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Marin Independent Journal, August 1, 2006


Trying to shape history, their own and the world's

-- By Charles Brousse

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 still hold.

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 off.

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 on stage.
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 in.

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. 3
Tickets: $20 to $30
Information: 510-841-6500, or www.
Rating: Three stars out of four

Charles Brousse can be reached at

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