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

Uneasy comedy, drama (+Rat Wife!) in Aurora’s Erik

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The Rat Wife (Wilma Bonet, right) stops by to see if Erik (Jack Wittmayer) and his family (from left: Mariah Castle, Marilee Talkington and Joe Estlack) need her help in the world premiere of Little Erik at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Joie (Marilee Talkington) and Freddie (Joe Estlack) discuss their dysfunctional lives in this contemporary adaptation by Mark Jackson of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf. Photos by David Allen

There’s a profoundly creepy core to Little Erik the new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1894 Little Eyolf by Mark Jackson, one of the Bay Area’s foremost theater artists. That creepiness is the best thing about the 80-minute one-act now at the Aurora Theatre Company. Though even in its brevity, the play can’t quite command its shifting tones.

Ibsen’s Eyolf probably won’t be found on any of his best-of compilations, but Jackson seizes on the play’s weirdness to explore how self-involvement (which seems so contemporary but has apparently been plaguing humans for quite some time) leads to detachment, which leads to a complicated, unfulfilled life.

At the heart of the play is the tragic death of a child, the titular Erik, and in this production – also directed by Jackson – the child is played with disarming enthusiasm and charm by Jack Wittmayer. Because Wittmayer, who handles Erik’s crutches and twisted body like an absolute pro, makes such a strong impression in only a few scenes, it should be absolutely devastating when news arrives that the boy has drowned in the Northern California river just outside his family’s slick new mountain getaway home. But it’s not, hence the creepiness.

The character of the Rat Catcher, a sort of mystical bit of Pied Piper woo-woo, appears as if in warning that she will gladly allow unwanted or unloved children with her to the bottom of the sea. In Jackson’s version, she’s a persistent cleaning lady offering her services all around town. As played by Wilma Bonet, the Rat Wife is instantly recognizable, and that grounds her firmly in reality and makes her more mystical aspect even creepier. It’s not that hard to be ignored or dismissed if you’re a woman of color among wealthy white folks. But you ignore the Rat Wife at your own peril.

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Once Erik is dispatched, his remaining family members are mostly too embroiled in their own dramas to grieve all that much. Erik’s mom, Joie (the incisive Marilee Talkington) has no illusions about her skills as a mother. She describes herself as “hard” and is proudly and firmly enmeshed in the digital age. Never too far from her phone, she has succeeded in business and admits she never really wanted a child. She had Erik to please her husband, Freddie (Joe Estlack), a man of humble origins who has just returned from a mysterious six months abroad (courtesy of his wife’s credit cards) while he was supposedly finishing his magnum opus novel about responsibility. But now, after an epiphany, he is a writer who no longer writes. He realizes he has never had to be responsible in his life, so now he has eschewed writing and technology and – oops! – just wants to be a dad to Erik.

In many ways, Little Erik is the story of a failed marriage, but that failure is really the result of monumental egos that could occasionally crash into each other (apparently the sex was great) but could never truly mesh. On the periphery of the marriage is Andi (Mariah Castle, Freddie’s half-sister, who picked up the pieces after their father’s death when Freddie was skittering around the globe. Andi was the closest to Erik, but even her naturally warm, maternal nature gets hijacked by a questionable romance, and it’s not the one with the architect who built the house (Gregy Ayers as Bernie, a character who seems to have dropped in from another play).

Jackson gets off some terrific lines here. My favorite is the acerbic Joie: “Children are not the future. Old people are the future. Nobody gets younger.” But the play’s ending is pretty ridiculous, perhaps on purpose given that the shifting from realism to hysterical drama to mysticism to outright comedy has the audience on shaky ground. Perhaps Jackson the writer and Jackson the director had different visions of where the play was headed. Certainly the actors, all of whom are terrific, are capable of giving Jackson what he wants. They tend to humanize their extreme characters and win some sympathy.

The severe simplicity and beauty of the set (by Nina Ball) create a sharp environment, and the effective video designs (by Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky) and wonderfully unnerving sound design (by Matt Stines) indicate a much more serious enterprise than what we actually get.

In the end, Little Erik feels neither comic nor tragic nor fully developed. It’s go that ever-present creepy factor, and that’s certainly something.

Mark Jackson’s Little Erik continues through Feb. 28 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Ramping up the teenage angst in Crowded Fire’s Truck Stop

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Teen friendship, power and sexuality are explored in Lachlan Philpott’s Truck Stop receiving its American premiere from Crowded Fire Theater. Directed by Marilee Talkington, the play features an ensemble that includes (from left) Jamie Asdorian as Aisha, Jessica Lynn Carroll as Sam, Jeri Lynn Cohen in multiple roles and Chelsea Looy as Kelly. Below: Kelly (Looy, left) and Sam (Carroll, center) have been friends since they were six. Can Aisha (Asdorian), the new girl in town, find a place in their inner circle? Does she even want to? Photos by

The whole time I was watching Lachlan Philpott’s Truck Stop, a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, I was working myself into a state of anxiety imagining being the parent of a teenage girl. How do you fight the global objectification of women and instill a sense of self-worth that comes as much from intellectual, spiritual, emotional places and not just the physical and sexual, which it seems is all the world cares about if you’re watching TV or movies, reading magazines or listening to music.

My ever-increasing anxiety level appreciated the fact that this play was only about 100 minutes long, but Philpott, director Marilee Talkington and a powerful cast cram a lot to worry about into that hour and a half. Interestingly, and, it turns out, wisely, Philpott’s Australian play is performed as written with lots of references to Australian things, but without making the actors speak with Australian accents. That’s just not necessary to convey the plot or the emotional power of the story. Teenage girls in Australia aren’t all that different from teenage girls anywhere else, so even though there’s a specific Australian small town setting, there’s a universal feeling of dread that we’re not doing enough to harness the considerable energy and unlock the great potential of young women.

To be clear, in no way is Philpott lecturing us. This is a far cry from an after-school special. Rather, in a hyper-theatrical (and engaging) way, he’s showing us what girls are up against, both in their intimate worlds of friends and family and in the greater cultural landscape. His time-bending story begins with the ruptured relationship of BFFs Kelly (Chelsea Looy) and Sam (Jessica Lynn Carroll), 14-year-old parochial high school students who have been friends since first grade. The girls are in some kind of trouble, and that has led to a big fight (slapping, punching and the like) and then the silent treatment followed by visits to the women’s health clinic and a counselor.

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The course of the play essentially leads us to the cause of the rupture and it’s quite something – aggressively sexual, shocking and illegal. Before that point, though, we get to know Sam, in all her harsh intelligence, and Kelly in her tormented search for a moral center. The contrast between the two friends comes into play with the arrival of a new student, Aisha (Jamie Asdorian), recently arrived from Bangalore. Kelly is compassionate and friendly with Aisha, a more innocent 14-year-old than either Sam or Kelly. Sam taunts the new girl by calling her Curry or purposefully mispronouncing her name as Asia, yet she allows the duo to become a trio that goes by the semi-jokey name of “the Skanks.”

We see the influence of Sam and Kelly on Aisha as she begins to rebel against her mother and her family’s traditions and makes a (sweet) connection with a boy.

From the beginning of the play, there are glimpses into the interior life of Sam and Kelly as they imagine their lives reflected in pop culture – in music videos, movies and more, and those images become sizzling, beautifully executed projections on Maya Linke’s set, which comprises chain link fencing, three metal benches and a dangling wall that is actually the pavement shot through with dead tumbleweeds. It’s desolate and gorgeous at the same time.

Moving through the bumpy story of these girls and their relationships is the invaluable Jeri Lynn Cohen. She plays all the adults (and even other teens), and the great thing about her (and Philpott’s writing for the adults) is that they are not the stereotypical enemy of all things teenage fun. There’s cluelessness to be sure but also concern and genuine care, and that keeps things interesting as Sam and Kelly head into a steep learning curve based on some poor (to say the least) choices.

The performances here all crackle with vitality and the spark of Philpott’s strong script. Watching Sam and Kelly make mistakes made me ache for my imaginary daughter, the one I want to embrace her freedom and value her whole self and make good choices and learn from her bad ones. How do you give girls what they need to transition from girls to women, protecting them and letting them do what they need to do? Truck Stop is not bleak. You get a sense that Sam (who has a fascinating moment of self-awareness) and Kelly will move on with the possibility of being smarter and stronger. But you just never know. Cue the anxiety.

Lachlan Philpott’s Truck Stop, a Crowded Fire Theater production, continues through Oct. 24 at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-523-0034, Ext. 1 or visit

Love and loathing in Berkeley Rep’s football drama

The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) includes, from left, Marilee Talkington, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, Dwight Hicks, Bill Geisslinger and Jenny Mercein. Below: Two-time Super Bowl champ Hicks delivers a monologue as former player George Coleman while Talkington bandages Jackson in the background. Photos courtesy of

A critic’s personal feelings or attachment to a subject are often irrelevant when it comes to writing about a particular play. But in the case of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of X’x and O’s (A Football Love Story), I feel I have to disclose a strong personal bias. I loathe football. LOATHE it, and have all my life. That’s my dad and my brother’s territory. I’ll be in my room canoodling with stereotypes and listening to Broadway cast albums. Sports in general have never interested me much, but no other sporting activity do I actively detest and strenuously ignore as much as loud, violent, overblown football.

Football, unlike, say, politics or current events, is something I can choose not to engage in – it’s a form of entertainment, albeit a behemoth of a form, and I can opt to spend my time, energy and enthusiasm elsewhere. Sometimes, as of late, the goings-on in the NFL are hard to ignore, but when it comes to sitting in a theater and watching a play about football, specifically one describe in its subtitle as “love story,” I wrestled a bit with whether to show up.

I will say this about X’s and O’s: I’m glad I showed up. The 80-minute documentary drama based on interviews with former players, their family members, fans, physicians and others held my begrudging interest, so credit to KJ Sanchez, who wrote the piece with Jenny Mercein, who is also in the cast. Also credit director Tony Taccone with providing just enough flash with the stadium lights and the near-constant video projections to balance with the generally strong performances from his energetic cast of six, which includes former 49er safety (I don’t know what that is) Dwight Hicks, who helped that team to two Super Bowl victories in 1982 and 1985.


Testing the theory that anything examined from multiple perspectives will reveal drama, Sanchez and Mercein quickly expose the conflict at the heart of America’s love affair with football: fans love the game and all that comes with it – the bonding, the drinking, the shouting and, perhaps most of all, the brutish bashing of man-on-man action – but all of that comes with a very human price in the form of significant, life-altering injuries suffered by the players and, consequently, by their families.

The writers try very hard to balance their presentation. Fans are able to express why they love the game and why it can be a challenging sport to love. The former players, even the ones with significant injuries, express everything from pride to regret about their time on the field. But from my already anti-football seat, I was struck most by how the accumulated personal stories, especially the trio of family members (Mercein, Eddie Ray Jackson and Marilee Talkington) toward the play’s end that expresses the agonizing effect of a degenerative brain injury known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), underscored my feeling that a form of entertainment – even one that makes billions of dollars – is not worth the serious injury of those who choose to participate in it.

That X’s and O’s asks us to seriously consider the duality of football – its value, its cost, its cultural relevance – is a significant matter. For all the zippy fun in the play – and there’s plenty – this is a play that says loving something blindly or madly is ultimately irresponsible if you’re not also considering the bigger picture. Of course there’s always football as a microcosm of the United States, and certainly issues of race and class come up here, but only glancingly.

This is not a play that will change anybody’s mind: the lovers will love and the haters will hate. But it is a play that makes you think, and you’re likely to leave knowing more about brain injuries than you did when you went in. This is a deep, rich topic, and maybe there’s a bigger, deeper football play to come. Or better yet, maybe a musical.

X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) continues through March 1 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$79. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Porn, feminism and laughs in Aurora’s Rapture

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Alice (Lilian Bogovich, left), Catherine (Marilee Talkington,center), and Avery (Nicole Javier) toast to freedom in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo. Below: Gabriel Marin as Don and Talkington as Catherine have a grown-up slumber party. Photos by David Allen

There’s an observation about Internet porn in Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn now at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company that is at once hilarious and trenchant. A college woman encapsulates the ease of access to porn this way: “Once you get directions from Google Maps, it seems such a hassle to unfold an actual map.”

Generational differences and technology come into play a lot in Rapture, a crackling season opener for the Aurora. Gionfriddo is a smart, feisty writer who knows her way around a joke that always contains more than a laugh. She tackles the gargantuan issue of feminism and its evolution into the 21st century and comes through with a stage full of surprising, complicated characters having passionate, always intriguing discussions.

She’s such a sharp writer, in fact, that she’s able to make a case for Betty Friedan on one end of the feminist spectrum and Phyllis Schlafly way on the other side, all the while generating laughs and bothering to imbue her characters depth and heart.

Rapture, Blister, Burn (the title comes from a lyric by Courtney Love) is essentially a two-part invention: one part involves a summer seminar in feminism called “The Fall of American Civilization” taught by a writer described by Bill Maher as the “hot doomsday chick” and attended by a housewife and a college student making a provocative reality show with her boyfriend. The other part is a mid-life crisis triangle in which former grad school friends attempt to correct the mistakes of their past and attempt to travel the roads they didn’t take. The housewife wants to trade in her porn-loving pot-head husband and kids so she can finish the degree she abandoned. And the rock star writer wants to forgo her success for the family she didn’t have.

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Director Desdemona Chiang creates a natural but propulsive rhythm to the nearly 2 1/2-hour play, and her appealing cast makes of the most of playing smart, funny people while managing to convey real emotional weight. Marilee Talkington is Catherine, the famous writer who has returned home to care for her supposedly ailing mother (Lillian Bogovich as Alice doesn’t seem nearly as infirm as the daughter makes her out to be). Talkington expertly shifts between Catherine’s intellectual prowess and her emotional confusion as she reopens an old wound.

Catherine’s mother just happens to live in the same town as two significant people from the past: her grad school roommate, Gwen (Rebecca Schweitzer), and her former boyfriend, Don (Gabriel Marin). Gwen and Don are now married with two sons. Gwen works in the home and Don is a dean at the local college. Their marriage is not what you’d call a strong one – she’s a nag, he’s a porn-addled layabout and they have financial problems – so Catherine’s arrival finds them at a particularly vulnerable moment.

To make some extra cash while taking care of her mother, Catherine offers a summer seminar. Gwen signs up and so does Avery (Nicole Javier), a bright college student with distinct views on feminism.

The play takes some surprising turns, and if it comes close to feeling like a sitcom, Gionfriddo’s insightful writing manages to subvert those comfy-cozy expectations. Even Don, the odd man out here, is sympathetic, and through his stoner fog, he displays the smarts that have been dulled by the lack of real challenges in his life. He finds moments of truth (as they all do) when he says with tenderness: “Is that just a monologue you need to say so this isn’t your fault?” It’s a great line at a great moment, but you need to see it.

There are serious issues being bandied about here – the rise of degradation as entertainment, the notion of two empowered people navigating equality, breaking through our own personal mythologies – and no easy conclusions. Rapture, Blister, Burn entertains as much as it provokes, and while it doesn’t exactly blister or burn, it comes pretty close to achieving some theatrical rapture.

Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn continues an extended run through Oct. 5 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$60. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Crowded Fire saddles up comic Horses

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The cast of Amelia Roper’s She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange includes (from left) George Sellner, Kevin Clarke, Marilee Talkington and Zehra Berkman. Below: Clarke as Max and Talkington as Sara wrestle with a big life change. Photos by Pak Han

There’s something very sly at work in She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange, the world-premiere from Amelia Roper with Crowded Fire Theater at the Thick House. From looking at the vivid, sharply designed set by Maya Linke, with its paper sculpture trees and angled artificial grass, it’s clear this is not going to be just any walk in the park.

But that’s exactly how the play starts: a Sunday in a suburban Connecticut park for new residents Amy (Zehra Berkman) and Henry (George Sellner). He’s a warm, easygoing nurse at a children’s hospital and she’s a high-powered investment banker. They’re an odd pair, especially in this enforced outing, which they make themselves take every weekend. He’s forcing the good cheer, and she can barely contain her work-centric ADHD enough long enough to relax on the picnic blanket.

The 70-minute play’s deliberately slow start contains some of its most incisive character work, especially from Berkman, whose annoyance and anxiety occasionally breaks through the sunny Sunday facade she’s trying to maintain

Then along come Max (Kevin Clarke) and Sara (Marliee Talkington), who also live in the tony neighborhood. He’s in a three-piece suit, which doesn’t seem odd for an investment banker, except that it’s Sunday…and he’s carrying a floor lamp. She’s in evening wear and lugging around an unusually heavy load of shopping bags (Coach, Neiman Marcus, Jimmy Choo).

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As this quartet tangles, spars (Max and Amy used to work together) and socializes, it’s clear that something is definitely up. The surprise, when it’s revealed, isn’t really that surprising, but what’s sly about Roper’s script is the way she conveys a sense of absurdism – on the spectrum from Beckett to Will Eno – and high comedy for a situation that turns out not to be absurd or all that funny. Except it is.

Financial ruin, hubris, keeping up appearances – all those great American traditions – are all in play here, as is a whole lot of verbal dexterity. Director M. Graham Smith and his actors underscore Roper’s tone of comic desperation quite effectively even if the only character who really breaks through is Sara, and that has a whole lot to do with Talkington’s remarkable performance.

Sara, a naive, spoiled housewife, could be the true clown of the piece, but she turns out to be the most compassionate. She, among this quartet, has capacity for change, for opening up and experiencing life rather than fighting it. She’s always been one thing, and now faced with a change in circumstances, it seems she’s going to try and be another. Talkington is quite funny to be sure, but there’s so much going on in Sara, from her open-book face to her manor house body language, that it’s almost impossible not to watch her.

That’s not to take away anything from the other actors, all of whom are terrific. Sellner effectively conveys a sunny disposition underscored with something dark and brooding, while Berkman happily breaks through the Sunday doldrums to feast on poor Max. Clarke has all kinds of edgy charisma as Max plays on the swings – the mood swings, naturally, it’s a park – and takes stock of his life and all the things about it he hasn’t paid attention to since he was a child.

Amid the laughs and the shadows and the absurdist tangents, there’s something not quite there at the core of the play. In the end, there’s a confined, airless quality to it that’s hard to shake and makes the play feel longer than it is. Perhaps that’s intentional, but it also keeps Horses from reaching a full gallop.

Amelia Roper’s She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange continues through April 12 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit

Shrew you, shutdown! The Taming gets it right

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In the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming, the future of America is in the hands of three slightly insane women – a liberal political activist (Marilet Martinez, left), a beauty queen (Kathryn Zdan, center), and a conservative senatorial aid (Marilee Talkington) – who might just be revolutionary geniuses. Below: The Crowded Fire Theater production (with, from left, Martinez, Zdan and Talkington) takes us into a 21st-century hotel room and into late 18th-century America. Photos by Pak Han.

The word “factions” is uttered in a way that makes it sound like the filthiest word you can imagine. And, in these tense government shutdown days, it actually is. But when James Madison says the word, you feel it whistling through the centuries like an airborne bomb that explodes afresh every time political idiocy allows factions (it’s such an easy word to say with loathing) to hijack democracy.

The world premiere of San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming couldn’t come at a more volatile time. Our government just happens to be in the middle of a crisis that was anticipated, according to Gunderson’s play, by our founding fathers. The wise Mr. Madison did his best to avert the power of the special interests, but he compromised to keep our fledgling country steady and strong, at least to start.

Now we have a clusterfuck of right and left and red and blue and hardline, ego-dominated politics that is actually bad for the people of this country – all the people of this country. And that is exactly what Gunderson’s The Taming is addressing in a way that is smart, incisive and incredibly funny.

This vivacious world premiere from Crowded Fire Theater (part of a rolling world premiere with Seattle’s Arts West) couldn’t be more timely. Gunderson, who is pretty much writing every play on Bay Area stages these days (see Shotgun Players, see Marin Theatre Company, see TheatreWorks, see San Francisco Playhouse), has created a satirical comedy that works on its own terms, but she has also crafted a rather ingenious adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, that problematic play that asks a beaten-down, starved woman to say she’s “ashamed women are so foolish.”

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Gunderson will have none of that, so in her version, she spins Shakespeare’s characters – Katherine, the titular shrew, is now Miss Georgia, a contestant in the Miss America pageant; Bianca, the bratty younger sister of the shrew, is now a lefty-liberal blogger; and Petruchio, the “tamer,” is now a right-wing conservative Republican politico who also happens to be a lesbian – and sets them on a worthwhile task of taming. These ladies, who couldn’t be more different from one another, are asked to combine their passion, their intelligence and their love of country in an effort to tame the U.S. Congress, and while they’re at it, fix the Constitution and the country itself.

The Shrew connection is mostly played for laughs (actual shrews are mentioned often, but it’s in context of the liberal blogger’s quest to keep a species of panda shrews from extinction), with a few sly references here and there until the end, when Gunderson smacks down Shakespeare by kicking a formerly repellent speech (and nearly always repellent Congress) squarely in the ass.

The really nifty trick here is that Gunderson sets up three women we think we know – stereotypes of the beauty queen, the bleeding-heart liberal, the heartless conservative – and lets them surprise us (in good ways and otherwise). It feels great to laugh at smart comedy that cares about the Constitution, about the Founding Fathers’ best intentions, about making long overdue and necessary changes to a country that still has a lot of evolving to do and still has time for broad physical comedy involving a lack of pants.

Director Marissa Wolf drives an almost manic pace as Gunderson sets up her plot: a locked hotel room contains one genius mastermind (the beauty queen, naturally, played with delicious comic flair by Kathryn Zdan) and two seeming enemies, the social media-obsessed crusader (a loose canon Marilet Martinez) and the old-school Republican serving a powerhouse conservative senator (an increasingly hilarious and surprisingly sweet Marilee Talkington).

There are things about this hugely entertaining production that could be sharpened – too many lines get lost in rushed delivery and in the wake of big laughs – but the messiness is part of the appeal. Drugs, sparkly evening wear, sexual tension, kidnapping and scandal are all part of the mix.

And then Gunderson does something wonderful. She takes us to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and lets the 21st-century women play George Washington, James Madison and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (who voices the powerful opinion of the slavery-loving South and represents one of those factions who threatens to leave the discussion at every hint of not getting exactly what they want). Dolly Madison and Martha Washington make guest appearances, and once we’re back in the hotel room (set by Mikiko Uesugi), we get more zaniness, a satisfying glimpse into a better future and a “dance break for America.”

The happy ending, borne of actual conversation filled with actual dialogue, seems like pure fantasy at this point (alas), but it’s a giddy delight none the less. The Taming has much to offer that is pointed, thought provoking and laugh-out-loud funny, but I cannot get the image of Talkington’s pantyhose out of my head, nor the image of Zdan, all in sparkling blue, shouting, “I am an ambitious American woman in evening wear, and I will not be fucked with!” I’m ready to vote for either woman to do anything.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Lauren Gunderson (and local actor Jennifer Le Blanc) for a story in American Theater magazine. Read the story here.

Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming continues through Oct. 26 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit

Just Wilde over Aurora’s Salomania

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Madeline H.D. Brown is Maud Allan (center) in the world premiere of Mark Jackson’s Salomania at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Brown as Allan observes the testimony of Lord Alfred Douglas (Liam Vincent, right) in the courtroom of Judge Darling (Kevin Clarke). Photos by David Allen

If only a 94-year-old scandal were sensational in ways we no longer understood, we could look back and wonder what all the fuss was about and why the media underestimated the taste of the general public and why the general public was so content to be constantly underestimated.

Alas, not much has changed since the early 20th century criminal libel suit that American dancer Maud Allan brought against British newspaper publisher Noel Pemberton-Billing after he described the interest in her dance piece Vision of Salomé as the “cult of the clitoris.” That was the headline he used in his paper, the Vigilante, to describe the moral reprobates who were attracted to Allan’s version of the play by Oscar Wilde, which had been banned since Wilde’s very public downfall.

What we learn in Mark Jackson’s fascinating and at moments electrifying new play Salomania is that the media, though their aims may be occasionally true, are a pawn in larger political games and panderers to public taste, which they help shape.

Allan, who spent her childhood in San Francisco, was a sensation in London, and as such, she became a prime target for Pemberton-Billing to goad her into filing a libel suit against him. He had apparently tried and tried to get the local politicos to do the same thing, but none of them took his bait. But Allan, with her past family scandal (her brother Theo murdered two girls in San Francisco) and her desire to be a self-made woman, wasn’t about to let a rabble-rouser tarnish her good name (though her actual name was Beulah Maude Durrant). So, at the height of World War I, Allan squared off against Pemberton-Billing at the Old Bailey, the same courthouse where Wilde had seen his world crumble 25 years earlier.

This is prime material for a drama, and Jackson is just the writer/director to bring it to interesting and finely detailed life. A trial is, of course, a kind of theater in and of itself, so there’s a scorching good drama already built in – especially when Wilde’s “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas, took the stand as a witness for Pemberton-Billing and dredged up all the turmoil and name calling and closed mindedness from 25 years earlier.

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But Jackson takes a wider view beyond just the trial. He spends a good deal of time in the trenches of No Man’s Land, fighting alongside the British soldiers slogging through the mud of France. While we’re constantly reminded of how the British public was being distracted from the war by the sensation of the Allan trial, we see the soldiers completely captivated by scandal back home. One soldier even says the headlines, as they trickle in, are the only thing keeping him going.

Part of the irony in this complicated tale is that Pemberton-Billing wanted a sensational trial precisely so he could call attention to the failures of the British government and its weak peace plans and advocate for a swift and decisive end to the war. His theory, hatched with Harold Spencer, an American who served as a British secret agent, was that if they can bring attention to a German black book containing the names of 47,000 traitors to Her Majesty’s government, they could rally the troops, so to speak, infiltrate the vast German network of spies and accomplices and win the war for Britain.

That he wanted to do this by smearing the name of a dancer and aligning her with the same “moral perversity” nonsense that brought down Wilde is rather astonishing. But seeing how much traction this stunt got him is more than astonishing – it’s sickening.

Jackson is such an astute craftsman that he’s able to create a near-epic feel in the intimate Aurora. His cast of seven, all playing multiple roles except for Madeline H.D. Brown as Allan, makes a powerful impression as major historical figures, ordinary British citizens and beleaguered soldiers. Mark Anderson Phillips works up quite a froth as Pemberton-Billing, who represented himself in the libel case and apparently did so at very high volume. This man wanted to be heard, and he certainly was.

Brown’s Allan veers from being an ethereal presence, especially when she’s dancing (choreography by Chris Black) to an understandably tormented young woman who is far away from her damaged family and navigating the perils and pleasures of fame and notoriety on her own. As Judge Darling, the colorful presiding justice of the case, Kevin Clarke is having a marvelous time with the character’s eccentricity. Clarke also plays Wilde in an interesting if overlong scene toward the end of the play that could use more crackle.

Perhaps that particular scene suffers in comparison to an earlier scene, also set a table, between a soldier (Alex Moggridge) home in London on two days’ leave, and a war widow (Marilee Talkington) anxious to do her part and show the fighting men her appreciation. Jackson has two actors, both quite visible, on the floor rotating the platform on which the scene takes place (the fantastically utilitarian set is by Nina Ball). The effect is mesmerizing, and the scene is among the best in the 2 ½-hour play.

Liam Vincent is superb as Lord Alfred Douglas, with vestiges of his youthful brattiness still visible even has he fights to prove how much he has matured and changed since his association with Wilde. And Anthony Nemirovsky is great as Spencer, the American who’s on a crusade with Pemberton-Billing to change the course of the war. Watching Nemirovsky essay Spencer’s breakdown on the stand is absolutely thrilling (it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch the blowhards, no matter how sincere, crumble).

Through it all, Jackson orchestrates the proceedings with lyrical moments of dance – not just Allan but also the soldiers in the trenches – and humor and horror. There’s a scene of a hanging that is so jarring it might as well have been real and not just a clever theatrical effect (with nods to lighting designer Heather Basarab and sound designer Matt Stines).

If Salomania is overstuffed with information and parallels to our own times, it’s completely understandable. This is rich, rewarding material, even if its observations about the third estate, wartime hysteria and the distraction of a good scandal are as alarming as they are entertaining


Mark Jackson’s Salomania continues an extended run through July 29 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Time gets Sticky in experimental show

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Let’s do the time warp again: Rami Margron (left) is Thea, Lawrence Radecker (center) is Tim(e) and Michele Leavy is Emit in Marilee Talkington’s Sticky Time, a co-production of Crowded Fire Theater Company and Vanguardian Productions. Below: Mollena Williams is The Only. Photos by Dave Nowakowsaki

I was enthralled by the form and baffled by the content. That, in a nutshell, is my reaction to the world premiere of Sticky Time, an experimental new work from writer/director Marilee Talkington. A co-production of Crowded Fire Theater Company and Talkington’s own Vanguardian Productions, Sticky Time is a wild hour of theater.

I will not begin to pretend that I understood any of it. In plain fact, I did not. When I got home, I read the program, and the thoughts of dramaturg Laura Brueckner and science advisor Andrew Meisel were very interesting – all about the nature of time, which is an interesting blend of science and philosophy – but in the moment of the show, I strained to understand but failed.

But because Talkington has created an experience as much as she has created a play, there’s much to appreciate in the design and execution of Sticky Time, which is like stepping into an art installation for an hour. All your senses (except maybe smell and taste) are challenged in an interesting way.

The black box space (the upstairs studio at the Brava Theater Center) has been utilized in its entirety. The audience sits in a clump at the center of the room on swiveling office chairs. The performance space rings the room, which has been draped in white fabric. Lights, speakers and projections are everywhere – a veritable showcase for set and lighting designer Andrew Lu, composer Chao-Jan Chang, sound designer Colin Trevor, costumer Maggie Whitaker and video designers Rebecca Longworth (animation) and Lloyd Vance (cinematography).

There’s a horror movie/sci-fi vibe to the look, sound and feel of the room, which is exciting.

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As for the play itself, I can tell you the actors are all intense and committed, even if I’m not clear what they’re intensely committed to. Rami Margron seems to be at the center of the story as Thea, a sort of plant manager where the product is time. As with all plants, there’s a punch clock for employees and lots of maintenance on machinery that seems prone to blockages. Lawrence Radecker is Tim(e) and Michele Leavy is Emit, the only other plant employees we meet.

So then there’s this weird stuff with “timequakes,” and then Thea starts shooting up from fiber-optic time cables and seems to become addicted, but every time she hooks up to the fiber-optics, she messes with time and jeopardizes her family.

Then Mollena Williams is some sort of goddess figure floating through the action looking all wise and knowing. Her character, The Only, is the only one with a microphone, so her words must be extra-important. Can’t really tell you any more because, as I’ve said previously, my comprehension was sorely limited.

I must say that understanding a play doesn’t necessarily inhibit enjoyment. It certainly limits your level of involvement – especially emotionally – but if a play sucks you into its world, you don’t have to get everything about it to feel part of it. With Sticky Time I can only say that’s partly true. I loved the artsy rave atmosphere of the theater, but this was one long hour. There’s just enough story and character to make you think you should be more involved, but I could never catch hold, in spite of the actors’ best efforts to convey drama and tension.

In some ways, I wish Sticky Time had gone even further and been even louder and flashier and even more incomprehensible. I would relish a breathless hour in which I didn’t have time to think about what I was getting or not getting and just got caught up in the whirl of experience, when time really does stand still.

Marilee Talkington’s Sticky Time continues through Nov. 18 at the Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$40 with student and senior discounts. Visit

Truce is out of sight


Marilee Talkington, the writer and performer of Truce at the Noh Space. Photo by Andrew Lu.

You could describe Marilee Talkington in a number of ways, starting with the fact that she is going blind. She is partially sighted, visually impaired, visually handicapped, sensorily challenged; she has low vision or no vision. She has been called Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Helen Keller. And those are only a few of the descriptions that come up in Talkington’s compelling 90-minute solo show Truce at San Francisco’s Noh Space.

After seeing the show, other descriptions that come to mind: dynamic actor, intriguing writer and astonishingly deft performer.

Developed with Justin Quinn Pelegano (who directed it in New York), Truce is about Talkington’s view of the world, which began physically to deteriorate when she was a child, the result of rod-cone dystrophy, a degenerative disorder passed on to her from her mother, who is also legally blind. The center of Talkington’s vision is completely blind, and her peripheral vision is growing ever more blind. With corrective lenses (which she doesn’t wear until the curtain call), Talkington has some vision, but to watch her on the stage (with set and lights by Andrew Lu), the way she navigates a rolling stool and dances around, you wouldn’t know she had any difficulties at all.

As she says, on stage is where she feels most in control, and it shows. This American Conservatory Theater-trained actor seizes the stage—and her audience.

Director Marissa Wolf (artistic director of Crowded Fire) and Talkington create a fluid production that melds dance (choreography by Sonya Smith), projections and autobiography to particularly potent effect. As we get to know Talkington, we discover a vivacious woman whose enthusiasm and anger have been tempered by shifting attitudes about what it means to be blind, how to embrace (or shun) the blind community and how to blame (or not) the mother that handed down this blind sentence. The issues surrounding her mother and her mother’s stern attitude toward handling a disability in the world (and how the world handles your disability) are especially complex and fascinating.

Just when Talkington is on the verge of becoming too strident, or if self-pity starts creeping in, Talkington and Wolf shift the tone. Dreadful high school years are enlivened by a passion for basketball. “I was a force of nature, probably because I had a little bit of an anger problem,” she says. Or when she describes visiting her classical music-loving grandparents, she erupts into a passionate dance to “Carmina Burana” that is a definite highlight of the evening.

What makes this more than just another autobiographical solo show is Talkington’s effort to help us see the world through her eyes – literally. The entire show is performed behind a scrim, so our view of her is blurred. At the center of the scrim is a video projection meant to blur and block whatever’s behind it. The center of our viewpoint, like Talkington’s, grows more and more obscured, forcing focus onto the powerful honesty of her voice, which has so much to say, so much to offer in the ways of seeing the world in an entirely different way.

Watch a video about Truce here.


Marilee Talkington’s Truce continues an extended run through April 10 at the Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa St., San Francisco. Tickets are $12-$25. Visit or