Arts & Events

Theater Reviews: Two Solo Shows--Denmo Ibrahim in 'Mo;' Jeff Garrett in 'QED' for Indra's Net

By Ken Bullock
Friday April 11, 2014 - 10:01:00 AM

Solo shows are always a dicey proposition ... Sometimes strung midway between Performance Art and, well, monologues of all sorts, including not very theatrical ones, one man, one woman shows often devolve into a kind of live resumé (an in-person "reel") for an actor to be able to show what (s)he can do, between other roles in "real" plays ... 

So it's more than a pleasant surprise to watch Denmo Ibrahim, well-known to Bay Area theatergoers as one of the founders of Mugwumpin, a performance outfit that's always very theatrical, onstage in the show she's written, 'Baba,' staged in San Rafael—tin Margot Jones' dance studio, what used to be an ice house, by AlterTheater, for which Denmo has been resident playwright. Jeanette Harrison of AlterTheater has worked with Aurora and Berkeley Rep, and a few years ago produced a solo show written and musically accompanied by an old Berkeley theater hand, Robert Ernst, one of the founders of the Blake Street Hawkeyes. 

At first, 'Baba' seems to be a character study, a humorous one, of an Egyptian expatriate in New York City, trying, cajoling, flattering, half-threatening every bureaucrat at the Passport Bureau, as he tries to extract a passport for his little daughter, whom he speaks to in asides and directly, as he does others in the office, engaging them in chit-chat. 

But darker moments of monologue, undercutting his sunny immigrant's exterior, belie a deeper purpose. After the conclusion of the episode of "Mo," there's another, that of "Laila," his grown daughter, in the airport and aboard a jet to Cairo, to meet her father for the first time as an adult. 

These two single-actor sketches (there are other characters which the principal one talks to, reacts to) are both acted out by Denmo, with slightly different approaches to the humor. The first scene or sketch is a little earthier, in the sense of Mo presenting himself, either too ingenuously or rather disingenuously, as a regular American guy, albeit from Egypt, happy to be in the States, though beleagured in his attempt to communicate with bureaucrats. 

In the second half, after an unrushed costume change onstage, which doubles as Laila grooming herself for the trip, Denmo's comedic approach is closer to more popular forms, like those seen in films, situation comedies or variety routines on TV, but swifter, cleaner, less self-involved, more integrated with the material, which has a higher purpose than either character sketch or comic routine. The two scenes dovetail into a satisfying theatrical whole—ttwo perspectives, caught over a period of decades, making a single play from these separate, yet intimately related sensibilities. The exposition—tthe backstory—tbecomes an almost casual part of the one-sided "dialogue"" and occasional soliloquies. Director Sara Razavi and dramaturg Jayne Wenger are to be complimented, as well as the actor-author of 'Baba.' 

It's been a pleasure watching Denmo continuing to grow as both a performer and a writer, since her days with Mugwumpin, through the play she wrote for a commission by Golden Thread, 'Ecstasy/a waterfable,' to the present work with AlterTheater. As much as a review—tand exhortation to see 'Baba'!—tthis is a salute to a unique theater artist of the Bay Area. 

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'QED'—tPeter Parnell's play about celebrity physicist Richard Feynman, a kind of "slice-of-life" towards the end of his life, cut short by two rare forms of cancer (which may or may not have had their genesis in the aftereffects of his witnessing the detonation of the first atomic bomb during "Trinity,"" as a scientist working on the Manhattan project at Los Alamos), is onstage again in Berkeley, at the City Club on Durant, as a reprise of the successful first run at Live Oak Theater, staged by Indra's Net a few months ago. 

That run's success, to judge from reviews, word-of-mouth, and the evidence of the opening of the new run at the City Club, had as much to do with the casting of Jeff Garrett as Feynman as in the continuing interest in the man himself, his unusual approach to science and teaching, his joie de vivre, his role as critic of NASA as member of the national panel investigating the first Space Shuttle catastrophe ... 

And Garrett is engaging, highly energetic in his portrayal of an engaging personality. He and director Bruce Coughran have obviously worked hard together in staging the show, which draws from Feynman's own writings and from his colleague Ralph Leighton's book 'Tuva or Bust!' (Feynman and Leighton hoped to go together to the remote Central Asian country of Tuva, famed for exotic postage stamps and throat-singing; Leighton—twho is an offstage character in some of the play's funniest moments, a harried guide for Soviet visitors involved in the Tuva project, eventually did visit after Feynman's death.) It's these fragments—tsome free-standing, others serving as commentary or counterpoint to the action, which provide the best moments of 'QED.' 

