About Town

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The UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies' production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" opened Friday at the Zellerbach Playhouse. The Pulitzer-winning play depicts the repetitive stasis of small-town life and the inclusive attitude of the townsfolk who have no desire to venture from their confined bubble to interact with the outside world.

Director Christopher Herold transports the often-deemed "quintessential American play" from 1900s Grover's Corners, New Hampshire to a setting that feels eerily displaced - hints of modern hues layered through the haze of age-old tradition.

The production incorporates costuming appropriate to the time period, juxtaposed with elements of universality that give the piece a timeless feel. The stage was bathed under a nebulous constellation to emphasize the consistency of the stars over every human settlement and the quintessential qualities we all share. "Our Town" transcends the intrinsic attributes of human life: birth, marriage and death. Like the Stage Manager, the first character to which we are introduced, so deftly states, "Once in a thousand times it's interesting."

The musical aspects of the play are well-integrated and features contemporary songs and dance. Especially prominent are the fluid processions dispersed throughout the piece of shadowy figures thrown as silhouettes against the backdrop. This thread ties together the three self-contained acts and their thematic distinctiveness, and functions as a visual transition between different scenes.

The casting was generally sound, with a well-balanced ensemble of actors, including Daily Cal contributing writer Gwen Kingston. The unconventional twist was that the Stage Manager in Wilder's original text was portrayed as Stage Managers in this production, as the part had been divided into thirds, with each third assigned to a different actor.

Berkeley's production remains faithful to the minimalism implied in the written script. The use of props is scarce, the stage decor is basic and the settings are often described by the Stage Managers for the audience to envision. The blocking is complex, as there are often several simultaneous exchanges occurring, but organized in such a way that it is seldom confusing and easily processed by the audience.

The semi-transparent screen that separates the dead from the living is especially ingenious. It creates two layers on the stage, impermeable to the viewers, to suggest that some things are open to the living audience, while others are secluded and reserved for dead characters. When Emily breaches this veil in the final act, it creates a suspended moment that contains the poignant reconnection of the dead and the living, which is intensified by the bright light spilling onto her white gown. Her subsequent return to the other side left many fingers, my own included, tingling to drag her back by her cotton dress.

The aggregate subtle facets of the play contributes to its overall triumph. The performance of a dynamic cast, refreshing use of the stage and a well-preserved balance between tradition and contemporaneity are all essential ingredients to the success of Berkeley's production of "Our Town."


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