Arts & Events

Theater Review: Ghost Light at the Berkeley Rep

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday January 17, 2012 - 05:55:00 PM

"What kind of son internalizes that curse? If we solve the ghost, we solve the play."

A 14 year old boy watches color TV onstage ... sitcoms of the 70s: Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show ... An interruption, and close-up of a young Dianne Feinstein, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, announcing Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot—and that the suspect is Supervisor Dan White

The boy leaps up. He's Moscone's son Jonathan, the dead mayor's youngest child.

The date is November 27, 1978. 

Decades later—a moment onstage—stage director Jon addresses the audience as if its members are his acting students, fishing for ideas from them for a production of 'Hamlet'—in particular, ideas for Hamlet's father's ghost. Running through the house at the Rep's Thrust Stage, Jon is a hysterical caricature of Jonathan Moscone, who has said of the sharp, frequent comedic bits of the play that laughter is a way to confront death.  

The ghost of the father is Jon's obsession, setting the "time out of joint," exhuming other images of obsession and loss. 

Jon, alone, hears phantom sounds—knocking, voices calling ... Apparitions appear: a uniformed man, asking if he's the Mayor's son; a provocative prison guard, brandishing a revolver; a gay hunk surfacing in his bed ... 

The play is 'Ghost Light,' playing at the Berkeley Rep, after premiering last summer as a commissioned piece at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, written by The Rep's artistic director, Tony Taccone—and directed by Jonathan Moscone, himself the artistic director of CalShakes. (Some at opening night still seemed to think Moscone wrote the play and Taccone directed.)  

Over 2 1/2 hours long, 'Ghost Light,' is a welter of vignettes which probe the relationship of a son with his father, famous but absent, absent by assassination, a darker consequence of fame. The show is set before the entrance to San Francisco City Hall, where a good cast plays out scenes of loaded imagery, some dreamlike, others coldly real.  

One scene has Jon confront the watchcapped director of a film about Harvey Milk, Moscone's presence having been progressively elided, shot by shot . Another has him railing against Milk's enshrined memory, wryly noting that he's the only gay man who would deride the martyred supervisor, America's first elected openly gay official.  

"Ghost light" refers to the light kept lit onstage when the rest of the theater is dark. At a press conference the day of the show's opening, Moscone and Taccone mentioned the old theater superstition that the light's on so both the living and spirits of the dead won't stumble. 

It's also said to light the stage when the ghosts of actors play. And having it lit prevents a theater from ever going "dark," or showless. 

When the prison guard brings up the assassination to grown-up Jon, then brutally rehearses it, using Jon like a target dummy, 'Ghost Light' achieves the tension that stalks its themes, as it does in the tender denouement, when young Jon's father mutely straightens his formal clothes, and shows him in personal silence, but to music, how to lead by dancing with him. Such moments reveal the possibilities of the material, how close to the bone it can be. 

But with scene after scene of constant exposition replacing dialogue, 'Ghost Light' is overcome by "the kitchen sink" effect of too much repetition, and the effect of quickly switching TV channels with a remote control, staggering the time sequence of events real and imagined. In the 'Pensees,' Pascal said the cosmos was an infinite sphere, the center everywhere, circumference nowhere—maybe an allegory conceived in advance of the theory of the expanding universe. 'Ghost Light' sprawls, overreaches, coming back to reenter its own events, but without a center.  

There are fine performances by Peter Macon as the uniformed figure called Mister, Bill Geisslinger as the Prison Guard and Christopher Liam Moore as Jon. The only substantive female role of Louise, Jon's collaborator and best friend, proves to be a pitch-&-catch part, interlocutor for Jon's motor-mouth declarations and confidences, fleshed out by Robinn Rodriguez, but nonetheless a thankless task. 

Taccone's script, supposedly cut down from its original length for the Ashland performances, still needs to find a stylization for its wild shifts and swings of subject, mood, and treatment of the aftereffects of an event that has lived on subliminally in the margins of Bay Area life for almost 35 years. Practically everyone living here then remembers where they were, what they were doing, when interrupted by the news of the double assassination that awful day. . 

In the house opening night were Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and ex-Mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown.  

Tuesdays through Sundays, through February 19, Berkeley Repertory Theatre Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. $14.50-$73. (510) 647-2949;