Stall, Interrogate, Repeat

26. December, 2010 Theater No comments

In one sense, The Composer Is Dead has been around for a while. Originally commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, it debuted at Davies Symphony Hall in 2006 as an orchestral piece with music by local composer Nathaniel Stookey and text and narration by Lemony Snicket, the fiendish children’s author of A Series of Unfortunate Events who lives in San Francisco under the ludicrous alias of Daniel Handler. It has since made the rounds of various symphonies around the country as a humorous Peter and the Wolf-style piece designed to familiarize children with the various instruments in an orchestra, and has also been released as a book and CD.

Geoff Hoyle and the usual suspects in Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead. Photo courtesy of

Now Berkeley Repertory Theatre has turned it into a theatrical piece, stretched out to an hour’s length with a half-hour-long prologue about the magic of living, breathing theater called The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater. Snicket’s various books are justly beloved, and Word for Word turned Handler’s adult novel Adverbs into a terrific theatrical evening back in 2006. With artistic director Tony Taccone directing it and local comedic acting treasure Geoff Hoyle starring, Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead was the subject of a great deal of anticipation–a word which here means the sense of waiting for something to happen. As it turns out, this waiting lasts for most of the show.

The curtain is closed for the first half, with a screen displaying the Berkeley Rep logo and a lectern in front of it. It looks very much like we’re here for a conference. Enter Hoyle as an oily broadcast personality with a big, gaping grin. “You probably recognize me from one of my many radio appearances,” he says. He’s here to introduce a work by “the world’s greatest living composer” and by extension to “the magic of living, breathing theater,” which involves a great deal of stalling and waiting for the show to go on. That leads us into a backstage tour of the various behind-the-scenes jobs in theater to find up what the hold-up is and why everything is going wrong.

Most of this is done in a film, with all the characters played by onscreen marionettes, including a squalling baby director and a skeleton crew member who keeps making bone puns when he’s panicking like Grover on Sesame Street (right down to the very similar voice), yelling, “Everything is going wrooong!!  Send for the poliiice!”

The second half is the main event, as it were, when we discover that, yes, the composer is dead, and Hoyle returns as a preening inspector to interrogate the sections of the orchestra one by one. In the course of explaining where they were, each explains and demonstrates its contribution to the overall sound of a symphony. When the curtain finally parts after a half hour to reveal the set and large, impassive orchestra, it’s a treat that feels a long time coming.

It’s a stunning-looking show, designed by Phantom Limb, the New York-based husband-and-wife duo of Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko. The shifting diorama-like stage set for the second part is charming, and the puppet design is marvelous, from the weathered, neglected look of the ones in the film to the melancholy instrument-shaped heads of the orchestra.

For a show with so many puppets, it’s interesting how little live puppetry there is in it. When Hoyle brings out a sock puppet named Mr. Fuzzles early in the show and does some hilariously bad ventriloquism with it–concluding that “the puppet has a severe speech impediment”–it seems at the time like an amusing false start before the real puppeteering begins, but it turns out to be one of the most robust puppet performances in the play.

It feels a bit anticlimactic to celebrate the magic of living, breathing theater by watching a film. The irony is winked at in the script, but that doesn’t make the experience any less of a letdown. It’s cute to watch Hoyle walking in place down filmed hallways and conversing with the onscreen characters, but the whole experience has a flat, canned quality that it might not have if it were performed live. I have no doubt that Phantom Limb and Berkeley Rep could have created the same effect with an oversize puppet theater with much more vitality. Making a movie may have been a fun thing for Berkeley Rep to do, but when you go there that’s not really what you want to see.

The second half features an entire orchestra full of puppets, plus a shifting stage set that functions as a puppet in its own right. It feels a bit unfair to say this because it would involve a legion of puppeteers to make it otherwise, but it’s hard not to be aware of how few of these puppets are moving at any given time, giving the whole scene a fairly static feeling. Some keen shadow puppetry in the second part also appears to be prefilmed.

The text is mildly amusing, with a number of clever lines (more so in the latter half) but it rests heavily on repetition–not just the long, “Twelve Days of Christmas” style litany of things that are going wrong with the people we meet backstage (“the actor is mute, the director is crying,” et al.), but repeated phrases in general such as “the magic of living, breathing theater”; “particularly the children, because they’re young”; and of course Snicket’s trademark “a word which here means….”

All this repetition doesn’t build on itself and become funnier the way a good running gag does. One running gag that does remain funny consists of variations on “a dramatic performance and standing here complaining about my family are the same thing,” and it works precisely because the two things that are the same thing are different each time. My favorite variation, for obvious reasons, is “Clever writing and cheap wordplay are the same thing!” Much of the rest is simply repetition for the sake of repetition, which is a fine thing for the children, because they’re young, but gets a little tedious for the grown-ups and all feels terribly slow-paced. The effect is that the lengthy prologue feels like pleasant filler, and the main event, more surprisingly, feels a bit like filler as well.

After the curtain call the film starts up again to roll credits and a gag reel of bloopers and tongue-in-cheek interviews with the cast and creative team. This is actually the most entertaining part of the whole show, because after the applause we don’t leave but simply sit and watch some more, because maybe the show isn’t quite over and something’s going to happen. This time for sure.

The Composer Is Dead
Through January 15
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #123 of 2010, attended December 2.

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