Arts & Events

A Slew of Reviews: Plays Around & About Over the Past Couple of Weeks

By Ken Bullock
Sunday November 06, 2011 - 09:20:00 AM

Embassy, Central Works at the City Club; The Rep: How to Write a New Book for the Bible; Actors Ensemble: Doubt; Cal Performances presents John Malkovich in The Infernal Comedy and Toni Morrison's Desdemona;ACT stages Mamet's Race; Ragged Wing Ensemble's triumphant Inanna's Descent. 

The past couple weeks have been unusually busy in the performing arts--busier than the period right after Labor Day, traditionally the super-busy start of the Fall season. Here are a few of the plays, some ongoing, that were on the boards ... or in the parks: 

Embassy, by Brian Thorstenson: Central Works at Berkeley City Club 

"Chi-chi Ma-an!" The cry goes up from one costumed character chasing another in a rout of masqueraded shapes running in, out and around in circles, out and and back in the two doors of the Berkeley City Club's salon room that houses Central Works' theatrical home, resolving into a conga line for Carnival in an American Embassy on some Caribbean island state ... truly a door-slammer of a farce, perfect for Hallowe'en season, especially if you're reflecting on our foreign policy. Trick or Treat! 

A perfect farce, in fact, silly yet pointed, the equal at least or better than any revival recently of the classic French variety or English and American knock-offs (though LaBiche, even Italian Straw Hat, Genet's favorite and maybe the greatest, hasn't been done for awhile). Gary Graves' direction of a stellar cast that works perfectly--or is that imperfectly?--together beats almost every other type of comedy onstage lately, too, from screwball to sketch ... "Graham Greene meets Liberace!" the advert slogan for the show, is no overstatement. 

The deliciously daffy farceurs are Richard Frederick, Daniel Redmond, Olivia Rosaldo, Cole Alexander Smith and Jan Zvaifler, directed with zest by Gary Graves, playing a bevy of dingbats, from the island's presidential advisor to the US ambassador and his wife to a befuddled intelligence operative to the patois-slinging maid, a local ... But nobody's what they seem--or maybe not what they don't seem, either, as not only bodies and words revolve around, but plot, identity, notions of policy, who's wearing what for Carnival ... 

Distracted double agents, bat guano fortunes and illegal lightbulbs offshore, intricate coded messages that maybe mean nothing--and on the other hand, the stunning revelation (sound designer Gregory Scharpen complicit in this) that "Love Will Keep Us Together" is one of last century's great ethnic cross-over musical numbers ... ask the Captain and Tennille--er, the ambassador and his wife ... 

A farce that culminates at a Carnival pre-party demands a great costumer, and Tammy Berlin has draped her zanies in glorious weirdness for their lilting sprint around the premises. 

As always, Central Works delivers more theatricality per square inch than many much bigger, better funded institutions do in stadium-sized venues--or over whole seasons. And they're particularly funny with this one! 

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8; Sundays at 5--and Saturdays after November 5 at 5 p. m. as well as 8, through November 20. Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant. $24 in advance; sliding scale at the door: $25-$14. Pay What You can, Thursday November 3. 558-1381; 

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Bill Cain's How to Write a New Book for the Bible, world premiere at Berkeley Rep, directed by Kent Nicholson, co-produced by Seattle Rep 

"Don't listen to her; she's dead!" says Bill, the narrator of the play, standing in for/as playwright Bill Cain, after introducing his mother in this sketch-y, wayward comic drama about her final illness, and how he and his older brother (a Vietnam vet) do and don't take care of her and each other--and especially, in Cain's view, how a writer experiences and relates the experience of mortality in someone so close. 

Cain has received much attention in the Bay Area and elsewhere in the country for two previous plays, Equivocation, a comedy about Shakespeare combined with the tragic story of a Jesuit condemned to death in Jacobean England; and 9 Circles, the saga of an Iraq War vet, accused of killing civilians. Both were staged over the past year at Marin Theatre Company, 9 Circles also directed--and very well--by Kent Nicholson. 

The plays are all different in theme, even in attack. One similarity is the wildly shifting focus of the playwright, in How to Write ... signaled by the narration of the actor standing in for the author, the other actors' reactions and the rapid swings between serious and funny, even silly, episodes, pronouncements and actions. 

Nicholson and the cast--in particular, Linda Gehringen as Mary Cain (Tyler Pierce plays Bill, Aaron Blakely his brother Paul)--acquit themselves well enough, delivering a story that goes back and forth between arch narration framing the action and sometimes even more arch action, seeming to contradict or burst the frame of the narration ... but they can't overcome the author's motor-mouthed over-delivery, while grasping at straws (or is it catching flies?), trying to simulate the spontaneous structures of experience, memory and relating either or both ... without something informing the action as a whole besides a kind of faux-improvisational whimsicality, alternating with jolts of sentimentalism over genuinely sobering events of the sort that most of us find ourselves going through. 

"You always have to have a structure--even if you have to improvise one! Otherwise, you're just noodling, thinking that you're improvising," said free jazz saxophonist and composer John Tchicai, veteran of Coltrane's Ascension sessions in 1965, just a few years back. The problem with Bill Cain's plays isn't a lack of ideas--in the sense of a glut of concepts, rather than real ideas--but in the insouciant way he fiddles, constantly distracted, with them, rather than developing his thoughts--thoughts about thoughts and how to stage them--into theater, rather than spreading them all out on the stage and telling us whatever comes to mind. 

Berkeley Rep Thrust Stage, Tuesdays through Sundays, different times, through November 20. 2025 Addison, near Shattuck. $14.50-$73 (discounts available). 647-2949; 

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John Patrick Shanley's Doubt at Actors Ensemble of Berkeley 

For those who've seen the movie with Meryl Streep, the stage version of Doubt--which won Shanley the Pulitzer--may come as a surprise. Taut, with only four characters, three of them creatures of the Church, institutionalized--albeit in different ways--in their manner of expression, Doubt explores a fictional episode of what has become the principal controversy, worldwide, surrounding Roman Catholicism in recent decades--child abuse and molestation by the celibate clergy. 

But Doubt backdates its tale well before the more contemporary explosion of that controversy, setting it just before the beginning of our present era, in the early 60s, the time of Vatican II, the Ecumenical Council, when a fresh breeze seemed to be blowing through the cloisters, just as youthfulness and change seemed to be captivating the secular world at large. 

The sociology of the play--the times, including another controversy: racial integration of schools and communities--would make it interesting enough. But Shanley's relentless, to the point in his depiction of change and those who distrust it, embodied in a mother superior at a parochial school, a young nun in love with teaching and her students--and a priest, barely older, a seemingly inspirational figure to his charges, who preaches a sermon on doubt at the start of the play, directly to the audience. 

Shanley, who made his reputation with offbeat comedies for stage (Danny & the Deep Blue Sea, Savage in Limbo) and screen (Moonstruck, Joe Vs. the Volcano), usually set in his native Bronx and exploiting his sharp ear for the local patois, opts for drama instead--but never abandons comedy, though it becomes an almost dire form of humor, with the mother superior calmly reeling out her hoary pronouncements, platitudes, resentments and suspicions like a deadpan comedienne. 

It's a play with real dramaturgy, unrelenting, remarkable for the scene of the interview between the mother superior and a student's mother, the mother superior delivering--and hearing--harsh news ... the student's mother seeming even more vibrant and alive after what's taken place so far between the three clerical characters, all restrained by Church strictures and training, as well as an increasing atmosphere of suspicion and second-guessing--and the very end, when Shanley remains uncompromising, ambiguous, not pandering to the expectations of the audience or of our time, but not abandoning his characters in their humanity. 

Donna Davis, the well-known local acting teacher, who leads her Drama Workshop at Live Oak Theater, directed Richard Aiello, Phyllis Anderson, Kathleen Davis and Margaret Gudmundsson as the ensemble of this drama. The cast is at its best when the two younger characters are most vulnerable, though not completely able to express it, and the older two are leveling with each other over the future of the student in question--and whether or not he's been corrupted. Where the clerical characters run into problems is when they--often inadvertently; opening night jitters that have probably evaporated--were broad in gesture and speech ... underacting appears as big as Kabuki in roles like these; any kind of agitation or unselfconscious gesture belies their role and setting. 

