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San Francisco Bay Times, March 30, 2006


Attack of the Killer Day Care Moms!

-- By Ed Brownson

Mostly true fun-fact: In the Dark Ages – for our purposes basically any time before the mid-19th century – parents didn’t fawn and coo over their children. Quite the opposite: beyond tossing them gruel and some sleeping straw, parents pretty much ignored the fruit of their loins for most of their first decade. Why? Because kids died, and who wants to get attached to something that isn’t going to stick around? Parents banged out a dozen, doted cautiously on the one or two survivors, abandoning the rest to a perfunctory baptism and grave. Even the rich shared this attitude: many a Baron was presented with his offspring only after they’d navigated those tricky first years.

Wow. Have we gone through a sea change on parenting or what?
Bright Ideas by Eric Coble, now playing at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage in Berkeley, begs the question: “Is murder an acceptable option to get your kid into the ‘right’ pre-school?” That there are moments this seems like an OK idea underlines just how wide that sea is between us and our ancestors.

The story is simple enough: Max, the unseen three-year-old son of Joshua (Ben Ortega) and Genevra (Anna Ishida), is next on the waiting list for Bright Ideas, only the best pre-school in all of humankind (“98% of our four year olds go on to Harvard and Stanford!”). But Josh and Genn, though they try just about everything, don’t quite have the moxie (read: money and connections) needed to push Max that last step. When Genn’s obnoxious co-worker Denise (Melanie Case), whose child successfully bridged the waiting list divide, comes by for dinner they decide to kill her, thereby sending her son to live with his father in Chicago, freeing up that precious Bright Ideas slot for Max. After much dithering and pasta-making, murder ensues. And that’s just the first act.

Shotgun’s production succeeds thanks to the two leads. Ortega is one of the most engaging actors working in the Bay Area. It is impossible not to like him, which makes his turn to murder as child rearing technique funnier and more tenable. Anna Ishida starts out weaker, but so ferociously does she grab at her role that by the end of the second act she’s got everyone (including the audience) cowering.

Mary Guzmán’s direction is hesitant and unpolished. The production drags for 20+ minutes, not coming to life until the murder plot is hatched. Yes, we need a bit of background, but it’s the director’s job to make us want to see more, not just endure. The play comes across as episodic – that staging again – but it does moves fast and, thanks to Ortega and Ishida, we really don’t care: we’re having too good a time. The ending needs work by both the director and the playwright. A mash of words and actions meant to be a hilarious frenzy, instead comes across as unfinished and unrehearsed.

The biggest danger to Bright Eyes’s success is the subject itself: how do you nail down an ever-escalating target like modern parenting? Coble’s play runs a constant risk of being overtaken by “reality.” The micro-managing parents of just a decade ago are wimps compared to today’s sharks. Is murder really so far from being an option these days? Not when we’ve got Texas moms (a particularly vicious subspecies) killing their daughters’ cheerleader rivals. So over-the-top have parents become that Coble’s ruthless satire risks falling into the sphere of the possible and when it does, the play becomes a sit-com.

Makes you wonder how these Volvo-driving, child-empowering, skill-enhancing Soccer Moms and Docker Dads would fare back in the good old Dark Ages. All that mud, famine, pestilence? Not a pretty image, but it sure would be fun to see it on stage. Maybe Ben Ortega and Anna Ishida can stick around for a sequel.

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