By Barry Willis
Four parolees do their best to thrive under an oppressive boss in Clyde’s, at Berkeley Rep through February 26.
Or at least, we believe they’re parolees—that bit of info is never made clear in Lynn Nottage’s brilliant scathing comedy. They’ve all done time behind bars, and they’re determined not to go back. They’re also determined to keep their low-wage jobs in the kitchen of a roadside diner, knowing how limited are employment opportunities for ex-cons.
Their boss knows that too.
A former convict herself, Clyde (April Nixon) lords it over her workers, making sure at every turn that they understand how tenuous their situation is. A voluptuous, wise-cracking beauty, Clyde appears at random at the kitchen’s pickup window or waltzes in unannounced to strike fear in the hearts of her underlings, in each scene sporting a wig more glamorous than the last and strutting her stuff in dazzling apparel. (Wigs by Megan Ellis, costumes by Karen Perry.)
…an incredibly uplifting and uproarious tale about hope…
Clyde is a malicious force of nature, the perfect blend of wicked witch and evil stepmother. Nixon clearly relishes her astounding role, one hugely appreciated by a full house at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre during the Wednesday Jan. 25 press opener.
But Nixon’s not the only astounding member of this well-balanced cast. Three of them are thirty-somethings whose characters are serious about improving their lives and staying out of trouble. We don’t learn what Raphael (Wesley Guimaraes) or Letticia (Cyndii Johnson) did to land in jail, but new worker Jason confesses that he was convicted of assault after losing a union manufacturing job to “scabs.” To Letticia’s inquiry about the gang tattoos on his arms, face, and neck, he replies “I was trying to survive.”
The fourth member of Clyde’s kitchen crew is line cook Montrellous (Harold Surratt) an older gentleman with a sadhu’s demeanor. The anchor character in this quick-moving story, he’s very much the embodiment of an Old Testament prophet, bringing wisdom and enlightenment to a younger generation, the focus being his quest to create the perfect sandwich.
The quest for the perfect sandwich, in fact, becomes both a metaphor for the kitchen workers to improve their lives and their self-esteem, and a competitive sport they undertake to impress each other and perhaps, their mean-to-the-core boss.
A subplot involves Raphael’s infatuation with Letticia, one that goes nowhere, despite his offers of flowers and chocolates and date invitations. It would be unfair to give away much of the bright (and dark) comedy in this lovely production, but a heartbreaking moment occurs when Montrellous confesses that he went to prison not for a crime he committed but for a moment of altruism. The embodiment of gravitas, Surratt is brilliant in the role.
Director Taylor Reynolds gets fabulous performances from her entire cast on designer Wilson Chin’s hyper-real set.
Lynn Nottage is on her way to becoming a national treasure. She has a wonderful ear and eye for the woes of the underclass, and a fantastic ability to mine deep emotional conflicts in her characters. In her poignant Intimate Apparel, set a century ago, a young black seamstress falls in love with a Jewish fabric merchant, an attraction he feels equally but which they both know is hopeless.
There’s deep truth in this production too, but no doom in Clyde’s. In fact, it’s an incredibly uplifting and uproarious tale about hope in the face of hopelessness. As Julie Andrews put it so succinctly in Mary Poppins — a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Written by||Lynn Nottage|
|Directed by||Taylor Reynolds|
|Producing Company||Berkeley Repertory Theatre|
|Production Dates||Through Feb 26th|
|Production Address||2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704|
|Tickets||$30 - $135|
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review Pick?||YES!|