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Review: Hershey Felder channels the angel of all pianists, Chopin, in another mesmerizing musical portrait at Berkeley Rep, through August 10, 2014

At Berkeley Rep, award-winning actor and musician Hershey Felder stars in “Monsieur Chopin,” a passionate portrayal of the Polish pianist and composer, Fryderyk Chopin.  Felder invites the audience into Chopin’s lush salon for a magical music lesson as he tells his tragic life story, punctuated by over a dozen lyrical polonaises, mazurkas, valses, nocturnes and preludes. Photo:  John Zich

At Berkeley Rep, award-winning actor and musician Hershey Felder stars in “Monsieur Chopin,” a passionate portrayal of the Polish pianist and composer, Fryderyk Chopin. Felder invites the audience into Chopin’s lush salon for a magical music lesson as he tells his tragic life story, punctuated by over a dozen lyrical polonaises, mazurkas, valses, nocturnes and preludes. Photo: John Zich

Cherish the moment.  It’s Paris, March 1848, just after the February 1848 Revolution, and Hershey Felder as Polish composer/pianist, Fryderyk Chopin, welcomes you into his elegant Paris salon for an unusual piano lesson—one where he does all the playing.   It seems like he is making up the music as he goes, and what beautiful music it is—full of delicate dynamics, soft tempo fluctuations, imaginative color and touch—utterly different from any previously existing in the 19th century.  Throughout the lesson, he recounts his life story, from his first composition written at age 7 in his Polish hometown of Zelazowa Wola, to his complicated romance in France with the female French novelist, George Sand, to his death at age 39 from tuberculosis, to his heart’s famous burial in Poland.  Hypersensitive Chopin’s story is no sweet melody but his pain and losses and moments of epiphany are punctuated with actual shifts in the tone of Chopin’s music.

Monsieur Chopin, which opened Sunday, is Berkeley Rep’s latest collaboration with Hershey Felder, who is proving his genius for bringing famous composers to life.   Monsieur Chopin, which Felder both wrote and stars in, is directed by Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time) and arrives at Berkeley Rep on the heels of Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro (June, 2014) and George Gershwin Alone (June 2013).  Monsieur Chopin is part of Felder’s series of musical enactments, “The Composers Sonata” which have been presented at dozens of theatres across the U.S. and around the world.  The series also includes Beethoven, As I Knew Him (2008) and Hershey Felder as Franz Liszt in Rock Star (2013).  As director, Mr. Felder premiered Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in April 2012 and the musical biography delighted Berkeley Rep audiences in December 2013 and is now immensely popular in New York.

“Fryderyk Chopin, the diminutive ‘Polish Poet of the Piano’ who died at the tender age of 39 and who spent much of his adult life as the prince of the Parisian salon, took an instrument of wood, felt, and metal and made it sing,” remarks Felder. “Chopin said, ‘If one wants to learn how to really play the piano, one must listen to the best opera singers – they will show you what you need to know.’ And for almost two centuries every pianist who has ever touched the instrument strives to bring it to life by making the piano human, by giving it ‘song’ just as Chopin did. He was the first, and the piano music he left us is the music of angels, the music of another world.”

Felder steps into the role of Chopin with complete credibility—from his Polish accent and rendering of Chopin’s artistic temperament to his concert-level playing of some of the most exquisitely lush piano music ever written.  He plays selections from some 15 pieces—polonaises, valses, preludes, mazurkas, and nocturnes—and seems to be spontaneously working them into the story as he goes.  Felder guides you with information about the inventive and enlivening forms that characterized Chopin’s brilliance—even in his youth, he was keenly aware of the fine-line between improvising and composing—as well as his love of Polish songs and dances.   And this is as much the story of music’s golden age as well—an incredibly compressed period, some 200 years— when musical and artistic genius flooded middle Europe.  How profound when Chopin says, “When I was 17 and had my debut, Bach had died 78 years earlier.”  Bach’s compositional genius influenced him heavily and Bach was an importance point of reference when he was teaching his students. This was also a time when high drama characterized the life of composers and transfixed the public, as much as Hollywood does today.

As a small boy, self-taught Chopin made up his own music almost at once, intuitively understanding the intimate relationship between improvising and composing. When he was seven, his first teacher wrote down one of his lush improvisations, a polonaise, and had it published.  At his first appearance in Paris, on February 26, 1832, he performed a concerto he had debuted to great success in Warsaw.  Both Liszt and Mendelssohn attended and heaped praise upon him.  Chopin’s reputation as a pianist is based on just thirty or forty concerts…it was salon playing that sealed his reputation.  Photo: John Zich

Hershey Felder as Chopin. As a boy, self-taught Chopin made up his own music almost at once, intuitively understanding the intimate relationship between improvising and composing. When he was seven, his first teacher wrote down one of his lush improvisations, a polonaise, and had it published. At his first appearance in Paris, on February 26, 1832, he performed a concerto he had debuted to great success in Warsaw. Both Liszt and Mendelssohn attended and heaped praise upon him. Chopin’s reputation as a pianist is based on just thirty or forty concerts…his salon playing sealed his reputation. Photo: John Zich

Speaking of transfixed, I wasn’t able to take my eyes off Felder, a natural born storyteller, and I never would have guessed that he has given this performance over 800 times. That he’s of Polish ethnicity, considers Chopin his pianistic home and lives in Paris, and even owns one of Chopin’s pianos, are no doubt huge factors in the attention to detail and care that he has poured into this.

We all love a love story and the audience on the edge of their seats as Chopin told of his relationship and semi-guarded Bohemian lifestyle with French novelist George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), a woman whose importance as a writer has been eclipsed by her notoriety for wearing trousers, cigar-smoking and her involvement with Chopin.  Strong-willed Sand was painted in broad strokes but we get enough flavor to ascertain that he was attracted to her nurturing and protective side and that she loved him and, for 8 years, tolerated his fragility, mood swings and unpredictability and then, abruptly, she ended it.

Chopin’s relationship with Sand is also an effective vehicle for exploring the vibrant environment of the French salon where his small scale piano pieces, most of them brilliantly improvised, were a hit and fundamental to his legacy. “Invention came to his piano, sudden, complete, sublime,” wrote Sand who would frequently lay under the piano as he played for her.

Chopin’s dedicated student, Karl Flitsch, who Felder also lovingly draws on, wrote “The other day I heard Chopin improvise at George Sand’s house.  It is marvelous to hear Chopin compose in this way: his inspiration is so immediate and complete that he plays without hesitation as if it could not be otherwise. But when it comes to writing it down and recapturing the original thought in all its details, he spends days of nervous strain and almost terrible despair.”

Felder’s works a great deal of humor into this piece and his funny and illuminating impressions of the people in Chopin’s life—like the swooning women in his audience or Hungarian composer and pianist, Franz Liszt, Chopin’s biggest “frenemy” in Paris—humanize Chopin and impart information.  Liszt attended Chopin’s first concert in Paris and promptly declared him a genius and became his agent, collaborator, friend, and at times, bitter rival for public attention, and oddly, his first biographer.

Chopin’s elegant salon (sets by Yael Pardess) is framed by an ornate golden trim, giving it the feel of a romantic period painting to be entered.  Chopin’s Steinway and bench are front and center and a lovely fireplace whose mantle is adorned with Sevres style porcelain vases and an ornate clock are behind.  There’s a delicately carved wooden table with a pitcher where he fastidiously washes his hands, as if to rid himself of the unpleasant memories he’s just shared.

The set also features “smart drapes,” a subtle and elegant scrim for different lighting effects (Richard Norwood) and projections (John Boesche & Andrew Wilder) which change their color hue and design in accordance with various phases of Chopin’s life.  In 1829, when Chopin met his first love, a singing student named Constantia Gladkowska, she was dancing a Polish Mazurka and caught his eye.  Against spectacular dark lighting, she appears romanticized in a white traditional Polish folk dress, smiling and dancing the Mazurka with other young Polish girls.  Felder completes the portrait with his “Mazurka in A Flat Major, Op. 50 No. 2,” a short vibrant piece which concludes in a burst of chromatic harmonies.

Sunday’s opening night became even more special when Polish Consul General Mariusz Brymora from Los Angeles, presented Felder with the “Bene Merito” honorary distinction on behalf of the Polish government.  Established in 2009, this distinction “is conferred upon the citizens of the Republic of Poland and foreign nationals in recognition of their merits in promoting Poland abroad.”  Felder, deeply moved, also received a beautiful Polish woodcut.

Following this, Felder/Chopin engaged with the audience in an open Q & A, further revealing his skill as an improvisational performer.

The ultimate irony, which I mention in closing, is that this performance nearly sold out before it opened and was extended until August 10 and those performances are nearly sold out.  It’s much easier to get people to go to this than an actual Chopin concert.  We live in the age of story and it’s the combination of music and story that brings people in.  Of course, after experiencing Monsieur Chopin, who could not be hungry for more?

Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission

The music of Fryderyk Chopin is played Hershey Felder enacting Chopin

Production Team— Yael Pardess (Scenic Design), Richard Norwood (Lighting Design), John Boesche & Andrew Wilder (Projection Design), Benjamin Furiga (Original Sound Design), Joel Zwick (Director), Trevor Hay (Associate Director, production stage manager), Erik Carstensen (Sound design, production manager, production stage manager). Samantha F. Voxakia (General Manager, co-producter), Eighty-Eight, LLC (Producer)

Details:  Monsieur Chopin runs through April 20, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.

Performances are Tues-Sun with matinees on Sat, Sun and Thursday, August 7.

Tickets: $29 to 87.  Discounts:  Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain.  Tickets and info: 510 647–2949 or visit: 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 $5 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM.

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July 30, 2014 Posted by | Classical Music, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Nina Raine’s “Tribes”—a family that is all talk and very little listening tackles language barriers

A scene from Nina Raine’s critically acclaimed family drama “Tribes,” at Berkeley Rep through May 18, 2014.  (From L to R) Billy (James Caverly) was born deaf but never learned sign language.  His hearing family—mother Beth (Anita Carey), brother Daniel (Dan Clegg), sister Ruth (Elizabeth Morton) and fiercely outspoken father (not shown)—have always belittled sign language and refused to accommodate him or to accept his deafness.  When Billy meets Sylvia, who hears but is slowly going deaf and who was raised in a deaf family, he comes out of his shell and embraces some of the rituals of the deaf, upending his entire family.  Photo: courtesy Mellopix.com

A scene from Nina Raine’s critically acclaimed family drama “Tribes,” at Berkeley Rep through May 18, 2014. (From L to R) Billy (James Caverly) was born deaf but never learned sign language. His hearing family—mother Beth (Anita Carey), brother Daniel (Dan Clegg), sister Ruth (Elizabeth Morton) and fiercely outspoken father (not shown)—have always belittled sign language and refused to accommodate him or to accept his deafness. When Billy meets Sylvia, who hears but is slowly going deaf and who was raised in a deaf family, he comes out of his shell and embraces some of the rituals of the Deaf, upending his entire family. Photo: courtesy Mellopix.com

I don’t know anyone closely who is deaf but, when my parents reached their early eighties and their hearing began to decline, they both experienced difficulty in comprehending complex sentences.  That, in turn impacted their ability to communicate.  That’s when I began to think more about what it’s actually like to be hearing impaired and the range of issues associated with hearing.   British theatre director Nina Raine’s  Tribes, which had its Bay Area premiere at Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage on April 16, further opened my eyes.  This engaging and very relevant family drama tackles hearing, partial hearing, deafness, and listening through the story of a family that can’t shut up long enough to hear much of anything.   The action revolves around Billy, a young man who was born deaf and who has been raised in this overeducated and verbally combative family that considers learning sign language a sign of conformity or capitulation to otherness.  Consequently, Billy reads lips and does not sign…until he falls in love with a woman who upends him and the entire family.

Thoughtfully directed by Jonathan Moscone (artistic director of Cal Shakes and son of SF mayor George Moscone who was slain in 1978), Tribes represents Berkeley Rep at its finest—challenging our tightly held assumptions with realizations that keep coming for days afterwards.   Speaking of assumptions, once I discovered that Nina Raine came from such solid stock—she is the grand niece of the great Russian poet, novelist, and Nobel laureate, Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago (1954)—I assumed the play would be substantial fare. Tribes had its world premiere in 2010 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, earning an Olivier Award nomination for best play.

The cast of six is built around a family ( a “tribe” onto itself) that seems to be arguing constantly.  The professorial British father, Christian (Paul Whitworth), whose fallback refrain to comments offered by others is “bullocks,” delights in his own self-involvement.  He’s presently learning Chinese and brings his laptop to the dinner table where his obnoxious practice drills create another layer of babel.  He’s also keen on insulting his ditsy novelist wife, Beth (Anita Carey), who is experiencing writers block.  She is determined to finish her book—”a marriage-breakdown detective novel.”  She doesn’t know who’s “done the murder yet. I’m going to decide at the end… and then put all the clues in.”

The adult children, all twenty-something, live at home and suffer failure to launch. Ruth (Elizabeth Morton) is an aspiring opera singer who can only score singing gigs in pubs. Daniel (Dan Clegg) is a grad student continually rewriting his thesis on language.  He stammers when caught by surprise and suffers from auditory hallucinations.  Billy (James Caverly), the central character, was born deaf.

In Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” a deaf young man, Billy (James Caverly, L), has grown up in an overeducated and argumentative family that considers learning sign language a distressing act of conformity.  After he meets Sylvia (Nell Geisslinger, R), who is struggling with the early phases of adult-onset deafness, he learns to sign and his outlook on life changes considerably as he starts to identify with a new group.  Photo: courtesy Mellopix.com

In Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” a deaf young man, Billy (James Caverly, L), has grown up in an overeducated and argumentative family that considers learning sign language a distressing act of conformity. After he meets Sylvia (Nell Geisslinger, R), who is struggling with the early phases of adult-onset deafness, he learns to sign and his outlook on life changes considerably as he starts to identify with a new group. Photo: courtesy Mellopix.com

The play opens with a typical family dinner that establishes their communication dynamic as a nightmare of disconnection.  It’s amusing to keep a running tally of all the non-compassionate listening infractions that occur while trying to stay on top of all the literary namedropping.  We recognize immediately from Billy’s silence that his comprehension is limited.  The family doesn’t accept this though.  Over the years, they have refused to accommodate him or to really accept his deafness. Billy doesn’t know sign language because the family has always belittled it.   He has adapted to them by learning to read their lips but even this has been challenging as it requires their willingness to participate, which they haven’t always been consistent about.  On the up side, having spent his life isolated from the ruckus, Billy is the sweetest of the lot.

Todd Rosenthal’s set is a lived-in dining and living room whose walls are lined with books, reinforcing the impression that this is a family that is book smart and but short on common sense and wisdom.

The pot is stirred to a boil when Daniel meets Sylvia (Nell Geisslinger), who hears but is struggling with the early phases of adult-onset deafness.  She learned sign language because she was raised in a deaf family.  Eager to connect with Billy, she introduces him to the Deaf community and helps him with learning to sign and with getting a job that involves lip-reading and transcribing videotapes that are used as evidence in court.   Not only does she serve as a great catalyst for Billy, she is tender and compassionate and remarkable young woman.

One of the drama’s most gratifying moments comes when Billy begins to stand up to his family and to insist, from now on, that they communicate with him on his terms.  But just he experiences empowerment and gets more immersed in the Deaf community, Sylvia becomes frustrated with its politics and insularity.  We learn that while some deaf people feel cut off from the hearing world, or disabled, for others, being Deaf is a culture and a source of pride. (Capitalized “Deaf” denotes culture, as distinct from lowercase “deaf,” which describes a pathology.)  Geisslinger anchors the entire production with her authentic performance as someone navigating her own identity issues while slowly embracing a world of non-hearing.  Sylvia has grown up understanding from an early age the issues that Billy is tackling much later in life and the couple is both united and separated by this divide.

One of the play’s most powerful scenes occurs when Sylvia comes to meet the family and Christopher challenges her about the expressiveness of sign language—what it can and cannot do.  She rises to the occasion, educating us all about its strengths and limitations, and matching him argumentatively blow for blow, never backing down.  She also explains the implicit hierarchies of the Deaf which she finds hard to navigate–she was not deaf from birth so that makes her “less than” someone who was (Billy) but she was raised in a deaf family which gives her as edge.  At which point Christopher asserts that the Deaf community is just like any other tribe that has rules about who it will and will not admit.

James Caverly delivers an engaging Billy whose personal journey imparts a great deal of information about language and deafness.  His lip-reading, for example, turns out to be an incredibly inexact tool and Raine has weaved this into the plot. (Since most lip movements are associated with more than one sound, the lip reader must guess and intuit in order to make sense of what is being said.)  The play’s important take-away is the message that, if you know one language, you can go on to learn another.  The learning process will show you how language defines systems of thought and reveal the biases implicit in the languages you are dealing with.  The audience is forced to engage and to experience some dissatisfaction because not all of the sign language is translated with subtitles and not all of what Billy says is understandable.   Is this an issue of translation? Are we then of a different tribe?  The plays invites a lot of questions.

 

Details:  Tribes runs through May 18, 2014, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley.

Performances are Tues-Sun with matinees on Sat, Sun and some Thurs.

Tickets: $29 to $99.  Discounts:  Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain.  Tickets and info: www.berkeleyrep.org or phone: 510 647–2949.

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 $5 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM.

April 30, 2014 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: “Pianist of Willesden Lane”—a daughter strikes a deep chord in her mother’s musical story of survival, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” acclaimed pianist and storyteller Mona Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music while chronicling her mother’s escape from the Holocaust. At Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014.  Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” acclaimed pianist and storyteller Mona Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music while chronicling her mother’s escape from the Holocaust. At Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In The Pianist of Willesden Lane, piano virtuoso and author Mona Golabek channels the very spirit of her mother, Austrian pianist Lisa Jura, in the musical telling of Jura’s Holocaust survival story.  This heart piercing solo show of music and words, which opened last Wednesday (Oct 30) at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a deeply moving triumph.

Produced and adapted by Hershey Felder, who just a few months ago brought and performed the solo show, George Gershwin Alone, to Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, The Pianist of Willesden Lane is based on the acclaimed best-selling book, The Children of Willesden Lane (Grand Central Publishing, 2002) by Mona Golabek & Lee Cohn.  The story is one of separation, sacrifice, and the power of music and family to elevate the spirit in the darkest of times.  Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music in this searing tribute to her remarkable mother.

Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, was just 14 in March 1938 when German troops entered Vienna and interrupted her life in this cultural capital where Jews congregated.  The changes were confusing and unpleasant—Lisa, a piano prodigy, could no longer take piano lessons from her beloved teacher who was discouraged from interaction with Jews.  Her dream of a debut at the fabled Musikverein concert hall was shattered.  The situation escalated on Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10, 1938), when her father—a tailor—suffered a humiliating brush with death that led to the decision to flee Austria.

The family was only able to secure a single ticket on the highly-demanded Kindertransport train which rescued children threatened by the Nazis and took them to England.  It was decided that Lisa, the middle child, should go, as she stood the best chance of thriving as a classical pianist.

Bolstering Lisa throughout the ordeal were the last words her mother spoke to her—“Hold onto your music.  It will be your best friend in life.” These words were uttered at the Vienna train station in November 1938 as Lisa joined hundreds of crying children in saying their good-byes forever to their parents.  Many times, in those darkest of days, when disappointments, fear or pain were about to overwhelm her, Lisa recalled these words.

Jura was one of 10,000 refugee children brought to England before World War II as part of the Kindertransport mission.  As soft-spoken Golabek recounts her mother’s story, we are riveted. Imagine Lisa’s anxiety when the relative, who was supposed to meet her at the station in London and care for her, was unable to fulfill his promise to her family and she was abandoned.  Like many refugee children aged 14 and above, she became a domestic worker and was expected to earn her keep.  She was sent to a large country estate to work.  When she was unable to play the piano there, which she was told was for show purposes only; she left abruptly and travelled alone to London where she settled in at the titular Willesden Lane home for children. It was there that she slowly began to flourish—the piano as her anchor— and began life anew in London with the sad realization that she might never see any of her family members again.

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” award-winning pianist Mona Golabek plays the piano under a projected image of her parents, Lisa and Michel Golabek.  Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” award-winning pianist Mona Golabek plays the piano under a projected image of her parents, Lisa and Michel Golabek. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

Mainly seated at the Steinway piano, Golabek uses slight shifts in her posture at the keyboard and in phrasing to help tell the story of young Lisa’s gradual transformation into a young virtuoso.  She plays interludes from Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach, Gershwin, Strachey, Rachmaninoff and Grieg without sheet music and also commits considerable spoken passages in the 90 minute performance to memory.  Her calm delivery is achingly authentic.

From the performance’s earliest moments, we learn that Lisa dreams of making her own concert debut with Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 16,” an exceedingly difficult and challenging piece that requires maturity, stamina and technique. The Norwegian composer was just 24 when he wrote this brilliant concerto in three movements, the only concerto he ever completed. Hershey Felder fleshes out the great storytelling moments in Lisa’s journey and loosely hangs them around the Grieg concerto and Golabek plays portions of all three movements.  The audience was clearly stirred at the very exciting moment of Lisa’s scholarship audition at the London Academy of Music where she performed from stirring Bach, Beethoven, Scriabin piano classics flawlessly.  But at the end of the evening, when Golabek played from the Grieg Third Movement, with its adventurous rhythms, tears flowed freely.

Well-executed décor and video projections greatly enhance the performance.  A gorgeous array of huge gold gilt picture frames surround the Steinway on the Thrust stage.  These antique frames serve as video portals for Felder’s well-curated of selection of personal and archival news photos, newsreel footage, and famous artworks.  Set in the glow of the midnight blue stage, with Jura’s punctuated playing, it’s a sight to behold.  Particularly riveting are portraits of family members, glorious shots of old Vienna, and the devastation of the London Blitzkrieg which destroyed Lisa’s place of asylum in London, the home for young refugees at 243 Willesden Lane.

The impact of this inspiring performance comes in waves…. What strength it must take for Golabek to channel her mother on a daily basis, knowing full well that she is here and only able to do what she does because of her grandparents’ sacrifice that allowed for her mother to pursue her dream.

Based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane (Grand Central Publishing, 2002) by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen.  Starring Mona Golabek as Lisa Jura

Creative team: Trevor Hay and Hershey Felder (scenic designers), Jaclyn Maduff (costume designer), Christopher Rynne (lighting designer), Erik Carstensen (sound designer), Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal (projection designers).

Run-time is 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Post-play discussions: Thursday 11/14, Tuesday 11/19, and Friday 12/6 following the performance and after all weekend matinees

Repartee: FREE docent talks @ 7:00 PM on Tuesday and Thursdays and free discussions after all weekend matinees

Details: Pianist of Willesden Lane, has been extended through January 5, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances are Tues-Sun with matinees on Sat, Sun and some Thurs.  Tickets: $29 to $89.  Discounts:  Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain.

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 accompanied by a free voucher ticket that is available in the theatre lobby.  These new tickets accommodate the newly automated parking garage’s ticket machines and are available in a pile located where the ink stamp used to be.

November 8, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Dael Orlandersmith’s “Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men”—a powerful one woman show that probes the lingering wounds of abuse— at Berkeley Rep, through June 24, 2012

Pulitzer Prize-finalist Dael Orlandersmith is back at Berkeley Rep with the world premiere of “Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men.” Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

From the moment the formidable Dael Orlandersmith steps onto the barren floor of the Thrust Stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, her intensity is hypnotic.  In her new solo work Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, which had its world premiere last Wednesday evening, Orlandersmith transforms herself into five young men of varying ages and races to take us on a dark journey that probes the lasting trauma of childhood abuse.  Wearing simple loose-fitting black clothing and her signature braids loose throughout the entire 100 minute performance, Orlandersmith shifts her weight, changes her accent and seems effortlessly, from someplace within, to call forth five young men of varying races, origins and ages who tell their stories.  Having lived through horrific abuse—recounted in graphic detail—the common enemy these young men now face is the power of history and painful personal experience.   Adulthood, especially for children from homes with recurrent abuse and violence, presents varying levels of growth and regression.  Orlandersmith takes us a journey riddled with turbulent emotional shifts as acts of self-sabotage and unintentional abuse undo significant gains.  As these young men question the choices they’ve made and the patterns they’ve enacted, we can’t help but applaud the strength it took for Orlandersmith to give voice to their demons and the sliver of hope residing in the dark corners of their awakening self-awareness.

Orlandersmith made an indelible impression on local audiences in 2004 with Berkeley Rep’s production of Yellowman.  That play, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, explored the complex dimensions interracial prejudice through the story of a young black couple.  It was commissioned and originally produced by McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey and was the first play Orlandersmith wrote for other actors.  Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men has the potential to be every bit as biting as Yellowman but it needs to be tightened and honed, much of which will happen during its road-test at Berkeley Rep.  Orlandersmith pours every once of her soul into these young men, giving a raw, haunting and audacious performance.    

Special Events:

Free 30-minute docent presentations about the show take place at 7:00 PM on the following Tuesday and Thursday evenings: June 5, June 7, June 12, June 14, June 19, and June 21, 2012.  Docent talks are also held in three local communities: at the Orinda Library on Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 7:00 PM, at the Lafayette Library on Wednesday, June 6, 2012 at 7:00 PM , and at the Moraga Library on Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 2:00 PM.

Post-play discussions moderated by theatre professionals follow the 8:00 PM shows on Friday, June 8, 2012 and Tuesday, June 12, 2012.

Free tastings: Join Berkeley Rep for complimentary pre-performance tastings! Sample wine and other delights.  New tasting events are being added all the time, so be sure to check back often!

  • Friday, June 8, 2012: Urbano Cellars / 7pm
  • Saturday, June 9, 2012 Dr. Kracker / 7pm
  • Friday, June 15, 2012: Semifreddi’s / 7pm

Creative Team:  written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith; directed by Chay Yew; designed by Daniel Ostling (sets), Anita Yavich (costumes), Ben Stanton (lights), and Mikhail Fiksel (sound)

Details:  Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men runs through Sunday, June 24, 2012. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Thrust Stage) is located at 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets start at $29.  Additional savings are available for groups, seniors, students, and anyone under 30 years of age – meaning discounted seats can be obtained for as little as $14.50. For tickets and info: http://www.berkeleyrep.org or phone 510.647.2949

June 4, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Berkeley Rep’s “Red”— a must-see primer for art, life and the many excesses of Mark Rothko

In the Tony Award-winning play “Red” at Berkeley Rep through May 12, 2012, renowned painter Mark Rothko (David Chandler) engages in a battle of wits with his assistant (John Brummer, at left). Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

For days, I’ve thought about Mark Rothko and Berkeley’s Rep’s red-hot Red.  There’s a fascinating tension in the play that involves watching the thermodynamics of Rothko’s savage personality reel into something increasingly repulsive and tragic and experiencing another set of thermodynamics at play around the fragility of his creative process and his efforts to protect his artworks from the harshness of the world.   And that’s the crux of Red—we are watching subtle transitions to other states of being unfold in man and art, right before our eyes.  That’s complex and John Logan’s  intimate two character play, under Les Waters’ powerful direction, could not be more engrossing.  Originally scheduled to close on April 29, 2012, Berkeley Rep has just added 12 more performances of Red, so it will now run through May 12, 2012.  If you’ve never before crossed the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge into Berkeley for art, this multi-Tony drama is worth the effort.

In the Tony Award-winning play “Red” at Berkeley Rep through May 12, 2012, renowned painter Mark Rothko (David Chandler) engages in a battle of wits with his assistant (John Brummer, at left). Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

One of the best things about Red is its realistic set, designed by Louisa Thompson, on Berkeley rep’s intimate Thrust stage.  It evokes the temporary New York Bowery studio that Rothko used from 1958-1960, when he painted 40 enormous murals for the swank Four Seasons restaurant in the newly completed Seagram Building on Park Avenue. The entire 90 minute play unfolds in this paint-encrusted studio, which is laid out with a ladder and a paint splattered wooden work table, old cans and jars full of brushes, rags and buckets of paint.  Rear panels move to expose a wall of lights, designed by Alexander V. Nichols, that illuminate Rothko’s discussion of the importance of light and why natural light is insufficient for him.   What the audience is privy to in this studio though is mainly talk—a running conversation between Rothko (David Chandler) and Ken (John Brummer), a young painter who is hired, just as the play begins, to assist Rothko, at the peak of his career, with whatever he wants.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who’d be a better fit for the role than Chandler, who so thoroughly embodies Rothko’s fierce narcissistic grandiosity and numerous insecurities that’s he literally frightening to behold.  Rothko lectures, berates and prods Ken, insisting that he is not there to teach him, but, of course, an ego this large can’t resist sharing and what ensues is a passionate live course in art history and art appreciation for young Ken.  The problem—Rothko needs to be in total control and reflexively shoots down anything anyone says.  Ken, who serves almost a cipher/slave in the beginning, really begins to come into himself once he accepts Rothko’s dangerous invitation for discourse and begins to express some very interesting opinions despite Rothko’s limitations.  Ken is John Brummer’s debut role with Berkeley Rep and he does a remarkable job.   Ken is a character who’s got a fascinating side story of suffering and anguish that, by all rights, should leave him as screwed up as Rothko is but it doesn’t.  One of the best exchanges between the two men takes places as Rothko brilliantly defends the old masters—Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Michelangelo and Caravaggio against Ken’s list of new painters —Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollack, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg.  The art discourse is superbly crafted and avoids the perilous slip into clichéd references, instead getting into some meaty philosophical issues.  I can’t recall one affirmational thing that Rothko says to Ken at any point in the play.  About the highest compliment that Rothko pays him is expressed in the negative, telling him that he’s gotten all he can out of the studio experience and he needs to move on.

One of the Red’s highlights comes when the two men, working quite feverishly, prime a canvas with red paint, orchestrated to gorgeous classical music.  This single very theatrical act of priming speaks volumes.  As much as the play is about painting though, the act of painting isn’t really shown as much as it is inferred.  In Mark Rothko’s studio, the magic of the artistic process is tightly controlled and there is a critical balance and tension that is sought—learning how far to go until everything changes and becomes something else.  Rothko lives on that edge with both color and process and it seems the very best and worst moment is when a piece of art slips away from his grasp and develops into something that he can no longer predict from the ingredients and processes he used.  When we look at a Rothko, in low light, there’s a magical sense of transition—shifts between solid, liquid and gaseous states of matter, shifting from one form of being into another—something not so easily understandable, but deeply recognized and felt.  What Logan has done and these two actors beautifully embody is the subtle tipping points in human character too—Rothko tilts from pompous to sickening to borderline dangerous, very tragic, while Ken becomes more insightful, interesting, and attractive for who he is and what he’ been through.

A Rothko at auction now:  Neither art nor theatre happens in a vacuum.  On May 8 and 9, 2012, Christies New York will sell the Pinkus Family’s 1961 Rothko, “Orange, Red, Yellow,” which is roughly from the same period that John Logan’s play Red references.   The 1961 painting was purchased by David and Geraldine Pinkus from the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1967.  Measuring nearly 8 feet by 7 feet, the painting is unusually large and of vibrant orange and reds. It is estimated to sell for $35 million to $45 million.  Other abstract expressionist works from the Pinkus collection, from this period will be auctioned too, including works by Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Arshile Gorky.  Several of these artists are mentioned in Red.   Christies calls this “the most important and comprehensive ensemble of Abstract Expressionism ever to come to auction.”

Rothko’s have been making the news for years with their record-setting prices at auction. In early November, 2005, Rothko’s 1953 oil on canvas painting, Homage to Matisse, broke the record selling price of any post-war painting at a public auction, at US$ 22.5 million.

In May 2007, Rothko’s 1950 painting White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), sold by philanthropist David Rockefeller, broke this record again, selling at US$ 72.8 million at Sotheby’s, New York.

More about John Logan:  San Diego born (9.24.61) playwright, screenwriter and film producer John Logan grew up in California and New Jersey and attended Northwestern University in Chicago.  He received the Tony Award, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League Awards for Red.  It premiered in 2009 at the Donmar Warehouse in London and, in 2010, played at the Golden Theatre on Broadway, where it won five other Tony Awards as well.  Logan is the author of more than a dozen plays, including Hauptmann and Never the Sinner. His adaptation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder premiered on the West End in 2003.  As a screenwriter, Logan had three movies released in 2011: Coriolanus, Hugo, and Rango.  His previous film work includes Any Given Sunday, The Aviator (Oscar, Golden Globe, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and Writers Guild of America nominations), Gladiator (Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and WGA nominations), The Last Samurai, RKO 281 (WGA award and Emmy nomination), and Sweeney Todd (Golden Globe Award).

Red:  Written by John Logan, Directed by Les Waters, Designed by Louisa Thompson (sets), Anna Oliver (costumes), Alexander V. Nichols (lights), and Bray Poor (sound)

Starring David Chandler (Mark Rothko) and John Brummer (Ken)

Run-time is 90 minutes with no intermission.

Details: Red runs through May 12, 2012 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street at Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets are $17.50 to $85 and can be purchased online at http://tickets.berkeleyrep.org/.   To purchase seats by phone, or, for more information, call (510) 647-2949.

Special Events:

Pre-show docent talks: Tuesdays 4/10, 4/17 & 4/24 and Thursdays 4/5, 4/12, 4/19 & 4/26 @ 7:00 PM

Post-play discussions: Thursday 4/5, Tuesday 4/10, and Friday 4/20 @ 8:00 PM

Student matinee: Thursday 4/19 @ noon

Tastings: Fridays 4/6 (Dr. Kracker) & 4/13 (Urbano Cellars) @ 7:00 PM, Saturday 4/14 (Peterson Winery) @ 8:00 PM, and Sundays 4/15 (Stella Nonna Catering) & 4/22 (Martin Ray Winery) @ 6:00 PM

April 7, 2012 Posted by | Art, 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