Riveting drama in Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew

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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

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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 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.

Shotgun’s Black Rider dances with the devil

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The cast of Shotgun Players’ The Black Rider includes (from left) Grace Ng as Wilhelm, Noelle Viñas as Kätchen, Steven Hess as Bertram / Old & Young Kuno, Elizabeth Carter as Anne, Kevin Clarke as Old Uncle / Devil, El Beh as Robert / George Schmid, Rotimi Agbabiaka as Pegleg. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

Thirteen years ago – such an appropriate number of years – American Conservatory Theater made some sort of deal with the devil to get The Black Rider onto the stage of the Geary Theater. This dark, delicious musical by the powerhouse trio of director/designer Robert Wilson, writer William S. Burroughs and composer Tom Waits was to the world of musical theater what “Twin Peaks” was to the world of network television.

Now Berkeley’s Shotgun Players revive this decidedly adult fairy tale under the guidance of director Mark Jackson, and the results are heartily satisfying.

I reviewed the production for Theatermania.com. Here’s a sample:

Director Jackson’s lively production immediately strikes a mad carnival tone, combining the feel of a sideshow with vaudeville brio and dingy showbiz razzmatazz for a Rider that feels energized by the sheer joy of telling a grim story weighted by moral and metaphor. At only 100 minutes, the show has the speed of a magic bullet, but Jackson never makes it feel rushed.

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets continues through Dec. 31 in a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

The knockout punch of Aurora’s Royale

EXTENDED THROUGH DEC. 10
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Tim Kniffin (left) is Max, Satchel André (left, on the floor) is Fish, Atim Udoffia (seated, rear) is Nina, and Calvin M. Thompson is Jay “The Sport” Jackson in Marco Ramirez’s The Royale at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Udoffia’s Nina and Thompson’s Jay discuss matters. Photos by David Allen

There’s something wonderfully vital and theatrical about Marco Ramirez’s The Royale now at . It’s a play ostensibly about boxing, but really it addresses the much larger issue of race in America. Ramirez sets his story in a world of brutality, but the fighters on stage never actually touch each other. Rather, the heartbeat of this 90-minute drama comes from the boxing matches in which the actors face forward (mostly). They punch, the slide, they move to convey the rhythm of the ring, but instead of hitting each other, they stomp and clap to indicate contact. Lights flash when one fighter scores over another, so we feel the weight and progress of the fight, but the overall effect is more like watching a dance (director Darryl V. Jones also serves as co-choreographer with boxing coach Joe Orrach.

These sections of the story are incredibly powerful, even if, on Thursday’s opening-night performance, the movement and rhythms weren’t as sharp as they should be for a space as intimate and in your face as the Aurora. But there’s no denying how effective the conceit is. The impact of the fights is powerfully conveyed, but in a wholly theatrical way, which, in a way, makes them more interesting than actual boxing. Actors are allowed to sync their movement with the punch of the stream-of-consciousness dialogue to allow us inside the characters’ heads while they fight, and that is fascinating.

Inspired by Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, The Royale centers on the fictional Jay “The Sport” Jackson, who will emerge champion in the early part of the 20th century but only after he defeats the reigning white champion. Such a bout, though rife with marketing opportunities, also has serious repercussions for race relations in America. If he wins, it’s a triumph for the African-American community – a hero rises and conquers. But a victory could also inspire serious retaliation from white supremacist fans who might express their anger in violence.

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Those are the dramatic stakes, and they’re big. When we meet Jay (Calvin M. Thompson) in the ring, it’s clear that he’s got superheroic skills in the ring, with his only real flaw being an ego that can get in the way of his natural instincts. He deftly pounds his opponent (Satchel André as Fish, a fine fighter who eventually becomes an ally) and learn that Jay can pretty much do whatever he wants. His victory against Bixby, the white champ, seems assured, but he has to contend with the weight of that victory, which is conveyed through others in his world: his coach (Donald E. Lacy Jr. as Max), his sister (Atim Udoffia as Nina) and his (white) promoter (Tim Kniffin) as Max.

