Lovely as ever, Rita Moreno tells her tale

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Rita Moreno dances through her past with Salvatore Vassallo (left) and Ray Garcia in the world premiere of Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup at Berkeley Rep. Photos courtesy of

She’s charming and gorgeous. Vivacious and soulful. In short, Rita Moreno is the perfect candidate for an autobiographical show.

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup is not yet the perfect show for this legendary performer, but it provides a snazzy opening to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre season.

Written by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone and directed by David Galligan,, the show is at its best when Moreno is taking us through the ups and mostly downs of her storied career. Act 1 is a chronological narrative, beginning with a 5-year-old Rosa Dolores Alverío boarding a ship in 1936 to take them from Puerto Rico to a new life in New York.

From her first meeting with Louis B. Mayer at age 16, Moreno was catapulted from life in the barrio to the world of hardscrabble glamour as a Hollywood starlet who, it’s interesting to note, could have chose the screen name Mitzi Margarita.

What’s so interesting about Moreno’s story is that throughout her career, she was fighting stereotype – of Puerto Ricans, of women, of Puerto Rican women. She played Indian, Siamese, Native American, Polynesian and more and says her small roles in mostly forgettable movies defined her professionally as the “resident utility ethnic.”

When she finally played a Puerto Rican so famously in West Side Story, director Jerome Robbins made her – and ever actor playing Puerto Rican – wear a thick coat of makeup that made them all exactly the same color. The white actors could have varying skin tones, but the ethic actors were not allowed that measure of reality.

Those are the kind of details that really shine in Taccone’s smart script, which mostly eschews the razzle-dazzle of the typical show-biz biography.

The first half is punctuated by photos and film clips (Alexander V. Nichols’ projections and lights look terrific on Anna Louizos’ elegant set) and bits of musical numbers. A young Moreno sits on the fire escape of her building singing along with the Pied Pipers’ “Dream” on the radio. When she falls head over heels for Marlon Brando, she sings a few verses of “The Way He Makes Me Feel,” then when things go badly, she veers into “When October Goes.”

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Music Director César Cancino and his quartet handle the music cues nicely, though it would be nice to have Moreno sing an entire song other than “The Hate Song,” an unnecessary bit from her stint on The Electric Company, which is represented far more successfully by a film clip of Moreno singing Tom Lehrer’s hilarious “The Menu Song” with Morgan Freeman.

Aided by dancers Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, Moreno re-creates her introduction to Spanish dancing as a teenager. She also resurrects Googie Gomez from The Ritz, a role that won her a 1975 Tony Award. While it’s wonderful to see Googie, the number (she massacres “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) is overplayed. Moreno has done this bit to better effect in her cabaret act.

Moreno, who turns 80 in December, is a captivating storyteller, and hearing what life was like for a starlet in 1950s Hollywood is chilling. She describes being abandoned at a party (by the shoe magnate who would later marry Debbie Reynolds no less) and barely escaping some serious sexual assault.

In Act 2, the chronology turns into a more free-form recounting as Moreno struggles to find work. When she gets to West Side Story, she re-creates two numbers, “Dance at the Gym” and “America,” and while it’s always great to see Moreno strut her stuff, to faithfully perform these numbers requires more than what she’s got (her knees, she admits, aren’t what they used to be). She’s a trouper, no question, but this effort seems too much when a film clip might serve the storytelling more effectively.

While it would be impossible not to feature music in the story of Moreno’s life, the power in this show is her storytelling. Though leaning heavily on Teleprompters for the opening-night performance, Moreno fascinates as she describes almost losing her mind making Carnal Knowledge and then worrying about how playing a prostitute in that movie might affect her chances of getting the gig on The Electric Company.

Though the show is 2 ½ hours, there’s a lot she doesn’t mention. For instance, when she’s struggling in Hollywood and begins to consider secretarial school, suddenly her career gets a boost when she appears on the cover of Life magazine. Very exciting but how in the world did a struggling actress end up on the cover of Life?

It’s interesting that Moreno didn’t make a movie for seven years after West Side Story, but what makes it even more interesting is that she won an Academy Award for that movie, a fact she doesn’t mention (though that Oscar, along with many other awards are on display in the lobby and available for carefully guarded photo ops).

Though she does briefly, poignantly delve into the loss of her husband, Dr. Leonard Gordon, last year, she doesn’t discuss her later career much (beyond telling off a hot-shot British director by affirming that she does NOT do Mexican madams). That’s a shame because there are doubtless stories to be told about Sister Pete, the fascinating nun she played on HBO’s prison drama, Oz.

There’s a thread through the show of identity, and how Moreno has lost it, found it and fully owned it. At one crisis point, she says, “I had made myself up beyond all recognition.” These days it seems Moreno, who has won every award on the planet and conquered seemingly every aspect of show business, knows who she is and could afford to rest on her laurels. But she powers ahead, and her story keeps spinning on. Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup will undoubtedly deepen as the run continues and the Moreno spark connects more fully with the compelling Moreno story.

[bonus video]
Here’s Moreno singing Tom Lehrer’s “The Menu Song” on The Electric Company with Morgan Freeman. Genius.

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup continues an extended run through Nov. 12 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73 (subject to change). Call (510) 647-2949 or visit

This Composer really is dead

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Let’s hear it for the French horns and the trombones – some of the extraordinary puppets created for the world premiere of Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Geoff Hoyle is the sole human sharing the stage with puppets. Photos courtesy of

There’s a moment of absolute magic in the world premiere of Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

We’ve just been subjected to a rather dispiriting film (more on that in a minute), a sort of theatrical appetizer, and we’re making the transition into the main course. The curtain on the Roda Theatre rises to reveal an absolutely magnificent set that looks like a life-size Victorian paper theater.

There’s an orchestra full of puppets – each personality-infused face affixed to a representation of an instrument – and Geoff Hoyle (the only human in the show) as the Inspector in a fantastic plaid suit preparing to solve the crime of who murdered the world’s greatest, formerly living composer.

The reveal of the set in all its glory is by far the best part of this strangely moribund evening. The show, including the movie, is just over an hour, and yet it seems much longer.

The idea was to take the piece Lemony Snicket (aka San Francisco writer Daniel Handler) and composer Nathaniel Stookey wrote for the San Francisco Symphony as sort of a latter day Peter and the Wolf – let’s get kids excited about classical music! – and turn it into a marvelous theatrical experience.

The work of Phantom Limb – Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko – is truly marvelous. They’re responsible for the puppets, sets and costumes. The visual palette they employ is sumptuous and full of character. It’s just too bad they don’t have more of a story to tell.

I expected more music (performed by the SF Symphony via a recording), but what we hear of Stookey’s work is highly enjoyable. We mostly get Hoyle’s Inspector interacting with the puppets (well, at any rate he’s traipsing about behind the puppets). He actually has more interaction with the moving and twirling paper puppets that skitter about the stage.

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If kids leave this show with any overwhelming inspiration, it will be to work with puppets – not to become a lifelong lover of classical music or live theater.

There are two things I dislike enormously in live theater: movies and recorded voices, though I’ve seen both used well. In terms of movies, the two examples that come to mind are All Wear Bowlers, which unfolded on the Roda Stage in 2006, and Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, which ran at American Conservatory Theater last season. Both used film in ingenious ways that heightened the live theater experience.

The film that opens this show, called The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater, is bathed in irony. Hoyle plays a sycophantic host who will present the audience, especially “the children because they’re young,” with an introduction to theatrical pleasures. Then he shows a movie of a marionette giving a slide show.

Given that this is a Lemony Snicket script, things go off the rails as we learn that, among other things, the theater is a mess because the director is crying, the actor is mute and the lighting designer is lazy. Hoyle interacts with the puppets on film, and the timing is expert. But this zany backstage territory was covered with much more humor and heart by the Muppets every week during the run of their series.

There’s a cool distance that pervades the work of Mr. Snicket, and that’s true of both the film and the Composer portion of this hour-long evening. The puppet orchestra and Victorian theater are fun for a while, but then we need story and character, both of which are nominal here.

Director Tony Taccone’s technically astute production also lacks emotional connection of any kind, which is not surprising given that Snicket traffics in droll wordplay. And the voices of everyone but Hoyle are recorded. The necessity for that is understandable but it’s unfortunate that so much of the magic of this living and breathing theater is pre-recorded.

The only time I laughed all evening was during the film credits at the end – bloopers and jokes abound, and I had more fun in those few minutes than in the preceding hour.


Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead continues through Jan. 15 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73 (with half-price discounts for anyone younger than 30). Call 510 647-2949 or visit for information.

Heavenly Angels exhibit takes wing

Angels caricatureThis Al Hirschfeld drawing of the Broadway Angels in America cast is on display at San Francisco’s Museum of Performance and Design in the exhibit More Life: Angels in America at Twenty. Below, Milton Glaser’s artwork for the Broadway production of Angels.

The millennium approached, then quickly fell behind us. Time marches on, but Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America remains a landmark achievement of 20th-century theater.

The legacy of the play that got its start at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre is on display at the Museum of Performance and Design, one of San Francisco’s best kept museum secrets. The exhibit hall may be filled with memorabilia from Angels’ humble beginnings on a red Formica table filled with scribbled-in notebooks to its domination of world stage (with the Pulitzer Prize and international posters to prove it), but what you really feel in this display is the extraordinary power of theater.

It doesn’t happen very often, but when a play or a musical really taps into the American psyche, imaginations are ignited and artists are pushed to do work they didn’t know they could do. MPD’s curator of exhibitions and programs, Brad Rosenstein, has created a testament to the evanescence of theater. Plays may come and go, but sometimes in their wake, the world changes because people’s imaginations were truly engaged.

At a press preview for More Life! Angels in America at Twenty, (the exhibit opens to the public Saturday, Nov. 6), Rosenstein talked about his connection with the play from the first time he read it then described how enthusiastic everyone was when he contacted them for information or artifacts for the exhibit. No one had time, he said, but just about everyone made time, including Kushner, whom Rosenstein accurately described as “the busiest writer in the world.”

Angels posterKushner was there for the preview, as were original Broadway cast members Joe Mantello and David Marshall Grant. The Eureka production was represented by Tony Taccone, who, along with Oskar Eustis, ran the Eureka and had the foresight to produce the world premiere of Angels, along with cast members Lorri Holt and Anne Darragh.

The ever-present image in the exhibit, not surprisingly, is wings. There are angels’ wings from numerous productions, including the original Sandra Woodall wings from the Eureka (beautifully restored), the only surviving wings from Broadway, the American Conservatory Theater wings (metal and fabric and strangely beautiful) and the hyper-realistic wings worn by Emma Thompson in the HBO movie. There’s also a set piece from Broadway of the Angel of Bethesda Fountain that looks like it just fell off the beloved Central Park landmark. There are angels in photos and on posters, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to sense a few actual angels hovering among the artifacts.

Kushner was saving his speech for the big pre-opening gala, but in accepting a proclamation from San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty proclaiming Angels in America Day, Kushner said, “The only thing left is to climb in a box and shut the lid.” He described himself as “overwhelmed” and “out of my head.” And he described the experience of the exhibit as if someone had opened his closet and out spilled posters and wings and people.

Rosenstein conducted about 50 interviews with artists involved with Angels over the last two decades, and he said he will continue to add new audio and visual material into the exhibit. Among that material will be footage from a number of different productions. Toward the end of the exhibition, there will be a screening of Freida Lee Mock’s Kushner documentary, Wrestling with Angels at a Lucasfilm screening room, and there’s talk at the San Francisco Opera of unleashing the Adler Fellows on a concert presentation of the Angels opera.

The exhibit is so inspiring you want to head immediately into a nearby theater and see Angels in its entirety. You’d have to head to New York’s Singature Theatre Company to do that right now, but Supervisor Dufty mentioned a local theater company he’s helping, Theatre Shark, as they try to find a Castro neighborhood storefront in which to produce the entire two-part epic. Until then we can wallow in the wing-fluttering glory of More Life!.

