Arts Listings

Central Works Presents ‘Shadow Crossing’ By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Tuesday February 28, 2006

The shadowy figure of a ranchero, lightly strumming a guitar and intoning lines in Spanish about leaving home due to poverty and necessity, looms before the screen in the Berkeley City Club on which the tall cactus and stony land of the border are projected, along with an English translation of the song’s mournful words. 

This first, nocturnal image of Central Works’ production of Brian Thorstenson’s new play Shadow Crossing is immediately replaced by bright lights and nervous energy, a photo session in which Martin (John Patrick Moore) is “shooting” his camera-shy schoolteacher friend, Emily (Jan Zvaifler) for a passport, though Emily at first doesn’t seem to be going anywhere outside the country she’s proud of as the daughter of a Jewish refugee. She compares having a passport to owning a formal black dress—the right thing to have, even if seldom used. 

Martin, on the other hand, amid the affectionate banter and mutual teasing that marks their conversations, later lets drop that he’s applied for landed residency in Quebec. As a gay man, he’s convinced the backlash against equal rights has rendered him unwanted in American society. It becomes apparent his partner is dead, and Emily is an emotional mainstay for him in his grief. Emily seems to take his possible departure very personally, as a betrayal both of friendship and of country. 

Earlier, their quick repartee was interrupted by a young man in a baseball cap with a Latino accent, asking if Martin needs his windows washed. Martin tells him to come back later. Emily is edgy, suspicious, telling Martin that paying a possible illegal may be a crime. 

When Rafael (Michael Navarra) does return, an amusing affinity arises between the two men in Emily’s absence. Martin at first tries to tutor Rafael in presentability in business, until it becomes apparent the impish migrant knows the territory very well. 

Martin hires him as a shop assistant. It’s part of Martin’s Canadian pipe dream, having someone to care for the shop. Emily drops by, and is dumbfounded by Rafael holding down the shop while Martin’s on an errand. She confronts Martin about this. Angry remarks escalate; Martin throws his friend out. 

So far, Shadow Crossing is a sharp, dialogue-centered play of three different perspectives meeting, misunderstanding and clashing, or sympathizing at a distance, and admonishing. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the Shop on Main Street, the Jan Kadar film, which showed how social hysteria results from personal disappointments and domestic misunderstandings and accommodations. 

But, after intermission, the playwright throws in a new twist—a ghostly, multicultural photo session, and portentious meetings with those ghosts from the past—Ellis Island and Operation Wetback—both in the familiar brightness of the photo studio and the desert night at the border, with nocturnal songbirds, binoculars and cellphones.  

Brian Thorstenson’s dialogue is sharp, laden with pointed lines and exchanges: “You can’t have an ‘Us’ without a ‘Them,’ simple fact,” Emily snaps at Martin, who’s accused her of an “us vs. them” attitude. Or Rafael saying how his light skin has left him open to gibes from other Latinos about how he can pass for Anglo. “Blending in?” asks Martin; “No,” says Rafael, “it translates more like ‘fading into.’” “Just like an older gay man in San Francisco,” Martin quips dryly. 

The play has the courage to let disagreements play out, not to be blunted by false rapprochement. 

“When did you stop believing in this country,” Emily lashes out at Martin. “When did you?” Martin shoots back. 

Central Works, which really is the local chamber theater for current controversies to be played out “in camera,” in newly-developed works, holds up its usual high production standards, brilliantly exploiting the playing area in the City Club with Gary Graves’ direction and the design of Robert Ted Anderson (lights), Gregory Scharpen (sound), and Tammy Berlin (costumes). The acting is of high quality, all three cast members projecting multiple (and sometimes contradictory) emotions simultaneously, widening the scope of the script. 

There’s a little bit of technical innovation, too, that matches the occasionally fantastic touches of the script, changing the shape of the room in imagination through the use of projections, especially following the flash of Martin’s three-light photo set-up. “I love waiting for that split second, that flicker, when people reveal another side of the self; it’s startling.” 

Taking a loaded topic like immigration, one that has no easy or foreseeable outcome, and playing out a few of its ambiguities in the form of personal consequences, is a well-realized facet of Central Works’ mission. In a society of the descendants of immigrants, it’s difficult—and not encouraged—to look at the past without sentimentalism. 

“Men resemble their contemporaries even more than their progenitors,” Emerson said. To all three of these contemporaries applies the admonition offered by a spectral voice from a buried past: “The whole world is on the move; get used to it!” 


Central Works presents Shadow Crossing at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., through March 26. Tickets $9-$25. For more information, call 558-1381 or see›