By Pat Launer
Enchanted April means Italian heaven,
Dancers are On the Spot with Seven,
As we sing Wozzeck’s elegy
New Plays spring forth at UCSD.
WHISPERS AND WISTERIA
THE SHOW: Enchanted April, the John Gassner Award winner for Outstanding New American Play, 2003, and that same year, Tony nominee for Best Play. A stage adaptation by Matthew Barber, of the classic 1921 English novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, which was a best-seller in England and the U.S. , and launched the tourism trend to the Italian Riviera.
THE STORY: It’s a period comedy set just after WWI, when Victorian England was virtually a country of widows, and women had just attained the right to vote (in 1919). Still, they were expected to be seriously subservient to their husbands. Two neglected, melancholic housewives meet up at their women’s club and one impulsively responds to an “advert” in The Times, renting an Italian villa on the Mediterranean . United in their secret cause, and unbeknown to their self-absorbed husbands, they advertise for two additional female companions to share the costs. The disparate foursome, each lonely and unhappy in her own way, recapture their joie de vivre, which blossoms in the Italian sunshine. Two of them rekindle their marriages; another finds a new mate, and the fourth a new lease on life. Must be the wisteria.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: This is the kind of piece that Lamb’s Players Theatre does so well. And under the caring, sensitive direction of Deborah Gilmour Smyth, they do very well, indeed. The cast is excellent. Kerry Meads is delightfully ditsy and indomitable as the ringleader, Lotty, whose annoyingly proper husband, Mellersh (a role with which Ron Choularton is having an obvious field-day) gets his comeuppance in Italy (he even gets to drop trow, in a funny slapstick bit). Ayla Yarkut is thoroughly convincing as fearful/hesitant Rose, who needs shepherding, convincing, and a whole lot of healing. As her philandering, high-profile pseudonymous writer-husband, David Cochran Heath is spot-on, with his slyly flirtatious sideward glances, underscored by pain. The quartet is rounded out by striking Erin Byron as Lady Carol ine, a 1920’s “modern” who has an air of insouciance but whose enviable high-life leaves her empty and unfulfilled; and D’Ann Paton, amusing as the supercilious battle-axe who lives in the past but comes to appreciate the present — and the presence of other women. Jason Heil is earnest and appealing as the owner of the villa, and Rhona Gold is a hoot as the feisty, wisecracking maid, whose entire role is in Italiano.
Mike Buckley has designed a malleable set, aptly rain-drenched (via projections) throughout the dreary London first act, when the plans are being made and the husbands are being informed. For the sun-saturated second act in Italy , complete with the requisite wisteria, the set opens up into a dappled palazzo, with ancient columns and a working stone fountain. Lovely, and attractively lit by Nate Pierson. The period-perfect costumes, by L.A. based Shon LeBlanc, are most striking for Byron, who swoops in sporting those stunning dressing gowns with grace, charm and élan.
From a contemporary standpoint, it might be more satisfying if the women could flourish and thrive on their own, without having to invite the menfolk into the mix, too soon after the Italian magic begins to take hold. But the dramatic adaptation of this romantic comedy remains true to its source and its time. And maybe it’s not so far-fetched even for some modern-day ‘moderns’.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, through May 13
THE SHOW: Wozzeck, the first San Diego Opera production of the Al ban Berg opus in its 43-year history.
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: The opera was inspired by Woyzeck, the innovative expressionist drama of German playwright Georg Büchner, about world-weary disillusionment and the powerlessness of the poor. A fragmentary nightmare, left incomplete when Büchner died of typhus in 1837, it’s based on a true story of a man who murdered his mistress. The play tells the tragic tale of an impoverished soldier who, victimized by his class and his society, the military and the medical establishment, kills his unfaithful lover in a fit of jealous rage and then drowns himself . Since courtrooms across the country have for years confronted the question of whether or not social conditions play a role in violent behavior, the story remains remarkably relevant.
A production of the Büchner play was presented at Southwestern College in 1994 and a deconstruction of it, Naomi Iizuka’s lush/harsh Skin, was choreographically directed by the influential Robert Woodruff at UCSD in 1995. In 2002, the wildly experimental, visionary director Robert Wilson brought his eye-popping, jaw-dropping Woyzeck to UCLA. Now, for the first time, San Diego gets to see the 1925 operatic work, the first opera created by the Austrian Berg, a protégé of the influential atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg. After attending the first production of Büchner’s play, Berg was determined to craft an opera from it. He created three acts of five scenes each, to tell the story in a fast-paced 90 minutes.
THE PRODUCTION: another local ‘first,’ this represents the opera debut of Des McAnuff, outgoing artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse (now designated director emeritus). McAnuff trusted the operatic casting to SD Opera general director Ian Campbell. Presumably, they jointly decided to have the opera sung in English, with supertitles, though it’s not entirely clear why. Franz Hawlata, the bass singing the title role, is German; he would have been more comfortable singing in his native tongue, and the opera would sound better in its original language. Despite the fact that he’s sung the part all over the world, Hawlata had to learn it in English for this production, and his heavy accent made the rough talk sound awkward at times.
A critical question about this production (and there were many for me) is, Who is this Wozzeck? As portrayed here, he isn’t an Everyman or a put-upon wretch or a fool or a madman. He just seems to be a hard-working unfortunate, haunted by his own demons and delusions. His act of murder seems to spring more from jealousy and vengeance than madness. Everything we learn about him we get from the supertitled text, not from clearly delineated characterization, which is what you’d expect from an acclaimed theater director.
The production does little to underscore the action; in fact, it often interferes. The colossal, rotating, wood-covered steel-and-plexiglas set, designed by Sledgehammer Theatre co-founder Robert Brill, is so oversized (24 feet high, weighing 15 tons), it had to be set up specially off-site. The intricate wood-beam construction, which some said looked like a bullring, actually uncannily resembled Petco Park . The set severely limited the playing space, the large circle cutting off about one-third of the stage. Only once were there any performers off the circular ‘grid.’ And the elaborate assemblage often obscured the characters, particularly in the tavern and barracks scenes. The monochromatic brown, if historically authentic and accurate, costumes (designed by Tony-winner Catherine Zuber) blended into their somber surroundings. The lighting (Howell Binkley) was often provocative, leaning heavily on red to denote passion and murder.
The inter-scene projections (video design by Dustin O’Neill) added little; they just gave extreme closeups of Wozzeck’s expressionless face that revealed none of his inner turmoil (except for one strategically placed tear, which oddly seemed to emanate from the outer edge, rather than inner canthus, of his eye). The black and white, Orson Wellesian video did serve to foreshadow the final drowning – repeatedly. And the projections provided time for the massive set structure to rotate creakily from its front, open position to its enclosed rear, with barely any distinction between the two perspectives. The ungainly movement and noise of the moving set, combined with the robust orchestral sounds, at times overpowered the singers.
There were two exceptional stage pictures that made excellent use of the scenic design: the Doctor’s operating theater, with row upon steeply raked row of identical, surgically-masked students holding clipboards, looking down on the action below. And the death by drowning at the end, when Wozzeck, spread-eagle on the second rotating disk of the set, in a Christ-like pose (or was it da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man?), is slowly and magically obliterated, sunk beneath the waters of the video projection. Beautiful image, beautifully done. But then, the magical moment is lost, to yet one more view of Wozzeck’s ultra-large, impassive face on the face of the water.
Most disturbing about this production (and not in the way the story should be disturbing) is that it doesn’t seem to have a point of view. The Captain and the Doctor don’t appear to take particular delight in demeaning and debasing Wozzeck. Al though there are often soldiers ‘stationed’ all about, there isn’t a perceptible political statement being made about them or the nature of their society. And those ‘body-bags in the ballpark?’ Are they the casualties of war, or all the women said to be dying of disease, or both? No way to know.
$2.4 million. 110 people onstage (with few choral numbers and only one crowd scene). It boggles the mind. The extremely provocative advertising image suggested an excess of passion, madness and blood. But those were only in evidence in the rather raw, coarse-language libretto (translation by Richard Stokes). The post-performance audience buzz said it all. Where there were one or two “Wonderfuls!” proclaimed, mostly it was more like “Root canal!” or “We survived!” or “The longest 94 minutes of my life.” Exciting, alas, it was not.
THE PERFORMERS: The most commendable parts of the production were the voices and the orchestra, and perhaps that’s as it should be in an opera. Though one expected something more from this much-ballyhooed production. Fortunately, the dark, complex, expressionistic score was marvelously played by the 84-member San Diego Symphony, under the impassioned baton of Karen Keltner. The peaks and valleys of emotion were more palpable in the pit than on the stage. The acting didn’t convincingly convey the nuances of emotion and extremes of passion, but the voices were almost uniformly outstanding.
Hawlata’s rich, deep bass was forceful and compelling in the role of Wozzeck, and as his paramour, gorgeous-voiced soprano Nina Warren reached the vocal/emotional stratosphere. She seemed to be portrayed as a vixen from the outset; in this translation, her nasty neighbor, Margret (Susana Poretsky) calls her a slut. It’s not entirely clear, however, after her assignation, whether Marie is indeed remorseful. Bass Dean Peterson sings the Doctor with vocal conviction, but he doesn’t seem to be torturing Wozzeck, or taking serious advantage of him; he just seems to be trying out a treatment, not abusing this hapless volunteer with his professional and financial self-serving supremacy. As the bombastic Captain, tenor Chris Merritt seemed to labor on the verge of hysteria, even as he strained at the top of his range. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris cut a robust figure as the Drum Major who attracts and perhaps rapes Marie; he was both physically and vocally commanding. The rest of the principals – Joel Sorensen as soldier Andres, Scott Sikon and Daniel Hoy as the Journeymen, and Joseph Frank as the Idiot – acquitted themselves well. But where was the edge? The dense symbolism? The societal commentary? The apocalyptic vision? Hopefully, the Opera won’t wait another 43 years to find out.
THE LOCATION: Civic Theatre; two more performances: April 20 and 22
… There was an impressive turnout at Seven, Butterworth Dance Company ’s 7th anniversary performance/celebration. Choreographer Traves Butterworth is definitely a local up-and-comer, who came to the artform late (in college) and lost no time after grad school establishing a company of his own. Very gutsy, and his all-female corps obviously adores him. His work shows passion and promise. At these performances, he happily announced “a new direction” for BDC, an educational outreach project that establishes a youth professional company called BINARY. The program, directed by featured dancer Rayna Stohl, and geared for 13-18 year olds, will hold auditions on April 27 at Dance Place at NTC, 6:30-8:30pm. www.butterdance.org.
The anniversary evening began with a ‘pre-show bazaar’ that spotlighted other dance companies on the rise. This was a very informal affair, with few of the dancers dressed for performance (the Lindy Hoppers, for instance, though talented, looked like they’d just walked in off the street and started to boogie).
The standout pieces of the formal part of the evening included Quake, a highly athletic solo set to live drumming by talented percussionist, Twon. Super-agile Stohl spent much of the piece standing on her hands, with impossibly long-held splits, then effortlessly shifting to midair somersaults. Her final whole-body quake-shakes were evocative. The message was clear in Civil, too, Butterworth’s first political piece, in which rear-wall projections totted up ‘the cost of war’ in Iraq – both financial and human — as the numbers endlessly increased. The ‘thunder’ behind Peter Gabriel’s music sounded suspiciously like dropping bombs. At the end, after the foxhole crawls, the tortured writhing and the apparent deaths, the eight dancers stood in a line, facing upstage, as the numbers were projected directly onto their backs. Powerful image.
Origin was a potent piece, danced to the music of Hedningarna, a Swedish electronic/folk–rock band with a thrumming bass-line. The sound of breath was intrinsic to this story of creation, as the dancers slowly oozed out of the primordial soup, only to evolve into an angular, jerky, familiarly frenetic and anguished present.
The best of show by far was the finale, Like Dat, a delicious collaboration between BDC and Culture Shock San Diego, which provocatively juxtaposed the long, lithe movements of Butterworth’s modern dance forms (to the luscious baroque melodies of Bach) with the vigorous, energetic rhythms, moves and music (E40, Digable Planets) of break-dance and hip hop. The dance community is really heating up in San Diego … catch it while it’s hot.
… More from the dance floor… Choreographer John Malashock put himself ‘On the Spot’ last weekend, inviting an audience in to witness his creative process in the earliest stages of development of a new work. The title of his latest endeavor, Stay the Hand, refers to Abraham’s holding back, at the last minute, from sacrificing his son, Isaac. In the manner of last year’s cross-cultural “Fathom,” the new work is a major collaboration – this time, with Iranian-Jewish UCSD composer Shahrokh Yadegari and UCSD video artist/filmmaker Tara Knight.
For three nights, visitors watched as Malashock created, shaped and re-shaped the decidedly Middle East-inspired piece, which is intended to highlight the melding of two cultures. The six dancers had never worked together as a company. But they clearly understood and shared Malashock’s dance vocabulary (Michael Mizerany, who’s danced with Malashock for years, could sometimes complete a new Malashock phrase as soon as it was begun). The most astonishing moment was when the choreographer wanted to simultaneously create and demonstrate “a phrase of movement.” He stood in front of the dancers, and as he was creating, they were mirroring his moves. It wasn’t that he showed them a series of moves and then they imitated; they moved with him, and when he was done, they replicated the entire series. That was a mind-boggling moment of muscle memory and sheer skill. Breathtaking. With no system of notation (though Knight was filming the proceedings), the corps would remember each segment that had just been created, and tack them onto the parts that were developed the preceding two evenings. This is an exciting opportunity you won’t get every day. And it’s exactly what was intended in the creation of Dance Place – de-mystifying the art and the creative process. I was there with Al an Ziter, executive director of the NTC Foundation redevelopment project, and he was justly proud that the first phase is alive and kicking.
Don’t feel bad if you missed out last weekend. Part two, ‘Persian Sketchbook,’ is coming up in a few weeks. Then, Malashock, Yadegari and Knight, along with company dancers, will show the results of their creative “sketching” thus far. Be there, May 18-20, in studio 200 at Malashock Dance inside Dance Place San Diego , on the NTC promenade in Point Loma. Call 619-260-1622 to reserve a spot… and don’t forget to wear soft-soled shoes!
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… EVERYONE’S A CRITIC… And you can have your say, too. Go online at kpbs.org, and post a COMMENT on my reviews… and I’ll be glad to have an online chat with you.
… Get Write this summer: Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company is offering 6-week playwriting and acting classes this July and August. “Writing Gym” will be taught by associate director Kimber Lee (who penned Mo’olelo’s latest production, the provocative Adoption Project: Triad). “Your Mo’olelo Playwriting Class,” intended for beginners, will be taught by founder/artistic director Seema Sueko, who’ll also helm a series on “Audition Strategies.” Individual Coaching is also available. Call 619-342-7395 or email email@example.com for information/registration.
At the same time, Mo’olelo is gearing up for its next production, Cowboy versus Samurai, by Michael Golamco (the first male-written work the company has produced). Set in Breakneck, Wyoming , the play is a comic re-telling of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” in which a Korean American must choose between his Asian American and Asian allegiances. Auditions will be held May 18-19 at the 10th Avenue Theatre (which, thankfully, now seems to be assured of a future life for local theatermakers). For audition info, call 619-563-6605
… No more fun, no more FunHouse… The FunHouse, home to San Diego TheatreSports, “ San Diego ’s best improv company” (San Diego Magazine, 2006), will be closing its doors in May. The group isn’t going away; henceforth to be known as The FunHouse Players, the company plans to “bring the fun and spirit of The FunHouse to new venues and corporate events.” They’re going out with a bang, with an Improv Festival May 18-20. Meanwhile, they’ll debut a new show, “The O.B. – The Teen Soap Parody,” and continue to seek a buyer for the property, a n intimate little space near SDSU and Cygnet Theatre. For details, go to www.improvise.net/forsale.
… Broadway Superstars, coming to a theater near you… Okay, not THAT near, but near enough: the Orange County Performing Arts Center (AKA OCPAC) has just announced its 2007-2008 season, which includes cabaret performances by Tony winners Victoria Clark, who made her name in Light in the Piazza (Oct. 11-14), Sutton Foster, who got her big break at the La Jolla Playhouse in Thoroughly Modern Millie (Feb. 14-17) and the ever-popular, ever-entertaining, San Diego-bred Brian Stokes-Mitchell (March 6-9).
… The prestigious Sundance Theatre Lab 2007 includes two San Diego connections this year. Among the eight new works to be nurtured this summer, selected from 700 submissions, is Ghostwritten , penned by Naomi Iizuka, the new director of the UCSD playwriting program. Her work-in-progress will be directed by former San Diegan Lisa Portes, who brought brilliant ingenuity to Iizuka’s Tattoo Girl and Carthage/Fire a dozen years ago, under the umbrella of her feminist Theatre E. Now that Iizuka will be back in San Diego , maybe Portes will return some time, too.
.. Speaking of San Diego playwrights, Vantage Theatre, in collaboration with Centro Cultural de la Raza, is staging a world premiere, The School of the World, by local writer Sal Cipolla. The play speculates on what might have happened in 1503 if arch-rivals Michelangelo and Leonardo were forced to work together on a giant mural in Florence ’s Palazzo Vecchio. The ten-member cast includes the always-welcome Spike Sorrentino and, fresh from his triumph in Glengarry Glen Ross, Jonathan Dunn-Rankin.
…North Coast Repertory Theatre is presenting plays by local writers, too, under the aegis of the non-profit arts collaborative art2go and The Blue Trunk Theatre Company. Kangaroo, by Margy Hillman, which will premiere May 7, is a dark, dysfunctional family comedy. Welcome Home, Sonny Boy, by NCRT’s theater school director, Joe Powers , examines the dreams and disillusionments of a father and son (May 8). Powers directs both readings, which feature much-admired local performers such as Bill Dunnam, Fred Harlow, Sherri Al len, Sara Beth Morgan, Chrystal Verdon, Matt Thompson, Sally Stockton and Cris O’Bryon. Each evening begins at 6:30, with appetizers and a silent auction, followed by the reading at 7:30. http://art2go.blogspot.com
.. Return of Unamundo… ion theatre is presenting a reprise run of its acclaimed production of David Ives’ hilariously intelligent, language-rich comic romp, Al l in the Timing, featuring Laura Bozanich, Andrew Kennedy, Jonathan Sachs and Kim Strassburger, directed by ion’s dynamic duo, Claudio Raygoza and Glenn Paris . The open-ended run begins April 26 at the Sixth Avenue Bistro downtown (6th @ B St, with ample parking at 8th & B). Food and drinks available before, during and after the 90-minute show, in this comedy-club setting. www.iontheatre.com , www.allinthetiming.com or Arts Tix: www.sandiegoperforms.com
… The San Diego Foundation has released its 2006 Annual Report, which outlines its impressive, octopus-reach of support throughout the local community. In arts and culture alone, the Foundation awarded more than $197,000 in grants. Recipients included Asian Story Theatre, California Ballet, Centro Cultural de la Raza, Cygnet Theatre, Eveoke Dance Theater, Malashock Dance, Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company and San Diego Opera, among others. Congrats to all, and thanks to the Foundation for doing what it does.
… Thought you’d like to know… As part of the Foundation’s “Understanding the San Diego Region” initiative , the Arts and Culture Working Group pARTicipate study revealed the following attitudes of San Diego County Residents:
- Cultural participation needs to be deepened and expanded.
- The region’s arts and culture community is under-funded.
- People care about the arts; two-thirds of those surveyed would be willing to pay more taxes to support arts and culture.
- The region places a high priority on increasing arts education in public schools.
- The San Diego Foundation should be a catalyst to help strengthen the arts and culture sector through community leadership, advocacy and funding.
… The 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was just awarded to David Lindsay-Abaire for Rabbit Hole, his surprisingly conventional, naturalistic portrait of a marriage nearly destroyed by grief after the accidental death of a 4 year-old son. The Broadway production garnered a Tony for “Sex in the City” star Cynthia Nixon. Two of Lindsay-Abaire’s more quirkily comical, absurdist works, on which he established his reputation – Kimberly Akimbo and Fuddy Meers —have been produced locally. There was a bit of a behind-the-scenes flap about the prize. Seems that none of the plays recommended as finalists by a nominating jury composed of nationwide theater critics was good enough for the 17-member journalistic, non-theater Pulitzer board. It was even worse last year, when the board chose not to give an award for drama at all, a decision that’s been reached three times since 1986. A ruffled Donald Margulies, who won a Pulitzer for his play, Dinner with Friends, said “I’ve never heard, ‘Gee, there was no editorial cartooning deserving of a Pulitzer this year.’ There is something patronizing about the attitude toward the drama prize, that it is something that can be withheld.”
… Calling all actors… Here’s a new way to get your name and face out there: ActorSpace.com, a free social networking website that gives actors an opportunity to promote themselves to talent scouts and casting agents (assuming that they’re primed to visit the site). Performers create their own web pages, where they can post headshots, résumés, even demo reels. Film producer Johnathan Ruggiero created the site to help up-and-coming actors avoid the expense of marketing themselves and their careers. Because the site has advertisers, there is no charge to actors. A casting notice/job board is available as well. The site seems to be geared for those just starting out in the biz, and since it emanates from L.A. , it tends to lean toward TV and film.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
UCSD New Play Festival – the theater artists of tomorrow, right here, today. Catch one of the four full-length plays; they’re bound to be provocative
Various performance locations on the UCSD campus, through April 28; for the whole schedule, go to
Enchanted April – feather-light, but enchanting, and very well done
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through May 13
Sailor’s Song – delicate, beautiful production; heart-rending and thought-provoking
New Village Arts in the Jazzercise Studio, through April 29
The Treatment – searing, intense (if flawed) play; gut-wrenching performance by Matt Scott
Moxie Theatre in the Lyceum Space, through April 29
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Opera, drama, romance, improv, dance. How come you’re NOT in a theater??
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.