Berkeley Rep’s ‘Place/Settings’ series brings personal touches to Berkeley’s landscape

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In the first episode of “Place/Settings,” Berkeley Rep’s artistic director Johanna Pfaelzer asks us if we’ve ever spent time in an empty theater. “It feels alive,” she says. “There’s palpable motion in the stillness.” Berkeley’s theaters, including Berkeley Rep, remain empty for the time being as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to circulate; the same goes for many other spaces where Berkeley residents might otherwise gather for a shared experience. But the participating writers of the “Place/Settings” series would argue that Berkeley nevertheless maintains its sense of “palpable motion,” using their pieces to animate the city’s landscape through the lens of their real and imagined memories. 

The series, which premiered Jan. 12 and continues to release new episodes on a weekly basis, features 10 audio stories, each written and performed by a different writer and focused on a distinctive Berkeley site. The stories expectedly vary in form, style and scope, embodying the authors’ specific sensibilities; the soundscape of each is colored by Madeleine Oldham and Lane Elms’ slight but affecting sound design. In the first three episodes of “Place/Settings,” these elements result in a trio of unique pieces that balance warm descriptions of different Berkeley locales with moments of essayistic introspection. 

The series begins with “The Slide” by playwright Itamar Moses, a collection of vignettes that chronicles one man’s coming-of-age through his repeated journeys to his hometown’s neighborhood park. The opening scene — a boy with his mother, afraid to go down the slide but somehow compelled to do it anyway — reverberates through the rest of the piece, as milestones such as puberty, divorce and death pass with disconcerting speed. Moses’ simple prose and emotive performance ably capture how, even as the speakers’ memories add new layers to the park’s appearance, the setting itself remains reliably static. In the final scene, the speaker slides down the slide once more as an adult, capturing the essence of the piece with the pithy observation that “it was all too fast.”

Eisa Davis’ “The Fundamental Kiss, With Overtones” takes listeners through a similar coming-of-age progression, following the genesis of her relationship with a fellow student in UC Berkeley’s summer music program. As a narrator, Davis is distinctly conversational, weaving in endearing admissions about what it’s like to have a middle school crush (“I wash my feet for you at night, so they’re clean in case you show up in my dream”) in between conversations about how her insecurities shaped her inability to communicate such sentiments out loud. This piece’s sense of setting is especially evocative; UC Berkeley students in particular will have a keen fondness for Davis’ descriptions of walking through the wooded path on the western edge of campus and emerging on the intersection of Oxford and Center, warmed by the summer sun. 

The most insular of the first three episodes is “20 Weeks,” authored and read by Adam Mansbach with the purposeful, steady cadence of slam poetry. The piece focuses on a couple’s pregnancy, and the revelation during the 20-week ultrasound that the child has bilateral club foot — an operable condition that nonetheless leaves the couple shaken. Mansbach, a cultural critic and humorist, injects the scene with dry comedic moments, remarking that a doctor with a speaking style akin to “medicinal binary” deserves a prize for “worst bedside manner.” The piece still makes room for sobering moments, though. Mansbach’s description of the chilling silence that envelops an ultrasound room before an announcement, as well as his musings on how the stress of this pregnancy could constitute “the line between innocence and burden” for him and his partner, are a few of many insightful, atmospheric observations that capture the singular emotional experience of being a parent-to-be. 

As a whole, “Place/Settings” links personal experience to place through an array of stories and outlooks that feel distinctly Berkeley. This intimate anthology makes it clear that though Berkeley may seem dormant for now, the memories that inhabit the city — and the artists that capture them in writing — keep it in perpetual motion.

Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected]. Tweet her at @graceorriss.