Tension is high in Aurora’s audio drama The Flats

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Lauren English (left) is Harmony, Khary L. Moye (center) is Brooke and Anthony Fusco is Leonard in Aurora Theatre’s world-premiere audio play The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector.

Sitting in the intimate Aurora Theatre watching great actors close up is one of the great treats of Bay Area theater. Even though we can’t be together in that space for a while, the Aurora crew is still storytelling in its inimitably intimate way: with a world-premiere audio play by three Bay Area writers. The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector is delivered in three installments. Parts 1 and 2 have already been released, and Part 3 comes out Nov. 6. All three episodes will then be available for streaming, which is good, because you likely won’t be able to listen to just one.

Plays on the radio used to be a regular thing. I even have original cast recordings of Broadway plays. But somehow, this most rewarding theatrical form has faded from mainstream popularity, though audiobooks and podcasts have admirably carried the audio drama mantle in various ways. What’s rewarding about The Flats (of which I’ve heard two of the three episodes) involves three excellent actors – Lauren English, Khary L. Moye and Anthony Fusco – and an intoxicating blend of tension, humor and substance.

Set in Berkeley, the play capitalizes on the dis-ease with which we’ve all become acutely acquainted these last seven months. But in this world, there’s not a global pandemic, but rather something much scarier and more intriguing. I won’t say what it is because that’s part of the fun. But suffice it to say that citizens are experiencing tight government quarantining, with certain liberties allowed here and there. Grocery stores are sorely understocked, and fresh produce is scant. In one particular triplex, three residents – well, two residents and the owner, who suddenly shows up in the vacant unit – are stuck at home with only their neighbors to distract them from the … situation.

Harmony (English) is escaping her troubled marriage and, consequently, her children. Brooke (Moye) is a bit more enigmatic but offers his landlord one of the most intriguing housewarming gifts ever: caterpillars that will soon become butterflies. And Leonard (Fusco) is a drug-taking old Berkeley hippie with his own radio show and a number of conspiracy theories that might not all be preposterous. It’s an uneasy mix of personalities, of course (hard to have drama without tension), and in addition to the stress of what’s going on in the world, this trio is also dealing with issues of race and relationships and earth-shattering revelations.

Director Josh Costello, ably abetted by composer/sound designer Elton Bradman, creates a wonderfully detailed sonic world in which you really feel like you’re with these people, and the actors deliver marvelously detailed performances that create vivid images of the characters and their states of mind.

There’s much more to say about this audio drama, but the fewer details you have, the richer your experience amid the scintillating heights of The Flats.

Single tickets for The Flats are available for $20 here, along with season memberships. The final (of three) episode of The Flats drops Nov. 6. Afterward, all three episodes will be available for streaming.

Shavian wit still dwells in Aurora’s Houses

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The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s Widowers’ Houses by George Bernard Shaw includes (from left) Megan Trout as Blanche Sartorius, Dan Hoyle as Harry Trench, Michael Gene Sullivan as Cokane and Warren David Keith as Mr. Sartorius. Below: Keith’s Sartorius (left) wrangles with Howard Swain’s Lickcheese. Photos by David Allen

George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses last played Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company more than 20 years ago, and though the theater company has come up on the world (bigger, spiffier theater), the satirical world of Shaw’s play still reflects badly on our own lack of evolution where greed, poverty and decency are concerned.

That 1997 production, directed by Aurora co-founder, the late Barbara Oliver, made me a fan of Shaw’s first produced play and made me an immediate fan of Aurora’s chamber approach to great plays where every subtlety and nuance is amplified and the intimacy increases your connection to the characters and the action.

The new production of Widowers’ Houses, directed by the estimable Joy Carlin, is certainly handsome to look at, from the giant gold-framed screen depicting Victorian life dominating the set by Kent Dorsey, who also did the lighting design, to the posh costumes by Callie Floor (who also makes shabby costumes look so real you can practically smell them).

Dispensing with three acts in under 2 1/2 hours, Carlin’s pace is brisk but not rushed. There’s a surprising disparity in the small six-person cast. There’s the expected precision and excellence bringing shaw to vibrant life, but then there’s also some distracting hamminess and amateurishness that keeps the play from truly taking off.

