Hymns of praise for Kushner’s Angels at Berkeley Rep

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Francesca Faridany (left) is The Angel and Randy Harrison is Prior Walter in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Angels in Americaby Tony Kushner. Below: (left to right) Harrison as Prior, Caldwell Tidicue as Belize, Benjamin T. Ismail as Louis Ironson and Carmen Roman as Hannah Pitt. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

You never forget your first time on the wings of Angels.

My first time experiencing Tony Kushner’s earth-shaking epic Angels in America was 1994 in an American Conservatory Theater production with Mark Wing Davey directing. I saw each part of this massive work – Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika – several weeks apart and then saw the marathon weekend double feature (both plays in one day) twice before the end of that five-times-extended run. I felt at the time like it was the smartest play I’d ever attempted to understand (but could still never fully comprehend), the most rewarding drama and comedy I’d ever seen and the most staggering work of art I could imagine a human (Kushner) and a team of supporting artists (the cast and crew) ever creating in my lifetime.

I mean, here was a play dealing with recent American history (the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan years, Russia, Roy Cohn) where five of the main characters are gay men and one of them is a prophet. Kushner is mixing politics, domestic drama, hilarious one-liners, sweeping cultural change, the ancestors, all of history (or so it seems) and the machinations of heaven and hell in nearly eight hours of theater that goes by more quickly than some 90-minute one-acts I’ve seen.

That’s how I felt then. Almost 25 years later, I feel exactly the same way but more. MORE. Angels in America is back in the Bay Area, this time at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it is directed by Tony Taccone, who, with Oskar Eustis helped bring this play into the world when it premiered at their Eureka Theatre in 1991. The play’s staggering genius is on full display in Taccone’s marvelous production, as is Kushner’s prescience (Russia, Republican politics, the environmental crisis).

In a bold and admirable move, Taccone’s production had its official opening on a Saturday and featured parts one and two. That means a theater experience that lasts from 1pm until 11pm (with a generous couple of hours for dinner break) – and what an extraordinary experience. We’re so used to having someplace to be that surrendering to 10 hours of a singular event is like sanctuary. Then to have that sanctuary filled with Kushner’s intense intellect and dramatic and comic acumen is to spend 10 hours that will renew your faith in theater as an essential life element: air, food, water, drama.

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When you return to something you love after an absence, there’s always a chance you’ll find something diminished or something that doesn’t match the inflated ideal that has lived in your head for decades. But coming back to Angels in this assured and sleekly designed production finds nothing diminished but rather deeper, more moving and even more mysterious.

Kushner’s audacity in harnessing characters from the real world (Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg), fictional characters you might find in any play or sitcom (estranged lovers, testy in-laws, rock-solid best friends, distant husbands, frustrated wives) and then mixing in the mythic (angels!) and the apocryphal (God did exist but he has disappeared!) is unmatched in modern drama. And though the plays cover, essentially, a period from 1985 to 1986, they don’t feel dated in any way that makes them seem less vital or imaginative or visceral.

The stage of the Roda Theatre has been turned into a giant marble vault by designer Takeshi Kata. Bits of scenery slide on and off the stage, while Jennifer Schriever’s lights train focus and set mood with startling efficiency. The lack of fancy stagecraft means we’re paying more attention to the words and the performances, though the occasionally spectacular video projections (by Alexander V. Nichols) bring some spectacle, as do the wizards at Flying by Foy who pull the strings of the angel’s flight.

If the audience can really hear Kushner’s words, I’d say that 90 percent of the work is done. The script is that good as characters veer from the prosaic to the poetic to the prophetic, sometimes within one speech. The basic rule is this: get out of the way of the play and let it roll. That rule is respected here. It’s astonishing at the curtain call(s) to see that there are only eight actors in these plays, though several pull yeoman’s duty in multiple parts.

