Author Archives: Emily S. Mendel

‘Safe House’: Stirring tale of free brothers of color in 1843

The Pedigrew’s (l-r, Dawn L. Troupe*, Lance Gardner*, David Everett Moore*) argue about what to do with fugitive slave Roxie (back c. Jamella Cross) in the West Coast Premiere of SAFE HOUSE
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Keith Josef Adkins has written an admirable play that tells the tale of two free brothers of color in 1843’s Northern Kentucky. I use the word admirable because the plight of the very different brothers — one with small goals for the future and one with brave principles — brings to light the dark and largely unexplored cruel treatment of free people of color before the Civil War. The impetus for Safe House, which is playing at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, is Adkins’ extensive genealogical research, which traced his roots back to a mixed-race couple who lived before the American Revolution and settled in Northern Kentucky, where one line of their free Black descendants were shoemakers.

In Safe House, all the ambitious controlling older brother Addison Pedigrew (David Everett Moore) wants from life is to operate a shoe business from his house, rather than having to be an itinerant cobbler, knocking on white families’ backdoors with his tools and shoes. But since his free-spirited younger brother Frank (Lance Gardner) was caught trying to help a slave escape to Liberia two years before the action of the play, the local sheriff, represented by his underling Bracken (Cassidy Brown), placed the family on even more onerous restrictions than the routine indignities that were foisted on free people of color in that time and place. … Continue reading »

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‘The Last Tiger in Haiti’: Powerful portrait of Haitian life

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The Last Tiger in Haiti, a world premiere co-production between Berkeley Rep and the La Jolla Playhouse, was written by a talented newcomer, Jeff Augustin, who was born in Miami of Haitian parentage. He received his MFA in theater from UC San Diego just two years ago and has already landed many awards and artist residencies around the country. The production is directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, who is also is a graduate of UC San Diego’s MFA theater program. Please keep their newcomer status in mind, when you see the impactful, yet imperfect The Last Tiger in Haiti.

The majority of the drama (an over-long first act) is set in a dismal hut/tent in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2008 and focuses on five bedraggled children who are restaveks — the Haitian term for children whose poverty-stricken parents have abandoned them to live with better-off families, for whom the children must function as near slaves until they reach the age of 18. They live in heartbreaking conditions, often go hungry, are forbidden to go to school and frequently suffer physical and mental abuse.

Our hearts immediately go out to the youngest restavek, Rose, an innocent 11 year-old girl (fine performance by Britany Bellizeare) who plays with her only possession, a black cloth doll that her mother had given her. She is safeguarded by Max, who is about to reach 18 and freedom (powerful performance by Andy Lucien). Max protects Rose from a tormenting Joseph (Reggie D. White) and his sidekick, Emmanuel (Clinton Roane). Laurie (Jasmine St. Clair) is a 17-year old young woman whose bravado covers her fear. All the children are played by experienced, skilled actors who, unfortunately, must struggle through the delivery of their lines mimicking a sort of French/Haitian accent. … Continue reading »

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Shotgun Players’ powerful ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

David Sinaiko as George, Josh Schell as Nick, 
Megan Trout as Honey, Beth Wilmurt as Martha
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Fifty-four years after its Broadway debut, the award-winning Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (1928-2016) hasn’t lost any of its strength and force. The alcohol-fueled psychological mêlée among George, Martha, Nick and Honey retains its full intensity and potency. Without the tight direction by Mark Jackson and the excellent performances by Beth Wilmurt, (Martha) David Sinaiko (George), Josh Schell (Nick) and Megan Trout (Honey), that might not have been the case. After all, in the wrong hands, the drama’s acrimony could easily be exaggerated into a SNL sketch. But no worries; this performance succeeds beyond expectations. I sat on the edge of my seat, totally engrossed during the entire three-act, three-hour performance.

After a university faculty party given by Martha’s father, the university president, long-married Martha and George are visited by a younger couple, Nick, a 28-year old university biologist and his unsophisticated wife, Honey. As the long night wears on, Martha and George bitterly attack each other’s psychological sensitivities with biting and sarcastic wit, as Nick and Honey first observe and finally participate in the virulent dissection of Martha and George’s marriage. Soon, the cracks in Nick and Honey’s own relationship are revealed, as the games that pit illusion against reality escalate to a dramatic climax.

Albee’s ingenious and erudite dialogue adds a dynamic and spirited flair to the drama. It’s delivered in a spontaneous and authentic way with characters interrupting each other in lifelike repartee. In this beautifully crafted play, one must listen carefully to grasp the multiple layers beneath the pathos of George and Martha. … Continue reading »

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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 »

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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 »

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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’

IN PRODUCTION


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 http://www.pakhan.com/
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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 »

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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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