Mention the size of the Shotgun Players' Love Is a Dream House in Lorin to another company's artistic director, and the response is always the same: "[Patrick] Dooley is insane." It's been a burning question this season: How will the Shotgunners get a whopping thirty people onto their postcard-size stage? It's not much bigger than the Aurora's, and the Aurora's Tom Ross once told me that when he put more than eight people on his stage, fisticuffs broke out backstage.
So how does Dream House's director Aaron Davidman do it? As soon as possible, that's how. At the beginning of both the first and second acts, he floods the stage with actors, overlapping poetry and song as they come in. It's impressive, particularly in the second act when they're all wearing bright red choir robes. Ranging in age over an extraordinary sixty-year span, the cast includes Berkeley High students, a mother-daughter pair, and a retired Berkeley art prof. It's also one of the most diverse casts to grace an East Bay stage in a long time, appropriate for a show that's not only a play, but a celebration of and for the community.
Shotgun commissioned Marcus Gardley to write a play based on interviews with residents of the Lorin district, the area the theater has called home since 2004. The story centers on a young mixed-race couple buying the rundown house of the title. Cynical Adeline hates it ("I smell dogshit," she complains. "What you smell is history," the slick Realtor responds), but her optimistic husband Russell, the sort of man who dances from place to place, loves it because it reminds him of Adeline when he first met her. Some of Gardley's funniest zingers come out of their dialogue "You wouldn't even have to wear a bra," Russell points out to Adeline as a reason they should live in Berkeley. She acquiesces, and they begin a journey into the house's rich and sad past, from its faithless architect to everyone who has since lived in it.
Shotgun has long battled uneven acting, which is probably a consequence of often using actors with more potential and energy than experience. That's not all bad, of course; regular audiences have gotten to watch certain actors blossom with the company. While the current show is no exception there is some unintentional awkwardness, and actors were struggling with their lines opening night for some reason, it's not as obvious as you would expect in a large cast with so many untried performers. Davidman's actors, who apparently bonded easily and early in the process, are on the same page, and he keeps them there. And then he keeps the sprawling story moving, even though it jumps all over time, if not space.
Gardley has loaded the story with larger-than-life characters Brian Rivera's rubbery zoot-suited Coyote hissing "I will eat you, bitch" at a Spanish missionary, then turning to a surfer-dude Jesus, who greets him with "What up, dawg?" Jeanette DesBoine is salty neighborhood matriarch Aunt Woolsey ("Sit that ass down, you're making my plants nervous"), and Tamiyka White's Pastor Grant opens up the second act so beautifully with a buoyant sermon that honors the theater building's origins as a church. But even the less extreme characters are engaging check out Nicholas Guillory as an angry young man who carries his copy of Soul on Ice around with him for years, or the neighbor (Anne Healy) who, when she shows up to welcome the new arrivals, invites them to join her and her girlfriend for a nice day trip to the Livermore Lab to get arrested.
There's a lot of humor in the script, between the shootings and the sibling rivalries and the sad moments Japanese families being forced to leave their homes, people losing their spouses, a family seeing off their son to Vietnam. There's also a lot of singing, but this is not a musical. And unlike the summer's Ragnarok, which was one long dirge, there's variety and brightness here, from the Andrews Sisters-like trio of Winds to a crew of men singing as they build the house to the whole group singing gospel or that they are "dancing on the brink of the world."
The second act is not as focused as the first, although that may reflect last-minute script changes meant to keep up with current events in the neighborhood. Things get a little preachy and diffuse, although the moment where one young person takes another to task for using the word "nigga" is nicely done. It feels as if Gardley couldn't decide on an ending, so he put in a few different ones. But overall Dream House is a surprising chance to learn about the neighborhood that cradles the theater, from a poetic description of how to make umeboshi (many of South Berkeley's plum trees were planted by Japanese immigrants who craved pickled plums) to the Ohlone creation myth. It's also a moving and lively celebration of Lorin's people and history that does not gloss over some of the area's very real problems. Community concerns that the finished play would not represent Lorin in the most positive light can be put to rest. The creative team always envisioned this show as a gift to the community, and it really is: loving, generous, and smart.
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