Election Section

Back to Berkeley: Local Theater Groups Present Robust Programs By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Friday August 26, 2005

Despite grant funding drying up and the competition of movies, video and other cheaper, often in-the-home competition, live theater performance continues to thrive, even spill over in the Bay Area—and Berkeley is no exception. 

There are several hundred theater companies in the Bay Area, and—from top to bottom, professional resident stage companies to community theaters and short-lived amateur-semipro projects—the Berkeley area is the scene for some of the best, as well as the most diverse. 

Just as with homes, the real estate market is the hidden arbiter of theatrical production and its problems, just as much as funding. Only a handful of companies have homes or even regular—if shared—venues. Some of the best longtime troupes are vagabond, producing in different places every season, or sometimes for each show. 

TheatreFIRST, with 10 years in the area, produces shows of consistently high quality that engage in often unexpected ways with contemporary social issues. The group is on the move again after a year at Mills College (in past years, at the Julia Morgan Theater on College Ave. and in the Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club), opening The Arab-Israeli Cookbook Oct. 27 at the Jewish Community Center. (The play is based on “verbatim conversations ranging from how to cook falafel—and we will be cooking onstage!—to having children who become martyrs to both causes—42 characters played by 8 actors!”) 

In the spring, at ProArts Gallery at 9th and Broadway in Oakland, TheatreFIRST will present the West Coast premiere of Love Play, by Moira Buffini (“2000 years of loving encounters, from the Romans to a dating service, on one spot in London—30 characters played by six actors!”) and World Music by Steve Waters (on the aftermath, in Brussels and Africa, of the Rwanda genocide). 

For more information, see www.theatrefirst.com. 

Oakland’s Eastenders, celebrating their 15th year of genuine repertory production, develops ensembles for rotating programs of both thematically related short plays by known playwrights and new locally-written full-length plays (some by co-founder Charle Polly, who also trades off directing with co-founder Susan Evans). They are still unconfirmed searching for a venue for their annual 100 Years Of Festival. Last year the theme was “Political Theater,” this year it is “Sex Acts” (questions of gender, relationship, etc.) For more information on the upcoming season, see www.eastenders.org. 

They last performed at the new Ashby Stage, as well as in San Francisco—an increasingly employed alternative for homeless East Bay troupes and projects, such as Golden Thread’s ReOrient, an annual program of short plays that deal with the Middle East. Last year, ReOrient staged an artistically successful (not to mention socially engaged) run at the Ashby Stage; this year, the bulk of the fest will be at San Francisco’s Magic Theater in November, with a seminar at UC Berkeley’s Center for MidEast Studies around a staged reading of Egyptian playwright Lenin El Ramly’s Nightmare. For more information see, www.goldenthread.org. 

Central Works Theater En-semble’s motto is “We make plays”—and they do, in a true collaborative lab situation, with innovative and highly professional results, developing new plays from draft to stage. They have a home—the intimate hall of the Berkeley City Club. In October they will produce Achilles & Patroclus, “a play about two men and a woman,” by cofounder Gary Graves, who will also direct a play still in development next spring, under the working title Crossing, by Brian Thorstenson (“about citizenship and immigration”). Cental Works charges admission on a sliding scale, $25-$9. For more information, see www.centralworks.org. 

Another great City Club regular company, Wilde Irish, will be back Sept. 9 with Irish playwright Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, about hostages in 1992 Lebanon, directed by founder Gemma Whalen, the former head of the now-defunct Mills Drama Dept. For more information, see www.wildeirish.org. 

Newest of home venues is the Ashby Stage (nee Transparent Theatre), home to both the Shotgun Players and Shotgun’s collaborative Theater Lab. Berkeley favorites for over a decade, Shotgun is a vigorous and community-minded troupe that casts a wide net: their Cyrano is still running outdoors at John Hinkel Park; Owners (by Caryl Churchill, directed by founder Patrick Dooley) opens Sept. 6, followed by Cabaret in December and January. 

Ambitious, sometimes over-reaching, stretching dramaturgy and technique, Shotgun has dazzled its public by seeming to run on a fund of sheer energy—something that carries over to the Lab, any production of which is always potentially the most interesting show in town. Cry/Don’t Cry, by Playwrights Foundation’s Christine Young and musician Greg Beuthin, with live drumming, runs Nov. 8-17. For more information, see www.shotgunplayers.org. 

The Ashby Stage is venue for other local and Bay Area groups, both through Theater Lab and as a rental. Last year, San Francisco’s innovative foolsFURY played at the Lab, and Darvag, Oakland’s long-standing Iranian ensemble, produced the exceptional Death of Yazgird by poet Bahram Beyzaii. It’s a curious multicultural note that the two best-written plays premiering in the Bay Area last year that this reviewer covered were both Iranian: Yazgird and a short play in ReOrient, Taziyeh, by Novid Parsi, both at the Ashby Stage. 

Darvag will be back at the Ashby this October and November with The Suitecase, a piece on exile and moving from place to place, originally written (and performed) in Farsi 15 years ago by director and cofounder Farhad Aeesh about the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, now updated and translated into English. For more information, see www.Darvag.org.  

Holding pride of place among local resident companies is Berkeley Repertory, with two theaters side-by-side on Addison Street off Shattuck Avenue: the new Roda and the older Thrust Stage. The Rep is one of the Bay Area’s handful of Equity (the actors’ union) houses, running six days a week during production. Performing a broad range of plays with professional casts, production staffs and designers (local and imported), there is the occasional awkwardness of a well-acted, brilliantly appointed imported new play with a bland script—too often the albatross of the Regional Rep system in America. 

A disasterous fire this summer at their scene shop has beleaguered the Rep. This year’s shows range from Thornton Wilder’s combine of Americana and 1930s experimental spareness and theatricality, Our Town in September; the world premiere Finn in the Underworld, by Jordan Harrison, in October; and the extravaganza Brundabar and Comedy on the Bridge, adapted by Artistic Director Tony Taccone from a piece performed in concentration camps, with set and costumes by Maurice Sendak and a local children’s choir. For more infomation, see www.berkeley rep.org. 

Next door to the Rep’s Thrust Stage is the Aurora. Under the artistic direction of Barbara Oliver, Aurora built up the greatest critical reputation of perhaps any Bay Area company, for both dramaturgy and production values—in particular, acting. Oliver has just retired, replaced by longtime Managing Director Tom Ross. Their season begins Sept. 2 with Berkeley favorite Joy Carlin directing the late Arthur Miller’s The Price, with an all-star Bay Area cast. In November,a Tom Ross will direct a new translation of Pagnol’s Marius, followed by another new translation, of Ibsen’s Master Builder, and new plays by Thomas Gibbons and Craig Lucas. For more information, see www.auroratheare.org. 

On Adeline, Black Repertory is a three-generation family affair. Last year’s shows ranged from a premiere of Ishmael Reed’s Tough Love Game to the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar. Bolstered by civic and community support, though dogged by controversy and uneven production values and artistic directorship, Black Rep stands as one of two or three African-American companies in the Bay Area with regular shows on a stage of their own. For more information, see www.blackrepertorygroup.org. 

In Orinda, California Shakespeare performs The Bard outdoors, continuing into fall with the two-part Nicholas Nickleby. For more information, see .www.calshakes.org. Woman’s Will, the all-female Shakespeare company, has been performing Richard III in parks around the Bay for free (including at John Hinkel Park). This fall, they present the Brecht-Weill radical musical Happy End at Luka’s Tap Room in downtown Oakland. For more information, see www.womanswill.org. 

Other troupes perform at Hinkel and other parks, often for free—the San Francisco Mime Troupe plays here this weekend. Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley City Club, Live Oak Theater, Ashby Stage and other venues have seen performances by local and regional groups (like Larry Reed’s innovative Shadowlight puppet-and-actor theater or San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theater). Intimate venues like Eighth St. Studios or LaVal’s Subterranean host regulars such as ImpactTheater. For more information, see www.impacttheatre.com. There are other good local vagabond troupes, such as Subterranean Shakespeare Company and Ragged Wing Ensemble, which presented a splendid debut at Eighth St. last year. 

More conventional repertory and community theater (as well as a few surprises) are presented by Berkeley Actors Ensemble (usually at Live Oak Park), Contra Costa Civic Theatre, and the twin venerables, Altarena Playhouse in Alameda and The Masquers in Point Richmond. Unusual and international fare can be found at UC Berkeley, from the ‘30s labor musical The Cradle Will Rock to contemporary social-political plays from India and the UK. For more information, see www.theater.berkeley.edu and the usually brief shows in the panoply booked by CalPerformances at Zellerbach Hall, see www.calperfs.berkeley.edu. 

The latest, both as venue and as theater project, The Marsh-Berkeley, an extension of San Francisco’s solo performance landmark in the Mission, is now playing And God Winked in the Gaia Building. For more information, see www.themarsh.org. 

Most companies have discounts for students seniors and groups, as well as sliding scale or pay-what-you-will performances.r