“This is not a play,” announces playwright-performer Heidi Schreck at the beginning of her new and engaging performance piece/lecture/debate, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s final show of the season. She adds, “We don’t know what’s going to happen… ”
Actually, they — she and excellent director Oliver Butler and her two co-actors — do know, most of the time.
The 90-minute, metatheatrical, partly interactive piece is artfully constructed, although small sections are at least somewhat improvised in response to the zeitgeist of the moment; the finale, for example, differs nightly, chosen by the performers from among several possibilities.
Despite the solemn title — taken from the theme of an American Legion-sponsored nationwide speech and debate contest in which Schreck, as a 15-year-old, competed in order to earn money for college — the show is not only educational (do you know what all the clauses of Amendment 14 are about?), but also gratifyingly entertaining.
That’s because Schreck gracefully weaves strands of history, politics and her own personal story (and those of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother) into a Talmudic examination of our Constitution in surprising, sometimes humorous, ways. And because she’s such a guileless and charismatic actress.
The over-arching framework is a quasi-re-creation of that long-ago competition.
In her reconstruction, she explicates her favorite amendment, the Ninth (certain rights shall not “be construed to deny or disparage others”; it leaves room for the idea that “who we are now may not be who we will become,” she says) and then is required to deliver an instantaneous speech about a (supposedly) randomly selected amendment (that’s where the 14th, which has to do with citizenship and representation, comes in).
Within that loose framework she moves in and out of her present-day self, focusing especially on the plight of women: “Violence against women is baked into our culture,” she says. Her text altogether feels painfully relevant.
She also allows space for the wonderful actor Danny Wolohan, sitting impassively onstage as an American Legionnaire, to tell a personal story of his own.
Toward the end, she brings on a local teenager, the talented Anaya Matthews (alternating with Wisdom Kunitz), for a spirited and polished debate about the Constitution, which pulls all the strands together.
Schreck’s erudite commentary, enhanced with recorded remarks by several judges, is overwhelming at times, but intellectually and emotionally challenging throughout.
What the Constitution Means to Me
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdsays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes June 17
Tickets: $30 to $97
Contact: (510) 647–2949, www.berkeleyrep.org