Middle East Mystery Slogs, Slapstick Moliere Scores: S.F. Stage
Wajdi Mouawad’s ambitious “Scorched” is an epic drama of family ties across generations, set during a Middle Eastern civil war.
Simon and Janine, 22-year-old twins, meet at the office of a notary, Alphonse, for the reading of their mother Nawal’s will. She divides her estate between the twins and makes a few odd bequests: a jacket with the number 72 to Janine, a red notebook to Simon.
Nawal also leaves two envelopes to be delivered to their father, who is presumed dead, and a brother they never knew existed. Her requests don’t go down well.
“I don’t owe my mother a single thing,” Simon huffs as he marches out of the notary’s office. She was distant and difficult, he says.
Then we begin to peel the layers of one family’s loves, hates and buried secrets. In flashbacks to the 1970s, we learn that Nawal grew up in a poor village in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, perhaps Lebanon, when things were falling apart. She’s unmarried and pregnant; when her son is born he’s given away.
At her grandmother’s urging, Nawal moves to the city and learns to read and write. Then she gets involved in politics, with deadly consequences.
Intercut with these historical scenes we see Simon, a would-be boxer, and Janine, a graduate student in mathematics, as they reluctantly pursue their mother’s final requests. Over the course of almost three hours, they learn the truth, and it’s not a pretty thing.
“You simply cannot add to this monstrous mountain of pain,” Nawal exclaims, when she and a friend have been caught up in the country’s brutal civil war.
Audiences may feel the same way about this production at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, directed by Carey Perloff. Though it features talented actors, including Marjan Neshat as the young Nawal and David Strathairn as Alphonse, only sometimes are they able to bring the drama to life. Too often it seems like a forced march through the desert.
With a handsome industrial-chic set by Scott Bradley and evocative costumes by Sandra Woodall, the show should be a winner. Yet the script, translated from the French by Linda Gaboriau, is often more schematic than poetic.
“Scorched” runs through March 11 at 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Information: +1-415-749-2228; http://www.act-sf.org. Rating: **
Timing is everything in comedy, as director Christopher Bayes and actor Steven Epp expertly demonstrate in their slapstick reworking of Moliere’s “A Doctor in Spite of Himself,” across the bay at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
It’s a Punch and Judy show, with actors whacking each other like puppets, accompanied by a two-man band playing a half-dozen instruments and providing the ba-da-bing. About all that remains of Moliere is a sketchy plot, on which they hang their jokes.
The aristocrat Geronte needs a doctor because his daughter Lucinde has become mute, so the wily Martine delivers one in the form of her husband, the drunken woodsman Sganarelle (played by Epp). This gives him an opportunity to satirize the incompetence and vanity of the medical profession, help the goth girl Lucinde marry her penniless boyfriend, and issue a stream of one-liners on subjects ranging from Martine’s gigantic breasts to the current Republican presidential candidates.
It’s all ridiculous, and it works.
“A Doctor in Spite of Himself” runs through March 25 at 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Information: +1-510-647-2949; http://www.berkeleyrep.org. Rating: ***
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(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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