Review: World premier of ‘Book of Sand (a fairytale)’ by Oakland Theater Project (*****)

“HE,” a book collector and librarian (Kevin Rebultan), looks dubious when a mysterious “SHE,” (Carla Gallardo) offers him a remarkable book for his collection in the world premiere of Lisa Ramirez’s “Book of Sand (a fairytale)” at Oakland Theater Project.

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

The two characters (HE and SHE) of Lisa Ramirez’s brilliant new play are haunted by additional characters, listed in the program as THEY. These additional characters are not portrayed by actors but are described in the program as “The Chorus of Stories and Ghosts in her head (and soon to be in his). They are invisible, potent, sonic, and appear on stage through whispers, music, and words.”

Well, that’s an unusual concept, and its realization makes for a fabulous night of theatre.

The collective, invisible “THEY” turn out to be the words from a myterious book (“The Book of Sand”) which is comprised of the work of a wide range of authors ranging from Jorge Luis Borges (whose prose, a program note tells us, was the inspiration for this play) to Joyce, Poe, Shakespeare, Vonnegut, and even Rober Ringer (author of “Looking Out For #1).

THEY enter the story when a nebish of a librarian (one is reminded of Melville’s “poor devil of a Sub Sub Librarian” who haunts the opening pages of “Moby Dick”) is offered a mysterious book. Kevin Rebultan is the librarian (identified as “HE” in the program) and his performance is extraordinary. HE presents as a goofy, self effacing nerd whose life is interrupted by a mysterious knock on the door, reminding us of Edgar Allen Poe’s importunate Raven.

Like the Raven, the young woman who knocked (SHE) bears a peculiar message and, once in, refuses to leave. SHE is offering the librarian a sort of Bible, which she calls “The Book of Sand”, which she claims to be unike any other book ever seen. SHE forces it upon him. SHE is portrayed by Carla Galardo, whose performance will haunt your dreams.

And that’s where the fun begins. Sand (the sands of time, perhaps?) literally pours out of the book. Words appear and disappear. The book and the words and, soon, whispers and music, invade the space. HE and SHE are both seen to be possessed by the book. Soon the librarian becomes like a child playing in a sandbox of words that jerk him about in a thousand directions. The words capture his body. This concept is visually realized by actor Rebullan in an astonishing demonstration of physical acting where his limbs seem to be no longer his own. (Side note: This very impressive actor is in the early days of his career. Keep your eye on him!)

SHE prowls the stage like a lioness, figuratively pouncing upon the librarian, drawing him into the book, and pushing him out.

Some of this is laugh-out-loud funny, some of it is horrifying, some of it moves us to tears.

Susannah Martin’s direction is full of interesting stage pictures, constant changes of rhythm, and emotional swings. The work of the design team (Karla Hargave’s set, Alice Ruiz’s costumes, Stephanie Anne Johnson’s lighting, and Elton Bradman’s fantastic sound) is excellent.

There is no plot to speak of. The evening is a demonstration of the power of greatly written words to move and excite us, to overwhelm us, to take over the neural pathways of our brain, moving in forever, to be banished nevermore. The audience doesn’t so much as watch a story as get caught up in a wave of literature, only to be tossed out at the end with the feeling that something portentous has been experienced. But, what, exactly? The answer is as elusive as sand passing through the fingers.

But the experience is extraordinary.

“Book of Sand (a fairytale)” continues at Oakland Theater Project through December 4, 2022. For further information, click here


Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“The Book of Sand (a fairytale), a world premiere by Lisa Ramirez. Produced by Oakland Theater Project. Director: Suzannah Martin. Scenic Designer: Karla Hargrave. Costume Designer: Alice Ruiz. Lighting Designer: Stephanie Anne Johnson. Sound Designer: Elton Bradman.

HE: Kevin Rebultan. SHE: Carla Gallardo. THEY: Jorge Luis Borges/Joseph Conrad/Terry Tempest Williams/Jame Joyce/Ralph Ellison/Edgar Allen Poe/Clarice Lispector/Philip Delves Brouhton/V. S. Ramachandran/William Shakepeare/Osho/C. G. Jung/Stephen Crane/Robert Ringer/Kurt Vonnegut/Ray Bradbury/Kevin Rebultan.

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