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Author: Svea Vikander

“Roe” Versus Women, Mothers, Others, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

“Roe” Versus Women, Mothers, Others, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Lisa Loomer Rocks the Boat: Who Chooses?

by Svea Vikander

Lisa Loomer’s “Roe” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre tells the story of the landmark Supreme Court abortion case Roe versus Wade (1973) and the women who fought for it. The play draws us into the tension of competing narratives: the story as told by polished lawyer Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) who, along with Linda Coffee (a convincingly eccentric Susan Lynskey), argued the case; and the life and opinions of spunky Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner), the pregnant and feisty “Roe,” who claims the lawyers deceived her into pressing the case.

Sara Bruner and Sarah Jane Agnew, in “Roe” by Lisa Loomer. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Norma’s story begins in a lesbian bar in small town Texas. As a waitress at the Red Devil Lounge, she by turns scandalizes and seduces her colleagues, who tell her that she is “going to hell on a scholarship” as penance for her antics. In a 2013 article in Vanity Fair, Joshua Prager recounts a story from Norma’s co-worker at the time: “Norma would bring two outfits to work: a dress and jeans, so that she could wear the jeans if the customer were girly, the dress if she was a cute butch.”  

Catherine Castellanos and Sara Bruner. Photo: Jenny Graham.

While it did not make it into Lisa Loomer’s script, this anecdote encapsulates Norma’s shape-shifting personality and the shifting gender norms of the time. Spanning 50 years of cultural change—from the late ‘60s to the present—“Roe” presents a multitude of perspectives not just on abortion but also on women’s roles and social class inequalities. Once the small town Texas girl becomes famous as “Roe,” long after she has had to give her baby away, we see the ways she uses and is used by the lawyers, the news, prominent feminists, and talk show hosts. She continues to wear jeans for some, and dresses for others.

Amy Newman and Sara Bruner. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Sarah Weddington’s story begins at a Women’s Consciousness Raising group in which the members devote their time to both afternoon tea and the search for their own elusive cervixes. We are introduced to Weddington’s legal ambitions as she delivers an impromptu speech on the need for universal abortion access. She describes bloody, tortured deaths and “entire hospital wings for botched abortions.” While Weddington expounds, Roxanne (Kenya Alexander), the Consciousness Raising group’s lone woman of color, attempts to educate her about racial inequity. She manages only a few interjections. We learn that while Weddington wants to do the right thing, she is willing to railroad a few people to get it done. 

Sarah Jane Agnew and Sara Bruner. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Director Bill Rauch knows how to engage an audience. As the play progresses, the audience becomes increasingly agitated; on opening night a woman yelled an “Amen!” after Norma calls an evangalist a “Dumbass Christian cunt.” Like “Hand to God,” also playing at Berkeley Rep and also set in Texas, “Roe” would surely not play so well in the Texan towns where most of its action takes place. And like “Hand to God,” the playwright has mostly succeeded in portraying people with funny human foibles instead of caricatured Southern hicks. 

Loomer edges close to stereotype in her portrayals of drug and alcohol abuse. She presents Norma’s mother Molly (Pamela Dunlap) as a ridiculous, messy, mean, perpetual drunkard. Like a Disney villain, she has no saving grace. We fear her and we laugh at her misery. In contrast, when Loomer’s well-known public figures wryly introduce themselves by way of their actual obituaries or their Wikipedia entries, we share their annoyance. These woefully inadequate obits feel delightfully, hysterically wrong. Like the characters on the stage, there is nothing we can do about it. 

Sara Bruner, Amy Newman, and Gina Daniels.  Photo: Jenny Graham.

Roe” has an extra challenge: How to present Norma McCorvey as self-serving and irresponsible without defaulting to anti-choice stereotypes of abortion-seeking women as, well, self-serving and irresponsible. Norma becomes a multi-dimensional character when she recounts the loss of her three children (all forced adoptions, the Supreme Court case having taken years to resolve). In these subplots, her wellings of emotion feel authentic, her rancor appropriate.

But I am wary of using a woman’s maternity (whether thwarted or fulfilled) to feel compassion for her. Throughout the play, anti-choice activists do precisely that. To them, motherhood will provide redemption. The Anti-Choicers denigrate and pity women who choose not to reproduce, including Norma and her decades-long partner Connie. Am I, in caring for Norma only when she shows her grief at losing her children, doing anything different?

Sarah Jane Agnew, Susan Lynskey, Richard Elmore, Sara Bruner, Catherine Castellanos. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Scene designer Rachel Hauk’s simple wooden stage set features a series of interlocking, sliding floors that move silently to bring actors forward to us and then back. Wendall K. Harrington’s stage-wide projections of palm trees, convenience stores, and government buildings transport us around the country swiftly and effectively. Hauk also makes use of historical photographs, including those of women whose names have long since been lost. We see them marching, holding placards with mottoes like: “Don’t Rock the Cradle, Rock the Boat!” Like this rumbling and tender play, the placards feel both sweetly antiquated and terrifyingly relevant. 

“Roe” by Lisa Loomer, directed by Bill Rauch, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in co-production with Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage, a world premiere, through Sunday, April 2, 2017. Info: berkeleyrep.org

Cast: Jim Abele, Sarah Jane Agnew, Kenya Alexander, Mark Bedard, Zoe Bishop, Sara Bruner, Catherine Castellanos, Gina Daniels, Pamela Dunlap, Richard Elmore, Susan Lynskey, and Amy Newman.

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.  Also check our Recent Shows.

Svea Vikander is a Swedish-Canadian radio producer and mental health professional. She lives in Berkeley with her husband and two small children. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Sandra Tsing Loh Smashes Sandcastles at Berkeley Rep

Sandra Tsing Loh Smashes Sandcastles at Berkeley Rep

“Madwoman in the Volvo” Drives Us to the Desert

by Svea Vikander

In her show “The Madwoman in the Volvo” at Berkeley Rep, Sandra Tsing Loh tells uncomfortable stories that need to be told. Accompanied by only two other cast members—the remarkably fluid Caroline Aaron and a slyly neurotic Shannon Holt—Tsing Loh dissects and dismantles our most prized stereotypes about middle age, menopause, and motherhood.

A woman is not expected to go to Burning Man, have an affair with a married man, and leave her well-tended rose bushes for an inflatable mattress on the floor of a dingy apartment. But this is what Tsing Loh did. The inimitable NPR personality and stage performer left her husband for her long-time best friend and stage manager, after a drug-fueled 24 hours at Burning Man. And then she wrote a memoir, The Madwoman in the Volvo, upon which this show is based.

Sandra Tsing Loh, Shannon Holt, and Caroline Aaron in The Madwoman in the Volvo at Berkeley Rep.
Sandra Tsing Loh, Shannon Holt, and Caroline Aaron. Photo by Debora Robinson

Tsing Loh begins with a roar, inviting the audience to release their political and personal frustrations in a unified, minute-long scream. She screams, too. Through 90 minutes (no intermission!), Tsing Loh and her compatriots fully invest their bodies, hearts, and voices in the most intense experiences of her 40s. Aaron and Holt play a rotating cast of characters, including Tsing Loh’s ex-husband, her lover, and her therapist. In their primary roles as her female friends, they give advice—”join my crone reading group!”—and confessions—”I’m getting an affair for my 45th birthday!” They serve as both filter and megaphone for the harsh judgments of society at large.

Sandra Tsing Loh and Caroline Aaron in The Madwoman in the Volvo at Berkeley Rep.
Sandra Tsing Loh and Caroline Aaron. Photo by Debora Robinson

Most of the stage is covered in three inches of sand, reminding us throughout the play of the playa on which the unraveling began. Tsing Loh delivers her monologues on a black thrust stage, inadvertently tracking sand onto it as the show continues. It’s an acute visual reminder of the inevitable messiness of, well, every human endeavor.

The sand is only one way that we are reminded of the dryness of the desert, which seems to serve as a metaphor for a certain kind of female fierceness. Before she leaves for Burning Man, Tsing Loh’s husband tells her to “Remember to keep hydrating.” Instead, she ingests mushrooms and confesses her love for her best friend. Tsing Loh finds it impossible to pee in the desert, and she describes the sensation of her urine being “sucked back in, up my chakras, into my hypothalamus.” In short, hydration becomes the least of her worries. At another point, she describes her ex-husband as the kind of man who would rather re-tile the roof than talk to her; but, as she muses later, at least the roof gets re-tiled. He wants to protect her from the elements. He doesn’t realize she is one.

Caroline Aaron, Shannon Holt, and Sandra Tsing Loh in The Madwoman in the Volvo at Berkeley Rep.
Caroline Aaron, Shannon Holt, and Sandra Tsing Loh. Photo by Debora Robinson

America has established a simple narrative for the implosion of middle-class, middle-aged identity. The mid-life crisis is identified through its flashy car, its toupee, and its younger woman, because the crisis-afflicted is always male. American mid-life crisis is resolved through a new marriage, or a return to the wife, because the crisis-affected is always female. Our understanding of this crisis is undergirded by an understanding that the male ego is fragile because these things happen

Sandra Tsing Loh, Shannon Holt, and Caroline Aaron in The Madwoman in the Volvo at Berkeley Rep.
Sandra Tsing Loh, Shannon Holt, and Caroline Aaron. Photo by Debora Robinson

A woman at middle-age has nowhere to strike the match when she needs to burn down the house. In a culture that mandates maternal bliss (she has kids! She should be happy!), the very fact of her distress is verboten. The double standard creates the chaos in which Tsing Loh finds herself. She is thrown back, for a moment or a year, into extended adolescence, romantic crises, changing jobs, and moving from one apartment to another. We have seen stories like this before—Anna Karenina comes to mind—but they follow the arc of tragedy, the ruining of a good woman.

Tsing Loh presents her experiences as the natural consequences of a real biological and social transition. She is committed to working it out, laughing about it, engaging with the issues beyond being considered a “ruined” woman. Narratives like hers and like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying do not carve out mere niches. They build out a railway trestle for women’s biographical stories.

 

“The Madwoman in the Volvo” by Sandra Tsing Loh. Directed by Lisa Peterson, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley, CA, through January 15, 2017. Info: berkeleyrep.org

Cast:  Caroline Aaron, Shannon Holt, Sandra Tsing Loh

 

Svea Vikander is a Swedish-Canadian radio producer and mental health professional. She lives in Berkeley with her husband and two small children. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

We’re Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Shotgun Players, Berkeley

We’re Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Shotgun Players, Berkeley

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee

A Date Night Dialogue

by Svea Vikander and Zu Edward

Zu Edward: Albee’s play breaks on you with a torrent of words.  The words come fast.  They have to.  The play is three hours long.  In the hands of David Sinaiko (George) and Beth Wilmurt (Martha), the pacing, the timing sound right, the punchlines perfect. Their George and Martha, they are two old adepts, geniuses, really, in the game they are playing.  What is this game?  And why are they playing?  

Svea Vikander: For fun! I think—

ZE: It’s something cruel, clearly, but at the beginning, while Martha is giving as good as she gets from George, you think that maybe, just maybe, they can take it from each other, that this is some old ritual shared between two soul-mate “phrase-makers,” to use Martha’s word, performed to intrigue and challenge a twenty-year binge of college faculty dinners, presidents and professors, and the wives of professors (it’s 1962 here), the fresh-bodied professor with the fresh ambition, the sex and the 2 a.m. liquor.

SV: Oh, the liquor!

ZE: The bottles are arrayed before you, a blue-lit background to all that will transpire.  God spare the outsider who would dare to interfere.  Wouldn’t you say so, dear?

Beth Wilmurt as Martha
Beth Wilmurt as Martha

SV: Your delicacy can only be matched by their need to perform. George and Martha need an audience to watch them tear each other apart, even if only their sober selves gazing down from their mid-century modern second floor platform in their mid-century modern apartment. That’s the real uncomfortable truth of the play: we, innocent audience members, stare with mouths agape at their infinitely ingenious methods of torture.  The taste it leaves in our mouths is painful and delicious.

ZE: The taste of a nickel?

SV: It’s a public hanging. The thing is, some of us are looking for the last-minute reprieve, and some of us are not. Unlike you, or Nick (Josh Schell) , or Honey (Megan Trout), I am always happy to interfere.  Do you know, the last time you asked my opinion about anything was about an acid-wash jacket you couldn’t decide to buy?

ZE: I wore that jacket today.  And I do have a soft spot for the diffident. Nick and Honey, will they leave or won’t they? They so obviously don’t want to be there and yet can’t seem to tear themselves away.  Honey at least has the sense to drink herself out of it.

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Megan Trout as Honey

SV:  And vomit, a lot of the time.

ZE: Josh Schell’s Nick is such a sincere Tom Buchanan of an all-American sportsman, this could very well be his first encounter with irony.  The first time anyone spoke to him without the deference due his pedigree. This is a man who knows a locker room.  What can he do but plunge forward with brute physicality?

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Josh Schell as Nick, Beth Wilmurt as Martha, David Sinaiko as George

SV: Maybe shut up and drink his Negroni? Because let’s face it, conditions are perfect. Nina Ball’s excellent, pared-down stage design works just as well for WAVW?” as it does for Chris Chen’s “Caught.” There is no couch, table, bed, or chair. Not even a vase of large flowers. The stage is an expanse of parquet flooring interrupted only by a recessed staircase leading to two ledge-balconies above. Beneath them, two bars holding back-lit liquor bottles shining in their niches like miniature madonna statues. Basically, the set is: drinking.

ZE: A blank page?

SV: A blank stage.

ZE: You never want to see an actor act drunk.  These guys more or less finessed it.  But at its best the physicality of play shows pure Mark Jackson.  Took me back to “The Death of Meyerhold.” Those moments when everything that need be said was said in a high knee step, the twist of a foot, a dart-thrown tulip, the saucy opening of a fresh man-hip.  Josh Schell bounds up the stairs, two at time, hulking and simian, after his stone-drunk wife. Bounds into his hostess’s bed.

SV: The thing I liked most of all in the play—aside from the idea of ice cubes made from tears—is Martha’s fluidity.

ZE:  Remember, we guessed she was a dancer?

SV:  Her quick bends, the twisting, turning, sliding across the stage… I felt my own knees wince. And it’s from Martha we feel the most hatred, envy, and pathos.

ZE:  That dance scene, between Nick and Martha, had to be the climax.  Her 60s mod to his Geico lizard shuffle—never have two people wanted so hard to use each other as those two in that moment.  It was dire and hilarious.  You were laughing out loud. We were laughing out loud.

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David Sinaiko as George

SV: In the end, it’s George’s show.  He’s the lizard.

ZE: The snake in the grass.

SV: And yet to him, she’s the Nasty Woman.

ZE: Well, wicked, and echoes of His Orangeness, definitely.  All that brilliance, that broken since childhood brilliance, shunted away in the history department of some small, safe, incestuous New England college town, he summons for one last heroic charge to make the people near him feel small.

SV: The real question we need to address is: Where are my drunken faculty parties? Where is my sordid sexual liberation? What happened to the days of louche academic infidelity?

ZE: Feminism!

SV: As the wife of a professor, all I get is updates from a faculty listserv.

 

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee, directed by Mark Jackson, at Shotgun Players, Berkeley, California, through Sunday, November 20, 2016 (Initial Run). Info: shotgunplayers.org

Nina Ball: Set Designer. Heather Basarab: Lighting Designer. Ashley Holvick: Costume Designer. Rivianna Hyatt: Asst. Director. Heather Kelly-Laws: Production Assistant. Dave Maier: Fight Director. Maggie Manzano: Stage Manager. Kirsten Royston: Props Designer. Molly Stewart-Cohn: Master Electrician. Sara Witsch: Sound Designer.
Cast:
Josh Schell: Nick. David Sinaiko: George. Megan Trout: Honey. Beth Wilmurt:  Martha.
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Zu Edward is a Professor of Physics at a small liberal arts college.
Svea Vikander is a radio producer and career coach. Follow her on twitter

“Frog and Toad”: French Food for Thought at Bay Area Children’s Theatre

“Frog and Toad”: French Food for Thought at Bay Area Children’s Theatre

Ambiguity for Little Amphibians

by Svea Vikander

In her 2012 book Bringing Up Bebe (Penguin), Pamela Druckerman talks about the amorality of French children’s books. Things aren’t resolved, she tells us: when strands of conflict unravel they rarely end tied in an instructive little bow. In America, however, we expect our children’s stories not only to entertain but to improve our children, too. We want stories to teach our kids how to count, how to manage their money, or how to stand up to bullies. “Frog and Toad,” by Bay Area Children’s Theatre, running weekends until September 25, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, sidesteps heavy-handed morality to portray instead that most ethically challenging of life’s endeavors: a real human relationship.

The story is told through short and lively episodes in the shared lives of Frog and Toad, who live next door to each other in matching Disney-esque houses. They are two old friends whose love for one another is deeply devoted and ostensibly platonic. Their complementary personalities provide good fodder for stories of misunderstanding: Will Snail ever deliver Toad his letter? Tales of disagreement: Is risk-taking Frog responsible for risk-averse Toad’s sledding misadventure? And incidents of thwarted desire: Will they ever discover who wrecked their leaf piles? The piece is a Tony-nominated musical recommended for children ages three and up. I brought my five year-old son, Tiyo, to attend his first-ever play.

The reviewer and her son
The reviewer and her theater-going son.

Tiyo laughed out loud when Toad broke his morning alarm with a shoe, and he watched the oversized chocolate chip cookie dance with wide eyes. By the time the production was three quarters through, however, he was nudging my arm and quietly whispering that he would like to go home. By the time it was finished, he was waving his feet dangerously close to the upper vertebrae of the dad in the next row.

He wasn’t alone.

Looking out at the audience of small children and their grandparents during the final act, I was reminded of a bucket of writhing fishing worms. A production for preschoolers should probably be shorter, if only as a public health measure. But despite their kinetic desires, no child cried, screamed, or otherwise interrupted the 65 minute show; a compliment, as any parent knows, of the highest order.

Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Toad and Brett Jones as Frog
Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Toad and Brett Jones as Frog

I enjoyed it, too. Like many children’s musicals, its lyrical word-play is intended for the parents, not the children, and it was both clever and funny. The acting style, with Brett Jones as Frog and Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Toad, fits its audience perfectly. They are emphatic and clear, without being plodding or condescending. Amy Poehler look-alike Chrissy Brooks plays the adorable scrunch-faced mouse as if the role was made for her, and the whole cast can sing and dance.

Tiyo discussing the show with Theatrius editor Barry Horwitz
Tiyo discussing the show with Theatrius Editor Barry David Horwitz

The world of Frog and Toad has no authority figures. This means that unlike, for example, every episode of “Full House” ever made, the show does not include a Major Misstep from which an authority figure expounds on right or wrong. When things go awry we’re left to evaluate the characters’ decisions for ourselves. Such ambiguity makes not only for a better story, but also an unusual chance for our kids to exercise their own muscles of moral reasoning.

In one scene, Toad feels insecure about his appearance in a bathing suit and jumps into the water while Frog tries unsuccessfully to shield him from the pool-yard taunts of their friends. I worried that the taunting, delivered in a catchy, big band refrain of “Toad looks funny in a bathing suit!” would be upsetting for my son, who recently started kindergarten at a new school. And I felt a nagging discomfort when I realized that the scene was never to be fully resolved: Toad, too tired to keep swimming, climbs out of the pool, accepts that he looks funny in a bathing suit, and joins his friends in dancing and singing the song.

Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Toad
Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Toad

I waited for the moment when Frog would chastise the friends for their cruelty, or when some ex-machina event would befall the bullies. But it never came. The message to children, if any, is simply “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Adults know that this is an effective method of deflecting bullying. But we are loathe to admit it to our children; it’s not exactly party to the social justice values espoused by Danny Tanner or the Berkeley School Board.

For a moment, I wanted Frog and Toad’s fantasy world to correspond to my fantasy of childhood, in which my own children neither bully nor are bullied, are free to be themselves, and are supported in the peaceful resolution of interpersonal conflicts while carefully consuming a healthy snack of local organic fruit at a table made of reclaimed wood. Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that they are dancing amphibians, Frog and Toad portray the messy, exuberant reality of human dynamics instead. Sometimes the people who love us say unkind things. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes we just get out of the pool and dance.

And my son? He loved that scene.

In the days since, the song has become something of an inside joke between us. He sings it with me and he sang it to his little sister. She thinks it’s about putting a toad in your bathing suit but Tiyo and I know that the real story is something much more complicated, and much more interesting. It’s about what happens when the adults aren’t looking, when the knot of our insecurities is worried loose and we are left to imperfectly, independently, tie it back up again. America doesn’t do ambiguity well but Frog and Toad do. Take your kids to see it. They deserve a story that speaks to them.

“A Year with Frog & Toad,” Book by Willie Reale, Music by Robert Reale, presented by Bay Area Children’s Theatre, is playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Sunday, September 25, 2016. For info: bactheatre.org

Director: Nina Meehan. Music Director: Lynden Bair. Choreographer: Hannah Dworkin. Stage Manager: Christina Larson. Costumes: Amy Bobeda & Maggie Yule. Lighting: Sarina Renteria. Props: Joan Howard. Scenic Designer: Martin Flynn. Sound: Annemarie Scerra.

Cast: Frog: Brett Jones. Toad: Anthony Rollins-Mullens. Snail: Max Thorne. Turtle/Bird/Squirrel/Mole: Chrissy Brooks. Lizard/Bird/Squirrel/Mole: Cabiria Jacobsen.

SVEA VIKANDERSvea Vikander is a Swedish-Canadian radio producer and parenting coach. She lives in Berkeley with her husband and two children. Follow her on twitter and Instagram.