Out of Character
Berkeley Repertory Company
One of the most remarkable aspects of Berkeley Rep’s latest world premiere show, Out of Character, is the vast array of characters on the stage – unique, interesting people of so many races, places of origin, and family backgrounds with accents, personalities, and personal stories so rich, authentic, and varied. But the real kicker is that all of these dozens of people populating the stage at Peet’s Theatre are the same person – the creator and performer of the solo show, Ari’el Stachel. The Tony-winning Berkeley native delights, astounds, and holds captive the opening night audience of Out of Character in a stunning, spectacular performance in which he memoirs his life-long search for his authentic identity while continuously struggling with debilitating anxiety.
Ari’el opens the evening recounting the night he won his Tony for Featured Best Actor in a Musical – a night where he repeatedly escaped the post-show’s many congratulations, photos, and offers for his future by running to the bathroom, pulling paper towels by the scores to wipe his brow and face before finally fainting to the floor. He then takes us back to when he was five, sitting in a psychiatrist’s office telling the doctor of a voice he constantly hears and then learning he has OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).
When asked by the doctor to give a name to the voice he hears in his head, he calls her Meredith, like the evil stepmother in The Parent Trap. As the evening progresses, we become very familiar with Meredith, whose witch-like voice stridently commands that he adhere to her wishes or she will send lava to cover the earth. We see him cross streets in nine steps; touch the floor three, five, or nine times; and make sure he never eats in front of a disabled person – all to ensure the safety of himself and the world around him.
But as he continues to talk openly, animatedly, and with both humor and humility, Ari’el tells us Meredith soon found a new, more devastating power over him: Sweat! Warning us that “I am going to sweat my ass off in this show,” Ari’el wipes his brow with his ever-present handkerchief and proceeds with his life story.
With an Ashkenazi Jewish mother from New York and a Yemenite Jewish immigrant father born in Israel who divorced before he was five, Ari’el began his education in a Jewish Day School, where he quickly was told, “You’re too dark to be Jewish.” His Middle Eastern, skin-color inheritance from his “Abba” became – as he recounts through many stories – the reason he was both ostracized and accepted as a boy and young man. The difference in acceptance was according to the identity he was sometimes assumed to be and the identity he sometimes chose to be.
With an uncanny ability instantaneously to switch persona, voices, demeanors, stances, and accompanying movements, Ari’el takes us through many stages of his becoming Israeli, white, Black, Sephardic Jewish, and Middle Eastern Yemenite as he progresses from middle school to high school to university and beyond. Almost as often as he switches his race and/or background, he recounts changing schools. At the Day School, he copies Israeli Ron and for one year speaks with an Israeli accent. After 9/11 (and following Meredith’s demand to touch the table nine times to save Berkeley from a terrorist attack), he enters middle school in Orinda where – with the help of “new hair, new clothes, and lots of gel,” he is super white having a blast with a rich friend tripping around the town at night ‘t-p’ing’ (toilet-papering) houses.
On the first day of seventh grade, the only Black kid in his class says, “What’s up, N—?” to him and then calls him “Shaq” because he is tall and can shoot a mean basket. All of a sudden, the Ari’el in front of us is talking in jive, moving about with total coolness, and loving going to his friend’s home for dinner where he also portrays a Black grandmother who all but adopts him as her own – a persona he continues even as he enters Berkeley High where he dreams of actually becoming a Black basketball star like his idol, Shaq O’Neill.
And the stories pour forth as the switches continue. The stimulus for each racial and/or school transformation – all the way into his twenties in New York City – is time and again when his present set of friends meet unexpectantly his Middle Eastern Abba. That is when they suddenly realize he is not what and who he has been saying he is – Israeli, white, Black, etc. As he tells us, “The way I kept my dad out of my life was exhausting.”
Through it all, Meredith continues to screech at him with her demands, warnings, and outright threats – her voice ringing out all around us and sending looks of fear and even horror into the guy we are watching on stage.
So much of the story we hear is told by Ari’el poking fun at himself and all the things he has tried to do to feel comfortable in his own skin or to fight the constant waterfall from his brow that erupts whenever he is in the least bit stressed – which turns out to be a lot of the time. As he laughs, “My dream is if everything in the entire universe could happen in a steam room.”
The guy who will eventually win a Tony based not only on his acting – which we are seeing first-hand how fabulous he is – but also for his singing. Fortunately, several times in his journey we get to hear beautifully resounding examples of his vocals – including a hilarious time when he recalls in song hearing when at Oakland’s School of the Arts a fellow student named Adrian sing John Legend’s “Ordinary People.” After demonstrating the romantically smooth notes and stage moves he witnessed from Adrian, he recalls hilariously how he tried to use the same night-club style voice when he landed his first lead in a musical, that of Tevye in Fiddler.
Ari’el’s spell-bounding, intimate-feeling, highly entertaining and enlightening performance has clearly been greatly enhanced by the person who has mentored and collaborated with him for the past three years during its making, Berkeley Rep’s former Artistic Director and now director of Out of Character, Tony Taccone. The shows seamless flow from story to story, from character to character, from moments of anguish to moments of hilarity certainly has been influenced by his directorial guidance.
Beyond actor and director, much credit for the evening’s success goes to the incredible creativity and skills of the show’s designers. The angular, indented back wall of the bare stage as designed by Afsoon Pajoufar becomes the pallet for the multi-colored, well-timed accent lighting designed by Alexander V. Nichols that underscores the mood, setting, and/or theme of the current accounting by Ari’el. Along with exacting lighting on the stage floor that defines physical and mental confines of the storyteller, Nichols also has designed numerous projections that greatly enhance and illustrate various aspects of the stories. Finally, the sound design of Madeleine Oldham not only sends Meredith’s snarly, often shattering commands booming into the air around us, there are many other sounds from paper towels being ripped out of a bathroom holder to the sounds of the night at the Tonys that make her sound design award-deserving.
Our time with Ari’el Stachel passes all too quickly during the ninety minutes that fly by so fast. Our brief meeting has felt personal, genuine, and life-affirming. I do not think that one can walk away from this must-see evening without a new understanding of the struggles those with anxiety face daily as well as a new appreciation for what it means for children of immigrants to search and finally discover what being American really can mean for them. For a show that seems deemed at some point to head to Broadway, I heartily recommend seeing it now in its world premiere.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet Production
Out of Character continues through July 30, 2023, in a world premiere production by Berkeley Repertory Theatre on the stage of Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available online at http://berkeleyrep.org or by calling the Box Office Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m. at 510-647-2949.
Please note: Well-fitting masks are required to be worn in the theatre by all patrons.
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne