Lisa Ramirez in The Waste Land
Lisa Ramirez as the poet/the prophet/the people in The Waste Land at Oakland Theater Project. Credit: Carson French Credit: Carson French

An unexpected side benefit of the pandemic is to see just how resourceful our theater folk can be at finding alternative methods of entertaining and enlightening us.

A prime example is the Oakland Theater Project’s (formerly known as the Ubuntu Theater Project) one-person theatrical and creative world premiere of T. S. Eliot’s modernist masterwork, The Waste Land, starring Lisa Ramirez.

And it takes place in the parking lot of the Flax Art and Design store in downtown Oakland. Yes, in the parking lot. The audience remains in their cars, watching through their windshields and listening to the play on their FM radios, like the drive-in movies of yesteryear. The performance may also be streamed as described below.

Nobel prize-winner T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922, in the aftermath of World War I and the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic — a world condition not so different than today’s disease and crisis-driven society. Among the poem’s famous phrases are “April is the cruellest month,” “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” and “Shantih shantih shantih,” the mantra in the Sanskrit language. Written in five sections, The Waste Land is a commentary on culture in a changing world, as it explores the loss of humanity and the hope of renewal.

The first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” begins with themes of disillusionment and despair. “A Game of Chess,” the second segment, contains some vignettes of everyday characters. “The Fire Sermon,” the third part, meditates on death-like images and alludes to St. Augustine and eastern religions. After a short fourth section, “Death by Water,” about the cycle of life, the final portion, “What the Thunder Said,” ends the work with an image of judgment. The erudite Eliot filled The Waste Land with allusions to classical literature, fragments from poets including Baudelaire, Dante Alighieri, Shakespeare, Ovid, and Homer, as well as many foreign language references. In his 434-line poem, Eliot flits imperceptibly among many voices, languages, references, and images.

Award-winning, multi-talented actor and playwright Lisa Ramirez, in what only can be described as a bravura performance, brings the one-hour-long epic to life in all its complexity and emotion. John Wilkins’s adaption for the stage, Michael Socrates Moran’s direction, and the visual presentation add significantly to the experience. The visual backdrop is continually screened behind Lisa Ramirez as she performs. It alternates between 20th- and 21st-century video news clips of unrest, and atmospheric mists and shapes, bringing added drama to the piece.

I re-read The Waste Land the day of the performance to reacquaint myself with its content and tone. But it is unnecessary to do so because Lisa Ramirez’s superior acting skills make the tempo changes and mood swings of The Waste Land alive and comprehensible.

The Waste Land is playing Wednesdays through Sundays at 8:00 p.m. through May 16, at The Flax Building parking lot, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland. All tickets are sold only in advance for $25–$50 per car. Additional pay-what-you-can tickets ($5–$20) will be available for every performance. Audiences can also enjoy the show at home by Livestream on Thursday, April 29, or on-demand for three weeks after the performance. Livestream and on-demand tickets are $15-$25 and through the streaming platform Stellar. See ticket information.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...