Arts & Events

THEATER REVIEW: Three Nights--or Matinees--of James Keller's Plays at Live Oak Theater

By Ken Bullock
Friday September 14, 2012 - 04:48:00 PM

Unusual to have the chance to see the work of a mature playwright, a local one at that, in a setting like Live Oak Theater. But the opportunity to see James Keller's troupe, Poor Players, performing two gender-specific programs of his delightfull—and very thoughtful—short plays, plus Keller himself performing his condensation of James Joyce's 'Ulysses' (he has also taught classes in literature and other subjects at Berkeley Adult Ed.) is an opportunity not to pass up. 

It's a short runl—just through this weekendl—but I managed to catch all three (the Joyce reading was one time only)l—and there're several shows of each of the play programs left. 

'Women Alone,' four plays and monologues featuring an all-female cast, well-directed by Keller, featured a spicy tee-off with "Cougar on the Green," when ninety-year old widow (never a golf widow!) Mrs. O'Neill is rebuffed in her attempt to convince icy, all-business Miss Mulligan, avowedly not a player, to give her the senior rate at her old club ... That is, until Mrs. O'Neill discovers Miss Mulligan may be another kind of player, indeed ... Janice Fuller Leone and Elinor Bell clash beautifully as the ebullient widow and the tight-lipped managerial type. Bell ups the ante as an offbeat heavy in "The Caregiver," as bitter, abusive niece-companion to her Aunt Evelynl—Susannah Wood is all eyes and sidelong glances, with halting speech, from her wheelchairl—until poor auntie turns the tables on her half-ghoulish former ward in a switcheroo worthy of Hitchcock's days on telly. 

"Companion Piece" has a nice little ensemble of Fuller, Bell and Wood putting on a showl—rehearsing it, anywayl—about a society matron who wants a theater named for her. But can the actress playing her part (a funny turn by Fuller: "My memory's shot full of holes, like Swiss cheesel—you could melt me down like fondue!") remember her lines? Wood as Rose, her companion onstage, provides some great verbal vignettes of Budapest during and after World War Two. And Bell essays a long monologue as an aged dance teacher in 'Many Happy Returns,' musing on reincarnation, while improvising the gestures for yet another dancel—something of a tour de force for this excellent performer. 

'Men Only,' valiantly directed by Martha Luehrman (of Actors Ensemble, who's acted with distinction in earlier Poor Players shows), gets off the ground with a charming yet pointed monologue by impish Rish Sanghvi as a Hindu flight attendant taking us through his paces up in the blue, in 'Airbourne.' A dialogue after hours in a Downtown New York restaurant kitchen has two old ex-seminarian friends grousing and laughing over old times, whether they could've ever made it in the clothl—and why one of them, now a stage director, was ousted from the path to priesthood by their thorny mentor, in 'Leaving Jesus.' More verbal spice here, as they commiserate about family and Church and the up and down sides of losing Church, faith, and the former meaning to their lives. Michael Fleming pours it on as Leo, local boy who emerged from his mother's kitchen to feed the public, and Bruce Kaplan lays back with an edge as his old school buddy Al, the two flirting with a secret that finally comes out in a rush of confession. 

"The Return of Lenin," dominated by the ghostly presencel—if not actual appearancel—of the late, great revolutionary during the Second World War Siege of Moscow, when the remains of the great departed Soviet leader needed ... to depart! Kaplan performs a terrific turn as State Embalmer Boris Ilyich Zbarsky, while Fleming and Sangvi match off as bureaucratic comedy team Rozinsky and Guzinsky. No buck-and-wing, but it's quite a burlesque, the leading player a stiff in the wings! Finally, Kaplan threads his way with exemplary care and humanity through the monologue of an eighty-five year old WW II vet, who can't forget the trauma of service under fire, a scene he vividly paints, the enemy unseen, the darkness of nightl—both of the event and many sleepless ones over a lifetimel—filled with the shapes and outcries of other eighteen year olds. A haunting, spendidly written piece, based on the true account of a local man of the theater. 

The shows go off without a hitch, effortlessly covering much ground under the guise of their sprightly dialogue, comedy and drama alternating, humor and irony. There's a bit too much blackout of lights in the men's monologues, bringing to mind George M. Cohan's admonition about actors pausing in a soliloquy before a thought's complete. Here the actors have the flow, impeded by a technical mannerism. But the performances stand, in both sets of plays, with anything else you're likely to see around here onstage right nowl—and the material's a gem, delivered by actors who clearly love their work. 

Keller, who rarely performs, gave an unusual three hour reading from 'Ulysses,' acting out passages as he read quickly, the ideal way to read Modernist masterpieces, winging it, as it were, leaving a steady stream of impressions behind, beating the footnotes that dog the way most have read Joyce et all—in school. Jumping from one episode ahead to the next, all set pieces in the great Irish author's burlesque of novelistic form and classicism, Keller captures the rapturous lyricism of perception and memory of a day in the life of a city unseen by its memorialist for some time, caught in the small glances and gesturesl—and small talk, puns and slips of the tongue, from home to pub, funeral to seashore, anticipation to memory, via Night Town back home to bed, ending with Molly Bloom's ecstatic "inner voice" soliloquy. 

I urge anyone, everyone to treat yourself to Poor Players' brace of plays, 'Men Only' and 'Women Alone,' this weekend, like a holiday box of chocolates. You won't forget them; the impression they make lasts long after the curtain's rung down. 

'Women Alone' Saturday at 2 p. m., 'Men Only' Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:30, Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck (at Berryman, a block north of Rose and the Gourmet Ghetto of North Berkeley). $20 per program. (925) 473-1363