Author Archives: Emily S. Mendel

Myth turned upside down in Shotgun’s creative ‘Eurydice’

Megan Trout as Eurydice and Kenny Toll as Orpheus in Euridyce by Shotgun Players. Photo: Pak Han
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In the oft-told Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the musician Orpheus follows his bride, Eurydice to the underworld to lead her back to life, but he is forbidden to turn his head and look at her. Nevertheless, because he fears that she may not be following him, he glances back and loses his love for all eternity. Contemporary playwright Sarah Ruhl has creatively turned the myth upside down in Shotgun Players’ winning Eurydice.

Ruhl’s version is from the point of view of a present-day Eurydice (first-rate Megan Trout) and introduces a new character, Eurydice’s deceased father, wonderfully captured by Bay Area luminary James Carpenter.

Combining the mythic with reality, Eurydice begins with a wonderfully sensual pas de deux skillfully choreographed by director Erika Chong Shuch, with Orpheus (nicely acted by Kenny Toll) and Eurydice frolicking at the beach. Eurydice is the intellectual of the pair; Orpheus, an idealistic composer, thinks only of music.  … Continue reading »

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In ‘Best of Enemies’ Buckley and Vidal go head to head

best of enemies
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Why would a 2015 audience want to see a documentary about televised political debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley that occurred almost 50 years ago?

Because Best of Enemies brilliantly recreates the fascinating, edgy 1968 TV dialogues between two intelligent giants — articulate men with strongly held opposing political views. Their ideas still profoundly influence political discourse today.

Best of Enemies, which is showing at Landmark’s California Theatre in downtown Berkeley, is also an incisive snapshot of 1968, that iconic year in America, when the Vietnam War brought our political scene to its boiling point. TV footage of the Democratic convention in Chicago and the associated riots and police brutality made the public’s division about the Vietnam War impossible to be ignored. … Continue reading »

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A portrait of Amy Winehouse through film and exhibit

D 32808-05  Amy Winehouse  Obligatory Credit - CAMERA PRESS/Mark Okoh SPECIAL PRICE APPLIES. Jazz and soul singer Amy Winehouse poses for photos at her home in Camden, London.  Her debut album 'Frank' won an  Ivor Novello award and was released in October 2003.     2004
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If you’re a fan or are merely curious about the late Grammy award-winning jazz/blues singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), and you’re able to get to San Francisco, you are in luck. After listening carefully to her music, there is no better way to understand the young woman behind the garish headlines than by visiting the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s detailed and remarkable exhibit, “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,” which contains numerous personal artifacts and ephemera from Amy Winehouse’s youth and family. And by all means see the terrific documentary, “Amy,” which deftly explores Winehouse’s rise as a superstar and fall into drugs, illness and death at the age of 27. … Continue reading »

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‘Top Girls’ by Berkeley’s Shotgun Players is top theater

Top Girls
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Shotgun Players has scored a bit hit with Caryl Churchill’s 1982 drama, Top Girls.

The Obie award-winning, superbly written Top Girls takes place in London and environs at the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister (1979-1990), when her Conservative Party emphasized individual success and achievement, as opposed to the protection of all segments of society through labor unions and government social programs. Although it’s a play about women, Top Girls is essentially asking all of us to think about the nature of the society we favor, for men and women. … Continue reading »

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Detroit: Unpredictable, dark comedy shines at the Aurora

Kenny, Mary, Sharon, and Ben (l-r, Patrick Kelly Jones*, Amy Resnick*, Luisa Frasconi, Jeff Garrett*) have a wild backyard barbeque in Aurora’s Bay Area Premiere of Detroit
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The fiery dark comedy, Detroit, written by Lisa D’Amour, richly deserves the Obie Award it won in 2013 for the Best New American Play. When it first opened in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theatre in 2010, the U.S. was floundering through the sudden and severe recession that turned people’s lives inside out. Detroit adroitly captures those angst-filled times and weightier concerns, yet has plenty of humor and satire that lessens the pall. It is also an exploration into the dream or mirage of the American middle class life.

Mary (Amy Resnick (Body Awareness, Collapse) and Ben (Jeff Garrett, QED, Berkeley City Club, Assassins, Shotgun) live in a post-World War II close-in suburb near an unnamed city. Mary is a paralegal, but is more interested in shopping online than doing her work. Ben has been laid off from his job as a bank loan officer, but has big plans to start an online site to help those in debt. And he surfs motivational websites. Perhaps he still has a shot at the American Dream. … Continue reading »

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Review: The Shotgun Players’ ‘Heart Shaped Nebula’

Hugo Carbajal as Miqueo and Marilet Martinez as Dalila in the Shotgun Players' production of Heart Shaped Nebula. Photo: Pak Han
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Astronomy and mysticism don’t normally mix, but they do, and with varying degrees of success, in Marisela Treviño Orta’s 80-minute one-act play, Heart Shaped Nebula, ably directed by Desdemona Chiang. The play chronicles the love story of Dalila and Miqueo, she, an astronomy and Greek mythology fanatic, he, an artist. These star-crossed lovers meet in high school in their small Texas town, a town not unlike Orta’s small hometown in Texas.

As the play opens, we find Miqueo (accomplished actor Hugo E. Carbajal) in a cheap motel near Tonopah, Nevada, a town which apparently has the darkest night skies in the U.S. He plans to witness a massive meteor shower, which will help free him from grief over Dalila, whom he hasn’t seen in 14 years. Hiding in his room is a thieving stranger, 13-year-old Amara (impressive Gisela Feied), who seems to know too much about Miqueo to explain logically. Amara provides the impetus for Miqueo to recount his relationship with Dalila. We see through his hesitant flashbacks the tenderness and devotion of the couple as they grow up together. … Continue reading »

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‘Fifth of July’ at Aurora Theatre: A play with much to offer

Ken Talley (c. r. Craig Marker*) debates his future with family and friends (l-r, Harold Pierce, John Girot*, Nanci Zoppi*, Oceana Ortiz, Jennifer LeBlanc*, Elizabeth Benedict*) in Aurora’s production of Fifth of July
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One of the fresh, modern aspects of the 1978 Fifth of July by Pulitzer Prize winner Lanford Wilson (1937–2011) is that it concerns a gay couple whose sexuality is never questioned. Neither is the relationship the subject of angst, derision or other negative reaction — just love and acceptance. Unfortunately, a few other elements of the play seem slightly off, despite the fact that Fifth of July has much to offer.

It’s 1977, and we’re at the Lebanon, Missouri childhood home of Kenneth Talley, Jr. (Craig Marker) a legless Vietnam veteran, who lives with his partner, botanist Jed Jenkins (Josh Schell). Jed seems content to put down roots there by continuing to improve the English garden he has designed. But Ken is now reluctant to teach at the local high school as he had planned, and is considering selling the house.

Visiting Ken are some longtime friends from his 1960s days in Berkeley, copper conglomerate heiress Gwen Landis (Nanci Zoppi) and her assertive husband, John Landis (John Girot). Gwen dreams of becoming a country singer and is actively promoted by her husband. They are traveling with Gwen’s amusing guitar player, Weston Hurley (Harold Pierce). John thinks that the 19-room Talley house would make a fine music studio for Gwen. Or does John have ulterior motives? … Continue reading »

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Ambitious and dramatic: ‘Head of Passes’ at Berkeley Rep

l to r) Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Shelah) and Michael A. Shepperd (Creaker) perform in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes, a poignant and poetic new play about the journey of family and faith, trial and tribulation at Berkeley Rep.

Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
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We often wonder why tragedies occur, particularly when they affect good people. It’s a question as old as the story of Job or Jesus’s cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In Head of Passes, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, a 2013 MacArthur “genius” grantee, presents us with the deeply religious widow Shelah, who, when faced with personal tragedy, prays, pleads, and confronts her God with a biblical fervor worthy of Job.

Shelah (great performance by Cheryl Lynn Bruce) lives in a remote marshy area of Louisiana where the Mississippi River divides and meets the Gulf of Mexico, known as the Head of Passes. Before the play begins, we see a man (Sullivan Jones) in a tuxedo sitting on the stage. From the cast list, we glean that he may be the Angel. He didn’t add much to the drama, except perhaps a misplaced sense of the supernatural. … Continue reading »

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‘Talley’s Folly’ is terrific at Aurora Theatre’s Harry Upstage

Sally (Lauren English*) tends to an injured Matt (Rolf Saxon*) in Aurora Theatre Company’s Talley’s Folly. Photo: David Allen
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Those who are fortunate and fast enough to find tickets for Aurora’s Theatre’s Talley’s Folly will enjoy a first-class theatrical experience.

