Unexpected but welcome benefits of walking

I’d vowed to myself that I would be better about either going to the gym or walking more on my week off work, and I stayed faithful to that promise from Saturday through Wednesday.

On Thursday, my Garmin fitness tracker was nagging at me that I hadn’t fulfilled my contractual obligation to reach 10,000 steps. (Okay, maybe it’s not exactly contractual…) Having no car to drive to a regional park or similar destination–my Honda was in the shop–I decided to explore my neighborhood and maybe a little beyond.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon. I headed west on Solano Avenue, where I have walked hundreds of times, and then hung a right at the Ohlone Greenway under the BART track. Many people were strolling, riding bikes, jogging, pushing strollers, and taking their dogs out for walks. People were politely using the correct sides of the clearly marked path, distinguished by universally accepted symbols for pedestrians versus cyclists. One gentleman was actually managing to read as he kept up a fairly brisk pace. Occasionally the train whooshed noisily above, but otherwise it was a fairly peaceful park experience.

I had my earphones in, catching up on my podcasts, and just kept walking.

Albany loop
This is actually an artist’s rendition of the Albany Loop before it was completed. Alas, I took no photo as I passed it.

I saw the huge calypso-blue letters that make up the Albany Loop, a public art installation at the corner of San Gabriel and Portland Avenues that lets you know you’re not in Berkeley anymore.

I walked past the fitness gizmos that promote outdoor exercise. Nobody was utilizing them, but they made me feel healthier just by being in their presence.

I passed both Albany Middle School with its colorful tiles and Albany High School (Go, Cougars!), though because it’s early August, both campuses were quieter than they would have been a month from now.

I discovered a dog park that I never knew was part of Memorial Park. It was just a small fenced enclosure, but the seven or eight dogs frolicking there didn’t seem put off by the size or lack of aesthetics.

Behind the Albany Little League snack shack I happened upon a sweet little public garden that was home to a variety of herbs and vegetables. Apparently it’s been there for six years!

And parents and babysitters were out with their little ones, enjoying the playground’s slides and swings.

So not only did I surpass my fitness goal of 10,000 steps, I experienced a few thriving micro-communities just blocks from my home. It was only later that I remembered reading that exercising out in nature–even suburban nature–is an important element of staying healthy. I think that strolling by a garden, a dog park, and playground structures probably benefits my mental health more than my physical health because all of it made me smile and feel lucky to live where I do, mere steps away from so much life.

Victorian Ladies send a timeless message

Is Jack the Ripper at it again? That is the question that the trio dubbed the Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective sets out to answer. The similarities between London’s most famous serial killer and the Battersea Butcher are striking terror in the hearts of young actresses, who are getting picked off at an alarming rate in London’s Battersea district.

The only advice from the men in the play, all portrayed by Alan Coyne, is to warn women to stay in their homes, rather than risk becoming the next victim. However, former stage actress, Lovejoy Fortescue, a fiercely independent and enterprising soul (played by the incomparable Stacy Ross), is set on discovering the murderer’s identity. She offers to help the local constable but is turned down, so she repeats the offer to the local group of men who have been deputized to aid in local police matters but is turned away again because, of course, they consider women incapable of detective work. Armed with intellect and persistence but lacking in income, Miss Fortescue is dependent on her sister, Valeria Hunter (played deftly by Jan Zvaifler), and therefore must persuade her to finance her detective work.

Enter a young and beautiful American actress, Katie Smalls (played charmingly by Chelsea Bearce), who is one of Valeria’s boarders. Katie is also intent on bringing down the Battersea Butcher and brings her own skill-set to the Victorian Ladies Detective Collective. (Wait till you see what she can do with a fan!)

Stacy Ross, Jan Zvaifler, and Chelsea Bearce (photo courtesy of Central Works website)

Local playwright Patricia Milton sets the play in Victorian England, but if you removed the period costumes and accents, it could be Hollywood, circa 2017.  The sad truth is that in many ways, women’s status in society since the Victorian era has not progressed all that much. Although the premise of the play is a murder mystery, the theme is much grander–women, faced with sexual discrimination,  sexual harassment, and misogyny need to trust and protect each other if we hope to approach equality and disrupt the business-as-usual patriarchy.

Despite the serious subject and the grisly deaths happening offstage, humor permeates the play, so the audience gets plenty of chances to laugh. The result? A wonderful balance of a whodunit, a charming period piece, a consciousness-raising experience, and a greatly entertaining evening of theater!

Central Works has extended the run of The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective to June 9, so there are still plenty of opportunities to catch Patricia Milton’s delightful play. But don’t wait until the last minute to purchase tickets; the intimate venue of the Berkeley City Club means that space is limited.

Marvelous Marga!

I have always loved Marga Gomez. I remember seeing her at a comedy club in Emeryville that is no longer there and at The Marsh when it was just a nook carved out of a little cafe in the Mission. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every solo show she’s done in the Bay Area, and I even watched Sphere, a science fiction movie (not my thing) because she had a small role in it. I also spotted her at a Poets & Writers conference, where I was brave enough to pass her a note during a presentation. And when I was protesting some underhanded activities by Berkeley’s former library director, Marga was doing her bit to entertain the small but loyal group of librarian supporters. I may have also caught sight of her at the dog park once.

So I guess you could call me a devoted fan.

Marga’s current show, Latin Standards, is poignant, funny, and insightful. If you’re already a fan, you’ll recognize the hysterical rendition of her primping mother and loving portrayal of her charming showman dad. But this show plunges more deeply into her father’s career and how this background directly shaped Marga, despite his plan that she should become a doctor.

She is the kind of performer who connects with her audience and is sensitive to mood of the crowd, who was loving her the night I saw the show. Despite her plea for folks to turn off their phones, which she explained were distracting, one cell phone ringtone blasted mercilessly from a purse a few seats to my left. I was furious on Marga’s behalf. Luckily, the guilty party was able to silence it swiftly.

I saw her on a sad day in history–Brett Kavanaugh had just been confirmed. This was not lost on Marga, who proclaimed that she was performing the show that made it the greatest night of her life–on the worst day of her life. And it being Berkeley, nobody wondered what she was referring to.

I urge you to go whether you’re already familiar with Marga’s work or not. She puts her whole heart into every word. And since she claims this is her final one-woman show, you don’t have much longer to be able to see one of the finest solo performers around.

Latin Standards is playing through November 17 at The Marsh in Berkeley. Don’t miss it!

Eureka Day is brilliant!

Lisa Anne Porter, Elizabeth Carter, Rolf Saxon, Teddy Spencer, Charisse Loriaux (photo David Allen)

Jonathan Spector has penned a gem, and we here in the Bay Area are lucky to see its world debut. The first commissioned piece from Aurora’s new Originate+Generate program, this one knocks it out of the park. Josh Costello directs a talented cast who portray the board members at a progressive private elementary school in the Berkeley hills. Having been a teacher at a private progressive school myself, I was curious to see a play about one.

The congenial but not particularly decisive head of school (played delightfully by Rolf Saxon) doesn’t lead so much as facilitate discussion among parents in an attempt to rule by consensus. He reads Rumi at the beginning of every meeting and avoids conflict at all cost. The parents include Eli, the stay-at-home dad (a perfect performance by Teddy Spencer) who hysterically strikes yoga poses throughout the first meeting; Meiko, the hot young single mom on the prowl who presumably shops at Whole Foods and farmers markets (Charisse  Loriaux); the uber-lefty Suzanne (Lisa Anne Porter), who makes cashew lasagna and speaks gently but is quick to remind the other board members that at Eureka Day, gender-neutral pronouns are used for everyone as a matter of course; and new Eureka parent, Carina (played by the versatile Elizabeth Carter), who is certainly the sanest of the bunch.

The good-natured skewering of the stereotypical Berkeleyite as ultra-politically correct was right on target and provided for much of the laughter in the play. And the scene in which a virtual parent meeting is happening on Facebook (pictured above) was one of the most hysterical I’ve had the pleasure to watch.

However, Eureka Day is not just a comic romp. The conflict that divides the school community is the vaccination debate, and some of the characters at first seem to represent simply their point of view. But Eureka Day is neither a propaganda vehicle nor a single-issue play, and the characters reveal more depth in the second act, which takes a serious turn.

At its heart, Spector’s play echoes the deep divide in our country, with red states feeding off Fox “news” and blue states angry at all those people who voted in the Cheetoh-in-Chief. Most would agree that we in Berkeley live in a bubble of like-minded liberals, so our brand of political arguments are less likely to span the full red-to-blue spectrum that exist elsewhere in the country. But the question of vaccination is one that strikes closer to home, since there are liberals on both sides of the issue here in the Bay Area (though I would argue it’s more of an issue in Marin, but I’m sure that’s because I live in Berkeley and don’t want to think that my neighbors could be anti-vaxxers).

Of course anyone who delves into the comments section of Berkeleyside knows that we in Berkeley are no strangers to vitriol, and the Facebook live-streaming session in the play illustrates how easily members of a community can turn on each other.

Given our current polarization as a country, it’s sort of refreshing to watch people argue about something other than politics. But the main reason to buy tickets for Eureka Day is to treat yourself to a stellar performance of a terrific world debut. If you haven’t seen it, there’s still a week left in its run, so get your tickets now!

 

Betty Reid Soskin–What a Life!

Recently at Pegasus Books on Shattuck, Betty Reid Soskin read from her memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom. I already owned a signed copy that I had bought when I heard her speak in her capacity as a park ranger in Richmond, California at the museum with the longest name ever: Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park. But at the museum, she spoke strictly of history because she was on the job. I had been looking forward to hear her talk about herself and her book. Apparently so did a lot of other people–when I arrived a half-hour early for the reading, most of the seats were already claimed. Luckily, I found a spot on the third row. By the time she was introduced, dozens of folks were standing shoulder to shoulder around the chairs on the crowded platform designated for readings.

Betty Reid Soskin is both a local and national treasure. She’s lived so many lives, running a record store in Berkeley, working as a legislative aide, becoming a park ranger in her fifties and an author in her nineties–and, oh yeah, she was also a mother of four.

She started blogging in 2003, sharing her life’s stories with that wry, distinctive voice. You can sample her entertaining stories at CBreaux Speaks.

Partly because all of her contemporaries have died and she’s lived so long, she states plainly that she no longer thinks in terms of the future and is absolutely content living in the present. That said, the dedication of her memoir promises that her next book will be more about her four children. So Betty may not live for the future, but she continues to make plans for it. And despite her new career as an author, she returned to her job at the museum as soon as her book tour ended. No resting on her laurels–she remains a popular speaker that packs the museum auditorium regularly. At 96, she has the energy of at least two 48-year-olds, and I’ve declared her as my new role model.

Although she was born in Detroit, her Creole parents moved the family back to New Orleans when Betty was just three years old. They lived there a few years before trekking west to California and settling in the Oakland hills, where Betty spent her childhood.

But rather than read my summary of her talk, you should buy her book and read it for yourself. And if you live in the Bay Area, you should order it from Pegasus Books. Of course if you live elsewhere, you should purchase it at your favorite independent bookstore or ask for it at your local library. But the point is that you should read Sign My Name to Freedom.

Best of SF Fringe Festival: Brooks’s Tasha

Cat Brooks in Tasha

The San Francisco Fringe Festival is part of a long tradition of giving the stage to less mainstream indie performers. From slapstick to satire to the one-person show, Fringe performances are ones you are unlikely to see at A.C.T. or Berkeley Rep. This year’s line-up offers 30 choices.

Cat Brooks artfully presents the tragedy of Natasha (Tasha) McKenna, a woman with schizophrenia who was killed in police custody in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 2015. Representing her mother, one of the officers, the sheriff in charge, other characters, and most notably, Tasha herself, Brooks takes the audience on the journey that leads up to and includes Tasha’s death.

Actual footage from the events plays intermittently on screens between Brooks’s portrayals of different characters, never letting the audience forget that this is fact not fiction.

The most moving scene for me was Tasha’s mother after her daughter’s death. Her pain is so present and personal; yet set within the larger context of police violence against black people, we know that despite the specific details that make this case distinctive, it is a story that plays out far too often.

Through tears, I gave a standing ovation for Brooks as a playwright, a performer, a storyteller, and an activist. Afterwards, Brooks gave audience members the chance to ask questions in the limited time we had until the next show needed to set up. I think we were all glad that we had that time to process, if just for a few moments, before going back out into the world.

I was disappointed that the small house at Exit Theatre wasn’t full. Everyone should see this piece. I think it deserves a longer life than its four showings at the festival and hope it finds a home on one of the bigger stages in the Bay Area.

If you see only one SF Fringe performance, let it be this one.

Go to The Other Place!

Robert Parsons and Stacy Ross

Sometimes I’m lucky and see a play early enough in its run that I can recommend it to others. I am so glad that is the case for “The Other Place,” directed by Taylor Korobow.

I don’t recall even hearing of Symmetry Theatre Company before last weekend.  But the play featured my favorite local actress, Stacy Ross, so I was excited to be able to get tickets because I will see her in anything.

In fact, the whole cast was very good. Robert Parsons always gives a solid performance in everything I’ve seen him in. Lisa Morse and Michael Barrett Austin are both versatile actors who play a range of roles well. Within the play itself, Morse portrays three distinct characters, though her role is listed simply as “The Woman.”

Ross plays Juliana, a smart and confident research scientist, who opens the play by addressing the audience as if we were attendees at a conference where she was presenting. With skill, she smoothly goes back and forth between her presentation and her thoughts as she speaks. We meet her doctor (played by Morse), her husband, Ian (Robert Parsons), and hear her account of events. But clues are steadily dropped, and gradually the audience learns what’s really going on and also discovers the trauma in her past that makes its way into her present. The combination of the script and the staging let us know different facets of a complicated situation a little bit  at a time, rather than building to a big reveal all at once, which provided a more realistic feel that this story benefited from.

It comes as no surprise that the “other place” of the title represents not only the vacation home where the trauma originally occurred but also the alternate reality in which Juliana finds herself. Expressing that complicated transition from one reality to another on stage can be hard to portray convincingly, but Ross does so exquisitely.

The program, though glossy and professionally printed, gave little information about the theater company and even less about the playwright, which seems like lost opportunities to me. (It did have the largest print I’ve ever seen in a program, which was a refreshing change for my eyes; but I would have given up a few font sizes to have more content.)  I’d have thought the playwright was a woman, knowing only the name–Sharr White–which to my ear sounds like a diminutive of Sharlene or Charlotte. But I discovered that Sharr White is a man by googling the name while we waited for the show to begin. And after the show I went online to find out more about the theater company, whose mission is

to create professionally produced theatre that will excite, stimulate and challenge our audiences. The plays we choose will always have at least as many female characters as male, and in any given show there will always be at least as many Equity contracts given to women as to men. In addition we will produce plays that acknowledge that women’s stories are as important as men’s and in so doing we will hope to bring about further awareness to the public and the theatre community at large of the need for more “balance on the boards.”

Live Oak Park
Live Oak Park Theater entrance

Now that wouldn’t have been so hard to put in the program, would it?

The program aside–and I realize that most theater-goers wouldn’t be bothered by its shortcomings–I highly recommend this production of “The Other Place.” It is playing one more weekend at Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. If you appreciate a good story, excellent acting, and thought-provoking theater, go buy your ticket right now!  https://www.symmetrytheatre.com/.