Monday, June 27, 2016

Reading: "Animal" at Shotgun Players

Nights like this make me appreciate good actors. Tonight was the first of two nights of staged readings of "Animal," by Clare Lizzimore. [Obligatory disclaimer: my wife and I are production sponsors of Shotgun's Champagne Reading Series, of which this is the second for the year.] With a minimal four days of rehearsal, a group of actors takes a raw script, does some basic blocking, and with a little bit of set and props, some lighting and sound cues, they perform two staged, script-in-hand performances of a play.

I like to read these plays in advance, so I have some idea of what to expect. I don't always do that with fully-staged plays, but with readings I like to study up. When I read "Animal" a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't terribly impressed. There was some good writing, but the interplay of the characters didn't really come across to me. So my expectations weren't too high.

But really, within the first couple of scenes, I was riveted. These actors were able to convey so much more about the characters and the play than my (admittedly somewhat cursory) reading had done.

Quick Summary

Rachel (played quite brilliantly by Jessma Evans) is a young woman in trouble. She is seeing a psychiatrist at her husband's behest, but clearly she does not want to be there. As the play progresses, we watch Rachel's home life spiraling out of control, while we struggle (along with her) to get a grip on what's happening, who the people in her life are (or who they seem to be).

This is a difficult play on a difficult subject: mental illness. The reading was followed by a really good talk-back session that touched on aspects of both the play and mental illness in general, as well as connections with Shotgun's current full production of "The Village Bike," to which it makes an interesting companion.

Mental Illness on Stage

In the course of the talk-back discussion, it occurred to me that there are really two truly difficult aspects of portraying a story of mental illness on stage. The first is actually conveying the nature of the illness, which is almost by definition impossible to describe. The ill person is almost by definition an unreliable narrator, so the playwright needs to concoct scenes and characters which are both believable and evocative of the illness, and in this I think Lizzimore succeeds quite brilliantly. The cleverness of the writing is really enhanced by having faces, bodies, and voices attached to the words, and the audience finds itself taking the disquieting, disorienting journey with the main character.

The second key challenge is coming to some kind of resolution (or not) at the end. Although the play ends on a decidedly upbeat note, there is still a lot unresolved, and some truly pregnant words from the therapist that tinge the hopeful elements with a realization that there is no sure, clean answer.

All told, it's a very powerful, honest portrayal of this very difficult subject. Some of the scenes are very painful to watch, but as the audience attested in talk-back, there were elements almost anyone, especially a parent, could relate to.

Strength of a Reading

Among the other topics discussed were the difficulties and benefits of a staged reading such as this. As someone pointed out, there has to be a lot of trust within the cast and crew, as they don't have a lot of time to get comfortable or to establish routines. Indeed, they have to make discoveries even as they perform. And there has to be a lot of trust with the audience, too, as they have to fill in some of the elements that in a full production would be handled with music, lights, or blocking.

But with all that, there is also the freshness of discovery, of having to commit to your first impulses, and not being able to fall back on habit or routine. Cast and audience get to discover a lot as they charge in together, which makes the performance even more intimate that a regular play.

Those are the things that inspired us to sponsor this reading series, and this reading really delivered. If you can make it to closing night tomorrow (Tuesday), I would highly recommend it.

I won't go into the comparisons with "The Village Bike" here, because I don't think I can do so without a whole lot of spoilers. Suffice it to say that if you've seen "Bike," you'll see lots of interesting points of interaction. And if you haven't, perhaps this will inspire you to see it: It's a good pairing.

Two thumbs up, as those movie guys used to say.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"The Invisible Hand" at Marin Theatre Company

I've been looking forward to seeing "The Invisible Hand" since it was announced a year or more ago. We had seen Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced" in New York earlier, and saw it again this season at Berkeley Rep. The writing is terrific, and he's tackling issues that seem really timely. So knowing nothing about this play, I really wanted to see it.

Quick Summary

As the name suggests, the play treats on economics and market forces, and chooses a rather unique point of entry to that. An American banker is kidnapped in Pakistan, held by a group of locals for a significant ransom. Unable to raise the amount they want, the banker contrives an idea to essentially teach his captors the techniques he uses in business to parlay the amount he has into the amount they want to set him free.

I have to say, this premise is a bit far-fetched, but once you buy into it, it's a pretty interesting setup, and it plays out well.

Once we get into the trading and arbitrage, we get to see some new aspects of all the characters, as ideals and pragmatism come smack up against greed, corruption, and suspicion. Eventually it all plays out more like a spy-vs-spy mystery-thriller, where everyone's motivations and actions come into question and no one knows who to trust.

Stuff I Liked

This category could go on a while. The writing is tight, and the acting is quite good. I was really looking forward to seeing Craig Marker as the banker after so recently seeing him in MTC's "Anne Boleyn" as two different English kings. Very different role here, obviously, but he handles it well. And Pomme Koch as one of the captors gives quite a good performance as a fluent English speaker (for reasons explained). All four actors were quite good.

And again, the set design was quite striking. Where so recently we'd been in English castles, the theater is here transformed into a tiny prison cell, somewhere in Pakistan. It's very effective as a small, cramped space. The cell itself becomes something of a character in the play. Nice design, well implemented.


One of the signs of a good play is that when you leave the theater, you're still thinking about and discussing the play and its issues, and in that regard, this one was strong: We discussed it all the way back to the East Bay. Topics ranged from religion to economics, to the plausibility of some of the "fundraising" techniques employed. In truth, most of the play seems a lot less plausible when examined afterward, but the fact that it kept us all pretty much enthralled during the show suggests that it is effective, and the weaknesses we discussed later were not serious flaws in the play.

I was impressed with how well Akhtar kept us all guessing about where allegiances really lay, both by having it a topic of dialogue in the play and by having characters betray their words. Although I was fairly certain from the outset what the ultimate outcome for the captive would be, the play kept me interested and reexamining my views throughout.

In short, a good play, well produced and acted. Can't ask for much more than that out of an evening at the theater.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

"For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday" at Berkeley Rep

I was really looking forward to this season-closer at Berkeley Rep. I'm a big fan of Sarah Ruhl, and have really enjoyed some of her works produced at Berkeley Rep (Eurydice, Dear Elizabeth) and elsewhere (Eurydice, Stage Kiss, The Oldest Boy). Ruhl has a great gift for dialogue, and produces characters I really care about.

And then there was "For Peter Pan...". There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but there's nothing very profound, either. It's pretty much "you grow up, you get old, you die." I kept waiting for some greater insight. Family relationships are, or can be, good. Religion and politics are controversial, but you stick with your family anyway. Some choices let you postpone part of the growing up thing.

Nicely written, with a few very clever moments. Nicely acted, but with nothing outstanding. It feels fairly "real," or at least, realistic, and maybe that's the problem. Real life isn't dramatic. Normal people are pretty boring. I kept waiting for the bit that would justify all this, but it never came.

Odd Choices

I was a little surprised with this play for a couple of reasons. For one, it starts with the family-gathered-for-dying-parent scene. It's not my favorite trope to start with, and I've seen it recently, at this theater, and done better ("Aubergine," which predates me blogging...sorry!). And also in Shotgun's reading of "You Got Older." So I'm struggling a little with Berkeley Rep's choice to put such a similar play on the stage again so soon.

The set design was clever, with reusable pieces that can morph from hospital to home to Neverland. I kind of liked the prologue, where Ann (Kathleen Chalfant) comes out through the curtain to talk with the audience. Unfortunately, during a later scene change, the crew kept bumping the curtain, which was very distracting, and then later scene changes happen without the curtain dropping, so crew are moving sets and pieces while I'm supposed to be watching something else. I kept looking for some meaning in the choices director Les Waters made here, but there didn't seem to be any. Was it meant to be related to Ann playing Peter Pan as a child? I didn't get it.

Family Matters

Individually, I thought all the five siblings in the play were pretty good characters, well acted. But there wasn't a whole lot of bond displayed between them. There was shared experience, which was good. There were a few odd questions that represented attempts to elicit information that aging family members would clearly already know about each other.

And then the deceased father wanders through the room while they're having his wake. It's cleverly staged and choreographed so that he can sit at a seat that was recently vacated, etc. And obviously it serves the purpose of showing that in some way he's still there. But that never really goes anywhere. We just have a symbolic presence, a couple of laughs, and then get upstaged by the dog. To what end? There doesn't seem to be a larger message.

Bottom Line

The play was OK, but I expected much more from playwright, director, and cast. It seemed like no one's heart was really in it, and the reaction from the audience was warm, but not particularly enthusiastic. I don't think this will be particularly memorable.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"The Village Bike" at Shotgun Players

OK, now I've seen it, so I can comment. The play is "The Village Bike" by Penelope Skinner, running through June 26, then in repertory for the rest of the year.

Quick Recap

As noted last week, I had read this play more than once a couple of years ago, and wasn't particularly enchanted with it. But director Patrick Dooley insisted that there was something there that I was missing, and that I would appreciate it more when I saw it produced.

I will concede that it's better when performed, but still not going to be a big favorite of mine. That said, many others in the crowd (including my wife) liked it, and some of them liked it a lot.


Becky is newly pregnant, and though she loves her husband, John, the pregnancy is causing some unanticipated rifts in the relationship. In particular, she's feeling randy, and all he wants to do is read books about babies and set up the nursery. As a result, she starts seeking other partners in the little village they have recently moved to.

There is a lot of sex in this play: Porn, costumes and role-playing, simulated sex on stage, etc. So definitely for an older audience. Leave the kids at home. Also, they are doing a lot of talk-backs after the shows, with the cast and director talking with audience members.

What's Up

There is a lot going on in this play. Elissa Beth Stebbins manages to make more out of Becky's character than I'd felt was there in the text of the play (one of the shortcomings I had noted when I read it). She and Nick Medina as John manage to inhabit the characters quite well, but I have never found their relationship particularly believable. I thought Kevin Clarke's portrayal of Oliver was quite compelling. Indeed, he and his largely-absent-from-the-play wife Alice (played by Megan Trout) seem to be the only ones who actually understand who they are and how their lives work.

A big theme in the play is the different faces/characters/aspects of ourselves we present to different people in our lives. Part of that is about keeping secrets, part is about the separation of one's emotional and physical/sexual selves, and how those might not be satisfied by the same partner. I don't find that story line as fascinating as many others seem to (as evidenced by the discussion in the talk-back). My wife plausibly suggests that this is because I don't have a lot of different faces to my life. I tend to present the same "me" to just about everyone. WYSIWYG, I guess. She compares this aspect of the play to Stew's excellent "Passing Strange," which is an association I hadn't made, but makes some sense.

One of the actors described the play as being kind of a mirror, and all indicated that they have had some real challenges looking into that mirror and dealing with what it reflects back at them.

The Good and The Bad

The performance is very well done. And here is where I probably differ most with the Chronicle's reviewer. She says that doesn't matter, because basically the play shouldn't be performed at all. That is, in my mind, nonsense: You don't dismiss the work of the construction workers who built the Bay Bridge just because you don't care for the design. Their work matters to them and to everyone who uses the bridge. The performers and the performance matter. Presentation of ideas, including those we disagree with or that offend us, are extremely important and socially useful. It is far better to ponder promiscuity, infidelity, deception, sexism, etc., by seeing plays or reading books than by exploring them oneself. At the very least, it can prepare one for what lies ahead, or it might deter one from actually partaking.

I spent a part of the weekend, after seeing the play, with one of my high school teachers, who had led us through reading John Milton's "Areopagitica." One of the passages from that has stuck with me all these years, and it's applicable to this discussion:
Since therefore the knowledge and survay of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human vertue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with lesse danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity then by reading all manner of tractats, and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.
 And by the same token, it's the benefit of seeing "too much theater."

I suppose it's possible that there could be a play that is so badly written and so poorly performed that it is not worth staging. But even a bad play, well staged, can be educational. And there is merit, perhaps, in a good play with a flawed performance. The whole point is to get people thinking and talking, to get the material and the ideas out in front of people where they can be examined and evaluated. When we declare that subject matter is so offensive that it ought not be performed, we lose the validation of the ideals we hold dear, or lose the opportunity to remember and share the reasons we object to other notions.

Final Evaluation

So where do I come down on this production? I still think it's a pretty flawed script. I felt there needed to be more back story for Becky and John's life up to now. And I don't find the ending very satisfying. Skinner intentionally leaves it ambiguous. Becky is injured and scared and feeling kind of trapped, which frankly isn't all that different from where she was to start with. Sadder (maybe) but wiser (maybe), and...?

Also, in the talk-back, actor David Sinaiko noted that the script says the play is set in "Middle England," which is a specific socio-economic term that refers to working- and middle-class people outside London. That class distinction seems important to the story, but many of the characters don't actually seem to fit it: John flies off to Amsterdam to film a commercial, Alice is away working for weeks or months at a time, and Jenny, though currently home-bound, is a theoretical astrophysicist. The values, mores, and education of these people seem somewhat at odds with the Middle England description, and I think make the plot less plausible. All these people, save Mike the plumber, seem to have an awful lot of time on their hands for making mischief.

That said, the performances are strong, and particularly compelling on the part of Kevin Clarke. And it seems to be raising issues that resonate with a lot of people, which is a good thing. So I'd say go see it if you think the subject matter is of interest to you. The material doesn't particularly speak to me, but I always find good performances worth watching.

Friday, June 10, 2016

"Jekyll and Hyde" at Central Works

Central Works is a really small theater company that performs new plays (original works, world premieres) in a 50-seat theater inside the beautiful Berkeley City Club. I've seen several of their plays over the last couple of years, and have been impressed enough to subscribe. On one hand, it's pretty inexpensive, something like $30 per show. On the other hand, it's kind of a "pig in a poke" situation: You don't know what the plays will be like when you subscribe, since they aren't done yet.

I'll take those chances.

And just to reiterate the truism I frequently cite, that theater is a very small town, the production sponsor for this play, Ted McClellan, was a year ahead of me at the same high school, and now  serves on the board of Central Works.

Quick Summary

Tonight's offering was "Jekyll and Hyde," a play by Gary Graves inspired by a story told about Robert Louis Stevenson and the writing of "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." It's a pretty interesting mashup, featuring Brian Herndon as Louis (Stevenson) and Danielle Levin as his wife, Fanny.

Louis is trying to write. He hasn't produced much lately, so there are financial pressures, but he's too proud to ask his father for money, despite Fanny's urging. His last several attempts at stories have  gone up in smoke, unfinished.

The bulk of the play involves an ailing Louis trying to explain to Fanny this new story he's writing, about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all the while slipping in and out of the characters, while Fanny recognizes aspects of Louis' real life and character in the story. So it's pretty intricately woven.

The whole show takes place in one room, in one act, in about an hour and a half.

More Detail

Since it's been a theme for me this week, I should say that I found Herndon's accents quite credible. His Louis has a recognizable and consistent Scottish brogue, but it's fully intelligible. Jekyll speaks proper British English, while Hyde has a lower-class accent. All well delineated and consistent. To complete the set, Fanny is American.

The play does a nice job of weaving the frame story of Louis and Fanny in with the conception and telling of the Jekyll and Hyde story, with Fanny serving as our agent to interpret story elements against details of Louis' own character, relationship with his father, etc. I'd say that holds up about 75-80 percent of the way through.

Unfortunately, about the time we come to the realization that Louis doesn't have an end for his story yet, it also starts to unravel the play as well. The play meanders a bit trying to come in for a satisfying end, and frankly, I was a little confused by the way it concluded. But it held my interest and kept me thinking.

More Chances

Central Works has announced a one-week extension of the play, so it closes on June 19 (fun for Father's Day!). I'd say it's well worth spending an evening.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Stirring Things Up

I was going to write about something completely different today, but it will wait.

It appears that a goodly discussion is growing in the local theater community, prompted by today's SF Chronicle review of "The Village Bike" at the Shotgun Players. To be blunt, the reviewer really did not like the play, to the point of giving it an empty-chair rating (the lowest available). [For more info on the Chronicle's iconic rating system, see history here and an amusing cinematic application and commentary here.] The comments on the online version of the review so far seem to be largely opposed, meaning people liked the play, and/or disliked the review.

I can't comment on the play itself yet: I'm scheduled to see it this weekend, and will comment at that point. I will note a couple of things about The Village Bike now, however:
  1. In case anyone reading this doesn't know, I am a board member for the Shotgun Players, so I will not pretend to be uninvolved, uninterested, or unbiased. I am friends with most of the staff and company, and also with many of the artists.
  2. I read "The Village Bike" script a couple of years ago and didn't care for it (for reasons quite different from those expressed by the Chronicle reviewer). I read it again at the behest of Shotgun Artistic Director Patrick Dooley, who felt I might have missed some things he liked about it. I still didn't care for it.
  3. At the time I read the play, Shotgun was considering it for inclusion in last season, the season made up entirely of plays written by women. I argued against including it, in part because I didn't care for it myself, and in part because of other plays I thought were stronger.
  4. As it turned out, Shotgun did not include Village Bike in that season, but did put it in this year. Patrick tells me that he had my objections and concerns in mind as he went about directing the play. So I look forward to seeing the production, whether I end up liking it or not.
Ultimately, going to the theater for me isn't about whether I "like" a particular play. I hope to be challenged, to encounter new ideas and interpretations, and to see the work of writers, actors, designers, and directors presenting those things in creative ways. There are plenty of times I come out of a play disappointed by some aspect, but there is nearly always something great or interesting or novel to me, and that makes it worthwhile.

I didn't join the Shotgun board because I like everything they do. I don't expect to like every show at any theater I subscribe to. Indeed, if I like everything a theater does, that theater isn't trying hard enough. So far, pretty much every season at Shotgun has included at least one play that didn't appeal to me, but that's great. I realize that it's not all about me, and that other people like and appreciate things that I don't.

Ironically, the post I had planned to write today was about how we've gone about choosing which theaters to subscribe to, and how that process (and the choice of theaters) has changed over the years. Still lots to say on that subject, but this particular discussion kind of trumped the larger picture.

A couple more points

I quite appreciate the way Shotgun is embracing the challenge of this negative review. A review in the Chronicle can really make or break a play in this market, and Shotgun has come out in both the Chronicle comments section and social media as welcoming the discussion. I'm glad the new Chronicle reviewer has the spine to take a stand. A review that doesn't provoke thought and discussion is no better than a play that doesn't. If the theater-going public just wants to sheepishly follow the dictates of a middle-of-the-road review, then they deserve the endless repetitions of "Wicked" and "A Christmas Carol" and such that will result.

One forum of discussion on this production is ongoing at Works By Women San Francisco. The discussion predates the Chronicle review, but the comments have now embraced and included it.

And finally, I think it's terrific that there is a dialog going on about this. This is why theater exists.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

"Chester Bailey" at ACT

This is a difficult play. Simple, on the one hand, with only two characters, but complex in a number of ways.


The blurb on the website covers it pretty well: Dan Clegg plays Chester Bailey, a young man severely injured in an industrial incident during the waning days of WWII. He already feels pretty guilty about not serving in the military, so he has constructed an elaborate denial of the severity of his injuries. David Strathairn plays the doctor assigned to his case, trying to unscramble what's going on with Bailey while also dealing with his personal issues.

This is a new play, and I believe a world premiere, on a limited special run at ACT's Strand Theater.

Strong Casting

This is a case where we know all the actors pretty well. Clegg is young, but well established in the Bay Area in recent years with impressive turns in "Tribes" at Berkeley Rep and "Major Barbara" at ACT along with numerous roles at CalShakes. And Strathairn is a pretty big star in his own right, on both stage and screen (big and small). So expectations are pretty high.

Clegg comes out strong from the start, as a kind of likable and brash kind from New York dealing with not joining up for the war effort because his mother doesn't want him to. So his father gets him a job at the Brooklyn naval yard, which will eventually be the site of his disabling.

Good and Bad

There are good and bad elements right from the start. Sitting in the audience, looking at the stage, it's quite a striking set (designed by Nina Ball, wonderfully creative as usual). It's a believably spartan hospital of the mid-1940s.

Both characters start off by giving their back stories to us, but in a rather disjointed way that is a little off-putting. My mind was immediately taken back to the ships-in-the-night romance of "The Last Five Years" I saw last week at ACT. But soon enough the characters meet up and interact, and all is fine after that.

Truthfully, much of Strathairn's character's early narration seems a bit pointless. It all eventually ties in, but you spend a fair amount of the early scenes wondering why the heck he's telling you some of this stuff. Bailey, on the other hand, wanders a bit, but that just seems to be his character, where Strathairn's Doctor Cotton strikes one as much more straight-ahead, so the meanderings of his speeches are curious.

This is magnified somewhat by Chester's quite direct way of speaking, versus the doctor's rather halting and hesitant manner. While we initially took the doctor's manner to be a character affect, we later decided that Strathairn was having some difficulty with the lines. Having seen him previously, and in more demanding roles, this seems odd to me. On the other hand, this is a short run of a new play, and maybe he just isn't comfortable in the role. There were definitely fumbled lines later, and it seemed apparent that he was aware that some of it wasn't working. Again, not what I expect from an actor of his caliber.

Fascinating Material

There's plenty I could say about the subject matter of the play. It really boils down to an investigation of the stories we all tell ourselves about our lives: what happened and why, and sometimes just as importantly what didn't, and why not. Bailey's case is rather an extreme one: he's in denial about his blindness and his amputated hands, but the doctor's life involves some fictions that are in many ways just as critical.

It's not always brilliantly handled, but there are some very good twists and turns to the plot as we eventually learn much more about everyone involved. And at the end, we circle around and ask ourselves just how reliable these characters really are at all. So there's a lot to chew on.


Well worth seeing. The intimacy of the Strand theater works well for a play of this scope. It rather makes me wish they had staged "The Last Five Years" there as well, as I think that show could have used a bit more connection to the audience, and less physical separation between its two characters on the large Geary Theater stage.

Anyway, for a show that is relying on star power to draw people in, I thought this came up a little short. But the play itself is pretty strong, and I think with a bit more work it could be quite interesting.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

"Red Velvet" at SF Playhouse

Third play in as many nights, all at different theaters. I tell you, when you're aiming for "too much theater," you have to go to extremes sometimes. On the plus side, my wife invited me to a lovely dinner at Boulevard before the show, so I dressed up for the occasion. It's kind of fun walking across town in a suit with a backpack slung across your back. But I digress.

Quick Summary

The famed 19th Century British Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean has fallen ill, and the acting company needs to find a substitute to play the lead in Othello. They turn to an African American named Ira Aldridge. This would make him the first African American to play Othello on the British stage. Needless to say, there is controversy, both within the acting company and without.

It's an interesting portrait of racial and class struggles in Britain in the 1800s, as well as a glimpse at the theater of the time. Did I mention that this is all based on history? It's a pivotal time in the history of race relations, slavery, and the theater, so that seems ripe for a play.

Things I Liked

I should start off by saying I'm a big fan of Carl Lumbly. I tend to think that I'm more about the plays than the particular actors (although I do have my favorites!). But I became aware of Carl Lumbly when he had a recurring, though relatively small, role on "L.A. Law" back in the 80s/90s. His intensity really came through the screen, and when I learned that he was a Bay Area resident and actor in the local scene, I was quite delighted. I think I've seen at least four plays with him in the lead in the last couple of years, and he was terrific in all of them.

So, number one: Carl Lumbly.

Number two: The design. Loved the staging. They did a really nice job of suggesting the large, ornate Covent Garden  theater. Both Gary English's set design and Kurt Landisman's lighting and projections were lovely. Combined with Abra Berman's costumes, it was all quite evocative of the period.

Number three: The set-ups. The first act has a bunch of really good scenes, clearly designed to set up some later drama. From the opening scene that creates a frame we return to at the end, through the "Guess Who's Coming to the Theater?" scene where Aldridge is introduced to the company, we get lots of indications of what is to come.

Number four: The cast. I thought everyone did a good job. Special shout-outs for Britney Frazier, who pulls off a very credible Jamaican servant, and Elena Wright, who gets to juggle three roles with three different accents. (You'll recall from my Treasure Island post the other night that accents are very important to my crowd.)

Little Disappointments

There were a few things that came up a little short for me. I want to preface this with a note that it's been a long and busy week, and I'd just had a large dinner and split a bottle of wine, so maybe not the best set-up for a heavy play. But, here goes (they aren't serious or numerous):

  • Follow-ups. Remember all those cool set-ups in the opening act? Not all of them get followed up. OK, I know the playwright is supposed to surprise me sometimes. I don't insist that the follow-through be the thing I was expecting. But I was expecting something. And in several cases, I just didn't see it. Sometimes we just hear about things that happened offstage, but hey, you've set us up for some confrontations between (for example) Aldridge and Charles Kean (Tim Kniffin), and we don't get to see it.
  • The sacking. The scene where Aldridge is inevitably sacked from the production is not well written. There is a long scene between Aldridge and the company manager (who is rather inexplicably French...maybe I missed that explanation), but it doesn't really settle anything. You're fired. But, but, but... No, you're fired. Repeat a few times. Kind of a let down there.
  • The whole second act, really. I went out at intermission feeling quite good about the play as a whole (for all the reasons listed above), and looking forward to seeing how it all played out. And then, it didn't, really. Aldridge had a good scene with his wife, and then she is gone. There is some chemistry with his leading lady (Susi Damilano), and it's implied that there are allegations of impropriety, but we only hear about them indirectly. They spend the whole first act setting up the dynamite, attaching a fuse, showing us the matches, and then they kind of tell us that it blew up. Over there. It's not my fault.
So that's a little disappointing, but on the whole, it's a good show, well acted, well designed and produced. Mostly the script is a bit disappointing for what it promised to be. Still, a good night at the theater, and worth seeing.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

"Lear's Shadow" at The Marsh

Earlier this week I had a weird dream, that I had been cast in a play. A real, professional play, by actual, serious theater people. I thought this quite odd, because I really have no desire to be on stage. Never have, really. I'm quite content to sit in the audience and kibitz.

So tonight the family went to see "Lear's Shadow" at The Marsh in Berkeley. In part this was motivated by the fact that my daughter just did a paper on "King Lear," analyzing the play from the perspective of the Fool. And partly because I've always liked Lear and the Fool, and have enjoyed other treatments of similar ideas, such as Christopher Moore's novel, "Fool."

Anyway, we get there early and stake out seats in the front row. The Marsh is small, so front row is right on the stage. [And by way of background, The Marsh focuses mostly on single-performer shows. In the case of this show, well-known Bay Area actor and clown Geoff Hoyle.] About mid-way through the show, a somewhat demented King wanders over to the front of the audience, trying to figure out if this Fool he perceives is real, and now he's grabbing me, assessing  whether I am what he perceives me to be. Not long after, he's sitting on my lap, seeking respite from the elements in a hovel off the blasted heath.

All told, we had three or four solid interactions. I guess he picked me out as the solid subject in the middle of the first row, rather than sitting on a grandmother or a squirming kid. That's about as close as I need to get to being cast in the play, thanks! It was fun, but it was enough.

Quick Summary

All I knew coming in was the blurb on the Marsh's website, that it was Hoyle doing Lear from the Fool's point of view. I suppose that's true, as far as it goes. The frame story is that this Fool is applying for a job, and naturally one of the interview questions is why he left his last position. That entails a bit of story-telling.

I was somewhat expecting just a condensed version of King Lear, but that's not really it. It's more like the Fool's impressions and interpretation of the elements of the play he's involved in, with some recreation/re-enactment of certain key scenes.

The play takes somewhat longer than the advertised 80 minutes. It was more like 95-100 minutes, but it wasn't dragging. I think he was just into it.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Hoyle is an amazing physical actor, as you know if you've seen him perform elsewhere. Seeing him up close is a real treat--his face is quite elastic and expressive, and some of his physical maneuvers are quite impressive. At the start of the performance, I was a little worried that it was going to be mostly clown-and-mime-and-magic stuff, but that was unfounded. He moved pretty quickly into telling his story, and that's where it gets good.

As I noted earlier, it's not a condensed staging of King Lear. Rather, Hoyle has pulled out the core story line and excised the politics and extra characters. This is the story of Lear, his daughters, and his Fool, and that's terrific. It's a little stilted when he's trying to portray a scene with the Fool and all three daughters as children; the character transitions take a bit too long, but the portrayals are clear, and they serve him well and consistently later in the story. It's clear how those three princesses grow up to be the three daughters who we know from Shakespeare's play.

But the best bits are when we get down to the foolish King and his regal Fool. The fluidity of the performance really gets going, and it plays well into his portrayal of the fluid dynamics of the relationship between the two (and by association, with the daughters). It's quite powerful and moving, and works on both thoughtful and emotional levels.


There is a nice little interlude before we get to the final climactic section of the show where Hoyle steps out of character and talks to the audience about King Lear and makes sure we all know the story, and he talks about his long-standing relationship with Shakespeare and King Lear in particular. I thought it worked very well, both for drawing in the audience and setting up the last scene.

Any version of Lear runs the risk of getting caught up in the overwhelming emotion, the vagaries of unforgiving nature, and the descent of a great king into madness and ruin. Hoyle makes a nod to that, and manages to avoid the traps that surround him. He manages to be thoughtful, yet emotionally evocative, but without losing himself and his audience in the theatrics. And to me, that's the triumph of the piece: he communicates an essential set of messages from the story by stripping away a lot of the distracting elements.

