By Pat Launer
Human Rights abuses – much pain, little pleasure
Offset by a glorious Measure for Measure.
And if puppets, sex and laughs are for you,
Take a brisk walk down Avenue Q.
The Measure of a Man… and Woman
THE SHOW: Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays,” a work that defies easy classification, neither comedy, tragedy nor history . The soubriquet also refers to the fact that these plays confront a particular thesis; here, it’s the nature of justice and morality in both civic and psychological domains . The shape of the play is comic, but it’s often considered the darkest of the dark comedies, veering at some points close to tragedy. Before they’re allowed a (relatively) happy ending, all the characters must confront the truth of their own morality and mortality. The title comes from a biblical text: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
THE STORY: Written in 1603, and originally set in 16th century Vienna , the play is updated for this production to turn-of-the-last-century Vienna , in the time of Freud, when sexual repression butted up against flagrant sexual expression, and the state was obsessed with vice laws and religious doctrine. The parallels are exquisite.
The kindly, temperate Duke, disturbed by the growing political and moral corruption of his city, devises a scheme for restoring civic authority. He makes it known that he’s departing on a supposed diplomatic mission, and he leaves the reins in the hands of the strict, hard-line city official, Angelo. The duke disguises himself as a friar, so that he can observe Angelo’s leadership and reforms. As soon as he takes control, Angelo invokes the city’s harsh, long-ignored laws against fornication and makes an example of the young nobleman, Claudio, whose fiancée is pregnant; the young man is sentenced to death. Claudio asks his rakish friend Lucio to talk to Isabella, Claudio’s sensible, saintly sister, a convent novice who’s about to take her vows. Lucio convinces her to plead her brother’s case before the duke. Coached from the sidelines by the debauched Lucio , Isabella impresses Angelo with her intelligence and arouses his insatiable lust. Despite his lifelong protestations of extreme sexual morality, he quickly (and hypocritically) becomes a vile predator, and threatens Isabella with sexual blackmail. If she’ll yield her virginity to him, he’ll pardon her brother. The disguised duke discovers the scabrous plan, and devises his own plot to thwart Angelo’s evil intentions. The comic relief comes in the form of the various purveyors and procurers of the sex trade in the city’s decadent underworld. In the end, the benevolent, if scheming, duke returns and makes sure that everyone gets his/her just reward.
THE PLAYERS: This cast truly embodies the essence of ensemble work. Every performance is pitch-perfect, credible but not overdone, genuine and unforced. Tom Hammond, playing his second duke (he’s the Duke of Milan in Two Gents) is more gentle than crafty, youthful but avuncular, and he makes his final-scene marriage proposal authentic, not neck- snappingly unmotivated. As the beautiful, brainy and resolute Isabella, Stephanie Fieger takes a thinking approach to that proposal, not a shocked or resigned one. Her performance is beautiful and assured. Her strong-willed, self-possessed Isabella, unswerving in her faith in faith and mercy, gradually learns, as we do, the limitations of both. Charles Janasz , who falls short of capturing the humor of Polonius (in the Festival’s Hamlet), nails the sympathetic level-headedness as well as the dry wit of the faithful old adviser Escalus .
As the arrogant, unbending Angelo, James Knight isn’t overly upright or uptight; he’s just right. The delightfully athletic Lucas Hall is hilarious as foppish, dissolute Lucio , who revels in malicious gossip and gets amusingly ensnared in his own web of lies, as he undermines the duke to the friar and the friar to the duke. Sam Breslin Wright and Eric Hoffmann are funny as the clownish, language-mangling constable, and the self-incriminating bawd. Jonathan McMurtry, who this summer celebrates his 70th birthday and his 200th production with the Globe, turns in a comical cameo as the drunken old prisoner who refuses to be put to death until he’s ready. Every character finely etched, the whole a kaleidoscopic microcosm of human behavior.
THE PRODUCTION : The production is quite beautiful, lush in its costumes (Robert Morgan), which clearly distinguish the class and pursuits of the wearer. Dark frock coats and morning suits for the gentleman, garish colors and mixed patterns for the bawds and ladies of the night; filthy rags for the prisoners and giant over-developed muscles for the executioner and pimp-turned-executioner. Christopher R. Walker’s sound and music underscore the societal differences, as do the variations in York Kennedy’s precise lighting. Ralph Funicello ’s dark, woody set is adorned with gilt trim, bare-breasted caryatids, elaborate sconces and chandeliers. Under Paul Mullins’ meticulous direction, the populace often stealthily makes its appearance in provocative slow motion; the complex plots and subplots unfold with clarity of storytelling and language. Mullins keeps the proceedings light; the humor is organic, unforced, and often genuinely funny. The dramatic moments titillate the intellect and touch the heart. He doesn’t have to beat us over the head with the relevance to our own times: religious and political hypocrites abound, then and now. Morality is a slippery business, whether of the state or the individual. Shakespeare, as always, saw and foresaw all.
THE LOCATION: Outdoors on the Festival Stage at the Old Globe; in repertory with Hamlet and Two Gentlemen of Verona, through September 30
Full Puppet Nudity
THE SHOW: Avenue Q , the X-rated puppet musical is here. Winner of three 2004 Tony Awards — for Best Musical, Best Score (Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) and Best Book (Jeff Whitty ) — the show was born Off Broadway but moved uptown and is still a hit on The Great White Way. This West coast premiere, produced by the Old Globe, is the kickoff of the national tour.
THE STORY: Twenty- somethings fresh out of college have to go all the way down the alphabet to find an affordable apartment in New York . Avenue Q (a grown-up, oversexed version of Sesame Street , complete with teaching animations) is the last stop for the young and the restless, many of them over-educated and unemployed. The ‘ supe ’ of the row of Brownstones is has-been child-star Gary Coleman (a joke that overstays its welcome). Bright-eyed Princeton shows up and makes friends in the quirky neighborhood, as he searches for Purpose and Meaning in his life.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Many of the performers in the original production were former Muppeteers . The current cast, almost all of whom appeared in Avenue Q on Broadway or at the Wynn Las Vegas (where the show had a surprisingly short run), is made up of skilled musical theater performers. They are a new breed of triple threat: masterful singers, actors and puppeteers. Each is a delight in multiple characterizations. Robert McClure is engaging as bright-eyed Princeton and aptly repressed/depressed as the closeted Republican investment banker, Rod. Expressive Kelli Sawyer is marvelous as Kate Monster, the lovelorn kindergarten teaching assistant, and the blonde bombshell Lucy the Slut (a generally superfluous character). Christian Anderson is adorable as the kind-hearted but tactless slacker, Nicky, and the growling, porn-addicted Trekkie Monster. Angela Ai is funny as Christmas Eve, the Japanese wife to wannabe Jewish comedian Brian (Cole Porter). The cast is rounded out with talented Minglie Chen and Carla Renata (as Gary Coleman, a role, for some reason, always played by a female). Al l have powerful singing voices, though the sound was variable on press night. For the most part, though, Jeff Marx’s smartass, often-witty lyrics were easy to understand in the large Spreckels space. Marx was present for the opening (he’s moved from NY to L.A. ), and he said he was thrilled with this cast. Rightly so. He also reported that he’s currently working on a musical with Marvin Hamlisch .
The humor on Avenue Q tends toward the puerile at times, but there are plenty of laughs, and the show has a great deal of heart. It’s about growing up, facing life, forming community, making compromises, taking responsibility and helping others. And any show with a song about “Schadenfreude” is worth a lot in my book. With its Who-am-I-what-am-I-doing-here themes, it’s perfectly geared for a 20s-30s age demographic, and those folks should flock to Avenue Q in droves. They’re sure to walk out singing anthemic songs like “It Sucks to be Me,” “The Internet is for Porn” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” But it’s hard for anyone not to find something to love here, no matter what their age.
The puppets are especially irresistible; megatalented Ricky Lyon, who originated the roles of Nicky/ Trekkie Monster on Broadway, designed and crafted all the puppets for all the Avenue Q productions , including this one. The Broadway creative team also returns for this production: adroit direction by Jason Moore; marvelous brownstone set, that opens up in imaginative ways, and even morphs into the top of the Empire State Building (Anna Louizos ); candy-colored lighting by Howell Binkley; musical supervision/arrangements/orchestrations by Stephen Oremus . The six-piece band sounds just right for this small-cast musical; it provides great support, but never overwhelms the singers.
Maybe the show isn’t for everyone; maybe it leans toward the adolescent or silly at times. And it could certainly be shortened (90 intermissionless minutes would be perfect; the energy dips a bit in the second act). But it’s so inventive and energetic, and such a feel-good evening, that you’d best get downtown to see it soon. Leave the kids at home, though; puppet sex can be really graphic.