The difficulty with 'QED' is in the play itself, a difficulty with solo shows already mentioned at the start of this joint review: "armed" with all the accoutrements of the contemporary solo piece—tnot only expository monologues, sometimes delivered as less as soliloquies to the audience than as confidences bounced off it, but also one-sided phone conversations (or some taped response by the interlocutor on the other end of the line) ... The wayward "plasticity" of this nonform rivals Silly Putty in its ability to pick up an image and stretch it any which way, opposed to any sense of dramaturgy, which has to operate from a perspective, or series of perspectives (as Shakespeare, Marlowe—teven Harold Pinter—toften do), which defines what the audience can see and hear onstage. This's why Aristotle called drama "the most rational form of poetry;" it's well-defined briefly in its modern form, which fits for any representational art, in Roland Barthes' essay "Diderot Brecht Eisenstein" in his collection of essays 'Image-Music-Text.' 

So a nonstylized set of actions has been dictated by the script for 'QED,' often reduced to a monocular image of Feynman, at best a character sketch, Garrett doing routines on the phone or intimating to the audience something that corresponds to his statements or writings in regard to something else than the imagined, overly-condensed actions of one day ... 


Where there's a chance for some real drama—tor comedy besides one-liners—tis with the humorous breaking of the "inner wall" of the solo show—twhat Aeschylus introduced to rhapsodic choral ritual to make it into drama—tanother actor, a student of Feynman's, Miriam Field, played with the appropriate playful pertness of an undergraduate, a college girl, by Britt Lauer. "Miss Field's" request to talk with Feynman is comically (and theatrically) delayed till the end of a longish show—tand we hear how they met in the interim at the champagne-soaked cast party on opening night of a local production in Pasadena (Feynman a longtime Caltech professor) of 'South Pacific,' Feynman having appeared—tand appearing before us in costume—tas the Chief of Bali Hai. 

Unfortunately, this kind of "Play-Within-a-Play" (or solo show) finally relies in the clinch on more cliches of shoehorned-in exposition and "opening up" of action and emotion, making things more melodramatic and overwrought, a la TV episodes, than theatrical. It's strange for a play that features its character's constant exhortations to seek the truth, to find reality rather than even scientific formula, constantly reduced to the simplest formulas of stage and small screen spectacle. 

But—tagain—tthe real attraction, which holds the audience's interest throughout—tis Garrett's energetic delivery and acting out of Feynman's mannerisms (enthusiastic, funny—tand hipsterish, in the parlance of the 40s, 50s, early 60s—twithout the stylization of, say, Terry Southern or Lenny Bruce)—tand the audience rewards him with an ovation more like that for the hero of an athletic event or rock show than for a usual evening of theater. 

In its three productions, all helmed by founder and artistic director Bruce Coughran, Indra's Net has focused most of all on the theme of science and society, and has distinguished itself with the casting of excellent local actors. Its first show, Michael Frayn's 'Copenhagen,' featured Robert Ernst, Karol Strempke and Michael J. Cassidy in an imaginary (!) meeting in some sort of hereafter between Nils Bohr and Bohr's wife Margrethe and Werner Heisenberg ... Frayn's play, almost like a radio play, featured sharp dialogue, a well-defined sense of subject and theme, and a constantly shifting narrative of what the moral meaning might have been of the actions of these two giants of quantum mechanics during the Nazi era and the Occupation of Denmark. 

The more complex 'In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,' Heiner Kipphardt's epic play in docu-drama format of the inquiry into the security clearance of the physicist who had been head of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, was presented as a staged reading, with a cast that featured James Carpenter as Oppenheimer, and had its strongest moment delivered by George Maguire's choice, humorous depiction of an Oppenheimer colleague on the stand, fussily complaining about the inquiry interfering with his business of science and public life—tthen lavishly praising Oppenheimer as a professional and a person. (Maguire was once a student at the Berliner Ensemble.) 


It's a long script of something akin to a trial—tone of the most basic forms of theater, the Greek tragedies were based on the form of a trial or agon ... Where the production had difficulties—tby omission—twas in a lack of definition: the inquiry was the action of representatives of one definite historical period trying to reopen, examine and judge the activities of the lead character and those offering testimony during a time in the immediate past of a very different moral temper—tto the point that two of the three panelists of the inquiry explain that their "judgment' would've been quite different in that past, that here they're only following their present instructions ... high irony of epic theater. 

It will be of great interest to see where Indra's Net goes from here, to what other plays about science—the problem of plays ostensibly about science or mathematics being they usually are more character studies of scientists or merely use something from science or math as a metaphor for something else, a coy sentimentalization .. 

(What immediately comes to mind, of course, is Brecht's 'Galileo,' which Coughran already directed for Masquers Playhouse a few years back.) 

* * * 

'Baba' at West Coast Arts, 1554-4th Street, San Rafael (between E & F Streets, behind United Liquors), Saturdays at 3 & 8, Sundays at 3, through April 27. $25. 

'QED' at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (near Dana), Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 5, through April 27 (preshow talk at every show). $20-$28.