Celebrated author Lanford Wilson (1937–2011) deservedly won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this tender two-person, one-act romantic comedy. It’s one of the plays in Wilson’s famed trilogy about the wealthy Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri. Aurora will be presenting the two other plays in the trilogy, Wilson’s Fifth of July from April 17 through May 17, 2015, and four private staged readings of the less produced Talley & Son in April.

Noted Bay Area veteran actor and director Joy Carlin directs inspired performances by Lauren English, as the unmarriageable 30-year old Sally Talley, and Rolf Saxon, as 40-something Matt Friedman, a Jewish émigré accountant from St. Louis, who shows up on July 4, 1944 at the Talley boathouse (or folly) to propose marriage to Sally. … Continue reading »

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Avant-garde Antigonick by the Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage

Parker Murphy as Nick in "Antigonick." Photo by Pak Han/Shotgun Players
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We are fortunate to have a company in Berkeley like Shotgun Players— always willing to take risks, to present large and small productions, classics, new material, or new takes on classics, as in Antigonick.

The beautiful art book Antigonick, on which Shotgun’s production is based, is a new translation of the Sophocles play, Antigone, by Canadian world-class poet, classicist and MacArthur “genius” fellowship winner, Anne Carson, and her collaborator Robert Currie. Published in 2012, the book contains text blocks hand-inked on the page, with translucent vellum pages and stunning drawings by Bianca Stone that overlay the text. Shotgun has some copies for sale.

Directors Mark Jackson and Hope Mohr turn the 2,500-year-old play into an ultra-modern visual, dance and intellectual experiment that combines Carson’s adaptation, Mohr’s choreography skills, and Jackson’s tested directorial talent. … Continue reading »

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Molière’s ‘Tartuffe’: A dark comedy at the Berkeley Rep

Tartuffe caption. Photo: Courtesy of kevinberne.com
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Berkeley Rep, and the talented actor, writer and director Steven Epp, have been enjoying a 20-year love fest, resulting in productions including “The Green Bird” (2000), Molière’s “The Miser” (2006) and “A Doctor in Spite of Himself” (2012), and “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” (2014).

In the latest work in the collaboration, Molière’s “Tartuffe,” director Dominique Serrand presents a serious take on the moral tale of the wealthy Orgon (Luverne Seifert), who falls under the sway of the counterfeit man of God, Tartuffe (gifted Steven Epp). First presented in 1664 at the Palace of Versailles, “Tartuffe” was found so offensive to religion that the Archbishop of Paris threatened excommunication for anyone who watched, acted or even read the play. And it still packs an anti-religious punch.

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Dark but bitingly funny: ‘The Lyons’ at the Aurora Theatre

The Lyons. Photo: David Allen
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In the opening act of The Lyons, Nicky Silver’s bitingly funny and undeniably moving play, we are in a hospital room in New York, where Ben Lyon (Will Marchetti) lies terminally ill with cancer, cursing with pain, as his wife Rita (Ellen Ratner, After the Revolution) thumbs through decorating magazines, casually discussing her plans to redecorate their living room after Ben dies. Not your average loving couple merely engaging in bickering banter, Ben and Rita have struggled through 40 years in a difficult marriage burdened by disappointment and regret.

Into the hospital room timidly peeks adult daughter, Lisa (Jessica Bates, After the Revolution) a single mother of two boys, recently separated from her husband. Lisa struggles to cope with her day-to-day life as well as her psychological and alcohol issues. She’s clearly uncomfortable and distressed by her parents, seemingly more because her father’s condition was kept from her for months, than the fact that he is dying. … Continue reading »

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‘Xs and Os’ at the Rep: Stories of a game that can kill

(l to r) Anthony Holiday (Addicott) and Eddie Ray Jackson (Anthony) perform in the world premiere of X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story), a hard-hitting docudrama at Berkeley Rep that examines our country’s passion for a game that is life-giving yet lethal.

Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
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It’s hard to ignore football, even if one tries. Adored by millions of devoted fans, it’s a huge part of American culture, not to mention a multibillion dollar industry. The versatile, vital 85-minute “docudrama” Xs and Os explores diverse aspects of the game from teamwork to trauma, from fandom to fear, from consciousness to concussion.

Playwright KJ Sanchez (a self-described football fan) with actor Jenny Mercein (whose father, Chuck, played in Super Bowls) interviewed assorted groups connected with the game, including fans, current and former players and their families, as well as doctors and coaches. The real names of a few people are used while many have been changed. The interviewees’ comments are repeated verbatim in the play, artfully arranged in short scenes that alternate among the various constituencies. … Continue reading »

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