Something rather curious happens at the start of Shotgun Players’ The Cassandra Sessions: Recording This World (at Ashby Stage through January 2, streaming through January 6). Actually, it happens before the show proper even begins. The eponymous Cassandra (Beth Wilmurt) takes to the black box stage inside a tiny recording booth that slightly resembles the dog enclosure at a pet store. She begins strumming her ukulele in an attempt to find the right note. She occasionally leans into the mic to ask if she’s being heard OK.
No one answers.
This can be partly chalked up to trained theatre audiences not wanting to interrupt a performer once they’re on stage. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice how easily her voice was drowned out by the actual patrons sitting around me. Here she is trying to share something personal with a crowd of people who couldn’t be bothered to give her the time of day when she’s sitting right in front of them. If that isn’t hitting the nail on the head out of the gate, I don’t know what it is.
The curtain speech is heard, the lights go on-and-off, and thus begins our show. The aforementioned Cassandra—who may or may not be the reluctant oracle of Greek myth, cursed to accurately predict the future, yet whose predictions are ignored—is in a booth recording covers of songs by Malvina Reynolds. Her only contact is with a lone producer or studio engineer (Jake Rodriguez), a mostly unseen figure whose voice is as technically helpful as it is annoyingly condescending.
The time is never made clear. The studio’s stage-left wiring is post-’70s, the mic and keyboard suggest post-’80s, the CRT TV on a pushcart is definitely post-’90s, and Cassandra’s iPhone is contemporary. Yet, her clothing and choice of songs seem to suggest a time a few decades past. Then again, this is Berkeley.
If you don’t know, Malvina Reynolds is the SF-born singer-songwriter-activist whose songs you’ve definitely heard, even if you didn’t know who was singing them. Y’know that song about “Little boxes on the hillside” that was theme sone for Showtime’s Weeds? That was Reynolds singing about Daly City. Y’know that song “What Have They Done to the Rain”? That’s Reynolds making an anti-nuke song. I could go on, but if you’re reading this, you’re already on the internet and have plenty of places to look. She used her music to comment on the world and how she didn’t like the direction it was heading.
Why is Cassandra here recording covers of the songs? It’s not entirely clear. If she really is the mythical Cassandra, perhaps she connects with Reynolds’ disdain for the way the world is going. Perhaps she sees in the late Reynolds—who is seen in a documentary during one of the play’s breaks between songs—a kindred spirit whose accurate predictions were also dismissed?
Or perhaps Cassandra’s love of Reynolds’ music is what keeps her sane when she’s confined to a single space. Though the song “Little Boxes” isn’t used in the show (except when Reynolds herself hums it during the aforementioned documentary sequence), it’s hard not to make the association when are lead character spends the majority of the play’s running time inside of, well, a little box. Outside of the box an audience that might be ignoring her and a guy whose mansplaining is so instinctual that she goes through an entire song during one of his long-winded diatribes.
When she isn’t recording, she’s stopping recording to start over or she’s drinking. No matter what time this is intended take place, it’s very much a COVID-era piece about observing a mad world from your little box, but feeling powerless to do anything about it. If not an abundance of entertainment options, we’d have all lost it by now. (Some of us did anyway.)
Through all of this plotless experience is Wilmurt’s naturalistic performance as Cassandra. Often confined to one claustrophobic set piece where she occasionally changes clothes, she knows this isn’t a role that requires operatic heights. Quite the contrary: Reynolds’ music was to be sung by everyone, not power-belters. Similarly, a play featuring her music needs to have her songs performed by someone who has enough sync with the words to not over tax her vocal cords. It’s someone we feel comfortable approaching us and asking us to sing along, which eventually happens.
The Cassandra Sessions comes at a curious time: the world slowly re-opening to the leisures the pandemic denied us, but with the new Omicron variant to remind us that we’re not yet out of the woods. The show isn’t the sort in which one sells gifts in the lobby to massive crowds, but it has a lingering effect that’s hard to shake off. It’s timeless in the best ways, which is something desperately needed when it feels like time is standing still.
THE CASSANDRA SESSIONS: RECORDING THIS WORLD Runs through January 2 in-person at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage, Berkeley and streams through January 6. More info and tickets here.