Author Archives: Emily S. Mendel

BAMPFA’s inaugural exhibition, ‘Architecture of Life,’ is an eloquent survey

Architecture of Life,on view at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, January 31–May 29, 2016. Installation view, with a Dogon ritual altar ladder (left) and awork by Chris Johanson (right). Photo: Sibilia Savage
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BAMPFA’s new building is an absolute winner. The 82,000-square-foot home catapults Berkeley’s visual art scene into prominence — comparable to many larger, richer and better established West Coast institutions. It handsomely repurposes the former 1930s WPA UC printing plant building. Affixed to it is a brightly clad steel tube-like section that houses the new 232-seat Barbro Osher Theater, where films from its impressive archive of over 300,000 items will be regularly screened. There is also a 33-seat screening room and two film viewing booths available by appointment.

As a building that needs to serve town and gown, visual art lovers and movie goers, the new BAMPFA very successfully performs its multiple functions. And, although its steel covering, reminiscent of a Frank Gehry project, is incongruous with the neighboring buildings, it still seems to work. The design by the world-class architecture firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, provides an inviting, open, multilevel environment, with its share of hidden corners, and reading, art, performance and meeting places. And, of course, the Babette café and a gift shop. … Continue reading »

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Shotgun Players’ ‘The Mousetrap’ surprises and delights

Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boyle, Alex Rodriguez as Mr. Paravincini, Nick Medina as Christopher Wren, Karen Offereins as Miss Casewell, Adam Magill as Detective Sergeant Trotter, and David Sinaiko as Major Metcalf. Photo: Pak Han
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Since 1952, London audiences have been frightened, surprised and delighted by Dame Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, and Shotgun Player’s audience will be no exception. Under the talented direction of Shotgun’s Artistic Director, Patrick Dooley, with an outstanding cast and an elaborate stage set, this quintessential country house murder mystery seems as fresh, engaging and mysterious as it did 63 years ago.

Giles Ralston (Mick Mize) and Mollie Ralston (Megan Trout), recently married after a brief courtship, inaugurate their guest house, Monkswell Manor, during a severe snowstorm. We meet their four expected guests, the outwardly charming but inwardly neurotic, Christopher Wren (Nick Medina), a young wanna-be architect whose parents had a bad sense of humor, the supercilious and cantankerous Mrs. Boyle (Trish Mulholland), the blustery retired Major Metcalf (David Sinaiko) and the morose Miss Sara Casewell (Karen Offereins). The innkeepers do not know anything about their guests, except that, presumably, they each have seven guineas per week to pay for their room and board.

In the midst of the dreadful storm, an unexpected guest arrives. Mr. Paravichini (Alex Rodriguez), seeking shelter for the night, explains that he had to abandon his car in the now impassable roads. Luckily, the Ralstons have a small room left for him. But who really is this unusual man wearing makeup and speaking with a strange accent?  … Continue reading »

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Unflinching and timely: ‘Disgraced’ at Berkeley Rep

Bernard White (Amir) and Nisi Sturgis (Emily) in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced at Berkeley Rep.

Photo by Liz Lauren
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The exceptional and intense Pulitzer prize-winning drama, Disgraced, is a timely and unflinching exposition into the power and perils of race and ethnicity in America. Talented novelist (American Dervish) and playwright Ayad Akhtar elegantly communicates these multifaceted concepts using only four main characters, whose lives change over the course of a social dinner.

Amir Kapoor (Bernard White), a Pakistani American corporate lawyer, is hoping to make partner at his predominantly Jewish New York law firm. He claims to be Indian (and therefore Hindu), hoping to hide his less acceptable Muslim background. After all, he has rejected his religion, calling the Koran, “one very long hate mail letter to humanity.”

Living a sophisticated American life is far more significant to Amir than looking backwards at his religion and race. But, as much as he wants to escape his heritage, like a dark enveloping shadow, it hauntingly reappears. As my mother was fond of saying, “If you try to escape your background, people will be glad to remind you of it.” … Continue reading »

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Architecture and the devil: ‘The Monster-Builder’ at Aurora

Architects Rita (l, Tracy Hazas*) and Gregor (r, Danny Scheie*) have a tête-à-tête in Aurora Theatre Company’s The Monster-Builder
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Although The Monster-Builder is at times captivating, I’m still a bit flummoxed by its construction. It’s mostly a comedy that interlaces cogent comments about post-modern architecture. However, it awkwardly mixes its moods, alternatively presenting satire, farce and sex-capades with observations on building design, but without creating an integrated theatrical experience.

We all can recognize post-modern architecture by our strong reaction to it. Sometimes we are in awe of the creativity and experimentation shown in a startlingly gorgeous building. Other times, we wonder what the architect and client could have been thinking when we notice an odd-shaped building that doesn’t fit its location or purpose. Playwright Amy Freed (Freedomland- 1998 Pulitzer Prize nomination, The Beard of Avon; Still Warm; Restoration Comedy, You, Nero), the daughter of an architect, seems to only express the negative aspects of modern architecture. … Continue reading »

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Exuberant send-up of ‘Pirates of Penzance’ at the Rep

Matt Kahler as the Major-General and the cast of The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance entertain the crowd at Berkeley Rep with their immersive rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s topsy-turvy world.

Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
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The Hypocrites, an ebullient, talented young musical troupe from Chicago is storming the beaches of Berkeley Rep (and Penzance) in their loving send-up of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. These performers are so gifted in both voice and acting that they could probably perform the operetta Pirates of Penzance as written by Gilbert and Sullivan in 1879. Instead, director and adapter Sean Graney with co-adapter Kevin O’Donnell have spoofed, shortened (to 80 minutes) and transformed it into a modern musical version, using many of the melodies and lyrics of the original songs.

Upon entering the Rep’s new Osher Studio on Center Street, one is immersed in the joyous, colorful, tuneful, noisy world of the Hypocrites. Each member of the cast wears a silly costume, and sings, jumps, grins, claps, throws beach balls, engages the audience and plays an instrument (including banjos, guitars, clarinet and a saw). If you have booked “promenade seating,” you may be sitting on a bench or in the kiddie pools with the yellow rubber duckies. And be alert, you may be asked to move out of the way when the players need your seat during the performance. All part of the fun. … Continue reading »

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‘The Rover’: A 17th-century play with 21st-century morals

Justin Gillman as Blunt, Dan Saski as Don Pedro, Jeremy Kahn* as Willmore, and Alex Lydon as Belvile.
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One thing about Shotgun Players — they’re always up for trying unusual and challenging plays. Sometimes their attempts result in exceptional evenings, especially for a small local theater company. However, at other times their reach exceeds their grasp. The Rover, unfortunately in the latter group, is a production that only sometimes works, despite the best of intentions.

Written by Aphra Behn (1640? – 1689), a prolific British female playwright, poet, and novelist from the Restoration Period (1660 – 1710), The Rover is basically a silly comedy of manners, but it is also exceptional since the female characters are outspoken in expressing their “modern” sexual desires. This was radically avant-garde during the Restoration Period and Director M. Graham Smith does his best work while emphasizing this aspect of the play, which still charms.Continue reading »

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Berkeley Rep’s new musical ‘Amélie’ is entrancing

At Berkeley Rep, award-winning actress Samantha Barks as Amélie with the cast of Amélie, A New Musical, a world premiere based on the Academy Award-nominated film.

Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
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The new musical Amélie is an absolutely charming musical achievement, with an outstanding cast, an inventive story, melodic tunes, a great band, complex stage craft, and a happy ending. Please keep this sentence in mind, when I write that Amélie may still be in its ingénue phase and could benefit from a bit of tightening here and there before it’s absolutely ready for New York, where it is likely heading.

The story, based on the 2001 critical and audience French film favorite, Amélie, is about a shy young waitress at a tiny Montmartre café who secretly devotes herself to helping others find happiness, and perhaps herself as well. Directed and co-written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and starring the gamine Audrey Tautou, the film was filled with close-ups of the adorable Tautou, and long-shots of romantic Paris. But no one sang. Although, after seeing the Berkeley Rep version, it seems obvious that music is a natural accompaniment to the whimsical plot and magical mood of the film. … Continue reading »

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‘Mud Blue Sky’ shines at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre

Sam (c. l, Rebecca Dines) sends Jonathan (c. r, Devin O’Brien) on an errand as Angie (r, Laura Jane Bailey) watches and Beth (l, Jamie Jones) pours herself another drink in Aurora Theatre Company’s Mud Blue Sky. Photo: David Allen
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Most of us find flying a tedious chore these days, so you can imagine how flight attendants feel. In Marisa Wegrzyn’s bittersweet comedy, three female flight attendants reunite at a bland airport hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Rather than the clear blue sky flown by “stewardesses” of the past, their humorous and poignant reminiscences emanate from a Mud Blue Sky.

In a very funny opening silent soliloquy, first-rate Jamie Jones (Gidion’s Knot, A Delicate Balance) as Beth, an aging and exhausted flight attendant, slowly takes off her painful shoes and cases her numbingly beige hotel room like a pro. After all, someone could be hiding under the bed. She’s seen it all. So she washes her hands several times in the opening few minutes.

While tending to her aching back, her flighty (pun intended) co-worker, single parent Sam (well-acted by Rebecca Dines), enters and tries unsuccessfully to entice Beth to join her and former attendant Angie to go bar-hopping. Unfortunately, divorced Angie (skillful Laura Jane Bailey) has been fired for being overweight; she now tends to her invalid mother near Chicago. And her dog just died, too. Angie is a walking cautionary tale. … Continue reading »

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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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