Sunday, May 20, 2018

Families in Crisis

It's always strange to hear people (who should be counting their blessings) pissing and moaning about their perceived misfortunes. Some waste a great deal of time and energy wallowing in self-pity as they obsess about presumed insults and petty inconveniences. In a rare moment of self-awareness, others will stop and sigh, "I have to have something to complain about."

To no one's surprise, when such narcissists are confronted by a performance which cuts close to home, they fail to see how the joke could be at their expense. In 1936, while working on a new musical entitled Red, Hot, and Blue, Cole Porter wrote a torch song for Ethel Merman entitled "Down in the Depths on the Ninetieth Floor." A song that captures the loneliness of a wealthy woman who feels unloved, it is nowhere as funny as the send-up of Marlene Dietrich that Mel Brooks wrote for 1974's hilarious film, Blazing Saddles.

While many cases of depression can be traced to financial problems or substance abuse, the paralyzing sense of grief triggered by a lost love or the death of a loved one is more difficult to put to music. In 1923, Irving Berlin wrote "What'll I Do?" for his third Music Box Revue. A song whose simplicity belies the gaping void left in someone's life by a lover who has moved on, it has since been recorded by numerous pop artists. In 1935's Porgy and Bess, "My Man's Gone Now" (written by George and Ira Gershwin to be sung by the grieving Serena) captures the character's visceral sense of loss.

Although it's easy to mock depression, it's no fun to live with it. Just as one person's depression can exacerbate the worst kinds of behavior in a dysfunctional family, being forced to live within a dysfunctional family can prolong and intensify a person's depressive state. It's a vicious cycle which feeds off a toxic mix of repressed anger, bitter emotions, hopelessness, and an ongoing sense of helplessness.

While depression may not be fun to live with, it offers plenty of inspiration for writers. By a curious set of circumstances, two small Bay area theatre companies recently presented the world premieres of plays which shine a spotlight on one woman's depression while demonstrating its profound effect on the other members of her family.

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For their 59th world premiere, the folks at Central Works decided to see if they could squeeze some comedy out of the famous trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus more than 2,500 years ago that is now known as The Oresteia. Written, directed, and with lighting designed by co-artistic director, Gary Graves, the company has relocated the action from the accursed and highly dysfunctional House of Atreus to the high desert of Nevada, where an old mansion abuts the junkyard owned and operated by a family business named Palace Wreckers. Graves refers to this four-character play as a "revenge comedy" as he explains that:
"Oresteez, a prodigal son of sorts, returns home with his sister, Elektra. Their father has died, and the two estranged siblings want to reunite with their bereft mother. But there’s a new man in the house and Elektra soon begins to suspect it was foul play that put her beloved father in the grave. Elektra wants revenge! What’s our prodigal son to do?"
Khary Moye is Oresteez in Palace Wreckers
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Those familiar with the original Greek tragedy, the 1909 operatic adaptation (Elektra) by Richard Strauss, Eugene O'Neill's 1931 Americanization of the story (Mourning Becomes Electra) and Marvin David Levy's 1967 operatic adaptation of the O'Neill play, will have an especially good time watching Palace Wreckers unfold. As a brief character guide, keep in mind that:
  • The modern-day Clytemnestra is named Carla. A bitter widow, deeply grieving the loss of her husband (who died of a heart attack and was buried in his beloved junkyard), Carla has been struggling to keep the family business afloat. Although her phone service has been cut off (probably for lack of payment), she is still filled with rage about the lack of communication with her children and the fact that they were not around to help her when their father died.
  • Clytemnestra's deceased husband, Agamemnon, is now referred to as Manny.
  • Clytemnestra's lover, Aegisthus, has been renamed Gus. An ex-con who came to work for Palace Wreckers, he has always been grateful to Manny (the only person who would hire him). Gruff, stubborn, and not particularly bright, Gus provides the muscle Carla needs to keep the business running. Whether or not they have become lovers is never clarified, although each time Gus injures himself, she tends to his wounds like a mother.
  • The name of Clytemnestra's son, Orestes, is now spelled Oresteez. Ten years ago he could no longer bear the tension between his parents and left home without telling anyone where he was headed. In order to get as far away from the Nevada desert as possible, he enlisted in the Navy and traveled around the world. While in the military, he also acquired some useful skills and contacts. Oresteez recently received training in the installation of solar panels.
  • Clytemnestra's daughter, Elektra, is once again spelling her name with a "k" instead of a "c." She now works in one of the bigger hotels in Las Vegas, where she has a job as an executive assistant. In addition to reuniting Carla and Oresteez, her goal is to sell the family property so that her mother can move into a better living situation.
Khary Moye (Oresteez) and Regina Morones (Elektra)
in a scene from Palace Wreckers (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

As the play begins, Palace Wreckers is facing a deadline to meet a potentially lucrative order of scrap metal but, with only Carla and Gus to do the work, their ability to come through is questionable. Elektra and Oresteez have driven down from Las Vegas for a surprise visit only to discover that their mother wants absolutely nothing to do with them. Carla (who resents Elektra's nice clothes and suspects that she is connected to the mob) remains furious with her son for abandoning her without a clue to his whereabouts.

Carla's children quickly notice that their mother is acting strangely. Strangely enough that they can't help wondering if, instead of dying from a heart attack, their father was murdered and his body put through the junkyard's crushing machine. Gus keeps trying to coax Oresteez into helping him run the junkyard's machinery so that Palace Wreckers can meet its deadline. However, having returned home with a keener business sense, Oresteez understands that scrap metal is no longer a profitable business and should be abandoned as a lost cause.

John Patrick Moore as Gus in a scene from Palace Wreckers
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Oresteez also has a hidden agenda. With some connections he made while traveling, he wants to turn the family's land into a solar farm that could passively earn substantial income by capturing the sun's energy. If Elektra goes ahead with her plan to sell the place, his dream will go up in smoke. Meanwhile, Carla is so angry (and trapped in a last-gasp effort to keep the family business alive) that there is no chance of bargaining with her. The only hope for Oresteez is to convince the strong but clumsy Gus -- who keeps injuring himself and has nowhere else to go -- that solar energy could be the solution to their financial troubles.

Unfortunately, Elektra (who is used to living and working in air-conditioned environments) seems to be coming unglued in the desert heat. As old mother-daughter tensions start to flare, she becomes increasingly suspicious of the relationship between Carla and Gus, and starts wondering if they didn't conspire to murder her father. When Elektra discovers an old sword that is a family heirloom, she's ready to start swinging it at people she doesn't trust.

Regina Morones as Elektra in a scene from Palace Wreckers
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

With his usual skill, Graves has written a script that does a fine job of pitting family members against each other while giving them enough zingers to keep the audience laughing. Dominating the play is Jan Zvaifler's unnerving, gorgon-like portrayal of Carla as a dried-up, emotionally weary, and physically exhausted widow who is not about to take any shit from her children.

Jan Zvaifler as Carla in a scene from Palace Wreckers
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

While Regina Morones (Elektra) and Khary Moye (Oresteez) try to bring a touch of sanity to the proceedings, Jan Zvaifler (Carla) and John Patrick Moore (Gus) achingly bring the play's juiciest roles to life while heightening its most intense moments. Making the proceedings spookier than one might expect is Gregory Scharpen, whose eerie sound design is like a master class in how to achieve more impact with less noise while doing a splendid job of creeping out the audience.

Khary Moye (Oresteez) and Regina Morones (Elektra)
in a scene from Palace Wreckers (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Performances of Palace Wreckers continue through June 10 at the Berkeley City Club (click here for tickets).

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As part of its annual Festival of New Works, PlayGround (in association with Planet Earth Arts) unveiled a new play by Julianne Jigour entitled Bright Shining Sea. Directed by Tracy Ward with a great deal of compassion and humor, the play involves six people whose lives have been affected in various ways by the slow but steady degradation of the environment affecting the Los Angeles Basin.

Lisa Morse (Maya) and Aaron Wilton (Brian) in a scene
from Bright Shining Sea (Photo by:

Maya (Lisa Morse) has just suffered her third miscarriage. Deeply depressed, she occasionally retreats to her bathtub to wallow in self-pity (as well as water). The situation has become so bad that her husband, Brian (Aaron Wilton), is moving out of their home as part of a trial separation. When Maya's sister, Eileen (Stacy Ross) comes to visit, Maya keeps pushing her to say the name of the baby that would have become her daughter. When Eileen confesses that she can't remember, Maya erupts in fury.

What she doesn't know is that Eileen is having problems of her own. Lately, she's been so deeply absorbed in her research about ocean acidification that she has become increasingly forgetful. Eileen has left her front door unlocked, forgotten to keep important promises to her daughter, Sylvia (Nicole Apostol Bruno), and is quietly freaking out about what the data she's been reviewing indicates about the future.

