Sunday, January 09, 2011

Le compositeur est mort! Vive le compositeur!

The Unusually Active January continues with The Composer Is Dead, another awesome play from the Berkeley Rep.

This is now the third performance that I've seen there, and the second on the Roda Stage. All have been terrific. after the quake was a haunting, elegiac, and yet hilarious transformation of my favorite living author's stories onto the stage. The Lieutenant of Inishmore was one of the most disturbing and macabre things I've seen... but also surprisingly funny. I think it's safe to say that residents of the Bay Area have great senses of humor, and we're willing to laugh in situations that many others would find unsettling.

"Funny" and "unsettling" are probably the two best words to describe Lemony Snicket, who wrote the original book The Composer Is Dead and oversaw the adaptation to the stage. I've been calling it a play, but that only begins to describe it. Even the original story was a trans-media work; the story shipped with a CD of music performed by the San Francisco Symphony.

Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) is a great lover of classical music, and TCID was written in part to help create a new generation of music appreciators. The theatrical version as originally written took only about 30 minutes to perform, and so they went to work at... I don't want to say "padding it out," but... let's say "extending" the book into a scope that would merit an actual show.

And so, as the Charming Host says at the beginning of the performance, we get to experience "the wonder and magic of living, breathing theater, where ANYTHING can go wrong!" The host struts around the stage, telling corny jokes with great aplomb, and giving special attention to the children, "because they're so very young." He proceeds to give the worst-ever ventriloquist act with a sock puppet, then hurls the puppet against the podium, announcing that it has a speech impediment. But, not to worry, because today we'll get to meet the world's greatest living composer, live on the stage. In order to properly explore the characteristics of living, breathing theater, he shows us a movie, wherein the dramaturge will explain how theater works. "In this context," the (live) host explains, "'Dramaturge' means a person who explains the history of a play, hopefully without being too boring.

Within the movie, a puppet introduces himself as the dramaturge. The puppet says that it will explain the purpose of the theater, using a slide show. The slide show contains slides of the dramaturge, his older brother (who, he sneeringly says, "claims to be a 'major historian'"), and his mother. The (live) host comes back out, and starts chastising the dramaturge for distracting the audience (us).

So, just to make it clear: the host is arguing with deeply nested layers of artifice: a recorded movie (1), starring a puppet (2), showing a slide show (3), that contains other puppets (4). Aw, yeah! Now we're getting somewhere!

Even though The Composer is Dead is ostensibly a children's play, it's hands-down the most avant-garde example of one that I've ever seen. Much of the first half of the play consists of the (live) host carrying on elaborately detailed arguments and fights with the (recorded) puppets. It follows some of the style of a good children's book: fairly repetitive language that grows more amusing through its repetition. Almost every puppet he meets prompts him to say something like, "The audience came here to see someone with an artistic temperment, not throwing a tantrum!", to which the puppet will reply, "An artistic temperment and a tantrum are the same thing!" "No, they're not!" "Yes, they are!" "Nuh-uh!" "Yuh-huh!" It's also a very clever exploration of just how the theater works: in addition to the dramaturge, the host meets with the stage manager, director, actor, understudy, lighting director, stagehand, and so on. Each is introduced with the same construction, like "'Understudy,' in this context, means someone who is just as good as the actor, but who only gets to perform if something terribly bad happens." We learn more and more about how demented everyone in the theater is, and just when it seems like things can't get worse, we discover that the world's greatest living composer is dead. The host runs away screaming, and the inspector arrives to investigate the crime.

While the first half of the play happens entirely through the movie (with the live interaction of the host), the second half unfolds completely on the stage, with one human actor playing the inspector, and dozens of puppets. (The puppets were performed by Phantom Limb, a San Francisco-based outfit who did amazing work here. I do not believe that they are affiliated with the notorious Guild of Calamitous Intent.) The inspector questions everyone in the orchestra - and, in the process, the audience learns what an orchestra is, who makes it up, and what everyone does.

However, this is all done through Lemony Snicket's twisted view. Some of my favorite lines included:
"The first violins are the best violinists in the orchestra. The second violins are more fun at parties."
"We oboes couldn't have murdered the composer! Everyone in the orchestra trusts us!"
"'Composer' is a word which here means 'a person who sits in a room, muttering and humming and figuring out what notes the orchestra is going to play.' This is called composing. But last night, the Composer was not muttering. He was not humming. He was not moving, or even breathing.  This is called DEcomposing."

 Besides the orchestra (which sits, appropriately, in the orchestra pit), they had a gorgeous backstage that transformed throughout the second half of the play with a variety of sets and still more puppets.  These were more simple but also effective and amusing; bees flew down from the top, and rotating cutouts on runners rolled out to spin around in waltzes or to march in a parade. (My favorite non-sequitor was a bear who kept popping up during the patriotic sequences.) During his questioning of the brass section, a white curtain fell, and a shadow play continued the story of a wild night of drinking and dancing.


In the end, the inspector finishes questioning everyone and concludes that none of the instruments in the orchestra could have done it. Then, in a flash, he realizes that it must have been the conductor. In the line that got the biggest laugh of the night, he said, "After all, conductors have been murdering composers for YEARS!" He elaborated that wherever you find a live conductor, you'll find a dead composer, and listed off the names of dozens of greats while their tombstones popped up from the stage floor. The orchestra explains that, while the conductor may have killed the composer, they also keep him alive by playing his music.


Did I mention that the music is really good? Well, it is. The theme that plays for the dead composer was my favorite, but all of it is well-done. There's a cool rock-inflected bit that opens the second half and shows the inspector driving to the theater. As he interrogates the orchestra, it rotates through a variety of classical pieces, each one highlighting the instrument under questioning.

Anyways, this was another clear win for the Berkeley Rep, and I'm now three-for-three there. As a bonus, I got to spend a few hours before the show wandering around the Berkeley campus, including the trails leading up to the Lawrence Lab. Hiking and culture, what a great combination!

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