Spending this much time with actors tends to make you fall a little in love with them. There are three performers in particular who had me in their thrall. Carmen Roman begins each play in the guise of an old man (a rabbi in Part One, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik in Part Two), and she is the kind of actor who makes every word sing with truth. She also plays a beleaguered doctor (imagine having to tell Roy Cohn he’s dying from AIDS), the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and a tough but devoted Mormon mother. She is spectacular in every role, as is Francesca Faridany as the imperious angel, a compassionate nurse, a Salt Lake City Realtor, a homeless woman in the Bronx and a diorama dummy come to life.

Twenty-seven years ago, Stephen Spinella originated the role of Prior Walter, the play’s protagonist. He went on to win two Tony Awards (one for each play) and then to a career on Broadway and on screen. He’s back on stage in Angels but this time in a very different role. He’s playing the nightmare known as Roy Cohn, and he is ferociously good. He’s dangerously charismatic and funny and just as dangerously full of fight and venom. To watch his scenes with Roman as Ethel Rosenberg is to feel a most curious (and soul satisfying) twist in karmic retribution.

As Prior Walter, Randy Harrison finds his own ferocity and warmth, especially in his scenes with his best friend Belize, the quick-witted nurse (played by Caldwell Tidicue, probably better known as Bob the Drag Queen, the Season 8 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Rqce).

Several hours’ worth of angst is supplied by Benjamin T. Ismail as Louis, Prior’s erstwhile boyfriend and speed talker. Louis doesn’t leave any ideas unexpressed, no matter how ill-formed or potentially offensive, and that makes for good theater. As the Mormon couple in a seismically shifting marriage, Bethany Jillard as Harper and Danny Binstock show how painful the rough, splintered edges are as they poke through the thin veneer of everything as it’s supposed to be.

It is truly astonishing how much life there is in Angels in America, past, present and indeterminate future. The whole thing leaves you somewhat stunned and more than a little revitalized. It engages the heart and the mind in equal measure and makes you work to feel part of a community not just with the performers and characters but with all the artists involved and the audience members surrounding you. That’s a profound thing, but perhaps not all that surprising. Angels in America, to paraphrase Kushner himself, pulses to the “tick of the infinite.”

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika continue through July 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 51-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Kushner unleashes a familial flood of words at Berkeley Rep

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Mark Margolis (left) is patriarch Gus, Tina Chilip (center) is Sooze and Joseph J. Parks is Vito in the West Coast premiere of Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, an epic family drama at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Below: Randy Danson (background) is Aunt Clio, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (front) is angry spouse Paul, Deirdre Lovejoy (background) is sister Empty, Lou Liberatore (front right) is the troubled Pill and Parks (far right) is little brother Vito. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

There are probably more English words in Tony Kushner’s new play than not in the new play. So many things about The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures are staggering (including the title), but chief among them is the amount of dialogue – the number of choice words, the overlapping layers of lively conversation, the sheer volume of communication, attempted and otherwise.

If Angels in America was Kushner at his most Kushnerian – fantastical, political, emotional, hysterical, profound – then iHo (as the play is known) is Kushner at his most ktichen sink-ian. Steeped in American greats like Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, Kushner zeroes in on a family in crisis. This is reality, but a hyper-reality where everyone is as smart and funny as Kushner (and wouldn’t that be an interesting reality)

Of course this family is going to be fully of verbally astute people with complex histories intertwined with important elements of American history. In this case, those roots extend deep into the American Communist Party, labor issues and union organizing. The central character started out as a longshoreman, but he could have been a classical scholar. Retired for years from the world of strikes and meetings and hard labor, Gus Marcantonio (Mark Margolis) has taught himself Latin and is translating the Epistles of Horace in the Brooklyn brownstone that has been in his family for generations. He also has Alzheimer’s – or so he says – and is planning on committing suicide. His sister Clio (Randy Danson), a sort of spiritual seeker, has insisted that he inform his three adult children of his choice before he goes through with it.

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Then comes the maelstrom known as Pill, Empty and Vito. Yes, those are the children’s names. Pill (Lou Liberatore) is in from Minneapolis with his professor husband, Paul (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), and the state of their marriage is…fraught. It seems Pill has borrowed a considerable amount of money from his sister and spent it all on a hustler with whom he’s in love (Jordan Geiger as Eli, perhaps the most intellectual, Yale-educated prostitute in Manhattan). The obsession with paying for sex and the fact that Pill has fallen hard for Eli has not been a good thing for the marriage, to say the least.

Sister Empty (Deirdre Lovejoy) was a doctor, then a nurse and is now a labor lawyer. She’s partnered with Maeve (Liz Wisan), a social theologist who is about to give birth to their first child. Empty has no real maternal instincts, though that may have something to do with the fact that she’s going to be the mother of her nephew. The women used Empty’s little brother, Vito, as the sperm donor.

Vito (Joseph J. Parks) is a contractor, married (to Sooze, played by Tina Chilip) with two kids and designs on his dad’s brownstone. Like so many people in his family, he’s quick to anger, but that anger is fueled by a fierce (and fearsome) intelligence that makes his roaring all the more compelling.

Director Tony Taccone manages to deliver a nearly four-hour production that is never dull (I’ve seen many shorter plays that seemed much longer) and is, by turns, exasperating, fascinating, gripping and, in moments, mind blowing. Taccone’s long relationship with Kushner stretches back to the commissioning of Angels, and it seems Taccone is exactly the right director to layer Kushner’s word- and intellect-rich script with reality and theatricality. He can provide blur or focus in exactly the right places. There are scenes in which every character (or nearly) is on stage talking at the same time. There are multiple dramas unfolding in every corner of Christopher Barecca’s stunning, multi-level brownstone set. Siblings are fighting, spouses and fighting, parents are fighting, and even in the chaos, Taccone manages to pull focus in precise places and then release it to the general hubbub. It’s an atypical approach to theater because we’re so used to having our attention directed, but Kushner and Taccone let it all loose more often than they rein it all in.

Performances are all outstanding (including those from Anthony Fusco as an ex and Robynn Rodriguez as a sort of angel), and though spending time with these people can be exasperating, it’s also highly pleasurable in the way that anything Kushner writes is pleasurable. It’s challenging and rewarding in equal measure. And it’s funny. There’s a scene in the second act (of three, maybe four?) that feels like classic comedy. Everyone’s fighting and shouting – secrets are being revealed right and left, and then we’re treated to a vision that is just about perfect – hilarious but with heft.

I want to tell you that iHo is the next great American family drama, but I can’t say it is. The final act (acts?) have emotional depth and are beautifully performed but aren’t as moving as they should be for such a healthy investment of time. The play feels like it’s heading to a place of epic emotions (beyond the epic arguments) but never quite arrives there.

Even so, iHo is full of those highly charged, emotionally and intellectually complex moments that renew your faith in theater to be as challenging as it is entertaining.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Tony Kushner about iHo for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures continues through June 29 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29 to $59 (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.

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 www.roundabouttheatre.org for Wishful Drinking ticket information.

Good deed lands `Angels’ wings in museum

Here’s an inspiring story that comes from the folks at The Museum of Performance & Design in San Francisco, who recently came to the rescue of set and costume designer Sandra Woodall after she was evicted from the studio she had worked in for the past forty years.

With very little notice, Woodall, an internationally renowned designer whose work includes the world premiere of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in 1991 at the Eureka Theatre (seen at right), was desperate to find a home for over 180 boxes and containers of sketches, designs and costumes from throughout her career.

The Museum of Performance & Design, which has a long-standing relationship with Woodall and has exhibited her work, was delighted to have the designer establish her archive at the Museum. Among many items now joining the Museum’s collection is the original set of “wings” used in Angels in America, which the Museum is hoping to display in a future exhibition.

Woodall will work closely with the Museum to catalog and process the archive, which is not only a treasure-trove of Bay Area theater and dance from the past four decades, but also includes international designs Woodall has created for the Bolshoi Ballet and other world-class companies.

