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.

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