By Pat Launer
Resilience means revenge and regret… and much more;
So watch out, Baby¸ the Woolf ‘s at the door.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN NEW ENGLAND
the 1962 masterwork of three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Al bee. This one should have gotten the Pulitzer, too, but it but didn’t (due mostly to cowardice and Puritanism on the part of the Columbia University advisers to the Prize committee). Still, the Broadway premiere won six Tony Awards.
A SIDESTORY: Forty-five years later, the play is still brilliant, and still has the power to shock. Surprisingly, Al bee wasn’t done tinkering with it. In 2004, prior to the major, Tony and London Evening Standard Award-winning revival (a delectable production starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin), the playwright went back and tweaked the play, ramping up the language, which was coarse from the get-go, but had no serious swear words. Instead of the now-tame “Screw you!” Martha shrieks “Fuck you!” when the two young, unsuspecting guests enter her living room. There are a few other line changes, but most noticeable (I know the text quite well, having understudied the role of Martha a few years back at the San Diego Repertory Theatre), is the omission of the scene with Honey and George. Each of the four characters gets to tell his/her backstory and raison d’être. In the now-omitted scene, Honey confesses her repeated attempts to avoid pregnancy. The text was a little hazy in terms of exactly what steps she took, but the scene fleshed out her character and her fear, so it was that much more meaningful in the third act when she declares that she wants to have a baby. But the scene is gone, and Honey is a less multi-dimensional character than the other three. I questioned Al bee about this when he was in town a couple of months ago; all we would say was, “The play is better without it.” I don’t necessarily agree. But there’s no disputing that the drama is still a killer, still packs a whallop, still sends you out of the theater feeling like you’ve been battered and abused. Not bad, when a play can take your breath away with a psychological belly-punch.
THE STORY: It’s all about one of the most ferocious couples ever to appear onstage or screen — George and Martha (symbolically named for the ‘parents’ of our country). They’re intelligent, inebriated, brutal … and brutally funny. When we meet them, they’ve just returned from yet another faculty party at the house of her father, the president of the university where George is still slogging along as a disillusioned associate professor, after many years in the History department. Discontented Martha goes after him with a vengeance, calling him a simp, a disappointment, a failure. George plays a more subtle game, but in his quiet way, he matches her barb for barb, wit for wit, insult for insult, and scores the final point.
When the new young Biology professor and his mousy wife enter, all hell breaks loose. They start playing vicious parlor games like Humiliate the Host, Hump the Hostess and Get the Guest. As the alcohol continues to flow (Honey’s upchucking notwithstanding), secrets, lies and buried truths are revealed, and both marriages are left in a shambles; we watch them disintegrate before our eyes. Yet, at bottom, Virginia Woolf is a love story, albeit a warped one, a twisted partnership of fantasy and gamesmanship. The play is also very funny, and this production relishes and underscores the humor. But when the action turns dark and acrid, we’re ready to take that journey, too – though we definitely need the release of two intermissions. It’s a rutted, potholed ride; you may feel a little shaky when it’s over, but exhilarated nonetheless.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: This is the first of the Globe’s new series, “Classics Up Close,” and it’s a wonderful beginning. The intimate, arena stage of the Cassius Carter literally brings you into the action. Some audience members were so close they could pour themselves a drink. Once you’ve been admitted to this cramped living room, overstuffed with furniture, ideas and deceptions, you’re hooked, mesmerized; there’s no going back. There were a few snafus on opening night: line drops and repeated indications of the wrong direction for the offstage rooms. But in this play, character is all. It’s tough to find four actors to rise to the complex, thorny, intricate demands. Director Richard Seer, who’s masterful at plumbing the depths of character, has gotten it three-quarters right. This is by far the strongest Nick and Honey I’ve seen. And this George is spectacular. The center caves just a bit with Martha.
Though she’s proven her acumen and competence at the Globe on numerous occasions (more than 10 productions, including, ironically, playing Virginia Woolf in Vita and Virginia in 2001), Monique Fowler doesn’t have the physical presence the character demands; she makes fun of Honey’s “slim hips,” but she’s easily as svelte as the younger woman. She doesn’t have the coarse earthiness or sensuality of Martha, who calls herself the “Earth Mother,” and at times, she seems to be rushing her lines. She’s best with the casually tossed-off caustic and acidic remarks, and she makes a compelling descent in the third act.
The other three actors are superb throughout. James Sutorius is a marvel as George. He was here last summer in Lincolnesque at the Globe, where he played two fascinating roles. Here, he shows all the subtlety of his craft, beginning the evening far less acerbic than Bill Irwin, and less broken than Richard Burton in the acclaimed 1966 film (Liz Taylor’s best performance ever, IMHO). Sutorius displays a range of colors, a nuanced array of love, despair, anger, frustration, regret, shame, degradation. He rises splendidly to the low-key humor and the gut-wrenching anguish; he calms Martha’s raging storm, and at the end, he reveals a glimmer of hope for the couple’s repair and redemption.
The younger duo is played by two impressive alumni of the Old Globe/USD MFA program. Both have performed on and Off Broadway, and they bring delicious energy to their roles. Scott Ferrara is exceptional; from his first entrance, you get a glimpse of the kind of good-looking, arrogant, self-assured monster he is, and you watch him being elevated and humiliated over the course of the evening. It’s thrilling to watch his reactions to the other characters; myriad emotions play across his handsome face. In the thankless role of Honey (the whining of which turned me off to Sandy Dennis for years; why she won an Oscar I’ll never know), Nisi Sturgis is magical, a wide-eyed, ever-smiling innocent, a wild interpretive dancer, and a naïf who can turn angry on a dime, belying her seemingly mindless purity. Lovely performance. The set ( Al an Muraoka) draws us in to this dusty, somewhat disheveled den of iniquity; the costumes (Charlotte Devaux) are spot-on for all but Martha, whose supposedly provocative/sexy second-act turn isn’t; the lighting (Chris Rynne) and sound (Paul Peterson) lull us into thinking that this is going to be a kinder, gentler evening than it proves to be. Gird your loins, and see one of the most unforgettable plays of the late 20th century.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through June 24
MORE UP CLOSE: The next installment of the “Classics Up Close” series will be Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie next spring.
REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST
Hurry up. You don’t have much time. This is a very short run, only through this weekend. But you don’t want to miss the latest installments of 6th @ Penn Theatre ’s Resilience of the Spirit: Human Rights Festival 2007. These two one acts will knock you for a loop.
Marianne McDonald’s latest creation, The Last Class, is a patently, admittedly, deeply personal, autobiographical work. Set as the final lecture in a course of “Reading the Ancient Greeks,” it’s presented by a scholarly classics professor with a larger-than-life, mythical story to tell – her own. It begins with some didactic background, about the Greeks, the tragedies, the playwrights and their “inconvenient truths.” (Presumably, the students would have gotten all this info early in the semester, but consider it an end-of-term review). The teacher speaks of the role of music in her life (“as important to me as my heartbeat”), as important as language… and love. She tells of the tripartite Greek conception of love (Eros, Philia, Agape ), chalkboard and all. And then, the real teaching begins. About the life journey, about how this particular prof began her pedagogy partly as “an act of contrition for where I’ve failed my family.” In between the graduation-day exhortations (Believe in yourself. Look around. Hold someone else’s hand. Admire the flowers), we hear the breathless, reckless story of a wild life, attacked with ferocity, freedom and abandon, joy and possibility, a life, as she recommends to her listeners, “lived fully and well.” A life filled with adventure, travel, risk-taking, many loves and many children, triumph and accomplishment tempered by despair, regret and remorse.
As directed by McDonald, Jenni Prisk deftly navigates the many turns down this fast-paced confessional road, and really soars at the most painful part—the recounting of the needless death of a young daughter. It’s an intense, heartbreaking moment, the dramatically high (and emotionally low) point of the piece. There isn’t really a narrative arc here, beyond the retelling of a life wherein, like the impetuous, murderous Medea, “my passion was stronger than my reason.” Passion still governs McDonald’s work – whether it be teaching or writing, loving or philanthropy. Not everyone has lived so large, or endured so many trials (personal and familial). Undaunted and unbowed, she surely demonstrates Resilience of the Spirit.
FYI: The ‘last class’ part is not autobiographical. As McDonald puts it, “I’ll teach till I drop.” The impetus for writing this play was to “finally be honest … and not have the usual social mask.” “And remember,” she adds, “I’m Catholic… confession is a way of life.” Rock (and teach) on, Marianne!
This play is followed by the deeply intense new work, A Hundred Birds , by Ira Bateman-Gold, a nom de plume for the director, Dale Morris . Morris surprises with his muscular, sometimes Mametian writing, his crackling, rapid-fire dialogue and the depth of his understanding of male camaraderie, pain and cruelty — and unexpected humanity. The play centers on the need for exorcising, hopefully healing, vengeance. At the mysterious and enigmatic beginning, there are three men onstage, one bloodied and bound, the other two nervously circling him and awaiting their partner in crime, their ‘leader.’ When he finally arrives, the whole complex picture is revealed.
Each of these pathetic losers, each showing early promise academically or personally, was cut short at age 12, emotionally crippled by “cornholing,” sexual abuse by the older man they are now holding captive. As each of their stories unfolds, we’re struck not only by how damaged they are, how haunted and destroyed — intellectually, sexually, professionally and emotionally — but also by how seductive the predatory behavior was — and remains. They want to kill the man for doing what he did. But they keep dancing around the act, recoiling from the finality of it, because the man was, in fact, the only adult who paid attention to them, listened to them, seemed to love them. It’s painful to hear the details and even worse to see the results of this monstrous act. But these three are determined to get their pound of flesh, in the hope that it will turn their lives around. It doesn’t seem likely. But we get caught up in the pain of these men, and their ravenous need for closure and healing.
As director, Morris has cast outstandingly well, and elicited superb performances from the trio of actors (as the bound-and-gagged victimizer, Bud Coleman never says a word). Robert Borzych makes a welcome return to local stages – as attractive and charismatic as before, but more mature, centered and emotionally raw. Greg Whitman is wonderful as the jittery Mike, the least intelligent, educated and accomplished of the three, the one who blames himself most and is the last to let go of his hurtful, harmful fantasy. Spurring them on, the strongest of these sad stooges, the one who cringed and cried at the killing of 100 innocent birds, the one who incites this catastrophic catharsis, is the riveting Thomas Hall, whose piercing intensity and dramatic credibility are spellbinding. This play will haunt you. It’s Morris’ efforts to exorcise his own demons, only recently recognized and acknowledged. The piece provides a peek into a world and an experience you’d rather not know; but hiding doesn’t make it go away. And understanding the survivor mentality is what this impressive Festival is all about.
NOTE : This is not Morris’ first playwriting effort. He’s written about 15 plays; nine have been produced – in Chicago, San Francisco and York, PA – primarily during the 1970s-‘80s. When the Human Rights Festival submissions failed to include any plays about child abuse, Morris says “I decided to give it a go and see what would happen.” What happened is very good indeed.
THE LOCATION: 6th @ Penn Theatre , alternating with Lemkin’s House, through June 18. The Festival continues through August 12.
MORE FROM THE FESTIVAL : On June 10, 6th @ Penn will host several short literary events relating to human rights and the human spirit at The Hillcrest Association Book and Literacy Fair. Presenters will include Marianne McDonald (at 11am, reading from her plays, poetry and The Last Class); Gayle Brandeis, reading from her delightful, San Diego-set, prize-winning novel, The Book of Dead Birds (11:55am); and poet Catherine E. Martin, recently transplanted from New York, via Seattle, reading her latest work (12:10pm).
THE SHOW: Baby, a 1983 musical by Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics) and David Shire (music); book by Sybille Pearson. Nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score (Cats, God help us, snagged just about all the musical awards that year). The pair also collaborated on the musical, Big, Maltby worked on Miss Saigon and Shire is an Oscar-winner for his film scores. This version of the show (revised/updated in 2004) is directed (for the fourth time in her career) by SDSU’s Paula Kalustian.
THE STORY: Maltby and Shire are best known for their musical revues (Starting Here, Starting Now ; Closer than Ever); though this show has a book, it feels very much like a revue. It follows three couples as they cope with having the titular child, but the characters and stories rarely intertwine. In the baby-making department, the college juniors are taken by surprise – and she’s an independent proto-feminist who doesn’t want to get married. The young marrieds have been trying to get pregnant for two years, and they keep trying throughout the play. The 40-somethings experience the greatest shock, having sent all their grown children off to college. Each couple is forced to examine their relationship and their individual lives. Nothing really deep or thought-provoking here. Just a few moments of self-doubt and on to the next bubbly number.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Kalustian has assembled an excellent cast, and they really make the show sing. Each is a musical powerhouse and a thoroughly convincing actor. The connections between the mates are totally credible, and other characters are nicely filled in by Lindsey Gearhart and Paul Morgavo. As high-spirited young Lizzie and Danny, Ashley Linton and Jason Maddy are adorable and irresistible. She’s full of spunk and self-determination; he’s high-spirited and talented, earnestly willing to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. Both are vocally strong, and their voices soar (his into the falsetto stratosphere). As the happily married sports-nuts Nick and Pam, Nick Spear and Rebecca Spear provide most of the comic relief; though they don’t get the excitement and satisfaction of pregnancy, the machinations they’re willing to go through to achieve procreative nirvana are uproarious. Their comfortable, real-life marital familiarity pays off big-time here (as it did in NCRT’s No Way to Treat a Lady); they play off each other wonderfully, and their comic timing is impeccable – Rebecca the wide-eyed ingénue to Nick’s bone-dry sarcastic wit. Their voices are equally compatible. Sheer delight. The more somber side of things is carried by talented Susan Jordan and Steve Gunderson. They have so many doubts and fears about what they’re undertaking (at this late age) and what it will do to their marriage (or what being alone together, empty-nested, will do if they don’t take this unexpected journey). They make the roles and challenges so real, though their scenes often bring down the otherwise ebullient energy of the piece. Serious considerations really don’t feature too prominently here. This is frothy summer fun.
Marty Burnett has designed a kids’ blocks set of primary colors and geometric shapes. The score is lively, and some of the songs are really clever (the women’s “I Want it Al l,” the men’s “Fatherhood Blues”); some wistful, storytelling songs (e.g., “Patterns”) belong more aptly in a Maltby-Shire revue. Accompaniment is provided by musical co-director (with Tim McKnight) Andy Ingersoll on keyboards and Danny King on percussion. This provided a sufficient, if not a robust musical sound; it was surprising that, given two musicians and this small house, the performers needed to be miked. But the voices triumphed over all. Kalustian’s direction and choreography, focused on a big bed center stage, is clever and cute. Al i Bretches (like the Spears, a talented SDSU alum) provided a pleasant, sometimes amusing range of costumes for the various scenes and stages of (baby) development. Al l in all, don’t think too much; relate to what you can. Just enjoy the energy.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, through June 24
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… Join the conversation… Put your comments online following my reviews at kpbs.org.
… Simon Season…. Readings of two of Neil Simon’s classics will be part of the 14th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival . Monday, June 11 is Broadway Bound, directed by ion theatre’s Glenn Paris, featuring David Ellenstein and me as the parents of Tom Zohar and Chris Williams. That’s one great family! On June 12, there’s the reading of The Sunshine Boys, directed by Todd Salovey and starring L.A. actors Tom Markus and Jack Axelrod. Both shows are at 7:30pm at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Come for a laugh; stay for the drama!
…One cool delay… New Village Arts has had to push back the opening of its new theater space – so it can install air conditioning! That’s good news… because it reflects the success of the matching grant donation of $50,000 from Jack and Valerie Cumming (the largest single donation in NVA’s six year history), an amount that was matched in record time — under one month. So, the grand opening of the new space, in the heart of downtown Carlsbad , will now take place on Saturday, June 23rd (instead of the 16th), with Sam Shepard’s American classic True West . www.NewVillageArts.org
… Local Playwrights: 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 . And George Soete is having his newest work, Nest, presented as a staged reading at Twiggs Coffeehouse on Park Boulevard , June 10, 2pm. A full production, produced by Inner Mission Productions, also directed by Carla Nell, will be staged on July 1, 7 & 8 at the Sunset Temple Grand Hall on University Ave. (behind Claire de Lune). www.innermissionproductions.org
… Nearly 1001 Nights…. In 1999, North Coast Repertory Theatre presented The 1000th Night, starring the wildly talented Ron Campbell, ace mimic, mime, pratfaller and puppeteer. Ron used to appear regularly on San Diego stages. You may remember some of his remarkable performances at the San Diego Rep (Waiting for Godot: R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe; The Merchant of Venice ; the one-man Tale of Two Cities). I gave him an Outstanding Performance Patté Award for his stunning turn (playing 38 characters) in The 1000th Night., and I wasn’t the only one to recognize his genius in this part: he also won the London Fringe One-man Show of the Year Award, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, The Bay Area Critic’s Circle Award for Solo Performance and a Nomination for the Helen Hayes Award in Washington D.C. Now he’s back on a SoCal stage in this explosive tribute to artistic ingenuity and imagination in the face of unconquerable fear (deportation to Buchenwald during the Nazi regime). The play, written by Carol Wolf and directed by Jessica Kubzansky, is a potent cautionary tale about the cost of indifference; each of us is culpable at every moment in history. At the Colony Theatre in Los Angeles , June 13-July 15. If you missed it, see it; it’s well worth the trip. www.colonytheatre.org
.. Sing for the Cure… That’s the name of a concert subtitled “A Proclamation of Hope,” co-presented by the San Diego Men’s Chorus and the San Diego Chorus of the Sweet Adelines International. The two killer singing groups – 60 men and 100 women — join forces for a landmark event, performing music by, for and about women. The centerpiece of the evening features selections from the powerful song cycle, “Sing for the Cure,” which chronicles the journey from diagnosis through survival of breast cancer. The cycle has been performed across the country, by many esteemed ensembles. An accompanying orchestra has been formed by volunteer San Diego County music teachers. The narrator will be Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek” series), and Jeff Gelder of KYXY will host. Proceeds benefit the San Diego chapter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. There are two performances (4pm and 8pm) on Saturday, June 9 at the Birch North Park Theatre, with an optional VIP reception (catered by Hawthorn’s Restaurant) in between. 619-239-8836. www.birchnorthparktheatre.net .
… and this weekend, the San Diego Women’s Chorus celebrates its 20th anniversary with a concert called “’Cause They Were Here: 20 Years of Harmony.” The event, which begins with a live and silent auction, features music written and made famous by pioneering women such as Carol e King, the Indigo Girls, Holly Near, Joan Baez and the Dixie Chicks. Saturday, June 2, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest. www.SDWC.org
DANCE AROUND TOWN…
… As part of the 8th annual San Diego Jewish Music Festival, American-Israeli troupe Keshet Chaim (“Rainbow of Life”) brings to San Diego, for one night only, contemporary dance and music inspired by Jewish culture and folk traditions. The group’s repertoire spans Jewish history from the time of Solomon to the present, with a mosaic of music, dance and color. Look for stories from Spain , Yemen , Eastern Europe, ancient Israel and the Jews of the American West. Saturday, June 2, at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla ; www.lfjcc.com.
… Crossing the Border .. and breaking down barriers… The Blurred Borders Dance Festival , co-presented by Sushi Performance and Visual Art and the Patricia Rincon Dance Collective, is an annual, cross-cultural dance event that fosters exchange among diverse artists. This year, the focus is on artists from Taiwan , Los Angeles and San Diego , and all the pieces are local premieres. Yu Dance Theatre will present “Swallow Touches the Water,” an inter-cultural exploration of Chinese Ba Gua Zhang (a formalized martial art) and Japanese Taiko drumming. Choreographer/artistic director Cheng Chieh Yu took her title from one of the movement phrases of Ba Gua Zhang. Angeleno Rodney Mason will perform his solo piece, “Origins of Man: The Psychological Effects of the African American Experience,” which uses elements of hip hop movement and spoken word. The Encinitas-based Patricia Rincon Dance Collective presents a full-length work, “Borderline,” which Rincon created for Sushi’s 4×4 Performance Series in February. Part of the company’s 25th anniversary season, the piece uses comic strips, cartoons and the ubiquitous Play Station as a metaphor for how we live today; it’s accompanied by a musical storyboard created by composer Donald Nichols. June 7-10 at the Saville Theatre, C Street @ 14th. June 7 is a Pay-What-You-Can performance; www.sushiart.org
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – intense , brutal, funny, acerbic, painful – and a masterpiece. A ¾ perfect production directed by Rick Seer
The Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through June 24
100 Birds and The Last Class – a provocative double bill that’s part of 6th @ Penn’s Resilience of the Human Spirit: Human Rights Festival 2007. One short, powerful play focuses on revenge (for childhood sexual abuse), the other on regret (for recklessness, paths taken/not taken). Potent work all around.
6th @ Penn Theatre, through June 18
Baby – a trifle of a musical, with the conception of conceiving; the excellent singing and acting elevate the effort considerably
North Coast Repertory Theatre,
Desire Under the Elms – very well crafted and executed; not quite as deep and dark as one might hope, but as of opening night, showing every promise of getting there soon
Cygnet Theatre, through June 3
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
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
June is busting out all over… and exploding in a theater near you!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.