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Chicken Little Was Right

Berkeley Rep's dark night of the soul.

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The sky is falling. At least part of the sky has fallen, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The sun has gone down, and we have no way of knowing if it will come up again. It's always risen in the past, but as 18th-century philosopher David Hume could tell you, that's no guarantee that it'll rise again tomorrow.

That's the tragedy in Will Eno's TRAGEDY: a tragedy. People don't know what to do. It's interesting that Berkeley Rep's US premiere of the play opened last Wednesday, the night before the spring equinox — when night and day are supposedly the same length — and a few days after the start of daylight saving time, a conspiracy of timekeepers to keep the sun up as late as possible.

The play is in the form of a newscast, although a particularly chaotic one. The correspondents mishear the anchor's prompting questions ("Is the sense of tragedy palpable?"), miss or jump their cues, and don't allow an interviewed witness to get a word in edgewise. The things they say sound deep and important if all you're listening to is their smooth newsreader intonations, but in fact are just poetic inanities: philosophical abstractions, personal breakdowns, and barking dogs reported as breaking news.

"It's the worst world in the world here tonight, Frank," says John in the Field, and that's when everyone still more or less retains composure.

It's a hard text to pull off, and director Les Waters and the cast do so beautifully. David Cromwell has a reassuringly fatherly presence as Frank in the Studio, even when slouching at his desk taking pills when he thinks himself off camera. Thomas Jay Ryan maintains an almost hangdog newscaster's gravitas as John in the Field, although he was visibly fighting a smile during some of his more ridiculous speeches opening night. Marguerite Stimpson is an oddly grounding presence as Constance at the Home because her mask of authority is the most transparent, her brow knit in befuddlement as she grasps at mundane details to try to make sense of things.

Max Gordon Moore nicely embodies the tightly wound policy wonk Michael, Legal Advisor, reporting on increasingly bizarre statements from the governor (lest we think the play's just about the media blowing things out of proportion). Danny Wolohan completes the cast as an easygoing, earnest Witness without much to say.

Antje Ellerman's terrific set is dominated by Frank's circular newsdesk with a classical-style building spilling out on one side and the back of an old wooden house on the other, and artificial grass in the foreground.

Matt Frey's lighting makes an immediate impression, with harsh lights from the stage glaring down on the audience before the play begins. During the broadcast similar lights are trained inward on the newscasters instead. Cliff Caruthers' sound design features deafening static that drowns out the reporters, mercifully only a couple times.

Although Eno's an American playwright, TRAGEDY premiered in London in April 2001. That September the experience of being glued to the television to make sense of a mysterious calamity would take on new currency, so that's not what this is about. The meaning the reporters are desperate for is no less than the Meaning of Life, some spark of hope to see their way through the dark, but they seem to be waiting for it as if that's the sort of thing someone just clears up for you, rather than a quest that's pursued for its own sake.

Frank says it best: "From the beginning, the first thing the first people feared was the dark."

This all sounds terribly bleak, and it is, but some of the lines are flat-out hilarious.

("He gave me a dictionary," Michael says, "which I mistook as the long sad confusing story of everything.") The obvious parallel is to The Daily Show, but in the end it seems more like a Saturday Night Live sketch, in the sense that it starts funny, drags on, and ultimately derails.

Not just the characters, not just the world, but the play falls apart at the end. Maybe that's the point, but it makes the last quarter tedious and ultimately predictable. The longer Wolohan's Witness sits silently in the foreground, the more obvious it becomes that at some point he'll get his turn to speak. The play is only seventy minutes, but it's so dense and meandering that it doesn't seem short at all. On opening night several people walked out in the middle, despite the lack of intermission.

But all through the weekend, at other openings colleagues were abuzz about the play and what it all meant, whether it was really the end of the world or simply dusk. In that sense the play does its job, engaging the imagination enough to get people asking the right questions. Ultimately that's more valuable than offering any easy answers.

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