How far would you go along to get along? Find out when Mark Jackson directs a new translation of Max Frisch’s 1958 play The Arsonists at Aurora Theatre Company. My review‘s at KQED Arts.
Our Practical Heaven is a sentimental journey oddly devoid of emotion. It features three generations of the women of a family congregating at the paradisiacal beach house of the eldest to birdwatch and lounge around on the beach. Grandma Vera’s husband has recently died, and her daughter Sasha is absurdly surprised that her mom didn’t follow him into the grave. Also there are Sasha’s daughters, twentysomething Suze and teenage Leez, plus another woman Sasha’s age, Willa, and her daughter Magz. But the young’uns are in a world of their own, texting each other about what idiots their moms are, and the mothers don’t seem to think much about them either.
I know he’s a fellow Berkeley High alum and all, but I could never get into Thornton Wilder. I’ve seen polished professional productions of Our Town and I’ve seen shakier community ones, but never one that I didn’t find mawkish. It’s just not my thing. So I’m maybe not the best audience for Wilder Times, Aurora Theatre Company’s assemblage of four short plays by Wilder, two from 1962 and two from 1931, but because it has a fabulous cast I decided to check it out anyway. I’m pleased to report that I found myself pleasantly surprised by two of the plays, even if the other two left me cold.
It’s not often that you see a guy in a Mexican wrestling mask just sitting in the audience at the theater, but then, it’s not every day that you see a play about professional wrestling. Everyone knows that wrestling is just as scripted as your average play, with the characters, twists, and outcomes all determined in advance, but I don’t know how much crossover there really is between the audiences of the ring and those of the stage.
San Francisco playwright/director Mark Jackson started a fruitful relationship with Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company with his 2006 production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. While Shotgun Players across town has premiered many of Jackson’s own works as a writer/director, his work with Aurora up till now has been strictly as a director, focused on inventive stagings of classics such as August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and a new adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Now Aurora has commissioned a new play that goes right back to Salome with Salomania, about onetime San Franciscan dancer Maud Allan.
Chicks dig Anatol, and Anatol digs chicks. Exactly why the ladies are drawn to the title character of Arthur Schnitzler’s play Anatol is a bit of a mystery. As played by Mike Ryan in Aurora Theatre Company’s production, he’s a very average guy, not notably attractive or charismatic. He’s fickle, jealous, easily flustered, weak-willed and peevish. He is, however, monomaniacally devoted to romance—the kind of guy who wins women over simply by laying it on thick and not giving up until they give in. He convinces himself that he’s madly in love with each one, whether or not he’s already madly in love with someone else. Anatol loves not wisely but too prolifically.
Before the opening of the Bay Area premiere of Becky Shaw, SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English gave a stirring speech about theater as a gym for compassion, for developing the muscle of empathy. The sentiment rings true, but it’s also ironic going into a comedy about people who either lack compassion for anyone outside of their chosen circle or whose empathy draws them into trouble. Whether or not you empathize with these characters, you’re such to be entertained by them in this tantalizing first local glimpse of playwright Gina Gionfriddo’s work, thanks to an excellent cast and director Amy Glazer’s sharply paced staging.
It’s a good problem to have: Looking over the list of the 118 local shows I saw this year, I had a hard time narrowing it down to a Top Ten. There are plenty of ways in which 2011 was a tough, lousy, no-good year, but in terms of what I saw on the Bay Area stage, it was pretty damn good. It was a great year for solo shows, between the Marsh (Marga Gomez’s Not Getting Any Younger, Don Reed’s The Kipling Hotel and Geoff Hoyle’s Geezer) and Berkeley Rep (Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and The Last Cargo Cult, Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy and Rita Moreno’s Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup). There were a couple of great visiting performances by screen stars: Kevin Spacey as Richard III, John Malkovich as mass murderer Jack Unterweger. And there were any number of other shows that thoroughly charmed me in one respect or another but didn’t quite crack the Top Ten: Crowded Fire and Asian American Theatre Company’s Songs of the Dragons Crying to Heaven, Sleepwalkers Theatre’s The Nature Line, Shotgun Players’ Beardo and Care of Trees, Impact’s Disassembly, SF Playhouse’s Tigers Be Still. As for what did make it onto the list, I tried to rank them in order of preference, but no matter how many times I tweak it the ranking feels arbitrary. So let’s say that, like one’s own children, I love them all equally, and just hope they buy that.
“Happy families are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy writes in Anna Karenina; “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Two classic examples are on display at two Berkeley theatres, both of which are celebrating their 20th anniversary seasons right now, albeit in different ways. Shotgun Players are in the middle of a whole season of commissioned world premieres, while at Aurora Theatre it’s old home week, bringing back key artists from throughout the company’s history. But the plays they’re doing depict two houses, alike in comfortable wealth, that have both been unhappy a very long time.
It’s hard enough dealing with grief when you understand what happened, and why and how it happened, but when what’s happening to someone you love is completely incomprehensible, it’s mighty hard to get your mind around it and resign yourself to anything. For whatever reason, plays all over Berkeley depict families dealing with highly unconventional versions of loss.