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Author: Kim Waldron

“Hand to God” Brings Something Wicked to Berkeley Repertory Theatre

“Hand to God” Brings Something Wicked to Berkeley Repertory Theatre

There Be Demons in Robert Askins’ Puppet Tyrone

by Kim Waldron

I prefer my horror stories to be fabulous, rather than realistic. Give me an orange-haired, foul-mouthed, demon-possessed sock puppet named Tyrone over a mass murderer any day. Be aware, however, that the demon Tyrone in “Hand to God” is no amateur. He’s smart, funny, and knows both history and the human heart. His zest for evil is exceeded only by his commitment to maintaining his dominion over Jason, whom he gradually possesses.

Tyrone and Michael Doherty as Jason. Photo: Kevin Berne, Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

We laugh often and hard during the opening monologue by Tyrone, showing the heart on his tongue in a Punch and Judy stage, as he explains the origins of human villainy and the warping of the social order. As the play progresses, our laughter turns to gasps, as Tyrone leads Jason (and everyone else, including us) ever deeper into the abyss.

Some will see this play as a comic horror story of possession and seduction. Some will offer a complicated psychological interpretation with the demon puppet representing the troubled teen’s suppressed grief, rage, or mental illness. But “Hand of God” is better appreciated as a morality play about family love and human resistance to evil. Playwright Robert Askins goes a step further, offering us permission to be honest, passionate, and over-the-top in the face of hypocrisy. We don’t normally see a morality play so fiercely funny, not to mention unrelentingly vulgar. Askins gives us both barrels and we relish his rare honesty.

Tyrone, Michael Doherty, and Carolina Sanchez. Photo: Kevin Berne, Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Askins describes his play as “rowdy,” “honest,” and “fucking weird.” We can add: energetic, principled, and very, very funny. Events take place in a world unfamiliar to most secular Californians, in the youth puppet program of a Texas church in the affluent suburbs. The action  takes place in the basement of the church, decorated with saccharine religious posters and brightly colored children’s furniture. Jo Winiarski’s set captures perfectly the handiwork of devotees whose taste runs to “institutional cozy.”

In this basement, we meet confused and troubled teenagers, a keyed-up mother who runs the Christian puppet program, and an unctuous pastor who has his eye on her.

Tyrone, Michael Doherty, and Laura Odeh. Photo: Kevin Berne.

To successfully portray both the teenager Jason (the impressive Michael Doherty), and the spirited demon always on his arm requires acting of the highest order.  Jason is isolated and overwhelmed by loss of his father and his depressed mom.  His demon Tyrone is furiously expanding, growing ever more arrogant and masterful.  Jason and Tyrone hold fast paced conversations, in which Doherty flashes back and forth between the confused, angry teenager and his imperious devil. Doherty speaks, listens, replies, and reacts all at once.  His alter-egos physically fight and abuse each other, while he maintains the dual roles throughout in a triumph of acting.

Although Jason’s mom Margery (the intense Laura Odeh) tries to remain cheery on the surface, she has her own demons of anger and repressed sexuality. Odeh is compelling in a very physical role that requires her to shift suddenly from comic to poignant, from Sunday School teacher to seductress. She spends much of her time either fighting off unwanted advances or ardently partaking in them. Very ardently.

Laura Odeh and Michael McIntire. Photo: Kevin Berne.

Jason longs for the affection of his friend, Jessica (a level-headed Carolina Sanchez),  a droll teenager who is the smartest mortal in this congregation.  Jessica also adroitly handles the other puppet, the sexy Jolene, who acts like Dolly Parton on uppers, primed to seduce the randy Tyrone. Yes, sock puppet Tyrone is randy as well as obscene, bullying, and disruptive. It is no coincidence that Puppet Designer and trainer Amanda Villalobos has given Tyrone bright orange hair.

Carolina Sanchez, Jolene, Tyrone, and Michael Doherty. Photo: Kevin Berne.

