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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: Three One-Person Plays Worth Watching

Posted By on Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 7:30 AM

I didn't plan to see a trio of one-person plays in a single weekend, but sometimes that's just how it shakes out. The three shows -- a reimagining of Greek mythology at Cutting Ball (Bone to Pick / Diadem), a confessional juggling act at the Marsh (Out of Sight), and an examination of technology, commerce, and ethics at Berkeley Rep (The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs) -- are about as different in form and tone as you can get. But all three are, to some degree, worth your time, with Berkeley Rep's production emerging as the best of the lot. 

Paige Rogers plays Ria in Bone to Pick.
  • Paige Rogers plays Ria in Bone to Pick.

Storytellers just won't leave Ariadne alone. The mythological daughter of King Minos of Crete, she most famously aided Theseus in defeating the Minotaur. After eloping with the Athenian hero, she found herself abandoned on the island of Naxos before hitching up with the god Dionysus. That's the basic story, at least--none of the classical accounts seem to agree on how or why her abandonment took place. She continues to fascinate modern writers in part because her fate remains so fuzzily understood.

Enter Eugenie Chan, playwright-in-residence at Cutting Ball Theater.

Paige Rogers plays Ariadne in Diadem.
  • Paige Rogers plays Ariadne in Diadem.

Back in 2008, Chan wrote a one-act play called Bone to Pick, which takes place in a postapocalyptic landscape and reimagines Ariadne as Ria, a put-upon waitress at an American diner. Following the critical and popular success of that piece, Chan wrote a one-act companion play, Diadem, in which we meet a young Ariadne on the day of her betrayal on Naxos.

Paige Rogers portrays Ariadne in both plays, and she's the best reason to buy a ticket. Her Cretan princess is young and lusty, just beginning to register a very real heartbreak as she realizes that Theseus won't return. By contrast, Rogers's latter-day version of the character is hard-hearted and frighteningly intense -- a perfect showcase for this actress of tremendous range, who can modulate her mood several times within a single sentence. 

The plays are somewhat of a mixed bag. Diadem is the more conventional of the two, giving us a glimpse into the mind of a young woman who doesn't yet realize that she deserves our pity. Bone to Pick is far more opaque and unsettling, touching obliquely on themes of sexual hunger and sexual violence. Crisply staged by Cutting Ball Artistic Director Rob Melrose on Michael Locher's gorgeous mirrored set, with first-rate sound design by Cliff Caruthers, the two one-acts are evocative and troubling but not particularly memorable; they produce a general sense of unease without generating any great emotional pull. Walking out of the theater, I was appreciative and impressed, but I managed to shake off the plays' odd little spell within a few blocks.

Bone to Pick / Diadem continues through Feb. 13 at EXIT on Taylor.

Sara Felder in Out of Sight. - ROBERT CORWIN
  • Robert Corwin
  • Sara Felder in Out of Sight.

Out of Sight, Sara Felder's new one-woman show at the Marsh, is figuratively and literally a juggling act. The play revolves around Felder's relationship with her mother, who clings fervently to Zionism as Felder herself begins developing more sympathy for Palestine. That may not sound like a laugh riot, but Felder manages to keep the show from wallowing in self-seriousness -- and anytime it starts getting a little too heavy, she picks up a couple of lemons (or scarves, or knives) and begins to juggle. 

With a show this personal and potentially controversial, it's no surprise that we occasionally end up in schmaltzy or even preachy territory. Felder's timing isn't always as crisp as it should be. And every once in awhile, the juggling metaphors seem a little labored. But the actress becomes more and more endearing as the show progresses, and the sharpness of her best observations helps minimize the play's rough spots. The result may not be (forgive me!) out of sight, but at least it's rich, satisfying, and charmingly off-kilter.

Out of Sight continues through Feb. 13 at the Marsh.

Mike Daisey in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. - KEVIN BERNE
  • Kevin Berne
  • Mike Daisey in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

"If you do not think about the operating system you are using, you are living an unexamined life." That may seem like an absurd statement, but by the end of Mike Daisey's new monologue at Berkeley Rep, you might find yourself believing it.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a one-man show in the purest sense: Daisey sits behind a desk, Spalding Gray-like, holding forth in a semi-improvisational fashion for more than two hours. The miraculous thing is that the play almost never drags, thanks in large part to his borderline-manic delivery of consistently sharp one-liners. I haven't laughed so hard at a play in months.

The monologue follows three major tracks. First, Daisey examines his own fetishistic devotion to technology, particularly anything from Apple. Second, he follows the unreal career trajectory of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, the "techno-libertarian hippie" and "visionary asshole" who spent 12 years in corporate exile before becoming the Messiah of Silicon Valley. And third, we learn about Daisey's trip to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, a massive industrial city "where almost all your shit comes from."

Foxconn, it turns out, makes more than half of the world's electronics, including most Apple products. And according to Daisey, a significant number of the factory's 430,000 employees are underage. Are Apple executives aware that 13-year-olds may be assembling iPads? Daisey never directly answers that question, but he certainly helps you connect the dots.
The show only stumbles in its final 10 minutes, when the tone shifts to fire-and-brimstone outrage as Daisey commands us to know where our beloved devices come from. The point is well-taken, but the self-seriousness is not -- I was far more receptive back when I was convulsing with laughter.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs continues through Feb. 27 at the Berkeley Rep.

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Chris Jensen


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