Shooting the rapids and tweaking history in ACT’s Men on Boats

Men On Boats 1
A brawny and eclectic band of explorers navigates a series of dangerous rapids on the Green and Colorado Rivers in Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats at ACT’s Strand Theater through Dec. 16. Below: Bradley (Katherine Romans) and Old Shady (Annemaria Rajala) aboard Kitty Clyde’s Sister navigate through the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. Photos by Kevin Berne

Oars up! Oars out! We’re going adventuring.

The first thrill of our adventure is the sheer delight of seeing 10 women on stage – 10! – in the American Conservatory Theater production of Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus now at The Strand Theater. How often do we get to see that many marvelous women on a stage together? Hardly ever. What makes this assemblage even more enjoyable is that, like Hamilton and the way it re-cast our founding fathers as people of color, Backhaus tells the true story of late 19th century explorers in Colorado and Arizona – all of them men, naturally – played by a cast of women.

The exuberance and sincerity with which these actors tackle these roles quickly eliminates any thought that this gender switch might be gimmicky. Under the astute direction of Tamilla Woodard, the actors aren’t pretending to be men. They’re inhabiting characters who grow more interesting with each scene in the play’s swift 90 minutes, but they’re also getting to play in the big adventuring playground that has for so long been exclusively the domain of white men.

In the telling of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers and through the Grand Canyon (then known as the Big Canyon), Backhaus requires no men, no water and no actual boats. We get parts of boats, with office chairs and stools also serving as Whitehall boats while the crew braves these wild rivers. It’s all about imagination here, with Nina Ball’s set, comprising moving backdrops made of giant topographic maps, beautifully evoking the canyons and rocks of the Southwest.

This is a robust, highly enjoyable tale of adventure, the kind we’re used to seeing in old movies and reading in books that were targeted to a male audience. Having it brought to life by women somehow gives it new life and excitement. We’re able to read the relationships better and see the human beyond the character traits. This isn’t a deep dive into the psyches of our explorers – none of whom had experience rafting rivers – but we see and hear enough to know that they’ve lived lives before this expedition, and they harbor scars and triumphs and the complexities of humans surviving in a rough world.

Liz Sklar is Powell, the over-inflated leader of this government-sanctioned trek. He often speaks like he’s running for office, but he’s also endearingly sincere and surprisingly sturdy as a leader. Toward the end of the trip, when things are looking pretty grim for the dwindling crew, Sklar taps into some powerful emotion that ensures, despite all the laughs, that attention is paid to the trip’s expanding emotional weight.

Men on Boats 2

Powell’s brother, who goes by the name Old Shady (Annemaria Rajala), is an unsettling guy, whose propensity for bursting into song yield creepy songs that probably have something to do with his service in the Civil War. Another veteran on the trip, 19-year-old Bradley (a priceless Katherine Romans), had quite a different war experience with no actual combat. That could explain his indomitable good cheer.

Much less cheerful are the Howland brothers, Seneca (Lisa Hori-Garcia) and O.G. (Lauren Spencer), who might be filching from the supplies, while easily sunburned Brit Frank Goodman (Arwen Anderson) isn’t so much a hardy explorer as he is a rich tourist out for some thrills (until the thrills get too thrilling, that is).

In a play that uses contemporary language to elicit lots of laughs, no one has better comic timing than Libby King as John Colton Sumner, a likable pain in the ass who has a distinct loathing of snakes. The resident hunter/trapper (Sarita Ocón as William Dunn), cook (Amy Lizardo as Hawkins) and map maker (Rosie Hallett as Hall) all start out with crisply defined roles in the crew but emerge as some of the most interesting people in the bunch – and that’s one of the things that makes Backhaus’ play so good. You not only come to like just about everybody in these boats, but also feel a sense of kinship and understanding. What begins as a rip-roaring good adventure with expertly staged dangers – dangling off a cliff! waterfalls! capsized boat! rattlesnakes! man overboard! – becomes something more as the men bond, fracture, re-bond and face the very real possibility of not surviving to the end.

Just as women were never part of these adventure narratives, neither were Native Americans rarely seen as anything more than invisible, incidental or just plain villainous. But here, Backhaus gives a native couple (superbly played by Hori-Garcia and Spencer) one of the play’s juiciest scenes as they offer hospitality and supplies to our bumbling, oblivious explorers while serving them vast, continental-sized shade. Re-writing history is the work of actual villains, but re-casting history, as it turns out, can be whole lot of fun.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats continues through Dec. 16 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

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

Doll 1
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.

Doll 2

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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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 berkeleyrep.org.

ACT’s musical Moon never quite achieves lift off

Moon 1
The cast of the world-premiere musical A Walk on the Moon at American Conservatory Theater includes (from left) Molly Hager as Bunny, Monique Hafen as Rhoda, Ariela Morgenstern as Eleanor, Kerry O’Malley as Lillian and Katie Brayben as Pearl. Below: Pearl (Brayben) and her husband Marty (Jonah Platt) dance while Marty sings about how much he looks forward to seeing Pearl every weekend. Photos by Alessandra Mello

There’s a better musical struggling to emerge from the overgrown but amiable mess that is A Walk on the Moon, the world premiere that American Conservatory Theater is launching on the Geary Theater stage.

Based on the 1999 movie of the same name and featuring a book by Pamela Gray, who also wrote the screenplay, the musical is essentially two summertime coming-of-age stories: one for the housewife who had her first child at 17 and has lost her sense of self in the ensuing 14 years; and one for the 14-year-old daughter who is experiencing her first romance and also figuring out her parents are human beings (flaws and all).

It’s the summer of 1969 in a Catskills bungalow colony where New York’s Jewish families escape the oppressive city heat, and there will be two defining events. Neil Armstrong will become the first man to walk on the moon, and just a stone’s throw from the bungalows, 400,000 people will descend on a music festival called Woodstock.

The musical closely follows the movie as Pearl, the mother, embarks on an affair with The Blouse Man (the hippie version of a traveling salesman), while her husband, Marty, is stuck at his television repair job in the city. Alison, the angsty, angry teenage daughter, has a sweet summer romance with Ross, a fellow camper with a penchant for guitar playing and songwriting. The two summer flings intersect (not very believably), and the Kantrowitz family, which also includes Marty’s mom, Lillian, and younger son, Danny, is thrown into crisis.

Moon 2

The basic problem with this musical Walk is that it doesn’t come to emotional life until Act 2. The Act 1 ending, with the entire camp gathered to watch the moon landing and walk, should be thrilling, but it’s not. It feels like a bunch of characters, most of whom we barely know or care about, watching TV. We see the broadcast footage on the giant projection screen that makes up the set’s back wall, but watching TV in live theater is never exciting. The same is true when the characters go to Woodstock. The stage is awash in archival footage of the concert, so it never feels like a live event being experienced by the characters. It feels like actors wandering through archival footage. Also not exciting.

The score, with music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman (and additional lyrics by Gray) is, like so much of the show itself, pleasant but bland, and there’s way too much of it. Of course the moon landing is a pivotal communal, emotional event for the show (and the country), but Goodman and Gray pound the metaphor of the lunar accomplishment into painful, monotonous submission. Some lines and lyrics are corny beyond belief, giving truth to the old legend – at least this Moon is occasionally made of cheese.

There’s often a visible moon in the sky of Tal Yarden’s projections, and at one point in Act 2, the moon is so big, it looms over Donyale Werle’s verdant mountain forest set like the evil Death Star.

Though there’s a cast of 14, there are really only five characters of note. Pearl, as played by Katie Brayben, is a strong focal point for the show, though she never has the charm or vulnerability that Diane Lane brought to the movie (a tall order to be sure, but Lane really did make the movie work). Jonah Platt as Marty is most interesting in Act 2 when his world starts to crumble and he has to reevaluate who he is as a husband, father and human.

Zak Resnick is so soft spoken and gentle as The Blouseman (aka Walker Jerome) that he barely registers, but Kerry O’Malley is superb as Pearl’s smart cookie mother-in-law, and her big number, “The Microscope,” is the one song that makes a real emotional connection.

Brigid O’Brien as Alison, makes a strong impression as a screaming teen who hates her mother, so it’s delightful to watch her blossom as she falls for the dorky/cool charm of Ross (Nick Sacks) and then to see her maturing into a more emotionally grounded young woman.

Director Sheryl Kaller and her creative team traffic heavily in nostalgia, and that’s just not enough to sustain the 2 1/2-hour show. There’s a lot of dead space in Act 1, and that hampers the eventual lift off of Act 2. To be more wicked about it, there’s a long way to go before A Walk on the Moon begins defying gravity.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
A Walk on the Moon continues through July 1 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Parks finds poetry, drama in epic Father

Father Comes 1
The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones, third from left), Hero’s surrogate father, suggests that Hero (James Udom, second from left) cut off his foot so he will be unfit to go to war in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), at ACT’s Geary Theater. Observing the action are (rear, left to right) Hero’s wife, Penny (Eboni Flowers), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez, front), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka, back), and Third (Safiya Fredericks, back). Below: Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace, center), Hero’s faithful pet, appears with updates on Hero’s return from the war. Photos by Joan Marcus

There’s some epic myth-making happening on the stage of American Conservatory Theater’s Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks – one of those great American playwrights whose mere name should always inspire you to check out her work – nods in the direction of other great epics, most notably The Odyssey, but also, as she has said, The Oresteia and The Mahabharata as she tells the story of a slave who reluctantly follows his master into the Civil War.

It’s interesting that Parks’ title is very specifically about a father coming home, but in the play, no character is (yet) a father. Perhaps this is an indication of the even greater scope of Parks’ project, which she envisions as being at least six more parts.

As it stands now, Father’s three parts clock in at a solid three hours (with one intermission), and under the direction of Liz Diamond, part one, which essentially explores whether our hero, named Hero, naturally, will actually accompany his master into war in exchange, so the master promises, for his freedom at the end of the fight, becomes repetitive and draggy in spite of fiery performance by Steven Anthony Jones as The Oldest Old Man and father figure to Hero (again, not an actual father). It seems Parks is slowly ramping up her storytelling – a rich blend of the contemporary, the lyrical and the classical – because part two is much more engaging, with part three finding an ending that doesn’t quite feel like an ending (because more parts are forthcoming).

In part two, we get right into the crux of what it means to be free. Hero (a stalwart James Udom), has reluctantly followed The Colonel (Dan Hiatt) into war. It rankles Hero that he’s fighting on the wrong side, but he’s such a noble character that the thought of running away strikes him as stealing because he is the property of someone else. The Colonel, who is fond of drink and oration, is holding forth in front of his captured Union soldier, Smith (Tom Pecinka). The interactions between Hero and the soldier are especially charged and lead Hero to wonder how much he’ll be worth when freedom comes. Freedom, as it turns out, isn’t actually free.

Father Comes 2

Hiatt delivers an astonishing monologue about how happy The Colonel is to be white, and the conclusion of this war section is tender and wrenching. You’d think such adjectives would be more appropriate for part three, when Hero, now called Ulysses (a nod to Homer and to Gen. Grant), returns to his pining wife Penny (Eboni Flowers) back on the plantation. But this final part, rather than being emotional, tends toward the comic thanks to Hero’s faithful canine companion, Odyssey Dog, played with adorable verve by Gregory Wallace. In Parks’ world, it’s not remotely odd that the dog can talk, but it is frustrating that he can’t seem to get to the part of his story that reveals whether Hero is alive or dead.

The stakes are high. There’s word about some sort of (emancipation) proclamation having to do with freedom, but the three runaway slaves hiding out in the slave quarters until nightfall (Rotimi Agbabiaka, Chivas Michael and Britney Frazier filling in for Safiya Fredericks at Wednesday’s opening-night performance) are still heading out. The trio may become a quartet with the addition of Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez), a slave whose foot was cut off years ago by Hero in a cruel demonstration of power and punishment dictated by The Colonel. In Hero’s absence, Homer and Penny have shared a bed, but Penny has saved her heart for Hero/Ulysses, a man whose name change isn’t the only lasting effect of his wartime experience.

Parks finds music in her dialogue, and she has also woven a musician (guitarist/singer Martin Luther McCoy) into this tale, further elevating the lyricism of her epic. Set designer Riccardo Hernández and lighting designer Yi Zhao lend the story a sense of vastness and space in their elegantly spare stage pictures.

It’s interesting that Father Comes Home is the second time in the last year here in the Bay Area we’ve seen The Odyssey refracted through the African-American experience. Last summer, California Shakespeare Theater offered up black odyssey, Marcus Gardley’s extraordinarily moving and vibrant journey of a man named Ulysses (read my review here and note that the production returns to Cal Shakes this summer Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Clearly the time has come to crack open the classics and reflect the epic nature of every human struggle against oppression and violence, the intricate dramas of every human heart and the ways in which every life is connected, one to the other.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)continues through May 20 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Hymns of praise for Kushner’s Angels at Berkeley Rep

Angels 3
Francesca Faridany (left) is The Angel and Randy Harrison is Prior Walter in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Angels in Americaby Tony Kushner. Below: (left to right) Harrison as Prior, Caldwell Tidicue as Belize, Benjamin T. Ismail as Louis Ironson and Carmen Roman as Hannah Pitt. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

You never forget your first time on the wings of Angels.

My first time experiencing Tony Kushner’s earth-shaking epic Angels in America was 1994 in an American Conservatory Theater production with Mark Wing Davey directing. I saw each part of this massive work – Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika – several weeks apart and then saw the marathon weekend double feature (both plays in one day) twice before the end of that five-times-extended run. I felt at the time like it was the smartest play I’d ever attempted to understand (but could still never fully comprehend), the most rewarding drama and comedy I’d ever seen and the most staggering work of art I could imagine a human (Kushner) and a team of supporting artists (the cast and crew) ever creating in my lifetime.

I mean, here was a play dealing with recent American history (the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan years, Russia, Roy Cohn) where five of the main characters are gay men and one of them is a prophet. Kushner is mixing politics, domestic drama, hilarious one-liners, sweeping cultural change, the ancestors, all of history (or so it seems) and the machinations of heaven and hell in nearly eight hours of theater that goes by more quickly than some 90-minute one-acts I’ve seen.

That’s how I felt then. Almost 25 years later, I feel exactly the same way but more. MORE. Angels in America is back in the Bay Area, this time at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it is directed by Tony Taccone, who, with Oskar Eustis helped bring this play into the world when it premiered at their Eureka Theatre in 1991. The play’s staggering genius is on full display in Taccone’s marvelous production, as is Kushner’s prescience (Russia, Republican politics, the environmental crisis).

In a bold and admirable move, Taccone’s production had its official opening on a Saturday and featured parts one and two. That means a theater experience that lasts from 1pm until 11pm (with a generous couple of hours for dinner break) – and what an extraordinary experience. We’re so used to having someplace to be that surrendering to 10 hours of a singular event is like sanctuary. Then to have that sanctuary filled with Kushner’s intense intellect and dramatic and comic acumen is to spend 10 hours that will renew your faith in theater as an essential life element: air, food, water, drama.

Angels 5

When you return to something you love after an absence, there’s always a chance you’ll find something diminished or something that doesn’t match the inflated ideal that has lived in your head for decades. But coming back to Angels in this assured and sleekly designed production finds nothing diminished but rather deeper, more moving and even more mysterious.

Kushner’s audacity in harnessing characters from the real world (Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg), fictional characters you might find in any play or sitcom (estranged lovers, testy in-laws, rock-solid best friends, distant husbands, frustrated wives) and then mixing in the mythic (angels!) and the apocryphal (God did exist but he has disappeared!) is unmatched in modern drama. And though the plays cover, essentially, a period from 1985 to 1986, they don’t feel dated in any way that makes them seem less vital or imaginative or visceral.

The stage of the Roda Theatre has been turned into a giant marble vault by designer Takeshi Kata. Bits of scenery slide on and off the stage, while Jennifer Schriever’s lights train focus and set mood with startling efficiency. The lack of fancy stagecraft means we’re paying more attention to the words and the performances, though the occasionally spectacular video projections (by Alexander V. Nichols) bring some spectacle, as do the wizards at Flying by Foy who pull the strings of the angel’s flight.

If the audience can really hear Kushner’s words, I’d say that 90 percent of the work is done. The script is that good as characters veer from the prosaic to the poetic to the prophetic, sometimes within one speech. The basic rule is this: get out of the way of the play and let it roll. That rule is respected here. It’s astonishing at the curtain call(s) to see that there are only eight actors in these plays, though several pull yeoman’s duty in multiple parts.

Spending this much time with actors tends to make you fall a little in love with them. There are three performers in particular who had me in their thrall. Carmen Roman begins each play in the guise of an old man (a rabbi in Part One, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik in Part Two), and she is the kind of actor who makes every word sing with truth. She also plays a beleaguered doctor (imagine having to tell Roy Cohn he’s dying from AIDS), the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and a tough but devoted Mormon mother. She is spectacular in every role, as is Francesca Faridany as the imperious angel, a compassionate nurse, a Salt Lake City Realtor, a homeless woman in the Bronx and a diorama dummy come to life.

Twenty-seven years ago, Stephen Spinella originated the role of Prior Walter, the play’s protagonist. He went on to win two Tony Awards (one for each play) and then to a career on Broadway and on screen. He’s back on stage in Angels but this time in a very different role. He’s playing the nightmare known as Roy Cohn, and he is ferociously good. He’s dangerously charismatic and funny and just as dangerously full of fight and venom. To watch his scenes with Roman as Ethel Rosenberg is to feel a most curious (and soul satisfying) twist in karmic retribution.

As Prior Walter, Randy Harrison finds his own ferocity and warmth, especially in his scenes with his best friend Belize, the quick-witted nurse (played by Caldwell Tidicue, probably better known as Bob the Drag Queen, the Season 8 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Rqce).

Several hours’ worth of angst is supplied by Benjamin T. Ismail as Louis, Prior’s erstwhile boyfriend and speed talker. Louis doesn’t leave any ideas unexpressed, no matter how ill-formed or potentially offensive, and that makes for good theater. As the Mormon couple in a seismically shifting marriage, Bethany Jillard as Harper and Danny Binstock show how painful the rough, splintered edges are as they poke through the thin veneer of everything as it’s supposed to be.

It is truly astonishing how much life there is in Angels in America, past, present and indeterminate future. The whole thing leaves you somewhat stunned and more than a little revitalized. It engages the heart and the mind in equal measure and makes you work to feel part of a community not just with the performers and characters but with all the artists involved and the audience members surrounding you. That’s a profound thing, but perhaps not all that surprising. Angels in America, to paraphrase Kushner himself, pulses to the “tick of the infinite.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika continue through July 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 51-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Vietgone at ACT

Viegone 1
Quang (James Seol, front) and friend Nhan (Stephen Hu, back) embark on a motorcycle trip from Arkansas to California in Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater. Below: Two hippies (Cindy Im, left, and Jomar Tagatac) smoke a joint. Photos by Kevin Berne

I reviewed Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, an American Conservatory Theater production at The Strand Theatre, for Theatermania.com. Here’s an excerpt:

From the start, Nguyen attempts to defy expectations when he has an actor pretending to be him (Jomar Tagatac) tell the audience what they’re about to see. Even though the play begins with the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War and has a great deal to do with that conflict, he says this is a play about love, not war. Specifically, it’s a love story about two people who resemble his parents but are definitely not his parents. He also describes how characters will be speaking. The Vietnamese characters will not speak with the kind of Asian accents we’re too used to hearing on stage or screen. Rather, these characters will speak in a hip, urban lingo more akin to today than 1975 when most of the play’s action takes place. The American characters will speak in explosions of stereotypical nonsense involving words like “NASCAR,” “Botox,” “freckles,” and, of course, “cheeseburger.” This introduction builds an excitement that slowly dwindles throughout Act 1.

Read the full review here.

Vietgone 2

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone continues through April 22 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$90 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Complex, human look at gun violence in Berkeley Rep Hours

Office Hour 1
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 Theatermania.com. 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.

Office Hour 2

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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 www.berkeleyrep.org.

Shavian wit still dwells in Aurora’s Houses

Widowers 1
The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s Widowers’ Houses by George Bernard Shaw includes (from left) Megan Trout as Blanche Sartorius, Dan Hoyle as Harry Trench, Michael Gene Sullivan as Cokane and Warren David Keith as Mr. Sartorius. Below: Keith’s Sartorius (left) wrangles with Howard Swain’s Lickcheese. Photos by David Allen

George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses last played Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company more than 20 years ago, and though the theater company has come up on the world (bigger, spiffier theater), the satirical world of Shaw’s play still reflects badly on our own lack of evolution where greed, poverty and decency are concerned.

That 1997 production, directed by Aurora co-founder, the late Barbara Oliver, made me a fan of Shaw’s first produced play and made me an immediate fan of Aurora’s chamber approach to great plays where every subtlety and nuance is amplified and the intimacy increases your connection to the characters and the action.

The new production of Widowers’ Houses, directed by the estimable Joy Carlin, is certainly handsome to look at, from the giant gold-framed screen depicting Victorian life dominating the set by Kent Dorsey, who also did the lighting design, to the posh costumes by Callie Floor (who also makes shabby costumes look so real you can practically smell them).

Dispensing with three acts in under 2 1/2 hours, Carlin’s pace is brisk but not rushed. There’s a surprising disparity in the small six-person cast. There’s the expected precision and excellence bringing shaw to vibrant life, but then there’s also some distracting hamminess and amateurishness that keeps the play from truly taking off.

Widowers 2

But what’s good is really good. Warren David Keith is the dark heart of the play as Sartorius, a self-made man of means who turns out to be one of London’s biggest slumlords. He swears he does it all for his daughter, Blanche (an incisive Megan Trout), whom he has raised on his own (and turned into a spoiled, tiny-hearted brat in the process). He is also of the opinion that there’s nothing to be done with the poor except leave them to their own wretched devices. If you extend any sort of generosity – like repairing a dangerous bannister, for instance – they’ll just turn it into so much firewood. You might as well take what you can from them and keep moving along.

Keith is cold and imperious as well as frustratingly smart and considered. His Sartorius is commanding and chilling. He speaks from the heart, but where his heart ought to be is a giant bag of cold coins.

Equally good is Howard Swain as Lickcheese, whose Dickensian name is so very appropriate. He’s Sartorius’ henchman who wrings every last cent from the tenants, many of whom are paying for a quarter of a room. Lickcheese also swears he carries out his heinous duties to support his own family, but he clearly relishes it. When Lickcheese returns later in the play a changed man, he calls to mind a later Shaw character, Alfred P. Doolittle in Pygmalion, who will also use his life on the streets as the basis for a future fortune.

Trout’s Blanche is a delicious character – a prissy Victorian lady hoping to woo marry a naive young doctor she and her father met in their European travels but who reveals herself to be vicious in her thinking and her actions. She hates the poor almost as much as she hates her maid, whom she beats and berates incessantly (the maid is played by a broadly comic Sarah Mitchell). Blanche is the very opposite of what you think of when you think of a Victorian lady in that she is robustly physical and has no qualms in speaking her mind.

By the third act, Shaw’s stomping on his soapbox results in splinters more than barbs, but his point is well made: one man’s riches is the result of another’s poverty. Advantage will always be taken, and even the most noble among us are culpable, whether we realize it or not, in keeping this system alive and thriving. In other words, the play could have been written last week. When the Aurora produces Widowers’ Houses again in another 20 years or so, if the world still exists, the same will undoubtedly remain true.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses continues through March 4 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$65. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Riveting drama in Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew

Skeleton 3
Christian Thompson (left) is Dez, Margo Hall is Faye (center) and Lance Gardner is Reggie in the Marin Theatre Company/TheatreWorks Silicon Valley co-production of Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau. Photo by Kevin Berne

What an incredible talent to balance the dark weight of tragedy and the electrifying light of hope. That’s what playwright Dominique Morisseau does in Skeleton Crew, a powerful play now at Marin Theatre Company (in a co-production with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley). It’s a workplace drama set in a Detroit auto plant, so that pretty much tells you how bleak it is. But the four characters we meet here are not hopeless, nor are they whiny pits of despair.

The extraordinary Margo Hall heads a strong cast, and the show is definitely worth seeing. I reviewed it for TheatreMania.com. Here’s a taste.

For the play’s two riveting hours, director Jade King Carroll brings out humor and heartache in almost equal measure and works in concert with Morisseau to push the drama as far as it can go without tipping into melodrama. When a story deals with life and death, rage and resignation, the threat of violence and the spark of young love, things could easily slip into soap opera territory. But that never happens here. Carroll, Morisseau, and a quartet of fine actors focus instead on reality and dignity.

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, a co-production of Marin Theatre Company and TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley, continues through Feb. 18 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org. TheatreWorks presents the show March 7-April 1 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Watch on the Rhine at Berkeley Rep

Rhine 1
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 TheaterMania.com. 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.

http://www.theatermania.com/san-francisco-theater/reviews/watch-on-the-rhine-berkeley-rep_83427.html

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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 www.berkeleyrep.org.