In recent years I've spent quite a few thrilling evenings in small theaters scattered around the Bay area. In most of these situations, a small nonprofit theater company's creative team has been clearly focused on artistic quality rather than size or spectacle. In venues ranging from Potrero Hill's Thick House to Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theater -- from Berkeley's Ashby Stage to the New Conservatory Theater Company's three tiny subterranean theaters -- I've witnessed some amazing performances.
Unlike the commercial theater, where profit is a driving force, resident nonprofit theater companies often serve as incubators for new works of art. In most cases, the people involved in these organizations have day jobs which support their artistic desires. Their ability to birth a new dramatic piece over a period of time by workshopping, refining, rehearsing, and eventually testing it before live audiences allows them not only to find the piece's artistic truth but to make the creative process their own.
While many repertory companies include one or two new works in each season, some of those pieces have been developed and workshopped in other cities before being mounted for a local audience. One of the Bay area's best kept secrets is a small theatrical company whose mission is to create bold new plays which challenge its audiences but can still be shared with the community at affordable prices. After attending several productions by the Central Works Theater Ensemble, I continue to be amazed by the intelligence of their work, the solidity of their craft, and the level of artistic integrity which drives their creative process.
Performances by this group take place in an extremely intimate setting at the Berkeley City Club which, like Randolph Hearst's San Simeon estate, was designed by Julia Morgan. With the audience surrounding the small performing area (which is probably no larger than your bedroom) in an arena seating pattern, I doubt you could find a more intimate theatrical experience.
The trick to working in such a small space -- where the actors are exposed on all sides -- is that the artistic product has to be rock solid. The company often finds inspiration for new works in classics of the theatrical literature. Shakespeare's King Lear served as a springboard for Every Inch A King. The current offering, Midsummer/4 takes the gimmick of a hallucinatory potion (famously used by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream) and updates it to show what can happen when two men and two women (who have ended up at a friend's unused summer estate), imbibe too heavily from an extremely potent bottle of absinthe that is rumored to have mystical powers.
Mind-altering substances are a frequent plot device, but capturing the speech patterns of people who are tripping their brains out is not an easy trick for any dramatist. Written by Gary Graves, skillfully directed by Jan Zvaifler, and with sound designed most effectively by Gregory Scharpen, Midsummer/4 takes its audience on a 95-minute psychological roller coaster. Graves (who also did the lighting design) scores strongly here by capturing the false starts, interruptions, and extreme emotional flipflops of people (whose inhibitions have evaporated under the influence of a powerful stimulant) and turning them into surprisingly tight and effective dialog. This piece, which has been carefully molded by the ensemble, has no extra fat on it.
Set in and around the main hall of the Sierra Nevada's Palace House, the play follows a long hard night with Dex (an arrogant, macho salesperson), Lawrence (a dorky grad student), Lena (a confused blonde with low self esteem) and Raissa (a semi-famous author who used to come to Palace House as a child). The basic setup is simple. Raissa and Lena are supposedly best friends who had planned to spend a weekend in the country together. Having recently met Dex at an "eye-gazing" event, Lena has invited him along for the weekend before asking Raissa's permission. Dex, being a bit of an asshole, has invited his friend Lawrence along without asking Lena's permission. As the play progresses we not only learn that Lawrence went to college with Lena, but that he may be one of the few people who has actually read and understood Raissa's book.
As the absinthe works its insidious magic, the characters are stripped of their delusions, freed of their inhibitions, left to wander in the woods, subjected to paranoid fears of paranormal phenomena, and eventually dumped back into a dramatically altered reality known to many as the "Christ, was I drunk last night!" syndrome.
One couldn't ask for a more confident and tightly-knit ensemble, with Arwen Anderson as Lena, Armond E. Dorsey as Dex, John Patrick Moore as Lawrence, and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong (a frequent performer with Lamplighters and 42nd Street Moon) as Raissa. Like other productions by CWTE, Midsummer/4 gains its strength -- in ways too numerous to count -- from the collaborative effort of the group.
If you're interested in theater which has been organically developed (as opposed to something sent out on a national tour), I can't recommend the Central Works Theater Ensemble strongly enough. It's a unique kind of theatrical experience designed to challenge and involve the audience, rather than just entertain them with a lot of glitter and noise.
The strength of the CWTE experience was sadly reinforced by an execrable staging of Terence McNally's Bad Habits by Square MaMa several nights later. This play is obviously not one of McNally's better efforts. In the director's notes, Randy Warren takes credit for having combined the two published versions of the play from 1974 and 1990. "This new version makes use of the new material while protecting the 'edge' of the original," he claims.
I can tell you that the first act of this production had no edge whatsoever (nor was anyone sitting on the edge of his seat waiting to see what would happen next). How bad could it have been? The first act alone could have been subtitled The Never Ending Story. Most of the heavy lifting (both physical and dramatic) was performed by a motorized wheelchair.
However, as someone who always looks for some redeeming value in a night at the theater I will confess to having learned two things at this performance: With Mr. Warren replacing one of the originally scheduled actors as Dr. Pepper, I discovered that a blisteringly bad director can also be a terribly untalented actor. Warren's strong facial resemblance to a conservative pundit of dubious renown offered me the perverse good fortune of seeing what neocon columnist William Kristol would look like in a wheelchair.
With the understanding that charity begins at home, I left the theater at intermission.