ripple makes waves at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: The cast of Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere play the ripple, the wave that carried me home includes (left to right) Christiana Clark as Janice, Brianna Buckley as Gayle, Ronald L. Conner as Edwin and Aneisa J. Hicks as Helen. The play is produced in association with Goodman Theatre. BELOW: Clark’s Janice takes us back to her childhood in Kansas and life with her activist parents. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


In her moving new drama the ripple, the wave that carried me home, playwright Christina Anderson gives us what we want – or, more accurately, what we need – in a family play. She takes us into a very specific time and place, creates distinct personalities, raises a variety of colossal issues and then makes us feel like we’re inside that family in ways that relate to our own family situation.

When that dramatic click happens – when a play begins operating specifically and universally – you know you’re in good theatrical hands.

A world-premiere collaboration between Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, the ripple unfolds on the stage of Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre in what looks like an abandoned public swimming pool. There’s no water in the tank, and chairs are tipped on their side. But there’s still a light on in the awards window.

Much of the story we’re about to hear has to do with swimming and how something so healthy, recreational and fun could turn into a sadly typical American tale of racism, oppression, violence and horror.

By any measure, Janice (Christiana Clark) is a successful adult. It’s 1992, and she’s a department director at a small Ohio university and has a supportive husband and two kids. As the narrator of this story, her story, Janice easily admits that she has compartmentalized her life. Her past and her family all belong in Beacon, Kansas, where she grew up. But a string of insistent messages on her answering machine (oh, the vestiges of 1992) from Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman calling from Beacon threaten to pull her from one compartment of her life into another, and she resists.

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This is when Janice’s story expands. We meet her parents, Edwin (Ronald L. Conner) and Helen (Aneisa J. Hicks) as young people in the late 1950s. She gives free swimming lessons at Brookside, one of three public swimming pools in Beacon but the only one that allows Black people. He gets bussed in from another neighborhood to enjoy the pool, and their lives entwine.

As tragedy rocks the town, Edwin and Helen become activists and begin a years-long battle against the deeply embedded racism of their hometown. Their daughter is born into this fight, and as a teenager, she finds herself embarrassed by her crusading parents (especially her dad) and embarrassed by her very blackness. By the early 1970s we can feel her compartmentalizing begin as she longs to escape to someplace easier and more peaceful.

But things happen both within the family and without that have a profound impact on how Janice will choose to live her life and deal with her parents. When those calls start coming from her hometown, she realizes she can’t just keep being the polite daughter from a distance. Her straight-talking Aunt Gayle (Brianna Buckley, who also plays Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman) is, in many ways, the ripple that creates the wave that brings Janice home, both physically and metaphorically.

Headed by the warm and eminently relatable Clark as Janice, this strong cast finds humor and drama in equal measure. The family connections feel strong and complex even while the outside world delivers nonstop horror. We see how women labor and suffer in the shadow of men who claim to be focused on issues of equality. We see repeatedly how virulent racism manifests in the lives of this Black family in the Midwest. “Are you new to America?” several characters ask? “Let me show you around.”

Director Jackson Gay unfolds the story at a natural pace, as the swimming pool set by Todd Rosenthal becomes family homes in Kansas and Ohio, a car being pursued by a police car and a fugue state somewhere between nostalgia and trauma.

A generous and empathetic writer, Anderson imbues her characters with depth and complication. Perhaps most importantly she allows for triumph amid the tragedy and for growth and understanding amid hostilities and resentments. Within this ripple turned to wave, she even leaves us swimming in the possibility of joy.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christina Anderson’s the ripple, the wave that carried me home continues through Oct. 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $24-$100. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

A gorgeous Goddess descends at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: Amber Iman (front) is Nadira in the world-premiere musical Goddess directed by Saheem Ali, book by Jocelyn Bioh, music and lyrics by Michael Thurber at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Also pictured (l to r): Zachary Downer (Moto Moto Ensemble – Sameer), Phillip Johnson Richardson (Omari), Rodrick Covington (Ahmed), Melessie Clark (Grio Trio – Musi) and Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi). BELOW (back, l to r) Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi), Quiantae Thomas (Moto Moto Ensemble – Amina), Isio-Maya Nuwere (Moto Moto Ensemble – Safiyah), Wade Watson (Moto Moto Ensemble – Musa), Grasan Kingsberry (Moto Moto Ensemble – Jaali) and Teshomech (Grio Trio – Tisa). In front is Rodrick Covington as Ahmed. Photos by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


There are so many ways a world-premiere musical can go. Goddess had its splashy premiere this week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and to use some examples from that theater company alone, a new musical can be bold and bracing and surely Broadway bound (Green Day’s American Idiot, Ain’t Too Proud); it can be intriguing but needs a lot of work (Amélie); or it can be a giant question mark, as in why oh why does this musical need to exist (Swept Away, Monsoon Wedding).

