Ruhl peters out in Berkeley Rep’s For Peter Pan

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Kathleen Chalfant (left) is Ann and Ron Crawford is George in Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: The cast of Peter Pan includes, from left, Charles Shaw Robinson as John, Keith Reddin as Michael, David Chandler as Jim, Chalfant as Ann and Ellen McLaughlin as Wendy. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Sarah Ruhl is a brilliant writer capable of intellectual heights and emotional depths. Her latest play, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, displays few of those qualities.

Paired with director Les Waters with whom she worked so memorably on Eurydice and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) at Berkeley Rep, Ruhl is working in mysterious ways here. At first glance it would seem that this Peter Pan curiosity is Ruhl doing her spin on Our Town, extolling the simple complexity of life and death as seen through the prism of theater, or, in this case, children’s community theater.

The luminous Kathleen Chalfant is Ann, a 70-year-old woman who begins the 90-minute one-act with a monologue recalling the life-changing experience she had playing Peter Pan in the musical of the same name in a 1955 children’s theater production in her hometown, Davenport, Iowa.

With Chalfant functioning in the Stage Manager from Our Town role to create a bridge between the audience and the play, the scene then shifts to a spacious hospital room at a Catholic hospital (which seemingly employs no doctors, nurses or orderlies), where Ann and her four siblings are holding vigil over their dying father.

Side note: this is a season of recurring themes at Berkeley Rep. Peter Pan marks the third play featuring pirates (Captain Hook appears toward the play’s end) following The Pirates of Penzance and Treasure Island. It’s also the second play, following the sublime Aubergine to deal with an adult child watching a parent’s final hours.

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From the hospital, Annie Smart’s set shifts to the siblings – Charles Shaw Robinson, Keith Reddin, David Chandler and Ellen McLaughlin – sitting around their father’s table drinking Irish whiskey and holding a sort of wake, while the ghost of their father (Ron Crawford) (and his late dog, played by a beautiful St. Bernard named Yodel) drift through the room. When the siblings go to bed, Ann dreams of her Peter Pan triumph, and a version of that story, complete with flying, unfolds, dream-style, with elements of Ann’s life and family mixed in to create, in theory, a poignant reflection on what it means to be an adult and how it feels, with the parent generation behind you, to be the sentry between life and death.

All of that is intriguing, and Ruhl is certainly a writer who can be profound and delicate and powerful and expansive. But what she and Waters are doing with Peter Pan remains enigmatic to the point of consternation. The dialogue is clumsy and corny (I’m assuming intentionally), with the siblings talking to each other in stilted tones as if they’ve just met and have to explain themselves, their parents and their childhoods for each other’s benefit more than for the audience’s. When the whiskey-fueled chatter turns from the provocation of politics to matters of faith and spirituality, things get interesting, but only briefly before they actually make a toast to not growing up. They might as well have made a wish on the second star to the right.

The action shifts to Neverland (with the set being clunkily moved by stagehands, again, assuming that’s intentional given all the whiz-bang technology at Berkeley Rep’s disposal), with the siblings playing Darling children John, Michael and Wendy (hmmm, also their names in the “real” world), Chalfant playing Peter and Chandler playing Hook. There’s some charm in watching actors of a certain age play with the idea of being children but children imbued with their full life experiences as senior adults. And it is certainly grand to see Chalfant zipping around the stage in green tights, crowing like an annoying but undeniably appealing rooster.

The blend of dream and play and drama and direct address is all a bit too eccentric to add up to much in the end. Ruhl is an emotional rather than sentimental writer, except here. She overuses “When the Saints Go Marching In” and rather than celebrating the impact of an amateur theater experience, she seems rather baffled by it. The whole play seems a flight of fancy that isn’t clear how high or how far it wants to go, a serious rumination on human existence that’s hard to take seriously. There’s plenty of actual pixie dust tossed around the stage but no actual theatrical magic.

Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday continues through July 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

SF Playhouse offers a sweet, satisfying Kiss

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Carrie Paff and Gabriel Marin play actors in a romantic play who share a turbulent romantic past in Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Marin and Paff, along with Taylor Iman Jones as Angela navigate rocky real life off stage. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

San Francisco Playhouse puckers up and offers a nice juicy kiss for the holidays in Stage Kiss, a delightfully daffy theatrical spin with a touch of real-life melancholy.

This is the first time we’ve seen Ruhl’s play in San Francisco, but the whole Bay Area is alive with the sounds of Ruhl’s empathetic, intelligent, often mystical take on life. Marin Theatre Company and Shotgun Players recently produced her The Oldest Boy (read my review here) and Eurydice respectively. And Berkeley Repertory Theatre is gearing up for her For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday next summer.

There’s a reason Ruhl reigns over theater here (and across the country): her plays are warm, wise, funny and fresh. Stage Kiss, a cautious valentine to the theater (it’s wonderful, but it’s tricky, and its make believe has real-life repercussions), feels like equal parts 1930s theatrical farce and contemporary relationship comedy. The tone, as the director of the show within the show says, is “slippery.”

But the show’s actual director, Susi Damilano, mostly navigates the slip-and-slide tonal shifts deftly and with tremendous warmth. Her cast is headed by three Playhouse MVPs: Carrie Paff is an actress just coming back to the stage after leaving to raise a now-16-year-old daughter; Gabriel Marin is her leading man with whom she shared a turbulent but never quite forgotten romance in the past; and Mark Anderson Phillips is perhaps the worst director of all time (“Just go with your instincts!”). All three have shining moments, but Paff is positively luminous as the unnamed actress (known only as She in the program) whose insecurity gets knocked for a loop when her old lover shows up as her co-star.

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The play’s best moments occur in rehearsal for The Last Kiss a (fictional) creaky old play from the early ’30s, the kind of thing that Katharine Hepburn might have starred in and chewed up all the scenery (including her leading man). Ruhl’s dialogue for the play is convincingly awful, but as the former lovers rekindle their affections, their performances in the silly play suddenly become much more intense and passionate.

There’s a second play within the play in Act 2, a tormented love story abut an IRA terrorist and a whore (title: I Loved You Before I Killed you, or Blurry), and though it’s not quite as fun, it’s still got some big laughs, and all that kissing in the first play is replaced by more challenging fight choreography.

The idea of actors kissing in front of an audience – how weird that is, how titillating – gets a lot of exploration. By the former lover co-stars, of course, but also with the leading man’s understudy (a very funny Allen Darby as Kevin). The leading man, who is described as “a 17-year-old in man pants,” says audiences don’t really like all that kissing. “They tolerate it,” he says. “They don’t really like to see the act of kissing onstage, only the idea of kissing onstage. That’s why actors have to be good-looking, because it’s about an idea, an idea of beauty completing itself. You don’t like to see people do more than kiss onstage, it’s repulsive.”

There’s nothing remotely repulsive about any of the kissing on stage, but his point is well taken. Watching people kiss is odd. But it’s also fun in the proper context, and this context is continually interesting for much of the play’s two hours.

Michael Gene Sullivan, like many of the actors, plays multiple roles. He’s playing the husband of the leading lady in the Act 1 play, and then in Act 2, he plays her real-life husband, who turns out to be much more interesting than we might surmise. His observations about marriage and the way he fights to keep his alive is one of the most heartfelt and interesting aspects of the play. “Marriage is about repetition,” he says to his estranged wife, who has gotten carried away by her theatrical nature. “Every night the sun goes down and moon comes up and you have another chance to be good.”

Also strong in supporting roles are Taylor Iman Jones as several characters in the Act 1 play and then as a real-life daughter in Act 2, and Millie DeBenedt, who steals every scene she’s in when she appears in Act 2 as the leading man’s school teacher girlfriend.

The revolving set by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott conveys a rich sense of theatricality – Act 1 even gets lush red velvet curtains – and is part of the joke when real life turns into theater.

Stage Kiss doesn’t have the depth of some of Ruhl’s other work, but as light, bright comedies go, it has substance. There are some big, robust laughs here. Even better, this turns out to be a Kiss that lingers.

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss continues through Jan. 9 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Marin Theatre Co. meditates on Ruhl’s poignant Boy

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Kurt Uy (left, as Father) and Christine Albright (as Mother) interact with their 3-year-old son, Tenzin, a puppet operated by Tsering Dorjee (Bawa), Jed Parsario and Melvign Badiola in the Marin Theatre Company production of Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy. Below: Mother and son have a moment in India. Photos by Kevin Berne

The plays of Sarah Ruhl are mightily appealing in their intelligence, sensitivity, beauty and depth. From Dead Man’s Cell Phone to Eurydice (now at Shotgun Players) to In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, Ruhl makes the ordinary extraordinary and gives poetic voice to thoughtful, troubled lives that have a great deal to offer.

