Arts & Events

Theater Review: 'TO THE BONE' Staged by Ubuntu Theater Project at Brooklyn Preserve with Playwright in Cast

Ken Bullock
Friday April 07, 2017 - 06:21:00 PM

"Go back, go back, go back ... " Like a cult devotee with her mantra, Sarita Ocón as Juana, wrapped in a plastic bag like a prayer shawl, paces the enclosure on the upper floor of the Brooklyn Preserve--once the Brooklyn Presbyterian Church, dating from 1887; Brooklyn the old name of this borough of Oakland, just below Lake Merritt--that serves as stage for Ubuntu Theater Project's West Coast premiere of Lisa Ramirez's timely play, 'TO THE BONE.' Juana's grieving for her daughter, who was following her mother up from Central America through Mexico to work undocumented in the States, but disappeared along the way, her cell phone going dead.
Giulio Perrone's set, lit by Stephanie Johnson, makes the domed upper room with windows above a kind of shrine with a picture of a saint or the Virgen into a coop or pen or holding cell for the Latino women who live and work together--but it also makes a theatrical illusion that oscillates this space back and forth, in and out to the movement and emotion of the play--the women seem at times to be looking or reaching out to us, as they are when the audience comes in with Juana pacing and moaning, or retreating away from the wire that screens off this kind of purdah for them.
This's cogent to the theme of the play, a domestic drama becoming a kind of morality or melodrama, and to the slight stylization director (and Ubuntu artistic director) Michael Moran works into the mix, to emphasize the collective and depersonalizing nature of the women's work in the Fresh Cut Chickens factory, suiting up rhythmically in green aprons, hairnets, yellow rubber gloves, doing a mechanical dance as they step forward, brandishing their knives as the hardhatted foreman (Lalo--Francisco Arcila) harshly urges them on--faster, faster ... It's an abstraction of form and movement to emphasize the social condition these ladies have fallen into, working to send money home to their families, not a conceptual aestheticism ... The great Soviet director Meyerhold's dictum takes on its true, appropriate edge: "The Grotesque is the triumph of Form over Content." The exploited women workers have become grotesques.
None more so than Olga, played with sarcastic intensity by playwright Lisa Ramirez, a traumatophile who, once brutalized both domestically and on the job, has become a hothead--too much so, risking the work and immigration status of the others around her with her provocations and angry responses, both at work and home.
She's contrasted by the mournful Lupe, by the excellent Wilma Bonet's (familiar from the Mime troupe) Reina and by her own daughter Lupe, well-played with a mix of youthful, energetic friendliness and something of her mother's sardonic cast by Juliana Aiden. Luoe wants to be a lawyer, working on class action suits when she's not skateboarding or practicing hip-hop. But Olga's cynicism is contrasted even more by Reina's niece, newly-arrived young Carmen--wonderfully played by Carla Gallardo--who didn't want to leave home, but bowed to family obligation and honor. Carmen's fresh grace and dignity are immediately noticed by the (too!) boyishly honest driver Jorge (splendidly portrayed by Juan Amador)--and by the Boss, the Anglo facory owner's son, Daryl, a hard-drinking brute acted out with appropriate Staccato physical style by William Hartfield, to the aloof Lalo's increasing consternation.
The volatile mix of all these actors, these elements is touched off by an apparently oft-repeated transgressive incident, amplified by Olga's own trespasses, just sprung from jail for acting out about what she warned against in the first place, and ratched up to tragic proportions--the tragedy of every day in this world of oppression.
But in the end, life goes on, however bittersweet. This impressive production--impressive in the truest sense--doesn't allow the usual kitsch or wistful sentimentalism of too many socially aware melodramas ... its impact is very much what its ironic title promises.
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 7 through April 23 at Brooklyn Preserve, 1433-12th Avenue (between 14th Street/International Boulevard & 15th Street, near Foothill), Oakland. $15-$25 online, pay-what-you-can at the door, season ticket: $125; Season passes: For Artists: $50; For Students: $25.

Theater Review: Unusual Production of Neil Simon's 'The Sunshine Boys'

Friday April 07, 2017 - 06:17:00 PM

" ... pickle is funny; tomato is not funny!"

So the obsessive litany of the old vaudevillean straight man, principal character in Neil Simon's 'The Sunshine Boys,' whose author's start in showbiz as a gagman and TV and radio scriptwriter may've begun with just such systems of accounting.

'Sunshine Boys' hit Broadway in 1972, riding on Simon's great comic successes of the 60s, was made into a movie with Simon staple Walter Matthau and George Burns (jumpstarting Burns'career) in '75--and just a decade before the more reflective second wave of Simon's own career kicked in, in earnest, with 'Brighton Beach Memoirs' in the mid-80s.

'Sunshine Boys' is already different in kind from the doorslammer farces Simon rode to fame on, and somehow oblique to the nostalgia for old showbiz and its personae that could be expected.

A smart, inquisitive production of this curiosity of Simominana--and of the American stage, in every sense--is onstage now at the old Belrose Theatre, a cabaret-style place with chairs and tables and drinks, in San rafael, across from the old public library on Fifth Avenue, appropriately enough, produced by Gary Gonser for marin Onstage, in residence there, and marvellously directed by Ron Nash, an old pro himself, who also plays the part of a TV production man midway through the story. -more-