Autumn's Dark Days 

Nocturne; Approach

Returning from a sojourn in suburban Michigan, I am struck once again by how much I love fall -- the real version where the trees flare and people go on "leaf-peeping" tours, drink cider, dig out the warm clothes, and buy snow tires. While I haven't missed Midwestern winter even slightly in the time I've lived in the East Bay, or the long airless patches of sticky summer, I do still long for that quiet and meditative season when the wind, the colors, and the general sense of unseen things diving toward sleep provokes an interior state of examination and contemplation.

Two plays currently running in Berkeley capture some of that autumnal energy perfectly -- if you could curl up in front of a crackling fire with a play, either of these would be a good choice. Nocturne at the Berkeley Rep and the Shotgun Players' Approach at the Eighth Street Studio both unfold like literature, turning over the meaty stuff -- love, tragedy, loss, passion, expectation -- with the care and delicacy of a jeweler.

The first striking thing about Shotgun's Approach, which closes this weekend, is how peaceful it is, how intimate. After a year that's been full of big shows, this small play (only four actors, playing one role apiece) is downright cozy. Written by first-time playwright and long-time actor Susan Wiegand from an extended dialogue, Approach is the most spot-on explication of what happens between people in, out of, or seeking love that I think I've ever seen.

The show begins beautifully, with the actors singing Nick Drake's 'Which Will' to live guitar accompaniment and opening up a quiet, trusting space for the text to fill. And what a text: Wiegand has distilled every conversation any two people have ever had about their relationship-with-a-capital-R, crystallizing the salient points, revealing from every angle what happens when people try to communicate about love. As my companion said, "it's as if someone broke into my house and read my journal." Even confusion is represented here, that moment -- perhaps in the middle of an argument, perhaps in bed, perhaps on the phone with a friend trying to figure out what has happened -- when you realize that you don't really understand what's being said anymore, how a benign comment went awry, why your beloved is crying helplessly when just a moment ago there was laughter.

It's an uncanny alchemy, and the actors are brave scientists bringing their discoveries fearlessly to the audience. Tart, pleading, and world-weary, the characters are often both just plain wrong and incisively right. Whether it's Marin Van Young as the fantasy-bound Girl ("I don't want to spoil my appetite," she says archly about the possibility of dating someone who is not The One), Brent Rosenbaum's earnest Boy ("If I just stayed near her for a long time and didn't hurt her maybe she would trust me," he says forlornly to Mary Eaton Fairfield's older, wiser Woman), or the opportunistic Man (Aaron Lucich, doing a fine job of just sitting and waiting for someone to show up who can make him feel better), each character is a hero, each grasps the truth and evokes the audience's sympathy.

Katie Bales Frasinelli's direction is perfectly suited to the text, especially in her use of silence. Even when the actors are saying nothing -- when they sit eating apples, make love, or look around for companions -- the silence adds another texture, another eloquent voice. This is a sweet show, truthful and humane beyond what the abstract set and lack of obvious narrative structure might indicate, and definitely worth a look.

Where Approach delves into the universal through a handful of anonymous characters, the Berkeley Rep's Nocturne is very clearly about one man, one family, and one life-changing accident. The son -- played with a beguiling mixture of reserve and vulnerability by Anthony Rapp -- recounts how as a teenager he accidentally killed his younger sister, and what happened to his family as a result. Fleeing to New York, the son eventually becomes a writer, losing himself in other people's novels and trying to purge the accident by writing one of his own. But publication doesn't clear the son's conscience -- only an awkward, unwanted visit to his dying father will do the job. Playwright Adam Rapp (Anthony's brother) does some daring things with his play's structure.

The first act of Nocturne is circular, the second relentlessly linear, the third an integration of the first two. In the first act, the son attempts to describe the event that splintered his family. He remembers the 'Little League kind of evening,' the smell of summer food, the Formica monstrosity of a house he shares with his family, the lace around the edges of his sister's yellow socks. Like one of those continuous drawings where the artist never raises pen from paper, the son fills in his family, already mired in disappointment and detachment before the event, shaped by shock afterward. Rapp's vision of this suburban existence is so bleak that at one point, his protagonist speculates that his sister threw herself in front of his car because she knew, at age nine, that her life was already at its highest point.

In the second act, the son numbly details his next fifteen years as 'the Ramen King of St. Mark's Place,' working in a bookstore, waiting for his secondhand Underwood to sing to him. Written as it is in the third person, this act comes off a little cold, and it was here that the audience at the show I saw did the bulk of their rustling and shuffling. Things get back on track in the final act, where the son makes a kind of peace with his cancer-burdened father, and starts to see a way out of his carefully constructed hell.

Anthony Rapp will be familiar to anyone who saw Rent on Broadway, or photos of Rent, or anything Rent-related -- he created the role of Mark. Even without the singing, dancing, and drugs, he does a great job here, holding the audience with his voice and a succinct movement vocabulary for ninety minutes, maneuvering cleanly through his brother's luxurious wordplay, making Nocturne, like Approach, a great show for people who love language.

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