This Composer really is dead

Dec 03

Composer 1
Let’s hear it for the French horns and the trombones – some of the extraordinary puppets created for the world premiere of Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Geoff Hoyle is the sole human sharing the stage with puppets. Photos courtesy of www.kevinberne.com

There’s a moment of absolute magic in the world premiere of Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

We’ve just been subjected to a rather dispiriting film (more on that in a minute), a sort of theatrical appetizer, and we’re making the transition into the main course. The curtain on the Roda Theatre rises to reveal an absolutely magnificent set that looks like a life-size Victorian paper theater.

There’s an orchestra full of puppets – each personality-infused face affixed to a representation of an instrument – and Geoff Hoyle (the only human in the show) as the Inspector in a fantastic plaid suit preparing to solve the crime of who murdered the world’s greatest, formerly living composer.

The reveal of the set in all its glory is by far the best part of this strangely moribund evening. The show, including the movie, is just over an hour, and yet it seems much longer.

The idea was to take the piece Lemony Snicket (aka San Francisco writer Daniel Handler) and composer Nathaniel Stookey wrote for the San Francisco Symphony as sort of a latter day Peter and the Wolf – let’s get kids excited about classical music! – and turn it into a marvelous theatrical experience.

The work of Phantom Limb – Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko – is truly marvelous. They’re responsible for the puppets, sets and costumes. The visual palette they employ is sumptuous and full of character. It’s just too bad they don’t have more of a story to tell.

I expected more music (performed by the SF Symphony via a recording), but what we hear of Stookey’s work is highly enjoyable. We mostly get Hoyle’s Inspector interacting with the puppets (well, at any rate he’s traipsing about behind the puppets). He actually has more interaction with the moving and twirling paper puppets that skitter about the stage.

Composer 3

If kids leave this show with any overwhelming inspiration, it will be to work with puppets – not to become a lifelong lover of classical music or live theater.

There are two things I dislike enormously in live theater: movies and recorded voices, though I’ve seen both used well. In terms of movies, the two examples that come to mind are All Wear Bowlers, which unfolded on the Roda Stage in 2006, and Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, which ran at American Conservatory Theater last season. Both used film in ingenious ways that heightened the live theater experience.

The film that opens this show, called The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater, is bathed in irony. Hoyle plays a sycophantic host who will present the audience, especially “the children because they’re young,” with an introduction to theatrical pleasures. Then he shows a movie of a marionette giving a slide show.

Given that this is a Lemony Snicket script, things go off the rails as we learn that, among other things, the theater is a mess because the director is crying, the actor is mute and the lighting designer is lazy. Hoyle interacts with the puppets on film, and the timing is expert. But this zany backstage territory was covered with much more humor and heart by the Muppets every week during the run of their series.

There’s a cool distance that pervades the work of Mr. Snicket, and that’s true of both the film and the Composer portion of this hour-long evening. The puppet orchestra and Victorian theater are fun for a while, but then we need story and character, both of which are nominal here.

Director Tony Taccone’s technically astute production also lacks emotional connection of any kind, which is not surprising given that Snicket traffics in droll wordplay. And the voices of everyone but Hoyle are recorded. The necessity for that is understandable but it’s unfortunate that so much of the magic of this living and breathing theater is pre-recorded.

The only time I laughed all evening was during the film credits at the end – bloopers and jokes abound, and I had more fun in those few minutes than in the preceding hour.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead continues through Jan. 15 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73 (with half-price discounts for anyone younger than 30). Call 510 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

One comment

  1. Yours is one of the few reviews that got it right. Yes, it is exciting that there is a new classical music piece for children, but this one is thin is the writing and direction. Even Hoyle’s timing seemed off. There is just no story there. My companion fell asleep. I got bored.

    I wanted to love and adore this piece. I didn’t. The wacky elements never came together and boy are you right when you said the Muppets did it better. Unfortunately this piece had very little of the magic of living, breathing theater, the exception being the puppets which are indeed wonderful and under utilized, the sets are beautiful, sound, lighting and costumes are just fine.

    The movie didn’t really work. Snicket’s wordplay is still fun, but this piece needs a plot and some character development.

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