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“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:

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.

“The Lion King” Roars at SHN Orpheum in San Francisco

“The Lion King” Roars at SHN Orpheum in San Francisco

Young and Old Thrill to Sparkling African Folklore

by Sysamone Phaphon

Last weekend I went to a live theatrical musical for the first time. I attended “The Lion King” on Sunday evening with my two children. My son, Ari, age eight, had quite a bit to say about the display on stage. In particular I found one comment interesting:

“I liked it because it had a lot of African Americans performing in it.”

“The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum Theater. Photo: Joan Marcus.

I should share that he’s a bit of a thought leader even at his age. The prejudice against talented people of color in the film industry is not new news. We’ve all seen movies in which the lead character wouldbe  better as a person of color, but instead was played by a Caucasian actor in heavy makeup. Hollywood “whitewashing,” as they call it, has showcased itself in movies like the classic “Jade Tan in Dragon Seed” (1944).  In that movie, the lead character, a Japanese woman, was played by Katherine Hepburn, a Caucasian actress. More recently, Hollywood whitewashing can be seen in movies like “A Mighty Heart,” where Angelina Jolie takes the role of a person of color. There is no hiding the fact that the film industry has a racial presentation problem.

We often see moviemakers trying to create an illusion about a character’s race. My eight year old understands the prejudices against people of color and recognizes it daily. There’s no shortage of places for him to learn about prejudice, since both his parents are involved in solving and dealing with social injustices, daily.   Astounded at the amazing voices, hypnotizing costumes, colors, and brilliantly colored set displays, he mainly put his two little thumbs up for the inclusion of people of color in “The Lion King.”

Buyi Zama as Rafiki. “The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum.

Opening the show, we are welcomed by the crazy and energetic baboon, named Rafiki, played by the extraordinarily talented singer and actress, Buyi Zama. Zama’s voice hits you right in the center of your chest. Her striking, unforgettable, powerhouse voice keeps all eyes focused on her. Even her male counterparts, singing from the corner of the balconies, from a sea of people, cannot compete with her spine tingling tones. Buyi Zama’s thrilling vocals set an unforgettable note for the rest of the “The Lion King” show.

We could feel the roots of Africa vibrating through every inch of the elaborate stage sets on the Orpheum stage. The musical showcases African cultures with choreography, costumes, set design, and, of course, the music. Vibrant African inspired, richly colored textiles, and detailed weavings in each costume captivate both adults and children.

The imposing headdress-masks, anchored above Mufasa’s and Scar’s heads, maneuver smoothly up and down. Every time they transition their bodies into a fighting pose, the beautiful animal masks slide down to cover their faces. Then, their gentle body movements magically move the masks back into place above their heads. The dance of the floating masks creates a dynamic show all on its own!

“The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum. Photo: Joan Marcus.

During less dramatic scenes, African dance movements add power to their lines, making us feel in sync with every emotion and each word.   The dramatic, spirited dancing and singing of the ensemble during the livelier scenes, moves me so much that I want to move in my seat! The magnificent red, gold, green, blue set designs, the sensual dances, and the unique animal characters brought to life by giant puppets of lions, giraffes, and elephants will stick in our minds, forever.

We love the hilarious comedic performances by the dynamic duo: Timon (Meerkat played by Nick Cordileone) and Pumba (Warthog played by Ben Lipitz). Their scenes, especially the one presenting their signature ‘feel good’ song “Hakuna Matata” brings happiness and life to our oldest landscapes and culture—our African origins.

“The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum Theater.

The original Disney animated version of The Lion King movie (1994) of the landscape of Africa was designed with inspiration. But the musical magnifies the landscape, making it move and breathe and sing in our ears. Julie Taymor has created a true masterpiece of Eastern and African puppetry!

You must see this musical at least once in your lifetime. Mere description can not do justice to the genius of  “The Lion King.” Although many writers over the years have tried to capture the amazing details of the “Lion King” musical,  I highly recommend seeing it in person. The amazing power of the human in music and motion will touch your body, soul, and spirit. You, too, will soar when you see the “The Lion King” in person.

“The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum. Photo: Joan Marcus.

“The Lion King” at SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco, runs through Saturday, December 31, 2016.

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.

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?

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.

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:

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.
Josh Schell: Nick. David Sinaiko: George. Megan Trout: Honey. Beth Wilmurt:  Martha.

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