Steven Hess as Stanford White, and Rosie Hallett as Evelyn Nesbit share an intimate moment in Harry Thaw Hates Everybody by the Shotgun Players in Berkeley. Photo: Shotgun Players

The entertaining, creative and comical Harry Thaw Hates Everybody by Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley is based on a scandal that is still intriguing after more than 100 years.

Playwright Laurel Meade, winner of the L.A. Drama Critics Award for Best Writing for an earlier version of the play, placed this compelling triangle of human behavior in a fresh new light. Using the technique made famous in the 1950 Japanese film Rashomon, the tale is told from the perspective of each of the four main participants. But instead of a sobering re-telling of a tragedy, the production regales us with music, dance, naughtiness and a slide show of newspaper headlines and turn-of-the-century pornography.

Rosie Hallett as Evelyn Nesbit. Photo: Shotgun Players

Evelyn Nesbit (Rosie Hallett) was just 15 years old when she hit the New York City scene in 1900 and quickly became the face on every magazine cover and an icon of the Gilded Age. Florence Nesbit (Carla Pantoja), Evelyn’s mother, influenced her daughter’s life choices based on her own self-interest. Stanford White (Steven Hess), 47 years Evelyn’s senior, was by day, the famed architect of New York City grandeur, (e.g., the Washington Square Arch) and by night, a notorious debaucher. The often crazy Harry Kendall Thaw (Keith Pinto), fabulously rich scion of a Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron, wooed Evelyn extravagantly until she finally married him, although he knew that she had slept with White. Thaw was haunted by the affair and, in 1906, murdered White. After the first trial ended in a hung jury, at the second trial, Thaw was found to have been temporarily insane and served a short sentence in an asylum.

Even before the show begins, we are treated to period songs sung beautifully by Will Dao and Michelle Drexler, accompanied by terrific pianist Dolores Duran-Cefalu. These serve to place the play in its time period, and interestingly, some of the songs are familiar. The show officially begins with Evelyn talking to the audience, and the audience interaction continues throughout the performance. In fact, if you book seats N 1, 2, 11, or 12, you will be sitting at a café table on stage. You may be joined from time to time by one of the actors.

Sometimes silly, sometimes serious, the talented cast acts, sings, dances and buffoons its way through the sad tale of Nesbit’s lost youth, White’s murder and Thaw’s trial. Interspersed with the main plot are some pointed barbs about the social and economic inequality that the Gilded Age personifies.

Although each participant is supposed to present his or her own “act,” or point of view, which are separated by a boxing match bell, the “acts” tend to run together a bit. The fourth “act” goes on longer than needed. The salient points have all been made before. It’s as though no one was quite sure how to end the show. Aside from those last draggy moments, Director M. Graham Smith has kept the play tightly cohesive and fast moving without sacrificing the fun.

The year 1900, when Evelyn Nesbit hit the big-time in New York, was also a societal turning point. William McKinley was president, but would be assassinated one year later. Über-rich monopolists controlled industries and utilities, while laborers, insurrectionists and anarchists fought for a living wage. Notable events place Nesbit, White and Thaw in the world in which they lived. In 1900 alone:

  • Henry Ford unveiled the first Detroit-made automobile;
  • Carrie Nation began her crusade against liquor;
  • The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union was founded;
  • Orville and Wilbur Wright conducted flight experiments at Kittyhawk;
  • Sigmund Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams;”
  • P. Morgan bought Carnegie Steel and formed the U. S. Steel Corporation;
  • The first overseas telephone call was made between Florida and Cuba;
  • Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League was formed; and
  • The Ameer of Afghanistan announced that Afghanistan would not submit to the will of Russia and declared that, “The Afghans prefer death to slavery.”

Harry Thaw Hates Everybody is playing at the Ashby Theater through Nov. 23, 2014. For information visit Shotgun Players online.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events: it’s self-serve and free.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...