A New Spring Season of Local Theaters in Bloom





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It's a new year, a new world arguably, and the local stage scene is answering the changes with a season of theater that promises to be relevant, provocative, and, when necessary, escapist. The bulk of the local theater haps this season intersect when else? during the Ides of March.

It's also a moment of evolution for theater in and around Berkeley-or, better said, a progression. The campus drama department has morphed into the so very postmodernly-named Department of Theater, Dance and Performances Studies, and with the name change has come a reinvigoration of the department's doctoral program and performance offerings, including workshops, master classes and full-scale productions.

Toward downtown some, the Berkeley Rep's new space is a just addition to a company that is already nationally regarded. The Rep's new school of theater is also making waves, too. And around town, new and established smaller companies like the Aurora are strengthening their bases with ambitious productions and new facilities.

Daily Cal Staff/Ben Miller
Jarion Monroe plays the part of "Jean" in "Rhinoceros"

The spring theater season in Berkeley starts with The Rep's production of "Rhinoceros," Eugene Ionesco's absurdist classic. Local director Barbara Damashek directs a strong company of actors in the adapted story about a town whose citizenry slowly transform into rhinoceroses. The show opens this week.

Rhinoceros should be good, but The Rep's highlights this season will be "Culture Clash's In America," which opens in February. The three-man Chicano comedy troupe will present a montage of their most side-splitting parodies of life on the San Diego-Tijuana border, Miami and Los Angeles, and will also present new material about Latino life in Berkeley. Culture Clash should not be missed.

And then comes "Homebody/Kabul," the stodgy Tony Kushner play about a lonely Englishwoman who becomes fascinated with Afghanistan and later gets lost there. The events of September 11 caused some observers to question whether The Rep should receive federal arts funding for the production, causing a strange amount of hype for the show that is months away.

"All of these plays were picked before September 11," says Rep spokesperson Susie Falk, "so everyone took a look at their seasons to make sure [they were] still appropriate."

Falk says The Rep's revisiting of its season (no changes were made) was "invigorating" for the theater, adding that the works-which also include Caryl Churchill's postcolonial gender/race fantasy, "Cloud Nine," in June-"just took on a new meaning."

"Homebody/Kabul" clearly emerged as production more worthy and relevant than it could have ever been before, so the show will, ahem, go on. Students in particular should note that The Rep offers $16 tickets for kids under 30 at all shows expect on Saturdays.

On campus, drama folk have a lot to choose from this semester. The season begins with another show in that grand UC Berkeley tradition of revising classic stories (Cleopatra! and beyond) in "hip, fresh" ways. Start with "Divine Comedy: The Dante Project (A Sacred Poem)," a retelling of-you guessed it-Dante's epic allegory. The show, written and directed by Gary Graves, opens at the Zellerbach Playhouse in March.

More learned theater lovers can get an earlier treat at the end of this month, when Northwestern University faculty member E. Patrick Johnson comes to Berkeley to perform his "Strange Fruit," an autobiographical performance piece that incorporates musings on racial and sexual identity. "Strange Fruit" will play on January 31 at the Durham Studio Theater in Dwinelle Hall, free of charge. In March, student workshop productions will be ready for eager audiences. UC Berkeley student Jackie Bendzinski will direct a production of Edward Bond's "The Crime of the Twenty First Century" at Room 7 in Zellerbach Hall.

Smaller companies in town are worth noting this spring, too. In the second leg of its inaugural season, the Transparent Theater (located on Ashby across from the BART station) will present "Buying Time" by Michael Weller, a drama about a law firm with a heart of gold, which opens in February. Transparent Theater's season will close out with Lisa Dillman's "What Cats Know," a comedy about "adult sexual play," which opens in May.

The Aurora Theater Company's current production, which opened on January 4, is "The Trestle" at the Pope Lick Creek, a Depression-era drama that closes on February 10. The Aurora company, founded in 1992, moved in October from its intimate space at the Berkeley City Club on Southside to a new theater on Addison Street near the Berkeley Rep. The new theater will retain the Aurora's signature small scale-it seats 150 patrons.

The rest of Aurora's season will include Jules Feiffer's farce "Knock Knock," opening in March, the psuedo-musical "The Entertainer" (by John Osborne), opening in May, and Michael Frayn's drama "Benefactors," which opens in July.

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