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Tragedy: a tragedy

Will Eno's perfectly performed absurdist play serves as a poke in the eye to the news media.

Marguerite Stimpson and Thomas Jay Ryan
in Tragedy: a tragedy
(© Kevin Berne)
Thanks to the rise of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Americans have become pretty savvy about the artifice and showmanship of broadcast news. Attentive viewers have noted the rococo rhetoric of newscasters, the hollow newslessness of the 24-hour networks, and the trend towards sensationalism and fear-mongering. Will Eno's Beckettian play Tragedy: a tragedy, getting its U.S. premiere at Berkeley Rep under Les Waters' nuanced and witty direction, likewise satirizes the conventions of TV news.

But the absurdity of the local news is here wed to the genre of Absurdism, and the result is a charming display of witty satire in the face of Armageddon. Sharply written and perfectly performed, this 75-minute play serves as a big ol' poke in the eye to media in an age of geopolitical uncertainty, pending disaster, and a preoccupation with ratings.

The action is tantamount to watching paint dry -- or hearing a description of paint drying by a TV reporter. "It's the worst world in the world here tonight," announces grave news anchor Frank (a spot-on Walter Cronkite wannabe played by the bespectacled and grey-headed David Cromwell) from his big desk in The Newsroom (well designed by Antje Ellermann). "Is the sense of tragedy palpable?" he prompts. "Yes, you can almost feel it," replies John in the Field (Thomas Jay Ryan) as the journalists report on the top -- and only -- story of the night.

Like much of Eno's work, Tragedy is almost exclusively dedicated to triviality and linguistic filler. The language uncannily captures the empty verbiage of news anchors and reporters. "I've just gotten word that we don't know anything more," reports John, who fills the dead air by reporting that animals are still doing what animals do, making circles before lying down and the like. John alternates between stabs at existential wisdom and bouts of utter panic, nose-bleeds, and heart palpitations.

Aided by his beige trench coat and the backdrop of the marble steps of a government building, Michael, the show's legal advisor (portrayed with amusing pomposity by Max Gordon Moore), recalls the "resident expert" John Hodgman on The Daily Show, an unreliable know-it-all. As Constance, Marguerite Stimpson presents the human interest side of news, as she stands in front of an empty house, delivering poetic prattle about the people who are not there. She descends, as do they all, into personal memories, and end-of-days confessions.

Not only does Eno's dead-on parody of newsy foolishness recall the fake news so popular of late (such as the faux newspaper The Onion), but the fuzzy chaos that unfolds touches on recent tragic events and how they have been handled by the media. And in the end, we realize that real life is absurd too.