Author Archives: Emily S. Mendel
Shotgun Players struggles through its version of “Twelfth Night” as it populates the production with mediocre music, uneven and occasionally painful acting, stagey technique and free wine for the audience, rather than concentrate on the heart, guts and language of the play, which is about love and its suffering.
“Twelfth Night” is one of Shakespeare’s comedies in which a female character disguises herself as a man. The aristocratic Viola (Rebecca Pingree) lands on the Illyrian coast after being shipwrecked in a terrible storm. Alone, and assuming that her twin brother Sebastian has been drowned, Viola dresses up as a man named Cesario and finds work in the household of Duke Orsino (Ben Euphrat). Although Orsino loves the Lady Olivia (Ari Rampy), she is mourning her dead brother and refuses any and all advances from the noble Orsino, as well as from the silly Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Nick Medina), a friend of Lady Olivia’s drunken uncle, the loud Sir Toby Belch (Billy Raphael). … Continue reading »
The 34th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the first and still the largest of its kind, returns to the Bay Area July 24-August 10 with 67 offerings from 17 countries, as well as festivities, special discussion programs and international guests in Berkeley, as well as in San Francisco, Palo Alto and San Rafael. Tickets and passes are now on sale.
Berkeley is well-represented in this year’s festival, with four films by Berkeley filmmakers and a “Berkeley Big Night” event at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.
This year, the “Berkeley Big Night” will be a screening of Julie Cohen’s The Sturgeon Queens on Sat. Aug. 2. The film follows four generations of the Jewish immigrant family that founded Russ and Daughters, a Lower East Side lox and herring emporium that survives and thrives. Produced to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the store, this documentary features an extensive interview with two of the original daughters, now 100 and 92 years old, and interviews with prominent enthusiasts of the store, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, Chef Mario Batali, New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, and 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer. … Continue reading »
David Mamet’s searing 1975 masterpiece about a botched robbery by three Chicago low-lifes fizzled rather than sizzled through its opening night at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre. Not that the play isn’t worth seeing — it is. But this production of American Buffalo seems to lack drama and tension and is instead milked for laughs.
American Buffalo follows three small-time crooks for one day as they talk about robbing a neighbor whom they believe owns a valuable coin collection. One can’t describe their action as “planning a robbery” because they lack the brainpower and skill that actual planning requires. … Continue reading »
Even before it opened, Berkeley Rep extended the run of Hershey Felder’s brilliant new one-man show about the life of the renowned 20th century American music wunderkind, Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990).
Berkeley Rep theater-goers and critics have already sung the praises of Hershey Felder, the talented concert pianist, composer and actor, who in 2013, wrote and performed the first-rate George Gershwin Alone, as well as adapted and directed the wildly popular The Pianist of Willesden Lane.
With direction by the multi-talented Joel Zwick, in 105 uninterrupted minutes, this new show ably accomplishes the challenging task of recounting Bernstein’s career from Jewish American prodigy to internationally celebrated composer, conductor, author, music lecturer and pianist, while delicately exploring Bernstein’s thorny private life. … Continue reading »
For an exciting night at the theater, don’t miss The Letters at the 49-seat Harry’s UpStage, a new second stage at the Aurora Theatre Company.
Written by John W. Lowell (The Standby Lear, Autumn Canticle) and first staged in Los Angeles in 2009, The Letters is set in 1931 in a nameless Soviet government office. Anna (excellent Beth Wilmurt) is a shy and reserved bureaucrat who has been called to the office of the Director (first-rate Michael Ray Wisely — read Berkeleyside’s April 22 interview with Wisely).
No reason for the meeting has been given. Anna sits, nervous and withdrawn, while she tries to ascertain the subject of this rare meeting with her superior. After all, this is Stalinist Russia where paranoia is normal.
As Anna, Beth Wilmurt’s body is tense, her hands and jaw are clenched. She is anxious for the meeting to end. The scene has the aura of a Pinter play.
We learn that Anna works in the disinformation department. Her recent difficult assignment was to cleanse the letters of a famous Russian composer in order to erase its sexually explicit references to his homosexuality. … Continue reading »
Wittenberg, at the Aurora in Berkeley, is written by contemporary American playwright David Davalos. It’s an historical comedy that employs an ingenious contrivance as the basis for the play’s plot. The scene is in Saxony, at the University of Wittenberg in 1517.
Prince Hamlet (yes, that Hamlet) is a senior there, studying under his favorite professors, Martin Luther and the fictional Doctor Faustus. Part of the play’s cleverness is that its basis is somewhat historically correct. Martin Luther, a Wittenberg university lecturer, posted his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517. The author of Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe, created his character as a teacher at Wittenberg in the early 1500s. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Danish Prince attended Wittenberg; however the school was founded in 1502, and Hamlet is supposed to take place centuries earlier. But the timing is close enough to make for an entertaining thesis. … Continue reading »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »