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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: Berkeley Rep’s ‘Dear Elizabeth”—two poets bonded through letters

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“More than kisses,” wrote the great English poet, John Donne, “letters mingle souls.”   And if ever two souls were mingled, it would be those of acclaimed American 20th century poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell  who exchanged letters for three decades.   While the two never had a romantic or sexual relationship, they had a vibrant long-distance friendship conducted largely via snail mail that was every bit as entangled as a marriage.  From 1947 until Lowell’s death in 1977, they exchanged over 400 letters across oceans and continents, critically reflecting on each other’s poems, literature, and tracking the ups and downs of their careers—they both won Pulitzers—and relationships— his three marriages and her lesbian partnerships.  Dear Elizabeth  at Berkeley Repertory Theatre  is a play based entirely on these exquisite letters and it had its West Coast premiere at the Rhoda Theatre last Wednesday.

Dear Elizabeth is the latest collaboration between Brooklyn-based playwright Sarah Ruhl and artistic director Les Waters, the award-winning creators of Eurydice, Three Sisters, and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).  Mary Beth Fisher is Elizabeth Bishop and Tom Nelis is Robert Lowell.  Both actors have their debut at Berkley Rep.  Fisher also played Elizabeth Bishop when the play had its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre last December.  This lovely and well-crafted production consists entirely of the two talented actors reading letters aloud, with no dialogue in-between.  The letters themselves incisive snapshots of the lives they led, written in a conversational style which makes them easy to listen to.   It would not be surprising to learn they are filled with tidbits that never made their way into their poems.  Annie Smart’s set is little more than a shared literary study which changes slightly as they each change bases over the years.  It all works!  Ruhl has done such masterful job of selecting letters and passages, that their sharp intellects and quixotic artistic personalities take root and blossom, albeit quietly, as a conversation on stage.  Dear Elizabeth runs through July 7, 2013.

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.  Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell met each other in New York in 1947, through the poet and critic Randall Jarrell.  Lowell had just published his second book of poems, Lord Weary’s Castle, and Bishop her first, North & South.  Bishop later wrote that she “loved him at first sight.”  Lord Weary’s Castle won the Pulitzer Prize, and Lowell was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.  He frequently discussed his work with other poets, but Bishop did not. Their meeting was the first time she had discussed the nuts and bolts of her work with another poet and it was inspiring.  Something clicked in both of them; she wrote him in 1947 and he replied from Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, New York and she wrote back.   They became close and then closer still, at first admiring and critiquing each other’s work and then sharing more and more news of their personal lives.

While they both proposed to meet face to face, they rarely did, and instead conducted their treasured relationship from the safety of their writing desks where they seemed to take solace in just thinking of each other.  Of course, there were intrusions—Lowell’s various girlfriends, his three wives and children, his battles with booze and his episodes of manic depression which, more than once, led to his institutionalization.   All his “news” was packed into letters which at times seemed to floor and worry Bishop who doted on him but always maintained a brutally honesty about his work. Bishop, a lesbian, was more of a rolling stone, and couldn’t seem to stay long in one place until she met Brazilian aristocrat Lotta de Macedo Soares in Brazil and settled into a 12 year relationship that ended with Lotta’s suicide.

Over the years, missing each other became a central complaint, especially for the more volatile Lowell who wrote, “We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire, so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction.”

Fisher and Nelis, who spend a great deal of the play seated side by side at a large desk, have a chemistry that works, conveying both warmth and respect.  Fisher, who looks a bit school-marmish, is particularly adept at capturing the shyness, reserve and loneliness that plagued Bishop.  After Lotta’s suicide, there were episodes of alcohol abuse so severe that Bishop would fall and injure herself.  Fisher also conveys Bishop’s wry sense of humor.  Nelis captures the grandiose and dark aspects of Lowell, who spirals in and out of functionality but uses all his experiences as literary compost…he turns the most elegant lines!   You’ll hear a few of these but the play mainly sticks to excerpts of their letters.  The correspondence between Bishop and Lowell on which the play is based, Words in Air, was published in 2008.

Annie Smart’s sets combine with Russell Champa’s lush lighting to create magical moments of visual poetry.

The biggest take-away is a renewed appreciation for these two gifted poets and the complexity and beauty of their bond.  Did they flirt with the idea of taking it further, of calling it “love”?  In 1957, after one of their few visits crashed and burned, he penned that asking her to marry him was the biggest might have been of his life. Late in his life, Lowell wrote “I seem to spend my life missing you.”   Thankfully, for our sake, Bishop ignored him.  How many great letters have you written your spouse once you settled into a relationship?

