Author Archives: Emily S. Mendel

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 kevinberne.com
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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: kevinberne.com
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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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Ibsen redux: ‘Little Erik’ at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre

Joie (l. Marilee Talkington*) and Freddie (r. Joe Estlack*) discuss their dysfunctional lives in the World Premiere of Little Erik. Photo: David Allen
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Little Eyolf, one of Henrik Ibsen’s lesser plays, has been updated and up-ended by writer and director Mark Jackson in the Aurora Theatre’s world premiere production of Little Erik. In re-writing Ibsen’s 1894 plot into a superficially contemporary story about a hard-driving executive wife, a mercurial wannabe novelist husband and a disregarded disabled child, Jackson seems to be on the right track until the latter half of the one-act, 80-minute drama, where all goes awry, as the writing departs spectacularly from Ibsen’s original plot and veers into surprisingly shoddy melodrama.

The eponymous Little Erik (talented Jack Wittmayer) was injured as a baby when he fell off a kitchen table while his parents were making love on the floor. Thus begins the guilt, tension and anger that adds pressure to the couple’s already strained relationship. … Continue reading »

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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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