Tony-winner Ari’el Stachel back in Berkeley for ‘Out of Character’

Ari’el Stachel deals with a longtime identity crisis with humor in his new show onstage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Courtesy Sergio Pasquariello)

“My story is a fish-out-of-water story,” says actor-singer-writer Ari’el Stachel, whose new, autobiographical solo show, “Out of Character,” is opening this week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a world premiere. 

Developed at Berkeley Rep and directed by the company’s former artistic director Tony Taccone, the show, in which Stachel plays 40-plus characters and the narrator, was four years in the making,

It was a challenge, Stachel, 31, says, for a young man of his speedy-minded generation.

 “Out of Character” runs from June 23-July 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre.

In the deeply personal “Out of Character,” he plunges into his past, examining both its painful and its comic aspects as he traces his struggle to find himself.

Stachel has a complicated heritage. His mother is an Ashkenazi Jew from New York, his father a Middle Eastern Jew from Israel, of Yemenite background. The two met on a kibbutz in Israel. Ari was born and raised in Berkeley. His parents separated when he was 1 1/2 and he eventually gravitated toward his father’s side of the family. At his dad’s house, with his dad’s Israeli partner, Hebrew was spoken, and Stachel ate Yemeni food and listened to Yemeni music.

When he was in fifth grade at a Jewish day school in El Cerrito in September 2001, suddenly things changed. Before then, being darker than his classmates, he identified more with the Yemenite part of his heritage than the Ashkenazi part. But after 9/11, anyone brown, he says, Indian, Yemenite or whatever, was taunted in the schoolyard. There were no other kids like him—part Middle Eastern but not Arab—and he felt stranded on an island.

He transferred to a middle school in Orinda, hoping to reinvent himself, but it didn’t really work. By seventh grade, his only friend was a Black kid who accepted him for who he was. Stachel also came to believe that with his skin color and curly hair, he could pass as something else; if he denied his heritage, his life would be better. For the next eight years, he pretended not to be Middle Eastern. “It sounded like a simple and harmless solution at the time, but a lie can grow and grow, and that’s precisely what happened and it had really intense consequences. I can still feel it: internalizing that level of shame for that many years,” he says.

He transferred from Berkeley High School to Oakland School for the Arts and then on to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to study drama. His heart was set on performing in Broadway musicals.

Initially, posing as ethnically ambiguous was an advantage: “I could play anything: Black, Latino” he says.

He was got several stage roles and was cast in a CBS drama and a Netflix series before his big break: the role of Haled, the flirty Arab musician in the Broadway musical “The Band’s Visit,” for which he won several awards, including a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 2018.

By now, he’s had a slew of roles, including “Law & Order” and the 2021 film “Zola.”

But recently, as identity politics have taken hold and social attitudes toward cultural authenticity have changed, so has his working life.

Once, he would be delighted simply to be Middle Eastern and have a career, but now, he observes, if you’re Yemeni, you’re not likely to get cast as, for example, a character who’s Libyan. In 2021, when he was set to appear as a Syrian refugee in a play at New York’s Public Theater, he and the theater ultimately agreed at the last minute that his understudy, Ahmad Maksoud, would replace him.

That cultural change in the zeitgeist spurred him into writing his own story.

The first thing he did, after cobbling together a script, was cold-contact Taccone. He knew he needed a great director, and he had seen Taccone’s direction of Sarah Jones’ solo show “Bridge & Tunnel” at Berkeley Rep. He knew Taccone was that person.

Taccone replied: “Meet me. I have questions about the dramatic structure.” They sat in the lobby of the Public Theater. Taccone gave him two hours of notes and promised to read another draft.

“When he contacted me, I didn’t want to do it right then,” says Taccone, who lives in Los Angeles. While he has directed “way more solo shows than anybody should,” he says, he agreed to look at Stachel’s script and meet with him one time, out of respect—after all, Stachel was a Tony winner. And they had a mutual contact, playwright Itamar Moses who wrote “The Band’s Visit,” and whose “Yellowjackets” Taccone had directed.

“He was under some severe young-person illusions [about the script being ready],” says Taccone, “but his story is pretty damn good. He goes through all this crazy stuff, wildly desperate emotional attempts to fit in. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking. Like the rest of us, he’s trying to construct a narrative for himself.”

Taccone says he told Stachel, “We’re not doing this until it’s ready, even if it’s 20 years.”

He continues, “With these autobiographical shows, yes, it’s based on your life story, but you end up creating a character called Ari Stachel, or yourself. That’s the only way to pursue it. You give yourself a little license. Things often happen in mundane ways. You need to dramatize. It’s called artistic license.”

Tony Taccone, director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Out of Character,” worked on the project with actor-writer Ari’el Stachel for years. (Courtesy Cheshire Isaac)

After the first meeting, Taccone promised only to read another draft. For about two and a half years, he wouldn’t let Stachel read the script aloud to him, not until it was coherent and dramatically structured. He kept telling Stachel, “I don’t understand what your character wants”—as actors and directors know, characters must have an overriding need, an objective — and Stachel kept giving him intellectual answers but finally said, “He wants to be less anxious.” As a kid he’d had all sorts of mental health challenges including obsessive-compulsive disorder.

And Taccone said, “Aha, that’s interesting, go write that.” Says Stachel, “I didn’t know, two and a half years prior to that, that I wasn’t being entirely truthful.”

After three and a half years, Taccone agreed to direct the play. “I tried to get out of it a couple of times,” he jokes.

Says Stachel, “My generation is really about instant gratification. It’s an entirely different thing to be working with a master who’s been at this for 40 years.”

Ultimately, Stachel developed the play as a Berkeley Rep commission. “The more raw and honest I got, the more everyone at Berkeley Rep responded, and the more alive and true it felt to me,” he says.

Still, he emphasizes, “It’s a comedy more than anything else.”

Of this premiere production, Stachel confesses, “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this show in front of my family. It’ll be very tough, very intense.” After this home-town run, he hopes to tour it.

“In my younger years I felt like I was on an island,” he muses, “but the older I get, I realize we’ve all felt like we were on an island.”

“Out of Character,” he says, is ultimately an American story.

 “Out of Character” runs from June 23-July 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $39-$119 at (510) 647-2949 or  

The post Tony-winner Ari’el Stachel back in Berkeley for ‘Out of Character’ appeared first on Local News Matters.

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