Big, scary ideas amid laughs in ACT’s Big Data

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ABOVE: Jomar Tagatac (left) is Max and BD Wong is M in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s Big Data, now at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 10. BELOW: (from left) Gabriel Brown is Sam, Rosie Hallett is Lucy and Michael Phillis is Timmy. Photos by Kevin Berne



For the first act of Kate Attwell’s world premiere Big Data at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater, we are in a slick, stylized vision of modern life, and though it’s pretty, it isn’t pretty (if you know what I mean).

The back wall of the stage (scenic design by Tanya Orellana and projections by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson) looks like a smart phone on its side. Sometimes the giant screen is filled with live video of what’s happening on (or under) the stage. Other times, it’s a hallucinatory montage of birds and code and the chaos of lfie in motion.

In this sleek, antiseptic world, we meet two couples, both of whom are visited by a curious character who becomes more and more familiar, even if we never really know who he is. Max (Jomar Tagatac) and Lucy (Rosie Hallett) are in different places in their lives but are both facing down dissatisfaction and frustration. An erstwhile journalist, he stays home and berates himself for being a loser, while she, a successful ophthalmologist, wants more than confines of her current clinic situation.

Enter M, an enigmatic character played with great charm and a hint of enigmatic menace by BD Wong. Max meets him first and, after some hesitation that approaches alarm, becomes quite enamored of this oddball in a plaid suit (costumes by Lydia Tanji) who seems to know so much about Max, offering comfort, insight, distraction and the hope of something better in his life.

Later, after an odd interview between M and Lucy about a possible new job, it becomes clearer what M represents when he asks familiar security questions like “name of first pet” and “name of street you grew up on.”

For all his cleverness and charisma, M is the embodiment of why the Internet has taken over the world. He’s the companion, the disguise, the algorithm that eavesdrops on our conversations (written and spoken) and makes just the right ad pop up in our feeds. He’s ubiquitous surveillance and reassurance, connector and consumer of time, numbing brain killer and thrilling dopamine pusher.

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M also finds his way into the life of Lucy’s brother, Sam (Gabriel Brown), and Sam’s husband, Timmy (Michael Phillis). At first, he’s an app that connects the couple to an interested third, and that whole interaction opens up a whole passel of relationship/communication issues that are being mostly ignored because their lives are so filled with work and busy-ness.

There’s no question as to M’s motives of capitalistic exploitation of technology for world domination (after all, life is meaningless if you can’t scale up or take advantage of every juicy cyber morsel of user data). He begins the play with a prologue about pigeons and behavioral modification based on torture and reward to get them to do exactly what you want. Even before we know fully what the play will be, we know we are the addled pigeons.

Playwright Atwell and director Pam MacKinnon take the play in an entirely different direction in Act 2 when the action shifts to the remote country home of Sam and Lucy’s parents. Gone are the screens and clean surfaces of Act 1, replaced with a comfortable Craftsman-style home filled with many years of love and life. Didi (Julia McNeal) and Joe (Harold Surratt) are going through something significant, and they gather their children (and their partners) to share what’s going on. They, too, are responding to the omnipresence of technology abuse in every corpuscle of modern life, but their way of taking a stand and saying as forceful a NO as they can comes as quite a shock to their family.

At 2 ½ hours long, Big Data is never less than compelling (which is saying something for our dwindling, screen-size attention spans), even when it feels hectoring. We’re all complicit in all the issues addressed in the play, and we all likely know that our technology habits are not good for us, not good for relationships, not good for civilization. Attwell is too smart to be preachy – she opts for humor and heart and gets a huge assist from this wonderful cast.

It’s hard to imagine anyone more appealingly effective as the downfall of mankind than Wong is as M. Maybe he’s a savior, maybe he’s just committed to doing a good job, but he’s sweet and sly and full of irresistible magnetism.

The rest of the cast are more recognizable in their human foibles, and though they are familiar, Attwell is careful to give them quirks and complications and endearing traits that make us care about their lives. When things get really complicated, we’re right there with them trying to make sense of what could be utter craziness or absolute sanity.

If the ending isn’t quite the coalescence you might hope for, there’s no shortage of thought-provoking issues, ideas and performances here. Big Data uploads enough to keep our heads spinning for days.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kate Attwell’s Big Data continues through March 10 at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater, 145 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$130 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Cult of Love casts a spell at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: The cast of Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love includes (from left) Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as Mark Dahl, Dan Hiatt as William “Bill” Dahl, Vero Maynez as Loren Montgomery, and Luisa Sermol as Virginia “Ginny” Dahl. The show continues through March 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. BELOW: Sermol as Ginny and Near-Verbrugghe as Mark. Photos by Kevin Berne


Can we just agree that the phrase “dysfunctional family” is redundant? Dysfunction is part of every family in one way or another, so when we say “family,” we mean a complicated set of relationships knit together with love, resentment, injury, abiding affection and mystery (among a whole smörgåsbord of other items).

Playwright Leslye Headland, probably best known for her film (Bachelorette, Sleeping with Other People) and TV (Russian Doll, the upcoming Star Wars: The Acolyte), goes right for the family jugular in Cult of Love, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. This is like the frozen orange juice concentrate of family plays, and let’s just say there’s very little added water in this metaphorical pitcher.

This is the last part in Headland’s Seven Deadly Plays series, and it’s a fun sin for families: pride. At 100 intermissionless minutes, Cult of Love is equal parts dark comedy, withering drama and musical feast. With a boisterous play like this – 10 characters in a smallish Connecticut house for Christmas Eve – you know that for every big laugh (and there are many) there’s going to be something equally as painful later on (check).

Working with director Trip Cullman, Headland really piles on the issues for the Dahl family. Dad (Dan Hiatt) may be slipping into dementia, or maybe his constant stream of “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” is his way of trying to broker peace among the sibling combatants. Mom (Luisa Sermol) is heavy into denial about pretty much everything, but one family tradition she can get behind is the giant punchbowl full of Manhattans she brings out before the much delayed lamb dinner (and in the Dahl family, because tradition is everything, we pronounce the “b” in lamb because it’s…fun?).

The four grown Dahl children trudge through the snow for the one holiday when they’re all together. Of course they come bearing baggage of infinite variety. Mark (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) left the seminary to become a government lawyer and is now at a crossroads. He no longer considers himself a Christian. His wife, Rachel (Molly Bernard), converted to Christianity to marry him and gain the acceptance of the family. She’s bitter about a lot of things, including that, but her love for her husband, troubled as he may be, is never in doubt.

Diana (Kerstin Anderson) is expecting her second child with husband James (Christopher Lowell), a minister, and while their firstborn sleeps upstairs, they express God’s disapproval of sister Evie (Virginia Kull) and her wife, Pippa (Cass Buggé). They aren’t really gay, Diana, suggests, they’re just missing God from their hearts.

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It’s after 9pm, and everybody’s hungry, but mom won’t serve dinner until Johnny (Christopher Sears) arrives. He’s 10 years sober, but he still makes everyone nervous (except his mother, who doesn’t really accept that he was ever a heroin addict). When he does finally arrive, he’s accompanied by Loren (Vero Maynez), who is also in recovery and – too bad for the Dahls – is something of a shame-free truth teller.

Though the Dahls were a devoutly Christian family, the children have all traveled their own roads in and out of the church. Faith, prophecy and mental illness all get drawn into the religious discussions (and fights), where judgements, insults and intolerance (of all kinds) create a sort of hell storm set amid a cozy house over-decorated for Christmas (the set is by Arnulfo Maldonado and the lights are by Heather Gilbert).

Through it all, though, no matter how many times someone storms upstairs or stomps out of the house and says they’re not coming back, they still come back. The lure of the holiday, the promise of family as an ideal way to give and receive love, the need to reconcile past and present all create a sort of magnetic vortex that makes it almost impossible to escape, no matter how harsh and ugly things get.

And then there’s the music. Though not exactly the Von Trapps, there’s enough music here to need a music director and arranger (Jacinth Greywoode doing stellar work). The Dahls play piano, guitar, fiddle, melodica and any number of percussion instruments, and they love to sing holiday tunes, folk songs and even some more contemporary fare. The music on the piano is a volume called “The Family Songbook,” and as a family, they take music seriously – even the cranky or out-of-sorts family member can be coaxed to sing a line or two. It’s a meaningful source of connection, even amid the fracturing of relationships and the flames of explosions new and old. The music is a safe space.

Director Cullman and his cast achieve a believable level of hilarity and hatred, holiday and harassment as family members talk over, through and beyond one another. Each of us will likely identify strongly with one or another of these characters, and for me it was Rachel, Mark’s wife. She married into the Dahls but is still an outsider. She self-medicates and makes sure her wine glass is rarely empty. She’s not afraid to push back when things get spiky, and, in Bernard’s astute performance, she can be counted on for a good one-liner that’s usually something more than just a laugh.

The entire cast weaves a fascinating family web, but the play does get overwhelmed with so many issues: religion, mental illness, sexuality, addiction/recovery, childhood trauma, science denial and more religion. Pippa, the newest spouse in the family, feels the need to defend her wife but wonders, “How do you protect someone from their own family?” And later, Johnny admits that it took him years to “de-program” from his upbringing, not unlike a cult referenced in the title.

Headland eventually quiets things down enough to allow some sad, thoughtful and deep conversations to happen. Even after all the turmoil, she allows space for beauty and – if you’re feeling hopeful – love to settle in, however fleeting. It’s such a relief, though there’s no escaping the fact that even for the happiest of families (which this is most certainly not), there’s no such thing as a happy ending.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love continues through March 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 100 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $22.50-$134 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Of beauty, Bulrusher and Boontling

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ABOVE: Jordan Tyson is the title character in Eisa Davis’ lyrical coming-of-age story, Bulrusher, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. BELOW: Cyndii Johnson (left) is mysterious stranger Vera, Jeorge Bennett Watson (center) is Logger, two people who loom large in the world of Tyson’s Bulrusher (right). Photos by T. Charles Erickson


Sixteen years ago, when I first reviewed Eisa Davis’ Bulrusher in a Shotgun Playes production, I marveled at the practically Shakespearean way Berkeley native Davis blended fantastical language, epic dramatic moments and intimate personal tragedies and triumphs.

All these years later, now that Bulrusher has returned, this time at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a co-production with the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., my opinion hasn’t changed. This is a more opulent production, but Davis’ play is a classic American drama ratcheted up a few notches through the powerfully skillful way it looks at race and through the inclusion of Boontling, a jargon particular to Northern California’s Anderson Valley and the Mendocino County town of Boonville. Words like bilchin, bow for and heel scratchin, all of which mean having sex, date back to the late 19th century, and except for in this Pulitzer Prize finalist play, are mostly forgotten today.

You don’t have to know any Boontling to understand the words when they pop up (there’s a handy glossary in the program, which is available digitally and, praise the heavens and apologies to the environment, on actual paper). Davis is such an adept poet that she can slip in the words, and just through context we get the idea.

It seems most of Bulrusher takes place outdoors, and the set by Lawrence E. Moten III conjues an almost fairy tale vision of Mendocino, with the rivers and redwoods, fog and rain. Projection designer Katherine Freer devises the most beautiful evocation of waves crashing on a beach I’ve seen indoors.

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There’s a crescent of water at the front of the stage because water is so important to the story. The first person we see in that water is Bulrusher (Jordan Tyson), a young woman who nearly lost her life in that cold water when, as a newborn, her mother set her adrift, like Moses, with only a small raft woven of river weeds to protect her. Bulrusher, a mixed-race baby, was found by a Black logger named Lucas, who goes by Loggeer (Jeorge Bennett Watson) and raised by Schoolch (Jamie LaVerdiere) a schoolteacher of few words.

Bulrusher’s relationship to water is a complicated one. Though the river could have ended her life barely after it started, the water also triggers her second sight. Such clairvoyance and her brown skin make Bulrusher an outcast in Boonville except for her tiny circle, which also includes the proprietor of the local brothel, appropriately called Madame (Shyla Lefner) and a boy (Rob Kellogg) who used to taunt her but now sees her as a possible romantic partner.

Into this contained little world, complete with its own lingo, comes someone from far away. Vera (Cyndii Johnson), fresh of the bus from Alabama, shakes up Bulrusher’s life in a lot of ways, not least because she’s the first Black woman Bulrusher has met, and has tales to tell of a country rife with racial strife and violence.

Secrets, confessions and love all begin to swirl in the wake of Vera’s arrival, and though Act 1 still feels overstuffed with exposition, Act 2 goes all in on the drama. Director Nicole A. Watson and her glorious cast find beauty and power in the lives of ordinary country people who are unafraid to expose their emotions, even at the risk of rejection.

Bulrusher is a long play (nearly three hours including intermission), but it’s worth every minute for the gorgeous and moving conclusion. We’re all familiar with the coming-of-age tropes, but here, we really feel the growth, especially spiritually, of Bulrusher. Tyson’s central performance grows and grows until we’re seeing practically a different person than the one we met hours before. It’s bahl (good) to know a little of the Boontling lingo, but it’s ever so much better to watch a young woman coming into her own power.

FOR MORE INFORMAION
Eisa Davis’ Bulrusher continues through Dec. 3 in Berkeley Repertorty Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $22.50-$134 (subject to change). Running time is nearly 3 hours (including a 15-minute intermission). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Blood, love, adolescence flow in Berkeley Rep’s Right One

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ABOVE: Noah Lamanna is Eli in the West Coast premiere of the National Theatre of Scotland production of Let the Right One In. BELOW: Diego Lucano (left) as Oskar and Lamanna as Eli. Photos by Kevin Berne


Let the right one in
Let the old dreams die
Let the wrong ones go
They do not
They do not
They do not see what you want them to

– Morrissey, “Let the Right One Slip In,” 1992


Horror on stage is a tricky, bloody business. I can only think of maybe twice when I have been truly chilled in my theater seat, and one of them came from the team behind Let the Right One In now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, though not in this show. Writer Jack Thorne, movement director Steven Hoggett and director John Tiffany were also involved with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which achieves some gleefully chilling moments involving Dementors and time warps.

But their work on Let the Right One In, an adolescent love story involving vampires and bullies, pre-dates that (and their work on the altogether warmer and more musical stage adaptation of Once). This show, which is based on the 2008 Swedish movie and 2004 novel of the same name (both written by John Ajvide Lindqvist), debuted at the National Theatre of Scotland in 2013 and has since played London and New York. Now, with an American cast, the show makes its West Coast premiere with a chilly, chilling production in Berkeley.

It’s not exactly scary, but it is utterly compelling, and the frozen beauty of the original film has been realized theatrically with a spectacular winter forest (set design by Christine Jones) that seems to be in the perpetual blue night of the late Chahine Yavroyan’s shadowy lighting design.

Specifically, it’s the ’80s in a Stockholm suburb on stage, but really it’s the desolate wilderness of adolescence that we’re witnessing. Oskar (Diego Lucano) is bullied to the point of physical injury at school and tormented at home by an often drunk mother and a father who lives elsewhere with other concerns. After a particularly brutal day at school, Oskar is in the woods outside his apartment complex sparring with trees and imagining himself to be the world’s greatest knife fighter. That’s when he meets Eli (Noah Lamanna), who has recently moved into the complex accompanied by a parent? a guardian? a guy whom we’ve just seen stringing up some poor lug in the woods and slitting his throat?

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Perpetually alone and isolated in his misery, Oskar sparks to the notion of a friend, even a weird one that smells like wet dog or infected bandage. But the worldly Eli is quick to state that they will not be friends, though the rules of storytelling – horror story, love story or otherwise – dictate that their loneliness will join them and alter their lives.

What is never stated explicitly here is that Oskar is 12 and Eli is a 200+ year-old vampire (a world you will not hear in the show’s two-plus hours). But we get it. Thorne’s script is spare on details but long on mood (and, thanks largely to the wonderfully youthful Locano, winsome humor). Act 1 really sets the mood, makes the connections and sets the plot in motion. Act 2 picks up speed and conjures up some wild imagery (the superb special effects are designed by Jeremy Chernick) all the while underscoring that while this human-scale monster tale is really a coming-of-age story that blossoms (thornily) into a love story.

There’s a fair amount of blood, naturally, but Tiffany and Hoggett are more interested in the emotions here. We get a sense of the town through the constant shuffle of people through the woods (though there are only nine actors in the cast) and various interludes of dance that sometimes feel natural and sometimes kind of silly. The adults tend to overact and overreact, so the heart of the story easily becomes Oskar and Eli and the fantastic performances by Lucano and Lamanna as they convey the awkwardness and intensity of young love. Even though one is 12 and one has been alive since the 18th century.

There are echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie here with the potent cocktail of teen angst (or tween, to be exact), aggressive bullying, encounter with the supernatural and revenge tragedy (at one point Oskar is reading a book that looked like a King novel, but my eyes couldn’t be certain). The details are different, of course, but there’s that universal recognition of the horror that is high school, the torture of rejection by the mainstream and finding the power to make your own way. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but the right ones do find one another, and the wrong ones do go away.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The National Theatre of Scotland’s Let the Right One In continues through June 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time is 2 plus a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $43-$119 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Poor Yella Rednecks: Second time is a little more charming

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ABOVE: Christine Jamlig and Will Dao in Qui Nguyen’s Poor Yella Rednecks running through May 7 at ACT’s Strand Theater. BELOW: Jenny Nguyen Nelson and Jamlig play daughter and mother in this continuation of the story that began with Vietgone. Photos by Kevin Berne


The sequel, they say, is never the equal of the original. In the case of Poor Yella Rednecks: Vietgone 2, the second time around is a little more satisfying, although it suffers from what made the first one hard to love. (I reviewed Vietgone for Theatermania, and you can read that review here and know that pretty much everything in there applies the sequel.)

Local audiences saw Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone a little more than five years ago when American Conservatory Theater produced it at The Strand. The story followed refugees from the Vietnam War as they made their way to a refugee camp in Arkansas, had adventures, met new people, fell in love and embarked on a new life in America.

Like that story, the sequel begins with an actor playing Nguyen coming out to tell us what we’re going to see. Instead of interviewing his father, like he did in the last play, he interviews his mother about her experience of starting over as a non-English speaker in the deep American South. The action takes us back to 1975 but then quickly scoots forward six years, with Nguyen, a young boy played by a puppet, and his parents (Jenny Nguyen Nelson as Tong and Hyunmin Rhee as Quang) and his grandmother (Christine Jamlig) living in a trailer and scraping by.

The terrific set design by Tanya Orellana covers the stage in flashy lights but reserves the center elevated part of the stage for a set within the set – a framed picture-like slice of life in the mobile home – cramped and crowded, but a safe place to live.

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When the play focuses on the what the family is facing both economically and culturally, the cast shines and Nguyen’s writing comes to life. But like the first play, this immigrant story is told with whiz-bang fantasy, silliness, rap numbers and jagged storytelling that feels like it should be much bolder, louder and more confident.

Director Jaime Castañeda, who helmed ACT’s Vietgone, is back with a production that feels like a carbon copy of the last one in the way it bobbles the various tonal shifts and lurches into uncomfortable hip-hop interludes (one of which directly shouts out Hamilton – not a good idea) that are meant to be empowering but, because of the actors’ varying degrees of comfort in the medium, are not.

One of the best things about the first play ends up being one of the best things about the second play, and that is Jomar Tagatac, who plays the playwright and a number of other roles (including the British narrator, a goes-nowhere bit of silliness). He, like the rest of the cast, has some great moments of humor and connection amid the chaos.

Where Poor Yella Rednecks fares better than its predecessor is in the warmth with which it tells the story of a family, and specifically the rocky love story of a mother and a father who clash and make mistakes but end up stronger together. They’re also allowed to be sexual beings – an element that is too often ignored in parental love stories related by children. This love story is also specifically an immigrant love story, so you have to add in the horrors of racism and xenophobia to make its survival that much more deeply felt.

And by the end of this two-plus-hour show, you do feel the impact of this family’s experience. You may even have come to love the puppet boy (designed and directed by James Ortiz, performed by Will Dao), especially in a surprisingly moving scene where he is sitting by himself, playing with his Spider-Man and Star Wars toys.

Poor Yella Rednecks is a strange show by design, but what’s best about it – the complicated core of a family in motion – isn’t strange at all.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Qui Nguyen’s Poor Yella Rednecks continues through May 7 at American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Running time is about 2 hours (including one 15-minute intermission). Tickets are $25-$60 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Speaking the language of life in Berkeley Rep’s English

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ABOVE: The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s English includes (from left) Sarah Nina Hayon as Roya, Christine Mirzayan as Goli and Mehry Eslaminia as Elham. BELOW: Sahar Bibiyan is Marjan, the instructor, and Amir Malaklou is Omid, one of her best students. Photos by Alessandra Mello


It’s so interesting that in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s English, your ears have to become accustomed to hearing English. Playwright Sanaz Toossi’s sensitive comedy/drama is set entirely in a classroom in Karaj, Iran circa 2008. The instructor and her four students are engaged in English lessons leading up to the exam known as the TOEFL or Test of English as a Foreign Language. The play is (almost) entirely in English, so when the characters are speaking their native Farsi, they speak in unaccented, colloquial English. When they are communicating in English, we hear varying degrees of accents and grammatical skills, depending on the level of the speaker.

It’s a clever way to fall into the cadence of toggling between two languages without having to use sub/surtitles. There’s more engagement with the characters and their various states of mind, and it’s fascinating to contrast the levels of confidence some of the characters display when speaking their own language compared to the personality transformation that can happen when they are attempting to speak in a language that is not coming easily to them.

Director Mina Morita lets this one-act play unfold slowly as we get to know Marjan (Sahar Bibiyan), the instructor who lived, for a time, in England and still enjoys watching British rom-coms to keep her English skills sharp, and her small class. The biggest personality among them is Elham (Mehry Eslaminia), who has failed all past attempts at the TOEFL and struggles with everything about English. She’s under pressure to pass the exam because she’ll soon be starting medical school in Australia. Goli (Christine Mirzayan) is much more enthusiastic, and it’s one of the play’s many pleasures to see this youthful student gaining confidence in her language skills. Omid (Amir Malaklou) catches Marjan’s eye, and not just because he’s such a strong English speaker, and Roya (Sarah Nina Hayon) is, essentially, being forced to learn English by her son, who is now living in Canada and doesn’t want his child speaking Farsi with anyone.

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In about two dozen scenes, we see the ups and downs of the students, perhaps a romance and some minor drama (speaking strictly in dramatic terms). But within these very recognizable rhythms are lives in motion and the push and pull of family, career, culture, politics. We’re only seeing these people across six weeks or so and only during their classes, so we experience slivers of their lives even while they are creating the community that can happen in a classroom (complete with bonds and battles).

What comes through so remarkably in this intimate, often quite hilarious play is how oblivious we can be to the importance of language in expressing our identity. The idea of belonging or being an outsider based on how you speak is explored, as is the joy of being able to express yourself in a new way or to make someone laugh in a different language. Can a new language be an escape? A salvation? A personal revolution? Or maybe even a shortcut to an appreciation of your own native tongue? Playwright Toossi keeps her scope narrow, but she allows the weight of the world to press in on this little group.

Morita’s wonderful cast works in shades of nuanced reality that allow us to feel like we’re really getting to know these characters. Even when Toossi’s script can be a little too placid, a little too subdued, there’s abundant warmth and humor that keeps us deeply invested in these people’s lives.

There’s always going to be something funny in someone mangling language – not in a jeering way but in appreciation of the bravery required to even make the attempt – and that is certainly a big part of the laughs in English, but even more, the humor bonds us. When we laugh together (in real life and in the theater) we’re acknowledging the depth of communication – our shared humanity, our empathy, our awareness. We may not all speak English, but in English, especially in those moments of comedy, we’re all speaking the same language.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sanaz Toossi’s English continues through May 7 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $43-119. Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes (no intermission). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Nightmare or revelation? It’s Cambodian Rock Band, and it rocks

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ABOVE: The cast of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (from left) Joseph Ngo, Abraham Kim, Geena Quintos and Moses Villarama. BELOW: Ngo and Francis Jue. Photos by Lynn Lane/Berkeley Rep


Cambodian Rock Band is such a unique show that it’s hard to describe. It’s the most uplifting story about human atrocities you can imagine. You could say it’s a play with music, but the music – performed live by the cast – is such an integral part of the story (and the emotion of it all), that you could call it a concert with play. There’s genocide and the uplift of great live music.

Whatever it is, it’s powerful and moving and a joy (and, truth be told, a terror) to behold on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. The exuberant cast keeps up with every tonal shift, time shift and musical cue in playwright Lauren Yee’s compelling story, and the experience slams the audience this way and that in the best possible way.

The roots of Cambodian Rock Band go back to 2016 and to Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor new works program. From there, the show has been produced in a lot of places – Oregon Shakespeare Festival, South Coast Rep, off Broadway to name a few – and it’s that off-Broadway production from the Signature Theatre that is making the rounds of major regional theaters, including Berkeley Rep.

Director Chay Yew dexterously blends all the disparate elements of Yee’s script into something wholly original. The show begins as a rock concert circa 1975 in Phnom Penh. The five-piece band is Cyclos, and they’re caught up in the excitement of recording their first album. Then everything changes. The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot comes to power, launching a horrifying reign that ultimately led to the death of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. Amid the totalitarian terror, education, music and art were outlawed, and those who practiced such dangerous trades were systematically dispatched.