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But what’s good is really good. Warren David Keith is the dark heart of the play as Sartorius, a self-made man of means who turns out to be one of London’s biggest slumlords. He swears he does it all for his daughter, Blanche (an incisive Megan Trout), whom he has raised on his own (and turned into a spoiled, tiny-hearted brat in the process). He is also of the opinion that there’s nothing to be done with the poor except leave them to their own wretched devices. If you extend any sort of generosity – like repairing a dangerous bannister, for instance – they’ll just turn it into so much firewood. You might as well take what you can from them and keep moving along.

Keith is cold and imperious as well as frustratingly smart and considered. His Sartorius is commanding and chilling. He speaks from the heart, but where his heart ought to be is a giant bag of cold coins.

Equally good is Howard Swain as Lickcheese, whose Dickensian name is so very appropriate. He’s Sartorius’ henchman who wrings every last cent from the tenants, many of whom are paying for a quarter of a room. Lickcheese also swears he carries out his heinous duties to support his own family, but he clearly relishes it. When Lickcheese returns later in the play a changed man, he calls to mind a later Shaw character, Alfred P. Doolittle in Pygmalion, who will also use his life on the streets as the basis for a future fortune.

Trout’s Blanche is a delicious character – a prissy Victorian lady hoping to woo marry a naive young doctor she and her father met in their European travels but who reveals herself to be vicious in her thinking and her actions. She hates the poor almost as much as she hates her maid, whom she beats and berates incessantly (the maid is played by a broadly comic Sarah Mitchell). Blanche is the very opposite of what you think of when you think of a Victorian lady in that she is robustly physical and has no qualms in speaking her mind.

By the third act, Shaw’s stomping on his soapbox results in splinters more than barbs, but his point is well made: one man’s riches is the result of another’s poverty. Advantage will always be taken, and even the most noble among us are culpable, whether we realize it or not, in keeping this system alive and thriving. In other words, the play could have been written last week. When the Aurora produces Widowers’ Houses again in another 20 years or so, if the world still exists, the same will undoubtedly remain true.

George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses continues through March 4 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$65. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

The knockout punch of Aurora’s Royale

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Tim Kniffin (left) is Max, Satchel André (left, on the floor) is Fish, Atim Udoffia (seated, rear) is Nina, and Calvin M. Thompson is Jay “The Sport” Jackson in Marco Ramirez’s The Royale at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Udoffia’s Nina and Thompson’s Jay discuss matters. Photos by David Allen

There’s something wonderfully vital and theatrical about Marco Ramirez’s The Royale now at . It’s a play ostensibly about boxing, but really it addresses the much larger issue of race in America. Ramirez sets his story in a world of brutality, but the fighters on stage never actually touch each other. Rather, the heartbeat of this 90-minute drama comes from the boxing matches in which the actors face forward (mostly). They punch, the slide, they move to convey the rhythm of the ring, but instead of hitting each other, they stomp and clap to indicate contact. Lights flash when one fighter scores over another, so we feel the weight and progress of the fight, but the overall effect is more like watching a dance (director Darryl V. Jones also serves as co-choreographer with boxing coach Joe Orrach.

These sections of the story are incredibly powerful, even if, on Thursday’s opening-night performance, the movement and rhythms weren’t as sharp as they should be for a space as intimate and in your face as the Aurora. But there’s no denying how effective the conceit is. The impact of the fights is powerfully conveyed, but in a wholly theatrical way, which, in a way, makes them more interesting than actual boxing. Actors are allowed to sync their movement with the punch of the stream-of-consciousness dialogue to allow us inside the characters’ heads while they fight, and that is fascinating.

Inspired by Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, The Royale centers on the fictional Jay “The Sport” Jackson, who will emerge champion in the early part of the 20th century but only after he defeats the reigning white champion. Such a bout, though rife with marketing opportunities, also has serious repercussions for race relations in America. If he wins, it’s a triumph for the African-American community – a hero rises and conquers. But a victory could also inspire serious retaliation from white supremacist fans who might express their anger in violence.

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Those are the dramatic stakes, and they’re big. When we meet Jay (Calvin M. Thompson) in the ring, it’s clear that he’s got superheroic skills in the ring, with his only real flaw being an ego that can get in the way of his natural instincts. He deftly pounds his opponent (Satchel André as Fish, a fine fighter who eventually becomes an ally) and learn that Jay can pretty much do whatever he wants. His victory against Bixby, the white champ, seems assured, but he has to contend with the weight of that victory, which is conveyed through others in his world: his coach (Donald E. Lacy Jr. as Max), his sister (Atim Udoffia as Nina) and his (white) promoter (Tim Kniffin) as Max.

Jones’ production is intriguingly textured, both in performance and design. Richard Olmstead’s set creates a sort of American flag from rough planks and stars that serves as the centerpiece of the action, while Kurt Landisman’s lights effectively covey the ever-changing shape of the ring in which Jay is fighting. Courtney Flores’ period handsome costumes provide the strongest link to the era and help further flesh out the character of Jay, although the whole production has a timeless, almost dreamlike quality to it.

That this is a sports-centered drama that doesn’t employ the usual tricks (aside from a crusty trainer and a defining childhood drama) is a huge advantage. Ultimately, The Royale feels like a resonant, percussive tone poem that beats to the rhythm of an America still finding its feet when it comes to equality and decency – it’s an existential prizefight that, more than a century later, has yet to yield any winners.

Marco Ramirez’s The Royale continues an extended run through Dec. 10 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$65. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Aurora’s Leni asks: Great artist, Nazi sympathizer or both?

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Leni Riefenstahl (Stacy Ross) ponders her relationship with Hitler in Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area Premiere of Leni by Sarah Greenman. Below: Older Leni (Ross, left) has a tête-à-tête with her younger self (Martha Brigham). Photos by David Allen

As a dramatic work, Sarah Greenman’s Leni about the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, has to juggle history, artistry and, now, discomfiting parallels to our own time. Was Riefenstahl the right artist at the wrong time? Was her extraordinary talent as a filmmaker overshadowed by Hitler and the Nazi party? Or was she a Nazi sympathizer and, consequently, as the show puts it, “a willing architect of Nazi mythology” and, worse, an accomplice to genocide?

There aren’t any easy answers in this 85-minute one-act play now at the intimate Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre Company. Director Jon Tracy and actors Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham, both of whom play Riefenstahl at advanced and early ages respectively, grab hold of the play with gusto and shake it for all it’s worth.

When a biographical play is set in some enigmatic limbo between life and death, the conceit usually comes across as a lazy way to make excuses for bringing back the dead and placing them awkwardly in a biographical drama. But here, it works. It is 2003 and Riefenstahl (Ross) has just died at 101. She emerges from a room into a phantom movie set (simply but effectively designed by Nina Ball) and gets to work filming scenes from her life. She shoots a scene of her younger self (Brigham) meeting with Hitler to beg for more money to complete her two-part documentary Olympia about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Evocatively using lighting that is by turns stark and shadowy (beautifully designed by Kurt Landisman), director Tracy is able to create movie/theater hybrid that makes sense. They’re not really making a movie, but they’re not really alive either. What we have is Greenman’s attempt to allow Riefenstahl to put herself on trial, to explain herself, to attempt to face the truth, to justify never apologizing or recanting, to accept responsibility for the part she played.

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Leni is in no way an apology for Riefenstahl. No matter her artistic ambitions or intentions, she was complicit with the Nazis, and that landed her squarely on the wrong side of history and understandably destroyed her career. Rather, the play is Riefenstahl wrestling with herself and attempting to establish some context for what is was like to be in the middle of it all, attempting to make great work (and Leni did truly believe her work was great – with Triumph of the Will she says she didn’t create propaganda, she created a masterpiece), maintain her artistic integrity (she says she was never a member of the Nazi party and no one ever interfered with her filmmaking) and play the political games that would keep her working (she and Hitler were friendly – he gave her gifts – but she and Goebbels did not get along).

Because she lived so long, Riefenstahl is able to offer an interesting perspective on her work. With her bold filmmaking techniques, she was decades ahead of her time and, as many would attest, set the standard for sports documentaries with Olympia. All the controversy surrounding her work with the Nazis tends to obscure her skills as a director and render her a villain rather than a visionary filmmaker. The footage we see from her films (sound and video design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker) is absolutely mesmerizing, especially some of the montages of Olympic athletes (oh, the divers!). So when the older Leni proclaims, “I am on trial for creating the modern world!” her sense of self or her impact doesn’t seem as overblown as it might.

Asked why she didn’t condemn Hitler’s ethnic cleansing, Riefenstahl claims she, like so many Germans, especially those who believed in Hitler as the leader Germany needed at the time, simply didn’t know. All those rumors and stories purported by journalists about death camps were lies. Until they weren’t and – much too late in the game – she had to face the harsh facts. Does she love the work she created, she is asked? Yes. And does she regret it? Yes.

So where does that leave us with the complicated Leni Riefenstahl? Mired in complications, with probably more complications than Greenman’s drama allows. Ross and Brigham are, as usual, superb, and director Tracy’s production is able to cut through a lot of the corny docu-drama trappings and let all the thorny issues encompass audience and actors alike. Amid the specific details of Riefenstahl’s life, certain chilling elements echo – fake news! lying journalists! obliviously adoring crowds! dangerously narrow-minded nationalism! – and make us wonder who, some time from today, will we see as a Leni Riefenstahl among us now?

Sarah Greenman’s Leni continues through May 10 in the Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$55. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Freedom, dreams clash in Aurora’s Safe House

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Cobbler Addison Pedigrew (David Everett Moore, standing on chair) tells his brother, Frank (Lance Gardner), and his Aunt Dorcas (Dawn L. Troupe) about his encounter with the local sheriff in Keith Josef Adkins’ Safe House at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: The Pedigrews argue about what to do with fugitive slave Roxie (Jamella Cross, rear). Photos by David Allen

There are several ways to interpret the title of Keith Josef Adkins’ Safe House now at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. One way sees cobbler Addison Pedigrew, a free man of color in Kentucky, aiming for his version of the American dream: a thriving shoe making/repairing business run out of his home to support his Aunt Dorcas and his brother, Frank, so that they can be truly free to thrive and expand their families. The other way, according to Frank and Dorcas, is to provide shelter and assistance to fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Both co-exist, but not easily in this 2014 drama, which takes much of its first act to really get going.

The first half of the plays two-plus hours is spent establishing the family dynamic in the Pedigrew household and the culture in which they live circa 1843. Having been caught helping a fugitive slave, they have spent the last two years under the thumb of the local sheriff, with their movements severely limited – shopping allowed only every three months, all doors of their home and barn must remain open, no swimming in the local creek even on the hottest day, and Addison’s cobbler business requires him to go door to door rather than working out of his home. The two years of severely curtailed freedom is almost over, and Addison has big plans.

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As played by David Everett Moore, Addison is an energetic dreamer, a hard worker and a planner. His vision of the American dream is having a successful business and being respected by his customers, which, if all goes well, will include the sheriff and Kentucky’s big-footed governor. The only thing threatening his plans is his brother Frank (an intense and powerful Lance Gardner), whose idea of freedom involves actual freedom: doing what he wants, helping whom he wants, loving whom he wants and not sucking up to the white man or succeeding on their terms instead of his own. Aunt Dorcas (Dawn L. Troupe) provides some stability to the yin and the yang of Addison and Frank, although her heart seems to reside in a place of service, of providing safe haven to the runaway slaves.

Playwright Adkins throws in an under-baked love triangle with Clarissa (Dezi Solèy), a free woman of color who is supposed to marry Addison but is actually in love with Frank. There’s another sort-of love story between Dorcas and Bracken (Cassidy Brown), one of the sheriff’s henchman, but throwing an interracial attraction at us (born in their shared childhoods) late in the play robs the story and characters of depth. If we had known about their back story earlier, perhaps Bracken wouldn’t come across as simply the representative of authoritarian white power, the henchman of the sheriff, whom we never meet.

There is a huge surprise in Act 2, one that makes the audience gasp, and it’s only then that Safe House really catches dramatic fire. Even the fiery performance of Jamella Cross as runaway slave Roxie can’t quite raise the dramatic level the play seems to be aiming for, but that plot twist really does because it cuts right to the heart of the conflict in how brothers Addison and Frank view what it means to be free.

Having appeared frequently on the Aurora stage (among many other local stages) as an actor, L. Peter Callender sits in the director’s chair for Safe House, and perhaps the most surprising thing about his direction is that he has failed to create a show that benefits from the Aurora’s incredible intimacy. The performances, while strong, are not as finely tuned or detailed as they might be, and certain moments – as when one character spits in another’s face – feel major but barely register.

Safe House ends up feeling like a powerful play that hasn’t found its power.

Keith Josef Adkins’ Safe House continues through Dec. 4 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$56. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Here’s what for the How and the Why at Aurora

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Rachel (Martha Brigham, left) and Zelda (Nancy Carlin) toast to their first meeting in Aurora’s West Coast Premiere of The How and The Why by Sarah Treem. Below: Zelda (Carlin, right) offers a tearful Rachel (Brigham) a tissue. Photos by David Allen

Watching a play like Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why makes me feel smarter – fractionally but still. To prove my point, I’m going to quote Ernst Mayr, an evolutionary biologist with whom I was unfamiliar before this play. Mayr, as we’re told in the play, was interested in the how and the why of things, the mechanism and the function.

Let’s apply that to Treem’s play, shall we? The how is pretty clear: Treem wrote a two-person play about two evolutionary biologists, an older professor and a younger grad student, having a discussion about their research, their theories and their lives. Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company chose to produce the play with direction by the redoubtable Joy Carlin and starring Joy’s daughter Nancy Carlin as Zelda, the brilliant but somewhat distracted professor, and Martha Brigham, as Rachel, the brilliant but somewhat unstable grad student. The play would be produced in Harry’s UpStage, the Aurora’s even more intimate space than its already intimate main stage.

The why is also pretty clear: this is a fascinating and, at least in my case, highly educational play in which two interesting and interested women at different places in their lives and careers dive deep into science, gender roles, academia and what it means to be a woman conducting research on the evolution of women and how that works in the patriarchal halls of science.

There’s an element of melodrama here as well, and Treem, best known for television writing (House of Cards season one, In Treatment and The Affair), doesn’t seem to be as invested in that part of the play. There’s a point where a slap occurs, and it’s not nearly as deeply felt as some of the more intellectual elements of the play, which truly are fascinating. There’s a secret afoot, and Treem doesn’t even bother disguising it much, so that when it’s revealed, the audience is, by design, already way ahead of the characters.

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Where this play soars is when the women are able to fully express their passion for their work. It’s sheer coincidence (or is it?) that both women are in the field of evolutionary biology. Zelda’s career-defining, Dobzhansky Prize-winning theory is called “The Grandmother Hypothesis” and involves menopause and how it allows women to live longer and assist their children in the raising of their children, thus, as Zelda puts it, inventing childhood.

Rachel, a character inspired by the work of Margie Profet as detailed in Natalie Angier’s Woman: an Intimate Geography, has come upon a potentially revolutionary idea. Why do women menstruate exactly? We think we know, but Rachel isn’t at all sure. She thinks the process has less to do with the reproductive process and more to do with women’s bodies and their defense against what she calls “the toxicity of sperm.” This theory, Rachel says, will change the way women think about their bodies, it will change the way men think about women’s bodies and it will change the way people have sex.

Zelda recognizes the brilliance in Rachel’s theory, but there are many unanswered questions and, as it turns out, Rachel’s theory presents certain challenges to Zelda’s.

For a talky two-hander, there’s actually a lot of action in this play, though we don’t see it, for instance, when Rachel presents her abstract at a conference and gets devoured by both male and (to her surprise and deep disgust) female critics. The action shifts from Zelda’s nice office (in a revered Boston-area university, not, I think, the Cambridge Community College) to a hockey-themed bar with a popcorn machine (sets and lights by Kent Dorsey), and the discussion, not to mention the tension, between the characters never flags for the play’s nearly two hours.

