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The Book of Liz

The Book of Liz. Comedy. Written by David and Amy Sedaris. Directed by Matt Davis. Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA 94501

Altarena Playhouse and Artistic Director Clay David boldly tackle the Sedaris’ wacky satire The Book of Liz and it’s a surefire comic hit. Chronicling the adventures of Sister Elizabeth Dunderstock, the main money-maker for the Squeamish sect of an isolated religious community if Cluster Haven, who runs away to find appreciation and adventure, this production features fine acting that bring the bizarre characters to life.

Sister Elizabeth is feeling underappreciated in the devotedly patriarchal order. Only worthy of making her famous cheeseballs (traditional and smoky) that sustain the community, she takes off on a Wizard of Oz type journey of self-fulfillment that could only come from the warped minds of David (“SantaLand Diaries)and Amy Sedaris (Strangers with Candy). On her travels, she’s aided by a Ukrainian immigrant couple that speak in cockney accents (wonderfully played by Shannon Nicholson and Peter Marietta) and set her up with a job as a waitress in a Pilgrim themed diner staffed by recovering 12-stepping alcoholics.

Sister Elizabeth (Gretchen Salter) compares her tasty cheeseballs to the moon to Rev. Tollhouse (Randy Anger). Photo by Jim Norrena.

Sister Elizabeth (Gretchen Salter) compares her tasty cheeseballs to the moon to Rev. Tollhouse (Randy Anger). Photo by Jim Norrena.

The script is wickedly funny, full of bad metaphors and biting satire that pokes gentle fun at dogmatic righteousness, spiritualism, pop culture, hilarious gay waiters and alternative medicine (seems Sister Elizabeth has a severe sweating problem). The Sedaris’ have a way with putting our culture under a magnifying glass like children burning ants, burning away the ennui and laying bare the absurdity in our patterns.  In the master cheeseball maker’s absence, the community flounders, unable to re-create the exact recipe. Reverend Tollhouse (Randy Anger), head of the Squeamish Community, Sister Elizabeth’s replacement Brother Nathaniel Brightbee (Tom Curtin) and Sister Butterworth (Becky Doyle) find their way of life challenged and the natural order breaking down.

Rev. Tollhouse (Randy Anger) and Brother Brightbee (Tom Curtin) perform a blind taste test with Sister Butterworth (Becky Doyle). Photo by Jim Norrena.

Rev. Tollhouse (Randy Anger) and Brother Brightbee (Tom Curtin) perform a blind taste test with Sister Butterworth (Becky Doyle). Photo by Jim Norrena.

Sister Elizabeth, who’s become a fantastic waitress is up for Management, but will not wear the short skirt uniform nor will she undergo a medical treatment of ‘leeching’ for her sweating problem. She’s just fine as she is and realizes she must return home, but under new conditions. It is after all, her sweat that is found to be the secret ingredient of her amazing cheeseballs, proving that her real worth and boosting her self-esteem. She brokers a new deal and all ends well. Matt Davis directs this production in-the-round well, utilizing the Atlarena space to his advantage. Clay David’s costumes are spot on.

The Ukrainian couple (Shannon Nicholson and Peter Marietta) get deported for unpaid parking tickets. Photo by Jim Norrena.

The Ukrainian couple (Shannon Nicholson and Peter Marietta) get deported for unpaid parking tickets. Photo by Jim Norrena.

The ensemble cast sparkles throughout. Randy Anger is perfectly cast as the stern, authoritative leader, speaking in holier than thou religious jargon. Becky Doyle is delightful as the busy-body, gossip spreading Sister Butterworth. Salim Razawi and Peter Marietta are over-the top funny as the bitchy gay waiters battling both their recoveries and the tourist trap ‘Pilgrim Crock’ ridiculousness.  Peter Marietta is a joy is several roles, Tom Curtin is prim and proper as Brother Brightbee, and Kate Metroka is sassy and engaging as the audacious Yolanda Foxley. Gretchen Salter cements the whole production as the exasperated, yet spunky Sister Elizabeth. Looking like she just stepped in shit, Salter has the perfect amount of frustration, innocence and wonder at her new life and her role in it. It’s a lovely nuanced performance that adds humanity to the absurdity of her situations. As she finds her personal value, she touches those around her and perhaps affects their lives for the better.

Sister Elizabeth (Gretchen Salter) admires the wordly Ms. Foxley (Kate Metroka)and her 12 Dobermin Pinchers. Photo by Jim Norrena.

Sister Elizabeth (Gretchen Salter) admires the wordly Ms. Foxley (Kate Metroka)and her 12 Dobermin Pinchers. Photo by Jim Norrena.

Performances run August 12th – September 11, 2016. www.altarena.org  510-523-1553.