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Oakland Tribune, October 3, 2006


Shotgun's 'Lorin' brings a neighborhood to beautiful life

-- By Chad Jones

EVERY neighborhood has a million stories to tell, if only someone could be bothered to tell them.

That's the beauty of Shotgun Players' astounding "Love Is a Dream House in Lorin," a world-premiere play by Oakland native Marcus Gardley (now a creative writing teacher at Columbia University) that attempts to condense centuries of one neighborhood's history into a sprawling 2 1/2-hour show.

That Gardley, working with director Aaron Davidman (artistic director of San Francisco's Traveling Jewish Theatre), succeeds so admirably makes "Lorin" a major Bay Area theatrical event.

This is community theater in the best — and truest — sense of the word.
With a cast of 31 performers, many of whom are from the neighborhood and make their theatrical debuts here, the Ashby Stage (located in the heart of the Lorin District) is full to bursting.

To tell a story about a neighborhood without a crowd would be pointless. Community and connection is what it's all about, after all.
At the center of Gardley's story is a house (spare, effective set design by Lisa Clark), a Victorian built in the late 1800s by a man named Harmon, who built dozens of the area's first homes.

The year is 1988, and a young mixed-race couple, Russell (David Stewart) and Adeline (Emily Rosenthal), are thinking about buying the fixer-upper so they can think about starting a family.

A random act of violence in the dicey neighborhood nearly crushes their dreams, but the family persists. An amusing variety of neighbors (the hippie activist, the vegan, etc.) helps ease the crisis, but the most helpful person is offbeat older lady Aunt Woolsey (Jeannette DesBoine), who knows — and shares — a whole lot about the history of this old house.

We jump back and forth in time to learn about the Ohlone Indians who first settled the land and see a woman called Ohlone (Diana Gutierrez) become the love of the god Coyote (a zoot-suited Brian Rivera).
We also visit Harmon (Jeff Trescott) and his construction crew as they build the Victorians along with Harmon's eccentric wife (Susan Wansewicz), who tries to burn one down.

One of the primary owners of the home is a Japanese immigrant who adopts the name Rufus McGee (Christopher Chen as young McGee and Sterling Greene as the adult). His mail-order bride (Yoonie Cho) is named Lorin after the neighborhood, and she tells us all about how the Japanese residents of the neighborhood planted plums trees to make traditional pickled plums.

The McGees also take us through World War II and the experience of losing their home when they are shipped off to a Japanese internment camp.

From the McGees, the house passes along to an African-American family headed by King (D. Anthony Harper), his wife Milvia (the radiant Allison L. Payne) and their twin sons, Prince (Rashumel Oxley as a kid, Eric Burns as an adult) and Ellis (Nicholas Guillory, Roy Ellis).

This family takes us through the 1950s and '60s and into the '70s as the neighborhood undergoes change after change.

Each story echoes louder and louder as "Lorin" moves up to the present, and we watch two younger members of the 'hood ("It's not the ghetto, it's extra-urban," a realtor says of Lorin) find a little piece above the violent, turbulent fray.

Not enough can be said for director Davidman's direct, no-nonsense staging, which incorporates some extraordinary a cappella musical passages (including a rousing "Oh Happy Day" church sequence).
The show moves beautifully, and the wide array of performers rise to the challenge with not a weak or uninteresting performance in the lot.
Best of all, "Love Is a Dream House in Lorin" captures the human experience in ways that make the specific universal. The focus may be on a South Berkeley neighborhood, but it's really the story of this country — about the so-called progress of American civilization, about how race affects the way we live andabout our need for community.
All the show's time-bending and shifting comes together in the end to create an incredibly moving, even exhilarating, portrait of life at its worst and best.

"Love Is a Dream House in Lorin" goes deep but never forgets to entertain as it revels in the ancient communal art of storytelling.
We should all care this much about our neighborhoods — and each other.

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