Monday, July 25, 2016

"Grand Concourse"

Grand Concourse
Heidi Schreck

Kevin Clarke, Cathleen Riddley,  Megan Trout & Caleb Cabrera
The soup slowly simmers as more and more cut veggies are added to the large pot in the squeaky clean, industrial kitchen.  While the actual brew in this neighborhood soup kitchen never boils over, the metaphorical soup that is stirring in the kitchen run by a nun does begin to bubble, to pop, and eventually to spew as tensions heat up due to mounting disappointments and deceptions.  Along the way in this holy place providing sustenance to the poor, questions arise concerning the real intent of those helping others, how much to trust one’s faith in earthly friendships or heavenly devotion, and if and when forgiveness is just not possible.  Shotgun Players presents Grand Concourse by Heidi Schreck, a well-scripted, masterfully directed, and superbly acted play that begins innocently enough but that keeps pulling back the onion skins to reveal doubts, motives, and secrets that lead to disruptions and decisions impossible to predict in the beginning. 

Cathleen Riddley as Shelley
Shelley is a basketball-playing nun with a beloved cat named Pumpkin who with a grin eschews the expected black and white outfit but who believes so much that cleanliness is next to holiness that she arrives every morning at the soup kitchen (which she manages) to clean again what the night janitor has already done.  As Shelley, Cathleen Riddley never seems to stop chopping, wiping up, and just plain moving fast – that is, except when she pauses with clasped hands in front of the microwave, her chosen alter for timed prayers (one minute now, goal of two minutes soon).  But for some reason, those meditations seem harder for her to pray than one would expect from a woman devoting her full life to her Catholicism. 

The kitchen that Shelley reigns over with a big heart and a whole slew of rules (“Always change your gloves every time you handle a different vegetable”) is also where events are about to happen that unsettle the foundation of who she is and what she believes.  Cathleen Riddley excels and stuns in her abilities to display equally and authentically joy, silliness, and devilishness as well as hurt, anger, and despair.  The sudden sparkles in her eyes, the spontaneity of an unexpected hug, or the jive moves of a couple dance steps give way in time to eyes that send arrows to their prey’s heart, a jaw that ossifies in its firmness, and a heart that explodes into weeping heaves of the chest.

Caleb Cabrera as Oscar & Megan Trout as Emma
Early on, into Shelley’s kitchen arrives a nineteen-year-old woman full of intense eagerness to volunteer but with unclear reasons as to why.  When asked by Shelley what does she want to help, the lanky, rainbow-haired girl meekly answers, “Oh well, them I guess who need help ... and also me.”  The last part of her answer becomes the first of several red flags that Shelley appears to notice but to ignore as she takes this high-energy do-gooder under her wings and sets her to chopping and serving.  Megan Trout skillfully and with ease leads both Shelley and us to see her as sweet, eager-to-please, and even attractively naïve; but her real art as an actor is how she draws everyone around her into traps she sets for deceptions that go undetected.  What is behind the stories she begins to weave and a persona she creates that draws increased attention, sympathy, and love from others?  Are her stories and actions part of a plan, part of being sick, or just part of being a nineteen-year-old spoiled kid?

Part of the web Emma weaves begins to surround Oscar, the affable, upbeat janitor and all-around good guy who works for Shelley.  Oscar is devoted to Shelley and the work they do, eager to better himself for the future, and excited to be in love with his girlfriend, Lydia.  But try as he can, there is something about Emma and her forwardness with him (as well as her good looks) that he finds hard to resist. 

Caleb Cabrera brings much energy, jocularity, heart, and likeability to Oscar.  He moves about with fun in his step, and he lights up like a neon sign when he greets his fellow kitchen inhabitants.  Oscar is the person most upfront with his emotions and thoughts; but he is also one, along with others, who will wrestle if, when, and how to forgive an unexpected deceit.

Kevin Clarke as Frog
Offering both jocularity and sadness to the scene is Frog, an older homeless guy with long white hair and beard and a peddling purveyor of self-made booklets containing his somewhat pointless jokes.  (“Why did the little boy drop his ice cream?  He got hit by a bus.”)  Kevin Clarke is fun to watch as sneaks into the kitchen, grabbing surreptitiously a potato or zucchini to stash in his clutched pouch.  He grabs our sympathies and those of Emma as he describes his struggles to get a place to live and a job interview.  Wracked by past coke dependence, Mr. Clarke’s Frog oscillates from gentle and genial to erratic and explosive.  Through Emma’s persistence and ingenuity, a new beginning for him emerges that looks life is changing ... until it isn’t.

The literal on-stage chopping of many vegetables (all offered to the audience in bags at play’s end) and the figurative unpeeling of the story’s onion occur in a series of many short scenes marked expertly by Heather Basarab’s lighting shifts and shafts that help us discern passing of time, days, and nights.  Nina Ball’s set is immense and authentic as a shiny metallic, appliance-filled kitchen (aided greatly by Devon LaBelle’s shelves of pot and pan props) – a kitchen that includes a set of swinging doors that see a lot of action as actors head back and forth to feed the waiting, unseen hungry.  Urban sounds (including rocks thrown by pesky kids) permeate through imaginary walls thanks to well-executed sound by Matt Stines.  Christine Crook has dressed the principals in manners to accentuate each particular personality and set of peculiarities. 

This script offers twists and turns that ultimately do not end where might be most expected, readying the audience for post-play self-reflections and conversations about motives behind their own volunteering, about times when they have been duped when only trying to do a good turn, or about what it would take for them never ever to forgive.  The skills of the actors to deliver this multi-leveled script are sharpened and given just the right edge by Joanie McBrien’s direction.  Nothing develops too fast to miss it or too slow to become impatient, even though there are so many short scenes and people coming and going from the kitchen left, right, and center.  And the emotions that swell to breaking points are given their time and due to sink in for impact without bringing the story’s flow to a melodramatic halt.

Shotgun Players continues to unveil in this, the 25th Anniversary season, important plays that grab and hold attention and that raise thought-provoking questions.  Regular playgoers are getting to know this repertory cast and to revel in their individually diverse capabilities as actors.  Grand Concourse is yet another winner and can be seen -- should be seen -- as the play continues in repertory with the season’s earlier productions, Hamlet and The Village Bike.

Rating: 5 E

Grand Concourse continues its primary run through August 21, 2016 at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Pak Han.

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