Holiday Theater: Audio-Visual Magic in Berkeley and Marin

For theater companies, the holiday season can be less “good will toward men” than “notorious conundrum.” This time of year is one of the most difficult parts of a season to plan. Ticket sales have the potential to surge, with audiences who flock to the theater to have their faith in humanity and the holiday spirit restored. Produce something too unusual or artsy, and a company could miss out on that new crowd and the additional revenue. But produce something too overdone or cheesy, and the company risks compromising its art and alienating its audience base.

In the Bay Area, no company solves this problem as consistently well as Berkeley Rep, using stage magic. 2009's Aurelia's Oratorio made the stage curtains into a tool for a circus act; 2011's The Wild Bride used the simplest of props — red paint, a light bulb on a string — to conjure the fantastical events of a fairytale. With this year's The White Snake, a world premiere written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, the strategy has succeeded yet again.

Adapted from an ancient Chinese legend, Zimmerman's play chronicles the titular reptile spirit (Amy Kim Waschke) as it transforms itself into a beautiful woman and marries a mortal man, Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston).

There are almost as many versions of this myth as there are tellers, and Zimmerman's emphasizes the family-friendly value of loving your partner for who she is — scales, sibilant S's, and all. But in trying to appeal to all ages, Zimmerman dumbs her characters down. The women, especially the selfless sidekick Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), are excessively virtuous; husband Xu Xian is ineffectual, serving only as a victim to be rescued numerous times; and the villain Fa Hai (a miscast Jack Willis, whose sarcastic voice is at odds with the play's tone) is evil for the sake of being evil.

Yet if her characters are less than complex, Zimmerman tells a dynamic story with her surprising, inventive visuals. To make rain, aqua-blue paper streamers descend from the ceiling, rigged so that they dance back and forth on their way down. In just one of the many ways the show creates a snake, multiple members of the ensemble stand in line, each holding a white parasol to represent a single segment of a snake's body, and then glide about the stage in a coordinated, undulating pattern.

Still more of the play is redeemed by its surprising ending, which finds a way to make a jarringly sad event into, if not a conventionally happy resolution, at least a serene and comforting one. Here the play is at its least condescending; it guides its audience to see tragedy in a new way, not bound by Western notions of death, love, time, and happiness. Had the rest of the play been so bold, its content could have been every bit as moving and magical as its form.

Across the bay, Marin Theatre Company has taken a more conservative route in its holiday programming, selecting for its show a Christmas story central to the American psyche: It's A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra's sleeper hit from 1946 is about the American Dream as much as it's about Christmas, and it derives its success from validating contradictory ideas: dreaming of a life better than the one you were born into and valuing above all else the community you build during that life.

Joe Landry's adaptation for the stage, It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, gets its text almost exclusively from the original screenplay, but it's framed as a broadcast. The “live studio audience” must clap when the “applause” sign blinks, and the five actors, when they're not speaking, dash about the stage to various sound effects tables — talking into a jar to sound like the voice on the other end of a telephone or playing chimes to evoke the cracking of ice.

These clever effects make this production at times just as magical as Berkeley Rep's. Audiences are both spectators at the theater and the pretend listeners at home, invited to use their imaginations to picture George Bailey (Gabriel Marin), the everyman forced to helm a small-town savings-and-loan when he dreams much more grandly, even as they can also see the man behind the curtain, as it were, producing the illusion. This joyous dual existence, coupled with actors who, under the direction of Jon Tracy, make iconic characters all their own, compensates for a condensed script that sometimes fast-forwards the plot and can't manipulate our emotions with the same speed. This production makes a convincing case that the most magical holiday stories can flourish in many mediums.

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