Costumes are by Margery Moore; Bob Gudmundsson and the director share the credit for the excellent, spare set, apt symbol of the action that takes place on it. 

Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck (at Berryman) in Live Oak Park, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 (with a Sunday matinee at 2 on November 13) through November 19. $12-$15. 841-5580; 

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John Malkovich in The Infernal Comedy 

Confessing his Austrian-accented English resembles that of the former governor of California, serial killer and author Jack Unterweger is back from the dead--to push his new book ... 

After an orchestral introduction by Musica Angelica baroque orchestra, conducted by Adrian Kelly, Unterweger--who in real life was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a girl, released 15 years later by the president of Austria for his presumed rehabilitation and popular success at writing, undertaken while in prison, and promptly began murdering women again--played by John Malkovich (who improvises somewhat and also co-directed), explains the orchestra was his manager's idea; that he doesn't have the strength for classical music. He also introduces the two (splendid) sopranos who appear onstage apparently off-cue, Louise Frido and Martene Grimson, who will sing of abandonment, passion gone wrong and shame--and be subject to Unterweger's close-up scrutiny, very much the callow fan, and his eventual strangling of the women with their bras, his m. o. as killer. 

"Confessions of a Serial Killer," the subtitle of this infernal--yes!--comedy ... Malkovich, thwarted in his desire to play Unterweger in a movie he could produced, joined forces with writer-director Michael Sturminger and music director Martin Haselboeck to mount this odd semi-farce, parody of an author's tour--of hell. With pieces both orchestral and operatic from Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, von Weber and others, much of the performance, sans intermission, is spent in the strange counterpoint of Unterweger's railing at his manager and the production company or telling his story--minus any real confession ("BUY MY BOOK" if you want to know the truth ... though he admits there's maybe no truth to tell, once he committed suicide the night of his second conviction)--and his dazed, amazed witnessing of the sopranos singing of the sublimity of the emotions that have accompanied his crimes in such catastrophic but banal fashion. 

Malkovich demonstrates not only his particular skill and presence as a stage actor, his eyes going hollow when he stares, open-mouthed at the lovely singers, walking with hesitant, measured tread towards them and seeming to search for childlike solace in their presence ... he also shows his understanding of how much of that prowess to dedicate to a hybrid thing like The Infernal Comedy. It's not quite a solo performance or character monologue, not a vaudeville exactly, certainly not a play ... 

But comedy it is, and somehow the audience is in on the joke, collaborator and collateral victim of the sado-masochistic Unterweger, co-dependent of the media who gave life to the freed prisoner and form to his deadly obsessions, after allowing him to realize his dream of celebrity and freedom. 

Malkovich seems pleased in almost a feline way with his new collaborators, and is already touring a new piece with music (Mozart's) and singers he's staged with them, in which he plays Casanova. 

There's a CNN documentary on Malkovich, much of it around the making and touring of The Infernal Comedy, which can be found online, as the whole script can be, too, and more, at the website: 

He even fields a version of the question: why would he want to play a role like the oddball villains for which he's best-known on the commercial screen, those which typecast him ... The star's half-ironic response: those roles only represent a handful of his many performances, and they are from movies which coincidentally made millions of dollars. 

Infernal comedian, indeed. No wonder he excelled in the wry, deadly comedy "biopic" Klimt, by Raul Ruiz, sadly butchered in its American release by the producer. This is an actor whose sense of humor carries over to his character--and back again. That's taking on a role! 

* * * 

Toni Morrison's Desdemona, directed by Peter Sellars, at Zellerbach Playhouse, Cal Performances 

Apparently originating in part from director Peter Sellars' remark to Toni Morrison that he wouldn't like to stage Othello because it's "too thin" (would he say the same of Verdi's opera?)--the character of Desdemona in particular--this stage piece sets out to explore, to paradoxically "flesh out" the tragic heroine's back story, internal life, relation to her African nurse and black soldier husband (and murderer) in the form of long monologues, a kind of ventriloquism (skilfully performed by Tina Benko, who plays the title role) when Desdemona recalls her conversations with Othello, and her recounting the story of her maid Barbary (mentioned briefly in the original) and reacting to her presence (a remarkable, mostly sung performance by Malian singer extraordinaire Rokia Traore', her chorus and musicians), all taking part post mortem, a kind of healing session--or talk show?--in the afterlife, revising Shakespeare into something more postcolonial, more "out in the open" ... 

Sellars, for his part as director, creates a very spare, flexible set, with microphones for Benko and Traore' as well as playing areas, mostly for performers crouching, sitting or lolling on the boards, framed by empty bottles and jars, lit by fluorescent tubes lying on the stage, all festooned with lightbulbs hanging down or stuck in the bottles and jars. 

A disadvantage to the staging in its spareness and restraint is the way it magnifies the expressions and gestures Benko makes, sometimes looking like Method Acting mugging ... 

And it clashes with the script: passages become overwrought by their over-loquaciousness as framed by the spare staging and overshadowed by recalling the great outbursts and silences of the original tragedy. Things wryly go from exquisite to absurd in a second or two when Desdemona mentions a lizard shedding its skin, how that lizard--overdescribed and overdetermined, like most of the performance--changed her life ... 

Since the modern rediscovery of Shakespeare--by Lessing in Germany during the late 18th century--and the questioning about meaning and how to stage his plays in a very different era, there have been many conjectures about the theatrical value of The Bard's works. In the 1920s, Gordon Craig visited Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck--whose plays influenced Wilde, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett (to name a few)--to discuss the production of Hamlet Craig planned in Moscow with Stanislavsky. Maeterlinck pronounced the play unstageable. (T. S. Eliot would later agree, citing the disparity between Hamlet's exalted sense of his mother and her fall from grace, versus the rather ordinary woman spectators see onstage, declaring the play an artistic failure.) Craig agreed--and went on to adapt the story as something in Hamlet's mind, scenes appearing out of the mist of consciousness and dissolving before the audience's eyes onstage ... incomprehension led to a great reinterpretation, great theater. 

There were reasons, stylistic and dramaturgical reasons, for the incongruities in Shakespeare's tragedies, some of them explained by his adherence to Mannerism, the style of Marlowe and Michelangelo used to realize their effects. 

But Morrison's inability to grasp Shakespeare's artistic--and very human--reasoning, albeit of another time, hasn't produced a new perspective, only a reduction of Shakespeare's poetic art to a rather banal--"bourgeois," as I heard one European actor present say--discussion of the same, a discussion lacking imagination as much as it's overwhelmed by its own verbal expression. 

Morrison should've stuck to her metier and written it out as fiction, employing the imagination of the reader. As for Shakespeare, what Melville said of his art while preparing to write Moby-Dick remains one of the great intuitions of what those great seeming gaps, those silences mean--and accomplish: 

"And if I magnify Shakespeare, it is not so much for what he did do as for what he did not do, or refrained from doing. For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands, and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself ... " 

(Cal Performances has been bringing a wealth of international stagework to Berkeley, and in any case should be congratulated for producing, within a few weeks, John Malkovich's The Infernal Comedy, Desdemona, and the upcoming shows of Samuel Beckett's greatest play, Endgame, and his work of fiction Watt adapted to the stage by Dublin's Gate Theatre--the very place where the teenaged Orson Welles cut his teeth for stagework, later casting the Gate's cofounder, Micheal MacLiammor, as Iago in Welles' film of Othello.) 

* * * 

David Mamet's Race at ACT 

Against a backdrop of shelved legal tomes that would rival the Great Wall of China, a supplicant seeks legal assistance. he's middle-aged, white, rich, says he's committed no crime--but needs the help of this particular firm, after having been turned down by another--because, as it unravels, one of the partners and an associate are black. 

And the partners, with seeming callousness, even brutality, attempt to disabuse the potential client of his misconceptions of guilt and innocence in the legal system, much to the alternating consternation and distain of their black female associate. 

(The alleged crime is sexual assault in a hotel--surprisingly, Mamet wrote Race well before the infamous Strauss-kahn affair in New York.) 

So begins David Mamet's Race, in ACT's West Coast premiere, excellently cast (Chris Butler, Anthony Fusco, Kevin O'Rourke and Susan Heyward--ACT's Fusco particularly strong) and directed (by Irene Lewis), proof that Mamet, who's famously undergone a swerve to the Right, hasn't lost his sense of play construction or talent in dialogue in favor of writing diatribes. 

It's a funny talent in dialogue, though, and it always has been. Stylized almost perversely to give the audience the sense of realism, his dialogue is in many ways like a Strindbergian Monologue--that ploy canonized by Eugene O'Neill for American theater in which the actor seems to be delivering a speech to another, silent performer, but is really soliloquizing, sometimes in pure exposition, to the spectators--really spoken by the author, but parcelled out piecemeal to the actors. Heyward's character, in fact, from the beginning seems to be there to ask questions, make inferences and accusations, until her linchpin role's revealed, so what's explained glibly to her can be absorbed by the audience. 

And it's Mamet in his role as Wise Guy, a common enough Chicago figure, though updated through middle age to Wise Man, explaining not just how things happen on the street, but in life itself, despite what we all know and want to happen ... 

(This's one reason that--despite his evident fascination with the subject and friendship with magician-card mechanic Ricky Jay, that Mamet's plays and movie scripts about con games seemed contrived, somehow, a substitute for metaphysics, something to explain in conspiracy theory fashion why we're all here, a bunch of marks, on the hot seat, waiting for things to go our way, though they never will ... This tack is related to the False Naive, where the author proves to the reader or spectator that he's smarter than the characters ... Strangely, Mamet, son of a union organizer, said he never talked to a conservative till he was over 50--and that conservative was his new rabbi, a Bush supporter.) 

In fact the woman associate is a kind of made-up role, a device to make the white lawyer suffer what he so glibly explains his client must see and overcome to be free--the guilt over his own guilt, or lack thereof ... 

So in the end, Race becomes a melodrama--but it's nonetheless theatrical, its dialogue ricocheting off the walls of the set--and taking the characters along for both the ride and its deflection into musing about what just happened--a genuinely theatrical impulse, the connection between thought and action. 

Through November 13, Tuesday through Sunday, various times, Geary Theatre, Geary near Mason, San Francisco. $10-$85. (415) 749-2228; 

* * * 

--A quick note of congratulations--and admiration--for Ragged Wing Ensemble, the plucky little local physical/gestural theater troupe, which has scored a remarkable success in staging their second year of a free, autumnal-Hallowe'en show in Codornices Park, across from the Rose Garden. 

Last year it was Persephone's Roots--and as explained by cofounder Anna Shneiderman, they were unprepared for the big turnout back then. This year, with Inanna's Descent, Ragged Wing took up the reconstituted Sumerian predecessor to the Persephone and other winter-underworld myths and created a show that spread all over the park, with installations the characters appear in (an aerialist with a string of lights was particularly striking during the one evening show on Hallowe'en, closing night) and the play itself, moving like a pageant uphill, full of the kind of anachronizing humor--similar in its own way to the hip comedy of "Fractured Fairytales," that cartoon show of yore--in which the characters eself-consciously comment on their own actions, their "status": "I'm the bombshell in this story!" announces goddess Inanna at one point; at one of the shrine-installations, there's a tape playing of Inanna's voice messages, of her partying friends calling to see when she'll be back from hell ... The troupe pulled this kind of running gag most memorably in their vaudevillized version of Aeschylus' tragedies, So Many Ways to Kill a Man. 

Three shows a day the past few weekends, several hundred visitors a day--heady stuff for a small, dedicated theater company in an era supposedly impervious to theater. And the donations, says Shneiderman, are about what ticket sales often come to at scheduled runs of their plays in dedicated theater spaces. 

Ragged Wing's worth seeing anytime, whatever the show. But there's a great community feel to these outdoor events. Hallowe'en night, the closing celebration around the firepit in Codornices Park was more like a community singalong than the aftermath of a play--and those singing along had just been the audience for Inanna's Descent, spectators for the installation/shrines--and participants with the cast and support team in celebrating the installations and performance.