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Berkeley Daily Planet, April 4, 2006

Arts: Preschool Placement Leads To Murder in ‘Bright Ideas’

-- By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet

"How much do I love my child?"

The question is repeated over and over like a mantra in Eric Coble’s Bright Ideas, a comedy that “combines Macbeth, pesto and murder,” now running in Shotgun Players’ production at the Ashby Stage.

Joshua (Ben Ortega) and Genevra (Anna Ishida) are ambitious young parents, but haunted by their memories of a hard-scrabble upbringing and put off by the more middle-class couples they find themselves competing with at work and with the jockeying to get their three-year old into a prestigious preschool.

Finding out her colleague Denise (Melanie Case) has placed her son at the prestigious Bright Ideas, where Genevra and Josh’s little boy’s on the waiting list, through a well-placed family donation to the school’s aquatic center, Genevra invites divorcee Denise over to dinner. Dinner develops into a culinary conspiracy to “whack” the mom of their little boy’s competitor, sending the orphan back to grandparents and freeing their wait-listed preschooler “to matriculate among the pros,” as poet Lew Welch once dubbed his (higher) educational opportunities.

Spurred on by her husband, who needles her with an inverted “what kind of mother are you?” argument, Genevra prepares a killer pasta pesto. Among the many comic gestures in the show, the couple’s green-stained hands brandished over their Cuisine-Art with ghastly, appalled expressions—between sprints to the living room by Josh to "entertain" their unsuspecting guest and back to the kitchen to escape her advances—bring some faux-melodramatic theatrical parody to the glib, amusing gags of Coble’s script.

Bright Ideas is a kind of Macbeth of the dotcoms, its atrocities appropriately escalating with a role-reversal: Josh, so hot on doing the deadly deed to ensure their son’s future, seems hit by the consequences, sliding into alcoholism and self-pity, while Genevra’s now flush with ambition, after quailing at dispatching her perceived rival mother. She becomes the meglomaniacal soccer mom of the preschool, organizing field trips that exhaust the kids, spurring competition among the other parents that amounts to blood-sport—and threatening staff and administrators with invitations to dinner.

This tournament of parenting finally peaks with a showdown at a balloon-strewn fourth birthday party, complete with a song-and-dance beaver.

Director Mary Guzman notes that “the possibilities of staging” were a plus that made her want to take on Bright Ideas for Shotgun, and she has taken every opening the script’s offered to block out a brisk, funny comedy of gestures, expressions and quick interplay between cast members.

The cast of five contribute everything to this development of humorous expression, asides, touches, with all but the leads serving multiple duty in a range of roles: anxious parents, self-absorbed coaches, loopy teachers and administrators, even exasperated flight attendants. A couple of the players have considerable experience in improv comedy, and it shows, as the vignettes break down into sketches, one overlapping with the next.

Bright Ideas is billed as black humor, by an author of “biting political and societal farce.” The play did well in New York, and is more the neo-"New Yorker” type of humor—off-handed gags ricocheting off a topical theme, in this case yuppies or dotcoms. It doesn’t have the explosive surprise, the over-the-top excessiveness of comedie noire. Few sacred cows are punched, much less sacrificed; at one point, Lynzie (Rami Magron), the pregnant mom, even lectures Genevra with a “have you hugged your kid today?” kind of harangue, as if the audience hadn’t gotten the point of all the wannabe super-parental shenanigans.

The most interesting point in the staging remains undeveloped: the play is all adults, reacting with goo-goo eyes and cameras to children never seen or heard. A parent-teacher conference on the garishly orange set is carried out on wee plastic chairs, to show the parents the kids’ point-of-view.

More of this contrast between the two worlds that look up and down at each other, with trust, expectation, hope and longing, would have served up a real comedy, one with an inherent message in the style of playing, instead of a well-performed fashionable treat, a series of pot-shots at easy targets.

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