THE LOCATION: An Old Globe production at the Spreckels Theatre, through August 5
Take the Challenge
THE SHOW: Challenge Theatre , Program 8 of the Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival 2000 at 6th @ Penn, had some challenges of its own. One of the plays, and one of its players, was not quite ready for primetime on opening weekend. The night I was there, the Al lan Havis piece, “company Men,” was not performed, and was replaced by one of the productions in the Festival’s Program 9, Ana Castillo’s 2005 play, “ Pssst …I Have Something to Tell You, Mi Amor .” More on that in a moment.
For this fascinating venture, Challenge Theatre, select local playwrights are given a particular subject to write about in short-form. In this second incarnation of the experiment, Ruff Yeager , Al lan Havis , Doug Hoehn and Leslie Ridgeway were asked to create a play about the violation of personal rights within members of a particular group. (The criteria listed on the website, which I faithfully reproduced last week, seemed overly constraining and were obviously scrapped). The results were variable; the plays were almost relentlessly dark and disturbing.
The first play had inadvertent humor in the form of swear-words spewed by a post-stroke mother confronting her pompous, uncaring son and sensitive grandson. Sally Stockton drew many laughs in her foul-mouthed, Bible-thumping grandma in Ruff Yeager ’s provocative “Box Humana,” well directed by Francine Chemnick. The brain-damaged often have emotional and linguistic disinhibition ; the things one normally would self-censor come pouring forth… and often reveal painful truths. The psychologically abusive father in this claustrophobic family, blind to his relative’s needs, deserves a little painful truth, in a home where deception and hypocrisy run rampant. At the end, he gets his comeuppance, but no one will be the better for it. John Martin hits all the right notes as the derisive Elks club devotee and Bernie Toledo does a fine job as his son.
In Doug Hoehn’s “ Mine Own Ways ,” a tomboyish girl is rejected by baseball-playing boys (even though she’s a better player than they are) and later by man-hating radical feminists. She’s finally accepted in a low-key lesbian bar, where she finds a loving girlfriend, thoroughly supportive until she finds out that Oralee wants to live her life as the man she feels she was supposed to be. Then rejection comes flooding in from all sides. Those who have been marginalized are perfectly capable of their own blind prejudice. Cari Kenny is highly convincing as Oralee , in female and male incarnations. Hers is one sad story, well enacted by Jovi Olivas , Stephanie Jackson and René Couret , who play multiple roles under Jonathan Sturch’s simple but effective direction.
Leslie Ridgeway’s “Thy Will Be Done ” calls to mind the nun-priest confrontations in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Doubt.” There, too, the sister is sharply reminded that she has taken “vows of obedience,” and she must kowtow to the church hierarchy, and in this case, stop aiding and abetting illegals from Mexico . She is admonished to forget her “concern with the interests of people in another country.” “Our job,” instructs the high-handed, condescending priest, “is to save people’s spirits, not their circumstances, which are God’s will.” She tries to tell the Bishop the stories of Salvadoran death squads. She thinks she has the right to speak out, but she’s reminded that in the church, she has no rights. So she has no alternative but to follow what her heart and soul tell her, even if it leads her on a revolutionary path. D’Ann Paton gives an excellent performance as the angst-ridden nun, and Olivia Espinosa conveys the frightened, uncertain immigrant. George Blum has patronizing paternalism down pat.
The stand-in production, “ Psst … I Have Something to Tell you, Mi Amor ,” based on a true story, is marred by a directorial choice to have one character echo the final word or phrase of the other. It was intended to underscore the shared experiences of many women, but the technique gets in the way of the storytelling. Still, the story itself is shocking and disturbing. Sister Diana Ortiz, a New Mexican native, lived in Guatemala in the 1980s, as a missionary teaching Mayan children to read. She was kidnapped, brutally tortured, raped and forced to commit an unconscionable act she can never forget. Miraculously, she survived. But 12 years after the fact, she is still trying to come to terms with the trauma that was perpetrated on her, and the complicity of the Guatemalan and U.S. governments in the atrocities. Their persistent refusal to acknowledge her truth is as damaging as the physical suffering she endured. Except for the echoic responses, Dale Morris has encouraged gut-wrenching performances from his two actors, Katharine Tremblay, calm and resolute as Sister Diana, and Bonnie Stone, compelling in various other roles, from interrogator to fellow prisoner. The heart-stopping screams that punctuate the action are used judiciously. The violence described is almost too much to bear. But Ana Castillo, author of the wonderful novel, “So Far From God,” among others, is a potent writer.
