Tag Archives: Aurora Theatre Company

‘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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Michael Ray Wisely: Grand dramas on everyday stages

Michael Ray Wisely. Photo: courtesy Alter Theater
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Known in local theater circles as a deep-thinking actor’s actor—and by fans of the DIY Network as host of the ever-practical Home Transformations—Michael Ray Wisely has built himself a DIY career.

Wisely is inaugurating the Aurora Theatre Company’s new second stage performance space, Harry’s UpStage, as the predatory “Director” in a fully staged production of John W. Lowell’s The Letters, which opened on April 17 and runs through June 1.

The 51-year-old veteran of stage, film and television has always gravitated to grand dramas on everyday life stages.

Wisely’s first theatrical platform was the town he grew up in: Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, a deep South tobacco and bible-belt town of barely 4,000 people. His hometown’s fancy French name labeled a rural location named after a white man who co-opted native American Indian land and bewitchingly adopted a local woman’s nickname to complete the hyphenated moniker. “We weren’t very poor, but we were close,” Wisely said in an interview. … Continue reading »

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

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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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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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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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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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Obituaries

Barbara Oliver, iconic Bay Area theatre figure

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Barbara Oliver, the founding Artistic Director of Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre and an instrumental figure in Bay Area theatre for more than 40 years, passed away peacefully from complications of a stroke on Monday at her Berkeley home. Her family was with her, as they have been throughout the duration of her recent illness. She was 85.

A veteran actress and director, Oliver  co-founded Aurora Theatre Company in 1992 and was its Artistic Director until stepping down in 2004.

“Like many people in the Bay Area, my life has been irrevocably changed for the better by having met Barbara Oliver,” said Aurora Theatre Company Artistic Director Tom Ross. “Little did I know that our initial meeting, a job interview 22 years ago, would take me, and hundreds of Aurora Theatre artists, staff, Board members, and patrons, on such a long and significant journey, one that will no doubt continue for many years to come. Trying to distill the legacy that Barbara left as founding Artistic Director is difficult, as she created such a vast foundation, but ultimately, I think that she instilled the belief that we should move forward and grow steadily with absolute integrity, and to show unequivocal fairness to all. Barbara not only preached these messages but personified them. It goes without saying that she was a talented actor, director, and teacher as well. Her passion was endless and she could inspire nearly anyone.” … Continue reading »

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The Arsonists: A provocative play has resonance today

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Aurora Theatre Company’s provocative production of Max Frisch’s classic absurdist play The Arsonists is a cautionary tale in which apathy, greed and weakness allow evil to flourish. The play is set in a nameless country, in a nameless city, at an unidentified time. It is, however, a time of civil unrest. Arsonists roam the streets setting fire to numerous, yet seemingly arbitrarily chosen, buildings.

The main character of the play, Biedermann, which translates as “bourgeois man,” is masterfully portrayed by Dan Hiatt. The conventional Biedermann lives a moral double life. Although he is smug about his correct, polite and decent family life, he is ruthless and brutal in his business life. In that regard, he could be a Soprano family member, performing vicious criminal acts during the day and kissing his kids in the evening. … Continue reading »

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Arts

‘Our Practical Heaven’ exposes family undercurrents

Photo: David Allen
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Our Practical Heaven is a personality study about three generations of women who gather over several holiday seasons.

They meet at the beach house owned by widowed grandmother Vera (wonderfully acted by Joy Carlin). Vera’s daughter, the insecure and fragile Sasha (top performance by Anne Darragh), and Sasha’s two teenage daughters, Leez and Suze (Adrienne Walters and Blythe Foster, both skilled at their roles). Vera’s “honorary daughter,” the loving yet ambitious Willa (excellent Julia Brothers) and her mysteriously ill daughter, Magz (Lauren Spencer captures a difficult role), are an integral element in the familial group.

Our Practical Heaven explores the ever-shifting connections and bonds among the women. While they swim in the pond, bird watch and clean the house, we observe the changing undercurrents of family allegiance, loyalty, and jealousy.  … Continue reading »

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High lonesome holidays: Nell Robinson at the Aurora

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One of the pleasures of old-time music is that it acts as a force-field repelling shallow notions of hipness and callow ironic stances. In the hands of a generous artist like Nell Robinson, the specter of kitsch is banished by an abundance of soul.

Next week Robinson, a tremendously gifted singer in the throes of a late-blooming career, joins with her musical partner, guitarist Jim Nunally, to inaugurate Aurora Theatre’s new cabaret space, Harry’s UpStage, with “A Down Home Christmas with Nell and Jim,” which runs Dec. 13-21. Featuring original material, seasonal standards, and sundry songs that seem appropriate, the show is new, but the concept is old indeed.

“We’ve done a lot of singing at the holidays with family and friends,” says Robinson, aka long-time Berkeley resident Hilary Perkins. “We’re taking the music that we love to sing in our living rooms and bringing it into the new Aurora performance space, hoping to make it feel like a living room, singing music people will know, and some new stuff we’ve written.” … Continue reading »

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‘Wilder Times’ at the Aurora: Engaging, thought-provoking

Infants Tommy (l, Patrick Russell) and Moe (r, Brian Trybom) chat about what they want to be when they grow up as Tommy's nanny (front, Heather Gordon) reads a steamy novel in Infancy, part of Aurora Theatre Company's Wilder Times. Photo: Jessica Palopoli.
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Four engaging one-act plays by Thornton Wilder, the three-time Pulitzer prize-winning author, give us insight into Wilder’s view of the ways in which American families live and struggle — for better or for worse. Add a terrific cast and wonderful direction by Barbara Oliver, and these plays come alive. Whether written in the 1930s or the 1960s, the Wilder Times one-act plays remain creative and fresh.

The first two plays, both written in 1962, Infancy and Childhood, show us what deficient parents we’ve had and what flawed parents we are to our children. Infancy and Childhood were written for Wilder’s Plays for Bleecker Street at the Circle in the Square Theater in Greenwich Village, where they were directed by the great José Quintero. Then and now, Wilder’s plays experiment with the private thoughts of his characters. … Continue reading »

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Review: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”

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Aurora theatergoers will have ringside seats to see the Bay Area premiere of Kristoffer Diaz’s vibrant and dynamic 2010 play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, titularly about wrestling, but actually a comic drama examining racial politics in the U.S. and larger questions of good and evil. Don’t be turned off to this production if you’re not a fan of wrestling.

The play centers on a fictional professional wrestling monopoly, THE Wrestling, in which the owner, “EKO” (well played by Rod Gnapp) manipulates his wrestlers, choosing the all-American types, such as the swaggering African-American champion, Chad Deity (the handsome Beethovan Oden) to be the winners and the ethnic minorities, such as the Puerto Rican “Mace” to be the losers.

Wrestling fans love the overblown capitalist Chad Deity. He’s an American. He throws money at his audience. Although he can hardly wrestle, competitors such as Mace do all the heavy lifting (pun intentional) in order to make Deity look good in the ring. … Continue reading »

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Anatol: Wit, whimsy, self-preoccupation of cad about town

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Time stands still — or at least repeats itself in striking fashion — in Anatol, the Aurora Theatre Company’s current production of Austrian dramatist Arthur Schnitzler’s 1893 play.

In a series of six episodes, connected with threadlike chronology by central characters and themes forged in steel, the play unveils the wit, whimsy and withering self-preoccupation of an affluent “cad about town” and his obsession with sexually emancipated women.

Aurora Artistic Director Tom Ross became convinced of Schnitzler’s importance as a playwright after a meeting with translator Margret Schaefer, a Berkeley resident, and soon they were jointed by Barbara Oliver, a founding director at the Aurora, to bring the project to fruition.

The result, in tailored performances designed to be enjoyed in the moment, then savored in reflection, is near perfect. If the play’s central theme and fascination is with faithfulness over a lifetime, Shaefer’s selective ear, Oliver’s brilliant economy of staging, and the quality of the cast captures the audiences’ well-placed trust in mere minutes. … Continue reading »

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