OAKLAND -- A provocative title, new chairs and a reimagined space begin the theatrical season for Piedmont Oakland Repertory Theatre.
The company, headed by John McMullen, has lived a bit of a vagabond existence as it moved from various places in Oakland during its first year of existence. But it has now found a home at Capoiera Mandinga, 4137 Piedmont Ave.
"This is a dream come true for me," McMullen said. "I didn't want to just have a theater; I wanted to have one on Piedmont Avenue. I've lived in this neighborhood for at least 25 years, and I often see people working on novels and screenplays as I walk by the coffee shops. It just seemed the right climate for a theater."
McMullen tested out the new space in June with two performances of "Speed of the Plow." The staged reading played to full houses. The enthusiastic producer opens two additional staged readings this September beginning with the titillating "In the Next Room: The Vibrator Play" by Sarah Ruhl.
Nominated for a Tony Award when it moved from Berkeley Repertory Theatre to Broadway, the play is set in the 1880s, when doctors were dealing with women's "hysteria" in a rather innovative way. They decided that the appropriate placement of a vibrator would induce "paroxysms" (climax in today's verbiage) and thus save a woman from madness.
"I choose this play because, number one, I thought the title alone would bring in audiences," McMullen said. "And, secondly, I've always been fascinated with this time period. It's amazing that doctors thought 'hysteria' caused madness rather than the tight corsets women had to wear that didn't let them breathe properly or how out-of-touch men were to women's desires."
McMullen also discovered how much more apparent the comedy became when the show is done as a reading rather than a full production.
"Our space is so intimate," he said. "We just have 49 seats and the first rows are right next to the actors. I really didn't think people would be comfortable being that close to naked people. I also don't think the humor is as obvious when you have all these visuals in front of you." Instead, audience members will have period-perfect 1880s fashions by costumer Marjorie Moore and suggestive lighting by Jim Jenkins.
The cast includes John Hale, Heidi Wolff, Alison Whismore, Brett Mermer, Elizabeth Jane Dunne, Reuben Alvear II, Nkechi and Sarah Tam.
McMullen said he's cast the play slightly older than what the characters call for because his slightly older actors "understand more the intricacies of relationships and remember when things are not as they are now for women."
"The Vibrator Play" runs from Saturday to Sept. 21 with Saturday performances at 8 p.m. Performances on Sundays will be at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday and Sept. 21 and at 7 p.m. this Sunday and Sept. 14.
The second reading features John Hale and Robin Wiley in a staged reading of A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters." The show runs for three performances only: 8 p.m. Sept. 27 and 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sept. 28.
"I like Gurney a lot, and this particular play has always touched my heart," McMullen said. "Here's a relationship that started when they were children and continues primarily through letters until their mid-50s. I've been lucky enough to have those types of extended relationships with people but through email and telephone -- our modern version of letters, but never as elegant."
McMullen, who plans more fully produced shows following the readings, believes the intimate space he's creating on Piedmont Avenue fits perfectly with his style of theater.
"I like to keep it small, intimate and as real as possible," he said. "I push my actors for a more cinematic reality rather than 'stage' acting where you're projecting to large groups of people.
I really want the actors to concentrate on each other and let the audience sort of listen in."
And, audiences will be "listening in" in comfort with the new plush purple seating.
"Most small theaters have very uncomfortable seating, and I hate that, so I spent the money to get really comfortable seats," McMullen said.
For tickets to either of the September staged readings or for more information on Piedmont Oakland Repertory Theatre, go to www.PiedmontOaklandRep.org.