I have to say this reminds me of part of what I find compelling in the current "Hamlet Roulette" in repertory at Shotgun Players this year. I know I haven't written about it here yet--rest assured I will!--but that, too, strips away a lot of the side stories and unnecessary characters to cut to the heart of the story the director wants to tell. The fact that Geoff Hoyle both wrote and performs "Lear's Shadow" is impressive, especially because it works so well.


I should mention that The Marsh is doing a fundraiser, their Renewal Campaign. You can learn more about it at their website or by emailing to renewal (at)

"Treasure Island" at Berkeley Rep

This was one of the shows that got me excited for the current season at Berkeley Rep. Treasure Island was one of those books I loved when I was a kid, and enjoyed when I re-read it as an adult. So seeing it on stage, adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman,  in a production in conjunction with Lookingglass Theatre Company (of whom I've heard great things), seemed like a sure thing. Plus, pirates!

And on the whole, I liked it. There are some issues, but overall, I liked the production. Reactions in my group were mixed, including some who left at intermission.


Really, what do I need to say? It's Treasure Island, adapted (quite faithfully) from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. It's Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, Billy Bones, and a cast of pirates looking for treasure. On an island. X marks the spot. This is kind of the Ur-pirate story, and if you don't know it, nothing I say here is going to help you.

The set is very clever. It's a big wooden swing with ship's rigging that can be stationary to serve as the Admiral Benbow Inn or the stockade on the island, but can also rock and roll when the ship is at sea. I thought that was quite well done. There are roving musicians playing sea chanteys, and overall the nautical elements are quite convincing.

Unexpected Excitement

In the second act, just as Jim is about to make his surprise entrance to the stockade, a fire alarm went off. We were all pretty stunned for a few seconds, and then Captain Smollett (Philip R. Smith) took command and urged us all to evacuate in a calm and organized manner. We did. We all headed out to the street, the Berkeley Fire Department came and apparently concluded that the alarm was in error (or the put out whatever set it off), and we filed back in after about a 15-minute interlude. The cast did a good job of picking up where they'd left off.

I have to say, I can't recall ever being in a theater and having an alarm go off like that. We had a somewhat similar episode during a college basketball game many years ago at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, but no one apparently believed it was real. They just kept playing, and no one left. Kind of surreal, that.

Anyway, it made for kind of a long evening. The program lists the run time as 2:10, plus a 15-minute intermission. So one would expect the 7:00 show to end before 9:30, but we didn't get out until about 10:00, so things ran a bit long even without the interruption.

My Thoughts

It did seem a bit sluggish at times. We deliberated over whether the heavily accented characters were speaking slowly so as to enunciate more clearly. But truthfully, even with that they were a bit hard to understand at times. And both Jim Hawkins (John Babbo) and Long John Silver (Steven Epp) seemed to have some difficulty deciding which accent they were going to use. Where other actors were changing roles at times, both of these were playing only a single role, so a solid accent (whatever it be) would be helpful. At least one, probably two, of our party who left at the intermission said they just couldn't take the wandering accents from those characters.

But we persisted through that, and were mostly pleased that we did. The second act gets a bit more into the psychological drama of negotiating with pirates when your health and safety, at least, are on the line. I'll spare you any spoilers. Suffice it to say that we get to a satisfactory ending.

Maybe my expectations were a bit too high for this show. But I did think the production was top quality (set, light, and sound all very well designed and implemented). The pacing and accent issues struck me as issues that I would have expected director Zimmerman to have ironed out long before this--certainly I have not encountered such in the other productions of hers I've seen at Berkeley Rep and Ashland.

And finally there is Steven Epp. I like the guy--really, I do. He is a very talented clown and actor, but in all the roles I've seen him play, he is definitely Steven Epp. And that contributed somewhat to the slow pace of the play tonight, as he mugged and drew out some of his bits. He does it well, but at a price to the overall production. Those stylings are suited to a broad farce than in an ensemble adventure story.

Bottom Line

It was worth going. There was a lot to like in the show, but even without the fire-alarm interruption, the show was feeling a bit long. A bit tighter direction and a little more discipline with the language would have helped a lot.

But still, pirates! And the second pirate show of the season at Berkeley Rep, following The Hypocrites' Pirates of Penzance. So extra points for extra pirates.