Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

This Much I Know
Aurora Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas

Anna Ishida and Kenny Toll
Photo by Kevin Berne
In today's environment, where what once were facts are now called "fake news" and tens of millions of people believe (or at least purport to believe) the Big Lie, Jonathan Spector and the Aurora Theatre Company have found the perfect moment to stage This Much I Know, Spector's new play which opened this week in a world premiere production. The play reaches across decades, melding historical events (the defection from the USSR of tyrant Josef Stalin's daughter, Svetlana) with a fictional present-day story linking the lives of a university psychology professor, his wife, a writer who also happens to be Svetlana Stalin's granddaughter, and a Ph.D. candidate who also happens to be the son of a prominent white supremacist.

The play addresses huge issues–Why do we believe what we believe? Is it possible to change one's beliefs? Do we trust ourselves to determine what is true and what it false?–and challenges the audience (who function as the class members listening to the professor's lectures) to rethink what we know about those issues.

Spector is a whiz at the high-wire act of throwing us off balance just enough to keep us questioning our assumptions, yet never pushing us so far that we tumble from the wire. Like a wirewalker working without a net, we will need our full attention to make it safely to the other side, for Spector's play whizzes from scene to scene, with the three actors playing a dozen or more roles. Fortunately, director Josh Costello brings a skilled hand to the proceedings, not only keeping the action rocketing along over the course of 125 minutes (including two brief intermissions), but also using simple props, accents, and quick costume changes (often just a hat or a pair of glasses) to make sure we know exactly where in time and place we are. The scenes shift from the 1960s to the present day, and from the United States to Russia and India, and the actors often assume new roles without leaving the stage. But not to worry, Costello's direction makes it all feel seamless and engaging.

The set, by Tanya Orellana, at first glance seems like nothing special–a backdrop of golden-hued squares and a few similarly-realized boxes on stage. But as the play progresses, the boxes are moved to become chairs and desks and tables, and the backdrop reveals recesses that hold flags and teapots and surfaces for the projection of a variety of images, including PowerPoint slides from the professor's lectures, and the "South Park"-esque talking heads of Josef Stalin and the white supremacist father.

The three actors–Rajesh Bose as A/Lukesh, Anna Ishida as B/Natalya, and Kenny Toll as C/Harold–are all marvelous. Bose brings an impish quality to Lukesh, the psych professor, probing as deeply into his character as the prof himself immerses himself (and us) in the Big Questions. Then, suddenly, he's a Russian schoolgirl in pigtails and Komsomol scarf–and never misses a beat. Toll does a terrific job of inhabiting Harold, a young man who is most in need of changing his belief system, provoked by Lukesh to re-examine what he's been taught. Harold has been outed in a New Yorker article as a neo-Nazi (a term he derides as inaccurate), which is causing him no end of problems on campus, and Toll plays him with a gentleness that lets us see a caring human aching to break out of the shell his father has constructed around him–even when he's spouting oxymoronic hogwash like "There's actually a lot of diversity in the white nationalist community."

Ishida has the darkest work to do here. Early in the proceedings, she sends a text to Lukesh, saying simply, "I'll be gone for a while. Possibly forever. It's nothing you did." This phrase, chilling as it is, will take on an even colder tone when it's used by Ishida when she is playing her own grandmother, Stalin's daughter Svetlana. Ishida is marvelous in her roles, disguising the pain she carries until it will stay hidden no longer, a concept encapsulated by one of the lines Spector has written to describe her struggles: "It's like trying to submerge something that floats."

Spector, through the voice of Lukesh, challenges us to examine our belief systems, but also reminding us how our minds work to reinforce those systems. When presented with an obvious falsehood, as when Lukesh states he's going to "marry a zebra," he also tells us how our mind's first reaction is to accept a statement as true. Because, he says, as humans, "we make sense of things. Even when there is no sense to be made of them." And this, he states "is why false ideas are so dangerous–they're sticky."

We need look no further than certain news channels or social media feeds to see the danger of sticky, but false, ideas and concepts. This Much I Know is a most welcome illustration of the dangers of false ideas, and the impact they have on societies and cultures–from Soviet-era Russia to America today.

This Much I Know runs through October 2, 2022, at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $20-$78. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 510-843-4822.