Arts & Culture » Theater

Civics lessons take the stage

by Jim Gladstone

Playwright and performer Heidi Schreck in the West Coast premiere of "What the Constitution Means to Me" at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Playwright and performer Heidi Schreck in the West Coast premiere of "What the Constitution Means to Me" at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre  

Everyone who attends Berkeley Rep's final production of its season will find a keepsake booklet containing the text of the United States Constitution at their seats in the Peet's Theatre, generously provided by the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. With any luck, the shimmery fragments of intrigue and inspiration that emerge all-too-infrequently in writer-actress Heidi Schreck's "What the Constitution Means to Me" will rekindle audience members' own curiosity about the original document. Many of their musings will have more coherence and entertainment value than Schreck's prove to have.

When the Rep made its January announcement that "What the Constitution" would replace a previously scheduled play, one assumed the substitution was going to be, well, another play. But "This is not a play" is among the first things Schreck says when she casually ambles onto the stage, houselights still up. "We don't know what's going to happen."

Friends, it isn't. And what happened inspired a degree of headscratching that could put a fingernail in contact with brain matter.

Schreck is certainly well-intentioned in her mix of autobiographical storytelling, provocative - if somewhat pedantic - history lessons, and improvised interaction with charismatic, whipsmart local high school student Anaya Matthews (who alternates performances with a peer, Wisdom Kunitz).

She aims to create a vivid emotional connection between the Constitution and an American public that is all-too-passively controlled through its interpretation. But shortly after describing 1787's Constitutional Convention as a "steamy" intellectual struggle, Schreck throws theatrical convention to the wind.

Schreck explains that in the show, she will recreate her teenage debates about the Constitution at American Legion-sponsored competitions, and all-too-briefly takes up a convincingly adolescent vocabulary and enthusiasm, passionately describing the document's tangled ambiguities - or, perhaps, she suggests, its flexibilities - as "a crucible" and "a penumbra."

Her keen encapsulation of a teen's desire to demonstrate mastery of the unmasterable provides a glimpse of real acting prowess (Schreck has performed with leading national companies). But all-too-quickly, she's Caspering her way back through the fourth wall to speak to the audience from her adult perspective again, sharing opinions about the inherent sexism of a document written entirely by men, and anecdotes about family experience with depression and abortion. Local actor Danny Wolohan also slips out of his role as 15-year-old Schreck's gruff Legionnaire host to tell his own tangential autobiographical stories. As Casper himself might say: Boo!

The 90-minute show, theoretically directed by Oliver Butler, reaches its most charming, then most baffling moments in the final third, when Schreck is joined on stage by Matthews for a brief, cheerful debate in which Schreck argues for the creation of a new Constitution, while Matthews defends the value of our endlessly reinterpretable original. But we're engaged by their joy in sparring, not any profundity in their content.

The opening night performance ended with an announcement that there are alternate endings, followed by Schreck and Matthews sitting back-to-back in dimmed light and peppering each other with silly slumber-party questions about favorite animals and other inconsequential, non-Constitutional matters.

Then the house lights went up, and it was time to hit the booklets.

"What the Constitution Means to Me" plays Berkeley Rep, through June 17. Tickets from $45. www.berkeleyrep.org.

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