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Tiny Kushner

Rollicking and Wrenching

We usually think of drama as representing an epic struggle between a character and his antagonist, consisting of high stakes, daring acts, and deadly missteps that culminate in an explosive climax. Or we think of comedy, a light-hearted look at those same harsh realities that will allow humankind to continue to bear up under them, filled with subtle wit or outright slapstick.

Tiny Kushner, in its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theater, defies these traditional expectations of drama, providing an evening of incredibly intense yet utterly riveting short plays that combine comedy, tragedy, and tremendous reflections on heavily philosophical themes.

The five short plays that make up Tiny Kushner all feature characters or stories taken from reality, but from that common ground diverge in fascinating ways, using each historical figure or event as a jumping-off point for captivating meditations and wrenching revelations. Each play is not so much an interaction between characters as a collision of ideologies, an exploration of competing worldviews informed, or perhaps challenged, by individual experience.

“Flip Flop Fly!” introduces audiences to Geraldine (Kate Eifrig), Queen of Albania, and Lucia Pamela (Valeri Mudek), a former Miss St. Louis — both of whom actually existed, died in 2002 at very advanced ages, and now meet on the moon. In this bizarre and almost nonsensical play, Geraldine finds herself trying to relate the utter gravity and hardship of her own life to the absurdly pert and positive Lucia Pamela, and only runs up against an impenetrable wall of relentless optimism and slight insanity.

Oddly, the dogged positivity of a woman who claimed a trip to the moon slowly erodes the grim humorlessness of the sour-faced Geraldine, leading to an energetic singing duet accompanied by soft-shoe and accordion.

A wide divergence from “Flip Flop Fly!” is “Terminating, or Sonnet LXXV, or ‘Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein,’ or Ambivalence,” an oddly touching reflection on pain, love, permanence, ambivalence, and tattoos. A patient who has been cast out of his psychiatrist’s practice (J.C. Cutler) entreats the dispirited doctor (Kate Eifrig) to accept him back through raving monologues (requiring awe-inspiring range and stamina) and requests for sex.

J.C. Cutler’s unpredictable lunacy weaves a complicated web in which the good doctor seems ensnared, unable to extricate herself despite her own suffering. Kushner’s insights into insanity and depression here are both humorous and stirring.

Hitting a much lighter note is “East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: a little teleplay in tiny monologues,” the third of the five plays, and perhaps the most unlike the other four and the most demanding in terms of acting ability. This is not to say the other plays are not incredibly demanding; all of them require Herculean acting chops, talent, stamina, range, etc. Jim Lichtscheidl here brings to life, by himself, 23 distinct characters, all involved in one way or another with a tax-evasion scheme that actually occurred in the 1980s and counted among its participants a number of New York City employees, including police officers.

Lichtscheidl, sliding seamlessly between characters from a wide range of ages, races, classes, and political ideologies, gives an outstanding performance and flashes of personal insight into one of the most outrageous tax-evasion schemes to surface in the United States. A little long, but utterly entertaining.

The fourth play is return to the psychiatrist-patient exchange in “Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise.” The psychiatrist here, though, is Metatron, the Heavenly Scribe (Kate Eifrig), who is in session with his (now dead) patient, Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker (J.C. Cutler) — psychiatrist to Richard Nixon. Amidst discussions of Nixon’s therapy and inquiries into Hutschnecker’s own odd fixations occurs one of the funniest moments in Tiny Kushner — an absolutely priceless Nixon impersonation in which J.C. Cutler, with flapping arms and perfect growling Nixon voice, will have audiences on the floor.

The performance ends with “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,” in which Laura Bush (Kate Eifrig) reads Dostoevsky’s imposing tome, The Brothers Karamozov, to a classroom of dead Iraqi children presided over by an angel (Valeri Mudek). An utterly beautiful but haunting meditation, or perhaps confession, follows, with Laura Bush making keenly felt personal observations about death, freedom, moral ambiguity, and crushing guilt. Perhaps no other monologue, not even from Shakespeare, is as affecting, as stunning, and as profound.

The plays offer little external action, sparse sets, and only four actors who wear the same costumes throughout. Nothing happens in the regular sense of the word — no swashbuckling swordplay, no violent deaths occurring onstage, no earth-shattering triumphs or miserable failures; only words, thoughts, reflections, conversations. The action is almost entirely internal, but that makes the plays no less stirring, no less exciting, and no less momentous.

Berkeley Repertory Theater
Runs through November 29th
Tickets: $27-$71