By Adam Brinklow, EDGE, July 4th, 2017
"Splendour" at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre is a play about breaking a vase. Or about breaking a nation. Or about breaking the illusions of four seemingly unlike women. There's a lot going on.
But don't expect the show (written by Abi Morgan, also a screenwriter for movies like "Shame" and "The Iron Lady," and directed by Barbara Damashek, who previously did "American Buffalo" at Aurora) to sort it all out for you.
Rather, it tosses the audience right into the middle of things at a bizarre and ambiguous social call in a stately but foreboding home where absolutely everything is white, beautiful, and useless looking.
(Set designer Michael Locher might have taken notes from "The Monster-Builder" two years ago.)
Too-gracious Micheleine (Lori Holt) is the lady of the house, pressuring everyone to keep convivial. Hardnosed photojournalist Kathryn (Denmo Ibrahim from ACT's "A Thousand Splendid Suns") is here to take a shot of her bigwig husband, who is mysteriously absent.
Ibrahim, we should note, possesses one of the most diverse suites of pensive stares of any actor in the Bay Area. In an alternate dimension, she'd be a good hand at police work, as there's just no way not to flinch at looks like that.
The play initially sticks Holt with familiar material about the obscenity of extreme wealth and power. She's perfectly fine at that role, understanding that essentially everything people like that do is an affection, but it's not a performance with a lot of possibilities.
Only later, when business starts to go sour, does "Splendour" let Holt depart into more interesting realms, asking what happens when a person like her faces reality. The answer -- stark terror -- becomes fascinating.
At first, the vibe in the house seems uncomfortable, but nothing worse than that. Then little things start to crank up the tension.
It's snowing out, but nobody thinks to close the windows. The absence of a maid serves as a brief cause for panic. Fleeting references like "since they bombed the bridge" crop up in the conversation, but the distracted structure of Morgan's script full of fourth wall breaks makes it hard to figure out what's actually being said.
Micheleine's alleged best friend Genevieve (Mia Tagano from "Macbeth" at Berkeley Rep) appears at the door even though it doesn't seem she should need to be here, and nobody notices that she's barely lucid.
(In fact, as the play unfolds, Tagano angles her far-away demeanor into the suggestion that she might be in shock.)
Maybe strangest of all, Kathryn's interpreter Gilma (Sam Jackson from the awkward but excellent "Project Ahab" at Central Works) seems to think that it's very, very important she steal everything in the house that she can possible fit into her pockets.
It's a baffling scenario, but the real catch is that it never really ends. Instead, the scene starts over again, and then again after that.
With each new incarnation, the tone changes. Discomfort turns to. fear. Fear eventually gives way to panic. With every pass, we learn more about who these people are and what's going on outside.
Also, they keep dropping that vase. At the beginning of every scene it's already broken, but then somehow it always manages to break a second time.
The point is there's no use trying to sort "Splendour" into something like chronological sense or figuring out what's "really" happening. The bearings just aren't there.
It's a finicky and frustrating play at first, but Damashek is a capable enough director to turn that to her advantage eventually. The murkiness of the scenario turns into a source of legitimate tension; the less we know, the more we want the centerpiece mystery (why everyone is even here) solved to make sense of the rest.
In truth, when the breakthroughs come they're not quite as intriguing as you'd hope. But by that time it doesn't matter so much, because "Splendour" morphs into something terrifying but engrossing in its final moments.
What happens to people, places, ideas, and memories when life finally pushes too much? In "Splendour," the answer is simple: they break. Not very many stories confront that this honestly. It's enough to take your breath away--or maybe make you hold it indefinitely.
"Splendour" plays through July 23 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., in Berkeley. For tickets and information, call 510-843-4822 or visit AuroraTheatre.org