Monthly Archive for: ‘June, 2016’

‘For Peter Pan…’ combines gravitas, fantasy, humor at Berkeley Rep

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★½☆]

Apparently I can write anything I choose about playwright Sarah Ruhl without fear of contradiction.

Kathleen Chalfant (Ann), right, and Ellen McLaughlin (Wendy) return to their childhood by flying in “For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday.” Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.

Kathleen Chalfant (Ann), right, and Ellen McLaughlin (Wendy) return to their childhood by flying in “For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday.” Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.

Negative or not.

Because she’s never going to read this piece.

Or any other critique.

Ruhl, who lectures at the New Haven university, has been quoted by the Yale News as proclaiming, “I don’t read reviews so I don’t know what people say.”

She does, however, know precisely what people fret about.

Case in point: “For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday,” her new 90-minute, intermission-less play now at the Berkeley Rep.

It’s all about growing up versus just growing old and arthritic.

And about accepting mortality.

Kathleen Chalfant opens “For Peter Pan…” with a soliloquy at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.

Kathleen Chalfant opens “For Peter Pan…” with a soliloquy at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.

And how Ann (who flew as Peter Pan while young in Davenport, Iowa) and her three brothers and sister cope with their father’s death — and reconnect with childhood dreams.

With the biggest change being her learning to face her aging process fearlessly.

But it’s also about sibling love being able to overcome conflicts between them — medically, philosophically, religiously.

Ann’s impressively portrayed by Kathleen Chalfant, Stanford-educated character actor born in San Francisco and raised in her parent’s boarding house in Oakland whose face and voice are more recognizable than her name.

She’s been featured on TV shows such as “House of Cards,” “Madame Secretary,” “Elementary” and “Law & Order” (both the SVU and Criminal Intent spinoffs), appeared on Broadway in “Angels in America” and “M. Butterfly,” and on off-Broadway in “Wit” and “A Walk in the Woods.”

Flying on a fantasy ship are (from left) Charles Shaw Robinson (John), David Chandler (Jim), and Keith Reddin (Michael). Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.

Flying on a fantasy ship are (from left) Charles Shaw Robinson (John), David Chandler (Jim), and Keith Reddin (Michael). Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.

She’s supported ably by Ellen McLaughlin as Wendy, Keith Reddin as Michael, Charles Shaw Robinson as John, David Chandler as Jim and Ron Crawford as George (the dad).

Plus Yodel as their dad’s Saint Bernard.

But it’s Chalfant’s show.

From the moment she comes out and engages the audience as Ann in a soliloquy about childhood memories.

Through the point she changes costumes onstage and flies a la Peter Pan.

Like Ruhl’s mother (for whom the playwright wrote the show “as a gift”) did as an Iowa teen.

Most riveting are a death-watch scene, especially with its long silences broken only by the beeps of a hospital room monitoring machine, and the shift to a serio-whimsical recreation of Mary Martin-like flight sequences.

Another device that works is a three-piece band strutting down the aisles booming “The Saints,” coupled with the siblings singing a quieter version of that American gospel-hymn classic.

Contrasted with their humming the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

“For Peter Pan…” is the playwright’s fifth production at Berkeley Rep (and her fifth collaboration with director Les Waters, associate Rep artistic director from 2003 to 2011).

Ruhl, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist whose powerhouse production, “The Oldest Boy,” left me spellbound at the Marin Theatre Company last fall because of its “mesmerizing mysticism and softness,” usually makes room for humor.

Even when dealing with subjects with extreme gravitas.

Such as breaking the earnest tone in “For Peter…” with comic insertions of the father’s ghost.

Ruhl’s always intellectual and inventive. Usually bravura.

But sometimes oblique.

She’s also not the least hesitant about using someone else’s ideas as a springboard to her creative bursts.

Such as leaning on the Orpheus myth for “Eurydice,” Anton Chekhov’s classic drama “Three Sisters,” and a Virginia Woolf novel, “Orlando.”

Now, of course, it’s J.M. Barrie’s children’s fairy tale — leading Chalfant to say she loves at her age (a year older than the play’s protagonist) being able to “fly and fence.”

David Chandler (Jim), as Captain Hook, is bested by Keith Reddin (Michael) in “For Peter Pan…” at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.

David Chandler (Jim), as Captain Hook, is bested by Keith Reddin (Michael) in “For Peter Pan…” at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne.

And “to wear green tights.”

Opening night at “Peter Pan,” Ruhl sat right in front of me, fists clenched just before the curtain, slouched more comfortably in her seat as the play progressed and people laughed appropriately at the many laugh lines.

I wondered if she realized her dialogue didn’t always work.

Indeed, it occasionally felt as if the siblings were engaged in a grad-school seminar — in lumbering Socratic style — pondering family dynamics, mercy killing, and a belief in God and an afterlife.

But Ruhl, who prefers talking about her plays rather than personal items (except her three kids) and has received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, tackled a tough subject — aging.

And made the tackle.

Good under any circumstances. Particularly noteworthy for a 42-year-old.

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday” plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre‘s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, through July 3. Night performances, 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays, Matinees, 2 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $14.50 to $89, subject to change. Information: 1-510-647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.

 Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net or at www.vitalitypress.com/

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