Shotgun Players present Josh Kornbluth in the engaging “Citizen Brain.” (Screenshot)

Shotgun Players present Josh Kornbluth in the engaging “Citizen Brain.” (Screenshot)

Magic captivates with Churchill’s ‘Escaped Alone’

Kornbluth amuses again in ‘Citizen Brain’

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The Magic Theatre’s audio production of Caryl Churchill’s captivating “Escaped Alone” is so beautifully acted by an ensemble of four women and so carefully directed by the Magic’s outgoing artistic director Loretta Greco, that there’s only one disappointment: You can’t see it.

It was originally scheduled to be staged this season; if only the Magic had Zoomified it!

But with the atmospheric sound design (by Jake Rodriguez, with music by Jason Stamberger) and the expressive and individually distinctive voices of the four polished actors — Anne Darragh, Anne Hallinan, Elizabeth Benedict and Julia McNeal — it’s nevertheless a rich and intense 45 minutes.

Magic Theatre has created a riveting audio production of Caryl Churchill’s “Escaped Alone.” (Courtesy Marc Brenner)

Magic Theatre has created a riveting audio production of Caryl Churchill’s “Escaped Alone.” (Courtesy Marc Brenner)

Four British women (Churchill specified they be at least 70) gather for tea to chat and reminisce, in Churchill’s fragmented, elliptical, hyper-realistic style. Maybe due to audio technology, the actors never actually interrupt or cut each off as I believe Churchill intends, but that’s the only flaw in this stellar production.

Sometimes we hear their interior thoughts as well, and that’s the best part of the play: exquisite little monologues that are funny, heartbreaking, powerful.

One woman murdered her husband long ago and served time for it, another has a major cat phobia (“I need someone to say there are no cats!…I have to believe there are no cats!”).

Muses another, “I’d rather hear something bad than something good. I’d rather hear nothing.”

Non-sequiturs, mundane observations, existential angst, genteel jokes, simmering and then explosive rage, regret, yearning — everything that’s human — is encapsulated right here.

At one point, the four burst into a sweet, lilting rendition of “Da Doo Ron Ron” that’s so harmonious, so delicate, that it feels like a little respite from life’s agonies.

Woven throughout is a surreal narrative. One of the women, her voice calmly matter-of-fact, describes an environmental disaster that has decimated the planet: “Villages vanished…some died of thirst, some of drinking the water…the obese sold slices of themselves…the virus mutated…” It’s grotesque and conjures a sense of dread that feels of the moment (although the play was first produced in 2016).

The deft way that Churchill juxtaposes such dystopian images with the external and internal lives of these ordinary women is both unsettling and deeply affecting.

“Escaped Alone” streams through Nov. 15; tickets are $10; visit magictheatre.org.

Kornbluth amuses again in ‘Citizen Brain’

To follow one of Berkeley-based performer Josh Kornbluth’s extended monologues, as he wends his way cheerfully through a personal life journey, is sheer pleasure.

This latest, “Citizen Brain,” a Shotgun Players production, has no visible audience of course, but Kornbluth is so funny and open and warm that even though he’s basically just a talking head onscreen for about 70 minutes (with help from occasional animation and sound design), he creates a sense of intimacy. We’re with him as examines the concept of empathy in his usual amusingly roundabout way.

As he embarks upon this latest quest, we follow his thought processes — theories, light-bulb moments, metaphors, jokes, self-effacing confessions—from his first excited ideas to his ultimate conclusion. What may seem like digressions never really are; the show is air-tight.

“Revolution is my thing,” he declares at the outset. Yet, never a good science student (as he reveals in an earlier show, “The Mathematics of Change”), he finds himself applying for a year-long fellowship at, of all places, the local Global Brain Health Institute, committed to designing a pilot project that will, in some creative way, enhance brain research.

Many strands of his life converge in “Citizen Brain,” which is directed by Casey Stangl, with playwright Aaron Loeb as dramaturg. There’s his union-organizer stepfather, dying of Alzheimer’s. There are his communist parents, who raised him in an old leftie, unreconstructed Stalinist bubble in New York. There are the new things he’s studying about the brain during his fellowship, and his amazement at learning there’s actually an “empathy circuit” in the cerebral cortex.

Kornbluth’s storytelling is full of a sort of intellectual suspense. “I’ve arrived at a new understanding of revolution,” he exclaims early on, “through the study of brain science!”

Midway through, he wonders, “Could it be that our country has dementia?” Do we have a collective “citizen brain”?

And later: Has our citizen brain’s empathy circuit gone dark?

By the end, when he’s ready to finalize his pilot project, he realizes that…

Well, with Kornbluth, the fun of it all is to follow him step by step.

“Citizen Brain” streams through Nov. 8; tickets are $8-$40; visit shotgunplayers.org.

Jean Schiffman is a San Francisco freelance arts journalist specializing in theater.

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