Review: ‘The Cassandra Sessions: Recording This World”, a world premier from Shotgun Players (***1/2)

Beth Wilmurt plays the mythological Greek prophetess, Cassandra, recording the songs of famed Berkeley protest singer, Melvina Reynolds. Photo Credit: Ben Krantz.

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

“The Cassandra Sessions: Recording This World,” which opened at the Ashby Stage on December 4th, is perhaps best approached as a brilliant “work-in-progress.” As it stands now, it is somewhat baffling, riveting in some moments, dull in others, but always intelligent and well-executed. 

A mysterious figure is in a recording studio (unidentified other than by program notes which inform us that she is the mythological prophetess of ancient Greece, Cassandra), is anxiously attempting to make a record of prophetic songs of social justice. She is assisted by an unnamed producer, who occasionally reminds her of their tight schedule. 

The songs on which she is working were written by famed Berkeley protest singer Malvina Reynolds, who passed away in 1977. Reynolds saw herself as a prophetic, Cassandra-like figure, as indicated by the fact that, late in her career, she left Columbia Records to create her own label: “Cassandra Records.” She is a fascinating figure. 

As Cassandra/Malvina, Beth Wilmurt is amazingly vulnerable. Nervous, ill-at-ease, anxious to get things right, she sings beautifully, accompanying herself on ukelele and keyboards, but with many interruptions as she struggles to deliver her message in the most effective way. Wilmurt and creative partner Jake Rodriguez (who plays the producer of Cassandra’s album) do an amazing job of capturing the challenges of the creative process: both the excitement and the doldrums. Their work in exploring this process is wonderfully appropriate to the present time, when so many performing artists have been locked away in private studios struggling to make sense of their art during the COVID pandemic which has shut down the theaters for so long. Wilmurt and Rodriguez are not alone in using this time of plague to explore such matters. Just before this show opened, Peter Jackson’s documentary of the Beatles (“Get Back”) has attracted a lot of attention exploring similar themes. The similarities between these two pieces of art are fascinating, especially when one realizes that Wilmurt and Rodriguez could not have been directly influenced by Jackson’s documentary. 

With nearly an hour and a half of play time, the depiction of Cassandra’s somewhat boring and repetitive struggle becomes a somewhat boring and repetitive performance. There are not enough sparks of interest and breakthrough to keep the audience sufficiently entertained and engaged. Those sparks that do fly, however, are thrilling. It adds up to an amazingly accurate depiction of the creative process, but cries out for the shaping hand of a dramaturg to invest it with more excitement.  

The ending, however, is perfect: As the walls of the sound booth fall away, Cassandra seems to morph into Melvina Reynolds herself, giving a typically charismatic performance. The nervousness disappears, and we finally see the artistry in full flower. The wit and charm of Melvina is fully displayed, and the final moments of this production achieve everything for which it strives. 

With further development, “The Cassandra  Sessions: Recording This World” holds forth the promise of a great evening of theatre. 

In the meantime, fans of Melvina Reynolds, and patient auditors who are fascinated by the creative process and willing to endure some dull patches to arrive at a great payoff, will be pleased to attend this brave and promising production. 

“The Cassandra Sessions: Recording This World” continues live  at the Ashby Stage through and via online streaming through December 26, 2021. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ***1/2 (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“The Cassandra Sessions: Recording This World” a world premiere devised and performed by Beth Wilmurt and Jake Rodriguez, featuring songs by Malvina Reynolds. Produced by Shotgun Players. 


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