Arts Listings

‘The Shadow Box’ at Masquers Playhouse in Pt. Richmond

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday September 04, 2007

The only way to beat this thing ... is to leave nothing behind, nothing unsaid, nothing undone—use it all up! (But I’m scared to death!)” 

So says Brian (Jim Fye), a self-styled “self-satisfied, admittedly bad writer,” author of (among other atrocities), “four autobiographies, each one under a different name,” to his boozy, partygirl ex-wife Beverly (Dana Zook), who has almost come to blows with Brian’s doting boyfriend, ex-hustler Mark (Ben Ortega), in the hospice cottage where Brian’s living out his last days—not exactly in double connubial bliss, but in a funny way, near enough—as the center panel in the triptych of moribund cottagers and their loved ones, in Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, splendidly staged by director Phoebe Moyer at the Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond. 

The Shadow Box is very probably the best of a genre that came in with the ’70s, preceded a little by hits like Brian’s Song, meditations and milieu dramas on mortality, often very sentimental—if not maudlin—mostly pushing carpe diem to the middle-class limit of self-discovery. 

The Shadow Box differs from the cliche considerably, even if it has weathered a little as time goes on, due to its superior mostly non-, even anti-sentimental script—and its abundance of comic and satiric features, which offset any sense of brooding that could accumulate like weepy humidity. 

Cristofer is maybe more familiar (though not by name) to audiences as a screenwriter; the stage sharpened his ear for dialogue and that unusual taste for the satiric. Hordes of viewers (as most have, if at all, seen it on video after it was “untimely ripped” from the big screen) might excoriate him for his work on the movie version of Bonfire of the Vanities—but some think it the best film satire of the ’80s and its Reaganomics attitudes and fake Frank Capra film hits, in no little part due to its scenario, deliberately crossgrain to the popular Tom Wolfe book and its racy dialogue.  

It’s that sense of capturing the atmospherics, real or imagined, of an era that conditions The Shadow Box, its backgrounds, its characters and their stories—though, with that said, Phoebe Moyer (herself a fine actor) has used this “of its time” quality without comment or overhang (or hangover—excepting Beverly’s), concentrating intensively on the theme and script with her cast to bring off a coup of ensemble playing, true to the play’s intended end, unusual for a community theater, even such a solid, group-oriented production house as the Masquers. 

And, as par for the usual Masquers course, she’s been ably assisted by Tammy Berlin’s costume design, John Hull’s set, Rob (alias “Bill”) Bradshaw’s lights, Jerry Telfer’s sound and Margaret Paradis’ props. 

The scenes and vignettes are increasingly syncopated as the play progresses, and the dialogue of the three groups begins to skillfully overlap, making yet another element in a story that’s developed from bits and pieces of conversation and memories told to another—and interviews delivered to the audience, where The Interviewer (Elizabeth Smith) sits by the side, watching the play as well.  

The families are a mix. Besides the humorously louche grouping of Brian’s bunch, to stage right (and opening the play) is a literally regular Joe (Dale Camden), welcoming his reticent wife Maggie (Elizabeth Williams) and (like Brian as writer, admittedly bad guitarist-singer) son Steve (Joshua Huston) to the cottage (which Maggie won’t enter), only to discover Steve hasn’t learned of his terminal diagnosis.  

To the left is a sodden mother-daughter act: bitter, salty (and blind) Felicity (Christine Macomber) and her downtrodden offspring Agnes (Kristine Anne Lowry)—who hides a secret from her strangely vulnerable “tough case” mother. 

Cristofer breaks with convention by putting the comical milieu at center stage, but it’s a coup that makes the play come alive, defying the ravages of time and taste as its characters aspire to do. It also enables Fye and Zook to perform a comic rave-up as a very funny and truly odd ex-couple, while Ortega (also a standup comic) expertly deadpans as “straight” man. 

The overlapping dialogue is finally fulfilled in its syncopation with a chorus of the full cast addressing the audience, or life itself, in broken, almost ecstatic phrases that approximate a tone poem. 



Through Sept. 29 at Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Point Richmond. $15. 232-4031.