Goddess, an entirely original work (blessedly not based on a movie, a book or an existing catalogue of songs), is a vibrant explosion of exuberance featuring a cast whose combined talent and charisma is stratospheric. In those moments when this show clicks, its humor, emotion and storytelling fuse into the very reason we love musical theater – it is communal, it is bigger than us and it is filled with emotions that are too rich for words alone.

Happily, Goddess has a number of those moments in its 2 1/2 hours. From the joyous opening number introducing us to the setting – the nightclub Moto Moto in Mombasa, Kenya – it’s clear that this cast and creative team are going to take us somewhere worthwhile. That good will goes a long way toward keeping the show moving, even when the story gets a little clunky, when some of the songs don’t quite rise to the level of the performances and especially when the ending is clouded in rushed confusion.

To begin with the good in director/creator Saheem Ali’s production, look no further than the title character, Marimba, goddess of music in African folklore, who escapes her evil mother and takes mortal form so that she might find true love. On Earth, she becomes Nadira, the soulful headliner at Moto Moto, and while she spurns the advances of Madongo, the club’s owner, she falls for Omari, a sweet saxophone player whose parents are pushing him to continue their legacy as the first family of Mombasa politics.

Played by Amber Iman, whom local audiences might remember as Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds in the first national tour of Hamilton when it opened in San Francisco in 2017, Nadira is a bit of an innocent when it comes to the ways of love but has a sultry way with a song. Iman is 100% believable as a goddess in hiding and looks stunning (as does all the cast) in the eye-popping costumes by Dede Ayite. She offers several tour de force solos, and even if the songs by Michael Thurber stop just short of being the dramatic showcases she deserves, her riveting performances more than make up the difference.

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A general issue with Thurber’s score, as appealing as it is, has to do with a lack of depth in his lyrics and definitive shape to his melodies. For instance, from the second we meet Omari’s regal mom, Siti, played by the captivating Kecia Lewis, we know we need a big solo from her. She is the driving force behind pushing her son (even if it’s against his will) into politics because that is her family’s legacy stretching back for a century. When we finally get that song, Lewis’ performance is stunning, but the song itself is not. It lacks the sophistication of the character.

Other than throw-away songs for Omari’s too-strident fiancé, Cheche (Destinee Rea), and a bland “I will get what I want” song for the bad guy club owner (Lawrence Stallings), Thurber’s score has a pulsing appeal and pleasing pop sensibility, even if he leans far too heavily on the “above, of, love” rhyme scheme. The on-stage band, led by music director Marco Paguia, sounds great, and they’re at their best when the stage is in full party mode, and the ensemble is twirling, stomping and leaping to the lively choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie.

As long as Goddess is in Moto Moto (a beautifully detailed set by Arnulfo Maldonado) or concentrating on Nadira, things are good. Whenever Jocelyn Bioh’s book wanders into Omari’s home life or his world of politics, things get a lot less interesting and much more melodramatic. The exceptions are the visits to Balozi (Reggie D. White), a shaman of sorts who can consort with the wishes of the gods. White is a compelling performer, and the stage smoke and video projections add a little pizazz to the production.

In supporting roles within the second-tier romantic plot, Abena as the club’s manager/bartender Rashida and Rodrick Covington as Ahmed, the club’s MC, are utterly charming and threaten to steal the show. But Nadira and Omari maintain the emotional center. Their love story, although rushed, is touching, and we root for them to achieve their destinies as the fullest versions of themselves. It seems there are some missed musical opportunities here with Nadira and Omari. She’s the goddess of music. He’s a musician. They sing/play together once, but that connection feels underdeveloped, especially musically.

And then there’s that ending, which is not as developed as it likely (hopefully) will be. A character shows up with a gun. Something happens with the shaman, an incredibly dramatic ballad is delivered and BOOM, the cast reprises the glorious opening number. Then we get to the cast bows. If something specific happened with the gun situation, I completely missed it. I wanted to be fully immersed in the jubilation of the ending, but I was honestly still trying to put the pieces together.

Even as this new musical continues to develop, there’s much to love and enjoy. This show could be the burst of color, energy and new life that Broadway needs. There are issues to work out, but this Goddess definitely has more than a prayer of success.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Goddess continues an extended run through Oct. 1 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$138. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.
Goddess runs about 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

Watch the opening number of Goddess in rehearsal:

In the uneasy room with Dana H.

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Jordan Baker is Dana H. in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s West Coast premiere of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., directed by Les Waters. Photos by Calvin Nguy/Berkeley Rep


The premise of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. may sound, at first, bizarre: a lone actor spends the 75-minute show lip syncing to a recorded interview. It’s certainly a novel approach to theatrical storytelling, and within minutes, the reason for this approach begins to reveal itself. By the end, it’s clear that there could be no more effective or powerful means of relaying this particular tale, which just happens to be the real-life story of Dana Higginbotham, who just happens to be Hnath’s mother.

The simple facts are these: in 1997, Higginbotham had been working as a chaplain in a Florida hospital psychiatric unit, met and counseled a patient named Jim. Upon his release, he ended up kidnapping and holding her for a life-altering five months.

The show, which just won two Tony Awards (for lead actress in a play and for the sound design by Mikhail Fiskel, who reprises his stunning work for this Berkeley Repertory Theatre production), is based on a 2015 interview Higginbotham had with Steve Cosson, who taped several days’ worth of audio. Higginbotham says she had not really talked about the events of her kidnapping in the nearly 20 years since they occurred, and it remains unclear how much her son, who took on the task of editing down many hours of the interview into the show’s short hour and 15 minutes, knew about his mother’s harrowing experience prior to this interview.

When the show begins, the actor Jordan Baker enters what looks like a cheap hotel room set (perfectly detailed design by Andrew Boyce), sits in a chair and is outfitted with earphones that will feed her the audio of the interview that we also hear. The real Dana H. then tells us her story as best she can. We hear Cosson asking questions, and whenever Hnath has made an edit in the audio, we hear a beep before the segment. So even though Hnath (who was away for his freshman year at NYU when the events of the story happened) is only peripherally a character in the play, he’s very much present as a playwright, shaping how we hear his mother’s story.

And what a story. There’s much more here than just the recounting of trauma. There’s deep psychological and emotional wrestling with the very essence of what it means to be human and how fragile our worlds are, even when we think we’re on solid ground. Dana H. is a play that aims to shake our foundations, and it does so with surprising force. It’s not nearly as difficult as we might think to slip into an underworld where none of what we might consider the usual rules apply.

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The notion of lip synching, as strange as it might seem, is utterly fascinating. It demands a kind of concentration from the audience that even the best actor probably could not command if she or he were simply acting the material with voice and body. We’re used to that, but we’re not used to this. As a piece of documentary theater, we are and we aren’t relying on Baker’s performance. We have Dana Higginbotham herself telling her story in her own words. But then we have Baker’s uncanny ability to make us forget she’s lip synching and to create the illusion of the real person.

Baker and director Les Waters (also nominated for Tony Award for the New York production), have worked out so many fascinating details that it’s impossible not to hang on every word, every laugh or big intake of breath, every rustling sound or tinkling bracelet captured in the audio. In one way, the lip synching keeps us at a distance – we are dissociated from the action by Baker, who serves as a bridge between the real Dana H. and the theatrical version she is presenting. You might think this technique would minimize the emotion or the shock of the violence or the horror of a life turned completely upside down, but it actually has a powerfully opposite effect as the details and complexities coalesce into a relentlessly captivating, devastating experience that is, mercifully, not without hope or humor.

Many questions emerge from this story, and it seems that Hnath has perhaps pushed himself too far out of the narrative. Every beep in the audio stream reminds us of his presence, and as the story comes into its final chapters and skitters through a number of years, we can’t help wondering where he was and how he fits back into his mother’s life in between the end of events recounted in the story and the creation of this play.

Dana H. stands (or sits, actually) as a wholly unique theatrical experience. It’s real and it’s artificial. It’s at a remove and yet it digs down into our depths. It’s a bold theatrical experiment and its resulting power is such that you’ll feel deeply moved if not more than a little bit terrified of the cracks and terrors it exposes.

[free event]
Dana H. director Les Waters will talk about his superb new book, The Theatre of Les Waters: More Like the Weather at a free Berkeley Rep event on Monday, June 28 at 8pm in the Roda Theatre. The event, Celebrating the Theatre of Les Waters, is free but registration is required: https://tickets.berkeleyrep.org/16522/16825. And the book is essential reading for all theater lovers, especially Bay Area theater lovers who have been lucky enough to see Les’ work on local stages through the years.

[for more information]
Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. continues through July 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $22-$115 (subject to change). Call 510-64702949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Octet at Berkeley Rep is a revelation

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In Berkeley Rep’s production of Octet, Alex Gibson (center) is Henry, surrounded by (from left) Adam Bashian as Ed, Margo Seibert as Jessica, J.D. Mollison as Marvin, Kuhoo Verma as Velma, Isabel Santiago as Paula, Justin Gregory Lopez as Toby and Kim Blanck as Karly. BELOW: The cast of Octet in the West Coast premiere of Dave Malloy’s astonishing theater piece, directed by Annie Tippe. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


Writer/composer Dave Malloy calls his Octet a “chamber choir musical,” and that’s certainly an apt description of this one-act show featuring eight performers and a shimmering a cappella score. But an even better description of Octet might be a “revelation” or maybe even a “miracle.”

Commissioned by New York’s Signature Theatre, who premiered the work in 2019, Octet is now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, and it is (and probably was and will likely remain) the right show at the right time. As long as we’re isolated, anxiety-ridden or damaged, this show will have something to say (or perhaps sing is the better word) to us.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to Octet, which is interesting because the show traffics in the internecine complexities of our modern world, more specifically, with the horrors of the Internet: the isolation, the addictions, the pornography, the self-righteousness, the polarization, the anonymity, the cruelty, the fraud…and the list just goes on and on.

The simplicity comes in the show’s form: eight people gather for a 90-minute support group meeting in a faith center community room. The group, created by an enigmatic figure named Saul, is patterned after a 12-step program but with eight guiding principles and designed for people in recovery from multitudinous online damage. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this program is that its therapy takes the form of choral singing. Armed with their pitch pipes, group members sing some hymns (of Malloy’s creation, of course, and very specific to the 21st century), but when it comes time for them to share their stories, these are also presented in song.

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The idea seems to be that this group embodies the exact opposite of the trauma suffered by its participants. By singing together, they are physically (through voice), mentally and emotionally connected in a way rivaled only by sex. Their octet is a living, creative organism that can only exist when they are together, and the mind-blowing beauty of what they create is matched only by the emotional wallop of what they’re actually telling each other (and us) about what they’ve suffered and how they’re surviving and evolving.

In addition to his glorious score, Malloy’s script also has its own power. There are familiar sitcom rhythms to the humor, but that’s just one of the ways Malloy pulls us in and calms us down before taking us places we could never have expected. There’s real wit here (especially in some of the lyrics), and it’s easy to relate to pretty much everything being discussed, which is why so much of it is at once funny and terrifying. There’s also a level of mysticism at work here – the Tarot factors in, as does a chatbot named Eugene Goostman that apparently fooled people into thinking it was human.

Local audiences have the benefit of seeing most of the original New York Octet cast reprising their roles, along with most of the creative team headed by director Annie Tippe. There’s not a false moment among the pitch-perfect actors, and the verisimilitude of the situation – the details in the set by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta are fascinating – only amplifies the otherworldly places the music takes us (Malloy did the vocal arrangements, which are like a language unto themselves, and Or Matias is the sterling music supervisor and music director).

Each of the actors gets a moment to shine, but, by design, the show’s undeniable power comes from all the voices. It’s hard to imagine anyone better in these roles than Adam Bashian, Kim Blanck, Alex Gibson, Justin Gregory Lopez, J.D. Mollison, Isabel Santiago, Margo Seibert and Kuhoo Verma. We don’t know all that much about their characters, but we know enough to see ourselves and the people around us in them, and if it feels like they are working to be better and do better, so can we. Somehow, through the magic of experiencing something profound together, the octet expands to include the audience.

In the hours since I left Berkeley Rep, the show has continued to vibrate in me, and I haven’t interacted with a screen without thinking about it and about how ill equipped we have been to keep up with the rush of technological advances and all that entails (and the effect on our brains and our attention spans and our relationships with others). I can’t sing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel a very strong urge to return to that community room as one of the Friends of Saul.

Octet is just astonishing. It is one of those theater experiences that makes good on the promise of the art form – the kind of experience that keeps you going to show after show after show because you know this kind of transcendence is possible every time you step into a theater.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dave Malloy’s Octet continues through May 29 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$159, subject to change. Visit berkeleyrep.org or call 510-647-2949.

Love chills in Berkeley Rep’s sizzling Wintertime

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The cast of Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (from left) Carmen Berkeley (Ariel), Sharon Lockwood (Hilda), Lorri Holt (Bertha), James Carpenter (Frank), Thomas Jay Ryan (Francois), Jomar Tagatac (Bob), and Micah Peoples (Jonathan). Below: (from left) Nora el Samahy (Maria), David Ryan Smith (Edmund), Micah Peoples (Jonathan), James Carpenter (Frank), and Thomas Jay Ryan (Francois). Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


Oh, the ragged, jagged, chilly, burning season that is Wintertime, the complicated, beautiful, messy play that heralds the live-on-stage return of Berkeley Repertory Theatre after a 20-month pandemic hiatus.

