Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Pianist of Willesden Lane and Underneath the Lintel

Also see Richard's reviews of I and You and Emily Bergl at Society Cabaret

A Stunning Production of The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Mona Golabek
Photo courtesy of
Berkeley Repertory Theatre is presenting a beautiful rendering of Mona Golabek's The Pianist of Willesden Lane on their Thrust Stage. This 90-minute production directed by Hershey Felder is not to be missed. It is the highly emotional story of Golabek's Jewish mother Lisa Jura who, at the age of 14, traveled on the Kindertransport from Vienna (then under Nazi domination) to London prior to the outbreak of World War II. The transport could take only one of the mother's three daughters and she chooses Lisa since she has a gift for playing the piano.

The playwright vividly tells of Lisa's life before leaving Vienna, including her Viennese piano teacher who is suddenly forbidden to give the young girl lessons and a trolley stop is no long named after Mahler because the composer was a Jew. There is the horror of the Kristallnacht where the young girl watches her father beaten by Nazi soldiers.

Golabek tells Lisa's story as the young teen scavenges on her own during the London Blitz, assuming the voices of men, women and other refugee children Lisa lived and worked with. There is even a romantic interlude during the story. The story ends with her triumphal graduation from The London Royal Academy of Music playing the third movement of Grieg's piano Concerto in A minor.

Mona Golabek is an incredibly talented pianist and throughout her story she beautiful renders pieces by Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin. The music is filled with passion and technically impeccable, even as she delivers her line. There is a little bit of "Strike up the Band" and "These Foolish Things" in the setting of a club full of American GIs in London before D-Day.

Director Hershey Felder adds visuals to the sensory package through impactful archival photos and newsreel footage projected in the large antique gilt picture frames hanging about the midnight blue stage, with Mona sitting with a large grand piano in the center of the stage. This tour de force performance is a treasure not to be missed.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane plays through December 8th at Berkeley Repertory Thrust Stage, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or online at Coming up next is the Kneehigh Theatre production of Tristan & Yseult by the creators of The Wild Bride. It opens on November 22nd and runs through January 6th.

A Splendid Production of Underneath the Lintel

David Strathairn
Photo by Kevin Berne
Glen Berger's 2001 85-minute one-man drama Underneath the Lintel is a fascinating ghost story that introduces us to an eccentric librarian in a small Dutch town whose neatly ordered life is turned upside down when a copy of a weather-beaten Baedeker travel guide turns up in his "returns" box one day. It's 123 years overdue, filled with notes in a variety of different languages and all by the same hand. The borrower is identified in the records only as "A." Sparked by a message in the book, the librarian sets off on a quest to unravel the secrets of the book and the person who borrowed it. From the hallways of his library he starts a journey that takes him around the world. With the twists and turns, Glen Berger's acclaimed solo drama is a mystic piece of storytelling and a journey that is both mightily human and finally sublime.

Once the Librarian gets his stride, he begins telling a story about how and why he lost his job, having to set off on a wild goose chase that becomes increasingly eccentric and eventually takes him around the world. He tells the story in a flood of monologues, intermingled with an "impressive presentation of lovely evidence" culled during his travels. The Librarian follows his leads from London to China, New York to Australia and beyond. Some of the clues are a 1913 laundry claim ticket from London with the home address of the man's library account in China. Other clues include a dry-cleaning ticket, an animal quarantine record, a letter, a photograph, a wax cylinder recording, a pair of tattered trousers—all important clues. He shows the audience slides of the places he visited with fitting background music. The farther he endeavors, the more his prey takes on characteristics of immortality. Even the ancient Christian parable of the Wandering Jew comes into play along with the Flying Dutchman fable and the omnipresent "Kilroy was here" myth. There are some narrative weak spots, including an unnecessary and melodramatic inclusion of the Librarian's girlfriend that 'got away" plotline.

As performed by veteran and television actor David Strathairn, Underneath the Lintel is a completely riveting story. From the moment he appears on stage, this actor totally inhabits this unconventional, brilliant and wildly loquacious character, smoothly reeling off the many discoveries, insights and wry digressions as though he were making them up on the spot. It's a bravura performance.

Director Carey Perloff keeps a tight focus on the production that keeps the audience engaged. Nina Ball has devised an enormously cluttered, deserter-theatre set.

Underneath the Lintel plays through November 23rd at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or on line at Coming up next is the Bay Area's favorite holiday tradition, A Christmas Carol. It opens on December 6th and run through December 28th.

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

- Richard Connema

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