Stacy Ross (Eileen) and Nicole Apostol Bruno (Sylvia) in a
scene from Bright Shining Sea (Photo by:

In order to get some insight into what Maya might be experiencing, Brian sets up an appointment with his wife's former therapist, Wendy (Anne Darragh), who has become so bored and distracted while listening to her patients' complaints that she often nods off during a session. She covers for this by claiming that listening with her eyes closed sometimes helps her to focus more clearly and better hear what a patient is saying. Brian (who is also hoping to find out why he's so afraid to step foot in the ocean) quickly realizes that Wendy is wasting his time. After confronting the therapist about her ineffectiveness, she suggests that what he really needs to do is take swimming lessons.

Anne Darragh (Wendy) and Aaron Wilton (Brian) in a scene
from Bright Shining Sea (Photo by:

Wendy's life has not exactly been a barrel of laughs in recent years. Still bitter that her husband left her for a younger woman named Tanya, she has had to cope with the unxpected return of her grown son, Paul (Brady Morales-Woolery), a professional fisherman who has seen each catch diminish in size due a combination of overfishing, marine migration, and massive algae blooms caused by global warming. Tempers flare when Paul notices that his mother keeps taking long showers during California's drought and keeps washing her hands like Lady Macbeth. Wendy counters by demanding to know why Paul can't stay with his father instead of depending on her.

Anne Darragh (Wendy) and Brady Morales-Woolery (Paul) in a
scene from Bright Shining Sea (Photo by:

The situations in these three households keep intensifying until Maya goes to the beach one night and starts walking into the ocean. Luckily, Paul is standing nearby, trying to make sense of her behavior, and rescues her from drowning. When Eileen instinctively starts to worry about her sister, she and Sylvia start driving toward the beach to see if they can find Maya. Unfortunately, Eileen (who recently left one of her stove's burners on while she sat in another room reading) gets lost and, while arguing with Sylvia, collides with a pink pelican.

In addition to becoming more worried about her mother's behavior, Sylvia has been trying to help Brian learn how to swim. The discovery that Eileen is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease makes Sylvia realize that her life will never be the same again. The news is enough of a shock that it snaps Maya out of her depression and helps her face the fact that she is not the only one struggling with an irreparable sense of loss.

With help from Mikiko Uesugi's skeletal scenic units, Brittany Mellerson's lighting, and James Goode's excellent sound design, Tracy Ward has coaxed some memorable performances from her ensemble. While the younger generation (Brady Morales-Woolery as Paul and Nicole Apostol Bruno as Sylvia) try to develop the necessary coping skills to start caring for their mothers, two veteran Bay area actors (Stacy Ross and Anne Darragh) do a splendid job of depicting older women as they struggle to cope with their emotions. Lisa Morse and Aaron Wilton offer deeply conflicted portrayals of a couple in crisis.

Nicole Apostol Bruno as Sylvia in Bright Shining Sea
(Photo by:

Performances of Bright Shining Sea continue through June 16 at Potrero Stage (click here for tickets).

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Personal Perils of Living Under A Patriarchy

Q.  What do honey bees, killer whales, spotted hyenas, bonobos, elephants, meerkats, lions, and ants have in common?
A.  They all live in matriarchal societies.

Q.  What do Saddam Hussein, Wayne LaPierre, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Rudy Giuliani, Joseph Goebbels, Eric Schneiderman, Pol Pot, Oliver North, Rodrigo Duterte, Stephen Miller, Adolf Hitler, Harvey Weinstein, Benito Mussolini, Blake Farenthold, Joseph Stalin, and straight incels have in common?
A. They are all symbols of toxic masculinity.

“Sometimes, when I'm asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, I say 'When there are nine.' People are shocked. But there have been nine men and nobody's ever raised a question about that,” notes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

While there is no doubt that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," with the 2018 midterm elections fast approaching, more and more people are asking how they can become the change they desire.
When most people think of matriarchal societies, they tend to focus on:
Poster art from 1958's Attack of the 50-Foot Woman

Despite a history of female heads of state (such as Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Isabel Peron, Julia Gillard, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Dilma Rousseff, and Corazon Aquino), many voters gravitate toward male leaders who demonstrate strong tendencies for corruption and cruelty. Two recent productions showed Bay area audiences what can happen when women take the law into their own hands. One is a fictional farce based on a classic Greek comedy that is more than 2,400 years old. The other is a contemporary piece inspired by one woman's personal experiences with the law.

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One of the first things audience members notice as they enter Peet's Theatre to attend a performance of Heidi Schreck's new play is a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution of the United States of America on their seat. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of What The Constitution Means To Me. Those dreading some kind of stuffy classroom lecture should put such thoughts aside and fasten their seatbelts. As directed by Oliver Butler, this one-act play delivers some extremely poignant revelations about how the Constitution can be used to protect women's rights.

Working on Rachel Hauck's stark unit set (with lighting by Jennifer Schriever, sound by Sinan Refik Zafar, and costumes designed by Michael Krass), the Obie Award-winning playwright (who charmed audiences at Shotgun Players several seasons ago with Grand Concourse) has quite a tale to tell. Back when she was attending high school in Wenatchee, Washington, Schreck earned enough money to pay for her college tuition by delivering speeches about the Constitution in American Legion halls throughout the nation.

Heidi Schreck in a scene from
What The Constitution Means to Me (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

“Since I was 15, I’ve been fascinated by how one tiny little sentence in a 250-year-old document could affect my life so profoundly. There’s a way in which that sentence was the difference in me being here and not being here. I find that putting my own physical body in relationship to this document is a profound, interesting, and strange experience," explains Schreck. "For me, the most interesting part of working on this show is the examination of how the Constitution actually impacts me on an extreme, personal level. Telling the audience this story is a way for me to understand something (Constitutional law) that’s really hard to understand. I finally figured out the interplay of the Constitution and domestic violence as the result of many questions I sent to a lawyer.”

Unlike many monologues in which a performer switches back and forth between various characters, Schreck (one of the first women in multiple generations of her family to live in a home free from domestic violence) traces her lineage from a great grandmother who was a mail-order bride to herself while explaining the curious, misunderstood, and often overlooked role the Ninth Amendment has played in protecting the rights of women in America.

Danny Wolohan and Heidi Schreck in a scene from
What The Constitution Means to Me (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

In describing the four structural points to her presentation, Schreck notes that “The first three are essentially about my past. The fourth thing is about now. It goes great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, me. Within that framework, I tell about my grandma." However, in order to provide herself with someone who can ground her onstage, Danny Wolohan appears as an American Legion member who is enforcing the rules of debate. About two-thirds of the way through the show, Schreck is joined onstage by a local teenager in a debate format which tests their debating skills as well as their knowledge of the Constitution.

"When we were casting the show (both in Berkeley and New York), the most important thing we were looking for was somebody with a ferocious mind who was an actual debater: someone who does debate, knows how it works, and would be able to debate spontaneously onstage. Surprisingly, there are a lot of amazing young women who can do that," she states while adding that "It’s very popular right now to say ‘I’m not actually going to agree to debate the topic we agreed to debate.’ The argument is to say ‘Your rules are bogus and the structure is excluding me.’ A lot of students of color are doing this right now and I think it’s really inspiring. It’s young people saying ‘Actually, we don’t want to play by the rules anymore. We need to make new ones.’”

On opening night, Schreck's formidable challenger was Anaya Matthews, a 10th-grader at St. Mary's College High School who, as an aspiring playwright, is also a member of Berkeley Rep's Young Writers of Color Collective. As she excitedly introduced herself to the audience, Matthews added that, in addition to being fluent in French, she has performed with the Oakland Youth Chorus Chamber Singers, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the Oakland Art and Soul Festival, and been a young artist in residence at Children's Fairyland. This young woman is far from shy and comes to a debate loaded for bear.

Anaya Matthews in a scene from
What The Constitution Means to Me (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

While Schreck's new play brings a refreshingly personal touch to discussions of Constitutional law, it also removes the veil of secrecy from the days when only men sat on the Supreme Court. By playing a tape of several male justices struggling to discuss a case involving women's rights in the workplace, she demonstrates -- in a way that cannot be forgotten -- just how clueless some men can be.

Performances of What The Constitution Means to Me continue through June 17 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:
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The EXIT Theatre is currently presenting a new adaptation by Stuart Bousel of a political satire written by Aristophanes in 391 BCE. The plot of Congresswomen is fairly simple. Tired of having their needs ignored by the men who make the law in Ancient Greece, the women of Athens (led by Praxagora) plot a bloodless political coup. Seizing power turns out to be much easier than they anticipated. By wearing fake beards, dressing like men, letting the hair grow in their armpits and on their legs, the women are easily mistaken for handsome young men who might be shoemakers.

