By Pat Launer
Ah, the nasty upper classes
Kick all others in their asses
Whether Cowardly Hay Fever
Or Deceptional deceiver
Rashomon -like, there are questions
About My Girl and her perceptions.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
THE SHOW: Hay Fever , the sophisticated, wickedly clever/cynical 1925 Noël Coward comedy of the un-mannerly
THE STORY/THE BACKSTORY: The play was inspired by a weekend Coward spent in 1921 at the house of Laurette Taylor, the legendary and infamously mercurial American actress (the original Amanda Wingfield in the Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie). Coward admitted to writing the play in just three days – when he was 25 years old. He also admitted that the piece had “no plot at all and remarkably little action.” But it seems to have been firmly based in reality. As he later wrote about that unforgettable visit: “…we played games, often rather acrimonious games, owing to Laurette’s abrupt disapproval of any guest who turned out to be self-conscious, nervous or unable to act an adverb… with proper abandon.” Each of these elements made its way into the play in some form. Taylor reportedly disavowed any similarity to herself or her family, quipping, “None of us is ever unintentionally rude.” Same for the Bliss family, which turns out to be both hilarious and vicious.
The artistic, unconventional and rather loopy Blisses are planning a blissed -out weekend away from London in their Cookham country home. But without telling the others, each has invited a potential intimate to visit. Once that unfortunate situation is revealed, the amusingly (if infuriatingly) self-obsessed Blisses blithely ignore all their guests, using them as pawns and ‘extras’ in their elaborate dramas, ruses and intrigues. All the world – or at least, all their living space – is a stage, and they’d much rather create their own exciting reality than deal in the dreary quotidian.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: This is the kind of period piece to which the Globe can devote its prodigious resources and spin gold, though the set (Andrew Jackness ) is less eccentrically arty than one might expect. The bleached wood walls are mostly bare, but the whole enterprise is framed by a gilt proscenium, which underscores the melodrama of the action within. “Sometimes I wish we were more normal,” flighty daughter Sorel (cutely impetuous Sarah Grace Wilson) opines. But you know she doesn’t mean it. She and her kin have far too much fun amusing each other and playing games with their guests. Her brother, Simon (attractive and talented Santino Fontana, who shows his piano-playing as well as his acting chops) likes to draw sketches and caricatures. Their father (amusingly low-key, falsely put-upon John Windsor-Cunningham) writes popular/populist novels – and he’ll happily examine other classes and types, which is why he invites the deliciously ditsy flapper Jackie (Bridget Maloney) for a visit. The other guests — a stodgy diplomat (comically uncomfortable, uptight Alan Campbell), a jock- ish boxer (handsome Sandy Tyrell) and a supercilious fashionista (perfectly embodied by lithe, long-necked Yvonne Woods) – are delightfully clueless. We feel their pain, but a little schadenfreude creeps in as we watch them squirm. They do finally escape the madhouse, tiptoeing out while the Blisses embark on their next verbal adventure, oblivious to the premature exit, which they ultimately (and ironically) decide was “very rude.” At the center of all the action is the capricious, manipulative matriarch of the family, a recently retired actress plotting her next comeback.
Some productions (like the recent London outing starring Dame Judi Dench ) are showcases for a star (other revivals have featured Shirley Booth and Rosemary Harris). But this well-heeled and well-oiled production, smoothly and cunningly directed by Robert Longbottom (whose Broadway credits include Side Show, The Scarlet Pimpernel and the revival of Flower Drum Song, as well as the Off Broadway blockbuster, Pageant, which he conceived), is more of an ensemble piece, and it’s all the better for it. That’s not to say that Judith Lightfoot Clarke doesn’t make an appealingly outrageous Mom (especially in those wildly over-the-top outfits costumer Gregg Barnes has created for her). But she doesn’t tower over her brood; she’s firmly in charge most of the time, but even as she relishes the results of her madcap machinations, she seems to adore the communal shenanigans. This supremely self-absorbed family may be stunningly dysfunctional, but they sure get a kick out of each other. And so do we . We wouldn’t want to spend a weekend with ‘ em , but an evening is just divine.
THE LOCATION: Old Globe Theatre, through August 19
BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
FOOLING IN LOVE
another La Jolla Playhouse co-production with the remarkably inventive Théâtre de la Jeune Lune , the 2005 Tony Award-winning Regional Theater from Minneapolis. The group’s prior visits to La Jolla include the etched-in-memory Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream (1993) and 2005’s hauntingly gorgeous adaptation of Molière’s The Miser. Now they’re tackling the beloved 18th century French novelist and dramatist, Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (commonly referred to as just plain Marivaux ), who remains the second most frequently performed playwright in his native country (after Molière ). This adaptation of La Fausse Suivante (The False Servant, 1724), was created by actor Steven Epp (so memorable as The Miser) and gifted director Dominique Serrand
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: Marivaux was known for his elaborate embroidery of language and his surprising juxtaposition of words. His subject matter has sometimes been referred to as “the metaphysic of lovemaking.” His characters tell each other – and the literary or dramatic observer – every thought they’ve thought, as well as what they would like to think they’ve thought. And what they think of love is selfish, greedy and parasitic. In this adaptation, there’s a lot more ‘language’ (read: swearing) than you might expect; the translation is very graphic and rough, so if you’re squeamish about cursewords , this may not be the play for you. The plotline, and the intricacies of the intrigues, might prove too much for some theatergoers as well. But patience and an open mind will be well rewarded.
The story, in an over-simplified nutshell, concerns a wealthy young woman who pretends to be a man in order to test the character of her intended husband. This Lélio turns out to be a despicable, dissolute cad. Her plan, and to her surprise, his as well, is for her to court the Countess, her rival, and break off their engagement, without incurring the steep monetary penalty the dissolution of the pre-nuptial contract would entail. The coquettish countess does indeed fall in love with the disguised ‘Chevalier,’ which is only one part of the dizzying array of deceptions here –the rich scam the rich; the poor delude the rich and the poor do dirty deeds to each other as well. No one can be trusted. Avarice plays a major role at every level of society. Marivaux exposes the hypocrisies of the upper classes, with their mindless, thoughtless pretensions and cruelties, but he doesn’t ignore the chicanery of the dissembling servant class, either.
THE PRODUCTION/THE PLAYERS: You may not always love everything Jeune Lune does, but there’s no question that you’ve been exposed to a wildly imaginative, highly stylized, brilliantly directed experience when you’ve seen one of their shows. There are few companies or productions that achieve such a dazzling integration of every aspect of their singular vision. Serrand is a genius, whether you like the play or subject or not. He’s socially conscious and has said he never randomly chooses a play to direct. So be sure to look beneath the surface at the dark underbelly of the play and the satirical comments that apply to our modern American political miasma.
The set (David Coggins ) is a series of high walls paneled with abstractly painted windows, a watercolor expanse of blues, greens and yellows that can roll, open, reconfigure and be smashed at the slightest emotional outburst – and there are many. The lighting and sound highlight the action; the costumes (Sonya Berlovitz ) are an arresting and ingenious hodgepodge of styles and shapes. The stylized moves of the spectacular ensemble (which includes five lucky students from the UCSD MFA Program) capture the inanities and insanities of romance, rapacity and power-mongering.
J.C. Cutler is enigmatic as the debauched, cynical servant who claims he was once upper class; Casey Greig is nastily irresistible as the false-hearted, mercenary Lélio , a DeCaprio /Depp-looking Bad Boy; Emily Gunyou Halaas is riveting as The Countess, with her antic, angular, angst-ridden moves; and rubber-limbed Nathan Keepers plays the simpleton Arlequino with masterful physical comedy. At the center of all the neck-snapping comings and goings is Merritt Janson as the woman-turned-Chevalier, brave, suspicious and convincing as a man, beautiful but heartbroken in her final-scene female incarnation bedecked in bulbous red dress. There is more than a hint of homoerotic attraction here; just one more of the vagaries of physical attraction. “We deceive ourselves,” says the projected quote from Marivaux that opens the play. And the ending, dark and despairing, is capped by a beautifully harmonized a capella ‘Requiem,’ sung by the entire enthralling cast. Ravishing work, from a thrilling company.
THE LOCATION: La Jolla Playhouse (Potiker Theatre), through August 19
BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
THE TRUTH WILL OUT… OR WILL IT?
THE SHOW: Rashomon , a 1959 play by Fay and Michael Kanin , based on the acclaimed 1950 Akira Kurosawa film of the same name, which was in turn derived from two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa : “ Rashomon ” ( aka “The Rashomon Gate”), which provided the setting and “In a Grove,” written in 1921, which supplied the characters and plot. Akutagawa co-wrote the screenplay. The Broadway adaptation ran for six months, was nominated for three Tony Awards, and starred husband-wife team Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. This is the final show of North Coast Rep’s 25th anniversary season.
THE STORY/THE BACKSTORY: A meditation on the unreliability of memory, the play is timeless, though it’s set hundreds of years ago. The story concerns a horrific murder and rape, viewed and recounted from four different and mutually exclusive perspectives. Three men – a disillusioned priest, a discomfited woodcutter and a cynical wigmaker — find themselves seeking shelter from a teeming rainstorm, under the disintegrating Rashomon Gate. The priest and woodcutter were devastated by the the trial they witnessed. As they recount the murderous story, the only facts we glean are these: the region’s most notorious, brutal and libidinous outlaw, Tajomaru , tied up a samurai and raped his wife. When the body of the husband was discovered, the wife and bandit were nowhere to be found. But both made an appearance at the trial, as did a medium, through whom the dead samurai spoke. In the final moments of the play, the woodcutter steps forward with his version. Each of the eye-witness accounts names a different killer.
The play and movie are not about guilt or innocence; the facts are never firmly established for the viewer. The real story is that there is no absolute truth; reality is always distorted by perception, and we are always the heroes of our own narratives. The darkly disturbing epistemological tale shakes the very foundation of belief in human goodness, honesty, intention, recollection and perception.
Additional Note: The Rashomon Gate is the main city gate in what is now Kyoto . The word ‘ Rashomon ’ has entered the English lexicon, referring to any situation in which the truth is difficult to verify, because of conflicting witness accounts.
THE PRODUCTION/THE PLAYERS: The narrow North Coast Rep stage is divided into three playing spaces, in Marty Burnett’s evocative scenic design. Stage right is the dilapidated Gate, from the top of which the ribald wigmaker (pitch-perfect Doren Elias) provocatively tumbles. On the far side is an Asian arch decorated with a large red Chinese pictograph, the symbol for Justice, marking the court where the trial was held. Center stage, backed by seven bamboo posts (a subtle nod to Kurasawa’s “Seven Samurai”), is the clearing where the heinous events are re-enacted with each retelling. The costumes (Jeanne Reith) effectively define character; the Wife’s kimono, gait and pallid, powdered face are especially stirring. The secondary performances are serviceable, if variable: Robert May seems uncertain, not quite grounded as the Priest. Diep Huynh is compelling as the Woodcutter. Sylvia Enrique is self-protectively conniving as the Mother and Jensen Olaya is aptly otherworldly as the Medium. Mitchell Wyatt leaves no strong impression as the Samurai, except in his swordplay, excellently choreographed by David Barker. Enoch Wu plays the small walk-on role of the Deputy.
This production, deftly and caringly directed by David Ellenstein, unequivocally belongs to Richard Baird and Seema Sueko (the only two Equity actors on the stage). Each gets to show an impressive emotional range. As the Wife, Sueko persuasively conveys terror and aggression, sensuality and brutality. She’s the ideal foil for Baird who, recently returned from his year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, remains a riveting and charismatic performer. He is agile, both physically and linguistically, and he gets to show his comic ability, in the scene where he’s portrayed as a wimpy subservient, a shocking contrast with his ferocious and his tender sides. A wonderful performance in a searing and thought-provoking production, particularly relevant in these head-spinning political days when the truth is more elusive than ever.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, through August 12
BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
DOING THE LAMBETH WALK
one of the most unlikely Broadway hits of 1986, a revival of an almost 50 year-old London musical. The score (composed in 1937) was by Noel Gay. The book, by L. Arthur Rose and lyricist Douglas Furber , was revised by playwright Stephen Fry, with an assist from director Mike Ockrent .
THE STORY: Bill Snibson , a saucy, street-savvy Cockney, turns up as the long-lost heir to the Earldom of Hareford . Complications arise over Bill’s devotion to his lower-class Lambeth main squeeze, Sally Smith, and the efforts of the uppity bluebloods to educate and elevate him while sending her packing. In a behind-the-scenes subterfuge, Sally is transformed, Pygmalion-style (there are even sly references to My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins). In the end, Bill gets his girl and his inheritance.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The show feels a little creaky, the songs aren’t all that memorable, and it do go on – for nearly three hours. But Moonlight has mounted a delightful production, excellently sung and amusingly performed. The cast of 30 includes some wonderful tappers , put through their paces by director/choreographers Don and Bonnie Ward. A few of the dance numbers and treacly ballads could go. The costumes (from American Musical Theatre San Jose) are quite attractive, and the lighting (Christina L. Munich) is fine. But the sound (M. Scott Grabau) is inconsistent, and though the 23-piece orchestra, under the assured baton of SDSU’s Terry O’Donnell, sounds big and brassy, it’s often over-amplified. Though there’s a great deal of energy and enthusiasm in this production, the journey to opening night was fraught.
The rented set (from Musical Theatre West, Long Beach ) required major adjustments. Priscilla Allen, who was to play the Duchess, took a fall a few days before previews and had to bow out. Enter Cathy Gene Hampton (formerly Greenwood ), a veteran of 16 other Moonlight shows, who just happened to be visiting from Utah . She came into the show during tech rehearsals and learned the substantial role in just 48 hours. She does a very credible job. As her daughter, the oversexed gold-digger Lady Jacqueline, Tracy Lore is a hoot. As her snooty fiancé, Richard Bermudez is cute and agile, but not as dorky or funny as he could be. Mega-talent David McBean milks his every moment onstage, displaying his full vocal range – in speaking and singing – from basso to tenor and back again, in a deliciously supercilious turn as “The Family Solicitor.” Michael Hill is endearing as the aging but still lovesick (if henpecked) Sir John, and Bruce Blackwell is light-on-his-feet as the hearing impaired Sir Jasper. Jennifer Bishop brings singing and dancing chops to the role of Sally (but ugh, that wig!).
It would all be a pleasant, protracted diversion if not for Jamie Torcellini , who’s an absolute knockout as Bill Snibson , a character he’s captured in 15 other productions. He is nothing short of uproarious. His slapstick, shtick, physical comedy, pratfalls and hat-tricks are nonpareil. What he can do with a cape, a rug or a pillow is positively gut-busting. He sings and acts with aplomb, and is as fleet-footed as a forest sprite — an outstanding tap dancer (as he demonstrated in the Welk’s 42nd Street in 2005) with some marvelous ballet moves to boot (his airborne entrechat is especially impressive). He makes this production, and makes it worth the trip.
THE LOCATION: Moonlight Amphitheatre, through July 29
BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… On the Tube… On Tuesday, July 31, I’ll be in full Diva mode on KUSI -TV, channel 51/cable 9, during the morning show, “Inside San Diego ” (some time in the 10-11 hour), talking about summer theater. So tune in, and if you want to encourage KUSI to offer more of this kind of theater coverage, contact the station at 858-571-5151.
… Nerds of the world, unite! This weekend is ComiCon , a gathering of the geeks. And what could be a better diversion than a play that chronicles their very existence? Plutonium Theatre is reprising its hilarious one-man show, My Life as a Geek, written by Matt Thompson and Ted Reis, directed by the multi-talented Thompson and performed by the wildly comic Reis. Two days only, July 27 and 28, at the Sixth Avenue Bistro, 1165 6th Ave. , in the Gaslamp. Info at http://web.mac.com/plutoniumtheatre/iWeb/Site/Welcome.html ; tix at the door, or through PlutoniumTheatre@yahoo.com
… Shorts and Eats… If you attend a show at Oceanside ’s Sunshine Brooks Theatre this weekend, your ticket stub is worth a 15% discount at the neighborhood Vigilucci’s or The Flying Bridge. New Vision Theatre Company is running “Summer Shorts,” its program of 10-minute plays by emerging writers from around the globe. Info at 760-529-9140 or at www.sunshinebrooks.org.
…Wonderful/‘terrible’ … Several months ago, as part of Aspire Playwrights Collective’s evening of short works by emerging playwrights, there was a staged reading of the terrible girls by local playwright Jackie Goldfinger, a modern (Southern Gothic) myth directed by Esther Emery and Chelsea Whitmore and featuring, among others, the talent of Rhianna Basore, Sara Beth Morgan and Erika Phillips. Now the ‘girls’ are in the Big Apple, invited to the 11th annual New York International Fringe Festival where they’re presenting a full production, re-staged by Whitmore. The costumes are by Whitney Adams from La Jolla Playhouse, and the lighting is by Brian Shevelenko , winner of a 2005 Patté Award for his spectacular design of Bat Boy at SDSU, who’s now teaching at Texas A&M University . During the Festival, the show will run for five performances, beginning August 11.
… Speaking of locals in New York, SDSU MFA alum Omri Schein just got a great notice (“hilarious in a variety of roles, whether dancing or singing”) in the New York Times, based on his performance in the light, fun musical The People vs. Mona, which was presented at SDSU last yea. Omri was also very funny in that production. The show runs through August 4 at the Off Broadway Abingdon Theater Arts Complex on W. 36th.
… From Broadway to La Jolla … Christopher Ashley, the incoming artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse, recently opened a production of the musical Xanadu , based on the roundly trashed 1980 cult film about a painter and his muse, who find love at a roller disco in Los Angeles . The movie starred Olivia Newton-John, with an appearance by Gene Kelly. In the New York Times, Christopher Isherwood called the show “outlandishly enjoyable,” “silly bliss” “directed at roller-derby speed.” That’s a nice farewell note for Ashley on his way out of New York . Hopefully he, like Des McAnuff before him, will help to bring new work that starts here back there.
… and on the subject of McAnuff , his terrific production of the Aaron Sorkin play, The Farnsworth Invention, which premiered as an unreviewable Page to Stage production at La Jolla Playhouse this past February, is set to begin previews on Broadway on October 15 (Music Box Theatre). But why the change in cast? Stephen Lang (co-director of The Actors Studio, who had appeared in the premiere production of Sorkin’s A Few Good Men) was spectacular in the role of David Sarnoff, the head of RCA. On Broadway, the role will be played by Hank Azaria . The excellent Jimmi Simpson will reprise his La Jolla portrayal of young inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, as the two battle over the invention of television. I loved Lang’s snarky performance; I hope the choice was his.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Rashomon – intense and thought-provoking; well directed and acted
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through August 12
The Deception – another beautifully integrated production by Théâtre de la Jeune Lune ; just about anything this imaginative company (and its brilliant director) create is worth seeing
La Jolla Playhouse, through August 19
Hay Fever – a witty, sophisticated, deliciously vicious delight
Old Globe Theatre, through August 19
Me and My Girl – anchored by an outrageously funny performance by Jamie Torcellini
Moonlight Stage Productions, through July 29
Two Gentlemen of Verona – light, frothy, goofy, well-acted fun
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory with Hamlet and Two Gentlemen of Verona, through September 30
Measure for Measure – beautiful , comprehensible, 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. A definite winner!
The Old Globe at the Spreckels Theater, through August 5
Arcadia – brilliant, heady play; beautiful production
Cygnet Theatre, through July 29
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Celebrate the coming of August… at the theater!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.