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An Evolution Beyond Gender in the Wild West: Cutting Ball Theater’s ‘Sidewinder’

Sara Moore (left), DavEnd and Donald Currie in Cutting Ball Theater's "Sidewinders" (photo by Laura Mason)

Sara Moore (left), DavEnd and Donald Currie in Cutting Ball Theater’s “Sidewinders” (photo by Laura Mason)

For the world premiere of Basil Kreimendahl’s hilarious and tenderhearted play Sidewinders (directed by M. Graham Smith), the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco has flipped its performance space, arranging the stands of chairs so the stage is deeper than it is wide. Papier mache clouds hang from the ceiling, casting shadows on the clouds painted on the walls, creating an illusion of depth (lighting design by Heather Basarab). The stage seems to open up in front of us on three sides. The set, designed by Michael Locher, is dotted with sandy colored, flat-topped stumps, like desert mesas in miniature.

It seems right, in this setting, to encounter two fools: Dakota, a swaggering gunslinger (played by Sara Moore), and Bailey, an elegant soldier (played by DavEnd). Their train has run out of track, and they are stranded, as Dakota says, “on the Edge of Everything.” Profoundly disoriented, they do not know where they are, where they were before, nor who they were before. Their dilemma is both existential and venereal. Bailey does not know what Bailey is, what parts Bailey has, or whom Bailey should fool around with, and if Dakota knows, the gunslinger isn’t sharing. Bailey’s parts are so mysterious that they can only be named by singing nonsense phrases. Whether it is the vastness around them that spurs Bailey’s self-examination, or whether Bailey has always been questing to make sense of gender and sexuality, we can’t know. But the mystery of identity seems to be drawing Bailey further into the unknown borderlands. “We could go…that way,” says the soldier, wide-eyed, with an emphatic hair-toss in the direction of the frontier.

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The Mind Is a Dangerous Country: ‘The Chairs’ at the Cutting Ball Theater

Tamar Cohn and David Sinaiko in the Cutting Ball Theater’s "The Chairs" (photo by Sarah Roland).

Tamar Cohn and David Sinaiko in the Cutting Ball Theater’s “The Chairs”
(photo by Sarah Roland).

I heard somewhere that it’s easier to dream lucidly as a couple. If, before going to sleep, you turn to your lover and say, “Darling, tonight let’s dream of boats,” and then you both go to sleep, the odds are much greater that you will both dream of boats.

The Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs (a new translation by Rob Melrose, directed by Annie Elias) is the story of a superannuated couple who create a new reality together as they fight off the tedium and irrelevance of old age. They live in a crumbling apartment building on an island, somewhere—according to The Old Man, Paris was destroyed years ago, if it ever existed at all. Their only contact with the outside world is the music (Edith Piaf or a clone) that crackles through the ancient radio (sound design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker). But since the two are alone onstage for most of the play, even the music might be a shared delusion.

At first, the atmosphere almost makes one sleepy—we slip into what feels like a long-settled routine. David Sinaiko as The Old Man sits onstage gazing out the window as the audience files in. You have the feeling he’s been sitting there for years. Michael Locher’s set is comfortably shabby, with its water-stained pink wallpaper and faded furniture. The Chairs begins slowly—in their first exchange, The Old Woman (Tamar Cohn) begs The Old Man to come away from the window and take a seat in a chair. Reluctantly, he agrees, and the couple edge carefully over to the two chairs in the center of the stage and sit down in the same one, with Sinaiko (kittenish and Keatonesque) on Cohn’s lap. Their clothes (costume design by Sarah Roland) add to the production’s dreaminess. Sinaiko wears absurd thigh-high rubber waders, which contribute to the sluggish physicality of his role, while Cohn flounces about in a fur coat and faded, flowered housedress.

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A Life and a Career Seen Through the Prism of 9/11: ‘Fallaci’ at the Berkeley Rep

Marjan Neshat (left) and Concetta Tomei in the Berkeley Rep's "Fallaci" (photo by kevinberne.com)

Marjan Neshat (left) and Concetta Tomei in the Berkeley Rep’s “Fallaci” (photo by kevinberne.com)

Journalism is under the microscope in Fallaci, the new play from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Directed by Oskar Eustis, the fictional play is based on the life of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who was famous for her interviews of provocative world leaders such as Henry Kissinger, Fidel Castro, Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. Wright’s play examines the two sides of the journalist through the eyes of an idolizing young writer.

