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Pimpernel and The Homecoming 

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000
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The Scarlet Pimpernel
Not a note of Frank Wildhorn's music, not a word of Nan Knighton's banal lyrics, has an iota of creativity or originality. And whenever Robert Longbottom's famously revised production threatens to display wit or energy, along comes one of those goddamn songs to quash everything. (You've got to work mighty hard to take the fun out of The Scarlet Pimpernel.) Douglas Sills as Percy supplies almost the only excitement. His feigned foppery provides real theatrical pleasure, but in the second act, the music and the costumes (which put the pimp in Pimpernel) push Sills from fop to raging queen. He can't accomplish anything in the dramatic sequences, because, of course, he's always belting out some fucking song or another, and he mugs shamelessly in the poorly staged interlude in which Marguerite's innocence is revealed. (Couldn't the costumer have provided a cloak and mask, so we'd be more likely to believe Marguerite wouldn't discover Percy?) The Paris settings (and tunes) are Les Miz redux, to no one's surprise. As Javert -- whoops, I mean Chauvelin -- William Paul Michaels sings all the boring, monomaniacal basso bits. Amy Bodnar's Marguerite rolls along blandly until the Pimpernel's identity is revealed to her -- then she sounds like Rosanne Rosanna-Dana. But veteran Harvey Evans as one of the Pimp's gang does have a real spark. I found Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde to be immensely entertaining for all the wrong reasons, but his Pimpernel is mostly inert. Maybe the original, unrevised production had the hilarious Wildhornian idiocy lacking here.

The Homecoming
In their spectacular production of Harold Pinter's 1965 play, director Tom Ross and the Aurora Theater use the seemingly opaque script as a lens that brings into focus the characters' depravity and something entirely unexpected -- their humanity. As Jean Renoir put it, "In this world there is one terrible thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons." Pinter finds this not just terrible, but horrifyingly, grotesquely comic. Still, he doesn't explicitly assign reasons and motives to his creations, so the cast and director must. Ross and company do so with genius. As the family patriarch Max, Julian Lopez-Morillas' caved-in face is etched not just with age, but with envy, hate, and a howling, spitting anger. Occasionally, he dons a mask of deceitful civility, mouthing conventionalities of familial love and sharing false reminiscences of his dead wife, but in Lopez-Morillas' towering, breathtaking performance, the pain always shows through. Max lives with two of his sons, Lenny (Jonathan Rhys Williams, exuding an oily, corrupt malice) and Joey (Chad Fisk), and with his brother Sam (Chris Ayles). The four constantly -- sometimes violently -- navigate the minefields of mutual contempt upon which they live. Max's eldest son Teddy (the remarkable James Carpenter) and his wife Ruth (Rebecca Dines) are visiting home after six years away. Lenny hatches an obscene plan involving Ruth, which begins as a put-on, but becomes reality. Nowadays, myriad psychiatric labels would apply to Ruth, but Dines, who couldn't be better, captures the person underneath them, revealing without explaining the horrors in Ruth's psyche. Richard Olmsted's set has light spots on the wallpaper where pictures used to hang, suggesting a present in which everything is marked and scarred by the past; the play ends with Max's harrowing cry of anguish. I've always found Pinter to be evocative and mysterious, but I've never really found him to be moving until now. Tom Ross and his brilliant cast examine Pinter's twisted, shocking narrative, and find it to be about love, of all things.

Through May 7 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant, Berkeley. Admission is $25-28; call (510) 843-4822.

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Joe Mader

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