Of mice and music: Berkeley Rep’s Despereaux charms

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Dorcas Leung (Despereaux) with (back, l to r) Ryan Melia (Librarian), Betsy Morgan (Queen Rosemary), Matt Nuernberger (Botticelli) and Curtis Gillen (Most High Head Mouse) in Berkeley Rep’s production of PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Tale of Despereaux. Below: Despereaux (center) and the hardworking ensemble raise the roof of the Roda Theatre. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

There are so many charming, astonishing, inspiring moments in PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Tale of Despereaux you have to stop logging them and simply realize that, from beginning to end, this is exactly the show we need this holiday season.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre has a long tradition of bringing inventive, highly theatrical shows to its stage this time of year (the wondrous shows of Mary Zimmerman and Kneehigh come immediately to mind), and this year, we get a wildly wonderful Despereaux from PigPen Theatre Co., a group of friends who met and began making theater and music at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in 2007.

And while it’s easy to see why the handmade quality PigPen’s exuberant storytelling is so well suited to the stage adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry Award-winning 2003 novel. But this production is a little fancier than that. It’s financed by Universal Theatrical Group, the stage arm of the movie studio that made the 2008 animated Despereaux novel, and it’s co-directed by PigPen and Marc Bruni, who also helmed the Tony-winning Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

The stage Despereaux, which is acted, played and sung entirely by the 11-person ensemble, had its premiere last summer at San Diego’s The Old Globe, and one would guess that a new musical this good will go on to a long life wherever it wants to go.

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Like the novel, this musical is about finding the courage to be the one who makes a difference, fights for justice and overcomes preconceived notions of who someone should be. In this particular story, the hero is a mouse with giant ears (not Mickey, that’s a different movie studio) who, inspired by the story of a knight’s quest, determines to bring light back to the now-darkened kingdom where he and his family live.

Young Despereaux (played with verve by Dorcas Leung) lives in castle clouded with grief. Years before, the queen’s heart stopped at the sight of a rat in her soup. Since then, rats and soup have been forbidden, and the sad king (Arya Shahi) and his daughter, the Princess Pea (Yasmeen Sulieman), live a quiet, isolated life. They don’t throw parties or have feasts, so the crumb quotient for the castle’s mice population is alarmingly low, though the red-eyed rats that inhabit the castle’s darkest, dankest basement don’t seem to be suffering near as much.

One visit to the castle’s library and an encounter with the tale of a brave knight (Dan Weschler) is all it takes to ignite Despereaux’s warrior heart and a desire to fulfill his destiny as a hero. But first he must deal with the mice, who fear any change to the status quo, and the nasty rats in the basement, especially their leader, Roscuro (John Rapson, deftly capturing the light and dark of chiaroscuro). He breaks rules and tries to keep the faith that what he’s doing is right and just (not an easy task).

From beginning to end, this 90-minute treat is chock full of appealing songs with a Celtic pulse, performed with gusto by the ensemble. The voices are glorious (especially Sulieman’s princess, Betsy Morgan’s Miggery Sow and Rapson’s Roscuro), and the stage is alive with beautiful images. There’s a strong theme of light and dark built into the story, so the lighting by Donald Holder takes on significance beyond the beautiful way it illuminates the rough-hewn timber and crockery of Jason Sherwood’s castle set.

At the opening-night performance (Monday, Nov. 25), Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre was filled with children, and it’s a testament to the performers on stage (and to the parents) just how well behaved the audience was. Director Bruni and his ensemble manage to keep up the pace of the show without ever making it feel rushed. There’s time for ballads and introspection and shadow puppetry. And it’s absolutely enchanting the way the company uses stuffed mice and rats to convey the size difference between the animal characters and the human characters, all the while keeping us emotionally invested in every inter-species interaction.

The Tale of Despereaux is neither corny nor sappy the way entertainment aimed at all ages can sometimes be. Rather, this is rich, emotional, rewarding theater that pulls us all into its story of the littlest guy choosing to make the biggest difference.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Tale of Despereaux continues through Jan. 5 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$100 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

White Noise shocks, ultimately disappoints at Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s White Noise by Suzan-Lori Parks includes (from left) Chris Herbie Holland as Leo, Therese Barbato as Dawn, Aimé Donna Kelly as Misha and Nick Dillenburg as Ralph. Below: Holland and Barbato as Leo and Dawn work through some life and relationship challenges. Photos by Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise is an intensely interesting play. Just not a very good one.

And that’s surprising given that Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, has bent, molded and shaped contemporary theater to her will through sheer force of intelligence, powerful writing and the courage to configure theater as she needs it to be configured. Her most powerful plays – The America Play, Topdog/Underdog, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) – take inspiration from other pioneering playwrights (Homer, Brecht) and become wholly original Parksian examinations of race and the endless echoes of slavery.

White Noise, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, continues exploring those issues, but it would appear that Parks wants to do that in a seemingly conventional way. Her set-up in Act 1 feels like the pilot of a Netflix series. Two interracial couples, friends since college (and, for a short, blissful time, even bandmates), are still close now that they’re living in a big city (never named) and preoccupied with adulting.

Leo (Chris Herbie Holland) is the play’s fulcrum. He’s a promising black artist who has a long-gestating craetive block. He has wrestled with insomnia since childhood, when a Sunday school teacher told him that the sun was going to go out. He’s anxious and sleep deprived, but he keeps saying that “through sheer force of will” he gets through his days. His college sweetheart, Dawn (Therese Barbato), is a crusading lawyer, “one of the good guys,” as she keeps putting it. She could have gone with a big firm but wanted to start at the bottom to see what it felt like (and, of course, to help the underrepresented).

Once a week, Dawn and Leo meet their besties at the local bowling alley. Ralph (Nick Dillenburg) inherited a mint from his bowling-alley magnate father, and that cushion of privilege allows him to do some sideline writing and college teaching as a lit professor. That multi-million-dollar cushion also allows his girlfriend, Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly), to pursue her career as a vlogger. She hosts a live-stream call-in show called “Ask a Black” in which she, as she describes her performance style, “dials up the Ebonics.”

So far, so Netflix. But then Leo, during a late-night walk through a posh neighborhood, is assaulted by the police simply for being a black man where they didn’t think he should be. He is understandably traumatized and comes up with an extreme plan to deal with that trauma, not to mention his general life malaise.

If you’d rather not know Leo’s plan, stop reading. But this is where things get interesting…and then ultimately end up disappointing.

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Over the weekly bowling game, Leo says he would like Ralph to buy him for nearly $90,000 (the cost of his credit card debt and student loans) and make him a slave for 40 days. This is not something that would ever happen in real life, so the fact that Ralph needs little persuading to agree or that the women go along with it after feeble protestations hardly matters. Playwright Parks is conducing a theatrical experiment here and needs to jump start it.

The problem is that the experiment turns out to be not that interesting. No new theatrical ground is broken in terms of structure. There’s a big chart documenting 40 days that get ticked off in the longer second act. Ralph gets way too enthusiastic about being a slave master, and Leo seems to find some semblance of growth within this torture that he instigated. Tension mounts, relationships are shattered and everything pans out pretty much as expected (which is to say, not well at all).

Parks has each of her characters deliver a soliloquy to the audience illuminating their pasts and presents, and though the actors in director Jaki Bradley’s production are all skilled and charismatic, there’s not one person on the stage whom I would count myself lucky to call a friend.

There’s no bold theatricality at work here, just strained reality and a conceit that continually reviews itself while it’s happening (everybody’s checking in with everybody about how everybody is doing). If the situation here is contrived, the emotions should be real and heightened, but they’re not. Parks toys with fluid sexuality but not in a way that would directly challenge (or augment) her central plot, and the heavy presence of bowling (beautifully realized by set designer Adam Rigg, who manages to create two apartments and a bowling alley out of one set, and sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman) is actually a drag. Bowling is just plain dull unless you’re the one smashing the pins.

There are moments here designed to outrage, shock and offend – not a surprise in a play about the “virus,” as Parks calls it, of racism. But this slightly amped-up sitcom needs bigger, bolder, even more outrageous moments to really register and to feel like this insular quartet is part of the American evolution that began in 1619 with the first the first sale of slaves on these shores.

If I had a choice, I’d rather see a play about Misha (especially as played by the dynamic Kelly). Her “Ask a Black” vlog is the best thing in the show. First it’s played for comedy, but the serious undercurrents grow stronger and stronger until her awakening (and the way she capitalizes on her friend and boyfriend becoming slave and master) becomes more interesting than Leo and Ralph’s increasingly troublesome experiment. I’m ready for her show about this show.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise continues through Nov. 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Berkeley Rep’s Great Wave crashes

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The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Great Wave includes (from left) Yurié Collins as Reiko, Julian Cihi as Tetsuo, and Jo Mei as Hanako. Below: Grace Chan Ng as Hana is interrogated by David Shih as Soldier One and Cindy Im as Soldier Two in Francis Turnly’s play. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Berkeley Repertory Theatre opened its new season Sept. 19, a new era with a new artistic director in Johanna Pfaelzer, with the American premiere of Francis Turnly’s epic drama The Great Wave.

For three hours, the play aims to depict the effect of the political on the personal and the personal on the political, and at its most successful, it conveys a powerful sense of how ferocious, tenacious and depthless the love of a mother can be. But for much of its running time, The Great Wave is superficial and performed with a surprisingly topsy-turvy level of conviction by its cast.

Director Mark Wing-Davey layers an intricate sound design (by Bray Poor) and an even more intricate projection design (by Tara Knight) onto the play in a way that makes it seem he doesn’t fully trust Turnly or the actors enough to convey the emotional weight of the show. And he may be right.

The play’s first act feels like a proloooooonged prologue in which a young Japanese woman disappears from a beach during a storm under mysterious circumstances. The mystery is solved – for us not her family – very shortly when we learn the woman, Hanako (Jo Mei) was abducted by operatives from North Korea along with more than a dozen other Japanese citizens in a diabolical plot (based on a true story!) to train North Korean terrorists to effectively infiltrate South Korea posing as Japanese visitors.