The Museum of Performance and Design (formerly the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum) is in the Veterans Building, Fourth Floor, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.
Visit www.sfpalm.org for information

Itamar Moses goes back to high school

Writing about his high school experience proved therapeutic for playwright Itamar Moses, a Berkeley native whose Yellowjackets has its world premiere this week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

The 30-year-old writer headed back to the year 1994 to dramatically reconstruct his junior year at Berkeley High School, when he was editor of the school newspaper, The Jacket, and racial tensions were dividing the student body.

“High school is a potent time,” Moses says one morning before a rehearsal. “I try to examine why that is on this canvas. I was able to work out specific feelings here, and it’s amazing to me to discover that I did have a different perspective. I had such firm beliefs at the time, but I could actually see a more complex, multiplicity of viewpoints I didn’t have at the time. Things seemed so obvious to me as a student who was feeling threatened or getting messed with. I always hoped I’d see a larger perspective. I’m amazed I actually did.”

Moses, who now lives in Brooklyn’s Park Slope area, says that even though he was re-creating experiences of 14 years ago, he could hear the voices clearly.

“I feel like I still talk like I did in high school,” Moses says and laughs. “The other voices in the play, the ones that aren’t mine, I’ve been hearing for years. As opposed to just crafting dialogue, I tried to hear it. I have voices in there” – he points to his head – “not in a mental health way, but in a historical way.”

Some of those voices belong to African-American and Latino characters, which required Moses to write outside his race.

“Sure, there was an element of fear of fraudulence,” he says. “I did feel an internal hurdle. Am I entitled to do this? Is this OK? Solution was to remind myself that my choices were to do it or not write about Berkeley High at all. Usually that’s how to get yourself to do something difficult: get to the point where there’s no alternative. I guess I have the same feeling about writing female characters. In a weird way, you let go of the idea you’re writing from the outside in. Characters have to come from the inside out or they’ll play that way on stage. Every character is a fragment of your psyche, no matter the race or gender.”

Like most writers who are writing about a specific time in their lives, Moses takes the fictional route. For instance, he says he’s most like Avi, the new editor of the newspaper who is dealing with a faculty boycotting his paper. But he’s also like Trevor, the newspaper staff member who is getting bullied in a pretty serious way.

“I wanted to get both experiences in there,” Moses says. “But neither character is fully me. The question of what’s autobiographical and what’s not is complicated. There are elements of truth in the fiction.”

Moses (in a photo from his high school yearbook at right, not the Jacket T-shirt) joined the school newspaper staff in his freshman year and has been writing since (he was also a humor columnist for the Yale Daily News in his college years). But the writer says he’s still not sure if writing is “his thing.”

“When I was 9 or 10, I read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy. It was an obsession. I thought I’d write that. My initial plan was to be Piers Anthony or Susan Cooper or whoever. I got to Berkeley High, and I don’t know why, but I was attracted to the newspaper. I can’t remember how I made that decision. I liked it a lot. I knew it was my big high school extracurricular activity. Never planned to be a journalist.”

Then, in college, theater became his extracurricular activity, and now he’s a playwright in demand (his biggest hit, Bach at Leipzig, recently had its area premiere at Shakespeare Santa Cruz).

Working on Yellowjackets for the last two years, Moses was approached by a TV network – he says it shall remain nameless – about turning the play into a TV series. Unlike the play, which allows the young actors to play the adults as well as the students, the TV geniuses wanted to focus primarily on the adults.

“To me, the play is interesting because it focuses on the kids,” Moses says. “That’s what makes it a microcosm. For the purposes of TV, they may be right. But on stage, kids playing adults was the obvious choice.”

More than a decade away from his high school experience, Moses says maturity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“If anything, I feel less clarity and less direct passion and less vibrating sense of the electricity of possibility of the world than I did when I was a teenager,” he says. “When I was in graduate school, Tony Kushner spoke to us, and the thing he said that I remember most vividly was that maturity in our culture is defined as the ability not to feel too strongly about anything. If you buy into that, especially as an artist, you’re screwed because it means you’re deadened. As writers, he said, be careful not to be embarrassed by the extremities of feeling. Certainly how much you want that in your life and relationships is a question, but you definitely want in your work. In Yellowjackets, taking the kids seriously, focusing on them was a way to do that…to write about characters whose id is louder than their superego.”

Moses will take part in a free “Page to Stage” talk on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage at 7 p.m. Sept. 22.

Yellowjackets continues through Oct. 12 at the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.


Berkeley Rep cancels `Yellow Face,’ tours Hoch

The 2008-09 season hasn’t even begun and already changes are afoot.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre announced yesterday that it will postpone David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, which was to have concluded the season.

Here’s from the press release: ” The theatre hopes to present the show in the fall of 2009 and then tour its production to other cities. (Tony) Taccone is now selecting a new script to conclude the 2008/09 season.”

The same press release — in much bigger and brighter language — also announced that Danny Hoch’s solo show Taking Over will tour. The Taccone-directed show, which had its world premiere in January, will head to Los Angeles (Mark Taper Forum, Jan. 23 – Feb. 22, 2009), Montreal (July 8, Just for Laughs Festival) and New York City (Public Theatre, fall 2008). This is the third work (after Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel and Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak’s Brundibar) that Taccone has sent to New York in as many years and the fifth in Berkeley Rep history.

Said Taccone: “I’m proud of this piece and pleased that it will travel. By examining gentrification in his own neighborhood, Danny is grappling with issues that affect cities everywhere. Audiences at Berkeley Rep loved it because of his insight and humor, and I look forward to sharing it with a wider community.”

For information visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Review: `Caroline or Change’

C. Kelly Wright is Caroline Thibodeaux in TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change (Anise Ritchie in the rear is The Moon). Photos by David Allen

TheatreWorks tackles challenging `Caroline’ with soaring results
Four stars (Rich, rewarding, moving)

I cannot imagine any other Bay Area theater company other than TheatreWorks having the guts to produce one of the most challenging – and, if done right, most rewarding – musicals ever written.

It is a testament to TheatreWorks founding artistic director Robert Kelley that he consistently programs the Bay Area’s most diverse theatrical season, complete with crusty old chestnuts and highly risky new work, plays and musicals. And his subscription base seems to go right along with him, relishing the opportunity to be pleased in ordinary ways and challenged in entirely new ways.

How else to explain the presence of Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s extraordinary musical Caroline, or Change, now running at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts? Without question, this is the most adventurous, most boundary-pushing musical to hit Broadway in a good, long time. Tesori calls it a folk opera, and she’s right. Her score sounds doesn’t sound like opera, but it has the weight of opera, though it incorporates the sounds of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (the show is set in 1963) as well as the folk and blues sounds of Louisiana (where the show is set).

The Bay Area had a chance to see the phenomenal Broadway production of Caroline when lead producer Carole Shorenstein Hays brought it out to be part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season. It’s hard to imagine any version – let alone a regional theater production – measuring up to that superlative work.

But Kelley’s Caroline is every bit as good because it’s different enough to be its own thing. The primary difference is the intimacy of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The stage is big enough for a musical, but the house is small enough that you feel like you’re down in that sweltering basement (basements are unusual in Louisiana, where underground is underwater) with Caroline as she toils through the laundry of her employers, the Gellmans.

In the smaller space, you can really concentrate on the performances, which are entirely first rate, and on the score, which grows richer, more melodious and more emotionally complex with each hearing.

In the anchor role of Caroline Thibodeaux is Oakland’s C. Kelly Wright, a TheatreWorks veteran who has been away for a while but makes a welcome return to the stage in the meatiest role for a woman since Sondheim, Styne and Laurents created Mama Rose in Gypsy.

Not enough can be said about just how shattering Wright is as Caroline, the perpetually grumpy maid who says repeatedly: “I am mean, and I am tough, but $30 a week ain’t enough.” There are reasons Caroline is at odds with the world. Economics is a big part of it. She’s a divorced woman, 39 years old with four children (the eldest has been sent to Vietnam, “wherever that is,” Caroline says). She can barely read enough to find her way on a map, and she has deep, deep sorrow.

You feel every one of those sorrows in Wright’s blazing performance. Caroline’s already legendary Act 2 aria (again, it doesn’t sound like opera but there’s no better word for a song of such all-consuming emotion), “Lot’s Wife” is like a play unto itself. And Wright rises to the challenge of the piece and wallops the audience with the truest kind of hurt.

Much of Caroline is brainy and intellectual – not unlike an interesting New Yorker article – but when Kushner and Tesori decide to go for the heart, they do it in a big, beautiful way. And Wright is right there with them every step of the way.

Also giving a superb performance is 12-year-old Julian Hornik of Palo Alto. He plays Noah Gellman, and he thinks Caroline, his family’s maid, is the best thing ever. He calls her the president of the United States, imagines that she runs everything and that she’s “stronger than my dad.” Of course just about anybody is stronger than Noah’s emotionally distant, clarinet-playing dad (Ryan Drummond), who quickly got remarried after Noah’s mom died of cancer.

Hornik’s pure, sweet voice is assured beyond his years, and he handles the challenges of the score with aplomb.

Eileen Tepper is Rose, Noah’s new stepmom, who desperately wants to be a good mother in spite of the fact that Noah seems to hate her. Tepper emerges as the show’s third star with an emotionally grounded performance that aches with the character’s desperation to be good and to do the right thing.

As Kushner’s book delves into change – from the coins Noah leaves in his pants pockets that Caroline is expected to keep to the massive change sweeping the nation in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination and the rise of the Civil Rights movement – the excellent cast continually surprises and delights.

James Monroe Iglehart shows some devilish sass as Caroline’s singing and dancing dryer, but then he gets to be a dignified mourner as a bus driver who announces the death of the president. Valisia LeKae is superb as Caroline’s daughter, Emmie, who is going through her own kind of growing-up changes – changes that indicate that she would never settle for being a servant to white people.

There’s a dreamlike quality to this musical (hence the singing-and-dancing dryer and washing machine) that is captured beautifully in J.B. Wilson’s elegantly swampy set design and Pamila Gray’s firefly-enhanced lighting.

There’s so much to love about this musical and this production of it that it’s difficult to not write a dissertation about how this unusual story about an African-American woman and a Jewish-American boy at a time of cultural upheaval could only be told as a musical – as this musical.

But I won’t do that. All I can say is this: See TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change and open your head and open your heart.

Caroline, or Change continues through April 27 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $25-$61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.

TheatreWorks’ new season

Jane Austen, Thronton Wilder, Tony Kushner and Golda Meir will all be there…sort of.

Robert Kelley, the founding artistic director of Mountain View’s TheatreWorks has just announced his company’s 38th season.

Unlike many theaters around the Bay Area, TheatreWorks begins its season in the summer, and this year, Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, the story of deformed circus sideshow attraction John Merrick, kicks things off June 20. TheatreWorks produced the play, which, unlike the movie version, leaves the deformities to the imagination, in 1985.

In July comes the West Coast premiere of Theophilus North, Matthew Burnett’s adaptation of the charming Thornton Wilder novel of the same name.

Next up in August is the world premiere of a new musical based on Jane Austen’s Emma, the tale of a well-meaninng matchmaker who finally stumbles into her own true love. Paul Gordon (Broadway’s Jane Eyre) contributes music, lyrics and book.

In October comes more serious fare: William Gibson’s one-woman show Golda’s Balcony, a peek into the complex mind and heart of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

For the holidays comes Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and with the new year comes a welcome old friend: the late Wendy Wassterstein (below), whose last play, Third, finally makes it to the West Coast.

In March 2008, Kathleen Clark’s Southern Comforts, a late-in-life love story, takes a bow, followed by the season-ending Caroline, or Change, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori. If you saw the touring Broadway version in San Francisco, you know this is one of the most powerful and important musicals to come along in the last decade or so. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s your chance.

Subscriptions for the season range from $100 to $373 and are available now. Single tickets go on sale June 1. Call (888) 273-3752 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.