Theater Junkie: 'Amelie' at Berkeley Rep, ACT takes on Guirgis, Aurora's 'Mud Blue Sky'

Carl Lumbly as Walter “Pops” Washington in 'Betwen Riverside and Crazy' at ACT.  (Photo: Kevin Berne)

The first day of school is tricky business and what you choose to wear is even trickier. You want your clothes to say something, anything: who you were, who you are, who you’d like to become. It’s a balancing act between the weight of history and dreamy aspirations, and it all must rest easily in the present, as if none of this were planned, as if it were all just happening by chance.

For theater companies, the opening production of any season is that first outfit. You can feel the desire to hit big, to come out of the gate running at full speed and fully formed. Yet that outfit is always provisional. It contains a myriad of other messages, contrary and perplexing -- future promises that may or may not get realized.

Over the last two weeks, American Conservatory Theater (ACT), Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and the Aurora Theatre Company have all opened their seasons. Their current work provides an intriguing glance into the present and potential future of these well-established institutions. Of course, this is just one passing moment, but like all first days it can be a telling one.

Mud Blue Sky: Closer to a pilot for premium cable than necessary theater

Maria Wegrzyn’s Mud Blue Sky is a quintessential Aurora play: aesthetically conservative, humane, and served with a slight glaze of social consciousness. Most of these plays seem designed to disappear. And especially Mud Blue Sky, which feels closer to a pilot for premium cable than necessary theatre. The writing is professional rather than passionate. So you watch the plot unfold in dutiful fashion without ever having to think, or feel, or engage in any meaningful way.

Written in the soft comic tones that have become the lingua franca of mainstream American theater, the play details a difficult night in the slow, downward spiral of Beth, an aging flight attendant. With her prospects dimming both financially and emotionally, she is the symbol of the extraneous American—still vibrant enough to be of use and dream of a better future, but barely.

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Wegrzyn should have believed in the force of that story. Instead, she drowns it in a wave of soft drama and clichéd characters. Beth’s fellow stewardess and frenemy, Sam, is, of course, sassy. Her high school weed dealer, Jonathan, might be exacting, but he is also sensitive and confused. And her old friend and colleague, Angie, fired for being too fat, is, well, more than she seems. Wegrzyn makes a few attempts at farce, but her concerns are not with the dizzying possibilities of misunderstanding and escalating action central to that form.

What Wegrzyn wants is emotional reconciliation and so Beth must eventually stand in for Jonathan’s dead mother. She must believe in him as something more than a convenient source of weed and lead him to his better self. Yes, he is a closet artist! Together they will start a “microbrewery” and Jonathan will design the labels. In America and in Sky, happiness is the slightest glimpse of entrepreneurial success.

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Sam (Rebecca Dines) tries to cajole Beth (Jamies Jones, left) into joining her for a little fun in the city. (Photo: David Allen)

If you care about sense, then Sky is the type of realist drama that makes the absurd seem reasonable. Still, and rather absurdly, I have been unable to shake one image from Aurora’s production and that is Jamie Jones’ face. Her performance as Beth, against all the odds of the script, is searing. Jones is expert at listening, and when freed from Wegrzyn’s writing, her face registers a history, situations, and feelings of wrenching complexity. It is a face that could stand in for a new economic type: the almost done, a frieze of numbing disbelief. And so one wonders what might happen to a performance like that in a real play? It’s something to imagine. Somewhere deep in Aurora’s mission the dance of disbelief, hope, and fear that races across Jones’ face is screaming to get out.

Between Riverside and Crazy: about as good as it gets these days

The physical fact of ACT’s Geary theater—it’s size, it’s stunning beauty, so much red and gold—is a problem considering the prevailing trends in American theater and playwriting. The Geary should burst with hundreds of characters and thousands of extras. It should speak to us in the biggest way about America and the world we live in. It’s that type of space. But the theater world around it has become pinched, crabbed, and small.

So, I imagine play selection -- especially new play selection -- must be quite difficult for ACT, and that when they came across it, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy must have seemed a beautiful gift from another era. Guirgis is a rare beast in the American theater. He has a gift for complex character, raucous comedy, and political debate. He’s neither avant-garde nor mainstream. He's his own thing, and because of that Guirgis feels closer to our experience of people, the world, and our country than we normally get in the theater.

The Church Lady (Catherine Castellanos) prays for Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy, Between Riverside and Crazy. Photo by Kevin Berne
The Church Lady (Catherine Castellanos) prays for Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly) in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy, 'Between Riverside and Crazy'. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Crazy is a broad, loose-leafed fable set in New York City about Walter “Pops” Washington, an African-American ex-cop living in a rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment with his son, his son’s pregnant girlfriend, and his son’s pal from prison. Over the next couple of days, a lot of Washington’s past is going to come to a head: eviction notices, his lawsuit against the city for suffering a brutal assault at the hands of a fellow police officer, a visit from his old partner accompanied by her wonderfully slick and mournful fiancée (also a cop), and a church lady looking to save his soul and more.

Like George Bernard Shaw, another complex polemicist, Guirgis’ plays are about arguments. Not to the audience, there’s no preaching going on here, but from character to character. He knows that people are both advocates for the truth and nimble liars—that we are expert at shading facts to our advantage, even when or especially when we see lying as serving a greater cause. In a play like Mud Blue Sky, argument is merely a means of keeping people on stage, advancing the action, whereas in Crazy arguments meander. They float back and forth between important social and political truths, silly anecdotes, self-serving justifications, and the fun of being around those you love and hate and sometimes at the same time.

There are witty rejoinders, but they don’t feel false and are not for our benefit. Instead, they are for the benefit of those who wield them. Go to this play and you’ll see moments when the audience and the characters laugh at the same time. It’s a common occurrence in Crazy, and an odd and jolting one. Audiences often laugh at meticulously constructed jokes, but they don’t often get a chance to laugh with the characters when the jokes aren’t that good and the joker cracks up out of sheer delight. Guirgis allows us to join his crowd in all their pettiness and we can’t help being amused when they hit the mark, or, even better, miss it badly.

ACT’s production is more than fine. It will get better as the run progresses and the actors fall into Guirgis’ rhythms. Carl Lumbly is super as Washington, as are Stacy Ross and Gabriel Marin as soon-to-be-married cops a little too interested in “Pops” well being. Crazy is not a perfect play, I’d like to cut the first two scenes, but it’s alive to the world and people. That’s about as good as it gets these days.

Amélie, a new Musical: the stage equivalent of Bobby McFerrin’s bullying 1988 hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

I don’t think an artist would come up with the title "Amélie, a new musical." It screams of corporate contracts and you wonder if the overlords of this project will rebrand it in five years when time turns the “new” into a lie. But the title clues you in to the real issues here. This is not art, but product, and an especially brutal one at that. The Berkeley Rep can point to the mass of talent behind this production and take pride in the slickness of its presentation. But professionalism and talent are no guarantee that what you end up with is anything close to art.

Adapted from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 hit film, this musical version of Amélie is about a young woman determined to help friends, family, and strangers fulfill their dreams. Through her unseen ministrations, she shows all the lost souls of the world, or at least those in her Montmartre café, that if they only stop denying who they are and what they need, they can get everything they want. No wonder the film did so well in America; Andrew Carnegie would approve. Yet our heroine, so keen to the unfulfilled desires of others, is even more emotionally stunted than the people she’s helping. She, too, will have to overcome herself and learn to accept the love and happiness that are her due. Despite its self-help veneer, there’s nothing wrong with the story, and it makes for a decent enough movie.

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Amelie (Samantha Banks) celebrates with a few friends in Amelie, a new musical. (Photo: Kevin Berne.)

The problem is that everyone involved in this enterprise—composer Daniel Messé of the pop group Hem, librettist Craig Lucas (a playwright of note and talent), the much lauded director Pam MacKinnon, designers of the first rate, producers, everyone—have reduced Jeunet’s thin fable to one lesson: open yourself to the chance of love.

And this lesson is delivered to maximum effect over and over again. There is no development, nothing to free you from the grip of this single emotion love machine. In the movie, the supporting characters mattered, but here they are just fairy dust to the grinding march of joy. It’s the stage equivalent of Bobby McFerrin’s bullying 1988 hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” You want to ask if there’s another path, another way this could go, but this musical is a labyrinth of love that you cannot escape. It will not allow for complex emotions and it will not tolerate any opposition.

Every once and a while art tries to sneak its way past the guardians of the message, most prominently when Bretodeaux, the painter who lives across the street from Amélie, begins to sing about his painting. Finally, we are off course -- something that From Riverside to Crazy does naturally. But within seconds, the song is high jacked and we are back to the one and only purpose of this show: you must open yourself to love and you must love this show for telling you that.

Like many musicals by pop artists, Massé’s score sounds more like an album than a piece of theater. After about 12 minutes and 37 seconds, the music feels undifferentiated and flat; every song hits the same notes. It goes without saying that the jokes here are both insistent and juvenile. There are goofy talking goldfish, plumbing/sex jokes, and worst of all: a pointless sendup of Elton John’s tribute to the late Princess Diana. It’s an easy shot, like game show parodies. But a video montage of Diana’s life and the memory of John’s “Candle in the Wind” reminds you of what art is capable of and what this musical wholly rejects.

As I was leaving the theater with the buoyant opening night crowd, the man in front of me threw his program violently into the air and strode down the street in obvious disgust, his wife meekly following behind. The usher at the door and I made knowing eye contact: he’s crazy; that’s no way to act. But as I ambled my way to BART, I thought, shouldn’t that be the appropriate response to Amélie, a new musical? The Berkeley Rep, capable of amassing and deploying ridiculous levels of talent and resources, opens its season with a production that celebrates the worst type of corporate propaganda. And we clap, and then cradle our programs as we leave.

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Last season, the Rep produced a brilliant and terrifying version of Molière’s Tartuffe. Dominique Serrand’s production made clear that no one is really fooled by the fascistic clown at the center of Molière’s poison pill of a farce. But by simply doing what they always do, they allow Tartuffe and the terror he unleashes to flourish. For one moment, I almost went back to the theater to throw my program violently in the air.

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