Nicole Parizeau’s play “The Human Ounce,” the 66th world premiere to be produced by Berkeley’s intrepid little Central Works, begins in media res.
When it opens, museum educator Jory (Champagne Hughes) has already ordered that the latest painting, which is about to be exhibited at the museum where she works, be promptly removed. She has just discovered that the famous 19th-century artist was, as she says, “a serial pedophile.” To Jory, there’s no wiggle room. It’s a matter of moral imperative.
But with the arrival of her colleague, curator Biz (Kimberly Ridgeway) — a cool and collected presence in contrast to Jory’s impassioned excitability — the debate begins immediately, and for quite a while it’s an intellectual one. Were they to remove the painting, says Biz, “people would scream censorship.”
That’s just one of the many political, financial, practical, logical and artistic reasons that Biz, eyeing Jory skeptically but calmly, puts forth to bolster her absolute refusal to remove the artwork.
“You can’t write people out of history,” Biz says, at one point wondering, facetiously (as they both cite brilliant and creative men who’ve contributed to the culture but who, as individuals, were loathsome, and from present-day perspective, criminal), “Do we strip the galleries to show only the work of Mother Teresa? Besides, we can’t know everything about every artist throughout history.”
“Character matters,” declares Jory. “It’s the most important thing.”
Amid the increasingly intense exchange, museum staffer Dodge (an engaging Don Wood), who has arrived with a ladder to remove the painting as Jory ordered, is a low-key, humorous presence. “I’m Switzerland here!” he protests as the battle escalates.
With Biz and Jory both entrenched in their opposing positions, things inevitably turn personal.
The issues over which the two women argue could not be more relevant, of course (there’s a mention of Harvey Weinstein), but Parizeau digs deep and never panders to either side or to any contemporary movement, such as #MeToo. One can imagine that the debate she so adeptly dramatizes will rage on throughout the ages.
Central Works director Gary Graves adeptly stages what could be an entirely static piece, moving his actors around the tiny, bare playing area in ways that are at times slightly stylized but also feel entirely natural.
Initially hesitant, Ridgeway soon enough comes into her own, exhibiting a quiet, focused strength, and Hughes is convincing as the explosive Jory but ought to tone down her performance. Her inner life is rich and full, so screaming is unnecessary and even off-putting in the small space.
Central Works is always entirely about the text and the actors, and “The Human Ounce” is a fine example of how well a stripped-down production can work.
If “The Human Ounce” is a neatly structured intellectual exercise, Sara “Toby” Moore’s “The Supers” is, if anything, the exact opposite. Moore calls it “the world’s first clown opera” — but without words or song, except for a few phrases that can be discerned, here and there, amid the clownly gibberish.
In it, a quartet of anxious, easily startled space travelers (Kaylamay Paz Suarez, a tiny ballerina in a pink tutu; Maureen McVerry as a flustered but proper lady in red; gangly Guilhem Milhau in a fright wig; and DeMarcello Funes) are apparently on their way to planet Earth.
Moore appears briefly early on as a benevolent and beloved figure, perhaps a guide, in baggy pants with goggles on her head, then disappears, only to reappear and save the day in magical ways at the end, when the foursome has struggled through the disorientation and fear that Earth seems to offer.
Playing out on Z Space’s expansive stage, this is an imaginative multimedia piece, with an upstage screen that projects everything from starry skyscapes, to animated videos (by director Colin Johnson) that sometimes quasi-mirror the actions unfolding on the stage below, to giant silhouettes of the players themselves.
Throughout, in lieu of text and amid the chatter and babble of clown-speak, composer Rob Reich’s score effectively evokes inter-galactic superhero movies.
Apparently on Earth at last (if the clowns are confused, so too may be the audience), the travelers are housed in a ramshackle, moveable hotel of sorts (set designers Katie Whitcraft and Jacqueline Bugler). Nearby, a designated Mean Man (rubbery-faced Adam Roy), with a nervous sidekick, Waldo (Joel Baker), is a menacing presence.
Chaotic and perplexing but at times affectingly melancholy (the image of the clowns, each sequestered alone in a tiny hotel room, is poignant), “The Supers” showcases the skills of the impressive cast, under Johnson’s tightly choreographed direction. Circus feats — acrobatics, juggling and the like — are on display, as well as highly accomplished physical theater skills.
And some moments, such as a mysteriously ringing telephone, and an effete, conflicted Waldo wafting about, resonate.
But on the whole, amid the bustle and babble, and despite strong performances all around (although Moore’s warm onstage presence is all too brief), this superhero saga doesn’t have the pure emotional impact of some of Moore’s simpler shows.
Presented by Circus Center
Where: Z Space 450 Florida St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 29
Tickets: $15 to $55
Contact: (415) 626-0453, circuscenter.org/supers