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‘Brain’ opera well performed, but undistinguished

By John Angell Grant Daily Planet correspondent
Wednesday May 30, 2001

A man undergoes brain surgery and experiences a transformation of his life in the quirky and well-performed, but otherwise surprisingly bland 1998 opera “A New Brain,” which Shotgun Players opened Saturday as its latest show at Julian Morgan Theater in Berkeley. 

The play is Shotgun’s first presentation ever of a musical show. “A New Brain” is a substitute for the previously scheduled hip-hop play “One Size Fits All,” which fell through at the eleventh hour. 

The current production of “A New Brain” was originally staged as a student theater project on the UC Berkeley campus for three weekends in March. The show is well performed by a cast of largely current and former Cal students. 

“A New Brain” was originally produced at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1998, with music and lyrics by William Finn, and a book co-authored by Finn and James Lapine. Lapine is best known for his co-authorship of Stephen Sondheim’s dark fairy tale musical “Into the Woods.” 

In “A New Brain,” songwriter Gordon Schwinn (Jeffrey Meanza) cooks up ditties for a children’s television show that he hates, worrying that his life and talent are passing him by at the expense of his more important artistic work. Then an illness sends him suddenly into a medical facility for brain surgery. 

Most of the opera is set in a hospital. The style is sort of a song and dance fantasy variety show. From his hospital bed, Gordon catalogues his fears, memories and fantasies as friends and hospital staff bounce back their own concerns to him and others. 

“A New Brain” is filled with odd, quirky touches, such as Gordon’s boyfriend Roger (Austin Ku) showing up very late and singing a ballad “I’d Rather Be Sailing.” But in general, the Finn/Lapine story is unfocused, with many subplots from the secondary characters going on at the same time as Gordon’s ailment. 

In fact, the character of Gordon is one of the play’s big weaknesses. Gordon suffers from the boring-and-ineffectual-hero syndrome of many contemporary plays and novels, and there is just not enough going on at the center of his story. 

Most of Gordon’s time on stage is a waiting game during his hospital stay, without strong or distinctive dramatic story points. In fact, the secondary characters in the play, who have their own stories, are frequently more interesting people than Gordon. 

Swishy male nurse Richard (Malcolm Darrell), for example, sings of being poor, unsuccessful and fat, in a song that segues into Gordon’s similar fear that he has no real artistic talent. Later in “Eating Myself Up Alive,” Richard expresses his fears of obesity. 

Hillary Kaye is a presence as Gordon’s brassy and controlling, but compassionate mother. She sings a wonderful ballad “The Music Still Plays On,” about the lost love that still lingers in her heart for her irresponsible former husband. 

Kaitlin L’Italien appears from time to time as a street person seeking change, romance, and free existential therapy clients. David Neufeld is a sinister brain surgeon, off to see the musical “Chicago” with his kids, as relaxation before surgery. 

Enver Gjokaj displays a lot of physical performance talent as the obnoxious, sadistic clown and children’s television host Mr. Bungee, although this character seems familiar in an era of Krusty the Clown from “The Simpsons,” or even Chuckles from “A Thousand Clowns.” 

Overall, this is a talented bunch of youthful performers – a solid testimony to Cal’s theater program. The play is very well staged by director Yuval Sharon, with crisp singing and dancing. I guess the play’s theme is to try and understand the brain of a perhaps untalented man who wants to write art, but who does commerce instead. But for me there is very little in the way of new ideas or fresh characters brought to the task in this script. 

And one question I kept asking myself as the medical procedures got more and more complex: Where the heck did Gordon get his great health insurance? 

Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for “American Theatre,” “Backstage West,” “Callboard,” and many other publications. E-mail him at