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Theatre Review: "The Cat Has Chlamydia": God's Ear at Shotgun

John A. McMullen II
Tuesday, May 24, 2010
The Berkeley Daily Planet

Hey! You may be living in a Golden Age of Theatre right here in Berkeley! Wake up and go buy a ticket!

A long time ago, in the now-bankrupt kingdom of Greece, even before they invented drama, they looked around and saw what they had to work with, then took the wine and the bread and the salt and the lamb and the oil and turned all those things into sacraments to show their appreciation for the world and the everyday that the gods had given them.

In the same spirit, Jenny Schwartz’s marvelous and poetic play God’s Ear, now at Shotgun Players, takes the mundanity of our American Life right now, and uses our overused aphorisms, slogans, platitudes, affirmations, icons, embarrassments, and anomalies and turns them into poetry. Her poetry invokes methods of T. S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg.

The play starts off with a mother’s frantic emergency waiting room monologue about her young son’s imminently fatal accident.
I went with my partner E whose son died a decade ago. I was apprehensive about taking her. But afterwards she said it was not just cathartic--I can’t imagine how much you have to stuff just to get through a life-shattering event like that--but was also evocative of the surrealistic, time-bending feeling she got when the end came for her boy and which lingered through the grieving. But that’s just the jumping off point and prime mover that pushes us down the rabbit hole into this sprinting, musical, dancing, subliminal world.

Ironically fitting in its own context, God’s Ear is often really, really funny, but you don’t want to laugh out loud lest you miss the next line. The “cat has chlamydia,” when delivered with Beth Wilmurt’s pro timing and inflection, is just one of them. Funny and painful seem inseparable. Like Charlie Chaplin said, “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.”

The Players fill every moment of the 90 minutes with a breathless litany of imagery that calls to us as it flies by, “Try to keep up, because we’re talking as fast as the modern mind reels.”

The sloping ice-blue stage with fluffy crinkled white drapings that invoke our innards is a masterful creation and lets us know while we’re waiting for the show to start that we aren’t in Kansas or even Berkeley anymore but either Merlin’s Ice Cave or the recesses of our collective unconscious. The coloration allows the lighting design a great spectrum of blues and other colors to change the mood.

Husband’s job takes him up in the air, and the repetition of phone calls from airport bars to home while a hot floozy awaits is an amusing and heartbreaking ostinato. This Odysseus is meeting modern day Circes while both he and his impatient Penelope back home encounter near-mythological creatures: a Pink Tooth Fairy, a seductive bearded Transsexual Stewardess with a blond bob, G. I. Joe with the same non-moving hands in life as in the action figure, the Dude you get drunk with who flips back and forth between near-violence and vows of lifelong camaraderie, and the Hot Floozy. His waiting-at-home Wife is overwhelmed with domestic duties while dubiously nurturing her constantly questioning daughter and obsessing over her husband’s tendency to hook-up with call-girls. Ain’t that America?

The musical pieces have funny lyrics, charming melodies, and good voices. The inventive choreography fits the action and is excellently executed.

At this point in a review, I start to mention names, who is good/mediocre/bad, and hopefully how and why I’m passing judgment, but the players so inhabit their characters that you can’t see the acting, which is the way it’s supposed to be; they act as an inseparable unit. As the director Erika Chong Shuch notes in the very cleverly designed program, “This production is the result of a generous collaborative spirit. I am happy to report that I cannot trace the source of many of the images and ideas.”

All the while, they are reaching into your unconscious and extracting poisons, opening your mind, and making you look at your life from the outside. Back there in Greece, when there were no false demarcations between poetry, dance, music, and drama, theatre was considered a healing art, one born of frenzy that reached down deep. That’s an apt description of this work.

This is the second show in two consecutive outings in which Shotgun has knocked it out of the park. But this one is the best since Beowulf, and something you will hear about so often that you’ll regret having skipped it. The company’s renowned artistic director Patrick Dooley reports that he got the script through contacts at the Playwright’s Horizons, and it’s those kind of relationships that bring great theatre to this little city of a mere 100K denizens.

Jenny Schwartz is a Juilliard graduate and a member of The Civilians, an experimental NYC theatre group dedicated to original work derived from investigations into the world beyond the theater. Erika Chong Shuch is a choreographer and director whose work has been acknowledged with a Gerbode Foundation Emerging Choreographer’s Award and the Bay Guardian’s SF Goldie Award. GOD’S EAR premiered in 2007 at the hot new NYC Chelsea-section theatre New Georges.


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