Athol Fugard's "Coming Home", opens at Berkeley Rep; Caryl Churchill's "A Number" opens at Center Rep, Smuin Ballet to open in Walnut Creek!

From Athol Fugard's new play "Coming Home"
right to left: Roslyn Ruff and Kohle T. Bolton by photographer Kevin Berne

This week’s entertainment notebook includes information on shows that have just opened this past week, including Center REPertory’s production of “A Number” and “Smuin Ballet’s tribute to Frank Sinatra with “Fly Me To The Moon”, opening next week in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, in addition to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of “Coming Home” in Berkeley. Later on in this article, I will be reporting on my interview with Smuin Ballet’s incredible artistic and executive director Celia Fushille-Burke and their exciting ballet that features the songs of a long time favorite entertainer of yours and mine, Frank Sinatra.

"A Number" explores family relationships and the ramifications of cloning on personal self worth!

First, the Center Repertory Company of Walnut Creek has just opened their first completely professional production in the Knight’s Stage III Theatre on the ground floor of the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. Director Michael Butler brings professional actors James Carpenter and Gabriel Marin under the spotlight in Caryl Churchill’s spell-binding play, “A Number”, exploring relationships between a father and sons and how that relationship plays out in a futuristic fantasy, embracing the frightening ramifications of cloning gone wild.

Ms. Churchill is a British playwright, well known for her feminist and socialist views. She really hit her stride in 1979 with her play, “Cloud Nine”, and essentially uses the play in comic farcical format as a social arena to explore "the Victorian origins of contemporary gender definitions and sexual attitudes, recent changes ... and some implications of these changes”.

“A Number” is a brilliantly mysterious play about the consequences of our decisions and actions. It is at first impression both confusing and intensely intriguing It addresses father and son relationships and cloning becomes an issue in the play, though not the main focus. The issue is about authenticity, identity and personality.

Salter (James Carpenter) is a father whose values and decisions bring us to question his morals and purpose. Many years before the play takes place, Salter apparently paid a scientist to clone his son. The reason is not clear as the father’s explanations and justifications are ambiguous and inconsistent as the play progresses. What Salter did not bargain on or realize, was the scientist made numerous clones (perhaps as many as 20) and withheld that information from him.

The past is not really relevant but the consequences are. As the play opens, Salter is engaged in an intense but fractured discussion with Bernard 1 (Gabriel Marin), who has just discovered that he has a living brother. Salter is attempting to explain (and perhaps not very truthfully) how and why this situation exists, to a son who is extremely upset now that he has just discovered that he is not the being he once thought he was. This young man had thought he was a specific man’s son, that man’s only son, and the values one places in one’s life, thinking that there was something special in that “oneness” and relationship, are now terribly askew! Perhaps Bernard 1 feels as a son would feel to discover that he was in fact a bastard son, not sharing the same parentage he had always been told or had assumed he had! What a terrible awakening for a young man who is now probably in his mid twenties.

What is most disturbing to Bernard 1 is that this brother who (out of the blue) located him, and for the most part, looks and sounds just like him, and even has the same first name, but dresses in clothing suggesting a far different lifestyle. Bernard 2 (also played in pluperfect fashion by Gabriel Marin), is very aggressive and angry, with a vindictive attitude.

Bernard 1 has come to his father seeking answers about this replicate’s existence, and is told by his father, that his mother and her first son were killed in an automobile accident and that he was a first and only clone “creation” extracted from their genetic profile and replicated four years after his cloned brother’s death, through the miracle of modern medicine. Therefore, he tells Bernard 1, that he is in fact, “his son”, not in so many words, but never-the-less, the same as a “son”. In the following dialogue, Slater explains to Bernard, in halted fashion, that this other person is not identical to him, but Bernard is not satisfied or happy with the explanation!

Bernard: Because there's this person who's identical to me

SALTER: he's not
Bernard: who's not identical, who's like

SALTER: not even very

Bernard: not very like but very something terrible which is exactly the same genetic person

SALTER: not the same person

Bernard: and I don't like it!

The play only lasts for about 50 minutes with no intermission, 50 intense minutes in which you meet three similar but different “sons” all played by Marin, each with different personalities and differing reactions to the discovery of their counterparts. I wonder what your reaction will be? What hackles or emotions it will raise beneath your exterior? I found it very, very engaging and thought provoking. In fact, in writing this review, it has raised even more questions in my mind. If you enjoy mysterious and thought provoking theatre, then this show is a “Must See”, by all means.

