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Geneva Anderson digs into art

A.C.T.’s “Stuck Elevator,” a new musical-theatre-opera hybrid that will make you want to take the stairs, through April 28, 2013

In “Stuck Elevator,” which has its world premiere at A.C.T., Julius Ahn is Chinese deliveryman Guāng who gets stuck in an elevator for over three days and starts to hallucinate.  The musical-theatre-opera hybrid runs April 4 – 28, 2013, at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne

In “Stuck Elevator,” which has its world premiere at A.C.T., Julius Ahn is Chinese deliveryman Guāng who gets stuck in an elevator for over three days and starts to hallucinate. The musical-theatre-opera hybrid runs April 4 – 28, 2013, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne

If you’ve ever been stuck in an elevator, the memory never leaves you. In 2005, a 35 year-old Chinese-food deliveryman, Ming Kuang Chen, an immigrant from Fujian province who owed over $60,000 to human traffickers, was trapped in an elevator for 81 hours. Just after he had dropped off a $15 delivery, his elevator, an express lift, stalled out between the fourth and third floors of a 38 floor Bronx high-rise. Talk about being “boxed in”—despite a complete lack of food and water, he was terrified to push the emergency alarm because he was an undocumented immigrant and feared the consequences of being found by authorities even more. His 81 hour ordeal is the basis of Stuck Elevator, a gripping 81 minute musical hybrid by composer Byron Au Yong and librettist, playwright and hip hop poet Aaron Jafferis, which has its world premiere at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theater).  Obie Award winner director, Chay Yew (currently artistic director of Victory Gardens Theatre), transforms Chen’s traumatic ordeal into a mesmerizing musical of solo and ensemble performances.   Ranging from opera to energizing doses of hip-hop, the music richly captures his physical and mental collapse as well as the symbolic journey of the displaced immigrant in our society.  The songs, all sung in English, have Chinese supertitles and address his memories of his wife and son in China as well as his isolation and stress as an expendable worker in the U.S., omnipresent in our society yet virtually invisible as an individual.  Stuck Elevator runs through April 28, 2013.

Young and Jafferis’s story opens with Chinese food delivery man, Guāng (光), standing at the elevator door, celebrating his good fortune at having made a $15 delivery which yielded a generous tip.  He leveraged everything he had just to get to the States and all he earns isn’t enough to make even a small dent in what he owes to Snake Man, his trafficker—$60,000.  

Julius Ahn delivers a thoroughly engrossing Guāng, a gentle, seemingly honest and hardworking delivery man who, through no fault of his own, was trapped long before he got stuck in the elevator.  His predicament is better than it was in China but as an undocumented worker who doesn’t speak English, he’s living the dark side of the American dream, where the climb up is precarious.   His dreams to bring his wife and son to the States are fanned by frequent phone calls to them in China where he sugar coats the reality of his situation.  Remarkably,  Stuck Elevator opened the very day (April 16th) that our Senate’s “Gang of Eight” revealed a much-anticipated (estimated 1,500 page) comprehensive immigration reform package whose main provision creates a quick path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.    

Julius Ahn as Guāng, Marie-France Arcilla as Míng and Raymond J. Lee as Wáng Yuè in “Stuck Elevator,” playing April 4 – 28, 2013 at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Julius Ahn as Guāng, Marie-France Arcilla as Míng and Raymond J. Lee as Wáng Yuè in “Stuck Elevator,” playing April 4 – 28, 2013 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Ahn/Guāng carries the show—he’s the only actor who never leaves the stage.  The rest—Marie-France Arcilla, Raymond J. Lee, Joseph Anthony Foronda and Joel Perez—take on multiple roles playing Guang’s family and close associates.   Ahn, a classically trained operatic tenor (Madame Butterfly at Nashville Opera; Turandot at Seattle Opera), delivers solos in a range of styles seamlessly.  He also performs evocative ballads with Marie-France Arcilla (wife Míng) that convey the genuine love the couple share. 

Overall, Stuck Elevator has the energy and feel of a musical you’d see on Broadway  and is a perfect example of the musical theatre hybrid that opera houses and theatre companies alike are experimenting with.  (San Francisco Opera has engaged Francesca Zambello to direct a grand scale production of Show Boat as part of its 2014 fall season.)   Complementing the singing is A.C.T.’s highly creative use of its space—singers perform from the balcony and even come down the aisles, making the songs even more engaging.  At one point when Guāng and Míng exchange letters, they launch paper airplanes across the stage and out into the audience, a simple but clever representation of air mail.  

Daniel Ostling’s stark set is in perfect tune with the drab misery of Guāng’s life. The elevator is a steel open frame box that, in an instant, becomes his cage.  It rises up and down on steel posts but most of the movement in this production is mental—the personalities and demons Guāng conjures as he passes time waiting to be found.

 Kate Freer’s enormous video projections are visible through the elevator’s open walls, illustrating the eerie but rich dialogue between Guāng and his inner demons.  One thing that fascinates about these painterly projections, reminiscent of the early work of pioneering video artist Tony Oursler, is the way in which they awaken emotions.  A particularly compelling projection is a blown up portrait of Guāng’s face which dominates the background as he writhes powerless on the elevator’s floor, compelling us to really see him as an individual.  And that is the journey of this production, coming to a place where we can relate to Guāng’s plight.

Joseph Anthony Foronda as El Elevator and Julius Ahn as Guāng in “Stuck Elevator,” playing April 4 – 28, 2013 at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Joseph Anthony Foronda as El Elevator and Julius Ahn as Guāng in “Stuck Elevator,” playing April 4 – 28, 2013 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Later, when Guāng melts down and his demons actually come to life, things start to get too busy. When he, in a state of hallucination, does actual battle with a silvery alien robot, or a giant fortune cookie appears urging him to pull a fortune out of her head, the production leers off course to the farcical or absurd, distracting from his very real and poignant emotional journey.  If there’s a weak link in this production this is it—it goes too far.   

While the story is set in the U.S., the writers missed the opportunity to give a overview of the enormity of the global problem—rapid modernization is almost always at the expense of the work force.  Chinese workers, particularly migrant workers, lead lives of extraordinary hardship to offer their children a way out of poverty and are often confronted with a series of choices that all lead to undesirable outcomes, hence the urgency to get to America.  Once here, of course, the reality is often far from the dream.  Guāng again becomes a nameless cog in a wheel, toiling day and night to chaise an elusive dream that, more often than naught, includes more hazards than rewards.  The elevator is indeed “stuck.”

CAST: Julius Ahn (Madame Butterfly at Nashville Opera; Turandot at Seattle Opera) as Guāng. The following actors play multiple roles, with their main rle listed—Raymond J. Lee (Anything Goes and Mamma Mia! on Broadway) as Wáng Yuè (王越), Guāng’s 8-year-old son; Marie-France Arcilla (Working at Off-Broadways’ 59E59 Theaters; Sondheim on Sondheim at the Cleveland Playhouse) as Míng (明), Guāng’s wife; Joel Perez (In the Heights , 1st national tour; Fun Home at the Public Theater) as Marco, the wisecracking Mexican deliveryman; and Joseph Anthony Foronda (Pacific Overtures and Miss Saigon on Broadway) as Zhōng Yi (忠佚), Guāng’s brother-in-law.

CREATIVE TEAM: scenic designer Daniel Ostling (Endgame and Play and Once in a Lifetime at A.C.T.; Clybourne Park on Broadway); costume designer Myung Hee Cho (Lackawanna Blues at A.C.T.; Emotional Creature at Berkeley Rep); lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols (Endgame and Play at A.C.T.; Hugh Jackman Back on Broadway and Wishful Drinking on Broadway); video designer Kate Freer (Bullet for Adolph at New World Stages; P.S. Jones and the Frozen City); and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel (Black n Blue Boys at Berkeley Rep; In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) at St. Louis Repertory). 

InterACT Programming for Stuck Elevator: 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.

Audience Exchanges:  Sunday, April 21, at 2 p.m. | Wednesday Apr. 24, at 2 p.m. Sunday, 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.

Wine Series: Tuesday, April 23, at 7 p.m. Raise a glass at this wine-tasting event featuring leading sommeliers from the Bay Area’s hottest local wineries.

PlayTime: Saturday, April 27, 12:30 p.m.  Before this matiness performance, get hands on with theatre and the artists who make it happens at the interactive preshow workshop.

Details:  Stuck Elevator runs through April 28, 2013 at American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. most Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. most Sundays.  Tickets: $20 to $90, phone 415.749.2228 or visit www.act-sf.org

Up Next at A.C.T. — National Theatre of Scotland’s internationally acclaimed production of Black Watch makes its highly anticipated Bay Area premiere May 9, 2013 at The Drill Court at the Armory Community Center, located in San Francisco’s Mission District, a space used as a National Guard facility from 1914 until 1976.  Based on interviews with soldiers who served in Iraq in Scotland’s 300-year-old Black Watch regiment, this powerful depiction of war splices together choreographed marches and Scottish ballads with searing video news footage, capturing war from the perspective of those on the ground—what it really means to be part of the war on terror and what it means to make the journey home again.  Through June 9, 2103.

A.C.T. wraps its 2012-13 season with a new production of Tom Stoppard’s rich comedy Arcadia.  In pursuit of a major literary sensation, two obsessive modern-day scholars piece together the volatile and passionate events that took place centuries earlier.  This enchanting story moves between the 19th century and the present through a series of love stories.  Characters from both eras discover connections, unearth mysteries and unravel hidden truths. May 16 – June 9, 2013.

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April 19, 2013 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 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