TheatreFirst stages Lauren Gunderson’s FIRE WORK

1412031015Ben & Ana 1 -- Tolbert.jpgTheatreFirst world premier goes BOOM!

If you can make a sparkler, the most innocuous of fireworks, can you make a bomb?  That’s one of the questions asked and answered in Lauren Gunderson’s surprising and provocative Fire Work, now in a world premiere at Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley.

The producing company is TheatreFirst.  If you remember TheaterFirst as an Oakland-based troupe, you’re remembering correctly.  It struggled to find a permanent venue there and an audience to support it, but the effort never paid off, so a couple of years ago it relocated to Berkeley.

Lauren Gunderson is an important young writer/Bay Area resident much in evidence on local stages–SF Playhouse mounted her art-centered drama Bauer last season–so it’s a coup for TheatreFirst to present Fire Work’s first outing.

The company meets the challenge in fine style.

Just one quibble: publicity for the play describes it as a “romantic comedy,” but that’s severely misleading.  Not that there are not romance and laughs–but there are also a ghost and bloody murder.  In fact much of the tale is tense, even scary.

That’s a good thing, not a bad one; it keeps us riveted for the drama’s swift 90 minutes, which play out in an unnamed country where repressive laws have just been enacted, one of which requires women to wear a burka-like garment.

As events begin we find ourselves in the small corrugated-iron fireworks manufactory of a man named Caleb, whose spirited daughter Ana helps him at his work.  Alarmed at the despotic regime, the pair plan to pack up and flee the country next morning, but a knock at the door forces them to complete one last job.  A young man, Ben, strides in with an order of fireworks for a wedding.  It hasn’t been prepared for him as it should, and he demands the mistake be corrected right away.

Ana is the one who opens the door, and fireworks of a different, emotional order, are soon set off.  These early moments are charming and indeed romantic, as the couple flirts and then texts, but there are troubling revelations to come.  Is he what he at first makes out to be?  Is she?  The country they live in is volatile, and the explosion of a bomb turns the play dark.  Can any sort of fireworks kindle the light again?

Director Mina Morita orchestrates this taut drama with a deft hand, well supported by an artistic team that includes Martin Flynn (set), Krista Smith (lighting), Ashley Rogers (costumes), and Ryan Lee Short (sound).  Special praise goes to Eric Scanlon, whose striking projections are an indispensable enhancement.

The small cast meshes expertly in fine ensemble work: Rinabeth Apostol as the nervy Ana, Aleph Ayin as her edgy young lover Ben, and Brian Herndon as her watchful father, who turns out to be both man and spirit.

Intense and expertly mounted, Fire Work plays Fridays through Sundays at the Live Oak Theatre on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley until October 19th.  For tickets/information call 981-8150 or visit