KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 22, 1998
An audience comes to the theater ready to suspend disbelief — willing to ignore the stage lights, the microphones, the flats and the unrealistic setting. But just how much are they expected to overlook? When, for example, does extraneous noise destroy the magic of the theater? When it’s the screeching of peacocks? The barking of seals? The shouts of drunk partygoers? The infernal roar of airplanes? Well, Balboa Park has all of these, and it’s more than a theatergoer can bear.
The cops were called in on the opening night of the Globe’s “As You Like It,” because the wedding next door at the Museum’s sculpture garden had become too raucous. They should’ve been called in to handcuff the city, when it decided to pour another 1+ million dollars into renovating Starlight Bowl, instead of moving the cultural warhorse to a more conducive outdoor location, far from the Lindbergh Field flight-path?
The Globe may say that the party problem was an aberration, but on the night I was in the park for Starlight’s summer season opener, another wedding was in progress at the sculpture garden, and by curtaintime, the beer was flowing and the decibel level was rising.
So, my teeth were on edge during both recent productions: “As You Like It” at the Globe’s outdoor Festival Stage, and Starlight’s “Hello, Dolly!” If either production had been flawless and engrossing, I’m sure it would’ve been easier to ignore the annoyances. But alas, that was not the case.
“As You Like It,” Shakespeare’s pastoral romantic comedy, has often been marked by a mood of goodwill and good humor. But Stephen Wadsworth’s production is dark and dour, shadowy and somber. Acclaimed primarily for his stark clarity with classic operas, he applied the same stiff, formal, presentational style to his first effort with the Bard. It didn’t work, at least not in the first act. True, he was representing, in very stylized fashion, the constriction and constraints of a repressive court. But the tableaux, after the first effective scene, became stifling in themselves, and it grew irritating that characters never looked at each other when they spoke. The repeated circling around the center of the playing space became dizzying and numbing. But in the second act, when the stage opened up to the park trees beyond, and we entered the Forest of Arden, the play opened up, too.
As Rosalind, Francesca Faridany became more engaging, and downright delightful, when she posed as a man. But Wadsworth’s other directorial decisions were far less felicitous. Laurence O’Dwyer’s Touchstone was too old and too morose, for a clever clown who snags a country wench. Conversely, Jaques, a professional melancholic, was played by Ivar Brogger with something approaching glee.
The most valuable gift Wadsworth gave the audience was the language of the play. The focus was all on the words, and they were spoken with poetic clarity. This is no small feat, and no small tribute to the Bard.
Homage to the past was minimal on the other side of the park. For three score years, “Hello, Dolly!” has done just fine for itself. It surely doesn’t need gratuitous added dialogue, an irrelevant extra character, a head-waiter who chews scenery mercilessly, and forty intrusive planes in two acts.
But Starlight’s director/choreographer Dee Ann Johnston does deliver dance, comic stage business and one long-lost song. Nonetheless, you can’t do “Dolly” without a charismatic meddler, and Pat White just hasn’t got the goods. She throws away some of the best comic lines, and though she sings all right, and hoofs okay with the choristers, she never really commands the stage or our attention. The secondary characters, played by Ole Kittleson, Dan Regas, Scott Viets, Alexandra Auckland and Courtney Corey, were excellent. But the quality of Starlight’s work continues to be unpredictable, and retaining its summer location certainly was not a sound investment.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.