Learning to grieve the last two years with Sarah Ruhl’s and Theatre Lunatico’s help — Lily Janiak, San Francisco Chronicle

Lily Janiak May 31, 2022

Whenever I write about the playwright Sarah Ruhl, I reach for metaphors related to glass. Her worlds — Eurydice traveling to Hades, straight married couples whose hormones are aflutter with a newcomer, two sisters with opposite feelings about housecleaning — are exquisite and jagged and fragile. If I love them deeply, for their wry whimsy, for their language that’s wild but focused, there’s still something between them and me, as if they’re fairy tales I’m trying to peer at through a window.

Grief suffuses Ruhl’s plays, but not in the teeth-gnashing, chest-beating way that I tend to experience the feeling. Her characters are quiet, quizzical and offbeat with it, funneling the emotion into little gems of lyricism. In Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play,” now in a Theatre Lunatico production, here’s how Tilly (Shawn Oda) describes the feeling of the title: “I would like to die and be reborn as a mushroom. I would like to stay warm and slightly damp. I will release spores now and again when it suits my mood.”

In our own era of grief upon grief upon grief, I found new release in that line; it didn’t feel like a perfect little epigram but like an invitation. It takes sadness and makes something flavorful. Its sadness is generative, which means its sadness has a point — which isn’t how mine usually feels.

Sakura Nakahara as Frances rehearses Sarah Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play” with Theatre Lunatico at La Val’s Subterranean in Berkeley.Photo: Don Feria / Special to The Chronicle

Reading Tilly’s words and then watching Lunatico rehearse, I felt exposed and vulnerable, as if someone had seen my fiercest longings.

– Lily Janiak

In the play, which was written in 2002, Tilly’s melancholy makes everyone she meets fall in love with her. Ruhl, in an author’s note, says that quality distinguishes melancholy from depression, a more isolating condition. I still wasn’t sure I grasped the distinction, so I asked Tina Taylor, who is directing “Melancholy Play” for Theatre Lunatico in Berkeley, what’s so lovable about Tilly’s sadness.

“She wears her heart on her sleeve,” Taylor said. “We all put up a protective shield, and it’s like she doesn’t have one.”

Tilly thirsts. She slurps up her surroundings, never gets full, smacks her lips then delights in the smacking.

“She puts you in touch with that deeper self, she opens that door, and then it’s exposed and vulnerable,” Taylor added.

Director Tina Taylor observes rehearsals of Sarah Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play” performed by Theatre Lunatico at La Val’s Subterranean in Berkeley.Photo: Don Feria / Special to The Chronicle

That’s how I felt, reading Tilly’s words and then watching Lunatico rehearse: exposed and vulnerable, as if someone had seen my fiercest longings. In that state, it’s natural to want someone to stay with you, but that’s not what Tilly does with her therapist, her hairdresser, her hairdresser’s partner, the retinue of would-be lovers. “She moves on, and you’re stuck behind,” Taylor said. “You want to be able to move on, but you’re not ready.”

Tilly thirsts. She slurps up her surroundings, never gets full, smacks her lips then delights in the smacking.

– Lily Janiak

I had an option that Tilly’s lovers don’t, which is to read “Smile: The Story of a Face,” Ruhl’s 2021 memoir about developing Bell’s palsy after the birth of her twins. The condition caused one side of her face to droop. She couldn’t smile or, at first, even blink with one of her eyes. An attempt at a grin yielded only a lopsided grimace.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl with the costumes being made for her play, “Becky Nurse of Salem,” at Berkeley Rep.Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle 2019

This loss was both small, relative to Ruhl’s fear of losing her twins during a complicated pregnancy and birth, and incalculably large. Without a smile, how do you charm strangers and share joy and love with your family? How do you show sympathy and understanding? What substitute language must you develop to perform the myriad social cues, once fulfilled by a smile, that our world requires of women especially? Without a smile, do you start to suppress the urge to smile and then lead a flatter emotional life?

The book, which is also an incisive, vivid account of being a mother and a theater artist in a world hostile to both, is as full of poetic observations as Ruhl’s plays are: “Why is it that people don’t generally grin, showing teeth, while they are painted or photographed naked? Is the smile a stand-in for the body’s own nakedness, and added to a naked body, too much, a hat on a hat?” And: “A man’s injunction for a woman to smile as she walks down the street is not an injunction for that woman to experience joy, but for the woman to notice the man walking toward her. The man feels left out of her interior experience — and he feels entitled to tell her what to feel.”

Director Anne Kauffman (left) and playwright Sarah Ruhl listen to a reading during a rehearsal of “Becky Nurse of Salem” for Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley.Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle 2019

Yet it might be Ruhl’s account of rediscovering spirituality that I return to most. Like Ruhl, I was raised Catholic in the Midwest. In “Smile,” she quotes theologian Serene Jones: “The purpose of prayer is not a thing to be gotten, healed or fixed, but instead ‘a simple but constant practice of consciously lifting up our messy, mixed-up, hard-hearted lives before God, and in doing so, knowing that God is present.’ ”

Instantly, I felt Ruhl could have been writing about theater, too, or just art. We who go to the theater multiple times per week often liken the experience to going to church — the pilgrimage to a specific place at a specific time, the ritual, the rows of seats, the shared will to believe that something not quite of this world happens, the trust that it’s OK to feel something deeply, even among strangers.

Often I walk into a venue hoping what I see that day will somehow fix me or cleanse me. But what’s just as powerful as any script is carving out space and time to do nothing more than witness and receive. In a secular world, art is my grief ritual, and Sarah Ruhl is one of my guiding lights.

Smile: The Story of a Face
By Sarah Ruhl
(Simon and Schuster; 256 pages; $27)

“Melancholy Play”: Written by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Tina Taylor. Through June 19. $5-$40. La Val’s Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. https://theatrelunatico.org

Link to complete article: https://datebook.sfchronicle.com/theater/learning-to-grieve-the-last-two-years-with-sarah-ruhls-and-theatre-lunaticos-help

Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic.

Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com
Twitter: @LilyJaniak

With Love & Heavy Hearts

On February 11, 2022, Theatre Lunatico lost a dear friend and a treasured member of our company—
scenic designer & technical director
Gideon Jones
Gideon was both an artist and an inventor, and a vital part of the growth and development of La Val’s Subterranean. The theater was Gideon’s laboratory and he would tinker whenever he had a spare moment, conceiving and conjuring creative designs and improvements with little more than his innovation and hard work.

Gideon also managed the sub-rentals for the Subterranean and opened La Val’s doors to countless U.C. Berkeley students, actors, and theatre companies from all over the Bay Area. He helped each to transform the space for their productions and fulfill their artistic visions.

Our hearts ache from our own loss, and for the even greater loss felt by his family and close friends. Gideon was humble and creative, wickedly smart, loyal, and strong.

His creativity lay at the heart of all our productions. He quietly made the seemingly impossible happen…
“A physical ensemble theatre company needs a sprung wood floor.”
When we moved into the Subterranean in fall of 2017 with its concrete stage floor, our Artistic Director Tina Taylor said: “I know it’s a ridiculous idea, given our low ceiling, but we really need to install a sprung wood stage.” And while we all shook our heads doubting it was possible, Gideon leapt into action. He researched, conceptualized, and built us a sprung wood floor, even though the dimensions seemed impossible to work with. His ingenuity transformed the space, and we danced on our new stage with disbelief and joy!
Listen to Gideon cheer Shawn on as she tests out the new sprung floor!
“We need a submarine!”
For our production of Kursk, Tina said: “Well, I know this is crazy, but we need to create an immersive experience, so the audience feel like they’re in a submarine. And we need the stage to have four submarine compartments with bulkhead doors between each. And a periscope, we need a working periscope! I know that’s impossible…”

But he did it. Gideon created a set so beautiful, so simple, yet so complex and evocative that he was nominated for a Theatre Bay Area award. He constructed curved metal tubing hatches that were thin enough to not obstruct the view, a bridge with a periscope that could be raised and lowered, a shower room, bunks, and the captain’s quarters—a submarine in a small basement, a set that created a whole world completely out of proportion to its dimensions.
“Dracula needs a coffin.”
Dracula was one of our most popular shows, but it posed some challenges for Tina: “We need a Victorian blood transfusion device, transparent walls revealing Dracula lingering in a ghostly form outside of rooms, and a coffin that Michael can magically appear from and disappear from, and while he’s in the coffin, we need to drive a stake through his heart!”
Not a problem for Gideon. His imagination went into full gear, and he built a transfusion machine with brass levers and arm straps that appeared to transfer blood through a tube from one actor to the other. The coffin had a trap door that Michael could slither in and out of, and Gideon hung ghostly scrims that allowed Dracula to be an ever present threat…
Gideon designed and constructed sets for our last six productions. For Convoy 31000 he used moveable panels to transport us from a Parisian Cafe to the  concentration camp at Auschwitz. For Measure for Measure, an ingenious backdrop of metal bars, chains, and scraps that could also hold props and stools. And for Titus Andronicus, a world beneath a freeway underpass, ominously draped with plastic sheeting and crime scene tape.

We will be creating a gallery of his work at La Val’s where you can read more about Gideon’s legacy with Theatre Lunatico. 

From Artistic Director, Tina Taylor

Above all, Gideon was and always will be our friend. Our dear friend. Essential, vital, a bedrock of our company, who we all love. In a world of traps and footfalls, Gideon was always a rare safe space. A place where you felt seen and understood and taken care of. Where you could talk honestly and swear and curse and rage at this messed up world without judgment, but also where you could laugh at all the quirky ironies that life throws at us and he would somehow make you feel that, despite it all, everything would be okay. He was a magician in that way, too.

So this is how we will remember Gideon and hold him in our hearts. A wonderful magician who always reminded us of what was possible. Our dearest friend who always allowed us to trust that everything would be okay.
At the TBA Awards in 2018

From Shawn Oda & Tina Taylor, on behalf of the Lunatico core company.

Michael Barr
Deborah Cortez
Eileen Fisher
Shawn Oda
Omar Osario-Peña
Lauri Smith
Tina Taylor

Statement on COVID-19 & Black Lives Matter

A warm hello from the Theatre Lunatico core collective; we hope that you are all safe and well.

2020 finds us all in unprecedented times. Just as we were ready to send out an update to you all on our response to the COVID-19 shelter-in-place, we woke to news of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent outrage at yet another black person brutally murdered by police officers.

Since then we have had ongoing discussions within our core company members and with our wider artistic associate community about how we should respond as artists.  We have appreciated the conversations unfolding throughout our wider Bay Area theatre community.

On May 31st, we put out the following statement through social media:

Theatre Lunatico condemns both the overt racism of violent assault and the covert racism of silent complicity. We strive to educate ourselves in how we can be part of the solution, and we work to promote theatre that confronts oppression in all its forms. We stand in solidarity and empathy with our black and brown communities. We demand change now. The world needs all of us – together we accomplish more than divided. Black Lives Matter.

Actions speak louder than words. A statement of support is not enough. Although we have consistently discussed and acted on the need to achieve greater diversity in our company, we have a lot more to do. In our programming we have prioritized stories that represent many aspects of the oppressed experience, addressing racism and misogyny and hate in our work, but we acknowledge that we need to achieve greater cultural diversity in the stories we tell.

We have created a solid body of work at Theatre Lunatico that has successfully shifted women to the centre of all our narratives, providing strong and ground-breaking roles for our female actors and achieving gender parity within our casts and crews. This work will remain essential to who we are as a company; we will additionally strive for greater intersectionality by urgently addressing racial diversity within our company.

We pledge to make constructive changes at Theatre Lunatico to increase our diversity not only within our community of actors, but also within our creative teams, and within the decision-making structures of our company.


These are the pledges that we are making for the year ahead:

  1. We will increase our core company and create a more racially diverse decision-making panel.
  2. Additionally, we will expand our board of directors, and commit to achieving greater diversity across all branches of our organization.
  3. Just as Theatre Lunatico has worked hard during its lifetime to address gender parity in our productions, we make a similar pledge to achieve greater diversity within our casts and creative teams.
  4. We are in discussions about concrete changes to the way that we program our seasons and will make additional announcements with regard to that soon.
  5. We commit to creating a safe place for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) at our auditions and in our rehearsal and performance space.
  6. We will initiate a more proactive process to support and recruit BIPOC by actively reaching out and/or attending the shows they are in.
  7. We commit to make our one-act play festival—originally scheduled for fall 2020 to offer new and upcoming directors the opportunity to direct short pieces on how artists respond during times of extreme oppression—as a platform to prioritize directors from the BIPOC community. We will stage this festival at the Subterranean as soon as it is safe for us to do so. Meanwhile, we will start to program that festival and hope to begin rehearsals, with some online previews of that work in the coming months.
  8. We commit to holding ourselves accountable to these changes, and we will be assessing our progress over the coming months.


Some resources are listed below for anyone wanting to get more involved in the movement to address racism.

While we strive to improve our company’s intersectionality, diversity and inclusivity, we are also working to keep La Val’s Subterranean Theater shipshape and ready to relaunch when we get the green light. We are examining what measures are needed to make it a safe and healthy venue for our returning audiences and renters. We received vital Covid-relief grant money from the City of Berkeley to assist with our rent, and our landlord, the owner of La Val’s Pizza, is supporting our efforts to maintain the Subterranean as a venue for the future. Our company could not have made our huge leaps in growth over the last few years without your support, so we thank you for your patience whilst we navigate these very new waters.

The integrity of our operations both at an artistic and organizational level are vital to us. We welcome your feedback. Please reach out to us with your thoughts at: info@theatrelunatico.org

We hope you are safe, healthy, and taking time to care for your creative selves, and we look forward to seeing you as soon as circumstances allow.

With warm regards,
The Lunatico Core Company

Michael Barr, Deborah Cortez, Eileen Fisher, Nash Hascall, Bezachin Jifar, Gideon Jones, Shawn Oda, Lauri Smith, & Tina Taylor

We See You, White American Theater — a profound statement by 300 BIPOC artists

#JusticeforAhmaud petition — A petition to fire Georgia prosecutors who held up Ahmaud’s case

#JusticeForBre — A petition to fire officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor

Black Mamas Matter Alliance — an advocacy group for Black maternal health

A useful guide on giving to the right charities


Shakespeare’s Roman Empire Strikes New Trumpean Notes

by Barry David Horwitz 

I have always avoided this play. It’s a horror show of grotesque, gory, and ghoulish murders, rapes, and tortures that take place in a fictional late Roman Empire. “Titus Andronicus” sports lots of ranting and raving and mainly, the ever-popular REVENGE, that drips with blood from every speech.

And yet, the play exudes an ominous charm. After all, the power of one man to sway the multitudes and exert his petty, personal selfishness over the entire people makes a pretty familiar story.

In “Titus Andronicus,” the brutal tyrant Saturninus (marvelous Michael Barr) has the power to accuse, imprison, kill, and torture his subjects—the Roman Empire in its dying days has given him that patriarchal primacy.  Yes, it’s Trumpism in all its dismal glory, no mistake. The Emperor even puts children in cages. Saturninus, I mean.

Lucius (Isabelle Grimm) and Titus (Shane Fahy) Photo by Eileen Fisher

[Taylor] “presents indelible stage pictures that embody power, arrogance, and inequality.”

The ruling patriarch, his slimy, scheming family, and his sycophants break out in irrational passions, and practice smash/grab politics at every moment. That’s how Empires operate and then, fail—once they overreach their power. They create false enemies—like the press, and they scapegoat immigrants and minorities.  We are living in the end of an Empire, again. Shakespeare’s play proves it.

While other countries offer free health care, free universities, free housing—we offer jail, beatings, and ignorant vengeance.

Director Tina Taylor has laid out for us exactly what it’s like to live in this Empire. She has worked out physical and ritualistic movements for the actors that express the extreme inequality we live in now, in the U.S. She presents indelible stage pictures that embody power, arrogance, and inequality.

Bassiana (Talya Levine) is separated from Lavinia (Isabel Langen) Photo by Eileen Fisher

Read the full review by Barry David Horwitz at Theatrius

See more photos of TITUS ANDRONICUS in our photo gallery here!


Millennial Notes

Steven Dietz Entices Us with Suspense and Mystery

by Rachel Norby

I thoroughly enjoyed Theatre Lunatico’s masterful presentation of “Dracula.” Performed in La Val’s Subterranean Theater, the setting is intimate and spooky. Whispered echoes from the ensemble add to the eeriness. An ageless story about the vampire who cannot die, Lunatico’s “Dracula” impressed me with superb acting, costuming, and staging.

“Dracula” opens in London, 1897, where serious Dr. Seward (resolute Shoresh Alaudini) has fallen in love with the fickle Lucy (versatile April Culver). Dr. Seward is determined to make a name for himself by understanding what causes the lunacy of a patient in the mental hospital, Renfield (talented Maria Grazia Affinito).  Alaudini perfectly conveys Seward’s stalwart nature, mingled with quiet desperation.

“Superb acting, costuming, and staging”.


Van Helsing and Seward

Eileen Fisher (Dr. Anna Van Helsing) and Shoresh Alaudini (Dr. Seward)

Maria Grazia Affinito, brilliant as Renfield, endears herself to us, creepily, with her desperate loyalty for Count Dracula (sinister Michael Barr). Renfield, the “madwoman,” is constantly on-stage, many times in the shadows, never allowing us to forget that something sinister is lurking in the dark, soon to be revealed.


Maria Grazia Affinito (Renfield)


“The creative team spares no horrors. Bravo to all Lunatico’s”.


Read the full review by Rachel Norby at Theatrius.

See our Dracula production gallery here!


July 9, 2018

Millennial Notes

Shakespeare Says, “Get Over Sex Obsession!”

by Tyler Jeffreys

Think a fusion of Mad Max, The Purge, and The White House all in one. Theatre Lunatico uses Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” to create a surreal post-apocalyptic world. In this world,sex surrounds the citizens but is against the law (unless you’re married).  Scraps and trash hang on the walls along with sharp weapons, the world looks like a violent wasteland. Angelo—he’s no angel– worries about who is having sex, when his world needs a literal environmental clean up job.

Women in supporting roles are the highlights the show. Lucio, a  devious jokester, (boisterous Shawn Oda), frolics and taunts the authorities. It’s refreshing to see a woman  playing such an energetic and sexually charged role as she hits on men and women, alike, energetically.

 “Women in supporting roles are the highlights the show”.



James Aaron Oh (Claudio) & Keara Reardon (Juliet)

Costume designer, Cierra White gives the trickster baggy cargo jeans adorned with pins a mesh top with deathly skull heads. As Lucio, Oda uses Shakespeare’s innuendos to grab her crotch, repeatedly. Having a blast, she thoroughly entertains with his/her over the top physicality.

Jean Cary plays a over-zealous Constable Elbow, a ditsy cop on the prowl for sex criminals. She sports a southern red-neck accent and an American Flag handkerchief. Cary delivers her comic lines so naturally, they sound fresh and news.  Even when she is not talking I can’t help but watch her eyes as she takes in Lucio’s antics. Elbow twitches or bangs her night-stick against the wall in rebellion or agreement. Her comedic timing and heartfelt dialogue light up the stage.

“Cary delivers her comic lines so naturally, they sound fresh and new.”



Read the full review by Tyler Jeffreys


March 18, 2018, Theatrius

Bryony Lavery, Tina Taylor Sing of Seafaring Women

by Barry David Horwitz

The British nuclear submarine silently shadowed the Russian sub Kursk, on 12 August 2000. In fact, there were three subs circling each other, British, Russian, and U.S., each pretending they are not there. The UK and US ships could have helped save 118 men, but they maintained their silence.

If you want to dive below, under the Arctic Ocean, over by Russia in the Barents Sea, then hustle over to La Val’s Subterranean Theater, for a plunge into these icy, enlightening waters.

“Lavery and Director Taylor string a taught bow that chills our blood. “Kursk” makes for disquieting, intense theater.”

KURSK-post explosion

Lauri Smith, Shawn Oda & Melissa Clason. All photographs by Robin Jackson

Down the steep stairs, we join six women in the Trafalgar-Class Hunter-Killer sub, amid the low murmur of engines. Stunning arrangements of aluminum pipes create cramped quarters for six Royal British sailors. Originally written for men in 2009, British playwright Bryony Lavery has left the hatch open for an all-female cast. Director Tina Taylor enters with gusto, bringing Theatre Lunatico magic.

“As they slip and slide through the narrow hatches, circling round ducts and pipes, they evoke the terror of the freezing waters.”


Read the full review by Barry David Horwitz

Purchase tickets

KURSK Opens March 9, 2018!

On a covert mission to the Barents Sea, a British submarine crew witness the sinking of the Kursk. As the crew grapple with how to respond, we become immersed in a poignantly personal story set against the backdrop of a devastating maritime disaster. Written originally for five men, playwright Bryony Lavery has given permission for Theatre Lunatico’s production to be an all-female ensemble.
Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays at La Val’s Subterranean Theatre in Berkeley, CA, through April 8, 2018.
Featuring: Melissa Clason, Eileen Fisher, Jennifer Greene,
Isabelle Grimm, Shawn Oda, & Lauri Smith.
All photographs by Robin Jackson.

“School for Scandal” Satirizes Twitter, Trump, Tech at Theatre Lunatico, Berkeley

November 27, 2017, Theatrius, by Gilad Barach

Director Tina Taylor’s modernized version of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 classic “The School for Scandal” shifts its tone between explosive/ silly, hysterical/ grounded, and jarring/ intimate. Theatre Lunatico has recently moved into LaVal’s on Northside, Berkeley, and they are already at home. They manipulate the small space brilliantly, with a performance built for the place. The tightly packed theater adds to the “Scandal’s” rising tension—with gossip spreading quickly in the intimate space.

Continue reading Gilad Barach’s Theatrius review.