The first act introduces a reclusive Fallaci (played by Concetta Tomei with an enthralling gravitas) at home in her New York apartment. Twenty-five-year-old reporter Maryam (Marjan Neshat) finagles her way into Fallaci’s home to conduct an interview for a less-than-wholesome reason. The year is 2000, and Fallaci has been absent from the public eye for more than ten years. After initial hesitation, Fallaci opens up to Maryam, who is Muslim, reveling in her accounts of her interviews with Khomeini, Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi. She reveals how her family’s experience of nearly dying at the hands of the Nazis is the underlying reason behind her brazen questioning of the Middle East’s fascist leaders.Wright’s tight play allows Fallaci to recount her favorite anecdotes mostly in good humor, while Maryam provides historical context to Fallaci’s interviews and establishes the importance of that work.

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Reckoning With the Millennials: ‘Our Practical Heaven’ at the Aurora Theatre

Sasha (Anne Darragh, left), Willa (Julia Brothers), and Magz (Lauren Spencer) in "Our Practical Heaven" (photo by David Allen).

Sasha (Anne Darragh, left), Willa (Julia Brothers), and Magz (Lauren Spencer) in “Our Practical Heaven” (photo by David Allen).

Anthony Clarvoe’s Our Practical Heaven, a world premiere directed by Allen McKelvey at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, raises some interesting questions about how traditional media, such as plays and novels, can incorporate new media and new ways of communicating. Can you fictionalize Facebooking, tweeting, texting, and instant messaging without sounding phony and ridiculous? Fads, brand names, and recent technology can jar us out of a fiction, somehow betraying the text they’re embedded in. It’s hard to say why this should be, when there’s nothing weird about a character in a novel or play picking up the practically obsolete telephone. But there is something odd about reading about texting, or watching a play about it. In Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, one chapter unfolds as an instant message conversation. It works mostly because of Smith’s uncanny ear for the way people talk (or in this case, chat). She puts to good use the misspellings and interruptions intrinsic to these exchanges.

Our Practical Heaven pivots on a generational divide—two middle-aged women, “honorary sisters” Willa (Julia Brothers) and Sasha (Anne Darragh), visit Sasha’s mother, Vera (Joy Carlin), at a tumbledown beach house, their wayward daughters in tow. The girls provide running commentary on the action of the play using their cellphones—as the actors twiddle their thumbs, the text of their conversations is projected on a winged wall at the back of the stage (set design by Mikiki Uesugi and video design by Micah J. Stieglitz).

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Middle-School Angst So Funny That It Hurts: ‘Troublemaker’ at the Berkeley Rep

Gabriel King (left), Chad Goodridge and Jeanna Phillips in "Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright" at the Berkeley Rep (photo courtesy of kevinberne.com).

Gabriel King (left), Chad Goodridge and Jeanna Phillips in “Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright” at the Berkeley Rep (photo courtesy of kevinberne.com).

Troublemaker or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, the hilarious play from Dan LeFranc that made its world premiere in January at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, depicts the misadventures of its 12-year-old protagonist through comic-book action and snappy dialogue. But the comic play, directed by Lila Neugebauer, also carries a sobering, underlying message about the world an entire generation of American children inhabits.

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Soaring in the Air, Writhing on the Ground: Bad Unkl Sista’s ‘First Breath, Last Breath’

Michael Curran and Anastazia Louise in "First Breath, Last Breath" (photo by Eric Gillet)

I could tell the performance I was about to witness late last month was extraordinary even before entering the auditorium, just from watching the audience trickle into Z Space in San Francisco. There was a man who had somehow fused his beard with a slinky-like spiral pipe and wrapped it around his neck like a scarf. There were a few women in Betty Page/rockabilly outfits and the attendant shellacked beehive and Winehouse eyeliner. One girl’s hair resembled a Pantone swatch sheet—literally—small squares of dye checkered her shoulder-length crop. One man, who we found out later was the set designer for the production, had sausage links hanging from his belt loops. There were leather and piles of silver, feathers and dreadlocks, tattoos and guy-liner. I’ve never felt like such a square; even before the performance began it had rendered my life meaningless.

As a prelude to Bad Unkl Sista’s latest production, “First Breath, Last Breath,” the performers proceeded into the lobby—slowly, staring at the audience, making gong noises on obscure instruments—before moving into the proscenium theater space. The procession gave the audience something the performance could not. Up close we could see the magnificently bizarre costumes devised by artistic director, choreographer, and soloist Anastazia Louise. It was a head-scratching amalgam of Victoriana, Burning Man, and Steampunk: gas masks, fishbowl mouthpieces, hoop skirts of shredded denim, toreador and Japanese hakama pants, Puritan bonnets, and of course the signature white full-body paint of Butoh.

