Arts & Events

TWO THEATER REVIEWS: 'Over the Tavern' by Actors Ensemble at Live Oak Theater, 'The Crazed' by Central Works at the Berkeley City Club.

By Ken Bullock
Saturday May 24, 2014 - 10:18:00 AM

Two plays still in production, very different in subject and in style, but similar in that both contain a role that is, in many respects, the motor of the play—and both Berkeley productions found an ideal actor to cast in them. 

—"Sister, I'm going to put my cards on the table. I'm twelve years old. What does the Catholic Church want with me?" 

So Rudy Pazinski (Will Reicher) confronts Sister Clarissa (Susannah Wood), each the bane of the other's existence—or so they both think—in Tom Dudzick's family and coming-of-age comedy, 'Over the Tavern,' as directed by Donna Davis, staged by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at Live Oak Theater. 

It's the the story of a family living over the family business. Father Chet Pazinski (Scott Alexander Ayres) inherited the tavern from his father, never seen onstage, but a presence we hear of and feel in Chet's insouciant denial, every time his wife Ellen (Genevieve Smith) questions his retired dad's continued presence on licensed premises of the old man, drinking all afternoon, driving away customers with his snits, goofing up the "little jobs" Chet throws his way ... signs of a deadlock, of Chet painted into a corner from which he emerges only in sarcasm, quarreling with his wife and three kids. 

Rudy's the focus of 'Over the Tavern,' a young natural as a comedian—and in constant trouble with the Sister for it—turning everything, including Catechism, into a gag, forever polishing his Ed Sullivan impersonation. (The play's set in the late 50s.) And sooner or later, everybody quips; this play with a serious premise has affinities with sketch comedy. The other siblings—Michael O'Connell as Eddie, Nandi Drayton as Annie and Lucas Kathol-Voilleque as learning-disabled Georgie—can come on with the humor, too, but more likely unintended (as when Annie describes to her bemused mother sneaking away from school to go to an "artistic" foreign movie about love) or not so audience-directed (georgie laughs at his own potty-mouth, an audience exclusively for himself). 

The cast is sharp, the direction is telling; it's one of the best Actors Ensemble shows in recent years. Will Reicher and his antagonist Susannah Wood are particularly effective—and Lucas Kathol-Voilleque is fine as Eddie. 

Above all, the mother is at the heart of the action, even when she seems to be merely lending support—and such support!—to the others, listening, reacting to their troubled tales and reticences, cheerful cracking a one-liner herself—or going with the flow ... But the role makes everything happen, or—at the climax—volatilizes it and gives it meaning. And Genevieve Smith puts in a perfect turn, making it go with a simple gesture, glance or sly word, standing up for Ellen's brood against coarse clerical unfairness as well as her knee-jerk pious husband's constant little cruelties. 

It's a comedy; there are no moments of horror; everything's leavened with humor. Far from diluting the real issues at stake, this allows the play to use the mold of popular comedy to explore the characters a little more, and preserve their humanity from caricature. 

CCCT did a good version of it a few years back. 'Over the Tavern' is perfect for community theaters—and here it brings out the best in them, including stalwart Bob Gudmundsson's lighting and scenic design, Marjorie Moore's costumes and Owen Parry's sound design. Jerome Solberg produced this little gem—a family show, emotionally telling and amusing enough, too, for those of us "adults" who walked in the theater stag ... 

Ends Saturday, May 24th—show at 8. Live Oak Theater, Live Oak Park, 1301 Shattuck at Berryman. $12-$15. 659-5999. 

* * * 

A man in a dunce cap, confronted by a squad of Red Guards, who read a manifesto against Landlords, profiteering farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, traitors, foreign agents, capitalists—and intellectuals. 

And the dunce-capped man denounces himself, and "the poet Dante Aligheri in the poem called Inferno," saying his library deserved to be burned ... 

(That poem was written while Dante was in political exile from Florence, condemning his enemies to a hell he created in verse.) 

As the Guards troop away, the man intones: "Poetry liberates me. you can hurt me, but you cannot take my soul." 

This is the prelude to Central Works' premiere of 'The Crazed,' Sally Dawidoff's play, developed in Central Works'Writers Workshop, based on Chinese emigre poet Ha Jin's novel of the same name from 2002. 

Most of the action of 'The Crazed' takes place more recently—but always reflexive of the past it begins with—in the time leading up to the demonstrations and massacre in Tiananmen Square. 

The dunce-capped man is now a venerable teacher of Chinese poetry, though still a suspicious character to bureaucrats and ambitious university staff and students. His favorite student is engaged to his daughter. He still quotes Dante, along with Han dynasty classics. 

Many of the scenes concerning Professor Yang are set in a hospital room, where Jian Wan, his student, has been detailed to watch over him while studying for his exams—the vital exams that are—and in one form or another, always been the key to a professional career in China. 

These scenes are the heart of the play, as is Professor Yang in all his various moods, lucid and delusional, defiant yet mouthing Maoist slogans ... and Randall Nakano, a fine professional actor in the Bay area for decades, makes the most of a role he can invest his thespic strengths in. Nakano is a performer of great intensity, able to give equal time and presence even to conflicting emotions and expressions or gestures in the same moment. Intensity, for some skillful enough actors, is almost an end in itself. For Nakano, his intensity—unrelenting intensity—serves to illuminate the character and the play—and its subject matter, lighting it up from within. 

The all-Asian American cast is a fine one—-Perry Aliado, Jeannie Barroga, Will Dao, Wes Gabrillo, Carina Lastimosa Salazar and Louel Señores (an excellent utility man)--and Randall Nakano--all perform very well as an ensemble, with Central Works co-artistic director (and lighting designer) Gary Graves' skilled direction, maximizing the usual good production values Central Works has become known for, represented by Tammy Berlin's excellent costumes, Gregory Scharpen's penetrating sound design, and fine props by Debbie Shelley. 

When the story gets away from Professor Yang, the plot often veers sharply into a more generalized melodramatic form, which could, at times, be true of almost any developing country in the midst of social turmoil, or even of aspects of corporate America. But when Nakano as Yang is raving, or quietly reminiscing, or talking about poetry--and certain other scenes, like Jian Wan, sent to the countryside on a deliberate wild-goose chase to separate him from Yang and his daughter, discovering instead the brutal neglect the peasants have been left in by the government, intent on industrialization and beginning consumerism--it takes on a suggestiveness that finds other specifics of life in China, the post-modern world--and doesn't need to conform to any plotting device or march towards meaning.
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 5 through June 22. Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue (between Ellsworth & Dana). $28, advanced sales. Sliding scale at the door: $28-$15. Thursdays, pay what you can. 588-1381;