Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead, Berkeley

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Geoff Hoyle (center) and puppets in “The Composer Is Dead” at Berkeley Rep
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Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead

Written by Lemony Snicket
Music by Nathaniel Stookey
Puppetry by Phantom Limb
Directed by Tony Taccone
Berkeley Rep, Roda Theatre
Dec. 2, 2010—Jan. 16, 2011
(See video clip below.)

The thing about Lemony Snicket’s deliciously silly “The Composer Is Dead” is that adults just might enjoy it even more than the children it seems designed for. Some of the inside jokes about theatrical and musical performance will sail right over the heads of the kids, but there still are enough pratfalls and wonderful puppetry to delight—as they say in the circus—children of all ages. There is but one actual human being on the stage and he is comedian-clown extraordinaire, Geoff Hoyle. Enough said.

Lemony Snicket (aka the Bay Area’s own Daniel Handler) is a well-known children’s author (“A Series of Unfortunate Events”) who, a few years ago, teamed up with eminent composer Nathaniel Stookey for a piece that premiered at the San Francisco Symphony. That is the framework upon which this current performance is hung. Redesigned by Handler, Hoyle, director Tony Taccone and puppetmasters Eric Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff (Phantom Limb), it now is a puppet show, wrapped in a movie, wrapped in a serio-comic lecture on theater, with Hoyle hilariously presiding over the whole thing. And, just when you think it’s all over, as the performer and puppeteers take their bows, the credits begin to roll on the movie screen (lighting and projection design by the incomparable Alexander Nichols) and the real fun begins. Don’t rush off to your cars. The outtakes—including a bravura cameo by Taccone—may be the best part of the show.

The puppets, operated by Jenny Campbell, Frankie Cordero, Marta Mozelle MacRostie, Edouard Sanko and Ronnie Wasserstein, are ingenious and range from a nervous skeleton to shadow puppets, old-fashioned stick puppets dancing a waltz to an entire symphony orchestra. Because, you see, the composer is dead and the Inspector (Hoyle) is bound to find out whodunit. Stookey’s music is terrific, particularly in a graveyard scene where his score quotes dead composers from Bach to Mahler, Scarlatti to Schoenberg and back again. The musical cognoscenti will howl, but this is the part the kids may not get. For them there is a meticulous demonstration of how an orchestra works, worthy to stand next to Benjamin Britten’s famed “The Young Person’s Guide…” except that it’s funnier.

This review is already longer than the show, which clocks in at just about an hour, so let’s wind it up. Everybody seems to be driving a hybrid nowadays, and Berkeley Rep may have a solid holiday hit in this one. “The Composer Is Dead” you say? Well, I say, long live “The Composer.”

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