Now making its West Coast debut at Marin Theatre Company, Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy is in some ways very conventional: a well-heeled mother and father in the United States are conflicted about the education of their young son. But the circumstances surrounding this conflict are quite extraordinary. Their 3-year-old has been deemed an incarnate lama, the reincarnated soul of a “tulku” or high-ranking lama. Two monks arrive from India (where so many Tibetan Buddhists live in exile from their conflicted homeland) with the news, and the parents must decide if they will relinquish their son to life in a monastery on the other side of the world.

This news is perhaps more shocking to the mother (Christine Albright), who was raised Catholic in Ohio and has been a spiritual wanderer since, than it is to the father (Kurt Uy), a Tibetan who grew up in India and now operates a popular restaurant in an unspecified American city.

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With the surprise arrival of a monk (Wayne Lee) and a lama (Jinn S. Kim), it quickly becomes clear that there is little doubt that the child is the reincarnation of the lama’s former teacher (who died three years previously), so the parents must decide how they will proceed. For a mother who is practicing attachment parenting, this is a jolt to be sure.

Ruhl doesn’t really spend much time with the “is he or isn’t he” issue of the child’s reincarnation, and the parents don’t fight much about the fate of their child. So there’s not a whole lot of conflict in this play, but there is a whole lot of feeling. When the action shifts to India, there’s also tremendous beauty in the ritual we see (Collette Pollard’s set is gorgeous, as are the costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt and the lights by Jeff Rowlings).

At the heart of the story is a little boy, Tenzin, represented by a bunraku-style puppet operated by Tsering Dorjee (Bawa) (who also provides the choreography), who provides the voice, and Melvin Badiola and Jed Parsario, who give astonishing expression to his body (the fantastic puppet is by Jesse Mooney-Bullock). There wasn’t one moment in this two-hour play when I didn’t feel the reality of the child, even though he was an obvious theatrical contrivance. That has a lot to do with the artistry of the puppeteers, Ruhl’s script and Albright’s strong central performance.

Director Jessica Thebus pulls nuanced, naturalistic performances from her actors, and that keeps the play grounded in reality, even when Ruhl stretches credibility in Act 2. We experience this story from the perspective of Mother, and Albright is a powerful focal point as we see her using her considerable intellectual abilities (she’s a literature professor, adjunct as she’d point out) to try and open up her spirituality and to the hardest thing a parent has to do: let go of a child. As she points out, “The cruel animal fact of motherhood is bigger than any idea.”

The play and this stunning production never lose sight of that, and The Oldest Boy turns out to be one of the more moving theatrical experiences I’ve had for a while.

Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy continues an extended run through Oct. 11 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Mill Road, Mill Valley. Tickets are $25-$55. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Sweet melancholy pervades Berkeley Rep’s Elizabeth

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Playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Below: Though the play consists almost entirely of letters from Bishop and Lowell’s 30-year epistolary relationship, there are moments of connection in Ruhl’s play. Photos by

You would never, ever expect to see a production of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. In what has become a staple of community theaters everywhere, a man and a woman sit at a table and read letters from a binder that tell the story of their characters’ slowly evolving love story over many decades. It’s sweet, it’s conventional, it’s incredibly cheap to produce. Unless the two actors were Rita Moreno and David Sedaris, this epistolary play would be the antithesis of a Berkeley Rep production.

[side note: as a teenager, on a trip to San Francisco, I saw a production of Love Letters at the former Theatre on the Square starring Colleen Dewhurst and E.G. Marshall and they were wonderful. They were followed in the roles by Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt; who doesn’t think of that foursome in interchangeable roles? And let us please disregard the disastrous Love Letters from 2000 at the Marines Memorial Theatre starring Joan Collins and George Hamilton. Ick.]

All this talk of Love Letters because there’s a new two-person, letter-driven love story on the theatrical block: Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth, which had its world premiere last fall at Yale and is now in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre with the same director, former Berkeley Rep associate artistic director Les Waters and one of the same actors.

Though based on letters – real ones – between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, that’s about all this play has in common with Gurney’s war horse. That’s actually not entirely true. Dear Elizabeth is also a love story of sorts, a deep friendship between admiring poets who brought out the best in each other in their letters for 30 years, even while their lives were plagued with addictions and failed relationships and artistic crises. Theirs is ultimately a sweet story but far from sappy.

Mary Beth Fisher, the holdover from Yale Repertory Theatre (with which this production is produced in association), is Bishop, the hard-drinking lesbian poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Tom Nelis is Lowell, also a Pulitzer winner and a hard drinker as well as a serial husband and sufferer of manic depression. Their letters, collected in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, are, of course, filled with beautiful, clever and funny turns of phrase as well as poignant insights into their work and their relationship with their work.

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I must admit complete ignorance as to who Bishop and Lowell were before hearing about this play, and though I’m not a reader of poetry, I came away from this theatrical experience of two poets with a desire to immerse myself in their work. And that, I think, is a clear indication of this production’s success.

Waters and Ruhl could easily have sat their poets at a table (Love Letters style) and had them read. But there’s a lot more to this production, which is exactly what we’ve come to expect of the dynamic Waters-Ruhl pairing we’ve seen at Berkeley Rep in Eurydice and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). In two acts and running just under two hours, we are treated to a sort of visual poetry from Annie Smart’s surprise-laden set washed with color and mood by Russell Champa’s gorgeous lights.

As you might expect, this is a placid piece of theater, filled with lovely, lively writing and gorgeous images. There’s not a lot of action, though in various interludes between the letters, Ruhl and Waters imagine encounters between the poets that are referred to in the letters. Some are clear; others are more enigmatic. It’s nice to have moments of real, physical connection between the poets rather than simply experiencing their lives from the distance of the letters themselves.

Fisher and Nelis have warm chemistry with one another, and Fisher especially conveys the tremendous intelligence and complex emotional life of Bishop with an understated but heartfelt performance. The way Ruhl has constructed the play, there are seeming moments of dialogue as the letters overlap or address similar issues or events, and that goes a long way toward breaking the frustration of never having the poets actually talking to one another in the same room.

Though there’s a crackling energy in the writing and in the sincere affection the poets have for one another, the play does indeed feel like a Sarah Ruhl play in that it’s tinged with melancholy and loss as well as valiant attempts at sobriety or even-keeled living that end in failure.

Years from now, will be seeing plays consisting of emails between artists? Texts? Facebook updates? Instagram posts? It’s hard to imagine any of that will be as satisfying as hearing words carefully written, with paper and pen, from one friend to another. It’s easy to be sentimental about lost things, like the art of letter writing, but watching Dear Elizabeth it feels like that loss has taken something of tremendous value.

[bonus interview]

I sat down with director Les Waters to talk about Dear Elizabeth and working once again with playwright Sarah Ruhl. Read the story in the San Francisco Chronicle here. (may require subscription)

Dear Elizabeth continues through July 7 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$77 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Feeling the Passion of Sarah Ruhl

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Justin Liszanckie is John, a fisherman playing Jesus in the village Passion Play in Sarah Ruhl’s aptly named Passion Play, a production of Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at the Live Oak Theater. Below: the cast of Passion Play. Photos by Anna Kaminska.

What an interesting Sarah Ruhl moment we’re having.

Ruhl’s new version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters is getting a moving and lovely production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. And her 2005 triptych Passion Play receives its local premiere courtesy of Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, a community theater producing shows in Berkeley since 1957.

Both productions allow Ruhl to explore, in her lyrical, passionate and quirky ways, what happens to people when dreams and reality, identity and illusion are at odds.

Raised a Catholic, Ruhl, perhaps not surprisingly, has a fascination with the Passion Play, the annual pageant of betrayal and crucifixion staged during Lent. But judging from the show onstage at the Live Oak Theatre, she’s even more fascinated by theater itself.

Taking place in three acts over 3 ½ hours, Ruhl’s Passion follows the production of the Passion of the Christ in three eras: a small English Village in the late 16th century; in Oberammergau, Germany, site of the most famous Passion, in the early ‘30s; and in South Dakota from the late ‘60s into the red-white-and-blue Reagan ‘80s.

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In each act, we see the same actors playing the same Passion characters and watch how their involvement in the show affects their lives off stage.

There’s melodrama, politics, comedy and some deeply emotional revelations (especially in Act 3 when Jacob Cribbs as the actor playing Pontius Pilate has to deal with the aftermath of his time in Vietnam). Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Ronald Reagan also show up.

Director Jon Wai-Keung Lowe finds inventive, often beautiful ways to traverse eras and locations, often utilizing shadow puppetry and small set pieces of his own design. Assisting in him in the creation of the striking stage pictures are lighting designer Alecks Rundell and graphic artists Paul Feinberg, Christine U’Ren, Daniel Thobias and Thanh Tran.

Lowe’s cast handles this tricky material with dexterity and not a minor amount of passion. This may be community theater, but don’t let the label deter you from experiencing this show. The rich performances bring the level of emotion and energy Ruhl’s script requires.


Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play continues through May 21 at the Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $12. Visit for information.

Vodka, misery and beauty: family time with Three Sisters

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Chekhov’s three sisters, (from left) Natalia Payne as Masha, Heather Wood as Irina and Wendy Rich Stetson as Olga contemplate the far-off dream of returning to Moscow in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Three Sisters. Below: moments of merriment relieve some of the Russian gloom. Photos by

Time aches in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s elegiac Three Sisters. The past is where true happiness lived (in Moscow), and the future holds the promise of reviving that happiness (in Moscow). But the present (not in Moscow) is just a painful stretch to be endured and lamented.

That Anton Chekhov was a harvester of human souls, and the crop he tended was ripe with sorrow, loss and, perhaps worst of all, indifference. This is readily apparent in director Les Waters’ production of Three Sisters on the intimate Thrust Stage.

There’s warmth and humor emanating from the stage as we meet the soldiers, staff and sisters in a well-appointed country home, but once we get to know the characters a little bit, it’s one big stream of thwarted desire, boredom, frustration and self-delusion.

It sounds like misery, but between Chekhov and Waters, we’re treated to a beautifully staged, deeply compassionate exploration of mostly unhappy people.

When you walk into the Thrust and drink in Annie Smart’s gorgeous set, it’s the first indication that we’re in good hands. We see two stories of the country home, with the focus on the dining room and an adjacent living room/parlor. Through the windows, we see falling snow and an elegant stand of birch trees (exquisitely lit by Alexander V. Nichols).

It’s a comfortable home – perhaps a little cramped, but that’s as it should be. We hear repeatedly that this small provincial town is claustrophobic with everybody up in everybody else’s business. That’s certainly true here – especially in the dining room when 13 people are sharing a meal.

To see such a large, capable cast on such a relatively small stage makes you feel like you’re part of the action. You’re at that crowded dinner table enjoying shots of vodka. You’re in the nursery on the night of the devastating fire looking to escape from the smoky chaos.

Waters’ production pulls you in from the beginning and doesn’t let you go for an emotionally wrenching three hours.

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In some ways, the play does seem long because the characters are so aware of time’s slow passage and everything time is not providing for them, but there’s such attention to detail in the performances, so much to enjoy and savor, that the running time feels immaterial.

Waters is using a new version of Three Sisters by Sarah Ruhl (based on a literal translation by Elise Thoron with Natalya Paramonova and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati), and as much as I love Ruhl, I had mixed feelings about the sometimes awkward mix of formal and casual language in her script.

But when actors connect to the characters, the actual words tend to matter less. For evidence of this, look no further than Natalia Payne as middle sister Masha and Bruce McKenzie as Vershinin, the married soldier who captures the equally married sister’s heart.

These two spar, flirt and fall in love with such passion – most of which has to be conveyed on the down low – that you can’t help hoping that happiness comes to someone in the play, even at the cost of their respective spouses’ feelings. These two actors crackle, and their bitterness toward their real lives is acute. Here’s a typical Masha observation: “What a miserable goddamn life.”

Oldest sister Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson) is, as one character describes her, “so good, so tortured.” Stetson’s performance is so grounded in reality, so believable that you root for her to escape her misery as the world’s most reluctant headmistress.

And Heather Wood as Irina, the baby, makes a sadly believable transition from idealistic young woman to beaten down office drone whose indefatigable hope turns out to have an expiration date.

The whole cast – resplendent in Ilona Somogyi’s turn-of-the-20th-century costumes – offers performance gems throughout. Some of my favorite moments involved David Abrams as Fedotik bringing Irina a hauntingly melodic top for her birthday and Olga and Irina enjoying bedtime small talk from behind the relative privacy of their respective bed screens.

James Carpenter as crumbling doctor Chebutykin creates a vivid impression of a man slowly receding from life. He is chided for loving the three sisters too much (he was in love with their mother), which cuts him to the quick. And later in the play, he suffers a complete emotional breakdown that is devastating to watch.

There’s a lot of crying in this play – and the most intense tears come from the men.

It’s an affecting play, deeply emotional but more apt to inspire contemplative reverie than depression even though it is awfully sad. There’s a pain in these people, and we recognize it because it hasn’t changed much in 111 years. It’s the endurance of time and the awareness that life, for all its trouble and angst, can end up amounting to not much.


Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Three Sisters continues through May 22 on the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival reviews (Part 2)

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Mark Bedard is hilarious and charming as the title character in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new adaptation of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. Photo by Jenny Graham

Two and a half weeks after running Part 1 of my Oregon Shakespeare Festival reviews, the San Francisco Chronicle finally published the second round, which includes thoughts of my favorite shows from this season: The Servant of Two Masters and the incredible Equivocation.

Read the reviews here.

I also saw Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, but I didn’t review it because the production closed at the end of June. Having recently seen the SF Playhouse production of the play, it was interesting to see the OSF take on it. I think the play, which can be wonderful in Ruhl-like ways, has some fundamental problems, but it is greatly helped by a gorgeous physical production, which is what it gets in Ashland. Ruhl is a fan of visual poetry to enhance the emotion of her writing, and that potent combination made for a stunning experience in OSF’s black box New Theatre.

Review: `Dead Man’s Cell Phone’

Opened May 9, 2009 at SF Playhouse

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Jackson Davis and Amy Resnick are Dwight and Jean, two lovers awash in a sea of cynicism, stationery and sentiment in Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone at SF Playhouse. Photos by Zabrina Tipton.

In Ruhl’s quirky `Phone,’ we get the message

There are few things more enjoyable, theatrically speaking, than watching Amy Resnick on stage. The veteran Bay Area actor fascinates, compels and entertains in ways entirely her own. She’s completely reliable and always surprising.

In Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, now at the SF Playhouse, Resnick has found an ideal role: Jean, a seemingly nondescript woman who happens to be in a café eating lobster bisque when the guy next to her ups and dies. When his cell phone keeps ringing, she answers it and, in a manner of speaking, finds her calling. Jean is a blank slate, quite literally. Here’s what we find out about her life over the course of the play’s two hours: she reads in cafes, she likes lobster bisque, she’s a vegetarian (one that apparently eats shellfish), she’s a little bit religious, she occasionally goes to the pharmacy, she works in the office of a Holocaust museum and she is titillated by the feel of quality stationery.

Oh, and Jean lies. With good intentions.

In some ways, Ruhl’s play is like a Frank Capra movie. Jean is sort of an angel who wants to reassure the people in the dead man’s life – his name was Gordon, he did something really creepy and immoral for a living – that Gordon was a good man who, despite his behavior, really and truly loved and valued them. The only way she can do that is by lying to them, making up Gordon’s good intentions. She presents gifts he supposedly wanted his mother, his widow and his brother to have. She tells the widow and the mistress exactly what they want to hear to make them think Gordon loved them sexually and emotionally.

It’s extraordinary how much she lies – and how much her lies mean.

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But this isn’t Frank Capra, and Jean is not a kindly spirit helping Gordon get his angel’s wings. This is a Sarah Ruhl play, which means it’s a peculiar play in the best sense. We’ve seen Ruhl’s work at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (the exquisite Eurydice and, more recently, the fascinating In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play) and at TheatreWorks (The Clean House). She’s one of the hottest playwrights in the country and for good reason. Her work is like nothing on television. She’s a deeply intelligent and emotional writer unafraid of connecting with her audience. Dead Man’s Cell Phone (also being done at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season) is Ruhl working in a lighter vein, but there’s still an undercurrent of darkness, and she’s unafraid, even in a quirky romantic comedy such as this, to indulge her fascination with death and the afterlife.

Ruhl’s work is all about connection, or lack thereof, and in Dead Man, she focuses in on cell phones. Jean describes not having a cell before she “inherited” Gordon’s because she liked to “disappear.” “But it’s like when everyone has their cell phone on, no one is there. It’s like we’re all disappearing the more we’re there.”

Jean is something of an innocent – perhaps psychologically damaged, we don’t know – and Resnick imbues this cipher with a rich inner life. There’s much about Jean we don’t know, but with Resnick inhabiting her skin, we know all we need to know about her compassion, her depth of feeling, her best intentions, her sentimentality.

Ruhl courts sentiment here as a defense. The play’s most touching scenes are between Resnick’s Jean and Jackson Davis as Dwight, Gordon’s brother. The two bond over caramel popcorn then visit Dwight’s stationery store, where they promptly fall in love. Dwight likes that she’s sentimental. “No one wants to remember anything,” he says. “I want to remember everything,” Jean answers, “even other people’s memories.”

