Arts & Events

EYE FROM THE AISLE: Counter Attack at Berkeley's Ashby Stage—a delicious slice of theatre a la mode!

By John McMullen II
Friday February 10, 2012 - 05:07:00 PM
Lynne Hollander, Joan Mankin, Arthur Holden
Mitch Tobias
Lynne Hollander, Joan Mankin, Arthur Holden

With COUNTER ATTACK at the Ashby Stage, Joan Holden has written a moving tale of an aging waitress, capturing the craziness of the profession, the lure of the tips, the regulars, the banter, and what happens when your legs ain’t what they used to be.  

When I vacationed in Europe, I left a tip at a ristorante, and they gave it back. I guess they pay the servers a living wage there. From what I gather, tipping is sort of an American/English tradition. “Tips” came from the 18th C. English coffeehouse as an acronym on a jar at the coffee bar for, “To Insure Prompt Service.” It’s like working on commission. As any salesman or waitress or hooker will tell you, the lure and thrill and hustle for that bump is addicting. Holden’s play contains the panoply of the thrills and downsides of the server’s life. 

Joan Mankin is perfection in the role of Marlene, the veteran diner waitress. She and playwright Holden and director Sharon Lockwood have long-served the SF Mime Troupe, and are thus no strangers to big acting and commedia­-like expression. It works well here for a larger-than-life character who is part-vaudevillian entertainer of her customers, though Ms. Mankin is always magnetically realistic in her actions. There is an extended moment of her silent, contained rage when Marlene is displaced from her position which is effectively backed by the guitar soundtrack: seldom in theatre do we get such clear access to emotion that makes us feel the rage the character feels.  

Sarah Mitchell is an extraordinary actress who plays Marlene’s scheming nemesis, an Eastern European sexy émigré. Ms. Mitchell’s elastic talent takes us on a rollercoaster of feelings about the character. She embodies the spirit of the new and ambitious young who pride themselves in working without a social safety net, while hot to be out-with-the-old and in with their new ideas. The character as written by Holden is a plum part and captures a reality we bump into a lot, and Ms. Mitchell brings it to life. 

Hugo Carabajal is a treasure in his dual roles of Hispanic busboy and Hispanic politician; when he is on stage in one role, he makes us forget he was just on stage in the other. His movements are a continuous samba, and there is never a false moment.  

James Brooks as the cook is recognizable from many television appearances, and is another king-size personality. When he comes out of the kitchen with the whiskey bottle, he changes the atmosphere to a slow, bluesy end-of-shift world that is the after-glow of the adrenaline-fired profession of diner-work, and an important part of the experience.  

Holden’s writing is a combination of tight and well-plotted realism and convincing dialogue with some random incongruous harkening to Mime Troupe’s over-the-top comedy. In the denouement, Holden is not afraid to complicate and deepen the story by adding a realistic confrontation with the inevitable complications of age, and how, when we slay the dragon, we often come away injured.  

Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn composed invigorating incidental music played on electric bass and acoustic guitar by Bruce Barthol to which the characters sometimes dance. There are two songs—the latter blues number is organic and believable, while the first is jarringly incongruous.  

The set by Dan Chumley is a detailed picture of a linoleum Greek diner, with a great breakfast and your lunch choice of moussaka or the meatloaf special. The design brings the actors to the front in diagonal and serves to show how quickly the lunch crowd fills it up without making it seem empty afterwards, while helping with the difficult staging. Cassandra Carpenter’s herculean task of costuming the many changes for the multiple roles of the ensemble enlivens the stage pictures. 

Director Lockwood decided to play it safe and have no food or drink. Admittedly, it would have been a major challenge to actually have that much food and coffee, but it is always difficult to invest one’s imagination in a realistic play in which the food and drink are pantomimed. What I missed most was the smell of a diner, which a backstage little fried bacon and a couple of brewed pots of coffee could have fixed, since the quickest way to a memory is through the sense of smell.  

The Stagebridge production now at Ashby Stage (across from Ashby BART) is a mix of very professional actors and community theatre senior actors. It’s a great exercise, and some of the ensemble—who work for free and fun—are actually quite good. Whether it is tennis or chess or acting, you can’t get better unless you play with your superiors. 

That said, the production is a sometimes an uneasy marriage of amateurs and pros. The crowded diner scenes with many impatient grumpy old men and women shouting their orders seemed to need choir-like direction in delivering their lines on cue: often they speak at the same time with awkward pauses in between. Sometimes three people dining together recite their complaint in unison, which seems stagey.  

The ensemble plays multiple parts, which is as tricky as not using real food in a realistic play; it is comically effective when they go to some length to disguise themselves, but when they are immediately recognizable it falls flat and pulls us out of the fantasy.  

With that in mind, it’s a most enjoyable evening from some long-time Bay Area talent that will change your perspective the next time you have a quick bite at the counter.  

(See feature article on Joan Holden’s plays on women and work at 


COUNTER ATTACK by Joan Holden based on Candacy Taylor’s “Counter Culture: The American Coffeeshop Waitress”  

Directed by Sharon Lockwood 

At the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue Berkeley 

Through March 4, 2012 / 1-800-838-3006 

A Stagebridge production, producing artistic director Josiah Polhemus 

Talkback & Book Signing with Candacy Taylor, author of Counter Culture: The American Coffeeshop Waitress: Saturday, February 11, 2:00pm & 8:00pm 

Talkback with the Counter Attack cast: Thursday, February 16, 7:30pm 

Set by Dan Chumley, lighting by Will Springhorn, Jr., costumes by Cassandra Carpenter, music direction and composition by Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn, props by Aji Slater, stage management by Mina Yueh. 

WITH: James Brooks, Angela Dosalmas, Franklin Hall, Tara Heckathorn, Charmaine Hitchcox, Arthur Holden, Lynne Hollander, Jil Ivy, Bora Max Koknar, Marilyn Leavitt, Bill Liebman, Joan Mankin, Sarah Mitchell, Billy Pond, Miyoko Sakatani, Mel Terry, Shannon Veon-Kase. Accompaniment: Bruce Barthol. 

“Eye from the Aisle” is the reviewing name of John A. McMullen II, member Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. E J Dunne edits.