Black Box Productions – “the anarchist wing of Shotgun Players,” joked playwright/director Rebecca Goodberg – is currently presenting two new challenging and thought-provoking short experimental works at LaVal’s Subterranean Theater in Berkeley.
The first play, “Slings & Arrows,” written and directed by Goodberg, is subtitled “love stories from Shakespearean tragedie.”
In this series of short scenelets and monologues, all on the theme of unsatisfactory love relationships, six characters from various plays by Shakespeare springboard off of bits from the original plays, and then wing it into modern-language improvisations built around various unlikely romantic pairings.
There is some gender-bending in the casting. A drunken Romeo (a smooth Joseph Kaneko), for example, picks up Lady Macbeth (played by a man, Alan Coyne) at a bar, and they almost end up in the sack together.
Elsewhere, Portia (Benjamin Lovejoy) from “Merchant of Venice” and Desdemona (Staci Foley Marengo) from “Othello” swap dysfunctional love-life stories while chatting in the lobby of a sperm bank.
Even Brutus (Jonathan Krauss) from “Julius Caesar” and Macbeth (Drew Barrymore look-alike Eliza Bell) have a fling, although Portia also falls hard for Brutus who’s studying to get on “Jeopardy.”
Romeo manages an on-going flirtation throughout the play with aggressive, short-tempered chicken-hawk Desdemona, after he climbs up the wrong balcony into the wrong bedroom.
Most of these performers are dressed in black and other dark colors, in the LaVal’s black performance space. Fragments from contemporary pop love songs open and close the show.
Since the modern language segments of “Slings & Arrows” – more than half the play – are improvised, each night the play is different. The acting, which seemed initially a little rough from this youthful cast, smoothed out as the show progressed and the relationships evolved among the characters. It made an interesting evening.
The second play, Masha Rapoport’s “Blue Roses,” features a dreamy sister Laura (Linda Kim) and drunken poet brother Tom (John Mok) chafe under the authority of their oppressive mother Amanda (Wendee Yung).
“Blue Roses” is sort of a conceptual piece, like a Jorge Luis Borges story about a classical piece of literature existing in a modified form in a parallel reality.
The wrinkle here is that “Blue Roses” is told more from the point of view of quiet sister Laura. Director Schneider, who also conceived the piece, said he wanted originally to direct “Glass Menagerie,” but when he went back and reread the script, it was different than he remembered it.
He was interested, then, in creating a work that commented on how memory of a past experience can lock in the mind as a memory that is different from the original experience.
The actors do strong work in this show, especially Mok’s intense performance in the role of Tom. He is a fine actor. Giao-Chau M. Ly’s realistic set and Erin McKenna’s realistic costumes give the show a sense of hyper-reality after the stylized staging of the first play.
A short question and answer discussion session between audience and artists follows each play. This allows the audience members insights into the evolution of each show, and gives them a chance to comment on the results. There is also a chance to meet the actors. The night I attended, these post-play discussions were enlightening.
In the Black Box series, Shotgun Players is showing its commitment to the encouragement of “firsts”– by actors, directors, playwrights and technical people. With these two productions, the company has planted a few seeds for the future of American theater. The show runs this Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for "American Theatre," "Backstage West," "Callboard," and many other publications.
E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.