A Series of Unfortunate Events

A Shotgun Players production about a Norwegian mass murderer that feels stuck in a Gordian knot of self-help platitudes.

Julia McNeal as Claire (Jessica Palopoli)

What goes on in the mind of someone like Norwegian neo-Nazi and mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik? What was his motivation and emotional state, the thought process that allowed him to plan a shooting spree? What level of alienation, from society and his own conscience, allowed him to kill 77 people, injuring hundreds more?

In her recent book, One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway — and Its Aftermath, the journalist Åsne Seierstad writes a biography of Breivik and the community he set out to destroy. She writes about him the way Truman Capote describes Dick Hickock and Perry Smith in In Cold Blood. Both writers reconstruct whole worlds around the killers, including their cheerless histories. These narratives aren’t comforting, nor are they meant to be.

Like Seierstad’s account of what led up to July 22, 2011, the playwright David Greig wrote The Events in response to Breivik’s actions that day. He doesn’t investigate those Norwegian particulars, though. Instead, he dramatizes the aftermath of an invented — if familiar — incident. His fictional reply circles the central trauma of a shooting. Unlike the journalist’s account, he repeatedly interrupts the narrative with leaps in time, forwards and backwards. Any momentum that starts to develop gets clogged up in this nonlinear structure.

Caleb Cabrera as The Boy (Jessica Palopoli)

In these asides, the playwright relies heavily on exposition, rather than action, to describe the terrible incident and how it traumatised a choral director named Claire (Julia McNeal). Only two actors play several characters, and it burdens the audience’s ability to make sense of what’s happening on stage. They begin as Claire and The Boy (Caleb Cabrera) and go on to hurriedly reintroduce themselves in a series of abbreviated scenes that end as abruptly as they begin.

There is one other dramatis persona, a chorus that sings and interacts sparingly with the protagonists. The novelty of this production is that a different chorus sings each night, which means the energy and the pacing changes for each performance. Regardless of who is singing, the presence of a chorus on stage immediately signaled the idea that a spiritual healing or cleansing is about to take place, uniting a community. But the evening I attended, the songs had a flattening, dispiriting effect — not an uplifting one. The arrangements rendered them innocuous. Strangely unrecognizable, they too began to feel like yet another set of interruptions.

The Events primarily concerns itself with Claire’s life before and after The Boy enters her church with a gun on a rehearsal day. Greig places a chorus on stage while also telling the story of their undoing. But they’re not really part of the drama. Because they’re standing outside the play, they make the imagined story less believable. Instead of acknowledging that odd tension in some inventive way, the choristers, when not singing, have been directed to sit still and watch like members of the audience.

If a theatrical production can exhibit a consciousness then this one was entirely analog. From the set design to the costumes to the primal therapy scene of rebirth, this staging of The Events exists in a time warp that doesn’t reach past 1979. The Kumbaya spirit of the chorus pushes Claire towards an entirely expected cycle of rage, forgiveness and redemption. It’s as if Greig outlined the play after reading Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ work on the stages of grief. The language of the play is stuck in a Gordian knot of self-help platitudes. Rationally, it cannot contend with The Boy’s inexplicable turn toward darkness. Artistically, it doesn’t meet his disordered mind at all.

The Events, through June 4, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org/events

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