Don't Miss the 'Messenger' at Ashby Stage

Local playwright and actor Tanya Shaffer made a splash in the late 1990s with Let My Enemy Live Long!, her long-running solo show about her travels in Africa, and then with her multicharacter play Baby Taj at TheatreWorks in 2005, a romantic comedy about travel and parenting. Now Shaffer's back with her first musical, The Fourth Messenger, loosely inspired by the life of the Buddha. But this time the guru is a woman living in the present day, and a driven young journalist is out to expose her as a fraud.

The self-produced world premiere at Berkeley's Ashby Stage (home of the Shotgun Players) is an impressively polished production helmed by Broadway director Matt August, who also directed Baby Taj. Joe Ragey's elegantly simple-looking set depicts a wood-floored ashram with diaphanous white curtains and screens everywhere. A live four-piece band (keyboard, percussion, woodwinds, cello) is dimly visible through a second-story curtain.

It's not exactly a rock musical, although that style informs many of the songs, with music by Vienna Teng and lyrics by Shaffer and Teng. Some ditties are even reminiscent of Jesus Christ Superstar, although driven by burbling piano rather than guitar. The lyrics are sharp, playful and often hilarious, something that's apparent early on in a peaceful meditation tune that keeps breaking into agitated litanies of the practitioners' inner anxieties.

It takes a while for undercover reporter Raina to pry it out of her, but the semi-mythic backstory of Sid Arthur (say it out loud), known as Mama Sid, mirrors that of the Buddha: born into a sheltered existence of luxury, she left everything behind -- including her family -- to go off in search of enlightenment, going without food or sleep and giving up all attachments until the cycle of rebirth was laid bare before her. In the world of this particular story, she may be the Buddha; while it's set in the present day, her predecessor is never mentioned and her practice is only described as vaguely "New Age."

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Annemaria Rajala plays Sid with serene grace and gentle good humor that makes her seem wise and down-to-earth at the same time, and she's effectively haunted and restless in flashbacks to when she was still a starving seeker. Anna Ishida embodies the troubled muckraker Raina with fierce intensity and festering anger that lingers just under the surface when she's making nice with the devotees.

Will Springhorn Jr. is a lively presence as Raina's mercenary editor/lover and especially as Sid's befuddled tycoon father, who's so disturbed by a fortuneteller's prophecy that his child may turn out to be some mystic hobo that he creates a whole gated community just to shelter her from the world outside. Alexis Wong is pleasantly perplexed as Sid's hapless mother, and Barnaby James is an earnest and gentle puppy love.

Jackson Davis is exudes simple faith and contentment as Sid's longtime disciple, and Reggie D. White, Simone Kertesz, Bekka Fink, and Dave Garrett give priceless turns as assorted devotees with their own issues to get over. Cathleen Riddley has an amusing scene as the over-the-top fortuneteller, and she and White are riveting as accusatory specters of the harsh world Sid's been sheltered from.

August's staging is well-paced and dynamic, with effective use of shadow play. Fumiko Beilefedt's versatile costumes help transport us from peaceful ashram to glitzy Stepford enclave to squalid city streets. Not everyone in the cast is the strongest singer, and the principals show moments of strain, but the style of the show accommodates that, both musically and emotionally.

It's a smart script, funny and touching in all the right places, and Shaffer's treatment of Buddhist teaching is savvy and respectful without getting too bogged down in metaphysics (although the rhapsodic closing number comes close). Why Raina is out to get Sid is pretty easy to guess from the outset, but her beef is handled in an authentically complex way. All in all, it's a satisfying and remarkably entertaining new musical that takes on spiritual life with wit and emotional resonance without getting all woo-woo about it. Berkeley's a fine place for a show like this to debut, but like Sid's teachings, it seems sure to catch on if the outside world gets a chance to hear it.

The Fourth Messenger runs through March 10, 2013 at Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit thefourthmessenger.com.

All photos: Mike Padua.

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