“Actually” at the Aurora Theatre Company

“Actually” at the Aurora theatre Company

Carol Benet

The art of the theater is known for reflecting current  social problems.  During World War II in Paris the theater was able to present works by playwrights like Jean Paul Sartre that, in hidden ways, mirrored and criticized the Nazi occupation.

And so it is today with current events, particularly what is happening on our college campuses,  the Aurora Theatre’s “Actually” brings up two burning questions:  what does sexual harassment consist of and what special privileges get students accepted to elite schools.  Timely?  You bet.

In the second small theater at the Aurora with less than 50 seats,  Anna Ziegler’s “Actually” is an intense one-act play with only two students, a white girl and a black boy. How did they get in to this prestigious institute Amber (Ella Dershowitz) asks Tom (Michael A. Curry).  He played the piano well and she was on the squash team but she admits that she wasn’t very good at it in High School.  She also asks was it difficult to adjust — being black and all — and hints that a bit of affirmative action could have been work. Those are the current event topics right from the start.

Then comes the big question the one that is central to the play.  Tom is accused of raping  Amber.  She in her quisling way tells the committee that “actually” she was not sure but does admit,“I was so drunk”.

Scenes of the inquiry mix with those between the two of them when they first meet as freshmen.  Amber is smitten with Tom at first and in her awkward teen-age manner she never stops talking, a trait that Tom notices more than once.  In a clever way playwright Ziegler has them take turns talking — one picking up where the other left off.

Amber tells her off-stage friend of meetings and conversations with Tom.  To us she also talks about her past encounters with a boy friend. Tom tells of his roommate and then his friend Sunil, another minority who was a gifted musician.  During the hearing Amber tries to recall what “actually” happened in the supposed rape.  Their dialogues, yes there are only two of them on stage, are filled with innuendo and ambiguity.  Director Tracy Ward’s pacing is perfect.

Giulio Perrone’s spare scene with only Jim Cave’s brilliant lighting framing the area behind the two actors is excellent as  it signals the change of scenes.   Ulises Alcala’s costumes are perfect for two college freshmen, as she puts Amber in an orange scar, one of the two colors of the university they attend.

And here is where I think the play needs improvement.  Ziegler chose Princeton for the school under investigation, but Amber is just too valley girl for the part of an Easterner attending an Ivy League school.  She is just sooo Southern California valley girl in her up-talk. (Vocal coach Nancy Carlin).    The script begs the author to insert USC  rather than Princeton as the university they attend, especially after this week of news about the acceptance scandals.   Reference to the the squash team for which Amber is not particularly gifted and the music school acceptances is more fitting of UCS these days where fake positions for athletic teams plus the presence of a noted music school are features of that campus.

Also, in such an intense play about these two students, did we have to know the backstory about their parents’s deaths and illnesses and a classmate’s hardships?  This distracts from the intimacy (coached by Liz Fredrick) between the two that makes the play so terrific.

“Actually” plays at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, CA. .  510 843 4822 or auroratheatre.org.

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →