The Fourth Messenger at Ashby Stage

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The Works by Women San Francisco Meetup Group hosted our fourth event on Feb 21st in Berkeley– a performance of Tanya Shaffer and Vienna Teng’s hugely talked about play, The Fourth Messenger, produced by Shaffer’s 100 Shades of Green company. Our rapidly growing group (thank you, ladies!) was thrilled to attend this musical that re-imagines Buddha’s story – in this case, the Buddha is a woman, Mama Sid –  and features a stellar acting line-up as well as Teng’s gorgeously eclectic score. Of particular interest in pre- and post-play conversations was the common question that all of us asked ourselves – what if, indeed, the Buddha were a woman? Why are our gods and spiritual leaders mostly men?

Here’s an excerpt from Robert Hurwitt’s review of the play in SFGate

“”Messenger” – the almost sung-through musical takes its title from the omens that set Gautama on his path – is Shaffer’s first major project since her exhilarating “Baby Taj” premiered at TheatreWorks in 2005. Produced by Shaffer’s 100 Shades of Green company, it delves into a similar mix-and-clash of East-West culture, imaginatively staged by the same director – Broadway’s Matt August – and set and costume designers.”

Setsu Uzume of the Art Animal says the play stands apart from “other spiritual theater” by its “message of self-growth; Mama Sid’s journey from bourgeois to Buddha demonstrates that it is possible to be both flawed and enlightened. Her transformation asks what it means to be enlightened in a modern world saturated with class warfare, tabloid media and other forces trying to undermine true growth. Shaffer never quite answers this question, but implies that modern civilization tends to destroy goodness instead of learning from it.”

She goes on to praise Vienna Teng’s score: “Shaffer’s delightful existentialism is equally matched by Teng’s musical genius. The score has grit and determination: an alchemy of jazz and folk-rock that resonates from the first to final chord. Teng’s complex harmonies and inspired melodies in pieces like “The Human Experience” and “Look to the Thought” stick with you long after the curtain goes down.” The score has also received rave reviews elsewhere, with Jean Schiffman of the SF Examiner saying: “Teng’s score for the show is melodic and lyrical with layered, complex harmonies.”

The play runs through March 10 at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. For those of you who couldn’t make it, you can buy tickets here.

If you were part of the Meetup event or saw The Fourth Messenger on your own, show your love to the women artists involved! What did you find enjoyable, meaningful or interesting about their work? What did you think of the music? Engage in a lively discussion in the comments below and share your thoughts.

Books and Lyrics: Tanya Shaffer

Music and Lyrics: Vienna Teng

Performers:Bekka Fink, Anna Ishida, Simone Kertesz, Annemaria Rajala*, Cathleen Riddley*, Alexis Wong

Costume Design: Fumiko Bielefeldt

Choreography: Bridgette Loriaux

Orchestration: Robin Reynolds

Image courtesy The Fourth Messenger Official Website

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7 responses to “The Fourth Messenger at Ashby Stage

  1. I’m so glad we picked this show to see! While early on, I was wishing I knew more of the Buddha’s story as written so that I could understand what had been changed with the changes in gender, by act two I was fully swept into the story, and extremely moved by the telling. Particularly effective for me was the segment with the entire cast in the same grey sweatshirt/white pants showing Sid in her every moment of a big decision. Anna and Annamaria sang so well together! It was joyous to experience.

  2. What an extraordinary night in the theater! Everyone was weeping during the 2nd act, and the standing ovation was spontaneous and well-deserved. Tanya Shaffer’s reimagining of the story of the Buddha is both inventive and deeply emotionally resonant. Vienna Teng’s score captures the best elements of musical theater (hummable melodies, and rich choral compositions) but also delivers more sophisticated and nuanced songs. This production passes the Bechdel test with flying colors and put a complex and surprising mother/daughter relationship onstage. Big kudos to Anna Ishida (Raina) and Annemaria Rajala* (Mama Sid), whose lush and haunting duets were luminous! You’ve got to see this production!

  3. I really enjoyed the musical…although being a latecomer I only saw the second act 😦 NOTE: check tickets for start times.

    The music was wonderful, the performances varied and rich, and I was especially captivated by the stagecraft. The use of the draperies, banners, all the transparent materials was lovely, and added so much. The shifting identities of cast members (except for Raina and Mama Sid) was very well-handled and delightful. Plus, a very Buddhist ending. Brava!

  4. Thanks much to the WWSF meet-up group for getting me to go to this terrific play. A musical about the Buddha? I was skeptical–but I loved the show. I was particularly struck by how nuanced and fully developed was the emotional arc of the main characters, even though there was very little spoken dialogue. A testimony to the skill of the performers as well as the writing. Also, the major revelation (not gonna spoil it for you) in the second act was entirely unexpected and yet also entirely convincing.

  5. Thanks so much to the Works by Women organizers for suggesting this play – I am so glad that I saw it. I especially enjoyed the two leading women Anna Ishida as Raina (I also loved Anna in “Beardo” at Shotgun) and Annemaria Rajala* as Mama Sid, whose voice was just amazing. Like Christine, I enjoyed the complexity of the mother/daughter. I always like shows about the challenges of being a mom with dreams of her own.

  6. I know next-to-nothing about Siddhartha’s life – and now want to read up on him to see the parallels! I love that Tanya and Vienna re-envisioned an iconic figure into a contemporary woman. I loved the mixture of spiritual seeking and humor in the script and songs. I loved the simple – yet beautifully and elegantly inventive – staging, costumes and lighting. And I give mad props to the cast (and crew) for kicking some major a**!
    Also gotta add: “ thank you, thank you Valerie and Christine for organizing and choosing such thought-provoking and entertaining (and Women-driven) shows!!

  7. Pingback: Meetup #14: Carnival Round the Central Figure | Works by Women San Francisco·

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