Jones’ production is intriguingly textured, both in performance and design. Richard Olmstead’s set creates a sort of American flag from rough planks and stars that serves as the centerpiece of the action, while Kurt Landisman’s lights effectively covey the ever-changing shape of the ring in which Jay is fighting. Courtney Flores’ period handsome costumes provide the strongest link to the era and help further flesh out the character of Jay, although the whole production has a timeless, almost dreamlike quality to it.

That this is a sports-centered drama that doesn’t employ the usual tricks (aside from a crusty trainer and a defining childhood drama) is a huge advantage. Ultimately, The Royale feels like a resonant, percussive tone poem that beats to the rhythm of an America still finding its feet when it comes to equality and decency – it’s an existential prizefight that, more than a century later, has yet to yield any winners.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Marco Ramirez’s The Royale continues an extended run through Dec. 10 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$65. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

SF Playhouse’s Barbecue sizzles

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The cast of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue at San Francisco Playhouse includes (from left) Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe as Adlean, Adrian Roberts as James T, Kehinde Koyejo as Marie and Halili Knox as Lillie Anne. Below: The clever, twisty play also includes cast members (from left) Teri Whipple as Marie, Clive Worsley as James T, Anne Darragh as Lillie Anne and Jennie Brick as Adlean. Photos by Ken Levin

Robert O’Hara is one of those playwright/directors who, when his name is attached to a project in any way, you pay attention. He’s smart, funny and has a keen eye for theatrical disruption. His Insurrection: Holding History may have played at American Conservatory Theater almost 20 years ago, but it remains one of the wildest, most wonderful things I’ve seen from that company.

O’Hara – the playwright – is back in town with Barbecue, the first show in San Francisco Playhouse’s 15th season, and here’s what’s on the grill: American families, race in America and recovery porn. This is comedy with deadly serious aim or drama with some really big laughs. Whatever it is, it’s almost indescribable, and that’s a good thing.

The one thing I will tell you, even though it would be better if you went into the play knowing nothing other than it was impeccably directed by Margo Hall and might elicit strong reactions from you on a number of fronts, is that O’Hara turns theater into a wacky mirror, almost literally. The subject is the O’Mallery family’s five (of seven) surviving siblings in a Midwestern city. They are a family plagued with addiction issues (alcohol, painkillers, marijuana, crack, control) and bad attitiudes. They don’t like each other much, but they love each other, and when sister Barbara needs an intervention to get her into rehab, the family rallies. Just like they’ve seen on TV reality shows, they stage a “barbecue party” in a local park in an attempt to lure her in.

But here’s the first of several twists you will encounter over the course of the play’s two hours: we see the O’Mallery’s as a white family in one scene and then as a black family in the next. Same characters, same situation, two sets of actors. When are we afforded the chance to challenge ourselves and our notions of how family and race and class are related? What does it say about me that I found the white family whiny and annoying while the black family was more interesting and likable and much funnier and more vivacious? (Perhaps the white family hit too close to home.)

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If the whole play had only been ricocheting between the alternate families, that would have been fine by me, but O’Hara has more in mind here. These families are alternating reflections, but what exactly are they reflecting? That’s the real question, and O’Hara does provide answers. And twists. And a lot more fun and some quite serious thoughts on rehab and recovery and the language and culture we have built around that process.

There are some wild tonal shifts here, but director Hall has everything firmly in hand, with an excellent design team including Bill English (the superb outdoor park setting complete with restrooms that you know are on the verge of disgusting), Wen-Ling Lao (perfect lighting alteration to accommodate the play’s twists) and Brooke Jennings (pitch-perfect costumes on the cusp of reality/comedy). Usually when Hall is in the director’s chair, the only downside is that it means she won’t be on stage. But that’s not a problem with Barbecue. She is part of the excellent cast and all but ignites the second half alongside the also excellent Susi Damilano. The black/white scene flips, in addition to being culturally, comically and dramatically fascinating, offer a wonderful opportunity to see talented actors tackling the same roles at the same time.

The entire cast is tremendous, but it’s especially instructive to see the dramatic work of Anne Darragh and Halili Knox as Lillie Anne, the controlling sister who is attempting to pull off this intervention and get her difficult (and addled) siblings on board with her. They approach the character differently and offer different levels of empathy, and it’s extraordinary. On a more comic level, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe and Jennie Brick as Adlean are both hilarious and, again, so different in the way they get laughs. One is more obnoxious and one is more lovable. The same is true of Clive Worsley and Adrian Roberts as brother James T and Teri Whipple and Kehinde Koyejo as Jack Daniels-swilling sister Marie.

If all of O’Hara’s twists don’t have the same potency, this cast pulls off this whole audacious enterprise beautifully and keeps the flames of Barbecue high and hot.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue continues through Nov. 11 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Crowded Fire tells a futuristic Tale of Autumn

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Yul (Skyler Cooper) and Rena (Maria Candelaria) grow closer contemplating life outside Farm Company’s rules and regulations in Crowded Fire’s world-premiere production of Christopher Chen’s A Tale of Autumn at the Potrero Stage. Below: San (Nora el Samahy) and Xavier (Christopher W. White) have a long history and common enemies. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Who are the good guys/bad guys? What truth lies behind smokescreens and lies? And when good guys resort to immoral behavior, doesn’t that make them bad guys, thus leaving a dearth of good guys and obscured truth?

San Francisco playwright Christoper Chen’s world-premiere A Tale of Autumn, a commission from Crowded Fire Theater, is all about good gone bad and bad gone worse. Imagine Google, Oprah and the U.S. Government wrestling with notions of altruism and greed and you get some idea of what Chen is up to here.

Staged by director Mina Morita – also Crowded Fire’s artistic director – on what looks like a ritual platform carved of stone with a few chairs and tables straight from the Flintstone collection (design by Adeline Smith), the primitive space In the Potrero Stage is enhanced by elegant white drapes that effectively catch the lights (by Ray Oppenheimer and projections (by Theodore J.H. Hulsker, who also contributes sound design) and convey a sense of modernism at odds with the primal furnishings. This play feels vaguely futuristic – there’s talk of phones, for instance, but electronic devices are ever seen – and the characters dress in a more elegant version of Star Wars/Star Trek finery (designs by Miriam R. Lewis).

At the center of the story is a massive agricultural outfit called the Farm Company that aims not to be the usual corporate behemoth raping the land and pillaging the people for profit. Not unlike Google’s “don’t be evil” mandate, Farm Co. has grown so big and so powerful that it can’t help being a little (or a lot) evil. The founder of the company has just died, and her successors are at a crossroads, both moral and financial. There’s an opportunity to make the company even more powerful so it can do more good for more people (according to one candidate to fill the CEO position) or they can, according to another candidate, make the shareholders happy by simply doing whatever it takes to beef up the profits.

San (Nora el Samahy) seems to be the idealist CEO candidate who espouses following a vaguely cult-y notion of the founder’s philosophy known as “The Way,” while Dave (Lawrence Radecker) is more of a capitalist pig type. But nothing is quite what it seems when massive amounts of money are involved. Plots are hatched, crimes are committed in the name of doing what’s best for the company and its customers and goals are achieved at the cost of people dying (unintentionally, or perhaps, intentionally).

Just another day in the good ol’ U.S.A.

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In this future world, Big Agriculture has taken over pretty much everything, including what people are allowed to plant at their own homes. One rebel (Michele Apriña Leavy, who also plays a scary member of the Farm Co. board of directors) grows a kind of wheat that has been outlawed just so she can make a delicious loaf of bread. It’s that kind of cruel future – one that messes with our carbs and our childhood memories of home cooking. When her rebelliousness is quashed, her friend Yul (Skyler Cooper) partners up with Rena (Maria Candelaria) a former Farm Co. employee who has suddenly become an investigative journalist aiming to expose corruption at the highest level. She even manages to get into a prison cell with a supposed terrorist (Christopher W. White in a sharp-edged performance).

So, is A Tale of Autumn satirical? Sometimes, especially when the character of Dave is involved (he’s like something out of the HBO show “Silicon Valley”). Is it a foreboding thriller? Sometimes but not nearly enough. Though there are lives and global economies at stake here, the tension doesn’t feel very tense. Is it a parable a bout the depthless greed and idiocy of humankind? Yes, and that’s where it’s most effective. The whole thing about the former employee becoming a journalist and somehow gaining access to people at the highest corporate levels feels implausible at best. There’s a lot of plot activity in this two-plus-hour play, but none of it carries much weight beyond the cerebral exercise of comparing the action to events of our own troubled times.

The most interesting character here is Mariana (Mia Tagano), a division leader at the company whose loyalty is kind of a gray area. She thinks San’s goal of realizing the late founder’s true vision for the company is a good one, even if it means the ouster of Dave, who happens to be her lover (even though Dave apparently lives with his male lover, Gil, played by Shoresh Alaudini. It doesn’t seem to take much to get Mariana to betray confidence, though when she has her final change of heart, we don’t know how or why, only that it happened, which feels dramatically inert. There’s something very interesting about how people change their minds based on how hard (or easy) it might be to affect change of one kind or another,
and though we see a bit of this process from other people, it would be interesting to be more inside Mariana’s head.

This feels like a new play that hasn’t yet found its way. The ending comes so abruptly it seems more a stopping point than an actual ending. If a tale of winter is hot on the heels of this Tale of Autumn, it promises to be more confusing than chilling.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s A Tale of Autumn continues through Oct. 7 at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034, ext. 1 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

Succumb to temptation and see Ain’t Too Proud at Berkeley Rep

EXTENDED THROUGH NOV. 5
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The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world-premiere musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations includes (from left) Christian Thompson as Smokey Robinson, Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, Jared Joseph as Melvin Franklin, Derrick Baskin as Otis Williams, Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks and James Harkness as Paul Williams. Below: The Temptations – (from left) Sykes, Pope, Harkness, Joseph and Baskin – show off their moves. Photos by Carole Litwin/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

When Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is in its groove, this world-premiere musical at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is absolutely electrifying. Featuring all or part of 30 songs from the ’60s and ’70s Motown era, the music alone is enough to make this a must-see theatrical event, but it’s clear that this musical biography is going places (namely Broadway).

It’s not surprising that the story of The Temptations, one of the most successful R&B groups in pop music history, is being given the stage musical treatment. Perhaps what’s surprising about this venture is that it involves two of the major talents behind another, incredibly successful stage bio: Jersey Boys. Director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo return for another chapter of pop music history translated to the musical theater stage, and the results are similarly thrilling and tuneful. Here’s another story about a scrappy boy band that hits it big, suffers the usual success-related plagues (ego, drugs) and survives with the music (if not the original band members) prevailing. Think Jersey Boys meets Dream Girls to create Detroit Dream Boys.

What’s interesting about Ain’t Too Proud is that it begins in Detroit, with the eventual formation of the five-member band and its eventual acceptance into the stable of resident hitmaker Berry Gordy and his Motown label. After struggling to get traction on the charts, the Temptations finally break through with “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and by the late ’60s and early ’70s, they’re struggling along with most of the country to adapt to rapidly changing times and tastes all the while dealing with some explosive personalities within the band, which leads to a sort of revolving door of members of the remainder of its existence. We’re told that from 1963 to the present day (there is still a band called The Temptations making music in the world), two dozen men have been in (and out) of the band. That’s a lot of guys to keep track of in a musical biography, so book writer Dominique Morisseau (a noted playwright and Detroit native) focuses primarily on the original five members for the first act and the first few replacements in the second act, which can’t help but lose some of its focus as years and members seem to speed by without much specificity.

The musical is based on the book The Temptations by founding member Otis Williams – the same book that served as a basis for the two-part 1998 NBC miniseries “The Temptations – so the story is told primarily from his point of view. As played by the charismatic and eminently likable Derrick Baskin, Otis is savvy and hardworking, a team player who makes up in reliable good nature what he may lack in showbiz pizzazz. He’s the through-line of the story, serving as its narrator and amiable main character (and at Thursday’s opening-night performance, the real Otis was in the theater beaming at his on-stage alter-ego).

A single song, like “Shout” can serve to rile up the audience (boy, does that song rile up an audience) and provide a lively backdrop while Otis gathers together other Detroit guys to form what will become The Temptations. Time is compressed into a single song as he recruits Melvin Franklin (Jared Joseph), Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.), Paul Williams (James Harkness), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes) into the band. Then the song “Get Ready” charts the rise of the band to major player on the American pop scene.

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By the time we get to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” being performed on “American Bandstand,” it’s clear that the Temps are well on their way, and the story shifts focus in several ways. First, to Otis’ wife, Josephine (Rashidra Scott, who stops the show with her take on “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”), and their faltering marriage, and then to the bad behavior and ego flares of Ruffin and Kendricks.

Act 2 can be summed up in one line of dialogue: “The bigger we get, the more we fall apart.” Great songs like “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (sung as part of a TV special with Diana Ross and the Supremes), “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” “Just My Imagination” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” attest to the quality of the music being made even while band members were quitting, being fired or dying and new ones were coming in and out. By the time Otis lets loose on “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” it’s easy to understand why (on top of his own personal tragedy) keeping the The Temptations alive and viable could be heartbreaking work.

The end of Jersey Boys was kind of a brilliant trick in that the Four Seasons’ induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame capped a fractious era in the band’s history and this musical itself, Jersey Boys itself was the actual final chapter for the band, and we in the audience were all part of it. The ending of Aint’ Too Proud hasn’t yet figured out how to play out on that level, but that’s what out-of-town tryouts are for.

If Ain’t Too Proud isn’t perfect, it’s in phenomenally good shape. Director McAnuff, using the conveyer belt and turntables of Robert Brill’s astonishingly efficient set (with subdued and artful projections by Peter Nigrini), delivers another finely tuned machine that seamlessly blends songs with action and some of the smoothest dance moves in recent memory (Trujillo is the master of in-unison band dancing). Howell Binkley’s lights and Paul Tazewell’s costume designs convey time and place with precision and panache, and the 12-piece band headed by Kenny Seymour kicks some serious R&B butt, capturing the texture and flavor of the Motown sound and giving it fresh zest. The moment the band is revealed on stage toward the end of this 2 1/2-hour extravaganza is a well-earned thrill.

In the end, though, it’s the extraordinary cast that makes Ain’t Too Proud such a rich and rewarding pleasure. They sing, they dance, they add nuance to a fast-moving story that doesn’t have time for a lot of character detail. The way they do the things they do makes us care about the success of the band and its part in Gordy’s goal of using Motown to break down racial barriers coast to coast (and making him gobs of money while he’s at it). The voices are simply glorious – especially Sykes’ Ruffin and Pope’s Kendricks – and the blend of the boys in the band feels true to the original Temptations sound while making feel alive and not overly polished.

There’s a repeated line in the show about not dwelling on the past – the only thing you can rewind is a song – but this whole exercise is essentially a rewind. Sometimes dwelling on the past is worth it when you get new insight into the music and are able – as you do with Ain’t Too Proud – to hear it with fresh ears and a bigger heart.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations continues an extended run through Nov. 5 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$125 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Love among the stars in TheatreWorks’ Constellations

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Above and below: Cosmologist Marianne (Carie Kawa) and beekeeper Roland (Robert Gilbert) experience a multiverse of love in the Bay Area premiere of Nick Payne’s Constellations presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photos by: Kevin Berne

British playwright Nick Payne isn’t interested in changing minds or even changing the world in Constellations. He settles for nothing less than changing the universe – over and over again. Imagine if Einstein and Hawking had decided to write a love story – you might get something resembling this fascinating play.

Payne’s 2012 play, which debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre before heading to New York in 2015 (in a production that marked the Broadway debut of Jake Gyllenhaal), is an absolute wonder. That a two-person, one-set, 70-minute play would find success in regional theater was a forgone conclusion. Who wouldn’t want to produce an economical romance with an intellectual twist and an ever-deepening sense of engagement?

The first local company to leap at the chance is TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley performing at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The advantage of a two-person show in this space (as opposed to the company’s other, smaller performance home, the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto) is that we get a glorious light sculpture set by Andrea Bechert and lit by Steven B. Mannshardt that creates a vast universe of constellations, one for each of the short scenes that plays out between the two characters as they meet, fall in love, break up, face death and fracture like mirrors before putting themselves back together in different configurations.

When the play, under the sharp direction of Robert Kelley, begins, it feels a little like an acting class exercise. Carie Kawa is Marianne, a theoretical cosmologist whose job keeps her head in the stars and in the atoms and in the realm where several different outcomes can exist simultaneously. Robert Gilbert is Roland, a beekeeper, a grounded farmer of a sort whose head is in the biology of drones and hives and honey. The two meet at a rainy barbecue, and we see their meeting over and over again, each time with a slight variation. She strikes up a conversation and he turns out to be married. Or, as the scenes fly, by, he’s just out of a long relationship, and they finally click.

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The whole play is like this: variations on a theme of Marianne and Roland. They’re together and happy. They’re together and she’s cheating. No wait, he’s cheating. They’re broken up. They’re together and dealing with serious illness. And so on. Once we get into the swing of the play, it’s easy to see how each variation, each shift of the universe, lets us watch the characters explore multiple facets of their personalities both as individuals and as partners in this coupling. Their humor and heartbreak and violence and family histories all come into play, and though each scene gives the characters a slight or major variation, we the audience begin to accumulate a rich, full view of who these people are, who they strive to be and what might be holding them back.

I’ve never seen a play like this, and by the time it ends, it’s hard to believe it’s only been just over an hour since it started. The fast pace and the swift accumulation of information makes the experience feel far deeper and more complete that many much longer plays.

That said, there’s also a slight disconnect working here as well. Perhaps its cause is rooted in the fact that Gilbert’s performance is more nuanced in showing us different facets of Roland than Kawa’s is in revealing Marianne. It could also be the play itself, which, by the end, feels like it should have accumulated much more emotional weight than it actually has.

While the love story between Marianne and Roland is the centerpiece of the play, the notion of free will versus a fully mapped out universe of fated behavior creates a fascinating tension, even while we’re invested in the sad, playful, angry phases of the romance. Other works have explored parallel universes (the movie Sliding Doors, the musical If/Then), but Constellations is a more interesting work – more serious and more plausible. And, it must be said, the notion of being able to slip into an alternate reality has rarely been more appealing that it is right now.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Nick Payne’s Constellations continues through Sept. 17 in a TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org

Joy, power of stories in Cal Shakes black odyssey

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The cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s black odyssey by Marcus Gardley includes (from left) Lamont Thompson (Super Fly Tireseas), J. Alphonse Nicholson (Ulysses Lincoln), Safiya Fredericks (Benevolence Nausicca Sabine), Dawn L. Troupe (Caribdiss), and Aldo Billingslea (Great Grand Paw Sidin). Below: J. Alphonse Nicholson as Ulysses Lincoln, Margo Hall as Calypso and Safiya Fredericks as Benevolence Nausicca Sabine. Photos by Kevin Berne

Just when it seems the news can’t get any worse, it gets worse. This weekend in Virginia we saw some of the worst of humanity, with terror, death, hatred and ignorance all on full display. At such times, it can be hard not to give in to that helpless, hopeless feeling of things ever getting better, of our species ever giving over to our better natures rather than constantly reveling in our worst.

Then there’s art. In a quirk of timing for which I will be forever grateful, California Shakespeare Theater opened a new production Saturday night at the Bruns Amphitheater amid the full chilly summer glory of the Orinda Hills. It wasn’t just any production, but one so suited to our troubled times that it seems we should find some way to broadcast it nationally over and over. The play is black odyssey by Oakland-born playwright Marcus Gardley, one of the finest poetic/dramatic voices in the country. It’s a loose adaptation of The Odyssey, but its power is unmistakable as it reaches deep into the human experience to grapple with storytelling as a fundamental means of connecting our lives and our experiences with those of our ancestors – a profound way to find meaning in our time on earth (and perhaps beyond it). More specifically, he’s using Homer’s lost soldier template to tell stories of the African-American experience, to share pain and injustice and triumph and perseverance and love. There is a lot of love in this play, which makes for a deeply moving experience.

In the face of horrific news stemming from horrific behavior, it is…”reassuring” or “inspiring” seem too small here…of paramount importance to note that there are artists like Gardley and director Eric Ting (now in his second season as Cal Shakes’ artistic director) and these designers and these actors who are working against the wretchedness simply by doing their jobs, and doing them with compassion, intelligence and a beautiful mix of humor and passion.

black odyssey (its lower-case appearance belies its ALL CAPS impact) serves as a fascinating bookend to another play Ting directed recently, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (read my review here). That mind-bending play also deals with the African-American experience and is also highly and wonderfully theatrical. But while Octoroon hits the brain (and funny bone), black odyssey aims more for the heart.

I can’t say I’ve ever been moved by The Odyssey in any form, but Gardley’s ambitious, ferocious re-telling earns its emotions, even while it challenges audiences to just go with it while modern-day ancient gods play a game of chess, both literal and figurative, that affects the fate of mortals below and sends our hero, Ulysses Lincoln, back and forth in time and space. In the real world, he’s a 21-year-old from Oakland who has been in love with the same girl, Nella Pell (or “Nella P” as he calls her) since they met in a group home at age 13. The two get married and are expecting a baby when Ulysses enlists during peacetime, thinking that’s the best way to ensure his college education. But then 9/11 happens, and he’s deployed to Afghanistan, where he inspires the wrath of the god of the sea, known here as Great Grand Paw Sidin.

On his way back to the U.S., Ulysses is swept from the deck of his boat and given up for dead. His 16-year journey back home takes him all kinds of bizarre places, all of which are meant to help him become less lost in every sense of the word. To find home, he must connect with his own personal past, his cultural past and connect with his ancestors.

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Back home in Oakland’s Acorn housing project (Gardley loves to name drop his hometown), Nella is visited by the goddess Athena, in the guise of a long, lost relative, and ends up trading her immortality for life on earth helping Nella raise her son, Malachi, all the while trying to keep the hope of Ulysses’ return alive.

The Oakland scenes offer a gritty reality (not unlike another recent lower-case play, Shotgun Players’ production of brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Leeread my review here), while Ulysses is in a time-warp fever dream that kept calling to mind a modern-day The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder in the way it creates an irreverent apocalyptic epic that never loses its human scale.

Ulysses, played by the charismatic J. Alphonse Nicholson, encounters all kinds of people and places in his journey, most notably a family living on the roof of their Louisiana home desperately trying to survive 40 days and 40 days of flooding as the end of days approaches. Ulysses is washed onto their roof by Hurricane Katrina, and from their soon-to-be-submerged perch, they can see in the distance Emmet Till dangling from a tree but not yet dead. In another direction they see the Scottsboro Boys, waiting in vain for justice, and the Birmingham Four, the little girls killed in a church bombing. It’s a grim place, and the parents (Michael Gene Sullivan and Dawn L. Troupe) reluctantly send their 10-year-old daughter, Benevolence (Safiya Fredericks), off with Ulysses for her best chance of survival.

To keep his young charge entertained, Ulysses tells her stories of his journey, including his time in Circe’s undersea den, which happens to be in the middle of the Middle Passage. You can’t get to your destination from there unless you have a past. Until Ulysses figures out his own, he is royally wined and dined by his hostess (played with jazzy verve by Troupe), who nearly steals the entire show with her lusty prayer before digging into the fantasy meal of all fantasy meals.

Another stop on his route involves a stylishly suited blind man atop a rolling Cadillac – Super Fly Tireseas (Lamont Thompson, who also plays the Zeus-like Daddy Deus) – who helps him navigate past Scylla- and Charybdis- like monsters who take the form of Diana Ross, Tina Turner and James Brown.

The most moving part of Ulysses’ journey takes him to slave quarters, where he is tended to with the utmost love and care by his great grandmother, played be the ever-extraordinary and surprising Margo Hall, who also plays Athena (aka Great Aunt Tina). This scene has incredible power and beauty, and the set by Michael Locher helps create one of the most incredible stage pictures in recent memory.

While all of this is going on, we also keep focus on the domestic drama of Nella (the invaluable Omozé Idehenre), rebellious teen Malachi (Michael Curry) and Aunt T. As if life weren’t difficult enough for them, a disguised Paw Sidin (Aldo Billingslea, simultaneously hilarious and menacing) is attempting to complicate their struggles even further by meddling with Nella’s affections and her desperation to do right by her son.

It’s a lot to deal with in 2 1/2 hours, but Gardley and Ting and this phenomenal cast keep it all rolling along. One of the great advantages of this production is its frequent use of choral music, which amplifies the heart and soul of the story. Credit Linda Tillery and Molly Holm for raising these voices to such a glorious place full of spirituals and blues and jazz and pop and an original song at the end that may just crack your heart wide open.

There’s so much beauty in this production – choreography by Latanya D. Tigner, stunning costumes by Dede M. Ayite – and so much pain in the story. Gardley’s words have poetry and pathos and power along with humor and defiance. And, as I said before, a love that lingers like a light in the dark.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey continues through Sept. 3 in a California Shakespeare Theater production at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Shakespeare Festival Way, Orinda. Free shuttles between Orinda BART and the theater. Tickets are $20-$92. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Shotgun’s curious Watson: more than elementary

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Brady Morales Woolery is Watson, Sarah Mitchell is Eliza in Madeleine George’s The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage. Below: Mick Mize is Merrick (with Morales Woolery as Sherlock’s friend Watson in the rear). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Now that artificial intelligence has infiltrated our homes (Amazon’s Alexa) and our pockets (Apple’s Siri), we have robotic personal servants at our beck and call, just waiting for us to ask for directions, to compose a message or even tell us a joke (did you ever ask Siri the meaning of life?).This is a fun, occasionally helpful technological development, but like so much in our Silicon Valley-centric world, it’s hard to fathom just how extraordinary this is.

Except for the flying cars, we are pretty much living The Jetsons, and we take it in stride. Playwright Madeleine George attempts to knock some wonder – and perspective – into us in her play The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, now at Berkeley’s Ashby Stage in Shotgun Players production. George tackles one of the key issues of our time – how, with all this instant and constant digital connection, can we still be so isolated – but does so in a clever – if not wholly satisfying – way.

Sort of a comedy, sort of a drama, Watson examines invention in three different eras, each enlivened by the same three actors playing different characters with the same names. The first era is our own. A genius named Eliza (Sarah Mitchell) has left the bosom of Big Blue (IBM) and embarked on the start-up road. Her talent is for artificial intelligence, and taking a cue from IBM’s Watson, which famously competed and won on Jeopardy in 2011, she has built a full-blown AI man named Watson. Played by Brady Morales Woolery, Watson is the warmhearted version of robotic – if robots had hearts, that is. He speaks compassionately about wanting to give Eliza everything she needs, and if he doesn’t understand something, he requests she nudge him in the right direction with more specific information.

In other words, he’s the perfect man, unlike Merrick (Mick Mize), Eliza’s ex-husband, who is channeling his rage and betrayal into an election campaign aiming him toward the city auditor’s office. Merrick can’t deal with the smallest of tech details involving his home computer, so he gets a member of the “Dweeb Team” to help him out. Sure enough, this “dweeb,” one Josh Watson (played by Woolery) turns out not only to be helpful but also willing to spy on Merrick’s ex-wife, whom he is sure is plotting something against him (she’s not).

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When the time period flips, it’s into the 1800s and the world of Sherlock and Dr. Watson. A woman (Mitchell) shows up at 221B Baker Street with a mysterious and tiny wounds on her hands and arms. Sherlock is out, so Dr. Watson (Woolery) takes the case, leading him on trail that ends with an inventor named Merrick (Mize), who has the disturbing notion of replacing his actual wife with a less troublesome mechanical version. Nina Ball’s attractive, highly functional set is full of surprises that help make the time travel even more enjoyable.

Another time flip takes us to a 1930s radio studio where Thomas A. Watson (Woolery) is being interviewed about that fateful day in 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful transmission over a wire, “Mr. Watson! Come here. I want you.”

All the Watsons are interesting here because Woolery’s performance is so full of delight in whichever one he’s playing. Whether he’s a robot, a techno geek in love or a famous sleuthing sidekick, he crackles with humor, intelligence and enthusiasm.

Director Nancy Carlin encounters some pacing problems in the two-plus hours of the play, primarily in the contemporary scenes, which tend to become a bit of a slog. Much of that has to do with George’s script, which tends toward the overwritten, especially in the second act.

There are definitely diminishing returns as the play progresses, although there are a couple moments of real connection – once in a monologue from the telephone Watson and once from Eliza, who has a disarming passion for wanting to use the most advanced forms of technology to provide actual assistance to people most in need. It’s a revolutionary concept, and even more than fostering deeper connection between actual people instead of people “connecting” through screens, that idea – of Siri or Alexa or their more advanced progeny – filling out medical or housing paperwork or serving as legal adviser or just being smart in a situation when people don’t know how to be. That’s the staggering intelligence I’ll take from this Watson.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Madeleine George’s The (curious case of the ) Watson Intelligence continues through Sept. 3 in a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.