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Actors Ensemble of Berkeley Invoke Ennui With George Bernard Shaw's Play, 'Heartbreak House'

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Playwright Eugene Ionesco wrote that boredom is a "symptom of security." For the characters of George Bernard Shaw's 1919 play "Heartbreak House," now opening the 2011 season of the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, boredom is a symptom worth curing with war. Set on the eve of World War I, "Heartbreak House" deals with a collection of characters, and a whole society, to whom even bloodshed seems a welcome break from the tedium of everyday life. Unfortunately this compelling theme does not reveal itself until the end of three hours' worth of old-fashioned navel-gazing.

Director Robert Estes and the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley have, all in all, managed to take an old and difficult play and defibrillate it to life with a gusto befitting a small theater company. For such a long work, this visible enthusiasm is a necessary ingredient to hold the audience's attention through extended scenes, to make sense of antiquated language and to keep the actors awake onstage, most of the time.

With two intermissions, "Heartbreak House" runs for three hours-and for the first two hours and 50 minutes, it is a shallow sort of play. An inelegant summary could run as follows: A sampling of upper-middle-class society gather to complain about their poverty and chase after each others' husbands and wives. But put like this, "Heartbreak House" sounds much more entertaining than it is. Three hours is a long time to fill with frivolity and self-indulgent dialogue-one can almost taste Shaw's disillusionment, writing post-World War I.

None of the characters is particularly likable, either too cruel or too sweet and stupid. Captain Shotover (Jeff Trescott) falls into the former category, with Ellie and Mazzinni Dunn (Taylor Diffenderfer and Matthew Surrence) leading the latter. Though the cast set off to a stilted start on opening night last Friday, the actors managed to sink into their roles within the first few scenes.

It's lucky that many of the play's wittiest lines belong to Hesione Hushabye (Michele Delattre), the hostess and Ellie's confidant. Delattre is the most effortless of the cast, just as her character is the most relaxed and carefree of the neurotic bunch. In loose and colorful clothing, she is the perfect opposite of her straitlaced sister Lady Utterword (Amaka Izuchi), just returned from her life of privilege and title in some distant part of the British Empire.

As the play continues, cruel characters reveal themselves to have some heart, and kind ones show their lack thereof-however everyone remains, on the whole, petty. It seems that two characters of opposite sexes cannot be left alone on stage without falling in love with each other, marriages and unsettling age differences be damned.

Horny as they may be, the characters do offer moments of wisdom tucked into their speeches: lamenting the facade that each keeps up for the sake of properly fitting in to British society, their respective heartbreaks, their boredom with everything. "Nothing happens" and "nothing will happen," they complain. How "damnably dull" the world is.

After three hours, the audience can empathize with this last point.

To be fair-for the difficulty of the material, the Actors Ensemble has in fact done a remarkable job of keeping things moving. And boredom is, after all, the point of the play.

As the characters childishly welcome the sound of bombs and a new war to break the tedium, it is difficult not to hope for a smattering of death and destruction onstage, if not to spice up an evening of theater, then at least to teach such a collection of selfish characters a lesson.


Hannah Jewell is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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