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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Dear Elizabeth and Abigail's Party

Also see Richard's reviews of Arcadia and The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus


A Stunning Production of Sarah Ruhl's Dear Elizabeth

A Separate Peace
Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis
Photo by kevinberne.com
Do the names Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell mean anything to you, or do you happen to know anything about these poets? Don't worry because, after you have seen this beautiful production, you will know who they were. Both were well known in their day, when poets could make a living and thousands would read their poetry.

Sarah Ruhl's dialogue is drawn from the texts of letters between Lowell and Bishop, which were collected in 2008's "Words in Air." With articulateness and a beguiling peer-to-peer openness, they speak of their work, their daily lives, the encounter of solitude, the purpose of art, and the all-embracing effort to create meaningful poetry. For long stretches, the text alone is colorful enough to sustain the audience's interest. Lowell ended up being married three times; Bishop was gay and had a long relationship with an architect with whom she lived in Brazil.

Cursed with an ability to not tell a lie, Bishop would nit-pick about the drafts that Lowell would send her, but he would reply with colorful if self-mocking anecdotes. In later years, Lowell, the survivor of three marriages and countless affairs, grew more flirtatious, even through Bishop had a thing for women. Both actors leave their chairs occasionally for some physical business, such as Lowell collapsing on the floor to indicate a blackout or breakdown, and during one of his descents into mania he opens a panel in the wall and climbs to an illuminated moon.

Les Waters' sharp direction animates the back and forth with some great whimsical touches of stagecraft. Most of the time the two sit side by side at a desk with paper in hand, but they get up and act out such interesting scenes as a waterfall suddenly appearing at the back of stage, flooding the stage so the two can recreate a happy scene on a beach in Maine, or Bishop, who becomes despondent over the death of her lesbian lover, wanting to start over again on another planet. A ball representing another world descends from the ceiling and she ascends upwards with the planet.

Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis deliver fine, carefully considered performances; he is suitably disheveled as Lowell, his voice light, his manner impressively self-assured and agonizingly needy by turns. Occasionally, he slumps to the floor, signaling one of his many breakdowns due to manic-depression for which he was treated at McLean Hospital in Boston. Mary Beth Fisher is more reserved; there is a meticulousness in her words and an economy to her movements even as she downs drink after drink, a reminder of her alcoholism.

Dear Elizabeth plays through July 7th at the Roda Theatre of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets please call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. Coming up next is George Gershwin Alone opening On June 8 and running through June 23. Coming in August is the all-star cast Sir Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land opening on August 3rd and running through August 31st.


A Brilliant Production of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party


Susi Damilano, Allison Jean White and Julia Brother
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
Mike Leigh, who has written and directed such indie film hits as Vera Drake and Secrets & Lies, wrote a ferocious satirical play about the burgeoning middle class suburbs of London in 1978. Since then, people have analyzed Abigail's Party to death, but they probably shouldn't have bothered. Leigh's masterful play satirizes the strains of marital strife and neighborly interaction. The playwright manages to find great humor in the simplest and most obvious ideas. In this rousing two-hour drama you will see something of your own friends and family. I certainly did.

The Abigail of the title is never seen. She is the teenage daughter of a neighbor and is holding a wild party next door. The hostess from hell, Beverly (Susi Damilano), invites some friends round for drinks that same evening in her lower middle-class sitting room. Included in the group is Susan (Julia Brothers), the mousey neighbor and mother of Abigail.

Beverley is a monster. She is bored by her husband Lawrence (Remi Sandri) and they even have rows in front of the guests as they get drunker and drunker. However, she maintains a concern for her guests' drinks and peanut-munching needs. All the time she is flashing dagger eyes at the harassed, side-burned Lawrence. She is also a sensual vamp as she sways and shimmies in her figure-hugging dress in front of another guest, ex-footballer and tongue-tied computer worker Tony (Patrick Kelly Jones). His charmless wife Angela (Allison Jean White) is also a party guest.

Abigail's Party is a genuine work of genius from Mike Leigh. It's hilarious, cringe worthy and absolutely scathing. Better than that, it's timeless. The idea of having the neighbors round for drinks, cheese on sticks and olives might feel dated but the basic ideas transcends time. It is interesting to watch as the continuing drinking brings out each character's true personality; the only one who has been honest and true to herself throughout this party is Beverley.

Amy Glazer has sharply staged this two-hour fast-paced production and has assembled a superb cast of actors to give us a wince-worthy and sidesplitting night of theatre. It feels like we're watching a piece of drama unfolding in our very own living room. The characters and the way they interact with each other is excruciating to watch because everything is saturated in realism. Their conversations are true-to-life and commonplace, and their arguments feel genuine.

Susi Damilano is superb as Beverley. She owns the stage as the hostess from hell. She becomes Beverly before the audience's eyes, capturing every twinge, intonation, shift and mannerism with impeccable timing. This is a powerhouse performance. Remi Sandi gives a strong performance as Beverley's husband Laurence. We watch him impressively morph into an obnoxious person trying to show off his higher cultural taste for a van Gogh painting, a Beethoven symphony and his leather-bound Dickens and Shakespeare.

Julia Brothers as Susan beautifully catches the air of fatigued failure, forever saying "thank yew" as people ply her with unwanted kindness. She whinnies it with such elegant fatigue that it seems to sum up an entire class position.

Patrick Kelly Jones is excellent as the antisocial Tony. He is the kind of man you feel might punch someone to death at any minute. He gives his wife dirty looks when she attempts to talk about him in detail. It is as if he would like to tape her mouth with Sellotape.

Allison Jean White as the wife of Tony has erased her usual good looks and all but steals the show as Nurse Angela. With a dress looking like a patchwork bedspread, she hunches on the sofa, doling out monotonous revelations which humiliate her husband and delight the audience in equal measure.

Bill English has devised a terrifically voluminous, pretentiously furnished living room that looks like a set one would find in a 1970s lower middle cast home, especially if someone were trying to impress their neighbors. Costumes by Tatjana Genser are strictly 1970s and Dan Reed's lighting is excellent.

Abigail's Party runs through July 6 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. Coming up next will be Lerner and Loewe's Camelot opening on July 16 and running through September 14th.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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