By Pat Launer
Into London and Florence we’re heartily hurled
In Bunbury and The School of the World.
RETURN OF THE NON-EXISTENT
THE SHOW: Bunbury , the second production of a new work by Los Angeles playwright Tom Jacobson; the play premiered in L.A. in 2005, and it makes the perfect capper to the 2006-2007 season at Diversionary Theatre
THE STORY: There have been clever backstories of fictional characters before (e.g., Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). Characters have been kidnapped from works of literature, and there have been acts of literary homicide (investigated by literary sleuth Thursday Next in the witty novels of Jasper Fforde ). But Jacobson goes them one better. He exhumes characters who never even appear in literature, characters who are merely mentioned or alluded to, but never actually show up. Take Godot , for instance. Or that imaginary kid dreamed up by George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? Or Blanche Dubois’ young homosexual husband in A Streetcar Named Desire. They all show themselves in Bunbury , thanks to the title character, who is himself merely a plot device in Oscar Wilde’s masterwork, The Importance of Being Earnest. Bunbury , you may remember, was just an excuse; when Algernon, a wealthy London city-dweller, wants to avoid responsibility or social obligation, he says he has to visit his sick friend, Bunbury . And that’s Jacobson’s starting point. He’s looking at those who are normally ignored, the “phantom characters” who are “less than fiction; they’re sub-fiction.” And he’s making the point that no one is irrelevant; the people we overlook might be the truly important ones. He takes his argument just one step further (read: too far). Maybe, he posits, if there weren’t so much tragedy in literature, there would be less of it in life.
At rise, we meet the supercilious Bunbury , lounging at home with his butler, a rather well-read, uppity fellow himself. An unexpected visitor turns out to be that forgotten Renaissance ingénue, Rosaline, the first love of Romeo before his star-crossed meeting with Juliet. Rosaline wants Romeo back; Bunbury still pines for Algernon. Together they dive into the texts to set things right, or to get what they want. But they get a lot more than they bargained for. First, they find out that they don’t even exist, and never did. Then they start causing all the dramas and tragedies to conclude with happy endings (Romeo and Juliet have many kids – and a humdrum marriage; Miss Havisham finds a husband; Faust refuses the devil’s deal; Madame Bovary confesses and is forgiven, etc.). Ultimately, the two imaginary meddlers try to change the world.
It’s a terrific premise, and Jacobson is relentlessly literate and erudite, making references to works as wide-ranging and diverse as “Arabian Nights,” The Sorrows of Young Werther ” (Goethe), “Bartleby The Scrivener” (Melville), the Greek poet Cavafy and a 1975 Katharine Hepburn TV movie called “Love Among the Ruins.” Fasten your seatbelt; it’s a neck-snapping intellectual ride. Fortunately, there’s a Glossary of Referenced Works in the program, if you need it. And you may not – either because you already know it all, or you don’t really care. But the more you know, the more you’ll appreciate the myriad in-jokes, not only about substance, but also style. In addition to the variation in writing technique that matches each literary scene, there are tons of metalinguistic asides — about free verse, iambic pentameter, alliterations, et al. Very funny stuff. But it does run on, and it does get silly and out of control by the far-fetched end. One intermissionless act would do it, swiftly, slickly and seamlessly. “The Raven” can go. Even The Three Sisters (though it plays out the ‘what if…’ everyone’s always pondered). But there’s a lot to like and laugh about, both in the play and the production.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: This is the first foray into comedy for gifted director Esther Emery, and she proves that she can apply her prodigious skills to crackerjack comic timing The piece doesn’t veer too much into the camp camp , but it does dance dangerously around the edges at times. Nick Fouch, husband of the (very pregnant) Emery, has designed a simple and easily changeable set, flanked by huge calla lily lamps. (Amy Chini does a fine job with props). Bunbury always carries a lily, Wilde’s trademark. [It’s been suggested that ‘ Bunburying ’ itself is code for the double lives led by gay men, which includes both Wilde and Jacobson’s Bunbury ). The attractive costumes (created by Jennifer Brawn Gittings, rapidly proving herself to be among our most inventive and resourceful designers) change period and style with incredible speed and a good deal of visual humor.
An extra bonus in this production is the two exceptional pianists onstage, a felicitous fact of which Emery takes marvelous advantage. As Bunbury’s fastidious but surly/judgmental butler, Tom Zohar gets to play some lovely classical music, as well as the original pieces he created for the recent production of New Village Arts’ Three Sisters (ironically enough, for the scene from Three Sisters). Later, the show’s centerpiece, David McBean , delicious as the snobby but lovelorn Bunbury , will play some schmaltzy underscoring for the beastly (but soon blessedly happy) George and Martha. Zohar is also amusing as Sonny Jim, the imaginary “little bugger” of George and Martha; and as Vladimir , one of Godot’s patiently waiting tramps. Melissa Supera is a hoot as Rosaline (who speaks English, but keeps insisting it’s Italian; she’s from Verona , y’know ); she’s also highly amusing as Wilde’s flighty Gwendolyn and Chekhov’s dour Masha . Wendy Waddell is adorably adolescent-looking as Juliet and spot-on as that fragile former Southern belle, Blanche, shocked by her husband’s homosexual infidelity (but suddenly, quite willing to forgive). Diane Addis makes a welcome return to the stage as a beautifully boozy Martha, and John Rosen matches her line for line as quippy George; he also plays an aged Algernon to her Old Cecily, in their 80s and watching the moon landing (don’t ask; it’s the show’s major weak spot). Chris Buess and Aaron Marcotte round out the competent and ever-adaptable cast, appealing in several roles. The voiceover (Craig Huisenga) doesn’t sound anything like a Kennedy, and that speech goes on interminably (that pesky ending again). By that time, we’re intellectually and emotionally exhausted. A little tweaking and trimming, and the piece will be, despite its Wilde-referencing subtitle, a ( non) serious play for (non)trivial people.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, through June 17
THE PASSION OF THE MASTERS
THE SHOW: The School of the World, a world premiere (and the playwriting debut) of New York musician, film director, comic and sometime actor Sal Cipolla
THE STORY: It’s an intriguing and irresistible story, partially based in fact. 1503, Florence , the power-center of social/cultural/political life during the Italian Renaissance. Two creative geniuses at work in the city — the middle-aged Michelangelo Buonarroti and the young prodigy Leonardo da Vinci — have bared their teeth repeatedly in a personal and professional rivalry that has become legendary. Enter Piero Soderini , one haughty, recently elected Gonfaloniere , or Chief Magistrate, who decides to capitalize on the famous enmity. He commissions both men to create murals in the Council Hall of the newly constructed Palazzo Vechhio , the seat of the Florentine government. And he writes into the contract that they are to work ‘in competition,’ hoping that will entertain the masses by fueling the conflict, and will also stimulate the creation of two masterpieces that celebrate the military victories of Florence . It was the first battle scene either master had ever painted. And neither fresco was ever completed.
This is the foundation for the play; the rest is pure speculation: what happened during the time they were in the Great Hall together, what they talked about, how they worked, and why they didn’t finish. Not all of those questions are answered, and the twosome’s interactions aren’t all that instructive about their work or their creative process. But the story is delicious, and its potential to provoke is certainly compelling. The play isn’t fully satisfying, and definitely needs more fleshing out in some places, trimming in others. We get caricatures of these two superstars, but not fully realized characters about whom we can develop understanding and empathy. Those around them are also cardboard, stock characters: the not-so-benevolent Pope, his nasty minion, the conniving/controlling Magistrate and his sniveling sycophants. The piece would work just as well with the two main characters alone, but they and their conversations would need to be more substantial. A more compelling and memorable title would help, too. Although fellow artist Benvenuto Cellini proclaimed the Great Hall events “the school of the world,” it’s not a titular attention-grabber, and it offers none of the passion of its inspired subjects.
THE PLAYERS: The 21 year-old Vantage Theatre should be commended for taking on the massive challenge of a new play by a novice playwright, about two luminaries of the art world and the world at large. To portray these monumental characters takes actors of depth, breadth and experience. Co-directors (and life-partners) Dori Salois and Robert Salerno assembled a cast of varied experience and expertise. Center-stage are the two larger-than-life geniuses; as Leonardo, James Gary Byrd certainly looks provocative with his scraggly, waist-length beard, his compulsive notebook-scribbling and his excitement about his next potential invention. But we knew all that before. What do we learn about his temperament and artistic motivations? He remains an enigma, though we do get a hint of his head-in-the-clouds mien. But what about his relationship with his fawning assistant (slightly dim-witted as written, and as appealing played by Tyler Jaymes Albright)? Both artists were gay; there are oblique references to their homosexuality, but it’s a theme left unexplored.
As Michelangelo, Jeffrey Lippold is young, attractive, arrogant and pugnacious. But he tends to plaster a scowl on his face, and we don’t get a sense of what’s behind the self-importance and over-confidence. It would be nice to know more about the artists’ approaches to their art. The program notes tell us that “Leonardo was known for the shadowy softness and ambiguity of his work,” and “Michelangelo was … known for imbuing his work with a sense of vibrant energy and dynamism.” But none of that makes its way into the text, and it’s only hinted at in the projections of the developing murals.
Jonathan Dunn-Rankin makes a delightful cameo appearance as the soft-spoken but impatient and demanding Pope Julius II, and Spike Sorrentino creates an interesting character in the small role of a naive cleric. Eric George is fine as the snarling, art-hating Cardinal who’s sent by the Pope to take Michelangelo away from this project so he can start on “the ceilings.” Steve Oliver, who has a rich, booming voice, tends to overuse it as Soderini , shouting most of his lines without sufficient variation or nuance. The real misstep, and it’s unclear whether this is the fault of the play or the production, or both, is the three Stooge-like, obsequious government functionaries, who keep tripping over each other to get near and agree with the Chief Magistrate. That silliness undermines the gravity (and gravitas) of the story. Such a base level of comedy has no place here.
THE PRODUCTION: The production is quite attractive. Salerno designed the minimalist set, nicely lit by Sally Stockton. The arched doors and windows and the ornate wood table center-stage amply suggest the Renaissance, as do the colorful and varied costumes ( Salois , Jean Moroney and Jodi Brisebois ). Each scene is introduced with appropriate music ( Salerno ’s sound design). Best of all is Salerno ’s multimedia creations. His projections on the big blank walls show the evolution of the murals, from studies and sketches to more fully realized work. And when Michelangelo uses Leonardo’s invention to try to escape the Cardinal, we see a man ‘in flight’ projected out a rear window. Magical.
The story is marvelous and the play has considerable potential. But it needs a good deal of reworking and re-thinking, beefing up and trimming down (increasing characterizations, decreasing characters). Both more information and more imagination would enhance the dramatic exploration of this fascinating slice of history.
THE LOCATION: Vantage Theatre at the Centro Cultural de la Raza , through June 9
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… Put your 2 cents in… Add a comment to my online reviews at kpbs.org.
… A Surfeit of Simon… It’s Simon Season in San Diego . Within a few weeks’ time, no fewer than four Neil Simon comedies will be on the boards. Earlier this week, there was a reading of The Star Spangled Girl at Carlsbad Playreaders. On June 1, New Vision Theatre Company opens The Prisoner of 2nd Avenue, at the Sunshine Brooks Theatre in Oceanside (through June 17). And, readings of two of Simon’s classics will be part of the 14th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival . Monday, June 11 is Broadway Bound, last 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 family unravels. The reading, directed by ion theatre’s Glenn Paris, features David Ellenstein and me as the beleaguered parents of those Chosen boychiks , Tom Zohar and Chris Williams. 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.
… How ‘bout a little comic Chekhov ?… Tonic Productions artistic director Amy Biedel announces the upcoming production of Flies in the Snuffbox: Four Comic Crises by Anton Chekhov, June 26-30 at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Esther Emery directs one piece, Amy Biedel another; the casts include Amanda Sitton , TJ Johnson, John DeCarlo , Ed Eigner and others. 858-481-2155; www.northcoastrep.org.
Coming to a theater not-so-near to you:
…Spider Man, the musical, will debut on Broadway, to be directed by Julie (Lion King) Taymor , with music and lyrics by U2’s Bono and the Edge. The comic web-maker will also be featured in the recently announced $1-billion Marvel Comics theme park in Dubai , set to open 2011, and next year, he’ll star in a new animated TV series on the Kids WB.
…The Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts premieres a new musical farce this summer, Party Come Here, to be directed by the recently named artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, Christopher Ashley.
… A new musical adaptation of The Addams Family is in the works, with a planned premiere on Broadway in the 2009 season. The Jersey Boys creators, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice , are writing the book, Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party) is composing the score, and direction and design will be managed by the inventive creators of Shockeheaded Peter, Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott (who appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1998 in The Improbable Theatre’s wacky 70 Hill Lane).
…The Starry Messenger, the new Kenneth Lonergan musical starring Matthew Broderick, which was supposed to premiere at the Old Globe, will instead be part of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2007-8 season at City Center. Lonergan’s been busy writing for Hollywood , and this is his first return to theater since Lobby Hero in 2001 (which played at the Globe in 2005). Too bad we’ll miss Matthew and the musical; the timing just wasn’t right.
… Henry and Eliza, together again… This fall, the Roundabout Theatre is opening its 2007-2008 Broadway season with a new production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the play that inspired the musical My Fair Lady. And guess who’s playing persnickety Professor Higgins? Our own UCSD alum, Jefferson Mays, Tony Award-winner for I Am My Own Wife, which was developed at the La Jolla Playhouse. Maysis currently on Broadway in the much-heralded revival of Journey’s End.
… Devoted fans (like me) of the hilarious, theater-savvy but dearly departed Canadian TV series, “Slings and Arrows,” a thinly veiled spoof of the Stratford Festival in Ontario (performed by a number of Festival alumni), will enjoy the fact that King Lear (the subject of the final season) will be at the Festival this summer, starring Brian Bedford.
… Okay, this one IS coming to us… the touring production of Camelot (Civic Theatre, September 25-30), with Lou Diamond Phillips as the King. Phillips was Tony-nominated in 1996 for another kingly role, in The King and I, and he was last on a San Diego stage in 1994 in The Good Person of Setzuan at the La Jolla Playhouse. Completing the Camelot love triangle: Rachel York (who appeared in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway – though not in the Old Globe premiere) and gorgeous-voiced James Barbour (a dashing Rochester in Jane Eyre at the La Jolla Playhouse, 1999, and then on Broadway; he also appeared in Enter the Guardsman at the Globe in 2001). Should be a fine/fun production.
AND… Jack scores again… The Old Globe’s Jack O’Brien is sweeping all the New York awards for play directiion this year. After receiving his 8th Tony Award nomination last week (he’s won twice), and winning the Outer Critics Circle Award for his widely lauded work on the Tom Stoppard trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, he just nabbed the Drama Desk Award, too. Here’s hoping it’s a clean sweep on Tony night, June 10. We’re proud, Jack!
… You Musta Been a Beautiful Baby… In celebration of its production of the musical Baby, which opens this weekend, North Coast Repertory Theatre is holding a Baby Photo Contest. They’re looking for children in two age categories (under 2 and 2-5) who have “star style.” The two first-place winners will receive a Baby poster, a certificate of merit and their picture will appear in ads for the production that’ll be printed in the U-T and the North County Times. The contest runs till June 4. Entry forms are at firstname.lastname@example.org
… Little Man, Big Career… 13 year-old Michael Drummond, who’s made a name for himself on local stages: at the Globe (The Winter’s Tale, 2005), Lamb’s Players Theatre (Festival of Christmas 2004) and the Welk (Annie Get Your Gun, 2003) is doing the Hollywood thang these days, his devoted mom, Molly Drummond, tells me. He’s got a small role in a new dramatic film called “Winged Creatures,” in which he plays a classmate of Dakota Fanning. As Molly puts it, Dakota “a lovely, talented, unassuming young gal. My mother-in-law is already planning their wedding in 10 years!” Are those two cute, or what?
… Don’t miss Matt’s latest masterworks… Playwright/actor Matt Thompson is premiering his latest creations: two one-acts, each presented one night only: The Audition on June 3 and Apemantus , on June 10. 7pm at the Broadway Theatre in Vista .
DANCE, DANCE, DANCE
… Check out The Movement, an evening of high-energy hip hop, urban poetry and cross-disciplinary performance, June 14-16. Under the joint banner of bkSOUL , Collective Purpose and the past )( modern performance duo, new works will be presented by local favorites grace shinhae ju n (choreographer), Ant Black (poet), Rebecca Bryant (improviser/choreographer) and Don Nichols (percussionist). In the Wagner Dance Building on the campus of UCSD. 619-917-8595
.. A rising star in the San Diego firmament: Kiril Kulish , 12, of University City , competed against 56 finalists from 10 countries in the annual Youth American Grand Prix dance scholarship competition. And for the second year, he won the prestigious grand prize (Youth Grand Prix 2007). He trains at the San Diego Academy of Ballet, with former Bolshoi dancer Maxim Tchernychev and his San Diego wife, ballerina Sylvia Poolos Tchernycheva . He looks stunning in flight.
… The June edition of Lower Left Performance Collective’s Authentic Movement Workshop takes place on 6/24. Introductory and advanced workshops will focus on “self-directed, spontaneous movement and sound in the receptive presence of experienced witnesses.” No prior movement experience necessary. At Dance Place , NTC . 760-815-5757
… How about five fun-filled days of modern dance? Register for the 5 x 5 Summer Dance Workshop, July 16-20, hosted by Culture Shock Dance Center . Take classes with veteran choreographers and dancers Traves Butterworth, Eric Geiger, Greg Lane , Bradley R. Lundberg and Gabe Masson. The workshop culminates in an in-studio performance open to the public. Info at: email@example.com
…THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ARTISTS
The Washington-based advocacy organization Americans for the Arts released a study this week that showed that nonprofit arts groups, including theaters, museums, orchestras and dance companies, contributed 166.2 billion dollars and 5.7 million jobs to the U.S. economy in 2005. The economic effect of these nonprofits increased by 24% from 2000 to 2005 (11% adjusted for inflation). There are 100,000 nonprofit arts and culture organizations nationwide. More than 6000 organizations and nearly 95,000 of their attendees in 156 U.S. communities were polled for the study. New York City and Los Angeles (each with more than $1 billion in arts organization spending) were excluded to avoid inflating the numbers. Americans for the Arts plans to use the study to argue for greater funding of the arts by government, individuals, companies and foundations, and they’ll press Congress for a 40% boost in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, to reverse a cut made by Republicans after they took over in 1995. Last month, the advocacy group released a report saying that arts organizations are “at risk” due to a drop in corporate giving and a lack of growth in giving by foundations and individuals. Theatermakers, pass this info along to your Boards and influential others.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Bunbury – smart and funny, silly and irreverent, often side-splitting (if you catch all the literary references)
Diversionary Theatre, through June 17
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
All 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
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Do something dramatic this holiday weekend… go to the theater.
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.