Ann Singer, Bay Area theatre, Berkeley, Berkeley theatre, Central Works, Deb Fink, Debbie Shelley, dreams, Edward King, Erica Nietfeld, fantasy, Gary Graves, Greek theatre, Greek tragedy, Gregory Scharpen, incest, independent theatre, indie theatre, Jan Zvaifler, Jim Norrena, John Patrick Moore, Kendra Lee Oberhauser, Kevin Clarke, Method play, Michelle Talgarow, midlife crisis, Oedipus complex, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Tyrannus, Robin Valerie Low, San Bernardino Valley, Southern California, taboo, Tammy Berlin, theatre, Theatre review, Vanessa Ramos, world premiere
“Forty-two. His age had astounded him for years, and each time that he had sat so astounded, trying to figure out what had become of the young, slim man in his twenties, a whole additional year slipped by and had to be recorded, a continually growing sum which he could not reconcile with his self-image.”
– Philip K. Dick, A Maze of Death
It somehow seems strangely appropriate that I spent Mother’s Day watching about Oedipal issues. I’m not sure why, but it does. I made my way to the theatre passing by countless new grads of UC Berkeley, who’d been handed their diplomas no-more-than-an-hour prior. As they all took photos, shook hands, and hugged family members, they all wore the same facial expression: a sense of relief from near-incessant scholastic pressure, and an almost naïve optimism for what adult life held in store.
Perhaps I’m unnecessarily cynical, but as someone who reads and watches the news every day, I have an ever-decreasing level of optimism about the prospects of each successive generation. I’m certainly not rooting for them to fail, but I know that if they do – no matter how much hard work they put in – they’ll be unfairly labelled “lazy” by their elders; the same elders who created the rules that made it so hard for these youngsters.
Edward King is a play written and directed from the point-of-view of this sort of world-weariness. It’s from the perspective of someone who doesn’t need to be told that the world isn’t fair. You can laugh about it, you can cry about it, you can even do both. This play never decides which one, and that’s part of the problem.
Edward King has delivered mail for 20 years now. He’s happily married, has a daughter away at college, and owns his home. By that description, you’d think him a happy man. He isn’t. When he isn’t having incomprehensible nightmares about a shadowy figure, he’s regularly chased on his mail route by an angry dog, is told that his daughter never wants to see him again, and he finds an unidentifiable fungus growing in his house. And the fact that his dreams seem to suggest he has Oedipal issues doesn’t exactly help his marriage.
As Edward’s suspicions rise and the fungus metastasizes, his growing desperation leads him to more drastic measures. Is he merely overreacting to a sudden life down-turn, or is he right in assuming that he’s cursed?
The “mid-life crisis” story has been used as the basis for everything from American Beauty to Breaking Bad. They don’t always revolve around the protagonist lamenting what he could have been, but they often contain a disdain by the protagonist about where they wound up. It’s usually an easy starting point from which to draw sympathy. Unfortunately, the title character never really elevates above the level “I hate my job” bellyaching, and is hard to sympathize with. Sure, kvetching about one’s job is an exercise in which all the characters participate – from Edward’s wife Jo to the shrink he sees on his lunch break – but they aren’t solely defined by their bellyaching the way Edward is. The script constantly giving him new things to whine about doesn’t do him any favors.
And yet, the play could have worked, had it gone purely for broad comedy. A few moments of intentional comedy land, but we’re expected to take the rest of the outlandish scenario at face value. That includes an unseen fungus that’s apparently devouring the house like The Blob, Edward’s insistence that he’s cursed, and the very real possibility that Edward’s wife might be his own mother because a spirit in his dream told him so. These are the clichéd twists of a daytime soap, not a serious drama. Had the play given the audience a wink or two to let us know that it was satirizing those very clichés, it would have worked out for the better. It’s not so easy to suspend one’s belief in a story about unknowingly marrying and procreating with your own mom (yes, the original Oedipus play is mentioned by name).
As directed by Gary Graves, the staging aims to make the most use of the thrust stage in the classic architecture of the Berkeley City Club. It often goes well, but there were many times when following the action meant swinging my head back-and-forth as if I were following a tennis match. John Patrick Moore often seems unsure of what to make of the lines. Granted, the character is written as often befuddled, but the delivery often makes it hard to distinguish between actor confusion and character confusion. Better served is the character of Edward’s waitress wife Jo, played by Michelle Talgarow. She brings a grounded realism to a story that strains believability. Rounding out the on-stage trio (an unseen Deb Fink provides the phone voice of Ed and Jo’s collegiate daughter, Mia) is Jan Zvaifler as a variety of characters interacting with Edward. Said characters – including Edward’s dream demon and his shrink – don’t get much development or stage time, but Zvaifler makes each one distinct.
The layout of the performance area didn’t leave much room for a tech operator to be stationed without being seen, so I’m genuinely curious as to how the tech work was pulled off without the stage manager being revealed. The sounds chosen by Gregory Scharpen – which include a dreamscape, a pulsing fungal mass, and audio clips from The X-Files – set each scene perfectly. Equally effective is the lighting design by director Graves. With the inclusion of a finely-detailed set of costumes by Tammy Berlin, and you have a production makes up in atmosphere what it lacks in verisimilitude.
Eventually everyone gets to the age where they say that young people have nothing to complain about. In a general sense, that’s not true, but it often reveals a great deal about the person who says it. They long for the days when they complained about things that now seem trivial. It’s okay to have that moment, so long as have the ability to pull yourself back and see how your problems compare to those of the rest of the world. Edward King doesn’t really do that; it’s more content to go off on a tangent. And unless your name is Tristam Shandy, long tangents aren’t a very good thing.
Edward King is scheduled to run until the 11th of June at the Berkeley City Club.
The show runs roughly 105 min. with a single 10-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the productions official site here.