Tension is high in Aurora’s audio drama The Flats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flames lick the American dream in Aurora’s Detroit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 www.auroratheatre.org.

Aaron Loeb wins Glickman for Ideation

Ideation was a good idea from the start.

Berkeley-based playwright Aaron Loeb is the winner of the 2013 Will Glickman Playwright Award for the best new play to premiere in the San Francisco Bay Area. Loeb won for Ideation, Aaron Loebwhich had its premiere last fall at San Francisco Playhouse as part of the company’s “Sandbox Series” for new work. Josh Costello directed.

The play, about a brainstorming business meeting with ever-deeper complications and paranoias, is a fascinating blend of comedy and thriller. In my original review of the show I called it “a thrillingly electric theatrical experience” and it ended up on my Top 10 list as my favorite play of the year.

The award includes a $4,000 check for the playwright and a plaque for the producing company. Now Loeb and Ideation join the ranks of previous Glickman winners including last year’s Christopher Chen, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Tony Kushner, Luis Alfaro, Anne Galjour, John Fisher, Octavio Solis, Brian Freeman, Rajiv Joseph and Philip Kan Gotanda among many others.

The award will be presented at the Theatre Bay Area conference on April 14, and Ideation will open the San Francisco Playhouse 2014-15 season on the main stage.

In the San Francisco Playhouse world premiere of Ideation, the cast included (from left) Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Michael Ray Wisely. Photo by Jordan Puckett

This year’s Glickman committee comprised yours truly, Robert Avila of the Bay Guardian, Karen D’Souza of the San Jose Mercury News and Bay Area News Group, Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle and Sam Hurwitt of Theatre Bay Area and the Idiolect.

Here’s a complete list of Glickman Award winners

2013 The Hundred Flowers Project, Christopher Chen (Crowded Fire/Playwrights Foundation)
2012 The North Pool, Rajiv Joseph (TheatreWorks)
2011 Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro (Magic)
2010 In the Next Room, Sarah Ruhl (Berkeley Rep)
2009 Beowulf, Jason Craig (Shotgun Players)
2008 Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle (Marsh)
2007 Hunter Gatherers, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (Killing My Lobster)
2006 The People’s Temple, Leigh Fondakowski (Berkeley Rep)
2005 Dog Act, Liz Duffy Adams (Shotgun)
2004 Soul of a Whore, Denis Johnson (Campo Santo)
2003 Five Flights, Adam Bock (Encore)
2002 Dominant Looking Males, Brighde Mullins (Thick Description)
2001 Everything’s Ducky, Bill Russell & Jeffrey Hatcher (TheatreWorks)
2000 The Trail of Her Inner Thigh, Erin Cressida Wilson (Campo Santo)
1999 Combat!, John Fisher (Rhino)
1998 Civil Sex, Brian Freeman (Marsh)
1997 Hurricane/Mauvais Temps, Anne Galjour (Berkeley Rep)
1996 Medea, the Musical, John Fisher (Sassy Mouth)
1995 Rush Limbaugh in Night School, Charlie Varon (Marsh)
1994 Santos & Santos, Octavio Solis (Thick Description)
1993 Heroes and Saints, Cherrie Moraga (Brava)
1992 Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Tony Kushner (Eureka)
1991 Political Wife, Bill Talen (Life on the Water)
1990 Pick Up Ax, Anthony Clarvoe (Eureka)
1989 Yankee Dawg You Die, Philip Kan Gotanda (Berkeley Rep)
1988 Webster Street Blues, Warren Kubota (Asian American)
1987 Life of the Party, Doug Holsclaw (Rhino)
1986 Deer Rose, Tony Pelligrino (Theatre on the Square)
1985 The Couch, Lynne Kaufman (Magic)
1984 Private Scenes, Joel Homer (Magic)

Here’s an idea: go see SF Playhouse’s Ideation. Now.

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Coworkers Ted (Michael Ray Wisely, left), Sandeep (Jason Kapoor, center) and Hannah (Carrie Paff) find a routine session of ideation turning into something much more complicated…and terrifying in the world premiere of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox new play program. Below: Members of the team (from left, Wisely, Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Ben Euphrat) prepare to face the big boss and make choices that could affect their lives in big ways. Photos by Jordan Puckett

Don’t you love it when a new play starts out and you really like it, then it turns into something else and you like it even more? That’s what happens with Ideation, a world-premiere play by local scribe Aaron Loeb that is part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, an incubator for new plays.

As new plays go, Ideation is in remarkably good shape primarily because Loeb’s writing is so smart, sharp and full of grounding humor. It also helps that director Josh Costello has done such incisive work with his excellent cast. This is straightforward, bare-bones drama: one simple set (a generic office conference room by Alicia Griffiths), no special effects, consistently good performances and a script that continually surprises.

The 90-minute one-act begins as an engaging look at corporate power dynamics. An important meeting is going to start in minutes, and Hannah (Carrie Paff) is having some trouble with her young, male assistant, Scooter (Ben Euphrat). He’s a hotshot MBA student at Cal, and the fact that his daddy is on the board is amply reflected in his attitude of entitlement. He’d rather play with the big boys in the meeting than get Hannah the coffee she has asked for.

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Then the big boys arrive, fresh from a business trip to Crete, which proved to be a triumph in “passing liabilities.” Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips), Ted (Michael Ray Wisely) and Sandeep (Jason Kapoor) are kings in this high-powered consulting firm, and now they turn their attention to a top-secret project called Senna.

Playwright Loeb builds such a believable sense of camaraderie and serious skills/good humor among the players here (excepting young Scooter, or “Scoots” as Brock calls him) that it takes a while for the audience to figure out just what this team is working on. Clues begin to fill the dry-erase board – liquidation facility, containment, cremation – and a heavy sense of “uh oh” begins to pervade the stage. What could they possibly be designing? When, at the start of their work, they agree not to mention the “n-word,” that word turns out to be even worse than you might think.

And that’s the joy of Ideation – a workplace comedy/drama that becomes quite a serious and seriously thrilling thriller (at one point it’s even sexy – how did that happen?). The people on this team are smart cookies, and when they really start to delve into this project and its implications, their sense of paranoia and outright fear becomes quite palpable. Trust in facts and each other begins to crumble, replaced by a realization that they could be involved in something enormously global or as small as a corporate exercise. Loeb has a lot to say about corporations as well and the fact that the only three guiding principles in the world are “country, profit, God.”

By the time Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch” starts booming through the conference room, the sheer delight in the mystery of Ideation is in full flower. Secret relationships are revealed. There are mysterious disappearances and reappearances. And the momentum builds until the inevitable conclusion.

That ending is my only equivocation with Ideation. It ends right where you think it will (which is a perfectly logical and sensible place to end), but I was hoping for one more juicy, head-spinning surprise – that final jolt to cap a thrillingly electric theatrical experience.

Aaron Loeb’s Ideation continues through Dec. 7 as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox new play program at the Tides Theatre, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20. Call 415l-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Review: `Ubu for President’

Opened Aug. 2 at John Hinkel Park, Berkeley

Dave Garrett is Pa Ubu (roughly translated as Father Turd) and Carla Pantoja is Ma Ubu in Shotgun Players’ rollicking summer production Ubu for President, a free play in Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park.

Crude, hilarious and free! Shotgun’s `Ubu’ wins
««« ½

Aw, pschit!

Any discussion of an Ubu play has to begin thus. When Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi opened in 1896, the first word of the play was, “Merdre!” (loosely translated into, “Shittr!”). And the play has been notorious ever since.

Shotgun Players, never a troupe to shy away from notoriety, takes on Ubu as its free theater in the park production this summer. Writer Josh Costello has riffed on Jarry’s Ubu plays (there were three) to come up with Ubu for President, which had its premiere on a sunny, warm Saturday afternoon in Berkeley’s beautiful John Hinkel Park.

The political comedy – more comedy than politics, thankfully – is essentially about stupid people and even stupider politics. In other words, it’s incredibly timely.

Jarry set his tale in Poland, or, as he wrote, “which is to say, nowhere.” Costello takes the Jarry-rigged wit further by setting it in a place called Fugalle (forgive the spelling if incorrect), which means anything pertaining to that country can be described as “Fuggin” as in the “Fuggin people” or the “Fuggin president.” And you know what? Gets a laugh every time.

The idea is that not-so-good King Wenceslas and his family have been on the throne for too many generations and it’s time for the people to adopt democracy and choose their own president.

So the King (Gary Grossman) decides to run. So does Pa Ubu (Dave Garrett), a retired captain of the dragoons whose favorite expression is, “By my green candle” (often followed by a grabbing of his naughty bits). The other candidates are the king’s daughter, Princess Buggerless (the extraordinarly sharp and funny Casi Maggio, above), a trippy hippie named Ming Jamal Joaquin Wounded Knee Goldstein (a pitch-perfect Sung Min Park) and an ancient man named Lesczynski (Alf Pollard).

Ubu’s ambition is ignited by his aggressive wife, Ma Ubu (Carla Pantoja), with her extra-wide hips and her extra-tall pink beehive, and his candidacy is aided by one of the king’s former henchmen, Capt. MacNure (Ryan O’Donnell), whose name, as you might imagine, is often shortened.

The Ubus are delightfully vile, constantly swearing – “Pschittabugger and buggerapschitt!” By God’s third nipple!” “Rumpleshitskin!” – and fighting. “I’m going to rip open your gut basket!” Ubu shouts at his wife. On the campaign trail, Ubu not only kisses a baby, he makes out with it before tossing the babe on its wee head, and there’s a generous supply of farting and belching to be sure.

Director Patrick Dooley only barely contains the manic energy of his cast (which also includes Marlon Deleon, Mega Guzman, Raechel Lockhart and Jordan Winer), which is as it should be. Oh, and there’s music. This is a musical…of sorts. Old tunes such as “Good King Wenceslas,” “Oh, Susannah” and “Shenandoah” are outfitted with new lyrics (by Costello and Garrett) and given spirited accompaniment by cast members on various horns and guitars (musical direction by Dave Malloy).

My favorite lyrics came in a version of “My Darling Clementine” as various forces are gathering for war. The soldiers sign “We’re the phallus for the palace” and the Princess sings, “Kill the dipstick with the lipstick.”

One of the funniest bits of shtick comes when O’Donnell and Park’s characters are chained in the dungeon and discover the only way to survive is to capture and kill rats, but the only way to do that – and then feed each other – is with their feet, which they proceed to do.

Costello’s snappy script is peppered with crudity and Shakespeare. Happily he retains Jarry’s “debraining machine,” which seems awfully au courante and makes one wonder just how many debraining machines remain in operation at the moment. Probably too many to count.

The players all seem to be having a grand time. Garrett and Pantoja lustily fill the Ubus’ pschit-stained shoes, and Maggio’s pink-loving, ultra-princessy princess is a standout. O’Donnell’s faithful sidekick is always worth watching just for the play of emotions on his face, and Park’s peace-loving, sex-loving, plant-loving hippie is so sincere he’s almost scary.

At two hours, the show is exactly long enough. And with a cast this good and a play this funny, you may just bust your gut basket.

Ubu for President continues through Sept. 2 at John Hinkel Park, Southampton Avenue off The Arlington in Berkeley. Shows are at 4 p.m. Admission is free but campaign contributions are gladly accepted. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.