Dateline Berkeley — Just because it was Christmastime, and we were visiting family and friends on the West Coast, didn’t mean I wasn’t going to see as much theater as I usually do. And I did, starting in holiday style with a figgy-pudding helping of the annual California Revels, followed by A Christmas Carol at the American Conservatory Theatre, and mixing in a U-Cal women’s basketball game, a thrilling drama in itself.
But the place I made a beeline for was Berkeley Repertory Theatre, by reputation and local friends’ reports the Bay Area’s most interesting and enterprising major company. As it happened, neither of the shows playing on the theater’s two stages was an original Berkeley Rep production. Both were imports, one from England, the other from LA. Both had been extended past their original closing dates, one building on its creators’ wildly popular previous visits, the other profiting from rave reviews and rapturous word of mouth.
LONELY HEARTS CLUB BLAND
I had seen Kneehigh Theatre last year when they toured the States with The Wild Bride, a giddy take on a (very) Grimm fairy tale, and was eager to catch their latest, a reworking of the legend of Tristan and Yseult. Kneehigh is rooted in physical theater and collective creation, devising pieces through improvisation and infusing them with music, dance, clowning and a buoyant disregard for narrative conventions.
Here, the setting was not Arthurian Cornwall, where the tale originated and the company is based, but a dismal modern-day nightspot, The Club of the Unloved, where a homologous group of lonely losers in geek glasses mope to the accompaniment of an onstage oldies band. Out of that den of hopeless dreams is spun the age-old tale of hopeless love, introduced and ultimately concluded with strains from Wagner’s romantic opera—but largely replacing the Germanic passion with jokes and japes. This is Kneehigh’s trademark—storytelling in a whimsical, anachronistic, self-referential mood. But where The Wild Bride found an exhilarating balance between playful and painful, much of Tristan is pure burlesque.
The first half seemed intent on pulling laughs out of the tale of accidental lovers driven by helpless passion, thwarted by ruthless circumstance and finally sundered by death. Despite some nifty semi-acrobatic stage images, and notwithstanding Andrew Durand and Patrycja Kujawska’s ardent performances in the title roles, the overall tone was mockery, of not only the loveless patrons in the nightclub framing device but the story itself—the latter exemplified by a drag version of Yseult’s handmaid, played by Craig Johnson like a schoolboy parody of the Dame in English pantomime.
The tone shifted abruptly in the second half, but its poignant lyricism came too late. Director Emma Rice and her troupe had spent so much time and effort sending up the premise at the expense of dramatic tension and, um, character development, that when the story began moving toward its tragic denouement, all I could feel was “So what?”
In Berkeley Rep’s smaller thrust stage next door, I found a one-woman show with a difference. Several, in fact. The Pianist of Willesden Lane is a World War II memoir, a slice of rarely recalled history centering on Lisa Jura, a young Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who was sustained and ultimately uplifted by her precocious musical gift. The true story is performed by the subject’s daughter, herself an accomplished concert pianist, who laces the story with some of the most intricate passages in the keyboard repertoire. Mona Golabek is a musician, not an actor, and while her playing is close to world-class (she’s a Grammy nominee) her acting was—all right, pretty darn good for a non-actor. Frank, engaging and heartfelt, she took us gracefully into her mother’s world and mind without attempting a literal impersonation.
At first I was unimpressed by the all-too-familiar story of a Jewish family on the brink of the Holocaust driven into untenable circumstances and desperate decisions. The narrative, in the voice of teenage Lisa, seemed overly simplistic and naïve. But little by little I was won over by the girl’s adventure—her rescue as one of the passengers on the Kindertransport that conveyed thousands of children to safety in Britain, her sojourn in a North London hostel with fellow Kinder during the terrifying Blitz—and above all by the music, which is almost a living character in the chronicle.
The piano excerpts are more than episodic interludes; they underline the emotional arc of the piece, add sonic texture to some of the scenes—a clattering factory, a wartime dance hall—and trace the young pianist’s progress from girlhood lessons to the concert hall, from Clair de Lune to the daunting Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor.
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