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The Scandal of Content: The Cutting Ball Theater’s ‘Tontlawald’

From left, Madeline H.D. Brown, Rebecca Frank, Liz Wand, Cindy Im, and Marilet Martinez in "Tontlawald" (photo by Annie Paladino)

In devised theater, rather than starting with an already written script and finished production design as you would in traditional theater, the company creates text, music, movement, and design elements together as they go through the rehearsal process. Though there’s no devised aesthetic that defines it like a genre, devised work tends to be more physical, to make more use of every skill each actor possesses (singing, dancing, playing musical instruments). There’s also a strong preference for adapted material among companies that make devised work—maybe because this kind of experimental collaboration is easier if you at least know the outlines of the story you’re trying to tell.

The inspiration for Cutting Ball’s first devised work, Tontlawald, is an Estonian fairy tale in which a girl runs away from her abusive stepmother to live in the Tontlawald, the forbidden ghost-forest. The inhabitants of the Tontlawald fashion a doll out of clay to take the girl’s place, and inside the doll they place a black snake. The doll goes back to the village and endures the stepmother’s cruel treatment, while the girl lives happily in the Tontlawald. One day when the stepmother goes too far, the black snake darts out of the doll’s mouth and bites her tongue, killing her instantly. The girl grows up, and in the course of things must leave the Tontlawald. She turns into a bird and flies away.

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Doing the Right Thing: ‘Body Awareness’ at the Aurora Theatre

Howard Swain (left), Jeri Lynn Cohen, Amy Resnick, and Patrick Russell in "Body Awareness"

As befits the first play by a young, promising playwright, Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, performing at the Aurora Theatre, is ambitious, spry, inquisitive, and restless. Before launching Baker’s award-studded career, Body Awareness appeared in the 2007 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, which showcased two playwrights who would go on to win Obies: Baker and Samuel D. Hunter. Five years later, the play returns under the direction of Joy Carlin, who balances the script’s constant intellectual and physical dynamism by keeping it zipping about, like a juggler circling on a unicycle.

The play, set on the campus of a Vermont small college, has two plots. The first deals with a lesbian couple—Phyllis (Amy Resnick), a feminist professor, and her partner, Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen)—struggling with their marriage and Jared (Patrick Russell), Joyce’s adult son who has Asperger’s Syndrome. And the second stems from the couple’s hosting a male photographer (Howard Swain) who specializes in nude photos of women. Out of this situation, great philosophical questions clash: feminism versus patriarchal ownership, rationalism versus semi-mystic spiritualist hedonism, and the body versus the mind.

Baker’s characters tend to fall neatly along a spectrum, spending most scenes conscripting grand ideas into their personal quarrels. They all seem obsessed with who is “right” or what is “the right thing to do.” But the play’s purpose seems to be in humorously displaying the curious juxtapositions of contemporary life, and not trying to fix them. At one point, a character exclaims in disbelief, “A goy teaching a Jew how to Shabbas. On a Tuesday.” The audience laughs.

The performance and design of the play is solid. Cohen, Resnick, Russell, and Swain deserve praise for eschewing caricature while flirting with strong and comic physical characterizations. Kent Dorsey’s set successfully distinguishes, within a small stage and without moving much furniture, the plays’ five different settings. (But why does the bedroom have no pillows?)

Carlin puts the play’s script at the fore. She keeps the tempo high, conscripting all other production elements to maintaining a clip. The play’s classical wordiness (major actions are described, occurring offstage; characters frequently explain ambiguous stage activities instead of letting them stand for themselves) encourages this directorial choice, but that doesn’t ameliorate the chaos and the restlessness sparked by the script’s numerous philosophical contests. Carlin makes no choice to highlight one thought or through-line over another, leaving them all to compete with each other, creating an aura of both breathlessness and immobility, and deflating the ultimate resolution.

Despite this, the play is clever, nuanced, and intriguing. Body Awareness swims along, bringing plenty of comedy (and entertainment) to each scene. Though Baker excels at constructing humorous pairings of people and philosophy, her point isn’t the comedy of those arrangements. Instead, she is about the unity of opposites, the OK-ness in their existing together. Baker, in her typically neat way, sums up these thoughts in the play’s final scene, when one character reads from a book about how the body and mind are one, how we must expand our sense of the mind to include the body. Baker’s graceful implication is that such awareness creates true unity.

Body Awareness runs through March 11 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.

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The Ritual of Storytelling: ‘How to Write a New Book for the Bible’ at the Berkeley Rep

Linda Gehringer in "How to Write a New Book for the Bible" (photo by Kevin Berne)

Bill Cain’s humorous and emotionally devastating How to Write a New Book for the Bible, an autobiographical tragicomedy having its world premiere at the Berkeley Rep until Nov. 20, dramatizes the death of the playwright’s mother. The production, directed by Kent Nichols, exudes the energy of a spectacle. It juggles a bricolage of post-modern and traditional performance styles: non-linear narration, actors playing multiple roles, contemporary dialect, and pseudo-bible-speak (“and he sayeth unto Him”). Nichols and the production team mostly succeed in this difficult feat, presenting a show that reflects on mortality, family, and the act of story itself.

Cain’s insightful, witty, but sometime overripe text dominates the stage. His moralizing and ruminating asides occasionally clutter the play, but these lapses are eclipsed by a procession of crowd-hushing poignant moments (as when Cain’s dying father asks his son to read to him, claiming, “I just want to look at you, Billy”) and of riotously funny comedic ones (like Cain’s mother leaping from her rocking chair when her football team wins).

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Who’s Afraid of the Light?: The Cutting Ball Theater’s ‘Pelleas and Melisande’

Caitlyn Louchard (Melisande) and Joshua Schell (Pelleas) in Cutting Ball Theater’s "Pelleas and Melisande" (photo by Annie Paladino)

The Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande (translated by director Rob Melrose) exploits a long, narrow, catwalk-style stage (designed by Michael Locher) to set up intense relationships among the characters. In an early scene, Golaud (Derek Fisher), the prince of Allemonde, comes upon Melisande (Caitlyn Louchard) weeping by a spring. Melisande kneels over a small rectangular pool set into the stage floor while Golaud stands far away from her at the opposite end—this relationship, in different permutations, is revisited again and again. Charmed by her beauty and strangeness, Golaud marries Melisande and takes her to live with his family at their ancestral castle, where she falls in love with his younger brother, Pelleas (Joshua Schell).

In a wonderfully daring and silly piece of blocking, Melrose takes a “balcony” scene between Pelleas and Melisande and flips it 90 degrees, so that Pelleas climbing up the tower lies flat on his stomach, and Melisande leaning far out of the window sits with her legs stretched out in front of her. As Melisande hangs out of the window to speak with Pelleas, her hair falls out of the tower and covers his face; he clutches it and kisses it. The lovers are six feet apart, and it is the most sexual scene in the play. Louchard’s actual hair is pinned tightly to the back of her head, but the imaginary hair  tumbling from the tower is unchaste and unrestrained. It’s always falling into springs and out of windows—Pelleas cries, “All of your hair, Melisande, all of your hair has fallen from the tower!” It’s the words all of that carry such an erotic charge. It’s as if she’s naked, as if all of her clothes have fallen off.

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Postcards from the Fringe: ‘Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Diver’ and ‘Swamp Juice’

From "Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, showing through August 28 at the Underbelly as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, takes place sometime in the near future. Global warming has caused sea levels to massively rise, and the remaining humans live in rickety stilt houses perched atop skyscrapers. The performance’s opening sequence shows our hero, Alvin Sputnik, at the bedside of his love, Elena. He sings her a simple song on his ukulele as her soul (a point of light) flies out the window and into the ocean. Alvin is despondent, until he sees an ad on television calling for volunteers to dive to the ocean floor on a dangerous mission, one with the potential to save humanity. With nothing to lose, he straps on a diving suit and heads down, hoping to find Elena.

Creator Tim Watts serves as narrator, puppeteer, actor and bard. Evoking the porthole of a submarine, a circular white screen at center stage is rendered alternately transparent or opaque, depending on where the light is coming from. At times animated sequences are projected onto the screen; sometimes we see Watts moving behind the screen, his face illuminated by a headlamp. By the same token, Alvin is portrayed in a variety of ways — sometimes as a cartoon, sometimes as a shadow behind the screen, sometimes as a puppet (or several different puppets), and sometimes by Watts himself.

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Postcards from the Fringe: Blind Summit Theatre’s ‘The Table’

From "The Table," Blind Summit Theatre's show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

At Blind Summit Theatre’s The Table, showing at Pleasance Dome through August 28 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a puppet explains the basic principles of Japanese tabletop puppetry.

Pacing back and forth on the white table serving as his stage — as his entire world—the nameless puppet demonstrates, and everyone can see,  how he is operated by three puppeteers—one for head and left hand (Mark Down, who also performs the voice), one for rump and right hand (Sean Garratt), and one for the feet (Nick Barnes). All three are on stage, fully visible, dressed in unassuming black. There are no strings in Bunraku puppetry; the puppeteers’ hands directly control the puppet, in this case a simple white cloth body and cardboard head fashioned to look like an old bearded man with tired eyes (at one point the puppet screams, “I have a backstory! I used to be a box!”). The face doesn’t move: the puppet’s eyes don’t roll back and forth in the manner of marionettes, the mouth doesn’t do that horrible nutcracker thing.

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