G-L-O-R-I-A! Gloria fascinates, frightens at ACT

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Coworkers Ani (Martha Brigham, left) and Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah) commiserate with each other over their publishing jobs and toxic workplace in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria, at ACT’s Strand Theater through April 12. Below: Miles, the intern (Jared Corbin, left), talks with Dean (Jeremy Kahn) about his future plans. Photos by Kevin Berne

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria is a fascinating play. It’s a lively workplace comedy until it’s an unsettling workplace drama. There’s a sheen of satire to it but also reality and heart. There’s a bracing boldness to it that makes its two hours fly by, and its path is never exactly what you think it will be.

Director Eric Ting navigates the tonal shifts expertly with the support of a sterling cast. There’s not a weak or even wobbly performance here, and with some actors playing up to three roles, that is a thrilling thing. I especially loved Martha Brigham as a good-hearted office busybody, a curt publishing doyenne with an even more curt haircut and as an overly enthusiastic, slightly goofy script reading lackey. I was also delighted by Jared Corbin as a cheerful intern, a loquacious Starbucks employee and, in a sharp contrast to the intern, a show-biz executive.

Three established Bay Area actors, Brigham, Lauren English and Jeremy Kahn are giving the kind of performances that further solidify their status as actors whose work you miss at your peril. They are always good, reliable performers, but more often than not, they are brilliant, and that is most definitely the case here.

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I reviewed Gloria for the Bay Area News Group. Here’s an excerpt:

Director Eric Ting, who has previously collaborated with Jacobs-Jenkins at Berkeley Rep on “An Octoroon,” establishes a propulsive rhythm to what is seemingly an average day at the office. The dialogue is lightning fast, and it doesn’t take long to suck us into the office drama involving secret manuscripts, the intern’s last day and the frustrations of feeling that work is sucking all the life out of your life.
There are barbs aimed at millennials and boomers, jealous tirades and harsh confrontations, all before the lunch hour. It’s as if David Mamet, with his rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and workplace snark were writing a sitcom for the CW.
But Jacobs-Jenkins has plans to go deeper into the office dynamic and what it means to share a formative experience with people who are neither friends nor family. We spend a great deal of time with these people, and what do we really know about them?

Read the full review here.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria continues through April 12 at ACT’s The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Aurora’s Leni asks: Great artist, Nazi sympathizer or both?

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Leni Riefenstahl (Stacy Ross) ponders her relationship with Hitler in Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area Premiere of Leni by Sarah Greenman. Below: Older Leni (Ross, left) has a tête-à-tête with her younger self (Martha Brigham). Photos by David Allen

As a dramatic work, Sarah Greenman’s Leni about the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, has to juggle history, artistry and, now, discomfiting parallels to our own time. Was Riefenstahl the right artist at the wrong time? Was her extraordinary talent as a filmmaker overshadowed by Hitler and the Nazi party? Or was she a Nazi sympathizer and, consequently, as the show puts it, “a willing architect of Nazi mythology” and, worse, an accomplice to genocide?

There aren’t any easy answers in this 85-minute one-act play now at the intimate Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre Company. Director Jon Tracy and actors Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham, both of whom play Riefenstahl at advanced and early ages respectively, grab hold of the play with gusto and shake it for all it’s worth.

When a biographical play is set in some enigmatic limbo between life and death, the conceit usually comes across as a lazy way to make excuses for bringing back the dead and placing them awkwardly in a biographical drama. But here, it works. It is 2003 and Riefenstahl (Ross) has just died at 101. She emerges from a room into a phantom movie set (simply but effectively designed by Nina Ball) and gets to work filming scenes from her life. She shoots a scene of her younger self (Brigham) meeting with Hitler to beg for more money to complete her two-part documentary Olympia about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Evocatively using lighting that is by turns stark and shadowy (beautifully designed by Kurt Landisman), director Tracy is able to create movie/theater hybrid that makes sense. They’re not really making a movie, but they’re not really alive either. What we have is Greenman’s attempt to allow Riefenstahl to put herself on trial, to explain herself, to attempt to face the truth, to justify never apologizing or recanting, to accept responsibility for the part she played.

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Leni is in no way an apology for Riefenstahl. No matter her artistic ambitions or intentions, she was complicit with the Nazis, and that landed her squarely on the wrong side of history and understandably destroyed her career. Rather, the play is Riefenstahl wrestling with herself and attempting to establish some context for what is was like to be in the middle of it all, attempting to make great work (and Leni did truly believe her work was great – with Triumph of the Will she says she didn’t create propaganda, she created a masterpiece), maintain her artistic integrity (she says she was never a member of the Nazi party and no one ever interfered with her filmmaking) and play the political games that would keep her working (she and Hitler were friendly – he gave her gifts – but she and Goebbels did not get along).

Because she lived so long, Riefenstahl is able to offer an interesting perspective on her work. With her bold filmmaking techniques, she was decades ahead of her time and, as many would attest, set the standard for sports documentaries with Olympia. All the controversy surrounding her work with the Nazis tends to obscure her skills as a director and render her a villain rather than a visionary filmmaker. The footage we see from her films (sound and video design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker) is absolutely mesmerizing, especially some of the montages of Olympic athletes (oh, the divers!). So when the older Leni proclaims, “I am on trial for creating the modern world!” her sense of self or her impact doesn’t seem as overblown as it might.

Asked why she didn’t condemn Hitler’s ethnic cleansing, Riefenstahl claims she, like so many Germans, especially those who believed in Hitler as the leader Germany needed at the time, simply didn’t know. All those rumors and stories purported by journalists about death camps were lies. Until they weren’t and – much too late in the game – she had to face the harsh facts. Does she love the work she created, she is asked? Yes. And does she regret it? Yes.

So where does that leave us with the complicated Leni Riefenstahl? Mired in complications, with probably more complications than Greenman’s drama allows. Ross and Brigham are, as usual, superb, and director Tracy’s production is able to cut through a lot of the corny docu-drama trappings and let all the thorny issues encompass audience and actors alike. Amid the specific details of Riefenstahl’s life, certain chilling elements echo – fake news! lying journalists! obliviously adoring crowds! dangerously narrow-minded nationalism! – and make us wonder who, some time from today, will we see as a Leni Riefenstahl among us now?

Sarah Greenman’s Leni continues through May 10 in the Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$55. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Here’s what for the How and the Why at Aurora

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Rachel (Martha Brigham, left) and Zelda (Nancy Carlin) toast to their first meeting in Aurora’s West Coast Premiere of The How and The Why by Sarah Treem. Below: Zelda (Carlin, right) offers a tearful Rachel (Brigham) a tissue. Photos by David Allen

Watching a play like Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why makes me feel smarter – fractionally but still. To prove my point, I’m going to quote Ernst Mayr, an evolutionary biologist with whom I was unfamiliar before this play. Mayr, as we’re told in the play, was interested in the how and the why of things, the mechanism and the function.

Let’s apply that to Treem’s play, shall we? The how is pretty clear: Treem wrote a two-person play about two evolutionary biologists, an older professor and a younger grad student, having a discussion about their research, their theories and their lives. Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company chose to produce the play with direction by the redoubtable Joy Carlin and starring Joy’s daughter Nancy Carlin as Zelda, the brilliant but somewhat distracted professor, and Martha Brigham, as Rachel, the brilliant but somewhat unstable grad student. The play would be produced in Harry’s UpStage, the Aurora’s even more intimate space than its already intimate main stage.

The why is also pretty clear: this is a fascinating and, at least in my case, highly educational play in which two interesting and interested women at different places in their lives and careers dive deep into science, gender roles, academia and what it means to be a woman conducting research on the evolution of women and how that works in the patriarchal halls of science.

There’s an element of melodrama here as well, and Treem, best known for television writing (House of Cards season one, In Treatment and The Affair), doesn’t seem to be as invested in that part of the play. There’s a point where a slap occurs, and it’s not nearly as deeply felt as some of the more intellectual elements of the play, which truly are fascinating. There’s a secret afoot, and Treem doesn’t even bother disguising it much, so that when it’s revealed, the audience is, by design, already way ahead of the characters.

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Where this play soars is when the women are able to fully express their passion for their work. It’s sheer coincidence (or is it?) that both women are in the field of evolutionary biology. Zelda’s career-defining, Dobzhansky Prize-winning theory is called “The Grandmother Hypothesis” and involves menopause and how it allows women to live longer and assist their children in the raising of their children, thus, as Zelda puts it, inventing childhood.

Rachel, a character inspired by the work of Margie Profet as detailed in Natalie Angier’s Woman: an Intimate Geography, has come upon a potentially revolutionary idea. Why do women menstruate exactly? We think we know, but Rachel isn’t at all sure. She thinks the process has less to do with the reproductive process and more to do with women’s bodies and their defense against what she calls “the toxicity of sperm.” This theory, Rachel says, will change the way women think about their bodies, it will change the way men think about women’s bodies and it will change the way people have sex.

Zelda recognizes the brilliance in Rachel’s theory, but there are many unanswered questions and, as it turns out, Rachel’s theory presents certain challenges to Zelda’s.

For a talky two-hander, there’s actually a lot of action in this play, though we don’t see it, for instance, when Rachel presents her abstract at a conference and gets devoured by both male and (to her surprise and deep disgust) female critics. The action shifts from Zelda’s nice office (in a revered Boston-area university, not, I think, the Cambridge Community College) to a hockey-themed bar with a popcorn machine (sets and lights by Kent Dorsey), and the discussion, not to mention the tension, between the characters never flags for the play’s nearly two hours.

Credit that to Carlin’s astute direction and her casting of two actors whose intensity and commitment could manage to make much less crackling dialogue work. Nancy Carlin is so rooted in her character’s sensible shoes you half expect her to lead a post-show seminar in the intricacies of menopause and Zelda’s time spent studying it within a nomadic African tribe. There’s haughtiness in Zelda that no doubt comes from years of being the smartest person in the room and certainly being the most awarded. Brigham’s Rachel has her youth and naiveté working against her ferociously powerful mind, but we also see the potential for strength and, if Zelda can be any kind of role model, her potential for scientific ass kicking.

Watching two fierce actors attack meaty material like this is hugely pleasurable, and the fact that we get to learn some fascinating things about half of the world’s population is just evolutionary icing on this delectable theatrical cake.

Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why continues through May 22 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $35-$45. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.