Fallaci fascinates at Berkeley Rep, even if her play doesn’t

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Concetta Tomei (left) is renowned journalist Oriana Fallaci and Marjan Neshat is Maryam, a young journalist in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of Fallaci by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright. Below: Tomei’s Fallaci ponders a life spent fighting those with power on behalf of those without it. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

Oriana Fallaci was a fascinating, riveting person in real life, a crusading, eviscerating journalist whose intensity often made her part of the story. In journalist and playwright Lawrence Wright’s world-premeire play Fallaci at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Fallaci lives again, and true to form, she’s a compelling personality whose intelligence, drive and complicated emotional life provide an abundance of drama.

As played by Concetta Tomei, Fallaci may be dealing with illness by shutting herself into her New York apartment, but she’s still ferocious and prickly. When a young journalist from the New York Times wheedles her way into Fallaci’s apartment to snag an interview with the reclusive writer, Fallaci reluctantly warms to the reporter as an audience for her vehemence, her humor and her wisdom.

Discussing her famous interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini, Fallaci says she failed that day because she didn’t do what every journalist must do, and that is expose the lie. She got reactions from the man she describes as “Moses as carved by Michaelangelo,” but she didn’t get “past the holy robes and see the man inside.” Her strategy, she adds, was to talk to him in the most effective way she could: as his mother.

Giving lessons in interviewing to the 25-year-old Maryam (Marjan Neshat), Fallaci insists that questions must be confrontational and contradictory and they should penetrate deep into the heart of the subject. “Yes, it’s coitus,” she says, ultimately an “act of love.”

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The first chapter of this 90-minute one-act takes place a year before the events of 9/11, the second chapter three years after, when Fallaci has newfound notoriety for her books decrying Islam, and the final chapter closer to Fallaci’s death in 2006. As long as Tomei’s Fallaci holds court, serves tea and smokes cigarette after cigarette in her book- and memento-stuffed apartment (beautiful design by Robin Wagner and warm lighting by Michael Chybowski), all is well in the land of Fallaci. There’s some beautiful writing, as when Fallaci discusses the seeming contradiction of loving life and not being able to stay away from war. “When the danger is over and nothing has happened to you, you feel twice alive.”

But when Wright delves away from the documentary and into the emotional, the play, under the direction of Oskar Eustis, is much less convincing. The biggest problem is that Tomei’s gripping performance is the only credible thing on stage. Maryam is simply a device, a means through which Oriana pontificates, educates and makes a case for a lifetime of work she describes as a fight against those with power on behalf of those without.

Maryam, an Iranian-American with deep roots in Iran’s political struggles, is a too-convenient target for Fallaci’s anti-Islam screeds, and Wright wants to have it all by making the women friends and enemies. It’s just not convincing, and Neshat’s performance as Maryam is callow to the point of annoyance. The character’s emotional life comes across as programmed rather than felt, especially as the play’s chronology progresses. By the end, I couldn’t help wishing this had been a one-woman enterprise focused solely on Fallaci herself.

[bonus interview]
I talked to journalist and playwright Lawrence Wright for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Larewnce Wright’s Fallaci continues through April 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Heavenly Angels exhibit takes wing

Angels caricatureThis Al Hirschfeld drawing of the Broadway Angels in America cast is on display at San Francisco’s Museum of Performance and Design in the exhibit More Life: Angels in America at Twenty. Below, Milton Glaser’s artwork for the Broadway production of Angels.

The millennium approached, then quickly fell behind us. Time marches on, but Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America remains a landmark achievement of 20th-century theater.

The legacy of the play that got its start at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre is on display at the Museum of Performance and Design, one of San Francisco’s best kept museum secrets. The exhibit hall may be filled with memorabilia from Angels’ humble beginnings on a red Formica table filled with scribbled-in notebooks to its domination of world stage (with the Pulitzer Prize and international posters to prove it), but what you really feel in this display is the extraordinary power of theater.

It doesn’t happen very often, but when a play or a musical really taps into the American psyche, imaginations are ignited and artists are pushed to do work they didn’t know they could do. MPD’s curator of exhibitions and programs, Brad Rosenstein, has created a testament to the evanescence of theater. Plays may come and go, but sometimes in their wake, the world changes because people’s imaginations were truly engaged.

At a press preview for More Life! Angels in America at Twenty, (the exhibit opens to the public Saturday, Nov. 6), Rosenstein talked about his connection with the play from the first time he read it then described how enthusiastic everyone was when he contacted them for information or artifacts for the exhibit. No one had time, he said, but just about everyone made time, including Kushner, whom Rosenstein accurately described as “the busiest writer in the world.”

Angels posterKushner was there for the preview, as were original Broadway cast members Joe Mantello and David Marshall Grant. The Eureka production was represented by Tony Taccone, who, along with Oskar Eustis, ran the Eureka and had the foresight to produce the world premiere of Angels, along with cast members Lorri Holt and Anne Darragh.

The ever-present image in the exhibit, not surprisingly, is wings. There are angels’ wings from numerous productions, including the original Sandra Woodall wings from the Eureka (beautifully restored), the only surviving wings from Broadway, the American Conservatory Theater wings (metal and fabric and strangely beautiful) and the hyper-realistic wings worn by Emma Thompson in the HBO movie. There’s also a set piece from Broadway of the Angel of Bethesda Fountain that looks like it just fell off the beloved Central Park landmark. There are angels in photos and on posters, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to sense a few actual angels hovering among the artifacts.

Kushner was saving his speech for the big pre-opening gala, but in accepting a proclamation from San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty proclaiming Angels in America Day, Kushner said, “The only thing left is to climb in a box and shut the lid.” He described himself as “overwhelmed” and “out of my head.” And he described the experience of the exhibit as if someone had opened his closet and out spilled posters and wings and people.

Rosenstein conducted about 50 interviews with artists involved with Angels over the last two decades, and he said he will continue to add new audio and visual material into the exhibit. Among that material will be footage from a number of different productions. Toward the end of the exhibition, there will be a screening of Freida Lee Mock’s Kushner documentary, Wrestling with Angels at a Lucasfilm screening room, and there’s talk at the San Francisco Opera of unleashing the Adler Fellows on a concert presentation of the Angels opera.

The exhibit is so inspiring you want to head immediately into a nearby theater and see Angels in its entirety. You’d have to head to New York’s Singature Theatre Company to do that right now, but Supervisor Dufty mentioned a local theater company he’s helping, Theatre Shark, as they try to find a Castro neighborhood storefront in which to produce the entire two-part epic. Until then we can wallow in the wing-fluttering glory of More Life!.

More words!

I wrote about the contents of the exhibit in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the article here. You can also read Rob Hurwitt’s interview with Tony Kushner and his piece on the legacy of Angels.


More Life! Angels in America at Twenty continues through March 26, 2011 at the Museum of Performance and Design, 401 Van Ness Ave., Veterans Building, Fourth Floor, San Francisco. Suggested donation is $5. Call 415 255-4800 or visit www.mpdsf.org.

With strings attached, Compulsion compells

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Mandy Patinkin as Sid Silver shares the stage with a marionette representing Anne Frank in Rinne Groff’s Compulsion at Berkeley Repertorty Theatre. Photos courtesy of www.kevinberne.com

It’s so incredibly exciting to be enthralled by someone or something. In the case of Rinne Groff’s Compulsion at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, it’s someone and something.

The world-premiere production (in collaboration with Yale Repertory Theatre, where the play ran earlier this year, and The Public Theater in New York, where the play goes next) is ostensibly a roman a clef about the life of Meyer Levin, the journalist and novelist most famous for the novel Compulsion, his fictionalized spin on the Leopold and Loeb murders. Levin’s stand-in here is Sid Silver, also Jewish, also from Chicago, also married to a French woman, also obsessed with Anne Frank and her diary.

Taking a cue from the real-life Levin’s younger days, Silver is a puppeteer who once did O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape in a marionette theater. That gives Groff license to bring puppets into the dramatic fray – puppets representing Anne Frank, her father, Otto, and actors in various productions of the play The Diary of Anne Frank. This is fun in Act 1, but you find yourself wondering what puppets are really doing in a serious play about self-identity and the depths of spiritual obsession.

Then comes a scene involving Sid (Mandy Patinkin), his wife (Hannah Cabell) and a marionette representing Anne Frank. To reveal too much about the scene would spoil what is an absolutely extraordinary theatrical moment – emotionally complex, powerfully moving. It’s enough to say that Patinkin, who gives voice to Anne during the scene, mesmerizes, as does Cabell. She opens her soul to reveal a spurned wife, a compassionate mother and a human being utterly bewildered by the man she loves so deeply.

Puppet designer and supervisor Matt Acheson has done marvelous work throughout with the marionettes, but this particular scene is a dramatic triumph. The Anne puppet makes such subtle, touching gestures that she seems, if not human, then otherworldly (it also helps that Michael Chybowski’s lighting is so expertly dim). If I had strings, I’d want them to be manipulated by the expert hands of puppeteers Emily DeCola, Daniel Patrick Fay and Eric Wright. In fact, the puppets are so intriguing I wanted more of them. In Act 1, too many scenes go by without any hint of strings or papier mâché faces.

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That’s not to take anything away from the trio of humans on stage. Patinkin delivers as fine a performance as you can imagine in the role of Silver, a character who does very little to make himself likable. In fact, Sid tends to alienate and infuriate just about everyone he comes into contact with (including his wife). He’s got an enormous ego and a persecution mania. Everyone’s out to get him. It’s all a conspiracy. And he will fight – and fight hard – anyone who gets in his way. But Patinkin finds ways to show us that Sid is a good man. His righteousness comes from a deeply spiritual place, but he has little in his emotional arsenal to regulate his passion and outsize emotions. You sympathize with Sid as much as you feel for those having to deal with him.

Cabell is a wonder in two key roles: Mrs. Silver and Miss Mermin, the Doubleday publishing agent who gets caught up in Sid’s vortex and feels the effects for decades. As Mrs. Silver, Cabell never ceases to reveal new levels of emotional complexity.

As a quartet of various publishers, lawyers and friends, Matte Osian brings some welcome humor to a very serious piece, but what’s interesting about the laughs (and there are plenty) is that they relate directly to issues of persecution, anti-Semitism and general ignorance and insensitivity, all of which course through the entire play.

If Jeff Sugg’s projections are excessive – do we really need ocean waves splashed on the back of Eugene Lee’s set to convey a beach scene? — they occasionally add clarity, as when they help set location or time shifts. And they do a service in allowing us to see numerous photos of the real Anne Frank.

Director Oskar Eustis (the artistic director of The Public) has done some extraordinarily astute work with his actors, and the way he has integrated the puppets is fascinating.

And now back to that amazing scene between Sid, Mrs. Silver and Anne Frank. I can’t remember being so riveted by a scene, and then something intriguing happens. Patinkin starts to sing very quietly at the end of the scene. Then, as we transition into the next scene, Patinkin beings to sing full out in Yiddish, arms outstretched and voice quivering. It’s such a Tony Award-winning Mandy Patinkin moment that it all but shatters the spell of the previous scene.

That’s really the only moment that I didn’t find Compulsion utterly compelling.


Rinne Groff’s Compulsion continues through Oct. 31 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73. Call 510 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.