Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Arches, Balance and Light is the story of famed architect Julia Morgan. The Berkeley native was the first woman to be admitted (after much struggle) to the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the first female architect certified in California, and the first female architect to win (posthumously) the AIA Gold Medal.
Incredibly devoted to her career, over 700 of Morgan's designs have been built. She is most famous for designing Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst's mansion at San Simeon, but the Bay Area is filled with her work. Her slavish devotion to architecture left little time for anything else, including, it seems, a romantic life. Enter playwright Mary Spletter, who has brought the fascinating character of Morgan to life, and added a little fictional ornamentation, imagining what might have gone on during Morgan's time in Paris.
The play is divided between scenes of Morgan a decade before her death, and in Paris, when she was in her late 20s. The setnicely accomplished by designer Michael Cohenis likewise split. One side is a set of rooms in Morgan's San Francisco apartment, filled with furniture and books and the stuff of the life. The other side is almost bare: walls, a door, a plain rectangular pedestal. One side realistic, the other merely suggestivewhich is played out in the structure of the play itself: When we are hearing or seeing what is mostly factual about Morgan's life, it takes place in the more realistic half, while the imagined romance is seen in an environment that allows one's imagination to fill in details.
Much of Spletter's play is excellent, if conventional. The dialogue, though it sometimes slips into cliché ("Like a lightning bolt," "Try me."), pulls us through the story and avoids the pitfall of too much exposition and long speeches. The pacing, overall, is just right. The main challenge comes with some of the motivations, but I unfortunately can't provide an example without spoiling the plot. Brieflywhy would the character of Marguerite, who shows up in Morgan's apartment under false pretenses to ask her a very important question, suddenly shift from demanding to acquiescent? On the positive side, Spletter does an excellent job of creating a passionate Julia Morgan, and in one brilliant moment revealing the heart of the character by having her slap a man who was insulting herbut only letting the slap come when he insulted her designs!
While the cast is to be given some leeway for dealing with a major casting challengethe role of Young Julia had to be recast only three days before opening night (yet Zoe Swenson-Graham was already off book!)they simply weren't gelling as an ensemble. I will write that off to the last-minute cast change. But I can't write off the simply awful French accents attempted by Anastasia Bonaccorso (as Marguerite) and Robin Schild (as Victor, Julia's fictional Parisian love interest). "I must ask fah-there and muh-there." Abysmal. What's more, though Swenson-Graham and Ellen Brooks (as Young Julia and Elder Julia respectively) do a workmanlike job, there are moments where Morgan's intense devotion to her work needs to come through with greater passion.
Despite all these faults, there is still something thrilling about this production. Perhaps it's the crackling intensity of Morgan's vision coming through across the decades. Perhaps it's the thrill of seeing a brand new work struggling to find its feet. But somewhere in here there is a fascinating, compelling play. Perhaps after this run, Spletter will discover how to move her narrative more organically, and a new cast will be able to channel Morgan's passionand spend some time learning more authentic French accents.
Arches, Balance and Light plays Thursdays-Sundays through March 6, 2016, at the Barn Theatre, located in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $20 general admission, and $10 for children under 18 and students with valid high school or college ID. Tickets can be ordered by calling 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visiting www.rossvalleyplayers.com.