If, in Marx’s famous phrase, Hegel saw the history of the world as though seeing a man walking on his head, TheatreFIRST has put that history flat on its back—or whatever position a couple might assume—in Loveplay.
Often hilarious, the rapidly changing play features 10 scenes, with a cast of six taking on 32 roles. But this thumbnail sketch, sometimes satiric, of erotic mores through the ages isn’t just a sexy romp.
As director Robin Stanton notes, “In [playwright] Moira Buffini’s detailed construction, each lifetime’s lessons leave a resonance that is applied to the next. ... Perhaps Buffini would like us to consider that we cannot escape accountability to ourselves and each other. The quality of love can only be defined by the consciousness of the lovers.”
That consciousness first dawns onstage with a centurion chasing—and haggling with—a British lass, whom he finds a tough customer, and pursues the arc of its theme into the present, with a previously unacquainted foursome coupling up in unexpected ways at a dating service.
The one stable element is location, the same “patch of land” in England on which the lovers meet, as passion is born, flourishes or misfires, and dies, over and over, in curious combinations that at times would put a sex manual to shame.
The dialogue is pointed and witty, the situations unusual for this popular stage topic, and the cast game for their various encounters. Rowan Brooks, Noah James Butler, Lizzie Calogero, Holli Hornlien, Dana Jepsen and Kendra Oberhauser quickly grasp and relinquish their several characters in this kaleidoscopic ensemble piece, showing many fine emotional moments along the way, weaving these often contrasting moods into a whole, and achieving a kind of unity of intention that can’t be easily pinned down to a simple statement of what’s been seen or what it means.
There are strong confrontations: three men and a woman who have met for sex in the ruins of a pagan temple during “The Dark Age,” each of the men expressing a fear of being watched; the nun washing the corpse of her “special friend” in a Gothic abbey, the abbess discovering how special that friendship has been; Renaissance actors in the ruins of that same abbey, speaking rhyme in the moonlight from a play that unravels as autobiographical, about a love both unaccustomedly real and yet a conceit; an empirical investigator of the human form in the Enlightenment, seeing and touching, and spurning, her first naked man, an illiterate laborer; a Victorian decadent painter who wishes to paint his old school chum the vicar as “Lucifer—but before The Fall!” These are the fascinating tableaux that TheatreFIRST sets into motion, in serious play.
The troupe has been Oakland-based since its founding in 1994, and is only now mounting its first full run in its new and ideal location just off Broadway in the Old Oakland section of downtown. It is an unusually well put together storefront playhouse, with fine acoustics and sightlines, and the flexibilty for an ambitious range of stagings of practically any type of work. BART is right there, as well as parking, and the convivial and culinary delights of Old Oakland and Chinatown.
Clive Chafer, TheatreFIRST’s founder and artistic director, is appealing to Oakland for further assistance to help subsidize the commercial rental rates in exchange for a much-needed community performing arts venue that would also be TheatreFIRST’s home. It’s been a longtime disappointment that Oakland has no professional resident company of TheatreFIRST’s high caliber, much less a viable performing space downtown, at a time when the Bay Area has an unprecedented number of theater companies and projects.
It’s a noble cause, which could prove as important for Oakland and TheatreFIRST as the Ashby Stage has for Berkeley and the Shotgun Players. One immediate way to support it is to go enjoy a fun, sophisticated, thoughtful show that plays like a nonstop revue of love, and plan to go again in late April when World Music opens, a drama about the Rwanda genocide and the hesitations of “the civilized world” to respond.
TheatreFIRST has tackled epic-sized themes with grace, good humor and theatrical professionality. It’s time this brilliant exponent of our local theater culture gains a stage of its own, especially one that would anchor an important urban center that, for live theater, has been too long adrift.
TheatreFIRST presents Loveplay, February 9–March 5, Thursday–Saturday
8 p.m., Sunday 3p.m. at Old Oakland Theatre, 461 Ninth St. For more information, call 436-5085 or see www.theatrefirst.com›