Bay Area Theater Review: OUR PRACTICAL HEAVEN (Aurora Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on February 5, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Erin Kohout's Stage and Cinema review of OUR PRACTICAL HEAVEN at Aurora, BerkeleyIt is unfortunate that Our Practical Heaven is a relationship-fueled play, because it was difficult to invest in any of the characters. The two-hour play, now receiving its world premiere at the Aurora in Berkeley, contained one-dimensional characters and lacked a three-dimensional story.

Anthony Clarvoe’s script resulted from Aurora’s Global Age Project, a contest designed to stimulate playwrights to emphasize 21st century living, but while dialogue is germane to modern life, it could only be related to intellectually, not emotionally. One character comments on how “it’s super trendy” to be allergic to yourself:  She is talking about (what the audience infers to be) her autoimmune disease while also referring to our current syndrome-obsessed society. There is also pertinent commentary on environmentalism and familial development. But the grandmother, Vera, hardly speaks without making a comment for comic relief and has a calculatedly poignant scene with her youngest granddaughter right before she dies.  Her death comes as a clichéd turning point in the story and ends without much emotional investment. Aunt Willa, played by Julia Brothers, delivers some pleasant, dry jokes, and Vera, played by Joy Carlin, is successful as the quirky grandmother even though she is not given much to work with, even as there are some humorous moments.

Erin Kohout's Stage and Cinema review of OUR PRACTICAL HEAVEN at Aurora, Berkeley

A dysfunctional family of six women gathers at the grandmother’s house in the woods to watch birds and compress their personal issues. The characters’ development is wafer-thin to begin with, but due to Adam McKelvey’s odd directorial choices, this production has the depth of a made-for-TV movie. The lines were delivered too earnestly, giving little weight to already treacly lines, thereby creating a whiny tone. This style of delivery did seem to resonate with some of the older members of the audience – perhaps the familial situation fulfilled a level of nostalgia for them.

Erin Kohout's Stage and Cinema review of OUR PRACTICAL HEAVEN at Aurora, Berkeley

The youngest granddaughter, Leez, played by Adrienne Walters, is imaginative and likes to share her dreams about living with birds. She is in her late teens but talks as if she is twelve, so it was heavy-handed that she tended to prance around and make bird gestures while telling a story. Walters seemed poised to give a good performance but was led astray. The other two girls from Leez’ generation were meant to be close, sister figures, but their tickling and nestling developed an odd and unintended sexual tension. McKlevey appears to be unfamiliar with what is natural for a group of modern women to do.

Erin Kohout's Stage and Cinema review of OUR PRACTICAL HEAVEN at Aurora, BerkeleyOn the other hand, the director obviously thought through the use of the thrust stage and four exits. It’s a shame the characters were not as layered and deep as his staging. Mikiko Uesugi’s set was the most attractive aspect of Our Practical Heaven at the Aurora Theatre. The backdrop is meant to look like a bird extending off of the floor to take flight, but it reminded me of a bat. The wings on the bird (as well as the stage floor) were a beautiful grey rimmed with black branch shaped etchings.

The backdrop was used as a canvas for Micah J Stieglitz’s projections, which included striking animation that moved around both ground and walls.  Impressionistic landscapes were projected to represent different environments.  The choice was interesting but became cheesy when textbook illustrations, relating to what the characters were discussing, were placed on top of the landscapes. On the other hand, animated fireworks dancing on the landscape created an intriguing blend of visual styles.

Erin Kohout's Stage and Cinema review of OUR PRACTICAL HEAVEN at Aurora, Berkeley

Aspects of the play fall into the trap of trying to be current and clever, but the ideas have not been fleshed out enough to do so. For example, it may have been useful to project onto the backdrop what the youngest characters were texting, but it felt trite and far from the ingeniousness one would expect from twenty-first century theater. Uesugi’s set was marred by drug store flotation devices visibly tied to boards with wheels, which were a big feature in scenes by the lake, during which the girls would sit in them and wheel around, but the floaties were so shoddy and out of place that they would have been humorous if the play were a satire.

Our Practical Heaven is not pushing any boundaries, but it seemed a safe choice for the older crowd that it attracted. In one of the bird watching scenes, the characters Erin Kohout's Stage and Cinema review of OUR PRACTICAL HEAVEN at Aurora, Berkeleycomment on how there are hardly any birds left. Watching Our Practical Heaven is like sitting in a field waiting for a colorful bird to peak your interest, but one never fully appears.

photos by David Allen

Our Practical Heaven
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St in Berkeley
Tues at 7; Wed – Sat at 8; Sun at 2 and 7
ends on March 3, 2013
for tickets, call 510.843.4822 or visit Aurora

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