real thing, a real playwright. He takes every chance. And Will keeps the voice his own: he has an awareness of the human condition I wish more people his age had.”

Drop by. It’s free!

Visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

Heading to the ‘Lighthouse’

Here at Theater Dogs, we zip from one subject to the next — from the dark cynicism of American $uicide to the zip of a light saber with One-Man Star Wars Trilogy.


Well, imagine how hard it must have been for director Les Waters (above) to go from the child torture and murder of The Pillowman to the world of Virginia Woolf and her sedate surfaces and roiling interior emotions.

Last month at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Waters opened Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman one week and began rehearsals for the world-premiere stage adaptation of Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse the next.

“I went from an aggressive male play with a fast rhythm to working on unconventional scenes that appear to be like scenes you’d encounter in a conventional play, but everyone is speaking their internal thoughts,” Waters explains. “My first week of Lighthouse following Pillowman was a jolt to my system.”

Waters, who is Berkeley Rep’s associate artistic director, never counted himself as a Virginia Woolf fan. Growing up in England, he didn’t study her in high school or college, but he did see Sally Potter’s movie version of Orlando starring Tilda Swinton.

“I think I had some kind of reservation or distance toward Virginia Woolf, which sounds stupid,” Waters says. “There’s such a cult around her, particularly in England. Every member of that Bloomsbury group had diaries or letters published, and I always thought, `Oh, God. No more.”’

But while working as a professor in the theater department at UC San Diego, Waters’ colleague, Adele Edling Shank, handed him a script for her adaptation of To the Lighthouse.

Waters read it and then bought the novel.

“Yes. Virginia Woolf. I’d come on board,” Waters says.

That was about six years ago, and this weekend the Lighthouse finally shines.

Previews begin this weekend, and the show opens Feb. 28 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre.

Like the novel, the play is in three sections: “The Window,” in which the Ramsay family visits its summer home in the Hebrides; “Time Passes,” a fast-forward peek into the various Ramsays’ lives (and deaths); and “The Lighthouse,” set 10 years after the family last visited the vacation home, and involving the painting of a picture and a boat trip to the lighthouse.

Not exactly action packed, but then again Woolf was all about breaking the conventions of the novel. That’s why Woolf and Shank added music to their stage version.

“For a while, the script felt like a normal adaptation,” Waters says. “We knew we needed to expand or develop in a different direction. It felt a little tight and needed to go somewhere else. The same way Woolf is experimenting with the form and content of a novel, Adele felt there was something we needed to do to push the adaptation just past being a tightly controlled distillation of the text.”

Enter composer Paul Dresher, who composed the play’s score, which will be played onstage by the Seventh Avenue String Quartet.

Waters says the music starts off the play and helps in scene transitions at first, then fully develops during the “Time Passes” sequence.

“In `Journey to the Lighthouse,’ the four performers sing the majority of the text,” Waters says. “If you read the section, it’s very dry. Set to music, it expands with these sorts of volcanic emotions.”

This is Waters’ first time working on an adaptation (he doesn’t really count his work with Caryl Churchill on Mouthful of Birds, which was “such a loose adaptation” of Euripides’ The Bacchae ). There are a couple of other novels he’d like to see come to the stage, notably Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field.

“I’m also a huge fan of Proust,” he says. “But how? I have no idea. You could ask the same question of Woolf. The answer is: You try.”

To the Lighthouse continues through March 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Tip-top ten

Happy holidays, Theater Dogs!

Thanks for reading the blog in 2006. I’ll try to make it bigger, better, funnier and fresher in 2007.

Below you’ll find my Top 10 list of favorite theater experiences in 2006. I’d love for you all to share some of your favorites as well, so use the comment feature liberally.

1.The Clean House,TheatreWorks

Sarah Ruhl’s immaculate play — is it a comic drama or a dramatic comedy? — reveals a writer so attuned to the human heart that her work may actually be beneficial to your health. This production, helmed by Juliette Carrillo, sure was. Love is a mess, Ruhl tells us. It’s dirty (like a good joke), messy and, at its best, like really good homemade chocolate ice cream.

2. The Glass Menagerie, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The news that Rita Moreno, the Bay Area’s resident living legend, would tackle the role of Amanda in this Tennessee Williams classic was intriguing. Could Moreno handle it? Anyone who doubted Moreno’s chops was quickly proven wrong by her powerhouse portrayal of a mother desperate to see her children succeed in a harsh world. Director Les Waters gave us such a fresh approach to the play that it almost seemed newly minted.

3. Love Is a Dream House in Lorin, Shotgun Players

Playwright Marcus Gardley did a magnificent thing with this world-premiere play: He turned a neighborhood into art, and in doing so made the specific universal. Gardley immersed himself in the history of Berkeley’s Lorin District — from the recent past clear back to Native American days — and, with the help of director Aaron Davidman, managed to capture something significant about each era leading up to the present. The cast of more than 30 professionals and nonprofessionals found the heart of the piece and showed us over and over again that without community, we’re not much.

4. Hunter Gatherers, Killing My Lobster

Of all this year’s comedies, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s world premiere for sketch troupe Killing My Lobster was the meatiest. Maybe it had something to do with the onstage slaughter of a lamb at the play’s start. Or maybe it was the huge chunk of roasted meat that factors into the play’s bloody end. Whatever, this was an aggressively funny play about our primal, cave-man impulses, man’s need to hump (or kill) everything in sight and woman’s need for chocolate.

