Aurora Theatre Company Stages THE LETTERS, Now thru 5/25
Aurora Theatre Company presents its first fully staged production in the company's second stage performance space, Harry's UpStage. Award-winning Bay Area auteur Mark Jackson returns to the company to direct this sixth addition to the season, the Professional Bay Area Premiere of John W. Lowell's suspenseful psychological thriller THE LETTERS, featuring Beth Wilmurt (The Eccentricities of a Nightingale) and Michael Ray Wisely (The Arsonists). THE LETTERS plays today, April 17 through May 25 at Harry's UpStage, located in the Nell and Jules Dashow Wing at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets ($28, 32) and information the public can call (510) 843-4822 or visit auroratheatre.org.
A nimbly executed game of cat-and-mouse, THE LETTERS, dubbed "a duel of wits at the crossroads of art and politics" by the Los Angeles Times, and "a personal, Pinteresque dance of menace" by the Chicago Tribune, is a riveting two-person drama that lays bare a vivid slice of paranoid life under Stalin. Set in a 1930s Soviet era office, the director in a nameless government agency engages in an "interview" with one of his employees. Anna, a demur buttoned-down servant of the state, has no idea as to why she has been called into the office of her superior. She is wary and tight-lipped, as her job, the systematic practice of censorship and disinformation, has taught her to take nothing at face value. As she tries to figure out the reason for the meeting, details gradually begin to emerge and suspicions are directed towards her. The director seems to have a hidden agenda, or is it Anna who has an agenda of her own?
When asked about what prompted him to write THE LETTERS, John W. Lowell said, "the Monica Lewinsky scandal was unfolding just as I was reading a biography of Tchaikovsky in which the author asserted that the Soviets had employed editors to remove any hint of Tchaikovsky's homosexuality from the man's letters and private papers. Both things represented a scary, insidious reality: the state felt it had a right to intrude into the most private of private matters." For Lowell, "the play came to be about the interests of the state vs. the interests of those who wanted to keep the record straight, so to speak." Although THE LETTERS takes place in the Soviet Union, it is not about the Soviet Union. According to Lowell, "It is about what happened this morning and what may happen tomorrow." With controversies of American government surveillance continuing to unfold, and the recent Russian bill banning the spreading of propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations, THE LETTERS provides an unsettling reflection of our current times.
Award-winning director, performer, and playwright Mark Jackson returns to Aurora Theatre Company, where he helmed the company's lauded productions of The Arsonists, Salomania, Metamorphosis, Miss Julie, and Salome, to direct THE LETTERS. His most recent directorial projects include Bonnie & Clyde at Shotgun Players and The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Marin Theatre Company. Additional directing credits include Woyzeck, God's Plot, Shakespeare's Macbeth, The Forest War, The Death of Meyerhold, and his adaptations of Schiller's Mary Stuart and Goethe's Faust Pt1, all performed at Shotgun Players. Additional productions include The Companion Piece at Z Space, Yes, Yes to Moscow at Deutsches Theater Berlin (Germany) and the San Francisco International Arts Festival, and his original play American $uicide at Encore Theatre Company. The Death of Meyerhold garnered a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Original Script in 2003, which Jackson also received in 2002 for his original one-man show I Am Hamlet. Jackson was the founding Artistic Director of Art Street Theatre, for which he wrote and directed a number of plays. He was a 2005 German Chancellor Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and a 2003 playwright in residence at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program; he spent the autumn of 2013 as playwright in residence at the English Theatre Berlin in Germany.
Aurora Theatre Company has assembled an extraordinary duo for THE LETTERS. Beth Wilmurt returns to the Aurora as Anna. She was last seen on the Aurora stage in the company's productions of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Jack Goes Boating, Bosoms and Neglect, and Salome. She most recently appeared in Marin Theater Company's production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Companion Piece at Z Space Studio/Encore Theatre Company, and recently directed Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness for Shotgun Players, of which she is a company member. Additional credits include American $uicide at Encore Theatre Company, The Death of Meyerhold at Shotgun Players, Schrodinger's Girlfriend at Magic Theatre, and productions at Word for Word and Crowded Fire, among others. Wilmurt is a founding member of Art Street Theatre.
Also returning to the Aurora stage is Michael Ray Wisely as The Director. Wisely previously appeared in Aurora's productions of The Arsonists, Trouble in Mind, The Devils Disciple, and The Birthday Party; additional credits include productions at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, TheatreWorks, Magic Theatre, Shotgun Players, Marin Theatre Company, San Jose Stage Company, Center REPertory Company, Marin Shakespeare Company, and American Musical Theatre of San Jose, among others. Recent credits include Ideation at San Francisco Playhouse and Macbeth at the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.
In addition to THE LETTERS, John W. Lowell is the author of The Standby Lear, Sheridan Square, Autumn Canticle, Leo Tolstoy Is In The Next Room Dying, Two Women In A Garden, The Genius Of The System, The Great Purim Adventure of Chip Malibu, Taken In, Rensselaer, and the GLAAD-nominated Autumn Canticle. His works for the stage have been seen at the Walnut Street Theatre, Celebration Theatre, Eureka Theatre, San Jose Stage, The Acting Company, and Circle Repertory Company, and in London, Lima, Peru, and Melbourne, Australia.
Located in the Dashow Wing at Aurora Theatre Company, Harry's UpStage is the company's second stage performance space. Longtime Aurora subscriber and supporter Harry Weininger passed away in May 2010; his family, who knew of his dedication to Aurora, wanted to honor him and made a generous donation to Aurora to outfit the Dashow with a new lighting package, curtains, a stage, and furniture. Harry's UpStage is used for live cabaret and second stage events at Aurora.
Voted Best Theater Company in 2012 by SF Weekly, Aurora Theatre Company continues to offer challenging, literate, intelligent stage works to the Bay Area, each year increasing its reputation for top-notch theater. Located in the heart of the Downtown Berkeley Arts District, Aurora Theatre Company, declared "one of the best regional theaters around" by 7x7 magazine, has been called "one of the most important regional theaters in the area" and "a must-see midsize company" by the San Francisco Chronicle, while The Wall Street Journal has "nothing but praise for the Aurora." The Contra Costa Times stated "perfection is probably an unattainable ideal in a medium as fluid as live performance, but the Aurora Theatre comes luminously close," while the San Jose Mercury News affirmed Aurora Theatre Company is "arguably the finest small theater in the Bay Area," and the Oakland Tribune stated "it's all about choices, and if you value good theater, choose the Aurora."