The Avant-garde Hits Alameda
Virago Theatre Pushes Boundaries
When friends meet at the playground with their children, it’s usually to huddle over Starbucks cups and compare notes on whether the pile of dirty laundry trumps the project that’s due for work.
Sometimes, though, something magical happens.
Like the times Angela Dant and Laura Lundy-Paine would meet at the playground at Paden Elementary School, where their children are students. Both women are accomplished actors and directors. Both wanted to continue their theatrical careers. And both considered it nearly impossible to leave their young families to do so.
“We used to talk about finding something challenging enough to take us away from our kids,” says Dant.
“Yes,” echoes Lundy-Paine, “you can do projects, but are they going to be worthy of leaving your kids?”
Apparently, they found the answer. Right there on the playground, not behind closed doors in a boardroom somewhere. These women decided the way to get what they really wanted was to start their own theater company in Alameda.
Dant, opera singer Eileen Meredith, Lundy-Paine and her husband, Robert Lundy-Paine (an actor, director, puppeteer and playwright), founded the company in the summer of 2005, and now the Virago Theatre Company is well into its second season. All of the founders are from Alameda.
The name of their company comes from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, in which a husband beats a “virago,” or strong-willed woman, into submission.
The group prides itself on putting on unconventional, original works and supports play development, often seeking new works by local playwrights.
Virago’s first project, The Threepenny Opera, in February 2006, was a dark piece that was put on as a cabaret show in a studio at the Monart School for the Arts on Encinal Avenue. There were 50 seats crammed into the space, and the show sold out completely for several nights. A reprisal of the show some weeks later at the Masonic Lodge sold out 100 seats.
“Many people said thank you for doing something that I can walk to,” says Laura Lundy-Paine.
In March, the company staged Orphans, a psychological thriller by Lyle Kessler about two orphaned brothers who live in an abandoned row house in Philadelphia. The two kidnap a drunken businessman and try to hold him for ransom.
Orphans was staged at Bridgehead Studios, a former boat-propeller warehouse on the industrial side of Park Street, along the estuary, on Blanding Street. For the audience, there were 40 to 50 chairs set up immediately adjacent to the performance space for an incredibly intimate theater experience.
That type of edgy, dramatic production is what sets Virago apart from other theater groups in Alameda and the Bay Area.
“I think we’re doing something different,” says Dant. “We’re getting away from the traditional community theater repertoire. Why is everyone doing the same Neil Simon? Neil Simon is not challenging enough to take me away from my family.”
Virago, instead, is looking to produce the kind of theater that the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre are doing, says Laura Lundy-Paine.
On June 15, Virago opens its summer season with two one-act shows, both performed in one night. The Death of Ayn Rand, written by John Byrd and directed by Robert Lundy-Paine, is the story of how author Ayn Rand struggles to write her final masterpiece but is interrupted by a series of hallucinations. The other one-act is A Bed of My Own, written by Robert Hamm and directed by Laura Lundy-Paine. It is the story of a man who arrives for an intimate dinner with his ex-wife, only to discover her new boyfriend confined to a bed by illness. Both one-acts feature a bedridden character. Both are comedies, although dark ones.
For Hamm, who also plays the drunken businessman in Orphans, the idea for his play came from real life, when he worked as a substance-abuse counselor. Former clients are represented by the characters in A Bed of My Own, he says.
A former artistic director at Altarena Playhouse in Alameda, Hamm also teaches chess for the Berkeley Chess School. The one-acts will play June 15–July 7 at Rythmix Cultural Works, 2513 Blanding Ave.
And to those who might question whether the Island is cultured enough to support the adventurous efforts of Virago, just check out the playgrounds.
“Through school, I started realizing how many artists are here,” says Dant.
“Oh, it’s rich,” agrees Laura Lundy-Paine. “It’s a very literate, talented crowd.”
Adds her husband, Robert Lundy-Paine: “We all thought, ‘Why are we all leaving Alameda?’ ”