Heart and Soul 

Three contemporary plays examine the nature of love.

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One of the secondary issues in Shape, that of class difference (notable in the conflict between erudite Evelyn and good ol' boy Philip) is explored more fully in Alex Johnston's Deep Space, which opens Transparent Theater's second season. Two roommates share a flat in Dublin, Ireland, and little else. Gangly, emotional Jaco went to vocational schools and is now gainfully employed as an electrician, while cool, sarcastic Keith has a degree in art history and no job. While they're friendly in a superficial roommate way, it quickly becomes clear that they don't think much of each other: Keith refers pityingly to Jaco as being part of the lumpen proletariat, while in an aside Jaco mentions that he doesn't care for Keith's intellectual chums. The divide grows wider as the two men explore their feelings for the same woman, Fionnula.

Deep Space is a compact package filled with a lot of valuable stuff. A really interesting thing about this play is how we're set up to understand Keith as the intellectual, and so perhaps the one with a more enlightened view of women and gender roles, but it soon becomes clear that with him, it's all book larnin'. Jaco, who proves to be the more compassionate of the two by a long shot, has a more instinctive grasp of how to behave with women -- indeed, with people in general. While Keith sits at home smoking and fretting over his shortcomings, Jaco is out in the world, taking risks and generally succeeding. And one of the risks he's prepared to take is being truthful with Fionnula. As Jaco (Jason Frazier, who gets to show a lot more of his stuff here than he did as Jason in Shotgun's recent Medea) and Fionnula become an item, Keith (Drew Khalouf, new to East Bay theater, and notable for his remarkably expressive face) sulks and smolders, perpetuating small but meaningful acts of aggression.

Ryan Montgomery, who played Jimmy in last season's knockout Brave Brood, came back to Transparent to direct this show, and he's made some evocative choices. Fionnula herself is present only as snatches of sound and a scarf; were she present, things would get tangled up in how the two roommates represent themselves as men. There is a lot of silence in this staging -- a long interlude where Keith, sitting almost perfectly still, muses on how to handle his feelings is as effective as would be a lengthy monologue.

Playwright Johnston also tackles the tricky question of rape (Fionnula has been molested in the past) in a way certain to make audiences question their assumptions about how and why rape happens, and what kind of people commit the act. Nothing becomes clear except that there is the law, and then there are people's hearts. Things happen that spelled out on paper seem despicable but may not have that much impact, while seeming kindnesses can go sour and become vile. Johnston's ending is satisfying without being false. This production is a powerful start to Transparent's new season.

Rape also comes up in The House of Blue Leaves, the funniest of the three. Leaves is full of many other unfunny things -- mental illness, assassination, and infidelity, just for starters -- which playwright John Guare has somehow managed to twist and poke into hilarity. House mingles humor with pathos, and slapstick with the sadness of a family falling apart. Although superficially it speaks to what people will do for love, ultimately it's more about the desire to become famous (or infamous, whichever works), and the way people will manipulate each other to achieve that end. The current production at the Berkeley Rep is oddly wonderful -- the acting is great, the set sloppily intimate, the logical premise drawn out to illogical extremes.

Artie works at the Central Park Zoo, but dreams of being an award-winning composer for big Hollywood films. It's a dream that seems impossible, tied as he is to a wife with serious mental problems -- that is, until he meets freewheeling Bunny Flingus, whose love makes him feel like he has a shot at the big time. But does she really love him, or does she love where she thinks his talent can take her? And what about pathetic Bananas, Artie's wife? She's not as crazy as everyone thinks; she's tuned in enough to know what's going on and to be in pain as a result. To make things more complicated, the Pope is coming to New York to speak out against the war in Vietnam. While most of the characters expect the Pope will fix their lives (Artie brings his music along to be blessed, for instance), Artie and Bananas' son Ronnie has gone AWOL with the express intention of blowing up the Pope so he can be famous. Throw in a pack of stray nuns, a supremely self-centered movie director and his girlfriend, an MP, and a guy with a straitjacket, and you have one raucous winter's day in Queens.

Rebecca Wisocky, who was so elegant and rather stiff in last year's 36 Views, is the real surprise of this show. Made up to look possessed and costumed in layers of dumpy nightgowns, Wisocky takes on Bananas absolutely, whether she's acting like a dog begging for scraps or trying to convince family friend Billy Einhorn to save her from being institutionalized. "You see," she pleads, "they give me pills so I won't feel anything. Now I don't mind not feeling anything, so long as I can remember feeling," revealing both tremendous pain and the fact that she's not as out of it as Bunny would have everyone think she is. Jarion Monroe, who turned so convincingly from a prissy man into a rhinoceros last season, is something else again as conflicted, deluded Artie. "I miss you so much sometimes," he says longingly to Bananas, and then he's off cooing at Bunny (Jeri Lynn Cohen, stepping in at the last minute with great aplomb and accent to match) or lustily banging out his awful tunes on the piano. Barbara Damashek, who also directed Rhinoceros last season, clearly had a good time assembling this rarely-seen-in-the-Bay-Area show, and it's a pleasure audiences can share, while still having things to talk about on the way home.

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