In so many ways, this is the perfect play to bring back this beloved company. First of all, the play itself, by Charles L. Mee is a chaotic, poetic, operatic farce/drama about lovers, friends and family members who have taken each other for granted for too long. What could be an idyllic post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s few days at a snow-covered country home turns into a rage-filled, poignant and occasionally hilarious explosion – like a snow globe has been smashed, and amid the dripping snow bits and wreckage and broken glass, there are humans struggling to find shards of hope, love and forgiveness.

Mee is a Berkeley Rep favorite, with his Big Love and Fête de la Nuit being two highlights of the theater’s production history. Both of those shows were directed by Berkeley Rep’s former associate artistic director, Les Waters, who also directs Wintertime. There’s likely not a director around who can more effectively bring out the raw humanity and sheer beauty in Mee’s fascinating collage of a script.

Then there’s the cast, which includes some of the Bay Area faces you would most wish to see after having been banished from the theater for a year and a half. Most poignantly, James Carpenter is Frank, a married man whose wife holds a prominent place in his heart and his life even though he’s mostly with his lover, Edmund (David Ryan Smith). This is a role Carpenter played 18 years ago at the now-departed San Jose Repertory Theatre, and if he was good then (he was), he’s magnificent now. As someone who has been expected to be solid all his life, Frank is fragile and so very sad. Contemplating the relationship with his wife, Maria (Nora el Samahy), Frank says when he wakes in the morning, “I can’t decide whether I most want to hurt you or give you something.”

Other local stalwarts in the cast include the great Sharon Lockwood and Lorri Holt as Hilda and Bertha, the interfering couple next door, and the gorgeous stage is designed by Annie Smart, whose set brings the winter woods indoors by hanging dozens of silver tinsel garlands from the rafters and gives us one window through which we see a never-ending snowfall. The winter light comes from designer Russell H. Champa, and it’s all appropriately cold until tempers flare and we get flashes of red and changing hints of color around door and window frames.

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The humans within this wintry arena speak in poetic arias like characters out of Shakespeare or Chekhov who behave like the only thing that matters is themselves and their feelings. This means Act One of this 2 1/2-hour play is a near-constant eruption of jealousy, betrayal and hurt. The act’s final scenes offer two showstoppers: one involves a much-slammed red door that becomes the centerpiece of a wounded ego/broken heart ballet and the other turns the stage into the physical embodiment of all those emotions with the kind of mess you don’t envy the stagehands having to clean up.

Through it all, Jake Rodriguez’s sound design keeps pumping loud, heavy music full of voice and orchestra. There are some lighter moments – Silk Sonic makes a welcome audio appearance – and Act Two, with mortality leveling out some of the egos and tormented love stories, features some emotional depth that brings young love back to earth and gives older love reason to hope. And the entire cast ends up dancing around in beautiful underwear (costumes by Anna Oliver because sometimes joy mixed with loud music, dancing and underwear is absolutely necessary.

The marvelous cast, under Waters’ astute, no-nonsense direction, also includes Thomas Jay Ryan as a French lover who (maybe) sees his ribald life a little differently by play’s end, the hilarious but deadpan Jomar Tagatac as a delivery guy/minister who brightens every scene he graces and Carmen Berkeley and Micha Peoples as the young lovers whose shallow sense of the romantic evolves into something much different.

Mee’s dialogue can soar, it can annoy and it can dazzle. He cares about his characters’ dreams and he has compassion for their abundant faults. Then there’s the odd line that makes you take a mental note to write into the script of your actual life: “You were born grouchy; you live in a snit; and you will die in a huff.”

The trick of Wintertime is that it seems like it will be a cozy, romantic canoodle by a roaring fire, but the reality is that this play is, for all its glorious theatricality, jagged, sharp-edged and emotionally authentic – more bitter than sweet, more vodka rocks than hot cocoa.

The play is a carnival mirror, broken as that mirror may be, and there’s much to see (and feel) in it from the perspective of this strange period in which we find ourselves. During a Viking feast, a toast is offered to the assembled, but it might as well be to all of us as we move slowly out of one terrifying era and into…whatever comes next:

to the end of squabbling
the end of jealousy
the end of suspicions
to the new times of gratitude
for what we have.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime continues through Dec. 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$92 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

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.