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Mary Zimmerman has another mesmerizing hit in the epic Chinese fable, “The White Snake,” at Berkeley Rep through December 23, 2012

Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman returns to Berkeley Rep for the world-premiere production of “The White Snake,” which stars Amy Kim Waschke (left) and Christopher Livingston. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

Told with puppets that come to life and magical special effects, Tony-award winning director Mary Zimmerman’s stirring adaptation of the ancient Chinese fairy tale, The White Snake, which has its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a must-see holiday treat.  Suddenly, we’re all children again and we’ve been taken into a world of wonder where a glorious legend, as old as time and yet timeless, unfolds on stage before us. The epic fable is about a thousand-year-old white snake spirit who is so curious about the human world that she transforms herself into a human.  She comes down from her contemplative life on a mountaintop with a friendly green snake who has also transformed herself into a woman and who serves as her friend and confidant.  The White Snake finds true love with a man who has no reason to suspect she is not human.  A meddling monk jeopardizes everything when he tries to break them up in order to enforce an age-old law declaring love relationships between spirits and humans an inappropriate violation of nature’s law.  Of course, when the White Snake hides her true nature from her true love, there are bound to be repercussions.

Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman returns to Berkeley Rep for the world-premiere production of “The White Snake,” which features Tanya Thai McBride as Greenie, the green snake spirit who is the indefatigable sidekick to Kim Waschke’s White Snake spirit. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

This co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival ran in Ashland through July 2012 and is the seventh Mary Zimmerman creation to grace the stage of Berkeley Rep.  Like her other winners Argonautika (2008), The Arabian Nights (2008, 2010), it draws on a classic tale that has been re-shaped by her own distinctive vision to create a subtle exploration of love, deception, loss and survival.

Zimmerman’s plays are renowned for their stunning visual impact.  Projection designer Shawn Sagady and set designer Daniel Ostling have collaborated again to employ the latest in video projection techniques mixed with simple touches such as streams of silken fabric that drop elegantly from the sky to represent rain and the artistry of hand-operated paper snake puppets.  Particularly enchanting is the way the bamboo walls come alive when lines of ink projected on the walls seem to transform into lovely Chinese screens or when the floor becomes a river undulating with color. A wonderful set of wooden cabinets which opens to reveal a lovely bed is on stage for much of the production.  When combined with T.J. Gerckens’ gorgeous lighting, it all comes together and builds into a mesmerizing visual tableau.

Honesty is essential for any love relationship to flourish. In Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s production of “The White Snake,” Christopher Livingston plays the naïve herbalist, Xu Xian (left), who is deceived by his wife, played by Amy Kim Waschke, who does not reveal her true nature to him. Photographer: Mary Zimmerman

The visual magic is only half of the fun. The Chinese legend of the White Snake existed in oral tradition long before any written compilation, and was handed down from the Tang and Five Dynasties through the Ming and Qing Dynasties until it became a classical theme, its many versions inspiring Chinese operas, ballads, scrolls, novels, films and even TV series. (Click here for Berkeley’s Rep’s fascinating compilation of legend of the White Snake.) Zimmerman gives us a story that will delight a child but that has levels of meaning that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

Amy Kim Waschke, who plays the White Snake, has the remarkable ability to project empowerment with vulnerability and scattered-brained behavior, making for a very interesting and down-to-earth White Snake. Once she has transformed herself into a human, she begins to experience the fulfilling joy and pain of the human experience.  She will do anything to preserve her marriage except reveal the truth of her snake nature to her husband.

The White Snake’s loyal gal-pal “Greenie” (Tanya Thai McBride ) is there for her and understands her and they have a fabulous on stage chemistry that resonates much more than that between Waschke and Christopher Livingston, who plays Xu Xian, the naïve herbalist that White Snake is smitten with. Tanya Thai McBride is a natural cut-up and it’s a real treat to watch her blossom in human form in the many humorous scenes that occur.

Jack Willis, revered for his longstanding role as the Ghost Jacob Marley in A.C.T.’s much-loved annual production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is much scarier here as the cunning Buddhist monk, Fa Hai, who feels he must, at all costs, break-up the happy bi-species relationship.

Jack Willis (left) is Fa Hai, the evil Buddhist monk and Christopher Livingston is Xu Xian, the naïve herbalist and bridegroom in Mary Zimmerman’s production of “The White Snake,” at Berkeley Rep through December 23, 2012. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

Composer/sound designer Andre J. Pluess’ enchanting original score is performed by Michal Palzewicz (cello), Tessa Brinckman (flutes), and Ronnie Malley (strings and percussion).

Creative Team:  Adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman; Designed by Daniel Ostling (sets);  Mara Blumenfeld (costumes);  T.J. Gerckens (lighting);  Andre Pluess (sound);  and Shawn Sagady (projections).   Music performed by Tessa Brinckman, Ronnie Malley, and Michal Palzewicz

Cast:  Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, Gina Daniels, Richard Howard, Cristofer Jean, Emily Sophia Knapp, Vin Kridakorn, Christopher Livingston, Tanya Thai McBride, Lisa Tejero, Amy Kim Waschke, and Jack Willis

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)

Details: The White Snake ends December 23, 2012. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Rhoda Theatre is located at 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704.  Performances: Tuesday-Sunday, with matinee performances on weekends and additional matiness at 2 PM on Thursdays 11/29 and 12/13.  No performance Thanksgiving. Tickets: Tickets: $29-$99 call box office at 510-647-2949 or purchase online at www.berkeleyrep.org

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

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November 21, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Henry Woronicz breathes new life into an ancient classic—“An Iliad,” at Berkeley Rep through November 18, 2012

An ancient tale comes roaring back to life at Berkeley Rep when Henry Woronicz stars in Obie Award-winner Lisa Peterson’s visceral new version of “An Iliad.” Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

The Trojan War has never been more vital than in the capable hands of Obie-winning theatre director Lisa Peterson and Tony Award winning actor Denis O’Hare whose stage adaption of Homer’s Iliad is now being performed as a one man show by Henry Woronicz, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  If ever there were a time to cross the Richmond Bridge for culture, this is it.  An Iliad, which runs through November 18, 2012, is an experience in storytelling that instills a sense of wonder in the spoken word and in the harrowing gore and visceral glory of the Trojan War. The 9th year of the 10-year-long Trojan War is the focus and Woronicz tells the story of its two great opposing warriors—Hector, leading the Trojans, and Achilles, leading the invading Greek army.

If you read portions of Homer’s epic, back in high school or college, and found them less than enthralling; put that experience aside.  This story is told as it was meant to be told—by a masterful storyteller, Henry Woronicz, former head of the Oregon Shakespeare Theatre, who makes it a living, breathing tour de force.  He uses contemporary colloquial and classical language to deliver a story that is timeless but oozes new pain each time it is told.

In adapting Homer’s epic, Peterson and O’Hare drew on Princeton comparative literature professor Robert Fagle’s  acclaimed translation.  Fagles received many awards for his translations of Greek classics and was unrivaled in creating a sense of rhythm and images that carry the story forward.  Peterson and O’Hare zeroed in a starting point, decided what got told, what got hinted at, and what was untold.  Working with this foundation, Woronicz brings the very nature of the characters to life, exposing their motivations, irrational impulses, and frailty.

There’s little embellishment in this pared down production.  Woronicz enters a near empty stage wearing a ratty trench coat and carrying a bottle of booze.  Were he not on stage, he might be dismissed as homeless, invisible. When he opens his mouth, spouting this epic tale, he’s a curious mix of tortured madness and brilliance, reminding us of the fine line between the two.  (Making us aware of our discomfort with modern society’s seemingly unsolvable problems while providing powerful entertainment is Berkeley Rep’s forte.)

At Berkeley Rep, bassist Brian Ellingsen accompanies Henry Woronicz’s searing performance in a visceral new version of An Iliad. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

Woronicz brings certain peripheral characters into the spotlight— Andromache, Hector’s wife, and King Priam, Hector’s grief-stricken father—and compassionately relates their stories balancing the mythic with the everyday grieving of mortals.  He also embellishes—there’s an explosive listing of civilization’s conflicts from antiquity to Afghanistan and the Syria of today, reminding us of war’s timeless nature.

The experience is enlivened further by New York composer Mark Bennett’s emotion-stirring score, played and plunked by bassist Brian Ellingsen from the balcony.

The sheer intensity of this 100 minute oration left me with plenty of raw energy to unload after the performance.  This is one that is best seen with a wise friend—what better way to end an evening than by deconstructing Homer.

An Iliad, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, adapted from Homer’s Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles

Starring Henry Woronicz (The Poet) with bassist Brian Ellingsen

Directed by Lisa Peterson, Designed by Rachel Hauck (scenic design), Marina Draghici (costume design), Scott Zielinski (lighting design), and Mark Bennett (original music/sound design)

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)

Details:  An Iliad  ends November 18, 2012.  Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, located at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704.  Performances: Tuesday-Sunday, with matinee performances on weekends. Tickets: Tickets: $14.50-$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.

November 11, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: David Henry Hwang’s shrewd and funny comedy “Chinglish” probes cultural misperceptions—West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep

Michelle Krusiec (left) and Alex Moggridge (right) star in Berkeley Rep’s production of “Chinglish,” a new comedy from David Henry Hwang which heads for Hong Kong after having its West Coast premiere here. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

“You’re speaking my language” is something we say when we feel we’re on the same wavelength with someone.   Chinlgish is Tony award-winning playwright, David Henry Hwang’s, hilarious comedy, set in China, about what happens when someone’s not speaking your language and you’re not on the same wavelength and your interpreter is making the situation worse.  Chinese English, or Chinglish is the result—the ungrammatical, nonsensical pervasive hybrid language that has flourished right along with China’s rapid opening to the world.   On Wednesday, Hawng’s Chinlgish had its West Coast premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Obie Theatre, under the capable direction of two-time Obie winner Leigh Silverman.  Everything flowed in this sleek comedy, marking what looks to be a winning season opener for the acclaimed theatre.

The play tells the story of an American businessman from Cleveland who goes to China to secure a lucrative contract for his family’s flailing sign-making business and encounters a world of translation issues, both linguistic and cultural. The people he encounters may understand all or nothing of what is said because everything is mangled in translation. Chinglish is topical on all levels. It deftly flushes out the rapidly changing power structure between China and the West and challenges assumptions about strengths and vulnerabilities. It is also a love story that probes new and old world views of marriage and fidelity. As it turns out, a huge cultural divide can occur even in the universal language of love.  Chinglish runs at Berkeley rep through October 7, 2012.  In 2013, it continues to Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory Theatre, a co-producer of the play, and then goes on to open in Hong Kong.

Chinglish opens with American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh’s PowerPoint presentation on the challenges of doing business in China, most notably Chinglish.  Cavanaugh is played fluidly by innocent-looking Alex Moggridge, who was Andrei in Berkeley Rep’s Three Sister’s, 2011.  An example of some of the boggling signage commonly found in China is “Take notice of safe, the slippery are very crafty,” which means “slippery slopes ahead.”  And from there, the audience is taken on a flashback with Daniel to Guiyang, the small (at 4.3 million) commercial hub and capital city of the Guizhou province, as he navigates some of the slippery slopes he encountered on his first trip to China.

Daniel engages the services of British expat Peter Timms (Brian Nishi) as his business consultant and interpreter. Timms promptly schools him on the essentials of “guanxi” or personal relationships that, once cultivated, will be the key to his success, even more so than securing an actual contract.   His advice is both humorous— “criticize yourself, but be sure there’s someone else in the room to contradict you” and salient to the current state of US/China business relations.  Peter sets up a meeting with Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Lei Zhang), who communicates through his language-bungling aid (Vivien Chiu), that he is receptive to the idea of granting a lucrative contract to Daniel’s company to manufacture signs for Guiyang’s new arts center.

Of course, nothing is as it seems—everyone has a hidden agenda or a secret.  Driving that fact home is Vice Minister, Xi Yan, played by Michelle Krusiac, who delivers the play’s most memorable and nuanced performance.  Xi Yan holds the key to Daniel’s success in the deal.  She talks in a serious tone but is dressed in body-hugging business suits, mile-high stilettos and has an alluring cool sensuality that bewitches the American.  Her seemingly innocent blunder to Daniel, “I sleeping with you,” which should have been “I am sleepy,” sets the stage for a later encounter.  But, once alone in a hotel room with the married American, her vulnerability and own conflicted desires are exposed as she is swept into an affair that promises to be more complex than anticipated.

As Daniel falls for Xi Yan and admits to her and that he is considering telling his wife about his feelings for her, Xi Yan makes it clear that, in China, fidelity, marriage and love are viewed differently, even by the new generation who “married for love.” Xi Yan doesn’t even consider leaving her husband, while Daniel holds the more traditionally Western view that romantic relationships are fluid.

David Henry Hwang’s dialogue is humorous and carefully crafted throughout.  As Daniel and Xi Yan become more physically intimate, some of their pillow-talk reveals differing but equally valid viewpoints about China’s current status in the world and who wields the power.

Xi Yan says “One day we (China) will be strong.”

Daniel replies “What do you mean. You’re strong now.”

Xi Yan “Now? No, someday.”

Daniel “No, now.”

About a quarter of the play is in Mandarin Chinese but the audience learns what is being said through the clever use of supertitles projected directly onto the set about the characters’ heads, making the experience akin to watching an opera.  So, while the characters themselves are not able to understand each other, the audience can and that evokes some empathy for all their situations.

Berkeley Rep is known for its wonderful sets. David Korins has outdone himself with creating the half dozen or so rooms in China where important conversations take place—ranging from an office meeting room, to a bar, a restaurant, a hotel lobby, and hotel room—all gliding seamlessly and interchangeably across the stage on an innovative set of sliders, re-enforcing the play’s energetic pace.

On Wednesday evening, all actors and production factors came together to create that magical sense of flow.  Afterwards, the lobby was abuz with discussion. A Cal student from China told me that David Henry Hwang was “you know, like Woody Allen style—pressing on the serious with silly.” Another person, who claimed to speak Mandarin fluently, reported that the supertitles were “90 percent correct” and “really good.”

Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director, Tony Taccone, introduces Chinglish

Production Team:

Written by David Henry Hwang

Directed by Leigh Silverman

Designed by David Korins (sets), Anita Yavich (costumes), Brian MacDevitt

(lighting), Darron L West (sound), and Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan (projections)

Cast: Vivian Chiu, Celeste Den, Michelle Krusiec, Austin Ku, Alex Moggridge,

Brian Nishii, and Larry Lei Zhang

Run-time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission

Playwright David Henry Hwang’s latest prize, the Steinberg Award: On August 23, 2012, Hwang was awarded a $200,000 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award for 32 years of provocative satires and dramas that have brought Asian and Asian-American characters to Broadway and other stages. The Steinberg award was created by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust in 2008 to honor and encourage artistic excellence.  The $200,000 award is given every other year; it went to Tony Kushner (Angels in America) in 2008 and Lynn Nottage (Ruined) in 2010.

Details:  Chinglish runs through October 7, 2012 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Street (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances: Tuesday-Sunday with several matinee performances on weekends and select Thursdays.  Tickets: $99 to $14.50. Box office: (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org . Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

September 1, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco’s Jewish Film Festival starts Thursday, July 19, with a broad line-up and a weekend of programming in Marin

Roberta Grossman’s “Hava Nagila (the Movie)” has its world preimere on the opening night of the 32nd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Image: courtesy SFJFF

The 32nd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday evening at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre with the world premiere of Roberta Grossman’s Hava Nagila (the Movie),  a riveting history of “Hava Nagila,” the foot-tapping song that started with a wordless prayer and may be one of the world’s best known pieces of music.  Afterwards, the festivities continue with an Opening Night Bash at the Swedish American Hall hosted by some of the Bay Area’s best purveyors of food and drink.

The festival, a tradition enjoyed by film aficionados far and wide, runs July 19 to August 6, 2012, and includes 63 films from 17 countries, including a wide spectrum of stimulating discussions, international guests and wonderful parties.   There are seven Bay Area venues, one of which is the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.  Programming there includes 13 films and begins on the last weekend of the festival—Friday, August 4 through Sunday, August 6, 2012.  Stay tuned to ARThound for detailed coverage of the Marin segment.  For general festival programming and to purchase tickets, visit www.sfjff.org.

The 32nd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: July 19 to August 6, 2012. Venues: Castro Theatre and Jewish Community Center in San Francisco; Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley; CinéArts in Palo Alto; Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael; Art Murmur and the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland. (415) 621-0523. www.sfjff.org.

July 18, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Emotional Creature”—The indomitable Eve Ensler explores the complicated inner lives of girls in the stage adaptation of her best-selling book, at Berkeley Rep through July 15, 2012

Six talented young women perform in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of “Emotional Creature,” a new play about girls around the world from Tony Award-winner Eve Ensler. Photo: Kevinberne.com

Six talented young women perform in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of “Emotional Creature,” a new play about girls around the world from Tony Award-winner Eve Ensler. Photo: Kevinberne.com

“Beautiful is a country with gates around it.  I will never be invited,” laments a girl from Johannesburg who is online and in an international chat room for anorectics.  She has just binged on French fries and the group of girls chides her.  Another girl has poured Clorox on her pizza to keep herself from eating it.  “Genius” they all chime in.  The online life of girls and body image is just one of the pieces that make up Emotional Creature, a new play by Tony award winner Eve Ensler, about the intensely emotional inner lives of teenage girls around the world, which has its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and runs through July 15, 2012

and then, in the fall, will move on to the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Based on Ensler’s best-selling book of the same name, Emotional Creature, is made of up a series of fictional monologues, ensemble pieces and songs about and for teen girls crafted by Ensler but inspired by girls she met around the globe.  The cast is comprised of six talented young women, in their early twenties, who give powerful and heartfelt expression to very believable stories highlighting the intensely emotional and complex worlds of girls.  Cliques, bullying, online life, body image, eating disorders, sex, sexual identity, abduction and sexual exploitation, and slavery, suicide, abortion, genital mutilation and plight of uneducated child factory workers are the topics broached in 90 minutes.   Emotional Creature, in Ensler’s own words, is intended as “a reckoning…an act of empowerment for girls…and an illumination for parents and for us all.”

