An airplane hangar in Oakland is an unlikely, yet perfectly appropriate, setting for a pair of invigorating military-themed shows presented by the relatively new Ubuntu Theater Project, a group of East Bay artists collaborating with UC San Diego theater and dance graduate students.
With a truly thrilling presentation of Tim Price’s “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning” and the equally provocative one-person play “Grounded” by George Brant, these Ubuntu players clearly are fulfilling their mission to connect people via diverse and affordable theater in their second “Breaking Chains” festival. (Other plays in Oakland and San Francisco running through next week round out the programming.)
Eight agile, incredibly versatile actors make up the workshop presentation of “Bradley Manning,” a fast-paced, emotional and intense series of pithy episodes from Manning’s life directed by Michael Socrates Moran with finesse and heart.
Throughout the highly charged, choreographed piece, the male and female actors, clad in matching camouflage shirts and jeans, trade off portraying Manning, pulling out horn-rimmed glasses as each takes on his character.
The vignettes cleverly alternate between Bradley’s difficult life as a youngster in a schoolroom in Wales and later, as he negotiates other tough issues: being a computer-savvy nerd, gay, underemployed, and finally, an iconoclast in the U.S. military is who is ultimately imprisoned.
Using only a few dozen crates, some computer keyboards, manila folders and papers, the ensemble – Francisco Arcila, MacGregor Arny, Hannah Corrigan, Kourtni Gouche, Walker Hare, Michael Turner, Luis Vega and Emilie Whelan – deftly tells the story of the controversial figure who leaked classified documents. More enlightening and touching than any news account, the show also happens to play like a movie thriller.
Directed by Whelan, the less-flashy solo piece “Grounded” has a slightly quieter tone, although it builds to a powerful conclusion. Although at a few points it was difficult to hear Heather Ramey in the vast space of the hangar on opening night, she was quite convincing as a fearless fighter pilot who is forced to trade her life in the air for a dreary Nevada desk-job flying drones in Afghanistan after she becomes pregnant and has a child.
Perhaps the only downside of this delightful, site-specific “Breaking Chains” presentation (bonus: the Oakland Aviation Museum showcases real aircraft) is the three-hour heft of the package. Each of these productions stands on its own as a satisfying theatrical experience.
The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, Grounded
Presented by Ubuntu Theater Project
Where: Oakland Aviation Museum, 8252 Earhart Road, Oakland
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Wednesday and Sept. 26
Tickets: $15 to $25