Dwight hates the digital world because it’s so impermanent. “All the digital…stuff…the information bits..flying through the air. No one wants to remember People say I love you on cell phones and where does it go? No paper. Remembering requires paper.”

Ruhl is an extraordinary writer, and her brilliance rings throughout Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Director Susi Damilano’s efficient production can’t quite overcome the moments when Ruhl runs out of imagination in the second act – Jean ends up, improbably, in Johannesburg and then with Gordon in sort of a heavenly way station. Some of the smaller roles don’t quite land because the comic/dramatic tone of the play keeps shifting.

Joan Mankin, as Gordon’s mother, delivers a hilariously heartbreaking eulogy about vaulted ceilings and using cell phones on the toilet, and Rachel Klyce as Gordon’s widow gets a fun drunken scene with Resnick that turns on sexual frustration.

SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English, who also plays Gordon, designed the set, which had a few stumbles on opening night. Ruhl’s plays require a fluid, almost cinematic production with highly theatrical flourishes, and while the intimacy of SF Playhouse is great for actors like Resnick, the small space can sometimes cramp the ambitions of the play itself.

Even with the uneven second act, Dead Man’s Cell Phone rights itself by the end, and the final scene (involving Resnick and Jackson, naturally) is one of the most potent in recent memory, sentimentality and all.


Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone continues through June 13 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.


Bill English and Susi Damilano have announced the 2009-10 SF Playhouse season, which will be themed as “The Power of Laughter.”

  • The world premiere of Billy Aronson’s First Day of School directed by Chris Smith (Sept. 23-Nov.)
  • David Greenspan’s She Stoops to Comedy directed by Mark Rucker (Nov. 18-Jan. 8 )
  • Amy Glazer directs a play TBA (Jan. 20-Feb. 27)
  • Stephen Adley Guirgis’ Den of Thieves director TBA (March 10-April 17)
  • Allison Moore’s Slasher, director TBA (April 28-June 5)
  • Terrence McNally and David Yazbek’s musical The Full Monty (June 16-Sept. 5)

Come on I wanna Leia: Fisher lands on Broadway

Another week, another Berkeley Repertory Theatre show going to Broadway.

Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical solo show Wishful Drinking, directed by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, will open in October at — where else? — Studio 54, where it runs through Jan. 3. The show is produced by Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Jonathan Reinis, Jamie Cesa, Eva Price, and Berkeley Rep.

This is the fourth show to head from Berkeley to Broadway in the last four years: Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel (2006), Stew’s Passing Strange (2008), and Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) (2009). It’s also the 12th show in as many years to make the West to East transition. The list includes Danny Hoch’s Taking Over (2008), Ruhl’s Eurydice (2007), Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak’s Brundibar (2006), Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views (2002), Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (2001), Hoch’s Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop (1998), Anne Galjour’s Alligator Tales (1997), and Philip Kan Gotanda’s Ballad of Yachiyo (1997).

“This is the culmination of a long process,” Taccone said in a statement. “Berkeley Rep has a history of developing new work and, with our commissioning program, continues its commitment to bring fresh ideas and alternative viewpoints to the stage. I am pleased with the success of this project, and honored to collaborate with all of the people involved to bring this show to Broadway. It has been truly gratifying in recent years to see our shows reach a wider audience in New York, Los Angeles, London, and other cities.”

Visit for Wishful Drinking ticket information.

A note to readers

After three months on hiatus, Theater Dogs is once again back in action!

I was in Sacramento working for an excellent newspaper, but now I’m back in San Francisco and happily on the theater beat once again. At the risk of sounding sappy, can I just say how much I missed it?

Oh, I saw some good theater: August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Sacramento Theatre Company (starring one of my favorite Bay Area leading ladies, C. Kelly Wright) and Margaret Edson’s Wit at the B Street Theatre (starring another favorite Bay Area leading lady, Julia Brothers).

And I managed to see a few things in the Bay Area. Couldn’t miss Wicked — leading lady Teal Wicks is as good as I’d hoped she’d be. And Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (the vibrator play) was one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. No wonder director Les Waters is taking it to Broadway.

But now I’ll see as much as I can across our theatrical compass, from Marin down to San Jose, from San Francisco to Walnut Creek.

Very happy to be back.

Send me theater info, questions, complaints at