Cult of Love casts a spell at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: The cast of Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love includes (from left) Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as Mark Dahl, Dan Hiatt as William “Bill” Dahl, Vero Maynez as Loren Montgomery, and Luisa Sermol as Virginia “Ginny” Dahl. The show continues through March 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. BELOW: Sermol as Ginny and Near-Verbrugghe as Mark. Photos by Kevin Berne

Can we just agree that the phrase “dysfunctional family” is redundant? Dysfunction is part of every family in one way or another, so when we say “family,” we mean a complicated set of relationships knit together with love, resentment, injury, abiding affection and mystery (among a whole smörgåsbord of other items).

Playwright Leslye Headland, probably best known for her film (Bachelorette, Sleeping with Other People) and TV (Russian Doll, the upcoming Star Wars: The Acolyte), goes right for the family jugular in Cult of Love, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. This is like the frozen orange juice concentrate of family plays, and let’s just say there’s very little added water in this metaphorical pitcher.

This is the last part in Headland’s Seven Deadly Plays series, and it’s a fun sin for families: pride. At 100 intermissionless minutes, Cult of Love is equal parts dark comedy, withering drama and musical feast. With a boisterous play like this – 10 characters in a smallish Connecticut house for Christmas Eve – you know that for every big laugh (and there are many) there’s going to be something equally as painful later on (check).

Working with director Trip Cullman, Headland really piles on the issues for the Dahl family. Dad (Dan Hiatt) may be slipping into dementia, or maybe his constant stream of “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” is his way of trying to broker peace among the sibling combatants. Mom (Luisa Sermol) is heavy into denial about pretty much everything, but one family tradition she can get behind is the giant punchbowl full of Manhattans she brings out before the much delayed lamb dinner (and in the Dahl family, because tradition is everything, we pronounce the “b” in lamb because it’s…fun?).

The four grown Dahl children trudge through the snow for the one holiday when they’re all together. Of course they come bearing baggage of infinite variety. Mark (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) left the seminary to become a government lawyer and is now at a crossroads. He no longer considers himself a Christian. His wife, Rachel (Molly Bernard), converted to Christianity to marry him and gain the acceptance of the family. She’s bitter about a lot of things, including that, but her love for her husband, troubled as he may be, is never in doubt.

Diana (Kerstin Anderson) is expecting her second child with husband James (Christopher Lowell), a minister, and while their firstborn sleeps upstairs, they express God’s disapproval of sister Evie (Virginia Kull) and her wife, Pippa (Cass Buggé). They aren’t really gay, Diana, suggests, they’re just missing God from their hearts.

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It’s after 9pm, and everybody’s hungry, but mom won’t serve dinner until Johnny (Christopher Sears) arrives. He’s 10 years sober, but he still makes everyone nervous (except his mother, who doesn’t really accept that he was ever a heroin addict). When he does finally arrive, he’s accompanied by Loren (Vero Maynez), who is also in recovery and – too bad for the Dahls – is something of a shame-free truth teller.

Though the Dahls were a devoutly Christian family, the children have all traveled their own roads in and out of the church. Faith, prophecy and mental illness all get drawn into the religious discussions (and fights), where judgements, insults and intolerance (of all kinds) create a sort of hell storm set amid a cozy house over-decorated for Christmas (the set is by Arnulfo Maldonado and the lights are by Heather Gilbert).

Through it all, though, no matter how many times someone storms upstairs or stomps out of the house and says they’re not coming back, they still come back. The lure of the holiday, the promise of family as an ideal way to give and receive love, the need to reconcile past and present all create a sort of magnetic vortex that makes it almost impossible to escape, no matter how harsh and ugly things get.

And then there’s the music. Though not exactly the Von Trapps, there’s enough music here to need a music director and arranger (Jacinth Greywoode doing stellar work). The Dahls play piano, guitar, fiddle, melodica and any number of percussion instruments, and they love to sing holiday tunes, folk songs and even some more contemporary fare. The music on the piano is a volume called “The Family Songbook,” and as a family, they take music seriously – even the cranky or out-of-sorts family member can be coaxed to sing a line or two. It’s a meaningful source of connection, even amid the fracturing of relationships and the flames of explosions new and old. The music is a safe space.

Director Cullman and his cast achieve a believable level of hilarity and hatred, holiday and harassment as family members talk over, through and beyond one another. Each of us will likely identify strongly with one or another of these characters, and for me it was Rachel, Mark’s wife. She married into the Dahls but is still an outsider. She self-medicates and makes sure her wine glass is rarely empty. She’s not afraid to push back when things get spiky, and, in Bernard’s astute performance, she can be counted on for a good one-liner that’s usually something more than just a laugh.

The entire cast weaves a fascinating family web, but the play does get overwhelmed with so many issues: religion, mental illness, sexuality, addiction/recovery, childhood trauma, science denial and more religion. Pippa, the newest spouse in the family, feels the need to defend her wife but wonders, “How do you protect someone from their own family?” And later, Johnny admits that it took him years to “de-program” from his upbringing, not unlike a cult referenced in the title.

Headland eventually quiets things down enough to allow some sad, thoughtful and deep conversations to happen. Even after all the turmoil, she allows space for beauty and – if you’re feeling hopeful – love to settle in, however fleeting. It’s such a relief, though there’s no escaping the fact that even for the happiest of families (which this is most certainly not), there’s no such thing as a happy ending.

Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love continues through March 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 100 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $22.50-$134 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

A non-traditional Vanity Fair bows at ACT

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The cast of Kate Hamill’s Vanity Fair continuing at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater through May 12. Below: The cast includes (from left) Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Lesser Pitt, Vincent Randazzo as Sir Pitt and Anthony Michael Lopez as Rose Crawley. Photos by Scott Suchman

For their adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair, writer Kate Hamill and director Jessica Stone do a little bit of cheating. Hamill has decided to liven things up by making this a play about a play about a novel. We are in American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, but on stage, we’re told that our actual location is “Strand Musick Hall,” and the opening number tells us that seven actors are going to play all the parts for the next 2 1/2 hours. So we have a play about a play and actors playing actors playing multiple characters from Thackeray’s sprawling novel about two women – one impoverished and aggressive, the other well-heeled and passive – whose friendship begins in private school and extends through abundant highs, lows, triumphs and humiliations.

This approach is both enjoyably energetic and problematic. The theater-within-theater conceit works well to keep the tone light and fresh and funny, especially when the actors are allowed to play across gender or utilize masks or stick puppets to fill out the parade of characters. The attempt to incorporate musical numbers, featuring original pre-recorded music by Jane Shaw, should serve to bump up the energy and underscore the theatrical nature of the storytelling. But because no one in the otherwise wonderful cast seems comfortable with the singing, the musical numbers become something of a burden.

The other problem with the hyper-theatrical storytelling is that when the story or a particular character’s plight turns serious, or just when we might be fully suspending our disbelief and becoming fully immersed in the plot, the theatrical conceit (or a song) jolts us right back to being more of an observer and less of an emotional participant. That’s a shame because the performances grow and deepen in ways that make us want to care more and observe less.

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In those moments, Vanity Fair is utterly captivating, and the same can be said for some of the lighter moments when the caricatures are spot on. The redoubtable Dan Hiatt, long one of the Bay Area’s most reliably wonderful actors, is the de facto narrator (or Manager, as he’s called) to keep things rolling and add spicy commentary here and there. That’s great, but Hiatt is even better when he gets to play extremes, like the dowager Aunt Matilda, whose ill health and vast fortune make her quite appealing to potential heirs, and the creepy, well-connected Lord Steyne (well named), whose charity comes with much too high a price.

Most of the actors play multiple roles save for the two main characters, Becky Sharp, played sharply (naturally) by Rebekah Brockman, and Amelia Sedley, played with warmth by Maribel Martinez. These two lifelong friends/combatants are subjected to the strain of being an ambitious orphan (Becky) and the impermanence of being a wealthy milquetoast. As Becky maneuvers her way up the social ladder (largely thanks to two characters played by the enormously likable Vincent Randazzo), Amelia finds her station sinking. But what is more defining – character or situation? It’s a question that gets asked a lot (there’s a lot of plot), and the answer may be different for each woman. Brockman and Martinez are superb, and the play is at its best when the two of them are together, whether their characters are sharing sisterly affection for hurling deeply felt insults at one another.

Of the supporting players, Anthony Michael Lopez makes the strongest impression as Dobbin, the soldier who has long pined for Amelia, even during her marriage to the dastardly George (a wily Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) whose faults elude her. Lopez makes Dobbin’s affection so potent it threatens to become the dominant romance, when that title belongs to Becky and her own soldier, Rawdon (a dashing, conniving Adam Magill), who understands what Becky must do to keep their tenuous lifestyle going…until he doesn’t.

Through the vicissitudes of 19th-century life in the court of King George, battles against Napoleon and tumultuous relationships with unreliable men, Becky and Amelia make their choices and suffer (mostly) the consequences, even as they keep on, as they say, keeping on. They manage to do what they can to live the lives they have long imagined for themselves, whether of the nasty or virtuous variety. When this production slows down long enough, we begin to feel the weight of that perseverance, but then we move quickly on, leaving this boisterous Vanity Fair to revel in its appealing surfaces rather than in something more substantive.

Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray continues through May 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$130 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Party on, Pinter! ACT throws a Birthday bash

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Stanley (Firdous Bamji) plays his new drum as Meg (Judith Ivey) listens with glee in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, an American Conservatory Theater production at the Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne

There’s a lot to love about American Conservatory Theater’s The Birthday Party, a funny, slightly freaky Harold Pinter. The cast is uniformly strong, director Carey Perloff (essaying her last directorial effort as ACT’s artistic director) deftly balances the unease and the humor.

But for me, the joy, the electrical charge, the bright light of the production is Judith Ivey. She’s slightly daffy as Meg, who runs a boarding house with her laconic husband (Dan Hiatt), but she comes to life in the presence of her sole boarder (Firdous Bamji), with whom she has a flirtatious/motherly relationship. She’s also the life of a birthday party that shouldn’t be happening. And she’s not someone you want making your breakfast.

Ivey is such an absolute delight she elevates the entire production.

I reviewed The Birthday Party for Here’s an excerpt.

The play’s sense of imminent threat gives it (sadly) a timeless feeling. Ball’s set and Candice Donnelly’s prosaic costumes feel neither current nor specifically dated. This is a world of contrasts, and Perloff’s finely tuned production makes the most of this. There’s a feeling of the past built into the walls of the boarding house (heightened by Robert Hand’s stark lighting design), and yet everything feels of the moment, a big laugh will be followed by a chill, and a goofy interplay will suddenly turn threatening and deeply serious.

Read the full review here.

Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party continues through Feb. 4 at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

ACT crowns a glorious King Charles III

King Charles III (Robert Joy, right) is visited by a ghost (Chiara Motley) in Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater through Oct. 9. Below: Joy’s King Charles III tells Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen) about his meeting with the House of Commons. Photos by Kevin Berne

What will happen when Queen Elizabeth, Great Britain’s longest reigning queen, leaves the throne? In a hefty helping of royal speculation, playwright Mike Bartlett takes on that question, but does so by way of Shakespeare with a soupçon of Notting Hill.

The result is King Charles III a new history play that traffics in family drama, parliamentary procedure, the liberties of the fourth estate and everything we think we know about Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and Harry. There’s sensation and substance, comedy and some genuine emotion mixed in with provocative observations on the relevance of the monarchy in the 21st century.

This American Conservatory Theater season opener is a co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it heads next, and Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, where it opens shortly after the presidential inauguration, and it’s thrilling to be part of a history play (imagined history, but still) in which we feel invested, well, invested to the level of our personal Anglophilia (my level, for instance, begins with collecting coffee table books about Princess Diana at age 13 and just tea-and-crumpeting on from there).

It’s also thrilling to hear Bartlett’s attempt at being a modern Shakespeare come so completely to life. His ambitious script comprises blank verse meted out in iambic pentameter, and while you’re aware of the language being rather vaulted or twisted into the occasional Shakespearean turn of phrase and in the rhymed couplets that end scenes, there’s a rhythmic realism that makes this feel like something nestled comfortably in between a kitchen sink family drama and King Henry VI, Part 2. If we’ve learned anything from Shakespeare, it’s that royals should not speak like the rest of us, especially when occupying a stage and behaving as if they’re the most important beings on the Plantagenet, sorry, planet.


King Charles III is nothing if not juicy. Who doesn’t love seeing horsey Camilla Parker-Bowles slap a royal child or Prince Harry clubbing with his coke-snorting friends? Even as those of us who devour all things royal revel in the mon-arcana of it all, Bartlett and director David Muse take these proceedings veddy, veddy seriously, as they should. The Queen is dead, after all, and Charles, so long in waiting and with his own distinct take on what role the monarchy should play, finally seizes his moment.

Robert Joy plays Charles as something of a fascinating wily clown. He does that huffing and puffing Charles thing, but this observant man is an experienced statesman with a strong conscience and little concern for what his subjects think of him. He’s got a tremendous advocate/body guard in Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen, and it’s clear he adores his children and grandchildren (George and Charlotte are mentioned but, alas, never seen). During his first ceremonial meeting with the Prime Minister (Ian Merrill Peakes, a bill that has gone through Parliament restricting the rights of the press requires his ascent (aka signature). Charles feels the bill goes too far in impinging on free speech, so he refuses to sign it, thus setting of a remarkable series of events that throws England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into quite a tizzy. The great experiment in parliamentary constitutional monarchy goes incredibly awry when a king ascends who actually wants to wield his power in what he considers the best interest of his loyal royal subjects.

While Charles plays push me pull you with everyone in Westminster, William (Christopher McLinden) and Kate (Allison Jean White) are reveling in being the nation’s darlings and Harry (Harry Smith) is tormented by being the clown prince in his heir-to-the-throne brother’s nobel shadow. To make himself feel better, he goes clubbing with his friends (shades of Prince Hal), but instead of hooking up with Falstaff, he meets an art student named Jessica (Michelle Beck) and they begin the Notting Hill-meets-Love Actually portion of the play as a commoner begins a relationship with terribly famous person.

Traces of Hamlet (Princess Diana makes an interesting cameo) bump up against Macbethian ambition and King Learish child vs. father showdowns, and it all transpires within the walls of Daniel Ostling’s oppressive (and beautifully detailed) set, which feels a lot like Westminster Abbey, where centuries of history hang in the air and are literally buried in the ground beneath. Lap Chi Chu’s lights gracefully transform the gothic space into various Buckingham Palace rooms, a London disco, the scene of public rebellion and, of course, the Abbey itself.

In the end, what makes King Charles III more than just gussied up royal gossip gleefully sifted through an effective Shakespearean filter is that the characters actually emerge as interesting people. In William you can see his father’s intelligence and his mother’s spark. In Harry you see royal duty battling personal freedom and in Kate, perhaps the most intriguing character here, you see someone smart enough to know how the monarchy can survive and thrive and who possesses all the charm and skills to ensure that will happen.

The play’s two hours and 40 minutes doesn’t exactly whiz past, but there’s never a dull moment, and it’s ending is really just the beginning. With any luck, the BBC will pick it up for an eight-part series. Who needs Downton Abbey when you can have Buckingham Palace?

Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III continues through Oct. 9 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Trekking gently through O’Neill’s nostalgic Wilderness

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Sid Davis (Dan Hiatt, pictured in orange suit) indulges the Miller family with food gags at the dinner table in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, at ACT’s Geary Theater through Nov. 8. Below: Left to right) Lily Miller (Margo Hall), Mildred Miller (Christina Liang) and Arthur Miller (Michael McIntire) do what the Millers do: hang out in the living room. Photos by Kevin Berne

Can we agree that Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! is warm and wonderful…and weird? The sepia-tinted 1933 play is a rare light work from tragedian O’Neill, though its fantasy elements – the family O’Neill wished he had growing up rather than the more nightmarish version he depicted in Long Day’s Journey Into Night – lend it a rather sad underpinning.

It’s almost as if O’Neill strayed into Kaufman and Hart territory long enough to write the four-act play about a loving family dealing lovingly with each other and their minor crises but couldn’t quite escape the shadows long enough to completely avoid the shadows of alcoholism and devastating heartbreak.

So what feels like the prototype sitcom, all gentle rebellion, lessons learned and a fortifying hug, sends roots into the cultural ground, which decades later sprouts variations like “Family Ties” and “The Brady Bunch.” Can we really credit O’Neill for the story of a man named Brady who was busy with three boys of his own? Maybe, maybe not, but there is some shared DNA, especially in how utterly false but how utterly delightful it all feels.

American Conservatory Theater’s production of Ah, Wilderness! is a lively, lovely way to spend a little more than 2 1/2 hours in a theater. Nine of the 14 members of the cast are still students in ACT’s Master of Fine Arts Program (Class of 2016), are all solid, and it’s exciting to see them working on the big stage, especially Thomas Stagnitta as budding rebel socialist literary hound Richard Miller, who’s like a bolt of electricity on stage – believably young, believably brilliant, endearingly caught up in himself and the drama of his romance with the girl next door.

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There is some real-life drama attached to this production, which was supposed to have been directed by ACT Associate Artistic Director Mark Rucker. His untimely death in August was a devastating loss to the theater community, but, as they say, the show must go on. ACT has dedicated the entire season to his memory, and Casey Stangl, who last worked with ACT on the inaugural production at the Strand Theater, Love and Information in June.

The nostalgic tone of Stangl’s production comes through in a gauzy, dreamlike set by Ralph Funicello that renders the Connecticut home of the Miller family (as well as a seedy bar and a moon-swept beach) in the dreamy impressionism of see-through walls and only hints of reality. This is where the Millers fuss and fret. Dad (Anthony Fusco) runs the town newspaper, and he’s wise (like Mike Brady wise). Mom (Rachel Ticotin) is a fussbudget with a big heart. Uncle Sid (Dan Hiatt) is a lovable but self-loathing lush and spinster Aunt Lily (Margo Hall) had her heart broken by Uncle Sid years ago and keeps forgiving him and keeps putting her heart out there to be broken.

There are assorted other Millers – little Tommy (Brandon Francis Osborne), daughter Mildred (Christina Liang) and pretentious Yalie older brother Arthur (Michael McIntire) – but they don’t have a whole lot to do but be kid-like. Arthur gets to sing (off stage) some lovely turn-of-the-century tunes, but otherwise they come across as pretty well-adjusted young people and, frankly, aren’t that interesting.

Richard gets all the complication (and the bulk of the parental attention). He reads Wilde and Ibsen and Shaw and the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, so he’s just overflowing with pithy quotes and potent ideas. He’s a big boy mentally and a little boy emotionally, and it’s fun to watch those two parts of him battle, especially when it comes to standing up to his dad or nervously waiting to be grounded by him.

The laughs in Ah, Wilderness are pretty gentle, and the real heat from this production comes from watching pros like Fusco, Hiatt and Hall really work to make something emotionally real happen on stage. The final burst of romance feels pretty by the numbers – that’s when the show feels most like a familiar TV show – but there’s also some sweetness that could turn cloying if the play didn’t end shortly thereafter.

Modern viewers might keep waiting for the shoe to drop – for disaster to strike, for real life to actually intervene, for the cynicism or irony we expect from our art to finally infiltrate. But none of that happens. Everybody’s happy (or reasonably not too sad), and you finally have to say, well good for them.

Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! continues in an American Conservatory Theater production through Nov. 8 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Fractured tales confound in ACT’s Love and Information

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Cindy Goldfield (left) and Dominique Salerno star in Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a collection of 57 scenes that challenge audiences to consider the fateful, intimate dance between the virtual and the real, and the ways we filter data in the Information Age. Below:Joel Bernard, Salerno and Christina Liang in a short scene of love, information or both. Photos by Kevin Berne

Confounding and captivating in equal measure, American Conservatory Theater’s debut production in the newly renovated Strand Theater certainly lives up to its title. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information sounds like a generic title for just about anything in our short-attention-span world, on or off line, and that seems to be part of the point.

More like a curated collection of scenes and short films than an actual play, Love and Information breaks down into 57 scenes (like Heinz, 57 varieties) for a total running time about about 100 minutes. There are 12 actors deftly assaying hundreds of characters (or sketches of characters, really), and the whole thing is slickly, fluidly directed by Casey Stangl.

Some scenes are more memorable than others – a man attempting to share mnemonic games with a woman is delightfully surreal (“the hedgehog is in the microwave”); a brother and sister redefine their relationship in a shocking way; a text battle between wife and philandering husband takes place under the surface of polite dinner conversation; a young woman describes to a friend what it’s like growing up unable to feel any pain at all; a grandmother attempts to teach a grandchild about fear; a man who experiments on chick brains regales a date with tales of decapitation and brain slicing. And the list does go on.

About half the scenes feel like they’re part of a bigger, more interesting play. The other half feels like filler.

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It’s all very proficiently done, and Stangl, working with scenic designer Robert Brill, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu and projection designer Micah J. Stieglitz show off the Strand beautifully. The sound, the sight lines, the vibrancy of the room itself – it’s all thrilling and makes for an ideal second ACT stage.

What I didn’t get from the play was satisfaction. There isn’t much connective tissue here, and that seems to be part of the point. We’re fragmented, we’re chaotic, we’re filtered. Technology has increased our options for communications but has done the quality of communication no favors. That comes through here, but what I missed (after hitting the wall at about the one-hour mark) is that moment when it all comes together, when the fragments coalesce into something bigger and more meaningful. And though the end incorporates an appealing slice of Electric Light Orchestra, I never felt the whole became more than the sum of its attractive, often intriguing parts.

Maybe that’s what Churchill is after here: there is no sum game anymore. It’s all just parts. Maybe so. But as long as those parts keep coming on the stage of the Strand, I’m happy. San Francisco’s newest theater should be its most active and alive for many years to come.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Love and Information director Casey Stengl about her work on the play for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information continues through Aug. 9 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Breakfast of champions? Aurora chills with Mugabe

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Dr. Peric (Dan Hiatt, center) looks to make an exit from his breakfast meeting with Robert Mugabe (L. Peter Callender, left) as presidential bodyguard Gabriel (Adrian Roberts) stands watch in Aurora Theatre Company’s Breakfast with Mugabe. Below: Hiatt’s Dr. Peric has a run in with Mrs. Mugabe (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). Photos by David Allen

I can’t imagine the choosing of a tie or the pouring of orange juice has ever been more sinister as it is in Fraser Grace’s Breakfast with Mugabe, now on stage at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company.

One of the delights of the Aurora has always been its intimacy. The audience sits on three sides of the stage, and everyone feels part of everything happening on stage. Strictly from a theatrical point of view, that allows us tremendous access to every detail of the performance and allows us into the nuance of a beautifully written script.

That intimacy is all well and good…unless you’re dealing with a monster. And that’s essentially what we hve in Mugabe, making its West Coast debut after hit runs with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in New York. It’s not just Mugabe (L. Peter Callender), the longtime president of Zimbabwe, who’s the monster. He is, perhaps, suffering from acute psychological issues, but his power structure is firmly in place and making itself known through his bodyguard, Gabriel (Adrian Roberts), also an intelligence agent, and Mugabe’s much younger second wife, Grace (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), an ominous presence dressed up in elegance.

Our entrance into Mugabe’s world circa 2001 is through Dr. Andrew Peric (Dan Hiatt), a psychiatrist summoned to the State House in Harare. A white native of the country, Peric attempts to keep control of the situation from the start and remain as professional as possible, but it soon becomes clear that the control he usually requires with his patients won’t be happening here.

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What is so interesting about Grace’s play is that he takes his cue from history – it is said that Mugabe was indeed treated by a white psychiatrist – but rather than creating a documentary-like drama, he taps into his inner Shakespeare and gives history a Macbeth-ian, Richard III-ian spin. This Mugabe is seeing ghosts – literally. He’s haunted by an “ngozi” or the aggressive spirit of a restless soul, and it’s not some nameless spirit either. It’s Josiah Tongogara, a commander of the ZANLA guerrilla army whose death in a car crash (cause unknown) paved the way for Mugabe to become prime minister.

The psychiatrists’ job is to treat Mugabe and get to the source of his anxiety and his visions (hallucinations?). It’s game of psychological cat and mouse, though, as Mugabe (and his team) are toying with the doctor as well and his long-held family estate that may or may not be taken over by soldiers.

Director Jon Tracy keeps the action taut, though there are dull spots in Grace’s script. His lead actors, Callender and Hiatt, are each at the top of their considerable game, which is saying something. They know their Shakespeare and they know naturalism, so the balance they create is just about perfect for this 100-minute show down.

Confined within the elegance of the presidential home (set design by Nina Ball), the story grows darker and darker, and the stakes grow higher. Tracy, working with video designer Micah Stieglitz, brings the world into the palace via fuzzy TV news montages, flashes of headlines and, most effectively, in live video surveillance of Dr. Peric. If it feels like the play doesn’t know where or how to end, just wait. Grace’s conclusion is absolutely chilling. Clearly you don’t have breakfast with Mugabe. He has you for breakfast.

Fraser Grace’s Breakfast With Mugabe continues an extended run through Dec. 20 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

To laugh or not to laugh: that’s the question in Wittenberg

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Hamlet (Jeremy Kahn, center) is torn between Faustus (Michael Stevenson, left) and Martin Luther (Dan Hiatt) in David Davalos’ Wittenberg at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Elizabeth Carter (center) is Faustus’ beloved, Helen, who takes a shine to Hamlet during a tennis match. Photo by David Allen

You don’t have to have a college degree to enjoy David Davalos’ Wittenberg a the Aurora Theatre Company, but it sure will help.

If 16th-century academia is your thing, then you probably already know all about Wittenberg, the German university made famous as the seat of higher learning from which young Prince Hamlet of Denmark returned home after his father’s murder.

Wittenberg also happens to be where Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, theologian and lecturer, nailed his 95 provocative thoughts on a church door and sparked the Protestant Reformation. And, to keep things interesting, the hallowed university happens to be where Christopher Marlowe’s fictional Dr. Faustus practiced his dark arts.

With such a confluence of fictional and factual famous folk, it’s surprising that it was only in 2008 that a playwright smart enough to put it all together and create a campus comedy with serious underpinnings.

There’s no question that Davalos’ Wittenberg makes for good comedy – at times it’s split-your-tights funny – but this clever playwright is after something more than just laughs. OK, so every Animal House-type college stereotype comes into play at some point. In fact John Faustus, a cool philosophy prof, also performs on his lute down at the Bunghole. It’s a two-stein minimum and all the tripe you can eat. Ba dum bum.

Or when Martin Luther is beginning his theology seminar, he announces that if you’re in league with devil, Faustus’ philosophy seminar is just down the hall. In Room 2B no less.

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But Davalos has tucked quite a serious existential debate right behind the laugh lines (the play’s subtitle is “A Tragical-Comical-Historical in Two Acts”). Luther and Faustus are colleagues, friends even, but they are radically opposed in their beliefs. Luther is a company man, or, more to the point, a Church man. Anything the big Church says, goes, except that he has his doubts and questions and problems with the way Pope Leo is running things from Rome. And, by the way, what’s up with Purgatory? Still, he’s all about faith and doctrine.

Faustus on the other hand, is all about independent (but rigorous) thought, a free spirit and embracing the mystery of life. He really digs that Copernicus has recently reported that the Earth is not the center of the universe as previously thought but rather the little blue planet revolves around the sun.

“Save your soul, John,” Martin says. “Free your mind, Martin,” John retorts.

Under the direction of Josh Costello, Act 1 of this two-plus-hour production gets off to a bold start, skirts a few dry patches, and then rolls confidently to its conclusion in Act 2. There’s not much plot to speak of unless you know what’s coming for each of the three famous dudes (Martin Luther’s Theses, Faustus’ deal with the devil and Hamlet’s bloody homecoming), but Davalos keeps things interesting in Act 2 with a lively tennis match (Hamlet vs. a cranky Laertes) and a hilarious, expertly choreographed sex scene spliced with a sermon by Martin Luther.

Dan Hiatt as Martin Luther all but steals the show because his performance is so nuanced. This Martin Luther is no stick in the mud – he’s firm but thoughtful, and Hiatt gives the man depth of soul that makes you feel his every word. Michael Stevenson as Faustus is like a rock star professor but a really smart one who knows his way around a good punch line.

And Jeremy Kahn as Hamlet is suitably tortured (of course the moody Dane hasn’t yet declared a major) by the grudge match Faustus and Luther are fighting over his soul. When Hamlet feels like he’s losing his mind, it’s pretty easy to see why that might be the case.

Adding some fun to the mix of merry men is Elizabeth Carter in a number of roles, including Helen, Faustus’ love. She’s a free and spirited woman, way ahead of her time and unwilling to forgo the freedom that John so prizes, even if it means she can’t become his wife.

Here, history and comedy collide with fact and fiction, with poetry and science mashed in for good measure, making Wittenberg, the university and the play, a beguiling spot for some higher learning.

David Davalos’ Wittenberg continues an extended run through May 11 at the Aurora Theatre, 2018 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Orinda hills, young lovers captivate in Cal Shakes’ Romeo and Juliet


Rebekah Brockman is Juliet and Dan Clegg is Romeo in California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Shana Cooper. Below: Brockman and Clegg infuse new life into the classic balcony scene. Photos by Kevin Berne

What’s immediately striking about California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, the second show of the season, is the apparent absence of a set. When the company last dipped into this romantic Shakespearean tragedy (in 2009 – read the review here), director Jonathan Moscone erected an enormous, cement-looking wall scrawled with graffiti to evoke the mean streets of Verona. For this production, director Shana Cooper and designer Daniel Ostling have opted for minimalism to glorious effect.

Ostling has built no walls, only platforms of rough wood, leaving the full beauty of the gold and green Orinda hills to dominate the sightline until the sun sets and Lap Chi Chu’s lights help give the open space on stage some architectural form (the columns of light stretching into the sky to convey a tomb are especially, eerily effective). With so much space to fill, you’d think this cast – also minimalist with only seven actors playing all the roles – might have trouble filling it, but that turns out not to be the case. Somehow the epic feel of the landscape only trains more attention on the flawed, flailing, ferociously romantic people at the heart of this oft-told tale.

Director Cooper has done some heavy trimming of the text so this is a concentrated version of the story, which is at its best in the ramp up to the inevitable tragedy. Dan Clegg as Romeo and Rebekah Brockman as Juliet have charm and chemistry, and it’s not at all unappealing to see them kiss (and kiss…and kiss). Their balcony scene is a real charmer largely because they’re so good at conveying that initial burst of intense joy that comes from young love. Clegg’s happy dance is awfully endearing.

But it’s Brockman’s Juliet who is a revelation in this production. It’s not just that she seems appropriately young (Juliet is not yet 14, after all). She’s a bit of a spoiled rich girl, but even more than that, she’s a force of personality, intelligence and staggering appeal. This is very much Juliet’s story, although Clegg makes it easy to see why she might become so captivated by her young suitor.


With any R&J, a director gets a chance to shine staging fights between Montagues and Capulets and dances (at the Capulets’ masked ball). The fights are one-on-one (minus the larger ensemble cast to create a brawl) and stylized in a powerful way by Dave Maier that makes full use of sound effects in the sound design by Paul James Prendergast, who also provides a hip, club-ready underscoring (although the DJ station off to the side of the stage seems phony and superfluous, as does the piano off to the other side). The deadly duels between Mercutio (Joseph J. Parks, who in a happier scene moons the audience) and Tybalt (Nick Gabriel) and then between Tybalt and Clegg’s Romeo pack a visceral punch – literally. And the dancing, courtesy of Erika Chong Shuch, is bold and muscular, fun yet powerful. Juliet even has a dance solo as she gears up to her sudden wedding that conveys as much anxious, love-addled joy as a monologue.

Cooper’s cast, which also includes Arwen Anderson (as Benvolio and Lady Capulet), Dan Hiatt (as Lord Capulet and Friar Laurence, the same role he played four years ago) and Domenique Lozano (as Juliet’s Nurse), ranks high on the clarity scale. Even with the actors shifting into different roles (with only minor alterations to Christine Crook’s modern-dress costumes), there’s a sharpness to the storytelling that makes it immediate and emotionally acute. Only at the end, in the beautifully rendered tomb, do the emotions fail to go as deep as they might. The death of the young people seems to have no effect on the battle between their families, thus rendering the tragedy even more tragic than usual.



California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet continues through July 28 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit Free BART shuttle runs between Orinda BART and the theater.

A Night to remember as Cal Shakes opens season

American Night 1

Dena Martinez (far left) as Sacajawea, Sharon Lockwood (left) as William Clark, Dan Hiatt (center) as Meriwether Lewis and Sean San José as Juan José in California Shakespeare Theater’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José by Richard Montoya, directed by Jonathan Moscone. Below: (from left) Tyee Tilghman as Ben Pettus, Margo Hall as Viola Pettus, San José and Martinez. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Spring and early summer 2013 may well be remembered as the Great Montoya Surge.

In April, Richard Montoya – one third of the legendary San Francisco-born comedy trio Culture Clash – premiered a play with Campo Santo called The River (read the review here), and it was funny and brash and heartfelt and messy and pretty wonderful. It had to do with, among other things, death and immigration, and it made you crave more Montoya work.

We didn’t have to wait long. Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José opened the California Shakespeare Theater season Saturday on a night so warm and beautiful under the stars in Orinda you wonder why every play can’t be done outdoors (how quickly we forget those freezing cold, windy, foggy nights when nary a star is visible). The play, developed with Culture Clash and Jo Bonney (who has directed earlier productions of the play, including its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the original commissioner of the work), is wild, messy, funny, irreverent and heartfelt. It’s about immigration (not so much about death) and about the strength of a nation built on and still thriving from the hard work of its diverse citizenry, most of whom are or descend directly from immigrants.

Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone attempts to contain Montoya’s manic energy in a 105-minute production that crams in so many references, both historical and pop-cultural, that it’s impossible to appreciate them all. There’s not a sour note in Moscone’s excellent cast, which is full of actors that seem to be loving the comic whirlwind, which has, among other personages, Sacajawea in braces and headgear, Lewis and Clark as egotistical buffoons, Celia Cruz (for no apparent reason), Neil Diamond, Teddy Roosevelt, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mormon missionaries and Abraham Lincoln (using his Academy Award as a hand weight, naturally).

What keeps it all centered is the performance of Sean San José as Juan José, a recent Mexican immigrant who, after fighting corrupting influences on the Mexican police force, leaves his wife and infant son to try for a better, less morally compromising life across the border. He has his green card but needs to spend the night studying up before his citizenship test in the morning. Before he can delve too deeply into questions like, “Name the original 13 colonies,” he falls asleep. And the ensuing dream/warped history pageant is the bulk of the play.

American Night 2

San José is Dorothy in this wild American Oz, with episodes that range from downright silly (he uses dead rabbits as nunchucks) to the incredibly sweet. During a stay in West Texas, he encounters the Ku Klux Klan (Dan Hiatt as a local judge), an African-American couple saving infants’ lives during the flu epidemic of 1918 (Margot Hall and Tyee Tilghman as Viola and Benjamin Pettus) as well as some of his ancestors. His encounter with Jackie Robinson (Tilghman again) is also a rare quiet moment that is quite moving, as is a stop at a radio station in the Manzanar WWII internment camp, where Sharon Lockwood is a ferocious teacher of the young Japanese detainees and Todd Nakagawa is an ultra-cool teen feeling deep conflict about his country, his heritage and the war.

Two MVPs in this game cast are Brian Rivera in a number of roles, including Juan José the First, and Richard Ruiz in drag and out (and especially as a zaftig Neil Diamond belting out a re-written “America”), are hilarious and ferocious in equal measure – like they’re directly channeling that Culture Clash electricity.

Set designer Erik Flatmo and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau keep things simple to keep up with the fast pace and the hairpin turns, but special shout out to costumer Marin Schnellinger for adding a whole lot of zest and humor with his colorful creations.

Before Juan can depart his dream world, he has to suffer through a contentious town hall meeting in which every viewpoint is spewed and he’s reminded that he’s about to “pledge allegiance to a country that doesn’t want him.” We get a sweet “Tonight You Belong to Me” on the ukulele from Dena Martinez and an ending that is more poignant than you might expect from such a zany history lesson. The whole vibe of the show feels a lot like mature Culture Clash (no surprise there) but also like a San Francisco Mime Troupe show when that company was at its best. There are strange elements here, like a narrator who only appears to introduce the flu epidemic scene, and a Japanese game show sequence toward the end of the show (featuring a funny Nakagawa and Lockwood) is probably one more layer of zany the show doesn’t need.

But this American Night – especially on a gorgeous Northern California night – is historically hilarious and the most entertaining way imaginable to learn the three branches of American government (and the original 13 colonies).



Richard Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José continues in a California Shakespeare Theater production through June 23 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit