Just Does It 

New theater group's I Have Loved Strangers is an engrossing ride by a homegrown playwright.

A play blending '60s radicals the Weather Underground with the Book of Jeremiah sounds pretty dense. There's certainly a lot to sink your teeth into in the West Coast premiere of I Have Loved Strangers by Anne Washburn, a New York-based Berkeley native whose work hasn't been seen before in the Bay Area. It's also the East Bay debut of Berkeley-based Just Theater, which launched its first season with Caryl Churchill's Far Away at the Exit in October. The 75-minute Strangers is more than enough to make you hungry for more from both.

You don't have to be a biblical scholar or historian of the left to love Strangers, which is more about enjoying the ride than following the plot, necessarily. Co-artistic director Jonathan Spector's sharp, brisk production ensures that it's utterly engrossing, beautifully integrating into the action Logan Granger's ultramodern set of dangling pillars and the many aural effects that comprise Zachary Watkins' sound design.

From the opening, in which street conversations are distilled into tantalizing tidbits about what it means to be a prophet, the text is constructed of expressionistic morsels that add up to a whole, albeit more thematically than in terms of a plot. The philosophical dialogues and monologues are thought-provoking and often very funny, and the shifts from King James-style orations to natural dialogue are startlingly effective.

The cast of nine deftly navigates both the tiny space in the round and a script that calls for sharp turns from hilarious to haunting, and from highly stylized movements to breezy naturalism. Ryan Oden has a commanding earnestness as the ragged biblical prophet, which makes it especially amusing when he stuffs his face and chats like a normal person. Also particularly striking are Anthony Nemirovsky as a humbug rival and Lindsey Gates as his dread-racked girlfriend; Alexandra Creighton and Mick Mize as nocturnal wanderers chatting away on a mysterious mission; and Carson Creecy as a smarmy, slightly sinister guy always holding an espresso cup.

The question of what Jeremiah really has to do with the Weathermen is left as an interesting thing to debate over an after-show drink, but that's not a bad thing. It's the kind of work that leaves you with more questions than answers, and that's definitely a virtue.


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