01/28/2014 12:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Those Damned Exasperating Women!

Prior to Louis Armstrong releasing his hit recording of a troubled new musical's big song, the working title for Hello, Dolly! was a bit longer. During a period when musicals were experimenting with extra-long names that could fill up any marquee (such as 1961's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), the working title for Jerry Herman's new show was Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman.

Carol Channing as Dolly Gallagher Levi

Not every woman makes a career out of coming down a staircase in a bejeweled red gown, dancing with a restaurant's wait staff, and eating fake potato dumplings (made from spun sugar) as a means of getting laughs while snaring herself a wealthy second husband.

Nevertheless, history and literature are filled with stories of women whose determination to do things their own way knew no bounds. From Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Harriet Tubman, and Florence Foster Jenkins to Bella Abzug, Molly Ivins, Eve Ensler, and Elizabeth Warren; from Rosa Parks, Cindy Sheehan, Martha Mitchell, and Hillary Clinton to Golda Meir, Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, and Wendy Davis, many a woman has bucked male authority figures, set out to conquer immense personal obstacles, and managed to take control of her life.

Last year, two small Berkeley theatre companies presented riveting dramas whose protagonists were fiercely determined women with clearly defined goals. Each of these companies can lay claim to more than two decades of bringing gripping theatrical challenges to their audiences.

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Linda McLean's searing drama, strangers, babies, leaves little doubt that something is off-kilter about its protagonist, a seemingly healthy woman named May (Danielle Levin) who, at first glance, is having trouble reining in her maternal instincts over an injured bird. As her husband, Dan (Cole Alexander Smith), tries to relax and read the newspaper on their patio, May remains utterly fixated on whether or not the bird requires veterinary help and how she might be able to nurse it back to health.

As McLean's play progresses, the audience witnesses May interact with a series of men whose approval (or disgust) she craves but is unlikely to receive. While visiting her elderly father (a dying, abusive man lying in a hospital bed who has no interest in being cheered up by his daughter), she is confronted with a bitter old man who has never forgiven May for a childhood transgression that left their family -- and especially Duncan (Richard Louis James) -- living under a cloud of lifelong humiliation.

May (Danielle Levin) visits her dying father, Duncan (Richard Louis
James) in a scene from strangers, babies (Photo by: Pak Han)

A brief tryst with a stranger with whom she discussed violent sex in a chat room finds May trying to manipulate Roy (Tim Redmond) into hurting her. Whether May is interested in experiencing an orgasm by way of submission, erotic asphyxiation, or just needs someone to mercilessly inflict pain on her, the vignette of their encounter in a hotel room leaves the audience in an edgy state of trepidation.

May (Danielle Levin) tries to get Roy (Tim Redmond) to hurt
her in a scene from strangers, babies (Photo by: Pak Han)

When they were children, May and her brother, Denis (Joe Estlack), were involved in an unmentionable act of cruelty in a local playground which caused them to swear to each other that neither of them could never be entrusted to become a parent. By the time May meets up with her brother to inform him that she's pregnant, the audience knows that something is dangerously wrong.

May (Danielle Levin) meets up with her brother, Denis (Joe Estlack)
in strangers, babies (Photo by: Pak Han)

In the play's final scene, when May and her sleeping infant get an unexpected visit from a social worker (Tim Kniffin), her desperation to delay Abel's inspection of her child raises the audience's worst suspicions about whether May is prone to child abuse (whether it be sexual, violent, or both).

Abel (Tim Kniffin) and May (Danielle Levin) argue over the condition
of her child in strangers, babies (Photo by: Greggory LeBlanc)

Director Jon Tracy, who staged McLean's Any Given Day for Magic Theatre in 2012, kept the audience at Shotgun Players on the edge of their seats throughout this one-act psychodrama (which leaves people guessing whether May has overcome her childhood demons and can embrace her maternal instincts or if she will turn out to be a natural born killer). In essence, strangers, babies is a ghost story without a readily identifiable ghost; a way of frightening an audience into going home and worrying if (once they've turned out the lights) a contemporary monster is still lurking underneath the bed.

Tracy was aided immensely by Nina Ball's set design, a minimalist jigsaw puzzle which (with the help of Kurt Landisman's lighting) kept the focus squarely on the actors and McLean's writing. In his director's note, Tracy wrote:

"I've found myself significantly changed by my time working with Linda. Her work seems to be the product of a finely-tuned ear listening intently but patiently to the characters that speak through her. She allows her plays no theatrics, no easy escapes through shoehorned exposition, or reductive imagery. What is left is the very essence of each character in the most present of moments, each incredibly familiar to us not only because of what we hear, but very much because of what is left unsaid. There's a certain dark matter that the plays tap into as we are forced to question the properties of what really holds any of us together.

I"m pretty certain that the next person to experience her work will have unique answers and perhaps even more unique questions. That is the gift that Linda ultimately gave me; stories that did not hand me answers but asked me for questions. Stories that do not aim to teach but instead inspire a greater capacity to learn. Personally, I have learned more from this sense of accountability and responsibility for my own opinions than in a lifetime of playmaking and watching. That is why I return to strangers, babies. To keep asking questions. To hope that the path you are led down is understood, ultimately, as your own."

The men of strangers, babies (Photo by: Pak Han)

The result of the McLean/Tracy collaboration was the kind of chilling, deeply disturbing evening of theatre that left one marveling at the work of certain actors while being spooked by their characterizations of deeply dysfunctional souls. As intense and mystifying as Danielle Levin's May might have seemed, the searing performance of Richard Louis James as May's caustic, selfish, and hostile father was destined to haunt those who saw this production. Similarly, Joe Estlack's emotionally locked down portrait of May's brother sent shivers up the spines of onlookers who tried to guess what May and Denis could have done in their youth.

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Over at the Berkeley City Club, Central Works presented its 40th world premiere: a musical epic that dramatizes the turbulent events of the Paris Commune (the 1871 socialist uprising that was also known as the "Fourth French Revolution") and compressed the action into a two-hour romp through French history. Of note: Several decades later, Karl Marx would refer to the slaughter of 20,000 Communards following their brief rise to power as the dress rehearsal for the Russian Revolution.

France's Louise Michel (Born May 29, 1830, died January 9, 1905)
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Written by Gary Graves, Red Virgin tells the tale through the eyes of Louise Michel (Anna Ishida), a "damned exasperating woman" who became known as "The Red Virgin of Montmartre." A passionate teacher who encouraged her students to sing La Marseillaise (even if Napoleon had forbidden them from doing so), Louise Michel was a feminist soldier, an inspired anarchist, an enthusiastic revolutionary, and a genuine pain in the ass. As she wrote, "Yes, barbarian that I was, I loved the cannon, the smell of gunpowder and grapeshot in the air. But above all, I was in love with the revolution!"

Graves first learned about Louise Michel (later dubbed "The French Grande Dame of Anarchy") while visiting Paris in 2000. As he searched for a way to create a play with a huge cast of characters, he realized that Louise Michel was the key to solving the puzzle. As he explained:

"Red Virgin takes place in the 19th century, when singing in public was very common, so it was natural to include songs that were actually sung at the time. We enlisted the help of Allison Lovejoy (who has a background in French cabaret, and who composed an original theme for the play) as musical director. We eventually got it down to six people -- five actors and one musician, Diana Strong -- though all of the performers play various instruments (piano, guitar, accordion, and percussion) in addition to singing. Clemence Enjolras was a really interesting character to write. She stands in for the audience as an observer of the Commune. We get to ask whether Louise has recklessly endangered her charge, or if she was the rarest of mentors."

Anna Ishida and Diana Strong perform in the world
premiere of Red Virgin (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Having worked as a team on numerous Central Works productions, Gary Graves (playwright and lighting designer) and Gregory Scharpen (sound design) knew how to play this performance space like a Stradivarius. Their skill at making the audience believe they were witnessing major social upheaval as Paris went up in flames before their very eyes was nothing less than astonishing.

With Juliana Lustenader as Louise's student, Clemence Enjolras; Galen Murphy-Hoffman as Theophile Ferré, Kenny Toll as Raoul Rigault, and Josh Pollock as the Marquis de Gallifet, a sextet of actors did a miraculous job of staging a civil war within the confines of a glorified living room under the skilled direction of John Patrick Moore.

The cast of Red Virgin (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

With Scharpen's constant bombardment of gunshots, cannon, and other sounds of war, one left the theatre feeling dazed and giddy with the knowledge that so much spectacle had been created with so little money; that the audience's imagination had been so masterfully manipulated that two hours could fly by in a flash.

Try to imagine John Doyle staging a minimalist production of Les Misérables in which all the actors play musical instruments without losing an ounce of excitement. Anchoring the evening was a bravura performance by Anna Ishida, whose Louise Michel didn't hesitate (as a woman with brains) to go where the men in charge of the uprising did not (or simply could not) dare to think.

Anna Ishida as Louise Michel (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

In 2012, Central Works scored a tremendous success when Graves wrote a trilogy based on the story of Richard the Lionheart. His skill at creating historical dramas with an epic sweep provided a sturdy foundation for Red Virgin, which often showed surprising relevance to today's political landscape in America (there was even a snarky reference to one character being a "Republican in name only").

Although the play begins and ends with Louise Michel and Clemence Enjolras at sea, bound for exile in New Caledonia, it seemed only fitting that the cast of a play about a socialist uprising staged by a Berkeley theatre company that uses an "organic" approach to playwrighting would end up singing The Internationale as part of the show (Central Works was granted the rights to use Billy Bragg's new verse).

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One of the surprising gems screened during the 2013 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was a documentary entitled Esther Broner: A Weave of Women. A loving tribute to a feminist author whose intellect and passion helped to shape a unique type of social change (in 1975 she co-authored The Women's Haggadah with Naomi Nimrod), it is an absolute delight to watch.

What makes this film so appealing is the way it shows a group of intelligent Jewish women redefining a part of Jewish culture and spirituality which has always exclusively been the territory of Jewish men. In her director's statement, filmmaker Lilly Rivlin wrote:

"As a Jewish woman, born in Palestine I have always reflected on my origins in my work. My films are part of my family, my children in a way. Yet when I finished Esther Broner: A Weave of Women, I felt that this had been the most difficult baby to birth. Because I didn't want it to be a traditional biopic, I came up with a structure that interwove two narratives, one about E.M. Broner's life, and the other about the evolution of the Feminist Seder which she had led for 36 years. The two narratives are connected by the metaphor of her most popular novel, A Weave of Women, that was described by The New York Times critic John Leonard as 'an astonishment' and 'a recapitulation of the rhythms of female consciousness.' The weave metaphor worked for me.

There would never be a comprehensive interview with Esther. Without the wealth of anecdotes and personal stories one would have from the subject, I feared the project would be a difficult one. Fortunately, there was Esther's daughter, Nahama, her granddaughter, Alexandra (who had absorbed so much of Esther's life history), and the friends and colleagues with whom she had such a special bond, spiritually and intellectually, and who loved sharing a laugh. I persuaded a friend to shoot Esther's 'Last Seder' in 2010. It was powerful material and I thought it could be the foundation for a film. In her New York Times obituary of E.M. Broner (as Esther was known professionally), Margalit Fox captured the essence of this artist/activist describing her as a writer who explored the double marginalization of being Jewish and female, producing a body of fiction and nonfiction that placed her in the vanguard of Jewish feminist letters. Ms. Broner was intensely concerned with Jewish spirituality and with carving out a place for women in a faith tradition that had long seemed not to want them.'"


Esther Broner

If you've ever wanted to witness the likes of Esther Broner, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug bonding with other women at a Feminist Seder, Rivlin's documentary is a real treat. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape