Uneasy comedy, drama (+Rat Wife!) in Aurora’s Erik

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The Rat Wife (Wilma Bonet, right) stops by to see if Erik (Jack Wittmayer) and his family (from left: Mariah Castle, Marilee Talkington and Joe Estlack) need her help in the world premiere of Little Erik at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Joie (Marilee Talkington) and Freddie (Joe Estlack) discuss their dysfunctional lives in this contemporary adaptation by Mark Jackson of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf. Photos by David Allen

There’s a profoundly creepy core to Little Erik the new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1894 Little Eyolf by Mark Jackson, one of the Bay Area’s foremost theater artists. That creepiness is the best thing about the 80-minute one-act now at the Aurora Theatre Company. Though even in its brevity, the play can’t quite command its shifting tones.

Ibsen’s Eyolf probably won’t be found on any of his best-of compilations, but Jackson seizes on the play’s weirdness to explore how self-involvement (which seems so contemporary but has apparently been plaguing humans for quite some time) leads to detachment, which leads to a complicated, unfulfilled life.

At the heart of the play is the tragic death of a child, the titular Erik, and in this production – also directed by Jackson – the child is played with disarming enthusiasm and charm by Jack Wittmayer. Because Wittmayer, who handles Erik’s crutches and twisted body like an absolute pro, makes such a strong impression in only a few scenes, it should be absolutely devastating when news arrives that the boy has drowned in the Northern California river just outside his family’s slick new mountain getaway home. But it’s not, hence the creepiness.

The character of the Rat Catcher, a sort of mystical bit of Pied Piper woo-woo, appears as if in warning that she will gladly allow unwanted or unloved children with her to the bottom of the sea. In Jackson’s version, she’s a persistent cleaning lady offering her services all around town. As played by Wilma Bonet, the Rat Wife is instantly recognizable, and that grounds her firmly in reality and makes her more mystical aspect even creepier. It’s not that hard to be ignored or dismissed if you’re a woman of color among wealthy white folks. But you ignore the Rat Wife at your own peril.

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Once Erik is dispatched, his remaining family members are mostly too embroiled in their own dramas to grieve all that much. Erik’s mom, Joie (the incisive Marilee Talkington) has no illusions about her skills as a mother. She describes herself as “hard” and is proudly and firmly enmeshed in the digital age. Never too far from her phone, she has succeeded in business and admits she never really wanted a child. She had Erik to please her husband, Freddie (Joe Estlack), a man of humble origins who has just returned from a mysterious six months abroad (courtesy of his wife’s credit cards) while he was supposedly finishing his magnum opus novel about responsibility. But now, after an epiphany, he is a writer who no longer writes. He realizes he has never had to be responsible in his life, so now he has eschewed writing and technology and – oops! – just wants to be a dad to Erik.

In many ways, Little Erik is the story of a failed marriage, but that failure is really the result of monumental egos that could occasionally crash into each other (apparently the sex was great) but could never truly mesh. On the periphery of the marriage is Andi (Mariah Castle, Freddie’s half-sister, who picked up the pieces after their father’s death when Freddie was skittering around the globe. Andi was the closest to Erik, but even her naturally warm, maternal nature gets hijacked by a questionable romance, and it’s not the one with the architect who built the house (Gregy Ayers as Bernie, a character who seems to have dropped in from another play).

Jackson gets off some terrific lines here. My favorite is the acerbic Joie: “Children are not the future. Old people are the future. Nobody gets younger.” But the play’s ending is pretty ridiculous, perhaps on purpose given that the shifting from realism to hysterical drama to mysticism to outright comedy has the audience on shaky ground. Perhaps Jackson the writer and Jackson the director had different visions of where the play was headed. Certainly the actors, all of whom are terrific, are capable of giving Jackson what he wants. They tend to humanize their extreme characters and win some sympathy.

The severe simplicity and beauty of the set (by Nina Ball) create a sharp environment, and the effective video designs (by Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky) and wonderfully unnerving sound design (by Matt Stines) indicate a much more serious enterprise than what we actually get.

In the end, Little Erik feels neither comic nor tragic nor fully developed. It’s go that ever-present creepy factor, and that’s certainly something.

Mark Jackson’s Little Erik continues through Feb. 28 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

SF Mime Troupe rocks the boat in Ripple Effect

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Lisa Hori-Garcia (left, as Jeanine Adenauer), Keiko Shimosato Carreiro (center, as Sunny Nguyen) and Velina Brown (as Deborah Johnson) in this year’s San Francisco Mime Troupe free show Ripple Effect. Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com

I must admit that for a while there, I ceased looking forward to the July Fourth debut of the latest San Francisco Mime Troupe show at Dolores Park. The productions were feeling slack or worse, forced. The writing was off and the politics came off as strident or silly rather than relevant or even entertaining.Happy to report that this year’s show, Ripple Effect, is a major improvement. Much of the credit must go to writers Tanya Shaffer and Eugenie Chan, who co-wrote the show along with the Mime Troupe’s Michael Gene Sullivan. Very smart to tap two of the Bay Area’s most interesting playwrights.

I reviewed Ripple Effect for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a sampling:

This year’s offering, “Ripple Effect,” which opened, as tradition dictates, in Dolores Park on the Fourth of July, could be full of rage, disgust and an overwhelming sense of injustice. And it is, to a degree. But it’s wrapped in a brightly written, laugh-laden, altogether chipper package that makes it one of the most enjoyable Mime Troupe outings in recent memory.

As written by Michael Gene Sullivan, Eugenie Chan and Tanya Shaffer, “Ripple Effect” takes its time working the audience into a fit of San Francisco outrage (about life in San Francisco no less), but by the end, fists are pumping and everyone’s chanting, “Justice rules and the Earth comes first!”

Though tech companies, outrageous rents and the displacement of San Francisco’s working class are the obvious fuel for this year’s show, the focus is personal.

Read the full review here.

And one of the best parts of this year’s Mime Troupe experience: bringing Fanny, the original Theater Dog, who doesn’t actually get to see much theater. She had a splendid time as well.

Fanny Mime Troupe

San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Ripple Effect tours Bay Area and Northern California parks through Sept. 1. Shows are free. Call 415-285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org.

Magic time, or what’s all the Bruja-ha?

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Sabina Zuniga Varela is Medea in Luis Alfaro’s Bruja at the Magic Theatre. Below: Sean San José is Jason, Medea’s husband and a man with some powerful secrets. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Sometimes names are facts. Like now – there’s magic at the Magic Theatre.

The play is Luis Alfaro’s world-premiere Bruja, and it’s extraordinarily powerful. Even better, it has one foot very firmly grounded in the real world, and the other somewhere else that’s hard to describe, but rather than being some twinkly netherworld, this supernatural zone can be dangerous. And deadly.

Being an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, you know this experience wont’ end happily. But what you might not know is that Alfaro, who scored at the Magic two years ago with his award-winning Oedipus el Rey, is going to make you care and he’ll freak you out a little, maybe a lot. How does he do this when we know how the story goes and how it ends? How can he make the story personal and infuse it with believable magic that stretches into cultural traditions that are eons old? The easy answer is that he’s an awesomely talented writer. The trickier answer is, of course, magic.

Walking through the new wood-paneled corridors into the Magic Theatre auditorium, you hear children playing. Part of the sound is from Jake Rodriguez’s sound design. The rest of it comes from the two boys playing soccer on the stage paneled in the same wood that now surrounds the theater space. Ah, children in a production of Medea. The heart sinks a little because you know their fate.

When Wilma Bonet as Vieja, the servant, begins addressing the audience, her tone is at once colloquial and poetic, talking about life in the Mission District and referring to the deep currents of Mexican history and culture. That dichotomy of everyday and historic, of culturally specific and universal is where Alfaro’s art lives, and it’s thrilling.

Turning the Medea story into a modern-day tale of Mexican immigrants making a life for themselves in San Francisco seems like a stretch, but Alfaro makes it seem as natural as can be. The gorgeous Sabina Zuniga Varela as Madea is wife, mother and healer. She practices her art, which lead some to call her a “bruja” (witch), and makes as happy a home as she can for her twin boys, Acan and Acat, and her hardworking husband, Jason (Sean San José), a contractor.

How can such a seemingly ordinary existence reach the majesty and magnitude of Euripides’ Medea? In the skilled hands of Alfaro and director Loretta Greco, easily.

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Ancient undercurrents swirl under this highly modern scene, and by the time we meet Jason’s boss, Creon (Carlos Aguirre), who has plans to leave his construction empire to Jason, we begin to see how this new tale will synch with the original. The really interesting thing is that we feel the connection between Medea and Jason (thanks to the passionate performances by Varela and San José), and we sense how invested Jason is in creating a better life for his family.

When it all starts to unspool, the tragedy comes fast (the play is only about 90 minutes), and this Medea truly puts the fury in furious.

The imagery in Greco’s surprisingly gorgeous production — who knew such beauty could come out of such rough wood and such ordinary surroundings? (well, clearly set designer Andrew Boyce knew) — is stunning and feels as integral to the story as Alfaro’s charged langauge.

You get to feel so invested in the story, in fact, that you hope against hope that maybe this time Medea will turn her fortunes around and avoid using her magic for destruction and her machete for bloody murder. She’s a smart, powerful woman, and just this once, you want to see her escape the horror without dragging everyone — the innocents and the guilty — down with her.

But this remains a tragedy. Triumphant in its art and staggering in its darkness.

[bonus video]
This sneak peek of Bruja is short but potent – it gives you a real sense of the production.

Luis Alfaro’s Bruja continues an extended run through July 1 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$62. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.