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Short plays in ‘Participants’ take on today’s politics

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Dezi Solèy appears in TheatreFirst’s interactive show, “Participants.” (Courtesy Cheshire Isaacs)
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You might guess, by the title “Participants,” that audience interaction is involved.

But, while TheatreFirst’s new production does require at least a modicum of audience back-and-forth (and, if you’re not stubbornly resistant, actually quite a lot), the title refers to the show’s broader theme: participation in the world, community, country, planet etc.

Specifically, Jon Tracy — who took over as “artistic facilitator” of the company recently with new theatrical goals in mind — asked a group of local playwrights to write short pieces, after the presidential election, exploring this question: “Where have we been, what are we doing, and where do we go now?”

Twelve of those pieces appear on this bill, which runs three hours with intermission (including an awkwardly placed middle-of-the-second-act, moderator-led group discussion in which, among other things, we talked about what keeps us from truly being activists).

The audience sits in a circle onstage, with the action playing out in the middle, enhanced by videos and slides on screens on two opposing walls.

The 12 playwrights took wildly different approaches to the prompt.

Some wrote abstractly to the point of opaqueness (Christopher Chen’s one-man “Forest”), others realistically (actor Carl Lumbly’s tense “Eva and Steven,” about a workplace interaction between a white man and the black lesbian woman who got the promotion he wanted).

There are candid solo autobiographical pieces, such as Star Finch’s engaging “Black Woman Playwright,” performed by Dezi Soley, and transgender actor-playwright Skyler Cooper’s “Living Proof,” which is touching but rambling.

Metatheatrical works include Geetha Reddy’s witty “A Hole in the Shape of a Play,” with actor Akash Patel as her onstage avatar, and Octavio Solis’ surprising “Breakaway.”

In comedy, there’s the always hilarious Aaron Loeb’s take on the ways we misunderstand one another, “A Sure Cure Lure Story,” performed by a strong quartet and tightly directed by Elizabeth Carter; and Dipika Guha’s look at Donald Trump on his deathbed.

“Godforsaken,” in which two goddesses greet a young girl who, they hope, will save them from a despot, starts the evening off at such a feverish pitch that it’s hard to feel oriented; the play, by Linda McLean, is potentially intriguing, but suffers from its placement so early on.

Performed by an earnest but uneven 10-member ensemble, each piece with its own director, the evening is bumpy, and at various times I felt hectored, baffled, bored, amused and more.

For better or for worse, “Participants” forces you to at least minimally interact and look within.

REVIEW
Participants
Presented by TheatreFirst
Where: Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 23
Tickets: $15 to $25
Contact: theatrefirst.com

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