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.

Wilder’s genius shines in Shotgun’s Our Town

Our Town 1
El Beh as Emily and Joshua Schell as George share strawberry ice cream sundaes in the Shotgun Players production of Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Below: Sam Jackson as Mrs. Soames loves a good Grover’s Corners wedding. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

When it comes to the rituals of the New Year – making and abandoning resolutions, vowing to live more fully and with intention, trying not to let time slip away so quickly by living more fully in the present – the most powerful thing you could do for yourself is head over to the Ashby Stage in Berkeley and see Shotgun Players’ excellent production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

This 1938 masterpiece has long been my favorite American play, and aside from its structural genius, its Expressionistic (and still unmatched) theatricality balanced with genuine emotion, Our Town is the self-help book embedded in our nation’s consciousness. I’ve seen the play dozens of times in straightforward productions (like Shotgun’s) and over-produced and over-thought re-imaginings, in musical and film versions, in schools and on the professional stage, and every time I come away with something new. More than any other, I feel Our Town in other works when they succeed in connecting audience to play or when they tap into simple truths that need constant reiteration about what the hell we’re even doing on this planet.

If I could start every new year with a production of Our Town as engaging and as powerful as director Susannah Martin’s, I would gladly do so. The holidays, and especially New Year’s, are a time when we’re prone to being more thoughtful and retrospective anyway, so we’re already primed for Wilder’s musing on time, memory and cracking the shell of what we know as everyday life. Walking into the Ashby Stage (a former church whose pews have become increasingly more comfortably in Shotgun’s tenure there) at this time of year, we’re ready for Wilder to bring it all on: the prosaic, the nostalgic, the poetic, the awesome, the mind-blowing, the heart-wrenching – all the malleable gunk that joins each moment of our lives to another and to each other.

Our Town 2

In some ways, with this play, you need to set it up, let it go and get out of the way. Martin, her designers and cast, do that with their own smart, deeply felt choices. The performance space itself, as designed by Nina Ball, has a huge impact on the play before it even starts. Where there’s usually a stage there are now audience members. The stage where the actors do their work is now more in the center of the room, although in another canny move, actors spend a lot of time sitting in and moving through the audience. There’s very little division between audience and play, which is just as it should be.

Ball and lighting designer Heather Basarab dangle bare bulbs the length of the entire theater, casting a warm glow and making the audience quite visible for much of the play. If part of the play’s effect is creating a sense of community in a vast universe, Martin and her crew do a beautiful job of allowing that to happen.

Madeline H.D. Brown strikes a match and lights her pipe as she begins, in her role as Stage Manager, to tell us all about Grover’s Corners in 1901. She’s a wise and trustworthy guide through this case study of small-town American life as microcosm for human existence. There’s no phony New England crust to her, which is a relief, but she retains a healthy sense of detachment and humor.

That no-nonsense attitude filters down through the entire cast. Tim Kniffin makes an especially strong impression as a thoughtful Doc Gibbs. In a scene where he chides son George (Josh Schell) for not helping his mother more, Kniffin turns a scolding into something much more emotional between father and son. It’s a powerful moment when George’s ego gets its first check – he gets another ego smackdown from neighbor Emily Webb (El Beh) that is so effective he marries her.

Hardworking mothers (Michelle Talagarow as Mrs. Webb and Molly Noble as Mrs. Gibbs) keep the world spinning, choir practice keeps the gossip flowing (especially when the topic is the tippling of Simon Stimson (Christopher W. White,one of those suffering souls not meant for small-town life) and weddings and funerals keep the community tightly knit. In other words, it’s all pretty ordinary in extraordinary ways, and then, in Act 3, one of the most wondrous pieces of writing in American drama, Wilder takes a leap of imagination that remains staggering in its effect. Everything he has done in the play up to this point comes into play and brings everything together. We go from mundane to cosmic in an instant and never go back.

In three acts over 2 1/2 hours, this Our Town never lags and never panders. It’s sharp at some points, poignant in others, devastating and inspiring. It’s filled with the friction of warm memory crashing into harsh reality, made all the more powerful under the light of the stars.

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town continues through Jan. 25 in a Shotgun Players production at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby St., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.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.

2013: The year’s best Bay Area theater

2013 (third try)

If you’re looking for the year’s best, you can shorten your search by heading directly to Word for Word, that ever-amazing group that turns short works of fiction into some of the most captivating theater we see around here. This year, we were graced with two outstanding Word for Word productions.

You Know When the Men Are Gone – Word for Word’s first show of the year was based on two excellent stories by Siobhan Fallon. We are a country at war, and as such, we can never be reminded too often about the sacrificed made not only by the men and women serving in harm’s way but also the families and friends they leave behind. These connected stories, masterfully directed by Joel Mullenix and Amy Kossow, created a direct, emotional through line into the heart of an experience we need to know more about. Read my review here.

In Friendship – A few months later, Word for Word returned to celebrate its 20th anniversary by casting the nine founding women in several stories by Zona Gale about small-town, Midwestern life. It was pleasure from start to finish, with the added emotional tug of watching the founders of this extraordinary company acting together for the first time. Read my review here.

Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts and California Shakespeare Theater collaborated this year on an intimate epic about the Golden State we call home comprising three plays, art projects, symposia and all kinds of assorted projects. This kind of collaboration among companies is exactly the kind of thing we need to infuse the art form with new energy and perspectives. The best of the three theatrical offerings was the first.

The River – Playwright Richard Montoya authored the first two plays in this collaboration, and though the Cal Shakes-produced American Night was wild and enjoyable, Montoya’s The River, directed by Sean San José had the irresistible pull of a fast-moving current. A truly original work, the play was part comedy, part romance, part spiritual exploration. Read my review here.

Ideation – My favorite new play of the year is from local scribe Aaron Loeb because it was fresh, funny and a thriller that actually has some thrills. Part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development, Ideation is still in search of the perfect ending, but you can expect to hear much more about this taut drama of corporate intrigue and interpersonal nightmares. Read my review here.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane – The combination of heartbreaking personal history and heart-expanding piano music made this Berkeley Repertory Theatre presentation the year’s best solo show. Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother’s exit from Germany as part of the Kindertransport includes all the horror and sadness you’d expect from a Holocaust story, but her telling of it is underscored by her exquisite piano playing. Read my review here.

Other Desert CitiesTheatreWorks demonstrated the eternal appeal of a well-told family drama with this Jon Robin Baitz play about Palm Springs Republicans, their lefty-liberal children and the secrets they all keep. This one also happens to have the most beautiful set of the year as well (by Alexander Dodge). Read my review here.

The Fourth MessengerTanya Shaffer and Vienna Tang created a beguiling new musical (no easy feat) about Buddha (absolutely no easy feat). The show’s world premiere wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good. Expect big things from this show as it continues to grow into its greatness. Read my review here.

Good People – Any play starring Amy Resnick has a good chance of ending up on my year’s best list, but Resnick was beyond great in this David Lindsay Abaire drama at Marin Theatre Company. Her Margie was the complex center of this shifting, surprising story of old friends whose lives went in very different directions, only to reconnect at a key moment. Read my review here.

The Taming – One of the year’s smartest, slyest, most enjoyable evenings came from Crowded Fire Theatre and busy, busy local playwright Lauren Gunderson. This spin (inspired by The Taming of the Shrew) was madcap with a sharp, satiric edge and featured delicious comic performances by Kathryn Zdan, Marilee Talkington and Marilet Martinez. Read my review here.

Terminus – Oh so dark and oh so very strange, Mark O’Rowe’s return to the Magic Theatre found him exploring theatrical storytelling that encompassed everyday lie, mythic monsters and rhymed dialogue. Director Jon Tracy and his remarkable trio of actors (Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly) grabbed our attention and didn’t let it go for nearly two hours. Read my review here.

No Man’s Land – Seems a little unfair to include this production here if only because the can’t-miss team of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart would likely be a year’s best no matter where they were performing or what they were doing. In this case, they were headed to Broadway but stopped at Berkeley Rep to work on Harold Pinter’s enigmatic comic drama. Their work (along with that of Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) provided laughs and insight and complexity where you didn’t know any was possible. Pure master class from start to finish. Read my review here.

Breakout star of the year: Megan Trout. It was impossible not to be transfixed by Megan Trout not once but twice this year. She illuminated the stage as Bonnie Parker in the Mark Jackson-directed Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players and then stole the show in the Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise as a shy big-box store employee who is mightily intrigued by the new guy who also happens to have been involved with a now-defunct cult. Trout has that magnetic ability to compel attention and then deliver something utterly real and constantly surprising.

Shotgun raises curtain on glorious Gant

Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness
Ryan Drummond and Sarah Moser spin an extraordinary love story in Shotgun Players’ Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness. BELOW: (from left) Moser, Patrick Kelly Jones and Drummond confront an interruption to the dramatic plan. Photos by Pak Han

From the moment you walk into the Ashby Stage auditorium to see Shotgun Players’ Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, you know something special is going to happen. The space contains space: the back of a truck has been opened up and turned into a stage, complete with red velvet curtain and strings of festival lights extending out over the audience (the gorgeous design is by Nina Ball). We’re about to see theater about theater, and that’s exciting.

Playwright Anthony Neilson begins in a cosmic way as our host, Edward Gant (Brian Herndon) explains that humankind is caught somewhere between instinctual beast and a spiritual being. Because we are born and live fully aware of our mortality, that makes all of us innately lonely. For the next hour and a half or so, Mr. Gant promises to regale us with “deformities of heart and mind” that will be as true as the truth and talent will allow. That’s a heck of a promise, and he actually makes good on that.

Gant’s three performers then enact several bizarre tales of love, greed, betrayal, mystery and – yes – loneliness that whisk us from Sicily to Monaco to Vienna to England to Nepal and, in the end to Berkeley.

Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness

As a piece of writing, Neilson’s plays-within-the-play are marvelously imaginative and strange. Pearls squirt from pimples, holy men perform primitive brain surgery and life-size teddy bears tell sad tales of mistreatment a the hands of their child owners. Under the astute and careful direction of Beth Wilmurt, the splendid ensemble – Herndon, Ryan Drummond, Patrick Kelly Jones and Sarah Moser – finds exactly the right tone to balance the humor and the pathos. Everyone here, from the designers to the director to the actors, is reveling in theatrical storytelling as a means of identifying and, perhaps, temporarily staying that titular loneliness.

Edward Gant is an awful lot of fun, but this is soulful entertainment. Among its laughs and its oddities and its more disgusting moments (the word “cheese” takes on stomach-churning new meaning here), it has surprises to offer, not the least of which is a depth of yearning and a vast well of compassion for flawed humans stumbling through their own stories.

There’s so much to love about this show, but one segment that particularly thrilled me involved Drummond’s Jack Dearlove sharing some of his poetry, the highlight of which is “What Need Have I of Whimsy?” Also, Jake Rodriguez’s sound design offers a panoply of great organ music, something of which the world has not enough.

Speaking of music, the cast performs several beguiling musical interludes, including a heart-melting version of “Return to Me” with ukulele, accordion and wood percussion. A show can be as zany or grotesque as it wants to be as long as it can be grounded in something as beautiful and simple as this musical performance.

Shotgun famously programs anti-holiday shows during the holidays, but Edward Gant, which isn’t so far removed from the smart and spirited high jinks of Kneehigh over at Berkeley Rep, is actually perfect for this time of year: it’s a dazzling, emotional and altogether inspiring theatrical gift.

Anthony Neilson’s Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness continues through Jan. 11 at the Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$35. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

Bonnie & Clyde live (and die) by the Shotgun (Players)

Bonnie & Clyde
Megan Trout is Bonnie and Joe Estlack is Clyde in Shotgun Players’ production of Bonnie & Clyde by Adam Peck. Below: One of the intriguing dance/movement interludes in the 80-minute show. Photos by Pak Han

Somehow it seems entirely appropriate that Berkeley’s Shotgun Players are reviving the myth of gangsters Bonnie and Clyde. The celebrated criminals storm the Ashby Stage on the run from the law and nearing the end of their bloody, well-chronicled run of robberies and murders across the American south. They enter an abandoned barn to take cover. He’s got a pistol in each hand and she’s wielding — what else? — a shotgun. She is, it turns out, a true shotgun player.

British playwright Adam Peck’s stage version of the Bonnie and Clyde story is not really anything like the revered 1967 movie version except for the basic facts of the story: Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, the head of what came to be known as the Barrow Gang embark on a series of crimes in Texas and Oklahoma spanning 1932 to ’34. They became the darlings of the media, and their run came to an end when they were killed in a hail of bullets in a northern Louisiana ambush.

Peck’s Bonnie & Clyde takes place the night before that ambush as the weary lovers hide out in a barn and take stock of their situation and each other. What’s so interesting about this piece, especially in the hands of a gifted director like Mark Jackson, is that the text almost becomes secondary to tone of the piece, which is more performance art than play, incorporating dance, soundscape and video projections. It’s a Bonnie and Clyde story by way of art installation, and it’s gorgeous.

Bonnie & Clyde

The design team, including Robert Broadfoot (set), Ashley Rogers (costumes), Micah Stieglitz (projections), Matt Stines (sound) and Jon Tracy (lights) do stunning work here, creating one ravishing stage picture after another as the traditional play in which Bonnie and Clyde fret and fight is interrupted by compelling moments of fantasy and dance and foreboding (several of Clyde’s interludes describe in detail the massacre that will happen the next day).

The choreography, created by Kimberly Dooley along with director Jackson and actors Megan Trout and Joe Estlack, ranges from modern dance to Fred-and-Ginger charm (Bonnie and Clyde’s song, we’re told, was “Cheek to Cheek”) to death by gunfire as interpretive dance. These compelling interludes are almost more powerful than the script itself because Estlack and Trout are so compelling, so powerful in their movements, especially in partnership. This is a sexy Bonnie and Clyde, which seems appropriate, and that sense of titillation comes with guilt. How can cold-blooded murderers be sexy? Therein lies the conundrum of the real-life Bonnie and Clyde, the romantic Robin Hood-like figures who etched such a permanent mark on the American psyche.

Not to discount Peck’s script, which has its own intriguing complexity as we try to figure out the nature of Bonnie and Clyde’s relationship. She seems much more invested than he, at least physically, but there’s no question that they’re deeply bonded to one another. Part of that bond involves the undeniable thrill of being famous outlaws. They love being in the limelight. Bonnie even imagines herself a star of the vaudeville stage (shades of Chicago here), while Clyde, who’s perturbed that a newspaper has attributed a murder to him that he did not commit, is somewhat mollified when Bonnie, who calls him Daddy, points out how handsome the photo is that accompanies the article.

You do feel some sympathy for these people and for the way their spree has spiraled out of control. They know full well how it will all end (they don’t know it will be tomorrow), and they’re somewhat resigned to that, which lends dramatic weight to their tragic love story. In Peck’s version, Clyde is not a maniac killer but rather someone who takes killing seriously (as opposed to lightly) and would rather not do it.

At only 80 minutes, Bonnie & Clyde can’t paint a full picture, but we learn enough to know that these young people were in way over their heads, and it’s actually painful to see the newsreel footage of the real Bonnie and Clyde as shot-up corpses. What was the point of it all? Fame? Well, they got that — more than they ever could have realized. And what do we make of them? Inevitable off-shoots of the American dream of fame, riches and rising above humble beginnings? If you can’t earn it honestly, you can shoot your way to it. The real American dream.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright Adam Peck and director Mark Jackson about Bonnie & Clyde for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Adam Peck’s Bonnie & Clyde continues through Sept. 29 at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$35. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org for information.

Shotgun’s dramatic attack of the clones

By and By

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.

By and By

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.

2011 in the rearview mirror: the best of Bay Area stages


Let’s just get right to it. 2011 was another year full of fantastic local theater (and some nice imports). Somehow, most of our theater companies has managed thus far to weather the bruising economy. May the new year find audiences clamoring for more great theater. (Click on the play titles to see my original reviews.)

1. How to Write a New Book for the Bible by Bill Cain
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Kent Nicholson

Only a few days ago I was telling someone about this play – my favorite new play of 2011 and the most moving theatrical experience I’ve had in a long time – and it happened again. I got choked up. That happens every time I try to describe Cain’s deeply beautiful ode to his family and to the spirituality that family creates (or maybe that’s vice-versa). Nicholson’s production, from the excellent actors to the simple, elegant design, let the play emerge in all its glory.

2. Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
American Conservatory Theater

Directed by Jonathan Moscone

Because I interviewed Norris for the San Francisco Chronicle, I wasn’t allowed, at the playwright’s request, to review the production. Well, to heck with you Mr. Pulitzer Prize-winning Norris. This was a genius production. A great play (with some wobbly bits in the second act) that found a humane director and a cast that dipped into the darkness and sadness under the laughs (Rene Augesen in particular). How do we talk about race in this country? We don’t. We just get uncomfortable with it. This is drama that positively crackles – you can’t take your eyes off the stage and find there are moments when you’re actually holding your breath.

3. Bellwether by Steve Yockey
Marin Theatre Company
Directed by Ryan Rilette

Horror is hard in a theater, but Yockey came close to scaring the pants off his audience in this chilling, utterly compelling world-premiere drama about children disappearing from a suburban neighborhood. And the paranormal aspects weren’t even the scariest things – it was the humans being disgustingly human to each other in times of stress that really worked the nerves.

4. The Lily’s Revenge by Taylor Mac
Magic Theatre
Directed by Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Erika Chong Shuch, Erin Gilley, Jessica Holt and Jessica Heidt

The sheer scope, ambition and feel-good communal aspect of this massive undertaking makes it one of the year’s most disarming experiences. The charms of Mac, who also starred as Lily, cannot be underestimated. Kudos to the Magic for staging what amounted to the best theatrical open house in many a season.

5. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
California Shakespeare Theater
Directed by Shana Cooper

I debated which Cal Shakes show I should include on this – it was down to Moscone’s Candida, which featured a luminous Julie Ecclesin the title role. But I opted for this high-octane production of a really difficult play. Leads Erica Sullivan and Slate Holmgren brought not only humor to this thorny comedy but also a depth of emotion I hadn’t ever experienced with this play. Director Cooper worked wonders with this Shrew, making it feel new and relevant.

6.The Companion Piece by Beth Wilmurt
Z Space @ Theatre Artaud
Directed by Mark Jackson

The combination of Wilmurt and Jackson is irresistible (Shameless plug! Read my San Francisco Chronicle interview with Jackson and Wilmurt here). Always has been and probably will be as long as they want to keep creating theater together. This vaudevillian spin featured laughs and songs and the most exquisite dance involving wheeled staircases you can imagine. That dance was easily one of the most beautiful things on a Bay Area stage this year.

7. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Lauren Gunderson
Crowded Fire Theater Company
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

Fresh and funny, Gunderson’s spitfire of a play introduced us to a playwright we need to be hearing from on a regular basis.

8. Phaedra by Adam Bock
Shotgun Players
Directed by Rose Riordan

Every time Bock comes back to the Bay Area he shows us yet another facet of his extraordinary talent. This spin on a classic allowed Shotgun to wow us with an eye-popping set and a central performance by Catherine Castellanos that echoed for months afterward.

9.Lady Grey (in ever lower light) by Will Eno
Cutting Ball Theatre
Directed by Rob Melrose

I can’t get enough Will Eno. Whether he’s the Brecht of our generation or an absurdist spin on Thornton Wilder, I find him completely original and funny in ways that are heartbreaking. This trilogy of plays from Cutting Ball was uber-theatrical and highly enjoyable. As was Eno’s brilliant Middletown, which I saw at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company directed by Les Waters (Berkeley Rep’s soon-to-be-former associate artistic director who’s heading to Kentucky to head the Actors Theatre of Louisville).

10. Strike Up the Band by George S. Kaufman (book) and George and Ira Gershwin (score)
42nd Street Moon
Directed by Zack Thomas Wilde

42nd Street Moon shows have delighted me for years, but I can’t remember having this much fun at the Eureka in a long, long time. The laughs were big and genuine, and the score was sublime. The whole package was so appealing it’s a shame the production couldn’t move to another venue and keep the band marching on.


The Wild Bride by Emma Rice and Kneehigh
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Emma Rice

This extraordinary show would have been at the top of my Top 10 list had it originated in this region or even in this country first. But as it’s a British import by a genius theater company, it can be content to live in the honorable mention category. The really good news is that Berkeley Rep has extended the show through Jan. 22. Start your new year right and go see this amazing piece of theater.

Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary
Impact Theatre
Directed by Melissa Hillman

Nerds are people, too. This sharp, savvy and very funny show takes a very specific world – Dungeons and Dragons gamers – and makes it instantly recognizable because it’s so very human.

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Mark Jackson

The physicality of this production is what lingers in memory, specifically Alexander Crowther’s transformation into a spider-like creature crawling over the wonderfully askew set. Director Jackson does wondrous things with actors and stages.

Spring Awakening by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik
San Jose Repertory Theatre

Directed by Rick Lombardo

This is not an easy musical to pull off, not only because the original Broadway production was so fresh and distinct. It’s tricky material performed by young material who have to act and rock convincingly. Lombardo’s production didn’t erase memories of the original, but it staked its own claim, and the young cast was bursting with talent.

A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Tom Ross

Being so close to Albee’s drama in the intimate Aurora proved to be an electrifying experience as we began to feel the tension, the fear and the barely concealed sneers of the upper middle class. Kimberly King’s central performance was wondrous.


Nicest unscripted moment: Hugh Jackman ripping his pants and changing into new ones in full view of the audience on opening night of Hugh Jackman in Performance at the Curran Theatre. He’s a boxer brief guy. And a true showman.

Biggest disappointment: Kevin Spacey hamming it up so uncontrollably in the Bridge Project’s fitfully interesting Richard III. Spacey is a fascinating stage presence, but he’s so predictably Kevin Spacey. His Richard III offered no surprises and, sadly, no depth. If Richard was really the kind of guy who would do Groucho Marx impressions, he probably wouldn’t be the Richard III Shakespeare wrote.

Second biggest disappointment: ACT’s Tales of the City musical. Upon reflection, it just seems all wrong. Good idea to turn Armistead Maupin’s books into a musical. But the creative team was simply too reverent, too outside the time and place.

Lust, lies and addiction fuel Shotgun’s Phaedra


Catherine Castellanos is Catherine and Keith Burkland is Antonio in the world premiere of Adam Bock’s Phadera, a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage. Below: Patrick Alparone (left) is Paulie, a prodigal son returned to the home of his father (Burkland) and stepmother (Castellanos). Photos by Pak Han

The sensational zing of the Phaedra myth has always come from the incestuous relationship at the story’s heart: Phaedra is secretly in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. When that love becomes less of a secret, tragedy ensues.

Everyone loves a titillating love story, especially when there’s a taboo to be wrestled to the ground. Euripides apparently wrote two plays involving Phaedra, but only one, Hippolytus, survives. Then, in the late 17th century, Racine wrote a version of Phaedra that has aroused audience interest for more than 300 years. Eugene O’Neill had fun with the Phaedra story in his pulpy Desire Under the Elms, and now Adam Bock, one of North America’s most intriguing playwrights, puts his own stamp on the tale.

Bock reunites with Berkeley’s Shotgun Players for the world premiere of his Phaedra, and though Bock has a long history with Shotgun (his Swimming in the Shallows will always be a Shotgun highlight for me), this new drama finds him working in mature playwright mode, with echoes of Pinter and Albee bouncing through the silences and percolating under the familial tension.

A classical Greek story now resides in Connecticut, more specifically in the well-appointed home of Catherine and Antonio (the spectacular two-level set is by Nina Ball and its elegance is just a degree or two above chilly). He’s a judge and she’s a businesswoman (she goes to work but we never quite know what she does). He has a son from a previous marriage, and together they have a daughter whose off at boarding school.


We learn from the opening narration, delivered by housekeeper Olibia (the precisely effective Trish Mulholland), that the marriage of Catherine and Antonio was one of convenience, with things like novelty and need being mistaken for passion and love. Many years on, the marriage is tense. He’s kind of an establishment blowhard with a penchant for knocking back scotch. And she’s an impeccably dressed (pricey-looking costumes are by Valera Coble) slab of granite, which is to say, she’s uptight and she’s never seen a coaster that didn’t need readjusting.

Catherine has built walls to barricade her loneliness and mask her regret at creating such an empty life for herself. It’s fascinating to see how Bock has created such an easily relatable modern version of Phaedra without having to apologize for her or make her a monster. It hardly comes as a surprise when we learn that Catherine has secret passions, especially when we see those passions ignited by someone who reminds her of the lost days when her husband – not to mention her future – was sexy and full of hope.

Director Rose Riordan exposes the danger and damage in this fine, upstanding family, and in addition to the gorgeous physical production (including sharp lighting and projections by Lucas Krech and white noise sound design by Hannah Birch Carl) she elicits some fine performances from her cast.

Keith Burkland as Antonio comes across as a violent man even if his lashing out is nothing more than verbal. There’s an exchange with his wayward son Paulie (the brooding, vulnerable Patrick Alparone) that makes the audience gasp as if there had been actual physical contact. Alparone’s Paulie, fresh out of rehab and working diligently to make his sobriety stick this time, is the real victim here, a child of parents so caught up in their own internal messes that they have no empathy for his.

Mulholland is an invaluable supporting player as the nattering housekeeper who cares for this family in ways well beyond her cooking and vacuuming. And Cindy Im is a bracing presence as Taylor, a friend of Paulie’s from rehab and a hopeful love interest.

Which brings us to Catherine Castellanos as Catherine, the complex motor of this story. Long one of the most powerful actors found on a Bay Area stage, Castellanos commands attention with the slightest movement or the loudest cry. Here, she is mostly restrained and absolutely heartbreaking. When emotions finally break through the carefully composed surface, there’s no escaping the intensity of lust, of sadness, of need. In many ways, she’s addicted to her secret love of Paulie because it’s the one connection that awakens feelings in her other than depression or boredom or swampy regret.

She can’t go to rehab to deal with this addiction, but she can spray it into the world like poison. Watching Castellanos do anything on stage is interesting, but this is rich, savage material, and her approach mixes elements of the damaged human, the compassionate woman and the unwitting monster to such effect that it’s hard not to love Catherine for all her flaws…until she goes far too far.

Bock’s Phaedra fascinates and compels. It titillates and terrorizes. It connects powerfully to the ancient and finds eloquent, emotional life in the here and now.


Adam Bock’s Phaedra continues through Oct. 23 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$26. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

Beth Wilmurt goes `Boating’ in Berkeley

You’ve heard about monsters being unleashed and wreaking havoc in New York? Well, Beth Wilmurt was just such a monster.

