Arts Listings

A Look Back at 2007 in Local Theater

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday December 28, 2007

Following a year that unfolded with more than a few surprises on East Bay stages, 2007 opened up with a bang and never really settled back. Big and small companies alike put on memor-able shows, and the overall level of theatricality appeared a couple notches higher than in the past. 

There were the completely original productions, homegrown by the little, labor-intensive troupes, like Clown Bible, Ten Red Hen’s musical comedy circus from Scripture, at the Willard Metalshop Theatre, and George Charbak’s TheatreInSearch staging of his wry retelling of Gilgamesh (“With a Long Prologue”), the oldest chestnut of all, at Ashby Stage—both innovative and unique.  

Russian actor-director Oleg Liptsin adapted Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground” as Apropos of the Wet Snow, also at the Metalshop, with excitingly theatrical interactive video meshed with phenomenal performances by Liptsin and Ai-Cheng Ho from Taiwan. (We’ll see more of Liptsin’s splendid stagecraft in 2008.) 

At the professional theaters—those abiding by Actors Equity contracts—there were such successes as the brilliant black comedy Pillowman at Berkeley Rep (and an interestingly operatic To the Lighthouse), as well as Pinter’s Birthday Party and seldom-performed (in America, at least) Terry Johnston’s Hysteria at the Aurora. CalShakes (just past the tunnel) came on strong with a bright version of Marivaux’s Triumph of Love and a gripping, modernized King Lear.  

Shotgun Players continued to perfect a stylish house look with Berkeley’s Lorin District-born Eisa Davis’ Pulitzer-nominated Bulrusher, as well as staging David Mamet’s intriguing Cryptogram at Ashby Stage and a swashbuckling Three Musketeers outdoors in John Hinkel Park.  

After a splendid season, including unusual stagings of Lessing’s pioneering parable of tolerance, Nathan the Wise, and a fabled postwar classic, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, never staged before hereabouts, TheatreFIRST, Oakland’s only resident company, lost its Old Oakland storefront stage and at present is still searching out a new home, meanwhile valiantly producing staged readings. 

Ragged Wing Ensemble put on a kinetic, exhilarating show of Andre Gregory’s (the Andre from My Dinner with ...) Alice in Wonderland, with Amy Sass’ fine direction.  

San Francisco’s A Traveling Jewish Theatre ended a Bay Area tour of (Berkeley’s) Aaron Davidman’s brilliant staging of Death of a Salesman, finely acted by all, including company cofounder Corey Fisher as a vernacular old shoe of a Willy Loman, at the Julia Morgan Theater. 

Central Works, the stalwart residents of the (Julia Morgan-designed) Berkeley City Club, continued their own special chamber theatricality with Lola Montez (Louis Parnell as a charming, if deluded, Ludwig of Bavaria), Anne Galjour’s Bird in the Hand and a reprise of Every Inch a King with the original cast (except original director, cofounder Jan Zvaifler taking on the role Claudia Rosa premiered). 

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Berkeley Rep or CalShakes, the community theater companies were running strong. Berkeley’s Actors Ensemble, resident in Live Oak Theater, celebrated their half-century mark with a string of productions, including one site-specific—Strindberg’s great A Dream Play, directed by David Stein—performed in and around the Berkeley Art Center, just across the street. 

Altarena Playhouse in Alameda also had an anniversary, producing a comedy of their own late ’30s vintage: Morning’s at Seven, well played by an ensemble under the fine direction of Sue Trigg. The Masquers in Pt. Richmond staged Anouilh’s charming and slightly mys-terious Ring Around the Moon (in Christopher Fry’s translation) and a finely-done staging by Phoebe Moyer of Michael Cristofer’s Shadowbox. Contra Costa Civic Theater in El Cerrito put on a refreshing Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by Tammara Plankers of The Masquers. 

Small companies put on shows like Helen Pau’s surrealistic Viaticum at Live Oak, Cocteau’s The Human Voice—a predecessor of the solo show—produced by Antares Ensemble with Shruti Tewari at the City Club, an ambitious Brecht piece (once titled Private Life of the Master Race when done in Berkeley at the time of the U.N. Charter convention; this time by Oakland’s Eastenders at Berkeley JCC), a feisty pirate musical (by Starlight Circle Players) at the Unitarian Fellowship on Cedar, and Noises OFF was one of a series of collaborations between Shift Theatre and Berkeley High Drama. 

SubShakes (Subterranean Shakespeare) put on a briskly dramatic rendition of The Bard’s “Scottish Play”--and released “Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits,” a fun CD of songs featuring some old troupers from various Berkeley walks of life. Wilde Irish staged THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN by the author of PILLOWMAN at the City Club.  

Woman’s Will plays all-female Shakespeare in the parks, staging an ambitious ANTIGONE (Mac Wellman, not Sophocles) at the Temescal Arts Center, site of much performing arts activity. And Virago in Alameda put on ORPHANS, starring Robert Hamm, as well as work he’s written for the stage. In the basement of LaVal’s, Impact continues to mount its series of burlesque reviews and theatrical entertainments to enthusiastic audiences. 

The Marsh sadly pulled out of its Berkeley base in the Gaia Building, but continues to produce solo pieces by locals like Mark McGoldrick, as well as family shows—(Berkeley’s) Emily Klion’s SIDDHARTHA, THE SHINING PATH (ongoing, with music in part by her husband, jazzman George Brooks) at their Mission Distrist San Francisco center.  

The S.F. Playhouse hosted Berkeley favorite, director Joy Carlin again. Golden Thread, comprised of many East Bay artists, has put on many of its ReOrient festivals and other Middle East-focused work at the Thick House and the Magic Theatre. And Robert Ernst, cofounder of Berkeley’s Blake St. Hawkeyes, found a stage for his play with music, CATHERINE’S CARE with AlterTheater in San Rafael. 

UC’s Drama Dept. produced ambitious shows, and is set to stage Euripides’ THE BACCHAE, directed by Aurora founder Barbara Oliver. CalPerformances continues to bring in top world theater, most recently the Bunraku, Japan’s extraordinary national puppet theater. 

This grab-bag doesn’t even to mention stage entertainments under other categories thatare plenty theatric—from opera to Oakland Magic Circle’s ongoing banquet performances. From pure fun to aesthetic or ethical contemplation, East Bay theater in 2007 had it all.