Review: `Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain’

Jan 14

opened Jan. 13, 2007 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, San Francisco

Wacky `Dead Mother’ springs to vibrant life
three 1/2 stars Shirley not to be missed

Dead Mother, contrary to its title, is quite a lively evening of theater.

The full title of David Greenspan’s wickedly playful, intelligent play, Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain, gives you some idea of the writer’s general tone: funny, irreverent and secretly serious.

A co-production of San Francisco theater companies Traveling Jewish Theatre and Thick Description, Dead Mother opened marks the 17-year-old play’s first production since its premiere at New York’s Public Theater.

It’s easy to see why the play might scare companies less brave than TJT and Thick D. Here you have a farce involving sexual identity, cross-dressing, bestiality, Greek mythology, five acts and enough speedy dialogue to choke an untrained actor.

Thick D’s artistic director, Tony Kelly, is at the helm of Dead Mother, which is reassuring from the start, and he has assembled a cast of Bay Area stalwarts, all of whom do superb, even inspired, work here.

New York playwright (and actor and director) Greenspan seems to take his cue from Tony Kushner (Angels in America), who has called Greenspan “the most talented theater artist of my generation.” So, who knows? Maybe Kushner was inspired by Greenspan.

Whatever, Greenspan seems to relish breaking boundaries.

He sets up Dead Mother as a rollicking farce as Daniel (Gabriel Marin) has found the woman, Maxine (Deb Fink), he wants to marry. Trouble is, Maxine will only marry him if she can meet his mother, and Daniel’s imperious Jewish mother, Shirley, is dead.

Ever the creative thinker, Daniel goes to his brother, Harold (Liam Vincent).

It seems that years ago, while Shirley was still alive, Harold dressed up as his mother and successfully fooled his father, Melvin (Louis Parnell), into thinking he was Shirley.

If Harold is so convincing, why shouldn’t Harold pretend to be Shirley for just one more night so Maxine can be welcomed into the family?

Of course all goes swimmingly until Harold’s father shows up, sees his dead wife and is effectively convinced it’s her ghost.


This would all be so much gender-bending Neil Simon if Greenspan didn’t throw in some brainy, wacky stuff as well. When Maxine, Daniel, “Shirley” and Melvin go to the theater, we go with them and watch Greenspan’s randy take on the Greeks, with the cast playing the “actors” wearing togas with genitals on the outside (hilarious costumes are by Raul Aktanov).

Just what is all that Greek stuff? When Maxine gets back from the show, she asks the same question, but she says the play was “nice…we supported the arts and got out of the house.”

With the appearance of a sperm whale (played with Moby Dick style by Dena Martinez), the play heads off into self-conscious surrealism. Act 4 is performed as a reading, with the actors behind music stands, describing the epic action — Alice B. Toklas (played with elan by Corey Fischer) takes Harold on a guided tour through hell — that would be virtually impossible to stage on a shoestring budget.

The final scene is essentially a family drama, minus the farce, although Harold is still playing his mother, but the confrontations with his father are too intense and deeply felt to be comedy.
The epilogue, delivered gamely by Martinez, is far too conventional to wrap up a play that is so grandly — and oddly — entertaining.

Still, Dead Mother is a play that lingers because of the wonderful work by director Kelly and his actors — especially Vincent, whose extraordinary as Harold/Shirley with only a string of pearls to differentiate them, and Fink, who’s mile-a-minute mouth is a wonder.
Greenspan throws an awful lot onto the stage, but most of it works. Dead Mother is as audacious as it is funny, as head-spinning and confusing as it is beguiling and delightful.

Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain continues through Feb. 17 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $31-$34. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.atjt.com or www.thickhouse.org for information.

Leave a Reply