Author Archives: Emily S. Mendel

A cautionary tale: ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ at Berkeley Rep

Cast members in the world premiere of It Can’t Happen Here at Berkeley Rep. (background) Charles Shaw Robinson (Bishop Prang). (foreground, l to r) Will Rogers (Philip Jessup), Deidrie Henry (Lorinda Pike), Tom Nelis (Doremus Jessup), and David Kelly (Buck Titus).

Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
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With startlingly prescient timing, Berkeley Rep’s current production is a new adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winner Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satirical political novel, It Can’t Happen Here. Originally written as a warning about the dangers of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s fascism, as well as Louisiana Senator Huey Kingfish Long’s demagoguery, It Can’t Happen Here translates all too well to the Presidential election of 2016.

This world premiere is skillfully adapted from the novel by the Rep’s Artistic Director Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, and tautly directed by two-time Obie® Award winner Lisa Peterson, the Rep’s Associate Director.

It Can’t Happen Here centers on a liberal journalist from small-town Vermont, Doremus Jessup (excellent Tom Nelis, Dear Elizabeth). He opposes the presidential candidate, Buzz Windrip (well-acted by David Kelly), a charismatic populist U.S. Senator who’s platform is to encourage nationalism and traditional values, and to promote the fear of outsiders, while promising grand economic reforms ($5,000 a year for each citizen). … Continue reading »


Entertaining, enlightening: Aurora Theatre’s ‘Dear Master’

George Sand (l. Kimberly King*) and Gustave Flaubert (r. Michael Ray Wisely*) converse about politics and family in Dear Master. Photo: David Allen
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Berkeley playwright Dorothy Bryant seemed delighted to be in the audience at the opening of Aurora Theatre’s 25th anniversary revival of her insightful two-person epistolary play, Dear Master, about famed 19th-century French authors George Sand and Gustave Flaubert. Dear Master is the salutation Flaubert used when writing to Sand, who was 17 years his senior.

It’s a shame that Barbara Oliver (d. 2013) could not have been in attendance on opening night, as she portrayed George Sand in the original 1991 production that she created with playwright Bryant. Arising out of that production, Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre was formed, with Oliver as its founding artistic director. In fact, the theatre company was named after Sand’s given name, AmantineLucile-Aurore Dupin. But this production of Dear Master must be reviewed on its own merits, without regard to the sentimentality of restaging the Aurora’s initial drama, or the stellar growth and development of the Aurora over the years.

The feminist, socialist and prolific novelist George Sand (1804-1876), lover of Frederic Chopin in her younger days, and the somber, depressive perfectionist writer Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), best known for Madame Bovary, engaged in an active 13-year artistic correspondence. Using translations of their actual letters as well as her imagination, Bryant has recreated Sand and Flaubert, such that, by the end of the 90-minute one-act play, we feel we understand their lives, personalities, literary methods and creative demons. … Continue reading »


Review: Deceit and deception in Shotgun Players’ ‘Caught’

Jomar Tagatac/Lin Bo, 
Elissa Beth Stebbins/Joyce/Curator in Shotgun Players' production of Caught. Photo: Pak Han
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Shotgun Players’ production of local playwright Christopher Chen’s stimulating, creative and complex work, Caught, confounded and ultimately conquered the Ashby Stage audience in its opening night performance. The mesmerizing Caught concerns truth and lies in their infinite varieties, and the place of truth in art, journalism and relationships. Since 2014, Caught has been produced in Philadelphia, Chicago, London, Seattle and New York to glowing reviews.

Chen’s initial concept of Caught stems from the incident involving Mike Daisey, who had reported on NPR’s This American Life about his encounters at an Apple factory in China, based on his nonfiction theatrical monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. After the program aired, subsequent fact-checking determined that some of Daisey’s experiences had been falsified. This American Life host Ira Glass gave an on-air apology and retraction.

The substance of Daisey’s reporting about conditions in the Apple factory was accurate and was verified, but Daisey’s re-telling of aspects of his visit to China was false. So, yes, he publicized the horrendous working conditions but, in doing so, he fabricated his own involvement in the report. … Continue reading »

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Lies, love, sacrifice in Shotgun Players’ ‘Grand Concourse’

Cathleen Riddley as Shelley in Grand Concourse. Photo: Pak Han
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Why do people volunteer at soup kitchens? Is it so that they may selflessly serve others? Is it to make themselves feel worthy? Satisfy religious commitments? Or is it to forget their own problems? These questions and themes of friendship and falseness are presented in the stimulating and entertaining Grand Concourse, well directed by Shotgun’s Joanie McBrien. Playwright Heidi Schreck is a two-time Obie Award-winning actress and author of There Are No More Big Secrets, Creature, and Showtime’s Nurse Jackie.

Fresh from its New York and Chicago runs, Grand Concourse is set in the kitchen area of a soup kitchen (and soup is the only meal on the menu) in a Bronx Catholic church basement, run by the habit-less nun Shelley (great work by Cathleen Riddley). Shelley arrives early each morning so that she can scrub the dining room after the night janitors have finished cleaning it. Shelley is having trouble concentrating on her prayers, however, and has taken to lengthening her prayers by timing them with the microwave timer. Watching her look into the microwave as she prays is charming, as well as spiritual — in a 21st-century kind of way.

Shelley’s calm, caring and conscientious demeanor seems too good to be true, and it turns out that it is. She is suffering from the burnout common to the self-sacrificing. We see her question whether her work is actually helpful and learn that her reasons for joining her religious order more closely resemble an act of teenage rebellion than true religious conviction. … Continue reading »

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Aurora’s remarkable ”Master Harold’ … and the boys’

Sam (l, L. Peter Callender) and Willie (r, Adrian Roberts), pretend to spar as Hally (Andrew Humann) calls the shots in Aurora Theatre Company’s Master Harold…and the boys. Photo: David Allen
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Aurora’s new production of “Master Harold” … and the boys is a brilliant evening of theater. Its playwright is South Africa’s Athol Fugard, whose internationally respected anti-apartheid works include Blood Knot, Boesman and Lena, and My Children! My Africa!Master Harold’s” cast of three, L. Peter Callender, Andrew Humann and Adrian Roberts, are all superb in their roles. And Timothy Near’s discerning direction perfects the production.

The powerful, award-winning “Master Harold,” a 90-minute autobiographically-based drama set in one rainy afternoon in 1950, is about Hally (aka Master Harold), a 17-year-old Afrikaner white boy, and Sam and Willy, two middle-aged black servants employed by Hally’s family. … Continue reading »

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Funny and fresh: Shotgun Players’ ‘The Village Bike’


Elissa Stebbins as Becky, Nick Medina as John in The Village Bike by the Shotgun Players. Photo: Pak han
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Count on the fearless Shotgun Players to produce The Village Bike, a contemporary British play by Penelope Skinner about a pregnant woman who isn’t getting enough sex. This amusing, slightly rueful two-act play, though superficially about sexual incompatibility in a marriage, also gives us a glimpse into modern marriage and contemporary English life.

Recent additions to their trendy village, newly pregnant Becky (Elissa Stebbins), an English teacher, and her husband, John (Nick Medina), in advertising, bought an old house with faulty “sweaty” plumbing. The analogy of stuffed-up groaning pipes hints at the more serious problems that permeate their household.

John has lost all interest in sex, afraid it hurt the baby, says he. He prefers to spend his time lecturing his wife about how to have the perfect baby and how to buy organic meat. Becky, however is much more interested in sex, and if her husband is not willing, why not masturbate to porn flicks, or scout the neighborhood for willing male companionship? … Continue reading »

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Inspirational: ‘For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday’

l to r) Charles Shaw Robinson (John) and Kathleen Chalfant (Ann) in Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday at Berkeley Rep.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
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“To die will be an awfully big adventure.” ― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Sarah Ruhl’s evocative For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, now playing at Berkeley Rep, is a heartfelt tribute to family and the ways in which loved ones may ease the pain and loneliness of aging and mortality. With some humor and a light touch, ideas about life and death are illustrated and explored. Although it’s a 90-minute, one-act play, For Peter Pan, seems to have been created along the lines of a traditional three-act-play, with a brief prologue and three distinct sections.

In the short prologue, Ann (talented Kathleen Chalfant, House of Cards, Wit) steps in front of the curtain and explains to the audience that, as a youngster, she had starred in Peter Pan in Davenport, Iowa, and met Mary Martin once as she passed through town. Ann remembers her busy physician father making time to attend her performances. This explanation helps us appreciate how Ann’s formative experience acting in Peter Pan deepened her relationship with her father and affected her concept of growing up and growing old. Without this, For Peter Pan, might seem disjointed. … Continue reading »

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Shotgun Players’ ‘Hamlet’ in Berkeley is ingenious

Cathleen Riddley as Horatio, El Beh as Hamlet in Shotgun Players' production of Hamlet at the Ashby Stage. Photo: Pak Han
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Shotgun Players prides itself on being “the little theater company that does big plays,” so producing its own extraordinary version of Hamlet seems absolutely appropriate. To begin its 25th season, Artistic Director Patrick Dooley assembled seven talented and gutsy players, who five minutes before the start of each performance pick names from a hat (actually Yorick’s skull) to determine which role each will play that evening. Although they’ve all rehearsed each part, to perform a major one, or two or three smaller parts, with so little prep time is incredibly difficult. It’s hard to imagine that Shotgun could pull this off, but the result at the evening I attended, was extremely successful. It’s different than other productions of Hamlet I’ve seen, but in a good way.

Notable Shotgun regulars Kevin Clarke, Nick Medina, Megan Trout and Beth Wilmurt, and guest artists El Beh, Cathleen Riddley and David Sinaiko, have spent many months in workshops, rehearsals and dueling practice to ready themselves for the 13 roles they play. If you do the math, there are 5,040 possible combinations of actors and roles. Many fans have attended more than one production. One stalwart has seen nine versions of Shotgun’s Hamlet since it opened. I understand why seeing multiple performance is tempting. The dynamics of each evening are distinctive, because of the changes in cast. … Continue reading »


Don’t miss ‘The Heir Apparent’ at the Aurora

Geronte (c. Julian Lopez-Morillas*) finds himself surrounded by imposters (l. Khalia Davis*, r. Patrick Kelly Jones*) as Lisette (back, Katie Rubin*) fears the plan is backfiring in Aurora’s Bay Area Premiere of The Heir Apparent. Photo: David Allen
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I just saw playwright David Ives’ witty and wild re-imagining of the early 18th-century French comedy, Le Légaire Universel by Jean-François Regnard. And I’m very glad I did. The super-creative Ives has taken a mild comedy by a Molière wannabe from the Commedia dell’arte school, and created what he calls a transladaptation, which turns the original material into a priceless combination of an 18th-century bawdy French farce and 21st-century clever American comedy — all in creatively rhymed couplets. It takes an ingenious writer to rhyme Kosher and gaucher.

The first-rate cast features California Shakespeare favorite Julian López-Morillas (The Aspern Papers, Nora,) as Geronte, the old, ailing, cantankerous miser (yes, shades of Molière). Geronte’s maidservant, Lisette (excellent Katie Rubin), his nephew, Eraste (notable Kenny Toll, Shotgun Players’ Eurydice, Antigonick) and his nephew’s servant, Crispin (sparkling Patrick Kelly Jones, Metamorphosis, Detroit) can’t wait for Geronte to kick the bucket and leave his fortune to Eraste. … Continue reading »

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‘Treasure Island’ at Berkeley Rep is solid entertainment

(l to r) Demetrios Troy (Israel Hands) and John Babbo (Jim Hawkins) in Mary Zimmerman’s Treasure Island at Berkeley Rep.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
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A new play by MacArthur Fellow and Tony Award-winner Mary Zimmerman is always a reason to celebrate. Her Metamorphosis, Arabian Nights and White Snake have thrilled Berkeley audiences, myself included. These plays represent her sublime ability to take timeless, legendary tales and imbue them with stage magic and emotional resonance. Yet her adaption and direction of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a co-production of Berkeley Rep and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, for all of its achievements, never reaches the heights of her most brilliant productions.

Treasure Island (1881-1882) was one of the first adventure stories written for boys, and it’s still a terrific yarn. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the mid-1700s in which young Jim Hawkins, who is also the narrator, (excellent John Babbo) sails on the schooner Hispaniola seeking pirate treasure (X marks the spot). Jim ultimately uses his courage and wits to challenge that most infamous brigand, the amoral yet amiable peg-legged, crutch-toting, parrot-shouldering Long John Silver (great Stephen Epps, Tartuffe, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Miser). … Continue reading »

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Aurora’s ‘The How and the Why’: Exciting and engrossing

Rachel (l. Martha Brigham*) explains her theory on menstruation to Zelda (r. Nancy Carlin*) in Aurora’s West Coast Premiere of The How and The Why. Photo: David Allen
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It’s a rare treat when an evening at the theatre can engross, educate and entertain, all in one performance.

The How and the Why, written by Sarah Treem (Showtime’s The Affair, HBO’s In Treatment and Netflix’s House of Cards) with two especially talented actors, Nancy Carlin (The Monster-Builder, Hysteria, Benefactors) and Martha Brigham (San Francisco Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse), under the excellent directorship of Joy Carlin (Talley’s Folly, After the Revolution, Body Awareness) is that perfect drama.

The play is sometimes challenging, occasionally humorous, but always a thought-provoking dialogue between two women evolutionary biologists who meet for the first time, but have much in common.

Sparks fly when 28-year-old graduate student Rachel (Martha Brigham) meets the older and eminent professor Zelda (Nancy Carlin) in Zelda’s unnamed university office (presumably Harvard, as becomes apparent from the Act II set). Both women are uneasy; there are false starts. As they feel their way into a conversation about evolutionary biology, they are on safer ground. … Continue reading »

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Glittering stars in ‘Macbeth’ at Berkeley Rep

Conleth Hill (Macbeth) and Frances McDormand (Lady Macbeth) at Berkeley Rep.

Photo courtesy of
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The Broadway stars were shining on Berkeley for the opening of Macbeth at Berkeley Rep.

Conleth Hill, an Olivier and Tony award-winning stage actor, with distinguished screen and television credits, (Lord Varys in HBO’s Game of Thrones) stars as Macbeth, the once brave warrior destroyed by ambition, guilt and self-doubt. Frances McDormand, the celebrated Tony, Emmy and Academy award-winning actor, plays the forceful and fearsome Lady Macbeth, as well as one of the witches. Added to the star-studded duo is the talented, Tony award-winning director, Daniel Sullivan, who has previously directed Hill and McDormand in other New York Shakespeare productions.

With this glittering group, and with Macbeth being one of my favorite Shakespearean tragedies, my expectations may have been impossibly high, but in any event, they weren’t fully met. Don’t get me wrong — I liked the performance overall. It may come down to a question of style. I studied the poetry and oratory of Shakespeare, and so I enjoy a bit of the ham in Shakespearean actors. This production focused more on moving the plot along than on the emotion of the main characters and the affecting recitation of the soliloquies. In some scenes, the actors did capture the emotion and the eloquence of the language. Yet in many other instances, that passion was missing. At times it was difficult to hear the actors and understand the words they spoke, as lines seemed rushed and poorly articulated. … Continue reading »

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‘Aubergine’ at Berkeley Rep tears at the heartstrings

(l to r) Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Lucien) and Tim Kang (Ray) in Julia Cho’s Aubergine at Berkeley Rep. Photo:
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Although intellectually we understand that we will die, most of us try to avoid contemplating death — either our own or of those we love. Julia Cho’s poetic new drama, Aubergine, makes us confront the heartrending loss of a parent and the painful grieving process that follows. Interlaced with the theme of loss is food — and its invocation of childhood, memory and love.

An affecting emotional, but fragmented drama, Aubergine begins with a moving monologue by Diane (marvelous Safiya Fredericks) about her deceased father’s favorite food. I was teary within the first minutes.

The scene then shifts to the main story about the death of a stern, elderly South Korean immigrant (Sab Shimono), who struggled to make a life for himself and his son, Ray, after the premature death of his wife. As an adult, Ray (fine acting by Tim Kang, TV’s The Mentalist) and his father had little in common. Ray is a dedicated chef, whereas his father, who seemed to take no enjoyment from food, believed that cooking is a woman’s job. When Ray’s father is released from the hospital to die at home, Ray becomes his reluctant caregiver, guided by a kind and wise hospice nurse, Lucien (first-rate Tyrone Mitchell Henderson). … Continue reading »

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