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Aurora’s “Entertainer” — mesmerizing tale of an empire in shambles

By Robert Hall, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday May 18, 2002

I recognize the scene of John Osborne’s dark and disturbing “The Entertainer,” now at Berkeley’s Aurora Theater, a play about the travails of a family of music hall performers in a declining British seaside resort. 

In 1975 I found myself in the British seaside resort of Brighton, where relentlessly gray skies and a downcast look in the eyes of passers-by drove me to seek cheer in the grandly named Empress Theater. The Empress was one of those vast old English music halls that were once a staple of lower and middle-class diversion, but its formerly resplendent interior had become shabby, and nine out of 10 seats for the variety show were empty. The comics, singers and jugglers in that echoing void were game, but they seemed to know the jig was up. England may prize tradition more than most nations, but tradition can die anywhere, and behind their forced smiles, those doomed players must have seen it was just a matter of time before they’d be tap dancing to an empty house. 

If there’s any justice, Aurora Theater won’t have to worry about empty houses, because its production of The Entertainer is hair-raisingly effective. The play’s author, John Osborne, is, of course, the “angry young man” of the 1950s, who jolted the British stage with Look Back in Anger, starring Richard Burton, and The Entertainer, memorialized by Lawrence Olivier. Osborne gave howling voice to post-war disillusion, when old patriotic slogans and moral verities began to taste like ashes. “What’s it all for?” his working class anti-heroes cried, desperate for some new truth, however bitter. 

The Entertainer employs a family of show people to illuminate this crisis in British identity. Grandpa Billy Rice is a former music hall star. Inheriting the profession, his son Archie Rice struggles to prolong its slow death, while Archie’s wayward boy, Frank, earns pennies by singing in pubs. The play begins when Archie’s daughter, Jean, who has just broken up with her fiancé, arrives from London. She’s consumed “four gins, stiff ones” on the way down, and at least a dozen bottles get emptied as the family, including Archie’s second wife, Phoebe, drink too much and begin to tear at one another. 

Truth comes out, all right, and it’s not pretty. 

The backdrop is the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, which humiliated the British. A second son, Mick, is off defending the Crown. Meantime family rows are punctuated by scenes of Archie doing his act, making jokes about himself (“I’ve taken me glasses off. I don’t like to see you suffering!”) and singing songs that barely veil his cynicism (“Why should I care, why should I let it touch me?”) In the play’s most famous line, he murmurs, “I’m dead behind these eyes.” It’s like meeting Eliot’s hollow man. Archie paints on faces and goes through the motions, but he’s stuffed with straw, and he knows it. As he quietly predicts to his daughter in one of his most bleakly revealing moments, “You’ll be nobody, like the rest of us.” 

This is strong stuff, and though it’s unsettling, it’s also gripping, so Aurora should be thanked for this new look at Osborne’s play. For mounting it so well, too. Set designer Kate Boyd has ingeniously adapted the company’s long rectangle of space into both a music hall and a seedy living room; Jim Cave’s lighting beautifully picks out dramatic moments; and Cassandra Carpenter provides ‘50s costumes that are revealing, right down to unraveled hems. 

“Entertainer” is subtly but vigorously directed by Tom Ross.  

Among the actors, Edward Sarafian tellingly portrays Grandpa Billy’s fits of anger and gruff bewilderment. Phoebe Moyer brings out the aching heart of Archie’s loyal but unfulfilled second wife, who laments, “Better to be a has-been than a never-was.” Alex Moggridge gives a loose-limbed charge to Frank, who is tainted by his father’s blight. And as the play’s “witness,” Emily Ackerman provides a frighteningly contained performance that ignites to express shocked horror at the emptiness she finds. 

As for Charles Dean, this Bay Area actor-of-many-talents may never have been better. When he sings Archie Rice’s songs, dances Archie’s dances and purrs his patter, you can’t help thinking this was the role he was born for, and his performance deepens as the play goes on, until we’re staring into a void where a human being should be. 

Uttering Osborne’s lines, Dean recalls Hamet’s essential question, “To be or not to be.” In Archie Rice’s case the better answer might be, “Not.” It’s a devastating realization.