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.  Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

Run-time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission

Creative Team:  Written by Sarah Ruhl.  Directed by Les Waters

Designed by Annie Smart (sets), Maria Hooper (costumes), Russell Champa (lighting), Bray Poor (sound), and Hannah Wasileski (projections)

Starring: Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis

Special Events:

Tastings: Sunday 7/7 @ 6:00 PM (Semifreddi’s)

Post-show discussions: Thursday 6/13, Tuesday 6/18, and Friday 6/28 @ 8:00 PM

Docents: talks on Tuesdays and Thursdays @ 7:00 PM; discussions after all matinees

Details: Dear Elizabeth runs through July 7, 2013 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre is located at 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704.  Performances:  Tuesday-Sunday, with additional weekend matinee performances.  Tickets: $29 -$77. Call box office at 510-647-2949 or purchase online at www.berkeleyrep.org.

Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

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June 3, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Rita Moreno shows us who she is at 79 and she’s a force to be reckoned with in the world premiere of “Life Without Make-up,” at Berkeley Rep through October 30, 2011

Legendary performer Rita Moreno returns to Berkeley Rep for the world premiere of "Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup," written by Artistic Director Tony Taccone, through October 30, 2011. Photographer: Michael LaMonica

At 79, Rita Moreno, the legendary star of stage and screen, has led quite a life and most of it has been an uphill battle.  Her autobiographical new play Rita Moreno: Life Without Make-up, which opens Berkeley Rep’s new season, explores what that climb to the top has entailed.  Moreno is just one of an elite handful of persons who have won an Oscar (supporting actress for “West Side Story”), Emmy (“The Rockford Files”), Grammy (soundtrack for “The Electric Company”), and Tony (“The Ritz”).  And she is the only Latino on that list which also includes Barbra Streisand and Audrey Hepburn.  In her new show, which she co-created with Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director Tony Taccone, the Puerto-Rican born star tells the story of her struggle against poverty, racism, and the sexual politics of show business in Hollywood’s Golden Age.  She also offers a wealth of inside dirt about the leading men and women she interacted with―all against a stunning multimedia montage of memorable moments from her extraordinary life.  She is accompanied by two expert dancers, Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, who join her to perform choreography by Lee Martino.  Seeing her in person is worth the price of admission–watching her on stage, dancing and gamming it up, you wonder why she at 79 looks better than most of us do at 50.   

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to walk in the footsteps of such a powerhouse, you’ll come away satisfied.  Moreno starts her story at age 5 as Rosita Dolores Alverio (her given name) in her native Puerto Rico with her willful mother, who is escaping poverty and an abusive marriage by hopping a boat to New York City.  Tragically, her infant brother is left behind.  Once in New York, she and her mother assimilate in poor neighborhoods packed with immigrants, barely scraping by.   When young Moreno’s talent is discovered, it is nurtured, first and foremost by her mother who sees her young daughter as the ticket out of the barrios. When she starts Spanish dancing lessons with Rita Hayworth’s uncle, Paco Cansino, a knowledgeable instructor, Rita realizes that performing is her destiny.  Through a magic combination of luck and chutzpah, she is soon off and running and begins auditioning and performing.  She slowly cobbles together an identity around entertaining and by the time she is a teenager, she is acting on Broadway.  

Her lucky break comes a few years later when she is discovered by a Hollywood casting agent while performing at a dance recital and is whisked off to Hollywood with a coveted MGM contract.  She gushes as she recalls that the first person she met on the MGM lot was Clark Gable and then, shortly thereafter, Elizabeth Taylor whom Moreno idolized.  There’s a huge “but wait” though―the film industry didn’t really know what to do with talented non-white performers in the 1940’s and Moreno was relegated to playing stereotypical Latina spitfires and Indian maidens in a spate of B-movies.  One of the things Life Without Make-up does most effectively is paint a picture of what it was like to work in a Hollywood that was both racist and sexist and the constant pressures Moreno faced to fit the mold of the “ethnic utility player.”  Moreno speaks directly to the audience with candor and humor about some very painful experiences.  She constantly struggled to maintain a healthy sense of self as a woman and as a Latina while straightening her hair and trying to lighten her complexion to look like someone she wasn’t.  One of her sadist stories recounts being mauled by movie industry bigwigs at a fancy party who claimed that she was coming on to them and then being rescued by humble Latino gardeners who respected women.  Moreno had true grit though and somehow, she persevered. 

Legendary actress Rita Moreno performs with Salvatore Vassallo (left) and Ray Garcia during dress rehearsal for the world premiere of "Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup," at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

 A rare opportunity came when she was chosen to tango with Gene Kelly in the now classic Singin’ in the Rain (1952).  Her first major break though came when she landed the role of Tuptim, the rebellious concubine, in The King and I (1956) over the Asian actress France Nguyen.  In recounting this story, Moreno confesses deep regret over something that occurred but never gets into specifics. You get the idea that she may have actively campaigned for the role and there is more that she is not telling.  If you’re interested in personal confessionals, that’s where Life Without Make-up falls short.  If you listen carefully throughout, you’ll find Moreno’s collection of stories entertaining and poignant, and there’s also a good mix of small observations and big picture questions, but Moreno’s clever wit and sharp insights are mainly turned on those around her and on experiences that were thrust upon her.  This is an expose of the entertainment industry and doesn’t really delve into Moreno’s regrets about her own actions.   This seems intentional as Tony Taccone, Life Without Make-up’s writer, knows the power of brutal honesty, and owning one’s dark side.  It was Taccone who collaborated with actress Carrie Fisher (of Starwars’ fame) to create her 2009 brut tour-de-force “Wishful Drinking.” 

Near the end of the first act, Moreno talks about her famous love affair with Marlon Brando, whom she met on the MGM lot.  She recounts quite humorously how she was totally smitten with Brando but how he was completely smitten with himself and how she started “seeing” Elvis to make him jealous.  She skips her sleeping pill-swallowing suicide attempt.  In another sequence, she talks about being thrust in bed with Jack Nicholson to do numerous love-making takes for the film Carnal Knowledge (1971) and how it was a source of conflict in her marriage to Leonard Gordon.  There’s a lot she is not telling but that’s Hollywood!

All of her sacrifice and hard work ultimately paid off with 1961’s film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical West Side Story.  As the fiery Anita, who sings and dances the show-stopping “America,” Moreno lit up the screen and earned that year’s Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.  As she tells her stories, Moreno powerfully and colorfully recants the “characters” in her life–using a number of hilarious accents to complete the portraits.  She outdoes herself as she tells about working with Natasha Lytess, Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach, who taught her the nuances of gesture, movement, elocution and getting in touch with her vagina.  And then there’s the music and dance.  Highlights include her tapping “Broadway Rhythm” from Singing in the Rain (1952) and performing “The Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story with Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo to lee Martino’s choreography.  Through it all Moreno emerges as a powerhouse, lady-like but razor-sharp and never forgetting her humble past.  This is a two-hour performance to be savored.

And if this review has you aching to see more of Moreno, if you have satellite or cable tv, you can always catch her on re-runs of Law and Order: Criminal Intent as the fabulously crazy dying mother of Detective Goren.  And she plays Fran Drescher’s mom on TV Land’s new sitcom Happily Divorced which aired in June 2011.  With a one-woman show and a new TV role, 79 never looked so good.

Production Team:

Written by Tony Taccone

Developed by Rita Moreno and Tony Taccone

Staged and directed by David Galligan

Choreography by Lee Martino

Set design by Anna Louizos

Costumes by Annie Smart

Video and lights by Alexander V. Nichols

Sound by Phil Allen

Starring:

Rita Moreno

Ray Garcia

Salvatore Vassallo

Featuring a four-piece band with Cesar Cancino (music director), Sascha Jacobsen (bass), Alex Murzyn (reeds), and David Rokeach (percussion)

Details: Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup runs through October 30, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances Tuesday-Sunday with several matinee performances.  Pre-show docent talks: Tuesdays 9/27, 10/4, 10/11, 10/18 & 10/25 and Thursdays 9/22, 9/29, 10/6 & 10/20 @ 7:00 PM.  Post-play discussions: Thursday 9/22, Tuesday 9/27, and Friday 10/7 @ 8:00 PM

Tickets: $73 to $34.  Box office:  (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.  

Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre.  The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

September 18, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: “Three Sisters” at Berkeley Rep–the long and the short of Sarah Ruhl’s new version, April 8- May 22, 2011

(l to r) Natalia Payne (Masha), Heather Wood (Irina) and Wendy Rich Stetson (Olga) play the title characters in Sarah Ruhl’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at Berkeley Rep. through May 22, 2011. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

Clocking in at three hours, it takes time to sit through the Three Sisters which opened last week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage…is it time well spent?  Absolutely, but this engrossing 1901 Chekhov drama unfurls at a slow pace and it helps beforehand to know what you’re in for.  Sarah Ruhl’s new version, which is based on a literal translation of Chekhov, and directed by Les Waters,  comes together in a cohesive flowing whole.   This is what the Berkeley Rep has built its reputation on.   The language has been modernized, it feels light, but the production itself feels grounded early in the last century due in large part to Annie Smart’s lovely set, homey and historically accurate right down to the table linens, and Ilona Somogyi’s provincial Russian gowns and military costumes.  In all, there is the feeling of stepping back into a living breathing portrait where people are initially hopeful but then gradually flounder having done little to build their own lives.

Ruhl, a MacArthur fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2004 for her play The Clean House , is known for tackling big ideas with lyricism.  In the Three Sisters,the big idea, expressed so simply by one of the sisters, is “Life is a raspberry—one little bite and it’s gone.”  Sitting through the play, we see these three lovely raspberries—the Prozorov sisters– bud, ripen and wither…suffering from spiritual malaise, boredom and endless yearning for the high life in Moscow which remains the distant dream, the excuse.  And don’t we all, to some extent, live our lives with some aspect of inertia, dreaming of distant Moscow, but withering on the vine? 

(l to r) Bruce McKenzie (Vershinin) and Natalia Payne (middle sister Masha) experience ill-fated love in Sarah Ruhl’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at Berkeley Rep. through May 22, 2011. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

The story unfolds through the three Prozorov sisters–women at different stages of life, who all experience evaporated hope—Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson), the eldest is a good-hearted teacher and having peaked, believes herself to be a spinster.  Irina (Heather Wood), the youngest, is fresh-faced, virginal, exuberant and optimistic. Throughout the course of the play she grows up and into womanhood.  Her two suitors reflect the limited romantic options even for the young and beautiful.  The most interesting sister is Masha (Natalia Payne), the pensive middle sister, smoldering with passion and anger, who has settled down into a reasonably boring married life with husband Kulygin (Keith Riddin).  When the new military commander Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie) enters the scene, they begin a flirtation that over time evolves into love that is doomed.  Payne plays Masha brilliantly with growing outbursts of frustration and bitter rage.  

The most questionable performance is Emily Kitchens as Natasha, the scheming petit-bourgheoise bumpkin who seduces brother Andrei (Alex Moggridge) and marries up and into the household where she soon wields power.  Kitchens (who you may recognize as Betsy/Lindsey from A.C.T.’s recent production of Clybourne Park ) plays the role with enough ambivalence to really peak my interest.  Kitchen’s Natasha enters the play as an overly sweet and small-minded girl who means well and takes the mothering of her young Bobol to obsession, but she never really rises to the predatory cunning often associated with the role. In Act 3, where she unceremoniously speaks her mind about firing the elderly helper Afinsa (Barbara Oliver), she is as much dissatisfied with the lack of appreciation due her as the sisters are exhausted with the course of their own miserable lives.

Secondary character Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie) is heroic both in his vision and inured misery.  (He has a wife who regularly attempts suicide and two young daughters that he worries over.)  A real philosopher, his nonstop speculations about the future endure Masha and clearly voice Chekhov’s own concerns.  (Act 1)  “Our projects, our obsessions, theories big and important, the time will come when they won’t be considered important and we can’t imagine what will be vastly important.”  A constant theme in Chekhov’s writing is the belief in progress–that life should be spent working hard in preparation for the future, for work and science would transform mankind, not the idle laziness of the gentry.  One of the play’s richest moments comes in Act 2, as he and Baron Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) sit and philosophize about their lives and their futures, and the quest for meaning and fulfillment.  By Act 4, all hope is dashed.  On the eve of the twentieth century and the cataclysm that awaits Russia, Moscow has eluded the three sisters and those little raspberries have hardened on the vine, a sad end to a slowly building series of disappointments and tragedies…but Chekhov would have it no other way.      

Production Team:

Sarah Ruhl, Playwright
Les Waters, Director
Annie Smart, Scenic Design
Ilona Somogyi, Costume Design
Alexander V. Nichols, Lighting Design
David Budries, Sound Design
Julie Wolf, Musical Director
Rachel Steinberg, Dramaturg
Michael Suenkel *, Stage Manager
Cynthia Cahill *, Assistant Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin, Casting
Janet Foster, Casting
Jennifer Wills, Assistant Director
Noah Marin, Assistant Costume Design

Cast (in order of speaking):

Wendy Rich Stetson, Olga
Heather Wood, Irina
James Carpenter, Chebutykin
Thomas Jay Ryan, Tuzenbach
Sam Breslin Wright, Solyony
Natalia Payne, Masha
Barbara Oliver, Anfisa
Richard Farrell, Ferapont
Bruce McKenzie, Vershinin
Alex Moggridge, Andrei
Keith Reddin, Kulygin
Emily Kitchens, Natasha
David Abrams, Fedotik
Cobe Gordon, Rode

Details:  The Three Sisters runs through May 22, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Street (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704.  Performances: Tuesday-Sunday with several matinee performances.  Tickets: $73 to $34.  Box office:  (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org .  Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre.  The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

April 28, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment