Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: Anna Deavere Smith channels the collective in “Let Me Down Easy” at Berkeley Rep through July 10, 2011

Anna Deavere Smith in "Let Me Down Easy" at Berkeley Rep through June 26, 2011. Photo: Joan Marcus

Berkeley Rep’s 43rd season closes with Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy–20 powerful character enactments that parade of out Smith in the matter-of-fact delivery style that has become her signature. Coming from different angles, each enactment brilliantly explores the depths of human strength and how each of us faces down or accepts death.  This is Smith’s first Bay Area appearance in 15 years and the playwright has won two Obie awards, two Drama Desk Awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  What’s immediately obvious from this riveting performance is that Smith can listen between the lines like nobody else and from that, she weaves razor-sharp magic.   

Most attempts at categorizing Smith’s unique talents fall short—she is a consummate observer of the human condition, a riveting conversationalist, and a pioneer in the verbatim style of theatre that uses interviewees’ actual words to construct the performance.  Over the years, her work has looked at current events from multiple points of view and combined the journalistic technique of interviewing sources with the art of interpreting their words through performance.  Let Me Down Easy is the 18th part of a series she began in the early 1980s called On the Road: A Search for American Character.  Her goal has been to learn as much about America as she can, by interviewing individual Americans from diverse backgrounds and different perceived levels of authority.  In Let Me Down Easy, Smith branched out.  It took her nine years, but she interviewed over 320 people on three continents, though most of her subjects are American.  What she shows us is, that in matters of life and death, the ability to tell one’s story with authenticity from the innermost core of our being is what makes a story powerful and what makes listeners remember. Credentials don’t really matter much when it comes to storytelling because we all struggle with the complexity of our humanness.  In Let Me Down Easy, a grieving mother captures and holds our attention as well or better does than a multi-credentialed doctor who heads a children’s hospital.  

Smith employed her consummate listening and editing skills to craft these embodiments.  Since each embodiment explores a facet of our complicated humanness, her first task was deciding who of the 320 interviewees she would use and then deciding what, of the earfuls she was given, she would extract and embody in a roughly 5 minute segment.  We all know that often what we’re hearing on the surface is not the full story but that accompanying fluff is what makes each of us unique. To work her magic, Smith needs to unpack each individual from outside in.  Studying with a linguistics coach for years has helped her to master the fine art of inserting herself in other people’s words.

Smith uses a single identifying item–a scarf, a hat, a pair of glasses, a coat—like an artist uses a line. She suggests form and the rest is all vocal and dramatic magic.  The stage design is minimal—there’s a huge white leather couch, a white coffee table, a white dining room table with chairs and a backdrop of several large hanging mirrors which allow us to observe Smith from all angles.  It’s amazing how rapidly she moves from one character to another, tossing the coat or scarf aside and donning an entirely new identity.  Her voice doesn’t so much mimic as it does inflect the character she is embodying and her gestures follow through.  

The first third or so of the show addresses the body and the innate drive of athletes to drain their tank completely in competition.  A crotch scratching impatient Lance Armstrong talks about beating cancer and rodeo bull rider Brent Williams talks about his brush with death and hospitalization.

As playwright and activist Eve Ensler, Smith tells us what’s wrong with today’s young girls–their lack of connection to their sexuality–and then walks us through her quest to “be in her vagina” and thus in her feminine power.  Amidst uproarious laughter, every woman in the room also knows how deadly right on this sketch is.

As gap-toothed American supermodel and actress Lauren Hutton, she smokes a cigarette and then explains how Revlon founder Charles Revson, hooked her up with the best doctors in New York and how she is very intimidated by what doctors actually do. 

As Susan Youens, considered to the world’s leading scholar on Franz Schubert, she explains very eloquently what death meant to Schubert.  Especially poignant is a later enactment with a South African orphanage director who recalls a child’s death and how she counsels other AID’s inflicted children.  In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, she gives a heart-wrenching account of the shameful way that poor patients were abandoned by the system as and left for days in a hospital without any services. 

Anna Deavere Smith conceived, wrote, and performs Let Me Down Easy. Leonard Foglia directs the show. Riccardo Hernandez designed the sets, Ann Hould-Ward designed the costumes, Dan Ozminkowski did the lighting, Ryan Rumery did the sound, Zachary Borovay is the production designer, Joshua Redman created the musical elements, and Joseph Smelser is the stage manager.

Let Me Down Easy closes July 10, 2011.  The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is located at 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA  94704.  Tickets: $49-$95.  Info: 510.647.2949 or


June 13, 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

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

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 .  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

review: in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Ruined,” life in the war-ravaged Congo comes to life, at Berkeley Rep through April 10, 2011

Oberon K.A. Adjepong (L) and Tonye Patano star in Ruined, a powerful new play by Lynn Nottage that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, at Berkeley Rep through April 10, 2011. Photo courtesy of

In Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning Ruined at the Berkeley Rep, Mama Nadi courageously runs a bar and whorehouse in a jungle mining town in the war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Her customers are miners, rebels, or government soldiers, plunderers– whoever happens to be roaming or to control that particular spot of land on any given day.  And all the women who work for her have been “ruined” — their humanity degraded through rape, one of the most heinous of war crimes.    But is she protecting or profiting by the women she shelters?  How far will she or they go to survive?  Can a price be placed on human life?  All of these questions fuel the drama in Ruined, a remarkable theatrical accomplishment crafted with sensitivity, hope, and humor that unflinchingly addresses the sexual violence perpetrated against women living in the shadow of war.  

Lynn Nottage is well known for her plays Intimate Apparel (2003) and Las Meninas (2002) that addressed people marginalized in history.  Ruined looks at the contemporary horror of the largest war in modern African history, the Second Congo War, which began in 1998 and directly involved eight nations, as well 25 armed groups.  By 2008, the war and its aftermath had claimed the lives of 5.4 million people, making it the deadliest conflict since WWII.  Sexual violence—rape and sexual mutilation– became so common in the eastern DRC, that an April 2010 study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) found a 17-fold increase in civilian rapes there between 2004 and 2008.  Surprisingly, rape continued well after the war too due to a complete breakdown in social structures.  

Ruined is inspired by actual interviews Nottage conducted in the Congo in 2004 with women who readily told her their stories.  “By the end of the interviews,” writes Nottage in the playbook (p. 18), “I realized that a war was being fought over the bodies of women. Rape was being used to punish and destroy communities.”  Ruined shines a light on the misogyny that feeds the phenomenon of mass rape and on the desperation of its unwitting female victims.  There is no one who can watch Ruined and not be affected.  And what we choose to do with our awareness and provocation, can lead to change.   

In Nottage’s play, the girls who come to work for Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano) do so because they have no options, nowhere else to go.  Mama Nadi profits from their bodies but houses, feeds, and protects these girls from mutilation and murder.  Within the confines of her shack-cum-brothel, they are safer than they would be anywhere else in this ravaged land. 

(L to R) Tonye Patano, Jason Bowen and Pascale Armand star in Ruined, a powerful new play by Lynn Nottage that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama at Berkeley Rep through April 10, 2011. Photo courtesy of

As Nottage slowly fills in details in each of her characters’ past and present lives, she firmly establishes the identity of each of the women that history has sought to eliminate.  Mama Nadi, the play’s lynchpin and shrewd matriarch, is a survivor and profiteer.  Apolitical, she will serve anyone as long as they check their weapons at the door.  It is the sheer force of her personality and the sexual escape she offers the rebels that keep her safe.

When Christian (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) unexpectedly delivers two girls along with the supplies he hopes to sell her, she callously inspects them like meat and refuses.  When he offers her two for the price of one, flirts, and throws in some chocolates, she agrees. Sophie (Carla Duren), the beautiful one, was kicked out of her home after being assaulted by rebel soldiers.  She’s not going to be of any good to Mama because she’s been ruined—raped, ravaged, and then genitally mutilated by a bayonet.  She walks unevenly and laboriously, every step an effort.  Reluctantly, Mama agrees to take her because she comes packaged with Salima (Pascale Armand), who is plain but genitally intact.  Salima was raped and then held captive in the jungle for five months only to have her husband blame her for her fate.  When she is alone, she desperately cradles an imaginary baby in her arms and replays the moment she was taken again and again.  It is not until the second act, when her husband shows up, that we learn the depths of her horrific tale and the pain that will drive her to commit an unredeemable act.    

(L to R) Zainab Jah, Carla Duren and Pascale Armand star in Ruined, a powerful new play by Lynn Nottage that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama at Berkeley Rep through April 10, 2011. Photo courtesy of

The two girls join Josephine (Zainab Jah), the tough talking, hardened, and once envied daughter of a village chief who, ravaged and abandoned, now turns tricks in the brothel.  Tossed aside by family and their community, the girls bond over Sophie’s sweet singing and her reading of an engrossing romance novel where a passage about a first kiss can enrapture them all day long.  Squabbling, talking and at times laughing, they gradually adapt to their new environment and all look to Mama to protect them from the violence that rages outside their door.  

