Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Comedy Updated at La Val’s
by Gilad Barach
When Sir Peter Teazle (lovable Michael Barr) discovers his wife, Lady Teazle (unapologetic, powerful Jennifer Greene) hiding in Joseph Surface’s office, the cozy stage of La Val’s Subterranean Theater makes the suspense palpable. As the characters in “School for Scandal” repeatedly conceal and reveal their sins, each time with a refreshing spin, they force a question on us: What are we hiding?
Director Tina Taylor’s modernized version of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 classic “The School for Scandal” shifts its tone between explosive/ silly, hysterical/ grounded, and jarring/ intimate. Theatre Lunatico has recently moved into LaVal’s on Northside, Berkeley, and they are already at home. They manipulate the small space brilliantly, with a performance built for the place. The tightly packed theater adds to the “Scandal’s” rising tension—with gossip spreading quickly in the intimate space.
In the absence of props, Lunatico’s constant motion offers us color and excitement. The actors use chalk to scrawl hashtags on the dark walls and floor, commenting cleverly, while sketching boxes and circles for walls, elevators, and trains. Short-tempered Sir Peter Teazle struggles desperately against a chalk line and gestures wildly to escape a broken elevator. This “School for Scandal”—updated—has the feel of modern improv.
The wormy Joseph Surface (enthusiastic Kaz Valtchev) illustrates the anxieties and self-doubt that come with pretense and fashion. Joseph, a nephew of wealthy Sir Oliver Surface (enthusiastic, charming Ray Martin), builds a facade to con his uncle for money. Even their name, “Surface,” reveals the superficiality—all surface, no depth.
On the other hand, Sir Oliver impersonates a Mr. Stanley and a Mr. Premium to reveal his two nephews’ true intentions. Sir Oliver’s malleable identities, goofy yet earnest, bring smiles to our faces. Sir Oliver and Joseph share an acrobatic scene of dodging and spinning, as Joseph nervously tries to conceal his real motives.
Although “The School for Scandal” hits the ground running, the characters’ motives only become clear when they begin to undermine each other. By Act Two, we are hooked, and curious to discover the next “fake news” gossip.
Mrs. Candour (shmaltzy Melanie Bandera-Hess) obsessively seeks gossip, and her grandiose gestures bring us to laughter. Bandera-Hess plays both Mrs. Candour, a hypocritical, nosy neighbor, and Careless, an apathetic, beer drinking side-kick. These contradictory roles highlight the fake identities that emerge on Twitter.
Constant chaos erupts from the ceaseless Twitter chatter. The bratty Lady Sneerwell (multi-talented Shawn Oda) and Mrs. Candour turn a shoulder to conceal their phone addictions. They must sneak in one more text, just one more Tweet.
Director Tina Taylor’s “School for Scandal” punctuates the plot with explosive scene transitions. A flood of anger erupts as the entire cast roils onto the stage out of character, colliding like bumper carts.
They rumble around, middle fingers protruding, cursing uninhibitedly, “FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE” and “Watch it, Bitch!” saying aloud what people write online.
These moments suggest that we depend unhealthily on our phones and struggle to face the world beyond our small screens. Theatre Lunatico’s production ridicules modern cellphone culture, forcing us to confront our obsessions while poking fun. Tina Taylor’s “School for Scandal” teaches lots of lessons about humor and humility.
“The School for Scandal” by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, directed by Tina Taylor, by Theatre Lunatico, at La Val’s Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid Avenue, Berkeley, through Sunday, December 10, 2017. Info: schoolforscandal
Cast: Shoresh Alaudini, Melanie Bandera-Hess, Michael Barr*, April Culver, Jennifer Greene, Shawn Oda, Ray Martin, Nicole Thordsen, Kaz Valtchev, and Dalia Vidor.