Ari’el Stachel floods the Berkeley Rep stage with Character

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Tony Award-winner Ari’el Stachel stars in the world premiere of his autobiographical solo show Out of Character at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep

As a performer, Ari’el Stachel is everything you want on stage, especially in a solo show. He’s charming, dynamic, kinetic and fabulously entertaining. In his world-premiere autobiographical one-man show Out of Character, now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, he plays more than three dozen characters, does a little singing (sublime beyond sublime), a little dancing (perhaps not so sublime, which is why he got into singing) and a whole lot of exploration into two things that have played major roles in his 30-plus years on the planet: identity and anxiety.

Directed by Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s former artistic director and something of an expert in solo shows (see Sarah Jones, Carrie Fisher, Danny Hoch, Rita Moreno, John Leguizamo), Character comes out of Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor new works development program and still feels, frankly, like a new work. That said the production is superb, with a striking stage design by Afsoon Pajoufar whose shapes and textures are beautifully augmented by the lights and projections from Alexander V. Nichols.

The 80-minute show begins with what should be a high point in the life and career of Berkeley native Stachel: the night in 2018 when he won the Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical for his role in The Band’s Visit. But that night, as we see, only exacerbated his lifelong struggle with anxiety, and he ended up spending time hiding out in the bathroom rather than being celebrated for his triumph.

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Diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as a kid, Stachel struggled in numerous ways – first with the voice in his head, which he named Meredith after the scheming girlfriend in the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, and second with his growing shame connected to his Yemeni-Israeli-Ashkenazy Jew roots. After 9/11 (when he was 10), life got even more complicated – especially at school – for a brown boy whose bearded dad got immediately branded “Osama” by the other kids.

So the intertwined narrative of Stachel’s show is the anxiety, which often results in abundant, visible sweating, and the ways he would slip into identities to protect himself from his outer and inner worlds. At Berkeley High, for instance, he passes for black, and he’s thrilled that he can finally be “cool.” But then in college, he finally embraces his Middle Eastern heritage, until that too seems like a character he’s playing. And everywhere along the way, there’s Meredith (realized in the excellent sound design by Madeleine Oldham) promising the end of the world if he doesn’t do exactly as she says.

What it is to be American emerges as a fascinating aspect of the show, especially when Stachel is on vacation in Kampala, Uganada, and is seen as just another white guy. But here, as with the examination of anxiety, Stachel’s writing doesn’t yet match his strength as a performer. The way he tries to make peace with Meredith internally and with his father externally aren’t yet fully realized, and the show doesn’t feel finished by its conclusion. Perhaps that’s because Stachel is still so actively living his experience and figuring out the day to day. There are more depths to plumb here, but Stachel should rest assured that he’ll never find a more charismatic actor to enliven his evolving script.

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Ari’el Stachel performs “Haled’s Song About Love” from The Band’s Visit (2018)

Ari’el Stachel’s Out of Character continues through July 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 80 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $39-$119 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Vivacious Aztec tunefully reclaims, re-writes Latinx history

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(front) Yani Marin as Colombina; (back row, from left) Angelica Beliard (Ensemble), Maria-Christina Oliveras (Ensemble), Jesús E. Martínez (Ensemble) and KC de la Cruz (Ensemble) in the world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep, directed by Tony Taccone and co-written by Taccone and John Leguizamo. (Photo by Kevin Berne) Below: The ensemble of Kiss My Aztec (photo by Alessandra Mello)

After 33 years at Berkeley Repertory Theatre – 22 as artistic director – Tony Taccone is taking a final bow with Kiss My Aztec, a world-premiere musical that serves as a fitting farewell. Hatched from the fervid mind of John Leguizamo, the show hits a lot of Taccone hot spots. It attempts to stick it to the white man (in this case, the Spanish conquistadors who colonized, destroyed and attempted to erase Aztec civilization) while re-writing history with a focus on those who should have had a hand in recording it in the first place. It’s a sprawling, inclusive, celebratory explosion of energy that continually lobs truth bombs at its audience through crude, incisive, often hilarious lines and lyrics.

“The original sin of the nation you’re in is white people in boats.” That’s from the rousing opening number performed by an ass-kicking 11-member ensemble. The choreography by Maija Garcìa immediately lets us know we’re in for a show where everything goes. Urban, modern, traditional, Latinx – it’s all here, and it’s all exciting. Set designer Clint Ramos (who also designed the costumes) largely gets out of the way of the story by letting his actors climb on, around and under a basic two-level scaffolding structure surrounded by brick walls covered in colorful murals.

Based on a screenplay by Leguizamo and Stephen Chbosky, Kiss My Aztec is an imagined tale of Aztec revenge. In the book by Leguizamo and Taccone, it’s the mid-16th century, where people speak with a hint of Shakespeare along the lines of, “Thou shall shuteth thy pie hole.” Though Cortes has successfully vanquished, pillaged and enslaved the Aztec civilization, a small tribe plots revenge on the Spanish ruler. In this version of history, the Aztecs are successful and very much part of the ongoing and successful effort to make the world more brown.

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This historical revision happens with the kind of musical irreverence you might find in shows like Monty Python’s Spamalot or The Book of Mormon. There’s a lot of slicing and sassing of the patriarchal conquerors, but there’s also a lot of love for the downtrodden and the wronged. The score, with music by Benjamin Velez and lyrics by Leguizamo, Velez and David Kamp, is all over the musical map. There’s rap and hip-hop, Broadway love song (albeit performed by lovers who are chained up and just out of each other’s reach), samba, tango, gospel and just about anything else you can think of. In spite of, or perhaps because of, that variety, the score is eminently enjoyable. There’s a song late in Act 1, “The Abstinence Song,” that is perhaps the catchiest, with its refrain of, “Keep it in your pants and dance.” And the aforementioned love song, with the chains inspiring the lovers to sing “just a few inches more,” is cleverly titled “Chained Melody” (sure to be a hit for the Unrighteous Brothers). The only song that didn’t fully work for me was the Act 2 opener, “Dark Meat,” which is funny for a verse and then tiresome.

The central characters here are Aztecs Columbina (Yani Marin) and Pepe (Joél Pérez). She’s a warrior trapped by her father’s limited idea of what women can do, and he’s a gentle soul who would rather practice sock puppetry than pick up a sword. They’re destined for each other, but first they have to prove themselves by infiltrating the Spanish citadel, capturing the viceroy’s giant ruby pendant (that and a blood moon figure largely in a prophecy) and guiding the Aztecs to victory. Columbina’s big double-negative statement of defiance is “Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do,” and Pepe’s is the charming “Punk-Ass Geek-A.” They both get to be heroes, but it’s clear that Pepe is the most Leguizamo-like, a rolling ball of comic electricity and eccentricity whose charms are impossible to resist.

Within the Spanish court, the viceroy Roderigo (Al Rodrigo) is miserable. He loathes his gay son, Fernando (Zachary Infante), who is secretly in love with a Catholic priest, Reymundo (Chad Carstarphen), decked out in his Inquisition-red robes. Their down low duet, “Tango in the Closet,” is a hoot.

Many performers are double cast in fun ways. Carstarphen, for instance, is the gay priest and also the noble but beleaguered El Jaguar Negro, leader of the Aztec resistance. And Infante makes a second appearance as a Sebastian, a wacky bit of inbred Spaniard royalty with his own fizzy dance club number, “New Girl, New World.” Desiree Rodriguez also makes a strong double impression as an Aztec and as Pilar, daughter of the Viceroy who wants to mess with her father in a big way.

This is the kind of highly carbonated musical that makes audiences happy – makes them feel smart and entertained and progressive – and it looks like a joy to perform. This production heads to the La Jolla Playhouse this fall, and who knows where beyond that. It’s not a revolutionary show, but it’s part of a class of musical comedy that’s actually funny as well as heartfelt, relevant and full of catchy tunes. There’s a fair amount of snark and cynicism in the show’s humor, mostly to underscore the idiocy of our current political climate, especially in respect to brown people here, there and everywhere. But ultimately, this is a big, juicy Kiss that inspires celebration and hope, even amid oppression, darkness and abominable leadership.

Kiss My Aztec by John Leguizamo, Tony Taccone, Benjamin Velez and David Kamp continues an extended run through July 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$115 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

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

Imaginary discomfort rules at Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere play Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit includes (from left)Sharon Lockwood as Mrs. Gold, Marilee Talkington as Naomi, Danny Scheie as the Ghost, Susan Lynskey as Sarah Gold and Cassidy Brown as Michael. Below: Talkington (left) and Lynskey star in the new play by San Francisco writer Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The first time I heard the title for the new play by Daniel Handler, the San Francisco writer behind the popular Lemony Snicket books, I was confused. Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit is the title, and it wasn’t the Snickety-y subtitle that perplexed me. It was the notion that comfort could be imaginary. Isn’t comfort comforting no matter where it comes from? You can receive comfort from an external source (a parent, a pet, a narcotic) or you can just imagine comfort (memory, dream, hallucination), but as long as you are comforted, job done…at least for a little while, right?

Surely seeing the play would help me understand the title, but no such luck. Imaginary Comforts opened Thursday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre in a slick world-premiere production directed by Tony Taccone and featuring a cast that boasts some of the best actors the Bay Area has to offer. The play itself seems confused about its comedy, its sincerity, its theatricality. It’s kind of like an imaginary play that may one day find its reason for being – and at one point a character questions the notion of imaginary comfort, which made me want to stand up and shout, “Yes! That!”

Fractured time and narrative make the play something of a puzzle, which is nicely reflected in the hyperkinetic set by Todd Rosenthal. A speedy turntable repositions moving walls and doorways that are framed with strips of light, thus creating the effect of a living comic strip whose pieces quickly fall into and out of place. The central discussion amid all the movement involves death and ghosts and stories, but nothing is really moving or scary or, to be quite honest, terribly engaging.

But it is fairly entertaining for about 90 minutes partly because Taccone knows how to move things along and his actors know how to wring everything they can from Handler’s script. Somehow the premise of an inept rabbi engaging with a grieving family over the course of several years never fully comes to life, in spite of all the spinning, brightly lit walls.

At the heart of the play, and, indeed, in the lumpiest part of the title, is a story told by a father to a young daughter about a childless couple that made a deal with a rabbit to take one of its many children in exchange for keeping the entire rabbit brood safe. The rabbit child turns into a human child, and when it comes time to offer comfort, care and safety to the rabbit family, the human parent kills the rabbit parent and serves it for dinner. The ghost of the rabbit then haunts the humans, reminding them of their unfulfilled promises. This story emerges as important when its teller, the father, has died, and his adult daughter offers it to the rabbi who will be leading the funeral service.

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There are two problems with this. First, the rabbi, Naomi, has no idea what to do with the story or a way to discern what it tells her about the deceased that she might be able to share with the congregation. The second is that the story, as fables go, just isn’t compelling. Even when the view of the fable shifts to an entirely different take on it, there doesn’t seem to be much there there – certainly not enough upon which to build a play.

As Rabbi Naomi, the always-appealing Marilee Talkington has the daunting task of making her a believable character. She’s highly self-aware in that she knows what a bad rabbi she is. Her entire rabbinical career seems to have been undermined and irretrievably damaged by the upending of a bottle of kosher wine at a key moment in her training. As a result, she bumbles through her job, bemoaning how bad she is at it and how she occupies the lowest rung of rabbi service even though there’s supposedly no hierarchy among rabbis. But all that self-awareness doesn’t make her any less inept. If anything, it makes her worse.

We meet her in the throes of a blind date with a self-described “psychic adviser” (the enigmatic Michael Goorjian) who is not Jewish, though he said he was in his computer dating profile, and she is perturbed that he thought her job was “rabbit” due to either her typo or his misreading. Either way, it’s a terrible date, though it allows Naomi to let us know (the first of many times) what a bad rabbi she is. Then we get to see her ineptitude in action when she meets the Gold family. Marcus Gold (Julian López -Morillas seen in flashbacks) has died. His widow (a funny but under-used Sharon Lockwood) can only moan and cry. His best friend (Jarion Monroe) seethes with anger, and his daughter (a wry Susan Lynskey) is lost in the chaos of death and gets no comfort from her husband (Cassidy Brown).

In a forced bit of coincidence, Naomi’s blind date has a connection to the grieving family, one that involves that odd rabbit fable and an actor (the sublime Danny Scheie) hired to actually play the ghost of the rabbit. Even as time passes and bits of plot and character are revealed, the play never comes fully into focus, and the recurring motifs – the story of the Jews, “the phrase I would use is…,” sucking at your job, being haunted by old stories, the whole rabbit fable – become less impactful and more annoying.

But there are flashes of light in the writing, like a potent delineation between “nonsense” and “bullshit” made by one of the characters. And the frazzled Naomi gets off a good laugh with her response to the rabbit fable. Upon hearing that the humans ate the rabbit, she sputters, “Rabbit isn’t even kosher! They’re for gentiles and Easter. Jesus.” She also has the gall to say, during a moment of tension amid the grieving Golds, “This is a difficult time for all of us,” which is kind of hilarious.

It is a difficult time for all of us, Naomi. Would that there was some comfort – imaginary or otherwise – in this jumble of play.

Daniel Handler’s Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit continues through Nov. 19 in a Berkeley Repertory Theatre production at the Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97. Call 510-647-2900 or visit

Berkeley Rep’s warning: it can so happen here

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Tom Nelis (left) is Doremus Jessup and Charles Shaw Robinson is Effingham Swan in the world premiere of It Can’t Happen Here at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: The cast of the show, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, includes (seated, left to right) Tom Nelis as Doremus Jessup, Carolina Sanchez as Sissy Jessup, David Kelly as Buck Titu; (backseat, left to right) Anna Ishida as Mary Jessup Greenhill, Sharon Lockwood as Emma Jessup; and (standing, left to right) Mark Kenneth Smaltz and Gerardo Rodriguez. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s It Can’t Happen Here is a nightmare on so many levels, and that’s mostly a good thing in the world-premiere adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel.

This is the right story at the right time, and therein lies the dark heart of this nightmare. Eighty-one years ago, Lewis observed the world around him – race riots and severe economic disparity at home, fascist demagogues on the rise in Europe – and conjured a vision of how things could go if were weren’t very, very careful in who we elected president in 1936.

In Lewis’ novel, which has been freshly adapted by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, the United States is a country at odds with itself. Half the population is disaffected and tired of the Big Money, of which they have none, controlling all the strings of the “belching politicians” in Washington, D.C. An enterprising businessman, Buzz Windrip, hears the voices of the masses and throws himself into the political ring as a presidential candidate. He’s got a good head for business, they say, and he tells it like it is. People like that. Others feel he should be on the vaudeville circuit rather than in a race for the presidency, but he gains the trust (and endorsement) of the religious right, and off he goes.

One of Windrip’s greatest skills is pitting “everybody against somebody” and seizing power, and that’s just one of many echoes reverberating through the Roda Theatre as this tale from eight decades ago rattles the audience and makes us wonder how we could be here, in this exact same spot, in such a relatively short time with so little national memory of having been somewhere like this before. Granted, the terrors being addressed in Lewis’ story were primarily affecting Europe prior to World War II, but the dangers were everywhere and as ever present as they are now.

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That’s the chill of this production, which zings and zips through its first act like a parable with the sting of a slap to the face and a knee to the crotch. The crack 14-member ensemble, under the direction of Lisa Peterson, addresses the audience at the top of the show, setting the tone for a kind of literary/presentational style that will continue throughout the show’s 2 hours and 15 minutes as they move all the furniture, set the scene, introduce us to new characters and otherwise serve as narrators in this fast-paced journey from functioning democracy to totalitarian hellscape.

Tom Nelis is the central character, Doremus Jessup, the editor of a small-town New England newspaper, and like Mr. Webb, the newspaper editor in Our Town, a character he often calls to mind, he serves as the town’s moral conscience. He’s frightened by what he sees happening not only in his country but also in his own ordinary town. The “Minute Men,” a kind of national guard just ripe for evolving into a militia, preys on the worst fears and failings of the local young men (including but not limited to staunch antisemitism), and he, along with a few other sharp townsfolk, including the woman with whom he’s having an affair, sense imminent disaster.

When the action shifts to a political rally celebrating candidate Buzz Windrip (the electrifying David Kelly), the dial turns way up on the excitement/horror factor. Listening to Windrip (and trying not to hear the yuge, bleating voice of a current grossly unqualified candidate), it’s easy to start extrapolating to our modern times. What if our current guy wasn’t such an idiot and wasn’t such a godawful speaker. What if, like Windrip, he was eloquent and charismatic – or even smart. That would spell disaster for sure, just as it does in Lewis’ alternate America.

There are diminishing returns in Act 2 as a version of Europe before and during World War II plays out in the United States, with a scrappy band of rebels fighting the good fight and the Jessup family shattering in multiple ways. So much happens of such severity that emotional impact is lost. Events are merely sketched in as we rush through violence, insanity and other assorted horrors, and the ending isn’t chilling so much as a shrug and a sad head shake acknowledging that all of this is bad, bad, bad and we shouldn’t let it happen.

