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Review: “The Hyprocites’ Pirates of Penzance” at Berkeley Rep’s Osher Theater─ zany, irresistible, family-friendly

Pirates have dropped anchor at Berkeley Rep’s new black-box space, Osher Studio. Matt Kahler (with guitar) is the Major-General with the cast of The Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance,” a lovingly loopy rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s topsy-turvy world, playing through December 20, 2015. Photo: kevinberne.com

Pirates have dropped anchor at Berkeley Rep’s new black-box space, Osher Studio. Matt Kahler (with guitar) is the Major-General with the cast of The Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance,” a lovingly loopy rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s topsy-turvy world, playing through December 20, 2015. Photo: kevinberne.com

If you’re in the mood for a hopping party and a performance with a wild storyline, The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance , which has its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep, hits the sweet spot.  The Hypocrites, a Chicago theater group founded by Sean Graney, has reimagined Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance into a fully interactive immersion experience.  The result is an offshoot that shares the original classic’s spirit but is fresh and new, one of the most dynamic, zany shows around.  The family-friendly production has dropped anchor at the Osher Studio, Berkeley Rep’s new black-box performance space, located just across the street from its two main theaters.

The genius in Penzance lies in the space’s promenade zone─a few of the front rows and a large central area the large area where there is no distinction between where the audience begins/ends and the performance space.  The audience is invited to sit wherever they please–the floor, on the edge of a plastic pool, up in the mast of the ship–and to move about freely. Spontaneous interaction between the audience and actors is encouraged and there are a lot of flying beach balls, of all sizes, being joyfully batted around, with ukuleles and banjos strumming.  I took a ten-year-old with me to the opening performance and we arrived early enough to enjoy a delightful 15 minutes of  “play therapy.”   There’s also tiki-hut bar where alcohol and soft drinks can be bought at any time….just amble over and pay.

The plot of this delightful musical is as topsy-turvy as the roaring sea─ right after Frederick (Zeke Sulkes) is released from his twenty-one year long apprenticeship to a band of merry pirates, he meets the web-footed matron Ruth (Christine Stulik) and, having never laid eyes on a woman before, doesn’t understand that there are many younger, more beautiful, female partners to be had.  He quickly realizes the mistake he’s made when he meets Mabel (Christine Stulik) and her sisters, veritable sirens in bathing suits (Jenni M. Hadley, Kristen Magee, Becky Poole).  They are all the daughters of Major-General Stanley (Matt Kahler).  Frederick and Mabel fall in love immediately, which leaves him promised to both Ruth and Mabel.

Frederick creates even bigger problems for himself when it comes to his contract with the pirates he has been contractually apprenticed to for the past 21 years.  It is revealed that his birthday falls on leap year, so technically he has a birthday just once every four years.  Out of honor, he (insanely) insists on serving the pirates another 63 years to complete the terms which state that he remain apprenticed to them until he turns age 21.  Mabel promises to wait.  When she and her sisters get dragged off by pirates, a stand-off and uproar ensues between the pirate king (Shawn Pfautsch) and the Major-General (Kahler).

Christine Stulik is Mabel and Zeke Sulkes is Frederick in The Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance” at Berkeley Rep. Photo: kevinberne.com

Christine Stulik is Mabel and Zeke Sulkes is Frederick in The Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance” at Berkeley Rep. Photo: kevinberne.com

Its screwball humor to the nth degree.  The production is carried off by an extremely talented cast who have an innate sense of comedic timing and can all sing and play instruments, and do an amazing job of navigating through onlookers to hit their marks.  On opening night, it was a little difficult to grasp the full richness of some of the puns due to pronunciation and acoustics but that’s a detail that will have surely worked itself out by the time you read this review.

Alison Sipple’s retro beachwear costumes take their inspiration from kids clothing, old floral cotton prints and striped sailor suits and canvas deck shoes and literally add another layer of wild color to an already over the top performance.

No place for serious: A man who sat next to me on opening night in the lively promenade section had the audacity to spend the entire performance hibernating in a copy of The New Yorker.  This guy, wearing a fully zipped vintage Members-Only jacket, kind of looked like a hunkered over turtle.  Despite the many beach balls that bounced off him, he held his ground, never looking up, never smiling.  If you’re looking for a serious drama, head for Berkeley Rep’s main stage.  If you want a place where you can let your hair down and get a little crazy, Penzance is your show.

Creative Team: Sean Graney (Director); Thrisa Hodits (Co-director); Andra Velis Simon (Music Director); Katie Spelman (Choreographer); Tom Burch (Set Design); Alison Siple (Costume Design); Heather Gilbert (Lighting Design); Kevin O’Donnell (Co-adapter/Sound Design); Miranda Anderson (Stage Manager)

Mario Aivazian (Pirate/Pirate King); Delia Baseman (Pirate/Ruth/Mabel); Jenni M. Hadley (Daughter); Matt Kahler (Major-General/Samuel); Royen Kent (Pirate/Frederick); Kriste Magee (Daughter); Shawn Pfaustch (Pirate King); Becky Poole (Daughter); Christine Stulik (Ruth/Mabel); Zeke Sulkes (Frederick)

Run-time:  1 hour and twenty minutes.  At this show, you are free to move around and come and go and purchase refreshments, so there is no intermission.

Details: The Hyporcites’ Pirates of Penzance closes December 20, 2105.  The Osher Studio is located at 2055 Center Street, near the intersection of Center and Shattuck.  The studio is in the Arts Passage, which runs between Addison and Center Strrets and you can access the passage from either side.  Park as if you are attending a production in the main Berkeley Rep theaters and you will be fine as this is just across the street. Tickets: Risers: $55-65; Promenade: $40-50.  Under age of 30 (Promenade) $25.

Info: http://www.berkeleyrep.org/season/1516/9310.asp

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November 1, 2015 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

Berkeley Rep’s “Accidental Death of An Anarchist”…tweaked for the liberally inclined, through April 20, 2014

Comic actor Steven Epp returns to Berkeley Rep as the insanely shrewd Maniac who sets off the investigation in Dario Fo’s classic comedy, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.” Photo by Joan Marcus

Comic actor Steven Epp returns to Berkeley Rep as the insanely shrewd Maniac who sets off the investigation in Dario Fo’s classic comedy, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.” Photo by Joan Marcus

Ever since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979, Italian playwright and actor Dario Fo has been on my radar.  An anarchist and a profoundly gifted clown, Fo’s genius comes in his ability to make us look at ourselves in new light. All of his plays, in some way or another, deal with subverting ideology, questioning why society is set up a certain way and why some people are the winners and others losers. Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which opened Wednesday at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater and runs through April 20, 2104, is a tweaked version of Fo’s original masterpiece from 1970, a  bit too tweaked.

Adapted by Gavin Richards from a translation by Gillian Hanna and directed by Christopher Bayes, this Yale Repertory Theatre co-production has been injected with some (stale) references to contemporary American politics and pop culture (Obama health care, NSA, Netflix, Bush-Cheney and so forth) intended to resonate with the well-informed liberal cognoscenti.  The resulting mash-up feels like an overdone affirmation, considering Berkeley’s Rep’s sophisticated audience.  The good news is that the add-ons are fired off quickly and only mildly detract from the play’s exhilarating tour de farce—Steven Epp.  Director Stephen Bayes and Epp were the team behind Berkeley’s Rep’s 2012 hysterical hit A Doctor in Spite of Himself.  Here, Epp works with a great group of comic actors whose chemistry and timing and lunacy are so spot on you have the impression it’s all being improvised on the spot.  The play contains some of the finest comedic acting you’ll see in the Bay Area this year.  And the various musical gigs, all under Aaron Halva’s direction, are lyrically delightful and hysterically performed.

The play addresses a real-life mystery that got tremendous play in Italy—the 1969 death of a suspected anarchist who “fell” from the fourth floor window of a police station window while being interrogated for bombing of a bank in Milan which left 16 dead.  Did he fall, or, was he pushed?  That’s the question.  The charges were eventually dropped against the anarchist but it was too late to be of benefit.  Fo called his play a “tragic farce.”  Knowing full well that laughter can be a profound vehicle for exploring human nature, Fo deconstructed this man’s tragic death through comedy.  A Maniac (Steven Epp in the role Fo wrote for himself), who himself has been arrested for fraud, sequentially questions the police who are holding him captive  By pretending to be on their side, he gradually wins the trust of the gullible officers, records their conversations and tricks them into divulging what really happened.  In the process, he exposes their brutality, corruption and collusion with neo-fascist gangs carrying out such bombings in Italy at the time.  The events of the play are fictional but the implications profound.  The fast-paced momentum, epic slack stick and wonderful moments of musical comedy are delightful.

In Dario Fo’s comedy, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” now at Berkeley Rep, Maniac (Steven Epp) (center) impersonates a judge and interrogates quack Constable (Eugene Ma, left) and dim-witted Inspector Pissani (Allen Gilmore) and catches them in a lie about a death that occurred at the police station.

In Dario Fo’s comedy, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” now at Berkeley Rep, Maniac (Steven Epp) (center) impersonates a judge and interrogates Constable (Eugene Ma) (left) and dim-witted Inspector Pissani (Allen Gilmore(right)) and catches them in a lie about a death that occurred at the police station.

Highpoints are the opening of the play, when Inspector Bertozzo (Jesse J. Perez) is interrogating the Maniac on the first floor of the police station. Perez and Epps are magical.  Perez later shows how light he is on feet as he performs a number of song and dance gigs with Inspector Pissani (Allen Gilmore), the Superintendent (Liam Craig), and Eugene Ma, brilliantly playing two Constables at once and seemingly embodying Oliver Hardy.  Renata Friedman steals the action as Feletti, an Oriana Fallaci-style investigate journalist who is conducting her own investigation in a short red dress. When she lets go with a stupefyingly-agile rap riff, prepare to have your jaws drop.  But nothing compares with Epp, who jumps from one disordered personality to another, never ever missing a beat.

Cast & Creative Team: The cast of Accidental Death of an Anarchist includes Liam Craig (Superintendent), Steven Epp (Maniac) Renata Friedman (Feletti), Allen Gilmore (Pissani), Eugene Ma (Constables), Jesse J. Perez (Bertozzo).   The creative team consists of Aaron Halva (music director, composer, and musician), Travis Hendrix (musician), Kate Noll (scenic design), Elivia Bovenzi (costumes), Olivier Wason (lighting), Charles Coes (sound designer), Nathan Roberts (composer and sound designer), Michael F. Bergmann (projection designer). The stage manager for Berkeley Rep is Kimberly Mark Webb.

Jesse J. Perez (L) is the fiery tempered police inspector, Bertozzo, and Renata Friedman (R) is an Oriana Fallaci-style investigative journalist, Felletti, who bring considerable depth to Dario Fo’s classic comedy, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Jared Oates

Jesse J. Perez (L) is the fiery tempered police inspector, Bertozzo, and Renata Friedman (R) is an Oriana Fallaci-style investigative journalist, Felletti, who bring considerable depth to Dario Fo’s classic comedy, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Jared Oates

Special Events:

Repartee :  FREE docent talks before Tuesday and Thursday evening performances, and free discussions after all matinees

Post-play discussions:  Thursday 3/27, Tuesday 4/1, and Friday 4/11 following the performance

Open captioned performance:  Sunday 4/20 @ 2pm

Details:  Accidental Death of an Anarchist runs through April 20, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.

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: 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.

March 17, 2014 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kneehigh’s “Tristan & Yseult” at Berkeley Rep—playful, profound, high-energy

Based on an ancient tale, Tristan & Yseult is an epic love triangle between two men—the warrior Tristan and his uncle Mark, the King of Cornwall—and the beautiful young Irish woman, Yseult.  Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre, under the direction of Emma Rice, brings the story to glorious life at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre where it has its West Coast premiere.   This beautifully choreographed and staged performance sealed Kneehigh’s reputation a decade ago and the revised show is now touring internationally.  With a script by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy and a score by Stu Barker, the production is so fresh and inventive that it extends the very boundaries of theatre while expanding the dialogue between past and contemporary culture.  The performance stars Andrew Durand as Tristan and Patrycja Kujawska as Yseult and features a phenomenal young cast.   In constant churning, beat-bopping motion, they do it all—act, sing, dance, fly through the air, play instruments—and are a delight to behold.  Creative touches include Yseult’s maid, Brangian, in drag, some very acrobatic love scenes which transpire on the mast of a ship, a riotous crew of Love spotters as the chorus, and a cabaret that above the stage called the Café of the Unloved from which Ian Ross and a small band of musicians deliver a musical mash-up featuring tunes from sources as divergent as Nick Cave, Roy Orbison, Bob Marley, Irving Berlin and Wagner.  You’ll be blowing up balloons, dancing at the intermission, singing along and wishing there was a CD to buy afterwards of all the great music.

Adapted and directed by Emma Rice
Writers: Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

Details: Tristan & Yseult runs through January 6, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. 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: 510 647–2949 · 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 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.

December 2, 2013 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: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”—an hilarious reflection on the what-ifs in Chekhov, at Berkeley Rep through October 25, 2013

(l to r) Leading Bay Area actor Anthony Fusco (Vanya), award-winning actress Lorri Holt (Masha), and stage and TV actor Mark Junek (Spike) star in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Berkeley Rep through October 25, 2013. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

(l to r) Leading Bay Area actor Anthony Fusco (Vanya), award-winning actress Lorri Holt (Masha), and stage and TV actor Mark Junek (Spike) star in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Berkeley Rep through October 25, 2013. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

There are very few Chekhov shows that have the audience busting out in laughter, but that’s exactly what happened last Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s regional premiere of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the Broadway blockbuster from Obie Award-winner Christopher Durang.  Richard E.T White, who directed numerous productions at Berkeley Rep between 1984 and 1993, is back at the helm for the staging of this delightfully zany production.  I can’t think of a recent Berkeley Rep performance that I’ve enjoyed more.  Demand has been so strong that the play has been extended through October 25, 2013.

Durang, the renowned author of rollicking comedies such as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979) and The Marriage of Bette & Boo (1985), has described his farcical family drama as “Chekhov in a blender,” referring to the fact that he took his characters and themes from the Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov but set them in present-day Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he actually resides with his long-time partner.  The play draws on characters and themes from Chekhov’s most popular works—Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Seagull, and Cherry Orchard.  Durang cleverly combines elements of those stories, asking the “what-if” questions that Chekhov’s characters themselves might have asked about the trajectories of their lives had Chekhov not penned them another way.  It’s not essential to have read Chekhov or seen any of these plays but if you have, you’ll get a lot of more of the references. To keep it popping, and in sync with his own signature of outrageous, Durang added loads of great one-liners, a great voodoo pin-stabbing doll scene, crazy storybook costumes, wild impersonations, and boy-toy eye candy.

Beloved Bay Area actors Anthony Fusco and Sharon Lockwood portray Vanya and Sonia, the two terminally melancholic siblings anchoring the production.  They got their names from their community college professor parents who were enamored with Chekhov.  They dawdle through their days in their family’s peaceful Bucks County farmhouse performing such rituals as morning tea and daily bird watching while bickering like an old married couple.

Lockwood gives a priceless tender and comedic performance as Sonia, the dutiful adoptive spinster sister, who bemoans the fact that life has raced by while she’s has been stuck on the farm caretaking.  At least, she’s got her beloved cherry orchard.  There are 10 struggling cherry trees way out back which Sonia insists constitute an orchard and Vanya insists don’t.  So Chekhovian…and not.

Vanya, a struggling writer who keeps his play hidden in the parlor, is brought to pitch-perfect life by Fusco.

There’s also Cassandra, their belligerent but good-hearted servant who is brought to life by the bright energy and stage presence of Heather Alicia Simms.  Cassandra doesn’t cook much but, like her Greek namesake, she’s a psychic whose pronouncements are heeded.  She also happens to whip up a mean voodoo doll.

(l to r) Bay Area actors Anthony Fusco (Vanya) and Sharon Lockwood (Sonia) portray siblings in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Play, at Berkeley rep through October 25, 2013.  Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

(l to r) Bay Area actors Anthony Fusco (Vanya) and Sharon Lockwood (Sonia) portray siblings in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Play, at Berkeley rep through October 25, 2013. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

The whole play transpires in an expansive wood-and-stone home, with gorgeously appointed wicker furnished sunroom by set designer Kent Dorsey, with lighting by Alexander V. Nichols.

The anxiety-ridden question of the moment is how Vanya and Sonia will handle the pending visit of their sister Masha (Lorri Holt), a Hollywood B-movie star, who made her career in the “Sexy Killer” film franchise and who’s been footing all their bills.  These middle-aged dependents worry that she’ll sell the house and leave them homeless. When glamorous Masha arrives, it’s in grand style— she’s dressed in sophisticate clothing, is full of interesting conversation (about herself) and is accompanied by her dim-witted hunky young lover, Spike (Mark Junek).  Masha is not really there to see Vanya and Sonia but to attend a costume party down the road at Dorothy Parker’s house and to show off.

Masha triggers jealousy and longing in frumpy Sonia.  Preening Spike triggers carnal urges in Vanya.  Enter Nina (Caroline Kaplan)—the sweet, sincere and very comely neighbor, straight out of The Seagull, who draws Spike’s attention away from Masha and ignites Vanya’s literary passions.  In the shadow of Nina’s radiant natural beauty, Masha’s anxieties about aging quickly come to the surface.

As they all prepare their costumes for the party, the play achieves comic brilliance.  To ensure that she will steal the show as Snow White, Masha tries to control what everyone else wears, insisting they go as her attendant dwarfs, with the exception of Spike who is to be Prince Charming.  Costume designer Beaver Bauer’s Disney Snow White costumes are delightful.

Sonia’s priceless moment of ascension comes when she defies Masha, steps out of her sorry self and dons a sparkly evening gown to channel Maggie Smith, “on her way to claiming an Oscar in California Suite.”  And does she shine, so much so that she attracts some long-overdue male interest.

Vanya’s moment comes when Nina gives the group a read-though of his secret play about a molecule…a slow existential boiler whose enactment is rudely interrupted by Spike’s texting.  The cell phone incident triggers Vanya’s inspired rant about horrors of the modern technology.  It all neatly ties in with Chekhov’s main themes in The Cherry Orchard— the inescapable forward march of time and the arrival of progress into the change-resistant cherry orchard.  This full-on comedy, with as much depth as you want to give it, is a wonderful way to celebrate the start of Berkeley Rep 46th season.

Run-Time is 2 hours 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

Creative Team:

Kent Dorsey (scenic designer) has designed sets for a number of Berkeley Rep productions, including The Alchemist, For Better or Worse, Serious Money, The Importance of Being Earnest, Dancing at Lughnasa, Mother Jones, and Blue Window. Beaver Bauer (costume designer) has designed several Berkeley Rep productions: What the Butler Saw, Tartuffe, Blue Window, In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe, Rhinoceros, The House of Blue Leaves, and Menocchio. Alexander V. Nichols (lighting designer) returns to Berkeley Rep for his 26th production. His theatre credits include Berkeley Rep’s production of Wishful Drinking here and on Broadway, Hugh Jackman Back On Broadway, and the off-Broadway productions of Bridge and Tunnel (also at Berkeley Rep), Horizon, In the Wake, Los Big Names, Taking Over, and Through the Night. Composer Rob Milburn and sound designer Michael Bodeen composed music and designed sound for Berkeley Rep’s previous production, No Man’s Land, which moves to Broadway this fall.  The stage manager for the production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is Michael Suenkel, Berkeley Rep’s resident production stage manager.  Executive producers are Bill Falik and Diana Cohen.

Details: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike has been extended through October 25, 2013 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances are Tues-Fri at 8 PM and Sat at 2 PM and 8 PM and Sun at 2 PM and 7 PM.  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.

October 2, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

In Lawrence Wright’s “Fallaci,” which has its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, the legendary Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, casts her fiery spell, contradictions and all

At Berkeley Rep, Concetta Tomei (Right) and Marjan Neshat (Left) star in the world premiere of Fallaci by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright.  Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

At Berkeley Rep, Concetta Tomei (Right) and Marjan Neshat (Left) star in the world premiere of Fallaci by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

It is rumored that when the Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, learned that she had cancer, she didn’t ask the oncologist how much longer she had left to live, she asked, “How many books do I have left to write?”  And write she did, creating some of her most controversial work at the end of her life.  In the wake of 9/11, she argued violently and passionately in two best-selling books that our (Western) civilization and radical Islam are fundamentally incompatible and her book, The Rage and the Pride, drew accusations of inciting hatred against Muslims.  

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’sFallaci,” which has its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is an intense and captivating look at Oriana Fallaci, “la Fallaci,”  the internationally acclaimed journalist, war correspondent, interviewer, and novelist who made her reputation in the 1970’s with a series of unforgettable interviews with autocratic figures in their homelands—the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini, Gaddafi, Castro, Kissinger.  This petite Italian dynamo said what she wanted to say and asked what she wanted to ask of the world’s most fascinating leaders.   She seemed capable of taking any political tiger by its tail and then kneeing it right in the crotch as she got her subjects to admit things publicly that later caused them much grief.  “Don’t you find,” she asked Henry Kissinger during Vietnam, “that it’s been a useless war?” “On this, I can agree,” said the then Secretary of State.  He later admitted that this interview was the “single most  disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.”  By the time her cancer was diagnosed, Fallaci had literally done it all, everything her profession could offer.  For people like me, who became foreign correspondents, she was our end and be-all.   Wright’s play has been on my radar for over a year now and it did not disappoint in any way.

 In “Fallaci,” the tables are turned on Oriana Fallaci (played by Concetta Tomei) as she is interviewed by a young Iranian-American New York Times journalist Maryam (played by Marjan Neshat).  The play is set in 1990’s, when Fallaci became increasingly reclusive and divided her time between her apartments in Manhattan and Florence.  What emerges is a captivating portrait of a strong, rough, grieving—and thoroughly glorious woman—who fights tooth and nail to have her truth her way, despite the facts.   The play stands on Wright’s marvelous script which provides an engaging commentary on the ethics of journalism as well as a made-to-order platform for Concetta Tomei to play Fallaci’s contradictions to the hilt. 

A distinctive and controversial feature of Fallaci’s writing, which has both fascinated and enraged journalists, is the way in which she blurs the interface between factual reportage and fiction.  Charlie Rose took her to task on this in a compelling live interview in December 7, 1992 that is, for lack of a better word,  magnetizing.  When he asks her about her editing, about her “painting the picture as she saw it,” about filtering through her “own imaginative process”…”not putting words in people’s mouths but choosing what words to include and more importantly, what context and what words to leave out”  she famously replied– “When you write an article, a reportage, you have to stay within the limits of what has happened, what has been said.  You must be very rigorous in reporting without inventing, without distorting, without manipulating.   But the better I was in being so rigorously faithful to events, the more I felt like writing with handcuffs.  You cannot move, you cannot open your arms you cannot say more–concepts for instance.  What literature does is it universalizes the truth and people can recognize it in that story.”  Wright cleverly explores this through Maryam’s successive interviews with Fallaci in which Fallaci is shown to have given dramatically different versions of the truth at various points in time, defending them all as fact. 

You wouldn’t necessarily recognize Concetta Tomei even if you’d seen her in her recent stand-out performance as Valerie in A.C.T.’s world premiere of Cary Perloff’s Higher at the Children’s Creativity Museum in February 2012.  There, she played a wealthy widow who was cunning, strong, very manipulative and funny and, like Fallaci, a part of her was very remote and lonely.  At Berkeley Rep, she literally sores as Fallaci and is utterly and convincingly Italian.  She plays Fallaci as a diva, one who needs to be coaxed by someone worthy into spilling her fascinating stories and accumulated wisdom and regrets. 

Oriana Fallaci is the subject of Lawrence Wright's new play "Fallaci," which has its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

Oriana Fallaci is the subject of Lawrence Wright’s new play “Fallaci,” which has its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

Wright also steeps us in Fallaci’s intrepid interview style by having Fallaci dramatically relive some of her most glorious moments with Maryam.   Perhaps her most famous interview was with Kohmeini, in 1979, when, after waiting for 10 days in Qum (Iran) for him to agree, she donned a chador and questioned him relentlessly about the treatment of women in his new Islamic state.  “How do you swim in a chador?” to which he replied–“If you do not like Islamic dress, you are not obliged to wear it…” at which point she yanked off her chador and said “I am going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.”  When she returned the next day to conclude the interview, he smiled and laughed and Khomeini’s son told Fallaci “I think you are the only person in the world who made him laugh.”

Marjan Neshat, who played Nawal Marwan in A.C.T.’s production of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched, last February, is New York Times journalist Maryam and, again, she is embroiled in a difficult situation.  She initially visits Fallaci as a naïve obituary writer, there to extract information from Fallaci before she is felled by her rumored cancer.  Initially, Fallaci seems guarded, weakened and tired but, instinctively, she knows when to assert herself to maintain the upper hand.  As she leaps to her feet to defend a point or shouts over Maryam to make herself  heard, we get why there is only one Fallaci.  Maryam proves very quick on the uptake though and manages to impress this war horse.  Maryam returns three years later, post 9/11, to find Fallaci still very much alive.  They discuss Fallaci’s controversial The Rage and the Pride in which the author broke her ten year silence to produce a scathing indictment of Islam. Throughout the course of play, Maryam’s character transitions dramatically.  She ultimately becomes a controversial and highly-respected journalist known for her reportage on contemporary Iran. She also attains the savvy and confidence to go head-to-head with Fallaci.  By the time the ladies have their last meeting, they are more or less equals, supportive and tender with each other.

 After experiencing Fallaci, I went home and pulled out my tattered edition of her magnificent Interview with History I can well understand Wright’s enduring fascination with Fallaci.   Her questions, more authoritative statements than questions, prompted some of the most compelling discussions on record. 

 Fallaci is completely absorbing and I am going again.

 Fallaci runs 90 minutes without intermission.

Details:  Fallaci  runs through April 21, 2013.  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 -$89.  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.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Lawrence Wright’s “Fallaci,” which has its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, the legendary Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci comes gloriously alive

Legendary Italian journalist, war correspondent, interviewer, and novelist, Oriana Fallaci, comes roaring back to life in the world premiere of a new play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright.   In “Fallaci,” the tables are turned on Oriana Fallaci (Concetta Tomei) as she is interviewed by an Iranian American New York Times journalist Maryam (Marjan Neshat).  What emerges is captivating.    This petite woman, who grilled and felled the world’s most powerful men—the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini, Castro, Kissinger— is near the end of her life and will fight tooth and nail to have her truth her way, despite the facts.  The play stands on Wright’s finely crafted script which provides an engaging commentary on the ethics of journalism, the conflicts between the West and Islam, as well as a platform for Concetta Tomei to play Fallaci’s genius and contradictions to the hilt.  (full review to follow.)

Details:  Fallaci  runs through April 21, 2013. 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 -$89. 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.

 

March 18, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , | Leave a comment