Arts & Events

Around & About—Theater & the Performing Arts ...

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday January 04, 2011 - 05:08:00 PM

Looking back on a year of theater, a few moments spring to mind, more than a view of the whole of what took place ... The last scene, especially, in Central Works' Penelope's Odyssey, with Terry Lamb's outrageous portrait of the wily Odysseus as a raucous drunk, retailing war stories, capper to a collaborative show that displayed, once again, what makes that little company unique—and plucky. Jan Zvaifler, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Matt Lai all played at the top of their game—as did director John Patrick Moore, playwright-lighting designer Gary Graves, soundman Greg Scharpen and costumer Tammy Berlin. In the same room at the City Club, Just Theater produced a very contemporary rendering of the Arabian Nights, Jason Grote's '1001', which also showed the theatricality a small company could create onstage with limited means, in many ways more artistically successful than more lavish stagings locally of the same material. 

Another remarkable production at the City Club, where Central works is in residence: Galileo's Daughters, written, directed and designed by Giulio Perrone for his Inferno Theatre, displaying an intimate panorama of the innovations of 20th century European theater with a committed tiny ensemble, including Michael McCamish of Berkeley, whose solo show with Sun & Moon, Twobird, was so engaging a year ago. 

The professional theaters around the Berkeley area had memorable moments: for the Aurora, the most memorable to me was Joel Drake Johnson's The First Grade, which seemed at first to be going in the direction of so many prefabricated contemporary American comedies-of-manners that are really live-on-stage TV sitcoms—yet turned out to be real theater about, in part, the way we've internalized that broadcast glibness, that passive-aggressive stance in our workaday and private lives to gloss over our increasing isolation. Artistic director Tom Ross and a fine cast led by Julia Brothers distinguished themselves. 

At The Rep, it was more the imported than the local, more the intriguing than the fully realized, with Broadway star Mandy Pantikin, supported by excellent acting and tech design, in a wildly uneven Compulsion, worth seeing for its values of professionality—and the best moments of The Great Game, a three-part marathon of short plays by various hands, British and American, staged by the UK's Tricycle Theatre, something that, whatever its limitations, surpassed much of what we call socially conscious theater here. 

CalShakes, in Orinda, the descendant of the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, continues every summer to assemble some of the best professional actors in the Bay Area to play The Bard—but Shaw, Wilde and Chekhov as well. The addition of Shakespeare scholar Philippa Kelly as dramaturg has been notable, already showing a sharpening of values in production that before were intangible—or absent altogether. 

And another seasonal tradition, Woodminster Summer Musicals, at the splendid WPA amphitheater in the Oakland hills, goes on producing diverting shows of quality after almost 45 years of service by the Schlader family, despite the loss of co-founder Jim Schlader. 

Berkeley Playhouse consolidated with the Julia Morgan Center for family and youth theater productions, including YMTC—Youth Musical Theatre Company. 

Shotgun's ongoing onslaught of new and not-so-new plays was topped, this year by the splendid ensemble production of Jenny Schwartz's God's Ear, staged by choreographer-turned-director Erica Chong Shuch. Ambitious design-based shows, both outside and in, continued with Jon Tracy's The Salt Plays and Mark Jackson's rendering of Schiller's Mary Stuart as prison drama, sans Cagney, but with a charged-up Scott Coopwood.  

Small companies that not only survive but thrive include plucky Ragged Wing Ensemble, who've staged outdoor spectacles and launched their youth ensemble, displaying ongoing dedication to a theater based on movement, stylization and the materialization of values that often seem intangible in most stage productions. Impact Theatre, downstairs from the pizzaria in Laval's Subterranean, has continued, into their 14th year, to expand ambitiously their entertainment-plus-new-playwright scheme, notably with Evren Odcikin's direction of The Play About the Naked Guy, by David Bell, which caught the attention of the whole Bay Area. 

After finding a new home at the Marion Greene Theatre, by the Fox Theatre in Oakland's Uptown, TheatreFirst has gone on producing very solid shows, mostly from North America, under the new, capable artistic direction of Michael Storm, transitioning from its more internationalist approach in the years under Clive Chafer's distinguished direction. 

And Wilde Irish, Berkeley's Hibernian histrions, keep up their tradition of Bloomsday James Joyce events and spirited staged readings. 

The Berkeley area continues, too, to be fortunate in its community theaters: Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, over 50 years old, has undergone something of a renaissance the last year or so, with such good shows as a choice Blithe Spirit, directed by that trouper Hector Correa, and a diverting Winter's Tale, helmed by Jeremy Cole, as well as a new series of staged readings—something new for many Bay Area troupes, though not for Subterranean Shakespeare, whose marathons of The Bard's canon, plus selections from his contemporaries, keep tradition alive weekly at the Unitarian Fellowship on Cedar. 

Contra Costa Civic Theater in El Cerrito passed the 50 year mark, going on with engaging entertainment for the community. Altarena Playhouse, in Alameda, more than 70 years old, weighs in with a diversity of plays under Frederick Chacon's artistic directorship. And the Masquers Playhouse, in Point Richmond, wrapped up this year, their 53rd, with Robert Estes' production of Other People's Money—an apt title for 2010. 

Virago, the five year-old troupe based in Alameda, continued adding new forms to their repertoire ... after engaging versions in the past of Three Penny Opera andCandide, they staged a present-day cabaret-styleLa Boheme this year—in addition to continuing their programs of new dramas and comedies, including staged readings. 

And local storyteller-to-music Jovelyn Richards gave swan-song performances of her unique, contemporary African-American tales at La Pena—but we may see her again, after her successes in Budapest! 

Some of the best theater around is by the many local opera companies, often the smallest and most adventurous. Berkeley Western Edge Opera opened in their brilliant new home at El Cerrito High with Mark Streshinsky's wonderful staging of Don Giovanni, with Eugene Brancoveneau shining in the lead, with splendid support on all sides. Oakland Opera Theatre was dormant this year, but its innovative shows will hopefully spring back again. Smaller, itinerant companies, memorably Harriet March Page and Mark Alburger's Cabaret Opera and Fred Winthrop’s Verismo Opera, respectively brought exciting new works and intimate versions of the old war horses to local venues. 

CalPerformances, sharing the Zellerbach Playhouse with the University's own productions and Zellerbach Auditorium with a plethora of events, produced Zenshinza Kabuki in both traditional and modern plays, a refreshing look into a great theatrical tradition too little staged here, and this May will feature the return of Ireland's extraordinary Druid company, with a Martin McDonagh play staged by their brilliant founder, Garry Hynes. 

Otherwise, I remember, throughout the Bay, shows like Oleg Liptsin's innovative solo piece, with iPhone and extraordinary comic acting, of Gogol's The Nose and his direction of a telescoped-down Three Sisters—both, in some performances, in an Embarcadero pier, utilizing that space impressively, with unusual video counterpoint. And John O'Keefe, co-founder of Berkeley's 70s troupe, the Blake Street Hawkeyes, teamed up with Noh actors and musicians in an unusual, spirited sample of a projected piece of mytho-theatrics around the Shinto creation myths, wild and full of O'Keefe's humor and the hypnotic style and sounds of Noh in syncopation. Larry Reed's Shadowlight Theater goes on with its innovations, many available on DVD, filmed by multi-talented Reed himself. 

No telling what will spring up around here, any given moment, even in such scrimping times as these. But so far the survival rate of the long and short-term standbys has also been extraordinary—so, on into the second decade of this century of performance! 

—At The Rep, Mike Daisey's solo shows of The Agony & the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and The Last Cargo Cult go into previews on January 11; the Lemony Snickett—Nathaniel Stookey hit, The Composer is Dead, continues through the 17th.Tickets: $29-$73. 647-2949; 

—It's the last week for Belinda Taylor's local hit, Becoming Julia Morgan, directed by Barbara Oliver at the Morgan-designed City Club—but the show is sold out! Future performances will be announced online at: 

—Chanticleers, the Castro Valley community theater, whose spirited production of Neil Simon's Broadway Bound, directed by Oakland's Marty Nemko, with Sue Trigg and Chris Chapman as the parents of the precocious stagestruck brothers, was a memorable show last year, hosts their annual Crow awards, with scenes from last year's shows, including Broadway Bound, at 7 this Saturday, Chanticleers Theatre, 3638 Quail Avenue. Free—with refreshments following. (Donation requested.) Reservations recommended. 733-5483 or