Stages of Grief

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.

Liz Sklar and Patrick Russell in Care of Trees. Photo by Pak Han.

Shotgun Players’ world premiere of E. Hunter Spreen’s Care of Trees is odder than most because it’s not immediately clear what in fact has happened to the absent loved one. Later in the play it becomes very clear, although it’s not at all what you might have imagined at the outset. It starts with Patrick Russell’s Travis digging in the dirt above a small bookcase, clearly agitated and distraught, haunted by the presence of his beautiful wife Georgia (Liz Sklar), who’s clearly no longer around, but she appears to him, cool and kindly commanding, to tell him he’s dreaming and needs to move on. From the way they’re acting—he haunted and she haunting—you get the idea that she’s very probably dead. But the truth is nowhere near as simple as that.

As Georgia wanders around Travis, just out of reach, the two of them speak in abstractions as they run through flashbacks of how they came together and how things fell apart. Each scene starts with one of them saying, “Start. Start with…” followed by a generalized descriptor of whatever scene is to follow: “a series of random meetings,” “signs, symptoms,” et cetera. This poetic repetition becomes wearying pretty quickly, but fortunately the scenes themselves are vibrant enough to outweigh their staid introductions.

The two characters keep running into each other at fundraiser with a mixture of playful flirtation and hostility. Travis is an environmental lawyer and Georgia is a budding architect and daughter of a major developer against whom Travis’s firm has filed several injunctions. This never really becomes a plot point except to bring them together as their arguments turn to sexual tension, which in turn gives way to plain old tension as they become a couple and continue to squabble, just about different things.

Although these flashback scenes are acted out, they often don’t have conversations so much as metaconversations in which the couple describes to us the conversation they’re having, but there are oases of direct dialogue and human behavior along the way as well. The longer speeches are so abstract that it’s hard for them to have much emotional impact, no matter how passionately delivered they are.

But the play’s full of marvelous moments, including a very funny section when they’re sent to a couples counselor and sit for a long time smiling in we’re-a-good-couple silence before both talking at once at length. There’s a passionate lovemaking scene and a refreshingly authentic philosophical debate that doesn’t feel like it’s misrepresenting either point of view. From time to time the answering machine chimes in, reminding them of a happier time when they used to record cute outgoing messages.

By the end of act one the play has taken a sharp turn from highly stylized relationship drama to supernatural horror. A run-in that Georgia had with a crazed environmental activist changes her as dramatically and irrevocably as your average Gypsy curse in a horror movie. Her health and moods decline sharply, and Travis drags her to one doctor after another (impersonated by both actors in amusingly officious voices).

The curious thing is that the farther the story gets from conventional day-to-day reality in terms of the actual occurrences depicted, the less stylized and more literal the language becomes. The implication is that Spreen can be as poetic as she likes with the human drama that everyone can recognize and relate to, but when it comes to the stuff that actually sounds like surely it much be just a metaphor, she wants to drive home that no, in the reality of the play this is what’s really happening. It’s that literalism that makes the second act feel so much like a drive-in flick—which fortunately isn’t really a negative as far as I’m concerned.

More than anything, what makes the play stunningly effective is Sklar and Russell’s tour de force performances as they go through the wringer from impish flirtation to passion to frustration and panic. It takes a little while to warm to Russell’s Travis because he’s so crazed at the beginning that it’ll take the rest of the play to build up tension to the point that you can relate to him, but he gives a strong performance in all the flashback scenes of the couple in happy and unhappy times alike. Sklar is absolutely magnetic as Georgia throughout the play, radiating intensity whether she’s doing a playful seductive dance or howling with painful seizures. It’s a breathtaking, knockout performance.

Nina Ball’s fantastic set is dominated by a rough, unfinished wooden staircase spiraling up until it becomes expressionistically distorted overhead, the steps sprawling out to unnatural lengths. Everything looks dusty with neglect, dingy sheets standing in for walls. Old home movies play silently on the sheets, showing a young couple in love goofing around.

In fact, all the technical elements of director Susannah Martin’s production come together magnificently. Video in plays often come off as a distracting add-on, but Ian Winters’s videos really feel like an organic, essential part of the storytelling. Jake Rodriguez’s spooky music and intense sound effects and Lucas Krech’s dramatic lighting build suspense and help make the scenes riveting—not that the dynamic performances of the two-person cast need much help. All and all, it’s an awfully strong production of a sometimes frustrating but enticingly challenging play.

Alona Bach and Anthony Nemirovsky in Down a Little Dirt Road. Photo by Richard Ciccarone.

Just across town at the Berkeley City Club, there’s another brand-new play that shares a lot of superficial similarities with Care of Trees. Both new works by Bay Area female playwrights deal with grief through otherworldly metaphor made bluntly literal and through storytelling, with the characters telling and retelling the story of their own relationship with the lost beloved. But Erin Marie Bregman’s Down a Little Dirt Road is very short for a full-length play at just over an hour, and it still feels only partly formed.  But what’s there is given a sensitive, intimate staging in Just Theater’s world premiere directed by company founder and co-artistic director Molly Aaronson-Gelb. The show is a coproduction with PlayGround, which originally commissioned the play.

Dirt Road starts with young girl Alice directing her parents as they tell her the story of how they met. She thinks it’s a boring story and makes up a more exciting version that she says will now be the real story simply because it’s better. In fact, Alice does this all the time; she makes up various fanciful explanations of how she and her dad came to move from San Francisco to Parkfield and why her mom’s not around, each story contradicting the last. In fact they’ve gone to Parkfield because Dad, a seismologist, got a good job there studying local earthquake patterns, but even he can’t figure out why he and his daughter are experiencing daily earthquakes that don’t register on the equipment at work, along with shared nightmares every night.

They’re an awfully sweet little family, with the parents singing Alice a lullaby in lovely harmony—a song that becomes the play its name and becomes a plot point later on. That’s why the mother’s sudden absence after the first scene is so worrisome. It turns out that she doesn’t know where she is either, wandering around amnesiac in some other space she can’t identify—but it’s somewhere with blue light and creepy suspense music courtesy of light and sound designers Jarrod Green and Zachary Watkins and composer Dina Maccabee.

Lisa Morse is touching in her nagging confusion as the lost Mom, not able to name or place exactly what or who it is she’s missing. Ryan Tasker is a menacing presence as the mysterious Charlie McKay, a man in a suit (costumed by Christine Crook) who seems to always be lurking in the shadows and has something to do with what’s happened to Mom. Recent high school grad Alona Bach credibly portrays a precocious young girl as Alice, who’s really the focus of the play. The endless permutations of her stories are charming, and it’s wrenching to watch Alice and her father try to connect under stress. Anthony Nemirovsky’s touchingly doting father becomes more gruff and frazzled without Mom, burying himself in his work to avoid what he’s feeling.

John Fischer’s set consists of towering stacks of cardboard boxes in the corner of the room, with boxes used as furniture throughout the show. There’s also a blue door on one end of the room, with a rolling doorframe that’s wheeled out to frame characters at particularly menacing moments.

Over and over again there’s the nightmare, with the Dad shining a flashlight in pitch darkness calling out Alice’s name, sounding increasingly panicked not to be able to find her. Alice sometimes joins in with his calls as if they’re some kind of game. As creepy as these segments are, they lose some of their power in repetition simply because the repetition of “Alice? Alice? Alice? Alice? Alice?” gets tiresome after a while.

More could be done to develop the mother’s journey, which at this point is touching but predictable, but there are interesting moments in it nonetheless, in particular some clever, resonant imagery about memory. The end of the play is appropriate but abrupt, and the connections Bregman draws between earthquake and heartbreak feel a bit forced. It’s an often eloquent play with some charming performances, but at this point the ties between one world and the other in the story still seem wispy.

Patrick Jones, Megan Trout, Allen McKelvey, Madeline H.D. Brown and Alexander Crowther in Metamorphosis. Photo by David Allen.

The family in Aurora Theatre’s Metamorphosis knows exactly where their son is—he’s in his room—but he’s no less lost to them than if he were dead. Gregor Samsa has turned into some sort of vermin overnight, and not only can’t he go to work to support his parents and sister anymore but they can’t understand the noises he makes when he tries to speak. He just scurries around, upsetting everyone around him. It’s all too distressing.

The story, of course, is Franz Kafka’s, from the 1915 novella of the same name that’s probably the best-known of the Bohemian author’s classics—or at least the most likely to be required reading in high school. Aurora’s stage version is the first American production of an adaptation by British director David Farr and Icelandic actor-director Gísli Örn Gardarsson that debuted in London in 2006.

As popular as Kafka’s works are with angstful intellectuals, it can be difficult to capture the style and substance of his work onstage, as Berkeley companies Brookside Rep and Central Works have attempted to do in recent years with mixed results. That’s one thing to note about visionary local writer-director Mark Jackson’s staging right off the bat: He absolutely nails it. In fact, it’s a perfect convergence of complimentary aesthetics. Jackson’s highly stylized, very visual and movement-focused approach has strikingly transformed classics from Shakespeare and Goethe to Strindberg and Wilde, but with Kafka his style seems right at home.

The Aurora production features another superb set by Nina Ball, with Gregor’s bedroom tilted forward in the background at a steep incline and sharp Expressionistic angles, and usually lighted a sickly green by Clyde Sheets. On the level stage floor below, the rest of the family tries to live an idyllic life of comfortable conformity. Christine Crook has dressed them as the typical wholesome 1950s American family as seen on TV, and the women of the family try to maintain gleaming toothy grins to show everything’s OK even when they’re hyperventilating in panic.

And panic is exactly what the family does when they see Gregor’s shoes and see he hasn’t got up at 4 in the morning to go to work. He’s been working himself to death to support his family, and even one day’s tardiness brings his boss around to accuse him of being a slacker.

No makeup or inhuman costume is used to depict Gregor’s transformation into what’s traditionally translated as a gigantic insect (the German word simply means “vermin,” although some of the descriptions in Kafka’s story do seem bug-specific). Gregor appears to us like a perfectly presentable fellow in a suit (which he slept in), but the way Alexander Crowther crouches and scurries about conveys his transformation through body language alone. He speaks normally, even eloquently, but no one can understand a word he says.

In fact, the cast does fabulous work thought this 75-minute gem. Megan Trout gives a strong, sensitive performance as Gregor’s beloved younger sister Grete, who tries the hardest to understand and care for him, at least at first. Allen McKelvey embodies the pressure for conformity as the stern father who won’t put up with this grotesque nonsense. Madeline H.D. Brown is marvelous as the high-strung mother desperate to be the perfect happy homemaker, especially hilarious in her sobbing hysteria. Patrick Jones does some fine harrumphing as Gregor’s gruff boss but particularly shines as a self-important, self-consciously dashing potential tenant.

As outlandish as Gregor’s transformation is, what’s really striking in the story is the metamorphosis his family goes through as they become accustomed to his absence as the provider they’d been so dependent on. He’s just in the next room, but he’s more gone to them than he was when he was out from dawn till dusk slaving away for the man. But really, all of it is tremendously effective, with one enthralling scene after another. With a fine mixture of humor, horror and pathos, a dash of class consciousness and a heaping helping of alienation, this Metamorphosis is an absolute delight.

Stacy Ross and Rob Campbell in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Jay Yamada.

William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus has a lot to grieve about. His enemies rape his daughter and cut her hands and tongue off so she can’t tell anyone who did it. Titus’s sons are framed for murder and he he’s tricked into cutting his own hand off to bail them out, only to have their severed heads delivered to him afterward. Being a good Roman soldier of 40 years’ service, he tries to bear up and reaffirm his loyalty to the emperor who’ll stop at nothing to bring him down, but inevitably Titus comes around to the conviction that the only cure for his broken heart is bloody vengeance, just as gruesome as what his family has suffered.

The irony is that Titus is the one who put the emperor on the throne in the first place. Coming home victorious from war with the Goths, the Roman general is offered the crown but turns it down. Asked to choose between the two rival sons of the late emperor, he chooses the vile Saturninus over the reasonable and civilized Bassianus. No sooner is Saturninus made emperor than he demands Titus’s daughter Lavinia as his queen, and Titus agrees readily. Bassianus objects that she’s already engaged to him, and Titus’s sons and brother back him up, and despite Titus’s rage at being flouted the emperor responds to this slight by naming the entire family his enemies.

Titus has brought the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, as a prisoner and executed her eldest son, and Saturninus decides to make her his queen instead. Tamora publicly counsels the Emperor to make nice with Titus while secretly plotting to destroy him and everything he loves.

Titus Andronicus is one of only a handful of Shakespeare plays that California Shakespeare Theater has never done in its 38-year history, at least until now.  (Henry VIII and the three Henry VI plays are still on that list.) It’s been an oft-derided and dismissed play over the centuries, in part because of its over-the-top bloodiness but also because its language and structure are a bit shaky by Shakespeare’s standards. But the gore is by no means an obstacle in this day and age, and there’s much to enjoy in the lurid melodrama.

The Cal Shakes Titus is directed by Joel Sass, who’s previously staged a decadent Pericles and ultra-creepy Macbeth for the company. Curiously, Sass’s production is almost demure when it comes to gore: It’s a bloody play, and there’s no getting around that, but the wrists are discreetly bandaged—no spurting prosthetics here—and the severed heads unseen in sacks. Despite ample opportunity, it’s not much bloodier than his Macbeth last year.

But Sass’s staging has a number of novel innovations, such as having trees come out like a phalanx of Roman shields (or for that matter, like Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane). Emily Greene’s forbidding set depicts walls of concrete-looking stone crumbling at the top. Paloma H. Young’s fanciful costumes aren’t tied to any era or culture in particular. The Romans dress in austere black. Tamora’s sons have a Road Warrior meets Adam Ant aesthetic, which is especially interesting because the other Goths who appear later in the play dress like Kabuki characters.

James Carpenter’s forceful Titus is well worth the price of admission, every inch the honorable weary soldier pushed too far, even if his jollity in some mad scenes is a highly unnerving. A consummate professional, Carpenter was wearing a walking cast on opening night, but you’d never know it from the way he moved. At one point he stumbled badly on a stone, but didn’t miss a beat, carrying on deftly as if nothing had happened.

Rob Campbell’s glowering Saturninus is such a transparent villain—paranoid, spiteful and arrogant—that Titus choosing to give him the crown is as funny as it is tragic. Saturninus doesn’t even try to seem like a nice guy. Last year’s commanding Lady Macbeth, Stacy Ross makes a chilling Tamora, merciless and seductive and very much in charge, attended by the leering , near-feral Chad Deverman and David Mendelsohn as her savage sons. Shawn Hamilton has an impish charm as Tamora’s Moorish henchman and secret lover Aaron, although despite all the horrors to which he confesses with relish he comes off as more mischievous than menacing.

Anna Bullard is a radiant Lavinia at the start and the embodiment of woe as the tragedy builds. It’s striking to see her begging mercy of Tamora, given that Ross played her mother in last year’s production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession (as well as Marin Theatre Company’s Killer Joe back in ’05). Liam Vincent’s upright Bassianus has the misfortune of being a nice, reasonable guy in a house of cruelty. Nicolas Pelczar makes a valiant Lucius, Titus’s only son to keep his head when things go bad, and is amusing enough as a wacky wandering pigeon peddler. Caleb Alexander backs grandpa up bravely as the cherubic Lucius Jr., and Dan Hiatt is dour but kindly as Titus’s brother Marcus.

The production runs three hours, but even so it contains some substantial cuts. Most notably, it omits a moment early in the play when Titus kills one of his sons immediately for offending the emperor. Leaving it out may make Titus more relatable, but it also loses one of the most striking displays of Titus’s blind loyalty to the state, which makes it all the more tragic when he’s so thoroughly and vilely betrayed by it.

Even with the cuts, the play does drag sometimes between the gruesome bits, especially at the end when the stage is littered with bodies and the survivors stick around to make speeches for a while, but Sass has added one a closing image that’s sure to give you the heebie-jeebies.  And it’s hard not to want to cheer when Titus finally takes his grieving process out on those who have brought him to grief.

Care of Trees
Through June 26
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Down a Little Dirt Road
Through July 3
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Through July 17
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Titus Andronicus
Through June 26
Bruns Amphitheater
100 California Shakespeare Theater Way
Orinda, CA

Care of Trees: Show #49 of 2011, attended June 2.

Down a Little Dirt Road: Show #58 of 2011, attended June 12.

Metamorphosis: Show #60 of 2011, attended June 18.

Titus Andronicus: Show #52 of 2011, attended June 4.

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