Theatre Review: “The Composer is Dead” @ Berkeley Rep, 12/2/10

The composer is dead.

Dun, dun, dun.

It’s a mystery of epic proportions, except the fact is, is that almost every song that any orchestra plays, the composer is actually dead.  Bach. Dead. Mozart. Dead. Beethoven. Really dead. So, it’s a mystery what the real mystery is.

The Composer is Dead, is Berkeley Rep’s newest theatrical endeavor that employs Lemony Snicket’s text from the children’s book, The Composer is Dead and with accompanying music by Nathaniel Stookey (a living composer) – quite the conundrum. It’s not a musical, nor a traditional play. I would categorize it as a really expensive adaptation of a 40-page children’s book. It’s only runs around 70-75 minutes.

To fill a lot of the time (since the actual reading of the book – with accompanying music – was roughly around 20 minutes), they created a script that delves into the troubles of backstage: the actor is mute, the director is crying, the stage manager is scattered brain and the list goes on (for what seems like an eternity). This over-dramatized introduction took most of the time and it was drawn out at every angle – long pauses by the only actor, Geoff Hoyle (the Inspector), on stage and a even longer video sequence where Hoyle interacts with a movie. Yes, a movie. While, Hoyle’s timing is usually impeccable (since he had to act with an object), the pacing was so slow that I was getting ansty fifteen minutes into the production.

Then, the skeleton stagehand tells us, “Almost everything possible, that everyone could ever think of, ever, may have gone wrong with the magic of living breathing theatre, but at least nothing has gone wrong with the composer. The show must go on!” But then we learn that the composer is dead…

Dun, dun, dun.

The curtain goes up to display an absolutely breathtaking set design with a full orchestra pit of puppets, cleverly designed by Phantom Limb. The audience gasped audibly. (Maybe it was because we were all yawning at that point.) In any case, the set is incredible — nothing like I’ve ever seen on the stage. It mimicked the old Victorian paper puppet theatres; it was unbelievable. And the puppets were to die for.

Directed by Tony Taccone, the stylization felt pushed in every direction. It wasn’t directed specifically to a younger audience (which in retrospect, they should) nor to the adult. It was too slow-paced for children and too wacky for adults. Who was their target demographic? I’m not sure if they know who it is.

In any case, the set, nor the quirkiness of the premise kept me engaged. Once the reading of the children’s book started, I was throughly entertained by Snicket’s clever and creative writing but that only lasted a good 20 minutes.  The book ended and the show was over, at least the audience thought it was (since the house lights went up) and then another video started. It rolled out credits and blooper videos for another 10 minutes. Generally, in the movie theatre you can decide if you want to watch the credits, but the audience awkwardly sat down and were forced to sit (and tentatively clap) throughout this 10-minute video. Strange, to say the least.

When it was over, the general feeling was confusion. There was no standing ovation. Nothing. We all just awkwardly left the theatre, not really understanding what we had just witnessed.

I commend Berkeley Rep for trying something new and working with artists like Lemony Snicket, Nathaniel Stookey and the San Francisco Symphony (they recorded all of the music, which you can purchase with the book), but overall, I wasn’t engaged and left the theatre a bit let down. If your expectations are low, then you might enjoy this quirky new adaptation, but if you want to be moved or throughly entertained, then you might want to skip this one. I wish I had — not even the ingenius puppets did the trick.


2 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “The Composer is Dead” @ Berkeley Rep, 12/2/10

  1. I agree with this review. The set was so beautiful, and I
    greatly admired all of the work that also went into the puppets,
    and the movie. But there was little cohesion between the parts, and
    it ultimately felt empty. I felt that the decision to mount this
    show before it had been fully developed was terribly

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