Author Archives: Emily S. Mendel

‘Breakfast with Mugabe’ at Aurora packs a powerful punch

Dr. Peric (r. Dan Hiatt*) delves into Robert Mugabe’s (l. L. Peter Callender*) past over breakfast in Aurora Theatre Company’s West Coast Premiere of Breakfast with Mugabe
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An intimate power struggle between Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, and Dr. Andrew Peric, a white Zimbabwean psychiatrist, is the compelling concept of Aurora Theatre’s gripping, finely acted drama, Breakfast with Mugabe.

British author Fraser Grace based his riveting play, first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005, and then off-Broadway in 2013, on news reports that a white psychiatrist had been called to treat a severely depressed President Mugabe, to cure him of being haunting by the malicious spirit of a rival who died under dubious circumstances. Set right before the 2002 Zimbabwean elections, the tense sessions between the two men illuminate the racial, political, historical and emotional divide between blacks and the white landowners in Zimbabwe and, for that matter, in all of formerly colonial Africa.  … Continue reading »

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Berkeley Rep’s production of ‘Party People’ is electrifying

At Berkeley Rep, Jesse J. Perez (Tito, center), performs in Party People, a high-wattage fusion of story and song that unlocks the legacy of the Black Panthers and Young Lords.

Photo courtesy of
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You’re in for an exhilarating evening at Berkeley Rep’s production of Party People, a super- energetic theatrical experience recounting the 1960s-1970s Black Panther Party and Chicago’s Young Lords, a civil rights organization for Puerto Ricans and Latinos.

Creators UNIVERSES (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz Sapp and William Ruiz, a.k.a. Ninja) have developed an organized chaos of poetry, monologue and dialogue, with hip-hop, blues, and salsa songs and dance, all of which artfully come together to explore the heart, soul and politics of these two transformative, though now historical, American revolutionary movements. … Continue reading »

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Shotgun’s ‘Harry Thaw Hates Everybody’ is sparkling

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The entertaining, creative and comical Harry Thaw Hates Everybody by Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley is based on a scandal that is still intriguing after more than 100 years.

Playwright Laurel Meade, winner of the L.A. Drama Critics Award for Best Writing for an earlier version of the play, placed this compelling triangle of human behavior in a fresh new light. Using the technique made famous in the 1950 Japanese film Rashomon, the tale is told from the perspective of each of the four main participants. But instead of a sobering re-telling of a tragedy, the production regales us with music, dance, naughtiness and a slide show of newspaper headlines and turn-of-the-century pornography. … Continue reading »

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Meow Meow does sophisticated cabaret at Berkeley Rep

International singing sensation Meow Meow is flanked by her two dancing boys Michael Balderrama (left) and Bob Gaynor (right) in the world premiere of An Audience with Meow Meow at Berkeley Rep.

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As the curtain opens, the Australian multitalented and internationally admired artist, Melissa Madden Gray, known as Meow Meow, sparkles and shimmers sitting high above the stage in an elaborately feathered get-up. Then, in the first few minutes, as smoke from her cigarette amusingly wafts out of the cigarette-less side of her face, we understand that we’re witnessing much more than a traditional song and dance act.

An Audience with Meow Meow is more like a comedy of the absurd, a burlesque, with physical comedy at the beginning and some sober and somber moments at the end. A large part of the charm of the performance is trying to figure out where Meow Meow is heading. So I don’t want to give too much away. … Continue reading »

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‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ fires up Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre

Rapture Blister Burn at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau … Betty Friedan … Phyllis Schlafly … Dr. Phil … feminists and anti-feminists are all fodder for amusing academic banter in Gina Gionfriddo’s engaging and entertaining Rapture, Blister, Burn now at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company through Oct. 5.

A finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, Rapture reunites a graduate school triangle after 12 years of separation — Catherine (Marilee Talkington), now a single, feminist scholar and author-cum TV talking-head in stiletto heels; Catherine’s former roommate, Gwen (Rebecca Schweitzer) a graduate school dropout, now a self-righteous, priggish wife and mother of two; and Gwen’s husband, who she snatched from Catherine while Catherine studied abroad, Don (Gabriel Marin), now a pothead, porn-watching, disciplinary college dean. … Continue reading »

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Hershey Felder captures Chopin at Berkeley Rep

Hershy Felder as Frederick Chopin Photo :  John Zich
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Berkeley Rep theatergoers and critics, myself included, have already sung the praises of Hershey Felder, the gifted concert pianist, composer and actor, who wrote and performed the first-rate one-man show “George Gershwin Alone” (2013), and the recent exciting “Maestro about Leonard Bernstein. He has now reappeared, barely one month later, with a similarly structured biographical and musical performance, “Monsieur Chopin,” about the creative genius, Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin. So, is this too much of a good thing? … Continue reading »

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Shotgun Players’ ‘Twelfth Night’ misses the mark

Orsino searches for the right melody to describe his desire for  Olivia.

Featuring (L to R): Rebecca Pingree, Ben Euphrat, Cory Sands. Photo: Pak Han/Shotgun
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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 »

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SF Jewish Film Festival: The Berkeley highlights

The Sturgeon Queens
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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 »

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‘American Buffalo’ at Aurora fizzles rather than sizzles

l-r, Donny (Paul Vincent O'Connor*) and Teach (James Carpenter*) confront one another about their plans for a heist  in American Buffalo
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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 »

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Felder reaches new depths in ‘Maestro’ at the Rep

Hershey Felder in Maestro. Photo: Kevin Berne
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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 »

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Review: Kushner’s new play is vital, intense, intelligent

Emmy-nominated actor Mark Margolis (Gus) and screen and stage actress Deirdre Lovejoy (Empty) are part of the ensemble cast in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. Photo:
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Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) is back in Berkeley with his vital, intense and intelligent new epic drama about the fascinating Italian American Marcantonio family and their political, social, sexual, economic and religious lives. After earlier versions of the play opened at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater in 2009 and at New York’s Public Theater in 2011, Tony Kushner is now satisfied with his re-written version for Berkeley Rep.

The family patriarch, 72-year old Gus Marcantonio (Mark Margolis), a lifetime Communist, retired dockworker and union organizer has decided to commit suicide. The reasons for his suicide wish don’t seem especially compelling, yet we learn that he made a serious suicide attempt one year prior to the action of the play.

Gus gathers his rambunctious family at their Brooklyn brownstone to tell them of his decision. Soon, we are confronted by the family’s cacophony of simultaneous, passionate voices arguing at, and to, each other, in a melée of Mamet-like exchanges. Continue reading »

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Aurora’s ‘The Letters': Fear, mistrust make exciting drama

The Letters
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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 »

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‘Wittenberg,’ a comedy with an historical undertow

Hamlet (c. Jeremy Kahn*) is torn between Faustus (l. Michael Stevenson*) and Martin Luther (r. Dan Hiatt*) in Wittenberg. Photo: David Allen
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Wittenbergat 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 »

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