Encore Theatre Company is living up to its name. In February
2005, the adventurous little San Francisco troupe presented resident
company playwright Adam Bock's "The Typographer's Dream"
to lusty applause from critics and ticket buyers. Now, 11Ú2
years later, it has teamed up with another enterprising producer
of new work, Berkeley's Shotgun Players, to reprise "Typographer"
at the latter's Ashby Stage venue.
A second production after such a brief interval is unusual - all
the more so because it features the same director and three-member
cast as the original, which is no easy achievement in a business
noted for the itinerant lives of its practitioners. As a result,
those who, like myself, missed the show the first time around have
been given another chance to see what all the shouting was about,
and anyone who attended the original can see if first impressions
There was no doubt about how Encore's full house on opening night
felt. As the lights faded to their final blackout, the mostly young
audience sprang to its feet to cheer the gifted (also young) cast,
tautly directed by Anne Kauffman, and Bock's punchy, irony-laden
script.While wholeheartedly joining in the enthusiasm for the performers,
the play itself left me ambivalent. "Typographer" is something
of a theatrical oddity.
It isn't really the "quirky comedy" its publicists claim
it to be, although the "quirky" part certainly fits. But,
at the very least, a comedy ought to offer a measure of sympathy,
understanding and (it's hoped) transformation to go along with laughs
that spring from the characters' inner torments. Instead, Bock maintains
a steely detachment throughout. If we were dealing with satire directed
at outrageous caricatures, this would not be objectionable. Here,
confronted with three flesh-and-blood conflicted people who are
desperately trying to sort out who they are, the constant distancing
infuses the atmosphere with an emotional chill that is hard to shake
A related question is whether Bock's 75 minute intermission-less
script is really a "play" in the usual sense of the term.
It is virtually plotless and the major issue - the love/hate relationship
a stenographer, a geographer and a typographer have with their work
- is developed impressionistically through statements made to the
audience by each of the characters, with very few interactive exchanges
In the final moments, the latter two seem to have an epiphany of
sorts by declaring they love their jobs, but since their opinions
have already changed so many times one has the impression they are
engaging in the verbal equivalent of plucking petals from a daisy.
An abrupt concluding blackout that silences the stenographer before
he can state his position only increases the confusion.
In style and content, "Typographer" reminds me of one
of those "performance pieces" that were popular during
the 1960s and '70s. One senses that Bock deliberately set out to
ignore the rules of conventional playwriting and stagecraft. There
is no formal beginning. With the house lights still on, the stage
manager and grips consult as props are prepared and actors wander
First to arrive is Dave (Michael Shipley), who, after checking
out the scene, nonchalantly seats himself behind the "Typographer"
place card at a long table, facing the audience. Soon, he is joined
by bustling Annalise (Jamie Jones) in the middle "Geographer"
chair. For several minutes neither speak as they await with an amusing
mixture of impatience and stoicism the appearance of the "Typographer."
Eventually, Margaret (Aimee Guillot) arrives on a bicycle, breathless
and unapologetic for her lateness.
The initial impression is that this is intended to be a panel on
professions, such as might be found at a job fair. Dave proudly
describes how, as a court reporter, he has the responsibility of
accurately capturing everything that is said and how he has mastered
the advanced technology now available. Shipley, a master of drollity,
brings down the house with his uninflected rendering of lines like
"The pressure can be exciting."
Annalise is the opposite. As played by Jones, she's spilling over
with enthusiasm for what she calls the "bourgeois science"
of geography, which is so important for comprehending how the world
functions. When her turn comes, Guillot's Margaret is tongue-tied
at first, but slowly warms up to her task, passionately describing
how the art of choosing fonts and layouts can affect history. She
is given the evening's most memorable line:
"If you want to change the world, change the way the story
is told," although it's unclear how print choices have anything
more than minimal impact.
As the "panel" continues, it becomes obvious that Bock's
characters are really engaging in a series of increasingly personal
confessionals. They are all concerned with what they see as the
degrading of their work by contemporary society and frightened by
the accompanying threat to their individuality. "Am I my job?"
they ask, fearful of the answer.
Thus, my ambivalence. On the one hand, Bock's iconoclastic approach
is not all that new and his craft still needs refining, On the other,
the questions raised by "The Typographer' s Dream" are
as important as any to be found in today's theater.
What: "The Typographer's Dream"
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. (at Martin
Luther King Way), Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays through Sept.
Tickets: $20 to $30
www.shotgunplayers.org, or www. encoretheatrecompany.org
Rating: Three stars out of four
Charles Brousse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org