Credit that to Carlin’s astute direction and her casting of two actors whose intensity and commitment could manage to make much less crackling dialogue work. Nancy Carlin is so rooted in her character’s sensible shoes you half expect her to lead a post-show seminar in the intricacies of menopause and Zelda’s time spent studying it within a nomadic African tribe. There’s haughtiness in Zelda that no doubt comes from years of being the smartest person in the room and certainly being the most awarded. Brigham’s Rachel has her youth and naiveté working against her ferociously powerful mind, but we also see the potential for strength and, if Zelda can be any kind of role model, her potential for scientific ass kicking.

Watching two fierce actors attack meaty material like this is hugely pleasurable, and the fact that we get to learn some fascinating things about half of the world’s population is just evolutionary icing on this delectable theatrical cake.

Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why continues through May 22 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $35-$45. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

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.

Aurora builds a mighty (funny) Monster

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The cast of Amy Freed’s comedy The Monster Builder – (from left) Rod Gnapp as Andy, Sierra Jolene as Tamsin, Nancy Carlin as Pamela, Thomas Gorrebeeck as Dieter and Tracy Hazas as Rita – believe they have avenged the evil of Danny Scheie as “starchitect” Gregor in the Aurora Theatre Company production. Below: Jolene and Scheie work out the intricacies of a design. Photos by David Allen

When salsa splatters across the unsealed Carrara marble, the horror of the architect played by Danny Scheie resounds through the intimate Aurora Theatre Company. An hors d’oeuvre has fallen on the floor, and after admonishing the clumsiness of his girlfriend, the architect demands a napkin and some vodka to clean it up. The marble is not stained, and the architect, one Gregor Zobrowski, calms down enough to say, “Crisis averted.” But is the crisis averted? Not even a little bit, and that’s the fun of Amy Freed’s The Monster Builder, a very funny riff on Ibsen’s The Master Builder (which the Aurora produced in 2006).

San Francisco writer Freed once again partners with the inimitable Scheie – past collaborations include You, Nero and Restoration Comedy – to create a comedy that skewers the world of egomaniacal “starchitects” and their sometimes godawful creations as well as the bad architectural taste of the general public that aims for nostalgia but settles for utilitarian garbage.

The fun of Freed’s play is watching Gregor navigate his giant ego through a cocktail party at his newly completed masterwork, an island residence made only of glass and marble with no walls and, apparently, no place but the floor to sit down (the humorous angular set is by Tom Buderwitz). Gregor is toying with a young married couple, Rita and Dieter (Tracy Hazas and Thomas Gorrebeeck), who run an idealistic architecture firm whose goal is bring back the commons in some way and help people come together the way they used to.

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Gregor’s girlfriend Tamsin (Sierra Jolene) tries to fill in the social graces that the master architect lacks, but this is the Gregor show. Director Art Manke keeps the comedy fairly subdued at first. Scheie is strong and funny but reigns in what can sometimes be a wild on-stage personality. There’s a slow build, so to speak, at work here, and the payoff involves a leap into some theatrical wildness involving human sacrifice, revenge and the building of the Abu Dhabi Tower of Justice and Interrogation. Oh, and there may be something supernaturally Faustian going on as well. One of Scheie’s finest moments here (among many) is the astonishing measure of disgust he can express in three simple words: “arts and crafts.”

If Ibsen’s Master Builder had some sort of troll in his soul, well Gregor’s got something even bigger and nastier – a mystery that is only partly solved by play’s end. There’s a Young Frankenstein vibe to the second act of Monster Builder, and that’s a whole lot of fun. At one point, in full villain mode, Gregor is pounding out Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in the church he has converted into his office. It’s really just a set up so he can say to Rita, “Put your hand on my organ.” As smart as Freed can be, she also can’t resist a cheap joke, and we love her for that. Who else would reference an Alzheimer’s institute made of a series of mazes?

The game cast, expertly balancing zany farce and brainy comedy, also includes Nancy Carlin as an old-money dame with a juicy remodeling job and Rod Gnapp as her husband, a man whose occupation can inspire surprising reactions. There’s a lively camaraderie among the actors, and when, in Act 2, they all (save one) join together in a common pursuit, there’s a satisfying enjoyment in their efforts.

Part farce, part examination of the world we make for ourselves, The Monster Builder erects a lovely, lively structure around a dark heart that beats with the sounds of delight in every crack of humanity’s foundation.

Amy Freed’s The Monster-Builder continues an extended run through Dec. 20 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$60. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Flying high in Aurora’s Mud Blue Sky

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Sam (Rebecca Dines, left center) sends Jonathan (Devin O’Brien, center right) on an errand as Angie (Laura Jane Bailey, right) enjoys some fine cognac and Beth (Jamie Jones, left) pours herself another one in the Bay Area Premiere of Marisa Wegrzyn’s Mud Blue Sky at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Jones as Beth straightens the bowtie worn by O’Brien’s Jonathan on his bizarre prom night. Photos by David Allen

There’s easy comedy and titillation to be had in choosing to explore the lives of flight attendants. You could blithely whip up a story detailing the lives we imagine those high-fliers live, with their easy access to great cities, hot coworkers and the occasional randy passenger. That story might be fun, but in truth, the days of “coffee, tea or me” are long past, and flying is a grind for everyone, from passengers to crew, and that may actually be the more interesting story.

Marisa Wegrzyn’s Mud Blue Sky, now in an extended run through Oct. 3 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, tries to have it both ways – swinging comedy, down-to-earth drama – and succeeds mightily. There are farcical elements in play, and cognac and marijuana are enjoyed, and there are some hearty, satisfying laughs to be had, but what lingers in the air after the show is a sense of connection, comradeship and workaday resilience among the characters.

Unlike those “flight”sploitation movies of the ’60s and ’70s, there is nothing glamorous about the two flight attendants we meet at a cheap motel in the purgatory between O’Hare and Chicago. Beth (Jamie Jones) has a terrible back and won’t do anything about it except self-medicate with pot, which she gets from a teenage supplier, Jonathan (Devin S. O’Brien) somewhere behind the motel. Sam (Rebecca Dines) seems to be more of a partier. She wants to go to the bar, meet up with an old friend and strap on the old feedbag at IHOP (“Bacon!”). But she’s not as breezy as she seems. She’s got a 17-year-old son back at home in St. Louis, and he’s on his own an awful lot, given her schedule, and that weighs on her.

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What’s so interesting about Wegrzyn’s play is that it really does feel like a slice of life we don’t get to see very often. For instance, Beth is what’s known as a “slam locker.” She gets to the hotel room, slams the door and locks it. But on this night, Beth’s locked door won’t be enough. She’s drawn out to meet Jonathan and make their usual deal. The high schooler is wearing a tux because it’s prom night, and he’s available to help Beth score because he has been ditched by his date.

Details about the lives of these characters begin to trickle out, and while there’s not high drama here, there’s compassionate drama filled with day-to-day realities of just trying to get through and deal with the people you have to deal with and maybe something more (better?). We’ve all encountered flight attendants who seem weary or who have their heads somewhere else, and taking a peek into the fictional lives of these flight attendants fills in the back story very nicely.

As the evening wears on, Jonathan ends up in Beth’s hotel room (the set by Kate Boyd is so perfect you want to call housekeeping for an emergency deep cleaning) and there’s a new guest: Angie (Laura Jane Bailey), who trained with Beth and who used to be a key member of the crew. But she gained some weight and was promptly fired. She’s been living with and taking care of her mother since and hasn’t been able to find another job.

Bailey’s Angie has a long monologue toward the end of this 95-minute one-act, and it’s as sweet as it is heartbreaking. She misses the connection with her former co-workers and passengers. She longs for the chance encounters with fun and kindness and outrageousness that her job afforded her, and this short visit with her old friends (who have not been great about keeping in touch since her departure) is a boost to her psyche.

Director Tom Ross does superb detail with work with his wonderful actors here. Nothing feels rushed, and the actors give us characters whose lives feel lived in. That’s why the humor can spark so effectively one minute and the pathos can register deeply the next.

Jones’ weary Beth keeps trying to be a stick in the mud, but fun and empathy continually prevent her from giving in completely to her misery. She has a real (if somewhat reluctant) connection with the Eeyore-like Jonathan, expertly played by O’Brien, whose slumpy posture and teenage galumphing are scarily accurate and endearing.

Dines’ Sam is peppery and bright, which is to say she’s bursting with energy, but she’s also prone to stinging from time to time. Sam’s participation in the evening’s festivities takes a surprising, provocative turn that takes yet another surprising turn. Credit Wegrzyn’s intriguing script for keeping us guessing as to where this story will fly next.

Mud Blue Sky has the crackle of good television (a compliment in this golden age of television) but the rhythm and heft of good theater. These skies are friendly enough, but it’s the turbulence that really matters.

Mud Blue Sky continues through Oct. 3 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Flames lick the American dream in Aurora’s Detroit

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The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s Detroit, (from left) Patrick Kelly Jones, Amy Resnick, Luisa Frasconi and Jeff Garrett, has a wild, neighborly backyard barbecue in the Bay Area premiere of Lisa D’Amour’s play. Below: The neighbors ignite a backyard bonfire. Photos by David Allen

There’s a particular kind of fear that grips those who have all the things we’re “supposed” to have – jobs, houses, marriages, ideals. The fear, of course, is not in the having of it all but in the potential loss of it all (or even in part). That brutal terrain shaped by anxiety is the real setting of Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, now receiving its Bay Area premiere from Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company.

There’s no indication that this four-person comedy/drama is actually set in the Motor City, but that’s as good a place as any to dive into the state of the American dream as defined by an economy that has all but destroyed a major American city. D’Amour’s story could unfold anywhere, in any suburban enclave that was built to house the hopes and dreams of families making better lives for themselves but is now crumbling and full of people isolating themselves from one another.

There are laughs to be sure in this 100-minute show, beautifully directed by Josh Costello and performed by an engrossing cast of actors, but the laughs come from a dark place shaped by our most primal fears of being abandoned by all that defines us and imbues our lives with meaning. It’s not easy to tread the line between laughs/entertainment and profound existential dread, but D’Amour does it, and Costello and his cast are right there with her.

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At a certain point in life, usually when you’re settled and entrenched in a career and a marriage, it gets harder to make new friends. That’s what’s initially so intriguing about “Detroit,” which has an older married couple, Mary (Amy Resnick) and Ben (Jeff Garrett) hosting a welcome barbecue for a younger couple that has just moved in next door. Sharon (Luisa Frasconi) and Kenny (Patrick Kelly Jones) arrive with plenty of baggage, but, curiously, with no furniture, very few clothes and a certain aua of mystery about them. Still, Ben and Mary are hungry for new relationships. Ben is especially adrift, having been laid off from his loan officer job, but he’s hopeful about starting his own online consulting business and is teaching himself how to build a website.

Mary longs for a civilized life (she serves caviar at a barbecue) and a friend to whom she can unburden herself. She hopes that Sharon will be that person. A midnight meltdown in the backyard tests that burgeoning friendship and reveals that Mary may have something of a drinking problem.

Amid musings on why neighbors don’t interact anymore and how there’s no longer any such thing as real communication, the two couples bond – somewhat awkwardly to be sure, but they’re definitely getting to know each other and all the good and (some of) the bad that entails.

There’s a real sense of momentum leading up to a barbecue that, with its hip-hop dancing and sexual surprises, turns rather primal rather quickly. To say the couples’ friendship sparks some flames would be an understatement. This extraordinary scene – so powerfully played by the superb cast – is funny and deep…and a little scary (it’s also nicely staged with the help of set designer Mikiko Uesugi and lighting designer Kurt Landisman).

The play really ends there, but D’Amour tacks on an unnecessary coda that requires one of the actors to play a new character. The scene provides some additional information that’s interesting, but it doesn’t really work as an ending, at least not the ending a play this potent deserves.

But it’s a testament to just how rich and disturbing this work (and this production) is that even a misstep at the end can’t detract from the fact that Detroit, laughs and all, exposes just how nightmarish the great American dream can be.

Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit continues an extended run through July 26 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.