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In Hanako’s case, she is training a Korean woman named Jung Sun (the excellent Cindy Im) all the while being brainwashed into the North Korean way of complete and total abasement and lack of individuality at the feat of the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung. Meanwhile, back in Japan, Hanako’s mom (Sharon Omi), sister (Yurié Collins) and friend (Julian Cihi) somehow know that she’s still alive and work feverishly to get the attention of their government officials, who mostly look the other way.

This is one of those plays where words drift across the stage along the lines of “six years later” or “two years later,” and each time that happens, it feels like any dramatic momentum the play had dissipates. Act 2 gains more traction as Hanako’s family comes closer to finding her and Hanako herself is faced with some difficult choices involving the life she came from, the life she’s living now with a government-ordered husband (Stephen Hu), a daughter (Grace Chan Ng) and a country in famine.

Though Hanako’s life in Korea seems to evolve over the 25 years, the lives of her family seem to exist only in service to finding her, and as such feel dramatically inert. There’s a parade of time-going-by wigs along with an attempt at a love story, but mother, sister and friend simply aren’t interesting enough to inspire our investment in their emotional lives or their complete devotion to finding Hanako.

It certainly doesn’t’ help that the opening-night performance was rough. The set malfunctioned noisily at one point, and actors seemed in need of more rehearsal (one two-person scene veered noticeably off the rails with muddled dialogue and sound effect cues).

The Great Wave is fitfully engaging, but its most potentially most rewarding moments are drained of dramatic impact or cut off much too quickly. There’s a big story to tell here, but this is is a Wave that definitely spends too much time splashing in the shallows.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave continues through Oct. 27 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$97, subject to change. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Vivacious Aztec tunefully reclaims, re-writes Latinx history

EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 21
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(front) Yani Marin as Colombina; (back row, from left) Angelica Beliard (Ensemble), Maria-Christina Oliveras (Ensemble), Jesús E. Martínez (Ensemble) and KC de la Cruz (Ensemble) in the world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep, directed by Tony Taccone and co-written by Taccone and John Leguizamo. (Photo by Kevin Berne) Below: The ensemble of Kiss My Aztec (photo by Alessandra Mello)

After 33 years at Berkeley Repertory Theatre – 22 as artistic director – Tony Taccone is taking a final bow with Kiss My Aztec, a world-premiere musical that serves as a fitting farewell. Hatched from the fervid mind of John Leguizamo, the show hits a lot of Taccone hot spots. It attempts to stick it to the white man (in this case, the Spanish conquistadors who colonized, destroyed and attempted to erase Aztec civilization) while re-writing history with a focus on those who should have had a hand in recording it in the first place. It’s a sprawling, inclusive, celebratory explosion of energy that continually lobs truth bombs at its audience through crude, incisive, often hilarious lines and lyrics.

“The original sin of the nation you’re in is white people in boats.” That’s from the rousing opening number performed by an ass-kicking 11-member ensemble. The choreography by Maija Garcìa immediately lets us know we’re in for a show where everything goes. Urban, modern, traditional, Latinx – it’s all here, and it’s all exciting. Set designer Clint Ramos (who also designed the costumes) largely gets out of the way of the story by letting his actors climb on, around and under a basic two-level scaffolding structure surrounded by brick walls covered in colorful murals.

Based on a screenplay by Leguizamo and Stephen Chbosky, Kiss My Aztec is an imagined tale of Aztec revenge. In the book by Leguizamo and Taccone, it’s the mid-16th century, where people speak with a hint of Shakespeare along the lines of, “Thou shall shuteth thy pie hole.” Though Cortes has successfully vanquished, pillaged and enslaved the Aztec civilization, a small tribe plots revenge on the Spanish ruler. In this version of history, the Aztecs are successful and very much part of the ongoing and successful effort to make the world more brown.

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This historical revision happens with the kind of musical irreverence you might find in shows like Monty Python’s Spamalot or The Book of Mormon. There’s a lot of slicing and sassing of the patriarchal conquerors, but there’s also a lot of love for the downtrodden and the wronged. The score, with music by Benjamin Velez and lyrics by Leguizamo, Velez and David Kamp, is all over the musical map. There’s rap and hip-hop, Broadway love song (albeit performed by lovers who are chained up and just out of each other’s reach), samba, tango, gospel and just about anything else you can think of. In spite of, or perhaps because of, that variety, the score is eminently enjoyable. There’s a song late in Act 1, “The Abstinence Song,” that is perhaps the catchiest, with its refrain of, “Keep it in your pants and dance.” And the aforementioned love song, with the chains inspiring the lovers to sing “just a few inches more,” is cleverly titled “Chained Melody” (sure to be a hit for the Unrighteous Brothers). The only song that didn’t fully work for me was the Act 2 opener, “Dark Meat,” which is funny for a verse and then tiresome.

The central characters here are Aztecs Columbina (Yani Marin) and Pepe (Joél Pérez). She’s a warrior trapped by her father’s limited idea of what women can do, and he’s a gentle soul who would rather practice sock puppetry than pick up a sword. They’re destined for each other, but first they have to prove themselves by infiltrating the Spanish citadel, capturing the viceroy’s giant ruby pendant (that and a blood moon figure largely in a prophecy) and guiding the Aztecs to victory. Columbina’s big double-negative statement of defiance is “Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do,” and Pepe’s is the charming “Punk-Ass Geek-A.” They both get to be heroes, but it’s clear that Pepe is the most Leguizamo-like, a rolling ball of comic electricity and eccentricity whose charms are impossible to resist.

Within the Spanish court, the viceroy Roderigo (Al Rodrigo) is miserable. He loathes his gay son, Fernando (Zachary Infante), who is secretly in love with a Catholic priest, Reymundo (Chad Carstarphen), decked out in his Inquisition-red robes. Their down low duet, “Tango in the Closet,” is a hoot.

Many performers are double cast in fun ways. Carstarphen, for instance, is the gay priest and also the noble but beleaguered El Jaguar Negro, leader of the Aztec resistance. And Infante makes a second appearance as a Sebastian, a wacky bit of inbred Spaniard royalty with his own fizzy dance club number, “New Girl, New World.” Desiree Rodriguez also makes a strong double impression as an Aztec and as Pilar, daughter of the Viceroy who wants to mess with her father in a big way.

This is the kind of highly carbonated musical that makes audiences happy – makes them feel smart and entertained and progressive – and it looks like a joy to perform. This production heads to the La Jolla Playhouse this fall, and who knows where beyond that. It’s not a revolutionary show, but it’s part of a class of musical comedy that’s actually funny as well as heartfelt, relevant and full of catchy tunes. There’s a fair amount of snark and cynicism in the show’s humor, mostly to underscore the idiocy of our current political climate, especially in respect to brown people here, there and everywhere. But ultimately, this is a big, juicy Kiss that inspires celebration and hope, even amid oppression, darkness and abominable leadership.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kiss My Aztec by John Leguizamo, Tony Taccone, Benjamin Velez and David Kamp continues an extended run through July 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$115 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Berkeley Rep’s Good Book is a revelation

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The cast of The Good Book at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (foreground) Lance Gardner; (background, from left) Annette O’Toole, Wayne Wilcox, Elijah Alexander, Shannon Tyo and Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Ibrahim is surrounded by (from left) Alexander, Gardner, Wilcox and Tyo. Photos courtesy of Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Let’s just admit it. The Bible is a clusterf**k. How in the world did such a literary hodgepodge, political football, myth collection become one of the most influential – if not the most influential book – ever created? That is the mammoth question playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare ask in their fascinating play The Good Book now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Their focus here really isn’t Christianity or even religion in the larger sense but rather how the Bible evolved over centuries into what we know it to be today: a confusing, contradictory, occasionally beautiful piñata poked at by people around the globe who want everything from solace to spiritual connection to straight up power.

How Peterson, Berkeley Rep’s associate director, and O’Hare (a Tony-winning actor best known lately for his TV work on “American Horror Story” and “This Is Us”) go about answering the question of what the Bible really is takes nearly three hours and a play that careens all through time and space in a most entertaining manner. They gather their seven remarkable actors amid the detritus of Rachel Hauck’s set – mostly overturned tables and chairs – and begin to create order. Then they begin what feels like a Bible 101 class, with Annette O’Toole taking the lead, as they all ponder the questions: what is the Bible (what is it really apart from all the baggage piled on top of it) and where the hell did it really come from?

The college seminar idea, as it turns out, isn’t far off. As the play comes into focus, O’Toole emerges as Miriam Lewis, a renowned Bible scholar and professor who, it should be noted, does not believe in God. The free-form nature of the play allows us to be in Miriam’s classroom and to bounce back centuries as we experience great moments in the creation of the Bible. Well, maybe not so great. Just moments. Like when a group of travelers, who have done their best to record the stories of their people and Jesus and Jesus’ wife on various scrolls, discover that a member of their band has discarded some of the most important scrolls so that he might collect figs to nourish them on their journey. B’bye, Jesus’ wife.

The other thread of the story involves a boy named Connor (Keith Nobbs), who is being raised Catholic and has become a “Biblehead,” someone obsessed with the Bible. He has an old-fashioned cassette recorder and, in addition to capturing the details of his life, he pretends to interview important figures from the Bible and the Bible’s history (King James even shows up). All of that biblical fascination adds layers of complication as he grows up and realizes he’s gay. He then struggles to hide that fact from his parents and his God until he rejects the church (even if temporarily) to figure out how to discover a loving deity instead of a hateful one.

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The motor at the heart of the play is O’Toole as Miriam. She’s smart, sarcastic and unafraid to put you in your place because she knows more than you do. In one of the play’s more contrived constructs, Miriam is the subject of a New Yorker article about the “new atheists,” and the reporter (Shannon Tyo) crafts a profile that displeases the professor mightily. The article also causes problems professionally (her students, especially the Christian students, find her judgmental) and personally with Miriam’s longtime companion (Elijah Alexander), an archeologist spending more and more time on his far-away digs.

Weaving in and out of Miriam’s and Connor’s stories, the play allows for an overview of the Bible (via Miriam) and its role in persecution and personal pain (via Connor). What’s really interesting, though, is the sense that most of us know so little about the Bible other than the parts that are dragged out all the time (say hey, Leviticus!) or so ingrained in our consciousness (Ecclesiastes!) that it’s hard to imagine Western culture without them. Though the play isn’t interested in Bible bashing per se, it does seem to relish tossing off facts like such and such an apostle never existed! Such and such an apostle never actually knew Jesus! Except for Paul’s letters, the Bible is not historical! All these little nuggets indicate that the Bible is like a Christian Wikipedia, altered and edited by just about anyone and everyone, not all of whom had the best or most spiritual intentions.

The Good Book, which also features sharp performances by Denmo Ibrahim, Lance Gardner and Wayne Wilcox, can feel scattershot, but that’s probably by design. Except for a trite TV talk show moment, it all works and proves that from disparate parts, you can assemble something that, even though it seems unlikely, coalesces in a deeply meaningful, thought-provoking way.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s The Good Book continues through June 9 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-64702949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Berkeley Rep’s HOME is where the (he)art is

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Berkeley Rep’s HOME features (upper level, from left) Sophie Bortolussi and Geoff Sobelle with (on the stairs, from right) Justin Rose, Jennifer Kidwell and Ching Valdes-Ara. Below: Downstairs, Sobelle and Rose and upstairs David Rukin and Bortolussi. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

What Dorothy Gale said is true: there’s no place like home. But in this particular instance, there is no place and no show quite like HOME, the creation of the marvelous Geoff Sobelle, whom we last saw rummaging through boxes and file cabinets on stage at the Curran in The Object Lesson (read my review here). Sobelle is back with another inventive, wholly unique theater piece, this time at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where he and a mighty crew of designers and actors are homing in on the lives we lead.

I’ve never seen anything quite like HOME, a mostly wordless one-act (about 105 minutes) that combines magic tricks, dance (let’s call it highly choreographed movement by David Neumann), vaudeville comedy, serious exploration of day-to-day humanity and more audience interactivity than I’ve ever experienced in a theater. At one point in the second half of the show, it felt like a good third of the Roda Theatre audience was on stage participating in the show, all looking and acting like they were hired actors doing all kinds of things from the simple act of celebrating and drinking wine to being costumed for a wedding to fighting with a “spouse” to the more demanding job of narrating a description of a personal dwelling into a microphone.

But that’s all part of the giant metaphor of theater being a certain kind of home in and of itself. The auditorium of a theater is often referred to as “the house,” and we theater fans are temporary dwellers in that house for the specific purpose of having a concentrated life experience alongside our fellow dwellers. The experience of HOME – and it is more of an experience than an actual play – is to provide a framework around the notion of what home means to us and partially fill it with some theatrical dazzle, some group revelry and songs. The singer/songwriter Elvis Perkins (interesting side note: he’s the son of actor Anthony Perkins and photographer Berry Berenson) is the troubadour for the evening, floating through the house in a wide-brimmed hat singing original tunes and playing guitar, autoharp, ukulele and harmonica. Why? Why not!

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In addition to Perkins, there’s abundant music floating through this dwelling. A small brass band materializes at one point, and the sound design (by Brandon Wolcott) includes some memorable tango moments to underscore the push and pull of the inhabitants as they live their complicatedly simple lives and go through their daily ablutions.

Perhaps the most memorable sequence involves the morning routine, as inhabitants roll out of bed, into the bathroom and then into the kitchen. The core cast of six makes it seem like dozens of people are flowing out of a bed (lots of actual magic tricks, sorry, illusions at work here designed by Steve Cuiffo) and into the tiny second-floor bathroom, where comedy and nudity blend into a grown-up clown show. From there, the action moves downstairs into the kitchen for juice and coffee and then off into the day. It’s all the humor of recognition, but elevated to high art under the astute direction of Lee Sunday Evans.

Aside from the actual tricks, there’s some real magic to this show. We all have a relationship to home, be it the one we’re from or the one we live in, and HOME leaves us plenty of room to fill in the blanks, even if there isn’t really a story or fully formed characters. This is a show that can simply be entertaining and interesting (hugely so on both counts) or as deeply meaningful as we might want it to be. There’s a life cycle to the home here, from the opening moments when Sobelle begins putting up walls to create the home to the closing moments, when the building has reached the end of its usefulness. The house is the primary character here, and as such, its design by Steven Dufala is ingenious. We are allowed to witness all the important moments of this structure’s life. We even get to experience that moment when it goes from construction site to actual home (flowers on the table, water in the sink, sheets on the bed). We experience rousing celebrations and the darkness that can creep into mundanity (all beautifully lit by Christopher Kuhl).

As a kind of a house, a theater is constantly filled with dreams made real, and the house in HOME is indeed dreamy, full of that transient joy and sorrow, those beginnings and endings that demarcate our lives. That’s either quite ordinary or quite profound. In HOME Sobelle allows it to be both, the constant flux of life under a roof, self-contained yet impossible to hold.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Geoff Sobelle’s Home continues through April 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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.

Aside from dancing, Berkeley Rep Square is far from paradise

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(front row, l to r) Hailee Kaleem Wright (Ensemble), Karen Burthwright (Ensemble), and Sidney Dupont (William Henry Lane); (back row, l to r) Chloé Davis (Ensemble), Sir Brock Warren (Ensemble), Jamal Christopher Douglas (Ensemble), and Jacobi Hall (Ensemble) in the world premiere of Paradise Square: A New Musical at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: (l to r) Jason Oremus (Ensemble) and Jacobi Hall (Ensemble), and the company of Paradise Square. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

There are actually two competing musicals in Paradise Square: A New Musical now having its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. One of them is much better than the other.

Incredibly ambitious and overstuffed, Paradise Square wants to create excitement about a particular moment in American history with a wonderfully diverse cast and a score that blends show music, traditional music and contemporary sounds (sound familiar? can’t blame producers for not wanting to throw away their shot). But this show, many years in the making, is still fuzzy, unfocused and only intermittently interesting.

In telling the story of the Five Points, a 19th-century New York slum inhabited primarily by Irish immigrants and African Americans, Paradise Square complicates its storytelling by weaving in the life of composer Stephen Foster, whose music provides a base for the score crafted by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan (the guy who had the idea to create this show in the first place) with lyrics by Nathan Tysen. Foster’s music became synonymous with minstrelsy, so putting his beautiful melodies in service of a story about, as they call it in the show, “race mixing,” is in theory an interesting idea. But in fact, those melodies are obliterated, blasted and torqued beyond recognition much of the time. When we finally get to a straightforward “Beautiful Dreamer,” it’s like we’ve arrived at a clearing full of light after slogging through a dense, dark forest.

Rather than giving us one central story to care about, book writers Kirwan, Craig Lucas and Marcus Gardley give us a handful, none of which are terribly compelling. They also give us dance-offs. In a story that should be rife with tension – racial tension, labor tension, political tension, Civil War draft tension, runaway slave tension, violent mob tension – the greatest intensity and satisfaction comes from three primary dance contests. The first is between a newly arrived Irish immigrant (A.J. Shively as Owen) and a fugitive slave (Sidney Dupont as Will Henry). Owen is doing Irish step dancing and Will Henry is doing Juba-style dancing. Both are electrifying. In Act 2, we get an official dance contest in a neighborhood bar, with the cash prize enough to buy your way out of the draft ($300). The contest begins and ends, but wait! We need a do-over, so Will Henry and Owen can compete head to head once again (and for a solo dance contest, they sure do a lot of singing and dancing with their squads).

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The dancing throughout the 2 1/2-plus hours of Paradise Square is routinely fascinating, often thrilling, which is exactly what you’d expect from choreographer Bill T. Jones. The problem is that the sharply etched choreography feels like it’s for a different, much more sophisticated show. If Paradise Square wanted only to dance, that would be just fine.

Director Moisés Kaufman simply cannot pull it all together. There are some powerful vocal performances from his nearly 30-member cast, but too often the acting is hammy and melodramatic (mostly the fault of the wobbly book). Actors feel like they’re creating tableaux more than they are playing actual people.

The show’s ending is a complete cop-out as the historical trappings fall away and the actors address the audience directly so they can tell us what happened to the characters after the chaos of the story comes to its conclusion. One of the things they mention is that the “race mixing” of the Five Points, primarily between Irish immigrants and African Americans, resulted in a new dance form called tap dancing. Why, oh why is this not part of this show, which just happens to be a musical wherein the best thing about it is the dancing? We see and hear tap dancing only once in the show, and it’s during a flashback to slaves being whipped on a plantation. Talk about a missed opportunity.

The presence of Foster as a character (appealingly played by Jacob Fishel) and as the basis for the show’s score should be more interesting than it is. He was coopting black music and turning it into popular song, which was in turn coopted by the racially repugnant minstrel circuit. One of the black characters gets to go on a tirade about how much she hates Stephen Foster to Stephen Foster, and it just feels irrelevant when the city is just about to explode into the deadly Draft Riots (oh, but wait, can the riots hold on a sec because we also need to do the big dance contest!).

Musicals are beastly contraptions that go wrong far more than they go right. In Paradise Square we’re told there was a time when people lived briefly in a time and place where race mattered less than character, but even the evidence we see of that seems fraught and far from idyllic. So the loss of this brief flash of semi-harmony – what we’re told was a glimpse of the future that has yet to come – doesn’t feel like much of a loss. As a result, Paradise Square doesn’t really feel like much of a show. Not yet anyway.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Paradise Square: A New Musical continues an extended run through March 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$115 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Slammed door opens in Doll’s House, Part 2 at Berkeley Rep

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Nancy E. Carroll (left) is Anne Marie and Mary Beth Fisher is Nora in Berkeley Rep’s production of A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. Below: John Judd’s Torvald explores the past with Fisher’s Nora. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

When last we heard from Nora Helmer, she had left her husband with the slam of a door. That was (spoiler alert!) the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House. In the almost 140 years since that door slammed, Nora has been reviled and celebrated for her forward-looking feminist stance on equality and her willingness to leave her three young children behind as she forged a new life away from the traditional bonds of marriage.

Now playwright Lucas Hnath imagines what happened to Nora after she stepped through that door in the audaciously titled A Doll’s House, Part 2, which opens the Berkeley Repertory Theatre season in a razor-sharp, vital and funny production directed by Les Waters.

That door, once so famously slammed, now begins the play. First there’s a knock, then a pounding. Then there’s Nora, back in her family home for the first time in 15 years. When Anne Marie, the governess who raised Nora and who raised Nora’s children after she fled, answers the door, she says, “Oh, Nora,” and it’s so fitting and funny and sad that it sounds like she’s saying, “Oh, no!”

For 90 minutes, Nora wrestles with that fateful decision she made a decade and a half before, and the most extraordinary thing abut Hnath’s play is not simply that it’s a crackling good play full of ideas and arguments and regret and ferocity and humor. No, the really extraordinary thing is that it’s actually a worthy sequel to Ibsen. Though his idiom feels much more contemporary than Ibsen (especially in translation), Hnath honors Ibsen and his characters and, most importantly, the challenges that continue to make the original Doll’s House such a powerful drama. Sadly, and perhaps not surprisingly, equality between women and men hasn’t quite come to pass in 140 years.

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In Hnath’s reacquaintance with Nora, he finds her successful in her own right, living as freely as a woman can in late 19th century Norway, with a career and lovers and a defiant attitude toward marriage, an institution she sees simply as torture. But she finds herself in a predicament that she can only solve with the assistance, much to her dismay, of her ex-husband, Torvald. That’s why she’s back in town.

Waters’ production is eloquent and gorgeous in its simplicity. The set by Andrew Boyce turns the Roda stage into a a mostly bare room, blonde wood floors, unadorned walls and only four pieces of furniture – coatrack, table, two chairs. Those chairs are vital to Waters’ staging. As he positions his characters for their battles, the chairs are like game pieces, and with the lighting by Yi Zhao, some of the stage pictures he creates look like they could be right of a Bergman film.

Nora’s success is exquisitely conveyed in her dress, designed by Annie Smart, which receives an appreciative gasp from the audience when she whips off her coat to reveal it.

As beautiful as the dress is, its power also comes from the way Mary Beth Fisher wears it. Her Nora owns her space. She has fought and won, but being back in Torvald’s house has her a little off-kilter, and we see her argue her way back to confidence and then lose it again in the face of actual human pain she has caused. We also see Nora try to manipulate not only Torvald (John Judd) but also Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll), a potential ally in Nora’s plan to wrest what she needs from Torvald.

Nora is smart and complicated and full of fury at a system that keeps her, in her words, “beholden to bad rules…so many bad rules in this world.” Fisher’s performance is electric, especially in her scenes with Judd’s Torvald. There’s so much history between them, so much said and unsaid. If Torvald’s journey in the course of a single day seems a bit much, Judd is so believable he can pull it off.

Carroll as the beleaguered Anne Marie bears a heavy world weariness that renders almost everything she says equal parts funny and sad. There’s a lot of fury in her, too, and Carroll’s performance is crystalline in every aspect.

The play’s final test for Nora is the one she most wanted to avoid: a confrontation with one of her children. As Emmy, Nikki Massoud slowly reveals the inner conflict of an abandoned child finally able to confront the mother who left her with equal parts rage, indifference, revenge and hurt.

Waters deftly balances humor and drama, though the play ends up feeling more like a drama, especially where Nora and Torvald are concerned.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 is thought provoking and incredibly entertaining. It’s also substantial in that it sits with you afterward. You can leave the doll’s house, but it doesn’t leave you.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 continues through Oct. 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Hymns of praise for Kushner’s Angels at Berkeley Rep

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Francesca Faridany (left) is The Angel and Randy Harrison is Prior Walter in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Angels in Americaby Tony Kushner. Below: (left to right) Harrison as Prior, Caldwell Tidicue as Belize, Benjamin T. Ismail as Louis Ironson and Carmen Roman as Hannah Pitt. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

You never forget your first time on the wings of Angels.

My first time experiencing Tony Kushner’s earth-shaking epic Angels in America was 1994 in an American Conservatory Theater production with Mark Wing Davey directing. I saw each part of this massive work – Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika – several weeks apart and then saw the marathon weekend double feature (both plays in one day) twice before the end of that five-times-extended run. I felt at the time like it was the smartest play I’d ever attempted to understand (but could still never fully comprehend), the most rewarding drama and comedy I’d ever seen and the most staggering work of art I could imagine a human (Kushner) and a team of supporting artists (the cast and crew) ever creating in my lifetime.

I mean, here was a play dealing with recent American history (the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan years, Russia, Roy Cohn) where five of the main characters are gay men and one of them is a prophet. Kushner is mixing politics, domestic drama, hilarious one-liners, sweeping cultural change, the ancestors, all of history (or so it seems) and the machinations of heaven and hell in nearly eight hours of theater that goes by more quickly than some 90-minute one-acts I’ve seen.

That’s how I felt then. Almost 25 years later, I feel exactly the same way but more. MORE. Angels in America is back in the Bay Area, this time at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it is directed by Tony Taccone, who, with Oskar Eustis helped bring this play into the world when it premiered at their Eureka Theatre in 1991. The play’s staggering genius is on full display in Taccone’s marvelous production, as is Kushner’s prescience (Russia, Republican politics, the environmental crisis).

In a bold and admirable move, Taccone’s production had its official opening on a Saturday and featured parts one and two. That means a theater experience that lasts from 1pm until 11pm (with a generous couple of hours for dinner break) – and what an extraordinary experience. We’re so used to having someplace to be that surrendering to 10 hours of a singular event is like sanctuary. Then to have that sanctuary filled with Kushner’s intense intellect and dramatic and comic acumen is to spend 10 hours that will renew your faith in theater as an essential life element: air, food, water, drama.

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When you return to something you love after an absence, there’s always a chance you’ll find something diminished or something that doesn’t match the inflated ideal that has lived in your head for decades. But coming back to Angels in this assured and sleekly designed production finds nothing diminished but rather deeper, more moving and even more mysterious.

Kushner’s audacity in harnessing characters from the real world (Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg), fictional characters you might find in any play or sitcom (estranged lovers, testy in-laws, rock-solid best friends, distant husbands, frustrated wives) and then mixing in the mythic (angels!) and the apocryphal (God did exist but he has disappeared!) is unmatched in modern drama. And though the plays cover, essentially, a period from 1985 to 1986, they don’t feel dated in any way that makes them seem less vital or imaginative or visceral.

The stage of the Roda Theatre has been turned into a giant marble vault by designer Takeshi Kata. Bits of scenery slide on and off the stage, while Jennifer Schriever’s lights train focus and set mood with startling efficiency. The lack of fancy stagecraft means we’re paying more attention to the words and the performances, though the occasionally spectacular video projections (by Alexander V. Nichols) bring some spectacle, as do the wizards at Flying by Foy who pull the strings of the angel’s flight.

If the audience can really hear Kushner’s words, I’d say that 90 percent of the work is done. The script is that good as characters veer from the prosaic to the poetic to the prophetic, sometimes within one speech. The basic rule is this: get out of the way of the play and let it roll. That rule is respected here. It’s astonishing at the curtain call(s) to see that there are only eight actors in these plays, though several pull yeoman’s duty in multiple parts.

Spending this much time with actors tends to make you fall a little in love with them. There are three performers in particular who had me in their thrall. Carmen Roman begins each play in the guise of an old man (a rabbi in Part One, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik in Part Two), and she is the kind of actor who makes every word sing with truth. She also plays a beleaguered doctor (imagine having to tell Roy Cohn he’s dying from AIDS), the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and a tough but devoted Mormon mother. She is spectacular in every role, as is Francesca Faridany as the imperious angel, a compassionate nurse, a Salt Lake City Realtor, a homeless woman in the Bronx and a diorama dummy come to life.

Twenty-seven years ago, Stephen Spinella originated the role of Prior Walter, the play’s protagonist. He went on to win two Tony Awards (one for each play) and then to a career on Broadway and on screen. He’s back on stage in Angels but this time in a very different role. He’s playing the nightmare known as Roy Cohn, and he is ferociously good. He’s dangerously charismatic and funny and just as dangerously full of fight and venom. To watch his scenes with Roman as Ethel Rosenberg is to feel a most curious (and soul satisfying) twist in karmic retribution.

As Prior Walter, Randy Harrison finds his own ferocity and warmth, especially in his scenes with his best friend Belize, the quick-witted nurse (played by Caldwell Tidicue, probably better known as Bob the Drag Queen, the Season 8 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Rqce).

Several hours’ worth of angst is supplied by Benjamin T. Ismail as Louis, Prior’s erstwhile boyfriend and speed talker. Louis doesn’t leave any ideas unexpressed, no matter how ill-formed or potentially offensive, and that makes for good theater. As the Mormon couple in a seismically shifting marriage, Bethany Jillard as Harper and Danny Binstock show how painful the rough, splintered edges are as they poke through the thin veneer of everything as it’s supposed to be.

It is truly astonishing how much life there is in Angels in America, past, present and indeterminate future. The whole thing leaves you somewhat stunned and more than a little revitalized. It engages the heart and the mind in equal measure and makes you work to feel part of a community not just with the performers and characters but with all the artists involved and the audience members surrounding you. That’s a profound thing, but perhaps not all that surprising. Angels in America, to paraphrase Kushner himself, pulses to the “tick of the infinite.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika continue through July 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 51-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.