Bay Area Theater Review: THE FOURTH MESSENGER (Ashby Stage in Berkeley)

by Stacy Trevenon on February 18, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

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MAY THE WONDERFUL FOURTH MESSENGER BE A HARBINGER OF GOOD THEATER TO COME

Enter a flight of fancy and imagine the scenario if a deity on the scale of a Buddha were a woman living today, where she and her disciples grapple with modern-day challenges.

That is the setup of the exceptional new musical The Fourth Messenger. We are led through this world premiere by producing company 100 Shades of Green, and it’s a pathway enlivened (I am tempted to say enlightened, in the literal sense) by Tanya Shaffer’s unique and captivating story, filled with decidedly down-to-earth humanity and a couple of surprises, and Vienna Teng’s catchy music, both of which swept me up right away (lyrics by Shaffer and Teng). Aided by a deceptively small (11-person) cast of tremendous actors who delivered the lush harmonies with powerful voices, the story kept me rapt throughout.

Stacy Trevenon's Stage and Cinema Bay Area review of The Fourth Messenger in Berkeley

Based on the life, tribulations and spiritual awakening of the historical Buddha, The Fourth Messenger is told through the experience of Raina, played with immediacy, fire and passion by Anna Ishida, an eager fledgling journalist chasing a story that will make her career. It is an exposé of a new Buddha-like figure taking the world by storm named Mama Sid, played by Annemaria Rajala with the gravitas and compassion worthy of an enlightened one, coupled with gripping emotional depth. In their journey, both face the three challenges of age, sickness and death, setting the stage for a very symbolic, spiritual and yet very human fourth messenger.

Stacy Trevenon's Stage and Cinema Bay Area review of The Fourth Messenger in Berkeley

Impacts to come are hinted at right away as the two women immediately recognize a subliminal connection. Raina, trusted by Mama Sid, takes her place among the disciples and quickly begins to uncover the sage’s heretofore unrevealed life story. As she does, both Mama Sid’s carefully constructed spiritual persona and Raina’s fiercely guarded emotional landscape are tested by their own vulnerability and revelations from the past, revealing powerful implications for their futures.

Stacy Trevenon's Stage and Cinema Bay Area review of The Fourth Messenger in Berkeley

Shaffer’s masterful and compelling story, both timeless and contemporary, puts a fascinating spin on the idea of a Buddha-like sage, whom we figure lived long ago, negotiating the sort of headline scenarios that make up today’s world. While a profound subject, the musical is not without light moments, as when Raina struggles to meditate when she’s freezing cold or when disciple Derekh (a wonderfully versatile Reggie D. White) bounces like a grasshopper between ideas for his own future. But it never gets far away from the story’s core: A sage and a disciple are destined to confront their pasts via their connection with each other.

Stacy Trevenon's Stage and Cinema Bay Area review of The Fourth Messenger in Berkeley

Many of the cast play multiple roles, and capably create well-rounded, very satisfying characterizations. Standouts for me include Will Springhorn Jr., who lends very modern-day pressures to the role of Raina’s editor; Cathleen Riddley, who is persuasive as a follower and frightening as a hag that’s one of the three challenges; Bekka Fink as a zealous disciple; and Barnaby James, who offers a heartfelt portrayal of Yasha, a keynote figure in Mama Sid’s past.

Stacy Trevenon's Stage and Cinema Bay Area review of The Fourth Messenger in Berkeley

Matt August’s sure-footed staging includes creative use of lighting (Steve Mannshardt), costumes (Fumiko Bielefeldt), shadow play, pantomime and props, as when a sheet of silvery white fabric is used to depict snow and then shoveled up. Joe Ragey’s simple set contains many doors used for entrances and exits, giving an open-ended feeling of possibilities that suits this spiritual story. Keyboardist Eryn Allen, percussionist Dave Goebel, woodwind player Jeannie Psomas and cellist Robin Reynolds add a richly textured musical framework for the story’s moods, courtesy of Robin Reynold’s orchestrations, while Music Director Christopher Winslow is responsible for the ensemble’s robust voices.

Stacy Trevenon's Stage and Cinema Bay Area review of The Fourth Messenger in BerkeleyThe Fourth Messenger strikes a balance of passion, intensity, light humor, profundity and quiet, almost serene, resolution. As the historical Buddha did with his followers – and still does – the show also strikes a balance between awe-inspiringly spirituality and the common denominators of humanity, found in both the enlightened sages and their (reassuringly) all-too-human disciples.

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photos by Mike Padua and Matt August

The Fourth Messenger
presented by 100 Shades of Green
Ashby Stage in Berkeley
scheduled to end on March 10, 2013
for tickets, call 510-859-3269 or visit http://www.thefourthmessenger.com

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Maureen Rose "Fink" Chatham February 20, 2013 at 7:16 am

To Whom It May Concern:

My niece, Bekka Fink, has sent me the reviews and pictures of your charming “The Fourth Messenger,” and I found it quite enlightening! Bekka is an energetic and “driven” entertainer, with, I say with some prejudice, a most powerful voice (as a child she was chosen to be in the San Francisco Children’s Choir) attaining what I believe a most captivating and charming ability to reach the public. Several family members are innately talented, and love theater. I am sure, though your last performance is on my birthday weekend and I will be in New York (I live in Baltimore, MD) with my son, I will be missing not only seeing Bekka perform in all her glorious charisma, but miss the most delightful ambiance of the entire performance itself! Please also note that I study and practice Nichiren Daishonin Buddism myself and am very sorry I could not attend………nam-myoho-renge-kyo to you all!
Peace and Love,
Maureen

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