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Michael Tellinger

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"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

OSF 2011: Ghost Light (play review)


Every time I think the Oregon Shakespeare Festival can't possibly get better, it does. Ghost Light, a new play by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone, is a very affecting and wise story--amusing, surprising, and well and clearly told, with a profound punch. It's about its main character's inner psychological state, and at the same time it struck me as a haunting refraction of American culture's broken and transitional condition in the years following the assassinations and disruptions of the Sixties and Seventies. Now that we're going through another period of rending and rapid change, violence and the threat of violence, its hero's story continues to resonate. I feel too close to my own times to judge whether the play will translate well in "states unborn and accents yet unknown," as Shakespeare's history plays still do, but I think it might, because of its art and its psychological truth. It's certainly a fitting addition to OSF's American Revolutions: United States History Cycle, which had such a great start, last year, with American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose.

As the play begins, 14-year-old Jon is watching something trivial on TV when the program is interrupted by a report that his father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, has just been assassinated at City Hall along with Supervisor Harvey Milk. Then we meet the adult Jon, now a gay theater director. He's working on a production of Hamlet, and he's having a breakdown; he simply can't get past how to deal with Hamlet's father's ghost -- a dilemma that offers frequent opportunities for humor and playful references for the Shakespeare-loving OSF audience, and serves as a perfect way to externalize his own psychological situation, haunted as he is by the ghost of his own father... as well, we learn, as by those of  his own younger self and a very scary grandfather, plus a somewhat ambiguous guardian angel given to morphing, a dream lover, a nightmare film director, and various other characters from his unconscious.

All these dream characters and ghosts sounded impossibly confusing to me when I read the synopsis before seeing the play, and I had a hard time imagining how it would work; but when I did see the play, as the story unreeled and the elements unpacked it somehow made perfect sense (most of the time; enough of the time). These fantasies and ghosts are all, as characters in dreams are often said to be, really facets of Jon's own mind (who knew references to brain physiology and function could be so funny?). Like a multiple personality, Jon's consciousness is in serious need of integration.

Christopher Liam Moore is wonderful as Jon.

Ultimately, with the help of his best friend Louise, who will not give up on him (or let him get away with giving up on himself), he does achieve a very moving resolution that must surely work on a deeply personal level with any receptive theatergoer. That's the main story arc, but it's rich in detail, twists, and humor. And by the way, OSF and its Playbill authors describe the play as being about a father and son, but it's more than that: who hasn't lost a loved one, or had some trauma, and been haunted by it? By the end, Ghost Light really gets at those old wounds -- in a good way. There were a lot of tears and trembling smiles in the audience on the day I saw it, at the last scene.

For many of us who were paying attention to politics at the time of the assassination, the Mayor was a hero, but young Jon also wonders about those who didn't "like" his father, because in his young wisdom he knows they're part of the big picture, too. One of Jon's many challenges--as boy and man--is to accommodate himself to continual intrusions by the many strangers who were also affected, in their own ways, by the loss -- and to the sometimes cruel usurpation of his personal history by others for their own benefit (like a cheap joke on Golden Girls that I remember cringing at when I saw it once). The play is full of strong moments about this dynamic in which the public becomes downright sociopathic in its lack of empathy for the real people affected by tragedy. We see it happening all the time, but this play shows us how it's experienced by some of the "celebrities" being exploited.

Still, because the assassination and its aftermath were played out in the public eye, every aspect of Jon's grief does have its referent in a larger fractal pattern, a more universal loss, as well, or at least that's how it feels to me. This complexity of context was true at the time, and now, when this play is taking its place in the new American History cycle, Jon's story embodies larger themes of American life recurring throughout our history-- violence, politics, a belief in progress, the demand for individual liberty, and more.

Tony Taccone
Most of all, this play is a work of art: it takes all these issues, themes, facts, psychology, all of it, and becomes something more than the sum of its parts, that at times reaches very deeply down into Mystery, and then finds Resolution. Though there were some brief sections that flagged a bit, or some parts that seemed rather too complicated (the play probably will continue to be honed; these are early days) the writing, the staging, the acting (bravos to the cast, every one), and of course the directing, are all superb. Christopher Liam Moore's performance as Jon is amazing, witty, touching; he seems to be on the stage nearly the whole time and every moment is rich and new and commanding.

Ghost Light amplifies and offers new perspectives on themes explored in several of this year's other OSF productions: Julius Caesar looks at political assassination through a psychological lens; Measure for Measure shows politics, morality, and personal liberty in conflict; August: Osage County explores the dynamics of a family fractured along cultural lines; Henry IV 2 shows a nation torn by civil strife but being rebuilt; and, coming back to Ghost Light, we see an individual (and, by proxy, his country) struggling to put a fractured psyche back together. And that's just some of what comes to mind. This all feels very much, to me, like America today.

This use of art to carry on important discussions is surely vital to the health of any culture, but we have very few venues to do it in this country anymore, since corporate interests increasingly control what is said. What are the chances that anything like the Federal Theatre Project (of the Roosevelt WPA years) will emerge and flourish in today's time of economic crisis? The OSF, which continues to thrive in hard times, and is committed to take on the big questions and give us all a forum, is a national treasure.

Long may its light shine. 

Ghost Light will be on at OSF through Nov. 5, 2011. Then it can be seen at the Berkeley Rep beginning January 22, 2012.
More... This review was a tough piece of writing for me, because there was so much I wanted to say, which, come to think of it, reflects the complexity of the play itself and certainly the strong effect it had on me. My brain was firing like crazy! After several drastic cuts to bring the length of this review down and fix its focus, I saved some bits I didn't want to lose entirely and have appended them below (click on link to view, if you're interested in more about this play).

some more text I edited out, in case you're interested...

Ghost Light, like so many Shakespearean subplots, is about people making theater, and the title refers in part to a theatrical tradition: leaving one light on in a dark theater. Other shadings of course come to mind throughout the story. Such word play is especially fitting for an OSF premier; Artistic Director Bill Rauch likes to say OSF is language-based theater.

Last year's fine American Revolutions premier, American Night, also featured many dream-characters, and this year's history play continues the exploration of hidden corners of the national psyche. It certainly can't hurt to encourage this. People talk a lot about something called the American Dream, but self-described patriots will brook no criticism of our history, preferring Disneyfied legends and Bowdlerized versions of  events that were in reality very different to what is more comfortably believed. When too many in a population are too lazy or fearful even to face facts, much less try to get at the truth, they will remain stuck in dead ends and continue to be vulnerable to manipulation by the cynical and the greedy. And we all pay the price. This play is a discussion about what really matters, a process of discovery, and a reminder of what lies beneath the surface.
Jonathan Moscone now
Jonathan Moscone, the director and co-author, is the youngest child of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, a local leader who, in helping to shape the idea of the San Francisco we know today, played a significant role in setting the national course of social-political progressivism in the US that continues even now, decades following his 1978 assassination. In the strong popular majorities favoring diversity, freedom, and reform in so many areas of American life (take just one: gay rights)-- majorities that are far ahead of most of the politicians claiming to represent the people-- we see echoes of his leadership.

After shooting George Moscone down, the gunman, a deranged right wing politician, went looking for the gay activist Harvey Milk, and assassinated him too. Jonathan was 14 when the traumatic event occurred. He was in therapy at the time, already worn down by a dread that his father would be killed. (Though this might seem prescient, actually it was not an unreasonable fear for a child of a prominent liberal politician at any time in this country but perhaps especially understandable in those very unsettled years after the JFK assassination and all that followed, through the Vietnam War and beyond. It was a very scary time for many adults; it must have been doubly so for children.)

Moscone and Taccone
Spurred on by the making of the film Milk, which didn't represent his father with any authenticity (see link below for more information on that encounter) Jonathan Moscone had the idea of doing a theatre piece about his personal experience of dealing with the trauma of his father's assassination. He told his stories to Taccone, who wrote them down, used the material in the crafting of a play, and then they collaborated over a period of time in developing it, together also with at least two of this production's actors, including Robynn Rodriguez ("Louise"), who described the process in an after-matinee discussion. Here's an excellent article giving more background on the collaboration and on Jonathan Moscone's personal journey.

Milk, which focuses entirely on Harvey Milk, is a very fine film in many ways; it's one of the few I've ever seen to portray the Sixties and Seventies I remember with any authenticity. But it's had the unintended effect of diminishing George Moscone's memory in the public consciousness. In the long run, Ghost Light should redress this imbalance; in keeping with the progressive social vision of both murdered leaders, it is the theatre piece, not the film, which will be re-created and discovered anew by people and groups in many future productions and settings--perhaps even in states unborn and accents yet unknown--and the values he fought for, affirmed.


Harriet Berman said...

Christine, this is an amazing review. I can't wait to see the play. What a wonderful writer you are! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I am going to see the play tomorrow afternoon and now looking forward to it even more!