When local playwright Tanya Shaffer first imagined “The Fourth Messenger,” a musical world premiere opening in previews today in Berkeley, she was on a meditation retreat.
She found herself thinking of the moment centuries ago when, according to legend, Siddhartha Gautama sat under the bodhi tree and refused to get up until he was enlightened. Various forces tried to lure him away, a scene Shaffer suddenly pictured as a highly theatrical song and dance of the temptations.
How would we respond if the Buddha were a modern-day American woman, she wondered. A drama, deeply human, full of conflict and contradiction, began to emerge.
Now, with popular pianist-singer-songwriter and indie recording artist Vienna Teng as her creative partner, Shaffer is producing “The Fourth Messenger.”
It focuses on two principal characters: Mama Sid, a world-renowned spiritual leader, and a young, muckraking journalist named Raina, who is determined, for personal reasons, to out the guru as a hypocrite.
Helmed by Broadway director Matt August, “The Fourth Messenger” features book and lyrics by Shaffer, music and additional lyrics by Teng, an 11-member cast, plus a band with keyboard, woodwinds, cello and percussion.
Shaffer, whose “Baby Taj” premiered on TheatreWorks’ main stage in 2005, is a longtime writer and actor. Her solo show about traveling in Africa, “Let My Enemy Live Long!” was produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and she is the author of a memoir, “Somebody’s Heart Is Burning,” plus several other plays. “The Fourth Messenger” is her first musical.
Conversely, this is Teng’s first foray into theater, but, says Shaffer, “She’s the consummate musician who understood how to make her style more theatrical.”
Teng’s score for the show is melodic and lyrical with layered, complex harmonies.
Although Shaffer has studied and practiced Buddhism over the years, she emphasizes that audiences need not know the religion. The play mixes comedy and drama, even suspense, and the main characters are multifaceted, their interaction resonating on many levels. In developmental readings sponsored by TheatreWorks as well as the San Francisco Playwrights Foundation (where Shaffer is a resident playwright), many viewers had no idea the play was (loosely) based on a legend.
As for the title: It is said that four messengers approached the Buddha; the first three represented sickness, aging and death. “Our version calls the fourth a ‘pure soul,’ and it’s a bit of a mystery,” says Shaffer — one that she promises will be revealed at the end.