What makes this world-premiere production so gripping is the same kind of prurient interest that might make us, in spite of ourselves, pick up a Murdoch tabloid: it “hacks” its way into an “inside” view of a “true” story, an under-the-skin peek at the turmoil of very well-known people in the throes of very public – and lurid – trauma.
In “Ghost Light,” the celebrity in question is noted theater guru Jonathan Moscone, artistic helmsman of the California Shakespeare Festival. And the lurid trauma is the 1978 murder of his father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. But what elevates this major new play, ethically and aesthetically, above the level of Fox News sleaze is that here the hacking is introspective, delving beyond sensational superficialities to tap the deepest spiritual wellsprings of its characters.
And the hack is accomplished with impeccably informed consent, since the hacker and the hackee are one and the same. Jonathan Moscone is both the auteur (in his role as director) and the nominal protagonist of the drama. Nor does he rely on anything so crude as a phone bug. Instead, Moscone’s auto-mindhack draws on a magic realist toolkit of imaginary playmates, id and superego personifications, descents into Hades and encounters with his own 1978 avatar as an abruptly orphaned teenager.
After the City Hall shooting, the gunman – almost as a deranged afterthought – went on to slay Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay city councilman, whose posthumous legend as a civil rights icon has grown to substantially eclipse that of the main intended murder target, Mayor Moscone.
Like many children of celebrities, the teenage Jon Moscone (here played, movingly, by 15-year-old Tyler James Myers) related with his father all-too-often in absentia. So when that relationship is so brutally truncated, the boy finds himself unable to grieve as he feels he “should.” Nor yet can he quite let go of his father’s coffin, despite the eloquence of a mysterious African American dream figure (Derek Lee Weeden) who tries to coax him out of his defensive emotional crouch.
Those teenage defenses evolve into a smokescreen of brittle witticisms and airy evasions in the adult “Jon Moscone,” at least as depicted onstage (by Christopher Liam Moore). Like his real-life namesake, the play’s protagonist is a stage director specializing in Shakespeare and openly gay.
But there the verisimilitude ends. Writing about “Ghost Light,” Moscone the auteur insists the play is non-autobiographical, at least in any pedestrian, literal sense. And people who know him (like supporting actor Ted Deasy, whom we talked with after the show) report that he neither looks, sounds or “feels” at all like the persona that Moore creates onstage.
No wonder. Nobody actually talks or acts that elegantly in real life. In the impossible event that they ever get around to staging my life and times in Ashland, I, too, want to be played by Christopher Liam Moore from a script by Tony Taccone. Together, in “Ghost Light,” these two create a character that positively crackles with intelligence. Their “Jon Moscone” can be evasive, lazy or bitchy, but he remains very human, vulnerable and sympathetic throughout. And in the end he achieves real courage, generosity and grace.
All that while never failing to speak in complete sentences and paragraphs – nay, whole epigrammatic essays! Nor are his speeches merely clever. They’re substantive, packed with psychological, dramaturgical and political insight. Yet we never feel we’re being lectured (any more than we do in the finest Shakespearean performances, whose actors must also somehow palm off preternaturally sublime language as spontaneous, fleeting utterances).
Part of the trick is pacing. The hyper-kinetic Moore is all over the stage and all over the emotional map, never giving us a chance to parse his diction for plausibility. Likewise, Taccone’s script swoops breathtakingly between moods from one scene to the next. A couple times, for instance, he jump-cuts from eerie dream sequences right into a kind of acting master class: the house-lights come up and Moore zeroes in on hapless audience members with penetrating queries about how to play some spooky bit in “Hamlet.”
It’s an upcoming production of “Hamlet” that has brought Moore’s character to the verge of breakdown. As a theater director, he’s stymied about how to stage the ghost scenes, where Hamlet confronts the specter of his murdered father. Moscone’s costume designer and best friend, played with warmth and tact by Robynn Rodriguez, has to coax him to get on with the show, all the while sensing that the problem is more than merely technical.
How much more, she can hardly guess. Jon has a stalker (Bill Geisslinger) – a snarling, violent, homophobic prison guard who irrupts into his dreams, pistol drawn, to goad our protagonist to some sort of unspecified violence. Night after night, just as we’re about to learn what mayhem is required, the dream gets interrupted by cockcrow and the abusive cop (like the shade of Hamlet the Elder) storms out with a curse.
Without giving away any plot points, suffice it to say that in “Ghost Light,” unlike in “Hamlet,” the Sweet Prince manages to quell his demons without a climactic hecatomb, relying instead on verbal judo and a touch of slapstick. After all, this play is written by Taccone, who – in his capacity as artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theater – commissioned Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels in America.” The two scripts, in their phantasmagorical, genre-bending audacity, bear a sort of family resemblance.
The tiny, inbred family in question might be characterized as the top tier of West Coast repertory companies. That would include Moscone’s CalShakes, Taccone’s Berkely Rep, and the OSF itself (where Moore, a close associate of artistic helmsman Bill Rauch, is an up-and-coming director as well as a starring actor).
Even the black box staging in Ashland’s intimate New Theater bears the hallmark of a rep production. The audience surrounds the action on three sides, but the fourth wall (by set designer Todd Rosenthal) is an evocative heap of rococo masonry which can serve as anything from the ramparts of Elsinore to the bowels of San Quentin to a gay bar to a bohemian loft to the fateful City Hall murder scene.
But in each guise, it lays bare to us the hacked interior of Jon Moscone’s mind and soul, revealed with a riveting honesty that goes far beyond mere auto-biography.
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.
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