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Flash Review, 1-19: "Ghost Light"
Taccone & Moscone probe a city's tragedy and a son's search

Peter Macon (center) performs at Berkeley Rep with the cast of "Ghost Light," written by Tony Taccone and directed by Jonathan Moscone. Photo courtesy

By Jordan Winer
Copyright 2012 Jordan Winer

BERKELEY -- It's been said that there's nothing romantic about probing the unknown.

We all have ghosts we won't face. For most of us these are private ghosts. Mothers or fathers we never quite made peace with yet who stay with us like, well, ghosts. It's different if that ghost is your father, the late San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who despite being assassinated along with Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978, has become a footnote in the latter man's ongoing and growing legacy. This is the crux of the dynamic, messy, brilliant spider web of a play called "Ghost Light," playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through February 19.

A ghost light is the lone naked bulb that is left on in every theater overnight, when everyone has gone home. It's both a superstition, keeping the ghosts away, and very practical: Theaters are black boxes and if you open one up in the morning without a light you may end up in ER.

"Ghost Light" is very much about facing the ghosts which the light keeps at bay. It's the story of Jonathan Moscone finally dealing publically with a very public tragedy. It is also about a theater director, "Jon" (played wonderfully by Christopher Moore) who is creatively blocked and unable to get his production of "Hamlet" off the ground because he cannot figure out how to portray, or even dress, the Ghost in the play. The indecision of the neurotic prince and the overly caffienated director are the parallel tracks on which we ride through this world. And it's a complex world. In it we have young Jon (James Myers), his grieving silent mother, his best friend/confessor/beleaguered costume designer Louise, a godlike cop named "Mister" (Peter Macon) and, most significantly, like Dante's guide through the Inferno, we meet the ghost of Moscone's grandfather, a Prison Guard from San Quentin (Bill Geisslinger). It is this macho violent ghost who Moscone has to kill in order to get free AND, as he himself says in an epiphany in front of his acting students, "become a villain to kill a villain."

Lost? Sure, my seatmate and I were a bit dazed at the intermission. Speaking of Lost, it's akin to the show of the same name, if Tony Kushner had guest written an episode. Intellectual, passionate, complex -- writer Tony Taccone (also the Berkeley Rep.'s director) doesn't err on the side of simplicity. Taccone pours everything he he's got into this and it shows especially successfully when Jon is given space to simply vent, and rage. And rage he does, more like Lear than Hamlet; "If it weren't for George Moscone, Harvey Milk would still be managing a fucking camera store!" And this is true. George Moscone was repealing anti-sodomy laws in the state senate when Milk was still a closeted accountant in New York.

The play seems to exist to give Jonathan Moscone, and his stand-in Jon, some peace. It also exists to give us all some resolution, since we all claim a piece of this public tragedy as our own, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area and among the larger Gay community. In this it succeeds, most notably thanks to Moscone's transparent direction, Taccone's caustic wit, and Moore's naked-bulb of an acting tour de force.

Todd Rosenthal's design, mixing the drab grey of San Francisco's City Hall with video and other interiors is also excellent.

"Ghost Light" is a rare kind of play, for which there isn't any blue-print. It's not a docudrama, but very much based in real life and real people. Watching it, one feels this very much. I'm not sure if it proved as universal as the creators wished, but like Jon asks the audience during one of the brilliant acting class scenes when all the house lights come up and we become his students; "Does anybody know what anyone else is feeling?"

Perhaps not, but I feel we get pretty close in this play, not just to Jon's ghosts but also our own.

Jordan Winer is an actor and teacher. His solo show "An Evening with Great Zamboni" premieres July 11 at Impact Theatre in Berkeley. He also blogs at Great Zamboni.

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