'Natasha, Pierre' & 'Wuthering Heights' hit Berkeley

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday November 29, 2022
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Leah Brotherhead as Catherine in 'Wuthering Heights.' <br>photo: Kevin Berne
Leah Brotherhead as Catherine in 'Wuthering Heights.'
photo: Kevin Berne

There's a super-abundance of energy on Berkeley stages this holiday season.

Shotgun Players' "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812" and Wise Children's "Wuthering Heights" at the Berkeley Rep each compress the soul of an epic literary masterwork into a three-hour extravaganza.

The dramatic intensity and ingenious stagecraft of these productions are breathtaking in the sense that they barely give you room to breathe. For better and for worse, they're flabber-gasping.

Jordan Laviniere as the Leader of the Yorkshire Moors (front) in the West Coast premiere of Wise Children's 'Wuthering Heights' at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (photo: Kevin Berne)  

Moor! Moor! Moor!
"Wuthering Heights" grabs the trunk of a gnarled family tree and uses it on the audience like a battering ram. With a chorus of voices that literally howls like the wind, aggressive punk-rock percussion and a raw, raucous in-your-face style, this non-stop Bronte adaptation storms the stage and never lets up.

As unsparing as the landscape on which it takes place, director Emma Rice's interpretation of the least decorous of all Victorian novels leans hard into its darkest corners. In scene after hair-raising scene, staggering acts of abuse are committed by husband against wife, parent against child, neighbor against neighbor.

The Gothic grand guignol of it all is tempered a tad by jolts of broad vaudevillian humor, non-realistic sets, and comic props (including a terrific Tim Burtonesque dog puppet). Still, winking jokes and even a few lively songs and dances (This is more a play with music than a full-on musical) can't distract from the fact that this endlessly clever show is also unrelenting parade of domestic cruelty.

The cast is headed by a smashing central couple: Leah Brotherhead, as Catherine, unleashes unearthly Kate Bush-like vocals (Bush's first hit was titled, and inspired by "Wuthering Heights"). Liame Tamne's whip-cracking Heathcliff successfully walks a fine line between seductive and repugnant.

This dark and stormy "Wuthering Heights" may make you turn to the novel, wondering just why it's had such enduring appeal. It ain't no Christmas Carol.

'Wuthering Heights,' through Jan. 1. $19.50-$124. Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St. (510) 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org

Roeen Nooran (front) and cast members of 'Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812' (photo: Ben Krantz)  

A piece of 'War and Peace'
Every production that Shotgun Players mounts in the Ashby Playhouse offers unique visual delights. Artistic director Patrick Dooley pushes set designers to creative heights in this small former church. The West Coast premiere of "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet" offers the apotheosis of this effort thus far, with scenic designer Nina Ball transforming not just the stage, but the entire auditorium into a single opulent playground of a Russian nightclub.

This theatrical architecture, constructed by the California Shakespeare Theater, would be worthy of sightseeing in and of itself, but the production (based on a section of Tolstoy's "War and Peace") sets it teeming with music, motion and further dollops of delicious design (Jasmine Milan Williams' costumes are covetable Slavic chic). Imagine spending time inside of your sparkliest Christmas ornament.

The music twinkles, too. The Tony-nominated songs by Dave Malloy immerse you in their charms. That said, the score surrounds more than it sinks in, creating a lovely overall atmosphere rather than the hip Hamiltonian stickiness the period trappings can't help but make one hope for. Malloy's own marvelous "Octet," which played at the Rep last year, was far more memorable on the lyrical front.

Even when truncated to a few chapters worth of material, "War and Peace" can be a bit of a haul. Despite character introductions and a plot synopsis in the program, plus a musical introduction to the dramatis personae in the show's opening scene, there's an awful lot going on here. I sometimes found myself feeling like a military strategist tracking the maneuvers of toy soldiers.

Then again, a certain mechanical music-box precision is part of what makes this massive production so unique. This is a spectacle that wins you over with its clockwork more than its heartbeat.

'Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812' through Jan. 15. $30-$62. 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. (510) 841-6500. www.shotgunplayers.org

Kid Koala's 'Storyville Mosquito'  

Kudos to Kid Koala
My Christmas wish for San Francisco is that SF Jazz brings back the spectacular, singular "Storyville Mosquito," an astonishing work of theater magic that ended a three-day run on Thursday. The endlessly inventive work, conceived and directed by Montreal-based DJ and multi-media maestro Eric San (aka Kid Koala) felt like a salute to DIY culture.

A small army of puppeteers and cinematographers wriggled through an array of dollhouse-sized sets and camera rigs of the Miner Auditorium, creating scenes of insect romance and musical fantasy that were simultaneously enlarged and projected on a movie screen above them as Koala and a superb string trio provided a live soundtrack. As touching as it was clever, this show brought back memories of my first viewing of Julie Taymor's "Lion King" and its double-visioned approach to puppets and puppeteers. www.sfjazz.org

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