It’s leaning in that direction but, on its opening night, Creature came off more like short attention span theatre, covering too much ground in too confusing a way to have the enduring impact of The Vagina Monologues (1996) which inspired VDay, a global non-profit movement that has raised over $75 million for women’s anti-violence groups, or The Good Body (2004) which addressed womens’ obsessions with their bodies.

Molly Carden performs in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of “Emotional Creature,” a new play about girls around the world from Tony Award-winner Eve Ensler. Here, Carden is American teen in a suburban high school who has been dumped by the clique who used to acknowledge her. Photo: Kevinberne.com

The show opens with a heart-piercing monologue from an American girl (Molly Carden) in a suburban high school who is trying to justify her existence after being dumped by the clique she thought she had been accepted by.  “I’m so tragically in the middle with not one outstanding characteristic.  I have nothing going for me but them.”  As Carden’s character spirals into a blob of self-hatred, desperate to be accepted at any price, we are hit with the utter cruelty of high school and its pathetic social politics.  Shunned because she was “accidentally nice” to Wendy in front of the clique’s leader Julie, the girl feels terrible because  she tried to win her way back in to the group by being mean to Wendy in front of them.  She actually likes Wendy, who is kind and courageous. Wendy used to be high up in the clique but got fed up and left and is much happier away from their control tactics.  The piece is a shout out to girls everywhere in this situation.

As the piece fades, the girls all break into a defiant vibrant dance and rap piece “I dance because…”  Wonderfully staged by Jo Bonney, the girls dance on Myung Hee Cho’s set of three roundish platforms with a large curving screen providing a hip background of pulsating colors, factoids, and photos.  Charl-Johan Lingenfelder’s songs, with catchy and bracing lyrics by Ensler, punctuate the emotionality throughout.

Sade Namei performs in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Eve Ensler’s “Emotional Creature.” Namei portrays a Middle Eastern girl who had nose job forced upon her by her parents. Photo: Kevinberne.com

Sade Namei gives a memorable and funny performance as a Middle Eastern girl whose parents forced a nose job on her at age 16. “When you met me, you met my nose; it put everyone at ease…gave me permission…made me daring.”  Now, she laments that she is pretty but, “Pretty girls don’t really look like anything in particular…they look like what everyone dreams of looking, like but they don’t look like anything you can really identify.”  What is missing from her powerful monologue is the direct observation that her parents forced the operation on her to make her more marriageable, which would further drive home the gender issue (girls must be conventionally pretty to be attractive to men) that Ensler is presumably trying to challenge.

The performance tackles a number of sexual issues that teens grapple with—sexual desire and conduct, pregnancy, abortion, sexual orientation, and sexual abuse.  Emily S. Grosland, who anchors the show with her marvelous voice and distinctive stage presence, wraps herself in a lace wedding veil and delivers a riveting farewell monologue to her parents who refuse to acknowledge that she is  gay.  Given that LGBT youth are frequently harassed and ostracized at school, and their suicide rates are higher than those of the general population, the piece is a heartfelt plea to parents to wake up and act with compassion and to accept their children’s sexual orientation.

Emily S. Grosland performs in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Emotional Creature, a new play about girls around the world from Tony Award-winner Eve Ensler. Grossland plays a suicidal teen whose sexual orientation is not acknowledged by her parents. Photo: Kevinberne.com

Emily S. Grosland performs in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Emotional Creature,” a new play about girls around the world from Tony Award-winner Eve Ensler. Grossland plays a suicidal teen whose sexual orientation is not acknowledged by her parents. Photo: Kevinberne.com

Less effective because of their sequencing and lack of development, which make them seem out of the blue, are two international pieces about sex crimes.  Molly Carden plays a 16 year-old Eastern European teen who ran away from a hellish abusive, alcoholic home.  She was raped by her father’s best friend, subsequently raped by the police and ended up a sexual slave. “I am a garbage pail, a receptacle. I don’t know why I was born. I am a rape opening. There is nothing left of me.  I am about to become extinct.”   In a monologue that follows, Joaquina Kalukango powerfully portrays a girl from somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa who was abducted while on vacation, raped repeatedly for years, and impregnated. To survive, she created a set of rules that she repeats poignantly on stage—“build a hole inside of you and crawl into it.”

Olivia Oguma delivers one of the evening’s funniest, but oddly out of place monologues, as Cha-ling, a 15 year-old uneducated Chinese worker who has been working in factory since she was a kid assembling Barbie dolls. “Barbie feels bad for all the girls who are starved to make her and starving to be like her. …she is so much smarter than people will ever let her be. Free Barbie! …Free Cha-ling! Let her out of this dirty sweaty factory.”  While her reflections on Barbie are insightful, her situation, as a factory worker with severely limited options, is not a uniquely girl issue and our minds grapple to discern Ensler’s deeper political message which seems to be an indictment of labor practices, the entire international economic system and Barbie and all she stands for.

Emotional Creature tries to cover too much ground and in the process loses its poignancy and relevancy for the two groups of girls it addresses—young women in America (or the West) and young women in the rest of the world.  Both are emotional creatures but their experiences and their suffering are not easily compared. The pain and anxiety associated with navigating cliques and girl’s body image and issues of sexual identity are not the same things as being sold into sex slavery (in Eastern Europe) or being abducted while on vacation and repeatedly raped for years and impregnated (somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa) or being expected to undergo genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) because it’s a tradition for women in the 30 countries that still practice it, or being trapped in a low wage factory job with no chance of advancement because you have no education and options.  While this appears to be a sampling of the wide range of stories presented in Ensler’s book, the pieces create an uneven series because they are from such different contexts.

By the end of the performance, Ensler’s message is unclear.   Is it, “It’s ok to have all of these intense feelings.  Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not”?  The early scene, with the girls in the clique, points out the pathetic backbiting and control tactics that girls in cliques are indulging in and clearly has a “rise above it” theme to it.  Rising above it implies being rational, using discernment, and realizing that girls who indulge in this behavior are weak and ignorant and don’t know what they’re talking about.  You can’t just be emotional, you also have to think.  This becomes particularly important in the context of sexual behavior.  Several of the pieces have girls speaking out about rape and violence perpetrated by men, in other words speaking out against free reign of limbic impulses. There’s a double message.  We need to be MORE THAN emotional creatures or we’ll be what we accuse them of being.  As it currently stands, any group of liberal, well-educated and empowered women could rip this to montage to shreds.  With a few tweaks, its potental is unlimited.  I’ve attached two videos below which capture Ensler very coherently explaining her motivations and her concerns about young girls being shut down emotionally.  The work to be done is communicating these points effectively in  Emotional Creature.

Despite its shortcomings,  if you have a teen daughter, or a good girlfriend to go with, I recommend seeing the show.  It provides a framework for conversation about what the world is like now for girls and what it was like when we were teens.  I attended on opening night with a close friend and, from the minute we hit the lobby after the show, we engaged in a few short conversations with audience members—women of different ages—about their reactions.  They raved about Eve Ensler but were confused about Emotional Creature’s message and who it was targeted at.  On the way home, I talked with my friend about the horrors of high school now and then, in my case looking back 34 years, and in hers, 29.  I did not tear up once during the performance, a telling sign, given it’s supposed to address emotions, but the girl talk afterwards went straight to my heart.

Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission

Starring: Ashley Bryant, Molly Carden, Emily S. Grosland, Joaquina Kalukango, Sade Namei, and Olivia Oguma

Creative Team: Written by Eve Ensler; Directed by Jo Bonney; Music and music direction by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder; Choreography by Luam; Designed by Myung Hee Cho (sets and costumes), Lap Chi Chu (lights), Jake Rodriguez (sound), and Shawn Sagady (video)

Special Outreach to Girls:  Berkeley Rep has always embraced community outreach, but it has developed a special more structured outreach program for Emotional Creature and will distribute up to 3,000 FREE Community Access tickets to Bay Area non-profit organizations and government agencies serving young people, particularly girls, and at-risk individuals for whom cost of attending a performance would be a barrier.  Kashira Robinson, in charge of this endeavor, reports that, so far, 800 free tickets have been allocated and that almost every performance will have a few audience members who are attending through this program.  To request tickets, nominate a worthy charity, or donate funds towards this program, click here to be directed to Berkeley Rep’s form (PDF).

Free tastings: Join Berkeley Rep for complimentary pre-performance tastings! Sample wine, beer, chocolate, champagne, vodka, organic produce or other delights before select Friday 8pm, Saturday 8pm and Sunday 7pm performances. New tasting events are being added all the time, so be sure to check back often!

•Friday, June 29: Quady Winery / 7pm

•Saturday, June 30: Quady Winery / 7pm

•Sunday, July 1: Quady Winery / 6pm

•Friday, July 6: Quady Winery / 7pm

•Saturday, July 14: Urbano Cellars / 7pm

Details:  Emotional Creature runs through July 15, 2012. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Roda Theatre) is located at 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Tickets start at $29, with discounts for students and seniors and half-price to anyone under the age of 30.  Special $15 high-school rush:  Starting 90 minutes before each performance of Emotional Creature, Berkeley Rep sell any open seats for $15 to anyone with a current high-school ID.  Be sure to provide your email address when purchasing, so you can find out about future offerings for teens at Berkeley Rep. For tickets and additional information: http://www.berkeleyrep.org or phone 510.647.2949

EVE ENSLER TALKS ABOUT HER NEW PLAY EMOTIONAL CREATURE

EVE ENSLER READS FROM HER BEST-SELLING BOOK, I AM AN EMOTIONAL CREATURE: THE SECRET LIVES OF GIRLS, ON WHICH HER NEW PLAY, EMOTIONAL CREATURE, IS BASED

July 6, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Emotional Creature”—The indomitable Eve Ensler explores the complicated inner lives of girls in the stage adaptation of her best-selling book, at Berkeley Rep through July 15, 2012

Six talented young women perform in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of “Emotional Creature,” a new play about girls around the world from Tony Award-winner Eve Ensler. Photo: Kevinberne.com

Six talented young women perform in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of “Emotional Creature,” a new play about girls around the world from Tony Award-winner Eve Ensler. Photo: Kevinberne.com

“Beautiful is a country with gates around it.  I will never be invited,” laments a girl from Johannesburg who is online and in an international chat room for anorectics.  She has just binged on French fries and the group of girls chides her.  Another girl has poured Clorox on her pizza to keep herself from eating it.  “Genius” they all chime in.  The online life of girls and body image is just one of the pieces that make up Emotional Creature, a new play by Tony award winner Eve Ensler, about the intensely emotional inner lives of teenage girls around the world, which has its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and runs through July 15, 2012 and then, in the fall, will move on to the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Based on Ensler’s best-selling book of the same name, Emotional Creature, is made of up a series of fictional monologues, ensemble pieces and songs about and for teen girls crafted by Ensler but inspired by girls she met around the globe.  The cast is comprised of six talented young women, in their early twenties, who give powerful and heartfelt expression to stories highlighting the intensely emotional and complex worlds of girls.  Cliques, bullying, online life, body image, eating disorders, sex, sexual identity, abduction and sexual exploitation, and slavery, suicide, abortion, genital mutilation and plight of uneducated child factory workers are the topics broached in 90 minutes.   Emotional Creature, in Ensler’s own words, is intended as “a reckoning…an act of empowerment for girls…and an illumination for parents and for us all.”

It’s leaning in that direction but, on its opening night, Creature came off more like short attention span theatre, covering too much ground in too confusing a way to have the enduring impact of The Vagina Monologues (1996) which inspired VDay, a global non-profit movement that has raised over $75 million for women’s anti-violence groups, or The Good Body (2004) which addressed womens’ obsessions with their bodies.

Molly Carden performs in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of “Emotional Creature,” a new play about girls around the world from Tony Award-winner Eve Ensler. Here, Carden is American teen in a suburban high school who has been dumped by the clique who used to acknowledge her. Photo: Kevinberne.com

The show opens with a heart-piercing monologue from an American girl (Molly Carden) in a suburban high school who is trying to justify her existence after being dumped by the clique she thought she had been accepted by.  “I’m so tragically in the middle with not one outstanding characteristic.  I have nothing going for me but them.”  As Carden’s character spirals into a blob of self-hatred, desperate to be accepted at any price, we are hit with the utter cruelty of high school and its pathetic social politics.  Shunned because she was “accidentally nice” to Wendy in front of the clique’s leader Julie, the girl feels terrible because  she tried to win her way back in to the group by being mean to Wendy in front of them.  She actually likes Wendy, who is kind and courageous. Wendy used to be high up in the clique but got fed up and left and is much happier away from their control tactics.  The piece is a shout out to girls everywhere in this situation.

As the piece fades, the girls all break into a defiant vibrant dance and rap piece “I dance because…”  Wonderfully staged by Jo Bonney, the girls dance on Myung Hee Cho’s set of three roundish platforms with a large curving screen providing a hip background of pulsating colors, factoids, and photos.  Charl-Johan Lingenfelder’s songs, with catchy and bracing lyrics by Ensler, punctuate the emotionality throughout.

As the piece fades, the girls all break into a defiant vibrant dance and rap piece “I dance because…”  Wonderfully staged by Jo Bonney, the girls dance on Myung Hee Cho’s set of three roundish platforms with a large curving screen providing a hip background of pulsating colors, factoids, and photos.  Charl-Johan Lingenfelder’s songs, with catchy and bracing lyrics by Ensler, punctuate the emotionality throughout.

Sade Namei performs in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Eve Ensler’s “Emotional Creature.” Namei portrays a Middle Eastern girl who had nose job forced upon her by her parents. Photo: Kevinberne.com

Sade Namei gives a memorable and funny performance as a Middle Eastern girl whose parents forced a nose job on her at age 16. “When you met me, you met my nose; it put everyone at ease…gave me permission…made me daring.”  Now, she laments that she is pretty but, “Pretty girls don’t really look like anything in particular…they look like what everyone dreams of looking, like but they don’t look like anything you can really identify.”  What is missing from her powerful monologue is the direct observation that her parents forced the operation on her to make her more marriageable, which would further drive home the gender issue (girls must be conventionally pretty to be attractive to men) that Ensler is presumably trying to challenge.

The performance tackles a number of sexual issues that teens grapple with—sexual desire and conduct, pregnancy, abortion, sexual orientation, and sexual abuse.  Emily S. Grosland, who anchors the show with her marvelous voice and distinctive stage presence, wraps herself in a lace wedding veil and delivers a riveting farewell monologue to her parents who refuse to acknowledge that she is gay.  Given that LGBT youth are frequently harassed and ostracized at school, and their suicide rates are higher than those of the general population, the piece is a heartfelt plea to parents to wake up and act with compassion and to accept their children’s sexual orientation.

Emily S. Grosland performs in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Emotional Creature, a new play about girls around the world from Tony Award-winner Eve Ensler. Grossland plays a suicidal teen whose sexual orientation is not acknowledged by her parents. Photo: Kevinberne.com

Emily S. Grosland performs in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Emotional Creature,” a new play about girls around the world from Tony Award-winner Eve Ensler. Grossland plays a suicidal teen whose sexual orientation is not acknowledged by her parents. Photo: Kevinberne.com

Less effective because of their sequencing and lack of development, which make them seem out of the blue, are two international pieces about sex crimes.  Molly Carden plays a 16 year-old Eastern European teen who ran away from a hellish abusive, alcoholic home.  She was raped by her father’s best friend, subsequently raped by the police and ended up a sexual slave. “I am a garbage pail, a receptacle. I don’t know why I was born. I am a rape opening. There is nothing left of me.  I am about to become extinct.”   In a monologue that follows, Joaquina Kalukango powerfully portrays a girl from somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa who was abducted while on vacation, raped repeatedly for years, and impregnated. To survive, she created a set of rules that she repeats poignantly on stage—“build a hole inside of you and crawl into it.”

Olivia Oguma delivers one of the evening’s funniest, but oddly out of place monologues, as Cha-ling, a 15 year-old uneducated Chinese worker who has been working in factory since she was a kid assembling Barbie dolls. “Barbie feels bad for all the girls who are starved to make her and starving to be like her. …she is so much smarter than people will ever let her be. Free Barbie! …Free Cha-ling! Let her out of this dirty sweaty factory.”  While her reflections on Barbie are insightful, her situation, as a factory worker with severely limited options, is not a uniquely girl issue and our minds grapple to discern Ensler’s deeper political message which seems to be an indictment of labor practices, the entire international economic system and Barbie and all she stands for.

Emotional Creature tries to cover too much ground and in the process loses its poignancy and relevancy for the two groups of girls it addresses—young women in America (or the West) and young women in the rest of the world.  Both are emotional creatures but their experiences and their suffering are not easily compared. The pain and anxiety associated with navigating cliques and girl’s body image and issues of sexual identity are not the same things as being sold into sex slavery (in Eastern Europe) or being abducted while on vacation and repeatedly raped for years and impregnated (somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa) or being expected to undergo genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) because it’s a tradition for women in the 30 countries that still practice it, or being trapped in a low wage factory job with no chance of advancement because you have no education and options.  While this appears to be a sampling of the wide range of stories presented in Ensler’s book, the pieces create an uneven series because they are from such different contexts.

By the end of the performance, Ensler’s message is unclear.   Is it, “It’s ok to have all of these intense feelings.  Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not”?  The early scene, with the girls in the clique, points out the pathetic backbiting and control tactics that girls in cliques are indulging in and clearly has a “rise above it” theme to it.  Rising above it implies being rational, using discernment, and realizing that girls who indulge in this behavior are weak and ignorant and don’t know what they’re talking about.  You can’t just be emotional, you also have to think.  This becomes particularly important in the context of sexual behavior.  Several of the pieces have girls speaking out about rape and violence perpetrated by men, in other words speaking out against free reign of limbic impulses. There’s a double message.  We need to be MORE THAN emotional creatures or we’ll be what we accuse them of being.  As it currently stands, any group of liberal, well-educated and empowered women could rip this to montage to shreds.  With a few tweaks, its potental is unlimited.  I’ve attached two videos below which capture Ensler very coherently explaining her motivations and her concerns about young girls being shut down emotionally.  The work to be done is communicating these points effectively in  Emotional Creature.

Despite its shortcomings,  if you have a teen daughter, or a good girlfriend to go with, I recommend seeing the show.  It provides a framework for conversation about what the world is like now for girls and what it was like when we were teens.  I attended on opening night with a close friend and, from the minute we hit the lobby after the show, we engaged in a few short conversations with audience members—women of different ages—about their reactions.  They raved about Eve Ensler but were confused about Emotional Creature’s message and who it was targeted at.  On the way home, I talked with my friend about the horrors of high school now and then, in my case looking back 34 years, and in hers, 29.  I did not tear up once during the performance, a telling sign, given it’s supposed to address emotions, but the girl talk afterwards went straight to my heart.

Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission

Starring: Ashley Bryant, Molly Carden, Emily S. Grosland, Joaquina Kalukango, Sade Namei, and Olivia Oguma

Creative Team: Written by Eve Ensler; Directed by Jo Bonney; Music and music direction by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder; Choreography by Luam; Designed by Myung Hee Cho (sets and costumes), Lap Chi Chu (lights), Jake Rodriguez (sound), and Shawn Sagady (video)

Special Outreach to Girls:  Berkeley Rep has always embraced community outreach, but it has developed a special more structured outreach program for Emotional Creature and will distribute up to 3,000 FREE Community Access tickets to Bay Area non-profit organizations and government agencies serving young people, particularly girls, and at-risk individuals for whom cost of attending a performance would be a barrier.  Kashira Robinson, in charge of this endeavor, reports that, so far, 800 free tickets have been allocated and that almost every performance will have a few audience members who are attending through this program.  To request tickets, nominate a worthy charity, or donate funds towards this program, click here to be directed to Berkeley Rep’s form (PDF).

Free tastings: Join Berkeley Rep for complimentary pre-performance tastings! Sample wine, beer, chocolate, champagne, vodka, organic produce or other delights before select Friday 8pm, Saturday 8pm and Sunday 7pm performances. New tasting events are being added all the time, so be sure to check back often!

•Friday, June 29: Quady Winery / 7pm

•Saturday, June 30: Quady Winery / 7pm

•Sunday, July 1: Quady Winery / 6pm

•Friday, July 6: Quady Winery / 7pm

•Saturday, July 14: Urbano Cellars / 7pm

Details:  Emotional Creature runs through July 15, 2012. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Roda Theatre) is located at 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Tickets start at $29, with discounts for students and seniors and half-price to anyone under the age of 30.  Special $15 high-school rush:  Starting 90 minutes before each performance of Emotional Creature, Berkeley Rep sell any open seats for $15 to anyone with a current high-school ID.  Be sure to provide your email address when purchasing, so you can find out about future offerings for teens at Berkeley Rep.  For tickets and additional information: http://www.berkeleyrep.org or phone 510.647.2949

EVE ENSLER TALKS ABOUT HER NEW PLAY EMOTIONAL CREATURE

EVE ENSLER READS FROM HER BEST-SELLING BOOK, I AM AN EMOTIONAL CREATURE: THE SECRET LIVES OF GIRLS, ON WHICH HER NEW PLAY, EMOTIONAL CREATURE, IS BASED

June 28, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

Special Events:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “In Paris”—Mikhail Baryshnikov is smoldering as a downtrodden general in a May-December romance, at Berkeley Rep through May 13, 2012

Mikhail Baryshnikov (right) and Anna Sinyakina perform at Berkeley Rep in a special presentation of “In Paris,” through May, 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

Last Wednesday’s opening night performance of In Paris at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre began an uncharacteristic 17 minutes late.  No one was more keenly aware of this than Mikhail Baryshnikov, who stood waiting quietly in darkness at the back of the stage for the action to begin. And when it did begin, none of us were exactly sure what was happening because we had been thrown a kilter by the time…but a slight woman in a hat appeared in the front rows, where the audience was seated, and she made her way to the left wall of the theatre and began to move a blown-up postcard through the tightly seated audience, bumping a few people in the process. She foisted it up onto to the stage where she then dragged and rotated it towards a stationary Baryshnikov, who was dressed in a trench coat, staring downwards. The black and white image was an old photo of Notre Dame and, as tentative and drawn out as the gesture was, we had all just made the symbolic journey to Paris.  That’s just one of the vehicles that Russian director Dmitry Krymov uses to engage his audiences in this very poetic staging of Baryshnikov’s new show which tells its story through music, song, video projections, props that are suggestive of moving collage or puzzle pieces, dramatic lighting by Damir Ismagilov, and a palette of black, white and gray hues in Maria Tregubova’s set and costume design.

Director Dmitry Krymov’s “In Paris” opens with Anna Sinyakina dramatically dragging a huge postcard of the Notre Dame onto the stage of Berkeley’s Rep’s Roda Theatre and plopping it down it by Mikhail Baryshnikov (right). Photo: Maria Baranova

The story itself is set in Paris in the 1930’s and has been adapted from a short story written in 1940 by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933, who himself lived in exile in Paris and never returned to Russia.  Baryshnikov is Nikolai Platonitch, a retired general of White Russian army who was thrown out of Russia by the Bolshevik army, is living in Paris, and by chance meets a beautiful young Russian émigré, Olga, a waitress, played by the compelling young Russian actress Anna Sinyakina.  The two lonely souls fall in love but, alas, their tender journey is bittersweet.  Rounding out the ensemble are actors from Russia and Finland, members of the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, who don’t have defined roles but serve as a chorus, accompanying the drama at the moment by moving props and singing.

Legendary performer Mikhail Baryshnikov is a retired general of the White Russian army living in exile Paris who is in a May-December romance with Anna Sinyakina in “In Paris,” at Berkeley Rep through May 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

Baryshnikov, now 64, is considered one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century but he has also enjoyed an extensive acting career.  He made his first film debut in the 1977 film The Turning Point, and was last seen on Sex and the City, playing the man dumped by Carrie Bradshaw. His most recent theatrical performance was in Beckett Shorts, a collection off four short Beckett plays, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis for Samuel Beckett’s centenary in 2007.  In In Paris, he first appears in shadows, not moving much at all, yet gesturing the girl with an inner movement.  Instead of physically gliding towards her like he did so dramatically in numerous ballets, he practices a form of expression that relies on calling forth his bearing as a general who has shed his uniform but still wears it invisibly.  The girl responds.

Dmitry Krymov, the influential Russian artist, director, and set designer has given Bunin’s story new resonance. His small experimental Moscow theater company, Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, has become somewhat of a phenomenon in the past 7 years for its repertoire of staged works called “painters theatre” with a very dominant and engaging visual aesthetic. In the first few minutes of In Paris, the word “loneliness” is projected across the stage in several languages, evoking a connection to the world’s displaced peoples and the collective loneliness that underpins Bunin’s story. Video projections of texts—dialogue translations and poetry—are projected creatively across the stage and actors throughout, making a dynamic visual impression.

Mikhail Baryshnikov (right) and Anna Sinyakina perform at Berkeley Rep in a special presentation of “In Paris,” through May, 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

The drama is organized around a circle which symbolically reinforces the characters’ situations in a fairly typical Russian love story.  The aged Baryshnikov/Nikolai Platonitch has lived his life and he’s not leaving his destiny.  Sinyakina/Olga is a simple soul who has been endowed with beauty.  She has a small world and doesn’t dream outside of it.  She has a moment with him and then it ends and that’s it.  Her crest comes in a brief scene of preparation and anticipation, as she dresses for her first date with Platonitch.  She stands before the audience and does something akin to Salome’s dance of the seven veils with her dress, a magnificently stretchy and utilitarian creation which she transforms into dozens of fashion statements before settling on the right one. Other props evoke a subtly humorous association with handicrafts—there’s the tilted table at the restaurant, that serves as foil for a delightful small talk about soup, and later a car—a large cut-out—that transports them on their first date.

There are relatively few spoken words but hearing Baryshnikov and Sinyakina communicate tenderly in their native Russian is soothing, lyrical—especially their precious small talk about soup.

Baryshnikov sustains our interest keenly throughout as a presence not dependent on movement at all—it isn’t until the end that he dances briefly.  He collapses and then there’s a dream sequence, a kind of resurrection, where he’s a matador dominating a bull against the musical backdrop of Bizet’s Carmen.  His dance is elegant, refined, brief— the perfect ending to this dynamic collage that paints a rich portrait of two lost souls and the illusive nature of love.

It’s been a very strong season for Berkeley Rep which prepped us for this melancholy Russian story with Chekov’s Three Sisters  in April 2011, a Russian classic steeped in loss whose characters’ sufferings are not too distant from those of In Paris.

Run time is 80 minutes with no intermission

Performed in Russian and French with English subtitles

Adapted from the short story by Ivan Bunin; Direction and adaptation by Dmitry Krymov; Set and costume design by Maria Tregubova; Music by Dmitry Volkov

Performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Anna Sinyakina, Maxim Maminov, Maria Gulik, Dmitry Volkov, and Polina Butko with Ossi Makkonen and Lasse Lindberg

Featuring the work of Damir Ismagilov (lighting designer), Andrey Shchukin (movement coach), Alexei Ratmansky (choreographer), and Tei Blow (audio and video designer)

A production of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, and the AG Foundation in association with the Korjaamo Culture Factory of Helsinki, Finland.

Free tastings:  Join Berkeley Rep for complimentary pre-performance tastings! Sample wine, beer, chocolate, champagne, vodka, organic produce or other delights before select Friday 8pm, Saturday 8pm and Sunday 7pm performances. New tasting events are being added all the time, so be sure to check back often!

  • Friday, May      4: Peterson Winery / 7pm
  • Saturday,      May 5: Calstar Cellars / 7pm
  • Friday, May      11: Cater Too / 7pm
  • Saturday,      May 12: Via Pacifica Selections/ 7pm

Details: In Paris runs for three weeks only and ends May 13, 2012.  The Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Roda Theatre) is located at 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets are $22.50 -$125, with discounts for students and seniors and half-price to anyone under the age of 30.  For tickets and info:  http://www.berkeleyrep.org  or phone 510.647.2949

May 1, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Run-time is 90 minutes with no intermission.

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

Special Events:

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

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

Student matinee: Thursday 4/19 @ noon

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

April 7, 2012 Posted by | Art, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Wild Bride:” dark, fascinating, and mythically marvelous─at Berkeley Rep through January 22, 2012

Adapted and directed by Emma Rice.  Text and lyrics by Carl Grose / Music by Stu Barker / Choreography by Etta Murfitt

Featuring:  Audrey Brisson (the Girl), Stuart Goodwin (the Father and the Prince), Patrycja Kujawska (the Wild), Éva Magyar (the Woman), Stuart McLoughlin (the Devil), and Ian Ross (the Musician)

Designed by Bill Mitchell (sets), Myriddin Wannell (costumes), Malcolm Rippeth (lights), and Simon Baker (sound)

Details:  The Wild Bride closes January 22, 2012.  The Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Thrust Stage is located at 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets and Info: (510) 647-2949, http://berkeleyrep.org

December 14, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment