ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Set in two different centuries, Tom’s Stoppard’s “Arcadia” is a smart romantic play that uses garden design as metaphor for progress, at A.C.T. through June 9, 2013

Rebekah Brockman is brainy Thomasina Coverly and Jack Cutmore-Scott is her ambitious tutor, Septimus Hodge, in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” directed by Carey Perloff, through June 9, 2013.  Photo by Kevin Berne.

Rebekah Brockman is brainy Thomasina Coverly and Jack Cutmore-Scott is her ambitious tutor, Septimus Hodge. Their smart repartee is divine and their on stage chemistry is magic in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” directed by Carey Perloff, through June 9, 2013. Photo by Kevin Berne.

I saw Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia for the first time, when it opened last Wednesday at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) and, already, I’m already planning to go again. It’s gardening season and time is precious but I was seduced by this dazzling production whose action that moves between the 19th century and the present and its riveting exploration of how big ideas take root, blossom, and then, become compost. The repartee and on-stage chemistry of the fine actors, the gorgeous set design and overall flow of the performance added up to an unforgettable evening. I was hooked once I discovered that, at its core, Arcadia uses tensions in garden design as a metaphor for progress. Frequently, when I describe plays to friends who live up in the wine country, no matter how good the production is, they bemoan the drive in to San Francisco, especially during gardening season.  Well, here it is!—a play brimming with ideas that will have you cutting your precious antique roses with renewed zeal because you’re on fire with ideas and how gardens through time embody them.  Whether you’re an orderly classicist who believes in preserving the structure of things or you’re more of a romantic who views structure as a straightjacket, and are constantly tossing out the old rules in favor of the new, there’s something intoxicating in Stoppard’s romantic story that will leave you exquisitely satisfied and slightly perplexed that you haven’t quite caught it all.

Set in Sidley Park, an English stately home, in two different centuries, the play opens in Edwardian 1809, much in the fashion of an Oscar Wilde drawing-room farce. The first thing you notice is Douglas W. Schmidt’s expansive drawing room set, appointed with picturesque trees that wind elegantly around the room. Septimus Hodge (played by Jack Cutmore-Scott), a young science graduate, is resident tutor to Thomasina Coverley (played by Rebekah Brockman), the precocious 13-year old daughter of the owners of Sidley Park. The two are cozied up at a wooden table. Reading through her Latin homework, she asks him, quite innocently, to explain what “carnal embrace” means. When he tells her, she is appalled. “Now whenever I do it, I shall think of you!” she gasps. “Is it like love?” He replies: “Oh no my lady, it is much nicer than that.” 

(from L-R): Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly), Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge), Adam O’Byrne (Valentine Coverly), and Gretchen Egolf (Hannah Jarvis) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

(from L-R): Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly), Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge), Adam O’Byrne (Valentine Coverly), and Gretchen Egolf (Hannah Jarvis) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

Turns out that Septimus has been practicing that on which he expounds—he was seen having a “perpendicular poke” in the gazebo with Mrs. Chater, the wife of a visiting poet. Their tutoring session is interrupted by a note from Mr. Chater, demanding he receive “satisfaction” for his wounded honor in the form of a duel. Septimus moans: “Mrs. Chater demanded satisfaction and now you demand satisfaction. I cannot spend my day and night satisfying the demands of the Chater family.” When Mr Chater arrives in a fury, Septimus asserts that he won’t engage in a pistol-fight to defend the honor of “a woman whose reputation could not be adequately defended with a platoon of musketry deployed by rota.” Septimus is also pursuing Lady Croom, Thomasina’s pert mother, but she has her eyes fixed on nabbing Lord Byron, Septimus’ college pal.

The play then shifts abruptly to the 1990s, and a more realist style. In the same house, and using the same set, a historian, Hannah Jarvis, is delving into Sidley Park’s history, with the permission of the Croom family. She is immersed in her research and in piecing together stories from the past.

She is interrupted by her rival, a patronizing old English fart, Bernard Nightingale, who has discovered a note that Chater wrote to Septimus in an old book.  He is convinced that the note was written by Lord Byron, the great Romantic poet, who happened to be visiting Sidley Park that weekend— and that he fought in the duel and killed Chater. He posits that this would explain why Byron fled to France in 1810 and asserts that he is hot on the trail of “the literary discovery of the century” which will make him a media sensation.

Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly) and Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

Rebekah Brockman (Thomasina Coverly) and Jack Cutmore-Scott (Septimus Hodge) in A.C.T.’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Carey Perloff. Photo by Kevin Berne

Those are the bare bones. The action unfolds from 1809 to 1812, while the characters in the late 20th century attempt to untangle what happened by reviewing what they know about their lives. The stories alternate until, in the final scene, all the characters appear on stage together, waltzing past each other, unseen.

Rebekah Brockman delivers an astounding and entirely believable performance as Thomasina, the innocent girl genius, the heart and soul of the play.  Her natural chemistry with her tutor, Septimus, Jack Cutmore-Scott, is a delight.  As he educates her in the basics of Newton’s laws of physics, she quickly demonstrates that her grasp of the implications of these principles far exceeds that of her adult peers.  She’s able to cut to chase using very familiar examples, making astounding connections between seemingly unrelated things—“When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. (1.1).”  Later, she makes observations about what happens with free will in a world where we are all merely atoms following the laws of motion in Newton’s universe.  It is she who leads Septimus to see the flaws in Newton, and he, in turn, who falls for her.

