Just add water: Metamorphoses returns to Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses at Berkeley Rep includes (from left) Rodney Gardiner, Steven Epp, Alex Moggridge, Lisa Tejero and Benjamin T. Ismail. Below: Gardiner and Ismail. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

When you write about theater, you’re often asked, “What’s your favorite show?” It’s an impossible question because there are so many ways to answer it. One of my go-to answers for the last nearly 20 years has been Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. When Berkeley Repertory Theatre was the first regional theater to produce the show after its premiere with Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, I was the theater critic for the Oakland Tribune/Bay Area News Group. Berkeley Rep’s theater on Addison Street was otherwise occupied, so Metamorphoses, complete with its gorgeous central pool, was produced on the UC Berkeley Campus at Zellerbach Playhouse.

I had seen Zimmerman’s dazzling Journey to the West, but I was unprepared for the ways that Metamorphoses would knock me for a loop. The show, an adaptation of stories from Ovid, combined storytelling and visuals in such a way that each augmented the other, and the result was so emotionally and aesthetically powerful that it was like a theatrical apex.

You can read my full review of the 1999 production here. Now, nearly two decades on, Metamorphoses returns to Berkeley Rep, this time to the Peet’s Theatre. The actors and some details may have changed this time around, but my original review still holds.

This is not your dusty dry, overly intellectual Ovid. No, this is a splashy, funny, moving Ovid that is anything but dry.

The show remains stunning – still gorgeous, still moving, still an example of theater at its sumptuous best. There are moments that are stunning, thrilling, funny and breathtaking. After Berkeley Rep, the show ended up on Broadway, where Zimmerman won a Tony.

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Amazingly, four of the ’99 production cast members are back for this production (a co-production with the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis): Raymond Fox, Louise Lamson, Felicity Jones Latta and Lisa Tejero. The ensemble is rounded out with some superb additions: the remarkable Steven Epp (a frequent visitor to Berkeley Rep), Rodney Gardiner, Benjamin T. Ismail (Louis in Berkeley Rep’s superb Angels in America), Alex Moggridge (another Berkeley Rep stalwart last seen in Zimmerman’s Treasure Island), Sango Tajima and Suzy Weller.

It’s interesting how, with time, different things strike you. Twenty years ago, I remember being most taken with the tale of Eros and Psyche. This time around, it was Orpheus and Eurydice that got to me. So did the final story about Baucis and Philomen, who, when granted a wish, say they want to die together and so end their lives in a most beautiful and loving metamorphosis.

You never know if going back to revisit a favorite is a good idea or a bad one. For Metamorphoses, happily, another dip in this gorgeous pool is the best possible idea.

Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses continues an extended run through March 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Ticket prices start at $40. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Talking the talk, or not, in Berkeley Rep’s Chinglish

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Alex Moggridge is an American businessman trying to work in China with expected and unexpected results in David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Moggridge’s Daniel attempts to communicate with Michelle Krusiec’s Xi Yan during a private business meeting. Photos by kevinberne.com.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s season-opening production of Chinglish by David Henry Hwang presents the best possible circumstances to witness communication happening under the worst possible circumstances.

This is what you’d call a serious comedy, which is to say there are big laughs generated by a serious subject. That subject is, essentially, how hard it is for people to listen to and understand one another, and Hwang takes us into an extreme situation to demonstrate the many layers of communication.

American Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge) is a Midwestern businessman trying to salvage his family’s sign-making business by making deals in China. He’s in Guiyang, a medium-size city hoping to make the Chinese/English signs for the new cultural arts center. His pitch is that local officials will want the translations to be accurate and not the kind of signage that causes laughter and fills websites such as www.engrish.com. There’s a lot Daniel isn’t saying about why he’s really in China, but it all comes out eventually.

He’s learning the ropes of doing business in China with the help of consultant/translator Peter (Brian Nishii), who claims to love China more than his native England and speaks Chinese better than some residents. The two make a dynamic team, but the intricacies of Chinese diplomacy, formality and subterfuge is something of a minefield.

Some of the two-hour play’s funniest moments happen during business meetings with the Minister of Culture (Larry Lei Zhang) when the Chinese officials are using their own translators, most of whom are just awful. We know this because all of the Chinese is subtitled and projected on the walls of the set. We can see just how mangled the language is, and that’s comedy (also thanks to the astute actors playing the terrible translators, Celeste Den, Vivian Chiu and Austin Ku).

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But even when the translators aren’t around and Daniel attempts to forge a relationship with the vice-minister of culture, Xi Yan (the gorgeous and astonishingly good Michelle Krusiec), the process of being understood is still laborious and underscored with the knowing laughter of frustration.

In this well-made play, Hwang keeps upping the stakes as we learn more about what’s really motivating the characters, and the romance he throws into the plot allows the second act to plumb some emotional depths and extend his observations on communication to include the complexities of spousal relations and how marriage is seen differently from Eastern and Western perspectives.

In director Leigh Silverman’s sturdy production, the laughs flow constantly, and the performances seem effortless, even as they straddle two very different worlds and languages. Set designer David Korins, re-creating the look of last fall’s Broadway production, deserves abundant credit for keeping things moving – literally. His set rotates and slides and moves with amazing efficiency as action shifts from an office to a restaurant to a hotel lobby to a hotel room. The set changes are thrilling to watch, especially when they’re injected with flashes of humor or action (just watch as characters navigate the giant moving pieces of the set, shifting from one location to another as if walking through real-world spaces).

The set’s machinations might be too much if the actors weren’t so fantastic. They refuse to let sliding pieces of furniture or realistic elevators steal focus from the business at hand. Moggridge is the ideal leading man here, naive (to a point) and honorable (to a point). He’s desperate and smart but also likeable and fallible. The captivating Krusiec is a great foil for him. Outfitted in Anita Yavich’s killer short skirts and heels business ensembles, she’s dressed to kill. Her brusque business manner leaves little room for humor, and yet she’s quite funny, especially as her armor falls (to a point).

The ending of Chinglish, part of a bookend presentation by Daniel to an audience isn’t nearly as sturdy as the play that has come before it. The play, full of punches and tickles and provocations, ends with a shrug, and that’s not nearly enough. Still, the crackling comic energy of the evening refuses to be diminished. Let there be no miscommunication here: Chinglish speaks the language of laughs, and that translates into a disarmingly delightful evening of theater.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with Chinglish playwright David Henry Hwang for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish continues an extended run through Oct. 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$99 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Just Wilde over Aurora’s Salomania

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Madeline H.D. Brown is Maud Allan (center) in the world premiere of Mark Jackson’s Salomania at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Brown as Allan observes the testimony of Lord Alfred Douglas (Liam Vincent, right) in the courtroom of Judge Darling (Kevin Clarke). Photos by David Allen

If only a 94-year-old scandal were sensational in ways we no longer understood, we could look back and wonder what all the fuss was about and why the media underestimated the taste of the general public and why the general public was so content to be constantly underestimated.

Alas, not much has changed since the early 20th century criminal libel suit that American dancer Maud Allan brought against British newspaper publisher Noel Pemberton-Billing after he described the interest in her dance piece Vision of Salomé as the “cult of the clitoris.” That was the headline he used in his paper, the Vigilante, to describe the moral reprobates who were attracted to Allan’s version of the play by Oscar Wilde, which had been banned since Wilde’s very public downfall.

What we learn in Mark Jackson’s fascinating and at moments electrifying new play Salomania is that the media, though their aims may be occasionally true, are a pawn in larger political games and panderers to public taste, which they help shape.

Allan, who spent her childhood in San Francisco, was a sensation in London, and as such, she became a prime target for Pemberton-Billing to goad her into filing a libel suit against him. He had apparently tried and tried to get the local politicos to do the same thing, but none of them took his bait. But Allan, with her past family scandal (her brother Theo murdered two girls in San Francisco) and her desire to be a self-made woman, wasn’t about to let a rabble-rouser tarnish her good name (though her actual name was Beulah Maude Durrant). So, at the height of World War I, Allan squared off against Pemberton-Billing at the Old Bailey, the same courthouse where Wilde had seen his world crumble 25 years earlier.

This is prime material for a drama, and Jackson is just the writer/director to bring it to interesting and finely detailed life. A trial is, of course, a kind of theater in and of itself, so there’s a scorching good drama already built in – especially when Wilde’s “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas, took the stand as a witness for Pemberton-Billing and dredged up all the turmoil and name calling and closed mindedness from 25 years earlier.

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But Jackson takes a wider view beyond just the trial. He spends a good deal of time in the trenches of No Man’s Land, fighting alongside the British soldiers slogging through the mud of France. While we’re constantly reminded of how the British public was being distracted from the war by the sensation of the Allan trial, we see the soldiers completely captivated by scandal back home. One soldier even says the headlines, as they trickle in, are the only thing keeping him going.

Part of the irony in this complicated tale is that Pemberton-Billing wanted a sensational trial precisely so he could call attention to the failures of the British government and its weak peace plans and advocate for a swift and decisive end to the war. His theory, hatched with Harold Spencer, an American who served as a British secret agent, was that if they can bring attention to a German black book containing the names of 47,000 traitors to Her Majesty’s government, they could rally the troops, so to speak, infiltrate the vast German network of spies and accomplices and win the war for Britain.

That he wanted to do this by smearing the name of a dancer and aligning her with the same “moral perversity” nonsense that brought down Wilde is rather astonishing. But seeing how much traction this stunt got him is more than astonishing – it’s sickening.

Jackson is such an astute craftsman that he’s able to create a near-epic feel in the intimate Aurora. His cast of seven, all playing multiple roles except for Madeline H.D. Brown as Allan, makes a powerful impression as major historical figures, ordinary British citizens and beleaguered soldiers. Mark Anderson Phillips works up quite a froth as Pemberton-Billing, who represented himself in the libel case and apparently did so at very high volume. This man wanted to be heard, and he certainly was.

Brown’s Allan veers from being an ethereal presence, especially when she’s dancing (choreography by Chris Black) to an understandably tormented young woman who is far away from her damaged family and navigating the perils and pleasures of fame and notoriety on her own. As Judge Darling, the colorful presiding justice of the case, Kevin Clarke is having a marvelous time with the character’s eccentricity. Clarke also plays Wilde in an interesting if overlong scene toward the end of the play that could use more crackle.

Perhaps that particular scene suffers in comparison to an earlier scene, also set a table, between a soldier (Alex Moggridge) home in London on two days’ leave, and a war widow (Marilee Talkington) anxious to do her part and show the fighting men her appreciation. Jackson has two actors, both quite visible, on the floor rotating the platform on which the scene takes place (the fantastically utilitarian set is by Nina Ball). The effect is mesmerizing, and the scene is among the best in the 2 ½-hour play.

Liam Vincent is superb as Lord Alfred Douglas, with vestiges of his youthful brattiness still visible even has he fights to prove how much he has matured and changed since his association with Wilde. And Anthony Nemirovsky is great as Spencer, the American who’s on a crusade with Pemberton-Billing to change the course of the war. Watching Nemirovsky essay Spencer’s breakdown on the stand is absolutely thrilling (it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch the blowhards, no matter how sincere, crumble).

Through it all, Jackson orchestrates the proceedings with lyrical moments of dance – not just Allan but also the soldiers in the trenches – and humor and horror. There’s a scene of a hanging that is so jarring it might as well have been real and not just a clever theatrical effect (with nods to lighting designer Heather Basarab and sound designer Matt Stines).

If Salomania is overstuffed with information and parallels to our own times, it’s completely understandable. This is rich, rewarding material, even if its observations about the third estate, wartime hysteria and the distraction of a good scandal are as alarming as they are entertaining


Mark Jackson’s Salomania continues an extended run through July 29 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Review: `Shining City’

Opened Oct. 4, 2008, SF Playhouse

Paul Whitworth (left) is John, a grief-stricken widower, and Alex Moggridge is Ian, a fledgling therapist in the SF Playhouse production of Conor McPherson’s Shining City, a grand Irish ghost story. Photos by Zabrina Tipton


Ghosts go bump in McPherson’s luminous `Shining City’

SF Playhouse opens its sixth season with a roaring good ghost story.

Even better, Shining City is an intelligent ghost story from the mind and pen of Conor McPherson, one of Ireland’s best contemporary playwrights, and it is directed by Amy Glazer, one of the Bay Area’s most insightful and reliable directors.

In any discussion of a ghost story, the less you know going into it, the better. But know this: Glazer gets deep inside McPherson’s story and finds sympathetic rhythms that lead to a series of surprises.

This is a first-class production with solid talent in front of and behind the footlights. SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English handled set design chores, and this is one of his best: an old brick office building in Dublin, the office of newly hatched therapist Ian, who has barely had time to unpack all the boxes before he sees his first patient.

The realistic office, which features a large central window looking out onto a bleak Dublin city scene dominated by a cathedral spire, reflects a realistic tone in McPherson’s play that is vital for the ghost story to gain some traction.

Alex Moggridge plays Ian, the therapist and Paul Whitworth, formerly the artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, is his primary patient, John.

Whitworth carries the weight of the play in terms of dialogue. Like many a McPherson play (The Weir, Dublin Carol), there are some heavy-duty monologues, and as a patient spilling his emotional soul to his therapist, it’s logical that he would do a lot of talking.

But what’s really interesting about Shining City is that McPherson, who tends to favor a good ghost story, is putting himself on the examination table and exploring just what it is about ghosts and the mere idea of ghosts that is so titillating and terrifying.

For Ian, the whole ghost thing is less about reality and more about our relationship with God – we want desperately to know there’s something more out there, and ghosts, in their spooky way, are proof of another dimension.

For John, ghosts are more about guilt – a sort of self-induced shock therapy that forces us to confront our truest and deepest emotions. Ghosts, in short, can be useful, and McPherson utilizes them in a sort of roundabout way toward redemption.

They can also bedevil the stage. It’s difficult – almost impossible, I’d say – to scare a live theater audience with a ghost story. You can chill us, maybe, but actually scare us? That’s a tall order.

But Shining City manages the trick quite handily. I won’t say where or when, but mixed in with the intelligent script, the beautifully nuanced performances and the intriguing plot twists, there’s a heckuva good scare.

Glazer follows McPherson’s lead and keeps the focus on the emotions of the story. Whitworth and Moggridge’s scenes together are masterful. It’s possible John’s lengthiest monologue could be trimmed, but it’s all about rhythm and the way important pieces of his story – an adulterous liaison followed by a ghastly tragedy – come trickling out.

Beth Wilmurt and Alex Conde shake things up in supporting roles that help us get to know Ian a little better, and then there’s the ghost, of course, who scares up some pretty intense emotions.

There’s not a theater better suited to this Irish ghost story than SF Playhouse, an intimate space that makes you feel like you’re up there on the therapist’s couch with John. Ensconced in the confines of that office, you relax into the conversation, but then you’re also trapped when it gets scary.

Remember, in a theater full of people, everyone can hear you scream.

Photo at right: Moggridge (left) undergoes a different kind of therapy with Alex Conde as Laurence. Photo by Zabrina Tipton.


Shining City continues through Nov. 22 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St. San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.