The Startling Daring of Shotgun Players' 25th Season

Hamlet (El Beh) gives it to his mother Gertrude (Beth Wilmurt) after killing Polonius (Kevin Clarke) behind the red curtain in the Shotgun Players' production of 'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare. (Photo: Pak Han)

Often the best is over before we know it. This is especially true of theater and dance, where astounding productions will vanish after two or three performances, lost but for the lucky few who took a chance on the unknown. Even the well-publicized and reviewed eventually fade away. It’s a brutal equation, and works against art’s power to gain traction over time. A novel, film, or poem will wait for you, but the theater waits for no one.

At Shotgun Players this month, there are such things as second chances.

In a normal year, Shotgun Players’ 2016 season would be a fantastic memory: five great productions, three of them -- Hamlet, The Village Bike, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- sharp takes on superb, daring plays. But starting Nov. 25, Shotgun reprises these productions and more in true repertory fashion, with the company rotating between the season's plays -- sometimes up to five in one week.

(L to R) Becky (Elissa Stebbins) and Oliver (Kevin Clarke) place their faith in live over fidelity in The Shotgun Players' production of 'The Village Bike' by Penelope Skinner.
(L to R) Becky (Elissa Stebbins) and Oliver (Kevin Clarke) place their faith in life over fidelity in The Shotgun Players' production of 'The Village Bike' by Penelope Skinner. (Photo: Pak Han)

Instead of casting from play to play, artistic director Patrick Dooley has assembled an excellent group of actors, many of them Shotgun veterans, and created a true ensemble. This is an audacious and unusual move in today's performing arts climate where the repertory theater model, once vital, has mostly become a thing of the past. It's ridiculously demanding of the actors -- many of whom will play several different roles in the course of a few days -- not to mention everyone behind the scenes.

Shotgun's present season is not just a trick or a dazzling stunt of acting and production. It is, more importantly, a way of thinking about what a season of theater means. We always look back and reflect, and yet that distance filters and distorts. Shotgun has narrowed the gap so that we can feel the logic and organization of the company's choices in the most visceral way possible.

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Is Penelope Skinner’s profane and obscene The Village Bike a rebuke to the sturdy melodrama of Heidi Schreck’s The Grand Concourse? Or are both plays just different paths to the same awful conclusion about our vast desires?

George (David Sinaiko) thinks of rodents and humans as Nick (Josh Schell) stays drunk in The Shotgun Players' production of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' by Edward Albee.
George (David Sinaiko) thinks of rodents and humans as Nick (Josh Schell) stays drunk in The Shotgun Players' production of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' by Edward Albee. (Photo: Jessica Palopoli)

Are the post-modern hijinks of Christopher Chen’s Caught an extension, a riff, or a pale imitation of the meta-theatrical aspects of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a reloading of the famous “mousetrap” that might "catch the conscience of a king" and perhaps an audience? And isn’t Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? one nasty rat trap of a play, loaded with enough tricks and illusions to snap the neck of any rodent that might pass it by?

This is a chance that you shouldn’t miss; a season of carnage and caring. After all, a theater company is not one production, but many. Here is Shotgun in the multitude, its strengths and weaknesses right out in the open, daring us to take them all in. And so you should take that dare, greedily, knowing that what this company is doing is rare, special, and will soon become -- as all theater is destined to be -- a memory.

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The Shotgun Players' 2016 season runs from Friday, Nov. 25, through Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information, click here.

Read John Wilkins' individual reviews of 'Hamlet,' 'The Village Bike,' 'Caught,' and 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' by clicking on the title.

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