Melissa Hillman likes to wear many hats: artistic director of Impact Theatre, teacher with a dramatic arts PhD from Cal and self-proclaimed nerd. Above all, Hillman is also a mother. Not that her responsibility to her sons overrides everything, but she approaches all roles with the maternal instinct to help others grow. On the timeline of her motherhood, Hillman mused, “Impact was my first baby, and then I had my second baby after that in 1998 … So I had Jacob, Jonah and Impact Theatre. Those are my babies.”
After spending twelve years at Impact Theatre, which performs at La Val’s Subterranean in North Berkeley, Hillman is nothing less than the small, nonprofit theater company’s matriarch. Impact Theatre began in 1996 at Au Coquelet Cafe (auspiciously, where your correspondent met with Hillman), with the group founded by Josh Costello as artistic director and Hillman as the associate. Hillman identified that at the time, there lacked a “space for emerging playwrights who weren’t getting a lot of play on the national scene, but were speaking honestly about the lives of younger Americans.” From the start, Impact’s mission was to create productions that resonate with younger audiences, insisting on low ticket prices and encouraging new artists.
Over time, with Hillman’s cultivation, Impact has fostered a reputation for revamping Shakepeare plays with bold interpretations targeting the “under 40, ethnically diverse, GLBT” Bay Area audience. While most non-English lit and theater majors probably regard Shakespeare as obscure high-culture, Hillman makes her adaptations accessible: “We love Shakespeare. It’s done in a boring way a lot, and we wanted people to see that it’s not boring — that it’s awesome.”
In a style unofficially dubbed “action-film Shakespeare,” Impact fills the Bard’s high emotions with hardcore fight choreography. The more archaic language has been edited by Hillman with a fine-toothed comb to be comprehensible to modern ears. Audiences can enjoy the performance with beer and pizza.
Indeed, Impact’s opening of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” last Saturday night was thrillingly violent. “Titus Andronicus” is set near the end of the Roman Empire, those hedonistic days when revenge was extracted in the most brutal ways imaginable. In this play, heads, hands and tongues are chopped off, daughters are raped and sons are cooked up into meat pies. And like most good ol’ fashioned Shakespearean tragedies (semi-spoiler alert), almost every significant character dies at the end.
Through Hillman’s vision, the play gets a welcome contemporary update, blasting heavy metal and ruthless politics. Costume designer Miyuki Bierlein dressed Titus (Stacz Sadowski), the titular general returning from a successful war against the Goths, and his offspring in military fatigues and assault rifles. There’s an inspired use of a television in Anne Kendall’s scenic design, which hosts a CNN-style debate between rivals for the throne, Saturninus (an overly sleazy Mike Delaney) and Bassianus (an upright Maro Guevara), mediated by tribune Marcus Andronicus (Jon Nagel).
Surprisingly, as much as “Titus Andronicus” is notorious as a sensational bloodbath (and therefore considered one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays), Hillman was attracted to how parenthood motivates the story’s primal passions. After much goading by fans of Impact Theatre, Hillman reread the script and realized that becoming a mother had changed her relationship to the play: “I realized it’s about, ‘If you harm my child, I will destroy everything about you — even if I have to immolate myself in the process!’ I was like, ‘Oh, now I know what this play is about.’”
The cycle of avenging childrens’ deaths becomes increasingly twisted as the story progresses. In the first scene, Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, played with electrifying intensity by Anna Ishida, screamed piercingly when Titus executed her eldest son as retribution for his sons’ deaths in the war. Needless to say, the play’s most dramatic gravity fell on the rape and mutilation of Titus’s daughter, the virginal Lavinia (Sarah Coykendall), by the Queen’s malevolent sons (Mark and Michael McDonald). Acts of cruelty are made terrifying not so much by stage blood and bandaged arm stumps (those only go so far on a limited budget), but more so through Hillman’s stage direction and fight choreographer Dave Maier’s efficient violence.
With Impact’s open door to emerging actors, former students of Hillman’s CSU East Bay classes were given opportunities to shine. Namely, Reggie White was given a juicy role as Aaron, whose speeches on his dark skin color (Aaron is a Moor) echo current discrimination. For Hillman, her teaching gigs at Berkeley Digital Film Institute and Berkeley Rep School of Theatre blend into Impact’s role as a career launchpad for young artists.
But the biggest rewards for Hillman come from small acts. Fresh from the adrenaline of the previous night’s sold-out opening, Hillman was excited to describe her favorite moment. A few high school theater kids had arrived without tickets, but Hillman admitted them anyway at half-price to stand: “I stood by them and watched the show’s first half through their eyes, and it was like, amazing!” When it comes down to it, Hillman is driven by education: to spark the imagination of youths and watching them grow to love theater.
Deanne Chen is the lead theater beat
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