Impact’s Comedy ponders: What’s up, Doc?

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Miyaka Cochrane and Maria Giere Marquis amp up the comic errors in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors at Impact Theatre. Below: Cochrane (left), Jon Nagel (center) and Julie Douglas bring the looney to the tunes. Photos by Claire Ann Rice

Impact Theatre has been known for its Shakespeare reboots, sometimes fierce, sometimes wholly inspired, always intelligent and interesting. Now in its valedictory lap before going on hiatus, Impact has two shows left, including the just-opened Comedy of Errors at LaVal’s Subterranean.

It’s another Shakespearean reinvention by Impact Artistic Director Melissa Hillman, and it is sublime – the perfect concept applied to the perfect play to make something funnier, fresher and more inventive than even Shakespeare could have imagined.

Certainly the Bard of Avon experienced his share of inspired silliness, but he predated Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes” by several centuries, so he had no way of knowing how perfectly the wild and wacky style of animators Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and the like would suit his goofiest comedy. It’s entirely possible as well that the screwball nature of Comedy of Errors, with its mismatched sets of twins, mistaken identity chaos and broad physical comedy, played a part in shaping the comic palette of American animation.

Whatever, the notion to pair “Looney Tunes” with Comedy of Errors is loon-atic genius. What Hillman has done here goes way beyond a thematic overlay. Her concept cuts right to the heart of the show itself and multiplies the comedy by multiplying the errors. A million goofy things have been done to Comedy (puppets, musicals, actual twins, single actors playing both twins), but Hillman tops it all by having her four astonishingly energetic actors play all the parts. Sure, single actors play both sets of twins – the Antipholi and Dromios of Ephesus and Syracuse – but that concept comes and goes quickly as the actors playing the twins grab wigs off the women’s heads and start playing Luciana and Adriana. And vice-versa as the women grab the color-coded hats denoting the twins and try on those personae.

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It’s madcap, delirious fun in the truest sense. The play begins at a breakneck speed and never flags through its brisk 100 minutes (including intermission). The actors break a sweat in the name of zaniness, and it really works.

Before the role swapping really gets going, Jon Nagel fills the Antipholus roles with Miyaka Cochrane as the slave Dromios. Maria Giere Marquis starts out as Adriana (fiery wife of Antipholus of Ephesus) and Julie Douglas is her slightly dippy sister Luciana. Adhering to clear roles at the beginning helps set the scene and build a sturdy foundation for the ensuing mayhem once the visiting twins from Syracuse begin causing mix-ups.

If the actors aren’t having a blast, they’re even better actors than they know. They work like a finely calibrated machine, with lots of opportunity to break the fourth wall and comment on the theater-making itself (at one point, an audience member is recruited when there absolutely needs to be another character on stage). Marquis and Douglas pop up as ladies with Minnesota accents and comfy sweaters to serve as hosts for the evening (Cochrane also appears as a sherry-swilling aesthete a la “Masterpiece Theater”), and even though it veers far from Shakespeare, it serves the comedy and helps bring the audience further into the zone.

In true Impact fashion, all of this happens on a single set (painted in bright primary colors by set designer Roger Chapman and simple but effective costuming (by Hillman). There’s an inspired moment toward the end when an abbess needs to appear, and she conveniently drops from the ceiling.

The play has been streamlined with room left for plenty of non-Shakespearean riffs and cartoon-like sound effects. Darth Vader even makes a key (and hilarious) appearance. There aren’t any actual “Looney Tunes” characters, but connoisseurs of Bugs, Daffy, Porky and friends will appreciate re-creations of classic bits and gags. It all fits so well and amps up the comic quotient so effectively that Hillman should patent her invention and send it into the world to make millions for Impact to continue its mission for many years to come.

Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors continues an extended through April 2 in an Impact Theatre production at LaVal’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 510-224-5744 or visit

Wrestling affections in Impact’s As You Like It

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Celia (Alexander Lenarsky, left) and Rosalind (Maria Giere Marquis) while away the hours waiting for Orlando in Impact Theatre’s ultra-gender-bending As You Like It. Below: Phebe (Luisa Frasconi, center) attempts to woo Rosalind (Maria Giere Marquis, right) as Celia (Alexander Lenarsky) and Silvius (Brandon Mears) bear witness. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Shakespeare didn’t drop any F-bombs in his comedy As You Like It, but that doesn’t stop Impact Theatre. There are lots of non-Shakespeare asides in this highly edited, streamlined version from director Melissa Hillman, but purists shouldn’t despair. Such contemporary additions are usually thrown in during scene transitions or to punctuate a joke that has already landed. And they’re a hell of a lot of fun, as is the entire 2 1/2- hour show.

Hillman and Impact often draw from the Shakespeare well, but rather serving the plays up straight, they’re turned into potent cocktails, with some darker and bloodier than others. With As You Like It, Hillman and her game cast are reveling in relationships. Some of the more Shakespearean touches in the show – like the characters of Jaques the grump and Touchstone the clown don’t fare as well because they’re too much on the periphery and don’t fit in to the gender-bending love stories jumping through hoops in the center ring.

Set in present day, the play revs up for a wrestling match that is played in high style, behind chain-link fence, no less (set by Anne Kendall) with Hulk Hogan-ish Charles (Stacz Sadowski) ready to pummel underdog Orlando (Miyaka Cochrane). The flashing lights, the great choreography (fight direction by Dave Maier) and even an errant crowbar make the match a play highlight. And when Orlando emerges victorious, we dive into the main love story involving him and Rosalind (Maria Giere Marquis), the daughter of a banished ruler (traditionally a duke, but here a duchess plaeyd by Marianna Wolff) who is kept at court to amuse her beloved cousin, Celia (traditionally a woman but here a gay man played with scene-stealing panache by Alexander Lenarsky). That Rosalind and Celia are BFFs is not only a given here but the heart of the story. When their story sends them away from court in disguise, well Rosalind is disguised as a boy named Ganymede, they end up in the Northern California town of Arden, where the action takes place entirely in a bar.

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I must say I missed a sense of the outdoors because that is one of the charms of the forest-set As You Like It, but when you perform in a low-ceilinged basement theater on a stage the size of a Pop Tart, you do what you can, and it never ceases to amaze me what the Impact crew manages to accomplish on one of the most restrictive stages in the Bay Area. At one point, as the action shifts from the court to Arden, we get a music video – almost like the opening credits to a sitcom – featuring the main characters in a rock band (kudos to filmmaker Martín Estévez). It’s a delightful touch, and I hoped for more, or that at some point the cast would strap on their guitars for a number, but it didn’t happen.

Act 1 ends rather abruptly, but the longer Act 2 gets a big boost in the form of Luisa Frasconi as Phebe, a short skirt and fur-wearing, Gold Star-sipping lass who can’t be bothered with doe-eyed Silvius (Brandon Mears), who’s as smitten as a man can be. The minute she lays eyes on Ganymede, she herself is smitten, but we know how that will go. Still, it’s great fun to watch Frasconi spurn Mears and drool over Marquis.

Speaking of Marquis, after having played Viola in Twelfth Night and now Rosalind, she’s become expert at playing girls dressed as boys. She’s believable in both parts and never lets us lose sight of the love-struck girl who makes a passable boy in a newsie cap. She’s charming, and her relationship with Lenarsky’s Celia never fails to keep the action grounded in affection.

From the eye-rolling bartender (Cassie Rosenbrock, who looks 16 months pregnant) to a Corin (Jon Nagel) ready to officiate at any flavor of wedding, there’s no shortage of things to like in Impact’s As You Like It.

[bonus interview]

I talked to Maria Giere Marquis about Impact’s As You Like It for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Impact Theatre’s As You Like It continues through March 30 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Visit

Let’s give Impact’s Titus a big, bloody hand

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Reggie White is Aaron and Anna Ishida is Tamora in the Impact Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Below: Lucius (Caitlyn Tella) comforts her grieving father, Titus (Stacz Sadowski). Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Anna Ishida has a scream to remember – the kind of scream that startles your unborn children. She could supplant Jamie Lee Curtis as the Queen of Scream, but until then, she’s wreaking bloody havoc in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, this season’s revitalized Shakespeare project at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre.

Artistic Director Melissa Hillman is particularly adept at trimming a Shakespeare play to its most vital parts and shooting it through with a kind of energy that tends to surprise anyone who has forgotten that, in the right hands, Shakespeare can be lean and mean.

With Titus, which is really the Saw of the Shakespeare canon, Hillman has her work cut out for her, not in the lean-and-mean department but more in the “why is this worth doing beyond the blood and gore?” department. Her adaptation, a brisk and blissfully brutal two hours, comes up with an interesting answer to that question.

Often dismissed as Shakespeare’s most violent and therefore most worthless tragedy, Titus has sort of come into its own in the last century or so. Our view of violence has finally caught up with or reverted back to the level seen in the play, which is remarkably high. Sons fare especially badly in the play, though the worst of it is saved for a loyal daughter. In many ways, Titus is a few sex scenes away from being a new cable series.

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Hillman and her cast – an astonishing 16 people on a stage that can feel crowded with two – achieve a tone here that really works. You see it established especially in the performances by Ishida as Tamora, the vengeful Queen of the Goths, and Stacz Sadowski as Titus, a brave soldier and questionable father. Ishida is tough and sexy and intense. She’s not exactly a cartoon villain, but she’s not exactly real either. She’s somewhere in between, and that’s just about perfect.

Sadowski’s Titus is trickier, especially in this abbreviated version. He goes from being a noble hero to the murderer of his son in minutes. He’s attempting to be a great man one minute and accusing everyone of treason the next. He’s all over the place emotionally – “the woefulest man that ever lived in Rome – and Sadowski, a big, imposing fella, can barely keep up. But when things start to get really intense, the actor’s canny performance fuses the raw emotion of loss and violence with the overblown revenge drama to create a man of Shatnerian dimensions.

After horrible rapes, mutilations and murders, Titus gets punked by Tamora’s lover, Aaron (Reggie White in a devilish performance). The results are horrific, but the scene gets laughs. How could they not? It’s silly and sad in equal measure and way too much of both. So why not play it like Capt. Kirk and make it work?

Unlike brainless slasher movies, Titus at least makes a potent point about the inevitably awful results of revenge, and Hillman’s production lets that come through loud and clear. This is a giddily gory affair with full credit going to blood technician and props designer Tunuviel Luv, blood captain Joe Mason, fight director Dave Maier and weapons captain Carlos Martinez (also a member of the cast) for emphasizing the futility (and entertainment value) of barbarous violence.

There’s some unevenness in the cast, but in addition to Ishida and Sadowski, there’s some impressive work by Mark McDonald and Mike McDonald (I’m going to go out on a limb and say these nearly identical young men are brothers) as evil brothers Chiron and Demetrius. To say they give deliciously wicked performances may be revealing too much.

Also affecting is Sarah Coykendall as the doomed Lavinia. In a victim role, Coykendall brings some real starch and strength. And a shout out to Martín Estévez for his videos – most notably a completely believable CNN debate between three talking heads arguing over who should be Emperor of Rome. It’s a nice contemporary touch. After all, what is senseless violence without the 24-hour news cycle?


Impact Theatre’s Titus Andronicus continues an extended run through April 7 at LaVal’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $12-$20. Call 510-224-5744 or visit

Enter Stage Left: SF theater history on film

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Robin Williams is interviewed in a scene from the documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco.

Docuemntary film director/producer Austin Forbord (below right) has created a fascinating documentary about the history of San Francisco theater from the post-World War II days up to the present. The movie has its premeire at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week and will likely see wider release soon after.
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I interviewed Forbord for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here.

The extraordinary cast of interviewees includes: Robert Woodruff, Chris Hardman, Christina Augello, Robin Williams, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Tony Taccone, David Weissman, Misha Berson, Cynthia Moore, Luis Valdez, Peter Coyote, Herbert Blau, Robert Hurwitt, Jean Schiffman, Anna Halprin, Mort Subotnick, RG Davis, Joan Holden, Oskar Eustis, Richard E.T. White. Larry Eilenberg, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Raz, Kimi Okada, Geoff Hoyle, Joy Carlin, Carey Perloff, Bill Ball, Ed Hastings, Bernard Weiner, Charles “Jimmy” Dean, Robert Ernst, Paul Dresher, John O’Keefe, Leonard Pitt, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pam Tent, John Fisher, Melissa Hillman, Brad Erickson, Philip Gotanda, John LeFan, Dan Hoyle, Stanley Williams and Krissy Keefer.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

You can keep up to date on the movie’s trajectory at the oficial website (click here).

Gamers roll good theater in Dice and Men

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Game on: Jonathon Brooks (left), Maria Giere Marquis (center) and Jai Sahai star in Impact Theatre’s Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs


Nerd-on-nerd love is something to behold.

It’s sweet, it’s smart, it’s funny – at least it is in Cameron McNary’s sharply etched play Of Dice and Men, receiving its Bay Area premiere courtesy of Berkeley’s Impact Theatre. McNary boldly goes where no dramatist has gone before him (at least none I’ve ever seen). He takes his audiences into the world of Dungeons and Dragons, the role-playing game involving elves, fairies, wizards and the like – exactly the kind of game that gets kids beaten up in high school.

I remember the D&D kids in high school, and they weren’t like the other geeks. They were so into their thing it almost demanded respect. Some dressed up as their characters and proudly carted around their boxes and binders and backpacks, all of which was carefully unpacked around their designated table in the library. I remember once picking up a Dungeons and Dragons book to see what it was all about, and as I recall, the book might as well have been written in Latin. It didn’t make sense to me. At all.

One of the wonderful things about McNary’s play is that you don’t have to know anything about D&D to enjoy it. I’m sure there’s all kinds of verisimilitude that he and director Melissa Hillman have brought to this production – authenticity in the game-playing scenes, wonderfully obscure, titter-inducing references for those in the know, and that’s as it should be. As a foreigner in this world, I feel like the play tugged me into a world I didn’t completely understand but fully recognized. One character describes this world as “like having rules for playing pretend,” and that’s all I really need to know.

The center of the story involves love stories of various kinds – platonic and otherwise. We see how the playing of this game, with its Dungeon Master maneuvering behind a protective little wall, its crazy dice and its Tolkien-on-steroids characters, creates a bond among its players and gives them a creative outlet, a playground for their obsessions and, best of all, a society.

McNary pulls us into the world slowly and skillfully. First we meet the Johns: John Francis (Seth Thygesen), the stable Dungeon Master, and John Alex (Jai Sahai), the foul-mouthed loose cannon who is on the 22nd iteration of his D&D character, Spango Garnet Killer. In one brilliant scene (and with a nod to Colin Trevor’s projections), we see John Alex’s drawings of his character, scrawled on binder paper of course, through the years, the draftsmanship and attention to detail improving with each passing year. [Note: thank you to director Melissa Hillman for letting me know the drawings are by Emily Hardin and come from last year’s world-premiere production at the Penny Arcade Expo gaming convention.]

These passionate players are joined by an interloper, Jason (Jonathon Brooks), who is quickly taken into the fold.

Net thing we know, these guys are in their 30s. True to stereotype, John Francis is living in his mother’s basement, but you couldn’t call him a loser. The game is still a huge part of his life, and his circle has expanded to include a “hot gamer chick,” Tara (Maria Giere Marquis) and a married couple, Linda (Linda-Ruth Cardozo) and Brandon (Stacz Sadowski) who happily support each other’s hobbies (hers is D&D, his is the Washington Redskins – neither really likes the other’s obsession, but hey, that’s marriage).

This group of gamers is a lot more attractive than the group I remember from high school, but that may be part of the point. McNary makes several persuasive comparisons between D&D and football, both of which could be compared to any hobby. The reason you do it most often comes down to the other people – the people who help imbue the ritual of it all with meaning.

Through two acts and nearly two hours, McNary lets each of his characters appear in costume (nice work on a budget by Miyuki Bierlein) and tell us about them, and, consequently, about themselves. Tara is an elfin princess with too much back story. Jason is an armor-clad warrior. Brandon is a barbarian. And Linda is a dwarf with a Scottish accent and a penchant for dick jokes.

In Act 2, things get pretty serious as real-life stuff threatens the group and its social dynamic. There’s anger, there’s heroism, there’s romance, there’s bromance. There’s even an extraordinary speech about friendship and war that wrings a tear. Hillman and her cast are completely up to the challenge of the drama, especially when the real-world drama melds with the fantasy of the game.

It’s easy to like these people as people and not as geeky stereotypes, so you care that the sexy gamer chick finally gets together with the right gamer guy or that the friendships are the thing that matters most. McNary demonstrates the vital importance of pursuits like Dungeons and Dragons. They are utterly pointless, he says, and they matter. The latter is certainly true when it comes to Of Dice and Men, a play that explores the specific to reveal the universal.


Impact Theatre’s Of Dice and Men continues through Oct. 1 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit

Review: `Ching Chong Chinaman’

The cast of Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman at Impact Theatre includes (from left) Dennis Yen, Arthur Keng, Sung Min Park, Cindy Im and Lisa Kang. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Impact gets irreverent with Yee’s `Ching Chong’
(three stars)

NOTE: Dates added to the run: Monday, Oct. 6 and Wednesday, Oct. 8. The Monday show will be a cast & crew benefit: all proceeds from that evening’s admissions and donations will be split among the cast and crew, all of whom are struggling artists who have generously donated most of their time in the name of supporting great local small theatre.

Before we dive into Impact Theatre’s season-opening Ching Chong Chinaman, a word on Impact’s reboot of its performance space, LaVal’s Subterranean.

If you’re unfamiliar with this Berkeley performance spot, you probably don’t know that it’s actually the basement of LaVal’s Pizzeria at the north gate of the UC Berkeley campus. It’s not the most inviting of spaces – small, cramped, artistically challenging. But as teenagers across the country know, good things can happen in basements.

Despite the physical limitations, Impact, the theater’s resident company, usually manages to do good, imaginative work while audience members chomp on pizza slices and guzzle beer. Well, this summer, Impact upgraded the space in two major ways: the space now has a door to help cut down noise from the busy pie factory upstairs (the clomping on the floor above will always be with us) and there are all-new seats to give audience tushies a smooth ride through Impact’s dramatic adventures.

The seats help ease the crammed-in feeling and contribute to easing the sight-line issues, which is all the better to enjoy San Francisco playwright Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman, a gleefully irreverent, audaciously un-PC comedy about cultural identity.

Taking place almost entirely in the minty green Palo Alto kitchen of the Wong home (excellent set by Edward Ross, lit by Kelly Kunaniec), Yee quickly introduces us to a highly Americanized Chinese-American family.

Dad Ed (Dennis Yen) and mom Grace (Lisa Kang) have virtually no connection to their ancestry. One major concern of the family is to have their eyes “nice and wide open” for the annual photo Christmas card.

Their teenage children, Desdemona (Cindy Im) and Upton Sinclair Lewis (Arthur Keng), have even less cultural identity than their parents. Desdemona (Desi for short), desperate to get into Princeton, defies Asian stereotypes by not being good at math. Upton is a videogame addict specializing in “World of Warcraft,” and in order to win a tournament, he needs help doing his homework and chores.

Being a crafty guy, Upton buys an indentured servant from China in the form of Jin Qiang (Sung Min Park), whose name, as pronounced by members of the family, comes out sounding like “Ching Chong.” Though he speaks no English, it’s up to Jin to teach the Wongs how to use chopsticks.

One nice thing about Yee’s play, under the direction of Desdemona Chiang, is that it consistently defies sitcom rhythms and continually takes surprising turns. You don’t expect Jin to be an ambitious dancer who wants a spot on the reality series “America’s Next Top Dancer.” You don’t expect the action to shift to Mexico for a belated quinceañera, nor do you expect a Korean orphan (played by Pearl Wong, a deft comic actress essaying a number of small roles) to be pummeled by her altruistic American sponsor.

There are some great laughs in Ching Chong, but the play turns unexpectedly moving in its final moments when everything the Wongs thought they knew about culture and family is shaken and they’re forced to redefine life on their own terms.

Friday’s sold-out opening-night performance had some pacing issues early in Act 1, but the actors soon hit their stride, and the comedy and satire fired more assuredly.

Chiang’s cast rolls with the surprises in Yee’s script and finds humanity the comedy. Especially effective are Park as Jin, a stranger in a strange family, and Kang as Grace, a clueless mom who slowly gets a clue. Their scenes together are tender and even sexy.

Oh, and by the way, the seats – even in a hot basement on a sweltering late-summer night – couldn’t have been more comfortable.


Impact artistic director Melissa Hillman made the funniest “turn off your phone” speech I’ve yet to hear in a theater. She said that if your phone goes off during the show, “I will swallow it and you can come back for it later.”

Ching Chong Chinaman continues through Oct. 10 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$15 in advance and $10-$17 at the door. Call 510-464-4468 or visit

Local theater folk in`Scrabulous’ doc

Check out this short documentary, part of Christopher Coppola’s Project Access Hollywood film festival.

It’s about the demise of the wildly popular game Scrabulous, a version of online Scrabble, that was uncerimoniously yanked from Facebook by Hasbro, the (money)makers of Scrabble.

It features Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman and former East Bay Express theater critic Lisa Drostova. Highly enjoyable.

Impact’s new `Bar Mitzvah’ season: Mazel tov!

“We’re calling it our Bar Mitzvah season not just because the company is run by two Jews,” says Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman referring to herself and managing director Cheshire Isaacs. “This season we’re taking some large leaps forward. It really is a rite of passage for us.”

Yes, Impact Theatre, one of the Bay Area’s most youthfully invigorating theater companies (their motto is: “Theater that doesn’t suck”) opens its 13th season next month with Lauren Yee’s irreverent new comedy Ching Chong Chinaman. The play won the 2007 Yale Playwrights Festival and made its debut at the New York Fringe Festival shortly after. Yee is a Bay Area native and is the founder and executive director of the San Francisco Young Playwright’s Festival.

Skewering every cliché about Asian-American identity, Yee’s play receives its West Coast premiere under the direction of former Impact associate artistic director Desdemona Chiang.

Next up, in November, is Melanie Marnich’s Tallgrass Gothic, a spare, haunting drama based on the Jaobean tragedy The Changeling. In this adaptation, the action takes place in the Great Plains, where Laura yearns to leave her hometown and escape her abusive husband. A lover appears to promise her a way out, but that path leads to a devastating climax.

Tallgrass was featured in the 2004 Humana Festival of New Plays, and Marnich’s works have been on some of the country’s major regional stages. But this production marks her Bay Area professional debut.

In February 2009, Hillman directs the company’s seventh “classic with a twist.” Previous outings have been heavy Shakespeare (Henry IV, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, Measure for Measure). This time around, however, Hillman is in a lighter, brighter mood and will be directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her production, while retaining Shakespeare’s language, will be set in 1980s nightclubs.

The season concludes with the return of Impact Briefs in May 2009, an evening of original short plays on a theme, which this time around will be puberty.

“Impact may be growing up in many ways, but we’re still 13 years old,” Hillman says with a laugh. “I think puberty describes exactly where we are in our development. That said, no matter how old we get, we’re always going to have this streak in us.”

In addition to its roster of plays, the Impact season comes with some other news: audiences will enjoy new seats in LaVal’s Subterranean, the basement theater space under a Berkeley pizzeria. And the seats have fold out desks that promise to make the eating of pizza during the show that much easier.

Also, subscriptions are available for the first time – a full season commitment figures $13 per show. And the date for Impact’s popular poker night fundraiser, Full Houses, has been set for July 11, 2009.