By Pat Launer
Talking With BODIES, while cleverly rhyming,
Why, Beckett, you know, it’s Al l in the Timing.
THE SHOW: Al l in the Timing, the reprise of last summer’s well-received ion theatre production, with the same cast, but in a new venue.
THE PLAYS: David Ives’ series of six playlets is a hilarious and highly intelligent piece of linguistic legerdemain that premiered in a small New York theater in 1993 and went on to win an Outer Critics Circle Award. It’s acute and quick-witted, with literary references up the wazoo , that fly by so fast, you may have to see the show more than once to catch all the witty wordplay.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: ion co-founders Claudio Raygoza and Glenn Paris have refurbed yet another downtown space (a moment of silence for the late-lamented New World Stage). The subterranean area below the 6th Avenue Bistro was a tad grungy when Duane Daniels and Leigh Scarritt mounted a production of I Do! I Do!, under the banner of the Fritz Theatre , in 2004. Raygoza and Paris have spruced it up, so it looks like an intimate, low-light cabaret, with small tables scattered about, and bar and food service (yummy appetizers and desserts). For the production, they keep the sets minimal, with props and set-pieces deftly and cheerily carried on and off by the cast. And a very talented, malleable, amusing quartet it is. Each plays multiple roles, at breakneck speed. In one of my favorite pieces (and they all should be listed in the program), “The Universal Language,” the words go by with such speed that it’s hard, at times, to try to catch the meaning, and when you’re dealing with an invented, hodgepodge language, that’s crucial. But Andrew Kennedy and Laura Bozanich are wonderfully adept at Unamunda , and they’ll have you speaking this fractured English all the way home; you’ll be positively ‘ blintzful .’ Try ‘ Squeegie ,’ (‘ scuse me), “Velcro,” (welcome), et cinema, et cinema. Bozanich and Kennedy also nail the first-date replays (keep doing it till you get it right) of “Sure Thing.” After multiple iterations and false starts, the guy ultimately gets the great pickup line – and the girl.
“Words, Words, Words” is a brilliant little gem, a riotous riff on the “Infinite Monkey Theorem” that posits that, given enough time, a typing chimpanzee could create a Shakespearean masterpiece. Ives puts three wildly verbal monkeys in a room – by the names, and with the literary styles of — Milton , Swift and Kafka (played, in an exuberantly simian fashion, by Jonathan Sachs, Andrew Kennedy and Kim Strassburger ). If you know something about those writers, and about Hamlet, you’ll laugh yourself silly. But if not, you can still split your sides watching these cavorting, chest-thumping, propeller-wearing, masturbating, banana-eating apes trying to figure out what a ‘Hamlet’ is.
In “Variations on the Death of Trotsky,” the old Bolshevik (Jonathan Sachs) survives for 36 hours with an axe stuck in his head (fact!), and he gets to die a zillion times, a zillion ways. Sachs is funny here, as always, but he doesn’t do the myriad Hollywood death scenes other productions have spotlighted. With his moustache falling off repeatedly, Kennedy is a hoot as the Mexican spy who iced Trotsky, while Strassburger is funnily unflappable as the wife, blithely reading about her husband’s death in 1940 from a 21st century encyclopedia. In “The Philadelphia,” the City of Brotherly Love is just a nasty state of mind, filled with antitheses and cheese steak. Kennedy is stuck in that metaphysical black hole, while a laid-back, shades-wearing Sachs is in ‘an L.A. ,’ where life is beautiful. Just when they’re getting comfortable where they are (despite the fact that Sachs’ character has just lost his job and wife), everything goes awry again. Funny bit, but a weak ending on Ives’ part. The final piece is the musical coup de grâce (after each two segments there’s a brief intermission, time enough for a stretch and a nosh). “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread,” a faux operatic, contrapuntal songspiel , involves the entire cast who, like the minimalist composer, repeat phrases interminably, until he finally purchases the titular comestible.
This is intelligent, gut-busting stuff. I double-dog-dare you not to find something uproarious in this inspired lunacy, a sly social commentary on American mores.
THE LOCATION: ion theatre at the 6th Avenue Bistro, open-ended run
THE SHOW: Beckett3 , an installation mounted by Sledgehammer Theatre, a collaboration of three artists working in three different mediums: theatermaker Scott Feldsher , composer Tim Root and visual artist Becky Guttin . The presentation is inspired by, and obliquely about, the Irish-born, French-writing Samuel Beckett, whom some call the greatest and/or most influential playwright of the 20th century. He was also an acclaimed novelist, poet, TV/radio script- and screenwriter who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, “for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.”
THE BECKETT BACKSTORY: The estate of Samuel Beckett, and the playwright himself, when he was alive, is notoriously controlling of the work. Any production contract stipulates that no additions, omissions or alterations can be made to the text of the play or the stage directions, and no music, special effects or other supplements can be added without prior consent. And that consent is stingily administered. This, needless to say, would not do for Sledgehammer, a company famous for its wild additions, omissions and alterations of text. So Sledge founder (and returned artistic director) Scott Feldsher and his collaborators decided to create a Beckett ‘installation’ without any words by Beckett at all. Perhaps they’re right; this might have made the master smile.
THE PRODUCTION BACKSTORY: The team obviously spent a great deal of time reading and contemplating Beckett’s works ( Feldsher admitted to being most influenced by Beckett’s trilogy of novels, primarily “Molloy,” 1951). But there’s more than a little arrogance involved in excluding the ‘audience’ from this background, almost completely. There is one panel of information, “Notes on a Journey,” at the entrance to the labyrinthine exhibition. But after that, you’re on your own. There is no explanation, no timeframe (you come and go at will; there are no performers and no performance). And if you don’t come in knowing a fair amount about Beckett, you’re outta luck. Or perhaps you can just relax into the feeling that you’ve fallen into some darkly intense Mission Hills rabbit-hole, and you can enjoy the view on the way down, despite the fact that you have little idea where you (or it) are going.
The brief (but dense) opening explanation talks about a “fragmented portrait” of the master, for whom absence, separation, displacement and enigma were major themes. How Feldsher thought about his mentor, director Al an Schneider, and his untimely death, and their shared Russian-Jewish background. Tim Root, we’re told, focused only on the rhythms and patterns of Beckett, that “loops back on itself ” or “mingles memory with the urgency of the present.” And then the Sledge-men connected with visual artist Becky Guttin , a Mexican Jew who speaks five languages and is the personification of multiple, shifting identities.
So what we get, we’re told, is “artistic in- betweenness and detachment” of three artists, which for them comprises a perfect cube. The final, pre-entry warning: “You will find fixed meanings at your own peril.”
THE PRODUCTION: I watched people going through, awestruck at times, amused and confused at others. On opening night, the artists were there to explain, if asked. I attended the Q&A, where those who knew little or nothing about Beckett felt unnerved, uncertain about what they were supposed to get out of the presentation. Few direct answers were given, but the nature of the post-show discussion would certainly have been helpful to Beckett neophytes. Equally unnerving was Feldsher’s assertions that he “hates theater,” that “actors are shit,” and that “as theater artists we’re trying really hard not to do theater.” I don’t know what to think about someone who calls himself a theater artist, hates theater, and is tasked with teaching theater to young students (at La Jolla Country Day School).
As for the installation itself, it is very much about the artists’ personal vision and identity. The more you know of Beckett, the more you get the many in-jokes and sly references to the look of the plays (a lone tree constructed from the pages of Waiting for Godot ; a set model in one tomb-like area, with a tiny woman buried up to her neck in sand, as in Happy Days). The famous/infamous Beckett themes are there (if only you were told them in advance!): fragility, emptiness, repetition, opposition, time, space, sickness and death. The installation is intended as a meditation on these Beckettian concepts, but a little help for the onlookers would help. Not everyone on earth agrees with Feldsher that “fixed meanings are disgusting and boring.” Still, Feldsher’s scattered writings and videos repeat fragments of the Jewish mourner’s kaddish , which has a rather particular meaning of its own.
The way the space is used is intriguing and interactive, even if the spaces are claustrophobic or at times precarious, and even though the written words intentionally go by too fast to be ingested or interpreted. The multiple peep-holes, high and low, allow you to see particular exhibits – and each other. Some holes merely go through to the other side of the wall or room, so you watch others watching the exhibit and watching you. There is the sense of looking at things from different perspectives. You climb steep stairs and view certain objects/videos/presentations from above and from below. The suspended panels of Guttin’s provocative work (the most wholly satisfying element of the tripartite exhibition), calligraphed in multiple languages (Hebrew excerpts from the Biblical Song of Songs, side by side with Yiddish, Spanish and glyphs from her Maya/ Yaqui heritage) can be viewed from front or back. And her “Lace Chorus” of oversized organic shapes, made of Fiberglas and resin, hover over the sharp geometrics of tilted mirrors on the floor, reflecting the suspended structures in unpredictable ways.
Root’s wire-suspended speakers (woofers and tweeters hung and framed) make a potent backdrop to his angular, complex, often noise-like, repetitive ‘music’ (played live only on the first two nights, by the ever- affable Scott Paulson on oboe, bassoon and bass clarinet; and Nathan Hubbard on percussion).
So, enter at your own risk. Find ‘fixed meaning’ at your own risk. Find artistic appreciation in your own way. And find your Beckett knowledge elsewhere.
THE LOCATION: Sledgehammer in a Mission Hills Warehouse (formerly a furniture store), 4025 Goldfinch, through June 3
BECKETT COPYRIGHT SIDENOTES (One serious, One humorous): In case you’re wondering how long the Beckett estate will exert its iron grip on all productions, it varies by locale. In Australia , the copyright protection for dramatic works extends for the life of the author plus 50 years. Since Beckett died in 1989, the Australian copyright will expire in 2039. But in Europe and the U.S. , the term of copyright protection for dramatic works is ‘life of the author plus 70 years,’ which means these constraints will be in place until 2059, but not ad infinitum.
On the lighter side of the Beckett-Control discussion, the 2000 New York Fringe Festival featured one group that refused to take the rules and regs lying down. The title of the NeoFuturists ’ work was The Complete/Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (Partially Burned) in a Dustbin in Paris , Labeled ‘Never to be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I’ll sue! I’LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!’” The play’s story centered on a battle royale between a trio of producers and the Beckett estate. The title is priceless.
HAVING THEIR SAY
the 1982 winner of the American Theatre Critics Association Award for Best Regional Play, written by the elusive, Pulitzer Prize-nominated Jane Martin, whose identity has remained unknown for decades. There’s been wildly varied speculation, that the writer is male, female, individual or even a group. But the pseudonym is most often assumed to belong to Jon Jory , former artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The play comprises monologues by eleven eccentric women, whose interests become obsessions, who are battered by the cruelty and injustices of the world. Each is a survivor, in her own way and at some cost. Their stories range from poignant to gut-wrenching to heartbreaking.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: This production is part of the 4th season of the Sullivan Players, helmed by beloved local theater coach and director D.J . Sullivan. Over a career spanning four decades, Sullivan’s students have included high-profile, award-winning San Diegans Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christian Hoff and Annette Bening . As a performer, she’s appeared in movies and TV with a Who’s Who of acting royalty, including Jason Robards , Angela Lansbury and Joan Plowright . Her company is less professional these days, aspiring actors who give their all, and more. Sometimes, in this spare but energetic production, the performers are visibly acting, over-emoting and pushing the lines. Only in a few cases was the character (and these are some seriously quirky characters) believable. The piece was last seen here as a reading by the Actors Al liance, directed by David Ellenstein, with a marvelous ensemble of local talent, including Priscilla Al len, Sandy Ellis-Troy and Linda Libby . Far more seasoned performers, to be sure, but I believed those women were who they said they were.
The current production feels more like an acting school exercise in monologue presentation, some at the beginning stages of the class. But there are a few standouts in this 90-minute presentation: April March, in “Twirler,” in which baton twirling becomes a life-saving religion; Sheila Rosen, in “Scraps,” about a disaffected, rag-wearing housewife who spends most of her day taking mental trips to Oz; wide-smiled CeCe Black as a completely credible “Rodeo” gal (accent and all) who’s committed to a job that’s become obsolete; Savvy Scopelletti as a third generation snake handler (her look isn’t quite Southern, but she makes the job, and its risks, quite believable… even ending the piece with a live snake!); and talented Lauren Zimmerman Wilson, co-founder of Backyard Productions, performing the funny and menacing “Audition.”
The minimal sets and evocative set-pieces work well, and the (uncredited, probably self-provided) costumes are spot-on for each character. This is more community than professional theater, but it’s a good way to see actors-in-training doing their thing.
THE LOCATION: The Swedenborgian Theatre, 1531 Tyler Street , through May 27
WITHIN YOU, WITHOUT YOU
THE SHOW: BODIES, the controversial exhibition of human cadavers, which is currently ensconced, for several months, in the former Robinson’s in UTC . The opening night reception was lovely, hosted by the gracious local producers, Harris and Linda Goldman ( Harris Goldman Productions). Some folks were a little leary about going in, but it really isn’t disturbing at all. In fact, the preservation process is so placticized (it’s called ‘ plastination ’ or ‘polymer preservation’) , at times you have to remind yourself that these are/were real people. The controversy comes from the provenance, where and how the bodies were obtained.
There are several companies doing this sort of presentation, and those responsible for this one assert that the cadavers were obtained in China , in completely legal, respectful and acceptable ways. The bodies were unclaimed, in which case the government turns them over to medical schools (similar things happen in our own country). The concerns are that the cadavers come from a country with a long history of human rights abuses, and the donors did not give permission for their bodies to be put on display, which may be a violation of human rights and Chinese law. Al so, the company, Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions, does not make public the paper trail to China ’s Dalian Medical University and beyond. There have been suggestions that executed political prisoners have been used for commercial purposes. The commercialization is a concern to some, since Premier is a for-profit company, and millions of people have seen these displays since the first one in 1996; hence, millions of dollars have been raked in. Interestingly, Premier does not own the bodies used in the show, but has them on loan form the Medical School . Apparently they paid more than $25 million to lease the cadavers for multiple exhibitions over a five-year period. Preparation of each body can reportedly take 3000-5000 hours.
Al l these apprehensions aside, Premier asserts that their main intent is education, and the audio tour has listening options for adults or children (I tried ‘ em both and found both pretty boring. The posted info was more useful. I was also surprised that, given the longevity of this exhibition, there were spelling, grammar and pronunciation errors in the written and spoken text). The exhibition is larger than you might think; it meanders around gallery after gallery, one area focusing on each body system. It starts off easy, with the skeletal system, and builds from there. Before the entrance to the room with the fetuses, there’s a warning for the medically/politically/religiously squeamish. ( fyi , all fetal specimens, healthy and diseased, were obtained from miscarriages, not abortions). For me, the most unnerving exhibit was the skin (sans body, which made me squirm to think how it’d been obtained: by flaying). But I loved the displays of the circulatory and nervous systems… beautifully colored and lit and amazingly complex.
The lighting is excellent, and the displays are tasteful throughout. I never got the feeling of exploitation, even when the bodies were posed as basketball player or discus thrower. The ability to see the muscles and anatomical juxtapositions can be really thrilling. Some of the parts are presented in lighted Plexiglas cubes that make them look like pieces of art. The proximity of healthy/unhealthy brains and lungs tells a powerful story about what can happen to us and what we do to ourselves. So, over all, if you have any curiosity about your own inner workings, check it out. Join the 20 million people who’ve seen some cadaver exhibit or other in the past 11 years. The bodies will be hanging around (so to speak) through September 9.
Location : University Towne Centre, 4425 La Jolla Village Drive , through September 9 ; 1-877-BODIES5
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… How ‘bout YOU write something dramatic, too ?… Add a comment to my online reviews at kpbs.org.
… Tony Time! Well, the Tony Award nominations have been announced, and San Diego has a big stake in the wins. Our own Jack O’Brien was nominated for Best Director of a Play for his gargantuan, much-lauded efforts with the Tom Stoppard trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, which snagged 10 noms including Best Play. Al so nominated in that category is the final work of August Wilson, Radio Golf, and The Little Dog Laughed, by Douglas Carter Beane , who’ll be at the Globe next spring for the world premiere musical, The Band Wagon, for which he wrote the book, based on the 1953 Fred Astaire film of the same name. The Tony nomination bonanza (11 noms ) went to Spring Awakening, the dark rock musical based on a 19th century German play about sexually anguished teenagers. You won’t want to miss the awards ceremony, June 10, to root for the home-team — Jack.
… A springtime Taste of Patté .. The 2005 Patté Awards TV broadcast was just nominated for an EMMY Award. Woohoo ! Meanwhile, if you still haven’t seen this year’s 10th anniversary show, the webcast is available for viewing, all year, at www.patteproductions.com
… Here comes Rhymin ’ Simon… Two Neil Simon plays will make a dramatic (well, really comic) addition to the 14th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. Two of his funniest and most heartfelt works will be presented as readings at North Coast Repertory Theatre. June 11 is Broadway Bound, part of the highly autobiographical BB trilogy (the others are Biloxi Blues and Brighton Beach Memoirs). In Broadway Bound, brothers Eugene and Stanley seek fame and fortune in comedy writing as their Brooklyn home and family begin to unravel. The reading will be directed by ion’s Glenn Paris, and the cast includes David Ellenstein and me as husband and wife. The reading of The Sunshine Boys, directed by Todd Salovey and starring Tom Markus and Jack Axelrod , takes place on June 12. Both shows are at 7:30pm at North Coast Repertory Theatre. And for a little Simon-fix before then, Carlsbad Playreaders are doing The Star Spangled Girl, with Amanda Sitton , Monday, May 21, 7:30pm in the Dove Library.
… Matt’s at it again… Prolific playwright/actor Matt Thompson is premiering two one-acts at the Broadway Theatre in Vista . The author of more than 20 plays, including the recently seen Hemingway’s Rose and My Life as a Geek, Matt presents his latest creations: The Audition, a light-hearted exploration of the inner workings of the most dreaded theatrical experience; and Apemantus , in which a man afraid of change is changed by a stranger. Sundays, June 3 and 10, 7pm at the Broadway Theatre.
… Chaos is coming… The Asian American Repertory Theatre is teaming up with The Collective Theatre Company for the world premiere of The House of Chaos by acclaimed playwright (Tea) Velina Hasu Houston. Directed by Peter Cirino , SDSU faculty member and The Collective co-founder, the play is a contemporary adaptation of the Medea myth, with the murderous mom transposed into a Japanese expat living with her Caucasian husband in a segregated community outside L.A. In the SDSU Experimental Theatre, 7/13-29.
… Al l aboard. CCT’s summer production of South Pacific will be staged in the perfect setting: on the USS Midway aircraft carrier in San Diego harbor. Adorable, talented SDSU MFA alum Eric Vest will be playing that inimitable wheeler-dealer, Luther Billis . Going back to the source, James Michener’s “Tales from the South Pacific,” he’s portraying the guy as a Texan (which Vest is) — a “headstrong, cocky, good ole boy,” instead of the street-smart Bronxite we so often see. Check it out (8/22-26). Eric also called my attention to the imminent release of two old/new DVDs: the 1982 revival or Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, starring Richard Harris – not the film version we’re all familiar with, but the stage production filmed for HBO; and Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, the 1978 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. First DVD release for both. Reserve your copy now.
… Political Message from Michael Moerman – the formerly local actor asks if anyone might like to take part in a global reading of a new play about Aung San Suu Kyi , who’s been under house arrest in Burma/Myanmar for the past 12 years, imprisoned by one of the most oppressive military dictatorships in the world. It can be a reading, an excerpt, whatever, but it has to take place on June 19, which is her birthday. Theaters in London , New York , Delhi , Cardiff , Barcelona and Rome are taking part, in an effort to bring the tragedy of the Burmese to the world’s attention. For info, the script, etc., contact Richard Shannon at the Polka Theatre in London : firstname.lastname@example.org.
… Another Jersey Boys update: They may not be Lightin ’ the Piazza, but the Tony Award-winning Boys will be in the Palazzo… Las Vegas ’ newest casino. With several touring productions out and about, some of the J-Boys will be settling into The Strip in 2008. Hard to predict what Vegas audiences will sit for or attend to, in terms of theater. Hairspray couldn’t make it (weird!), Avenue Q called it quits after nine months (too much close listening required, I guess), though Spamalot and The Producers carry on. Even Mamma Mia!, the longest-running full-length Broadway musical in Vegas (more or less full-length; they all have to be trimmed down to 90 intermissionless minutes) is set to leave the Strip next summer — after 2300 performances. If I were a betting woman, I’d put my money on Jersey Boys in Vegas; it’s a match made in (gambling/blue collar) heaven. Meanwhile, mark your calendar for the Boys’ return to San Diego , with local Steve Gouveia playing Nick Massi , one of the original Four Seasons. At the Civic Theatre, 10/17-11/11/07.
.. On the dance boards… Malashock Dance is offering its first-ever summer camp for kids. Split into two age groups – 5-8 and 9-13, the activities will focus on creative movement , modern dance, jazz and ballet techniques. For info: www.malashockdance.org . And speaking of dance, have you seen the new San Diego Dance Magazine? Beautiful!
.. More for/on/about KIDS, and the survival of Arts Organizations… According to the newly returned Rick Prickett (former cultural ambassador of San Diego ConVis , back from his extended sojourn in Hawaii), the Youth Involvement in the Arts forum last month was a big success, with 85 attendees. The ensuing report, based on a four-city tour, was presented by Barry Hessenius with the Hessenius Group and Moy Eng, Performing Arts Program Director for the Hewlett Foundation, and is available online at the Hewlett site:
Now, there are three Calls to Action on the docket for the next six months:
1. Make the issue of generational succession and the involvement of young people in your organization an agenda topic at your next Board meeting.
2. Add someone under the age of 30 to your Board.
3. Do something to foster a direct link between your organization and at least one college in your area.
Arts organization founders/directors/administrators, take note! If you want to get involved with the Emerging Leaders of Arts and Culture San Diego, go to www.sdemergingleaders.com .
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Al l in the Timing – quick -witted, fast-paced and well presented; supremely literate fun, good for some great guffaws
ion theatre at the 6th Ave. Bistro downtown; 1165 6th Ave. 92101; open-ended run
Two Trains Running – a beautifully calibrated ensemble, maximizing the musicality of the text
Old Globe Theatre, through May 27
Desire Under the Elms – very well crafted; not quite as deep and dark as one might hope, but showing every promise of getting there soon
Cygnet Theatre, through June 3
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Remember the Performing Arts League motto: When the sun goes down, the curtain goes up! Spend your spring/summer evenings at the theater.
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.