“A Number” plays Thursdays, Fridays at 8:15 and with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:25 p.m., now through February 7th, in the Knight’s Stage 3 theatre in the Dean Lesher Center for the Performing Arts located 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Call 943-7469 or visit the Lesher Center for the Arts Ticket Office at the theatre location or the ticket office outlet in the downtown Walnut Creek Barnes and Noble Book Store. Tickets are $45 each.

Athol Fugard comes home to Berkeley Repertory Theatre with his sequel to "Valley Song" entitled "Coming Home"!

Dreams are the magic hopes that spring eternal in all youth. Dreams for a better tomorrow, a better life, spring eternal, from the 6 year old kneeling at the foot of the christmas tree, to the sports fan seeking a hero’s autograph, to a hairbrush becoming a microphone as a young person serenades their image rocking back and forth in front of the bathroom mirror! Dreams are the undeniable hopes that make all human beings equal. It is the failure of dreams to come true that reduce all human beings down to their inner fiber. It is in overcoming these failed dreams that demonstrates our true inner strength.

One of the truly great playwrights, Athol Fugard, dreamed of a non-apartheid South Africa. He wrote about Apartheid’s failures, wrote wonderful plays that demonstrated its evils, until one day, a new government came into being and the worse aspects of apartheid finally went away.

Even in success there can be failure, and now he writes again about man’s great inhumanity and stupidity, as another chapter in South Africa prejudice and political revenge provides fodder for headlines such as in the London Telegraph which decried “ - - more than 330,000 South Africans have died of AIDS due to the government refusing intiviral drugs”, and “AIDS continues to ravage South Africa.”

Terrible and heartbreaking health statistics describe a nation in which there are now 600,000 AIDS orphans; 12% of the total population infected by AIDS; 30 % of all pregnant women have AIDS; 33% of gay men have AIDS and finally, 1 out of every four people, aged 15 to 49, have AIDS. Now Fugard writes about a scourge of pandemic proportions and a new government free of the shackles of apartheid, but immersed in ignorance, that has continued to deny the truth about this terrible disease and the health disaster that has taken place in the midst of their new found freedoms. Fugard’s new play, “Coming Home”, is a sequel to his sweetly poignant play, “Valley Song”, which toured our country a few years ago, and was produced at Berkeley Repertory Theater in the 1997-1998 season.

There are few playwrights who are as important in our society today as Athol Fugard and this new play, “Coming Home”, is one of his best, one of his richest, most poignant, and sweetly alarming, yet concludes by leaving a little spark of hope in our hearts for a truly better tomorrow, everywhere!

Veronica Jonkers and her grandfather, Oupa, were central to Fugard’s “Valley Song”. Veronica was a young girl who had dreams of becoming a singing star, of being able to go to Capetown free of the racial policies of the old government, free to seek her own identity, a new life. In “Coming Home”, it is ten years later and Veronica returns to the Karoo, to the one room farmhouse of her birth. The entertainment world stars have lost their shine, and now, Veronica, glad to be home, such as it is, is grateful in some degree, as fate has delivered her a beautiful little boy, Mannetjie. She also holds a terrible dark secret she hopes to survive. Veronica is played with incredible beauty by Roslyn Ruff and her beautiful son. Mannetjie, is played by two different boys, representing her son at different ages; Kohle T. Bolton (the younger) and Jaden Malik Wiggins (the older).

Her grandfather Oupa has died, but his little shack on the high desert plain, known as Karoo, is waiting there for her under the stewardship of a childhood friend, now an adult, Alfred Witbooi (played superbly by Thomas Silcott). In “Valley Song”, Alfred was a not overly bright young boy who only had one dream, that of owning a bright red bicycle. Now as an adult, still very uneducated and simple, but loving and upbeat, Alfred welcomes Veronica to her old home and returns to her most of her grandfather’s most prized possessions that he had stolen and taken to his own home for protection from other opportunity seekers, following the old man’s death. The grandfather, Oupa (played well by Lou Ferguson), returns in the play as a ghostly apparition, at times when encouragement and a loving word is needed.

Veronica had met a beautiful man that she fell in love with, was blessed with their son, and then lost her husband when he became involved in a barroom fight. Immersed in a deepening depression and financial problems (a woman with child cannot find easy employment), she turned to alcohol and drugs and the combination led her to find friendship and companionship with unhealthy males. The resulting indiscriminate friendships had provided, hidden deep within her, a deadly and unwanted guest, a terrible guest called AIDS. For several years she worked hard to fight the disease, hoping to beat it, but without proper education and medication, which she could not afford without government help, her health gradually declined and she had to turn to her old friend, Alfred, for help in raising her son.

Alfred was not really mature enough to take on this serious responsibility, but a marvelous turn of fortune finally comes her way and the story has a somewhat positive outcome. I don’t want to give away the exquisite beauty of this story any more than I have already, but it is truly one of Fugard’s best. The direction and cast selection by Gordon Edelstein is truly marvelous. The acting is some of the most memorable in any of Fugard’s brilliant work that I have had the good fortune to see. Berkeley Repertory Theatre is always more perfect than one has the right to ask for, especially at their very reasonable ticket prices.

Call (510) 647-2949 for ticket and reservation information or visit their website at The company also has a toll-free ticket service by calling (888) 4BRT-Tix. The theatre is located at 2025 Addison Street in Berkeley and the show is in the “Thrust Stage”. Tickets range between $33 and $71 depending on time of day and date. There are half-price tickets for those under 30 years of age and a $10 discount for Students ans seniors, one hour before curtain time (a little more risky to get the seats you like, but less expensive).

Celia Fushille-Burke, the artistic and executive director of the Smuin Ballet, provides some insights to the Walnut Creek production set to open on February 5th.

Coming up next week, on Friday and Saturday, February 5th and 6th, The Smuin Ballet will return to the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek with their production of “Fly Me To The Moon”, for two evening performances at 8 p.m., and one Saturday 2 p.m. matinee.

I had the good fortune of catching artistic and executive director Celia Fushille-Burke in between directing activities this past week and asked her a few questions about this year’s return performance of a show that was well received and anticipated by our Rossmoor residents in 2006. While opening my remarks and questions to Celia, I mentioned that while I intended to attend the February 5th performance, I actually knew very little about ballet and yet I have had a lot of experience in musical theatre.

To this she responded:

Celia :“Well this should be quite interesting for you in that what we do is quite theatrical”
CJ: “I know that one of the productions is created around the music of Frank Sinatra and I believe this has been very popular with Rossmoor previously”.
Celia: “The Fly Me To The Moon ballet is only one of the three ballets on the program. They close the evening with Frank Sinatra and it just feels very much like a Fred (Astair) and Ginger (Rodgers) type of dance with twelve or thirteen dancers performing in it. The number of dancers participating in it changes depending on the casting, because we like to switch the dancers around so that everybody has an opportunity to perform in it.”
CJ: “Is there any singing in this?”
Celia: “Well, the music consists of Frank Sinatra’s own recordings.”

Celia went on to state that this production was originally created in 2004 and has been such a hit “ - - that people sing the songs and walk out of the theater dancing!” They have preformed this show twice in Italy and of course, it always is received very well over there, she continued. There is no plot or specific story in this production as it is basically just a musical review that includes some really beautiful dancing. In addition to the Sinatra program, they are performing Amy Seiwert’s choreography in her piece, “These Two Worlds”, which is contemporary dance based on a synthesis of African music and high energy dance routines set to the music from the Grammy Award-winning Krono’s String Quartet’s “Pieces of Africa”. This music was composed for the Krono’s Quartet by various African composers. This piece has not been presented to the Walnut Creek audience previously.

The second piece in the program is set to Samuel Barber’s “Medea”, which was originally composed for Martha Graham’s 1946 ballet. The is the Greek story of Jason and Medea who have two sons and as Jason becomes involved with a beautiful princess, Medea sets out to exact revenge on Jason for his infidelity. It is very theatrical and dramatic. Micheal Smuin choreographed it back in the late 70’s. Celia expressed great enthusiasm over this being one role that she really enjoyed performing herself, many times. It is powerful piece of theatre with only five dancers. The classical score was created by Samuel Barber in the 40’s.

Celia Fushille-Burke stopped dancing due in large part to a major injury and the resulting knee surgery. Subsequently she married and had two children. Then in 1993 when Michael Smuin asked her to join his fledging dance group, she jumped at the chance. "Michael made me who I am" she says. Now 17 years and 113 roles later, Celia Fushille-Burke has completely hung up her toe shoes and moved to the creative and administrative side of the company where she continues in her role as artistic and executive director of the company.

Call 943-7469, to contact the Dean Lesher Center for the Performing Arts located 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek for reservations and ticket information on “Fly Me To The Moon”. You may also contact the company website at or visit the Lesher Center for the Arts Ticket Office at the theatre location. Tickets range between $18 and $56 each.