Berkeley Rep’s Good Book is a revelation

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The cast of The Good Book at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (foreground) Lance Gardner; (background, from left) Annette O’Toole, Wayne Wilcox, Elijah Alexander, Shannon Tyo and Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Ibrahim is surrounded by (from left) Alexander, Gardner, Wilcox and Tyo. Photos courtesy of Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Let’s just admit it. The Bible is a clusterf**k. How in the world did such a literary hodgepodge, political football, myth collection become one of the most influential – if not the most influential book – ever created? That is the mammoth question playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare ask in their fascinating play The Good Book now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Their focus here really isn’t Christianity or even religion in the larger sense but rather how the Bible evolved over centuries into what we know it to be today: a confusing, contradictory, occasionally beautiful piñata poked at by people around the globe who want everything from solace to spiritual connection to straight up power.

How Peterson, Berkeley Rep’s associate director, and O’Hare (a Tony-winning actor best known lately for his TV work on “American Horror Story” and “This Is Us”) go about answering the question of what the Bible really is takes nearly three hours and a play that careens all through time and space in a most entertaining manner. They gather their seven remarkable actors amid the detritus of Rachel Hauck’s set – mostly overturned tables and chairs – and begin to create order. Then they begin what feels like a Bible 101 class, with Annette O’Toole taking the lead, as they all ponder the questions: what is the Bible (what is it really apart from all the baggage piled on top of it) and where the hell did it really come from?

The college seminar idea, as it turns out, isn’t far off. As the play comes into focus, O’Toole emerges as Miriam Lewis, a renowned Bible scholar and professor who, it should be noted, does not believe in God. The free-form nature of the play allows us to be in Miriam’s classroom and to bounce back centuries as we experience great moments in the creation of the Bible. Well, maybe not so great. Just moments. Like when a group of travelers, who have done their best to record the stories of their people and Jesus and Jesus’ wife on various scrolls, discover that a member of their band has discarded some of the most important scrolls so that he might collect figs to nourish them on their journey. B’bye, Jesus’ wife.

The other thread of the story involves a boy named Connor (Keith Nobbs), who is being raised Catholic and has become a “Biblehead,” someone obsessed with the Bible. He has an old-fashioned cassette recorder and, in addition to capturing the details of his life, he pretends to interview important figures from the Bible and the Bible’s history (King James even shows up). All of that biblical fascination adds layers of complication as he grows up and realizes he’s gay. He then struggles to hide that fact from his parents and his God until he rejects the church (even if temporarily) to figure out how to discover a loving deity instead of a hateful one.

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The motor at the heart of the play is O’Toole as Miriam. She’s smart, sarcastic and unafraid to put you in your place because she knows more than you do. In one of the play’s more contrived constructs, Miriam is the subject of a New Yorker article about the “new atheists,” and the reporter (Shannon Tyo) crafts a profile that displeases the professor mightily. The article also causes problems professionally (her students, especially the Christian students, find her judgmental) and personally with Miriam’s longtime companion (Elijah Alexander), an archeologist spending more and more time on his far-away digs.

Weaving in and out of Miriam’s and Connor’s stories, the play allows for an overview of the Bible (via Miriam) and its role in persecution and personal pain (via Connor). What’s really interesting, though, is the sense that most of us know so little about the Bible other than the parts that are dragged out all the time (say hey, Leviticus!) or so ingrained in our consciousness (Ecclesiastes!) that it’s hard to imagine Western culture without them. Though the play isn’t interested in Bible bashing per se, it does seem to relish tossing off facts like such and such an apostle never existed! Such and such an apostle never actually knew Jesus! Except for Paul’s letters, the Bible is not historical! All these little nuggets indicate that the Bible is like a Christian Wikipedia, altered and edited by just about anyone and everyone, not all of whom had the best or most spiritual intentions.

The Good Book, which also features sharp performances by Denmo Ibrahim, Lance Gardner and Wayne Wilcox, can feel scattershot, but that’s probably by design. Except for a trite TV talk show moment, it all works and proves that from disparate parts, you can assemble something that, even though it seems unlikely, coalesces in a deeply meaningful, thought-provoking way.

Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s The Good Book continues through June 9 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-64702949 or visit

Complex, human look at gun violence in Berkeley Rep Hours

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Jeremy Kahn (left) is David, a professor; Daniel Chung (center) is Dennis, a troubled, possibly dangerous student; and Jackie Chung is Gina, a compassionate professor in Julia Cho’s Office Hour at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Gina attempts to connect with Daniel. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Julia Cho is exactly the kind of playwright I crave. She’s thoughtful, adventurous and fanciful in a way that relates directly to reality (she’s not a fantasist – her flights mean something in the day to day). She cares about people and their messes, both internal and external. Her Aubergine at Berkeley Repertory Theatre was a revelation (read my review here) and has become one of my favorite plays in recent memory.

Her play Office Hour, now at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, is a thorny piece of work. It’s about gun violence, but it’s an intimate exploration of the subject with a teacher attempting to connect with a troubled student who could turn out to be the kind of campus shooter we’ve seen way too much of in recent years.

There’s something contrived-feeling about this play, and that surprised me, until after I thought about it on the way home. This is not a slice of realism, a documentary, an editorial on the heartache of unrestrained gun violence in our bullet-happy nation. It’s a writer using writing to pick apart something painful and complex. The play is about writers and revels in the notion of writing as an equation through which we work out the mathematics, geometry and physics of existence, but with grammar, deep thought and agony.

I continue to be impressed by the intelligence and straightforward sensibility of director Lisa Peterson, Berkeley Rep’s artistic associate. You know when she’s at the helm of a show, she’ll provide a conduit into the heart of the play itself and not her gloss on it. She’ll bring to bear whatever the play requires without the kind of directorial flourish that wants to push aside author, actors and designers to reveal the director as the true maestro of the stage. Peterson is the kind of director you can count on to reveal rather than obfuscate.

Even though this is quite a serious play, I appreciated the moments of humor when they pop through. I especially liked one character’s take on the pitfalls of marrying someone whom you claim is your best friend: “If you marry your best friend, you have one less important person in your life than you should.” Perhaps a full-blown comedy could be in Cho’s future? I hope so. But I’m there for whatever comes next, laughs or not.

I reviewed Office Hour for Here’s an excerpt:

The parallels Cho forces her characters to face boil down to the simple desire to connect. A writer, even a strange one like Dennis, wants to be noticed, wants the work to be appreciated in some way. His “terrorist” act isn’t an attempt to hide, as Gina points out, but a costume to make him noticed. So writers and a potential “classic shooter,” as Dennis is described, have something in common: They want connection.

Read the full review here.

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Julia Cho’s Office Hour continues through March 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Watch on the Rhine at Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Watch on the Rhine by Lillian Hellman includes (front row from left) Jonah Horowitz as Bodo Muller, Emma Curtin as Babette Muller and Elijah Alexander as Kurt Muller; (back row, from left) Sarah Agnew as Sara Muller and Silas Sellnow as Joshua Muller. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The thing I can’t stand about 24-hour cable news networks is that it’s 5% news and 95% talking heads spouting opinions and fighting over those opinions.

The thing I loved about Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine (a co-production from Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Guthrie Theatre) is that the author stakes a claim for action. After a certain point, opinions matter a whole lot less than what you choose to do about whatever opinion you hold.

I reviewed the production for Here’s a glimpse.

Though Hellman’s dialogue can be ponderous and stagey, there’s a fervor to it that director Peterson embraces, and the nearly three-hour, three-act drama steadily ratchets up the tension. By the third act, it becomes a thriller that actually delivers.

You can almost feel Hellman trying to rein in her passion by interjecting humor, which usually means the wisecracking Fanny, so sharply performed by [Caitlin] O’Connell, gets off another good line or insult while swanning about in elegant 1940s finery designed by Raquel Barreto. Otherwise, this is pretty serious and grim going.

Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine continues through Jan. 14 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Madwoman drives a Volvo through ‘the change’

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Sandra Tsing Loh (left), Shannon Holt (center) and Caroline Aaron in Loh’s The Madwoman in the Volvo at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre. Below: Aaron comforts Loh. Photos by Debora Robinson

If the idea of an NPR-ready take on the challenges and complexity of menopause appeals to you, get yourself to Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre to see The Madwoman in the Volvo, Sandra Tsing Loh’s disarmingly humorous exploration of her midlife mania. If the combo of NPR and menopause raises your hackles, stay away.

Loh may be familiar from her radio shows, her books (this particular show is based on her 2014 The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones) or her frequent Bay Area appearances as a monologist in shows like Aliens in America and Sugar Plum Fairy (both at the now-defunct San Jose Repertory Theatre). Reviewing both of those shows, I found Loh’s work ran from mildly funny to the excruciating pain of watching other people’s home movies.

This show, directed by Lisa Peterson, Berkeley Rep’s new associate director, is better: funnier, less self-indulgent and with 200% more people on stage. Happily, Loh co-stars with Shannon Holt and the invaluable Caroline Aaron (a familiar face – and voice! – from Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Nora Ephron movies). This relieves some pressure from Loh having to tote the whole theatrical barge by herself. This still feels like a solo show with ever so much more telling than showing, but having two delightful actors to play her girl squad and assorted lovers, feminists (hello, Germaine Greer!) and children is highly enjoyable.

Loh and her compatriots are, thanks to set designer Rachel Hauck, literally playing in a giant sandbox. There’s a central platform where much of the action happens, but it’s surrounded by sand, presumably representing the Burning Man play, where Loh begins what she describes as a descent into hell (the first lines of the show are actually Dante’s). At age 46, married and the mother of two daughters, Loh and her gal pals head to the Nevada desert to rage and celebrate a friend’s 50th. The surprise of the trip is that Loh realizes that she is in love with her longtime manager, whom she calls Charlie, and it turns out he’s in love with her.

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So along with the disruption of her marriage, Loh also heads into menopause and all the physical/chemical adventure that entails. For Loh it involves depression, not unlike her mother. And at one point, she seriously wonders if she even loves her daughters anymore or if she ever even loved them to begin with. Heavy stuff.

But nothing is too heavy here. In fact it’s a pretty glossy and chipper 90 minutes that acknowledges some important things like: there are 131 million women in the U.S. and more than half are 45 or older; menopause sucks, is hard and returns a woman’s body chemistry back to her teenage years (one character says it’s not a change so much as a return, which is pretty interesting); and when you’re an inveterate sharer of your life with the public at large, there’s going to be a certain level of naval-gazing no matter how charming, well directed or well designed your delivery vehicle.

There’s a meta-theatrical aspect to this Madwoman that doesn’t quite work. We’re led to believe that the co-stars are showing up from their commute from…Los Angeles? Or somehow they took BART and the Bay Bridge to get to the theater. And then the show’s ending just sort of happens. Loh quickly winds up and then, using the meta-theater gimmick again, attempts to re-end the show, not as the “actress” but as the “real person,” though it’s hard to tell the difference.

Whether she’s leading the audience in a pre-show Trump frustration scream, tossing Ricoila lozenges to coughing audience members or spilling details of her most intimate personal life, Loh has a monologist’s bravery. She puts a lot out there and attempts to make it smart, engaging and entertaining and largely succeeds. As someone who will be turning 50 soon, I was particularly taken with a line from Loh’s Madwoman book on the subject of commemorating the half-century mark: “The only event like a 50th birthday — the only event that celebrates and commemorates you as a grown-up, with a full, adult life – will be your funeral. So let this celebration of your fully golden self happen when you are alive. And have some cake, for God’s sake.”

You could say that Loh’s Madwoman on stage is a little like having your cake and eating it, too.

Sandra Tsing Loh’s The Madwoman in the Volvo continues through at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peets’ Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $. Call 510- or visit

Bass and voice conjure the Trojans in An Iliad


Henry Woronicz is The Poet in the Lisa Peterson-Denis O’Hare adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad. The show, called An Iliad, is a co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse. Photos by

One minute the stage is bare, then there’s a blackout, some noise, and suddenly the stage is full of…a poet. Not just a poet, but The Poet, the guy who is going to tell us the story of …not The Iliad but An Iliad.

And what’s better than being told a story? Nothing, especially when the teller is as dynamic and as bracing as Henry Woronicz, who plays The Poet in this adaption from Homer by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, who also directs. The language is muscular, bold and modern (and drawn from the Robert Fagles translation); it conjures the horrors of the Trojan War in vivid terms that are both epic and intimate.

For an hour and 40 minutes, Woronicz fills Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Thrust Stage with an energetic accounting of warriors, heroes, cowards and the same futility of war nonsense that still colors every story of war, old or new.

As handsome as this production is (a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse), with its austere, mostly bare stage by Rachel Hauck and its stunning, shadow-heavy lighting design by Scott Zielinski, I can’t say I was captivated. I wanted to be, but I never quite got there.


Part of the reason is context, or lack of one. Why is this Poet spouting Homer? Why are we hearing The Iliad declaimed in this vague setting? Certainly stories don’t need context except the ones they conjure. And An Iliad takes us back to the battlefields of Troy with a few bolts of contemporary lightning thrown in to make sure we get the parallels. In one impressive (if overly emphatic) feat, The Poet recounts all the major wars in history, and later in the show, rattles off a list of global terrorism hot spots. We get it! War and terrorism have plagued civilization since there’s been civilization. But where did this guy come from and why is he talking to us, apart from the fact that tickets have been purchased and a show is expected?

There were riveting moments in Woronicz’s performance, and then there were times when the text got convoluted and lost momentum. There were moments when the adaptation cut into something deep and resonant and then moments when it felt actorly and indulgent.

The moment An Iliad became a play rather than just an enthusiastically told story was Brian Ellingsen’s arrival in the theater as he took to his perch above the stage to play his upright bass. He underscores much of the narrative and becomes for The Poet, a reaction, an audience, a conscience. Ellingsen brings out so much sound – beauty and cacophony – and such a variety of sound that it almost defies the logic. Is that really one person making such exquisite noise? Yes – one person and a tremendous sound design and composition by Mark Bennett.

When The Poet first arrives, and before he begins his story in earnest, he says, “Every time I start this song I hope it’s the last time.” Why? Because it’s so painful and costs so much to tell? Or is he a tired wandering poet who wants to go home (or maybe land a part in a sitcom)? I know when dealing with the Greeks, we’re supposed to be highbrow and not ask such questions. The story is enough. This is timeless stuff, or so they say. Perhaps if I was more into the Greeks, if I knew my Menelaus from my Patroclus, I’d be more into about this adaptation. As it is, I’m appreciative if not enthusiastic.


Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad continues through Nov. 18 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$77, subject to change. Call 510-647-2949 or visit