Theater Review: THE CLAIM (Shotgun Players in Berkeley)

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by Harvey Perr on October 20, 2021

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


It is always a pleasure to come across a playwright with a love for (and a gift for) language and, better, an appreciation for the comic possibilities of wordplay. Tim Cowbury is just such a playwright, and his play The Claim, which was a runaway success at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, marks the return of The Shotgun Players after more than a year of live shows due to the pandemic. Admirers of the company, whose reputation is secure, were in full force at its opening, embracing Cowbury’s play with enthusiasm. Perhaps that is all you need to know to run off and see it, especially now that its run has been extended.

But, for all its virtues, the play and the production left much to be desired, This is a play with a deeply serious indictment of some events which may have taken place in the United Kingdom but which can be felt right here, right now where we live. It is about an African asylum seeker who — desperately in need of a new home in a new country — must be registered with bureaucrats who keep trying to change his tragic story with a “story” that better suits them. Cowsbury is said to have been influenced by Franz Kafka’s The Trial and one can understand why. It is a genuine masterpiece which beautifully weds absurdity to tragedy.

But Cowsbury isn’t Kafka yet and, while the whip-smart dialogue is dazzling, it often gets in the way of building character and, when, ultimately, it should be a moving portrait of a man without a country, it leaves one instead feeling somewhat emotionally removed. Serge, the central character, whose anguish should be felt, becomes almost as inhuman as A and B, the nameless officials who are intentionally caricatured.

It should come as no surprise that the best performance is given by Soren Santos as A, since he can develop his character out of words alone and he does some pretty amazing things with the playwright’s language and allows us, from time to time, to laugh out loud at the play’s more absurdist ideas. Kenny Scott as Serge has a warm presence, but it is his confusion more than his torment that comes through in the end. Radhika Rao finds one note and plays it well as B, but it becomes more predictable as the play progresses; it is hard to tell if the problem is in the writing or the performance.

The production is in capable hands. Rebecca Novick’s direction is best during the verbal play, less strong when working on character development. Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s set design, Michael Oesch’s lighting design, and Sarah Witsch’s sound design are appropriately simple and purposefully cold.

photos by Benjamin Krantz

The Claim
Shotgun Players
Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. in Berkeley
ends on November 6, 2021
live streams online October 21 and October 28, 2021
for tickets ($8–$40), visit Shotgun Players

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