By Pat Launer
My 200th column! It’s hard to believe
Too many productions to even conceive!
This week offered a giddy brew:
Hamlet, Nest, Annie and Arcadia , too!
There is Nothing Like a Dane….
THE SHOW: Hamlet , often cited as Shakespeare’s masterwork, the world’s greatest pieces of literature and one of the most-quoted writings in the English language. The most popular and most perplexing of the Bard’s major tragedies.
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: This is Darko Tresnjak’s first foray into Denmark, after triumphs, locally, nationally and internationally, with thought-provoking conceptions of other Shakespearean works, including glorious productions of Pericles , The Winter’s Tale and Titus Andronicus here at the Old Globe.
Hamlet is the story of that Great Dane, the melancholy young Prince home from Wittenberg University to attend the funeral of his father and, close on its heels, the immediate remarriage of his mother to his father’s usurping brother. During a ghostly visitation from the late King, Hamlet is told to avenge his father’s murder most foul, which was engineered by his Uncle Claudius. Hamlet puts on an ‘antic disposition’ and, playing around with the traveling Players, stages a play-within-a-play to “catch the conscience of the King,” which prove his father right. Once his suspicions are confirmed, he develops a little problem with decisive action, repeatedly contemplates suicide, rejects the loving Ophelia and inadvertently kills her father, thus enraging her rash and protective brother. A lot of deaths pile up by the end, when the triumphant Fortinbras , prince of Norway , enters to take over the royal Danish reins.
THE PLAYERS: The production is traditional in presentation, but clearly a director’s ‘auteur’ vision. Tresnjak is a very meticulous, intelligent, and visually precise director. On those counts, the production does not disappoint. But it’s the characterizations that fall short. Al l the performances feel highly ‘directed,’ not organic or spontaneous. At least not on opening night. The tragic soul of the play has yet to be plumbed.
This Hamlet (Lucas Hall) is young, attractive, virile and athletically, balletically agile. He is believably intelligent, but also sports a 21st century tone of sarcasm and irony. Throughout, he seems to be contemplating his moves, not crippled by indecision. He relishes his moment onstage with the Players. He’s physically (and even sexually) aggressive with his mother. He exhibits plenty of nimble derring-do; his final-scene duel with Laertes (guided by fight director Steve Rankin) is especially thrilling. He’s likable, but he doesn’t cut a tragic figure at his death. Still, Tresnjak’s gorgeous final image, his father/son Pietà , evokes all kinds of conflicted emotions that could have served the production better earlier on as well.
Since this director loves sly humor, it’s surprising that the comic relief… isn’t. The Gravedigger scene (with Jonathan McMurtry as Gravedigger #1) feels truncated and unfunny. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern (Chip Brookes and Nathaniel McIntyre) are Tweedle -Dee and Dum functionaries. And there’s little amusement in Polonius’ (Charles Janasz ) loquacious disquisitions. He’s a rather concerned father and advisor here, not by any means a garrulous object of ridicule and derision, and certainly no bumbling fool or doddering buffoon. But the light side of his role is missed. On the other end of the spectrum, the dark side seems to be substantially missing from this Claudius (Bruce Turk). He presents as an efficient corporate dispatcher of anyone who gets in his way. There is little sense of malign villainy in the portrayal; we don’t come to either hate or fear him. On the distaff side, Gertrude (Celeste Ciulla ) seems genuinely torn between her husband and son, but she doesn’t assert herself in any observable way. Her few sensual moments with her new spouse are aptly ardent. As Ophelia, Joy Farmer-Clary (like seven others in the cast, part of the Old Globe/ USD MFA program) is not particularly virginal or kittenish or even adolescent in the first part of the evening. But her mad scene is heartbreaking. One shocking addition to the play is a violent final-scene act by a brutish (by no means sanguine, as in many productions) Fortinbras (James Knight).
THE PRODUCTION : The look of the play, updated from the 13th century to the 16th, brings an elegant formality to the proceedings. The opulent costumes (Robert Morgan) are set off by stiff, starched ruffs. The set is a massive, imposing, two-tiered structure of rich, dark wood and expensive chandeliers, a far cry from the dank, gray castles of some productions. There’s a kind of well-oiled slickness to the wood… and the way this kingdom is run, but we can readily accept that it might have been otherwise with the late King Hamlet (Turk). His ghost scenes feel spookily supernatural – cloaked in fog and backed by ominous thunder and lightning (and a few too many overhead jets – more noticeable than ever before at the Globe). Tresnjak withholds the spectral presence for a long time. At first, it seems we’ll just have to imagine the ghost, his voice and smoky aura coming from both up above and down below. But then he appears, in full battle array, as described. And this outfit makes for a potent image in the production’s final tableau: one well-intentioned fallen warrior cradled by another.
Beautiful stage pictures abound, though at times, as in the play-within-a-play, the concept overrides the action. At the end of “The Death of Gonzago ,” played on the upper level, a huge red swath of silken cloth unfurls and covers all the characters below. Chaos seems to ensue under the red tent, and it takes some time till the stage is emptied and the bloody rubble whisked away, to reveal a thoroughly convinced Hamlet and his steadfast side-man Horatio (Ryan Quinn) sitting on the floor, alone, center stage.
The sound and original music (Christopher R. Walker) and moody lighting (York Kennedy) add pleasing layers to the production. Throughout, the intentions are good, by they hadn’t all congealed by opening night. This is a long run (in repertory through September 30). With a talented cast, many of whom are returning to the Globe’s Summer Shakespeare Festival, it’s likely that the tragic depths of the characters will be attained over time.
THE LOCATION: Outdoors on the Festival Stage at the Old Globe; in repertory with Two Gentlemen of Verona and Measure for Measure, through September 30
Garden of Earthly and Unearthly Delights
THE SHOW: Arcadia , the brilliant, 1993 Tom Stoppard play about science, mathematics, chaos and love
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: Sean Murray directed a beautiful Arcadia at North Coast Repertory Theatre in 1999, but he decided to dive into this complex and compelling comic/drama once again, in his own Cygnet Theatre.
The play takes place in two centuries at once, bouncing backward and forward in time. In myriad ways, the interlocking stories contrast the rational, logical world of math/science with the irrational passion of amour. Turns out they’re not so disparate after all. Both are equally unpredictable. Neither can explain our lives. But patterns do recur over time. The play and the fascinating characters that populate it are trying to make sense of the world.
In 1809, Thomasina , a gifted, pre-pubescent prodigy grapples with mathematics and stumbles upon Chaos Theory, Fermat’s Last Theorem and Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics – 150 years before they’re formally identified and described. In the modern day, descendants of Thomasina and two competitive academics try to unearth the long-buried secrets of Sidley Hall, the 500-acre Derbyshire estate where two centuries ago, scientific genius was hatched, a hermit dedicated himself to iterations of mathematics, Lord Byron once paid an enigmatic visit and sexual liaisons abounded.
In a truly dramatic irony, mere weeks after the premiere of Arcadia, a Cambridge mathematician puzzled out the proof for Fermat’s Last theorem, which, as noted in the play, had remained unsolved since the 17th century.
The mythical Arcadia is a version of Paradise , an idyllic setting where people live unspoiled lives, close to nature, uncorrupted by the outside world. In Arcadia the play, the gardens, scientific conjectures, revelations and relationships revolve around Chaos Theory, first developed in the 1970s, to describe unpredictable phenomena. In the timeframe of the drama, it’s all about the evolution of society, from the structured symmetry, tranquility and reason of the 18th century Enlightenment to the wild, jagged, irregular, feeling world of 19th century Romanticism. Stoppard meshes heady scientific concerns with affairs of the heart, and leaves us with the idea that if, as the Laws of Thermodynamics suggest, the universe is a doomed machine which will ultimately wind down, while we’re here, we might as well dance. And that’s the starry-eyed image we’re left with at the end of the play and production: two couples, from two different centuries, waltzing into the future.
THE PRODUCTION: Murray has assembled an outstanding cast, who tear into this long, dense, wordy but electrifying play with gusto and exhilaration. With all its intellectual acrobatics, it is, after all, a love story. Parallel love stories, in fact. And Murray makes sure those intricate relationships take center stage.
As scenic designer, Murray sets his time-hopping action in an elegant, formal, Wedgwood-blue room, rich with architectural detail, trimmed with white molding, white columns and statuary in niches. Outside, inexplicably, are clouds, which gives designer Eric Lotze plenty to light, but confounds the play’s emphasis on the gardens; why no green outside the lovely bay window?? Jeanne Reith’s costume designs are delicious, and it’s especially intriguing how the current outfits mirror the former ones, particularly when the Sidley Park guests dress for a costume ball in the second act.
THE PLAYERS: The play pivots on the character of Thomasina , the budding adolescent as fascinated by her tutor, Septimus , as by mathematics and the meaning of “carnal embrace.” Rachael van Wormer captures all the curiosity and impetuosity of the budding young woman, but her voice tends to soar into the tonal stratosphere, at times obliterating her lines. Her intellectual curiosity is credible and represents the originality of youth, and the willingness to accept – and explore – new ideas. Matt Biedel cuts a handsome, dashing figure as Septimus , intellectually challenged by the brilliance of his pupil and bedazzled by her mother (and by a married household guest). As the mistress of the manor, Lady Croom , Glyn Bedington is aptly imperious and controlling. Though she sets all the rules, she’s not above breaking them, to fall for the irresistible Lord Byron (and others). One of her houseguests is Ezra Chater , a hack poet/botanist, who is bamboozled by Septimus , who’s bonking his wife; David Radford is a hoot in this dim-witted role. Jim Chovick , as a tattletale butler and Michael C. Burgess as a brainless, blustery Captain, Lady Croom’s brother, round out the 19th century players.
In the present, Rosina Reynolds centers the action with her no-nonsense Hannah Jarvis, an academic researching the mystery of the hermit of Sidley Hall. She engages in mortal intellectual combat with the bombastic Bernard Nightingale, hilariously played by Claudio Raygoza as a pompous, persnickety, self-important and unscrupulous competing scholar, hellbent on fame regardless of fact. “Arrogant, greedy and reckless,” as Hannah describes him. But all that doesn’t stop the adolescent Chloë Coverly (Kate Reynolds), a flighty descendent of Thomasina , from flirting mercilessly. To balance out all these literary concerns, there’s the mathematician of the moment, Valentine Coverly ( Jason Connors ), an Oxfordian whose primary passion is science (thankfully, as he explains the various theories to Hannah, he elucidates some of it for us, too), though he is supposed to have a little ardor left over for Hannah. Thhey’re supposed to be contemporaries; pairing Connors with Reynolds strains credulity. Connors plays his role more like a computer geek than a subsequent iteration of the Coverly genius, and he’s a tad on the depressive side .. Zev Lerner is the only actor who appears in both centuries, as an unaccountably mute young teen in the present and a sexually curious young man in the past. He’s fine in both roles, and slyly reveals some of the family’s native intelligence (the Rubix cube was a nice addition).
The production is excellent, though it’s not perfect. But then, neither is the play, which can be maddening in its intellectual density and plot complexity. But if you just relax and go with it, you’ll relish one of the great dramatic creations of the last-half of the 20th century, performed by one of the most delightful and daring companies of San Diego in the 21st.
Bonus Factoid: Looks like cast member Michael Burgess is related to Lord Byron. A distant relative is reported to have been one of Byron’s illegitimate children. What a juicy addition!
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, through July 29
THE SHOW: Annie Get Your Gun, a magnificent 1946 musical with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin (the lead role was written for Ethel Merman), and book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. Every song is a winner, and the whole, while a tad hokey, is infectiously energetic and irresistible
THE STORY: Set in the mid-1880s, the story centers on the real-life character of Annie Oakley, an illiterate, independent, tomboy hillbilly who grew up near Cincinnati . When she demonstrates her remarkable marksmanship, she’s persuaded, through the convincing claim that “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” to join Col. Buffalo Bill’s Traveling Wild West Show. Annie immediately falls hard for the main attraction, sharpshooter Frank Butler. But she soon eclipses him as the star, and it takes her two acts to realize that “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun.”
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Moonlight is using the 1999 Politically Correct revival of the show, for which Peter Stone removed the racist and sexist remarks (and one now-offensive song, “I’m an Indian Too”) . This version frames the action as a show within a show, with Buffalo Bill’s manager, Charlie Davenport (David Beaver) calling the scenes. It also means “There’s No Business…” opens the show, which director/choreographer John Vaughan uses to his advantage, having Frank Butler (Moonlight favorite Randall Dodge, he of the beautiful baritone) make his musical entrance sashaying down the center aisle, and throughout the evening, bringing actors onto the apron of the stage, to get close to the audience.
Dodge is affable, if not as gruff and arrogant as some Franks. The spotlight is clearly stolen by Bets Malone, who’s terrific as Annie – a little ball of fire with a great big voice and a marvelous sense of comedy, movement and audience seduction. They’re cute together (a little Mutt-and-Jeff, height-wise), and their competitive duets – “Anything You Can Do” and “An Old Fashioned Wedding” – are right on target. As Annie’s romantic competitor, Dolly Tate, Stacy Goldsmith plays at peak (read: scream) volume throughout. As secondary characters Tommy Keeler (the “half-breed”) and his beloved, Winnie Tate, Brian Conway has an appealing presence, but his dancing outstrips his singing, and Natalie H. Emmons makes a pert-cute-talented mate. David Kirk Grant looks spot-on as Buffalo Bill, and Sean Tamburrino makes Chief Sitting Bull funny without being distastefully stereotypical.
The circus-tent set and heavy-on-the-buckskin-brown costumes were obtained from Fullerton Civic Light Opera. They’re not exciting, but they’re serviceable. The look of the formal, dress-up waltz scene is lovely. Vaughan ’s choreography is vigorous if not inventive, and well executed by a good-sized ensemble. Under the lively musical direction of conductor Elan McMahan, the 20-piece orchestra (larger than you’ll see at most San Diego theaters) sounds great. It’s such a pleasant evening under the stars. And the songs are so magnificent. Moonlight always makes for a divine summer family outing.
THE LOCATION: Moonlight Stage Productions at Brengle Terrace Park in Vista , through July 8
THE SHOW: Nest , the latest short, dark comedy by prolific local playwright George Soete, presented by InnerMission Productions
Framed as an anthropology lecture (a conceit that becomes increasingly intrusive), the piece is a study in 21st century human nature extended to embrace categorizable primate behavior: the compulsive need for order and acquisitions, the dogged attempts at achieving perfection in one’s life and surroundings, the efforts made to create an impenetrable fortress of perfection and solitude in one’s domicile. Above all, “territorial aggression” in “upwardly mobile primates.”
The Archers are a successful, attractive, doctor/lawyer white-bread couple (credible Kym Pappas and Jess Ryan Williams, making his local acting debut). They’ve gradually accumulated all the possessions they’ve always craved in their decidedly beige apartment and existence. Then, a serendipitous encounter (literally running into someone in the supermarket) turns their hopes, dreams, plans and lives inside out. The angry, offended man and his ‘psychic’, woo-woo girlfriend come barging into Brad and Sophie’s home, forcing them – first aggressively and then seductively – to Let Go. This compels the young couple to re-conceive their notions of happiness, security, family and stability. But first (after all, this is the 21st century), they have to be terrorized.
It’s a witty, untidy, satiric look at human( un)kind. Soete has an impressive way with dialogue and character. And he’s excellent at keeping his audience off balance, prolonging that unnerving sensation of not quite knowing what’s going on or what’s going to happen next.
Carla Nell has directed with a mix of humor and menace that’s an ideal approach to the play. North Park’s Sunset Temple provides a large, open and flexible space, and should be a go-to location for other small companies and productions. The performances are delectable; in addition to Pappas and Williams, Duane Leake plays several small roles, male and female, and Ryan T. Roach and director Nell play the offended and offending parties. With his outward calm and frighteningly explosive temper, Roach is riveting – and totally unpredictable, something too rarely seen in modern theater.
THE LOCATION: Sunset Temple Grand Hall, 2906 University Ave. (behind Clair de Lune coffee); the shows will play only on July 7 (2 and 8pm) and July 8 (2 and 7pm)
Soete’s work will also be featured in the Actors Festival (July 10-22), of which he is artistic director, and Challenge Theatre at 6th @ Penn (July 8-21)
NEWS AND VIEWS…
…Actors on Parade… The 17th annual Actors Festival of Short Plays is about to begin. Get your seats and join the fun. It all begins with a Special Program (July 10 and 21) featuring “Easy Targets,” L.A. ’s cult hit (fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival), produced, written and directed by The Burglars of Hamm. Local actor/accompanist/music director Cris O’Bryon joins the sock-throwing fun — your chance to fight back at bad theater! This is a fundraiser for the Actors Al liance of San Diego, sponsors of the Festival. The event features 100 actors, directors and playwrights, 22 new plays and a Youth Fest. July 10-22, in the Lyceum Space. 619-544-1000; www.actorsalliance.com
… BLITZ- KRIEG … The 14th annual Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Playwrights is ready to roll. Mark your calendar: August 16-September 9, at the Lyceum; four programs over four weekends, six plays total, including one by San Diegan Kevin Armento (Bets and Blue Notes, Week 3). Directors will include D. Candis Paule, Duane Daniels , Josh Temple, Katie Rodda, Don Loper and Dane Stauffe . You can pick and choose, or get a Blitz Pass to see whole festival. 619-544-1000; www.fritztheatre.com
….Out of Chaos, order: The San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre, in association with The Collective Theatre company , presents the world premiere of The House of Chaos, Velina (Tea) Hasu Houston’s contemporary adaptation of the Medea myth. Set in a segregated community outside L.A. , the play focuses on a Japanese expatriate living with her white American husband. July 13-29 in SDSU’s Experimental Theatre. SDSU Theater faculty member Peter Cirino directs. firstname.lastname@example.org .
And in association with this premiere, the source material, Euripides’ Medea , will be presented as a reading by the Grass Roots Greeks, making their welcome return. Scheduled to coincide with the production of Chaos, the reading will take place at 4:30pm in the Experimental Theatre, July 21 and 28, leading up to the evening performance of Chaos in the same space. Translator Marianne McDonald will be on hand for a post-performance discussion. Local favorite Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson plays Medea .
… And Chronos Theatre Group is back with a staged reading – including original music, dance and mime – of two comic Chinese plays from the 12th-13th centuries: Qui Hu Tries to Seduce His Own Wife and Grandee’s Son Takes the Wrong Career. July 17 at the Lyceum Theatre. www.chronostheatre.com
… Who Sports Short Shorts ?…. New Vision Theatre Company is presenting its second program of “Summer Shorts,” consisting of twelve 10-minute pieces. This is a spinoff of the 12-year old “Showoff” program in San Juan Capistrano . The competition was stiff; there were more than 300 entries, from around the globe. It all takes place in the 200-seat Sunshine Brooks Theatre in Oceanside . 769-529-9140.
… Resilience at 6th @ Penn… Program Eight of the Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival 2000 is a new edition of the innovative and exciting Challenge Theatre. Well-regarded local playwrights are given a particular subject to write about in a short-form piece. The last iteration of the program was wonderfully provocative. This time, the topic is: the violation of personal rights and the escape or recovery from same. Each play is required to include: black men; people from the same religious body; a family unit from a single household; and gay women. In addition, there must be an object that is unexpectedly received or discovered. Quite a challenge! The plays are: Box Humana by Ruff Yeager , directed by Francine Chemnick; Company Men by Al lan Havis , co-directed by Antonio TJ Johnson and Charmen Jackson; Mine Own Ways by Doug Hoehn, directed by Jonathan Sturch ; and Thy Will Be Done, by Leslie Ridgeway, directed by Chelsea Whitworth. July 7-22.
At the same time, running in repertory with Challenge Theatre, Program Nine of the Festival features plays by Ana Castillo, Bonnie Milne Gardner, Bara Swain and Charlene Penner, which focus on a tortured nun, a death-defying priest, survival for an abused little girl and the threatened condor. July 12-25. www.resilienceofthespirit.com
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Arcadia – brilliant, heady play; beautiful production
Cygnet Theatre, through July 29
True West – deliciously dangerous; wonderfully acted and directed
New Village Arts, through July 15
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Summer’s in full swing… Don’t stay too long in the sun; try the theater!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.