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 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.

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

Bouncy around here: Shotgun’s Virginia Woolf howls

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The quartet in Shotgun Players’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? includes, from left, David Sinaiko as George, Josh Schell as Nick, Megan Trout as Honey and Beth Wilmurt as Martha. Below: Martha and Nick get their groove on, while Honey and George watch from the sidelines. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is famous for being, among other things, a night in the life of a querulous quartet, a four-part marital slugfest, a boozy broadside in four parts. In other words, four actors fighting, lashing out, drinking and suffering. All of that is present and accounted for in director Mark Jackson’s production concluding Shotgun Players’ 25th anniversary season. But it feels like there’s another character here.

In the center ring, the boxing ring that is, we have George and Martha – the associate professor of history and the daughter of the college president – who make their detestation of life (and, consequently, each other) a contact sport. Jackson’s set designer, Nina Ball, helps him remove the play from reality (it’s all an illusion anyway) by creating a home without furniture. There’s a big parquet wood floor, a central staircase leading to a second level and, most prominently, two backlit built-in bars filled with an assortment of bottles.

The vast emptiness is, literally and figuratively, a stage on which George and Martha enact their drama for a late-night audience of two, new arrivals to the college Nick (a biology professor) and his wife, Honey. Once they arrive, that empty stage becomes more of a boxing ring, which is referred two several times in the play (there’s even a story about Martha punching George in front of her father). The void also creates additional tension – Albee’s script supplies plenty of its own – because none of the characters can sit comfortably. They have set on the edge of the stage, on the stairs or on the floor. The areas to the side of the stage become littered with coats, purses, shoes, broken glass and lots of empty cocktail vessels.

Even though we know how this Woolf works – Albee’s 1962 play, famously denied the Pulitzer by the very committee that awarded it, is familiar from the shrill movie and countless productions over the last 54 years – it’s both comforting and shocking to feel the oomph of the verbal sparring and to revel in the nastiness of impolite behavior by people who know better. Lines like “I swear if you existed I’d divorce you” or “My arm has got tired whipping you” are timeless because they’re just that mean. And the way the younger couple gets sucked into the older couple’s vortex is so fascinating it’s practically scientific. Why don’t they just leave? They can’t! They’re caught in an irreversible gravitational pull and the solar system is about to implode!

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So amid the familiarity of well-loved/feared play, the ever-intelligent and adventurous Jackson shakes things up. First thing you notice is that set (well lit by Heather Basarab) and all that space. Then comes that presence, something so potent it becomes like a fifth member of the party: Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Piano vamp, unforgettable sax melody, colossal drum solo – it’s a familiar tune that takes on sinister proportions here used both as underscore and as a song that the characters are actually playing on the old record player. At one point, and I could have imagined this, it seemed like the characters were speaking in rhythm with the music, like Albee’s dialogue was jazz itself. Thrilling. The drum solo also pops in not unlike Antonio Sanchez’s drum score in the movie Birdman. Brubeck is replaced by more generic white noise horror movie sound in the third act, which isn’t as effective, but chances are good that for audience members, “Take Five” will trigger memories of this Woolf.

At more than three hours, this is a lot of play. But Jackson’s inventiveness and his sturdy quartet of actors ensure an evening that never lags. Beth Wilmurt and David Sinaiko are Martha and George, a couple whose aggression and passive aggression know no bounds. Wilmurt’s Martha shows some vulnerability underneath the gizzard-slicing wit and smart cruelty. She has the most unconvincing laugh ever heard – every time she laughs it sounds almost painful for her – and when she decides to be a sexual predator, she leaves no doubt that she could accomplish whatever she wants.

Sinaiko’s George hardly seems the victim here. He may be Martha’s punching bag, but he gives as good as he gets, and seems to take special delight in getting the guests, to paraphrase the name of one of his party games. Josh Schell and Megan Trout as Nick and Honey, the George and Martha in training, work hard to avoid caricature, and while Trout conjures images of an uptight Madeline Kahn in What’s Up Doc?, Schell effectively creates a more complex man than the straight white product-of-the-’50s jock that Nick seems to be.

The emotional intensity of the performances doesn’t always reach Albee’s maximum levels, but it’s all here, the train wreck, schadenfreude, hurt me some more, pour me another, please love me mind fuck that is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Rest in peace, Mr. Albee.

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues through Nov. 20 in its initial run then continues in repertory Nov. 27 through Jan. 22. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 510-841-6500 or visit

Uneasy comedy, drama (+Rat Wife!) in Aurora’s Erik

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The Rat Wife (Wilma Bonet, right) stops by to see if Erik (Jack Wittmayer) and his family (from left: Mariah Castle, Marilee Talkington and Joe Estlack) need her help in the world premiere of Little Erik at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Joie (Marilee Talkington) and Freddie (Joe Estlack) discuss their dysfunctional lives in this contemporary adaptation by Mark Jackson of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf. Photos by David Allen

There’s a profoundly creepy core to Little Erik the new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1894 Little Eyolf by Mark Jackson, one of the Bay Area’s foremost theater artists. That creepiness is the best thing about the 80-minute one-act now at the Aurora Theatre Company. Though even in its brevity, the play can’t quite command its shifting tones.

Ibsen’s Eyolf probably won’t be found on any of his best-of compilations, but Jackson seizes on the play’s weirdness to explore how self-involvement (which seems so contemporary but has apparently been plaguing humans for quite some time) leads to detachment, which leads to a complicated, unfulfilled life.

At the heart of the play is the tragic death of a child, the titular Erik, and in this production – also directed by Jackson – the child is played with disarming enthusiasm and charm by Jack Wittmayer. Because Wittmayer, who handles Erik’s crutches and twisted body like an absolute pro, makes such a strong impression in only a few scenes, it should be absolutely devastating when news arrives that the boy has drowned in the Northern California river just outside his family’s slick new mountain getaway home. But it’s not, hence the creepiness.

The character of the Rat Catcher, a sort of mystical bit of Pied Piper woo-woo, appears as if in warning that she will gladly allow unwanted or unloved children with her to the bottom of the sea. In Jackson’s version, she’s a persistent cleaning lady offering her services all around town. As played by Wilma Bonet, the Rat Wife is instantly recognizable, and that grounds her firmly in reality and makes her more mystical aspect even creepier. It’s not that hard to be ignored or dismissed if you’re a woman of color among wealthy white folks. But you ignore the Rat Wife at your own peril.

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Once Erik is dispatched, his remaining family members are mostly too embroiled in their own dramas to grieve all that much. Erik’s mom, Joie (the incisive Marilee Talkington) has no illusions about her skills as a mother. She describes herself as “hard” and is proudly and firmly enmeshed in the digital age. Never too far from her phone, she has succeeded in business and admits she never really wanted a child. She had Erik to please her husband, Freddie (Joe Estlack), a man of humble origins who has just returned from a mysterious six months abroad (courtesy of his wife’s credit cards) while he was supposedly finishing his magnum opus novel about responsibility. But now, after an epiphany, he is a writer who no longer writes. He realizes he has never had to be responsible in his life, so now he has eschewed writing and technology and – oops! – just wants to be a dad to Erik.

In many ways, Little Erik is the story of a failed marriage, but that failure is really the result of monumental egos that could occasionally crash into each other (apparently the sex was great) but could never truly mesh. On the periphery of the marriage is Andi (Mariah Castle, Freddie’s half-sister, who picked up the pieces after their father’s death when Freddie was skittering around the globe. Andi was the closest to Erik, but even her naturally warm, maternal nature gets hijacked by a questionable romance, and it’s not the one with the architect who built the house (Gregy Ayers as Bernie, a character who seems to have dropped in from another play).

Jackson gets off some terrific lines here. My favorite is the acerbic Joie: “Children are not the future. Old people are the future. Nobody gets younger.” But the play’s ending is pretty ridiculous, perhaps on purpose given that the shifting from realism to hysterical drama to mysticism to outright comedy has the audience on shaky ground. Perhaps Jackson the writer and Jackson the director had different visions of where the play was headed. Certainly the actors, all of whom are terrific, are capable of giving Jackson what he wants. They tend to humanize their extreme characters and win some sympathy.

The severe simplicity and beauty of the set (by Nina Ball) create a sharp environment, and the effective video designs (by Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky) and wonderfully unnerving sound design (by Matt Stines) indicate a much more serious enterprise than what we actually get.

In the end, Little Erik feels neither comic nor tragic nor fully developed. It’s go that ever-present creepy factor, and that’s certainly something.

Mark Jackson’s Little Erik continues through Feb. 28 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Trickle down theory: parallel lives in Now for Now

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Mark Jackson and Megan Trout are the creators and performers of Now for Now, a captivating performance piece that involves theater, dance and technology at Z Below. Photos by Tracy Martin

I’ve never seen anything quite like Now for Now, the new theatrical work devised and performed by Mark Jackson and Megan Trout now at Z Below through July 26 (time is short – go see it). Because I have long admired Jackson as a director, writer and sometime actor, I would be intrigued to see any new work he created, especially something he was performing in, and Trout, in only a few years, has become one of the most exciting performers on the local theater scene (which always sparks apprehension that seek greener pastures elsewhere). As two dynamic and acutely interesting theater people, Jackson and Trout make for an intriguing combination on paper and, happily, that intrigue (and a whole lot more) extends to the work they have created.

To tell you anything specific about Now for Now would be giving too much away because so much of the joy of this piece is reveling in its surprises, its patterns, its emotional and intellectual intelligence.

Suffice it to say that the work is challenging, occasionally uncomfortable, very funny and quite moving. There is dance, there is theater (monologue and dialogue), there is technology. There is direct address to the audience and there is a fascinating exploration of either one relationship seen from three different angles or three different relationships seen from one common core. Whatever, Jackson and Trout employ recurring life events and details to tell the story of a father and a daughter, a pair of lovers and a teacher and a student.

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Each story begins and ends the same way, and in between each telling, there’s dance (or movement or whatever you call two people moving around a stage and each other in compelling, character-driven ways). There’s hostility, love, sex, stunts, goofiness and grace (and some great music). There’s also a fair amount of honesty about things that can be pretty embarrassing – that’s the source of humor as well as discomfort.

Technology comes into play in multiple ways. During the monologues, the actors park themselves in front of a laptop and use it as a prompter. They control music from the computers as well as projections on a rear screen, which often come from the smart phones in their hands. During one monologue, an actor tells a story while the other sits and listens in front of another computer as if on Skype, with that actor’s face (and responses to elements of the story being told) projected on the rear screen.

Texting comes into play as well, and if you think it can’t be interesting to watch two people text on stage, think again. It’s all about context and the story being told.

Now for Now is probably not for everyone. At the beginning, Jackson says the show will be pretty straightforward and you’ll know by the end if you like it or not. Trout says that show will be abstract and poetic and definitely not linear. They’re both right, and that’s what makes the show so interesting. There’s performance art indulgence, or so you might think, but there are no loose strands here. It may seem loosey-goosey at times, but there’s intention and intelligence behind everything. Jackson and Trout are disarming to the degree that they make the show seem, if not easy, then very much of the moment and filled with the sparks of creation and discovery. Individually, Jackson and Trout are extraordinary. Together they are…wow.

Megan Trout and Mark Jackson’s Now for Now continues through July 26 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25. Visit
NOTE: Now for Now is going on the road, and donations are welcome at

Sharp edges in Shotgun’s dance-theater Antigonick

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The cast of Shotgun Players’ Antigonick includes (from left) David Sinaiko, Kevin Clarke, Rami Margron and Parker Murphy. Below: The Anne Carson adaptation of the classic Greek tragedy, now at the Ashby Stage, mixes theater, poetry, criticism and dance. Pictured are Kenny Toll and Margron (center). Photos by Pak Han

It’s a museum piece come to life, a poem that dances, a classic that feels ultra-modern. Shotgun Players’ Antigonick is all that and more, including somewhat baffling and exhausting.

You don’t go into a Mark Jackson show expecting theatrical pablum. Jackson has long been one of the Bay Area’s most interesting theater makers – intelligent, audacious, boundary pushing and always, always interesting. He tends to merge varying styles of theater, often very physical, but always in service of storytelling and emotion. His shows, especially the ones he writes and directs, can’t be described as easy, but there’s always depth, invention and sharp stagecraft.

All of that is true with Antigonick, an adaptation of Sophocles by Anne Carson that name checks Hegel and Beckett within its first moments. Jackson co-directs the piece with Hope Mohr, founder and director of Hope Mohr Dance, and it is very much a piece of dance theater. The 75-minute show hardly ever stops moving, and Carson writes in a silent, all-in-white character representing – what? – time, space, now. His name is Nick (Parker Murphy), as in “nick of time” perhaps, and though he’s visible to us, he seems an invisible guiding force helping shape the movement on the Ashby Stage.

For an unconventional staging of Antigone, this version keeps the basic outline of Sophocles’ story. Antigone (Rami Margron) has lost two brothers in war. One is offered the full honor of burial while the other, having been deemed a traitor by new King Kreon (Kevin Clarke), will remain unburied. Antigone finds his unacceptable and will break the law to see that her brother receives his just burial rites.

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Within that story lies chaos. The play begins with shouting and repetition as Antigone and her sister, Ismene (Monique Jenkinson, who also plays Eurydike later in the play), and by the time the Chorus (David Sinaiko) looking like an immigrant from Middle Earth, it’s clear that this is going to be a wild night in post-modern Ancient Greece.

There’s a distinctly intellectual feel to Antigonick, though in a way that suggests a classics professor was trying to impress a dance professor and vice versa, so they haul out all their flashiest work in service to a translation of Sophocles that feels a little like an iPod on shuffle.

There’s a sense of humor at work here (thanks largely to Sinaiko), and I wish there were more, but much of this short but intense show is consumed by deadly seriousness. This is rigorous, grueling theater (and not just for the actors). There’s flash in the design, which comprises Nina Ball’s great stretch of wood planking, which curves gently from wall to floor. There’s a 樂威壯
horse carcass hovering over the stage like a twisted chandelier, and at a certain point, a great sheet of plastic enters the fray like a howling storm. Stephanie Buchner’s lights add drama and shadow, and Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound design – a seemingly nonstop wash of electronic and symphonic sounds mixed with sound effects like ticking clocks – is as active and present as the choreography.

The cast, which also includes the amusing Kenny Toll as various characters including Antigone’s betrothed and various guards and messengers, does some astonishing work here. Jackson and Mohr demand a great deal of them, and they deliver bold, kinetic performances that electrify the fragmented storytelling. Clarke, as a conflicted Kreon, is especially compelling, and his final scene is one that lingers in memory.

As grand art, Antigonick succeeds mightily. It feels bold, fresh, challenging and incisively crafted. But what the show lacked, for me, was a human level. Intellectually I get the conflict between obeying the law versus doing the right thing, being patriotic and remaining true to yourself. But it never fully registered on a personal level. The art dazzled but the heart, my heart at any rate, remained untouched.

Anne Carson’s Antigonick continues an extended run through May 3 in a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$35. Call 510-841-6500 or visit

Dear Comrade: No love posted in Aurora’s tense Letters

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The Director (Michael Ray Wisely) tangles with his employee Anna (Beth Wilmurt) in the Aurora Theatre Company production of The Letters by John W. Lowell, the first play in the Aurora’s second performance space, Harry’s UpStage. Below: The confrontation between the Director and Anna grows in intensity. Photos by Sarah Roland

After hosting three cabaret performances, the Aurora Theatre Company’s rehearsal/black box/office space (the Dashow Wing, to be specific) known as Harry’s UpStage at last beings life as a playhouse. The first play in the space, John W. Lowell’s The Letters, a tense, 75-minute two-hander about abuse of power and the triumph of smart people.

Director Mark Jackson is known for his kinetic, dynamic productions, but this time out he’s confined to one small office (1930s-era Russian Ministry utilitarian decor by Maya Linke), and for most of the play, the Director (Michael Ray Wisely) sits at his desk and subordinate Anna (Beth Wilmurt) sits across from him and we see them in profile. They sit side by side on an uncomfortable love seat (an ironic name) for a bit, but this is mostly a face-to-face confrontation, so creating a tense atmosphere is important.

From the outset, as Anna waits alone in the office, Jackson establishes a tone of discomfort for us and for Anna. The Director, a career soldier who has moved up in the Stalinist hierarchy, makes it a point never to be uncomfortable. He has the power and boy does he know it. That leaves Anna to squirm and figure out just why she has been called into this meeting. Has she done something wrong that will lead to arrest and brutality? Has she been implicated in a colleague’s dastardly scheme? Or could she possibly be getting a promotion?


It’s all possible, and as the truth comes out, it’s not all that surprising that lies, violence and overweening governmental control are all in play. There aren’t a lot of surprises in Lowell’s play, though it offers the pleasure of a good mystery thriller with a few satisfying twists. And the way he incorporates Tchaikovsky’s life and sexuality into the action is most intriguing. There’s nothing like a good sex scandal no matter how antiquated.

Wisely’s Director, who carries a chip on his shoulder about being an uneducated soldier in a Ministry full of nerdy intellectuals, looks like a cross between Stalin and Ronald Reagan, which is just about perfect. His attempts to be convivial and folksy are downright creepy. No man in his position can just joke around, and that is eminently clear on the face and in the body language of Wilmurt’s Anna, an “intellectual version of the perfect foot soldier,” as the Director describes her. She has lived her life pretty much by the rules, and this meeting, no matter how friendly it may seem, is fiendish in the way you imagine all such meetings were in Soviet Russia. One wrong word and you’re in Siberian Gulag or worse.

That reality underlies Anna’s every word and action, and Wilmurt plays the tension beautifully. She’s the humanity going up against the stone cold government, and it’s gratifying to see her strength and intelligence emerge to fight the power, even if the fight seems impossible to win.

John W. Lowell’s The Letters continues an extended run through June 8 at the Aurora Theatre Company’s Harry’s UpStage, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Bonnie & Clyde live (and die) by the Shotgun (Players)

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Megan Trout is Bonnie and Joe Estlack is Clyde in Shotgun Players’ production of Bonnie & Clyde by Adam Peck. Below: One of the intriguing dance/movement interludes in the 80-minute show. Photos by Pak Han

Somehow it seems entirely appropriate that Berkeley’s Shotgun Players are reviving the myth of gangsters Bonnie and Clyde. The celebrated criminals storm the Ashby Stage on the run from the law and nearing the end of their bloody, well-chronicled run of robberies and murders across the American south. They enter an abandoned barn to take cover. He’s got a pistol in each hand and she’s wielding — what else? — a shotgun. She is, it turns out, a true shotgun player.

British playwright Adam Peck’s stage version of the Bonnie and Clyde story is not really anything like the revered 1967 movie version except for the basic facts of the story: Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, the head of what came to be known as the Barrow Gang embark on a series of crimes in Texas and Oklahoma spanning 1932 to ’34. They became the darlings of the media, and their run came to an end when they were killed in a hail of bullets in a northern Louisiana ambush.

Peck’s Bonnie & Clyde takes place the night before that ambush as the weary lovers hide out in a barn and take stock of their situation and each other. What’s so interesting about this piece, especially in the hands of a gifted director like Mark Jackson, is that the text almost becomes secondary to tone of the piece, which is more performance art than play, incorporating dance, soundscape and video projections. It’s a Bonnie and Clyde story by way of art installation, and it’s gorgeous.

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The design team, including Robert Broadfoot (set), Ashley Rogers (costumes), Micah Stieglitz (projections), Matt Stines (sound) and Jon Tracy (lights) do stunning work here, creating one ravishing stage picture after another as the traditional play in which Bonnie and Clyde fret and fight is interrupted by compelling moments of fantasy and dance and foreboding (several of Clyde’s interludes describe in detail the massacre that will happen the next day).

The choreography, created by Kimberly Dooley along with director Jackson and actors Megan Trout and Joe Estlack, ranges from modern dance to Fred-and-Ginger charm (Bonnie and Clyde’s song, we’re told, was “Cheek to Cheek”) to death by gunfire as interpretive dance. These compelling interludes are almost more powerful than the script itself because Estlack and Trout are so compelling, so powerful in their movements, especially in partnership. This is a sexy Bonnie and Clyde, which seems appropriate, and that sense of titillation comes with guilt. How can cold-blooded murderers be sexy? Therein lies the conundrum of the real-life Bonnie and Clyde, the romantic Robin Hood-like figures who etched such a permanent mark on the American psyche.

Not to discount Peck’s script, which has its own intriguing complexity as we try to figure out the nature of Bonnie and Clyde’s relationship. She seems much more invested than he, at least physically, but there’s no question that they’re deeply bonded to one another. Part of that bond involves the undeniable thrill of being famous outlaws. They love being in the limelight. Bonnie even imagines herself a star of the vaudeville stage (shades of Chicago here), while Clyde, who’s perturbed that a newspaper has attributed a murder to him that he did not commit, is somewhat mollified when Bonnie, who calls him Daddy, points out how handsome the photo is that accompanies the article.

You do feel some sympathy for these people and for the way their spree has spiraled out of control. They know full well how it will all end (they don’t know it will be tomorrow), and they’re somewhat resigned to that, which lends dramatic weight to their tragic love story. In Peck’s version, Clyde is not a maniac killer but rather someone who takes killing seriously (as opposed to lightly) and would rather not do it.

At only 80 minutes, Bonnie & Clyde can’t paint a full picture, but we learn enough to know that these young people were in way over their heads, and it’s actually painful to see the newsreel footage of the real Bonnie and Clyde as shot-up corpses. What was the point of it all? Fame? Well, they got that — more than they ever could have realized. And what do we make of them? Inevitable off-shoots of the American dream of fame, riches and rising above humble beginnings? If you can’t earn it honestly, you can shoot your way to it. The real American dream.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright Adam Peck and director Mark Jackson about Bonnie & Clyde for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Adam Peck’s Bonnie & Clyde continues through Sept. 29 at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$35. Call 510-841-6500 or visit for information.

Marin offers a real beauty of a Queen

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Beth Wilmurt (left) as Maureen, Rod Gnapp (center) as Pato and Joy Carlin as Mag star in Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Joseph Salazar’s Ray watches telly while Carlin’s Mag waits for the news. Photos by Kevin Berne

Watching Joy Carlin work her magic Mag Folan in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the epitome of theatrical delight. Here you have one of the great Bay Area actors offering a sly, darkly humorous, even compassionate portrayal of a woman who could easily be described as a nightmare. Carlin, like the character she’s playing, appears to be a lovely older woman. But perhaps unlike Carlin, Mag is something of a sociopath. And that’s a trait she’s passed along to the youngest of her three daughters, Maureen, played with sinewy gusto by Beth Wilmurt.

That mother-daughter relationship is the crux of Beauty Queen, and the source of its humor, its drama and its horror. Director Mark Jackson’s production for Marin Theatre Company etches that relationship with realism and a savory dash of melodrama. Neither Carlin nor Wilmurt is a scenery chewer, so everything they do comes from character and is directly invested in their mutual dependence/hatred. These marvelous actors create a finely detailed portrait of a mother and daughter that is so fraught, you flinch and still you can’t turn away.

McDonagh’s play (now 17 years on since its premiere in Ireland) is a soundly constructed dramatic work that puts on a good show, involves its audience and delivers something with heft and abundant laughs. It’s hard to ask for much more from a two-hour evening of theater. Set in a remote village in western Ireland, the action simply involves a needy, manipulative mother (she’s 70 but acts much older) and her 40-year-old spinster daughter who is stuck with care-taking duties and has never had much of a life of her own.

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From the start, there’s something sinister in this little house – evoked by Nina Ball’s wall-less kitchen/living room set adrift on a stage full of cloudy vagueness and illuminated by York Kennedy’s precise light. Sweetness and light do not dwell here. While Maureen makes endless cups of tea, porridge and vitamin drinks for her carping mother, she jokes about decapitating the old woman and spitting down her neck. And for her part, mother dear wastes no time telling a potential suitor (the estimable Rod Gnapp as Pato Dooley) about her daughter’s stint in a mental institution.

Eventually, the play turns into a sort of Whatever Happened to Baby McJane?, but director Jackson and his excellent cast – which also includes the testy Joseph Salazar as Pato’s brother Ray – don’t go for sensationalism as much as cringe-inducing shock. McDonagh’s play really is a horror show, and when something as sweetly old-fashioned as delivering a love letter goes terribly awry, the results are particularly gory.

But it’s not just about the horror, either. There are interesting wrinkles with characters who may be more divorced from reality than they realize, and that gives the actors even more deliciously meaty moments to play.

The Irish accents, well, they come and they go, but even if they vanish, clarity remains. And really, the most extraordinary thing about this production is the tension between Wilmurt and Carlin, two ferociously good actors creating a mother-daughter bond that is palpable. And terrifying.

Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues through June 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Feeling the heat at Aurora’s Arsonists

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Firefighters (front left to right, Tristan Cunningham and Kevin Clark) observe as a policeman (Michael Uy Kelly, right) pays a surprise visit to the attic of Mr. Biedermann (Dan Hiatt, center), while the arsonists (Tim Kniffin, far left, and Michael Ray Wisely) play innocent in front of the drums full of gasoline in the Aurora Theatre Company production of The Arsonists. Below: Babette (Gwen Loeb, right) and Anna (Dina Percia, left) can’t bear to watch as Mr. Biedermann (Dan Hiatt, seated at table) plays a game with the arsonists (Tim Kniffin, kneeling) and Michael Ray Wisely (standing on chair) during a tense dinner party. Photos by David Allen

My first encounter with Swiss playwright Max Frisch was in college when my Drama as Literature class read his Biedermann and the Firebugs, a 1953 radio play that was expanded into a stage play in 1958. The subtitle of that version was the clunky “a learning-play without a lesson.” Alistair Beaton delivered a new translation to London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2007 with the much zippier title – The Arsonists – and a subtitle: “a moral play without a moral.” Happily, that’s the version now on stage at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company under the customarily energetic direction of Mark Jackson.

The time is now, and Frisch’s take on the wishy-washy morals of the privileged middle class is as astute as ever. Dan Hiatt is Biedermann, a successful businessman and purveyor of a hair rejuvenator that gives baldies nothing but false hope. He lives a lovely life in a lovely home (the sleek and elegant set is by Nina Ball and has more than a few menacing surprises tucked away in its loveliness) with his lovely wife, Babette (Gwen Loeb sounding like Lovey Howell from “Gilligan’s Island”) and hardworking maid, Anna (Dina Percia).

There’s tension in the air because the city is besieged by arsonists who randomly burn down chunks of neighborhoods for no apparent reason. “Hang the lot of ’em,” the fired-up Biedermann says. He looks and talks the part of a man of conscience, but when push comes to blazing shove, he doesn’t have much moral character at all. Possessing such a thing, it seems, might jeopardize one’s standing in the community, which might adversely affect one’s business and might decimate the lovely life by degrees.

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So when the sweet-talking arsonists come a-calling, Biedermann isn’t exactly a righteous force of defiance. First comes Schmitz, a former circus wrestler (Michael Ray Wisely with wild hair and flashing eyes) who insinuates himself into the household while demonstrating his affection for a good Beaujolais, ementall cheese and a 3 ½-minute egg. Once firmly ensconced in Biedermann’s attic, Schmitz invites his comrade, Eisenring (Tin Kniffin) to join him, much to the dismay of the sputtering Biedermann.

Biedermann willfully believes these men NOT to be arsonists, despite the warnings of a deadpan Greek chorus dressed as firefighters (Kevin Clarke, Tristan Cunningham and Michael Uy Kelly), that’s where the comedy comes from. Here’s a stand-up member of society who wants to believe he’s not aiding and abetting arsonists and yet he is. He knows he is and still he tries to be Mr. Nice Guy, protecting his image and not causing a stir. At the apex of the play’s biting absurdity, the arsonist’s find themselves without a match, so Biedermann gives them a whole box.

Jackson’s swift, 85-minute production punches the laughs without ever losing Frisch’s sharp edges. Hiatt is a riot as a man so caught up in appearances and mores that he can’t behave as a moral human being, even though that’s exactly what he thinks he is. Being good, he well knows, is very different than being good natured, but that’s about as far as he’s willing to go. Kniffin and Wisely are deliciously demented as the firebugs who do what they do for no other reason than they like it. They are terrorists without affiliation, and that, amid all the chuckles and middle-class bashing, is truly terrifying. Maintaining the status quo can have dire moral consequences, not to mention mortal explosions.


Mark Jackson’s The Arsonists continues through May 12 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Just Wilde over Aurora’s Salomania

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Madeline H.D. Brown is Maud Allan (center) in the world premiere of Mark Jackson’s Salomania at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Brown as Allan observes the testimony of Lord Alfred Douglas (Liam Vincent, right) in the courtroom of Judge Darling (Kevin Clarke). Photos by David Allen

If only a 94-year-old scandal were sensational in ways we no longer understood, we could look back and wonder what all the fuss was about and why the media underestimated the taste of the general public and why the general public was so content to be constantly underestimated.

Alas, not much has changed since the early 20th century criminal libel suit that American dancer Maud Allan brought against British newspaper publisher Noel Pemberton-Billing after he described the interest in her dance piece Vision of Salomé as the “cult of the clitoris.” That was the headline he used in his paper, the Vigilante, to describe the moral reprobates who were attracted to Allan’s version of the play by Oscar Wilde, which had been banned since Wilde’s very public downfall.

What we learn in Mark Jackson’s fascinating and at moments electrifying new play Salomania is that the media, though their aims may be occasionally true, are a pawn in larger political games and panderers to public taste, which they help shape.

Allan, who spent her childhood in San Francisco, was a sensation in London, and as such, she became a prime target for Pemberton-Billing to goad her into filing a libel suit against him. He had apparently tried and tried to get the local politicos to do the same thing, but none of them took his bait. But Allan, with her past family scandal (her brother Theo murdered two girls in San Francisco) and her desire to be a self-made woman, wasn’t about to let a rabble-rouser tarnish her good name (though her actual name was Beulah Maude Durrant). So, at the height of World War I, Allan squared off against Pemberton-Billing at the Old Bailey, the same courthouse where Wilde had seen his world crumble 25 years earlier.

This is prime material for a drama, and Jackson is just the writer/director to bring it to interesting and finely detailed life. A trial is, of course, a kind of theater in and of itself, so there’s a scorching good drama already built in – especially when Wilde’s “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas, took the stand as a witness for Pemberton-Billing and dredged up all the turmoil and name calling and closed mindedness from 25 years earlier.

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But Jackson takes a wider view beyond just the trial. He spends a good deal of time in the trenches of No Man’s Land, fighting alongside the British soldiers slogging through the mud of France. While we’re constantly reminded of how the British public was being distracted from the war by the sensation of the Allan trial, we see the soldiers completely captivated by scandal back home. One soldier even says the headlines, as they trickle in, are the only thing keeping him going.

Part of the irony in this complicated tale is that Pemberton-Billing wanted a sensational trial precisely so he could call attention to the failures of the British government and its weak peace plans and advocate for a swift and decisive end to the war. His theory, hatched with Harold Spencer, an American who served as a British secret agent, was that if they can bring attention to a German black book containing the names of 47,000 traitors to Her Majesty’s government, they could rally the troops, so to speak, infiltrate the vast German network of spies and accomplices and win the war for Britain.

That he wanted to do this by smearing the name of a dancer and aligning her with the same “moral perversity” nonsense that brought down Wilde is rather astonishing. But seeing how much traction this stunt got him is more than astonishing – it’s sickening.

Jackson is such an astute craftsman that he’s able to create a near-epic feel in the intimate Aurora. His cast of seven, all playing multiple roles except for Madeline H.D. Brown as Allan, makes a powerful impression as major historical figures, ordinary British citizens and beleaguered soldiers. Mark Anderson Phillips works up quite a froth as Pemberton-Billing, who represented himself in the libel case and apparently did so at very high volume. This man wanted to be heard, and he certainly was.

Brown’s Allan veers from being an ethereal presence, especially when she’s dancing (choreography by Chris Black) to an understandably tormented young woman who is far away from her damaged family and navigating the perils and pleasures of fame and notoriety on her own. As Judge Darling, the colorful presiding justice of the case, Kevin Clarke is having a marvelous time with the character’s eccentricity. Clarke also plays Wilde in an interesting if overlong scene toward the end of the play that could use more crackle.

Perhaps that particular scene suffers in comparison to an earlier scene, also set a table, between a soldier (Alex Moggridge) home in London on two days’ leave, and a war widow (Marilee Talkington) anxious to do her part and show the fighting men her appreciation. Jackson has two actors, both quite visible, on the floor rotating the platform on which the scene takes place (the fantastically utilitarian set is by Nina Ball). The effect is mesmerizing, and the scene is among the best in the 2 ½-hour play.

Liam Vincent is superb as Lord Alfred Douglas, with vestiges of his youthful brattiness still visible even has he fights to prove how much he has matured and changed since his association with Wilde. And Anthony Nemirovsky is great as Spencer, the American who’s on a crusade with Pemberton-Billing to change the course of the war. Watching Nemirovsky essay Spencer’s breakdown on the stand is absolutely thrilling (it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch the blowhards, no matter how sincere, crumble).

Through it all, Jackson orchestrates the proceedings with lyrical moments of dance – not just Allan but also the soldiers in the trenches – and humor and horror. There’s a scene of a hanging that is so jarring it might as well have been real and not just a clever theatrical effect (with nods to lighting designer Heather Basarab and sound designer Matt Stines).

If Salomania is overstuffed with information and parallels to our own times, it’s completely understandable. This is rich, rewarding material, even if its observations about the third estate, wartime hysteria and the distraction of a good scandal are as alarming as they are entertaining


Mark Jackson’s Salomania continues an extended run through July 29 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit