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Posts Tagged ‘In the Wake

Great show, bad people

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I didn’t intend for this blog to be entirely about theater, but one of the things I miss desperately about stage managing is getting to discuss plays. Now that I’ve kicked up my theater-going, I find myself with so many things I want to share about whatever show I just saw.

Unfortunately, this one’s going to be more about the audience at the wonderful show I saw last night, Berkeley Rep‘s production of “In the Wake,” a new play by Lisa Kron.

Heidi Schreck as Ellen in Berkeley Rep’s "In the Wake" (Photo: kevinberne.com)

“In the Wake” has a lot of words, many of them coming from the mouth of main character Ellen, a feisty progressive who annoys her bemused “family” with her passionate screeds against the conservative administration and social injustice (the play begins with the disputed 2000 presidential election and uses various events during the Bush administration as the backdrop, projecting headlines onto the proscenium during scene breaks to advance the timeline).

But the core of the play is about Ellen’s life and about how her illusion of being in control of it is just that — an illusion. She finds herself caught between two relationships, one with a man and one with a woman. It’s thoughtful, engaging and very well-acted.

Which brings me to the show’s biggest problem — it’s produced by Berkeley Rep. Don’t get me wrong; Berkeley Rep is an outstanding company, putting on some incredible productions. It’s the company that brought “American Idiot” to life, for one. But it’s located in Berkeley, a place I just can’t stand.

I’ve been going to Berkeley since I was a kid, when I would take BART over there to visit a role-playing-games shop I loved (yeah, I was an RPG nerd — don’t act like you’re shocked). And I was even accepted to UC Berkeley, to which I applied as a safety school. But I’ve always been frustrated by its clash of in-your-face, do-whatever-you-want hippie-dom (and tolerance for absolute lunatics wandering the streets) with uptight, entitled snobbery.

The latter is what sat behind me during “In the Wake.” Yes, the first act is probably too long at 90 minutes. And if you have a knee-jerk objection to a perceived “liberal agenda” being pushed by the play (which I would question — more on that in a bit), that first act is going to seem EXTRA long.

At a point in the show where a teenage girl is introduced, one of the characters refers to something as “inexcusable,” to which the fellow behind me whispered, “What’s inexcusable is the acting in this play.” I was horrified and completely taken out of the moment. Later, the same man had a whispered exchange with his companion, where he exasperatedly noted the first act was an hour and a half.

When intermission hit, I turned and watched them get up. I was fuming, and part of me hoped they were leaving while another part wanted them to come back so I could give them a piece of my mind about not ruining the show for those of us who are enjoying it. I’m not a confrontational person, but I very much wanted to let them know that their behavior was selfish and reprehensible.

At the same time, the group sitting in front of me got up and I couldn’t help but overhear that they were debating whether they were going to leave or stay for the second act. I was mystified, not only that we were apparently experiencing two entirely different shows (and wondering if I had lost any ability to watch a show critically) but also that these two groups of people were so self-absorbed that they were unable to keep their dissatisfaction to themselves and just leave quietly without spreading their malcontent to those around us.

I was just exasperated, to the point where I stomped into the lobby, probably wild-eyed, trying to figure out how to defuse my anger. I ended up telling the ushers at the door that I loved the play but hated the audience and told them about the rude behavior and my intention to say something to the mouthy fellow behind me.

Heidi Schreck and Emily Donahoe as Ellen and Amy in Berkeley Rep's "In the Wake" (Photo: kevinberne.com)

It turns out the man and his companion did leave, as did the four people in front of me, which again doused some of the electricity I had experienced from the first act of what I felt was a scintillating play. As the second act opened, with Ellen and her girlfriend engaged in a makeout session (that was sexy and warm and delightful), I thought, “Well, good thing those old cranks left, because this really would have set them free!”

Thankfully, the evening was largely redeemed when the appreciative audience gave the cast a well-deserved standing ovation at the curtain call. See, I hadn’t lost my mind — this IS a fantastic show.

On the way home, I mulled over what might have made those unhappy audience members so dissatisfied, and I think there were two possible scenarios at work (possibly both at once).

As noted, the show’s main character is an outspoken progressive, and the framing device involves headlines from throughout the Bush administration, from both elections to Sept. 11 to the invasion of Iraq to Hurricane Katrina and beyond. If one is decidedly right-wing, just the suggestion that it’s an indictment of Republicans can put up the hackles, blinding them to the opposing voices presented in the play. But it’s not a show about politics, really. It’s about how events out of your control — political, economic, personal — can spin your life in all kinds of directions without your necessarily realizing it.

And though Ellen IS endearing, she’s also exasperating regardless of your political bent — and she was absolutely written to be just that. Though she has a definite world view, she’s challenged on that by the other characters, just not in a Fox News kind of way. So perhaps that’s why some audience members would feel alienated to the point of having to make a show of leaving at intermission.

But the fellow sitting behind me wasn’t indicting the show’s politics; he was slamming the acting, which dumbfounded me. My first thought was that the “liberalness” of the show was frustrating him and perhaps making him hate everything about the show, including the performances.

I did strike up a conversation with a couple sitting next to me about the rude behavior and the people who had left in front of us, and they astutely pointed out that the nature of theater is that you have to get to know the characters a bit before you can settle in with them. The character of Ellen’s boyfriend, for example, is one of those extroverted guys that cracks jokes at everything. It’s initially a little off-putting, seeming like he’s overacting, but you quickly realize that’s who this guy is. Everybody knows a guy like that, who’s a little hyper, always a bit of a show.

Andrea Frankle, Miriam F. Glover and Danielle Skraastad in Berkeley Rep's "In the Wake" (Photo: kevinberne.com)

And the teenage girl that’s introduced late in the first act is played like an actual teenage girl — awkward, unsure of her words — and she’s struggling in school. She’s not like the youths you typically see on TVs and in the movies, polished and wisecracking.

It’s an interesting dichotomy: the realness of the characters combined with the inherent artificiality of theater, watching people play out their lives in a three-sided box. I don’t know which aspect didn’t resonate with Mr. Crankypants behind me, but it’s sad that his expectations were so unrealistic that he not only hated what he was seeing but that he also couldn’t restrain himself from ruining it for those unfortunately sitting close enough to hear his complaints.

“In the Wake” certainly isn’t perfect. It could use some editing, and yes, the teenage girl does feel a little like a deus ex machina, introduced just to provide a impetus for more debate between Ellen and whomever engages her.

One of the very first things I did in my theatrical life was produce a show of three original one-act plays at Stanford. I know the exhilaration of discovering a new work, and the imperfect nature of such things — and really, nothing is ever perfect.

I’m sorry that those people weren’t able to allow themselves to connect with the discovery of new characters and new worlds, especially when produced at such a high quality as Berkeley Rep does.

So do yourself a favor — go see “In the Wake” or another Berkeley Rep production (I’m 4-for-4 in liking everything I’ve seen there in the past few months). Keep an open mind, and try not to sit near the cranky old people.

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Written by ChrisShut

May 24, 2010 at 4:14 pm