Bitter Pill Double-Feature: ‘The Effect’ at SF Playhouse and ‘Eureka Day’ world premiere at Aurora Theatre

The Effect AND Eureka Day programmes

“A pill to make you numb/
A pill to make you dumb/
A pill to make you anybody else/
But all the drugs in this world
Won’t save her from herself”

– Marilyn Manson, “Coma White”, Mechanical Animals

*[NOTE: I’m posting reviews of shows I’ve over the past 2 ½ months. Life events kept me from reviewing them in a timely manner, but I feel that the ones that still linger deserve write-ups.]

The problem with saying you prefer things “the way God made them” is that, despite what Lady Gaga lyrics will tell you, God does make mistakes. Lots of them. All the time. The very reason so much of our species lacks faith these days is because they refuse to accept the lip service that whatever flaws they see – be it in their own bodies or in the world at large – are part of some “grand design”. Either there is no designer, or s/he’s been doing a really piss-poor job with this big blue ball and sentient parasites that inhabit it.

As such, it’s up to us to correct all of the inherent flaws with which God left us, be they fascism or receding hairlines. The trick, of course, is attempting to figure out which flaws actually exist and which are just the subject of biased perception. I’m not one to chime in, but one of the most incendiary arguments I’ve ever heard was a debate whether or sexual reassignment surgery should be considered a form of body dysmorphic disorder. To say the least, shit got heated.

Real or imaginary, you can easily find someone willing to sell you a solution to your problem, even if it’s only in your head. It just so happens that I recently caught two shows about characters seeking better living – the first one through chemistry, the second (one of the best shows of the year) through community.

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The Placebo Effect has always been one of the more controversial necessities of scientific research. Of course the researchers have to be sure that the effects experienced by the subjects are genuine, but just days ago I was reading about a wide birth control recall due to accidental placebo additions. A nightmare scenario for the company selling over the counter, but one of the goals of controlled trials.

Such trials are the focus of Lucy Prebble’s 2012 play The Effect. It involves human test subjects Connie (Ayelet Firstenberg) and Tristan (Joe Estlack) partaking in an experimental anti-depressant trial for Raushen company doctors, the optimistic Lorna (Susi Damilano) and the pessimistic Toby (Robert Parsons). The experiments produce intriguing effects, but a lack of forthrightness and a manipulation of the medication – combined with biased corporate interests in the drug’s future – results in an outcome that leaves no one unaffected.

The Effect at SF Playhouse - set
Set by Nina Ball. Photo by Me.

This SF Playhouse production is a fine example of a director being better than the material they’re directing. SF Playhouse AD Bill English and his crew create a show that is both constructed and staged beautifully, with Nina Ball’s set resembling the interior of a spaceship and English’s staging making the best use of both empty and full space. Yet, the script still sounds as if it’s being workshopped rather than ready for a full production. It’s one thing for the characters to have extreme reactions – after all, our test subjects already have chemical imbalances, which the drug manipulates – but Prebble never finds the right balance between “melodramatic” and “realistic”. At times I thought she was clamoring for some of her characters to die.

Playhouse veterans Susi Damilano and Joe Estlack provide the strongest performances, with both bringing their characters to life believably. Ayelet Firstenberg (whom I last saw in Vignettes on Love) gave a, for lack of a better term, “mousy” performance that seemed more reflective of the actor than the character. Looking at my notes, there were several times where I noted her voice was often far too soft to be heard in the Playhouse, and I was sitting relatively close. Robert Parsons had the tendency to fall into a sinister sneer that made it hard to impress any empathy on the character of Toby.

It’s not much of a surprise that an SF Playhouse show was an excellent technical exercise. Unfortunately, uneven casting and an okay-but-not-great script left me more focused on the aesthetics than the actual melodrama. Though strongly directed (although I’m not fond of full blackouts when not used for the end of an act), it’s more parts than a whole.

Let me put it this way: if it were a drug, it would show promising initial results, but would require more trials.

GRADE:                                C+

The Effect ran from March 20 – April 28 at the SF Playhouse.
For further information about the run, please visit the production’s official site here.

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Does anyone remember that line from The Royal Tenenbaums? It’s the line when we’re first introduced to adult Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), childhood friend of Tenenbaums, now a successful author. When asked about his latest book, he replies “Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t.”

That line pops into my head quite a lot in this age of “fake news” and “alternate facts”. It reminds me of each and every person who prefers to live with lies than admit to factual truths. It’s the perfect mantra for climate change-deniers, birthers, moon landing-truthers, GMO-haters, and yes, anti-vaxxers.

The latter – though seen on all sides of the political spectrum – have become one of the Left’s most glaring hypocrisies in the past deacade-and-a-half. Neo-Cons have birthers and the NRA; Leftists have anti-vaxxers and PETA – ideologies that fall apart under scrutiny and organizations that claim to celebrate freedom, but really want the world to bend to their own myopic will.

By no means is the Bay Area lacking in anti-vaxxer nonsense (we need someone to drown out the “chemtrail” folks), and it’s to Jon Spector’s credit that his script finds the humor (and drama) in its realism rather than caricature.

Eureka Day world premiere at The Aurora - set
Set by Richard Olmsted. Photo by Me.

The story revolves around the fictional Eureka Day School, an overtly – nay, insistently – progressive Berkeley school that values the opinions of others so much that it’s often hard for anything to get done. Ending a typical meeting with one of the White staff members pretentiously quoting Rumi is par for the course. But just as one potential crisis is solved (gender-neutral restrooms have just been installed), another rears its ugly head in the form of required vaccinations. It isn’t long before claiming to respect another’s opinion devolves into forcing your worldview down someone’s throat.

Before I go any further, I should disclose that I briefly worked for Jon Spector as the box office manager for one season of his company Just Theater. With that out of the way, I have no hesitation in saying that Eureka Day is one of the best things I’ve seen all year. As a social commentary, it actually is what Stuck tried and failed to be. As an ensemble piece, it shows how to truly give each character dimension without making anyone the de facto “star”. And as a satirical drama, it shows that everyday life can be truly hilarious and that just because you disagree with someone, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad person.

And that’s what really stuck with me about Eureka Day after I saw it opening night (I know, I know): the “let everyone speak” philosophy given lip service by the characters is held true by the script. Though the people against vaccinations a do so with claims that immediately fall apart with scientific scrutiny, Spector wisely shows that the people themselves ultimately just want the best for their loved ones. The most moving monologue of the play comes from the most vehement anti-vaxxer, in which she explains the personal reasons for her taking a position ultimately anti-scientific. It’s the sort of speech in which one suddenly understands how otherwise well-meaning people subscribe to the destructive ideologies of the Tea Party, the NRA, or even PETA – sometimes having your heart in the right place ultimately does more harm than good.

And Aurora pulled out all the stops for the show. As directed by Josh Costello, the ensemble breath life into characters who would all be offensive avatars in less capable hands. Being that it’s an ensemble, I’m hesitant to single anyone out. I will, however, say that Charisse Loriaux – co-star of my favorite show last year, You Mean to Do Me Harm – is quickly becoming one of the Bay Area’s most reliably watchable actors. Another standout is Elizabeth Carter as a Black mother at her wit’s end dealing with the White-PC condescension of her fellow parents. And then, of course, there’s ACT alumnus Lisa Ann Porter as vehement anti-vaxxer. Porter’s key monologue is delivered with heartbreaking sincerity that doesn’t fall into the trap of easily having the character burst into tears to elicit sympathy. A fine performance from a fine actor in an excellent ensemble.

Richard Olmsted’s intricately detailed is a joy to behold. I have no idea who’d put a school that damn high in the Berkeley Hills, but all it took was a single glance to get the layout of the entire school beyond the classroom in which we find ourselves throughout. “Teddy” Hulsker (who, incidentally, also worked on the SF Playhouse show above) is hands-down one of the best techs in Bay Area theatre. Here, he not only provides a natural soundscape, but also the video projection for a FB Live debate that goes horribly (and hilariously) wrong in a matter of minutes. With Jeff Rowlings’ lights and Maggie Whitaker’s costumes, it all made for the only version of Berkeley accurately portrayed the insanity that often occurs outside the very theatre where we sat.

Let me say again that Eureka Day is one of the best shows of 2018.

GRADE:            A

Eureka Day ran from the 13th of April to the 20th of May at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.
For more information, please visit the production’s official site here.

I’m the sort of guy who likes to believe that striving for self-improvement shouldn’t prevent someone from accepting who they are already. Concepts like body positivity and security in one’s own sense of self shouldn’t prevent someone from wanting to improve who they are. A key component of wanting to improve is to recognize that you can’t always do it on your own; that asking for help is not a sign of weakness; and that taking a recommended prescription doesn’t mean you’ve failed.

As long as your ultimate goal is to get better, you’re already on the right path.

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