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Theater review: Audible anguish in God's Ear

Robert Hurwitt
Monday, May 24, 2010
The San Francisco Chronicle

Unspeakable grief unleashes a torrent of verbiage from the mother of a dead boy in Jenny Schwartz's God's Ear. Its impact on the child's less communicative father is harder to define in the Shotgun Players production that opened Friday at Ashby Stage. Nor is it always clear how many of the other characters, who break into strange girl-group and other pop songs at odd moments, are figments of a parent's imagination.

Confusion is an active artistic agent in Schwartz's elliptic, allusive wrestle with loss, estrangement, guilt and love. If the thematic focus gets a bit lost at times, director-choreographer Erika Chong Shuch's metatheatrical stagings keep paying dividends even when the story's tension goes slack.

Not that Ear is a story in any traditional sense. Schwartz is more concerned with using elegantly fragmented language to explore the shattered emotional lives of Mel (Beth Wilmurt) and Ted (Ryan O'Donnell) after the accidental drowning of their son.

Mel faces her demons alone, drawing some solace from comforting their confused and very curious 6-year-old daughter, Lanie (a brightly noncutesy Nika Ezell Pappas), soothing her with the girl's favorite bedtime tale, the story of her birth. Dreams or fantasies involving the Tooth Fairy and G.I. Joe (the ingratiating Melinda Meeng and Keith Pinto) spice up the home front and yield some of composer-music director Daveen DiGiacomo's most beautifully executed songs.

Ted goes off on extensive travels, perhaps for business or maybe more as a metaphor for the estrangement afflicting the marriage - echoed in the ice-cascade landscape of Lisa Clark's set. Between dynamically disjointed attempts at communication, which seem no less long-distance when Wilmurt and O'Donnell are face to face, Ted is engaging in meaningless encounters with a drunken floozy (Zehra Berkman), hilarious transvestite stewardess (Pinto) and a guy in a bar (Joe Estlack), all of whom have also just lost sons.

O'Donnell and Estlack's segue from misogynistic conviviality to an epic battle of barroom insults is a masterpiece. Shuch's choreography for medics, baggage handlers and others establishes a swirling movement foundation for Schwartz's eddies of linguistic adventure.

Where Ear soars highest, though, is in the great arias of fractured thought, conversational cliches and pop culture tag lines, expertly delivered by Wilmurt as Mel tries to evade and cope with her grief.


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