Marin’s Godot and the impression we exist

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Mark Bedard (left) is Vladimir and Mark Anderson Phillips is Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, now at Marin Theatre Company. Below: James Carpenter (left) as Pozzo and Ben Johnson as Lucky complicate the barren landscape. Photos by Kevin Berne

I suspect Samuel Beckett knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote Waiting for Godot and left more questions unanswered than answered. The less specific you are, the more your audience members project their own business onto the characters and their situation.

The world Beckett creates could be the depressed past or the post-apocalyptic future. He could be writing about God and religion or about the hell of human existence. His main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, could be clowns or tragic figures or both. It’s all up for discussion, open for interpretation. Everything is symbolic or nothing is symbolic and just is what it is and the population has increased. And that’s the genius of Beckett and the joy of his most famous play.

The first time you experience Godot is often the best (if you’re fortunate enough to see a solid production). My first time – and to consider this a theatrical deflowering is not at all inappropriate – was in the early ’90s on a stage in the Central YMCA in San Francisco’s skeevy Tenderloin neighborhood. Dennis Moyer was directing for Fine Arts Repertory Theatre, and it starred John Robb and Joe Bellan in the leads, with a mind-blowingly brilliant Dan Hiatt as Lucky. This production demonstrated to me just how transcendent Beckett could be: funny and sad at the same time, crude and enlightened, bleak and hopeful. So many contradictions in one theatrical experience and yet so completely entertaining and moving.

That production is my high-water mark for Godot (although I love the original cast recording with Burt Lahr as Estragon and E.G. Marshall as Vladimir: click here to download on Amazon for a mere $3.56). I’ve seen productions since that I liked, but not one I loved as much as the first time.

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But the current production at Marin Theatre Company directed by Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis comes pretty close. Mark Anderson Phillips as Estragon and Mark Bedard as Vladimir are, in a word, adorable. Should these crusty characters be adorable? Why not? Both of them at various times reminded me of dogs (and I noticed for the first time just how many canine references there are in the play), and sometimes Phillips even sounds like Scooby-Doo. Their clowning is inspired, but it’s all done with heart. I really liked these guys, who affectionately call each other Gogo and Didi, and that affection only magnifies their plight.

And just what is their plight? Living life is the short answer. Killing time. Waiting for whatever or whoever it is with the power to suddenly make their lives better, more interesting or somehow more meaningful. Vladimir, who tends to be more of an optimist than Estragon, says about life: “We wait. We are bored. No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it…In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!”

Much of Godot is about staving off boredom or at least creating the illusion of activity or some kind of momentum through the world. Waiting is, after all, an activity, and an exhausting one at that. It can even be exhausting just to watch men waiting, although in the hands of talented actors like the ones on the MTC stage, it’s also entertaining.

Phillips and Bedard make a captivating tragicomic duo. There’s real chemistry between them, and it’s easy to see why, even though they talk constantly of separating, they can never part. In this day and age, you could see how Didi and Gogo might be poster children for same-sex marriage minus the sex (which is what makes it marriage, ba dum bum). They’re partners in the futility, frustrations and occasional fun of life, and we root for them, not necessarily to succeed, which seems a tall order, but at least to rise above the misery and tedium from time to time. There are little details in their performances that are priceless, like Bedard’s penguin-like shuffle and the way Phillips keeps buttoning and unbuttoning a top button on his coat even though there is no button.

When James Carpenter and Ben Johnson arrive as Pozzo, a master, and Lucky, a slave, respectively. The play takes a decidedly darker turn. Both Carpenter and Johnson are in fright makeup. Carpenter looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie (the red hair is a nice touch) and Johnson looks like a member of the Addams Family.

But the show belongs to Phillips and Bedard, two lovably sad guys being human under bleak but not impossible circumstances. I do find myself wondering, though, where their clothes and bowler hats came from, where they shower (if they do) and how they subsist on a diet of turnips, carrots and black radishes. Clearly, they live in a world that still puts a lot of faith in the Bible (there are lots of references), and down the road there’s apparently some sort of fair where Pozzo was going to sell Lucky but ends up blinded (and Lucky is rendered mute). It’s a strange in-between world Beckett has created, a time-bending absurdist purgatory built for entertainment and, if you’re in the frame of mind, enlightenment. The simple but expert design certainly helps (clean, bright lighting by York Kennedy, barren tree and rock landscape by set designer Liliana Duque Pineiro, tattered suits by costumer Maggie Whitaker).

Seeing Godot in 2013, I couldn’t help thinking about a comment a friend made recently: “Don’t worry about me. I’ll have my iPhone with me, and when you have an iPhone, you always have a friend.” Perhaps we should start calling our smart phones and tablets Didi or Gogo. They’re our newest defense against boredom, our electronic shield from the great void of simply existing and a powerful illusion that we’re actually connected to other people and a way to masque the howling of existential angst.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot continues through Feb. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

2012 flasback: 10 to remember

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James Carpenter and Stacy Ross in Magic Theatre’s Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, the best play of the year. Photo by Jennifer Reiley Below: the cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, another highlight of the Bay Area theater year. Photo by Kevin Berne.

One of the things I love about Bay Area theater is that picking a Top 10 list is usually a breeze. My surefire test of a great show is one I can remember without having to look at anything to remind me about it. The entire list below was composed in about five minutes, then I had to go look through my reviews to make sure they were all really this year. They were, and it was a really good year.

10. “The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden” by Thornton Wilder, part of Wilder Times, Aurora Theatre Company

9. The White Snake by Mary Zimmerman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

8. Tenderloin by Annie Elias with Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Kelly, Leigh Shaw, David Sinaiko and David Westley Skillman, Cutting Ball Theater

7. The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson, American Conservatory Theater

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6. The Aliens by Annie Baker, San Francisco Playhouse

5. The Hundred Flowers Project by Christopher Chen, Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation

4. Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe, California Shakespeare Theater

3. Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, Marin Theatre Company

2. The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, American Conservatory Theater

1. Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, Magic Theatre

Playwright Annie Baker appears twice on this list and could have appeared a third time for Aurora’s Body Awareness. This was the year of Annie Baker in the Bay Area – the first time her work was done here, and with any luck, not her last.

The most valuable player award in this list goes to Stacy Ross, who was extraordinary in #1 (Any Given Day) and #10 (“The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden”). In Any Given Day, she appeared opposite James Carpenter, another valuable player, and to see two of the Bay Area’s best actors work opposite each other in a remarkable play was sheer theatrical joy.

Three of the shows on this list – The Normal Heart, The Scottsboro Boys and The White Snake – all originated at other places, but that doesn’t make them any less brilliant or make ACT or Berkeley Rep any less canny for having the wherewithal and smarts to present them to local audiences.

Another name that is on this list twice is George C. Wolfe, represented as the adapter of Zora Neale Hurston’s Spunk, seen in a joyous production at Cal Shakes, and as director of the riveting and emotionally intense The Normal Heart at ACT.

There are two new plays here (#5, Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project and #8, Cutting Ball’s ensemble-created Tenderloin). They couldn’t have been more different, but they were both illuminating and exciting and felt a whole lot bigger than the small spaces in which they were taking place (in scope and importance, not in size).

As ever, thank you for reading Theater Dogs. This is a labor of love, and it would be silly for me to be here without you.

Happy New Year.

Haunting Ghost Sonata kicks off Strindberg cycle

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Director Hummel (James Carpenter) crashes a “ghost supper” in the Cutting Ball Theater production of The Ghost Sonata by August Strindberg. BELOW: The Colonel (Robert Parsons) and the Mummy (Gwyneth Richards) regain control after the Director has done his best to ruin them. Photos by Laura Mason


Watching August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata at Cutting Ball Theater, it becomes clear that without Strindberg, we probably would not have the wonderfully weird worlds of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter or Edward Albee or, in the film world, David Lynch or Spike Jonze. Strindberg, though famous for the naturalism of his Miss Julie, pushed into expressionism later in his career and helped redefine modern theater.

During this, the 100th anniversary year of Strindberg’s death, Cutting Ball has launched an ambitious celebration of one of Sweden’s greatest pre-Abba exports. The Strindberg Cycle collects all five of the chamber plays Strindberg wrote in 1907 that were performed in The Intimate Theater, which had about 150 seats, not unlike the EXIT on Taylor, where Cutting Ball is in residence. This cycle marks the first time all five of these plays have been performed together in an any language. For the real Strindberg fanatics – and this cycle will surely create new members of that category – Cutting Ball offers marathon days (Saturdays and Sundays, Nov. 10, 11, 17, 18) on which you can see all five shows in a row.

If The Ghost Sonata, the first show in Cutting Ball’s cycle, is any indication, this is going to be an enjoyably Strindbergian fall in San Francisco.

Like all these plays, Ghost Sonata features a world-premiere translations by Paul Walsh that makes the work immediately accessible and juicy. In addition to the weighty topics like guilt, pain, deception, bad karma, suffering, redemption and death – so much death for an 80-minute play! – we also get secrets and gossip and women living in closets, mysterious deaths and shattering revelations. Remember that horrifically watchable soap opera “Passions,” with its blend of the supernatural and the super-cheesy? This is the much more intellectual precursor to that.

