Arts Listings

Helen Pau’s ‘The Stone Wife’ at Berkeley City Club

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 17, 2009 - 08:51:00 AM

Rain, rain, it falls for nothing.” Empty shoes tap dance atop a red ladder (under the hand of puppeteer Tim Giugni) in the old gaming salon at the Berkeley City Club, which opens like a sideshow tent for Helen Pau’s The Stone Wife: A Burlesque in Nine Acts.  

Sylvia Rivers, aka Farrah Falls the Funambulist (Sarah Shoshana David), spars verbally with her venerable mother, Madame (Kinji Hayashi), when Syl is acting “domestic” rather than walking her tightrope.  

Meanwhile, the mysterious clowns and Pierrots come and go, taking out the garbage, reading the meter, swigging from a flask, playing trumpet or conch shell.  

Pau, a Berkeley resident, writes plays that take a page or two from Surrealism. Her Viaticum: The Carnal Table, played two years ago at Live Oak Theater. Pau directed both Viaticum and The Stone Wife. The plays employ much Surrealist paraphenalia (gothic moodiness, Freud’s “Family Romance,” juxtaposition of unfamiliar objects, giving the ordinary a dreamlike glaze) with an often intriging use of the vernacular. Surrealism can leap from hyper-clear, minute details to big, vague cosmic poetry. It can also seem at a single pitch, if the clubs aren’t kept airborne by the juggler. 

In The Stone Wife, the juggler’s clubs are kept in a milkcan until liberated into the air by Pierrot (Carolina Duncan-Page).  

Miyuki Bierlein’s costumes, Gary Graves’ lighting and Gilbert Johnson’s tech give it the right look and feel, with everything except the distortions of sideshow mirrors included, which are implicit in the text. 

“The milk bottles are under the bed,” Syl insists. “But, madam, these are not milk bottles!” So she gives him a conch shell, and asks this clown (Nicholas Strubbe) to teach her how to strike a match. It’s an instructive scene. 

Motifs telescope in and out, sliding smoothly alongside each other. “How was the flea market?” Syl asks the clown with a flask of gin, a key ring, and the trumpet, adding “No reason to wear your iron suit everywhere.” The clown (G. Randall Wright) demurs: “I prefer it on—for ontological reasons.” 

“Listen, I’m practically a pillar of salt!” Syl’s got the grand manner, whether waxing lyrical, fending off Madame from the pills, or anxiously asking for her own dose. David looks just right for the part, and chirps the upbeat phrases soothingly, later writhing on a mattress with humor—awaiting an angelic messenger who never comes, or came too soon—like a Tennessee Williams heroine. 

Seeing Kinji Hayashi just before Christmas reminds me of his epic portrayal of the three ghosts in Noh, Butoh and Kyogen styles in Theatre of Yugen’s Noh Christmas Carol of yore. Appropriate he should be depicting an aging sibyl, Mme. Tussaud and a wax dummy at once, emitting bons mots. 

It’s the clowns—and Duncan-Page’s Pierrot—that ground the play in a daydream of childhood. Their presence—like that of the trampoline on the tiles—gives each step a spring, keeping everything above board, more whimsical than melancholy. Like Picasso’s Saltimbanques, they make things light as a dandelion. Pau quotes Eudora Welty in the program: “Listen, remember how it was with the acrobats ... They can’t stay. They’ll be somewhere else tomorrow.”