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Silly Sooth 

The Shotgun Players pull a funny, defiant play out of near disaster

Wednesday, Mar 27 2002
This world premiere of an absurd little comedy by Adam Bock was supposed to be the Shotgun Players' shining graduation from 10 years of nomadic theater into a new life as a troupe with an address, an established company with its very own stage. But Patrick Kennedy, the developer of the Gaia Building in Berkeley, neglected to file necessary permits for a theater, and the city closed Shotgun's new space a week before opening night. The troupe was homeless again. Shotgun scrambled to rent a hall from the Berkeley Rep and put up the show there, and the tense (but on-schedule) premiere of A Fairy's Tail was a success -- if I can use that word for a funny and defiant but essentially shallow play. Five days later, Steven Winn ripped it apart in the Chronicle, and Shotgun's Artistic Director, Patrick Dooley, started using the phrase "kicked in the head."

A Fairy's Tale is better than Winn suggested. It moves with the rude energy and technical innocence of a punk rock show. Anyone too mature for children's stories will naturally hate the script, because it's an unrelenting riff on bedtime monsters and beautiful princesses. The focus is Little Missy-What's-Her-Face, a brash, horrible girl with scraped knees and a penetrating voice whose house gets crushed by a giant. Beth Donohue captures Missy's brattiness in a careening, pissed-off performance that belies her innocent pigtails, bloomers, and big blue dress. ("My name's Edith," she hollers near the end. "You gotta problem with that?") I've seen Donohue control her significant lungs for more nuanced, emotional roles, but here she kicks out the stops and plays Missy in a blare of childish outrage. Her voice grates, but it's supposed to grate; it's also hilarious.

Trish Mulholland plays Mrs. Piffle, a servant who trips with a box of knives and accidentally kills her employers, the Pom-Pom family. This catastrophe puts her in league with Missy -- homeless, alone -- and Mrs. Piffle reluctantly joins the quest for the giant. She has only one expression, a round-eyed look of hapless despair, and she's an incorrigible coward. A scene that shows the Pom-Pom family staggering back to life in her dreams is especially fun, because Mulholland is so good at seeming teeth-chatteringly scared.

Ty Blair plays the third member of the party, a gay man in a striped suit and straw boater who's lost his identically dressed lover, Ernie, to a pit of quicksand. Blair does what he can with this character, Norbert Longlegs, but there isn't much to him besides being gay and frightened. Norbert and Mrs. Piffle take a back seat in Missy's adventure, and I suspect Norbert is in the play for the sole and rather lame reason of giving consequence to the title. Bock is a gay playwright, so he may be making a self-referential joke, but the show is only glancingly about fairies.

On their way to the giant's castle, Missy, Norbert, and Mrs. Piffle encounter talking fish, the Terrible Swamp, and a princess who gets them in trouble with a giant squid. The Terrible Swamp scene will separate those who like the play from those who don't, because the Swamp really is Terrible, and Bock indulges a fart joke well beyond the allowances of Taste. (There's a running motif about butts that should appeal to kids as much as it appalls their parents.) In the heart of the swamp lives a clean, beautiful princess in pink tulle, her dress plastered with first-place ribbons. Katie Bales Frassinelli plays her like a suburban mom in denial. When a "flamingo singer" (Kathleen Antonia) comes out to sing a nice torchy ballad, the princess complains about the lyrics: "Tuesday is happy-song night."

A Fairy's Tale is, surprisingly, a musical, though most of the lyrics are doggerel; Clive Worsley's and Kristin Miltner's music sounds like the corrupted carnival-organ stuff Tom Waits puts in the background of some of his songs. The influence of Sondheim's fairy-tale musical Into the Woods is hard to deny, especially when you remember that whole sections of the first Woods audiences in New York went home at intermission because the characters in the show were announced to live "happily ever after." Here Missy, Norbert, and Mrs. Piffle are about to get eaten by the giant squid at the end of act one when an overweening narrator insists that the characters are as good as dead. "NO, WE'RE NOT!" hollers Missy. "DON'T GO HOME! IT'S ONLY INTERMISSION!"

A Fairy's Tail is slight nonsense, but also lively fun. It may be Bock's most entertaining play yet, if only because he hasn't mastered the art of drawing full characters for the stage. His previous local efforts -- Swimming in the Shallows and Five Flights -- were whimsical and innovative, but his characters and conflicts never had the weight of reality, the way great whimsy always does. Those plays felt to me like formal exercises. A Fairy's Tale is a formal exercise in a goofy direction, and I prefer to think of it as the capstone of Bock's early period, a valedictory burst of silliness before he gets down to the serious business of writing plays.


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