Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: Berkeley Rep’s LEMONY SNICKET-- a Series of Unfortunate Occurrences

By John A. McMullen II
Monday December 06, 2010 - 04:12:00 PM
Geoff Hoyle in an orchestra of marionettes
Geoff Hoyle in an orchestra of marionettes

The tone of the Lemony Snicket novels is cynical, expectant of the impending catastrophe, snide, rude, and hilarious. Children revel in it, I hear.  

The current production at the Rep could be better named, “A Series of Unfortunate Occurrences” after another children’s book by Dan Handler (Lemony Snicket’s author and alter ego). 

They have gelded Handler’s work by dumbing it to the Sesame Street version wherein they talk slowly and generally omit the Snicketty-style witty doom-saying. 

Starring is Geoff Hoyle, much loved clown a la musical hall performer, as the “Charming Host” in the first part, and later the “Inspector” dressed in a British plaid three-piece suit that looks for all the world like motley. I’m not a devotee of clowns, vaudeville, Marx Bros., or Musical Hall, but Geoff is a good chap and has become a legend after twenty years of performing at the Rep. Regrettably, he is not given much to work with and the spry pratfalls and goofiness are not present here. 

The first part is a backstage tour titled “The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater” in order to familiarize you with all the hidden technicians and what they do. 

Though our Charming Host repetitively touts the production to be “living breathing theatre,” the first half of the 75 minute performance is largely an interactive film made with the marionettes of Phantom Limb that Geoff talks to and literally gets drawn into. The irony is noted, but it doesn’t excuse the overlong, unfunny cinematic cartoon. 

The second part is “ The Composer is Dead ” which introduces the various sections of the orchestra in their interrogation by the Inspector while giving insights into what parts various instrumental sections play in a symphony. Handler couples the instruments-as-suspects’ replies to the Inspector’s 3rd degree with backstage cattiness and jealous swipes at the first violins—those more lime-lit instruments. 

The shadow-box two-dimensional musical hall stage with golden and scarlet portals and curtains is lovely, but Hoyle’s shenanigans and clowning are the only movement other than an ekkyklema wagon that rolls on the dead composer corpse and corpus and the flying in of some sight-gags of flies and teacups. The marionettes in the orchestra are instrument heads with faces, and they barely move. I just came from “The War Horse” in London, and the puppetry in Lemony paled by comparison.  

They sell the book in the lobby, and we were in stitches hurriedly devouring the short passages full of vitriolic chuckles before the curtain. Alas, our high expectations were laid low. As I remarked upon our exit to the smiling young man who oversees the bookstall and who indulged our pre-show reading-without-buying, “The book’s better.” 

Two kicks in the pants: 

1) It was decidedly aimed at young children, but I did a headcount of the elementary school–agers upstairs and down and settled on a round 35 of them in a pretty well sold-out house of 600. 

2) The outtakes from the film that showed after the final credits nailed the Snicketty style, and everybody laughed the real laughs that had been absent for the previous 70 minutes. The snippet of Tony Taccone directing a baby puppet and the finale restroom scene are almost worth sitting through what’s come before.  


Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead, a deliciously silly world premiere for the holidays. 

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck 

TIX & INFO: (510) 647-2949 – – (888) 4-BRT-Tix (toll-free) 

Conceived for the stage by Lemony Snicket, Phantom Limb (Jessica Grindstaff and Erik 

Sanko, co-artistic directors), Tony Taccone, and Geoff Hoyle 

Written by Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler), directed by Tony Taccone, music by Nathaniel Stookey, music recorded by the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Edwin Outwater, lighting by Alexander V. Nichols, sound by James LeBrecht, stage management by Michael Suenkel, set, costumes and puppetry by Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko, with puppeteers Jenny Campbell, Frankie Cordero, Marta Mozelle MacRostie, Edouard Sanko, Ronny Wasserstrom, and additional voices by Bettina Devin, Roger L. Jackson, Jarion Monroe, Asher Terra and Erin-Kate Whitcomb. 

Film: “The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater” produced by Lisa Cook, photography by Martin Rosenberg, underscoring by Matthew Compton and Asa Taccone. 

John A. McMullen II reviews as Eye from the Aisle. Edited by EJ Dunne. 

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