Monday, April 24, 2017

The Marsh Berkeley: East 14th

Don Reed. Photo courtesy Aaron Epstein.

A sparse wooden chair and a beaten-up red vinyl seat sit on opposite sides of the stage of Don Reed’s autobiographical one-man show East 14th. These chairs, we soon learn, are a visual metaphor for Reed’s identity as he grew up in Oakland in the 70’s, torn between an early upbringing under his strict, religious stepfather and teenage years with his laissez-faire, fun-loving dad, who he realized years later was one of Oakland’s biggest pimps. East 14th, now running at The Marsh Berkeley, is a masterfully written show recalling a funny, complex, and, most of all, unique coming of age.

There are a sizeable number of stories that end by saying it’s important to be yourself, but East 14th is one of the few that approaches this message with nuance and charm. The teenage Reed becomes surrounded by smooth-talking players as he spends time with his father and half-brothers, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t quite fit in. Yet Reed’s character arc isn’t simple and neat; he doesn’t realize that his stepfather was right after all and go back to his stark religious life. Instead, he learns that he has to find his own path in the world, one that draws from both sides of his family.

Like many solo performances, Reed portrays dozens of characters over the course of the show, ranging from a sour-faced neighbor kid who burned down a garage to a poorly dubbed actor from the classic kung fu movie The Five Fingers of Death. Reed primarily uses physical tics, posture, and word choice to define new characters, which makes them recognizable without dragging them into the realm of caricature. Some of these changes are remarkably subtle, most notably Reed’s stepfather – Reed merely stands a little straighter and slightly alters the inflection of his voice to transition from nervous preteen to self-confident Jehovah’s Witness.

East 14th is mostly a comedic play, and its structure reuses jokes to powerful effect. Reed will introduce something funny  – say, that he used to blink constantly as a child – and, just when the audience has forgotten, return to it using increasingly complex setups. It’s fairly similar to the work of Eddie Izzard, a cycle of humor that increases in both complexity and payoff the later it gets in the play. But within all the comedy lie genuinely painful and frightening parts of Reed’s life; he transitions into these with lightning speed and snaps out of them with a well-timed joke. These tense moments, tightly woven into the show, remind us that this isn’t a series of comedy sketches – this is Reed opening up and showing us a strange and sometimes difficult childhood.

Don Reed’s East 14th at The Marsh Berkeley is an astonishingly well-crafted piece of theatre and one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. The solo performance combines a bittersweet look at life growing up in East Oakland in the 1970s with a nuanced exploration of personal identity and a barrage of excellent comedy. 

East 14th runs through June 4th.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


Location: Several places; location reviewed is in Berkeley, CA

Food: American

Close To: Berkeley Rep, The Marsh

In many ways, the small chain of Eureka! restaurants scattered across the West Coast resembles the Ashland eatery Smithfield’s, which I reviewed here. Both restaurants elevate classic American dishes with upscale ingredients and bold flavors, sport a minimalist, masculine atmosphere, and feature a wide selection of whiskies at the bar. But, while Smithfield’s concentrates on a variety of meat dishes, Eureka! focuses on the classic American meal: The hamburger.

Eureka!’s enticing hamburgers range from the classic setup of lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles to the Bone Marrow Burger, topped with a bone marrow porcini butter that’s so popular it usually sells out by the end of the day. My personal favorite options are the Bison Burger, which combines hot jalapeño jam with the complex sweetness of grilled bell peppers on a lean bison patty, and the Cowboy Burger, an indulgent delight with bacon, cheddar, and barbecue sauce. The restaurant will accept most substitutions, so feel free to ask for different ingredients on a burger if what’s on the menu don’t quite suit your fancy.

Though burgers are the main focus at Eureka!, there are many other excellent options. Appetizers include Eureka!’s signature mac n’ cheese balls, Polish sausage lollipop corn dogs, and even ceviche. Other entrée items are also available, like orange-chili pork ribs and a selection of tacos. Not to be missed is a unique ginger-lime soda that provides the perfect combination of tartness and heat. Sweet potato fries are available with your burger, but Eureka!’s unique version comes covered in cinnamon and honey, accentuating the sweet potatoes in a way that’s almost dessert-like. And speaking of desserts, there’s only one on the menu: A warm, moist, unbelievably rich bourbon barrel cake served with caramel sauce and a big scoop of ice cream.

Most Eureka! restaurants are open late enough for you to catch dinner either before or after a show, and several are walking distance from theatrical venues. Eureka! is refined comfort food at its finest: The favorites you grew up with, given just enough of a twist to make them a new experience.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Theatreworks: Rags

Left to right: Kyra Miller, Danny Rothman, Jonah Broscow. Photo courtesy Kevin Berne and TheatreWorks.

Rags, according to its bookwriter Joseph Stein, is in part a follow-up to his previous work, the legendary Fiddler On The Roof. Both concern questions of Jewish identity and faith; however, while Fiddler was about life in the Eastern European shtetl, Rags takes place in America among a community of recently arrived Jewish immigrants. Combined with a score by Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Annie) and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin), Rags is a work both emotionally provoking and immensely entertaining. Theatreworks’ production of Rags, directed by Robert Kelley, is an excellent opportunity to see a rarely produced Broadway gem.

The plot of Rags follows several groups of new immigrants scraping out a living on the streets of New York City in the 1910s. The main characters – if the play could be said to have them – are Rebecca Hershkowitz (Kyra Miller) and her son David (Jonah Broscow). Miller’s performance as Rebecca is outstanding. Despite exhibiting justifiable caution toward the new customs and dangers of the United States, she lowers her guard. Miller’s songs communicate her fear and insecurity, but are also beautiful to listen to thanks to her clear, powerful voice. Meanwhile, Broscow’s enthusiasm contrasts with his mother’s defensiveness, as he absorbs both the customs of his new country and the Socialist philosophy of the disaffected adults around him.

Multiple excellent performances round out the show. Julie Benko and Donald Corren play daughter-and-father pair Bella and Avram Cohen – Benko deftly navigates one of the most complex characters in the play, while Corren’s acting spans the gamut between goofy comic relief and intense pain. Saul (Danny Rothman) helps Rebecca and David adjust to life in New York while also pushing Rebecca to join a union. But far from being a perfect symbol of workers’ rights, Saul makes numerous mistakes that harm his loved ones. Rothman’s intensity in his commitment is balanced by genuine remorse for his errors.

The technical work is interesting without being overwhelmingly flashy. Set designer Joe Ragey creates a pent-in feeling with numerous tall structures combined with a projected backdrop that takes us from Ellis Island to the nicest parts of Manhattan. Pamila Z. Gray’s lights are often diffused through stage fog, adding to the sense of New York’s grimy industrial cityscape. Combined with Fumiko Bielefeldt’s down-to-earth costumes, the audience is drawn into the setting while focusing more on characters’ interactions rather than the surrounding stage.

Immigration and America’s national identity are complex topics addressed by some of the greatest modern plays. Rags at Theatreworks adds another voice to the conversation, drawing together the perils of new immigrants – especially at the turn of the 20th century – with the questions of Jewish peoplehood and assimilation also featured in Fiddler On The Roof. More than just pure entertainment, Rags lends perspective to a multi-faceted subject.