The San Francisco-based actor played a ferocious dragon in the final scenes of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, the Shotgun Players/Banana Bag & Bodice musical that headed to New York after its award-winning birth in Berkeley.

BethWilmurt 1

Wilmurt replaced Cameron Galloway, who plays a starchy academic for most of the play then, at the end, turns into a dragon for one final battle scene with the warrior Beowulf. This was Wilmurt’s first New York performance experience, and she describes it as “a super-positive experience.”

“It felt like the best possible circumstances to be in New York,” she says. “I was there for about five weeks with one thing to concentrate on, this wonderful artistic experience. I had my days free during the run of the show, and during rehearsal I could go out at night and see shows. I saw a ton of theater and ran into a lot of people missing the Bay Area.”

Once she got home, Wilmurt didn’t have much time to dawdle before she was back in the rehearsal room, this time for the Bay Area premiere of Bob Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating, a four-person romantic comedy that begins performances this week at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. The play, directed by Joy Carlin, is about two couples, one more established, played by Amanda Duarte and Gabriel Marin, and one just forming, played by Wilmurt and Danny Wolohan.

The 2007 play was originally part of the LAByrinth Theater Company season starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, who will direct the upcoming film version.

BethWilmurt 2

Wilmurt describes her character, Connie, as somewhat troubled. “I think she might even have some sort of diagnosed problem, though it’s never specified,” she says. “She’s dealing with issues, and Danny’s character, Jack, clearly has some, too. Here are two people in their late 30s/early 40s, and they’re facing a long-term relationship for the first time. Why hasn’t that happened thus far? There isn’t a lot of plot in the play, but there are obstacles. The obstacles are simple seeming, but they represent bigger obstacles for the individual.”

The role of Connie is somewhat similar to a role Wilmurt played in a previous Aurora outing, John Guare’s Bosoms and Neglect (seen above, with Wilmurt and Cassidy Brown), which Carlin also directed.

“Joy is an amazing actor, right? So it’s no surprise that she’s a really good director when it comes to getting inside a moment,” Wilmurt says. “She senses when a moment isn’t fully embodied and senses what the rhythm should be. She can get inside these micro-moments and help figure out the timing and depth of them. She can speak from the outside in, and she’s a great comedic actress.”

Wilmurt is no slouch herself. The Bay Area native grew up in Dublin (in the Tri-Valley area, not Ireland) and began her performing career at the Willows Theatre in Concord and has worked consistently since doing musicals, musical revues, plays and productions of her own creation.

With her partner, Mark Jackson, she founded Art Street Theatre in 1995, which produced a show a year for about 10 years. Ask Wilmurt about her favorite theatrical memories –her time in Germany studying, creating and performing in theater and dance gets a shout out, but Art Street is at the top of the list.

“I have a ridiculous amount of great memories from Art Street,” she says. “We worked with a lot of the same people, and everyone had such amazing energy and enthusiasm. I certainly loved doing Io, Princess of Argos. I had an idea and started talking to Mark about combining Greek mythology and cabaret. We got Marcy Karr involved and just started writing it. We wrote the show and 15 songs in about four months. We didn’t preview it or workshop it. We just did it, whatever, flaws and all. Art Street was like our own little school because we were just moving forward and not worrying how things were received.”

Though completely immersed in Jack Goes Boating (and anticipating her next Shotgun show, Marcus Gardley and Molly Holm’s a cappella musical This World in a Woman’s Hands in the fall), Wilmurt is feeling that old Art Street itch to create new works.

“I’m really attracted to brand-new work,” she says. “I like the problem-solving aspect, the figuring out how it’s all going to work. I’ve worked with so many great companies and choreographers and directors, and I like all kinds of performance—musicals, plays, fringe, cabaret, dance – and I’m getting these ideas for plays. Should I be in them? Should I pitch them? Direct them? It’s that Art Street energy: gotta create a show!”


Bob Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating performs June 12-July 19 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $28-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information.