Arts & Events

2008 Onstage in Berkeley and the East Bay

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:32:00 PM

Onstage, 2008 was more a year of marking time than of either innovation or astonishing successes. To put it in a different way, the gains of the last year for theater in Berkeley and the East Bay usually showed up in different ways than in the satisfaction over a generally recognized hit. 

There were hits, and satisfying moments, but the two didn’t always coincide. For theater, the audience is something that’s in flux—maybe something in the process of being replaced by a different entity of spectatorship—perhaps searching for a new synaesthesia of imagery to capture its attention.  

The most impressive “moment” of pure theater stepped forth at the Roda, when Ireland’s Druid (they’re known by the one name only) put on, for Cal Performances, a slice of their famous ‘DruidSynge,’ their staging of all the plays of last century’s first great Irish playwright (first of a few): John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World with his one-act, Shadow of the Glen. Directed by Druid founder Garry Hines (one of the first two women to win a Tony), the Berkeley Rep’s stage was rivetted by the best of European modern stagecraft, truly great theater that made its audience understand why Samuel Beckett spoke more and more about the influence of Synge towards the end of his life. Synge’s comic talents are often mentioned, but his humor in precise, idiomatic language and in rhythmic movement of groups of actors is rarely seen or heard with the extraordinary execution of this troupe from Ireland’s west country, its only professional company outside Dublin. 

(It’s a sign of how things have changed here, too, that even effusive reviews and comments tended to rely on cliches about Irish wit, not recognizing—or mildly criticizing—the terrific artistic rigor of the Druid show.) 

The most challenging local production came from a plucky troupe somewhat down on its luck: Future Me, TheatreFirst’s brave show at the Berkeley City Club of British playwright Steven Brown’s play about a pedophile—a lawyer, a “normal” man who’s convicted, serves his time and endeavors to return to society. Brown attended the opening; the fascinating post-show discussions of this difficult and humane work alone proved its success. (TheatreFirst, in its 14th year and until recently Oakland’s only resident theater company, is still searching for a new home. Co-founder Clive Chafer has stepped down as artistic director and producer, though still a board member, after last year’s exceptional—and final—season in their Old Oakland storefront venue.) 

Berkeley Rep, one of two or three fully professional theaters in our bailiwick, most impressively staged Itamar Moses’ Yellowjackets, his commissioned work based on the decade-old racial strife at Berkeley High that convinced him to leave his hometown right after graduation (Moses was editor of The Jacket, the school paper), eventually to become the rising young playwright he’s recognized as now. Sprawling, overreaching, at times overwrought, Yellowjackets and its young cast had the most heart of any of The Rep’s productions of recent years, even those more overtly successful. 

On a different scale, Oakland Public Theatre’s celebration of seminal African American author Richard Wright’s centennial with a series of staged readings concerning his relations with the black church, the Communist Party (as well as intelligence services of different countries) and other black expatriate writers, culminating in Richard Talavera’s play, Before the Dream, directed by Norman Gee, about the circumstances around Wright’s premature death, proved a fascinating model of “investigative theater,” a prime function of the most social of the arts. 

George Bernard Shaw, a pillar of the modern repertoire, received the best treatment locally in awhile, with Shotgun’s staging of Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Aurora’s version of The Devil’s Disciple, two early works, which—despite neglecting some of the finer points of Shaw’s art of characterization, and of the actor, which made him a forerunner of later European drama, including Brecht’s—helped put Shaw back on the tracks locally, after a few surprisingly clueless productions in recent years. 

(The same held true for most productions of Oscar Wilde’s plays, with a partial exception for Shotgun’s Vera Wilde—not one of Wilde’s plays, but a newer one about his first and forgotten opus, concerning a Russian woman “terrorist,” and Oscar himself, fascinating and uneven—yet well-directed by talented Maya Gurantz, whose own Temescal Labs, nee Ten Red Hen, lay dormant, except for an eerily creative turn at Hallowe’en in a Haight Ashbury haunted house.) 

Aurora also scored an election year hit with Gore Vidal’s ’60s political convention chestnut, The Best Man—another indication of the kind of year it was: perhaps its most integral local production a revival of a Broadway hit and movie of almost a half-century ago. 

Community theaters scored a few memorable shows: Actors Ensemble of Berkeley went from Neil Simon to Marlowe—an enjoyable, jazzed-up Dr. Faustus at Hallowe’en; Contra Costa Civic Theatre staged an impressive Foxfire and a plucky Kiss Me, Kate; Masquers Playhouse in Pt. Richmond unfolded more variations on the charms of a house style, from Jean Anouilh to The Full Monty; and Altarena Playhouse in Alameda put on a strong Hay Fever and an impressive—and loopy—Batboy. 

Also in Alameda, Virago brought off Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, a real feat. Central Works, resident in the Berkeley City Club, continued to display high production values in a tiny venue, in particular with Wakefield, from Hawthorne, featuring Julian Lopez-Morillas and Jan Zvaifler.  

Other companies, from small independents, like Ragged Wing Ensemble, Berkeley’s movement theater avatars, to CalShakes, the seasonal professional festival “over the hill” in Orinda, demonstrated the continuing development of artists both visiting and with the company. Woman’s Will, the all-female Shakespeare (and more than Shakespeare) company, played indoors and out with their usual range of repertoire. Brookside staged an original drawn from Kafka’s life and letters. On its tiny stage under a pizza parlor, Impact put on some surprising shows, from a gutsy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore to a hilarious (and pointed) Ching Chong Chinaman. SubShakes—Subterranean Shakespeare—exercised the Berkeley Art Center with a burlesque Merry Wives of Windsor.  

An original Rosie the Riveter musical tribute went up amidship in the old Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond; And The Crucible continued to put on its “Fire Operas” in its Oakland foundry. 

Family theater was very much in evidence, from Active Arts for Young Audiences, Berkeley Playhouse, Youth Musical Theatre and Belasco Theatre Co.—whose founder (and his producer) just returned from retirement to stage The Wiz at Oakland’s Malonga Casquelourd. 

Other companies visit—the Mime Troupe, Traveling Jewish Theatre, Crowded Fire, Russian director Oleg Liptsin. Some locally based troupes play mostly in the San Francisco: The Eastenders and Golden Thread (with its important Middle Eastern-focused works and symposia). 

Across the board, there’ve been steady gains in acting and tech work on all levels. Directing lags behind, as do choices of new plays (despite local organizations like PlayGround, or Gary Graves’ workshop at the Berkeley Rep School, or Playwrights Foundation). With a staggering four to five hundred theater companies and projects in the Bay Area—and less and less public funding—the troupes have kept onstage by helping each other, further proof of the deep social nature of theater.