Danforth Comins is Loverboy and Christopher Liam Moore (right) is Jon in the Jonathan Moscone- and Tony Taccone-conceived Ghost Light at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Moore as Jon. Photos by kevinberne.com.
Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone have found the courage to stay out of what they call “the suck drawer.”
The phrase comes from Ghost Light, the play Moscone and Taccone conceived together and that Taccone wrote and Moscone directed and it has to do with the life of an artist – the life of anyone, really – and the effort to create work and, ultimately, a life that is true and authentic and uniquely individual.
I expected Ghost Light, a co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre (where Taccone is artistic director) and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the play had the first leg of its world premiere last summer, to be about grief and the complicated relationship between fathers and sons. It is about those things. How could it not be, seeing as how it deals primarily with the effect of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone’s assassination in 1978, when his son Jon was 14 years old.
But what struck me about the play – a strange, fascinating, complex and challenging drama – was how much it’s about art and the act of creativity. The character Jon, like the man on whom it’s based, is an accomplished theater director (Moscone, in case you don’t know, is the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater and one of the best directors around). He has signed up to helm a production of Hamlet and is having what you would call a ghost problem.
The whole production, he believes, hinges on how he deals with the appearance of Hamlet’s dead father, the murdered king. Problem is, he can’t begin to deal with this scene, nor can he help his frustrated designers create the show. Sucked into a world of ghosts through his art, Jon (played with crackling charm and touching sensitivity by Christopher Liam Moore is tormented by dreams that have a great deal to do with his father’s death, and these dreams are beginning to have an effect on his waking life – to the point of nervous breakdown.
While Taccone the playwright leans heavily on the dream world, he also delves into the past as we see a 14-year-old version of Jon (Tyler James Myers) taken into some realm of the afterlife in the days after his father’s murder. He’s guided by a San Francisco cop (Peter Macon) who intones portentously in a style that Jon the director (when we see him teaching an acting class) calls “ooga booga.”
Grown-up Jon’s travails build up a jittery energy and occasionally pause for some strong emotional connections, especially when Jon is challenged and comforted by his best friend (the invaluable Robynn Rodriguez), who is, essentially, his Jiminy Cricket, an external conscience and guide through the subconscious and the paranormal. She’s the one pushing him to figure out why his creativity is so completely blocked by Hamlet.
The flips back in time to young Jon are visually compelling – especially when Todd Rosenthal’s San Francisco City Hall set is dominated by the elder Moscone’s coffin rolling slowly on and off stage or rising up from the floor. But the Young Jon scenes never quite gelled with the rest of the play for me. We’re already in bizarre dreamland with Jon’s former San Quentin prison guard grandfather (Bill Geisslinger) tormenting him and waving a pistol at him, not to mention a nonexistent boyfriend (Danforth Comins) trying to protect Jon from the malevolent spirits. But the journey of Young Jon with the eloquent cop was more than I could figure.
More effective are the set pieces, like Jon’s meeting with a blind date (Ted Deasy) that goes horribly wrong in a bar called (cleverly) The Blind Spot or Jon’s fight with a film director (Peter Frechette) making a movie about Harvey Milk with very little mention of Mayor Moscone. Jon’s fight to get his father out of the ever-growing shadow of Milk (slain the same day as the elder Moscone) feels like a battle the play very much wants to fight but is confined to this short, potent scene.
As Jon wrestles with the very notion of who he is – as a man, as a son, as an artist – you can feel Taccone wrestling with his own creative impulses as a writer attempting to create a play fueled by actual history and imagined worlds flowing in and out of the real one. It’s a complex endeavor, not just because of the subject but because of the creators. There’s a lot going on here on many levels, and it’s a lot to process.
Ultimately Ghost Light feels incredibly personal, almost invasive. But how can it be when the subject is also one of the creators? When we see the assassination of Mayor Moscone re-created, complete with ear-splitting gunshots, we’re in that pivotal moment of horrifying violence whether we want to be or not. We’re pulled into Jon’s world in the moment when his life and so many lives around him changed irrevocably.
The moment informed Jon as an artist, and now in the illumination of Ghost Light, expanded the artistic horizon of the real-life Jon Moscone immeasurably. This is a brave piece of work and an artful demonstration of fact and fiction fusing into something authentic and undeniably powerful.
I chatted with Moscone and Taccone as well as actors Moore and Myers for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Click here to read the story.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Ghost Light continues through Feb. 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.