Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


What the Constitution Means to Me
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Angels in America and Jeanie's reviews of Peter Pan and Jeeves Intervenes


Wisdom Kunitz and Heidi Schreck
Photo by Alessandra Mello
When audience members enter Berkeley Rep's Peet's Theatre for Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me, they will discover a gift at their seats: a small paperback copy of the Constitution of the United States of America. This should tip you off that the evening ahead might bear a little more resemblance to a lecture than a dramatic work. Which, in fact, it does.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Personally, I appreciate an enlightening discourse on a fascinating subject—which the Constitution most certainly is. But a lecture is not theatre. And though playwright/performer Heidi Schreck does attempt to wrap her deep knowledge of our founding document in a theatrical fabric, the seams show, the structure is unstable, and the piece ultimately unravels in a tangle of connected but disorganized threads.

Schreck slips into and out of character over the course of the 90-minute, no intermission evening. However, since the character she plays is her 15-year old self, but with no change in voice or mannerisms, and with her—admitted—addition of a 40-something woman's wisdom, there doesn't seem to be much of a difference.

There also doesn't seem to be much of a narrative structure. Schreck sets up the piece as taking place in an American Legion hall during one of the Legion's Oratorical Contests, in which Schreck participated (with great success, she reports). Rachel Hauck's set establishes the scene nicely, with an array of photos of men in uniform filling virtually every bit of wall space. The point of these contests, according to the Legion, is to "develop deeper knowledge and appreciation for the U.S. Constitution among high school students." Students give prepared remarks on different aspects of the Constitution and are also asked to speak extemporaneously on one or more specific amendments.

And this is pretty much exactly what Schreck does. An actor playing a Legion official (Danny Wolohan, who will later in the show perform as himself) gets the oration under way, but most of the stage time is spent with Schreck delivering both her prepared speech and extemporizing on the 9th and 14th Amendments, with detours into the histories of women in her family and how the Constitution affected their lives.

The problems here are many. No single one brings down this production, but in combination they are fatal. There is great drama inherent in the desires and dreams of youth. But since Schreck plays her youthful self as a wise adult, the drama is undercut. The delivery of her speech seems designed for the Berkeley Rep audience, not the Legionnaires who would have been judging her performance as a teen, and this pulls us out of a milieu that would have been fraught with anxiety and drama for the youthful Schreck.

Late in the show, Schreck is joined onstage by a local high school debater who is representative of her younger self, but who engages in an onstage oration contest that is improvised to a certain extent. It was wonderful to see the passion and intelligence of the teen debater, Wisdom Kunitz, but it failed to overcome a fatal lack of narrative drive and dramatic tension.

What the Constitution Means to Me, through June 17, 2018, in the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets from $45-$97, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets are available online at www.berkeleyrep.org, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.


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