Arts Listings

The Theater: Berkeley Playwright Makes Hometown Debut

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 22, 2007

In a swirl of scenes that quickly alternate between darkness and light, at first very different in what they show, then interpenetrating, Just Theater stages the Bay Area premiere of Berkeley native Anne Washburn’s “text about message,” I Have Loved Strangers, for just three more performances, through Saturday. 

In the darkness, the cast files in, intoning a Gregorian chant, giving the City Club a cloistered air. But just for a moment. Lights on, there’s a downtown rush of busy-ness and overlapping dialogue, techno-chatter, banalities ... reading from the book in which “he wrote it all down,” Baruch (Michael Barrett Austin) throws the immediate into retrospect: “It was a day of astounding light, bursting out everywhere ... Not yet noon ...” 

Above the audience, seated on the sides of the Julia Morgan-designed salon, is a structure that resembles the model for a freeway overpass. And there is a recurrent atmosphere in the play of backrooms and of the subterranean, of being underneath something.  

Into the contemporary bustle wanders a rudely robed, bearded man (Ryan Oden)—a street person? He starts speaking in apocalyptic, scriptural rhetoric as the others shy away from him. It’s recognizable: from Jeremiah in the King James Bible. 

Other scenes follow, seemingly disjointed. A couple (Mick Mize and Alexandra Creighton), clearly cityfolk, hike in the dark, with the sound of frogs and the stars overhead, later exploring the headstones in an old cemetery, the rest of the ensemble in tableau as the Victorian funerary sculpture. One woman asks her friend (Creighton again and Lindsey Gates) to tell her who she (the questioner) is. Are they old school friends playing a game? Or is it a change to a nom-de-guerre? ... A man (Carson Creecy IV) posed with an espresso cup (with which he’ll later do a wry flamenco) asks the Old Testament prophet out to dinner—from which he’s abducted. A modern-day prophet (Anthony Nemirovsky) chats at a cocktail party about how he receives his prophecies, later telling his wife (Gates again) how he was whisked away by armed men while buying coffee beans and questioned by—the king? (later played by Joseph O’Malley) ... The Old Testament prophet wakes up in a safe house in the middle of the night as the Whore of Babylon (Meera Kumbhani) sings to him. 

Ensemble work and the portrayal of individuals provide a contrast, yet in their back-and-forth provide the fluid motion of the show. All the disparate pieces, in their various registers of tone and rhetoric, are gathered up into one odd compound that is—refreshingly—never completely pinned down by plot or “back story.” Besides the scriptural passages, the author and her collaborators were inspired by “material overheard on the streets of New York [in 2005] ... and the activities of the Weather Underground.” 

The binding together of the different vignettes into one tale displays irony, quite different from the usual melding of discrete episodes in a film or TV show. Maybe the lyrical passages take off too much of the edge (which the humor of unlikely juxtapositions relieves pretty well), but they might also provide some of the bright notes in a scale that runs from admonitory to conversational. 

Washburn spoke of how she’s used memories of her childhood in ’70s-’80s Berkeley, “a city obsessed, in the most graceful and graceless ways possible, with the truth.”  

Just Theater’s a young troupe, with the show directed by Jonathan Spector, literary manager of Playwrights Foundation (which partnered in presenting the show), and produced by company founder Molly Aaronson-Gelb, who’s worked with Shotgun, Berkeley Rep and CalShakes. Based in the East Bay, they’re a welcome addition to our diverse stage scene. 


Photograph: Jay Yamada 

Alexandra Creighton and Lindsey Gates in I Have Loved Strangers. 



8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave.  

$12-$25. 421-1458.