From the opening concert, we bounce to Phnom Penh in 2008 and the first war crimes trial related to the Pol Pot regime. A young Cambodian-American woman, Neary (Geena Quintos) is part of the legal team bringing Commrade Duch to justice after his stint as director of the infamous S-21 prison, which is estimated to have slaughtered 20,000 people. When the prison was liberated in 1979, only seven people appeared to have survived. But, as Neary discovers, there is a possible eighth survivor, and she needs to locate him so he can testify.

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Just as her trial is about to begin, Neary’s father, Chum (Joe Ngo) shows up and wants to bring her back to the U.S. He fled the Khmer regime and doesn’t want his daughter mired in all that horror from 30 years before. But she is insistent, and the father-daughter struggle will delve into some tangled family history that is played out in flashbacks.

To say that Ngo as Chum is extraordinary really isn’t saying enough. He is called upon to sing and play guitar in the band, play the young Chum navigating the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge and play the older Chum, a husband and father and American who would rather not re-live his Cambodian past. By turns funny, sympathetic and devastatingly dramatic, Ngo brings an astonishing level of energy and depth to his character’s remarkable journey.

Quintos as Neary is a defiant but sympathetic daughter following her own quest for justice, but she’s also a powerhouse singer in the band. Moses Villarama plays characters in both of the play’s eras and plucks a mean bass, while Abraham Kim wallops the drums (and some smaller roles) and Jane Lui tackles the keys (and prisoners at S-21).

Former Bay Area resident (but still Bay Area favorite) Francis Jue interrupts the opening concert to act as a sort of host for the evening and to guide us back and forth in time until he becomes a major player in the drama. Nobody can convey more charm or more menace than Jue, who is truly masterful in this show. And not for nothing, he plays a mean cowbell.

Unlike something like Life Is Beautiful the warmhearted(?) Roberto Benigni comedy(?) about the Holocaust, Cambodian Rock Band is not sappy or easy. Yee isn’t softening Pol Pot’s genocide in any way. The use of music – something the Khmer Rouge considered so dangerous they banned it – and specifically rock music (originals by the band Dengue Fever plus some vintage Cambodian surf songs and other period tunes) emphasizes the raging glory of humanity – and the human connection that art creates – even in the face of humanity at its very worst. An evening that begins as a concert ends as a transcendent event that feels enormous and full of hope.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band continues through April 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 2 1/2 hours (including a 15-minute intermission). Tickets are $21-$122 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Murder, family meld in Chen’s Headlands at ACT

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ABOVE: Johnny M. Wu as George (left), Phil Wong as Henry (center) and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as Leena in the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s
The Headlands, running at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 5. BELOW: Charles Shaw Robinson (left) is Detective, Wong (center) is Henry and Sam Jackson is Jess. Photos by Kevin Berne


San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen seems to revel in puzzle, enigma and truth quests. His fascinating body of work is rich with mystery and unconventional theatricality. He’s one of the most interesting and intelligent playwrights working today, and he’s one of those artists who, when you see his name attached to something, you immediately check it out.

This is quite true of Chen’s The Headlands, now receiving its West Coast premiere (after being at Lincoln Center Theatre in early 2020 right before lockdown) at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater. This one-act drama is a murder mystery and a complex family drama all rolled into one compelling package.

The less revealed about the plot the better, so I’ll just say that this is the story of Henry Wong, a San Francisco native and resident of the Sunset. As played by Phil Wong, Henry is distractingly charming. He speaks directly to the audience and lets us know that he’s an amateur sleuth with a penchant for solving cold cases. There’s one particular 20-year-old case that intrigues him. It involves a murder (or was it?) in his neighborhood. Not just in his neighborhood but in his house. OK. It was his dad. His dad was the victim, and Henry was only 10 years old.

Henry is what you call an unreliable narrator, but then again, how many 10-year-olds make reliable witnesses? His charm and easygoing manner pull us into his quest, but in true Chen fashion, the excitement of a whodunit soon gives way to some serious family complexities that make The Headlands more of an emotional puzzle than a criminal one.

That’s not to say we don’t care about what really happened to Henry’s dad and who may or may not have killed him. We absolutely do, and director Pam MacKinnon creates a propulsive but still deeply emotional production that plays with the idea of creating a film noir for the stage without sacrificing content to genre.

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The set by Alexander V. Nichols really is another character here because it contains the whole world of Henry’s story – his past and present, his memories, his misconceptions. The basic structure comprises the plain gray walls of Henry’s family’s Sunset – two stories, a staircase, a kitchen, a window looking out onto the street. The set gracefully rotates, with walls that slide in and out, and all of it serves to hold Nichols’ vivid projections. They’re mostly of San Francisco and environs – Chinatown, the Sunset, Land’s End, the Marin Headlands, Coit Tower, SFPD’s Taraval Station, Lucca Deli (which practically got a round of applause) – but we also get moody images of fingers hitting piano keys, glass breaking, an IV drip. As Henry delves deeper into his family’s secrets, the projections are a kind of stream of consciousness that envelops everyone and wraps them in the beauty and moodiness of San Francisco.

I’m not usually a fan of abundant projections in live theater (why not just make a movie?), but MacKinnon and Nichols use them so artfully and effectively I was completely mesmerized. When the story reaches intriguing places, the projections fade so the focus can be on the characters. There’s only one scene, to my mind, when the projections overstep and briefly (but still ineffectively) take over the storytelling.

The actors never get overwhelmed by the production primarily because they’re all so good. Beginning with Wong’s increasingly complex Henry, the cast does service to the murder mystery tropes but has no problem digging in to the demands of the family drama. Sam Jackson as Jess, Henry’s girlfriend, helps us navigate what we can and cannot trust in Henry’s storytelling, and Keiko Shimosato Carreiro adds whole new chapters to stories Henry thought he knew.

The invaluable Charles Shaw Robinson turns up twice and manages to fascinate both times (and reveal how casual racism can have drastic results). But it’s the trio of Jomar Tagatac, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Johnny M. Wu that carries the biggest dramatic load. Their stories involve elements of mystery (of course), rom-com, immigrant saga, soap opera and Greek drama, and the actors make it all feel real and vital.

The Headlands is seductive in the way that murder mysteries can be, but its cold case fever gives way to greater depths as one man wrestles with his family – their ghosts, their mistakes and their love for him. It’s a captivating experience that feels deeply rooted in San Francisco, not just as a location but as a state of mind – a head land, you might say.

[Bonus Chen!]
Last year, Christopher Chen dropped an Audible Original called The Podcaster, a 92-minute audio play that messes with the whole notion of podcasts. Of course there’s a mystery involved, and it’s a blast. Get more info here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s The Headlands continues through March 5 at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 100 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $25-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Pain and strife sandwiched by laughs in Berkeley Rep’s Clyde’s

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ABOVE: Cyndii Johnson is Letitia and Wesley Guimarães is Rafael in Lynn Nottage’s Tony Award-nominated play Clyde’s, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. BELOW: (from left) Louis Reyes McWilliams is Jason, Harold Surratt is Montrellous and April Nixon is Clyde. Photos by Muriel Steinke/Berkeley Rep


It’s easy to see why Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s is this country’s most produced play. Like other works in the Nottage canon, this one is about real things, hard things – violence, poverty, addiction, rehabilitation, homelessness and a system of so much inequity that too many don’t even have a chance. But Clyde’s is also a comedy. It’s heartfelt and hopeful, with laughs to leaven what might, in less skilled hands, become mawkish or sentimental.

Audiences and theater companies are understandably attracted to this show: it’s about 90 minutes with five diverse actors, one set (a working kitchen at a truck-stop diner) and a take on contemporary life that doesn’t ignore harsh realities but allows humor, connectivity and grace to warm a cold place.

The Bay Area premiere of Clyde’s comes in an engaging co-production from Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where the play opened Wednesday night in the Peet’s Theatre, and Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. There are lots of laughs in director Taylor Reynolds’ production, but underneath the sitcom veneer – think “Alice” by way of “The Bear” and “Orange Is the New Black” – what really shines through are the relationships that become powerful enough to change the characters’ lives – even the bad ones.

The reputation of Clyde’s, a Pennsylvania roadside sandwich joint favored by truckers, is that the sandwiches and burgers are pretty tasty. What diners may not know is that owner Clyde (April Nixon) has, as she puts it, sold her soul to keep this place open. Her kitchen staff has always comprised formerly incarcerated people who have trouble finding gainful employment anywhere else. While Clyde could be seen as a savior of sorts, she’s really more of a bully, even physically abusing some of the crew (and they have the bruises to prove it). She doesn’t want to hear their woeful stories, and she definitely doesn’t want to taste their inventive new sandwiches. Her needs are simple: show up on time and do the work (and maybe don’t crumble under her rather ferocious management style).

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The center of the kitchen crew is Montrellous (Harold Surratt), an older Black man who is the epitome of mindfulness and consideration. He doesn’t view sandwiches as food as much as democracy. He does things with care and intention and love. He tries to instill this sense of presence and purpose in his co-workers, Rafael (Wesley Guimarães), a Latino man who tried to rob a bank with a BB rifle, and Leticia (Cyndii Johnson), a Black mom who robbed a pharmacy to get meds for her special-needs child and then, in her words, got greedy grabbing a few things to sell on the side.

Both Rafael and Tish, as she’s known, are fully under Montrellous’ spell and are trying, in their ways, to be better and do better. Their productive kitchen trio is upended with the arrival of Jason (Louis Reyes McWilliams), a newly released white guy covered in racist gang tats – something that doesn’t exactly endear him to Tish. His presence ups the tension in the kitchen, but, in short order, he falls into the workaday rhythm and begins, like the others, to revere Montrellous and to take his work (and himself) seriously. The environs may be dingy (the set by Wilson Chin is perfection), but the work and the people occasionally operate at reverential, life-changing levels.

Two-time Pulitzer winner Nottage uses Clyde to keep things sharp, but she’s not afraid to introduce a burgeoning love story for Tish and Rafael, which could be sappy but is absolutely endearing (especially in the marvelous, warmhearted performances from Johnson and Guimarães). Nearly every time Clyde comes into the kitchen, she’s wearing a different wig and another expensive, flashy outfit (costumes by Karen Perry). Nixon’s performance could use more menace, but we get the idea. Clyde, who also has a prison stint in her past, is this purgatory’s resident demon, and to escape, her prisoners will have to rely on one another to find strength, motivation and the right moment.

What’s interesting is the way Nottage brings everyone in the play more clearly into focus as it moves along – everyone but Clyde. You actually begin to care about all the characters (but Clyde), and the notion that she is just an end to a more just means begins to sink in. Society has let down everyone here, but the alchemy of Clyde’s kitchen (and her penchant for meanness and humiliation) forges a crucible for change. For Montrellous, Tish, Rafael and Jason, sandwiches are a step toward self-actualization and Clyde is a devil they’ll leave in their past.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Clyde’s by Lynn Nottage continues through Feb. 26 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 90+ minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $30-$135 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Chilling winds blow through thrilling Wuthering Heights

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ABOVE: Leah Brotherhead is Catherine and Liam Tamne is Heathcliff in the West Coast premiere of Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. BELOW: (from left) Brotherhead is Catherine, Jordan Laviniere is the Leader of the Yorkshire Moors, Katy Ellis is Isabella Linton and Sam Archer is Edgar Linton. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Photos by Kevin Berne.



Judging from Kate Bush’s thrilling song “Wuthering Heights,” my only reference to the Emily Brontë book of the same name, I thought the subject matter at hand was a ghostly love story. “Heathcliff, it’s me. I’m Cathy. I’ve come home. I’m so cold. Let me in your window.” I could just imagine the lovelorn ghost tapping on the window in the West Yorkshire moors and shivered those good tragic romance shivers.

When I finally got around to reading the 1847 novel (which was much later than it should have been), I discovered that there was a ghostly romance aspect to the book, but it was much darker, creepier and more violent than I had imagined. Revenge, cruelty and madness pervade the story. The cycles of abuse and racism that Brontë describes feel, sadly, very 21st century.

There have been many adaptations of Wuthering Heights – movies, series, literary take-offs – and now we have the West Coast premiere of a new stage version from the mind of the brilliant Emma Rice, whose previous work as a writer/director in the Bay Area includes Brief Encounter at American Conservatory Theater and The Wild Bride at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Rice’s theater tends to be incredibly dynamic and raw – exuberant, striking and beautiful.

Her Wuthering Heights, now at Berkeley Rep after runs in London and New York, is all of the above. This is not a romantic take on this story, although there are several love stories. Rather, Rice concentrates on bigger issues like the oft-repeated refrain, “Be careful what you seed,” meaning the hatred and violence you perpetrate now will have repercussions for years to come in the form of death, division and more violence, among other awful things.

Watching this three-hour epic, I was struck over and over again by how this story and Romeo and Juliet are really about breaking that cycle.

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It all starts with what seems an act of kindness when Mr. Earnshaw (Lloyd Gorman rescues a boy (of unknown origin, but darker and more foreign than people in the North of England) from the streets of Liverpool and brings him home to meet his children, Catherine (Leah Brotherhead) and Hindley (Tama Phethean). The Earnshaw children have different reactions to the newly christened Heathcliff (Liam Tamne), their new sibling. Catherine immediately adores him (and he, her), but Hindley resents his father’s new son and embarks on what wil be years of abuse and degradation.

There’s a wildness to the personalities of these moor-dwelling folk, and when more proper society intrudes (as it does with the Linton family), it tends to feel silly and out of place. These moors are distinctive in many ways, and Rice actually brings them to life in the form of a Greek chorus headed by the dynamic Jordan Laviniere. There’s also a giant screen at the back of the Roda Theatre stage that exists to show us the Yorkshire skies, most often brooding and stormy, with flocks of silhouetted birds often fluttering by (set by Vicki Mortimer, video design by Simon Baker).

Rice’s storytelling is rough and tumble in the best way. Houses are represented by windows and doors on wheels. Piles of chairs represent various furnishings, and books on the ends of sticks are birds. It all feels very contemporary and period at the same time, which is difficult to do. When a punk-fueled Catherine grabs a microphone to offer a song of rage before being forced to reject Heathcliff and marry someone else, it feels exactly right.

The three-member on-stage band, often augmented by members of the cast (like the cello-playing doctor, and the many songs (most folk-y and tender) add an element of energy and life that help counter just how bleak this story is.

Rice’s troupe tackles the story with gusto, and it’s quite amusing how often they acknowledge just how confusing the characters can be because there are so many repeated names from generation to generation. Rice calls Catherine, Heathcliff and Hareton (the son of Hindley, played by the same actor) forces of Chaos, Revenge and Hope, and the actors Brotherhead, Tamne and Phethean are all phenomenal as they embody and enliven those messy human elements.

There’s not exactly a happy ending here, but there is a glimmer of hope. It’s well earned and powerful – the kind of thrill that only superb live theater can create and make feel 100% real.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights, adapted and directed by Emma Rice from Emily Brontë’s novel, continues through Jan. 1 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running Time: Three hours (including intermission). Tickets are $19.50-$124. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org