In the uneasy room with Dana H.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love chills in Berkeley Rep’s sizzling Wintertime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruhl peters out in Berkeley Rep’s For Peter Pan

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Kathleen Chalfant (left) is Ann and Ron Crawford is George in Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: The cast of Peter Pan includes, from left, Charles Shaw Robinson as John, Keith Reddin as Michael, David Chandler as Jim, Chalfant as Ann and Ellen McLaughlin as Wendy. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Sarah Ruhl is a brilliant writer capable of intellectual heights and emotional depths. Her latest play, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, displays few of those qualities.

Paired with director Les Waters with whom she worked so memorably on Eurydice and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) at Berkeley Rep, Ruhl is working in mysterious ways here. At first glance it would seem that this Peter Pan curiosity is Ruhl doing her spin on Our Town, extolling the simple complexity of life and death as seen through the prism of theater, or, in this case, children’s community theater.

The luminous Kathleen Chalfant is Ann, a 70-year-old woman who begins the 90-minute one-act with a monologue recalling the life-changing experience she had playing Peter Pan in the musical of the same name in a 1955 children’s theater production in her hometown, Davenport, Iowa.

With Chalfant functioning in the Stage Manager from Our Town role to create a bridge between the audience and the play, the scene then shifts to a spacious hospital room at a Catholic hospital (which seemingly employs no doctors, nurses or orderlies), where Ann and her four siblings are holding vigil over their dying father.

Side note: this is a season of recurring themes at Berkeley Rep. Peter Pan marks the third play featuring pirates (Captain Hook appears toward the play’s end) following The Pirates of Penzance and Treasure Island. It’s also the second play, following the sublime Aubergine to deal with an adult child watching a parent’s final hours.

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From the hospital, Annie Smart’s set shifts to the siblings – Charles Shaw Robinson, Keith Reddin, David Chandler and Ellen McLaughlin – sitting around their father’s table drinking Irish whiskey and holding a sort of wake, while the ghost of their father (Ron Crawford) (and his late dog, played by a beautiful St. Bernard named Yodel) drift through the room. When the siblings go to bed, Ann dreams of her Peter Pan triumph, and a version of that story, complete with flying, unfolds, dream-style, with elements of Ann’s life and family mixed in to create, in theory, a poignant reflection on what it means to be an adult and how it feels, with the parent generation behind you, to be the sentry between life and death.

All of that is intriguing, and Ruhl is certainly a writer who can be profound and delicate and powerful and expansive. But what she and Waters are doing with Peter Pan remains enigmatic to the point of consternation. The dialogue is clumsy and corny (I’m assuming intentionally), with the siblings talking to each other in stilted tones as if they’ve just met and have to explain themselves, their parents and their childhoods for each other’s benefit more than for the audience’s. When the whiskey-fueled chatter turns from the provocation of politics to matters of faith and spirituality, things get interesting, but only briefly before they actually make a toast to not growing up. They might as well have made a wish on the second star to the right.

The action shifts to Neverland (with the set being clunkily moved by stagehands, again, assuming that’s intentional given all the whiz-bang technology at Berkeley Rep’s disposal), with the siblings playing Darling children John, Michael and Wendy (hmmm, also their names in the “real” world), Chalfant playing Peter and Chandler playing Hook. There’s some charm in watching actors of a certain age play with the idea of being children but children imbued with their full life experiences as senior adults. And it is certainly grand to see Chalfant zipping around the stage in green tights, crowing like an annoying but undeniably appealing rooster.

The blend of dream and play and drama and direct address is all a bit too eccentric to add up to much in the end. Ruhl is an emotional rather than sentimental writer, except here. She overuses “When the Saints Go Marching In” and rather than celebrating the impact of an amateur theater experience, she seems rather baffled by it. The whole play seems a flight of fancy that isn’t clear how high or how far it wants to go, a serious rumination on human existence that’s hard to take seriously. There’s plenty of actual pixie dust tossed around the stage but no actual theatrical magic.

Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday continues through July 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Sweet melancholy pervades Berkeley Rep’s Elizabeth

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Playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Below: Though the play consists almost entirely of letters from Bishop and Lowell’s 30-year epistolary relationship, there are moments of connection in Ruhl’s play. Photos by

You would never, ever expect to see a production of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. In what has become a staple of community theaters everywhere, a man and a woman sit at a table and read letters from a binder that tell the story of their characters’ slowly evolving love story over many decades. It’s sweet, it’s conventional, it’s incredibly cheap to produce. Unless the two actors were Rita Moreno and David Sedaris, this epistolary play would be the antithesis of a Berkeley Rep production.

[side note: as a teenager, on a trip to San Francisco, I saw a production of Love Letters at the former Theatre on the Square starring Colleen Dewhurst and E.G. Marshall and they were wonderful. They were followed in the roles by Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt; who doesn’t think of that foursome in interchangeable roles? And let us please disregard the disastrous Love Letters from 2000 at the Marines Memorial Theatre starring Joan Collins and George Hamilton. Ick.]

All this talk of Love Letters because there’s a new two-person, letter-driven love story on the theatrical block: Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth, which had its world premiere last fall at Yale and is now in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre with the same director, former Berkeley Rep associate artistic director Les Waters and one of the same actors.

Though based on letters – real ones – between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, that’s about all this play has in common with Gurney’s war horse. That’s actually not entirely true. Dear Elizabeth is also a love story of sorts, a deep friendship between admiring poets who brought out the best in each other in their letters for 30 years, even while their lives were plagued with addictions and failed relationships and artistic crises. Theirs is ultimately a sweet story but far from sappy.

Mary Beth Fisher, the holdover from Yale Repertory Theatre (with which this production is produced in association), is Bishop, the hard-drinking lesbian poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Tom Nelis is Lowell, also a Pulitzer winner and a hard drinker as well as a serial husband and sufferer of manic depression. Their letters, collected in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, are, of course, filled with beautiful, clever and funny turns of phrase as well as poignant insights into their work and their relationship with their work.

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I must admit complete ignorance as to who Bishop and Lowell were before hearing about this play, and though I’m not a reader of poetry, I came away from this theatrical experience of two poets with a desire to immerse myself in their work. And that, I think, is a clear indication of this production’s success.

Waters and Ruhl could easily have sat their poets at a table (Love Letters style) and had them read. But there’s a lot more to this production, which is exactly what we’ve come to expect of the dynamic Waters-Ruhl pairing we’ve seen at Berkeley Rep in Eurydice and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). In two acts and running just under two hours, we are treated to a sort of visual poetry from Annie Smart’s surprise-laden set washed with color and mood by Russell Champa’s gorgeous lights.

As you might expect, this is a placid piece of theater, filled with lovely, lively writing and gorgeous images. There’s not a lot of action, though in various interludes between the letters, Ruhl and Waters imagine encounters between the poets that are referred to in the letters. Some are clear; others are more enigmatic. It’s nice to have moments of real, physical connection between the poets rather than simply experiencing their lives from the distance of the letters themselves.

Fisher and Nelis have warm chemistry with one another, and Fisher especially conveys the tremendous intelligence and complex emotional life of Bishop with an understated but heartfelt performance. The way Ruhl has constructed the play, there are seeming moments of dialogue as the letters overlap or address similar issues or events, and that goes a long way toward breaking the frustration of never having the poets actually talking to one another in the same room.

Though there’s a crackling energy in the writing and in the sincere affection the poets have for one another, the play does indeed feel like a Sarah Ruhl play in that it’s tinged with melancholy and loss as well as valiant attempts at sobriety or even-keeled living that end in failure.

Years from now, will be seeing plays consisting of emails between artists? Texts? Facebook updates? Instagram posts? It’s hard to imagine any of that will be as satisfying as hearing words carefully written, with paper and pen, from one friend to another. It’s easy to be sentimental about lost things, like the art of letter writing, but watching Dear Elizabeth it feels like that loss has taken something of tremendous value.

[bonus interview]

I sat down with director Les Waters to talk about Dear Elizabeth and working once again with playwright Sarah Ruhl. Read the story in the San Francisco Chronicle here. (may require subscription)

Dear Elizabeth continues through July 7 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$77 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Berkeley Rep’s pulsating Red

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John Brummer (left) is assistant Ken and David Chandler is Mark Rothko in John Logan’s drama Red at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Brummer and Chandler prepare a canvas in a show-stopping moment. Photos by


You’ve heard that insulting phrase, “As exciting as watching paint dry.” Well in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Red, you do watch paint dry, and it’s surprisingly exciting.

This is one of those new American dramas that arrives at the local regional level lauded with awards and high expectations. John Logan’s drama won a passel of Tony Awards, including Best Play, so it wouldn’t be surprising if audience members showed up with minds made up one way or the other – oh, this is going to be good because the people in New York (and London) say it is; or, oh, there’s no way this can actually be good because it has received too much praise.

It’s the kind of artistic situation about which painter Mark Rothko, the subject of Logan’s play, would have a definite, probably loud, opinion.

Writing a play about a volcanic talent like Rothko can’t help but tame him in some ways. It puts a frame around him, or at least a vision of his life, and lets us contemplate him the way we might one of his paintings. But Logan fights admirably the urge to make this monster of an artist nothing more than a pleasant evening of middle-class entertainment. He very rightly lets Rothko himself turn his life into a play of sorts.

As playwright/artist, Rothko has crafted his own character: a great man of painting, a legend in his own time (and mind), an ego-fueled maniac with an extraordinary mind and a talent for eviscerating anything in his path. He creates his own set – in this case it’s a large studio filled with what will come to be known as the Seagram Murals – and as much as he writes his story in the reds and maroons and browns and blacks on those canvases, he also engineers the drama of his rages, resentments and pontifications.

Inviting someone to look, really look, at one of his paintings, Rothko begins the play essentially telling us how to watch the play as well. “Let it pulsate,” he says (“pulsate” is a word that comes up a lot in connection with his painting). “Let the picture do its work…Lean into it…meet it halfway.”

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The really interesting thing about Logan’s Rothko is that he can be just awful – the very epitome of the over-inflated, pompous arr-teest – but he’s also likeable. He’s funny, and a lot of what he says is absolutely true, and if not exactly true, then extremely interesting. At least that’s how he’s played by the marvelous David Chandler in this powerful production helmed by Les Waters.

Chandler gives an outsize performance with entirely believable glimpses of the man underneath the character of “Rothko the Great.” What this Rothko needs most is an audience, although he disdains most of the human race. It’s even proposed that there’s no one on the planet Rothko really deems worthy of looking at his paintings. But attention must be paid to the great artists, so aside from the easily dismissed art world, he brings into his world a young man, a new assistant named Ken, to help with the enormous Seagram murals.

It’s with this character that Logan lays on his paint a little thick, though John Brummer’s subdued performance mellows the melodrama. We get a tragic back story and an overt reason for the young man to look to Rothko as a father figure, one he, as a young artist, will have to displace. It’s what Rothko and his contemporaries did to the surrealists and the cubists, and its’ a vision of what’s to come for Rotkho at the hands of artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein and Johns. Logan also leans heavily on the foreshadowing of Rothko’s suicide, but how do you resist a life (and death) of such drama?

Waters cannily creates a vision of painting as theater. Louisa Thompson creates a set that is at once a highly realistic painting studio and a beautifully realized piece of theater in itself. The rear panels of the stage move to expose a wall of lights that intensify Rothko’s discussion of light and why natural light is not good enough for him. Lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols uses this wall of lights effectively – I half expected a blinding flash at some point, but happily that moment never came. He also subjects us to the vulgar glare of the overhead fluorescents that Rothko wisely never uses.

Logan, like Rothko, wants this work to be significant, but also like Rothko, he’s able to puncture the pretentions of significance quite effectively. There’s a lot of humor in this work, with “work” being the operative word. One of the highlights of the 90-minute show is when the two men set about working, with no words at all (only the strains of classical music coming from Rothko’s well-used record player). The stretch an enormous canvas, hang it on the wall, set up a ladder and two buckets of blood-red paint and go to town creating a base layer for one of Rothko’s Seagram works.

In the end, Red feels as significant as it is entertaining. Logan and Waters inspire thought about pulsating art and human conflict. What really resonates is one of Rothko’s rants about his purpose as an artist and the state of our nation. “We’re a smirking nation living under the tyranny of ‘fine.’ How are you? Fine. How was your day? Fine. How are you feeling? Fine. Well, let me tell you, everything is not fine!”

He ends his screed much the way he starts the play, letting us know why we were here. “I am here to make you think,” he says. “I am not here to make pretty pictures.”

[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright John Logan and director Les Waters, who has left his post as Berkeley Rep’s associate artistic director to become artistic director of the Actors Theater of Louisville.
Read the feature here.


John Logan’s Red continues an extended run through May 12 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$83 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit 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

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.


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 for information.

Where there’s a Will…

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Playwright Will Eno. Photo below by Farzad Owrang.

Recently I had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with playwright Will Eno, whose Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and other plays closes this weekend at Cutting Ball Theater.

Read the interview in the San Francisco Chronicle here.

There was more interview than there was room in the newspaper, so please enjoy the rest of the brilliant Mr. Eno’s responses.

Q: Dogs tend to pop up in your work, or more specifically, the deaths of dogs. Does this mean you’re a dog lover or the opposite?

A: I am solidly and proudly a dog lover. I even sometimes think of this as an enlightened position, a paradoxically humane approach to the world. Other times, though, I worry that I love dogs because I love to imagine a world in which there are only about three total feelings and three total needs, and it never gets more complicated than that. “Yes, I want to go for a walk. Yes, I’m hungry. Yes, thank you, I would like to climb up on your leg. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go around in circles and then fall asleep until I wake up barking and run over to the door.” The great dogs in my life have made me feel like I’m a good and trustworthy person. They allow you to live on or near an essential level that is just fairly basic and stable needs, and once those are taken care of, it’s all cats and shiny hubcaps and tennis balls.

Q: Mr. Theatre nods in the direction of Shakespeare and the “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It. What in your canon do you think might inspire a nod from Mr. Shakespeare (given we could overcome his inconvenient death)?

A: The good thing about this is that we can’t overcome his death, convenient or not, and so the level of abstraction here is high enough that I won’t worry about seeming arrogant by even trying to answer. I could possibly imagine him hearing Thom Pain’s line to someone in the audience, “I have that same shirt,” and thinking, “Hey, that’s not a bad way to accomplish the thing that just got accomplished.” Another one might be a line in my play The Flu Season where, after one narrator has narrated a scenario in which a lot of terrible stuff is about to be reversed and erased by a change of setting, the change of setting does not occur, the terrible stuff continues, and the other narrator says, coldly and flatly, “Oops.”
Q: Do people ever think you’re Brian Eno and then get mad when your plays turn out not to be Music for Airports concerts?

A: It happens less and less that someone will ask if I’m related to Brian Eno, and I regard this as a bad sign for the culture at large. I just found out about a month ago, there is a small chance that we are, very distantly, related. I believe we both travel under a misspelled version of a French name, “Henault.” Mine was changed about five generations ago when some relatives who couldn’t spell came down from Canada. I don’t know what his story is. He’s someone I really admire. He has a kind of genius that expresses itself both at the very scientific level and, as well, at the level of the lullaby.

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Q: When Berkeley Rep produced your TRAGEDY: a tragedy in 2008 I recall audiences having extremes in their reactions, from thinking it was hilarious and brilliant to walking out mid-performance. How much does the audience’s experience with your work matter to you?

A: It means a lot, good or bad, when you’re sitting right there. But then time passes. That play, to me, is about death and anxiety and how we try to talk about unspeakable things. Also, around the time I was starting writing it, my mom was having terrible insomnia for the first time in her life, and I was feeling a lot of sympathy for how lonely and scary a night can be to some people. Those are the memorable things. As for my response to people’s responses, there’s not tons of nuance there – it hurts when people hate something, and feels good when they like it, but it’s good to remember you’re not owed either response. I loved that cast and loved working with Les Waters and Berkeley Rep and thought the production was really great. So I’m pretty sure that the people who hated it, hated what I wrote and how I wrote it, and not anything else, which is not exactly a good feeling, but at least a very clear one. It’s good to try to accept that thoughtful and intelligent and decent people might really hate what you do.
Q: If you could go to a show with any of the characters in these short plays – Lady Grey, Mr. Theatre, Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Jack and Jill – who would it be and why?

A: That’s an interesting question. I tend to resist giving that particular kind of reality to characters I’ve written, partly because I’m happy enough with the reality they achieve within a theatrical production and partly because it always seems weird to me when playwrights do that. But since you ask, it would probably be one of the women. Romulus Linney, who was a good good guy, and who just died over the winter, has a beautiful short play called F.M. I can’t think of the name of the main female character, but, she very much comes to mind as a fictional character I’d like to meet. I don’t know if we’d go to a play, though. Maybe we’d see some music or go to an aquarium.
Q: You’ve been compared to all kinds of people, from Samuel Beckett to Jon Stewart to Thornton Wilder. How would you describe what you do and how you do it to a non-theater-going person?

A: I try not to get too carried away with the comparisons, as I understand that we all need the convenience of a category, a point of reference. Think of how many incredibly different things are described by us saying, “It’s like riding a bike.” I don’t know why I thought of this, but, my cousin James said to me, about the character Thom Pain, after seeing the production in New York, “At first, I didn’t trust that guy. And then, I completely trusted that guy.” That always made me feel good. I would like to describe what I do by saying that I’m trying to create trust against terrible and even impossible odds, and then allow for something great and new to happen within that field of trust. That’s probably a little highfalutin or overreaching, but, hey, so shoot me, I’m highfalutin. Truly, I don’t think I’m up to anything too mysterious, or esoteric. I think it’s just something about trying to create or allow for the audience a certain sequence of feelings. I think the thing is to change the speed of life a little, speed it up or down, and put some felt and relevant words in the air, so that we can see it a little differently, and, my great hope would be, love it more, care for it more. Speaking of comparisons, here’s a good one. I was once visiting my great aunt in a nursing home. I’d just had my appendix out and weighed about 20 pounds less than I usually did, and she asked to see the scar. When I lifted my shirt and showed her, she said, “Look at you. You’re like Christ.” I didn’t know if she meant the scar, or, that I’d come to visit, or what. It turned out she thought I was too skinny. I like the idea of the word Christlike being used solely in reference to someone’s physique.

Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and other plays continues through April 10 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

Theater review: `The Lieutenant of Inishmore’

Opened April 22, 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, EXTENDED THROUGH MAY 24!

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Padraic (Blake Ellis, front center) finds himself in a spot of trouble when he’s set upon by fellow terrorists from his Irish splinter group (from left) Brendan (Rowan Brooks), Christy (Danny Wolohan) and Joey (Michael Barrett Austin) in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Photos by


Blood, cats and body parts: Just another night at Berkeley Rep
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The sweetly homespun fiddle and squeezebox music that starts the play, not to mention the wry “Home Sweet Home” needlepoint hung on the wall of the set, are but jokey contrasts to the carnage in store for audiences at The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Part of the “limited season” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, Inishmore is playwright Martin McDonagh at his McTarantino best. British by birth but born to Irish parents, McDonagh is hyper-Irish. If you’ve seen the other two McDonagh plays produced at Berkeley Rep, The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1999 or The Pillowman in 2007, you know that he’s a darkly funny, violent, surprising and potent writer. He’s a sensational writer in every sense of the word, but the sensation usually hovers over something substantial.

Though McDonagh has been sucked into the Hollywood machine – he won an Academy Award for his short film “Six Shooter” and got another Oscar nod for best screenplay for his debut feature In Bruges – he should continue writing for the theater. Nobody combines humor, heft and horror in quite the same way.

Berkeley Rep associate artistic director Les Waters helmed the irresistible and deeply creepy The Pillowman, and apparently that dip into the choppy McDonagh waters wasn’t enough. Waters returns in fine form for Inishmore, which is best described as a theatrical gut buster of the highest order.

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Part of his Aran Islands Trilogy, which also includes The Cripple of Inishmaan and the unpublished The Banshees of Inisheer, The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a comically violent play about the stupidity of violence. A rogue terrorist named Padraic (Blake Ellis) was deemed “too mad” for the IRA, so he joined something called the Irish National Liberation Army. But he turned out to be too wacko even for them, especially when he started doing horrible things to drug dealers who were channeling funds to underwrite INLA activities.

In the middle of torturing a pot dealer (Daniel Kruger, whose admirable performance is delivered almost entirely with him strung by his feet and bleeding), Padriac receives a call from his dad with bad news: Padraic’s beloved black cat, Wee Thomas, has taken ill. The terrorist immediately sets to weeping for his feline friend, forgoes the nipple removal of his victim and makes a beeline for home in Inishmore.

Trouble is, Padraic’s cat isn’t ill. It’s dead. In the play’s gory opening moments, we’ve seen the cat’s brains ooze from cranium to table, much to the dismay of Padraic’s dad, Donny (James Carpenter), and a long-haired neighbor boy, Davey (Adam Farabee), who is accused of running over the cat on his mom’s frilly pink bicycle.

Taking a page from the terrorist’s handbook that says something like the surest way to a mad man’s heart is through his pet, some of Padraic’s old terrorist buddies, headed by the one-eyed Christy (Danny Wolohan in charming, slightly terrifying performance), seize upon the cat situation to deal with their personnel issues.

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Throw in a combustible love story involving Padraic and 16-year-old Inishmore native Mairead (Molly Camp, who couldn’t be fiercer if she were a tank, seen above with Farabee) along with enough firearms, knives, axes and saws to topple a large nation and you’ve got a recipe that’s sure to result in mayhem.

Speaking of mayhem, a huge amount of the play’s success is due to special effects artist Stephen Tolin of TolinFX. Tolin has a talent for blood effects, and the Roda is fairly dripping with the gooey red stuff. There’s so much of it that the effect is surprisingly comic, though many of the effects are real enough to make you cringe before you crack a smile. Without saying too much or lessening the impact of the crimson explosion, the clean-up crew, especially on two-show days, has its work cut out for it here as they mop up Antje Ellerman’s quaint Irish cottage set.

Director Waters has a real facility for disciplined, finely tuned comic performances. It would be easy for Carpenter and Farabee to become the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee of the play, but instead, they just keep getting more interesting as the violence escalates, with their characters trapped right in the middle of it all. Ellis, with his blond good looks, certainly doesn’t look the part of a mad terrorist, but nothing about Padraic is usual, and that’s what makes him so fascinating, terrifying and hilarious.

Wolohan and his henchmen, Rowan Brooks and Michael Barrett Austin, have a terrific scene full of camaraderie, hostility and delicious word play. And Camp’s Mairead, a terrorist in training, is the character you most want to follow into a sequel. But there may not be enough stage blood for such an undertaking.

With the actors slipping and sliding through pools of blood, The Lieutenant of Inishmore may actually be as dangerous as it pretends to be, but has a blood bath ever been so funny?

Says one observant Irishman to another: “It’s incidents like this does put tourists off Ireland.”


Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore continues an extended run through May 24 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information. Half-price discounts are available for patrons younger than 30. $10 tickets for students and seniors available one hour before curtain.

To read a story I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about the blood, cats and special effects of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, click here.

A note to readers

After three months on hiatus, Theater Dogs is once again back in action!

I was in Sacramento working for an excellent newspaper, but now I’m back in San Francisco and happily on the theater beat once again. At the risk of sounding sappy, can I just say how much I missed it?

Oh, I saw some good theater: August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Sacramento Theatre Company (starring one of my favorite Bay Area leading ladies, C. Kelly Wright) and Margaret Edson’s Wit at the B Street Theatre (starring another favorite Bay Area leading lady, Julia Brothers).

And I managed to see a few things in the Bay Area. Couldn’t miss Wicked — leading lady Teal Wicks is as good as I’d hoped she’d be. And Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (the vibrator play) was one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. No wonder director Les Waters is taking it to Broadway.

But now I’ll see as much as I can across our theatrical compass, from Marin down to San Jose, from San Francisco to Walnut Creek.

Very happy to be back.

Send me theater info, questions, complaints at