In Shopping for God, her solo piece now playing at The Marsh-Berkeley in the Gaia Building, Erica Lann Clark, an accomplished storyteller with a distinctive stage presence, seems at first to cover familiar territory, albeit in her own, humorously idiosyncratic, sketchy way. But once she gets down to brass tacks, what she has to say—and act out—is much more than just another autobiographical story. The shopping is over. Or has it just begun?
Taking the stage with a funny panache, engaging the audience members as if they were at once her fans, yet guests in her home or old friends met by chance (”Darling, you look so much better than last time!”), Lann Clark finally declares, “Let me put my cards on the table. I’d like to say I’m an atheist ... but you have to commit!”
What follows is pleasantly rambling sketch material, studded with some of the info necessary as backstory for later theatrics. Lann Clark’s parents were atheist Jews (though with a mystic for grandfather) from Vienna, who fled all over the map after the Anschluss, ending up in Brooklyn, some relatives in tow, but others left behind who perished in transport or the camps.
Lann Clark spiels out her pre-New Age searching for the Truth, through Methodism, Quakerism—then pulling out “the big gun” and giving Orthodox Judaism a try. “I got hipped by a rabbi from Fresno that the man’s prayer thanking God for not making him a woman was really just thanking Him for ‘making me a man’!” “Shopping, shopping, shopping--I really tried (If all goes well with this show, I will be an Equal Opportunity Offender!”) Her commentary on the various creeds is tart: “Catholics--they do social causes good ... but, the pot lucks?” She was “driven to the East,” then “I did Carlos Castenada!” and became a “wannabe Cherokee who spoke a couple of words of Lakota ... I chanted and panted, tranced and danced ...”
The off-the-cuff type sketch material gives way to her description of her special relationship with her older cousin; they’re Marsha and Ricky to each other, close-knit—”You know what it is to be everything to each other: there’s always something!”—until Ricky accuses Marsha of being a Republican over her stated regret that life isn’t more sedate, controlled.
“I have enough abiding sense of tragedy to tide me over recurrent bouts of joy,” Erica says. She finds herself, once again, going out into the world to prove herself to her beloved cousin--who remains unimpressed and incommunicado.
This is the set-up for the truly theatric event of the evening, Lann Clark’s excruciating (both funny and painful) acting-out of her at first reluctant adherence--with the help of some liberally applied guilty snake oil by the “facilitator”—to a Holocast survivor/children of Nazis Reconciliation Group. Acting out in every way (”I become the Immaculate Victim!”), Ricky’s ethnic primal scream has her confronting a tall, leggy German immigrant actress (”she was just here to get some schtick for an audition!”) to a Mercedes dealer, demanding a test ride. The group leader eggs her on: “He says I’m a born emotional leader, and he wants to train me!” It’s a funny, savvy turn that, ultimately, brings her to a different sort of understanding than she expected when Marsha breaks the deadlock, explains her view of their relationship (and her own diffidence)—and then, in true reconciliation, they go shopping. “When we go shopping, Marsha and I, it’s a spiritual event. We don’t care if we buy a thing!” she says.
Lann Clark accomplishes much of what a good solo show’s supposed to do: show you the life of another from the inside out, bringing about some kind of realization. And she makes it funny as well as engrossing. There’s a strikingly spare use of music-bytes that puts many a mainstage show to shame. David Ford has directed her with taste though not eliminating that contradictory sense that some of the opening—and very amusing—sketch-type material was there just to flesh out the show.
This will be the last show, at least for a while, of The Marsh in Berkeley. Stephanie Weissman, Marsh founder, announced with regret that she’s been asked to stop programming at the Gaia Building until further notice, cutting out an anticipated extension of Shopping for God.
“We hope the Gaia Building will still be our home in Berkeley,” Weissman said. It’s a shame that conflicts in scheduling have forced The Marsh into this position. It’s a perfect addition to the entertainment scene downtown, with early, no-fuss shows that fulfill a good deal of what more formal theatrical and nightlife venues often strive in vain to deliver.
Shopping for God
Thurs.-Sat. 7 p.m.
The Marsh-Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way
through March 3
(800) 838-5750, www.themarsh.org