More words!

I wrote about the contents of the exhibit in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the article here. You can also read Rob Hurwitt’s interview with Tony Kushner and his piece on the legacy of Angels.


More Life! Angels in America at Twenty continues through March 26, 2011 at the Museum of Performance and Design, 401 Van Ness Ave., Veterans Building, Fourth Floor, San Francisco. Suggested donation is $5. Call 415 255-4800 or visit

Come on I wanna Leia: Fisher lands on Broadway

Another week, another Berkeley Repertory Theatre show going to Broadway.

Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical solo show Wishful Drinking, directed by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, will open in October at — where else? — Studio 54, where it runs through Jan. 3. The show is produced by Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Jonathan Reinis, Jamie Cesa, Eva Price, and Berkeley Rep.

This is the fourth show to head from Berkeley to Broadway in the last four years: Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel (2006), Stew’s Passing Strange (2008), and Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) (2009). It’s also the 12th show in as many years to make the West to East transition. The list includes Danny Hoch’s Taking Over (2008), Ruhl’s Eurydice (2007), Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak’s Brundibar (2006), Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views (2002), Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (2001), Hoch’s Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop (1998), Anne Galjour’s Alligator Tales (1997), and Philip Kan Gotanda’s Ballad of Yachiyo (1997).

“This is the culmination of a long process,” Taccone said in a statement. “Berkeley Rep has a history of developing new work and, with our commissioning program, continues its commitment to bring fresh ideas and alternative viewpoints to the stage. I am pleased with the success of this project, and honored to collaborate with all of the people involved to bring this show to Broadway. It has been truly gratifying in recent years to see our shows reach a wider audience in New York, Los Angeles, London, and other cities.”

Visit for Wishful Drinking ticket information.

Rita Moreno offers cabaret `Tributes’ at Rrazz Room

The Bay Area’s resident superstar, Rita Moreno, opens a new cabaret act at San Francisco’s Rrazz Room on Wednesday, Nov. 5. But she was recently at the Rrazz Room as an audience member for her dear friend Chita Rivera’s Bay Area cabaret debut.

“We got together afterwards and just laughed and laughed,” Moreno says.

Moreno and Rivera often joke that each has been mistaken for the other more times than they can count. Rivera originated the role of Anita on Broadway in West Side Story and Moreno won an Academy Award in the same role, but in the movie version.

So why don’t the two durable divas put an end to the confusion and do a show together?

“We’ve been hearing that for years,” Moreno says. “But what would we do? The two of us would burn up the stage.”

That’s probably true. Moreno, who will be 77 in December, seemingly never stops. The kind of energy that has won her an Oscar, an Emmy (several Emmys, actually), a Tony and a Grammy still fuels her to work on TV (in recent years she has been a regular on “Oz” and “Cane”), in concert, on the lecture circuit and on the theater stage. She regularly appears at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which just happens to be the professional theater company closest to the Berkeley hills home she shares with her husband of 43 years, Dr. Leonard Gordon.

“Every once in a while, my husband and I look out the window at the view across the bay and say `What a good thing we did moving here.’ We really love it,” Moreno says.

Shortly after Moreno moved to Berkeley in 1998, she made her cabaret debut at the now-defunct Empire Plush Room in the York Hotel. She dazzled critics and audiences alike and has since become a cabaret regular both here and in New York.

The show she’s opening Wednesday is called Little Tributes, and it started out to pay homage to all the singers and composers that Moreno admires. The show sort of took a different direction, but the title stuck, and there are some tributes – to Peggy Lee, to Harold Arlen.

“I’m doing a lot of Broadway stuff this time,” Moreno says. “I have a gift for finding the one song in a hit musical that nobody has ever heard. I did Sunset Boulevard and there’s a song that I think comes at a seminal moment in the show. It’s just electric, and people don’t know it. Norma realizes that Joe is very quickly falling out of love with her, and the song is her desperate attempt to bring him back into her arms. It’s a short but really wonderful piece. Quite dramatic. I love becoming her again for those few moments.”

Putting together a new act is a labor of love for Moreno. She keeps a pad and pencil at all times in case she hears a song she likes, and she has been known to drop $1,000 at New York’s Colony record store buying CDs that intrigue her.

Curiously, Moreno says she doesn’t think about the audience at all when piecing together a new act.

“I just have to believe that if I like it, they’ll like it,” she says. “In other words, I trust them.”

The act will feature ballads, two Spanish numbers (“One with castanets!” Moreno enthuses) and what Moreno calls the “opener of openers.”

“I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it’s Kander and Ebb, and I bet you’ve never heard it,” Moreno says. “I don’t come in shouting like Ethel Merman or anything, but it’s really delicious.”

After the cabaret act, Moreno will do some serious thinking about her next project with Berkeley Rep.

“I have a director, (Berkeley Rep artistic director) Tony Taccone, but we don’t have a play,” Moreno says. “We’re planning something, but it will take a while because it’s something more personal as opposed to an existing play. It’s something quite original.”

She’ll also attempt to be home more enjoying her daughter, Fernanda, who lives nearby, and her two grandsons, who Moreno describes as “my heart and soul.”

“What a discovery it is to be home and cook a lot,” she says. “I love to cook and garden and just luxuriate in my beautiful house. I am quite active but not as much as before. Home has always been important, but it has become more important. Now that I’m a whole bunch older, I want to take advantage of this wonderful thing of home and family life.”

But don’t expect Moreno to become a total homebody.

“I’m not planning a retirement. I can’t conceive of such a thing.”

Rita Moreno’s Little Tributes opens Wednesday, Nov. 5 and runs through Nov. 23 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$55 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit or

Here are Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera and (?) Bette Midler performing “America” from West Side Story at a benefit in LA:

Crowded Fire shakes things up (again)

Seems like just yesterday that Crowded Fire Theatre Company announced the departure of founding artistic director Rebecca Novick and the ascension of co-artistic directors (and husband-and-wife) Cassie Beck and Kent Nicholson. Actually, it was more like a year ago.

Today the company announced that Beck and Nicholson have “decided to pursue their careers at a national level,” and Marissa Wolf will succeed them as artistic director.

Wolf, 26, recently directed Crowded Fire’s Gone by Charles Mee and has also worked with FoolsFURY Theater, Fury Factory, Playwrights Foundation and Cutting Ball Theater. She held the Bret C. Harte Directing Internship at Berkeley Repertory Theatre for two years, where she assisted artistic director Tony Taccone, associate artistic director Les Waters and visiting directors Lisa Peterson, Frank Galati and Mary Zimmerman. She was the assistant director for the world premiere of Passing Strange. She has a degree in drama from Vassar College and received additional training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Beck, a longtime Crowded Fire company member, will be performing at a number of theaters, among them Playwrights Horizons, The Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Nicholson, who continues as director of new works with TheatreWorks and as a freelance director, will shift to Crowded Fire’s board of directors.

Next up for Crowded Fire is the world premiere of Stephanie Fleischmann’s My Name Is Vera Cupido, running Oct. 4-Nov. 2 at the Thick House in San Francisco.

Visit for information.

Review: `Yellowjackets’

Opened Sept. 3, 2008 — now extended through Oct. 19

Jahmela Biggs (left) is Ms. Robbins a teacher who has problems with the school newspaper and Ben Freeman is Avi, the new editor of the school newspaper in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s season-opening world premiere, Yellowjackets. Photo by

Teens bear weight of a messy world in Moses’ `Yellowjackets’
(three stars)

If Disney’s High School Musical had been set at Berkeley High School, it would have to lose the vapid songs, the dewy-cheeked innocence and the vacuous romance. It would have to ramp up the intellect, pour on the conflict and lose all sense of teenage fun.

In other words, it would have to be Yellowjackets, the world-premiere play that opens Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new season.

Written by Itamar Moses, himself a Berkeley High grad (Class of ’95), this teenage drama is exactly what you expect about the high school experience in Berkeley circa 1994: it’s smart, political, contentious, relentless, confusing and so full of weighty issues you may forget you’re actually dealing with teenagers here.

Directed by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, Yellowjackets (named for the Berkeley High mascot) has moments of volcanic passion, especially when dealing with issues of race, and it emphasizes what a god-awful mess we’ve made with that “all men are created equal” thing.

But this is 2 ½ hours of intensity with very little relief – oh, there’s some romance and a couple laughs, but for the most part, the lightning-paced dialogue and slam-bang scene changes keep the play hurtling forward at breakneck speed. Imagine high school as re-imagined by Aaron Sorkin: It’s “Welcome Back Kotter” meets “The West Wing.”

There’s a lot of play here – perhaps too much – and there’s no real protagonist. Avi (Ben Freeman, above center with Alex Curtis and Erika Salazar), the new editor of the high school newspaper, The Jacket, gets a lot of stage time, and for good reason. He’s brainy and gung-ho, a geek coming into his own. And he’s a good candidate for protagonist except that there’s someone more interesting onstage and that’s Damian (Shoresh Alaudini), a bright kid who finds himself in too much trouble.

Threatened with expulsion after being involved in an on-campus gang fight, Damian struggles with hanging on to his street cred or doing the right thing for his brother, Rashid (Lance Gardner), a security guard at the school, and his girlfriend, basketball player Tamika (Jahmela Biggs).

Everybody’s got problems at school (effectively evoked by the chain link, graffiti and sharp details of Annie Smart’s set). The student newspaper is being boycotted by various faculty members (all acting like children themselves and played by the young actors playing the teenagers) because of perceived insensitivity to racial issues.

Because of the gang fight, the fence around the school is locked during the day, so off-campus privileges have been revoked. And the notion of tracking students – putting all the smart kids on one track and all the more challenged students on another – has turned into another form of segregation and is causing unrest. A beloved counselor has retired early for “health” reasons; and bullies are being bullies. Kids from Richmond are threatening kids at Berkeley, and within the school there’s antagonism between second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans.

Gee, remember when high school used to be sort of fun – even when it seemed the pressures of hormones, peers and parents would kill you?

Maybe high school in Berkeley in 1994 was all racial, violent, academic and intellectual hell (there’s no question it was awash in flannel and plaid, according to Meg Neville’s spot-on period costumes). It sure seems like these kids could benefit from a screening of the politically incorrect Sixteen Candles.

The cast of young, mostly local actors is terrific when they’re playing young. They’re not as effective in the adult roles. In theory, the idea of kids playing teachers is a good one, but in practice, some of the actors are out of their depth.

Act 1 sparks in fits and starts – it begins with a physical brawl and feels like an intellectual brawl from then on, but things really begin to gel in Act 2, especially in a scene between Avi (Freeman is so believable you half expect him to take the SATs at the end of the play) and his girlfriend, Alexa (Amaya Alonso Hallifax). He rails about how hard it is to be a white Jewish guy in America – one of the people who “gets it” — and she doesn’t show a whole lot of pity for his being a “white kid, in a brown school, in a white country, in a white-white First World. Go fifteen miles north, south, or east of here and check.”

It’s a fiery scene, when race and youth and intelligence clash and discover just how impossible it is to please anyone, let alone everyone. There are no good guys or bad guys, no such thing as “the same.” And, unfortunately, so little hope of equality.

As provocative and involving as the play can be, Moses and Taccone haven’t found the right ending yet. The final scene concludes with a question – the weakest line of dialogue in the play because the lingering questions are so big and so obvious.


Yellowjackets continues an extended run through Oct. 19 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Young journos sting along with `Yellowjackets’

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s season-opening play Yellowjackets, a drama about life at Berkeley High School in the early ’90s, has inspired a free teen journalism summit. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre announced an unusual opportunity for Bay Area teens tied to its world premiere of Yellowjackets: local youth can attend a free summit on the power of journalism and theatre on Monday, Aug. 18 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Making an Impact: A Teen Journalism Summit will take place at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, located at 2071 Addison St. in downtown Berkeley, and will feature interactive activities with respected reporters.

“Since Yellowjackets is set at Berkeley High, and the plot revolves around a prank at the school newspaper, we decided to create an event for student journalists,” explains Rachel Fink, director of the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre. “The more we spoke with students, the more we realized they were eager to have a larger conversation – to explore their responsibility as reporters at their schools, and to discover the impact that role can have on the greater community.”

The summit is the brainchild of 19-year-old Albany-native Genevieve Michel. Last year, when she was a senior at Albany High School, Michel led Berkeley Rep’s Teen Council; this summer, after her freshman year at New York University, she returned to Berkeley to help plan this event.

“In high school, it’s so easy to lose sight of the big picture – so easy to forget that extracurricular activities teach us tools that we can use for the rest of our lives,” Michel comments. “Students attending this summit will spend the day working with journalism professionals – and I hope they’ll leave it with a better sense of how they can use their words and their passion to be a force for change.”

The day-long workshop will examine how journalism and theatre can inspire debate and ultimately create large-scale change within a community. Teens will participate in a morning discussion on the roles of performance and the media, and then break into smaller groups led by professional reporters to brainstorm compelling story angles inspired by the day’s debate. The panelists will include Kristin Bender of the Oakland Tribune, yours truly (freelance reporter Chad Jones), nationally renowned playwright Itamar Moses (at right in his Berkeley High days), artistic director Tony Taccone, and other respected local journalists.

The summit was inspired by the first play in Berkeley Rep’s upcoming season: Yellowjackets, an incisive play set in Berkeley and written by a Berkeley native. Itamar Moses – who once edited the student newspaper at Berkeley High School – returns to his hometown with a script set in the halls of his alma mater. When the school paper publishes an insensitive story, students suddenly find themselves embroiled in a volatile controversy – and even their teachers seem unprepared to deal with the repercussions. Tony Taccone directs this collision of race and class set just around the corner from Berkeley Rep. With Yellowjackets, he generates the same mix of intense emotion and timely politics that infused shows such as Continental Divide, Culture Clash’s Zorro in Hell, and Taking Over. Yellowjackets begins previews on the intimate Thrust Stage on Aug. 29, opens Sept. 3, and runs through Oct. 12.

Anyone wishing to register for Making an Impact: A Teen Journalism Summit may request a registration form by sending an email to This one-of-a-kind event is free to all participants, and is open to high-school students at all levels; no prior journalistic experience is required. Youth attending the summit also receive a free ticket to see Yellowjackets on Friday, Sept. 5.

Students entering grades 9-12 are invited to Making an Impact: A Teen Journalism Summit, Monday, Aug. 18 from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre, 2071 Addison St. @ Shattuck, Downtown Berkeley. The seminar is free! For information call 510-647-2978 or visit or e-mail

New Amy Freed play added to Berkeley Rep season

[show’s dates have changed since original posting: Previews begin May 15, opening is May 20 and closing is June 28]

Local playwright Amy Freed (above) will collaborate once again with director (and former Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director) Sharon Ott on a new play that has just been added to the Berkeley Rep season.

You, Nero will play on the Thrust Stage May 15 through June 28, 2009.

The play will star Danny Scheie as Nero, emperor of Rome, famous for playing the fiddle while his city burned. In Freed’s comedy, not only does he fiddle, but he also fills the Colosseum with sex and decadence as he commands a washed-up scribe to create an extravaganza that flatters his pitiful regime.

This marks the third collaboration between Freed and Ott, who have paired previously on The Beard of Avon and Restoration Comedy.

Nero, a co-production with South Coast Repertory, marks the second show Ott will direct for Berkeley Rep this season. She is at the helm of Crime & Punishment, in a new adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, in February of 2009.

“You, Nero is the perfect way to end the coming year, on a high note of incisive, satiric wit,” said Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone. “Modern American life bears a remarkable resemblance to Nero’s Rome, and Amy Freed mines the parallels to wonderful comic effect.”

For information visit

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.