ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: In Carey Perloff’s riveting production of Sophocles’ “Elektra,” Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis and A.C.T.’s fabulous René Augesen enliven this age old tale of justice—at A.C.T. through November 18, 2012

L to R: René Augesen is Elektra, Olympia Dukakis is the Chorus Leader, and Allegra Rose Edwards is Chrysothemis (Elektra’s sister) in Sophocles’ “Elektra,” directed by Carey Perloff at A.C.T. Photo by Kevin Berne.

With American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) and Berkeley Rep, the Bay Area’s two most prominent theatres, staging revitalized Greek dramas this November, there’s no escaping the enduring power of the ancient Greek classics. A.C.T. presents A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff’s production of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Elektra — featuring a specially commissioned new translation by Olivier Award–winning British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, an original score by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer David Lang and Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis. Across the Bay, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre has extended its run of An Iliad, performed by Henry Woronicz and adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare with a compelling translation by Robert Fagles. An Iliad provides an unforgettable
oral overview of the battles and main characters of the Trojan War, which transpired some 3,200 years ago.  Elektra is set later and focuses on the fall-out from one of those ancient wars and is a cause and effect case study in the ideas of justice and vengeance, pitting truth and deception against each other.  Sophocles left it up to the audience to ferret out the ethics of avenging a strike to the family bloodline with more murder.  Timberlake Wertenbaker distills the story brilliantly in her adaptation with poignant and, at times, very humorous passages which are enlivened by René Augesen in particular.

A.C.T.’s Elektra is a must-see for the exceptional women it brings together on stage— René Augesen, Olympia Dukakis, Caroline Lagerfelt and Allegra Rose Edwards.  Watching A.C.T. core actress René Augesen over the past 11 years has been transformative—she just keeps digging deeper to deliver astounding character performances (she’s done over 30) that have come to anchor entire productions from Hedda in Hedda Gabbler (2007) to Esme in Tom Stoppard’s Rock–n-Roll (2008) to Ruth in Harold Pinter’s Homecoming (2011) to Beverly in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park (2011). She always good but when she gets on stage as Elektra, Agamemnon’s grief-stricken grown daughter, it is like watching some sort of primal creature emerge. She readily delivers an Elektra who cannot shake the traumatic memory of her father’s murder by her mother Clytemnestra (Caroline Lagerfelt), an Elektra who is so obsessed, so stuck in grief, that she is incapable of moving forward in her own life. Augesen credibly sinks to the lowest suffering imaginable showing the heroic and tragic nature of her character. She is addicted to pain and we can all somehow relate to that.

Caroline Lagerfelt (left) is Clytemnestra, Elektra’s mother, who was unfaithful to her husband, King Agamemnon, when he was away fighting the Trojan War and then conspied with her lover to kill him when he returned home. René Augesen (right) is Elektra who seeks to avenge her father Agamemnon’s murder. Photo by Kevin Berne.

As the entire chorus, boiled down to one character, Olympia Dukakis is formidable. The Academy-Award winning actress (Moonstruck), now 81, seems born dispensing wise counsel.  At times empathetic, at times burning with intensity, she urges the distraught Elektra to justice, knowing full-well the blood that will be shed.  Clothed in a dark gray tunic with an ornate metallic scrolling on the front (all costumes are by Candice Donnelly), Dukakis dramatically entered to the very minimalist music of Pulitzer Prize winning David Lang, which successfully evoked the sense of ancient rhythms and tones as they might have existed in that very time.  As cellist Theresa Wong began keening and wrapping on her instrument, it was as if she was calling up the ancient spirits.  As Dukakis took to the stage, she transfixed the audience and held them in her grip for the next 90 minutes.  Her natural rapport with Augesen is palpable.

And lithe Caroline Lagerfelt, as Clytemnestra, Elektra’s adulterous murderer of a mother, is a model for glorious aging.  She wears the trappings of queen hood well—exquisite jewelry and eloquent flowing gowns—and she feels justified in killing Agamemnon.  Is she?  Her daughter, Iphigenia, was murdered, in a deal that her husband Agamemnon cut with the goddess Artemis to save the Greeks in the Trojan War.  As morally reprehensible as she is, she has a case, adding complexity to the drama. In fact, many of the characters feel justified in their actions in this play—Clytemnestra needs to extract justice on Agamemnon for the death of her daughter; Orestes needs to kill his mother Clytemnestra for killing his father; and Elektra feels bound to kill Clytemnestra and her new husband Aegisthus, but as woman, she needs her brother Orestes to carry out the revenge.  With no divine intervention, Sophocles leaves the question of justice squarely on his audience.

Allegra Rose Edwards (left) is Chrysothemis and René Augesen is Elektra in Sophocles’ Elektra. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis is cast perfectly in Allegra Rose Edwards (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2013), who has survived by living with the imbalance in the universe.  Dressed in a ridiculous white dress haut couture dress looks like one of the impossibly impractical numbers that gets a full page spread in Vogue, she engages authentically with Augesen throughout the play, acknowledging that Elektra has justice on her side but she prefers to go with the flow.  In one of the play’s most touching passages, Elektra finally persuades her to offer a prayer at their father’s grave that Orestes will return and avenge their father’s death.

Orestes (Nick Steen), Elektra’s brother, and true heir to the throne, was the weak link in the play.  From the moment Orestes spoke, it seemed as if his lines were not deeply felt.  Of course, he is younger and hasn’t suffered the way Elektra has.  When he was very young, Elektra feared for his life and took him to live with King Strophius of Phocis, who raised Orestes with his own son Pylades (Titus Thompkins), who accompanies him to the oracle at Delphi.   Then, with Pylades, and his Tutor (Anthony Fusco), Orestes travels in disguise to his former home to avenge his father’s death by killing his mother and her lover.  Another Orestes might have brought more to the production.

Run time is 90 minutes

Cast: René Augesen, Elektra, Olympia Dukakis, Chorus Leader, Caroline Lagerfelt Clytemnestra, Anthony Fusco, the Tutor, Nick Steen, Orestes, Allegra Edwards, Chrysothemis, Steven Anthony Jones Aegisthus.

Creative Team: music by composer David Lang, cellist Teresa Wang,  scenic design Ralph Funicello, costume design Candice Donnell, lighting design Nancy Schertler, and sound design by Cliff Caruthers.

InterACT Programming for Elektra: 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, November 11 at 2 PM, Wednesday, November 13 at 8 PM, and November 14 at 2 PM.  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, November 13, 8 PM.  Raise a glass at this wine-tasting event featuring leading sommeliers from the Bay Area’s hottest local winderies.

PlayTime: Saturday, November 17, 12:30 PM.  Get hands on with theatre and the artists who make it happens at the interactive preshow workshop.

Details:  Elektra’s limited run ends on Sunday, November 18, 2012 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances: Tuesday-Sundays at 8 PM, with several 2 PM matinee performances, including Saturday, November 10, Sunday November 11, Wednesday November 14, Saturday November 17, and Sunday, November 18, 2012. Tickets (starting at $20 to $150) are available at or at act-sf.org or by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228

Olympia Dukakis narrates SF Symphony’s holiday performance of Peter and the Wolf  

Delight your children with San Francisco Symphony’s annual presentation ofPeter and the Wolf including festive holiday songs for the whole family to sing—perfect for music lovers of all ages.  Donald Cabrera conducts The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra as it performs Prokofiev’s charming tale with Olympia Dukakis narrating.  Approximate length is 1 hour.   Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 1 PM and 4 PM at Davies Symphony Hall.  Tickets are $27-$57 for adults and $13.50 to $28.50 for Children.  For more information and tickets: www.sf.symphony.org

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November 9, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: A.C.T.’s Samuel Beckett double bill—“Endgame” and “Play”— through June 3, 2012

Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, left, is Hamm and ) and A.C.T. core acting company member Nick Gabriel is his servant, Clov, in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” performing together with Beckett’s one-act “Play,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

No one pokes fun at the misery of existence with the crystalline lines of the late master playwright Samuel Beckett. The problem has always been finding actors who can deliver those lines with the exact flavor of irony and detachment that Beckett calls for.   Two-time Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, no stranger to Beckett, gives a memorable performance as Hamm in Beckett’s masterpiece, Endgame, which is currently at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in a double bill with Beckett’s Play, a lesser known absurd comedy written in 1963.  These two Beckett one acts are well-executed revivals that pair well together.

Play opens with a spotlight directed on the three babbling ashen faces protruding out of three huge funeral urns, placed side by side.  A man (M), Anthony Fusco, occupies the middle urn, while his wife (W1), René Augesen, occupies the left urn, and his mistress (W2), Annie Purcell, occupies the urn on the right.  Eternally together in the afterlife, locked in their urns and only able to engage in slight turns of their heads, Beckett uses this trio of lovers like a captive chorus.  Each is condemned to repeat his or her version of the affair for eternity.  One character speaks at a time, in a very mechanical and detached refrain, and only when the spotlight shines on his or her face.

A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell (left), A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco (center), and A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen (right) in Samuel Beckett’s Play, performing together with Beckett’s Endgame at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

After the realization that you cannot possibly comprehend all that is said because it is delivered too quickly, you begin to experience it as a concert, taking in fragments and understanding that the heads aren’t communicating with each other, they seem oblivious to each other.  Beckett is all about repetition, which is core to his discourse and is used as a means to unsettle some of our most fundamental notions of how humans function.  Once completed, the cycle of dialogue is repeated.  Hearing it all again, you begin to get a sense of Beckett’s brilliance, much of which will only come through if the timing and delivery of these lines is perfect.  Last Wednesday’s performance was delivered with admirable skill by this unharmonious trio of dead lovers.  A.C.T. core-acting company member Annie Purcell, who gave a vivid performance this February in as the daughter/sister, Janine, in A.C.T.’s Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, again gave a compelling performance as a seething woman who felt she had won the love of this man (M) and scorned her rival, his wife Augesen (W1).  The wife, of course, has a different take, she feels she owns him.

What makes Play all the more interesting it that it somewhat models Beckett’s personal experiences.  When Play premiered in June 1963, Beckett had recently married his long-time companion of twenty-odd years, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil.  He had also resumed his long-term affair with Barbara Bray, the acclaimed BBC script editor, who had moved to Paris to be near him.  When Play premiered, Bray not only attended but reviewed it favorably for the venerable Observer, referring to the man (M) as “scooting breathlessly back and forth between the two women, perhaps the worst of the bunch: all need and weakness and feeble, if amiable duplicity…” (A.C.T.’s program p 20).

Bill Irwin portrays the invalid, Hamm, in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” performing together with Beckett’s one-act “Play” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Endgame, one of Beckett’s best plays, takes its English name from the final part of a chess game, when there are very few pieces left, and the outcome is obvious. Its French title, Fin de partie, applies to games beyond chess as well, but there is no precise English equivalent for the phrase.  Beckett himself was an avid chess player.   Endgame is a commentary on death and our transition through life.  Beckett has whittled human drama down to the bone—longing, relationship, abuse and hope.  Everyone meets Endgame on a different terrain based on their own individual life experiences, aesthetics, and needs.  Some will see it as the story of a master and slave and others as that of an overworked caretaker tied by some means to an ill or dying man.

The setting is minimalist.  A bare, partially underground room is inhabited by four characters—Hamm the master (Bill Irwin), Clov his servant (Nick Gabriel), and Hamm’s father, Nagg (Giles Havergal), and mother, Nell (Barbara Oliver).  Hamm is blind and can’t walk and is in a wheelchair that also might be a throne. He makes Clov, who cannot sit, move him around the room, fetch objects, and look out the window for signs of life, of which there are none. Nagg and Nell have no legs and reside in huge trash urns and are fed and watered daily by Clov.  Inside this bleak little world, staged wonderfully by Daniel Ostling, the characters pass their time waiting for an end that never comes.

Bill Irwin, who has acted in Waiting for Godot three times, brings a vibrant energy to Hamm.  Irwin delighted audiences with his perfect comedic timing and remarkably elastic body movements as the wily servant, Scapin, in Molière’s Scapin, which opened A.C.T.’s 2010 season.  In Endgame, even though Hamm is confined to a chair, Irwin manages to make him the life of the party, using his dancing eyes and sharp facial gestures to imbue him with human spirit, so much so that we pity him.

Nagg (Giles Havergal, left) and Nell (Barbara Oliver) in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, performing together with Beckett’s one-act Play at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

There is a strong and palpable chemistry between Irwin and Nick Gabriel, who plays Clov. The two are well-synced in their sparse dialogue and numerous pauses but an almost comedic undertone locks into place between the two, overshadowing the necessary cruelty, abuse and anxiety that are part and parcel of the power-tripping relationship Beckett calls for.  When Clov delivers sadly powerful lines like “No one that ever lived thought so crooked as we,” we don’t understand the full extent of their perverted existence.  In this regard, A.C.T.’s enactment of Endgame falls short of its full dramatic potential. On the other hand, watching Nick Gabriel move about the stage, re-arranging a short step ladder so that he can peer out through the windows into one of two views of oblivion and report on it to Hamm, is slapstick brilliance.  So is Gabriel/Clov’s brief encounter with what he thinks is a flea in his trousers.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find any two actors with more instinctive mastery of the physical gesture than Bill Irwin and Nick Gabriel.

Beckett is frequently criticized for making people feel stupid because they don’t get it.  There’s plenty to ponder in this double bill—our human response to loneliness—but there’s a lot that’s laugh out loud funny too, even if Beckett’s characters are too exhausted to laugh themselves.

Run-time:  Play is 22 minutes long, followed by a 15 minute intermission and Endgame runs for 90 minutes

Cast Play: René Augesen (W1), Anthony Fusco (M), Annie Purcell (W2)

Cast Endgame: Bill Irwin (Hamm), Nick Gabriel (Clov), Giles Havergal (Nagg), Barbara Oliver (Nell)

Creative Team: Carey Perloff (Director), Daniel Ostling (Scenic Design), Candice Donnelly (Costume Design), Alexander V. Nichols (Lighting Design), Fabian Obispo (Sound Design), Michael Paller (Dramaturg), Janet Foster, CSA (Casting Director), Elisa Guthertz (Stage Manager, Megan Q. Sada (Assistant Stage Manager), Daniel Ostling’s staging

A.C.T. InterACT Events:

Audience Exchanges: May 22, 7 p.m., May 27, 2 p.m., June 3, 2 p.m.
After the show, stick around for a lively Q&A session with the actors, moderated by a member of the A.C.T. artistic staff.

Killing My Lobster Plays With Beckett: May 24, 8 p.m.
San Francisco’s premiere sketch comedy troupe offers an original, Beckett-inspired performance 15 minutes after the final curtain (approximately 10:15 p.m.). Possible sketches include “Hunger End Games,” “Cooking with Clov,” and a speed-dating sketch featuring Beckett characters.  Admission is free, but seating is limited. Ticketholders for the May 24 performance will receive priority seating but must RSVP—information will be emailed to you separately.  Non-ticketholders who wish to attend can add their names to the waitlist by sending an email to lobster@act-sf.org with their name and requested number of seats (limit two seats per person).

OUT with A.C.T: May 30, 8 p.m., The best LGBT night in town! Mingle with the cast and enjoy free drinks and treats at this popular afterparty. Visit www.act-sf.org/out for information about how to subscribe to OUT nights throughout the season.

PlayTime New!:  June 2, 2 p.m.
Get hands-on with the art of theater with the artists who make it happen at this interactive preshow workshop. Doors open at 12:45 p.m.; the workshop will begin promptly at 1 p.m.

Details: Endgame and Play end on Sunday, June 3, 2012, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances: Tuesday-Sundays, with several 2 p.m. matinee performances, including Wednesday May 30, 2012, Thursday, May 31, 2012, and all Saturdays and Sundays of the run.  Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at act-sf.org.

May 22, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Pinter’s “The Homecoming” at San Francisco’s A.C.T. is still pathologically disturbing after 47 years, runs through March 27, 2011

 

Written in 1964, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming was revolutionary in its exploration of the dark and dysfunctional side of family and marriage.  The original Broadway production won the 1967 Tony Award for Best Play and its 40th anniversary Broadway production at the Cort Theatre was nominated for a 2008 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Play.”   Now at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre), The Homecoming is a must-see for its superb acting, anchored by A.C.T. core actors René Augesen as Ruth and Jack Willis as Max the family patriarch.  And while it’s no longer the cutting- edge provocateur it once was, it is one of the most profoundly disturbing and exceptional portraits of a family to be found.  That’s because in the play’s near half decade of existence, our society has evolved to the point where we can recognize bits of ourselves in these wounded and intriguing characters and admit they embody a primal darkness that lies in all of us.  We’ve almost caught up with Pinter.

Lenny (Andrew Polk) puts on an aggressive front for his brother’s wife, Ruth (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen). Photo by Kevin Berne

The Homecoming is the story of a long absent son, Teddy (Anthony Fusco) who shows up in the middle of the night at his family home in North London with his wife, Ruth (René Augesen).  Teddy, a philosophy professor in the Midwest, seems to have little in common with the working-class relatives he left behind: Max, his father, (a butcher)(Jack Willis) and his younger brother Sam (a driver)(Kenneth Walsh) and Max’s two grown sons who still live at home, Lenny (pimp)(Andrew Polk) and Joey, the youngest (a boxer)(Adam O’Byrne).  They are all what a therapist might call trigger happy–constantly warring, trying to one up each other as they act out an ingrained pattern of lobbing hurtful responses back and forth.  Anything and everything is up for grabs—they fight over a cheese roll as passionately as they discuss philosophy, constantly vying for power.  As soon as Ruth enters the picture, they all compete for her attention. 

In Harold Pinter's The Homecoming at A.C.T. though March 27, 2011, Max (A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis, left) and his sons, Joey (Adam O’Byrne, second from right) and Lenny (Andrew Polk, right), have unexpected plans for Ruth (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen). Photo by Kevin Berne.

By the second act, Ruth, who was initially quiet, grows misogynistically pathological and cranks her own game into high gear, ultimately calling the shots in the family.  Augesen laces every word and gesture with ambiguity, hauntingly alluding to Ruth sexual past.  It’s a curious experience to watch a family implode before your eyes and at the same time to be wondering what it would be like to be any of them, as repulsive as each of them are. 

Acclaimed theatrical designer Daniel Ostling’s stage set, with its inward tilted walls, vertigo-inducing wooden staircase and stark lighting enhances the feeling of suffocating oppression within the family.  Thick clouds of fragrant cigar smoke and evocative jazz frame many of the conversations while Alex Jeager’s costumes for Ruth, particularly a form-fitting red silk dress, aid her in stealing power from right under the noses of these men.

Details: The Homecoming plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, through March 27, 2011. Tickets ($10-$85) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at A.C.T. online box office.

March 19, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Clybourne Park’s West Coast Premiere at A.C.T., extended through February 20, 2011

In Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park at A.C.T. through February 20, 2011, Beverly (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen) and Russ (A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco), a married couple in 1959, are packing to leave their family home. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

From all the critical buzz about playwright Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, and its recent extension at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) until February 20, you would think it was hilarious or riveting, but I found it neither.  The play, which has its West Coast premiere at A.C.T. and is directed locally by Jonathan Moscone, is so full of dumbed-down humor in Act 1, that you may not appreciate Act 2 where it all comes together.  Is this the reaction renowned provocateur Norris was aiming for in this button pusher about urban development and race?   If you like your repartee razor-sharp, steer clear of this production of Clybourne Park.   If you can hang through the first hour, you will find the story in Act 2 builds to a quite provocative end.  If you’ve read it’s funny and are expecting to laugh a lot, this is not that type of funny…this is nervous laughter that pops out and then sits by you.  

The idea of “neighborhood” in a major American city as seen through a house and its ownership, white and black, over a period of 50-odd years is a fascinating topic.  Playwright Bruce Norris takes the events of Lorraine Hansbury’s acclaimed play 1959 A Raisin in the Sun and spins a new story about race and real estate in America that picks up where that play ends.  Clybourne Park was the fictitious all-white Chicago neighborhood that the African American Younger family was moving to at the end of Hansbury’s play.   The move to the house symbolized promise—access to a broad range of resources, including school funding, infrastructure, and law enforcement that would mean a much better quality of life that would lead to a better future.   

In Norris’ Clybourne Park, we visit the same Younger house in two different eras, a half-century apart.  Act 1 is set in 1957 Clybourne Park,  just after Russ and Bev Stollers, a white couple, have unknowingly sold their house to a black family, the Youngers.  Act 2 is set in the same house in 2009 but the situation is reversed: the now-black neighborhood is gentrifying and a black couple is selling to a white couple who are planning to rebuild on that property and upset the neighborhood.  The dialogue is very similar to the one that transpired 50 years earlier in the house.  Times have changed but the concept of white privilege remains embedded in the culture of home ownership and people still have very hard time knowing what their biases are unless, of course, they are actually thrown into a situation that forces them out.  Enter Norris.  

Neighborhood association representative Karl (Richard Thieriot, left) discusses the sale of the house with Russ (A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco), while their wives, Betsy (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Emily Kitchens, back left) and Beverly (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen), make conversation. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

As the play opens, Russ (Anthony Fusco) and Bev (René Augesen) Stoller are in the process of packing up their home to relocate to Glen Meadow, a suburb outside Chicago.  Their African American housekeeper, Francine (Omozé Idehenre), is helping them.  Apron-clad Bev is heavily channeling June Cleaver and hovering over Russ but it’s too overdone, detracting.  She starts up a phonics word game about capital cities that is funny up to a point and then grinds.  Was that what substituted for meaningful conversation back then?  The way characters farcically embody their roles in Act 1 is frustrating….is that the point? 

Francine’s work shift has ended but Bev hints that she wants her to move a huge trunk upstairs and offers her a silver chafing dish, one that she pronounces she has no use for and which we assume Francine will not need either (because she is not of a class that entertains with sterling) but will accept.  Bev then takes back the offer.  Francine holds her tongue.   And so it begins…a series of gestures and phrases that form a collection of biases, universal biases, that Norris serves up and keeps simmering all night long.

The elephant in the room for the couple is the tragic loss of their son and Russ’ depression. Since their son, Kenneth, committed suicide in the home two and half years ago, it has come to be a place of pain and Russ has been unable to talk about his loss.  Bev sees their move as a fresh start. 

When Francine’s husband, Albert (Gregory Wallace), arrives to pick her up, the action kicks into high gear.  While Albert awkwardly waits, the minister, Jim (Manoel Felciano), arrives for a house call and attempts to counsel Russ which goes over horribly.  Then, Karl Lindner (Richard Thieriot), a representative from the neighborhood community association, and Karl’s deaf pregnant wife Betsy (Emily Kitchens) arrive.

The discussion, which unfolds in front of Albert, focuses on the fact that new buyers are black and the likely negative impact on property values in the neighborhood and that there are differences between blacks and whites that will make the move into the neighborhood awkward…. for the new Black residents.  It starts with what foods the neighborhood stores stock (blacks and white eat differently) and culminates in Karl’s absurd argument that blacks don’t downhill ski  (and therefore won’t enjoy the sports that other residents do.)

In 2009, neighbors Lena (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Omozé Idehenre, right) and Kevin (A.C.T. core acting company member Gregory Wallace, second from right), with their lawyer, Tom (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano, center), meet with new homeowners Lindsey (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Emily Kitchens) and Steve (Richard Thieriot), who are planning to drastically remodel the house. Photo by Erik Tomasson

Russ won’t change his mind about the sale, distancing himself from their claims that he has a responsibility to protect the community.  He feels that the community betrayed his son when he returned traumatized from Korea and that he and his wife were treated horribly after Kenneth’s suicide.  By intermission we are grappling both with what appeared to be a simplistic presentiation about racial bias in the 1950’s–none of us were alive to really know— and the loss of the son.

In Act 2, set in 2009, a group is gathered in the same living room about to wade through some legal documents and a petition protesting the proposed renovation of the house by the white new owners who are moving from the Glen Meadow suburb into Clybourne Park and are planning to build a much bigger house on the property.  The current owners are black and the suburb is now all-black and the property owners association wants to ensure that the re-do proposed for the home by the new white owners is consistent with the aesthetic of this “historically significant” (black) neighborhood. 

The discussion gets more and more inane, zeroing in on building codes and specs, and rehashing the proposed building’s height and scale, while the topic of race is circled round and round.  Norris has cleverly incorporated several people from Act 1, reintroducing them in tangentially related roles—–Bev now plays a savvy lawyer named Kathy who is representing the young white couple buying the home and Lena (Omozé Idehenre, who played the maid Francine in Act 1) is the grandniece of the Younger family matriarch (from Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun) who wants to do right by the neighborhood, meaning protect it black character. 

Lena (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Omozé Idehenre) and her husband, Kevin (A.C.T. core acting company member Gregory Wallace), have drafted a petition protesting the new design of the house. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

No one will come out in the open about how a white owner will change things. It gets heated very quickly though when race is addressed directly, culminating in an unexpected exchange of blatantly sexist and racist jokes that leaves everyone flabbergasted.  Lena’s zinger “How is a white woman like a tampon?  brings the audience fully into the drama as people melt down in uncomfortable laughter.   All to show what prejudices still lie buried in supposedly liberal people like them–AND us.  

The play concludes by unearthing the trunk from Act 1 and wrapping the subplot about the Kenneth, the young vet who committed suicide in the house, another chapter in America’s unease.

Post – Play Discussions “Experts Talk Back”: Thursday, February 10, 2011:  After the 8 p.m. performance, A.C.T. presents a new post-show discussion program “Experts Talk Back.” Stanford University Professor Michael Kahan, a specialist in 19th and 20th –century social history, will be in conversation with Scott Miller of the Oakland Zoning Commission. Free admission with performance ticket.  

Details:Clybourne Park plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, through February 20, 2011. Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at A.C.T. online box office.

February 7, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment