Consider the Narrator: Plays That Show but Tell Too Much

by Jim Gladstone

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday September 20, 2022

Consider the Narrator: Plays That Show but Tell Too Much

When I go to the theater, I want a show, not a tell.

That's one of my key takeaways from a busy week of play-going in which the presence of onstage narrators repeatedly sapped energy and urgency from the stories they helped present.

Three productions — "the ripple, the wave that carried me home" at Berkeley Rep, "To Kill A Mockingbird" at the Golden Gate Theater, and "Lear" at CalShakes — employ narrator figures for various purposes and with varying degrees of success.

A fourth, the bracing "Man of God" at Shotgun Players, dropped audience members directly into the action and kept them laughing and aghast for the show's entire 90 minutes.

Still Water

"the ripple, the wave...," a world premiere by Christina Anderson, explores the impact of racism and activism on two generations of an African-American family.

The narrator is Janice (Christiana Clark), a development director at an Ohio university, who is spurred to retrospection by voicemails urging Janice's attendance at the dedication of a new public swimming pool in her Kansas hometown.

Janice's mother (Aneisa J. Hicks) is a lifelong devotee of swimming who attributes an almost spiritual value to time spent in the public pool, where she first met her husband (Ronald L. Conner) and ritually spent Saturday mornings with Janice during her daughter's childhood.

After the town's swimming facilities are integrated, noxious hostilities flare up and the pool is permanently shut down. This drives Janice's parents into years of fervent activism, during which Janice often feels less valued than their cause, however righteous.

This is fascinating, nuanced subject matter. Unfortunately, it's conveyed largely through Janice's monologues, which, despite poetic figures of speech intended to flow like water, clot into dense blocks of verbiage that are difficult to take in aurally.

Clark does her best to animate the language, but director Jackson Gay adds little visual stimulation and for long stretches. Watching the play feels like being read to from a novel that needs your eyes on the page to fully appreciate it.

The play's final scene incorporates music, movement, and a sense of emotional connection between characters that bring the play alive in a way that, while very much welcome, emphasizes how static and distanced the narration has made it feel up to then. It slaps you awake like cold water to the face.


Adapted Children

"To Kill A Mockingbird" is, of course, adapted from a beloved novel. Among the literary merits of Harper Lee's book is the way its narration ingeniously conveys a view of the world through the eyes of a child — six-year-old Scout Finch — while simultaneously bringing to bear the retrospective wisdom of an adult.

In Aaron Sorkin's absorbing, but differently voiced, stage script, Scout's perspective — as well as those of the play's co-narrators, her brother Jem, and buddy Dill (who comes off as charmingly gay in Stephen Lee Johnson's portrayal )— are less important than the courtroom drama which is the narrative engine of the play.

Richard Thomas in 'To Kill A Mockingbird' (photo: Julieta Cervantes)
Richard Thomas in 'To Kill A Mockingbird' (photo: Julieta Cervantes)  

Sorkin, of course, is a whiz at scripting legal and procedural drama. His career was jumpstarted in 1989 by his military court-martial drama "A Few Good Men." And the trial scenes in this production are powerfully constructed. Scout's father, Atticus Finch (Richard "John Boy Walton" Thomas), is the defense attorney for Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), who is accused of raping a white woman, strategically dispensing his arguments like a trail of breadcrumbs for the jury (and the theater audience) to follow to its inevitable conclusion of innocence.

Thomas subtly works with Sorkin's script to convey complexity in a character who could easily come off as a paragon of virtue. He's the heart of this show, not Scout (played with appealing spunk by Melanie Moore). This makes her neighborhood adventures with Jem (Justin Mark) and Dill feel a bit peripheral to the courtroom action.

And while there's nothing wrong with subplots, it feels strange to have these children pushed forward as the introductory, interstitial, and concluding narrators of a show that isn't fundamentally about them or shown from their particular point of view. Sorkin's choice to have the story of his play "told" by the children seems driven more by an urge to align with the novel (and its author's notoriously litigious estate) than dramatic logic.

James A. Williams in California Shakespeare Theater's 'Lear.'
James A. Williams in California Shakespeare Theater's 'Lear.'  

Shaken, not Stirring
Velina Brown has star power. As "The Black Queen," narrator of "Lear" — local playwright Marcus Gardley's adaptation of Shakespeare — she takes the stage and owns it as the show begins, delivering a snappy, charismatic explanation of the show's concept, in which the original story is translated into non-Elizabethan English and transplanted to San Francisco's Fillmore District in the social upheaval of the early 1970s. Her prologue nods to Black Panthers and destruction of residential neighborhoods through eminent domain.

Alas, her introduction doesn't map particularly well onto what follows. While Gardley's brilliant Homer adaptation, "black odyssey," is one of CalShakes' most memorably thrilling productions in recent years, the analogs between the classic and the new spin feel far less clear in "Lear." Intended parallels instead feel perpendicular.

And while much of the dialogue isn't Shakespeare's, it didn't strike me as particularly more direct or comprehensible to contemporary audiences, especially if they're not already quite familiar with "King Lear."

That said, it's hard to have less than a pleasant time in the beautiful outdoor environment of CalShakes' magnificent Bruns Amphitheater. And Brown's performance exemplifies those of the entire cast, which includes some of the Bay Area's best actors, including Sam Jackson and Jomar Tagatac. James A. Williams as the title character is also powerfully charismatic and, ultimately, quite touching.

Still, there's a disappointing disconnect between the show's conceptual promise and what actually plays out on stage; a case of vaulting ambition, perhaps.

The main cast of 'Man of God'
The main cast of 'Man of God'  

Intense Immediacy
There's no narrator separating the audience from the action in "Man of God," playwright Anna Ouyang Moench's dark 90-minute real-time comedy. As the lights go up with a foreboding flicker, the audience at Shotgun Players' intimate Ashby Playhouse finds itself almost uncomfortably close to the generic Bangkok hotel room where four teenage American girls are staying.

They're here with their beloved Pastor (who has a private room) to do some missionary work, the nature of which, they soon realize, is troublingly unclear. What's become suddenly all too clear is that Pastor has hidden a spycam in the young women's bathroom, positioned to film them getting in and out of the shower.

That the cam has been discovered by eating-disordered Kyung-Hwa (Sharon Shao) while kneeling at the toilet points to Moench's willingness to "go there" (and just about anywhere) in this sharp, unvarnished portrait of relatively sheltered adolescent girls facing a rude awakening.

While Kyung-Hwa initially tries her hardest to deny their chaperone's culpability, as does blissfully ignorant Samantha (Alexandra Lee, a huge comic talent), they're met with skepticism by tattooed tough-girl Mimi (Lauren Andrei Garcia) and nerdy realist Jen (played with charm and ease by understudy Carissa Ratanaphanyrat at the reviewed performance).

As they all become convinced of Pastor's guilt, we hear not only these young women's expressions of disgust and outrage, but also their sadly believable rationalizations and excuses for their male guardian's abhorrent behavior. We also, to great leavening effect, see each of the four's revenge fantasies enacted onstage, most entertainingly a tidy elimination of their nemesis in a kung fu sword fight and a much gorier horror comedy sequence that will simultaneously tickle your ribs and turn your stomach.

In the show's final twenty minutes, time slows to a crawl as Pastor inveigles his way into the girls' room, clearly understanding that they've discovered his violation. He shifts uneasily but smiles like a Cheshire Cat while he demands that they pack their bags and prepare to return home early. The girls fearfully obey, too intimidated to articulate what everyone in the room already knows.

There's no narrator here to tie up loose ends; the audience is left to carry the baggage.

'the ripple, the wave that carried me home,' through Oct. 16. $23.50-$100. Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org

'To Kill A Mockingbird,' through Oct. 9. $56-$256. Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St. (888) 746-1799. www.broadwaysf.com

'Lear,' through Oct. 2. $35-$70. California Shakespeare Theater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. (510) 548-9666. www.calshakes.org

'Man of God,' through Oct. 2. $0-$36. 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. (510) 841-6500. www.shotgunplayers.org|

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