Pat Launer : Spotlight on Theater
Things go horribly wrong for diehard cheerleaders and obsessive stamp collectors
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, April 16, 2009
THE SHOW: “ Mauritius ,” the San Diego premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s 2006 comic thriller, at Cygnet Theatre
If you can’t lick ‘ em , sell ‘ em . “ Mauritius ” is all about stamps. Old ones. Valuable ones. And, it turns out, potentially dangerous ones.
When the mother of half-sisters Jackie ( Jessica John ) and Mary ( Sandy Campbell ) died, she left behind a stamp collection that belonged to her father. Gritty, gutsy Jackie wants to sell the whole shebang, so she can finally get her due, after a hardscrabble life and a tough time caring for their mom. Prim, prissy Mary, long estranged from the family, wants no such thing. The inheritance, says the stamp-lover, should stay in the family, or maybe go to a museum, since it contains two incredible specimens: a pair of rare, uncanceled , 1847 beauties from the remote, Indian Ocean island of Mauritius , off the coast of Africa .
The penny and two-penny Mauritius , considered “the crown jewels of philately,” were among the first postage stamps on earth. What makes them even more valuable is the printing blunder they display; instead of saying Post Paid, they’re imprinted with Post Office. It’s the errors that make stamps interesting, one stamp-crazed character tells us, and he thinks the same goes for people.
As soon as Jackie spirits the book away and takes it to the shabby shop of a disheveled, disgruntled stamp aficionado, the race – and the heat—is on. Lickety-split, there are three seedy guys who want to get their grubby hands on those philatelic marvels. Not just scruffy old Phil ( Jack Missett ), but also the hyperverbal slacker, Dennis (John DeCarlo ) who’s under the thumb of the menacing, wealthy thug, Sterling (Manny Fernandes). To keep up with the machinations and shifting allegiances, the threats, blackmail, violence, bullying and double-dealing, you need a keen eye, ear and scorecard. And a willingness to be dramatically manipulated.
There’s ample evidence of Theresa Rebeck’s stints scripting and producing TV crime dramas such as “ NYPD Blue” and “ Law & Order.” Not only in the complex plotting, but also the quick-sketch characterizations. “ Mauritius ” also bears a striking similarity to other plays. The stamp gambit, and the three brutish, foul-mouthed losers, could have come straight out of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” with its pawn-shop trio and prized coin. The multi-level, overlapping scams are reminiscent of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” And while it’s perfectly acceptable to keep the audience guessing about the motives and impulses that drive these quirky characters, we do expect to be filled in on the backstories at some point. They all seem to be emotionally scarred, but we never learn who abused Jackie, why Mary left the family, what Sterling did to Phil, or why either of them keeps Dennis around.
There are some odd inconsistencies in the production, too. The design (Sean Fanning) is splendid, with its grungy, grimy shop rotating smartly into the sisters’ nondescript living room. But the dial wall-phone dates it. The action seems to be set somewhere around the ‘40s, which is underscored by Eric Lotze’s aptly noirish , sepia-toned lighting. But the script talks about the internet and mail-in voting ballots, which makes for a n era mismatch.
Under the precise and well-timed direction of Francis Gercke (with first-rate fight choreography by George Yé ), the cast is outstanding. There’s a boatload of dramatic suspense in this five-way tug-of-war, and many moments of humor. One highlight is the spectacular negotiation scene between Jackie and Sterling that swings wildly from threat to cajoling, instruction to seduction, wheedling to reasoning to violence to compromise.
Sandy Campbell is wonderful as stiff-backed, self-righteous Mary, a passive-aggressive if there ever was one. As her bitter, angry sister, Jessica John is feisty, forceful and belligerent. Her truculent Jackie impressively holds her own against the bullying of Sterling , the competitive challenges of Mary and the cons and come-ons of Dennis. John DeCarlo plays Dennis as a goofy, smarmy rogue, a double-talking deal-maker who plays all ends against the middle and still comes out a loser. A delectably crusty Jack Missett makes the most of the underdeveloped role of Phil, the seemingly washed-up but still shrewd philatelic expert. Manny Fernandes is a wonder as Sterling , a moniker that defines his portrayal. With his natty suit and shaved head, he’s genuinely frightening, and a most exhilarating study in contrasts: an international arms dealer who succumbs to a young woman in negotiation; a violent hothead who can choke two men at once and lift a woman four feet off the ground by her throat, and a pussycat who melts orgiastically when he beholds beauty or touches the coveted stamps.
“There is damage there,” Dennis says of Jackie. “This is a desperate person.” That could be said of all these characters, who are consumed by greed, obsession, betrayal and a demand for reparation of past wrongs. But lacking deeper insights into the sources of their imperfections and desperation, we can only observe their cunning scams from a distance, engaged but not involved. The production is excellent; the play is more entertaining than enlightening.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre – Rolando Stage, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., Ste N, San Diego. ( 619) 337-1525; www.cygnettheatre.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $28-42. Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., through May 10.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
THE ODD SQUAD
THE SHOW: “Be Aggressive,” a dark-edged comedy written by a San Diego native, at New Village Arts Theatre
Cheers aren’t always so cheery. High school cheerleading is a hierarchical world, from the top and bottom of the human pyramid to the strict social stratification. Laura and Leslie are spotters, way at the bottom of the cheering foodchain , snubbed, disdained and ignored by the really popular members of the cheer squad. But they think they’re the only ones who really, truly care about the sport, and they set out, in rather self-destructive ways, to prove it. They take off, with a “borrowed” car, credit card and stolen cash, for a professional cheering camp 3000 miles away, leaving behind Laura’s grieving father and tattletale sister, and Leslie’s self-centered, neglectful, abandoned mother.
In Annie Weisman’s smart, multi-layered script, pep is juxtaposed with pain; adolescent anguish and outsider status rub up against compulsive, competitive consumerism; eating disorders and wacky organic food fetishes butt up against the paving over of wetlands to create more freeways.
Weisman, who set her breakout play in the Del Mar neighborhood she grew up in (she graduated from Torrey Pines High), knows exactly what she’s talking about. And she knows just how painful adolescence can be. Sadly, all the social/cultural issues that inspired and infuriated her when she wrote the piece still plague us today. Now a nationally recognized playwright, Weisman is a genuine homegrown talent. She got her start at the Playwrights Project, and “Be Aggressive” premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2001.
The New Village Arts production is a cheerful (cheer-full?) and energetic confection that treads lightly on the underlying sadness of the piece. Unlike the Playhouse portrayals, these girls may be social outcasts, but they’re b y no means losers. And it’s not at all clear that they are inferior at cheerleading. When the two were shown to be really inept and self-deluding, they seemed more pathetic, and therefore, more sympathetic. Here, we believe their perky desire to be the best, and don’t see it as completely implausible. But director Kristianne Kurner has made plenty of wise and comic choices, and her two central actors are terrific.
Rachael van Wormer nails the put-upon Laura, whose mother just died, whose sister is needy, whose father is demanding that she step into the role of stay-at-home wife/mother, taking over the cooking, cleaning and chauffeuring chores for her younger sib. It’s positively chilling when he tells her, “I don’t want you doing things. I want you here.” As her partner in crime, Amanda Morrow is sheer delight, a spirited, spoiled child who thinks she can do a back flip (Morrow can!) and get away with just about anything. Morrow also created the marvelous cheer choreography and, a former cheerleader herself, she’s the best at executing it. Amanda Sitton is spot-on as the precocious little sister, and Dana Case is placidly unnerving as Leslie’s Southern gothic, selfish mom. Daren Scott appears shell-shocked as Laura’s bereaved dad, unfairly demanding and dismissive of his daughter, robotic and unthinking in his approach to his work and his children. The cheer chorus (Caitlin Kunkle , Rachel Robinson and Alyssa Schindler) provide bouncy backup, and their bustling, cellphone -chat scene-changes are imaginative and amusing.
The set (Tim Wallace) pops with pop-art shapes and colors; the lighting (Justin Hall) and sound ( Joshua Everett Johnson ) are also vivid. Sitton created the bright-hued costumes, including the hilarious giant Slurpies the girls wear around their necks during their road trip. There’s a good deal roiling beneath this charming production, once you get past the surface cheer.
THE LOCATION: New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State Street , Carlsbad . (760) 433-3245; www.newvillagearts.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $25-30. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through April 26.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
NEW PLAYS, UNIQUE VOICES
…The Baldwin New Play Festival, UC San Diego’s annual showcase of its talented MFA students in playwriting, is up and running, with four full productions and one reading. The topics range from fairy tale to futuristic, from teen murder to deviant ducks. The reading is from the winner of the National Playwriting Competition named in honor of Dr. Floyd Gaffney, former UCSD professor and father of African American theater in San Diego . Get the whole schedule at http://theatre.ucsd.edu/season/newplayfest/
… The San Diego Playwrights’ Collective premiered this week with a mini-fest of staged readings, featuring work by local writers. With the demise of the 15 year-old Fritz Blitz of New Plays and the extended hiatus of the annual Actors Festival, the new Collective, founded by Tim West, Carmen Beaubeaux and Jason Connors, boldly steps into the breach. Their aim is not just to showcase work-in-progress, but also “to invite audiences inside the process of play development.” As West pointed out, the “ wright ” in “playwright” refers to someone who constructs, and plays are “wrought things,” he says, “ crafted over time.” North Coast Repertory Theatre hosted the first Playfest , four works presented over two nights for a Pay What You Can price. The plays showcased were: “Me, Myself and Albee,” by Matt Thompson , “The Interns,” by Carmen Beaubeaux , “Someone’s Living in the House That Jack Built,” by Jason Connors and “ Cooperstown ,” by Tim West. An impressive array of local actors and directors participated. Next up for the group: “Wendell and Tarquin ,” about a pair of gay penguins, by local playwright Jason Montgomery, directed by West. At Diversionary Theatre, May 26. And “The Perfect Daisy,” the Beaubeaux play that was too big to premiere this week, will instead premiere at the Lyceum Theatre in early June.
… Got Milk?: “Dear Harvey” is a new work, commissioned by Diversionary Theatre, to honor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, a joyful, hopeful man (see Sean Penn in the recent film, “Milk”) who was assassinated in 1978. San Diego playwright Patricia Loughrey conducted dozens of interviews with community leaders, as well as Milk’s friend and family, to create her world premiere. Contributors included local politicians Toni Atkins and Christine Kehoe, and Harvey ’s nephew, Stuart Milk. She also used historical material and pix by San Francisco photographer Daniel Nicoletta , who was hired by Milk to work at Castro Camera in 1975. SDSU student Thomas Hodges composed music to underscore the play, which features a 7-member cast directed by Diversionary executive and artistic director Dan Kirsch. April 18-25; (619) 220-0097; www.diversionary.org .
… It wasn’t a new work, but it was certainly approached in unique ways. The 25thSDSU Design Performance Jury featured “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” in all its incarnations. The three teams of students who presented their plans for a hypothetical production (including details of concept, set, lighting, costumes and a representative scene) used all possible source material: the original 1976 novel by Manuel Puig , his 1983play adaptation and the 1992 Tony Award-winning musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, with book by Terrence McNally. The three excellent presentations featured a straight play, a musical scene and a film version. Wonderful work by an array of very talented students, and a marvelous learning experience for participants and audience alike. Don’t miss it next spring; this is a little-known San Diego treasure.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… New Guy in Town: It’s like a marriage, the close-knit relationship between an artistic director and a managing director. Compatibility is key . In fact, many local companies are successfully run by life-partners: Cygnet Theatre, ion theatre, Lamb’s Players Theatre, Lyric Opera San Diego, San Diego Musical Theatre. So, it makes sense that the La Jolla Playhouse chose someone with connections to artistic director Christopher Ashley to become the new managing director (a post that has been vacant since September). Michael S. Rosenberg, 40, a veteran producer/administrator of not-for-profit and commercial theater , begins his new job on May 4. As the top administrator at the Playhouse, he’ll be responsible for directing strategic planning, financial management, marketing, development, production management and labor relations.
In the mid-‘90s, Rosenberg was co-founder and executive director of the Drama Dept., an inventive, well-regarded non-profit theater collective of actors, writers, directors, designers and stage managers. His partner in that venture, along with actor Cynthia Nixon, was Douglas Carter Beane , the acclaimed playwright who served as the company artistic director. Beane has also been a frequent collaborator of Ashley, most notably on the Tony Award-nominated musical, “ Xanadu .” After 12 years with Drama Dept., where he produced 21 shows, Rosenberg went on to run the theatrical arm of East of Doheny , a New York/L.A. theater and film production company . Prior to these ventures, he spent several years in Washington , D.C. , where he produced and managed educational theater programs at the Kennedy Center and the Shakespeare Theatre. Most recently, he was a producer of the brief 2008 Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” Ashley considers Rosenberg to be “one of America ’s top theater producers and arts administrators… [ whose ] unique combination of passion and pragmatism, along with his extensive experience shepherding to the stage both large-scale musicals and innovative works in development, make him ideally suited for the position. I can’t wait to begin our partnership.” We hope it’s a long and fruitful one.
… Going Green… It’s still months away from the return of the blockbuster musical, “Wicked,” and tickets are already available. The Green One from Oz, winner of 20 major awards, including a Grammy and three Tonys , will make her extended revisit to the Civic Theatre, courtesy of Broadway San Diego, from July 29-August 30. But you can get on the megahit bandwagon on Sunday, April 19, from 7-10 a.m., for the Early Bird, in-person-only Sale Event, at the Civic Theatre Ticket Office, at 3rd and B Street , downtown San Diego . While you’re waiting in line, you’ll be treated to music and complimentary breakfast treats, and a chance to win “Wicked” merchandise. If you’re not the standing-in-line type, wait until after 10 a.m. to reserve your seats by phone or through TicketMaster : (619) 570-1100, (619) 220-TIXS; Broadwaysandiego.com; www.ticketmaster.com .
… CALLING ALL ACTORS: Here’s a way to improve your craft, whether you’re a novice or a seasoned professional. Broadway and Hollywood are coming to San Diego , for the second annual Stage, Screen and Television Actors’ Conference at SDSU, which offers presentations, master classes and private audition consultations. High-profile presenters include casting directors from New York , L.A. and San Diego . April 25-26 at the SDSU Extension Conference Center , 5250 Campanile Dr. www.actorsconferences.com .
… 15 + 15: The 15th Annual New York City 15 Minute Play Festival features one San Diego entry, the second time a piece by playwright David Wiener has been accepted into the competition. In 2006, it was “An Honest Arrangement,” which earned a Best Play Award. This year, it’s “Feeding Time at the Human House,” which premiered locally in 2008, as part of the Challenge Theatre events at 6th @ Penn (now Compass) Theatre. Thirty-five original plays were selected from more than 300 submissions around the country. Audience members vote each night for their favorite play, with the winners moving on to the finals, and a chance to compete for cash prizes for Best Play, Best Direction, Best Performance and Audience Favorite. Wiener’s work shows on May 6; the Festival continues through May 16. So if you happen to be in New York next month, support the Home Team. At The Studio, 145 W. 46th St. , 3rd floor, in the heart of the Times Square/theater district. The event is produced by Turnip Theatre Company and the American Globe Theatre. Info and advance tickets at www.theatermania.com or www.15minuteplayfestival.org.
THE READING ROOM
Upcoming Play Readings :
… More Lincolnmania : In this 200th anniversary year of Lincoln ’s birth, here’s one story that hasn’t gotten much play: the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her attorney, Myra Bradwell , the first female attorney in the U.S. , who fought to overturn the unjust court decision that landed Mary in an insane asylum. “Mary and Myra,” by playwright Catherine Filloux , a La Jolla High School alumna, will be directed by theatermaker Kim Strassburger, who teaches a Social Justice class at UCSD that includes discussion of Bradwell’s U.S. Supreme Court case. In this staged reading, Veronica Murphy plays Mary and Linda Libby is Myra . The event is sponsored by the San Diego chapter of the League of Women Voters, Voices of Women and The Lawyers Club, a women’s attorney group. Tuesday, May 12 at 7 p.m. at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twigg Street . Pre-show reception at 6 p.m., and post-performance Talk-Back with actors, director and legal eagles. (619) 223-8074; firstname.lastname@example.org
…Write Out Loud, a local company dedicated to readings of fine short literature, has two upcoming themed events. “Food for Thought” features “stories to nourish our lives,” by MFK Fisher, O. Henry and others. 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 18 at Cygnet Theatre’s Rolando Stage. “Voices of Ireland ,” presented in association with (and on the set of) the ion theatre production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan ,” will include works by Joyce, Yeats and others. Tuesday, 4/28 at 7:30 p.m., in the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza . (619) 297-8953; email@example.com.
…”The Corpse Bride,” a play with music, adapted from a Russian folk tale by local actor/writer Mike Sears, with music by Scott Paulsen., will be directed by Lisa Berger , featuring Rebecca Johannsen , Jeannine Marquie , Annie Hinton and Eric Vest . April 20 at 8 p.m. at the 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Avenue , downtown San Diego . www.stonesouptheatre.net.
… Moxie Theatre ’s excellent staged reading of “Eleemosynary,” will be reprised at the Avo Theatre, as part of Moonlight Stage Productions’ WordsWorks program. Monday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m., 303 Main Street , Vista 92084 . Open seating; forum to follow. (760) 630-7650.
…PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“ Mauritius – a gripping, if flawed, cat-and-mouse game, superbly performed
Cygnet Theatre, through 5/10; www.cygnettheatre.com .
“Be Aggressive” – a local setting, perky cheerleaders and lots to chew on – what’s not to like?
New Village Arts , through 4/26; www.newvillagearts.org .
“Rabbit Hole” – touching, searing drama, excellently executed
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 4/26; www.northcoastrep.org
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-04-09/things-to-do/pat-launer-spotlight-on-theater-3
“The Hit” – fast-paced, funny mix of murder, mystery and romance
Lamb’s Players at the Horton Grand Theatre, open-ended; www.lambsplayers.org
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-04-02/things-to-do/pat-launer-spotlight-on-theater-2
• “Opus” – exhilarating behind-the-scenes glimpse of artists at work
The Old Globe at the San Diego Museum of Art, through 4/26; www.theoldglobe.org
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-04-02/things-to-do/pat-launer-spotlight-on-theater-2
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.