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."