Throughout the play, Mama stashes and pulls out wads of cash out from between her breasts, very concerned with profit but not so good with the books for which she relies on Sophie.  When betrayed, her retaliation is swift.   It is only late in the second act that we learn she is capable of compassion and generosity.  In all, Nottage has crafted a very affecting portrait of a woman who has survived but has shed parts of her soul to do so.  The ending thus came as a surprise for me but I will not reveal it here.   Ruined owes a great deal to Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, another story of a maternal military supplier who connives her way through war.

Carla Duren (Sophie) sings hauntingly beautiful songs whose lyrics were written by Nottage to original music by Dominic Kanza.  Each cast member gives a highly engaging performance, creating the magical and rare feeling that great theatre evokes–that everything is in sync and flowing.   

Page to Stage, Monday, April 4, 2011, 7 PM: human rights issues discussion

To facilitate further conversation about Ruined’s thought-provoking script and the important issues it raises, Berkeley Rep is hosting a free event in the Roda Theatre at 7:00 PM on Monday, April 4.  Page to Stage will feature four experts in social justice from nonprofit organizations working to promote women’s rights in Africa. The panelists include Heidi Lehmann from the Women’s Empowerment and Protection Unit of International Rescue Committee, Muadi Mukenge from the Global Fund for Women, Rachel Niehuus from the Cal Human Rights Center, and Anneke Van Woudenberg from the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.  Madeleine Oldham, Berkeley Rep’s literary manager and dramaturg, will moderate the conversation.  (The lobby and café open at 6:00 PM, and the theatre opens at 6:30 PM for general-admission seating. Donors to Berkeley Rep get an opportunity to meet the guests of honor at an exclusive reception catered by Etc Catering, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, and Raymond Vineyards.)

Ruined :   Written by Lynn Nottage, Directed by Liesl Tommy
Designed by Randy Duncan (choreographer), Clint Ramos (sets), Kathleen Geldard (costumes), Lap Chi Chu (lights), and Broken Chord (sound and original music)
Starring: Oberon K. A. Adjepong, Pascale Armand, Jason Bowen, Carla Duren, Wendell B. Franklin, Zainab Jah, Joseph Kamal, Adesoji Odukogbe, Kola Ogundiran, Okieriete Onaodowan, Tonye Patano, Adrian Roberts, and Alvin Terry

Lynn Nottage:  Nottage was born in Brooklyn in 1964 and is a graduate of Brown University and the Yale School of Drama. She received a Guggenheim Grant for Playwriting (2005), the MacArthur “Genius” Award (2007) and numerous other awards including the PEN/Laura Pels Award for Drama, and the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award.

In 2009, Ruined won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as the Drama Desk Award, the inaugural Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play, the Lucille Lortel Award, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, an Obie Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play.  Its world premiere was at the Goodman Theater (New Stages Series) in 2007 and its London premiere was at the Almeida Theatre.  It is playing at numerous regional theatres in the United States this year.

Nottage’s other plays include Crumbs from the Table of Joy (1995); Fabulation, or the Re- Education of Undine (2004), which received an Obie Award; Intimate Apparel (2003), which received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play and became the nation’s most produced play in 2005- 06; Las Meninas (2002); Mud, River, Stone (1998); Por’knockers (1995); and POOF! (1993).  

Liesl Tommy: A South African native who grew up under apartheid, Tommy is known for working with young African- American writers like Eisa Davis, Danai Gurira, and Tracey Scott Wilson.  She has directed two plays by Lynn Nottage: Ruined at the Huntington, La Jolla Playhouse, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the world premiere of A Stone’s Throw at Women’s Project.  Tommy was awarded the NEA/TCG Directors Grant and the New York Theatre Workshop Casting/Directing Fellowship and has been a guest director and teacher at Juilliard, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Trinity Rep/Brown University’s MFA Directing and Acting Program.

Details:  Ruined runs through April 10, 2011 with performances Tuesday-Sat at 8 PM, Sunday at 7 PM, and at 2PM (matinee) on Saturday and Sunday.  Berkeley Rep is located at 2025 Addison Street (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, 94704. Tickets: $73 to $34.  Box office:  (510) 647-2949 or .  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.

March 15, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment