Division on display in fascinating Roe at Berkeley Rep

Roe 2
Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner, left) and Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) engage in a discussion about the landmark 1973 Supreme Court Case Roe v. Wade in Roe by Lisa Loomer at Berkeley Rep. Below: Catherine Castellanos is Connie Gonzalez, the supportive and sympathetic companion to Bruner’s McCorvey. Photos by Jenny Graham

There is so much event and detail in Lisa Loomer’s Roe – a brisk re-telling of the events and people involved in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade – that it feels like the world’s speediest documentary, something you could only do on a mostly open stage, with actors making their costume quick changes in full view of the audience just so they can keep up. And by attempting to cover the (still unfolding) arc of the case, so much happens that, if it wasn’t actually true, you’d never believe it.

Originating from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s impressive new play generator, American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle, Roe debuted last year at the OSF in Ashland, Oregon before the election, then headed to the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., just after the inauguration. Now this docudrama has landed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and we’re in a changed world, a charged world. Fear of losing rights, fear of losing immigrants, fear of environmental catastrophe, fear of detrimental change to core functions of the government (education, health care, you name it) – so much fear fuels anger and protest and anxiety. All of that to say that the nearly 50 years covered by the play feel familiar and even prescient. It seems we’ve been repeating ourselves for decades.

One immediate impression in the aftermath of Roe is that we talk a lot about what a divided nation we are today, but watching all the fights surrounding the issue of abortion make it clear we have been a deeply divided nation for a very long time, and there are few issues that expose the painful division more than abortion. Are we, as some of the anti-choice demonstrators claim, founded as a Christian nation and therefore all subject to the demands of a Christian God? Or are we a nation founded in liberty in which a woman, regardless of of religion, is free to make choices about her own body herself?

Even after the Supreme Court sided with choice in 1973, the battle has waged – on the streets as groups like Operation Rescue resort to violence and bullying and in the courts as states make “legal” abortion almost impossible to attain. As Loomer’s timely play points out, the saga continues as the next four years could see history reversed where Roe v. Wade is concerned. Loomer was even able to adjust the play to reflect McCorvey’s death last month (at age 69), just as the run was ending at the Arena.

Roe 1

Is Roe a vital, fascinating, beautifully produced history lesson with immediate impact? Absolutely. Loomer’s attempts to tell a reasonably objective version of the story is not only admirable, it’s heroic. Her two main characters, Norma McCorvey (who was re-named Jane Roe to protect her anonymity in the case) and lawyer Sarah Weddington, both wrote books about their decades-long involvement in the famous case, and their facts don’t always agree. So Loomer, using a loose, highly presentational style, frequently breaks the fourth wall to point that out. This style, executed with efficient gusto by director Bill Rauch and his strong ensemble, also allows for speed in the storytelling and the efficient manipulation of time. Characters are able to tell us about what happens to them in the future (often by relating details from their obituaries), and characters who never met in real life are able to acknowledge that but have a stage interaction anyway.

From the time Weddington and McCorvey meet in the early 1970s until their last personal encounter in the mid-’90s, Roe tracks their predictable/unpredictable arcs. Weddington is a dedicated lawyer, politician, teacher and activist who continually fights for her most famous case. McCorvey, on the other hand, begins in a rough place and continually encounters difficulty. Married young to an abusive husband, she eventually comes out as a lesbian and loses her daughter to her disapproving drunk of a mother. Norma lives a freewheeling, free-love lifestyle that involves drugs and drink and living in the park with the hippies, and when she meets with young lawyer Weddington, what she really wants is an actual abortion and not a landmark case that will go from Texas to the Supreme Court.

Weddington, a feminist activist and ambitious lawyer, was looking for a way to fight the abortion ban, and McCorvey was the right pregnant woman at the right place at the right time. Loomer works hard to keep a balance between the political/moral debate and the human cost of the fight on the choice/anti-choice battlefield. There’s not a lot of time for rich character development, so this isn’t a deeply emotion experience, but what it lacks in that area it more than makes up for in the way it offers clarity amid complicated history and reveals, amid the specific details, how being human will always hinge on fear and its progeny: anger, righteousness and gargantuan need.

As Norma, Sara Bruner beautifully conveys instability, spark and a survivor’s strength that belies tremendous emotional fragility. When Norma becomes an abortion-renouncing born-again Christian later in her life, that change, while somewhat startling, is understandable. Her journey is full of life events, while Weddington (played with intelligence and hauteur by Sarah Jane Agnew) is on hand to provide a more academic perspective and, as she keeps saying, context.

Oddly, the real emotional heart of the story belongs to a peripheral character, Connie Gonzalez, Norma’s longtime girlfriend. Played by Catherine Castellanos, one of the Bay Area’s finest actors, Connie is understated but solid, and she, more than any other character here, represents the emotional cost of the story behind Roe v. Wade. When Norma renounces her past life to embrace Jesus, she’s essentially rejecting her lesbian past as well. Connie’s broken heart, so powerfully rendered by Castellanos, is shattering.

Other memorable turns come from Jim Abele as charismatic Operation Rescue head Flip Benham, Amy Newman as, among others, Gloria Allred and a compassionate anti-abortion worker and Susan Lynskey as attorney Linda Coffee, a reliable source for wry observations.

There’s a great sense of living history to Roe, an illumination of lives and laws and liberties that cannot be taken for granted. It’s also a play whose ending feels like it may never come.

Lisa Loomer’s Roe continues through April 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$100 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Berkeley Rep’s White Snake: ‘sssssss wonderful

White Snake 1
Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman returns to Berkeley Rep for the world-premiere production of The White Snake, which stars Amy Kim Waschke (left) and Christopher Livingston. Below: Tanya Thai McBride is the Green Snake, better known as Greenie. Photos courtesy of mellopix.com

Even celebrated ophidiophobe Indiana Jones would fall in love with the stunning serpents at the heart of Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake, a poignant, colorful tale from ancient China that arrives at Berkeley Repertory Theatre like a giant holiday gift just waiting to be unwrapped and savored by audiences.

This is Zimmerman’s seventh show at Berkeley Rep, following in the wake of such stunners as Metamorphoses, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and, most recently, The Arabian Nights. Like these previous outings, The White Snake is theatrical storytelling at its very best, a fusion of stunning imagery, captivating music and, best of all, characters whose stories cut straight to the heart.

A co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this Snake plays out on a mostly bare stage of bamboo flooring and two bamboo walls coming up on the sides (the set is by longtime Zimmerman collaborator Daniel Ostling). The back wall is a changing canvas of sumptuous projections by Shawn Sagady, often evoking Chinese watercolors and adding depth and lighting effects to the already stunning work of designer T.J. Gerckens.

From its earliest moments, Zimmerman’s script establishes a tone that is at once formal and serious in its storytelling and full of humor and contemporary connectors. We are told of the legend of the White Snake, a centuries-old spirit that lives high on a mountain. White Snake has studied the Tao so assiduously that she is able to practice a sort of magic, including the trick of being able to turn herself into a beautiful woman (Amy Kim Waschke. But there’s something restless about White Snake, and that restlessness has kept her from total transcendence.

White Snake 2

Spurred on by her friend Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), White Snake agrees that, as a lark, the two spirits should descend from their mountain home and cavort with humans in the mortal world.

Once among people, White Snake immediately falls in love with a common young man (who is uncommonly sweet) named Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston), and the way Zimmerman introduces this love story is indicative of how fun and rich her story is. As a side note, we’re told that in some versions of the White Snake story, the connection between Xu Xian and White Snake goes back to previous lives in which the young man spared the life of the snake. This destined them to fall in love somewhere along the continuum. These kinds of details, along with interludes in which we learn the formalities of Chinese drama, are great fun.

The love story of Xu Xian and White Snake, aided and abetted by the feisty and loyal Green Snake, or Greenie as she’s known, leads to marriage and a family. But the course of true love never did slither smoothly.

An egomaniacal Buddhist monk, Fa Hai (Jack Willis) senses the presence of a demon spirit and deduces that the pharmacist’s wife with the incredible power to heal must be the White Snake. So Mr. Monk makes it his mission to destroy the marriage and send White Snake back where she belongs.

Battles are fought, people are kidnapped, storms rage, characters die, and it’s all just gorgeous and beautiful and utterly enchanting. The original score by Andre Pluess evokes the sound and feel of China, but the music, so beautifully played by Tessa Brinckman (flute), Ronnie Malley (strings/percussion) and Michal Palzewicz (cello), is thrilling and moving in its own right. And the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld are just a feast of color and clever little touches (notice the red snakes trimming the white robes worn by White Snake).

Even though this one-act play is only an hour and 40 minutes, it has the feel of an epic adventure and an intimate love story. You don’t want to emerge from the spell cast by this tale, but there’s no denying that the ending, both sweet and sad, is just about perfect.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Mary Zimmerman about the creation of The White Snake for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake continues an extended run through Dec. 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$99 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Moscone, Taccone illuminate history in Ghost Light

Ghost Light 1
Danforth Comins is Loverboy and Christopher Liam Moore (right) is Jon in the Jonathan Moscone- and Tony Taccone-conceived Ghost Light at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Moore as Jon. Photos by kevinberne.com.

Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone have found the courage to stay out of what they call “the suck drawer.”

The phrase comes from Ghost Light, the play Moscone and Taccone conceived together and that Taccone wrote and Moscone directed and it has to do with the life of an artist – the life of anyone, really – and the effort to create work and, ultimately, a life that is true and authentic and uniquely individual.

I expected Ghost Light, a co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre (where Taccone is artistic director) and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the play had the first leg of its world premiere last summer, to be about grief and the complicated relationship between fathers and sons. It is about those things. How could it not be, seeing as how it deals primarily with the effect of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone’s assassination in 1978, when his son Jon was 14 years old.

But what struck me about the play – a strange, fascinating, complex and challenging drama – was how much it’s about art and the act of creativity. The character Jon, like the man on whom it’s based, is an accomplished theater director (Moscone, in case you don’t know, is the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater and one of the best directors around). He has signed up to helm a production of Hamlet and is having what you would call a ghost problem.

The whole production, he believes, hinges on how he deals with the appearance of Hamlet’s dead father, the murdered king. Problem is, he can’t begin to deal with this scene, nor can he help his frustrated designers create the show. Sucked into a world of ghosts through his art, Jon (played with crackling charm and touching sensitivity by Christopher Liam Moore is tormented by dreams that have a great deal to do with his father’s death, and these dreams are beginning to have an effect on his waking life – to the point of nervous breakdown.

While Taccone the playwright leans heavily on the dream world, he also delves into the past as we see a 14-year-old version of Jon (Tyler James Myers) taken into some realm of the afterlife in the days after his father’s murder. He’s guided by a San Francisco cop (Peter Macon) who intones portentously in a style that Jon the director (when we see him teaching an acting class) calls “ooga booga.”

Ghost Light 2

Grown-up Jon’s travails build up a jittery energy and occasionally pause for some strong emotional connections, especially when Jon is challenged and comforted by his best friend (the invaluable Robynn Rodriguez), who is, essentially, his Jiminy Cricket, an external conscience and guide through the subconscious and the paranormal. She’s the one pushing him to figure out why his creativity is so completely blocked by Hamlet.

The flips back in time to young Jon are visually compelling – especially when Todd Rosenthal’s San Francisco City Hall set is dominated by the elder Moscone’s coffin rolling slowly on and off stage or rising up from the floor. But the Young Jon scenes never quite gelled with the rest of the play for me. We’re already in bizarre dreamland with Jon’s former San Quentin prison guard grandfather (Bill Geisslinger) tormenting him and waving a pistol at him, not to mention a nonexistent boyfriend (Danforth Comins) trying to protect Jon from the malevolent spirits. But the journey of Young Jon with the eloquent cop was more than I could figure.

More effective are the set pieces, like Jon’s meeting with a blind date (Ted Deasy) that goes horribly wrong in a bar called (cleverly) The Blind Spot or Jon’s fight with a film director (Peter Frechette) making a movie about Harvey Milk with very little mention of Mayor Moscone. Jon’s fight to get his father out of the ever-growing shadow of Milk (slain the same day as the elder Moscone) feels like a battle the play very much wants to fight but is confined to this short, potent scene.

As Jon wrestles with the very notion of who he is – as a man, as a son, as an artist – you can feel Taccone wrestling with his own creative impulses as a writer attempting to create a play fueled by actual history and imagined worlds flowing in and out of the real one. It’s a complex endeavor, not just because of the subject but because of the creators. There’s a lot going on here on many levels, and it’s a lot to process.

Ultimately Ghost Light feels incredibly personal, almost invasive. But how can it be when the subject is also one of the creators? When we see the assassination of Mayor Moscone re-created, complete with ear-splitting gunshots, we’re in that pivotal moment of horrifying violence whether we want to be or not. We’re pulled into Jon’s world in the moment when his life and so many lives around him changed irrevocably.

The moment informed Jon as an artist, and now in the illumination of Ghost Light, expanded the artistic horizon of the real-life Jon Moscone immeasurably. This is a brave piece of work and an artful demonstration of fact and fiction fusing into something authentic and undeniably powerful.

[bonus interviews]
I chatted with Moscone and Taccone as well as actors Moore and Myers for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Click here to read the story.

Ghost Light continues through Feb. 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Marin’s Seagull: a Chekhovian reverie

Seagull 2
The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Seagull, including (from left) Peter Ruocco, Christine Albright, Michael Ray Wisely and Tess Malis Kincaid, star in the world premiere of a new version by Libby Appel. Below: Craig Marker is Trigorin and Christine Albright is Nina. Photos by davidallenstudio.com

[warning: many long Russian names ahead – think of them as caviar on toast]

As long as we live in a world where celebrity and art continually clash, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull will feel extraordinarily timely. And as long as people are restless, stingy and full of dreams, Chekhov will continue to offer extraordinary insight to his audiences.

It’s amazing that a flop play from 1896 has become such a resonant classic. From our perspective, Chekhov had the disadvantage of writing in Russian, which means his work has to be filtered through a translator/adaptor – and there have been some big names attached to that duty. Tennessee Williams did it with his “free adaptation” The Notebook of Trigorin. Playwrights Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard and Christopher Hampton have all done it as well.

Now former Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Libby Appel (working from a literal translation by Allison Horsley) brings us her version (a commission of OSF) in a world-premiere production at Marin Theatre Company under the direction of Jasson Minadakis.

This version adds in material that was cut from the original production, either by director Constantin Stanislavski or by government censors. MTC promotional materials maintain these cut scenes and lines have never been performed, so it’s practically a new Chekhov.

Except it’s not. This is Seagull (Marin cuts off the The) is what we’ve always known – artists in the country fighting and loving amongst themselves and their troubled hearts. But there’s a little extra, especially for the character of Polina, who is married to one man and openly in love with another.

This material can actually be quite repetitive, but this production has the great advantage of Polina being played by Julia Brothers, who makes what could be a whiny, annoying woman quite a compassionate soul.

Otherwise, Appel’s adaptation feels contemporary without straining and allows some of the emotional subtext to brim over into passionate language.

From the opening moments, when we see a black-clad Marya Ilyinichna (Liz Sklar) grieving for her sad life, a fog of rueful melancholy hangs over the bright green grass of Robert Mark Morgan’s lakeside set (which gets a little heavy on the penitentiary-like birch trees by play’s end). And that’s probably how Chekhov would have liked it – as long as there were also laughs, which there are.

Seagull 1Four wonderful actors vividly inhabit the central quartet of this rural drama. I wasn’t at all sure of Tess Malis Kincaid as famous actress Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina when she entered in the first act to watch her son’s al fresco play. She didn’t seem to have the weight or the bigger-than-life charm of an actress who is always starring in her own four-star drama.

But by the time she’s desperately trying to keep her love, the celebrated writer Boris Alekseyevich Trigorin (a masterful Craig Marker) from the arms of a younger, prettier woman, her desperation and insecurity poured from the stage.

Marker’s scenes with Christine Albright as Nina, the sweet local girl and aspiring actress, are the play’s best and most emotionally acute. They are two beautiful people caught up in the madness of their art. She’s consumed by dreams of greatness, and he’s caught up in his own cloud of celebrity, acclaim and the requisite self-doubt. Of course they’re going to dazzle each other with their most telling attributes – her beauty and innocence, his rock star/literati charisma – until it wears off and the people they really are emerge.

As Irina’s son, Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov, Tufts is the effective fourth member of the quartet. He’s a mama’s boy in the extreme, so the presence of Trigorin is an immediate threat. He’s also in love with Nina, so her obvious crush on the writer is in fact crushing to Konstantin, who also fancies himself a writer, but of the new-and-improved, not-stuffy-like-Trigorin variety.

Chekhov is the master of creating a seemingly normal, everyday portrait of life while filling his characters with every kind of emotional experience imaginable. In this assortment you have the ravages of old age represented by Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Richard Farrell), mid-life jealousy (Brothers’ Polina), unrequited love (Sklar’s Masha), relative professional and emotional contentment (Howard Swain as Dr. Dorn) and nerdy devotion (Peter Ruocco as devoted husband and father Semyon Semoyonovich Medvedenko).

It’s a captivating collection of human misery at various levels of intensity and self-delusion. Minadakis’ production does what you want a Chekhov show to do: it envelops you in its recognizable world and makes you feel what these people are feeling, whether you want to share their little miseries and joys or not.


Marin Theatre Company’s Seagull continues through Feb. 20 at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. Tickets are $35-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival reviews (Part 2)

OSF Servant
Mark Bedard is hilarious and charming as the title character in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new adaptation of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. Photo by Jenny Graham

Two and a half weeks after running Part 1 of my Oregon Shakespeare Festival reviews, the San Francisco Chronicle finally published the second round, which includes thoughts of my favorite shows from this season: The Servant of Two Masters and the incredible Equivocation.

Read the reviews here.

I also saw Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, but I didn’t review it because the production closed at the end of June. Having recently seen the SF Playhouse production of the play, it was interesting to see the OSF take on it. I think the play, which can be wonderful in Ruhl-like ways, has some fundamental problems, but it is greatly helped by a gorgeous physical production, which is what it gets in Ashland. Ruhl is a fan of visual poetry to enhance the emotion of her writing, and that potent combination made for a stunning experience in OSF’s black box New Theatre.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival reviews (pt. 1)

OSF Quixote
Vilma Silva and Armando Durán star in Octavio Solis’ adaptation of Don Quixote on the Elizabethan Stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by David Cooper.

The first round of my reviews from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — the three outdoor shows on the Elizabethan Stage — have arrived and were published in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the reviews here.

The second batch (including the superb drama Equivocation and masterful Servant of Two Masters) will be published in the Chron’s Pink section July 5.

More Oregon Shakespeare Fest reviews

Vasantasenā (Miriam A. Laube) paints a portrait of her lover, Chārudatta (Cristofer Jean) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of The Clay Cart. Photo by David Cooper.

Here’s the link to the last batch of reviews I wrote of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., for the the San Francisco Chronicle.
Click here.

And may I just say how fun it is to control the Little Man?

Reporting from Ashland, Ore.

Last week I spent four glorious days in Ashland, Ore., covering the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The first few stories are online now, and conveniently, I provide the links.

For a news story involving Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone collaborating on an OSF-commissioned show about Moscone’s father, slain San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, visit here.

For an interview with new OSF artistic director Bill Rauch, visit here.

For Round 1 of the reviews (all three shows on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage), visit here.

Round 2 of the reviews (all the other shows except A Midsummer Night’s Dream) will be in the Chron on Friday.

Ashland arrival

Many of us here in the Bay Area consider the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in lovely little Ashland, Ore. to be a theatrical home away from home. A great number of local theater lovers make annual pilgrimages to the charming hamlet just over the California-Oregon border.

Big changes are afoot in Ashland next year as artistic director Libby Appel steps down and Bill Rauch steps in (in June to be exact). Rauch sent an e-mail to OSF patrons this week announcing that he’ll arrive in April to direct Romeo and Juliet, and he’ll stay to begin planning for the 2008 season.

Here’s some of what he wrote:

The opportunity to follow in Libby Appel’s footsteps at OSF is both humbling and thrilling, and I am very grateful to Libby for introducing me to the incomparable artists, and audiences, here in Ashland. Beginning with Angus Bowmer, the four preceding OSF artistic directors have fostered a theatre company that remains unique in the history of American theatre. Carrying that legacy forward is a great responsibility for me and an adventure that awaits all of us together.

Visit the OSF Web site for information. To learn more about Rauch, to watch an interview and see a slide show, click here.