After entering the Assembly (where no male Athenian could even imagine a woman daring to set foot), the women achieve an easy majority vote. As the plot summary on Wikipedia indicates:
"Praxagora practices a speech decrying the corrupt leaders of the city as selfish and unpatriotic through their acts of war and personal enrichment through public funds. She proposes that the men turn control of the government over to the women because 'after all, we employ them as stewards and treasurers in our own households.' She further explains that women are superior to men because they are harder workers, devoted to tradition, and do not bother with useless innovations. As mothers, they will better protect the soldiers and feed them extra rations. As shrewd negotiators, they will secure more funds for the city."
The women of Athens don beards to vote themselves into power
in a scene from Congresswomen (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Men of the Assembly who have been tricked by the women's disguises soon discover that some of the new rules the women have enacted have a surprising impact on their daily lives. Praxagora's new government demands a new standard of living which applies to every citizen (including equal pay for men and women) and bans all private ownership of wealth. She explains that, with all of life's basic needs being covered by a common fund, there is no longer an incentive for anyone to amass personal wealth. In the true spirit of communal living, prostitutes will no longer have paying clients, the walls that create separate rooms within a house will be torn down, and men and women will be allowed to sleep with whomever they choose (so long as they commit to first sharing their bodies with the uglier members of the opposite sex).

After voting themselves into power, the women of Athens have
a few surprises for Chremes (Kyle McReddie) in a scene from
Congresswomen (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Praxagora's social engineering has a surprising impact on male privilege. Selfish men who thought they were entitled to anything (and everything) quickly learn that, without donating their belongings to the common good, they are not entitled to any of the food or wine for which the common fund provides. When a young man and woman develop the hots for each other, the man is shocked to find himself besieged by older women arguing over who will be the first to have sex with him. As Bousel explains::
“No one’s identity, gender or otherwise, is a promise that they will not mishandle power because power, by its very nature, changes one’s identity. While we cannot with certainty ever know how an individual or group will act once placed in a position of power, that there is an anxiety around any change in who runs the world is, to me, understandable. Generally, people in power, regardless of how they identify, don’t have the best track record, even if certain individuals and examples show that good leadership and government do and have existed. To read Congresswomen as a cautionary tale about putting women in power is to shortchange it enormously, in my opinion, especially as Aristophanes hardly thinks the men in the story have been doing a good job. Incompetent, selfish, insecure, weak-willed, uncharitable, and arrogant, the men have brought Athens to the brink of war, famine, and civil strife. If Praxagora and her friends don’t necessarily make it better, they certainly don’t take it anywhere it wasn’t already going.”
Nicole Odell (Praxagora) plots a political coup in
Congresswomen (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
“Praxagora epitomizes my complex relationship with the play, for while she is well-spoken and resourceful, she’s also ruthless and short-sighted. Her idealism is not always cognizant of the realities of human behavior, especially in regard to desire versus need. Societies may change who is on top, but they still have the same flaws, including (but not limited to) the reliance on the exploitation of a designated underclass in order to continue functioning. If Athens sinks deeper into the mire under the reign of the women, it has less to do with them being women, and more to do with the population of the city being human, and humans being selfish, paranoid, vain, violent, retaliatory, and unreasonable.”
Elliot Lieberman (Lychus) and Lauren Andrei Garcia (Hymenia)
in a scene from Congresswomen (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

There is no denying the timeliness of Bousel's decision to update the play's original script. Although Aristophanes (who also wrote Lysistrata and The Frogs) is credited with creating the first truly gross scatological joke for the theatre in Congresswomen, his play also contains the longest word ever written in Greek ("λοπαδο­τεμαχο­σελαχο­γαλεο­κρανιο­λειψανο­δριμυπο­τριμματο­σιλφιο­καραβομελιτο­κατα­κεχυμενο­κιχλεπικοσσυφοφαττο­περιστεραλεκτρυονοπτο­κεφαλλιο­κιγκλοπελειο­λαγῳοσιραιο­βαφητραγανο­πτερύγων").

In his 2002 collection of Greek plays entitled "Aristophanes: Frogs. Assemblywomen. Wealth," Jeffrey Henderson translated this 171-letter word to mean "limpets and salt fish and shark steak and dogfish and mullets and odd fish with savory pickle sauce and thrushes with blackbirds and various pigeons and roosters and pan-roasted wagtails and larks and nice chunks of hare marinated in mulled wine and all of it drizzled with honey and silphium and vinegar, oil and spices galore."

