Shavian wit still dwells in Aurora’s Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love doth evade Marin’s Shakespeare in Love

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Megan Trout is Viola de Lesseps and Adam Magill is Will Shakespeare in the Marin Theatre Company production of Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the 1998 movie. Photo by Kevin Berne

The most produced play of the 2017-18 season, according to American Theatre magazine, is Shakespeare in Love, the stage adaptation (by Lee Hall) of the 1998 movie of the same name that is now (in)famous for being one of the first “success” stories of Harvey Weinstein’s battering ram-style Oscar campaigns. The movie picked up abundant awards, including best picture and best screenplay for Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. Then it took more than a decade and a half to find its way to the stage, and the results are disappointing. This should have been a musical, but apparently they couldn’t bear to cut any of the Stoppardian dialogue, so they just went the way of play with lots of music.

The Bay Area finally gets to see the show thanks to Marin Theatre Company, and while the cast boasts some of the Bay Area’s best actors – Stacy Ross, Lance Gardner, Megan Trout, Mark Anderson Phillips, L. Peter Callender – the production flails under the direction of Jasson Minadakis.

I reviewed the production for Here’s a preview:

With an Oscar-winning screenplay by preeminent playwright Tom Stoppard (with Marc Norman), it seems only natural that a stage adaptation would eventually appear. What is surprising is that the play adaptation feels like it had aspirations to be a musical, with adapter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) wrestling it into a lumpy play with lots of music and retaining only some of the charm of the movie.

Director Jasson Minadakis goes for a stripped-down theater vibe with Shakespeare in Love at the Marin Theatre Company, with 13 actors playing around 30 roles and having them provide all of the musical accompaniment for Paddy Cunneen’s overactive score. That makes for a frenetic two-plus hours that offer only intermittent pleasures.

Read the full review here.

Shakespeare in Love continues through Dec. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 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

Shotgun sets a vivacious vintage Mousetrap

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Megan Trout is Mollie Ralston and Mick Mize is Giles Ralston in Shotgun Players’ production of The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. Below: The cast of suspects includes (from left) Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boyle, Alex Rodriguez as Mr. Paravincini, Nick Medina as Christopher Wren, Karen Offereins as Miss Casewell, Adam Magill as Detective Sergeant Trotter and David Sinaiko as Major Metcalf. Photos by Pak Han

Why is a good old murder mystery so damn satisfying and enjoyable? There’s something about mystery presented, red herrings chased, clues gathered and a culprit revealed that rarely ceases to please on some level, and there’s no better master of this from than Agatha Christie. I went through a Christie phase in middle and high school and still return to her books often as a treat.

Even though Christie’s most famous, play The Mousetrap, is the longest-running show of any kind in the world (the London production is in its 64th year, with more than 25,000 performances logged) and is performed by school and community theaters on a regular basis, I had never seen it. Nor had I heard one peep about whodunnit, which is really something for such a popular play

So when Berkeley’s Shotgun Players announced The Mousetrap as part of its season of women playwrights, I was thrilled at the prospect of at last seeing the play performed by an exciting, enterprising company.

I wasn’t disappointed – in Shotgun or Christie. They’re both at their reliable best.

From the British winter coziness of Mark Huesek’s guest house set and lights to the stitch-perfect 1950s costumes by Valera Coble, everything looks just right. Director Patrick Dooley’s affection for the play comes through in his straightforward approach to the play (there’s no sense of irony, nor is there the tang of overripe melodrama). There are wonderful flourishes of humor throughout the plays’ nearly 2 1/2 hours, but when the tension needs to intensify in Act 2, it does.

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Dooley’s sturdy cast features wonderful turns by longtime company member Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boyle, a gruff British matron and Megan Trout (also a company member) as Mollie Ralson, the nervous newlywed proprietor of a newly opened guest house. There’s a dance with caricature in both performances, but these wonderful actors keep the inner lives of the characters bubbling up in funny and sometimes surprising ways.

There’s abundant humor in Alex Rodriguez’s performance as the unexpected guest, Mr. Paravincini, a “foreigner” of unknown origin and Nick Medina’s jittery Christopher Wren. Wren has a brief flirtation (most likely not in Christie’s script) with Adam Magill’s Detective Sergeant Trotter that emerges as one of the evening’s funniest bits.

Christie gives us reason to suspect everyone on stage, which makes the ending all the more satisfying as it twists its way to resolution. But the real fun is watching everyone suspect everyone else. Especially paranoid is Mick Mize’s Giles, husband of Mollie, who was not where he said he would be the day a certain murder was committed. But then again, Mollie wasn’t where she was supposed to be either. The sense that this young marriage is going to endures dwindles as the play progresses.

