Arts & Events

Local Theater Ensembles Boast Varied Repetoire

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday August 21, 2007

The shoreline cities of La Contra Costa, the old East Bay, share a surprising concentration of theatrical activity, both major companies and small troupes, in a Bay Area theater scene which comprises a stunning number: over 400 companies, according to San Francisco’s Theater Bay Area (whose eponymous monthly magazine is the best overall window on that sprawling stage landscape). 

Both of the year-round, fully professional companies here (which hire Equity actors, union members) are situated cheek-by-jowl on Addison, right off Shattuck, near the Downtown Berkeley BART: Berkeley Repertory Theatre (with both the Thrust Stage and the Roda Theatre) and the Aurora.  

The Rep features both classics, modern and period (though even postwar pieces like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller now seem like period works), and contemporary plays of mixed merit, even work that’s in development, as well as touring shows of different styles (American Rep’s fine Oliver Twist and Mike Daisey’s quaternity of solo pieces Great Men of Genius played side-by-side earlier this summer).  

The Aurora, founded by Barbara Oliver, who sometimes returns to direct, generally has a much more focused repertoire of classics (compelling versions of Ibsen, Pinter and Aeschylus have been seen over the past couple of years), along with more variable recent fare—though this may be changing somewhat with the ascension of Tom Ross, previously managing director, to the artistic chair a couple years back. The Aurora prides itself on actor-driven productions in its intimate setting, often employing directors like Joy Carlin, herself a noted actress, to stage sometimes offbeat work by Arthur Miller or David Mamet. 

The other resident year-round company in town is a local favorite that plays a different card altogether. Shotgun Players acquired the Ashby Stage—across from Ashby BART—just a couple of years ago, and also perform a free show during the summer at John Hinkel park in the North Berkeley hills. (This year’s hit, The Three Musketeers, is ongoing.)  

Shotgun is characterized by a youthful exuberance, a community-oriented “can-do” approach that impells them to mount material from across the dramaturgical map, with mixed results. They’ve collaborated with all and sundry, hosting shows by other troupes, and have provided the boost for a number of regional reputations and hit plays. 

There are other residential troupes in town who produce on a smaller scale, though in the case of Central Works in particular, resident at the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club on Durant (which features other companies’ productions as well), the artistic merits ofen match, even exceed, those of the larger companies. Founded by playwright (as well as director and sometime-performer) Gary Graves and actor-director Jan Zvaifler, Central Works has a unique method of collaborative development of shows, besides a high quality of acting and stagecraft in the City Club salon’s intimacy. Admission is always very reasonable, based on a sliding scale of prices. 

Other smaller—and reasonably priced—resident companies include Berkeley Actors Ensemble, the oldest company in town, celebrating their 50th year, resident at Live Oak Theatre in Live Oak Park on Shattuck, past the North Berkeley shopping district. A community theater, Actors Ensemble’s repertory is wide-ranging and the company draws on a range of talents to produce it, with a noticeable upswing in quality during the past year or so. 

Impact Theater, in the basement at LaVal’s Pizza on Euclid, just north of campus, produces varying fare of full length shows, solo acts and “Briefs,” shorter vaudeville-type pieces with contemporary burlesque dancing. Inexpensive and billing itself as the only venue in town where patrons can watch a play while eating pizza and drinking beer, Impact draws heavily on the student crowd, though there’s been more generational range recently in their audiences—and sometimes surprises in their repertoire, exceeding their expressed goal of sheer entertainment. 

Other small companies, those without a theater to call a regular home, produce at other venues, and often develop a reputation for innovating. Among these, the most original is Ten Red Hen, officially based in Oakland, but producing their two major shows at the Willard Metalshop Theater in the rear of the school complex on Telegraph. The 99-Cent Miss Saigon and the original scriptural musical revue, Clown Bible, were intelligent, refreshing and fun—and very reasonably priced (Ten Red Hen makes a point of refusing nobody at the door).  

Ragged Wing Ensemble is due to produce Andre Gregory’s (of Dinner with André fame) Alice in Wonderland soon in Oakland. A skillful physical theater troupe, truly an ensemble with several star performers to its credit, Ragged Wing is worth keeping an eye on.  

Wilde Irish, noted for its Bloomsday celebrations of James Joyce’s Ulysses, stages Irish plays, mostly at the City Club, with style and manner worthy of the old Abbey and Gate Theatres of Dublin fame--and at reasonable rates. 

For several years Oakland’s only resident company, intrepid TheatreFIRST, after a season that saw two splendid productions of rarely-staged masterworks (Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance), lost its lease in Old Oakland, but continues in its mission to mount socially aware material in professionally artistic style (and at very reasonable sliding scale), going into its 14th season. 

Oakland’s Darvag has staged showsfor adultsand children in English and Farsi, introducing important Iranian work, both popular and high culture. 

In Alameda, Virago continues to innovate, with a repertoire that runs from Threepenny Opera in cabaret style to locally-penned plays of merit, well-directedand performed—and reasonably priced. Also in Alameda is venerable Altarena, nominally a community theater, but with a broad repertoire—and a range of talents--to draw from, going from family musicals to fare like Sue Trigg’s remarkable production of Death of a Salesman awhile back. 

Contra Costa Civic Theatre in El Cerrito is a well-run house, featuring well-staged productions of musicals and plays, comic and dramatic. Like other community theaters in name, their results are surprisingly non-amateurish. 

Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond is another proud community theater, and another which stages shows in its own considerable style, from Jean Anouilh’s moral comedies to Sondheim musicals to thrillers. Their productions have a charm particular to this old troupe. 

Other companies besides Shotgun, based here and elsewhere, tour the East Bay or play the parks in good weather. Oakland’s Woman’s Will, the all-female Shakespeare company, plays The Bard in parks around the region, but also does reasonably priced shows, often site-specific, like Happy End in a bar, or The Importance of Being Earnest in a Victorian mansion. San Francisco’s Word For Word, Crowded Fire, Traveling Jewish Theatre and the Mime Troupe (always free, with music, in the parks) have frequent East Bay runs. Innovative physical theatrics bunch, mugwumpin, and Middle Eastern cultural exponents Golden Thread mount their important works often on this side of the Bay Bridge. 

And the local colleges feature drama departments with frequent productions, especially UC Berkeley’s Performing Arts, with particularly interesting programs in recent years. 

Finally, another institution, right this moment in its annual outdoor glory: Woodminster Amphitheater, in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park, featuring Broadway musicals high up in the hills, under the open skies by the edge of the forest.