PICK ASR!~ ~~ “Galileo” Soars at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

The centuries-old battle between reason and faith may never be better staged than in Galileo: A Rock Musical, at Berkeley Rep through June 23.

Perhaps historically accurate and certainly plausible, Danny Strong’s three-hour world premiere ushers its audience into the huge Roda Theatre with giant immersive projections of ancient cosmological charts (Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras, projection designers), which soon segue into a horrific depiction of the execution of unrepentant atheist Bruno Giordano.

“… It’s a work of collaborative genius. …”

The sympathies of the playwright and director Michael Mayer are immediately clear. Welcome to the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

Four-time Tony Award nominee Raul Esparza stars as Galileo Galilei, the 17th-century mathematician/inventor/astronomer whose refinement of the telescope made possible his detailed observations of planetary and stellar movements, verifying earlier work by Copernicus and upending the Church’s long-held belief in the Ptolemaic (or geocentric) model of the universe, with the Earth at the center and all other heavenly bodies revolving around it.

Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei, center) and the cast of “Galileo: A Rock Musical”, making its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Galileo did his work with the encouragement of his friend, Bishop Maffeo Barberini (Jeremy Kushnier), a liberal, forward-thinking clergyman who later rose through the clerical ranks to become Pope Urban VIII, head of the church and the nation of Italy. Galileo’s promotion of a heliocentric model of the known universe was a threat to the hegemony of the church, then suffering a rebellion by Protestants in Germany and elsewhere. He was accused of heresy and only his long relationship with the pope and his forced recantation saved him from a death sentence. He spent the remainder of his life under house arrest and published other treatises but never again ventured into astronomy.

That’s the synopsis of the core story of this spectacular musical, certainly one of the most original and audacious large-scale productions to come along in years. It’s magnificent in every respect. Rachel Hauck’s enormous, elegant set couldn’t be better or more appropriate, nor could Anita Yavich’s costumes or the adroit, athletic large-cast choreography by David Neumann.

Ticket buyers are encouraged to engage in as much research as they can to fill in potential blanks, but even those going in cold and knowing little about the historical facts will be astounded. Music director Roberto Sihha gets the utmost from Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak’s hard-rock music thanks to a terrific eight-piece band and superb sound design by John Shivers.

Christian Magby (Alessandro Tarantola) and Madalynn Mathews (Virginia Galilei) in the world premiere of “Galileo” at Berkeley Rep. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Esparza is a tremendous singer and convincing actor, as is Madalynn Mattews as Galileo’s daughter Virginia. She’s a powerful and evocative pop-rock singer. The show’s secondary plot about her life is compelling on its own. Kushnier’s high tenor—venturing here and there into falsetto—is very effective too.

In recent years, the use of high-brightness/high-definition projections has been a revolution in live theater. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Galileo. We first see the night sky as if through the unaided eye, then thousands more stars as if through the telescope—a phenomenon dismissed as a trick by some of Galileo’s inquisitors. One of them mocks the effect, saying “He has crystals in his device to make it look that way.“ Others refuse to look through it at all, deeming it a devilish invention. The band of red-robed cardinals and bishops stand high on a parapet during his trial, chanting “faith, faith, faith” like an evangelical mantra.

Jeremy Kushnier (Bishop Maffeo Barberini) and Raúl Esparza (Galileo Galilei) in “Galileo: A Rock Musical”, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre now through June 23, 2024. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The creators and cast of Galileo are clearly against blind adherence to religious doctrine. That’s all to the good; the show falters only in not better mining some emotional nuances, such as Galileo’s personal struggle with renouncing his discoveries vs. saving his life. It also skims the thorny issue of his former friend abandoning rationality and personal loyalty in favor of political expediency.

But these are minor quibbles. Galileo is one of the greatest productions that any of us may ever see. It’s destined for Broadway, where it will likely run forever, and justifiably so. It’s a work of collaborative genius.

Not to give anything away, but the closing moment when the cast comes onstage is a poignant reminder that issues of reason vs. faith are still very much with us today. We have legislators, policymakers, and many others with strong influence, who are adamant science deniers. Even today, in an age of space exploration, organ transplants, and ultra-high technology, true believers will say “Science is Satan’s way of deceiving you.” Keep that in mind when you enter the world of Galileo.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionGalileo: A Rock Musical
Written by Danny Strong

Music and Lyrics by Michael Weiner and Zoe Sarnak
Directed by Michael Mayer
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru June 23, 2024
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Tickets$29.50-$139
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Immigrants’ Tale: “The Far Country” at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

Xenophobia—the fear of foreigners—has infected human societies since the dawn of time. A particularly American variety gets an insightful treatment in The Far Country at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through April 14.

In the early-to-mid 19th century, Chinese immigrants were welcomed into the United States as a source of cheap labor. They built the railroads that enabled America’s great industrial expansion, but by the 1880s, that work was mostly completed, and fear of foreigners prompted the Chinese Exclusion Act, intended to keep more of them from entering the country.

… “insightful” (and) “adroitly directed”  …

Toward the end of the century, there were reportedly fifty Chinese men in the US for every Chinese female. Most of these men sent a substantial portion of their earnings to their families back in China. That sort of ‘family-support-via-long-distance’ is still common among immigrants to this country.

Tess Lina (Low/Two) in Lloyd Suh’s breathtaking, “The Far Country”, performing at Berkeley Rep through Sunday, April 14, 2024. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Playwright Lloyd Suh’s The Far Country examines the phenomenon from the individual perspectives of two generations of Chinese immigrants. Act One opens with a grueling interrogation of a San Francisco resident named Gee (Feodor Chin), a laundryman claiming that all his identification papers were destroyed in the fire that consumed the city after the 1906 earthquake. Aaron Wilton is effectively annoying as an aggressive, condescending interrogator, assisted by a perfectly bilingual interpreter despite Gee’s apparent ability with English.

Gee seeks permission to travel to China to visit his family and bring back his son, but he lacks proof of legal residency and isn’t sure he’ll be able to return. Repeated questions and more-than-implied doubts about Gee’s honesty intentionally rankle him—and the audience.

(L-R) Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet), Sharon Shao (Yuen/Four), Whit K. Lee (Yip/One), Tess Lina (Low/Two), and Feodor Chin (Gee/Three) at work at Berkeley Rep. Credit: Kevin Berne

The San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island served as a sort of counterpart to New York’s Ellis Island, where for many decades, European immigrants were processed for admission to the US, often without difficulty. Angel Island was different, a sort of choke-point for incoming Asians who could be kept in detention for as long as two years. In keeping with the Chinese Exclusion Act, the government’s work on Angel Island was to reject as many of them as possible.

Much subterfuge was involved in trying to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to admission—the theme of Act Two, where we meet Moon Gyet (Tommy Bo), Gee’s “son” who endures 17 months of detention on Angel Island, where he was allowed only one hour per day outside, and where he was subjected to intense interrogations including nonsense questions about how many steps led to the door of his childhood home.

Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet) and John Keabler (Dean/Inspector), in Lloyd Suh’s “The Far Country” at Berkeley Rep through 4/14/2024. Credit: Kevin Berne

The somewhat intricate story goes back and forth from California to China, where Moon Gyet meets Yuen (Sharon Shao), a bright, sassy prospective wife. There’s also an emotional flashback of Gee reuniting with his mother, Low (Tess Chin), as he hunts for an appropriate son. The whole affair of ‘admission-or-rejection’ is depicted as a complicated, high-stakes game of deception and manipulation, both by immigration authorities and people hoping to become US residents—a situation still playing out every day almost 100 years after the era of The Far Country.

Adroitly directed by Jennifer Chang and dinged only by a couple of overlong bits of dialog, The Far Country is an insightful and effective examination of gut-wrenchingly difficult circumstances. Its abrupt ending on a beautiful, upbeat note gives hope where there might have been only despair. That is the power of great art.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is an American Theatre Critics Association member and SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle president. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Far Country
Written by Lloyd Suh
Directed by Jennifer Chang
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru April 14th, 2024
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Tickets$22.50-$134
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~“Cult of Love” a Family Riot at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

Resentments and accusations derail a family Christmas in Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through March 3.

As in Tracy Letts’ August:Osage County and Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage—but nowhere near as savagely—the veneer of nicety slowly peels away as the Dahl family reunites for an annual holiday celebration. And as in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, venality displaces civility as the alcohol flows. Headland’s brilliant script adroitly acknowledges its predecessors without blatant imitation.

With snow falling continually outside the windows, Christmas cheer looks likely in the Dahl family’s upper-middle-class home, decorated to the max by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado. Its underlying elegant comfort is apparent even though every part of it is covered with lights and seasonal décor. Maldonado’s rococo visual treatment extends throughout the wide stage of Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, a dazzling background for an excursion into familial conflict decades in development—not in the playwright’s case, but in the lives of her characters.

… Hilarious as it is insightful …

The Dahl home is also festooned with musical instruments—piano, guitars, violin, ukulele, flute, drums, and more—that the clan employs to perform Christmas songs throughout the show. Even though the ten performers don’t appear to be organically related, they do a marvelous job of emulating family harmonies as they sing and play classic holiday songs. This happens early in the first act, seducing the audience into expecting a potentially happy event. Nothing could be further from the truth.

(L­–R): Cass Buggé (Pippa Ferguson), Kerstin Anderson (Diana Dahl Bennett), Virginia Kull (Evie Dahl, kneeling), Luisa Sermol (Virginia “Ginny” Dahl), and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Mark Dahl) in Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love, performing at Berkeley Rep through March 3, 2024. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Dan Hiatt stars as Bill Dahl, the piano-playing patriarch beginning to have memory problems. Fully cognizant and conversational, he’s nowhere near suffering from dementia, but his occasional lapses provoke questions from his adult children about his fitness, and suggestions that soon it will be time to consign him to full-time professional care.

Such discussions are merely smokescreens for the real issues eating away at all of them. Innuendoes and minor sniping soon morph into barely-contained guerilla warfare, most of it disturbingly funny. Comedy depends on provoking the audience through accidents, embarrassments, and absurdities. Cult of Love mines them all.

Luisa Sermol appears opposite Hiatt as his loyal and very religious wife Ginny, while Lucas Near-Verbrugghe embodies the role of eldest son Mark, a former Supreme Court clerk and would-be Lutheran minister who’s disappointed his family and himself by not living up to his potential. Mark’s wife Rachel, skillfully played last week by understudy Emily Ota, is the audience’s disaffected point-of-view observer who launches barbs almost at random during the Dahls’ escalating and unresolvable disputes.

Their many issues include angry lesbian daughter Evie (Virginia Kull), who’s had the audacity to bring home her new, recently-pregnant wife Pippa (Cass Buggé). In a paroxysm of liberality, the Dahls welcome them to the party. Much more problematic is Dahl daughter Diana (Kerstin Anderson) a true-believer fundamentalist whose penchant for channeling spirits and talking in tongues has cost her husband James (Christopher Lowell) his tenure as an Episcopalian minister. With nowhere else to go, Diana and James have been staying with her parents for the past month. Far more deadly than Dad’s memory problems is Diana’s failure to take her psychosis medications, her potential mishandling of an infant that we hear upstairs but never see, and her rejection of another developing infant in her womb.

Kerstin Anderson (Diana Dahl Bennett), Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Mark Dahl), and Virginia Kull (Evie Dahl) in Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love, performing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre now through March 3, 2024. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Rounding out this mélange-a-dix is rambunctious younger son Johnny (Christopher Sears), a former child chess prodigy and adult drug addict, who arrives late with an unexpected guest Loren (Vero Maynez), a smart-mouthed lapsed addict (“Nothing is more powerful than drugs”) that Johnny is sponsoring for his 12-step program. As current jargon has it, there’s a whole lot to unpack on Christmas Eve at the Dahl residence. That playwright Headland, director Trip Cullman, and this superb Berkeley Rep cast manage to do it all so seamlessly is truly a Christmas miracle.

Cult of Love is no lightweight comedy. It adheres to popular trends in playwriting that clad serious issues in humor and detour toward weighty ambiguity in the final act. Hilarious as it is insightful, it will leave you with plenty to ponder long after you’ve left the theater.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionCult of Love
Written by
Leslye Headland
Directed byTrip Cullman
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru March 3rd
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$22.50-$134
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.75/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.0/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Berkeley Rep’s Astounding, Confounding “Bulrusher”

By Barry Willis

Magical realism, a small-town soap opera, and the need for identity all combine in Eisa Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-finalist Bulrusher, at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through Dec. 3. Davis also composed the show’s original music.

Directed by Nicole A. Watson, Jordan Tyson stars as the show’s eponymous “Bulrusher,” a mixed-race foundling so named because she was discovered as an infant floating in the bulrushes of the Navarro River near the Northern California town of Boonville. Raised by a single male schoolteacher named Schoolch (Jamie LaVerdiere), she’s been gifted with magical clairvoyant powers. Bulrusher can see images of the future through the medium of water.

…There’s enough material in Davis’ story to supply a year’s worth of Lifetime TV episodes…

Most of the tale plays out on an elaborate two-level set by Lawrence E. Moten III, elaborated by superb projections by Katherine Freer and lighting by Sherrice Mojgani. The central locale is a brothel operated by hard-to-the-core Madame (Shyla Lefner) and patronized by Schoolch and a local handyman named Logger (Jeorge Bennett Watson).

Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger), Shyla Lefner (Madame), Jamie LaVerdiere (Schoolch), and Rob Kellogg (Boy) in Eisa Davis’ lyrical coming-of-age story, “Bulrusher”, performing at Berkeley Rep October 27 – December 3, 2023. Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

Another frequent visitor is a guitar-playing young man called Boy (Rob Kellogg) who relentlessly pursues Bulrusher despite her aggressive disinterest. Out front of the stage is a small but convincingly realistic stream that serves as the river,  visited often by Bulrusher as a source of solace.

The playbill states the era as 1955—those who haven’t read it would more likely have pegged the time as twenty years earlier. The residents sometimes default to a local dialect called “Boontling,” developed in the 1880s and now almost extinct. It sounds like English but doesn’t register with non-speakers: “harping the ling” means “speaking the language” in Boontling. The only clue to the timeframe is an offhand comment by Boy to Logger that he “missed the Korean draft.” Otherwise we wouldn’t know.

Cyndii Johnson (Vera), Jeorge Bennett Watson (Logger), and Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher) at work in “Bulrusher”. Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

The home-schooled Bulrusher earns a decent living buying and selling fruit. One rainy night she encounters a lone woman on the road, gives her a ride, and a place to stay. The woman is Vera (Cyndii Johnson), broke and far from her home in Birmingham, Alabama. On orders from her mother, she’s on her way to visit her uncle Logger. Vera is the first black woman Bulrusher has ever encountered, and the two become fast friends. The development of their friendship is among the play’s many endearing subplots. Another less endearing is Madame’s constant threat to sell her property and move away. A third that continually runs in the background is the mysterious identity of Bulrusher’s parents.

Rob Kellogg (Boy) and Jordan Tyson (Bulrusher) in Eisa Davis’ “Bulrusher”, at Berkeley Rep Oct 27 – Dec 3, 2023. Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

It’s a complicated task for the show’s all-Equity cast, but they rise to the challenge most compellingly. Tyson is especially astounding, with several long monologs that are gorgeous sustained poems. Her interactions with Johnson, LaVerdierre, and Watson are all tremendous. Her closing confrontation with Lefner as Madame unveils the unspoken secret propelling the whole story.

There’s enough material in Davis’ story to supply a year’s worth of Lifetime TV episodes. At nearly three hours, the script at times feels over-long and in need of an edit, but who would know where to start on a project of that scale? Even so, it’s a tremendous night at the theater—a heartfelt celebration of one spunky girl who finds home at last.

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ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionBushrunner
Written by Eisa Davis
Directed by Nicole A. Watson
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru Dec 3rd
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Tickets$22.50-$134
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.0/5
Stagecraft4.0/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Let The Right One In – Adolescence Can Bite

By George Maguire

Take a bullied 12 year old boy, a bizarre female (or not) new neighbor, and tense and bloody serial killings in the town and you have the ingredients for a biting new play from the National Theatre of Scotland being presented at Berkeley Repertory Theater in its American cast premier.

Based on the novel and film by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and stage adapted by Jack Thorne, this new twist on vampire lore and teen coming of age angst is a must-see.

(clockwise from left) Jon Demegillo (Micke), Michael Johnston (Jonny), and Diego Lucano (Oskar) in the West Coast premiere of the National Theatre of Scotland production of “Let the Right One In.”
Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

12-year-old Oskar (an astonishingly gifted Diego Lucano) is a bullied, sad and lonely child living revenge fantasies among the towering birch trees looming over the town. A jungle gym on the site, which will morph in Act 2 into an astonishing school swimming pool, dominates the right of the imaginative set created by Christine Jones.

Entering with gymnastic flair is Eli, a new neighbor with an older guardian and an interest in connection. They meet, they play, they tease one another and Oskar falls in love. Eli, played with remarkable physical agility and other-worldly acumen by Noah Lamanna, presents a perfect blend of female/male he/she characteristics which both intrigue and excite Oskar.

Eli asks “Would you like me if I turned out not to be a girl?” Oskar freezes and thinks this through responding, ‘Yes…..I guess so.”

Noah Lamanna (Eli) and Richard Topol (Hakan) at work in “Let The Right One In.” Photo by Kevin Berne.

Add another element of suspense and possibility as we watch Diego Lucano’s brilliant work as he listens, thinks a thought through, and reacts. This is a great young actor giving a master class in honest actor reaction.

…John Tiffany directs with minute precision for details…

As we settle into our seats, we watch the small cast trundle through the falling snow and then moments before the play itself begins they exhibit a sense of danger nearby and rush off. Simple set pieces are brought on representing a bed, a candy shop, a locker room or a living room, and then a large trunk which will dominate the play as a home for our vampire heroine.

The seven-member ensemble of supporting actors populates the town as parents, police, shop owners, and of course the three bullies who taunt Oskar constantly with “Here Piggy, Piggy!” shoving him into a locker. We know his revenge will occur.

Julius Thomas III (Halmberg) and Richard Topol (Hakan) at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Director Tiffany and his movement associate Steven Hoggett were the inspiration behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Blackwatch and the Tony award winning musical Once. Their combined sensitivity can work wonders as we watch Hoggett’s balletic movement enrich each scene with atmosphere behind and accenting the very terse script.

Olafur Arnalds and Arnor Dan Arnarson have composed a richly textured symphonic score enhanced by sound designer Gareth Fry and special effects designer Jeremy Chernick’s jolting, boo-creating shocks.

Act 2 turns the Rubik’s cube gym around and we are presented with the school swimming pool, one of the most shocking stage moments I can recall as the bullies bet that Oskar cannot hold his breath for three minutes in a pool clearly deeper than the actor’s height.

(l to r) Jon Demegillo, Nicole Shalhoub, Erik Hellman, and Jack DiFalco in the West Coast premiere of the National Theatre of Scotland production of “Let the Right One In” at Berk Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep.

Vampire lore has been a fascination for centuries. Since Bram Stoker’s Dracula, we have seen True Blood, Anne Rice’s Chronicles of a Vampire, the teen Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers, Becoming Human and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to name a few.

Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot is the hallmark of modern vampire books, combining young children with old vampire lore. As these damaged people find one another, we in the audience reflect on our own pasts, seeking revenge for wrong doings on us, anger at parental controls beyond our capability to understand, and of course trying with not much effort to hide our first hickey on the neck.

The blood and the gore of this production may not be to everyone’s taste but its relevance cannot be ignored.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco based actor and director. and a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. He is a Professor Emeritus of Solano College. Contact: gmaguire1204@yahoo.com

 

ProductionLet The Right One In
Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Directed by John Tiffany
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesMay 20-June 25, 2023
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Tickets$25-$103
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Cambodian Rock Band” a Must-See at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

Human history is an appalling parade of atrocities. Warfare is among the worst recurring nightmares, but perhaps even worse are purges within one nationality or ethnicity when large swaths of the population are swept up in an insane movement to create a new society.

That’s exactly what happened in Cambodia in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge took over the country, hell-bent on eliminating the past, to such an extent that they called the date of their takeover “Year Zero.” And as always happens when zealots gain control, they rounded up Cambodian intellectuals, academics, trained professionals, artists, and musicians with the intent of eliminating them.

Inspired by the communist takeover of Indonesia in 1965 and the Chinese cultural revolution—the “Great Leap Forward”—the zealotry of the Khmer Rouge was so extreme that anyone with knowledge of a foreign language, or even wearing eyeglasses, was suspected of being a subversive and a class enemy. Approximately 25% of Cambodian’s population perished in what was called the “Super Great Leap Forward”—a genocide perpetuated by their own countrymen.

…superb actors, dancers, and musicians—a stunning assortment of stage talents…

That’s the background of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through April 2. The interlocking core stories include a musician named Chum (Joseph Ngo) held in the notorious S-21 prison—really an extermination center where of approximately 20,000 prisoners, only seven or eight survived—and his return in 2008 to see his American daughter Neary (Geena Quintos), there working with a multi-national investigative group. There are also tangential references to ethnic animosities among Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Thai people.

The depiction of life in S-21 is lengthy and grim (set by Takeshi Kata) but book-ended by upbeat rock music, much of it derived from L.A. band Dengue Fever. The show opens in the mid 1970s with Chum’s band finishing their first album in a studio in the capital city of Phnom Penh, an effort that runs so late that they can’t escape approaching Khmer Rouge troops.

The band at work in “Cambodian Rock Band” at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Berkeley Rep.

It closes with a rousing performance in the present by the same band—Ngo on guitar, Moses Villarama on bass, Jane Lui on keyboard and backing vocals, Geena Quintos on lead vocals, and Abraham Kim on drums.

They’re all superb actors, dancers, and musicians—a stunning assortment of stage talents. Prolific actor Francis Jue is outstanding as the MC, narrator, hyper-kinetic lead performer, and as the despicable head of S-21.

Francis Jue at work at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Berkeley Rep

The net effect for an audience is that Cambodian Rock Band is a sugar-coated historical horror story—the sugar coating being the opening and closing rock performances that help viewers forget their immersion in misery. Yee’s beautifully conceived and realized message is that art and music have power to transcend savagery.

We can only hope.

There’s widespread belief that Cambodian Rock Band originated at Berkeley Rep. In fact, the show has been performed many times over the past four years. Ngo and Villarama have performed in several productions. The set at the Roda Theatre was built at Berkeley Rep and will travel when the show goes on tour. However that plays out, Cambodian Rock Band is a fantastic spectacle and one of the most compelling productions so far this year.

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Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

 

ProductionCambodian Rock Band
Written by
Lauren Yee
Directed byChay Yew
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough Apr 2nd, 2023
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$49 - $123
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Compelling, Controversial “Wuthering Heights” at Berkeley Rep

By George Maguire and Barry Willis

Writer/director Emma Rice has deconstructed one of the most beloved English novels of the 19th century and has remade it into a pop-rock extravaganza, delighting some critics and outraging others. Her Wuthering Heights runs at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 1, 2023.

Traditionalists expecting a stage production of the dark 1939 film starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier are likely to be disappointed. This frenetic, high-energy show is geared to a younger generation with a different aesthetic, but it can work equally well for those not necessarily tethered to the past. Innumerable classic stories have been reinvented for the sake of stage and screen entertainment. There’s certainly no reason why Wuthering Heights shouldn’t suffer the same fate, just as Hamlet can be reinterpreted as a modern business drama, or Romeo and Juliet reconfigured as a rock opera.

…The movement work in this show is inspiring. So is (the) mining of humor…

Controversy swirled at Berkeley Rep’s November 22 press opener. Some critics raved to their colleagues about Rice’s stunning production while others dismissed it as an abomination. ASR’s George Maguire and Barry Willis comment here:

BW: This is an amazing, dynamic production with multi-threat performers who can act, dance, do gymnastics, and in some cases, play instruments. Especially impressive are Jordan Laviniere, who plays the leader of the Yorkshire Moors, and Leah Brotherhead as Catherine. She’s also a great rock singer. TJ Holmes, who plays Dr. Kenneth, performs on cello and accordion when he’s not stage center. He’s a delightful comic actor, one of a cast of eleven, most of whom tackle multiple roles. Theatrical talent is everywhere in this show but the multi-casting can cause confusion among viewers because most of the characters are cousins with similar names.

GM: Yeah, Barry! It is a fairly faithful adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel, and if you can stop conflating the story with her sister Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, you’re a winner. The story itself is weighted down with so many generations of relationships, and births and deaths, with eleven actors playing all the roles. It’s often highly confusing.

Leah Brotherhead as Catherine and Liam Tamne as Heathcliff in the West Coast premiere of Wise Children’s “Wuthering Heights” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo by Kevin Berne.

BW: I’m no Bronte expert, but it looks to me like Emma Rice has adhered to the original plot, but uses story elements and characters to create something entirely new. I’m generally approving of prequels, sequels, and reinterpretations of classic stories — with the exception of Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!, a real horror show.

Rice’s Wuthering Heights isn’t really the Bronte classic. I attended with my friend Marcia Tanner, an art curator with a degree in English Literature from UC Berkeley. She quipped: “It’s misleading to title this show Wuthering Heights . . . it should be Something Based on Wuthering Heights.” That’s a fair assessment.

GM: My biggest challenge was not hearing the play (technically, a musical), but frankly, it was not understanding what the cast was saying and singing.

BW: That was a problem for many in the audience, I believe. Thick Yorkshire accents were tough enough to understand during dialog, and impossible to decipher during the show’s many songs. I loved the music but couldn’t tell you what any of the songs are about. Marcia astutely observed, “They need superscripts.” The only words that appear on the large backdrop are a few lines from the novel.

GM: Etta Murfitt’s choreography is wonderful and eclectic, ranging from almost hoe-down, to Irish jig, to nonspecific elegance. A lovely and diverse musical score by Ian Ross keeps the play moving. The casting of eleven very accomplished members of the Wise Children’s troupe was a joy, as was watching them effortlessly morph into the manifold characters in the novel. Heathcliff (Liam Tamne, of multi-national background) is particularly inspired casting, making the orphan Heathcliff the dark, brooding, and very sexy creature he was — unlike anyone else in the Yorkshire moors.

BW: I was knocked out by the performers and the quick-moving stagecraft, especially the rolling doors-and-windows pieces that transformed into beds and other devices. The books-on-sticks-as-fluttering-birds bit is brilliant low-cost theatricality. So are the chalkboards that serve as erasable tombstones.

GM: The movement work in this show is inspiring. So is Rice’s mining of humor — she finds comedic potential in many of Bronte’s situations, something that to my knowledge has never been done. But this Wuthering Heights is no spoof — it’s an inspired reinterpretation.

BW: Was the love affair between Heathcliff and his adoptive sister Catherine considered scandalous when the novel was published? It might be seen as close to incest today even though the two were not biologically related. Save Dr. Kenneth and the narrator Mr. Lockwood, almost all the other characters in the production are cousins, nothing unusual in an isolated community.

Jordan Laviniere as the Leader of the Yorkshire Moors; Eleanor Sutton, Katy Ellis, Tama Phethean, Stephanie Elstob, and Ricardo Castro as The Moors in the West Coast premiere of Wise Children’s “Wuthering Heights” now showing at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne.

GM: A community that’s cold, damp, and dark! Rice and set designer Vicki Mortimer went over the top portraying that.

BW: I had no expectations about this show, and was delighted — especially by the incredibly dynamic first act.

My only prior exposure was reading the novel in ninth grade — required reading — and having watched the movie at some point not long after that on late-night TV. The subject matter wasn’t something that resonated for me and wasn’t anything I cared to revisit.

I have difficulty relating to the social structure and morality of the time, which makes playwrights like Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekov, and their contemporaries something of a slog for me. I never liked G. B. Shaw until I saw Major Barbara, but I hope to live a thousand years without enduring another Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

But I understand the appeal of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, especially for women. In their time, the only path to a better life was through choosing the right marriage partner. Mothers often bled to death after childbirth. Infant and childhood mortality were rampant, from conditions easily treated today. This whole pathetic milieu is background for Wuthering Heights, but Emma Rice makes it entertaining and enjoyable..

GM: In all, this Wuthering Heights is a truly nifty addition to the repertoire of Wise Children, a new theatre company founded by Ms. Rice, whose group brought The Wild Bride to life at Berkeley Rep a few years ago. Imaginative, enthralling and chillingly-thrillingly theater.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco-based actor-director and is Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre. He is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: gmaguire1204@yahoo.com

 

ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionWuthering Heights
Written by Emily Bronte
Adapted by Emma Rice
Directed by Emma Rice
Choreographed by Etta Murfitt
Saheem Ali (Conceiver/Director)
Producing CompanyWise Children / Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough January 1, 2023
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Tickets$24 - $119
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ “Goddess” at Berkeley Rep Looks Broadway Bound!

By George Maguire

Berkeley Rep’s “Goddess” opens with electrifying, high-energy afro-centric dance and music that encompass skat, jazz, and R & B, and introduces us to Moto Moto, a bar in Mombasa, Kenya. A loquacious and slitheringly sexy emcee Ahmed (Rodrick Covington) and company welcome us, the visitors, to an evening of high entertainment. “Moto Moto” means hot and fiery. Indeed it is.

Through a trio of always-present all-knowing spirits, we meet the bar’s owner Madongo (Lawrence Stallings), the snap-crackle-and-pop bar gal, Rashida (Abena), and the boy just back from Columbia University with a Poli-sci degree, Omari (the multi-talented quadruple-threat Philip Johnson Richardson). Suddenly the mood shifts from exuberant joy to a sense of fear and awe as we meet Nadira (the golden voiced Amber Iman). Nadira is the Goddess reaching into mortal elements trying to find that most human of virtues: love. Omari is smitten as she sings “That Love.” They meet and a bond of the heart begins.

…With some tweaking, this wonderful new musical should find its place on the Broadway roster of hits….

A weave of myth and legend, Nadira’s world is the African tale of Marimba, the Goddess of Music and Mother of Song. Nadira’s desire to understand the love possessed by mortals is hampered by a curse placed on her by her vengeful Mother, the Goddess of Evil—a curse that will be fulfilled should Nadira relinquish her power and attempt to come alive as human. The budding mutual passion she and Omari feel—and his own love of music (Mr. Richardson also plays a mean sax)—can only bring heartbreak.

(center) Isio-Maya Nuwere (Moto Moto Ensemble – Safiyah) (l to r) Teshomech (Grio Trio – Tisa), Wade Watson (Moto Moto Ensemble – Musa), Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi), Quiantae Thomas (Moto Moto Ensemble – Amina), Zachary Downer (Moto Moto Ensemble – Sameer), Aaron Nicholas Patterson (Moto Moto Ensemble – Yusef), and (stairs) Rodrick Covington (Ahmed) in the world premiere musical production of Goddess. Directed by Saheem Ali, book by Jocelyn Bioh, music and lyrics by Michael Thurber. Photo by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Complications ensue as Omari’s parents and fiancée have other plans for him. He is tied to the roots of family and must marry and become the Mayor of Mombasa. The talented Kecia Lewis and Kingsley Leggs as the parents, and officious Destinee Rha as the fiancée, offer Omari no alternative but to get out of his situation and back to Moto Moto and Nadira.

In the sixteen-year development of this musical, this area still needs work. We need to see and understand how Omari is torn between wanting to honor the commitment he made to them before he left for NYC and his nascent love for Nadira.

(front) Phillip Johnson Richardson (Omari) (back, l to r) Wade Watson (Moto Moto Enemble – Musa), Melessie Clark (Grio Trio – Mosi), Quiantae Thomas (Moto Moto Ensemble – Amina), and Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi) in the world premiere musical production of Goddess. Directed by Saheem Ali, book by Jocelyn Bioh, music and lyrics by Michael Thurber. Photo by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

A magnificent production surrounds the world of Moto Moto with a detailed Afro-Arabic set by Arnulfo Maldonado, luminous lighting by Tony Winner Bradley King, magnificent costuming by Dede Ayite and special mention to the sound design of Nevin Steinberg. Literally every word spoken or sung is clearly understood. Music director Marco Paguia honors Michael Thurber’s original score with joy and specificity.

With some tweaking, this wonderful new musical should find its place on the Broadway roster of hits.

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ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco-based actor and director and Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionGoddess
Written by / Music & Lyrics by /
Choreography by
Jocelyn Bioh /
Michael Thurber /
Darrell Grand Moultrie
Directed bySaheem Ali (Conceiver/Director)
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThrough September 25, 2022
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Websitewww.berkeleyrep.org
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Tickets$38 - $104
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR’s Year in Review: Our “Best of the Best” from 2019 – by Nicole Singley and Barry Willis

Better late than never, the old adage has it. Here (in no particular order) are some memorable productions from last season, a year full of four- and five-star achievements.

The Jungle (Curran Theatre): San Francisco’s renovated Curran Theatre was re-renovated for an immersive recreation of a 2016 crisis in a refugee camp in Calais, France. A huge and hugely talented multi-ethnic cast made this show last season’s most profound and moving theatrical experience. (BW)

After Miss Julie (Main Stage West): Ilana Niernberger and Sam Coughlin paired up for a thrilling pas de deux in Patrick Marber’s evocative spin on “Miss Julie,” transplanting Strindberg’s classic story to a summer night in 1945. A stunning set, great lighting, and white-hot performances brought class and erotic tensions to a boil, culminating in a seriously steamy tango scene that won’t be soon forgotten. (NS)

Rocky Horror Show (Marin Musical Theatre Company): MMTC took this Halloween favorite far over the top at the San Anselmo Playhouse, thanks to stunning efforts by Jake Gale, Nelson Brown, Dani Innocenti-Beem, Pearl Fugit and many others. (BW)

Barbecue Apocalypse (Spreckels): The laughs were served well-done in this quirky comedy, thanks to a witty script marinated in millennial-centric humor and a talented ensemble. Clever costumes, strong technical work, and excellent casting proved that all it takes to survive the end of days is a little raccoon meat and some serious comic relief. (NS)

Romeo and Juliet (Throckmorton): Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre and the streets around it became Verona, Italy, in a sweetly evocative, imaginative, and fully immersive production of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy. (BW)

Sex with Strangers (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre turned up the heat in “Sex with Strangers,” a seductive modern romance that broaches big questions about love, ambition, and the price of success in the digital era. Dean Linnard and Sandra Ish brought the story’s unlikely couple to life with electric chemistry and powerful, nuanced performances. (NS)

Incidents in the Wicked Life of Moll Flanders (Ross Valley Players): RVP gambled and won with Jennifer LeBlanc’s adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel. Amber Collins Crane stole the show as the lead in a compelling tale about a beautiful, quick-witted woman who rose from miserable circumstances to respectability through petty crime, stealth, charm, and unusually good luck. (BW)

Drumming with Anubis (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre invited us along to the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society’s annual campout, where a group of aging death metal fans communes in the desert to beat their bongos. Things got a little dark, a lot hilarious, and surprisingly touching when the Egyptian god of death crashed the party. Local playwright David Templeton’s brilliant new show earned a 5-star reception, featuring a phenomenal cast and beautiful scenic design. (NS)

How I Learned What I Learned (Marin Theatre Company): Director Margo Hall coaxed a tremendous performance from Steven Anthony Jones, who brought grandfatherly wit and wisdom to the role of playwright August Wilson. A master class in story-telling. (BW)

Faceless (6th Street Playhouse): Former artistic director Craig A. Miller returned to helm this riveting courtroom drama about an American teenager caught running away to join her internet boyfriend in ISIS. Razor-sharp dialogue and powerhouse performances made for an intense and memorable experience in 6th Street’s intimate studio theater. (NS)

The Year of Magical Thinking (Aurora Theatre Company): Stacy Ross glowed in a masterly solo recital of Joan Didion’s play from her book of the same name. (BW)

Home (Berkeley Repertory Theatre): In this stunning piece of performance art by Geoff Sobelle, audiences watched a two-story house materialize from the shadows of an empty stage as if by magic. A spectacle of epic proportions, this visual feast reminded theatergoers that a house is just a space in which we come together to make a home. (NS)

Fully Committed (6th Street Playhouse): Patrick Varner channeled 40-some characters in his hilarious one-man depiction of a scheduling manager at his wits’ end in a high-end NYC restaurant, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. (BW)

Merman’s Apprentice (Sonoma Arts Live): Daniela Innocenti-Beem brought Broadway legend Ethel Merman back to the stage with a larger-than-life performance in this sparkling world premiere, brimming with catchy tunes and colorful humor. Innocenti-Beem and teenaged costar Emma Sutherland boast some serious pipes, which made this charming new musical all the more fun. (NS)

Mother of the Maid (Marin Theatre Company): A mother’s love and devotion were never so well depicted as in this lovely, heart-rending piece about Joan of Arc’s mother Isabelle (Sherman Fracher). (BW)

Eureka Day (Spreckels): Laughter proved contagious in Jonathan Spector’s whip-smart “Eureka Day,” pitting parents at a Berkeley charter school against each other in the wake of a mumps outbreak. An all-star cast, elaborate set design, and top-notch technical work combined to make this a 5-star production. (NS)

Cabaret (San Francisco Playhouse and Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions): Both of these productions were excellent and amazing versions of this dazzling but starkly disturbing cautionary tale. (BW) 

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Spreckels): Theatergoers were dazzled by this cleverly written and superbly acted continuation of Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, containing everything an Austenesque story should: delicious drama, a heartwarming romance, and an abundance of humor and witPitch-perfect direction and exemplary casting made “Miss Bennet” the ultimate holiday treat. (NS)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Curran Theatre): Nonstop high-intensity theatrical magic is the only way to describe this extravagant production, running into next July. (BW)

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Spreckels): Hilarity ensued in this madcap musical about a man clawing his way to the top of the family tree. Tim Setzer stole the show as all nine members of the D’Ysquith family, all of whom meet their ends in some of the most creative and comical ways imaginable. Excellent ensemble work, cute choreography, and clever projections made this one killer production. (NS)

Barry Willis is the Executive Editor at Aisle Seat Review, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.