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


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.