Unfortunately, the performance of Congresswomen that I attended was delayed for more than a half hour while the San Francisco Fire Department investigated a situation in the building next door to the EXIT Theatre. That night was also a living hell for many, like myself, who have been struggling with a tough allergy season. However, I did enjoy the performances by Nicole Odell as Praxagora, Steven Westdahl as her husband Blepyrus, Lauren Andrei Garcia as Hymenia, Elliot Lieberman as Lychus, and Kyle McReddie as Chremes. As members of the female chorus who were suddenly granted a new lease on their sexual lives, Sostrate (Brittany Nicole Sims), Clinarete (Alexia Staniotes, and Rhodippe (Amanda J. Lee) had a rollicking good time chasing after men who would normally have ignored them.

After voting themselves into power, the women of Athens have
a few surprises for Chremes (Kyle McReddie) in a scene from
The Congresswomen (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of Congresswomen continue through May 26 at the EXIT Theatre (click here for tickets).

Monday, May 14, 2018

Ain't Science Grand!

The much beloved Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) was famously known as "The Queen of Jazz" and "The First Lady of Song." Whether singing solo, performing "Three Little Maids From School" with Dinah Shore and Joan Sutherland, or recording commercials for Memorex, she became famous for her vocal range and signature scatting.

As demonstrated in the above video, the commercials Fitzgerald made for Memorex teased viewers by asking whether they could distinguish a taped performance from live singing. Although they were made years after the original run of The Twilight Zone on CBS (1959-1964), those commercials were perfectly in tune with a growing fascination with science and science fiction as the jet age made transatlantic travel more accessible to millions of tourists and astronauts began to circle the earth.

From the fascinating work of John James Audobon (1785-1851), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Jules Verne (1828-1905), and Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) to the miracles of today's research techniques (which employ much more complex technology and can be shared over the Internet with people around the world), life on earth never fails to fascinate humans. Whether we watch "the king of the jungle" being reduced to a helpless heap while experiencing a seizure, or any number of fish, plants, and insects display bizarre mating habits, nature teaches us a lot about ourselves and the world in which we live.

What humans learn from examining the world in which they live often provides a deeper understanding of their own behavior. Whether one is prone to passivity, aggression, or passive-aggressive attempts at manipulating others, such patterns of behavior provide a wealth of inspiration for writers. Just consider these classic songs from the early 20th century:

Two productions new to Bay area audiences help to remind theatregoers that, despite what religious fundamentalists might believe, humans are very much a part of the animal kingdom.

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The San Francisco Playhouse is currently offering the world premiere production of An Entomologist's Love Story, a four-character play which delivers lots of information about the insect world while reassuring freaks, geeks, and nerds that they can find love in a world where willful ignorance and blazing stupidity run rampant.

Playwright Melissa Ross got a job as an intern in the Entomology Department of the American Museum of Natural History after receiving a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to write a play that focused on the lives of scientists. A graduate of the Juilliard School and a member of LAByrinth Theater Company, her new play (originally commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club) first took the stage for a series of readings during the 2014 New Works Festival presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley which also served as a springboard for Rajiv Joseph's new play entitled Describe the Night (which received its world premiere production from the Alley Theatre in Houston in September of 2017, just four weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall) and Kimber Lee's poignant tokyo fish story (which received its world premiere from South Coast Repertory in March of 2015).

Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, Ross's romantic comedy focuses on the toxic relationship between two entomologists working in the museum's research department. It begins as Betty (Lori Prince) is conducting a lecture on some of the more bizarre mating habits (parasitism, cannibalism, exploding genitalia) that have been observed in various species of insects.

Betty has spent the past few years working alongside her former boyfriend, Jeff (Lucas Verbrugghe), whose combination of male privilege with a laid-back approach to finding love is a constant source of irritation to her. As an intelligent female with multiple advanced degrees, Betty is hypersensitive about the fact that, in order to attract an amorous male, she is usually forced to "dumb herself down" in order to get his attention. By contrast, men like Jeff can simply walk into a bar or coffee shop and, without making any effort, attract the attention of available females.

One of Betty's defense mechanisms is to combine the obnoxious behavior of a frat boy or "bro" with her ability to scare off anyone who would be intimidated by her intelligence. Although her relentless sarcasm has made Betty aware that she can be a real bitch, that doesn't stop her from going on the attack as a way to protect herself from getting hurt.

Lucas Verbrugghe (Jeff) in a scene from
An Entomologist's Love Story (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

When a woman calls the museum asking for help with a bedbug problem, Betty nearly bites the woman's head off over the phone, but transfers the call to Jeff just to show him what it's like to scare people. To her surprise, Jeff is pleasant and polite to the woman, agreeing to let her send him a picture of the bites on her skin without ever imagining that this could a sexual come-on. As Betty watches a friendship develop between Jeff and Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll), her combination of jealousy, hostility, and territoriality pushes Jeff's patience to the limits. Watching Lindsay in action (whose behavior mirrors the old adage that a person can catch more flies with honey) only spikes Betty's rage.

Jessica Lynn Carroll (Lindsay) and Lucas Verbrugghe (Jeff) in a scene
from An Entomologist's Love Story (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

One afternoon, Betty leaves the office to take a break in Central Park. While resting on a bench, she is joined by a man who recognizes her from a lecture she gave at Fordham University. Not only did he enjoy her witty delivery, he has a hobby (swing dancing) that doesn't involve insects. To her surprise, he shows genuine interest in getting to know Betty better. Having failed to get her phone number, he creates and delivers a giant flower basket to her office. If Andy (Will Springhorn, Jr.) seems socially awkward, it's because he has just re-entered the dating market after separating from his wife.

Will Springhorn, Jr. (Andy) and Lori Prince (Betty) in a scene from
An Entomologist's Love Story (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In a post on the company's blog, San Francisco Playhouse's artistic director, Bill English, describes what caught his interest when he first read Ross's play.
"What galvanized my attention besides the hilarious, muscular language and the palpable, gritty truth captured by Melissa’s first-hand experience in the museum, was the parallel Melissa has drawn between the scientists who study the mating rituals of insects and our window onto the mating rituals of the scientists themselves (her understanding of these specialists’ work is so detailed and reverent that one can almost smell the formaldehyde drifting through the theatre). Informed by the sexual politics of today, we find ourselves giddy with glee or wincing at the murderous power of the female praying mantis, or lifted up by the glorious beauty of fireflies as they mate. How do these insects inform the loss and rage of a brilliant female scientist as she fears she will have to dumb herself down to find a male partner?"
Lucas Verbrugghe (Jeff) and Lori Prince (Betty) in a scene from
An Entomologist's Love Story (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
"We are familiar with the symbiosis of many insects and other animals who are often literally stuck together in a destructive mating dance, but we humans also get stuck in symbiotic relationships that hamper our need for the freedom to find more mutually satisfying lives. We get stuck in relationships with our parents, with friends, with former lovers, and in order to really live, we have to break free. We have to let go of the destructive security these relationships offer and strike out bravely into the unknown. What a joy to watch as our entomologists struggle to break out of their own cocoons and fly!"
Lucas Verbrugghe (Jeff) and Lori Prince (Betty) in a scene from
An Entomologist's Love Story (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Among the many assets which strengthen An Entomologist's Love Story are:
Under Giovanna Sardelli's astute direction, Betty keeps ratcheting up her bitchiness until her bitterness and anger nearly destroy her relationship with Jeff. Realizing the damage she has done, she tries to reconnect with Andy who, as she learns, has just as many flaws as she does. Can Betty learn that acting like a vicious queen bee will lead to a life surrounded by ineffectual drones? Or can she make herself vulnerable enough to find happiness outside of the insect world?

Lori Prince (Betty) in a scene from
An Entomologist's Love Story (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Without a doubt, Betty's abrasiveness reduces three highly capable actors to functioning as drones in servitude to her queen bee. Performances of An Entomologist's Love Story continue through June 23 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets).

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The Marin Theatre Company is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of Jordan Harrison’s intriguing science fiction play entitled Marjorie Prime (a 2015 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama whose film adaptation premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival). Set in 2062, the title refers to 85-year-old Marjorie (born in 1977), who has started to exhibit early signs of memory loss. After consulting with a professional organization called “Senior Serenity,” Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Julia Eccles) and son-in-law, Jon (Anthony Fusco), have moved Marjorie into their home and opted to introduce a computer-driven holographic program called Prime into their environment.

Julia Eccles (Tess) and Anthony Fusco (Jon) in a
scene from Marjorie Prime (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Designed with the intent of capturing information about a person from the living [primary] source as well as from secondary sources (friends and relatives who have known the primary source), the program’s goal is to help people struggling with memory loss and dementia to focus on meaningful previous moments in their lives. Although the Prime can store memories by converting them into digital data, it cannot [yet] create emotions of its own. In a move that has alarmed Tess, Marjorie  (Joy Carlin) has requested that her Prime resemble her deceased husband, Walter (Thomas Gorrebeeck) as he appeared at a much younger stage of his life.

Joy Carlin (Marjorie) and Thomas Gorrebeeck (Walter)
in a scene from Marjorie Prime (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

A little backstory is in order to help understand what plays out very subtly onstage during Harrison’s family drama. The term “Audio Animatronics” was first introduced to the world by Walt Disney in 1961. In 1963, The Enchanted Tiki Room attraction debuted in Disneyland, followed by several Disney-engineered exhibits at the 1964 New York World’s Fair (the State of Illinois Pavilion’sGreat Moments with Mr. Lincoln” and General Electric’sCarousel of Progress”). Although these entertained and awed visitors half a century ago, an exhibit of Disney audio animatrons such as the famous Hall of Presidents now seems like the mechanical equivalent of prehistoric cave paintings when contrasted to the companion robots that are currently being put to use in hospitals and other healthcare environments in first-world countries.

In 1971, Dennis Gabor was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention and development of holographic technology. Today, the potent combination of lasers with a technique originally designed to improve electron microscopy has broken new ground in data storage and entertainment. After more than 50 years of living in a world driven by algorithms, the artificial intelligence technology in Marjorie Prime has advanced to a point where holographic creations can be mass marketed for home use. As Laura A. Brueckner (Marin Theatre Company’s Literary Manager and Resident Dramaturg) notes:
“Most modern narratives about artificial intelligence share a major plot point: the moment when the creation defies its creator. This pivot appears in so many AI stories that it may reveal the central anxiety driving us to creative narratives about artificial intelligence: the limitations of human intelligence. Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime is much subtler in its exploration of this theme. There is no concern that the Primes will physically harm the human characters. There is no ‘aha’ moment where the Primes gain absolute sentience and seize control. At the same time, the play declines to portray humans as being fully in control and resists offering a conclusion that reads as a human victory.”
Joy Carlin (Marjorie) in a scene from Marjorie Prime
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“In Harrison’s play, the Prime’s version of memory may be problematic, but human memory has its own set of flaws. Marjorie can access the full range of human emotion, but sometimes struggles to remember (or misremembers) past events that have profoundly impacted her. Even Tess and Jon, who are not yet experiencing age-related memory loss, have complicated relationships to one another’s memories as well as to Marjorie’s. Marjorie Prime shows us that, although artificial intelligence lacks basic human understanding, humans are subject to emotional injuries and needs that can reconfigure their memories in far more unpredictable ways. The result is the play’s evocative invitation to reconsider our memories (our emotional reasons for retaining particular memories, the ways we may alter our memories to suit ourselves) and how this activity has shaped who we are today).”
An unnamed character in this production is Kimie Nishikawa's stunning unit set, whose extensive use of plywood offers a timeless foundation against which a succession of lives can play out. Beautifully lit by Michael Palumbo, its natural beauty offers a stark contrast to the holograms which hover around Marjorie's family and end up seated in a corner of the stage like used mannequins after a department store's display has been dismantled.

Thomas Gorrebeeck and Joy Carlin as two Primes who are no longer
needed in a scene from Marjorie Prime (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With costumes by Jessie Amoroso and sound design by Brendan Aanes, Ken Rus Schmoll has directed Harrison's drama with the kind of subtlety that makes it possible for different members of the audience to grasp what's happening at different times as the play unfolds. These moments often occur during tiny lapses of time as the hologram pauses while processing data about the person it is supposed to imitate. After all members of the family have died, three of the Primes stand together onstage as they participate in a stilted conversation that sometimes freezes like a computer buffering data. Marjorie breaks the play's last silence by stating "How nice that we could love somebody."

Joy Carlin (Marjorie) and Julia Eccles (Tess) in a
scene from Marjorie Prime (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

MTC's ensemble consists of four well-known Bay area actors who are experts at underplaying a scene until the time is ripe for a more intense display of emotion. While Julia Eccles and Anthony Fusco are given meatier material to work with, one cannot help but admire the restraint shown by Joy Carlin and Thomas Gorrebeeck as Marjorie and Walter.

Marjorie Prime provides audiences with plenty of food for thought. However, the play is set in an era when union wages for home care workers may have become a nonissue and parents are no longer capable of inflicting guilt trips to their children.

Performances of Marjorie Prime continue through May 27 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here for tickets).