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Geneva Anderson digs into art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 13, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment