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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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 berkeleyrep.org.

Glorious Weightless soars back to SF

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Kate Kilbane (left) and Lila Blue in the rock musical Weightless at ACT’s The Strand. Below: Dan Moses, Kilbane and Brothers bring the story of sisters Procne and Philomela to musical life. Photos by Julie Schuchard

Last year I fell in love with Weightless, the rock musical by The Kilbanes, when it had a triumphant world premiere at Z Space. The show had muscle and heart and passion and staggering beauty. The experience of watching the show was so thrilling it felt like something important was beginning – a new hit musical on its way along the lines of Hadestown or Once but on a slightly different scale, one that finds an intriguing balance between rock concert and rock musical.

(Read my original review here.)

Weightless may yet become the massive hit it so richly deserves to be. A year later, the show is back in San Francisco, this time at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater for a quick two-week run. It’s the same glorious cast/band – the wife-and-husband team of Kate Kilbane and Dan Moses, Lila Blue, Julia Brothers, Josh Pollock and Dan Harris – and the same creative team headed by director Becca Wolff. The biggest difference is that the show has moved from the customized performance space that the marvelously malleable Z Space affords, with audience on three sides of the stage and into a more traditional proscenium situation.

Happily, the Strand is so intimate that very little is lost in transition. The design elements – primarily the gourd-shaped objects of Angrette McCloskey’s set design that hover of the stage are even more effective at catching the lights (by Ray Oppenheimer and the dynamic projection designs (by Hana S. Kim). The nuances of the performances, especially Brothers who plays God in such a way that if I ever find out such a deity exists and it’s not in the image of Brothers channeling David Bowie, I’m going to be shatteringly disappointed. I felt like this time I heard and absorbed more of the score and the story, making it that much more exciting and moving.

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And what a story. Inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Weightless tells the story of inseparable sisters Procne (Kilbane) and Philomela (Blue) and how their love and devotion to one another is threatened and nearly destroyed by a man, Tereus (Pollock). There are lies, betrayals and excruciating violence. There is ferocious anger and revenge. And there is transcendent beauty – all set to a dynamic, heart-grabbing score that combines rock, pop, folk and anything else that sounds good.

Kilbane and Pollock danced the most delicate dance because they have to be raging rock stars – she on bass, he on lead guitar – and deliver high-voltage dramatic performances. Both are tremendous. Blue remains as stunning and as ethereal as ever. Her Philomela hardly seems of this earth. The character is transformed by art and nature even before God interferes and takes that transformation to a whole different level, and her voice ranges from deeply emotional to realms of beauty we are rarely allowed to visit. Every time she and Kilbane combine their voices, it’s like Weightless jolted by bolts of lightning from Mt. Olympus. And I would posit that the driving “Awake” is as exciting as any musical theater moment currently on any stage right now.

As enjoyable as Weightless is, it also has heft. The canny re-crafting of Ovid’s story (which is far more violent and grotesque) allows for more beauty in the telling and makes a strong case for beauty in art and nature being – along with earth, wind, fire and water – one of the essential elements of life. There is also joy, plain and simple joy, in being told a fascinating story with clear characters, tension and outcomes. The fact that much of the story is narrated by one of the few gods that still cares about humans makes it even more poignant. Somebody really is listening. Maybe.

It’s so heartening to revisit a beloved work and find it not only as good as you remembered but maybe even better. Oh, Weightless, to paraphrase you: your heart and your bones, your heart is my home.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Kilbanes’ Weightless continues through May 12 at ACT’s The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$65. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

ACT’s deep dive into Albee’s Seascape

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Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) and Charlie (James Carpenter) meet Leslie (Seann Gallagher), a human-sized lizard that has just crawled out of the sea, in Edward Albee’s Seascape at ACT’s Geary Theater through Feb. 17. Below: McLaughlin and Carpenter are startled by two human-sized lizards, played by Gallagher and Sarah Nina Hayon. Photos by Kevin Berne

As directing debuts go, Pam MacKinnon’s for American Conservatory Theater is pretty auspicious. Her production of Seascape by Edward Albee is her first on the Geary Theater stage since taking over as artistic director last year. A Tony Award-winner (for Albee’s 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who has worked on other Bay Area stages (Berkeley Rep, Magic), MacKinnon seems to have landed quite comfortably in the world of institutional regional theater.

Her production of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1975 play crackles with crisp performances that easily carry the audience through the more naturalistic aspects of the play and into its wilder, more absurdist regions. When the curtain rises, there’s a moment of refreshing awe at the sight of David Zinn’s set: tall, grassy sand dunes along the Atlantic coast. The sound of waves crash in the background, the peace occasionally interrupted by a screaming jet plane overhead (sound design by Brendan Aanes). It’s interesting that the back of the theater is left exposed, as are all the bright, sunny lights that comprise designer Isabella Byrd’s grid. There’s reality and there’s fantasy reality occupying the same space, which is entirely appropriate for this play.

Seascape begins as a marital drama (an Albee specialty). A long-married couple is readjusting to retirement and the twin notions of aging and mortality as reality rather than concept. Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) has found her happy place on this sunny stretch of beach. She envisions a future free of grown children, grandchildren and responsibilities. She floats the notion of becoming beach nomads and seeing the world from sand strip to sand strip. But Charlie (James Carpenter) wants to do nothing. “We’ve earned a rest,” he keeps saying. This schism – “purgatory before purgatory” – is cause for a discussion that gets deeper and more intimate between husband and wife, and McLaughlin and Carpenter are riveting. They feel deeply connected yet strongly individual and can also be quite funny.

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Traversing the bumpy landscape of matrimony with this couple makes for surprisingly grand entertainment. Nothing major or melodramatic is happening, but in a way, as they review their life together, everything is happening. But then something major really does happen: a couple of human-sized lizards crawl out of the sea and begin a fairly deep existential discussion with the humans (once everyone determines that one couple is not interested in eating the other). It’s a little like the two-couple dynamic of Virginia Woolf meets the monster-in-the-house horror of A Delicate Balance.

Because Albee’s script is so smart and funny, and because the performances of the humans and the lizards – Sarah Nina Hayon as Sarah and Seann Gallagher as Leslie – are so warm and real, there’s never any difficulty making the leap into fantasy. The absurdity is quite enjoyable (like the man having the affair with the goat named Sylvia in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?), although Albee never quite solves the internal logic of how Sarah and Leslie have excellent vocabularies and seem to know what human months and years are but don’t know what birds are. Because we’re in the realm of evolution and those key moments when the next phase actually happens, it feels like something’s missing in the story of the lizards’ evolution up to this point. But we do get some wonderful “learning” moments, as when the lizards learn the human custom of shaking hands to say hello.

Designer Zinn’s costumes for Sarah and Leslie are spectacular, and the way Hayon and Gallagher inhabit them makes them so much more than green suits with giant tails. It’s easy to fall in love with these creatures, especially Sarah, who is curious and empathetic in ways that make you root for her personal evolution. If she can do it, you know Leslie, who seems not quite as advanced, can do it, too.

There’s a sag in Act 2, and Albee doesn’t quite seem to know where he wants his curious quartet to land. The overall tone of Seascape carries the tidal weight of existence and emotional turmoil, but that is lifted somehow by an element of hope and acceptance.

[BONUS INTERVIEW]
I talked to ACT’s new artistic director, Pam MacKinnon, about making her ACT directorial debut with Seascape for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Edward Albee’s Seascape continues through Feb. 17 at American Conservatory Theater’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.

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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 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.

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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.