Saturday, February 2, 2008

'Satellites': ☼ ☼ 1/2 (baub)

We're not so sure about Diana Son's "Satellites," having its World Premiere at Berkeley's Aurora Theater. The subject is a timely one, especially given Danny Hoch's superb "Taking Over," currently running next door at Berkeley Rep, which tangentially covers some of the same subjects.

In Son's story, a mixed-race couple with an infant daughter are moving into an old brownstone somewhere in a traditionally black neighborhood of Brooklyn. The issues they face deal not only with the multilayered story of 21st Century urban gentrification, but more importantly with the difficulties Nina and Miles are facing as they wrestle with their own Korean-American and African-American heritages.

Nina (Julie Oda) is completely overwhelmed by the pressures of trying to juggle her career in architecture, her relationship with her husband Miles (Michael Gene Sullivan), her friendship with Kit (Ayla Yarkut), racism, and, most of all, the searing depth of her bond with her new baby.

It's a tough role for any actress, but something is wrong here. Although Nina's plight is convincingly desperate, director Kent Nicholson seems to insist on having Julie Oda spell out every action, to explain in soliloquy emotions that could be more effectively conveyed with a look or a gesture, especially in a theater as small as the Aurora. The result is that she comes across as rigid.

Perhaps this would be less of a shortcoming if Sullivan's Miles was played with more nuance. It would also be nice if Miles's brother Eric (Darren Bridgett) was either more or less seamy. We long for someone to root for or against here. Nina is the obvious choice, but...

As things are, the people we care about most are the side characters. Reggie (Michael Asberry) is a fabulously charismatic neighbor who lights up the stage each time he enters; Mrs. Chae (Lisa Kang), the Korean nanny Nina has hired, is honest, funny and appealing (the scene when she spoon-feeds Nina her home-made Korean seaweed soup is touching and meaningful); and Kit, Nina's professional partner, is a terrific friend who is trying to cope with her own problems while watching Nina come apart at the seams.

The U-shaped seating of the Aurora Theater (no one in the audience is further than four rows back) brings the actors wonderfully close and you can feel the decay in the fading plaster of the well-designed aging brownstone set. You don't get to exorcise any demons with "Satellites," but you do exit the theater with an interesting take on race and how individuals attempt to work things out for themselves.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ 1/2 (baub)

The SF Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Satellites" half a star for Julie Oda's ability to fight through some stilted direction to bring as much life as she can to the taxing role of Nina; half a star each for Reggie, Mrs. Chae and Kit; and another half star for having Eric get mugged on Rosa Parks Avenue. There are no BANGLES of Praise to be awarded, but one Bauble of Despair: the perhaps unavoidable decision to use tape loops to simulate the baby's wailing. If it is supposed to be grating, it is. Plus, the baby has no face. We kept looking and looking. Two and a Half Stars and one Bauble for Diana Son's "Satellites."

Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Wed-Sun through March 2, 2008

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