Above a leaf-pattern carpet, the narrow eyes and wry smile of a strange man look out through foliage, a funny portrait above the mantel. Or are the leaves growing from his face? (The painting is King of the Green Men, by Brian Froud.)
This is the set of Midsummer / 4, Gary Graves’ new play for Central Works at the Berkeley City Club.
Below this picture, along the mantel, a bottle of spirits and many books ... a spectator pauses on the way to his seat to check out the titles. One with prominent lettering on its spine reads “Maerchen” fairytales.
There’s an oddly neat heap of clothing on the floor.
A few moments later, the play begins, with a young woman quietly writing in a notebook, seated on the floor by the hearth.
One after another, people abruptly appear, rummage through the clothing, act stunned or disoriented, asking what happened or exclaiming that the place is a nuthouse—then, just as abruptly, race out. It’s funny, and nerve-wracking.
Finally all four, two women and two men, confront one another in the room, talking about leaving immediately, suspicious of one another, unwilling to ride together back to the bay from this spot, an old estate in the Sierras. But they finally start sharing fragmented memories of the night before, narrating—
and hopefully navigating—themselves through a grand confusion, a kind of half-slapstick comedy of manners, trying to capture what occurred in multiple, blurry perspective.
The story starts out simply enough before it weaves itself into a tale, then tangles. Two best friends, Raissa (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) and Lena (Arwen Anderson), are sharing a summer getaway, Raissa a writer who’d like to stay away reflecting forever, Lena who’s seeking love—or, as she says later, to be loved. She’s met a guy at an eye-gazing party, and thinks he might be the one—and has impulsively asked him to join them for the weekend, to Raissa’s discomfort. And her new friend (Armond Dorsey as Dex) has invited his buddy Larry (John Patrick Moore) to accompany him—or is it to take care of his new girlfriend’s companion?
Add a bottle of locally distilled absinthe, and the midsummer’s eve customs, bonfires and reputedly wild behavior, of the mountain locals (the owner of the estate is mayor of Athens, the nearest town, and friend to Raissa’s father), and the stage is set—if the unwitting players are not—for a gyroscopic dance on the thin, intersecting filaments of the consciousness and affections of each, as they trade off in romantic fervor and distain, pursuit and flight, and uneasy awareness, even panic, over some other, unworldly presence.
Central Works cofounder Jan Zvaifler has directed this tight little ensemble through every facet of this fractured crystal, bringing out the considerable comedic skills of its quartet without losing the lingering, provocative eeriness that plays around the edge of their confusion. Is it something in them—or something that’s got into them—that makes them act this way, and every which-way?
Graves’ play, developed with the actors, works like other adaptations he’s done for the company he cofounded, miniaturizing his original into a chamber drama, then slightly burlesquing it. This even works with comedies being burlesqued, in this case, like the lamp seller in ‘Alladin,’ a new romantic (and fantastic) comedy exchanged for old: the situation of the lovers, lost in the Attic wood, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but treated in some ways like a Feydeau door-slammer.
The ruse works. Arwen Anderson is funny and touching, Armond Dorsey exuberantly funny, John Patrick Moore deadpans a perfectly sincere, aspiring nerd and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong lends a certain grave elegance she has to Raissa, with gaiety, hilarity even, breaking through. All sing, carry on, get caught up in their own head as well as in the other three, a round robin of collective solipsism cut with abandon.
Greg Scharpen helps localize the insanity with a sound design that plays off the corners of the City Club’s room and echoes through the atrium outside. Two of the players, Anderson and Dorsey, are new to the Central Works process of putting on a collaborative show, demonstrating the success of the method and adding to it with their presence.
MIDSUMMER / 4
8 p.m., Sun. 5 p.m Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 24 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. $20. 558-1381. www.centralworks.org.