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Ghost Sonata could be an incredibly dreary experience, but director Melrose, his production team and cast keep that from happening. For each of Strindberg’s three scenes, set designer Michael Locher gives us a distinct space within the space – the whole experience seems to transpire in a grand drawing room, somewhat faded by time. But thanks to York Kennedy’s colorful and intriguing lights and to the component boxes on Locher’s set, we get a street scene, a parlor scene (with a music room visible in the distance) and a final scene that seems to take place half in reality, half in hallucination (the latter half is helped by an eerie sound design by Cliff Caruthers).

Heading the cast is James Carpenter, who appears in all but one of the chamber plays, as Director Hummel, an unscrupulous business man who “ravages people’s fates” and is described as “demonically shrewd” and as a “horse thief in the marketplace of humankind.” In other words, this is not a nice guy. Now in a wheelchair referred to as the “war machine,” Hummel is at the end of his life and wants, in his way, to make amends. So he takes under his wing a young man, Arkenholz (Carl Holvick-Thomas) whose father was ruined as a result of doing business with Hummel. The goal is to match the young man with a sad young woman, Adele (Caitlyn Louchard) so that the young people can escape the wicked web of failure and mistakes made by the older people in their lives.

But it turns out that Hummel is also planning something bigger and more devastating. “I’m unable to forgive until I’ve punished,” he says.

The targets of his punishment include his former fiancée (Gwyneth Richards), the aforementioned woman in the closet, and The Colonel (Robert Parsons), a man with too many secrets to thrive in the presence of Hummel. There’s some surprising humor bubbling up in this production, including David Sinaiko as a butler who seems to have been watching a lot of Peter Lorre movies.

In its last third Ghost Sonata gets very sad as ideals (and lives) are shattered. But somehow in all of this there is liberation of a sort, maybe even a shred of hope.

What’s eminently clear, however, is that Strindberg has found an ally in the Cutting Ball Theater and audiences have found a cycle of plays to savor.

[bonus video]
Cutting Ball Artistic Director Rob Melrose, who also directs the Strindberg Cycle, members of his cast talk about this mammoth effort.

Strindberg Cycle Trailer from The Cutting Ball Theater on Vimeo.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The Ghost Sonata, Part 1 of the Strindberg Cycle, continues through Nov. 18 at the Cutting Ball Theater, in residence at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 415-525-1205 or visit www.cuttingball.com.

Part 2 of the Strindberg Cycle, The Pelican and The Black Glove, begins performances Oct. 25. Part 3, Storm and Burned House, begins performances Nov. 1. The cycle continues through Nov. 18.

Chamber play marathons of all five shows are on Nov. 10, 11, 17 and 18. A Festival Cycle pass is available for $75.

Extraordinary Day dawns at the Magic

EXTENDED THROUGH APRIL 29
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Christopher McHale is Bill and Amy Kossow is Sadie in the Magic Theatre production of Any Given Day by Linda McLean. Below: James Carpenter is Dave and Stacy Ross is Jackie. Photos by Jennifer Reiley


Linda McLean’s Any Given Day, now having its American premiere at the Magic Theatre, is theater for grown-ups. There’s nothing fanciful or sensational about. It’s basically duet conversations in two acts and less than 90 minutes. But the richness of McLean’s language, seemingly so simple yet so precise in defining the characters and their relationships to each other and to the world.

The pain and sadness is palpable in these people, yet so are the passing moments of joy and kindness and good humor. McLean’s world is full of the kind of emotional upheaval you only get to see when you spend time with people and see what’s really happening with them under their reasonably calm, reasonably functional exterior selves. To catch glimpses of the real turmoil underneath is an astonishing achievement, and that’s what McLean and this powerful production manage to accomplish.

Directed with subtlety and precision by Jon Tracy, Any Given Day revels in the simple complexity of everyday life. The first half introduces us to Bill (Christopher McHale) and Sadie (Amy Kossow), two residents of Glasgow council housing. The more we learn about them, the more we see that they’ve probably spent time institutionalized or under some sort of supervision but are now living on their own.

We also learn what kind and genuinely sweet people they are, how tender they are with each other when they’re able and how their partnership forms a sort of protective blockade from the world outside their windows. Kossow’s performance is especially poignant – her Sadie is clearly damaged in some key ways, but her moments of panic, terror and anger are balanced by washes of happiness that make her giggle and shine like a little girl.

McLean introduces an element of danger into this cocoon, and from that moment on, the play becomes quite different. The valiant efforts of Sadie and Bill to organize their day and make preparations for a visitor are suddenly underscored by a growing sense of dread. It’s a fascinating thing because we find ourselves feeling protective of these characters we’ve only just met, yet there’s nothing we can do for them.

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In the second half, we’re in another part of Glasgow at a bar (authentic and efficient sets by Michael Locher lit with restraint and realism by York Kennedy) where the owner, Dave (James Carpenter) and his newish employee of three months, Jackie (Stacy Ross), are having a chat. Their whole relationship unfolds from the sharing of a phone message, and they find themselves suddenly in the midst of an intimate conversation over a bottle of Sancerre.

The two halves are related most significantly by dramatic irony. We have information that will affect Bill and Jackie but once again are powerless to do anything but watch them, in their unknowingness, as they delve into topics of sex and family and what makes a good day. Carpenter and Ross deliver their customary insightful, beautifully honed performances, but Ross find heartbreaking depth in a woman feeling herself slide ever closer to just giving up.

All the actors in the cast, including Patrick Alparone filling in for Daniel Petzold in a small but important role, are so focused and strong. They even manage believable Scottish accents, which is no small feat in itself. Restraint and reality rule in this everyday world, but passions are present, too. There’s violence and heroism in large and small ways on this Given Day, and it’s an absolutely phenomenal thing to experience. This is an unusual play in that it feels complete yet unfinished because, somehow, it’s still going on. The play lingers in memory to be sure, but it feels these people are still out there affecting each others’ lives in ways they’ll never know and just trying to make it through another day.

[bonus interview]
I talked to rising Bay Area director Jon Tracy (and the people who love him) for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Linda McLean’s Any Given Day continues an extended run through April 29 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

TheatreWorks’ Pitmen paints poignant arts ed picture

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The titular painters in TheatreWorks’ The Pitmen Painters are (from left) James Carpenter, Nicholas Pelczar, Patrick Jones, Jackson Davis (sitting) and Dan Hiatt as they respond to seeing the work of Vincent VanGogh for the first time. Photo by Tracy Martin


Seeing some of the Bay Area’s best actors collected on one stage is a pleasure in and of itself. But Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters has other things to recommend it like its unapologetic championing of the arts as an essential part of being a fully formed human being.

Bringing this true story to life are James Carpenter, Dan Hiatt, Jackson Davis, Nicholas Pelczar and, in perhaps the most revealing performance, Patrick Jones. They’re all wonderful actors, and to see them interacting and playing off of one another is worth the ticket price alone.

I reviewed the production for the Palo Alto Weekly. You can read the review by clicking here.

Here’s the gist of the review:

To Hall’s credit, he keeps the focus on the art teacher and the miner-artists and everything their success meant in terms of class, creativity and the artistic potential in every person if given the opportunity to express it. There’s no forced romance, no artificial drama, no Hollywood flourishes. But there’s still a lingering feeling that, despite the inspiring real-life story, what we have in “The Pitmen Painters” is less a play than it is a well-argued, well-intentioned plea for more arts and more arts education.


FOR MORE INFORMATION

Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters continues through Feb. 12 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Titus serves up revenge, blood rare and steaming hot

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And daily the kids’ special is…: James Carpenter (in apron) is Titus in California Shakespeare Theater’s first-ever production of Titus Andronicus. Anna Bullard as Lavinia is pushing the cart, while seated at the table are Stacy Ross as Tamora and Rob Campbell as Saturninus. Below: Carpenter and Bullard deal with unimaginable torture. Photos by Kevin Berne

Director Joel Sass has such a strong, infectious sense of storytelling that he even makes Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, proclaimed to be the Bard’s bloodiest play, enjoyable.

It’s not that the play, which has a single issue on its gory mind – the futility and waste of revenge – isn’t interesting. It’s compelling and hideous at the same time.

But what Sass does for the California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening production of Titus – the first in Cal Shakes’ 37-year history – is heighten the theatricality of the tale, elevate it to grand and glorious storytelling rather than an endlessly horrific parade of one bloody special effect after another.

Of course there’s blood, and lots of it. First we see bloody swords (but not how they got that way). Then it’s a blood-smeared lip from a fight over a woman. Then the slicing and dicing begins in earnest. The blood, it does flow, especially from slit throats.

This is a muscular production of a tough play, mean in spirit and humor. If Shakespeare’s goal is to illuminate the way ego-driven revenge turns life into a cesspit for everyone involved, he certainly succeeds.

But Sass creates a surprisingly beautiful production. At first, the crumbling cement bunker of Emily Greene’s set seems too solid and overwhelming. But then Russell H. Champa’s start playing with the surfaces and shadows of the set, and suddenly the stage can be as menacing or as lovely as Sass needs it to be. There are masked extras, banners fluttering in the chilly summer breeze and some striking costumes (by Paloma H. Young), all in service to imbuing some beauty and striking images into the stream of ugly behavior.

Even the way Sass transitions from one location to another – using moving columns that look like they’re made of rusty metal – can lend moments of grace.

When characters are awful in this play, they’re bone-deep awful. Aaron the Moore (played by Shawn Hamilton) has to be Shakespeare’s most unrepentantly revolting character – the only thing this man regrets is any good deed he might accidentally have committed. He causes deaths and mutilations as a means of entertaining himself.

If he’s at the top of the horrible heap, the power mongers and the sadistic spoiled brats are just underneath. In the first category falls Saturninus (Rob Campbell), Rome’s new emperor and possessor of very funny dirty little chuckle. His new bride is Tamora (Stacy Ross), the queen of the recently vanquished Goths, and though she pretends to be a hot-to-trot new bride, she’s really scheming, Lady Macbeth-style, how she’s going to exact her revenge on all of Rome.

Tamora’s two sons, Demetrius (Chad Deverman) and Chiron (David Mendelsohn) are twisted, beast-like savages whose disgusting fate – probably the most famous aspect of this infrequently produced play – is, it must be admitted, quite dramatically satisfying. And from the looks of the diners on stage, quite tasty.

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The Army of Awful unleashed in the play does its worst (best?) work on Roman hero Titus (the always remarkable James Carpenter) and the members of his family who haven’t already been wiped out by battle duty.

It would be nice if Shakespeare gave us a little more to like about Titus and his clan other than their inherent morality (especially compared to everybody else), but in the end, that’s what defines them and makes us root for them. That morality, though, is hardly an effective shield. The cost of grief and loss and horror takes its toll, especially on Titus.

With the garish, over-done makeup worn by the actors, we’re continually reminded that this is theater at its most grandiose, but such theatricality doesn’t always mask the fact that Shakespeare is really going overboard here. The rape and mutilation of a young woman (the noble Anna Bullard as Lavinia) is especially hard to stomach in an evening’s “entertainment.” When the playwright has Lavinia, whose hands have been cut off and tongue cut out, carry her father’s severed hand in her teeth, you know there’s something more than emphasis on horror going on. Perhaps he’s gotten a little carried away (happily, director Sass keeps the hand tastefully inside a satchel).

It could be dark humor, but after a certain point, all this pretend violence is really not funny. And for the ending to hit home all that horror and gore needs to have added up to something.

In this three-hour production, thankfully, the ending does pack a wallop. The bodies pile up, the horror ebbs, but the cycle continues. As you might expect, the ever-astute Shakespeare didn’t have much faith in mankind to ever end the seemingly nonstop rush of violence and idiocy spawned by revenge.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

California Shakespeare Theater’s Titus Andronicus continues through June 26 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

Vodka, misery and beauty: family time with Three Sisters

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Chekhov’s three sisters, (from left) Natalia Payne as Masha, Heather Wood as Irina and Wendy Rich Stetson as Olga contemplate the far-off dream of returning to Moscow in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Three Sisters. Below: moments of merriment relieve some of the Russian gloom. Photos by mellopix.com

Time aches in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s elegiac Three Sisters. The past is where true happiness lived (in Moscow), and the future holds the promise of reviving that happiness (in Moscow). But the present (not in Moscow) is just a painful stretch to be endured and lamented.

That Anton Chekhov was a harvester of human souls, and the crop he tended was ripe with sorrow, loss and, perhaps worst of all, indifference. This is readily apparent in director Les Waters’ production of Three Sisters on the intimate Thrust Stage.

There’s warmth and humor emanating from the stage as we meet the soldiers, staff and sisters in a well-appointed country home, but once we get to know the characters a little bit, it’s one big stream of thwarted desire, boredom, frustration and self-delusion.

It sounds like misery, but between Chekhov and Waters, we’re treated to a beautifully staged, deeply compassionate exploration of mostly unhappy people.

When you walk into the Thrust and drink in Annie Smart’s gorgeous set, it’s the first indication that we’re in good hands. We see two stories of the country home, with the focus on the dining room and an adjacent living room/parlor. Through the windows, we see falling snow and an elegant stand of birch trees (exquisitely lit by Alexander V. Nichols).

It’s a comfortable home – perhaps a little cramped, but that’s as it should be. We hear repeatedly that this small provincial town is claustrophobic with everybody up in everybody else’s business. That’s certainly true here – especially in the dining room when 13 people are sharing a meal.

To see such a large, capable cast on such a relatively small stage makes you feel like you’re part of the action. You’re at that crowded dinner table enjoying shots of vodka. You’re in the nursery on the night of the devastating fire looking to escape from the smoky chaos.

Waters’ production pulls you in from the beginning and doesn’t let you go for an emotionally wrenching three hours.

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In some ways, the play does seem long because the characters are so aware of time’s slow passage and everything time is not providing for them, but there’s such attention to detail in the performances, so much to enjoy and savor, that the running time feels immaterial.

Waters is using a new version of Three Sisters by Sarah Ruhl (based on a literal translation by Elise Thoron with Natalya Paramonova and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati), and as much as I love Ruhl, I had mixed feelings about the sometimes awkward mix of formal and casual language in her script.

But when actors connect to the characters, the actual words tend to matter less. For evidence of this, look no further than Natalia Payne as middle sister Masha and Bruce McKenzie as Vershinin, the married soldier who captures the equally married sister’s heart.

These two spar, flirt and fall in love with such passion – most of which has to be conveyed on the down low – that you can’t help hoping that happiness comes to someone in the play, even at the cost of their respective spouses’ feelings. These two actors crackle, and their bitterness toward their real lives is acute. Here’s a typical Masha observation: “What a miserable goddamn life.”

Oldest sister Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson) is, as one character describes her, “so good, so tortured.” Stetson’s performance is so grounded in reality, so believable that you root for her to escape her misery as the world’s most reluctant headmistress.

And Heather Wood as Irina, the baby, makes a sadly believable transition from idealistic young woman to beaten down office drone whose indefatigable hope turns out to have an expiration date.

The whole cast – resplendent in Ilona Somogyi’s turn-of-the-20th-century costumes – offers performance gems throughout. Some of my favorite moments involved David Abrams as Fedotik bringing Irina a hauntingly melodic top for her birthday and Olga and Irina enjoying bedtime small talk from behind the relative privacy of their respective bed screens.

James Carpenter as crumbling doctor Chebutykin creates a vivid impression of a man slowly receding from life. He is chided for loving the three sisters too much (he was in love with their mother), which cuts him to the quick. And later in the play, he suffers a complete emotional breakdown that is devastating to watch.

There’s a lot of crying in this play – and the most intense tears come from the men.

It’s an affecting play, deeply emotional but more apt to inspire contemplative reverie than depression even though it is awfully sad. There’s a pain in these people, and we recognize it because it hasn’t changed much in 111 years. It’s the endurance of time and the awareness that life, for all its trouble and angst, can end up amounting to not much.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Three Sisters continues through May 22 on the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

Nostalgic for The Homecoming at a different home

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The cast of ACT’s The Homecoming includes (from left) Kenneth Welsh, Anthony Fusco, Jack Willis (seated), Adam O’Byrne, René Augesen and Andrew Polk. Below: The cast in the shadows of Daniel Ostling’s impressive set. Photos by Kevin Berne

 

The absolute power of live theater, when it’s done superbly well, is undeniable. The connection the playwright, the director, the actors and designers forge with the audience – and vice-versa – can be incredibly powerful.

That’s a wonderful thing and leave a lasting impression. Sometimes, perhaps, too lasting.

Last week I saw Carey Perloff’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming for American Conservatory Theater. It’s a bizarre, tormentingly fascinating play by a master playwright at the height of his game-playing dramatic powers. And though the production is fine, all I could think about was the Aurora Theatre Company production staged by Tom Ross at the Berkeley City Club in April of 2000.

I’ve seen a lot of plays in the nearly 11 years between that production and this one, and yet while sitting in the giant ACT space, I was longing for the intimacy (where horror is even more horrific when you feel like it’s unfolding in your lap and there’s no escape). I could even remember line readings delivered by Julian Lopez-Morillas as Max, the monstrous father figure, now played by ACT company member Jack Willis, and by James Carpenter and Rebecca Dines, who play Max’s returning son, Teddy, and his wife, Ruth. René Augesen, celebrating her 10th anniversary as an ACT company member, did the most of any cast member in the current production to make me forget the performances of more than a decade ago. But Anthony Fusco, who plays her husband, might as well have phoned in his performance for all the impression he made (he was so much more vivid in the recent Clybourne Park).

It’s absolutely not fair to judge one production by another, but when a certain production burns itself into your brain, there’s no escaping it. When I left the Berkeley City Club that night, having just experienced The Homecoming for the first time, I was thrilled and unsettled, which is, I think, a perfectly fine way to feel after a Pinter play. All the performances in Ross’ production had been pitch perfect, which made the production easy to admire, but the actors’ skills only augmented the work of Pinter and his genius for pleasant unpleasantness. With his sheen of British propriety and his structure of well-chose words (and, of course, his silences), Pinter unleashes monsters who look and sound remarkably human.

The ACT production has the size of the theater working against it automatically. It’s a huge stage, a giant house and an intimate six-person play. Set designer Daniel Ostling handles this beautifully by building one of the most imposing living rooms ever seen on a stage. With great heaving gray walls leaning heavily into the performance space, you feel the weight of this house. And the giant staircase (giant – think the BART station at 16th Street) is agonizingly gorgeous. So too is the lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. I don’t remember so much turning on and off of lights in the previous production, but in this space, you feel the presence and the absence of light.

Homecoming 2

The physical production does just about everything it can to make the space feel intimate, or, if not exactly intimate, then imposing in an intimate sort of way. In fact, the set and lights do more work than some of the actors.

Perloff creates some compelling tableaux, especially with Nichols’ lighting, but that becomes a problem. This is not a still life. It’s a play. Actors, when they aren’t striking a pose, are moved awkwardly around the stage, and that diminishes the sense of unease and discomfort that should build steadily from the first minutes of the show. I wanted to like Willis as Max – he looks perfect in the part – but his uneven British accent kept throwing me off until I was defeated.

This production does cause gasps, but I’d credit Augesen’s mastery of Ruth for that. When her character really gets to know her in-laws – like when Max meets her and calls her a “stinking pox-ridden slut” – mouths should drop and brows should furrow. But Augesen conveys intelligence amid the fear, some control, even pleasure, in the flood of testosterone overwhelming the stage. There’s a kind of heat coming off of her, and it isn’t just sexual.

I found more humor than horror bubbling through the ACT production, which is certainly enjoyable. But every production of The Homecoming I see from here on out, is going to have be better than my first time out. Apparently that’s going to take some doing.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming continues through March 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Marin ignites an inferno with extraordinary 9 Circles

9 Circles 3
(from left) Craig Marker, James Carpenter and Jennifer Erdmann star in the world premiere of Bill Cain’s 9 Circles at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Erdmann, Marker and Carpenter. Photos by Ed Smith

Craig Marker gives a performance of such magnitude in Marin Theatre Company’s 9 Circles that it almost eclipses the play itself.

Obviously the play has to be substantial and artful enough to elicit great work from actors, and that is certainly true of Bill Cain’s meaty script here. But at times it almost seems Marker’s not in a play at all – he’s a flesh-and-blood documentary, a slice-of-life person pushing everyone in the room through a barrage of intense emotions.

There’s simply no escaping Marker’s intensity in the 99-seat Lieberman Theatre, Marin’s intimate second stage. Nor would you want to escape. This is without question must-see theater.

Works of art dealing with the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not exactly been embraced by pop culture. Until the Oscar-bedecked The Hurt Locker, no one really bothered to pay much attention. Perhaps we’re too close in terms of current events and too far away in terms of geography and personal involvement.

Cain’s stunning work bridges those gaps with incredible efficiency. With three actors, one rudimentary set and running time of only an hour and 45 minutes, he whisks us from Iraq to the U.S. and back, pulling us deeper into his wrenching story with every scene.

Let me correct myself. We don’t have scenes here; we have circles – nine of them. Just like Dante’s Inferno. The hell that Cain depicts begins with a 19-year-old soldier, Daniel Edward Reeves, being honorably discharged after 10 months of fighting. Very quickly, we spiral down with Daniel as he’s arrested in the U.S. and charged with unspeakable crimes against Iraqi civilians.

Daniel’s hell involves betrayal, loneliness, guilt, rage, patriotism and self-realization, among many other things. The young man is described as having a personality disorder because he doesn’t feel things he probably should, and he’s also described as being “west Texas bullshit to the core” and “an articulate son of a bitch.”

9 Circles 1That’s all accurate, but it barely begins to describe the person we come to know as we spin through these circles. Whatever he did or didn’t do in Iraq, Daniel is a sympathetic character, if only because we begin to feel the enormity of his pain and get an acute view of his inner life – what it contains and, perhaps more importantly, what it’s missing.

Marker’s performance as Daniel is heroic – he lays it all bare (literally) and carries the weight of this heavy drama on his capable shoulders. Filtered through Marker, Daniel’s life force is at once terrifying and compelling. When a priest who is attempting to save Daniel’s soul admits that the young man is “plain I-don’t-give-a-fuck human evil,” it’s hard to argue. And yet, when Daniel shows us how his mind and emotions work in relation to his actions, we empathize, and empathy is a hugely important factor here.

Under the astute, keenly felt direction of Kent Nicholson, Marker receives able support from James Carpenter, who plays all the other male roles, from lawyers to priests to commanding officers. As the priest, Carpenter is chilling, and his scene with Daniel is one of the play’s strongest. A little later on, as a lawyer who wants to use Daniel’s case to prove the futility of the war in a court of law, Carpenter is fascinating in his single-mindedness. The lawyer tells Daniel that his biggest crime was to make the enemy empathetic. “Feeling the pain of the enemy is unendurable,” the lawyer says.

Jennifer Erdmann doesn’t have enough to do, which explains why she makes less of an impression here. But her key scene with Marker in which Daniel’s hyper-macho bullshit act is finally pierced by a military shrink, is by far the evening’s most moving.

In fact, that scene provides the emotional apex of the story, and it’s only circle No. 6. The three circles after that should increase the dramatic momentum, but they don’t entirely. The final few minutes of the play are quietly horrifying, but they still don’t top the wrenching agony of Circle 6.

This world-premiere production is firmly on its feet, but there’s still work to be done in the fine-tuning.

The power and punch of 9 Circles is undeniable. Cain’s script zeroes in on one soldier’s story and leaves us feeling the inescapable historic and emotional weight of the entire war. This is theater that shakes your foundation and leaves you breathless.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Bill Cain’s 9 Circles continues through Nov. 7 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Road, Mill Valley. Tickets are $33-$53. Call 415 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org for information.

It’s alive! Death and theater

Two extraordinary shows are lighting up Bay Area stages, and in each of them, the specter of death hovers in the shadows.

In Trevor Allen’s intelligent, compassionate adaptation of Frankenstein at the Thick House, Victor Frankenstein defies death by creating life from dead parts and cowering from the unexpected results.

Erika Shuck Cong and Sean San Jose in The Future Project: Sunday Will Come

Over at Intersection for the Arts, Campo Santo and the Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project ponder the death of a goldfish and, through engaging text and movement, ruminate on the nature of life and breath in The Future Project: Sunday Will Come.

Both pieces, while they couldn’t be more different from one another, are completely compelling and find grace amid seriously dark subject matter.

In Sunday, a whole troupe of people, led by performers Erika Chong Shuch and Sean San José, have created a simple, hour-long three-hander about a seemingly small matter – a man and woman (Shuch and Sean José) contemplate the illness and imminent death of their goldfish. They act out the creature’s fight for breath through some extraordinary movement on a small but sturdy table, and their discussion of this aquatic mortality resonates in larger waves.

Troubadour Denizen Kane weaves in and out of the central action, lending the tale his soulful voice and songs that give the show a soothing pulse and a throbbing heart.

There’s none of the pretension that can come from a hybrid dance-theater-music-spoken word piece because the performers are so incredibly focused, so funny and so intensely emotional. They seem to live partly in the world of boring, normal people and partly in the world of extraordinarily talented artists who sing and move and speak on an entirely different, entirely dazzling plane.

Creature

Allen’s The Creature is equally dazzling but in entirely different ways. His adaptation rescues Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the domain of creature features and returns it to the domain of gut-punching drama, where it belongs.

Taking his cure from the 1818 novel, Allen gives his stage over to three narrators: Captain Walton (Garth Petal), who is searching for a sail-able passage through the North Pole; Victor Frankenstein (Gabriel Marin), a scientist with a gift for reanimating dead matter; and the Creature (James Carpenter), who had the bad luck to be created by a scientist unable to bear the responsibility of his great work.

Time bends as we hurtle back and forth between past and present as the tale of Frankenstein’s creation takes shape and we, along with the scientist, begin to comprehend the scope of what he has done in creating a man from disparate dead parts. The sea captain makes for a sympathetic ear, but what really makes the story land is hearing from the Creature himself.

While Petal and Marin are grounded, intense and wonderful, Carpenter’s Creature is simply astonishing. This is the kind of performance – brave, complex and utterly devastating – that lingers for days, if not years afterward. Often crouched on a table and cast in shadows by Stephanie Buchner’s lights, Carpenter creates a vision of a misunderstood giant with minimal makeup and virtually no gimmickry. Props to Boris Karloff and his makeup team, but Carpenter is the real Creature – not a grunting monster (or one that warbles “Puttin’ on the Ritz” for that matter), but an eloquent soul touched with self-sustaining genius and afflicted by shattering loneliness.

Carpenter, under the direction of the always-astute Rob Melrose (of the Cutting Ball Theater), is giving the can’t-miss performance of the season. He already has the reputation of being one of the very best actors in the Bay Area. His work in The Creature allows us to see something he hasn’t really shown us before. And it is, in short, magnificent.
(PHOTO CREDIT: James Carpenter in The Creature by Allesandra Mello)

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The Future Project: Sunday Will Come continues through Nov. 7 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25 on a sliding scale. Call 415 626-2787 or visit www.theintersection.org

The Creature continues through Nov. 7 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St.,San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415 401-8081 or visit www.thickhouse.org or www.blackboxtheatre.com

Listen to Black Box Theatre’s podcast of The Creature featuring James Carpenter here.