Like an extra-large, colorful box containing a thimble, “Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead” is 98% wrapping. Animation, puppetry, ingenious set design and the antics of Berkeley Rep’s preferred clown Geoff Hoyle are applied liberally to text by the eponymous, pseudonymous author (aka Bay Area’s Daniel Handler) of playfully creepy children’s books. Yet even at barely past an hour’s length, this intended cheekily offbeat family show feels very thin, its mild amusements likely to induce some seat-squirming amongst younger viewers.
The evening is officially divided into two parts, first being a prolonged curtain-raiser called “The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater.” That’s what Your Charming Host (Hoyle) — as he immodestly calls himself — keeps pompously promising us, in addition to “the wondrous music of the world’s greatest living composer.”
When those planned entertainments don’t arrive on schedule, said host goes backstage to investigate. Or rather he interacts with a backstage world of projected video animation (designed, like the second part’s puppets, by Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff of NYC multidiscliplinarians Phantom Limb) in which he and a skeleton-slash-stage manager discover “Everything is going wrong!”
They identify one problem after another, from a director suffering from “artistic temperament” (he’s a baby wailing in a highchair) to a stubbornly nude actor. The root trouble, however, turns out to be the fact that aforementioned composer has been murdered.
This original material leads into “The Composer Is Dead,” which Handler previously published as a book and recited to the live accompaniment of Nathaniel Stookey’s San Francisco Symphony-commissioned score. Phantom Limb, B-Rep artistic director Tony Taccone and other collaborators labor mightily bringing it to visual life, the curtain finally rising to reveal a pit of grotesque human-scaled marionette “musicians” seated before giganticized 19th-century paper puppet-playhouse.
Now an equally pompous police Inspector, Hoyle interrogates the orchestra. Each section has a characteristic alibi — the flutes were too busy imitating birds, etc. — which often prompts background tableaux of waltzing cut-out figures or shadow-puppet dramatics.
Deciding that the conductor must be guilty, as his like has “been murdering composers for years,” then triggers a laundry list of other late musical geniuses Stookey evokes in brief strokes.
The script is, in fact, one tongue-in-cheek checklist after another — backstage disasters, instrumental suspects, melodious victims — and as such doesn’t really lend itself to stage incarnation, despite all imaginative effort. Handler ribs himself by having the skeleton complain “Clever writing and cheap wordplay aren’t the same thing,” but in truth this overblown contraption too often presents the latter as the former. Its punning verbosity might charm on the illustrated page, in concert or as fodder for a short cartoon. As this multimedia not-quite-musical’s frail raison d’etre, it grows tiresome.
The limited expressive charm of the puppets and animated figures leaves this essentially a one-man-show, despite five puppeteers and another five actors’ pre-recorded character voices. While Hoyle can do no wrong for much of Berkeley Rep audience, those immune to his broad shtick will find a little goes a very long way in “Composer’s” elaborately dressed cup o’ Edward Gorey-lite whimsy.
Underlining its struggle to work as a stage entity, the evening ends with projected “final credits” stretched to allow several minutes’ ersatz “bloopers,” “outtakes” and “making-of” bits.
Some among these are more amusing than anything in the preceding hour of (mostly) “living, breathing theater.”