By Pat Launer
There’s Magic Fire and A Screw Askew,
Tony’s in town and The Frogs are back, too.
Misty Watercolor Memories…
THE SHOW: The Magic Fire, Lillian Groag’s semi-autobiographical memory play, a family dramedy written in 1997, set in Buenos Aires in the 1950s, as Evita Perón lay dying and the Peronistas were ‘disappearing’ people right and left
THE STORY: It’s a family story, about an eccentric group of relatives and friends who ignore the political maelstrom swirling around them, even though the Jewish side of the family escaped from Hitler’s Austria and the Catholic side from Mussolini’s Italy . They prefer not to acknowledge that they’ve only moved from one hotbed of fascism to another. They blanket themselves in the cozy warmth of culture – music, literature, theater, dance . And especially opera, from which the play gets its name. In the second part of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Wotan punishes his Valkyrie daughter, Brünhilde , with a long, enchanted sleep. The wall of flame that surrounds her can only be penetrated by a hero who knows no fear. There’s a lot of talk of heroism in this thought-provoking play, as well as the ramifications of avoidance, fear and cowardice in the face of political danger and threats to the status quo. The family uses culture as their ‘magic fire,’ to protect them from the outside world and shield them through their dormancy.
Lise, twice divorced, is looking back on her childhood, her parents, her crazy relatives, the family friend who was a risk-taking journalist and a beloved neighbor, a General who turned out not to be what she’d thought at all. That time when she was 10 seems to have shaped her life, and her relationships with men (who could be trusted after all? The flawed father she thought was perfect? Warm and caring “Uncle” Henri, who bought her gifts and had deadly political secrets to hide?). She talks to her younger self, she argues that scenes played out before her weren’t at all how things really happened. Or were they? Memory plays tricks. People and events come in and out of focus over time. The wistful, poetic play is a cautionary tale, particularly potent for our times. It’s about “an immigrant in a country of immigrants.” And in its subtle, lyrical way, it warns us that doing nothing when surrounded by political malevolence is as dangerous as the acts being committed and avoided.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The production is wonderful. Marty Burnett has designed a well-appointed living room, backed by large windows that reveal the blood-red fire of weaponry and symbolism (lighting by Paul A Canaletti , Jr.). The sound (Chris Luessmann ) is evocative. The costumes are beautiful; Terri Park looks terrific in every stunning outfit designer Roslyn Lehman has provided her. Marci Anne Wuebben , Li-Anne Rowswell and Dagmar Krause Fields sport outfits as unconventional as their characters. And the men look dashing as well – Jesse MacKinnon in his starched dress uniform, Jeff Anthony Miller in his tux. Eye-catching all around.
But it’s the uniformly splendid performances that really give this production color. When the play was performed at the Globe in 1999, it was a star turn for Kandis Chappell, and the other actors were variable in effectiveness. Under Kathy Brombacher’s deft and sensitive direction, this is very clearly a tight, cohesive ensemble, and there isn’t a weak link in this well-forged chain. Sandra Ellis-Troy has all the reflective melancholy and regret of a woman hardened by life and memory. As her beloved father, Miller cuts a smart, stalwart figure, impassioned by his beloved music, but broken and tortured by the end. Trina Kaplan does her best work as the naysaying , demeaning “ Nonna ,” the Guarneri family matriarch. Her lifelong disappointment is visited on her daughter, Paula (Krause Fields) and their second act, undermining confrontation is gut-wrenching. Park is a delight as the ever-sunny mother, who diverts all serious conversation back to trivialities. But she leaves just enough opening to question if that was genuine Pollyanna/ostrich behavior or effected just for the sake of the child. As that whiney, precocious offspring, young Lise, Rebecca Lauren Myers displays an ear-piercing, wince-inducing voice and insistence. It’s annoying, but it’s right for the character. MacKinnon is perfect as the General, Henri, though three are two very enigmatic moments when older Lise calls him ‘ Papi ’ in retrospect. What exactly are we to make of that? Groag doesn’t say. Thomas Hall, Rhona Gold and Paul Bourke round out the cast in effective ways.
This is a play that stays with you. It makes you think. About family, politics, memory, honesty, betrayal, consequences. Big Issues that make for good plays. And this play couldn’t be served better. Don’t miss it.
THE LOCATION: Moonlight Stage Productions at the Avo Theatre, through November 18
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
THE SHOW: The Frogs, Aristophanes’ classic comedy, first presented in 405 B.C. This is the inaugural production of The Theatre, Inc., founded by the director/star/costume designer of the show, Equity actor Douglas Lay. This is also the unveiling of the new ARK playing-space in downtown San Diego
THE STORY: It’s a comedy about the decline of tragedy. Dionysus, god of wine, fertility and theater, laments the state of theater, and decides to go down to the underworld (like his half-brother Heracles did), to bring the great tragedian Euripides back from the dead. Athens needs good tragedy more than ever, since they’re in the midst of the seemingly endless Peloponnesian War. (Guess we could use some good tragedians, too?) Dionysus brings along his slave Xanthias , who is smarter, stronger, braver and more rational than he (the god definitely takes some hits in this show), and their buddy road-trip devolves into a series of scatological obsessions, phallic symbols, rubber-club beatings, below-the-belt humor and vulgar potty jokes galore. It’s the Three Stooges, Greek-style. In the final, more serious (but sardonic) scene, set in Hades, Euripides challenges his rival, Aeschylus, to a contest for Best Tragic Poet, with Dionysus as judge. Each ‘weighs his words,’ as a giant scale determines whose poetry is weightier. Aeschylus wins, and Dionysus decides to take him back to earth instead of Euripides. As he leaves, Aeschylus tosses one final, parting insult over his shoulder: while he’s gone, Sophocles should assume his exalted seat in the underworld, not Euripides.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: It’s said that the Greek comedians put the coarse in discourse because the women were isolated, and congregating men tend to loosen the controls on their conversation. There isn’t a body part or body function that goes unnamed or unheralded here. We learn more about the god’s bowels than we’d ever care to know. Besides being beaten and taken advantage of by his slave, he’s sodomized by the boatman Charon as he crosses the river Styx .
Co-directors Douglas Lay and Melissa Hamilton have a field day with the low-brow humor. But as is often the case with this brand of comedy, it quickly devolves into the supremely silly and unabashedly gross (flatulence, in fact, is the first sound we hear). The translation, by Dr. Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton, maintains, as McDonald said on opening night, “the Aristophanic language. It really was scatological and political.” With its scathing comments on other playwrights, McDonald considers this “the first work of literary criticism.” There are some Athenian in-jokes some of us might miss, not to mention the pointed critiques of the various playwrights, who will elude all but the most devoted dramatic Grecophiles . And then there’s the chorus, the initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries, an arcane reference to the ceremonies held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone, based at Eleusis in ancient Greece . Their beautiful chants are supposed to be a highlight of the play. But in this version (and it’s not clear whether it’s in the text or the direction), the words are recited, rhythmically, as a rap. It doesn’t work… either as poetry or hip hop. The words become garbled, singsong and mostly, lost.
One of the highlights of the production is the frogs themselves. Their costumes (by Lay) are terrific; whimsical and extremely frog-like (great head pieces and big-toed feet!). The most serious scene (sort of) is also the best: the dramatists’ competition. Fred Harlow is at his blustery best as the wrathful Aeschylus, and Michael Nieto strikes the right tone and pose as vain Euripides. As Dionysus, Lay is at his most god-like in this segment, looking positively beatific. His judgments ring truer than his former inanity.
The new theater space, downtown on C Street , is a cozy room decorated with bright colors draped like a cross between a circus and a Moroccan restaurant. Vince Sneddon’s set design features one upstage wall with a door and several large window openings, which allows for characters, especially frogs, to drape themselves about, and that makes for some really amusing stage pictures. If low-brow humor from a high-brow source is your cup of comedy… quaff a little Frog!
THE LOCATION: The Theatre, Inc. at the ARK downtown, through November 18
Theater of the Mind
It’s a great concept. Public readings of short stories. Theater of the imagination. Wonderful words, conveyed in meaningful ways, shared with a group of dedicated listeners. WYNC, public radio in New York , has been broadcasting “Selected Shorts,” live from Symphony Space, for nearly two decades. And now, we have our own version, though it isn’t broadcast yet. Walter Ritter and Veronica Murphy started Write Out Loud this year, and they’re already developing a loyal following. The concept is unique, different from the ubiquitous readings. One solitary person steps into the light, stands center-stage and reads a story. No theatrical froufrou or folderol. But plenty of expression and vocal variety and the magic of marvelous words and images that transport you to another world. Murphy chooses the themes and stories (upcoming presentations bear provocative titles like “Girls’ Night Out,” “Don’t Fence Me In” and “Science Squared”). The couple, and their literate cohorts, aren’t going after the theater audience. They’re reaching out to lovers of literature – readers, librarians, library-goers, teachers of English. And this will bring whole new audiences into local theater. It’s a magnificent idea.
This was WOL’s second ‘production,’ presented at Cygnet Theatre (the first was at North Coast Rep), and in the spirit of the two macabre shows currently sharing the Cygnet stage (The Turn of the Screw and St. Nicholas), the title was A Screw Askew. The stories were well chosen, eerily related, and spectacularly read. Each had a delightfully other-worldly twist, ideal for the Halloween season.
Murphy presented an early, quirky Truman Capote creation, “Miriam” (which won him the O. Henry Prize), about an elderly woman who enters into a nightmare when she meets an angelic-looking little girl who turns out to be rather evil. Matt Biedel’s piece, “A Horseman in the Sky,” by Ambrose Bierce, presents one soldier’s fantasy and harsh reality during the Civil War. Guy de Maupassant’s “A Tress of Hair,” read by David Tierney, is a spooky tale of obsessive love, taken from the diary of an institutionalized madman. And to complete the supernatural soirée, Tim West brought to life “The Monkey’s Paw,” WW. Jacobs classic horror story about making wishes on the magical and accursed object.
It was a fantastic way to spend a bit of an afternoon. If you’ve got the time, you’ve gotta hear some stories!
The next Write Out Loud presentation, entitled “Giving Season,” will be held in Cygnet Theatre at 2pm on Saturday, December 15. For info: firstname.lastname@example.org
The term “lift” has been used in reference to stealing. But it also has several other metaphorical meanings in the Playwrights Project’s latest touring production. Lifted is a commissioned work by Annie Weisman Macomber , who first performed with Playwrights Project as a teen, took her first playwriting course with PP, and went on to win the statewide contest (Plays By Young Writers) in 1992. Having premiered works at the La Jolla Playhouse and South Coast Repertory Theatre, she’s currently a much-in-demand playwright/screenwriter based in L.A. But part of her heart is still in San Diego .
Lifted is one of the strongest of the Playwrights Project’s touring productions. The play itself feels hip and relevant to kids, with its teasing, rapid-fire young-adult dialogue and its hip hop rhythms. And its message, about taking responsibility, is woven into the storyline in various ways. The theme of acting for the ‘greater good’ gets hammered home one or two times too many. But the day I was there, with a middle school group at the City Heights Library, instead of the typical ‘How long did it take you to memorize your lines ?, ’ one audience member demonstrated complete understanding of the play by asking a truly incisive question: ‘Have you ever done anything you regretted?’ As always, Playwrights Project founder Deborah Salzer steered the discussion in the most informative and inspiring ways. These kids totally ‘got’ what the play was trying to say and do, and one can only hope they walked away better for having had the experience.
The play focuses on two young, fairly immature men who work in the stockroom at the superstore Big Buy. (“No girl wants to talk to a stockboy !, ” one opines). Henry (Sidney Franklin) is the dreamer, the plan-maker, the pathological liar who comes from a lousy background, with an alcoholic mom and an imprisoned sister. Todd (Michael C. Freeling ) has a stable family — a mother (Monique Gaffney) who’s a manager at the store and a father who’s on disability from an injury he sustained at Big Buy. They all have the same hard-nosed, insensitive boss (Fred Harlow). Incessantly bragging, fanstasizing and goofing off, Henry will do anything to attract the attention of Tamala (Rachael van Wormer), also an employee. And that includes a late-night heist of the latest shipment of the Mythos X2, “the greatest invention since the iPod .” When Todd rejects the plan, Henry insists that “It’s not stealing; it’s lifting.” The guys do heavy lifting as part of their job, and that’s what caused Todd’s father’s back injury. After the damage has been done and repaired, Todd does a rap about ‘the greater good’ and everyone is Lifted up to a higher plane. The ending may be a little too neat, but it’s a short play, and much to its credit, it kept the kids at rapt attention.
Part of that is due to the outstanding performances. Under the precise direction of D. Candis Paule, each actor is quite credible, but the two ‘boys’ are especially excellent; 17 year-old Franklin is perfect as the hyperverbal cool-kid wannabe, and Freeling (who, at 24, looks a lot younger) is super as his deeper, more thoughtful but easily swayed sidekick. Van Wormer underplays her disinterested teen role, and that works fine. The adults often fare poorly in kid-oriented plays, but Gaffney’s Mom is something of a saint (though she refuses to talk to her son for some time after the robbery nearly causes her to lose her job). And Harlow, a nasty boss if there ever was one, makes a (barely believable) turnaround at the end. He’s amusing as the beatnik-looking, beret-wearing owner of an Open Mic /spoken word club; an anachronistic look, but it suited him well.
The set, designed by Beeb Salzer, is a wonder – a series of screens that open and close on each other to provide four different locale . Magical – and magically portable!
One could nitpick about some of the dramatic elements of Lifted, but the piece is extremely satisfying. And the proof was in the faces and comments (and attentive silence!) of the students. Kudos to all. It’s just too bad that the public evening performance was canceled due to the fires; a pity that more adults won’t get to see this delightful production.
The Angel of America
The brilliant, Tony/Emmy/Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright/activist Tony Kushner (Angels in America , Slavs, Homebody/Kabul, Caroline, or Change) was in town this week for the San Diego Jewish Book Fair. As always, he was smart and funny and provocative. The sold-out audience hung on his every word, and hung around for quite some time afterward, to have one F2F moment with The Great Writer during a book-signing. David Cohen, who sat next to me, got a lot of Tony face-time, and he was thrilled. We were all pretty thrilled. It was an overflow audience at the 500-seat Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla .
Kushner kicked off his appearance with a reading – from a ‘prayer’ he was asked to write for a New York City ‘Revival Meeting’ director George C. Wolfe held after 9/11. It was a very funny and startling piece, featuring a Jewish lawyer, who’d been retained by the City to petition God on their behalf, and his very-Jewish mother. When the son started the prayer with “Dear Sir or Madam,” the mother kvetched, “That’s how you talk to God?” And it took off from there, about religion and belief and the “urban soul of New York ,” about the attacks, the “chimerical, nonsensical war on terror,” and New York as the “emblem of life’s durability and fragility.”
There was a brief Q&A at the end, but most of the all-too-brief evening was taken up with an interview by Dr. Steven Cassidy, UCSD Professor of Literature. It was erudite, but too academic. Still, Tony is Tony. Inspiring and amusing. And he talks just like his characters – in 3-page-long sentences that twist and turn with innumerable appositives and asides, chock-full of literary references, and spoken at a rapid clip that only New York ears were fast enough to follow. To a question about faith, he replied that he calls himself an “agnostic Jew” who really believes in “a secular pluralist democracy.” He talked at length (due to a long-winded series of questions) about the movie “ Munich .” He chatted about the overwhelming task he’s currently undertaking: a screenplay about Abraham Lincoln, another film (like “ Munich ”) he’s making with Steven Spielberg. He quipped: “Thank God I’m on strike; I don’t have to work on it!” He called Lincoln ’s second inaugural address “the greatest speech ever given… the most beautiful speech anyone has ever made.” He is totally awed by Lincoln and the enormity of the man and his story. “This huge amount of material needs a condenser, and anyone who’s seen my plays knows I’m an expander.”
He chatted briefly about “ Brundiibar ,” the book and opera he’s written with Maurice Sendak , an English version of the Czech opera written for children and performed in the Terezin concentration camp. He called it “the greatest theater piece for children ever written.” And Sendak’s illustrations are “some of his most beautiful drawings.” He does love hyperbole!
And of course, he talked about theater which, he said, “can be polemical and didactic. But that’s not its greatest power. Art is something we turn to, to discover questions, not answers. Dialectic theater deals with tragic clashes between two things with great internal validity, and their flaws. That’s true of life, too. In good dialectic theater, the collision will be costly… There is a power that theater has, but it’s a weak, indirect power. Like dreams, you can’t face them directly. You see something like Medea murdering her children. It’s horrible. But you don’t have to do anything. You take it home with you. And if it was a good production, it tortures you, and makes you a better, more capacious person.” And that’s why we all see, make, do and attend theater. Because we all believe it has the potential to make us better, more capacious people. Thank you, Tony, for the reminder!
NEWS AND VIEWS ….
…I’m with Luis…. By the time you read this, I’ll be up in San Jose for the screening of “The Legacy of Luis Valdez, Father of Chicano Theater,” the documentary I made with Rick Bollinger of City TV. It’s being shown at the 11thInternational Latino Film Festival in the Bay Area, as part of a Tribute to Luis Valdez. Report on the festivities to follow…
… Giving back to the community. Among the many groups showing their appreciation in the wake of the wildfires: Cygnet Theatre is offering two free tickets to any of its current or upcoming shows (through Dec. 30) to any San Diego County firefighters, police or paramedics… ion theatre, about to open its world premiere, Punks, is donating all proceeds from previews and opening week (except opening night, 11/16) to Fire Relief in San Diego county.
… New name, same game… The Old Globe has announced that the world premiere musical scheduled to open next March has been re-titled Dancing in the Dark. The previous name was The Band Wagon, same as the movie from which it’s adapted. Since the show is all about romance, music, comedy and dance, it seemed more appropriate to the book writer (Douglas Carter Beane ) and the director (Gary Griffin) to reference a familiar, romantic song. But the real signature melody from the musical is the ultimate show-biz valentine, “That’s Entertainment!” Now, who can they possibly get to replicate the moves (and legs!) of Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire ? Stay tuned.
… Speaking of the Globe, they just made veteran employee/actor Diane Sinor an Associate Artist. Sino ,r who recently retired, served the Globe, both onstage and off, for 47 years. A major accomplishment and a gracious tribute.
… They’re Playing My Song… or, more accurately, They’re Playing “My” Song… That’s the name the Symphony is giving its Winter Pops season opener, billed as “an evening of comedy, reminiscences and song” with the original cast members of They’re Playing Our Song., the Broadway musical that was composed by principal Pops conductor Marvin Hamlisch . The show chronicled the composer’s relationship wit Carol Bayer Sager, who wrote the lyrics (the book was by Neil Simon). The 1979 premiere marked the stage debut of Lucie Arnaz , who starred with Robert Klein. They’ll both be in town, backed by the Symphony, on November 9 and 10. www.sandiegosymphony.com
… And on the subject of music, the La Jolla Music Society is bringing back to San Diego the highly acclaimed St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, which was founded 200 years ago. Artistic director Yuri Temirkanov and principal conductor Nelson Freire (piano) tackle Schubert, Schumann and Prokofiev. November 12 at Copley Symphony Hall. www.la jolla music society .org
… The best goes on… Despite the sad and premature death of Common Ground Theatre artistic director Floyd Gaffney, the company – and the show – go on. Guest director Charles Patmon , Jr., assistant director to Gaffney in last spring’s Josephine Tonight!, is helming the holiday musical, Christmas is Comin ’ Uptown, at the WorldBeat Cultural Center on the edge of Balboa Park. Opening Nov. 29. www.commongrountheatre.org
… All the Weill … SDSU’s Opera Theater, directed by Kellie Evans-O’Connor, will present three performances of Kurt Weill’s American opera, Street Scene, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Elmer Rice, with lyrics by Langston Hughes. Forty singers and actors will perform what Weill himself called “a simple story of everyday life in a big city [it’s set in a tenement], a story of love and passion and greed and death.” Nov. 16-18 in Smith Recital Hall, on the campus of SDSU. www.music.sdsu.edu.
… Sings Like a Bard… The San Diego Shakespeare Society hosts A Musical Shakespeare Evening at the Neurosciences Institute Auditorium in La Jolla , Monday, Nov. 19 at 7:30pm. Jonathan McMurtry and Rosina Reynolds will share their thoughts – and the stage – with dancers, singers and actors who’ll assay the music of Will. www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
The Magic Fire – a moving, sometimes amusing, thought-provoking memory play; it may be set in Argentina , but it’s surprisingly relevant to our own time and place
Moonlight Stage Productions at the Avo Theatre, through November 18
– still irresistible after all these years! Two talented, native San Diegan JBs ; the singing, story and songs are terrific
Civic Theatre, through November 11
Dracula – very spooky and scary; a cautionary tale about taking and relinquishing control. The performances and effects are great!
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through November 18
The Turn of the Screw and St. Nicholas – a deliciously ghostly double-bill, excellently performed and sure to leave you wondering (in the best dramatic way)
Cygnet Theatre, on and off-nights, through November 11
Humble Boy – a Hamletian man-child, overpowered by his oversexed mother, grieving for his absent father; quirky characters, delightful production
New Village Arts, through November 11
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
The air is clearing… so you can easily find your way to the theater!
© 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 .