A theater director wrestles history and Hamlet in Ghost Light, and this time it's personal
THEATER The Berkeley Rep's thrust stage sinks to floor-level down front where a simply furnished living room freely communicates with the audience seated nearby, while to the back rises the imposing façade of San Francisco City Hall. The impressive jumble of a set (by Todd Rosenthal) ensures the jarring conflation of private and public life strikes us palpably before a single line is uttered in Ghost Light. As it happens, the first words are those famous ones spoken by Dianne Feinstein from City Hall on November 27, 1978, announcing the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by former supervisor Dan White. They come over the television to a 14-year-old boy (Tyler James Myers) home sick from school the day his father died.
The dream play that follows is not realistic, but it is also more than fiction. A unique collaboration between Bay Area–based director and California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jon Moscone (real-life youngest son of the slain mayor) and Berkeley Rep's Tony Taccone, Ghost Light is an at times promising but otherwise laden attempt to explore the stifled grief of a man haunted by the death of a murdered father — a father who was also a public figure, a political leader whose legacy is in some sense embattled (or at least seriously overshadowed by the subsequent apotheosis of Harvey Milk).
The complex feelings this entails for the son of such a man — whose career in the state senate and as mayor was arguably more important than Milk's to the legal and social battle for gay rights — are only heightened by the fact that the son is also gay, with a public profile of his own and the mixed blessing of a prominent family name.
If the son in this situation-turned-scenario sounds a little like Hamlet, the comparison was not lost on Taccone either, who penned the script while drawing on hours of freewheeling conversations with Jon Moscone, initiator of the project and the play's director. (Ghost Light had its world premiere last year in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it was commissioned as part of its "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle.") Director-turned-playwright Taccone has the character "Jon" (played with manic energy and sudden introspection by a sympathetic Christopher Liam Moore) stuck midway through the preparations for a production of Hamlet, unable to decide what to do with the Ghost — indeed, haunted by the whole idea. This unusual block has his best friend and collaborator Louise (a lively if slightly affected Robynn Rodriguez) frustrated and worried.
Jon's block also feeds a dream life populated by several characters — a Loverboy (Danforth Comins) spun from an online flirtation; his perennially 14-year-old self (Myers) locked in a battle of wills with some cosmic undertaker cum grief councilor named Mister (a sure, larger-than-life Peter Macon); the silent image of his black-veiled widow mother (Sarita Ocón); and a menacing prison guard in a soiled shirt (a sharp Bill Geisslinger), who turns out to be the grandfather he never knew.