Author Archives: Emily S. Mendel

Not to be missed: Shotgun Players’ ‘The Coast of Utopia’

The Coast of Utopia: Salvage
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Sir Tom Stoppard’s famous, award-winning trilogy, The Coast of Utopia (2002), centers on a group of Russian philosophers, radicals, anarchists and socialists in pre-revolutionary Russia (1833-1866). If the subject matter doesn’t sound enthralling, rest assured that one of Stoppard’s gifts is exploring arcane subject matters and infusing them with excitement, humanity and heart.

Shotgun Players produced the first two fascinating productions, Voyage and Shipwreck in 2012 and 2013. This year, the final and best, Salvage, as well as the first two plays, can be seen in repertory now at the Ashby Stage. Led by Artistic Director Patrick Dooley, Shotgun has taken a very complex series of plays, with difficult language, numerous characters and copious scene changes, and succeeded in presenting intriguing and beguiling dramas … all with fine acting.  … Continue reading »

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Steven Epp is back with ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’

Accidental Death of an AnarchistYale Repertory Theatre
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The 1970 absurdist farce, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, is the most internationally recognized play by the 1997 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Dario Fo (Italian, born in 1926) “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.”

Considered a classic of 20th-century theater, Accidental Death of an Anarchist has been performed in more than 40 countries, including Argentina, Chile, China, India, Pakistan, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, and Zimbabwe — all places in which provocative theater could be used as a revolutionary medium.

Based upon a cross between commedia dell’arte and the Marx Brothers, this production is by the creative team of comic genius Steven Epp and inventive director Christopher Bayes, who presented to Berkeley Rep the ridiculous A Doctor in Spite of Himself in 2012. … Continue reading »

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‘A Maze’ in Berkeley: A provocative evening of theater

Oksana (Sarah Moser) and Paul (Harold Pierce). Photo: Jay Yamada
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Shotgun’s mission is to present provocative and relevant theatre at an affordable price. It does so with its own productions, as well as by inviting other theater companies to perform on the Ashby Stage.

A Maze is a creative and complex two-act play written by Rob Handel which debuted in New York in 2011, and was staged by Just Theater last summer. The play impressed Shotgun, which is delighted to remount it and present it to the larger audience it deserves.

Directed by Molly Aaronson-Gelb, the play is comprised of three separate plot lines that, in the first act, appear disconnected and unrelated. We imagine that all these stories must have a thematic connection, and they do. But the way they intersect in the second act is unexpected, amusing and a bit troubling. … Continue reading »

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‘Gidion’s Knot’: A riveting performance at Aurora Theatre

Gidion's Knot
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Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams’ astonishing two-character play rivets the audience as it explores vital societal issues — children’s free expression and its limits, cyber-bullying and parental versus society’s rights.

As you enter the theatre, you find yourself in a typical 5th grade classroom, complete in every detail, thanks to set designer Nina Ball, including the school desks, the fluorescent light fixtures and the clock on the wall that continues to work throughout the play’s eighty minutes. Heather, a teacher with two years of experience, sits at her desk with her head down, grading papers and checking her cell phone.

After several minutes, Corryn enters the classroom for a scheduled parent-teacher conference to discuss why her son, Gidion, has been suspended from school. Yet Heather is shocked that Corryn has kept the appointment. … Continue reading »

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‘The House that will not Stand:’ An exciting world première

(l to r) Joniece Abbott-Pratt (Odette) and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart (Agnès) portray sisters and award-winning actress Lizan Mitchell (Beartrice) portrays the matriarch of the Albans family in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s The House that will not Stand, a comedic drama about free women of color in 1836 New Orleans. Photo:
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The world première of Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand, commissioned by Berkeley Rep, is an exciting event. Not only is Gardley a nationally known, award-winning poet/playwright who teaches theater at Brown University, but he is also an East Oakland native who attended Castlemont High School before graduating from San Francisco State University and the Yale School of Drama.

Gardley’s ambitious, engaging, witty and hectic two-act play, set in New Orleans in 1836, relates the story of Beartrice Albans (wonderfully acted by Lizan Mitchell), a free woman of color, who entered into a common-law marriage, referred to as plaçage (from the French “to place with”) with the white and wealthy Lazare (Ray Reinhardt).

In this formal arrangement, acknowledged in New Orleans while it was a French colony, a mother negotiated a contract for her daughter to live with a rich white man. At the fancy Quadroon Ball, white men mixed with young Creole women with the intent of finding a placée. … Continue reading »

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Baryshnikov is back at Berkeley Rep with ‘Man in a Case’

Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov perform a dramatic pas de deux depicting the unrequited love between an unmarried man and a married woman in About Love, the second piece featured in Man in a Case, at Berkeley Rep. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
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Based on two short stories by Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Obie award winning Big Dance Theater blend dance, video, theater and music to create a dream-like exploration of love and loss in Man in a Case at the Berkeley Rep

Although seeing theater that integrates performance, spoken word and mixed media can be fascinating, the Chekhov stories might have generated more vitality and power as conventional dramas. The surveillance footage, folk dances, instructional hunting videos and interviews with the cast didn’t add to the evening; rather they provided unnecessary distractions from Chekhov’s stories.

The evening begins as two hunters tell stories during a long night. One hunter tells Byelikov’s tale, Man in a Case, as an example of people “who try to retreat into their shell like a hermit crab or a snail.” Byelikov (played by Mikhail Baryshnikov), a teacher at a provincial school, was extraordinarily orderly, both in his personal and professional lives. He was proud of his disciplined life, determined to avoid the smallest hint of impropriety. … Continue reading »

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Review: ‘A Bright New Boise’ at Aurora Theatre

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In the edgy and provocative “A Bright New Boise,” Idahoan author and winner of the 2011 Obie Award for Playwriting, Samuel D. Hunter, examines familial relations, forgiveness, religion and corporate culture.

Protagonist Will (accomplished Robert Parsons) left his rural Idaho town for Boise after a headline-making tragedy blows apart his nondenominational evangelical church. Will applies for minimal wage work at the Hobby Lobby, a craft-supply big box store (see more about the real Hobby Lobby below), with the hope of reconnecting with Alex, the gloomy teenager he had given up for adoption.

Alex (well-acted by Daniel Petzold) and Alex’s also adopted brother, Leroy (Patrick Russell shines) work at the Hobby Lobby, as does the profit-seeking, loudmouth manager Pauline, (funny Gwen Loeb) and the anxious depressed Anna (excellent Megan Trout). Will completes this blue-collar quintet, all sharing dead-end jobs. Most of the play’s action occurs in the Hobby Lobby’s stark break room, with only a few scenes outside the store. Hobby Lobby is their world. In fact, Will and Anna both choose to spend evenings in the break room. … Continue reading »

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The Pianist of Willesden Lane: Poignant, yet uplifting

In The Pianist of Willesden Lane, piano virtuoso and author Mona Golabek transforms into her mother, Lisa Jura, to recount her inspirational story against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Photo:
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Noted concert pianist Mona Golabek’s enthralling one-woman play underscores the power of music and the significance of history. Based on her book (with Lee Cohen) of the same name, The Pianist of Willesden Lane reveals the experiences of Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, a Jewish piano virtuoso, who escaped from Nazi-controlled Vienna to London in 1938 when she was 14 years old.

Golabek recounts her own history, performs her mother’s role, and occasionally portrays others in the story. Lisa Jura’s survival story is poignant, yet uplifting. When combined with Golabek’s magnificent piano performance of beautiful music by some of the world’s best composers, including Debussy, Grieg, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Scriabin, the story takes on an intense and profound meaning. … Continue reading »

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‘Vanya and Sonia’: Chekhov revisited with laughter, more

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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — a 2013 Tony award winner for Best Play making its first regional appearance at Berkeley Rep – combines merriment and literacy with a tinge of sadness. It’s a complex balance that three-time Obie Award-winning playwright, Christopher Durang, (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, The Marriage of Bette & Boo) pulls off with aplomb, as director Richard E.T. White (Berkeley Reps’ Otherwise Engaged, Dancing at Lughnasa), and a talented cast bring Durang’s witty and wise words to life.

Durang weaves theatrical themes, most notably from Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, to create this modern-day version of a dysfunctional family facing the sale of their beloved home and the evaporation of their once bright futures.

As the play begins, Vanya (well acted by Anthony Fusco) and Sonia (excellent Sharon Lockwood) are dressed in their pajamas, likely their attire for the last 15 years. The live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the large country house they have spent their entire lives. Even as adults, they remained at home and cared for their parents until they died. Vanya and Sonia wallow in their boredom, depression, and hopelessness. … Continue reading »

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Aurora’s ‘After the Revolution’: insightful, moving, funny

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Aurora Theatre Company’s insightful, humorous and moving production of Amy Herzog’s, After The Revolution concerns a subject that will resonate with Berkeleyans: the leftist movement and the Communist Party of the 1940s and ’50s. The play is also about a family whose interactions are based on secrets and lies, as well as love.

Emma Joseph (great acting by Jessica Bates), the protagonist, lives in blind admiration of her deceased grandfather Joe, who bravely didn’t “name names” at Senator McCarthy’s House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. Emma has dedicated her life to her grandfather, by establishing and leading the Joe Joseph Foundation to further the cause of principled and color-blind justice.

In the early 1950s, Senator McCarthy became the public face of those who feared that Cold War Communists were infiltrating the United States. McCarthy also asserted he had “lists of members of a spy ring” who worked in the U.S. State Department. He ruined the lives of those refusing to testify before the Committee about other supposed American Communist Party members and sympathizers, by placing their names on his “blacklist.” Once on the list, the blacklisted were ostracized and unemployable. … Continue reading »

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‘The Attack’ explores the Israeli/Palestinian divide

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In The Attack, a remarkable, beautifully made film now playing at Landmark Shattuck Theaters, the intractability of the Israeli/Palestinian divide is explored on a heartbreakingly personal level. Amin Jaafari (excellent Ali Suliman of Paradise Now) is a successful Arab surgeon living comfortably in Tel Aviv with his Palestinian-born, social worker wife, Siham (Israeli actor, Reymond Amsalem).

As the film begins, Amin is receiving a career achievement award; he’s the first Arab to win this special award. His easy relations with his many Israeli friends and colleagues lead him to believe that he is exempt from racial and cultural attacks. He’s an urbane, non-practicing Muslim, a caring, highly respected surgeon, who is nevertheless surrounded by the Middle East undercurrent of racial animus. … Continue reading »


Prickly truths animate Aurora’s ‘This is How It Goes’

An old high school friend (r, Gabriel Marin*) looks longingly at Belinda (c, Carrie Paff*) as Cody (l, Aldo Billingslea*) speaks to her sharply in the Bay Area Premiere of This is How It Goes. Photo: David Allen
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Aurora Theatre’s final production of the season is also its finest of the season. Provocative playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute (Fat Pig, Reasons to be Pretty, In the Company of Men), presents us with an outstanding dark comedy in which nothing is quite what it seems. Even after the play ends, the audience is left to wonder where the truth lies. And that’s just one of the many attributes of this taut 2005 play that has already fascinated audiences in New York and London, among others.

This is How It Goes is a three-character piece about the blond, stay-at-home mother and former cheerleader, Belinda Phipps (fantastic Carrie Paff), her black, athletic, successful and driven husband, Cody Phipps (terrific Aldo Billingslea) and the unnamed smart-ass male narrator, “Man” (exceptional Gabriel Marin) who returns to their Midwestern hometown, rents a studio apartment above the Phipps’ garage and turns their three lives upside down.  … Continue reading »

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‘George Gershwin Alone’: A love song to the love song man

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George Gershwin Alone is a bright and breezy one-man show written and performed by Hershey Felder using the glorious music and lyrics of George Gershwin (1898–1937), and his brother, Ira (1896–1983). Felder, playing George Gershwin, fascinates the audience as he describes Gershwin’s short life and plays some of his greatest pieces.

Felder is no slouch himself. A talented concert pianist, composer and actor, he spent five years researching and reading Gershwin’s original manuscripts and correspondence. He interviewed biographers and family members, and had unfettered access to the Gershwin archives.

George Gershwin wrote over 1,000 popular songs for Broadway and the movies, many of which you have probably heard. I checked my iTunes library and found 30 of them performed by artists from Cannonball Adderley to Janis Joplin, including “The Man I Love,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Oh, Lady Be Good,” “’S Wonderful,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

Gershwin also wrote the more sophisticated “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), the symphonic tone poem “An American in Paris” (1928), and what Gershwin called a folk opera, “Porgy and Bess” (1935). … Continue reading »

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