.Theater Round-up: East Bay Express writers weigh in on 2022’s stage must-dos

Take Care

Mike Birbiglia dives deep in new solo show

We may not know it by looking at him, but Mike Birbiglia has issues.

The comedian, writer, filmmaker and NPR darling specializes in turning his personal problems and family foibles into funny and endearing stage shows. This month, the Brooklyn-based performer is back in the Bay Area for a limited-run engagement of his new one-man show, Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and The Pool, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Birbiglia burst onto the national scene a decade ago with his solo show, Sleepwalk With Me, which he turned into his feature-film debut in 2012. That show and film chronicled Birbiglia’s early days of standup comedy, particularly an incident in which he jumped out of a second-story window while sleepwalking. Today, he sleeps in a sleeping bag with mittens on his hands so he can’t get out while he sleeps.

During the last decade, Birbiglia’s other shows, including My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and Thank God For Jokes, enjoyed successful off-Broadway runs. His last show, The New One, moved to Broadway, where he received the Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance.

Birbiglia quickly shares the sleepwalking story and dives into other tales from his life in The Old Man and the Pool, deftly mining laughs from heavy topics. Despite the serious content, especially talk about his own fear of dying, this is one of Birbiglia’s funniest shows yet. His understated acerbic wit comes through in his descriptions of the Brooklyn YMCA, where he takes up swimming, and in relating family gatherings and reliving arguments with doctors.

Performing the show in Berkeley Rep’s intimate Roda Theatre, Birbiglia keeps the set design to a minimum—a small chair, table and lamp, and a blue backdrop that gives the show an underwater feel. Birbiglia makes use of the whole stage to act out many of his stories.

The Old Man and the Pool has been in the works for three years, and this run is the first time audiences are seeing it fully formed. In a statement, Birbiglia remarks, “The Bay Area has smart, theatre-savvy audiences, and when an artist is creating new work that’s what they crave most. I debuted The New One at Berkeley Rep in 2017, and that show went all the way to Broadway. So maybe Berkeley has some kind of secret magical energy? It seems that way.”

‘The Old Man and The Pool’ runs through Sunday, Jan. 23, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Proof of vaccination (with photo ID) and masks required. Find showtimes and tickets at berkeleyrep.org.

—Charlie Swanson

Staying In, Rolling Out

Cal Performances at Home brings the theater experience to the screen while embracing the current reality

Unexpectedly, the best advice for thrashing through the new year arrives within one word embedded in an email from Cal Performances’ Public Relations Manager Louisa Spier. With the pandemic continuing to dominate headlines and causing multiple cancellations or postponements of live arts presentations and other activities, reeling defined the only way forward for presenters and ticket holders. Instead, this reeling is best replaced by Spier’s rolling, a term she used while describing the UC Berkeley-based organization’s approach to the resumption in January 2022 of its terrific, free, virtual Cal Performances at Home series.

“Regarding future Cal Performances at Home video programming, while we have an initial sense of which performances we’d like to share, we want to ensure that thequality of the recordings and the post-production—which takes a fair bit of time—do justice to the magic of the live performances,” Spier writes. “So, in order to avoid last-minute changes to our overall schedule should a recording not turn out at a high enough quality or prove difficult to edit, we have opted to wait to announce each recording until it is fully prepared, which necessitates a rolling announcement schedule.”

During the pandemic, the series has already knocked out a premiere from trumpet player, jazz composer and vocalist Bria Skonberg; a rocking New Year’s Eve Musical Celebration; an intimate livestream evening with world renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma; a presentation of the wildly imaginative Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein, a film created with paper puppets using real-time animation; and a historic appearance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater that included screenings of rare archival footage from the company’s repertoire and a world-premiere work commissioned by Cal Performances from the current Ailey resident choreographer, Jamar Roberts.

In January, the series is resuming—rolling—with free streaming of the Danish String Quartet’s performance of Schubert’s String Quartet in G major, (Jan. 13–19); the Bay Area premiere of More Forever, a collaboration between Caleb Teicher & Company (dance) and Conrad Tao (piano), (Jan. 20–26); and San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet performing with special guest vocalist Mahsa Vahdat.

The Kronos performance is of special significance as it includes the world premiere performance of a Fifty for the Future work by Cal Performances 2021–22 season artist–in–residence, Angélique Kidjo. These first three performances are paired with Beyond the Stage videos in which the artists speak with Cal Performances Executive and Artistic Director Jeremy Geffen. The videos offer insights into their working processes and details about the specific pieces presented in their virtual, fully produced performances.

Geffen, in an interview about the season and postponements of live performances that are inevitably popping the back-to-normal bubble for arts presenters worldwide, says, “Cal Performances intends to present as much of our original season and maintain as much of our in-person audience as possible, while still prioritizing the safety of our patrons, staff and performers. Even with careful safety measures in place, however—including our new booster requirement for those eligible—we recognize there are still circumstances that could cause someone to be reluctant to attend a live performance. These circumstances are often deeply personal, and we want to respect and continue to connect with those who are not yet ready to return to in-person performances.”

The Bay Area in-person premiere of More Forever in December 2021—from which the “at Home” film was made—brought dancer and choreographer Teicher, a founding member of Dorrance Dance and two-time Bessie Award winner, and his company to  the cavernous Zellerbach Hall. Tapping and Lindy Hopping in a 24-foot-square sandbox, the gritty acoustics of their footwork form the perfect counterpoint to, or blend seamlessly with, pianist and composer Tao’s dynamic piano and electronic score, which is played live by Tao. The sound is as multi-layered as the choreography, with textures that range from eloquent to dreamy to playful, pounding or otherworldly. Tao is a recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant and brings to the performance a keen attentiveness to the dancers that preserves an organic, in-the-moment fluidity to the interchange.

The Kronos’ 50 for the Future project expands the contemporary string quartet with 40 original compositions commissioned and premiered—and downloaded nearly 20,000 times by musicians in over 100 countries—from a diverse group of composers. The “at Home” concert showcases, among other pieces, new works by minimalist composer Terry Riley and Kidjo’s YanYanKliYan Senamido. Speaking with the East Bay Express in an article on Oct. 20, 2021, the French-Beninese singer/composer said, “Music is the only language we speak that has no nationality, no color. Music is not divisive. It unifies people.” She will appear live in Berkeley at Cal Performances in April 2022 with the Bay Area premiere of Yemandja: A Story of Africa.

In the second half of the concert, Kronos is joined by Mahsa Vahdat, a Persian vocalist whose previous collaboration with the quartet resulted in the 2019 recording, Placeless. Works on the program include melodies composed by Vahdat to classical poems by Hafez and Rumi, as well as contemporary texts by Iranian poets. At a performance last December at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Playhouse, Vahdat appeared with Vietnamese composer and multi-instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ and her Blood Moon Orchestra with the world premiere of Songs of Strength. The concert displayed Vahdat’s mesmerizing vocal range and acute control; skills that portend a promising partnership with Kronos that may prove equally evocative.

Geffen says, “As we ramp up for live performance once again after a traditional lull in January, our new season of Cal Performances at Home has allowed us to build upon the digital community we built last season, and to continue providing a means by which anyone, regardless of personal circumstances, can experience the joy of music, dance and theater created in our beloved home venue of Zellerbach Hall. We’re thankful to all our patrons, whether in or out of the hall, who have continued to support us during this uncertain time.”

His words suggest that perhaps the wisest and most realistic choice in 2022 is to expect both reeling and rolling. As we remember Kidjo’s unity label, music provides a drum beat by which we might keep moving forward, and possibly celebrate; it helps us to believe in good things now and better things to come.

—Lou Fancher

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