Berkeley’s Impact Theatre has a taste for blood, particularly in its Shakespeare productions but also in the new plays that make up most of its fare. So it’s hardly surprising that its latest assemblage of short plays, Bread and Circuses, is themed around violence as entertainment. In fact it’s really an appreciation of Impact as a company, with most of the shorts written by playwrights who’ve done full-length works with the theater in the past, including Steve Yockey, Lauren Yee, Prince Gomolvilas, Lauren Gunderson and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.
With a cast of Impact regulars in a fast and loose staging by Desdemona Chiang, the shorts are often bloody and sometimes downright queasy-making. They’re not really short plays so much as open-ended vignettes that introduce a scenario and play around with it a little before abruptly moving on to the next thing. Almost none of them really have endings, so it’s sometimes unclear whether a scene change means that that play’s over. (It does.)
Some of the scenarios are fiendishly funny, such as Yockey’s opener, “Bedtime,” with Sarah Coykendall as a charmingly chatty young woman who’s invited a gal pal (Dana Featherby) over for a sleepover, having neglected to mention a particularly gruesome little secret that would be so much easier to explain if her friend were more familiar with slasher movie tropes.
Dave Holstein’s “Alone Together” is more gruesome still, starting with a sinisterly willful little girl (Maria Giere Marquis) having scalped her babysitter, to the mild annoyance of her amusingly blithe and singsong-voiced suburban mom (Coykendall). Lauren Yee’s “The Play About the Aswang” depicts a couple of vaguely teenage or preteen pals (Mike Delaney and Maro Guevara) who don’t know what to do about the fact that one of their moms (Featherby) is dating a flesh-eating monster from the Philippines.
Prince Gomolvilas’s droll “Heteronesia” manages to get bloody despite its premise being less murdery than its fellows: A heterosexual guy (Eric Kerr) is repulsed by sex after a traumatic experience while masturbating and is prescribed an equally traumatic homosexual experience by his smarmy doctor (Delaney) so that he can save his relationship with his wife or girlfriend or whatever (Featherby). Lauren Gunderson’s scene of young women putting on makeup for a night out on the town, “Damsel and Distress Go to a Party,” submerges a vital message about victim-blaming under an inane argot of adding “-face” to everything: “I’m not weakface—I’m justifiably angryface.”
“Marimba” by Declan Greene is perhaps the most compelling of the lot, a fascinating monologue with a very intense Kerr sitting at a table, dimly lit by Jax Steager, and spinning off a seemingly random series of increasingly dubious chain-of-association disclosures. Interestingly, it and the piece that follows are the least obviously related to the theme of the evening. The latter is “Insect Love,” a multi-scene playlet by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa depicting a shy entomologist (Guevara) and his mild and mannerly flirtation with his secretary (Giere Marquis) over a series of weeks, mostly consisting of inquiring about her weekend. This piece proceeds at such a patient, deliberate pace that it’s more surprising than most when it doesn’t go anywhere.
The evening ends with a one-two punch of hot zombie action: first “Don’t Turn Around,” Ross Maxwell’s hysterical skit about a squabbling couple (Coykendall and Delaney) hiding in a janitor’s closet from a ravenous rotting horde, and finally J.C. Lee’s self-explanatory and gory as hell “The Reanimation of Marlene Dietrich,” with Kerr and Guevara as young pair of pals and Giere Marquis as the vampy experiment in recapturing old movie glamour gone horribly awry.
If most of the plays are pretty half-baked, there are enough gory pleasures spurting up here and there along the way to keep things entertaining. Besides the grisly blood effects (props to props designer Lisabeth Stanley), what makes the biggest impression here is the strength and the versatility of the ensemble. If Bread and Circuses is a tribute to Impact Theatre, it shows off some of its best assets in the cast’s comedic, and occasionally dramatic, chops.
Show #25 of 2014, attended March 13.