Election Section

Actors Ensemble Launches Albee’s ‘Delicate Balance’

By BETSY HUNTON Special to the Planet
Friday July 23, 2004

Mikel Clifford, long a well-known figure in the Bay Area theatrical scene, has been brought in by Berkeley’s Actors Ensemble to direct Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Delicate Balance.  

Among a number of other impressive accomplishments, both as an actor and as a director, Clifford originated both what is now called Cal Shakespeare Theatre and the ongoing Minnesota Shakespeare Festival. She was also a founding member of The Curtain Theatre as well as the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  

Although Clifford likes this play and had made it clear to the Actors Ensemble that she hoped to direct it someday, she points out that Albee is far better known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which did not get a Pulitzer. Since it appeared on Broadway a little more than a year before A Delicate Balance, she suspects that the Pulitzer was something of a “make-nice” to Albee. She sees Woolf, despite its great success, as being too extreme for the values of its own time (the early ‘60s). 

Balance, Clifford says, is a much more traditional play, although she describes it as “the most Chekovian of Albee’s plays.” As in Chekov, people are either in love with the wrong people or are a disaffected couple.  

The play is set in the affluent upper-middle class world of the East Coast in which Albee himself was raised. And, according to Clifford, “like Chekov, Albee puts a lot of people in a house for a weekend where the proximity highlights their feelings of isolation. They are more isolated than they are convivial. In this play neither of the two couples is sexually intimate, although they seem to be presented as heterosexual. (Albee himself is gay). Both men have been unfaithful and Agnes (the hostess) is obviously in love with her husband.” 

The action of the play is set going when Harry and Edna, who are friends with Agnes and Tobias, a middle-aged couple, suddenly take refuge at their house for the weekend because they “are afraid.” (It is never clarified what has frightened them, nor why they are abruptly ready to go home at the end of the play.) 

Since Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire is already living there, things look a bit crowded, even before the couple’s 36-year-old daughter arrives to stay following the end of her fourth marriage. Although Claire is the only identified alcoholic among the characters, Clifford points out that in the ensuing weekend, all of the characters drink constantly. 

There’s no question about the play’s subtlety nor that Clifford is admirably equipped to choose excellent actors and to direct what should be a brilliant production of a play by a playwright who—in addition to many other prizes—has won three Pulitzers, one for this very play.  

The only cloud that may affect an outstanding run could be that of prejudice. There are definitely a number of playgoers who are biased against plays done by “non-professionals.” And Actors Ensemble doesn’t woo Actors’ Equity Association players; it’s too much trouble to get them legally untangled and free to play with a company which is not “professional.” 

However, eliminating opportunities from your life like the one being presented here would be a very large mistake. 

To begin with, it’s a serious mistake to think that all the really talented theater people are in professional productions. Actually, nobody with good sense and any hope of making a living in any other way would throw themselves into the chancy world of professional theater. Then there are the people who take family obligations as their first priority and on and on—a myriad reasons why the issue of talent isn’t the defining distinction between “professional” and “amateur” productions.  

Face it; some people just aren’t willing to take a chance on starving for even a few years. 

But when the theater bug bites, it’s incurable. You end up with a pool of people—often highly gifted—-who are willing to work themselves half to death, to work nights and weekends for weeks on end for no money, in addition to attending to their regular jobs and family responsibilities, of course. And for what? They do it for the opportunity of creating a couple of hours of what their audience will simply call “entertainment.” 

There’s no rational explanation for such behavior; these guys are obviously mildly insane. But harmless, mind you. So we may as well sit back and enjoy the results. The Actors Ensemble is by far the oldest acting company in Berkeley. It was founded in 1957 by five UC graduates who had apparently not been cured of their obsession with the theater by their introduction to the world outside the university. So they started producing plays in one guy’s basement and 45 years later, the company is still going very, very strong. 

Ralph Miller—an Actors Ensemble Board member and actor who is the primary source for this material, and who has been active in numerous ways since 1970—isn’t even the person with the longest tenure at the company. Although the founders have gone their various ways, Bill Martinelli, presently treasurer and ticket manager for the company, has been a regular since 1960. (As is typical in small theater groups, both Miller and Martinelli take on different jobs for A Delicate Balance; Miller is handling publicity and Martinelli is in charge of the box office.) 

By 1965 the group was solid enough to become the resident company at the lovely City of Berkeley theater in the Arts Center Building at Live Oak Park—at that time, and still, one of the very few “real” theaters in this area. (It has a proscenium stage with curtains, “real” seats and places back stage for the actors to get into their costumes. There’s even a bathroom! It must have been heaven to people just poking their heads out of a basement.) 

For several years after the ensemble moved in, the city had an arts specialist who was in charge of the theater. However, in 1978 the position was wiped out as part of the budget cuts necessitated by the Proposition 13 tax reductions.  

The city came close to having to close down the theater, but the ensemble took over the responsibility for maintenance and, through their continuing services, have become an actual part of the city’s resources. 

Tickets are an appealing $10 for everything but musicals, which cost $15 (they’re more expensiveto stage than straight drama). Can you pass up a deal like this?ª