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SF Chronicle Editorials Page, Wednesday, January 7, 2004


The Play's The Thing

-- Ruth Rosen


----LIKE MANY PEOPLE, you may feel that live theater is too expensive, too highbrow, requires advanced planning and after all that, often leaves you disappointed.

It's just so much easier to go see a movie.

But sometimes the magic of live drama is affordable, unforgettable and transformative.

That was the dream that inspired Patrick Dooley, in 1992, to create one of the Bay Area's most ambitious small theater groups, the Shotgun Players.

At the time, the 24-year-old Dooley, now the group's artistic director, was working at a north Berkeley cafe and heard that La Val's Pizza, right up the block, was hosting plays for its customers.

So Dooley advertised for actors and soon assembled a core group that included a stripper, a bus driver, a caterer and a legal secretary -- most of whom had no acting experience, and therefore, as he puts it, "no bad habits. "

Inspired by playwright and director David Mamet, Dooley took that artist's mantra as his own: "Always tell the truth -- it's easiest to remember." To Dooley, truth in theater meant "concentrating on the fundamentals of great drama -- strong writing, acting and directing."

To publicize the Shotgun Players, Dooley handed out flyers to customers who frequented the cafe where he served coffee. But it was word of mouth that drew people from all the Bay Area to whatever space Dooley could find for his performances.

Now, for the first time, the Shotgun Players will have their own home at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley.

The timing couldn't be better. In collaboration with the Art Street Theater, Dooley has just mounted a world-class production of Mark Jackson's new play, "The Death of Meyerhold," which has received rave reviews from Bay Area theater critics.

Like most of the audience, I had never heard of Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874- 1940), a Russian theatrical director who flouted Stalinist socialist realism with his avant-garde productions, incorporating mime and musical scores.

By focusing on Meyerhold's life, the play draws us into the epic events of Russian and Soviet history until, that is, Meyerhold is shot in 1940 during one of Stalin's savage purges.

Tell me again, you may ask, why I should care about a Russian director who was killed by Stalin?

Because Meyerhold, like many activists and artists, never imagined that his celebrated zeal to tell the truth would be so severely punished. Because telling the truth in any society, including our own, is always dangerous.

"Though American truth-tellers are not shot," says Mark Jackson, the play's author, "they still suffer from different forms of censorship and are silenced in less obvious ways."

The relevance to our own political moment certainly didn't escape him. During the prologue to the play, the actors ask us to consider the ambiguity of truth -- in the past as well as in the present. "It is the gray that always interests me," Jackson told me.

I will leave it to theater critics to describe the kinetic and convincing acting, the stunning choreography of the actors' movements, as well as Jackson's brilliant writing and directing. All I can say is that I was thoroughly transfixed throughout this superb production.

Like another homegrown masterpiece, "Angels in America," this is a play that deals with big ideas, keeps you mesmerized and leaves you -- days later -- still thinking.

For the price of two movie tickets, you have a rare opportunity to see the kind of play that wins a Pulitzer Prize when it is produced in New York.

Don't miss it.

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