Gabe Marin exorcises Aurora’s devilish `Disciple’

One of the great things about Bay Area theater is watching local actors grow into greatness.

They may or may not strike off to find fortune and fame in New York or Los Angeles, or they may choose to stay here and continue doing as much good work as they can.

The Aurora Theatre Company’s next show, George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, is packed with the kind of actors who, if you care about local theater, you’ve been watching for years. Names such as Stacy Ross, Warren David Keith and Trish Mullholland pretty much make a show worth seeing if they’re involved.

Another name to add to that list is Gabriel Marin (seen at right with Devil’s co-star Stacy Ross, photos by David Allen).

Theatergoers probably don’t remember Marin’s local stage debut in American Conservatory Theater’s The Play’s the Thing in 1995. He was a 23-year-old spear carrier amid some Bay Area greats such as Ken Ruta, Dan Hiatt and Kimberly King. He was fresh out of college (Chicago’s DePaul University) and eager to put all his acting training to use.

But on stage at the Geary, Marin remembers thinking: “Damn, I should have paid more attention in voice class. All the things I thought were old school and used to roll my eyes at, turned out to be more useful than I thought. And there I was watching people do it to perfection. Made me feel inadequate and in awe.”

But Marin persisted, even as he married, started a family and moved to Los Angeles. When the marriage ended, Marin and his son, Max, headed back to the Bay Area, while his daughter, Morgan, stayed in L.A. with her mom.

Being a single parent, Marin found a day job that involved theater – marketing director for Walnut Creek’s Center Repertory Company – that still allowed him to pursue acting opportunities.

“There’s nothing, other than acting, that I could do and be happy with myself,” Marin says. “When I was in LA, supporting a family, theater was something I had to obviously set aside, and those years were soul-sucking to me. Now I embrace the poverty. I embrace being bereft of amenities. That’s why I say this is all I can do and be happy.”

In the last couple of years, Marin has really come into his own, delivering some stunning performances for SF Playhouse (Bug, Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, Our Lady of 121st Street), Magic Theatre (The Rules of Charity), Marin Theatre Company (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Traveling Jewish Theatre/Thick Description (Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain).

All the theater work has meant that Max, about to turn 13, has spent a lot of time backstage.

“I cannot thank my son enough,” Marin says. “He’s had to sit in a lot of green rooms. He’s the light of my life. What’s interesting, is when I bow, I make an `M’ with my hands, and if he’s in the green room, he’ll run out to the wings to see if I give him thanks. I couldn’t act if he wasn’t on board.”

The younger Marin is so on board, in fact, that he’s been expressing the desire to be an actor (when he doesn’t want to be a computer game programmer or airplane pilot).

“I’ll encourage him and help facilitate that,” Marin says. “But I’m very careful not to push that on him.”

Marin is returning to Berkeley’s Aurora, where he previously appeared in Gunplay, The Glass Menagerie and Shaw’s Saint Joan, directed by Aurora’s founding artistic director, Barbara Oliver, who is also helming The Devil’s Disciple.

This is the one Shaw play set in America (during the Revolutionary War, naturally), and it tends toward the melodramatic. Marin is playing Richard Dudgeon, the self-proclaimed “devil’s disciple” who pretends to be the local minister, who may be fitted with a hangman’s noose to demoralize the townspeople.

“Richard is awesome,” Marin says. “He’s kind of Han Solo meets Obi Wan Kenobi in a very Shavian way. He’s the rogue with a heart of gold, and he made me think of Obi Wan because he reminded me of Obi Wan saying to Darth Vader something like, `If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.'”

Marin’s girlfriend teases him that he’s finally playing a rogue instead of a loser with a heart of gold.

After Devil’s Disciple, Marin will be seen in John Guare’s Landscape of the Body at SF Playhouse in January and then Jack Goes Boating back at the Aurora next summer under the direction of Bay Area veteran Joy Carlin.

With such a non-stop schedule, Marin must be exhausted.

“I’m not exhausted,” he says. “I’m grateful.”

The Devil’s Disciple begins previews Friday, Oct. 31, opens Thursday, Nov. 6 and runs through Dec. 7 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $28 for previews, $40-$42 for regular performances. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.

Review: `Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain’

opened Jan. 13, 2007 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, San Francisco

Wacky `Dead Mother’ springs to vibrant life
three 1/2 stars Shirley not to be missed

Dead Mother, contrary to its title, is quite a lively evening of theater.

The full title of David Greenspan’s wickedly playful, intelligent play, Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain, gives you some idea of the writer’s general tone: funny, irreverent and secretly serious.

A co-production of San Francisco theater companies Traveling Jewish Theatre and Thick Description, Dead Mother opened marks the 17-year-old play’s first production since its premiere at New York’s Public Theater.

It’s easy to see why the play might scare companies less brave than TJT and Thick D. Here you have a farce involving sexual identity, cross-dressing, bestiality, Greek mythology, five acts and enough speedy dialogue to choke an untrained actor.

Thick D’s artistic director, Tony Kelly, is at the helm of Dead Mother, which is reassuring from the start, and he has assembled a cast of Bay Area stalwarts, all of whom do superb, even inspired, work here.

New York playwright (and actor and director) Greenspan seems to take his cue from Tony Kushner (Angels in America), who has called Greenspan “the most talented theater artist of my generation.” So, who knows? Maybe Kushner was inspired by Greenspan.

Whatever, Greenspan seems to relish breaking boundaries.

He sets up Dead Mother as a rollicking farce as Daniel (Gabriel Marin) has found the woman, Maxine (Deb Fink), he wants to marry. Trouble is, Maxine will only marry him if she can meet his mother, and Daniel’s imperious Jewish mother, Shirley, is dead.

Ever the creative thinker, Daniel goes to his brother, Harold (Liam Vincent).

It seems that years ago, while Shirley was still alive, Harold dressed up as his mother and successfully fooled his father, Melvin (Louis Parnell), into thinking he was Shirley.

If Harold is so convincing, why shouldn’t Harold pretend to be Shirley for just one more night so Maxine can be welcomed into the family?

Of course all goes swimmingly until Harold’s father shows up, sees his dead wife and is effectively convinced it’s her ghost.

This would all be so much gender-bending Neil Simon if Greenspan didn’t throw in some brainy, wacky stuff as well. When Maxine, Daniel, “Shirley” and Melvin go to the theater, we go with them and watch Greenspan’s randy take on the Greeks, with the cast playing the “actors” wearing togas with genitals on the outside (hilarious costumes are by Raul Aktanov).

Just what is all that Greek stuff? When Maxine gets back from the show, she asks the same question, but she says the play was “nice…we supported the arts and got out of the house.”

With the appearance of a sperm whale (played with Moby Dick style by Dena Martinez), the play heads off into self-conscious surrealism. Act 4 is performed as a reading, with the actors behind music stands, describing the epic action — Alice B. Toklas (played with elan by Corey Fischer) takes Harold on a guided tour through hell — that would be virtually impossible to stage on a shoestring budget.

The final scene is essentially a family drama, minus the farce, although Harold is still playing his mother, but the confrontations with his father are too intense and deeply felt to be comedy.
The epilogue, delivered gamely by Martinez, is far too conventional to wrap up a play that is so grandly — and oddly — entertaining.

Still, Dead Mother is a play that lingers because of the wonderful work by director Kelly and his actors — especially Vincent, whose extraordinary as Harold/Shirley with only a string of pearls to differentiate them, and Fink, who’s mile-a-minute mouth is a wonder.
Greenspan throws an awful lot onto the stage, but most of it works. Dead Mother is as audacious as it is funny, as head-spinning and confusing as it is beguiling and delightful.

Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain continues through Feb. 17 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $31-$34. Call 800-838-3006 or visit or for information.

`Golda’ visits Mountain View

In a way, Willy Loman led Aaron Davidman to Golda Meir.

Davidman, the artistic director of San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre, had directed a production of Death of a Salesman that, true to his theater’s name, traveled down to the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

Robert Kelley, artistic director of TheatreWorks and frequent tenant of the MVCPA stage, saw the production and ended up chatting with Davidman about working with TheatreWorks.

That’s the short version of how Davidman ended up directing Golda’s Balcony, the one-woman biographical drama by William Gibson about Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974.

Bay Area audiences first saw the play when Tovah Feldshuh performed the role in a summer 2005 production in San Francisco.

For the first local production, which previews tonight and opens Saturday in Mountain View, Davidman hired Camille Saviola, a Broadway veteran of Nine and Chicago with many film and TV credits as well.

Davidman says he was drawn to the play (which he had not seen in San Francisco) because its focus — the Yom Kippur war of 1973 — encapsulates a significant and tumultuous period of history through the story of a woman who is “skirting the edge of monumental social and political transition in the 20th century.”

Though Davidman has visited Israel many times and has been working on Israel-related projects for years, he says he hadn’t focused much on Meir and did his research before heading into rehearsals.

“I was talking with my Israeli friends and colleagues, and they say she was the single worst prime minister in the history of Israel,” Davidman says. “Some fought in the ’73 war, some lost friends, and they hold her responsible because of a lack of preparedness, hubris, all that stuff. I sort of came to the text with a point of view: Let’s see who Golda is.”

What he discovered was a “remarkably complex human being complete with faults and heroism.”

Gibson’s play, which began life on Broadway as Golda starring Anne Bancroft, and which was then revised, is not, according to Davidman, a glorification of a political figure.

“Rather, it’s a real attempt at opening a window into the internal struggles of a remarkable woman — she was a woman in a position of power at a time when that was a remarkable occurrence,” Davidman says. “You can hold her to task for her political failings, but if you dig deeper into her life journey, from Milwaukee to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I think you come away with a deep respect for someone who made an extraordinary journey. That, in turn, makes great drama.”

Unlike the Broadway and San Francisco production, Davidman’s will not make extensive use of makeup and prosthetics to re-create a facsimile of Meir.

“When people come into the theater, they know Golda’s dead,” Davidman says. “We know she’s not here but we’re going to be in the room with her anyway. That’s the duality and beauty of theater. I feel like we make an effort to present Golda as she really was — what she looked like and sounded like. But it’s really up to the actor to be in the moment, to find the authenticity. For the first few minutes, the audience says, `It’s not Golda.’ Then they buy in. The immediacy of the drama draws them, and they’re in for the ride.”

As for Davidman’s other job, heading Traveling Jewish Theatre, he says the 29-year-old company is in good shape. He says the new season is slowly coming together and will include David Greenspan’s Dead Mother; Or Shirley Not All in Vain, a co-production with San Francisco’s Thick Description, and Donald Margulies’ The Model Apartment. There will also be a tour to Toronto and Phoenix of TJT’s “2 x Malamud,” a critically acclaimed stage adaptation of two Bernard Malamud short stories.

Davidman is also working on a new solo show about American-Israeli relations, and TJT co-founder Corey Fisher is working on a play about Clifford Odets and the Group Theatre.
Visit for information.

Golda’s Balcony continues through Oct. 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, corner of Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $20 to $56. Call 650-903-6000 or visit