Arts & Events
Central Works' Penelope's Odyssey;Actors Ensemble, The Winter's Tale; Berkeley Rep/Tricycle Theatre (UK),The Great Game: Afghanistan.
Gary Graves' new play, Penelope's Odyssey, directed by John Patrick Moore, playing through November 21 at the Berkeley City Club, proves to be one of Central Works' most challenging productions to date, a triumph of the company's unique collaborative method, something they evolved together well before they became the resident troupe at the City Club—and they're celebrating their 20th season next year.
Like a tightly meshed net, cast into the Mediterranean, the play brings the wily wanderer and shape-shifter Odysseus up onto the sands of Ithaca—the guileful, maybe mendacious opportunist of Greek Tragedy as much as Homer's resourceful hero, with a hint of Samuel Beckett's intellectual tramp to boot—in an equally crafty tour-de-force of acting by Terry Lamb. He meets his match in Jan Zvaifler's Penelope, a wary yet unwavering presence on the home front, sweeping through the palace in aquamarine gown and Jackie O. sunglasses, as well as his suspicious, stalwart son—or is Telemachus his son?—and Antinous, the playboy prince of the suitors descending on apparently widowed Penelope, played respectively by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and Matt Lai, both with unusually nuanced performances.
Gary Graves—who seems to thrive, squeezing blood from a stone, new plays from shopworn classics: witness his version of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor a few years back—clearly is playing off the kind of speculations about the pre-Olympian gods, about matriarchy overtaken by patriarchs, found in Robert Graves' books, in Jane Harrison and the Cambridge Ritualists, and elsewhere. But Penelope's Odyssey is no glib conceptualization of Homer after modern theory. It's a kind of anachronistic backstory look at the human side of these figures out of epic legend, what they've become after the confusions of war, wandering, uncertainty—and the self-consciousness of their legendary status.
As usual, the company concentrates a lot of great stagecraft in the intimate environs of the City Club: Moore's direction creatively uses every square inch, it seems; Graves doubles on light design, which is particularly effective dying out on the apparition of one character's shade; Greg Scharpen, manning the booth, works wonders with sea and land sounds and music. Tammy Berlin's costuming is just right, too, from Penelope's gowns to Odysseus' castaway hoodie, torn trousers and deckies, to Antinous' motorcycle gear and red helmet, when he has to take a spin around Ithaca "to think things out," after his brusque suitorly advances to Penelope haven't borne fruit.
But particular to this show and the very best of the rest of Central Works' repertoire over the years is an immediacy that mirrors their method for developing a new play. Afterwards, the participants all commented in conversation how important scenes were uncertain as to their manner of staging until days before opening, in a process that had lasted months. That combination of careful preparation and controlled improvisation in development gives a genuine theatricality to results like this—spontaneous, yet in command; emotionally and intellectually vulnerable, yet assertive—in contrast to much polished but finally vapid work onstage in bigger houses.
Right up to the final—and most stunning—scene, this backstory take on an original classic remains unpredictably wayward, intriguingly theatrical.
Central Works is also one of the few theaters left who promote reasonable prices—a sliding scale of $25 down to $14 ($23 online) and several pay-what-you-will performances.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 pm; Sundays at 5, 2315 Durant; 558-1381; centralworks.org
Actors Ensemble is staging that unusual piece of theater, Shakespeare's late "Romance" (though it's consistent with so much of Baroque theater, from England and elsewhere in Europe) The Winter's Tale, directed by Jeremy Cole in a delightful, almost storybook version, with set by Norman De Veyra and lights by Bob Gudmudsson. The first half is drama, telling of the self-deception of the King of Sicilia over the relations between his queen and his old friend, the ruler of Bohemia. The second half is mostly farce and rustic comedy,
The first half—and a bit of the last—belong to the women, with Kerry Gudjohnsen, fine as the falsely accused Queen of Sicilia, and Holly Bradford as her loyal defender, both shining. The comedy in the second part shows slapstick-y humor by Rhio Ossola and Tavis Kammet as the Old and Young Shepherds and a spirited performance by Jaime Lee Currier as Autolycus, one of Shakespeare's most unusual clowns, a kind of cozener, which the program modernizes nicely as "con-man." Stanley Spenger and Richard Aiello play the kings, with Robert Cooper good as the loyal advisor to one who schleps with the other, when the first goes ballistic from jealousy. The cast includes Josie Alvarez, Jamie Atlas, Paul Dana, Madeleine Hanson, Joseph Hirsch, Rachel Siegel, Ty Mark Williams, David Weiner—and that trouper, late of York, Norman Macleod.
Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p. m., Sundays at 2 (Thursday November 18 at 8), Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck (at Berryman); $12-$15.
The Great Game, a three-part marathon of a play—or many plays and vignettes by various hands (Including David Edgar and Lee Blessing), following the history of Afghanistan's lopsided—and bellicose—relation to the outside world, from the mid-19th century to the present, is on at Berkeley Rep only through November 7, performed by Tricycle Theatre of the UK's excellent 14-member cast. For the most part, more intelligent (and theatrical) than much of what we've seen generated here about the Middle East and Central Asia, it's a rather British—though not official British—look at the fabled land that has borne the brunt of Western ambitions and strategies for more than a century and a half.
There are shrewd moments, like a leading "conversation" between a British legate, insisting on drawing the borders of the country, and the humorous, wily emir the Brits support, questioning whether the map is indeed the territory; a Pakistani history professor is leapt upon by "unofficial" inquisitors in a wry scene with a veiled threat, and a CIA bureau chief endeavors to find out what's really going on in the field, hindered by his younger, more corporate assistant chief and a Pakistani intelligence officer full of oriental courtesy—and constant demands. There are a few downsides, if well enough performed: the end of the second of three programs, "The Lion of Kabul," is a melodramatic anti-Taliban tract that breaks the mood of the whole, much of which descends from the postwar British sense of Brecht's epic theater, coupled with docu-drama. It's an unusual chance to see what an important side of theater in the UK is all about.
RodaTheatre, 2015 Addison (near Shattuck), $17-$73 per program. 647-2949; berkeleyrep.org