Rounding out the list of suspects is David Sinaiko as the pipe-smoking Major Metcalf, a seemingly reasonable older gentleman but suspiciously not quite who he seems to be, and Karen Offereins as the enigmatic Miss Casewell, who has only just returned to England after a life abroad.

One murder happens before the play begins and one during, and I must say I was mightily disappointed to see the victim disappear from the cast. I’d like Christie to have done a Clue-like version with variations on who the murderer turns out to be. Based on this production, my favorite murderer would be the victim.

But Christie has a very specific ending for this Mousetrap, and it’s juicy and satisfying (though at intermission, the people in my row informally polled one another about who they thought had done it, and my theory proved to be true, thus demonstrating that my internal Miss Marple is alive and well). During the curtain call, the cast keeps the tradition alive by asking the audience to keep mum on the subject of the killer. But really, who’d want to spoil the fun?

And fun is what this production has to offer. In abundance.

Shotgun Players’ production of The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie continues through Jan. 24 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$40. Call 510-841-6500 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

Just Theater presents a wildly provocative Presentation

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Another White Man (Patrick Jones, left), Sarah (Megan Trout, center) and Another Black Man (Rotimi Agbabiaka) improvise a fight in the Just Theater production (in association with Shotgun Players) of We Are Proud to Present…. Below: Black Man (David Moore) and Black Woman (Kehinde Koyejo) attempt to spark a romance under Namibian skies. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

In some ways, the less you know about Just Theater’s latest show, the better. Here’s what you need to know and then you can read the rest after you’ve seen it: this is a very modern show in that it deconstructs and wrestles to the ground ideas of traditional theater. It deals with heavy subject matter (genocide) but does so with intelligence, humor and a wildly energetic style that moves well beyond the usual, polite play-audience interaction and more into the visceral punch-in-the-gut territory that leaves you slightly dazed in its aftermath. This is a play (well written and astonishingly well performed to be sure) but it’s also an EXPERIENCE.

In other words, you should go. You aren’t likely to see anything like it, and in addition to seeing some great local actors being great, you’ll also have something on which to muse for a good while afterward. This show (presented in association with Shotgun Players knocks you for all kinds of loops.

Not unlike Christopher Chen’s Hundred Flowers Project (read more here), Jackie Sibblies Drury’s (take a deep breath) We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 is a piece of theater within a piece of theater (a presentation within a presentation) that uses the making of theater to convey facts about history and to stir up deep emotions that quickly – and powerfully – make the pretend real. It’s hard to say how literal we are to take the premise here, but we begin in a rough performance space (the configuration of the space is just as it was for Shotgun’s Our Town, which is to say there are audience members on two sides of the space and no real set to speak of other than a table, chairs and a rolling ladder). There are six theater makers who address the audience with a rehearsed overview to give us some historical context.

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We are going to be dealing with Namibia in southwestern Africa. More specifically we will see how the German colonialists dealt with the native tribes, specifically the cow-herding Herero. By the time the Germans were ousted by the English in 1915, the Germans had exterminated most of the Herero. The idea is that the actors will read the only first-hand accounts of the German occupation, which are letters sent home by German soldiers. Apparently it’s an open rehearsal process with an audience, but that may be where the whole literal thing can be taken too far.

Through improv exercises and need to “create something real,” the actors – three black, three white – wrestle with one another and their director (Kehinde Koyejo, whose character is known only as Black Woman). They don’t know exactly what they’re doing or what they want to create, but they edge closer and closer to that something real until it’s too real and it’s not about the Herero and Germans at all. At first there’s a lot of recognizable actor angst – insecurity, ego, varying improv skills – but then the tension begins to become more specific. Is this story about the Germans? Or is it about the Herero? Is it about genocide? Or is it about something more personal and perhaps closer to home?

At only 95 minutes, We Are Proud to Present… condenses a traumatic human experience (historical and personal) into a manageable time frame but does so with extraordinary attention to detail. The cast, which also includes Lucas Hatton, David Moore, Patrick Kelly Jones, Rotimi Agbabiaka and Megan Trout, has to create a believable contrast between “the play/presentation” and “real life,” and they do so beautifully under the direction of Molly Aaronson-Gelb. That contrast, so stark at the start, blurs more and more as this “rehearsal/workshop/whatever” continues, and by the end, art and reality, past and present, fact and emotion, are all in play in the most head-spinning way imaginable.

My only complaint about Drury’s play is its speed. These are intelligent, emotional people working out some complicated stuff, and the 90-minute framework stifles what could be some even more interesting arguments about what’s really going on here. Interesting points are raised, debated and then quickly subdued while the show barrels on when it seems the really juicy arguments are just beginning.

But wishing a smart, loud, aggressive play were even smarter, louder and more aggressive seems a little bratty when what’s here is so interesting, so physically adroit and, in the end, so moving. If you let this play take hold of you – and that’s easily accomplished – you won’t feel like the same person who walked into the theater.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present… continues through March 7 at the Ashby Stage (in association with Shotgun Players), 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 510-214-3780 or visit

2013: The year’s best Bay Area theater

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If you’re looking for the year’s best, you can shorten your search by heading directly to Word for Word, that ever-amazing group that turns short works of fiction into some of the most captivating theater we see around here. This year, we were graced with two outstanding Word for Word productions.

You Know When the Men Are Gone – Word for Word’s first show of the year was based on two excellent stories by Siobhan Fallon. We are a country at war, and as such, we can never be reminded too often about the sacrificed made not only by the men and women serving in harm’s way but also the families and friends they leave behind. These connected stories, masterfully directed by Joel Mullenix and Amy Kossow, created a direct, emotional through line into the heart of an experience we need to know more about. Read my review here.

In Friendship – A few months later, Word for Word returned to celebrate its 20th anniversary by casting the nine founding women in several stories by Zona Gale about small-town, Midwestern life. It was pleasure from start to finish, with the added emotional tug of watching the founders of this extraordinary company acting together for the first time. Read my review here.

Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts and California Shakespeare Theater collaborated this year on an intimate epic about the Golden State we call home comprising three plays, art projects, symposia and all kinds of assorted projects. This kind of collaboration among companies is exactly the kind of thing we need to infuse the art form with new energy and perspectives. The best of the three theatrical offerings was the first.

The River – Playwright Richard Montoya authored the first two plays in this collaboration, and though the Cal Shakes-produced American Night was wild and enjoyable, Montoya’s The River, directed by Sean San José had the irresistible pull of a fast-moving current. A truly original work, the play was part comedy, part romance, part spiritual exploration. Read my review here.

Ideation – My favorite new play of the year is from local scribe Aaron Loeb because it was fresh, funny and a thriller that actually has some thrills. Part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development, Ideation is still in search of the perfect ending, but you can expect to hear much more about this taut drama of corporate intrigue and interpersonal nightmares. Read my review here.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane – The combination of heartbreaking personal history and heart-expanding piano music made this Berkeley Repertory Theatre presentation the year’s best solo show. Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother’s exit from Germany as part of the Kindertransport includes all the horror and sadness you’d expect from a Holocaust story, but her telling of it is underscored by her exquisite piano playing. Read my review here.

Other Desert CitiesTheatreWorks demonstrated the eternal appeal of a well-told family drama with this Jon Robin Baitz play about Palm Springs Republicans, their lefty-liberal children and the secrets they all keep. This one also happens to have the most beautiful set of the year as well (by Alexander Dodge). Read my review here.

The Fourth MessengerTanya Shaffer and Vienna Tang created a beguiling new musical (no easy feat) about Buddha (absolutely no easy feat). The show’s world premiere wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good. Expect big things from this show as it continues to grow into its greatness. Read my review here.

Good People – Any play starring Amy Resnick has a good chance of ending up on my year’s best list, but Resnick was beyond great in this David Lindsay Abaire drama at Marin Theatre Company. Her Margie was the complex center of this shifting, surprising story of old friends whose lives went in very different directions, only to reconnect at a key moment. Read my review here.

The Taming – One of the year’s smartest, slyest, most enjoyable evenings came from Crowded Fire Theatre and busy, busy local playwright Lauren Gunderson. This spin (inspired by The Taming of the Shrew) was madcap with a sharp, satiric edge and featured delicious comic performances by Kathryn Zdan, Marilee Talkington and Marilet Martinez. Read my review here.

Terminus – Oh so dark and oh so very strange, Mark O’Rowe’s return to the Magic Theatre found him exploring theatrical storytelling that encompassed everyday lie, mythic monsters and rhymed dialogue. Director Jon Tracy and his remarkable trio of actors (Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly) grabbed our attention and didn’t let it go for nearly two hours. Read my review here.

No Man’s Land – Seems a little unfair to include this production here if only because the can’t-miss team of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart would likely be a year’s best no matter where they were performing or what they were doing. In this case, they were headed to Broadway but stopped at Berkeley Rep to work on Harold Pinter’s enigmatic comic drama. Their work (along with that of Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) provided laughs and insight and complexity where you didn’t know any was possible. Pure master class from start to finish. Read my review here.

Breakout star of the year: Megan Trout. It was impossible not to be transfixed by Megan Trout not once but twice this year. She illuminated the stage as Bonnie Parker in the Mark Jackson-directed Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players and then stole the show in the Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise as a shy big-box store employee who is mightily intrigued by the new guy who also happens to have been involved with a now-defunct cult. Trout has that magnetic ability to compel attention and then deliver something utterly real and constantly surprising.