Monday, February 8, 2016

"Little Erik"

Little Erik
Mark Jackson

Jack Wittmayer, Mariah Castle, Marilee Talkington, Joe Estlack & Wilman Bonet
Waves crash with awful fury as their deafening sounds echo all around us, with the flashing shadows of trees dancing in tumult on the stage we as audience surround on three sides.  As the storm dies, a low, ominous, single chord lingers in the air.  That something is afoul is echoed by early dialogue where we hear observed, “It has been odd weather ... so strange ... and it’s not just the weather.”  In Mark Jackson’s world premiere Little Erik, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, nature in all her beauty and wonder, capriciousness and mystery, anger and devastation becomes a major character.  Against that ageless continuity is placed the new phenomenon of technology and its ability also to change the world in an instant’s notice.  People come into play with their self-centered ways, hidden secrets, and inner worlds of doubt and guilt.  Holding everything together – or not --  is the basic family unit where refuge and abandonment,  attraction and repulsion, protection and destruction exist hand and hand.  Aurora Theatre Company presents a captivating and disturbing premiere of a play surrounded by trees and water and engulfed in mounting clouds of jealousy, distrust, and disillusionment.

What should be an idyllic, family weekend in a new vacation home next to a woodsy, coastal river north of San Francisco is hardly starting out too well.  High-tech exec and family bread winner, Joie, sits with blazing thumbs attacking her smart phone and is clearly annoyed by the sudden appearance, yet again, of her sister-in-law, Andi, with overnight bag.  Amidst choppy, tense banter between the two (who do all they can not to look directly at each other), in come husband Freddie and young son Erik.  Freddie, just back from an extended European trip where he was to finish his “great novel on human responsibility,” announces he has had an inner revolution, is now through with words (and thus writing), and is going to devote himself full time to care for their disabled son, Erik – a fatherly devotion we soon learn is something new for him.  After their bubbly architect Bernie arrives and whishes with dreamy eyes Andi down to the river, where Erik on his crutches has already wandered on his own, all hell breaks lose between husband and wife.  Frustrated by Freddie’s non-attention of her sexy body and angered by his sudden career decision, Joie blurts, “All I want is to connect people virtually and fuck you physically,” after also admitting rather matter-of-factly, “You know I never wanted a kid ... He was a mistake.”  And as the fault lines of this ten-year marriage tense to near breaking in shouts and accusations, Andi arrives ashen-faced to announce Erik has drowned.  With that, the floodgate opens for a host of new, ever- rippling confrontations and revelations that shake at the core any remaining sense of the family’s foundation as a unit and as loving, individual members.

Joie is a steely eyed, hard-faced woman who stands in posture stiff and erect; and at the same time, every inch of her slim body in all-black outfit and her bare feet with red hot nails scream a craving sensuality.  There is no doubt what she means or that she does not mean it to the core of her being when Marilee Talkington as Joie looks directly at her husband and says, “I want Erik and Andi out of this house while I harden you and you soften me.”  Later when she begs Freddie in repeated and increasingly intensity to admit aloud, “You’re right, Jo,” her delivery and demeanor are bone-chilling and riveting.  Ms. Talkington takes on a difficult role and gives a stellar performance (and she can throw a mean and convincing punch that must have hurt her victim).

Joe Estlack’s Freddie sneaks upon the audience to uncover who he really is at his core.  At first, we see a happy-go-lucky, somewhat irresponsible guy with a beard and a big smile who revels in excitedly telling his epiphany story about a tree crashing next to him in Norway and leading him to his decision to renounce writing and suddenly take up fatherhood.  His despondence over Erik’s death is visceral yet also with a creepy strangeness about it.  Later, this Freddie too begins to show his darker sides, slowing peeling away the onionskins to reveal deep-seeded anger and resentment that shows up in his tense face, his now-taut body, and his eyes that at one point pierce into Joie like knives. 

Solid performances also are provided by the supporting cast.  Mariah Castle as Freddie’s sister Andi woos us in as an endearing aunt of Erik, as a happy if not naïve thirty-something who may or may not be looking around for Mr. Right, and as a hanger-on who enjoys weekends away at her brother’s wife’s idyllic home.  But Erik’s death shakes everyone’s world, including hers, and the result is Andi dropping her innocent, bystander stance to jump into the fray of family intrigue and secrets, with Ms. Castle transforming convincingly to a different Andi than we first met. 

Greg Ayers is the friend and architect, Bernie, who shows up mostly grinning in an awkward manner  oblivious to the mounting tensions around him and totally intent on winning a ‘promise to get to know each other better’ from Andi.  Young Jack Wittmayer is outstanding in his brief appearance as the crippled Erik.  His crumpled legs and twisted foot do nothing to diminish the totally playful and loving little boy that he is; and his total charm only accentuate the shock of hearing later how his parents talk about him.

Unmentioned thus far but very present is the Rat Wife, a mystical woman of Mexican heritage (in this adaptation), who appears early in the play to seek employment.  Wilma Bonet is mesmerizing as she works her way into the house, much to Joie’s dismay and everyone else’s fascination.  She has an unnatural knack, it seems, of luring rats to a peaceful but sure death in the river and on out to the sea.  Her ominous warning that “Rats are everywhere ... old, fat, angry, happy, loud, quiet ...” portends the unraveling’s about to occur in this household she visits.  She clearly sees with eyes that know something yet unseen by the others, and her appearance out of the foggy bogs will haunt the story as it continues.

Mark Jackson directs his own world premiere, using powerful pauses and silence as well as frenzy and outbursts to great effect.  As she often does, Nina Ball has created a simple but beautiful set, complete with a rope-draped window/door that serves as the division between the natural and the mystical worlds of the play as well as the projection plane for Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky’s effective videos.  Sounds play a big part in this production on many levels, and Matt Stines has designed the underpinning tones and the sudden cacophonies that support and define the action.  Finally, this fine team is supported throughout by the excellent lighting planned by Heather Basarab.

As with any world premiere, everything does not always work the first time.  What seems amiss with Mr. Jackson’s adaptation is his final few minutes.  The natural world underscores the shattering events that have occurred in the story, but the aftermath as relayed in a 911 call is so preposterous that audience members actually laughed, something I do not think the playwright intended.  And to top it off, the final projection and sound effects and their mystical meanings just seem a bit too much.  Ending the play three or four minutes earlier, I believe, would have been more in keeping and more effective.

But, there is no doubt but Mark Jackson and Aurora Theatre Company have scored big in updating Ibsen’s 1894 play into the modern world.  The translation and transition works hauntingly and beautifully.  This is a production to be seen.

Rating: 4 E

Little Erik continues through February 28, 2016 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photo by David Allen

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