Divide and Conquer: Two of the Bay Area's Most Exciting Small Theater Companies Throw Genres in a Blender

In Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Co.'s production of Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding, written in 1932, director Ariel Craft establishes one of the tragedy's most important forces within moments of the first scene. The bridegroom (Justin Gillman) has asked his mother (Allison Hunter Blackwell) to borrow a knife, and she responds, “What for?”

Dread weighs heavily on this winemaking village, Blackwell's haunted delivery suggests; for these feud-plagued characters, grief and anger are religious practices. Even the tragedy's forbidden lust between the bride (Melissa Kaitlyn Carter) and her past fiancé Leonardo (Tim Green), the only named character in the play, feels fueled by the dull ache of chronic unease. As these two finally, desperately run away from the bride's wedding, even their sweet nothings augur doom, in a gorgeously simple translation by Michael Dewell and Carmen Zapata: Hands “ache to dig into your flesh” and one tells the other, “Let's find a corner of darkness where I will love you always.”

Wait till Act 3, and you'll see Blackwell's matriarch in a new light. After she swaps her staid black frock — suggesting a lifetime of mourning her own murdered husband and eldest son — for a long, shimmering gown, she purrs a country tune, accompanied by David Aaron Brown (who also composed most of the show's music) on the keyboard, as the show's murders unfold silently in front of her.

Tonal daring defines this production. In one moment, Craft immerses her audience in the thick pool of characters' sadness and fear; in the next, she playfully splashes around in it. Lines like “honorable women throw themselves in the river” feel both piteous and humorous. At times, Craft's approach can feel too easy, as if she's not treating the script seriously, or indulging her audience's contemporary sensibilities, but ultimately, it serves the production: To laugh, and then be afraid of laughing, only heightens the dread.

The set, by Erik LaDue, piques that dread from the moment you walk into the theater. Dressed entirely in white, it seems to be waiting for blood to be spilled on it. (And the way Craft deals with that expectation, with her exclusively grayscale palate, only heightens the show's sense of play.)

Craft's strong directorial vision is a sure guide, even with an ensemble that's uneven at times. Even when particular performers hit beats too mechanically, Craft's thoughtful staging gives the show, and its characters' growing fear, a locomotive's momentum.

Over in Berkeley, Just Theater's In from the Cold, written by Jonathan Spector and directed by Christine Young, also defies easy tonal classification. The world premiere show follows Howard (Julian López-Morillas), a Soviet government worker turned spy and American hero, and his son Alex (Seton Brown), who's moved back home, nominally to help his retired dad after a knee injury, but perhaps more so because he doesn't have anything better to do.

A drifter who's done everything from living abroad to getting a Ph.D. in semiotics, Alex is now substitute-teaching a history class at his former high school, where Carrie (Sarah Moser), a fellow teacher — and his dead brother's high school girlfriend — comes onto him. As if he hadn't regressed enough already, Alex also now hangs out with his grade school pal Damian (Harold Pierce), a slacker and sexual predator who views his managerial post at Chili's, and his method of bedding his waitresses, as though they're worthy of career development seminar mantras.

In from the Cold feels a play out of time. The set, fastidiously designed by Martin Flynn, seems stuck in the late '80s or early '90s, with its stack of old-school board games and rows of VHS proudly displayed in a sunken den. When Alex lectures his students, he grounds each lesson in '80s flicks like Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Back to the Future. But it's 2014, not the Cold War any more — which might be the problem for the ex-spy Howard. He's going to great expense to outfit his home with government-quality motion-sensing security devices, as though the Russians he betrayed are still hot on his tail, when in fact his only intruders are Damian, six-pack of light beer ever in hand, or Carrie, magnetically drawn to Alex for reasons she struggles to be honest about.

This production boasts some stunning performances. Brown, as Alex, perpetually encumbered by a sigh, highlights the aggression and self-importance that creates his character's apathy. Moser, one of the Bay Area's most charismatic young performers, does marvelous work with Carrie's halting lines; she speaks as though the words had just occurred to her, not because she memorized her lines weeks ago. And Pierce, as Damian, makes what could be a deplorable character downright likable.

This ensemble helps lighten overwrought lines like, “If you're still being punished, you're the only one left doing it,” and creaky, late-play revelations. In from the Cold is better in two types of moments, when it descends into farce and during insightful classroom film lecture, and any play that can succeed in both of those forms is worthy of our attention.

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