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Past Perfect
Hydriotaphia, or The Death of Dr. Browne: An Epic Farce About Death and Primitive Capital Accumulation in Five Scenes. Written by Tony Kushner. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Starring Jonathan Hadary, Anika Noni Rose, Shelley Williams, Rod Gnapp, and Sharon Lockwood. At the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck) in Berkeley, through Nov. 1. Call (510) 845-4700.

Tony Kushner's newly resuscitated Hydriotaphia, or The Death of Dr. Browne (penned long before his Angels in America) opens the Berkeley Repertory Theater's new season -- and Artistic Director Tony Taccone couldn't have made a better pick. Directed by Ethan McSweeny and performed by a superb cast, this is terrific theater, blending sidesplitting bawdy humor with sober philosophical quest; it takes us into well-known Kushner territory, where we glimpse a moment in the human spirit's struggle to survive in a perpetually disease-ridden, selfish world.

This time that world is not America in the 1980s, but a 17th-century Norfolk, England, teeming with schemes and counterschemes. Hydriotaphia takes its title and intrigue in part from physician/poet Sir Thomas Browne's mid-1600s metaphysical essay exploring the relationship between faith and mortality in a time when understanding of the body and physical world was burgeoning. (For those addicted to specificity: The term "hydriotaphia" is a blend of the Greek words for urn and burial.)

As the curtain rises, Sir Thomas (Jonathan Hadary) moans from the pain of a hugely swollen belly. His exact disease is unknown -- it could be venereal or gastrointestinal in nature -- but it is clear he will die from it. Taking advantage of the situation, a panoply of characters, aptly identified by Browne's personal physician, Dr. Shadenfreude (Charles Dean), as laborers in "death's little cottage industries," are there, counting the hours until he dies. While the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Browne, Dorothy (Shelley Williams), plans to ease her guilty conscience by sheltering the homeless on Browne's lands, her gravedigging boyfriend, Leonard Pumpkin (Hamish Linklater), would rather develop the property for profit. Then there's Pastor Dogwater, ably played by Porky Pig look-alike J.R. Horne, who reveals more than might at first be apparent when he announces with characteristic stutter, "My fa-fa-faith doth have an industrial vi-vitality." He too has land-development interests and is willing to rewrite the will to get it. Browne's long-lost sister Alice and sundry others appear and scheme likewise.

Amid the moneymongering, a malapropism-spouting lab assistant, Maccabbee (Rod Gnapp), negotiates a deal with Dr. Browne's separately embodied Spirit (played by the pixie-shaped and delightful-voiced Anika Noni Rose), who is herself trying to get into paradise. The Spirit promises to give Maccabbee a new lease on life if, working under time constraints imposed by Above, he'll lend a helping hand to speed up Browne's death. Otherwise the Spirit will be made flesh -- which, in this play, is anything but a desirable fate.

But there's a lot more than plotting to Hydriotaphia. Much of the play's interest lies in Browne's own bickering with his Spirit over the importance of his body: Has he, as he claims, shaped himself through his own material labor -- writing, researching, procreating -- or was he simply cast in a mold, his body doomed to follow the motions already envisioned by his creator? According to the Spirit, physical being plays a very small role in the script of life; as the representative of the divine, the Spirit even claims credit for Browne's writing: "I sang, and your fat little sausage fingers twitched."

Unfortunately for those who were looking for a morality play with all the answers, Hydriotaphia's end comes too quickly to resolve such issues of identity and autonomy. The Spirit is made flesh and Browne is made Spirit -- and, as in "real life," answers to the big questions are forever forestalled.

The metaphysical and bawdy elements work off each other thanks to the finely orchestrated stage, set, and direction of this production. Jonathan Hadary plays a perfect Browne: His facial gestures and tone of voice can change in a heartbeat from expressions of consternation and pain -- the result of his disease -- to playful yet pointed humor. His combination of physical and oral nuance elevates even a statement like "Help me Alice, I can't shit" to esoterica. And unlike the many historical set productions that ape a haughty Queen's English, this production cleverly uses an elocution school's worth of dialects -- bumpkin Yorkshirean, nasal Jewish New Yorkese, stunted Creole Caribbean. But, oddly enough, such anachronistic variety doesn't smack of artifice here; after all, 17th-century English was much like California-ese in intonation, and the spectrum of accents obliquely makes reference to the massive religious and economic diasporas that were causing all sorts of Renaissance people to rub tongues.

My quibbles with this production are, for the most part, just that, quibbles. The attempt to do justice to the many revolutions (metaphysical, multicultural, sexual) of Browne's day in part explains the play's nearly four-hour running time. However, the apparently random entrance of gratuitous characters, such as the hotblooded Dona Estralita from Spain, and the inclusion of overly long nonsensical episodes take away some of the plot's impact. And some of the script's playful anachronisms go too far; for example, Alice karate-kicks and -chops to fend off Dogwater's wandering hand. And when the production invests the character Browne with an active Jewish self-identification, the creative rewriting of history leaves a gravely wrong impression: The real Browne considered Jews pure scum.

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