By Pat Launer
It’s surely The Shape of Things to come:
Knockout readings that leave us numb,
From writers like Wilson and LaBute ,
And Ragtime, too, is historically astute.
AMERICA , THE NOT-SO-BEAUTIFUL
THE SHOW: RAGTIME , one of the most memorable musicals of the end of the 20th century, touches our history and touches our hearts. Written by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), with a book by Terrence McNally, the show is based on the brilliant 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow . It premiered on Broadway in 1998, and has been produced in San Diego three times in the past six years (by Moonlight Stage Productions, the California Young Actors Conservatory and Broadway San Diego — the national tour). Once is not enough for this stirring show, which was nominated for 13 Tony Awards (it won four) . You can skip the 1981 film altogether.
THE STORY: The anthemic musical weaves a dense tapestry from the social and political upheavals of the turn-of-the-last century. Fictional and factual characters mingle, as the stories of three disparate groups are interlaced — privileged whites, disadvantaged blacks and immigrant Jews. The movers and shakers of the era include Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman. It’s the story of America , seeking the American Dream in a melting pot of poverty and wealth, power and prejudice, immigrants and intolerance. Many things haven’t changed all that much; in many ways, our history looks and feels a lot like our present-day dilemmas.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: With 45 people onstage, Starlight has mounted a stellar production, powerfully sung. Al l the leads are outstanding. Eugene Barry Hill is excellent as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the proud piano-player, purveyor of ragtime and romance. But when his rights and his dignity are undermined, he turns vengeful fugitive and everything around him starts to crumble. Marja Harmon is wonderfully understated as Sarah, the love of Coalhouse’s life, so wounded, so hopeful (a versatile departure from her bravura performance as Aida at Starlight earlier this summer). Both have robust voices, which meld beautifully. Luke Adams is spirited as the enterprising immigrant and devoted father, Tateh (which means Father in Yiddish). Venturing out from her home turf at Lamb’s Players Theatre, Deborah Gilmour Smyth does a marvelous job as Mother, the subservient wife who grows in stature and understanding. John Grzesiak is compelling as Mother’s Younger Brother, who also steps outside his safety zone, into the political maelstrom. Ted King does a fine job with the thankless role of Father, a less than open-minded and dedicated patriarch. Ian Brininstool , who seems to be everywhere these days (and will soon be at the Globe in The Grinch ), has just the right innocence and knowing as the Little Boy of the family. As his Jewish counterpart, the Little Girl, Halle Hoffman doesn’t have a lot to say, but she is cute as a button, extremely expressive and thoroughly credible. Susan E.V. Boland is the most forceful and effective Emma Goldman I’ve see, and David Beaver is hunky as Houdini. Paul Morgavo and Ed Hollingsworth are suitably haughty as Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, respectively. Megan Maes is cute as Evelyn Nesbit, but some can wrangle that role into a scene-stealer. Ralph Johnson has made a cottage industry of crusty old coots, and he’s spot-on as Grandfather.
Under the direction of Brian Wells , the choreography of Carlos Mendoza and the musical direction of conductor Parmer Fuller, the ensemble looks and sounds terrific. Except for the mics , which were pretty consistently disastrous on opening night. It’s definitely a challenge doing outdoor theater, but after 61 years, Starlight oughta be able to get it right by the first performance. The rented sets and costumes convey the essence of the era, but there are little details that are inexcusably inaccurate, like the Model T Ford (which isn’t) and the Jewish prayer shawl (which, stripe-less, looked more like a silk aviator’s scarf). The lighting (Eric Lotze ) is mood-setting throughout, and the climax is very well executed (sound by Steve Stopper and The Stopper Group).
In short, if you want a sometimes chilling, sometimes romantic, sometimes patriotic, completely satisfying evening of musical theater, hurry up and get your ticket! This terrific production only runs through the weekend.
THE LOCATION: Starlight Theatre, through September 23
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
BY THE NUMBERS
THE SHOW: The Adding Machine, the 1923 satiric fantasy of Pulitzer Prize-winning social activist Elmer Rice . The dark, comical cautionary tale, written in a feverish 17 days, is generally considered to be the first American Expressionist play. The 1969 film starred Milo O’Shea and… Phyllis Diller .
THE STORY: The play centers on the aptly named Mr. Zero, a number-crunching, pencil-wielding drone in a nameless/faceless store, who finds that, after 25 years of unswerving loyalty, instead of getting a much-anticipated promotion, he’s going to be replaced by the titular machine. His frustration, pain, rage — and henpecking, soul-stealing wife — finally push the mild-mannered milquetoast over the edge; in a fit of pique, he murders his boss. After his trial and electrocution, he spends his second ‘act’ in the heavenly Elysian Fields, which are not at all what he expected.
Rice obviously thought advances in technology would be man’s undoing. Many, of course, believe that today, despite (or because of) our ever-expanding (and often pathetic) dependence on our techno-toys. But the prescient play touches on other topical subjects in addition to the de-humanizing effects of a mechanized society: xenophobia, misogyny, sexual harassment, racism, anti-Semitism, corporate downsizing, narrow-minded thinking and going postal. In Rice’s view, a mindless cog in a mechanized world ultimately becomes a machine himself, programmed to do the same thing over and over. But Mr. Zero is not just a victim of his job or his times; he’s complicit in his downfall. He repeatedly fails to learn from his mistakes, or to make different, more positive choices. The unexamined life, the playwright posits, is doomed to reiteration.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The play opens with a lengthy monologue by Mrs. Zero (Jan Leslie Harding), a whiny, condemnatory litany spoken in an Edith Bunker voice in a (wavering) New York accent (did anyone ever say “ goil ” and “ woik ??” Not in my lifetime!). As she rambles on without a pause, Mr. Zero (Richard Crawford) sits motionless in his center-stage Barcalounger — which will later serve as his electric chair. Mrs. Z’s life is misery: nothing but cleaning and scrubbing, a cheerless marriage to spineless loser who doesn’t appreciate her or earn enough for her to go downtown to see first-run movies.
The scene gives way to the office where Mr. Zero works, submerged in a sort of subterranean chair, writing numbers dictated by the sweetly naïve co-worker Daisy (Diana Ruppe ). They fantasize about running away together, but nothing is ever spoken, and she considers escaping her unrequited love through suicide. Internal monologues are externalized here, interspersed with outward, often antithetical pronouncements. There are other unhappy, gossipy couples, with prototype names like Mr. and Mrs. One, Two, Three, etc. The Boss is a sweaty over-exerciser who can barely stop to tell Zero he’s fired. The murder occurs offstage, but we do hear Zero’s lame, self-loathing defense at his trial. In the afterlife, Zero meets the equally disaffected Shrdlu (a wonderfully, chillingly robotic Joshua Everett Johnson), who killed his mother and feels he deserves to be punished. (His name, btw, is a reference to other period wage-slave work, the linotype, where ETAOIN SHRDLU was the layout on the keyboard, reflecting the order of the 12 most commonly used letters in the English language ). In his heaven, Zero is offered all the beauty, art and love anyone could want; at last, Daisy is there beside him, having succeeded in offing herself after Zero’s death. But he can’t see beyond his claustrophobic, numerical thinking, and he escapes in terror, only to start the whole sequence all over, in some genetic assembly line of regeneration.
The production seems more surreal than the acting style which, under the direction of Daniel Aukin , is fairly realistic and straightforward. Instead of the restrictive, gray working world one might expect, this one is garishly colored, all psychedelically pink and orange (design by Andrew Lieberman), with a revolving center section. And the circles and platforms surrounding those sunken chairs are able to ascend heavenward (like the tire at the end of Cats). A disco mirror-ball twirls in Elysium; hot pink feathers fall from the sky. With 1920s-style clothes (Maiko Matsushima) juxtaposed with exercise bikes and the occasional electronic device, it’s quite a timeline hodgepodge, and though it’s jarringly attractive, the production doesn’t really match the tenor or tone of either half of the dichotomous piece.
There is so much to relate to thematically, but it’s hard to connect to these gutless and unchanging characters. Even at 90 minutes, we get restless; the mind wanders. The significance of the play, at least in the context of this production, lies more in its historical influence than its timely relevance.
THE LOCATION: La Jolla Playhouse/ Potiker Theatre, through October 7
ROCK-‘EM, SOCK- ‘EM READINGS
… Jack Missett, who recently took over Carlsbad Playreaders , isn’t afraid to take chances, to push his audience, to shock them or shake them. Bravo! He starts off his new season with a bold, startling and disturbing play (that made just one couple flee for the exit… but just one).
The Shape of Things , a dark comedy by the king of deep, dark comedies, Neil LaBute , premiered in London in 2001, directed by the playwright, who stipulated that the piece be performed without an intermission or curtain call. Neither request was honored here, but no matter. The excellent actors certainly deserved their bows. And the discomforting intensity was steep enough that an intermission respite seemed warranted. Like many of LaBute’s unnerving works, this one starts simply and sanely enough, but the canny playwright is just leading you down a garden path; at some point, he’s going to nonchalantly drop you off a cliff.
Questions abound in the taut, whip-smart text: What is art? Intimacy? Friendship? The line between passion, creativity and psychopathology? And what is one willing to do, change or relinquish in the name of love? At 44, LaBute can no longer be considered a wunderkind, but he still has the edgy, unsettling themes and dialogue of a youthful, latter-day Mamet on mind-expanding drugs and poison happy-gas. American Theatre magazine called him “a mad moral fabulist serving stiff tonic for our country’s sin-sick souls.” LaBute upends all our beliefs and ethics, turns human relationships inside-out. His work is thrilling stuff, really, if you can take it. As brutal as his plays can be, they unequivocally make you think, because there’s something of his ruthless extremists in all of us.
Director Eric Bishop drew from his current and former students at MiraCosta College for his fine-tuned cast. His alumna, Emily O’Brien, who played the casually cruel and manipulative sculptor/anarchist Evelyn, is now a regular on “The Young and the Restless.” Hope she doesn’t abandon theater; she’s marvelous onstage. Christopher Williams was pitch-perfect as Adam, the hapless, gutless guy who falls under Evelyn’s spell, and just about loses his soul (as well as a lot of other possessions). Aimee Nelson, another of Bishop’s prior students, who was charming in Moonlight’s recent productions of Hay Fever and Bedroom Farce, was flawless as the sweet naïf, equally awkward in her semi-seduction and self-effacement. Adam Oliveras , a current student appearing in his first staged reading, acquitted himself well as Phillip, but he could’ve been a little more caustic and arrogant. MiraCosta student Jessi Walters, who’s creating the masks for Bishops’ upcoming production of Electra at the college (9/27-10/7), did a fine job reading stage directions.
This is a play and playwright more San Diegans should see; so far, only LaBute’s bash has been mounted locally – in a stunning production at UCSD and more recently at Carlsbad Playreaders . Producers, take note: Nab this play — and cast — and put them up onstage for all to see.
Next up at Carlsbad Playreaders : The Pulitzer Prize-winner of 1995, The Young Man from Atlanta, by Horton Foote, directed by Francis Gercke . October 29 in the Dove Library.
… It may be September, but the tribute to August continues. The collaboration between Cygnet Theatre and the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre has begun a second series of staged readings of the work of the late, great August Wilson. King Hedley II was the ninth in Wilson ’s 10-play cycle chronicling, decade by decade, African American life in the 20th century. Set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh (as most of the plays are), this one takes place in 1985. Considered one of Wilson ’s darker works, it focuses on an ex-con trying to reclaim his wife and rebuild his life, by engaging in a “crime of survival,” selling stolen refrigerators so he can earn enough money to buy himself a video store. The play is a lot more talky and a little less musical than some of the others; the reading lasted nearly three hours. But the performances were nonpareil.
Hassan El- Amin , an early protégé of the late local powerhouse, Floyd Gaffney, did an outstanding job as the stubborn, volatile and doomed title character. El- Amin , who performed in the national tour of The Lion King, was last seen in San Diego in potent performances in Gaffney’s Tambourines to Glory (2003) and the San Diego Rep’s King Lear (2005; he played Edmund). He managed to bring a certain gruff musicality to all his lines. The rest of the cast was equally excellent: Monique Gaffney as King Hedley’s long-suffering wife; Antonio TJ Johnson (who also directed) as the slippery-smooth con-man, Elmore; Grandison M. Phelps III as the unreliable sidekick, Mister; Mark Christopher Lawrence as the non-believing believer, Stool Pigeon, the Bible-spouting spiritual conscience of the play; and Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, upright and stalwart as the no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners matriarch, Ruby, who won’t let anyone stand in the way of her last chance for happiness. There are four more plays coming in this fantastic series. You’d be nuts to miss any of them.
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… MY big News of the Week… Daniel Vasco (my hot Colombian pro partner) and I WON First Prize in the Waltz competition at “Malashock Thinks You Can Dance,” Malashock Dance’s knockout, sold-out, 20th anniversary fundraising event. It was a killer evening, and we Rocked ! See more pix (and re-read my Dance Blog ), all about the prep leading up to the big event, on my website ( www.patteproductions.com ). The other contestants were great, from Sempra Energy’s high-energy Molli Cartmill (who won for Cha Cha ) to Rana Sampson, First Lady of San Diego (wife of the Mayor), who was gracious and charming to everyone. We all had a super time backstage in the Green Room, watching all the action on a large flatscreen . It was obvious that each of us worked so hard to make this happen, and to make it a success. Mary Murphy, judge on Fox TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” was the host, Kristy Gregg (San Diego National Bank) was the MC, and the judges were a hoot: Dea Hurston , Lew Klein and Monique Marvez . But it was the audience that voted for the winners – with individual, hand-held electronic voting devices. Very high-tech. The setting, the spanking-new Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall (500 seats) was a stunner. Everyone had a terrific time, and we were happy to support youth and arts… all proceeds go toward Malashock’s extensive education and outreach programs. For me, waltzing with a passionate, energetic, flexible, wonderful dancer like Daniel was sheer bliss. To quote the Jersey Boys, Oh, What a Night!
.. Now, it’s time for you to cast YOUR vote… for Best Theater in San Diego . Go to the Channel 10 News link, http://kgtv.cityvoter.com/Contests/ShowCategory.aspx?contestCategory=1489 , where eleven local theaters are in the running: Starlight Theatre, Saville Theatre at City College, Moonlight Stage Productions, North Coast Repertory Theatre, Old Globe Theatre, San Diego Repertory Theatre, Birch North Park Theatre, Broadway Theatre, California Center for the Arts, Welk San Diego Theatre and San Diego Civic Theatre. It’s an odd array… some venues, some companies. But wait! There’s another Channel 10 competition for Best Theater Group in San Diego, and that one includes the following: Cygnet Theatre, Lamb’s Players Theatre, Diversionary Theatre, Black Rabbit Theatre Company, Sledgehammer Theatre, Center Stage Players and Broadway Kids of San Diego. The link for that vote is: http://kgtv.cityvoter.com/Contests/ShowCategory.aspx?contestCategory=1490 . Whatever these lists represent, and however they were created … support your favorites and make your voice and preferences known.
… FYI, FNOT: For the first time, the San Diego Performing Arts League will be participating in the national FREE NIGHT OF THEATER (FNOT), the Theatre Communication Group’s three year-old audience development program that offers, as promised, Free Tickets. Tix must be used for performances from October 18-November 2. More than a dozen local theater groups are taking part. Reserve your seats, starting on October 2, at www.sandiegoperforms.com . This year’s program will take place simultaneously in 25-30 U.S. communities, involving over 700 theaters and offering as many as 75,000 free tickets nationwide. The project has already has a track record: attracting significant numbers of ‘non-traditional’ theatergoers, including the young, the less educated, the lower income and the non-white. Polling data show that 81% of those attending FNOT return to see more theater. FREE TICKETS… spread the word!
… The Film’s the Thing. That’s the title of the new series subtitled Shakespeare on Screen, co-presented by the Old Globe Theatre and San Diego Shakespeare Society. This week kicked off with actor Diane Venora introducing Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The rest of the Thursday night series is as follows, with local performers doing brief scenes before each showing: Sept. 27, Ian McKellen in “Richard III”; October 4, Akira Kurosawa’s classic, “Throne of Blood” (a riff on Macbeth) and Oct. 11, Tom Stoppard’s “ Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” Free to MoPA members/$6 for the general public. Al l showings are in the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park , beginning at 7pm. www.mopa.org ; 619-238-7559 x202.
… Five dances, three venues… Mojalet Dance Collective, under the aegis of the SDSU School of Music and Dance, will present five works by artistic director Faith Jensen-Ismay, with live original music by Noby Lehmann and Rhythm Talk. Sept. 28-30, performances will be at the SDSU Studio Theatre (ENS 200); October 10, the dancers move to the El Camino High School Theater in Oceanside , and the final performance, October 12, will be at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts. www.mojalet.com ; 858-679-0979.
… Onward and upward… Ivan Hernandez, the adorable SDSU alum who appeared as the title character in Zhivago at La Jolla Playhouse, and won positive notices at New York City Opera in The Most Happy Fella , has just joined the Off Broadway cast of The Fantasticks . He’ll temporarily replace Burke Moses in the pivotal role of El Gallo. Fantastick !
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Ragtime – a strong, stirring production, with all the passion, energy, drama and boffo singing this moving story of America demands
Starlight Theatre, through September 23
Bronze – Ruff Yeager ’s intriguing, intense and suspenseful drama about personal and communal failure; excellent ensemble
6th @ Penn Theatre, off-nights through September 26
Communicating Doors – murder, mayhem, mystery, time travel and a dominatrix – who could ask for anything more? Intriguing script, terrific production
Cygnet Theatre, through September 23
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean – marvelous ensemble, darkly comic production
6th @ Penn Theatre, through September 30
Susan and God – airy but well-done fun; Sarah Zimmerman is luminous
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through September 23
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
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
This weekend of Yom Kippur, Jews worldwide listen to the sound of the shofar (ram’s horn)… Start 5768 off right, by blowing your own horn… as a theatergoer!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.
For more than 20 years, Pat Launer has been the only regular broadcast theater critic in San Diego . An Emmy Award-winner with a Ph.D. in Communication Arts & Sciences, Pat sees and reviews more than 200 local theater productions every year. For the past decade, she has hosted and produced The Patté Awards for Theatre Excellence, a gala community event that honors local theatermakers (“San Diegans making theater for San Diego ”) and celebrates the broad diversity of San Diego theater .