Monday, April 26, 2010


Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of CONCERNING STRANGE DEVICES FROM THE DISTANT WEST by Naomi Iizuka at the Roda Theatre.

The Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) system takes me from San Francisco, and the Geary Theatre, across the Bay to Berkeley in 30 odd minutes. A homeless man helps me to negotiate the ticketing system at Powell St Station, as there is no other human about to assist an easily intimidated techno-phobe. He gratefully accepts my tip as thanks. If only he knew how thankful I am to him.

I have not seen the new Berkeley Repertory theatre, the Roda, (now 4 years old) and am keen to see it. It is a very pragmatic, modern space. It looks as if it has been designed from the stage functions out (a good thing). The auditorium is simple but comfortably available for the easy and friendly interaction between players and audience. A very good plus. It does not have the glow or dignity of the Geary but seems to be pregnant with the promise that, with the performance, will come the necessary magic of the theatre to fill it with tangible glow and warmth.

Unfortunately there are not many members of the audience at this early Sunday evening. The promised glow and warmth is tepid. The play we see is a world premiere of a work by a Japanese/American writer Naomi Iizuka. CONCERNING STRANGE DEVICES FROM THE DISTANT WEST. It is performed without interval.

The play has a triptych structure. Firstly, it is set in period Japan (1870's -1880's) mostly in a photographer's studio, Andrew Farsari's (Bruce McKenzie) in Yokohama, where an American woman tourist, Isabel Hewitt (Kate Eastwood Norris), the wife of an entrepreneur, Edmund Hewitt (Danny Wolohan), is attempting to sate her appetite for the erotic exotic world that was stirred in her on viewing her father's souvenir collection of the famous Yokohama photographs back home in the USA. Ms Hewitt arrives at the studio, without an appointment, to see a tattooed sitter in a stage setting with the photographer, and her fate may be sealed. She consequently, after several other visits and debates, disappears without a trace.

The second part of the triptych is in contemporary Japan, set mostly in a hotel bar where an Art Teacher/Collector, Dimitri Mendelssohn (Also, Bruce McKenzie) attempts to negotiate to purchase a collection of these now more famous and desirable photographs - now erotic exotic art, through the intermediary of a sexy translator, Kiku (Teresa Avia Lim) from a dealer, Hiro (Johnny Yu). The third section is back in history with Ms Hewitt and Mr Farsari. Truth and image seems to be at the heart of the debate of the writing. What is real? etc.

The set design (Mimi Lien) is a black box with sliding panels that reveal different areas, often supported visually with slide images or video projections (Leah Gelpe). The costume design (Annie Smart) covers both historical periods well and includes a very exotic two piece, full body suit. A body stocking made of light flexible material with the Meiji-era tattoo designs printed directly onto it. Very, very tantalisingly realistic and provocative. Other than this illusory tattoo suit, most of the design lacks impact or invitation to participate imaginatively, freely. It looks mostly clumsy and ugly. (Lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. Sound by Bray Poor). The set changes are noisy and too pragmatically operated to suspend my disbelief to the mechanics of it all.

With my consciousness of the “strings being pulled”, on the night I attended, the writer's intentions were relatively obfuscated. The scenes did not, for me, add up to a clear whole. What the play was saying was not easy to gather. A collection of bits with no satisfactory whole, at the end. The applause of a sparse house was slow and muted – maybe puzzled? Even reading the program notes on the return BART trip or having Googled the show, later, I am no clearer.

The acting, under the direction of Les Waters, was hyper unreal from the principals, Ms Norris and Mr McKenzie. They seemed to work in a declamatory style, “stand and deliver”, presentational and disconnected from any inner life or turmoil of a character's dilemma. The direct speeches to the house were similarly, stylistically delivered at us. Unattached to a real need. It was most disconcerting and bewildering. Whereas Ms Lim and Mr Wu in their principal characters had an accessibility and need for empathy which we yielded, gratefully at last. The audience was relieved to be to engaged with.

A new play, then, that in this production/performance, failed to communicate to me, but fleetingly and unsatisfactorily.

The recent history of BERKELEY REP, in the Bay Area, is in clear contrast to the recent AMERICAN CONSERVATORY THEATER. In the past 13 years the Rep has had 13 plays transfer to New York. 6 of them to Broadway- I should think no mean feat. The most recent being AMERICAN IDIOT, a punk-rock musical, based on the music of a local band called Green Day. It opened to mostly good reviews this week, (April 17th. I saw it on the next part of my trip to the USA, will blog it, in due time). I mention it only to highlight even further my unrest and unease with the A.C.T. trajectory. And even though I felt this production and work were a communicable failure on the night I saw it, the vibration of the material on view was resonant with a theatrical zeal and vision for the future of theatre as an expressive and necessary expression of the culture of its community. The reported response to company research that the Managing Director, Susie Medak, gives in her Prologue in the program certainly verifies this. Unlike the museum deadness of VIGIL in the Geary Theatre. A starker contrast I could not have found.

Although the AURORA Company, next store to the Berkeley Rep had a production of Ibsen's JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN on and I had heard of some note. My appetite was wetted. If time did not take me away. Oh, well.

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