Just Theater presents a wildly provocative Presentation

Present 1
Another White Man (Patrick Jones, left), Sarah (Megan Trout, center) and Another Black Man (Rotimi Agbabiaka) improvise a fight in the Just Theater production (in association with Shotgun Players) of We Are Proud to Present…. Below: Black Man (David Moore) and Black Woman (Kehinde Koyejo) attempt to spark a romance under Namibian skies. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

In some ways, the less you know about Just Theater’s latest show, the better. Here’s what you need to know and then you can read the rest after you’ve seen it: this is a very modern show in that it deconstructs and wrestles to the ground ideas of traditional theater. It deals with heavy subject matter (genocide) but does so with intelligence, humor and a wildly energetic style that moves well beyond the usual, polite play-audience interaction and more into the visceral punch-in-the-gut territory that leaves you slightly dazed in its aftermath. This is a play (well written and astonishingly well performed to be sure) but it’s also an EXPERIENCE.

In other words, you should go. You aren’t likely to see anything like it, and in addition to seeing some great local actors being great, you’ll also have something on which to muse for a good while afterward. This show (presented in association with Shotgun Players knocks you for all kinds of loops.

Not unlike Christopher Chen’s Hundred Flowers Project (read more here), Jackie Sibblies Drury’s (take a deep breath) We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 is a piece of theater within a piece of theater (a presentation within a presentation) that uses the making of theater to convey facts about history and to stir up deep emotions that quickly – and powerfully – make the pretend real. It’s hard to say how literal we are to take the premise here, but we begin in a rough performance space (the configuration of the space is just as it was for Shotgun’s Our Town, which is to say there are audience members on two sides of the space and no real set to speak of other than a table, chairs and a rolling ladder). There are six theater makers who address the audience with a rehearsed overview to give us some historical context.

Present 2

We are going to be dealing with Namibia in southwestern Africa. More specifically we will see how the German colonialists dealt with the native tribes, specifically the cow-herding Herero. By the time the Germans were ousted by the English in 1915, the Germans had exterminated most of the Herero. The idea is that the actors will read the only first-hand accounts of the German occupation, which are letters sent home by German soldiers. Apparently it’s an open rehearsal process with an audience, but that may be where the whole literal thing can be taken too far.

Through improv exercises and need to “create something real,” the actors – three black, three white – wrestle with one another and their director (Kehinde Koyejo, whose character is known only as Black Woman). They don’t know exactly what they’re doing or what they want to create, but they edge closer and closer to that something real until it’s too real and it’s not about the Herero and Germans at all. At first there’s a lot of recognizable actor angst – insecurity, ego, varying improv skills – but then the tension begins to become more specific. Is this story about the Germans? Or is it about the Herero? Is it about genocide? Or is it about something more personal and perhaps closer to home?

At only 95 minutes, We Are Proud to Present… condenses a traumatic human experience (historical and personal) into a manageable time frame but does so with extraordinary attention to detail. The cast, which also includes Lucas Hatton, David Moore, Patrick Kelly Jones, Rotimi Agbabiaka and Megan Trout, has to create a believable contrast between “the play/presentation” and “real life,” and they do so beautifully under the direction of Molly Aaronson-Gelb. That contrast, so stark at the start, blurs more and more as this “rehearsal/workshop/whatever” continues, and by the end, art and reality, past and present, fact and emotion, are all in play in the most head-spinning way imaginable.

My only complaint about Drury’s play is its speed. These are intelligent, emotional people working out some complicated stuff, and the 90-minute framework stifles what could be some even more interesting arguments about what’s really going on here. Interesting points are raised, debated and then quickly subdued while the show barrels on when it seems the really juicy arguments are just beginning.

But wishing a smart, loud, aggressive play were even smarter, louder and more aggressive seems a little bratty when what’s here is so interesting, so physically adroit and, in the end, so moving. If you let this play take hold of you – and that’s easily accomplished – you won’t feel like the same person who walked into the theater.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present… continues through March 7 at the Ashby Stage (in association with Shotgun Players), 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 510-214-3780 or visit www.justtheater.org.

Simply put, Just Theater’s A Maze is just amazing

A Maze
Talk show host Kim (Lauren Spencer, left) interviews graphic novel artist Beeson (Clive Worsley) and Pathetic Fallacy band member Paul (Harold Pierce) in the re-mounted production of Just Theater’s A Maze by Rob Handel. Below: The Queen (Janis DeLucia) and the King (Lasse Christiansen) discuss plans for building a maze to keep their soon-to-be-born daughter safe. Photos by Pak Han

There’s only so much you can say about Rob Handel’s delectably intriguing play A Maze without spoiling the fun. The first thing to know is that the play was first produced in the Bay Area last summer by Just Theater at the Live Oak Theater. That production generated such buzz, both from critics and audience members, that the astute folks at Shotgun Players pricked up their ears and decided to re-mount that production at the Ashby Stage.

The re-mount brings back the original cast of eight under the direction of Molly Aaronson-Gelb, and though I didn’t see the show last summer, it’s hard to imagine these performances are not sharper and more astute this time out. Aaronson-Gebl and her actors present the best possible case for Handel’s play as one of the juiciest, most involving dramas to be seen on a Bay Area stage in recent months.

What’s so exciting about A Maze is watching how expertly these actors handle the careful unfolding of Handel’s complex, multifaceted tale. Without giving anything away, there are three main plot strands. The first involves a 17-year-old girl named Jessica (the astonishing Frannie Morrison) who has recently escaped from eight years in captivity. She was abducted from a grocery story at age 9 and has come out of her ordeal with remarkable poise and camera-ready intelligence.

A Maze

The second involves a fractured rock band called Pathetic Fallacy in the wake of a giant hit called “I Want Love Brought to Me.” Boyfriend-girlfriend band members Paul (Harold Pierce) and Oksana (Sarah Moser) are making some big choices that will likely affect not only the future of the band but also their relationship. And the third revolves around a graphic artist named Beeson Earwig (Clive Worsley giving a jaw-droppingly good performance) whose multi-volume graphic novel, numbering in the thousands of pages, is building quite a cult following.

What playwright Handel does with time and the weaving together of his plot threads and shifts into fantasy is remarkable, and by the end of Act 1, he has the audience so in the palm of his hand that they would happily skip intermission and dive straight into Act 2.

There’s a whole lot more plot, and within this labyrinthine creation there’s an interesting discussion about the lives of artists, the separation of artist from the art and the heart of creativity, but it’s all craftily entwined in plot and increasingly interesting characters. Rounding out this exceptional cast is Lasse Christiansen, Janice DeLucia, Carl Holvick-Thomas and Lauren Spencer.

I can’t say enough about the sharp, incisive details in these performances. Even in the scene transitions (on Martin Flynn’s maze-covered, mostly black-and-white set), we get insight into characters as the actors head on and off the stage. It would seem that there’s not one detail, from Miyuki Bierlein and Ashley Rogers’ expert costumes to Michael Palumbo’s lighting design, in this 2 1/2-hour production that has not been given careful consideration by director Aaronson-Gelb and her team.

It’s easy to get lost in this Maze, but being lost has rarely revealed such rich theatrical reward.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with A Maze playwright Rob Handel for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Rob Handel’s A Maze continues through March 9 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 510-214-3780 or visit www.justtheater.org.