5. 4 Adverbs, Word for Word

San Francisco’s Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) ended his “Series of Unfortunate Events” books this year, but not before releasing a book under his own name. Four chapters of that book (Adverbs) became the basis for a typically wondrous production by Word for Word, the company that translates short fiction to the stage without changing a word of the original text. Kind of makes you glad Lemony Snicket is taking a break.

6. Dessa Rose, TheatreWorks

A musical about slavery sounds like a glum proposition, but in the hands of composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, glum turns into serious, which turns into transcendent. Based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams, the story of an escaped slave and the slave owner she reluctantly befriends bears the weight of history and the healing power of music.

7. In On It, Encore Theatre Company

Canadian playwright/director Daniel MacIvor’s work isn’t that well-known south of our northern border, but based on this dynamic, beautifully directed and performed piece,
MacIvor should be in demand. Actors Ian Scott McGregor and Glenn Peters broke the fourth wall, bent time and concealed key details as they told us the story of actors who used to be lovers working on a play about their relationship. Or were they?

8. Gem of the Ocean, American Conservatory Theater

The late August Wilson received a beautiful valedictory production of his second-to-last play from ACT and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The electric jolt of Wilson’s language — “So, live!” are the play’s final words — coursed through the nearly three-hour show, but the sturdy cast, headed by Michele Shay as Aunt Ester, made it very much alive.

9. Restoration Comedy, California Shakespeare Theater
San Francisco writer Amy Freed’s effervescent comedy is based on two 17th-century comedies that wished they could have been this fresh and funny. Special mention must be made of the hilarious Danny Scheie, who played Sir Novelty Fashion who later becomes Lord Foppington, the star of the show-stopping Act 2 fashion show (Anna R. Oliver provided the costumes).

10. Permanent Collection, Aurora Theatre Company

This serious drama about race relations by Thomas Gibbons veered into polemics, but before it did, the battle between a black man and a white man over a collection of art is humane, disturbing and, best of all, thought provoking.

The best shows that didn’t necessarily originate here (or were on their way somewhere else — like Broadway) include: Jersey Boys (Best of Broadway/SHN); A Chorus Line (Best of Broadway/SHN); The Miser (Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Theatre de la Jeune Lune); The Light in the Piazza (Best of Broadway/SHN); The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Stone, Nederlander, Barrington Stage Company et al); Swan Lake (Best of Broadway/SHN).

For more 2006 highlights, check out Jones for Theater.

OK. Now you…

Blame it on Broadway

This was the year that Elton John and Anne Rice’s musical Lestat bit the big one and High Fidelity was a sound no one wanted to hear.

Those of us who saw Lestat in its pre-Brodway run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre knew the show had a stake through its heart from the get go. And as for High Fidelity (right), the sample songs on the show’s Web site were so boring it was hard to muster enthusiasm enough to dislike them. Another show with a boringly bland pop score, The Wedding Singer, made a respectable go of it but never reached hit status.

Bay Area folks should not be holding their breaths for a tour of Twyla Tharp’s take on Bob Dylan songs, The Times They Are A Changing. Our Theatre Dogs spies spotted a dog, and they were right. The circus-themed show is history.

Disney launched two new Broadway shows, and though Tarzan is still swinging, it failed to generate much in the way of buzz or critical accolades. Mary Poppins, on the other hand, generated big buzz and a full spectrum of reviews. To me, the most interesting Disney show didn’t open on Broadway. Finding Nemo: The Musical, began performances in Walt Disney World. This marks the first time Disney has taken a non-musical movie and turned it into a stage musical. This is a mini-theme park musical, but if all goes well (so far, buzz is good), we can expect to see Nemo, Marlin, Dory and friends swimming along Broadway.

Bay Area audiences can’t be surprised that A Chorus Line is proving to be a solid hit on Broadway. We saw the out-of-town preview, so we got a taste of what the new cast had to offer in this lively carbon copy version of the 1975 hit. With any luck, our next big pre-Broadway show, Legally Blonde, will be equally as exciting. We were also the first to see Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, and though the show that ended up on Broadway was pretty different than what we saw, it should be no surprise that the always charming Short found his audience. Though the show is closing in early January, it had a respectable run.

When I head to New York, the shows I most want to see are the musicals Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening and Tom Stoppard’s play cycle The Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center. Can’t imagine any of those will head for the Bay Area in 2007, but we can dream, can’t we? Really wish I could have seen Meryl Streep in Mother Courage in Central Park.

So what Broadway hits might actually be making their way toward the Bay Area? There’s no confirmation of anything, but we might expect the musical The Color Purple to wend our way.

Looking ahead, there are a couple shows blinking brightly off in the distance. One is a legitimate source of excitement. Angela Lansbury returns to Broadway in Terrence McNally’s Deuce alongside Marian Seldes. The other is a warning sign pointing toward the May Broadway debut of Xanadu: The Musical, which features songs from the flop 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie of the same name. Rumors have Jane Krakowski, Cheyenne Jackson and Ben Vereen reprising roles they performed in workshops of the new musical.