Monday, July 24, 2017

Ippuku



Location: Berkeley, CA

Food: Japanese, Yakitori

Close To: Berkeley Rep, The Marsh

Conveniently located next to a BART station in the middle of downtown Berkeley, Ippuku provides a quiet refuge from the bustling Bay Area. The seating in the long, narrow space – consisting of both booths and traditional low tables – is partially enclosed by walls, creating intimate eating spaces. Within these areas, diners are treated to yakitori, charcoal-grilled skewers that form a cornerstone of Japanese tavern cuisine.

Skewers (prices range from $7-$9) arrive in pairs; one could expect to eat three or four plates as part of a meal. Various chicken skewers, as the core of yakitori cuisine, feature prominently within Ippuku’s menu. Common varieties like chicken breast and thigh are available, along with more unconventional cuts like heart, which possesses a rich flavor accentuated by its time on the grill, and satisfyingly chewy gizzard. For $16, you can get an omakase (chef’s choice) plate of five different skewers; this is a great option for people who want to taste a variety of offerings, as well as for those who can’t decide.

Chicken isn’t your only card to play at Ippuku. Mochi, pounded rice cakes, are more common as dessert items in the West, but their neutral flavor and sticky texture work just as well as an entrée. Some of Ippuku’s best menu items make use of small mochi cakes, including mochi skewers wrapped in bacon and grilled mochi wrapped in nori. Other skewers might contain asparagus or mushrooms; some slightly larger options include a warm and satisfying zosui rice porridge with chicken on top ($10), grilled rice balls ($8), and a small selection of desserts.


Ippuku’s appeal is twofold: Its peaceful, quiet atmosphere in an otherwise hectic city center, and its unbelievably high-quality skewers. Spending an evening eating yakitori here is a great way to burn off the stress of a big week. If you don’t find yourself in Berkeley particularly often, I recommend making a visit to Ippuku a high priority. The restaurant’s wide menu, high quality, and inviting atmosphere create a peaceful, satisfying eating experience that one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

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Monday, July 17, 2017

San Leandro Players: Arsenic and Old Lace

Left to right: James Michael Gregory, Maya Rath, Paul Petersen. Photo courtesy San Leandro Players.

As one of the quintessential American comedies, Arsenic and Old Lace, with its blend of macabre humor and farce, withstands the test of time and remains hilarious to this day. As the San Leandro Players navigate this play, the small, gutsy company uses its intimate space to bring the physical humor out into the audience.

The headlining characters of the show are Abby and Martha Brewster (played by Jessi Lee and Terry Guillory, respectively), a pair of aunts who delight in euthanizing lonely old men with poisoned wine. The pair functions as a two-person comedy unit that charms the audience despite their deadly hobby. Lee and Guillory shine as the Brewsters through a combination of neighborly charm, well-meaning nosiness, and naiveté over their crimes.

Many other characters add to the over-the-top nonsense of Arsenic and Old Lace. Robyn Werk towers over early scenes as Teddy “Roosevelt” Brewster: Her mixture of childish glee and faux-Presidential outrage generates an entertaining performance. Contributing genuine danger to the play are Boris Karloff lookalike Jonathan Brewster (Paul Pedersen) and his partner-in-crime Dr. Einstein (Maya Rath). Pedersen does a great job channeling Karloff’s sinister horror work as he menaces the rest of the cast, while Rath lends a surprising amount of empathy to an ostensibly insane plastic surgeon.

The San Leandro Players also do an interesting job in implementing the play’s foils –serious characters with no real quirks that exist to react to the others’ wackiness. James Paul Gregory plays the story’s ostensible protagonist, Mortimer; he is the standard model of foil that attempts to control the increasingly ludicrous antics of the play. Gregory manifests his role with splendid physical comedy work, leaping maniacally from set piece to set piece. Meanwhile, love interest Elaine (Natalie Moisa) serves as a foil to the foil: As she has no idea what’s happening, even Mortimer’s actions seem ridiculous to her. Moisa’s interpretation is charged with a justifiable impatience; the dual foils provide a fascinatingly multilayered style of comedy not seen in most farces.

Michael Guillory’s set work is standard for the play – the aunts’ old-fashioned house, with doors aplenty for farcical antics – but it not only accommodates, but takes advantage of, the limitations of the San Leandro Players’ stage, which is very narrow and close to the audience. Objects like the corpse-storing window seat are placed at a diagonal, giving the actors more room to maneuver. Some set pieces are actually in front of the stage, so the action merges into the audience. Director Mark O’Neill extends the action across the horizontally oriented space, maintaining the actors’ visibility.

San Leandro Players’ production of Arsenic and Old Lace does justice to the evergreen American classic. The morbid jokes and slapstick comedy are just as funny as they were when the play premiered nearly 80 years ago, and the ensemble cast lends energy and talent to Joseph Kesselring’s script.

Note: Natalie Moisa, who portrayed Elaine in this production, is a personal friend.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs until August 13th.

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Theatreworks: Hershey Felder, Beethoven

Hershey Felder. Photo courtesy Christopher Ash.


Ludwig van Beethoven has left perhaps the largest legacy of any classical musician, with such seminal works as Für Elise, Moonlight Sonata, and the famous “Da-da-da-DUN” of his Fifth Symphony. And yet we mostly see Beethoven as a marble bust upon a shelf, a machine who created beautiful music, instead of the flawed, tormented human he really was. Pianist/actor/playwright Hershey Felder illustrates the struggle between joy and misery within the composer in his one-man show Hershey Felder, Beethoven, which brings to life a person whom most of us have known only as a distant legend.

Hershey Felder, Beethoven is not approached from Beethoven’s perspective: Perhaps Felder thought an outside look would better illustrate Beethoven’s complexities, or that Beethoven’s inner struggles were too complicated to be retold truthfully from his view. What we get instead is fragments of Beethoven’s life, death, and struggle with deafness, from the perspective of Gerhard von Breuning, his former caretaker. This framing is a more honest way of discussing a historical figure about whom little is known; the audience leaves the theatre still asking questions that may never be answered.

Felder’s acting dwells at two extremes: His portrayal of von Breuning is clipped and composed, calmly asking the audience to hear his side, while his portrayal of Beethoven is wild, driven to paroxysms of joy and rage. We don’t get tired of either character because Felder switches between them so often, and, in fact, discover new facets of their personalities every time we return to them. Other incidental characters, such as the point-of-view character’s father, are portrayed with delicacy and nuance.

Unlike most one-person shows, Hershey Felder, Beethoven is interspersed with Felder’s emotionally charged piano performances of some of Beethoven’s best-known work. This is vital for the performance, as it shows, not tells, the sheer impact of the music and allows us to experience for ourselves its timeless power. Interspersed between the music, Felder points out Beethoven’s love for composing in C minor, Beethoven’s melody speaking to us above the rhythmic base in the Moonlight Sonata, and many other insights into Beethoven’s legacy, which allows us to appreciate his music on a higher level.

Hershey Felder, Beethoven is a glimpse into what little we know of one of the greatest, most complex musicians in Western history. Knowing Beethoven’s flaws doesn’t bring him down to earth, but instead gives us more insight into a composer who, while fraught with despair and rage, was nevertheless able to produce works of tremendous beauty. Even for those with only a passing familiarity with Beethoven and his works, this one-person show will bring tears to your eyes.

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