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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


Aubergine
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of Dogeaters and Little Erik


Tyrone Mitchell Henderson and Tim Kang
Photo by kevinberne.com
If it's true there are two sides to every story, then it's to playwright Julia Cho's credit that, in the world premiere of her new play Aubergine, she examines her story from every two sides imaginable. Like a giant, four-dimensional puzzle of a yin-yang diagram, Aubergine unfolds itself before us, and the careful observer will sense the theme of duality running through almost every aspect of this arresting—if a bit emotionally chilly—story of relationships. Relationships between family. Between lovers. Between words. Between ourselves and what nourishes us. And, ultimately, between life and death.

Cho shows us two sides of virtually everything in the play—even in the title. Is Solanum melongena to be called aubergine, or the more pedestrian term, eggplant? The duality continues, as Cho examines issues from both Western and Eastern points of view. Young/old, reality/reflection, aubergine/eggplant, worthwhile/worthless, audience/performer—all these dualities are laid bare in Cho's complex, touching—and often hysterical—text.

The duality is brilliantly used to elicit both grief and joy from the audience. Early in the first act, there is a moment when one of the characters, relating how she fell in love with a chef when the first meal he prepared for her was a simple bowl of mulberries, something she treasured in childhood but never found in any markets as an adult. "What?" said a woman sitting behind me to her companion, loudly enough to be heard by all in the theater. Without missing a beat, the actress looked in her direction, and without a hint of judgment, simply repeated, "Mulberries." Biggest laugh of the night.

Later in the show, when Joseph Steven Yang, playing the role of Uncle, sings "Nearer My God to Thee" to his dying brother, in heavily accented English (the character speaks only Korean), it was a lovely, touching, heartfelt moment, eliciting a small sigh of empathy from the audience. Until, that is, Uncle belts out the second verse of the hymn, and everyone in the Peet's Theatre is laughing again—and we realize Cho has revealed yet another duality to us.

If duality is the subtext, the surface of the story revolves around food and its role not simply as nourishment, but as a symbol of love, a source of obsession, and a font of memory. It begins with a powerful—and funny—monologue by Diane (Safiya Fredericks) about how she became a snobbish foodie after her husband inherited a large enough fortune to turn them into culinary tourists, traveling the world in search of the perfect meal, even going to Ferran Adrià's now-shuttered temple of gastronomy El BullĂ­ three times. "I mean," she says, with only a hint of shame, "who goes to El BullĂ­ three times?!" But after her father is diagnosed with cancer and Diane flies home to be with him before he goes into surgery, and he makes her a toasted pastrami sandwich, she is cured of her foodie urges.

Rest assured, Diane will return, but you must have patience, for after her opening monologue, Cho takes us into a completely different realm, where we meet Ray (Tim Kang), a hardworking chef whose father (who always felt cooking was women's work, and beneath his son) is dying of cirrhosis. When the hospital can do no more, Ray brings his dad home, and installs his hospital bed in the dining room. With the bed comes hospice nurse Lucien. In many ways, Lucien is the pragmatic heart of this play—the only character who really sees both sides to everything. He, whose work takes place at the border between life and death, is better qualified than anyone else on stage to help us see the dual nature underlying everything. The character is caring, funny, forceful, and, above all, pragmatic. Tyrone Mitchell Henderson plays him with great skill and honesty, providing a standout performance for the evening.

Moving outward from Lucien's calm, centered presence, the waves of chaos and conflict flow. Ray has a magic touch with food. It was he who won over the fair Cornelia with a bowl of mulberries—the perfect dish at the perfect time. But he doesn't cook anymore, and he's lost the love of Cornelia. Ray's father has lost touch with his brother back in Korea, but with Cornelia's language skills, he is informed of his brother's impending death. (When Uncle shows up unannounced at Ray's house when all are asleep and lets himself in an unlocked door, the two explanations Uncle gives—first in Korean, and then in pantomime—compose one of the most startlingly hilarious moments of the night.) And when Diane, the foodie from the play's prologue returns? Your patience will be repaid—with interest.

Overall, the cast is terrific, and director Tony Taccone has found a wonderful pace and elicited a natural chemistry that reveals itself each time two characters are in dialogue. First-rate work all around.

Aubergine is the first show to be staged at Berkeley Rep's original Thrust Stage, now re-named the Peet's Theatre, and the renovations are a grand success. There is now a more attractive, centrally located box office, new seating and acoustic system, as well as a hip bar that's a perfect spot for a drink or snack pre- or post-show.

Aubergine runs through March 20, 2016, in the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 pm, and 2:00 pm Saturday and Sunday. No performance on Tuesday 3/15. Additional matinees on Thursday 2/18 and 3/17. Tickets from $29-$89, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Half-price tickets available to anyone under 30. Tickets are available online at www.berkeleyrep.org, or by calling the box office at 510-647-2949 or during box office hours: Tuesday-Sunday 12:00 pm to 7:00 pm


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