Cindy Lou Johnson's mysterious, lovely comedy of manners has one flaw -- an ill-conceived character who sets events in motion and provides too neat a wrap-up -- but it also has subtlety, humor, and sorrow, captured beautifully by director Val Hendrickson and the Signal Theater Company. Johnson's play about making small moments matter follows two sets of siblings. Andrea (Carolyn Doyle) is mugged on her wedding day while her sister Eloise (Cynthia Bassham) is dumped by her husband. The sisters have also recently lost both parents -- their father to cancer, their mother to suicide. Their cousins, easygoing, considerate Andrew (Michael Carroll) and the officious perfectionist Isabella (Eowyn Mader, no relation), are busy with wedding preparations. Then 13 years pass, and it's Eloise's second wedding day, Andrea is mugged again, Andrew has become a photographer, and Isabella is busy with wedding preparations and with upbraiding Andrew for lacking purpose. As in Chekhov, nothing much and everything important happens, and you fall in love with these characters and these actors. There are some ragged moments in the first act, but Eloise's wedding day has the witty, joyous enchantment of a Phillip Barry play. Bassham, Mader, and Carroll are effortlessly amazing here -- funny, charming, and compassionate. Carroll especially floods his character with empathy and generosity. Doyle put me off at first -- she speaks her lines rapidly and evenly -- but I came to appreciate her distant steadiness. Her life rushes by like her words. In the penultimate scene, all three women break your heart. John Sowle's gloriously off-kilter Victorian wedding cake of a set and Marcus Shelby's jazz score also entrance. The problem, though, is the mugger (the overwrought Chad Fisk), a writer's structural conceit that doesn't work. But The Years is so golden, you can almost ignore its tin spine.
The Language of Angels
The language of backwoods Southerners is beautifully rendered in the first part of Naomi Iizuka's new play, written for Campo Santo. Perching in the dark, on what look like mirrored lifeguard towers, three witnesses tell what they know about the disappearance and death of a girl named Celie, who supposedly talked to angels. Kendra (Marcie Henderson) says Celie was "touched, wit' the shinin' like," and JB, a local boy-cum-sheriff (Finn Curtin), explains that her dad was a Holy Roller who handled snakes and died in a fiery car wreck. Seth (Noel Benoza) gives a hypnotic description of the cave where Celie got lost; and Celie herself (Myla Bali), who appears as a ghost, has a sexy coiling poisonous accent, full of mystery and pain. But the power of The Language of Angels is mostly atmospheric. Three intense, disjointed scenes evoke folk superstition and suffering on Tennessee's eastern border, but fail to knit as drama. Suspense over who killed Celie slackens in the second part and barely revives in the third, when the probable killer visits his old girlfriend, Danielle (a wry Sally Dana). The playwright's willful obliquity disengages the audience at some point in the middle, and her vivid characters turn to stone.
Measure for Measure
Through March 19 at La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley. Admission is $6-10; call (510) 234-6046. The chief pleasure of a Subterranean Shakespeare production is that director Stanley Spenger makes sure every actor understands exactly each word and phrase and communicates them clearly. Given this essential base, a gifted actor can shine. As Claudio, Phil Young cuts a romantic figure and seems to have spoken Elizabethan English all his life. And as Elbow, Young twists his face, hunches his body, and snarls and snorts in a combination of Michael Keaton in Much Ado About Nothing and Burgess Meredith in Rocky. When saluting his superiors, he's the fourth Stooge. Spenger himself plays the Duke calmly and thoughtfully, masking the insanity of the Duke's actions. Pete Caslavska is appealing as the compassionate Provost, and Deborah Burkman (understudying for Genevieve Lee), though rocky in her first scene as Mistress Overdone, improves in her various roles as the evening progresses. Noah James Butler as Lucio has the voice of a perfect "fop of liberty," but doesn't know what to do with his hands, repeating the same gesture over and over. Measure for Measure, an odd and difficult comedy, contains only one completely sane character, the drunken prisoner Barnardine, who spurns the weird realities of the Duke's Vienna, and declines to submit to his own execution. This moment should be a howler, but it's blown by Butler (cast also as Barnardine) squatting and rolling on the ground so that he appears anything but sane. His refusal to attend his hanging is lost in the clowning. Spenger makes an interesting choice at the end when Isabella (Ali Baker) doesn't accept the Duke's preposterous proposal of marriage, exiting in a different direction from the rest of the cast. Sub Shakes won't win any converts to this strange play, but the production possesses a respectful intelligence and Young is a delight.