Speaking the language of life in Berkeley Rep’s English

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ABOVE: The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s English includes (from left) Sarah Nina Hayon as Roya, Christine Mirzayan as Goli and Mehry Eslaminia as Elham. BELOW: Sahar Bibiyan is Marjan, the instructor, and Amir Malaklou is Omid, one of her best students. Photos by Alessandra Mello

It’s so interesting that in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s English, your ears have to become accustomed to hearing English. Playwright Sanaz Toossi’s sensitive comedy/drama is set entirely in a classroom in Karaj, Iran circa 2008. The instructor and her four students are engaged in English lessons leading up to the exam known as the TOEFL or Test of English as a Foreign Language. The play is (almost) entirely in English, so when the characters are speaking their native Farsi, they speak in unaccented, colloquial English. When they are communicating in English, we hear varying degrees of accents and grammatical skills, depending on the level of the speaker.

It’s a clever way to fall into the cadence of toggling between two languages without having to use sub/surtitles. There’s more engagement with the characters and their various states of mind, and it’s fascinating to contrast the levels of confidence some of the characters display when speaking their own language compared to the personality transformation that can happen when they are attempting to speak in a language that is not coming easily to them.

Director Mina Morita lets this one-act play unfold slowly as we get to know Marjan (Sahar Bibiyan), the instructor who lived, for a time, in England and still enjoys watching British rom-coms to keep her English skills sharp, and her small class. The biggest personality among them is Elham (Mehry Eslaminia), who has failed all past attempts at the TOEFL and struggles with everything about English. She’s under pressure to pass the exam because she’ll soon be starting medical school in Australia. Goli (Christine Mirzayan) is much more enthusiastic, and it’s one of the play’s many pleasures to see this youthful student gaining confidence in her language skills. Omid (Amir Malaklou) catches Marjan’s eye, and not just because he’s such a strong English speaker, and Roya (Sarah Nina Hayon) is, essentially, being forced to learn English by her son, who is now living in Canada and doesn’t want his child speaking Farsi with anyone.

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In about two dozen scenes, we see the ups and downs of the students, perhaps a romance and some minor drama (speaking strictly in dramatic terms). But within these very recognizable rhythms are lives in motion and the push and pull of family, career, culture, politics. We’re only seeing these people across six weeks or so and only during their classes, so we experience slivers of their lives even while they are creating the community that can happen in a classroom (complete with bonds and battles).

What comes through so remarkably in this intimate, often quite hilarious play is how oblivious we can be to the importance of language in expressing our identity. The idea of belonging or being an outsider based on how you speak is explored, as is the joy of being able to express yourself in a new way or to make someone laugh in a different language. Can a new language be an escape? A salvation? A personal revolution? Or maybe even a shortcut to an appreciation of your own native tongue? Playwright Toossi keeps her scope narrow, but she allows the weight of the world to press in on this little group.

Morita’s wonderful cast works in shades of nuanced reality that allow us to feel like we’re really getting to know these characters. Even when Toossi’s script can be a little too placid, a little too subdued, there’s abundant warmth and humor that keeps us deeply invested in these people’s lives.

There’s always going to be something funny in someone mangling language – not in a jeering way but in appreciation of the bravery required to even make the attempt – and that is certainly a big part of the laughs in English, but even more, the humor bonds us. When we laugh together (in real life and in the theater) we’re acknowledging the depth of communication – our shared humanity, our empathy, our awareness. We may not all speak English, but in English, especially in those moments of comedy, we’re all speaking the same language.

Sanaz Toossi’s English continues through May 7 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $43-119. Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes (no intermission). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Crowded Fire tells a futuristic Tale of Autumn

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Yul (Skyler Cooper) and Rena (Maria Candelaria) grow closer contemplating life outside Farm Company’s rules and regulations in Crowded Fire’s world-premiere production of Christopher Chen’s A Tale of Autumn at the Potrero Stage. Below: San (Nora el Samahy) and Xavier (Christopher W. White) have a long history and common enemies. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Who are the good guys/bad guys? What truth lies behind smokescreens and lies? And when good guys resort to immoral behavior, doesn’t that make them bad guys, thus leaving a dearth of good guys and obscured truth?

San Francisco playwright Christoper Chen’s world-premiere A Tale of Autumn, a commission from Crowded Fire Theater, is all about good gone bad and bad gone worse. Imagine Google, Oprah and the U.S. Government wrestling with notions of altruism and greed and you get some idea of what Chen is up to here.

Staged by director Mina Morita – also Crowded Fire’s artistic director – on what looks like a ritual platform carved of stone with a few chairs and tables straight from the Flintstone collection (design by Adeline Smith), the primitive space In the Potrero Stage is enhanced by elegant white drapes that effectively catch the lights (by Ray Oppenheimer and projections (by Theodore J.H. Hulsker, who also contributes sound design) and convey a sense of modernism at odds with the primal furnishings. This play feels vaguely futuristic – there’s talk of phones, for instance, but electronic devices are ever seen – and the characters dress in a more elegant version of Star Wars/Star Trek finery (designs by Miriam R. Lewis).

At the center of the story is a massive agricultural outfit called the Farm Company that aims not to be the usual corporate behemoth raping the land and pillaging the people for profit. Not unlike Google’s “don’t be evil” mandate, Farm Co. has grown so big and so powerful that it can’t help being a little (or a lot) evil. The founder of the company has just died, and her successors are at a crossroads, both moral and financial. There’s an opportunity to make the company even more powerful so it can do more good for more people (according to one candidate to fill the CEO position) or they can, according to another candidate, make the shareholders happy by simply doing whatever it takes to beef up the profits.

San (Nora el Samahy) seems to be the idealist CEO candidate who espouses following a vaguely cult-y notion of the founder’s philosophy known as “The Way,” while Dave (Lawrence Radecker) is more of a capitalist pig type. But nothing is quite what it seems when massive amounts of money are involved. Plots are hatched, crimes are committed in the name of doing what’s best for the company and its customers and goals are achieved at the cost of people dying (unintentionally, or perhaps, intentionally).

Just another day in the good ol’ U.S.A.

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In this future world, Big Agriculture has taken over pretty much everything, including what people are allowed to plant at their own homes. One rebel (Michele Apriña Leavy, who also plays a scary member of the Farm Co. board of directors) grows a kind of wheat that has been outlawed just so she can make a delicious loaf of bread. It’s that kind of cruel future – one that messes with our carbs and our childhood memories of home cooking. When her rebelliousness is quashed, her friend Yul (Skyler Cooper) partners up with Rena (Maria Candelaria) a former Farm Co. employee who has suddenly become an investigative journalist aiming to expose corruption at the highest level. She even manages to get into a prison cell with a supposed terrorist (Christopher W. White in a sharp-edged performance).

So, is A Tale of Autumn satirical? Sometimes, especially when the character of Dave is involved (he’s like something out of the HBO show “Silicon Valley”). Is it a foreboding thriller? Sometimes but not nearly enough. Though there are lives and global economies at stake here, the tension doesn’t feel very tense. Is it a parable a bout the depthless greed and idiocy of humankind? Yes, and that’s where it’s most effective. The whole thing about the former employee becoming a journalist and somehow gaining access to people at the highest corporate levels feels implausible at best. There’s a lot of plot activity in this two-plus-hour play, but none of it carries much weight beyond the cerebral exercise of comparing the action to events of our own troubled times.

The most interesting character here is Mariana (Mia Tagano), a division leader at the company whose loyalty is kind of a gray area. She thinks San’s goal of realizing the late founder’s true vision for the company is a good one, even if it means the ouster of Dave, who happens to be her lover (even though Dave apparently lives with his male lover, Gil, played by Shoresh Alaudini. It doesn’t seem to take much to get Mariana to betray confidence, though when she has her final change of heart, we don’t know how or why, only that it happened, which feels dramatically inert. There’s something very interesting about how people change their minds based on how hard (or easy) it might be to affect change of one kind or another,
and though we see a bit of this process from other people, it would be interesting to be more inside Mariana’s head.

This feels like a new play that hasn’t yet found its way. The ending comes so abruptly it seems more a stopping point than an actual ending. If a tale of winter is hot on the heels of this Tale of Autumn, it promises to be more confusing than chilling.

Christopher Chen’s A Tale of Autumn continues through Oct. 7 at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034, ext. 1 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

Lots to unpack in Crowded Fire’s Shipment

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William Hartfield (left) and Nican Robinson in Crowded Fire’s production of The Shipment by Young Jean Lee with gravity-defying choreography by Rami Margron. Below: The cast of The Shipment plays out a surprising living room drama. From left: William Hartfield, Nican Robinson, Howard Johnson Jr., Nkechi Emeruwa and Michael Wayne Turner III. Photos by Pak Han

While Secretary Clinton and The Orange Bloviator were duking it out at the first presidential debate and helping the populace decide the fate of this troubled nation, Crowded Fire Theater was painting its own portrait of America at the opening of Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment at the Thick House.

It was an incendiary evening for several reasons, not the least of which was the actual heat wave baking San Francisco. But Lee’s wild and wily play generated plenty of heat on its own with a Korean-American playwright taking a cast of black actors through a spectrum (or is it a prism?) of what being black can look like in this country.

The Shipment ventures into the realm of Suzan-Lori Parks and Caryl Churchill, whip-smart writers who stretch and often snap the boundaries of conventional theater. From its cryptic title through all of its 90 minutes, The Shipment confounds, delights, provokes and dazzles. Co-directed by Crowded Fire Artistic Director Mina Morita and Lisa Marie Rollins, this is contemporary theater at its most challenging and rewarding.

Somewhat ironically, the Thick House, a flexible play space, has been transformed by designer Deanna L. Zibello into a wholly traditional proscenium stage complete with red curtain. Within this world, the opening dance, rousingly choreographed by Rami Margron performed by William Hartfield and Nican Robinson, looks completely at home.

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Exuberant and cartoonish and feeling like it’s part 1980s, part 1920s, the dance is an aperitif leading us into a stand-up comedy routine performed by Howard Johnson Jr. that essentially deconstructs our notion of what a black male comic is supposed to be all the while feeding us (occasionally) funny stand-up. But the longer the comic goes on, the more honest he becomes until he admits that his entire stage persona – from poop jokes, to button-pushing racial observations to infanticide to bestiality to incest – is a construct and bears no relation to the person he is offstage (except for maybe his affection for the scatological).

That unsettling monologue then leads into the evening’s strangest and most potent section in which we’re fed the kind of “gritty” black story we’ve experienced so much on TV and in film. A young man (Michael Wayne Turner III) dreams of becoming a rapper, gets tangled up in the drug world, ends up in prison, becomes a famous rapper anyway and falls down the fame hole. But in Lee’s version, the grit has been removed, and highly stylized stereotype takes its place. The result is at once bland and fascinating, a mirror held up to a mirror that reveals only the emptiness of familiarity devoid of actual human beings.

Some humanity returns in the form of a bizarre song sung in three-part a cappella harmony (by Turner, Robinson and Nkechi Emeruwa, music direction by Sean Fenton) that can’t help but be beautiful the longer it lingers and the more it repeats.

That little palate cleanser takes us into the evening’s only major set change, as a nicely appointed living room takes shape (is it notable that seemingly the only two caucasian people in the show are the guys moving the furniture?) and a party among friends commences. It’s quite clear from early on in this crisply performed mini-play that Lee is up to something more than just letting unlikeable people interact with one another over cocktails and cranky conversation. And sure enough, the scene takes some Albee turns and then whomps us with an exclamation point that emphasizes a simple fact: this is a Shipment carrying a whole lot of freight that may never be fully unpacked.

Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment continues through Oct. 15 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034 (ext. 1) or visit www.crowdefire.org.

Ferocious Lotus unfolds a lovely Crane

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Monica Ho is Sadako in JC Lee’s world-premiere Crane, a Ferocius Lotus Theatre Company production at NOHspace. Below: Greg Ayers as Bradley falls for the enigmatic Ho as Sadako. Photos by Adam Tolbert

The Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company world premiere of JC Lee’s Crane is the kind of theater that makes me happy. Here’s a small company taking a step up with its first solo production. They’re tackling a notable playwright (Lee’s work has been seen locally at Impact Theatre and Sleepwalkers Theater and he’s a writer for ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” and HBO’s “Looking”), and with a small budget in a small theater (NOHspace), they’re making something beautiful.

There’s poetry and pizzazz in Lee’s writing, which can burst with lovely imagery and depth one minute and sharp, tossed-off jokes the next. He’s telling a story of grief and romance and creativity and imbues it with the ancient and the contemporary. His is a fusion of styles that allows for straightforward storytelling and excursions into the more obtuse.

Director Mina Morita matches Lee’s style with a vibrant production that blends artful with practical as she unfurls the story of a young woman leaving her grieving mother’s house and seeking her own life (and flight!) in the wider world and contrasts that with the story of a tapestry maker and his big city art dealer. The two storylines coalesce in a way that is never fully explained – is it reality and fairy tale? All reality? All fairy tale? It doesn’t really matter if, for instance, the young woman isn’t really a young woman at all but a crane (represented on stage by a lightbulb with feathers that looks a little like Tinker Bell). Perhaps she’s both. The lyricism of her story doesn’t really require such distinctions.

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Monica Ho grounds the play and gives it wings as Sadako, the young woman with a poet’s soul and a sailor’s mouth. Her chance encounter with the artist, Bradley (an empathetic Greg Ayers), invigorates his life and saves him from destitution. Having just sold his refrigerator to pay the rent on his forest home, Bradley has hit a creative dead end is making tapestries featuring vegetables with cartoon names. When Sadako wanders in on a cold night, he doesn’t know what to make of her. “Kill a motherfucker and eat the bones until they’re your bones,” Sadako tells him. Bewildered, he answers, “I’m not into that.” And she replies. “I know. You be you.”

The real world, or perhaps the outside world, is represented by a wry Leon Goertzen as Bradley’s fickle, opinionated art dealer for whom creativity is but a means to a check with lots of zeroes. We also meet Sadako’s world-weary mother and a doctor, both played by Lily Tung Crystal, and that’s really all we need to focus in on this intimate tale that turns into an unlikely love story and explosions of creativity that come at a tremendous cost.

Even at about 100 minutes, Crane feels a trifle too long. There are some dramatic lulls here and there that could be tightened up, and an ongoing story about a survivor of the atomic bomb attacks on Japan trying to make 1,000 cranes so she can make a wish to overcome her radiation sickness, while central to the play, doesn’t feel as well integrated as other aspects of the storytelling. It’s there, but not quite all the way.

On a set designed by Kuo-Hao Lo and lit by Kevin Landesman, director Morita and her actors craft some striking images, with the most memorable being Ho on a ladder in front of a giant moon with a spiral of lights into its center. Costumer Keiko Shimosato Carreiro gives Sadako wings – literal wings – and the image against the backdrop is, like so much of Crane, stunning.

JC Lee’s Crane continues through Oct. 11 in a Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company production at NOHspace, 2840 Mariposa St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-322-0859 or visit www.ferociouslotus.org.

Of nihilism, comedy and epic theater in Aulis

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Matthew Hannon is Agamemnon in Christopher Chen’s Aulis: An Act of Nihilism in One Long Act, a production of U.C. Berkeley’s Theater Dance & Performance Studies Department directed by Mina Morita. Below: Samuel Avishay as Achilles gets deep into combat. Photos by Adam Tolbert

Award-winning San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen gets deep into existential nihilism in his latest world premiere, Aulis: An Act of Nihilism in One Long Act. That title pretty much says it all: Chen takes the premise of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis and gives it a contemporary spin that allows for abundant comedy yet still leads to a bloody, ultimately futile end.

Chen’s epic one-act receives a spiffy production from U.C. Berkeley’s Theater Dance & Performance Studies Department, which seems appropriate as Chen is a Cal alum and began his playwriting career there. The really good news is that there’s nothing about this production that would indicate it’s a student production (not that there’s anything wrong with a student production, especially a university, duh). Credit director Mina Morita and her team of extraordinary designers and actors for giving Chen’s play the life and flash and impact it requires.

Entering Zellerbach Playhouse, the audience finds the play has already begun, with the Greek soldiers and their 100,000 ships stranded in Aulis due to lack of winds. The soldiers are on the Aulis beachhead trying to keep themselves occupied. Some are watching animé on seven battered TVs in one part of the sand-covered set (design by Martin Flynn). Others are in front of another screen playing the video game “God of War.” Still others are engaging in intense mock battles involving roshambo with actual swords and fists. These soldiers, all pumped and ready to kick some Trojan keister and exact revenge for Paris’ theft of the lovely Helen, wife of Menelaus. But without wind, their ships are stuck, and a prophecy has come down that in order to get the winds to blow, their leader, Agamemnon (brother of Menelaus) must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.

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All of this storytelling is quickly dispatched as Agamemnon, who does and doesn’t want to murder his daughter, awaits the arrival of his wife, Clytemnestra, and Iphigenia. In this enforced delay, where boredom, restlessness and bad decision making abound, Agamemnon is losing sight of pretty much everything: why are they fighting? why are they stuck? why does life seem so meaningless?

Chen’s spin on this ancient tale crackles with modern humor, especially in the character of Agamemnon, expertly played by Matthew Hannon, who has the ability to play the comedy and satire and, as they play demands it, provide a deeper, darker take on commander losing his drive and a father weighing his own broken heart agains the welfare of his troops. It’s no accident that Chen originally wrote Aulis during the Bush era, when wartime decision making seemed dubious at best. This 90-minute play overflows with the absurdity of war, and director Morita and her 14-member cast tread delicately on that ever-shifting line between barbed comedy and complex, human drama.

That’s why this handsome production feels less like a student production and more like something you’d see on the main stage of a sturdy regional theater. In addition to Flynn’s sandy set (which, if you watch closely, begins shrinking as the drama intensifies), the lighting by Jim French lends an operatic feel to the proceedings, creating gorgeous stage pictures with the set and with Erik Scanlon’s projection designs. The costumes by Ashley Rogers also play that line between serious and comic, with some seriously beautiful images coming through (especially with the arrival of Iphigenia and company). Hannah Birch Carl has crafted a magisterial sound design but with comic touches – the music (and the lights) keep cutting out at inopportune times, leaving the actors to look befuddled until the production gets back on track. No matter how many times it happens, it’s always good for a laugh.

There are several kick-ass fights, courtesy of fight director Dave Maier, and the high-energy cast really goes for it. The sand flies and the clanging swords ring. Perhaps there is one way you can tell this is a student production, and that’s the incredible enthusiasm the actors show for the work they’re doing. From the soldiers in the ensemble to the leads, these performances have a gusto and finesse you don’t often find in Greek drama.

In addition to Hannon’s excellent Agamemnon, we get a wonderfully bizarre Achilles courtesy of Samuel Avishay (and his henchperson Polly played by Eleanor White) and a strong Clytemnestra (Annie Fei) and even stronger Iphigenia (Veronica Maynez). In supporting roles, Eddie Benzoni is a droll assistant to Agamemnon, but no one has more gum-chewing sass than Morgan Steele as Iphigenia’s maid, Grace.

If you have to be stuck in Aulis with anyone, this is the crew you want. Nihilism has rarely been so enjoyable.

Christopher Chen’s Aulis: An Act of Nihilism in One Long Act continues through March 15 at the Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC Berkeley campus. Tickets are $13-$20. Visit tdps.berkeley.edu.

Shotgun’s dramatic attack of the clones

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Jennifer Le Blanc is Denise and Michael Patrick Gaffney is Steven, one of the world’s foremost cloning scientists, in Shotgun Players’ world-premiere production of By and By by Lauren Gunderson. Below: Bari Robinson (left) and Lynne Hollander are enigmatic government mouthpieces. Photos by Pak Han

When playwright Lauren Gunderson arrived on the Bay Area theater scene, she arrived in a big way. First, she blew everyone away with her comedy Exit, Pursued by a Bear and then she proved to be incredibly prolific, with seven plays debuting in two years. Her By and By, having its world premiere at Shotgun Players, is one of three new plays she’ll open this year in the Bay Area.

The play, a sort of humanistic/science fiction exploration of what human cloning might really be like, is a great example of why a Gunderson script is so appealing. Delving into the serious implications of creating human beings outside the natural order, Gunderson has one character express it this way: “God is pissed off because you’re messing with his shit.” And later in the play, she has another character say in chilling tones, “It’s not right to play God…and fail.”

Science fiction, even if it’s on the verge of becoming non-fiction, is a tough sell on stage. Somehow, creating an alternate version of our existing world in another time and space is more the purview of film than of stage, which doesn’t really make sense except that it’s easier to create a seemingly fully formed vision of a real world on film than it is on stage, which always seems a little rough around the edges.

Think about all those great plays set in deep space…oh, wait.

So what Gunderson, working with director Mina Morita, crafts is a human-scale drama focusing on people directly involved in the advancement of cloning technology. Their motivations and the real-life consequences of science are at the heart of this 70-minute drama, which soars in its one-on-one relationships and falters when it veers into more thriller-like aspects of the story (on the run from shadowy government figures! Big Brother-like surveillance!).

Michael Patrick Gaffney is devoted dad Steven, a doctor who was at the forefront of the race to clone a human after successful trials with dogs and cats. Once he succeeded creating a human clone, who unbeknownst to her was his daughter, Denise (Jennifer Le Blanc), he fled the field and watched as cloning clinics became overwhelmed with customers wanting a custom-made human.

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The problem, it turns out, is that something wasn’t quite right with Steven’s science. The cloned humans begin to falter in their teen years, become sick and die. But somehow Steven’s daughter is perfectly healthy at 18, and the government wants to know why. That’s the big picture. The smaller picture is Denise finding out that she’s a clone – not a clone of a dead child, like so many of the other clones out there, but a clone of her father’s wife, also named Denise (and also played by Le Blanc in flashbacks and fantasy sequences), who was killed in a car accident.

Reacting like a teenager, which is to say with sass and belligerence, Denise pummels her father with questions, and when she asks where she was actually conceived or made, her father says, “Vancouver.” “I’m a clone and I’m Canadian?” she replies in utter horror. You gotta love the Gunderson wit.

When Denise blots and begins seeking her own answers, her investigation leads her to the death bed of another young clone (Bari Robinson) who was made in his dead brother’s image. He’s understandably bitter about the science that created him and now has left him to die, but he knows the real toll will be felt by his mother. “I’m not sure I can make her go to the same funeral for a different son,” he says.

Gaffney and Le Blanc are superb. At first it’s sort of annoying that Le Blanc is so obviously not a teenager, but then when she returns as the original Denise, it’s rather a startling transformation and the actor’s differentiation between the two women comes into clear focus. A scene toward the end of the play in which she plays both women almost simultaneously is nothing short of astonishing.

Robinson and Lynne Hollander play various supporting roles, including the governmental talking heads, which seem superfluous to the action. And Gaffney’s character, though fully realized as a father, seems underdone as a scientist. There’s a reason his cloning of his daughter worked and the cloning of all the kids after left didn’t. It seems like he knows that reason or that there’s something he still hasn’t divulged, but the play ends before we get there.

Intriguing and well produced, By and By makes a big theatrical leap and mostly succeeds in creating a vision of a time when, as Gunderson puts it, “impossibility becomes normal.”


Lauren Gunderson’s By and By continues through June 23 in a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

Tell ’em that it’s human Nature

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Soraya Gillis (left) is Delphie and Charisse Loriaux is Aya in the Sleepwalkers Theatre production of The Nature Line, the third part of a trilogy by JC Lee. Below: Lissa Keigwin as Dora and Janna Kefalas as Narcy (at left) watch their stud farm perform a talent show. The studs are, from left, Jeff Moran as Go-Go, Roy Landaverde as Pencil, Jomar Tagatac as Benji and Joshua Schell as Jason. Photos by Clay Robeson

If only the actual apocalypse could be so enjoyable.

Hand it to playwright JC Lee for making the end of the world – and after – so lyrical, so funny and so, well, human. That’s one of the things I loved about Into the Clear Blue Sky, Part Two of the This World and After trilogy, which kicked off almost exactly a year ago with This World Is Good. There may be monstrous things happening in the world, things that would require millions of dollars worth of CGI to represent on a screen, but Lee’s focus is essentially human and relatable.

And that’s only appropriate when the topic at hand is the very survival of the human race. In each of his three plays, Lee creates a stage full of seekers, and for his final chapter, they are seeking the future, which is in clear jeopardy.

After the worldwide havoc of the last play, when beasts roamed the planet and peaches became extinct (among other horrors), and attempts to find salvation in an outpost on the moon have apparently failed, there’s not a lot of hope in the future of mankind. Or what’s left of it.

In The Nature Line, Part Three of the trilogy, neither sex nor any human contact of any kind is allowed anymore. Women’s wombs have become unable to handle the stress of pregnancy, so that duty now belongs to scientists who help the process along. “Aren’t you relieved to see a corporate model can survive the apocalypse?” asks a crisply dressed fertility nurse.

Lee doesn’t spend a lot of time in this two-hour, two-act play explaining exactly what is going on, which is probably one of the reasons he’s able to make science fiction work on stage (a tremendously difficult thing to do). He trusts that we’ll fill in blanks and, even better, use our imaginations (to hell with CGI!).

The nature line of the title has much to do with childbirth and natural instincts, so it’s no surprise that the play is so focused on women and mothers. We meet our heroine, Aya (Charisse Loriaux), as she’s conjuring memories of a grandmother she never knew and burying yet another body of yet another dead baby.

This is a grim world, but Aya is not quite giving up on her maternal impulse. Her body may be betraying her, but she is going to submit to the ministrations of the medical professionals one more time because she knows she needs to be a mother.

The quartet of men in the play (Joshua Schell, Jomar Tagatac, Jeff Moran and Roy Landaverde) are fine specimens all. And they really are specimens. They’re kept under quarantine and forced, like prize stallions, to “fertilize” on command, which is to say, make constant sperm donations.

Lee first uses his men as comic relief as we see them performing a testosterone-raising talent show involving all kinds of hip-hoppy-happy dance moves that seem to have survived the end of the world just fine. But as the play progresses, the men become more interesting, even if they are revealed to be grown-up comic book geeks. We even get a sweet, if too-brief love story for a couple of the guys.

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But this is Aya’s quest, and as she seeks answers, she finds herself leaving the remnants of civilization and heading into nature – a scary prospect when we’re given to believe that nature could be as damaged and/or as damaging as anything else on the uncertain planet.

All roads, as they say, lead to the sea, and that’s where Aya ends up, although her journey takes her, rather enigmatically, into a reverie (or is it real?) with a Spanish-speaking grandmother (Carla Pantoja) and a little girl who could be one of Aya’s lost children or a young version of Aya herself (played beautifully by fifth-grader Soraya Gillis).

All of these disparate parts – the lyricism, the science fiction, the comedy, the human drama, the romance – hold together because Lee is an audacious, ambitious and uncommonly talented writer.

It also works because, like the previous chapters of the trilogy, it’s produced by Sleepwalkers Theatre, a company that likely has more courage than cash but has the chutzpah to take on a world-premiere apocalypse trilogy and let the plays speak for themselves.

Mina Morita, the director of The Nature Line, emphasizes the human scale here, which is exactly what the play demands. Relationships are key – like between Aya and her closest friend, Arty (Ariane Owens) or between head nurse Narcy (Janna Kefalas) and her assistant, Dora (Lissa Keigwin) or between the sperm studs. The detail to performances is admirable and so important to this production’s success and keeps characters from being just types.

The end of the world, Lee tells us, was quiet, “like a fairy tale” – a far cry from the destruction porn Hollywood churns out with such computer-generated regularity. We don’t know what happened, really, but from the evidence presented by Lee’s trilogy, we know that in art, that most human of expressions, there can be salvation.

JCLee’s The Nature Line continues through Aug. 27 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$17. Call 415-913-7272 or visit www.sleepwalkerstheatre.com.