By Pat Launer
Learn to Drive with Li’l Bit
Get your poetry from Wit
And be provoked, in many ways,
By the UCSD Fest of New Plays
THE SHOW: Wit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning first play written by Margaret Edson
THE BACKSTORY: Edson’s amazing story is by now the stuff of legend. A Magna cum Laude graduate of Smith College (in Renaissance History), she’d never thought of writing a play. But after working in a cancer and AIDS unit at a research hospital, and recalling that a college colleague had told her the hardest poet in the world was John Donne, the 37 year-old felt a story coalesce, and it had to be told. After she told it, she was done. Edson happily returned to teaching kindergarten in Atlanta , where she remains. She doesn’t rule out writing again (though she writes all the time for the kids) – but only if another dramatic story lodges itself in her brain and screams to get out. It should be mentioned that she didn’t have an easy time of it with her winning first effort. The play was rejected by every theater company in the country – except for South Coast Repertory Theatre, where Jerry Patch, the long-time dramaturge and shepherd of new work (currently at the Old Globe), took it under his wing. The world premiere was in 1995, and the New York production opened in 1997.
THE STORY: Vivian Bearing is overbearing. She’s a professor, a scholar, a specialist in metaphysical poetry, particularly the holy sonnets of 17th century poet John Donne. She is imperious, arrogant, condescending. She doesn’t suffer fools — in or out of the classroom. She is consummately capable in the use of words and the acquisition of knowledge. But she’s single and solitary, inept and unskilled in the human/personal domain. Now, she’s lying in a research hospital with stage IV ovarian cancer. She has to disarm, shed all her protective covering. Change from teacher to student. Her words don’t help her here. She’s on the receiving end of dismissive condescension. And the doctors examine and analyze her body, piece by piece, with the same objective academic precision she applied to the poems. She is forced to face death – and life – with compassion, humility and grace.
It’s a tough journey, for the character, the actor and the audience. The 90-minute play is very intense. We feel like we’re watching someone die, in real time. There is the promised ‘wit,’ but not of the laugh-out-loud variety. This is the subtle, linguistic intelligence of Donne. Couple that with the details of the illness and Vivian’s stomach-churning response to experimental therapies, a surfeit of medical terminology, heavy doses of semantic/syntactic and poetic analysis, and you’ve got a rough ride for many theatergoers. But it’s worth the trip. The intensity is offset by the intelligence, and the contemplations of life and death (with assistance from the poems of Donne), and the relative importance of knowledge, redemption and love. And ultimately, despite her doubts (like those that persisted in the mind of Donne) , she is able to walk naked, stripped of all pretension, into the light.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The role of Vivian is a flawless fit for Rosina Reynolds . She has the convincing ability to seem icy and distant, haughty and authoritative, an intelligent, thinking woman who thinks she has all the answers. And as her health devolves, her resolve and certainty weaken; she is shriveled and humbled by the end. It’s a beautifully calibrated performance, under the sensitive direction of David Hay. Vivian is such a commanding character, and Reynolds such a compelling actor, one can almost forget that this isn’t a virtuosic solo show. But the rest of the 8-member cast hold their own excellently. They waft in and out, whisking those hospital curtains aside with an officious, efficient, metallic Swoosh (set by Marty Burnett ), playing multiple characters, from the frostily businesslike chief of Medical Oncology (John Herzog, who doubles nicely, in a flashback, as Vivian’s dismissive father) to the good doctor’s clinical fellow (an aptly desensitized Dennis Henry), who brushes aside questions of Bedside Manner with “that was a course in med school. Waste of my time.” As empathic antidote, there are two caring characters, Vivian’s primary care nurse (gentle, kindly Nanci Burrows) and Vivian’s only hospital visitor, the mentor (warmly played by Sandra Eagye ), who cradles her at the end, and reads to her, not from Donne, but from a children’s book, from which she still extracts existential meaning. Other assorted assistants, lab technicians and students are nimbly played by Michael Imdieke , Sunny Smith and Diana Sparta, all appropriately attired by Jeanne Reith .
The play doesn’t paint a pretty picture of academics, or doctors, particularly cancer researchers, or students, or even the parents of precocious kids. But in the ghoulish green light (Mia Bane Jacobs) amid the garish sounds of medical life and death (Matt Lescault -Wood), there are life-lessons for all of us, who will take that final journey one day.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, through May 13
WHO’S IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT?
THE SHOW: How I Learned to Drive, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner by Paula Vogel (whose Long Christmas Ride Home had a wonderful airing recently at Diversionary Theatre)
THE STORY/THE PLAY: The play uses the metaphor of driving to explore issues of incest, misogyny, manipulation and control. It’s kind of the flip-side of “Lolita,” told from the young girl’s perspective. Actually, Li’l Bit (all the members of her family are named for their genitalia) is 35 years old when we meet her, she’s scanning her memory, tripping backward in time, to examine her relationship with her Uncle Peck, who made his first move on her, behind the wheel of his ’62 Chevy, when she was 11 years old.
Coming from a severely dysfunctional multi-generational family – no father in the home, but wacko, sex-obsessed mother and grandparents – Li’l Bit comes to depend on Peck (just as his sanity depends on her); he’s the only person who listens, treats her gently, and tries to understand. Over the years, he teaches her the rules of the road (the short scenes are introduced as chapters in a driver’s ed. book) and of life (well, his pathetic, warped view of it, anyway). We never really learn about the troubled past that obviously causes him pain – what happened in the Army or, as Li’l Bit comes to suspect, much earlier on (“Were you 11, too?,” she muses, but after it’s too late to ask).
Li’l Bit is precocious, and prematurely physically developed, a visible fact that’s lost on no one – not her family, her peers, or least of all, her Uncle Peck. The first time he touched her breasts, she recalls, “ was the last day I lived in my body.” It takes a good deal of her young, traumatized life for her to recognize her own and her family’s complicity in the relationship and to take ownership of her body and her memories. Only by looking at it all with the cold eye of retrospective reality can she begin to heal and move on. Vogel has said that while she was writing the play, the “tagline” in her head was “It takes a whole village to molest a child.”
Meanwhile, lest you think this avuncular villain is a psycho terror, think again. That’s one of the beauties of the play; it’s not all black and white. It has all the grit, grain and grays of real life, of complex human beings who are neither all good nor damnably evil. The sometimes-comic drama forces us to re-examine our preconceptions about victim and victimizer. Peck uses tenderness to manipulate Li’l Bit. Like our society in general, he’s guilty of eroticizing young children (there’s the suggestion that he plays by his own rules with a young boy, too). But as Vogel paints Peck, he’s a compassionate character. Li’l Bit knows that what she does with Peck is wrong, but she sustains his love by doling out a dollop of compliance, one li’l bit at a time. He’s a patient man, he keeps telling her, and he’s willing to wait till she’s legal. But by the time she turns 18, it’s too late; only one of them will survive what was wrought by their separate and mutual pain and emptiness. The final lesson Li’l Bit learns is the power of forgiveness. Vogel catches us off-guard yet one more time, in her assertion that we can obtain love from those who hurt us, and those who harm us can also give us gifts – in Li’l Bit’s case, the tools to protect herself , and the total freedom she feels only behind the wheel of a car.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: This is just the kind of dark, disturbing piece that Lynx Theatre’s founding artistic director, Al Germani , loves to sink his psychotherapeutic teeth into. His actors are rather young for the roles, but that works fine, since they’re all quite skilled. Michelle Procopio is wonderful as Li’l Bit, by turns childish and coquettish, provocative and pained. Jude Evans brings a smoothly smarmy charm to Uncle Peck, though he seems a bit young and doesn’t quite convey the underlying damage and hurt that makes this character tick. As the play’s Greek Chorus, Krista Bell, Al lie Dana and Kevin Koppman-Gue assay a variety of roles with aplomb, though they don’t seem to have been encouraged to mine the humor as much as they could. And there isn’t the suggestion of unsavory activity in the fishing scene between Peck and a young boy.
Germani has taken some liberties with the text. He has the cast sing, all the ‘60s songs that should merely set the scenes and underscore the action. Though Procopio and the ‘Chorus’ are highly skilled vocally ( Koppman-Gue is a particularly sweet-voiced standout), this conceit interferes with the dramatic action. Most unnerving, though, is the creation of a new character, “ Li’l Girl,’” for which Germani cast a 9 year-old, who narrates moments from Li’l Bit’s past (and/or represents her ‘child within’). It’s unsettling to have a young child onstage in this disturbing and very adult-themed play. When I asked, her parents weren’t too concerned; they felt she didn’t understand much of the goings-on anyway. But there is definitely some ‘language’ here, and some physical acts to which a 9 year-old need not be exposed. Plus, as cute and naively appealing as young Al icia Randolph is, she tends to slur and race her words, which undercuts some seminal lines. This powerful play taps into enough uncomfortable truths; the production shouldn’t be additionally discomfiting.
THE LOCATION: Lynx Performance Theatre, through May 6
To date, I’ve seen three of four of the productions in the UCSD Baldwin New Play Festival, which always presents provocative work from the prodigious talent of the MFA Playwriting Program. So far, the through-line seems to be death. Actually, murder. Even the comedies turn dark and destructive. Al l the writers show an impressive ability to put interesting dialogue in the mouths of fascinating characters. Al l the performances have been outstanding.
The design work is most impressive in The Near East, the most serious play of the three – about Jews and Muslims, faith and extremism, and a whole lot more. It’s a terrific piece of work, by 2nd year MFA playwright Al ex Lewin — wonderfully evocative, but it tries to cover a few too many subjects — including closeted gay Muslims, British spies, dead kids and returning ghosts. The characters, situations and interactions are mesmerizing. Two first-year MFA students, Rebecca Levy and Joel Gelman , expertly capture the American/Muslim divide – and connection. The rest of the cast is pitch-perfect as well (including all the tricky accents), under the deft direction of Gerardo Jose Ruiz. Steven C. Kemp’s scenic design is a marvel of creativity – large and small movable, sand-filled, transparent cubes strongly suggest the shifting sands of the desert. Rachel Shachar’s costumes and Stephen Sakowski’s lighting complete the transformation of the intimate Galbraith 157 space.
Lila Rose Kaplan’s Wildflower feels like a work in progress. Set in Crested Butte, Colorado, during the annual Flower Festival, the play brings together a group of lost, lonely people, each seeking escape – from illness, divorce, humiliation, emotional pain. The characters are intriguing, some of the interactions are engaging, but scenes end abruptly, there’s a choppiness to the rhythm, and it all doesn’t quite hang together by the end. Too many untied strands and unanswered questions. Still, it’s an interesting play in the making. No complaints whatsoever about the excellent performances of an appealing cast, under the direction of Lori Petermann: believable Dorian Christian Baucum (who also displays his lovely singing voice), Walter Belenky as a seductive, swaggering soldier; Liz Jenkins as an overprotective single mom; Jiehae Park as a titillating adolescent discovering her sexuality; and Irungu Mutu , as the young, odd, geeky/smart and somewhat creepy object of her affection.
Josh Tobiessen’s Red State Blue Grass has a beguiling premise: a group of young people have found each other on the internet; all are anxious to break away from their lives and start a brave new world in the mountains of rural Kentucky . Each has a unique image of Utopia, and as these visions collide, disaster ensues — surprisingly, repeatedly and lethally. The play starts out on a light and humorous note, quick and quippy , but it takes a dark and deadly turn. The cast is outstanding. Josh Wade is especially funny as the stoner who discovers a lucrative patch of marijuana near the encampment, and starts selling it to the townies to support the commune. So much for the simple, basket-weaving life. Wade has superb comic timing – a function of his years in standup comedy. But, under the nimble direction of Sarah Rasmussen, each of the gifted actors carves out a delightfully quirky character – supercilious Kerry (Lorene Chesley ), ditsy-but-deadly Claire (Liz Elkins), short-fused Andrew (Larry Herron), materialist Burt (Johnny Wu) and macho local, Hodge (Dylan Seaton) — in this disturbing little 21st century satiric microcosm.
Senseless murder seems to be in the 20-something zeitgeist (and, in the shadow of the Virginia Tech disaster, why wouldn’t it be?). The fourth play, I might note, takes place in the aftermath of a school shooting – and all these works were created nearly a year ago. As distressing as this might be, turning one’s worst fears into art – and often comic art – is very encouraging, indeed.
The Baldwin New Play Festival runs through April 28; catch it while you can http://theatre.ucsd.edu/NewSite/season/newplayfest
EDWARD ALBEE : MORE WORDS OF WISDOM
Al bee is all over these days. The writer many call ‘America’s greatest living playwright,’ having recently left San Diego, where he participated in events for the SDSU School of Theatre, Television and Film, and the Playwrights Project, as well as appearing at D.G . Wills bookstore, was last seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, presenting a sort of Master Class for four high school seniors in the writing division of YoungArts , a program of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts.
Al bee was part of a roster of who’s who in the arts presenters, including artist Julian Schnabel , musician Wynton Marsalis , dancer Desmond Richardson and filmmaker Martin Scorsese , participating in a weekend of mentoring sessions for YoungArts participants.
Your job, Al bee told the budding writers, is “to change things and bring people around to your point of view. You’re either right or wrong. Creativity begins in the unconscious. Don’t write too soon. Get to know your characters. You should be writing absolutely real people in real situations. That’s the only way actors can act your stuff.”
As paraphrased in the New York Times, he also offered a laundry list of the practical side of writing: don’t lecture; don’t be obscure; never become someone’s opinion of you; and remember that every line has two purposes —to delineate character and to advance the plot. Everything else is a waste.
Al bee also presented his reading recommendations of the four essential 20th-century playwrights: Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett and Brecht . But, he cautioned, “If you only read the great writers, you’ll be in trouble. Read junk. It’s enormously encouraging to tell yourself, ‘I can do better than that.’ ”
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… HAVIN ’ YOUR SAY… If you can’t listen to my (new format, conversational) reviews on KPBS-FM on Friday mornings (6:30 and 8:30am at 89.5 FM) – or even if you can – check out the full review text online at kpbs.org, then put your two cents in. Post a COMMENT… and we can have an online chat.
… Rising Stars is an apt name… and the company is about to present an original musical revue, But Mama I Don’t Want to Be in Show Business, written by La Costa residents Charlie and Judy Malings (she’s a former member of the spoofy pop culture sendup, Beach Blanket Babylon, that has played San Francisco for 30 years and 10,000 performances; she currently sings with the band Ultra Tones). This new show, performed by 25 North County actors age 8-14, is Rising Star’s “answer to Forbidden Broadway,” featuring songs from musicals such as Rent, Wicked, Pippin, Oliver, Bye Bye Birdie and Hairspray. It runs at the Sunshine Brooks Theatre in Oceanside , May 18-20. email@example.com .
… And for the grownup set, there’s a new musical presenter in town, the San Diego Musical Theatre. The spunky new company, helmed by executive directors Gary and Erin Lewis, is taking the bull by the proverbial horns, planning a full season at the Birch North Park Theatre, through 2008. Their first production is The Full Monty, which debuted at the Old Globe Theatre (directed by Jack O’Brien) and went on to Broadway, winning innumerable fans and a 2001 Drama Desk Award for David Yazbek’s catchy, pop-rock score. A musical riff on the 1997 film of the same name, it’s the story of six unemployed, frustrated steelworkers who regain their pocket-cash, self-respect – and their women — by banding together for a strip-act. The Lewises have big plans and have spared no expense. They brought in award-winning L.A. director Nick DeGruccio and choreographer Lee Martino (who choreographed the show at Musical Theatre West). The cast features New York and L.A. performers, as well as San Diegans Priscilla Al len, Andy Collins, Amy Biedel, Marci Anne Woebben and Ari Lerner. The music director is the talented and ubiquitous Don LeMaster . Future productions include Guys and Dolls, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Dreamgirls . The long-range goal is to build a performing arts center in coastal North County . More power to ‘ em … Hope they go the Full Monty! May 4-13 at the Birch North Park Theatre. www.sdmt.org.
… Big Shakes, little peers (Get it? Shakes-peer? Oh, never mind…). The second annual San Diego Student Shakespeare Festival takes place this weekend… and it’s definitely something to see. More than 200 students from 20+ elementary through high schools around the county will perform sonnets and scenes from the Bard, and will demonstrate their skills in dance, music, puppetry and juggling. Sponsored by the San Diego Shakespeare Society, the Festival is the culmination of a year-long educational program that includes classroom workshops and teacher training. It’s a fantastic way to introduce kids – and the community – to the genius of the Grand Master. Saturday, April 28, in Balboa Park , commencing at 12:30 with a procession from the Spreckels Organ Pavilion to the three performance stages along the Prado . The Awards Ceremony begins at 4pm. www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org
… Stepping into the director’s chair… Patté Award-winning actor Charlie Riendeau … at Scripps Ranch Theatre. He’s helming a noir detective spoof, Red Herring, by Michael Hollinger, wherein Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s daughter just got engaged to a Soviet spy, and Boston detective Maggie Pelletier has to find out who dumped the guy in the river, where he’s currently swimming with the fishes. Appearing in the cast, among others, are two local delights: Ria Carey and deja bleu ginsberg . http://www.scrippsranchtheatre.org
… Post-Pulitzer surprise… I t looks like the first San Diego production of this year’s Pulitzer winner, David Lindsay- Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, may get its local premiere at a community theater. PowPAC has it on the calendar for next spring (March 2008). That’s really pulling a Rabbit out of a hat. Way to go.
… Oh, dose guys from Jersey … The national touring company of Jersey Boys staged an upset April 24, winning the grand prize at the 21st annual Easter Bonnet Competition. They raised $236,844 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS – which proves that they didn’t fuggedaboudit .
… New space, new venture… ion theatre, having lost its lovely downtown space, the New World Stage, is trying something new: an open-ended production in a downtown food & drink venue. Their reprise of the funny/witty/intelligent/linguistically acrobatic Al l in the Timing opens this weekend, with the same great cast: Laura Bozanich, Andrew Kennedy, Jonathan Sachs and Kim Strassburger , directed by Claudio Raygoza and Glenn Paris. Check it out. And have a little something to sip and nosh. At the Sixth Avenue Bistro, (at 6th & B), opening Friday 4/27 at 8pm.
… Multi-media Resilience… 6th @ Penn Theatre continues its Resilience of the Spirit: Human Rights Festival 2007 with a multi-media performance piece, Once Removed, by The AjA Project and TranscenDANCE Youth Arts. The collaborative work reflects the longing these diverse young folks feel for the homelands they’ve left behind, and their attempts to reconnect with their heritage. Monday, April 30 at 7:30 p.m.
… Al so on April 30, the Avo Playhouse completes its series of staged readings with Actos , early works of Luis Valdez, initially performed on the picket lines and marches of California . Directed by Bill Virchis , featuring performers from Teatro Máscara Mágica . 4/30 at the Avo in Vista , 7:30pm. Free.
… Oh, those lucky/busy UCSD students. Not only are they steeped in the New Play Festival, they are immersed in outside inspiration. Steven Adler, former Broadway stage manager and current provost of Earl Warren College, arranged for a five-week workshop taught by acclaimed actor/singer/dancer Ben Vereen , who was invited here to inform, inspire and enlighten the second year MFA actors (he actually has a home in East County). He also put in an appearance in Adler’s musical theatre history class. What a treat for all. Hope he’ll make himself a ‘regular’ around town.
… Watch out for the Q-Mobile… The Old Globe has created an Avenue Q-Mobile to promote the West coast premiere of the delicious, Tony Award-winning puppet musical, coming to the Spreckels Theatre June 30-August 5. Built from a 1986 Honda Accord, the car has been re-FUR- bished – covered with orange fur, just like the singing, oversexed puppets. The fuzzy vehicle makes its debut this weekend at ArtWalk in Little Italy, and will put in an appearance at the Pride Festival Parade and many other local events. The car was transformed by award-winning scenic designer Mike Buckley. The clever, funny show won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book of a Musical. You’d be a total puppet-head to miss it.
…Bonjour, Josephine! The multi-talented African American icon, actress-singer-dancer Josephine Baker, is making a big comeback… sort of. The musical biography, Josephine Tonight, which celebrates the early life of the showbiz legend who made her (erotic) mark in France , stars the mega-talented Karole Foreman. The local premiere of the show, written by the late composer Wally Harper, is produced by Common Ground Theatre , directed by Floyd Gaffney. The 15-member cast, including dancers, features Rhys Green , Patricia Elmore Costa, Ida Rehm and John DeCarlo . Lyceum Theatre, May 3-20.
… Au revoir , Des… Well, it’s official. Des McAnuff has left San Diego and returned to his native Canada , to take up the reins (as part of an artistic directing triumvirate) of the Stratford Festival in Ontario . He certainly helped put San Diego on the national theater map, with his Tony Award-winning productions and his invitations to some of the country’s top theatermakers to ‘do their thing’ at the La Jolla Playhouse. Christopher Ashley will take over as the Playhouse’s new artistic director… and we hope he makes as big a splash. A big Bonne Chance to Des. He went out with a bang, a magnificent production of Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention. We’ll be waiting for his return; the plan is that he’ll be doing two productions in the next three years. So he isn’t gone for good.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Wit – lovely, searing production of a very intense play
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through May 13
UCSD New Play Festival – provocative work, both comic and dramatic, from the gifted writers of tomorrow (and today!)
Various locations on the UCSD campus, through April 28
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
MAYDAY! … Better grab your Maypole and dance into a theater !
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.