Timothy (cool, posturing Michael McIntire), the bad boy teenager, torments Jason and Jessica and lets loose his lustful feelings.  He rants, raves, and acts as raunchy as possible. Timothy breaks up the scenery, scorns the church and pastor, and goes full throttle for an inappropriate adult. For that matter, all the characters let it fly. Even the pious Pastor Greg (a buttery David Kelly) goes astray. Yet Askins presents his transgressors with understanding. In each case, we learn what drives a character’s wrongdoing. Understanding may not lead us to forgive, but it does at least draw our pity.

“Hand to God” premiered off-Broadway in 2011, and is now on its way to be the most performed play of the 2016-17 season. It is certainly the first play in decades I can remember attending in a major venue where the audience was primarily under 35 years old. The received wisdom is that the young want to see sex and violence and there is no shortage of either in “Hand to God.”

Tyrone and Michael Doherty. Photo: Kevin Berne, Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Askins is telling the story of a youth trying to make sense of the double standards of the world. Under David Ivers’ skilled direction, Askins’ wild comedy depicts the human spirit in a surprisingly serious struggle .

Askins concludes with another monologue from Tyrone, whom we know much better now. Back in his puppet stage, Tyrone is still savagely funny. We laugh with a conspiratorial guilt, now, because we know ourselves much better.

“Hand to God” offers off-the-charts excellent acting and a smart, off-beat story. Tyrone is one coarse, orange-haired jerk who has something to say that is actually worth hearing.

Tyrone and Michael Doherty as Jason. Photo: Kevin Berne, Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

“Hand to God” by Robert Askins, directed by David Ivers, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre,  through Sunday, March 19, 2017.  Info: berkeleyrep.org

Cast:  Michael Doherty, David Kelly, Michael McIntire, Laura Odeh, and Carolina Sanchez.

“Women in Jeopardy!”—Comic Thriller at Center Rep, Walnut Creek

“Women in Jeopardy!”—Comic Thriller at Center Rep, Walnut Creek

Wendy McLeod’s “Much Ado about Nothing”

by Kim Waldron

If you are a woman, man, or any citizen who feels in jeopardy from the new presidential administration, the escapist farce “Women in Jeopardy!” at Center Rep offers a two hour break from current reality.  Part mystery, part romance, it offers broad laughs while making no demands. The humor is delivered in a tight, fast paced, brightly colored production with fine performances all round.

Wendy McLeod’s comedy, which premiered in 2015, focuses on three divorcees of a certain age in modern day Salt Lake City. The women may not really be in any real jeopardy, unless, of course, the new boyfriend of one really is a serial killer.

Lynda DiVito, Elisabeth Nunziato, and Jamie Jones

Liz (Elisabeth Nunziato), a bit of a drama queen, is gaga over her new love Jackson, and unexpectedly brings him to meet her two old friends: the practical, helpful librarian Mary (Lynda DiVito) and the cynical, sensible-shoed publicist Jo (Jamie Jones). We meet upbeat Mary and dour Jo in Mary’s kitchen, where they have slipped away to discuss what they know of Jackson, a dentist no less. Liz joins them and begins excitedly sharing too much information about her sexual re-awakening. Love-struck Liz also explains that Jackson is off-balance because he has just been questioned by the police. He is the last person known to have seen his dental assistant alive: she has disappeared.

Elisabeth Nunziato, Jason Kuykendall, and Lynda DiVito

When Jackson (Jason Kuykendall) enters, we are treated to his appalling jokes, his vulgar flirting, and his non-existent social graces. Everything about this man is creepy! He is so deliciously creepy you find it hard to take your eyes off him. Pretty soon Mary and Jo are convinced they need to intervene to save Liz from this serial killer, or at least stop her from sending her teenaged daughter on a weekend camping trip alone with him. Liz is too blindly self-absorbed to see any cause for concern.

This is a true farce—the local police sergeant just happens to look exactly like Jackson, someone gets shoved into a pantry to hide when there is a knock at the door, and one character is forever and wrongly convinced another is deeply attracted to him.

Lynda DiVito, Eric Carlson

Two younger characters round out the cast: Liz’s teen-aged daughter Amanda (Sarah Brazier) and her sometime boyfriend Trenner (Eric Carlson). Based on my eavesdropping at intermission, anyone who raised a teen age daughter will recognize the over-dramatizing Amanda. Her boyfriend Trenner is sweet but not the brightest porch light on the block.  Their ups and downs are silly, but come across as charming. Brazier and Carlson put their hearts into their roles, making us care about typical teenagers.

Liz and Mary and Jo represent modern day, middle-class everywomen for whom age has made it very, very hard to find appropriate sexual partners. The teenage couple embody new love finding its confused way.  The laughs come less from the action than the one liners and repartee.  And there are great ones that strike hard and true: “Women don’t kill strangers, they kill husbands.” (That has to be the title of someone’s master’s thesis in sociology.)  When Trenner plaintively howls at Amanda: “When all we want to do is love you, why do you make us hate you so much?”  we want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Jason Kuykendall, Jamie Jones, and Lynda DiVito

In addition to Mary’s Salt Lake City kitchen, we visit a police station, a ski shop and a mountain campsite. While the sets are changing in blackouts behind them, the actors manically dance and sing to pop tunes. My seatmate assured me that anyone who does Zumba will be familiar with all the songs. At the first dance sequence I was taken aback, but before long I was looking forward to enjoying each crazy arrangement. All the actors do a credible job dancing to Jennifer Perry’s choreography—Sarah Brazier stands out. Set Designer Richard Olmsted creates colorful, modern settings and Costume Designer Bethany Deal captures mountain west casual expertly.

Playwright McLeod tells a story familiar to “women of a certain age.” We all can recall, with a wince, a gushing infatuation in our past.  All of us can remember having to bite our tongues when a friend begins a love affair that we can see is doomed.  We will never forget that first compliment with the addition: “for your age.”

Jamie Jones and Lynda DiVito

Three meaty roles for women over 40 in one play soothes the jeopardy. The audience had a fine time; we all had plenty of laughs. Director Michael Butler gets high points for the precise and finely tuned timing of this busy farce. Take a break from the news. Enjoy an evening of silliness and laughs with friends.

“Women in Jeopardy!” by Wendy MacLeod, directed by Michael Butler, at Center Rep, Walnut Creek, plays through Saturday, February 25, 2017. Info: centerrep.org

Cast: Sarah Brazier, Eric Carlson, Lynda DiVito, Jamie Jones, Jason Kuykendall, and Elisabeth Nunziato.

 

 

 

“Belleville” Weaves Tangled Web at Custom Made Theatre, S.F.

“Belleville” Weaves Tangled Web at Custom Made Theatre, S.F.

Amy Herzog’s Alarming Americans in Paris

by Kim Waldron

“Belleville” by Amy Herzog, at Custom Made Theatre Co., provides a moving and unnerving 90 minutes of suspense. Smarter than the typical psychological thriller, spiced with an undercurrent of politics, the escalating tension causes enough unease that we end up squirming in our seats.

Herzog wrote “Belleville” first in 08-09, when the Madoff stock scam scandal was breaking and the housing bubble collapsing. The era of “deception we want to believe in” was blowing up, providing an apt birthright for the events here.

In a Paris apartment in Belleville—a multi-cultural neighborhood with Chinese, African, and Arab immigrants from France’s imperialist past—two Gen-Y expatriate Americans, Abby (an anxious Alisha Ehrlich) and Zack (a rakish Justin Gillman) have found a place to land. Their landlords, the play’s two other characters, Alioune (a forthright Nick Sweeney) and Amina (an elegant Nkechi Emeruwak), of Senegalese descent, have become friendly to the young and naïve couple. Well, at least Alioune and Zack smoke weed together.

Justin Gillman and Nick Sweeney

The apartment in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris shares some characteristics with San Francisco’s Tenderloin or Mission districts. Belleville is tough, gritty, diverse, and home to immigrants and artists. Like these San Francisco neighborhoods, Belleville faces an influx of new residents with more money than long-term residents. Belleville is, of course, older, and has welcomed immigrants from France’s former empire—from the former Asian, African, and Arabian colonies.

Abby and Zack’s Belleville apartment has many doors and expressionist angles, as befits all their secrets. Sound Designer Ryan Lee Short does an impressive job, bringing us sudden off-stage sirens, traffic, and babies’ crying—all contributing to building the tension.

Alisha Ehrlich, Justin Gillman, and Nick Sweeney

The contrast between the ex-pats and their landlords comes from first world versus colonial world differences. Alioune and Amina, the Senegalese couple, are raising babies; they act like grown-ups. Abby and Zack, the Americans, wallow in meds and fears. We are fascinated to slowly discover the unfolding distinctions between the two couples. Herzog unveils the contrasts between the African and the American ways dealing with life in Paris—even when it hurts to watch.

We are drawn to the young expats when we witness the tenderness they show each other. Abby is bouncy and naïve—still showing off their wedding album. Zack, a pediatric AIDS researcher, also young and charming, secretly comes home early from work, but is discovered by Abby. Lamentably, we find out that they are self-absorbed and reckless. Ehrlich and Gillman work magic so that we get deeply invested in Abby’s and Zack’s dysfunctions, while still hoping for their delivery from an imminent, undefined menace.

Justin Gillman and Alisha Ehrlich

Slowly we grasp the fact that Abby and Zack have deep problems, and our alarm grows. They frequently ask each other: “Are you okay?” We get confused about who is the more troubled and what lurks ahead. Minor events—the possession of a cell phone, the slicing of a baguette—set the stage for more threatening events. In “Belleville,” a phone call or a door opening becomes ominous. What we thought we knew now seems tenuous.

Alioune and Amina, practical and hard-working, are building their life. They assume no entitlement as they construct their future. They are capable and straightforward where Abby and Zack are aimless and casual. Abby asks Alioune, “When you were little, did your parents constantly tell you: “It doesn’t matter what you do when you grow up as long as you’re happy?” Alioune is at a loss for words. Nick Sweeney plays the Senegalese apt. manager with elegance and delicacy. Herzog never hits us on the head with today’s ugly economics, but Alioune makes her point. By class, race, and nationality, some are born to privilege. Others are required to work.

Alisha Ehrlich and Nick Sweeney

Nkechi Emeruwak as Amina expresses whole worlds about her tenants with a grimace or a glare. She will not be taken lightly. Sweeney’s Alioune always maintains his dignity, we feel his struggle between duty and heart. Alioune’s humanity offers us a moral compass as events unfold.

Nick Sweeney and Nkechi Emeruwak

Custom Made says they are “producing plays that awaken our social conscience” and they surely succeed with “Belleville,” first produced in 2011, which is both mystery thriller and global commentary. An adroitly conceived play, suspenseful and quietly political, Herzog’s “Belleville” offers a sharp and insightful trip to the part of Paris where the Bataclan nightclub attack took place.

The play has a short, poignant final scene in French, featuring only Alioune and Amina. But we don’t need to know French to understand their simple, brief conversation. Alioune and Amina’s faces, tone, and their work tell us what we need to know. Alioune is heartbroken. Amina notes that it is not the end of their world. They have things to do.

 

“Belleville” by Amy Herzog, directed by M. Graham Smith, at Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco, through Saturday, January 28, 2017.  Info: custommade.org

Cast:  Alisha EhrlichJustin Gillman,  Nick Sweeney, and  Nkechi Emeruwak.

“Gertrude Stein and a Companion” Alive in Paris, at Theatre Rhino, S.F.

“Gertrude Stein and a Companion” Alive in Paris, at Theatre Rhino, S.F.

Gertrude and Alice Make Good Company

by Kim Waldron

If you are fed up with the current political scene, Kardashian pop culture, and anti-intellectualism, escape to a sweet world of love, paintings, and ideas, courtesy of Gertrude Stein (Kathryn Wood) and Alice B. Toklas (Elaine Jennings) at Theatre Rhinoceros, through Sunday, January 8, only.

In Win Wells’ play “Gertrude and a Companion,” Gertrude and Alice, in their Paris salon, recall their extraordinary life together. As they share memories and much laughter, the depth of their relationship becomes clear. We learn how Alice took over management of the practical side of their lives so that Gertrude could write, read, entertain, buy paintings, and shine.We learn how their commitment to one another resulted in one of the most artistically productive, and yet loving, partnerships of modern times.

Elaine Jennings and Haley Bertelsen

Gertrude and Alice hosted many artists and travelers at 27, rue de Fleurus, Paris between 1902 and 1938. These visitors came to see the walls covered with the avant-garde cubist and impressionist art that Gertrude bought and displayed. It is to be noted that they came, also, to eat the dinners prepared by Alice.  And, of course, when the visitors left, Gertrude wrote some of the most inventive and startling, if challenging, literary works of her time.

We get to eavesdrop on Alice’s pain in doing a “murder” when she has to clean a carp for Picasso’s lunch. We learn the silly nicknames each has for the other.  We enjoy Gertrude’s confusion at just which wife that Hemingway  was fighting with that day.  Gradually, more significant memories occur.  We watch Alice learn the art of publishing and learn how she gets Gertrude’s first book published.  We see how Alice’s appreciation of Gertrude’s work helps the writer persevere, despite the scorn of others.

Whatever the memory unfolding, always we enjoy the company.   And we get to marvel at the Picasso paintings. In 1933, The New York Times called  Stein’s Paris salon “the First Museum of Modern Art.” Here it is beautifully imagined with a clothesline full of unframed famous canvases—including Picasso’s “Portrait of Gertrude Stein”—all hanging as a backdrop.  There’s Matisse, Cezanne, and lots of Pablo, all great friends of Stein and Toklas from the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kathryn Wood and Elaine Jennings

Kathryn Wood gives us a perfect Gertrude Stein, capturing both Stein’s writing style and sound-cadence, while personalizing her written words.  Wood has studied her Gertrude’s physicality, sensibility, and her love of Toklas. Elaine Jennings may be a tall Toklas, but she manages to evoke the direct, sharp manner. Jennings becomes Alice in black bangs and black dress, invoking Alice’s “Spanish” disguise. Haley Bertelsen plays “Everybody Else” credibly, including obnoxious U.S reporters, Hemingway, Leo Stein, and the Nazi major who was forcibly billeted with these two American Jewish women in southern France during World War Two.

In the years of the Paris salon, Alice was regarded by many as simply Gertrude’s unnamed companion. As much as we have come to respect Alice’s unlocking the door to Gertrude’s success; we recognize, too, that Gertrude is quite possibly the genius she and Alice claimed her to be. Yet, as Gertrude reminisces,  we see that she is a down-to-earth woman. We hear her pride as an American, a most open and democratic pride. She is a clever,  generous host who laughs easily.

Elaine Jennings and Kathryn Wood

This play, intelligently directed by Wood and John Fisher, is a love story between two brilliant women who were soul mates, two people who were fortunate enough to find and complete one another. No lives are without tears or suffering, so we experience some of their pain too as time passes.  But you will enjoy your time in their company, and will be sorry to leave – especially to return to 2017.   Fortunately, something of the essence of their lasting love will walk out into the street with you.

There is wonderful memorabilia of the two women in the lobby–don’t miss it.

 

“Gertrude and a Companion” by Win Wells, directed by Kathryn Wood & John Fisher, at Theatre Rhinoceros, at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA 94111, through Sunday, January 8, 2017. Info: therhino.org

Cast: Kathryn Wood as Gertrude Stein. Elaine Jennings as Alice B. Toklas. Haley Bertelsen as Everybody Else.

 

Note: Too much happened in the lives of Stein and Toklas to capture in one play. Consider this play as a catalyst to read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude SteinBehold Stein in medical school and learn why her French cook didn’t like Matisse.  And maybe it’s time for a walk up to City Lights Bookstore and their Poet’s Corner?  Finally, now that recreational marijuana is legal in California, it’s time for some of us to revisit The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook for that recipe for hashish fudge.