This well-produced gloom features a marvelous and quite active ensemble that also includes some standout work by Sharon Lockwood as a rabble-rouser, Doremus’ head-in-sand wife and a kind revolutionary; Deidrie Henry as Lorinda Pike, one of the small town’s most acutely aware citizens; and Anna Ishida as a grieving widow and fierce rebel.

The reality of 1936 is that Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican candidate Alf Landon. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were in full power of the Reichstag. In Italy, Mussolini was gearing up to give Hitler a big political bear hug, and citizens wondered how this could be happening here. Berkeley Rep’s resurrection of Lewis’ cautionary tale certainly holds sway over the choir to which it is preaching, but what about those who deem our current gasbag candidate a worthy leader? This bleak vision might just be the happy ending they’ve been looking for.

Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, adapted by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, continues through Nov. 6 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Quiet beauty, deep feeling in Berkeley Rep’s Aubergine

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Sab Shimono (in bed) is Ray’s father and Tim Kang is Ray in the world premiere of Julia Cho’s Aubergine at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s newly renovated Peet’s Theatre. Below: Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (seated) is Lucien, a caregiver helping Kang’s Ray with his ailing father. Photos courtesy of

Setting aside taxes for the moment, there are two certainties in life: we will eat food (and perhaps have a complicated relationship with food) and we will die (and perhaps have a complicated relationship with death). Food and death. Elemental.

In Julia Cho’s Aubergine, now receiving its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s newly renovated and renamed Peet’s Theatre (formerly the Thrust Stage), those elements – food and death – are being addressed with the utmost compassion, grace and quiet dignity. The play is sad, funny, insightful and deeply moving. It’s a beautiful piece of writing that has become a powerful theatrical experience directed with a strong, sensitive hand by Tony Taccone and performed by a cast that seems to fully appreciate the play’s quiet impact.

The rhythms of Aubergine are different than those we might be used to in a more conventional tale of losing a parent and wrestling with our own mortality. Within the quiet spaces is a lot of introspection, which may seem unusual to audiences that want things spoken about more explicitly. But that’s part of what makes the play so rich and rewarding – there’s space for us to bring our experiences. Cho may be writing a very specific story about a Korean-American family, but she’s really writing about all of us. Commissioned by Berkeley Rep and developed through the Ground Floor: Berkley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work, Aubergine skillfully fuses food, memory and mortality into a story about all children and all parents.

The child here is Ray (masterfully played by Tim Kang), a 38-year-old chef who has never quite grown up. When he wants to buy a $2,000 knife, he charges it on his father’s card without bothering to tell his father (played by Sab Shimono), who has lived his life frugally.

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Fights about money or the fact that Ray’s dad never cared about the food Ray cooked are moot now because Ray’s dad is now in hospice care, with a big hospital bed moved into his dining room, while Ray stands uncomfortably by, watching his dad slowly fade. There’s assistance from a hospice worker, Lucien (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), who doles out compassion along with sturdy doses of reality. At one point, Ray apologizes for not handling things well and says Lucien must think he’s stupid. “I don’t think of anyone as stupid,” he says “But it is strange to me how so few of you see it coming. There’s nothing for miles around, it is the only thing walking towards you and yet, you still can’t see it coming. You turn your heads away.”

Ray’s only friend, it seems, is Cornelia (Jennifer Lim), and even that is complicated. She’s a waitress at the restaurant where he was a chef. They began dating, but then Ray disappeared. She’s hurt and angry but willing to help. Ray speaks no Korean, but she does, so she has to reach out to the estranged brother of Ray’s father in Korea with the sad news of an impending death.

The cultural divide between generations adds fascinating texture to the relationships and is illuminated by stories of food, some of which are told entirely in Korean with English surtitles. Food, it seems, isn’t just what we eat. It’s who we are or who we choose to be.

Food is also magic. Listening to characters talk about transcendent food moments is thrilling, and people who provide those moments – a parent, a chef, a surprising source – have a gift that goes beyond simple description. Ray is one of those people, but he doesn’t quite know it, but coming to terms with his dad and where he is in his life will bring him closer to that realization.

Taccone’s production builds slowly, and the way scenes flow into one another through the simple (and astonishingly quiet) but strikingly beautiful set by Wilson Chin immerses us in the world completely. We go from hospital to home to diner, from present to past, from the U.S. to Korea with graceful efficiency. The same is true of Jiyoun Chang’s lights – there’s such intimacy and clarity in all the settings.

The superb cast also includes strong turns from Safiya Fredericks as a woman for whom food has come to mean some powerful things, and Joseph Steven Yang the uncle from Korea whose lack of English leads him to communicate with Ray in an entirely endearing form of pantomime.

Aubergine is a quietly stunning experience. It is as heartbreaking as it is life affirming, an exquisite meal prepared with superior skill and served with love.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Julia Cho and director Tony Taccone about Aubergine for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Julia Cho’s Aubergine continues through March 20 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre. Tickets are $29 to $89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Love and loathing in Berkeley Rep’s football drama

The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) includes, from left, Marilee Talkington, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, Dwight Hicks, Bill Geisslinger and Jenny Mercein. Below: Two-time Super Bowl champ Hicks delivers a monologue as former player George Coleman while Talkington bandages Jackson in the background. Photos courtesy of

A critic’s personal feelings or attachment to a subject are often irrelevant when it comes to writing about a particular play. But in the case of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of X’x and O’s (A Football Love Story), I feel I have to disclose a strong personal bias. I loathe football. LOATHE it, and have all my life. That’s my dad and my brother’s territory. I’ll be in my room canoodling with stereotypes and listening to Broadway cast albums. Sports in general have never interested me much, but no other sporting activity do I actively detest and strenuously ignore as much as loud, violent, overblown football.

Football, unlike, say, politics or current events, is something I can choose not to engage in – it’s a form of entertainment, albeit a behemoth of a form, and I can opt to spend my time, energy and enthusiasm elsewhere. Sometimes, as of late, the goings-on in the NFL are hard to ignore, but when it comes to sitting in a theater and watching a play about football, specifically one describe in its subtitle as “love story,” I wrestled a bit with whether to show up.

I will say this about X’s and O’s: I’m glad I showed up. The 80-minute documentary drama based on interviews with former players, their family members, fans, physicians and others held my begrudging interest, so credit to KJ Sanchez, who wrote the piece with Jenny Mercein, who is also in the cast. Also credit director Tony Taccone with providing just enough flash with the stadium lights and the near-constant video projections to balance with the generally strong performances from his energetic cast of six, which includes former 49er safety (I don’t know what that is) Dwight Hicks, who helped that team to two Super Bowl victories in 1982 and 1985.


Testing the theory that anything examined from multiple perspectives will reveal drama, Sanchez and Mercein quickly expose the conflict at the heart of America’s love affair with football: fans love the game and all that comes with it – the bonding, the drinking, the shouting and, perhaps most of all, the brutish bashing of man-on-man action – but all of that comes with a very human price in the form of significant, life-altering injuries suffered by the players and, consequently, by their families.

The writers try very hard to balance their presentation. Fans are able to express why they love the game and why it can be a challenging sport to love. The former players, even the ones with significant injuries, express everything from pride to regret about their time on the field. But from my already anti-football seat, I was struck most by how the accumulated personal stories, especially the trio of family members (Mercein, Eddie Ray Jackson and Marilee Talkington) toward the play’s end that expresses the agonizing effect of a degenerative brain injury known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), underscored my feeling that a form of entertainment – even one that makes billions of dollars – is not worth the serious injury of those who choose to participate in it.

That X’s and O’s asks us to seriously consider the duality of football – its value, its cost, its cultural relevance – is a significant matter. For all the zippy fun in the play – and there’s plenty – this is a play that says loving something blindly or madly is ultimately irresponsible if you’re not also considering the bigger picture. Of course there’s always football as a microcosm of the United States, and certainly issues of race and class come up here, but only glancingly.

This is not a play that will change anybody’s mind: the lovers will love and the haters will hate. But it is a play that makes you think, and you’re likely to leave knowing more about brain injuries than you did when you went in. This is a deep, rich topic, and maybe there’s a bigger, deeper football play to come. Or better yet, maybe a musical.

X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) continues through March 1 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$79. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

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

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

Moscone, Taccone illuminate history in Ghost Light

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Danforth Comins is Loverboy and Christopher Liam Moore (right) is Jon in the Jonathan Moscone- and Tony Taccone-conceived Ghost Light at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Moore as Jon. Photos by

Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone have found the courage to stay out of what they call “the suck drawer.”

The phrase comes from Ghost Light, the play Moscone and Taccone conceived together and that Taccone wrote and Moscone directed and it has to do with the life of an artist – the life of anyone, really – and the effort to create work and, ultimately, a life that is true and authentic and uniquely individual.

I expected Ghost Light, a co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre (where Taccone is artistic director) and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the play had the first leg of its world premiere last summer, to be about grief and the complicated relationship between fathers and sons. It is about those things. How could it not be, seeing as how it deals primarily with the effect of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone’s assassination in 1978, when his son Jon was 14 years old.

But what struck me about the play – a strange, fascinating, complex and challenging drama – was how much it’s about art and the act of creativity. The character Jon, like the man on whom it’s based, is an accomplished theater director (Moscone, in case you don’t know, is the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater and one of the best directors around). He has signed up to helm a production of Hamlet and is having what you would call a ghost problem.

The whole production, he believes, hinges on how he deals with the appearance of Hamlet’s dead father, the murdered king. Problem is, he can’t begin to deal with this scene, nor can he help his frustrated designers create the show. Sucked into a world of ghosts through his art, Jon (played with crackling charm and touching sensitivity by Christopher Liam Moore is tormented by dreams that have a great deal to do with his father’s death, and these dreams are beginning to have an effect on his waking life – to the point of nervous breakdown.

While Taccone the playwright leans heavily on the dream world, he also delves into the past as we see a 14-year-old version of Jon (Tyler James Myers) taken into some realm of the afterlife in the days after his father’s murder. He’s guided by a San Francisco cop (Peter Macon) who intones portentously in a style that Jon the director (when we see him teaching an acting class) calls “ooga booga.”

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Grown-up Jon’s travails build up a jittery energy and occasionally pause for some strong emotional connections, especially when Jon is challenged and comforted by his best friend (the invaluable Robynn Rodriguez), who is, essentially, his Jiminy Cricket, an external conscience and guide through the subconscious and the paranormal. She’s the one pushing him to figure out why his creativity is so completely blocked by Hamlet.

The flips back in time to young Jon are visually compelling – especially when Todd Rosenthal’s San Francisco City Hall set is dominated by the elder Moscone’s coffin rolling slowly on and off stage or rising up from the floor. But the Young Jon scenes never quite gelled with the rest of the play for me. We’re already in bizarre dreamland with Jon’s former San Quentin prison guard grandfather (Bill Geisslinger) tormenting him and waving a pistol at him, not to mention a nonexistent boyfriend (Danforth Comins) trying to protect Jon from the malevolent spirits. But the journey of Young Jon with the eloquent cop was more than I could figure.

More effective are the set pieces, like Jon’s meeting with a blind date (Ted Deasy) that goes horribly wrong in a bar called (cleverly) The Blind Spot or Jon’s fight with a film director (Peter Frechette) making a movie about Harvey Milk with very little mention of Mayor Moscone. Jon’s fight to get his father out of the ever-growing shadow of Milk (slain the same day as the elder Moscone) feels like a battle the play very much wants to fight but is confined to this short, potent scene.

As Jon wrestles with the very notion of who he is – as a man, as a son, as an artist – you can feel Taccone wrestling with his own creative impulses as a writer attempting to create a play fueled by actual history and imagined worlds flowing in and out of the real one. It’s a complex endeavor, not just because of the subject but because of the creators. There’s a lot going on here on many levels, and it’s a lot to process.

Ultimately Ghost Light feels incredibly personal, almost invasive. But how can it be when the subject is also one of the creators? When we see the assassination of Mayor Moscone re-created, complete with ear-splitting gunshots, we’re in that pivotal moment of horrifying violence whether we want to be or not. We’re pulled into Jon’s world in the moment when his life and so many lives around him changed irrevocably.

The moment informed Jon as an artist, and now in the illumination of Ghost Light, expanded the artistic horizon of the real-life Jon Moscone immeasurably. This is a brave piece of work and an artful demonstration of fact and fiction fusing into something authentic and undeniably powerful.

[bonus interviews]
I chatted with Moscone and Taccone as well as actors Moore and Myers for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Click here to read the story.

Ghost Light continues through Feb. 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Enter Stage Left: SF theater history on film

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

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

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

Here are a couple of excerpts:

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