Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
TEASER: Reviews of “Whisper House,” “Hip Hop Kim Bop,” “My Year of Living Anxiously,” Jean Isaacs Cabaret Dances PLUS lots of local theater news
By Pat Launer , SDNN
January 21, 2010
THE SHOW: “Whisper House ,” a world premiere ghost story with music, at The Old Globe
The scene is set by thrumming engine sounds and the squawk of seagulls. A dimly lit spiral staircase winds up three levels to a beacon up above. Beyond the skeletal structure is blackness. This is our spooky introduction to the bleakly ethereal, death-obsessed new play-with-music at the Old Globe.
“Whisper House” is a ghost story, set in the midst of World War II. It’s all about fear and paranoia, uncertainty about the future and apprehension about the unknown. Feelings we can all relate to in our modern world. It’s a time, after all, “when all the world’s at war.”
The themes play out in the mind and story of young Christopher, an 11 year-old whose pilot father was recently shot down by the Japanese. The news sent his mother into a tailspin. She’s not expected to recover from her nervous collapse. So, Christopher is sent to live with his closest relative, his father’s estranged sister, Lilly, who manages the isolated New England lighthouse that’s been in the family for three generations. She has no experience with, or use for, children. She has no idea how to talk to or comfort a boy who’s on the threshold of adolescence and whose life is spinning out of control.
The loneliness and shadowy gloom of the lighthouse call forth the ghosts that have been hanging around for 30 years, since their party-boat went down – singers, orchestra and all – on Halloween night in 1912. They’ve found an ideal ‘subject’ in Christopher (“boys are easily led”), and they fill his head with wild stories of dread (ominous warnings like “Better to Be Dead” and the whimsically dark “Tale of Solomon Snell”).
Christopher is equally unnerved by the Japanese handyman (Arthur Acuña , quietly credible) who works for his taciturn aunt. After all, he’s Japanese, and maybe (thanks to the suggestions of the ghosts) he’s a spy. The child identifies more with the caricature of a Coast Guard lieutenant (Kevin Hoffman, made to look silly) who comes inflames Christopher’s patriotism. There’s also a local sheriff (Ted K ōch , solid) who, like the helper Yasuhiro, seems to be attracted to Lilly, and is torn in his loyalties. Each character is afraid of the real danger outside, and also fearful of taking a step outside a personal, emotional comfort zone. Given all the sorrow and despair that pervades the proceedings, the play ends, surprisingly, on a sweet note of hope.
This is the first theatrical effort, several years in the making, from the wunderkind who gave us “Spring Awakening,” Tony and Grammy winner Duncan Sheik. That wildly imaginative, groundbreaking show (the “Hair” and “Rent” of its generation) won eight Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Musical. This is a smaller, darker, less ambitious piece, with book and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow . For the prior project, Sheik’s more poetic librettist was Steven Sater ; they won Tonys for Best Book and Best Score. There are no rockin ’ upbeat anthems in this production. The music is consistently dark and minor key, excellently played by a 7-member band (with musical direction by keyboardist Jason Hart). The mournful sounds are underscored by unique instruments for a small ensemble: a French horn, piccolo trumpet and bass clarinet.
All the singing is by the two ghosts, still dressed in evening clothes (the man in top hat; the woman in diaphanous white, though she spends a good deal of time in her period undergarments). Holly Brook and David Poe are long-time collaborators with Sheik. In his recent one-night concert at the Globe, which was decidedly dark in tone (with no songs from “Spring Awakening” at all – a major disappointment), their voices melded perfectly. Here, too, without Sheik’s vocal contributions, they sing well, both separately and together. Poe has a wide-ranging voice, and he carries the musical burden, insinuating himself into Christopher’s sub-conscious. Brook has breathy, wraithlike tones that seem just right for an otherworldly specter.
Stage and screen actor Mare Winningham has put in some serious time in San Diego lately: in the Playhouse’s world premiere of “Bonnie and Clyde ” last year, and in “The Glass Menagerie” at the Globe in 2008. She has just the right aloof distance for the non-communicative aunt. And as her endlessly inquisitive nephew, 15 year-old A.J. Foggiano , who was brought into the production a scant five days before opening, is quite impressive.
The production is striking, with its evocative and provocative set (Michael Schweikardt ) enhanced by scene-setting sound (Dan Moses Schreier ), beautifully moody lighting (Matthew Richards) and fantastic projections (Aaron Rhyne ) that give us a blustery, churning sea and floating gossamer phantoms. The costumes (Jenny Mannis) are either sensible or other-worldly, as the character demands.
This isn’t likely to be a blockbuster. The tone is too deadly, and the book needs tightening and focus. But it’s a small, quiet and engaging piece of theater, quirky and unpredictable, intriguing in its own unassuming way.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park . ( 619) 234-5623 ; www.theoldglobe.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $36-89. Tuesday-Wednesday 1t 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., through February 21.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
Four Kims , to Go
THE SHOW: “Hip-Hop Kim-Bop” – a new play by a local playwright, at Asian American Repertory Theatre
First-time playwright Elise Kim Prosser has a lot on her mind. She’s thinking about Korean women, kimchee , assimilation, marriage, citizenship, divorce, adoption, friendship and babies. And Korean hip hop. And the Korean Civil War. And the fact that 20 thousand people in L.A. have the last name of Kim.
That’s what brings the four central characters together. They’re all women named Kim, and they’ve all been called up for jury duty. Among the quartet, there happens to be a big hip hop star, Melody Kim (Diana Alcausin ), who’s secretly pregnant and suffering from endless morning sickness; and conveniently, there’s an agent, Mia Kim (Gina Ma), who’s recently gone out on her own and is looking for a hot new client. We also meet 20 year-old Min-Jung Kim (Trinity Tuyen Tran), who was adopted by a Caucasian family and is trying to get back to her heritage; and the more mature Mimi Kim (playwright Prosser), who wants to have a baby but can’t — and offers the young girl $20,000 to harvest her eggs, though she’s also perfectly willing to adopt Melody Kim’s unplanned bundle of joy.
As the star-struck court clerk (Nick Mata), who’s dying for Melody’s autograph, tries to sort out their identities, the foursome goes out for Korean food, with which at least one of them is totally unfamiliar. The spicy cuisine is explained as “salty, sweet, fried and made with love.” During lunch, they come to see themselves as Bop, kind of a Korean sushi roll, with diverse ingredients all wrapped together, an apt metaphor for their budding friendship. So they form the Kim-Bop ‘family’ and vow to stay in touch. In the second act, they meet again, with time having given them babies, pregnancy, marriage and other endowments.
There are eight additional (extraneous) characters, which only serve to muddy the story. Similarly, the videos (by Fernando “Jay” Huerto & Neil Aguilera; Samuel Dent & Victor Garcia), feature semi hip hop songs (music by Ryan Tully-Doyle and Rolando Walker; and Nhan Pham; with lyrics by Prosser and Tully-Doyle; Megan Stogner ; Rolando Walker; and Alcausin 😉 that don’t always mesh with or add to the narrative.
The narrative text needs shaping, winnowing and focus. The minimalist Asian American Repertory Theatre production, directed by Peter Cirino and set in the cavernous-feeling Don Powell Theatre, seems as much a work in progress as the play. There’s a wide range of experience in the cast, a problem with sluggish pacing and performers who rush or swallow their words. But it’s obviously an earnest effort from all involved, and provides a glimpse into a culture that’s rarely seen in dramatic literature.
THE LOCATION: The Don Powell Theatre, on the campus of SDSU. ( 619) 940-5891 ; email@example.com ; www.asianamericanrep.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $15-25. Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through January 31
THE SHOW: “My Year of Living Anxiously ,” a new autobiographical performance piece by local writer/actor Moira Keefe , at the Lyceum Theatre
Moira Keefe has writing in her blood. Her father, who died a couple of years ago at age 90, left behind 62 years of diaries, very personal confessionals about his wife, his life and his nine children. Her mother, now 87 and in a nursing home, suffering from dementia, wrote searing letters to her daughter. Moira saved them all, and uses them directly in her latest theater work. She claims that the piece is about her anxiety (a lot more than a year; more like a lifetime) and her attempts at managing her Sandwich existence, torn between hormonal “Mean-agers,” parental decline and her own peri -menopausal madness. But in many ways, this is a tribute to her Mom and Dad, to how they were in their prime, over the course of their 63-tear marriage, and in her memory (there’s a touching slide show at the end).
Keefe has made a career of baring the most intimate details of her life in public, in prior pieces such as “Life Before Sex” and “ Life with a Teenager…I’m Having A Hot Flashback,” which she’s performed all over the country and abroad. Here, she tells us about ‘the monkey,’ her image for the anxiety that revisits her repeatedly and makes a monkey out of her. She describes the six crazy shrinks she’s consulted, each worse than the last, offering conflicting diagnoses and pumping her with pharmaceuticals that give her worse side effects than the original symptoms. She tries valiantly to manage the monkey while dealing with the two generations that are closing in on her.
There’s less laugh-out-loud humor here; the stories are often poignant and sad, especially in relation to her psychological tribulations, and dealing with her sometimes daft mother. But besides literary leanings, her father bequeathed to her another skill: the ability to escape – to the calming freedom of the ocean. He contracted polio at 18 months of age, and had a “withered leg.” Still, he became a competitive swimmer. And at the end of the piece, in by far the most moving moment of the evening, she tells how she now swims every day, and dons the very swim-cap her father wore when he won the Master’s Swim Meet for those over 75.
It doesn’t always work to have two more actors onstage, though UC San Diego speech and voice professor Eva Barnes is a delightful addition, playing the eternally put-upon mother with aplomb, and deftly assaying various voiceover accents and dialects as the motley crew of specialists. Lowell Gaspara is low-key but convincing as dear old Dad, whose work in the early years kept him away from home five days out of seven, leaving his wife to deal with nine offspring, of whom Moira seems to have been the wildest. And then he confesses to wanting to avoid going home on weekends! Not quite the hero.
Although she’s been working on the piece for two years with director Kim Rubenstein (UCSD theater faculty, who recently directed “The Savannah Disputation” at the Old Globe), and she workshopped the piece last year at North Coast Repertory Theatre, this feels very much like another workshop production. Keefe is, in fact, re-writing daily, and was on book much of the time the night I was there. She seems not to have found the through-line of the play, the way to more effectively integrate her parents’ story with her own. But she’s a forceful writer and performer, and you’ll certainly enjoy spending an evening with Keefe as your host – even if she’s not totally certain yet what she’s serving up.
THE LOCATION: Lyceum Theatre, Horton Plaza . (619) 544-1000; www.lyceumevents.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $15-20. Monday and Tuesday only, 1t 7:30 p.m., through February 2
Dance and Romance
THE SHOW: Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theatre Intimate Cabaret Dances
A taste of romance, a spice of the exotic, and a soupçon of whimsy. That’s choreographer Jean Isaacs ’ recipe for success, and it’s what makes the dances she creates such a treat. Now, she’s brought her strong and compelling company to her homebase at Dance Place/NTC, for this year’s Intimate Cabaret Dances. A large, empty studio (on loan from the San Diego Ballet), strewn with small tables (wine available downstairs) provides a wide swath of performance space. Tucked into the corner is a baby grand on which Isaacs’ multi-talented partner, Steve Baker, plays Erik Satie and inter-scene interludes (the rest of the music is recorded).
The 90-minute program is divided in two parts, starting with “Tales of a Marriage,” a series the company recently performed in Mexico City . The second half is “When Strangers Meet,” a world premiere inspired by Yo-Yo Ma’s recording with his Silk Road Ensemble. Isaacs herself provides introductions/explanations. The “Marriage” chronicles the vicissitudes of a relationship, from first meeting to conflict, infidelity, breakup and reunion (though the partners change with each dance segment). The eclectic musical selections range from the classical (Satie’s 1stGymnopedie and 1st and 5th Gnossienne ) to the pop (Harry Warren/Mack Garcia’s sultry “At Last,” to Frank Sinatra – or was it Lou Monte? — singing “Lazy Mary”).
The two male dancers – Brad Lundberg and John Diaz – are spectacular throughout, especially in their duet, to Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s sad, haunting “Hallelujah.” Beauty and pain combine in this moving piece, the most touching one of the evening . Both men are riveting, athletic performers. During one segment (to Damien Rice’s “Cheers”), Lundberg shows off his gravity-defying, hip hop break moves, as Liv Isaacs- Nollet rejects him violently, shoving him, standing on his back, walking away, and ultimately leaving him weeping in a fetal heap. There’s a flirty/playful element to Jimmy Scott’s “Don’t Cry Baby,” as Diaz and Annie Boyer try to pick up the pieces of a relationship, coming together and separating, nodding to each other sexily, knowingly, in a lovers’ private language.
The new pieces are exuberant, combining colors, moves and musical elements of the cultures along the ancient Silk Road trade route, from East Asia to the Middle East and Europe . The dances highlight a fear of the unfamiliar and unknown, an avoidance of The Other. Gradually, the group of six dancers comes together, comes to trust and even depend on each other, holding each other up, supporting each other (“ Yanzi /Swallow Song”). In the sensuous duet, “ Summer in the High Grassland,” Summer Jones displays lithe leaps and impossibly long leg extensions, as she wraps herself around Trystan Loucado .
The energy is very high in the exciting “ Akhalqalaqi Dance,” which includes a little audience interaction (“You? You talkin ’ to me?”). The joyful interplay, flexed footsie -moves and high knee-jumps give way to individuation, as the dancers shrink into themselves once again and slink away. But in the end (“Battle Remembered”), they all come together and move as one, sharing the heartbeat of an insistent drumbeat.
Some truly exciting and ebullient moments of dance. But hurry, the Cabaret ends this Saturday.
THE LOCATION: Dance Place , Liberty Station at NTC, 2650 Truxton Rd. , Pt. Loma. (619 ) ; www.sandiegodancetheater.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $10-25. Saturdays at ^ and at 8:30 p.m., through January 30
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Replacement Number Two: S an Diego Opera ’s General Director and Artistic Director Ian Campbell, announced that Serbian baritone Željko Lučić has withdrawn from his engagement in the title role of “ Nabucco ” for “private and personal reasons.” Those were the same explanations reported here last week, when Anja Harteros bowed out of the role of Mimi and Ellie Dehn stepped into “La Bohème (which opens this weekend). So, not to get too “private and personal,” but… what’s up this opera season?
… A Very Romantic Year: “What light through yonder window breaks?” Forsooth, it is a passel of Romeos and Juliets ! No fewer than three productions of the timeless tale of star-crossed lovers, in three different mediums, will grace San Diego stages this season. First up is San Diego Ballet’s reprise of last year’s production of Prokofiev’s “Romeo et Juliet,” a world premiere choreographed by Javier Velasco (at the Lyceum Theatre, 2/12-14; sandiegoballet.org). In March, the San Diego Opera presents Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” featuring real-life husband and wife Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez , both making their company debuts (at the Civic Theatre, 3/13-21; sdopera.com). And overlapping with that production, Poor Players is making a welcome return, with a new production of Shakespeare’s classic, conceived and directed by company co-founder Nick Kennedy. Grace Delaney, hilarious as the Nurse, is the only holdover from the Poor Players’ 2005 production of “R&J.” Fight choreography for the new production will be provided by the company’s other co-founder , the redoubtable Richard Baird (3/19-4/4 at Swedenborg Hall; www.poorplayers.com ). “For never was a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
… Bryan ’s Back: The very talented Bryan Bevell, former artistic director of the Fritz Theater , who gave us the first glimpse of exciting works by Nicky Silver, Paula Vogel, Naomi Wallace and Suzan-Lori Parks , will be back next week to reprise his marvelous performance of Wallace Shawn’s brilliantly provocative solo piece, “The Fever.” Bryan is considering a special private showing for critics and other interested parties, on Sunday, February 7 (yes, Super Bowl Sunday, but there have to be some people who won’t be watching!). Check back here next week for an update.
… Hearing Voices: Asian American Heritage Month is coming in May, and the San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre will be celebrating its 15th anniversary and giving voice to Asian Americans nationwide, in an effort to explore the experiences of Asian Americans (including Pacific Rim and Indian Subcontinental cultures). SDAART is hosting a 10-Minute Play Festival (5/13-29), which will highlight new, original or never-produced plays (10-page maximum) from around the country. The submission deadline is February 1. Auditions for the productions, to be locally acted and directed, will be in March. For further information: InnerViewsSDAART@gmail.com ; www.asianamericanrep.org
… From the sublime to the ridiculous: The Theatre Inc., which has made its local reputation producing Greek classics (often in new translations or adaptations by Dr. Marianne McDonald), is poised to dive into deep waters this summer, staging “The Poseidon Adventure: The Musical,” a 2002 riff on the campy 1972 disaster flick. But first, it’s sticking with the tried and true, staging McDonald’s world premiere translation of Euripides’ “Orestes” (2/20-3/21). The downtown theater will also host the second season of the Intrepid Shakespeare Company, which is dedicated to making the Bard comprehensible and accessible. www.thetheatreinc.com ; www.intrepidshakespeare.com
… No One is Alone: The fabulously talented ImproTheatre from L.A. returns to North Coast Repertory Theatre with a show that just begs to be seen by anyone who loves Sondheim or musical or improv. In “Sondheim Unscripted,” the funny, wildly talented troupe creates a completely improvised musical in the complex, clever, rat-a-tat style of Stephen Sondheim. It’s a challenge just to sing Sondheim, let alone create it! One night only, Monday, Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. (858) 481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org
… Theater Goes TV: Broadway icons are cozying up to “Ugly Betty.” Liza Minnelli will be joining the cast of the ABC comedy this season, appearing in multiple episodes as a high school drama teacher. And Tony-winning baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell, who cut his dramatic teeth at San Diego Junior Theatre, will also be on hand, as Wilhelmina’s former beau.
… Dance Steps: Malashock Dance and the San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) are presenting a Lecture Demonstration entitled “José Limón, The Artist as Outsider: Reflections of his Life and Work.” A talk on the pioneering choreographer will be presented by Francisco Ruvalcaba , principal dancer with the Limón Dance Company. Dance excerpts from Limón’s “ Missa Brevis ” will be performed by the dancers of SCPA and the Coronado School of the Arts. Tickets are $10 at the door. Sunday, January 31 at 6 p.m. at Malashock Dance in Dance Place at NTC, 2650 Truxton Rd. , studio 200, in Pt. Loma.
… Patté Post-Script: Check out the fabulous photos of The 13th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence at http://www.thepattefoundation.org/Award_Photos.htm . And don’t miss the TV broadcast of the event: Friday, 2/12 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, 2/13 at 7 p.m. on Channel 4 San Diego.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v “Whisper House” – a quirky ghost story, with music; world premiere, excellently executed
The Old Globe, through 2/21
v “Expecting Isabel” – comedy on a serious theme (infertility); lightweight but well done
Moxie Theatre, through 2/7
v “Glorious” – crazy story, based in fact, wonderfully performed
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 2/7
v “boom” – wacky, sci-fi comedy, excellently acted and directed
San Diego Repertory Theatre, through 1/31
v “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” – rich, deep, funny, provocative (in concepts and language)
Triad Productions at the 10th Avenue Theatre, through 1/30
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, into the SDNN Search box.