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Brooke Bundy
Wednesday, 26 May 2010, 9:30 PM

I can see why local Berkeley-based theater company The Shotgun Players honed in on Jenny Schwartz’s tragicomic work God’s Ear to produce in their 100-odd-seat black-box Ashby Stage. The eight-character script presents itself as a meaty, succinct work of modern playwriting, putting under the dramatist’s lens a contemporary, more or less happy, nuclear family in anonymously white, middle-class America following the sudden loss of their teenaged son. With tumbling piles of words, at once sardonic, bitter, frank and playful, Schwartz’s script probes at the usual melancholy that would pervade such subject matter. Instead, a husband’s betrayal at the hollowness now haunting his marriage is elucidated through furiously glib airport encounters, confronting the hollow cheapness of that space and aesthetic head-on. A mother’s grief is blanketed by rhythmic and snappy monologue, laced with catchphrases and wry humor. With a transvestite flight attendant and a tooth fairy merrily flitting around the stage, it is clear that Schwartz wants to break with any undue graveness, resuscitating the theatrical genre to embrace its own weirdness. The work is nicely ambitious, and Shotgun’s bold design rang clear and expressive, executed with soothing crispness for a small company. The use of color was deliberate and striking in its concise articulation against a backdrop of gathered white gauze touching down on a frosted white rake stage, contoured to varying steepness. The blue-lit backdrop and chunkily-applied white paint of the stage brought to life a cocoon-like icescape, cleverly befitting the fantastically haunting world of the show. An inventive use of space allowed actors to mingle with the audience, staging action on the banisters and in the aisles. Director Erika Chong Shuch is clearly an able choreographer and displays a patent hunger for breaking convention and escaping into fantasy. However, after circling around the subject for 90 minutes, we are left wondering where the real grief actually went. Somewhere along the way, as Schwartz carved out the guts of the story to re-construct her own fabulous innards, she never fully put them back in. Her intellectualized assessment of grief is so damn clever, but I’m left thirsty for what really, really went on. As clear evidence of her intellect, Schwartz went down the checklist, smartly addressing each tendril of tragedy, without fully investing herself in the bloodshed. I can almost sense the playwright’s own fear of getting waist-deep in the mess, and so, we, as an audience, miss out. She comes within inches, flying low in her finely whittled piece of writing, but in the end, this is a piece of performance, and you see the actors themselves grasping at what is not there. The most impressive actress, Beth Wilmurt, playing bereaved mother Mel, had a clear hold on the inner life of this woman, the utmost pain a mother can experience writhing through her. But you could see the script squashing her in most moments, unable to meet with her emotional life. The full leap into this new post-tragic world did not feel complete for the actress. Clearly capable of handling mouthfuls of pithy text, the actress displayed her textual deftness, but deep underneath it was buried her individually carved out journey. Lastly, under Chong Schuch’s direction, some of Schwartz’s unusual conventions are met with a self-congratulatory hyper-ness that can all too easily accompany such invention, not having been assessed with the soberness required to digest them into a grounded stage image. The performers hit all their marks, living out the aesthetics of their movement, but somehow missing out on the deeply expressive potential of their own physicality. Overall, its a whirling, watchable and sometimes provocative ninety minutes of theater, but the audience is left with a sort of hole, allowing a draftiness of theatrical spirit to breeze through. And I couldn't help but feel like I was meant to be stunned out of caring by a signature overall cheekiness and sort of valiantly unconventional repartee.


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  Shotgun Players | 1901 Ashby Avenue | Berkeley, CA 94703 | 510-841-6500