Review: Uneven ‘Imaginary Comforts’ advocates for the story

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The Ghost (Danny Scheie, left) gets direction from Clovis (Michael Goorjian) in the world premiere of “Imaginary Comforts or the Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit,” playing through Nov. 19th at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

One of the few Jewish funerals I have attended, it was easy to be intoxicated by the power of the rabbi. From what I gathered, the rabbi’s job is twofold – to share whimsical and warm tales of the deceased and to bring forth a spiritual peace and calm to the congregation.

What I was present for was the way a memorial should happen. What Naomi did, apparently was not supposed to happen. Naomi, a neurotic rabbi who acts as though this funeral is her first gig of anything, made a huge mistake – she let truth be her guide.

While honesty is a noble enough approach, a truthful story is not really the way to go. A good story is. The example that Sarah, daughter of the deceased provides gets the point across with serious hilarity. After all, do they teach in Sunday school the bible story of Moses defecating in the desert? Well, no, of course not. But it’s a true story, right?

Point taken.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of “Imaginary Comforts, or the story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit” is both pointed and perplexing. Pointed because the playwright Daniel Handler, known to the masses as Lemony Snicket and his famed “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” series, sharply expresses the critical need of stories. And perplexing because, while so much of the story is compelling, some of it isn’t, droning on and on with minimal connection between the characters in a play that kind of bounces around without a ton of focus.

Is this a flaw of the characters that don’t always operate on a multi-dimensional platform? I honestly don’t know. But what is clear in this story is that the function of a great story along with its legacy creates a special kind of magic, a magic that has the power to shape lives.

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(l to r) Naomi (Marilee Talkington), Michael (Cassidy Brown) and Sarah (Susan Lynskey) discuss the role of the story. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

The show is advertised as a kind of adult fairy tale, and it certainly functions in that way albeit much darker. Each character is loaded with strange intentions. For starters, there is an unkempt Clovis (Michael Goorjian) who does a few awkward things, most notably meeting a woman in a café who is a rabbi, but thought was a rabbit based on her profile. Alarming, yes? The rabbi Naomi (Marilee Talkington) is clearly bothered by this, but ultimately has bigger fish to fry in dealing with the fallout for a sendoff she was clearly unprepared for.

Clovis’ connection is intriguing, as he is kind of directing a play about a rabbit, but doesn’t offer much to his cottontail ghost (Danny Scheie) in the form of direction.

While Sarah (Susan Lynsky) and her family are all in deep mourning, causing an inordinate amount of vodka bottles to crash to the floor, other romances and connections begin to form. The connections come in the form of existential (bad) and inter-personal (still pretty bad).

The strength of the piece, despite its willingness to cohere, is in the individual performances that come from the actors, led well by director Tony Taccone. And while Lynsky is tasked with a searing cynicism and punishing secret, Talkington has a broad take on things, constantly trying to make heads or tales out of what the hell she’s supposed to be doing with her life. There are also sweet and warm turns from Julian Lopez-Morillas as the passed father and Jarion Monroe, the incredibly loyal friend.

Danny Scheie, who’s as potent as they come, is always a treat, and is in fine form here as the rascally rabbit. Scheie often works from a place that has a delicious combination of visceral energy and mysterious motivations.

While “Imaginary Comforts” has plenty of nobility and some very compelling twists and turns, there is probably still work to be done to strengthen the storytelling technique. The story is intriguing and definitely there. And in time, that rabbit will not just hop, but soar.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of “Imaginary Comforts or the Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit.”
Written by Daniel Handler
Directed by Tony Taccone
The Word: An uneven piece that does a nice job of advocating for the power of the story.
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Through Nov. 19th
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $45 – $9
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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