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The House of Blue Leaves

John Angell Grant
Thursday September 19, 2002

When is it healthy to dream of success, and when does that dreaming turn into dark and pathological obsession? That question comes to mind watching John Guare’s 1971 New York Drama Critics Circle award winning play “The House of Blue Leaves,” which Berkeley Repertory Theater is running. It’s a rich, disturbing production on the Roda stage in downtown Berkeley. 

“Blue Leaves” is a play about people trapped in unhappy, small middle-class lives. They look to their dreams for freedom but become trapped by their dreams. 

In “Blue Leaves,” middle-aged Central Park zookeeper Artie Shaughnessy fantasizes of breaking out of his claustrophobic family life. He lives in a cluttered Queens apartment and wants to hit the big time as a piano player and Hollywood songwriter. This would mean leaving his depressed, schizophrenic homebound wife for California with his new, star-struck girlfriend. 

Guare’s comedic script is dark, and the women in particular tend to be cartoon-like, one-dimensional characters. But director Barbara Damashek and her actors have done a superb job fleshing out the stick figures to create a wild dream world. 

Jarion Monroe’s Artie slides back and forth among the euphoria of a show biz success fantasy, enthusiasm for his new girlfriend, love for his crazy wife and despair at his present life. The mind shifts between the two women are fascinating. 

Rebecca Wisocky’s damaged schizophrenic wife Bananas Shaughnessy is wacky and feral. Part beast, wandering the run-down apartment in her bathrobe, she crawls and barks. At one point she rolls up into a ball and becomes a hedgehog. It is a remarkable performance. In one ridiculous and frightening scene, Bananas vacuums the smoke out of the air.  

As tacky girlfriend Bunny, Jeri Lynn Cohen fuels Artie’s dreams of Hollywood in a silly, talkative, sexual performance driven by her own empty life. 

It’s odd to think that these two women would put up with such a triangle. But this is a story from another era, and the Repertory production builds on the profound desperation underlying the situation. 

Damashek humanized the play’s cartoon characters and caused the audience to root for them. The characters almost dig themselves out of their holes, making the play’s tragic ending all the more shattering. 

There are many roller coaster shifts in the flow of this production. As the first half builds toward intermission, for example, the excitement of the characters’ Hollywood fantasies heat up until their dreams become the audience’s dreams. 

Scenic designer William Bloodgood’s colorful littered Queens apartment is filled with tattered bric-a-brac that captures both the distinctive detail of a dream, and its obscurity. Costumer designer Beaver Bauer has done good work also, including a bizarre, hyper-real, red plastic, faux-reptile-skin jumper for Bunny. 

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara did the show off-Broadway more than 30 years ago. But the Berkeley Repertory is a better production. 

This is a story about peculiar American lives that have lost the ability to distinguish reality from dreams. It’s a disturbing play, and a magical evening in the theater.