The hottest ticket in the Bay Area right now is for a play starring Gandalf and Captain Picard.
Or, is it, Magneto and Charles Xavier?
But the two are also veteran theatre artists, and audiences are packing the Berkeley Repertory Theatre to see them play the lead roles in No Man's Land, Harold Pinter's play about memory and language.
I wanted to better understand how this production might appeal to both theatre freaks and sci-fi geeks. And I started by having a cup of tea with playwright Andrew Saito. He's a fellow this year at San Francisco's Cutting Ball Theatre working on a new play, but he's also a Pinter fan, and was once a fan-boy, "In High School and Jr. High I really geeked out and very publicly. But Star Trek: Next Generation is the reason why I became a playwright, because I had my first idea for a dramatic script while watching the show. So I don't know if I would have been a playwright if it hadn't been for Star Trek."
Saito seems a bit embarrassed by this past devotion, he re-watched a number of episodes recently. They were "terrible," he says. But he sees a quirky connection between the speculative worlds of sci-fi and fantasy and the absurdist domestic worlds depicted by Pinter. "Both," Saito says, "are hard to sum up without it sounding ridiculous.
"And Harold Pinter- in the speech he gave while accepting, in 1970, the German Shakespeare prize, he says, 'I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them, except to say that is what happened, that is what they said, that is what they did.' And having read a number of Pinter Plays," Saito says, "they are hard to sum up."
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen
No Man's Land presents us with a pair of old poets drinking (a lot) in the drawing room of fine London house. They may or may not have been classmates at college. Hirst, played by Patrick Stewart, is the host, an immaculately dressed financial success. Spooner, played by Ian McKellen, is the guest, a rumpled failure (though he claims he retains his "strength"). Meanwhile Foster (played by a manic Billy Crudup) and Briggs (a hulking Shuler Hensley) are Hirst's servants. Or are they guards battling to keep their privileges, while battling to keep Spooner from insinuating himself into the household?
One key difference: Most tales of sci-fi and fantasy are carefully plotted allegories with clear villains and heroes fighting galactic battles. The characters in Pinter's No Man's Land struggle to survive in an ambiguous dometic world that veers between comedy and menace.
"It's very much concerned with memory and time, says No Man's Land director Sean Mathias. "How time is something that cannot really be contained or analyzed."
Shuler Hensley, Patrick Stewart and Billy Crudup
Mathias worked with McKellen and Stewart, both veterans of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a few years ago when they staged Samuel Becket's Waiting for Godot in London to good reviews. The Berkeley run of No Man's Land is a kind of shakedown cruise ahead of staging the Pinter play in New York on alternate nights with the Becket.
Mathias says the playwrights make a good pair. "They're men where the language is everything and the language leads you to a human understanding, the way great notes in a piece of music might release an emotion. The language releases the emotion."
So how did this high-powered production end up in Berkeley? The show's New York producer, Stuart Thompson, wanted to work out the kinks away from Broadway. "And as it turned out, their casting director said if you're going to do this anywhere, you really should take it to Berkeley." Says Susie Medak, the Managing Director at Berkeley Rep. "So they called us up... and how do you say no to something like this? It's too fantastic an opportunity."
By that she means both an artistic and a marketing opportunity.
Medak says Berkeley Rep first released a block of tickets at a discount to anyone under the age of 30, counting on McKellen and Stewart's star power to lure that elusive millennial demographic. Most of the remaining tickets went to returning or new subscribers.
"Because we knew that if we were selling subscriptions," Medak says, "and we didn't make these tickets available to people, it would just make them livid. I would have been lynched.
"And then there were about a thousand people who had never set foot in the theatre, who purchased subscriptions. And that actually is quite exciting."
That Thompson approached Berkeley Rep is a credit to the company's growing reputation as a welcoming place for edgy work that's also a box office success, most notably with Green Day's punk rock opera American Idiot, also a hit on Broadway.
Medak credits not her theatre company, but sophisticated audiences, and what you might call the Berkeley effect. "There's something that happens when people enter Berkeley." Medak says. "They put on a different hat. And they come here with an openness of spirit that I don't think happens everywhere."
Which is is just fine with director Sean Mathias. Before the opening, he worried that McKellen and Stewart's pop-culture fame would prompt audiences to applaud when the lights come up on the two in their No Man's Land roles as Spooner and Hirst.
"We all fear they will in New York." Mathias says. "Because as soon as they applaud Ian and Patrick being on stage, they've entered into the fact that they all know this is a charade and we've come to see Ian and Patrick, and it's kind of boring. What you want to enter into is a total child-like make believe, not to acknowledge it's a charade. But to say, I need to enter into this fantasy and see them as Spooner and Hirst. That's far more exciting."
In Berkeley, so far (the play opened last Sunday) audiences have seemed really into Pinter for his own glorious sake, and have held their applause till the end.
Take that, New York.
No Man's Land runs through August 31, 2013, at Berkeley Repertory Theater. The play's run is sold out. For more information, visit berkeleyrep.org.
All photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.