Tony Taccone, the stage director, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, has written a play, Ghost Light, which we saw yesterday in its premier production here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it is directed by Jonathan Moscone, who as a friend and associate worked with Taccone on the concept and development of the play.
A psychological drama, Ghost Light centers on the unresolved relationship of a young man (Jon) and his memory of his father, the assassinated mayor of San Francisco, a champion of civil rights, including those we think of as "Gay Rights." That mayor was of course George Moscone, who was in fact Jonathan Moscone's father, making the "concept and development" of Ghost Light particularly complex and poignant — and, to a degree, inescapably irresolute and fluid.
Add to these qualities the theater-referentiality Taccone brings to this, his first script — the plot centers on Jon's difficulties staging a production of Hamlet — and the time-space travel negotiated onstage, with its flashbacks and journeys beyond death — and you have a play that gives you a lot to think about. Within the context of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for example, Ghost Light fits within a cycle of new plays on "the American Experience" OSF has been commissioning; but it also falls within another cycle, of plays about theater itself in one way or another.
And within that, another sub-cycle, of plays about Shakespeare plays. Then there's the Play About Father(s), among which Hamlet stands out, of course: but so does Molière's The Imaginary Invalid, seen here last night. (I'll get to that later, perhaps.) Theater tends to be narrative; pre-Modernist theater tends to center on Search for Meaning. Aristotle famously defines tragedy:
“A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” (Imgram Bywater: 35).
“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action of high importance, complete and of some amplitude; in language enhanced by distinct and varying beauties; acted not narrated; by means of pity and fear effectuating its purgation of these emotions.” (L. J. Potts: 24).*
and Taccone (and, implicitly, Jonathan Moscone) clearly set out to achieve a contemporary expression of Tragedy in these terms. Contemporary not only because the elements of the plot derive from our own immediate past, but also because they involve means and meanings from our own time, as well as from the universal and even mythic content of tragedy from the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare. Here's what happens in Ghost Light: a fourteen-year-old boy is in shock following the sudden murder of his father. The same boy, thirty years later, is to direct Hamlet. Personifications from the confused memory of the murder and of his childhood — notably the boy's prison-guard grandfather and a policeman who tries to console the boy at the funeral — materialize from nightmares; another semi-fantastic personification materializes from an erotic e-mail correspondence. A costume designer, apparently hopelessly in love with the director, represents both herself, the immediate problems of the Hamlet production, and an ultimately maternal, nursing combination of consolation and urge to get on with things. (This is particularly pointed, contrasting with the fatuous offstage psychologist who begins the play's action: Aristotle's famous "catharsis" is nothing other than move-on-and-get-on-with-things.)
In a q-and-a session after the performance — such events are among OSF's many virtues — Peter Frechette, who plays a memorable (gay) film director in Ghost Light as well as the unseen psychologist, noted that the play changed a fair amount in the course of its development, and would likely continue to change as it moves through this first production. (It will travel to Berkeley Rep in January 2012, with much the same cast.) In much the same way, my take on the play has evolved greatly — and "evolution" is at the core of Aristotle's view of theater — since seeing the play, less than twenty-four hours ago.
My first impressions were of the fine grain and extensive scope of the play: too many details, too much ambition. It was like a meltdown of Hamlet, Our Town, and Cocteau's Orphée, with a little Buster Keaton thrown in, and maybe Thorne Smith's Topper. I saw references to Ibsen. Christopher Liam Moore's fine portrayal of Jon, the central character, seemed a caricature of the director Peter Sellars. The play's two acts run two and a half hours, it's bright and colorful, gunshots are fired, actors take a number of roles in some cases.
But my present impression is that this is an important play. Taccone has worked with a number of playwrights to help bring their ideas to the stage; here he seems to have worked through those experiences, and his close friendship with his collaborator Moscone, to achieve his own masterpiece, in the root meaning of the word; to effect a transition from director to playwright. I look forward to seeing the play again.
I won't comment on the play's credits here; you can find them, along with program notes, here on OSF's excellent website. The actors were superb, the staging powerful, the design, costumes, and lighting both resourceful and effective.
*These translations from Aristotle's Poetics are quoted from Ramón Paredes' essay "Aristotle's Definition of Tragedy".