Stagings to benefit Ebola relief in West Africa
By Lou Fancher
Aiming to steal thunder from the Ebola crisis in West Africa, two benefit performances by Berkeley-based Symmetry Theatre Company are all about giving. "Vanya Without Borders," a 75-minute adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," features a crowd of Bay Area contributors at Harry's Upstage at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. in Berkeley, at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 and 13.
Operating in conjunction with Médecins Sans Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders) USA, the United States-based arm of the French organization established in 1990, the suggested $50 ticket donation goes entirely to the MSF Ebola Relief Fund and is 100 percent tax deductible.
The idea-turned-play is directed by Symmetry co-founder Robert Parsons and reflects a pool of Bay Area generosity -- from professional actors donating their time, to Theater First, Shotgun Players, SF Playhouse and Aurora supplying free rehearsal and performance space, to individuals like sound designer Chris Houston offering to assist pro bono. "He just called me up and said, 'I want to help,'" Parsons said, with gratitude for the outpouring of support.
Parsons and equity actor Marissa Keltie crafted the event's 34-page, one-hour, moderately produced original version that has characters in a mental institution clandestinely stealing supplies for a secret, nighttime show while waiting for nurses to depart.
They chose to adapt Chekov's over two-hour play for several reasons.
"First of all, there's a central character, a doctor dealing with a typhus epidemic," Parsons said. "And Chekov died in his 40s of tuberculosis. He was a doctor as well as a playwright. In a weird way, he's the original doctor without a border."
There are also these lines, spoken in the original "Uncle Vanya" by Sonya to her father's glamorous, ennui-filled second wife in an effort to prompt compassion and action for society's less fortunate: "How can you live here, knowing how those people suffer and not do something? Just wait -- I bet the spirit will move you."
The dramatic mix -- a statement blending shame and hope -- is mirrored by Parsons.
"Ebola is a crisis. The whole country (America) can go into a huge scare without paying attention to stopping it where it starts. Doctors Without Borders is preventing a world crisis. We still need money to help these people out. People will want to help."
According to World Health Organization figures released on Nov. 28, Ebola has killed nearly 7,000 people, sickened more than 16,000 and continues to rage in Sierra Leone, where infection rates soar. MSF has more than 3,300 people working to fight Ebola in West Africa.
But given the crush and rush of an inevitable news cycle, Parsons said, Ebola has drifted off the radar of many people.
"People are dying every day and it's not going away," he said. "With anything you choose to support you can ask about the tons of other things you could be doing. You can wonder what difference one person can make."
But instead of wondering or feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of a world health scourge, Parsons said
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But instead of wondering or feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of a world health scourge, Parsons said getting in line with the medical professionals risking their lives to save the lives of others is as simple -- and fulfilling -- as a night at the theater.