THE LOCATION: 6th @ Penn Theatre, through July 22
TORTURE AND FAMINE
I caught the final performance of Program 8 of the Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival 2000 at 6th @ Penn, featuring two plays: “ Niger ” by New York writer Delaine Douglas and “No Sit, No Stand, No Lie,” by David Hogan. Both playwrights were in town to view the productions, and were impressed with the results.
“ Niger ” was originally created as a poem, and it has some lovely language, though it isn’t fully satisfying dramatically; we’re left feeling the need to know more about these characters and their future. But under the direction of Rena Lyon (who has served as stage manager at North Coast Rep and 6th @ Penn), the performances were terrific. Tanya Johnson, who should be seen a lot more on local stages, was heartbreaking as the African woman, walking her feet off, cradling a starving baby, searching for something better, and something to eat, in a famine-plagued country. Her emotional commitment, her anguish, her unwavering determination, were palpable. In a smaller role, Elzie Billops had just the right amount of concern, empathy and gentle, tentative touch to provide the promise of mutual healing. But the play left us wanting more. After the work’s first reading at the RCL Writers Workshop in New York , it went on to be a finalist in the 2006 Samuel French Festival. The slice of life makes real the horrors of deprivation in Africa , on a small, personal scale.
“No Sit, No Stand, No Lie” focuses on the aftermath of torture, the agony of post-traumatic instability. The central character, compellingly played by Josh Freeman, has been confined in a highly restrictive chamber (where he can, in fact, stand, but not sit or lie), in an unnamed country for an unspecified time. Reality merges with fantasy (in his Director’s notes, Doug Hoehn says he and the playwright had discussed Dadaism, the post-World War I movement supporting an absurdist, anarchic, non-rational anti-war esthetic. You don’t need to know anything about the “anti-art” of Dada to get this piece. Al l of Victor’s dreams are labeled as such, so we have no problem dealing with his fantasies and wild imaginings, involving French, Tutsi, Hutu and Hindu soldiers, characters named Tolstoy and Bovary, and love seared and smeared by blood and pain. He may be with his love in their apartment, or he may be just dreaming; we’re made to feel as off balance as he is. Though getting inside someone else’s head is intriguing, the change of scenes slowed down the proceedings, with the repeated setup and removal of a bed. There was at least one too many dreams; we get the point. The point is forcefully driven home, in these days of wanton, worldwide torture. Anthony Hamm was potent in several roles, especially the soulless Jailkeeper . Nirina Ralanto , an attractive and charismatic performer, gave an excellent performance, quite convincingly French, since she is in fact a native of France , and shortly after she completed this production, had to return to Paris (her visa expired), where her first play will premiere in September. Too bad; she would have made a delightful ongoing addition to our theater community.
More Resilience Onstage : Program 9 of the 6th @ Penn Festival includes “ Pssst … I Have Something to Tell You” (see above) as well as “Pull” by Bara Swain, “One Last Mass” by Bonnie Milne Gardner and “Bird of Majesty” by Charlene Penner, short plays that focus on a death-defying priest, survival for an abused little girl and the flight of the threatened condor. July 12-25.
Program 10 shines a light on the resilience of love, even in the midst of world crisis. Two plays feature the writing and/or direction of actor/director/playwright/novelist Bil Wright, who was so superb last summer in the reading of August Wilson’s Fences at Cygnet Theatre (a co-production with the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre). Now he’s showcasing his own play, “Leave Me a Message,” in which a man widowed by 9/11 finds solace in the sound of his wife’s voice on an answering machine. Wright directs, and also helms Yasmine Beverly Rana’s “War Zone is My Bed (Blackened Windows),” about an Afghan widow who becomes a prostitute. The playwright will be in town for this San Diego premiere, direct from a South African conference on political theater. The other two offerings of this program are “The Collection,” by Frank Higgins, directed by Kevin Six, set in the winter of 1943, during the Siege of Leningrad. And Daniel Lurie’s subtitled Turkish language film, “In the Morning,” about the disturbing phenomenon of ‘honor killings’ or ‘dowry deaths.’ July 26 – August 8. For further info, go to www.resilienceofthespirit.com
NEWS AND VIEWS…
…Actors on Parade… The 17th annual Actors Festival of Short Plays has begun. You still get another chance to see the off-the-wall Special Program that opened the Festival — “ Easy Targets,” L.A. ’s cult hit, fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Produced, written and directed by The Burglars of Hamm, the sock-throwing fun — — your chance to fight back at bad theater! – will play one more time (July 21). The rest of the event features 22 new plays, 100 actors, directors and playwrights, and a Youth Fest. Through July 22, in the Lyceum Space. 619-544-1000; www.actorsalliance.com
…From UCSD to Second Stage… Josh Tobiessen , who recently graduated from UCSD’s MFA program in playwriting, is having the professional premiere of his play, “Election Day,” at New York ’s Second Stage Theatre Uptown Festival (7/16-8/11). A wacky, absurdist skewering of politicians and political activists, the satire premiered at UCSD’s Baldwin New Play Festival in 2006. Tobiessen , whose writing has a distinctive comic voice, is currently overseeing the New York production, which is slated to be reviewed by the New York Times. In August, he returns to San Diego to teach a summer session course at UCSD.
…Diversify! The San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and its Diversity Initiative Advisory Committee are presenting a one-day seminar called “What’s Working: Mission Possible, Diversity Best Practices from an Organizational Perspective.” Facilitator Bennett Peji will encourage arts and culture presenters/promoters to share their successes in developing a comprehensive diversity strategy, marketing to new audiences and diverse communities and including the youth voice in arts organizations. July 23 3-5pm, in the David C. Copley Building of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego , downtown. For further information and to rsvp , contact Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson at email@example.com.
… Watch out for Giant Puppets… Not the little buys in Avenue Q, but the giant ones created by 6th graders at Monroe Clark Middle School . 450 students will march to their feeder elementary school, Rosa Parks, in the second annual “Welcome to Middle School” parade. Under the guidance of the San Diego Guild of Puppetry, the students made the giant puppets, as well as masks and banners they were inspired to create after field trips to the Museum of Man ’s Mayan exhibit. The middle schoolers will be joined by 250 gradating 5th graders, sporting masks inspired by the Aztecs. The parade is a celebration of transition, marking the elementary schoolers ’ passage into middle school. Mentoring the process, the S.D. Guild of Puppetry continues its efforts to make giant puppet parade pageantry an important element in the arts in the local community. “Giant puppetry,” explains Board Chair Lynne Jennings, “inspires awe… and invites participants and spectators of all ages, culture, backgrounds to join hands in celebration.” The parade begins at 9:30am on Wed. July 18. For info, contact Midge Backensto , City Heights Collaborative, firstname.lastname@example.org .
… Everybody Sing! This month, the San Diego Opera is presenting its second two-week, pre-professional intensive summer workshop for singers age 16-22. Classes taught by theater and opera professionals — including Dr. Nicolas Reveles , G. Scott Lacy, Cynthia Stokes and Peter Kalivas — will focus on acting, aria interpretation, movement, audition techniques, choosing appropriate repertoire and other skills necessary for embarking on a singing career. The workshop will culminate in a public concert on Friday, July 27 at 7pm in the Copper Room of the Civic Concourse.
… Everybody Dance! Culture Shock Dance Center is hosting the 5 x 5 Summer Modern Dance Workshop , taught by five San Diego-based male choreographers: Traves Butterworth, Eric Geiger, Greg Lane , Bradley R. Lundberg and Gabe Masson. Classes run July 16-20, and culminate in a studio performance, open to the public, as well as a lunchtime forum discussing career development, auditioning, training and the business of dance. The workshop is intended for dancers with previous training. For info, contact workshop administrator Molly Terbovich , email@example.com.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Measure for Measure – beautiful , understandable, relevant, flawlessly directed and performed
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory with Hamlet and Two Gentlemen of Verona, through September 30
Avenue Q – the Tony-winning, X-rated puppet musical; definitely not for kids, but great for the 20s-30s demographic — and anyone else with an open mind, heart and sense of humor
The Old Globe at the Spreckels Theater, through August 5
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)
Summertime… the livin ’ is easy, the theater is jumpin ’.
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.