Kapow! It’s my first review for KQED’s Arts Blog!
Boy, this was a hard year to reduce to a Top Ten. When I look over the list of the 117 shows I attended in 2012, eight strike me as shoo-ins for the list, and then there are fifteen other shows vying for the remaining two slots. Mind you, that’s a good problem to have; there really was a lot of good theater in the Bay Area this year—and, of course, some so-so and not very good theater as well. And of course there’s not any inherent virtue in the vast theaterscape of 2012 being reducible to a list in the first place, so maybe I should quit my kvetching, suck it up, and get to it. Although I’m restricting myself to ten, these shows aren’t ranked or numbered and are listed in chronological order.
It’s interesting that The White Snake comes to Berkeley Rep hot on the heels of this summer’s big stink over the casting of The Nightingale at La Jolla Playhouse, the latest musical from the Spring Awakening team of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. Based on a Hans Christian Andersen story set in ancient China, the latter show was criticized for having hardly any Asians in the cast, with the emperor of China played by a white guy. Like that show, writer/director Mary Zimmerman’s latest is set in ancient China and—like most of her productions—features a multiethnic cast, albeit one with more Asian actors than the La Jolla show, especially in the lead roles.
There have been many, many plays about Homer’s Iliad and about the Trojan War in general. In the last few years alone, we’ve had The Salt Plays Part One: In the Wound at Shotgun Players and War Music at American Conservatory Theater. And that’s not even getting into the plays dealing with the aftermath of the war: recently we’ve had Odyssey plays from Shotgun, Central Works, and We Players, The Trojan Women at Aurora, and an upcoming Elektra at ACT. That’s partly a testimony to the timeless resonance of the stories the Greeks told in the first place, and it’s certainly only the tip of the iceberg as classical adaptations go (we’ve also seen plenty of Medeas, Oedipi and Phaedras), but it also attests to the human need in times of war to try to explore what drives people throughout history to strive to slaughter each other en masse.
As opposed to the similar portmanteau “Spanglish,” which simply refers to speaking a blend of Spanish and English, the word “Chinglish” has a very specific connotation of amusingly garbled English badly translated from Chinese, especially on signs in China reposted mockingly on the internet. To take two examples mentioned in David Henry Hwang’s play Chinglish, now being given its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a disabled-accessible restroom is labeled “deformed man’s toilet” or the dry goods pricing department becomes “fuck the certain price of goods.” If the latter example seems especially incomprehensible, as the American protagonist Daniel explains in the opening monologue, under the simplified writing system imposed by Chairman Mao, the characters for “dry” and “to do” were merged.
The two world premieres opening and closing last week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre turn out to be near-perfect companion pieces to each other. On the older, smaller Thrust Stage, Dael Orlandersmith’s solo show Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, which closed Sunday, offered a series of grim portraits of abused young boys and the men they become. Opening last Friday next door on the spacious Roda Stage was the latest play by Eve Ensler, author of the ubiquitous Vagina Monologues. This one, Emotional Creature, is an ensemble piece for six young women exploring the plight of teenage girls all over the world, from American girls desperate to fit in with the in crowd to African girls taken as sex slaves by soldiers in the Congo, to girls making American consumer products in Chinese sweat shops. It’s an odd mix of powerful, gut-wrenching monologues and peppy inspirational songs like something out of Up with People or a children’s TV program.
The Broadway musical based on the album of the same name by East Bay punk band Green Day, American Idiot has walked a lonely road since it premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009. It headed off to a smash Broadway run that saw Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong join the cast, and it picked up a couple of Tony Awards for set and lighting design. Now with a feature film adaptation in the works, American Idiot comes home to the Bay Area on its post-Broadway tour sounding a little different after a few rounds of rewrites, landing at the Orpheum Theatre courtesy of SHN.
Let’s get this out of the way first. Dael Orlandersmith’s solo show at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is very good, but man, it’s not pleasant. Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men is a series of portraits of abused young boys, most but not all of them speaking as adults, or as close to adulthood as they’ve managed to get while grappling with the demons of their childhood. If that’s the sort of thing you’re going to find triggering, go in forewarned.
British-born director Les Waters has been a consistently outstanding artistic presence at Berkeley Repertory Theatre for the last eight years as associate artistic director for the company. He’s now been named the new artistic director of the prestigious Actors Theatre of Louisville, home of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, so his latest production at Berkeley Rep is also his last as a staff member. At least he’s going out in style, with a superb production of Red, John Logan’s play about legendary abstract expressionist painted Mark Rothko.
In reviewing theater, all too often I have to call out a production for playing the comedy too broadly in a way that just seems clumsy. The humor in Steven Epp’s latest show at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is broad as can be, but it’s so well executed by the cast of eight that it’s usually flat-out hysterical even if it doesn’t bear much thinking about. A Doctor in Spite of Himself is a 1666 comedy by Molière (the artist seldom known as Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) that star Epp and director Christopher Bayes have considerably revamped and updated in a way that only ramps up the hilarity. The play’s a satire about doctors being a pack of frauds, and Epp and compatriots accentuate the already ample farcical element to elephantine proportions, shifting the focus to the common idiocy of humankind.