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Not your typical fairy tale

by John Angell Grant, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday March 22, 2002

Berkeley’s adventurous Shotgun Players were scheduled to open their season Saturday in the new 99-seat Allston Street Theater in the Gaia building in downtown Berkeley.  

But when it turned out, incredibly, that the building’s management had not applied for per- 


mits to house a theater in their new space, Shotgun was forced to look elsewhere, at the 11th hour, for a place to perform. 

The generous folks at Berkeley Rep then jumped into the breech and leased the Berkeley Rep Thrust Stage to the smaller company at a discounted rate to help Shotgun get its season off the ground. 

The theater group opened Saturday with a world premiere titled “A Fairy’s Tail,” written especially for Shotgun by San Francisco playwright Adam Bock. Bock is the author of the acclaimed “Five Flights,” currently running at Thick House in San Francisco to rave responses. 

In 1999, Shotgun produced Bock’s “Swimming in the Shallows,” which won several Bay Area Theater Critics Circle awards, including outstanding new play and outstanding production. 

“A Fairy’s Tail” is a twisted adult fairly tale in which three strangers join forces and set off for the land of the giant to avenge sudden family deaths. Director Patrick Dooley casts his shows well, and this is no exception. He gets striking performances from his actors. 

Beth Donohue is frightening in her dumpy bloomers as nasty 9-year-old Missy What’s-Her-Face, the ringleader of the trio. Her cohorts include sweet simpleton Norbert Longlegs, an amusing presence with his straw boater hat, blazer, grimacing face and slow mind. 

Trish Mulholland rounds out the trio playing Mrs. Piffle, a housemaid who moves like a herky-jerky wind-up doll. 

Five other actors provide a chorus of sorts, and double in smaller roles. Reid Davis has a funny scene as a fish that gets caught by Norbert for breakfast, and then talks himself off the hook by offering council to the three on their quest. 

Katie Bales Frassinelli is a narcissistic princess who balks at helping the trio because the giant has killed some of her rival princesses and she’s hoping for more princess deaths that will push her up the princess rankings into the top ten.  

The show’s fairy tale structure also employs a narrator, the smooth and expressive Ana Bayat. It’s all a bit like Alice through the looking glass, with adult twists.  

The three wanderers have adventures. In one amusing scene they step gingerly through the Fart Swamp, in a ballet choreographed to the sounds of different kinds of fart noises. 

But this is not a great play. The story just doesn’t have enough meat on it. The top of the play is busy with information where a lot happens to a variety of characters before they are well established. 

Later on, not much happens. It seemed especially difficult to get the thin story up and rolling again after intermission. In the end, the quest for the giant plays out anticlimactically in a facile and didactic way. 

Silly jokes like the narrator quitting in the middle of the show and then coming back don’t really have a payoff in the larger story. The indistinct motif of Norbert and his boyfriend who drowns in quicksand at the top of the play isn’t substantial enough to justify the title "A Fairy’s Tail." 

Because the show’s infantile inanity seems to be an end in itself, it wears thin after a while, and the play starts to feel like it’s written in baby talk. 

There is an original score of recorded songs composed by Clive Worsley and Kristin Miltner, with lyrics by Worsley and Bock. "Why did I dare to hope that I would fly forever" sung by Norbert early on is a touching ballad of loss.  

The songs often, however, feel like they’re tacked on to the play as bits not quite connected to the larger story as a whole. 

According to director Dooley, the company moved into the Berkeley Rep space the day before the Saturday opening. The show had to be reconfigured, re-blocked and relit in about 24 hours. 

The opening night performance suffered a bit from trying to telescope a grassroots show designed for the 99-seat Gaia proscenium stage to the grander 400-seat Berkeley Rep thrust stage. 

Opening night felt like a dress rehearsal at times. But the skillful actors connected with their audience before long, and found a groove. 

Shotgun has been wandering around Berkeley for ten years performing in a variety of spaces that include La Val’s Subterranean, Hinkel Park, the Eighth Street Theater, Julia Morgan and Speakeasy Theater. They will be performing their next show at the former U.C. Theater on University Avenue. 

It’s a pity they’re having problems with the Gaia space that was supposed to be their new home. Shotgun is one of the most exciting and skillful new theater companies in the Bay Area, and a credit to Berkeley.  

I hope they can resolve their problems and find a permanent home in Berkeley. It would be a pity if Berkeley lost Shotgun to San Francisco, as we did the Magic Theater some years ago. 




Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for "American Theatre," "Backstage West," "Callboard," and many other publications. E-mail him at or fax him at 1-419-781-2516.