The present day couple—Hannah and Bernard, played by Gretchen Egolf and Andy Murray—due to their lack of on stage chemistry, is less dynamic, though they both, as feuding scholars, represent interesting ideas.  She is a model of classical reserve while he, boisterous and passionate, follows his gut instincts and prefers to reject the hard evidence that leads to the conclusion that Byron was not the killer he initially thought him to be.       

And the garden?  The garden at Sidley Park is never actually seen but its symbolic presence is felt throughout the play, as styles (Romanticism and Classicism) and their attenuate ideas butt up against each other.

Says Perloff: “To me Arcadia is the perfect play: sexy, subtle, romantic, bracing, hilarious, and complex, rewarding multiple viewings and multiple explorations. When I directed the show at A.C.T. in 1995, the Geary Theater was still undergoing repairs from the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake, so we have never done it on The Geary stage. Now we’ve gathered an incredible company and it is truly a fulfillment of a dream for me to bring Arcadia back to A.C.T.”

More on the origin of “Arcadia”— Arcadia is part of the Peloponnese peninsula and in European Renaissance arts was celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness, even an imaginary idyllic paradise, immortalized by Virgil’s Eclogues, and later by Jacopo Sannazaro in his pastoral masterpiece, Arcadia (1504). The Latin phrase “Et in Arcadia ego,” which is usually
interpreted to mean “Even in Arcadia there am I” (“I” meaning Death), is a memento mori, a cautionary reminder of the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death. The phrase is most often associated with a 1647 painting by Nicolas Poussin, also known as “The
Arcadian Shepherds.”  In the painting, the phrase appears as an inscription on a tomb discovered by youthful figures in classical garb.

Best Garden Quote:  “English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour. Here, look – Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia! And here, superimposed by Richard Noakes, untamed nature in the style of Salvator Rosa. It’s the Gothic novel expressed in landscape. Everything but vampires.”  (Hannah 1.2)

Run time:   2 hours and 35 minutes with a 15 minute intermission

CAST:  Rebekah Brockman is Thomasina Coverly; Jack Cutmore-Scott is Septimus Hodge; Julia Coffey is Lady Croom; Allegra Rose Edwards is Chloë Coverly; Gretchen Egolf is Hannah Jarvis; Anthony Fusco is Richard Noakes; Nick Gabriel is Captain Brice; Andy Murray is Bernard Nightingale; Adam O’Byrne is Valentine Coverly); Nicholas Pelczar is Ezra Chater; Ken Ruta is Jellaby.

CREATIVE TEAM:  by Tom Stoppard;  Directed by Carey Perloff.   Douglas W. Schmidt (scenic designer), Alex Jaeger (costume designer), Alexander V. Nichols (lighting designer), Jake Rodriguez (sound designer).

InterACT Programming for Arcadia— InterACT events are presented free of charge to give patrons a chance to get closer to the action while making a whole night out of their evening at the theatre. Visit act-­‐sf.org/interact to learn more about subscribing to these events throughout the season:

Audience  Exchanges: Tuesday, May 28, at 7 p.m. | Sun., June 2, at 2 p.m. | Wed., June 5, at 2 p.m.  Learn firsthand what goes into the making of great theatre. After the show, join A.C.T. on stage for a lively onstage chat with the cast, designers and artists who develop the work onstage.

OUT with A.C.T.:  Wednesday, May 29, following the 8 p.m. performanceThe best LGBT night in town! Mingle with the cast and enjoy free drinks and treats at this popular afterparty.

Wine Series: Tuesday, June 4, at 7 p.m.  Before the show, raise a glass at this wine tasting event featuring leading sommeliers from the Bay Area’s hottest local wineries.

PlayTime: Saturday, June 8, at 2 p.m.  Before this matinee performance, get hands-­‐on with theater with the artists who make it happen at this interactive workshop.

Bike to the Theater Nights: Thursday, May 23.   Providing a greener alternative to theater transportation, A.C.T. and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offer free valet bike parking, as well as a special discount on tickets, for these select performances.

Details: Arcadia runs through June 9, 2013 at American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances are 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. most Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. most Sundays. Tickets: $20 to $95, phone 415.749.2228, or visit www.act-sf.org .

A.C.T.’s 2013–14 season:  Seven incredible productions await A.C.T. patrons in 2013-14, including the West Coast premiere of Tony Award–winning director Frank Galati’s acclaimed new staging of 1776; the Northern California premiere of David Ives’s captivating cat-­‐and-­‐mouse drama, Venus in Fur; James Fenton’s beautiful reinvention of The Orphan of Zhao, starring the inimitable stage and film star BD Wong; and a sumptuous production of George Bernard Shaw’s political comedy Major Barbara. The remaining three shows will be announced at a later date. In addition to the seven-­‐play subscription season, A.C.T. is happy to welcome back the Bay Area’s favorite holiday tradition, the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, after its record-­‐breaking run last season.  To subscribe or for more information, please click here, or call 415.749.2250.

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May 28, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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